NFL Stat Oddity: Week 6

Most of Week 6’s excitement centered on Tennessee’s 42-36 overtime win over the Texans. Romeo Crennel did something cool, Mike Vrabel played it safe, and everyone from Rich Gannon to most of Twitter got on my nerves when it came to these two-point conversions that have been a big story this season.

Previous weeks:

AFC South Gone Wild: Texans at Titans

The Titans (5-0) hung on to the AFC’s top seed with their league-high fourth game-winning drive of the season after getting the only possession in overtime. It’s practically a miracle the game even reached that extra session after a hot finish from Deshaun Watson, a shot at a 9-point lead in the final two minutes, another crazy Tennessee touchdown that felt fishy to me, and a bypass of the two-point conversion from Mike Vrabel.

Let’s start with Watson, who led Houston to touchdowns on five of his last eight drives and two touchdowns on his final two drives. He didn’t have any turnovers and only took two sacks, which is low for him. Meanwhile, Ryan Tannehill had a strip-sack fumble and threw a pick in the fourth quarter that Watson seemed to cash in with a long drive to ice the game.

Houston scored with 1:50 left and a 36-29 lead. Now I never thought interim coach Romeo Crennel, being a crusty defensive guru, would actually do the right thing and go for two to put this one away with a 9-point lead, but he called for it. Watson had a receiver open on the play too, but just couldn’t make the throw.

CBS announcer Rich Gannon was immediately troubled by the call and thought the extra point was the right move to make it an 8-point game. He tried to justify it on Twitter too:

Uh, bollocks, Rich. For one, Zimmer made a mistake when he didn’t go for a two late in that Seattle game last week. Furthermore, by making it a 9-point game you have effectively just ended the game with 1:50 left with the Titans down to one timeout. Now the Titans have to hurry a score, which they may not even try for the end zone if it’s taking too long. Then they’ll have to recover an onside kick, and we all know that’s nearly impossible these days. The onside kick numbers were 12-of-114 recovered (10.5%) for 2018-19 and that’s not removing some surprise ones that have a better shot. Then if they do get one, they have to score again, either with a possible Hail Mary or long field goal from a kicker who has been inconsistent this season. So good luck with all of that.

Also, who cares if the Texans are up 8, Rich? Even if they’re up 7, they can get a stop or takeaway on defense to end the game. They can also still win in overtime because it’s no guarantee that the Titans would go for two to win in regulation (psst: they didn’t).

The point everyone needs to remember is that whether you’re up 9, 8, or 7, the goal on defense remains the same: don’t allow a touchdown. Period. You don’t allow a touchdown, you don’t lose the game. Stop them on a long field by any means necessary.

Of course Gannon finished his point by saying the guy in New England, Bill Belichick, kicks the extra point every time. I’m not so sure about that, but then again, I was disappointed to see Belichick mouth “why are they going for two?” when Pete Carroll and the Seahawks finally pulled this rare strategy on them in 2016. The Seahawks also didn’t convert in taking a 31-24 lead, but the defense did the job and stopped the Patriots from scoring a game-tying touchdown at the end. Going for nine was absolutely the right call for Houston, and it’s really a no-brainer in the final two minutes.

Also, Belichick happened to go for an early two-point conversion at the same time in his loss to Denver with the Patriots down 18-9. Was that a great call? Keep in mind the Patriots kicked a field goal on 4th-and-5 at the Denver 20 with 3:23 left to make it an 18-12 game. You’re not even guaranteed to get the ball back in that situation. If Belichick just kicked the extra point early and trailed 18-10, they could have gone for it on that 4th-and-5. It’s an extra opportunity in decent field position gone to waste.

For some reason, NFL Twitter seems to think it’s a great strategy to go for two on the first touchdown when you’re down 15, but these same people don’t seem to like going for two up seven to take a 9-point lead. This has always seemed really ass-backwards to me as they’re not respecting how safe a 9-point lead is late in the game:

The 8-point lead is overrated when the only difference it has over 7 is the two-point conversion, a near 50/50 proposition for the league. But if your defense just allowed a team to drive the length of the field for a touchdown, what makes you think they’re going to suddenly find their stopping prowess at the 2-yard line? It’s a fool’s safety blanket to think the two-point conversion will solve your inability to do the main goal your defense has: don’t allow a touchdown.

Now in Belichick’s case, there was 8:31 left when the Patriots failed on the 2PC. That’s more reasonable given the time left. The game isn’t going to just end at 8:31 like it probably would at 3:24 had the Rams on Sunday night gone for two early and failed. Sean McVay kicked the extra point instead and I think it was absolutely the right call even though Al Michaels and Cris Collinsworth had a half-assed disagreement about it. The Rams ended up never getting the ball back so it was a moot finish.

The worst assumption people make on this is that a team down 8 will take their sweet old time to score a touchdown until it’s too late to do anything else if they fail on the game-tying 2PC. That’s just not how the NFL works, especially if we’re talking about drives that start in the final minutes. Teams know they have to be in hurry-up mode at all times. They aren’t going to turn down a touchdown when they see one open to work the clock. That’s nonsense. They’ll take the score when they can get it and they usually get it before the game is over.

I only found 20 cases since 2001 where a team down 8 scored a touchdown in the final 60 seconds and failed on the two-point conversion. Only two of those teams (2004 ATL vs. SEA, 2005 NE vs. MIA) scored with no time left on the clock, so no onside kick was possible. It should be noted that in both cases it was teams playing backups in Week 17 with the starters resting for the playoffs. In fact, I’ll go to the grave saying that Belichick purposely told Matt Cassel to throw the 2PC away so the Patriots could face the overrated Jaguars in the Wild Card that year instead of red-hot Pittsburgh, the eventual champion.

Those two aside, that left 18 teams that scored with 10 to 47 seconds left. The funny thing is four of these 18 teams were able to recover an onside kick after failing on the 2PC. That’s 22.2%, or vintage onside kick recovery back when you could get one once in a while. The 2007 Cowboys infamously beat Buffalo on Monday Night Football after failing with 20 seconds left, but recovering an onside kick and Tony Romo set up a game-winning field goal. The 2007 Cardinals (vs. WAS), Romo’s 2012 Cowboys (vs. BAL), and Aaron Rodgers’ 2015 Packers (vs. Lions) also recovered onside kicks, but their kickers all missed from 50+ yards out to end the game. Remember, we’ve seen offenses set up a field goal in 6 seconds before. It’s not that hard from midfield these days.

So it’s not entirely hopeless if you fail on the late 2PC, and at least you extended the game and got to that point to tie it in the first place. When you chase the two early you risk bringing on the endgame situation sooner than you had to. The other part that’s odd is why isn’t the argument to go 8+8 and win the game in regulation? If you’re that confident about the 2PC, then why not go for two of them and the win? Except we know that’s very hard to do and NFL teams down 15 are almost always just playing for the tie.

I’m not going to pass this as my final research on the topic, but it’s going past 6 A.M. and I just want to get this out before getting some sleep with the double-header around the corner Monday. I just find it really annoying how people seem to be treating two-point conversions as both too hard and a great luxury. Pick a side. I think going for the 9-point lead is great in almost every case. I think going for two early down 15 could be okay if there’s a lot of time left, but usually it’s a never for me after the 5:00 or 4:00 mark. I’m at least consistent on this.

Someone who is not so aggressively consistent is Vrabel, who had a big decision to make when the Titans scored with 0:04 left and trailed 36-35. Now if there was ever a situation where the Two-or-Die attempt made sense, it would be this one.

  • You know your offense is better than your defense.
  • You know your offense is better than their defense.
  • You know their offense is better than your defense.
  • Your offense is over 500 yards in regulation, your QB is mobile, and your RB is a tank.
  • It’s a 36-35 game, so the first possession in overtime is likely going to be the last.
  • Deshaun Watson is a hell of a quarterback and playing really well.
  • Bill O’Brien isn’t there to do stupid shit.
  • Your kicker, Stephen Gostkowski, already has a few misses today.
  • With only 4 seconds left, barring a miracle lateral for them, you know this is for the win if you get it.

That really checks every box, but the Titans took it safe and played for overtime. They won the coin toss and Derrick Henry took over for an 82-yard drive to deny Watson ever getting the ball.

Watson finished with a 138.9 passer rating, the highest in a loss in NFL history with a minimum of 37 pass attempts. Again, he didn’t juice it with a ton of sacks or fumbles either like a Matt Ryan game that comes to mind. Watson’s 93.1 QBR was the highest in a loss this season. This is already the sixth lost comeback of Watson’s career, which have mostly come against very good teams too.

Outside of blasting Buffalo 42-16 on a Tuesday — lot of short-field touchdowns in that one — the Titans have been in nail-biters all year. It should be a great matchup with Pittsburgh, a battle of 5-0 teams, in Week 7.

Riverboat Ron at It Again

While Mike Vrabel passed on the game-winning two-point conversion down by a point, Ron Rivera dialed up another “Two or Die” situation for his team. It’s the third time since 2016 alone that Rivera has done this, but he’s now 0-3 without any conversions.

This time it was with Washington down 20-19 after a Kyle Allen touchdown pass with 36 seconds left. It’s not a terrible call given the time left and ineptitude of New York’s offense, but you have to remember that your quarterback is Kyle Allen. He couldn’t make the pass happen and the Football Team lost, which doesn’t sound like a big deal, but two wins in the NFC East has anyone right in line for the outright lead of this pathetic division.

Also, keep this in mind the next time you see someone say “it doesn’t matter who you play in the NFL.” Daniel Jones is now 3-0 as a starter against Washington, but 1-14 against the rest of the NFL.

Aaron Rodgers: Reality Check

Something tells me Aaron Rodgers won’t be saying his down games are career-best games for most quarterbacks after Sunday’s 38-10 beatdown in Tampa Bay, the site of now three of the worst games of his career.

You know I even laid out how this could happen, but still trusted Green Bay. The Packers always seem to fold on the road in games like this one. Since 2012, Green Bay is 2-16 on the road against NFC playoff teams outside the division. That doesn’t yet include this year where the Packers have won in New Orleans and now lost in Tampa Bay, so that record could be 3-17 or it could be 2-17 if this win catapults the Buccaneers forward and the Saints don’t recover. Either way, it was pretty clear that the Packers were no longer playing the bad NFC North defenses or the Saints/Falcons in this one. Tampa Bay, led by old Green Bay nemesis Ndamukong Suh up front, was fast and able to pressure Rodgers, who was rarely hit in the first four games.

I also mentioned Green Bay was flirting with disaster after having zero giveaways through four games. No team’s ever started a season with five straight games doing that. The Packers felt the regression hard after Rodgers threw back-to-back picks in the second quarter. He was 2 yards shy of doubling his career pick-six total as the plays gave the Buccaneers a quick 14 points after Rodgers looked exceptional in the first quarter to build a 10-0 lead.

That first quarter is about the only thing stopping me from saying hands down this was the worst game of Rodgers’ career, but it’s definitely right in the mix with 2014 Buffalo, 2015 Denver, and 2019 San Francisco (SNF). Rodgers’ QBR was 17.8 and he threw what could have easily been a third pick right to a defender that was dropped.

Tampa Bay meanwhile played about as clean of a game as one could in this league with no turnovers, penalties or sacks allowed. As I said in the preview, Brady was facing a pretty mediocre pass defense that has allowed good stats to four veterans not on top of their game in 2020. Brady finished with a 96.1 QBR in an efficient outing, throwing for 166 yards and getting some vintage plays out of Rob Gronkowski.

It’s a really bad look the way Rodgers was clearly rattled in that second quarter, and Green Bay’s defense appeared to be in give-up mode in the second half. After a game like this, it’s hard not to expect the Packers to fold the next time they’re presented with a similar opponent of this caliber.

That would make the 2020 Packers on par with just about every Green Bay team since 2011. Just when you thought things might be different…

Updates on the NFL’s Passing Touchdown Record

Tom Brady (552) is chasing Drew Brees (555) for the NFL’s all-time touchdown pass record, while Aaron Rodgers (377) still has an outside shot of passing both if he chooses to play long enough (and if they ever retire).

With Brady kicking off Week 5 against Chicago on Thursday night, it wouldn’t surprise me if he goes all out — think excessive throws from inside the 3-yard line — to throw three or four touchdowns to get at least a share of a record he has yet to hold.

It’s unclear if this will be the final season for Brees or Brady, but this should be a tight race in 2020, and neither may be able to entirely wipe out Peyton Manning from the leaderboard when you break down the touchdown passes by yards gained.

In the following chart, you can see the record holder for the most touchdown passes that gained at least X amount of yards from 1 to 99. So for the entry of 10, that means Peyton Manning threw 324 touchdown passes that gained at least 10 yards, still beating out Brees (320), Brett Favre (298), and Brady (293) for the time being.

CLICK HERE TO ENLARGE

Brees is within striking distance of basically the whole 1-45 block, but there are some amusing entries in the middle column that show how different the NFL used to be in regards to the long ball. John Hadl and the great Johnny Unitas threw long touchdown passes with amazing frequency that still holds up today. Eli Manning making a few appearances is also interesting. Ben Roethlisberger has a chance to take over the 80+ yard plays, but Aaron Rodgers isn’t far behind for the 70+ yard touchdowns. He has 18 of those, or one behind Brees.

We can also see some interesting things when we go by the game-by-game progression of these records.

CLICK HERE TO ENLARGE

Brees is at 555 touchdown passes in his 279th game. Brady will play in his 290th game on Thursday night. You can see Rodgers is ready to do some damage to this leaderboard after taking over from Dan Marino at Game 111 of his career. Remember, this includes the seven games he didn’t start as Favre’s backup in 2005-07. Rodgers is at 377 touchdown passes in 185 games, giving him a share of the record with Brees at 193 games. So that’s an eight-game cushion.

He still has a long way to go, but Patrick Mahomes may very well wipe out Marino, Rodgers, and anyone else in his path on this chart. Mahomes has a tie of the record at 39 games with Marino, but he’s only played 35 games so far. He should become the fastest player to 100 touchdown passes, then we’ll see from there.

Aaron Rodgers’ Down Years Are Not Career Years for Most QBs

It only took one week for the Russell Wilson MVP season to take a back seat to the Aaron Rodgers 2020 Revenge Tour. A big part of that is Wilson playing fruitless Miami in Sunday’s early slate rather than roasting the winless Falcons on Monday night, but the fact is Wilson already has major competition from Rodgers, who seeks his third MVP and first since 2014.

On Tuesday, Rodgers took to Pat McAfee’s show and had this exchange about his so-called down years and how they would be career years for most quarterbacks:

If he’s counting backups, then of course he’s right about this. Rodgers has done more in the first four games this season than most backups have done in their whole careers.

But if we’re expanding this to the other 31 starting quarterbacks in 2020, then Rodgers is really stretching the definitions of “most” and “career years.” Even if we’re being generous and looking for 15 quarterbacks to qualify, he still comes up short, and it’s only a number as high as it is because of the current youth movement at the position with a lot of first and second-year starters in place.

Step 1: Which Seasons Are Down Year Aaron?

First, let’s figure out what “down years” are for Rodgers so we can count how many quarterbacks haven’t had a career year as good as them. His first year as a starter (2008) was good as far as expectations should go for a first-year starter in that era, but we’ll ignore that one since he technically had nothing to come down from at the time. I’m also going to overlook 2017 when he broke his collarbone again and missed nine full games.

This leaves three obvious choices, which also happen to be Rodgers’ bottom three seasons in ESPN’s QBR and completion percentage:

  • 2015: The Jordy Nelson-less year, the 6-0 start, then the Denver nightmare and fall from grace.
  • 2018: Mike McCarthy’s swansong as Rodgers fell in love with throwaways in a 6-9-1 season.
  • 2019: The Packers made it to the NFC Championship Game, but Rodgers finished lower than ever (20th) in QBR and barely threw for 4,000 yards.

These are the three seasons we’ll work with.

Step 2: Cross Out the Obvious Ones

While we are undergoing a transition period at the position, there are still plenty of accomplished players, both young and old, at quarterback in the NFL. So let’s cross out all the obvious ones who have a career year better than any of Rodgers’ down years. Some of the peak years I’ve chosen could be debated (some have multiple listed for that reason), but there is no debate that these quarterbacks can say they’ve had a career year better than Rodgers’ 2015, 2018 or 2019.

  • Tom Brady (peak: 2007)
  • Philip Rivers (peak: 2008/2009)
  • Drew Brees (peak: 2011)
  • Matthew Stafford (peak: 2011)
  • Nick Foles (peak: 2013)
  • Ben Roethlisberger (peak: 2014)
  • Cam Newton (peak: 2015)
  • Russell Wilson (peak: 2015/2019)
  • Matt Ryan (peak: 2016)
  • Dak Prescott (peak: 2016)
  • Derek Carr (peak: 2016)
  • Carson Wentz (peak: 2017)
  • Patrick Mahomes (peak: 2018)
  • Jared Goff (peak: 2018)
  • Deshaun Watson (peak: 2018/2019)
  • Lamar Jackson (peak: 2019)
  • Kirk Cousins (peak: 2019)
  • Jimmy Garoppolo (peak: 2019)
  • Ryan Tannehill (peak: 2019)

That’s already 19 quarterbacks, leaving 12 left besides Rodgers.

Step 3: The Dirty Dozen

As I list these 12 quarterbacks, note their years of experience in the NFL in parenthesis. Seven of them are in their first or second season.

  • Joe Burrow (1)
  • Justin Herbert (1)
  • Kyler Murray (2)
  • Gardner Minshew (2)
  • Daniel Jones (2)
  • Dwayne Haskins (2)
  • Drew Lock (2)
  • Baker Mayfield (3)
  • Sam Darnold (3)
  • Josh Allen (3)
  • Teddy Bridgewater (7; peak in 2015)
  • Ryan Fitzpatrick (16; peak was 2015 or 2018)

Let’s quickly call off the dogs from at least four fan bases, starting with the Bills Mafia. Yes, if Josh Allen plays anything like he has the first four games for the rest of the season, then he’ll be added to the previous group to make it an even 20 quarterbacks. Meanwhile, Joe Burrow and Justin Herbert are rookies just three or four games into their careers. If the starts are any indication, they won’t have a problem soon outdoing Down Year Aaron. Kyler Murray’s had a couple of disappointing games after a good start to 2020, but he’s just 20 games into his career. Give him time.

Given the draft prospects of Gardner Minshew (sixth-round pick) and Daniel Jones (expected bust), their rookie seasons were way better than expectations. They still have potential. Drew Lock has only started seven games, so there’s hardly any certainty there. He’s still better off than Dwayne Haskins, who may not have the job by November at this rate.

Baker Mayfield and Sam Darnold were the first two quarterbacks off the board in 2018, and they’re certainly looking like disappointments relative to Allen and Lamar. Maybe if Darnold can get away from Adam Gase and/or the Jets he’ll have a shot, but it hasn’t been pretty so far. Mayfield’s rookie season (2018) actually stacks up pretty close to Rodgers’ 2018 from an efficiency basis, so he’s not that far off here. He just is much more likely to throw interceptions, but we’ll see if he can get the Browns back to the playoffs this year.

The only starters with more than three years in the league are Teddy Bridgewater and Ryan Fitzpatrick. Bridgewater actually won the division over Rodgers in 2015 before suffering that catastrophic leg injury in the following offseason, so this is only his third year as a full-time starter. This could be his career year for a Carolina team no one expected much from.

That means Fitzpatrick is the only quarterback who has started full time for more than three years and hasn’t really beaten out Down Year Aaron, though he was in the ballpark in 2015 with the Jets when he threw 31 touchdowns for a 10-win team. Fitzpatrick actually finished higher in QBR (62.0; 10th) than Rodgers (60.0; 14th) that year. Almost splitting hairs here. Fitzpatrick is just a Tua placeholder in Miami these days.

If we went back to the 2015-19 period of starters, then we’d still have a lot of quarterbacks who clearly have a better peak year than Down Year Aaron, including Peyton Manning, Tony Romo, Carson Palmer, Alex Smith, Jay Cutler, Michael Vick, Eli Manning, Andrew Luck, Joe Flacco, Andy Dalton, Colin Kaepernick, etc.

However, Rodgers would at least win the argument over Blake Bortles and Brock Osweiler…

Conclusion: Rodgers Was Wrong

So when Rodgers claimed his down years are career years for most quarterbacks, he may have had the Brett Hundleys and Jordan Loves of the world in mind. He probably didn’t think he was just dunking on Fitzmagic, Cheesecake Factory Baker, Teddy’s Wounded Knee, and that hot mess that plays at MetLife Stadium right now. When you go through the starters in this league, what Rodgers said about his down years is simply not true.

Hey, it’s just the facts, bro.

(If you listened to the end of the McAfee clip, then you already knew how I was going to end this)

Russell Wilson Has Never Deserved an MVP Vote, But 2020 Might Be His Year

The history of the NFL is layered with statistical oddities.

  • The 12 teams with the most points scored in NFL history have won zero championships.
  • The Detroit Lions have only won one playoff game since 1958.
  • Bruce Smith has the most sacks (200.0) in NFL history, but never led the league in sacks in 19 seasons.
  • Drew Brees holds most NFL passing records, but has never won an MVP award.

Something that’s being treated as an oddity is the fact that Seattle quarterback Russell Wilson has never received a single vote for MVP in his first eight seasons. In a quote I only noticed this week from early in the offseason, Wilson himself joked about this fact:

“Come on? No votes at all? What more I got to do around here, huh? I’m just saying, you know, can we get a couple votes here or there? Why not?”

Russell Wilson, May 2020

Sure, his linebacker teammate Bobby Wagner receiving a vote from Tony Dungy in 2014 is the height of ridiculousness, but a vote for Wilson that year also would have been laughable. It’s not an oddity at all that Wilson has yet to get a vote.

The truth is that an MVP vote for Russell Wilson in any of the last eight seasons would have made as much sense as voting Jill Stein for president in 2016.

When you only get one vote, why would you waste that vote on someone out of pity or for the lesser candidate who has no chance of winning? It would be different if voters had to rank their top three candidates in a points system and Wilson still had zero points in eight years, but that’s not how the NFL does this award.

So we’re going to break this into two sections. First, I’m going to show why Wilson has rightfully never received a vote, and then I’m going to explain why 2020 might finally be his year.

Part I: Russell Wilson vs. 2012-19 MVP Field

Let’s go season by season, and remember the only thing that matters for MVP is the regular season performance.

2012 MVP Vote: Adrian Peterson (30.5), Peyton Manning (19.5)

This one should have gone to Peyton Manning for his transformative impact on the Broncos claiming the AFC’s No. 1 seed, but old-school voters still loved their workhorse running backs and round numbers like 2,000 rushing yards. Wilson’s impact was almost immediate on the Seahawks, but rookies have never won an MVP in the modern NFL and Seattle’s defense and Marshawn Lynch still drew a lot of headlines that season. But the Seahawks were definitely on their way to something special starting with this season.

2013 MVP Vote: Peyton Manning (49), Tom Brady (1)

First of all, former pro quarterback Jim Miller was the lone Brady vote, which should have been the last time he had an MVP vote. Manning should have been unanimous this year after rewriting the record books again with 5,477 yards and 55 touchdowns for the highest-scoring team in history. Granted, Wilson got the Super Bowl win that year over Denver, but when it came to the MVP, Manning pretty much had that on cruise control since opening night when he threw seven touchdowns against the Ravens.

2014 MVP Vote: Aaron Rodgers (31), J.J. Watt (13), Tony Romo (2), DeMarco Murray (2), Tom Brady (1), Bobby Wagner (1)

This was one of the more undecided years. Manning started hot before fading. Aaron Rodgers had a rough September, but turned it around quickly to go on a big run. Tony Romo was at his best for Dallas. As for Wilson, this was a weird year in that he passed for a career-low 20 touchdowns, but it was his most prolific rushing season with 849 yards and six touchdowns. He also led the league with 13 fumbles. So overall he had a nice year, but quarterback play was really strong in 2014 and you could argue he was behind Rodgers, Romo, Manning, Brady, Ben Roethlisberger and Andrew Luck. Wilson finished 13th in DYAR and DVOA, but 6th in QBR since he had the rushing impact.

Still, he was more valuable than Bobby damn Wagner, Mr. Dungy.

2015 MVP Vote: Cam Newton (48), Carson Palmer (1), Tom Brady (1)

Out of the last eight MVP awards, I think this is the most debatable and cringeworthy one based on the voting outcome. It’s also the only one where Wilson had a good case.

  • Best QB over the last seven games? Wilson had 24 TD, 1 INT, 132.8 passer rating to end the season.
  • Best QB over the last nine games? Cam Newton had 24 TD, 2 INT, 115.8 passer rating and six more scores on the ground for a team that finished 15-1.
  • Best QB over the first nine games? Tom Brady had 24 TD, 3 INT, 111.1 passer rating for team that started 10-0 before losing four of his last six.
  • Best QB over the whole 16 games? Carson Palmer led the league in YPA and QBR on a 13-3 Arizona team with the most vertical passing game in the NFL.

Ultimately, voters fell in love with Newton’s team record and his total touchdown number (45). Wilson had that blistering finish, but he had a rocky first nine games where he only threw 10 touchdowns and the Seahawks were 4-5. The hole was dug too deep to climb out of. If voters actually cared about which quarterback played the best over the full season, they would have voted Palmer as I would have if I had a vote. Still, Brady and Palmer got a vote while Wilson didn’t, so that mostly tells me the Seattle-based voter isn’t a homer.

2016 MVP Vote: Matt Ryan (25), Tom Brady (10), Ezekiel Elliott (6), Derek Carr (6), Aaron Rodgers (2), Dak Prescott (1)

This one could have gone terribly, but at least half were sane enough to give it to Matt Ryan for one of the most consistently great passing seasons in NFL history. Brady received 10 votes despite the Patriots starting 3-1 with Jimmy Garoppolo and Jacoby Brissett while he was suspended. The votes for Zeke should have gone to Dak Prescott, who I would argue had the best rookie quarterback season to that point. It’s actually surprising a hot six-game finish and playoff trip didn’t earn Rodgers more than two votes, which should have at least been more than the absurd six votes Derek Carr received.

As for Wilson, 2016 is arguably his worst NFL season. He finished 15th with a career-low 57.1 QBR. He was never able to string together more than two or three high-quality games in a row.

2017 MVP Vote: Tom Brady (40), Todd Gurley (8), Carson Wentz (2)

This is the year I refer to as Brady winning a Default MVP since there really was no standout candidate. This was the brutal QB injury year where Aaron Rodgers broke his collarbone again, Andrew Luck never played a snap, and other players like Carson Palmer and Carson Wentz were injured. Wentz probably could have won it if he didn’t tear his ACL when he did.

Wilson actually ended up leading the league in touchdown passes (34) for the first time, but again, that was thanks to the Wentz injury. Seattle also missed the playoffs with a 9-7 record and you’re just never going to see someone get an MVP vote with that resume. Despite the touchdowns, Wilson’s YPA was also a career-low 7.2 that year.

2018 MVP Vote: Patrick Mahomes (41), Drew Brees (9)

This was mostly a year-long battle between Patrick Mahomes and Drew Brees before Brees faded after Thanksgiving. Philip Rivers popped into the conversation late in the year, but it was always logical to go with Mahomes, who finished with 50 touchdown passes in his first year as a starter. That’s historic stuff and he’s continued to be a history maker ever since.

Wilson had an efficient passing season, but 2018 was when Brian Schottenheimer took over as offensive coordinator and the team began dialing back the number of pass plays. Wilson finished 11th in QBR that year and was never really in the conversation. He had another amazing eight-game stretch (Weeks 5-13), but Mahomes was clearly better from start to finish.

2019 MVP Vote: Lamar Jackson (50)

As I wrote on here last November, Wilson was the clear MVP winner if the award was given after Week 9. But I also warned that with the tough upcoming schedule, these things can change quickly. Wilson in fact did not thrive the rest of the season, throwing just 9 touchdown passes in the last seven games with a 90.7 passer rating, 7.2 YPA, and he took 26 more sacks. The Seahawks also lost three of their last four games with efforts that weren’t even close against the Rams and Cardinals.

Meanwhile, Lamar Jackson only got stronger in Baltimore, a team that wouldn’t lose again until the postseason. After Week 9, Jackson threw 24 touchdowns to one interception with a 130.0 passer rating and 8.06 YPA. He also finished the season with 1,206 rushing yards, an absurd record total for a quarterback in this league. That’s why by season’s end it was a no-brainer choice to vote for Jackson, who received all 50 votes as he should have.

But leave it up to NBC/PFF’s Cris Collinsworth to bemoan during this season’s Week 2 game that he would have spoiled Jackson’s unanimous MVP by voting for Wilson last year if he could have. Why? Beats me, because Jackson was the only logical choice in 2019 when it came time to vote.

Part II: Russell Wilson’s Year?

We’re only going into Week 4, but maybe this lack of an MVP vote stuff has motivated Wilson to play his best football yet. Through three games, Wilson has the Seahawks at 3-0 despite allowing 86 points in those games, the third most ever for a 3-0 team in NFL history. Wilson has thrown 14 touchdown passes, the new record for the first three games of a season:

Notice the other four seasons on this chart all led to an MVP award too. Usually when someone starts this hot, it turns into a prolific season that challenges the touchdown record.

Wilson could be joining an interesting list of quarterbacks who really peaked in the ninth year of their careers in the NFL.

Counting stats be damned, as an expert on Peyton Manning’s career I will tell you that he was never better than he was in the 2006 season when he helped the Colts set records for third-down conversion rate and still won 12 games (then a Super Bowl) despite a horrid run defense that really limited the possessions that team had each week. His drive engineering, the ultimate job of every quarterback, was never better and that was probably his physical peak as well. That was the season where he took a nasty hit against Gregg Williams’ Washington defense that may have started the neck issues that later led to surgery.

Drew Brees had his most MVP-worthy season and won his only Super Bowl in Year 9 with the 2009 Saints. Things never actually got sweeter for Brees and head coach Sean Payton there. Matt Ryan peaked and won his only MVP award in 2016, his ninth season in the NFL. Terry Bradshaw and the Steelers were at their best in 1978, his ninth season and the only one where he was named NFL MVP. Steve McNair won a co-MVP with Manning in 2003, his ninth season. Even someone like Joe Montana had a career-high 31 touchdown passes in 1987, his ninth season, and it was his best numbers to that point until he surpassed them (efficiency wise) in 1989.

There’s not any special significance to the number nine, but if you think about it, that’s right around where a quarterback should be turning 30. At that point of his career, he has great experience and knowledge of the position, but should still be young and athletic enough as the physical decline stage isn’t there yet. It really should be most quarterback’s prime, but we’ll have to see how Wilson finishes this year because having a seven or nine-game hot streak hasn’t been a problem in the past for him. He’s just never had that ungodly season from start to finish that wins MVP awards like it has for Manning, Ryan, Brady, Mahomes, Jackson, etc.

There’s also the fact that 2020 is super offensive so far. We’re talking about the most points scored per game and the highest passing numbers (completion rate, yards, TDs, passer rating, etc.) through three weeks in NFL history. Maybe that shouldn’t come as a surprise in a pandemic year without a real offseason or preseason. Referees aren’t calling offensive holding as much, which definitely helps offenses sustain drives. Defenses look well behind the offenses (New York teams aside), which is what we saw happen in 2011 when the lockout also led to a problematic offseason.

So is Wilson’s hot start just him being more amazing than ever, or is it a bit of “wow, Dallas and Atlanta are horrible on defense and so is most of the league”? Wilson is definitely going to have competition for MVP this year from Mahomes and Rodgers, if not others (dare I say Josh Allen?). The five-touchdown night Wilson had against the Patriots was special, but will voters remember that Week 2 game come January when they vote? There’s definitely a disadvantage to peaking early for MVP, which is why it’ll be crucial for Wilson to continue this stellar level of play throughout the season.

Seattle’s rough looking defense and placement in the toughest division also don’t bode well for a great record by season’s end, but if Wilson’s going to throw for 55+ touchdowns, he’s probably going to get the benefit of the doubt with only 11 or 12 wins.

That means for once, Wilson will actually deserve an MVP vote.*

*Any and all 2020 predictions come with the caveat of “if the season doesn’t end early due to COVID-19.”

NFL Week 3 Preview: Packers at Saints

The NFL’s Week 3 schedule is so packed I wanted to highlight earlier than usual Sunday Night Football’s big NFC matchup between the Packers (2-0) and Saints (1-1) in New Orleans. This is the fifth and potentially final matchup between future HOF quarterbacks Aaron Rodgers and Drew Brees, who have split the first four meetings and actually haven’t met since 2014. The Saints are 2-0 at home against Rodgers with 51 and 44 points scored in those games, but this offense right now doesn’t look like anything we’re used to seeing from New Orleans.

Thanks to Minnesota’s pointless upset in last year’s playoffs, we didn’t get to see these teams play last year when the Saints lost out on a first-round bye despite a stronger regular season than Green Bay because of the tie-breaking system. So we get the matchup now in a premiere prime time slot with the Saints actually being a 3-point favorite, but Drew Brees is throwing some major red flags our way, and one problem is he’s not throwing them that far either.

Drew Brees: Is 2020 the End?

Everything else is dying in 2020, so why won’t this be the end of this peak run of HOF QB play from Brees that he’s been on since 2004?

Brees has already talked about this being his last NFL season before retirement, but it’s not going to be a happy swansong if the first two weeks are any indicator of what’s to come. Despite the Week 1 win over Tom Brady and the Buccaneers where the Saints scored 34 points, the offense actually didn’t play well. They scored 27 points on 12 drives, one of which was a late field goal after the Bucs botched a kick return. Brees struggled to throw for 160 yards, only connecting on a deep ball after a pump fake late in the game. According to ESPN, Brees’ air yards per pass are the lowest in the first two weeks of a season since Brett Favre in 2009. Now that was the great Favre year in Minnesota and not the bad one in 2010 that made his retirement an obvious decision, but this is still alarming stuff from Brees. While he’s been throwing very short passes since 2017, especially on third down where some of his efficiency has declined, he’s taking things to young Alex Smith territory so far this season and it hasn’t worked as well for the Saints with Michael Thomas suffering a Week 1 high ankle sprain.

We know Thomas doesn’t stretch the field much, but that highly efficient connection the two have that can consistently gain 5, 8, 12 yard chunks has been crucial to the Saints offense. Emmanuel Sanders has had a slow start in his first year with the team so far. It’s mostly been checkdowns to Alvin Kamara so far.

However, some took the 34-24 upset loss in Las Vegas on Monday night to extremes, proving the point once again that the scoreboard really tricks people’s minds. The Saints actually were better on offense in the Week 2 loss without Thomas than they were in the Week 1 win where he played over 80% of the snaps and had 17 receiving yards. On one hand, Tampa Bay’s defense looks considerably better than the Raiders so far. Alas, the Saints scored 24 points on 9 drives on Monday night, and that ninth drive was one in the final 65 seconds where they kind of went through the motions, conceding defeat early instead of trying to get a quick field goal, onside kick recovery and Hail Mary — that may have needed Jameis Winston’s arm — to tie the game.

The bigger problem than Brees on Monday night was the defense that allowed Derek Carr, after a rough start with some embarrassing sacks, to pick apart the defense on long, time-consuming scoring drives. The Raiders scored on six of their last seven drives, and it would have been seven straight had Jalen Richard not fumbled. Richard also scored a 20-yard touchdown run on a 3rd-and-10. That kind of terrible defense brings back memories of the Saints of old, but without the high-powered offense to do better than a 34-24 defeat.

This is bad news when Aaron Rodgers, a more dangerous QB than Carr, is coming to town with a hot hand. That’s why the Saints will have to be much better early in the game on offense. Brees was far from great on Monday night, and he did piss away a drive before halftime with a bad interception, but when you only get eight real drives in the course of the game, it’s hard to be expected to do a lot better than 24 points. Not to mention on the Saints’ only third quarter drive, they self-destructed with three penalties, including a very questionable call on Sanders that led to a 2nd-and-31 situation. That’s a tough situation even if Patrick Mahomes is your QB.

So it was a horrible night on defense that should have been the bigger story for New Orleans, but of course the attention goes to the quarterback. People are already calling for him to be benched for Winston or to retire midseason, and it just reminds me that there’s too many days in between games, so people resort to filling that time with nonsense. There are alarming issues with Brees not showing his usual pinpoint accuracy or really attacking anything past 10 yards, but he’s not at the point where he needs benched. The Saints will just have to get a bit more creative without Thomas, which is why I don’t understand Sean Payton using a great trick play at the end of a sure win against Tampa Bay and not saving it for more desperate times.

With the Saints possibly slipping to 1-2 this week, desperate times are coming quickly.

Prime Aaron Rodgers: Is He Back?

If the 2020 Saints are the 2015 Broncos because of the old quarterback, then I guess they’re going to kick Green Bay’s ass on SNF, right?

That’s a reference to the 2015 SNF game when the 6-0 Packers, coming off a bye week, played the 6-0 Broncos with Peyton Manning in his final zombie-fied season. It’s one of the weirder games in NFL history in that the Broncos destroyed Green Bay 29-10 with huge performances on both sides of the ball, including the old QB, and it really seemed to set Rodgers, who only passed for 77 yards, into a tailspin after a big start to the season.

Before that game Rodgers was on a pretty incredible run of play that included two MVP awards and a Super Bowl MVP. But look at the drop in his statistics from the start of his career and ever since he returned from that bye week to face the 2015 Broncos:

You can see the YPA drop over 1.2 yards, the win percentage and passer rating down 10 points, and his touchdown pass rate has dropped by 1.46 percentage points. Sacks have been about the same, though he’s lost more fumbles per play and his completion percentage has dropped 3.3 percentage points as he’s fallen in love with throwing the ball away, which helps lower his interceptions.

Things have just not been at the peak level for Rodgers for years, and the coaching change to Matt LaFleur last year also didn’t have the desired impact. However, maybe it’s taking two years to have an impact as Rodgers is off to his best start in years. His Week 1 game in Minnesota was arguably as good as any game he’s had since 2015.

The 2020 Packers are the first team since the 2009 Saints (Payton-Brees’ Super Bowl year) to score at least 42 points in the first two games of a season. They’re only the sixth NFL team to do so since 1940. It’s not just Rodgers as RB Aaron Jones is off to a huge start to the season and the Packers lead the NFL in rushing yards (417) and yards per carry (6.2). Now they’ve only played stumbling division rivals so far, but the Packers look to be in great shape offensively so far. By Pro Football Reference’s metrics, they had their 2nd and 3rd best games by offensive EPA under LaFleur the last two weeks, and Rodgers has the second-lowest pass pressure rate (11.7%) as his line is doing a great job of protection.

If there’s a reason to be pessimistic, it’s the hamstring injury for Davante Adams. He may not play Sunday and he’s still the most trusted receiver on the team, catching 17 of his first 20 targets this year. It would be a shame for this game to go without Adams and Thomas as each team’s WR1, but that’s possibly reality and it’s only Week 3.

While the Saints need this one more than Green Bay, the fact of the matter is it’s a new season, and the Packers look like the superior team with the better QB right now.

The Pick

Under normal circumstances, I would be all in for the Saints rebounding with a win in this game. With a loud crowd amped up for Sunday night and Brees bringing his usual prime time mastery and accuracy, this is a spot where I’d expect Green Bay to fold and allow a lot of points in a loss.

But this year is different. The crowd is empty, the Saints are not playing complementary football, Green Bay and Rodgers are hot, and Brees sadly looks like what you’d expect to see from a 41-year-old QB. Maybe he takes all the criticism this week and it motivates him to a vintage performance, but if he doesn’t, then I think we’re just seeing the early stages of a rough season for New Orleans. The Packers going to 3-0 and dropping the Saints to 1-2 with a head-to-head tie-breaker would be huge for them in a conference where the rest of the South and North don’t look imposing so far, the East might be a bigger joke than last year, and the West is going to rough each other up all year.

Final: Packers 31, Saints 24

Patrick Mahomes and the Race for the Most Yards and Touchdowns

After the dramatic ending to Super Bowl LIV, we face the reality of seven months without meaningful football again. That means seven months until we see Patrick Mahomes continue his assault on the NFL record books, raising the standard at the position with each game he plays. We’ll also see if Drew Brees returns for a 20th season to add to his passing records, which I’ve documented recently.

A couple of tables I like to post on Twitter from time to time are the leaders in passing yards and passing touchdowns by X number of regular-season games (no playoffs here). This is always an interesting way to look at the progression of these records and see who is really on pace to topple Brees some day.

Let’s start with the passing yardage leaders (CLICK TO ENLARGE):

MPYBG

Mahomes already has the most passing yards through a player’s first 33 games (9,412), except he’s only played in 31 games so far. You can see he is on track to completely wipe Kurt Warner off this list, which used to include Andrew Luck and a first 17-game offering from Marc Bulger.

I’m not going to entertain the Matthew Stafford for Canton takes I’ve seen on Twitter recently in this post, but you can see he has the volume here to perhaps finish very high one day. Of course he could also get wiped out by Mahomes. But there’s a good chance we’ll see Stafford continue to erase some of Brees’ marks and probably take out that Matt Ryan chunk for Games 165-168.

If we turn our attention to touchdown passes, we see a higher caliber of quarterbacks (CLICK TO ENLARGE):

MTDPBG

Mahomes once again has been downright historic, though like Dan Marino in 1985 he did see a little decline towards the end of the season that has him neck and neck with the HOFer.

Aaron Rodgers has taken control of the leaderboard since Game 112, and he is technically currently tied with Brees at Game 187 with his 364 touchdown passes. It’s not a given that Rodgers continues to stay ahead the pace of Brees and Peyton Manning. Rodgers has had his lowest TD% of his career in each of the last two seasons. He’ll be 37 in 2020. If he maintains his average of just over 2.0 TD passes per game, he’d be at roughly 553 touchdown passes in his 275th game, or 6 TD passes above the Brees mark. That’s 94 games away, so Rodgers would have to play all but two games of his next six seasons to get there assuming we stick with 16-game seasons (hopefully) for the time being. He’d be 42 in the 2025 season at that point so it’s far from a lock.

Brees is reportedly thinking about retirement, but he finished 2019 so strong (playoff loss aside) that it would be a real shame if he didn’t return for his age-41 season. He is currently six touchdown passes ahead of Tom Brady (541 TD in 285 games), who only gets mentioned now because he’s never had the lead in any of these statistics.

Whether it’s Brees, Brady or Rodgers with the eventual lead here, it’ll be most interesting to see how dominant of a run Mahomes can have. Marino once look poised to put the record books out of reach, but he too slowed down after a torrid start.

When does Mahomes fall back to earth?

2019 NFL Conference Championship Preview

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

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

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

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

Conference Championship Rematches

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

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

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

CC_rematch

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

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

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

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

Titans at Chiefs (-7.5)

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

Kansas City Sure Remembers the Titans

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

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

What if the Tennessee Defense Is Just Lucky?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What Is This Tennessee Offense?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Pressure Is on Patrick Mahomes

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

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

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

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

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

Don’t Forget: Special Teams

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

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

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

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

Final: Chiefs 34, Titans 24

 

Packers at 49ers (-7.5)

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

Packers: Reversal of Fortune?

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

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

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

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

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

Injury Outlook

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

Rodgers: Worst Night Ever?

Remember this in Week 12?

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

What Should Green Bay’s Offense Do on Sunday?

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

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

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

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

San Francisco’s Offense

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

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

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

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

Close Game or Nah?

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

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

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

Final: 49ers 23, Packers 20

NFL Top 100 Players of All Time

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

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

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

nfl100

My Approach

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

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

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

Quarterbacks (15)

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

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

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

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

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

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

3. Johnny Unitas

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

2. Joe Montana

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

1. Peyton Manning

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

DBTB-PR

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

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

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

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

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

7-10: The Curious Case of Aaron Rodgers

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

11-15: Roethlisberger over Elway

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

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

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

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

JE-BR

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Running Backs (7)

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wide Receivers (10)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tight Ends (6)

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

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

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

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

OFFENSIVE LINE (19)

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

Offensive Tackle (7)

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

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

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

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

Offensive Guard (7)

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

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

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

Center (5)

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

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

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

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

Defensive End (9)

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

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

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

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

Defensive Tackle (9)

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

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

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

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

Linebackers (12)

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

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

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

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

Cornerback (9)

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

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

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

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

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

Safety (4)

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

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

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

Others

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

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

Top100NFL

 

NFL Week 9 Predictions: Brady vs. Rodgers vs. GOAT Edition

The Week 9 schedule looks as good as any week this season, and the game of the week should be Rams at Saints. However, I am using this space (and the weekend’s extra hour) to clear up some things from late in the 2016 season that I wanted to write about, but never got around to doing. After all, this very well may be the second and last time there’s a game between Aaron Rodgers and Tom Brady.

The GOAT Discussion: Part I (Statistical Regret)

Naturally, the discussion has been who is the GOAT? Brady or Rodgers? More accomplished or more talented? I tend to avoid this particular debate, because I’d easily take Peyton Manning over both of them as no one played the position at as high of a level as consistently long as he did.

But that’s not the main focus today. I want to express some rare regret over posting a stat from January 2017. It’s hard to regret citing a fact, because I don’t feel responsible for how people choose to interpret them. However, if I knew what Patriots fans would do with this one, I never would have brought it up.

Leading into the 2016 NFC Championship Game (Green Bay at Atlanta), I was doing research on the Packers that showed this team was not good as an underdog, not good against high-scoring offenses, and as I’ve written about since 2011, not good at winning after falling behind. That led me to post the stat that said:

Packers are 0-35 with Aaron Rodgers at QB when trailing by more than one point in the fourth quarter against a team with a winning record.

I wanted to make it clear how getting off to a good start was paramount for the Packers in Atlanta (Narrator: they didn’t.). I tweeted the stat of course, and in the months & years since, it randomly gets retweeted and liked at all hours of the day, typically by Patriots fans who use it as the ultimate dig against Rodgers and a sign of his anti-clutchness in comparison to Brady.

Beyond my own mentions, I see it often cited on Twitter from people who probably have never seen my work, and many who would be pissed if they did since I always choose to push fact over narrative for their King of Kings. Here’s a small sampling of tweet results for “Rodgers 0-35” from just the last day, and notice how none of them actually get all the details of the stat correct (like more than 1 point):

035stat

Basically, by arming NE fans with this stat, I feel like the US giving chemical weapons to Saddam, and I regret it more and more by the day.

The fact that people don’t even choose to update it just shows some of the damage I caused by getting this out there. For the record, it’s now 1-38 for Rodgers when trailing by more than 1 point in the fourth quarter against teams with a winning record thru 2017.

And that’s teams who finish the season with a winning record, so it’s thru 2017 only. Maybe the Bears game this year will be his second win, but the first was Dallas last year. Oddly enough, the Cowboys only finished 9-7 instead of 8-8 because the Eagles rested starters in Week 17. That’s one of the ways this stat can be totally unfair to the QB, just like citing their playoff W-L record often would be. These guys aren’t playing Andy Dalton postseason bad and earning winless records in a small number of games. It’s much more nuanced than that, but I’ve unfairly helped label Rodgers as the 0-35 guy.

So why post it in the first place? You have to remember that of Rodgers’ 10 4QC at the time, the first was a 1-point deficit against the 0-16 Lions (a game Detroit lost by 23). Then he had a pair of them against the otherwise 7-7 Bears of 2009, a bad debut year by Jay Cutler. His 6th was the first against an 8-8 team (2013 Bears) where the argument is valid that the Bears would have been 9-7 division winner had Rodgers not come back to beat them in Week 17. That’s fair, but someone like Peyton Manning had nine 4QC against teams that finished 8-8, but he still managed at least 17 of these comeback wins against winning teams. Then I noticed Rodgers had two comebacks from a 1-point deficit early in the quarter against 2014 Dallas and 2015 Seattle. Teams down 1 point early in 4Q often have a win probability > 50%, especially if they were at home and favored. So it was an interesting mix of comebacks from typically small margins against pretty average teams.

It’s a wild stat, and while it is a difficult situation, the average QB is going to win 10 percent of the time, and it’s more like 25 percent for the best. Even the aforementioned Dalton is 7-25-1 in that situation in his career thru 2017. So there is still some doubt to associate with Green Bay and comebacks, but Rodgers rarely is the main problem there.

The GOAT Discussion: Part II (Those Damn Super Bowl Collapses)

I also have to blame the 2016 Falcons and 2014 Seahawks for not running the ball in the fourth quarter of their Super Bowls and ruining the GOAT discussion on a national level. People think it ends with those games, both won by New England to give them a fourth and fifth title in the Brady-Belichick era.

I think they only add to the overwhelming evidence that Brady, who had shaky performances throughout both games, gets to win games other quarterbacks would lose based on factors out of their control. Did Brady will Malcolm Butler to intercept a pass at the 1-yard line for the costliest interception in NFL history? Did he will Robert Alford to drop an interception that turned into a 23-yard catch by Julian Edelman? Did he will the Patriots to win the coin toss in overtime and get the ball first? That came only after a stop in the last minute against Matt Ryan (something Russell Wilson couldn’t get the benefit of with 31 seconds left in 2012).

Some people are such simpleton ring counters that I think they’d still call Brady the GOAT even if the Seahawks and Falcons finished off the Patriots on the ground. But I do believe a lot of national perception would be different if the Patriots were riding a 5-game Super Bowl losing streak with no titles since the 2004 season. However, Butler made the play, so good for him. Dont’a Hightower had the crucial strip-sack on third-and-short to change the Atlanta game, and the Patriots sacked Matt Ryan again to knock the Falcons out of field goal range when they could have put it away by going up 11. So good for them too. They made the plays to get the win.

The problem is when people act like these comebacks were all Brady, or worse: that no other quarterback could do what he did. They act like he has some special sauce or gene that will elevate him in these spots over the likes of Rodgers, Manning and any other QB you want to name.

It’s really just a bunch of narrative-driven BS, so let’s look at the facts. Two weeks before SB LI, Rodgers faced this same Atlanta team and its lousy defense on the road in the NFC Championship Game. He was down 31-0 in the third quarter after Julio Jones embarrassed his defense with a long touchdown (wow, feels like he hasn’t scored since). Never mind the fact that Rodgers wasn’t as bad as Brady (pick-six in 2Q) to this point in the game against Atlanta. Never mind that Atlanta went up 10-0 after Green Bay started with a missed 41-yard field goal and fumble by the fullback deep in scoring territory. The fact is it was 31-0 and Rodgers was going to have to be amazing the rest of the way.

What did Rodgers do? He led three straight 75-yard touchdown drives against Atlanta. It may have been four in a row, but he sat out the last drive. Why? The Falcons were up 44-21. Despite Rodgers’ best efforts on those touchdown drives, his defense continued to give up two more touchdowns to Atlanta. You can’t come back without stopping them too, and that’s not on the quarterback. Brady’s defense stopped the Falcons on four straight drives, including the huge stops with sacks in the fourth quarter. Rodgers didn’t get that benefit, so no comeback.

Go back two years earlier to 2014: Rodgers was at Seattle for the NFC Championship Game. Again, tougher to play on the road than neutral field, but I digress. Rodgers didn’t have a good game, but that’s likely a win if GB just recovers an onside kick late. They didn’t and Wilson put the Seahawks ahead. Down 22-19, Rodgers still put the Packers in range for a game-tying field goal to go to overtime. He just never touched the ball again after the Seahawks scored a touchdown on the only drive of overtime.

Now imagine if the Falcons did that to Brady in the Super Bowl: a TD in overtime with him not getting the ball. We’d probably have a rule change by now because the outcry would be so massive. No one cares that it happened to Atlanta though. The GOAT won his fifth (after escaping a game-ending interception, mind you).

I’m also just realizing how close we were to Rodgers/Brady II in SB 49, which may have changed a lot of perception years ago, but alas, things happened. The Packers beat NE that year, by the way.

Let’s also use these ATL/SEA games and compare this to Manning, who faced the tougher version of the Seahawks in 2013. That defense didn’t feature the Legion of Boom with all the serious injuries that Brady saw them with in SB 49. They also didn’t lose Cliff Avril and Jeremy Lane to injuries after interceptions like with Brady. But again, I digress. Manning threw a pick-six in the first half of that game and was down 22-0. Not much unlike Brady, who threw a worse pick-six (wasn’t hit in motion like Manning) being down 21-0 to Atlanta. However, the Patriots settled for a field goal before halftime to make it 21-3. They knew Atlanta’s D was bad at holding leads and could be scored on. Down 22-0, Denver felt the need to score a touchdown now, especially with Seattle getting the ball to start the third. So they went for a fourth-and-short over the field goal, but Manning’s pass was knocked down. 22-0 was going to be a hell of a comeback effort against one of the best defenses this century, but Seattle made it a moot point after Percy Harvin returned the opening kickoff for a TD to make it 29-0.

Now Manning would need the 2nd-largest comeback in NFL history, so good luck with that one. Manning actually had his best quarter that night in the third quarter, but they ran the ball on a third-and-10 before punting, Demaryius Thomas lost a fumble at the SEA 21, the Seahawks added another touchdown, and it was 36-0 before Manning finally got Denver on the board to end the quarter at 36-8. A 28-point 4QC has never been done in NFL history, but Manning never even got the chance after Seattle added yet another touchdown for a 43-8 final. Again, Rodgers and Manning didn’t get any stops when they needed them like Brady continued to get against what was actually the strongest offense in this little study (2016 Falcons with MVP QB Matt Ryan).

So while Brady gets praise and MVP honors for the 10-point 4QC against Seattle that only held up after Butler’s incredible pick, no one remembers that Manning played the 2014 Seahawks (without torn MCLs and labrums in the secondary) in Seattle that year. He was down 17-5 in the 4Q and threw two touchdown passes to force OT. He was down 20-12 in the final minute with 80 yards to go before leading a touchdown drive with a game-tying two-point conversion pass. That type of comeback drive (down 8 in final minute) had never been pulled off before in NFL history.

But no one remembers this drive because the Seahawks got the ball first in OT and they handed the ball off to Marshawn Lynch in the red zone for a 6-yard TD to end it. We just covered four games for Manning and Rodgers where they never got the ball in overtime after tying late, or they didn’t get the stops on defense to make a huge comeback possible. But for Brady? He always gets that help, which is why the Patriots have this long-running dynasty.

We have seen playoff comebacks of this nature from several of the game’s recent greats, but the difference in winning or losing is rarely ever about the QB himself.

Peyton Manning led an 18-point comeback win against Brady’s Patriots in 2006 AFC Championship Game, which was the biggest comeback in a championship game until SB LI. Manning also came up a field goal short (missed terribly by Mike Vanderjagt) of overtime against the Steelers in 2005 after trailing 21-3 in the fourth quarter.

Ben Roethlisberger erased a 28-10 4Q deficit against the 2007 Jaguars to take a late 29-28 lead, but his defense allowed a game-winning field goal in the final minute after David Garrard converted a 4th-down scramble (holding penalty missed).

Drew Brees has twice erased 17-0 deficits on the road in the playoffs against the 49ers (2011) and Vikings (2017). He put his team ahead in the final 100 seconds in both games, but watched his defense give up touchdown drives to Alex Smith and Case Keenum.

Don’t forget Atlanta has a history of blown leads. In 2012, the aforementioned Russell Wilson led a 20-point 4QC in Atlanta to take a late 28-27 lead with 31 seconds left, but his defense still blew it in that small amount of time. A week later, Colin Kaepernick helped the 49ers erase a 17-point deficit to beat Atlanta in the NFC Championship Game.

In his first playoff game, Aaron Rodgers led three 4Q touchdown drives in Arizona in 2009 to force overtime. Granted, he did miss an open Greg Jennings in overtime and gave up a game-ending fumble-six, but he still at least got the game to overtime on a day where Kurt Warner shredded the defense for 45 points.

Andrew Luck has already led a 28-point comeback win in the playoffs, beating the 2013 Chiefs 45-44.

I just stuck to Brady’s peers here, but Joe Montana also once led a 21-point comeback in the fourth quarter of the 1983 NFC Championship Game by throwing three touchdown passes to tie the game. It’s just unfortunate that the Redskins hogged the ball and got away with a shaky pass interference call to set up their game-winning field goal to advance to the Super Bowl.

If I see QBs in need of a late-game drive to win, I expect Brady will get the win more often than anyone. However, my expectations of that are due to the overall machine that NE has under the Faustian Belichick rather than the quarterback himself. If it’s a Manning or Rodgers team, I’m expecting how one of their teammates is going to screw the latest game up. That difference in help is the main difference between these quarterbacks, because individual QB skill is certainly not driving these results.

The GOAT Discussion: Part III (Help)

We know ring counters ruin most sports talk, but it’s always amazed me when people bring up the eye test to label Brady as the GOAT. I claim to have bad eyes, but I’m pretty sure my football vision has been good enough to see that there are more talented quarterbacks in this era. Let’s add Drew Brees, the NFL’s all-time passing king, to this discussion.

Brady doesn’t have the accuracy of his peers, especially Brees. Brady doesn’t command the offense from the line, practically serving as the coordinator like Manning did in his career. Brady doesn’t have the mobility and improv skills of Rodgers. He’s got a hell of a QB sneak though.

It’s 2018, yet people still seem to define a QB’s help as his receivers. The fact is a great QB will elevate his receivers by producing better stats for them and help them make Pro Bowls and get paid if they hit free agency. He’ll keep pressures and sacks down since those stats are more reflective of QB play than offensive line play. He’ll get his offensive coordinators hired to more important jobs. He’ll make the whole operation run smoother, and while Brady does those things, it’s hard to say with any actual evidence that he does them better than Manning, Rodgers or Brees.

I can write a whole book about this part, but let’s keep it simple for today. The real #1 advantage in New England has never been at quarterback, but at head coach. Brady simply gets more help from always having Bill Belichick, a defensive genius who has also kept the team ahead of the curve on the other sides of the ball.

Peyton Manning went to four Super Bowls with four different head coaches, a feat likely to never be repeated. Without him, those coaches have often been fired from their jobs with subpar records. But he could win 12+ games with just about anyone as he was the ultimate coach on the field. Despite mostly having defensive-minded coaches, Manning rarely had a good defense. That’s the edge for Brady. He actually has a defensive-minded coach who keeps the points down on that side of the ball.

Brees succeeded in San Diego first with Marty Schottenheimer as his head coach. Sean Payton has been a godsend to him offensively, but Brees proved in 2012 when Payton was suspended the whole year that the offense could still run through him just as well. Payton’s problem is that he’s Don Coryell with a ring in the way he has struggled to put together a defense to help Brees.

Mike McCarthy has been the head coach of every NFL start by Rodgers, but many have noticed his tactics have grown stale over the last four years as the Packers lost their league-best wide receiver depth. He hasn’t been an innovator on the level of recent hires like Sean McVay and Doug Pederson, nor has he taken the game to another level to keep up with the times a la Andy Reid and Belichick. When Rodgers went down last year, the offense looked terrible for the most part. We know that’s not the case when Brady is out in New England. Rodgers is saving McCarthy his job, and if they miss the playoffs this year, it might be time up for Mike.

It’s not as sexy as Rodgers 0-35, but let’s state some more facts that people should know about these quarterbacks.

Brady (11) has had more top 10 scoring defenses than Manning (four), Rodgers (three), and Brees (one) combined.

QB-DEF

While not as important as defense, the help on special teams is even more advantageous for Brady.

QBST

Brady has had 12 top eight finishes in special teams DVOA compared to one for Rodgers, Brees and Manning combined. We’ll see if the 2018 Saints can finish that high, but don’t be surprised if New England finishes high again for DEF and ST this year. Remember, they have more AFC East games coming.

I got through 3500 words of this before even mentioning that Brady’s had the biggest divisional advantage over any quarterback in the 32-team era (2002-2018). Yeah, that helps too when the best quarterback you have to compete with in 17 years is Chad Pennington, or when the best coach is Rex Ryan. But I’m not even getting into that today as I want to wrap this up now.

The GOAT Discussion: Conclusion (Some Guys Have All the Luck)

While I regret my Rodgers 0-35 stat, it has to pain Green Bay fans who are in my corner when it comes to the lack of help for him to hear what Rodgers said about the GOAT this week. In talking about Brady, Rodgers said “He’s got five championships, so that ends most discussions, I think.”

Except it shouldn’t end them, Aaron. I don’t know why, but the football gods always seem to grace a lesser quarterback with the most help, which leads to the most championships. We saw it with Bart Starr over Johnny Unitas, Terry Bradshaw over Roger Staubach, Joe Montana over Dan Marino, and I think you can argue Brady over all three of Manning/Rodgers/Brees in this era. The only one there who I think still had a good argument as the better quarterback was Montana over Marino given Montana’s continued statistical greatness and success after Bill Walsh retired. Marino’s big stat years peaked early and he had a lot of playoff losses that were routs.

But when so many quarterbacks are doing great things statistically year after year, we’re doing them a great disservice to let a series of coin flips in the playoffs tell us who is the best. Plays where the quarterback wasn’t even on the field are writing these legacies, but that’s why I’ll continue to do what I’ve been doing for 15 years: analyzing the impact of the team around the quarterback via statistical evidence to explain why games are won and lost. The other side will continue to do what they’ve done for 15 years: poorly explain why the quarterback who doesn’t have any statistical edge over his peers deserves the most credit for why his team wins the most.

All Rodgers can do this week is play his best to try getting a rare road win over the Patriots and make their path to a top seed harder. This defense has some holes he should be able to exploit, so it wouldn’t surprise me to see the game come down to a final drive. At the very least, Ty Montgomery won’t be there to defy his coaches and fumble a kickoff to deny Rodgers a chance again like in Los Angeles last week. Can you imagine that happening to Brady’s team? No, and therein lies the real difference.

Now excuse me while I crank up some of the GOAT.

NFL Week 9 Predictions

I had one of my best weeks ever last week (10-4 ATS, 13-1 SU). Having faith in the Giants cost me from a perfect 14-0 week, but not again this season on the Giants. I already started 0-1 this week after having bad expectations for Nick Mullens, but underestimating just how little Oakland cares right now.

2018Wk9

Still reeling from my lock last week (Bengals -4) blowing that late lead to the Bucs and only winning by 3. This week, I like an underdog teaser with PIT +9, ATL +8, NO+8 and GB +12. I also feel like the Browns could give the Chiefs a real scare in Cleveland with Gregg Williams replacing Hue Jackson.

Wk1-8

NFL Week 2 Predictions: The Good Life Edition

I’m not going to say that Week 1 of the 2018 NFL season sucked, but when the first two full games I watched live were Falcons-Eagles and Steelers-Browns, it didn’t get off to the best start. The Week 2 schedule looks really good, but it didn’t take long for injuries to start having an impact. Some of the players missing in action this week include Devonta Freeman, Greg Olsen, David DeCastro, Olivier Vernon, and basically every long-time Seahawk not named Russell Wilson or Earl Thomas. We’re also waiting to see if Aaron Rodgers, Ben Roethlisberger, and Marcus Mariota are good to go this week at quarterback. We still must wait to see the 2018 debuts of Joey Bosa, Carson Wentz, Alshon Jeffery, and Jack Conklin.

Game of the Week: Vikings at Packers

I really hope Aaron Rodgers plays this one, because it is a huge game for playoff seeding despite it only being Week 2. The Vikings knocked Rodgers out early in the first matchup last year and didn’t have to see him for the second one. They shouldn’t get that advantage again this year. They also have Kirk Cousins now in what is arguably the second-biggest game of his NFL career when you think about it. His only playoff game was also against Green Bay and Rodgers, a 35-18 loss at home in the 2015 Wild Card.

Over the last three seasons in Washington, Cousins was 3-10 on the road against teams that finished the year with a winning record. You’d expect Green Bay to be that kind of opponent this year. However, that 3-10 mark includes wins last season in Seattle and LA (Rams). Cousins also should have had a signature win in Kansas City, but Josh Doctson dropped a game-winning touchdown in the end zone. He can function in these spots and his Minnesota debut last week was solid.

Mike Zimmer’s had some decent success against Rodgers in his career, and this should be the most talented roster he’s taken into a Green Bay game yet. As I pointed out in FOA 2018, Zimmer entered this season with the best record against the spread (44-23) among active head coaches. Last week, his defense forced Jimmy Garoppolo into the worst start (and first loss) of his young career, and covered the spread.

HCATS

We don’t know what the spread is yet for this one because of Rodgers’ health, but clearly he isn’t 100 percent. I think a lack of mobility can be troublesome against such a talented Minnesota defense, and the Vikings should have scoring opportunities on the other side of the ball. That’s why, regardless of Rodgers’ status, I like the Vikings to pull this one off on the road with a superior roster. I know I’m already going against my season predictions where I had these teams splitting the series with each home team winning, but I also didn’t anticipate another Rodgers injury situation so soon.

Chiefs at Steelers

Under Andy Reid, Kansas City has beaten just about every contender in the NFL over the last four years. That includes wins over six of the last eight Super Bowl teams: 2014 Seahawks, 2014 Patriots, 2015 Broncos, 2016 Falcons, 2017 Patriots, and 2017 Eagles. (They didn’t play against the 2015 Panthers or 2016 Patriots, but notched wins against those teams the following season.)

One team Kansas City has not beaten is Pittsburgh, or at least not the Steelers with Ben Roethlisberger at quarterback. They won a game at Arrowhead in 2015 when Landry Jones had to start. But Reid is 1-6 in his career against Roethlisberger going back to 2004 with the Eagles. That’s not even necessarily impressive for Ben, because he doesn’t play defense and the number that stands out in those seven games is 16. Reid’s teams never scored more than 16 points against the Steelers in those games.

That could really change on Sunday after the Chiefs come in hot behind new QB Patrick Mahomes after scoring 38 points in LA as underdogs. Mobile quarterbacks have been giving the Steelers fits as of late with Brett Hundley, DeShone Kizer (Week 17), Blake Bortles and Tyrod Taylor (he actually stunk passing, but still ran well) hanging pretty good scoring numbers on the defense. Now the Steelers could be without Joe Haden and Artie Burns in the secondary, which is bad news with Tyreek Hill and Sammy Watkins coming to town. This isn’t Mahomes’ first road start either so they can’t hang their hat on that advantage, though Heinz Field is a different beast from the Chargers’ small park. He looked pretty poised last week and this is one of the most talented offenses in the league. It just hasn’t clicked in the past against Pittsburgh, though James Harrison is no longer there to own Eric Fisher. T.J. Watt is coming off a huge multi-sack game, and the pass rush looked quite good in Cleveland albeit a very indecisive game from Taylor.

If Mahomes can avoid the turnovers on the road, then the Chiefs have a great shot to win this one. It’s a bad week for Roethlisberger to be questionable and missing practices with an elbow injury, because this defense looked really vulnerable for the Chiefs last week. Philip Rivers had huge numbers that would have been even better without so many drops. Roethlisberger should have success with his weapons at home where the Steelers obviously play much better. I think the conditions played a factor in several of the turnovers last week, a game that Pittsburgh almost certainly wins without the rain leveling the playing field.

It could be a really fun game, but I think the Steelers get a tight win at home to avoid an awful 0-1-1 start to what was supposed to be another season with Super Bowl aspirations.

Patriots at Jaguars

I wish this rematch of the AFC Championship Game was the Sunday night game instead of Giants-Cowboys, but you know we can’t let a September or October go by without getting that matchup at night. When you try to pick out one of the few games the Patriots are going to lose this season, you always start with road matchups against playoff-caliber teams. This should be one of those, though the Jaguars didn’t scream “playoff lock” to me coming into the season. The offense scored 13 points last week against the Giants.

Much of that has to do with Blake Bortles, who lost the two Allen’s (Robinson and Hurns) at WR, and Marqise Lee is out for the season with a torn ACL. I’m just not sure this team has enough firepower to keep up with the Patriots, who aren’t as loaded themselves right now, but still have the best TE in the game. For all the talk Jalen Ramsey did this offseason, I’d like to see him match up frequently with Gronk in this one. Walk the walk, if you will. That’s really the key to slowing them down right now without any Welker clones left (Julian Edelman is suspended for three more games).

It would take an excellent performance from the defense, which has the talent to pull it off, to keep the Patriots under 20 points (preferably under 17). I think that’s what the Jaguars must do to win this one, because I just don’t see Bortles putting up many points. NE played the Texans and Deshaun Watson well last week.

Alas, it doesn’t sound good for RB Leonard Fournette playing this week. I actually think that could help Jacksonville. Maybe they won’t lean so heavily on him, because in that playoff game, the Jaguars tried to run out the clock way too early and weren’t aggressive enough on early downs. Also, Corey Grant had three early catches for 59 yards in that game. Maybe this lets Jacksonville get more people involved and opens up the playbook instead of just trying to grind things out with Fournette.

NFL Week 2 Predictions

I started 10-5-1 for both ATS and SU last week, but fell victim (like many) to the Buccaneers’ shocking upset in New Orleans, the season’s first double-digit favorite to collapse. Starting next week I’ll post a fancier version of my results, but for now, here are my Week 2 picks with a Twitter update to come on my MIN-GB pick (likely going Vikings regardless of spread).

2018Wk2

My three favorite picks: NO -9.5, ATL -6, NYJ -3.