NFL Stat Oddity: Week 4

After observing an odd day of NFL action and listening to David Bowie, on the spur of the moment I came up with an idea that might become a weekly column for me to share unique research and thoughts from that day’s games.

Welcome to NFL Stat Oddity, where just like Star Wars we begin with Episode IV of a story already long in progress.

2020: Defense Does Not Exist

Heading into the Monday night double-header, NFL games in Week 4 have averaged 54.2 combined points. If this average holds, it would be the NFL’s highest single week in the regular season since at least 2001.

In Week 14 of the 2013 season, teams averaged 53.7 combined points, including a trio of memorable snow games (Vikings-Ravens, Steelers-Dolphins, and Lions-Eagles). The Patriots also pulled off a late 12-point comeback (after an onside kick) to beat the Browns 27-26, and the Broncos waxed the Titans 51-28. The week ended with the peak of the Marc Trestman era in Chicago as the Bears defeated Dallas 45-28 with Josh McCown having himself a day on Monday Night Football.

With the Chiefs and Packers still set to host the Patriots and Falcons, this looks like a pretty safe bet to hold up the average in what is trending to be the highest-scoring season in NFL history with passing numbers once again exploding. After a most unusual offseason and no preseason games, pass defenses have been very slow out the gates to keep up with the offenses.

Dak Prescott/Mike McCarthy and Tony Romo/Jason Garrett: The Spider-Man Meme

The biggest spectacle on Sunday was in Dallas where the Browns ripped off 34 straight points to take a commanding 41-14 lead before Dak Prescott nearly got a crack at leading the largest fourth-quarter comeback in NFL history.

It was only the fifth game in NFL history where both teams scored at least 38 points while gaining at least 500 yards. The Cowboys and Browns have both been there before.

Cleveland defeated the Bengals 51-45 in 2007 in what has been the best offensive game for the 2.0 Browns since returning in 1999, though Sunday gives it some competition at least. Cleveland’s 307 rushing yards were the most ever allowed by Dallas. The Cowboys lost 51-48 to Peyton Manning’s Broncos in 2013 in a game I consider the ultimate Tony Romo experience. He passed for 506 yards, but threw a late interception that set up Denver’s game-winning field goal.

In those five shootouts of 38 points/500 yards, the home team was 3-2 with Dallas suffering both losses. Much like Romo against Denver, Dak Prescott passed for just over 500 yards before ending his day with an interception. Amari Cooper admitted to not seeing the route through well enough, but the game already felt decided by that point. How many improbable onside kick recoveries can one team get in a month anyway? Still, it’s a loss that puts Dallas at 1-3 and looks pretty similar to a lot of the high-scoring losses the Cowboys had in the Romo/Garrett era.

Prescott passed for 502 yards, the 24th 500-yard game in NFL history (including playoffs). After passing for 450 yards against Atlanta and 472 yards against Seattle in the previous two weeks, Prescott has stamped his name in several places in the record books. First, his 1,424 passing yards are the most in any three-game span in NFL history. He’s the first quarterback to pass for 450 yards in three straight games. Ryan Fitzpatrick was the only other quarterback to ever hit 400 yards in three straight games, and he didn’t even surpass 420 in any of those games in 2018 with Tampa Bay. Prescott’s 1,657 passing yards in 2020 are also the most ever through the first four games of a season in NFL history.

Yet the Cowboys are 1-3 and frankly should be 0-4 if Atlanta would just recover that onside kick. It’s been a frustrating season for Prescott, my preseason MVP pick, but there’s always a chance when you play in the NFC East, a division currently led by the Eagles with a 1-2-1 record. Now if only the defense would show up for a game. Had Prescott been able to get the ball back one more time after cutting the score to 41-38 with 3:42 left, we may have seen the largest fourth-quarter comeback (27 points) in NFL history. But Odell Beckham Jr. avoided a loss in the backfield and rushed 50 yards for a touchdown to ice this one. The Dallas offense is potent, but lost fumbles continue to be a major problem with two more on Sunday.

Prescott betting on himself has looked brilliant so far, but he may need to turn down Jerry Jones’ money and find a better team if he’s to avoid the fate of Romo: remembered best for big numbers and the games he lost instead of anything he won.

Rookie QBs Make History, But with an Asterisk?

Remember when the pandemic and lack of a preseason was going to really hurt the rookie quarterbacks in 2020? Well, Cincinnati’s Joe Burrow just completed his third-straight 300-yard passing game, a record streak for any rookie in NFL history. It led to his first win too, 33-25 over the Jaguars.

Burrow almost had company immediately with Chargers rookie Justin Herbert, who came up 10 yards shy of his third-straight 300-yard passing game. Herbert’s 931 passing yards trail only Cam Newton (1,012 yards) for the second most in NFL history through a player’s first three games. He even surpassed the former No. 2, Patrick Mahomes (866 yards). After taking Mahomes to overtime in his first game and holding a 17-point lead against Tampa Bay and Tom Brady before losing, Herbert could be a special one for years to come.

Then again, consider that record start by Newton in 2011, the year of the lockout. Newton passed for at least 374 yards in three of his first four games. He was going to crush the record books too, right? Not quite. Over his next 122 regular season games and seven playoff games, Newton never passed for more than 357 yards. It wasn’t until Week 2 in Seattle this year, now the COVID-19 season, where he passed for 397 yards with the Patriots. That means his four most prolific passing games have all come in years where there was a lockout or pandemic that messed with the offseason.

When you consider the record numbers, especially in regards to passing yards, from Dak Prescott, Burrow, and Herbert this season, it certainly feels like 2011 all over again when defenses started off so poorly. That season was the peak one for Aaron Rodgers, Drew Brees, Matthew Stafford and Super Bowl MVP Eli Manning. It was also easily one of Tom Brady’s best years and his only 5,000-yard passing season.

We’ll see if 2020 continues to play out this way, but if it does and numbers return to normal once the world hopefully does, then we’ll have to say that there was stat inflation this year much like we should still point out every time 2011 comes up.

Of Course the Chargers Blew It Against Tom Brady

We’ll eventually find out how good the 2020 Buccaneers are, but the fact that Tom Brady gets to play the Chargers and two games against the NFC version of the Chargers (Atlanta) this year doesn’t seem fair.

Brady should retire with a nine-game winning streak against the Chargers, a team that has found every way imaginable to lose to him since the 2006 playoff game where they fumbled his third interception back to him in the fourth quarter. Sure, this time the Chargers returned his interception for a touchdown and led 24-7 in the first half, but even if you take Philip Rivers and New England out of the equation, the Chargers still found a way to go Chargering against a Brady-led team.

Everything was going fine until the final minute of the first half. The Chargers were up 24-7 with 47 seconds left at their own 9. Tampa Bay was down to one timeout and with the Chargers getting the ball to start the second half, there was no need to get aggressive. In fact, in that situation the best play is to take two knees, especially with your rookie quarterback (Herbert) and rookie backup running back (Joshua Kelley) in after starter Austin Ekeler left with an injury.

But the Chargers just had to hand off the ball to Kelley, who promptly fumbled on first down. Now Brady was only 6 yards away from the end zone and cashed in the golden opportunity with a touchdown to Mike Evans on third down. Suddenly the game was much different at 24-14 and the Buccaneers went on to roll the Chargers in the second half of a 38-31 win.

This is just the latest example of why I refer to Brady as the luckiest QB in NFL history.

The shocking fumble completely changed the game for Brady and Tampa. From the pick-six to the Evans touchdown, Brady had a play success rate of 3-of-19 (15.8%). That’s horrible. But from the Evans touchdown thru the end of the game, Brady was unstoppable with a success rate of 88.9% (16-of-18), a top candidate for his strongest stretch of play in any game since 2019. He finished with 369 yards and five touchdown passes in the record 60th win decided in the fourth quarter or overtime of his career (fourth comeback against the Chargers).

It was classic Brady in the sense that he was playing poorly, the opponent did something stupid, one of his teammates made a play, and he got an extra chance to get back in the game. While he deserves credit for making the most of his opportunity, it’s the fact that he always seems to get these opportunities — through none of his own doing — that most quarterbacks don’t is the reason I call it luck.

How often do you see a team try to run the clock out deep in their own end and they fumble before the half? Well, since 1994 this is only the second time it’s happened in the last 27 seasons. To be specific, we’re talking about a leading team starting a conservative drive (i.e. no quarterback dropbacks) in the final 60 seconds of the second quarter and fumbling on a running play inside their own 20.

In 2010, the Cowboys had a 7-3 lead against Detroit and had the ball with 48 seconds left at their own 4. Felix Jones fumbled on first down and the Lions turned that into a touchdown. The only other comparable situation in the last 27 years was a 2016 game between the Cardinals and Seahawks. Arizona led 14-0 and had a drive that started with 1:11 left (so outside of 1:00) at its own 8. David Johnson carried for 3 yards before fumbling on a second-down play that started with 37 seconds left. Seattle turned that into a field goal after Russell Wilson threw three incompletions from the 9. Arizona still won the game 34-31 on a last-second field goal.

These end-of-half fumbles just don’t happen in the NFL, but when you combine the conflicting karmic forces of Brady and the Chargers, odd shit tends to be the result. At least Sunday should be the last time we have to see it.

Matt Patricia Is Who I Thought He Was

Teams that lead by double digits tend to win in the NFL, but as the kids like to say these days, Matt Patricia is just DIFFERENT. According to ESPN and my no-stat-crediting nemesis the Elias Sports Bureau, the Lions are riding the longest losing streak in NFL history (six games) in games where they held a double-digit lead.

After taking a 14-0 lead on banged-up New Orleans, the Lions fell behind 35-14 and only put up a mild rally late to fall 35-29. This season alone, the Lions have blown a 17-point fourth-quarter lead to Chicago, an early 11-point lead to Green Bay, and now this early 14-point lead to the Saints. It’s the fifth time Patricia has blown a lead of at least 11 points, something former coach Jim Caldwell did six times in his four seasons with the team (2014-17).

I roasted Patricia in 2018 when the Lions hired him:

That tweet didn’t go over well with Detroit fans, but after a 10-25-1 start and a 2-15-1 record at fourth-quarter comeback opportunities, I think they’ve all come around to realize this is the next coach to fire in the NFL.

Kyler Murray: Deja Ew

Rest in peace to the Kyler Murray 2020 MVP Campaign:

Born 9/13/2020

Died 10/4/2020 (9/27/2020 Also Appropriate)

Arizona’s second straight loss, 31-21 in Carolina, led to another shocking stat line for Murray. He completed 24 passes for only 133 yards, the fewest yards in NFL history for anyone with 24 completions. Worse, Murray already had a game last year against the 49ers where he had the fourth-fewest yards on 24 completions:

That’s not a good look to show up twice there, but it gets worse. Here’s the updated look at the fewest passing yards for each completion mark from 24 through 40 in games since 1950. Murray shows up twice for his games against the Panthers:

Out of the 17 games on the list, Murray has the two with the lowest yards per completion (YPC) figures, not even breaking 5.8 YPC against what have not been good Carolina defenses. Now maybe Carolina has this offense’s number, but like I said, Murray has been flirting with these low averages before. It’s something to watch and will require a deeper dive at some point, but the screen-heavy Cardinals passing game that Murray and coach Kliff Kingsbury have put together isn’t the most effective at moving the ball. Murray would really be lost if he wasn’t such a good runner as he did have 78 yards on the ground on Sunday. However, the Cardinals were out of the game early and are looking like they’re still the bottom team in the NFC West this year.

While Murray’s counterpart on Sunday, Teddy Bridgewater, has the reputation of being a dink-and-dunker, it’s safe to say that title better suits Murray through 20 games of his NFL career.

2018 NFL Divisional Round Predictions

Even though the home team wins 71.4% of the games in this round since 1970, it’s often the most dramatic and best weekend of the year. In the 32-team era, 2002, 2004 and 2015 are the only seasons where the home teams finished 4-0 in the divisional round. Someone is likely getting upset and leaving their fans upset in the process. Even the Patriots have an actual challenge this week with the smallest spread (-4) of the weekend.

Colts at Chiefs (-5)

This was my big preview at FO, so go there and read that one. Basically, I’m going to assume the snow isn’t a big deal today. The game comes down to Andrew Luck playing efficiently and effectively to limit Patrick Mahomes’ drives and make him score more than 30 to win. The Colts defense isn’t that good, but the Chiefs are certainly worse in that area despite better numbers at home. I see Mahomes putting up his usual points, but Luck will have a chance for a late game-winning TD drive and this defense is going to have to make a play to stop him. So do something this time, Orlando Scandrick.

Final: Chiefs 30, Colts 26

(IND +5, Under 56.5)

Cowboys at Rams (-7)

Both offenses are a little shaky to me. Dak Prescott takes way too many sacks and isn’t aggressive enough on third downs this season. That’s bad news against Wade Phillips’ defense, and especially with Aaron Donald against this interior OL. Dallas is 10-0 when scoring 20+ points this season and they’ll definitely need to hit that total here. It should be noted that Dallas only surpassed 17 points on the road three times, though LA isn’t a huge home-field advantage yet and the Cowboys may actually feel at home with more fans in the seats. Still, the Rams have scored 23+ in every game this season except for the disaster in Chicago (15-6). Jared Goff has been shaky since the bye, but at least the last two games were good. Dallas has a good defense but I’m not blown away by it or anything.

With this week’s coaching hires revolving around finding the next Sean McVay, it would look really bad if McVay lost this game to fall to 0-2 at home in the playoffs. He was a favorite of 6.5+ points in each game too. I’m going to back the Rams in this one, but I think it’s still an underrated story of how the offense misses Cooper Kupp in the slot.

Final: Rams 26, Cowboys 20

(DAL +7, Under 49)

Chargers at Patriots (-4)

The Chargers have played better than the Patriots this season, but there’s just something about this opponent where San Diego Los Angeles goes into extra Chargering mode. I’ll spare the lowlights of Nate Kaeding or Marlon McCree from many years ago, but just look at this Travis Benjamin punt return from a 2017 game coached by Anthony Lynn in New England:

There’s a good reason why Philip Rivers is 0-7 against the Patriots with Tom Brady at quarterback. They are their own worst enemy in these games. Now Rivers can stand to play better against Bill Belichick’s defense, but at least his ACL won’t be torn this time around. He however has not been sharp in the last month and will need to play better. And it figures it could be a snow game when Melvin Gordon has been banged up for the Chargers. On defense, the Patriots are 2nd in DVOA at home and 31st on the road. Nice to get this game at home against a team with a better record. Don’t let the fact that NE is 4-0 against playoff teams hide the fact they lost five times to non-playoff teams.

Again, I think the Chargers are a better team this year, but I can’t bring myself to picking them in this venue. Especially not with the Patriots coming off a bye, which I think is huge for their old offensive players (not just Brady, but Rob Gronkowski and Julian Edelman). Also, despite the loss to the Eagles in the Super Bowl, Belichick is still money against new playoff opponents and the Chargers have only seen this team once in the last four seasons. It was a comedy of errors in that 21-13 loss last year, and I can just imagine what they’ll cook up this time. Maybe Hunter Henry fumbles in the red zone in his season debut (I cribbed this from Marvin Harrison vs. 2007 Chargers in AFC-DIV). Maybe their kicker (Michael Badgley) gets hurt so the new guy they signed for kickoffs blows a game-winning field goal.

This is the game where the Chargers can show it truly is a different year, but do you trust them?

Final: Patriots 27, Chargers 20

(NE -4, Under 48)

Eagles at Saints (-8)

This would definitely be a huge upset if the Eagles can continue their late run here behind Nick Foles. In Week 11, the Saints waxed Philly 48-7 with Sean Payton and Drew Brees pouring it on with a long touchdown pass on fourth-and-6 in the fourth quarter. The Eagles come in with virtually zero pressure to win while the Saints are the favorites to go all the way.

I’m ultimately picking the Saints to win, but let me just state some facts and thoughts why an upset is possible here:

  • Carson Wentz had the worst game of his career in Week 11. He’ll be replaced by a QB in Foles who has incredible playoff stats in five starts and is simply better at getting this team to win games of this magnitude, not to mention better in crunch time and in shootouts. The Eagles aren’t just a front-running team with Foles under center.
  • Doug Pederson is one of the most aggressive coaches on fourth downs and two-point conversions, so knowing he has nothing to lose here, look for him to take advantage of +EV chances.
  • The Saints are a below-average passing defense and struggle with wide receivers, especially on deep throws (32nd in DVOA). Foles gets the WRs involved in this offense and is willing to take deep chances.
  • Brees struggled down the stretch this season, though most of those games were on the road. He took off Week 17 as the Saints really didn’t put much effort into that game period. Now with a bye week too, could we see some rust and a slow start? It’s happened before to teams that rest early in addition to the bye.
  • Perhaps we can keep talking about this if Saints advance, but it’s incredible to me that this passing offense is so successful despite how much it relies on Michael Thomas and Alvin Kamara. Thomas is great, but he’s not the all-around athlete Julio Jones is, he’s not as good after the catch as Odell Beckham, not as good at the catch point as DeAndre Hopkins, and not the kind of deep threat Tyreek Hill is. He has a great connection with the accurate Brees, but I would often double team him and make other players step up to beat you. Kamara is dangerous after the catch and on screens, but he’s still limited as a RB in just how much damage he’ll do to you. His only catch vs. Eagles was that 37-yard run-up-the-score TD. Now the Eagles are too banged up in the secondary to really afford to double team, but it’s something to think about should Thomas have a bad game. Where else will the production come from?
  • Finally, in Week 11 there was this stat (see below) where Brees had a completion rate that was +20.5% above expectation based on next gen charting data. He was on fire that day, but obviously with that being his best performance this season, it’s hard to expect him to repeat that. So what if the Eagles are able to get him to throw into tight windows with good coverage again, but some of those passes just don’t connect this time? I think this is a good sign for the Eagles going into this one.

I mean, if the 2010 Jets can go from 45-3 to beating the Patriots with Mark Sanchez at quarterback a month later, is it really asking that much for the defending champion Eagles to turn 48-7 around with Foles going into the Superdome? This wouldn’t be the upset of the decade, but it would create one hell of a quarterback controversy in Philadelphia, if we aren’t already there. For that reason alone I wouldn’t mind seeing the Eagles win, but I’m not betting on it.

Final: Saints 30, Eagles 27

(PHI +8, Over 52)

NFL Week 16 Predictions: 25% Edition

It’s not the 25% edition because I’m giving a fourth of the effort, nor does it have to do with Christmas. It’s 25% because I feel like only four games on the Week 16 schedule are really worth a damn. At least the NFL ordered them well.

Ravens at Chargers (-4.5)

With Tennessee’s win over the Redskins, this apparently means the Ravens have to win this game or their only way of making the playoffs is to get the AFC North out of Pittsburgh’s clutches. No more wild card possibility. Whether or not this is the penultimate game for the 2018 Ravens, I think the rest of their games bring the same questions. The defense will be fine, but can Lamar Jackson make enough throws in obvious passing situations to sustain enough scoring drives? They’re going to run the ball like crazy, but when a holding penalty happens or a false start and it’s second-and-15 or third-and-8, can Jackson deliver? He also has nine fumbles this year so ball security has been an issue.

The fact that the Ravens had the Chiefs down 24-17 in Kansas City speaks well to the type of team they’re running right now, which is different from most of the NFL. I think they’ll play well tonight, and I don’t fully buy into the Chargers like some are doing after some fortunate comeback wins. However, I think Philip Rivers has been consistent this year and he’ll deliver enough throws to take the Ravens out of their comfort zone with Jackson and he’ll have to play from behind. If this game was in Baltimore I’d definitely pick the Ravens, but alas it is not.

Texans at Eagles (-2)

These two teams have played a ton of close games this season with the Texans often winning and the Eagles often failing in those spots. However, I think you have to still give the Eagles a chance with Nick Foles, who played well again in taking over for Carson Wentz last week. I think when he’s in the game the running game has more breathing room, they use the RPO more, and he gets the wide receivers involved better than Wentz, who locks onto Zach Ertz a lot. Foles will also take some chances on low-percentage deep balls and hit those plays too.

I think Houston is a team with a few mega-talented players (Watson, Hopkins, Watt. Clowney), but some of the depth issues or roster holes prevent them from blowing teams out. Watson also takes too many sacks, and I think playing on the road in Philly with their season basically on the line can be a tough spot for Houston.

Steelers at Saints (-6.5)

Here’s a game that could be impacted by tonight’s outcome in LA. If the Ravens pull off a big upset, then the Steelers better show up for this one, because they’ll need help next week if they’re going to make the playoffs. The Saints have however looked very mortal for a month, especially with the passing game struggling to produce 200 yards with Drew Brees. Of course, the last three games were on the road, though weather wasn’t an issue. I think the Superdome brings out the best in this team, and this is going to be a tough spot for a Pittsburgh defense that is prone to blown coverages and miscommunication. We also know the offense is sloppier on the road, and there are injury concerns with James Conner (out) and JuJu Smith-Schuster (likely to play).

If Ben Roethlisberger wants to remind Cameron Jordan that he’s a HOF lock and brings his A game, then I think the Steelers have the ability to pull this one off on the road. They’re a top 5 scoring team this season too. Part of me just thinks the Ravens will lose tonight, so some Steelers will be finding Tinder girls on Bourbon Street and not really caring about the outcome tomorrow, putting the pressure on beating the Bengals at home next week to claim the division. At the very least, the (in all likelihood) final game between Brees and Ben will hopefully be an entertaining shootout.

Chiefs at Seahawks (+1.5)

This is an intriguing matchup on Sunday night where something has to give:

I look at the total for this game (55 points) and can really see the Seahawks winning 31-24. I think they can gash the run defense of Kansas City, which will limit Patrick Mahomes’ possessions again and force him to be more efficient on the road against what is still a quality defense. Russell Wilson has been mostly strong this season aside from a few games. Under Pete Carroll at home in prime time is a spot where the Seahawks especially shine on defense. I think Seattle ends the KC streak of games with 26 points, albeit by a slim margin, and gets this win.

NFL Week 16 Predictions

Well the hits keep coming after I got the spread wrong for WAS-TEN. I’m taking some chances this week too in expecting some underdogs to cover.

2018Wk16

Yes I really picked the Raiders to win straight up in a game I’m not planning to watch much of.

Wk1-15

2013 NFL Divisional Round Predictions: San Diego Super Upset?

We’re about to experience the greatest weekend of the NFL year. Shocking upsets make it great when we see which of last week’s winners can go on the road and beat the rested bye teams, who obviously compiled the top records in the league. Anymore, it’s hard to keep calling them upsets when the playoffs produce so many of these results every year. You have to go back to the top-heavy 2004 season to find a home sweep on Divisional weekend.

AFC Preview

At well over 7,000 words, I think I’ve done my share of analysis on the AFC games, so please click here to read that if you haven’t.

What I will do here is share opinions as a fan for these games, since they obviously mean more to me than the NFC games. I’m not afraid to admit I am pulling hard for a Colts-Broncos AFC Championship, but I feel like it’s the least likely scenario. After having to watch Ravens-Patriots the last two years, I could use a true rooting interest next week (and in the Super Bowl).  Yet I feel like we’re headed for Chargers-Patriots, and I just hope Philip Rivers gets through the weekend with his knee ligaments intact so that game’s not compromised again.

“And the captain’s abandoned ship. Can you believe it? No! They had to. No! It won’t do. It’s hard to swim when lies will drown you.” – Stop It!!

Yes, I essentially picked the Denver Broncos to win Super Bowl XLVIII the moment Super Bowl XLVII ended. I picked Denver in April. I picked them in August and in the first week of September when I made my season predictions. Now prior to their first playoff game, I am siding with the Chargers to knock them out.

Jameis Winston asked me why I’m picking San Diego. He said, or I said, not even my cousin in THE AFGHANISTAN said he can believe I’m picking San Diego. Is my confidence strong with this pick? No, but I said we strong. He said we strong then. San Diego strong.

All jokes aside, the real question is at what point am I allowed to change my mind based on new information?

Part of the reason I liked Denver was the potential of the defense, which had a solid 2012 performance. They don’t have to be a dominant force for this team to go the distance given the offense, but they can’t be a liability. Based on the last four months, I see a postseason liability and I see the unit’s best player, Von Miller, sidelined for the year with a torn ACL. Miller returning from his suspension and being a dominant force to lead the defense, which of course also lost Elvis Dumervil over a fax fiasco, was part of my expectations for Denver. That’s gone.

What’s left is a pass-happy offensive juggernaut, and everything I have learned about NFL history tells me such a team fails in the postseason, because the defense has to come through too, and unless you’re the 1999 Rams, so does the running game at least once. The loss may not be on Sunday, but winning a Super Bowl will be very difficult for this team without some significant changes in performance. No one can do it winning 35-31 every week in the playoffs and I see Denver having to do that twice just to get to New Jersey.

I would probably be talking about things much differently if the Broncos were facing Kansas City or Indianapolis this week, but it’s San Diego and that’s a problem as I detailed in my preview. Now this isn’t a reliable opponent, but I feel like I know a Peyton Manning team very well through years of analysis. I can usually pick out on the schedule in April which games will be difficult for his team to win. Yes, he’s changed cities, coaches and teammates, but he puts his stamp on a team unlike anyone else.

Being the most consistent player in NFL history, running basically the same offense his whole career and being tied to flawed defenses, it all creates for a lot of consistency in how certain opponents play Manning’s team. Two of Denver’s three losses this year coming against New England and San Diego are no surprise at all. For the Chargers to win it has to come as it usually does: win the trenches, win the field position battle, own the running game and get those mistakes from Manning’s passing game any way they can. This team is built to do that and the Broncos are not the highly efficient juggernaut their 26-6 record suggests the last two years. They are only -1 in turnover differential, which is absurd when you consider New England (+34) and Seattle (+33) in that department since 2012.

So much of the game is about red zone and turnovers. Denver’s great in the red zone, but must stop fumbling the football and get some more takeaways.

Am I going too historical on this one? I don’t think so. There’s an interesting 10-game sample of the Chargers against Manning — defensive coordinator John Pagano was on defensive staff for all 10 games — and we see a lot of the same things happen regardless of all the changing parts. Forcing a one-dimensional passing attack while Philip Rivers turns into more of a game manager to control the clock with the run is one of the biggest parts of the plan. Some damn good luck has worked too.

To counter myself, let’s recall the setting of a playoff game in the 2003 AFC Wild Card between Manning’s Colts and the Denver Broncos. In Week 16, Denver went on the road as a 6.5-point underdog in a prime-time game and dominated the clock, holding the ball for 44:58. Manning only threw for 146 yards and the offense scored 10 points on 8 drives. Denver won 31-17. Now I don’t recall the specific chatter two weeks later in the postseason other than “when’s Peyton Manning going to win a playoff game?!”. The game was in Indianapolis again, but the Broncos were only a 3-point underdog this time and came in with confidence of dominating there. Well, Manning went 16-of-18 for 327 yards and 4 TDs in the first half to build a 31-3 lead on the way to an easy win.

So much for the road underdog having confidence from a few weeks ago. I doubt we see that type of history repeat itself, but I’ll feel pretty foolish if it does. At least I’ll be a satisfied fool.

I hate to even get into the “Manning’s 9-11 in the playoffs; eight one-and-dones!” thing before he takes the field this postseason, but I feel like I wrote a pretty definitive article about eight of those losses last year. I’ve read some pretty bad articles this week about the topic. I know I’ll have more to write about Manning and other quarterbacks in the coming weeks.

I was going to conclude with a rant about how sometimes I start to believe the critics are onto something. Maybe Manning is too robotic/over-studied for the playoffs and that’s holding him back in the big moments. But then I just slap myself with the dose of reality that seven of the guy’s one-and-done postseasons were by a combined margin of 26 points and none of the most critical, game-changing plays in those seven games was a mistake he made.

So that rant can wait another day, because there’s no shortage of idiocy during the postseason to refute.

Saints at Seahawks

The more I think about Seattle’s 34-7 thrashing of New Orleans over a month ago, the more I think we’re going to get a much better game this week. Let’s not forget there was an unfortunate bounce in good field position on the Brees fumble that became a touchdown return. While Brees is no stranger to turning the ball over on the road, that quick score and 10-0 deficit really drove the crowd wild in the way a turnover 50 yards down the field that just gives Seattle the ball in a 3-0 game would not have done. Then in the third quarter the Seahawks got that crazy bounce on a touchdown to Derrick Coleman. It was just Seattle’s night, but it’s 0-0 starting on Saturday.

I’m not sure the Saints are getting enough respect in this game. Yes, the road woes are worth mentioning, but any time you’re talking about one of the best coaches and quarterbacks in the league, any game can be had with a brilliant performance. But the Saints aren’t likely to get brilliance from Brees against the league’s best pass defense.

Seattle’s only allowed more than 24 points twice at home in their last 24 home games. Both of those games were in 2011 before this was a playoff team. That also includes a 34-12 loss to the 2011 Bengals in which Cincinnati scored two return touchdowns. This defense is very difficult to score on, especially at home. The key to doing it is to have great talent at wide receiver to match up with those cornerbacks. The Saints are lacking a bit in that department this year, so boxing up tight end Jimmy Graham with size and safety help from this Seattle secondary makes that a less than favorable matchup for New Orleans compared to most weeks.

That’s why the key to the game will be to win the rushing battle in the way New Orleans surprisingly did against Philadelphia on the road. If there’s a vulnerability to the Seattle defense, it would be stopping the run. On the other side, the Saints did a very good job against LeSean McCoy and the No. 1 rush offense. They also shut down Marshawn Lynch on MNF, holding him to 45 yards on 16 carries. Lynch has quietly had some poor games down the stretch this season, only topping 4.0 YPC once in his last six outings.

So I’m not concerned with Lynch running all over the Saints. Russell Wilson is the problem. He was so effective on the move in the first meeting and he really does that every week, but was especially deadly that night. Wilson holds onto the ball a lot, so the Saints have to find a way to make him pay. I think Rob Ryan should dial back the blitz and try to make Wilson overthink what he’s seeing. This is not the greatest receiving corps in the playoffs and I’m not expecting a ton from Percy Harvin in his return to the lineup. Make Wilson hold the ball, plaster the receivers and the defensive line needs to play a hell of a game.

If the Saints are going to win this game, it’s going to be about helping Brees with the support of a running game so he doesn’t have to be perfect, not letting Lynch dominate and keeping Wilson’s big plays down. It’s not helping New Orleans with Kenny Vaccaro out at safety. Roman Harper would like to burn every tape of the last performance he had in Seattle in the playoffs.

But if Seattle’s going to lose in the playoffs, it’s going to be on the offense having a low-scoring day. I don’t see the Saints being the team to force them into one.

49ers at Panthers

This was a 10-9 game last time, but the 49ers are bringing more firepower for the rematch. Still, with these defenses, this is almost boringly predictable to be the weekend’s lowest-scoring game, and probably the closest for that reason. It could just come down to which mobile quarterback has the ball in his hands last.

ESPN had a good article on how both Colin Kaepernick and Cam Newton have beat up on bad defenses in 2013 and struggled with the good ones. Yeah, another 10-9 score wouldn’t be that shocking.

The resurgence of the Panthers at 12-4 has been framed incorrectly this season. Riverboat Ron is more of a legend than a producer of on-field results. I posted this on Twitter over a week ago, but the idea of Cam Newton regressing in 2012 is just as laughable as the idea he’s progressed in 2013:

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What’s really changed is Carolina has gotten so much better on defense. Only the Saints have scored more than 24 points against the Panthers and that was in the Super Dome. I do think the front seven can give Kaepernick a lot of problems in this game. They already did in San Francisco when he couldn’t even break 100 yards passing. However, he is playing his best this season right now.

This game comes down to two glaring weaknesses for me. I think Jim Harbaugh is clearly the better head coach and while I expect points will be difficult to come by, I can’t ignore one glaring difference in the makeup of these teams:

  • Panthers have a great defensive front, but not much in the secondary. The 49ers are bringing Michael Crabtree, Vernon Davis and Anquan Boldin to the party.
  • 49ers have a strong defense with no glaring unit weakness. The Panthers have an injured Steve Smith, Ted Ginn, Greg Olsen and Brandon LaFell.

If this was a back alley brawl,  I might take the Carolina guys on Smith’s craziness alone, but for this game, give me the 49ers. Now Carolina has home-field advantage and that is going to be tough for the 49ers to go back on the road again from west to east for an early game, but I have to go with the better team.

Oh yeah, SF-CAR will be the 500th playoff game in NFL history. Equating that to the regular season would take you back to the final late afternoon kickoff in Week 1 of the 2012 season. Doesn’t sound like much, does it? Yet it feels like most NFL legacies are built around these few precious moments…

FINAL PREDICTIONS

Let’s just say my scores did not work out too well last week (2-2 too). Closest was Green Bay needing to score four fewer points to nail that game at 23-20.

  • Seahawks over Saints, 27-24
  • Patriots over Colts, 34-17
  • 49ers over Panthers, 17-13
  • Chargers over Broncos, 34-28

If I have my first losing week of the season, I won’t mind.