NFL Stat Oddity: Wild Card

To sum up the NFL’s first “Super Wild Card Weekend” in one word: exhausting.

This has been a long weekend with six games to research, preview, bet, watch, tweet, analyze, and write about. Just think how incredible it could be if we get some games with more exciting finishes, fewer horrific challenges, and the AFC coaches find their balls before sending out the punt teams. Maybe we won’t have to see Mitchell Trubisky and the 8-8 Bears (or 8-9 Bears) next year as well.

For six playoff games decided by 3-12 points, we had exactly zero lead changes in the second half. The closest we came was Baltimore breaking a 10-10 tie early in the third quarter to take the lead for good. When the game is tied, there technically is no lead, so it’s not a true lead change in the way that we usually look at it.

The first game of the postseason, Colts-Bills, was really the best one this weekend as far as quality of play and drama. However, I want to work my way backwards through these games, because you know I have plenty to say about that 48-37 abomination the Steelers left on the field Sunday night.

In fact, I have so much to say about everything that I grossly underestimated how long it would take to finish this recap in one night. So I will post the five games now and save a separate link for Browns-Steelers to be posted by Monday evening.

Next year I’ll remember to get some thoughts down on Saturday’s games on Saturday night.

Previous weeks in Stat Oddity:

Bears at Saints: Seventh Seed Slime

Don’t be shocked, but the Bears sucked on offense to make this the most unwatchable game of the weekend, and that was despite Nickelodeon’s valiant effort to try a different kind of NFL broadcast. The animated slime cannons that fired during the game’s few touchdowns were cool, but I would have rather seen the Bears covered in buckets of slime every time they failed to convert a third down, which was nine times out of 10. Meanwhile, the Saints were 11-of-17 on third down.

Before Jimmy Graham caught a pointless, one-handed touchdown on the final snap of the game, Chicago could only manage a field goal on a 6-yard drive that started after Sean Payton’s latest erotic Taysom Hill fixation backfired with a turnover, the only giveaway in the game.

CBS’ Jim Nantz tried to say that Mitchell Trubisky is a different quarterback now, and the numbers prove it. I like to think I proved with numbers coming into the game that he was not different, and his “rebirth” was the result of feasting on play-action, a better running game with David Montgomery, and taking advantage of YAC plays and four of the league’s five worst defenses this season.

On Sunday, Trubisky had no help from the running game as Montgomery was held to 31 yards against one of the better defenses this season. He did not get much help from the receivers either. Javon Wims dropped a 40-yard touchdown in the end zone on a trick play that should have worked to perfection.

That drive ended with Trubisky casually running out of bounds two yards shy of the marker on fourth-and-4. It was that kind of day for the Bears. They never seriously threatened again. While I would point out that Trubisky’s touchdown pass, caught with one hand by Graham as time expired, was the most garbage of garbage-time touchdowns in the playoffs, I won’t knock him too hard for it since Wims absolutely screwed him out of a 40-yard score that could have made this one interesting.

My other memorable part of this game was Drew Brees getting up close and personal with the beautiful, new cameras they are using in these games after he did a late quarterback sneak on fourth-and-goal that was only a touchdown in the eyes of Jim Nantz.

It looked short in live action to me, and on replay it was obvious that Brees pulled the ball back too quickly and short of the plane, but Nantz was weirdly adamant about a touchdown there. The call was reversed, Brees didn’t score, I lost out on a $230 win on a Same Game Parlay for that reason, then Graham scored.

It sounds like Nantz must have lost out on way more.

The Saints will have to be sharper than this to beat Tampa Bay for a third time next week. On the bright side, Michael Thomas finally had a real productive game (73 yards and his first touchdown) with Brees this season, and they seem to have come out of the game healthy. It was just weird in a game where the Saints finally had their skill guys healthy, it was Deonte Harris leading the team with seven grabs for 83 yards. But he looked good and the Saints should have had three straight touchdown drives in the second half after controlling the ball for nearly 39 minutes in the game.

Just tell Brees to do his best Philip Rivers impersonation and don’t pull out early next time when he does his sneak.

Ravens at Titans: Running Quarterbacks Matter More than Running Backs

These former division rivals seem to genuinely hate one another now after playing three games in the last calendar year. I think that is a good thing for the NFL and would be all for a rubber match next postseason since they (as of now) do not meet in the 2021 regular season.

While the Titans ended Baltimore’s Super Bowl hopes a year ago, the Ravens extracted some payback with a low-scoring 20-13 win. It is especially surprising when you remember that the Titans were up 10-0 after the first quarter, taking advantage of a Lamar Jackson interception, his sixth turnover in nine quarters of playoff action.

Are the Titans also his kryptonite? Could he go 0-3 against the Titans, 0-3 against the Chiefs, and 0-3 in the playoffs? Baltimore had not won a game when trailing by double digits since September 18, 2016, the longest active streak in the NFL.

Of course, 10-point comebacks are easier to come by when you only allow 13 points in the game. After all, teams that fail to score at least 14 points lose 93% of the time in postseason history. You must be someone like the 2018 Patriots to win a big game doing that. Ryan Tannehill, surely you jest if you think I believe you pulled the rabbit’s foot out of Tom Brady’s ass last January.

But while the Titans were on their way to a season-low 13 points, let’s go back to the play that changed everything. Things were not looking good again for Lamar, who finished the game by taking five sacks against the league’s worst pass rush this year. However, with one play Jackson reminded us of what makes him one of the most unique quarterbacks in NFL history. Facing a third-and-9 late in the second quarter, Jackson dropped back to almost his own 40 before stepping up, avoiding a sack, running through the defense, and outracing everyone to the end zone for officially a 48-yard touchdown, the second-longest touchdown run by a quarterback in postseason history.

That is one of the greatest quarterback runs of all time. The Ravens added another touchdown to start the third quarter, then it was just a matter of hanging on against the team that had been a league-best 6-1 at game-winning drive opportunities this season. But the offense was not having its usual day on Sunday. Derrick Henry is the eighth running back to rush for 2,000 yards in a season, but when you exclude the Super Bowl winning season Terrell Davis had for Denver in 1998, those other 2,000-yard backs are 0-5 in the playoffs while O.J. Simpson (1973 Bills) and Chris Johnson (2009 Titans) didn’t even qualify for the tournament.

Henry may have had the worst playoff game yet for a 2,000-yard back. He finished with 18 carries for 40 yards. His longest rush was 8 yards. Henry had zero first downs rushing. He failed on a third-and-1 run late in the game that Ryan Tannehill had to convert with the quarterback sneak to keep the game alive.

While A.J. Brown had a big opening drive with a touchdown, he was quiet the rest of the game. Not as quiet as Corey Davis, who finished without a catch on two targets and was out of the game late with an injury. Tight end Jonnu Smith only had 9 yards. The Titans only had three plays that gained more than 14 yards.

After Justin Tucker missed only his second postseason field goal from 52 yards with 12:11 left, the Titans had a golden opportunity, trailing in a 17-13 game. That is when Henry broke his 8-yard run, but then Tannehill threw two incompletions. You would think head coach Mike Vrabel would go for it on fourth-and-2 at the Baltimore 40 with 10:06 left. This is the same coach who said a year ago that he would cut his dick off to win a Super Bowl, and this guy already has rings as a player, so that ring must mean everything to him if he’d rather have another than his penis.

And then like a coward, Vrabel punted. Since 1994, or as far back as the data goes on Stathead, no other team has punted in the fourth quarter of a playoff game while trailing with 1-3 yards to go from inside the opponent 40.

If you stretch it back to the opponent 45, then you do get one hit, and it was a game that Vrabel won as a player with the Patriots. Against the 2006 Chargers, the Patriots were down 14-13 and Bill Belichick punted on 4th-and-2 at the San Diego 41 with 13:19 left. The Chargers scored a touchdown, then probably could have put the game away, but fumbled Tom Brady’s interception back to him (on fourth down no less).

Not that Vrabel was even thinking of that game he won as a player, but no one in their right mind could think to replicate that type of luck. The Titans should have gone for it for sure. That was arguably the worst coaching decision this weekend.

The Ravens responded with a 51-yard field goal as Tucker redeemed himself, but I have to say the offensive pass interference penalty that wiped out a big fourth-down conversion by Baltimore’s offense was a very weak pick play call on Willie Snead. More egregious plays happen all the time and don’t draw a flag. That felt like the NFL trying to keep this close for the finish.

Tannehill had 4:13 to tie the game with a touchdown, but the Titans pissed around with the run and wasted the two-minute warning just to move 16 yards. So this was not looking promising, then it turned disastrous as Tannehill’s receiver, Kalif Raymond, fell on the play after some contact and Marcus Peters intercepted the ball. The Ravens picked up a really dumb taunting penalty, but Jackson bailed them out with a 33-yard run that allowed him to finish with 136 rushing yards. Of Baltimore’s four longest plays, three of them were Jackson rushes for 23+ yards. He is just so difficult to defend, and now he has a playoff win to get off the snide.

Plenty of time this week to talk about Ravens-Bills, but it should be one of the best games this postseason. This was a gut-check win for the Ravens after a poor start. It was good to see the defense shut down a top-scoring offense, but the Titans are so structured to do things in a specific way that if Henry isn’t going well, then it becomes easier to stop the play-action game and the big plays to Brown and Davis. Buffalo attacks much differently, but again, we can get to that later this week. For now, the Ravens can take comfort in the playoff win and getting back to that familiar role of road underdog that has suited the team so well in the John Harbaugh era.

As for the Titans, given the bleak injury history of high workload backs and the lack of passing production that Tannehill has shown in four playoff starts, we may be marking the 2019-20 Titans as a fun, two-year wonder who blew double-digit leads in the playoffs to the Chiefs and Ravens.

Then we will promptly punt on this team’s 2021 prospects, but at least we’ll still have our dicks.

Buccaneers at Football Team: My MAGA Beats Your MAGA

Well, not the worst thing to happen in D.C. this week, but the Washington Football Team lost in the wild card round for the fourth time since 2007. It was a respectable 31-23 effort by Ron Rivera’s team given the quarterback situation and talent mismatch with Tampa Bay.

Taylor Heinicke had to start for Alex Smith (calf) and provided the offense with a quarterback who could actually move and make things happen. It was one of the more unlikely 300-yard passing games you’ll ever see from a guy making his first start of the season, but Heinicke gave his team a chance on a night where the running game was MIA (16 carries for 36 yards). However, you did see some of the flaws in this roster and their lack of a consistent passing attack this year as the receivers had some letdowns with drops.

Heinicke has likely secured himself a job for years in this league with this performance. I’m sure it also helps that he’ll proudly stand for the anthem and never kneel since he is reportedly a MAGA douchebag of bigger proportions than the team’s defensive coordinator, Jack Del Rio.

Speaking of MAGA douchebags, Uncle Jack was back doing something he does so well: make Tom Brady look amazing by getting no pressure or covering his receivers. Here’s a tweet from over seven years ago to show that I’m not just saying this after Saturday night:

Still no answers, I see. However, it took Brady 42 playoff games to do something that had been done 114 times before Saturday: throw multiple touchdown passes of 20 yards in a playoff game.

I don’t know if it was the clueless Del Rio defense, Antonio Brown being wide open, or that he’s playing a 7-9 team with his four former 1,300-yard receivers, but Brady was in a groove and hitting deep balls on Saturday night. Only some drops prevented Tampa Bay from doing even more damage to Del Rio’s overmatched defense.

Brady’s average touchdown pass in the playoffs is now 12.2 yards, which ties him with Kerry Collins for the lowest among all passers with 10 touchdown passes in the playoffs. It’s always been a weird disparity to see how his average touchdown shrinks so much from the regular season unlike virtually all other quarterbacks, but we’ll see if he’s got any more long ones in him this postseason. He faces the Saints next, a team that has swept him this regular season, including that dominant 38-3 game last time out.

Oh, and the refs totally botched a catch-and-fumble out of bounds for Washington by calling incomplete when it should have set up a shorter third down before the sack that created 4th-and-21, which basically sealed the game. But you know, He willed it. I am frankly just surprised Brady didn’t will a Bears victory so he could get the Rams in Tampa on Sunday instead of going to the team that has made him look the worst this year.

The Jets (2) still have more wins against teams with winning records this year than the Buccaneers (1).

Rams at Seahawks: First Name Russell, Last Name Ozymandias

The date was September 15, 2013. The Seahawks were hosting the 49ers on Sunday Night Football in what would be a preview of that year’s fantastic NFC Championship Game. This first meeting was anything but fantastic. Lightning delayed it in the first quarter for an hour, which was perfect since AMC was airing the premiere of the “Ozymandias” episode of Breaking Bad, which is in my view the finest episode of any TV series.

After experiencing that emotional rollercoaster, I went back to the game, a 29-3 win by Seattle on a night where neither Russell Wilson nor Colin Kaepernick could move the ball via passing. In fact, it’s the last game in the NFL where both teams completed fewer than 50% of their passes, failed to net 170 passing yards, and took multiple sacks.

At least it was the last NFL game to do that before the Rams and Seahawks did it on Saturday in the wild card, a 30-20 win by the Rams that was as lifeless as any performance in the Pete Carroll-Wilson era.

I bring up that 2013 game not only for the statistical comparison, but also for the fact that it is the Ozymandias Night Game, and Wilson and Carroll just might be the embodiment of that poem: building a once great empire with a legacy that was inevitably going to decay and slide into oblivion.

Back in the day, the Seahawks could play a terrible offensive game and still find a way to win, sometime by huge margins even. As time wore on and the talent faded, the team found wins harder to come by. The margins kept getting smaller. Since 2018, Seattle has won 24 games by no more than eight points, five more than any other team in the league.

Even this year the Seahawks were 9-2 in close games. Seattle completely flipped the script on the scoreboard in the second half of this season. Their games had 204 fewer combined points in the final eight games compared to the first eight, the biggest dip in a 16-game season in NFL history.

If I told Seattle fans in early November that they would play the Rams at home in the wild card, the game would have 50 points, and the Rams’ starting quarterback was knocked out early with an injury, they would probably expect a nice win to come from that.

They would never expect it meant a 30-20 loss where the offense was a bigger letdown than the defense and it was Jared Goff coming off the bench with a surgically repaired thumb to replace John Wolford.

They would never expect Wilson to throw maybe the worst pick-six of his career in the first half. The third quarter that seemed to last ages saw stop after stop. By the fourth quarter, any glimmer of hope for a Seattle comeback ended when a fumbled punt return set up the Rams on a short field for another touchdown and a 30-13 lead.

Wilson took five sacks, which is nothing new for him against the Rams, but only completing 11-of-27 passes for 174 yards certainly puts this in a bottom tier of games in his career.

The Seahawks are done quickly after a 12-4 season that never felt complete. When the offense was great, the defense was terrible. When the defense played well against soft competition, the offense was an issue, especially in that ugly upset loss to the Giants.

But Saturday was rock bottom for this offense this season. It was the culmination of a season on decline offensively with “Let Russ Cook” serving up the Fyre Fest cheese sandwich for the final meal.

Wilson’s success rate was 7-for-25 (28%) leading into the drive where he got the ball back down 30-13 with 4:40 left. This was not a matter of going pass-happy against a tough defensive front or calling too many runs on early downs. This was all-around poor execution, too many penalties, and just no sense of direction for what this offense wants to do after spending the last half of the season barely scraping by.

Earlier this season, I warned that the numbers could be misleading because of the pandemic and the way defenses were behind the offenses. Even for a veteran like Wilson, the best start of his career had to be taken with some caution.

I just never thought things would get as low as they did on Saturday, with Wilson only managing a 10-point deficit with the ball in the fourth quarter. Once upon a time, this team had a 98-game streak of keeping things within one score or better.

I have always favorably compared Wilson’s career path to Ben Roethlisberger’s for the way they both came in as very successful rookies on run-heavy teams with great defenses. Both never got proper credit (or any MVP votes) for their passing efficiency, backyard football plays, deep ball accuracy, and ability to pull off game-winning drives and overcome bad offensive lines. Like Ben, Wilson started throwing with more volume and proved he can still be very efficient and a winner without an elite scoring defense. We’ll see if Wilson also drastically changes his playing style in his thirties to get rid of the ball faster and take fewer sacks and hits like Ben did in 2012.

But if we’re being honest, they also share this in common: they both won the Super Bowl in their second season and that early success has done some shielding for the criticism that should come with their other postseason efforts.

Roethlisberger, despite picking up that second ring in 2008, has thrown 28 interceptions in 22 playoff games and just lost his fifth home playoff game. Wilson was 5-0 at home in the playoffs before Saturday’s loss, but we know he threw four interceptions against the Packers in the 2014 NFC Championship Game, likely a loss had it not been for an onside kick recovery. Wilson also got a win in Minnesota in 2015 by a 10-9 final after Blair Walsh missed a short field goal. And while the pick-six on Saturday was bad, we know that Wilson threw the costliest interception in NFL history at the 1-yard line in Super Bowl XLIX. If there wasn’t such a “why did they even throw?” sentiment to that moment, and if Wilson hadn’t won the Super Bowl a year earlier, the criticism he’d get for that play would be far harsher than it is.

Since winning a playoff game where he threw four interceptions, Wilson has won three more playoff games in which his opponents scored 9, 6, and 9 points. Like Pittsburgh, Seattle has had high expectations for the playoffs the last decade, and the few wins they do have recently are not going to impress anyone. Losing to the COVID Browns and a Rams team that had an injured quarterback and even lost Aaron Donald to injury in the game is going to stand out to people more than those wins ever will.

When you rank the top 25 quarterbacks of all time, I think Roethlisberger and Wilson belong there despite the shorter career for Wilson. But when these bad moments in the playoffs seem to happen more frequently than you’d like to see, you can understand why Roethlisberger and Wilson are never going to rank as favorably as the Manning, Brady, Brees, and Rodgers (and soon Mahomes) of the league that they share the spotlight with.

Instead of joining Brees, Brady, and Rodgers in next week’s NFC divisional round, Wilson must look ahead to his age-33 season, putting behind a 2020 where he had his best start ever, but also his most disappointing finish.

‘My name is Ozymandias, king of kings:
Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!’
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away.”

Colts at Bills: The More Colts-Esque Team Won

I said this game was a bit of a role reversal with the Colts needing to run the ball well and play great defense while the Bills had the pass-happy offense (led by wide receivers) and franchise quarterback in Josh Allen.

I just did not expect it to play out so on brand. This was an impressive win by the Bills, who had to overcome some adversity with terrible field position. In the first half, all five Buffalo possessions started inside their 15. I have not seen anything like that since the infamous Mike Scifres punt game that pinned the Colts deep repeatedly in the 2008 AFC Wild Card. That was in San Diego and Philip Rivers was also the beneficiary of that effort.

Rivers did not get the win this time, but he was not the problem in a game with zero turnovers. Head coach Frank Reich had some really questionable calls, and the team was 2-for-5 in the red zone. He ran outside on a third down when he should have brought in Jacoby Brissett for a quarterback sneak. He then went for a 4th-and-4 where I think he should have kicked the field goal. He made one of the worst challenges I’ve ever seen on a down by contact ruling that had no shot of winning, and that lost timeout hurt the Colts in the second half.

Buffalo was fortunate in this one. The Colts also had one drive in the third quarter that lasted nearly eight minutes and ended with a missed 37-yard field goal (doink). Buffalo’s league-best third down offense was only 2/9 on that money down. Josh Allen played very well but was fortunate to recover a fumble on his final drive that could have been disastrous for the Bills. The Bills had 10 handoffs for 42 yards and lost Zack Moss to an injury. It was very much on Allen to deliver and he did with 324 passing yards, 54 rushing yards, and three total touchdowns against a solid defense that made the Bills earn every yard.

There were many “game of inches” plays in this one, and they usually favored the Bills. Despite Buffalo leading 24-10 in the fourth quarter, the Colts fought back impressively. The running game was not exactly dominant, but in the fourth quarter the Colts had runs of 29, 20, and 33 yards. Two of those were even by Hines instead of rookie Jonathan Taylor. Those plays really helped those drives get down the field quickly and aided the 300-yard passing game for Rivers, who also had a few drops his receivers would like back.

While the officials were doing a very good job on the close calls, they almost made a horrific error in the final minute when a Zach Pascal fumble on fourth-and-ballgame was somehow not immediately stopped for a review. Bills coach Sean McDermott had to get a last-second timeout to get New York to finally review the most important play in the game. It looked clear and obvious to me that the Bills waited for Pascal to get back to his feet before punching the ball out and recovering it, which would have meant game over. The replay review let the play stand and the Colts had a first down at midfield.

From there, Rivers couldn’t find open receivers and was throwing passes away, leaving time only for a Hail Mary. Isn’t this where Jacoby Brissett comes into the game?  He’s done it before. Reich even pulled Andrew Luck before to do this in 2018. He can surely pull Rivers, who doesn’t have the arm anymore to get that ball deep enough in Buffalo. But Rivers stayed in for the Hail Mary, the pass was well short of the end zone and incomplete to end the game.

The Bills escaped this one, 27-24, and major props to kicker Tyler Bass for his 54-yard field goal with 8:08 left that proved to be the difference maker.

Colts fans know all too well about the playoffs and clutch (or anti-clutch) kicking, terrible field position, a one-dimensional offense that puts everything on the QB and things aren’t going well on third downs, etc. Like I said, the Bills survived a gut-check early here, and now they’ll get a tougher opponent form Baltimore.

But it was good to see a pass-happy team in Buffalo come through for the team’s first playoff win since the 1995 season. The NFL (AFC in particular) has needed new blood and seeing the Browns and Bills win their first playoff games since 1994-95 is accomplishing that.

NFL 2020 Wild Card Sunday Previews

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

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

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

Ravens at Titans (+3)

BAL OFFENSE VS. TEN DEFENSE

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

TEN OFFENSE VS. BAL DEFENSE

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Final: Ravens 31, Titans 24

Bears at Saints (-10)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Final: Saints 27, Bears 23

Browns at Steelers (-6)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Final: Steelers 27, Browns 20

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

NFL 2020 Wild Card Saturday Previews and Predictions

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

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

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

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

Click here for my preview of the three Sunday games.

Colts at Bills (-7)

See my full preview for this game at SBR.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Final: Bills 28, Colts 20

Rams at Seahawks (-3.5)

See my full preview for this game at SBR.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Final: Seahawks 20, Rams 16

Buccaneers at Football Team (+7.5)

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

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

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

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

How does he do it, folks?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Final: Buccaneers 24, Football Team 13

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

Most Passing Touchdowns and Yards Thru Game X in NFL History (2020 Update)

Now that the 2020 NFL regular season is over, it is time to update the leaders in most passing touchdown and yards through game X in NFL history.

First is the table for touchdown passes, which saw Drew Brees and Tom Brady battle back and forth over the all-time record until Brees’ rib injury cost him four games. But Brees still makes 48 appearances on the list compared to just three for Brady, who did not surpass him until Game #299.

(Click on picture to enlarge)

Take note of Justin Herbert sneaking in there to make it four quarterbacks with 15 touchdown passes through six games. I’m rooting for someone to soon start super hot and throw 16 to clean that cell up a little.

Dan Marino’s days of having a whole column (51-100) to himself are numbered. Patrick Mahomes is currently tied with Marino for the most touchdown passes (114) through 50 games in NFL history. Problem is Mahomes has only played 46 games. Marino’s prime for throwing touchdowns lasted 63 games, so there is a chance he could still hang onto a spot here. Mahomes would have to throw 43 touchdowns in his next 17 games to wipe Marino’s prime out entirely.

Contrary to what happened in 2020, I don’t think 40 touchdown pass seasons grow on trees, though there is a good chance of a 17-game season in 2021. Of course, that may not matter as much if it means the Chiefs are going to end up resting Mahomes again late in the season with the top seed wrapped up.

After a career-high 48 touchdown passes this season, Aaron Rodgers has picked up the pace and is currently wiping out a lot of Drew Brees entries. Rodgers is currently 12 games ahead of Brees’ pace. Whether he can wipe out Brees and Peyton Manning depends on how long Rodgers wants to play. If he played four complete 17-game seasons, that would take him to 265 games through his age-41 season. If he were to average 2.2 touchdowns per start, that would put him at 562 touchdowns through 265 games, easily topping the current mark of 539 by Manning. But projecting out that far with a quarterback who has had multiple collarbone fractures and recent down seasons is tricky. Still, the main takeaway is that he has a shot to take over much of this table.

If reports are accurate, Brees’ regular season career is over at 287 games. He plans to retire after this postseason. It took Brady an additional 12 games to surpass Brees with 573 touchdowns in his 299th game. With one more start in 2021, Brady will be the first QB in NFL history to start 300 regular season games.

Now let’s look at the table for passing yardage leaders, which does not feature as many names as the touchdown pass table.

(Click on picture to enlarge)

So we have Cam Newton for six games before Mahomes takes over. Mahomes has now wiped out all of the old Kurt Warner entries. Mahomes’ lead on Matthew Stafford is actually not that substantial, but he has a good shot to start erasing the beginning of Stafford’s high-volume run.

Stafford just recently took out the little four-game blip that Matt Ryan had taken from Drew Brees before Brees took over for good. Stafford may possibly be done in Detroit, but once he goes to another team he’ll still be able to keep taking spots from Brees. It just seems unlikely that he’ll play long enough to take all of them.

Again, Brees is expected to be finished at 80,358 yards in 287 games. With Brady at 79,204 yards in 301 games, this expects to be another table of mine that he’ll screw up by making me add another column as he surpasses 80k in over 300 games.

There is no denying that longevity plays a huge part in career records.

NFL 2020: Close Game Summary

While 2020 may have felt like a year for comebacks in the NFL, let’s examine the data. There were 143 games (55.9%) that saw at least one team have a fourth-quarter comeback or game-winning drive opportunity, which is a possession by the team tied or down 1-to-8 points. That is in line with recent years: 142 in 2019, 147 in 2018, and 139 in 2017.

So, the crowd-less, COVID season did not produce any shift in the closeness of games. There were just 43 double-digit comeback wins from deficits at any time in the game, which is an increase of nine or 10 games over 2019 (33) and 2018 (34).

The 2020 season featured 58 fourth-quarter comeback (4QC) wins and 76 game-winning drives (GWD). That is remarkably close to the numbers last regular season with 56 4QC and 77 GWD. This is the third time in the last four seasons that 4QC numbers fell under 60 for the season after ranging from 68 to 73 every year from 2011 to 2016. We also can thank the NFC East for oddities, such as the season’s lone tie when the Eagles came back late on the Bengals, and the only non-offensive game-winning score of 2020 was a fumble return touchdown by the Giants against Washington.  

Success rate for 4QC attempts was 30.0%, or just about average. GWD success rate was in the usual ballpark of 35.0% (2019 was 35.9%).

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

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

This information can be very useful for previewing the playoffs (which teams haven’t blown a lead and which struggle to hold them) or thinking about regression in 2021 for teams that won or lost a lot of close games.

More than usual, the playoff teams had the best records in close games with 11 of the top 12 teams qualifying for the playoffs. The only outlier happens to be Detroit, which was 4-2 in close games but 1-9 in non-close games. That is because of all the ass-kickings this team took this season, including Thanksgiving against Houston, losing 20-0 to P.J. Walker and the Panthers, and that demolition performed by Tampa Bay on a Saturday afternoon.

Washington (5-5) and the Rams (4-4) were only .500 in close games, but that is not uncommon for the coaching careers of Ron Rivera and Sean McVay. The most interesting playoff team here is Baltimore. For the second year in a row, the Ravens played in a league-low five close games. Last year, they were so dominant that they were 5-0 in close games. This year, the Ravens again finished with the best scoring differential (+165) in the NFL and led the league with nine wins of 14+ points. However, they were only 2-3 in close games, including a blown lead and overtime loss to the Titans in Week 11. Now the Ravens will have to avenge some past losses if they are to get back to the Super Bowl.

The Chiefs, Saints, and Titans are the only teams to not blow a late lead this year, though none of those defenses were tested more than four times in close games. The Titans were also bailed out heavily by their offense, including yesterday in Houston. Ryan Tannehill led the most 4QC (five) and GWD (six) in the league this season. Only Buffalo (6-1) tied the Titans for the best record in close games this season. No one really comes close to the 6-1 record the Titans had at GWD opportunities, and the only loss was against Pittsburgh after Stephen Gostkowski missed a field goal to force overtime.

The Seahawks may have blown a double-digit lead in Arizona in prime time this year, but otherwise, Seattle led the league with nine holds of a one-score lead, or two more than any team in 2020. The Seahawks were 9-2 in close games a year after finishing 7-2. It wasn’t as obvious this year since it wasn’t always Russell Wilson leading comebacks like he did on Sunday against the 49ers. But it’s those drives late in games to put away the Patriots, Cowboys, Cardinals, Washington, etc. that added up for Seattle’s 12-4 season. Now if only they can get the offense going like it was early in the season to match with the way the defense has played down the stretch. Then Seattle would have a fair shot of getting to the Super Bowl.

A year ago, the Packers were living off close game success, going 10-1 with eight holds and no blown leads. They added another hold in the playoffs against Seattle before getting blown out by the 49ers in the NFC Championship Game. This year the Packers are again 13-3, but it has come much differently with many more points scored. The Packers are still 5-2 at close games with five holds and one blown lead against the Colts.

The Eagles (15) and Chargers (14) played more close games than anyone. After winning some late in the season, the Chargers actually finished 6-8 in them while the Eagles limped to a 4-10-1 finish. The 10 failed 4QC/GWD (plus a tie) by the Eagles were the most in the league.

The 1995 expansion teams, Jaguars (1-7) and Panthers (2-9), had the worst records in close games this season. Jacksonville came back to beat the Colts in Week 1 and lost out the rest of the season, or what I’d call a “Weinke” as a nod to Chris Weinke and the 2001 Panthers, who also finished 1-15 with a 15-game losing streak.

The Panthers headlined five teams with a winless record at GWD opportunities. Carolina was 0-9 in a brutal year in crunch time for Teddy Bridgewater and Matt Rhule. The Falcons (0-7) did not have a single 4QC/GWD for the first time ever in the Matt Ryan era.

A year ago, I said that Houston could be a team to watch for with regression after 11 4QC/GWD in 2018-19. The Texans were 0-7 in their opportunities this year. The Jets (0-6) and Giants (0-5), with terrible offenses, were not surprisingly winless in these situations too.

It was a close battle, but the right team won in the end. The Atlanta Falcons led the league with five blown leads in the fourth quarter, beating out the Chargers and Texans with four each. All three teams fired their head coach this season. Atlanta (4-12) finishing dead last in the NFC despite only a -18 scoring differential is a shocker, but that’s what happens when you blow such winnable games in incredible fashion like the Falcons did this year.

In fact, the 2020 Falcons are hands down the best team to finish last in a conference in the 32-team era. I would advise owner Arthur Blank not to hang a banner for this achievement, but it is the closest thing the Falcons have to a trophy from this miserable, no good, rotten season.

NFL Stat Oddity: Week 17

It’s over. The NFL was able to complete the first – and hopefully last – pandemic regular season on Sunday. Is it asterisk worthy? There are definitely some fishy, eye-popping numbers in a season with historic offensive production, but more on that later this week. As for an asterisk, I guess we’ll see what kind of postseason we get as the virus continues to mutate and increase in spread. However, only a couple of the 256 games this season were a total sham, including a Ravens-Steelers game that might have had much larger implications if it was played at a later date like next week.

Then again, the league greatly weakened the No. 2 seed with the new playoff format, and home-field advantage has never meant less than it does right now.

I am nervous and excited as hell at the same time about where things are headed, which is the perfect summary of how I feel about 2021 in general. But before we move onto the playoffs, let’s recap how things finished around the eight divisions in Week 17.

Previous weeks in Stat Oddity:

AFC South: King Henry Reigns Supreme

The best drama of the day came from the AFC South. Even though the Titans were not in any danger of missing the playoffs after Miami lost, the division title was still up for grabs as Deshaun Watson made the Titans work hard for a win while the Colts teased Jacksonville in a 28-14 final that was stuck on 20-14 for far too long. Seriously, the Colts were up 20-0 and almost blew this one to Mike Glennon. I’m a bit concerned about this team, but it’s not like I expect them to have a huge lead in Buffalo on Saturday. They are going to have to be sharper than the last two weeks. Just getting by a Jacksonville team that lost 15 straight is not going to impress anyone, but crashing the Buffalo parade early sure would.

So basically, the two good teams beat the two shitty teams with Derrick Henry (250 yards) and Jonathan Taylor (253 yards) running wild. Performances of 250 rushing yards are rare, but we had two on the same day from the same division. They are the 13th and 14th such games since 1950. The Titans are the first offense in NFL history to have a 250-yard rusher and a 150-yard receiver (A.J. Brown) in the same game. It was also a historic game in that Brandin Cooks had 166 receiving yards for Houston.

The big-time players showed up in this one, but it was Brown’s 52-yard catch that set up the game-winning field goal with no time left. That is how you get into game-winning field goal range in eight seconds. It was the most fitting way for the Titans to win the division in a season where Ryan Tannehill has led the most fourth-quarter comebacks (five) and game-winning drives (six) in the league.

Henry needed 223 rushing yards to get to 2,000 on the season and he got 250. This offense is absurdly great at times and I cannot wait to see this matchup with Baltimore, a playoff rematch from a year ago that this season definitely needs.

NFC East Total Landscaping Division Champions: The Team with No Name

We did not make history with a 6-10 division winner, but the NFC East sure did try its damnedest on Sunday to deliver.

First up was Dallas at the Giants, a team the Cowboys had a seven-game winning streak against and usually score 30+ points on. Unfortunately, Andy Dalton must have gotten the memo that this was a de facto playoff game that his team could not lose or they would be eliminated from the division race. In true January Andy Dalton fashion, he finished with no touchdown passes, a crucial interception in the final two minutes, and the Cowboys lost 23-19. Dalton was not protected well and took six sacks, including a big one two plays before his interception in the end zone. Wayne Gallman then fumbled for the Giants, but saved his ass by recovering it to run out the clock on Dallas’ season.

So Jason Garrett, the Giants’ offensive coordinator, gets the last laugh for 2020 as this was the game that sent the Cowboys home.

Over the last two seasons, Dallas is 0-16 when not scoring at least 30 points and 14-2 when scoring 30 or more points. There has never been a split like that in NFL history over multiple seasons. Teams who don’t score 30 points win about 36% of their games since 2019. The Cowboys’ 14 straight wins with at least 30 points in each is the longest such streak in NFL history. This team simply cannot win without scoring a lot of points.

Does that really change even if Dak Prescott is back healthy in 2021? No, more changes need to happen too. This roster does not work.

Alas, the Giants did not turn this win into a division title after the Washington Football Team was able to squeeze out a 20-14 stinker in Philadelphia on Sunday night. The second half, which only produced a Washington field goal on a 1-yard drive, was one of the worst halves of football I was subjected to all season. Doug Pederson basically threw in the towel by benching starter Jalen Hurts for backup Nate Sudfeld for the whole fourth quarter of a one-score game. It was shameless tanking. If he’s going to play a bad quarterback with no future in Philadelphia, he could have just started Carson Wentz.

Alex Smith had a lot of rough moments and was again carried by the defense to a victory and home playoff game next week. For as much as people like the courageous stories behind Ron Rivera’s cancer battle and Smith’s rehab, this team is one of the worst to watch play football this year. Now we have to see them host Tampa Bay on Saturday night.

Just the thought of a Washington-Tampa Bay game gives me PTSD to the 2005 NFC Wild Card matchup, which had to be one of the worst playoff games ever played. Mark Brunell got a win for Washington in a game where he completed 7-of-15 passes for 41 yards and an interception. I watched the game in freezing cold temperatures as the furnace gave out that weekend. The only thing that could have made the viewing experience worse was if Tom Brady was playing the game and the announcers were up his ass over it.

That awaits us Saturday night. At least I should have heat this time. But then again, if Brunell can win a playoff game doing that and Brady could lose one to Joe Flacco (2009 Ravens) where he threw for 34 yards and a pick, then anything is possible this week.

NFC South: Eat the Rich

In another case of the top of the division making short work of the bottom-feeders, the Saints and Buccaneers cruised to wire-to-wire victories over the Panthers and Falcons on Sunday. Not even losing Alvin Kamara and the running back room to COVID could stop the Saints from throwing in Ty Montgomery and getting 105 yards on the ground out of him in a 33-7 win, reportedly the final regular season game in Drew Brees’ stellar career. Brees finished with three more touchdown passes and enough completions (needed eight) to Emmanuel Sanders to earn the receiver a $500,000 bonus.

Tampa Bay showed even more gall in getting to milestone numbers for its loaded receiving corps, but that came at a price when Mike Evans dropped a touchdown and hyperextended his knee after hitting his benchmark. His status for the playoffs is uncertain but he appears to have dodged the worst of it. Evans is the first receiver in NFL history to have 1,000 yards receiving in his first seven seasons, but this was the first time he ever needed all 16 games to cross the mark.

You might think the Evans scare would knock some sense into them, but that didn’t stop Tom Brady and Antonio Brown from connecting three more times with the game well decided – up 44-27 at the 2:14 mark – just so the receiver could get a $250,000 bonus. It is the only time in the last 20 years where an offense started a drive pass-pass-pass with a three-score lead in the final four minutes.

Maybe the Buccaneers would have done better than a fifth seed in a weak conference had this connection been stronger against better opponents. As it stands, the Jets (two) have more wins against 2020 playoff teams than the Buccaneers (one).

Now Brady will start a playoff run on the road for the first time in his career, and he gets to do it in a crowd-less stadium for a nameless 7-9 Washington team that came out of the worst division since the merger.

Play us off, Rod…

AFC East: The Right Stuff

The Buffalo Bills (13-3) completed their best season since the Super Bowl years by going 6-0 against the AFC East and eliminating Miami from the playoffs in a 56-26 rout. Josh Allen and other starters could have rested the whole game, but they played a half and put up a commanding 28-6 lead before every other phase of the team stepped up with four more touchdowns in the second half.

We knew one of the five 10-5 teams in the AFC was going to be kept out of the playoffs, and Miami was the only underdog against the spread. Sure enough, the Bills got the dominant win and Miami’s season is over. It’s fitting really because Miami was the weakest contender of the five. The switch to Tua Tagovailoa at quarterback did not serve the Dolphins well enough this season, and I think this will cost Brian Flores the Coach of the Year award. Ryan Fitzpatrick was out this week with COVID, but maybe things would have gone differently had he remained the starter. Tua really struggled on Sunday with 58 pass attempts and three interceptions, even after Buffalo was playing backups.

The Bills are clearly in the best shape in this division. The Patriots pulled away from the Jets in the fourth quarter in a 28-14 win as Cam Newton had one of his few good passing games of the year. Is it his last game with the team? Pretty likely, and certainly it’s the last game for Adam Gase in New York. Now if only this team didn’t bother to beat the Rams and Browns, they would be 0-16 and have their choice of head coach and the attractive option of drafting Trevor Lawrence with the top pick. But the Jets are almost never on the right side of history.

NFC West: Goff Clap

Russell Wilson may have saved his best fourth-quarter comeback of 2020 for Week 17, rallying the Seahawks from a 10-point deficit to a 26-23 win against the 49ers, who were very competitive in the final weeks of the season. But go figure, another blown lead and close loss for the Kyle Shanahan era.

Meanwhile, the closest thing to a de facto playoff game between both teams was my expected shitshow between the Rams and Cardinals. It ended up being the eighth 18-7 final score in NFL history, which is a surprisingly high number to me. More surprising than the final was the leading passer for each team: Chris Streveler for the Cardinals and John Wolford for the Rams. When I saw that Streveler threw an early touchdown pass, my first thought was the Cardinals tried a fake field goal and a holder or random player threw the score. I never heard of this player in my life, and Wolford was another unknown to me coming into this one.

We knew coming in that Jared Goff was out with an injured thumb and Kyler Murray was banged up. Murray started and finished, but for a large chunk in between it was Streveler at quarterback. Go figure, the game’s only offensive touchdown was a 14-yard drive set up by Wolford’s interception. The Rams came back thanks to a safety and pick-six.

The quarterbacks in this game were so jacked up that even Boomer Esiason replaced Tony Romo in the booth for CBS due to COVID. Esiason seemed more impressed than anyone with Wolford’s play. I guess given the circumstances and lack of experience, he was okay? He led the team in rushing with 56 yards. He threw for 231 yards and only took two sacks. It was a more mobile Jared Goff-type performance on one of his basic bitch days. In the end, the Rams scored three field goals on 10 drives and were fortunate that the Cardinals were in worse offensive shape than they were. Larry Fitzgerald didn’t even play in what could have been his final game due to injury, and now the Cardinals (8-8) are out of the playoffs.

Sean McVay certainly owns the Cardinals, but we’ll see if he can find his success again with the Seahawks in a third meeting next week. After getting so much praise early in the season, this division really limped across the finish line to get two teams in the tournament.

AFC North: Browns vs. Big Brother

The Steelers-Browns game went about as I expected. Even though the Steelers were missing most of their best players, they weren’t just going to lay down and let Cleveland get a big win to make the playoffs and finish 11-5 for the first time since 1994. Mason Rudolph showed some of his usual lack of pocket awareness, but he converted several third downs and tested the Browns deep with success. Even after Pittsburgh fell behind 24-9 a play into the fourth quarter, Rudolph led two touchdown drives, but missed on the game-tying two-point conversion. The Browns got the one first down needed to run out the clock and secure the 24-22 win.

These teams will meet on Sunday night, meaning it will be the Steelers the Browns have to get past in the playoffs for the third straight postseason after losing to their hated rival in 1994 and 2002. I may end up having to write two previews for this game, so I’ll save my thoughts for later this week, but I like the prospects of the Steelers in that game with their starters back.

Then there is Baltimore, the scariest 11-5 team in the league with the best scoring differential (+165) in football again. How absurd were the Ravens against Cincinnati? They were up 38-3 going into the fourth quarter and basically called off the dogs, finishing with 404 rushing yards, the most in the NFL since the 2000 Bengals had 407 against Denver.

Baltimore could be the most fascinating story this postseason as a legit contender to win it all, or it could flame out again in the playoffs and to the Titans again.

NFC North: Bears Back In

The Chicago Bears had a chance to enter the playoffs on a four-game winning streak with confidence if they could knock off the Packers and prove they haven’t just been scoring on bad teams lately.

They flopped again, going down in a 35-16 loss and only backing into the playoffs at 8-8 because of Arizona’s collapse. The 19 and 16-point losses to the Packers this year are Chicago’s worst margins of defeat in 2020. However, this one felt closer than last time despite the final score. The Bears were down 21-16 and 25 yards away from the end zone in the fourth quarter before failing on a 4th-and-1 pass. With nine minutes left, the Bears had their second dropped interception of the day thrown by Aaron Rodgers. More than five minutes later, the Packers were back in the end zone and then added a fifth touchdown after Chicago’s second turnover of the game.

Once again, the Chicago defense could not create splash plays against the Packers, allowing five touchdowns on seven drives. Meanwhile, the Chicago offense was 5-of-6 on fourth down, but that one miss in the fourth quarter hurt. Chicago actually played into Green Bay’s hands a bit with a game that featured very few big plays despite each team having a 50-yard pass play. Green Bay’s second-longest gain of the day was only 17 yards. The Bears only had two plays gain more than 14 yards. Chicago tried to dink and dunk with Trubisky on these long drives that also featured a lot of David Montgomery runs (3.1 YPC on 22 carries), which helped shrink the game, but it also led to too many fourth downs and not enough touchdowns. The Bears were 1-for-5 at scoring in the red zone.

I really hope the Bears do not end Drew Brees’ career in New Orleans next weekend, especially since it sets up another Bears-Packers game. We don’t need a third one of these. The Bears just do not have it against their hated rival, no matter what type of game they play against them.

In the Hollow Shootout of the Week, the Vikings took care of Detroit 37-35. The 2020 Lions allowed 519 points, the second-highest mark in NFL history between the 1981 Colts (533) and the 2008 Lions (517) of 0-16 fame.

Kirk Cousins was 0-22 as a starter in his career when his team allowed more than 30 points, but he has a win now. We’ll have to see if the final snap of Matthew Stafford’s Detroit career is an inaccurate miss on a game-tying two-point conversion attempt before his defense failed to get the ball back one more time.

AFC West: Boo-Urns

The least eventful division on Sunday was the AFC West with the Broncos and Raiders having an old-fashioned shootout that was ultimately meaningless. The fact that Denver had field goals of 70 and 63 yards (to win the game) blocked might tell you all you need to know about that one, a 32-31 comeback win by the Raiders to finish 8-8.

Then there’s the Chargers-Chiefs finale, won 38-21 by the Chargers. This one personally ruined my Sunday, and it’s not just because we didn’t get to see Patrick Mahomes or any of the interesting players on the Chiefs play. It’s because I put way too much trust in the Chargers to fill out their BINGO card with a performance that shouldn’t have blown away the Chiefs even if they were playing heavy backups. I lost quite the potential winnings on this game.

I was worried this meaningless game for the Chiefs would end all of their best streaks, but it only ended up taking out the record one of 60 straight games without losing by more than eight points. I guess we’ll have to put that one in the context of Mahomes from now on.

By resting, Mahomes missed out on leading the league in passing yards, joining Drew Brees as the only quarterbacks with multiple seasons of 5,000 yards/40 TD passes, and becoming the first quarterback to win 18 games and a championship in the same season. Achieving that in a 17 or 18-game regular season wouldn’t be as impressive, as this was the end of the 16-game era. The 2020 Chiefs should still have the record for most yards per drive at over 43.

Alas, the rest is for the postseason where the Chiefs have their ultimate goal still in front of them. It is just a bit of a bummer to see a throwaway game like this one. It was not a good showing by the Chiefs, and neither was the 17-14 escape win over the Falcons last week. Now they will go on a bye while these other AFC teams are in playoff mode for a few weeks now and competing this weekend in the wild card.

If the Steelers take care of the Browns and the Bills take care of the Colts, the Chiefs could have to start this title defense with a Tennessee or Baltimore team looking to punch them in the mouth and avenge past losses. That is a tough, physical draw after weeks off. I know Mahomes is different and Andy Reid has the great bye success, but these playoffs are guaranteed to be a bigger challenge than a year ago when the Chiefs still had to rally from double-digit deficits in all three playoff games.

My Preseason Predictions

Finally, something I am always quick to recap is seeing how my preseason predictions for team final records fared. I knew this would be a challenging season with COVID, a lot of quarterback movement, and the lack of a real offseason. My pick of Dallas making the Super Bowl in the NFC certainly did not pan out, and that was probably going to be the case even if Dak Prescott stayed healthy. However, I’m still on track for the Chiefs repeating, but let’s see how I did with all 32 teams.

As it turns out, this was my worst year of predicting since 2013, but not by much. I was off by an average of 2.78 wins. I have had some years before where I was off by 2.75 wins. A good year is 2.1 or 2.2. The 2019 season was one where I was only off by 2.16 wins. At least I was not off by more than six games for anyone this time.

I did not foresee Miami and Cleveland having this much success this season, which is why I think Kevin Stefanski should win the Coach of the Year award. I also obviously was disappointed by the Vikings and Texans in addition to the Cowboys. Even just those four very winnable division games the Texans had against the Colts and Titans could have made a huge difference for my predictions (2.78 down to 2.53).

But we’ll get into the close game summary of 2020 very soon. That is where teams like Houston, Atlanta, and Philadelphia flopped the hardest. Also, at least I can say I nailed Tampa Bay’s record. Now if only I could nail their postseason prediction later this week, but that is also to come.

NFL Week 17 Predictions: Rest vs. Rust Edition

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

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

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

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

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

AFC Picture

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

NFC Picture

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

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

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

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

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

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

NFL Week 17 Predictions

Here are the picks for every game:

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

NFL Stat Oddity: Week 16

You know it was a strange NFL Sunday when the Jets started a win streak, the Chargers pulled off their third game-winning drive in a row, and the Bengals won a 37-31 shootout with Brandon Allen throwing for 371 yards. That means Zac Taylor is no longer 0-24-1 when trailing after the 12:00 mark of the third quarter. He is 1-24-1 now. Big baller who I still couldn’t identify to save my life.

Two of the biggest games on paper were Rams-Seahawks and Titans-Packers, but neither could live up to the comeback by the Steelers against the Colts. The Steelers are now 9-2 against Indianapolis since 2002, and this very well might be the most painful of those losses for Colts fans since the 2005 AFC divisional round loss. The Colts (10-5) blew a 17-point lead in the second half and are in danger of missing the playoffs now.

Previous weeks in Stat Oddity:

Colts at Steelers: This (Eventually) Looked Like the 10-0 Start

The spread saw this as a tight game, but for nearly three quarters, this was all Indianapolis. The Steelers came out in the most predictable way possible with three quick slant passes out of shotgun, all with a chance to be caught, and none of them actually hauled in or even looking like potential first downs. Throw in 4 rushing yards on 7 carries at halftime and the offense still looked to be stuck in pathetic mode from the last few weeks.

The defense also seemed to be mailing it in with 24 points allowed on the first seven drives. Save for a strip-sack that set up a short field, the defense was getting gashed on the ground by Jonathan Taylor and Philip Rivers found some deep-ball success. Despite not having both offensive tackles available, the Colts looked to be a well-oiled machine on their way to the playoffs after a big win.

In the third quarter, Chase Claypool dropped a touchdown on third down and the Steelers went for it at the 2-yard line on fourth down. The pass was knocked away and Pittsburgh still trailed 24-7 with 5:01 left in the third.

That seemed like the end for hope of any miraculous comeback, but the Steelers were able to force a three-and-out and got good field position at the Indy 39. Ben Roethlisberger finally uncorked a good deep ball on the first play and Diontae Johnson came down with it for a 39-yard touchdown. That was a good enough spark because the defense forced another three-and-out and the offense was able to string together three straight touchdown drives to take a 28-24 lead. Roethlisberger finally looked like he found his groove again from earlier in the season when the Steelers were undefeated and scored 24+ points every week. He was able to hit on throws more than 10 yards down the field and that opened up some of the shorter stuff to not get tackled immediately for a change. JuJu Smith-Schuster, after a tumultuous week, also stepped up big with his finest game of the season. He caught a 25-yard game-winning touchdown with 7:38 left.

You know no one sees more comeback attempts fail than Philip Rivers, and sure enough he got hit a little as he threw for an interception. Instead of trying to get the running game going, Roethlisberger continued to throw short passes with 6:05 left, and they actually all worked until the last one brought up a 4th-and-1. Pittsburgh punted and trusted the defense to stop Rivers from driving 85 yards in the final 2:18.

It took a while, but eventually the Steelers got the fourth-and-ballgame stop after Rivers’ pass was just a tad off for Zac Pascal with 1:14 left. The Steelers pulled off their first comeback win of 17 points in the second half since the 2002 AFC Wild Card win over Cleveland. Roethlisberger finished with 349 yards, 3 TD, and zero turnovers, or the kind of stat line he was having earlier this season when the team looked capable of doing something big in the playoffs.

The Steelers finished with 14 carries for 20 yards, so this was all about the passing game again on offense. The 2020 Steelers are the first team in NFL history to win four games in a season without rushing for 50 yards. This is also a rare win against a good team without being able to run for 25 yards:

The win secured the AFC North, and Pittsburgh can breathe easy after showing a strong effort in the second half of this one. In fact, the Steelers should probably rest the key players in Week 17 since it has been a long season with multiple games moved around and not a traditional bye week for the team.

For the Colts, it could be a fatal loss. Does it happen if the Colts had their tackles? Maybe not, but Rivers had time early to make plays before succumbing to five sacks on the day. He was not sacked on the final drive either but failed to get the ball deep down the field.

Truth be told, the Colts blew their most winnable game of the season in Week 1 to the Jaguars, a team that has not won since. That’s the team the Colts close with looking for their 11th win, but this team did not come through in so many important games this season, losing the rematch with the Titans and losing all three games to the good AFC North teams. Now the Colts will hope the Texans do them another solid and beat the Titans next week.

But as for the Steelers, this formula of a defense with a pass rush and an offense that can string together touchdown drives could still be effective for them in the playoffs. Again, the Chiefs are not blowing anyone out. If they got after Mahomes the way they have other quarterbacks, and if Roethlisberger is accurate, that is a game they could win. Or they could go one-and-done to anyone who gets in this stacked AFC tournament.

I just think it is foolish to write this team off completely, and Sunday proved they still know what it takes to win the tough games. The Steelers are now 5-1 against teams with a winning record this season. Only Kansas City (5-0) has a better record.

The Patrick Mahomes Memoirs, Chapter 51: Week 16 vs. Falcons

The time is 4:44 A.M. This game, a 17-14 win by the Chiefs over Atlanta, ended over 12 hours ago. I am only now watching for the first time the highlights from the final drive (the dropped interception and the game-winning touchdown pass). Between being dialed in to the end of Colts-Steelers and checking my dozens of parlays before SNF, I just never saw the highlights until now.

Yeah, Mahomes won that game with some Brady Bullshit, as I have called it for 17 years. First of all, it was the first scoreless opening quarter (both teams) of the Mahomes era. It was the longest a Chiefs game had gone scoreless (mid-2Q) since a December 2015 game against San Diego. To start a 7-7 tied fourth quarter, he was off target on a pass to Sammy Watkins who was in an awkward position, and that was nearly intercepted. Harrison Butker saved the drive with a 53-yard field goal for KC’s first lead of the day (STOP THE COUNT!). The Falcons fumbled in the red zone, another gift. The Chiefs had a weird 3rd-and-4 run call that led to a punt. After the Falcons took a 14-10 lead, Mahomes was delivering on a drive late as you’d expect. He hit some big plays to Travis Kelce on the day. But with 2:07 left, he underthrew Tyreek Hill in the end zone and A.J. Terrell on the undercut had a great shot at an interception. He dropped it. Raheem Morris wasted a challenge/timeout on it. Terrell dropped it.

Now was it game over if he caught it? At 2:01, the Chiefs had four clock stoppages, so no, it definitely wasn’t unlike some other QBs I can think of who get away with these plays. Would it have made the game much harder for the Chiefs to win? Most definitely. But Mahomes caught this break and he immediately made up for it with a 25-yard touchdown pas to Demarcus Robinson. Then Younghoe Koo put an eyesore on his great season by missing a 39-yard field goal that would have sent the game to overtime with 9 seconds left. Atlanta lost 17-14.

Yes, that is some Brady/Patriots Bullshit. Win a low-scoring game after getting a long FG, getting a red zone fumble on defense, get a go-ahead TD pass after a dropped INT in the end zone, and watch the opponent choke on a field goal for OT. Yes, the true definition of the Patriot Way.

Now the idea (on Twitter) that I wouldn’t bring any of this up is bullshit. I always keep it real with my tweets and writing. I call it like I see it, except I didn’t see this drive until more than 12 hours after the game ended. I heard about it, but I can’t always trust everything I hear. If you do that, you might believe some made up stats, but more about that later. I’m not going to apologize for watching the exciting Colts-Steelers finish instead. This was the first time I didn’t watch Mahomes play a full live game since Week 8 (Jets). It wasn’t my top priority on Sunday.

How did the Falcons fare with my tips for beating the Chiefs?

Each team only had nine drives, which is good for the underdog. The Falcons just did not score enough, though 20-23 in overtime may have done the trick. Can’t lose that fumble and miss that FG though. The Chiefs did not allow a sack or fumble in this game and limited their penalty damage. Andy Reid called that weird 3rd-and-4 run, but it was the trick play with Sammy Watkins trying to throw a deep pass to Mahomes on 4th-and-2 that backfired the most. Just call a normal play there, please. Then Mahomes threw a red-zone pick that was as ugly as any he’s ever thrown. Not sure why he forced that. Pick either one of those two plays and there is your main culprit for why the Chiefs didn’t score a more normal 24 points and were held under 22 for only the second time in Mahomes’ career.

I’ve been predicting for weeks about Mahomes having the worst game of his career and Aaron Rodgers taking over the MVP lead. That’s what happened on Sunday. Was it a bad Mahomes game? Weighing the dropped pick heavily, yes it was. Was it a bad game by an NFL QB? That’s harder to answer. He’s had lower passer ratings (79.5) and QBR (68.2; ranked 12th for Week 16) before in his career. He still had 299 yards, no sacks, two touchdown passes, and a 4QC/GWD. If this is his bad game, then he still makes bad look decent.

Now we probably won’t see him until the playoffs with the Chiefs wrapping up the No. 1 seed and first-round bye. So goodbye to a second 40 touchdown pass/5,000-yard season, and a chance to become the first QB in NFL history to win 18 games and a championship in the same season. That’s disappointing from a history standpoint, but I think that’s what Reid will do. He’s rested starters in Week 17 multiple times in his career.

The only other thing I want to address here is the use of a bogus statistic and the absurdity of how that can spread in this social media age. People are passing around this article on The Big Lead that talks about Mahomes setting an NFL record for dropped interceptions in a season with 16 this year, and apparently that doesn’t include two (Terrell is obviously one) in this Atlanta game.

1. How do you get a record for something that is an unofficial statistic, open to extreme subjectiveness, and has a very limited window of data that will never encapsulate anywhere near all of NFL history?

2. How do you verify such a record when the only proof is a tweet from someone named “El Capitan” on Twitter with the username @DomGonzo12? There’s no supporting link, list, video, or pictures of the 16 plays. There’s nothing but the words of some random Twitter user with barely 1,000 followers.

3. Guess what? I had this user blocked before this weekend. He’s a Patriots fan/douchebag who carries the water for Tom Brady and will find any way he can to prop up his golden boy and put down other quarterbacks.

I think The Big Lead should delete the story and raise their journalistic standards. This is pathetic.

I brought up dropped picks for Mahomes a month ago. I think he had about six at the time.

Leave it up to Green Bay fans to eat up this fake statistic and claim that Mahomes has 16 (or now 18) dropped interceptions, therefore he has no business being MVP. I think someone should try proving it first. After all, the burden of proof comes on the person making the claim. Yet here we are in the Trumpian era of where you can say any bullshit and get enough of a cult following to believe you.

All I know is this won’t be the first or last time the Falcons drop a crucial interception against a future HOF QB. If Tom Brady can get away with it in a Super Bowl in a bigger spot, then Mahomes can get away with one in Week 16.

If Mahomes is going to average one bad game every 51 games, then he’s still well on track to be the GOAT. But for one Sunday afternoon, he got to experience what Brady Bullshit looks like.

Browns Got the Rona

I am not 100% clear on what all the playoff scenarios are now or if teams like the Steelers (Cleveland’s final opponent) or Bills will even bother to play starters in Week 17. All I know is the Browns missed a golden opportunity for an 11th win and it wasn’t entirely their fault. On Saturday, the team found out it would be missing its top four wide receivers (not including the old loss of Odell Beckham Jr.) for a game against the Jets because they were close contacts to a positive COVID test. That is a tough blow a day before a game. I really hope this doesn’t happen to someone in the playoffs, but if it does, you know it’ll probably benefit Tampa Bay.

Anyway, Baker Mayfield was in a tough spot here and to make matters worse, the vaunted rushing attack only produced 15 carries for 39 yards. The Jets again had a 17-point lead for the second week in a row before holding off a comeback attempt by the Browns. Mayfield fumbled twice in the final minutes, including a quarterback sneak on fourth down in the red zone with 1:18 left.

It was an unfortunate loss for the Browns, but the season isn’t over yet. I guess the Colts are in worse shape than the Browns since they lost to them head-to-head, but we’ll see if Cleveland can rebound with a win over a Pittsburgh team that should really be resting on Sunday.

NFC East: Root for the Worst Outcome

So it has come to this: Washington vs. Philadelphia on SNF in the final game of the 2020 regular season. Maybe that’s a fitting way to end the pandemic regular season with a game to decide the worst division since the merger.

If you want to see a 6-10 division winner, you have to root for the Giants to beat the Cowboys and the Eagles to beat Washington. It’s possible, especially if Alex Smith doesn’t return for Washington. Dwayne Haskins is terrible and should be gone already there. Washington had no offense to speak of in a 20-13 loss to Carolina until Taylor Heinicke replaced Haskins for a mild comeback attempt.

The Cowboys had plenty of offense on Sunday with Andy Dalton posting a huge stat line on the Eagles defense once Fletcher Cox went down. Jalen Hurts was hot early but struggled late. The Eagles couldn’t get any closer than a 13-point deficit in the final quarter and a half, ending a streak of 23 straight games that were within one score in the fourth quarter.

Is Dallas the favorite again? Hard to say, but it is the team with the best offense to do damage in the playoffs. It just has the worst defense out of the three. Hey, maybe they could throw all three rosters together to create the best team they could? It’s bad enough we have to give them a home playoff game, let’s at least make it exciting.

Alas, it is still likely that the worst division winner since the merger will start the playoffs with Tampa Bay and Tom Brady. How does he do it, folks?

Ryan Tannehill Proves ESPN’s QBR Is Broken

The hyped Sunday night game between the two highest-scoring teams, Titans and Packers, was a letdown. Sure, there was snow, but that only seemed to bother Tennessee, which fell behind 19-0 early before making a minor game of it until the Titans were asleep at the wheel in the third quarter and failed to challenge a 59-yard run by Aaron Jones where he stepped out of bounds early.

Green Bay won 40-14, holding the Titans to their lowest point total since Ryan Tannehill took over at quarterback last year. But fear not, in the loss, Tannehill still produced an 85.2 QBR at ESPN, the sixth-highest mark in Week 16.

Wait, what? How is that possible when Tannehill completed 11-of-24 passes for 121 yards, 1 TD, 2 INT, 40.5 PR, and took two sacks?

Ah, but in the third quarter, on a 3rd-and-1, Tannehill took off on a designed run for a 45-yard touchdown. It was a really nice play where he got to show off his mobility, but it wasn’t exactly the toughest play he’s ever made before.

I joke that ESPN’s QBR loves quarterback runs to an insane degree, but this game is proof of that. For Tannehill to finish with an 85.2 on the strength of that play is absurd. It’s just one drive. What about all the other failed plays and turnovers and sacks?

Things have been screwy for a couple of years with QBR once you started noticing that David Garrard’s 2007 season and Mitchell Trubisky’s 2018 season ranked surprisingly high. What’s the common link? Both quarterbacks scrambled a lot. Find a game that looks unusually high and chances are the quarterback did a big run on third down in it. QBR just eats that up and it clearly needs to be adjusted.

Sunday’s game was closer to Tannehill’s worst game with the Titans instead of his 8th best according to QBR. See, this is why we have to still question statistics and the processes that go into them. Even ones posted on a reputable website instead of a random Patriots fan’s Twitter timeline.

NFC West: In the End, Seattle Was the Best

So much for the NFC West getting four playoff teams or everyone finishing at least 8-8. The title was decided on Sunday in a lackluster game between the Seahawks and Rams, won 20-9 by Seattle. It was another good defensive showing for Seattle, which has not allowed more than 21 points in six straight games.

Jared Goff again struggled to move the offense and reportedly has a broken thumb now. This could mean that the Rams will turn to 2018 undrafted QB John Wolford out of Wake Forest for their critical Week 17 game against Arizona.

The timing is bad, but was Wolford really the best backup option the Rams could secure for this season? At this point, you have to invest in someone who either has starting experience as a veteran or is someone you drafted with what you think is real potential. For the latter, think 2012 Kirk Cousins in Washington or even more crudely Jalen Hurts in Philadelphia this year.

The fact is a contender needs a decent backup quarterback in case things go bad for a short stretch and you have to use one to stay afloat. The Saints would have been screwed this year if they didn’t have Taysom Hill (and Jameis Winston) to plug in for a month. Maybe Wolford can surprise people and Sean McVay can regain some of that “kid genius” clout, but after watching this team lose to the Jets and fail to get in the end zone against Seattle in their most important game this season, I’m not counting on McVay to accomplish anything the rest of the way here.

While the Rams take “Stars and Scrubs” to the extreme in their roster approach, they have to wrestle with the fact that they’re paying Goff to be a star when too often he looks like a scrub in this system. Things should be better than this in Year 4 together. Now Goff has the first injury issue of his career and it could not come at a worse time.

NFL Week 16 Predictions: Holiday Edition

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Colts at Steelers (+1.5)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Final: Colts 24, Steelers 20

NFL Week 16 Predictions

Here are all my picks for the week.

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

NFL Stat Oddity: Week 15

If last Sunday in the NFL was boring, then this week more than made up for it. Even though the “Game of the Year” (Chiefs-Saints) wasn’t even the best game played in the last seven days (Ravens-Browns), this was a Sunday filled with memorable action.

Favorites were 11-4 SU, but the Rams christened SoFi Stadium with one of the most embarrassing losses in NFL history.

Previous weeks in Stat Oddity:

Rams Lose, Jets Lose Out, Only Trevor Lawrence Wins

It is not hyperbole to say that the course of NFL history for the next two decades could have just been drastically altered on Sunday when the 0-13 Jets beat the Rams 23-20 for their first win of the season.

For a franchise familiar with low points, the 2020 season may have taken the Jets to a new low under head coach Adam Gase. Some people have been calling the Chiefs “inevitable” this year, but the most inevitable thing felt like the Jets cruising to 0-16. That is a horrific season, but it’s not like we haven’t seen the 2008 Lions and 2017 Browns already do this. In fact, the biggest surprise would be that the Jets weren’t already in the club (the 1996 team finished 1-15).

The reward at the end of such a terrible season was supposed to be a new coach and the No. 1 pick in the draft, undoubtedly, to be used on Clemson quarterback Trevor Lawrence. Gase will now likely go down as one of the most hated coaches in NFL history as he could not even finish 0-16 properly. The Jaguars are now in the driver’s seat for Lawrence in the draft, and if he is as generational as advertised – a mobile, long-haired Peyton Manning – then it is sure to be a move that has massive ripple effects around the league for years to come.

Why are the Jets always the ones botching history? They could have drafted generational passer Dan Marino in 1983 but chose Ken O’Brien instead. They drafted wide receiver Al Toon over all-time leading receiver Jerry Rice in 1985. They drafted running back Blair Thomas over all-time leading rusher Emmitt Smith in 1990. Maybe none of those picks lead to Super Bowls for the Jets, but they absolutely changed the course of the league at that time. Imagine the Dolphins without Marino and Don Shula. Imagine the 49ers’ dynasty without Rice. Joe Gibbs’ Washington teams may have been the dynasty of the 1980s instead. Likewise, Emmitt is probably not the all-time leading rusher if he started with the Jets instead of the dynastic Cowboys in the 90s.

Maybe Lawrence is better off if he doesn’t go to the Jets. In 1997, the Jets thought they could cash that 1-15 season in for Peyton Manning at the top of the draft, but Manning returned to Tennessee for another year and ended up going No. 1 to the rival Colts in 1998. Good move, but also a massive one for the league’s next two decades.

Oh, and never forget the Jets are more responsible for the New England dynasty than anyone after botching the hiring of head coach Bill Belichick in 2000 and injuring Drew Bledsoe in 2001, leading to the rise of Tom Brady.

Never has a win felt like such a loss for a team than this one. The fact that Frank Gore put the game away with two first downs is just the cherry on top of the shit sundae. Jacksonville fans will for sure be pushing Gore for Canton now.

And how about these Rams? So much for the new hyped “best team” in the NFC. I’m going to remember Sean McVay as the photographic memory wunderkind coach who lost a Super Bowl 13-3 and lost to the 0-13 Jets.

There has just been something about Game 14 where perfect seasons go to die. As I pointed out in my preview for this one, the 10 teams to start 0-13 are now 5-5 SU in Game 14. That means these teams went from a combined 0-130 to 5-5 in that 14th game. Interestingly enough, four of the eight 13-0 teams in NFL history also lost their first game in Game 14 (1998 Broncos, 2005 Colts, 2009 Saints, and 2011 Packers).

This is not quite the biggest upset in NFL history. You only have to go back to Week 17 last year to find a worse loss by the point spread when the 17.5-point favorite Patriots lost at home to the Dolphins to lose out on a first-round bye. However, this is only the fifth time since 1978 that a 17-point favorite lost outright.

But this is almost surely the most embarrassing loss a team has ever had to a team 0-13 or worse that notched its first win. The Rams lost this game wire-to-wire, meaning the Jets led the whole way, including a 20-3 lead. Only the 1962 Patriots can say they lost wire-to-wire to an 0-13 (or worse) team after they fell 20-0 to the Oakland Raiders to end the 1962 AFL season.

This was not some December game in trash weather at MetLife Stadium with a full, roaring crowd where Jared Goff melted down and threw a pick parade. The Rams only had one turnover (and one blocked punt) in the game, played in new SoFI Stadium. This was not a blown lead by the Rams. This was not a game where the Rams missed any field goals. The only fumble (on a Sam Darnold sack) went out of bounds.

The Rams were just outplayed by an inferior team. The Jets were able to convert 7-of-17 on third down while the Rams were only 2-of-11. Show up on a few more of those plays and this outcome is likely different, but the Jets deserved this win.

They just had no business actually pulling it off, putting the future of the franchise in doubt again.

The final magnitude of this loss for me personally remains to be seen after the Steelers play on Monday night. I was hot on my bets this weekend, but one game I needed was for the Rams to win and Cam Akers to score a touchdown. That seemed simple enough after Akers’ breakout game last week and the mismatch here, but neither part came through. I also liked Robert Woods scoring (he did), but still would have been screwed by the moneyline. I’ll scowl over this day forever that Akers’ 18-yard touchdown run in the fourth quarter was called back for a holding penalty if Diontae Johnson and the Steelers come through. I stood to win more than $36,000 on a series of round robin parlays that only cost $105.

I’m sad. Rams fans are sad. Jets fans are sad. Only Trevor Lawrence and Jacksonville fans are probably happy right now. And just think, if the Jets finish on a winning streak, they just may bring Gase and Darnold back for 2021…

I Fvcking Love Patrick Mahomes Chapter 50: Week 15 at Saints

Despite holding 14-point leads early and late, the Chiefs had to grind out another close win, 32-29, in the four-minute offense to knock off the Saints in Drew Brees’ return. The big matchup had some really strange plays, Brees got off to the slowest/worst start to a game in his 300th career start, and it technically never had a game-winning drive opportunity, but it was a decent game in the end.

How did New Orleans fare with my tips for beating the Chiefs? Not good as the only achievement was #6 as the Saints racked up four sacks, getting some of the best pressure any defense ever has (without blitzing too) on Mahomes, which was to be expected with the offensive line situation there.

The 29 points were not bad, but the Saints absolutely hurt themselves before halftime by not recovering the obligatory fumble on a ridiculous punt fielded by Demarcus Robinson with only seconds left in the half. The Saints had a great chance to fall on the ball in the end zone for a touchdown, but Alex Anzalone botched that play and the Saints only got a safety out of it. Those five points were a huge miss.

You know the standard for Mahomes is getting ridiculous when people scoff at putting up 32 points and 34 first downs on what was supposed to be one of the best defenses in the league. The Saints had not allowed more than 24 points in a game since doing it four games in a row in Weeks 2-5, but the Chiefs were able to do that in this one, scoring 11 points in the fourth quarter to keep the Saints down.

Much like the 26-17 win in Buffalo, the Chiefs were able to mix the pass and run in moving the ball effectively. This team’s success on the road is historic this season even if it could be asterisk worthy given the pandemic impact with limited or no crowds.

Still, the 2020 Chiefs are the first team in NFL history to win five road games in a season against teams with a winning record. This is set in stone with the Bills (11-3), Saints (10-4), Ravens (9-5), Dolphins (9-5), and Buccaneers (9-5) all guaranteed to have a winning record this season. The only mystery is if the Chiefs will pick up a sixth win if the Raiders (7-7) finish 9-7.

The Chiefs just had the seventh game in NFL history where they put up 32 points and 34 first downs on the road in regulation. That’s impressive when you also consider that they have the sixth such game this season when they did it in Las Vegas.

Now 50 starts into his career, I am still waiting to see what a legitimately bad game from Mahomes looks like. His consistency is unmatched. The 2020 Chiefs are now the fourth team in NFL history to score at least 22 points in each of their first 14 games in a season. The other teams on that list are the 1983 Redskins, 1998 Vikings, and 2018 Chiefs, so they have already done it twice here. Only that 2019 Colts game (19-13 loss) is stopping it from being 50-for-50 for Mahomes in scoring 22+ points as a team.

Sunday is the 33rd time Mahomes has led the Chiefs to at least 30 points in one of his starts. If he does it again next week against Atlanta, then that will be 34 times over his last 50 starts. That would match the best 50-game stretch of the careers of Manning and Brady. I included a chart that shows how the count of 30-point starts over those quarterback’s last 50 starts progressed over time, as well as the same data for Dan Marino, Aaron Rodgers, and Brees.

Like Mahomes, Marino got off to that super-fast start to the point where his best 50-game stretch was the first 50 games when he led the Dolphins to 30+ points 26 times. Marino and Mahomes are the only two listed to top 20 games in their first 50 starts (this includes playoffs). Some of this is about league trends as scoring went up in the later stages of these careers (think Manning in Denver or Brees in the Michael Thomas-Alvin Kamara years), but you can see where the peaks and valleys are.

These are just team points, but Mahomes has plenty of other superlatives through 50 games that we could go on about. Sunday was his 24th game with at least three touchdown passes, the most in NFL history for a quarterback through 50 starts (including playoffs). Marino had 22 such games that early.

It can still be debated if Mahomes is the best 50-game stretch of quarterback play in NFL history, but there is no debate if this is the best 50-game start to any quarterback’s career.

Eagles at Cardinals: The Jalen Hurts Era Is for Real

Carson Wentz may understandably not like it, but the rest of us are better with the Eagles moving forward with Jalen Hurts as their starting quarterback. Hurts impressed again in a fun 33-26 shootout with Kyler Murray in Arizona. Sure, the Eagles lost after playing in their 23rd straight game that was within one score in the fourth quarter, but Hurts showed so much poise and promise for a rookie.

Hurts passed for 338 yards, three touchdowns and rushed for 63 yards and another score. That 401 yards of total offense in Hurts’ second start is more than Wentz ever had in 69 career starts. Had Dallas Goedert been able to pull in a dagger of a throw from Hurts in the end zone late to tie the game, Hurts may have finished with over 365 passing yards, which also would top Wentz’s career high.

Look, I have said these things well before Hurts was drafted. Doug Pederson’s offense works best when his quarterback is NOT Carson Wentz. With Nick Foles, the Eagles could actually win high-scoring games, beat good teams, win without much rushing support, and come through in the clutch. Hurts still has plenty of room to grow but he is only a second-round pick with three games of relevance under his belt.

The fact that this was such an exciting game between two young, mobile quarterbacks who could run and throw is a great sign for the future of the NFC. Let Wentz go do his thing in Indianapolis where he thinks Frank Reich is the answer to all his problems.

The Eagles are in a better place now, and likely would still be in position to win this terrible division had Wentz been benched sooner. You can talk about heart and leadership if you want, but there’s just something about Wentz where things don’t all click with this coach and team when he’s the quarterback.

Bucs at Falcons: The Most Predictable 17-Point Comeback in NFL History

You could say Tom Brady holds a psychological edge on the Falcons after 28-3, but it could just be as simple as the Falcons are a joke of a franchise and blowing leads is what they do best. We have already seen it this year with the losses against Dallas, Chicago, and Detroit.

In fact, I even wrote in my preview for this one that Atlanta would blow a double-digit lead to the Bucs. Not even at 24-7 in the third quarter did this feel in doubt. Sure enough, the Atlanta offense folded while Tampa Bay scored on five straight drives. Antonio Brown made by far his biggest play for the team yet with a 46-yard game-winning touchdown catch with 6:19 left. Matt Ryan is still gunning for the only season of his career without a 4QC or GWD.

Tampa Bay scored 31 points in the second half. Something like that hasn’t happened in the NFL since… well, when the Falcons allowed 30 in the second half to the Cowboys this year.

Tampa Bay is now 4-3 when falling behind double digits this season. Doing that in half your games seems like a bad formula for the playoffs where you absolutely will not see a team as dumb as Atlanta. These slow starts are a problem, but the talent on this roster is still a lot to deal with as well. Don’t rule out Tampa lucking into a No. 2 seed with the way the other NFC teams are playing down the stretch. I still ultimately think the Saints will beat Carolina in Week 17 to secure the division if it’s not done on Christmas, but there is a chance here after this comeback for Tampa Bay to move up the standings.

In a crazy year, here is something that at least feels right: Falcons and Chargers lead the NFL with four blown leads in the fourth quarter or overtime.

Browns-Giants: What a Change from 2016

Sunday Night Football may not have been the most exciting game, a 20-6 win by Cleveland over the Giants, but consider where these teams were four years ago. The 0-11 Browns lost 27-13 to the offensively challenged Giants in a game with 17 punts and four turnovers. Gross.

Four years later, the Browns actually have a fun offense and won their 10th game last night. The Giants are still offensively challenged but did better than the 20-6 score shows. They just failed on too many fourth downs.

In fact, this is one of the most offensive-driven 20-6 games you’ll ever see in the NFL. This game only had 14 total possessions with five punts, no turnovers, and three stops on fourth down. The Browns scored 20 points (another Cody Parkey missed extra point) on their first five drives before staying understandably conservative with the big lead. The “Browns only scored 20” crowd seems to have overlooked just how few drives were in this game.

In the last three games, Baker Mayfield has thrown for over 900 yards with eight touchdowns and one interception. These were marquee games for the Browns too, including two in prime time and a big matchup in Tennessee. Winning two of these three games and only losing 47-42 to the Ravens is huge progress for this franchise. I’m not going to say the Browns have what it takes to go on a Super Bowl run this year, but this team has definitely improved and so has the quarterback. I’m not sure what more he should be doing in the last month to silence the critics, but I’m coming around on him with this recent performance.

It’s weird to talk about the Browns offense being worth a damn, but it’s 2020. All bets are off. Hell, even the Chicago Bears have scored at least 25 points in four straight games for the first time since 1995. If the Bears can do that, the Bills can win the division, then why not see Cleveland win 11 games and make the playoffs?

Patriots Done (For How Long?)

New England has been eliminated from the playoffs for the first time since the 2008 season after a 22-12 loss in Miami. The Dolphins will have a winning record this year while the Bills (11-3) have already won the AFC East for the first time since 1995. The Jets were also in position to get Trevor Lawrence, but you know what happened there.

It leaves the Patriots in a tricky position with quite arguably the worst long-term quarterback situation in the division depending what the Jets do. Cam Newton is not the answer but there is also not much of a roster here.

This last-gasp effort in Miami, a familiar losing venue for New England in December, showed some signs of life early that the Patriots could pull one out and stay alive another week. They were playing a Miami team missing its top wideouts and tight end. In classic bend-but-don’t-break fashion, the Patriots turned a 95-yard, 9:11 drive by the Dolphins into an interception after making Tua throw under pressure. Then Newton got away with a would-be 86-yard fumble return because the ball just grazed a Miami defender who was out of bounds. Instead of a turnover, the Patriots scored a field goal to lead 6-0. Miami finished off the half with a missed 52-yard field goal, because again, this is what the Patriots do.

But the second half was a different story. The Dolphins continued to put together long drives and finished them off this time while Newton and the limited offense couldn’t answer. Tua was credited with his second fourth-quarter comeback of the season and the defense shut things down with a fourth-down sack of Newton with 1:08 left.

It was the first time all season the Patriots blew a fourth-quarter lead, but this team was never in much of a position to do any damage in 2020 between the loss of Brady, the COVID opt-outs, the losses on defense, Julian Edelman’s surgery, and just general roster flaws like not having a tight end.

It would actually be a lot more enjoyable to see this team struggle if only they were recognizable as the Patriots, but they never really were such a team this season. Now they’re just another team, and it’s only fitting that the Bills and Dolphins have gotten some decisive licks in on them.

Can the Jets do it too? They almost beat them last time in a 30-27 game, and this may be one where Belichick decides to just let the Jets win to make sure Trevor Lawrence doesn’t find his way to the Jets after all.

I mean, there’s always a plan with Belichick. Just not much of one this year as far as a contender goes.

Cruel Close Game Regression: Texas Edition

My goodness, I know I said Houston could be in trouble in close games this year after Deshaun Watson led five game-winning drives in both 2018 and 2019, but this is ridiculous. For the second time this season, Watson had the Texans knocking on the door of a tying or go-ahead touchdown against the Colts. Last time it was a bad snap that led to a game-ending fumble in a 26-20 loss.

This time, down 27-20, Watson converted a 4th-and-5, but Keke Coutee went from looking like he was about to score to fumbling the ball into the end zone where the Colts recovered with 19 seconds left to end the game. Watson had some huge numbers again with 373 yards, but his teammates found another way to blow a game even without Bill O’Brien involved.

Houston is now 0-5 at 4QC/GWD opportunities this season.

Meanwhile in Dallas, the Cowboys had a minor upset of the 49ers in a 41-33 final that was filled with big plays and turnovers. Nick Mullens had three turnovers himself, including an interception that set up Andy Dalton for the lamest game-winning drive of the year: three incomplete passes and a 46-yard field goal by Greg Zuerlein.

In a game that would never end, the final 43 seconds saw a field goal, an onside kick returned for a touchdown, and a meaningless Hail Mary touchdown with no time left. Well, not entirely meaningless. Someone (not me) won or lost money on that bullshit.

So we will have a new NFC champion with San Francisco eliminated after an injury-ravaged, disappointing season. The 49ers are now 1-4 at 4QC/GWD opportunities this season, which has always been a problem during the Kyle Shanahan era in San Francisco outside of some Jimmy Garoppolo starts.

But last year with a healthy Garoppolo, the 49ers were 4-2 at GWD opportunities and only blew one fourth-quarter lead in the regular season. However, we know this team was struggling late in the year with that against Atlanta (lost), New Orleans (offense had to bail them out), and the Seattle game in Week 17 came down to the final stop at the 1-yard line. Then we of course know what happened with a 20-10 lead in the fourth quarter against the Chiefs in Super Bowl LIV. Stung by the Wasp.

The 49ers started this season with blown leads to the Cardinals and Eagles before the injuries and a tough schedule just seemed to be too much for this team to overcome. Will 2019 be a one-year wonder in the NFC again? We’ll need to see next year to verify, but it’s not a bad bet to say it was.

That is why every opportunity in this league must be taken seriously. You never know if things will come together at the right time again. You know, like when you’re going to finish 0-16 and draft a generational talent quarterback, but oh fuck, that’s enough about the Jets and Rams.

On to Week 16.