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

2019 NFL Divisional Round Preview

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

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

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

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

Vikings at 49ers (-7)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Final: 49ers 26, Vikings 23

 

Titans at Ravens (-9.5)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Final: Ravens 30, Titans 20

 

Texans at Chiefs (-9.5)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Final: Chiefs 31, Texans 23

 

Seahawks at Packers (-4)

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

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

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

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

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

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

Final: Seahawks 23, Packers 20

NFL Week 17 Predictions: Making History Edition

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

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

Top-Heavy Season

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

Jameis Winston: 30 for 30

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

Three Stooges Alert

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

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

CLE/JAX: Don’t Promote from Within

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

Patriots Defense

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

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

Saints Eyeing 75/150

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

Golladay: The Last Hope?

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

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

Steelers at Ravens: Not Meaningless

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

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

49ers at Seahawks: Playoffs Start Early

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

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

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

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

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

NFL Week 17 Predictions

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

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

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NFL Week 14 Predictions: The Best Week of the Year Edition

December 8 was always the date to circle since the NFL schedule came out in April. That was the big Chiefs-Patriots game in New England, but now that we’re here, it’s actually a much bigger weekend with four marquee games. Those two teams aren’t even the current No. 1 seed in the AFC. That’s Baltimore, which has its final big road test in Buffalo, a surprise 9-3 team that almost controls its own destiny for home-field advantage. We also could see the Saints inch closer to the No. 1 seed in the NFC, and we should get some clarity on an MVP race that is down to Lamar Jackson and Russell Wilson.

It took a little pure dumb luck with the 49ers and Bills stepping up, but the NFL has one hell of a schedule planned tomorrow. It shouldn’t get as big as this again until the playoffs, but first those seeds could really shake up because of what happens on Sunday.

49ers at Saints (-2)

The 49ers come in as a 2-point underdog in a tough place to play, though the Saints haven’t been able to blow out anyone at home aside from Arizona. Don’t forget that stunning 26-9 loss to the Falcons as well. I think the 49ers showed a lot of quality play on the road in rainy Baltimore last week and will welcome the dome conditions in this one. It is a bit of a disadvantage to be on the road in the early slot on the East for the second week in a row, but teams are better at handling that these days with travel.

The main reason I like the 49ers to win is their physical defense. I think they can key in on Michael Thomas — a matchup with Richard Sherman would be fun — as the Saints don’t have another player with 500 receiving yards. They have the front seven talent to harass Drew Brees, who took 6 sacks in the Atlanta loss but only three the rest of the season. Also, the Saints are the first team in NFL history to have just 7 giveaways thru 12 games of a season. They’ve lost just one fumble all year. That screams regression and the 49ers are the type of defense to make them pay there (24 takeaways rank 4th this year).

The 49ers are also No. 2 in points scored and points allowed this season. This is a very good team and I think Jimmy Garoppolo will shine just enough with the running game always being a threat to pull off this road win. If you’re continuing to compare the 2019 49ers to the 2017 Eagles, then think of this as their road win over the 2017 Rams which helped the Eagles get the top seed.

Ravens at Bills (+6.5)

The Bills have seven wins against teams picking in the top 11 of the 2020 draft as of right now. This would be a huge step up in class to beat a Baltimore team that has entered historic territory. The Ravens average 45 yards per drive on offense, which would set a record for the modern era. They can still become the first NFL offense ever to average 200 yards passing and 200 yards rushing per game. Lamar Jackson is the MVP front-runner and the consistent threat that Bills fans wish Josh Allen was right now. Allen has been playing better in recent weeks, but the Bills are definitely at a disadvantage with an offense that ranks just 16th in yards per drive and 21st in points per drive. The Baltimore defense is also picking things up and actually do better at forcing turnovers than the Bills.

The spread feels about right for this one, but if there is a game where Jackson is going to look mortal, it would be a road game against a solid defense. Yet even when he’s contained as a passer, he’s still a major threat as a rusher so it’s been really hard on defenses this year to figure this unique offense out. I think Baltimore delivers on the road and continues holding onto the No. 1 seed over New England.

But don’t lose sight that this is one of the biggest games in Buffalo in the last 20 years. They could really use a win like this.

Chiefs at Patriots (-3)

So much for the 43-40 and 37-31 offensive shootouts of last year. These teams aren’t playing great offensively and that shouldn’t surprise you with New England. The old QB is having one of his worst slumps ever, but it’s rarely mattered thanks to the defense being so strong. The surprise is that Patrick Mahomes has just turned in the worst 8 quarters of his career. Over the last two games, Mahomes has completed 55.7 percent of his passes at 5.85 YPA with just 2 TD and 1 INT. He didn’t even crack 200 yards in either game. Fortunately, his defense picked off Philip Rivers and Derek Carr enough for it to not matter as the Chiefs won both games (sound familiar?).

This is a bad time for Mahomes to be slumping with a road test against a veteran secondary and all-around difficult defense to pass against this year. If the big plays aren’t there like they were for Mahomes last year against NE, then this one could be another ugly offensive game. Keep in mind that despite those high scores last year, the Patriots twice did something no other team has.

In 29 career games with Mahomes, the Chiefs have been held under 10 points in the first half twice: 9 points at Patriots (lost 43-40), 0 points vs. Patriots (lost 37-31 OT).

Mahomes needs to stop fading away from the line on so many of his passes and find a rhythm early so that he can play a complete game against the Patriots and force Brady to actually be good. My thought is that after the ugly loss in Houston, Brady will be sharper at home — I’d be all in on Chiefs if this was in Arrowhead — and the running game that’s gotten going in recent weeks will be used effectively against a subpar Chiefs defense.

So it’s not quite the super important game for the AFC as we thought it would be, but you’d still rather win it than not. It’s just unfortunate that between the Mahomes injury and some of the sloppy play the team has showed this year, even a win in NE doesn’t mean Kansas City won’t have to come back and do it all over again in January in a 3/2 matchup.

Seahawks at Rams (+1)

Their first meeting on TNF was one of the best games this season, one that the Rams would have won had it not been for a missed field goal by Greg Zuerlein. I said this almost two months ago:

Missed field goals have been great to Seattle this year. The 49ers also missed one in overtime that would have won that game after Russell Wilson’s inexplicable interception. So had those two NFC West kickers connected, this would be the 8-4 Seahawks at the 8-4 Rams. But because of two swings of the leg, it’s the 10-2 Seahawks at the 7-5 Rams. Wilson is still in the MVP race despite cooling off, and there’s a lot of disappointment surrounding Sean McVay and Jared Goff right now. What a league.

But it has been a wildly inconsistent year for the Rams and Goff. He’s had a few brilliant games, including last week when he was over 320 passing yards at halftime. He’s also had some major stinkers as has the defense, led by DC Wade Phillips and Aaron Donald, that always seems to escape any criticism.

I said earlier this week that the 2019 Saints and 2019 Seahawks are two of the worst 10-2 teams ever because of their tiny point differentials. Seattle is just +36, the smallest scoring differential ever for a 10-2 team. I think if Lamar Jackson shines in Buffalo and Wilson struggles in this game (another prime time one), the MVP is all but locked up for Jackson. So that’s another layer to keep in mind.

The outcome of SF-NO will give us a better idea of how big this game is on Sunday night, but it’s a last gasp effort for the Rams either way. They have to win this game and they easily could if their star players play up to their potential. I’m not surprised the spread is damn near a pick ’em with how unpredictable the Rams have been and how close to the vest Seattle has been. In the end, you trust Wilson over Goff in crunch time, but as this season has shown, all it takes is one play sometimes to decide a game. I wouldn’t bet on this one like I would the other three big games on Sunday.

NFL Week 14 Predictions

I had the Cowboys on TNF, so there’s another trainwreck to talk about some other time.

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A quick note on PIT-ARI: this would definitely fit the classic Mike Tomlin letdown game on the road. The Cardinals are an interesting young team without a lot of tape that the Steelers are familiar with. I think it’s a game where either the Cardinals win outright, or Duck Hodges has a breakout game against a terrible pass defense. Obviously I went with the former because I think the Steelers lack the weapons to get the job done without JuJu available again. James Washington had his career game last week so I can’t see him repeating it, but I am glad to see the Steelers get back to throwing downfield to wide receivers. This one could be fun, though I’d much rather be watching KC-NE.

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NFL Week 13 Predictions: “Watt the Faulk?” Edition

Earlier this week I wrote about Frank Gore’s HOF case. For the first time in seven years I may actually start to take this blog seriously and post more content besides Saturday game picks. We’ll see what happens, but I am looking into it.

There are some good games to talk about this week, but before that I wanted to share some thoughts about the NFL 100 All-Time Team.

Watt the Faulk, Boomers?

I thought the NFL’s 100 All-Time Team could lead to a disappointing show once I saw some of the position breakdowns. More RB (12) than QB (10) for one. The other concern was a media panel largely consisting of people who grew up watching players in the 60s and 70s, because people are proven to favor nostalgia and tradition when it comes to things like this. Would they give the players of today a fair shake?

Through 38 player choices at running back and the front seven, it doesn’t appear so. The only players who started their careers after the 1994 salary cap are Ray Lewis (1996) and Derrick Brooks (1995). It’s not that there have been many snubs, but there have been some glaring ones so far.

I compiled my own list of the top 100 players of all time in August. I have yet to rank them together or post it anywhere, but I plan to soon. My list included 15 quarterbacks and seven running backs as opposed to the NFL’s breakdown of 10 QB and 12 RB. Of course, my sixth and seventh running backs just happened to be LaDainian Tomlinson and Marshall Faulk. Neither managed to make the cut for the NFL 100 (while the likes of Dutch Clark, Marion Motley and Gale Sayers did), so that was already a bad first impression for me.

Then the front seven came out last night with 26 players. My list had 30 players (9 DE, 9 DT, 12 LB). I probably could have showed more love for the older eras, but I didn’t see a reason to include the likes of Doug Atkins, Bill Hewitt, or Lee Roy Selmon.

The biggest snubs here had to be J.J. Watt and Derrick Thomas. Unlike the RBs, it’s not so much they picked the wrong players or too many this time, but they just didn’t pick enough. They shouldn’t have had 12 RBs, period. That would have freed up spots for Watt and Thomas. I also saw mention of Von Miller on Twitter. He didn’t make my list, but he’s close to it.

This really goes back to the problem of people not able to evaluate a player’s career while he is still active. I can understand struggling with Aaron Donald, who I had on my list already, but that should not be the case with J.J. Watt. While injuries have clearly stripped him of all-time greatest discussion, just look at what he has accomplished when healthy. In six full seasons, he’s been named first-team All-Pro five times and Defensive Player of the Year three times. Most guys can play 10-15 years and never sniff those achievements. He’s had multiple 20-sack seasons and was ridiculously dominant at his peak. That’s the kind of player you need to put on such a list, but they didn’t, and the live reaction show afterwards just saw guys (from the 80s/90s) stand up for their old teammates and personal favorites. Watt wasn’t even mentioned in the snubs segment.

By the time the series is over, I’m sure there will be some support that they did enough justice for the last 25 years of football. They’ll likely include Tony Gonzalez and Rob Gronkowski at tight end, and quarterback will have Peyton Manning and Tom Brady (I bet you they snub Drew Brees and Aaron Rodgers though). Ed Reed should show up at safety. I’m not sure they’ll do Joe Thomas at OT or Darrelle Revis at CB, but Adam Vinatieri could end up being the kicker. At WR, I’m not sure if they really have to do anything more modern than Randy Moss, but Larry Fitzgerald absolutely has an argument and I even have two other younger players than him on my list.

But so far there does seem to be a serious misjudgment of the worth of modern players, and an overvaluing of players from older eras where the job just wasn’t nearly as year-round or professional as it is today. Watching Bill Belichick analyze some 1930s-40s film with “You can see him block here” and thinking he’d take that player over Watt or Faulk, guys he had to develop gameplans to stop, is just comical, a farce.

Onto the games…

Browns at Steelers (+2.5)

Hopefully there won’t be a fight this time, but I can see why the NFL wants to bury this one on the schedule. I also wouldn’t be surprised if part of Mason Rudolph’s quick benching last week was to keep him out of this game in case the Browns look to retaliate. Sure, Rudolph was playing terrible football again, but that was a quick hook at halftime in a 7-3 game where he had one turnover on a tipped ball in the red zone. Anyways, I think the Steelers trust Devlin Hodges more and he doesn’t appear afraid to throw deep like Rudolph does. Of course Hodges could be terrible too in this game without JuJu Smith-Schuster available, but I felt like the Steelers defense contained Cleveland pretty well last meeting outside of giving up two big plays. This is an important game for both teams and I like the Steelers at home underdogs in this one.

Or maybe I just can’t wrap my mind around the thought of Cleveland sweeping Pittsburgh.

Titans at Colts (-1)

The Colts have Tennessee’s number for sure. Curious to see if Ryan Tannehill’s hot hand can keep up on the road in what is suddenly a big game for both teams. The Colts don’t have T.Y. Hilton available and Jacoby Brissett has been struggling. I think Tennessee is playing better right now, but like PIT-CLE, it’s hard for me to go against the history of one team owning the other for so long.

Raiders at Chiefs (-10.5)

Kansas City can gain some real breathing room in the division with a win here. The spread is big, but Oakland could have a chance here if the Chiefs continue their 2019 ways of making mistakes. I still feel like the offense can be the best in the league, but there are just too many mistakes this year. Penalties that kill drives, bad throws to open receivers, fumbles in scoring territory, not being aggressive enough on fourth down, weird run calls on 2nd-and-long. Last time out was also probably the worst game of Mahomes’ NFL career. In Week 2, he may have had the best quarter of his career in Oakland when he threw for almost 300 yards and 4 TD in the second quarter. But keep in mind the Chiefs didn’t score a point in any other quarter that day. That’s why I think Oakland has a chance in this one if Derek Carr brings his A game.

Patriots at Texans (+3.5)

I’m just going to leave this one here:

Vikings at Seahawks (-3)

This is one where I’ll hedge: Vikings ATS, Seahawks ML. Seattle has been winning a ton of close games this year. The Vikings have a better overall team, but I want to see Cousins in attack mode on the road. He was poor in a loss on MNF in Seattle last year. Hopefully this game will be better than that one.

GOTW: 49ers at Ravens (-6)

Super Bowl preview? It’s pretty amazing to see a 10-1 team as a 6-point underdog, but the Ravens have gone from having a solid season to being historically great since the bye week. The Ravens have scored at least 23 points in every game this season, joining elite company:

We’ve already seen Lamar Jackson and the offense rip through the Patriots this year. Now they get the NFC’s best defense. The 49ers are the first defense since the 2000 Titans to hold five teams to 100 net passing yards. Even if Jackson struggles to pass for yards, he’s still a very effective runner and the Ravens are at home with a defense that has been getting better every week. I like them to keep rolling in this one with their unique attack and making Jimmy Garoppolo turn the ball over, but getting a great game here would be ideal.

Now you’ll have to excuse me as I try to figure out how the Steelers, with no offense, held 4Q leads against both the 49ers and Ravens this year.

NFL Week 13 Predictions

I figured some regression was coming after an 11-3 ATS week. Thanksgiving picks didn’t go too well, but we’ll see.

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It sounds like Drew Lock will be at QB for the Broncos this week. That was inevitable, but I’ll give the Chargers, who get Derwin James back, the benefit of the doubt here. I know, sweet regression here we come.

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NFL Week 10 Predictions: Midseason MVP Edition

Now that we are past the halfway point of the 2019 season, this is a good time to talk about the MVP candidates, especially since my pick is playing in the Game of the Week.

Through nine weeks, Russell Wilson is the clear choice for MVP if we had to award it today. He leads the NFL in touchdown passes (22), TD% (7.5%), INT% (0.3%), passer rating (118.2) and QBR (78.6). He’s the main reason Seattle, with a pretty weak defense, is 7-2 and has also led four 4QC/GWD (also leads the league).

Patrick Mahomes, Deshaun Watson, Dak Prescott and Lamar Jackson have also done great things this year — wow, Bill Polian might have a stroke — but Wilson has been the most consistently spectacular. I don’t think this is a tough choice as of right now, but things could change in a hurry.

The Seahawks are scheduled to play five straight games against winning teams, including four straight in prime time. This could either lock the MVP up for Wilson on big stages, or see his campaign go down in flames should Seattle falter and miss the playoffs.

While the close wins to overcome the defense have been strong evidence for Wilson’s MVP campaign, the upcoming schedule should definitely give some pause to whether or not they can sustain this success. The Seahawks are just +18 in scoring differential this season. That makes them the 9th team since 1940 to start 7-2 or better with a scoring differential no greater than 20 points:

I will point out that all of those teams made the playoffs. Some reached conference title games and the Super Bowl (1976 OAK even won it all), but this isn’t done often. The NFC is very competitive with what looks like nine teams fighting for six playoff spots. The 49ers (8-0) are the last undefeated team and could force the Seahawks into a Wild Card berth at best. Should Seattle slip in these head-to-head games with their direct competition for those wild cards (Vikings/Eagles/Rams/Panthers all come to mind), then you could see a scenario where a 10-6 Seattle team is left out of the playoffs. Even if Wilson still has the stellar numbers, I can’t imagine anyone voting for a MVP on a non-playoff team. I wouldn’t outside of extreme circumstances, which I don’t think will be present this year since the other QBs are going to have their own cases.

Mahomes still has the best shot in my view, especially if he helps KC run the table (that would mean a win in NE in Week 14). I don’t think missing essentially 2.75 games will detract voters enough, and if they care to dig into the numbers a little deeper, Matt Moore’s QBR (57.7) is nearly 20 points below Mahomes’ (77.2).

Back to the NFC West, the 49ers had one of their best challenges this year in Arizona last time out. Now they will host Wilson and the Seahawks on Monday night. I was not buying into the hype of the SF defense based on the schedule it started the season with — similar to the Patriots’ first eight games compared to what the Ravens brought to the table last week. With the 49ers, there have been great resources poured into the DL over the years. Nick Bosa, Dee Ford and Kwon Alexander (injured reserve) were big additions this year. It is the third year for Kyle Shanahan/Robert Saleh as a HC//DC duo. But I still think the schedule has been very advantageous and the 49ers will have to prove their success when they play Seattle (2x), Green Bay, Baltimore, New Orleans and the Rams again. The schedule is about to get a lot tougher and we’ve seen (a la 2013 Chiefs) how that can expose a paper tiger.

Now if Wilson can pull off this road win, then that’s just going to be another pro argument for his MVP case. He has rarely produced big numbers against the 49ers in his career. While he’s 12-3 against them, he’s never thrown for more than 260 yards in any of those games. The 49ers also have an offense that can score this year with a much better QB, so this probably isn’t going to be a game Seattle can win with < 21 points (Note: do have to monitor if George Kittle will play or not). The 49ers aren’t as stout against the run (20th in DVOA compared to No. 1 vs. pass), so I wouldn’t be surprised if the Seahawks revert to their run-heavy approach this week, putting the onus on Wilson to make things happen on 3rd downs and in the 4Q.

Monday is a very important game for both of these teams. The rematch isn’t until Week 17 where the 49ers could possibly be locked into a bye and could rest starters. Hey, maybe that helps the Seahawks make the playoffs in the end, but as long as the division title is still up for grabs, it would be a real MVP move for Wilson to ball out and get the win on Monday night.

I don’t think that’s going to happen, so expect this to be a topic again down the road.

NFL Week 10 Predictions

I had the Raiders winning 27-23 on TNF and they won 26-24.

2019Wk10

I’m glad to see Mahomes back. Need everything you can get to spice up a Tennessee game. I think the Browns can beat Buffalo, but at this point I’m just not going to trust them and roll with the better defense. I like Arians to hang a good number on his old team. I actually think the Jets step up in the terrible New York battle. I have no idea what to expect from Cincinnati QB Ryan Finley. Can he get a backdoor cover like Dalton did against Baltimore? I’m just going to lean on the Ravens to keep rolling. Doing stupid things like trusting the Jets and Bears is probably why I haven’t done so well this year at picking games, but here I am again going with Chicago after reading some shaky reports on Stafford’s health. I think the Steelers can slow down McVay’s offense, but I don’t trust Mason Rudolph against a defense with elite players when he might not have a healthy JuJu available (James Conner already out).

Finally, I noted that Kirk Cousins (0-25) and Dak Prescott (3-13) are a combined 3-38 in their careers when their passer rating is under 85.0. That’s the biggest disparity from record in games above 85.0 among active QBs. So it would be surprising to see one of them win without playing modestly well Sunday night. I figure a Kirk Cousins team on the road against a good pass rush and team that can score sounds like a Vikings loss to me, but we’ll see.

2019Wk1-9

 

NFL Week 7 Predictions: Peyton Manning and the TD Record

If you’ve been following along on Twitter this week, you probably know I’ve had a major PC problem. I had some files backed up, but fortunately I was able to back everything up yesterday. So I haven’t lost any of the data I spend much of my time working on as a career and hobby. I’ll have a better PC this week, but for now I’m going to be brief on this week’s preview.

The Passing TD Record

Week 7 has a real solid schedule, but obviously the highlight game is SNF: 49ers at Broncos. Out of the 64 AFC-NFC matchups this year, this is one of the most likely to be a rematch in February. These teams have been among the best the past few years and this should be a competitive one, prime-time blowouts be damned.

There’s also some major NFL history at stake with Peyton Manning needing three touchdown passes to surpass Brett Favre (508).

Why is it major? There aren’t many more satisfying plays for a quarterback than to throw a touchdown pass. Throw a bunch of them and you’re going to have plenty of highlights and wins.

It’s also a record that rarely changes in NFL history. Here’s a chronology of the TD pass record since the start of the modern era in the NFL (1950):

  • 1950 (start of season) – Sammy Baugh, the first quarterback to ever throw 100 TDs, had 168 (retired with 187)
  • 12/10/1961 – Bobby Layne tied Baugh with his 187th TD pass
  • 9/23/1962 – Layne set record with 188th TD pass (finished with 196)
  • 12/1/1963 – Y.A. Tittle (we have to exclude his 1948-49 AAFC stats) tied Layne with his 196th TD pass and surpassed him with his 197th (finished with 212)
  • 9/18/1966 – Johnny Unitas tied and surpassed Tittle with four touchdowns against the Vikings (finished with 290)
  • 12/20/1975 – Fran Tarkenton tied and surpassed Unitas with two touchdowns against the Bills (finished with 342)
  • 11/20/1995 – Dan Marino tied Tarkenton at 242.
  • 11/26/1995 – Marino surpassed Tarkenton with four touchdowns against the Colts (finished with 420)
  • 9/23/2007 – Brett Favre tied Marino at 420.
  • 9/30/2007 – Favre surpassed Marino with two touchdowns against the Vikings (finished with 508)

Manning will be only the 8th quarterback in the post-WWII era to hold the record. With his finish to be determined, Drew Brees and Andrew Luck may be the only active players with a realistic shot to catch Manning some day.

Updating a table (click to enlarge) I first compiled months ago, here’s a look at the most TD passes in NFL history based on minimum distance (yards gained):

minTDdist

The table is easy to read and only includes regular-season touchdown passes. Peyton has thrown 111 touchdowns that gained at least 30 yards, the most of any quarterback ever.

If Manning’s next TD pass is at least 34 yards, he’ll break seven ties in the 2-34 range. He has a good shot to retire with his name in first on 1-40 yards. He also needs one 70+ TD pass to break that tie with Favre, but those are very rare.

Manning has 24 games with Denver with 3+ TD passes, so I think he’ll get it over with on Sunday night.

Final prediction: 49ers 20, Broncos 27

NFL Week 7 Predictions

Of course I had the Patriots on TNF, but that was much closer than expected.

Winners in bold:

  • Panthers at Packers
  • Falcons at Ravens
  • Vikings at Bills
  • Browns at Jaguars
  • Bengals at Colts
  • Dolphins at Bears
  • Saints at Lions
  • Titans at Redskins
  • Seahawks at Rams
  • Chiefs at Chargers
  • Giants at Cowboys
  • Cardinals at Raiders
  • 49ers at Broncos
  • Texans at Steelers

Road teams ruled last week, but I like many of the home teams this week (but not the homers that come with them).

Season Results

  • Week 1: 8-8
  • Week 2: 9-7
  • Week 3: 11-5
  • Week 4: 8-5
  • Week 5: 11-4
  • Week 6: 9-5-1
  • Total: 56-34-1