Where Did the NFL’s Close Playoff Games Go?

Losing is one thing, but when you don’t even make it competitive, it’s another thing.

That was Arizona quarterback Kyler Murray after his team’s embarrassing 34-11 playoff loss to the Rams on Monday night, concluding a not-so-competitive Super Wild Card weekend with four routs and two close finishes.

None of the six games saw a second-half lead change, let alone a fourth-quarter lead change. We have gone 19 straight playoff games without a fourth-quarter lead change. The last was Kansas City, thanks to a third-and-15 conversion, in Super Bowl LIV against the 49ers. The last second-half lead change was in the 2020 NFC divisional between the Saints and Buccaneers after Jared Cook fumbled at midfield in the third quarter with the Saints up 20-13.

But this past weekend and all last postseason have sucked a lot of the usual drama and breaking point moments we are accustomed to seeing out of the NFL playoffs. You want to know who wins these games ahead of time? Pick the team leading after the third quarter. Hell, pound the live moneyline for the team leading at halftime.

Excluding ties, the team leading at halftime has won 25 straight playoff games. The last loss was the 2019 Bills in Houston in the wild card round. Teams leading at halftime win 79.4% of all playoff games since the 1970 merger, so it’s not that surprising these teams usually win the game. But 25 in a row? We haven’t seen a streak like that in the Super Bowl era.

I did the research, and learned some annoying things along the way about how Excel treats times copied from Stathead, and I compiled a chronological database of all 589 playoff games in NFL history. If the Bengals-Titans game on Saturday afternoon does not deliver a fourth-quarter lead change (AKA comeback), this streak of 20 straight playoff games without one would tie the NFL record. We just surpassed an 18-game streak from 2004-06 as the second longest in NFL history.

A total of 129 of the 589 NFL playoff games have been won by a team trailing in the fourth quarter (21.9%).

Interestingly enough, the first two playoff games in NFL history both saw fourth-quarter comebacks. The Bears exchanged touchdowns with the Giants in a 23-21 finish in 1933, and the Giants paid them back a year later with a 27-0 fourth quarter run that turned a 13-3 deficit into a 30-13 win. Can you believe that record for points in a fourth quarter of a playoff game (27) still stands today? Something that was set in 1934 in the second playoff game ever.

But after those two thrillers to start the postseason, fans were treated to 20 straight playoff games without a fourth-quarter lead change, which spanned a time from 1935 to 1950. That means the pre-TV era where you’d have to listen to the game on the radio at best, or read about it in the newspaper the next day, and that’s if you weren’t worried about bigger things like World War II.

Finally, in 1950 things changed when a few AAFC teams integrated into the NFL and the Cleveland Browns were the best of the bunch. In their first season against the prolific Rams, the Browns played one of the best championship games ever, a 30-28 comeback win. The rest is history.

 But we are definitely in a drought for playoff excitement. I’ve already mentioned Super Bowl 54, famous for Kansas City’s “Wasp” call on third-and-15, and that Texans-Bills overtime game that started the 2019 postseason. Those are the only two fourth-quarter comebacks in the last three postseasons. That means 28 of the last 29 playoff games have not had a fourth-quarter lead change.

To find something comparable, you have to go back to a stretch in 1983-86 when 24 out of 25 playoff games did not have a 4QC. That’s as close as it gets, so we are really in uncharted territory.

While I am not a fan of it, I do not believe the expansion to a 14-team playoff field is causing this drought. I’ve said repeatedly since last year ended that the most competitive and best played playoff game by both teams was the inaugural No. 7 vs. No. 2 seed when the Colts and Bills opened the playoffs in Philip Rivers’ last game.

The 2021 Raiders had a minus-65 point differential and still came the closest to pulling out a clutch win this weekend. Yes, technically they would have gone to overtime with a touchdown and extra point, but going for two and the win was an option, and at least they threw near the goal line instead of having Derek Carr run without timeouts like some slapdick team this weekend.

If you like decisive wins, then these recent postseasons should keep you happy. But as a fan of drama, a connoisseur of comebacks, a bettor who hates what blowouts do to prop bets, I am not having a good time with the pandemic playoffs.

I’ll have previews on the divisional round games, my favorite week of the NFL year, on Thursday and Friday. Hopefully we’ll get some much needed drama from these games, because this is often a round where many teams that go on to win the Super Bowl experience a real breaking point during their run. It’s especially common for lower seeds who had to fight off a tougher road opponent coming off a bye in this round. I have highlighted 14 of those Super Bowl winners since 1978 when the 16-game season and expanded wild card playoff era began where the divisional round gave them a major test, if not their biggest on the way to a championship.

  • 1980 Raiders at Browns: Red-Right 88 in Cleveland. Tom Flores is never sniffing the Hall of Fame if Brian Sipe didn’t foolishly throw a red-zone pick in a 14-12 game in bad weather.
  • 1987 Redskins at Bears: An obscure one, but Chicago’s Jim McMahon threw a red-zone interception down 21-17 early in the fourth quarter, a scoreless quarter that saw the Redskins pull off the upset.
  • 1997 Broncos at Chiefs: Steve Atwater tips away a fourth-down pass from Elvis Grbac at the goal line in Kansas City as the Broncos hang on for a 14-10 win over the No. 1 seed.
  • 2000 Ravens at Titans: Tied 10-10, the Ravens block Al Del Greco’s field goal and return it 90 yards for the game-winning touchdown. Ray Lewis also adds a pick-six off Steve McNair.
  • 2001 Patriots vs. Raiders: The Tuck Rule, followed by the greatest field goal in NFL history. Enough said.
  • 2003 Patriots vs. Titans: On a frigid night, the Patriots broke a tie with a 46-yard field goal by Adam Vinatieri. The Titans had a chance to answer late, but Drew Bennett dropped a fourth-and-12 pass from co-MVP Steve McNair in a 17-14 loss.
  • 2005 Steelers at Colts: One of the most dramatic fourth quarters in NFL history, the Steelers nearly blow a 21-3 lead in Indianapolis. Jerome Bettis’ late fumble could have been returned for a touchdown by Nick Harper, who was stabbed by his wife the previous night, but Ben Roethlisberger made the all-time tackle by an offensive player, and Mike Vanderjagt cemented his legacy as an all-time choker at kicker. The Steelers went on to become the first sixth seed to win a Super Bowl after going 3-0 on the road.
  • 2007 Giants at Cowboys: Tony Romo was intercepted at the end of a 21-17 upset by the Giants, who were swept by Dallas in the regular season.
  • 2012 Ravens at Broncos: Down 35-28 with 40 seconds left, Joe Flacco’s deep ball is misplayed by safety Rahim Moore and caught for a 70-yard touchdown by Jacoby Jones. The Ravens would go on to win in overtime.
  • 2014 Patriots vs. Ravens: New England trailed by 14 twice in the game but led 35-31 late when Joe Flacco forced a deep ball (in a situation he didn’t have to) and was intercepted, because He willed it.
  • 2015 Broncos vs. Steelers: Fitzgerald Toussaint, a third-string RB for Pittsburgh, fumbles in Denver territory with the Steelers up 13-12 in the fourth quarter. Not pressed for time or relying on a liquored-up kicker, Manning makes the Steelers pay for their RB fumble this time with a game-winning touchdown drive.
  • 2017 Eagles vs. Falcons: Up 15-10, the Eagles had to hang on with a red-zone stop against Matt Ryan’s offense at the end of the game. Final play: incomplete on fourth down from the 2-yard line. 
  • 2019 Chiefs vs. Texans: A drama-free second half believe it or not, but the Chiefs were down 24-0 to start their Super Bowl run before rallying for a 51-31 rout. We might never see one like that again.
  • 2020 Buccaneers at Saints: Really the turning point of the whole postseason a year ago, Jared Cook fumbled at midfield with the Saints up 20-13 in the third quarter. It was one of three turnovers the Buccaneers used to get touchdown drives that started inside the New Orleans 40 in the final game of Drew Brees’ career – his worst game in a Saints uniform.

Do we add something from this year’s slate? Maybe Joe Burrow and Ja’Marr Chase pull off an upset or give the surprising No. 1 seed Titans a real scare before what would be a shocking Super Bowl appearance for either team. The 49ers could move to 4-0 in the playoffs against Aaron Rodgers and the Packers. The Bills are looking for revenge from last year’s AFC Championship Game and have already handed Patrick Mahomes the worst home loss of his career (38-20) earlier this season. If any second-round matchup has ever had a “winner wins the Super Bowl” vibe to it, it’s this one.

That all sounds good on paper until the young Bengals get exposed on the road, the 49ers get rocked with Jimmy Garoppolo playing injured, Matthew Stafford turns into a pick machine in Tampa Bay, and someone wins by two touchdowns in Kansas City.

But we can still dream it will be great.

NFL 2021 Awards

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

Most Valuable Player: Aaron Rodgers, Packers

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Offensive Player of the Year: Cooper Kupp, Rams

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Defensive Rookie of the Year: Micah Parsons, Cowboys

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

Comeback Player of the Year: Joe Burrow, Bengals

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

Most Improved Player of the Year: Joe Burrow, Bengals

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

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

Coach of the Year: Mike Vrabel, Titans

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

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

Assistant Coach of the Year: Rich Bisaccia, Raiders

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

Executive of the Year: Les Snead, Rams

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

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

NFL 2021: Close Game Summary

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

NFL Is on Pace for Second-Highest Scoring Season on Record

Coming into the 2021 NFL season, I wanted to see how the return of crowds would impact the record-setting offensive numbers we saw in the 2020 pandemic season. Offense has been trending up for years, but I thought we’d see some regression this year and a return to some better defenses.

Through five weeks and 80 games, that is basically what has happened, though I’m not sure I would call any defense great except for what the Bills have done so far.

Scoring

Teams are averaging 23.8 points per game, which would rank between 2020 (24.8) and 2013 (23.4) for the second-highest season in NFL history. Points per drive are at 2.15, which would rank second behind last year’s 2.20.

Third Downs

The 2020 season was historic for having a third down conversion rate of 41.6%, the highest on record as these stats are known back to 1991. The only other season above 40% was 1995 (40.1%). So far in 2021, offenses are converting 40.6% of third downs, a full percentage point below last year, but it would still be good enough for the second-highest season. The Chiefs are at 58.8% on third down, which would break the 2011 Saints’ record (56.7%).

Red Zone

Believe it or not, but just 20 years ago offenses were stopped in the red zone from scoring a touchdown more often than not. The red zone TD% was 48.3% in 2001. It has never dipped below 50% ever since, and in 2020, offenses set a record by scoring on 61.2% of their red zone trips. This season, the numbers are basically the same so far at 61.1%.

Offensive Holding

This was something that slipped my mind when I wrote my season predictions on here. A lack of offensive holding penalties in 2020 really helped offenses finish drives for touchdowns since a holding penalty can be so disruptive to scoring. Think of it as a mini-turnover. For whatever reason, refs were shy to throw flags for this a year ago. The 2020 regular season finished with 459 offensive holding penalties, the fewest in any season since 2009. In 2019, there was a decade-high 720 offensive holding penalties, so maybe this was an overcorrection.

How are things shaping up through five weeks? In Weeks 1-5 of the 2019 season there were 274 offensive holding penalties. That went down to 135 last year and is now back up to 198 this year. So it is being called more in line with the 2009-2014 seasons than the increase in recent years.

I’ll be keeping an eye on these numbers for the rest of the season, but it looks like a safe bet that 2021 will finish behind last year’s offensive explosion, which is still good for the second-most offensive season in NFL history.

Shout out to the Kansas City defense for helping these offenses live their best lives.

Justin Herbert & Matthew Stafford: Keep On Chucking in the Free World

From Joe Burrow last Thursday night to Tom Brady on Sunday night to Justin Herbert on Monday night to Matthew Stafford tonight, the NFL is showing us four of the most prolific passers in history in prime time.

Prolific in which way? Simply by throwing the football. After Monday night’s win over the Raiders, Herbert (759) now has the most pass attempts through 20 career games in NFL history. The thing is he’s only played 19 games, but he’s already one ahead of the record pace.

Who has thrown the most passes in NFL history? The guy who has played the longest, of course. Brady recently surpassed Brees for the most attempts through 300 games in NFL history.

But then there is the case of Matthew Stafford, who was a Volume God in Detroit with pass attempts. You can already see this when I posted the most passing yards by game in NFL history, and Patrick Mahomes is doing his best to erase Stafford from that chart.

Now I have a new chart that shows the most pass attempts by career game number in regular-season history, and Stafford is dominating this one too. Unless Herbert keeps up with him, Stafford could be poised to fill out most of this chart if he stays healthy.

CLICK TO ENLARGE

First, who thought it was a good idea to let Mike Glennon throw 181 passes in his first four games with the 2013 Buccaneers? That was a shocking entry I never would have guessed, nor was I counting on Todd Marinovich to show up after two games with the early 90s Raiders.

Right from the first game with Sam Bradford, there is a striking trend here. In the first 175 slots, 167 of them are filled with a QB who was drafted No. 1 overall. This league just loves drafting a quarterback with the first pick and throwing him into the role of savior where he loads up on pass attempts each week even though he’s not that efficient at doing so. We see Bradford, Drew Bledsoe, Stafford, Andrew Luck, and Joe Burrow all crack this list.

Most of these charts have been runaways by a few players, but I was definitely amused at filling out the first column with the unexpected names and the battle that ensued between Bledsoe and Stafford. By Game No. 38, Stafford took over for good. I’ve definitely drawn comparisons between the two several times before:

Stafford has the most pass attempts through 175 games in NFL history, and he has only played 169 games. We’ll see if he can make this second act with the Rams so prolific that it lands him in the Hall of Fame some day.

Lamar Jackson: Breaking Stats, Hearts, and Minds

While the talk surrounding Baltimore’s 23-7 win in Denver on Sunday is about Lamar Jackson’s late run to extend the team’s record streak of 100-yard rushing games, it has been quiet on the NFL media front that he threw 37 passes and registered his third 300-yard passing game in his career. It is only the fifth game in Jackson’s career where he threw the ball at least 35 times.

Jackson recently broke 1,000 pass attempts in his regular season career, which must have prompted this Deadspin article last week about how Jackson has the “NFL’s greatest QB start ever.” I’ll get into multiple things from the article below, but it ends by saying, “Lamar Jackson is only 24 years old, and just posted the greatest FIRST 1,000 Pass start in modern quarterback history. Now write about it.”

Challenge accepted, because I already subtweeted about this article the other day, but it and Lamar’s unique career deserve a more in-depth look. I have neither any beef nor familiarity with the author (Chuck Modiano) of the piece. I just think Lamar’s career is the right place to talk about quarterback statistics in a game that is evolving.

Yes, Running QBs Make Life Harder on Statistics

The premise of the Deadspin article is that stat companies such as PFF and Football Outsiders continue to miss the mark on running quarterbacks like Lamar Jackson (and Cam Newton). The author concludes that if you combine Lamar’s elite passing production through 1,000 attempts, his historic rushing production, and his team impact (high winning percentage), then he’s had the greatest first 1,000 pass start in modern history for an NFL quarterback.

I have certainly read worse arguments over the years, but I disagree with this one on the obviousness of Patrick Mahomes dominating the league and rewriting the record books at the same time as Jackson’s rise.

Not to mention Mahomes is still 3-1 in the head-to-head matchups. While Jackson unanimously won MVP in 2019, Mahomes ended that season with the Super Bowl MVP and had another stellar run last season. 2020 also brought the return of Peak Aaron Rodgers in Green Bay and the breakout of Josh Allen in Buffalo. Of course, we also live in a world where Tom Brady reverse ages and annually hits the “EASY” button he sold his soul for each postseason to add to his ring collection. So given Lamar’s playoff struggles, it is no surprise that the media does not revolve around Jackson in this era.

But one thing I won’t argue is that Jackson is indisputably the most prolific rushing quarterback in NFL history. He proved that after back-to-back 1,000-yard rushing seasons and leading the NFL in yards per carry both years. He has also shown he can be durable doing it (so far) as only COVID-19 has kept him out of one game, plus that night in Cleveland where he had to take a shit and missed a few plays.

However, this rushing part of his game that makes him so unique also makes him harder to evaluate statistically. While the author is correct that the stat companies have struggled in this area, his remedy to fix it also misses the mark.

Any time you see someone try to combine rushing with passing in a quarterback metric, it tends to overvalue the running quarterback. ESPN’s QBR is notorious for having a hard-on for rushing quarterbacks, especially when they scramble for a big gain on a third down. You can see it in the way that Mitchell Trubisky (71.0) was their No. 3 quarterback in 2018, or how David Garrard’s 2007 with Jacksonville is still the No. 8 season since 2006. You also should note that Lamar’s 2019 (83.0) is the fourth highest season in QBR.

I cannot find the link now, but about 15 years ago I saw a guy rank the top ~50 quarterbacks of all time, and he used a formula that put a bonus for rushing. It ended up having Mark Brunell in the top 30 if I’m not mistaken. Yeah, adding rushing is problematic. Football Outsiders has not figured out a good way of doing it in two decades, so rushing is still kept separate from passing.

While the author wants to include Jackson’s rushing, there are parts early in the article where he keeps it separate. But by not thinking about Jackson’s attempts on the ground, you’re presenting what are misleading figures for Jackson’s touchdown passes. Through 1,000 passes, Jackson (70) has the fourth-most touchdown passes, trailing only Dan Marino (75), Kurt Warner (73), and Mahomes (71).

This looks great for Jackson but think about what the average touchdown drive looks like for these quarterbacks. The other three were going to throw a lot of passes while Marino and Warner would rarely ever run. Mahomes scrambles at times, but most of the offense is him passing. For Lamar, his Ravens run a lot and so does he, so he can keep his pass attempts lower while still ending drives with touchdown passes. This is why we need to stop fixating on that number of 1,000 passes and start focusing on things like an equal number of games played and rate stats.

On Pro Football Reference, you can search a quarterback’s first four seasons and find their Adjusted Net Yards per Pass Attempt index (ANY/A), which will factor in sacks (but not rushing) and the era the quarterback played in. When you run that search for quarterbacks with 1,000-plus attempts, Jackson comes in 14th at 112 ANY/A+, right behind the likes of Russell Wilson (115), Peyton Manning (113), and Deshaun Watson (113). Warner (133), Marino (132), and Mahomes (129) are the only players above 120, and it is hard to argue with anyone having better starts to their careers than those three.

But that does not include rushing, which means it also does not look at fumbles, or something that Jackson does a fair amount since he handles the ball so much with defenders coming after him. The author talks about interception totals by decade, but again, that can be misleading as mobile quarterbacks often have lower interceptions due to their love of scrambling and taking more sacks than pocket passers. We should be looking at total turnovers by including fumbles lost.

The author makes an argument for combining rush and pass stats instead of segregating them. “When Lamar ran for two 4th-quarter TDs to beat the Chiefs, it counted for the same exact points as if he threw those TDs. So why don’t we show that PRODUCTION?”

By making that argument, and earlier saying that he favors substance over style and will not reward style points, then he must agree that we should be treating a 6-yard completion on a curl route the same as a quarterback escaping a blitzing linebacker and scrambling for a 6-yard gain. That simple pass play still counts for the same yards as if he ran the ball, right?

So here is what I did. I gathered data for the first 45 starts (playoffs included) of the 60 quarterbacks who have made their starting debut since 2001. Jackson just made his 45th start on Sunday in Denver in case you’re confused why I picked 45. I looked at their passes, sacks, runs, and fumbles and combined those stats to figure out their total number of plays, total yards gained, total touchdowns, and total turnovers. From there I can figure out their yards per play and touchdown rate (TD%) per play.

Finally, I took the ANY/A formula and tweaked it to include fumbles and rushes. I thought this was better than tweaking passer rating for rushing as the author did at the end to get a 109.5 Production Rating for Lamar. I’ve just never liked the idea of giving a quarterback completion bonuses for every run, so I stuck with ANY/A.

Here are some of the findings on where Lamar stacks up among the 60 quarterbacks thru 45 starts:

Win% and Average Points Scored: Jackson is 34-11 (.756) as a starter, second only to Mahomes (36-9, .800). Brady, Roethlisberger, and Wilson were all 33-12 (.733), or just one game behind Jackson. Scoring has gone up in recent years, so it is not a big surprise to see Mahomes (32.4) and Jackson (28.7) average the most team points per start.

Jackson’s Passing Ranks and Rushing:

  • 14th in completion percentage (62.8%)
  • 49th in passing yards (8,975)
  • 15th in yards per attempt (7.51)
  • 11th in touchdown passes (74; tied with Kirk Cousins)
  • 2nd in touchdown pass rate (6.19%)
  • 12th in lowest interception rate (2.18%)
  • 5th in passer rating (97.3)
  • 7th in ANY/A (6.80; passes only).

In rushing, Jackson is easily No. 1 in attempts (550) and rushing yards (3,413), and he is No. 4 in YPC (6.21) and No. 3 in TD runs (21). Jackson’s 38 fumbles trail only Josh McCown (42) and Michael Vick (39). His 14 lost fumbles are tied for the seventh most. Jackson’s 40 total turnovers are tied for the ninth fewest.

Advanced Metrics to Include All Play Types: Jackson is No. 7 in total yards (11,891) and tied with Josh Allen for No. 4 in total touchdowns (95). That’s good company, but on a per-play basis, Jackson falls as the increased choice to be a 6.2 YPC runner instead of a 7.5 YPA passer hurts his numbers. Jackson ranks 15th in yards per play (6.46) and 6th in TD% (5.16%). When I include everything into ANY/A, he ranks No. 6 in that too (6.51).

Here is a graph of all 60 quarterbacks through their first 45 starts since 2001. The x-axis is their total TD% and the y-axis is their ANY/A with all plays included.

Yep, Jackson is doing very well, but Mahomes is killing the league. Running for over 100 yards as a team every week is cool and the Ravens have been historic with that under Lamar, but it still does not produce the results of being a lethal passing team like the Chiefs.

Jackson Is Still Developing

You can appreciate Jackson’s unique greatness while still having valid questions and criticisms about his ability to perform in certain situations or what his long-term success will be.

The four playoff games bring Jackson down a bit, but shouldn’t we have some higher expectations for him there? Most of the players who come up in comparison to him here (Mahomes, Wilson, Marino, Warner, Roethlisberger, Brady) all won or were in a Super Bowl within two seasons as a starter. Jackson is 1-3 with his best game being a low-scoring wild card win in Tennessee last year.

While we talk about Jackson’s unique place in history, his postseason history leaves so much to be desired. 2020 was the third postseason in a row where the Ravens scored their season-low in points with Jackson at quarterback. Safe to say that stat will not come up in his contract negotiations. When you compare that to some other recent quarterbacks for how often they scored their season-low in a playoff game, Jackson’s three-for-three is a huge eyesore. It is as many times as Peyton Manning, Aaron Rodgers, and Ben Roethlisberger combined.

  • Lamar Jackson (100%): three times in three postseasons (2018, 2019, 2020)
  • Patrick Mahomes (33.3%): once in three postseasons (2020)
  • Philip Rivers (28.6%): two times in seven postseasons (2007, 2009)
  • Tom Brady (27.8%): five times in 18 postseasons (2005, 2007, 2011-T, 2012, 2019-T)
  • Cam Newton (25.0%): once in four postseasons (2015)
  • Peyton Manning (20.0%): three times in 15 postseasons (2002, 2004, 2013)
  • Joe Flacco (16.7%): once in six postseasons (2009)
  • Matt Ryan (16.7%): once in six postseasons (2011)
  • Russell Wilson (12.5%): once in eight postseasons (2015)
  • Drew Brees (10.0%): once in 10 postseasons (2020)
  • Aaron Rodgers (0.0%): zero times in 10 postseasons
  • Ben Roethlisberger (0.0%): zero times in 11 postseasons

The other thing I saw in that article was a link to another piece saying that Jackson has debunked that he can’t be clutch because of the Detroit finish in Week 3. I also saw Ryan Clark on Twitter ask why people weren’t talking about Lamar’s play on 4th-and-19 to Sammy Watkins to set up the game-winning field goal.

Well, I think it’s pretty obvious why a record-setting 66-yard field goal by the great Justin Tucker stole all the headlines. Especially with the way it bounced in good. Just an incredible, history-making play.

But this is another situation where if Jackson played the position better, he’d get more of the attention. No one was expecting the Ravens to be down late in that game. Drops by Marquise Brown aside, it was Jackson who forced an interception on third down in Detroit territory, which the Lions turned into a go-ahead scoring drive. On the last drive, it was a 4th-and-19 after Jackson took two sacks on the drive. If he plays the drive better and sets Tucker up for a shorter, easier field goal, then Jackson gets more credit. He didn’t, so we go nuts over what Tucker did to bail the team out. Simple as that.

Similar things with the Chiefs win the week before. While Jackson did his part in the fourth quarter, most people can see that it took a really bad fumble by Clyde Edwards-Helaire in field goal range to decide that game. Jackson put them away on the ground, but he was only in that position after a rare fumble. Had the Ravens lost 38-36, Jackson would have still been credited for having his best game yet against the Chiefs, but those early interceptions, including a pick-six to start the game, would have stood out too.

If that CEH fumble and 66-yard field goal are the new proof that Jackson is clutch, well then that’s just not a good argument either.  Jackson has six game-winning drives in his career and five of them were field goals by Tucker from distances of 24, 46, 49, 55, and 66 yards. Oof. He did at least have the touchdown drives against the Chiefs and the long touchdown on fourth down to Hollywood Brown in the Cleveland Poop Game (47-42), but to say Jackson is proven in this department is just not true at all.

While Jackson is absolutely unique and fun to watch, let’s roll back the hyperbole that he’s off to the greatest start in NFL history by a quarterback. No metric, no matter how much you want to overvalue his runs, is going to support that.

It’s not even the best start by someone drafted in the last five years.

Pittsburgh Steelers: The Day the Whole Offense Went Away

The date was December 2, 2020. It was a Wednesday afternoon. The Pittsburgh Steelers were 10-0 and while it was rarely pretty, they led the NFL in scoring differential (+124). They were the 10th team in NFL history to score at least 24 points in each of their first 10 games, and while they stick out like a sore thumb on such a list, they were still there. Ben Roethlisberger’s arm strength was limited post elbow surgery, but his anticipation was better than ever, and he was delivering good touchdown throws and performing on third down and in the red zone.

Things were working out for the team.

In a game that was rescheduled multiple times for COVID-19 reasons, the Steelers were finally hosting a reduced roster from Baltimore. Whether it was restlessness from the delays or rust or division familiarity or the weirdness of playing on Wednesday afternoon in an empty stadium, the Steelers struggled to score in a way they hadn’t all season. They got a pick-six to start the game, but the offense only contributed 13 points in the 19-14 win. Roethlisberger completed 36-of-51 passes, but for only 266 yards as the Steelers dropped way too many passes. But he delivered a great pass late to James Washington to put the game away and move the Steelers to 11-0.

Little did we know that this hiccup would become a chronic cough that has choked the life out of the offense and the team to this day.

The Steelers had a very similar performance the following Monday against Washington, but this time they did not find a way to close the game and suffered their first loss of the season. Things got even worse in Buffalo with Roethlisberger throwing a 51-yard pick-six before halftime that led to a 26-15 loss. In Week 15 in Cincinnati on a Monday night, the Steelers turned in maybe their worst offensive half of football in the Roethlisberger era. No play summarized the struggle better than Roethlisberger throwing a drag route to JuJu Smith-Schuster on a third-and-7 where he was blown up and fumbled. The Steelers were about to lose their fourth game in a row to the Colts before a vintage Roethlisberger rally from down 17 points in the second half at home. But then the starters rested against Cleveland, lost 24-22 to let the Browns make the playoffs, and then were blown away 28-0 in the first quarter in the wild card game after center Maurkice Pouncey blew the opening snap for a touchdown. The Steelers tried to make a brilliant comeback but fell well short in a 48-37 loss.

Offensive coordinator Randy Fichtner fell on the sword and lost his job, one that he was never cut out for. However, the Steelers made the same mistake by promoting from within to give Matt Canada the job for 2021. The offensive line was completely replaced by players of little caliber or value. Alabama running back Najee Harris was drafted in the first round despite a lack of blocking in place for him after the Steelers finished dead last in rushing in 2020. Roethlisberger decided to give it one more go and return for his 18th season.

And yet September 2021 looked like much of December 2020 and January 2021. The new offensive line is worse and Roethlisberger is taking more hits and sacks now despite getting rid of the ball faster than any quarterback. The Steelers remain last in rushing, not even cracking 50 yards in either of the last two losses. The receivers just dropped eight passes on Sunday, though most of the short variety again as the air yards remain limited in Pittsburgh. The defense has not been able to play well the last two weeks due to mounting injuries, most notably with T.J. Watt’s groin.

Nothing is working out now, and with four tough opponents coming up, it is hard to see how the Steelers stay relevant into December this year.

I’m not interested in rehashing everything that has gone wrong for the Steelers in the last year. I mean, I will share this JuJu route chart again just because it’s hilarious and sad and sums up things well for this inept offense:

But with such a noticeable decline starting in that Wednesday game against Baltimore, I wanted to do a comparison of the 10-0 start to the now 10-game sample since that has seen the Steelers go 3-7 with a win over the COVID Ravens, a huge comeback against the Colts, and a surprise comeback in Buffalo in Week 1 that looks like a mirage now.

Yeah, that’s a pretty big decline in everything but sack rate, but Roethlisberger not wanting to hold the ball long anymore has not really been a bonus for this offense. This year he is just running out of time sooner.

But if anything, I would hope this comparison shows that it is flat out wrong to say the Steelers were playing this bad when they were 10-0 last year. The offense clearly had limitations and the running game decay was settling in by Week 8 when the Steelers became the first team in NFL history to win three straight games without rushing for 50 yards. But this offense still produced and found ways to put up points every week for 10 games.

Then December came and all hell broke loose. Scoring has gone down 9.3 points per game. They are throwing the ball more but throwing it worse with more interceptions and dropping more balls. The offense has not scored a single point in the first quarter since Week 10 against the Bengals last year. They are worse in the red zone and on third and fourth down.

But the running game has particularly been a historic embarrassment with 54.0 yards per game and 3.1 YPC in the last 10 games. This is not an indictment on Harris as it starts up front and this goes back long before he was drafted. It was never a smart draft pick.

If it wasn’t for James Conner popping a 25-yard run in Jacksonville last year, the Steelers would be on a 14-game streak of not rushing for more than 86 yards. They can soon tie and break the post-WWII record for games without rushing for 90 yards, having not done so in 10 games going into Green Bay on Sunday.

The Steelers have failed to rush for 50 yards in eight of their last 14 games. In Bill Cowher’s 261 games as coach of the Steelers (1992-2006), they had nine games where they didn’t crack 50 rushing yards. My how times have changed. The post-merger record for most games in a two-year span with under 50 rushing yards is 11 by the 2006-07 Lions. The Steelers have a decent shot at breaking that one with 14 games to go this year.

When you can’t run the ball for simple 3 or 4-yard gains…

When you waste the first quarter every week…

When you don’t throw to the middle of the field anymore…

When you don’t throw deep except for go routes down the left sideline and DPI is your best hope of advancement…

When you don’t bother to use play-action passing…

When you drop easy passes…

When you can’t block for more than 2.3 seconds…

You don’t have an NFL offense anymore. You are more akin to putting 11 crash-test dummies through the motions for three hours a week.

As much as the 10-0 start had me feeling awkward, I didn’t know how bad things would get. When Roethlisberger retires after this season and the Steelers are back in the hunt for a franchise quarterback — the last search took two decades — I have a feeling we’ll be looking back at December 2, 2020 as a date that will live in infamy.

It was the day the whole offense went away in Pittsburgh.

Russell Wilson and the Lonesome Crowded NFC West

In Week 4, the NFC West takes center stage with two standout matchups in the late afternoon slot: Cardinals/Rams and Seahawks/49ers. These are the first division games of the year in what is shaping up to be the best division race in the league just like we expected coming into 2021.

But the Seahawks (1-2), winners of last year’s race, are in danger of slipping to 1-3 for the first time in the Russell Wilson era. While Wilson has some impressive stats again this season, he has the lowest QBR ranking – 55.6 is only good for 15th – of the four quarterbacks in the NFC West, and the Seahawks (15th) are the only NFC West offense not ranked in the top eight in points per drive through three games.

Matthew Stafford and Kyler Murray both have their teams at 3-0, top four in points, and both are top five in QBR with Stafford (82.6) leading the whole NFL so far. If they keep this up, we might see multiple quarterbacks in the NFC West get MVP votes before Wilson ever gets one in his career.

It’s almost like Wilson is becoming the forgotten man in the division that he has been the top star of for a decade now.

But this is nothing new for Wilson. Ever since his rookie year in 2012, he has had to share the spotlight with several quarterbacks in his division as they led their teams to great success too. This has made Wilson’s path to the Hall of Fame a bumpier ride than most of his great peers.

Russell Wilson vs. His Peers vs. Their Division Rivals

It would be wrong to say that Russell Wilson is the only top quarterback to face a real challenger from every team in his division in the last decade.

Ben Roethlisberger faced the Ravens (2014), Bengals (2015), and Browns (2020) in wild card playoff games in the last seven seasons, losing two of them at home. Aaron Rodgers had his toughest division competition early in his career when the 2009 Vikings had Brett Favre and the 2010 Bears gave Jay Cutler a great defense. But in the last decade, he has seen playoff seasons from the Lions with Matthew Stafford, Mike Zimmer’s Vikings with Teddy Bridgewater/Case Keenum’s one-year wonder/Kirk Cousins, and a couple Chicago seasons when Mitchell Trubisky managed Matt Nagy’s offense to something better than 1 net passing yard.

In the NFC South, Drew Brees watched Cam Newton (2015 Panthers) and Matt Ryan (2016 Falcons) win MVP and lose the Super Bowl, while the Saints lost to Tom Brady and the 2020 Buccaneers in the final game of Brees’ career, a pivotal divisional round game that launched Tampa Bay on the path to a Super Bowl win.

However, Wilson has experienced multiple runs and at least one elite season from his NFC West counterparts in addition to some strong quarterback seasons and some of the most successful new coaching hires in the NFL in the last decade.

San Francisco: The 49ers were in the middle of a three-year run to the NFC Championship Game under head coach Jim Harbaugh when Wilson joined the division in 2012. Led by the dynamic Colin Kaepernick, the 49ers lost the Super Bowl that year and lost a tight game to Wilson’s Seahawks in the 2013 NFC Championship Game. Things were bad after that, but after hiring Kyle Shanahan and acquiring Jimmy Garoppolo from the Patriots, the 49ers rebounded with a great 13-3 season in 2019, clinching the No. 1 seed in the season finale after stopping Wilson’s Seahawks at the 1-yard line. The 49ers blew a 10-point lead in the fourth quarter against the Chiefs in Super Bowl 54.

Arizona: The least successful team in the division, but the Cardinals won at least 10 games in every season from 2013 to 2015 under head coach Bruce Arians. He had a good thing going when Carson Palmer was healthy, and in 2015, Palmer had what I will always say was an MVP season, leading the Cardinals to a 14-4 record and the NFC Championship Game where they lost to Carolina. Things declined after, but now with Kliff Kingsbury and 2019 No. 1 pick Kyler Murray, the Cardinals could be heading back to the playoffs as long as Murray stays healthy. He had a great start to 2020 before his health diminished his play in the second half.

Los Angeles: The Rams were in rough shape with Jeff Fisher as the coach when Wilson joined the league, but they started acquiring talent like the best defender in the game, Aaron Donald. Once they drafted Jared Goff No. 1 overall and hired Sean McVay as the head coach, the team immediately took off. McVay has never had a losing record and is looking to make the playoffs for the fourth time in five years. Goff had great seasons in 2017-18 and the Rams were in the Super Bowl in 2018 before losing 13-3 to the Patriots. They leaned on their defense last year to make the playoffs and beat Wilson’s Seahawks in Seattle in the wild card round. Now they have the top-ranked offense with Matthew Stafford poised to have a career year. It’s just another huge challenge for Seattle.

Outside of 2016 when the Seahawks won the NFC West with ease, Wilson has always had to deal with at least another 10-win team in his division. Outside of 2016 and last year when the Rams finished 10-6 thanks to a late loss to the Seahawks, Wilson has always had to deal with an 11-win team or better.

Since 2002’s divisional realignment, the NFC West is the only division where every team has won at least 13 games in a season. That is thanks to the Seahawks (2013), Cardinals (2015), Rams (2018), and 49ers (2019) all finishing 13-3. The Lions, Bengals, Jets, Buccaneers, Texans, and Browns (AAFC excluded) have never won 13 games in their franchise’s history, so it never could have happened for the two North divisions, the two South divisions, or any version of the AFC East. That also disqualifies the defunct AFC and NFC Central divisions. It technically has happened for the original NFC West (49ers/Rams/Falcons/Saints), but the Saints didn’t hit 13 wins until the Brees era (2009), or well after realignment and long after Joe Montana and Steve Young retired.

In fact, the only other divisions that can say all four of their teams have won 13 games before are the AFC West and NFC East. Given that the Raiders haven’t done it since 1976 and the Chiefs didn’t do it until 1995, no one has a career that spanned that long to say they were in a division where all four did it. The Seahawks also used to be part of that AFC West and didn’t win 13 games until 2005 in the NFC West.

As for the NFC East, it hasn’t happened for the Giants since 1990 and for Washington since 1991. Dallas first won 13 games in 1992, so you might think, hey, this probably happened to a young Troy Aikman or an old Phil Simms. Nope, because the Eagles never won 13 games until 2004, or after they were long retired.

This puts Wilson and his division in unprecedented territory as it confirms he is the only quarterback in NFL history to play in a division where every team actively won 13 games in a season. Goff and Garoppolo weren’t in the NFC West prior to 2016 when Seattle and Arizona did it, and Palmer was retired before the Rams and 49ers did it. So there you have it. History.

If Only Wilson Had Tom Brady’s Division Luck…

Now compare this to Tom Brady, the LOAT. His first full season as a starter happened to coincide with realignment in 2002 when the Patriots were put in a revamped AFC East with the Jets, Dolphins, and Bills, or as I like to call them, The Three Stooges. From 2002 to 2019, The Three Stooges managed just two 11-5 seasons to challenge Brady in the division. One was by the 2008 Dolphins, a team that shocked the Patriots with the Wildcat in the year Brady tore his ACL in Week 1. The other was the 2010 Jets, who beat Brady in the regular season to get one of their 11 wins, and then shocked him at home in the playoffs in one of the biggest upsets in NFL history.

But for two decades, the best The Three Stooges could do was 11-5, the best they could do at quarterback was Even-Years Chad Pennington, and the best they could do at head coach was probably Rex Ryan. Flash forward to Brady joining the 2020 NFC South. The Falcons and Panthers had two of the worst seasons in NFL history in close games. The Saints with Brees were a worthy foe and they swept Brady to finish 12-4, the first time Brady was ever swept by a division rival. This also means of the only two 11+ win teams Brady’s ever had in his division, he was complicit in them winning that many games. Compare this to Peyton Manning, who swept the 2003 Titans (12-4), 2005 Jaguars (12-4), 2007 Jaguars (11-5), and 2013 Chiefs (11-5) but still watched them win 11-12 games. Wilson was able to hang one loss on the 2015 Cardinals and 2019 49ers. He was swept by the 2018 Rams despite scoring 31 points in both games. Let’s just say not anyone could beat the 2018 Rams by a final of 13-3.

Brady’s division now consists of an Atlanta team that lost all its offensive mojo after hiring Arthur Smith. Matt Ryan has gotten off to the worst start of his career in 2021. With Brees retired, the Saints are weirdly leaning on defense with Jameis Winston throwing for 387 yards in three full games. The Panthers are 3-0 and have never trailed this season, but only time will tell if Sam Darnold, an old foe from The Three Stooges, will turn back to a pumpkin. Go figure, the AFC East only got another elite passer (Josh Allen) the second Brady moved to the other conference.

Wilson and Brady are certainly on two different ends of the spectrum for division rivals. What if Brady had to deal with this NFC West that Wilson has been in since 2012? He is only 5-6 as a starter against those teams in the Wilson era, including playoffs and including Sunday’s loss to the Rams. I plotted every quarterback with at least five starts against Wilson’s NFC West since 2012 through 2020, looking at their win percentage and their Adjusted Net Yards per Pass Attempt (ANY/A).

Wilson has a better winning percentage (.598) against his division than Rodgers (.440), Brees (.474), Brady (.500), and Peyton (.400). Wilson (6.26) and Brady (6.24) are almost identical in ANY/A, though Wilson is not that great statistically here compared to his other top peers. Of course, he’s played 56 division games against teams who know him well compared to 25 for Rodgers, 19 for Brees, 10 for Brady, and five each for Manning and Mahomes. On the other hand, Wilson never has to play his own defense, which has been the strongest of the bunch in this division since 2012, which also explains why the other quarterbacks have lesser records and stats. But it’s an amusing chart.

I have better, including this look at how quarterbacks have done against Brady’s Three Stooges in the AFC East from 2002 to 2019. Can you notice anyone who stands out?

Yep, that’s Russell Wilson (8.16) and Alex Smith (7.58) as the only quarterbacks with an ANY/A above 7.5. Brady’s record is 81-21 (.794), but are we really going to pretend his top peers couldn’t replicate that in this division or even improve on it given those ugly upset losses in Miami? The guy once lost 21-0 to Joey Harrington.

I am proud of these next two charts since they visualize what I have been saying for years about these divisions. This looks at 2002-2020 for Wilson, Brady, Peyton, Rodgers, Brees, and Roethlisberger while excluding the full year those quarterbacks missed for injury. The entry that is their full name is every game that quarterback played in 2002-2020. The other entries show what the starting quarterbacks for each division rival cumulatively did in every game while the quarterback was in that division, so that would be the AFC South teams for Peyton in 2002-10 and the AFC West teams in 2012-15. The x-axis is win% and the y-axis is ANY/A.

That cluster of The Three Stooges as losing teams with bad quarterback play that only the Browns 2.0 can rival is perfect.

Finally, here is a similar chart that sums up each quarterback’s division rivals into one entry.

As I have been saying for years, no quarterback has had a bigger advantage over his division rivals than Brady, and it’s due to a lack of competition rather than his play being that much better. Brady ranks third in ANY/A here and is only 0.01 above Brees in fourth, and Brady’s division has the worst win rate (.435) and ANY/A (5.24). Wilson’s division has the best record (.496) and second-highest ANY/A (5.88) behind only Brees (6.05).

You cannot deny that the careers of Wilson and Brady will forever be linked. Super Bowl XLIX was the most pivotal game in the NFL in the last dozen years. The Seahawks were a yard away from repeating and possibly being the next dynasty, while bringing the ring count to 3-2 for Brady vs. Wilson and dropping the Patriots to 3-3 in Super Bowls under Belichick and Brady. Then a call for a pass came in and the rest is history. Brady has won three more Super Bowls since and the Seahawks have not even been back to the NFC Championship Game.

In the lonesome crowded NFC West, Russell Wilson is starting to sound like Cowboy Dan.

I got mine but I want more.

With the way the NFC West is developing, and the Seahawks are decaying under Pete Carroll, we may never see Wilson past the second round of the playoffs again, or at least not with Seattle. Maybe he can replace Rodgers in Green Bay some day, a return to Wisconsin.

Also, I didn’t even mention the potential of Trey Lance in San Francisco.

Shit Luck.

This plane is definitely crashing

This boat is obviously sinking

This building’s totally burning down

And my heart has slowly dried up

Matthew Stafford: 8-68 Vs. Teams with a Winning Record

Maybe the Game of the Year in the NFC is coming to us quickly this Sunday in Los Angeles when the Rams host the Buccaneers. It could be the only major road challenge Tampa Bay, still a 1.5-point favorite, faces all year in this attempt to repeat as Super Bowl champions.

It’s also the biggest game of Matthew Stafford’s career, which no one seems to be playing up like they should.

Forget playing on Wild Card Weekend three times as an underdog with the Lions in seasons they weren’t going anywhere. This is a huge chance in his third game with the Rams for Stafford to show that he can be trusted in a big spot like this one, a game that could go a long way in determining home-field advantage in January.

“I just want to play in big games, you know? … I want to have opportunities to make big-time plays in the fourth quarter against really good teams, in big moments, rather than a one o’clock game on a Sunday somewhere,” Stafford told Seth Wickersham in a feature story on ESPN.

Well here you are, Matthew. There could be future opportunities in Green Bay (Week 12) and Baltimore (Week 17) to show what you’re made of on the road, but this is the defending champions in your building. It doesn’t get any bigger than that in the regular season.

The problem is Stafford played dozens of really good teams when he spent a dozen seasons in Detroit, and he didn’t come away with a dozen wins in those matchups.

The Incredible, Seemingly Impossible Matthew Stafford Record

Stafford is 8-68 (.105) as a starter in games against teams that finished the season with a winning record. It’s such a staggering record that I have to include the table (that barely fits on my screen anymore) of every game to prove that it’s legitimate.

Did Stafford play like an 8-68 quarterback in these games? Of course not. He had a few fine performances that still resulted in a loss because he was on the Detroit Lions and the other team was just better. However, some of those eight wins leave a lot to be desired too. Two were against teams that finished 8-7-1, including a 2013 Packers team that did not have Aaron Rodgers. He got a win over Rodgers in his 2014 MVP season, but it was a 19-7 game where Detroit’s defense carried the team. Stafford threw no touchdowns and two interceptions. His only other win against a team with 12+ wins was against the 2017 Vikings (13-3), and that too was a low-scoring game (14-7) where he failed to throw a touchdown.

While the problems Detroit had in the running game and defense were detrimental to Stafford having success in these games, it’s not like those problems hampered the team enough in every other game against non-winning teams. In fact, since 2001, Stafford joins just Teddy Bridgewater and Kirk Cousins as the only three quarterbacks to win over 70% of their starts against non-winning opponents and under 20% against winning opponents (min. 50 starts). That is plotted below with the trio chilling in the far left of the graph:

In going 8-68 against winning teams, Stafford has an 83.7 passer rating, 6.90 YPA, and 5.72 ANY/A, which factors in sacks. Those are not terrible numbers, but they are not that impressive for a franchise quarterback. I’ve plotted every quarterback’s win% against winning teams vs. their ANY/A in those games.

The fascinating part of this whole Stafford to Los Angeles experiment is to see if Sean McVay can get the best out of him and improve on what has been an eyesore of a resume in big games. Can you really get to a Super Bowl when you need to beat so many good teams along the way to finish with a seed high enough to make it realistic? Can you get through a Brady or Rodgers in January with this guy?

  • Stafford has never won more than one game against a winning team in the same season in his career, and he has never won consecutive games against winning teams in his career.
  • Stafford is 5-35 (.125) at home and 3-33 (.083) on the road against winning teams.
  • Stafford is 2-26 (.071) against teams that finished 12-4 or better.
  • Stafford is 0-48 when Detroit allowed more than 24 points against a winning opponent.
  • Stafford is 2-62 (.031) when Detroit allowed more than 17 points against a winning opponent.
  • Stafford is 39-51-1 (.434) at 4QC/GWD opportunities in his career, but that record drops to 2-34 (.056) against teams with a winning record.

How might this play out when Tampa Bay has won 10 games in a row and scored at least 26 points in all of them? At the very least, Stafford has notched a win over a Brady-led team that went on to win the Super Bowl (2018 Patriots), but the Buccaneers bring a lot more firepower to this matchup.

Stafford also comes armed with his best team. He is getting that McVay play-design boost with more YAC/completion than anyone not named Jimmy Garoppolo this season. For only the second time in his career, he has led his team to at least 27 points without throwing more than 30 passes in consecutive games. But people may be overstating just how great the Rams are. After all, Stafford did have Calvin Johnson and Golden Tate as his receivers with Ndamukong Suh leading the defense in an All-Pro season in 2014, the closest Stafford ever came to winning a playoff game (at Dallas). Now Suh is one of the cogs on Tampa Bay’s defensive line where Vita Vea has been dominant this season. The Bucs have not been scary good on defense yet, but they picked off Matt Ryan twice for touchdowns in the fourth quarter last week.

In Week 1 against the Bears, Stafford got off to a great start and had the first 150-plus passer rating game of his career. Practically a statement that this isn’t Detroit anymore, and he is going to feast on these play-action bombs. However, that Week 2 win in Indianapolis felt like a classic 1 P.M. Detroit win with Stafford. It was close, he had an interception, the special teams had a bad screw-up and gave up a touchdown to fall behind late, and Stafford got the job done and led a game-winning drive. Cooper Kupp was awesome on the day, but it’s not like the running backs (23 carries for 99 yards) were dominant or the defense destroyed Carson Wentz, who left injured and watched the backup throw the game away with an interception.

That Indianapolis game basically led me to believe that this is not going to be a super team with Stafford a la what Peyton Manning brought to the Broncos or Brett Favre to the Vikings in 2009. And yes, what Brady did with Tampa Bay last year, though his two-game start there was inferior to what Stafford has done so far. We have to remind ourselves that this is only two games, and there is no better chance for the Rams to make a statement about their contender status than with a great showing on Sunday.

This would be the kind of win that could reshape the whole outlook on the season.

The Goff Comparison

Of course, the other fascinating part to this matchup and the Stafford experiment is Jared Goff. With McVay as his coach, Goff was 17-16 (.515) against teams with a winning record and he was even 5-12 (.294) against winning teams that scored more than 24 points. Not 0-48.

But the game that really stands out this week was the 27-24 upset win in Tampa Bay last season. Goff led an 80-yard touchdown drive on the road to start it, fell behind 14-7, fought back to a halftime lead, then broke the tie twice in the second half, including a game-winning drive for a field goal. The defense finished off Brady, who was picked twice.

Goff also had two picks on an imperfect night, but McVay put the offense on his shoulders. Goff was 39-of-51 for 376 yards, 3 TD, 2 INT, and he took no sacks while the running game provided just 19 carries for 37 yards. Can Stafford do this against the Bucs this week? Stafford is 1-12 in his career when he throws at least 50 passes. Against teams that won exactly 10 games, Stafford was 1-17, beating the Packers in 2015 after Mason Crosby missed a game-winning field goal. That game is worth highlighting since it is the only time in his career that Stafford beat a winning team despite the Lions not rushing for at least 84 yards. Otherwise, the Lions were 0-46 in such games.

When Goff and McVay met the Bucs in 2019, it was a wild and sloppy 55-40 game with Goff turning it over four times. He threw 68 passes and the Rams ran the ball 11 times for 28 yards. The Bucs are really good at stopping the run and have been for a while now. With Darrell Henderson banged up, it is very likely (even if Henderson was healthy) that the Rams are going to get stopped cold in the running game on Sunday.

So it is going to be on Stafford to outduel Brady, the LOAT. He might catch a break with Antonio Brown testing positive for COVID, but Tampa Bay still has three outstanding receivers to work with and plenty more depth to use as well. Brady and Stafford are two of the least pressured quarterbacks this season, so it could be a passing fest and we’ll see who blinks first.

As much as I’d love to see Stafford destroy a Brady-led team like he did in 2018, I’m just not ready to trust him. I need to see it first, and then maybe I’ll believe he can do it again. But regardless of what happens on Sunday, Stafford is going to have to have big games against top teams in a way he never has in his NFL career if this trade is going to work out for the Rams. The NFC West is shaping up to be the toughest division in the NFL too, but right now the real litmus test in the NFC is facing Stafford and the Rams in the face on Sunday.

Final: Bucs 32, Rams 26

Tom Brady and His Incredible Luck in High-Scoring Games (Part II)

In Part I, I looked at the common breakdown for any Tom Brady statistic or split. He’ll have the best record, but he won’t have the best statistics. When looking at how he does relative to his top peers in games split by points allowed, the only key range where he excels is with 26-32 points allowed. From 0-25 points and anything above 32, Brady does not impress over his peers. His sweet spot is in that 26-32 range where teams struggle to win but it’s still not a hopeless endeavor (NFL average win rate since 2001: 25.7%).

Why is this the case? Let’s continue but be sure to read Part I first if you haven’t, because it explains why 26-32 is a key range. It also shows how Brady faces fewer games with 30 or 40-plus points allowed relative to his peers.

Tom Brady’s 26-32 Range Voodoo Exposed

As a refresher for those who skipped Part I, Brady is easily outpacing his peers in starts from 2001 to 2020 where his team allowed 26-32 points:

  • Tom Brady: 37-31 (.544)
  • Peyton Manning: 21-28 (.429)
  • Drew Brees: 29-48 (.377)
  • Aaron Rodgers: 13-24-1 (.355)
  • Ben Roethlisberger: 12-29 (.293)

Given that Brady’s lone high-scoring game that he left early for playoff rest (28-26 vs. 2005 Dolphins) is included here, he’s more like 37-30 (.552). To be fair, Manning should also have three playoff rest games removed (2005 Seahawks, 2009 Jets and 2009 Bills) to make him 21-25 (.457), or still nearly 10 percentage points behind. Rodgers should have two games removed for early exit after injury (2013 Bears, 2018 Lions) to make him 13-22-1 (.375). Brees should have one injury (2019 Rams) and one playoff rest (2006 Panthers) exclusion to make him 29-46 (.387). Roethlisberger should have one injury exclusion (2019 Seahawks) to make him 12-28 (.300).

Still, this all comes despite a lack of statistical dominance from Brady in his QB stats. I tried to look at every piece of data I had available on these games for these quarterbacks to find where Brady’s team had a glaring advantage, and I was coming up empty. This made me want to look at more quarterbacks for help, so I expanded the list to 35 quarterbacks with at least 20 starts from 2001-2020 (playoffs included) where their teams allowed 26-32 points.

Brady, Andrew Luck (10-10, .500), and Peyton were the only three with a win rate above 38%. I’ve included a scatter plot of these 35 quarterbacks looking at their win % vs. their Adjusted Net Yards Per Pass Attempt (ANY/A). I did not exclude playoff rest games or games left injured for anyone.

Brady’s ANY/A (6.65) is almost identical to that of Kirk Cousins (6.67), but his win% is nearly triple that of Cousins’. Okay, I can understand that one. Cousins is Hollow Stat Man, but how do you explain Peyton and Russell Wilson being the only quarterbacks above 7.0 ANY/A and they still have a losing record?

Now that I had data for 35 quarterbacks, I still could not find what led to such a better record for Brady.

  • Brady (28.3) had the highest scoring average of anyone on the list. Only Luck (27.3) and Peyton (27.3) were also above 26.0 points per game.
  • That can explain them having the three best records, but these rankings for Brady in the other stats among the 35 quarterbacks adds to the confusion of how he got the most points and wins.
  • Brady ranks 20th in completion percentage, 17th in YPA, ninth in passer rating, and seventh in ANY/A. Not quite elite.
  • Brady received an average of 98.6 rushing yards per game, which ranks 21st. His team’s average rushing yardage margin was minus-14.8, which ranks 13th. That’s a lot better than Peyton’s minus-47.2 (second worst), but it’s not like the ground game made a huge difference for Brady’s teams.
  • Brady’s offense converted on third down 43.1% of the time in these games, good for fifth but still trailing Peyton (46.8%, first) and Brees (43.4%, fourth).
  • Brady’s defense allowed the sixth-highest conversion rate on third down (45.0%), which doesn’t help. Still, that’s better than Peyton’s defense allowing 48.3% or Rodgers’ Packers allowing 46.2%, the two worst marks.
  • Brady (-3.9) edged out Roethlisberger (-3.3), Peyton (-3.2), Brees (-2.7), and Rodgers (-2.4) for the highest average spread going into these games, so that should help that they were favored by the most. But a Vegas line says more about expectations than what actually happened once the ball was snapped.
  • Brady’s average opponent won 56.3% of its games on the season, the 13th-highest mark in this group. Their average defensive rank in points per drive allowed was 15.0, also about average. It’s not like he beat up on easier teams than anyone in these games.
  • Brady’s team’s average fourth quarter scoring margin was +0.9, the fourth best in the group, trailing Luck (+2.5), Matt Schaub (+2.2, WTF?), and Peyton (+1.6). Closing certainly helps a ton, but I didn’t see the scoring from Brady and the stops from his defense in the numbers here to suggest his win % should be so much better.

At this point, I can only rely on my ace in the hole: an encyclopedia-like knowledge (and documentation) of the close finishes in the last 20 years in the NFL.

There are facts I know about Brady’s luck that are just not the case for these other quarterbacks. Like how he’s only lost one game in his whole career after a kicker missed a clutch field goal, and that was in a game not in this bin (20-18 vs. 2012 Cardinals). I’m sure Manning would have liked Mike Vanderjagt to make his field goal and take the 2004 Patriots to overtime, 27-27, on opening night instead of a miss in a 27-24 loss. That was one of several missed kicks in the clutch from the liquored-up idiot kicker.

Outdated but still relevant and accurate for Brady (and Manning):

Brady has the lowest percentage of blown fourth-quarter/OT leads against his teams. It’s only happened 21 times despite him holding more late leads than anyone in NFL history. How many of those 21 fall into the 26-32 range? Just five games, including the 29-28 loss in Miami (2004) after Brady threw four interceptions and lost to A.J. Feeley. The Dolphins shocked Brady again in 2019 as a 17.5-point underdog in New England with Ryan Fitzpatrick throwing a late game-winning touchdown. But Brady also had good chances to put away the 2012 Ravens (31-30), 2015 Broncos (30-24 in overtime to lose the No. 1 seed), and 2016 Seahawks (31-24) before failing to close.

How many blown 4Q/OT leads for the other quarterbacks in the 26-32 bin since 2001? Brees (16), Ben (10), Peyton (7), and Rodgers (7 plus one tie) all had more than Brady’s five even though he’s played the most games and had the most leads to blow.

As I said before, in the 26-32 range, Brady is 37-30 and Manning is 21-25 when you remove the playoff rest games for both of them. Manning’s actual record would be worse if you included 1998-2000 for him, but I’ve kept this whole study to the time period of Brady’s career since my game database goes back to 2001, and I am not changing now.

But there is no need for me to write off all 37 of Brady’s wins in this range. That’s pointless, a waste of my time and yours. But if I can just write off four wins as his ass getting lucky when he should have lost? That already puts him under .500. If I just find three should-be wins for Manning, that puts him up to 24-22, a winning record.

I can easily do that. I went right to the 68 games in Brady’s career in the 26-32 points allowed range and simply started remembering what happened and how unique (or exclusive) some of these finishes were.

  • 2020 Packers (W 31-26): Thank Matt LaFleur for kicking that field goal to add this game to the bin. It was 28-10 before this rally attempt came up short, by the way.
  • 2015 Giants (W 27-26): Landon Collins dropped a game-ending interception in the last 2:00. Brady then gets a game-winning 54-yard field goal from Gostkowski.
  • 2013 Browns (W 27-26): Every HOF QB should get one game in their career where an onside kick recovery helps them win. Surprisingly, this was the only one for Brady to help pull off an improbable comeback in the final minutes. Also, a bogus DPI penalty to put the ball at the 1 on the game-winning drive
  • 2003 Broncos (W 30-26): The intentional safety game. Try naming another game in the last 20 years where a trailing team took a safety on purpose in the fourth quarter and still won.
  • 2013 Saints (W 30-27): Brady needed three different game-winning drive opportunities in the final 3:35 after turning it over on downs with 2:46 left and throwing an interception with 2:16 left. This never happens to anyone else.
  • 2010 Colts (W 31-28): After nearly throwing a pick with 2:32 left, Brady let Manning get the ball back again for another improbable 17-point 4QC. But this time Manning was hit as he threw in field goal range and the pass was intercepted to end the game.
  • 2018 Chiefs (W 37-31 OT): Must be nice to get Dee Ford a millimeter offsides to negate a season-ending interception, then win the coin toss in overtime and not see Patrick Mahomes get the ball back because of the worst overtime system in professional sports.
  • 2016 Falcons (W 34-28 OT): Ah, 28-3. Just imagine if Peyton Manning threw a pass to New Orleans’ Tracy Porter in Super Bowl 44, it goes through his hands, and Austin Collie makes a diving catch to secure it before it touches the ground. Then Manning goes on to score a game-tying touchdown, watch his defense hold against Drew Brees, win an overtime coin toss, and never have to see Brees touch the ball, because again, overtime is a broken system. Beyond all the other fuckery the Falcons did in Super Bowl LI after 28-3, this is what Brady did at the end after Robert Alford dropped a game-ending interception, Julian Edelman made that catch, and Brady cemented his legacy as the undisputed LOAT.

That’s eight games and there were several more I could mention. However, to do this properly I need to play devil’s advocate and point out the games among the 30 losses where Brady should have won.

Except that’s incredibly hard to do when Brady just doesn’t have the bad luck of other quarterbacks, especially in the 26-32 range. For starters, in 15 of the 30 losses he failed to score more than 20 points and lost by at least eight points (lost by double-digits 14 times). In a 28-20 loss to the 2005 Broncos, he was down 28-3 and couldn’t luck his way into a win that day. Just like that, I’ve cut the sample of losses in half.

Brady also was outplayed in back-to-back weeks at home in 27-24 losses to the Rams and Chiefs last year, games he never led in the fourth quarter. He’s also been outplayed by Aaron Rodgers and the 2014 Packers (L 26-21), Deshaun Watson and the 2019 Texans (L 28-22), Mark Sanchez and the 2010 Jets in a playoff stunner that wasn’t as close as the final score suggests (L 28-21), and several other games he never sniffed a late lead like the 4-INT night against the 2006 Colts (L 27-20) or losing to Jay Cutler as a 10.5-point favorite in Miami in 2017 (L 27-20).

I simply cannot point to any missed field goals or miracle field goals that went against Brady. Hell, New York’s Daniel Jones just lost a 30-29 game in Washington because of a lame offsides penalty on a missed field goal. Never happens to Brady. He could have lost his first ever comeback win (2001 Chargers) if Wade Richey made a 59-yard field goal, but that didn’t happen. In fact, kickers are 0-for-6 on clutch field goals of 50-plus yards against Brady in his career. Peyton lost three games to Jacksonville alone on 50-plus yard field goals (53 in 2004, 51 in 2008, 59 in 2010). Scobee-Motherfuckin’-Do.

I can’t point to a rare fumble by a teammate like what Clyde Edwards-Helaire just did to Patrick Mahomes in Baltimore. There’s never been a no-call penalty so egregious that Brady went on to lose a championship game 26-23 in overtime like Drew Brees did against the 2018 Rams after that defensive pass interference was missed. That sent the Rams and all three of their points they’d score to the Super Bowl against Brady too. How convenient.

Like I said, there were just five games where Brady had a fourth-quarter lead and he completely shit the bed in the first one (2004 Dolphins). Brady also didn’t get the ball in overtime against the 2015 Jets (L 26-20) after Ryan Fitzpatrick threw a game-winning touchdown, a few rare occurrences mixing indeed, but Brady also needed three drives in the fourth quarter just to get one game-tying touchdown. But I guess we can count that one. It looks better than the 30-27 loss to Geno Smith and the 2013 Jets when Brady did fail in overtime after having a poor game.

It’s not my fault that Brady isn’t a more dominant winner or a more lovable loser. Definitely better than Drew Bledsoe though. Never denied that one.

Now let’s switch gears and do a few Manning losses really quick. I’ve already mentioned a few actually with the 2004 Patriots (27-24), 2009 Saints (31-17), and 2010 Patriots (31-28).

  • 2006 Texans (L 27-24): One of the most underrated losses in regular season history. Manning was limited to just six possessions because of his historically bad run defense, and he even lost one to a running back fumble and settled for a field goal after a third-down drop. He scored 24 points on the other four drives but lost to a last-second field goal after tying the game.
  • 2010 Jaguars (L 31-28): Manning followed Reggie Wayne’s red zone fumble with two touchdown drives to tie it at 28 before the Jaguars won on a 59-yard field goal. Manning also had a superb game against the 2004 Jaguars and lost 27-24 to a 53-yard field goal.
  • 2013 Patriots (L 34-31 OT): Oh look, another Manning-Brady game where the ending was decided by neither quarterback. After seven straight failed drives between the two, Manning expected to get the ball back before Tony Carter muffed the punt, setting Brady up for a game-winning drive where he just sat on the ball at the Denver 13 and the Patriots kicked a field goal. You know, LOAT stuff.
  • 2014 Seahawks (L 26-20 OT): Manning led the first game-tying drive in NFL history where a team was down eight in the final 60 seconds at the start of the drive, doing it in Seattle when the Legion of Boom was healthy. He never saw the ball in overtime as Marshawn Lynch got the 6-yard game-winning run instead of Russell Wilson throwing a slant to Malcolm Butler, because of course that’s what happened.

Again, I could bring up more games, but Brady’s luck is unrivaled in all of NFL history.

Scoring 30 on Brady Usually Requires Him Screwing Up

By going over these games and talking about how infrequently Brady’s teams allow 30 or 40-plus points, I was reminded of something. It used to be that if the Patriots allowed 30 points in a game, they probably had a return touchdown, usually from a Brady turnover, to get over that benchmark. There were very few games when the defense (and we’ll add special teams too in the context of what a quarterback is dealing with from a points allowed perspective) allowed 30 real points on its own.

So, I decided to go through just the 10 seasons where Brady was in the Super Bowl to see how many games got into the higher-scoring bins because of non-offensive scores. I highlighted the six games where Brady’s Patriots allowed 30-plus points thanks to him having a turnover returned for a touchdown.

  • 2001 Chargers (W 29-26 OT): After a Brady three-and-out, the Patriots botch getting a punt off and it’s returned for a touchdown.
  • 2001 Dolphins (L 30-10): A Brady fumble is returned by Jason Taylor for a touchdown to give Miami a 27-10 lead.
  • 2001 Broncos (L 31-20): On a four-INT night for Brady, he throws a pick-six while trailing 24-20 with 2:24 left.
  • 2003 Bills (L 31-0): Brady’s four-INT game includes a pick-six.
  • 2003 Broncos (W 30-26): The aforementioned intentional safety after Brady couldn’t move the offense out of his end zone moved this game into the 26-32 bin.
  • 2004 Steelers (L 34-20): The only game the Patriots allowed 30 all season, it got there because of a Brady pick-six in the first quarter that gave the Steelers a 21-3 lead to end New England’s 21-game winning streak.
  • 2007 Giants (W 38-35): The 16-0 game was the only time all season the Patriots allowed more than 28 points. The Giants needed a kickoff return touchdown and a late touchdown (down 10) to get there.
  • 2011 Bills (L 34-31): Brady threw a pick-six as part of another 4-INT game. It was the only game all season where New England allowed more than 27 points.
  • 2014 Chiefs (L 41-14): One of only seven 40-burgers in Brady’s career, he threw a pick-six down 34-7 to get it there.
  • 2016 Falcons (W 34-28 OT): Lost in 28-3 is that New England held the prolific Atlanta offense led by MVP Matt Ryan to 21 points and 1-of-8 on third down. Brady’s pick-six in the second quarter opened up a 21-0 lead.
  • 2017 Texans (W 36-33): Brady gave up a touchdown on a strip-sack in the second quarter. He later threw a game-winning touchdown after another game-ending interception was dropped.

Brady has even carried this tradition with him to Tampa Bay. The Buccaneers have had three games where they allowed 30-plus points with Brady, and he threw a pick-six in two of them to get them over that mark (34-23 loss in New Orleans and 38-31 comeback win over Chargers).

Remember that this is only using Super Bowl appearance seasons, and that’s still eight games where Brady’s team allowed 30-plus points thanks to him having a return touchdown involved. That’s only one fewer than Manning and Rodgers had combined using their full career starts, as well as how many Roethlisberger has had in his whole career:

  • Drew Brees – 13 games (2006 Ravens, 2006 Bengals, 2007 Titans, 2008 Falcons, 2010 Cardinals, 2010 Browns, 2011 Rams, 2012 49ers, 2012 Panthers, 2013 Seahawks, 2014 Buccaneers, 2014 Ravens, 2014 Falcons) [1-12 record]
  • Ben Roethlisberger – 8 games (2007 Broncos, 2007 Jaguars, 2008 Titans, 2010 Packers, 2012 Broncos, 2012 Chargers, 2013 Bears, 2017 Jaguars) [0-8 record]
  • Peyton Manning – 7 games (1999 Dolphins, 2003 Buccaneers, 2006 Patriots, 2008 Packers, 2009 Saints, 2010 Chargers, 2010 Cowboys) [3-4 record]
  • Aaron Rodgers – 2 games (2015 Cardinals, 2017 Falcons) [0-2 record]

When including Brady’s whole career, the number goes up to 10 games, so 80% of his games came in those Super Bowl seasons. That also means he has the highest rate of 30-points allowed games that he is partly responsible for.

  • Tom Brady – 10/48 (20.8%)
  • Ben Roethlisberger – 8/41 (19.5%)
  • Drew Brees – 13/82 (15.9%)
  • Peyton Manning – 7/53 (13.2%)
  • Aaron Rodgers – 2/51 (3.9%)

Conclusion: Drive Stats Are the (Huge) Missing Piece

Before I even started writing this week, I knew that the best solution to this points allowed area is a huge dataset that I am sad to say I don’t have even though I have been writing about drive stats for as long as anyone out there (cringey lede included).

Drive stats are the best way to go about this. If you had drive stats broken down for every game in the last 20 years, you could learn so much. Which quarterback starts the highest rate of games in a 7-0 hole on his first possession? Who really gets the best field position? The shortest touchdown drives? The longest? Does Brady really do better on a short field than his peers? Does Brady’s defense give up more garbage time touchdowns to create more artificial high-scoring games that he won with ease?

That last point is something I noticed when going through his 26-32 range. Brady beat both the 2012 Texans and 2018 Chargers in the playoffs by the final score of 41-28. However, those were fake high-scoring games. Brady went into the fourth quarter with a 31-13 lead on Houston, grew it to 38-13, then the defense allowed two touchdowns in a 41-28 final. Same thing with the Chargers. The Patriots were up 38-13 after three quarters, which you’d gladly take from your defense against a top offense through three quarters every single time. Then Rivers threw two touchdowns in garbage time for the 41-28 final. The outcome was never in doubt. The threat was never there.

Does this type of game happen more often for Brady? The answer is yes. From 2001 to 2019, the Patriots allowed a league-high 63 touchdowns in the fourth quarter when leading by at least 17 points (three scores), lapping the next closest teams in the Packers (52), Broncos (50), Steelers (47), and Colts (43). But of course they did. Brady’s the only consistently high-scoring quarterback to play with a consistently great scoring defense for two decades.

But if you look at how many of those games went into Brady’s 26-32 bin, the answer is nine games. That’s more than Brees (5), Peyton (3), Rodgers (2), and Roethlisberger (2) ever had.

One day I will have to suck it up and put the drive stats together for the regular seasons, likely using the tools on Stathead as my starting point. But I’ve seen enough data errors in the drive finder there over the years to scare me away from doing that. The thoughts of manually going through 267 games a year are too overwhelming, but I really need to get this data at some point.

If you had really good drive stats, you can map out how these games play out for the quarterback. How many points do they average on their first four drives? How much does the defense allow? Again, what’s the field position impact?

People never seem to want to even acknowledge field position, but it’s not something that all quarterbacks are playing on equal grounds with. Is it any surprise that since 2020, Brady’s Buccaneers average the shortest touchdown drives in the league at 60.8 yards? Mahomes’ Chiefs are the fourth longest at 71.4 yards. Ditto for the period of 2001-2019 when Brady’s Patriots had the sixth-shortest touchdown drives at 62.8 yards. Where were the other great offensive teams? They had the longest average touchdown drives in the league: Colts (66.8), Packers (66.2), Saints (65.6), Chargers (65.5), and the Cowboys (65.2) rounded out the top five. Imagine that.

Maybe dominating the field position battle is the missing piece of data in Brady’s success in the 26-32 range. It has to be something. When it’s clearly not just skill, you look at the advantageous factors out of his control, also known as his luck, and that to me is what he has in spades and no one else has been able to come even close to matching. The excess success in his career is a result of his great luck. That doesn’t mean his whole career is lucky or that luck is the only driving force behind his success. It’s that he gets to win more games and get to more Super Bowls than other quarterbacks because of what’s been around him and what’s happened in his favor.

You can still ignore the data and facts if you want, but nothing I ever say about Brady will be better than the quote the man gave about himself in 2017:

“I know myself as a player. I’m really a product of what I’ve been around, who I was coached by, what I played against, in the era I played in. I really believe if a lot of people were in my shoes they could accomplish the same kinds of things. So I’ve been very fortunate.”

Tom Brady, The Luckiest of All Time