NFL Stat Oddity: Wild Card Weekend

After a terrible postseason last year, how did the NFL start things this January? A whistle controversy. The perfect offensive game in frigid conditions. A couple of No. 7 seeds from Pennsylvania offered up as sacrificial lambs to guarantee the Chiefs and Buccaneers don’t go one-and-done after last year’s Super Bowl meeting. And an asshole, calling a QB run with 14 seconds left and no timeouts.

Some fun was had. Memories were made. A legend came to a sobering end.

But you know what we didn’t get? Not a single fourth-quarter lead change. The whole 2020 postseason also did not have a fourth-quarter lead change. The closest was the Buccaneers breaking a 20-20 tie in New Orleans in the divisional round.

That means we have gone 18 straight NFL playoff games without a single fourth-quarter lead change. The last was in Super Bowl 54 between the Chiefs and 49ers, thanks to one third-and-15 play.

Is this the longest drought in NFL playoff history? I’m not sure as of right now, but I know it ties the last longest drought of 18 games from the 2004 divisional round (Saturday night game) through the 2006 wild card round (Saturday afternoon game).

But at least that stretch gave us one of the most dramatic playoff games ever: 2005 AFC divisional between the Steelers and Colts. It’s a fitting game to bring up at the end of Ben Roethlisberger’s career as his tackle of Nick Harper after Jerome Bettis’ fumble affected so many legacies, including his own. Bettis and head coach Bill Cowher likely are never inducted into the Hall of Fame without Ben’s tackle. If Hines Ward ever gets into Canton on the strength of a Super Bowl MVP from that year, he can thank Ben for that tackle as well. Would Adam Vinatieri ever end up as Indy’s kicker had Mike Vanderjagt not come on to choke so badly on the game-tying field goal? Nick Harper also would be a hero and only get hate mail from Pittsburgh addresses.

This is what the playoffs can do. One moment can change everything about how we view players, coaches, and teams. So, can we cook up some more drama next week? It looks like a good one on paper. As for the Rams and Cardinals, I’ll see you when I see you. But let’s get things started with the only team that was truly perfect this weekend.

This season in Stat Oddity:

Patriots at Bills: The Perfect Game

On Saturday night, the Bills left no doubt that the AFC East belongs to them now with a 47-17 thrashing of the Patriots, the worst playoff loss in Bill Belichick’s career. About the only thing the Bills did wrong was fail on two extra points. When these teams met in Week 16, the Bills scored on six of eight drives and never punted in an impressive performance.

This time, the Bills had quite arguably the greatest offensive performance in NFL history.

  • Buffalo’s offense scored seven touchdowns on seven offensive possessions. The eighth “drive” was just three kneeldowns.
  • These drives covered lengths of 70, 80, 81, 89, 58, 77, and 39 yards.
  • Buffalo was 6-of-7 on third down with the only “failure” being a kneeldown to end the game. Those were also the only plays where Buffalo lost yardage and the Bills did not allow a sack.
  • This means the Bills never faced a fourth down in the entire game.
  • Josh Allen had more touchdown passes (five) than incompletions as he was 21-of-25 passing.

Under any circumstances, this would be in the running for the best offensive game in NFL history. But when you add in that it was a playoff game against a division rival with a defensive coach many consider the greatest to ever do it, and the Bills performed like this in single-digit temperatures against the No. 2 scoring defense, I think it is hands down the best offensive performance in NFL history.

This is only the third NFL game since World War II where a team had seven touchdowns, zero punts, and zero turnovers. But Buffalo is the only team to not kick a field goal as well.

This is actually the fourth NFL game since 2000 where an offense scored at least six touchdowns and scored on every drive except for the last one that ended in kneeldowns to run out the clock, but none of the other three matched Buffalo’s perfection.

  • 2000 Rams vs. Chargers: Rams had 6 TD, 5 FG and ran out the clock with three knees in 57-31 win.
  • 2015 Patriots vs. Jaguars: Patriots had 6 TD, 3 FG and ran out the clock with two knees in 51-17 win.
  • 2018 Saints at Bengals: Saints had 6 TD, 3 FG and ran out the final 4:42 on the clock (three knees after the two-minute warning) in a 51-14 win.

All great performances, but all against weak competition and none hit that 7-for-7 touchdown mark.

Buffalo’s performance was so divine that it hardly mattered what the New England offense did or didn’t do this time. Rookie quarterback Mac Jones had six incompletions at halftime, including a spike, a couple drops, and one incredible interception in the end zone by Micah Hyde. But New England trailed 27-3 at halftime, the most points the Patriots have allowed in the first half of any game under Belichick. The 47 points are the most the Patriots have allowed in a game since giving up 48 to the 1990 Eagles.

I told you in September that Jones would never match the luck of Brady, the LOAT. Brady has started 362 games in the NFL and his teams have never allowed more than 42 points. Jones led the Patriots to 17 points in this game and lost by 30. Brady started his playoff career 4-0 despite leading his offense to 16, 0, 13, and 17 points in those games. That era of getting by with the bare minimum on offense and relying on great defense is dead.

For the second time in three years, Belichick coached a paper tiger that fell apart down the stretch and couldn’t get past the first day of the postseason. We probably should have seen this coming. Any team that loses by 10 points to Carson Wentz when he throws for 57 yards should raise every red flag about their legitimacy.

The Patriots started this season 2-4 with wins over the lowly Jets and Texans. We gave them credit for hanging tough with superior Tampa Bay and Dallas teams, but they were an afterthought early in the season. The Patriots later finished the season losing four of five and only beating the awful Jaguars 50-10 to pad the season stats.

But it was that fool’s gold 7-0 run in the middle that had some people drinking the New England Kool-Aid again. As it turns out, beating up on the Jets, the Panthers without Christian McCaffrey, the Browns with an injured Baker Mayfield, the Falcons and Titans without their skill players, and another choke by the Chargers isn’t the stuff that makes for an elite team.

Things peaked with that 14-10 win in Buffalo where NFL talking heads wanted to hang the three pass gameplan in the Hall of Fame.

I never bought it. I knew in a normal weather game, the Bills would show their superiority. I just never imagined we would see this type of perfection in those conditions. But while cold-weather games can be low scoring like the 10-9 game between the 2015 Vikings and Seahawks, wind is still the bigger issue. This game did not have wind problems like Week 13 presented. Allen was able to throw the ball accurately and all five of his touchdown passes came on play-action.

The Game Where Buffalo Scored a Touchdown on Every Drive is going to be one that people remember and cite for years to come. It’s that historic. But I imagine for it to take on an even greater relevance, the Bills are going to have to win the Super Bowl this year. We never really talk about the 1990 Bills scoring 44 and 51 points on their way to the Super Bowl because they didn’t get the job done against the Giants (thanks for nothing, Scott Norwood).

But after seeing how the Bills handled the Patriots in this one, who wants to bet against them? Of course, they must contend with the Chiefs in Kansas City, so get ready for a week of looking back at 38-20 (and 38-24 in last year’s AFC Championship Game).

Steelers at Chiefs: Well, At Least It Wasn’t 62-7

I usually write some form of eulogy for the Steelers after their latest playoff loss, but now I am just wondering when that opportunity will come again. The team heads into an era without Ben Roethlisberger following his likely last game in Kansas City, a 42-21 defeat that only showed promise for one quarter before snowballing into another record-setting loss, the fourth in a row for the Steelers in the playoffs. I’ll compile my thoughts on Roethlisberger’s career at a later date, but for now, it’s about this game.

Despite the scoreless first quarter, these teams combined for 63 points, a playoff record for a game that was scoreless after 15 minutes. This was made possible by the Steelers once again allowing their season-high in points in the playoffs, something they have done in four straight playoffs (2016-17 and 2020-21).

Pittsburgh is the first team in NFL history to allow at least 36 points in four straight playoff games, and the first team in NFL history to allow at least 42 points in three straight playoff games. Oh, at least they had three sacks and two takeaways this time, but T.J. Watt’s fumble return touchdown in the second quarter only seemed to ignite Patrick Mahomes on a historic playoff scoring run.

The turnover only happened because the Chiefs were foolish enough to run a wildcat play, but once Mahomes got back in control, he destroyed the Pittsburgh defense in a way few ever have. Mahomes threw five touchdown passes in a span of 11 minutes and 31 seconds, a playoff record.

Mahomes used the whole playbook to pick apart the Steelers. There was a shovel pass touchdown, there was a great throw on third down to Byron Pringle for a 12-yard touchdown, there was a 48-yard touchdown to Travis Kelce on third-and-20 right before halftime, the second-longest touchdown catch of Kelce’s career. If third-and-20 wasn’t enough of a back-breaker to make it 21-7 at halftime, the Chiefs doubled up with Mahomes throwing a 1-yard touchdown to an eligible lineman to make it 28-7.

All four of those drives were 68-plus yards. Only after the lone Pittsburgh turnover did the Chiefs get a short field that ended in a fifth touchdown to Tyreek Hill on a deep ball. Mahomes had a chance at six touchdowns, but Kelce ended up throwing a 2-yard touchdown to Pringle on another trick play the Steelers had no answer for.

If the Steelers hadn’t established such a pathetic standard of postseason defense under Mike Tomlin, and if the Bills weren’t so sublime on Saturday night, this Kansas City domination would be the talk of the weekend. Even with another tipped interception and the obligatory fumble, the Chiefs smoked the Steelers out of the playoffs and perhaps out of contention for some time to come. Since losing Super Bowl 45 to Green Bay, Tomlin and Roethlisberger were just 3-8 in the playoffs.

As far as final games go, Roethlisberger finished somewhere in the large area between awful and great. He usually has multiple turnovers in a playoff loss but finished this game with none. He was however a non-factor for the first half, passing for 24 yards on 14 attempts as the Steelers started with seven straight punts. Diontae Johnson did him no favors with a couple of drive-killing drops, but the offense never had any real plan. Najee Harris did not look healthy and lost the first fumble of his career to start the third quarter. That fumble led to Mahomes’ fifth touchdown pass and the rout was on at 35-7. Roethlisberger led two straight touchdown drives with James Washington making some great catches, but it was too little too late. Ben’s last march, down 42-21, got to the Kansas City 3 before the final seconds ticked away to end an era in Pittsburgh.

The Chiefs have another huge one with Buffalo while the Steelers have plenty of questions. It was nice to see JuJu Smith-Schuster return to action for Roethlisberger’s final game, but it’s not like offensive coordinator Matt Canada and this coaching staff has any idea how to use him properly in this offense. JuJu may be gone as well as a slew of other players. The bigger question is which heads are going to roll in the coaching staff? We know Tomlin is safe for 2022, but how can defensive coordinator Keith Butler possibly return after this pathetic display in the playoffs again? You just let Jerick McKinnon gain 142 yards from scrimmage. This team is unlikely to beat Cincinnati (Joe Burrow) in a big game any time soon, let alone Mahomes and the Chiefs without big changes.

The “never had a losing season” thing wears thin when there is such a lack of playoff success attached to it. Given what usually happens to a team the first year without their Hall of Fame quarterback, I imagine it won’t be a fact to point to much longer for Tomlin. The standard needs to change.

49ers at Cowboys: Fourth Quarter Fvckery

Jesus Christ, is this what we get when Kyle Shanahan is trying to hold off a 16-point comeback in the playoffs by a Mike McCarthy-coached team? This game did not want to die as numerous people volunteered to be the scapegoat, but no one wanted to be the hero. Still, it was the most dramatic game of the weekend and the closest we came to a fourth-quarter lead change.

I picked the 49ers outright as my upset of the week. I liked the San Francisco pass rush after what it did to Matthew Stafford last week, and sure enough, it got after Dak Prescott well to throw him off his game (five sacks) despite Nick Bosa leaving with a head injury. I was big on Deebo Samuel, and he did not disappoint with 110 yards from scrimmage and another touchdown. Also, I thought the Cowboys were a mistake-prone, fraudulent No. 1 offense and a 12-win team that got half of its wins against the lowly NFC East competition. Despite having the most points and yards in the league, Dallas was only No. 8 in both yards and points per drive this season, a very unusual discrepancy.

But even I did not expect Dallas to look so bad for much of the game. The 49ers were settling for a lot of field goals early or else we’d have another blowout this weekend. But the 49ers were avoiding the turnovers the Cowboys capitalized on all year. The Cowboys, who complain a lot about officiating, were flagged 14 times for 89 yards in the game. Of the four times a team had 14 penalties this season, two of them were Dallas, including both the Cowboys and Raiders in that Thanksgiving game.

But at some point, you have to stop doing dumb shit and hurting your team. CeeDee Lamb had a rough game and wiped out an 18-yard completion with an illegal shift late in the third quarter as the Cowboys still trailed 23-7. The drive eventually stalled at midfield when it looked like McCarthy was going to punt again, which I didn’t agree with this time as time was running out in a 16-point game. Alas, it was a predictable fake that still caught the 49ers off guard for a conversion. But instead of continuing the drive, the Cowboys kept the special teams unit out there on first down against San Francisco’s defense, hoping to make the 49ers burn a timeout. WTF? The only confusion was on Dallas, which got hit with a delay of game penalty after trying to get the offense on late. That was a great preview of the fourth-quarter fvckery to come.

The Cowboys ended up settling for a 51-yard field goal on 4th-and-7. Personally, I didn’t mind the call with the way Dak was playing. I had very little faith in a conversion, and a stop there would really make things dire. Down 16, you almost have to assume you’re going to need three scores anyway as going 8+8 just to tie is very difficult. Just keep extending the game and make something happen. I even predicted as much and was rewarded with a gift from Jimmy Garoppolo.

Just four snaps later, Garoppolo got careless and threw an interception that was returned to the San Francisco 28. Hello, short field. Fred Warner joined Bosa on the sidelines with an injury, and Prescott scrambled for a touchdown to make it 23-17 after an extra point that never seemed to be second guessed by Dallas’ staff.

Out of all the two-point conversion dialogue, we never really spend time on what to do when you’re down 13 but going for two seems to be the smart call, especially with just over eight minutes left against an offense that had been scoring on you.

  • If you go for it and fail, you’re still down 23-16 and can tie with a normal touchdown drive.
  • If you go for it and succeed, you’re only down 23-18, can go up 26-23 with a TD/2PC, or if the 49ers add a field goal to go up 26-18, you’re still in a one-possession game, which is crucial given the time crunch.
  • If you kick the extra point to make it 23-17 like Dallas did, a San Francisco field goal still makes it 26-17, a two-possession game. Also, if you get a touchdown, you’re almost certainly going to kick an extra point to go ahead 24-23, which means you can still lose to a field goal.

After never giving it much thought before Sunday, I have to say I’ll fully be in favor of going for two when down 13 going forward. But Dallas didn’t even bother.

The 49ers took advantage of two more penalties on Dallas’ defense to have a long drive, but they still faced a 4th-and-1. They were going to go for it, which I’m not sure about, but their own penalties forced them to punt. Prescott only needed two snaps to get to midfield before the drive stalled out on four straight failed plays. I loved the 49ers sending pressure on fourth-and-11 with their best natural rusher (Bosa) out of the game. Prescott threw up a decent deep ball to Cedrick Wilson, but he failed to adjust and make the catch.

It still wasn’t over with Dallas having all three timeouts and 1:42. Randy Gregory, no stranger to penalties, had another big one for defensive holding on a second down. That should have set the 49ers up nicely, but they hurt themselves with a false start. Samuel got the ball on third-and-10 for what was initially ruled a game-sealing first down, but he was inches short of the marker. I think going for the QB sneak to end it was the right call at 40 seconds, but the 49ers even botched that with a false start after using too much motion. Punt was the only option left.

We’ve seen crazier things than a team go 80 yards in 32 seconds. The Cowboys had three really nice plays in a row to get 39 of those yards as the 49ers played inexplicably soft. But then came the call that will go down in infamy. Teams usually believe they need about 16 seconds to complete a play in bounds and regroup for the spike and one more play. Teams practice this. Dallas had 14 seconds left, so this was really going to test that limit if the play wasn’t super fast. The play ended up being a QB draw that Dak milked for 17 yards to the San Francisco 24. But in trying to get the spike off, the ball had to be touched by the official, who bumped into Prescott under center, and the spike ended the game. It didn’t even look like the spike beat the game clock to be honest.

The game was over in shame for Dallas. I don’t care if the call was the idea of McCarthy, Dak, or offensive coordinator Kellen Moore, it was the wrong decision all the way. I’d rather take two shots to the end zone from the SF 41. Maybe even three if I draw a pass interference flag, something the 49ers led the league in this year by a wide margin.

Maybe someone a little faster like Lamar Jackson pulls off that spike with a second to spare, but it was too damn cute in a situation that had zero margin for error.

The 49ers move on, barely. Dallas proved to be a paper tiger once again. This marks the 11th straight postseason where the Cowboys failed to advance to the NFC Championship Game, which is an NFL record. Can never complain about a weekend where Robert Kraft and Jerry Jones watch their teams lose in embarrassing fashion, but I feel weird about Prescott after this game. I was hoping for a much better performance than this as it was his first postseason start since the 2018 season. I do not believe the Cowboys have a quarterback problem, but I get the sense that promoting Moore to head coach won’t change a thing in Dallas and its playoff misfortunes.

At least Amari Cooper showed up and caught a touchdown, so I don’t have to end by calling him soft again. Save the criticism for Lamb, who really disappointed in his playoff debut with one catch on five targets.

If the 49ers can stay out of their own way, they might be a dangerous team this postseason. Great challenge coming up in Green Bay on Saturday night.

Eagles at Buccaneers: Pennsylvania Going Out Sad on Sunday

The worst game of the weekend should come as no surprise. The 2021 Eagles slipped to 0-7 against playoff teams, something only the 2011 Bengals (0-8) can claim they’ve done among all playoff teams in NFL history. This is what happens when you let a 5-7 team play the Jets, Giants, and Washington (twice) so they can get the No. 7 seed, which grants them a road game against a team that used to get a bye week.

Philadelphia trailed as badly as 31-0 as Jalen Hurts struggled to make on-time plays or establish any offensive rhythm against a Tampa Bay defense that is getting healthy at the right time. The running game was pretty much shut down outside of Boston Scott exploding for a 34-yard touchdown run on his only carry. Miles Sanders (7 carries for 16 yards) finishes his 2021 allergic to the end zone.

Hurts threw two picks and Jalen Reagor had an awful day in every way with a muffed punt that blew open the game. Tampa Bay’s offense was nothing special and was stalling out after taking a 17-0 lead. But once Reagor muffed that punt in the third quarter, the Buccaneers took advantage with a 48-yard touchdown drive as no one decided to cover Rob Gronkowski for an easy touchdown. Hurts was picked on a fourth down and Tom Brady only needed one play to find Mike Evans for a 36-yard touchdown.

Despite two touchdowns in the fourth quarter, the Eagles never seriously threatened. But the Eagles were able to sack Brady four times and hold Tampa Bay to 4-of-13 on third down. The Buccaneers will have to be sharper in their next game, and it could be without elite right tackle Tristan Wirfs, who was injured early in the game. He tried to return, which was probably a bad idea, before leaving for good. The Bucs also lost center Ryan Jensen, but that was brief, and he finished the game.

We’ll see what happens with Wirfs going forward, but Tampa Bay is still in a good position to get back to the NFC Championship Game, if not host it should the 49ers upset the Packers.

The highlight of this game was FOX’s Troy Aikman visibly complaining on camera about having to call this game instead of being in Dallas for the San Francisco game everyone knew would be better. Troy was right, but I didn’t mind hearing CBS’ Tony Romo take some enjoyment in the Cowboys losing a rough playoff game instead of listening to Romo slurp Brady for three hours.

Raiders at Bengals: The Most Jerome Boger Game Ever

We can talk about the officials, or we can talk about the Bengals nailing their draft picks of Joe Burrow and Ja’Marr Chase and winning a division title and home playoff game in their first season together to end a 30-year playoff drought. That’s an important achievement in what could be the start of a great run in Cincinnati.

Of course, you’re not always going to draw an opponent as weak as the Raiders, who were outscored by 65 points this season. But after having the worst red-zone defense in 30 years, the Raiders can thank their red-zone defense for keeping this a close game instead of another rout. The Raiders allowed a touchdown 81.4% of the time in the red zone this year – no one else was above 70.0%. But the Cincinnati offense finished 2-of-5 in the red zone in this game.

The second of those conversions created the controversy in this one. Joe Burrow scrambled near the sideline before throwing a 10-yard touchdown pass to Tyler Boyd, who was wide open in the back of the end zone. It was ruled a touchdown and gave the Bengals a 20-6 lead after the two-minute warning in the first half.

But a whistle clearly blows on the play, which by rule, should have blown the play dead and led to a replaying of the down, which was a third-and-4 at the Las Vegas 10. Maybe the Bengals still score on the next play. Maybe they get a first down and score later, not leaving the Raiders enough time for their touchdown drive they finished with 13 seconds to spare. Maybe the Bengals miss a short field goal. Maybe, maybe, maybe.

The NFL did itself no favors by saying after the game that the whistle came after the ball was caught by Boyd. Here’s my take: I think the whistle blew while Boyd was going up to catch the ball. He was already wide open. Burrow was in bounds and threw a perfectly legal pass. Boyd was in bounds and caught the ball for a touchdown. The players did everything right on the play. The only mistake was an inadvertent whistle by a referee. Why should we bail out the Raiders on defense for a mistake like that? It’s sour grapes. The touchdown is legitimate.

There were other officiating controversies in the game, but that’s basically cooked into the product any time Jerome Boger is the referee. Long delays are his specialty too. I cannot imagine we’ll see this crew do another game this postseason, so maybe it’s for the best that we got this snafu out of the way in a wild card game.

Burrow was impressive in his first playoff game, especially when you consider the running game failed with Joe Mixon only rushing for 48 yards on 17 carries. Chase was impressive too, though Tee Higgins remained a ghost against this Vegas defense for a second time this season.

But because of those red-zone failures early in the game, the Bengals never ran away with things. The Raiders got the late stops and Derek Carr got all he could ask for: a chance at a game-tying (or game-winning with a two-point conversion) touchdown drive, down 26-19 with 1:51 left.

As always, I expected him to get BS flags, especially with what happened earlier in the game to Vegas. Immediately, he got an extra 15 yards on one of the worst roughing calls you’ll see in a big spot. But after a brilliant throw to Darren Waller to convert a third-and-17, Carr went back to making bad plays. Eventually, he hit another third down but ended up wasting a down with a spike. At 30 seconds, I thought he had enough time to have a play called and not waste that down. This proved costly.

Carr had a fourth-and-goal at the 9 with 17 seconds left. The Raiders certainly did not run a play with good design. Hunter Renfrow should be doing something towards the end zone, for starters. But I think Carr ultimately panicked and forced a pass short of the goal line to Zay Jones in double coverage. It was a game-ending interception, but even a completion there would have ended the game short of the goal line.

Carr blew his chance to be a hero in the biggest game of his career. Waller running a wheel route would have been the better decision. Put some air on it and let your best guy use his size to his advantage. At least throw it in the end zone with the game on the line.

At least they didn’t run Carr on a quarterback draw, I guess.

This is the first season in NFL history where the Bengals and Buccaneers both won a playoff game. Throw in the Bills in the AFC and consider how long those playoff win droughts were (1996-2019 for Buffalo), and we are really seeing that changing of the guard in the AFC. It’s exciting for the league as another huge Bills-Chiefs game looms next week. But the Bengals may have an upset in mind in Tennessee as well. Exciting times for the Bengals for a change.

NFL Stat Oddity: Week 10

Another week in the NFL in 2021 meant more upsets, more injuries, more blowouts, and more confusion in the playoff picture and MVP race. I’m finding out that I really don’t like it when the only “sure things” in the NFL this year are Jonathan Taylor and James Conner finding the end zone.

Can we put the “games are closer this year” thing to rest? With one game left to go on Monday night, Week 10 just tied Week 7 for a season-low four games with a comeback opportunity. It was the first week this season without a single lead change in the fourth quarter or a single game-winning drive or any game where a team down double digits came back to win. Oh, we got a bloody f’n tie, but more on that below.

For anyone selling the “games are so close!” narrative this season, please refer to this chart for games through Week 10 going back to 2001 and how many were decided by 10-plus, 17-plus, and 24-plus points.

  • 2021’s 75 games decided by 10+ points are the most since 2014 (85) and the second most in any season since 2010.
  • 2021’s 42 games decided by 17+ points are the most since 2014 (49) and well above the average of 32.7 such games over the last six seasons.
  • 2021’s 24 games decided by 24+ points are tied with 2011 for the most such games through Week 10 since 2001. There were five such games on Sunday.

Granted, I’m usually not one to judge the closeness of a game by the final score, but I have more stats to share. Here’s how the fourth-quarter comeback opportunities through Week 10 stack up for recent seasons:

  • 2021: 71 of 149 games (47.7%)
  • 2020: 83 of 147 games (56.5%)
  • 2019: 83 of 148 games (56.1%)
  • 2018: 81 of 148 games (54.7%)
  • 2017: 77 of 146 games (52.7%)
  • 2016: 90 of 147 games (61.2%)
  • 2015: 90 of 146 games (61.6%)
  • 2014: 79 of 147 games (53.7%)
  • 2013: 93 of 147 games (63.3%)
  • 2012: 84 of 146 games (57.5%)

For as long as I’ve been doing this weekly, I’ve never seen a season where more than half the games are not this close.

Until now.

This season in Stat Oddity:

Chiefs at Raiders: Well, That Takes Care of Vegas for the Season

Before we get crazy claiming that the Chiefs are back on track for the Super Bowl, let’s not forget that the Raiders are immune to winning big games like this one was for possession of first place in the AFC West.

But after a 41-14 blowout win, the Chiefs are back in first and looking pretty damn good. Only the special teams had a rough night in Vegas, but even that unit made up for it with a fake punt pass that led to a knockout punch touchdown to Darrel Williams. Patrick Mahomes finished with 406 yards and five touchdowns to break out of his five-game slump. The Chiefs were 9-of-15 on third down while the Raiders were just 1-of-9. Derek Carr throwing up a jump ball interception to Daniel Sorensen was another dagger moment in this one. So was DeSean Jackson fumbling his first catch with the team in hysterical fashion when it looked like he could score a touchdown.

After starting the game with a three-and-out, Mahomes led the Chiefs to scores on seven of their next eight drives, only missing out on a missed field goal before halftime. It was an almost-perfect offensive night, which is how I described Kansas City’s win in Las Vegas on Sunday Night Football last season.

Does that mean the Chiefs are back? We’ll see against Dallas next week, but it was always a matter of the defense not being historically terrible and the offense not being historically awful at turning the ball over. The defense has stepped up in the last month after acquiring Melvin Ingram, sliding Chris Jones back to defensive tackle, cutting down Sorensen’s snaps, and just playing better. The offense showed plenty of patience and the only turnover was on special teams this time.

In a season that is wide open for the taking, the Chiefs just have to stop being their own worst enemy. On Sunday night, they were the Raiders’ worst enemy, and I now expect Las Vegas (5-4) to implode and miss the playoffs just like after they lost to the Chiefs at home last year.

Buccaneers at Washington: Belichick Would Never…

On a day where Bill Belichick coached his Patriots to a thorough 45-7 rout of the Browns, the Buccaneers fell flat as a heavy favorite in a 29-19 loss to Washington. Tom Brady finished with a season-low 31.7 QBR. That’s now a losing streak to Taylor Heinicke and Trevor Siemian (off the bench) for the Bucs.

It’s the kind of game Brady would almost never lose as a member of the Patriots. Not as a 9.5-point favorite against a terrible Washington defense, with a coordinator (Jack Del Rio) Brady has crucified his whole career, and a unit that lost Chase Young to an ACL tear.

But he was outplayed by Heinicke, who put the game away with one of the best drives of the season. Washington needed that because it sure felt like the Football Team was going to blow this one after leading wire-to-wire. Tampa Bay was gifted an untimed down field goal before halftime after a facemask penalty, and Brady led two more touchdown drives that started in opponent territory in the second half to make it 23-19.

But Heinicke took over with 10:50 left and drained all but 29 seconds off the clock with an epic 19-play, 80-yard touchdown drive. Washington converted four third downs on the drive, and finally ended it with a 4th-and-1 touchdown run by Antonio Gibson. I could see an argument for kicking a field goal and taking a 26-19 lead with 30 seconds left, but you can’t tempt Brady’s luck. The touchdown puts the game away. While I thought the kneeldown on the two-point conversion was playing it too safe, Tampa Bay waved the white flag and only ran Leonard Fournette twice on the ensuing drive to end it. I guess Brady didn’t want to risk a third interception against a coordinator he’s almost never been picked against.

Washington held the ball for 39 minutes in the upset. This is Brady’s fourth wire-to-wire loss (never led) with Tampa Bay. He had five such losses in his last four seasons with New England (2016-19). To me, this game shows the difference between what advantages Brady used to have with Belichick as his coach. I cannot see a talented team coached by Belichick losing to this Washington team, especially coming off a loss and a bye week.

Brady is now 17-8 as Tampa Bay’s starter in the regular season. That 68% winning percentage would be the lowest he had in any New England season since 2009 (10-6). Tampa Bay is starting to look like the 7-5 underachiever it was a season ago before going on that championship run. Do things get significantly better when Antonio Brown and Rob Gronkowski return? Most likely. But if so much value to the offense is added with those players, who were not part of the high-scoring Tampa Bay offenses in 2018-19, then how could Brady have any real MVP argument this season?

This team is not a juggernaut, and he is not having an MVP season. Not if he can’t outscore the likes of Siemian and Heinicke in consecutive games.

Saints at Titans: They Can’t Keep Getting Away with It (Can They?)

Yes, I’m starting to feel like Jesse Pinkman when it comes to watching this Tennessee winning streak, which has now reached five games against teams who were in the playoffs last year.

But honestly, this team is starting to remind me of the early 2000s Jeff Fisher-coached Tennessee teams. They are big and physical, and they’ll win games that way instead of being really efficient or exciting on offense. Consider it a knock if you will, because you know how those seasons always ended for Tennessee (hint: poorly).

Maybe my latest act is to throw cold water on each Tennessee win, but I’m just not ready to buy this being the team to beat. Yes, the Titans don’t have Julio Jones (IR), and that makes it that much harder with Derrick Henry out. But they are far from the only team dealing with injuries right now. Look across the field. They just squeaked by the Saints without Jameis Winston, Alvin Kamara, and Michael Thomas will miss the whole season.

While the Titans were better on offense this week than their Los Angeles win that was fueled by two Matthew Stafford interceptions, these results are still not sustainable. Hence the “they can’t keep getting away with it” meme. The Titans finished with 264 yards of offense, averaged 2.2 yards per carry, and were 3-of-12 on third down. That’s bad.

The success this week was aided by an absolute horseshit call of roughing the passer on New Orleans in the second quarter. Instead of Ryan Tannehill throwing an interception in the end zone before halftime, the Titans went on to score a touchdown and led 13-6. They started the third quarter with a 19-yard touchdown drive thanks to the Saints fumbling the opening kick return.

From there it was just a matter of hanging on as Siemian staged a respectable rally. The Saints had a chance at a game-tying two-point conversion with 1:16 left, but a false start moved it back five yards and Siemian threw a bad incompletion. The Titans recovered the onside kick and that was the end of it.

Thanks to a remaining schedule that features four games against Houston (twice), Jacksonville and Miami, the Titans (8-2) really shouldn’t fare worse than 13-4. But if the post-Henry offense does not pick things up soon, then even those games with the little sisters of the poor could spell trouble for the team that has already lost to the Jets this year.

Seahawks at Packers: What the Russ?

Totally reasonable for Russell Wilson and Aaron Rodgers to be rusty and off after some missed time for health reasons. But the lowest scoring first half in the NFL this season (3-0)? The trading of red-zone interceptions? This was bad stuff, but the first shutout of Wilson’s career combined with what the Packers did to Arizona and Kansas City in the last two games makes me think that Green Bay may finally have a better defense this year. Is it going to stop Dallas, Tampa, or the Rams from scoring 30+ in January? I’m not sure about that, and Seattle is clearly not the measuring stick it used to be, but the Packers are improving on that side of the ball.

I just wish the offense would look a bit closer to the 2020 one. But the Packers are certainly closer to their past glory than the Seahawks (3-6) are right now.

Lions at Steelers: The Tomlin Special

I have been warning for the last couple of weeks that the Steelers would lose to the winless Lions. Frankly, it should have happened, but an inexperienced kicker made a horrible attempt at a 48-yard game-winning field goal in overtime. Instead, we get the first tie of 2021, which feels like a loss if you’re the 5-3 team badly in need of this win given the upcoming schedule.

Alas, I never expected Mason Rudolph to be QB1 in this game. Ben Roethlisberger came down with a positive COVID test on Saturday and Rudolph got the surprise start. This was absolutely a game that Ben would have won on his experience alone. Rudolph had a lousy pick, missed badly in the red zone, and mismanaged several other drives with inaccurate passes. He has no touch to his throws. The offense really did not change much. There were still throws well short of the sticks on crucial downs, too many horizontal attempts, and the occasional underthrown go route down the sideline. Najee Harris (26 carries for 105 yards) should have got more carries than he did on a wet, cold afternoon.

Against a Detroit defense that was allowing 9.3 yards per attempt through eight games, Rudolph finished at 4.84 YPA (242 yards on 50 passes). Yet somehow, Jared Goff was the worst QB in this game. Detroit ran the ball 39 times for 229 yards, yet Goff finished 14/25 for 114 yards and four sacks. Head coach Dan Campbell was calling plays into Goff for the first time this season, and apparently his idea is to feature less of Goss than ever before. I’m not sure I’ve ever seen a team in a tight game run the ball on third down as much as Detroit did (seven times). It makes sense if you saw some of the Goff throws in this one, either missing a wide-open receiver deep or being late with a hospital ball to another in the flat. Goff wasted a superb ground game from his stable of backs.

Despite the comedy of errors in overtime from both teams, I think this is another example of why the change to 10-minute overtime was stupid. If this was a 15-minute overtime, the Steelers likely would have been able to get Chris Boswell in position for a game-winning field goal. But in being pressed for time, they threw an ill-advised pass to Pat Freiermuth, who was going to get tackled in bounds with the Steelers out of timeouts. That pass could not be made, so if the Steelers were going to do that, they should have just tried the 57-yard field goal instead. But Freiermuth ended up fumbling the ball with eight seconds left, and Detroit’s lateral attempt stalled out 40 yards shy of the end zone.

A tie just feels like a waste of nearly four hours. Not a real outcome. We’ll see how the tie impacts the playoff race, but after losing Roethlisberger to COVID, and T.J. Watt during the game to an injury, and not getting into first place with a win over Detroit, it sure feels like Pittsburgh lost in many ways this weekend.

Hurry-Up Finish

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

Panthers at Cardinals: Meh

You know something is wrong when the No. 7 seed pounds the No. 1 seed 34-10 in their own building and I am giving it footnote treatment. But I just struggle to take a game like this seriously when the Cardinals were without Kyler Murray and DeAndre Hopkins. Carolina was the better team on Sunday, but let’s face some facts. They were going up against Colt McCoy, who coughed up a fumble and was stopped on a fourth down in the beginning of the game. Those mistakes led to a 14-0 lead for the Panthers, who only had to drive a total of 56 yards to get those scores.

Arizona even lost McCoy during the game, but Carolina’s backup (Cam Newton) was probably the best active quarterback on Sunday anyway. I loved Carolina to cover given what it had done to Arizona the last two years, but I was not expecting 34-10. This makes Kyle Shanahan and the 49ers look even worse for last week. It’s the first truly awful performance of the season for Arizona, but I am willing to believe things will turn around when their best players return. But this could make for quite the headlines should we see this as a playoff rematch in January.

Vikings at Chargers: That’s It?

I knew this game was going to be decided by one possession after the way the season has been for these teams, but this was a fake close game with a disappointing finish. Between the Vikings and Chargers, we should have gotten some sort of ludicrous finish. Not a matter of Minnesota clutching up and extending to a two-score lead, and then running out the final 4:36 to deny Justin Herbert, who struggled on the day, a chance at tying the game.

I was pretty disappointed. It felt like every time they showed this game, the Vikings had the ball (time of possession was 36:15). In that regard, the ending was a fitting one. The disappearance of Mike Williams (playing but ineffective) over the last month seems to explain why Herbert has been off in three of the last four games. This offense needs something more than all the short and intermediate passes to Keenan Allen.

Eagles at Broncos: Teddy’s Business Decision

In a week where we saw a kicker recover a fumble (Chris Boswell on Monday night) and a punter force a fumble on a kick return (Raiders vs. Chiefs), Teddy Bridgewater looked extra soft when he did this on a huge fumble that was returned for an 83-yard touchdown to end the third quarter and basically end the game for Denver in a 30-13 loss.

The effort was definitely lacking there. Even if he doesn’t forcibly tackle Slay to the ground, he could have at least got in his path more to slow him down or make him cut. This looked really bad, and I guess the fault starts with Melvin Gordon for fumbling in the first place, but I think some quarterbacks would have done a better job here. Also, Jalen Hurts had a very respectable game and the Eagles showed they can be an effective, balanced offense.

Bills and Cowboys Rebound

My gambling woes in Week 9 were marked heavily by the failures of the Bills and Cowboys to find the end zone. Buffalo never got there against Jacksonville while Dallas was down 30-0 before some garbage-time scores against Denver. On Sunday, both got in the end zone not even four whole minutes into their games and continued to pile it on in easy, blowout wins over the Jets and Falcons.

Mike White being a four-pick disaster – also known as a New York Jets quarterback – was not that big of a surprise. Buffalo’s defense has been arguably more reliable than its offense this season, and they feasted on the inexperienced passer. But with the Falcons, I was really surprised that this wasn’t a competitive game and a high-scoring one. Maybe I’m thinking too much about the 40-39 stunner they played a year ago, but I never expected 43-3 with Matt Ryan passing for 117 yards. That’s already the third time in nine games where Arthur Smith has lost by 23+ points. It happened three times in six seasons when Dan Quinn was there. His defense only giving up a field goal to his old team had to feel good, but now we’ll see where the Cowboys are when they go into Kansas City next week.

Jaguars at Colts: Trevor Fumbles His Peyton Moment

Colts fans, can you recall what happened on November 15, 1998? No. 1 pick Peyton Manning was down 23-17 against the New York Jets before leading the first game-winning drive of his career, throwing a 14-yard touchdown to Marcus Pollard in the final 30 seconds in a 24-23 win. It would be the first of many memorable wins in crunch time for Manning.

Almost 23 years later to the date, Jacksonville’s No. 1 pick Trevor Lawrence found himself in a similar spot, down 23-17 to the Colts, largely thanks to the ineffectiveness of Indy’s current QB (Carson Wentz). Lawrence and the Jags had a chance to steal one from the Colts, who have blown as many games as any team this season. But after getting into Indy territory, Lawrence suffered a strip-sack, the only true turnover of the game. Just another tough loss for a team trying to turn things around.

Next week: Can Cowboys-Chiefs be the classic shootout it should be? Can Peyton and Eli take unlimited shots at Brady and the Bucs when they host the Giants on Monday night? If the close game regression hits Week 11 like it did Week 8, just remember that Patriots-Falcons is the first game on Thursday night…

NFL Stat Oddity: Week 6

With three more NFL games going to overtime on Sunday, the 2021 season has already surpassed the total number of overtime games for the entire 2020 season (10) and matched 2019’s playoff-included total of 11 overtime games.

These overtime games are covering up a shortage of close games in the NFL this season. In Week 6, the only non-overtime game that presented a fourth-quarter comeback opportunity was the London game between Jacksonville and Miami. It was a woefully bad week for the NFL brand.

But props to Jacksonville kicker Matthew Wright for that amazing curve on a 54-yard field goal that led to the Jaguars breaking their 20-game losing streak. Unfortunately, the rest of Sunday’s slate did not build on that start. Through five weeks this season, there were six games where a team scored at least 31 points and allowed fewer than 15 points. There were six such games on Sunday alone. You know things are bad when the 0-5 Jags vs. the 1-4 Dolphins in London turned out to be arguably the best played, most competitive game of the day.

With Bills-Titans left on Monday night, the average margin of victory in Week 6 is 14.69. That’s not so nice. In fact, it’s the 34th-largest MOV in a regular season week since 2001 and it is the largest since Week 7 of the 2019 season (15.1 points per game).

Let’s dissect a terrible week and agree to never speak of it again.

This season in Stat Oddity:

Game of the Week Flops (Chargers and Browns)

I don’t know if the Chargers and Browns blew their wads in that 47-42 game last week, but their performances on Sunday are the best evidence of what a disappointment Week 6 was. On paper, no games were better than Chargers-Ravens and Cardinals-Browns. Those AFC teams have been playing very exciting, high-scoring games while the Cardinals are a fun offense and the last unbeaten team too.

Sure, there were injury concerns coming into both games. Players such as Nick Chubb, Chandler Jones, and Sammy Watkins were ruled out, while players such as Myles Garrett and Mike Williams were questionable, and Williams did not finish the game for the Chargers. The Cardinals did not have some coaches make the trip due to COVID-19, including head coach Kliff Kingsbury.

But there was still plenty of talent on both sides for both games, and they were both one-sided hot garbage.

Let’s start with the Chargers. Maybe the early body clock start in Baltimore did not help this inexperienced team with the rookie coach, but I think Brandon Staley got too cocky in this one given the praise he’s (rightfully) received for his fourth-down aggression this season. But what happens when Justin Herbert is playing like a mere mortal, Williams is banged up, and you’re playing on the road against a veteran defense and team that’s playing well too?

All of a sudden, going for a 4th-and-3 at your own 39 while down 14-0 in the second quarter looks a bit foolish. That’s what the Chargers did, and they failed to convert this time. The Ravens tacked on a field goal from that. In the third quarter, the Chargers were down 24-6 and went for a 4th-and-1 at their own 19. Again, they tried to throw for it and failed. I can understand wanting to go for that one better than the first one, but it was really putting a lot of pressure on that conversion while the reward was only going to be a first down deep in your own territory. Maybe try a run? The Ravens again added a field goal as this was not the sharpest passing game for Lamar Jackson. The Ravens got their ground game back together against the league’s worst run defense as three different backs had walk-in touchdowns.

The Chargers were never a threat after their failed fourth downs, but overall, it was just disappointing to see this game play out so one-sided and uneventful. These offenses only combined for one play over 25 yards, and it was a 26-yard gain to Williams that led to an injury.

Any hope that Cardinals-Browns would deliver in the late window died quickly when Arizona jumped out to a 20-0 lead. The announcers kept making references to the Browns missing Nick Chubb on the ground, but that’s misleading. Kareem Hunt is arguably the best RB2 in the league and he had 66 rushing yards before leaving this one injured. The Browns were missing their tackles, which was a much bigger deal when facing J.J. Watt, who turned in a vintage performance. Baker Mayfield was under a lot of pressure and sacked five times. He barely got out of the game with his season intact after another arm injury, and it wouldn’t shock me if I wake up Monday to find that he’ll be out Thursday night.

But there was a brief glimmer of hope before halftime that this game might deliver when the Browns hit a 57-yard Hail Mary touchdown. That made it 23-14, but multiple sacks and the Mayfield injury in the third quarter led to a forgettable finish with Arizona cruising to a 37-14 win to get to 6-0.

While we came into this week with a lot of hype and attention for Lamar & Herbert (MVP) and Staley (Coach of the Year), I think my main takeaway is that we need to start showing this respect to the Arizona Cardinals. Maybe Kyler Murray and Kingsbury (even without him being there on Sunday) are the real front-runners for those awards as this team continues to play better than anyone outside of Buffalo. After they were the least talked about team in the NFC West all offseason, the Cardinals could end up running away with the division and more.

Chiefs Escape with Worst 18-Point Road Win Ever

The headline is a joke that plays on the fact that we are never going to get rational analysis on the Mahomes-era Chiefs by the mainstream media ever again. Yes, the Chiefs turned the ball over three times in the second quarter and trailed 13-10 at halftime. That is true.

The Chiefs also pitched a second-half shutout and finally held an opponent under 29 points this season. Washington only averaged 4.7 yards per pass. The Chiefs were also 11-of-17 on third down and finished with 499 yards. For an offense that supposedly cannot go methodically down the field, the Chiefs opened the game with a 10-play, 95-yard touchdown drive and finished it with a 15-play, 96-yard touchdown drive.

Yet so much of the focus is on the turnovers despite this being an 18-point win with a relatively drama-free fourth quarter. This is where we are with the Chiefs now. Yes, the turnovers need to chill. They cannot get away with this against good teams and expect to win. It’s fine against the Team with No Name and the Defensive Coordinator with No Clue, but eventually the Chiefs will have to tighten up that ball security.

The obligatory Chiefs fumble, this time by Mecole Hardman in scoring territory, is something I’ve joked about for years. This team has fumbled more than you’d like to see for multiple seasons now. But Mahomes throwing a red-zone pass to Tyreek Hill that bounces off his hands for a pick? Just bad luck. Mahomes fumbling a snap before halftime and forcing up a pass that gets picked because he didn’t want to take the sack on third down in field goal range? An unlucky bounce compounded by panicked decision making.

You hope they can clean this up, because the rest of the game shows that it’s still the best offense in the league. They are their own worst enemy. There is no magic blueprint out there. Any one of those three drives in the second quarter that ended in a turnover could have easily ended in a touchdown. Then the Chiefs would have had 38 points on their first 10 drives, a historic rate of production.

Tougher opponents than Washington are on the way, but once the Chiefs inevitably get around to a more realistic turnover rate and level of defensive play, this team is still going to be the measuring stick in the AFC. The only way you disagree with that is if you don’t want it to be true.

Cowboys at Patriots: McCarthyism vs. Belitricks

To honor the randomness and absurdity of one of Sunday’s only competitive games, I am going to write a disorganized recap of Dallas’ 35-29 overtime win.

The last three quarterbacks to throw for 440+ yards and get credited with a 4QC win: Dak Prescott (445) at New England on Sunday, Lamar Jackson (442) vs. Indianapolis on Monday night, and Dak Prescott (450) at Atlanta in 2020. It is also the only time in the last three seasons where Dak has led a 4QC without the need of an absurd onside kick recovery. Dak’s 445 passing yards are the most ever against the Patriots in the Belichick era.

But that goal-line stand the Patriots had in the second quarter was something else, right? If only we had seen this before under Belichick. And if only the NFL would put a chip system in place to figure out when the ball breaks the plane, because in true Patriots fashion, there was controversy as it looked clear and obvious that Dak scored on third down before fumbling into the end zone on fourth down. All’s well that ends well…

Speaking of things not ending well, Mac Jones has checked off a few more boxes after his sixth start that his predecessor rarely had to in two decades. He’s got a high-scoring loss on his resume, another lost comeback, another go-ahead touchdown drive in the fourth quarter that resulted in a loss, and he’s also done something Tom Brady never has in 350 career starts. See if you can spot it in the table I felt compelled to put together instead of updating this text every couple of weeks when the Patriots lose in ways we’re not used to seeing.

Not pictured: Jones is now 2-3 when completing at least 71.4% of his passes. Brady is 72-3 (.960) in his career doing that (min. 20 attempts) and was 66-2 doing it with the Patriots.

Jones led multiple go-ahead touchdown drives in the fourth quarter and still lost. I guess he should have willed the Cowboys to not get a tipped pick-six off him, or to miss another clutch field goal. But maybe the goal-line stand and one missed field goal is the best he can do after six starts. At least he finally completed a pass for more than a 32-yard gain with that 75-yard dime touchdown to Kendrick Bourne.

Much like last year when the Patriots were a play away from beating Seattle and Buffalo, and a better quarterback away from giving the Chiefs a rough night in Kansas City, this team can at least hang with Tampa Bay and Dallas in 2021. The defense can frustrate those high-scoring offenses. But they’re not good enough to beat them yet.

Maybe that will come back in time, but the Patriots are the 11th-placed team in the AFC with a 69-year-old head coach and a rookie quarterback. You’d much rather be in Dallas’ position as the team ranked third in the NFC with a Super Bowl-winning coach getting carried by his quarterback who is entering his prime. Now hopefully Dak will ditch the walking boot soon during this bye week and the Cowboys can get back to winning in a couple weeks here.

Parting shot: Since Belichick has been the coach of the Patriots (2000-21), they have had 14 clutch field goals (game-tying or go-ahead kicks in 4Q/OT) of 48-plus yards attempted against them, including two in this game. When Tom Brady was New England’s quarterback of record, kickers were 1-for-8 on these long clutch kicks as opposed to 5-for-6 when Brady was not the quarterback. Teams never had a game without a make against the non-Brady teams. Greg Zuerlein’s 49-yard field goal with 20 seconds left to force overtime is the longest clutch field goal anyone has made against the Patriots in the last 5:00 of the fourth quarter or overtime since 2000.

You can’t make this stuff up. The Patriots will never have another LOAT.

Seahawks at Steelers: T.J. Watt Is the Standard

Pittsburgh struggling at home to put away a 2-3 team with a backup quarterback? Yeah, I’ve heard this one before. A 14-0 lead in Pittsburgh used to mean an automatic victory for the Steelers, but those days are gone. Now the team has to scrap for every yard, and in some cases of where their short passes travel, every inch.

The Seahawks would not go away easy in their first game without Russell Wilson since 2011. While Geno Smith was mostly a caretaker through three quarters, the Seahawks got back into things with a strong running game as Alex Collins rushed for 101 yards, surpassing his output (99 yards) from the last three games. Pittsburgh’s tackling was shoddy and the Seahawks were running the ball better than the Steelers were with Najee Harris. At least the pass protection was adequate for Ben Roethlisberger, who had another one of his “QB release slipped” plays he has once a year. This one was ruled a fumble in Pittsburgh territory, but the defense held in a tight game thanks to a holding penalty that short-circuited the drive.

It was an up-and-down night for Pittsburgh on both sides of the ball. I thought for sure they were going to blow this one when Chase Claypool had the laughable combo of pushing off downfield and still catching the ball out of bounds. That OPI moved the ball back to the Seattle 46, but Roethlisberger was able to hit Harris for a 12-yard gain to set up Chris Boswell for a 52-yard field goal and 20-17 lead.

The Seahawks had to survive two skill player fumbles on the ensuing drive, including one by D.K. Metcalf after he inexcusably stayed in bounds to fight for a couple more yards when the team was out of timeouts. He needed to get out immediately there with the team in field goal range and to save a shot at the end zone for the win. He was fortunate the Seahawks got the spike off in time. Well, the spike that never counted because of a late call to review the play for no good reason as it was clearly a catch. Weird sequence.

But in overtime, it was the T.J. Watt show. His brother had a hell of a day in Cleveland, so he had to outdo it with two sacks in overtime alone. The strip-sack of Geno set the Steelers up at the Seattle 16 for the cheapest game-winning drive of Roethlisberger’s career, though I know I’ve seen worse.

The Steelers are 3-3 and could use the bye week, but some of their problems are not going to go away this season. The Seahawks are 2-4 and currently rank 14th in the NFC with Wilson not set to come back for weeks. Both teams feel like they’re living on borrowed time.

‘Cause it’s a bittersweet symphony, that’s life.

Remember the 3-0 Panthers and Broncos?

Almost every NFL season has a 3-0 or 3-1 team that excites a fanbase and aggravates a data-hungry analyst like me to tell them it’s fool’s gold. It’s not real. I’ll take my licks in September and October for it, but by Christmas time I can enjoy the gift of silence because I’m usually going to be right on such teams. The giveaway is usually a soft schedule and a lucky bounce or two for a team without a track record of success.

This year, we seem to have two of these teams as the Panthers and Broncos both started 3-0 and neither has won since. It’s been so long since they’ve won that Squid Game was brand new to me when they last did.

What happened on Sunday? Sam Darnold had a few more turnovers and only completed 17-of-41 passes against Minnesota. The Panthers only hung around in this game thanks to an 18-yard touchdown drive (after a Justin Jefferson fumble) and a blocked punt returned for a touchdown. I’ll give Darnold credit for the clutch 96-yard game-tying drive to force overtime where he never got the ball back. The Vikings destroyed the Carolina defense with 571 yards and should have won in regulation but missed another game-winning field goal. That’s four games this year for the Vikings where a clutch kick could have decided the winner. They’re 2-2 in those games though no team has played the Cardinals better than Minnesota did.  This team looks playoff capable while the Panthers look like third place in the NFC South is their peak. Matt Rhule is now 0-11 in games with a fourth quarter comeback opportunity.

Meanwhile, Denver’s Teddy Bridgewater had four turnovers in a 34-24 loss to the Raiders, who hit big plays and were aggressive on defense without Jon Gruden around in a fine road performance. The Broncos continue to stink on third down, and the uncharacteristic turnovers made it really hard for Denver to avoid a third straight loss. While the Chiefs (3-3) are stunningly still in last place in the division, it is hard not to see Denver headed towards that cellar spot by season’s end.

Next week: If Week 6 was terrible, then what happens in a Week 7 slate headlined by Bengals-Ravens?

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 2

I am trying to rationalize the ending of Chiefs-Ravens by thinking that this NFL season is just not going to make any sense. I’m not the only one struggling with my predictions. Favorites are just 10-21 ATS through Week 2, which would replace 2002 (10-20) for the worst start to a season for favorites in the 32-team era if the Packers can’t cover a big spread against Detroit on Monday night.

How likely are the Packers to do that when they lost 38-3 to a New Orleans team that just got pantsed by a Sam Darnold-led Panthers team? Again, uncertainty is very high right now. Let’s try to make some sense of these Week 2 results.

This season in Stat Oddity:

Chiefs at Ravens: We Have a Rivalry

I have been harping on the idea that the biggest story in the AFC these days, and maybe the whole NFL, is finding the worthy rival to the Kansas City Chiefs and Patrick Mahomes. Lamar Jackson and the Baltimore Ravens have been the most logical choice with the team’s balanced, consistent success, but the Chiefs have continued to clean their clock by a wider margin each year since 2018. It’s not a real rivalry until the Ravens show they can win one of these games.

Well, it happened, and it happened in one of the most unusual ways for Baltimore. The 36-35 win is the first time in Jackson’s career that he won a game after trailing by 11 points, and the first time he won after trailing by multiple scores in the second half. He still did it his way too by rushing 16 times for 107 yards and two touchdowns while only making 26 throws. However, he had 239 yards on those 26 throws for one of the best passing games of his career.

Jackson was almost flawless in the fourth quarter, putting away the Chiefs with two touchdown runs and a run on 4th-and-1 from his own 43 with just over a minute left to deny Mahomes one more chance with the ball. The inevitability of his rushing from the quarterback position was a feeling I hadn’t had in a game since I watched Vince Young destroy USC in the 2005 Rose Bowl.

Once is an accident, twice is a coincidence, but three times is a pattern. I will wait until I see the Chiefs play Justin Herbert and the Chargers next week before I make it my take, but I have serious doubts about the Chiefs having a defense that is capable of getting to a Super Bowl this year. Not everyone can run like Nick Chubb behind Cleveland’s line and this unique Baltimore rushing attack is the best in the league, but this run defense has been dreadful and the pass defense hasn’t been much better. They could see those teams again in January too.

Tyrann Mathieu’s season debut led to two picks and a pick-six in the first quarter, but he felt more like a liability in the final 45 minutes. No one seemed to be of any value after that as the Ravens were stopped once on their last seven drives. Jackson shaking off an ugly start and delivering is what made this one so different for Baltimore.

I hyped it up all summer. Would the Chiefs falter if the offense did not close the game out in the fourth quarter and the defense had to get the job done? This happened last week and the defense intercepted Baker Mayfield. But this time, the offense failed on three straight drives and so did the defense. The Chiefs blew their first fourth-quarter lead since the Tennessee loss in Week 10 of 2019.

Mahomes is 21-5 as a starter on the road and scored at least 31 points in every loss. But like the 31-9 Super Bowl loss, this game peels away another layer of invincibility around him. It was fun to say he’s never lost to the Ravens or lost a September game or thrown an interception in the month, but it all happened in this game, and it was all connected. Up 35-24 in the third quarter, Mahomes should have taken a sack on a third-and-12 at midfield, but he still tried to complete a pass (short of the sticks too) and it was intercepted. The Ravens turned that into a 56-yard touchdown drive. Just a bad mistake on a night where he had almost no others.

When he was down 36-35, Mahomes seemed to have another game-winning drive in the works by getting the ball to the Baltimore 32 on three passes. But the Chiefs dialed up a run and Clyde Edwards-Helaire continued his rough half with a devastating fumble with 1:20 left. We just went over something like this a week ago when Damien Harris of the Patriots coughed it up against the Dolphins. This was even later in the game though.

We can think of worse and bigger fumbles in NFL history, but there really is no point margin more agonizing to lose a fumble in the last two minutes than with a 1-to-2 point deficit. If you’re down 3, you lost that chance to tie or take the lead, and that’s a bummer. Ditto for being down 4-9. But you weren’t in position to win on a field goal there. In a tied game, it’s also a bummer, but at least you’re still tied after the turnover. This one just stings the most since the Chiefs were already in range, and despite having Mahomes, it seemingly hasn’t stopped Andy Reid from settling for a 45+ yard field goal in these situations. I understand why they ran, but you almost wish the Chiefs were down more points to incentivize them to keep the ball in Mahomes’ hands.

Stat of the night: Excluding kick returns, laterals, and quarterbacks taking strip-sacks, Edwards-Helaire’s fumble is only the third one by a skill player in opponent territory in the last 2:00 of a game while trailing by 1-2 points since 2001. The last player to do it was Denver running back Quentin Griffin in 2004 — incredibly on the same date (9/19) as CEH — in a 7-6 loss against Jacksonville. The only other “recent” example was when Reche Caldwell fumbled on a Drew Brees completion against the Chiefs in a 24-22 loss in 2002. That’s how rare this is as it is only the second one on a handoff.

Bumping the deficit up to three points only adds these five plays since 2001 (and no, I’m not sure what Brees and the Saints did to deserve to be on here so often):

  • 2019 Melvin Gordon (Chargers vs. Titans)
  • 2018 JuJu Smith-Schuster (Steelers vs. Saints)
  • 2018 Rashad Greene (Jaguars vs. Colts)
  • 2005 Reche Caldwell (again on a pass from Brees; Chargers vs. Eagles)
  • 2003 Deuce McAllister (Falcons vs. Saints; Atlanta fumbled ball back to Saints on same play; Saints won game in OT)

Still, because the Chiefs had all three timeouts, a stop was possible to get Mahomes the ball back. But on 4th-and-1 from the Baltimore 43 with 1:05 left, John Harbaugh asked Lamar if he wanted to go for it. Of course he did, as he should. From what I know about quarterback runs in short-yardage situations, he had to be at least 80% likely to convert there. If he converts, the game is over. If he doesn’t convert, then that is bad news as Mahomes would only need a first down to set up a reasonable field goal. So this was for the game, and I absolutely agreed with it as Baltimore needed to deliver that knockout punch and not trust the defense that has let them down so many times before in these moments. Not when you’re playing someone like Mahomes and he has a minute to set up the field goal.

If they called a pathetic play that didn’t work, then this would be a defining play of the season. But they called the smart play against a defense that couldn’t stop Lamar in the second half, and he delivered with the first down to ice it, making it a defining play of the season in a good way for Baltimore.

It’s a signature win for the Jackson era and should give the Ravens hope should they meet this team again in January. I’ll have to wait for the charting data to see if the Ravens dialed back their blitzing on Mahomes. It felt like they did, and they were smart to double team Tyreek Hill and limit him to 14 yards on three catches. Those big YAC plays for touchdowns to Travis Kelce and Byron Pringle could be defended better next time. It was a pretty loose offensive game with players on both teams running wild all over the field.

You can see how hard it is to still beat the Chiefs, but the cracks are starting to show with this team. In Mahomes’ last 12 starts, the Chiefs have one win by more than six points. That was Buffalo (38-24) in the AFC Championship Game. The Bills will get their next shot at the Chiefs on SNF in Week 5. If the Ravens can break through with a win, what about the Bills? What about the Chargers in Arrowhead next week?

This just may not be a waltz back to the Super Bowl for Kansas City after all.

Bad Afternoon for QB Injuries (MIA/CHI/HOU/IND)

While Week 1 could have been defined by underdog wins and a lot of bad fumbles, Week 2’s early afternoon slate was rocked hard by injuries, especially at the quarterback position.

Tua Tagovailoa left the game early for Miami, which turned into a 35-0 rout for the Bills. I don’t think that injury changed the outcome for the winner, but it was still a game that looked more like the 2019 Bills than the precise, efficient offense the team had with Josh Allen in 2020.

An Andy Dalton injury in Chicago gave way to Justin Fields, who did what most Chicago quarterbacks are used to doing: riding the defense to a win after Joe Burrow threw a pick-six in the fourth quarter in a 20-17 win by the Bears. While Fields failed to impress, it will be interesting to see if Dalton gets the job back again.

Tyrod Taylor was tearing up the Browns, one of his former teams, in the first half before injury took him out again. He won’t play Thursday night at the very least. The game was all Cleveland after that, so this was a real disappointing one as it seemed like Taylor was really making the most of this Houston opportunity. Poor guy can’t make it to October anymore.

The play-by-play for Texans-Browns had a whopping 10 mentions of a player being injured on a play. Taylor was not one of those, which just goes to show this is not a designation that can cover every injury that occurs in a game as sometimes they just don’t know which play did it. But 10 sure sounds like a game that was plagued by injury. Baker Mayfield barely got through it in one piece too, and it was Mayfield who took over for Taylor in Cleveland in 2018 when he was injured there.

Then there was the Rams-Colts game, which only listed one injury (Darrell Henderson) in the play-by-play list. But Carson Wentz did not finish this game after another injury. I would have loved to see what he would do in an ideal game-winning drive situation, down 27-24 with just over two minutes left and no timeouts. Instead, we got Jacob Eason, who promptly turned into Nathan Peterman and lobbed this one to Jalen Ramsey.

A rough day at the office. I’d say more about the Rams, but I plan to talk about them more during the week in the buildup for the game of the month between the Rams and Buccaneers. Let’s just say I think this close win in Indy takes a lot of the shine off this being a super team with Stafford, but it was a fine road win.

Saints at Panthers: WTF?

Suddenly, I don’t feel so bad about predicting mediocrity for the 2021 Saints. Any hope that the defense was going to morph into an elite unit without Drew Brees after what the Saints did to Aaron Rodgers last week quickly vanished after this 26-7 walloping at the hands of the Panthers, a team the Saints have owned for years.

That makes two weeks in a row the Saints had the real “WTF? game of the week” and now they were on the opposite end of the spectrum. I always had a lot of respect for Drew Brees, and I thought the shots some were taking about the Saints now having a deep ball because of one Jameis Winston touchdown last week were absurd.

I don’t remember Brees ever struggling to throw for 100 yards in New Orleans like Winston has in these first two games as the starter. It’s so weird too since Winston is one of the most prolific quarterbacks in NFL history at gaining passing yards. Is Sean Payton hiding him from throwing picks and it’s hurting their ability to produce as a legitimate offense? Supporters will cite COVID wiping out much of the offensive coaching staff this week, but it’s not like last week was a normal performance with the short fields. It’s not like the Panthers are some juggernaut, and they still had Payton there coaching this game.

The Saints were outgained by 255 yards. That only happened to Brees one time in New Orleans when he was outgained by 278 yards against Peyton Manning’s 2012 Broncos. A bit different than Sam Darnold’s Panthers. The 128 yards of offense were the worst for the Saints since the 2001 finale against the 49ers (126 yards). Really, it took two games after Brees retired to have a game almost 50 yards lower than his lowest game? (176 yards in Dallas in 2018).

I don’t know what to make of these teams yet. I need to see them play a normal game and a good opponent first.

Cowboys at Chargers: Dallas Wins Fake Low-Scoring Game

The streak is finally over. For the first time since the 2018 playoffs, the Cowboys won a game without scoring 30 points. Since beating the Seahawks 24-22 in the 2018 wild card round, the Cowboys were 14-2 when scoring at least 30 points and 0-18 when scoring fewer than 30 points. No other team in NFL history has ever had a two-year run like these Cowboys just had where 30 was such a magic number for them.

But even in pulling out a shorthanded 20-17 win in Los Angeles against the Chargers, the Cowboys still played in an offensively-driven game that only had 15 total possessions. One of Dallas’ eight drives was before halftime with three seconds left, and they nearly pulled out a miracle score. Since Dak Prescott and Justin Herbert only combined to throw 14 incompletions, and the Cowboys really got their running game to explode with 198 yards (109 from Tony Pollard), this was a fast-moving game with much better per-drive averages for the offenses. This is only the third non-overtime game in NFL history where both offenses had over 400 yards, but neither scored more than 20 points. The first two were 2012 Raiders-Browns and 2017 Buccaneers-Patriots.

The lack of possessions just made every mistake hurt more, such as the two picks from Herbert and the missed field goal. Herbert also had two touchdown passes taken away on penalties with the Chargers settling for three points on those drives, including a game-tying field goal with 3:54 left instead of a go-ahead touchdown. The officiating left a lot to be desired in this one.

Prescott made a lot of simple, short throws on the game-winning drive, and Mike McCarthy’s bunch did not handle the clock and situation the best they could have. Greg Zuerlein ended up coming out for a 56-yard field goal. But unlike some kickers this week, he only needed one attempt to drill it for the win with no time left.

Both teams are going to be a tough out for anyone this year, but both still seem like their own worst enemy at times.

Patriots at Jets: Weekly Zach Wilson Data Dump

When Zach Wilson threw his fourth interception on his 10th pass attempt of the day against the Patriots, I knew the Jets had their quarterback for the next 30 games. After all, what other franchise does a stat line like that remind you of? If it’s not the great Joe Namath or Richard Todd or Vinny Testaverde or Mark Sanchez or Geno Smith or Ryan Fitzpatrick or Sam Darnold, what other franchise screams “four picks” like the Jets?

Last week I had Wilson in an unpleasant list of quarterbacks who took six sacks in their first start. Now I can add Wilson to this “yikes” list of the last 12 quarterbacks to throw at least four interceptions in their first or second start:

  • Nathan Peterman (2017)
  • Ryan Lindley (2012)
  • Brandon Weeden (2012)
  • Keith Null (2009)
  • Ryan Fitzpatrick (2005)
  • Brooks Bollinger (2005)
  • Alex Smith (2005)
  • John Navarre (2004)
  • Henry Burris (2002)
  • Patrick Ramsey (2002)
  • Joey Harrington (2002)
  • Clint Stoerner (2001)

Now it’s been said that Bill Belichick has done this a lot to opponents. This is true. Belichick has absolutely won more games than anyone with a quarterback dinking and dunking and taking advantage of his opponent’s mistakes in easy three-score wins as Mac Jones demonstrated on Sunday.

Oh, but you were thinking about Belichick’s defense against rookie quarterbacks? Yes, there’s some truth to that too. Belichick is far from undefeated against rookies as he has lost notable games to Ben Roethlisberger (2004), Mark Sanchez (2009), Colt McCoy (2010), Russell Wilson (2012), Geno Smith (2013), and Tua last year.

But I was able to pull together the data on this, and instead of limiting it to rookies, I looked at inexperienced starters in general as quarterbacks who were making their 1st to 16th start of their NFL career. How do such inexperienced quarterbacks fare against Belichick relative to all other coaches since 2001? I made a graph with all 63 coaches with at least 15 such games through 2020.

Inexperienced quarterbacks have only won 18.5% of their games against Belichick from 2001 to 2020, going 15-66 in the process. Only Baltimore’s John Harbaugh (9-42, .176) has a better record. The 4.53 ANY/A for those quarterbacks against Belichick ranks him as the 14th-best coach in this sample of 63. Mike Zimmer (3-13 record, 3.65 ANY/A) has also been very impressive in this split.

Interestingly enough, two of the worst coaches against inexperienced quarterbacks were Jason Garrett (14-15 record, 5.98 ANY/A) and Adam Gase (9-9 record, 5.98 ANY/A). Jets fans should be glad that Gase is gone, but more afternoons like this from Robert Saleh (and Wilson), and it’ll start to feel like he never left.

Raiders at Steelers: Actually, Not the Same Old Steelers

(Note: If you’re not aware, the reason you get a more detailed Steelers game recap is because you can count on that being a game I watched in full each Sunday.)

I wish I can say the Steelers had another one of their whacky, unexpected losses to the Raiders on Sunday despite being a 6.5-point home favorite. The fact is the game was fairly normal and indicative of the kind of team Pittsburgh is when it does not have a good season. The Steelers upset Buffalo last week by getting contributions from all three units. While the special teams helped with a 56-yard field goal, a Heinz Field record, the offense was not good enough again and the defense struggled after its best player (T.J. Watt) left with a groin injury.

While I felt the Steelers used to lose to the Raiders by overlooking them and getting some bad bounces, this time it just felt like Pittsburgh was the inferior team heading in the wrong direction while maybe the Raiders are on the right path. With Josh Jacobs out, the Raiders had no problem in going one-dimensional and using Derek Carr through the air (382 yards) while not excessively targeting tight end Darren Waller after he had 19 targets on Monday night. Hunter Renfrow played very well on pivotal downs and Carr was money on the 61-yard bomb to Henry Ruggs that really made the difference in the fourth quarter.

Pittsburgh just failed to stack good plays. Carr got away with fumbles on consecutive plays before the Raiders settled for a field goal to begin the scoring. Melvin Ingram did his best to step up for Watt’s absence with a sack, but Carr simply converted the ensuing third-and-9 to Renfrow, which led to another touchdown in the third quarter. After the Pittsburgh offense answered with a fourth-quarter touchdown to make it 16-14, the defense folded again on third-and-10 on the Ruggs bomb to make it 23-14. The Steelers never touched the ball again with a one-score deficit.

The Pittsburgh offense is definitely stuck in what I call the post-Antonio Brown malaise that has been there since 2019 started, but this was very much a team loss and not about one unit over the other. Strangely enough, the quick/short passes are working this year for first downs and successful gains rather than the 1-yard gains on early downs and the pathetic failed completions on third-and-long that they seemed to always be last year. Ben Roethlisberger even hit a couple deep bombs in this game and got Najee Harris his first receiving touchdown on a 25-yard play.

So, what was the issue? Again, they’re not good enough to stack successes and score more points. Sometimes it’s Roethlisberger being off with his post-surgery arm strength not being good enough. Other times it’s Eric Ebron dropping a catchable ball on a third down after Roethlisberger shows some vintage escapability, like on the opening drive. Or it’s Diontae Johnson flat out giving up on a route when Roethlisberger threw one up on a third-and-long that was picked off. The running game with Harris and the new line just isn’t there yet either.

Finally, there is the coaching incompetency. While we saw the Ravens go for broke with a fourth down to put away the Chiefs on Sunday night, Mike Tomlin shriveled up again in a big spot. The Steelers faced a 4th-and-1 at their own 34 with 8:36 left and a 23-14 deficit. The defense had just given up five scores on the last seven possessions and could not be trusted. If the offense cannot be trusted to gain a yard, then how is this team ever going anywhere this year? Like in the playoff game against Cleveland, Pittsburgh punted on 4th-and-1 in the fourth quarter while down two scores. At least the defense got a stop this time, but after settling for the 56-yard field goal, the Steelers failed again on defense, allowing a 25-yard play to Waller that set up one more field goal and the 26-17 final. Johnson was then injured on a meaningless final play.

I think the Steelers will be 5-6 or 6-5 by the time December comes and they host Baltimore. But once the injuries pile up and that tough finish to the schedule arrives, the ground may be ready to crumble a la The Dark Knight Rises.

Then it may be time for fans to adopt the darkness to come.

Vikings at Cardinals: Another September MVP Campaign for Kyler Murray?

I knew Kirk Cousins (77.8) was going to finish this game with a higher QBR than Kyler Murray (65.5) once I saw him scramble for a 29-yard gain. QBR loves that stuff, and Cousins actually finished with more rushing yards (35 to 29) than Murray in this one. He also did not have a turnover while Murray threw two pretty bad picks, including one returned for a touchdown, that made this one a struggle for Arizona to win.

But which quarterback had the more impressive plays on the day? That was Murray, hands down. The best 5-foot-10 QB in NFL history made plays all over the field on his way to 400 passing yards and four more total touchdowns. He completed five passes of 25-plus yards to four different receivers.

Most games in NFL history with 360+ passing yards, 3+ passing TD, 1+ rushing TD:

  • 1. Aaron Rodgers – 5
  • 2. Drew Brees – 4
  • 3. Peyton Manning – 3
  • 3. KYLER MURRAY – 3
  • 5. Tom Brady – 2

When Murray is healthy, this offense is a lot of fun. Murray delivered on a key fourth down for 35 yards to set up Arizona’s go-ahead field goal. Cousins had two chances to answer, and on the last one, he did. The Vikings could have hurried to the line and ran another play with Dalvin Cook once they got to the Arizona 19 before calling their final timeout. However, they let the clock go down to four seconds before using that timeout.

Greg Joseph came out for the 37-yard field goal to win the game as the Vikings trailed 34-33. Vikings. Kicker. Game-winning field goal. You knew what was going to happen even before the ball was snapped. He missed it wide right, and the Vikings have an argument for the most painful loss of the young season. Go figure, Cousins, Mahomes and Mac Jones last week against Miami are the only three quarterbacks to lose after having a QBR above 70. That’s what a missed field goal or your teammate fumbling the game away in field goal range does.

As I pointed out in my preseason previews, the biggest moves for the Cardinals were getting Chandler Jones back on defense and a real kicker in Matt Prater. The Cardinals were the team last year that had several big misses in the clutch from their kicker. Prater made a huge 62-yard field goal before halftime in this one and he did not go Blair Walsh on the 27-yard game-winner. Sorry Vikings fans, I don’t know why your franchise is cursed at this position. But the Cardinals added a good one in Prater.

Titans at Seahawks: Regression vs. Regression

After piling up 33 points, 33 first downs, and 532 yards of offense, we can confirm that the Titans are still a fun and functional offense. Julio Jones showed out with 128 yards and Derrick Henry rushed for 182 yards and three touchdowns to lead a 15-point comeback in the second half and a 14-point comeback in the fourth quarter.

Meanwhile, the Seahawks blinked first in the NFC West, which would be 8-0 right now as a division had the Seahawks hung on for this win. Seattle is no stranger to blowing big leads in the Pete Carroll era, but this has been unusual in recent years as Seattle has compiled such an unsustainable great record in close games since 2019.

But on Sunday, the Seahawks went from three straight touchdown drives in the second quarter to one score on their six drives in the second half. Third down was a weakness for the offense in 2020 and it happened again in this one. Seattle finished 4-of-12 on third down but failed on third-and-short twice in the second half. The Seahawks were going to go for a fourth-and-1 but were flagged for a false start, leading to a punt and game-tying touchdown drive for the Titans.

In overtime, I really thought Russell Wilson was sacked in the end zone for a game-ending safety, which wouldn’t be the first (or second) time Ryan Tannehill has won a game that way if you can believe it. Seriously, this could have been the third game-winning safety game he was involved in. But it was not to be, and despite the generous spot, Seattle punted from the 1, which gave the Titans the ball at the Seattle 39. Four Henry runs set up Randy Bullock to redeem himself with a 36-yard field goal for the stunning win.

That was only one yard shorter than the kick that Minnesota missed to give Arizona a win and 2-0 start. I don’t want to give Arizona much grief since it destroyed this Tennessee team in Week 1. But with the Rams about to host Tampa Bay and the 49ers not dominating teams, Seattle is still right up there in the division. Still, there is something stale with this team’s approach. The defense stopped being scary years ago. Wilson is still great, but he does seem to be relying a bit too much on the rainbows for big plays instead of doing more to sustain offense with longer drives (more third-down conversions).

But this was definitely the kind of comeback the Titans made a year ago, so they are still good at that. Still the favorites for sure in the AFC South.

Super Bowl LII Preview

To say another Super Bowl between the Patriots and Eagles is less than ideal for me would be an understatement. I didn’t think I could swing a dead cat without hitting angry tweets from both fan bases the last two weeks, but I think my Mute and Block lists have done a good job there.

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My SB LII feelings.

This idea that I want the Eagles so badly to lose is an odd one. You guys realize the Patriots are the other team in this game, right? No matter how much I disagree with Eagles fans*, you’re the anti-hero we non-NE people need this week. You let us down 13 years ago in what was really the least dramatic finish in the last seven Patriots Super Bowls. It was also the last time the NFL had a repeat champion, so this is the longest span in NFL history without one, and here are the Eagles with another chance to stop the Patriots from doing so. Sure, I think jokes about the Eagles having an empty trophy case are fun, but who the hell wants to live in a world where the Patriots have won three out of four two times? Philly, you’re losing your shot to become the most insufferable fan base in this country if your team doesn’t win this game. They’ll have it on lockdown if they win.

*And let’s face it, this stems from the Carson Wentz stuff going back to September 2016. I didn’t think he was all that at 3-0, and I still didn’t think he was MVP caliber this year. The fact that the Eagles are here in the Super Bowl without him supports the idea that this is a quality team with a talented offense and a system that is very beneficial to the quarterback. The Eagles winning the Super Bowl behind game MVP Nick Foles would be the best possible outcome for me, so let’s get that part straight on what I’d prefer to see happen.

I’m not going to do a super long preview of the game here like I usually have in past years. It’s not that I don’t care, but it’s because I’ve already shared my research and talking points elsewhere for this one.

Supplemental reading:

How the Patriots are 15-0 in the playoffs against new opponents, and how the Eagles can end that streak that’s been built on some of NE’s luckiest playoff moments. Statistically, they don’t actually play better against new opponents.

Sneaky stats that could decide Super Bowl LII – a look at weighted DVOA (Patriots are No. 1, Eagles are No. 7), another unique New England defense, how these offenses handle pass pressure, and the all-too-familiar Super Bowl script for the Patriots.

Football Outsiders Big Super Bowl II Preview – I co-authored this with Aaron Schatz this year, and it’s probably not that hard to tell which paragraphs each of us wrote. But it is a long read and I think we covered everything we possibly could between two teams who only meet every other four years.

Like last year with Atlanta, I think this is a game where the Eagles could win, but I’m not going to predict it to happen. It’s just way easier to trust the Patriots’ big-game experience and track record of finding ways to win. I thought the Eagles were outstanding against Minnesota, but this is a whole different beast.

To summarize why I think the Patriots win

It starts with the offensive matchup for New England. I think running backs, slot receivers and tight ends are where the Eagles are most vulnerable, so look for Danny Amendola, Rob Gronkowski, and Dion Lewis/James White to combine for a big game. The secondary is not as good as Jacksonville’s was, and the Patriots even broke some tendencies by challenging the outside corners with Brandin Cooks, yet another big weapon in their arsenal. Even if the Patriots fall behind, we know they can come back, and the Eagles have struggled against the no-huddle offense. The Patriots just wear you out (ask Atlanta), and we always hear about the second-half fatigue in a Super Bowl after a long halftime. The Patriots are used to this environment while the Eagles simply are not. I strongly believe in success against New England requires experience and success against them (learn to beat Belichick) — look at Gary Kubiak’s Denver teams (both as OC and HC), teams led by a Manning, John Harbaugh’s Ravens, and even Rex Ryan took 3-of-5 games with the Jets in 2009-2010. I don’t trust defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz to back off and effectively pressure Brady with four pass rushers, and I think Foles is going to be asked to do more than he’s comfortable with the biggest game of his life. I also think there’s some possible turnover regression there since Foles has never thrown a pick in the playoffs and the Patriots have one takeaway in the last six games. Maybe James Harrison makes his mark on another Super Bowl with a strip-sack, making the entire state of Pennsylvania groan in disgust.

When it’s all said and done, I think there will be a moment in this game where we’ll look back and say “boy, if the Eagles just did that, they would have had them.” But that’s how the Patriots win Super Bowls. They either make the big plays in the big moments, or they take advantage when you pass those opportunities up.

To summarize why I think the Eagles have a shot

This game could very well be about Doug Pederson and Nick Foles rather than Belichick and Brady. They have an opportunity to do something memorable here. The plan behind beating the Patriots is not a complex one. You generally have to score a fair amount and can’t keep settling for field goals. You have to limit Brady’s possessions and get pressure without blitzing much. You have to win the turnover battle and play from ahead. It’s not rocket science, but few teams in the NFL are talented and prepared enough to pull off that type of team effort.

The Patriots make you play your A game to beat them, but any team that lost to Jay Cutler and the Dolphins can surely be beat. It will just take quite an effort from Pederson in mixing up his gameplans on both sides of the ball to deal with the inevitable Belichick adjustments. Foles can’t play hero, but he has to avoid the big mistakes and continue his success in moving the chains on third down and possessing the ball. The Falcons and Vikings only had nine possessions in the playoff games. When the Giants beat NE twice in the Super Bowl, Brady only had nine possessions in each game. You have to shorten the game by sticking with the run, even if you’re averaging 3.0 YPC, and making plays on third down with smart passes. Remember, the Patriots were awful on defense for the first four games of the season. Things have really improved since then, but they don’t have Dont’a Hightower, they have gotten away with several overturned touchdowns, kickers have been bad against them, and they haven’t been tested by many great offenses since Week 5. Remember, the Steelers lost Antonio Brown in the second quarter of the Week 15 matchup. Even with Foles, the Eagles are clearly a better offense than what the Titans and Jaguars brought with them to Foxboro. This defense held up very well against Adam Thielen and Stefon Diggs last time out. The Eagles have the talent and stats on defense to be a Super Bowl-caliber defense — certainly moreso than with the Patriots.

But when that opportunity comes to put the Patriots away, will Pederson come through with the right call that the Seahawks and Falcons failed to make? It’s Saturday night and I hate to keep looking up stats on this matchup, but the Eagles were only a mediocre 16th at power runs. LeGarrette Blount has had issues in the past with that, so maybe running him (or Jay Ajayi) up the gut isn’t the smartest move, but that doesn’t mean a play-action pass with a moving pocket for Foles that shrinks the field on third-and-1 is the right call either. It’s that balance between smart and aggressive that so many teams fail to make work against the Patriots.

I debated whether or not to write about the Patriots’ legacy at the end here. I’m talking more about the run as a whole rather than Brady or Belichick specifically. Like I’ve said before, where you rank those guys should have been decided before this game or the Atlanta game or maybe even the Seattle game. Ultimately, I decided to just let the game play out. Maybe if they win easily for the first time in a Super Bowl, I’ll swap my usual Clutch Encounters recap for a commentary piece on their run’s place in history.

If not, then I’m sure I’ll still have plenty to write about tomorrow night after another close New England Super Bowl.

FINAL: PATRIOTS 29, EAGLES 23

Remember, eat Arby’s.

Super Bowl XLIX Preview

I have been on the “Seattle will repeat” bandwagon seemingly ever since last year’s Super Bowl ended. I picked the Seahawks to beat Denver in a rematch, but it’s New England instead. That makes some of the storylines similar, but hopefully the game will be much more competitive.

It’s hard to imagine anything else. This is the closest Super Bowl I’ve ever seen heading into the game. The lack of a real spread from Vegas is further proof of how close this thing is. These are the two best teams in the league and they match up pretty well with each other.

I spent a whole week crafting this study on Russell Wilson’s mobility, so please read that if you haven’t.

I’ll save my conspiracy theory for close to the end, but let’s run through many of the matchups and interesting stats from this game.

Key to the Game: Run to Win

I’m not going to cite any carries-to-wins statistics that lack context or understanding of correlation. I hate to even type this next statement, but I think the team that runs the ball better wins this game. Both teams have too much talent in the secondary and not enough at wide receiver. LeGarrette Blount is a poor man’s version of Marshawn Lynch, but they are similar backs capable of many yards after contact. Both teams like to use play-action passing a lot and not a ton of shotgun. This should be an old-school kind of game.

Statistics certainly favor Seattle to run the ball better. This is the best rushing offense in the league and one of the best since 1989. As Aaron Schatz points out, the Seahawks run the ball most effectively in the directions the Patriots defend the run the worst (middle and off right tackle/end). The Seahawks are also great in short-yardage runs while the Patriots are lousy at getting those stops.

However, the Patriots have improved on the ground since the Jonas Gray game against the Colts and since getting Blount back. The run defense has also improved, though the postseason has done nothing to show that. Baltimore, with injuries to both tackles, ran all over the Patriots with Justin Forsett a week after doing nothing on the ground in Pittsburgh. The Colts even had some decent rushing success, but fell too far behind to stick with it.

I always believe that teams committed to running the ball will find a way to get it done. The Chiefs and Cowboys ran all over the Seahawks in wins, but those two offenses were built for and committed to the run this year. The Patriots tend to have an off/on switch with this year’s running game, and it’s always turned way on against the Colts, but they haven’t gashed many other teams on the ground. They shredded the Bengals good, but that was one of the worst rush defenses in the league. The Seahawks are quite solid in this area, holding nine teams to under 65 rushing yards. They’re even better since getting Bobby Wagner back and adjusting to life without Brandon Mebane. Blount’s going to have to create some yardage himself with broken tackles and cuts like he showed against the Colts.

If Tom Brady has to throw 50 passes, the Seahawks might win by double digits. Seattle usually eats up that dink-and-dunk attack. This postseason, Brady is just 7-of-19 on passes thrown more than 10 yards. He’s not stretching the field, so Seattle needs to pounce on that.

You have to use your backs against this defense even if the carries aren’t overly effective (see San Diego game in Week 2). I also think short passes to backs over the middle work well against this defense as run substitutes, though Blount’s not much of a receiver and they tend to use Shane Vereen out wide where I don’t think he has a great matchup this week.

Will Seattle’s Lack of Weapons Come Home to Roost?

Believe it or not, Dallas was the only defense to keep Seattle under 100 rushing yards this year. Russell Wilson had a really bad day, though I remember highlighting how close the receivers were to several big catches. The offense just had an off day, which they can’t afford to have on Sunday of course.

I’m probably grossly overrating the wide receiver position, but I feel if the Seahawks had Golden Tate, they would be favored by at least four points.

Bill Belichick is going to look at this offense and see that it’s Lynch and Wilson running, then it’s just Doug Baldwin, Jermaine Kearse and tight end Luke Willson. There really isn’t a No. 3 WR after Paul Richardson went on IR. Baldwin, the Deion Branch of his era, is good and can play in the slot and get away from Revis Island, but he’s not likely to dominate the game. Kearse makes big plays and maybe he can beat a Brandon Browner or Kyle Arrington deep, but he has four career games with 4-5 catches. He’s not going to make a lot of plays. I really like what Willson has done down the stretch, and maybe he can attack a Pats defense that ranks 30th in DVOA against tight ends. Then again, I thought Dwayne Allen and Coby Fleener would have success last time out and they did next to nothing. Again, my faith in numbers gets tested greatly this time of year.

Remember, this is a season where offenses led by Geno Smith and Alex Smith had more success against the Patriots than Peyton Manning and Andrew Luck did. That pisses me off for some reason, but I guess it makes sense. You can’t put everything on the quarterback against a great defensive mind and talented secondary, so the run-based offense is key. In Week 1, it was Knowshon Moreno carrying Miami to victory over the Patriots. So why can’t Lynch play well this week? And we know Seattle won’t shy away from who they are.

And even with the limited number of weapons, this Seattle offense tends to produce anyway. When they played in Arizona in Week 16, this offense piled up 596 yards against a defense with a talented secondary and aggressive play-calling. It was one of the best offensive performances of the season.

Pete Carroll considers any pass that gains 16+ yards and any run that gains 12+ yards to be an Explosive Play. The Seattle offense led the league with 135 Explosive Plays and the defense allowed the fewest Explosive Plays (76).

If the running game’s working, then Seattle has a chance to shrink the game and minimize the number of possessions, which means Brady’s offense has to play even more efficiently against a great defense.

Yeah, it’s nice to be strong on both sides of the ball. Let’s not forget Seattle’s offense is 5th in DVOA this year (10th at passing even) and got better after dumping Percy Harvin and his Screens to Nowhere.

The X-Factor: The Gronk

I’m not sure any individual can have a bigger impact on this Super Bowl than Rob Gronkowski. This is moment the Patriots have been waiting for. They have a healthy Gronk in the Super Bowl and he can play like there’s no tomorrow. He only had three targets in Super Bowl XLVI, because he wasn’t 100 percent. I actually think some of his low-production games this year were just a result of the Patriots saving Gronk for this game. I expect a minimum 12 targets in this one as he’s the only receiver that really can threaten this defense. He can also open things up for someone like Julian Edelman.

Gronk is like that recurring boss in a video game with the monster life bar that you just have to chip away at. However, he never makes it to the final battle because something lame takes him out early like a one-shot RPG, or getting hurt on an extra-point attempt. But he’s in the final battle this year and the Seahawks have to find a way for him not to take over this game. You only get one life in a Super Bowl.

I think the so-called weakness of the Seattle defense against tight ends is a bit overblown since it hasn’t been a problem lately, but we’re talking about the best tight end in the league. Guys like Julius Thomas and Jimmy Graham were flat out soft against this defense. The Gronk only knows hard. Yeah, start the next erotica chapter right here.

The Seahawks have the safeties to deal with him, but they’re not at full health right now. Inside the red zone, I’m not sure any defense can stop this guy, and that’s where he really has a chance to score. Most of the touchdowns against Seattle are from inside the 10-yard line and that’s where Brady usually throws his scores anyway.

No tight end has ever won a Super Bowl MVP, though I think Gronkowski is a guy we can look back on one day as the best to ever play the position. Here’s his opportunity for a career highlight.

Pressure vs. Sacks

You have to get after the quarterback, but success for Seattle should be measured in pressures and not sacks. Brady gets rid of the ball very fast and has only taken 15 sacks since October. I wasn’t impressed with Seattle’s rush against Green Bay, but thankfully the coverage is good-to-great. This Seattle defense has to blitz more than last year’s team to get pressure, which could be a problem if they’re not getting to Brady.

Just look at last year’s Super Bowl for a sign of what Seattle needs. Peyton Manning was getting rid of the ball fast, but two quick edge pressures from Cliff Avril on third down basically decided the game. Both led to interceptions, including the pick-six that made it 22-0. That’s two plays to completely turn the game around with pressure. Out of Avril, Michael Bennett, Kevin Williams and Bruce Irvin, they have to get some big pressures.

On the other side, this isn’t a strong New England pass rush and so far it has zero sacks in the playoffs. No team has ever won a Super Bowl with zero sacks in the postseason. I think they have to sack Wilson a couple of times in this game. You can pressure Wilson into bad plays, but taking him down for a sack is a good way to derail a drive for a run-heavy offense.

The Seahawks have allowed a sack in 52 of Wilson’s 55 games. Interestingly enough, he was not sacked in last year’s Super Bowl against Denver.

Unfamiliar Opponent and Playoff Consistency

I don’t really want to draw much of anything from the last meeting between these teams in 2012. I mean, Aaron Hernandez caught a touchdown that day. That’s how far back we’re talking. I also think that New England offense was better, the defense was worse, and the Seahawks weren’t a juggernaut yet and are better on defense.

But then you have this stat: since 2001 the Patriots are 10-0 against new playoff opponents and 10-8 in rematches. So they prepare quite well for a new team, though we know that includes a share of close calls against teams like the 2001 Raiders (Tuck Rule), 2003 Panthers, 2006 Chargers (Choke Fest) and 2011 Ravens (Evans/Cundiff). Also this year’s Ravens.

The Seahawks are 6-1 in the playoffs with Wilson and I still say his best playoff game is the only one he lost. They were down 27-7 in the fourth quarter on the road and still came back to take a late lead. They have come back from 14-0 in Washington, 10-0 against San Francisco and of course the incredible comeback against Green Bay in this year’s NFC Championship Game. This team is hard to kill.

Expect a Competitive Game

Seattle has led or been within one score in the fourth quarter in 69 consecutive games, tying the NFL record.

SEANOBLOW

The Patriots have only had two games in their last 82 games where they trailed by double-digits for the entire second half, though two of those games are recent (2013 AFC Championship and in Kansas City this year).

These are arguably the two most competitive teams in the NFL. They just don’t come out with dud performances, and even if you get them down by 21+ points, they can still make a game of it by the fourth quarter.

Don’t forget: all Russell Wilson games end up close eventually. And apparently every New England Super Bowl this century goes down to the wire. So even if it’s a lopsided start, believe in the close finish.

The Comebacks

Both of these teams are fortunate to be here as this is the first ever Super Bowl between teams that trailed by 14+ points in the postseason. Baltimore led New England 14-0 and 28-14. Green Bay led Seattle 16-0. In fact, Sunday’s winner will have the second-largest playoff comeback ever for a Super Bowl champion.

Big comebacks in the Super Bowl are very uncommon, but I think much like last year I would sooner trust Seattle to make the big comeback than the pocket passing team. Belichick’s defenses have surrendered some of the biggest leads in Super Bowl history.

SBDEF

Seattle is 46-7 (.868) under Pete Carroll when leading by 7+ points at any time in the game. Dallas erased a 10-0 deficit this season in its win, but the Seahawks are really tough to come back against since that usually requires a lot of passing.

That’s where Seattle is unique. This team will almost never abandon the run regardless of the score. Lynch is still part of the offense and Wilson’s rushing can produce chunk plays. Through 55 games (including playoffs), Wilson has yet to throw more than 37 passes in a game. I’ve looked at that as far as the regular season goes and it’s downright historic.

RW37update

Wilson had 45 dropbacks in his career debut in 2012 — just so happens that game was in Arizona, site of Super Bowl XLIX. He’s only had seven games total with at least 45 dropbacks, and none with more than 48. He averages 33.9 dropbacks per game (excluding spikes and kneeldowns).

Seattle should feel confident with a close first half. In the second half, they have the No. 1 ranked offense and No. 1 ranked defense in DVOA. That’s pretty crazy if you think about it.

Home-field vs. Neutral Field

I think the toughest places to win in the NFL are Seattle and New England. Both teams are more vulnerable away from home, but I think the Patriots lose a bit more here. Teams just don’t come back when they fall behind in New England, yet we see it more frequently on the road, including Seattle’s 13-point 4QC in 2012. This is supposed to be a neutral crowd, though Arizona is a rival of Seattle’s and the locals probably won’t give them a warm welcome. Then again, I like to think the other 31 fanbases hate the Patriots, so the crowd might be a little pro-Seattle.

Seattle’s Points Allowed

The Patriots are not likely to score a lot of points on Seattle. At least not without major contributions from defense/special teams (returns and takeaways).

The Seahawks have led the league in scoring defense three years in a row, but there are even more impressive feats than that.

I’m sick and tired of hearing about Wilson’s 10-0 record against Super Bowl-winning quarterbacks. The part that matters is the defense held those quarterbacks to 13.8 offensive points per game. None scored more than 23 points, though Brady is the high-point man with 23 in that 2012 loss. That’s incredible work to shut down the best in the game (yeah, Eli aside).

In 71 games since 2011, the Seattle defense has only allowed 30 offensive points four times:

  • 10/2/2011 vs. Atlanta: 30 points allowed in 30-28 loss
  • 1/13/2013 at Atlanta: 30 points allowed in 30-28 playoff loss, but Matt Ryan needed a GWD in last 31 seconds to get to 30
  • 9/14/2014 at San Diego: 30 points allowed in 30-21 loss, but San Diego got to 30 with late field goal on drive that started at Seattle 5
  • 10/12/2014 vs. Dallas: 30 points allowed in 30-23 loss, but Dallas got to 30 with late field goal on drive that started at Seattle 23

Seattle’s offense turning the ball over on downs deep in its own end is really the reason San Diego and Dallas hit 30 this year.

The good news for New England is you shouldn’t have to score 30+ to win this game. Wilson is 0-6 when the Seahawks allow more than 24 points. He’s 5-8 when Seattle allows more than 20 points.

Super Bowl Windows

It was nearly 10 years ago to the date when the Patriots became the last repeat champion in the NFL. That makes this the longest stretch ever without a repeat champion in the NFL, including even the pre-Super Bowl days. I’m just saying…

Every decade since the 1950’s had a team emerge as a dynasty. Sometimes we didn’t know for sure who that team was until the end of the decade, but it happened. The Seahawks best fit the traits of the next dynasty, but they have to win this game to stay on course.

We know that multiple titles come in small windows.

sbwind

Joe Montana won his titles over the span of nine seasons. Brady is trying to get his fourth over a span of 14 years, which would easily be a record. That sounds hard, though just think of the 49ers winning five titles from 1981-1994, the same 14-year window. The only difference is the 49ers switched over to George Seifert and Steve Young, while Brady and Belichick have been the constants in New England. If you keep building good teams that compete for Super Bowls every year then it’s not that unlikely to stretch out a title window, though history favors Seattle here.

Teams trying to repeat are 8-3 in the Super Bowl. The 1978 Cowboys, 1983 Redskins and 1997 Packers lost.

There’s also the young quarterback vs. old quarterback thing where 14 of the last 15 Super Bowl-winning quarterbacks were age 30 or younger. In this era that matters more because of the salary cap and the flexibility to build a deeper roster.

Wilson is 26, Brady is 37, and again I’m just saying…

Tom Brady’s “GOAT” Legacy Game, Take Three

batsb

I probably could have stopped at the picture, but really, what we’re talking about here is that level of silly.

Is Tom Brady the greatest quarterback of all time if he wins this game?

So his performance in said game doesn’t even matter? Either way, one game should not decide if you think a player is the greatest of all time or not. The body of work should tell you that. How many chances do we give a player to underperform and lose that big game before we stop asking the question? The same question was out there in 2007 when Brady could have capped off 19-0, then “we’re only going to score 17 points?” happened. The same question was out there in 2011 when the Giants again held Brady in check in another Super Bowl.

If Eli Manning doesn’t engineer two great drives, am I supposed to believe Brady is the best QB ever for leading his offense to 13 points against the 2001 Rams, outdueling Jake Delhomme, watching Donovan McNabb puke and then getting two 14-10 and 17-15 wins over the Giants for his rings? Really?

And has anything changed this year with Brady? I don’t see a better quarterback. I’m not sure 2014 would even rank in the top five of Brady seasons (2004, 2007 and 2010-12 say hello in no order but chronological). If he shreds the Seahawks, then you can likely say he had his best playoff game. He will have won his fourth ring. Congrats. Terry Bradshaw and Bart Starr have nine rings between them and I don’t put either in my top 13.

You should already know before Sunday night where Brady ranks for you. A win doesn’t move him anywhere for me. A Craig Morton-caliber performance doesn’t move him out of the top five, which always puts him in that discussion for the best.

The Injuries

It wouldn’t be a Super Bowl preview without some injuries to talk about. Seattle has both of the big ones with Richard Sherman (sprained elbow) and Earl Thomas (dislocated shoulder) not at 100 percent. I think these would be bigger stories, especially Thomas, if there wasn’t so much crap surrounding this build-up with Deflategate and Marshawn Lynch’s media etiquette. We’re talking about arguably the two best defenders on this team playing as one-arm bandits.

Sherman should be fine and likely won’t see much action his way (Brandon LaFell?), but what happens if Thomas lands on that shoulder while trying to tackle an ox like Gronkowski or take down Blount? We might see a play or two go for quite a few more yards than it should have because of these injuries. Throw in a knee injury for Kam Chancellor on the next-to-last play in practice on Friday, and it’s as if the Madden Curse is coming to collect on the Legion of Boom here.

Conspiracy Theory Time

We know the footballs will be at regulation pressure this week, but what about the officiating? All season Seattle has had some interesting penalty splits: most accepted penalties (130) in the league and the beneficiary of the fewest accepted penalties on its opponents (70). Seattle has too many pre-snap penalties on offense, but what gives with the opponents not racking up many calls in their games?

Unfortunately, the NFL has assigned the Super Bowl to Bill Vinovich, one of the worst referees in the league. This guy always has the nervous look of someone that wants to take a shit in a public restroom, but needs a lookout to make sure no one’s coming.

vino

Just the other day Vinovich was publicly confused about the process of signaling this ineligible/eligible farce from the Patriots. Speaking of which, how hard up to win another Super Bowl was Belichick when he decided to break this stuff out down by 14 points in the playoffs? Tackle-eligible plays are nothing new, but the four-OL sets and playing around with running backs as ineligible receivers is right out of the script from 90’s kid sports movies like Little Giants and Rookie of the Year. It’s cheap and I expect the NFL to take a closer look in the offseason.

So combine a bad ref with these tricks and Seattle might allow a big play or a touchdown that shouldn’t even count. I was confused if tackle Nate Solder’s touchdown was legal or not in the AFC Championship Game. Tony Dungy said it was an illegal formation, then said it was okay. Days later, the NFL Network crew said it was illegal. Finally, the NFL’s VP of Officiating Dean Blandino said it was in fact an illegal substitution and should not have counted.  That was a third-down play with the score 17-7 in the third quarter. Would have been nice to get that one right and maybe keep the Colts in the game for another drive. Now imagine this happens in the Super Bowl in a tighter game. That’s why the NFL has to make this a point of emphasis in the offseason.

I promised a conspiracy theory, so here it goes. Put yourself in the NFL’s shoes right now. You’re investigating a team in the Super Bowl, the most watched event of the year, for possibly deflating the pressure in the footballs to gain an unfair advantage. This team has defiantly come out swinging at you in the media, asking for an apology even. The story has been the lead on the national news and everyone knows about it by now.

Can you really let this controversial season end with that team crowned the champion? The investigation will not conclude until after the Super Bowl, but if the Patriots are the champs, you almost have to clear them completely just so your champion isn’t branded a cheater. That would be another PR nightmare for the league if the investigation found wrongdoing. A big asterisk on this postseason would be good, but not enough for many people.

So I say watch the officiating closely in this game, especially in high-leverage situations like on third down. It’s not always about what gets called, but what doesn’t get called can be even bigger. I know Vinovich won’t have his usual crew around him, but whatever. Officiating failures happen under his watch frequently. Let’s look at two from this year’s Denver-Seattle game in Week 3.

Here is Wes Welker being interfered with on a 3rd-and-2 pass. Marcus Burley was all over the receiver as the ball gets there.

seawelk

On the next possession, Denver lined up for a 3rd-and-1 run. The Seahawks clearly jumped offsides and the play was stopped for no gain. A flag was thrown, a long conference took place and Vinovich said the defender did not get into the neutral zone. Are you f’n kidding me? He was lined up beyond the ball. Even CBS’ Mike Carey knew this was a penalty.

seaoffside

Both plays were in the third quarter, both on third down, and each should have been a penalty that extended Denver’s drive. Nothing was called and the Broncos punted twice. Those are big drive-enders, which can be huge against a team like Seattle that can shrink the game with its running attack and make your offense play even more efficiently against that great defense.

By the way, the Seahawks are 5-0 since 2012 when Vinovich is the referee.

Now someone’s going to confuse this for me saying the referees are going to cheat for Seattle. That’s bullshit. I am just throwing out a theory that it would be a bad thing for the NFL for the Patriots to win this game. The Seahawks do not need the referees’ help to win this game. The Seahawks can win this game with their usual officiating disadvantage. I’m just going to keep a close eye on crucial downs and how things are officiated with teams known for their aggressive play.

Special Teams

I saved this for last, because my gut tells me with all the attention on the interesting matchups in this game, special teams are an area that could be big. The Patriots had horrible field position in Super Bowl XLVI (average start: own 16) and that was a contributing factor to the loss and only 17 points. The Patriots have been better this year than Seattle on special teams. I trust Stephen Gostkowski more than Steven Hauschka at kicker. If Edelman’s bottled up at receiver, then maybe punt return is an area where he could break some big ones to give the Patriots an advantage.

The Final Prediction

I promised I wasn’t going to overanalyze another Super Bowl, but I guess I can’t help myself. After all the off-field noise associated with the last two weeks, I just wanted to look at some real football stuff.

So in the game’s simplest terms, I think the offense that achieves balance will win this game. This won’t be an aerial show. This will be an old-school game with running the ball, play-action passing and tight ends contributing big.

I rode the Seahawks all year, and I want to make this very clear: the Seahawks have a great shot of winning this game. Got it?

But I think with two weeks to prepare, Belichick has to find a way to contain Lynch and slow down this limited offensive attack. I don’t think New England’s dink-and-dunk will have a ton of success, but if it does, someone’s going to have to explain to me why it worked while other teams have failed at doing the same.

Remember, it takes some pretty special and unusual plays to beat the Seahawks. Think of the 3rd-and-20 play from Tony Romo to Terrance Williams this year. The crazy punt return touchdown and the fake punt by the Rams. The one-handed catch by Antonio Gates. If we go back to last year, the blocked field goal for a touchdown in Indianapolis and some of those wild T.Y. Hilton catches. The fluky interception kicked up into the air against Arizona.

Gronkowski is the guy that can make those plays. Think about his one-handed catch against Denver this year. He’ll have to play at that level this week and I think the Patriots will give him every opportunity to be that dominant force.

Final prediction: Patriots 24, Seahawks 20

Super Bowl MVP: Rob Gronkowski

NFL Week 12 Predictions & Rebranding Tom Brady vs. Peyton Manning

It’s Broncos vs. Patriots, Peyton Manning vs. Tom Brady for the 14th time, but this actually is not that big of a game in the AFC given New England’s loss in Carolina. Even if the Broncos lose and the Chiefs win on Sunday, it’s the Week 13 game in Kansas City that those AFC teams will really need the most to control their destiny for the No. 1 seed.

Still, it’s a lot more interesting to talk Manning-Brady than Manning-Alex Smith. Last week’s outcome was predictable. This week’s may be as well given the last 13 meetings. I’m not going to do a full preview since I may be writing an article on Insider about the game for Monday, but I will preview some things relevant to Sunday night’s meeting.

While the greatest QB rivalry ever gets all the attention, the fact is there’s never been a Manning-Brady game that was a true shootout where both quarterbacks played great and moved their offenses up and down the field. In fact, there’s been a double-digit deficit in all 13 meetings and Manning’s team has trailed by 17+ points in eight games. These matchups often come down to Manning trying to make a huge comeback, Brady failing in the four-minute offense and the New England defense either holds or allows the game-winning points.

Whether it’s the first time or the 14th, the real matchup is Manning vs. Bill Belichick: the superior quarterback against the superior team/coach.

Even in those first meetings in 2001, when this rivalry didn’t exist yet, you could see that theme of “QB vs. team.” Brady opened up a 23-0 lead on Manning in their first career meeting. He was 6-of-13 passing for 52 yards at that point in the game. In the rematch in Indy, the Patriots led 28-3 in the 2nd quarter. At that point, Brady was 7/7 for 134 yards and a TD — strong numbers for sure, but 91 yards came on one play. Meanwhile, Manning was 12-of-18 for 181 yards (sacked 3 times). Does that sound like a QB mismatch worthy of a 28-3 score? Of course not. Mike Vanderjagt had two field goals blocked in the first quarter (when does that ever happen?) and Edgerrin James fumbled.

That’s the kind of stuff that repeatedly tends to happen when these QBs play each other, because the Patriots are better at forcing mistakes and stopping teams from doing what they do best. That’s great coaching.

Belichick’s been there for every meeting while Manning will go to battle with what is technically his fifth different head coach (interim Jack Del Rio). In most of the first 13 games, Manning’s teams made a plethora of mistakes that Belichick’s teams capitalize on best. Manning’s team is -13 in turnover differential against New England.

Often the strength of Manning’s team defenses is the edge rushers. That’s not the best way to attack Brady, who can step up in the pocket and pick apart the Colts/Broncos underneath, which he’s done several times over the years. The Patriots also run the ball better than Manning’s offense, so they’re not as one dimensional. Last season against Denver Brady handed it off 50 times for 253 yards — the most rushing support of his career.  That includes a back-breaking 19-yard run on 3rd-and-17 by Danny Woodhead.

Head-to-head rushing support:

  • Manning – 329 carries for 1,290 yards (3.92 YPC)
  • Brady – 356 carries for 1,641 yards (4.61 YPC)

In game 14 of the rivalry, Brady will have home-field advantage for the ninth time. Brady has the better defense for the 12th time. Manning only had the better defense, measured by points per drive, in 2005 (40-21 win) and last year even though the Patriots were better at the start of the season and certainly better than Denver on that day.

Speaking of in-game results out of the QB’s control, Brady’s had the better starting field position in eight of the games.

pmtb

For those counting at home, we have Manning with inferior coaching, less help from his running game and he has to drive longer fields, often on the road, against superior defenses. So the 4-9 record proves what exactly? Oh yeah, the Patriots have a better team and coach.

Manning has averaged at least 39.6 yards per drive in seven of his last eight games against Belichick’s defense. That’s good enough to lead the league most seasons, so that’s a great number. But in the last two games in Foxboro, his offense threw away too  many drives. Manning threw 3 interceptions in 2010. Last season with Denver, Demaryius Thomas and Willis McGahee fumbled in the red zone, Manning fumbled to put Brady in the red zone and McGahee dropped a 4th-and-1 pass. When you get the ball 10 times in a game, you can’t piss away four drives like that and expect to win. It’s the only game in Manning’s Denver career where he could not get any closer than within 10 points in the 4th quarter. His  Broncos are 22-5 despite a -5 turnover differential.

That’s a big part of the reason I like the Patriots to win this week.

New England is coming off a tough loss in Carolina and rarely ever loses two in a row. The Patriots also did not get a takeaway. You have to go back to games 4-6 of the 2005 season to find the last time the Patriots had consecutive games without a takeaway. They’re going to get some in this game, because when you throw in some cold weather, that ball’s going to be hard to control for a Denver team with poor ball security. Even Manning has career highs with 8 fumbles (6 lost) this year.

When the Patriots win the turnover battle at home, they’re 68-2 since 2001.

On the point about the cold — some forecasts have it being under 30 or so tomorrow night — I’m not worried about it in the context of Manning’s performance. He’s long overdue for a statistical letdown game, but it won’t happen because of the weather. Since some can’t get the numbers right, here’s every Manning game with a game-time temperature of 40 degrees or less:

PM40

Clearly this is a narrative built on losing a couple of playoff games (light blue) in 02-04 in New Jersey and New England. Otherwise, where’s the problem here?

Belichick is going to take away what Denver does best. He’s smart enough to know Demaryius Thomas is the key to this offense, so look for Aqib Talib (assuming he’s healthy enough to play) to lock up, some times illegally, Thomas. He won’t shut him down, but the Patriots can’t afford a huge game from him.

Wes Welker, concussion and all, probably will have a huge game for that reason. Belichick would rather give up shorter plays to Welker than the big ones to Thomas, who is the Denver skill player capable of scoring from anywhere on the field. Julius Thomas was questionable the last time I looked, so he could be slowed by injury. Eric Decker’s opportunity is huge in this one as he’s probably the healthiest and should get the most favorable coverage.

Denver made it a point to protect Manning’s ankle against the Chiefs. Without hearing much about that this week, I expect you’ll see the Patriots generate more pressure than the Chiefs did, which was almost nothing. The advantage Manning has is this New England secondary is really banged up with several DBs listed as questionable and their playing statuses up in the air. If Manning can get enough protection to have his 4-5 receiving options running routes, then he should have a big game against this defense.

However, like last year it’s not going to matter without the Denver defense and Del Rio finally showing they can slow Brady down. Del Rio never has and while I’m not worried about old Jacksonville games, the three New England wins over Denver since 2011 are troubling. Von Miller’s not as effective if the Broncos aren’t leading, which is the same problem the Colts faced with Dwight Freeney and Robert Mathis when they went up against the Patriots.

I’d welcome a legit shootout between the two HOF QBs for a change, but I just don’t see it happening. If I had to pick a previous Manning-Brady matchup for the one Sunday night will resemble most, I’d say last year’s game if NE wins, and 2006 regular season (27-20) if the Broncos win. It’s not likely Brady has a four-pick parade though.

So in the greatest QB rivalry, nothing’s really changed. Manning’s always been a better QB than Brady, but in the ultimate team game, I have to go with New England this week. That should give the Broncos extra motivation for their true big road game of the regular season: Week 13 in Kansas City.

Final prediction: Broncos 28, Patriots 35

NFL Week 12 Predictions

The game only had 30 total points, but the Saints came out on top as I expected.

  • Chargers at Chiefs
  • Bears at Rams
  • Jaguars at Texans
  • Buccaneers at Lions
  • Vikings at Packers
  • Panthers at Dolphins
  • Jets at Ravens
  • Steelers at Browns
  • Colts at Cardinals
  • Titans at Raiders
  • Cowboys at Giants
  • Broncos at Patriots
  • 49ers at Redskins

Season results:

  • Week 1: 11-5
  • Week 2: 12-4
  • Week 3: 8-8
  • Week 4: 9-6
  • Week 5: 9-5
  • Week 6: 11-4
  • Week 7: 10-5
  • Week 8: 10-3
  • Week 9: 8-5
  • Week 10: 8-6
  • Week 11: 9-6
  • Season: 105-57

NFL Week 11 Predictions, Backup Quarterbacks, 4th Down Failure and Writing Recap

Thought about sending in the backup to write this one, but I’m okay to start Week 11, which will hopefully feature more clutch wins and fourth-down attempts. After all, it is Colts/Patriots week.

This Week’s Articles

Captain Comeback Week 10: “Epic Comeback Failure” Limited Edition – Cold, Hard Football Facts

Find out how a game-winning punt return touchdown, rare overtime tie, and non-offensive game-winning field goal capped a bizarre week without a single fourth-quarter comeback win or game-winning drive. That has not happened since Week 13 of the 1973 season. But don’t worry, this one-shot edition covers the rarity in great detail.

Evaluating the Backup QB Plans – NBC Sports

With four injured starters, it was a good time to take a team-by-team look at the primary backup quarterback. Let’s just say the crop is not very strong when Matt Hasselbeck, Kyle Orton and Matt Moore might be your top three options. Hasselbeck has more starts than 22 backups combined.

Pittsburgh Steelers Cannot Win AFC North without Ben Roethlisberger – Bleacher Report

Without Ben Roethlisberger, the Steelers can forget about winning their division, which should require at least a split with the Ravens. Find out how they can still make the playoffs with Byron Leftwich (hint: Ohio).

Following a Legend: Andrew Luck Week 10 at Jacksonville Jaguars – Colts Authority

In a game that felt like ages ago, Andrew Luck made his prime time debut and played a decent game. But despite all the praise from people likely seeing him play a full, live game in the NFL for the first time, find out why it was no better than his fifth best performance of the season.

The Thinking Man’s Guide: NFL Week 11 Predictions – Bleacher Report

Colts vs. Patriots is always interesting. Detroit might find themselves a fourth-quarter comeback against Green Bay. It should be another record-setting day for Peyton Manning against San Diego. Byron Leftwich has not won a NFL start since October 8, 2006. Find out some quarterbacks who went longer between NFL wins as starters, as well as picks for every game.

NFL Coaches Are More Gutless Than Ever on Fourth Down – Cold, Hard Football Facts

Did you know teams are converting on fourth down 55.0 percent in 2012 (highest since 1991)? Now did you know they are going for it on fourth down the lowest percentage of time since 1991 as well? A breakdown of the recent increase in risk-adverse, gutless coaching, including a distribution of when teams go for it on fourth down, and the most common decision (4th and 1), which makes up 89.4 percent of all fourth-down attempts since 2000.

2012 NFL Week 11 Predictions

A week near and dear to my heart, as we have Colts/Patriots and Ravens/Steelers. But it won’t be the same without Peyton Manning and Ben Roethlisberger involved, which also impacts the pick.

Winners in bold:

  • Cardinals at Falcons
  • Buccaneers at Panthers
  • Browns at Cowboys
  • Packers at Lions
  • Jaguars at Texans
  • Bengals at Chiefs
  • Jets at Rams
  • Eagles at Redskins
  • Saints at Raiders
  • Chargers at Broncos
  • Colts at Patriots
  • Ravens at Steelers
  • Bears at 49ers

Season results:

  • Week 1: 12-4
  • Week 2: 11-5
  • Week 3: 4-12
  • Week 4: 10-5
  • Week 5: 10-4
  • Week 6: 5-9
  • Week 7: 12-1
  • Week 8: 10-4
  • Week 9: 11-3
  • Week 10: 9-4-1
  • Season: 94-51-1