NFL Super Bowl LVI Preview: Rams vs. Bengals

Coming into Game No. 285 of the longest season in NFL history, I am tired. The conference championship outcomes and multiple Tom Brady retirement announcements feel like eons ago. The groundhog has seen its shadow, it’s almost Valentine’s Day, and I’ve spent the week losing at least nine NBA parlays on one leg (usually one stat). I’m streaming an episode of Doom Patrol on my phone and have Pulp Fiction on TV in the other room for the millionth time as I try to compile this, relax, and start the countdown to kickoff on Sunday evening.

Cause despite it being mid-February, there is still one more NFL game to be played. I have already written 10,000 words on this game at Bookmakers Review, which I will link and recap below. But first, allow me to vent about the potential this game could have on the future of the league.

Super Bowl LVI: The End of One Era Begins Anew?

It is unusual for me to not have such a vested interest in a Super Bowl. There’s no obvious villain for me to root against (Tom Brady, Ray Lewis, John Elway, Jerry Jones). While I would love to see Aaron Donald (Pitt) and Cooper Kupp (incredible season) get a Super Bowl ring, there’s no significant rooting interest like I’ve had with the Steelers, Peyton Manning, and Patrick Mahomes.

Eighteen of the last 20 Super Bowls gave me a chance to root for Steelers/Manning/Mahomes or root against Brady and the Patriots. Let that sink in. With 2002 Raiders-Buccaneers, I hated both teams. Ditto for the 2000 Giants-Ravens bore that put me to sleep. You’d probably have to go back to 1991 Bills-Redskins to find the last time I was this disinterested in who wins the Super Bowl, and I wasn’t even watching the NFL at the time. I was coming home every day and watching Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles II: The Secret of the Ooze. Cowabunga.

Of course, I say all this with a February 2022 mindset. For all we know, this could be a major butterfly effect game in NFL history. One that either kicks off a new dynasty in Cincinnati with Joe Burrow taking his crack at being the new LOAT, or a Los Angeles win could be the impetus for contending teams to start ditching draft picks and long-term success plans for the thrill of going all in by acquiring big-name free agents to “buy” a championship.

Just like the 2007-08 Boston Celtics weren’t the first super team in NBA history, the 2021 Rams aren’t the first attempt at a super team in the NFL. Hell, this is basically 2020 Tampa Bay on repeat, even including the part where they get to play the Super Bowl in their home stadium. Unlike these Rams, the Buccaneers had plenty of high draft picks they drafted, but it is true that all three players to score a touchdown in Super Bowl LV were brought in last year to help the key acquisition of Tom Brady (Rob Gronkowski, Antonio Brown, and Leonard Fournette). These Rams do however have some drafted studs in Aaron Donald and Cooper Kupp. But their attempt at going all in was based on bringing in Matthew Stafford, Von Miller, and Odell Beckham Jr. The Beckham trade even happened a day before wide receiver Robert Woods tore his ACL in practice. Donald and Kupp withstanding, the Rams largely outsourced their roster. The Bengals are mostly home grown on offense and spent peanuts to revamp their defense, which is playing over its head right now to get to this point.

If you’re a team-building purist, you’re definitely going to favor the Bengals’ traditional approach to the Rams taking a team that’s been winning for four years, but needed a few upgrades to get over the hump and win it all. Maybe setting a path to go seven years without drafting a player with a first-round pick is never going to be the standard plan of the future, but if the Rams pull this off, don’t be surprised if quarterbacks like Aaron Rodgers and Russell Wilson start to leverage their talent and force their way onto the next super team. If the 49ers didn’t spend so many resources to get Trey Lance, I would say Rodgers to San Francisco in 2022 was a mortal lock.

Those 2008 Celtics had a profound impact on the NBA, showing LeBron James that he needed to leave Cleveland and form his own super team in Miami if he wanted to win a ring. He did, and then he left for Cleveland to do the same thing with new players. But after coming back from a 3-1 deficit against the Warriors, LeBron saw that two can play this game. Kevin Durant took his talents to Golden State, and this would have been an even stronger dynasty if not for injuries. Now everyone wants a “big three” in the NBA, and superstar team-ups are as common as ever.

But you can’t buy health. After a record number of All-Star players were injured in last season’s NBA playoffs, we got an unexpected Finals between the Suns and Bucks. In a way, this Rams-Bengals matchup feels a little similar to that in that it was so unexpected. With both teams finishing fourth in their conference, this is the first Super Bowl matchup ever without a top-three seed.

It may be the last we see too if the era of super teams is upon us. It also may be the end of an era where quarterbacks stay many years in one place, especially after seeing zero Super Bowl appearances in the last 11 seasons for Drew Brees in New Orleans (2010-20), Ben Roethlisberger in Pittsburgh (2011-21), and Aaron Rodgers in Green Bay (2011-21). When mainstream NFL media is still largely driven by telling quarterbacks their greatness is measured by their ring count, isn’t the next logical move for these quarterbacks to start leaving their teams for places that give them better opportunities to win championships?

While you’d love to pencil in Josh Allen as Buffalo’s quarterback for the next 10 years, what if things go sour with the loss of Brian Daboll? What if the next few Buffalo postseasons are also defined by games where the defense was destroyed or the Buffalo weather was so windy (a la the Patriots game on MNF) that Allen couldn’t get the job done? When Allen is still searching for that first Super Bowl appearance in his seventh or eighth season, wouldn’t a trade to a team with a few studs and maybe a roof on the stadium be an attractive option for him?

Even Mahomes is no lock to be a Chief for life. Within five years, Mahomes will almost surely experience the retirements of Andy Reid and Travis Kelce, and Tyreek Hill should lose a step in his early 30s. If he is still stuck on one ring by that time, is a Kansas City rebuild the best thing for him?

If Matthew Stafford, Mr. 8-68 Against Winning Teams Before 2021, can leave the Lions and instantly win a Super Bowl, why can’t any other top 12 quarterback do the same? It almost makes you want to root for the Bengals just to show that hitting draft picks and giving a coaching staff time to develop can still work. Now not many teams are going to get top five draft picks to land Joe Burrow and Ja’Marr Chase, but the Bengals kept the same head coach — the one I said you couldn’t pick out of a lineup of Costco cashiers — and the same two coordinators from 2019-20 when the team was 6-25-1. They didn’t hire a new Bill Walsh or Bill Belichick by accident. They beat the Chiefs by going to a three-man rush. Not exactly revolutionizing the game.

On the other hand, these Bengals are already confident as hell. A win could only empower them to get even cockier, and the thought of Cincinnati replacing New England as the most annoying fanbase on the internet isn’t something I’m looking forward to even if they deserve a run for enduring decades of bad football.

So, like I said, I don’t have a strong preference for who should win this game, but the long-term effects it has on the league remain to be seen. They could be huge. Remember, a Joe Flacco Super Bowl run made it to where you have to pay at least $1 million per start for your quarterback even if he isn’t that great. It’s more like $2 million per start now.

Of course, after Super Bowl 47, Flacco won one more playoff game and Colin Kaepernick was blackballed out of the league before Sean McVay’s contact list became the most sought after item in the NFL coach hiring process.

This league moves in fast and sometimes mysterious ways, but either way, we are entering a new era in the NFL.

I have done five companion pieces on BMR to preview this game in great detail already. My general theme has been that the Rams are the more talented team, have been the better team all year, and they should win this game in their home stadium as the Bengals are statistically one of the weakest teams to ever reach a Super Bowl. While both teams boast a No. 1 pick at QB and a superstar wide receiver having a historic year, the defenses causing havoc with pressure and turnovers in the playoffs is the main reason these teams are here. Which defense makes the big splash plays to win this one? Is an upset possible? Hell yes, and it wouldn’t even be the biggest upset of the Rams in the Super Bowl this century.

Why Rams Can Beat Bengals – “If football games are won in the trenches and defense wins championships, then this game should largely be decided by how Cincinnati’s offensive line handles the pass rush of the Rams. The Bengals were 5-3 to start the season, 5-3 in the second half of the season, rested starters in Week 18, and have won three one-score games in the postseason that came down to the final snap. No team in NFL history has won four playoff games by fewer than eight points, and the Rams’ only loss since December was in overtime after blowing a 17-point lead.” I also look at Cooper Kupp’s historic season and how Stafford has had a better season than Burrow.

Why Bengals Can Beat Rams – “If Burrow really is the next chosen one, in the first game since Brady’s official retirement no less, then the Bengals are going to get a pick-six off Stafford, and McPherson is going to break a tie with a 48-yard field goal on the final play to beat the Rams just like Brady and the Patriots did 20 years ago to start a dynasty. After all, it’s the Year of the Tiger and everything is a sequel or reboot these days.” The headline after this game very well could be that “sacks hurt less than interceptions” if Burrow is taking sacks and Stafford is throwing crucial picks.

Rams Offense vs. Bengals Defense – “Again, all five teams to beat the Rams this year did three things: scored more than 24 points, held Stafford’s offense under 300 net passing yards, and forced multiple turnovers.” Both of these teams were 1-5 when allowing more than 24 points this season. The Bengals had the No. 1 scoring defense (17.6 PPG) in road games this year and intercepted 3.58% of passes on the road compared to 1.58% at home. Cooper Kupp is going to dominate, but this really is the wild card matchup in this game. If the Bengals can get picks, they should win, and you know Stafford is always going to leave some opportunities out there.

Bengals Offense vs. Rams Defense – “The wild card in this game is what Cincinnati’s opportunistic defense can do against Matthew Stafford and the talented Los Angeles offense. But the biggest mismatch on paper that could easily dictate the outcome is the inadequate Cincinnati offensive line against the Rams’ defensive front, led by future Hall of Famer Aaron Donald.” If the Bengals can hold up, they are arguably the most talented offense the Rams have faced this year. But Burrow has to get rid of the ball quickly or this could get ugly.

Super Bowl Game Pick and Prediction – Cincinnati is 6-1 ATS as a road underdog this season and 6-0 ATS in the last six games Burrow started. In this piece I ask the most pressing question: which defense creates the splash plays to win what should be a close, lower-scoring game? Sacks or interceptions? No quarterbacks had more of them this year than these two. I also look at officiating notes on Ron Torbert, how the Rams had a league-low 4 DPI penalties in 20 games, some comparisons on DVOA for Super Bowl teams, and how Cincinnati’s third-quarter dominance could set up a game script of the Bengals coming back to win another close one.

The Prediction

The moment of truth. The first article I wrote was why the Rams could win, then I did why the Bengals could win. If you compare those reasons, I think it’s obvious that I think the Rams should win. But then I started digging more, and after seeing how the Bengals play their best defense in the third quarter and on the road, and how I know Stafford is a guy who could throw a couple picks in any game, I started feeling the Bengals more.

The last four teams favored by more than 3.5 points lost the Super Bowl outright. I think Rams -2.5 is a lot more attractive line for them than Rams -4, which likely means winning by 7+ if you don’t want a push. But look at these teams’ games this season. They’re rarely blowing anyone out, at least not anyone good. I really believe it’s going to be a close game, like 16 of the last 18 Super Bowls have been in the fourth quarter.

Can Donald and Von turn this game into a rout by blowing up that offensive line? Of course. Football has shown us that many times over. But as I wrote in an old Super Bowl preview about Mahomes and the Chiefs being different, I mentioned Joe Burrow (+Chase) and LSU were different too. I remember Burrow starting shaky in the national championship game against Clemson’s top-ranked defense. Then he destroyed them. I don’t think this is a game where he’s throwing for 450+, but I don’t think he has to either. He just has to avoid the game-changing turnovers and hope (or will if he is the new fvcking Brady) his defense forces Stafford into those.

I think the Bengals are going to win the turnover battle, Kupp is going to play the Ricky Proehl part and score a game-tying touchdown late, and Burrow is going to set Evan McPherson up for a 48-yard game-winning field goal that somehow takes seven seconds off the clock.

It’s Super Bowl 36 (STL-NE) all over again as Burrow joins Brady as the only quarterbacks in NFL history to win four straight playoff games (their first four too) by fewer than eight points.

Okay, I am starting to find my rooting interest after all…

Final: Bengals, 23 Rams 20 (MVP: Joe Burrow even though Mike Hilton will have a pick-six)

NFL Stat Oddity: Divisional Round

The last five rounds of the NFL playoffs had been historically low on drama, so you might say regression hit hard with the best divisional round weekend in history. All four games were decided by a walk-off score, a grand total of 15 points separating the teams, and three road underdogs won.

We were 13 seconds away from the first perfect road sweep in the divisional round. It was however the first time ever that both No. 1 seeds (Titans and Packers) lost on the same day. We could even have watched the last games in the Hall of Fame careers of Aaron Rodgers and Tom Brady. That expected NFC Championship Game rematch between the two? Forget about it. We’re getting 49ers-Rams III.

Cincinnati’s halftime lead in Tennessee before winning 19-16 made it a 26-0 run for the team leading at halftime in the playoffs. But the 49ers-Packers ended that historic streak. A blocked punt return touchdown by the 49ers also helped lead to the first fourth-quarter lead change in the playoffs since Super Bowl LIV. We tied the all-time streak at 20 playoff games (set in 1935-50) without a fourth-quarter lead change, but that is thankfully over.

But even if last-second field goals in tied games were still not enough drama for you, the Bills and Chiefs made sure we got all the lead changes you could imagine. Try four after the two-minute warning alone, or one too many if you’re a Buffalo fan.  

We start with one of the absolute best playoff games ever played.

This season in Stat Oddity:

Bills at Chiefs: The Greatest Divisional Round Game Ever

If the Chiefs go on to win the Super Bowl, we’ll be talking about this one on our deathbeds. Rarely does a heavyweight matchup like this one deliver, but this game blew away all expectations.

There were 31 points scored AFTER the two-minute warning. If that’s not the NFL record, then I don’t know what is. The 2013 Vikings-Ravens scored 36 points in the final 2:04, but only 28 came after the two-minute warning.

Even if it wasn’t a significant playoff game with an incredible ending, this was one of the best-played games ever. It is the first game in NFL history where both teams scored 30 points, had no turnovers, and combined for fewer than five penalties. You want clean, efficient play with two incredibly athletic quarterbacks? This was the game to watch.

Josh Allen led the Bills to five touchdowns on nine drives. You could say he’s slipping after going 7-for-7 a week ago, but he was great in this game. Patrick Mahomes led the Chiefs to five touchdowns, three field goals, one missed field goal, and two punts on their 11 drives.

You know you’re dealing with an incredible game when the biggest complaint is the overtime system not letting the other team answer on offense. No officiating controversy. No bogus play to decide it. Just one score after another.

Right from the start you could see this game was going to be special with the teams exchanging touchdowns in a fast-moving first quarter. Mahomes had the toe injury last postseason, so we did not see him run as effectively as he did in the previous postseason. He does seem to have some Colin Kaepernick in him where he “lets it all hang out” in these playoff games. In this game, Mahomes had 49 yards rushing on the first drive alone, scored a touchdown, and finished with a career-high 69 rushing yards to lead the Chiefs.

I said in my preview that the Bills had the No. 1 scoring defense and the Chiefs were No. 1 since Week 6, but both used weak schedules to boost those stats. Against top offenses, they were not reliable this year. Sure enough, the two offenses that were so efficient a week ago had their way with these defenses this night. But for anyone thinking a 42-36 shootout had no defense, that would gloss over all the incredible plays Allen and Mahomes made to avoid sacks. Each took two sacks, but the number would have been so much higher with lesser quarterbacks. Mahomes especially had better pocket movement and sack avoidance in this game than I’ve ever seen from him. Buffalo had to be sick at how often he got away, but tackling was an issue on other plays too, including a 25-yard touchdown run by Mecole Hardman that looked like it would gain a couple yards at best.

Before the 31-point bonanza at the end, this looked like a game where the Chiefs were going to be kicking themselves for a bad kicking night by Harrison Butker (missed a field goal before halftime and an extra point) and a terrible red-zone call in the fourth quarter. Up 23-21, the Chiefs had a chance to go up two scores, but decided to run an option play with Blake Bell pitching to Jerick McKinnon on third-and-1 for a 3-yard loss. WTF was that? Did they not learn from the Wildcat disaster a week ago? Don’t take the ball out of Mahomes’ hands. That’s way too cute on a pivotal play.

Down 26-21, the stage was set for Allen. I predicted he would lead the first game-winning drive with a touchdown for the Bills (0-5 at them in 2021) in this game. I didn’t think he’d almost use the final nine minutes to do it, but the Chiefs could not stop his runs as he had 68 yards on 11 carries. None were bigger than his 6-yard scramble on a fourth-and-4 with 2:48 left. It looked like the Chiefs had him dead to rights on the play, but he escaped a la Steve McNair and picked it up.

After a bad completion to Devin Singletary lost 7 yards when Allen should have thrown the ball at his feet, the Bills faced a 4th-and-13. Allen found Gabriel Davis wide open for 27 yards in the end zone. Davis was the target on Allen’s 75-yard rocket in the third quarter as well. Stefon Diggs had a shockingly quiet night (three catches for 7 yards), but he came through on the receiving end of a two-point conversion after Allen extended the play.

Down 29-26, you knew Mahomes would answer, but could you trust Butker on this night? Didn’t have to. The connection to Tyreek Hill struck playoff gold again over the middle and Hill turned on the jets for a 64-yard touchdown. But did he leave too much time? The Bills had 1:02 and all three timeouts, an eternity in this game. Davis continued to deliver and was the open target again on a 19-yard touchdown, his fourth of the game, a playoff record. The Chiefs were badly missing safety Tyrann Mathieu, who left early with a concussion.

The Butker misses and the cutesy play call were almost forgotten at this point, but I knew I’d be talking about them in recapping this loss for the Chiefs. It’d be the fourth blown fourth-quarter lead for the defense this year. But as long as you have 13 seconds, your timeouts, and Mahomes, you still have a chance in a 36-33 game.

This was going to be tough, but the Bills could not have played it any worse on three straight plays. First, why a touchback? Kick it short and make them burn a few seconds. Every second is crucial. Then the defense was way too soft as the Chiefs picked up 19 yards to Hill in five seconds before using the first timeout. Still difficult, but not impossible. Then the back-breaker: Kelce left way too open for a 25-yard gain right down the seam. Timeout at three seconds and Butker came on to deliver from 49 yards out. Overtime. That’s 44 yards in 10 seconds. That can’t happen.

There have been some miraculous touchdown drives in less time thanks to a Hail Mary or lateral-filled play. But I have the Chiefs as the only offense since 1981 to drive 40-plus yards for a field goal in the last 15 seconds to tie or win a game.

You hate to see it come down to a coin flip, but if ever there was a game where that was inevitable, it was this one. The Chiefs, like they did in Los Angeles against the Chargers in my regular season Game of the Year 2021, won the coin toss and took the ball right down the field for a touchdown. Mahomes threw a perfect ball to Kelce for an 8-yard touchdown to end it.

Since 2011, the team receiving first in overtime in the playoffs is 10-1 and seven games ended on a first-drive touchdown. Only the 2018 Saints lost to the Rams in a game any rational person would tell you had no business going to overtime. But this tells me the system is not working, and for years I have said we need a system that doesn’t have to be as corny as college, but it has to be better for the postseason than this. It’s a damn shame we didn’t get to see Allen answer after his second go-ahead touchdown pass to Davis after the two-minute warning. The Chiefs ended up with 11 drives to nine for the Bills in this game.

I guess the Bills just needed to be closer to perfect like they were a week ago, but at the same time, don’t blow it with 13 seconds or you leave yourself open to exactly this type of ending. But what a game these teams put on. Allen has earned a lot of respect from me with his playoff run, and really going back to that near-comeback attempt in Tampa Bay and his great game in New England. He is a legitimate stud, but Mahomes is still just better.

The best.

Is it the greatest divisional round game ever? Yes, and I don’t answer that as a prisoner of the moment. I hyped this game up as having massive potential for only being a second-round matchup. If I was going full wrestling writer here and creating a system to judge the best games, I would look at things like relevancy/importance, past history/rivalry, roster talent, quarterback performance, game script/drama/lead changes, highlight plays/visual imprints it left, and how it ended.

This one is going to score higher than anything using such criteria. It was a rematch of last year’s AFC Championship Game, so there was history and relevance. Both teams have major Super Bowl aspirations again, and after the three upsets preceding it, this arguably was this year’s Super Bowl. Then after the way the quarterbacks performed, the Gabriel Davis record-setting performance, the 31 points scored after the two-minute warning, the 13-second game-tying drive, a game with no turnovers and four penalties, a walk-off touchdown to a Hall of Fame tight end in overtime – the whole thing was just incredible football.

In the divisional round, you have a lot of games famous for one play or drive in particular:

  • The Immaculate Reception
  • The Sea of Hands
  • Ghost to the Post
  • Red-Right 88
  • Danny White to Drew Pearson in Atlanta (1980)
  • John Elway’s bomb against the 1991 Oilers.
  • The Tuck Rule (two plays, counting Adam Vinatieri’s field goal).
  • Fourth-and-26.
  • Brady having his fourth-down interception fumbled back to him in San Diego (2006).
  • San Diego backup QB Billy Volek’s game-winning drive in Indy (2007).
  • Antonio Brown’s coming out party on third-and-19 against the 2010 Ravens.
  • Alex Smith to Vernon Davis against the 2011 Saints.
  • Joe Flacco to Jacoby Jones via Rahim Moore in Denver (2012).
  • Dez Caught It (2014)
  • Aaron Rodgers to Jeff Janis twice, but Larry Fitzgerald in OT (2015)
  • Rodgers to Jared Cook in Dallas (2016)
  • The Minneapolis Miracle to Stefon Diggs (2017)

A lot of great moments, and some were even great games before that moment. But I would still put this game ahead of them all, as well as any other overtime game like 1971 Chiefs-Dolphins (longest game but forgettable), 2003 Panthers-Rams (Steve Smith in double overtime), or a 2002 Steelers-Titans shootout involving Tommy Maddox (and kicker/actor Joe Nedney).

When you get to the cream of the crop in the divisional round, I think you’re talking about 2005 Steelers at Colts. It was the first time a No. 6 seed beat the No. 1 seed, and it was one of the most dramatic fourth quarters in playoff history with the Colts trying to rally from a 21-3 deficit. Jerome Bettis’ fumble, Nick Harper’s recovery, and Ben Roethlisberger’s tackle set up a crushing missed field goal by Mike Vanderjagt, creating a montage of “he missed it” quips from Bettis, Bill Cowher, Tony Dungy, and Peyton Manning. The Steelers went on to win the Super Bowl that year. Harper being stabbed by his wife the night before the game just adds to the lore. But it loses points for not having any lead changes and coming down to that liquored-up kicker you knew would choke.

The other game that will usually come up in the best divisional round game talk is The Epic in Miami: 1981 Chargers at Dolphins. The favored Chargers led 24-0 before the Dolphins, led by backup QB Don Strock off the bench, rallied the team to a 24-24 tie. The teams exchanged touchdowns before the Dolphins even took a 38-31 lead, which was answered by Dan Fouts and his high-powered offense to tie the game at 38. Strock had his interception fumbled back to him, but Miami’s 43-yard field goal was tipped by tight end Kellen Winslow to end regulation. The Chargers could have ended things immediately, but missed a 27-yard field goal to start overtime. Oof. Several more drives took place, including Miami’s 34-yard field goal being blocked. The Chargers finally won 41-38 on a 29-yard field goal.

Great game (I’ve seen a full replay), certainly an epic, but I’m not putting any game that involves Don f’n Strock throwing for 403 yards off the bench and a bunch of failed field goals as the No. 1 game over what we just saw on Sunday.

So, there you have it. This was the best of the best. I can only hope we see these teams meet in the playoffs more. This was already the fourth Mahomes-Allen game in the last two seasons. John Elway and Dan Marino met three times in 16 seasons despite being drafted into the same conference in the same year. This could be the NFL’s next great rivalry with a signature game to boot already.

Of course, now it’s the Bengals’ turn to take on the Chiefs in Kansas City. The Chiefs do not have to make up that 27-3 loss in Tennessee. They get to stay home and make up that 34-31 loss in Cincinnati. Let’s just say I won’t be voting against Mahomes again any time soon.

Not even 13 seconds is good enough to put him away. But props to Buffalo for closing the gap from last season. Just have to make one more stride to get over the hump next year.

Rams at Buccaneers: Did Tom Brady’s Luck Finally Run Out?

If I was writing the script for Tom Brady’s final NFL game, it might look quite similar to what happened on Sunday. You know I would have him lose as a home favorite in an early round of the playoffs. You know I would have him commit multiple turnovers. But I would write in all sorts of absurd Brady Bullshit (Trademark 2003) to leave no doubt that he was the luckiest player to ever lace them up in this sport. The LOAT. The first unsportsmanlike conduct penalty of his career was a nice twist I didn’t see coming, but he kind of made himself a target for that this week.

But even after getting a mind-numbing number of breaks to go his way, he would still lose in the end. And that’s exactly what happened against the Rams, though my script would have been better for my blood pressure.

But there will not be a repeat champion, extending the longest drought without one in NFL history. As for Brady retiring? I’ll believe it when I see a Week 1 without him. I don’t think we’re lucky enough to be done with him, but the days have to be numbered.

I also have to do a bit of an apology to Matthew Stafford. I’ve been hard on him about the 8-68 record against winning teams, though I wanted that to go viral to motivate him this season. You also should know by now that my game predictions for Brady are reverse jinxes, which is why you see me pick his team to win every time. You have to read between the lines. When I say things like “The Rams have a lot of the right elements to deal with Tampa Bay,” but then you see me bring up Brady’s luck, that’s a pretty good sign I actually believe the Rams should win this game. They’re the better team.

While I was absolutely right that turnovers would be the story of this game, none of them were Stafford’s fault as I feared. Stafford was money on the road, saw the field very well, and made the biggest throws of the game to Cooper Kupp. He passed for 366 yards despite Cam Akers (24 carries for 48 yards) only averaging 2.0 yards per carry and wasting a lot of first downs.

Stafford was 0-53 in his career when his team allowed more than 24 points against a team with a winning record. Make that 1-53 after the biggest win of his career.

But my lord did the Rams make this tougher than it needed to be. You could see early on that the Rams, who had already won two in a row over Brady’s Bucs, were a tough matchup for this team. Neither team had their best tackle (Andrew Whitworth for Rams, Tristan Wirfs for Bucs), but the Rams’ superior pass-rushing talent took over while Stafford was better at delivering throws from different angles.

Brady was off early, missing his first four throws as the Rams built a 10-0 lead. Stafford found Kupp inexplicably open for a 70-yard touchdown on third-and-20 to take a 17-3 lead. The Buccaneers missed a 48-yard field goal on the drive where Brady was penalized for cursing at a ref, though it should be pointed out they eventually had a first down four yards beyond where that penalty was marked off. The drive just stalled out as was often the case for the Bucs, who finished 3-of-14 on third down, even worse than their bad week against the Eagles on third down. The Buccaneers were all-around sloppy in this game, kicking off out of bounds multiple times, and drawing multiple 15-yard flags.

LOAT MOMENT #1: But with the Rams up 20-3 at the two-minute warning, that’s when the LOAT kicked into gear, or perhaps when Brady sacrificed a newborn’s soul for one last pact with the devil. Brady just threw up a pass for Gronk that was intercepted and returned to the Tampa Bay 31 with 1:53 left. Now if someone like Peyton Manning, Drew Brees, or Aaron Rodgers throws that pick in a big game, they’re falling behind 27-3 at the half. Maybe 24-3 at best. But what makes Brady the LOAT is he wills his defense to force Cam Akers to fumble at the 1-yard line after the ball just started coming out prior to Akers’ head being down on the ground.

What a break. As you might expect, the last team to lead a playoff game by 14+ points and lose a fumble before losing the game was Atlanta in Super Bowl 51. That was the big Hightower strip-sack of Matt Ryan with the Falcons up 28-12 on third-and-1. When Al Michaels and Cris Collinsworth remind you that if anyone can lead this comeback, it’s Brady, they’re burying the lede that he isn’t even on the god damn field when these crucial plays are happening. But if Jimmy Garoppolo can lead a 17-point second-half comeback against these Rams in Week 18, Brady could too.

The Rams seemed to overcome this one. They used a sequence of a great punt, three-and-out on defense, and a big punt return to set up a 28-yard touchdown drive. Stafford’s QB sneak looked better this week and the Rams were in the end zone again. Brady had to settle for a field goal, and it was 27-6 late in the third quarter. Again, this is Super Bowl LI territory. Just make one more good drive and you win the game, which is exactly what Atlanta failed to do despite so many chances. After Tampa’s second kickoff out of bounds, things were looking good at the 40. However…

LOAT MOMENT #2: The reliable Kupp fumbled a short completion and Brady was at the 30. Here we go again.

According to Stathead, the Rams are the only team in the playoffs since at least 1994 to lose two fumbles from scrimmage in a game while leading by at least 14 points.

Four plays later on a fourth-and-9, there’s Brady suddenly with a wall of pass protection and a big cushion on Scotty Miller, who caught the ball for 16 yards. Again, learn from Atlanta. One good play ends the game. Three plays later, Leonard Fournette was in the end zone and it was 27-13 going into the fourth quarter.

The Rams used a whopping 31 seconds to go three-and-out. But just when you thought you knew where this one was headed, Von Miller said enough of this bullshit. He got to Brady for a strip sack and the Rams had the ball back at the Tampa 25. At worst, they’d kick a field goal and take a three-score lead again. Well, about that…

LOAT MOMENT #3: Stafford was not expecting the snap from center and the ball went over his head for a third fumble. The strip-sack actually helped Brady gain 25 yards in field position.

When I just told you the Rams are the only playoff team to fumble two times when leading by at least 14 points, you know damn well that means they’re the only team to do it three times since at least 1994. As far as regular-season games, you have to go back to 2002 Bills vs. Bengals to find the last team to cough it up three times with a 14+ point lead. But at least two of those Buffalo turnovers were in the final four minutes of the game with a 27-9 lead.

Surprisingly, Brady did not turn this one into points despite starting at the Los Angeles 45. He took a big sack from Leonard Floyd to bring up a fourth-and-14. Brady threw incomplete for Mike Evans, but Eric Weddle was there for a late hit that was unnecessary. That’s a 15-yard penalty, but the interesting part is that it’s a dead ball foul assessed after the change of possession as the hit came a split second after the ball hit the ground. Maybe something to look at for a rule change, but a rare case of things going against Brady. Though, let’s be real. A bad throw bailed out by a late hit would have just been LOAT MOMENT #4. Speaking of which…

LOAT MOMENT #4: Just when you think the Rams are going to put it out of reach at 17 points, kicker Matt Gay comes up short on a 47-yard field goal with 6:31.

Now a 47-yard field goal is not a lock, but who in the NFL comes up SHORT on a kick from that distance in a game played in Florida? Absurd effort from the kicker there to keep the Bucs alive. But again, Brady couldn’t respond. He didn’t see a wide-open Miller on a fourth-and-9 and threw incomplete with 4:26 left. The Bucs had to use their three timeouts to get a three-and-out and get the ball back with 3:56 left.

All the Los Angeles defense has to do is not give up a touchdown before the two-minute warning. Ideally, you stop them cold. But if you give up a touchdown after the 2MW, then it’s just a matter of recovering the onside kick to end it. Of course, Tampa probably recovers that with the way this one was going, but whatever. Just play defense.

LOAT MOOh wait, let’s give him one here. Knowing this clock situation, Brady took his shot deep and finally hit a good pass in the game, finding Evans in coverage with Jalen Ramsey for a 55-yard touchdown with 3:20 left. The Bucs trailed 27-20.

One first down can win the game with the Bucs out of timeouts. McVay shrunk in this situation against the 49ers in Week 18. He couldn’t do it again, could he? Passing on second-and-7 to end it certainly was an option, but they stuck with Akers. He looked to have a hole, but oh shit.

LOAT MOMENT #5: Akers fumbles at the LA 30 with 2:25 left. Brady is 30 yards away from the tie, his ninth playoff touchdown drive starting in opponent territory since 2020. This is only the third time during Brady’s NFL career that a player fumbled in the final 3:00 of a playoff game with a one-score lead. The other two involved the Steelers: they forced Cincinnati’s Jeremy Hill to fumble in 2015 and Jerome Bettis lost his infamous one in Indy in 2005 before Ben Roethlisberger tackled Nick Harper.

Now the only question was if “no risk it, no biscuit” Bruce Arians would go for two if the Bucs get a touchdown. The Brady sneak on fourth-and-1 may have made that more likely, but with everyone expecting it, the Bucs went with a run to Fournette, who broke a tackle in the backfield and ran for a 9-yard touchdown with 42 seconds left. I think the extra point to tie the game at 27 was the right call with that much time left.

It’s probably a good thing I didn’t tweet about a pick-six coming next, but it sure felt like the Rams were going to blow this one. They’ve already coughed up four fumbles and you couldn’t trust the kicker. The ensuing drive got off to a rough start too with Stafford taking a sack. But that final timeout by McVay at 35 seconds bought the team time to compose itself before making some plays. Stafford found Kupp for 20 yards, then against the blitz-happiest defense in the league, Stafford went back to the most targeted receiver against the blitz in the NFL this season. Kupp ran right down the middle of the field and the ball was perfect for a 44-yard gain. The spike operation was smoothly done, and Gay was able to make the kick from 30 yards out to win the game.

I would have preferred a more humorous ending for Brady to lose, but this works for me. A signature game-winning drive for Stafford and a memorable throw to Kupp, the best wideout this year.

It seems crazy that the Rams still have to beat another nemesis next week to get to the Super Bowl, because this was some real slay the dragon shit in Tampa. They overcame four fumbles in the LOAT’s house, blew a 24-point lead, and still found a way to win. The Rams are the first team since the merger to have zero interceptions and lose four fumbles in a playoff game.

It took 13 years, but Stafford has a signature win. This Tampa team’s success last year was a model for what the Rams are doing this season. Now they are just two more wins away from getting it done, but neither game expects to be easy.

As for Tampa Bay, I’ll just let Antonio Brown have the final words:

49ers at Packers: Aaron Rodgers To Go Through with Super Bowl Boycott After All

Wait, was that it? Did we really just see the end of Aaron Rodgers’ run in Green Bay with a 13-10 home loss to the 49ers in the divisional round? He’s the first quarterback in NFL history to lose four playoff games to the same opponent, but none have been more shocking or disappointing than this one.

In fact, I think it’s the worst loss of Rodgers’ career.

The Packers were swept out of the playoffs by the 2012 49ers, 2013 49ers, 2014 Seahawks, 2015 Cardinals, 2016 Falcons, 2019 49ers, and 2020 Buccaneers. That means they were 0-2 against all those teams, opponents that were usually just better and they never found an answer for. This is the first time Green Bay didn’t get swept out of the playoffs since they lost 37-20 to the 2011 Giants in the divisional round. That was another team, like the 2021 49ers in Week 3, where they escaped with a road win on a last-second field goal. But come playoff time, they shit the bed. At least in 2011, the Packers could blame a slow start on resting Rodgers after the 15th game and having the bye. Those Giants also completed a second historic Super Bowl run that year, and I do not believe these 49ers are those Giants reincarnated. These 49ers needed a 17-point comeback in LA to make the tournament before holding on for dear life in Dallas last week.

Sure, the 2011, 2014, and 2020 Packers all looked more prepared to win a championship than this year’s version, a team that had key players injured on both sides, relied too much on Davante Adams, ranked 21st in points per drive allowed, and had a hard time putting teams away comfortably. Those three MVP seasons by Rodgers were better versions of him than what we saw this year, which will still likely net him a fourth MVP as it’s a regular-season award and the votes have been cast.

But what I’m most stunned by is the 13-10 final. Prior to Saturday night, Rodgers was 41-0 in starts he finished where the Packers allowed fewer than 14 points. The only loss by actual record in that situation was a 7-3 game he left early (concussion) against the 2010 Lions. But he was undefeated in games he finished. Keyword: was. You could also say Rodgers was 55-1 in games where the Packers allowed under 16 points with the only loss being the Fail Mary in Seattle (2012).

Make that 55-2.

Incredibly, the slow-starting Packers opened this game with a nice 69-yard touchdown drive to take a 7-0 lead. The defense, which was excellent, forced a three-and-out, collecting the first of four third-down sacks on the night. You couldn’t ask for a better start. But Marcedes Lewis fumbled in San Francisco territory on the second drive, and the Packers gained more than one first down on one of their last eight drives.

You don’t deserve to win when you only score 10 points. I inadvertently jinxed Rodgers big time when I pointed out he had by far the longest streak in playoff history (20 games) of leading his team to 20 points. But he only got halfway there this time, and it’s only the second playoff game where he did not throw a touchdown pass.

But this offensive dud has another major storyline. It was one I could see coming weeks ago.

The Packers had the worst special teams (in a variety of ways) this season, and while it was not a strength for the 49ers this season, sure enough it was a huge part of this upset loss. As predicted, here is that bullet-point list of special teams woes. I’m not even going to bother listing a few short punts and kickoffs that gave the 49ers good field position. We’ll just stick with the big ones.

  • Mason Crosby’s 39-yard field goal was blocked to end the first half, wasting a 75-yard catch by Aaron Jones and keeping the score at 7-0.
  • Deebo Samuel, who had another great game, returned the opening kickoff of the second half 45 yards to give the 49ers the ball at the 50. The drive ended with a field goal.
  • One for playoff lore: up 10-3 with 4:50 left, Green Bay’s punt was blocked deep in their own end, the ball took forever and a day to land on the ground, and the 49ers were there for the 6-yard touchdown return to tie the game.
  • San Francisco kicker Robbie Gould nailed a 45-yard field goal at the buzzer to win the game, 13-10.

That was a brutal special teams performance, but there is some solace in watching your weakness end your season. It hurts more when your strength lets you down, and that happened here too with the offense. Last season against the Buccaneers, it was the historically-great red zone offense that let down a couple times, including that famed sequence late that led to a field goal when the Packers were down eight points.

But this year? Things were all around sour after the opening drive. Lewis’ fumble was just a bad play by him, but it also speaks to the lack of a tight end after losing Robert Tonyan. The new running attack was stalled out when A.J. Dillon, who scored the touchdown, left with injury. Dillon and Jones combined for just 66 yards on 19 carries. Jones had 129 receiving yards to lead the team, but 75 of those yards were on that blown coverage before halftime. Rodgers only passed for 55 yards in the second half. A whopping 18 of his 20 completions went to Adams and Jones as only four Packers caught a ball.

Rodgers took five sacks against a defense that could barely touch him in Week 3. Nick Bosa was indeed a beast this time around. He probably dedicated the performance to Kyle Rittenhouse. The offensive line has not been as strong this year, and left tackle David Bakhtiari was not able to go again, but Rodgers took some really costly sacks in this one, a usual hallmark of a disappointing Green Bay loss.

The defense was not a scapegoat this time though. Garoppolo flirted with multiple picks, forced an awful one in the end zone on first down despite George Kittle being wide open, and his internal clock seemed to be frozen on this snowy, freezing night. But the 49ers also seemed to adjust better to the conditions than the Packers, which was weird. It was the 49ers hurting themselves more with drops, including a wide-open one by Kittle that would have been a big play. The 49ers hung in there, got the huge break on the blocked punt, and just waited for their chance as the Packers could not move the ball.

When Garoppolo just has to complete two quick passes for 26 yards to get a game-winning drive going, that’s going to be ideal for the 49ers. When you can just hand the ball to Samuel three times to get a first down that puts you in field-goal range, including a 9-yard run on third-and-7 where almost any other quarterback would have to make a huge throw, that’s stealing for the 49ers.

And they stole this victory away from Green Bay to end its season in one of the most painful ways possible. Rodgers was numb after the loss and that’s easy to understand. He has opened himself up to more criticism than ever before this season with the way he’s handled himself on podcasts and media interviews. I’m not going to pile on here. I’m just glad we don’t have to entertain the idea of him letting Brady get to a second Super Bowl in the NFC before he does. After this loss, I don’t think he will ever get back to the big game.

Matt LaFleur’s 2019-21 Packers are the first team in NFL history to win at least 13 games in three straight regular seasons. But they are also going to go down as the only team to win 39 games in a three-year span and not reach the Super Bowl.

Is this the end of an era of Hall of Fame quarterback play in Green Bay from 1992 through 2021? I don’t know what it’s like to watch an NFL where the Packers don’t have Favre or Rodgers. I got a little taste of it in 2013 and 2017 when he had his collarbone injuries, and yeah, the Packers weren’t relevant those weeks.

We’ll see what the future holds, but it’s crazy to think the 49ers are one win away from sending Jimmy Garoppolo to more Super Bowls than the Packers reached with Rodgers.

Bengals at Titans: Ryan Tannehill’s Interception Sudoku

I usually do not boil a playoff game down to one quarterback choking, but Ryan Tannehill choked this one away for the Titans, who fell to 0-3 in Tennessee in home playoff games as the No. 1 seed. They never scored more than 16 points in any of those games either. This comes on the heels of a 20-13 wild card loss to the Ravens last year in which Tannehill also had a late interception.

This time, Tannehill threw an interception on his first pass of the game, his first pass of the second half, and his last pass of the game. It’s like filling in an interception sudoku. He would have tried to add one in overtime if the game ever got there, and the fact that it didn’t is the most egregious part of this all.

Well, there’s also this fact: teams who score under 20 points and take nine sacks are 2-126-2 (.023) since 1960. The 1990 Seahawks had the first win against the Chiefs after Dave Krieg escaped Derrick Thomas’ final sack attempt. Now the Bengals have the first playoff win after Joe Burrow, who led the league in sacks taken this year (51), took nine sacks and still got the low-scoring road win. Tennessee’s pass rush was impressive at overwhelming the Bengals throughout the game, but it went to waste from an offensive performance that would make Jeff Fisher nod with approval.

The Titans waited basically all season to get their offense healthy for this playoff run. A.J. Brown was awesome with 142 yards and a one-handed touchdown catch. Julio Jones looked good with six grabs for 62 yards. Derrick Henry had screws in his foot, didn’t look quite ready for his 20-carry workload, but he scored a touchdown and had a few vintage runs. The Titans probably should have given D’Onta Foreman more touches as he had four carries for 66 yards, including a 45-yard run for the offense’s biggest play of the game.

But even after getting all his guys back, Tannehill did not go to them on the crucial play of the game. On a third-and-5 at his own 40 with 28 seconds left, Tannehill decided to force a pass at midfield to Nick Westbrook-Ikhine. The result was a tipped interception, which set up the Bengals for their game-winning field goal with no time left after Burrow found Ja’Marr Chase for 19 yards. Evan McPherson has been an outstanding rookie kicker and he drilled a 52-yard field goal to win this game.

The last thing Tannehill could do was turn the ball over in bad field position. If he wanted to throw a bomb to Brown or Jones that was picked 40 yards downfield, that probably would get the game to overtime too. But with overtime in his back pocket, Tannehill got greedy and didn’t even pick a good option.

That was a killer, but so was the tipped pick after Foreman’s 45-yard run got the ball into the red zone. Mike Hilton made an incredible play on the ball, so it wasn’t all Tannehill’s fault, but he was not sharp in the game. The offensive line also did not get any push on a couple of key Henry runs, including a fourth-and-1 in a tied game with 7:16 left. Mike Vrabel is willing to chop his dick off for a Super Bowl ring, but he can’t get behind a quarterback sneak? Is he afraid he’ll have to actually go through with the castration if the Titans get a Super Bowl on his watch?

Watching Tannehill in the last three postseasons, where he averages 150.8 passing yards per game, I’m not sure Vrabel has to worry about any Super Bowl in the near future.

One thing blowing back on Vrabel from this game was his decision to go for a two-point conversion with the game tied at 6-6. It was early in the game (second quarter), the extra point puts Tennessee up 7-6, but I liked it just because there was a penalty that put the ball at the 1. I liked the call to give the ball to Henry, but he came up inches short and the game remained tied.

Would we have a 9-7 game at halftime if the Titans go for one? Probably. Would the Bengals go for two on their touchdown to start the third quarter to make it 17-7 instead of 16-7? Probably not. Do the Titans take a 17-16 lead late third quarter if they had gone for one? Good chance. But would Burrow still take a brutal sack that knocks the Bengals out of field goal range in the fourth quarter if he was down 17-16 instead of tied 16-16? Maybe, maybe not. The whole fourth quarter could play out much differently from there, so I’m not going to put the loss all on that one decision. There were more missed opportunities than that in the game. The Titans had three plays of 40-plus yards and turned those drives into just nine points.

It was the second year in a row that the Titans had an offensive letdown at home for a one-and-done postseason. Turn the ball over enough and you can lose to anyone in this league. If it’s true against the Texans in Week 11, it’s for sure true in the playoffs against Cincinnati.

After watching the Bills-Chiefs game on Sunday night, it’s still hard to believe the Titans beat both of those teams the way they did this year. It’s also hard to believe they could have done it again next week, or next year for that matter.

If Tannehill could learn anything from Burrow in this game, it may be that eating the ball is sometimes the smartest option. Don’t throw the game away.

Next week: Can we actually get a third Bengals-49ers Super Bowl? It’s the worst option available and would require two road upsets, but we’ll see. Personally, I want a rematch of 54-51 between the Rams and Chiefs. It’s the best matchup and provides the best storylines. Even 49ers-Chiefs isn’t so bad since it would be a rematch of Super Bowl LIV.

NFL 2021 NFC Divisional Round Preview

The divisional round on the NFC side brings us two rematches from Week 3, which feels like eons ago. The Rams will attempt to win a third-straight game against Tom Brady’s Buccaneers. Only three teams have handed Brady three straight losses: 2005-06 Broncos (four if you count 2009), 2005-06 Colts, and 2007-11 Giants.

But first, the Packers try to win a playoff game against the 49ers, something that was not a problem in the 90s, proving that is still the best decade ever.

A lot of people are going to predict a rematch of the Bays next week, but wouldn’t that be something if it was 49ers-Rams III? Good luck though. Since 1990, only twice has a conference saw both home teams lose in the divisional round: 2006 AFC (Chargers and Ravens lost to Patriots and Colts) and 2008 NFC (Panthers and Giants lost to Cardinals and Eagles). 2008 was also a weekend where the top-seeded Titans lost to the Ravens, leaving the home teams at 1-3.

Will history repeat itself in a year begging for some upsets and with a top-seeded Titans team people like to disrespect?

You can see my two AFC previews here.

49ers at Packers (-5.5)

Every time these teams play that clip resurfaces of a young Aaron Rodgers at the 2005 draft. When asked how disappointed he was that the 49ers didn’t draft him, he says “not as disappointed as the 49ers will be that they didn’t draft me.”

Rodgers is right that the 49ers likely would have been happier had they drafted him instead of Alex Smith. While there is no guarantee he would go on to be a multi-MVP winner and one of the greatest ever had he started out on Mike Nolan’s team in 2005, I think it’s a given he’d have done a better job than Smith, who was given numerous opportunities to be a franchise quarterback there.

And yet, the fact remains all these years later that Rodgers is 0-3 in the playoffs against San Francisco, and the 49ers have done more to keep him out of Super Bowls than vice versa. The 49ers have even been to one more Super Bowl than Rodgers has so far. They just didn’t get a win because of where a pass Colin Kaepernick threw in the end zone on fourth down landed and because of Patrick Mahomes on third-and-15.

So, this one is pretty personal as buddies Kyle Shanahan and Matt LaFleur meet in their second playoff game after the 49ers routed the Packers in the 2019 NFC Championship Game. But out of the four matchups, this is Rodgers’ best chance to beat the 49ers in the playoffs. If he loses this one at home where the Packers are 8-0 this year, it could even be his last game with the team.

49ers: Why Things Can Be Different This Time

When these teams met in San Francisco on SNF in Week 3, the 49ers did a good job of rallying back from a 17-0 deficit. The defense made just enough stops to prevent the Packers from putting the game away late. Jimmy Garoppolo led a solid 75-yard touchdown drive to take the lead with 37 seconds left. But even that was too much time as Rodgers found Davante Adams twice for 42 yards to set up a game-winning field goal and the Packers won 30-28.

If you want to believe in the 49ers this weekend, you have to like that the team is different than it was in Week 3, especially on offense. Trey Sermon was the leading back that night and he only had 10 carries for 31 yards. Apparently, Shanahan can’t just sub in any back and embarrass the Packers like he did with Raheem Mostert (220 yards, four touchdowns) in the 2019 NFC title game.

Rookie back Elijah Mitchell was out that night. He’s back, and in his last eight games of the season, he averaged 96.8 rushing yards. What did he have in Dallas on Sunday in the playoffs? He had 96 rushing yads and a touchdown. He has been fairly consistent. The 49ers also started using Deebo Samuel more as a runner in Week 10, which kickstarted this 8-2 run after a 3-5 start. While I still think Samuel is too valuable of a receiver to not get him more targets in the passing game, this has been successful for the 49ers. Deebo has rushed for a touchdown in seven of the last nine games and he is ridiculously hard to tackle. The Packers held him to 52 yards on seven touches in Week 3, an impressive effort. But he’s going to be more productive this time.

The question is can the 49ers get tight end George Kittle going again to go along with Mitchell, Samuel, and the sometimes useful Brandon Aiyuk? Kittle had a 39-yard catch that was mostly YAC, his specialty, in Week 3 to help the 49ers get that go-ahead touchdown drive started. It was San Francisco’s only 20-yard play that night.

But Kittle only has 78 yards in his last four games combined. He caught one ball for 18 yards in Dallas and was fortunate to drop a low ball late in the game or else it would have been a brutal fumble. He needs to do more in this matchup.

The 49ers look to be getting good news on the injury front as Garoppolo, Nick Bosa, and Fred Warner are trending towards playing Saturday. There was some concern that rookie Trey Lance would have to start this game, which would likely be disastrous for the 49ers. Remember when Jordan Love had to start against the Chiefs? It’d probably look like a slightly better version of that. The 49ers are going to have to bring the offense this week as Rodgers has led the Packers to at least 20 points in all 20 of his playoff starts, an NFL record.

But I definitely give the 49ers a fighting a chance as that offense has shown the ability to put together very long scoring drives that can shorten the game and shrink Rodgers’ margin of error. The 49ers had a 13:05 drive for a field goal against Jacksonville and a touchdown drive against the Rams that took 11:03 off the clock.

The 49ers are 8-2 in the last 10 games. The Seahawks own them, but the only other loss was on a last-second field goal in Tennessee, the other No. 1 seed this year. Say what you want about Garoppolo and his mistakes, but he led road wins in Cincinnati, Los Angeles (after trailing 17-0), and Dallas last week. That’s two weeks in a row with huge road wins as underdogs, so three in a row would be really hard to do against a rested No. 1 seed.

But the 49ers bring in a good mixture of talent, coaching, balance, and experience to pull off such an upset. It wouldn’t even be a top-four shocking upset in Lambeau this century.

Packers: Same Old Story Or…?

Another year, another likely MVP for Aaron Rodgers, another No. 1 seed, but will it be another playoff exit short of the Super Bowl? The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results.

As much as I personally need the Packers to do well this postseason, I have a hard time buying that this team is better suited for a deep run this season. It especially doesn’t help that I think all three remaining teams (49ers, Rams, Buccaneers) are capable of winning in Green Bay.

The offense regressed from 2020. Rodgers will still win MVP by default, but he was better a year ago. Davante Adams remains incredible, but Marques Valdes-Scantling has been hurt and is doubtful this Saturday. They don’t have a tight end with 250 yards after losing Robert Tonyan. Left tackle David Bakhtiari only returned in Week 18 and played his first 27 snaps in over a year as the offensive line was not as dominant. I do like running back A.J. Dillon, who provides more of a physical style than Aaron Jones, but I don’t see the Packers riding their RB2 to the Super Bowl here.

The defense has actually declined from 14th in yards per drive and 17th in points per drive to 21st in both categories this year. In Weeks 11-14, the Packers allowed 28-34 points in each game, including games against the lowly Bears and the Ravens with a backup QB (Tyler Huntley). Sure, injuries have not been kind to that unit. The Packers lost Za’Darius Smith in Week 1. Corner Jaire Alexander has not played since Week 4. He hopes to return, which could be big, especially if the Packers make it to next week. He intercepted Garoppolo in Week 3.

Spoiler alert: defenses that finish 21st in points per drive tend to do poorly in the playoffs. You basically have to be the 2006 Colts or 2011 Giants to still win a championship. The Packers are also disastrous on special teams, but fortunately, that’s not a strength for the 49ers either. But it is something that could come back to bite Green Bay before this season is over.

But if I’m being optimistic about the Packers this week, then I like what I saw in Week 3. While the 49ers are using their offensive players differently now, they didn’t have any 20-yard plays until Kittle in the final minute. They didn’t run all over Green Bay. Nick Bosa and company got almost no pressure on Rodgers, who had his lowest pressure rate of the season in a game he attacked downfield. Adams got whatever he wanted against that secondary, the weakness of the defense. What are they going to do, guard him with Josh Norman? Allen Lazard has also come along well late in the season as another option for Rodgers, who plays better at home. The 49ers have committed a league-high 20 defensive pass interference penalties, six more than any other defense. Few quarterbacks draw more of those than Rodgers.

When the 49ers swept the Packers in 2019, we saw that domination right away in the first matchup. We didn’t see anything like it this year with the Packers going up 17-0 before a long kick return before halftime got the 49ers back in the game. The Packers have had an issue with putting games away comfortably this year.

The Prediction

The Packers have lost two games this year that Rodgers finished. One was that weird Week 1 game in Jacksonville against the Saints. Bad things just happen when Rodgers goes down to Florida. The other was a 34-31 shootout with the Vikings, a division foe that knows them well. This team has answered every other challenge, including a 4-0 record against the NFC West that has plagued them for a decade.

I do not know if you’ll see me pick the Packers to win another game this season after this week. I do not know if this will end up being the end of the road for Rodgers in Green Bay. But I do know I’m confident enough to pick the Packers to pull out a win on Saturday. I’m just skeptical enough to pick the 49ers to cover.

Final: Packers 27, 49ers 23

Rams at Buccaneers (-3)

The 2021 Rams are trying to be the 2020 Buccaneers but standing in their way is a Tampa team trying to repeat as champions. This is a very intriguing matchup with both teams looking a bit different from their Week 3 showdown, won 34-24 by the Rams. That was a wire-to-wire win, but now that we’re in a pivotal playoff round, you have to worry about some LOAT stuff going down Sunday. Anything is possible if Tom Brady puts his willpower to it.

Rams: To Be the Man…

Fair or not, the Matthew Stafford narrative is about to write its biggest chapter yet. For a team that is going all in on a Super Bowl this season, this would be a major disappointment to lose Sunday even if it is on the road against the defending champions. But the Rams are only a three-point dog and already handed Tampa Bay a 10-point loss this year.

This is the kind of win that could really change the perception for Stafford, who infamously entered this season with an 8-68 (.105) record against teams that finished the season with a winning record. How have things gone so far?

  • Stafford has led the Rams to a 4-5 record against winning teams, including the first winning streak of his career with wins over the Colts and Buccaneers in Weeks 2-3.
  • It is the first season in Stafford’s career where he has logged multiple wins over winning teams.
  • Stafford is still 5-35 (.125) on the road against winning teams (2-2 this year).
  • Stafford is 3-28 (.097) against 12-win teams, but he did get the win over Tampa Bay (13-4) this year.
  • Stafford is 42-52-1 (.447) at 4QC/GWD opportunities in his career, but that record drops to 3-35 (.079) against teams with a winning record.
  • Stafford is still 0-53 when his team allows more than 24 points against a winning team. The Rams are 0-5 when allowing more than 24 points this year and 13-0 otherwise.

That last part feels most significant as the Buccaneers are used to scoring a lot of points. Since 2020, Tampa Bay is 26-0 when scoring at least 28 points, easily the best record in the league and the most such games.

That is why this weekend cannot be all about Stafford as road virtuoso performances by a quarterback are few and far between in NFL playoff history. He needs his defense to step up and there are big names in that group too with Aaron Donald, Von Miller, and Jalen Ramsey. Despite those names and the injuries throughout the season to the Tampa Bay secondary, the Bucs still boast a championship-caliber defense, coordinated by Todd Bowles, who showed in the playoffs that he can adjust to specific opponents like he did for the Chiefs in the Super Bowl.

The Buccaneers rank No. 6 in points per drive allowed, No. 7 in takeaways per drive, No. 12 in third-down conversion rate, No. 4 in net yards per pass attempt, and allowed the third-fewest rushing yards. That bests the Rams’ defense in each category.

The Rams could catch a break this week with the health of the Tampa Bay offensive line, one of the best units in the league. Right tackle Tristan Wirfs and center Ryan Jensen were injured in the wild card game against the Eagles. Wirfs tried to return before leaving for good. Jensen was back almost immediately and finished the game. Neither practiced on Wednesday and Thursday, but there is optimism they’ll be on the field Sunday. Jensen in particular looks like a guy who could have his hand amputated and still want to return to the game. Maybe then Brady would deserve the excessive praise if he played with a center missing a hand. But chances are his studs will be there against a Los Angeles defense that only ranks 25th in pressure rate (via Pro Football Reference), the lowest of any defense in the playoffs this year.

The Eagles had the second-lowest pressure rate among the playoff field, and they are much less aggressive with blitzing, but they still sacked Brady four times and held the Bucs to 4-of-13 on third down. It stands to reason to believe Jensen and Wirfs will not be 100% if they play Sunday. This is why that trio of Donald, Miller (sack in five straight games), and Leonard Floyd must cause havoc in Brady’s face if the Rams are to win this one. Despite their low pressure rate, the Rams had 50 sacks because of how impactful their talent can be when they get to the quarterback. Those guys have to get Brady’s jersey dirty early in this one. He took three sacks on 61 plays in Week 3.

In the secondary, I would shadow Mike Evans with Jalen Ramsey and double Rob Gronkowski on obvious passing downs. This is a different ballgame when Chris Godwin and Antonio Brown are out. It changes to a speed & size matchup with Evans and Gronk having some advantages. But I’d make the other players earn it first. Gio Bernard led the Bucs with nine catches in Week 3. Brady will dink and dunk all day with those throws to the backs, but I’m confident I would not give up more than 24 points if Bernard is the leading receiver again. The Rams cannot let Evans and Gronk beat them.

But things really do come back to Stafford and if he’ll protect the ball well. He threw 13 interceptions in the last nine games of the regular season after having four picks in the first eight games.

Sean McVay’s defense held Brady to 13 points in the Super Bowl a couple years ago, but the offense was of no help that night. The offense has a grand total of 34 points in McVay’s three playoff losses combined. He brought in Stafford to change this history. Last season, the Rams went into Tampa Bay for a Monday night game in Week 11. Jared Goff threw 51 passes for 376 yards while the running game only contributed 19 carries for 37 yards. The Rams still scored 27 points and won by three with the defense forcing Brady into an ugly game. Stafford is 1-3 this year when he throws 40 passes, the only win coming against awful Detroit.

McVay’s plan the last three years against Tampa Bay has been to neglect the run game in favor of the pass. Will he continue that in a road playoff game? Stafford threw just 17 passes on Monday night against Arizona, the first game in his 186-game career where he threw less than 21 passes without leaving injured. That’s some way to win your first playoff game, but it wasn’t necessary to throw more with the way Arizona shit the bed all night.

Stafford is going to have to do more this week and I’m skeptical. If we go back to Week 3, he was outstanding. But Stafford had completions of 75 (TD) and 40 yards to DeSean Jackson, who is no longer with the team. No other play went for more than 22 yards. Cooper Kupp has been incredible all season and in recent games against Tampa Bay. He had two touchdowns in Week 3. The only two games Kupp was under 92 yards all year were the two home games against Arizona. Odell Beckham also looked good on Monday, though he is still averaging career lows across the board with the Rams this season. Cam Akers looked so explosive despite his Achilles injury this summer.

But chances are the Rams are not going to have a good rushing performance this week, and the defense is going to be tested far more than it was against the Cardinals. Stafford is going to have to deliver in the biggest game of his career, and even then, he might need to pull that horseshoe out of Brady’s ass to get the win.

Buccaneers: Everything Is Alright?

For two decades, the best way to beat Tom Brady is to make him play poorly. Take an early lead, force him into mistakes, and put the game out of reach so he can’t come back to win it. Don’t let his team hang around. His statistics in losses have always been well behind those of his lofty peers, because if he is playing well, there’s almost no hope of beating his teams.

This is why I am really concerned about the Rams pulling off another win over this team. In Week 3, Brady dropped back 61 times and did not have a turnover in a game that had zero turnovers from both teams. Brady was 41-of-55 for 432 yards, a touchdown, a rush touchdown, and the Buccaneers only turned it over on downs once. They also missed a 55-yard field goal before halftime, which was set up by a Brady strip-sack by Aaron Donald that the Bucs recovered.

It was not an offensive masterclass, but it was not a total dud like he had in the 9-0 shutout loss to the Saints, or turnover-filled losses against the Saints and Washington this year. It was a 34-24 game where the Rams were just better on offense at home. Brady was also his team’s leading rusher with 14 yards as the Bucs abandoned the run. That is unlikely to happen again this week, especially with Leonard Fournette likely making his return.

This is not the formula to beating Brady, who is 45-4 when he throws for at least 325 yards with zero interceptions. Of course, that Rams game is only the second game in that 49-game sample where his team didn’t score at least 29 points. Brady is also 111-7 (.941) when averaging at least 7.2 yards per attempt and not throwing an interception.

In 2020, the Rams delivered on defense in Tampa Bay the way you want to see. Brady had a season-low 2.8 completed air yards per attempt and 3.2 YAC/completion. He threw a season-high 13 inaccurate throws. The Rams barely pressured him, but it didn’t matter because they covered well, intercepted two passes, including one in crunch time, and they held Brady to 4.5 YPA, his second-worst game with Tampa Bay. That would work this week. But in Week 3, the Rams actually blitzed Brady 13 times, pressured him 11 times (season high and second-highest rate), and he still threw for a first down on 41.4% of his passes (fourth-highest game of season). That’s not going to be winning defense for the Rams this time around.

The Buccaneers are not whole on offense, but if the line is intact, then Gronk and Evans are plenty to get things moving. Gronk had one of his lowest snap counts in Week 3 as that was the game he took a shot in the back, which started his injury problems. He’s been playing at a high level once again. Evans just had a season-high 117 yards against the Eagles.

If the Buccaneers win the turnover battle, they are likely winning this game. In the last two postseasons, Tampa Bay has seven touchdown drives that started in opponent territory. The rest of the NFL has nine in this time. Only the Patriots (11) and Chiefs (seven) have as many playoff touchdown drives on short fields as Tampa Bay since 2014, and the Bucs did not even make the playoffs in 2014-19.

Shawn Hochuli, Ed’s son, is the head referee for this game, which is probably not a good thing for either team or any fan watching the game. His games have had 1,903 penalty yards this season, the third-highest amount in the league. His crew called 28 penalties in Dallas on Thanksgiving, but he may not be that biased towards home teams. He also flagged Tampa Bay 11 times on opening night against Dallas. But chances are this game will trend towards more penalties with him getting his precious screen time, a Hochuli family tradition. At the very least, it’s not Carl Cheffers, who called the most penalties this year and gave Tampa Bay two phantom DPI flags in the second quarter of Super Bowl 55. Then again, Hochuli called 22 DPI flags this year, tied with Cheffers for the second most.

The Prediction

The Rams have a lot of the right elements to deal with Tampa Bay, but I’d sooner go bankrupt than back Stafford to overcome Brady’s luck in a road playoff game. After no turnovers in Week 3, I expect them to be the story of this game. The Rams are 6-1 in close games, the best record in the league, but they did just blow a 17-0 lead to the 49ers in excruciating fashion in Week 18.

I’ve been saying for weeks that Tampa Bay vs. Green Bay is all that matters in the NFC playoffs this year. It’s up to the 49ers and Rams to prove me wrong.

Final: Buccaneers 27, Rams 24

NFL 2021 Awards

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

Most Valuable Player: Aaron Rodgers, Packers

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Offensive Player of the Year: Cooper Kupp, Rams

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Defensive Rookie of the Year: Micah Parsons, Cowboys

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

Comeback Player of the Year: Joe Burrow, Bengals

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

Most Improved Player of the Year: Joe Burrow, Bengals

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

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

Coach of the Year: Mike Vrabel, Titans

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

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

Assistant Coach of the Year: Rich Bisaccia, Raiders

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

Executive of the Year: Les Snead, Rams

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

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

NFL Stat Oddity: Week 15

I was right that Chiefs-Chargers set too high of a bar for a quality game in Week 15. But in terms of pure craziness? The weekend gave it its best shot. Who could have imagined we’d see Bill Belichick and Tom Brady both lose by two scores in prime time with Carson Wentz and Taysom Hill playing like quarterbacks from 1928?

But you kind of had to expect a wild Sunday in the NFL with so many games having a huge point spread. Maybe in other seasons this would have been dull, but not in 2021. We didn’t even get to the COVID-delayed games yet, but we’ve already seen the 1-11-1 Lions down the 10-3 Cardinals, and the Ravens gave Green Bay all it could handle with Tyler Huntley at quarterback.

At least we saw the post-Urban Jaguars still lose 30-16 despite being favored over a bad Houston team. Also, the Falcons lost 31-13 in San Francisco and scored three points on two drives where they hit 49-yard passes – very on brand for the red-zone rejects. The Dolphins have also followed up their seven-game losing streak with a six-game winning streak to get back to .500 by beating the Jets if anyone cares. No? I figured as much.

The Bills and Cowboys both had comfortable wins over the Panthers and Giants respectively in their hope to stay relevant as contenders this year. A Buffalo-Dallas Super Bowl would be on brand in this era of “let’s do everything from the 90s again.” If they can make another Matrix movie and reboot Sex and the City

But while this season has been begging for something different to happen at the end, it’s still not far-fetched to think we see Aaron Rodgers repeat as MVP, and Championship Sunday is just another day of rematches (BUF-KC and TB-GB) setting up another Super Bowl rematch.

Oh, did you think last night invalidates Tampa Bay? Then you don’t understand how Brady’s luck works. I hope I’m completely wrong, but I think this week will just be a blip before a familiar ending in January and February. A little Christmas gift of joy that you’ll forget before Groundhog Day rears its ugly head.

This season in Stat Oddity:

Saints at Buccaneers: 9-0? MVP? GTFO!

Tom Brady has matched Joe Montana once again. Brady and Montana are the only two quarterbacks in the Super Bowl era to get shut out as a double-digit favorite. Montana did it in his second (and final) season with the Chiefs in 1994, a 16-0 loss to the Rams early in the season when Montana was favored to win by 14.5. Brady has been swept again by the Saints despite being an 11.5-point home favorite this time. Instead of winning the NFC South for the first time since 2007, the Buccaneers are left with a perplexing result and a long list of injuries.

Brady proved once again that he saves his best luck for the postseason as the Saints made him look bad with another multiple turnover game in the third shutout of his career. It’s the first Brady shutout since he lost 21-0 to a 2006 Miami team coached by Nick Saban and quarterbacked by Joey Harrington.

But this one was in prime time for all to see. Brady’s first pass of the night should have been intercepted by Marshon Lattimore, but the pass was dropped. I thought that would be a sign of things to come, but the Buccaneers punted. Then they punted again, and again, missed a field goal, punted three more times, and then Brady started really getting off his game with bad deep shots and a comical fumble after trying to scramble. Throw in a couple more punts and a late interception, and the Saints turned Tampa away on 13 drives for one of the most improbable shutouts in history.

According to NBC, it’s the first time since the merger that the team leading the NFL in scoring was shutout at home in December or January. Add that to the Brady record list.

Of course, there is going to be an outcry to the injuries Tampa Bay suffered in this game. They were unusually high profile and significant. Mike Evans, Chris Godwin, and Leonard Fournette did not finish the game. With Antonio Brown (suspension), Giovani Bernard (IR), and Breshad Perriman (COVID list) also inactive, the deepest set of skill players in the league took a big hit against a defense that has had its number the last two seasons.

But in terms of winning this game, I don’t want to hear about injuries when for more than three-quarters of the game, all Brady needed was a touchdown drive to take the lead. If this is your supposed GOAT and MVP, then how can he get shut out like this? Do you really need to walk on water to score one touchdown drive with Gronk, Ronald Jones, Scotty Miller, Tyler Johnson, Cameron Brate, O.J. Howard, and what’s supposed to be a top-tier offensive line? Not to mention that trio of Evans/Godwin/Fournette still combined for 23 touches and 130 yards from scrimmage. They were still shutout with them.

I don’t want to hear about one team’s injuries when the Saints were missing key offensive linemen (both tackles), haven’t had Michael Thomas all year, Deonte Harris is suspended, and there really isn’t a great playmaker outside of Kamara. Not to mention Jameis Winston tore his ACL in the last game against Tampa Bay or else this team could be dangerous right now. Still the No. 7 seed going into Monday regardless of all the injuries.

Oh yeah, the Saints did all this without their head coach.

Sean Payton gets credit for a win in a game he didn’t attend because of his COVID diagnosis. Maybe he helped with meetings during the week, but it’s still weird to me that a coach gets credit, win or loss, for games he didn’t actually coach. This also happens to be the biggest spread of Payton’s career as the Saints weren’t an underdog like this before his arrival after the Hurricane Katrina season (2005).

Maybe Payton’s absence is why the defense was so good (wink wink). But really, it was an incredible effort by Cameron Jordan and the guys to make up for an offense that did so little. The Saints had three offensive plays that gained 10+ yards all night and they were all Marquez Callaway receptions. I’ve never seen anything like that before. The Saints had 11 first downs and were 3-of-16 on third down. Alvin Kamara had 11 carries for 18 yards. Taysom Hill (13-of-27 for 154 yards) could barely throw with his injured finger and his talent level in general, and he only rushed for 33 yards this time.

Yet the Saints still won by two scores. The key this time? They didn’t turn the ball over once. Hill absolutely tried to, but the defense did not capitalize this time like they did four times in the playoff win in New Orleans, the worst game Drew Brees played in a Saints uniform. There was also that crucial Jared Cook fumble that we don’t talk enough about when the Saints were looking to go up two scores.

If it wasn’t for that game, this Tampa Bay team should be viewed as a big fraud that doesn’t step up in big games. Instead, they got to win a Super Bowl at home and can’t be counted out to repeat. Yes, not even after this 9-0 shocker.

Unfortunately, I’m not seeing this as a real season-changing game. Sure, it might take Tampa Bay out of the top seed and Brady out of an MVP he never deserved, but is there really a seeding that would be problematic for this team? The only way might be if the Saints use this to go on a run and claim the No. 7 seed and meet up with this team in Tampa again as a 7-2 matchup. The Saints definitely have Tampa’s number, but do you really see this playing out well for the third time this year? There’s no blueprint behind “play them like the Saints, hope for mass injuries, and hope all your key sacks/pressures come on third down.”

Especially when Antonio Brown will be back (even though Bruce Arians is a liar who said he’d cut him after one mistake). Evans, Godwin, and Fournette should be back for the playoffs. Still have Gronk, who only played six snaps in the first loss to the Saints. You know, all that actual value that makes Tampa so dangerous should be back when it matters most. The rest of the schedule is a cakewalk (Jets between Carolina twice) too, so it’s not like the Bucs need to rush their studs back to finish 13-4.

Meanwhile, the Saints could still easily miss the playoffs after going 4-0 against the Packers, Patriots, and Buccaneers. That’s what happens when you get owned by Sam Darnold/Panthers and Daniel Jones/Giants in such a weird season. But things certainly could have been different if Winston was not injured in the last Tampa Bay game. Then again, maybe Winston turns the ball over trying to stick it to his former team.

The Saints were able to sweep the Bucs again this year by having zero giveaways and five Brady takeaways in those two games. The role was reversed in the playoff game, which is why Tampa Bay won. I had to laugh at NBC’s Cris Collinsworth talking about Brady having answers for the Saints in that playoff game. He had two answers: drop my picks and let me start inside your 40 three times. The Saints obliged, and the rest is history.

Props to the Saints for playing hard and showing that they didn’t want their season to end Sunday night. I just wish I saw more season-changing ramifications from this game, other than me losing thousands in gambling wins (MVP race) while still seeing Brady and the Bucs in good shape to repeat.

But it was a nice early Christmas present to watch 9-0 take place.

Packers at Ravens: Go for Two Early (For a Change)

Who saw this being the big shootout of the day with the most dramatic ending? Well, I can take some credit for that one.

I liked Aaron Rodgers to have another big day with the injuries in the Baltimore secondary. Outside of the opening drive and the last two when he could have put the game away, he did not disappoint. But even with Lamar Jackson out, I thought the 9-point underdog Ravens had a shot to be very competitive. Most Baltimore games are close and this team has been scrapping since Week 1 with all the injuries. This also is the fourth game in a row where the Packers allowed at least 28 points.

Tyler Huntley likely made himself a lot of future money with his performance in his last three appearances. He’s certainly looked better than Jordan Love so far, and I’d gladly take him in Pittsburgh over Mason Rudolph. Huntley is not quite as elusive as Lamar, but he still rushed for 73 yards and two touchdowns, giving the Packers fits at times. Tight end Mark Andrews (136 yards and two touchdowns) also looked like prime Gronk, which does not bode well if that matchup comes up in the playoffs again.

But the Ravens had a couple of fourth-down failures that left them in a tough spot, down 31-17 in the fourth quarter. Nothing indefensible, but just bad execution. Still, the talk of the game again became John Harbaugh’s decision to go for a two-point conversion (2PC) when he did. This has come up in three straight games now for the Ravens, including the Pittsburgh loss when they went for the win with 12 seconds left and Lamar didn’t get the pass to Andrews. It also happened last week against Cleveland when, down 24-15, the Ravens failed to convert with 8:56 left.

Baltimore is now 2-for-8 on 2PC attempts this season, and the three-game losing streak here isn’t going to make fans happy. But what I couldn’t understand in this one is why Harbaugh did not go for two when the Ravens scored their first touchdown.

Not to get back into last week’s decision again, but I guess you can say I don’t agree with the general thrust of the analytics community when it comes to a lot of 2PC decisions. I think in many cases, they should be held off until you absolutely need one, and I do not want to make the choices in a game that are more likely to lead me to needing to recover an onside kick (or two). I highly value a 9-point lead and greatly fear a 9-point deficit, which seems to be no big deal for people who prefer going for two early. But that’s not me, and based on all my years of research on comeback attempts, I don’t think I’m going to change that view.

But one 2PC decision I am totally down with that analytics will support is to go for two on your first touchdown when you’re down 14 points. Make it a 6-point game and then you can win with a touchdown and extra point on your second touchdown. If you don’t get it, then it’s still an eight-point game and you can try it to tie on your second touchdown. It makes a ton of sense. For years, coaches play down 14 as a tying situation anyway. So by going for two on the first one, you might set yourself up for a win in regulation. I’m all for it in pretty much any situation unless I think my offense is total shit against this defense. But in that case, I’m probably not expecting to score two touchdowns in the fourth quarter anyway.

Harbaugh has to know this too as the Ravens are ahead of the curve on these things. Yet, the Ravens kicked the extra point on their first touchdown at 4:47 to make it a 31-24 game. They went for two with 42 seconds left in an attempt to take a 32-31 lead, and once again a pass to Andrews was incomplete. Green Bay recovered the onside kick and the game was over, putting more doubt into Baltimore’s playoff hopes.

I think Harbaugh going for two at 4:47 would have been his best 2PC decision this month. I think Harbaugh going for two at 0:42 was his worst 2PC decision this month. When he did it in Pittsburgh, there were only 12 seconds left, so that should have been enough to win the game with the Steelers not having a good deep passing game in a stadium that is difficult to get super long field goals. No 66-yard miracle is happening at Heinz Field like it did in Detroit for Justin Tucker this year. I liked that decision that day.

But 42 seconds when Rodgers still has a timeout left? That’s too much time as he has set these up multiple times before (ask the 49ers this year). I think under 20 seconds is the ideal spot of when it’s right to go for the win like that. When you do this to take a 1-point lead, you force the opponent to go balls out aggressive for the win. No throw is off limits. But if the game is tied with 42 seconds left, Rodgers is not in four-down territory. He’s got to be a little more careful with the ball as playing hero ball in that situation can make you look foolish. As someone who studied under Brett Favre, he knows better than most.

But the fact is in a tied game you are more likely to get a conservative approach from the opponent with 42 seconds left. Then when it comes to overtime, they may never see the ball a la the Chargers on Thursday against Kansas City if you take care of business with your offense. The clock is the main reason I liked the Pittsburgh 2PC call and did not like the Green Bay one on Sunday.

Baltimore (8-6) has managed to lose all of these games and will have to fight just to make the playoffs, let alone win the division. I could easily see a 8-7-1 Pittsburgh team going into Baltimore to take on a 9-7 Ravens team in the final game of the regular season. That might be the best game on the Week 18 schedule if things fall into place for it.

But the Ravens need to find a win in Cincinnati or against the Rams first. Maybe even a game that does not come down to us arguing about Harbaugh’s 2PC decision.

Titans at Steelers: Fumbled the Top Seed

Over 10 hours later, I’m still shocked the Steelers won this one. They trailed 13-3 at halftime and were outdone at every phase.

The offense couldn’t buy a third-down conversion or open a running lane for Najee Harris, and that really never improved after halftime either. The Steelers finished 2-of-11 on third down and Harris had 12 carries for 18 yards. Ben Roethlisberger’s touchdown pass streak ended at 27 games, and this is the first game in his career where Pittsburgh won despite not breaking 200 yards of offense (168). In fact, it’s only the second time during his career where they won like that as they had 127 yards in a 19-11 win over the 2010 Titans when he was suspended.

The defense could not stop the run again as D’Onta Foreman had 108 of the team’s 201 rushing yards. Imagine if Derrick Henry played, not to mention A.J. Brown or if Julio Jones didn’t leave again with his hamstring bothered. Devin Bush dropped a red-zone pick on Tennessee’s only offensive touchdown drive. Some of Ryan Tannehill’s best throws were dropped or fumbled by his receivers as the Steelers got solid pressure on him, but stopping the run is still a nightmare for this unit.

The special teams had terrible punts and coverage again. Chris Boswell even missed a 56-yard field goal before halftime on a cold day, but that kick never should have been that long. That happened because Mike Tomlin mismanaged the clock, not using his timeouts to save the offense a minute to respond to a 19-play drive by the Titans, who were getting the ball to start the third too. Roethlisberger only had 12 seconds at his own 22 to work with but still did a good job to put Boswell in position for an attempt.

It was another shitshow from a team that’s been getting clobbered in the first half for a month. So, what were the magic adjustments in the second half to spark the 19-13 comeback win? Simply put, the Titans kept turning the ball over. Pittsburgh’s defense made some good plays, but also caught some breaks with Tennessee’s lesser skill players putting the ball on the ground. They also got a tipped pick from Tannehill in the fourth quarter.

But even with the outstanding field position, Pittsburgh’s offense kept stalling. The Steelers started three straight drives at the Tennessee 41 or better after turnovers, and they gained two first downs and settled for three field goals. The last two field goal drives were technically three-and-out performances.

It was on the defense to make one more stop with Tannehill having 4:29 to drive for the go-ahead touchdown. This half, Tomlin had burned two of his timeouts foolishly, so it was looking like the Steelers might give up the go-ahead score with under 30 seconds left. But another critical sack changed things, and on fourth-and-7, Tannehill got into the business of throwing short of the sticks. Westbrook-Ikhine, who dropped a 40-yard bomb earlier in the game, was unable to gain the first down after a great tackle by corner Joe Haden, who returned in the nick of time for this one. It was absurd that the spot was so good for Tennessee when he clearly was never that close to converting, but replay got it sorted out and the Steelers held on for the much-needed win.

NFL teams who rush for 200 yards and hold their opponent under 200 net yards were 366-8-1 (.977) since the merger. But add a ninth loss to that stat for the Titans on Sunday. Losing the turnover battle 4-0 is the simplest way to lose a game like this.

What does it mean? The Titans (9-5) should be safe for the division, though they’ll need an upset of Kansas City to reclaim the top seed. As for Pittsburgh (7-6-1), I still think there’s nothing more on brand for Tomlin than to go 8-8-1, miss the playoffs due to a tie with Detroit, and keep up this “he’s never had a losing season!” thing. Lose in Kansas City, beat the Browns on MNF in Ben’s last home game, and have a hell of a finale in Baltimore in Week 18.

That’s really the best-case scenario at this point, and this goofy win makes it possible.

Cardinals at Lions: Broken Arizona

Matthew Stafford vs. 2021 Cardinals: 1-1. Jared Goff vs. 2021 Cardinals: 1-0. So, who really won that trade?

Jokes aside, this week was a f’n disaster for Arizona after losing to the Rams on Monday night, losing DeAndre Hopkins for possibly the season, and getting clobbered by the 1-11-1 Lions in Detroit. I liked Detroit +12.5, but my goodness, this was a wire-to-wire rout. Goff didn’t even have his best RB (Swift) or TE (Hockenson), yet he was 21-of-26 for 216 yards and three touchdowns while Kyler Murray struggled.

Kliff Kingsbury didn’t have a good day either. I thought he should have kicked the field goal on 4th-and-goal at the 3 while trailing 10-0 with 2:02 left. Get something on the board after a rough start, back to a one-score game, and use your timeouts to get the ball back. They went for it, failed, and the Lions drove 97 yards for a touchdown thanks to two roughing the passer penalties. Brutal.

The Cardinals had another shot to make it a game after getting a fumble in the third quarter, down 17-3. But Murray’s pass was jumped for a huge interception that set up a 6-yard touchdown drive to make it 24-3. It was boring from there as Detroit won 30-12. This is a team that had a 2-point win over Minnesota on the final play and a tie with the Steelers this year. They just blew out the former top seed in the NFC.

In fact, this is the first time the Lions beat a 10-win team by 18 points since a 27-9 win over Tampa Bay (10-6) in 1997. But that was early in the season when Tampa Bay was 5-1. The last time the Lions beat a team this bad that had 10 wins coming into the game? 38-6 over the 1991 Cowboys (12-5) in the NFC divisional round, the only Detroit playoff win since 1958.

Kneecaps were f’n devoured on this day by Dan Campbell’s boys.

Bengals at Broncos: Lock Down

A competitive, low-scoring game in Denver really turned in the fourth quarter when backup Drew Lock had the ball taken away from him on an ill-advised designed run that never had a chance. It was very close to being a play where the defender fumbled the ball back to the offense, but replay showed the defender was just down by contact after first getting the ball. That was still a contender for the wildest snap of the season, and it proved costly to the Broncos, who never got past midfield again in a 15-10 loss that buries them in the AFC playoff race.

This was the second week in a row where Zac Taylor’s Bengals were playing a team nearly as shitty as they are in close games. Last week, Kyle Shanahan’s 49ers came back to win in overtime. But this time, Vic Fangio dropped to 3-13 (.188) in 4QC opportunities as Denver’s coach with Lock in the game for the injured Teddy Bridgewater.

However, a mismanaged sequence before halftime also proved costly when the Broncos failed to call a run on 3rd-and-1 at the Cincinnati 33 with 17 seconds and one timeout left. Let’s be realistic. You’re not throwing a touchdown there with Bridgewater as your quarterback. This is all about the field goal and getting that first down with your offense that has been pushing the run with your duo of backs is the goal to close out this half. Run the ball, get the first, call your last timeout, then maybe you could try one throw at the end zone before sending out the kicker. Denver threw an incomplete pass, Brandon McManus missed the 51-yard field goal with nine seconds left, and Joe Burrow had enough time and a timeout to complete a 19-yard pass. That set up the Bengals for a 58-yard field goal that was good to take a 6-3 lead into the locker room.

Fangio does a lot of good things with the defense, but his teams lose a lot of these excruciatingly close, low-scoring games because of mismanaged situations like that and the red-zone play with Lock in the fourth quarter.

Next week: What? When does this week even end? There are two games on Monday and Tuesday, a Thursday night game, and two games on Saturday (Christmas). I suppose my main interest is to see if the Roethlisberger-era Steelers have one more crazy road upset left in them when they take on the Chiefs in Kansas City.

NFL Week 12 Predictions: Sunday’s Best Edition

The good news this week: I don’t have to rant and complain about injuries and the caliber of games on this week’s schedule. Week 12 might actually be the best schedule of games this season, and that’s with the Chiefs and the team with the best record in the league (Arizona) on a bye week.

My full previews at BMR: Browns-Ravens and Seahawks-WFT.

The Sunday slate looks like the best we’ll get the rest of the regular season thanks to LAR-GB, TEN-NE, MIN-SF, TB-IND, PIT-CIN, LAC-DEN, and CLE-BAL.

Have some of these games lost some luster from a month ago? Sure. The Rams and Packers have been slumping, the Titans are falling apart with injuries, and all of the AFC North teams have their share of flaws and bad performances.

But some of these games look a lot better than they did a month ago. I sure can’t wait for Jonathan Taylor to rush for 125 yards against a tough Tampa Bay run defense and still lose because Carson Wentz gets outplayed by the LOAT, which somehow means to the MSM that Brady is the MVP in this hellscape season. But maybe the Colts can surprise again like they did in Buffalo last week.

The 49ers-Vikings is also an interesting one with these teams on the rise as the sixth and seventh seeds in the NFC. The winner of this one could really get a push towards that sixth seed, but it wouldn’t be surprising if both still made the playoffs with the way the Saints, Falcons, Panthers, and Seahawks are floundering. Philadelphia is another team on the upswing in the conference with a head-to-head loss to the 49ers. So I would say it’s a slightly more important game for the Vikings than San Francisco.

But the big one is still Rams-Packers where the line has moved to Rams -2 despite the game being in Green Bay. Head coach Matt LaFleur has been at least a 3-point favorite in all 23 of his home games since 2019 where he is 16-7 ATS (.696) and 20-3 SU (.870).

Not that homefield is what it used to be, but no team has a better home record (SU or ATS) in the NFL since 2019 than LaFleur’s Packers. I have my issues with how good this team really is under him, but the fact is they still win a lot. Aaron Rodgers has the toe injury but he had it last week when he threw four touchdowns. The defense was a big letdown in Minnesota.

This is the kind of game the Rams brought Matthew Stafford in for. This is the kind of game he has to show he can win after going 8-68 against winning teams in his career coming into this season. He got the home win over Tampa Bay this year, which was great, but as it turns out the Cardinals with Kyler Murray might be the best team in the NFC this year. He lost that one big. He lost another big one in prime time to the Titans largely on the back of his two interceptions. He played better against the 49ers but it was another uneven performance and another bad one for the team in a big loss. We haven’t seen them since with the bye, so this is a huge road test.

Not to mention that whole 32-18 playoff game won by Green Bay in January where Jared Goff was not horrific. But the Rams’ so-called No. 1 defense was shredded by Rodgers and dominated on the ground as well. We’ll see if they put in a better effort this time.

I’m looking forward to this one. It’s a clash of Stafford’s horrific history against teams this good and Green Bay’s awful history in the Rodgers era against these quality NFC teams outside the division. I’m going with Green Bay as I just do not like what I’ve seen from the Rams lately. Was Green Bay’s offense off when Rodgers returned against Seattle? Yeah, but the defense still pitched a shutout. Was Green Bay’s defense legitimately terrible last week? Yeah, but they dropped some Kirk Cousins interceptions and the offense put up a fight in a game decided on a last-second field goal. That still beats getting blown out 28-16 and 31-10 like the Rams.

NFL Stat Oddity: Week 9

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

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

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

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

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

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

This season in Stat Oddity:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Vikings at Ravens: Par for the Course

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

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

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

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

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

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

Packers at Chiefs: Love Did Not Tear the Chiefs Apart

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

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

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

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

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

Broncos at Cowboys: WTF?

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

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

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

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

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

Bills at Jaguars: WTF? The Sequel

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Falcons at Saints: The Atlanta Sports Renaissance?

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

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

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

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

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

Hurry-Up Finish

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

Cardinals at 49ers: 2021 49ers Gone Fishin’

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

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

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

Browns at Bengals: One-Sided Battle of Ohio

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

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

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

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

Chargers at Eagles: The 7-on-7 Defense

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

Raiders at Giants: No Penalty, No Comeback

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

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

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

NFL Week 9 Predictions: Aaron Rodgers Has Failed Us Edition

I’m later than usual this season at getting this preview up on Saturday, but I was sleepy last night and wanted to wait for some more information on these Week 9 games. This is a difficult week with five of the games having a quarterback switch or injury situation to monitor, and a few other really good players are questionable or the dreaded game-time decision.

One player we know is out Sunday is Aaron Rodgers.

I cautiously asked last week “do we finally get Aaron Rodgers vs. Patrick Mahomes, and will it be memorable?

Oh, it’s going to be a memorable week in Green Bay history, but it won’t be with Rodgers on the field. We’re going to see Jordan Love get his first start against Mahomes and the struggling Chiefs, which made the spread jump nearly seven points in KC’s favor as you’d expect.

Love got vaccinated while Rodgers lied and didn’t. Now Rodgers is out with COVID and he hit full anti-vaxxer BINGO multiple lines over with his appearance on Pat McAfee’s show. Everything from inappropriately quoting MLK to “I did my own research” to getting his medical advice from Joe Rogan to taking Ivermectin instead of the vaccine came up. Rodgers is just as loopy as your least favorite Facebook uncle.

Even with the extra hour of sleep coming to us all tonight, I don’t want to spend much time on this. Rodgers lied and he’s gone into big baby mode to complain about being caught in a lie and breaking COVID protocols with the Packers. He’s letting his teammates down, he’s put them at risk, and he’s hurting the team’s chances at getting the No. 1 seed. This was a very winnable game with Rodgers against a terrible defense, but now it’s a real toss-up with Love a real wild card.

Let’s just say weeks like this don’t make me feel bad about ranking Rodgers as the fifth-best QB of the 21st century.

Who knows if we’ll ever get a Mahomes-Rodgers game. This week certainly makes it easier for the Packers to part ways with him after the season. Maybe he ends up in Denver next year. All I know is his tired, debunked line of reasoning is why we’re still stuck in this pandemic that has reached nearly 50 million cases and 800,000 deaths in the United States alone.

NFL Week 9 Predictions

I stand by Jets +10.5 being a good pick on Thursday night. Mike White just had to get injured because the Jets are never allowed to have anything good happen to them.

My full previews this week include DEN-DAL, TEN-LAR, and CHI-PIT.

I love that stat that Mike Vrabel is 12-2 ATS and 11-3 SU as coach of the Titans as an underdog of 4+ points. But I’m feeling very nervous about that pick with Derrick Henry out, the new RBs just settling in, and A.J. Brown and Julio Jones are not 100%. But I’m going to stick with the Titans covering for now.

There are a lot of potential land mines here. Are the Texans actually going to be decent against a lousy Miami team now that Tyrod Taylor is back? I had to hedge that one. Are the Cowboys going to be fully lethal if CeeDee Lamb and Amari Cooper aren’t 100% and Tyron Smith is out at LT? Can we trust the Bengals after last week? Do I dare trust Trevor Siemian starting a game in 2021 for the Saints even if it is against Atlanta? How do the Raiders respond after another awful off-field incident with Henry Ruggs taking someone’s life? I already covered the KC-GB game, and the Cardinals were already a team I was doubting against San Francisco if you saw the way the defense held Kyler Murray down the last two meetings. Now that Murray and DeAndre Hopkins are game-time decisions and George Kittle is back for SF, I have to go with the 49ers in that one.

There’s not a lot I feel confident in here. But I do feel good about the Ravens coming off the bye and beating the Vikings, and I think the Chargers have a great opportunity to cover the spread against the Eagles, who I still have no faith in this year.

NFL Stat Oddity: Week 5

Sunday in the NFL lasted just over 15 hours from the first snap in London to the last snap in Kansas City after a weather delay. If that wasn’t the longest day of action in NFL history, then I don’t know what else could be.

It was a day of ugly field goal kicking, yet the Vikings somehow pulled off a 54-yard game-winning kick. Of course, Detroit helped by making its incredible 10-point comeback (helped by an Alexander Mattison fumble) a 1-point lead by going for two with 37 seconds left. That was too much time with the Vikings having two timeouts. I know Kirk Cousins kind of sucks at comebacks and his kickers are not reliable, but that was a bad decision to go for two there. Play for overtime after holding down the Vikings from scoring much all day. Instead, the Vikings got a drive together because they had to and won the game on a 54-yard field goal that Greg Joseph actually made despite being an employee of the Vikings. At least it gave us this moment:

It was a day of close games as we had 10 comeback opportunities in Week 5, outdoing the previous high of any week this season (eight). Let’s quickly hit on three of them since I need to wrap this up after getting a late start.

49ers at Cardinals: Trey Lance made his starting debut, but he couldn’t keep the rocket launcher under wraps when the 49ers just needed a simple scoring drive in a 17-10 loss to the now 5-0 Cardinals, who apparently are not going to score 31-plus every week this season. Kyle Shanahan loses another close game? Jimmy Garoppolo and George Kittle out with injuries again? Who could have imagined?

Patriots at Texans: The Patriots came through with a comeback win over the Houston Texans after Davis Mills had maybe the most absurd stat line yet for a rookie against a Bill Belichick-coached defense. Mills just had an early contender for worst game of the decade against Buffalo last week, but now he has the ninth game on record where a QB lost with a passer rating of at least 140.0 (min. 25 passes). I guess the Patriots can still win games where their quarterback was not the best one on the field.

Bears at Raiders: Finally, Jon Gruden’s Raiders had their “but his emails” loss at home to the Bears. Maybe it was too much of a distraction, and maybe he just showed his true colors. All I know is once you blow some smoke up his ass, this is the kind of performance you can count on in the next game. The last two sentences are about Derek Carr, by the way.

But the only game that came close to pulling off instant classic status came in the late afternoon slate instead of the prime-time matchup between the Bills and Chiefs. Browns-Chargers was the Shawn Michaels vs. Razor Ramon Ladder Match in WrestleMania X of Week 5 in the NFL, but I have to start with the perception-changing game that played out in Kansas City.

This season in Stat Oddity:

Bills at Chiefs: About That Dynasty…

About the last thing I want to do is write an obituary for the 2021 Chiefs after Week 5 and after a ridiculously tough schedule where the Browns, Ravens, Chargers, and now Bills all gave them their best shot. But there is no denying that the Chiefs failed three of those tests from their key AFC challengers and barely escaped the Browns in Arrowhead in Week 1. The offense has too many turnovers and the defense is going for historic levels of suck. The 2021 Chiefs are the fourth team in NFL history to allow more than 28 points in each of the first five games, joining the 1954 Cardinals, 2012 Titans, and 2013 Giants. It’s like watching the 2000 Rams, the forgotten little defense-less brother to the 1999 and 2001 Super Bowl teams in St. Louis.

But through four weeks, the defense could be excused to a point as the offense was scoring a touchdown on 50% of its drives and converting on third down at a record rate. If not for a fumble in Baltimore, this team could easily be 3-1.

But that took a hit Sunday night as the Bills came in to avenge their two losses from 2020 and wiped the floor with the Chiefs, 38-20, despite a long weather delay at halftime. Getting blown out at home is just another layer of invincibility ripped away from the Chiefs in the Patrick Mahomes era. While the stakes were not as high, the 18-point loss looked worse than the team’s 31-9 loss in Super Bowl 55 to Tampa Bay. At least on that night the reshuffled offensive line was a built-in excuse for the poor pass protection. The Chiefs just couldn’t come down with any of Mahomes’ miracle passes and the defense was stumped by simple play-action throws.

This was more of a beatdown. Mahomes played the first truly awful game of his NFL career, missing often on throws regardless of pressure or an open receiver. He completed 33-of-54 passes for 272 yards and had three turnovers, including a pick-six, a red-zone pick after another tipped ball, and a fumbled snap in the rain to end things. The bounces? They’re no longer going Kansas City’s way and that was predictable.

But this was not another blown lead in the fourth quarter like Baltimore and Los Angeles. The Chiefs led 10-7 early in the second quarter and never led again. The best they could do was make it 31-20 in the fourth quarter. But after Josh Allen seemingly threw an interception from his own end zone, the Chiefs were flagged for roughing the passer. It was a weak call, but it was also in a series of calls on both teams that made me question what roughing the passer and pass interference are in this league anymore. The refs had a bad night, but they didn’t decide this game.

That roughing call stands out the most just because it killed any chance for an exciting finish. Allen was still at his own 23 after that call. The Chiefs could have stopped the Bills, but instead they watched them march 77 more yards for a game-clinching touchdown to go up 38-20.

Maybe that Buffalo defense is for real as this was not a matter of beating up on a wounded offense like in the first four weeks of the season. They smacked the Chiefs around in Arrowhead. I asked in the offseason what really changed to improve this Buffalo defense from the mediocre unit it was a year ago that had no real hope of winning a Super Bowl? Well, one name I underestimated was first-round pick Gregory Roussea. The defensive end did his best J.J. Watt impersonation and tipped a Mahomes pass at the line to himself for a big red-zone pick in the third quarter. The Bills reportedly did not even blitz Mahomes once in this game, choosing to rush four and play Cover 2 to take away the big plays.

The Chiefs had just two plays that gained more than 17 yards in the game, a shockingly low figure for this offense. One was a 23-yard scramble by Mahomes too. This was a big difference in the meetings last year when the Chiefs did what they wanted, and Allen’s offense couldn’t get anything big. On Sunday night, the Bills had seven plays of 20-plus yards, including four completions of 35-plus yards (two for touchdowns).

Allen had 315 yards on 15 completions. Other than a slow third quarter after the 70-plus minute halftime delay, the Bills were just about unstoppable on offense. Combine that with a defense capable of playing the Chiefs like this and it’s a championship combination. The Bills may only be an underdog one more time this season when they play in Tampa Bay. It seems rather likely that this team will be the favorite for the No. 1 seed in the AFC.

The Chiefs may be fortunate just to get a wild card at this point if things don’t tighten up on both sides of the ball but especially on defense.

With the Bills and Ravens stepping up this season against the Chiefs as well as the two teams I’m writing about next (Browns and Chargers), the AFC might be just fine going forward as a super competitive conference where any one of these teams can advance each year. It’s not going to be a runaway for Mahomes and the Chiefs to keep hosting AFC Championship Games and going to the Super Bowl. They had that window for three years and turned it into one championship while the rest of the teams were figuring themselves out.

If 2021 is any indication, those teams have figured out the Chiefs too.

Browns at Chargers: 47-42 Part Deux

What a whacky, fun game with huge plays, terrible tackling, six fourth down attempts (and then some negated by penalty), and 41 points in the fourth quarter alone. Of course, the Browns ended up on the wrong side of history again.

We may need to start calling Baker Mayfield the “Score 42 and Lose” QB after it happened to him for a third time. He lost his first career start, 45-42, to the Raiders in 2018. He lost 47-42 to the Ravens last year after Lamar Jackson returned from taking a shit. Now he’s lost 47-42 again to the Chargers in the second 47-42 game in NFL history. Mayfield is somehow 2-3 when he leads his team to at least 42 points while the rest of the NFL is 69-2 since 2018. The Browns (four times) have broken their tie with Washington and the Chiefs (three each) for the most losses in NFL history after scoring at least 42 points.

None of this is to say that Mayfield is the reason Cleveland loses these games. He was great on Sunday at playing through a torn labrum after some struggles in recent weeks. The offense was fantastic, but it is hard to win on the road when you allow five touchdowns on six second-half drives like the Browns did.

This thing was back and forth and not even a failed game-tying extra point by the Chargers with 3:15 left could derail it. That actually ended up helping the Chargers since the Browns did not go all out in a tied 42-42 game. Instead with a 42-41 lead, they ran on first down and on third-and-9 and let the Chargers get the ball back with plenty of time. Justin Herbert only needed one pass to get into field-goal range. After Austin Ekeler slid down at the Cleveland 3 with 1:38 left, the Browns called their final timeout. That slide tells me the Chargers were content with kicking the field goal to win 44-42 at the buzzer. A smart move even if you are shaky about it given the team’s historic struggles on special teams in crunch time.

So, why wouldn’t Herbert just take a series of knees to bleed the clock and kick the field goal? Head coach Brandon Staley is getting a ton of buzz for his embrace of analytics despite being a defensive coach, but he bungled the end of the Chiefs game by scoring a touchdown and giving Mahomes a shot to answer, and it happened again here. Ekeler got the carry and while he tried to not score, the Browns did the smart thing and pulled his ass into the end zone for the score with 91 seconds left.

Wow, just typing “91 seconds” really sells how much of a mistake this was. They gave a hot offense they couldn’t stop all day plenty of time to answer. It could have been an even more delicious addition to Chargers BINGO given the offense came up short on the two-point conversion and only led 47-42. Now the Browns could win it with a touchdown in regulation.

But it took 50 seconds for Mayfield to move the offense 11 yards as he only made short throws. That was piss-poor execution in that moment. After getting to the Cleveland 46, the Browns could not gain another yard and Mayfield’s Hail Mary fell incomplete with players bumping into each other.

Behind Staley and Herbert, the CHARGERS are leading the league with three game-winning drives. The CHARGERS are 4-1 in close games and lead the league with four defensive holds of a one-score lead.

Staley is far from perfect. His defense just gave up 42 points to a team that scored 14 last week. He’s mismanaged two of the last three finishes. He’s inherited an incredible young quarterback in Herbert who is making strides in his second season. But there is no denying that Staley is pushing this team to aggressively get leads and hold onto them once they have them. The Chargers of old would never be 4-1 right now and that is a credit to this new coach.

The Browns may still be the “good enough to get beat close” team in the AFC, which is still a huge step up from the pre-Mayfield era. But for a change, the Chargers just may have the potential to be closers and real contenders this season. That sounds like the setup for an incoming beatdown in Baltimore next Sunday, but what if this team is just finally different?

Packers at Bengals: Kicking Woes

Weird things always happen when Aaron Rodgers plays the Bengals, but this game takes the cake. If you wanted to script an overtime tie, apparently you have to get the Packers or Bengals involved. I thought for sure this one was headed there after the two kickers combined to miss five go-ahead field goals in a span of six drives.

Fortunately, we got a winner. Fortunately, it was the right winner too as Green Bay should have put this game away multiple times in the fourth quarter and again to start overtime.

Would I have been happy if Rodgers got credit for a game-winning drive after Aaron Jones ripped off a 57-yard run and he threw two incomplete passes? No, but Mason Crosby has to hit that 36-yard field goal after a streak of 27 straight makes. Would I have said Rodgers was unlucky had he lost after his kicker missed from 36 and Cincinnati kicker Evan McPherson hit from 57? Yes, absolutely. But the Bengals called a run on third-and-2 instead of letting Joe Burrow deliver a dagger throw to set up a higher-percentage kick. Shame on them.

Would I have been fine with Rodgers getting a game-winning drive after a 20-yard pass to Davante Adams, who shined with 206 yards, to set up Crosby from 51? Sure, that’s another one-minute drill for him this season. But Crosby was wide left to set up overtime.

Would I have been amused had Rodgers lost another overtime game without touching the ball? Probably. But Burrow seemed to erase any chance of that with an instant pick to start overtime.

Would I have been pissed if Rodgers got credit for a game-winning drive in overtime for losing 5 yards on two Jones runs and watching Crosby hit from 40? Damn right. But the kicker missed again. At least it spared us a crap game-winning drive.

Burrow hit a pass for 21 yards to the Green Bay 41 again, but did they learn anything from the previous mistake? No, they ran the ball three times again and settled for a 49-yard field goal by a no-name kicker. He missed wide left too.

Finally, Rodgers hit passes of 20 and 15 yards to put this one to an end after Crosby finally connected from 49 yards out with 1:55 left. I am content with that being the game-winning drive in this one.

At least it had a winner, because I can’t remember ever seeing a clutch kicking display this bad.

Broncos at Steelers: The Standard Improved?

Last week in Green Bay, the Steelers showed they can score an opening-drive touchdown, and they did it again on Sunday after a beautiful 50-yard pass from Ben Roethlisberger to Diontae Johnson again gave the Steelers the early lead. Last week, the Steelers showed some offensive line improvement and a running game that actually could get gains of 3-4 yards instead of seeing Najee Harris get hit in the backfield immediately. This continued against Denver with Harris rushing for 122 yards to finally snap the team’s 11-game streak of not rushing for 90 yards.

Dare I say, the Steelers showed offensive improvement for the second week in a row? The other problem last week was inaccuracy from Roethlisberger. He was sharp in this game, especially early and especially on third down where the Steelers finished 7/12 compared to Denver going 2/12 on third down (but ¾ on fourth down). One week after a concussion, I was not impressed with Teddy Bridgewater or this Denver offense at all until he started to mount a 24-6 comeback in the fourth quarter. The game got a bit tight at 27-19, but he eventually struggled in the red zone again and threw an interception in the final seconds to end it.

While far from dominant, this was much closer to a classic game from the Steelers where both units played well for much of the game and they were able to win at home. Can they stack another one against the Geno Smith-led Seahawks next week? We’ll see, but if this offense shows up in prime time against that Seattle defense, then it may not be such an ugly display of football from Pittsburgh like in recent times. I was not surprised by the win, but that says more about my thoughts on how legit Denver was. But I can see actual improvement from the Pittsburgh offense in the last two weeks compared to the first three.

Eagles at Panthers: Pumpkins and Pretenders

What the fvck were these teams doing?

Jalen Hurts had nine failed completions in the first half, but none in the second as the offense finally started making plays that gained more than 10 yards. He also got his legs involved as the passing in this game was just atrocious for both teams. At least the Panthers got Chuba Hubbard to rush for 101 yards in Christian McCaffrey’s absence. The Eagles once again barely handed the ball off to their backs until very late in the game.

Sam Darnold had three interceptions and may have turned back into a pumpkin just in time for Halloween. But it was a blocked punt that set the Eagles up at the Carolina 27 for their game-winning drive. Darnold then threw his third pick and the Eagles ran out the clock.

Obviously, the transitive property never has and never will mean a thing in the NFL. If you just judged Carolina and Philadelphia by how they played against the Cowboys, then you wouldn’t have expected the Panthers to blow this one. But they did after leading 15-3 early.

Is either team going anywhere this season? I doubt it, but this was some low-key horrific offensive football.

Russell Wilson and the Lonesome Crowded NFC West

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

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

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

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

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

Russell Wilson vs. His Peers vs. Their Division Rivals

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

If Only Wilson Had Tom Brady’s Division Luck…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I got mine but I want more.

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

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

Shit Luck.

This plane is definitely crashing

This boat is obviously sinking

This building’s totally burning down

And my heart has slowly dried up