NFL Stat Oddity: Week 7

I knew we were in for a rough two weeks of NFL action, but I didn’t think it would be this bad. While Week 6 only featured five games with a comeback opportunity, at least it ended on a high note on Monday night between the Bills and Titans. But in Week 7, we’ve had just three of the 12 games feature a comeback opportunity. That’s eight games in two weeks after there were 11 close games in just Week 5.

That’s why announcers need to stop playing up the number of overtime games or this cutesy stat about a record number of games where the winning points were scored in the final minute – again, something directly correlated to the overtimes. This season is not giving us many close games and I have some theories below on why that is the case.

Going into Monday night, the average margin of victory in Week 7 is 18.6 points. That ranks as the third-highest week (regular season only) since 2001, only trailing Week 7 in 2009 (20.3) and Week 15 in 2012 (18.7). As long as Seahawks-Saints is decided by at least six points, it will stay as the third-highest week in the 21st century.

Without gambling, a lot of these games would be unwatchable. Hell, even with it I’m having a hard time.

This season in Stat Oddity:

Cardinals/Rams/Bucs: Big Favorites Win in Top-Heavy NFC Race

I wrote on Saturday how big favorites (11+ points) almost never all cover the spread. It happened again as the Cardinals hit scorigami with a 31-5 win over Houston and the Bears repeatedly gave Tampa Bay a shortcut to the end zone, but the Rams had a tight one with the Lions before finally winning 28-19 in one of the only two 4QC/GWD this week. Go figure, Matthew Stafford had his 40th game-winning drive against his former team.

Stafford had a nice revenge game but hats off to Dan Campbell for coaching the Lions the way a huge underdog should approach a David vs. Goliath matchup like this. He had a surprise onside kick and fake punt in the first quarter as Detroit led 10-0. Jared Goff had arguably his best game of the season, but in the end, Goff goofed in the red zone and threw an interception to Jalen Ramsey when he had a chance to throw a go-ahead touchdown.

It did not feel like the Cardinals brought their A-game against the Texans, but the fact that they still won 31-5 and got all their main weapons, including new tight end Zach Ertz, involved for touchdowns tells you just how bad Houston is. Huge game coming up Thursday against Green Bay. Kyler Murray took a lot of big hits in this game, but he should be okay for Thursday. It’ll be a great opportunity for the Cardinals to show how serious they are as Super Bowl contenders in a prime-time game with a chance to go 8-0.

Chicago basically TKO’d itself in the first quarter in Tampa Bay, spotting Tom Brady three possessions inside the 40 in the first quarter alone. Tampa Bay ended up starting six drives inside Chicago territory in the game. Half the league came into Week 7 without six such drives on the season. It was last season when the Buccaneers had a league-high 23 drives start inside the opponent 40 when you add in the six they had in the playoffs. Now they had five such drives in this game, scoring three touchdowns and a field goal on them. Teams have no shot if they’re going to keep gifting the Bucs these short fields. I’ll be surprised if Matt Nagy survives the season in Chicago.

But this does create a very interesting NFC where the Cardinals are 7-0, the Rams and Bucs are 6-1, and the Cowboys (on a bye) are 5-1. Those four teams have only lost to each other with the Cowboys losing to a late field goal in Tampa Bay, and the Bucs were blown out by the Rams, who were blown out by the Cardinals. The Packers are also 6-1 but we’ll see how they fare against Arizona this week and the Rams in Week 12.

Chiefs at Titans: STOP THE COUNT! Kansas City Is Dazed and Confused

Was that the worst game of Patrick Mahomes’ NFL career?

It was the question we asked after the Chiefs scored 17 points and barely beat the Falcons in Week 16 last year to clinch the No. 1 seed.

Was that the worst game of Patrick Mahomes’ NFL career?

It was the question we asked after the Chiefs lost 31-9 in Super Bowl 55 against Tampa Bay, the first time Mahomes lost by more than eight points and the offense failed to score a touchdown.

Was that the worst game of Patrick Mahomes’ NFL career?

It was the question we asked after the Chiefs lost 38-20 at home to the Bills in Week 5 with Mahomes having more turnover problems in the worst home loss of his career.

Was that the worst game of Patrick Mahomes’ NFL career?

It is the question of the day after the Chiefs lost 27-3 in Tennessee, the first wire-to-wire loss in Mahomes’ career, and the answer is undoubtedly yes. This is the lowest point of the Mahomes era in Kansas City. But can it get lower?

It is not a good sign that this question about the worst game has come up four times in the last 11 starts for Mahomes. But for the first time since Week 12 against Buffalo in 2017, the Chiefs failed to hold a lead in a game. That snaps a streak of 68 straight games with a lead. The only known streak longer than that in NFL history is the first 70 starts of the Russell Wilson era in Seattle.

Never losing wire-to-wire was about the last streak the Chiefs had left. While I picked the Titans to win on Sunday, I never expected a 27-0 score at halftime, or that the Chiefs would score the only points of the second half on a field goal. Stopping Derrick Henry (29 carries for 86 yards) was about the only thing the Chiefs did well, but that seemed to make them bad against everything else as Ryan Tannehill had plenty of open receivers and time to throw, and Henry even faked a run for a touchdown pass to start the game. The Titans just beat Buffalo with great offense, but it’s not like the defense was masterful outside of stopping a couple late Josh Allen runs. But three points to the Chiefs? Really?

Sacks and turnovers led the Chiefs to self-destruct in the first half. Mahomes had another tipped interception but also lost a fumble on a scramble at midfield. The Chiefs never really threatened in the second half, and Mahomes had to leave the game after getting sandwiched on a nasty hit (but not illegal or intentionally violent) to the face as he was going down. Mecole Hardman fumbling at the Tennessee 6 to end the game and ensure that the Chiefs would not score a touchdown and have another turnover to add to their league-high total was the perfect ending for this shitshow.

The Chiefs are 3-4, in real danger of missing the playoffs, and they don’t scare any contender in the AFC anymore after losing to the Ravens, Chargers, Bills, and Titans. Of course, that tough schedule is having a big impact on this poor start to the season. The Chiefs could potentially face 11 games against playoff teams this season, which (albeit with a 17th game added in 2021) would tie the single-season record by the 1993 Buccaneers.

I’ve compared Mahomes to Peyton Manning many times already, but one thing I have repeatedly noted is that the only two ways Manning ever missed the playoffs in his career (1998 and 2001) was to have a schedule with 10 playoff teams and the worst scoring defense in the NFL. Well, the 2021 Chiefs are looking an awful lot like the 2001 Colts right now with the terrible defense and having a ton of turnovers.

Those Colts finished 6-10 and fired head coach Jim Mora, who delivered his infamous “playoffs!?” speech that season. I don’t know if these Chiefs are headed for that fate, but I do know you can no longer trust this team against any decent opponent. The invincibility is gone. The mystique is gone.

Until further notice, the Chiefs are just another struggling NFL team that’s a one-unit show on a good day and a total mess on a bad day. Sunday was another bad day, and to think it was just last December when we used to say the Chiefs never had bad games under Mahomes.

Bengals at Ravens: Biggest Cincinnati Win in How Long?

You can make the argument that the Bengals just had their biggest win in over 30 years on Sunday in Baltimore. The Bengals have not won a playoff game since the 1990 season. From 1991-2020, the Bengals had just 17 wins against teams that made the playoffs in a season where Cincinnati also made the playoffs. Winning in Pittsburgh in December 2005 was a really big deal as it helped the Bengals win the AFC North that year, but you can absolutely make the argument that this 41-17 demolition of the Ravens in Baltimore tops that one.

At worst, it’s the second-biggest Cincinnati win in over 30 years.

Remember, the Ravens were 5-1 and just got a ton of hype for beating the Chargers 34-6 a week ago. You know, last week’s hyped AFC team as this thing changes every week now.

For three quarters, this was living up to being the game of the week on paper (garbage week withstanding). Both quarterbacks were dealing with good pressure before they started to make plays down the field in a back-and-forth affair. But once Ja’Marr Chase took off for an 82-yard touchdown to highlight his monster 201-yard day, the Bengals led by double digits for the final 20 minutes.

While a much different game script, this performance from Joe Burrow (career-high 416 yards) and the offense reminds me of this 2004 game by Carson Palmer against Baltimore when he threw for 382 yards and the light seemed to click for him late in his first season as a starter. Burrow and Chase look like they have been doing this for much longer than they have, and that’s even acknowledging their one magical year together at LSU. This is one of the top duos to watch right now.

As for the Ravens, the injuries have clearly not helped this season. The defense cannot be trusted like it used to be, though I thought the Chargers performance was encouraging on that front. They went backwards this week. Still, part of me wonders if the increase in blowouts this season has something to do with the record number of fourth-down attempts we are seeing.

The Ravens were down 27-17 in the fourth quarter with 11:43 to play. They faced a 4th-and-7 at their own 38. In past years, this would almost certainly be a punt. Pin them deep, get the ball back in a few minutes down 10 and go from there. But the Ravens went for it and didn’t get it. It’s not a terrible call since giving up the field goal does not change much, but giving up a 38-yard touchdown drive to an offense that was hot basically ended the game with just over nine minutes left. I feel that in past years, John Harbaugh punts that ball and gets it back 27-17 later. But not these Ravens.

Baltimore then failed on a 4th-and-15 from their own 33, setting up another short field for the Bengals to add yet another touchdown to produce the 41-17 final. The game was closer than that score suggests, but these failed fourth downs really sparked the rout this became. I cannot say if that is happening at the league-wide level more than usual this year, but I felt the risky fourth downs deep in their own end is what sunk the Chargers so quickly (34-6) in Baltimore a week ago.

It is something to keep in mind this season as we see teams winning by huge margins quite regularly now. But I will be careful in anointing the Bengals as the team to beat in the AFC. I don’t think such a thing exists right now. These Bengals struggled like hell with the Jaguars during their 20-game losing streak just three weeks ago.

I think it’s just proof that the AFC is up for grabs, and it will not run through Kansas City like it has the last three seasons as hosts of the AFC Championship Game. And competition is a very good thing for this league. You want to see the Bengals’ fortune change after a couple smart picks at the top of the draft from LSU.

As I said in the beginning, this franchise has almost no huge wins in the last three decades. I’m okay with Cincinnati fans wanting to celebrate the hell out of this one. They just have to lose to the Jets next week and the Bizarro AFC is back on track in 2021. The days of one team dominating are over.

Hurry-Up Finish

Some quick thoughts as I have more articles to write before I get to sleep.

Washington Meets Cruel Regression

Coming into Week 7, offenses were 15-for-15 at scoring touchdowns on the Packers in the red zone. Obviously, the Packers were going to get some red-zone stops eventually this season. But the comedy of errors that led to Washington going 0-for-4 in the red zone was too much. The highlight was Taylor Heinicke doing a Lambeau Leap, since of course he idolized Brett Favre, only for the drive to end in no points after he was ruled to give himself up short of the end zone (stupid rule), and then fumbled at the goal line and was stopped short again on fourth down. Washington was a respectable 10-of-16 in the red zone this year coming into the game, but what a disastrous outing in a 24-10 loss that should have been much closer.

The Jets Backup Is the Creator of The White Lotus?

I’m not sure how the Jets came into this season with Mike White as the backup behind rookie Zach Wilson, but that was another mistake for a team that somehow remains the worst in the NFL despite getting rid of Adam Gase and Sam Darnold (a pumpkin in his own right who was benched on Sunday). The Patriots toyed with the Jets on their way to scoring 54 points (seven touchdowns and two field goals on 10 drives). Three players threw a pass, six players registered a rush, and 11 players caught a pass.

Defund the Eagles

Philly really let Derek Carr complete 31-of-34 passes with Darren Waller inactive. The Eagles might be the worst team in the NFC East. I’m still not buying the Raiders until I see them come out of this upcoming stretch (KC/CIN/DAL) with a good record intact.

Atlanta Almost Did It Again

You know it’s a weird week when the Falcons had one of the only two fourth-quarter comeback wins. Of course, it came after the team blew a 13-point lead that never should have been a 13-point lead. Someone needs to teach Arthur Smith that you go for two when up 12 in the fourth quarter. That extra point and 13-point lead kept the door open for Miami, but fortunately Matt Ryan was on point to Kyle Pitts (163 yards) and came through with a game-winning drive.

Wentz Wagon Rebuilding

As soon as I paid Carson Wentz a compliment on Twitter, he tried to throw four interceptions in the next 25 minutes. But the rain made it extra tough on the 49ers and Colts on Sunday night, and he made enough plays to get the win. It’s still the best month of his career and not one of his overrated three-or-four game stretches like the beginning of his career, the end of the 2019 season, or any of his best runs in 2017. Frank Reich’s offense is working out for him, and you just wonder if the Colts dug too big of a hole at 0-3 for it to matter this season.

Next week: Island games that look good or will they be mirages too? Can we at least get some more competitive, close games?

NFL Stat Oddity: Week 4

You know what this 2021 NFL season is missing? More close games that end in failure by one team, such as the Vikings’ failed comeback attempt in a 14-7 loss to the Browns. It was a shock to see The Kevin Stefanski Bowl end with 21 points on 22 drives, but Baker Mayfield was inaccurate, and the Browns got through Minnesota’s line with ease. But there was Kirk Cousins with a whopping five drive attempts in the fourth quarter, trying to get that elusive touchdown and never doing so.

There were only six games in Week 4 with a comeback opportunity, and one of them was in the Jacksonville-Cincinnati game on Thursday night. Joe Burrow left that one with the first fourth-quarter comeback win of his NFL career. Urban Meyer left for some college comforts at the bar.

But the funny thing is NFL teams are now 19-24 (.442) at comeback opportunities in 2021. In each of the last two seasons, that success rate was just about 30% like it usually is. Now we are seeing closer to a coin flip this season and I think part of the problem is a lack of close games overall as we’ve only had 28 through Week 4.

Some games have been quasi-close with the leading team having the ball in the fourth quarter before extending to a two-score lead or running out the clock. I do not specifically track that number of games weekly, but I might need to start if this keeps up.

This season in Stat Oddity:

Buccaneers at Patriots: Now We Can Get on with the Important Games

After hearing for a week how this was the most “anticipated game of the season” and to see more promos for it than any non-Super Bowl game, you just know I have to vent a bit now that it’s over.

Yes, the most over-hyped regular-season game in NFL history is behind us, but I have to give them credit for playing a competitive, 60-minute game. The low-scoring chess match between Tom Brady and Bill Belichick was at least compelling, and the rain and injuries evened the playing field a bit for an outmatched New England roster.

If only we could have seen the Patriots win a game despite rushing for minus-1 yard (franchise record) and being minus-two in turnovers. But Brady getting his 50th fourth-quarter comeback win at the expense of a coaching blunder and missed field goal in that stadium was all too familiar.

This was really just the fourth all-time matchup of a legendary quarterback returning to face his former team, but on paper it was the weakest one of them all with Brady (of course) having the biggest advantages.

  • Joe Montana (1994 Chiefs) had to overcome a 49ers team led by MVP Steve Young in a 24-17 game where he threw for two touchdowns and a 101.9 passer rating.
  • Brett Favre (2009 Vikings) returned to Lambeau Field to take on the Aaron Rodgers-led Packers in a 38-26 win where he threw four touchdowns and a 128.6 passer rating.
  • Peyton Manning (2013 Broncos) took his team into Indianapolis on SNF to take on Andrew Luck in a 39-33 loss where he still threw for 386 yards and three touchdowns with a 96.1 passer rating.
  • Tom Brady, as only he can, got to celebrate a 19-17 homecoming win in New England against a team with rookie Mac Jones in a game where Brady had no touchdowns and a 70.8 passer rating.

Even in something as trivial as this, Manning takes the loss because the other quarterback was fantastic against his defense while Brady played the worst and still gets the only game-winning drive credit.

It never fails, does it? But I probably should have expected disappointment like this. I shouldn’t have expected Brady to throw for 300-plus yards and three or four touchdowns to his assortment of weapons. After all, Brady and Belichick have given us several of the lowest-scoring Super Bowls in NFL history, including 13-3 against the 2018 Rams. Brady just came off a 31-9 Super Bowl win. He’s the “we’re only going to score 17 points?” quarterback from Super Bowl 42 against the Giants, flopping hard on the big stage as he tried to throw deep and make memorable highlight plays to get to 19-0.

I saw some of that in this game as Brady’s deep ball was off. He was throwing high often. He had receivers open almost every play and adequate protection, but the rain and unprecedented emotions he was feeling about the situation probably played a bigger role than any specific game plan by Belichick. You could also tell Brady was missing Rob Gronkowski as the connection to Cameron Brate in particular looked out of sync. I’m not sure why Brady was throwing deep late to Antonio Brown other than to stick it to Belichick, because that was strategically the wrong move even if Brown had a good shot at making one of those throws a touchdown.

It was just not an impressive performance, and in hindsight, it makes those ridiculous props of Brady throwing for 555 yards or seven touchdowns look even funnier for this game.

You could easily argue that Mac Jones outplayed Brady on what was supposed to be his night. Jones even made a lot of classic Brady plays with the screens and play-action to a wide-open tight end to start the fourth quarter with a touchdown that put the Patriots on top. Jones even put the ball into danger multiple times on a go-ahead drive in the fourth, but the Buccaneers and their ravaged secondary did not make him pay. He completed 19 passes in a row at one point, tying Brady’s career-long streak. It’s too early for anyone to say if Jones is going to be the real deal, but you have to feel better with him after this game than you did a week ago when he played the Saints.

But Brady still gets the win after Belichick of all people mismanaged the final drive. The rain was coming down good at this point with New England down 19-17. Jones just had a pass knocked down to set up 4th-and-3 at the Tampa Bay 37 with 59 seconds left. The Buccaneers had a couple timeouts. You could try the 56-yard field goal, but that cannot be any better than a 50/50 shot, and it would leave Brady with nearly a minute (plus timeouts) to answer. That sounds bad. But if you can convert the fourth-and-3, that should be able to set up a last-second field goal from shorter distance.

That’s what I would have gone for, but Belichick reportedly did not even think about it. He sent out Nick Folk and the 56-yard field goal hit the left upright with 55 seconds left. Game over. Kickers are now 0-for-7 on clutch field goals of 50-plus yards against a Brady-led team. Folk has three of those seven misses, which only includes field goals in the final half of the fourth quarter or any time in overtime, tied or down 1-3 points). While this would have been a bigger miracle kick than most, it’s just something how Brady literally never ends up on the wrong side of these finishes.

In trying to find an old tweet, I stumbled on this research of mine that said the Patriots were 47-1 at home from 2001-2017 when a team threw 40 passes. That record was 53-1 a game into the 2019 season, but the Patriots have since gone 0-4 in these games, losing to Patrick Mahomes (Chiefs) and Ryan Fitzpatrick (Dolphins) with Brady at quarterback in 2019, and getting blown out by Josh Allen and the Bills (38-9) on Monday Night Football in 2020.

Now Brady did it to them last night on 43 throws, but he didn’t throw a touchdown pass. The record since 2001 for road teams that threw 40-plus passes without a touchdown and scoring fewer than 20 points was 8-174 (.044). Ho-hum.

With some better play in the red zone late in the game, the Patriots could easily be 3-1 right now. As I detailed in Week 1 when the Patriots lost to the Dolphins, Jones is quickly experiencing things it took years for Brady to see in New England, if he’s ever seen them at all in 22 years in the NFL. Let’s update a few of those that I said would be coming soon.

  • 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 lost in his fourth NFL start vs. Tampa Bay with a 101.6 passer rating (31-of-40 for 275 yards, 2 TD, 1 INT).
  • It took Brady 137 starts and 30 losses to lose a second game with a passer rating higher than 100.0. He was in his 10th season then (it was 4th-and-2 Night).
  • It took Jones four starts to lose a game after a clutch field goal was missed.
  • It took Brady 183 starts to lose a game after a clutch field goal was missed (it’s happened once in 348 career starts).
  • It took Jones four starts to lose a game after leading in the fourth quarter.
  • It took Brady 66 starts to lose a game after leading in the fourth quarter. He threw four interceptions that night against the 2004 Dolphins, a 2-11 team.

A couple things I can say with certainty about Jones so far. He won’t melt in the rain like Davis Mills did for the Texans in Buffalo. But he’s also not destined to be the LOAT like Brady is. If he was, then he would have willed Folk to drill that kick followed by some random defender to intercept Brady to end the game.

This would have been a hell of a win for the Patriots, but now they can just focus on improving and getting back to winning important games in the AFC. Taking the division back from Buffalo. Frustrating Patrick Mahomes and the Chiefs better than most have. All the Brady stuff is in the past and the Patriots have to cope with mediocrity for now.

You can’t take a picture of this – it’s already gone.

Steelers at Packers: The Standard Is the Standard

What did the Steelers do differently this week in Green Bay compared to their last 10 games with a broken offense? They scored an opening-drive touchdown! Ben Roethlisberger threw a dime for 45 yards to Diontae Johnson to take an early 7-0 lead.

Unfortunately, this was not a sign of things to come as the normal broken offense returned for the rest of the game. The defense had another letdown before halftime for the fourth week in a row, and the Packers led 27-10 in the third quarter after Aaron Rodgers went on a hot five-drive scoring streak to put up all of Green Bay’s points.

Najee Harris scored a late touchdown for the Steelers to make it 27-17, but it was too little too late after a couple more horrible fourth-down throws short of the sticks. The only reason I can think of Roethlisberger turning into Alex Smith this season is that he doesn’t want to throw more interceptions, since those tend to get quarterbacks benched. But his quick throws on fourth down that lose yards are unheard of. He never had such a play in his whole career, but he now has such a completion in back-to-back games.

But maybe no play better symbolizes how broken this offense is than this 2-yard completion to JuJu Smith-Schuster on 4th-and-5 where he extends the ball as far as he could and is still multiple yards short of the marker.

You have to love how taking a screenshot on Game Pass is worthless these days since the player details won’t disappear even after 10 seconds. App is about as worthless as this Pittsburgh offense.

Not pictured: James Washington pointing like JuJu got the first down. Hilarious. Sad. Fvcked.

In eight of their last 10 games following last year’s 11-0 start, the Steelers have allowed 23-27 points. In seven of their last 10 games, the Pittsburgh offense has scored 10-17 points. This consistency of being so painfully below average on offense and also below average on defense is just ridiculous.

And yet I still say anyone who thinks benching the future Hall of Famer with a cap number just south of $26 million this year for Mason Rudolph or Dwayne Haskins is crazy if they think that solves anything. It is broken and this coaching staff is not qualified to fix it.

NFC West: Tough Day for the McVay and Shanahan Fanboys

While I was busy hate-watching Steelers-Packers, the first two NFC West showdowns of the season took place. Both road dogs, the Seahawks and Cardinals, came through with big wins in games that were far from classics, but they could be seen as real turning points for these franchises in what has been the NFL’s most competitive division since 2012.

Los Angeles’ Sean McVay was 8-0 against Arizona and all but one of those games was won by double digits. He has Matthew Stafford now and they just had that outstanding win over Tampa Bay. I certainly let all of that play into my decision making for betting on this game, but I couldn’t have been more wrong on this one.

The Cardinals just went in there and kicked their ass in a 37-20 final that was never closer than 11 points in the second half. Arizona just may have built something special here as this is the high point of the Kliff Kingsbury era so far. The Cardinals have produced at least 31 points and 400 yards of offense in each of their first four games. That’s only been done by the 2007 Patriots, 2011 Patriots, and 2013 Broncos in NFL history. Two of those teams set the single-season scoring record and all three lost the Super Bowl.

Why not Arizona in the Super Bowl this season? This is what you draft a quarterback like Kyler Murray No. 1 overall for. Murray (80.4) finished sixth in QBR this week – his third top-six game in four weeks – while Stafford (50.2) was 17th in his weakest game yet for the Rams. The Los Angeles running game produced 17 carries for 100 yards, so you could argue it was their best running game of the season. Yet Stafford still had his worst passing game. The Rams were sitting on 13 points until a drive in garbage time. Robert Woods had 30 yards and a touchdown on that final drive but only 18 yards before it. He is averaging just 43 yards per game with Stafford this year, making it one of the least-productive months of his career. That connection has just not taken off yet, and even the Stafford-to-Cooper Kupp connection was off in this one. Cupp had 64 yards on 13 targets.

This will continue to be one of the more fascinating parts of 2021 as so far the running success seems to have no correlation with how Stafford is doing in that game each week. But the Rams were outclassed on both sides of the ball, and this team still has a ton of work to do before we think of it as the favorite in the division. That may have just transferred over to the Cardinals.

The Seahawks will still have their say in this division as long as Russell Wilson and Pete Carroll are there. After beating the 49ers again 28-21, Wilson has still never lost three games in a row in the same season. This week had a different script though. In recent weeks, the Seahawks started fast before fading. On Sunday, they punted five times to start the game, scored four touchdowns over their next six drives, then just held on while the 49ers tried to mount a 15-point comeback with Trey Lance taking over the half for an injured Jimmy Garoppolo (calf).

Lance hit on a 76-yard touchdown pass to Deebo Samuel after a hideous blown coverage, but he showed why he is a raw rookie in need of reps. It sounds like he will be getting them with Garoppolo expected to be out some time. Will it be permanent? That depends on how well Lance plays, but he’ll have to do better than this game.

But with Samuel off to a dominant start and George Kittle still healthy, Kyle Shanahan is really lacking in the excuses department if this offense does not start to take off regardless if it’s Garoppolo or Lance at quarterback.

Ravens Stop Denver from Moving to 4-0, Panthers Finally Trail This Season

No 3-0 teams surprised people more than the Panthers and Broncos, but both had to deal with legitimate offenses in their biggest challenges yet this season.

I liked the Cowboys (-4) against Carolina, but it was a dogfight into the third quarter. But after Zane Gonzalez missed a 54-yard field goal, Dallas’ offense really took off with balance and big plays. Dallas led 36-14 in the fourth quarter before Sam Darnold, who rushed for two more touchdowns as he apparently wants to crush Cam Newton’s single-season record, led back-to-back touchdown drives to make it 36-28 with just over four minutes left. But when you think maybe this was another Mike McCarthy team collapsing with a lead, the Cowboys put the game away on offense and denied Darnold the game-tying drive opportunity.

Dallas has been impressive this season. When the offense is balanced like this – Prescott had four touchdown passes and only 188 yards passing while the backs rushed for 210 yards – they are going to be a challenge for anyone in the league. Clearly, the Carolina defense boosted its stats against cupcakes in the first three weeks. But I wouldn’t just write off the Panthers this season. They do look legitimately improved and D.J. Moore is a legit No. 1 wide receiver. They probably missed the greatness of Christian McCaffrey as an outlet receiver to deal with the pass rush better in this one. Darnold was sacked five times.

I saw very little of Ravens-Broncos, but it doesn’t seem like there was much there. Both teams have a lot of injuries, but the Ravens still have better players to make up for it. Teddy Bridgewater left with a concussion and Drew Lock was no match for Baltimore’s defense.

Lamar Jackson had just his third 300-yard passing game in the NFL and he has thrown for at least 235 yards in all four games this season. The only other time he’s done that in his career was his four-game start to his 2019 MVP season. Marquise Brown held on this week and finished with 91 yards and a touchdown.

Like Carolina, the Broncos were abusing bad, inexperienced quarterbacks to beef up their stats, but Jackson took it to them in one of the most pass-centric games the Ravens have had with him. His 37 pass attempts are tied for his third-highest amount in a game.

The Ravens were actually in danger of not rushing for 100 yards in this game, something they had done in 38 straight games (including playoffs). But after getting the ball back with three seconds left and an insurmountable 23-7 lead, John Harbaugh had the team run Lamar for a 5-yard gain instead of taking a knee like anyone else would. That gave the Ravens 102 yards and a new record of 39 straight 100-yard games, beating out the 1973-76 Bills. This does end their record streak of 38 games with at least 110 rushing yards.

But when coaches tell you they don’t care about numbers or records, there’s a decent chance they are lying. Extending the record, which is ultimately meaningless like most things in life, by having your star quarterback run with three seconds left is the definition of cheap.

Maybe the Ravens get there easier if they could figure out their running back rotation better. Latavius Murray led the way with 18 carries while Le’Veon Bell (4 for 11 yards) and Devonta Freeman (one 4-yard run) also saw action with Ty’Son Williams a healthy scratch. Maybe they’re saving him? Either way, it would be a good thing for the Ravens to continue developing this passing game.

Chiefs at Eagles: Let’s Not Take This for Granted

The Chiefs ended their two-game slide with a commanding 42-30 win, or only their second win by more than six points since the middle of last season. The bad news: the 2021 Chiefs are now the 14th team in NFL history to allow more than 28 points in each of their first four games. The good news: a dozen of those teams started 0-4 and the other (2012 Titans) was 1-3. The Chiefs (2-2) are now back to .500 after nearly having a perfect game on offense that should not be taken for granted.

The Chiefs were 9-of-10 on third down and scored a touchdown on six of their seven drives. Every touchdown drive was at least 65 yards and all but one of them was 75-plus yards. Literally the only mistake all day was a Patrick Mahomes interception forced under pressure on a third down, the only third-down stop of the day for the Eagles.

The Chiefs did it differently by rushing for 200 yards while Tyreek Hill had 186 receiving yards and three touchdowns. No other Kansas City receiver had more than 23 yards through the air. Travis Kelce hadn’t been held to that little yardage and kept out of the end zone in a game with Mahomes since their first start together in 2018 against the Chargers.

But the Chiefs were spectacular on that side of the ball and still left something to be desired on defense. Granted, they limited the Eagles to three field goals in the first three quarters, and Philadelphia’s last touchdown was a garbage-time score with four seconds left.

We’ll see just how ready the Chiefs are for a real test when they get the Bills next Sunday night in another potential AFC Game of the Year. But six touchdowns on seven drives is insane production in the NFL.

Giants at Saints: Seriously, WTF?

No team has puzzled me more on a weekly basis in 2021 than the Saints. They killed Aaron Rodgers and the Packers in Week 1, which looks like we can safely call it a fluke. They were embarrassed 26-7 by the Panthers in Week 2, which looks like a combo of division familiarity, an improved Carolina team, and some injuries and COVID problems in the coaching staff. They picked off Mac Jones three times in New England last week and took advantage of the rookie and limited offense there.

But then this 27-21 overtime loss to the Giants happened in the Superdome with a full crowd on hand, and I am more confused than ever. At least Jameis Winston passed for over 200 yards in regulation this week, but how the hell does a team throw 26 passes and not have one go to Alvin Kamara? He had 26 carries for 120 yards but no touchdowns since Taysom Hill, the touchdown vulture who threw a pick, hijinks happened, and it was the first game in Kamara’s career with no targets.

That is inexcusable, especially with the given lack of weapons in the passing game. But speaking of weapons, how do you let Daniel Jones pass for 402 yards and make only the second fourth-quarter comeback of his career (he was 1-13) on a day where Sterling Shepard and Darius Slayton were inactive? It does not make sense. Jones had failed to pass for more than 280 yards in every start with Jason Garrett as his offensive coordinator since 2020. Yet here he was getting two huge plays for 50-plus yard touchdowns out of John Ross and Saquon Barkley. Both players also delivered in overtime with Barkley taking in the game-winning score from 6 yards out on the only drive of overtime.

This is New Orleans’ 19th loss as a favorite of more than seven points since Sean Payton came to coach the team in 2006. The Saints are 39-19 SU (.672) as a favorite of more than seven points since 2006. Only Washington (6-4) has a worse winning percentage in such games.

I really thought the Saints would play better at home on offense. In some ways, they definitely did. But there were some key misses in this game like Kamara only getting two yards on a 4th-and-3 run, settling for a 58-yard field goal that was missed and led to the Ross touchdown, the Hill interception right after a long Winston touchdown pass was negated by penalty, and not closing out in the fourth quarter.

If this is what the Saints are post-Brees, then I’m out. I want nothing to do with Kamara’s prop bets anymore and I can’t even trust them to beat the Giants in the Superdome. Granted, Payton has lost in this spot more than you’d like to see in his career, but this was a really bad loss for the team. Daniel Jones is only supposed to do this shit against the Washington franchise.

Titans and Lions: Extend the Game vs. End the Game

Finally, I just wanted to highlight two coaching decisions on Sunday. Last week, I was happy when Tennessee’s Mike Vrabel went for two with a seven-point lead. He has been a bit of a renegade in breaking norms on two-point conversions. So, it kind of shocked me when he did not have his Titans go for the win against the lowly Jets after getting a touchdown with 16 seconds left in the game.

The timing was excellent with the Jets out of timeouts. This is the ideal spot to do it in and it’s not like the Jets were doing a great job of stopping Derrick Henry in the game. Ryan Tannehill also found his rhythm late after playing the game without Julio Jones and A.J. Brown available.

If you’re playing a lousy team on the road and the offense is the strength of your team, why not go for the win? That extra point surprised me. The Jets almost ended this one immediately in overtime, but eventually did settle for a field goal and 27-24 lead. The Titans had a rough time answering, needing to convert two fourth downs, but they eventually got into field goal range. It looks like we were about to have a damn tie, but fortunately, Randy Bullock is a bum kicker. From 49 yards out, he was wide left in the final 20 seconds to end the game.

The Jets had their first win in the Robert Saleh era. Rookie quarterback Zach Wilson had his first 4QC/GWD and it is one he can feel good about after a rough first three weeks. Wide receiver Corey Davis (111 yards and a touchdown) had a sweet revenge game on his former team.

While I wanted the Titans to end the game on one play, the Detroit Lions made a mistake of not extending the game. It was a rough afternoon in Chicago for the Lions, but they were down 24-14 in the fourth quarter with the ball. The Jared Goff-led drive stalled, setting up a 4th-and-1 at the Chicago 8 with 4:19 left. I get that it’s tempting to go for it there, but you have to realize you are still down 10 points (two scores) and time is a factor. Even if you go for it and get it, there is still no guarantee you are getting a touchdown here. In three more snaps, you could be kicking a field goal anyway if there’s a bad snap – oh, they had one of THOSE on Sunday – or a sack. Kick the field goal, use your three clock stoppages to get the ball back, and then get a touchdown and go for two or play for overtime.

But the Lions went for it, Goff’s pass was incomplete, and the Bears ran out the final 4:15 on the clock thanks to the Lions being offsides on a punt. Incredibly, the Lions had five drives inside the Chicago 8, and they only scored one touchdown on them, turning the ball over twice on fumbles and twice on downs.

Again, it was a lousy performance for the Lions against a Chicago team that seemed to be on the brink of collapse. But the Bears turned things around and got their second win of the season while the Lions remain 0-4.

NFL Stat Oddity: Week 3

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.

This season in Stat Oddity:

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:

  • 1981-89: 30
  • 1990-99: 26
  • 2000-09: 36
  • 2010-21: 68

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.

Top 100 NFL Quarterbacks of the 21st Century: Part III (71-51)

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 ranked from No. 86 to No. 72 who may have had one special season in their career.

Part I (#100-87)

Part II (#86-72)

Now we are getting into more players who may have been multi-season starters, but they were usually just average or decent quarterbacks.

71. Jason Campbell

When it comes to first-round picks, someone has to be that line between a success and a bust. Jason Campbell is a great example of what an average first-round quarterback would look like. On this list of 100 quarterbacks, he ranks 62nd in passer rating (81.6) and 73rd in YPA (6.69). With Washington (2005-09) and Oakland (2010-11), he was never a top 10 quarterback, but he was probably never a bottom 10 quarterback either.

He led the NFL in lowest interception rate in 2008, which is not as impressive as it sounds. He threw a career-high 20 touchdowns in 2009, but Washington finished 4-12 that year. He actually had a winning record (11-7) as Oakland’s starter, but the team still moved forward with a Carson Palmer trade in 2011 after Campbell broke his collarbone. Health was never really on his side. Washington made the playoffs in 2007 after Todd Collins took over for an injured Campbell (knee) in December.

Campbell is on a short list of quarterbacks who had a losing record when he threw multiple touchdown passes in a game. He was 10-13, and I certainly remember when he should have beaten the undefeated 2009 Saints before his kicker missed a chipshot, and the 2013 Patriots when he was with Cleveland was another blown opportunity after the Patriots recovered an onside kick. Campbell was 1-3 when he threw three touchdown passes and those were two of the losses. He made 79 starts but those are really the games that I think about.

70. Brian Griese

Since this is looking back to 2001, it just misses his peak season in 2000 with the Broncos when he threw 19 touchdowns to four picks. He would be a little higher if I included that, but it really was an outlier for him since Griese threw 100 touchdowns to 95 picks in the rest of his career combined. He never stayed healthy enough to finish a 16-game season and never played in the postseason.

69. Byron Leftwich

He had a nice quote in 2012. “I’m not a slow quarterback. I’m just the slowest black quarterback.” Yep, the way I remember Leftwich now is that he was just never as good as David Garrard, his more mobile backup and eventual replacement in Jacksonville. Leftwich had some fun comebacks in those 2004-05 seasons and gave the Colts hell a few times, but he never passed for 3,000 yards or more than 15 touchdowns in a season. He also peaked in 2005 and never recovered as a starter after Garrard took his job.

68. Jay Fiedler

Imagine if the Dolphins could have given Dan Marino the defenses that Fiedler had. He went 25-12 as a starter in 2001-03 and Miami somehow turned that into a single wild card loss, missing the playoffs in the other two years. Fielder needed his share of coddling as a limited passer, but he was 5-10 (.333) as a starter when his teams allowed more than 21 points. That is better than the records I usually post with that stat.

67. Vince Young

If Vince Young had Lamar Jackson’s passing skills, he could have been that kind of quarterback in his day. If Jackson had Young’s killer instinct, then he would be damn near unstoppable. In many ways, Young was a precursor to Tim Tebow. They were highly successful college quarterbacks who were struggling passers in the NFL, but if you managed the game and kept it close for them, they can put a team on their back and pull out the win. The fact that Young had a 99-yard game-winning drive against a Matt Leinart-led team in 2009 is just football poetry. That was definitely the most impressive of Young’s 13 game-winning drives in just 61 games.

Young put on a show in the greatest college football game I’ve ever seen, but I was never really buying him as an NFL player. Again, had he come out now in a league where Jackson has rushed for 1,200 yards, then maybe a team could have used him differently. But as a passer, he was never a big threat. Young got to two Pro Bowls before Ben Roethlisberger and Aaron Rodgers did. It would be hard to name a quarterback with two Pro Bowls he was less deserving of than Young, who threw for a combined 4,078 yards and 22 touchdowns in 2006 and 2009.

But with Michael Vick in prison for dogfighting, Daunte Culpepper shredding his knee, and Donovan McNabb bulking up in Philly, Young filled that late 2000s void of a dynamic rushing quarterback. While the “Dream Team” (2011 Eagles) is a good representation of how things surrounding Young never lived up to the hype, you cannot say he was a bust. He just helped pave the way for better passers who can run to come along.

66. Mitchell Trubisky

Oof, if you are reading this chronologically, then that Vince Young line is not the segue I would have wanted for this Son of a Mitch. Trubisky is a tough case, but is he really that out of place when we recently had Blake Bortles and Mark Sanchez? This is his tier.

Trubisky made the Pro Bowl in 2018 with a season that seemed like he was on the right path. Was it pretty from a passing accuracy standpoint? Not necessarily, but he had some decent numbers, decent games, and he was a fun scrambler, which really boosted his QBR. He also should have won a playoff game, but we know what Chicago kickers do. He is 29-23 as a starter with two playoff appearances, but last year’s was a gift as a No. 7 seed with an 8-8 record. Trubisky padded his stats on play-action against lousy defenses late in the year before leading the most irrelevant 99-yard touchdown drive in playoff history in a loss to the Saints.

Now he’s in Buffalo, so he has gone from “Mobile Rex Grossman” to “Josh Allen’s Inferior Cousin.” But no matter where he goes, he will always be the guy who was drafted ahead of Patrick Mahomes.

65. Kyle Orton

If you combined Trubisky’s legs with Kyle Orton’s neck beard, then we might have a quarterback worth something. Orton had that laughably bad rookie season when Chicago’s defense carried him to 10 wins, but he actually developed into a decent passer and got to showcase that in Denver under Josh McDaniels of all people. Who can forget the 6-0 start in 2009 before the shit hit the fan? But Orton was solid throughout and he even helped the lowly Chiefs beat the 13-0 Packers in 2011. He also beat the 2014 Packers with Buffalo, though that was about the defense that day.

If he had that Buffalo defense in Denver, we would be saying the Broncos clearly won that trade involving Jay Cutler.

64. Josh Freeman

Maybe let this be a lesson for declaring victory too soon on young quarterbacks, because after the 2010 season, it sure looked like Josh Freeman, the third quarterback off the board in the 2009 class after Matthew Stafford and Mark Sanchez, was the best choice. Sanchez had the benefit of a great defense while Stafford was always getting hurt early on in Detroit. Freeman made so many of the improvements you’d like to see in that second season, even leading Tampa Bay to 10-6, a win total the team would not see again for a decade. Freeman finished No. 7 in QBR that year, right between the two Super Bowl quarterbacks, Aaron Rodgers and Ben Roethlisberger.

But Freeman regressed in 2011 and by his fourth season, the defense was too ineffective for this to be a winning team. Greg Schiano was also a poor hire as head coach in 2012. By 2013, things soured in the locker room with rumors of Freeman being a coke addict and the week he lost his captainship. The Buccaneers simply cut him. We ended up watching Freeman complete 20-of-53 passes on Monday Night Football with a Vikings team he just joined in a strange game against the Giants. That could have been one of the weirdest final starts to a career, but he ended up starting one late-season game for the Colts in 2015.

Was it a substance abuse problem that ruined his career? Maybe, but we’ll let his career serve as a cautionary tale.

63. Kordell Stewart

The Steelers suffered through three rough, non-playoff years by Stewart before he rebounded in 2001 with a 13-3 season and second AFC Championship Game appearance. It seemed like he finally got on track as a passer, hitting 60% completions and 7.0 YPA for the first time in his career. He was the AFC Offensive Player of the Month in December. He cut his interceptions down to a career-low rate and he even earned an MVP vote.

Then the playoffs came, and it was like 1997 all over again. A so-so performance was covered up by a strong defensive outing against Baltimore. But against the Patriots, Stewart threw three picks at home just like he did against Denver in that title game loss. The Steelers lost 24-17, setting the NFL on a much different path.

In 2002, Stewart struggled for three games before losing his job to Tommy Maddox. That ended his time in Pittsburgh. He had a forgettable stint with the Bears and soon retired. “Slash” brought a lot of excitement to the Steelers in 1997 and 2001, but he was one of the last guys you would ever want to start a playoff game.

62. Drew Bledsoe

Speaking of terrible playoff performers, it’s Drew Bledsoe, everybody. He was the quarterback who just managed the game in that 2001 AFC Championship Game after Tom Brady left injured. Of course, it was Bledsoe’s injury earlier that season that gave way to Brady, a good argument for it being the most consequential player injury in NFL history, if not all of sports.

Bledsoe peaked in the 90s. In this period of 2001-06, he was 35-37 as a starter, had good initial years with Buffalo (2002) and Dallas (2005), but neither resulted in a playoff berth nor ended on good terms. He had that embarrassing loss to Pittsburgh’s backups in Week 17 with the playoffs on the line in his final game in Buffalo. He lost his job to someone named Tony Romo in 2006, and just like that, the rest is history.

People thought Bledsoe could play for more years and challenge some of the passing records since he was such a volume passer, but he had enough and was done after his age-34 season. Let’s just say I was never a fan.

61. Aaron Brooks

There was a time when Brett Favre’s backups in Green Bay went on to be good starters around the league. Ty Detmer was not necessarily good, but he did leave Green Bay for a playoff season with the Eagles. Mark Brunell had good success in Jacksonville, Matt Hasselbeck later had a great run with the Seahawks, but there was also Aaron Brooks, a fourth-round pick in 1999.

Brooks took over late in the season as New Orleans’ starting quarterback. He posted what would be the best efficiency numbers of his career in a small sample size and led the Saints to their first playoff win in franchise history by throwing four touchdowns against the Rams.

Unfortunately, that was the peak for Brooks. Over the next four seasons, he threw for over 3,500 yards and 21-to-27 touchdowns with decent passer ratings for the era. But he had his share of meltdowns and usually threw 15-plus picks too. The Saints were always a game within .500 and never made the playoffs again. Then Hurricane Katrina happened in 2005 and the team was displaced from its home for the season, and Brooks played terribly. He was even worse in Oakland, going 0-8 as a starter in 2006 before retiring.

His backwards pass against the 2004 Chargers will live in infamy.

60. Matt Cassel

The one I call the “High School QB.” It is a wonder that the Patriots ever drafted Cassel in the seventh round in 2005 seeing as how he threw just 33 passes with USC after sitting behind Carson Palmer and Matt Leinart. Granted, that explains why he did not play in those years, but it makes you wonder how such a backup ever got on a team’s draft board. He could have easily just been an undrafted free agent.

Come 2008, Cassel got his chance after Tom Brady tore his ACL early in Week 1. The Patriots won with Cassel and started him the rest of the season, his first starts since high school. By season’s end, he led the offense to 400 points, the most first downs in the league, he finished ninth in QBR, and New England won 11 games, which were not enough for the playoffs for only the second time in the wild card era.

My favorite Cassel stat is that he had back-to-back 400-yard passing games that season. Brady had just one 400-yard game in his first 11 seasons combined. Pretty good for a high school system QB.

When Cassel went to Kansas City in 2009, he fell flat on his face in a terrible year. But he did rebound in 2010 and made a Pro Bowl after Todd Haley brought in former Brady coordinator Charlie Weis to call the offense. Then when Weis took a college coaching job late in the season, Cassel faceplanted again and lost 30-7 to the Ravens in his only playoff start. He continued to play his way out of Kansas City before having a mediocre season with the Vikings in 2013.

Not a bad career at all for a seventh-round pick, but definitely a system player. As his career also shows, some systems are better than others.

59. Robert Griffin III

This is a tricky one since I spent much of the 2012 season and offseason writing how Griffin was not the best rookie quarterback that year despite winning the Offensive Rookie of the Year award. I was much higher on Andrew Luck and Russell Wilson since I thought their success was more impressive and sustainable. However, I must acknowledge that Griffin had one of the better rookie years ever, and he won a division title for a dysfunctional Washington franchise that has been the most joyless, soul-sucking NFL team in the salary cap era.

That team also probably ruined his career. I think he could have had a better career if Mike Shanahan and his staff did not commit coaching malpractice and played him on an injured knee in the playoffs against Seattle, which he re-injured and was clearly ineffective on during the game. Griffin tried again in 2013 and 2014, but he was never the same quarterback as that rookie year.

Again, like with Vince Young, Griffin may have arrived a few years too early before the league has moved towards more RPOs and letting quarterbacks run college-style offenses and use their athleticism to make plays. Maybe Griffin was never going to live up to the draft hype, but I think this is one of those rare cases where you can cite injuries as a rookie as the main cause for a disappointing career.

58. Tyrod Taylor

As a sixth-round pick by the Ravens, Taylor was a Mr. August in the preseason who waited patiently for his shot at a starting job. He took on the task of getting Buffalo back to the playoffs in 2015 and had three solid years there, ultimately reaching the playoffs in that final season despite his coach’s attempt to replace him with Nathan Peterman. That playoff game went poorly, a 10-3 loss against Jacksonville’s tough defense.

Taylor certainly protects the ball well, having never thrown more than six picks in a season. But there were diminishing returns in Buffalo as his QBR decreased each season. The team rightfully moved on with Josh Allen in 2018. Taylor was supposed to be a stopgap for Baker Mayfield in Cleveland and Justin Herbert in Los Angeles, but his stints were short-lived for health reasons, including that ridiculous scene last year when his team doctor punctured his lung with an injection shot before the Week 2 game with the Chiefs.

I honestly believe Taylor could lead a stacked team to a Super Bowl. Before you call me crazy, did you forget that three-year run in the NFC where Nick Foles (Eagles), Jared Goff (Rams), and Jimmy Garoppolo (49ers) got there on stacked teams? Unfortunately, Taylor could now be stepping in to replace this Deshaun Watson mess in Houston, a terribly dysfunctional franchise.

57. Kyler Murray

It is still a bit early for me to know exactly how I feel about Murray in Arizona, so this high placement is probably a hedge on future success. I am encouraged, but I am not feeling overly confident about him being a franchise player.

He just had an impressive dual-threat season, but I still want to see more improvement before I go all in on him.

56. Marcus Mariota

Jameis Winston or Marcus Mariota? That was the question of the 2015 draft, but all I remember saying is that you really hope a quarterback who threw 105 touchdowns to 14 picks with 9.3 YPA in college turns out great in the pros. Mariota’s very first game in the NFL was against Winston’s Buccaneers too, and he had a perfect passer rating with four touchdowns on 13-of-15 passing, the best start you can ask for.

It would be a lie to say it was all downhill from there, but it never got to the point you wanted to see from the No. 2 pick in the draft. Mariota showed a lot of promise with 26 touchdowns in his second season, but he ended up throwing more picks (15) than touchdowns (13) in his third season. The Titans still made the playoffs as they were stuck on their 9-7 run, and they even beat the Chiefs in what I call the Forward Progress Game where the Titans got multiple favorable whistles. But Mariota was only 30-33 as a starter and lost his job to Ryan Tannehill in 2019, who took the team to new heights.

Starting in 2018, Mariota was turning into a sack machine with a sack rate of 12.0%. He could pad some stats with dink-and-dunk throws, but the offense was just not working out. He was impressive in his lone game with the Raiders last year, coming off the bench for an injured Derek Carr and taking the Chargers to overtime. We likely have not seen the last of Mariota as a starter, but when it comes to who won the 2015 draft, the answer really is neither team.

55. Jameis Winston

I almost had the gall to sandwich Matt Cassel in between Mariota and Winston but decided against it at the last minute. Replacing Drew Brees in New Orleans is a huge opportunity for Winston to show what he’s made of, especially with his LASIK-improved vision in a Sean Payton offense. But right now, we just have his five years with Tampa Bay where he was 28-42 as a starter to go on.

He was certainly a prolific yardage machine there. He is the first QB ever to throw for 450 yards in consecutive games. Throwing 33 touchdowns and 30 interceptions in the same season is something I did not think I would see in this game. It speaks to the good and the bad of Winston, which has yet to really balance out for a great season by him, but he also does not have what I’d call a poor season on his resume.

Winston’s 7.72 YPA is the ninth highest on this list. There have always been interesting stats to find on him.

I am excited to see what happens this year as Winston could be the wild card of the 2021 season, but I hope this guy eats some more W’s.

54. Mark Brunell

Amusing stat: Mark Brunell had a nine-year streak of seasons where his passer rating ranged from 82.0 to 92.0. No other QB in NFL history had such a streak longer than four seasons (min. 50 attempts). That is some applaudable above-average consistency. Unfortunately, most of that streak came prior to 2001. After that time, Brunell had a couple decent seasons with Jacksonville that did not reach his 90s peak, so the team replaced him with Byron Leftwich.

But in 2005, Santana Moss joined Brunell in Washington and the duo had a very impressive season together, including one of the greatest comebacks I’ve ever seen. That led to the playoffs where Brunell had one of the worst playoff wins I’ve ever seen, and I’ll never forget it since I was sitting in a frozen room in a hoody because the furnace broke that weekend.

Brunell never achieved anything after that 2005 season but doing anything that makes Washington notable is a big plus in my book.

53. Kerry Collins

I stand by the belief that Kerry Collins is the worst 40,000-yard passer in NFL history. But the truth is you still have to be somewhat decent to even play long enough to hit that mark. Collins had some fine moments in his career, and his only 4,000-yard season in 2002 with the Giants should have led to a playoff win in San Francisco before his defense and special teams botched that one.

It still blows my mind that a team with Collins at quarterback and Jeff Fisher as head coach was 10-0 and finished as the No. 1 seed in 2008, but that happened. Collins was also not that bad in the one-and-done playoff loss to a tough Baltimore defense. His skill players lost multiple fumbles.

The standards at the position have changed so much that I do not think Collins would last long in the league if he played today at his level. He also had some immaturity and locker room issues early on that would not fly in today’s social climate. I feel like this ranking is pretty generous, though we are still about 20 quarterbacks away from the tier where I start considering these players to be good and reliable.

52. Teddy Bridgewater

I was definitely Team Teddy in that 2014 draft. I thought he should have been a higher pick and I liked him over Blake Bortles, Johnny Manziel, and Derek Carr. The football gods were less supportive. Bridgewater lost his only playoff game to the 2015 Seahawks after Blair Walsh choked on a short field goal, then he suffered a gruesome knee injury prior to the 2016 season.

It is impressive to see him resume his playing career, and he did some good things for the Saints (2019) and Panthers (2020). But it feels like there has always been this ceiling on his game that prevents him from ever taking the next step. He plays way too safe for my liking. Bridgewater has three seasons where he threw at least 400 passes, and he threw 14 or 15 touchdowns in all of them. That’s not enough in this era.

After updating my stats, I am curious to see if this is the year where Teddy falters badly against the spread with Denver seeing as how he has covered over 70% of the time as a starter. You know the drill. That is a signal to bet the other way as the regression is coming. Going to Denver did not work out well for our last quarterback in part III.

51. Case Keenum

If you have followed me religiously on Twitter for years, then you may recall that there was a user in 2016 who I dubbed “White Dude with Dreads” and he was in love with Case Keenum. This was a season where Keenum finished last in QBR, though teammate rookie Jared Goff would have been even worse if he qualified after taking over for Keenum. But this dude would bash Jeff Fisher and everyone with the Rams while praising Keenum for everything. It was all very amusing to me.

Back when I used to actually watch college football on a weekly basis, I liked catching Keenum games with Houston. He was one of those system quarterbacks in the run-and-shoot offense that put up such prolific numbers, but he looked different than a Timmy Chang or Colt Brennan or Graham Harrell. Like you could actually see this guy releasing the ball quickly and having success in the pros. Keenum had six 500-yard games and even threw nine touchdowns in one game before.

He got to stay in Houston after joining the Texans as an undrafted free agent. He even started the back half of the 2013 season after Matt Schaub’s career imploded there. Keenum finished 0-8 as a starter but definitely played winning football in a few of those games. I was happy to see him have some success after getting an opportunity in the NFL. But with the Rams, I was not seeing much to like from Keenum anymore. He threw four picks in London against the Giants, and that started a three-game streak where he failed to lead the team to more than 10 points, which gave way to the Goff era.

Keenum went to Minnesota to back up often-injured starter Sam Bradford. Sure enough, Bradford’s knee was an issue after just one game, thrusting Keenum into the starting job against Pittsburgh in Week 2. The Steelers won that game 26-9 and I was not impressed with Keenum. A few weeks later, Keenum replaced Bradford for good after Sam’s knee made it impossible for him to play. Little did I expect Keenum to go on one of the greatest outlier, one-year-wonder, flash-in-the-pan, call it what you will seasons in NFL history.

The Vikings finished 11-1 in the last dozen regular season games with Keenum completing 69.3% of his passes with a 99.3 passer rating. It was an awful year for quarterbacks getting injured (Aaron Rodgers, Andrew Luck, Carson Palmer, Ryan Tannehill, Carson Wentz, etc.), and that certainly helped Keenum in the rankings, but he still finished No. 1 in DVOA and No. 2 in QBR. The White Dude with Dreads had already moved on to politics and fighting the good fight against MAGA, but he had to be ecstatic about this unexpected development.

Then the playoffs happened. The Minneapolis Miracle to Stefon Diggs was a fortunate missed tackle that gave Keenum his first and only playoff win, but that happened. It seemed like the Vikings were destined to host the Super Bowl in their home stadium, but maybe I forgot the history of the Vikings that year. In the NFC Championship Game in Philadelphia, Keenum threw a pick-six early that changed the complexion of the game and set off a 38-7 rout.

Even the Vikings had to suspect there was some fool’s gold hidden in that 2017 season, so Keenum was not re-signed and went to Denver while Minnesota made a move for Kirk Cousins. Keenum threw for a career-high 3,890 yards in 2018 with the Broncos, but the team finished 6-10. He was also 1-7 as Washington’s starter in 2019. Now he is Baker Mayfield’s backup in Cleveland.

So, now you know my favorite “One-year Wonder/Crazy Unexpected Peak Year” in the 21st century. We are not quite done with the one-year wonders, but I need another break before getting into this top 50. I already managed to go over 11,000 words with the first 50, so this is taking on more of a time commitment than I expected, but I hope you are enjoying these trips down memory lane.

Part I (#100-87)

Part II (#86-72)

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.

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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.

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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