2020 Pro Football Hall of Fame Picks

Lost in the calamity of this past year, I realized I never posted my 2020 Pro Football Hall of Fame picks like I have done every year since 2012. This is a bigger class than usual with the special centennial class, which I did predict (not well) on Twitter in December:

I nailed all three contributors, Jimmy Johnson as one of the coaches, but only agreed with 4/10 players chosen. I’m not sure what Don Coryell and Randy Gradishar could do to ever win voters over at this point. I’m also hoping that with a trend towards shorter careers for star players, they’ll give more attention to Sterling Sharpe as a senior nominee in the near future since he’s eligible for that.

Here are the 15 finalists for the modern class of 2020:

  • Troy Polamalu
  • Edgerrin James
  • Zach Thomas
  • Bryant Young
  • Richard Seymour
  • John Lynch
  • Steve Atwater
  • LeRoy Butler
  • Reggie Wayne
  • Torry Holt
  • Isaac Bruce
  • Sam Mills
  • Tony Boselli
  • Alan Faneca
  • Steve Hutchinson

First I want to say that I’m a bit surprised that Patrick Willis did not make it this far on his first ballot. That could be an example of the short career (he played eight seasons and missed 10 games in the final one) hurting a player’s candidacy, but I imagine he’ll get in eventually.

Here are the five players I predict will be chosen:

  • Troy Polamalu
  • John Lynch
  • Alan Faneca
  • Isaac Bruce
  • Tony Boselli

With respect to Atwater and Butler, I wasn’t about to pick more than two safeties for one class. I think Polamalu was a special player who the media loved and had a great relationship with, and he was a key part of a defense that was successful for a sustained period of time. He feels like a first-ballot guy to me even though I’ll always think Ed Reed is a better safety. As for Lynch, I’ve been pushing him forward for a few years now because I think his job as GM of the 49ers has helped keep him in the spotlight, and it’s hard to argue that isn’t important when you look at the way Bill Cowher and Jimmy Johnson made the HOF this year. So with Lynch winning PFWA’s Executive of the Year and the 49ers in the Super Bowl, I think people are going to acknowledge that he’s been close for several years now so let’s just get one more safety out of the room for next year.

There’s also another WR logjam that needs to be dealt with all the time. That’s why I think you go with seniority and take care of Isaac Bruce while Reggie Wayne (first ballot) and Torry Holt continue to wait.

Finally we have a few offensive linemen who have been waiting. Some may definitely prefer Hutchinson to Faneca, and maybe there’s already too many Steelers going in 2020, but I think they’ll take care of Faneca first before going with a tackle in Boselli.

I feel like all 15 players have a good shot of going in some day. Bryant Young, Steve Atwater and Sam Mills may be at the most risk of needing to go in as seniors, but it’s just a matter of time for most of these guys.

2019 NFL Conference Championship Preview

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

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

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

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

Conference Championship Rematches

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

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

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

CC_rematch

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

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

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

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

Titans at Chiefs (-7.5)

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

Kansas City Sure Remembers the Titans

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

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

What if the Tennessee Defense Is Just Lucky?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What Is This Tennessee Offense?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Pressure Is on Patrick Mahomes

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

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

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

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

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

Don’t Forget: Special Teams

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

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

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

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

Final: Chiefs 34, Titans 24

 

Packers at 49ers (-7.5)

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

Packers: Reversal of Fortune?

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

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

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

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

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

Injury Outlook

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

Rodgers: Worst Night Ever?

Remember this in Week 12?

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

What Should Green Bay’s Offense Do on Sunday?

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

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

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

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

San Francisco’s Offense

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

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

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

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

Close Game or Nah?

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

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

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

Final: 49ers 23, Packers 20

2019 NFL Divisional Round Preview

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

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

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

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

Vikings at 49ers (-7)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Final: 49ers 26, Vikings 23

 

Titans at Ravens (-9.5)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Final: Ravens 30, Titans 20

 

Texans at Chiefs (-9.5)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Final: Chiefs 31, Texans 23

 

Seahawks at Packers (-4)

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

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

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

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

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

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

Final: Seahawks 23, Packers 20

2019 NFL Wild Card and Full Playoff Predictions

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

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

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

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

Bills at Texans (-3)

I called this matchup over a month ago on Twitter:

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

— Booger McFarland, 2020

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Final: Texans 20, Bills 16

Titans at Patriots (-4.5)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Final: Patriots 23, Titans 20

Vikings at Saints (-8)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Final: Saints 30, Vikings 20

Seahawks at Eagles (+2.5)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Final: Seahawks 24, Eagles 23

2019 Full NFL Playoff Predictions

Here is my latest crack at predicting the whole tournament.

Wild Card:

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

Divisional:

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

Conference Championship:

  • Ravens over Chiefs
  • 49ers over Saints

Super Bowl LIV:

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

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

It should be a significant month for legacies.

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

2019Wk1-17

NFL 2019: Close Game Summary

Before moving onto the playoffs, let’s review how teams fared in close games in the 2019 NFL season. Unless you watched the Lions every week, this wasn’t a season filled with close games. A total of 142 games (55.5%) 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. That’s down a hair from 147 games in 2018 and just above the 139 games from an offensively-limited 2017.

The 2019 season featured 56 fourth-quarter comeback (4QC) wins and 77 game-winning drives (GWD). In 2018, there were 69 4QC and 88 GWD in the regular season. So things were down this year and more in line with 2017 than the rest of the decade when there were always 68 to 73 4QC. We also had a Week 1 tie with Arizona and Detroit each having to come back late, and Tennessee’s Ryan Tannehill added another unique win in Indianapolis on a blocked FG return for a touchdown to break a tie. There were also 33 comeback wins from a double-digit deficit at any point in the game, down one from 2018 (34).

Success rate for 4QC attempts was 29.7%, or a little below average. GWD success rate was in the usual ballpark of 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.

2019CGSUM

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 2020 for teams that won or lost a lot of close games.

Most playoff teams had an excellent record in close games, but the Vikings (2-5) had another rough year and the Chiefs and Titans were just 4-4 each. The Titans are 4-2 with Tannehill and 0-2 with Marcus Mariota at QB.

The Ravens, Packers and Seahawks are three playoff teams that did not blow a 4Q/OT lead this year, but Seattle was fortunate to have the Rams and 49ers both miss game-winning field goals against them in prime time. Baltimore actually has a league-best 5-0 record in close games, but that’s because the 33-28 loss at Kansas City and shocking 40-25 loss to Cleveland weren’t opportunities with the ball in Lamar Jackson’s hands late. In fact, the Ravens haven’t trailed in the 4Q in 11 straight games, which is one of the best streaks in NFL history.

The 2010-11 Packers still hold the greatest front-runner streak in NFL history: 19 consecutive wins without trailing in the fourth quarter. This year the Packers have been cutting it close by not scoring as much as those 2010-11 teams did, but they lead the league with eight defensive holds of a one-score lead with no blown leads yet. Maybe Drew Brees will get a chance to bust that in the second round. Green Bay’s 10 close wins are three more than any other 2019 team.

The Packers have twice broken the hearts of Detroit fans this year, but it’s been that kind of season decade half-century for Detroit. The Lions finished 3-12-1 with a staggering 3-11-1 record in close games. That’s right, a year after playing in a league-low six close games, the Lions played in a league-high 15 close games in 2019 and nearly lost them all. Detroit blew six 4Q leads, or two more than any other team. Using three quarterbacks, Matt Patricia’s teams finished 1-10 at 4QC/GWD opportunities. They are 2-15-1 (.139) in such games since 2018 under Patricia so it’s not just a matter of not having Matthew Stafford. Maybe things finally get back on track in 2020, but the Lions have struggled mightily in close games since setting that record with eight 4QC wins in 2016.

Cincinnati was the only team to go winless in close games on the way to 2-14, finishing 0-8 at 4QC opportunities and blowing three 4Q leads. The Chargers (1-8), Giants (1-7) and Colts (2-8) were also atrocious at a high volume of 4QC attempts. Philip Rivers now has the most failed 4QC//GWD attempts in NFL history (78), but Jacoby Brissett (3-14, .176) has the worst success rate at them among active quarterbacks. Colts fans can accept mediocrity at the position in different ways, but blowing so many winnable games is hard to stomach when you know Andrew Luck would have pulled out enough of these games for the playoffs this year.

QBRecs123119

Seattle, Houston and Buffalo led the way with five 4QC/GWD wins this year. Houston also had six in 2018 so that could be a team to watch for regression in 2020. Remember, Dallas had four or five GWD in each of Dak Prescott’s first three seasons, but in 2019 he didn’t lead a single go-ahead drive in 4Q/OT for the disappointing 8-8 Cowboys.

The Broncos and Buccaneers each blew four 4Q leads and finished 7-9. They could be teams to watch on the upswing in 2020, but Jameis Winston will have to cut down on the interceptions first. His pick-six against the Falcons in overtime on Sunday was the only game-winning interception touchdown in 2019.

NFL Week 17 Predictions: Making History Edition

I would say this regular season has gone quickly, but it feels like eons ago when Antonio Brown caught a touchdown for the Patriots down in Miami. Things have changed a lot since and we only have four of the 12 playoff seeds locked up going into this final Sunday. A whopping four teams can still win the No. 1 seed in the NFC.

With some teams probably mailing in this last game, I’d save my money and look to bet big on the playoffs. Here are some musings on the history we could see happen on Sunday.

Top-Heavy Season

It’s been a season of the haves and the have nots. The AFC could have just five teams with a winning record if the Steelers (8-7) and Titans (8-7) don’t beat Baltimore and Houston teams that should be resting key players. The same thing can happen in the NFC if the Eagles (8-7) and Rams (8-7) don’t win. At best we’ll have 14 teams with a winning record, the fewest since 2015 (13). You’d have to go back to top-heavy 2011 to find a season with 12 winning teams.

Jameis Winston: 30 for 30

Jameis Winston can make history by having the first season in NFL history with 30 TD passes and 30 interceptions. He has 31 TD and 28 INT going into tomorrow and should surpass 5,000 passing yards to lead the league. If anyone could do it, it’s Jameis. He should be up to 29 after the first drive. Then it’s just a matter of chasing infamy.

Three Stooges Alert

The Buffalo Bills (10-5) are locked into the No. 5 seed in the AFC and have little reason to go full throttle against the Jets. However, if they win this game and finish 11-5, it will trigger a little history for the Three Stooges of the AFC East. It’ll be the first time since realignment in 2002 that the Patriots had a division rival win 11 games without their help. The 2008 Dolphins finished 11-5, but one of those wins was against the Patriots (Wildcat game). The 2010 Jets finished 11-5, but one of those wins was against the Patriots. The Bills could get to 11-5 even after getting swept by the Patriots.

We’ll see if the Bills can come anywhere close to the 2010 Jets’ playoff run. The Jets haven’t returned to the playoffs since.

CLE/JAX: Don’t Promote from Within

It’s possible Freddie Kitchens (Browns) and Doug Marrone (Jaguars) could coach their last game for their team on Sunday. It reminds me of this tweet about promoting an interim coach or someone already on the staff to head coach. It’s usually a bad idea.

Patriots Defense

As expected, New England’s historic defense slowed down once the schedule put some good QBs/offenses on the field. But few teams have had much success against them this year. The Patriots go into the final game allowing 198 points on the season. Their most dominant game of the year was the 43-0 win in Miami in Week 2. If they can pitch a shutout again, they’ll become just the second team since 2001 to allow fewer than 200 points in a season. The 2002 Buccaneers allowed 196 points. If they just allow a field goal they’ll be tied with the 2006 Ravens (201) for the second fewest allowed.

As long as the Patriots don’t allow 25 points at home to Ryan Fitzpatrick, they’ll have the best scoring defense of any team since 2007.

Saints Eyeing 75/150

Michael Thomas already broke Marvin Harrison’s record of 143 catches in a season with 145. He just needs five to become the first player with 150 catches in a season. Drew Brees can break the single-season completion record for the third year in a row, becoming the first player to exceed 75% (he’s at 75.3%).

Golladay: The Last Hope?

It’s been a weird fantasy season with a lot of big names disappointing. Passing touchdowns are down a little, so it’s not that surprising to see receiving touchdowns down as well for the leading receivers.

Detroit’s Kenny Golladay leads the NFL with 11 touchdown catches. If that number holds through Sunday, it’ll be the first non-strike season in the NFL since 1975 that no one caught more than 11.

Steelers at Ravens: Not Meaningless

A bit more than pride is on the line for the Steelers and Ravens despite Baltimore resting key starters, including likely MVP winner Lamar Jackson. The Steelers need a win and help to make the playoffs. They also need to not lose by more than a field goal to extend their streak of .500 seasons with a positive scoring differential to 16 years. That would tie for the third-longest streak in NFL history. Only the 1965-1983 Cowboys (19 years) and 2001-2019 Patriots (19 years) have longer streaks.

The Ravens also need just 93 rushing yards to break the single-season record held by the 1978 Patriots (3,165). That should be easy with a running QB (Robert Griffin) and a gameplan that should try to run the clock faster than anything. It’s not like the Ravens need this win. The 1948 49ers actually rushed for 3,653 yards in 14 games, but that’s not the official record because the AAFC doesn’t count.

49ers at Seahawks: Playoffs Start Early

Sunday Night Football has the pleasure of giving us 49ers-Seahawks to end the regular season. It was a wild overtime finish last time, won by Seattle. Both teams are in the playoffs regardless, but this is still a huge game since a win would give the 49ers the No. 1 seed and next week off. Lose and they’re the No. 5 seed with Seattle likely sliding into No. 3. If you think the 49ers are the team of destiny this year, then they really need to come through and win this one in a building they haven’t won in since Russell Wilson was drafted (0-8).

Wilson, starting with that SF game, has not been as sharp over the last six games. Seattle has dropped two of the last three games and actually have three losses by 14+ points this year. The 49ers are 3.5-point favorites on the road here.

Due to the 49ers shockingly losing to the Falcons a few weeks ago, this game is still important to the team even if they did make a better decision in the first matchup. Remember when the 49ers had a chance to run out the clock and take a tie with Seattle, but threw three incomplete passes and watched Wilson drive for the win? At the time I thought it could be a huge blow to their chances of getting the No. 1 seed:

Had the 49ers taken the tie, they likely would have the division already clinched. They still would have needed to win this one to get homefield advantage, but the division wouldn’t be up for grabs like it is now.

The Seahawks are looking for their 12th win despite outscoring their schedule by 12 points this year. It’s been a great year for Wilson and the 49ers have been declining on defense as injuries pile up, but I still think I’m going to go with San Francisco to pull it off and earn the No. 1 seed.

NFL Week 17 Predictions

This is not the slate I want to try finish over .500 for, but I have some decent faith in the Browns, Colts, Falcons and Rams ending their season on a high note. I can also see Drew Lock edging the Raiders by a FG at home in Denver. I think the Chiefs keep rolling with this defense through the Chargers.

2019Wk17

For next season I’m probably going to move to a model approach to make my picks instead of going from the gut.

2019Wk1-16

NFL Top 100 Players of All Time

Back in August I spent a little time breaking players down by position to create my list of the 100 greatest players in NFL history. My plan was to post this before the 2019 season started to celebrate 100 years of the league, but then I ran into a familiar problem of not being sure how to rank one player over another when they play different positions.

For example, I knew I would have more quarterbacks (15) than any other position. However, just because I favor Roger Staubach over John Elway, does that mean I like both over Jack Lambert, my No. 4 linebacker, or does Lambert belong somewhere between the two? Also, thought was given to extending the list to 101 players and starting it with Patrick Mahomes just because of how absurd the start to his career was coming into 2019. I’m not doing that, but he is off the charts so far.

So as a late Christmas gift, you are getting my list today. After seeing the way the NFL has rolled out its controversial top 100, I decided to just rank the players by position instead of a 1-100 ranking. I’ve already made my share of comments on here and Twitter about the NFL Network’s list, and some of those will be repeated here. I expect about 66 of my players to match the 100 on here:

nfl100

My Approach

As far as how I arrived at my 100 players, I did not purposely neglect the early decades. I absolutely did place an emphasis on players who were truly dominant and stood out despite having so many worthy peers to compete with for honors and statistics. I can honestly say I’m not too interested in what a two-way lineman from the 1920s did, but I feel like I still included enough pioneers of the game who deserve honor in 2019. I also wasn’t going to neglect this past decade and the players who have already carved an incredible legacy.

I am not a ring counter, but I respect a player’s contribution towards winning. There’s no fancy formula or system I use to rank players, but I try to take everything I’ve learned from research into consideration from stats, eye test, peak performances, longevity, durability, awards, rings, how quickly they made the Hall of Fame, and how the player was perceived during his career. When we’re only picking 100, we should be focusing on first-ballot HOF types.

The choice to keep comments open may be one I regret, but let’s do this. Scroll to the bottom (or click here) if you want to see my full list of the top 100 players in NFL history.

Quarterbacks (15)

  1. Peyton Manning
  2. Joe Montana
  3. Johnny Unitas
  4. Drew Brees
  5. Tom Brady
  6. Dan Marino
  7. Steve Young
  8. Roger Staubach
  9. Brett Favre
  10. Aaron Rodgers
  11. Sammy Baugh
  12. Fran Tarkenton
  13. Ben Roethlisberger
  14. John Elway
  15. Otto Graham

My last real post about the top quarterbacks in NFL history is over four years old and a Part II was never made. You can read that if you want, but the fact is my thoughts have changed a lot since September 2015. Sure, my top 15 quarterbacks are the same group of players, and my top three hasn’t changed. However, nearly five full seasons have been played since and even just fundamentally I am seeing things a bit differently now.

I may be even more down on rings for quarterbacks than I was in 2015. This comes after watching Zombie Manning win his second, the Falcons handing Brady another after he turned a game-ending pick into a 23-yard catch by Julian Edelman, Nick Foles Super Bowl MVP, and Brady again cementing his legacy as the only quarterback to win a Super Bowl by scoring 13 offensive points (for the second time). When 2016 Matt Ryan and 2018 Patrick Mahomes turn in two of the greatest QB seasons ever and don’t even get the ball in overtime in championship game losses, what are we really accomplishing by putting everything on rings?

Sustained peak play is also something I value more now, so that will definitely come up when we get into the middle of the list here.

1-3: No Changes (Manning-Montana-Unitas)

I still have Peyton Manning, Joe Montana and Johnny Unitas as my top three quarterbacks of all time, which has been the case for quite a while now.

3. Johnny Unitas

Unitas always deserves respect for being the game’s first true field general. He called the shots and is regarded as having created the two-minute drill. His championship game performances against the Giants are the stuff of legends. He led the league in touchdown passes four years in a row. He threw 32 touchdowns in a 12-game season in 1959. He was as good as anyone when it came to throwing game-winning touchdown passes. He was a five-time All-Pro and three-time MVP winner. He succeeded with multiple coaches. The only real knock on him would be that his career was in the gutter after Year 12 and his playoff games after 1959 were rough, but what a run it was before that. He would have loved to play in this era with more passing, more shotgun, better kickers, wild cards, etc. In his last great season (All Pro in 1967), Unitas led the Colts to an 11-1-2 record that wasn’t good enough for the playoffs. Imagine that now. Unitas would have routinely been in the playoffs in a league with expansion.

2. Joe Montana

Montana was a great fit for Bill Walsh’s West Coast Offense, displaying elite accuracy, decision making and underrated mobility for years in San Francisco. He put up great numbers and won two Super Bowls even before the team drafted Jerry Rice in 1985. Montana proved he could win big without Walsh as he did in 1989, his most dominant season and first MVP. Montana also showed later in Kansas City after major injuries that he could still lead a team to success, getting the cursed Chiefs in the AFC Championship Game immediately in 1993. Like Unitas, Montana was great at throwing game-winning touchdowns in the clutch. His playoff runs over the 1988-1993 seasons were incredible. Durability was a knock as Montana did miss roughly 55 games to injury in his career. So he never threw for 4,000 yards and only hit 30 touchdown passes once, but he was the most efficient passer of his era.

1. Peyton Manning

Peyton Manning played the position at a higher level more consistently for a longer period of time than any quarterback in NFL history. He was the most individually-honored QB of all time with seven first-team All-Pro seasons and five MVP awards. He could have easily had eight of each (see 2005, 2006 and 2012). He struggled the first six games of his career before improving and setting numerous rookie records in 1998 at a time when rookies rarely did anything in the NFL. He didn’t struggle consistently like that again until 2015 when he was 39 and his body was failing him. He still led the Broncos to five late wins in the fourth quarter that year to help win a second Super Bowl before retiring.

Manning’s career path is most enviable, if not logical. He was at his worst as an infant and an elder, and still came away with records and a ring in those two seasons. For the 15 seasons in between, he was the most valuable player in NFL history. We’ll likely never see another quarterback take four different head coaches (from two franchises) to a Super Bowl like Manning did. He was the system, and it fell apart any time he was taken out of the game for playoff rest or when he missed the 2011 season for the 2-14 Colts. He couldn’t even leave a game for one play with a broken jaw without the offense fumbling in the fourth quarter to lead to a game-losing touchdown. No player took on a heavier burden and won as often as Manning did. He was also 89-0 when his team allowed fewer than 17 points in a game he finished. No one was better at making sure a strong defensive effort resulted in a win.

We’ll likely never see another quarterback break the passing touchdown record twice like Manning did, including 2013 when he threw 55 scores and the most yards ever in a season with marginal arm strength at best. The way he tailored his game in Denver to throw with even more anticipation was amazing.

In his physical prime in Indianapolis, Manning led the Colts to at least 12 wins in every season from 2003 to 2009. They were almost never out of any game then, including that 21-point comeback in the final four minutes in Tampa Bay in 2003 or the 18-point comeback win over the Patriots in the 2006 AFC Championship Game. With most quarterbacks you can turn the game off with a big deficit in the fourth quarter, but Manning was the best at making those games uncomfortable for the opponent.

Aside from maybe Dan Marino, Manning was the toughest quarterback to pressure and sack, always making life easier for any offensive line put in front of him. He called his own shots like Unitas in an era that’s increasingly gone towards radio communication telling the QB what to run. The Colts took the no-huddle offense to new heights in the 2000s. Manning was so uniquely talented that he even made the end zone fade — one of football’s worst play calls — a useful weapon thanks to the work he put in with Marvin Harrison before games. Manning’s work ethic, accuracy and consistency helped make millionaires and household names out of numerous coaches and teammates. When a putz like Adam Gase brags about being rich, he can thank Manning for their time in Denver.

The bugaboo for Manning will always be the 14-13 playoff record and the nine one-and-done postseasons, but the fact is he was one of the best playoff quarterbacks in NFL history too with numerous records there. As I solved before Super Bowl 50, the record number of playoff losses (13) are a combo of making the playoffs more often than anyone with teams that sometimes had no business being there, and losing several of the most highly-contested opening-round games to good teams. Most players aren’t opening their playoffs against the 99 Titans, 05 Steelers, 07 Chargers, or 12 Ravens. Other quarterbacks would have their close calls in the later rounds of the playoffs, but Manning saw five of his record six blown fourth-quarter leads in the playoffs happen in opening games. Only one other QB in NFL history (Warren Moon, 3) had more than two such games. In years where Manning got past the first game, his teams were 13-4 in the playoffs and 2-2 in the Super Bowl.

The detractors have to stick with poor box-score scouting of playoff games and remembering things like Tracy Porter and Ty Law (but forgetting the picks the 2003 Colts didn’t make that day) because that’s all they have left. Year after year Manning erased the arguments against him:

  • They said Manning was only good because of RB Edgerrin James (see record in 1998 and 2001 without him), so Manning immediately won his first Super Bowl after Edge left in 2006.
  • They said Manning was only good because he had a left tackle like Tarik Glenn, so after Glenn retired he kept things going and even won an MVP with noted bust Tony Ugoh as his left tackle in 2008. He also improved his pocket movement after the 2005 Pittsburgh loss.
  • They said Manning would miss the calming presence of Tony Dungy and his all-time leading receiver Marvin Harrison after retirement in 2009. He only started that season 14-0 with the corpse of Jim Caldwell on the sideline and by integrating Pierre Garcon and Austin Collie seamlessly into the offense.
  • They said Manning’s QB whisperer Tom Moore was the key to his success in Indianapolis, but Manning set up shot without Moore in Denver and immediately got the desired results for a franchise that tried to run a 1930s offense with Tim Tebow in 2011.
  • They said Manning had great stats because he played in a dome in Indianapolis, so after diminished arm strength following four neck surgeries, he led one of the most dominant passing offenses in NFL history for three years in Denver outdoors. Several of his worst games in that uniform came indoors as a visitor.

The only thing Manning didn’t prove is that he can still play at a high level thru age 39 and beyond like Favre, Brady and Brees have. Then again, they’re the only three on my list to do that, so it’s not a deal-breaker.

Manning is the easiest quarterback to defend because his success isn’t dependent on one constant coach, team, owner or any factor but his own hard work and skill. He wasn’t the most durable, but he was more durable and harder to replace than Montana. He wasn’t washed after Year 12 like Unitas nor did he peak in his first five years like Marino. His peak was far longer than the eight years of relevance Young gave us. He didn’t need four years to break out like Brees did and 7-9 seasons were beneath him. There were some throws he’d like to have back, but that’s true for all of these guys, and there were fewer regrets than Favre had. He also didn’t have Bill Belichick holding his hand for two decades like Brady. We didn’t have years of “What’s wrong with Peyton?” articles like we’ve had with Aaron Rodgers since 2015, because the decline was so rapid.

Manning ascended to the top of the game quickly, stayed there for a long time, and then fell off the cliff in a hurry. Maybe another quarterback with the initials P.M. will wipe Manning out of the record books in the next 15-20 years. But for the first 100 years of NFL history, the only clear GOAT to me is Peyton Manning. Period.

4-6: I Want to Watch the World Burn (Brees-Brady-Marino)

Good news for Brady fans: this is the first time you’ve seen me rank Brady ahead of Dan Marino. Bad news for Brady fans: I put Drew Brees ahead of them both, which you might have expected was coming from my recent look at Brees as the Hypothetical GOAT. You can read that for more context on the crazy amount of records Brees owns so I don’t need to repeat them here.

My very recent epiphany on this was that Brees is having the career we wish Marino had. Don’t get me wrong when it comes to Marino’s greatness. If Marino played now he would be battling Brees for the most 5,000-yard passing seasons and would still be incredibly hard to sack with his quick release. But why do we seemingly only do this “if he played now” thing with Marino and never with Unitas or Montana or even 1983 classmate Elway? It’s always the hypothetical for Marino, the best to never win a Super Bowl, or something Brees actually has done and could still do again.

My justification for putting Marino ahead of Brady all these years was that he was a better passer surrounded by far worse teams, especially on defense. If it was a close playoff game, Marino always did his job. He just wasn’t always close or in the playoffs often enough because he didn’t have enough help around him.

This argument actually works better for Brees, who has seen more great seasons and games go to waste than any QB in NFL history. Sean Payton has just never done much to coach up the defense in New Orleans. Brees won three passing titles in a row in 2014-16 for teams that never won more than seven games in any of those seasons. Brees has been saddled five times with a defense that ranked 31st or 32nd in points per drive allowed. As I already explained a few weeks ago, Brees has the most fourth-quarter comebacks in NFL history, but not the most comeback wins.

In the playoffs, Brees actually has better efficiency stats than Brady and Marino. Brees is one of 12 quarterbacks to appear in at least eight different postseasons (he’ll make his ninth this year). He’s the only QB out of those 12 who can say he’s never had a bad postseason. The closest was 2013, but in two road games he still pulled out one late win in Philadelphia before struggling with Seattle’s vaunted defense. The guy just doesn’t have duds in January, and I’m sure I’m jinxing myself here but it’s a fact so far.

Brees has been on the losing end of many heartbreakers in the playoffs. Brees lost his first playoff game (2004 NYJ) after his kicker missed a game-winning field goal in overtime. He threw for over 400 yards and scored 36 points in Seattle, but it wasn’t enough because of the Beastquake. He is the only quarterback to lose a playoff game after throwing two go-ahead touchdown passes in the fourth quarter because of what Alex Smith did to his defense in the final two minutes. Then we have the last couple of years with the Minnesota Miracle (only walk-off TD in 4Q in playoff history) and the sham of no DPI on the Rams that would have enabled the Saints to kick a last-second field goal and get to another Super Bowl.

While Brees continues to excel at 40, Marino peaked very early with that 1984 sophomore season and never got back to the Super Bowl. His first five years are significantly better than the rest of his career. He struggled at 38 and retired. One of the most nonsensical things is when people say “Marino would throw for 6,000 yards and 60 TD if he played today.” No, he wouldn’t. Even though passing stats continued to get better throughout Marino’s career, his own numbers did not. Maybe that was from a decline of the talent around him a la Rodgers in Green Bay right now (see below), but he never really found that resurgence outside of his 1994 season when he came back from the Achilles injury. Why would Marino throw for more than Brees and Peyton ever did when he was barely ahead of the pace of Moon and Kelly in the 90s?

Meanwhile, Brees was the best QB not named Mahomes in 2018 and should have been back to the Super Bowl. He was injured this year, but is back to being a top passer again. Even if he was fully healthy he’d probably still be denied MVP because of what Lamar Jackson did, which is just the kind of luck Brees has had in his career.

Brees’ continued excellence and success that would be even greater if he had better teammates gives him my Marino argument, except his case is even better. So that’s really why I swapped him into Marino’s spot at No. 4 ahead of Brady. The biggest knock on Brees is really the length of time it took him to get to a high level of play.

Brees didn’t do himself any favors in that he played one game as a rookie, was middling at best in 2002, then played poorly and was benched in 2003. He finally broke out in 2004 and has played at a high level for the 16 seasons since. Meanwhile, Marino had that incredible start, but as I said, he never really had elite years down the stretch of his career. Brady also started off better than Brees, only hitting his low point this year at the age of 42. So early impressions have put Brees behind the eight ball here, but he’s continued to play at such a high level that he owns the all-time passing records and may never have to give them up to Brady if he puts it far enough out of reach.

The concept of Brady chasing Brees is wild given how it’s really always been the other way around due to how their careers started. Perception is a hell of a drug in the NFL. By the time Brees finally showed us he was good (2004), Brady had already won two Super Bowls. After Brees’ first year in New Orleans, big things were expected, but 2007 actually proved to be his worst season as a Saint with a poor 0-4 start. Meanwhile, Brady exploded that year with by far his best season with 50 touchdown passes. Then after Brees was Super Bowl MVP in 2009, big things were again expected with him set to join the ranks of Manning and Brady at the top. However, 2010 proved to be Brees’ second-weakest season as a Saint while Brady had a hot eight-game finish to claim his second MVP award. Brees exploded in 2011 again, but Aaron Rodgers was just a hair better, so Brees again was second fiddle. Then a lot of those seven-win seasons started for the Saints and it wasn’t until 2017 that they started consistently winning again. Meanwhile the Patriots are in at least the AFC Championship Game every year since 2011.

Over the last three years Brees’ passer rating is 15 points higher than Brady’s (111.1 to 96.1). If we continue working backwards from 2019, Brees has a higher rating than Brady for every single year back to 2001. However, we experienced their careers in the normal order where Brady was higher every year from 2002 through 2017. Brees didn’t surpass him until 2018.

DBTB-PR

Now how could I put Brees ahead of Brady when the MVP count is 3-0? Even with Marino it’s 1-0. That one’s simple. I think their top seasons match up very well, and Brees’ lack of MVPs is a case of bad luck. Several of his best years coincided with someone else having a career year like Mahomes in 2018 or Rodgers in 2011. Then he’s also been bitten by Peyton a couple of times. Meanwhile, I think Brady was a default MVP in 2010 and 2017 since no other candidate stayed healthy or was worthy enough that year. In the end, I think Brady (2007) and Marino (1984) have the best individual seasons (2007) between the three, but seasons from Brees like 2009, 2011 and 2018 are all better years than Brady’s MVP years of 2010 and 2017. Marino’s only other MVP argument would have been 1986, but he missed the playoffs at 8-8. So I don’t think the MVP argument is a valid one for Brees vs. Brady/Marino like it would be for Brees vs. Peyton/Unitas/Montana.

Sadly, it looks more and more likely that Brees will be left off the NFL’s top 100 as I have been saying for weeks. It’s a tough list to crack and people have stronger biases than usual when it comes to quarterbacks. Brees has had the misfortune of trying to shine in an era with three other all-time greats, but I just don’t know how anyone could look at the body of work and how he’s played and not be super impressed. Most accurate quarterback of all time and most prolific passer of all time are worth celebrating.

Some quarterbacks simply receive more help and have better luck than others. These things do not just even out, even over two decades in the league. It’s true that I don’t think I can use my method of changing one play (usually one that has nothing to do with the QB too) to change enough outcomes to get any other QB in nine Super Bowls like Brady. But I know I just have to change the Tuck Rule/Vinatieri’s kick (2001), Lee Evans in the end zone (2011), and Dee Ford offsides (2018) and I already have Brady down to a 4-2 Super Bowl record. Don’t even get me started on the 2014 Seahawks and 2016 Falcons not committing to the run when they should have, or Drew Bennett in 2003 (Titans) or #MylesJackWasntDown in 2017. The list just goes on and on for what I call the Coin Flip Dynasty in New England. Meanwhile, I could find a few more title games and possible Super Bowls for Manning and Brees quite easily.

That’s how I don’t get caught up in counting Super Bowls for this list. I can look at how the QB performed individually and asses how much help they had to win or lose the game. We know Brady isn’t blowing away his peers in any statistic except for the one that says New England wins the most in practically every situation.

The one stat the QB has the least control over should not be the centerpiece for his greatness. That’s been my argument for Marino over Brady, but it’s better applied to Brees now.

7-10: The Curious Case of Aaron Rodgers

Here’s an interesting one. Roger Staubach and Steve Young are similar in that they were the most efficient passer of their decade while also being really good at scrambling. Both had shorter-lived runs as starters for various reasons, but they rarely left you disappointed. The Green Bay quarterbacks, Brett Favre and Aaron Rodgers, also showed some dominance with multiple MVP awards and a flair for extending plays. They however couldn’t be any more different when it comes to interception avoidance. Maybe Rodgers learned from watching Favre slump through a bad 2005 season as a rookie, but we know he’s very protective of the ball and will throw it away or take sacks at a higher level than he should. Favre was the ultimate gunslinger, but he paid for that a lot too. You had more exciting comebacks with Favre, but also some really tough losses after bad interceptions.

With Staubach, we basically had eight relevant seasons with only one of those (1974) seeing him have subpar stats and missing the playoffs. With Young, his peak in San Francisco was also eight years (1991-98) and it’s one of the best eight-year runs you’ll ever see. I think only 2003-2010 Manning exceeds it. Young, Favre and Rodgers are three of the best ever one-ring QBs. Favre’s Packers (and Aikman’s Cowboys) actually had a lot to do with Young only starting one Super Bowl. It’s one of the biggest disappointments this decade that the Packers haven’t been back to the Super Bowl with Rodgers.

Favre obviously has the ironman streak and longevity in his favor. The thought was that Rodgers could provide 15 years of standout play despite having to wait until his fourth season to start a game thanks to Favre. However, it has been a strange path. Most all-time great quarterbacks don’t have to wait as long to start as Rodgers did. Most never come close to the peak run Rodgers had in 2009-2014, which I have dubbed as Peak Aaron Rodgers. Then we have the last five years that have taken place since I last ranked quarterbacks. Ever since that 6-0 start in 2015 without Jordy Nelson, Rodgers has seen his stats take a major nosedive from his lofty standards. In his last 64 regular season games, starting with that embarrassing night in Denver (2015), his YPA is just 7.05. Rodgers has had the lowest TD% of his career in the last two seasons.

Blame has made its rounds everywhere. Former head coach Mike McCarthy took the brunt of it, but under new coach Matt LaFleur, Rodgers is having a very familiar 2019 season that looks a lot like last year. The difference is the defense has been much better and the schedule more favorable. We have metrics to show the offensive line is pretty good. Aaron Jones has been an impressive running back as the running game has been blamed for this decline even though Rodgers rarely had one in his peak years.

I think there is something to be said for having the best and deepest receiving corps in the NFL when Peak Aaron Rodgers played, compared to now just having Davante Adams and some guys. That obviously doesn’t reflect greatly on Rodgers for not developing the receivers better, but he is clearly working with less than he had before. He’s also never been a huge fan of tight ends for some reason so Jimmy Graham hasn’t been much help there. I think this hurts him a bit in an era where Manning and Brees could seemingly plug anyone in and get production. Rodgers loves to extend plays and go off script, but the rewards just haven’t been there like they used to, and he misses having a threat like Jordy Nelson. Health concerns have also been present for Rodgers in some of these seasons.

I used to knock Rodgers for the lack of 4QC/GWDs. He’s improved there for sure, but some of it has come at the expense of his usual early-game dominance. Simply put, the Packers trail by bigger margins and more often now than they used to. So while it helps Rodgers get more big comeback opportunities like the ones he led last year against the Bears and Jets, it’s overall hurting the team that he’s just not as efficient as he used to be.

So it’s unusual to see such a great QB with these struggles in his ages 32-36 seasons. If Rodgers had a 15-year career that looked like his play for 2015-19, I’m not sure he’d be a HOFer. He might be short of the mark like Philip Rivers actually. I’ve been saying that the ways to get Peak Aaron Rodgers back come in only three forms. One is to change teams, which seems unlikely right now. Another was to change coaches, but again, that hasn’t done the trick yet. The third is for Green Bay to land a generational talent at receiver that can transform the offense. Unfortunately, players like this rarely come along (think Rob Gronkowski or Randy Moss). That might be the only hope.

Peak Aaron Rodgers is one of the best QBs we’ve ever seen, but this guy of the last five years is not. I’m keeping Favre ahead of him for now because not only did he have an MVP reign and great run in the 90s himself, but he rebounded later with a great season at 38 in 2007 and nearly had the Vikings in the Super Bowl when he was 40.

Rodgers will turn 37 next season. Does he have that kind of resurgence in him? Time will tell, but he still has an opportunity right now to turn in an impressive postseason no one really expected from Green Bay and get to another Super Bowl in February. Perhaps denying Brees a second trip would be a big win for Rodgers’ legacy.

11-15: Roethlisberger over Elway

Wrapping things up for quarterbacks, I’ve kept my order of Baugh > Tarkenton > Graham from 2015, but Elway has moved down from eighth and Roethlisberger has gone from 15th to 13th. I have known for years that I wanted to move Elway down more, but this did not prove to be perfect timing for the Roethlisberger push only because he suffered the first long-term injury of his career this year and missed all but 1.5 games.

Let’s not ignore the facts though. Roethlisberger and Elway have each played 16 seasons in the NFL. Roethlisberger expects to play at least a 17th too, so there’s no longevity dispute here. Elway has only appeared in 16 more regular-season games than Ben, but Ben already has more passing yards, more passing touchdowns, and he is only four wins behind Elway as a starter. They have the same number of comeback wins (34) and game-winning drives (46). Roethlisberger has one more lost comeback (9) than Elway (8), or games where the QB put his team ahead late but still lost.

Roethlisberger kills Elway in rate stats and top 5/10 finishes among his peers. Top 5 seasons in passing DVOA? Roethlisberger has five to Elway’s two. Top 10 seasons in passing DVOA? Roethlisberger has 10 to Elway’s seven. Roethlisberger has finished 11th or better in passing DYAR (total value) in 14 of his 16 seasons, only missing in 2008 (23rd) and 2019 (IR). We don’t have any QBR data on Elway’s career, but chances are he wouldn’t finish that well in most years. Elway had more rushing production which could help, but he also fumbled 38 more times.

Beyond that, Roethlisberger didn’t need 11 seasons to start putting up efficient passing numbers like Elway, who had 158 touchdowns and 157 interceptions from 1983-1992. Look at this split for each quarterback’s first 10 seasons versus their 11th-16th seasons and how they ranked among their peers at that time (minimum 1,000 attempts for rate stats).

JE-BR

(Keep in mind Roethlisberger has had stiffer competition too with Brady, Brees and Rodgers in each split. Someone like Manning is replaced by Mahomes in the 2014-2019 split. Meanwhile, Chris Chandler and Mark Brunell were two of the better quarterbacks in that 1993-1998 split for Elway, a bit of a down period for offenses league-wide.)

Roethlisberger immediately had great efficiency stats and was Offensive Rookie of the Year before later having the volume stats as well. He’s always had top 10 statistics while Elway was often poor for a decade among his peers before turning it on later when the Broncos eventually supplied him with a HOF tight end (Shannon Sharpe), HOF RB (Terrell Davis), HOF left tackle (Gary Zimmerman), HOF-caliber wideout (Rod Smith), and other good assets. Roethlisberger’s boost starting in 2014 was Le’Veon Bell becoming a capable receiver at running back, which he never had before in his career. The improved line and his personal change to get rid of the ball faster has resulted in far fewer sacks taken. The Steelers also had better skill weapons in recent years before Bell and Antonio Brown mentally imploded, but Roethlisberger has always helped his receivers excel. Santonio Holmes, Antwaan Randle El, Mike Wallace and Martavis Bryant disappointed greatly after leaving Pittsburgh, and almost every draft prospect (mostly mid-round picks) has panned out thanks in part to Roethlisberger’s consistency. The only wideout who broke out somewhere else was Emmanuel Sanders in Denver (with Manning of course).

Roethlisberger didn’t need 15 seasons to win his first Super Bowl either. He needed two and then added a second in his fifth year with the greatest game-winning touchdown pass in Super Bowl history. If you want to say Roethlisberger sucked in his Super Bowl win against Seattle, that’s fine. Just admit the same for Elway against the 1997 Packers. The helicopter spin was cool, but it’s not a better play than the tackle Roethlisberger made to save Jerome Bettis’ legacy and his team’s ring in the playoffs in Indianapolis in 2005. While “The Drive” is an iconic moment for Elway, it didn’t directly win the game for Denver like Roethlisberger’s march and throw against Arizona.

Elway has his moments of lore, but so does Roethlisberger to anyone paying attention to the last 15 years of the NFL. This is the problem of playing in the same era as the big four of Manning, Brady, Brees and Rodgers. Yet Roethlisberger is the only QB in NFL history with three 500-yard passing games, which were all wins against winning teams, including the last-play touchdown to Mike Wallace against the 2009 Packers. He also has the most 450-yard games (7). He’s the only QB to ever throw six touchdown passes in back-to-back games, which was also done against playoff teams. He is tied with Brady for the third-most games of five touchdown passes (seven) in NFL history, and five of those games were nationally televised. He is tied with Peyton for the most 158.3 perfect passer rating games with four. He had a great game as a rookie to end New England’s historic 21-game winning streak. He led a memorable comeback to win the AFC North on Christmas in 2016, connecting with Antonio Brown in the final seconds. There was the slug-out win in Baltimore in 2008 with a Santonio Holmes touchdown breaking the plane late. He’s broken the hearts of Bengals and Ravens fans with nine game-winning drives against each.

At the end of the day, it doesn’t surprise me that Roethlisberger wasn’t even one of the 22 nominated names for this list by the NFL. He’s always been the Rodney Dangerfield of quarterbacks — no respect. But what factors other than nostalgia would make one choose Elway? Are an extra two Super Bowl losses the deciding factor? It’s not for me when I know that’s the result of Elway playing in a far weaker AFC where he took advantage of cursed Marty Schottenheimer teams like so many others would. Imagine if Elway had to deal with the Patriots and Manning-led teams like Roethlisberger has. Elway did nothing to break up Buffalo’s four-year run of winning the AFC. Elway wasn’t the only one who saw his defense implode in playoff games either, most notably those three Super Bowl losses. Roethlisberger is 13-1 in the playoffs when the Steelers allow no more than 24 points, but 0-7 when they allow 29-plus.

It’s hard to say how Roethlisberger, going on 38, will recover after surgery. The Steelers could also be in for some lean years with the Ravens running wild now and the Bengals probably drafting QB Joe Burrow with the top pick. The Super Bowl window may be closed for Ben, but he’s long since matched Elway in that “precious” ring category people care about.

It has been a pleasure watching Roethlisberger the last 15 years. It has been painful watching the Steelers try to operate an offense without him this season. That should earn him more respect, but we know that never seems to be the case despite all the evidence.

Running Backs (7)

  1. Barry Sanders
  2. Jim Brown
  3. Walter Payton
  4. Emmitt Smith
  5. Eric Dickerson
  6. LaDainian Tomlinson
  7. Marshall Faulk

My top three have been set in stone for quite a number of years now thanks to their pure domination and consistency. When it comes to No. 4 Emmitt Smith, I hear the arguments about the offensive line, but his longevity and durability were special. There’s no other way you get to be the all-time leading rusher without that. He was also the dominant, featured player in his offense at a time when his Cowboys were the most successful team in the NFL. The 90s were a peak time for workhorses and he won four rushing titles despite battling with the human highlight reel that was Barry Sanders. Eric Dickerson rounds out my top five, and he may be No. 1 if we just focused on his first six or seven seasons when he was so prolific and didn’t have much help from his passing game. His record of 2,105 rushing yards in 1984 still holds up and may never be broken (at least not in a 16-game season).

While the NFL included 12 backs, I only felt it was necessary to pick seven as I am a firm believer in the ease of replacement at the position. I also picked LaDainian Tomlinson and Marshall Faulk to round out my list, which explains why I was so shocked to see neither make the NFL’s list. Both were league MVPs who set the single-season touchdown record and were prolific receivers as well. Faulk had that dominant 1,000-yard rushing, 1,000-yard receiving season in 1999 that led to a Super Bowl win for his Rams. Tomlinson was insanely productive through seven seasons back at a time when the league was still filled with the workhorse back, a dying breed ever since.

You have to wonder if there was a personal vendetta against Faulk at the NFL Network to not honor him on this show due to his involvement in a sexual harassment case years ago. That would be a bit hypocritical for a show that had no problem bringing Jim Brown, Ray Lewis, and Lawrence Taylor on the studio and also talked about the inclusion of O.J. Simpson. Not to get on a moral high horse, but allegations of murder and physical/sexual assault against women are a serious matter.

Either way, I have no problem putting players who finished third and seventh in career touchdowns on my list. Tomlinson and Faulk were massive snubs by the NFL. I did not pick a back older than Brown, but I respect the NFL’s decision to include Steve Van Buren. I think that’s the right pre-1950 pick and I also like Lenny Moore a lot too as a big-play threat. I can even respect O.J. Simpson’s inclusion as he was a monster (on and off the field).

But again, I just do not love the position enough to include more than seven as I wanted to get more quarterbacks on my top 100.

Wide Receivers (10)

  1. Jerry Rice
  2. Randy Moss
  3. Don Hutson
  4. Terrell Owens
  5. Lance Alworth
  6. Calvin Johnson
  7. Larry Fitzgerald
  8. Julio Jones
  9. Marvin Harrison
  10. Cris Carter

For the record, if I was ranking all players 1-100, Jerry Rice would be my No. 1 overall player, the GOAT. You could kill a lot of time digging into his records and being amazed at how incredible his peak was and how he was the best Old Man WR in history too. One of the first football articles I ever did was about how unbreakable Rice’s records were. Even in this era of pass-happy offenses, it’s hard to see anyone playing now breaking his records. It would have to be someone who comes in later when the seasons are 18 games long. Hopefully that change never happens and someone beats him on merit instead of increased opportunities. If one record falls it would have to be receptions, but good luck to anyone on the yards and touchdowns. Not to mention all the playoff records.

I saw more of Randy Moss than I ever did Rice, but he’s my No. 2 because I think he had a tendency to take plays off. He basically quit on the 2006 Raiders, which maybe I can’t blame him for given his QB was Andrew Walter and his coach was Stuck in the 1990s Art Shell. But Moss was such a dangerous deep threat and I loved seeing him raise his hand almost instantly out of his break to get his QB’s attention to throw it. He might have sniffed Rice’s touchdown record if his career didn’t go haywire at age 33 (played for three teams in 2010), but that’s just another reason Rice is the GOAT.

Now that I hit on my two favorites, let’s circle back to the NFL’s very controversial list, which I had a somewhat viral tweet about in mocking the addition of Elroy “Crazy Legs” Hirsch.

In my opinion, my top five players should be locks for a top 10. The NFL didn’t go with Terrell Owens for probably some of the same reasons he had to wait years for the HOF. Perceived “bad teammate” stuff. As an on-field talent, the guy was amazing and excelled with several quarterbacks and franchises, and his teams generally won. His performance in the Super Bowl loss after a serious leg injury was also awe inspiring. T.O. can be in my top five for sure.

When it comes to 6-10, I think many players have a good argument. Wide receiver is a very difficult position to evaluate because their success is so dependent on the quarterback in a way that just isn’t true for RB/OL/TE (see my rant here). We have to consider the team’s pass-run ratio, the quality of the quarterback and other receivers, and did the receiver create a lot of YAC, score a lot of touchdowns, or did he just load up on short completions from the slot? There’s a lot more to evaluate here so it’s not surprising that the HOF has a difficult time with the position and so did this list.

For one, I think having five of the top 10 wide receivers of all time as white players is a head scratcher (unless that was the Bill Belichick Special given he’d include “Julian Welkendola” as a player if he could combine the three). Don Hutson and Lance Alworth were locks that I included in my top five. Hutson is basically the George Washington of the position, the first true great receiver. Alworth was an incredible deep threat and the best from the AFL era. I did not include Raymond Berry or Steve Largent on my list, but I at least see cases for them making the NFL’s list.

The one that bugged me was Crazy Legs Hirsch. He indisputably had one of the all-time great receiving seasons in 1951 with 1,495 yards and 17 TD in 12 games. But that was on a stacked, historically prolific passing team with two HOF passers. The competition also leaves something to be desired from that year. The Rams opened the season with the New York Yanks, a team that finished 1-9-2 and was defunct the following year. That’s the game where Norm Van Brocklin set the single-game record with 554 passing yards, and Hirsch had 173 yards and four touchdowns that day. Hirsch never came close to his 1951 numbers again and only had a couple other really strong seasons.

I get that they were trying to highlight different eras, but why so much focus on that time between Hutson and the pass-happy AFL that Alworth helped bring along? I would have ignored Hirsch’s era for sure, just like how they ignored the last dozen years when Calvin Johnson and Julio Jones were so outstanding, living up to the draft hype with their freakish talent. Calvin came the closest to a 2,000-yard season of anyone so far and retired early much like Detroit’s other great skill player (Barry Sanders). Julio doesn’t score touchdowns like you’d like to see, but it’s hard to argue with his NFL record average of 96.4 receiving yards per game. He is looking to finish in the top three in yards for the sixth time this year. That’s big when you consider Larry Fitzgerald has only finished in the top three one time in his career (he has been fourth a total of three times). This gets back to how voters don’t seem to properly understand how to evaluate a player relative to his peers in this era.

Fitzgerald made my list too even though he’s less dominant than most of the other guys. His hands are amazing, he’s been very durable, and his playoff performances were nothing short of historic. Cris Carter also made my list for his ability to score a ton of touchdowns with various quarterbacks. I’ve always had him ranked ahead of the likes of Tim Brown and Michael Irvin. Sterling Sharpe would get more respect if injury didn’t stop him early, but he should be in Canton.

Then there’s Marvin Harrison. I’ve said that the best WR in NFL history, statistically, would be Peyton Manning’s No. 1 WR. Harrison was fortunate to get the biggest chunk of those seasons as he lit up the record books with Manning in Indy. Harrison’s playoff struggles are hard to explain, but it’s hard to argue with his 1999-2006 peak when he averaged 105 catches, 1,425 yards and 13 TD per 16 games.

Tight Ends (6)

  1. Rob Gronkowski
  2. Tony Gonzalez
  3. Antonio Gates
  4. John Mackey
  5. Kellen Winslow
  6. Mike Ditka

This was probably the least disagreeable position on the NFL Top 100. They only selected five players, but I had the same five plus Antonio Gates, who played college basketball in case you forgot. Shannon Sharpe would also be an honorable mention, but I like this list.

Gronk was the GOAT and the numbers would be even more stunning if he wasn’t injured so often. But when playing he was the best. Think of Tony Gonzalez as Arnold’s T-800 model of Terminator. Iconic and durable. Got the job done. But Gronk was the T-1000, except he’d rather melt into a puddle of goo off the field than continue risking his body after yet another Super Bowl win. Man, it sure is funny how the two most stat-inflating receivers of the last two decades (Moss and Gronk) played at their peak with the quarterback who “never has any weapons” in New England.

John Mackey has one of the best highlight reels of any player in NFL history. He was an OG like Mike Ditka, and Kellen Winslow took things to another level in Air Coryell’s offense as a receiving tight end. A relatively newer position than the others, it wasn’t hard to come up with the tight ends.

OFFENSIVE LINE (19)

Before we get into the OL positions, I want to acknowledge that it’s still the unit we have the least data for, especially for past decades. At least we have new game charting metrics for blown blocks and rates of snaps won in pass blocking, but we’re still pretty much in the dark on most decades of NFL history. So excellence at these positions have largely been defined by draft status, games started/longevity, and Pro Bow/All Pro honors. We know that can be very dubious, such as Maurkice Pouncey making eight Pro Bowls largely on the fact that the Steelers drafted him in the first round in 2010 rather than his actual play. So when I’m picking an offensive lineman, I try to pick someone who contributed to successful offenses while also garnering a lot of individual honors, but again I think a lot of us are simply guessing when it comes to these positions.

Offensive Tackle (7)

  1. Anthony Munoz
  2. Orlando Pace
  3. Jonathan Ogden
  4. Willie Roaf
  5. Joe Thomas
  6. Forrest Gregg
  7. Jim Parker

The NFL list had seven tackles too, though we only agreed on three of them. Sort of. Jim Parker made my list here, but the NFL list put him at guard where he also played. He was Johnny Unitas’ left tackle during the title years in Baltimore. Point is he’s on this top 100 list. My top pick was Anthony Munoz who seems to be the consensus for the best tackle ever.

It was surprising not to see Orlando Pace on the NFL’s list. He was the No. 1 overall pick in 1997 and really highlighted that great run on tackles in the late 90s with Jonathan Ogden, Walter Jones, Tony Boselli, etc. I have no problem including someone from the Greatest Show on Turf Rams.

Joe Thomas did not make the NFL’s list, which is another slap in the face to modern players since he was retired at the time they voted. Thomas went to 10 Pro Bowls and 6 first-team All-Pros for the freakin’ Browns, their best player by far since returning to the league in 1999. He never missed a snap until 2017. He’s a first-ballot HOF lock and in an era where a lot of tackles struggle and high draft picks miss, it’s worth highlighting the best of the last two decades in Thomas. It’s just too bad he retired right before the Browns got a quarterback worth protecting (at least we hope that’s the case with Baker Mayfield).

Offensive Guard (7)

  1. John Hannah
  2. Bruce Matthews
  3. Gene Upshaw
  4. Larry Allen
  5. Randall McDaniel
  6. Jerry Kramer
  7. Steve Hutchinson

John Hannah was the GOAT for the Patriots before people ruined that label. Bruce Matthews could excel at any position on the line, so you know he would make the list high somewhere. I did not choose Art Shell for my tackles, but I did go with Gene Upshaw from those Oakland lines for the guards. Larry Allen was a monster who could also play multiple positions. Randall McDaniel was a 12-time Pro Bowler who was also All-Pro when the 1998 Vikings set the scoring record.

The NFL also chose seven guards, including my tackle pick of Jim Parker. They didn’t pick Steve Hutchinson and Jerry Kramer like I did. Kramer finally got into the HOF as a key member of the Packers, the most successful dynasty in NFL history. Hutchinson was my pick for representing the last 20 years of football. He should get into the HOF soon too, and he was an anchor for those strong Seattle offenses and also blocked for a young Adrian Peterson in Minnesota.

Center (5)

  1. Jim Otto
  2. Dwight Stephenson
  3. Mike Webster
  4. Dermontti Dawson
  5. Mel Hein

Hard to say if there’s any consensus on the #1 center like there is for tackle (Munoz) or guard (Hannah), but Jim Otto was a 10-time first-team All-Pro. Sure, it helped that most of that came in the AFL when there weren’t many teams, but the Raiders were a highly successful offense in that era. Dwight Stephenson might have gone down as the best if he played longer (just 114 games), especially since he was with Dan Marino in Miami.

I mentioned Pouncey earlier, but you can see why center is such a big deal in Pittsburgh. Mike Webster and Dermontti Dawson were two of the best to ever do it. Finally, Mel Hein made my list as the best from his era (1931-1945).

The NFL had the same list, except Dawson didn’t make it there. So there’s probably more groupthink with OL than any position, but my 19 picks being somewhat close to the NFL’s list makes me feel good.

Defensive End (9)

  1. Reggie White
  2. Bruce Smith
  3. Deacon Jones
  4. J.J. Watt
  5. Carl Eller
  6. Michael Strahan
  7. Jack Youngblood
  8. Julius Peppers
  9. Gino Marchetti

You might be able to argue with the order, but I think White/Smith/Jones make up a pretty consensus top three. This is such a crucial position, so I was surprised to see the NFL only chose seven players. More baffling was how they included Doug Atkins and Lee Roy Selmon, but not J.J. Watt or Michael Strahan.

The Watt snub especially bugged me because it showed that they’re not acknowledging how great an active player has already been in his career. Watt played six full seasons and was first-team All-Pro in five of them and won three Defensive Player of the Year awards. Most guys can play 15-20 years and never sniff those achievements. Watt’s only played nine fewer games than Selmon, who started out on those horrible Tampa Bay teams and only had one All-Pro season and DPOY award. Watt is as big of a snub as any by the NFL.

I also like to represent Minnesota’s Purple People Eaters line, so I included Eller on my list. Strahan was a surprise snub too. Not only does he still hold the record for sacks in a season (22.5), but he still ranks sixth all time (141.5) and led the Giants defense on that great Super Bowl run in 2007, shutting down the undefeated Patriots. Julius Peppers also made my list as a modern player with his freak athleticism and having the fourth-most sacks ever. He should be an easy HOF choice in 2024.

Defensive Tackle (9)

  1. Joe Greene
  2. Merlin Olsen
  3. Bob Lilly
  4. Randy White
  5. Warren Sapp
  6. John Randle
  7. Alan Page
  8. Cortez Kennedy
  9. Aaron Donald

Much like with the Watt selection, I think Aaron Donald has already done enough this decade to belong on the list. We are fortunate to have stats for pressures and QB hits now, even if they aren’t as objective as a sack. But Donald is so dominant in those categories despite playing inside and seeing a lot of double teams. Donald and Watt will be the first two incredible defenders in the game charting era where we have more data to quantify just how much better they were than their peers. I’m not surprised the NFL snubbed him, but I won’t.

Like with Marshall Faulk, I wouldn’t be surprised if Warren Sapp was purposely left off as he’s also run afoul off the field in recent years. But he was another great pass-rusher at a position where it’s just harder to break through to the quarterback than playing on the edge.

The NFL chose seven players, of which I agreed with six of them (not Buck Buchanan from the Chiefs). It’s pretty obvious to agree with the gold standards of the position like Greene, Olsen and Lilly. I just think Sapp, Donald and also the late Cortez Kennedy deserved it too.

Linebackers (12)

  1. Lawrence Taylor
  2. Ray Lewis
  3. Derrick Brooks
  4. Jack Lambert
  5. Junior Seau
  6. Mike Singletary
  7. Dick Butkus
  8. Derrick Thomas
  9. Chuck Bednarik
  10. Joe Schmidt
  11. Bobby Bell
  12. Jack Ham

Here is an old-school position where teams start three or four players, so it’s not that hard to come up with a list of legends. I picked 12 just like the NFL did, but we had two big disagreements. I went with Derrick Thomas and Mike Singletary while they chose Willie Lanier and Ted Hendricks. Sure, Hendricks is a fine selection and nearly made my list too. Lanier is overkill for me since he played with Bobby Bell on the Chiefs, who also made the list. Singletary was a dominant force in Chicago and is second to only Ray Lewis in Pro Football Reference’s new HOF monitor for inside linebackers.

Derrick Thomas was the snub that stood out most to me the night the NFL revealed their list, because I assumed Singletary was on there too. But for Thomas, he was a great pass-rusher with monster games (games of 7 and 6 sacks) and production (41 forced fumbles) for a winning Chiefs team in the 90s. He sadly passed away at 33 after a car accident, but I have to have him on my list.

This was a position where I didn’t think any active player was really deserving of inclusion. Ray Lewis was the most recent player, retiring after 2012. Luke Kuechly is building up a great resume in Carolina, but I wouldn’t put him ahead of Brian Urlacher yet, let alone in the top 12.

Cornerback (9)

  1. Rod Woodson
  2. Deion Sanders
  3. Mel Blount
  4. Champ Bailey
  5. Darrelle Revis
  6. Night Train Lane
  7. Willie Brown
  8. Charles Woodson
  9. Herb Adderley

This was another controversial position from the beginning when Patrick Peterson was included on the finalist list over Richard Sherman. What bugged me about the NFL’s list of seven cornerbacks is that Mike Haynes was reportedly a unanimous choice, but Rod Woodson and Deion Sanders were not. How in the world can any of the 26 voters not all have Woodson and Sanders on their ballot? That’s absurd. I put them in my top two along with Mel Blount, who changed the game so much for Pittsburgh that they had to create illegal contact.

I also made sure to give credit to shutdown corners in this era where the pass is so heavily utilized. So that’s why I have Champ Bailey and Darrelle Revis so high when neither made the NFL’s list. Charles Woodson also made the cut for me with one of the best resumes a football player has ever put together.

Night Train Lane is someone I joke about getting 15-yard penalty after 15-yard penalty if he played today with his rough style, but he was the stud corner in his era. I also gave respect to Willie Brown and Herb Adderley with the latter being a snub in my eyes from the NFL list. Given what we know about NFL media and the things they value, you would think a six-time champion with five picks in the playoffs and four All-Pro seasons would be more highly regarded.

I left out Darrell Green on my list, but the NFL didn’t. I said on Twitter that he was most notable for his speed and insane longevity (played thru his age-42 season). In 20 seasons he was an All-Pro just once and he never had more than five interceptions in any season. While interceptions may not be the end-all, be-all stat for a player, just keep in mind that roughly 600 players can claim to having a season with six interceptions at least once. It’s not asking for much. So I’d much rather have Revis and Bailey than Green and Mike Haynes.

Safety (4)

  1. Ed Reed
  2. Ronnie Lott
  3. Emlen Tunnell
  4. Larry Wilson

This was a position I cut short a bit at the end to not go over 100 players. The NFL list had six, including all four of my players. Ed Reed was an easy choice as the GOAT for me and the only one needed from his era (over Troy Polamalu and Brian Dawkins). Ronnie Lott was crucial and a punisher for the 49ers’ success so he’s up there, but I love the way Reed could outsmart the Manning’s and Brady’s in a way no other safety could. When Reed got the ball in his hands (64 INT!) he was electric to watch too. You didn’t know if he’d make a 100-yard return or lateral to a teammate. Here’s one of my favorite stats ever:

Emlen Tunnell was before my time, but the four-time All-Pro still ranks second in interceptions (79) and probably will never be passed unless someone changes teams weekly to play against Jameis Winston for years to come. Paul Krause still holds the record with 81 interceptions and may have been my fifth safety if I had room, but I felt like he was more of a compiler in that statistic than anything. So my last pick went to Larry Wilson, an innovator of the safety blitz.

Others

I did not select a punter, let alone two like the NFL did, but Ray Guy is the obvious choice there. For kicker, I’ll go with Adam Vinatieri for his longevity and reliability in clutch situations and inclement weather. He also really started finding the touch on 50-plus yard kicks in the back half of his career. Justin Tucker is on his way though, but this is still too much kicker talk. Devin Hester would be my pick for the return specialist, and finally, you can see my top 10 coaches here:

Here is the final breakdown of my top 100 players in NFL history:

Top100NFL

 

NFL Week 16 Predictions: The Wentz Playoff Game Edition

It’s a full weekend of NFL action, but the game I want to focus on is the battle for the NFC East between the (underachieving) Cowboys and Eagles. This is the 55th game of Carson Wentz’s career and it is the biggest one yet seeing as how he missed the playoff runs for the Eagles the last two years. This basically is the first playoff game of his career. The Eagles are home, Dak Prescott is banged up, but Dallas is still a 2-point favorite and has gotten the best of this matchup in recent years.

The Cowboys win the division with a win here. If they lose, the Eagles are likely to win the division instead, which could very well cost head coach Jason Garrett his job. So it’s a pretty big one, not only for this season, but for the future outlook of the division.

Neither team has done a whole lot of impressive winning this year. Both lost to the Vikings and Patriots, but I will point out that the Eagles were able to beat four teams the Cowboys lost to: Packers, Jets, Bills and Bears. Is that more relevant than the Eagles losing to the Dolphins and getting waxed 37-10 in Dallas? Maybe not, but the Cowboys have been a massive tease this season. Dallas is +90 in scoring differential and is only 7-7. The next closest team with a positive scoring differential and no winning record is Tampa Bay (+18 and 7-7). The Cowboys are looking at a top 5 finish all time in scoring differential for a .500 or worse team if these final games don’t go well.

The Eagles have played better defense for coordinator Jim Schwartz in the second half of the season, though that Week 13 clunker in Miami does stick out like a sore thumb. The Cowboys are coming off one of their best games of the season against the Rams and have played mostly well on offense aside from a few stinkers (NO/NE/BUF). Prescott’s health is something to monitor, though he expects to start Sunday. He has not led any game-winning drives this season while Wentz has had three in 2019, including two in the last two games against the Giants and Redskins. In fact three of his six 4QC have been against the Giants in his career and four of his seven GWD are against the Giants (3) and Redskins (1). If this comes down to another close finish I’m still going to trust the quarterback who is 15-14 (.517) in such games over the one who is 7-16 (.304). Prescott already has four GWD against the Eagles.

Special teams have been abysmal in numerous ways for Dallas this year. While the Eagles are just mediocre in that department, it could be an edge this week.

The Cowboys are a middling defense and the Eagles are a middling offense, but Philly has found some success in recent weeks with RB Miles Sanders and WR Greg Ward stepping up. The Cowboys are one of the better defenses at getting pressure on the QB this season. That could be a problem for Wentz who has seen his fumble issues return. Wentz didn’t have a single fumble thru Week 6, but after losing a pair in Dallas he’s up to 14 fumbles (7 lost) this year. No offense that uses play-action as frequently as the Eagles this year has been as poor when doing so (29th in yards per play according to SIS). It might be wise to ease up on that this week and not make Wentz turn his back to the defense.

As I wrote about earlier today, fans love to argue about the talent these players have around them on offense. The main argument tends to be the wide receiver help that Prescott has. That ignores that the Eagles have fielded a very competent OL over the years. They’ve had a great receiving back in Darren Sproles and some of their best pass plays this year have been RB screens. The Eagles also have arguably the best TE duo in the NFL with Zach Ertz and Dallas Goedert, which is better than the ancient Jason Witten that Prescott has known best at the position. #FreeBlakeJarwin

So once again it comes down to the wide receivers. While I don’t think Dez Bryant past his peak was great with Prescott, overall Dak has had better WRs than Wentz. The Amari Cooper trade was obviously big and they’ve also drafted Michael Gallup and brought in Randall Cobb this year.

The problem I have here, beyond the fact that I think WRs are the position most dependent on the QB to have success, is that Wentz fans brush over his accuracy issues. Even in 2017, his best year, he was a 60% passer with 7.5 YPA. There’s very little proof that he makes any WR better.

Alshon Jeffery was better in Chicago than he has been in Philly. Jordan Matthews was better with the Eagles under Chip Kelly’s offense than he has been with Doug Pederson and Wentz. Nelson Agholor was thought to have a breakout season in 2017, but he has been a bust otherwise with a poor connection with Wentz this year. JJ Arcega-Whiteside can barely get a target this year as a 2nd-round pick. Golden Tate has been very good in this league, but he couldn’t catch on with the Eagles in 2018. Torrey Smith washed out in 2017. Even noted bust Dorial Green-Beckham had a better rookie year with Mariota in Tennessee than he did with Wentz in 2016.

So when Eagles fans show their envy for Dak having Cooper, I tend to just laugh. This is the same Cooper who has 14 games in his career where he failed to surpass 10 receiving yards, including four bagels. Compare that 10-yard game total (14) to that of Calvin Johnson (four), Larry Fitzgerald (six) and Julio Jones (twice as a rookie). Cooper is a talented player, but he does have a tendency to disappear in games, and he’s not a transformative talent that will make one retool an entire offense. If Wentz had Cooper, I’m not sure that would be a great thing for Cooper, and that move alone wouldn’t suddenly make Wentz consistently accurate.

I hope this game delivers. The playoffs are on the line. Jobs and legacies are on the line. It sounds a hell of a lot more serious than it should be for two 7-7 teams, but this is the state of the NFC East. Pissing matches are never ending in that division, but if Cowboys fans don’t want to hear about this one for years to come like the 44-6 drubbing in 2008, then they better hope Dallas delivers on the road.

NFL Week 16 Predictions

Well here’s a disaster in the making. I picked eight teams to cover, but not win this week. I’ve only been doing that 4.4 times a week on average this season.

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How deep is your flush? What a toilet bowl between the Bengals and Dolphins this week. I’m also curious to see if the Browns could go down as one of those ultimate thorn-in-the-side teams in a division by tripping up the Ravens again. That 40-25 win in Baltimore is looking like the shocker of the season (aside from maybe Atlanta’s big win in New Orleans).

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Wide Receivers: Fun Toys If You’re a Good Boy (Or QB)

I’ll post my Week 16 predictions a day earlier with the NFL having a good triple-header on Saturday. First, I wanted to rant about wide receiver value in relation to the Cowboys-Eagles showdown on Sunday. As the week wore on, I realized it can apply to so much more than that game.

You can tell the playoffs are close because people are spouting crazy quarterback legacy takes again. We still are several weeks away from a potential Chiefs-Ravens AFC title game where the outcome could set the course of the narratives for Patrick Mahomes and Lamar Jackson for the rest of their careers (a la you know who in 2003). Let’s set that depressing thought aside today and focus on the damage done to the last 20 years of quarterback analysis.

The source of this week’s frustration was after Drew Brees broke more NFL records on Monday night. Patriots fans suddenly wanted to count playoff passing touchdowns with the regular season. Mike Florio and Chris Simms managed to post two horrible top 10 lists for quarterbacks:

Their blatant disrespect for Johnny Unitas aside, I couldn’t get over the appearance of John Elway twice in the top three. So I fired back with this to make sure my Tuesday would go to waste fighting off the same arguments I’ve battled for two decades now:

After reading the usual weak arguments in defense of Brady and Elway, I had a bit of an epiphany. I realized that the quarterbacks I tend to defend have a long history of success with throwing to wide receivers. This would be the likes of Peyton Manning, Drew Brees, Ben Roethlisberger, Tony Romo, Dan Marino, Andrew Luck, etc. Meanwhile, the quarterbacks I’ve call overrated tend to always get the “he doesn’t have good receivers or enough help!” excuse:

  • “Manning’s always had better receivers than Brady, who would throw deep more if he had those guys instead of slots and receiving backs!”
  • “Elway would have all the records if he played with the receivers Montana and Marino had! One-man show before Shannon Sharpe!”
  • “Switch Carson Wentz and Dak Prescott and Wentz would be 12-2 right now with those wide receivers!”
  • “Cam Newton’s only had Greg Olsen and recently CMC.15-1 with Ted Ginn!”
  • “Look what Donovan McNabb did as soon as he got Terrell Owens instead of Stinkston and Trash!”

You can probably throw Joe Flacco and Alex Smith in there as other past whipping boys of mine, but you get the point.

But when you get down to it, it’s the wide receivers that people are really complaining about when it comes to the lack of help. Let’s just take the trio of Manning, Brady and Brees for example:

  • Brady (Bill Belichick) and Brees (Sean Payton) have clearly had better coaching than Manning, who was the closest thing to an on-field coach in his era.
  • Brady (Rob Gronkowski) and Brees (Antonio Gates/Jimmy Graham) played with superior, game-changing tight ends than Manning (Dallas Clark) ever did.
  • Brady (Kevin Faulk, Danny Woodhead, James White) and Brees (LaDainian Tomlinson, Reggie Bush, Pierre Thomas, Alvin Kamara) played with better, specialized receiving backs than Manning (one year of Marshall Faulk and 38 games of pre-ACL Edgerrin James) ever did.
  • Brady and Brees had better high-end offensive line play and superior results in run blocking led to better rushing production than Manning had in his career.

Then you get to wide receivers and it’s a different tune. Brady had Randy Moss for two full years as his best weapon. Both had deep threat Brandin Cooks briefly. Brees’ best WR may be Michael Thomas, who is in his fourth year. Meanwhile, Manning had Marvin Harrison and Reggie Wayne for a long time in Indy, then Demaryius Thomas and some other talented players (Eric Decker, Wes Welker, Emmanuel Sanders) in his Denver stint. So it’s not a debate that Manning had the better group of wide receivers.

There’s just one big problem with using this against a quarterback.

Wide receivers have the least independent value to a quarterback among his offensive teammates.

It’s 2019 so we’re just going to ignore the fullback position like most of the league has, but think about this before dismissing it as a controversial take. It should be common sense.

Offensive linemen have a lot of value because they have to block (run or pass) on every play. In the rare event a quarterback throws a block for a teammate, it’s usually a half-assed effort to not get hurt. The linemen’s blocking is especially crucial to the team’s ground game and screen game having success. While the quarterback does control his sack rate more than his line, they still play a vital role in his pass protection. A quarterback can make his line look better by getting rid of the ball quickly (and worse by holding it too long), but they still have to limit quick blown blocks or the offense will have a hard time doing anything.

I’ll say “Running Backs Don’t Matter” but don’t misconstrue a comment on replacement value for one on responsibility. Whichever back is in the game, they do matter. Unless you’re Lamar Jackson, most quarterbacks don’t have a huge role in the team’s rushing offense, so it’s on the back to have good vision for lanes, follow his blockers, and create missed tackles. Backs can also be crucial in blitz pickups, throwing a key block to save the QB’s bacon. Backs also provide value in the passing game where they catch the highest rate of passes of any position and gain the most YAC because of how short the throws are on average. Whether it’s a screen, a pass to the flat, or a checkdown over the middle, RB passes are easy plays for quarterbacks to make.

Tight ends do a little bit of everything. They might be a key part of your run blocking, pass blocking, chip an edge rusher before going out to catch a pass, or they could be major receiving threats themselves, dominating matchups with smaller linebackers and safeties. They too catch a high rate of passes due to the distances and they can be deadly in the red zone especially.

Wide receivers, by and large, play at the mercy of their quarterbacks. Their success is more dependent on the quarterback than any other position. Good runs are always valuable. Good blocks are always valuable. A good route? It doesn’t mean a thing if the quarterback never looks in that receiver’s direction. The quarterback has to decide to throw to the receiver first. A good route and a target? Still might not mean a thing if the throw is so bad there’s no hope it ever gets completed. Some routes could open up the route for another player, but that’s just part of the play design. If as many as five eligible receivers are hoping to get the ball, the QB has to identify and deliver to them. It starts with the QB.

Only a small number of wideouts will ever get praise for their run blocking, but that’s not a significant part of their game now. They need to run good routes, get open, catch the ball and create YAC (or win contested catches). When we’re talking about outside receivers, those are the lowest-percentage throws because of the distance involved (wider and deeper than RB/TE/slot throws). In addition to the tougher throws, the top wideouts are more likely to draw double teams or the best cornerback matchup on a weekly basis too.

It’s never made sense to me how people penalize a QB for producing with the position he should be able to claim the most success for utilizing. Accuracy definitely comes into play here, and it’s no surprise to me that Elway, Newton, Wentz and McNabb are four quarterbacks with undisputable accuracy issues in their careers. Brady’s reputation is dink-and-dunk, so it’s the throws over 15 yards that you question there even in his prime.

The thought that adding a top-flight receiver is the only thing those quarterbacks needed doesn’t fly with me. Take McNabb for example. Sure, he had his best season ever in 2004 when they brought in Terrell Owens. His completion percentage shot up to a career-high 64.0%, but notice that he was down to 59.1% in 2005, a season where Owens’ antics helped bring the team down quickly. For the rest of his career McNabb was just a 59.6% passer. This is a case study in outliers and identifying cause and effect. McNabb didn’t suddenly shoot up to 64% because he was throwing to TO. Owens caught 61.1% of McNabb’s targets. That’s solid, but the big change was RB Brian Westbrook getting utilized more and catching 83.9% of his 87 targets from McNabb. That success didn’t continue as Westbrook only caught 73.8% of his targets in Philadelphia from 2005-09. McNabb didn’t sustain or repeat his level of 2004 play because that’s not the type of quarterback he usually was.

This isn’t to say a great wide receiver can’t have a huge impact on an offense. It’s just that very few players in the league qualify as a game-changing talent. Tyreek Hill is one of those players in Kansas City because of his unique speed. That’s not to say Patrick Mahomes still didn’t do great things without him earlier this year, but that’s because Mahomes is a unique talent himself.

Look at the Colts for a different example. T.Y. Hilton was quite a receiver when Andrew Luck was his quarterback, but if all we knew of him were his years without Luck (2017 and 2019) he would look like a marginal No. 1. So how does one justify holding it against Andrew Luck for having a 1,000-yard WR in Hilton when Hilton wouldn’t be a 1,000-yard WR if Jacoby Brissett was his QB? This is why the WEAPONZ arguments are always so bad when people talk about quarterbacks.

A great statistical season for a quarterback almost certainly means he was able to get production from multiple receivers. A great statistical season for a wide receiver means he played great, but chances are his teammates, including the QB sometimes, did not fare so well. What do you think is more helpful for scoring points and winning games in this league? It sounds nice in theory to get an increase in production for your best receiver, but success in the NFL comes easiest when your best player is actually the quarterback and he’s finding the right matchups all over the field instead of keying in on one guy.

In this era we think of 4,000 yards as a bare minimum for a prolific passing season, efficiency aside. No receiver has ever had a 2,000-yard receiving season, so it’s not like we see one player responsible for over 50 percent of the production in the passing game in this league. Among the 46 players with 1,500 yards in a season, Lance Alworth was the closest with 47.4% of San Diego’s yards in 1965. His team lost 23-0 in the AFL Championship Game.

Super Bowl winners certainly haven’t needed prolific receiving numbers from one player. Steve Smith’s incredible year for the 2005 Panthers where he accounted for 44.8% of the team’s gross passing yardage led to two playoff wins. Out of the 40 seasons where the 1,500-yard receiver had at least a third of his team’s passing yardage, only Smith and 1995 Michael Irvin (Cowboys) played for teams with multiple playoff wins. Antonio Brown (2015) is the only receiver this century to win a playoff game after a 1,600-yard regular season. Jerry Rice, the GOAT, set the single-season record with 1,848 yards in 1995 and it was 38.7% of the 49ers’ total. When Calvin Johnson set the current record with 1,964 yards in 2012, the Lions finished 4-12 and 17th in scoring. No other Detroit player had 600 receiving yards even though Matthew Stafford set a record with 727 attempts (No. 2 all time is 691, Drew Bledsoe).

You’ll hear a lot now about Michael Thomas set to break Marvin Harrison’s record of 143 receptions. When Harrison did that with Peyton Manning in 2002, it led to 41 percent of the Colts’ passing yardage, but that was also the second-worst scoring offense (ranked 15th in points per drive) of Manning’s career. Only two guys playing pitch-and-catch while RB Edgerrin James had a slow return from an ACL injury apparently does not lead to a great offense. Brandon Marshall had arguably his best year ever when he reunited with Jay Cutler on the 2012 Bears, but the offense finished 22nd in scoring. Julio Jones had 1,871 yards in 2015, which ranks second in NFL history. It’s also the second-worst scoring offense (ranked 16th) in Matt Ryan’s career. Josh Gordon (2013 Browns), Isaac Bruce (1995 Rams), Rob Moore (1997 Cardinals), and David Boston (2001 Cardinals) are four more examples of career-peak seasons for offenses that still didn’t rank higher than 22nd in points per drive.

Too much from a great player can actually be problematic when it creates an imbalance on the offense and the ability to create plays from multiple options.

Nothing I’ve said here — I want to make it clear this was a late-night rant more than a deep dive — disputes the idea that an offense with two (or three) really good wide receivers would be very beneficial to a quarterback. That way he wouldn’t have to lean on one player and they could attack from different angles. Look at the greatest quarterbacks in NFL history and it’s no coincidence that their best statistical seasons likely came with their strongest supporting casts.

However, I think people tend to overlook the importance of consistent accuracy, and they love to exaggerate just how good (or bad) one quarterback’s supporting cast really is. It’s not like Kirk Cousins’ season fell apart when Adam Thielen was injured this year. It’s not like Stafford’s efficiency numbers haven’t shot up since Calvin Johnson retired and he’s changed his playing style to accommodate. (It’s a shame we didn’t get a full season from Stafford in 2019 as he was playing arguably his best football.) Even Derek Carr is setting career highs in 2019 without Amari Cooper (or Antonio Brown). Baker Mayfield did better as a rookie without Odell Beckham Jr. on his team. Jameis Winston just stacked historic games of 450 yards and 4 TD with Mike Evans only having a 61-yard TD catch in those games.

There’s some random NFL for you. But what’s not random is a great quarterback finding a way to complete passes with the players he has around him. Maybe that’s a three tight end approach like these historic Ravens, or it’s dominating with your wideouts in 11 personnel like Manning’s Colts used to. There is no one right way to build an offense, because you have to shape it around the skillset of your quarterback.

So when I see Eagles fans wish for Wentz to get his own Amari Cooper for Christmas to make all the difference in the NFC East, I just laugh. If he’s not fumbling in the pocket after four seconds, then it’s still a matter of hitting the mark too.

ACSeye

NFL Week 15 Predictions: Big Spread Season Edition

Week 15 started with Lamar Jackson practically wrapping up the NFL MVP award for this season after another game with five touchdown passes and breaking the single-season rushing record for a QB.

The Ravens also covered the 17-point spread with a 42-21 victory. It was Week 15’s biggest spread, but there are three other games that could close with a double-digit spread, bringing the season count to 36 such games through Week 15. Has it felt like we’ve had more of these games this season than in past years as the elites continue to crush the weak? I had to look since I’m pressed for time and not really interested in highlighting any of the Week 15 games here.

NFL games with a spread of 10+ thru Week 15 (Source: Pro Football Reference)

  • 2019 – 33 to 36 (pending)
  • 2018 – 29
  • 2017 – 26
  • 2016 – 14
  • 2015 – 13
  • 2014 – 18
  • 2013 – 22
  • 2012 – 23
  • 2011 – 36
  • 2010 – 17
  • 2009 – 53
  • 2008 – 27
  • 2007 – 36
  • 2006 – 32
  • 2005 – 22
  • 2004 – 20
  • 2003 – 16
  • 2002 – 17
  • 2001 – 24

So by the week’s end we could match the high total of 36 games in 2011 (also done in 2007), but what the hell was going on in 2009 when there were 53 such games? That certainly was a year of the have-nots with the 2-14 Lions (10), 5-11 Raiders (7), and 5-11 Browns (7) accounting for 24 of those games. Surprisingly, the 1-15 Rams had six such spreads and the 3-13 Buccaneers had five.

That was also the season Indianapolis and New Orleans both started 13-0 on their way to meeting in the Super Bowl. The Colts and Saints play each other on Monday night, a game in which Drew Brees should break the record for most career touchdown passes. I wrote about his stealthy case as the GOAT QB earlier this week, so check that out if you haven’t.

NFL Week 15 Predictions

I thought the Jets could cover the spread, but a couple of turnovers by Sam Darnold proved costly.

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On Bills-Steelers, it sure is weird to see Buffalo in an important Sunday night game. The two teams are pretty similar in that they win on defense first and have been taking full advantage of the schedules they’ve been dealt this year. The winner of this game will be able to say their best win this season was…this game. I like the Steelers defense at home under the lights, and with Duck Hodges not playing with fear like Mason Rudolph. The Steelers have been smart in limiting the pass attempts in recent weeks, and Hodges is not afraid to throw a deep ball to give his receivers a chance to make plays. It’s the closest call of Week 15 and should be a pretty evenly matched game.

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