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

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

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

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

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

2020 NFL Game of the Year: Chiefs at Ravens

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Final: Ravens 34, Chiefs 27

NFL Week 3 Preview: Packers at Saints

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

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

Drew Brees: Is 2020 the End?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Prime Aaron Rodgers: Is He Back?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Pick

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

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

Final: Packers 31, Saints 24

NFL Week 2 Predictions: Wilson v. Belichick IV

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

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

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

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

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

SNF: Wilson v. Belichick IV

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

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

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

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

Final: Seahawks 23, Patriots 17

Upset Alert: Raiders over Saints (-5.5)

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

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

Final: Raiders 24, Saints 20

NFL Week 2 Predictions

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

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

NFL Week 1 Predictions: Awards Edition

One game down, 255 to (hopefully) go for the NFL’s 2020 regular season. It was just nice to see the Chiefs start their title defense with a win and no significant injuries given they are my pick for the Super Bowl this year.

What about any Chiefs when it comes to winning other awards this season? As usual I wrote so much in my season preview that I had to wait for Saturday to post my award winners for 2020:

  • Most Valuable Player: Dak Prescott, Cowboys
  • Coach of the Year: Mike McCarthy, Cowboys
  • Assistant Coach of the Year: Don Martindale, Ravens
  • Offensive Player of the Year: Dalvin Cook, Vikings
  • Defensive Player of the Year: Nick Bosa, 49ers
  • Offensive Rookie of the Year: Joe Burrow, Bengals
  • Defensive Rookie of the Year: Chase Young, FOOTBALL TEAM (SMH)
  • Comeback Player of the Year: Ben Roethlisberger, Steelers

MVP/Coach: It’s a big year for Dallas, my other Super Bowl team. No ring in the end, but I think Dak Prescott and Mike McCarthy click right away and this offense produces more consistently than it did a year ago when Prescott threw for nearly 5,000 yards. The only reason I didn’t double up at OPOY is because it seems like voters don’t want to do that anymore. Lamar Jackson should have been a lock last year with his prolific passing and rushing season, but voters were still deterred by Michael Thomas and his 149 catches (but glossed over the 11.6 YPC, apparently). So let’s just go with Cook going all out on his new contract for a Minnesota team I predicted to finish No. 2 in the NFC. Also, for assistant coach I almost wanted to pick Dallas OC Kellen Moore, but that would feel like overkill. So let’s go with a DC that’s gaining respect quickly in Baltimore.

DPOY: Even though CB Stephon Gilmore won last year, expect it to return to an edge rusher this season. Nick Bosa, whether you like him or not, had a nice rookie season and should be even more prepared to explode this year for what’s still a good defense.

Rookies: It could be a difficult year for rookies given the lack of a real preseason, but that’s why I’m sticking to the first two names off the board in the draft. I could cheat here and say Clyde Edwards-Helaire after his big debut for the Chiefs on Thursday night. He looks like he’s going to be a productive one at a position that’s easy to produce right away, but I wouldn’t have picked him a couple days ago so I won’t do it here either. He could definitely win though. I also like Jerry Jeudy in Denver, but it’s so hard for a WR to win.

Comeback: Again, my preference is to pick a player returning from serious injury instead of someone who sucked last year and now doesn’t. The latter might end up describing Philip Rivers or Tom Brady, but I’d rather pick Ben Roethlisberger on what I expect to be a 10-win team again. His numbers may end up looking more like 2010-13 Ben than 2014-18 Ben, but that’s good enough.

NFL 2020 Week 1 Predictions

Started TNF with a win, so can’t beat that. A fair share of road favorites this week, but no game has a double-digit spread. I’m likely to watch RedZone at 1 PM before focusing more on Bucs-Saints in the late afternoon. Packers-Vikings is quietly a big one in the NFC though. The Vikings need a strong performance to wipe out the taste of last year when they were swept by Green Bay and Kirk Cousins played especially bad in the last matchup.

2020 NFL Predictions

On paper, the 2020 NFL season should be one of the most interesting campaigns in years.

We have a team in Kansas City looking to end the longest drought of a repeat champion in NFL history with Patrick Mahomes, the new face of the league, leading the way. There has been unprecedented quarterback movement this offseason with the domino moves of Tom Brady, Philip Rivers, Cam Newton, Jameis Winston, Tyrod Taylor, and Teddy Bridgewater. The Andy Dalton Era in Cincinnati has mercifully given way to the Joe Burrow Era. The Clapper is gone in Dallas, bringing back Mike McCarthy. The “Redskins” moniker is gone in Washington, replaced by…Football Team. There are beautiful new stadiums in Los Angeles and Las Vegas. There are now 14 playoff teams instead of 12, ending the longest consistent schedule format in NFL history at 18 seasons (2002-2019). Pour one out for our beloved 32 teams, 16 games, 12 playoff teams, because the landscape of the league is changing before our eyes as the NFL begins a new decade.

However, in reality, this season feels dangerous in a year that’s felt dystopian.

This is the first NFL season during the COVID-19 pandemic, but there’s no guarantee it’s the last. There’s also no guarantee we see all 256 regular season games, or that the playoffs will be completed on time, or if we even get a champion out of this 2020 season. That’s why every prediction I make here should come with the caveat of “if the season is completed.” I avoided repeating that over and over, but it must be said.

All we know is the NFL is going to try to get this season in the books with as few hiccups as possible. No one can predict with any certainty what the fall is going to look like or what the spread of the virus will be after September travel, a massive influx of students back to school, and the upcoming flu season.

How realistic is it for this season to go smoothly? We’ve already seen major college football conferences cancel their seasons. We’ve seen countless universities admit failure and quickly move back to online classes. It’s easier for a billion-dollar company like the NFL to implement a great, daily testing system than it is for any school, but what happens if a rash of false positives on a weekend threaten numerous teams like we saw happen in August? A false positive is better than a false negative, but we may see some Sunday games delayed until Monday this year if that happens again.

Worse, how will the NFL handle what is almost an inevitable team infection like we’ve seen in MLB because of travel? So far, the bubble approaches in NHL and NBA have gone very well, but baseball has had multiple teams with positive cases that led to games being postponed. Right now, the St. Louis Cardinals have played 10 fewer games than the team that’s played the most games this season. That’s lame, but it’s also easier in baseball to make games up since they can play double-headers or even shorten the games to seven innings. The NFL has had impressive testing results in training camp, but players haven’t been traveling like they will now. Football is the toughest to play during a pandemic since the rosters are the largest and it has the most contact among players. There’s just more bodies to keep healthy.

One NFL game needing to be postponed can throw the whole schedule off, and it’s certainly not fair or legitimate to have a season where a few teams played 15 games instead of 16 games. It makes no sense why the NFL didn’t implement two bye weeks like they did in 1993 to provide more flexibility should a problem arise.

I happened to pick a random team and a random game to illustrate my point of how confusing this can get, and it actually turns out to be one of the easier fixes for the NFL:

  • The Week 5 game between the Browns and Colts is postponed due to COVID
  • In Week 7, the Colts have a scheduled bye and the Browns play the Bengals.
  • The Browns-Colts game is instead rescheduled for Week 7.
  • The Bengals will now have a Week 7 bye instead of playing Cleveland.
  • In Week 9, the Browns and Bengals both have a scheduled bye, but will now play each other to make up their Week 7 game.

Got it? It gets harder for teams that had an early bye or when teams don’t share a lot of common opponents. So we could see some of that this year. If there’s more than one game in a week that needs changed, then that could get really hectic. Not to mention there’s the possibility of an outrageous presidential election in November and protests from the players not unlike what we saw happen in the NBA and others a few weeks ago.

ICYMI, the country is literally burning right now.

Then there’s the question of what will pandemic football look like. Are offenses going to thrive more without crowds since it’ll be quieter and they can operate? Will the league-wide third-down conversion rate be higher for that reason? Will we see a record number of hard counts? It sounds like fake noise will be pumped in during the games, but the NFL hasn’t been too forthcoming in how that’s regulated or what it will sound like.

One of the NFL’s most egregious mistakes so far is not mandating a crowd size rule that’s equal for all 32 teams just like the MLB, NBA and NHL have done for these pandemic seasons. You can’t have 25 teams with no one in the crowd and seven trying to have some percentage of capacity, yet that’s what’s being allowed right now. That’s bullshit. It should be the same for every team. Attendance has always been voluntary and it’s not like crowds need to be of equal size, but giving people even the opportunity to attend should be done with more care during a pandemic. Beyond the possibility of an NFL game being a super spreading event, imagine if games with crowds lead to moments before or after the game where players, young and healthy and not thinking, take selfies with a bunch of coronabros that were tail-gating all morning. That could cause a team outbreak right there. It’s just not smart to have crowds right now.

Also, spare me the “it’s just the flu” bullshit as we get close to 200,000 U.S. deaths on the first NFL Sunday of the year. I see enough of that on Twitter daily. While someone like Mahomes may not get really sick from it, he could give it to Andy Reid, who is older and overweight, and that could turn tragic. A lot of the coaching staffs have elderly members who are more at risk from this virus. They matter too and we still don’t know how bad the long-term effects can be even for the young athletes who get it and get over it quickly.

The preseason sucks, but you have to admit if there was ever a year to have some preseason games, this would have been the one. It would have been nice to get a glimpse of what Brady looks like in Tampa Bay, if Ben Roethlisberger and Cam Newton are actually healthy, or if Joe Burrow (or any rookie) has a clue what they’re doing so far. We lost all of that this year and you can see it had an impact on undrafted free agents making teams like they tend to since they didn’t get those precious snaps and opportunities to showcase their skills. You also have to wonder if the 2020 NFL draft will go down as a dud with teams reaching more for players they didn’t scout as well due to the pandemic and lack of pro days and the usual visits. New coaching staffs may also be at a disadvantage, giving an edge to teams returning the same minds.

Will we see a bad rash of injuries due to the unique offseason and lack of physicality and a preseason? We’re already starting this season without Von Miller and Danielle Hunter just to name two prominent pass rushers. Derwin James went down for the Chargers already. That’s something else to look at early this year as we’re somehow going right from the Super Bowl seven months ago to a real game tonight despite the fact it doesn’t feel like anyone’s ready for football.

People who have continued to bet against this virus for months have been on quite the losing streak. I had people on Twitter telling me the NFL won’t cancel anything important this year, and yet we’ve already see the whole preseason wiped out. That’s something. There’s even been this attack that sportswriters want sports cancelled. No we don’t. There’s already been enough job loss in this disappearing industry.

Speaking for myself, the last thing I want is a season that starts and doesn’t have an ending. That would be a waste of time and a risk for no real reward. I only wanted to see a season if it can be done safely and to completion. They’re going to try, but we’ll just have to see what happens.

[deadpan] Maybe like a miracle it will just go away…

AFC WEST

1. Kansas City Chiefs (13-3)

Let me start with a negative, because the rest of this is going to be so positive and optimistic in a way that I can’t really express about any other team in the NFL right now. Had it not been for that 3rd-and-15 conversion in the Super Bowl, I’m likely writing about how the Chiefs could get over the hump this year, and how Patrick Mahomes responds after having his worst game in the biggest game of his career. But “2-3 Jet Chip Wasp” happened and the rest is history. The Chiefs trailed by double digits in every playoff game, but still won them all by double digits, an insane feat.

Okay I lied, here’s one more negative: there probably will never be an easier playoff path for the Chiefs to the Super Bowl than hosting the Texans and Titans. It’s only going to get harder as Kansas City attempts to become the league’s new overlords.

Ask yourself this: who is going to stop them? Since 2017, the Chiefs have been on one of the greatest competitiveness streaks in NFL history. They have not lost by more than 7 points in their last 45 games, one game away from tying the all-time record of 46 set by the 2011-14 Seahawks. Had it not been for Dee Ford lining up a smidge offsides in the 2018 AFC Championship Game, we could already be talking about a repeat champion, or at least two straight conference titles in Mahomes’ first two seasons as a starter.

Kansas City is heads and shoulders above the rest of the AFC West. The Chiefs won at New England last year, and that seems to be a team moving backwards instead of remaining on top. Tom Brady went to the NFC where flashes in the pan tend to pop up each season. Mahomes’ Chiefs have gotten the best of Lamar Jackson’s Ravens the last two years, though that Week 3 game is going to be crucial this year for home-field advantage. They split with the Texans last year, but got the playoff win and still have a better team than Houston, which should be on display in the season opener tonight. Maybe Pittsburgh becomes a contender again, but Mahomes threw six touchdown passes in his only meeting with the Steelers.

The time is now for Kansas City to rack up championships while the rest of the conference figures itself out. Maybe Joe Burrow is the real deal in Cincinnati, or Tua brings Miami back to relevance in the near future. That’s not happening this year though. It’s largely an arms race between the Chiefs and Ravens in the AFC, but no matter where the game is played, you have to like the Chiefs chances with anyone as long as Mahomes is healthy.

There aren’t many new faces of relevance on this team, but so much of what they had last year works so well for them. The most fun offense to watch in the NFL in years returns almost fully intact. The wideouts and Travis Kelce are back. The offensive line isn’t great, but it’s good enough. They even had the luxury of drafting a running back in the first round in the same offseason they made Mahomes the richest player in NFL history and also locked up Kelce and Chris Jones. Tyrann Mathieu leads the secondary and was one of the few standout players on the team to play in all 16 games last year as they had to overcome some big injuries on the way to a championship. Andy Reid retains his coordinators for one of the best staffs in the league.

As I explained in my Super Bowl LIV Preview, Mahomes doesn’t have a weakness. He hasn’t had a truly bad game yet in 36 NFL starts. The 49ers were half a quarter away from doing it to him as a night with 10 points and multiple turnovers certainly would have qualified, but we know what happened after that. Mahomes basically walks into the building with 23 points on the board, which is the minimum the Chiefs have scored in 35 of his 36 starts. That’s a rate at which no other quarterback can compare in their starts since 2001 (minimum 36 starts).

Now this team isn’t so far ahead of the league that you should be thinking a perfect season or anything like that. They do have to travel to the Ravens, Bucs and Saints, so those are where losses are most likely to come. But with the way Mahomes can put up points, the Chiefs are never out of a game.

This is going to be fun.

2. Denver Broncos (8-8)

UPDATE: Everything below this paragraph was written on Monday before the Von Miller injury news. It’s since made me drop the Broncos from 9-7 to 8-8 and definitely changes the tone of the season. It’s unfortunate to say the least as the Broncos have been cursed at keeping their duo of edge rushers healthy in recent years.

There’s some pressure on me to nail my Denver prediction like the last seven years, never being off by more than one game. This team is trending in the right direction, and the addition of a seventh playoff team could ultimately help them make the tournament this year since there’s still an obvious gap with the Chiefs in the division. However, there are crucial games early and late that could decide Denver’s fate this year. It starts on Monday night with hosting the Titans and then that Week 15 game at home against Buffalo could be for the final playoff spot. Now some people probably have the Titans and Bills winning their divisions this year, but I feel all these teams are going to be in that 9-win range, battling for the Wild Card positions. You should also throw Pittsburgh in that mix and that’s Denver’s first road game in Week 2.

So we should get good glimpses early of where this team and its young offense are. Courtland Sutton’s second season went very well and the first-round pick of Jerry Jeudy made a lot of sense in providing Drew Lock a talented group of starting wideouts. If there’s good growth from TE Noah Fant, a 2019 first-round pick, then this could be the best skill players the Broncos have fielded since the Peyton Manning era.

As for Lock, the jury has to still be out after five starts as a rookie. When his 4-1 record is the first (and almost only) thing mentioned, that should set off an alarm on anyone’s BS Detector. While Lock was fantastic in the win at Houston, he followed that up with a total dud in the snow against the Chiefs and averaged just 5.71 YPA in those games. He didn’t throw for 200 yards in the three non-Houston wins. It’s far from clear how much he can carry a team, but he should be able to do more in his first full season as the starter.

Lock should also have a better defense supporting him than several of the young quarterbacks in the league. 2019 was the first time in Von Miller’s career where he played in double-digit games, but didn’t record double-digit sacks or have any forced fumbles. I wish him the best as one of the earliest NFL players to battle COVID-19 this year and he now is going through another major injury that is sure to set the defense back a bit.

Denver will be happy to get Bradley Chubb back on the field when he can to help after Chubb missed 12 games in 2019. In case you forgot, the former No. 5 pick had 12 sacks as a rookie and his return along with the addition of Jurrell Casey from Tennessee should improve the front seven. It’s the secondary where Denver looks vulnerable. After losing Aqib Talib and Bradley Roby in the previous two seasons, standout corner Chris Harris Jr. is gone after nine seasons with the team. It appears he’ll be replaced by slot corner Bryce Callahan, a Vic Fangio project from Chicago, but he hasn’t played since 2018. A.J. Bouye, once a flash in the pan success, also comes over from a rough season in Jacksonville. Let’s just say it’s a secondary that the Chiefs (and other contenders) won’t have any issues with unless that pass rush is dominating.

Lock really finding a groove with his young receivers could be the difference in finishing 5th and finishing 8th in the AFC this season, but for now, let’s stick to near .500 with a team on the right track.

3. Las Vegas Raiders (5-11)

Hard to believe this is already Year 3 for Jon Gruden’s second dance with the Raiders, and the first year in Las Vegas. The Raiders overachieved last year when they won seven games despite ranking 24th in scoring on both sides of the ball. Derek Carr’s 2019 season still perplexes me. On the one hand, it was his best season yet in several areas. On the other hand, his true colors showed when the Raiders were 6-4 and scored 12 points total on the road against the Jets and Chiefs. Carr finished 10th in QBR (64.1), a metric that has never placed him higher than mediocre.

It was an unexpected performance after the Raiders were bamboozled by Antonio Brown, but tight end Darren Waller took advantage of that to have a breakout season with 1,145 yards. The only wide receivers that really produced for Oakland were Tyrell Williams and rookie Hunter Renfrow. The latter is back, but Williams is on IR. Help has arrived though for Carr in the form of first-round wideout Henry Ruggs, third-round pick Bryan Edwards, and veteran TE Jason Witten. Josh Jacobs is the clear RB1 in the backfield and the offensive line should be above average as it returns all five experienced starters — a true rarity in this league right now.

By this point of the write-up I went back to see if I could find another win or two for the Raiders, then I remembered why I only found five. The Raiders were a convenient loser on the road for me to find home wins for teams that should be in short supply of any wins this year (Panthers, Browns, Jets). I don’t like to pick teams to lose 13 or 14 games, so those wins have to come somewhere, and the Raiders still feel like one of the teams susceptible to losing any given week in this league.

When you get to the defense, where are the proven veterans? It’s mostly players with 1-3 years of experience. That’s not necessarily a bad thing if they develop, but there’s not a lot to rely on here.

4. Los Angeles Chargers (4-12)

It’s hard to say Hard Knocks has me amped up to watch the Chargers play this year. The new L.A. stadium looks beautiful, but what kind of team is this going to be after ending things with Philip Rivers? By going to Tyrod Taylor, you can expect fewer interceptions, but more sacks and punting. This team was already better on defense than offense last year, and that should continue even after losing safety Derwin James (again) for the whole season. They still have Joey Bosa, Melvin Ingram and brought in slot corner Chris Harris Jr. from rival Denver so there is real talent there.

The Chargers might be able to keep the score down, but will the offense be good? We should expect a much more run-heavy approach than the Rivers era, but Austin Ekeler isn’t a 20-carry per game type of back. They let Melvin Gordon go to Denver and Ekeler has never carried the ball more than 132 times in a season. He’s a great receiver, but that strength too would seem to diminish by going from Rivers to Taylor, who is really just a stop-gap before rookie Justin Herbert takes over.

The early schedule actually allows for a 6-3 start going into the bye, but that’s assuming we’re getting Taylor’s best and the defense doesn’t have more big injuries. Remember, we’re talking about the Chargers here so that is pretty unlikely.

NFC WEST

1. Seattle Seahawks (11-5)

Most of this will be about Russell Wilson, but let’s get a few things out of the way first. Yes, the division is the toughest in the NFL in my view, but Seattle gets to host the Patriots, Cowboys and Vikings early in the season, which is better than going on the road for any of those opponents. Looking forward to seeing D.K. Metcalf in his second season after a good rookie campaign. The offensive line remains a weakness, but that’s been true for years and yet Seattle still finishes with a winning record. Last season was the first time since 2010 that Seattle ranked in the bottom half in scoring defense. Bringing back Bruce Irvin and trading for safety Jamal Adams should help. Those days of having the top defense are over, but it’s not like this team needs that with Wilson at this stage of his career.

However, the way this Brian Schottenheimer-coordinated offense operates is still the main story/conundrum. We know Pete Carroll wants to run a lot all game long. We know Wilson is one of the best in the league. What’s the right balance of run and pass for this offense? No one seems to know for sure, but the “Let Russ Cook” idea isn’t as simple as it sounds.

Most pass-happy offenses get to those increased numbers by implementing a lot of short, quick passes, especially on early downs. That’s not Wilson’s strength. He is best at throwing downfield and improvising plays. In his career, Wilson is 3-10 when he throws at least 40 passes in a game. There are 111 other quarterbacks in NFL history with at least 3 wins in that situation, and for comparison Patrick Mahomes is already 7-3 when he throws it 40+ times. I bring up Mahomes specifically because Seahawks fans seem most convinced that Wilson can do everything Mahomes can, but isn’t allowed the same type of freedom in his offense. There’s some truth to that. In 2019 on 1st-and-10 plays, the Seahawks threw the ball 46.2% of the time in the first quarter and 55.5% in the second quarter compared to 61.5% in the first and 72.8% in the second quarter for the Chiefs.

But one thing Mahomes undeniably does better than Wilson is he gets rid of the ball without taking a sack. The same is true for a lot of quarterbacks, but let’s focus on Tom Brady, Drew Brees, Aaron Rodgers, and Matt Ryan. Here’s where their career sack percentages (regular season only) stand with Wilson’s for each down. Ignore fourth down (holy shit, Matt) as it’s just there for completeness.

On the first three downs, the quarterbacks rank in the exact same order except for third down where Brees bests Mahomes for the lowest rate. But the important part is Wilson always takes the highest rate of sacks each down. Wilson gets sacked on first down almost as often as Mahomes gets sacked on third down, the down quarterbacks are most likely to go down on as it’s the obvious passing situation.

If the Seahawks start throwing 35-40 passes a game instead of 25-30, it’s likely to come at the expense of the long game. Now a 5-yard completion to Tyler Lockett or veteran TE Greg Olsen still beats a 1-yard carry, which may be the most persuasive argument for Let Russ Cook. But the risk of an early-down sack that could kill a drive quickly must also be accounted for. The Seahawks should let Wilson take over more often early in games, but there has to be an understanding that taking sacks is part of his game that doesn’t seem like it will go away unless he makes some major changes to his playing style like how Ben Roethlisberger did starting in his ninth season (2012). This happens to be Wilson’s ninth season.

2. San Francisco 49ers (9-7)

The 49ers surprised a lot of us by proving to be the best team in the NFC last year, and it probably would have been the whole NFL had the Chiefs not converted that 3rd-and-15 in the Super Bowl. However, there’s plenty of past precedent for such a team to take a step back the following year. Look no further than last year in the same division when the Rams turned a great 2018 Super Bowl season into a disappointing 9-7 finish. Beyond that, there are some striking similarities between the teams. There’s the “genius” coach who schemes in a lot of play-action and runs to help his talented-but-sometimes-maddening QB produce big numbers. Sound familiar?

The close games that almost always went against Kyle Shanahan in his first two seasons mostly went his way in 2019 as Jimmy Garoppolo led the team on four game-winning drives. Going on 29 years old, it’s not clear how much of Garoppolo’s ceiling has already been hit, but it feels like he’s pretty close to the top of what he can be. He’s good enough to win a Super Bowl under the right circumstances, but after doing very little to win two playoff games, he didn’t deliver when he had to against the Chiefs. If the 49ers get back to the Super Bowl, they’ll likely be facing the Chiefs or Ravens, or two teams that beat the 49ers last year. Also, while George Kittle is awesome, Deebo Samuel is coming off an injury and the 49ers lack a traditional No. 1 wide receiver. Emmanuel Sanders (now gone) was a good pickup last year, but there’s going to be a lot of trust in very young wideouts this season.

Defensive consistency is a rare achievement in the NFL. It was amusing to see so many mentions for coordinator Robert Saleh to get a head coaching gig on the strength of one good season following two lousy ones in San Francisco. There’s no reason to think the 49ers won’t field a good defense this year, but it’s also hard to see why they should be better on that side of the ball.

I’m putting the 49ers in the playoffs, but we need to see some repeat success before we start penciling them in as a favorite every year. If you look at the last nine teams to win 13 games in the NFC, six of them missed the playoffs the next year and only one of them (2018-19 Saints) equaled those 13 wins again. Only two of the nine won double-digit games.

Unlike the AFC, the NFC loves parity, much like how the 49ers came out of nowhere to such a great 2019 season.

3. Los Angeles Rams (9-7)

While the Rams disappointed to 9-7 in their conference defense, some are burying Sean McVay and company too quickly. The Rams were a makeable field goal against Seattle away from being in Seattle’s playoff spot last season. Sure, the performances were erratic last year, especially at QB and defense. Jared Goff passed for 517 yards against Tampa Bay and 395 against Seattle before throwing for 78 yards against the 49ers. The defense had just as many games (three) where they allowed fewer than 10 points as games where they allowed more than 40 points. The complementary football was bad, but don’t count out a team that has a very good coach, a quarterback who sometimes looks the part, and some major defensive studs (Aaron Donald and Jalen Ramsey).

The first three games (DAL, @PHI, @BUF) should tell us a lot about how the season will go for the Rams. A loaded division, Goff and the defense’s inconsistencies, and an offensive line that is going to need to go through some serious retooling soon (without much draft capital in the coming years) are all fair reasons to count out the Rams as serious title contenders, but I think there is still enough here to win nine games and be in the Wild Card mix. Remember, the Rams would have been the No. 7 seed in 2019.

4. Arizona Cardinals (8-8)

This may be one to regret, but you can see just how highly I think of the NFC West when the last-place team finishes 8-8. Since 2002, that’s only happened six times and it hasn’t happened since 2008. In a normal offseason where Kyler Murray could get in there and grind film with his coaches and workout a lot with newly acquired DeAndre Hopkins, this would probably be the path the team would take. But during a pandemic, it’s not clear how much progress a young team like this will make.

The Hopkins trade was a huge get with Larry Fitzgerald turning 37 this year. That should help Murray out, who definitely impressed last year even if he wasn’t nearly as sharp as Russell Wilson or Dak Prescott were as rookies. The running game was explosive at times, especially when David Johnson wasn’t involved in things. Chandler Jones and Patrick Peterson are still strong cornerstones to build around for the pass rush and secondary respectively.

The Cardinals pulled off a stunning win in Seattle last year and hung tough twice with the 49ers and also fared decently in Baltimore in Week 2. This team feels close to competing and a soft early schedule could get them off to a confidence-building start before things get tougher down the stretch.

AFC EAST

1. New England Patriots (10-6)

Nothing like replacing an overrated quarterback with another overrated quarterback, amirite?

Now that the brand was taken care of, let’s talk about something I’ve been waiting a long time for: a Patriots season without Tom Brady. My wish was for Jameis Winston to go there and for Bill Belichick to coach the mistakes out of him and make the playoffs with a quarterback who has yet to win in this league, but 2020 is about pain instead of fun. Instead, they waited until another cheating scandal was in the news before stealing some headlines by finally signing Cam Newton, which seemed like the logical move all offseason. Belichick winning with Cam with a defensive-led approach is a bit boring, but here we are.

First question: what kind of Cam did they get? Without a preseason it’s really impossible to answer this. Newton is 31 and hasn’t been healthy for a couple of years. He started 2018 well, but he’s lost his last eight starts and hasn’t played since Week 2 of last year. If he’s reasonably healthy, then I think the Patriots are getting a quarterback who is less reliable and consistently accurate than Brady, but he can make big throws and create on his own, which would be a change in New England. 2015 was always a bit of a mirage for Cam, so they’re not getting that guy, but he is absolutely serviceable to win for Belichick. The cupboard looks pretty bare at WR/TE, but that’s not entirely out of nature for Newton’s career. He should at least enjoy James White as a pass catcher after falling in love with the short throws to Christian McCaffrey in Carolina. However, this could be the final nail in Julian Edelman’s HOF case that never really was a thing. It’s hard to imagine Cam, or most quarterbacks, would prefer to target Edelman over everyone else, but that probably will be the case here unless K’Neal Harry takes a huge step forward.

Alas, let’s not forget that the Patriots could have won 11 of their 12 wins last year with a replacement-level QB because of how dominant the defense was and how weak the schedule was. The only time Brady was really the Brady of old was in the second win over Buffalo. You had games where the Patriots D/ST literally outscored the opponent by itself. Now the defense is unlikely to be that good again, and I called them a fraud halfway through the season before they proved they were. But it should still be a competent unit led by Stephon Gilmore.

Something that’s sure to annoy me this year: Brady fans treating the 2020 Patriots like the only change was Brady’s departure. That’s simply not the case. For one, no team has been affected more by COVID-19 so far than the Patriots. Three starters (RT Marcus Cannon, S Patrick Chung, and LB Dont’a Hightower) opted out of the season due to medical concerns. That’s a big deal. The Patriots also said goodbye to starting linebackers Kyle Van Noy and Jamie Collins, traded Duron Harmon (some huge interceptions on his resume from 2013-19) to Detroit, and TE Ben Watson and FB James Develin retired. That’s a lot of starts and years of experience in New England gone this year. None of the changes are on the level of Brady leaving, but

When the Patriots beat the Rams in Super Bowl 53, it sure felt like a last hurrah, a final miracle run to close out the dynasty. Rob Gronkowski retired, but Brady didn’t, and the team even started 8-0 before finishing 4-5 with a playoff flop. More players have moved on, making the Patriots feel more like a team going through a transition than one fighting to stay on top. In fact, when Jarrett Stidham was still listed as the starter into July it almost seemed like Belichick was attempting to tank for Clemson QB Trevor Lawrence.

If this is really Buffalo’s time, then so be it. We’ve sure waited long enough to see better competition in the AFC East, but as long as Belichick is calling the shots, then it’s hard to pick someone else even if there’s been some obvious decline with the roster.

Still, wouldn’t winning 10 games with a cheap Cam contract feel right for this franchise?

2. Buffalo Bills (9-7)

I don’t care if the Bills Mafia wants to slam me through a foldout table, I’m still not picking this team to win the AFC East after the Brady era finally ended. I’ll take Bill Belichick and a healthy Cam Newton over Sean McDermott and Josh Allen, though it is hardly a guarantee that Newton is still reliable. Both teams will try to win via defense first, but respect to the Bills for the aggressive move of adding Stefon Diggs after he had a career year. It completes a nice WR trio where John Brown can be a deep threat and Cole Beasley works the slot while Diggs does a bit of everything. We should be skeptical that Diggs will be as efficient as usual given he caught 68.4 percent of his targets in Minnesota and now comes to windy Buffalo with a QB who doesn’t know how to get to 60 percent completions yet.

To their credit, the Bills were a drive away (twice really) from overtaking the Patriots in the division last year. However, both teams took advantage of the schedule with the Jets and Dolphins in the division and the poorest division in the league (NFC East). The Bills also squeaked by the awful Bengals and the Steelers with Duck Hodges. Buffalo was 1-4 against teams with a winning record (1-5 counting the one-and-done playoff loss), only beating the Titans 14-7 after Tennessee missed four field goals with Marcus Mariota at QB.

Simply put: the Bills win a lot of close games against bad teams, don’t beat the good teams, and they have to keep the score down for Allen to win at all (0-8 as a starter when the Bills allow more than 21 points).

That’s not the kind of team (and QB) that gets my respect. At the very least, the schedule doesn’t look that daunting this year, Allen could still improve with a better offensive cast around him, and then there’s the defensive side of things.

The Bills have one of the best defenses in the league, but keep in mind this comes at a lower standard than what we’re used to for great NFL defense. This unit can’t touch that of the Ray Lewis-era Ravens, the Lovie Smith-era Bears, the run the Steelers had in 2004-2011, or even what the 2015 Broncos and Legion of Boom-era Seahawks had last decade. There are some very nice pieces on this unit (Tre’Davious White, Tremaine Edmunds, Ed Oliver, Jerry Hughes) and few weaknesses, but it’s not an overwhelming collection of talent. The most productive pass rushers from 2019 (Shaq Lawson and Jordan Phillips) are both gone. For as great as White is at corner, Josh Norma has seen better days and the others (Levi Wallace and Taron Johnson) are nothing special. Again, the schedule and division of primarily weak offenses helped make the numbers look better last year.

It’s not like I want to see the Patriots continue their run in this division, so it would be great if the Bills stepped up and Allen played like a franchise QB. The AFC East needs that so badly. But until we see something better I’m going with Wild Card for the Bills.

3. Miami Dolphins (5-11)

In last year’s predictions, I said “Tank for Tua” had a nice ring to it and Miami’s highlight of the year would be beating the Patriots. I just didn’t think they’d win as a 17-point underdog in Foxboro to knock the Patriots out of a bye, but that’s the kind of competitiveness the Dolphins had down the stretch after a start to the season where they and coach Brian Flores didn’t look like they belonged in the NFL.

It’s still a hard roster to like at this point, but you look for the young defense to improve as well as WR Preston Williams and TE Mike Gesicki. DeVante Parker finally had his breakout season in 2019 with 1,202 yards. Ryan Fitzpatrick will start the season, but expect Tua to take over at some point — maybe Week 12 after the bye — to get his feet wet before the team goes through another offseason revamp to compete for something real in 2021.

4. New York Jets (4-12)

It’s almost a miracle the Jets won seven games last year since Adam Gase’s offense really couldn’t do anything — dead last in yards and points per drive — but that’s what you get when you play the East divisions and draw Pittsburgh with Duck Hodges. Not to mention the Jets followed Gase’s usual “win by one score or lose by 16+ points” split.

The continued offensive woes aren’t all QB Sam Darnold’s fault since he had mono last year and the horrendous Luke Falk played in three games, but it’s also not all Gase’s fault. The Jets are the only team in the last three years to go three-and-out more than 30 percent of the time and they’ve done it in both of Darnold’s seasons, including 2018 when Todd Bowles was the coach.

This is a crucial third year for Darnold since we should really know by now if he’s a franchise quarterback or not. It’s not an enviable offensive situation to be in either. The Jets were as bad as anyone at running the ball in 2019, and it’s hard to feel optimistic about a thrown together line doing its job for a patient Le’Veon Bell and ancient Frank Gore. TE Chris Herndon had a respectable rookie year in 2018, but hasn’t been healthy since. WR Denzel Mims was drafted in the second round, but will probably lag behind the trio of Jamison Crowder, Chris Hogan and Breshad Perriman. It feels like the Jets have fielded worse, but individually, none of those players are among the top 40 wide receivers in the NFL and even that may be too generous a number. Robby Anderson left and would have been a better deep ball asset than Perriman.

So if the offense is unlikely to thrive, then what can we really expect from a defense that traded away its best player in Jamal Adams to the Seahawks? This comes after Leonard Williams was traded to the Giants last year. The Jets aren’t getting the greatest returns on their first-round picks, and last year rookie DT Quinnen Williams only had 2.5 sacks and 6 QB hits. Defensive coordinator Gregg Williams likes to be aggressive, but it’s not good when your best edge rusher is Jordan Jenkins.

If there’s a silver lining, the Jets may only face two top-tier QBs all season (Mahomes and Wilson). However, unless Darnold makes big strides, they’re going to enter all 16 games (barring injuries) with the disadvantage at QB.

NFC EAST

1. Dallas Cowboys (12-4)

My ridiculously early Super Bowl LV prediction in February was Baltimore over Dallas. In a normal offseason I may have stuck with that, but it feels like teams with new head coaches, including one who took 2019 off, are at a little bit of a disadvantage in this pandemic. Also, the Cowboys were as disappointing as any team in the NFL last season. Despite a 3-0 start and the weakest division, the Cowboys performed one last Jason Garrett Special and finished 8-8. They were 8-0 when they scored at least 31 points with Dak Prescott nearly throwing for 5,000 yards on the year, but they were 0-8 with no more than 24 points in their losses. They tied a season-low with just 9 points in the decisive division game loss in Philadelphia in Week 16. The defense was a huge letdown at times when they allowed Sam Darnold, Mitchell Trubisky and Josh Allen to have really the best games of their seasons in wins.

But overall, the disappointments were more on the offense in the losses. After leading 15 game-winning drives in his first three seasons, Prescott couldn’t buy a single one in 2019. Beyond that, Dallas never even had a game-tying or go-ahead drive in the fourth quarter of any game. Now some have chalked this up to the team having “bad luck” but as I showed in this thread after Week 16 last year, that was simply not the case.

  • Average deficit in the 15 game-winning drives in Dak era: 1.4 points
  • Average deficit in the 5 failed 4QC/GWD attempts in 2019: 4.7 points

Dallas always needed a touchdown against the Jets, Vikings, Patriots and Eagles. The game is simply harder when you need a touchdown instead of a field goal, and when you’re playing a playoff team instead of the Giants. That’s what did the Cowboys in last year.

But The Clapper is gone, replaced by Mike McCarthy, who won 61.8 percent of his games in Green Bay before things soured. As last year in Green Bay showed, not all of the problems were on McCarthy’s offense growing stale. A year away from the game and some self-evaluation should serve him well. He’s retained Kellen Moore as the offensive coordinator, a move that’s been widely praised in Dallas.

Prescott still doesn’t have his long-term contract, but he can sort of pull a Joe Flacco in his fifth year and prove that he’s more than deserving of one by taking Dallas to a place it hasn’t been since the 1995 season: the NFC Championship Game (if not one round further). He has the talent and the talent around him to do it. Not only did Michael Gallup have a breakout year, but the Cowboys then added CeeDee Lamb in the first round and no longer have Jason Witten running in cement shoes at tight end.

Defensively, we’re not talking about a list of suspended linemen, so that’s good. The front seven is also clearly the strength of the unit as the secondary lacks any proven stars. Maybe they’ll give Earl Thomas a call (and tell him to lose his brother’s phone number).

As I’ve written about more than anyone, winning close games was never McCarthy’s strength in Green Bay. Being perpetually stuck in them was Garrett’s M.O. But I’m going to trust in Dak to deliver this year and the Cowboys to be in the running for the top seed in the NFC.

2. Philadelphia Eagles (9-7)

We shouldn’t have to hear “they’re winning with practice squad players!” this year. It was already mythical last year, but fact is if the Eagles get that injured again this season, a 9-7 finish against the worst division in football isn’t getting a home playoff game this time. The December schedule isn’t nearly as forgiving, at least on paper.

Miles Sanders impressed as a dual-threat rookie back and should fully take over with Jordan Howard out of his way. Zach Ertz and Dallas Goedert make for arguably the best tight end duo in the league. The offensive line is still one of the best in the league, though it’s hard to believe Jason Peters is still doing it at 38. DeSean Jackson is back (barely) as he would have lost most jobs in this country for his social media posts this offseason, but apparently catching 40-yard touchdowns is good protection. Alshon Jeffery isn’t healthy again and his days are numbered in Philly. They’ll hope first-round rookie wideout Jalen Reagor is more productive than J.J. Arcega-Whiteside was last year. He should be.

The defense still has that trio up front of Fletcher Cox, Brandon Graham and Derek Barnett, the heart of this unit. Cox saw his QB hits drop from 34 to 10 last year though. He can be more productive than that. The back of the defense is more anonymous, though bringing in Darius Slay from Detroit and Nickell Robey-Coleman into the slot should help out the cornerbacks, a weak position for the Eagles in recent times.

Oh, and about that quarterback…

Four years into his career, Carson Wentz has started one playoff game and he left it with an injury before he even had one successful play. I’ll just quote from my playoff preview in January about my feelings on Wentz’s 2019:

There’s a cottage industry dedicated to making Wentz’s career sound better than it has been so far. For example, this stat has gained traction since last Sunday: Wentz is the first ever 4,000-yard passer who did not have a 500-yard wide receiver. And? Alshon Jeffery had 490 yards in 10 games before going on IR. Would an extra 10 yards from him change anything this season?

Let’s frame the stat better. Wentz is the NFL’s first 4,000-yard passer that had a running back and two tight ends go over 500 yards in the same season. Yes, that’s never been done before either and it’s a better way to highlight the type of offense the Eagles operate. It’s not a badge of honor for Wentz like the no WR stat sounds like, but a sign that their offense is unique. Also, if the 2019 Eagles are the sample size of one for having an offense like this, then it’s not really a good thing. The Eagles finished 17th in points per drive and are only in the playoffs because of their terrible division.

Most NFL fans have moved on from trying to put Wentz in the top tier of NFL quarterbacks. That’s Russell Wilson and Drew Brees on recent play, Tom Brady and Aaron Rodgers on reputation, and of course the youngsters taking over the league now in Patrick Mahomes, Lamar Jackson, and Deshaun Watson. And yes, some analysts even finally started giving Dak Prescott his due praise over Wentz last season.

I’d like to get over Wentz too, but as long as people want to continue to exaggerate, if not fabricate stats about him, I’ll continue to call them out for it. He’s better than the Carr’s and Darnold’s of the league for sure, but there is still a lot of room for growth there. He also needs to make it through an entire season (playoffs included). The addition of a third Wild Card spot this year should help Wentz and the Eagles at least get that opportunity in 2020.

3. New York Giants (4-12)

The Giants feel like a 6-10 team, but the schedule is mostly why more wins weren’t found for them in 2020. Most of the opponents are simply better. The Giants are 0-12 against the Cowboys and Eagles since 2017, so beating Washington is about the only thing you can rely on them for.

The defensive talent is not good enough to win, the offensive line looks random, so the onus falls on raw, but talented skill players to make plays in spite of what rookie head coach Joe Judge and offensive coordinator Jason Garrett lead them into running. The Judge hire was the worst coaching move this offseason. Here we have another Bill Belichick bootlicker who thinks authoritarian rule is his right before he’s even won a game in this league. I haven’t been right about every head coach hire before, but my track record is pretty good and this is not a hire I endorse.

Daniel Jones had some people eating crow last year, or maybe not if you focus on the absurd 18 fumbles (11 lost and a few returned for scores) he had. He has to clean that up immediately, but he did at least show some ability to take advantage of bad defenses and put up big numbers. Jones had three games with at least 300 yards passing, four touchdown passes and no interceptions. That puts him on a list of just seven QBs in NFL history to do it at least three times in the same season:

Now he offsets some of that with the fumbles, but Jones is an interesting player to keep an eye on after throwing 24 touchdowns in 12 starts as a rookie. He’s the only hope the Giants have of being relevant in 2020.

4. Washington Football Team (3-13)

To say nothing of the pandemic, new coach Ron Rivera has to battle cancer, a disgraced owner, uncertainty at the skill positions, and his team doesn’t even have a god damn name. Wish him the best, but this is likely going to be a rough year.

FIRST DOWN… FOOTBALL TEAM!

LOOSE BALL, WHO’S GOT IT? FOOTBALL TEAM!

THE FOOTBALL TEAM HAS WON THE TOSS.

COWBOYS 30, FOOTBALL TEAM 10.

You think they’d at least fix the name before the season, but illustrative of 2020, there’s no real planning in D.C. Rookie QB Dwayne Haskins really didn’t show enough last year either way to be fearful or excited about his 2020 prospects. Terry McLaurin already looks like one of the next great wideouts, but the rest of the depth chart isn’t inspiring at all. We also no longer have to worry about injury concerns for LT Trent Williams, TE Jordan Reed or RB Darrius Guice since they’re all gone. Guice is a great example of why character concerns in the draft will always be a thing. Even Adrian Peterson was released, so outside of McLaurin you’re really looking at an anonymous group of skill players and one standout lineman (Brandon Scherff) at best.

The defensive line should be anchored by four straight first-round draft picks, but all eyes will be on rookie Chase Young. Ryan Kerrigan is 32 and coming off his least productive year in the NFL, so the — yep, I went to type Redskins here — FOOTBALL TEAM had to do something big to get some more pass rush. Young was the logical choice and the additions of Rivera and defensive coordinator Jack Del Rio should improve that unit, but it was still one of the worst in the NFL last year. Bringing back Kendall Fuller isn’t a real solution.

In the end, I have Washington with the worst record in the NFL (3-13) this year. If you’re a fan, you’re looking for major growth from Haskins in an unenviable situation and some splash plays to get excited about Young. You’re also looking for an actual team name and a return to some respectability in 2021 as this has been a laughingstock franchise for far too long now.

AFC SOUTH

My proudest feat ever in NFL predictions: nailing the 2019 AFC South down to the correct record for all four teams. It was such a hard division to predict too with Andrew Luck shockingly retiring in August. So if regression to the mean hits, I’m probably about to royally fuck this up.

1. Houston Texans (9-7)

To borrow a line from last year, I don’t believe in Bill O’Brien, but I do believe in Deshaun Watson. Maybe too much, as I have the Texans narrowly winning the division again with a mere 9-7 record. The $40 million per year contract that Watson just inked makes total sense to me in the post-Mahomes world of QB contracts. It certainly makes more sense than the shitacular trade that O’Brien was fleeced on in giving DeAndre Hopkins to Arizona. Some may see that as a huge loss for this team, and it can be for reasons beyond production, but once again I believe in Watson.

There’s also the fact that Houston added Brandin Cooks, who had four straight 1,000-yard seasons before a down year in 2019. This team still has talented wideouts, but it’s concerning that Cooks, Will Fuller and Kenny Stills have similar vertical usage and strengths. The saving grace is that given their lack of durability, it’s good to have a trio of such players available. But we’ll need to see Randall Cobb and Keke Coutee work the slot and shorter routes for variety since tight end (Darren Fells) is still an afterthought in Houston.

The defense is still led by J.J. Watt, but we’ll get a nice glimpse immediately on Thursday night if this unit can be trusted against the main conference competition in Kansas City after that 51-point onslaught in the January playoff loss. Without adding any studs to the defense, chances are Watson will have to win a high-scoring game against Mahomes in the playoffs and do so again in the Super Bowl against what will likely be a formidable NFC offense.

After leading five game-winning drives in each of the last two seasons, there’s a chance things don’t break Houston’s way for Watson in close games again. Maybe that loss of familiarity and comfort with Hopkins comes into play there. A more balanced team in Tennessee or a Philip Rivers resurgence in Indy could be enough to take the division away from Houston this year, but for now I’ll trust Watson. If things go too south, maybe it will be time for O’Brien to do the right thing and fire himself.

2. Tennessee Titans (9-7)

If the Titans can finish 9-7 four years in a row, why ruin a good thing and not go for five? That perpetual mediocrity makes this a harder prediction than it seems to be, because your instinct is to either move them up to the next tier or predict a collapse. This one boils down to two questions: can Ryan Tannehill repeat the success he had in the regular season, and does the weird playoff run the Titans had already prove he will not?

The Ryan Tannehill Breakout Year jokes used to write themselves, but a funny thing: it actually happened (and in a big way) in 2019 once he took over for Marcus Mariota. In 10 starts, the passing efficiency was some of the best we’ve ever seen from a season in NFL history, including 9.6 YPA and a 117.5 passer rating. These are things Tannehill certainly never achieved with the Dolphins. The Titans had him running a fun, balanced offense with a lot of deep shots, a lot of big plays to rookie A.J. Brown, a lot of sacks, and a lot of Derrick Henry. It was successful enough to get the Titans in the playoffs, and then they abandoned it for a 1970s playbook that Dan Pastorini and Earl Campbell would have loved. Tannehill was 15-of-29 for 160 yards in the two playoff wins while the team rushed for 418 yards with Henry taking over as the star. That kind of split just doesn’t happen in the modern NFL, especially not in road playoff games. But when the Titans needed more passing and points from Tannehill in Kansas City, it didn’t work and the Chiefs won 35-24, ending one of the more improbable playoff runs in recent time.

Tannehill would be far from the first or the worst veteran quarterback to break out at a later age after going to a different team. We saw Jake Plummer do it from Arizona to Denver, and that led to three straight playoffs for the Broncos in 2003-05. Tannehill has physical talent, but everything about his career outside of that 10-game run tells us he can’t sustain this type of play for a long period of time. It’s not like this is even a factor of playing with elite offensive talent. Brown looks good, but he’s not Randy Moss, and he’s unlikely to average over 20 yards per catch again as defenses realize he’s a threat and Corey Davis still is on the “meh” side of things. Jonnu Smith isn’t even on the radar yet for great tight ends in this league. Henry’s not a great receiving back and Dion Lewis is gone. The offensive line could also see a decline with Jack Conklin gone at right tackle after a season in which Tannehill already took sacks nearly 10 percent of the time. Oh and remember how the Titans were scoring a TD in the red zone almost 100 percent of the time under Tannehill? More regression expected.

Head coach Mike Vrabel seems emboldened to take more risks, and that’s a very good thing to have in your coach, but how about the defense? It wasn’t a great unit last year, and you have to acknowledge that they were twice shredded by the Chiefs. They got the good fortune in the playoffs of playing the Patriots (weakest offense there in years) and yes, the Ravens were outstanding in the regular season, but dropped balls and falling behind early led to Lamar Jackson being in a big comeback situation he’s not used to yet in his career.

A great passer can still carve this unit up, and we shouldn’t overstate the late addition of Jadeveon Clowney. If Clowney was ever as great as advertised, he wouldn’t have been available this late in the game for his third team since 2018. He’s never had a double-digit sack season, only played all 16 games once, and the claim that he makes teammates much better is a bit suspect. When Clowney went to Seattle last year, the Seahawks had a below-average defense for the first time since 2010. The Seahawks had 28 sacks and no one had more than 4.0 sacks individually. Clowney is a bigger deal than adding Vic Beasley, but let’s not forget the Titans no longer have Jurrell Casey at defensive tackle. I’m sure with my luck Clowney will get a division-sealing strip-sack off Deshaun Watson this year, but for me that move is not a difference maker as far as playoff seeding.

The Titans have some advantages with their offense being so unique, but the season hinges on whether or not Tannehill can recapture some of that magic he had last year or if he’s going to be more of the guy we’ve known for a long time.

3. Indianapolis Colts (7-9)

The Colts were the definition of mediocre last year and should undoubtedly field a more talented team this season. So, why the same 7-9 prediction? Last year the Colts had some issues with injuries, a terrible kicking season by Adam Vinatieri, and a lousy 2-8 record in the clutch that Andrew Luck certainly would have outdone.

Enter Philip Rivers for his age-39 season and — holy shit — he might think he’s still in San Diego if he’s on a team plagued by injuries, kickers and closing out games. Now Vinatieri is gone, but the Colts are replacing a quarterback (Jacoby Brissett) who was terrible at close finishes with Rivers, who has the most losses (78) in NFL history in such games. When you break it down by percentage among active players, Rivers and Brissett are both in the bottom five.

Rivers is coming off a down year on a 5-11 team that was arguably more talented than this Colts team. He’s a short-term gamble, but beyond his past working experience with Frank Reich that should absolutely make the transition to a new team easier, there are still admirable qualities about his play that the Colts could benefit from. T.Y. Hilton and Jack Doyle should be fantasy relevant with Rivers at the helm, and Nyheim Hines may need to see the field more since Rivers always enjoys passes to the back. That’s not necessarily a strength for Marlon Mack or rookie Jonathan Taylor. This is also the best offensive line Rivers has seen in years, something a 39-year-old should appreciate more than ever.

Chronologically, the Colts are the 10th team I’m writing about and the first where the offensive line actually looks like a strength instead of a question mark or weakness. As long as this offense plays to its strengths and doesn’t view Rivers as the savior, it has a chance to be a quality unit this year.

On defense, there’s a lot of hoping. You hope that a 31-year-old Justin Houston can stay healthy, something he hasn’t done well in his career, after 11 sacks in 2019. You hope the first-round pick sent to San Francisco for DeForest Buckner pays off. Buckner was solid there, but the trade was too good for the 49ers to pass up. Houston, Buckner and LB Darius Leonard could lead the way to a strong front seven. The problem is the secondary where Malik Hooker hasn’t lived up to the No. 15 pick and the Colts will hope to revitalize Xavier Rhodes’ career after a horrible season in Minnesota. Other than Kenny Moore in the slot, this group is an eyesore and not well equipped to deal with the speedy and vertical threats in the division and the rest of the conference contenders.

Seeing Rivers in a Colts uniform should be one of the most surreal experiences of 2020, and it’s a sight I’m looking forward to, as well as the renewal of one of sport’s greatest rivalries: Rivers vs. the play clock.

4. Jacksonville Jaguars (5-11)

Is this the “Tank for Trevor” campaign? Jacksonville surprisingly kept coach Doug Marrone while exiling much of the roster this offseason. The Jaguars don’t even have an active player that’s been in the league for more than eight seasons, and you could see the defense start multiple rookie draft picks in Week 1.

This season really just looks like an extended practice to get the young defense and wide receivers ready for 2021. Whether that is with Trevor Lawrence or not really comes down to how well Gardner Minshew plays. For a sixth-round rookie thrust into action in Week 1, he did a respectable job. He showed some ability to move around and make plays, but ultimately he didn’t lead the offense to enough points. His TD:INT ratio (21:6) can also be a bit misleading as Jacksonville had a league-low 3 rushing TD and he lost 7 of his 13 fumbles. The Jaguars could have gone for Cam Newton, but seem content enough to give Minshew another season to prove his worth.

Best bet is we’ll see the complete regime change in 2021.

NFC SOUTH

1. New Orleans Saints (13-3)

Last year I was a bit sour on the Saints, predicting them to fall back and miss the playoffs. I was wrong and New Orleans finished 13-3 again, but a most unfortunate tie-breaker led to just a No. 3 seed even though this team was clearly better than the Packers. I also called my shot in December of a jinx on Drew Brees having his worst postseason yet, and it came true with the overtime loss at home to the Vikings after the offense never got to touch the ball. It was the third-straight postseason the Saints were eliminated on the final play.

Even though my gut is telling me to go with the decline again, I find myself going all in for one last ride with Sean Payton and his 41-year-old QB who sees retirement in the near future. After all, his main competition seems to be the team with the 43-year-old quarterback who he has been outplaying for the last few years. These “all-in” predictions tend to be disasters for me, so my apologies in advance, Saints fans.

I’ve been saying for a couple of years that this offense shouldn’t be as good as it is when the main receivers are Michael Thomas and Alvin Kamara. That shouldn’t be so hard to gameplan against when Thomas, while a very good player, doesn’t threaten the defense deep or does a ton of damage after the catch like other great receivers in the past. He’s got a great chemistry with Brees and runs routes very well, but they’re usually not deep ones. That’s why I think the addition of Emmanuel Sanders could really help this year. Sanders is 33, but he was open on what could have been the game-winning touchdown bomb in the Super Bowl against Kansas City. Jimmy Garoppolo missed it. It’s no given that Brees would hit it at 41, but Sanders is a more reliable second option than Ted Ginn Jr.

As for Kamara, he’s caught 81 balls in each of his three seasons, but he’s seen his yards per catch drop from 10.2 to 8.8 to just 6.6 last year. Defenses have gotten better against him, though he could cite injury as the reason he wasn’t as effective in 2019. Still, he’ll be the next contract to watch for in the crusade of Running Backs Don’t Matter. Latavius Murray is capable of getting the job done. The line is also still good and Jared Cook is a solid tight end. The offense should still be one of the best as long as Brees doesn’t fall off a cliff. He was red hot going into that disappointing playoff performance last year. It wasn’t like the end of 2018 where he seemed to be declining, which is why I was worried about 2019. Still, when that cliff comes it tends to come fast so we’ll be watching for that this year.

Not in love with the defense, but Cameron Jordan is still a beast and Marcus Davenport is developing nicely. Linebacker Demario Davis had a big season and safety Marcus Williams has really done a good job of shaking off the Stefon Diggs play in the playoffs to turn in some quality seasons.

There are a lot of marquee games on this team’s schedule, but there may be no bigger statement to make than on Sunday against Tampa Bay. The Saints have had some really bad Week 1 performances in recent years, including 2018 when Ryan Fitzpatrick passed for 418 yards in a 48-40 win for Tampa Bay in the Superdome. New Orleans can smash some of this Tampa Bay hype on Sunday with a commanding win. It’s also going to be in a game with no fans while the Week 9 rematch in Florida could have tens of thousands in attendance given that state’s whacky ways (and the general luck of these two quarterbacks). 

I’m very nervous about picking this team to go 13-3 for the third year in a row, but I like that the Saints won’t have to travel to face the Packers, 49ers, Chiefs, or Vikings. Hopefully we’ll get that Mahomes-Brees matchup in Week 15. So much can happen between now and December 20. If this is Brees’ swansong, it would be great to see the Saints in position for a deep run.

2. Tampa Bay Buccaneers (11-5)

Well, this should be quite the experiment with only one thing I’m certain of: the Buccaneers will throw fewer interceptions than the 30 they had last year.

Tom Brady is finally going to play an NFL game without Bill Belichick as his head coach, but he’s also 43 years old and coming off arguably his worst season. Bruce Arians is looking for his first winning season since 2015, but how much will he bend his offense to fit Brady’s style of play? Whether it was Ben Roethlisberger, Andrew Luck, Carson Palmer, or Jameis Winston, Arians loves to see his quarterbacks hold the ball, attack downfield, and take some hits in the process. That’s never been Brady’s style, so we’ll have to see who yields here. We unfortunately didn’t get a preseason to get any idea of what to expect either.

When these veteran quarterbacks switch teams this late in their careers, it’s usually going to work right away if it works at all. Think Joe Montana on the 1993 Chiefs, Brett Favre on the 2009 Vikings, and Peyton Manning on the 2012 Broncos (really their best team until Rahim Moore had other ideas). Time to grow and get better in 2021 really isn’t an option when your QB is 43. This is also Brady in the unfamiliar spot of being in a division with other quality quarterbacks, including his opponent this Sunday (Drew Brees), who has outplayed him the last few years.

Tampa Bay has been a historically prolific passing team the last two seasons, but the gluttony of interceptions from Jameis (and Ryan Fitzpatrick in 2018) was hard to overcome. Tampa Bay has passed for over 5,000 yards in each of the last two seasons, something Brady has done once in his career (2011). He really shouldn’t have to do that this year, but the team will have to be strong offensively to win games against the likes of the Saints, Falcons, Chiefs, and Vikings. Mostly all the tough non-division games are at home.

The Bucs allowed 28.1 PPG last year, but that’s misleading because of the seven interceptions Winston threw for touchdown returns. They actually ranked 20th in points per drive allowed and 8th in yards per drive. Beyond the pick-sixes, the 41 turnovers Tampa Bay had led to the defense having the worst starting field position in the league. This is easily the area Brady should improve the most. Even in such a down year, the 2019 Patriots had only 15 giveaways and never more than two in a game. This defense should appreciate that as it has veteran talent in Ndamukong Suh, Lavonte David, Jason Pierre-Paul, and Shaquil Barrett. If you want to feel old, Tampa drafted Antoine Winfield Jr. in the second round at safety.

Naturally, players wanted to come to Tampa Bay to play with Brady, but none may be more notable than Rob Gronkowski, who ended his retirement to reunite with his favorite QB in Florida. This is another mystery as to what we’re getting. When healthy, he’s the greatest TE in NFL history. But after a year off from football and the COVID offseason, we’ll just have to see how dominant he still can be. He’s really not even that necessary with Cameron Brate and O.J. Howard still there.

The strength of the offense is the starting wide receivers. Brady will love Chris Godwin in the slot, though he’s hardly a Welker/Edelman clone. He runs deeper routes, but Scott Miller could emerge as a highly-targeted third receiver. Mike Evans is very good, but he’s not a strong fit with Brady’s style of play. With Evans, you can just throw it up and let him use his size to get it. That’s why Godwin should continue to get the best numbers in Tampa Bay. At running back, LeSean McCoy and Leonard Fournette are tagging along, but the best bet is still with Ronald Jones. He hasn’t quite proven himself to be a receiving back the caliber of James White, but he’ll need to bring more of that this year and pass protect above all. They’ve invested into the offensive line with a first-round pick at right tackle (Tristan Wirfs), but it’s not like they have Dante Scarnecchia coaching the line anymore like Brady had in New England.

Also, it’s kind of humorous to see Brady go to Tampa Bay, a team notorious for horrible field goal kicking, especially in clutch situations. New England was always the best in that area. Ryan Succop is the latest kicker in Tampa Bay. At least Arians has a great record in close games (2-6 at 4QC/GWD last year though).

It’s not like Arians can’t coach. He won double-digit games his first three years in Arizona after a miracle run as the interim coach in Indianapolis in 2012. He’s a two-time Coach of the Year and even had an 11-win team that started Ryan Lindley and Drew Stanton in games. It’s just that the Patriots were always so well prepared and ahead of the opponent in so many facets, and that’s not something an old Brady brings with him to Tampa Bay. The offense should limit mistakes, but it’s hard to see why it should be more dynamic or explosive or as productive at moving the ball. I think a four-win improvement is more than fair, but this doesn’t feel like a team that was just a quarterback, let alone a 43-year-old one, away from the Super Bowl.

But if the Buccaneers do get to the Super Bowl, it’s in Tampa Bay this year, a homefield advantage no team has ever had before in the big game. If anyone was lucky enough to reap those benefits…

3. Atlanta Falcons (8-8)

With the Saints running away with the division and the additions in Tampa Bay, the Falcons are the forgotten team in the NFC South. There’s honestly not much to say about this team’s offseason. They waited until they were 1-7 last year before playing complementary football for a 6-2 finish. While the offense should be good, it’s not like bringing in Todd Gurley past his prime will get it back to the great 2016 level. Trust Ryan to get enough out of Hayden Hurst to offset the loss of Austin Hooper, though it is fair to say they’ve downgraded at tight end. Russell Gage came on as WR3 after the Mohamed Sanu trade last year. This corps has been deeper and more talented in the past, but Julio Jones and Calvin Ridley still give Atlanta one of the better top-two combos in the league at that position.

Defensively, the results should be better than what we’ve been seeing for years. The defensive line has solid players (Takk and Jarrett), and they’ve swapped out an underperforming Vic Beasley for Dante Fowler, who is coming off a career year. Deone Bucannon was a nice player in Arizona, but has been wandering the last couple of years. Keanu Neal has played four games in the last two seasons so he must stay healthy at safety. Cornerback Desmond Trufant is gone after a quick decline, replaced by first-round pick A.J. Terrell. It’s really the toughest division in the league to be a cornerback right now with all the wide receiver talent around.

This is Dan Quinn’s sixth season with Atlanta. The Saints and Buccaneers are in win-now mode with short windows. The future should be brighter for Atlanta, but if there isn’t any noticeable improvement this year, then Arthur Blank will have to think about finding the next coach to take advantage of that period where Brees and Brady are retired.

4. Carolina Panthers (4-12)

Can Christian McCaffrey touch the ball 500 times in a season? That seems to be the question I’m afraid rookie head coach Matt Rhule wants to answer after the team made CMC the highest-paid back in NFL history. McCaffrey is as good as any back in the NFL right now, but even with his 403 touches (including a RB-record 116 receptions) last year, this was a below-average offense and a 5-win team. The defense was even worse and has lost future HOF linebacker Luke Kuechly to early retirement.

This is not an easy opening act for Rhule, who had a losing record at Baylor, and new quarterback Teddy Bridgewater. The latter has a winning record (22-13) as a starter in this league, but he has limitations too. Bridgewater isn’t going to carry a bad defense when his best option is a pass 3 yards behind the line of scrimmage to CMC. Make no mistake — he’ll take that throw often too as he is not a big fan of throwing deep, which is why the addition of Robby Anderson didn’t make a ton of sense for the Panthers. D.J. Moore is a solid option as the No. 1 wideout, but there’s not much to speak of at tight end. Bridgewater will find out quickly he’s not in New Orleans with Sean Payton and company anymore.

As amusing as it would be to see Bridgewater shock the world and outplay Brees, Brady and Ryan in this division, it’s a safe bet to see Carolina as the worst team with the worst quarterback in the NFC South. If only they could clone CMC and mold him into a quarterback too…

AFC NORTH

1. Baltimore Ravens (13-3)

Kansas City’s Super Bowl run and Baltimore’s monumental choke job against the Titans obscured this: the 2019 Ravens own the largest scoring differential (+249) in NFL history for a team that failed to make it to a Conference Championship Game.

Beyond Lamar Jackson’s deserved MVP award, this team had a fantastic 14-2 season that was so consistent. The 2019 Ravens were the first NFL offense ever to average 200 yards passing and 200 yards rushing per game. The 2019 Ravens were the 11th team to score at least 20 points in all 16 regular season games before a season-low 12 points at home in the playoffs. That upset was something I detailed on here: dropped passes (a rarity in the regular season for Baltimore) on high-leverage third downs, a tipped interception, Tannehill’s bombs (just one set the tone), and a passing offense that wasn’t used to playing from behind as the Titans jumped out early.

When I went through the roster and schedule, I still found a lot to like about this team. What happens this year? Expect the offense to regress: fewer points, a running game that’s still great but not setting records for rushing yards, and the retirement of right guard Marshal Yanda hurts the line. With that said, the offense should still be one of the best in the league and come away better equipped to win the games they lost last year. That starts with Jackson continuing to progress as a passer and rely less on the run. I’ll say it every year: his historic usage rate of running makes him a high injury risk. Russell Wilson is an outlier, but running quarterbacks historically have been prone to significant injuries. A QB rushing for 1,206 yards in an NFL season is insane, but for Jackson’s best long-term prospects, he’ll never do that again. Tight end Mark Andrews was the only Raven to surpass 600 receiving yards, so it would be good to see Marquise Brown run more routes and emerge as a true No. 1 in his second season.

It’s too bad Earl Thomas didn’t work out for more than one year with the team, but there’s still plenty of talent throughout the defense. The pass rush last year actually could have used more help around Matt Judon, so the additions of Derek Wolfe and Calais Campbell to the line should do the trick. This feels like a good mixture of veterans and young players for a unit that is more than capable of winning a championship. Plus the Ravens still have one of the best coaches (John Harbaugh) and the best kicker (Justin Tucker) in the NFL.

If you didn’t read the Kansas City preview, then you must know my pick for the Game of the Year is Week 3 MNF: Chiefs at Ravens. That’s the one to circle for this team. The Chiefs have gotten the best of Baltimore two years in a row, and this could easily be the game that determines the all-important top seed this year. It would be a big boost for the Ravens to get that win with Jackson outplaying Mahomes. Then we’ll just have to see about a rematch, because these two teams certainly feel ahead of the pack in the AFC, if not the whole NFL.

2. Pittsburgh Steelers (10-6)

I’ve never been shy to criticize Mike Tomlin, but I have to give him some props last year for going 8-8 with half a team. Now the Steelers missed the playoffs after an 8-5 start because they couldn’t score more than 10 points in the last three weeks, but could you blame them with the offense they fielded? It was Pittsburgh’s worst in at least 30 years, and it was mostly injury related — aside from opening night when Donte Moncrief played horribly — with Ben Roethlisberger suffering the most significant injury of his career.

Roethlisberger is back with what should be the best defense (one overflowing with first-round picks) he’s had in a long time, but he’s also 38, coming off that serious injury, and the skill players may still rank near the bottom of the list of groups he’s had in his 17 years. If Roethlisberger returns to his usual level of play, then the Steelers have to be in the mix for that top wild card. It feels like people are sleeping on this team after twice missing the playoffs, but keep in mind something about 2018 when Roethlisberger last played a full year: the Steelers were a couple field goals and a dropped interception against the Chargers away from being the No. 2 seed. Last year, despite not having Roethlisberger, they lost to the Seahawks, 49ers and Ravens by a combined nine points. Those were three of the best teams in the league and the Steelers were right there with them with Mason Rudolph and Duck Hodges at QB. This team just needed an average quarterback last season and it could have done some damage in the postseason.

That’s why it’s good that Roethlisberger shouldn’t have to return to his best form to get this team back in the playoffs. His return makes JuJu Smith-Schuster relevant again. Diontae Johnson impressed at times as a rookie. James Washington actually led the team in receiving yards last year, and the additions of second-round rookie Chase Claypool and tight end Eric Ebron should help. The offensive line is experienced and should still be an above-average unit. With none of these receivers approaching Antonio Brown’s talent, the days of this offense piling up yards like 2014-18 are likely over, but the offense can still be good while the defense can be great.

The first six games and the last five games also look like very favorable stretches. That’s good enough to win 10 games in my book.

3. Cleveland Browns (6-10)

Yep, they had me last year. Should have known better that the Browns would lose 10 games before they’d win 10 games, so I’m not falling for them again until they prove things have changed.

The coach has changed again. Kevin Stefanski is far from my favorite hire, but he should do a better job than Freddie Kitchens. It’s just that the Ravens are clearly superior and the Steelers have a better defense, winning coach, and a future HOF QB returning. That should be enough to slide the Browns into third place, and things could get even worse if Joe Burrow is the real deal in Cincinnati while Baker Mayfield (allegedly) ponders his next tinted-window trip to the Cheesecake Factory.

Alright, that was a low blow, or maybe there was never a blow at all, but fact is Mayfield must play much better in his third season. Not all of the 21 interceptions were his fault, but he wasn’t accurate enough when throwing to his top wideouts, and something is wrong with your offense if Jarvis Landry is producing better numbers than Odell Beckham. They were the only two to break 300 receiving yards last year, but help has arrived for Mayfield. He now has Austin Hooper at tight end, a first-round left tackle, and Jack Conklin comes over from the Titans to play right tackle. Kareem Hunt won’t be suspended for a large chunk of the season like last year, and Nick Chubb could win the rushing title if this team actually plays well enough to hold leads.

Several of these recaps describe poor situations for quarterbacks, but this is not one of them. Mayfield must live up to his draft status and a rookie season that was at least promising.

Defensively, Myles Garrett is a stud and disruptive force, but we’ll have to see if anyone else (Olivier Vernon?) steps up to give them a strong, second pass-rushing option. Once you get past the defensive line the back of the defense is very young and still developing. With Garrett’s huge extension not kicking in yet, this is the third-cheapest defense in the league ($33M) according to Over the Cap. The secondary has significant draft capital, but Denzel Ward and Greedy Williams haven’t hit a high level of play yet while safety Karl Joseph wasn’t worthy enough of a second contract with the Raiders.

It’s high time someone steps up and leads in Cleveland, whether it’s the new coach, the quarterback with everything he needs around him, or if Garrett — I don’t think he’ll be swinging helmets at anyone again — reaches J.J. Watt’s level with a dominant season. But until we see it actually happen, count me out on the Browns.

4. Cincinnati Bengals (4-12)

This one is obvious, right? Joe Burrow is going from a stacked LSU team to a Cincinnati team that needs some serious retooling. The offensive line looks suspect and the best players on the defense have been there a decade already (Geno Atkins and Carlos Dunlap).

Burrow is easy to root for though. He just had arguably the most impressive single-season by a QB in NCAA history. It’s worrisome that he didn’t do much at all in college before that one year, but the season was so spectacular and consistent that he earned the top pick in the draft and will hopefully provide the Bengals with a higher level of QB play than Andy Dalton ever did. It’s just not likely to happen this year, though it should be fun to see him throw to A.J. Green after a year wiped out by injury. Tyler Boyd is a 1,000-yard receiver too and they drafted Tee Higgins in the second round so the cupboard isn’t exactly bare. It just would suck to have a teammate like RT Bobby Hart for multiple reasons.

Look for the Bengals to win a few games, Burrow to turn some heads, and then they’ll draft in the trenches early and often in 2021.

NFC NORTH

1. Minnesota Vikings (12-4)

On the surface I’m not that in love with this Minnesota roster, but wins just kept adding up when I went through the schedules. An accurate quarterback, good weapons and a strong defense should make for a good season, and the shocking playoff win at New Orleans should also be a boost to their confidence. You’ll also see below that I have the Packers declining, which is where the Vikings should be able to make up ground after getting swept in 2019 by their rival.

Some might think the loss of Stefon Diggs will make the offense take a step back. The most ideal situation is to have Adam Thielen and Diggs together, but it’s not like the offense should collapse with only one of them. In fact, we saw this last year when Thielen, who was the superior player in 2017-18, missed six games and was largely ineffective in several more after his injury. He played very well in the playoff win at New Orleans. As long as he’s healthy the Vikings have a legit No. 1 option and also drafted Justin Jefferson in the first round to go with Kyle Rudolph and Dalvin Cook at the skill positions. They have enough weapons.

Losing Everson Griffen could have been a big blow to the defensive line, but the Vikings traded for Yannick Ngakoue late in the offseason. Problem solved. He’ll keep the bookend duo of edge rushers going with Danielle Hunter coming off a big year. The secondary cut bait with Xavier Rhodes after a horrible year, so the first-round addition of Jeff Gladney should be a plus. They still have Harrison Smith at safety and a good group of linebackers. It was generally the offense that let the team down in losses in 2019.

Predicting a Kirk Cousins team to stray four games north of .500 may be bold, but he looked really good last year, especially when he wasn’t playing Green Bay. He had a better season than Aaron Rodgers did, so it’s in my nature to trust the team in the division with the best quarterback and defense.

2. Green Bay Packers (9-7)

If I had to list 13-win teams that felt most fraudulent to me, the 2019 Packers would rank fairly high on such a list. Under new coach Matt LaFleur, this was not a return to PAR (Peak Aaron Rodgers) by any means. The offense remained mediocre, proving not every problem was on former coach Mike McCarthy. The typical Green Bay game in 2019 saw the Packers jump out to a decent lead, finish with 20-28 points, and hang on for dear life with the defense closing things out.

The Packers were 10-1 in close games with eight defensive holds of a one-score lead and zero blown leads. Do you smell the regression? They twice barely squeaked by the 3-win Lions, who should have Matthew Stafford healthy this year. They beat the Chiefs in Arrowhead without Patrick Mahomes. They were waxed twice by the 49ers in San Francisco. Green Bay’s biggest accomplishment last year was sweeping division rival Minnesota in low-scoring games, essentially all the difference in the NFC North.

While Davante Adams and Aaron Jones are nice players, it’s hard to see how Rodgers gets back to his old ways (last seen consistently in 2014) when the team didn’t draft any wide receivers, have Marcedes Lewis replacing Jimmy Graham at TE1, and their “big” free agent signing was Devin Funchess (already on IR). Oh, and the first-round pick was used on QB Jordan Love, the likely replacement for Rodgers in 2022 or thereabout. Green Bay also used second and third-round picks on a backup runner and tight end. So it’s hard to see how the offense gets better this season.

Defensively, they may be just solid enough. The Smiths (Za’Darius and Preston) played about as well as possible in their team debuts with 25.5 sacks between them. Jaire Alexander and Darnell Savage will have to start looking like first-round picks in the secondary this year, or it’s hard not to see this team get outscored when it travels to Minnesota, New Orleans, Tampa Bay, Houston, San Francisco and maybe even Indy if Philip Rivers plays well this year. That’s a tough road schedule, not to mention hosting the Eagles and Titans this year.

Add it all together and the Packers are probably my most confident pick for a team to regress from 2019.

3. Detroit Lions (7-9)

Head coach Matt Patricia has to be on the hot seat as he enters his third season with a 9-22-1 (.297) record. He gets a bit of a pass for last year after going 0-8 in the games that Matthew Stafford didn’t start, but the defense was still terrible and the Lions blew a league-high six leads in the fourth quarter. Even with CB Darius Slay (now gone), teams threw the ball at will on the Lions in 2019, and it’s hard to see veteran Desmond Trufant and first-round rookie Jeff Okudah compensating for a front seven filled with New England castaways. The Detroit defense has not snagged multiple interceptions in any of Patricia’s 32 games, the second-longest streak in the NFL since 1950 (2003-06 Raiders, 40 games).

The onus again falls back on Stafford, who arguably was playing his best ball with a more vertical approach in 2019. The wide receivers are still a good trio, but the right side of the offensive line is a question mark, RB Kerryon Johnson is the latest Lion back to struggle with health, and tight end T.J. Hockenson, the No. 8 pick in 2019, really did nothing last year after an excellent Week 1 performance in Arizona. So you can see some room for growth if everyone stays healthy and Hockenson progresses, but this is still not a top-tier offense.

A healthy Stafford makes the Lions competitive once again, but competitiveness wasn’t an issue last year for a team that played 15 close games. They just happened to lose 11 of them and tie one more. The usual deficiencies in Detroit still seem to be there and that’s what will ultimately make this another non-playoff season that should mark the end of the Patricia experiment.

4. Chicago Bears (6-10)

It appears Mitchell Trubisky has retained his starting QB job in Chicago, but that leash could be short this season given the history (and cost involved) of Nick Foles coming off the bench. Trubisky would likely be done already if he was a turnover machine, but he avoids that by scrambling instead of forcing more throws. However, his scrambling was half as effective in 2019 as it was in the 2018 playoff year. The problem last year was that Trubisky simply isn’t good enough to move an offense that has a failed running game. Of course, you wouldn’t think that if you only tuned into the Week 14 Thursday Night Football win over Dallas when Joe Buck hyped up one of the easiest TD passes of the year:

That highlighted a three-game winning streak for the Bears, but if that’s what kept Trubisky as the starter, then the miserable losses to the Packers and Chiefs the following weeks should be just as important. The Bears finished 8-8 after a late game-winning drive in Week 17 against Minnesota’s backups.

Trubisky is 3-11 when the Bears allow more than 20 points. He needs that unit to keep the score down to succeed, and fortunately it is still a talented group, led by Khalil Mack. This defense is absolutely good enough to win a Super Bowl, but it’s hard to even predict the playoffs barring a real improvement in QB play. I wanted to find a few more wins on Chicago’s 2020 schedule, but it just wasn’t happening. The offensive line and backfield still don’t inspire much confidence, and while Allen Robinson is very good, the additions of washed up Jimmy Graham (why?) and inconsistent veteran Ted Ginn don’t exactly fire me up to predict the best is yet to come for Mitch.

Now if Foles has to save the season after the Week 11 bye, then this team could be intriguing again.

PLAYOFFS

AFC

  • 1. Kansas City (13-3)
  • 2. Baltimore (13-3)
  • 3. New England (10-6)
  • 4. Houston (9-7)
  • 5. Pittsburgh (10-6)
  • 6. Tennessee (9-7)
  • 7. Buffalo (9-7)

Nothing could christen the No. 7 seed on Wild Card Saturday like Josh Allen looking for someone to lateral to in Baltimore. Lamar will get his first playoff win there. The Titans upset the Patriots for the second year in a row at home while Houston knocks out Pittsburgh to set up an interesting second round. The Chiefs beat the Titans again while Baltimore gets past Houston, setting up the AFC Championship Game we thought we deserved last year between the Chiefs and Ravens. I’m sticking with the Chiefs in that matchup.

NFC

  • 1. New Orleans (13-3)
  • 2. Minnesota (12-4)
  • 3. Dallas (12-4)
  • 4. Seattle (11-5)
  • 5. Tampa Bay (11-5)
  • 6. San Francisco (9-7)
  • 7. Philadelphia (9-7)

Once I had to go past three tie-breakers to figure out which two of my four 9-7 teams got in, I have to admit I just made some assumptions and created this list. San Francisco was definitely in, but Philadelphia is less than clear, which still sounds accurate about their prospects this season. Anyways, the Vikings make short order the Eagles, Dallas takes out the 49ers, and Russell Wilson gets some payback on Brady with a big playoff win. The Saints take care of Seattle a week later while Dallas gets the best of Minnesota on the road to reach that elusive NFC Championship Game. I hate to do it, but the Saints find another way to crumble in the playoffs and the Cowboys advance to the Super Bowl to the chagrin of many.

SUPER BOWL LV

Kansas City 30, Dallas 24

Wipe that smile off Jerry Jones’ face as the Chiefs come through to give us a repeat champion for the first time since the 2003-04 Patriots.

TL;DR version: Get used to your new football overlords from Kansas City, but don’t discount Dak Prescott spoiling things.

Super Bowl LIV Preview

After a few memorable upsets this postseason, in the end I think the NFL is getting the best matchup possible for Super Bowl LIV. The 49ers were the most complete team and best defense in the NFC, lost three games in the final seconds, won arguably the game of the year (48-46 in New Orleans), and now we get to see if they complete this remarkable turnaround from 4-12 a year ago. Meanwhile, the Chiefs have overcome so much this season from Tyreek Hill’s on-and-off-the-field problems, a scary dislocated kneecap for Patrick Mahomes, a 6-4 start, a surprise first-round bye gift from Miami, and they’ve erased deficits of 24-0 and 10-0 in the playoffs to earn their first trip to the Super Bowl since the merger.

We have the best player in football against the best defense he could face in the Super Bowl. The Chiefs are favored by 1.5 points with a total of 54.5 points, so a classic thriller could be in the works here. This would actually be the fourth-smallest spread in Super Bowl history, and the other three games of 0-1 points were decided by 4-7 points. Don’t get too excited though because the 1983 Redskins were a 2-point favorite against the Raiders and lost 38-9. The under is 6-5 when the total exceeds 50, including last year’s 13-3 dud when the total was 55.5.

I doubt we’ll be calling this one a dud on Monday, but crazier things have happened.

The Last Time

You rarely get much recent history in these Super Bowl matchups. That’s why the most famous game between these teams was probably in 1994 when Joe Montana led his Chiefs to a win over Steve Young’s 49ers. San Francisco still went on to win the Super Bowl, the last time the 49ers were champions.

These teams actually met at Arrowhead in Week 3 last year. Mahomes led five straight touchdown drives to open up a 35-10 lead before winning 38-27. Jimmy Garoppolo tore his ACL late in that game and it remains the only time he’s lost a start by more than 8 points in his NFL career.

The game doesn’t have any real value for this Super Bowl, but it did provide us with an early highlight for Mahomes on this touchdown pass:

Slow Start Shouldn’t Lead to Blowout

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. I think we saw that in the college game this year with Joe Burrow and LSU still lighting up undefeated Clemson’s No. 1 scoring defense, and Mahomes and the Chiefs are certainly not your typical NFL offense. The strength of the San Francisco defense is also in the line’s pass rush rather than the secondary. Sure, Richard Sherman is on the field, but that’s not the Legion of Boom going up against this track-star collection of receivers for Kansas City.

I don’t think a slow start is a death sentence for either team in this game. The Chiefs fell behind 24-0 in the divisional round to Houston and still won 51-31. They were down 10-0 to the Titans in the AFC Championship Game and still won 35-24. Earlier this season, they trailed 10-0 to Oakland before scoring four touchdowns in the second quarter. They turned a 10-0 deficit in Detroit into a 34-30 win. It would not be ideal to fall behind to this San Francisco team like that, but the Chiefs can score in bunches, wouldn’t have to adjust much from a pass-heavy game plan, and they’re really never out of a game with Mahomes.

In fact, the Chiefs have now gone 44 straight games without losing by more than 7 points, the third-longest streak in NFL history. The team with the next-longest active streak is actually San Francisco for all 18 games this year. The 49ers were the league’s last unbeaten, dropping a 27-24 game in overtime to Seattle after missing a game-winning field goal. The 49ers also lost on a last-second field goal, 20-17, in Baltimore in Week 13. Their only other loss was blowing a 9-point fourth-quarter lead to Atlanta with five seconds left in a 29-22 finish.

Garoppolo led a 16-point comeback against Arizona, which was one of his four comeback wins in the fourth quarter this season. He’s actually 7-3 at fourth-quarter comeback opportunities in his career, the best record among active starters (min. 10 opportunities). It’s the inverse of Mahomes’ record (3-7), but I made a thread back in November to show that he’s been great in those situations:

We haven’t seen another comeback opportunity for Mahomes since because Kansas City has trailed in the second half for a grand total of 16 seconds during this eight-game winning streak. There could be some interesting scoring runs in this game, but I think both teams are capable of a comeback should they need it.

The Game in a Nutshell

You’ve been fed some appetizer stats, but let’s not overanalyze this one. The 49ers are similar to the matchup the Chiefs just had with the Titans, except they’re better in essentially every area. Tennessee was a good warm-up for the Chiefs, but they’ll have to play even better in this game, which I think comes down to the following:

Can Kansas City overcome San Francisco’s pass rush to put up its usual scoring output, forcing the 49ers into a track meet that demands more from Jimmy Garoppolo, or can the 49ers just play strong defense and keep-away offense to limit Mahomes?

That’s the game to me. I don’t think Patrick Mahomes was put on this earth to play in a Super Bowl that ends 13-3. He’s lost one “defensive struggle” in his career (19-13 to Colts) and that was on a night where his health failed him multiple times. There are going to be several touchdown drives in this game. We know Mahomes basically walks into the building with 23 points on the board, but don’t forget that the 49ers finished second in points this year at 29.9 per game. They even finished ahead of the Chiefs, though not on a per-drive basis and Mahomes did miss about 2.75 games this season for injury. Still, the 49ers are very formidable with scoring and have done so this postseason despite Garoppolo throwing 27 passes in two games.

These offenses couldn’t be any more stylistically different in the playoffs with the run and the pass. Mahomes has even led his team in rushing in both playoff games. Kansas City’s offense remaining incredibly hot in the playoffs led to the Titans dumping the run game in the fourth quarter. I said in that AFC preview that Ryan Tannehill was going to need to play more like he did in the regular season to win that game. The same can be said about Garoppolo in this one, who will need to throw for 250 yards at the very least. I thought he looked like he was pressing in that big game against Seattle on Monday night, but he was also instantly sharp in the duel with Drew Brees in New Orleans. So we probably will get a good sense early how well he’s going to play as the 49ers will look to use play-action on early downs to get chunk plays. Garoppolo rarely throws deep, but when he does it’s usually successful and with purpose. The Chiefs do more improvising to get big plays while Kyle Shanahan has to really dial them up for his offense.

Another part of my AFC preview I wanted to stress was that it is actually very important to have a strong running performance to beat Mahomes. That allows you to wear down the clock and limit his possessions, making any mistakes by the Chiefs that more harmful. The 49ers just had the best rushing performance in a Conference Championship Game in NFL history against Packers. That’s not hyperbole; the 285 yards and 6.79 yards per carry are the highest among the 200 teams to play in that round since 1970. The 285 yards are also more than any of the 106 teams to play in a Super Bowl ever had.

I don’t think the Chiefs should stack the box to make Garoppolo beat them. They didn’t stack the box much to stop Derrick Henry and the Titans as Nate Weller showed here:

Overplaying the run could just make those play-action throws to Emmanuel Sanders and company even easier for Jimmy. I think the Chiefs should expect the 49ers to play a more honest game and get the passing game more involved. At least the Chiefs will hope it’s that kind of game, because their worst nightmare is for the 49ers to gash them with a speedy run game that is more varied than what the Titans had with Henry’s downhill running. Raheem Mostert is a great story and coming off that incredible game, but the 49ers also have had success with Tevin Coleman and Matt Breida this year. Also, check out these numbers from Next Gen Stats that show the 49ers as the best rushing offense from I-formation while the Chiefs are the worst defense against it (albeit only facing it on 12% of runs).

It’s easier to just line up in the I and run it if you’re ahead rather than trailing Mahomes by double digits like so many teams have. So if the 49ers are running at will and shrinking the game on Mahomes, then it’s going to be a very tough one for Kansas City to prevail. That’s why the offense cannot afford so many slip-ups as it’s had at times this year with dropped passes, fumbles and stupid penalties.

The 49ers had the third-best sack rate (9.25%) on defense this year and that was even despite a stretch of the season where they couldn’t get pressure. They’re healthy now and Nick Bosa probably wants that Trump White House visit more than any athlete in history, so he’s a handful for the Chiefs this week. Also, I’m not sure if this is a Dee Ford revenge game or a Chiefs revenge game for his costly offside penalty in last year’s title game. Either way these teams should have their key pass-rushers healthy with Chris Jones back for the Chiefs. It could come down to which one of those guys forces a strip-sack in this one.

Patrick Mahomes: No Weaknesses?

Let’s dig in a bit more on this Kansas City offense since Mahomes is the superstar with the most weight on his shoulders this week.

Mahomes has played in 35 NFL games, but try answering this: what is his weakness?

Mahomes runs out of time more than he actively loses games. I don’t think he has a weakness, and his biggest enemy is the clock or his own teammates. The latter has certainly been the case this postseason where almost every single Kansas City drive has resulted in a touchdown, a dropped third-down pass that would have extended the drive, or they were just trying to run out the clock. It’s been incredible to watch, but obviously the caliber of defense and stakes are higher this week.

Also, we have seen plenty of offenses and quarterbacks look amazing for two playoff games, but sustaining it for a third week is quite hard. Think of the 1990 Bills slowing down against the Giants since they couldn’t get 20 minutes with the ball. A non-Super Bowl example would be the 2003 Colts imploding in Foxboro when Peyton Manning had a terrible game after he demolished the Broncos and Chiefs. Another great example would be the 2016 Falcons where Matt Ryan continued his MVP season through Seattle and Green Bay, but let’s not forget that offense only scored 21 points in the Super Bowl before blowing a 28-3 lead. Oddly enough, all three examples I used involved a hot offense going against a Bill Belichick-coached defense. I don’t think defensive coordinator Robert Saleh is the next Belichick, but the 49ers are definitely better than the Texans and Titans were. Another fact to keep in mind: only the 1994 49ers have ever had three games in a single postseason with at least 35 points scored, and that wouldn’t have happened without a pick-six to start the scoring against Dallas.

But back to Mahomes, where is the weakness? He is a smart, accurate passer who can throw deep, intermediate and short while making very good decisions. The Chiefs are also one of the best teams in the league with the screen game. Mahomes doesn’t take many sacks and he still averages 28.9 PPG when he takes at least three sacks. Mahomes rarely turns the ball over. Even when he had five giveaways against the 2018 Rams, he threw six touchdowns and the Chiefs scored 51 points. Mahomes can improvise with the best of them. He has four games this year with more than 50 rushing yards as he’s been feeling healthy. Mahomes has played in four playoff games. He has zero turnovers and has led his team to at least 31 points in all of them. This will be his first playoff game away from Arrowhead, but the game is being played in Miami, not Middle-earth, so I think he’ll be fine. His career road splits are even better than his home splits.

Whether a defense plays primarily man or (like the 49ers) zone coverage, Mahomes eats up both. Blitzing Mahomes is very risky as you can see in this breakdown from NFL Research:

One thing Mahomes hasn’t done much of this postseason is throw deep. We know he’s great at getting the ball 20+ yards down the field, but the 49ers have had a great year at defending deep passes too:

As a defense, you basically have to hope for those third-down drops or a holding penalty or a RB fumble or Andy Reid calling two-to-three straight runs. Mahomes just finds a way to put up numbers in every situation as long as he’s healthy. I put together this table on his eight losses and what happened in those games:

PatL

You can really see how the clock and not getting the ball hurt here. In four of his last five failed comebacks, Mahomes only had one possession with a one-score deficit late in the game. Seattle and Indy were the only teams to deny Mahomes a fourth-quarter lead. That Indy loss sticks out like a sore thumb as it was the only non-playoff team to beat Mahomes so far. It’s also the only time a quarterback (Jacoby Brissett) beat Mahomes without throwing for 270 yards or scoring at least 29 points. As I showed on Twitter, Mahomes’ stats in losses make him “The Best Loser” in NFL history:

It would be very surprising and disappointing to see Mahomes have a bad game on Sunday. As a counterpoint, the 49ers may be the best defense Mahomes has seen in the NFL, or at least the best front seven. A very pass-happy game plan against this front could be problematic if the protection is getting beat. The 49ers held five teams to 100 net passing yards this year, the first defense to do that since the 2000 Titans. The 49ers embarrassed Kirk Cousins and the Vikings in the divisional round and did the same to Aaron Rodgers and Green Bay for a half in the playoffs. As a counter to the counter, Drew Brees and Kyler Murray had strong games against the 49ers, so they didn’t shut every QB down. Jared Goff and Russell Wilson also saw better results in their second matchup with them later in the season.

Mahomes is better than anyone right now, but he’s going to have to be great in this game.

Two Quarterbacks, Two Historic Starts: The Jimmy G Angle

Mahomes isn’t the only quarterback in this game off to a historic start in his career. I wrote for SF Weekly about Jimmy Garoppolo and how he stacks up to Mahomes (and Otto Graham). So please read that for more on Garoppolo, who can certainly put up enough points to win this one against Mahomes.

Speed Kills

The 49ers and Chiefs led the league in YAC per reception this season. Super Bowl teams will often give the league something to think about as a trend going forward in an effort to emulate their success. We’ve seen it before with the 2011 Patriots’ offensive approach of using two tight ends, or the deep defensive line/edge rotations the 2013 Seahawks and 2017 Eagles utilized.

I think 2020’s trend will be about speed as the Chiefs and 49ers feature the two fastest offenses based on Next Gen Stats’ average top speed by ball carriers:

The Ravens and Vikings weren’t far behind either after successful seasons on offense. More speed sounds great, but you don’t want to find yourself in practice watching Darrius Heyward-Bey lined up against Fabian Washington. You need more than just a great 40 time to make this work. Tyreek Hill is super fast, but he can also cut on a dime and looks like a video game player on the field. Mecole Hardman isn’t far behind in that regard, so it was a smart move by the Chiefs to draft him. I also really like the Deebo Samuel pick for the 49ers, but beyond the individual talent I think the scheme plays a big part in these numbers too. These offenses can create a lot of spacing with play-action and boot-action and get players in the open field where they can turn on the jets.

Raheem Mostert just had perhaps the greatest rushing performance in playoff history and he was barely touched until he was several yards past the line of scrimmage most of his plays. Is he suddenly the best speed back in the NFL, or is this happening because of the system he’s running in right now? When it comes to running backs, I think we know the answer there.

Both of these offenses are among the top in using shifts/motions before the snap, which is where that speed can really come into use:

No pun intended, but this is slowly becoming a bigger trend in the NFL with the league average rate climbing from 38% in 2014 to 47% this past season. You can see from that graphic how Kyle Shanahan has been a huge proponent of this style while Andy Reid has added a lot more to it with the Mahomes-led track-star offense they have now.

One of the more interesting speed matchups in this game to me is if the Chiefs can get Hill or Hardman deep against the bigger, but older and slower Richard Sherman. We know Sherman isn’t likely to shadow anyone, but that’s where the motion can come in handy.

The speed on the field should help this be a higher-scoring game, but I think it would be naïve if NFL teams start thinking they could just find athletes like this and replicate what these teams do.

The Coaches: Redemption Arc

Andy Reid and Kyle Shanahan are two of the game’s best offensive minds. They have both lost a Super Bowl before and are looking for their first championship win as a head coach. With the Eagles, Reid was criticized for his usual clock management issues and passing too much in Super Bowl 39 against the Patriots. As Atlanta’s offensive coordinator, Shanahan was part of the 28-3 collapse to the Patriots in Super Bowl LI. The main points of contention were not calling a run on 3rd-and-1 with a 28-12 lead and not just calling runs to kick a field goal to go up 11 after Julio Jones’ great catch.

Have they learned from past mistakes? In Reid’s case, he was actually ahead of the curve on being pass happy, but he didn’t have a quarterback to justify that until he matched up with Mahomes. Having said that, if this is a game where Mahomes has 50-60 dropbacks and the running game has like 12 carries for 40 yards, there’s probably going to be a sixth trophy in San Francisco. You can ignore the run in home playoff games against defenses the caliber of Houston and Tennessee, but going that pass-happy against the 49ers on a neutral field is unlikely to pay off. So that will be interesting to watch.

For Shanahan, he’s continued to run the ball this postseason because it’s worked beautifully and the score hasn’t dictated a need to throw. Garoppolo has thrown just 12 passes since he was picked off in the Minnesota game. Maybe some see this as hiding a weakness, but I think the 49ers could use it to their benefit as the game tape from the postseason just doesn’t show much from their passing game.

Either way, this newest champion will adhere to my five-year rule about coaches and quarterbacks winning their first Super Bowl together. Reid and Shanahan linked up with their quarterbacks in 2017, so this is their third season together. But for Reid in particular, this would be a historic Super Bowl win.

Of the 32 head coaches to win at least one Super Bowl, 28 of them won their first championship within the first five seasons with that team. Only Chuck Noll (six years in Pittsburgh), John Madden (eight years in Oakland), Tom Landry (12 years in Dallas) and Bill Cowher (14 years in Pittsburgh) needed more than five years to capture that elusive first ring. Reid is in his seventh season with the Chiefs, but it’s his 21st season as a head coach in the NFL. That would beat Cowher’s record wait by seven years.

A win would all but make the Hall of Fame a lock for Reid. He might still get there with a loss too, but one shouldn’t assume he’ll have an opportunity better than this. Mahomes is a difference maker, but Reid is 61 and things change quickly in this league. I’m sure people said similar things about Don Shula and Dan Marino in Miami 35 years ago, but they never returned to another Super Bowl after losing to the 49ers. People tried to make a dynasty out of Drew Brees and Sean Payton in New Orleans after one Super Bowl, but they have never made it back. The same people jumped ship to the Packers and Aaron Rodgers a year later, but they too have never made it back. The AFC has been easier to sustain success, but you just never know.

Kittle vs. Kelce

George Kittle and Travis Kelce are the two best tight ends in this post-Gronk NFL. I’m not going to let what happens in this game decide who is the best, but you know some people will do that. Personally, I think both players are in the best offense for their skills. If you want a pass-happy offense where the tight end runs more vertical routes, Kelce is the guy to line up as a receiver. If you want a more balanced offense with a tight end to block and play on the line more, then Kittle is the guy. I also think Kittle is more dangerous after the catch, but Kelce is no slouch there either.

Both players are a treat to watch and I wouldn’t mind seeing a game where they both go off for over 100 yards. Just keep in mind that the 49ers allowed the fewest yards (552) to tight ends in the regular season while the Chiefs allowed the fifth most (961) according to Pro Football Reference.

Turnovers

Including the playoffs, the Chiefs (+8) and 49ers (+7) are in the top 10 in turnover differential for 2019, but neither is dominating the stat. Garoppolo is more likely to turn it over and take sacks than Mahomes. Garoppolo sometimes misses linebackers and that accounts for some of his worst interceptions. The running backs have a bad habit of fumbling for the Chiefs, which were crucial in the team’s losses this year.

Defensively, both teams are near the lower end of the top 10 in takeaways per drive. So they both can take the ball away, but the 49ers have relied more on fumble recoveries while the Chiefs are more likely to get interceptions. That plays into each offense’s ball security weakness. The only two turnovers in Kansas City’s postseason run were both on special teams in the Houston game.

I had to bring this up because you know practically every championship run is keyed by a turnover in the playoffs. These teams haven’t really had to play dramatic fourth quarters the last two games, but Sunday could be the time when someone becomes a hero for one of these teams.

Third Down

We know anything can happen in one game, but season trends on third down also suggest this could be a track meet with two of the five best offenses in the league at extending drives. The Chiefs (47.6%) led the NFL in third-down conversion rate and the 49ers were fifth at 45.0%. The 49ers were the second-stingiest defense on third down, allowing a conversion one third of the time while the Chiefs were a respectable 12th (37.1%).

Garoppolo actually led the league this year with the highest rate of first downs (50%) on third-down passes. He wasn’t feasting on third-and-shorts either. Garoppolo was second on 3rd-and-8+ situations at 36.8%. Garoppolo famously converted a pair of 3rd-and-16 plays on a game-winning drive against the Rams in December. Meanwhile, Mahomes was obviously no slouch on third down. He ranked second at converting (57.8%) to only Garoppolo (63.5%) on third-and-medium passes (3-7 yards) this year. Mahomes had three of the league’s seven touchdown passes on 3rd-and-16+ in 2019.

Neither offense has been particularly good on third-and-short (1-2 yards), but the 49ers are one of the four offenses this year that will run the ball at least two-thirds of the time there. The Chiefs are 24-20 in favor of the run, but we’ll see if they are fine with a quarterback sneak in the biggest game of their career. That was the play Mahomes dislocated his kneecap on in Denver, but it’s generally a safe play and still the most effective play from scrimmage in the game.

Red Zone

Would it surprise you to learn that the Chiefs (54.0%) and 49ers (53.2%) are ranked 20th and 21st in offensive red zone touchdown percentage this year? It hasn’t been an area of strength, though it hasn’t always mattered since the teams found other ways to score. Mahomes averaged 28.5 yards per touchdown pass this year, the highest average in the league (min.10 touchdown passes). The 49ers weren’t very good in the red zone, but they were great at getting drives to reach the red zone. Their 62 red zone drives trailed only Baltimore (64). San Francisco’s average offensive touchdown was 18.3 yards, good for fifth in the NFL.

The San Francisco defense obviously has a lot of gaudy statistics, but the red zone is not one of them. They allowed a touchdown 60% of the time, tied for 22nd in the NFL. The Chiefs allowed a touchdown just over half the time, tied for ninth.

Special Teams

I’d certainly prefer if this game was totally uneventful on special teams. The 49ers haven’t had a great season there, but they were 12th in DVOA and had their highest EPA (source: Pro Football Reference) on special teams against the Packers last time out. Meanwhile, the Chiefs were 2nd in DVOA this year, but just had two of their worst games of the season on special teams by EPA in the playoffs. They obviously still won both games after some redemption plays against Houston, but they can be hit or miss with their explosive returners.

I don’t know if I’d risk my life on Harrison Butker (Chiefs) or Robbie Gould (49ers) making a game-winning field goal, but if I had to, I’d feel better than I would if Mike Vanderjagt or Nate Kaeding was swinging the leg.

No punts please.

Prediction Time

After nearly 5,000 words I think it’s time to make my prediction. You rarely want to see a Super Bowl blowout, but this matchup especially is one I hope is very competitive and goes down to the wire. Neither team has really had a poor performance all year, so they’re always in the game. You can look at the 49ers and say they could easily be 17-1 if they made a field goal in overtime against Seattle and stopped Julio an inch shorter of the goal line. Conversely, they could have been 11-5 and the fifth seed in the regular season if they didn’t convert a fourth down in New Orleans and didn’t stop the Seahawks an inch short at the goal line in Week 17. The margin can be that thin in this game we obsess over every detail of.

There are a lot of areas that favor the 49ers, and I think historically the 49ers are the type of team more likely to win this game than a team like the Chiefs. There are just more ways for the 49ers to win while practically every positive outcome for Kansas City involves Mahomes playing really well. Then again, Mahomes is 9-0 in his career when his passer rating is under 90.0 because he’s the best at doing what the coach who succeeded Reid and preceded Shanahan used to say: f***ing score points.

Final: Chiefs 31, 49ers 27 (MVP: Patrick Mahomes)

2019 NFL Conference Championship Preview

The Chiefs are the odds-on favorite (43%) to win the Super Bowl and they are the only team to return to Championship Sunday from last year’s group. The Packers and 49ers are familiar faces in this round, but they are here after combining for 10 wins (plus one pesky tie) in 2018. The Titans had their usual 9-7 record, but they are halfway through a Super Bowl run that could be the most improbable ever. While this looks like a historically odd grouping, you’d only have to go back two seasons to find an odder one when the Eagles and Vikings competed for the Super Bowl a year removed from non-winning seasons and the Jaguars (with Blake Bortles) nearly pulled it off in New England.

These aren’t bad matchups, but I think impartial fans would agree that rematches of Chiefs-Ravens and Saints-49ers (or Seahawks-49ers III) would make for the best final four this season. But those teams didn’t deliver so here we are with only the fifth Championship Sunday since 1998 where both home teams are favored by at least 7.5 points. The good news (POV may vary) is that the last four times all featured one upset: 1998 Falcons over Vikings, 1999 Titans over Jaguars, 2001 Patriots over Steelers, and 2007 Giants over Packers. Two of those games went to overtime.

So don’t pencil in a Chiefs-49ers Super Bowl just yet, though that is the expected outcome. Home favorites of 7-plus points in the Conference Championship round are 29-6 (.829) straight up and 20-15 (.571) against the spread. But expectations and this year’s postseason haven’t gotten along well so far.

Before getting into each game, I want to share some historical stats on rematches in this round.

Conference Championship Rematches

The lack of rematches this postseason won’t continue this week with both games being a rematch from November. The Titans are the last team to beat Kansas City, doing so 35-32 in Week 10 at home. The 49ers crushed the Packers 37-8 on Sunday Night Football in Week 12. I’ll talk a lot about each game again, but you don’t have to be an NFL fan for long to know that every game is different and things can change drastically. While the Seahawks and Eagles played to two 17-9 finishes this year, you didn’t know Carson Wentz would leave injured in the first quarter or that Josh McCown would play on a torn hamstring. While the Texans scored 31 in Kansas City both times, you didn’t expect a 51-point onslaught from Mahomes and company after falling behind 24-0.

With that said, I want to share some rematch data from 1978-2018 on this round. Fans are no doubt going to be curious to know how much the venue change from Tennessee to Kansas City helps the Chiefs, or if the 49ers are going to smash the Packers again at home like they did in the regular season.

In instances where the teams were from the same division and meeting for a third time that year, I used only the most recent meeting as the first matchup.

CC_rematch

I thought it was interesting that the home team had the same record (37-19) in the last meeting and in the playoffs. In a case like San Francisco’s, they are hosting both games. That has happened 29 times and while those home teams were 24-5 (.828) in the first game, those 24 teams trying to pull off the sweep were only 14-10 (.583) in the title game. So the sweep happens just under half the time. Of course being the home team itself is beneficial in this round since it means you had a higher seed than the opponent.

For Kansas City’s situation, the venue switch from playing on the road to at home in the title game has been quite beneficial. Those teams were only 14-13 (.519) on the road in the regular season meeting, but 19-8 (.704) at home in the championship game. However, if you lost that first game on the road like Kansas City did, then it’s not as optimistic things will get better at home in the playoffs. Those teams were only 7-6 (.538) with the Super Bowl on the line, including last year’s Chiefs who lost 43-40 in New England and lost to the Patriots again at home 37-31 in overtime in the AFC Championship Game.

As for the spread, both home teams are favored by 7.5 this Sunday. In Tennessee, the Chiefs were a 5-point favorite and lost 35-32. In Week 12, the 49ers were 3-point favorites and smoked Green Bay 37-8 in a game that was over at halftime. Teams that are 7.5 point favorites in a rematch in the Conference Championship are 7-6 ATS and 10-3 SU. When the team was at least a 3-point favorite in both matchups, those teams are an impressive 19-10 ATS and 22-7 SU in the playoffs. When they were a 5-point favorite in both games like the Chiefs this year, they are 6-2 ATS and 7-1 SU.

That last line sounds great for Kansas City, but keep in mind the one loss was by Dan Marino’s Dolphins to the run-heavy, never-throw-the-ball Patriots in 1985, one of the most disappointing losses of Marino’s career. Everyone thought for sure he was headed back to another Super Bowl in his third season, so it’s the kind of fate that Mahomes will want to avoid this weekend. That game is a perfect segue into Titans-Chiefs.

Titans at Chiefs (-7.5)

We’re down to two games, so I’m going to break these down into sections to make sure I get all my points across succinctly.

Kansas City Sure Remembers the Titans

If not for a Ryan Fitzpatrick-led Miami comeback win in New England in Week 17, we would have had Titans at Chiefs on Wild Card weekend. What a shakeup that could have been to this postseason, because if any team has befuddled Andy Reid in his Kansas City tenure, it’s the Titans. Tennessee has won four straight against the Chiefs, including three games at Arrowhead. That includes a blown 10-point lead in the fourth quarter in 2016, a blown 21-3 halftime lead in the 2017 AFC Wild Card, and a blown 9-point lead in the fourth quarter this year in Tennessee (Week 10).

Only one of those games had Patrick Mahomes at quarterback for the Chiefs, but it’s also the last time KC lost this season. After already knocking off the Patriots in New England and the Ravens in Baltimore, the Titans are one more road upset away from completing quite arguably the toughest path to the Super Bowl in NFL history.

What if the Tennessee Defense Is Just Lucky?

The Chiefs faced the worst defense to make the playoffs in the Texans last week and scored 51 points. Tennessee is a tougher matchup, but I’m not convinced this defense is anything special or ready to shut down a healthy Mahomes at home. Kevin Byard is a very good safety, but none of the defensive backs on the Titans have had a particularly strong year in coverage. They don’t have a dominant pass rusher either. Harold Landry is fine and Jurrell Casey can make a play here and there, but there’s a pretty big drop off after those two. The only players to make the Pro Bowl on this Tennessee team were their running back and punter. Fitting.

The Titans are getting a lot of credit for allowing just 25 points on the road this postseason to the Patriots and Ravens. That’s an impressive total in places that are hard to win. But let’s not beat around the bush here. What if it’s simply a matter of Tom Brady is washed and the Ravens choked? Brady is 42 and could barely throw a touchdown a game down the stretch, and the Patriots were at their worst offensively this season. Still, Julian Edelman dropped a wide-open pass at his own 45 late in the game for the Titans to hang on to that 14-13 lead.

Then the Baltimore game was something to behold. When I write a playoff preview I try to lay out how the underdog could win. My Tennessee strategy ended up being one of the most prescient previews I’ve ever done. I basically said the Titans need to get lucky, have a fast start, and the Ravens need to make a lot of mistakes and exhibit rust from all the time off. I even nailed it down to Jackson being a little high on some throws to his tight end (like the tipped pick), botching some fourth downs they’ve made all year, and the young receiving corps catching a case of the yips after having the second-best drop rate in the regular season. As I laid out here on Saturday night, the Ravens flat out choked.

Baltimore racked up 530 yards of offense, but only scored 12 points. Since 1940, 326 teams have had at least 530 yards of offense in a game. The Ravens are the only one out of 326 to not score 14 points. Now you could chalk that up as “Titans were amazing, Baltimore got that high up there in garbage time!” Or you could just acknowledge that this had much more to do with the offense that had three turnovers, four failures on fourth down, and a slew of dropped passes and a tipped pick on a brutal night of execution.

When Mahomes led the Chiefs to 530 yards of offense in Week 10 in Tennessee, that put 32 points on the board and it really should have been more if not for three missed kicks. He will not waste the yardage the way the Ravens did. Lamar Jackson was a deserving MVP this year, but Mahomes is the best quarterback right now.

You also have to consider what the Titans have done on defense over the long haul and not just the last two games.

Since Tannehill took over in Week 7, the Titans allowed at least 20 points in eight of their next nine games (three games allowing 30+). The only game they didn’t was in Indianapolis when the Colts attempted a go-ahead field goal for a 20-17 lead in the fourth quarter, but it was blocked and returned for a game-winning touchdown. I think good offenses will move the ball against the Titans with ease this year. The Chargers didn’t have a good year, but they could have ended Tennessee’s season prematurely in Week 7 had they not botched the end of the game. The Chargers thought they scored a touchdown on three straight plays, which would have led to 27 points and a likely win. But they were stopped twice, and then in the ensuing chaos a fumble was ruled by Melvin Gordon at the 1-yard line. The Titans lucked out and went on a run from there. Drew Brees and the Saints hung 38 on this defense in Nashville, and we know the Chiefs have already scored 32 there. Then Week 17 happened and the Titans got to face Houston’s backups, holding them to 14 points to make the playoffs.

You can’t just rely on offensive failures to account for good defense every week. Having said that, the Chiefs showed us last week and earlier this season when they were only 6-4 that they could screw up too. That’s why they weren’t as efficient at scoring as they were in 2018 (plus all the injuries this year). In the first quarter against Houston last week, the Chiefs dropped five catchable passes, including a couple on third down to kill drives. In Week 10, we saw another Chiefs running back fumble and it was returned for a big touchdown by the Titans. The Chiefs have cut down on penalties in recent weeks, but that was another issue during the 6-4 start.

I’m not going to say the Chiefs won’t make mistakes this week that the Titans won’t capitalize on. But this is a much more dangerous offense than the Patriots, and Mahomes isn’t going to press like crazy if he falls behind the way Jackson has shown he will in this league so far. He also won’t fold after halftime if the Chiefs take a 21-3 lead like Alex Smith did two years ago in the playoffs. So the onus is more on the Tennessee offense to deliver at least 28 points in this game, because Mahomes is going to get his numbers one way or another.

What Is This Tennessee Offense?

While I may have gone out of my way to discredit the Tennessee defense, I’m not going to crucify the offense. At least, I’m not going to crush the offense that Tannehill took over for the last 10 games of the regular season that was actually fun to watch. The Titans kept his attempts low, but he was throwing a lot of vertical passes and hitting shot plays to A.J. Brown and company off play-action while they fed Derrick Henry consistently. It’s an offense that definitely works for them, but we have seen something much different in these two playoff games.

The Titans are the first NFL team since the 1985 Patriots to win consecutive games without gaining over 100 net passing yards and 16 pass attempts in either game. This is one of the craziest stats I’ve ever written in my life. This is the kind of offense the Houston Oilers dreamed about in the 1970s with Dan Pastorini and Earl Campbell. The Titans are living it with Tannehill only throwing for 160 yards (but three touchdowns) in the two playoff games combined while Henry has rushed for 377 yards this postseason.

So it may not be sustainable or logical against the Chiefs, but the Titans have continued to sustain their incredible red zone success. They are now 31-of-35 at scoring touchdowns in the red zone with Tannehill. They’ll definitely need that efficiency on Sunday.

I’ve seen arguments on Twitter about the Titans offense being average at best this postseason. There is some truth to that. They only scored 14 points in New England and 28 last week for an average of 21 per game. That’s below the league average. Tennessee had touchdown drives of 35, 45, and 20 yards last week, all set up by Baltimore’s offensive failures. That’s the part I would say is not sustainable, but there are some other drives where we’re probably not giving Tennessee enough credit. For example, against the Ravens the Titans were up 28-12 in the fourth quarter with 11:00 left. They called eight straight runs, gained 28 yards and punted. That doesn’t sound great on paper, but when you consider they consumed almost five minutes of clock and made the Ravens burn two timeouts, that’s a successful drive with a 16-point lead. The Titans also had a drive that lasted 8:01 in the fourth quarter in New England as they clung to a 14-13 lead.

That ability to bleed the clock, shorten the game and keep Mahomes on the sideline could be extremely valuable in this matchup. Of course it’s hard to do if you’re playing from behind, but the Titans would have to get down three scores before they abandon the run. We saw that in Week 10. Down 29-20 in the fourth to the Chiefs, they only called two passes on a 10-play drive for a key touchdown with 6:26 left.

I don’t think the Titans can win this game with Tannehill doing his sub-100 yard thing for a third straight week. That’s just the respect I have for what Mahomes brings to the scoreboard. However, the Titans certainly need to make Henry a focal point against a run defense that has been shaky at times for the Chiefs this year.

This tweet was posted recently about Kansas City being 9-0 when they hold opponents under 110 rushing yards:

Naturally, he was met with criticism for missing the correlation-causation and how winning teams run the ball late and trailing teams pass. That is undoubtedly true about how games flow in the NFL, but I think Analytics Twitter goes out of its way to exaggerate this point while not providing the evidence they should be looking at. If you just read tweets, you would think a team that rushed for 150 yards piled up 100 of those yards with a double-digit lead in the fourth quarter. That might happen a couple times a season league-wide, but that’s not the norm.

What if I told you that nearly 59% of teams that rush for 100 yards get there before the fourth quarter, or that over 72% get there with more than 10 minutes left in the game? What if I told you that teams that win by 17-plus points average 40.8 rushing yards in the fourth quarter while teams that win by 3-7 points average 34.0 rushing yards in the fourth quarter.

All of that was true in the 2019 season and I’ve seen similar results in past years. For playing the Chiefs, there are obvious advantages to shortening the game and minimizing Mahomes’ possessions. That way when there is a Travis Kelce drop on third down or a RB fumble, it hurts them even more when you’re giving him seven more possessions than it would in a game where he gets the ball 11 more times. We also know with the Chiefs that you’re not going to blow them out as they have one of the greatest streaks in NFL history of not losing a game by more than 7 points:

We saw it this year in Kansas City’s four losses, all of which were by 3-7 points and half of which they had a fourth-quarter lead. The offense only had five drives with a one-score 4Q deficit in those four games, and Mahomes only had one drive each against the Colts, Texans and Titans. Anything short of perfection wouldn’t work.

The Titans, who never ran a play in the second half with a lead, rushed for 177 yards in the second half after 48 yards in the first half, thanks in part to a 68-yard touchdown run by Henry. The Colts (105 after 77), Texans (118 after 82) and Packers (86 after 35) also had second-half rushing success in wins over the Chiefs this year. These were not stat-padding situations by any means. The Packers literally had one offensive drive with the lead in the second half, and called seven straight runs for 31 yards to help keep the ball away from the Chiefs in a 31-24 win. The Colts completed one pass in the fourth quarter against the Chiefs, but used two run-heavy drives to kick two field goals that secured the win after draining the Chiefs of their timeouts. A 14-play, 35-yard drive for a field goal to take a 16-10 lead doesn’t look good on paper, but it forced the Chiefs to be aggressive and go for a fourth-and-1 at their own 34. Damien Williams was stuffed and by the time Mahomes got the ball back he was down 19-10 and with 2:27 left. Game over barring a miracle.

We should be treating productive runs with a one-score lead in the fourth quarter as the best way to close out a game as they keep the clock running in a situation where that’s more important than scoring again. This is about the only part of the game where perceived inefficiency is the preferred offensive strategy. You’d rather take three (or four) plays to gain 10 yards than one pass play, EPA be damned.

The biggest detriment to Mahomes in his career has really been the clock, or not getting the ball last or with enough time. Had he a little more time at the end against the Patriots last year or the Titans this year, he may have scored the game-winning touchdown instead of settling for a field goal that only leads to overtime where he may never see the ball again. This is why the Titans will ride Henry on Sunday, but they’re still going to have to get back to their regular season strategy with Tannehill if they’re going to outscore the Chiefs again.

Pressure Is on Patrick Mahomes

Simply put, there will be more pressure on Mahomes to win this game than there’s been in any other game of his career so far. He gets a bit of a pass for last year since it was his first title game, the mystique of the Patriots, and he did drop 31 points in the second half before never touching the ball in overtime. However, if he loses this game he’ll be the guy who is 0-2 at home in Conference Championship Games. That’s when people start to forget about the 31-point second half and focus more on the missed touchdown (overthrown) or bad sack he took to fall behind 14-0 at halftime against the Patriots last year.

He can’t afford a bad game this weekend. In 31 regular-season games, Mahomes has thrown multiple interceptions just three times. He has only four games with multiple turnovers in his career. In three playoff games, Mahomes has zero turnovers. He’s the third quarterback in NFL history after Sid Luckman and Tobin Rote to lead his team to at least 31 points in each of his first three playoff games. He has led his team to at least 23 points in all but one game of his career so far.

Furthermore, Mahomes has already played a stellar game this year in Tennessee against this defense with 446 passing yards and no turnovers. It was his first game after the dislocated kneecap and it was his best recent game until last Sunday in the playoffs when he was as close to perfect as you can get at the position.

By the way, in the effort to score seven straight touchdowns against Houston, Mahomes had 7 carries for 9 yards from his running backs on those drives. These offenses couldn’t be any more different right now, but as long as the receivers are catching the ball, Mahomes should deliver against the Titans. You like to think he’ll get a little more rushing support this week than that, but he can do pretty much anything you want out of a quarterback. There’s no real weakness in his game other than something his teammates fail to do, or an overtime system that doesn’t give him the ball.

In fact, if the Chiefs lose this game I hope it happens the same way as last year: 37-31 in overtime with Mahomes never touching the ball. Then the Chiefs and their fans need to raise hell the likes of which New Orleans couldn’t even dream of for pass interference so we can change a flawed system for the playoffs.

Don’t Forget: Special Teams

Last but not least, we have to talk about special teams. The Chiefs had an excellent unit this year while the Titans were pretty bad (no kicking game of value), but that didn’t matter in Week 10. Special teams were arguably the main reason the Chiefs lost in Tennessee. Harrison Butker missed an extra point, then late in the fourth quarter the Chiefs botched a field goal that would have put them ahead 35-27, leading to overtime at worst after Tannehill tied the game. Then on the final play, Butker’s 52-yard field goal was blocked to give the Titans a 35-32 win.

In the divisional round, special teams threatened to end Kansas City’s season after a blocked punt for a touchdown and a muffed punt return by Tyreek Hill led to a 21-0 hole. However, this unit can giveth and taketh in the same game, and I don’t think it got much attention how special teams really redeemed themselves to make the comeback happen. It came in the form of three plays in the second quarter: Mecole Hardman’s 58-yard kick return to spark it, the stop on Houston’s fake punt, and the forced fumble on a kick return that set Mahomes up at the Houston 6.

The Chiefs have return specialists who can be dynamic, and Butker is usually good, but they can’t afford these mistakes again versus the Titans.

Before placing a bet on this game, it’d be nice if someone could get visual proof that Mike Vrabel still has his penis, because he may have already cut it off to secure this trophy. My boldest prediction may be that the Titans actually settle for a field goal this week, but it won’t be enough to stop Mahomes from reaching that first Super Bowl.

Final: Chiefs 34, Titans 24

 

Packers at 49ers (-7.5)

Remember when Steve Young couldn’t beat the Packers and it took a missed Jerry Rice fumble to finally do it? Okay, I’ll stick to the Rodgers’ era for the rest of the way.

Packers: Reversal of Fortune?

I left this out of my rematch data above, but teams that win the last matchup by at least 17 points are 9-2 in the Conference Championship Game with an average scoring differential of 13.5 points. That doesn’t bode well for the Packers overcoming the 37-8 smackdown in Week 12.

It’s not exactly breaking news that the Packers don’t excel in these spots: on the road against a physical team that should have advantages in the trenches again. In fact, the Packers led by Aaron Rodgers are 0-4 in his career when he’s an underdog of 7+ points. That includes losses to the 2014 Seahawks (twice), 2015 Cardinals (NFC-DIV), and 2018 Rams, all NFC West powerhouses on the road, which is the case again this week at No. 1 seed San Francisco (14-3).

But he is 3-1 against the spread in those games, so a close game is not out of the question. We’ve also seen Rodgers’ Packers have dramatically different playoff results in rematches from the regular season:

  • In 2010, the Packers lost a close one 20-17 in Atlanta, but blew the Falcons out 48-21 in the divisional round.
  • In 2011, the Packers got to 12-0 with a 38-35 win in New York, but fell 37-20 in stunning fashion at home to those Giants in the divisional round.
  • In 2014, the Packers fell 36-16 on opening night in Seattle, but had a 16-0 lead in the NFC Championship Game before losing 28-22 in overtime.
  • In 2015, and perhaps most comparable to this weekend, the Packers were destroyed 38-8 in Arizona in Week 16 (Rodgers sacked eight times). But in the divisional round they forced overtime with two Hail Mary’s by Rodgers, only to lose 26-20.
  • In 2016, Green Bay lost 30-16 at home to Dallas before winning there 34-31 in the playoffs, but also turned a tough 33-32 loss in Atlanta to a far more embarrassing 44-21 loss in the NFC Championship Game.

Points don’t carry over from last time and that’s really the NFL in a nutshell.

Injury Outlook

One of the simplest explanations for why matchups can change so much is the addition or subtraction of players through injury. However, most of the players taking the field this week were active in Week 12 and last week when these teams won a playoff game. If anything, the 49ers have the edge here as left tackle Joe Staley, running back Matt Breida, pass-rusher Dee Ford, linebacker Kwon Alexander and even kicker Robbie Gould were absent in Week 12. The 49ers have all of those guys back, though they did limit Ford’s snaps last week (still got a sack in 22 snaps). San Francisco’s running game has been at its worst when running off left tackle, though Staley missed nine games this year. Sure, the 49ers also lost center Weston Richburg in Week 14, but they’ve been fine without him. Right tackle Bryan Bulaga was out last week with an illness for the Packers, but he was on the field in Week 12 when Rodgers took five sacks.

Rodgers: Worst Night Ever?

Remember this in Week 12?

That historically bad night for Rodgers in Week 12 — a career-low 3.15 YPA — is hard to shake. The good news: he just had one of his best games of 2019 against Seattle. The bad news: San Francisco’s defense just had one of its best games of 2019 against Minnesota’s more talented offense.

What Should Green Bay’s Offense Do on Sunday?

Last week the Packers were basically a one-man receiving show with Davante Adams gaining 160 of Rodgers’ 243 passing yards against Seattle. Adams caught a touchdown in Week 12, but the 49ers held the connection to 7-of-12 for 43 yards that night. I don’t know how receivers like Adams (and Michael Thomas in New Orleans) are so consistently open when these teams lack other options at wideout, but the 49ers should do a much better job than the Seahawks did on Adams. The Packers averaged 12.3 PPG in four games this year when Adams was held under 50 yards.

Most offenses have failed to move the ball through the air against the 49ers this year. Eight teams were held to fewer than 135 net passing yards, and only three offenses exceeded 223 yards in 17 games. Of the six 100-yard receivers allowed by the 49ers, the top two were Julio Jones and Michael Thomas with 134 yards each, but they also had 15-20 targets between them. So Adams will probably have to be force-fed the ball to have a productive game this week. The Packers will likely prefer to get Aaron Jones involved more this time as he had 13 carries for 38 yards in Week 12. Jamaal Williams actually outgained him (11 carries for 45 yards) after getting most of that production on the final drive in garbage time. The 49ers just held Minnesota to 21 yards on 10 runs last week.

It’s a delicate balance for head coach Matt LaFleur to figure out. Do you go pass-happy with Rodgers when he has a more pedestrian receiving corps? If the San Francisco pass rush resembles last week and Week 12 and the early portion of the season when they were so dominant with rookie Nick Bosa and the D-line shining, then it’s a pretty tough matchup for Green Bay. The Packers also aren’t a dominant rushing team in the form of say the Titans, but they still get their share of yards most weeks because they often play from ahead thanks to good starts. Remember, last week I pointed out they were third in first-quarter scoring, but 27th, 9th and 26th in the rest of the quarters. The 49ers are faster starters with the running game. They’ve had seven games this year with more than 80 rushing yards at halftime compared to two for Green Bay.

The Packers are quite good in the red zone, but getting there is the biggest concern. Green Bay had one trip to the red zone in Rodgers’ 10 drives in Week 12. Only seven offenses went three-and-out more often than the Packers this year. I’m not really sure what the best strategy is for Green Bay’s offense this week, but I know they can’t go 1-of-15 on third down again like they did in Week 12. Rodgers will have to do a few things off script that work for Green Bay and hope he can deliver on third down as well as he did against Seattle last week (team was 9/13 before a kneeldown).

San Francisco’s Offense

While Green Bay’s offense was imploding in Week 12, it wasn’t until the fourth quarter when the 49ers converted a third down that night. The 49ers won that game easily despite only 16 first downs. Rodgers coughed up the ball on a strip-sack on the first drive, leading to a 2-yard touchdown drive. Two quick three-and-outs late in the first half were turned into 10 more points by the 49ers, which saw big YAC plays from George Kittle and Deebo Samuel for touchdowns. The Packers have had few answers for tight ends this year and Kittle is as good as anyone right now. YAC has been a big part of San Francisco’s passing game all year, though they only put 19 balls in the air against the Vikings in a run-heavy game plan.

Jimmy Garoppolo won his first playoff game by doing the bare minimum, so don’t say he didn’t learn anything from Tom Brady in New England. Garoppolo did most of his damage on the opening drive, but didn’t have to do much more when his defense and running game were so dominant. He was much better in Week 12 against the Packers and will have to play more like that in this game. It was actually the best statistical game any QB had against the 2019 Packers. Garoppolo has his full complement of backs to use and two fine wideouts to go along with Kittle, so what more can he ask for besides maybe a run call on 3rd-and-1 from Kyle Shanahan if they’re up big in the fourth? The Packers were terrible this year at stopping teams in short-yardage situations and stuffing runs for losses.

Garoppolo is more likely to turn the ball over than Rodgers. He does have a tendency to throw an interception early in games this year, though the 49ers are 10-1 in games where he is intercepted (11-0 if the kicker came through in overtime vs. Seattle), so it hasn’t been a problem. I watched all 13 of his interceptions last week and noticed about six that were tipped and one that was lobbed on a 4th-and-5 against Washington in the rain. So that was encouraging, though he does get fooled by linebackers on short throws a bit too much. The Packers are 11-0 this season when intercepting the starting QB, but only have three picks from non-defensive backs. Green Bay has mostly feasted on bad passers and served twice as Kirk Cousins’ kryptonite. Green Bay has some really good pass-rushers this year (The Smiths) and they got to Garoppolo three times in the last matchup. Only five passers avoided multiple sacks from Green Bay this year.

I think Garoppolo already held up well this year in marquee matchups against Lamar Jackson, Kirk Cousins, Drew Brees, Aaron Rodgers, and Russell Wilson. Maybe he implodes with the Super Bowl on the line, but I’m not concerned about him this week like I would be with certain quarterbacks.

Close Game or Nah?

The 49ers have lost three games on the final play this year, so they would have to have a Baltimore-sized choke to get blown out at home in this game. That’s more likely to happen to Green Bay again. If it’s a close game, we’ve already seen Garoppolo lead four comebacks and game-winning drives this season, something Rodgers still hasn’t done in any season of his career. But Rodgers (17-41 at 4QC opportunities) does have three game-winning drives for Green Bay in 2019 and the Packers are 11-1 in close games without a single blown lead in the fourth quarter.

If you want an ultra-specific prediction, I’m feeling a game where Garoppolo will overcome a rough start with his running game not dominating, only to lead the 49ers to a game-winning field goal to send San Francisco to another Super Bowl. Or at least I like the sound of that better than saying the refs hand Green Bay a horseshit illegal hands to the face penalty that gives us a rematch of Super Bowl I (Chiefs-Packers) in the 100th year of the NFL. That might be even more likely if the Titans pull off an upset in the early slot as I can’t imagine the NFL would be happy about promoting Titans-49ers to casual viewers.

But if there was ever a postseason to completely stick it to the status quo…

Final: 49ers 23, Packers 20

2019 NFL Divisional Round Preview

The NFL’s best weekend is a little sweeter this year. Thanks in large part to Ryan Fitzpatrick and the Titans these last two weeks, we don’t have to talk about the Patriots in the divisional round of the playoffs. This hasn’t happened in a decade, and I said when they were 8-0 that this was not a legitimately great Patriots team. So let’s enjoy it by not giving them any more time than they deserve. The AFC is moving forward with two better teams in Baltimore and Kansas City, but both must avoid an upset as two-score favorites this week if we’re going to get that desired title game next Sunday. I don’t think the Titans and Texans will go away easily.

The Wild Card weekend was excellent with four close, low-scoring games. Every game was decided by 3-8 points and no team scored 21 points in regulation. None of the offenses performed at a high level, which had a lot to do with the games being close, but it was good for dramatic reasons.

You should be counting on more points and at least one multi-score win this week. Seahawks-Packers is the easy choice for the close game lock, and it is the only game with a spread under 7.0 this week. However, we know the greatness of this round is from the road team upsets. They are not easy to come by either. Since 1970, the home team is 141-55 (.719) in the divisional round and that hasn’t tailed off in recent years. In fact, since the new CBA in 2011 the home team is 25-7 (.781) in the divisional round. Since 2002, home teams favored by at least 9 points in the divisional round are 9-5 straight up and 6-8 against the spread. There hasn’t been an upset loss of this magnitude since the 2012 Ravens (at Denver) and 2010 Jets (at Patriots).

Even though every home team won this round last year that is still a pretty rare feat. The only other times it happened in the current playoff format were 2015, 2004 and 2002.

Vikings at 49ers (-7)

You probably could have simulated the season 10 million times in August and not once would you have ended up with this as your #6 at #1 matchup in the NFC. But here we are and I actually believe the Vikings are a very formidable foe. The team is loaded with talent, but the offense just happened to play its worst against Green Bay in two important games this year. Kirk Cousins showed last week he can lead a clutch drive to beat a good team on the road, finishing off the Saints in overtime.

The 49ers don’t have much of a track record to point to, but they are 13-3 this year with three losses on the final play of the game. They were a missed field goal in OT against Seattle and a single defensive stop (inches on one snap) from beating the Falcons to win 15 games, only losing in Baltimore on a last-second field goal. The only times they didn’t score 20 points this year were in very wet conditions in Washington and Baltimore. It’s been a great Year 3 so far for Kyle Shanahan.

For me this game comes down to the Minnesota offensive line. Can they hold up on the road against a front seven that has slipped in the second half of the season? If Dalvin Cook has holes to run through, he and Alexander Mattison could have a nice day together. The 49ers run defense is nothing special (11th in DVOA, 23rd in yards per carry). Cook looked ready to Derrick Henry his way through the Saints defense until they got to him more in the second half. With the passing offense, Cousins clearly has the weapons as Adam Thielen stepped up with big catches and Kyle Rudolph caught the game winner in OT. Stefon Diggs was hardly involved, but that’s just another great option for this offense to go to this week. The 49ers allowed the fewest passing yards in the league this year, including 10 games where the opponent had fewer than 200 net passing yards (five games of no more than 100 yards). That’s very impressive, but the Vikings aren’t looking to go pass-happy in any game this year. Cousins was 11-2 (only losses to Green Bay) when he didn’t go above 35 pass attempts this season. They just want to run Cook and take advantage of play-action as much as they can.

The Saints had greater pass pressure metrics than the 49ers defense finished the year with. Cousins took a couple sacks and five QB hits in New Orleans, but overall the protection held up enough. The 49ers were destroying quarterbacks earlier this season, but that has really eased up. Rookie Nick Bosa had 7 sacks and 13 hits thru Week 8, but in the last nine games he’s only had 2 sacks and 12 hits. Through 11 games, the 49ers sacked 10 of their opposing quarterbacks at least three times. They haven’t done so since Week 12 and they have four sacks total in the last five games. Since Week 9, the 49ers have allowed at least 20 points in every game except for the big Packers win (37-8). Even though the Packers own the Vikings this year, the transitive property does not apply in the NFL, so don’t expect the 49ers to just own the Vikings too. San Francisco’s defense clearly peaked early as some injuries have set in too.

On the other side of the ball, the San Francisco offense is pretty legit. They were fifth in points per drive and 10th in yards per drive. It helps to be second in starting field position, but they still moved the ball well throughout the season. Jimmy Garoppolo started a bit shaky in the first half of the season when he was only averaging 212.7 passing yards per game with nearly an equal TD:INT ratio. Ever since the Arizona game in Week 9 he’s up to 276.6 yards per game with 18 TD, 6 INT, 107.6 PR, and a strong 8.67 YPA. He’s been asked to do more and he’s delivered so far. You know to expect a good running game from a Shanahan offense and they certainly have had that. The trade for Emmanuel Sanders was smart and the draft pick of Deebo Samuel was good. It may not be the flashiest receiving corps in the NFL, but it’s more than enough to win a Super Bowl when you factor in the run and George Kittle at tight end.

If there’s an area of concern I would say the red zone could be rough, especially on Garoppolo as a passer. Kittle is awesome, the best TE in this post-Gronk NFL, but he’s not much of a receiving threat in the red zone. He only has 12 TD catches in his career (on 216 catches) and only three this season came within 30 yards of the end zone. That’s just not something they do, which is why the 49ers led the league with 23 rushing touchdowns. But make no mistake about it — the 49ers are a middling red zone offense while the Vikings are No. 2 in most red zone defense metrics. The Vikings were also one of the best defenses at creating takeaways and were the only defense to get multiple turnovers from the Saints in 2019. I mentioned Danielle Hunter last week as a top pass-rusher this year. He and Everson Griffen delivered in New Orleans and will have to do so again here. Garoppolo has fumbled 10 times (equal to Cousins’ total) with five lost this year.

Something to keep in mind is that the Vikings are quite poor at coming from behind in the fourth quarter. Garoppolo is 7-3 (.700) at 4QC opportunities in his career compared to 8-25-2 (.257) for Cousins. Minnesota’s only 4QC win in the last two seasons was against Denver this season. Garoppolo (50%) and Cousins (48%) were the top two quarterbacks in 2019 at converting third-down passes into first downs.

I almost want to pick the Vikings to pull off another upset here, but I just picked the 49ers last week to reach the Super Bowl. Plus it’s January and we’re talking about the Minnesota Vikings having everything go their way in two straight playoff games. That just doesn’t compute for me, but this should be a pretty good game.

Final: 49ers 26, Vikings 23

 

Titans at Ravens (-9.5)

This was a short-lived AFC rivalry after the Browns moved to Baltimore and became the Ravens while the Oilers moved to Tennessee and changed their name to the Titans. The Ravens knocked the No. 1 seeded Titans out of the playoffs in 2000 and 2008. Those were potential Super Bowl years for Tennessee, and there really hasn’t been that type of excitement about this team ever since that day a rookie coach named John Harbaugh took his Baltimore team into that building and won.

Now the Titans can return the favor to the top-seeded Ravens, who are coming off a bye week and a Week 17 win where they rested key starters, including likely MVP QB Lamar Jackson. That means 20 days will have passed since Jackson played a game, and it’s a time in which he reportedly fought off the flu too. When your QB is such a unique player, a 1,200-yard rusher and not a high-volume passer, maybe rest is more important than any concern for rust. We saw in the past how precision-passing offenses like the 2005 Colts and 2011 Packers were hurt by giving their offense too much rest in addition to the bye week, but Baltimore is the most prolific rushing offense in NFL history (3,296 yards). No one has held the Ravens under 118 rushing yards this year and they’re the only offense in NFL history to rush for at least 170 yards in all eight home games. Baltimore hasn’t trailed in the fourth quarter since Week 5, a comeback win in Pittsburgh. The 2019 Ravens are the 11th team in NFL history to score at least 20 points in all 16 games of a season.

Still, I think Tennessee’s best shot at another upset is a fast start and some rust (or regression) from the Ravens. This is pretty hard when Baltimore leads the NFL in first-quarter scoring (128 points) and has allowed the fewest first-quarter points (31). I’m not trying to anger Tennessee fans, but the fact is your defense is not that great, and the Ravens have the most efficient offense in the league this year. It’s historic really as they averaged over 200 yards per game in passing and rushing. You need some help from the offense (unforced errors & mistakes) to slow them down. Jackson has improved his accuracy this year, but there are still times where the ball comes out a little high and one of his big tight ends needs to make a great catch. You hope he has a few of those bad throws on high-leverage third downs, or maybe a fourth down that the Ravens are very willing to go for this year. The Ravens also had the second-lowest rate of dropped passes in the league this year. Maybe this receiving corps, which is basically a rookie (Marquise Brown), a retread (Willie Snead) and three tight ends (Mark Andrews has been exceptional) have some yips on Saturday night and drop important passes. Jackson is hard to sack and the Baltimore line does a great job of protection and the defense always has to be cautious of the running attack.

The Ravens just offer a different challenge that NFL teams really aren’t used to competing against. That’s why I think it’s crucial for Ryan Tannehill to have a fast start and get the Titans ahead early to hopefully get the Ravens out of their element and play from behind like the Chargers did to a rookie Jackson in the playoffs last year. Then Derrick Henry can take the game over in the second half and kill the clock, but hopefully it will lead to more points this time. Just 14 points won’t win like it would have in New England last week. There’s no way Tannehill can get by without throwing for over 100 yards again. I wasn’t too encouraged by how he played in the biggest game of his career last week, but at least he made a couple key throws on third down. He’ll have to continue that here and get rookie A.J. Brown involved, which he didn’t last week. You don’t want to get into a big shootout with the Ravens, but I think the Titans have an explosive offense to put up the points necessary to grind out a win.

This tweet from ESPN’s Seth Walder caught my eye:

I thought the Patriots last week would use Cover Zero blitzes to force Tannehill into mistakes since he has taken a very high rate of sacks this year. However, he threw 15 passes in the whole game so it wasn’t that kind of night. He did take one sack and fumbled twice, but the Patriots were unable to recover either. Baltimore will look to force him into more mistakes in what should be a much higher volume passing game this time. I’m not sure it means anything this week, but the Titans have faced Baltimore in each of the last two seasons and Henry finished those games with a pathetic 15 carries for 47 yards (combined two games). That also can’t happen again. That was the day Mariota took 11 sacks for Tennessee. Tannehill’s not that bad thankfully.

We don’t think of the 2019 Ravens as a classic Baltimore defense, perhaps because there’s no Ray Lewis or Ed Reed or Terrell Suggs on the unit this year. They also struggled early in the season after allowing huge numbers in Kansas City (33 points and 503 yards) and to the Browns (40 points and 530 yards). That gave us an early impression that things weren’t good this year. However, in the other 14 games this year the Ravens never allowed more than 23 points or 349 yards. Only the 2010 Steelers (15 games) and 2011 Steelers (14 games) can say they’ve done that at least 14 times in a season this decade. Matt Judon emerged as their new star pass-rusher and the trade for corner Marcus Peters in Week 7 proved to be a steal as he made the All-Pro team thanks to his ball-hawking abilities. So the Ravens are in this familiar spot of having the best defense left in the AFC playoffs, but now they have the best offense to boot as well.

Not to trigger fans of the 2000 Titans, but it could be a bad thing if this game comes down to field goals. Justin Tucker is arguably the best kicker to ever do it, while the Titans were just 8-of-18 on field goals this year. Their current kicker, Greg Joseph, hasn’t even attempted a field goal in 2019. He missed three field goals and four extra points for the 2018 Browns.

That’s why the red zone matchup could be so huge in this one. Baltimore’s passing game was the best in the league in the red zone. Jackson’s 24 red zone touchdown passes trail only Russell Wilson (25), but he had 29 fewer pass attempts in the red zone than Wilson. That’s a lot different than the matchup with Tom Brady last week. Brady had 13 TD on a league-high 91 red zone passes in 2019. The only player coming close to Jackson’s absurd red zone TD% of 40% is Tannehill (37.8%).The Titans have been absolutely bonkers in the red zone with Tannehill since Week 7. Including the playoff game, they are 28-of-32 (87.5%) at scoring touchdowns in the red zone after starting 8-of-15 (53.3%) with Marcus Mariota. They are going to need to continue that hot streak and realize that field goals aren’t going to beat the best offense in the league on the road (unless it’s the final play of the game of course).

We’ve seen bigger upsets in NFL history before, but I just don’t like the Titans enough to pick them here. Baltimore is the better team in all three units, the home team, and the rested team. It would be cool to see another sixth seed make a run at things here, but the Ravens are legitimately great this season.

Final: Ravens 30, Titans 20

 

Texans at Chiefs (-9.5)

We usually have some rematches from the regular season to talk about in the playoffs, but this is only the second one through two rounds this year. The other one was last week when the Seahawks beat the Eagles by the same score (17-9) again. That would be very disappointing for the Chiefs, a two-score favorite, since Houston won 31-24 in Arrowhead in Week 6.

So what happened that day and why will things be different this time?

In Week 6, the Chiefs were coming off a rough 19-13 loss to the Colts, the first game where Patrick Mahomes didn’t lead the team to at least 26 points. Mahomes was injured a couple of times in that game and was missing left tackle Eric Fisher and Sammy Watkins for this Houston matchup. It started off really well when Mahomes notably threw for 116 yards on the opening drive thanks to some penalties. The Chiefs led 17-3 and seemed like they were going to roll over Houston, but the Texans came back. Mahomes got fooled on a second quarter interception when he thought the official was going to throw a flag on a free play, and he later lost a fumble that Deshaun Watson turned into a touchdown before halftime for a 23-17 lead. Watson engineered a 12-play, 93-yard drive in the fourth quarter — a drive that never featured a third down — to put the Texans ahead 31-24. The Chiefs had a very quick three-and-out with an odd call of a run on 2nd-and-14, and the Texans were able to run out the final 5:03 without giving Mahomes the ball back. Carlos Hyde was effective with 116 rushing yards, and Watson’s day could have been even bigger without some dropped passes. Houston racked up 35 first downs in that game, the most by any NFL road team since the Patriots had 36 first downs in their overtime win in Kansas City in the 2018 AFC Championship Game. The Chiefs were unable to gain 20 yards on any play after the opening drive.

That was arguably the low point of the season for the Chiefs on defense, but the good news is the offense is healthier now, especially in regards to Mahomes. They also have their leading sack defender back in Chris Jones, who missed that Week 6 game. The Texans got J.J. Watt back last week and he played well against Buffalo. The Texans didn’t have Kenny Stills in Week 6, but they’re looking to have their full wideout trio of DeAndre Hopkins, Stills and Will Fuller available for this one.

You expect the Chiefs to play better this time, but the spread rising from Chiefs -3.5 in Week 6 to Chiefs -9.5 given that last matchup is still a bit puzzling. Kansas City has cut down on penalties and turnovers since Week 6, but those mistakes and bad health have led the offense to take a step back from 2018’s historic level.

The injuries, most notably the dislocated kneecap that cost him nearly three full games, did take away from what was still an exceptional season for Mahomes. He actually had more touchdown passes of 40-plus yards (9) this year than he had in 2018 (7) despite throwing 24 fewer touchdowns overall. The big plays are still there in an offense built for speed, but in recent weeks we have seen a more pedestrian Mahomes. Since Week 11, Mahomes is at 7.28 yards per attempt with 8 touchdowns to 4 interceptions and a 92.0 passer rating. That’s fine for what the Chiefs needed to go 6-0 in those games, but Mahomes’ 16-game pace over this span is just 3,747 yards and 21 touchdown passes. That’s far from the record-setting dominance he showed us through his first 25 starts.

Mahomes has been overshadowed the last six games by his defense, which prompts the “watch out now that Mahomes has a defense!” angle. Yes, it would be scary to give this quarterback a legitimately great defense, but are we sure that’s the case? It was just in Week 10 when this defense was embarrassed by Ryan Tannehill in Tennessee, prompting us to take the Titans more seriously. I’m always leery of these “QB has [help]!” claims when we know the larger sample size usually points to that not being the case.

As always, the first thing to do is look at the schedule. Who have the Chiefs played in the last six weeks? That would be the Chargers twice. Philip Rivers had a turnover-heavy, washed-up type of season. Then there was Oakland and Derek Carr, who has a very poor history against the Chiefs. The only games he had this year with multiple interceptions were against the Chiefs, and he also had two picks in a 35-3 loss to the Chiefs in Week 17 last year. Throw in a 23-3 win over rookie Drew Lock and the Broncos in a snow game and that’s already four games out of six against division rivals they’re familiar with. The other two games were at New England and Chicago, where the quarterback play was close to equal for the first time in many years with Tom Brady having his worst season at 42 and Mitchell Trubisky being Mitchell Trubisky.

So color me unimpressed with this run. I think the Chiefs this postseason are more likely to look like the defense that had a few good moments mixed with tough times against the Packers, Vikings, Texans, Titans, Ravens and Lions (with Matthew Stafford). You know, better offensive competition.

If you look at the seven games where the Chiefs have positive EPA on defense on Pro Football Reference, five of the games are from Weeks 11-17. But you’ll also notice that the other two games were the early meetings against Denver (Week 7) and Oakland (Week 2). So those were just offenses the defense owned this season. By the same measure of EPA, the Chiefs had three games where they were worse than -17 EPA and those were against the Texans, Ravens and Packers so that could be interesting if that ends up being their next three opponents on a Super Bowl path.

Reid getting less out of the offense and more out of the defense is probably a net positive for this playoff run, but Mahomes is going to have to be stellar at some point here. If it’s not this week, then it will have to come in Baltimore most likely. Remember, Mahomes is getting the worst defense in the playoffs this week in Houston. He should play very well on Sunday, but the standards for his “very well” game are currently in flux.

The last thing I want to talk about is arguably the most important part in this game: Deshaun Watson. His A-level plays are just as good as Mahomes and Jackson, whether it’s the incredible runs or deep throws down the field. However, he does take too many sacks at times and we just haven’t seen him put together that consistent, MVP-worthy season yet like Mahomes (2018) and Jackson (2019) have. Of course, those quarterbacks have better support systems than Watson, who is stuck with Bill O’Brien and a franchise that doesn’t really have a GM. Mahomes has Andy Reid’s brain, and we know from Reid’s coaching tree that he puts together great staffs. Jackson has Harbaugh and Greg Roman, and the Ravens are on the forefront of analytics right now. Watson is basically pulling the weight in Houston himself, which is how the Texans end up falling behind 16-0 at home to lowly Buffalo in the Wild Card round, but also how they pull out a 22-19 win in overtime behind him.

Watson stands to be The Third Man in the AFC as Mahomes and Jackson battle for conference superiority in this new decade where the Patriots should finally be old news. Winning this game and breaking up the first of several expected AFC title games between Mahomes and Jackson would be huge for him, but the odds clearly aren’t in his favor Sunday.

But make no mistake about it — Watson is a gamer and the main reason Chiefs fans have to feel at least a little nervous about this one. If there’s someone who can match Mahomes, who isn’t coming in hot, score for score on that cursed playoff ground called Arrowhead, it is Watson.

Final: Chiefs 31, Texans 23

 

Seahawks at Packers (-4)

I have about 800 words left to keep this preview under 5,000, but how many does one really need for this game? Seattle’s offense is a little better than Green Bay’s, though the Packers have an edge in versatility with their top back (Aaron Jones) still healthy while the Seahawks won with 19 rushing yards from backs in Philadelphia last week. Green Bay’s play-action passing game remains broken this year and Rodgers still throws too many passes away and takes too many sacks he shouldn’t. Both teams are mediocre at best on defense and special teams. Both teams are in the running for the worst team to ever have the nice records (13-3 and 11-5) they have.

It would be shocking if we don’t see Russell Wilson in the fourth quarter of a lower scoring game trying to lead a game-winning drive. Does he get sacked in the arms of Za’Darius Smith, or does he make Green Bay blow its first fourth-quarter lead of 2019? From my 2019 close game summary, the Packers (NFL-high eight holds) and Seahawks (six holds including last week in Philly) have not blown any fourth-quarter leads this year, though Seattle did twice get lucky on missed field goals. The Packers are 10-1 in close games and haven’t lost one since Week 4 (Eagles). They have three more close wins than the next closest team. They also struggled like hell to sweep the 3-12-1 Lions this year, though I would be remiss to not mention Seattle’s 1-point win at home over a Cincinnati team that is picking first in the draft. Like I said, these teams are not that great; shells of the dominant teams they fielded in that classic 2014 NFC Championship Game.

Seattle just needs to survive the first quarter. That’s when Rodgers has by far been at his best in 2019 and Seattle has allowed more first-quarter points than all but five teams. The Packers rank third in first-quarter scoring, but are 27th in the second quarter, ninth in the third quarter and 26th in the fourth quarter. Much of Green Bay’s season has been about jumping out to an early lead, scoring 21-31 points in the game, and hanging on for the victory. That’s fine against most of the NFL, but Wilson is adept at leading comebacks.

However, Wilson has a very checkered past against the Packers: 4-3 record, 10 TD, 10 INT, 74.0 passer rating and 6.63 YPA. He’s had games with 4 and 5 INT against them, and the first meeting was the Fail Mary in 2012. His most complete game against Green Bay was probably last year’s win at home against Mike Pettine’s defense, but the Packers are better on that side of the ball in 2019.

After going through 2019 with next to zero pass rush, the Seahawks picked up 7 sacks and 9 QB hits in Philadelphia last week. That’s unlikely to repeat itself, but as the season has shown, Rodgers will take some sacks and leave teams hanging around late. The pressure will be on Wilson to deliver and for at least one more week I’m counting on him to deliver. Should Minnesota pull off the upset in San Francisco on Saturday, this game takes on even greater importance for the Packers because of how they have dominated that division matchup this year. The chances of going to the Super Bowl could go up before Green Bay even takes the field last this weekend.

If things go the other way, then we’ll just bet like crazy against the Packers in San Francisco next week.

Final: Seahawks 23, Packers 20

2019 NFL Wild Card and Full Playoff Predictions

To this point it is hard to say if the NFL’s 100th season is the Changing of the Guard Year some of us thought it should be. Half of the NFC field has very familiar faces in Green Bay, New Orleans, and Seattle. The Eagles are also back for the third year in a row. The AFC had all the same division winners as last year, but the Ravens, Chiefs and Texans were all able to defeat the Patriots in 2019 with their exciting, young quarterbacks.

Can they do it in January too? They’ll have to wait as Ryan Tannehill gets first crack with the Titans — yes, this is real life in 2020.

If the 2019 season has taught me anything, it’s that having a mobile, playmaking quarterback is more important than ever in the NFL. We saw much of the old guard decline (Brady, Rodgers, Rivers) or get demoted (Eli, Flacco) or injured (Roethlisberger, Newton, Stafford) this season. Of course, this probably means we’ll get a Brady-Brees Super Bowl, but I think the game is changing before our eyes as the league enters a second century. Maybe 1,200-yard rushing quarterbacks like MVP favorite Lamar Jackson won’t become the norm, but the statue-esque pocket passers do seem to be going the way of statues: relics of the past.

Before I reveal my full playoff predictions, let’s preview each of the four Wild Card games this weekend.

Bills at Texans (-3)

I called this matchup over a month ago on Twitter:

“The knock on Josh Allen has always been his accuracy. But I’ll tell you this much, Tess. If he’s throwing the ball and these receivers are catching it, his completion percentage will in fact increase.”

— Booger McFarland, 2020

Houston kicking off the playoffs has become a tradition no one asked for. This is Bill O’Brien’s fourth postseason and the fourth time his Texans are opening up the playoffs at 4:30 on Saturday. Their only win so far was against the 2016 Raiders, who had to start Connor Cook at quarterback. Last year the Colts beat Houston 21-7, the first time Deshaun Watson lost an NFL start by more than 8 points. So he doesn’t want to quickly build up a legacy of underperforming in home playoff games, because we know that stuff sticks with a quarterback forever.

Josh Allen is at least better than Cook, but the Bills are largely here because they hit the Schedule Lotto: In addition to six wins against the brutal East divisions, they have a 17-10 win over Duck Hodges in Pittsburgh, a late comeback against the 2-win Bengals, a 20-3 win over the Brandon Allen-led Broncos, and they beat the Mariota-led Titans 14-7 in a game Tennessee missed four field goals.

The Bills are 1-4 against teams with a winning record and didn’t score more than 17 points in any of those five games. Buffalo never scored more than 28 points against anyone but Miami (twice).

I’m not going to say Buffalo didn’t deserve to make the playoffs, especially when the Steelers and those 7-9 teams were so unimpressive, but the Bills are arguably the least threatening team in the whole tournament. Houston has been terribly inconsistent, but at least we know Watson can play at an elite level any given week. At least the Texans can say they’ve won in Kansas City and embarrassed the Patriots on SNF. Granted, Watson hasn’t looked really good in any game since that Patriots win, but hopefully the week of rest will have done some good. J.J. Watt is also back in the lineup for the first time since Week 8.

Houston has better elite talent while the Bills are going to rely on their very good defense to play excellent, force turnovers, and to keep the game close for Allen to sneak out a win late. That may not be an edge this time though. Allen, Watson and Russell Wilson all tied for the league lead with five game-winning drives in 2019, so both teams are used to winning the close ones. When these teams met in 2018, Watson tied the game late before Nathan Peterman threw a pick-six in a 20-13 loss for Buffalo. That game was a low-scoring struggle, which could be the case again on Saturday since Watson will see a lot of the same defenders.

Fun fact: Allen is 11-0 when he completes at least 60% of his passes (min. 20 attempts). That’s a low bar in this era, but more than half the time he doesn’t clear it. The Bills have the highest rate of dropped passes (7.4%) in the league according to PFR so it’s not always his fault this year, but his progression from 2018 is not as significant as some think. The good news is the Texans are the worst defense in the playoffs. Houston (26th) and Tennessee (21st) were the only playoff teams to field a pass defense in the bottom half of the league in DVOA. Houston (27th) and Seattle (17th) are the only defenses in the playoffs to rank in the bottom half in points per drive allowed. Finally, Houston ranks 31st in yards per play allowed (6.1) and 31st in third-down conversion rate allowed (48%).

A couple of YOLO QBs putting their bodies on the line in the playoffs could be fun, but I have to think this will be a slugfest possibly decided by a huge turnover from one of the star players. Maybe that’s Tre’Davious White jumping a pass for DeAndre Hopkins and picking it off, or maybe that’s Watt getting a strip-sack of Allen.

If Allen brings his ‘A’ game then this is a Houston defense that can be had. I’m just going to put my trust in Watson this time.

Final: Texans 20, Bills 16

Titans at Patriots (-4.5)

Just like Miami fans imagined for years, Ryan Tannehill has a chance to end the New England dynasty. I’ll give you a minute to let that one sink in.

The last time the Patriots played a Wild Card game, they were a 4-point home favorite against the 2009 Ravens. Baltimore won 33-14. The fact that New England is playing on Wild Card weekend for the first time in a decade is almost as crazy as Tannehill having a breakout year in his eighth season. The Patriots were once 10-1 with a death grip on a first-round bye for months, only to see the Dolphins take it away from them in Week 17 as a 17-point road underdog. The Patriots have lost three of their last five games and their best wins all year are stopping the Bills (once with Matt Barkley at QB) from scoring a late touchdown twice. At least the Titans can say they beat the Chiefs.

Tennessee was one of the surprising non-playoff teams to stomp the Patriots in 2018, a 34-10 win during coach Mike Vrabel’s first year on the job with Marcus Mariota as his quarterback. The Titans just finished 9-7 for the fourth year in a row, but things feel different this year thanks to the switch from Mariota to Tannehill in Week 7.

Tennessee was going nowhere fast with Mariota, who started 2-4 and was taking a sack on 13.5% of his dropbacks. Tannehill’s sack rate is still alarming at 9.8%, but he has consistently hit big plays and has thrown multiple touchdown passes in nine of his 10 starts (7-3 record). While he didn’t do it over a full season, Tannehill’s 2019 ranks as the fourth-highest season in passer rating (117.5) and the eighth-highest season in YPA (9.6) in NFL history. Absurd. We don’t know how Tannehill will perform in the biggest game of his career, but he’s now on the list of QBs with odd career arcs by breaking out so late and after lost injury years. Part of what makes those guys so odd is that they performed unexpectedly well in the playoffs too. I’m talking about Jeff Hostetler, Kurt Warner, Alex Smith and Nick Foles to name four examples. Maybe Tannehill is the next one.

Mobile quarterbacks also have been giving the Patriots fits for years, so this should be an interesting matchup between an improbably hot passer and a No. 1 defense that has to prove its early-season historical dominance wasn’t just the result of a pathetic schedule. If you look at New England’s top nine games in defensive EPA on PFR, eight of them are Weeks 1-8 (the other game was lowly Cincinnati).

The Patriots are 0-4 when allowing more than 17 points this year and no one has held Tannehill under 20 yet.

The Titans execute the type of offense coaches gloat about, but don’t actually run. They pound you consistently with Derrick Henry, the league’s leading rusher and one of the most north-and-south runners. Henry hasn’t dipped under 4.0 yards per carry in any of Tannehill’s starts. Then they use play-action with the best of them and average almost 11 yards per play doing that. Overall, Tannehill’s average pass comes 9.7 yards down the field, third highest in the league according to Next Gen Stats. They limit Tannehill’s throws — he’s only surpassed 33 passes in two games they lost playing catch-up — and he takes a good share of sacks, but the Titans are fully embracing the “run the ball and throw deep” philosophy that teams only tend to talk about doing. Rookie WR A.J. Brown has also been an exceptional big-play threat for Tannehill this year. Cornerback Stephon Gilmore can have his hands full there.

Then you have the New England offense that peaked in the first two weeks of the season. Since Week 3, Brady’s YPA is 6.29 and it usually takes some type of trick play for him to throw a touchdown pass these days. Antonio Brown was too much of a distraction to last more than a game. They cut Josh Gordon before he could be suspended again. Mohamed Sanu was a poor value trade for a second-round pick. Julian Edelman isn’t 100% right now. Ben Watson is almost as old as Brady and they have done very little in replacing Rob Gronkowski at tight end. This offense is basically gadgets, James White’s YAC and an improved running game that ranks sixth in yards and 10th in YPC since Week 12.

Brady is still getting adequate protection, but he needs it more than ever to move the offense. The Titans aren’t a good pass defense, but they have sacked the opposing quarterback at least three times in 10 of 16 games, and they are 8-1 when the QB passes for 260 or more yards. Tennessee’s comfort zone is making big plays early and pounding Henry late.

Could this be Brady’s final game with the Patriots? Certainly could be the final home game, unless the Patriots luck out again and draw the Bills for the AFC Championship Game. But this doesn’t feel like New England’s year. Maybe they have enough in the tank and the experience and edge from Belichick’s coaching to squeak past the Titans at home, but this doesn’t look like a team ready to go on the road to beat what should be two superior opponents in Kansas City and Baltimore.

But first is Tennessee’s chance to earn the team’s biggest win in a long time. For Tannehill, an impressive game could lead to a contract exceeding $30 million per year. My only concern is the Patriots blitz him relentlessly, he can’t find any receivers underneath, and he takes eight sacks like Mariota did in the playoffs two years ago.

The difference is he could still throw three touchdowns too, which might be enough to beat this version of the Patriots.

Final: Patriots 23, Titans 20

Vikings at Saints (-8)

This game having the weekend’s largest spread makes sense to me. Drew Brees has been on a tear since Week 11 with 22 touchdowns to one interception. The only loss the Saints have in their last seven games was after scoring 46 points against the 49ers. Meanwhile, the Vikings had a good 10-6 season with Kirk Cousins also producing an excellent seven-game stretch (18 touchdowns to one pick), but that ended in Week 11 while Brees’ streak was just beginning. Cousins had his best overall season yet, but there were familiar issues with his team not stepping up against the better competition. Green Bay swept Minnesota, including that horrific Monday night game where Cousins was looking for the signature win of his career. He finished with 3.94 YPA and we haven’t seen him since after he rested for the playoffs in Week 17, another Minnesota loss to Chicago.

So we have two teams coming in on entirely different wavelengths, but at least for Minnesota the game isn’t on Saturday night where we know Brees is even more ridiculous in the Superdome. Brees hasn’t lost a home game he finished in which the Saints allowed fewer than 25 points since December 2009.

It goes without saying that Cousins has to play exceptional football to get this win. That’s been the case his whole career. He’s the only QB in NFL history to have a record of 0-26 when his passer rating is under 85.0. The Vikings like to run the ball with Dalvin Cook (should be available) and use play-action passing, but it was still a top 10 offense without using play-action this year too. The Saints are below average at defending play-action, but not terrible. Their biggest luxury is that they usually play from ahead and teams give up on using it against them. Cousins has very capable receivers in Stefon Diggs, Adam Thielen and TE Kyle Rudolph, but it’s been a while since this group has put together a complete game due to injuries for Cook and Thielen. They should have all these weapons available Sunday, but getting into a shootout is still not ideal for the Vikings.

These are two of the best tackling teams in the league, and their last playoff matchup should be all the warning in the world to not blow a tackle in the open field. According to Pro Football Reference’s advanced data, the Saints (2) and Vikings (1) combined for three RPO plays all season, so that’s not their game. Cousins rarely leaves the pocket while Brees is still a little nimble for 40, but generally these quarterbacks are going to play the game from the pocket. Cameron Jordan and Danielle Hunter were two of the top four pass rushers in getting pressures this year, according to Sports Info Solutions. They’ll have to come through this week, but it is worth noting that Next Gen Stats has Cousins as the only quarterback holding the ball for an average of over 3 seconds this season. We’ve seen strip-sacks cause him problems before, especially as a Viking. Brees doesn’t have a single fumble this year, let alone any lost.

Speaking of turnovers, the Saints just made history by turning the ball over eight times in 2019, a new single-season record low. The Saints only have three giveaways in their last 11 games. If you’re an optimist, then this is awesome. If 2020 hasn’t changed you from being a cynic, then you might think this is a regression disaster in the making, especially in regards to the fumbles. The Vikings also finished third in takeaways per drive, so we’ll see what happens here. It’s hard to see the Vikings winning this game without a big turnover or two.

In a perfect world, you’d match Xavier Rhodes up with Michael Thomas and double team him to force the ball elsewhere. After Thomas and Kamara in the backfield, no one on the Saints caught more than 43 balls. Unfortunately, Rhodes has had a horrible season and no defense seems to go the extra effort to take Thomas away like they should. At this point you just expect him to put up numbers as the Saints continue to pile on the points.

This year basically did set up as a perfect revenge tour for the Brees-Payton era after last year’s blown call in the title game cost them a Super Bowl appearance.

  • Saints won in Chicago, site of the first playoff loss (2006 NFC-CG) for the Brees-Payton era
  • Saints won in Seattle, site of the Beastquake playoff loss and the 2013 divisional round loss
  • Saints returned the favor from last year and beat Dallas in a low-scoring game. Dallas also ended New Orleans’ perfect season at 13-0 in 2009.
  • Saints stiff-armed division rival Matt Ryan into oblivion on Thanksgiving night.
  • Saints could beat the Vikings on Sunday as revenge for the Minnesota Miracle two years ago.
  • Saints could see the 49ers again in the NFC Championship Game, taking revenge for 2011’s playoff loss and the 48-46 game this year.

The only thing missing would be a win in LA against the Rams, but that was the Week 2 game where the refs botched a fumble touchdown call and Brees suffered his injury. Brees is back and playing as well as ever and the Saints are poised to do something great this postseason.

However, I went through the history here just as a reminder that this team has suffered some heart-breaking playoff losses over the years. If Rex Grossman, Alex Smith and Case Keenum can have the biggest wins of their careers against the Saints, then what’s holding Cousins back but his own history?

Final: Saints 30, Vikings 20

Seahawks at Eagles (+2.5)

Let me make sure I frame this one properly. The Seahawks are 11-5 and on the road because of how good the 49ers were this year. But Seattle also outscored its schedule by just 7 points, getting to 11 wins thanks to Russell Wilson leading the league in comebacks (four) and game-winning drives (five). This is the worst defense Wilson has had in the NFL, and his run-heavy offense lost its best back in Chris Carson. They also don’t have Rashaad Penny, who rushed for 91 yards on a single touchdown drive for Seattle in its 17-9 win in Philadelphia in Week 12. Yes, that was not a big Wilson day, as most lately have not been. Wilson has gone from MVP front-runner through nine games to merely decent play over the last seven games. Meanwhile, the Eagles were left for dead at 5-7 after a loss in Miami, but have won four straight against division foes to claim the league’s worst division and a home playoff game. The Eagles remain banged up too, but actually have a better scoring differential (+31) than Seattle this year. Seattle’s played a tougher schedule of course, but that’s still surprising.

This sounds like it’s adding up to another disappointing early exit for Seattle, but this team is 7-1 on the road, including the aforementioned 17-9 win in Philly. An 8-point win for this Seattle team is like a 17-point win for a regular playoff team. They just don’t know how to blow anyone out and Wilson is usually too good over the course of 60 minutes to get blown out. So it would be a surprise to not see a competitive game with two teams fielding a lot of middling units right now.

One thing I’m pretty certain about is that the Seahawks still have the QB edge in this matchup. While Wilson’s play has been down for his standards, Carson Wentz is getting way too much credit for his play — tale as old as time — over the last month. Head coach Doug Pederson deserves more credit for changing the offense to adjust for injuries and these players, including Wentz, have played well against bad division foes that failed to adjust to these changes.

It would go against everything I’ve ever written about quarterbacks to pretend this is some MVP stretch of QB play from Wentz. Let’s review the facts:

  • Since Week 14, Wentz ranks dead last in average depth of target. He’s the only quarterback throwing his average pass shorter than 6 yards beyond the line of scrimmage in that time.
  • Wentz has 14 more passes than the next closest player that were thrown at or behind the line of scrimmage since Week 14.
  • Since Week 14, Wentz ranks 16th in passing DYAR and 17th in DVOA (-2.8%) among 32 qualified passers. That’s mediocre.
  • Wentz’s QBR in his last four games: 40.2, 63.5, 72.3, and 32.1. That’s not good and none of those games were higher than his 78.3 in the Miami loss.
  • Since Week 14, Wentz is one of 10 quarterbacks to throw at least seven touchdown passes. He has 7. Wentz ranks eighth in passer rating (100.8) and 20th in yards per attempt (6.93).
  • Wentz’s last four opponents were the lowly NFC East: Giants twice (31st ranked pass defense in DVOA), Redskins (24th) and Cowboys (23rd).
  • The 2019 NFC East finished 12-28 (.300) in non-division games, one of the worst records since 2002 realignment.
  • Wentz’s 2019 vs. NFC East: 5-1, 67.65% complete, 11 TD, 1 INT, 101.9 PR, 7.16 YPA
  • Dak Prescott’s 2019 vs. NFC East: 5-1, 70.65% complete, 15 TD, 3 INT, 115.6 PR, 8.65 YPA.
  • Josh Allen threw five touchdowns and no picks against the NFC East this year with 101.4 rating and 7.53 YPA.
  • Sam Darnold was 3-0 against the NFC East with 112.6 rating and 9.36 YPA.
  • Ryan Fitzpatrick also had his best 2019 numbers (104.8 PR and 8.05 YPA) against the NFC East.

I didn’t even mention that Wentz fumbled seven times (two lost) in that four-game stretch. This is not what the pinnacle of QB play looks like, folks. This is a quarterback executing a dink-and-dunk offense that is taking advantage of the matchups the Eagles have at running back and tight end and exploiting them against crap competition in games they had to eek out in the fourth quarter or overtime. Has he made some great throws? Yes, I’ve tweeted about the dart TD throw against Washington and the two longer throws against Giants in Week 17. But he’s still under 7.0 YPA and relying on YAC in these games. Is it good that he’s finally finishing off game-winning drives? Of course, though it’s not like beating terrible Giants and Redskins teams has been an issue for him. I’ve said a long time ago that’s his jam. Four of his eight game-winning drives are against the Giants. He’s won three games he finished in which the Eagles allowed more than 24 points, and two of them are the 2019 Redskins (3-13 team).

There’s a cottage industry dedicated to making Wentz’s career sound better than it has been so far. For example, this stat has gained traction since last Sunday: Wentz is the first ever 4,000-yard passer who did not have a 500-yard wide receiver. And? Alshon Jeffery had 490 yards in 10 games before going on IR. Would an extra 10 yards from him change anything this season?

Let’s frame the stat better. Wentz is the NFL’s first 4,000-yard passer that had a running back and two tight ends go over 500 yards in the same season. Yes, that’s never been done before either and it’s a better way to highlight the type of offense the Eagles operate. It’s not a badge of honor for Wentz like the no WR stat sounds like, but a sign that their offense is unique. Also, if the 2019 Eagles are the sample size of one for having an offense like this, then it’s not really a good thing. The Eagles finished 17th in points per drive and are only in the playoffs because of their terrible division.

As I ranted about in December, wide receivers are the position most dependent on good quarterback play. Throws to running backs and tight ends are easier to complete, but they’re not necessarily as valuable to an offense. With Wentz’s accuracy problems, it makes sense that the Eagles would build more around Miles Sanders (impressive rookie back) and the best tight end duo in the league (Zach Ertz and Dallas Goedert). No matter what Eagles fans try to sell you, Wentz has accuracy issues. The Eagles had issues with drops early in the season, but finished 19th in drop rate (4.8%). They also had the eighth-worst rate of on-target throws because that excludes throwaways, which isn’t something Wentz does that often.

Accurate quarterbacks can make household names out of nobodies, which is the final point I’m going to make about this Wentz run. It’s being led by the line that he’s carrying — by totally “shredding” defenses — the Eagles to the playoffs with practice squad players. This is the kind of angle you’d only get for a player the media loves to pump up. When Matt Ryan throws a 93-yard touchdown to a rookie UDFA no one’s ever heard of (Olamide Zaccheaus), the media doesn’t blink an eye. Yet when Wentz completes a 6-yard pass to Robert Davis, they act like he cured cancer.

After arguing about football on the internet for two decades, I can honestly say I’ve never seen people ignore draft position and fixate on this practice squad thing like they are with the Eagles. Yes, Robert Davis spent a brief period on the Eagles practice squad before moving up, but he was a sixth-round pick by Washington in 2017 and he’s only caught 1-of-3 targets for 6 yards with Wentz. RB Boston Scott is another player promoted from a practice squad, but he was a sixth-round pick by the 2018 Saints. He’s played pretty well at times, especially in Week 17, and we know RB is a position notorious for producing stars off the street. Hell, Marshawn Lynch hadn’t played in 14.5 months and looked pretty solid for Seattle last Sunday night, scoring on a touchdown plunge.

It’s absolutely true that the Eagles have been rocked by injury, but it’s facetious to sell this offense as one that is thriving by practice squad players. For one, the fans complained about Alshon Jeffery and Nelson Agholor when they were healthy and playing. Jeffery messed with the leadership and chemistry in the locker room. Agholor was statistically the worst receiver in football this year, so his targets going to anyone else is a good thing. Calling Jordan Howard RB1 may be technically true, but he’s not as dynamic as the rookie Sanders, and I can’t believe people are using “rookie RB” as a negative given the rich history of instant success at the position. But hey, anything to pump up Wentz.

Over the last four games, 54.2% of Wentz’s passing yardage has gone through four players the Eagles have spent top 60 draft picks on: Zach Ertz, Miles Sanders, Dallas Goedert, and J.J. Arcega-Whiteside. These are players they were expecting to produce for them, but a couple are producing a little more sooner because of the injuries. Wentz made a great 40-yard play to Deontay Burnett last week. It was one play, but at least it was great. Josh Perkins caught a great 24-yard touchdown from Wentz last week. Perkins also caught a TD from Matt Ryan in his 2016 MVP season, but that wasn’t part of the MVP case for Ryan that year.

The guy who has been really producing out of nowhere with no NFL track record is WR Greg Ward, who had his first six catches in the Seattle game in Week 12. He has 254 yards for the Eagles this year. Call me crazy, but is it not possible that Ward is just a decent receiver who has played well for the team so far? He’s been in their building since 2017. He’s not going to be played by Mark Wahlberg in a movie in 20 years for various reasons, but let’s calm down on acting like he’s proof that Wentz is a top QB now.

Even Aaron Rodgers fans aren’t bowing to their God because Allen Lazard has 477 yards this year. I also don’t remember anyone saying this about Zach Pascal on the Colts last year, who had 268 yards and a couple of touchdowns with Andrew Luck. Pascal improved in 2019 without Luck and had 607 yards and five touchdowns. Sometimes guys just slip through the draft process, but that doesn’t mean they’re incapable of playing in this league. I’ll give Ward some respect, and probably more than some of the opposing defenses who won’t cover him as tightly since they don’t understand who he is yet. Like I always said with the early 2000s Patriots, not having someone to draw double coverage or key on could be used as an advantage to the offense where the ball could literally go anywhere on a given play. The Eagles have that type of advantage right now.

So I don’t know if we’ll be talking about the Eagles beyond this weekend, but I just thought there were some really misleading things in the media about this last month’s stretch of play for Wentz and the offense. You can appreciate their effort as an undermanned unit, but let’s stop with the hyperbole and remember which teams they beat to get in this spot. If you want more respect, then beat the Seahawks. Pete Carroll is 5-0 against the Eagles as coach of the Seahawks.

Home underdogs are rare in the playoffs, but they also have a winning record (29-26) since the merger, including two wins by the 2017 Eagles. In fact, home underdogs would have four wins in a row in the playoffs had Minnesota’s Blair Walsh not missed a short field goal against the Seahawks in 2015. Of course, the Eagles won a Wild Card game last year in Chicago after the Bears missed a game-winning field goal. I only point to those two results as this is a game with a spread of 2.5, so it could come down to a kick again. Or maybe Pederson rolls the dice with a two-point conversion with the Eagles only down a point late, placing Football Analytics Twitter into the center of hell.

Who am I kidding? You know it’s going to be hell there regardless of the outcome in this one.

Final: Seahawks 24, Eagles 23

2019 Full NFL Playoff Predictions

Here is my latest crack at predicting the whole tournament.

Wild Card:

  • Texans over Bills
  • Patriots over Titans
  • Saints over Vikings
  • Seahawks over Eagles

Divisional:

  • Ravens over Texans
  • Chiefs over Patriots
  • Saints over Packers
  • 49ers over Seahawks

Conference Championship:

  • Ravens over Chiefs
  • 49ers over Saints

Super Bowl LIV:

  • Ravens over 49ers (Super Bowl MVP: Lamar Jackson)

Last year I predicted Saints over Chiefs. I thought we should have had that matchup, but things went the opposite way on Championship Sunday. This year I’d still prefer to see it over any other matchup, but I think this has been Baltimore and Lamar Jackson’s season. If we get that Chiefs-Ravens AFC Championship Game, I think it could have the kind of career-defining implications that the 2003 AFC Championship Game had for Manning and Brady, but more on that in the weeks to come provided we get there. After all, something crazy could happen any given week. The fact that Ryan Tannehill is here and playing so well could shake things up, and I also think the Bills could blow up some of the playoff matchups we hope to see in the AFC for years to come. The 49ers have also really impressed me in the NFC and I think they have enough to go the distance.

It should be a significant month for legacies.

Finally, here’s the recap of my picks this season:

2019Wk1-17