NFL Stat Oddity: Week 13

Wait, was that actually more of a normal week in the NFL? What does a return to “normalcy” in the NFL in 2021 even look like? It still means a week where the Lions win a game against the Vikings on the final play, the No. 1 seed Ravens lose to their bitter rival, the Dolphins stepped over Mike Glennon’s neck to continue one of the most irrelevant five-game winning streaks you’ll ever see, and the Chiefs beat Denver for the 12th time in a row.

But it was also easy wins for Tampa Bay, Arizona, and the Rams as Rob Gronkowski, DeAndre Hopkins, and Cooper Kupp all got reacquainted with the end zone, territory unbeknownst to the Falcons, Bears, and Jaguars. Jonathan Taylor vacations there every week and he scored two more times to help the Colts beat the Texans 31-0, a rout worse than the first one this season. Thanks for shitting up the product, Deshaun. But at least it was nice to see Kyler Murray and Hopkins return to action for an Arizona team that continues to win in impressive fashion, now 10-2.

Overall, we had just five close games in the fourth quarter this week. Monday night between the Bills and Patriots could be the game of the week, but I am going to start with (probably) the last time Ben Roethlisberger faces the Baltimore defense at Heinz Field. I also have a personal story to share in Broncos-Chiefs.

This season in Stat Oddity:

Ravens at Steelers: Tomlin 16, Harbaugh 14

The Ravens-Steelers rivalry may be an acquired taste, but there are no two teams I’d rather watch play a low-scoring game than these two. The 30th meeting between the Ravens and Steelers since 2008 was another memorable finish with Mike Tomlin taking a 16-14 edge against John Harbaugh with a coaching decision at the end very much being the headline.

But it is also the 21st meeting out of 30 where both coaches had their desired starting quarterback available. Tomlin is now 14-7 in those matchups compared to 2-7 with the quarterback disadvantage.

Ben Roethlisberger, 7-1 against the Ravens since Christmas 2016, may have played his final home game against his main division rival. He delivered one of his best performances of the last three years, completing 21-of-31 passes for 236 yards and two touchdowns. Diontae Johnson even dropped a 35-yard touchdown before halftime, and Ray-Ray McCloud had a 32-yard completion taken away after a suspect review. The numbers could have been even nicer for Roethlisberger, who led the Steelers to three straight scores in the fourth quarter. He now has 11 game-winning drives against the Ravens in his career.

Baltimore hogged the ball early but did not finish enough drives for points. The Pittsburgh defense fluctuated between incredible and terrible as only this 2021 unit can. The pressure was at times unbelievable, and Lamar Jackson did not handle it well, taking seven sacks and throwing a pick in the end zone on the opening drive. But there were plenty of other times where the Steelers displayed shoddy tackling and left receivers wide open.

On Pittsburgh’s game-winning drive, the Steelers had a 2nd-and-2 at the Baltimore 13 at the two-minute warning with the Ravens still having all their timeouts. I’m positive Harbaugh had the Ravens do something smart that I’ve seen them exploit before. The Ravens were blatantly offsides, giving the Steelers a first down without running clock. Had the Steelers taken a few plays to get the first down, they may have been able to run out the clock and kick a field goal on the last snap. This made it easier for the Ravens to use their timeouts and really encouraged the Steelers to convert a third down for a touchdown. They did with Roethlisberger’s pass to Johnson, who stepped up big after his drop earlier. The critical two-point conversion to Pat Freiermuth was also completed with 1:48 left.

Pittsburgh kicker Chris Boswell looked like he might be the scapegoat for this one after badly missing a game-tying extra point in the fourth quarter and bouncing his late kick-off out of bounds to put the Ravens at the 40 with a chance to tie. Again, the defense fluctuated between great and terrible as the Ravens marched for a touchdown with 12 seconds left. Instead of playing for overtime, Harbaugh had his team go for the win.

I liked the decision. Harbaugh mentioned the injuries at corner and was worried the Steelers would continue to march on their defense with ease. Beyond that, I just think the Ravens had a good shot of converting and winning the game on that one play. However, I would have preferred something that used Lamar’s mobility like a QB draw or run-pass option. T.J. Watt, who had a monster game with 3.5 sacks, was able to get just enough pressure on Jackson to make his two-point pass inaccurate for Mark Andrews, who was open to win the game.

The Steelers dodged a bullet, but this season has seen both teams win a lot of close games like this one. Pittsburgh keeps its playoff hopes alive and this could lead to a very interesting rematch in Baltimore in Week 18.

I said I enjoy the low-scoring games between those two. I’m not sure I will feel that way when Roethlisberger moves on and the Steelers are trying to win with the likes of Mason Rudolph and the latest Kordell Maddo’Donnell. But Sunday felt important for this team. You wish they showed some of this intensity in Cincinnati last week, but nothing seems to get this team going quite like a Baltimore game.

If this is the last big one for this era, then at least it ended the way it deserves to.

Broncos at Chiefs: I Should Name My Son Javonte

Do I have to talk about Kansas City’s ho-hum 22-9 win we all watched together on Sunday night, or do I jump straight to my biggest gambling win of the season?

Let’s get the game over with. The defensive turnaround for the Chiefs continues. Barring what the Patriots do on Monday night, this could be the top scoring defense in points per game since Week 6 after being the worst in the first five weeks. Remarkable stuff.

Were the Broncos lighting the league up this year? Of course not, but the nine points are only the second time Denver was held under 13 this year. Meanwhile, the Broncos held Patrick Mahomes’ offense to 16 points, Mahomes under 200 yards passing, Travis Kelce and Tyreek Hill under 50 yards combined, and the Broncos still couldn’t cover a 9.5-point spread. I felt that dropped passes, including another tipped pick, contributed largely to Kansas City’s offense being ineffective in this one. But as I have pointed out before, Denver defends Mahomes better than most. This game will be another data point in favor of that for sure.

Teddy Bridgewater played a terrible game and had his second multi-interception game of the season, including a pick-six to Dan Sorensen in the fourth quarter to put the exclamation point on this one.

Well, one exclamation point. That pick-six helped give the Broncos the ball back in a 22-3 game. Perhaps that took away some of the intensity from the defense, knowing the win was all but in the bag at this point. The Broncos finally marched down the field, and instead of taking 11 minutes to come away with zero points like they did in the second quarter, Bridgewater found rookie back Javonte Williams in the flat on fourth-and-7 for a 13-yard touchdown with 5:12 left.

A meaningless touchdown in the grand scheme of things? Sure, but an extremely important one for me. It was the final leg to five parlays for me, including my biggest win of the season at +15381

The reason there was no Stat Oddity in Week 12 is because I was at home nervously waiting to hear what was going on with my mom in the emergency room. Her blood pressure was out of control, and I wasn’t allowed in the ambulance with her because of the protocol during COVID, the same virus that had just taken my only aunt from me on Thanksgiving Day. The stress of that is what caused my mom’s blood pressure to spike. She does not have COVID.

Trying to watch the Ravens and Browns finish that ugly game was a tough 90 minutes before I started to get updates that my mom was alright. She is doing better this week and will be fine. I got my booster on Wednesday, and it was no big deal. Just a sore shoulder for about 72 hours.

From dark thoughts a week ago to screams of joy at Javonte’s touchdown, these last few weeks really encapsulate the extreme ups and downs that life can bring. Sunday was that kind of day all around, from the Steelers’ nail-biting win over Baltimore to the agony and glory of watching Williams pull off a golden score for me.

It’s the type of successful betting day I feel I should have had three or four times during this crazy season. But I’m happy with this one. I thought for sure I blew it on the final leg again, and I would have blown it either way as I probably would have picked Hill or Kelce or CEH to score for the Chiefs had I not gone for Javonte. Alas, I picked the right guy who scored Denver’s only touchdown of the night in what was a golden opportunity with Melvin Gordon out. Williams shined with 178 yards from scrimmage, but that touchdown will always stick with me as a happy memory during what have been some very unhappy times during this pandemic.

But tonight, I can choose happiness.

Chargers at Bengals: What in Tarnation…

This conference is f’n weird this year. The Bengals annihilated the Steelers a week ago. The Chargers had an ugly loss in Denver. I thought this would be the closest finish in the 1 p.m. slate. So, of course the Chargers jumped out to a 24-0 lead.

However, while the Bengals did not try 8+8+8, they were a two-point conversion away from tying this one late in the third quarter as the Chargers were looking to blow another huge lead in a game with so many ugly, fluky turnovers from both sides. Austin Ekeler especially was trying to create his own Chargers BINGO square with two lost fumbles.

But Joe Mixon outdid him. The Bengals failed on their game-tying two, but they got the ball back down 24-22 going into the fourth quarter. They were in field-goal range too when Mixon just lost the ball, and it was returned 61 yards for a crushing touchdown. The Chargers led 31-22, sacked an ailing Joe Burrow (pinky), and added a knockout score in a game that eventually ended 41-22.

So, it was a blowout, then a huge comeback attempt that made it the tightest game going around 3 p.m., then a blowout again. Just a weird game where both quarterbacks were absolutely under siege at times by the defenses (10 sacks between them). But the Chargers made fewer mistakes and got the big win to move to 7-5.

49ers at Seahawks: Don’t Call it a Comeback

This was my most confident upset pick of the week. As I said on Saturday, Russell Wilson/Pete Carroll/D.K. Metcalf were due a good showing at home after such a poor run of things lately, including that Monday night loss to Washington. Wilson owns the 49ers in his career (17-4 now). Kyle Shanahan is an overrated coach. George Kittle was amazing in this game (181 yards and two touchdowns), but I think Deebo Samuel is a big security blanket for Jimmy Garoppolo, and he’s been a huge part of the running game recently. If Samuel wasn’t out injured for this game, I don’t think I would have been confident enough to pick Seattle. Certainly not enough to put $50 on them in my big parlay that hit above.

Still, it wasn’t the prettiest game. The Seahawks needed a 73-yard touchdown run on a fake punt to get things going. Wilson was an uncharacteristic 30-of-37 for 231 yards, the fewest passing yards he’s ever had in a game with at least 25 completions. He also lost 50 yards on four sacks. Tight end Gerald Everett nearly choked the game away with two lost fumbles, including one at the 2-yard line when the Seahawks could have gone up two scores in the final four minutes.

I always question Shanahan’s late-and-close decision making. The 49ers looked like they wanted to score at the last possible second and either go to overtime or win on a two-point conversion. That’s nice but things rarely work out that way. The Elijah Mitchell runs were not effective on the day, and the 49ers used two downs on them inside the Seattle 7. After one incompletion, the 49ers were already facing fourth-and-ballgame. Garoppolo’s pass was tipped at the line and that was enough for the Seahawks to hold on for the 30-23 win.

I don’t think Seattle is “back” by any means, but at least we know this team can still sweep the 49ers.

Vikings at Lions: 1-15-1 Still Possible

Bust out the Faygo for the 2008 Lions and 2017 Browns. These Lions will not be going 0-16-1. I warned in Saturday’s preview that the Vikings already came dangerously close to losing to this team this year. They had to set up a 54-yard field goal in 37 seconds to win that one.

Dalvin Cook missed both Detroit games for Minnesota, but I don’t think you can fault the way Alexander Mattison played in his place for why the Vikings struggled. Mattison had 124 yards and a touchdown in this one. Adam Thielen left injured, but Kirk Cousins still threw for 340 yards and Justin Jefferson had 182 yards. The offense came back to deliver another late lead at 27-23, but the defense was a huge letdown against Jared Goff and the league’s worst receiving corps. Goff threw for 296 yards and three touchdowns in this one, which Detroit led most of the way.

I want to quickly highlight something stupid Jay Feely said late in the game. I know that’s his brand, but the strategy is worth talking about. He criticized Dan Campbell’s aggressive move to go for a 4th-and-1 at his own 28 with a 23-21 lead and 4:08 left. It was incredibly aggressive as the Vikings had four clock stoppages, would have been in go-ahead field goal range with a stop, and the Lions were down to one timeout. In fact, I probably would have punted there.

But Feely’s reasoning just made me like the decision more. Feely tried to say that the Lions should punt because like on Thanksgiving against Chicago, the Bears ran out the final eight minutes and Detroit never got the ball back. He added that Cleveland ran out the clock on Detroit in Week 11 too. It could happen again.

Well guess what? IT’S MORE LIKELY TO HAPPEN HERE IF YOU GIVE THEM FOUR MINUTES TO SET UP A FIELD GOAL. While converting and running out the clock is the ideal outcome, by Goff getting strip-sacked and putting the Vikings in the red zone, he actually helped facilitate a quicker go-ahead score and saved his offense time for their game-winning drive. The Vikings had to score on a third down with 1:50 left, saving Goff almost two minutes to answer the 27-23 deficit.

He needed every second of it on the 14-play, 75-yard drive. The Vikings used their timeouts late in the red zone, and Mike Zimmer’s defense was shameful in allowing such a large cushion on the last play of the game when you know they have to go for the end zone. How are you going to give someone like Aroma St. Brown a cushion to score the game-winning touchdown with no time left? His name is actually Amon-Ra, but he must have had a strong aroma if you weren’t attaching someone to his hip as the only receiver to run towards the left side of the end zone. Just a ridiculous ending.

But somehow perfectly fitting for the Minnesota franchise. A lead of at least six points in every game this season and the Vikings are 5-7. I knew the Lions would win one this year. Campbell’s had them too close too many times not to.

Hurry-Up Finish

Some quick thoughts as I race to complete more tasks before getting to sleep.

Tampa Bay at Atlanta: Tom Brady for MVP (Mass Volume Player)

Leave it up to Tom Brady to throw 51 passes in a game his team never trailed, where his defense only allowed 10 points on nine drives, and it only looked semi-close because he threw an embarrassing pick-six before halftime to a defensive lineman.

Has the standard at the position fallen off so much this year that we have to seriously consider this as the front-runner for MVP? Oh, and he’ll be getting the Bills on Sunday, fresh off their huge clash with the Patriots in shitty weather and after losing Tre’Davious White to a torn ACL. You see how the stars are aligning, right? While Antonio Brown’s buffoonery leading to a suspension may have been a problem in this past, this offense is simply too loaded when Rob Gronkowski is playing this well to go along with Mike Evans, Chris Godwin, Leonard Fournette, and that offensive line. Brown will be back for the playoffs too…

Washington at Raiders: No Flag, No Win

Tell me you weren’t expecting a flag when Derek Carr threw a bomb, down 17-15, with 31 seconds left to start his final drive. I cannot knock him for the smart, aggressive play to try to immediately get into range for a game-winning field goal. But something tells me he specifically threw that one with the intent to get a flag instead of a completion. The refs did not oblige, and the Raiders lost another low-scoring game to a Washington team that’s suddenly won four in a row.

Washington (6-6) has all five of its games left against the NFC East in a real scheduling quirk. The Chiefs can deliver a potential knockout blow to these Raiders (6-6) in Week 14 – that’s if they didn’t already do it in Week 10. Since their bye week, the Raiders are 1-4 and have been held under 17 points in each loss. Only the flag fest on Turkey Day in Dallas was a high-scoring win.

Eagles at Jets: Minshew Mania Returns

Will Zach Wilson ever have a game in the NFL as good as Gardner Minshew’s first surprise start for the Eagles on Sunday? It’s a legitimate question. Minshew was 20-of-25 for 242 yards and two touchdowns. This was tight end Dallas Goedert’s 57th NFL game and it was the first time he had two touchdowns to go along with a career-high 105 receiving yards. Not bad.

This was actually a shootout at first with the Jets scoring three touchdowns on their first three drives. But they soon remembered they were the Jets and scored nothing on their last five drives. The Eagles scored three touchdowns, four field goals, then punted on their eighth and final possession.

In a game between the Jets and Eagles with Wilson and Minshew getting the starts, a 33-18 finish with only one ugly Wilson interception is about the best experience you could have asked for.

Next week: Depending on how the Bills look against the Patriots on Monday night, this could be two weeks in a row where MNF draws the best game. Next week has Arizona-Rams, an important one in the NFC. While Bills-Buccaneers looked like the great one on paper from April through recently, I’m not sure these teams are delivering on expectations so far. But that won’t stop Tony Romo from salivating over it as a Super Bowl preview.  

NFL Week 13 Predictions: The Reverse Jinx Is Back Edition

Since the NFL moved Monday Night Football to ESPN, there aren’t many weeks where the Monday night game is hands down the most anticipated game of the week. But this is definitely one of those weeks when the showdown will take place between the Patriots and Bills in what is suddenly a game with huge implications for the AFC race.

After one year of irrelevancy, the Patriots just may be for real again with an early 2000s brand of football that I didn’t think I’d have to root against so soon. But it’s a big test for both teams and I previewed the game at BMR. Is the reverse jinx back where I always pick the Patriots to win? We’ll see.

My other BMR preview was for Broncos-Chiefs, which included this nugget about this weird season: In 35 games this season between teams who currently have a winning record going into Week 13, the underdog is a stunning 25-9-1 ATS (.729) and 22-13 SU (.629)

I was getting worried that every game this week was a touchdown favorite that I felt like picking to cover because of how inept their opponents have been. Fortunately, things get more interesting further down the schedule. I’m still nervous as hell about when the Lions are going to steal a win to avoid 0-16-1, and a team with Kirk Cousins that nearly lost once to Detroit this year could be that unlucky foe. I’m also still frustrated that Kyler Murray and DeAndre Hopkins are not back to health and ready to go for the team with the best record in the NFL. It looks like the game-time decision waiting game again. Elsewhere, I like the Dolphins to continue the most irrelevant five-game winning streak ever, taking advantage of Mike Glennon’s neck, and the Eagles should be able to run on the Jets. I’m still sour to bet anything on a Jets game after that Cincinnati choke has financially crippled me.

I think LAC-CIN and WAS-LV have great potential to be games decided by 1-8 points. If the Rams can’t bounce back in a big way against this terrible Jacksonville team, then I don’t think you can treat them as a serious contender anymore.

Upset pick: Seattle over San Francisco. To paraphrase Mike Holmgren watching a young Brett Favre play: he has to know he’s fucking up out there. This is how I feel the Seahawks are viewing Russell Wilson right now in the worst season of his career. But I’m going to bet on the bleeding to stop for one week against a San Francisco team that Wilson has usually beaten in his career (16-4 record), including his last win back in Week 4. Plus you probably know I think Kyle Shanahan is very overrated as a head coach. The 49ers have been doing creative, productive things with Deebo Samuel as a runner, but he’s out injured this week. That’s a big blow. I’m going to pick the Seahawks to show some pride at home and get this win.

Hedge/homer pick: Steelers cover, Ravens win to strengthen case as the worst 9-3 team ever. The AFC North is not very good this year despite every team being at least .500. The Ravens might be the worst 8-3 team I’ve ever seen. The Steelers just allowed 41 points in back-to-back games for the first time since 1989. These might be the worst defenses in the Mike Tomlin and John Harbaugh eras. At least the Ravens have a bit of an excuse with Matt Judon going to New England and Marcus Peters tearing his ACL. The Steelers have not had great health on defense this year, but they have still underperformed despite getting a lot of snaps out of their stars (Cameron Heyward, T.J. Watt, Minkah Fitzpatrick). The Steelers played horrifically against the Bengals in every phase last week, but most of their games have been close this season. The Ravens have played terrible offense with Lamar Jackson against Miami and Cleveland in his last two outings, and both of his career starts against Pittsburgh have been rough. Maybe the third time’s a charm on both fronts, but I don’t trust him to have a huge game in this one. I think it will be ugly and close like many Steelers-Ravens games of the past. But I will hedge and go with the Steelers to cover, Ravens to win.

NFL Stat Oddity: Week 9

There are some NFL weeks with a lot of upsets. There are some weeks with multiple crazy finishes. There are some weeks with a lot of blowouts.

Then there’s Week 9 of the 2021 season, the type of week best summed up by this classic Vince Lombardi moment:

There were only six games with a comeback opportunity and four with a game-winning drive. But in a season where teams favored by more than seven points were 26-1 SU, those heavy favorites were 1-3 SU on Sunday. The Bills (-14.5) lost to the Jaguars of all teams, the Cowboys (-10) were getting blanked 30-0 by Denver before some garbage-time scores, and the Rams (-7.5) finished the day in appropriate fashion with a bad loss to the Titans.

You could say big favorites were due some losses this season, but three in one day? The last time that happened in a non-Week 17 slate was Week 9 of the 2011 season, and even that included a Monday night game (Dream Team Eagles vs. Bears). You have to go all the way back to Week 10 of the 2006 season to find the last time there were three such upsets in the same day.

Has there ever been a season where seemingly no team wants to embrace the role of being the favorite? Ditto for the MVP race after brutal games for Dak Prescott, Josh Allen, and the should-have-been-frontrunner Matthew Stafford. Even Kyler Murray lost some luster after seeing backup Colt McCoy handle the 49ers without DeAndre Hopkins, and Aaron Rodgers, well, his self-imposed absence will probably screw the Packers out of the No. 1 seed this year.

Of course, a day where most of the NFC’s top teams lose and the MVP candidates flounder helps no one more than Tom Brady and the Buccaneers. This league can’t go a week without doing everything it can to help him advance without breaking a sweat. That’s one thing about Week 9 that made sense.

This season in Stat Oddity:

Titans at Rams: Mike Vrabel Chopped Off His Penis and Paris Hilton Sucked the Soul Out of the Rams

(Congrats, you’re an NFL junkie if you understood that headline.)

While NBC’s Cris Collinsworth said that the Rams did not beat themselves on Sunday night, I’m not so sure about that one. Also, the incoming takes that the Titans don’t need Derrick Henry at all may also be very premature following a game that was almost solely decided by two Matthew Stafford interceptions – both of a fine Detroit vintage circa 2012 – turning into a quick 14 points. Even the best quarterbacks in MVP seasons can overcome that sort of swing as we saw last year with Aaron Rodgers in Tampa Bay in Week 6.

Stafford just so happened to pick his worst night for the Rams in an island game where he should have been able to take a clear lead in the MVP race. Pressure got to him, and he made a bad play (probable safety) a worse one by forcing a throw for the first pick that was returned to the 2-yard line. Then he followed it up with a worse throw for a pick-six. The Titans’ pass rush looked incredible, and it really covered up for an offense that did very little outside of two drives.

The Titans finished the game with just 194 yards of offense. Had it not been for Stafford’s touchdown drive in pure garbage time to make it a 28-16 final, the Titans would have had a rare three-score blowout win despite failing to break 200 yards. However, they still had the rare 12+ point win despite not breaking 200 yards, though it’s the second time Stafford has done that in his career.

Mike Vrabel improves to 13-2 ATS and an incredible 12-3 SU as head coach of the Titans when his team is an underdog of 4+ points. Being the underdog works for this team, a team that arguably has more big wins in the last four seasons than any franchise that has not gone to the Super Bowl in that time.

Now the Titans are chugging along at 7-2 after a winning streak over the Chiefs, Bills, Colts, and Rams. Had it not been for that garbage-time score, they would have held both the Chiefs and Rams out of the end zone for 60 minutes.

This is impressive stuff, and still, you wouldn’t be shocked if this team went 2-2 over the next four games against the Saints, Texans, Patriots, and Jaguars. The Titans are not going to keep beating good teams while failing to crack 3.0 yards per carry like they have in the last three games. Tennessee did not have a play from scrimmage longer than 16 yards against the Rams.

I see no reason to trust any team in the AFC this year. But can the Titans go on a run and play great defense and be physical with teams to win a few big games? Yeah, I think they have proven that enough now.

Can the Rams beat multiple good teams in succession with Stafford as their quarterback? From what we’ve seen so far this year, I don’t think so, and that was always the concern going into this experiment. The people who decided to take an early victory lap must not have been paying attention to the first eight weeks this season. No one is trustworthy or reliable this season to deliver on a weekly basis.

Vikings at Ravens: Par for the Course

I have nothing truly profound to say about yet another close finish that could have easily gone either way for the Vikings and Ravens this year. All I know is the Ravens are 4-1 in close finishes and the Vikings are now 2-5.

That makes the ending sound a bit predictable, but it was another difficult path to a 14-point comeback win for the Ravens. The type of big comeback win that has eluded this team for years seems to be coming every other week this season. The Vikings led 24-10 after returning the opening kickoff of the second half 98 yards for a touchdown. Big plays like that one and a 50-yard touchdown to Justin Jefferson are not the kind of plays we’re used to seeing Baltimore allow, but those are the signs that this team is struggling and becoming more reliant on the quarterback.

Lamar Jackson did not have a clean game with two picks, but he still finished with 266 passing yards and 120 rushing yards. Kirk Cousins had one of his standard days with solid efficiency stats and neither winning nor losing the game for his team. He came up big with a game-tying touchdown drive to force overtime, but the Vikings were stopped on their only overtime possession following a Jackson interception in scoring territory.

I was asked on Twitter how many times does a team turn the ball over in overtime and still go on to win the game? Baltimore fans know it’s happened more than once this season as the Raiders did it to the Ravens in Week 1 after Derek Carr’s interception was not capitalized on. Before that, it did not happen in 2020 and only happened once in 2019 when Russell Wilson threw an interception against the 49ers and still got the win. But you’re lucky if this happens once a season in the league.

But the Ravens were the better team and more deserving of the win in this one. They outgained the Vikings 500-318 in yards and 36-13 in first downs. The 36 first downs are a franchise record.

Would it have looked better if the Ravens stopped the Vikings on fourth-and-9 with 1:10 left and won 31-24 in regulation? Sure, but these Ravens are not as talented as past teams and things are harder this year. Living on the edge like this is not good for long-term success, but against teams like Minnesota that have mastered losing these games, it can work out for the Ravens.

Packers at Chiefs: Love Did Not Tear the Chiefs Apart

Jordan Love had only the second-worst performance by a Green Bay quarterback this season, but it was still not enough to take down a struggling Kansas City team as the Packers fell 13-7. The Chiefs, held scoreless in a second half for only the second time in the Patrick Mahomes era, definitely caught a break with Aaron Rodgers being a bad liar, because this probably would have been a Green Bay win with their starting quarterback. The Packers botched two field goals and a fourth down in the first half alone.

I think there is hyperbole about how bad Love was, but his inexperience shined through. The Chiefs were able to relentlessly blitz him with a lot of success, especially on third downs. They wouldn’t play that way against Rodgers or someone with experience. It was just one game, but I do at least sense some escapability from Love and he might have some gunslinger in him. He’s going to give his receivers a chance, but it could end in picks against a better defense.

Still, it’s a good thing the Chiefs went back to their 2020 four-minute offense and put this game away or else this was begging to be the worst 13-0 lead turned 14-13 collapse since Santana Moss met the 2005 Cowboys. Mahomes had another candidate for the worst game of his career as his 166 passing yards are the fewest of any full game in his career. The 4.49 yards per attempt is also his first career game under 5.0 YPA. Outside of a bad Mecole Hardman drop on a third-and-1, Mahomes was a huge reason for the offense not playing well in this game and that’s despite the Chiefs finally not having any giveaways.

But Mahomes was able to throw for three first downs, including a vintage extended play to Tyreek Hill to ice the game on third-and-10, to run out the final 4:49 on the clock after the Packers cut into the 13-0 lead with a touchdown.

The Chiefs (5-4) can celebrate the win, and the defense can feel good about their performance as we have seen plenty of inexperienced quarterbacks light it up better than this in the past. But the offense is in a five-game slump now and I’m not sure what it’s going to take to snap out of it, or if they will snap out of it.

Broncos at Cowboys: WTF?

Dallas was on a short list of teams to start 7-0 ATS while the Broncos tend to only beat up on bad teams and lose to the good ones, a hallmark of Teddy Bridgewater’s career. But this was a domination that makes the 30-16 final such a mirage.

Dak Prescott returned from his calf injury, and as far as I could tell, he looked healthy enough to be playing on Sunday. But was this the worst game of his career as far as moving the ball goes? The Cowboys turned the ball over on downs on three of their first six possessions. They were down 30-0 with 6:32 to play and Prescott barely had 100 passing yards at that point.

Fans tend to do a bad job of defining garbage time. Like what the Jets were doing against the Colts on Thursday night, that was never garbage time. They were still in that game and just needed to finish their scoring drive and get an onside kick to tie the game with another score. But for Dallas, the two late touchdown drives were pure garbage time. At that point I would have sat the stars who have been ailing in recent weeks and finished the game with Cooper Rush, Tony Pollard, and the likes of Cedrick Wilson and Malik Turner at receiver.

Dallas never had it on either side of the ball, and it was apparent from the opening possession when Ezekiel Elliott was stuffed on a fourth-and-1. You knew it wasn’t Dallas’ day when a blocked punt went forward and the Broncos ended up recovering after it touched a Dallas player, making it a live ball and a muff.

We knew the Dallas defense could be a liability when the turnover well ran dry as it did in this game, but who could have imagined the offense would play so poorly with Dak back? A good win for Denver, but an alarming performance for Mike McCarthy and the Cowboys.

Bills at Jaguars: WTF? The Sequel

Josh Allen won the game for Jacksonville. Josh Allen lost the game for Buffalo. The fact that I’m talking about two different players makes this one of the more amusing upsets in NFL history.

It also appears to be a historic one. The Bills lost 9-6 in Jacksonville despite being a 14.5-point favorite. There is no game in Pro Football Reference’s database where a favorite of that many points lost a game in which it allowed fewer than 10 points. The closest was when John Elway’s 1986 Broncos, who still made the Super Bowl, lost 9-3 as a 13.5-point favorite to the Chargers. That was almost 35 years to the date.

The last double-digit favorite to lose a 9-6 kind of game was actually the 2018 Jaguars early in the season to the Titans. This is arguably Jacksonville’s biggest win since that 2017 playoff run.

So much of it was thanks to the splash plays made by Jacksonville’s Josh Allen, the No. 7 pick in the 2019 draft that we’ve forgotten about since he plays in Jacksonville. But in this game, Allen recorded the first fumble recovery and first interception of his career. As if he has been waiting for this moment against his namesake. The Jaguars put a lot of effective pressure on Allen as the Bills only ran the ball nine times for 22 yards. Cole Beasley caught eight short passes for 33 yards. The Bills were scoreless on their final seven drives, turning it over three times and ending the game with a failed fourth down.

Buffalo is the first team since the 2019 Redskins (9-0 against San Francisco on a soaked field) to lose a game after allowing fewer than 10 points.

The Bills were gifted such a soft schedule that you have to wonder what kind of pact the AFC East made with the league for this sort of luck year after year. But the difference between those Patriots teams with Bill Belichick and Tom Brady and these Buffalo teams with Sean McDermott and Josh Allen is that the Patriots still delivered year after year. They still had to win those games time and time again. If the Bills can lose a 9-6 game in Jacksonville, then nothing is a given on their schedule.

It’s not like there weren’t some worrying flaws with this team before this week. I used this space last week to talk about a good half vs. a good game as the Bills sleepwalked for 30 minutes against awful Miami before a misleading final box score. I said during the week that it made no sense why Allen was the MVP favorite at +200. I know Dawson Knox is out at tight end, but the wide receiver corps is more than deep enough to move the ball well against a Jacksonville team that couldn’t even compete with Geno Smith and the Seahawks last week.

This is a brutal loss for Buffalo. We’ll see if it’s a wake-up call as there will be plenty of games where the Bills will be heavily favored the rest of the season.

Falcons at Saints: The Atlanta Sports Renaissance?

Very similar to the Miami win this year, the Falcons flirted with another fourth-quarter disaster that Matt Ryan and the offense rescued with a game-winning field goal drive. The Falcons were up 24-6 with 10:39 to play, but that did not stop the Saints from scoring three touchdowns to take a 25-24 lead with 1:01 left.

However, you better come prepared with a great two-point conversion play for every game in this league. You never know when it can decide a game as it did here. When a team scores a late touchdown to take a one-point lead, that two-point conversion becomes absolutely crucial. The Saints ran Alvin Kamara and were stopped, keeping the score at 25-24. Ryan is the king of one-minute drills, and he technically just missed out on a sixth in his career with the drive starting at 1:01. But he hit Cordarrelle Patterson, who has turned into a fascinating all-around weapon this year in Atlanta, for a 64-yard gain to start the drive. Younghoe Koo put away the Saints with a 29-yard field goal for the 27-25 win.

Despite not having Calvin Ridley and the running game producing 26 yards on 20 carries, Ryan passed for 343 yards and had three total touchdowns in the win. He has been playing very well after a slow start to the new offense and life without Julio Jones.

Attention will go to New Orleans’ difficult quarterback situation with Trevor Siemian having to take over for Jameis Winston (torn ACL). Do they stick with Siemian or go back to Taysom Hill as the starter? I think the defense needs to take more of the blame for this one. Ryan hit four passes of 34-plus yards on Sunday.

There is no such thing as a normal Saints game in 2021, but it was pretty interesting to see the Falcons dominate this game, nearly choke it away, and still come away with a win in the end. That wouldn’t have happened in past years.

Hurry-Up Finish

Some quick thoughts as I race to complete another preview before getting to sleep.

Cardinals at 49ers: 2021 49ers Gone Fishin’

It should have been a golden opportunity for San Francisco (3-5) to get back to .500 before playing the Rams next week. For really the first time all season, the 49ers had the passing offense they should have thrived with on paper with Jimmy Garoppolo throwing to Deebo Samuel, George Kittle, and Brandon Aiyuk. Unfortunately, those players had three turnovers and the 49ers finished with just 17 points in a humiliating 31-17 defeat.

Arizona did not have Kyler Murray, DeAndre Hopkins, or A.J. Green on offense, but that did not stop Colt McCoy from completing 22-of-26 passes for 249 yards or James Conner from scoring three touchdowns. The Cardinals led this one wire-to-wire, and this was a 49ers defense that had given them problems in the last two matchups.

At what point can we all admit that Kyle Shanahan is not a good head coach? He punted on a 4th-and-13 at the Arizona 39 while trailing by 17 points in the fourth quarter. Is he saving his brilliant play design for Trey Lance in that situation? At this point, Shanahan will be lucky if he gets to hang around for the Lance era as it looks like another failed season in San Francisco. Props to Arizona for coming prepared without several of its best players.

Browns at Bengals: One-Sided Battle of Ohio

Maybe the Browns can bring Odell Beckham Jr. back and cut him again before their next game? I don’t know if anything was really gained from that this week, but the Browns did look focused and ready for this one. It started going off the rails for Cincinnati on the opening drive after Joe Burrow threw a 99-yard pick-six to Denzel Ward. Burrow has had several huge picks this year in losses. This was the first game of the season where he failed to throw a touchdown as the Bengals never seriously threatened in the second half.

Baker Mayfield took advantage of the Cincinnati turnovers and the big plays, including a 70-yard touchdown run by Nick Chubb, to lead an easy 41-16 win. I’d be very cautious to make any definitive statements about either team, but I do think we were too quick to prop up the Bengals without taking a deeper look at the loss to Chicago or the struggle with Jacksonville.

Patriots at Panthers: Look Who Is Back in the Playoff Picture

The Patriots (5-4) are above .500 for the first time this season and currently rank seventh in the AFC. Getting to play Sam Darnold (three interceptions, including a pick-six) was like getting a third Jets game, so the Patriots cannot count on that cheat code anymore this season. But it was another workmanlike performance in getting an easy win that should give the team some confidence going into tougher stretches.

Chargers at Eagles: The 7-on-7 Defense

Add another 4QC/GWD to the 2021 Chargers’ total to bring it to four. The Chargers finished off the Eagles in the fourth quarter despite allowing a game-tying touchdown drive and having to convert a pair of fourth downs on the game-winning field goal drive. But the Chargers were paced all day by Justin Herbert completing 32 of his 38 passes. Herbert has been deadly accurate this year, but this was already the fifth game where the 2021 Eagles allowed at least 80% completions. That is two more games than the old NFL record (min. 20 attempts) and we still have half a season to go. Playing this defense is like playing 7-on-7 in practice.

Raiders at Giants: No Penalty, No Comeback

What did I say earlier this season? If Derek Carr isn’t getting game-altering penalties on crucial downs in the fourth quarter, he isn’t good at fourth-quarter comebacks. The Giants were not penalized in the fourth quarter and Carr stunk up the joint with a pick and a game-sealing fumble in the red zone while trailing 23-16. Kicker Daniel Carlson also reminded people of his Minnesota roots by missing a 25-yard field goal while the Raiders trailed 20-16. This was a bad performance after another bad off-the-field week for the Raiders with the release of Henry Ruggs. They signed DeSean Jackson, but I would sooner pick this team to finish last in the AFC West than to finish first.

Guess who gets the Chiefs next. That’s the Sunday night game in Week 10, which might be the only hope for a good island game in this slate.

Next week: Can the Steelers avoid handing the Lions their first win of the season, and is it really a revenge game for Dan Quinn against the Falcons when he has himself to blame for being in Dallas right now?

Russell Wilson and the Lonesome Crowded NFC West

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

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

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

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

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

Russell Wilson vs. His Peers vs. Their Division Rivals

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

If Only Wilson Had Tom Brady’s Division Luck…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I got mine but I want more.

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

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

Shit Luck.

This plane is definitely crashing

This boat is obviously sinking

This building’s totally burning down

And my heart has slowly dried up

NFL Stat Oddity: Week 3

What a Sunday in the NFL for record-long field goal attempts, but there is only one Justin Tucker. You know some games were real shit when you lead with that, but we haven’t seen a ton of close finishes in 2021. Only 22 of the first 47 games have had a fourth-quarter comeback opportunity, including six on Sunday. That is down from 29 games through Week 3 of the 2020 season.

Did favorites have a better week? Not really as 6-9 ATS makes it 17-30 ATS (.362) through Week 3. Home teams were 7-8 SU too, so another losing record there as we watch home-field advantage disintegrate even with the return of crowds.

Maybe we are just having a real “changing of the guard” season after the four teams with the best records in the period of 2013-2020 are all 1-2 right now (Patriots, Chiefs, Seahawks, and Steelers). The Colts have slipped into the basement of the 0-3 teams with the Giants, Jets, Jaguars, and Lions. But don’t worry, Sunday’s Game of the Week should give Jim Irsay the courage to raise another banner.

This season in Stat Oddity:

Buccaneers at Rams: Stafford Delivers in Biggest Game of Career (Take One)

The reverse psychologist in me was hoping that Matthew Stafford and the Rams would take this big opportunity at home against Tom Brady and the Buccaneers to clinch the biggest win for any team in September. I think they did that with a 34-24 win that was not as close as the final score suggests as Stafford threw four touchdowns in a wire-to-wire win while Brady had a hollow 432-yard day. Brady is now 4-17 when his team allows 33-39 points, his least impressive range of high-scoring games, or the one where luck isn’t on his side for a change.

Unless Stafford is so unlucky that the Buccaneers slip to a losing record and this game doesn’t improve on his 8-68 record against winning teams, then this is the biggest win of his career to date. It’s the first time he will have beaten a winning team (I assume) by throwing four touchdowns. It’s the first time he will have beaten a winning team (I assume) by throwing for 300 yards without a giveaway.

In fact, this was a weird game in that it had zero turnovers and started with five punts as both teams looked a little nervous. But once the Rams settled down, they got into some fine play designs, Stafford was unstoppable on third down, Cooper Kupp is Cole Beasley if he turned face and had more talent, and DeSean Jackson went old-school with a 75-yard touchdown and making us nervous by slowly crossing the goal line. Neither team could run the ball, and you know that’s a fact when Brady (14 yards) led Tampa Bay in rushing. The Rams added some numbers in the second half with the lead, but the ground game was not the story here.

The fact is for a hyped-up game, there weren’t that many pivotal moments or memorable spots to talk about. If there is to be a rematch in the playoffs, it will be a matter of whether the Buccaneers, with their injury-ravaged secondary that seems to add a new injury each week, can keep up with these receivers. A sack and a shanked punt really put the Bucs in trouble in the third quarter, leading to a 31-14 lead by the Rams. Brady never touched the ball again with a deficit smaller than 17 points.

It was interesting to see him still in the game with 4:50 and a 34-17 deficit. Bill Belichick pulled Brady from a 38-17 blowout at the hands of the 2009 Saints in New Orleans with 5:26 to play in that one for the Patriots. This is the fourth time since 2019 that Brady was in the ballgame in the final five minutes with a deficit of 17-plus points. He had three such games from all of 2003-2018.

This now marks six times in 19 regular-season games with Tampa Bay where Brady has trailed by at least 17 points. He trailed by 17+ six times in his last four seasons with the Patriots combined (2016-19). He will visit the Patriots and Belichick next Sunday night, but the 10-game winning streak and 30-point streak are over after this one, which I always said was the biggest test of the regular season for Tampa barring an incredible run by Josh Allen when they host the Bills in Week 14.

But Stafford and the Rams passed their first big test of the season and take an early lead towards the No. 1 seed. However, the division games start next week and will be tough. Stafford in the “biggest game of his career” could be something that comes up three or more times this season. If you’re a fan of the Rams, you hope it’s a high number because that means they are likely winning these games.

Packers at 49ers: One-Minute Drills

What was looking like another blowout between these teams turned into one of the best finishes of Week 3. The 49ers used a double score around halftime to turn around a 17-0 deficit and make this a game. The Packers were up 24-21 with the ball late. They faced a fourth-and-4 at the San Francisco 20 with 2:43 left. Had the 49ers been out of timeouts, I would have said go for it. Let Aaron Rodgers end the game with one play as anything converted in bounds would run out the clock in that situation. Don’t kick a field goal and go up by six, inviting them to beat you on a late touchdown.

But the 49ers had four clock stoppages at that point. I think there’s a good chance Green Bay would have settled for the field goal anyway on that drive, so I do support the field goal in that case. Jimmy Garoppolo was shaky on the night, but he got good plays out of his top guys, including George Kittle for 39 yards on another big YAC play.

But after getting to the Green Bay 12 in the last minute, the 49ers needed to think about the clock. Green Bay was out of timeouts. You couldn’t leave Rodgers that much time, only needing a field goal. If I was the 49ers, I would have called a run on first down just to bring the clock under 30 seconds. But San Francisco was not into bleeding the clock. It snapped the ball with 12 seconds left on the play clock, and Kyle Juszczyk fought his way through contact for a 12-yard touchdown with 37 seconds left.

Again, you almost wish he would just go down at the 1 and they could score from there. But he scored, and the Packers had to be somewhat glad about that. Now Rodgers would get his chance. Worse, the kickoff to the end zone was a touchback, so that burned no more time off the clock and put the ball at the Green Bay 25. Why not a hard squib kick or something shorter to make them burn some time? I didn’t like that decision.

Rodgers was able to hit Davante Adams, who took a nasty shot to the head earlier in the quarter, for two plays worth 42 yards. He got the spike off in time and the Packers looked like they had practiced that situation well. Mason Crosby is a shaky kicker in these situations, but he’s no Minnesota kicker. He nailed the 51-yard field goal and the Packers jumped ahead of the 49ers in the standings at 2-1, finally winning a good game against this team even if we’re still not sure how good the 49ers will be this year.

As I said in my top 100 quarterbacks project, Rodgers and the Packers have improved in these clutch situations. Through 2014, he was 12-29 (.293) at 4QC/GWD opportunities, which would be one of the worst records in the league. Since 2015, he is 16-17-1 (.485), which would be the fourth-best career record among active starters (minimum 20 games).

This is the fourth time in Rodgers’ career that he led the Packers on a game-winning drive after taking over in the final 60 seconds. His first three were against the 2011 Giants (38-35 win), 2015 Lions (Richard Rodgers Hail Mary), and the 2016 Cowboys (playoff win).

It is the second one-minute drill in the NFL this season after Derek Carr led the Raiders to one against Baltimore in Week 1 to force overtime. Anymore, you really have to get the clock under 20 seconds if you hope to win after leaving the opponent in position to only need a field goal. It has just gotten too easy to move into field goal range and some kickers are too damn good from long distance these days.

This is an unofficial count of successful one-minute drills in the NFL in the last 40 years, but it’s the best I can do at 5:00 A.M. on a couple hours of sleep this weekend:

  • 1981-89: 30
  • 1990-99: 26
  • 2000-09: 36
  • 2010-21: 68

The Packers are very much alive again, though no more trips to Florida would probably be best.

Chargers at Chiefs: Ruh-Roh

A 1-2 start is certainly cause for concern for the Chiefs, who are now in last place in the AFC West thanks to the Broncos and Raiders as the lone 3-0 teams in the AFC. Even the Chargers are now 2-1 after this win, the biggest one yet in the young career of Justin Herbert, who was great with four touchdown passes in Arrowhead to get this 30-24 win.

I don’t feel like digging through every old tweet and article leading up to this season, but a lot of the things I’ve said about the Chiefs are coming true so far. They blew a fourth-quarter lead for the second week in a row after having none in their previous 29 games. The running game did step up with 100 yards from Clyde Edwards-Helaire, but he fumbled again. The Chiefs had four turnovers in this one including two more fumbles by the skill players inside the opponent 30. Just the preview for this game was accurate in pointing out how the Chargers limit Patrick Mahomes better than most. He had 260 yards on 44 attempts with two picks, which is a very non-Mahomes stat line even if you consider the first one was tipped off a Chief.

But even with the 14-0 deficit and four turnovers, the Chiefs were solid on third down and scored 24 points with Mahomes putting the team ahead 24-21 with 6:43 left. He kept the streak alive of leading in every game. But this defense is a massive sieve and was up to no good again on Sunday. Herbert answered almost immediately with a 43-yard pass to Mike Williams, the longest play of the game, to put the Chargers in range. After having two touchdown passes negated by penalty last week against Dallas, Herbert had another one wiped out here for an illegal shift. The Chargers settled for a game-tying field goal with 2:14 left.

Alright, piece of cake for Mahomes to go get a game-winning field goal, right? Wrong this week. On a third-and-8, he again tried a bit too hard to make something happen and threw a pick on a deep ball. That was equivalent to getting a 32-yard net punt, but it still wasn’t a good decision or play.

The Chargers had the ball at their own 41 with 1:42 left, tied 24-24. They could blow this, right? Wrong this week, though God knows they tried their best to blow it. Herbert moved the ball to the Kansas City 30 and the Chiefs used their second timeout at 54 seconds. While not ideal, the Chargers could have run the ball twice and kicked a ~45-yard field goal with seconds remaining for the win. That would at least deny Mahomes a chance in regulation. Instead, Brandon Staley’s team came up with two incompletions to stop the clock and save the Chiefs their final timeout. Then they were hit with a false start to make it 4th-and-9 and a 53-yard field goal attempt. That was brutal game management. Anthony Lynn would be proud.

But Staley showed some balls by keeping the offense out there and not settling for that long field goal without a great kicker on his side. Herbert threw and the Chiefs were flagged 15 yards for defensive pass interference on a legit call. That secondary is just too handsy at times. Incredibly, Herbert stuck with two more passes to Williams, including a 4-yard touchdown with 32 seconds left. The Chargers missed the extra point, because branding is important, and they led 30-24 with 32 seconds left.

Again, not exactly ideal as Mahomes had a timeout and a chance to win, but it was going to be hard needing a touchdown. He got to the Los Angeles 49 but could not make anything happen on the last three snaps. Some felt the Hail Mary could have been flagged for DPI on the Chargers, which would have been perfect for Chargers BINGO (lose on an untimed down after Hail Mary DPI), but it was not to be this time.

We are going to hear about the “Tampa Bay blueprint” to beat the Chiefs, but I don’t know what blueprint produces multiple fumbles or turnovers a week while still letting this team gain a bunch of yards and score 24-35 points. If you’re not going to blitz Mahomes and play a bunch of two-high safety to take away the big plays, the Chiefs are still producing against that. They just need to protect the ball better, which should be correctable. But this defense leaves little margin for error from the offense, and on Sunday, there were way too many errors.

The Chargers are now a good enough football team to take advantage of that. We’ll see if the Broncos and Raiders are too, and the Chiefs also have a rematch with the Bills coming up soon. If things don’t get better here, I just may be winning that $500 bet sooner than I thought.

Ravens at Lions: Justin Tucker Is One Bad Motherfu…

I guess we must thank Marquise Brown for his big drops and some weird running back rotations for this uninspired Baltimore performance that nearly resulted in a huge Detroit upset, but ultimately resulted in a field goal that can cement Justin Tucker as the baddest motherfvcker to ever play the kicker position.

The Lions were able to take a 17-16 lead with 1:04 left, and the defense had Lamar Jackson down bad on 4th-and-19 with 26 seconds left. But he made some magic happen with a 36-yard pass to Sammy Watkins. After a spike and incompletion, the Ravens turned things to Tucker in the dome.

It was in a 2013 game in Detroit when Tucker made a 61-yard game-winning field goal to help the Ravens to an 18-16 win. I had that at the time as the third-longest game-winning field goal in NFL history. Now Tucker has pushed himself down to fourth with a 66-yard field goal that not only won the game, but it is the longest field goal ever made in NFL history, beating Matt Prater’s record of 65 yards.

Incredibly, Prater, who used to play for the Lions, tried from 68 yards in Jacksonville on Sunday, missed, and it was returned for a touchdown before halftime. But Tucker was good enough to hit it straight and to the crossbar, where it took a fortunate bounce through for the win. An absolute stunner to end the game and the kind of historic field goal that deserves to belong to the best in the business.

By the time the shock in this one wears off, maybe we’ll figure out how the Ravens nearly went from a huge win over the Chiefs to blowing a game to the Lions.

Also, you have to feel bad for Lions fans for… well for many reasons. But of the four game-winning field goals of more than 60 yards in NFL history, three of them have come against the Lions, and two have come from the leg of Tucker.

Bad Afternoon for Rookie Quarterbacks

Early returns have not been good for the 2021 rookie quarterback class. Of the nine times a QB has finished with a QBR under 20.0 this season, six of them were rookies, including the bottom two games by Justin Fields, and Zach Wilson also has two games on the list to join Trevor Lawrence and Davis Mills (his Cleveland game off the bench).

It puts Denver’s 3-0 start into some perspective when the Broncos have feasted on Lawrence and Wilson in the first three weeks, including a 26-0 shutout of the Jets on Sunday. This time Wilson only took five sacks and threw two picks, which I guess is an improvement over Week 1 (six sacks) and Week 2 (four picks).

The Urban Meyer-Lawrence era had its first two-score lead on Sunday over heavily favored Arizona, but that evaporated quickly in the third quarter. It was always a bit of fool’s gold after a 68-yard field goal try was returned for a 109-yard touchdown to end the first half. Lawrence finished the day with four turnovers and contributed just a 3-yard run to the team’s only scoring drive after halftime, a 75-yard march where no pass was thrown. Technically, the game-winning score for Arizona late in the third quarter was the pick-six Lawrence forced on a flea flicker. I mean, who throws a pick-six on a flea flicker? A rookie trying too hard.

Mac Jones also tossed three picks, including a pick-six, against the Saints in a 28-13 home loss for the Patriots. I guess the Saints are destined to not play a normal, close game with reasonable passing yardage this year. Jameis Winston only finished with 128 yards, already matching in three weeks the total number of sub-130 yard passing games (two) Drew Brees had in games he didn’t leave early in 15 years with the Saints. Sean Payton’s idea on limiting Winston’s mistakes seems to be hiding him as much as possible. Even when Winston tried to throw a wild one in the end zone, it went for a touchdown on Sunday. That was a 9-yard drive too, taking advantage of a Jones pick. Man, if only Brees had games against the Packers and Patriots where the Saints were allowing so few points and getting multiple picks.

But no rookie had a rougher Sunday than the one we wanted to see so bad.

Bears at Browns: Cleveland Has Field Day on Fields’ Day

I am not sure if I need to apologize or eat crow for a coach who just saw him team get outgained 418 to 47 in yards, but maybe Matt Nagy had his reasons to not put Justin Fields out there as QB1 so soon. He had to do it on Sunday with Andy Dalton’s injury, but maybe Fields is not ready after taking nine sacks and helping the Bears finish with 1 net passing yard. Fields’ success rate was 5-for-32 on Sunday, an unbelievably bad debut in a 26-6 loss.

Now some expected caveats apply. It’s the Bears, it’s Nagy, we are used to him having bad offenses. But 418 to 47? That’s beyond the pale. The offensive line is also pure trash, but I cannot imagine this happening if Dalton was the quarterback. Nine sacks to 20 throws and three rushing attempts? That’s insane.

The Bears are only the 11th team since the 1970 merger to be outgained by at least 165 yards on the ground and at least 200 yards in the air in the same game. The last time this happened was when the Lions beat up the Packers (without Aaron Rodgers) on Thanksgiving in 2013.

My feeling on this topic is always consistent. It’s that a game like this should not ruin Fields. If he is destined to be a franchise quarterback, then this is just a big bump in the start of the road. You don’t ruin him in September of his first season. But if future games result in games like this, then yikes, they may need to pull him and sit him down.

Of course, it would help if the Bears actually had some semblance of a coaching staff that knows how to get productive offensive out of its roster. That has never been a strong suit for Nagy, and the returns have only been diminishing since his first season ended. The coach who ultimately fixes Fields in Chicago, assuming that happens, may not even be in the organization yet.

A few more games like Sunday’s and Nagy may not have an office in the building much longer. This was horrific.

Bengals at Steelers: I’ve Come to Talk with You Again

Much like last week against the Raiders, I never felt that the Steelers overlooked the Bengals. It didn’t matter that Cincinnati has not beaten them by more than 10 points since 1995, or that Zac Taylor had one road win in his career as head coach. They never thought they’d lose by 14-plus points at home for only the fifth time in Ben Roethlisberger’s career.

It’s not really an upset when you expect it as the Steelers continue their December decay while the Bengals are on the upswing. This is just where these teams are right now.

For anyone singling out Roethlisberger as the problem, and the idea that benching him for bums like Mason Rudolph or Dwyane Haskins will solve anything, just admit you’re not watching this team play. It’s okay. They’re the worst hate-watch I’ve had since NBC’s Revolution. That’s been my experience watching this team for the last three Sunday afternoons and I wouldn’t recommend it to anyone who wants to watch an NFL team capable of doing something good. They’ve had one good half in Buffalo and that was it.

The offense remains historically limited. The Steelers rushed for fewer than 90 yards for the 10th-straight game. Just one more and they can tie the 2002-03 Rams (11 games) for the post-World War II record. The Steelers drafting Najee Harris in the first round is like inviting a rich family to your house for dinner when all you can serve them is stale crackers and tap water in dirty, chipped glasses.

If someone had the energy or interest, they could create a pretty amusing montage of how often Harris is met right at the line (or behind it) by the defense due to a lack of blocking. He had one 20-yard run on Sunday and 20 yards on his other 13 carries combined. I’d say he showed his hands by catching 14-of-19 targets as Ben fell in love with the checkdowns, but Harris also ended the game with multiple drops as the Steelers stumbled badly to a 24-10 loss.

Maybe the most egregious play was when Roethlisberger dumped the ball to Harris almost immediately on a 4th-and-10 in the red zone in the fourth quarter. It lost a yard because it was so bad. What a sad time to see Ben turn into Alex Smith. In past years, he would have chucked that thing to the end zone and not care if it resulted in his third pick. But I guess he never thought things would be this bad, throwing to Ray-Ray McCloud and Cody White with Diontae Johnson and JuJu Smith-Schuster out injured while trying to mount a 14-point comeback against the lowly Bengals.

The Pittsburgh offense self-sabotaged itself all day with eight penalties, constantly putting themselves in poor down-and-distance situations. That should never happen at home. For about the first time since 2018, Roethlisberger took a few sacks because he held the ball too long. But that was an effort to try to make something happen. Too often the protection was poor, and he was hit quickly, like on his first pick. Other times he just looked old and slow, like on his second pick. This offense remains a complete mess and it is criminal in nature to put an old quarterback and a rookie back behind an offensive line this inexperienced and poor.

The defense also has its issues without T.J. Watt, Stephon Tuitt, and a couple more in the front seven. Joe Burrow was pressured one time in the game. Yes, the Cincinnati line allowed one pressure and no sacks, ending Pittsburgh’s record 75-game streak with a sack. Now that record was always asterisk-worthy since it ignores the multiple playoff games where this unit failed to get a sack in that time, but it was a shocker to see zero production against the Bengals.

Outside of one deep ball for a 34-yard touchdown before halftime, Burrow had no other completions of 20-plus yards in the game. He had a 17-yard touchdown to Tyler Boyd that was created by some of the worst tackling effort you’ll ever see from Melvin Ingram. But it’s not like the Bengals piled up 24 points with a younger, more athletic quarterback stretching the field. They just aren’t incapable of doing literally anything well like the Steelers, who even missed a 42-yard field goal on Sunday, are right now.

Ben will go into retirement after the season as the scapegoat, but unless they ever hire a real offensive coordinator from outside the organization and invest in a real starting quarterback, then Mike Tomlin is not going to see another winning season any time soon.

I don’t know how many more weeks I’ll go into detail recapping the latest poor performance, because we have pretty much seen 10 straight games of this.

Colts at Titans: Go for Two Up Seven

The Titans did something cool that coaches almost never do in the NFL: go for two after a touchdown that put you up seven. Head coach Mike Vrabel watched Houston do this to his Titans last year, but it didn’t work out for them. The Titans still won in overtime. This time, Vrabel’s team did it with 12:56 to play. That’s a bit earlier than I’d like to see it as I think the last five or six minutes is the sweet spot for it. But when you’re playing Carson Wentz on two bad ankles, why not? What’s he going to do, lead three field goal drives to beat you?

The Titans converted with a Derrick Henry run to lead 22-13. The Colts answered with a field goal to make it 22-16. The Titans had another long drive for a field goal to make it 25-16 with 2:58 left, which puts the Colts in miracle territory down two possessions. The Colts missed a 51-yard field goal with 57 seconds left and the game was over.

But had the Titans, who have had their share of kicking problems, gone for the extra point and led 21-13, then it easily could have been 24-16 when the Colts got the ball back at 2:58. That’s still a reasonable time – with a good quarterback that is – to tie the game and go to overtime. But at 25-16, you’re pretty much screwed.

The misconception people tend to have here is that the “extra information” of being down nine is going to drastically change how the team approaches things. Except this is the NFL and most coaches are basic bitches. It didn’t change a thing. The Colts moved at the pace you would expect them to when trailing in the fourth quarter, and they didn’t go to the real hurry-up or no-huddle offense until the final three minutes told them they were screwed.

Vrabel had every excuse to be a meathead and failure of a coach, coasting on his past connection to Bill Belichick, but he has been ahead of the pack in trying different things to close out tight games. I applaud him for that.

NFL Week 13 Predictions: MEH Edition

Here is an obvious sign the Week 13 NFL slate isn’t quite up to par: the big CBS game at 4:25 is Eagles-Packers.

Now it’s not the NFL’s fault that Drew Brees has been injured for both NO-ATL games, or that we’ll be lucky to see even half of the intended QB battles between Dak-Lamar and Burrow-Tua.

One game that has surprisingly turned out to be a big one is Cleveland at Tennessee, two 8-3 teams and almost the only two teams in the league with a good argument for building their offense around the run.

Alas, I already wrote my preview for that game, along with Lions-Bears, Bengals-Dolphins, and Broncos-Chiefs.

So what’s left?

We are finally getting the first Rams-Cardinals game this season, though it has lost some luster after both had disappointing losses in Week 12. Sean McVay is 14-7 against the NFC West, an impressive mark given the teams in that division since 2017. McVay is 6-0 against the Cardinals and has five wins of 16+ points against them. His smallest margin of victory is 7 points over Arizona. The Rams are very hard to predict from week to week, but I took that into consideration when I made my pick for that game.

Another game that interests me is Monday night where the Bills are a 1.5-point underdog in San Francisco despite having the better record (8-3 vs. 5-6). It’s only the sixth time in the last 20 seasons where an 8-3 team is an underdog to a 5-6 team. The last time was in 2008 when Carolina was a 3-point dog to the Packers in Lambeau in Aaron Rodgers’ first season as a starter. The Panthers won 35-31 with a fourth-quarter comeback. The 8-3 team is 5-0 against the 5-6 team. With the way Buffalo’s defense handled the Chargers last week, I think they’ll be adequate against Nick Mullens and an offense that has lost George Kittle for the season.

Finally, there’s the Steelers-Washington game on Monday. The line was about PIT -10 before Wednesday’s ugly win over Baltimore, but is now down to PIT -7.5. I have to say I really like the Steelers in this one, as they are still 8-3 ATS this season, a record as good as anyone in the league in 2020. I think they’ll put that weird game on Wednesday behind them quickly and play sharper on offense without all the dropped passes. An Alex Smith-led offense reliant on one wideout in the passing game is unlikely to do much damage to this defense.

We also have to put Washington’s recent performance in the context of the worst division in NFL history. Washington started the season 1-4 with all the losses by 14+ points. Then in their last six games they’re 3-3, but they’ve played four games against NFC East teams, the Bengals in a game Joe Burrow was injured (W 20-9), and a 30-27 loss in Detroit where they trailed 24-3 before making a game of it (typical Matt Patricia).

Put this team on the road against the Steelers and I’m very confident the home team will win by 8+ points. That’s my favorite spread pick this week, and yes, I don’t think it will be a pleasant game to watch again. Probably something in the 24-13 range of final scores.

NFL Week 13 Predictions

The full slate (at least every team has a QB, or someone posing as one this week):

I really wanted to pick Atlanta to beat the Saints again, but they screwed me over last time, and several of the skill players are on the injury report for the Falcons. I’m just going to stay away from that one. I hope I’ve learned a lesson there. But the Saints really need Drew Brees back ASAP.

49ers’ Blown Super Bowl Lead Was Historic Deja Vu

As I continue to work on the best database I could have for NFL game data this century, I keep finding new absurd facts about Kansas City’s comeback win in Super Bowl LIV.

Imagine a team leading 20-10 more than halfway through the fourth quarter in a nationally-televised game. Then that team goes on to lose 31-20 in regulation.

That’s what happened to the 49ers in the Super Bowl, but the last time the NFL has seen such a reversal of fortune — a double-digit lead halfway through the fourth turning into a double-digit loss — it also involved the 49ers, a 20-10 lead, and a 31-20 loss in prime time. 

Yep, same exact scores, but much different stakes. In 2002, the 49ers (10-6) were wrapping up a playoff-bound season on Monday Night Football against disappointing division rival St. Louis (7-9 finish). The 49ers rested and pulled starters from the game, but still led 20-3 in the fourth quarter. That’s when Rams backup quarterback Jamie Martin began to lead a comeback, pulling the team to within 20-17 with 7:09 left after throwing a touchdown pass to future HOFer Isaac Bruce. On the next play from scrimmage, Garrison Hearst fumbled and Dre’ Bly returned it for a touchdown to take a 24-20 lead. Hearst fumbled again on the next drive and the Rams had a chance to run the clock out, but on 4th-and-1, Martin threw a pass to tight end Ernie Conwell for a 32-yard touchdown to make it 31-20 after the two-minute warning. A bit of a rub-it-in-their-face score for sure for a team that rarely threw to the tight end. The Rams were actually 2-point favorites so it was a surprising cover and comeback to close a game that ultimately didn’t mean anything.

It’s not terribly rare to see a team trail by double digits in the last eight minutes (or 7:30 if you want to think of it as half the quarter) of the fourth quarter and come back to win the game. It happens about five times a season. But those games often go to overtime or are won in regulation by 1-7 points. An 11-point win in regulation like the 2002 Rams had goes way against the grain.

It wouldn’t happen again in the NFL until the 49ers blew yet another 20-10 lead in this Super Bowl. The infamous 3rd-and-15 “Wasp” play by the Chiefs for 44 yards came at the 7:13 mark. The Chiefs got into the end zone with 6:13 left and would return there two more times, including Damien Williams’ 38-yard run with 1:12 left that crushed my ticket of “Chiefs by exactly 4 points” to produce the historic 31-20 final.

So like the Falcons holding a 28-3 lead — as if this will ever happen again in Dan Quinn’s career — you just can’t trust the 49ers with a 20-10 lead halfway through the fourth quarter. Oddly enough, Quinn was a defensive quality control coach for the 2002 49ers too.

I haven’t been able to confirm the stats before 2001 yet, but it would be interesting to see a list of double-digit reversals like these two games in NFL history. I know the Chiefs are the only team since 2001 to do it in the final 7:00 while the 2002 Rams are the only other team in that time to do it in the final 8:00. I thought maybe the 1968 Jets-Raiders “Heidi” game would be one, but the Jets only led by 3 late and never more than 7 in the whole game. You’ll find that the “win by 10+” part is really hard to find.

Still, I’d love to see more so if you have any ideas of examples from pre-2001, leave them in the comments or hit me up on Twitter with them.

UPDATE: I’ve compiled a table of all seven games discovered since 1981. The first five I included all involved the 49ers or Chiefs if you could believe it, but then I also stumbled on an incredible comeback by the 1987 Cardinals against Dallas. They were down 13-3, but scored three touchdowns after the two-minute warning to win 24-13. They scored the first at 1:58, forced a three-and-out punt, then scored another, got a turnover on defense, and finally ran in a 15-yard touchdown on 4th-and-14 with 19 seconds left after Dallas used all three timeouts.

DDREV

Close Encounters: Super Bowl LIV

No matter if it was the NFL’s first season or its 100th, the stingy defense with the great pass rush takes down another prolific passer. The QB who walks into the building with 23 points is stuck on 10 in the biggest game of his career.

Because football…football never changes.

Record a Ron Perlman voice-over for that.

That Fallout reference was going to be my tweet tonight more than halfway through the fourth quarter of Super Bowl LIV. That was my gut feeling around the time when the 49ers led the Chiefs 20-10 and Kansas City faced a 3rd-and-15 at its own 35.

For the first time in 36 games, I actually doubted Patrick Mahomes.

SBLIV

Then with just one snap, everything changed and the Chiefs are Super Bowl champions and Mahomes even walked away with the MVP award. It was one of the more dramatic fourth-quarter finishes in Super Bowl history even if the game itself wasn’t an instant classic.

So here is my Super Bowl LIV recap, my first game recap in ~54 weeks in a new section I’m calling what I have long wanted to call these recaps: Close Encounters

Mahomes: From Worst Game to Best Comeback to Champ Forever

The best player in football is the reigning Super Bowl MVP. That feels great to say after what’s felt like many years where it hasn’t been the case, and I’m grateful we never have to bother with the question of “can Mahomes win the big one?”

However, this was not a walk in the park for Mahomes like the first two playoff games. In fact, until those final ~7 minutes, it looked like he was having the worst game of his career in the biggest game of his career. But if there’s anything I absolutely nailed in my 5,000-word preview for this game, it was the very last paragraph:

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

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

Yeah, just score some f***ing points by any means necessary, and Mahomes has done that better over 36 games than any quarterback ever has. You sack him four times and he still puts up 31, even if the final touchdown was a killshot from the ground attack. You keep his passer rating under 90.0 (it was 78.1 in this game) by getting a pair of picks and he’s still 10-0 in his career with the scoreboard looking full.

He doesn’t have a weakness, but let’s look at how things progressed tonight because Mahomes had to lead the most significant late-game comeback of his career to pull this one off.

Mahomes started the game with a couple erratic throws for a quick three-and-out before rebounding well enough. Nerves in a first Super Bowl make sense. The 15-play touchdown drive that took up half the first quarter was in line with some of the great drive engineering he’s done this postseason with short passes. Not taking advantage of Jimmy Garoppolo’s interception and settling for a field goal was disappointing, but the Chiefs led 10-3 early.

The first big mistake of the night, at least coaching wise, was with just over two minutes left in the half tied 10-10. The Chiefs should have played this better with the 49ers getting the ball to start the third quarter. They essentially ran a series of plays that negated Mahomes’ existence. They ran the ball for 2 yards to get to the two-minute warning, then tried a trick play with Mecole Hardman that was blown up in the backfield for a 6-yard loss. How many tricks like that do you need with Mahomes? On 3rd-and-14, the Chiefs just ran a screen that was not effective on the night and the team punted. That was a really bad ending to the half and that wasn’t Mahomes’ fault at all, but he also wasn’t wowing us either like usual, so the game went to the half tied at 10.

Then in the third quarter, Mahomes recovered a fumble forced by Nick Bosa to set up 3rd-and-12. Mahomes has fumbled six times in the playoffs (five games), but has been fortunate not to lose any of them. But on the very next snap, he threw a terrible pass that was intended for Tyreek Hill and intercepted for his first ever postseason giveaway. That led to a 20-10 San Francisco lead and suddenly Mahomes looked rattled by the pass rush, the deficit, and the magnitude of the situation. He wasn’t attacking deep, or improvising big plays, and the short passing game was pretty well bottled up.

I’ve mentioned in the preview how the Chiefs had so many third-down drops in this postseason to kill drives. I can’t call what Mahomes did early in the fourth quarter a drop since he was so off target again to Hill, but the pass was tipped for an interception while the Chiefs were driving at the San Francisco 23. After seeing Mahomes step up from a decent pocket and still come up short on a pass to Hill, I was really convinced this was going to be a big scar on his resume. The 49ers were quick to challenge and the replay system correctly took away the 16-yard completion that should have been an easy one for Mahomes.

And then the play of the game on 3rd-and-15 happened. What a time for Mahomes to complete his longest pass (57.1 air yards) of 2019:

Without that play you would have seen a punt and probably a San Francisco win. It’s only the second time since 1994 that a team converted on 3rd-and-14 or longer in the fourth quarter (last time: Tom Brady to Julian Edelman vs. 2014 Seahawks on 3rd-and-14). Mahomes had to take such a deep drop to fire that one deep and Hill was free enough to make the catch. Game on. Three plays later, I thought the defensive pass interference call on third down was a good one since the defender made contact without ever playing the ball. That put the ball at the 1 where Mahomes found Travis Kelce for an easy 1-yard touchdown with 6:13 left to make it 20-17.

I made this thread in November to show that Mahomes has been much better than his 3-7 record (now 4-7) at fourth-quarter comeback opportunities:

So with 5:10 left he had his chance and the Chiefs put the ball in his hands on seven straight plays. The deep throw for 38 yards to Sammy Watkins made it look like the Chiefs might score too quickly again, but it came down to a 3rd-and-goal at the 5 this time. Kelce cleared some room and Mahomes just had to throw a short toss to RB Damien Williams, who did enough to cross the plane for the go-ahead touchdown with 2:44 left. I’m not 100% sure he broke the plane with the ball before stepping out, but that was the ruling on the field and there wasn’t anything conclusive enough to say he didn’t score. The Chiefs led 24-20 and put it in the defense’s hands again to much success. Williams delivered the deathblow with a 38-yard touchdown run to give us a 31-20 final.

Mahomes was really the default MVP in this one. He finished as a passer with 26/42 for 286 yards, 2 TD, 2 INT. He rushed nine times for 29 yards and a touchdown, though he actually lost 15 yards on three kneeldowns when the Chiefs ran the clock late. So he was effective as a runner once again. I can understand people wanting Williams as MVP for the late touchdowns, though he didn’t really need to score the last one. He could have gone down after the first down at any point and the Chiefs would have ran the clock out and won 24-20. I swear I’m not just bringing this up because my #1 bet was Chiefs by exactly 4:

kc4

(My real bet was $20 to win $500, but this still hurts)

So it wasn’t the cleanest game for Mahomes, but he was money in crunch time. He led the team to 24 points on their first eight drives, or 3.0 Pts/Dr against the best defense in the NFC. That’s nothing to take lightly. Most quarterbacks would have imploded against that pass rush, but Mahomes stepped up on back-to-back touchdown drives.

But make no mistake about it — 3rd-and-15 changed everything in this one and that throw was vintage Mahomes, the first NFL player to ever win an MVP and Super Bowl MVP before he was 25 years old. Hats off to him for capping an incredible first two seasons.

The Chiefs Did What!?

Some stats are hard to believe, but this one takes the cake:

The Chiefs trailed by 10+ points in all three playoff games, but still won all three games by 11+ points.

If you know my work, you know I don’t like using the final score to judge the closeness of a game. Things are going to be especially misleading for this downright historic Kansas City playoff run. The Chiefs trailed 24-0 to Houston before winning 51-31 and never even trailing in the second half. The Chiefs trailed by 10 twice to Tennessee and won 35-24. The Chiefs trailed 20-10 in the fourth quarter before beating the 49ers 31-20.

It’s the first time a team has three double-digit comeback wins in the same postseason. Think about that for a second.

  • Winning three straight games after trailing by 10+ points would be a crazy NFL feat (the 2013 Patriots did this Weeks 12-14).
  • Winning three straight games by double digits AFTER trailing by double digits would be an insane feat.
  • Doing that as your Super Bowl run is inconceivable and I am using that word correctly.

The Chiefs are just the third team to win a Super Bowl after trailing by more than 14 points in the postseason, joining Peyton Manning’s 2006 Colts (18 points down vs. Patriots in AFC-CG) and Tom Brady’s 2016 Patriots (25 points down vs. Atlanta in SB LI). The Chiefs are now the fifth team to win a Super Bowl after trailing by double-digits in the fourth quarter during the playoffs:

The Chiefs are the second team in NFL playoff history to enter the fourth quarter down by double digits and win the game by double digits. The Eagles did it to New Orleans, 36-20, in 1992.

Kyle Shanahan and Jimmy G: The San Francisco Blame Game

When it comes to Super Bowl collapses and heartbreak, Kyle Shanahan and Dan Quinn probably know it better than anyone now. Shanahan and Quinn shared the 28-3 collapse in Atlanta, but Quinn also saw the 10-point lead disappear to the Patriots with the 2014 Seahawks. Now Shanahan sees a 10-point lead disappear to the Chiefs in this one, and this graphic is particularly hard to swallow:

I really don’t want to rehash 28-3 tonight, but let’s just say Shanahan didn’t finish the game as badly this time. If anything, he didn’t do enough in the first half and that hurt. A few too many screens and horizontal passes slowed down the 49ers, who were much better at using Deebo Samuel in motion and getting quick-hitting plays from the middle of the field instead of testing the Chiefs on the edges. In fact a couple of screens turned a promising opening drive into a field goal instead of a touchdown. Jimmy Garoppolo threw a bad pick under pressure early, but overall he wasn’t playing that poorly for Shanahan. The offense looked deadly in the second quarter after gaining a first down on five straight plays, including a touchdown to tie the game at 10.

But things fell apart a bit after the two-minute warning. I mentioned Reid’s shortcomings in that part of the game, but Shanahan did even worse with clock management. He had three timeouts but failed to use one to stop the clock after KC’s screen pass failed. So instead of saving about 100 seconds and two timeouts for Garoppolo, he saved three timeouts and 59 seconds. Then he remained conservative with two runs to set up a 3rd-and-5 with 20 seconds left. Garoppolo delivered a 20-yard completion, then seemed to follow it up with a great 42-yard bomb to George Kittle. However, that was wiped out for offensive pass interference. I thought it was a pretty soft call for a little hand fighting that is let go quite often in this league. That felt pretty cheap to me and cost the 49ers three points, but the bigger question is why the hell wouldn’t you try to save as much time as possible and shoot for a double score against Mahomes?

So that was bad for Shanahan, but he and Garoppolo came out strong from the half and took that 20-10 lead into the fourth quarter with 11:57 left. Look, you have to keep scoring when you play Mahomes. There weren’t any errors this time like calling a pass on 3rd-and-1 deep in your own end with a 16-point lead, or not just running the ball after a Julio Jones catch when you’re up 8. That didn’t happen here. The 49ers did call three pass plays on second down with a lead, but I can’t fault the calls there with the Chiefs obviously expecting the run. And let’s face it, the running game wasn’t that outstanding on the night as most of the best plays were unconventional tricks with Samuel.

Garoppolo also completed the first of those second-down passes, which proved to be the only first down the 49ers offense would get in the fourth with a lead. Pressure definitely had an impact on Garoppolo with not only the pick, but also a few batted balls. NextGenStats had Garoppolo as 0/7 passing with two picks while under pressure on the night. He was 20/24 otherwise for 219 yards. Ouch.

Garoppolo was off in the fourth quarter while the Chiefs were surging to that 24-20 lead. Still, you don’t mind the situation of having the ball with 2:39 left and 85 yards away from glory. In fact, it’s probably the situation quarterbacks dream about for years. Garoppolo has been pretty good at comebacks in limited opportunities, but he definitely will regret the 3rd-and-10 pass from the KC 49 with 1:40 left. Emmanuel Sanders got behind the defense, but Garoppolo overthrew him deep. On 4th-and-10, there wasn’t much of a chance and Garoppolo was dumped for a sack. Two plays later, Williams exploded for a touchdown and it was basically game over. Garoppolo’s second pick looks worse in the box score than anything else.

This game did not swing on many plays, so I really look at what each QB did on a third-and-long in the fourth quarter as being very decisive to this Super Bowl. Mahomes was able to deliver deep on his 3rd-and-15 to save the day, but Garoppolo was off the mark on his attempt despite an open receiver. So I really don’t want to jump on a “Shanahan can’t finish off a big one” or “Garoppolo will never win them a Super Bowl!” narrative when the margin is that small. Had the defense, the strength of the team for most of the year, did its job first on 3rd-and-15, we’re probably asking if Andy Reid will ever win a ring and wondering what the hell happened to Mahomes on the big stage.

Now an extra field goal on the board for the 49ers probably would have changed that drive, but again, that was a big blunder in the first half. I can’t crush Shanahan for how he called the game late, and I don’t think Garoppolo’s performance is one to crucify, but he just didn’t redeem himself in the way that Mahomes did.

The NFC has been a lot tougher to get back to this point too, so I’m not sure the 49ers are in an advantageous spot in 2020, especially given the strength of their division. Don’t discount the Cardinals getting really good in a year or two. We already know about Seattle and the Rams still have talent. So this is a tough blown opportunity for San Francisco.

Andy Reid: Hall of Famer… and Dynasty Starter?

Finally, we’ll end on a positive note as this win should wrap up a spot in Canton for Andy Reid. I’ve made my clock management jokes like everyone else, but he’s been arguably the best coach not named Bill Belichick this century. It wasn’t a perfect night for him, but good on the two fourth-down calls and now he has the ring to go along with the seventh-most wins and his winning percentage is over 61%. If we’re putting Bill Cowher in, then we’re absolutely putting Reid in, right?

In fact, Reid just shattered a Cowher record by winning his first Super Bowl in his 21st season, by far the longest wait a coach has had to earn his first championship. Cowher needed 14 years with the Steelers, which is still a record for one franchise, but Reid spent 14 years with the Eagles before winning in his seventh season with the Chiefs.

HC1stSBW

We know Mahomes has only been the starter for two seasons, but this highlights a five-year playoff run for the Chiefs that finally resulted in that coveted ring for Reid. It’s similar to other recent five-year runs to the top from the 2011-15 Broncos and 2008-12 Ravens. The 2002-06 Colts also needed a fifth-straight playoff trip to go the distance in the Tony Dungy-Peyton Manning era.

So does the dynasty talk already start tonight? We know this happens when a franchise QB wins one Super Bowl. We saw it in back-to-back years with Drew Brees (2009) and Aaron Rodgers (2010), but neither has even made it back to the Super Bowl. The last young franchise QB to win his first ring was Russell Wilson in 2013, and while the Seahawks made it back the next year, we know how that ended and they haven’t been past the divisional round since. We’re still in the longest drought in NFL history without a repeat champion (2003-04 Patriots).

The sky seems to be the limit for Mahomes and Reid together. We have seven months to talk about 2020 and repeating so let’s save it, but I am happy to see a new champion that is a joy to watch.

Whether it’s on this blog, another website, or maybe in a PDF you’ll order from me, I hope to bring a lot more analysis (and perhaps random musings) in 2020. Like Mahomes and scoring points, I’m a writer and I just need to write as often as I can while I can.

Super Bowl LIV Preview

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

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

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

The Last Time

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

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

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

Slow Start Shouldn’t Lead to Blowout

I have seen some concerns that this could be a Seahawks-Broncos sized blowout with the 49ers’ physical defense attacking a “finesse” Kansas City offense, but I really don’t buy that narrative. Yes, pass-happy teams have a rather poor history in title games against tough defenses, but some teams are just different. I think we saw that in the college game this year with Joe Burrow and LSU still lighting up undefeated Clemson’s No. 1 scoring defense, and Mahomes and the Chiefs are certainly not your typical NFL offense. The strength of the San Francisco defense is also in the line’s pass rush rather than the secondary. Sure, Richard Sherman is on the field, but that’s not the Legion of Boom going up against this track-star collection of receivers for Kansas City.

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

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

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

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

The Game in a Nutshell

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Patrick Mahomes: No Weaknesses?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

PatL

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

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

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

Two Quarterbacks, Two Historic Starts: The Jimmy G Angle

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

Speed Kills

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Coaches: Redemption Arc

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

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

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

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

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

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

Kittle vs. Kelce

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

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

Turnovers

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

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

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

Third Down

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

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

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

Red Zone

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

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

Special Teams

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

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

No punts please.

Prediction Time

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

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

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

2019 NFL Conference Championship Preview

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

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

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

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

Conference Championship Rematches

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

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

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

CC_rematch

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

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

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

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

Titans at Chiefs (-7.5)

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

Kansas City Sure Remembers the Titans

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

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

What if the Tennessee Defense Is Just Lucky?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What Is This Tennessee Offense?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Pressure Is on Patrick Mahomes

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

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

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

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

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

Don’t Forget: Special Teams

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

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

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

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

Final: Chiefs 34, Titans 24

 

Packers at 49ers (-7.5)

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

Packers: Reversal of Fortune?

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

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

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

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

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

Injury Outlook

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

Rodgers: Worst Night Ever?

Remember this in Week 12?

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

What Should Green Bay’s Offense Do on Sunday?

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

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

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

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

San Francisco’s Offense

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

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

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

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

Close Game or Nah?

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

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

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

Final: 49ers 23, Packers 20