NFL Stat Oddity: Wild Card

To sum up the NFL’s first “Super Wild Card Weekend” in one word: exhausting.

This has been a long weekend with six games to research, preview, bet, watch, tweet, analyze, and write about. Just think how incredible it could be if we get some games with more exciting finishes, fewer horrific challenges, and the AFC coaches find their balls before sending out the punt teams. Maybe we won’t have to see Mitchell Trubisky and the 8-8 Bears (or 8-9 Bears) next year as well.

For six playoff games decided by 3-12 points, we had exactly zero lead changes in the second half. The closest we came was Baltimore breaking a 10-10 tie early in the third quarter to take the lead for good. When the game is tied, there technically is no lead, so it’s not a true lead change in the way that we usually look at it.

The first game of the postseason, Colts-Bills, was really the best one this weekend as far as quality of play and drama. However, I want to work my way backwards through these games, because you know I have plenty to say about that 48-37 abomination the Steelers left on the field Sunday night.

In fact, I have so much to say about everything that I grossly underestimated how long it would take to finish this recap in one night. So I will post the five games now and save a separate link for Browns-Steelers to be posted by Monday evening.

Next year I’ll remember to get some thoughts down on Saturday’s games on Saturday night.

Previous weeks in Stat Oddity:

Bears at Saints: Seventh Seed Slime

Don’t be shocked, but the Bears sucked on offense to make this the most unwatchable game of the weekend, and that was despite Nickelodeon’s valiant effort to try a different kind of NFL broadcast. The animated slime cannons that fired during the game’s few touchdowns were cool, but I would have rather seen the Bears covered in buckets of slime every time they failed to convert a third down, which was nine times out of 10. Meanwhile, the Saints were 11-of-17 on third down.

Before Jimmy Graham caught a pointless, one-handed touchdown on the final snap of the game, Chicago could only manage a field goal on a 6-yard drive that started after Sean Payton’s latest erotic Taysom Hill fixation backfired with a turnover, the only giveaway in the game.

CBS’ Jim Nantz tried to say that Mitchell Trubisky is a different quarterback now, and the numbers prove it. I like to think I proved with numbers coming into the game that he was not different, and his “rebirth” was the result of feasting on play-action, a better running game with David Montgomery, and taking advantage of YAC plays and four of the league’s five worst defenses this season.

On Sunday, Trubisky had no help from the running game as Montgomery was held to 31 yards against one of the better defenses this season. He did not get much help from the receivers either. Javon Wims dropped a 40-yard touchdown in the end zone on a trick play that should have worked to perfection.

That drive ended with Trubisky casually running out of bounds two yards shy of the marker on fourth-and-4. It was that kind of day for the Bears. They never seriously threatened again. While I would point out that Trubisky’s touchdown pass, caught with one hand by Graham as time expired, was the most garbage of garbage-time touchdowns in the playoffs, I won’t knock him too hard for it since Wims absolutely screwed him out of a 40-yard score that could have made this one interesting.

My other memorable part of this game was Drew Brees getting up close and personal with the beautiful, new cameras they are using in these games after he did a late quarterback sneak on fourth-and-goal that was only a touchdown in the eyes of Jim Nantz.

It looked short in live action to me, and on replay it was obvious that Brees pulled the ball back too quickly and short of the plane, but Nantz was weirdly adamant about a touchdown there. The call was reversed, Brees didn’t score, I lost out on a $230 win on a Same Game Parlay for that reason, then Graham scored.

It sounds like Nantz must have lost out on way more.

The Saints will have to be sharper than this to beat Tampa Bay for a third time next week. On the bright side, Michael Thomas finally had a real productive game (73 yards and his first touchdown) with Brees this season, and they seem to have come out of the game healthy. It was just weird in a game where the Saints finally had their skill guys healthy, it was Deonte Harris leading the team with seven grabs for 83 yards. But he looked good and the Saints should have had three straight touchdown drives in the second half after controlling the ball for nearly 39 minutes in the game.

Just tell Brees to do his best Philip Rivers impersonation and don’t pull out early next time when he does his sneak.

Ravens at Titans: Running Quarterbacks Matter More than Running Backs

These former division rivals seem to genuinely hate one another now after playing three games in the last calendar year. I think that is a good thing for the NFL and would be all for a rubber match next postseason since they (as of now) do not meet in the 2021 regular season.

While the Titans ended Baltimore’s Super Bowl hopes a year ago, the Ravens extracted some payback with a low-scoring 20-13 win. It is especially surprising when you remember that the Titans were up 10-0 after the first quarter, taking advantage of a Lamar Jackson interception, his sixth turnover in nine quarters of playoff action.

Are the Titans also his kryptonite? Could he go 0-3 against the Titans, 0-3 against the Chiefs, and 0-3 in the playoffs? Baltimore had not won a game when trailing by double digits since September 18, 2016, the longest active streak in the NFL.

Of course, 10-point comebacks are easier to come by when you only allow 13 points in the game. After all, teams that fail to score at least 14 points lose 93% of the time in postseason history. You must be someone like the 2018 Patriots to win a big game doing that. Ryan Tannehill, surely you jest if you think I believe you pulled the rabbit’s foot out of Tom Brady’s ass last January.

But while the Titans were on their way to a season-low 13 points, let’s go back to the play that changed everything. Things were not looking good again for Lamar, who finished the game by taking five sacks against the league’s worst pass rush this year. However, with one play Jackson reminded us of what makes him one of the most unique quarterbacks in NFL history. Facing a third-and-9 late in the second quarter, Jackson dropped back to almost his own 40 before stepping up, avoiding a sack, running through the defense, and outracing everyone to the end zone for officially a 48-yard touchdown, the second-longest touchdown run by a quarterback in postseason history.

That is one of the greatest quarterback runs of all time. The Ravens added another touchdown to start the third quarter, then it was just a matter of hanging on against the team that had been a league-best 6-1 at game-winning drive opportunities this season. But the offense was not having its usual day on Sunday. Derrick Henry is the eighth running back to rush for 2,000 yards in a season, but when you exclude the Super Bowl winning season Terrell Davis had for Denver in 1998, those other 2,000-yard backs are 0-5 in the playoffs while O.J. Simpson (1973 Bills) and Chris Johnson (2009 Titans) didn’t even qualify for the tournament.

Henry may have had the worst playoff game yet for a 2,000-yard back. He finished with 18 carries for 40 yards. His longest rush was 8 yards. Henry had zero first downs rushing. He failed on a third-and-1 run late in the game that Ryan Tannehill had to convert with the quarterback sneak to keep the game alive.

While A.J. Brown had a big opening drive with a touchdown, he was quiet the rest of the game. Not as quiet as Corey Davis, who finished without a catch on two targets and was out of the game late with an injury. Tight end Jonnu Smith only had 9 yards. The Titans only had three plays that gained more than 14 yards.

After Justin Tucker missed only his second postseason field goal from 52 yards with 12:11 left, the Titans had a golden opportunity, trailing in a 17-13 game. That is when Henry broke his 8-yard run, but then Tannehill threw two incompletions. You would think head coach Mike Vrabel would go for it on fourth-and-2 at the Baltimore 40 with 10:06 left. This is the same coach who said a year ago that he would cut his dick off to win a Super Bowl, and this guy already has rings as a player, so that ring must mean everything to him if he’d rather have another than his penis.

And then like a coward, Vrabel punted. Since 1994, or as far back as the data goes on Stathead, no other team has punted in the fourth quarter of a playoff game while trailing with 1-3 yards to go from inside the opponent 40.

If you stretch it back to the opponent 45, then you do get one hit, and it was a game that Vrabel won as a player with the Patriots. Against the 2006 Chargers, the Patriots were down 14-13 and Bill Belichick punted on 4th-and-2 at the San Diego 41 with 13:19 left. The Chargers scored a touchdown, then probably could have put the game away, but fumbled Tom Brady’s interception back to him (on fourth down no less).

Not that Vrabel was even thinking of that game he won as a player, but no one in their right mind could think to replicate that type of luck. The Titans should have gone for it for sure. That was arguably the worst coaching decision this weekend.

The Ravens responded with a 51-yard field goal as Tucker redeemed himself, but I have to say the offensive pass interference penalty that wiped out a big fourth-down conversion by Baltimore’s offense was a very weak pick play call on Willie Snead. More egregious plays happen all the time and don’t draw a flag. That felt like the NFL trying to keep this close for the finish.

Tannehill had 4:13 to tie the game with a touchdown, but the Titans pissed around with the run and wasted the two-minute warning just to move 16 yards. So this was not looking promising, then it turned disastrous as Tannehill’s receiver, Kalif Raymond, fell on the play after some contact and Marcus Peters intercepted the ball. The Ravens picked up a really dumb taunting penalty, but Jackson bailed them out with a 33-yard run that allowed him to finish with 136 rushing yards. Of Baltimore’s four longest plays, three of them were Jackson rushes for 23+ yards. He is just so difficult to defend, and now he has a playoff win to get off the snide.

Plenty of time this week to talk about Ravens-Bills, but it should be one of the best games this postseason. This was a gut-check win for the Ravens after a poor start. It was good to see the defense shut down a top-scoring offense, but the Titans are so structured to do things in a specific way that if Henry isn’t going well, then it becomes easier to stop the play-action game and the big plays to Brown and Davis. Buffalo attacks much differently, but again, we can get to that later this week. For now, the Ravens can take comfort in the playoff win and getting back to that familiar role of road underdog that has suited the team so well in the John Harbaugh era.

As for the Titans, given the bleak injury history of high workload backs and the lack of passing production that Tannehill has shown in four playoff starts, we may be marking the 2019-20 Titans as a fun, two-year wonder who blew double-digit leads in the playoffs to the Chiefs and Ravens.

Then we will promptly punt on this team’s 2021 prospects, but at least we’ll still have our dicks.

Buccaneers at Football Team: My MAGA Beats Your MAGA

Well, not the worst thing to happen in D.C. this week, but the Washington Football Team lost in the wild card round for the fourth time since 2007. It was a respectable 31-23 effort by Ron Rivera’s team given the quarterback situation and talent mismatch with Tampa Bay.

Taylor Heinicke had to start for Alex Smith (calf) and provided the offense with a quarterback who could actually move and make things happen. It was one of the more unlikely 300-yard passing games you’ll ever see from a guy making his first start of the season, but Heinicke gave his team a chance on a night where the running game was MIA (16 carries for 36 yards). However, you did see some of the flaws in this roster and their lack of a consistent passing attack this year as the receivers had some letdowns with drops.

Heinicke has likely secured himself a job for years in this league with this performance. I’m sure it also helps that he’ll proudly stand for the anthem and never kneel since he is reportedly a MAGA douchebag of bigger proportions than the team’s defensive coordinator, Jack Del Rio.

Speaking of MAGA douchebags, Uncle Jack was back doing something he does so well: make Tom Brady look amazing by getting no pressure or covering his receivers. Here’s a tweet from over seven years ago to show that I’m not just saying this after Saturday night:

Still no answers, I see. However, it took Brady 42 playoff games to do something that had been done 114 times before Saturday: throw multiple touchdown passes of 20 yards in a playoff game.

I don’t know if it was the clueless Del Rio defense, Antonio Brown being wide open, or that he’s playing a 7-9 team with his four former 1,300-yard receivers, but Brady was in a groove and hitting deep balls on Saturday night. Only some drops prevented Tampa Bay from doing even more damage to Del Rio’s overmatched defense.

Brady’s average touchdown pass in the playoffs is now 12.2 yards, which ties him with Kerry Collins for the lowest among all passers with 10 touchdown passes in the playoffs. It’s always been a weird disparity to see how his average touchdown shrinks so much from the regular season unlike virtually all other quarterbacks, but we’ll see if he’s got any more long ones in him this postseason. He faces the Saints next, a team that has swept him this regular season, including that dominant 38-3 game last time out.

Oh, and the refs totally botched a catch-and-fumble out of bounds for Washington by calling incomplete when it should have set up a shorter third down before the sack that created 4th-and-21, which basically sealed the game. But you know, He willed it. I am frankly just surprised Brady didn’t will a Bears victory so he could get the Rams in Tampa on Sunday instead of going to the team that has made him look the worst this year.

The Jets (2) still have more wins against teams with winning records this year than the Buccaneers (1).

Rams at Seahawks: First Name Russell, Last Name Ozymandias

The date was September 15, 2013. The Seahawks were hosting the 49ers on Sunday Night Football in what would be a preview of that year’s fantastic NFC Championship Game. This first meeting was anything but fantastic. Lightning delayed it in the first quarter for an hour, which was perfect since AMC was airing the premiere of the “Ozymandias” episode of Breaking Bad, which is in my view the finest episode of any TV series.

After experiencing that emotional rollercoaster, I went back to the game, a 29-3 win by Seattle on a night where neither Russell Wilson nor Colin Kaepernick could move the ball via passing. In fact, it’s the last game in the NFL where both teams completed fewer than 50% of their passes, failed to net 170 passing yards, and took multiple sacks.

At least it was the last NFL game to do that before the Rams and Seahawks did it on Saturday in the wild card, a 30-20 win by the Rams that was as lifeless as any performance in the Pete Carroll-Wilson era.

I bring up that 2013 game not only for the statistical comparison, but also for the fact that it is the Ozymandias Night Game, and Wilson and Carroll just might be the embodiment of that poem: building a once great empire with a legacy that was inevitably going to decay and slide into oblivion.

Back in the day, the Seahawks could play a terrible offensive game and still find a way to win, sometime by huge margins even. As time wore on and the talent faded, the team found wins harder to come by. The margins kept getting smaller. Since 2018, Seattle has won 24 games by no more than eight points, five more than any other team in the league.

Even this year the Seahawks were 9-2 in close games. Seattle completely flipped the script on the scoreboard in the second half of this season. Their games had 204 fewer combined points in the final eight games compared to the first eight, the biggest dip in a 16-game season in NFL history.

If I told Seattle fans in early November that they would play the Rams at home in the wild card, the game would have 50 points, and the Rams’ starting quarterback was knocked out early with an injury, they would probably expect a nice win to come from that.

They would never expect it meant a 30-20 loss where the offense was a bigger letdown than the defense and it was Jared Goff coming off the bench with a surgically repaired thumb to replace John Wolford.

They would never expect Wilson to throw maybe the worst pick-six of his career in the first half. The third quarter that seemed to last ages saw stop after stop. By the fourth quarter, any glimmer of hope for a Seattle comeback ended when a fumbled punt return set up the Rams on a short field for another touchdown and a 30-13 lead.

Wilson took five sacks, which is nothing new for him against the Rams, but only completing 11-of-27 passes for 174 yards certainly puts this in a bottom tier of games in his career.

The Seahawks are done quickly after a 12-4 season that never felt complete. When the offense was great, the defense was terrible. When the defense played well against soft competition, the offense was an issue, especially in that ugly upset loss to the Giants.

But Saturday was rock bottom for this offense this season. It was the culmination of a season on decline offensively with “Let Russ Cook” serving up the Fyre Fest cheese sandwich for the final meal.

Wilson’s success rate was 7-for-25 (28%) leading into the drive where he got the ball back down 30-13 with 4:40 left. This was not a matter of going pass-happy against a tough defensive front or calling too many runs on early downs. This was all-around poor execution, too many penalties, and just no sense of direction for what this offense wants to do after spending the last half of the season barely scraping by.

Earlier this season, I warned that the numbers could be misleading because of the pandemic and the way defenses were behind the offenses. Even for a veteran like Wilson, the best start of his career had to be taken with some caution.

I just never thought things would get as low as they did on Saturday, with Wilson only managing a 10-point deficit with the ball in the fourth quarter. Once upon a time, this team had a 98-game streak of keeping things within one score or better.

I have always favorably compared Wilson’s career path to Ben Roethlisberger’s for the way they both came in as very successful rookies on run-heavy teams with great defenses. Both never got proper credit (or any MVP votes) for their passing efficiency, backyard football plays, deep ball accuracy, and ability to pull off game-winning drives and overcome bad offensive lines. Like Ben, Wilson started throwing with more volume and proved he can still be very efficient and a winner without an elite scoring defense. We’ll see if Wilson also drastically changes his playing style in his thirties to get rid of the ball faster and take fewer sacks and hits like Ben did in 2012.

But if we’re being honest, they also share this in common: they both won the Super Bowl in their second season and that early success has done some shielding for the criticism that should come with their other postseason efforts.

Roethlisberger, despite picking up that second ring in 2008, has thrown 28 interceptions in 22 playoff games and just lost his fifth home playoff game. Wilson was 5-0 at home in the playoffs before Saturday’s loss, but we know he threw four interceptions against the Packers in the 2014 NFC Championship Game, likely a loss had it not been for an onside kick recovery. Wilson also got a win in Minnesota in 2015 by a 10-9 final after Blair Walsh missed a short field goal. And while the pick-six on Saturday was bad, we know that Wilson threw the costliest interception in NFL history at the 1-yard line in Super Bowl XLIX. If there wasn’t such a “why did they even throw?” sentiment to that moment, and if Wilson hadn’t won the Super Bowl a year earlier, the criticism he’d get for that play would be far harsher than it is.

Since winning a playoff game where he threw four interceptions, Wilson has won three more playoff games in which his opponents scored 9, 6, and 9 points. Like Pittsburgh, Seattle has had high expectations for the playoffs the last decade, and the few wins they do have recently are not going to impress anyone. Losing to the COVID Browns and a Rams team that had an injured quarterback and even lost Aaron Donald to injury in the game is going to stand out to people more than those wins ever will.

When you rank the top 25 quarterbacks of all time, I think Roethlisberger and Wilson belong there despite the shorter career for Wilson. But when these bad moments in the playoffs seem to happen more frequently than you’d like to see, you can understand why Roethlisberger and Wilson are never going to rank as favorably as the Manning, Brady, Brees, and Rodgers (and soon Mahomes) of the league that they share the spotlight with.

Instead of joining Brees, Brady, and Rodgers in next week’s NFC divisional round, Wilson must look ahead to his age-33 season, putting behind a 2020 where he had his best start ever, but also his most disappointing finish.

‘My name is Ozymandias, king of kings:
Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!’
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away.”

Colts at Bills: The More Colts-Esque Team Won

I said this game was a bit of a role reversal with the Colts needing to run the ball well and play great defense while the Bills had the pass-happy offense (led by wide receivers) and franchise quarterback in Josh Allen.

I just did not expect it to play out so on brand. This was an impressive win by the Bills, who had to overcome some adversity with terrible field position. In the first half, all five Buffalo possessions started inside their 15. I have not seen anything like that since the infamous Mike Scifres punt game that pinned the Colts deep repeatedly in the 2008 AFC Wild Card. That was in San Diego and Philip Rivers was also the beneficiary of that effort.

Rivers did not get the win this time, but he was not the problem in a game with zero turnovers. Head coach Frank Reich had some really questionable calls, and the team was 2-for-5 in the red zone. He ran outside on a third down when he should have brought in Jacoby Brissett for a quarterback sneak. He then went for a 4th-and-4 where I think he should have kicked the field goal. He made one of the worst challenges I’ve ever seen on a down by contact ruling that had no shot of winning, and that lost timeout hurt the Colts in the second half.

Buffalo was fortunate in this one. The Colts also had one drive in the third quarter that lasted nearly eight minutes and ended with a missed 37-yard field goal (doink). Buffalo’s league-best third down offense was only 2/9 on that money down. Josh Allen played very well but was fortunate to recover a fumble on his final drive that could have been disastrous for the Bills. The Bills had 10 handoffs for 42 yards and lost Zack Moss to an injury. It was very much on Allen to deliver and he did with 324 passing yards, 54 rushing yards, and three total touchdowns against a solid defense that made the Bills earn every yard.

There were many “game of inches” plays in this one, and they usually favored the Bills. Despite Buffalo leading 24-10 in the fourth quarter, the Colts fought back impressively. The running game was not exactly dominant, but in the fourth quarter the Colts had runs of 29, 20, and 33 yards. Two of those were even by Hines instead of rookie Jonathan Taylor. Those plays really helped those drives get down the field quickly and aided the 300-yard passing game for Rivers, who also had a few drops his receivers would like back.

While the officials were doing a very good job on the close calls, they almost made a horrific error in the final minute when a Zach Pascal fumble on fourth-and-ballgame was somehow not immediately stopped for a review. Bills coach Sean McDermott had to get a last-second timeout to get New York to finally review the most important play in the game. It looked clear and obvious to me that the Bills waited for Pascal to get back to his feet before punching the ball out and recovering it, which would have meant game over. The replay review let the play stand and the Colts had a first down at midfield.

From there, Rivers couldn’t find open receivers and was throwing passes away, leaving time only for a Hail Mary. Isn’t this where Jacoby Brissett comes into the game?  He’s done it before. Reich even pulled Andrew Luck before to do this in 2018. He can surely pull Rivers, who doesn’t have the arm anymore to get that ball deep enough in Buffalo. But Rivers stayed in for the Hail Mary, the pass was well short of the end zone and incomplete to end the game.

The Bills escaped this one, 27-24, and major props to kicker Tyler Bass for his 54-yard field goal with 8:08 left that proved to be the difference maker.

Colts fans know all too well about the playoffs and clutch (or anti-clutch) kicking, terrible field position, a one-dimensional offense that puts everything on the QB and things aren’t going well on third downs, etc. Like I said, the Bills survived a gut-check early here, and now they’ll get a tougher opponent form Baltimore.

But it was good to see a pass-happy team in Buffalo come through for the team’s first playoff win since the 1995 season. The NFL (AFC in particular) has needed new blood and seeing the Browns and Bills win their first playoff games since 1994-95 is accomplishing that.

NFL 2020 Wild Card Sunday Previews

If one triple-header of NFL playoff action is not enough, we get two this year with Ravens-Titans looking like the highlight of the weekend on paper. All three games on Sunday are rematches from earlier this season, including two games that went to overtime.

That led me to a little digging. What happens in a playoff rematch from a game that went to overtime? I found all 17 examples since 1990. The team that won in overtime is 11-6 in the playoff rematch, so maybe that is good news for the Titans and Saints this weekend despite the Titans being an underdog again.

Click here for my three previews of Saturday’s games.

Ravens at Titans (+3)

BAL OFFENSE VS. TEN DEFENSE

I think this is a great, almost necessary matchup for the Ravens to get over the hump in the postseason. Last year, I wrote a rather prescient preview for how the Titans could pull off the upset in Baltimore, noting some potential rust for the rested Ravens, dropped passes on key downs, maybe a tipped interception, and Ryan Tannehill hitting a deep ball to open an early lead. All of those things happened, and the Ravens were down 14-0 quickly before losing 28-12. Lamar Jackson set an NFL record with 83 total plays (passes/sacks/runs) in that game, but it only led to a career-low 12 points for his Ravens.

In fact, Jackson has led the Ravens to at least 20 points in 36 of his 39 career starts, but only 17 and 12 points in his two home playoff losses. If the Bills and Steelers win this week, Jackson could be starting this postseason run against Tennessee and Kansas City, two teams he is 0-5 against so far.

So if this is going to be a revenge tour, then it sets up nicely. Baltimore is 5-0 since Jackson returned from his COVID-19 diagnosis. The competition has not been strong, but Jackson is back to efficient passing (8.09 YPA, 11 TD, 3 INT) and he’s rushing for 86 yards a game at 7.68 YPC. Baltimore has been lighting up the scoreboard and finished a second straight season with the highest scoring differential (+165) in the league. The 2020 Ravens are the 10th team since the merger to win at least nine games by 14+ points. The ninth team to do it was Baltimore a year ago.

You cannot be in this historic company and go one-and-done to Mike Vrabel two years in a row. Drawing the Tennessee defense is a dream for Jackson. Here is where the Titans rank in 2020 (asterisk denotes worst among playoff teams this year):

  • 27th in points per drive allowed*
  • 30th in yards per drive allowed*
  • 30th in touchdowns per drive allowed*
  • 29th in forcing three-and-out drives*
  • 25th in yards per play allowed*
  • 30th in first downs allowed*
  • 22nd in net yards per pass attempt*
  • 32nd in sack rate*
  • 31st in pressure rate*
  • 32nd in third down conversion rate* (worst since 1991)
  • 7th in takeaways per drive
  • 30th in red zone touchdown rate

Tennessee is the worst defense in the playoffs, and yes, that third down conversion rate of 51.9% is the worst season mark since the stat started being tracked in 1991. They’re the only team over 50%.

Turnovers are about the only way the Titans can do well on defense in this matchup, but Baltimore’s offense has only turned it over multiple times in three games this season, and two of those were against the Steelers.

In the Week 11 meeting, won 30-24 in overtime by Tennessee, the Ravens were 9/15 on third down with one interception on 10 drives. The problem was in the red zone where the Ravens were 1-for-4 at scoring touchdowns, including a late field goal to force overtime where a touchdown likely would have won the game. What happened in the playoff upset a year ago? Again, the Ravens were 1-for-4 in the red zone. They have to do better down there, but lately the Ravens have been scoring at will on teams.

Baltimore is coming off only the second 400-yard rushing game in the NFL in the last 60 years. We know the Ravens are going to run the ball well in this game, but to fully take advantage of this poor Tennessee defense, Jackson will have to throw well too.

I think he can do it this time. If not, then the Ravens will have taken two seasons where they outscored opponents by 414 points and turned it into zero playoff wins.

TEN OFFENSE VS. BAL DEFENSE

Given my takedown of the Tennessee defense, I better give a lot of credit to the offense for this 11-5 record. That’s easy to do. Ryan Tannehill proved 2019 was not just a fluke as he finished with the best full season of his career in leading one of the league’s top offenses. Derrick Henry rushed for 2,027 yards as he is practically on a one-man mission to prove that running backs matter, or at least they do in Tennessee. I think I would vote for him as the Offensive Player of the Year. Corey Davis even had a career year and A.J. Brown is still very good.

Tennessee’s excellent 6-1 record in close games is almost due entirely to the offense this year. Tannehill led the league in comebacks (five) and game-winning drives (six) with Henry scoring two game-winning touchdown runs in overtime games. The only failed comeback was against Pittsburgh after Stephen Gostkowski missed a makeable field goal that would have forced overtime.

In the Week 11 meeting in Baltimore, both teams looked offensively challenged at the half. Jackson had 54 yards passing, Tannehill had 42 yards passing, and Henry only had 13 carries for 37 yards. But the Titans are so committed to sticking with their formula of a play-action attack and feeding Henry that they turned things around and won that game with 30 points. Tannehill finished with 259 yards and Henry rushed for 133 yards, saving his 29-yard burst for overtime to win the game.

The Titans have to be thinking at least 30 points in this one again to win it, which isn’t out of question when the team has scored as much in 10 of the 16 games this season. The Titans are 2-4 when they don’t score 30 points this season.

Baltimore actually finished the season No. 2 in points allowed, but that involved a lot of feasting on putrid offenses this year, including six points in two games against the Bengals. We’ve seen the Ravens allow 30 to Tennessee, 34 to Kansas City, and the Browns lost that 47-42 game on a Monday night that I would deem the Game of the Year.

I think a top offense can score well on the Ravens this year.

I like both offenses in this game and apparently so does Vegas as the game has a total of 54.5 points. What it comes down to for me is that the Tennessee defense is so bad, and there is also a big gap in special teams as well between these teams. The Ravens are No. 2 in DVOA while the Titans are 28th. We have already seen special teams almost cost the Titans a win on opening night against Denver, Gostkowski screwed them over against the Steelers, and they had the worst game (aside from Chargers-Patriots) on special teams this season against the Colts in a loss at home.

FiveThirtyEight sees this as the most even game of the weekend with the Ravens at 57% to win and an Elo point spread of -2. I can buy that given Baltimore’s past struggles in big games and against a team that can score in bunches.

The whole “Ravens are the team no one wants to play” thing is usually just hype, but I actually believe it this time for Baltimore. I wouldn’t want to play this team right now even if I was Buffalo, Pittsburgh, or Kansas City. That doesn’t necessarily mean I am picking the Ravens to go all the way this year, but the way they can run the ball is just something you don’t have to deal with when you play other teams. Henry is great and will probably go for over 100 again, but chances are the Ravens as a team will outrush him and win this game. So that is where I am going with this one.

Final: Ravens 31, Titans 24

Bears at Saints (-10)

So in the very first year of the new playoff format, we had a Chicago team back into the No. 7 seed with an 8-8 record (thanks, Kliff), and a 12-4 Saints team that had a very nice season has to play them instead of enjoying a bye as they would have in the past. Cool.

My new playoff contempt aside, I guess it’s not the worst matchup in the world, and the 10-point spread is interesting. I’ll just say it would be a damn shame if the final game of Drew Brees’ career was a home playoff loss to Mitchell Trubisky and an 8-8 No. 7 seed. FiveThirtyEight sees this as the blowout of the week with the Saints at 85% win probability and Elo spread of -12. I think it could be closer than that. The Saints are not exactly known for easy playoff wins.

I watched a lot of the Week 8 meeting in Chicago live. The Saints were down 13-3 early, didn’t have their wideouts (not even Emmanuel Sanders), Brees ended up throwing a touchdown pass to Taysom Hill that put the Saints up 10 in the fourth quarter, but Nick Foles still forced overtime and even had a chance to win the game. But the Saints pulled through with a 26-23 win. It was probably the best game Foles had this year for the Bears, and as good as any game offensively for the team through 10 weeks before the bye.

Now the Bears are here with Trubisky, who has started the last six games. The Bears started this run by scoring at least 25 points in each game, a streak this team had not seen since the 1995 season with Erik Kramer. Was Trubisky great in this stretch? No, but it is clear he was better than what Foles was giving Matt Nagy and what Trubisky was doing at the start of the season. Running back David Montgomery has especially blown up with 99.7 rushing yards per game and 5.16 YPC over the last six games. That is quite the change for a guy who averaged 54.4 yards and 3.65 YPC in his first 25 games. Then Allen Robinson is still excellent, Jimmy Graham has started catching touchdowns again, and Darnell Mooney can get open. It is not an offense without talent. The results were just terrible for most of this season.

Then Sunday against Green Bay happened. The Bears moved the ball somewhat well, but only finished with 16 points after going 1-for-5 in the red zone. The offense also had two turnovers that set up the Packers for touchdown drives inside the 26-yard line. That was a bummer performance to end the regular season, but thanks to Arizona’s late-season collapse, the Bears are still in this tournament.

I am naturally skeptical of Trubisky given his full history. I thought he played terrible in the first Green Bay game and padded his stats in garbage time. He was much better against Detroit and Houston, but those are two of the most horrific defenses in a season filled with bad defenses. Minnesota and Jacksonville were not much better this year. Then it was Green Bay again and I noticed Trubisky had a really high completion percentage deep into the game, but not a lot of yards or points from it. Then I realized he completed 70.1% of his passes during these last six games and almost 74% over the last five games, which is uncharacteristic for him.

When I also noticed the Bears tried to convert six fourth downs against the Packers (they got five of them but not the crucial one in fourth quarter), that made me think about failed completions. Those are the plays where you complete a pass, but it doesn’t gain at least 45% of the needed yards for a first down on first down, 60% on second down, or 100% on third and fourth down. What if Trubisky was just dinking and dunking for hollow completions to pad his completion percentage, but not actually helping the offense? He finished 20th in QBR and 24th in DVOA after all.

To my surprise, Trubisky’s failed completion rate in 2020 was 15.6%, the lowest in the NFL, beating out No. 2 Patrick Mahomes (15.9%) and No. 3 Josh Allen (16.4%). Aaron Rodgers (21.5%) was only 11th and Brees is 23rd (24.7%). Furthermore, Trubisky did much better than Foles in this metric. Alex Smith (32.7%) and Dwayne Haskins (35.1%) were last in the league playing in the same Washington offense, but just ahead of them was Foles at 32.2%.

That is interesting to me because there are plenty of other metrics that show the impact of Chicago’s offensive system and supporting cast on the quarterback’s passing numbers.

  • Trubisky’s average pass was thrown 7.9 yards compared to 7.8 for Foles.
  • Trubisky’s average completed air yards was 5.1 to 5.3 for Foles.
  • Trubisky had 3.1% of his passes dropped compared to 3.0% for Foles – only Kyler Murray (2.5%) was lower [source: Pro Football Reference].
  • Trubisky ranked fourth in the league by throwing 21.2% of his passes into tight windows while Foles was ranked right behind him at 20.8% according to Next Gen Stats’ aggressiveness rate.

Suddenly, I was feeling better about Trubisky after seeing this, then I saw one more stat on Pro Football Reference. Trubisky finished 15th this year with 5.4 YAC/completion; Foles finished 35th (dead last) at 3.5 YAC/completion. Basically, the big YAC plays that existed in Chicago’s offense only seemed to happen for Trubisky. Of Chicago’s 20 completions with at least 15 YAC, Trubisky threw 14 of them compared to six for Foles. Trubisky had seven passes thrown behind the line of scrimmage that gained 15+ YAC; Foles had two.

Oh, and there is also this on play-action passing:

Foles used play-action on 18.6% of his passes this season, ranked 24th in the league. His play-action YPA was 8.07. Trubisky used it more often than anyone but Ryan Tannehill and his YPA was 8.31.

Now things started to make more sense. Trubisky was taking advantage of play-action looks, superior rushing help from Montgomery, and better YAC plays from his receivers during a four-game surge against trash defenses that finished 28th, 29th, 30th, and 32nd in points per drive allowed. Wow, better pay this man $140M over four years if he beats the Saints this weekend.

Okay, so there is no denying that Trubisky can move better than Foles. He can scramble and pick up some first downs that way. He had a lower pressure rate and almost identical sack rate to Foles, who looked like a statue more than ever this year. Maybe some of those YAC plays could be credited to Trubisky’s skills as well while someone like Foles throws a lot of hero balls that may not lend themselves well to YAC. It is a little easier for Nagy to run an offense with a quarterback who can actually move.

But am I sold on Trubisky’s “rebirth” here or his prospects in even just this game? No, I am not. The Saints just intercepted the Carolina quarterbacks five times on Sunday and won 33-7 with a running back room they signed off the streets this weekend. Ty Montgomery still rushed for over 100 yards. The New Orleans defense notched five sacks of Foles in Week 8 too, so the pass rush could be good again for the Saints in this one.

Basically, the Chicago path to victory is the same as it always is: defense/special teams kick ass, the run game works, and the quarterback doesn’t screw things up. The Saints will be lucky to get Alvin Kamara back in time after his COVID-19 infection. He was huge as a receiver in the last meeting with the wideouts not available. At least Sanders is back now, but Michael Thomas’ status is still iffy as it has been most of this year. The Saints have learned to play without him.

This is not your classic, dominant Saints offense because of the injuries and Brees’ age taking even more off the deep ball, but this offense still scores. In fact, the 2020 Saints are the sixth team in NFL history to score at least 21 points in all 16 regular season games. The first five teams to do that all reached the Conference Championship Game and three advanced to the Super Bowl. Now none of them had to play a No. 7 seed on Wild Card Weekend, but here we are.

I guess I could pick the Saints to cover with a 27-16 win, but I’m just going to add a touchdown to Chicago’s total to make it sound more interesting. Will it actually be that close? Eh, you probably didn’t think the last meeting would have two double-digit leads blown and go to overtime. Besides, wouldn’t it just be so fitting for the Bears (and Rams) to win so Tom Brady can get a home playoff game as a No. 5 seed and not have to worry about the New Orleans team that spanked him twice this year?

It sure would be nice for the Saints to send Brees off with a second Super Bowl. The defense showing up big against one of the worst offenses in this postseason would be a good start.

Final: Saints 27, Bears 23

Browns at Steelers (-6)

The last time the Browns were in the playoffs, they went to Heinz Field and blew a 17-point lead to the 2002 Steelers. The last time the Browns were an 11-5 playoff team and opened as a 3.5-point underdog, they lost 29-9 in the divisional round in Pittsburgh to the 1994 Steelers.

So here we are again. The Browns are 11-5 and finally back in the playoffs, but they have to beat a Pittsburgh team they just squeezed by on Sunday, 24-22, despite the Steelers resting several of their best players. The Browns opened as a 3.5-point underdog, but the spread has only been going up since a COVID outbreak has jacked up the team’s preparation this week. They have not been practicing in person, multiple players are on the COVID list, and head coach Kevin Stefanski is out with COVID.

I think the Stefanski news is rather significant. He should be the favorite for the Coach of the Year award and he was the play-caller for his team. This literally has stacked the odds against the Browns, who are trying to end a 17-game losing streak in Pittsburgh, which includes a 38-7 loss in Week 6. The Browns have not won in Pittsburgh since 2003, the season before Ben Roethlisberger was drafted.

Trying to compare the first two meetings this season is not easy. When the Steelers won 38-7 in Week 6, it was arguably the worst game of Baker Mayfield’s NFL career. He was rattled by this defense early. On Sunday, he played better, but a unit largely comprised of backups still got four sacks and held him under 200 passing yards. Mayfield compensated by rushing for a career-high 44 yards.

In five games against the Steelers, Mayfield is 2-3, has never passed for 200 yards, and Sunday was the first time he scored 24 points. I like to think a Pittsburgh defense that gets back T.J. Watt and Cameron Heyward will be in better shape to defend him this week. Watt has been dominant this year and Heyward is the third key component of the pass rush along with Stephon Tuitt. The Steelers will be without cornerback Joe Haden (COVID) again, but the Browns have not had any receiver break 60 yards on Pittsburgh this year. They’re not a high-volume passing team and without Odell Beckham Jr. available, it’s not really a matchup that Haden is desperately needed for. That comes potentially down the road with Stefon Diggs and the Bills.

Obviously, Nick Chubb and Kareem Hunt make for a great rushing duo, but the Steelers usually defend the run well. Chubb had a 47-yard touchdown run on Sunday after some poor tackling attempts by the Steelers, but his other 13 carries produced 61 yards. The Steelers can live with that as long as they don’t give up the huge play again. Mayfield’s rushing is usually not a problem, but it was Sunday. We’ll see if that’s part of the game plan again in his first playoff game where you do have to leave it all on the field really.

But I feel pretty confident about the Browns not being able to score more than the 24 points they had on Sunday, and it should be even less than that if we’re adding Watt and Heyward to the game.

As for the Pittsburgh offense, it’s a bit of a wild card even though we know what they’ll try to do in this one. It’s what they’ve done all year: tons of quick, short passes from the shotgun, virtually no play-action, great at not taking sacks, but a miniscule running game. The question is will they produce like the offense that started 10-0 and had a 28-24 comeback win on the Colts in Week 15, or will it look like the terrible month of offense where they couldn’t score 20 points? Will they add to their league-high 39 dropped passes?

Roethlisberger ended up having the greatest dink-and-dunk season in NFL history, as strange as that sounds.

I think I would trust the larger sample of games, but you never know how Pittsburgh will look on Sunday night. The week of rest should do Roethlisberger’s body well. He’ll return with Maurkice Pouncey at center and Eric Ebron at tight end, two more absences in Sunday’s game. The encouraging part is that Mason Rudolph just threw for 315 yards on this Cleveland defense on Sunday. Rudolph’s previous career high was 251 yards. Rudolph led two late touchdown drives, but failed on a two-point conversion pass to tie the game.

Rudolph attacked Cleveland deep multiple times and had three passes gain 40+ yards. Chase Claypool and Diontae Johnson played well. That should give Cleveland plenty to think about with how to defend this offense. Maybe they won’t just sit on the short routes like teams have been doing. The Steelers also seem to have figured out better routes and plays for JuJu Smith-Schuster in the last two games. While the Browns could get Denzel Ward back at corner, there is no one receiver to take away in this offense. Roethlisberger could throw to any of four wideouts or Ebron at any time. Trust me, I’ve been doing SGP every week since October on this team and you never know if it’s going to be a JuJu week, a Claypool week, a Diontae week, or an Ebron week.

We also know the Steelers cannot run the ball, becoming the first team in NFL history to win four games in a season without rushing for 50 yards. I am actually in favor of the idea of letting Josh Dobbs play backup quarterback and have a few packaged plays to run like he did on Sunday when he gained 20 yards on two plays. The Steelers didn’t do a whole lot more on the ground, but it is worth noting that James Conner’s last 100-yard rushing game was against Cleveland in Week 6.

The Browns beating the Steelers in an important game goes against all the football logic that I have learned over decades, so I cannot bring myself to make that pick for various reasons. Sure, I think the Steelers are vulnerable to losing to anyone at this point, but I also think if this team can combine the defense it has played most of the season with the productive scoring offense it had on the way to 10-0, then they could beat anyone this postseason, including on the road in Buffalo or Kansas City.

Final: Steelers 27, Browns 20

Next week we’ll talk about the record-setting offensive numbers in 2020, the first-round bye teams, and my picks for the rest of the playoffs.

2018 NFL Wild Card and Full Playoff Predictions

The 2018 NFL season has been so competitive that I can’t help but think we’ll get some stunning playoff results this year. The point spreads being quite small (1-to-2.5 points) in three of the games this week looks like a good start for that. The last five chalky postseasons have produced nine No. 1 seeds in the Super Bowl and the 2016 Falcons were a No. 2 seed. The wild card teams aren’t necessarily strong this season, but the Chargers had a good year, the Colts are hot with Andrew Luck, the Eagles won the Super Bowl with Nick Foles last year, and the Seahawks are always a tough out. Throw in Baltimore’s old-school approach and the Chicago defense, and there’s a better chance we see a non-bye team go on a good run again.

Before I pick the whole tournament, I’m going to preview each of the four wild card games. I’m really just throwing out some thoughts at 5 A.M. (sleep schedule is FUBAR) rather than building a structured narrative or detailed analysis of the matchups. You can read the previews on FO for more of that.

Colts at Texans (-1)

It’s amazing these teams are here with double-digit wins after starting 0-3 and 1-5. Both defenses have benefited from a soft schedule (the softest of any two defenses in the NFL), though that’s a bit immaterial when they’re playing each other this week with a good quarterback matchup. I like the over. Houston has won a lot of close games and relied on some opposing coaching mistakes, including that memorable Frank Reich move in overtime in the 37-34 win by Houston. Had he taken the tie, this game would likely be in Indy this week, but I don’t think it’s a huge deal for the Colts in the end. They have won in Houston this year, they’ve won there before, and if you’re going to win a Super Bowl this year, you have to go beat a team like Kansas City anyway. Hell, it might even set up better if the Ravens or Chargers can knock off the Patriots, Indy’s personal nightmare venue.

But before we get too far ahead of ourselves, it’s Round 3 with Houston and a roster with some really talented players. None of those players are on the offensive line however, and I think Deshaun Watson’s tendency to hold the ball and take sacks can really help out an Indy defense that doesn’t have a dominant pass-rusher. Watson took 5 sacks in the last meeting and had to lead his team in rushing against a Colts defense that stops the run well. DeAndre Hopkins is always a problem, but T.Y. Hilton has been incredible in his career against Houston. He had 199 yards in the last matchup and has been playing at a high level despite his health. The Colts protect Luck much better this year, he’s changed his playing style to be more dart thrower than gunslinger, and I think the Colts can win this one on the road as long as he avoids the dumb interceptions like we saw on the pick-six in Tennessee on Sunday night.

Houston was 1-4 this year when allowing 24+ points with the only win being 37-34 over the Colts in overtime. Indy has scored 24+ in 11 games this year, including both against Houston. I like the Colts to score enough in this one and close it out late.

Final: Colts 27, Texans 24

Seahawks at Cowboys (-2)

Like the first game on Saturday, these teams are hot, and in Dallas’ case, playing a schedule with the AFC South and NFC East has helped out too. The Cowboys are 7-1 in their last eight, and 7-2 since the trade for Amari Cooper. He’s turned in some huge games that helped the Cowboys win the NFC East, but he also has 13 catches for 83 yards and a lost fumble in his last three games combined. That’s the problem with Cooper in that he’ll put up 180 and a score one week, then struggle to break 20 yards the next. The Seahawks don’t have Richard Sherman anymore, and while a respectable defense overall, they were 25th in DVOA against #1 wide receivers. Cooper needs to come up big in this one.

I like that Dallas has put more responsibility on Dak Prescott in recent weeks. He threw for 455 yards against the Eagles and added 387 against the Giants in Week 17, a game where Ezekiel Elliott and a couple star lineman didn’t even play. Prescott has been playing better the last eight games, but his problems this year are that he takes way too many sacks and he doesn’t pull the trigger as much as he should. If he’s not taking a sack, he’s settling for a checkdown, which is why he has the worst third down ALEX in the league. Those third-down struggles are also why his advanced stats aren’t too hot.

I’ll still take Russell Wilson any day over Prescott, but I think in many ways the Seahawks are the team Dallas wants to be when it comes to running and defense. The Seahawks are running the ball as much as anyone not named Baltimore, and it’s worked for the most part this year. Wilson didn’t even throw for 3500 yards, but he was efficient, had a dominant efficiency season with Tyler Lockett, and he still threw 35 touchdowns. Wilson hasn’t even broke 200 yards against Dallas in the last two meetings, and this Cowboys defense is playing better, but it didn’t matter. The Seahawks still won 21-12 and 24-13 after Prescott and the offense struggled in both matchups. I can see that happening again here, though with Cooper in the mix, Elliott back in action, and Prescott having experience to pull games out late, I think Dallas has a good shot in this matchup.

I’m still going with Seattle just because I trust Wilson and Pete Carroll more than I do Prescott and Jason Garrett. But it really is a game that could come down to Prescott hitting Gallup on a deep shot and Wilson not connecting with Lockett on a similar play like they have done so well this year.

Final: Seahawks 23, Cowboys 20

Chargers at Ravens (-2.5)

This was my big preview at FO, so go there for 3500+ words on the matchup. Basically, it boils down to both teams need to have a good start, but it’s even more important for the Ravens so they can keep up their style of running the ball and pressuring on defense. Philip Rivers can lead a comeback, but probably not from 14+ late against this defense. Can Lamar Jackson deliver enough with his arm if called upon? It’s best if the Ravens don’t find out yet, but with the way they play defense, special teams, and one of the best home-field advantages in the league, I think they take care of the Chargers in this one.

Final: Ravens 26, Chargers 20

Eagles at Bears (-6.5)

Outside of Colts-Texans, this might be the game with the widest range of possible outcomes this week. The Bears have a great defense that gets the most turnovers, but the Eagles have played better offensively with Nick Foles at quarterback. He’s also been prolific in the postseason, albeit that’s four starts. He seems to be good to go this week with the rib injury. With Mitchell Trubisky, the Bears aren’t exactly sure what they’re getting. I see him as a deluxe Rex Grossman with scrambling skills maxed out, but as a passer, he’s either Good Mitch or Bad Mitch each week. If the Eagles can pressure him and force him into mistakes, then they have a great shot of advancing as a true underdog this year.

Something I really like about the Bears under Matt Nagy is that they haven’t had a bad game yet this season. They finished 12-4, but they lost two games in overtime. They blew a huge lead in Week 1 against Green Bay and would have won that game if Kyle Fuller held onto Aaron Rodgers’ interception late. They would have beat the Dolphins with a field goal in overtime. They had a Hail Mary completed to the 1-yard line vs. New England, so maybe go for two there to win in regulation if they could have got that yard. They should have gone for two at the end of regulation against the Giants on a day Chase Daniel was QB1. Nagy, like Doug Pederson, hasn’t been afraid to try unorthodox fourth downs or two-point conversions this year. So the Bears haven’t laid any eggs this season, which is impressive for a rookie head coach with a team that hasn’t been to the playoffs since 2010.

The Eagles definitely win out at big-game experience, but I’ll trust the Bears to deliver on defense at home. The Bears are 12-0 when allowing fewer than 24 points this year (0-4 when allowing 24+). The Eagles have gotten to 24 points in Foles’ last three starts, but none of those defenses are on the level of Chicago.

Final: Bears 26, Eagles 19

In the end, I’m going with road dogs on Saturday with the better quarterbacks and the top two scoring defenses at home on Sunday.

2018 Full NFL Playoff Predictions

Here is my crack at predicting the whole tournament.

Wild Card:

  • Colts over Texans
  • Seahawks over Cowboys
  • Ravens over Chargers
  • Bears over Eagles

Divisional:

  • Chiefs over Colts
  • Saints over Seahawks
  • Patriots over Ravens
  • Rams over Bears

Conference Championship:

  • Chiefs over Patriots
  • Saints over Rams

Super Bowl LIII

  • Saints over Chiefs (Super Bowl MVP: Drew Brees)

As always, every postseason has its own narrative and I tried to craft one here but still couldn’t force too many upsets. I honestly think the Colts can win in KC and same with Baltimore in New England, but I’ll go with home-field advantage in the AFC again. After the two No. 1 seeds squaring off (with the better defense winning and the Drew Brees fanboys celebrating his Super Bowl MVP over Patrick Mahomes’ regular season MVP), my 2nd pick for the Super Bowl would actually be McVay and the Rams beating Belichick and the Patriots. That’d be the second year in a row an NFC team with a second-year head coach outdid the Patriots on the big stage. Then again, I can just as easily see the Bears knocking off the Rams in the divisional round to create a much different McVay narrative (0-2 at home!), but I can’t wait to see how things play out here.

One final look at my 2018 results, which were pretty good on straight up picks at least.

wk1-17

NFL Week 7 Predictions: With or Without Gronk Edition

Not feeling great this Saturday, so just time for a look at the game of the week.

Patriots at Bears

The Patriots are playing an Andy Reid-style offense for the second week in a row after allowing 40 points to the Chiefs (again) last week. The Bears are not nearly as talented at the skill positions, and Trubisky is a big downgrade from Patrick Mahomes, but I think the Bears can score 27+ on that defense. Plus it’s not like we haven’t seen so-so quarterbacks with a little mobility pick apart the Patriots before. See Blake Bortles this year or Jay Cutler last December. Home-field advantage should also help, though the Bears fans need to get up for this one against an unfamiliar opponent.

What would concern me is that the Patriots can usually neutralize one great pass-rusher on a defense (see games vs. J.J. Watt). The Bears don’t have a great running mate to help Khalil Mack out, and they weren’t even able to sack Brock Osweiler last week as he hit a career-high in passing yardage. Akiem Hicks isn’t a bad player, but if Mack can’t get pressure in this one, then it could get ugly. At least the Bears have been getting takeaways again, and in fact have had multiple takeaways in each game. They’ll need that against the Patriots, who aren’t protecting the ball as well this year (10 TO in six games) as in the past.

Perhaps the great equalizer is Rob Gronkowski missing the game, which sounds like it could be the case after he didn’t travel with the team. Gronk has missed 30 games in his career that Tom Brady started since 2010, and the splits with him in and out of the game are very interesting.

GronkWO.JPG

Gronk being in the game raises Brady’s YPA by almost a full yard. Without Gronk, his numbers slip below the league average in completion percentage and YPA. The passer rating (87.7) is barely above league average in those 30 games. The QBR also shoots up 12 whole points with Gronk. He’s the league’s greatest cheat code among receiving weapons. The Bears can only be so lucky for him to miss this game.

I just can’t bring myself to trust Trubisky yet (in his first NE game) to sustain long drives, convert third downs, and finish in the red zone to take down a Belichick team that’s picking up steam. Beyond losing Gronk, don’t ignore that the running game has been very effective behind Sony Michel as of late, and they still have Josh Gordon, James White, Julian Edelman, Chris Hogan, etc. Maybe none of those players can replicate the insane YAC skills Albert Wilson showed off last week to bolster that Osweiler stat line, but that game gives me pause about trusting Chicago as a legit contender so quickly. Not to mention we have not seen good game management from Matt Nagy in holding these 11+ point leads against Green Bay and Miami (both lost).

Final: Patriots 27, Bears 23

NFL Week 7 Predictions

I had Denver winning on TNF, but did not expect Arizona to put up one of the worst performances by any team this season. Someone had to get fired from that one, and someone (Mike McCoy, again) did.

2018Wk7

I’m feeling a teaser this week with Titans (rebound from 11-sack disaster), Dolphins, Panthers, Colts, Jets to not lose by more than 10, and I really like Dallas in Washington. I also think Drew Brees can notch a win over the Ravens for the first time in his career. I know I should go with the home team that plays defense there, but I think the Saints are a complete offense and can get it done in any way possible with the running back duo and Brees with his receivers. As long as the D isn’t getting killed deep by the likes of John Brown, I like the Saints there.

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NFL Week 1 Predictions: Awards Edition

NFL 2018 Award Predictions

Let’s start with my picks for the top awards this season. I was 0-for-8 last year after Aaron Rodgers, David Johnson and J.J. Watt all suffered serious injuries before Week 6 ended.

  • Most Valuable Player: Aaron Rodgers, Packers
  • Coach of the Year: Mike Zimmer, Vikings
  • Assistant Coach of the Year: Teryl Austin, Bengals
  • Offensive Player of the Year: Aaron Rodgers, Packers
  • Defensive Player of the Year: Jalen Ramsey, Jaguars
  • Offensive Rookie of the Year: Saquon Barkley, Giants
  • Defensive Rookie of the Year: Derwin James, Chargers
  • Comeback Player of the Year: Deshaun Watson, Texans

For comeback player, I’m sticking with my predictions that have the Texans edging out the Colts for the playoffs, so Deshaun Watson gets it over Andrew Luck (another great candidate for that) after proving he is the real deal over a full season. I had Aaron Rodgers as MVP last year, and I think that had a decent shot had he not broke his collarbone again. Give Rodgers a mediocre defense and a soft schedule and I think he’ll be on top of things again this year. I struggled with the coaches because I didn’t really pick surprise teams to come out of nowhere this season. So I’m sticking with my No. 1 seed in the NFC in Minnesota as Zimmer wins again with another quarterback.

NFL Week 1 Thoughts

Steelers at Browns

The weather for this one sounds brutal with a ton of rain in the area this weekend. I’d imagine they’ll keep the field in better working condition than the time Heinz Field had a 3-0 game with Miami in town (when the punt stuck in the ground). But it could be pretty nasty so I definitely like the under in this one.

It was only a 21-18 win by Pittsburgh in Week 1 last year, one of Cleveland’s closest calls on the way to 0-16. The offense scored just 14 points after getting a punt blocked for a touchdown to start things. That’s right, even with Le’Veon Bell, who finished with 10 carries for 32 yards, the Steelers’ starting offense scored 14 points on the Browns last year.

That’s why I’m hoping people can be rational, especially if the field is a mess, if the results of this game are not favorable to the offense with Bell holding out. For one, I think James Conner will be just fine in his absence. But as I just showed, the bar was already set so low for the offense with Bell in Cleveland last year. You know the Browns, with a much improved roster, will be fired up to finally win a game by beating their hated rival. If Myles Garrett and company wreck the line like they did a year ago, it wouldn’t matter if Bell was playing or not.

So I’m a bit worried about the outcome of this one driving a ton of irrational “Pay the man!” and “This is what you get Steelers!” hot takes. Since 2014 the Steelers are 12-6 without Bell. They score just about as many points without him as they do with him. Let’s not act like Mike Tomlin and Ben Roethlisberger haven’t had first-round bye seasons and been to multiple Super Bowls before Bell.

As long as the offensive line plays well, Conner should be just fine. However, this is a game the Steelers should win on the road against a team not expected to be anything this year. So you know I’m already skeptical of a good performance coming from Pittsburgh in this one. If the weather evens the playing field even more, well we could be looking at the upset of the week right here.

Texans at Patriots

This was one of the better matchups in 2017, a game that Houston should have won had it not dropped a late interception by Tom Brady. That was only Deshaun Watson’s second start and our first glimpse at just how exciting he can be as a dual-threat quarterback. He threw for over 300 yards in that game and had the Texans over 30 points in Foxboro, a very difficult feat to pull off. I’m excited to see him and J.J. Watt back, but the Patriots have done a very good job of limiting Watt in past matchups. It’s also a fact that we haven’t really seen Watt playing at a high level since the 2015 season.

DeAndre Hopkins won’t have Malcolm Butler to deal with, but the Patriots still have Stephon Gilmore and will likely make Houston’s other receivers try to beat them. Will Fuller did not play in that game last season. I’m interested to see how the Patriots operate without Julian Edelman (suspended) and Danny Amendola (Miami). At least Edelman will be back soon, but for a month they’ll have to go without one of their prototypical slot receivers. They still have Chris Hogan, Gronkowski and the receiving backs, but it’s another new-look offense for the Patriots, albeit one that’s less impressive than last year’s.

Bears at Packers

I usually groan at this matchup that we probably get in prime-time every single year, but this one could actually be good on Sunday night. Aaron Rodgers is back, which is the only storyline Green Bay really needs. The Bears have a new offensive-minded coach, Mitchell Trubisky is no longer a rookie stuck in a dead-ball passing offense, they have noteworthy receivers again, and they managed to add Khalil Mack. The Bears should finally be watchable again, but how about good?

I think the Packers should feel very fortunate that they get this home game in Week 1. Chicago should be a much better team later in the season when the offense gets to mature together under Nagy. You get Mack and rookie Roquan Smith arriving very late in the preseason, so that too can take time to get the front seven going. I think they can give Green Bay a good fight tomorrow night, because most teams do with the Packers these days. But I wouldn’t count on an upset just yet unless Mack is an absolute monster to spoil several drives for Rodgers.

NFL Week 1 Predictions

I’ll be picking every game against the spread this season. In my first partial season of trying that, I finished 60-59-5 (basically .500) last year. I’m looking to do better, but I already am 0-1 after picking the Falcons to win by a touchdown in Philadelphia, forgetting about the cursed red zone.

2018Wk1

NFL Week 8 Predictions: Saints in Primetime and Losing My Fandom

The NFL’s Week 8 schedule is pretty solid, so here are some thoughts on a few key games.

Packers at Saints: Prime-time Advantage?

I’ve always been better at predicting the AFC than the NFC, but the 2014 Saints have especially let me down this year. I had this team pegged for a first-round bye with an improved defense and Drew Brees finally winning his first MVP. Instead the Saints are 2-4, Rob Ryan’s defense is terrible and Brees has made some really poor throws in crucial spots. The Saints are also 0-3 at upholding one-score leads in the fourth quarter.

You might think Sunday’s game with Green Bay is a must win, but the whole NFC South has been a huge letdown this season. Look at how bad the Carolina defense has regressed. The Falcons were supposed to be improved, but look arguably worse than last year in recent weeks. Tampa Bay has already had two of the worst performances in recent time by an NFL team. At this rate the division will have a 7-9 winner stealing a playoff game (at home even) from a more deserving club. Hell, it might even come at the expense of the Seahawks.

If the Saints are going to climb back into things, they’ll do it with a statement win at home over a hot Packers team. In case you’ve been living under a rock, the Saints, and especially Brees, have been deadly in prime-time games in the Superdome:

BreesSD

That’s special stuff. The Saints are great at home in general, but some of their best games have come under the bright lights.

I expect Brees to have another fine day, but I don’t expect the Saints to stop the Packers enough when Aaron Rodgers has the ball.

Final prediction:  Packers 38, Saints 31

Bears at Patriots: Upset Alert?

I can’t figure out the 2014 Bears either. They’re 0-3 at home and aren’t scoring enough points despite one of the best supporting casts in the league and a coach, Marc Trestman, I want to believe is the right guy for the job. After last week’s loss to Miami, I find it hard to pick Chicago many more times this year. Heading to New England, I really don’t see a win, but let’s play the ebb-and-flow game.

The Bears just had a miserable loss and there’s some tension in the locker room apparently with Brandon Marshall mouthing off last week. Brian Urlacher has criticized Jay Cutler this week by saying he’s only elite in salary, which is a very true statement. The Bears aren’t in a good spot now, but I believe in talented teams turning things around. This isn’t asking for JaMarcus Russell to suddenly play well on a rotten Oakland team. I’m just looking for Cutler, Marshall, Jeffery, Forte and Bennett to score 24+ points on a New England defense missing the likes of Jerod Mayo and Chandler Jones. Let’s not forget the Patriots have barely squeaked by the Raiders and Jets at home this year. This team isn’t dominant. Chicago has the weapons to make this a high-scoring game and if the Bears can win the turnover battle, I think they’ll win the game.

But it’s still Jay Cutler and that’s why I expect multiple interceptions in Foxboro and a 3-5 record for the Bears. But it would be so New England to have a shocking home loss to be followed up with a win over the best team in the league next week (Denver).

Final prediction: Bears 20, Patriots 27

Colts at Steelers: Who Do I Really Like?

The Colts and Steelers are meeting for just the fifth time since the 2003 season. It was actually during their 2002 meeting, a 28-10 Pittsburgh win, that I started to appreciate the Colts with Peyton Manning and Tony Dungy. I guess I had enough of the Kordell Stewart  “run, run, incomplete pass, punt” offense and was drawn to Manning’s passing and no-huddle offense approach. So you might think I’m conflicted with which team to root for this weekend. That’s been true in the past, especially in the 2005 playoffs — one of the toughest days of my football-viewing life — and the 2008 meeting.

But on Sunday, I frankly don’t care who wins the game. You can say I’m outgrowing my fandom, and the consistent stream of .500 results from the Steelers has done a good job of accelerating that. I’m not going to drop the line of “I have 32 favorite teams now because I’m a writer”, because that’s a bunch of bullshit. But really, I don’t care who wins this one. I just want to see a good game and I think this can be one with both teams scoring in the 20’s.

These teams have changed quite a bit since the 2011 meeting, which I only bring up because it was the night Curtis Painter almost beat the Steelers and Jonathan Scott tried to block Dwight Freeney with his ass.

It didn’t work out on Monday, but I think this is the first time I’m picking against the Steelers in back-to-back home games. Indianapolis is better on both sides of the ball and has been playing better coming into this game. I expect the Colts will have a good day offensively as long as they control their turnovers. The real matchup is the Pittsburgh offense against Indianapolis’ surprisingly good defense. Two areas I see as a concern are handling the Colts’ blitz on third down and throwing deep. They don’t have Robert Mathis so they’re being really creative with sending guys from anywhere to get pressure, and it’s been working. The Steelers haven’t protected Ben Roethlisberger well (statement pasted from a clipboard) and this could be a game where he takes 5+ sacks (also from a clipboard). Ben’s deep passing has been lacking the last few weeks in regards to his sideline throws. He’s not keeping them in bounds. He did hit a nice one down the seam to Martavis Bryant on Monday, but I think he’s going to have a hard time on those throws against Indy’s cornerbacks, who are playing very well right now.

Final prediction: Colts 27, Steelers 23

NFL Week 8 Predictions

I had Denver on TNF, but again I would have been screwed on the point spread. That’s the first time in 15 meetings Peyton Manning has beat the Chargers by more than 11 points, and the first time he’s beat them by more than 8 points without a defensive touchdown.

Winners in bold:

  • Lions at Falcons
  • Dolphins at Jaguars
  • Ravens at Bengals
  • Vikings at Buccaneers
  • Seahawks at Panthers
  • Bills at Jets
  • Bears at Patriots
  • Rams at Chiefs
  • Texans at Titans
  • Eagles at Cardinals
  • Colts at Steelers
  • Raiders at Browns
  • Packers at Saints
  • Redskins at Cowboys

Really tough call with Vikings-Bucs. Teddy Bridgewater definitely had an easy time with a bad defense (ATL) and struggled with the good ones (DET/BUF). The Bucs are a rotten one, but I’m leaning on home-field, bye week improvements and a big game from Gerald McCoy here. I also think Mike Glennon is solid. It’s the defense that’s the bigger problem, which is the opposite of what you should have expected in Tampa Bay this season.

Season Results

  • Week 1: 8-8
  • Week 2: 9-7
  • Week 3: 11-5
  • Week 4: 8-5
  • Week 5: 11-4
  • Week 6: 9-5-1
  • Week 7: 10-5
  • Total: 66-39-1