Sunday in the NFL lasted just over 15 hours from the first snap in London to the last snap in Kansas City after a weather delay. If that wasn’t the longest day of action in NFL history, then I don’t know what else could be.
It was a day of ugly field goal kicking, yet the Vikings somehow pulled off a 54-yard game-winning kick. Of course, Detroit helped by making its incredible 10-point comeback (helped by an Alexander Mattison fumble) a 1-point lead by going for two with 37 seconds left. That was too much time with the Vikings having two timeouts. I know Kirk Cousins kind of sucks at comebacks and his kickers are not reliable, but that was a bad decision to go for two there. Play for overtime after holding down the Vikings from scoring much all day. Instead, the Vikings got a drive together because they had to and won the game on a 54-yard field goal that Greg Joseph actually made despite being an employee of the Vikings. At least it gave us this moment:
It was a day of close games as we had 10 comeback opportunities in Week 5, outdoing the previous high of any week this season (eight). Let’s quickly hit on three of them since I need to wrap this up after getting a late start.
49ers at Cardinals: Trey Lance made his starting debut, but he couldn’t keep the rocket launcher under wraps when the 49ers just needed a simple scoring drive in a 17-10 loss to the now 5-0 Cardinals, who apparently are not going to score 31-plus every week this season. Kyle Shanahan loses another close game? Jimmy Garoppolo and George Kittle out with injuries again? Who could have imagined?
Patriots at Texans: The Patriots came through with a comeback win over the Houston Texans after Davis Mills had maybe the most absurd stat line yet for a rookie against a Bill Belichick-coached defense. Mills just had an early contender for worst game of the decade against Buffalo last week, but now he has the ninth game on record where a QB lost with a passer rating of at least 140.0 (min. 25 passes). I guess the Patriots can still win games where their quarterback was not the best one on the field.
Bears at Raiders: Finally, Jon Gruden’s Raiders had their “but his emails” loss at home to the Bears. Maybe it was too much of a distraction, and maybe he just showed his true colors. All I know is once you blow some smoke up his ass, this is the kind of performance you can count on in the next game. The last two sentences are about Derek Carr, by the way.
But the only game that came close to pulling off instant classic status came in the late afternoon slate instead of the prime-time matchup between the Bills and Chiefs. Browns-Chargers was the Shawn Michaels vs. Razor Ramon Ladder Match in WrestleMania X of Week 5 in the NFL, but I have to start with the perception-changing game that played out in Kansas City.
About the last thing I want to do is write an obituary for the 2021 Chiefs after Week 5 and after a ridiculously tough schedule where the Browns, Ravens, Chargers, and now Bills all gave them their best shot. But there is no denying that the Chiefs failed three of those tests from their key AFC challengers and barely escaped the Browns in Arrowhead in Week 1. The offense has too many turnovers and the defense is going for historic levels of suck. The 2021 Chiefs are the fourth team in NFL history to allow more than 28 points in each of the first five games, joining the 1954 Cardinals, 2012 Titans, and 2013 Giants. It’s like watching the 2000 Rams, the forgotten little defense-less brother to the 1999 and 2001 Super Bowl teams in St. Louis.
But through four weeks, the defense could be excused to a point as the offense was scoring a touchdown on 50% of its drives and converting on third down at a record rate. If not for a fumble in Baltimore, this team could easily be 3-1.
But that took a hit Sunday night as the Bills came in to avenge their two losses from 2020 and wiped the floor with the Chiefs, 38-20, despite a long weather delay at halftime. Getting blown out at home is just another layer of invincibility ripped away from the Chiefs in the Patrick Mahomes era. While the stakes were not as high, the 18-point loss looked worse than the team’s 31-9 loss in Super Bowl 55 to Tampa Bay. At least on that night the reshuffled offensive line was a built-in excuse for the poor pass protection. The Chiefs just couldn’t come down with any of Mahomes’ miracle passes and the defense was stumped by simple play-action throws.
This was more of a beatdown. Mahomes played the first truly awful game of his NFL career, missing often on throws regardless of pressure or an open receiver. He completed 33-of-54 passes for 272 yards and had three turnovers, including a pick-six, a red-zone pick after another tipped ball, and a fumbled snap in the rain to end things. The bounces? They’re no longer going Kansas City’s way and that was predictable.
But this was not another blown lead in the fourth quarter like Baltimore and Los Angeles. The Chiefs led 10-7 early in the second quarter and never led again. The best they could do was make it 31-20 in the fourth quarter. But after Josh Allen seemingly threw an interception from his own end zone, the Chiefs were flagged for roughing the passer. It was a weak call, but it was also in a series of calls on both teams that made me question what roughing the passer and pass interference are in this league anymore. The refs had a bad night, but they didn’t decide this game.
That roughing call stands out the most just because it killed any chance for an exciting finish. Allen was still at his own 23 after that call. The Chiefs could have stopped the Bills, but instead they watched them march 77 more yards for a game-clinching touchdown to go up 38-20.
Maybe that Buffalo defense is for real as this was not a matter of beating up on a wounded offense like in the first four weeks of the season. They smacked the Chiefs around in Arrowhead. I asked in the offseason what really changed to improve this Buffalo defense from the mediocre unit it was a year ago that had no real hope of winning a Super Bowl? Well, one name I underestimated was first-round pick Gregory Roussea. The defensive end did his best J.J. Watt impersonation and tipped a Mahomes pass at the line to himself for a big red-zone pick in the third quarter. The Bills reportedly did not even blitz Mahomes once in this game, choosing to rush four and play Cover 2 to take away the big plays.
The Chiefs had just two plays that gained more than 17 yards in the game, a shockingly low figure for this offense. One was a 23-yard scramble by Mahomes too. This was a big difference in the meetings last year when the Chiefs did what they wanted, and Allen’s offense couldn’t get anything big. On Sunday night, the Bills had seven plays of 20-plus yards, including four completions of 35-plus yards (two for touchdowns).
Allen had 315 yards on 15 completions. Other than a slow third quarter after the 70-plus minute halftime delay, the Bills were just about unstoppable on offense. Combine that with a defense capable of playing the Chiefs like this and it’s a championship combination. The Bills may only be an underdog one more time this season when they play in Tampa Bay. It seems rather likely that this team will be the favorite for the No. 1 seed in the AFC.
The Chiefs may be fortunate just to get a wild card at this point if things don’t tighten up on both sides of the ball but especially on defense.
With the Bills and Ravens stepping up this season against the Chiefs as well as the two teams I’m writing about next (Browns and Chargers), the AFC might be just fine going forward as a super competitive conference where any one of these teams can advance each year. It’s not going to be a runaway for Mahomes and the Chiefs to keep hosting AFC Championship Games and going to the Super Bowl. They had that window for three years and turned it into one championship while the rest of the teams were figuring themselves out.
If 2021 is any indication, those teams have figured out the Chiefs too.
Browns at Chargers: 47-42 Part Deux
What a whacky, fun game with huge plays, terrible tackling, six fourth down attempts (and then some negated by penalty), and 41 points in the fourth quarter alone. Of course, the Browns ended up on the wrong side of history again.
We may need to start calling Baker Mayfield the “Score 42 and Lose” QB after it happened to him for a third time. He lost his first career start, 45-42, to the Raiders in 2018. He lost 47-42 to the Ravens last year after Lamar Jackson returned from taking a shit. Now he’s lost 47-42 again to the Chargers in the second 47-42 game in NFL history. Mayfield is somehow 2-3 when he leads his team to at least 42 points while the rest of the NFL is 69-2 since 2018. The Browns (four times) have broken their tie with Washington and the Chiefs (three each) for the most losses in NFL history after scoring at least 42 points.
None of this is to say that Mayfield is the reason Cleveland loses these games. He was great on Sunday at playing through a torn labrum after some struggles in recent weeks. The offense was fantastic, but it is hard to win on the road when you allow five touchdowns on six second-half drives like the Browns did.
This thing was back and forth and not even a failed game-tying extra point by the Chargers with 3:15 left could derail it. That actually ended up helping the Chargers since the Browns did not go all out in a tied 42-42 game. Instead with a 42-41 lead, they ran on first down and on third-and-9 and let the Chargers get the ball back with plenty of time. Justin Herbert only needed one pass to get into field-goal range. After Austin Ekeler slid down at the Cleveland 3 with 1:38 left, the Browns called their final timeout. That slide tells me the Chargers were content with kicking the field goal to win 44-42 at the buzzer. A smart move even if you are shaky about it given the team’s historic struggles on special teams in crunch time.
So, why wouldn’t Herbert just take a series of knees to bleed the clock and kick the field goal? Head coach Brandon Staley is getting a ton of buzz for his embrace of analytics despite being a defensive coach, but he bungled the end of the Chiefs game by scoring a touchdown and giving Mahomes a shot to answer, and it happened again here. Ekeler got the carry and while he tried to not score, the Browns did the smart thing and pulled his ass into the end zone for the score with 91 seconds left.
Wow, just typing “91 seconds” really sells how much of a mistake this was. They gave a hot offense they couldn’t stop all day plenty of time to answer. It could have been an even more delicious addition to Chargers BINGO given the offense came up short on the two-point conversion and only led 47-42. Now the Browns could win it with a touchdown in regulation.
But it took 50 seconds for Mayfield to move the offense 11 yards as he only made short throws. That was piss-poor execution in that moment. After getting to the Cleveland 46, the Browns could not gain another yard and Mayfield’s Hail Mary fell incomplete with players bumping into each other.
Behind Staley and Herbert, the CHARGERS are leading the league with three game-winning drives. The CHARGERS are 4-1 in close games and lead the league with four defensive holds of a one-score lead.
Staley is far from perfect. His defense just gave up 42 points to a team that scored 14 last week. He’s mismanaged two of the last three finishes. He’s inherited an incredible young quarterback in Herbert who is making strides in his second season. But there is no denying that Staley is pushing this team to aggressively get leads and hold onto them once they have them. The Chargers of old would never be 4-1 right now and that is a credit to this new coach.
The Browns may still be the “good enough to get beat close” team in the AFC, which is still a huge step up from the pre-Mayfield era. But for a change, the Chargers just may have the potential to be closers and real contenders this season. That sounds like the setup for an incoming beatdown in Baltimore next Sunday, but what if this team is just finally different?
Packers at Bengals: Kicking Woes
Weird things always happen when Aaron Rodgers plays the Bengals, but this game takes the cake. If you wanted to script an overtime tie, apparently you have to get the Packers or Bengals involved. I thought for sure this one was headed there after the two kickers combined to miss five go-ahead field goals in a span of six drives.
Fortunately, we got a winner. Fortunately, it was the right winner too as Green Bay should have put this game away multiple times in the fourth quarter and again to start overtime.
Would I have been happy if Rodgers got credit for a game-winning drive after Aaron Jones ripped off a 57-yard run and he threw two incomplete passes? No, but Mason Crosby has to hit that 36-yard field goal after a streak of 27 straight makes. Would I have said Rodgers was unlucky had he lost after his kicker missed from 36 and Cincinnati kicker Evan McPherson hit from 57? Yes, absolutely. But the Bengals called a run on third-and-2 instead of letting Joe Burrow deliver a dagger throw to set up a higher-percentage kick. Shame on them.
Would I have been fine with Rodgers getting a game-winning drive after a 20-yard pass to Davante Adams, who shined with 206 yards, to set up Crosby from 51? Sure, that’s another one-minute drill for him this season. But Crosby was wide left to set up overtime.
Would I have been amused had Rodgers lost another overtime game without touching the ball? Probably. But Burrow seemed to erase any chance of that with an instant pick to start overtime.
Would I have been pissed if Rodgers got credit for a game-winning drive in overtime for losing 5 yards on two Jones runs and watching Crosby hit from 40? Damn right. But the kicker missed again. At least it spared us a crap game-winning drive.
Burrow hit a pass for 21 yards to the Green Bay 41 again, but did they learn anything from the previous mistake? No, they ran the ball three times again and settled for a 49-yard field goal by a no-name kicker. He missed wide left too.
Finally, Rodgers hit passes of 20 and 15 yards to put this one to an end after Crosby finally connected from 49 yards out with 1:55 left. I am content with that being the game-winning drive in this one.
At least it had a winner, because I can’t remember ever seeing a clutch kicking display this bad.
Broncos at Steelers: The Standard Improved?
Last week in Green Bay, the Steelers showed they can score an opening-drive touchdown, and they did it again on Sunday after a beautiful 50-yard pass from Ben Roethlisberger to Diontae Johnson again gave the Steelers the early lead. Last week, the Steelers showed some offensive line improvement and a running game that actually could get gains of 3-4 yards instead of seeing Najee Harris get hit in the backfield immediately. This continued against Denver with Harris rushing for 122 yards to finally snap the team’s 11-game streak of not rushing for 90 yards.
Dare I say, the Steelers showed offensive improvement for the second week in a row? The other problem last week was inaccuracy from Roethlisberger. He was sharp in this game, especially early and especially on third down where the Steelers finished 7/12 compared to Denver going 2/12 on third down (but ¾ on fourth down). One week after a concussion, I was not impressed with Teddy Bridgewater or this Denver offense at all until he started to mount a 24-6 comeback in the fourth quarter. The game got a bit tight at 27-19, but he eventually struggled in the red zone again and threw an interception in the final seconds to end it.
While far from dominant, this was much closer to a classic game from the Steelers where both units played well for much of the game and they were able to win at home. Can they stack another one against the Geno Smith-led Seahawks next week? We’ll see, but if this offense shows up in prime time against that Seattle defense, then it may not be such an ugly display of football from Pittsburgh like in recent times. I was not surprised by the win, but that says more about my thoughts on how legit Denver was. But I can see actual improvement from the Pittsburgh offense in the last two weeks compared to the first three.
Eagles at Panthers: Pumpkins and Pretenders
What the fvck were these teams doing?
Jalen Hurts had nine failed completions in the first half, but none in the second as the offense finally started making plays that gained more than 10 yards. He also got his legs involved as the passing in this game was just atrocious for both teams. At least the Panthers got Chuba Hubbard to rush for 101 yards in Christian McCaffrey’s absence. The Eagles once again barely handed the ball off to their backs until very late in the game.
Sam Darnold had three interceptions and may have turned back into a pumpkin just in time for Halloween. But it was a blocked punt that set the Eagles up at the Carolina 27 for their game-winning drive. Darnold then threw his third pick and the Eagles ran out the clock.
Obviously, the transitive property never has and never will mean a thing in the NFL. If you just judged Carolina and Philadelphia by how they played against the Cowboys, then you wouldn’t have expected the Panthers to blow this one. But they did after leading 15-3 early.
Is either team going anywhere this season? I doubt it, but this was some low-key horrific offensive football.
In Week 4, the NFC West takes center stage with two standout matchups in the late afternoon slot: Cardinals/Rams and Seahawks/49ers. These are the first division games of the year in what is shaping up to be the best division race in the league just like we expected coming into 2021.
But the Seahawks (1-2), winners of last year’s race, are in danger of slipping to 1-3 for the first time in the Russell Wilson era. While Wilson has some impressive stats again this season, he has the lowest QBR ranking – 55.6 is only good for 15th – of the four quarterbacks in the NFC West, and the Seahawks (15th) are the only NFC West offense not ranked in the top eight in points per drive through three games.
Matthew Stafford and Kyler Murray both have their teams at 3-0, top four in points, and both are top five in QBR with Stafford (82.6) leading the whole NFL so far. If they keep this up, we might see multiple quarterbacks in the NFC West get MVP votes before Wilson ever gets one in his career.
It’s almost like Wilson is becoming the forgotten man in the division that he has been the top star of for a decade now.
But this is nothing new for Wilson. Ever since his rookie year in 2012, he has had to share the spotlight with several quarterbacks in his division as they led their teams to great success too. This has made Wilson’s path to the Hall of Fame a bumpier ride than most of his great peers.
Russell Wilson vs. His Peers vs. Their Division Rivals
It would be wrong to say that Russell Wilson is the only top quarterback to face a real challenger from every team in his division in the last decade.
Ben Roethlisberger faced the Ravens (2014), Bengals (2015), and Browns (2020) in wild card playoff games in the last seven seasons, losing two of them at home. Aaron Rodgers had his toughest division competition early in his career when the 2009 Vikings had Brett Favre and the 2010 Bears gave Jay Cutler a great defense. But in the last decade, he has seen playoff seasons from the Lions with Matthew Stafford, Mike Zimmer’s Vikings with Teddy Bridgewater/Case Keenum’s one-year wonder/Kirk Cousins, and a couple Chicago seasons when Mitchell Trubisky managed Matt Nagy’s offense to something better than 1 net passing yard.
In the NFC South, Drew Brees watched Cam Newton (2015 Panthers) and Matt Ryan (2016 Falcons) win MVP and lose the Super Bowl, while the Saints lost to Tom Brady and the 2020 Buccaneers in the final game of Brees’ career, a pivotal divisional round game that launched Tampa Bay on the path to a Super Bowl win.
However, Wilson has experienced multiple runs and at least one elite season from his NFC West counterparts in addition to some strong quarterback seasons and some of the most successful new coaching hires in the NFL in the last decade.
San Francisco: The 49ers were in the middle of a three-year run to the NFC Championship Game under head coach Jim Harbaugh when Wilson joined the division in 2012. Led by the dynamic Colin Kaepernick, the 49ers lost the Super Bowl that year and lost a tight game to Wilson’s Seahawks in the 2013 NFC Championship Game. Things were bad after that, but after hiring Kyle Shanahan and acquiring Jimmy Garoppolo from the Patriots, the 49ers rebounded with a great 13-3 season in 2019, clinching the No. 1 seed in the season finale after stopping Wilson’s Seahawks at the 1-yard line. The 49ers blew a 10-point lead in the fourth quarter against the Chiefs in Super Bowl 54.
Arizona: The least successful team in the division, but the Cardinals won at least 10 games in every season from 2013 to 2015 under head coach Bruce Arians. He had a good thing going when Carson Palmer was healthy, and in 2015, Palmer had what I will always say was an MVP season, leading the Cardinals to a 14-4 record and the NFC Championship Game where they lost to Carolina. Things declined after, but now with Kliff Kingsbury and 2019 No. 1 pick Kyler Murray, the Cardinals could be heading back to the playoffs as long as Murray stays healthy. He had a great start to 2020 before his health diminished his play in the second half.
Los Angeles: The Rams were in rough shape with Jeff Fisher as the coach when Wilson joined the league, but they started acquiring talent like the best defender in the game, Aaron Donald. Once they drafted Jared Goff No. 1 overall and hired Sean McVay as the head coach, the team immediately took off. McVay has never had a losing record and is looking to make the playoffs for the fourth time in five years. Goff had great seasons in 2017-18 and the Rams were in the Super Bowl in 2018 before losing 13-3 to the Patriots. They leaned on their defense last year to make the playoffs and beat Wilson’s Seahawks in Seattle in the wild card round. Now they have the top-ranked offense with Matthew Stafford poised to have a career year. It’s just another huge challenge for Seattle.
Outside of 2016 when the Seahawks won the NFC West with ease, Wilson has always had to deal with at least another 10-win team in his division. Outside of 2016 and last year when the Rams finished 10-6 thanks to a late loss to the Seahawks, Wilson has always had to deal with an 11-win team or better.
Since 2002’s divisional realignment, the NFC West is the only division where every team has won at least 13 games in a season. That is thanks to the Seahawks (2013), Cardinals (2015), Rams (2018), and 49ers (2019) all finishing 13-3. The Lions, Bengals, Jets, Buccaneers, Texans, and Browns (AAFC excluded) have never won 13 games in their franchise’s history, so it never could have happened for the two North divisions, the two South divisions, or any version of the AFC East. That also disqualifies the defunct AFC and NFC Central divisions. It technically has happened for the original NFC West (49ers/Rams/Falcons/Saints), but the Saints didn’t hit 13 wins until the Brees era (2009), or well after realignment and long after Joe Montana and Steve Young retired.
In fact, the only other divisions that can say all four of their teams have won 13 games before are the AFC West and NFC East. Given that the Raiders haven’t done it since 1976 and the Chiefs didn’t do it until 1995, no one has a career that spanned that long to say they were in a division where all four did it. The Seahawks also used to be part of that AFC West and didn’t win 13 games until 2005 in the NFC West.
As for the NFC East, it hasn’t happened for the Giants since 1990 and for Washington since 1991. Dallas first won 13 games in 1992, so you might think, hey, this probably happened to a young Troy Aikman or an old Phil Simms. Nope, because the Eagles never won 13 games until 2004, or after they were long retired.
This puts Wilson and his division in unprecedented territory as it confirms he is the only quarterback in NFL history to play in a division where every team actively won 13 games in a season. Goff and Garoppolo weren’t in the NFC West prior to 2016 when Seattle and Arizona did it, and Palmer was retired before the Rams and 49ers did it. So there you have it. History.
If Only Wilson Had Tom Brady’s Division Luck…
Now compare this to Tom Brady, the LOAT. His first full season as a starter happened to coincide with realignment in 2002 when the Patriots were put in a revamped AFC East with the Jets, Dolphins, and Bills, or as I like to call them, The Three Stooges. From 2002 to 2019, The Three Stooges managed just two 11-5 seasons to challenge Brady in the division. One was by the 2008 Dolphins, a team that shocked the Patriots with the Wildcat in the year Brady tore his ACL in Week 1. The other was the 2010 Jets, who beat Brady in the regular season to get one of their 11 wins, and then shocked him at home in the playoffs in one of the biggest upsets in NFL history.
But for two decades, the best The Three Stooges could do was 11-5, the best they could do at quarterback was Even-Years Chad Pennington, and the best they could do at head coach was probably Rex Ryan. Flash forward to Brady joining the 2020 NFC South. The Falcons and Panthers had two of the worst seasons in NFL history in close games. The Saints with Brees were a worthy foe and they swept Brady to finish 12-4, the first time Brady was ever swept by a division rival. This also means of the only two 11+ win teams Brady’s ever had in his division, he was complicit in them winning that many games. Compare this to Peyton Manning, who swept the 2003 Titans (12-4), 2005 Jaguars (12-4), 2007 Jaguars (11-5), and 2013 Chiefs (11-5) but still watched them win 11-12 games. Wilson was able to hang one loss on the 2015 Cardinals and 2019 49ers. He was swept by the 2018 Rams despite scoring 31 points in both games. Let’s just say not anyone could beat the 2018 Rams by a final of 13-3.
Brady’s division now consists of an Atlanta team that lost all its offensive mojo after hiring Arthur Smith. Matt Ryan has gotten off to the worst start of his career in 2021. With Brees retired, the Saints are weirdly leaning on defense with Jameis Winston throwing for 387 yards in three full games. The Panthers are 3-0 and have never trailed this season, but only time will tell if Sam Darnold, an old foe from The Three Stooges, will turn back to a pumpkin. Go figure, the AFC East only got another elite passer (Josh Allen) the second Brady moved to the other conference.
Wilson and Brady are certainly on two different ends of the spectrum for division rivals. What if Brady had to deal with this NFC West that Wilson has been in since 2012? He is only 5-6 as a starter against those teams in the Wilson era, including playoffs and including Sunday’s loss to the Rams. I plotted every quarterback with at least five starts against Wilson’s NFC West since 2012 through 2020, looking at their win percentage and their Adjusted Net Yards per Pass Attempt (ANY/A).
Wilson has a better winning percentage (.598) against his division than Rodgers (.440), Brees (.474), Brady (.500), and Peyton (.400). Wilson (6.26) and Brady (6.24) are almost identical in ANY/A, though Wilson is not that great statistically here compared to his other top peers. Of course, he’s played 56 division games against teams who know him well compared to 25 for Rodgers, 19 for Brees, 10 for Brady, and five each for Manning and Mahomes. On the other hand, Wilson never has to play his own defense, which has been the strongest of the bunch in this division since 2012, which also explains why the other quarterbacks have lesser records and stats. But it’s an amusing chart.
I have better, including this look at how quarterbacks have done against Brady’s Three Stooges in the AFC East from 2002 to 2019. Can you notice anyone who stands out?
Yep, that’s Russell Wilson (8.16) and Alex Smith (7.58) as the only quarterbacks with an ANY/A above 7.5. Brady’s record is 81-21 (.794), but are we really going to pretend his top peers couldn’t replicate that in this division or even improve on it given those ugly upset losses in Miami? The guy once lost 21-0 to Joey Harrington.
I am proud of these next two charts since they visualize what I have been saying for years about these divisions. This looks at 2002-2020 for Wilson, Brady, Peyton, Rodgers, Brees, and Roethlisberger while excluding the full year those quarterbacks missed for injury. The entry that is their full name is every game that quarterback played in 2002-2020. The other entries show what the starting quarterbacks for each division rival cumulatively did in every game while the quarterback was in that division, so that would be the AFC South teams for Peyton in 2002-10 and the AFC West teams in 2012-15. The x-axis is win% and the y-axis is ANY/A.
That cluster of The Three Stooges as losing teams with bad quarterback play that only the Browns 2.0 can rival is perfect.
Finally, here is a similar chart that sums up each quarterback’s division rivals into one entry.
As I have been saying for years, no quarterback has had a bigger advantage over his division rivals than Brady, and it’s due to a lack of competition rather than his play being that much better. Brady ranks third in ANY/A here and is only 0.01 above Brees in fourth, and Brady’s division has the worst win rate (.435) and ANY/A (5.24). Wilson’s division has the best record (.496) and second-highest ANY/A (5.88) behind only Brees (6.05).
You cannot deny that the careers of Wilson and Brady will forever be linked. Super Bowl XLIX was the most pivotal game in the NFL in the last dozen years. The Seahawks were a yard away from repeating and possibly being the next dynasty, while bringing the ring count to 3-2 for Brady vs. Wilson and dropping the Patriots to 3-3 in Super Bowls under Belichick and Brady. Then a call for a pass came in and the rest is history. Brady has won three more Super Bowls since and the Seahawks have not even been back to the NFC Championship Game.
In the lonesome crowded NFC West, Russell Wilson is starting to sound like Cowboy Dan.
I got mine but I want more.
With the way the NFC West is developing, and the Seahawks are decaying under Pete Carroll, we may never see Wilson past the second round of the playoffs again, or at least not with Seattle. Maybe he can replace Rodgers in Green Bay some day, a return to Wisconsin.
Also, I didn’t even mention the potential of Trey Lance in San Francisco.
What a Sunday in the NFL for record-long field goal attempts, but there is only one Justin Tucker. You know some games were real shit when you lead with that, but we haven’t seen a ton of close finishes in 2021. Only 22 of the first 47 games have had a fourth-quarter comeback opportunity, including six on Sunday. That is down from 29 games through Week 3 of the 2020 season.
Did favorites have a better week? Not really as 6-9 ATS makes it 17-30 ATS (.362) through Week 3. Home teams were 7-8 SU too, so another losing record there as we watch home-field advantage disintegrate even with the return of crowds.
Maybe we are just having a real “changing of the guard” season after the four teams with the best records in the period of 2013-2020 are all 1-2 right now (Patriots, Chiefs, Seahawks, and Steelers). The Colts have slipped into the basement of the 0-3 teams with the Giants, Jets, Jaguars, and Lions. But don’t worry, Sunday’s Game of the Week should give Jim Irsay the courage to raise another banner.
Buccaneers at Rams: Stafford Delivers in Biggest Game of Career (Take One)
The reverse psychologist in me was hoping that Matthew Stafford and the Rams would take this big opportunity at home against Tom Brady and the Buccaneers to clinch the biggest win for any team in September. I think they did that with a 34-24 win that was not as close as the final score suggests as Stafford threw four touchdowns in a wire-to-wire win while Brady had a hollow 432-yard day. Brady is now 4-17 when his team allows 33-39 points, his least impressive range of high-scoring games, or the one where luck isn’t on his side for a change.
Unless Stafford is so unlucky that the Buccaneers slip to a losing record and this game doesn’t improve on his 8-68 record against winning teams, then this is the biggest win of his career to date. It’s the first time he will have beaten a winning team (I assume) by throwing four touchdowns. It’s the first time he will have beaten a winning team (I assume) by throwing for 300 yards without a giveaway.
In fact, this was a weird game in that it had zero turnovers and started with five punts as both teams looked a little nervous. But once the Rams settled down, they got into some fine play designs, Stafford was unstoppable on third down, Cooper Kupp is Cole Beasley if he turned face and had more talent, and DeSean Jackson went old-school with a 75-yard touchdown and making us nervous by slowly crossing the goal line. Neither team could run the ball, and you know that’s a fact when Brady (14 yards) led Tampa Bay in rushing. The Rams added some numbers in the second half with the lead, but the ground game was not the story here.
The fact is for a hyped-up game, there weren’t that many pivotal moments or memorable spots to talk about. If there is to be a rematch in the playoffs, it will be a matter of whether the Buccaneers, with their injury-ravaged secondary that seems to add a new injury each week, can keep up with these receivers. A sack and a shanked punt really put the Bucs in trouble in the third quarter, leading to a 31-14 lead by the Rams. Brady never touched the ball again with a deficit smaller than 17 points.
It was interesting to see him still in the game with 4:50 and a 34-17 deficit. Bill Belichick pulled Brady from a 38-17 blowout at the hands of the 2009 Saints in New Orleans with 5:26 to play in that one for the Patriots. This is the fourth time since 2019 that Brady was in the ballgame in the final five minutes with a deficit of 17-plus points. He had three such games from all of 2003-2018.
This now marks six times in 19 regular-season games with Tampa Bay where Brady has trailed by at least 17 points. He trailed by 17+ six times in his last four seasons with the Patriots combined (2016-19). He will visit the Patriots and Belichick next Sunday night, but the 10-game winning streak and 30-point streak are over after this one, which I always said was the biggest test of the regular season for Tampa barring an incredible run by Josh Allen when they host the Bills in Week 14.
But Stafford and the Rams passed their first big test of the season and take an early lead towards the No. 1 seed. However, the division games start next week and will be tough. Stafford in the “biggest game of his career” could be something that comes up three or more times this season. If you’re a fan of the Rams, you hope it’s a high number because that means they are likely winning these games.
Packers at 49ers: One-Minute Drills
What was looking like another blowout between these teams turned into one of the best finishes of Week 3. The 49ers used a double score around halftime to turn around a 17-0 deficit and make this a game. The Packers were up 24-21 with the ball late. They faced a fourth-and-4 at the San Francisco 20 with 2:43 left. Had the 49ers been out of timeouts, I would have said go for it. Let Aaron Rodgers end the game with one play as anything converted in bounds would run out the clock in that situation. Don’t kick a field goal and go up by six, inviting them to beat you on a late touchdown.
But the 49ers had four clock stoppages at that point. I think there’s a good chance Green Bay would have settled for the field goal anyway on that drive, so I do support the field goal in that case. Jimmy Garoppolo was shaky on the night, but he got good plays out of his top guys, including George Kittle for 39 yards on another big YAC play.
But after getting to the Green Bay 12 in the last minute, the 49ers needed to think about the clock. Green Bay was out of timeouts. You couldn’t leave Rodgers that much time, only needing a field goal. If I was the 49ers, I would have called a run on first down just to bring the clock under 30 seconds. But San Francisco was not into bleeding the clock. It snapped the ball with 12 seconds left on the play clock, and Kyle Juszczyk fought his way through contact for a 12-yard touchdown with 37 seconds left.
Again, you almost wish he would just go down at the 1 and they could score from there. But he scored, and the Packers had to be somewhat glad about that. Now Rodgers would get his chance. Worse, the kickoff to the end zone was a touchback, so that burned no more time off the clock and put the ball at the Green Bay 25. Why not a hard squib kick or something shorter to make them burn some time? I didn’t like that decision.
Rodgers was able to hit Davante Adams, who took a nasty shot to the head earlier in the quarter, for two plays worth 42 yards. He got the spike off in time and the Packers looked like they had practiced that situation well. Mason Crosby is a shaky kicker in these situations, but he’s no Minnesota kicker. He nailed the 51-yard field goal and the Packers jumped ahead of the 49ers in the standings at 2-1, finally winning a good game against this team even if we’re still not sure how good the 49ers will be this year.
As I said in my top 100 quarterbacks project, Rodgers and the Packers have improved in these clutch situations. Through 2014, he was 12-29 (.293) at 4QC/GWD opportunities, which would be one of the worst records in the league. Since 2015, he is 16-17-1 (.485), which would be the fourth-best career record among active starters (minimum 20 games).
This is the fourth time in Rodgers’ career that he led the Packers on a game-winning drive after taking over in the final 60 seconds. His first three were against the 2011 Giants (38-35 win), 2015 Lions (Richard Rodgers Hail Mary), and the 2016 Cowboys (playoff win).
It is the second one-minute drill in the NFL this season after Derek Carr led the Raiders to one against Baltimore in Week 1 to force overtime. Anymore, you really have to get the clock under 20 seconds if you hope to win after leaving the opponent in position to only need a field goal. It has just gotten too easy to move into field goal range and some kickers are too damn good from long distance these days.
This is an unofficial count of successful one-minute drills in the NFL in the last 40 years, but it’s the best I can do at 5:00 A.M. on a couple hours of sleep this weekend:
The Packers are very much alive again, though no more trips to Florida would probably be best.
Chargers at Chiefs: Ruh-Roh
A 1-2 start is certainly cause for concern for the Chiefs, who are now in last place in the AFC West thanks to the Broncos and Raiders as the lone 3-0 teams in the AFC. Even the Chargers are now 2-1 after this win, the biggest one yet in the young career of Justin Herbert, who was great with four touchdown passes in Arrowhead to get this 30-24 win.
I don’t feel like digging through every old tweet and article leading up to this season, but a lot of the things I’ve said about the Chiefs are coming true so far. They blew a fourth-quarter lead for the second week in a row after having none in their previous 29 games. The running game did step up with 100 yards from Clyde Edwards-Helaire, but he fumbled again. The Chiefs had four turnovers in this one including two more fumbles by the skill players inside the opponent 30. Just the preview for this game was accurate in pointing out how the Chargers limit Patrick Mahomes better than most. He had 260 yards on 44 attempts with two picks, which is a very non-Mahomes stat line even if you consider the first one was tipped off a Chief.
But even with the 14-0 deficit and four turnovers, the Chiefs were solid on third down and scored 24 points with Mahomes putting the team ahead 24-21 with 6:43 left. He kept the streak alive of leading in every game. But this defense is a massive sieve and was up to no good again on Sunday. Herbert answered almost immediately with a 43-yard pass to Mike Williams, the longest play of the game, to put the Chargers in range. After having two touchdown passes negated by penalty last week against Dallas, Herbert had another one wiped out here for an illegal shift. The Chargers settled for a game-tying field goal with 2:14 left.
Alright, piece of cake for Mahomes to go get a game-winning field goal, right? Wrong this week. On a third-and-8, he again tried a bit too hard to make something happen and threw a pick on a deep ball. That was equivalent to getting a 32-yard net punt, but it still wasn’t a good decision or play.
The Chargers had the ball at their own 41 with 1:42 left, tied 24-24. They could blow this, right? Wrong this week, though God knows they tried their best to blow it. Herbert moved the ball to the Kansas City 30 and the Chiefs used their second timeout at 54 seconds. While not ideal, the Chargers could have run the ball twice and kicked a ~45-yard field goal with seconds remaining for the win. That would at least deny Mahomes a chance in regulation. Instead, Brandon Staley’s team came up with two incompletions to stop the clock and save the Chiefs their final timeout. Then they were hit with a false start to make it 4th-and-9 and a 53-yard field goal attempt. That was brutal game management. Anthony Lynn would be proud.
But Staley showed some balls by keeping the offense out there and not settling for that long field goal without a great kicker on his side. Herbert threw and the Chiefs were flagged 15 yards for defensive pass interference on a legit call. That secondary is just too handsy at times. Incredibly, Herbert stuck with two more passes to Williams, including a 4-yard touchdown with 32 seconds left. The Chargers missed the extra point, because branding is important, and they led 30-24 with 32 seconds left.
Again, not exactly ideal as Mahomes had a timeout and a chance to win, but it was going to be hard needing a touchdown. He got to the Los Angeles 49 but could not make anything happen on the last three snaps. Some felt the Hail Mary could have been flagged for DPI on the Chargers, which would have been perfect for Chargers BINGO (lose on an untimed down after Hail Mary DPI), but it was not to be this time.
We are going to hear about the “Tampa Bay blueprint” to beat the Chiefs, but I don’t know what blueprint produces multiple fumbles or turnovers a week while still letting this team gain a bunch of yards and score 24-35 points. If you’re not going to blitz Mahomes and play a bunch of two-high safety to take away the big plays, the Chiefs are still producing against that. They just need to protect the ball better, which should be correctable. But this defense leaves little margin for error from the offense, and on Sunday, there were way too many errors.
The Chargers are now a good enough football team to take advantage of that. We’ll see if the Broncos and Raiders are too, and the Chiefs also have a rematch with the Bills coming up soon. If things don’t get better here, I just may be winning that $500 bet sooner than I thought.
Ravens at Lions: Justin Tucker Is One Bad Motherfu…
I guess we must thank Marquise Brown for his big drops and some weird running back rotations for this uninspired Baltimore performance that nearly resulted in a huge Detroit upset, but ultimately resulted in a field goal that can cement Justin Tucker as the baddest motherfvcker to ever play the kicker position.
The Lions were able to take a 17-16 lead with 1:04 left, and the defense had Lamar Jackson down bad on 4th-and-19 with 26 seconds left. But he made some magic happen with a 36-yard pass to Sammy Watkins. After a spike and incompletion, the Ravens turned things to Tucker in the dome.
It was in a 2013 game in Detroit when Tucker made a 61-yard game-winning field goal to help the Ravens to an 18-16 win. I had that at the time as the third-longest game-winning field goal in NFL history. Now Tucker has pushed himself down to fourth with a 66-yard field goal that not only won the game, but it is the longest field goal ever made in NFL history, beating Matt Prater’s record of 65 yards.
Incredibly, Prater, who used to play for the Lions, tried from 68 yards in Jacksonville on Sunday, missed, and it was returned for a touchdown before halftime. But Tucker was good enough to hit it straight and to the crossbar, where it took a fortunate bounce through for the win. An absolute stunner to end the game and the kind of historic field goal that deserves to belong to the best in the business.
By the time the shock in this one wears off, maybe we’ll figure out how the Ravens nearly went from a huge win over the Chiefs to blowing a game to the Lions.
Also, you have to feel bad for Lions fans for… well for many reasons. But of the four game-winning field goals of more than 60 yards in NFL history, three of them have come against the Lions, and two have come from the leg of Tucker.
Bad Afternoon for Rookie Quarterbacks
Early returns have not been good for the 2021 rookie quarterback class. Of the nine times a QB has finished with a QBR under 20.0 this season, six of them were rookies, including the bottom two games by Justin Fields, and Zach Wilson also has two games on the list to join Trevor Lawrence and Davis Mills (his Cleveland game off the bench).
It puts Denver’s 3-0 start into some perspective when the Broncos have feasted on Lawrence and Wilson in the first three weeks, including a 26-0 shutout of the Jets on Sunday. This time Wilson only took five sacks and threw two picks, which I guess is an improvement over Week 1 (six sacks) and Week 2 (four picks).
The Urban Meyer-Lawrence era had its first two-score lead on Sunday over heavily favored Arizona, but that evaporated quickly in the third quarter. It was always a bit of fool’s gold after a 68-yard field goal try was returned for a 109-yard touchdown to end the first half. Lawrence finished the day with four turnovers and contributed just a 3-yard run to the team’s only scoring drive after halftime, a 75-yard march where no pass was thrown. Technically, the game-winning score for Arizona late in the third quarter was the pick-six Lawrence forced on a flea flicker. I mean, who throws a pick-six on a flea flicker? A rookie trying too hard.
Mac Jones also tossed three picks, including a pick-six, against the Saints in a 28-13 home loss for the Patriots. I guess the Saints are destined to not play a normal, close game with reasonable passing yardage this year. Jameis Winston only finished with 128 yards, already matching in three weeks the total number of sub-130 yard passing games (two) Drew Brees had in games he didn’t leave early in 15 years with the Saints. Sean Payton’s idea on limiting Winston’s mistakes seems to be hiding him as much as possible. Even when Winston tried to throw a wild one in the end zone, it went for a touchdown on Sunday. That was a 9-yard drive too, taking advantage of a Jones pick. Man, if only Brees had games against the Packers and Patriots where the Saints were allowing so few points and getting multiple picks.
But no rookie had a rougher Sunday than the one we wanted to see so bad.
Bears at Browns: Cleveland Has Field Day on Fields’ Day
I am not sure if I need to apologize or eat crow for a coach who just saw him team get outgained 418 to 47 in yards, but maybe Matt Nagy had his reasons to not put Justin Fields out there as QB1 so soon. He had to do it on Sunday with Andy Dalton’s injury, but maybe Fields is not ready after taking nine sacks and helping the Bears finish with 1 net passing yard. Fields’ success rate was 5-for-32 on Sunday, an unbelievably bad debut in a 26-6 loss.
Now some expected caveats apply. It’s the Bears, it’s Nagy, we are used to him having bad offenses. But 418 to 47? That’s beyond the pale. The offensive line is also pure trash, but I cannot imagine this happening if Dalton was the quarterback. Nine sacks to 20 throws and three rushing attempts? That’s insane.
The Bears are only the 11th team since the 1970 merger to be outgained by at least 165 yards on the ground and at least 200 yards in the air in the same game. The last time this happened was when the Lions beat up the Packers (without Aaron Rodgers) on Thanksgiving in 2013.
My feeling on this topic is always consistent. It’s that a game like this should not ruin Fields. If he is destined to be a franchise quarterback, then this is just a big bump in the start of the road. You don’t ruin him in September of his first season. But if future games result in games like this, then yikes, they may need to pull him and sit him down.
Of course, it would help if the Bears actually had some semblance of a coaching staff that knows how to get productive offensive out of its roster. That has never been a strong suit for Nagy, and the returns have only been diminishing since his first season ended. The coach who ultimately fixes Fields in Chicago, assuming that happens, may not even be in the organization yet.
A few more games like Sunday’s and Nagy may not have an office in the building much longer. This was horrific.
Bengals at Steelers: I’ve Come to Talk with You Again
Much like last week against the Raiders, I never felt that the Steelers overlooked the Bengals. It didn’t matter that Cincinnati has not beaten them by more than 10 points since 1995, or that Zac Taylor had one road win in his career as head coach. They never thought they’d lose by 14-plus points at home for only the fifth time in Ben Roethlisberger’s career.
It’s not really an upset when you expect it as the Steelers continue their December decay while the Bengals are on the upswing. This is just where these teams are right now.
For anyone singling out Roethlisberger as the problem, and the idea that benching him for bums like Mason Rudolph or Dwyane Haskins will solve anything, just admit you’re not watching this team play. It’s okay. They’re the worst hate-watch I’ve had since NBC’s Revolution. That’s been my experience watching this team for the last three Sunday afternoons and I wouldn’t recommend it to anyone who wants to watch an NFL team capable of doing something good. They’ve had one good half in Buffalo and that was it.
The offense remains historically limited. The Steelers rushed for fewer than 90 yards for the 10th-straight game. Just one more and they can tie the 2002-03 Rams (11 games) for the post-World War II record. The Steelers drafting Najee Harris in the first round is like inviting a rich family to your house for dinner when all you can serve them is stale crackers and tap water in dirty, chipped glasses.
If someone had the energy or interest, they could create a pretty amusing montage of how often Harris is met right at the line (or behind it) by the defense due to a lack of blocking. He had one 20-yard run on Sunday and 20 yards on his other 13 carries combined. I’d say he showed his hands by catching 14-of-19 targets as Ben fell in love with the checkdowns, but Harris also ended the game with multiple drops as the Steelers stumbled badly to a 24-10 loss.
Maybe the most egregious play was when Roethlisberger dumped the ball to Harris almost immediately on a 4th-and-10 in the red zone in the fourth quarter. It lost a yard because it was so bad. What a sad time to see Ben turn into Alex Smith. In past years, he would have chucked that thing to the end zone and not care if it resulted in his third pick. But I guess he never thought things would be this bad, throwing to Ray-Ray McCloud and Cody White with Diontae Johnson and JuJu Smith-Schuster out injured while trying to mount a 14-point comeback against the lowly Bengals.
The Pittsburgh offense self-sabotaged itself all day with eight penalties, constantly putting themselves in poor down-and-distance situations. That should never happen at home. For about the first time since 2018, Roethlisberger took a few sacks because he held the ball too long. But that was an effort to try to make something happen. Too often the protection was poor, and he was hit quickly, like on his first pick. Other times he just looked old and slow, like on his second pick. This offense remains a complete mess and it is criminal in nature to put an old quarterback and a rookie back behind an offensive line this inexperienced and poor.
The defense also has its issues without T.J. Watt, Stephon Tuitt, and a couple more in the front seven. Joe Burrow was pressured one time in the game. Yes, the Cincinnati line allowed one pressure and no sacks, ending Pittsburgh’s record 75-game streak with a sack. Now that record was always asterisk-worthy since it ignores the multiple playoff games where this unit failed to get a sack in that time, but it was a shocker to see zero production against the Bengals.
Outside of one deep ball for a 34-yard touchdown before halftime, Burrow had no other completions of 20-plus yards in the game. He had a 17-yard touchdown to Tyler Boyd that was created by some of the worst tackling effort you’ll ever see from Melvin Ingram. But it’s not like the Bengals piled up 24 points with a younger, more athletic quarterback stretching the field. They just aren’t incapable of doing literally anything well like the Steelers, who even missed a 42-yard field goal on Sunday, are right now.
Ben will go into retirement after the season as the scapegoat, but unless they ever hire a real offensive coordinator from outside the organization and invest in a real starting quarterback, then Mike Tomlin is not going to see another winning season any time soon.
I don’t know how many more weeks I’ll go into detail recapping the latest poor performance, because we have pretty much seen 10 straight games of this.
Colts at Titans: Go for Two Up Seven
The Titans did something cool that coaches almost never do in the NFL: go for two after a touchdown that put you up seven. Head coach Mike Vrabel watched Houston do this to his Titans last year, but it didn’t work out for them. The Titans still won in overtime. This time, Vrabel’s team did it with 12:56 to play. That’s a bit earlier than I’d like to see it as I think the last five or six minutes is the sweet spot for it. But when you’re playing Carson Wentz on two bad ankles, why not? What’s he going to do, lead three field goal drives to beat you?
The Titans converted with a Derrick Henry run to lead 22-13. The Colts answered with a field goal to make it 22-16. The Titans had another long drive for a field goal to make it 25-16 with 2:58 left, which puts the Colts in miracle territory down two possessions. The Colts missed a 51-yard field goal with 57 seconds left and the game was over.
But had the Titans, who have had their share of kicking problems, gone for the extra point and led 21-13, then it easily could have been 24-16 when the Colts got the ball back at 2:58. That’s still a reasonable time – with a good quarterback that is – to tie the game and go to overtime. But at 25-16, you’re pretty much screwed.
The misconception people tend to have here is that the “extra information” of being down nine is going to drastically change how the team approaches things. Except this is the NFL and most coaches are basic bitches. It didn’t change a thing. The Colts moved at the pace you would expect them to when trailing in the fourth quarter, and they didn’t go to the real hurry-up or no-huddle offense until the final three minutes told them they were screwed.
Vrabel had every excuse to be a meathead and failure of a coach, coasting on his past connection to Bill Belichick, but he has been ahead of the pack in trying different things to close out tight games. I applaud him for that.
In Part I, I looked at the common breakdown for any Tom Brady statistic or split. He’ll have the best record, but he won’t have the best statistics. When looking at how he does relative to his top peers in games split by points allowed, the only key range where he excels is with 26-32 points allowed. From 0-25 points and anything above 32, Brady does not impress over his peers. His sweet spot is in that 26-32 range where teams struggle to win but it’s still not a hopeless endeavor (NFL average win rate since 2001: 25.7%).
Why is this the case? Let’s continue but be sure to read Part I first if you haven’t, because it explains why 26-32 is a key range. It also shows how Brady faces fewer games with 30 or 40-plus points allowed relative to his peers.
Tom Brady’s 26-32 Range Voodoo Exposed
As a refresher for those who skipped Part I, Brady is easily outpacing his peers in starts from 2001 to 2020 where his team allowed 26-32 points:
Tom Brady: 37-31 (.544)
Peyton Manning: 21-28 (.429)
Drew Brees: 29-48 (.377)
Aaron Rodgers: 13-24-1 (.355)
Ben Roethlisberger: 12-29 (.293)
Given that Brady’s lone high-scoring game that he left early for playoff rest (28-26 vs. 2005 Dolphins) is included here, he’s more like 37-30 (.552). To be fair, Manning should also have three playoff rest games removed (2005 Seahawks, 2009 Jets and 2009 Bills) to make him 21-25 (.457), or still nearly 10 percentage points behind. Rodgers should have two games removed for early exit after injury (2013 Bears, 2018 Lions) to make him 13-22-1 (.375). Brees should have one injury (2019 Rams) and one playoff rest (2006 Panthers) exclusion to make him 29-46 (.387). Roethlisberger should have one injury exclusion (2019 Seahawks) to make him 12-28 (.300).
Still, this all comes despite a lack of statistical dominance from Brady in his QB stats. I tried to look at every piece of data I had available on these games for these quarterbacks to find where Brady’s team had a glaring advantage, and I was coming up empty. This made me want to look at more quarterbacks for help, so I expanded the list to 35 quarterbacks with at least 20 starts from 2001-2020 (playoffs included) where their teams allowed 26-32 points.
Brady, Andrew Luck (10-10, .500), and Peyton were the only three with a win rate above 38%. I’ve included a scatter plot of these 35 quarterbacks looking at their win % vs. their Adjusted Net Yards Per Pass Attempt (ANY/A). I did not exclude playoff rest games or games left injured for anyone.
Brady’s ANY/A (6.65) is almost identical to that of Kirk Cousins (6.67), but his win% is nearly triple that of Cousins’. Okay, I can understand that one. Cousins is Hollow Stat Man, but how do you explain Peyton and Russell Wilson being the only quarterbacks above 7.0 ANY/A and they still have a losing record?
Now that I had data for 35 quarterbacks, I still could not find what led to such a better record for Brady.
Brady (28.3) had the highest scoring average of anyone on the list. Only Luck (27.3) and Peyton (27.3) were also above 26.0 points per game.
That can explain them having the three best records, but these rankings for Brady in the other stats among the 35 quarterbacks adds to the confusion of how he got the most points and wins.
Brady ranks 20th in completion percentage, 17th in YPA, ninth in passer rating, and seventh in ANY/A. Not quite elite.
Brady received an average of 98.6 rushing yards per game, which ranks 21st. His team’s average rushing yardage margin was minus-14.8, which ranks 13th. That’s a lot better than Peyton’s minus-47.2 (second worst), but it’s not like the ground game made a huge difference for Brady’s teams.
Brady’s offense converted on third down 43.1% of the time in these games, good for fifth but still trailing Peyton (46.8%, first) and Brees (43.4%, fourth).
Brady’s defense allowed the sixth-highest conversion rate on third down (45.0%), which doesn’t help. Still, that’s better than Peyton’s defense allowing 48.3% or Rodgers’ Packers allowing 46.2%, the two worst marks.
Brady (-3.9) edged out Roethlisberger (-3.3), Peyton (-3.2), Brees (-2.7), and Rodgers (-2.4) for the highest average spread going into these games, so that should help that they were favored by the most. But a Vegas line says more about expectations than what actually happened once the ball was snapped.
Brady’s average opponent won 56.3% of its games on the season, the 13th-highest mark in this group. Their average defensive rank in points per drive allowed was 15.0, also about average. It’s not like he beat up on easier teams than anyone in these games.
Brady’s team’s average fourth quarter scoring margin was +0.9, the fourth best in the group, trailing Luck (+2.5), Matt Schaub (+2.2, WTF?), and Peyton (+1.6). Closing certainly helps a ton, but I didn’t see the scoring from Brady and the stops from his defense in the numbers here to suggest his win % should be so much better.
At this point, I can only rely on my ace in the hole: an encyclopedia-like knowledge (and documentation) of the close finishes in the last 20 years in the NFL.
There are facts I know about Brady’s luck that are just not the case for these other quarterbacks. Like how he’s only lost one game in his whole career after a kicker missed a clutch field goal, and that was in a game not in this bin (20-18 vs. 2012 Cardinals). I’m sure Manning would have liked Mike Vanderjagt to make his field goal and take the 2004 Patriots to overtime, 27-27, on opening night instead of a miss in a 27-24 loss. That was one of several missed kicks in the clutch from the liquored-up idiot kicker.
Outdated but still relevant and accurate for Brady (and Manning):
Brady has the lowest percentage of blown fourth-quarter/OT leads against his teams. It’s only happened 21 times despite him holding more late leads than anyone in NFL history. How many of those 21 fall into the 26-32 range? Just five games, including the 29-28 loss in Miami (2004) after Brady threw four interceptions and lost to A.J. Feeley. The Dolphins shocked Brady again in 2019 as a 17.5-point underdog in New England with Ryan Fitzpatrick throwing a late game-winning touchdown. But Brady also had good chances to put away the 2012 Ravens (31-30), 2015 Broncos (30-24 in overtime to lose the No. 1 seed), and 2016 Seahawks (31-24) before failing to close.
How many blown 4Q/OT leads for the other quarterbacks in the 26-32 bin since 2001? Brees (16), Ben (10), Peyton (7), and Rodgers (7 plus one tie) all had more than Brady’s five even though he’s played the most games and had the most leads to blow.
As I said before, in the 26-32 range, Brady is 37-30 and Manning is 21-25 when you remove the playoff rest games for both of them. Manning’s actual record would be worse if you included 1998-2000 for him, but I’ve kept this whole study to the time period of Brady’s career since my game database goes back to 2001, and I am not changing now.
But there is no need for me to write off all 37 of Brady’s wins in this range. That’s pointless, a waste of my time and yours. But if I can just write off four wins as his ass getting lucky when he should have lost? That already puts him under .500. If I just find three should-be wins for Manning, that puts him up to 24-22, a winning record.
I can easily do that. I went right to the 68 games in Brady’s career in the 26-32 points allowed range and simply started remembering what happened and how unique (or exclusive) some of these finishes were.
2020 Packers (W 31-26): Thank Matt LaFleur for kicking that field goal to add this game to the bin. It was 28-10 before this rally attempt came up short, by the way.
2015 Giants (W 27-26): Landon Collins dropped a game-ending interception in the last 2:00. Brady then gets a game-winning 54-yard field goal from Gostkowski.
2013 Browns (W 27-26): Every HOF QB should get one game in their career where an onside kick recovery helps them win. Surprisingly, this was the only one for Brady to help pull off an improbable comeback in the final minutes. Also, a bogus DPI penalty to put the ball at the 1 on the game-winning drive
2003 Broncos (W 30-26): The intentional safety game. Try naming another game in the last 20 years where a trailing team took a safety on purpose in the fourth quarter and still won.
2013 Saints (W 30-27): Brady needed three different game-winning drive opportunities in the final 3:35 after turning it over on downs with 2:46 left and throwing an interception with 2:16 left. This never happens to anyone else.
2010 Colts (W 31-28): After nearly throwing a pick with 2:32 left, Brady let Manning get the ball back again for another improbable 17-point 4QC. But this time Manning was hit as he threw in field goal range and the pass was intercepted to end the game.
2018 Chiefs (W 37-31 OT): Must be nice to get Dee Ford a millimeter offsides to negate a season-ending interception, then win the coin toss in overtime and not see Patrick Mahomes get the ball back because of the worst overtime system in professional sports.
2016 Falcons (W 34-28 OT): Ah, 28-3. Just imagine if Peyton Manning threw a pass to New Orleans’ Tracy Porter in Super Bowl 44, it goes through his hands, and Austin Collie makes a diving catch to secure it before it touches the ground. Then Manning goes on to score a game-tying touchdown, watch his defense hold against Drew Brees, win an overtime coin toss, and never have to see Brees touch the ball, because again, overtime is a broken system. Beyond all the other fuckery the Falcons did in Super Bowl LI after 28-3, this is what Brady did at the end after Robert Alford dropped a game-ending interception, Julian Edelman made that catch, and Brady cemented his legacy as the undisputed LOAT.
That’s eight games and there were several more I could mention. However, to do this properly I need to play devil’s advocate and point out the games among the 30 losses where Brady should have won.
Except that’s incredibly hard to do when Brady just doesn’t have the bad luck of other quarterbacks, especially in the 26-32 range. For starters, in 15 of the 30 losses he failed to score more than 20 points and lost by at least eight points (lost by double-digits 14 times). In a 28-20 loss to the 2005 Broncos, he was down 28-3 and couldn’t luck his way into a win that day. Just like that, I’ve cut the sample of losses in half.
Brady also was outplayed in back-to-back weeks at home in 27-24 losses to the Rams and Chiefs last year, games he never led in the fourth quarter. He’s also been outplayed by Aaron Rodgers and the 2014 Packers (L 26-21), Deshaun Watson and the 2019 Texans (L 28-22), Mark Sanchez and the 2010 Jets in a playoff stunner that wasn’t as close as the final score suggests (L 28-21), and several other games he never sniffed a late lead like the 4-INT night against the 2006 Colts (L 27-20) or losing to Jay Cutler as a 10.5-point favorite in Miami in 2017 (L 27-20).
I simply cannot point to any missed field goals or miracle field goals that went against Brady. Hell, New York’s Daniel Jones just lost a 30-29 game in Washington because of a lame offsides penalty on a missed field goal. Never happens to Brady. He could have lost his first ever comeback win (2001 Chargers) if Wade Richey made a 59-yard field goal, but that didn’t happen. In fact, kickers are 0-for-6 on clutch field goals of 50-plus yards against Brady in his career. Peyton lost three games to Jacksonville alone on 50-plus yard field goals (53 in 2004, 51 in 2008, 59 in 2010). Scobee-Motherfuckin’-Do.
I can’t point to a rare fumble by a teammate like what Clyde Edwards-Helaire just did to Patrick Mahomes in Baltimore. There’s never been a no-call penalty so egregious that Brady went on to lose a championship game 26-23 in overtime like Drew Brees did against the 2018 Rams after that defensive pass interference was missed. That sent the Rams and all three of their points they’d score to the Super Bowl against Brady too. How convenient.
Like I said, there were just five games where Brady had a fourth-quarter lead and he completely shit the bed in the first one (2004 Dolphins). Brady also didn’t get the ball in overtime against the 2015 Jets (L 26-20) after Ryan Fitzpatrick threw a game-winning touchdown, a few rare occurrences mixing indeed, but Brady also needed three drives in the fourth quarter just to get one game-tying touchdown. But I guess we can count that one. It looks better than the 30-27 loss to Geno Smith and the 2013 Jets when Brady did fail in overtime after having a poor game.
It’s not my fault that Brady isn’t a more dominant winner or a more lovable loser. Definitely better than Drew Bledsoe though. Never denied that one.
Now let’s switch gears and do a few Manning losses really quick. I’ve already mentioned a few actually with the 2004 Patriots (27-24), 2009 Saints (31-17), and 2010 Patriots (31-28).
2006 Texans (L 27-24): One of the most underrated losses in regular season history. Manning was limited to just six possessions because of his historically bad run defense, and he even lost one to a running back fumble and settled for a field goal after a third-down drop. He scored 24 points on the other four drives but lost to a last-second field goal after tying the game.
2010 Jaguars (L 31-28): Manning followed Reggie Wayne’s red zone fumble with two touchdown drives to tie it at 28 before the Jaguars won on a 59-yard field goal. Manning also had a superb game against the 2004 Jaguars and lost 27-24 to a 53-yard field goal.
2013 Patriots (L 34-31 OT): Oh look, another Manning-Brady game where the ending was decided by neither quarterback. After seven straight failed drives between the two, Manning expected to get the ball back before Tony Carter muffed the punt, setting Brady up for a game-winning drive where he just sat on the ball at the Denver 13 and the Patriots kicked a field goal. You know, LOAT stuff.
2014 Seahawks (L 26-20 OT): Manning led the first game-tying drive in NFL history where a team was down eight in the final 60 seconds at the start of the drive, doing it in Seattle when the Legion of Boom was healthy. He never saw the ball in overtime as Marshawn Lynch got the 6-yard game-winning run instead of Russell Wilson throwing a slant to Malcolm Butler, because of course that’s what happened.
Again, I could bring up more games, but Brady’s luck is unrivaled in all of NFL history.
Scoring 30 on Brady Usually Requires Him Screwing Up
By going over these games and talking about how infrequently Brady’s teams allow 30 or 40-plus points, I was reminded of something. It used to be that if the Patriots allowed 30 points in a game, they probably had a return touchdown, usually from a Brady turnover, to get over that benchmark. There were very few games when the defense (and we’ll add special teams too in the context of what a quarterback is dealing with from a points allowed perspective) allowed 30 real points on its own.
So, I decided to go through just the 10 seasons where Brady was in the Super Bowl to see how many games got into the higher-scoring bins because of non-offensive scores. I highlighted the six games where Brady’s Patriots allowed 30-plus points thanks to him having a turnover returned for a touchdown.
2001 Chargers (W 29-26 OT): After a Brady three-and-out, the Patriots botch getting a punt off and it’s returned for a touchdown.
2001 Dolphins (L 30-10): A Brady fumble is returned by Jason Taylor for a touchdown to give Miami a 27-10 lead.
2001 Broncos (L 31-20): On a four-INT night for Brady, he throws a pick-six while trailing 24-20 with 2:24 left.
2003 Bills (L 31-0): Brady’s four-INT game includes a pick-six.
2003 Broncos (W 30-26): The aforementioned intentional safety after Brady couldn’t move the offense out of his end zone moved this game into the 26-32 bin.
2004 Steelers (L 34-20): The only game the Patriots allowed 30 all season, it got there because of a Brady pick-six in the first quarter that gave the Steelers a 21-3 lead to end New England’s 21-game winning streak.
2007 Giants (W 38-35): The 16-0 game was the only time all season the Patriots allowed more than 28 points. The Giants needed a kickoff return touchdown and a late touchdown (down 10) to get there.
2011 Bills (L 34-31): Brady threw a pick-six as part of another 4-INT game. It was the only game all season where New England allowed more than 27 points.
2014 Chiefs (L 41-14): One of only seven 40-burgers in Brady’s career, he threw a pick-six down 34-7 to get it there.
2016 Falcons (W 34-28 OT): Lost in 28-3 is that New England held the prolific Atlanta offense led by MVP Matt Ryan to 21 points and 1-of-8 on third down. Brady’s pick-six in the second quarter opened up a 21-0 lead.
2017 Texans (W 36-33): Brady gave up a touchdown on a strip-sack in the second quarter. He later threw a game-winning touchdown after another game-ending interception was dropped.
Brady has even carried this tradition with him to Tampa Bay. The Buccaneers have had three games where they allowed 30-plus points with Brady, and he threw a pick-six in two of them to get them over that mark (34-23 loss in New Orleans and 38-31 comeback win over Chargers).
Remember that this is only using Super Bowl appearance seasons, and that’s still eight games where Brady’s team allowed 30-plus points thanks to him having a return touchdown involved. That’s only one fewer than Manning and Rodgers had combined using their full career starts, as well as how many Roethlisberger has had in his whole career:
When including Brady’s whole career, the number goes up to 10 games, so 80% of his games came in those Super Bowl seasons. That also means he has the highest rate of 30-points allowed games that he is partly responsible for.
Tom Brady – 10/48 (20.8%)
Ben Roethlisberger – 8/41 (19.5%)
Drew Brees – 13/82 (15.9%)
Peyton Manning – 7/53 (13.2%)
Aaron Rodgers – 2/51 (3.9%)
Conclusion: Drive Stats Are the (Huge) Missing Piece
Before I even started writing this week, I knew that the best solution to this points allowed area is a huge dataset that I am sad to say I don’t have even though I have been writing about drive stats for as long as anyone out there (cringey lede included).
Drive stats are the best way to go about this. If you had drive stats broken down for every game in the last 20 years, you could learn so much. Which quarterback starts the highest rate of games in a 7-0 hole on his first possession? Who really gets the best field position? The shortest touchdown drives? The longest? Does Brady really do better on a short field than his peers? Does Brady’s defense give up more garbage time touchdowns to create more artificial high-scoring games that he won with ease?
That last point is something I noticed when going through his 26-32 range. Brady beat both the 2012 Texans and 2018 Chargers in the playoffs by the final score of 41-28. However, those were fake high-scoring games. Brady went into the fourth quarter with a 31-13 lead on Houston, grew it to 38-13, then the defense allowed two touchdowns in a 41-28 final. Same thing with the Chargers. The Patriots were up 38-13 after three quarters, which you’d gladly take from your defense against a top offense through three quarters every single time. Then Rivers threw two touchdowns in garbage time for the 41-28 final. The outcome was never in doubt. The threat was never there.
Does this type of game happen more often for Brady? The answer is yes. From 2001 to 2019, the Patriots allowed a league-high 63 touchdowns in the fourth quarter when leading by at least 17 points (three scores), lapping the next closest teams in the Packers (52), Broncos (50), Steelers (47), and Colts (43). But of course they did. Brady’s the only consistently high-scoring quarterback to play with a consistently great scoring defense for two decades.
But if you look at how many of those games went into Brady’s 26-32 bin, the answer is nine games. That’s more than Brees (5), Peyton (3), Rodgers (2), and Roethlisberger (2) ever had.
One day I will have to suck it up and put the drive stats together for the regular seasons, likely using the tools on Stathead as my starting point. But I’ve seen enough data errors in the drive finder there over the years to scare me away from doing that. The thoughts of manually going through 267 games a year are too overwhelming, but I really need to get this data at some point.
If you had really good drive stats, you can map out how these games play out for the quarterback. How many points do they average on their first four drives? How much does the defense allow? Again, what’s the field position impact?
People never seem to want to even acknowledge field position, but it’s not something that all quarterbacks are playing on equal grounds with. Is it any surprise that since 2020, Brady’s Buccaneers average the shortest touchdown drives in the league at 60.8 yards? Mahomes’ Chiefs are the fourth longest at 71.4 yards. Ditto for the period of 2001-2019 when Brady’s Patriots had the sixth-shortest touchdown drives at 62.8 yards. Where were the other great offensive teams? They had the longest average touchdown drives in the league: Colts (66.8), Packers (66.2), Saints (65.6), Chargers (65.5), and the Cowboys (65.2) rounded out the top five. Imagine that.
Maybe dominating the field position battle is the missing piece of data in Brady’s success in the 26-32 range. It has to be something. When it’s clearly not just skill, you look at the advantageous factors out of his control, also known as his luck, and that to me is what he has in spades and no one else has been able to come even close to matching. The excess success in his career is a result of his great luck. That doesn’t mean his whole career is lucky or that luck is the only driving force behind his success. It’s that he gets to win more games and get to more Super Bowls than other quarterbacks because of what’s been around him and what’s happened in his favor.
You can still ignore the data and facts if you want, but nothing I ever say about Brady will be better than the quote the man gave about himself in 2017:
“I know myself as a player. I’m really a product of what I’ve been around, who I was coached by, what I played against, in the era I played in. I really believe if a lot of people were in my shoes they could accomplish the same kinds of things. So I’ve been very fortunate.”
On Sunday afternoon, Tom Brady improved to 92-0 as a starter in games where his team scored at least 35 points, easily the best record in NFL history for a feat that leads to a win about 92% of the time since 2001. Peyton Manning (63-3), Drew Brees (56-5), Aaron Rodgers (42-2), and Ben Roethlisberger (35-4) not only all have multiple losses in games where they scored 35-plus, but they all lost a playoff game (two in Ben’s case) after scoring that much as well.
But never Brady. When the King of Kings puts up points, even if it involves two Matt Ryan pick-sixes as it did in Sunday’s 48-25 win over Atlanta, his teams win the game every time. On Sunday night in Baltimore, Patrick Mahomes just lost his third career game in 56 starts after scoring at least 35 points. He is 15-3 now. Thanks for nothing, Clyde.
I guess Brady’s just better than everyone else in high-scoring games then. End of post. No 5,000 words and graphs necessary.
But that’s just not my style. Instead, I am finally going to provide a deep dive into the data on quarterbacks and points allowed after years of citing these stats without much context. As it turns out, there is a sweet spot on the scoreboard where Brady does in fact outperform his top peers, but like with virtually every Brady stat that’s ever existed, he only outperforms them in team win percentage.
With roughly 18 years of experience in dealing with Tom Brady’s cult-like following on the internet, I know how his worshippers think better than probably anyone. While the casuals post pictures of his rings, and the weirdos post pictures of Gisele – as if her bank account isn’t the hottest thing about her – it’s easy to just ignore those people. Life is too short and you’re never going to find any substance there.
What better draws my attention is when they try to use any number besides the ring count to justify the case for their alleged GOAT.
Look, I get why they are so defensive and protective of his legacy. It’s really hard to prop up Brady as the greatest thing since sliced bread, which he doesn’t even eat. Would you feel comfortable in telling someone that the greatest football player of all time is someone who has been named first-team All-Pro, the best at their position, just one more time than Rich Gannon?
When someone brings up Michael Jordan or Wayne Gretzky as the GOAT in their leagues, they don’t need to rely on a ring count or team winning percentage to make their case. The individual resume speaks for itself. The record-setting dominance in both the regular season and postseason that still resonates decades after their retirements, as well as the eye test, it all speaks for itself. Just look:
When I come at the king, I don’t miss. Brady just pales in comparison to those two actual GOATs. But enough GOAT talk for today. The point is any pro-Brady numbers argument boils down into something very simple:
First, pick a split. Playoff games, division games, island games, December games, games after a bye week, 4QC/GWD opportunities, games against top 10 defenses, games against playoff/winning teams, games with 50+ pass attempts, games with 3+ interceptions, games taking three sacks, games in freezing temperatures, games with a passer rating under 80, etc.
When you compare Brady to his peers in the split, chances are he will have the best winning percentage, but he won’t have the best individual statistics. Pick any metric (PR, YPA, ANY/A, DVOA, DYAR, QBR, EPA, WPA, CPOE) that’s not the equivalent of an English teacher subjectively grading your Catcher in the Rye essay, and this will be true for just about anything you dig into.
This has always been the case too. He is eternally “Brady Just Wins” and that’s the way he was covered by media for six seasons in the Spygate era. You know, back when he shared a lunch table with Marc Bulger and Matt Hasselbeck when it came to quarterback stats, but the media forced him on us as the best in the game because his team won three Super Bowls by three points each. Jim Nantz would cream his pants weekly on CBS about the latest “Brady record” that was just a graphic of him (grinning pre-plastic surgery) with some crazy win percentage record the Patriots had back in 2001-06 or some “attempts without an interception streak” that Brady would then end with a pick in a playoff game he still went on to win.
But after Spygate came about in 2007, Brady developed into a better player and started playing with loaded offenses and the two most stat-inflating receivers (Randy Moss and Rob Gronkowski) of this era, if not of all time. He’s currently on a Tampa Bay offense that features four Hall of Fame-caliber receivers, three of which he had nothing to do with developing into studs. Keep in mind the 2018-19 Tampa Bay offenses, which did not have Gronk or Antonio Brown, and had error-prone Jameis Winston and Ryan Fitzpatrick at quarterback, threw for over 10,400 yards and 69 touchdowns in those two years. Yet here we are hyping up Brady for a nine-game winning streak with scoring 30 points where three of the games were against the Atlanta Falcons during a pandemic.
But the big-picture stuff can wait for another day as I’m getting off track again. This is about points allowed. Like Bruce Wayne seeing the Bat Signal, I was pointed to a tweet last week about Brady winning high-scoring games better than his peers.
I was asked if the graph was wrong, and initially I thought it was since the curves shouldn’t be that smooth. Then I realized the x-axis was when the “opponent scored at least x points” instead of “opponent scored exactly x points.” It reminded me of this old ESPN article that featured this paragraph:
“NFL teams have won just 23.6 percent of the time since 2001 when they gave up 21-plus points. Brady’s 66-50 record in these higher-scoring games equates to a .569 winning percentage — a whopping 2.4 times better than the league average. No other QB with 50 games played since 2001 has won even half of those tough-to-win games. Brady remains on top as the scoring bar climbs even higher. He is a league-best 20-29 (.408) when the other team scores 28-plus points, far above the .151 league average.”
The graph and this paragraph are both correct, but they are both very misleading. By using a minimum number of points allowed and not putting a cap on the other end, both are ignoring that Brady’s teams do a much better job of not having games where they allow 30+ and 40+ points. I’ve been on this for years.
While teams have won 27.2% of their games during Brady’s career where they allowed 21-plus points (it’s gone up since that 2016 article), that includes games where they allowed 38, 45, or 54 points too. Literally anything 21 or higher would count. However, when teams allow 35-plus points, they win just 7.9% of the time. If you look at games where teams allowed exactly 21 points since 2001, they win those 63.8% of the time. Why? That’s a below-average amount of points in this era. You should win those games, and if you’re a Hall of Fame quarterback, you should win those at a high rate.
In fact, I just tweeted something to this effect on September 3 about Brady, Jared Goff, and games where a QB’s team allowed 28-plus points. While 28 is the minimum, that ignores how far past 28 points the teams went. Sure enough, Brady’s average 28+ game had the lowest average (32.3) of points allowed while Goff’s had the highest (37.7) of the 46 QBs in the study. So, is Brady having the best win% really as impressive as it sounds when you learn that additional information? I don’t think so.
Confession: I too am guilty in the past of presenting these points allowed stats in misleading fashion or at least not with better context.
So, how do we improve on this?
The Key Ranges for Points Allowed
With NFL teams averaging a record-high 24.7 points per game in 2020, these are stats that will have to be adjusted in the future. It was harder to win a game in 2001, Brady’s first year as a starter, when a team allowed 21 points and the league average was 20.3 points scored. Now if you allow 21 points in a league where the average scored is 24.7 points, then you got an above-average game out of your defense in that regard. For reference, teams in 2021 are averaging exactly 24.0 points per game thru Week 2.
My thinking for over a decade on these points allowed stats is to bunch everything under 17 points together as a low-scoring game. Peyton Manning was 89-0 in games he finished when the team allowed fewer than 17 points, which is still the gold standard for that range. His only technical loss was in 2007 against the Titans (16-10) in a Week 17 game where he left very early for his playoff rest. I always figured anything under 17 just means you can score two touchdowns and a field goal and get the win. Should be no big deal for a Hall of Famer.
Then using 24-plus or “more than 24 points” are probably the way I’ve used these stats the most over the years on Twitter. Fans of Alex Smith and Carson Wentz can attest to that. From 2007 to 2019, the average points scored was 22.5 in the NFL. Since teams rarely land on exactly 22 or 23, I viewed 24+ as the minimum standard for a game with above-average scoring, especially since you likely need to land on 27-28 or 30+ to win that day.
My third favorite range of points was to use 27+ or 28+ points. This is basically saying “games where you had to score 30+ to win.” Anything higher and we’re probably stuck in a land of small sample sizes and terrible win percentages.
But with all the data available to us these days, we can do something better than this, right? What’s really the difference between allowing 22 and 24 points? So, I looked at every game for 2001-2020 (playoffs included) and got the winning percentage for each point allowed total. First, a bubble graph that shows the win percentage for each point total.
Obviously, as points allowed goes up, win percentage decreases. But you can see four little outliers with small samples of games (smaller bubbles) at 32, 39, 46, and 51 points allowed where winning percentage is higher than expected. The 46 is when the 2019 49ers won that huge 48-46 game in New Orleans to help them get the No. 1 seed. I think you know what 54-51 is all about.
Now here is the data grouped together in what I am going to consider the six key ranges for points allowed: 0-11, 12-18, 19-25, 26-32, 33-39, and 40+.
0-11: These are the easy games. With the exception of 9 points, these are all above 92% win rates. At 9 points, a few more teams are content with winning after kicking three field goals. Sounds like a Jets thing to me.
12-18: All still winning records above 60%, but we dip under 80% every time except for a bump at 14 points. Why are there bumps at 7, 14, 21, and 28? Those are the more common scores with touchdowns and extra points in this game. If a team scores exactly 14 points, chances are those two touchdowns were all they could get that day, but it wasn’t all they needed. If a team finishes on 13 or 15, they may have only needed a late field goal to win a 13-10 or 15-12 type of game.
19-25: Now we start to see losing records except for at 20 and 21. Why the bump there? Again, the more common scores. If a team scores 19, it could have just won a 19-9 or 19-16 game. You don’t see too many teams down 21-19 lose on a game-tying two-point conversion attempt. Nineteen is just what they needed that day. Similar thing at 23 points when a lot of games could end 23-16 or 23-20. But 23 is the lowest win% here at 36.3%.
26-32: Now we’re dropping under 26.5% except for the expected bump at 28 (35.8%) and the aforementioned outlier at 32 (42.9%) on just 63 games. Every other point total from 19 to 35 has at least 108 games in the sample.
33-39: This is miracle territory as only the outlier at 39 points is above 18%. What do we have to thank for that 6-22 record at 39 points? Thank Dan Quinn’s Falcons for not picking up that onside kick and losing to Dallas 40-39 last year. Thank Dwayne Rudd for taking his helmet off and helping the Browns lose to the Chiefs on opening day in 2002. Also a shoutout to the 2004 Seahawks for this inexplicable choke against the Cowboys on Monday night in a 43-39 loss. Two onside kick recoveries and Rudd keeping his helmet on from making that 3-25 (.107).
40+: I think it’s safe to group everything from 40 through 62 (the night the Saints destroyed the 2011 Colts) together for the last range. The only one with a winning percentage above 6.7% is that outlier at 46 due to the George Kittle play on fourth down in New Orleans in 2019.
Okay, now I have six ranges I feel better about using for this. Again, we’ll have to keep an eye on how things progress in the NFL with scoring. Maybe my days of doing “since 2001” stats can be dialed back once Brady (and Ben and Rodgers) finally retires. Then “since 2008” might become my new standard, since that was the year Ryan and Flacco changed the rookie quarterback expectations, and the 2007 Patriots had an influence on the league with the shotgun-spread offense. Team scoring shot up to 22.0 points per game in 2008 for the first time since 1965. But we’re not there yet, so it’s since 2001 for now.
Brady vs. His Peers in High-Scoring Games
How does Brady fare against his peers in these six different ranges? Unlike the original chart, I’m interested in comparing Brady to the only four quarterbacks who have sustained success with both winning games and accumulating stats on their way to locking up a first-ballot bust in Canton: Peyton Manning, Drew Brees, Ben Roethlisberger, and Aaron Rodgers. I’m sure the day will come when we can add Russell Wilson and Patrick Mahomes to this, but not today.
First, a very telling scatter plot of these five quarterbacks for each of the six key points allowed ranges. The x-axis is their win% as a starter with no games removed for injury (would affect Rodgers and Ben the most) or playoff rest (would affect Manning the most). The y-axis is their Adjusted Net Yards per Pass Attempt (ANY/A) in these games, which takes sacks into account, but does not include rushing touchdowns (would help Rodgers the most) or fumbles (would help Manning the most). This methodology is arguably most beneficial to Brady than the other four given his history of injury/playoff rest games/fumbles/rushing TDs. The original tweet’s graph used 1999-2020, so he also excluded Manning’s rookie year. I am excluding 1999-2000 as well, but that shouldn’t change much here. But for every other quarterback it is their full career minus two games in 2021 for Brady, Rodgers, and Roethlisberger, the last three standing.
Tale as old as time: Brady does not have the best statistics in any of the point ranges, but he has the best winning percentage (or at least a tie for it) in half of the six ranges. However, that’s not as dominant as one would expect from the way the original tweet by a guy named Tucker claimed it to be. You can also see that Brady’s lone sweet spot is the 26-32 range, but again, more on that below.
0-11: These QBs are a combined 248-2 in this range. Ben’s loss was a 9-0 game on MNF to the Jaguars in 2006, his first game after his motorcycle accident and an emergency appendectomy. He was just not healthy enough at that point. Likewise, Rodgers lost a 7-3 game to the 2010 Lions after leaving with a concussion after only 11 pass attempts. Brees had the most dominant stats (110.9 PR, 8.09 ANY/A). Brady (7.51) has the second-lowest ANY/A in this range.
12-18: Manning had the best record here (59-2), even including that playoff rest loss to the 2007 Titans. Brees (.909) and Rodgers (.902) are one game behind Brady (.919) in win%, but Brady has the lowest completion percentage, YPA, and second-lowest passer rating and ANY/A in this range. The Tuck Rule is literally the difference here in Brady having the second-best win% and the fourth-best win% as he easily could have lost that game 13-10 without that rule and the greatest kick in NFL history. Meanwhile, Rodgers has the Fail Mary as one of his losses here (14-12 in Seattle) and a 2015 game against Detroit that would have been a 19-18 win if Mason Crosby made a 52-yard field goal. Remember, Brady has lost one game in his whole career after a missed clutch field goal (20-18 vs. 2012 Cardinals) and that comes in the next range.
19-25: In this range Brees does drop off statistically with the lowest win% (.629) and second-lowest ANY/A (6.92). Manning (.762) just edges out Brady (.753) for the best win percentage with Rodgers (.733) not far behind. In this range Brady moves up to third in passer rating (97.8) and ANY/A (7.24), but he certainly doesn’t dominate his peers or the stats Rodgers had (107.0 PR and 7.94 ANY/A). While I did mention the Stephen Gostkowski miss against Arizona costing Brady a win here, I raise you Adam Vinatieri missing a 29-yard field goal against the 2007 Chargers (23-21 loss) and Mike Vanderjagt missing a 45-yard field goal against the 2005 Steelers (21-18 loss) in this range for Manning. The point is Brady does not dominate his peers at winning games or how he performed in them at this range (or the first two ranges).
26-32: Every range is pretty tight, but this one has the most separation of them all. Despite Brady firmly ranking third in ANY/A (6.65) behind Manning (7.19) and Rodgers (6.90), he still has a winning record (37-31, .544) in this range while the others are all under 43%. Roethlisberger is especially bad here at 12-29 (.293) and 5.74 ANY/A. Why does Brady have such a winning advantage here despite not blowing away his toughest peers statistically? See Part II. I’ll give you a hint though: 28-3 is a game in this range.
33-39: Brady has the worst record (4-16, .200) and the lowest YPA (6.81), passer rating (85.7), and ANY/A (5.70) in this range. It includes two of his highest-scoring losses of his career in games against Manning: 38-34 in the 2006 AFC Championship Game and 35-34 on 4th-and-2 in 2009, a game that could have ended 34-28 if he didn’t turn into Alex Smith and threw past the sticks on that drive to deny Peyton the ball. But this is a bad looking range for Brady as his teams scored the fewest points (25.6) and allowed the fewest too (34.9). Manning had the best record (5-13) but not the best stats thanks to some of his most improbable comebacks. Not just the Patriots wins but also that 38-35 overtime win in Tampa Bay in 2003.
40+: While Roethlisberger had the lowest ANY/A in the first four ranges, he has the highest ANY/A in both the 33-39 and 40+ ranges. As I wrote in January after the 48-37 playoff loss to the Browns, he has a way of trying his best with huge passing days when the defense completely shits the bed to Baker Mayfield and Blake Bortles. So, this was amusing to see. Manning (1-11) definitely had some incredibly bad days when his team gave up a 40-burger, but it usually was a sign that the whole team imploded like the 41-0 playoff loss to the Jets and the 2013 Super Bowl against Seattle (43-8) that basically fell apart on the first snap over his head for a safety. Not only does Brady (1-6) have the lowest rate of 40+ games in his career, but his teams allowed the lowest average (40.9) above 40 points compared to Manning (43.2), Brees (44.0), Ben (44.6), and Rodgers (46.3). Brady got one win over Mahomes in 2018 (43-40) by virtue of getting the ball last that night. All Brees needed was one defensive stop on fourth down against Kittle in 2019 to beat the 49ers 46-45 and get the No. 1 seed, but he didn’t get it of course. Otherwise, he’d have the best record here at 3-13.
Again, where exactly does Brady shine over his peers? I removed the 26-32 range and summed up all the remaining games and put it in this chart:
Brady has the highest win% despite having the lowest YPA, completion percentage, and the second-lowest passer rating and ANY/A. His team averages the third-most points, but the key thing is his teams still allow the fewest points per game in these five ranges (23.8).
We should try to account for the different distributions of games into each range for the quarterbacks. For example, 23.8% of Brady’s starts have seen his team allow fewer than 12 points. That’s almost double that of Brees (12.2%) and Rodgers (13.8%). If Brees had 23.8% of his starts play out like that, he’d have over 72 such games instead of his actual number of 37. Remember, he was 37-0 when this happened. Likewise, Brady has the lowest percentage of starts with 33-39 points allowed (5.8%) and 40+ points allowed (2.0%).
In giving everyone the same distribution of points allowed as Brady, this is what the numbers look like for all games for 2001-2020:
Brady still has the best record without the best stats, but that’s always a given. Manning is right behind him now and Brees makes a huge leap with an extra 33 wins and raising his win rate nearly 11 percentage points. He’s definitely had the worst defensive support of these five quarterbacks.
Maybe the worst luck too, but when it comes to luck, no one holds a candle to Brady, the LOAT.
Check back for Part II where I find Brady’s voodoo magic in the 26-32 range.
The 2021 NFL season has gotten off to another strange start. Favorites are only 4-13 ATS and a shocking 8-9 SU. It was the first Week 1 where favorites had a losing record outright (7-9) since 1983. That was Dan Marino’s rookie season, so 5,000-yard passing seasons and the 1985 Bears didn’t even exist yet.
This is only the sixth time in the 32-team era where favorites had a losing record in a week where all 32 were in action. How did favorites fare the next week? They always won at least 10 games, including a 13-3 record in the Week 17 finale of the 2008 season. So that’s something to keep in mind this week.
We almost saw favorites start 7-10, but on Thursday night, Washington got a fortunate offsides penalty on a missed field goal against the Giants and won by one point on the retry. Now if Ron Rivera can just keep Taylor Heinicke away from today’s pathetic January 6th rally in D.C….
The only favorites who were able to cover so far were the Rams, Seahawks, Panthers, and Broncos. I think three of them have a pretty good shot at doing it again this week, though Titans-Seahawks could be a nail-biter and shootout if the 2019-20 Titans still exist inside this 2021 iteration of the team.
Finally, I looked at how unusual it is for a team like Green Bay to lose by 35 points and still be favored by 12 the next week. Hint: very unusual.
NFL Week 2 Predictions
I always think Week 2 can be the hardest week of the season to predict. You’re still trying to balance your preseason predictions with the one data point you got from Week 1. What’s real at this point? Is Matthew Stafford going to race Tom Brady and Patrick Mahomes to 50 touchdown passes and break up the Super Bowl rematch? Is Jalen Hurts going to leap ahead of Justin Herbert as the top 2nd-year QB? Are all the AFC East offenses ass now instead of the usual 75% quota? Is Teddy Bridgewater going to have a great year in Denver, or did he beat up on a Giants defense that Taylor Heinicke just threw for 300 yards against? Are the Jaguars really that horrible that they lost to a Houston team that is now a 13.5-point underdog in Cleveland? I mean, f’n Cleveland is favored by two touchdowns in the 21st century?
So, when I saw that I picked favorites to go 12-4 ATS this week, I had to erase all my picks and create a new table image. In the last 10 years, Week 2 favorites have always won 6-8 games ATS, landing on seven wins 60% of the time. Even when favorites were 14-2 SU in Week 2 last year, they were only 7-9 ATS. I ended up changing things to where I had six underdogs covering. That’s probably still too low, and that’s even with half of them being the teams favored by two touchdowns. But we’ll just see how it goes.
Some gambling things I really like this week:
Nick Chubb TD/Browns ML parlay.
Mecole Hardman over 40 yards and a touchdown (he has hit Baltimore for a long touchdown in each of the last two years).
Antonio Brown over 69.5 yards and a touchdown (Falcons were the only defense he broke 70 yards against last year and he did it twice with 93 and 138 and 3 TD in those games).
Melvin Gordon touchdown run vs. Jaguars but not the ML since I’m not ready to commit to Urban Meyer pulling a Bobby Petrino before October.
Austin Ekeler touchdown run vs. Dallas in a game that could be the shootout of the day.
I’m willing to let Davante Adams and GB hurt me again this week when his TD/ML parlay comes up on FanDuel.
I’m also holding out hope that my Hail Mary hits as the parts I still need are only about +2200 since I hedged on MNF spread.
Trust me, the title sounds way more ambitious than what the post is actually going to be. I’m settling into this new role of writing more on this blog during the season, but it’s going to come in the form of quick data dumps of interest rather than epic-length projects like the 43,000 words I wrote in a week on my top 100 quarterbacks of the 21st century.
Today’s topic is quarterback rivalries. These often drive the league’s intrigue, though we haven’t always seen a lot of great quarterbacks meet numerous times in the past with the way schedules used to work. For example, Dan Marino and John Elway were both drafted to the AFC in 1983, both active through 1998, both on a lot of winning teams, yet they only met a total of three times and two of those happened in 1998 when they were old. That’s just stunning. We’re about to see Round 4 of Patrick Mahomes vs. Lamar Jackson Sunday night, and Round 3 of Mahomes vs. Allen in Week 5.
But it’s not a real rivalry until the other side starts to win too, and that’s where we are stuck waiting right now.
The AFC: Patrick Mahomes vs. ?
I keep stressing that this is a transition period in the NFL, and perhaps the biggest story in the whole league is the reshaping of the AFC. We need to find the best challengers to Patrick Mahomes and the Kansas City Chiefs as the best QB and team in the conference. He just beat Baker Mayfield and Cleveland again. He has yet to lose to Josh Allen/Buffalo and Lamar Jackson/Ravens. He also will have his second meeting with Justin Herbert and the Chargers, who took him to overtime last year after Herbert got the surprise start following a team doctor’s incompetence.
Someone has to step up here, or Mahomes and the Chiefs are going to have an easy run to the Super Bowl year after year a la what we’ve seen recently with Tom Brady and LeBron James in the NBA. But even Brady needed his rival in Peyton Manning, who stopped him from getting to the Super Bowl more often than the other way around, and LeBron had the Golden State Warriors as a super team to deny him Michael Jordan’s ring count. Even Magic Johnson had a Larry Bird to deal with in the 80s. You need that rival or else it’s one-sided and the results are too predictable. It gets boring, even if watching Mahomes operate is anything but boring right now.
Oddly enough, Brady and his teams have been the biggest Mahomes stoppers so far, taking away a potential three-peat in 2018-20 for the Chiefs. These teams very well could meet again in February.
The NFC: The Future Is What Exactly?
Brady’s run is unlikely to go on forever, though his quack trainer Alex Guerrero has done a magnificent job of keeping the Lazarus Pit running for him. As for Aaron Rodgers, I swear he looked like he aged five years this weekend and I don’t even mean by the way he played, which was terrible in the first 35-point loss of his career. I mean when I saw the teaser for his FOX interview, he looked like a 44-year-old quarterback in the NFC. Maybe he just got out of practice and skipped makeup and a shower, but he just looked haggard to me.
With Brees tapped out and those two probably not far behind, it will soon look different in the NFC. But is it too soon to predict a Matthew Stafford vs. Russell Wilson showdown now that they’re in the same division? Or are we headed for a Trey Lance vs. Justin Fields run where Wilson still doesn’t get MVP votes and Stafford still can’t beat teams with winning records? It’s probably going to have to be those two rookies as the future unless Kyler Murray is ready to take that next step or Jalen Hurts in Philadelphia. You know I love Dak too, but that coaching combo of Mike McCarthy and Dan Quinn is bound to fail.
Not only has the AFC taken Mahomes, 2019 MVP Lamar Jackson, and 2020 MVP runner-up Josh Allen, but the AFC has drafted Trevor Lawrence and Joe Burrow with the last two No. 1 picks. Baker Mayfield was No. 1 in 2018 and even if you’re not sold on him yet, he’s really not that bad of a quarterback. The AFC also recently drafted Tua, Mac Jones, Zach Wilson, Herbert, and would have another stud in Deshaun Watson if he wasn’t an alleged sexual predator.
With respect to Dak possibly throwing for 6,000 yards this year to make up for his defense, there’s just not a lot of intrigue built into the NFC yet. We have to see how Winston and Stafford continue to do with their upgraded coaching and team situations. It’s only been one week.
The Sweet Sixteen to Meet a Dozen Times
Finally, the data dump. From 2001 to 2020, there were 16 quarterback matchups that had at least a dozen meetings when you include playoff games. I gathered the stats on win% and ANY/A (so I can account for sacks) for each quarterback in the matchup, so this chart has 32 points on it.
I have some good news for fans of the Falcons and Giants. Brees vs. Ryan and Romo vs. Eli are the only two matchups where the winning QB (Brees and Romo) had a lower ANY/A than the losing QB. No two quarterbacks were closer in ANY/A than Eli and Romo (0.14), though Manning-Brady (0.22) was a close second on the list. Considering this doesn’t adjust for the quality of the defense faced, that looks very good for the Manning brothers.
No matchup was more lopsided than Rodgers vs. Jay Cutler. Rodgers was 11-2 and +3.37 in ANY/A over Cutler, the biggest gap on the list. Rodgers vs. Stafford was also the second-biggest difference in ANY/A at +2.46 for Rodgers. We’ll see if Stafford can close that a little this year. The closest matchup by record was Philip Rivers going 7-6 vs. Derek Carr in the AFC West despite a difference of 1.27 ANY/A in Rivers’ favor. That speaks to the Chargers blowing games late while Carr inexplicably wins a lot of those games.
How many of these 16 matchups are still possible in the future? Brady-Fitzpatrick, Rodgers-Stafford, Ben-Brady, Ben-Dalton are about the only four realistic ones. Maybe something with Cam Newton if he ever gets another job and plays Matt Ryan again. Stafford vs. Rodgers is scheduled for Week 12 this year. The Bears are in Pittsburgh in Week 9, but Fields has to take over for Dalton by then, right? Fitzpatrick could face Brady in Week 10 if he doesn’t already lose the job to Taylor Heinicke by then. Hey, Brady could get a second win over Heinicke in that case.
But this was a great era with a lot of memorable and important games in that chart. New rivalries will emerge, but nothing is certain in this league. If you thought Mahomes-Watson in 2019 would be the first of several playoff meetings between the two, no rational person would have disagreed at the time. Now? Oof.
And if you’re a disappointed Ravens fan not looking forward to the Chiefs this week, then just remember that Manning’s Colts lost six straight to Brady’s Patriots in 2001-04 before turning that one around. For it to be a real rivalry, the other side has to start winning at some point. Maybe Sunday night is that turnaround moment for the Ravens.
This is the first Week 1 edition of NFL Stat Oddity, a series I started on the spur of the moment last October. This is my space to recap the statistical quirks and oddities from Sunday in the NFL after some quickly researched numbers before I finally get to bed on Monday morning. Expect some rants too.
Normally, I pick out a few games of interest, but after the Week 1 we just had, I think I’m going to say something about every game besides the Thursday opener between the Cowboys and Buccaneers, the first game in NFL history where both teams passed at least 50 times and did not run 20 times.
Not Your Favorite
First, some stats relating to the spread. Favorites are only 7-8 SU this week with Monday night still to come. At best they’ll go 8-8. Is that unusual for Week 1 when uncertainty is so high for the new season? Yes, it is.
From 2001 to 2020, Week 1 favorites were 206-108-2 (.655) SU. Only in 2016 did they go 8-8, so if the Raiders pull off the upset on Baltimore, we’ll see the first outright losing Week 1 for favorites in at least two decades.
Browns at Chiefs: Is Cleveland Best Equipped to Beat the Chiefs in the AFC?
January’s divisional round matchup was supposed to be a high-powered shootout after the wild season the Browns had, but an injury to Patrick Mahomes in the third quarter took it from a blowout to a low-scoring, nail-biting finish won 22-17 by the Chiefs.
We got to that score again in this one, but this time it was Cleveland leading 22-17 in the third quarter after gaining at least 75 yards on all four of their first-half drives. The shootout was on, and the Browns were winning it, twice leading by 12 and making the Chiefs blink in the red zone. But mistakes in every unit really cost the Browns this huge win. Nick Chubb lost a fumble at midfield that got the ball rolling again for the Chiefs. The defense looked at a 29-20 lead in the fourth quarter for 14 seconds before Tyreek Hill burned the secondary for a 75-yard touchdown on a one-play drive. Then the botched punt after a three-and-out put Mahomes at the 15-yard line, setting up an easy game-winning touchdown to take a 33-29 lead.
But the ending was different this time. Last year, I covered in great detail how the Chiefs were so dominant in the four-minute offense with Mahomes closing out games so the defense didn’t have to. The best way to end games on your terms. But this time, he threw an incompletion and Myles Garrett sacked him on a third down. The Browns had 2:49 to drive 83 yards for the go-ahead touchdown, so it was going to be on the defense this time to save the day. The Chiefs were one of three teams to not blow a fourth-quarter lead in 2020.
Mayfield had a chance for his big game-winning drive moment, but after getting to midfield, he tried to throw a pass away under pressure. His foot was grabbed at the last moment and the ball came out poorly and was intercepted by Mike Hughes with 1:09 left. Game over. The defense, which was missing Tyrann Mathieu and Frank Clark, did just enough in the second half after being terrible for the first half. Chalk up another double-digit comeback win in the Mahomes era, and one of the toughest challenges he’s ever had to get a lead in a game. But he can still say he has always led in every start of his career, even Super Bowl LV.
Much like with the Cowboys in Tampa Bay on Thursday night, I think the Browns can look at this one as a moral victory. This team is different under Kevin Stefanski from past Cleveland teams who would have rolled over to the Chiefs. They came out looking very poised as we saw in a few big games last year, namely the Tennessee win and Pittsburgh playoff win. Mayfield threw the late pick, but I think this team hangs better with the Chiefs than even the Ravens and Bills have shown so far. Lamar Jackson and Josh Allen seem to press against Kansas City while Mayfield was very accurate for most of Sunday’s game, and the Browns just use their offensive line to stick with the run and stay patient against this defense. But defensively, the Browns are not reliable yet. Mahomes still found ways to score 33 points on eight drives while dominating on third down and hitting Hill for the big touchdown.
The Chiefs have Baltimore next. Mahomes is now 9-0 against Jackson (3-0), Mayfield (3-0), Allen (2-0), and Ben Roethlisberger (1-0). While the AFC struggles to find its best challenger for the Chiefs, it looks likely to be another year where the Chiefs are their own worst enemy, and where the Kansas City offense is the most consistent, must-watch unit in the game.
Packers at Saints: Is This “The Last Dance” or Dead Man Walking?
I know I’ve repeatedly said that Aaron Rodgers will regress this season against a tougher schedule and better defensive play around the league in general, but what the hell was that on Sunday in Jacksonville? In his 211th start, Rodgers lost by more than 30 points for the first time in a 38-3 rout by the Saints, a team he feasted on a year ago without Davante Adams in a 37-30 win.
Kudos to the Saints if they really did pick Jacksonville because of Rodgers’ history in Florida. He squeaked out a win over Miami in 2014, lost to the Jaguars in 2008, only averaged 5.85 YPA against the Jags in 2016, and he was 1-3 in Tampa Bay with multiple interceptions in all the losses, including that 38-10 eyesore on his MVP resume last year.
Even if the scoreboard said New Orleans Saints, with the game being played in Jacksonville and Jameis Winston at quarterback, it might as well have been a game against Tampa Bay. Once again, the Packers were pushed around by an NFC South team and had no answers for it. Rodgers looked like the quarterback in need of Lasik surgery in this one, throwing some of the most WTF? interceptions of his career.
It is impossible to even evaluate Jameis Winston in this first start. He could have won the game by throwing four touchdowns before he even broke 100 passing yards. Some of that was great field position, and some more was just great ground production. But Jameis did deliver a long touchdown pass for his fifth of the day for good measure. It will be interesting to see what happens when he plays a team who puts forth some effort.
It only took Matt LaFleur the opener to his third season to have more losses (five) without a 4QC opportunity than what Mike McCarthy (four) had in his first six seasons with Rodgers as his quarterback.
A year after winning MVP, Rodgers is dead last in QBR for Week 1 at 13.5. Is it just “one game” like Tampa Bay was one game last year? Maybe, but I think it fits the larger pattern with this team and what happens when they run into someone ready to punch them in the mouth. Now I’m just worried that the real last dance for Peak Aaron Rodgers was 2020.
But hell of a day for the Saints in Jacksonville against Green Bay, a sentence I never thought I’d get to write. Sean Payton just might make me eat some crow this year, which won’t disappoint me one bit if he delivers in the postseason. But just imagine if he can keep the defense nasty while helping Jameis manage the game.
Steelers at Bills: Don’t Believe the Hype?
I feel that the Steelers have spent years as the biggest target of groupthink on NFL Twitter, and everyone just wants to predict this team to completely bomb this season. I didn’t feel that, and I still picked them to win nine games this season and get in as a wild card team. Plenty of season to go, but I think Sunday showed why you can’t bury them yet. Not when they are on a short list of teams with a Hall of Fame quarterback and a defense that can play great most weeks.
There has been plenty of Super Bowl hype for the Bills, but I warned in my previews that this team faces a tough task of improving on a season where they won 13 games and scored over 500 points, feats almost never achieved in back-to-back years in NFL history. Then without adding any major pieces on either side of the ball, it was largely on the same guys who produced last year to deliver again for the Bills.
That starts with quarterback Josh Allen. I ended up ranking him No. 30 on my list of the top 100 quarterbacks of the 21st century and thought he could repeat his success since he is technically still a one-year wonder. On Sunday, he got his fourth season off to a poor start, though T.J. Watt and company may be the best defense he sees this year. Watt had a huge strip-sack in the first half when the Bills were in scoring range.
Maybe Allen just doesn’t play well against Pittsburgh, because I certainly haven’t been impressed in the last three years with him in those meetings. Allen’s passing YPA in his three starts against Pittsburgh: 5.56, 5.53, and 5.29 on Sunday. Given the way the Steelers have handled Lamar Jackson so far, this team might be in business in the playoffs if they could stop getting embarrassed by the likes of Blake Bortles and Baker Mayfield in January. Patrick Mahomes is a different story, but I am impressed with how the defense has handled Allen and Jackson, two of the leaders of the new AFC.
Allen’s accuracy, always the main knock on him, was simply off on Sunday. He was high, he was low, he was all over the map. Some of it was the pass rush, and some was just great defensive play to knock balls away. But the fact is he threw 51 passes and just one of them gained more than 16 yards. That’s a bad ratio of big plays.
I felt that horrible quarterback play doomed the Steelers against Buffalo in 2019 and 2020. It was last year when Ben Roethlisberger threw a big pick-six before halftime that really turned that game, but I also pointed out that the Bills did not score many points in that game or in any game against AFC playoff competition outside of the Colts in the wild card round.
This time, Roethlisberger avoided the big turnover. He was off early, and the offense again looked pretty December 2020-ish in the first half when the Steelers trailed 10-0 and had three first downs and 53 yards of offense. The new offensive line looked bad, and Najee Harris had nowhere to run. Harris also was tackled quickly with minimal effort by Buffalo and looked lost as a receiver. It was not an impressive debut by him outside of one 18-yard run.
But the second half was a pleasant surprise and turnaround. The offense moved the ball four drives in a row, and while they settled for three field goals, the Steelers were right back in the game. Diontae Johnson returned from injury for a great effort catch on the game-winning touchdown. That was set up after one of the worst 4th-and-1 plays I’ve ever seen from the Bills. They said no to a quarterback sneak with Allen and tried to get cute with a pitch to Matt Breida way in the backfield where he was buried for a 7-yard loss at midfield. I’d show a picture of how deep he was when he caught the ball, but NFL Game Pass has never been worse than it is right now, which is saying a lot for how horrid that product has always been.
The Steelers also blocked a punt for a huge touchdown to go up 20-10 in the fourth quarter as the Bills looked shook. Pittsburgh really showed up in all three phases for that second half to complete the 23-16 comeback win.
Roethlisberger is now 2-7 in his career as an underdog of more than six points. His only other big upset win was the 2005 AFC divisional round in Indianapolis when he saved the legacies of Jerome Bettis and Bill Cowher on that late fumble. But this was certainly a surprise victory for the Steelers, and arguably the best one the team has had since an 18-12 playoff win in Kansas City against the Chiefs in January 2017.
Time will tell how well the Bills bounce back from this and if the Steelers are still legitimate, but it was definitely a second half turnaround I did not see coming. And I usually have a good eye for how the Steelers will perform.
Seahawks at Colts: The Wentz Wagon Stalls in Indy
I think if Russell Wilson was allowed to play a different team every week, but they all had Carson Wentz at quarterback, he would finally win MVP and have a perfect season. Wilson is now 6-0 against teams starting Wentz at quarterback. He has 13 touchdowns to one interception after throwing four scores on Sunday. He has never needed a fourth-quarter comeback against a Wentz-lead team, often leading those games by multiple scores. Wentz has never scored more than 17 points on the Seahawks.
The sad part is this was probably the best Wentz has ever played against Seattle, but it was still only good for a 28-16 loss at home where he disappeared for half the game. The Colts were not impressive along the offensive line, though Wentz still took three sacks and lost a fumble. Wilson also took three sacks, but as usual, was left unphased by those plays as he still delivers big plays to his receivers like a perfectly thrown 69-yard touchdown bomb to Tyler Lockett. The Colts had one play of 20-plus yards in the game. The Seahawks took control of the game after the Colts had six straight scoreless drives.
There should be better days ahead for Wentz in Indy as no team owns him quite like Seattle. But for the fans holding out hope that the return of wideout T.Y. Hilton or post-Achilles injury Eric Fisher at left tackle is going to make a big difference, you have to understand the hard truth. The Colts no longer have a quarterback who can elevate the play of those around him. Either by delivering accurate passes to his receivers or with great pocket presence and decision making to help his offensive line, Wentz has never been and will likely never be that guy.
The sooner you accept that, the easier it will be to understand how this team is going to fare with him. With the Rams up next, this could get uglier before it gets better.
Dolphins at Patriots: Well, Tom Brady Would NEVER…
After using Cam Newton as a one-year rental, the Patriots officially moved forward with the Mac Jones era on Sunday. Was it the first of many meetings between Jones and Miami’s Tua Tagovailoa in the new-look AFC East, or the first of, like, three such matchups? We’ll see, but the first one was a competitive 17-16 finish won by the underdog Dolphins.
Jones hardly set the NFL world on fire with his debut, but he had the highest QBR (75.1) of any first or second-year quarterback on Sunday, including Tua (39.9). The Patriots just played a sloppy, undisciplined game for Bill Belichick, including four fumbles (two lost), eight penalties for 84 yards, and they allowed Miami to pull off a double score around halftime.
Down 17-16 in the fourth quarter, the Patriots were driving in the red zone after a Tua interception at midfield. Damien Harris rushed to the Miami 9 to get to 100 yards on the ground, but he fumbled as Xavien Howard continues his high-turnover ways from 2020 with another huge one. Still, 3:31 remained and the Patriots had three timeouts, so that’s an eternity of time to get the ball back.
But the odd thing is they didn’t get the stop this time. Miami picked up two first downs, including a third-and-1 conversion with QB sneak cheat code and former Patriot Jacoby Brissett. The Dolphins were able to take three knees for the win after the two-minute warning. The Patriots averaged 46.1 yards per drive on eight possessions, but it is hard to score more than 16 points when you fumble away a quarter of your drives.
This is just the latest loss for the Patriots as they look downright mediocre in the post-Tom Brady era. However, last year it was Cam Newton doing what he usually does in close games and coming up short (at Seattle) or coughing up the ball (Buffalo). This was not a failure on Jones’ debut, and the way it played out is so amusing because this is exactly the kind of thing Brady never had to deal with in two decades. Just consider the facts:
Mac Jones lost in his NFL debut with a 102.6 passer rating (29-of-39 for 281 yards, 1 TD, 0 INT).
It took Brady 79 starts and 18 losses to lose a game with a passer rating higher than 83.3. He was in his sixth season then.
Jones watched his teammate fumble on a first down in the red zone in a 17-16 game with 3:31 left.
(Excluding any lateral-filled plays on the final snap) In Brady’s whole career, he has watched one offensive teammate fumble in the fourth quarter while trailing by 1-3 points, and that was Julian Edelman in 2016 when the Patriots trailed Seattle 25-24. There was 8:29 left and Brady got the ball back in a 31-24 game with 4:24 left. He was stopped on fourth-and-goal at the 1. He never had to deal with an ending like this in 345 career starts.
What made the Patriots so successful for so long is the way they wouldn’t compound mistakes. Even if someone fumbled, you could count on the defense with four clock stoppages to get Brady the ball back. He is the king of second (and third) chances. But after years of draining away talent, the Patriots are just another team these days, and these teams compound mistakes, hence the failed defensive stop after the turnover.
The irony of Brissett converting a third-and-1 wasn’t lost on me here. You might say “that’s going to be nearly impossible for any team to stop.” True, but guess who got those stops at a higher rate than usual in crunch time? Brady’s defenses. From 2001 to 2020, the non-New England NFL defenses allowed conversions on 54.3% of runs on third or fourth down with 1 yard to go while leading by one score in the final three minutes (100-for-184). But against Brady’s defense, these teams were 1-for-6 (16.7%).
Why should those five stops matter? Well, look at the foundation they set for his career. If the defense doesn’t stop San Diego’s LaDainian Tomlinson on these short-yardage runs in 2001, Brady doesn’t get his first 4QC/GWD and the Patriots are not a first-round bye team that year. If that happens, then the Tuck Rule game against the Raiders in the playoffs never happens that year. You know, that dubious ending that only came after Zack Crockett was stopped on a third-and-1 before the Patriots used their final timeout. In 2002, Brady again had a late game-ending turnover reversed by replay in Chicago, but that only came after his defense stopped Anthony Thomas on back-to-back plays where 1 yard wins the game for the Bears. Instead, they blew a 21-point lead and Brady gets to say he’s never had a non-winning season after finishing 9-7 that year.
The whole foundation for Brady’s clutch legacy is built on those stops giving him extra chances. The ones that other quarterbacks just don’t get as often. You’re not going to tell me my grapes are sour when my research is always fresh and on point. When you combine these facts with all the other facts, like the single loss with a clutch field goal miss (2012 Arizona) in 22 seasons, or the most goal-line stands, or the fact that Atlanta had 1st-and-10 at the New England 22 in Super Bowl 51 and PUNTED, it’s beyond obvious who the Luckiest of All Time (LOAT) is.
Are the Patriots still capable of doing those things with Jones? We’ll see. But just wait until we get to the first blown fourth-quarter lead and the first missed clutch field goal this year with Jones. You know, things that didn’t happen to Brady, the LOAT, until his 66th and 183rd starts, respectively.
Eagles at Falcons: The Total Pitts
Tell me something, Atlanta fans. Would you rather watch your team play well for most of the game and blow it late in heart-breaking fashion, or would you rather they play like ass at home and lose 32-6 to a team that won four games last year? Four-and-a-half if we’re being generous.
The first game of the Arthur Smith era was absolutely the worst season opener in the Matt Ryan era and one of the most disappointing starts in his career. He has lost by bigger margins before and in more important games, but this was only the fourth time he failed to lead the Falcons to at least seven points.
A 32-6 final in a game with zero turnovers and one where the Falcons rushed for 124 yards? Who writes a game script like that? The Falcons are only the 10th team since 1940 to lose by at least 26 points in a game without a turnover. We are used to seeing Atlanta settle for field goals in the red zone, but 3-of-14 on third down and Ryan only throwing for 164 yards are unusual outcomes for the Falcons.
Historically, Ryan has struggled with the Eagles. This is the fourth time in the last five meetings that the Falcons failed to break 15 points. But I was shocked that this was not a one-score game with both teams scoring over 20 points. Neither team had a 30-yard play, but the Falcons didn’t even have a 20-yard one.
Heisman winner Devonta Smith came through with an 18-yard touchdown catch in his NFL debut, finishing with 71 yards to lead all receivers. I thought he would play well, but I had high expectations for Kyle Pitts, the highest drafted tight end in NFL history. He only caught 4-of-8 targets for 31 yards, getting outdone by old man Zach Ertz (34 yards) on the other side.
We’ll see if Jalen Hurts (27-of-35) can maintain a high completion percentage going forward, but the Eagles and rookie coach Nick Sirianni blew away Smith and the Falcons in this one.
Cardinals at Titans: Red Alert?
The Cardinals were my final wild card team, and the Titans were my regression red alert team this year. That had something to do with my pick of Arizona this week, but I had no idea we would see a 38-13 final in Tennessee.
While the defense struggled with Kyler Murray and his receivers (two touchdowns each to DeAndre Hopkins and Christian Kirk), this was Chandler Jones’ day. He missed most of 2020 and I knew his return was really the biggest story for this team. Jones has always had an incredible knack for turning his pressures into sacks. He came through with five sacks in this one and forced two fumbles. Just one of the most dominant defensive performances you will see from one player. He destroyed the Titans, who could never get Derrick Henry (58 yards) going on the ground.
After the way the Falcons bombed at home on Sunday, it’s not like “they really miss Arthur Smith” is going to be the story after this one. Maybe they do, but time will tell if this is the year that Ryan Tannehill turns back into a pumpkin and Henry breaks down, or if the Cardinals are just the real deal, improving in front of our eyes, and Jones was simply too dominant for them on Sunday.
Jaguars at Texans: Tyrod’s Day
I should have known better than to trust a team that has lost 15 games in a row (now 16) and hired a nepotism-loving control freak as its head coach. This was probably my biggest miss of Week 1 as I saw Urban Meyer leaning on his college roots and getting a decisive win against a poor Houston team without many talented players left and Tyrod Taylor at quarterback. I thought they would run the ball at will, get James Robinson his touches now that Travis Etienne is on IR, and Trevor Lawrence would run in a score in his NFL debut.
Well, little did I expect Tyrod to be the best quarterback in the division on Sunday. Taylor passed for 291 yards, and the only reason it wasn’t his first 300-yard passing game in regulation in the NFL is because Houston was ahead too much. Lawrence had minus-2 rushing yards and threw for 332 yards and three touchdowns, but also three interceptions in a mixed bag game. When Carlos Hyde got the first three carries over Robinson, I knew I was fucked.
I’m sure we won’t get to October before this Week 1 success for Houston is chalked up to “it was just Urban’s Jags,” but that’s okay. This was one of the only games I could see either team winning all season. I know better now than to trust the Jaguars to do anything good.
“We have my first stat second-guessing of the season in Detroit where the 49ers are up to 8.5 as they try to spoil the Dan Campbell debut. I really want to stay away from that game after seeing that road favorites of 8.5+ in Week 1 are 0-6 ATS since 2001. Jared Goff is very familiar with them and while he is only 3-5 against the 49ers, only one of those games was a loss by more than eight points.”
Make that 0-7 ATS now as the Lions got a cover in a game they were getting blown out 38-10. It was 41-17 with 5:45 left when Jared Goff got the ball back. Surely he can’t go 8+8+8 for one of the greatest comebacks in NFL history, right? But after a pair of touchdowns and two-point conversions with a key onside kick recovery in between, it was 41-33 with 1:07 left and Detroit still had all three timeouts left. Overtime was doable.
It looked like Jimmy Garoppolo was putting an end to things with a third-and-13 conversion to Deebo Samuel, but the receiver nearly spoiled his monster game (189 yards) with an inexplicable fumble. Goff had his chance to tie it but came up 24 yards short after pressure got to him on fourth down.
It was not a pretty debut for Goff, but he got what may go down as the improbable cover of the season against a San Francisco team that figures to be tough this year. There had to be some kneecaps chewed off in the process of this one.
Jets at Panthers: Sam Darnold Revenge Game
Something feels very right about the Sam Darnold Revenge Game ending in a 19-14 final. But at least it was a win, and he threw a nice 57-yard touchdown to Robby Anderson, who also played for the Jets.
Jets rookie quarterback Zach Wilson threw touchdowns but suffered six sacks in his debut. These are the last 10 quarterbacks to take at least six sacks in their first career start: DeShone Kizer (2017), Paxton Lynch (2016), Tyrod Taylor (2015), Greg McElroy (2012), Chad Henne (2009), Dan Orlovsky (2008), Patrick Ramsey (2002), David Carr (2002), Tim Couch (1999), and Bobby Hoying (1997).
Worried yet? Let’s relax, but that is not a promising list. Taylor is the best of the bunch and that is a fluke entry. He was the main quarterback in the 2015 opener for Buffalo, but Matt Cassel technically got the quarterback start since they lined up weird on the first play before Taylor took over and threw all 19 of the team’s passes without taking a sack against the Colts.
Chargers at Washington: The Third Down Game
As Justin Herbert tries not to live his best Philip Rivers life, the main thing the Chargers needed to do in Brandon Staley’s head coaching debut was avoid blowing a fourth-quarter lead. Stop being the same old Chargers, especially to a Washington team that lost Ryan Fitzpatrick to a hip injury and went with Taylor Heinicke.
Despite dominating the game, the Chargers were terrible in the red zone and trailed 16-13 in the fourth quarter. But after taking advantage of an Antonio Gibson fumble following his interception, Herbert delivered a touchdown pass on third down to take a 20-16 lead. The defense held, though it was really a clipping penalty that did Washington in on the ensuing drive.
With 6:43 left, Herbert took over and converted four more third downs to run out the rest of the clock, a very impressive finish to the game. The Chargers were 14-of-19 on third down, and that includes a kneeldown in the red zone on the final snap of the game. The Chargers are only the ninth team since 1991 to convert at least 14 third downs in a game and the first to do it since the 2011 Ravens in Pittsburgh.
Vikings at Bengals: Please, No Tie
It was a pretty good Sunday for the second-year quarterbacks. Joe Burrow still took five sacks behind his offensive line, but he had efficient passing stats, and rookie wideout Ja’Marr Chase can silence the critics a bit after going for 101 yards and a touchdown in his debut.
But the Bengals nearly mismanaged this one away after letting the Vikings take it to overtime after trailing 24-14 in the fourth quarter. Kirk Cousins has never been reliable with comebacks, but he had the right effort here and a clutch 53-yard field goal by Greg Joseph put us in overtime. On a Sunday with some big fumbles, Dalvin Cook had one of the biggest in overtime after the Vikings moved the ball to the Cincinnati 38 at the two-minute warning.
At this point, I was convinced we were heading for a 24-24 tie. Six of the last 10 ties in the NFL have involved either the Bengals, the Vikings, or Cousins. Hell, Cousins had a tie with the 2016 Bengals when he was with Washington. Burrow played in the NFL’s only tie in 2020 against the Eagles. It just seemed like destiny again.
Fortunately, Burrow converted a fourth down with a 32-yard play that set up the game-winning field goal for one of Week 1’s nicer upset stories. Cousins was not the problem this time, but it was interesting to see Chase outproduce Justin Jefferson and specially to see Joe Mixon outrush Cook 127-61. The only turnover in the game was a killer.
Broncos at Giants: Ted the Spread
I didn’t see a ton of this game, but when I did, Teddy Bridgewater looked pretty damn good in his Denver debut. I saw KJ Hamler drop a deep ball and it’s unfortunate that Jerry Jeudy left injured. This team could be a darkhorse for the wild card now that Von Miller is back on defense and the quarterback play is better. Bridgewater throwing downfield and Vic Fangio let his offense go 3-for-3 on fourth down? Very interesting.
Obviously, you want to see this team do it against someone better than the Giants, who continue to be a major disappointment. Only a meaningless Daniel Jones touchdown run on the final play of the game got Jason Garrett’s offense out of single digits in a 27-13 loss. However, it was not enough to cover the 3-point spread as Bridgewater covered again.
I’ve never been a fan of “Teddy H20” as a nickname, but I might be able to warm up to Ted the Spread.
Bears at Rams: Stafford’s Night
Did we really need Bears-Rams in prime time for the fourth season in a row? I would still like to bring criminal conspiracy charges to the people responsible for putting so many Chicago games in prime time. This year was supposed to be different after the team drafted Justin Fields, and while we saw him score a touchdown on his first carry, we still had to watch Andy Dalton throw 38 passes.
Then again, the Bears still scored more touchdowns (two) than the Packers, Bills, and Falcons combined on Sunday. Dalton settled down after an atrocious first quarter, but you can just tell that the ceiling for this offense is somewhere below his ridiculous mustache. It’s so limited. With Fields, those David Montgomery runs that worked so well could be even more plentiful, not to mention the extra mobility, arm strength, and play-making ability that Fields brings.
But enough about the silly Matt Nagy decision to start Dalton. This was about Matthew Stafford’s first game with the Rams after a dozen years in Detroit. He did not disappoint with 321 yards and three touchdowns, producing a career-high 156.1 passer rating. Yes, he never broke a 150 rating in 168 games with Detroit, but he did it in one game with Sean McVay’s offense. Very interesting. Stafford connected on two 50-yard touchdown passes, something that apparently John Stofa (1968 Bengals) was the last quarterback to do in his debut with a new team.
We could get into some amusing things like the fact that the Rams led 20-7 in the third quarter with Stafford having incredible stats and the play-action game working despite the running backs having 5 carries for 6 yards. Through three quarters, Darrell Henderson had 7 carries for 12 yards before finishing with 70 yards. How does that fit into the “he doesn’t have a running game!” discussion?
But I think it’s best to let this one glaze over, see how he does in his first road game in Indy, then get amped up for that huge showdown with Tampa Bay in Week 3. A game against the Bears is not going to convince me of much. Not when I thought I was already watching a Lions-Bears game that someone stuck in prime time to end the first Sunday of this 2021 season.
Finally, the top five in my top 100 NFL quarterbacks of the 21st century. Something that started as a thought exercise last Tuesday has turned into an eight-part trip down memory lane totaling over 43,000 words. If you missed the beginning of the series, there is a recap with links below, and here is where the list stands from No. 100 to No. 6:
Including the playoffs, there are 100 NFL quarterbacks who have started at least 30 games in the last 20 seasons (2001-20). In part I, I began to rank these quarterbacks from No. 100 to No. 87, looking at the worst of the bunch. In part II, I looked at some more serviceable players who may have had one special season in their career. In part III, the players included more multi-year starters who still may have only had that one peak year as well as some younger players still developing. In part IV, I had an especially difficult time with slotting quarterbacks I have criticized for years, but who definitely had a peak year. In part V, we got into some MVP winners and a few quarterbacks I have struggled to root for over the years. In part VI, we had a few Hall of Famers and some players who may have gotten there had it not been for injuries. In part VII, I unveiled the first half of the top 10, including a detailed story on witnessing Ben Roethlisberger’s whole career unfold as a local.
I do not know if Green Bay fans are still mad at me, but they might be after reading this. On the other hand, maybe the last decade has worn them down to say, “he was onto something after all.”
Ten years ago, Aaron Rodgers was on top of the NFL world having just won Super Bowl MVP honors and leading the Packers back to championship glory in his third season as a starter. I was just a newbie writer covering my first NFL season as a freelancer, and I was known as “the comebacks guy” for my work on fourth-quarter comebacks and game-winning drives, the latter stat being officially adopted into record by the NFL after my work went viral.
One of the first times I ever did a 6,000-word opus was a piece called Aaron Rodgers: Front-runner Extraordinaire for Cold Hard Football Facts. The link no longer works, but basically I defined what a front-runner is, if it’s a bad thing or not, and how Rodgers and the Packers have an incredibly low number of comebacks and game-winning drives despite their overall success under head coach Mike McCarthy. At the time, Rodgers was 3-16 at 4QC opportunities with one of the wins against the 0-16 Lions in 2008.
I mentioned the long list of crucial interceptions the defense made off Michael Vick, Matt Ryan, Caleb Hanie, and Ben Roethlisberger in that 2010 Super Bowl run, and concluded with “Is it a repeatable strategy? Probably not, as that was a heavy reliance on key interceptions. But if they can figure it out and get more team performances like the Atlanta game, then this could be the league’s next dynasty.”
Well, the defense never returned to 2010’s level, and not only did they fail to become a dynasty, but we have gone 10 seasons and the Packers have yet to return to the Super Bowl with Rodgers. They are 0-4 in the NFC Championship Game. He has still never had more than three game-winning drives in any season (including playoffs), something that has been done 92 times by other quarterbacks since 2008.
Right after I wrote that article, the 2011 Packers started 13-0 without trailing once in the fourth quarter. Combined with their similar six-game winning streak to end 2010, that marked 19 straight wins without trailing in the fourth quarter, an NFL record. The previous record was 13 games by a World War II-era Washington team, so Green Bay smashed it. Greatest front-running team ever just like I said.
When a bad Chiefs team punched the Packers in the mouth that year, they folded and lost for the first time. Then in the playoffs against the Giants, they lost another game that was within one score early in the fourth quarter before New York won in shocking fashion, 37-20.
The whole time my thought process was that we need to slow down before proclaiming Rodgers as the next GOAT when I was able to pick up on this pattern throughout his first three seasons as a starter that showed up again in spades in 2011, his first MVP season. I knew from my research and general study of quarterback play that he could never reach GOAT status if he continues to practically never win any close games. When is front-running a bad thing? When it’s the only thing you do. I tried to tell Green Bay fans that if this continues, it is going to cost your team wins, division titles, higher playoff seeds, and ultimately Super Bowls.
I’d say I rest my case with the last decade as proof, but there’s so much more here to unpack. In 2012, the Packers again blew three close games early in the season to the 49ers, Seahawks (Fail Mary), and Colts (Andrew Luck’s coming out party). I continued to write about this close game subject at all the sites I was working with at the time, including Bleacher Report when I shared that Rodgers was 0-18 at 4QC opportunities against teams better than .500. The line “To reach the goal of another Super Bowl, the 2013 Packers will be looking for the balance the team had in 2010 between the offense and defense” could literally be reused every year for the last decade for Green Bay.
In 2013, Rodgers had a rough outing in Cincinnati in Week 3 and Green Bay blew a lead in a 34-30 loss. He came up short again on the final drive. I immediately wrote about “Aaron Rodgers’ Hidden Weakness” for a piece on ESPN Insider. “Rodgers is 9-26 (.257) when he has to score the winning points in the fourth quarter or overtime, but 49-5 (.907) in all other games, meaning the Packers are often on the winning end of blowouts. That .650 difference in winning percentage is the largest I have found in a sample of 67 quarterbacks.” I concluded by saying that for Rodgers to earn the status as the best quarterback in the league, he has to deliver more in these moments.
Shortly after, I was made aware that ESPN’s First Take did a segment about my Rodgers article. There has probably been nothing more surreal in my career than watching Stephen A. Smith and Skip Bayless holding a printout of my article in their hands as they screamed at each other about it on TV.
For better or worse, I got this comeback talk into the mainstream media. Rodgers broke his collarbone that season and missed seven starts. The team mostly flopped without him, but it sure was interesting when backup Matt Flynn led a comeback tie against Minnesota after trailing by 16 points and a 23-point comeback win over the Cowboys. These were the kind of games Green Bay never had with Rodgers at quarterback. So that started creeping into my stats, because Flynn also had a 9-point comeback against the 2011 Lions when he threw for 480 yards and six touchdowns in Week 17.
Soon you started seeing me put out stats with tables like this one:
Eventually, Rodgers snapped that 0-for streak with a Hail Mary win in Detroit in 2015. But it was during that 2015 season that things changed drastically in Green Bay. Rodgers won his second MVP in 2014’s “Relax” run. A deserving choice, though I think Tony Romo at least had a case. In 2015, he lost Jordy Nelson to a torn ACL, but the Packers were still 6-0 and his numbers were what you expect and in line with his peak of 2009-2014. However, the team then went on a bye week and came back and played Denver’s outstanding defense on Sunday Night Football. Rodgers looked lost and threw for 77 yards in a 29-10 loss. Without that Hail Mary in Detroit, which followed a bullshit facemask penalty on the Lions, the Packers would have lost five out of six following a 6-0 start.
What the hell kind of Palm Springs cave did Rodgers stumble into during that bye week that sapped him of his powers?
It was all pretty peculiar as Rodgers continued to rely on Hail Mary passes late that year just to keep the team competitive. He hit one in the playoffs in Arizona to force overtime, though I think the play on 4th-and-20 that preceded it was far more impressive. The Packers never touched the ball in overtime, losing on the final play for the third postseason in a row.
In 2016, the Packers started 4-6 with Rodgers continuing to underwhelm from what we’re used to seeing from him. There were also some uncharacteristic losses that weren’t even close games. My other advice for Green Bay fans about the front-running critique was to treat it as a positive since it shows that your team is in almost every game with Rodgers. No one blows him out. From 2008 to 2012, the Packers had a nice 69-game streak of being at least within one score in the fourth quarter. The 2012 Giants ended that one with a 38-10 blowout. The only longer streak in NFL history that I’ve found was 98 games by Seattle in 2011-16.
But now the Packers were not keeping it close, and Rodgers still had no comebacks in 2016. However, he talked about running the table, and that kicked off an eight-game win streak where he was hot and in his MVP form, reaching the NFC Championship Game again after an impressive game-winning drive in Dallas in the divisional round. But the real MVP that season, Matt Ryan, lit up Rodgers’ defense and the Packers lost 44-21. Prior to that game, I unveiled a crazy Rodgers stat that I have since regretted posting because of how Brady fans have used it so recklessly. I’m not repeating it here, but if you’re curious, you can click those links.
In 2017, Rodgers had the Packers off to a solid 4-1 start, but another collarbone injury derailed his season. Again, the team flopped without him, but boy was it amusing to see Brett Hundley lead a 14-point 4QC win against Cleveland. There was no magic this time when Rodgers returned late in the season, and the team missed the playoffs for the first time since his 2008 season.
In the 2018 opener against the Bears, the Packers were down 20-3 to start the fourth quarter. Rodgers’ success rate was 0-for-10 in the first half, and he suffered what looked like a season-ending injury. But something crazy happened. Rodgers returned after being carted off the field, and he led the biggest comeback of his career and the Packers won 24-23. It ended a record of 0-31 when Rodgers trailed by double digits in the fourth quarter.
That was Rodgers’ sixth game-winning drive in his last 16 appearances, the hottest clutch streak of his career. Maybe 2018 was going to be the turning point. In Week 16, Rodgers led a 15-point 4QC against the Jets. He finished the season with 25 touchdowns to two interceptions. If I told you that Rodgers led two 15+ point 4QCs and had that touchdown-to-interception ratio, you would predict a great season, right? Wrong. The Packers finished 6-9-1 with a middling offense as Rodgers was too conservative with taking sacks and making throwaways to keep his picks down that season. In the end, Mike McCarthy was fired as his stale offense was often the scapegoat for Rodgers’ decline.
Whatever the cause, the change from Peak Aaron Rodgers (2009-14) to Not Peak Aaron Rodgers (2015-19) was fascinating to see and unprecedented for a player of this caliber.
That does not have the numbers updated for 2018-19, but they could not have been much better. Even after bringing in Matt LaFleur as the head coach in 2019, the Packers were still middling on offense and Rodgers had his lowest QBR (52.5) yet, which ranked 20th in the league. The difference in going 13-3 was that the defense played better, and the Packers hung on from ahead in a lot of one-score games in the fourth quarter. But the 49ers pushed them around twice and beat them badly, 37-20, in the NFC Championship Game.
Last year, Prime Aaron Rodgers made his unexpected but triumphant return for his third MVP season despite the biggest offensive change being Robert Tonyan taking over for Jimmy Graham at tight end. I detailed that rise here. I feel like it was the weakest of his MVP seasons, and his record for 1-yard touchdown passes (eight) in a season did not impress me. But overall, it was a great season, I can understand why he won the award, and it was good to see him back to playing at that level. I just wish he didn’t implode in Tampa Bay, because that sure seemed to give the Buccaneers confidence that they could win in Green Bay in the title game. Rodgers played much better that second time around, but the uncharacteristic red-zone struggles hurt on a day the Packers needed more touchdowns. But nothing hurt more than the play of corner Kevin King and Aaron Jones’ fumble, the double whammy in the middle of the game that led to a 28-10 deficit.
We could have had two straight Super Bowls with Rodgers vs. Mahomes, but instead we are still hoping to see their first matchup this regular season. The Packers have been swept out of the playoffs seven times since the 2012 season. They just never seem to figure out these teams that get the best of them in the regular season.
Being pushed around by those NFC West and NFC South teams has really taken over as my preferred talking point on the Rodgers-era Packers. He tends to own his division and Dallas and the crummy East, but the 49ers (2012-13, 2019), Seahawks (2014), Cardinals (2015), Falcons (2016), and Buccaneers (2020) are the seven NFC teams that have swept Green Bay since 2012.
There is still a shortage of comebacks in Green Bay, but I can say that Rodgers has at least improved his record and my expectations of him in that department. Through 2014, he was 12-29 (.293) at 4QC/GWD opportunities, which would be one of the worst records in the league. Since 2015, he is 15-17-1 (.470), which would be just behind the career records of Ben Roethlisberger (51-56-1, .477) and Russell Wilson (35-39-1, .473) near the top of the league.
I have often said that Rodgers’ A-game is as good as any quarterback in the history of the NFL. From a pure talent standpoint, he has to be right up there with Mahomes and Steve Young as the best players. His highlight reel could run the longest of anyone on this list, which speaks to his skill and longevity.
But when it comes to having to brush off a bad start or when the game does not go according to plan, I still have a hard time trusting Rodgers as much as I do some other quarterbacks. The lack of comebacks has always bugged me with him, but beyond that, I think the abyss he fell into during 2015-19 eliminates him from the conversation of the greatest to ever play. That kind of thing just does not happen.
When Peyton Manning became an elite quarterback in his second season (1999), he basically stayed that way until his quad injury late in 2014. When Tom Brady finally started producing good numbers (2004) and he then had his statistical down years (2006, 2013, 2019), he didn’t let it linger beyond those seasons. When Drew Brees broke out in 2004, he basically rode that wave all the way through retirement after 2020 with only a couple short-lived slumps. For five whole seasons, Rodgers basically had his six-game hot streak to start 2015 and his eight-game hot streak in 2016. The rest of the time he was hovering around mediocrity, which is unacceptable for someone this talented.
We’ll see just how long Peak Aaron Rodgers 2.0 sticks around too. Was it just a one-year revival, or does he do it again this year, which could very well be his last with Green Bay? Does he go to another team in 2022 and add to his legacy a la Manning and Brady? The book isn’t finished here, but I’ve sure as hell written a good draft for my time in covering the one and only Aaron Rodgers.
4. Drew Brees
That’s right, we have a change at the top of my list. In December 2019, I wrote about how Drew Brees was the Hypothetical GOAT. Already the passing king with records for touchdowns and yards, Brees also dominates the metrics that look at passing accuracy (things like CPOE and plus-minus), so he has a good argument as the most accurate quarterback of all time. But he also could have been the biggest playoff winner with the best playoff stats of his era as well, not to mention hold records for the most comebacks and game-winning drives. That’s the hypothetical part.
“Imagine if Brees was 5-0 in Super Bowls with wins over Peyton (2009), Roethlisberger (2010), and 3-0 against Brady (2011, 2017-18). He’d be considered the GOAT for sure, also having kept Rodgers to zero rings. Remember, it was Rodgers’ run in 2010 that propelled him ahead of Brees during the year where Brees was supposed to join the Manning/Brady tier after 2009’s win.”
How did I get to that? All I did was change five outcomes in his career that had nothing to even do with his play, including a 29-yard field goal being made instead of missed, three defensive stops instead of scores allowed, and a flag for pass interference on the 2018 Rams. It’s really that simple and that thin of a margin between the multiple Super Bowls he played well enough to make and only the one appearance he got.
That was my epiphany moment on Brees’ career as he was having another stellar season in 2019 and Brady was floundering at the end of his run in New England. That led me to rank Brees ahead of Brady on my all-time list for the first time, putting Brees at No. 4 and Brady at No. 5. I’m really going to test people’s patience with reading full articles with this one as they’re going to complain on Twitter that I wrote one sentence about Brady below, but the fact is he’s sprinkled throughout this top five and in great detail below.
But my prediction that Brees will probably jinx me and have his worst postseason proved true. The Saints lost to the Vikings in overtime in the wild card round. Last year, Brees looked noticeably weaker at getting the ball down the field, then he suffered multiple fractured ribs (starting at the hands of Brady’s Tampa Bay defense) and a collapsed lung. He was never quite the same when he came back and he had arguably his worst game in a Saints uniform in the playoffs against Tampa Bay, a 30-20 loss in the divisional round that sent him into retirement.
Brees really did not have my back on this one, so after seeing him tap out at 41 and play a huge role in Brady winning a Super Bowl with Tampa Bay, I feel like I can no longer justify ranking him ahead of Brady. That doesn’t mean I wouldn’t pick a 22-year-old Brees over a 22-year-old Brady to start a fictional team from scratch, but that’s a whole different argument than something like this, which I’ve always based on a mixture of achievement and ability. Hell, the list of quarterbacks I’d take over a 22-year-old Brady would be massive, but again, that’s a different perspective.
I’ll certainly miss Brees in New Orleans. I’ve talked about a quarterback’s A-game multiple times already, and we know that when Brees was playing in the Superdome in prime time, he was absolute money for over a decade. That was him in his element. It’s also not like the Saints spent a ton of draft resources on offense or always had high-priced free agents on that side of the ball. Brees helped so many receivers to ridiculously high catch rates and great receiving metrics with his accuracy. There will almost certainly be more Hall of Fame teammates from the four years that Brees started in San Diego than there will be from his time in New Orleans. I just wish Sean Payton would have cared more about coaching defense and they could have had more success on that side of the ball.
In five seasons with serious Super Bowl aspirations, Brees watched Rex Grossman (2006), Alex Smith (2011), Case Keenum (2017), Jared Goff (2018), and Kirk Cousins (2019) get the most significant win of their careers against his Saints. Otherwise, those quarterbacks were 3-13 as playoff starters. That’s a tough pill to swallow, and that doesn’t even include the “Beastquake” loss to the 7-9 Seahawks in 2010 or his only playoff game with San Diego, an overtime loss to the Jets after Nate Kaeding missed a makeable overtime field goal.
Brees goes down as the king of the lost comeback, or games where he led his team from behind to a lead in the fourth quarter, but the team still lost the game. He did that 19 times, the most in NFL history and more than Brady (nine) and Manning (seven) combined.
With Brees retired, I did want to update these numbers from that 2019 article through 2020. These are their adjusted records in the clutch if every go-ahead FG/XP was successful and every go-ahead drive was held up by the defense. (Note that if a kick would have just tied the game, we’re sticking with that as a loss.)
Revised Career 4QC/GWD Opportunity Records with All Leads Upheld and 100% FGs
Drew Brees: 86-44 (.662) from 57-73 (.438)
Tom Brady: 74-37 (.667) from 63-48 (.568)
Peyton Manning: 70-44 (.614) from 58-56 (.509)
That last head-to-head game won by Tampa now gives Brady the edge in adjusted win rate, but Brees still has by far the largest total of wins and the biggest increase in wins from his actual record (+29).
As for why I still put Brees ahead of Rodgers, it’s because I don’t think Brees had a slump that lasted longer than four games in the 17-year period of 2004-20. He did take longer to shine than Rodgers, who was already good in his first year as a starter, then great in 2009. But once Brees broke out in 2004, I see very few cracks in his game outside of a rough four-game start to 2007 and a few too many multi-pick games in 2010. He definitely didn’t have a 2015-19 run on his resume, and even when the Saints weren’t making the playoffs in those 7-9 seasons, it was because Brees had the worst team support (D/ST) of these top five quarterbacks in his career. Also, yes, he is better with the game on the line than Rodgers and I think he’s performed better in the postseason. The fact that both have only reached one Super Bowl while never meeting in the playoffs is mind blowing to me. It’s not like they were holding each other back. Rodgers still has time to pass Brees for me.
Brees’ place in history figures to be as the best quarterback to never win an MVP, but he deserves better than that. My concern is with the 17-game season, 5,000-yard passing seasons are going to become more common and people are going to overlook just how prolific Brees was in a league with great competition at his position.
3. Tom Brady
Pretty good for a sixth-round pick who only got his start because Drew Bledsoe was injured.
2. Patrick Mahomes
Did you guess it? I may have let it slip a month ago on Twitter.
While I might not be able to bring myself to rank Mahomes second in all of NFL history after 54 starts, I have no doubt that no other quarterback has been this great so soon in their career. It also could be the best 54-game stretch any quarterback has ever had. Definitely the best 53-game streak.
Yes, that 31-9 loss in Super Bowl LV has removed Mahomes’ invincibility. It was the first time he lost a game by more than eight points and the first time he did not lead a touchdown drive. But in reviewing the game, I still have a hard time saying he was bad that night given the pass rush and two potential dropped touchdowns. It was a dreadful game for his standards, but his standards are so ridiculously high. If this game or the Atlanta game in Week 16 is what a “bad” Mahomes game looks like, then I guess his bad games are still decent.
But one thing I am certain of is that Mahomes has no discernible weakness in his game. Your basic rebuttal of “just pressure him like the Raiders and Bucs did last year” is not exposing a weakness. All quarterbacks do worse under pressure vs. not pressured. But guess who the best quarterback under pressure has been? Mahomes.
When I reviewed the 2020 offense, I found just how hard it is to stop Mahomes.
“By the numbers, the Chiefs are more likely to score than be stopped with Mahomes this season. In 160 drives with him including the playoffs, the Chiefs have scored 85 times (56 touchdowns and 29 field goals) and did not score 75 times. Even the 75 non-scoring drives include positive offensive results such as three missed field goals and running out the clock on three opponents, including the Buccaneers in Week 12.
The Chiefs just may be their own worst enemy. They missed out on seven extra touchdowns this season just because of dropped passes (four) or penalties that wiped out scores (three). Mahomes has turned the ball over eight times this season via interceptions (six) or lost fumbles (two), but he is more likely to see a drive end because of a dropped pass that would have extended the drive, which happened 11 times to the Chiefs this year. The skill players have also lost six fumbles and the short-yardage offense has been stopped nine times when trying to move the ball without Mahomes.”
I could spend a lot of time sharing crazy Mahomes stats and facts:
I’m sure there will be more to come soon. We’re already getting to the point where the nitpicking on Mahomes will be things like “he’s never had to play a road playoff game” and “he’s never had a great four-quarter performance in a Super Bowl!” While both are true, if that’s the best thing you can come up with after 54 games….
The only real concern about Mahomes at this point would be his health. He’s narrowly avoided a season-ending injury two years in a row with his dislocated kneecap and that scary situation against Cleveland only costing him about a dozen quarters of action combined. Health is always the No. 1 thing for every quarterback. Look at how many careers I wrote about here that were negatively impacted by injuries. So, let’s hope Mahomes is one of the more durable players at his position.
I guess the other thing I would caution is that he’s been all instant peak. The quarterbacks who peaked so high right out the gate had a difficult time ever finding their way back to that level of play. Think Johnny Unitas after 1959, Dan Marino after 1987, and Kurt Warner after 2001.
For as great as Mahomes has been in the last three years, can he keep that pace up for another eight or 12 years? Can he stay this dominant when Travis Kelce is no longer his tight end or Andy Reid is not the head coach? Remember, Aaron Rodgers was at a ridiculous level for six seasons and six games before he fell off in 2015. But when it comes to keeping up a ridiculous prime for over a decade, someone else is still the gold standard, and that is why Mahomes cannot be ranked No. 1 yet.
1. Peyton Manning
Simply put, Peyton Manning is the most valuable player in NFL history. Just in the 10 seasons he was active from 2003 to 2013, he won five MVP awards (most ever) and was named first-team All-Pro seven times (most ever). That is an insane run that we may never see again. Even Mahomes is only 1-for-3 in winning those honors so far.
Honestly, he should have won eight of each, but fatigued voters still loved their running backs (2005, 2006, 2012) instead of true value, and someone so clueless picked Marc Bulger to rob Manning of the All-Pro nod in 2006, still his best season ever in my eyes. I do not say that because it was his only Super Bowl win in Indy. His drive engineering was never better than in 2006, his third-down performance was record breaking (peep the QBR), he was at his physical peak in throwing downfield and moving in the pocket better after that 2005 Pittsburgh loss made him improve that area of his game. He had bigger statistical years (2004, 2013), and he carried weaker teams in 2008-09, but 2006 was the all-around greatest Peyton Manning season. It’s also the last time since 1999 Kurt Warner that the best quarterback in the regular season won the Super Bowl that year.
Pick your proprietary metric – QBR, DVOA, DYAR, EPA, WPA, ANY/A – and he’s going to outshine his peers. He led the most efficient offenses on a per-drive basis of any quarterback, and his units often did great on third down and in the red zone. He had the career records for comebacks and game-winning drives, including a record seven comeback wins in that 2009 season as the team started 14-0. Along with Dan Marino, he was the hardest quarterback to pressure and sack because of how quick he released the ball, making him able to succeed with any offensive line. He was one of the most durable quarterbacks of all time before a Gregg Williams defense got to his neck. Only missed one play due to injury from 1998 to 2010. He got to his final of 539 touchdown passes in fewer games and pass attempts than Brees and Brady did. He broke the touchdown record twice with 49 and 55 touchdown passes. Breaking a significant record like that twice is unheard of and unlikely to ever happen again.
Like having a coach on the field, you will never see another quarterback go to four Super Bowls with four different head coaches and two different teams, becoming the first quarterback to win one with two teams. His Super Bowl teams were among the most imbalanced winners ever as one great offense (2006 Colts) and one great defense (2015 Broncos). Even his other two appearances were two of the biggest one-man show runs to the big game, which does a lot to explain why those were not wins. He always drew the toughest matchup possible in all four of his Super Bowls too.
Mahomes may be raising the standard for a quarterback avoiding bad games, but Manning rarely had cold streaks. When he threw 11 interceptions in a three-game losing streak for the Colts in 2010, it was headline news in the NFL. He shook it off with a four-game winning streak that led the Colts to the playoffs one last time. In the 17 seasons he started, he made the playoffs and won 10+ games 15 times. The only times he didn’t were the seasons where he had the bottom ranked scoring defense in the league and schedules loaded with playoff teams.
He was awful for his first six games as a rookie, but once he settled down and figured out how to play in the NFL, he basically rode that wave until late in 2014 when his body started to fail him. A quad injury exacerbated by the four neck surgeries as he had to adjust his mechanics to account for the lost arm strength. Manning was never physically the same quarterback in Denver as he was in Indy, but his anticipation on throws got even better to compensate. The fact that he could throw 55 touchdowns and 5,477 yard (both records) in 2013 with such limited arm strength is amazing.
In watching the state of defense continue to decline in the NFL since Manning retired, you only wonder what kind of numbers he would put up if he was getting his start now. While the position is moving to athletic playmakers who can run and pass, Manning’s intelligence, preparation, accuracy, and ability to get rid of the ball would make him a great success in any era. He is his own offensive system.
The Lousy Arguments vs. Manning
What I loved about Manning is that he disproved every garbage argument thrown his way in his career.
“He’s only good cause he has Edgerrin James at running back and defenses bite on the play-action and stretch plays.”
Edge left in 2006 and Manning immediately won a Super Bowl. Indy’s running game disappeared in 2007 and he continued to thrive and win MVP awards.
“He’s only good cause he has Tarik Glenn at left tackle.”
Glenn retired after 2006, the Colts put a turnstile named Tony Ugoh in his place, and the 12-win seasons and MVP awards kept coming. Manning could make any offensive line combination work out.
“He’s only good cause he has Marvin Harrison.”
Harrison was also one of the worst playoff receivers in NFL history as I’ve documented before. As soon as he left, Manning won his fourth MVP in 2009, but people love to ignore 88’s contributions to the down years in the playoffs.
If the best wide receiver in NFL history isn’t Jerry Rice, then it’s the guy who was Manning’s No. 1 wide receiver. That’s part Marvin, part Reggie Wayne, and part Demaryius Thomas in Denver. Put those numbers together and they are outstanding, because that’s what a consistently accurate elite passer can do for his receivers. Manning got many guys paid after big seasons, including the likes of Brandon Stokley, Jacob Tamme, Pierre Garcon, Austin Collie, Eric Decker, Emmanuel Sanders, Julius Thomas, etc.
This also speaks to the weak “he threw to first-round picks” argument, especially since that argument is most beloved by people who worship a sixth-round pick at quarterback and advocate for Julian Edelman to make the Hall of Fame.
The truth is Harrison (1.19), Wayne (1.30), Dallas Clark (1.30), Anthony Gonzalez (1.32), and Demaryius Thomas (1.22) were all chosen 19th or later in the first round, making them more of a crapshoot to succeed. It is a fact that players in the lower portion of the first round have inferior careers, on average, to players at the top of the draft. The only thing keeping those averages closer is Manning’s contributions to helping those players have several of the best careers for players drafted in the bottom half of the first round. But he never played with a surefire receiver like Julio Jones, Calvin Johnson, Larry Fitzgerald, or A.J. Green. He played with a lot of shorter, possession receivers who ran great routes, but did not do much after the catch. The ball was expected to be on time, and it often was as Manning was never a “just throw it up and hope something good happens” passer. His offense was built on precision, timing, and exploiting matchups pre-snap.
“His stats are inflated by the dome.”
Ah, the dome quarterback. This one always pisses me off because it shows no understanding of the game. For one, only a few quarterbacks (Manning, Brees, Ryan, Stafford, maybe Warren Moon back in the day) ever get this label because there aren’t that many domes in the NFL. Also, you must actually be good to get this criticism. No one has ever said “Joey Harrington would suck in Detroit if he wasn’t a dome QB.” No, Joey Harrington would suck on every playing surface known to man because he was a shit quarterback. I could say the same about Sam Bradford, who played for the Rams, Vikings, and Cardinals.
When someone like Brady or Rodgers has great stats in games played indoors, it’s because that’s a small sample of games against a fixed, limited set of opponents who often have bad defenses (Saints, Lions, Vikings, Falcons, etc.). But for someone like Manning or Brees, they played at least half their seasons indoors for extended periods of their careers. They faced all different types of defenses in home games doing that, including elite ones. So, if you’re going to compare indoor stats, compare apples to apples and compare only indoor road games for the quarterbacks who have an indoor home stadium.
Plus, Manning proved it quite well in Denver that he didn’t need an indoor stadium to dominate. He also was one of the best cold weather quarterbacks, but people who act like the only games that matter are two snowy playoff games in New England missed that fact.
With Manning and Brees retired, Ryan aging, and Stafford moving to LA, it will be interesting to see where the future of dome passing stats go. Especially in an AFC that has totally retooled the quarterback position with guys in outdoor stadiums (Mahomes, Allen, Lamar, Baker, Burrow, Tua, Herbert, Lawrence, Z.Wilson, Mac Jones, etc.). Things may not look so hot if Jameis Winston, Jared Goff, Kirk Cousins, Derek Carr, and Carson Wentz are our new indoor passers.
“Best regular-season QB ever, but he was a playoff choker!”
While he absolutely disproved this on the field, to this day too many people still believe it. I have written about the topic extensively on this blog, on ESPN Insider, and in two parts on FO where I think I really solved it. Manning’s teams blew a record six fourth-quarter leads in the playoffs, and most of them came in the first game of a playoff run, which explains why he had the record for nine one-and-done postseasons. No other quarterback has seen his team blow that many playoff leads. Then when you do it right in the first game, there’s no next week after that. When Manning’s teams got past the first game of the playoffs, they were very good. Ask Rodgers and Brees how hard it is to get to more than one Super Bowl.
But Manning was one of the best playoff performers in NFL history. How else do you explain his first three AFC Championship Game wins that were some of the best games of his career? The way he dominated the Broncos in back-to-back years, beating the Chiefs in Kansas City in a game without any punts.
Yet when he threw the interception to Tracy Porter in Super Bowl 44, people treated it as him doing what he always does in the playoffs. What pattern is that when it’s literally the first time in his playoff career that he turned the ball over in a 4QC/GWD opportunity? Are people pretending that throwing picks when you’re down 34-0, 41-0, and 20-3 in the final minute of the fourth quarter are what lost those games to the 2002 Jets and 2004 Patriots? Manning was 6-6 when he threw zero interceptions in a playoff game, still the most losses in playoff history doing that.
From 1998-2010, Manning’s Colts were 1-5 (.167) in the playoffs when they had zero turnovers. The rest of the NFL was 43-4 (.915). Chew on that one for a minute.
If these articles won’t work, I guess a documentary is the next step for me, but unfortunately, we live in an era where people can be shown video evidence and facts and still not change their beliefs. They see what they want to see. Worse, Manning’s career took place during Tom Brady’s career, and there is no quarterback who gets his worshippers more riled up to defend his honor than the King of Kings himself.
I’ve Been Coming at the King for Two Decades
That’s right, Brady fans. If you think I was only going to leave him at one sentence above, then you clearly don’t know any better. I’m going to go over the whole origin story of why I think he’s the most overrated player ever.
They say first impressions are everything.
I caught my first Tom Brady game on January 19, 2002. All I knew about him was that he was a sixth-round pick who took over after Drew Bledsoe was injured early in the season. I heard he was supposed to be decent, but the Patriots had a bunch of players I never heard of while I saw the likes of Jerry Rice, Tim Brown, and Charles Woodson on the Raiders. I wasn’t into rooting for either team, but it was a big playoff game and the snow looked cool on our new 27-inch TV.
Late in the game, it looked like the Raiders had wrapped it up, 13-10 with a strip-sack fumble recovery. But there was a review, and from there I learned all about things like Walt Coleman’s pro-Patriots past and this new rule called the Tuck Rule. It no longer exists because it never made any sense, it has been applied liberally and inconsistently, and to this day, that looks like a fumble to me. Game over. But the Patriots kept the ball, Brady completed only one more pass, and Adam Vinatieri was tasked with a super difficult field goal to tie the game. He hit it from 45 yards away and it is still the greatest kick in NFL history if you ask me.
The Patriots won the overtime coin toss, they dinked and dunked down the field, and Vinatieri hit a game-winning field goal, another weak element of the game that had to go years later. I read a recap online after the game that the Patriots got really lucky, which I thought was obvious. Then I saw this snotty quote from Brady about the play that saved his bacon. “You know, he hit me. I wasn’t sure. Yeah, I was throwing the ball. How do you like that? Damn right. Damn right.”
How do I like that? This low-rent Matt Damon looking mug couldn’t even admit he got away with one. I was looking forward to seeing the Steelers face this team since I thought the Raiders would have been a tougher out in the AFC Championship Game.
Of course, Kordell Stewart pulled his usual big-game display with three picks. The special teams got absolutely hosed on a missed penalty that should have negated a touchdown return. And Brady? He dinked and dunked, then he left the game injured in the second quarter and they hung on with Drew Bledsoe finishing the game. Brady led his offense to 29 points in the entire postseason. He started in the Super Bowl against the Rams, a team I was fond of at the time for their high-flying offense. It was supposed to be a rout, which the Super Bowl usually was in those days, but it turned out to be a huge upset. However, if you watch that game now, it’s pretty boring. The Patriots would back the Rams up, they’d get a few first downs, then either stall or turn the ball over and set the Patriots up on short fields.
Brady didn’t even break 70 air yards in that game, and he never converted a third down. He led his offense to 13 points, but that was good enough for the win as Ty Law, who should have been named MVP, had a pick-six. The Rams tied it up, John Madden gave horrible advice on sitting on the ball that teams did not follow even back then, and then I watched Brady throw three dump passes, get away with intentional grounding, make one nice pass to Troy Brown, and before you know it there’s Vinatieri kicking a 48-yard field goal that somehow took seven seconds off the clock to end the game.
Aside from the U2 halftime show, that was not a fun night. It was hard to tell a difference between what Brady did that postseason and what Trent Dilfer did with Baltimore the year before.
The Patriots missed the playoffs in 2002 and started 0-1 in 2003 after letting Lawyer Milloy go before the season. Brady threw four picks in that opener, a 31-0 loss to Buffalo. I used to watch ESPN in the afternoon at the time and they would have talking heads like Sean Salisbury ask if the players hate Bill Belichick as their coach. But soon enough, this team embarked on a record 21-game winning streak that looked like the luckiest damn thing I’d ever seen in football.
They won a game 19-13 in overtime in Miami after Olindo Mare missed two 35-yard field goals in crunch time. At least one was blocked, but he flat out missed the game-winner in overtime. That was Game No. 3 and it proved to be the difference in making a record.
In Game No. 5 in Denver, they took an intentional safety while trailing 24-23 late in the game as Belichick did not want to punt from his own 1. That felt ballsy. Denver gave the ball back in record time, and Brady only had to go 58 yards for the game-winning touchdown. You rarely see the intentional safety work out that well.
Game No. 8 in Indianapolis was the real ball buster and the true beginning of the Manning-Brady, Colts-Patriots rivalry. New England led 31-10 in the third quarter, but Manning turned a couple of Brady picks into touchdowns and quickly tied the game up at 31 in the fourth. Just when you expect a good finish, Bethel Johnson has a 67-yard kick return to give Brady great field position for another touchdown. Johnson also had a 92-yard kick return touchdown to end the first half, which you almost never see in this league.
The Colts were down 38-34 late with the ball. They got a first-and-goal at the 2-yard line. Edgerrin James ended up getting stuffed three times, including a loss on fourth down. Linebacker Willie McGinest, who ran off the field “injured” on the drive, returned to make that tackle before high-stepping in celebration. There was my introduction to faking an injury in the NFL.
In Game No. 13, the Patriots hosted the Titans in the AFC divisional round. Now I hated the Titans as an old division rival of the Steelers, but I kinda felt myself rooting for them in this one because of how annoying the narrative was on this Patriots team. ESPN was already moving onto the “Brady just wins” crap that would only get worse. Keep in mind this was a season where the Patriots had the No. 1 defense, ranked 16th in points per drive on offense, and Brady was on the fringes of the top 10 in passer rating and YPA behind the legendary Jon Kitna. I mean, I hated Jeff Fisher and his team, but I was fine with seeing them win this one.
It was a freezing cold night, but the offenses started hot before tanking. It was 14-14 in the fourth quarter when Vinatieri once again enhanced his legacy and connected on a 46-yard field goal. Steve McNair had so much time to answer, but pressure did him in, resulting in penalties for grounding and holding. He had to go for it on a 4th-and-12. He threw a pass to Drew Bennett, but Bennett dropped it down the field and the game was over. The Patriots had another playoff win by three points.
January 18, 2004 – This was the day that changed the course of NFL history, how quarterbacks are judged in the mainstream media, and it had a huge impact on me as well.
Peyton Manning was co-MVP with McNair that year, but after winning his first two playoff games in dominant fashion, he was ready to go into New England with a Super Bowl on the line. I was really excited for this one.
I actually watched several Brady games before I watched a full Manning game in the NFL. Sounds shocking, but that’s the truth. I knew his name for years and that his dad played for the Saints in the paper bag over the head days. I knew he was a highly touted player and “the next Dan Marino” and all that. I knew from playing Madden that he was a pain in the ass with the audibles, and in one of my franchise modes, he actually suffered a career-ending injury, the only time I remember seeing one that notable in my game.
But outside of some highlights, I never really saw him play a whole game. That changed in October 2002 when the Steelers hosted the Colts on MNF. Expecting to see something great, the game was a rout. The Steelers were up 21-0 in the second quarter while Manning had a few passes knocked away and Mike Vanderjagt missed a field goal. Manning ended up throwing three interceptions and the Colts lost 28-10 in a forgettable game.
But I knew new coach Tony Dungy was a Pittsburgh guy and someone my family wanted to root for. A year later, the Steelers were off to a lousy start and disinteresting me in the season. I watched Manning throw six touchdowns in New Orleans on SNF in a 55-21 win. I hadn’t seen anything like it since Steve Young threw six touchdowns in the Super Bowl against the Chargers, which is my earliest Super Bowl memory. As it turns out, Manning’s six touchdown night in New Orleans was the first one in the NFL since that Young Super Bowl win. Young (and Rice) was my favorite non-Pittsburgh player in the 90s.
I was excited to see this 4-0 Colts team take on the Buccaneers in Tampa Bay the next Monday night. I was not happy that Tampa Bay won the Super Bowl the previous year and liked to root against Warren Sapp and company. The pre-game show focused on it being Dungy’s birthday, his return to Tampa, and that he never started 5-0 before. Well, it looked like a bad night with the Bucs up three touchdowns early. Manning threw a pick-six with just over five minutes left and Tampa Bay led 35-14. That’s game over for sure.
I was watching it with my grandma, and we decided to let it finish before calling it a night. I was a senior in high school and usually went to bed late anyway. The Colts got a 90-yard kick return and a short touchdown run on fourth down. No big deal. Then they recovered an onside kick, which I had almost never seen done to that point. It got interesting again after Manning threw a 28-yard touchdown to Harrison on 4th-and-6. The defense got the ball back, and there goes Harrison again for 52 yards. They were really doing this. The Colts scored a touchdown and forced overtime after blocking a 62-yard field goal attempt. Each team touched the ball once. Manning was able to complete three third downs in a row and set up a field goal attempt to win it. The Vanderjagt kick was no good, but a penalty was called on Simeon Rice for leaping. Leaping? What the hell is that? I didn’t even know that was a penalty. Vanderjagt got another chance from 29 and he nearly choked that one away too, but it doinked in for the stunning win.
I went to school the next day and a kid who sat at my lunch table had his Mike Alstott jersey on. He clearly didn’t stay up and watch the end of the game like I did with my grandma. That remains the only game in NFL history where a team down 21 points in the final five minutes won. I was hooked from there. I started following along with the live play-by-play updates on the NFL website during games, running from the living room to the dining room computer to see what the Colts were up to. Seeing every updated Manning to Harrison touchdown was exciting.
CBS cut live to the end of the Colts-Patriots game in Week 13. I was bummed at that ending, but maybe they would meet again. In the playoffs, Manning was about as perfect as any quarterback has ever been through two playoff games. He was 22-of-26 for 377 yards and five touchdowns against Denver. He had another 300-yard game in Kansas City, a 38-31 win where neither team punted. He was on a roll.
Then we get to the 2003 AFC Championship Game in New England. The Patriots had a far better defense than the Colts and it was snowing, so that’s a really bad mixture for a “soft dome team” as the Colts were at the time. The Patriots scored on their opening drive. Manning hit a pass for 32 yards on his first play. But on a third down from the NE 5, Manning got careless and forced a pass into the end zone. Rodney Harrison intercepted it and that ended his perfect postseason run. Manning’s next pass was intercepted by career nemesis Ty Law. The Colts also botched a punt for a safety and Marvin fumbled in the red zone before halftime. The team was a mess and trailed 15-0.
While the Colts eventually got the deficit to 21-14 and had the ball late, Manning’s drive came up empty quickly. The Patriots played the receivers very physically all game long, but it especially looked like they held tight end Marcus Pollard on consecutive plays. Walt “Tuck Rule” Coleman was the referee, there were no flags, and the Patriots took over on downs and added a cheap field goal for a 24-14 final.
The league later admitted that those should have been flags on New England on third and fourth down, and there were several other missed calls in the game as well that favored the Patriots. With similar tactics used by Carolina in Philadelphia that day, the league ended up making a league-wide reinforcement of illegal contact in 2004. That opened up the passing game again as the stats were down in 2003.
As for the game itself, Manning had his worst playoff game ever with four interceptions. Law really got the best of him and even got a pick on a pass Manning was trying to throw away. However, I watched the same game as everyone else and I couldn’t believe how careless Brady was with the ball against a far lesser defense. He tried to match Manning pick for pick, and the only reason the game was still close late is a Brady interception in the red zone. But seriously, just watch this video I made years ago of Brady floating the ball out there to the defense. Even Phil Simms goes on about the Patriots having so much luck and catching breaks that year.
After watching Brady start 5-0 in the playoffs with five pretty damn mediocre games, I was beyond annoyed with the way the media fawned over this team. After he finally had a great game in the Super Bowl against Carolina, it was still one where he threw a red-zone pick, arguably got outplayed by Jake Delhomme, and got a John Kasay kickoff out of bounds to start his game-winning drive at the 40. That hasn’t happened in the last 2:00 of any tied NFL game since.
Then 2004 started on opening night with the Patriots hosting the Colts. Once again, Manning played very well against a far better defense, and it was a tight game late. Down 27-24 after a Brady pick, Manning had his offense with first-and-goal at the 1. Edge got the carry and fumbled with 3:43 left. Are you kidding me? After getting the ball back, Manning hit a 45-yard pass right away. On a third down, McGinest was somehow unblocked and came in for a 12-yard sack. Vanderjagt, one of the biggest choker kickers in NFL history, came out and missed a 48-yard field goal to end the game. Does Vinatieri miss there? I think not.
Two years in a row the Colts finished 12-4 and the Patriots finished 14-2 with the Patriots beating the Colts, then beating them again in snowy New England in January. Yet if Edgerrin James could just score from the 1-yard line in both games, that could be two playoff games in Indy instead. The quarterback with homefield was 5-0 in the Manning-Brady playoff games. And those Edge runs had nothing to do with Manning or Brady, yet they were so critical at that point in the rivalry. Despite Manning winning both MVPs in 2003-04, the Patriots won all four head-to-head meetings and both Super Bowls to lock up dynasty status with three rings in four years.
The talking heads like Salisbury just ate this “Brady just wins” shit up. I knew I could do better analysis than this. Meanwhile, I had started to collect data on quarterbacks in those pre-Pro Football Reference days and kept track of things like points allowed and what they did in one-score games, and nothing was adding up for me. How can the best quarterback in the league be someone with stats barely distinguishable from Matt Hasselbeck, Aaron Brooks, and Marc Bulger?
So, I just continued watching games and collecting game logs and even moved on to downloading torrents of games and going through play-by-play data. Learning what I can about this game as guys like Brees and Roethlisberger started to come into the fold as well. I tracked down Manning’s oldest playoff games and I’m watching his receivers drop 7-8 passes against the Titans and Jets. In his first playoff game against the 1999 Titans, Manning watched Jerome Pathon drop a first down on 3rd-and-10, Harrison drop one on 3rd-and-22, and Edge drop one on 4th-and-4. That’s just one quarter of one game the Colts went on to lose 19-16 after Eddie “3.0 YPC” George ran wild. In 2000 against Miami, I watch Pathon drop a touchdown on another third down, and saw how Vanderjagt sent that game-winning attempt into the parking lot that day. He did the same thing against the Steelers in the 2005 AFC Divisional Round.
At least by that weekend in January 2006, Brady had his first playoff loss after starting 10-0. He threw a brutal pick in the end zone that Champ Bailey returned 100 yards, but it didn’t go for a pick-six because athletic tight end Ben Watson tracked him down and tackled him short. To this day, I kind of feel like that ball went through the end zone and it should have gone to New England on one of the dumbest rules in sports, but god damn, New England had enough breaks already.
You just start thinking about these things. Vinatieri makes a 45-yard field goal in the snow after the Tuck Rule while Vanderjagt can’t make a 45-yard field goal indoors against Pittsburgh after Manning caught a rare break with the Jerome Bettis fumble. Vinatieri makes a 46-yard field goal in 4-degree temperatures against Tennessee while Vanderjagt can’t make a 49-yard field goal in Miami weather that he told his coach he could make. All because of four swings of the leg by these two kickers, one quarterback gets to go 6-0 in the playoffs and the other comes out 0-2 those years.
And guys in suits arguing with each other on TV can’t see this stuff for what it is? They have to talk up one player being a better leader or “more clutch” to justify the outcome on the scoreboard that fell in the lap of another player? Fuck that. We can do better.
Fortunately, in 2005-06, the Colts were 3-0 against the Patriots, twice winning in Foxboro to set up an AFC Championship Game in Indy. We all know how that one started and ended, and while I could tell a great story about it, I’ll save that for another time.
The fact is the Colts got over the New England hump and Manning won a Super Bowl that year. But in that same postseason, I watched Brady throw three picks against San Diego and still win a playoff game. I saw him do it again a year later in the AFC Championship Game too. Hell, we just watched him do it in Green Bay this January but forget about recent times for a second. When Manning lost to the Chargers in back-to-back postseasons (2007-08) and his only turnovers were tipped balls off his own receiver’s hands, I was livid again.
After watching Brady flop in Super Bowl 42, self-destruct at home against the 2009 Ravens, and have a shockingly terrible game against the 2010 Jets one month after 45-3, I had seen enough. Not only was Brady not a great playoff quarterback, but Manning was better. Look at where they were through 19 playoff starts through 2010 before Manning left for Denver. It’s even wilder when you consider how the Colts receivers dropped so many more passes (including some tipped picks) and Manning threw more interceptions in garbage time.
Rather than continue writing about each season, I will just show you a graphic I put together of how their careers overlapped when they were competing against each other. Nothing but facts.
Manning and Brady played the same team in the playoffs five times (2007 Chargers, 2009 Ravens, 2010 Jets, 2012 Ravens, and 2014 Colts). Manning played a better game than Brady every time but the last against the Colts. That’s why 2014 is the only season on this chart where I think Brady comes out looking much more favorable than Manning based on the way they both played.
While the rivalry between the teams was one sided at the beginning, I never believed it was like that between the quarterbacks. By the time he retired, Manning was 3-2 in the playoffs and 3-1 in the AFC Championship Game against Brady. He was eliminated in the playoffs as often by Philip Rivers (with an assist from Billy Volek) as he was by Brady.
Manning was actually more detrimental at limiting Brady’s playoff success than vice versa. The NFL needed this rivalry for competitive balance. In the seasons from 2002 to 2015 where both played, Manning’s teams had five No. 1 seeds compared to four for Brady. It was also tied 7-7 as far as which team had a deeper run with each getting an easy win in the year the quarterback missed for injury. I gave Manning the tie-breaker in 2005 since they both lost in the divisional round, but the top-seeded Colts were eliminated on Sunday and lost a closer game to Pittsburgh than the Pats did to Denver.
Once Manning retired after 2015, Brady has admittedly enhanced his playoff legacy, getting to four more Super Bowls and winning three more, including matching Manning’s feat of winning one with a second franchise. A worthy successor in the AFC failed to step up and challenge the Patriots, because we know the Steelers sure as hell weren’t prepared to do it. Andy Reid’s Chiefs were the best option, and you’d expect that now with Mahomes, but we have seen his only two playoff losses come at the hands of Brady-led teams. Dee Ford a centimeter offsides and not getting the ball in OT was one thing two years ago, but 31-9 is a gut punch. Just wait until you see my 2021 season predictions too.
Conclusion (No, Really)
Manning (seven) has as many first-team All-Pro seasons than Brady (three), Rodgers (three), and Brees (one) combined. Is that because he’s more talented than all of them combined? Of course not. But is it because of his effort and unrivaled consistency that he earned those honors with his individual play? Yes, it was.
Brady (seven) has more Super Bowl rings than Manning (two), Brees (one), and Rodgers (one) combined. Scratch that, he has as many as them since 2014 alone compared to their whole careers (53 seasons). Is that because he’s more talented than all of them combined? No, he’s the least talented of the group. But is it because of his effort and that he’s played that much better than those guys in the regular season and postseason?
No, not at all. It’s because Brady had better team support and is the luckiest quarterback of all time. He’s the LOAT, not the GOAT.
Outside of Brady actually being Faust, it beats me why the football gods have chosen this guy as the one who gets the best coaching, the best defenses, the best starting field position, the best special teams, the most clutch kicking, a poverty division of historic proportions for two decades, and almost any other break he could ask for.
Brees played 20 years and gets one postseason with Tracy Porter saving the day with two picks. Any other year, it was someone making a mockery of his defense. Marcus Williams against Stefon Diggs, anyone? Rodgers has seen the same thing in Green Bay where the defense was only dominant and clutch in the playoffs in that 2010 season. Otherwise, we think of things like Brandon Bostick on the onside kick recovery in Seattle or what Kevin King was doing in January against Tampa Bay. But Rodgers is holding out hope for a second act by his defense in the playoffs. Manning got one in Denver with Von Miller dominating in 2015. Now if only he willed Rahim Moore to pick off Flacco in 2012…
We don’t talk up Alvin Kamara or Aaron Jones for what they do in the playoffs. Instead, they are used against those quarterbacks to say that they have a Pro Bowl back and ignore their weak production or fumbles in the big games. Meanwhile, LeGarrette Blount is the clutch running back or “Playoff Lenny” Fournette is a sensation again in Florida. Hell, Julian Edelman caught as many touchdowns (two) in his playoff debut as Marvin Harrison had in 16 playoff games combined. Even though they’ll argue that Edelman should be in the HOF, “Brady has no weapons” somehow remains a thing even though he’s the only one who played with the most stat-inflating wideout (Randy Moss) and tight end (Rob Gronkowski) of the 21st century. And the most clutch kicker (Adam Vinatieri) ever, and the best coach ever (Bill Belichick). But no help.
Mahomes could play 300 games and Super Bowl LV might be the only one he doesn’t score a touchdown in. Brady: best two-way player ever. Hasn’t given up a touchdown in his last two Super Bowls. Held two all-time great offenses to 12 points.
While we talk about Marcus Williams, Kevin King, Rahim Moore, and trigger PTSD in fans of Brees, Rodgers, and Peyton, with Brady we can bring up Ty Law (twice), Rodney Harrison, Malcolm Butler, and Stephon Gilmore, all of whom should have won a Super Bowl MVP for the Patriots. That’s not including Sterling Moore, who helped make Lee Evans drop a game-winning touchdown in the end zone in the 2011 AFC Championship Game for Baltimore. Brady didn’t get a ring out of that one, but he still got to another Super Bowl after one of his defenders saved him again.
The Brady difference is the things that have nothing to do with the quarterback. The things that are out of his control that still benefit him. The textbook definition of luck. He has that in spades.
It’s been an exhausting two decades, hasn’t it? I only thought about doing this a week ago as a project with some one-liners about 100 quarterbacks, and here I am 86 pages into a 43,000-word document. I took a nice five-month break from football this year, but it is cathartic for me to get this out before the season starts.
I’d compare Brady to Tim Duncan, but the thing is Duncan was actually great in the playoffs. There really is no comparison for Brady. If you bring up Michael Jordan, you’re ignoring how dominant and record-setting he was, and how great he was in those Finals MVP runs. The best Brady may have ever played in a full playoff run was in 2017, a year that did not end in a championship. Go figure.
Manning’s career has a lot in common with that of LeBron James, another generational talent we are fortunate to have experienced. They came into their leagues with so much hype and expectations, and somehow, they lived up to it and even exceeded them. Yet because their record in the final round and their ring count aren’t the greatest ever, they still get criticized for that.
I know that no one else would have been able to take the teams they played with and had more success than they did. That is why they are the best players in their respective sport in the 21st century, or at least, that is how I have viewed the last 20 years. That concludes this trip down memory lane.
If this is somehow still on the internet decades from now, and you’ve managed to read it all, I just want to say thank you, and I’m sorry.
All those moments will be lost in time, like tears in rain.
History doesn’t repeat itself, but it often rhymes.
While we shouldn’t have taken two Week 6 games to heart for Sunday, there were plenty of qualities in both that carried over to the rematch in these title games, won again by the Buccaneers and Chiefs. Their defenses made life extra difficult again for Aaron Rodgers and Josh Allen as the latest quarterbacks to fall short of a Super Bowl win on 500-point teams. That sets up an overhyped Super Bowl that will likely end after Travis Kelce throws an interception to tackle-eligible Mike Remmers or something ridiculous.
Or it could end with crowning the first repeat champion in the NFL since the 2003-04 Patriots. We have two weeks to worry about that, so for now let’s just recap a high scoring, but relatively low drama Championship Sunday in the NFL.
It would have been difficult for the Packers and Bills to crash harder on Sunday than they already did in the regular season against these opponents. However, both lost after scoring over 500 points in the regular season. Neither was able to score more than 26 points, meaning the 2011 Saints (32) and 2018 Chiefs (31) are still the only 500-point teams who scored at least 30 points in their playoff loss. Only five of the 26 teams won a championship.
Buccaneers at Packers: The LOAT vs. Not the GOAT
This may (not) shock you, but I don’t think the greatest quarterback of all time was on the field in Green Bay on Sunday afternoon. I only view Tom Brady as the Luckiest of All Time (LOAT), never the GOAT. I have never seen Aaron Rodgers, the greatest front-runner in NFL history, as the GOAT. I would take Peyton Manning over both of them any day, and I already like what Patrick Mahomes is doing so much that I probably never have to change the initials for my answer to that tired question of who is the best to ever do it.
All Sunday’s game did for me was solidify why I never view these players that way. I saw Rodgers come up short again and miss too many opportunities after rarely faltering the rest of the year. Still, this is probably his best NFC Championship Game performance yet, which says a lot about his career. I saw Brady take advantage of inexplicable mistakes by the opponent before throwing three straight interceptions and trying to give the game away, which his defense of course would not allow. No quarterback has won more playoff games with three interceptions than Brady’s three wins, doing it for the second time in a title game. Brady is also the only quarterback to ever throw three interceptions in a road Conference Championship Game and win. All other quarterbacks were 0-17.
If I wanted to see the pinnacle of the position, apparently I had to wait until 6:40 P.M. At the very least, it wasn’t 38-10 this time.
Part I: The Nice Start
One thing I prefaced this game with was that hyped-up quarterback battles rarely result in games where both play very well. For about a quarter and a half, these two were looking to prove me wrong. Both started hot with some great third-down plays while the running games were rather stagnant outside of Leonard Fournette’s 20-yard touchdown run. He loves the spin button more than the most devoted Madden player.
Rodgers especially seemed to have a moment late in the first quarter with the Packers, down 7-0, facing a 3rd-and-15 at their own 5 after a sack. Rodgers rolled out in his own end zone and fired a pass to Allen Lazard for 23 yards. That led to a game-tying 50-yard touchdown pass that was perfectly dropped in on another third down to Marques Valdes-Scantling (MVS). We had a tied game instead of Tampa Bay getting great field position and going up two scores.
The Buccaneers did score a second touchdown after the Green Bay secondary again misjudged a ball in the air and Chris Godwin came down with the prayer for a 52-yard gain to set up Fournette’s score. Rodgers seemed to be answering right back and got Aaron Jones involved on the ground after the back nearly lost a fumble in the red zone, but it was recovered by an alert Robert Tonyan.
But things were looking fine as the Packers called their first timeout with 5:13 left in the second quarter with the ball at the Tampa Bay 6.
Then the collapse started.
Part II: The Collapse
Green Bay was outstanding in the red zone this year, scoring a touchdown on 80% of attempts to lead the league. I gave Rodgers shit for throwing so many short touchdowns on early downs to pad his stats so he could win MVP this year, but admittedly, they were really effective down here. It’s just that these were not attempts from the 1-yard line on Sunday. These were all from the 6-yard line, and that’s where Rodgers locked in with tunnel vision to Davante Adams on three straight incompletions.
On the first one, Rodgers absolutely put the ball on a spot that Adams could catch it on a back-shoulder play. Not the most egregious drop you’ll ever see, and not the kind of play any receiver can make, but it is the kind of timing play that Rodgers and Adams have been hitting this year because of how high of a level they’ve been playing. Just not this time.
On second down, Rodgers forced another one that was batted at the line. On third down, he again went to Adams in the back of the end zone, but Adams ran out of room and couldn’t even establish one foot in bounds. Meanwhile, replay clearly showed Lazard beat his man, who fell down, at the line and was wide open on a slant in the front of the end zone.
Again, I am never a big fan of the “he should have thrown to this guy” analysis, but there was a strong argument here that Rodgers screwed up. The Packers kicked a field goal and trailed 14-10.
Even the best red-zone offense can mess up one drive, right? Green Bay got the ball back with 2:10 left for an opportunity at a double score since the Packers deferred and would get the ball first in the third quarter. Cue the game management malfeasance. Now it’s one thing to slow-walk a third-down snap when you don’t know if you’ll convert or not. But once the Packers converted with 23 yards to Lazard, they should have used their second timeout or hurried up to snap the ball quickly. The Packers were very slow to snap the ball, taking over 25 seconds to get the next play off while spending at least half that time set at the line. The result of the play was a sack too with 34 seconds left.
That was a killer. I have no idea why the Packers would wait so long for that play when they had a chance for points, if not a touchdown before halftime. Again, one thing I always appreciated about a Manning-led offense was the quickness he could get the next play off with the clock moving. Rodgers either had a brain fart here or Matt LaFleur was not playing for enough points.
On the next play, Rodgers made his first real bad decision with a pick caught in tight coverage by Sean Murphy-Bunting at midfield. On replay, Murphy-Bunting clearly had a jersey grab on Lazard as he undercut him to make the pick, but it wasn’t called as part of a first half with zero penalties. If you’re going to let them play, you have to keep it consistent…
Tampa Bay seemed to waste the good field position after three plays, but sent the offense back out on a fourth down, which was converted with a short pass to Fournette with 8 seconds left. At the Green Bay 39 and the Buccaneers out of timeouts, the Packers had to be thinking the sidelines or Hail Mary. The Bucs really had no other choices there.
Somehow, the Buccaneers ran just three receivers on routes and Kevin King, who had a horrible game, wasn’t able to cover Scotty Miller, giving up a 39-yard touchdown to end the half. It’s an inexplicable defense to play in that spot.
All three of those touchdowns happened in Lambeau Field in the last 10 seasons, but the other two were Hail Mary attempts. This was just a blown coverage that never should have been single coverage. All I could think is if Antonio Brown (inactive with injury) was in the game, would they have covered this one so poorly? King was getting beat by every Tampa Bay receiver in the game, but would they at least give more attention to Brown than Miller? Defenses just don’t seem to show him any respect despite him getting open deep several times this year, including the only big one last week in New Orleans.
Tampa Bay led 21-10 at halftime, but it was about to get worse. Three plays into the third quarter, Rodgers flipped a short pass to Aaron Jones. He may not have been able to get a first down, but he had the right momentum carrying him towards the sticks. However, he was hit by Devin White and the ball popped out. Tampa Bay was inside the Green Bay 8 and the Packers had two more turnovers after having a league-low 11 in the first 17 games this year.
It took Brady one play to make it a touchdown as, like I said in my preview, no one covers Cameron Brate this postseason. The tight end was all alone in the end zone for the easiest touchdown of the day and the Packers were down 28-10 with 13:54 left in the third quarter. Tampa Bay is the only offense in the last 20 postseasons to have three touchdown drives start inside the opponent 20. Tampa Bay’s offense has four drives that started inside the opponent 40 this postseason. The rest of the league has three, and that includes Buffalo last night.
In a span of barely six minutes of game time, the Packers went from looking like a team about to tie the game, then to maybe pulling off the double score, only to fall behind 28-10. There was the Green Bay collapse, because the Packers came back to outscore Tampa 16-3 the rest of the way. But the game was largely lost in that six-minute span, and I find it hard to see how quarterback skill was the main difference in that stretch.
I did not mention that Brady threw up this deep pass two plays before the Miller touchdown, shades of last week in New Orleans when the Saints could not capitalize on three interception chances from Brady.
It did however look like the quarterbacks were going to decide how the comeback portion went, if only Rodgers could actually make the biggest comeback of his career. It took a 21-3 deficit against Brady and the Patriots in the 2006 AFC Championship Game for Manning to break through in the playoffs. Rodgers had his shot here now.
Part III: The Failed Comeback
Some of my earliest writing was on how Rodgers is the greatest quarterback in NFL history to rarely pull off comeback wins. For as much as he wins and how many points he scores and how many opportunities he’s had, you just expect more from him in this department. Rodgers is now 18-44 (.290) at fourth-quarter comeback opportunities and the Packers have won three games with him after trailing by at least 16 points at any time. Now he has gotten better since those early seasons, but I would be lying if I thought he would make this a great game.
Some of that is my thoughts on him mentally folding against a team that was sacking him more than he’s used to. I felt he folded in Week 6 after throwing the two picks. But this time, it was a Jones fumble that was a huge play to go against him.
My other big concern with Green Bay has nothing to do with Rodgers. It’s when they get down big in playoff games like this one, or 31-0 in the 2016 title game (Atlanta), or last year’s 37-20 loss in San Francisco, they don’t stop the bleeding on defense. They continue trading scores, making it impossible to ever make a comeback when you need stops. A string of stops, and usually a turnover for good field position to make it easier.
Well, this time Rodgers got his turnovers. Way more than anyone could imagine really. While Rodgers got the rally attempt started with a nice 75-yard touchdown drive, the defense really got things going with a pick of a terrible Brady deep ball. Rodgers turned that into a 68-yard touchdown drive with 24 seconds left in the third, but Equanimeous St. Brown dropped a two-point conversion pass to keep the score at 28-23. Ndamukong Suh got a very small tip of the ball, but not enough to knock it off path to where St. Brown shouldn’t have caught it.
So that was disappointing, but at least we had a one-score game going into the fourth quarter. Tampa Bay looked to add more points, but Brady was high on a pass to an extended Mike Evans (all 6’5” of him), and that ball was deflected to an interception by Jaire Alexander.
Rodgers had his chance to take Green Bay’s first lead of the day, but this of course ended up being the only game all season where the Packers never led. The pass protection continued to fail Rodgers. He was hit on the first play of the drive after trying to hit a big play. On third down, he was sacked as edge pressure again hurt the Packers. Shaq Barrett (3.0) and Jason Pierre-Paul (2.0 sacks) lived in the backfield as the Packers tied their season-high in allowing five sacks. No one got a higher pressure rate on Rodgers this year than Tampa Bay in Week 6, and it felt rather high again on Sunday as Rodgers took multiple sacks for only the fourth time all season.
Rodgers enjoyed the best pass protection this season, but a late-season injury to David Bakhtiari was a big warning flag for this postseason run, especially against a blitz-happy Tampa defense that already owned the Packers with Bakhtiari in the lineup for 40 snaps that day. I find it hard to believe Rodgers takes five sacks in this game if he played, but there were issues on the right side of the line as well. There were always going to be issue when these teams met if you ask me, and I don’t think Rodgers and LaFleur had a good enough plan to overcome that from 38-10.
The Packers went three-and-out after losing 5 yards. Brady threw his third straight interception on another poor prayer of a pass he just lobbed up. Barrett got an incredible jump on the snap and sacked Rodgers again to start the next drive, also a three-and-out that lost yards. Is that not a great summary of Brady’s career? He throws two picks, but his defense doesn’t even give up a single positive yard, let alone a first down or points out of it. Not to mention this was against the best offense in 2020.
Rob Gronkowski got me to bet real money on him to score a touchdown, but of course he screwed me over and only got one target in the game. It was a big one, however, as it was a screen pass that he rumbled for 29 yards on. Go figure, his over/under for the game was 28.5 yards. I don’t know how Vegas does it so often. That set up Ryan Succop for a 46-yard field goal, and despite his ill-fitting last name, the veteran came through unlike some superior kickers this postseason. Tampa Bay still led 31-23, but Rodgers had another shot with 4:33 left.
Last time it was at the 6-yard line where the Packers failed in the red zone. This time it was getting the ball to the 8-yard line at 2:22. Once again, the sequence focused too heavily on Adams and it was poorly done. Rodgers and Lazard seemed to be on the wrong page on first down. On second down, Rodgers stepped up and threw the ball away through the back of the end zone after pressure got to him. On third down, this is the heavily criticized play where he had a chance to run and didn’t. He forced a terrible pass low to Adams between two defenders.
The throw was terrible, but I really do not see the run as a viable option here. Rodgers looked like he could outrun Tampa’s defense a few times in the game, only for them to trap him quickly. They are a fast defense, and I think #90 (JPP) could have taken him down in a hurry there, which would have used up the two-minute warning clock stoppage.
Then LaFleur threw his name in the Mike McCarthy potluck by kicking a field goal with 2:05 left on fourth down from the 8. I am not sure this is a horrible decision, but as the hours pass since this game ended, I am leaning towards hating it more. I’m not big on trying the fourth-and-8 and needing that and a two-point conversion just to tie and force the Bucs into some aggressive offense with two minutes left. That sounds like a shitty spot to be in to me. I kind of like the idea of getting a chipshot field goal, 31-26, then use my four clock stoppages to get the ball back from an offense that likes 1-2 yard runs and a quarterback with a spotty history in the four-minute offense, before I drive for the game-winning touchdown. I can at least see the rationale and appeal of that way.
But overall, I think the Packers failed on early downs, should have considered a run there, and set up a shorter throw like they have all season. That third down was no man’s land for Rodgers. No one was open and a run wouldn’t have gained much of anything. Maybe it makes the fourth down a little shorter, but still difficult. The fourth down is also no man’s land. Just not the spot you want to be in for that situation.
The Packers were 2-for-4 in goal-to-go situations on Sunday after converting them 90.5% of the time in the regular season (No. 2 in NFL). Green Bay finishes 5-of-9 (55.6%) in goal-to-go this postseason after going 38-for-42 in the regular season, matching their total stops in 16 games in just two playoff games. How disappointing.
The offense never saw the ball again. The defense was able to set up a crucial third-and-4, but the pass rush didn’t get home and Brady had time to throw a pass in the general direction of Tyler Johnson, who had his jersey pulled. Go figure, it was Kevin King on the penalty, which was a late flag on a ball you’d think would be uncatchable, but no one ever pays attention to that part of the rule. The most frustrating part is that this wasn’t called a penalty earlier in the game on the interception when Tampa Bay grabbed the jersey of Rodgers’ receiver, but they called it here and it effectively ended the game. It also helped that Johnson sold it with a soccer flop.
The Buccaneers set an NFL record for defensive pass interference penalties drawn in the regular season (24), so go figure they ice the game with one here.
Rodgers made some big strides from 38-10 against this defense, but it wasn’t an MVP-caliber performance from him when he badly needed one in the biggest home game of his career. Aaron Jones was a disappointment, the offensive line was a huge letdown, and the connection with Adams didn’t look as good as it usually does.
Still, I do not understand the criticism of Green Bay not drafting a wide receiver this year for this game. MVS had over 100 yards and Lazard was open a good deal too. He should have had an easy touchdown if Rodgers was looking for someone besides Adams. I thought the secondary wideouts were good. It was the defensive backs that were a bigger problem. Jaire Alexander is a fine player, but he can only cover one receiver at a time. The Packers had a big weakness in King and the Buccaneers exploited him in the worst ways. This is why you can never have enough good corners in the NFL today. In fact, it’s better to have a solid group of corners without any great players than it is to have a great corner but a liability in coverage. The Packers had the liability today and it cost them.
Rodgers, 38 next season, talked of an “uncertain future” after this game. I would be shocked if he wasn’t the Green Bay quarterback in 2021. I think he was just dealing with one of the toughest losses of his career and will be back.
But will anything change for the Packers? They have now been swept out of seven straight postseasons by the 2012 49ers, 2013 49ers, 2014 Seahawks, 2015 Cardinals, 2016 Falcons, 2019 49ers, and 2020 Buccaneers. Very fine teams for sure, but notice none of them so far have won a Super Bowl. LaFleur might as well have been wearing a McCarthy costume today. When you beat this team in the regular season, it doesn’t seem like they ever have an answer for how to reverse it in the playoffs. Same old Packers.
But if the Buccaneers do get to the Super Bowl, it’s in Tampa Bay this year, a homefield advantage no team has ever had before in the big game. If anyone was lucky enough to reap those benefits…
Brady is now 2-0 when he throws at least three interceptions in a Conference Championship Game. All other quarterbacks are 5-25. Of course, he’s still in another Super Bowl. Good thing Tampa Bay will be facing a better quarterback and coach this time.
Bills at Chiefs: Patrick Mahomes Is What Fans Wanted Aaron Rodgers to Be
So much for 6-point wins, near interceptions, and struggling in the red zone: Kansas City is back in the Super Bowl. I’ll keep this recap short and simple, just like the Chiefs kept the competitive portion of this 38-24 win over Buffalo.
No one will remember Buffalo led 9-0 after a quarter, but it was fool’s gold. The Bills got an opening field goal after the Chiefs dropped an interception. The Chiefs went three-and-out after Tyreek Hill dropped a deep ball on third down. The Bills got a 3-yard touchdown drive after Mecole Hardman muffed a punt return before he was even hit. Again, you have to hope this team beats itself to have a chance.
Once the Chiefs found their hands, they answered back with three straight touchdowns to take a 21-12 lead at halftime, never looking back. Patrick Mahomes looked healthy as could be a week after a big scare against Cleveland. Even when he didn’t need to bring his A-game, this offense made things look easy. Mahomes finished 29-of-38 for 325 yards, three touchdowns, and no turnovers, real or otherwise. It was a clean game for Travis Kelce and Hill to show they are no match for soft coverage, and Hill also exploded after the catch on a 71-yard play.
The only surprise was that the Chiefs barely got anything out of the ground game after a season-high 245 yards in Week 6 in Buffalo. The running backs finished with 19 carries for 59 yards, and a good chunk of that was with the game already decided. Hardman made up for his blunder with a 50-yard run.
The Bills ended up rushing for 129 yards, but Josh Allen had 88 of those yards on scrambles. It was much better than his passing as he completed 28-of-48 passes for 287 yards. He also took four sacks for 53 yards, the second-most sack yards he’s lost in a game in his career. Allen was too indecisive at getting rid of the ball and too inaccurate when he did.
I brought up twice this week that Buffalo’s offense had been a third-down disappointment this postseason after finishing No. 1 in the regular season. The Bills were only 5-of-14 (35.7%) in this game while the Chiefs were 6-of-10 (6-of-9 excluding a game-ending kneeldown).
Much like in Week 6, Allen and the Bills couldn’t make any big plays on the Chiefs defense. It wasn’t until 4:06 remained that the Bills had their first play of 25+ yards from scrimmage against Kansas City this year. That was a 34-yard catch by Stefon Diggs, who finished with 77 yards on a quiet night for him.
Head coach Sean McDermott did not improve his profile in this game, choosing to kick two short field goals with only 2-3 yards to go on fourth down after it was evident his defense did not have the ability to stop the Chiefs. That was poorly managed, and I do not agree with the two-point conversion attempt late to try cutting it to a 15-point game at 4:08. Kick the extra point, make it 38-22, then after they miraculously recovered the onside kick, you’re still in business with a chance to cut the lead in half and make Mahomes do something with an 8-point lead. Instead, the Bills were down 17, settled for a field goal after Allen’s fourth huge sack of the night nearly caused a fight, and then the Bills watched Mahomes run five times to burn the rest of the clock for a 38-24 final. Lame.
Buffalo is in better shape than most AFC teams. It is no guarantee there are more rounds to come in future Bills-Chiefs playoff matchups – we are still waiting for the first Ravens-Chiefs playoff game in this era after all – but this was the team’s best season since the Super Bowl runs. Buffalo can still grow and get better, and it will be interesting to see if it becomes a hot free agent destination for teams wanting to knock off the Chiefs. Unless players rather take discounts and just go to Kansas City while the Bills have to pay Allen a fortune very soon. We’ll see.
The 2020 Chiefs are not a very dominant 16-2 team, but they absolutely have shown they can turn on a switch at times for big matchups. They dominated the Ravens 34-20 in Baltimore. They swept the Bills by multiple scores, and this Buffalo team was 15-2 with a Hail Mary loss in Arizona when it wasn’t playing the Chiefs. The Chiefs also came out red hot on offense the night they avenged their loss to the Raiders, and of course that electric first quarter in Tampa Bay in Week 12 that will be more closely scrutinized the next two weeks than the Week 6 games were for these rematches that went the same way on Sunday.
Now the Chiefs just need one more big performance against a team they already beat in an unusual road setting for the Super Bowl. It is hard to ever bet against Mahomes, who is now 10-4 SU and 11-2-1 ATS as either an underdog or favorite of no more than 3 points.
But not all news was great from this one as left tackle Eric Fisher injured his Achilles and will likely miss the Super Bowl. We already saw what happened to Green Bay against Tampa Bay without its star left tackle. However, Mahomes does look to be a different beast than any other quarterback you could name.
While Aaron Rodgers will almost certainly win his third MVP award the night before the Super Bowl, Mahomes is the only No. 1 seed who will be playing on February 7. Mahomes will have the chance to cap off a three-year run that has been better than any three-year run in the careers of Rodgers or Brady. While he was inevitably going to have to share the stage with one of them in two weeks, there is no denying that Mahomes is doing everything you want at the position in a way that puts him in a class of his own. He might be the greatest hope we have in a quarterback who can unite the ring counters, film junkies, and stat nerds in their praise of a legitimate GOAT.