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.
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.
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…
You think you know what’s going to happen next this NFL season? That’s cute, even if it’s completely impractical. I’m just going to rant about several games this week as I have no real theme to this week’s predictions. Kind of like how the 2021 season has no real rhythm or purpose to it.
The Dolphins still suck, right? Baltimore apparently didn’t get the memo. The Ravens made the Miami defense look all-world while the Dolphins won a game after Tua came off the bench to replace an injured starter. Isn’t it supposed to be the other way around? Tua gets injured and the backup saves the day? That whole game was ass backwards, but the Ravens really put on one of the worst team performances I’ve seen all season. The AFC North is as wide open as I can ever recall.
Before you start thinking this might be Tennessee’s year in the AFC, don’t discount the possibility of Trevor Siemian throwing three touchdowns to Taysom Hill this Sunday or some other weird shit to get the Saints (without Alvin Kamara) over the hump. God knows that team has been the hardest to figure out this year. I was talking about the Saints, but the Titans are up there too with that sentiment. Lose to the Jets, pound the Chiefs and Rams. Okay. Be a bit nervous about that offense without Derrick Henry after it averaged under 3.5 yards per play last week. The defense won that game in LA.
Favorites of more than 7 points were 26-1 SU this season coming into this past Sunday. They are 1-4 since after the Bills (at Jaguars), Cowboys (vs. Broncos), Rams (vs. Titans), and Ravens (at Dolphins) all lost. Your gut might be saying go all in on the Bills and Cowboys (and maybe Rams) rebounding to win, and go all in on the Jags returning to their losing ways as a 10.5-point underdog to the Colts. I get it, but what if Buffalo shits the bed again and the Jets really do have some Brady-like dink-and-dunker who sold his soul to the devil in Mike White? I’m a bit worried about the Bills after struggling with Miami and Jacksonville. As for the Cowboys, a game with Atlanta where Dan Quinn might forget which side he is on worries me. No Tyron Smith against Atlanta? What is this, 2017 all over again? Amari Cooper basically said he and CeeDee Lamb couldn’t run last week, which I said in this very blog spot could be a concern against Denver. I’m not sure how playing a game and practice gets you healthier, but hopefully they will be because Matt Ryan is playing quite well again. And we know the only reason Atlanta lost to Dallas last year was that absurd onside kick recovery. I’m definitely taking Atlanta to cover, but just remember the golden rule of NFL gambling: never bet on the Falcons to win. Another golden rule is to bet against Carson Wentz against a good team, but the Jaguars are not good. I think the Jonathan Taylor TD/Colts ML parlay pick is still safe this week.
Then we’re dealing with mounting injuries and COVID situations.
Seahawks-Packers was a marquee game on the schedule in April, but it’s lost some luster with the way this season has unfolded so far. Is Aaron Rodgers going to be totally fine after missing a week for COVID or will he pull a 2020 Cam Newton and implode in his first game back? Is Russell Wilson really ready for this one after being ahead of schedule on his recovery? I think I’ll be avoiding it.
I’ve been avoiding New England games all season. The Browns are back to D’Ernest Johnson at RB after COVID has taken out the rest of the backfield. The Patriots are gaining confidence too. Mac Jones might even start attacking Myles Garrett with a lead pipe in the parking lot to gain an advantage.
Kyler Murray is a game-time decision again this week. Would be nice to have more clarity on that one. Apparently it’s going to be P.J. Walker for the Panthers. But if it’s against Colt McCoy, could Carolina cover? I kind of love that pick because Kyler is 0-2 against the Panthers and was under 4.3 YPA (!) in both games the last two years. Maybe the Panthers just have a good feel for that Kliff-coached offense and now Sam Darnold is out of the picture for the offense with Christian McCaffrey back. Seems too good to be true for a Carolina cover, but I’m on that one in a week where I struggled to find underdogs I like.
Speaking of underdogs, is this the Mike Tomlin Special at home against 0-8 Detroit? The Steelers haven’t beaten anyone by more than 8 points in nearly 51 weeks. Chase Claypool is out. Ben Roethlisberger is a bit beat up and the Steelers just had that dramatic win on Monday night against Chicago. The offensive line was poor in that game. Jared Goff with a weak supporting cast at receiver doesn’t give me much confidence, but this feels like that classic trap game for the Steelers who have a golden gift with Baltimore’s Miami loss to move into first place in the division. I don’t think I’d put big money on Detroit winning, but the cover (or Steelers by 1-13 points) is a favorite bet of mine this week.
The Eagles are another team I’ve been avoiding, but it’s amazing how many quarterbacks (5-of-9) they have allowed to complete over 80% of their passes this season. You would think Teddy Bridgewater could do it here, but what is the impact of offensive coordinator Pat Shurmur likely being out from calling plays due to COVID? Denver overachieved in Dallas last week. I’m not sure they stack wins here, but I am picking Denver this week.
If I had two locks this week, it would be Tampa Bay beating a terrible Washington defense and the Vikings-Chargers game being decided by single digits. That leaves me with this parlay that I will do my best to hedge from the impending disaster that Week 10 could be.
Or maybe we got the big upset of the week out of the way early…
There are some NFL weeks with a lot of upsets. There are some weeks with multiple crazy finishes. There are some weeks with a lot of blowouts.
Then there’s Week 9 of the 2021 season, the type of week best summed up by this classic Vince Lombardi moment:
There were only six games with a comeback opportunity and four with a game-winning drive. But in a season where teams favored by more than seven points were 26-1 SU, those heavy favorites were 1-3 SU on Sunday. The Bills (-14.5) lost to the Jaguars of all teams, the Cowboys (-10) were getting blanked 30-0 by Denver before some garbage-time scores, and the Rams (-7.5) finished the day in appropriate fashion with a bad loss to the Titans.
You could say big favorites were due some losses this season, but three in one day? The last time that happened in a non-Week 17 slate was Week 9 of the 2011 season, and even that included a Monday night game (Dream Team Eagles vs. Bears). You have to go all the way back to Week 10 of the 2006 season to find the last time there were three such upsets in the same day.
Has there ever been a season where seemingly no team wants to embrace the role of being the favorite? Ditto for the MVP race after brutal games for Dak Prescott, Josh Allen, and the should-have-been-frontrunner Matthew Stafford. Even Kyler Murray lost some luster after seeing backup Colt McCoy handle the 49ers without DeAndre Hopkins, and Aaron Rodgers, well, his self-imposed absence will probably screw the Packers out of the No. 1 seed this year.
Of course, a day where most of the NFC’s top teams lose and the MVP candidates flounder helps no one more than Tom Brady and the Buccaneers. This league can’t go a week without doing everything it can to help him advance without breaking a sweat. That’s one thing about Week 9 that made sense.
Titans at Rams: Mike Vrabel Chopped Off His Penis and Paris Hilton Sucked the Soul Out of the Rams
(Congrats, you’re an NFL junkie if you understood that headline.)
While NBC’s Cris Collinsworth said that the Rams did not beat themselves on Sunday night, I’m not so sure about that one. Also, the incoming takes that the Titans don’t need Derrick Henry at all may also be very premature following a game that was almost solely decided by two Matthew Stafford interceptions – both of a fine Detroit vintage circa 2012 – turning into a quick 14 points. Even the best quarterbacks in MVP seasons can overcome that sort of swing as we saw last year with Aaron Rodgers in Tampa Bay in Week 6.
Stafford just so happened to pick his worst night for the Rams in an island game where he should have been able to take a clear lead in the MVP race. Pressure got to him, and he made a bad play (probable safety) a worse one by forcing a throw for the first pick that was returned to the 2-yard line. Then he followed it up with a worse throw for a pick-six. The Titans’ pass rush looked incredible, and it really covered up for an offense that did very little outside of two drives.
The Titans finished the game with just 194 yards of offense. Had it not been for Stafford’s touchdown drive in pure garbage time to make it a 28-16 final, the Titans would have had a rare three-score blowout win despite failing to break 200 yards. However, they still had the rare 12+ point win despite not breaking 200 yards, though it’s the second time Stafford has done that in his career.
Mike Vrabel improves to 13-2 ATS and an incredible 12-3 SU as head coach of the Titans when his team is an underdog of 4+ points. Being the underdog works for this team, a team that arguably has more big wins in the last four seasons than any franchise that has not gone to the Super Bowl in that time.
Now the Titans are chugging along at 7-2 after a winning streak over the Chiefs, Bills, Colts, and Rams. Had it not been for that garbage-time score, they would have held both the Chiefs and Rams out of the end zone for 60 minutes.
This is impressive stuff, and still, you wouldn’t be shocked if this team went 2-2 over the next four games against the Saints, Texans, Patriots, and Jaguars. The Titans are not going to keep beating good teams while failing to crack 3.0 yards per carry like they have in the last three games. Tennessee did not have a play from scrimmage longer than 16 yards against the Rams.
I see no reason to trust any team in the AFC this year. But can the Titans go on a run and play great defense and be physical with teams to win a few big games? Yeah, I think they have proven that enough now.
Can the Rams beat multiple good teams in succession with Stafford as their quarterback? From what we’ve seen so far this year, I don’t think so, and that was always the concern going into this experiment. The people who decided to take an early victory lap must not have been paying attention to the first eight weeks this season. No one is trustworthy or reliable this season to deliver on a weekly basis.
Vikings at Ravens: Par for the Course
I have nothing truly profound to say about yet another close finish that could have easily gone either way for the Vikings and Ravens this year. All I know is the Ravens are 4-1 in close finishes and the Vikings are now 2-5.
That makes the ending sound a bit predictable, but it was another difficult path to a 14-point comeback win for the Ravens. The type of big comeback win that has eluded this team for years seems to be coming every other week this season. The Vikings led 24-10 after returning the opening kickoff of the second half 98 yards for a touchdown. Big plays like that one and a 50-yard touchdown to Justin Jefferson are not the kind of plays we’re used to seeing Baltimore allow, but those are the signs that this team is struggling and becoming more reliant on the quarterback.
Lamar Jackson did not have a clean game with two picks, but he still finished with 266 passing yards and 120 rushing yards. Kirk Cousins had one of his standard days with solid efficiency stats and neither winning nor losing the game for his team. He came up big with a game-tying touchdown drive to force overtime, but the Vikings were stopped on their only overtime possession following a Jackson interception in scoring territory.
I was asked on Twitter how many times does a team turn the ball over in overtime and still go on to win the game? Baltimore fans know it’s happened more than once this season as the Raiders did it to the Ravens in Week 1 after Derek Carr’s interception was not capitalized on. Before that, it did not happen in 2020 and only happened once in 2019 when Russell Wilson threw an interception against the 49ers and still got the win. But you’re lucky if this happens once a season in the league.
But the Ravens were the better team and more deserving of the win in this one. They outgained the Vikings 500-318 in yards and 36-13 in first downs. The 36 first downs are a franchise record.
Would it have looked better if the Ravens stopped the Vikings on fourth-and-9 with 1:10 left and won 31-24 in regulation? Sure, but these Ravens are not as talented as past teams and things are harder this year. Living on the edge like this is not good for long-term success, but against teams like Minnesota that have mastered losing these games, it can work out for the Ravens.
Packers at Chiefs: Love Did Not Tear the Chiefs Apart
Jordan Love had only the second-worst performance by a Green Bay quarterback this season, but it was still not enough to take down a struggling Kansas City team as the Packers fell 13-7. The Chiefs, held scoreless in a second half for only the second time in the Patrick Mahomes era, definitely caught a break with Aaron Rodgers being a bad liar, because this probably would have been a Green Bay win with their starting quarterback. The Packers botched two field goals and a fourth down in the first half alone.
I think there is hyperbole about how bad Love was, but his inexperience shined through. The Chiefs were able to relentlessly blitz him with a lot of success, especially on third downs. They wouldn’t play that way against Rodgers or someone with experience. It was just one game, but I do at least sense some escapability from Love and he might have some gunslinger in him. He’s going to give his receivers a chance, but it could end in picks against a better defense.
Still, it’s a good thing the Chiefs went back to their 2020 four-minute offense and put this game away or else this was begging to be the worst 13-0 lead turned 14-13 collapse since Santana Moss met the 2005 Cowboys. Mahomes had another candidate for the worst game of his career as his 166 passing yards are the fewest of any full game in his career. The 4.49 yards per attempt is also his first career game under 5.0 YPA. Outside of a bad Mecole Hardman drop on a third-and-1, Mahomes was a huge reason for the offense not playing well in this game and that’s despite the Chiefs finally not having any giveaways.
But Mahomes was able to throw for three first downs, including a vintage extended play to Tyreek Hill to ice the game on third-and-10, to run out the final 4:49 on the clock after the Packers cut into the 13-0 lead with a touchdown.
The Chiefs (5-4) can celebrate the win, and the defense can feel good about their performance as we have seen plenty of inexperienced quarterbacks light it up better than this in the past. But the offense is in a five-game slump now and I’m not sure what it’s going to take to snap out of it, or if they will snap out of it.
Broncos at Cowboys: WTF?
Dallas was on a short list of teams to start 7-0 ATS while the Broncos tend to only beat up on bad teams and lose to the good ones, a hallmark of Teddy Bridgewater’s career. But this was a domination that makes the 30-16 final such a mirage.
Dak Prescott returned from his calf injury, and as far as I could tell, he looked healthy enough to be playing on Sunday. But was this the worst game of his career as far as moving the ball goes? The Cowboys turned the ball over on downs on three of their first six possessions. They were down 30-0 with 6:32 to play and Prescott barely had 100 passing yards at that point.
Fans tend to do a bad job of defining garbage time. Like what the Jets were doing against the Colts on Thursday night, that was never garbage time. They were still in that game and just needed to finish their scoring drive and get an onside kick to tie the game with another score. But for Dallas, the two late touchdown drives were pure garbage time. At that point I would have sat the stars who have been ailing in recent weeks and finished the game with Cooper Rush, Tony Pollard, and the likes of Cedrick Wilson and Malik Turner at receiver.
Dallas never had it on either side of the ball, and it was apparent from the opening possession when Ezekiel Elliott was stuffed on a fourth-and-1. You knew it wasn’t Dallas’ day when a blocked punt went forward and the Broncos ended up recovering after it touched a Dallas player, making it a live ball and a muff.
We knew the Dallas defense could be a liability when the turnover well ran dry as it did in this game, but who could have imagined the offense would play so poorly with Dak back? A good win for Denver, but an alarming performance for Mike McCarthy and the Cowboys.
Bills at Jaguars: WTF? The Sequel
Josh Allen won the game for Jacksonville. Josh Allen lost the game for Buffalo. The fact that I’m talking about two different players makes this one of the more amusing upsets in NFL history.
It also appears to be a historic one. The Bills lost 9-6 in Jacksonville despite being a 14.5-point favorite. There is no game in Pro Football Reference’s database where a favorite of that many points lost a game in which it allowed fewer than 10 points. The closest was when John Elway’s 1986 Broncos, who still made the Super Bowl, lost 9-3 as a 13.5-point favorite to the Chargers. That was almost 35 years to the date.
The last double-digit favorite to lose a 9-6 kind of game was actually the 2018 Jaguars early in the season to the Titans. This is arguably Jacksonville’s biggest win since that 2017 playoff run.
So much of it was thanks to the splash plays made by Jacksonville’s Josh Allen, the No. 7 pick in the 2019 draft that we’ve forgotten about since he plays in Jacksonville. But in this game, Allen recorded the first fumble recovery and first interception of his career. As if he has been waiting for this moment against his namesake. The Jaguars put a lot of effective pressure on Allen as the Bills only ran the ball nine times for 22 yards. Cole Beasley caught eight short passes for 33 yards. The Bills were scoreless on their final seven drives, turning it over three times and ending the game with a failed fourth down.
Buffalo is the first team since the 2019 Redskins (9-0 against San Francisco on a soaked field) to lose a game after allowing fewer than 10 points.
The Bills were gifted such a soft schedule that you have to wonder what kind of pact the AFC East made with the league for this sort of luck year after year. But the difference between those Patriots teams with Bill Belichick and Tom Brady and these Buffalo teams with Sean McDermott and Josh Allen is that the Patriots still delivered year after year. They still had to win those games time and time again. If the Bills can lose a 9-6 game in Jacksonville, then nothing is a given on their schedule.
It’s not like there weren’t some worrying flaws with this team before this week. I used this space last week to talk about a good half vs. a good game as the Bills sleepwalked for 30 minutes against awful Miami before a misleading final box score. I said during the week that it made no sense why Allen was the MVP favorite at +200. I know Dawson Knox is out at tight end, but the wide receiver corps is more than deep enough to move the ball well against a Jacksonville team that couldn’t even compete with Geno Smith and the Seahawks last week.
This is a brutal loss for Buffalo. We’ll see if it’s a wake-up call as there will be plenty of games where the Bills will be heavily favored the rest of the season.
Falcons at Saints: The Atlanta Sports Renaissance?
Very similar to the Miami win this year, the Falcons flirted with another fourth-quarter disaster that Matt Ryan and the offense rescued with a game-winning field goal drive. The Falcons were up 24-6 with 10:39 to play, but that did not stop the Saints from scoring three touchdowns to take a 25-24 lead with 1:01 left.
However, you better come prepared with a great two-point conversion play for every game in this league. You never know when it can decide a game as it did here. When a team scores a late touchdown to take a one-point lead, that two-point conversion becomes absolutely crucial. The Saints ran Alvin Kamara and were stopped, keeping the score at 25-24. Ryan is the king of one-minute drills, and he technically just missed out on a sixth in his career with the drive starting at 1:01. But he hit Cordarrelle Patterson, who has turned into a fascinating all-around weapon this year in Atlanta, for a 64-yard gain to start the drive. Younghoe Koo put away the Saints with a 29-yard field goal for the 27-25 win.
Despite not having Calvin Ridley and the running game producing 26 yards on 20 carries, Ryan passed for 343 yards and had three total touchdowns in the win. He has been playing very well after a slow start to the new offense and life without Julio Jones.
Attention will go to New Orleans’ difficult quarterback situation with Trevor Siemian having to take over for Jameis Winston (torn ACL). Do they stick with Siemian or go back to Taysom Hill as the starter? I think the defense needs to take more of the blame for this one. Ryan hit four passes of 34-plus yards on Sunday.
There is no such thing as a normal Saints game in 2021, but it was pretty interesting to see the Falcons dominate this game, nearly choke it away, and still come away with a win in the end. That wouldn’t have happened in past years.
Some quick thoughts as I race to complete another preview before getting to sleep.
Cardinals at 49ers: 2021 49ers Gone Fishin’
It should have been a golden opportunity for San Francisco (3-5) to get back to .500 before playing the Rams next week. For really the first time all season, the 49ers had the passing offense they should have thrived with on paper with Jimmy Garoppolo throwing to Deebo Samuel, George Kittle, and Brandon Aiyuk. Unfortunately, those players had three turnovers and the 49ers finished with just 17 points in a humiliating 31-17 defeat.
Arizona did not have Kyler Murray, DeAndre Hopkins, or A.J. Green on offense, but that did not stop Colt McCoy from completing 22-of-26 passes for 249 yards or James Conner from scoring three touchdowns. The Cardinals led this one wire-to-wire, and this was a 49ers defense that had given them problems in the last two matchups.
At what point can we all admit that Kyle Shanahan is not a good head coach? He punted on a 4th-and-13 at the Arizona 39 while trailing by 17 points in the fourth quarter. Is he saving his brilliant play design for Trey Lance in that situation? At this point, Shanahan will be lucky if he gets to hang around for the Lance era as it looks like another failed season in San Francisco. Props to Arizona for coming prepared without several of its best players.
Browns at Bengals: One-Sided Battle of Ohio
Maybe the Browns can bring Odell Beckham Jr. back and cut him again before their next game? I don’t know if anything was really gained from that this week, but the Browns did look focused and ready for this one. It started going off the rails for Cincinnati on the opening drive after Joe Burrow threw a 99-yard pick-six to Denzel Ward. Burrow has had several huge picks this year in losses. This was the first game of the season where he failed to throw a touchdown as the Bengals never seriously threatened in the second half.
Baker Mayfield took advantage of the Cincinnati turnovers and the big plays, including a 70-yard touchdown run by Nick Chubb, to lead an easy 41-16 win. I’d be very cautious to make any definitive statements about either team, but I do think we were too quick to prop up the Bengals without taking a deeper look at the loss to Chicago or the struggle with Jacksonville.
Patriots at Panthers: Look Who Is Back in the Playoff Picture
The Patriots (5-4) are above .500 for the first time this season and currently rank seventh in the AFC. Getting to play Sam Darnold (three interceptions, including a pick-six) was like getting a third Jets game, so the Patriots cannot count on that cheat code anymore this season. But it was another workmanlike performance in getting an easy win that should give the team some confidence going into tougher stretches.
Chargers at Eagles: The 7-on-7 Defense
Add another 4QC/GWD to the 2021 Chargers’ total to bring it to four. The Chargers finished off the Eagles in the fourth quarter despite allowing a game-tying touchdown drive and having to convert a pair of fourth downs on the game-winning field goal drive. But the Chargers were paced all day by Justin Herbert completing 32 of his 38 passes. Herbert has been deadly accurate this year, but this was already the fifth game where the 2021 Eagles allowed at least 80% completions. That is two more games than the old NFL record (min. 20 attempts) and we still have half a season to go. Playing this defense is like playing 7-on-7 in practice.
Raiders at Giants: No Penalty, No Comeback
What did I say earlier this season? If Derek Carr isn’t getting game-altering penalties on crucial downs in the fourth quarter, he isn’t good at fourth-quarter comebacks. The Giants were not penalized in the fourth quarter and Carr stunk up the joint with a pick and a game-sealing fumble in the red zone while trailing 23-16. Kicker Daniel Carlson also reminded people of his Minnesota roots by missing a 25-yard field goal while the Raiders trailed 20-16. This was a bad performance after another bad off-the-field week for the Raiders with the release of Henry Ruggs. They signed DeSean Jackson, but I would sooner pick this team to finish last in the AFC West than to finish first.
Guess who gets the Chiefs next. That’s the Sunday night game in Week 10, which might be the only hope for a good island game in this slate.
Next week: Can the Steelers avoid handing the Lions their first win of the season, and is it really a revenge game for Dan Quinn against the Falcons when he has himself to blame for being in Dallas right now?
After two weeks of blowouts, we saw the return of competitive games in Week 8. There were 10 games with a comeback opportunity through Sunday, and the week set season highs with seven comeback wins and eight game-winning drives.
Technically, seven game-winning drives and an eighth game-winning score in the Patriots-Chargers game, because of course the Chargers would be adding to their BINGO card against New England on Halloween.
You know it’s a weird week when Mike White, Trevor Siemian, and Cooper Rush had 4QC/GWDs.
The weekly rise and fall of teams in the AFC this year is unlike anything I’ve ever seen before. I’ve always felt like I know this conference well, but I have never been so confused with it as I am this year.
Meanwhile, if we add the Saints to the big six in the NFC, that puts Green Bay (7-1), Arizona (7-1), Dallas (6-1), Tampa Bay (6-2), LA Rams (7-1), and New Orleans (5-2) at a combined 38-8 this season. Six of the eight losses are to each other with only the Saints, the worst team of the bunch, losing elsewhere to the Panthers and Giants.
Buccaneers at Saints: Is Brady Saving His Luck for the Playoffs Again?
I am going to be forever mad with the Packers and Saints for legitimizing this Tampa Bay team. Had it not been for Aaron Rodgers’ meltdown in Week 6 last year and the fumbles by Jared Cook and Aaron Jones in the playoffs, this Tampa Bay team goes down as a fraudulent underachiever that pads its stats against lousy competition and falters in almost every big game it plays.
In the 2020 regular season, Tampa Bay was 1-5 against playoff teams, only beating Green Bay 38-10 after Rodgers basically threw pick-sixes on consecutive drives and fell apart. But that’s it; a single win over a playoff team. Even the 2020 Jets beat the Rams and Browns. Hell, the 2021 Jets are likely to have at least two wins over playoff teams already (Titans and Bengals). Meanwhile, the 2021 Bucs needed a last-second field goal to beat Dallas, lost 34-24 in Los Angeles, and now lost 36-27 in New Orleans to Trevor Siemian at quarterback after Jameis Winston likely tore his ACL.
I don’t know if the Saints (5-2) are headed for the playoffs without a quarterback right now, but I know it’s the second year in a row when a big win over Tampa Bay could be a pyrrhic victory. It was in last year’s 38-3 demolition where Drew Brees initially suffered his broken ribs against Tampa’s defense that led to a collapsed lung. He was never the same again.
Sean Payton’s Saints are now 3-1 against Tampa Bay since Tom Brady joined them last season. In the three wins, they forced Brady into multiple turnovers, including three on Sunday. But in the playoff loss last January, it was three interceptions by Brees and a very crucial fumble by Jared Cook in the third quarter that turned that game around for Tampa, putting the Bucs on a timeline towards that Super Bowl win instead of a second-round exit.
You know what else happened in that playoff game? The Saints dropped multiple Brady interceptions. He was still playing poorly against them in that game, but they couldn’t capitalize. Instead, he got to start three touchdown drives inside the 40 thanks to New Orleans’ turnovers. Go figure, his luck was at its greatest in the playoff matchup.
On Sunday, he had his best game yet against the Saints in four tries with the Bucs, but it was still a sloppy one. The Saints crucially avoided turning the ball over in this game, though they did turn it over on downs to start the game. Naturally, Brady turned that 44-yard field into a touchdown drive. But when he had to start every other drive at his 25 or worse in the first half, the Bucs were scoreless, and the Saints were up 23-7 a drive into the second half.
While the comeback still felt inevitable with Siemian in the game, the defense got a stop thanks to a holding penalty on the Bucs that ruined their drive to start the fourth quarter. The offense then used a couple of penalties on Tampa Bay’s defense to get a field goal and 26-21 lead. Tampa Bay had 11 penalties for 99 yards.
But then the bad Saints defense struck. Cyril Grayson (who?) was left all alone for a 50-yard touchdown pass from Brady with 5:44 left. I know in 2018 Brady had the record over the last three seasons for the most wide-open completion to Chris Hogan against Pittsburgh, but this one is a contender for that title. No one was even close to Grayson. Fortunately, the defense rebounded to stop the two-point conversion and Tampa Bay led 27-26 instead of 29-26.
Siemian did just enough on a go-ahead field goal drive. The Bucs reportedly had a historically bad day at getting pressure on the blitz. They had 22 blitzes and zero pressures on them in this game.
Payton seemed to outsmart himself by calling early-down passes from the Tampa Bay 9. Siemian threw two incompletions, stopping the clock and saving timeouts for the opponent. In the end, Brady just needed a field goal and had 101 seconds and a timeout to set it up.
That seems almost too predictable/inevitable. You can already envision the couple of dump passes over the middle to the running back, followed by a sideline route to Chris Godwin or Mike Evans, the latter who actually beat Marshon Lattimore for a long touchdown on the day. Just like that, field-goal range.
But every once in a while, Brady gets greedy and screws this up. He came out trying to throw deep to Evans, resulting in a long incompletion. Then he got a little greedy with one to Godwin that was intercepted by P.J. Williams and returned 40 yards for a pick-six that probably should have been a dive to run out the clock. But when you get a chance to pick-six Brady in that situation, it’s hard to pass up.
Brady then took two sacks for a four-and-out to end things. The Saints have managed to beat Rodgers and Brady this year while losing to Sam Darnold and Daniel Jones. The division is still very much in play, but it’s going to be hard after Winston’s injury looks severe.
So, I’m not sure we learned a whole lot about either team, but one thing that stands out is that Tampa Bay tends to come up small in these games. Of course, the only games on the remaining schedule that look like this are at home in Weeks 14-15 against the Bills and Saints. This team is still going at least 13-4, but another regular season with just one win against a playoff team is also a good possibility at this point.
Are you still willing to bet on someone else in the NFC to beat them in January? I’m not there yet.
Titans at Colts: Wentz Wagon Crashes Again
In what could be the closest thing that Carson Wentz gets to a playoff game in Indianapolis, the Colts came up short in overtime to the rival Titans to fall to 3-5. Derrick Henry (28 carries, 68 yards) was stopped on the ground for the second week in a row, Ryan Tannehill threw an early interception that led to a 7-yard touchdown drive, the Titans had one play that gained more than 14 yards, and the Colts were up 14-0. Yet, it was still not enough to prevent the Titans from sweeping the Colts for only the third time since 2002 as they did in 2002 and 2017.
Part of what made the Colts so successful on offense in the last month was the reemergence of running back Jonathan Taylor. He only had 16 carries for 70 yards in this one. The Colts went pass-happy, but Wentz completed 27-of-51 passes for 231 yards with three touchdowns and two costly picks late in the game. That makes Wentz the 17th quarterback since 1950 to throw more than 50 passes in a game and not throw for 240 yards in the process. Those quarterbacks are now 1-16 in those games with only Donovan McNabb getting a fortunate win for the 2000 Eagles in Pittsburgh.
The longest “plays” of the day for the Colts were defensive pass interference penalties worth 41 and 42 yards. One set up Taylor for a game-tying touchdown with 22 seconds left to force overtime. But the Colts shouldn’t have been in that situation. They got there because an ill-advised screen pass on first down at their own 8 was attempted by Wentz, who threw a pick-six with 1:26 left to fall behind 31-24. While he got the game to overtime, Wentz could only get one first down on two drives in the extra period after throwing a second interception. That set up the Titans on a short field, which they used to drive a total of 5 yards before kicking the game-winning field goal.
This is already the fifth lead of more than 10 points that the Colts have blown under head coach Frank Reich. Worse, the Colts have blown leads of 17 points (at Pittsburgh), 19 points (at Baltimore), and now 14 points on Sunday in just their last 11 games.
Three blown leads of 14+ points in 11 games? The Colts had two such blown leads in all of the 2002-2011 seasons under Tony Dungy and Jim Caldwell combined. Not having Prime Peyton Manning certainly makes a difference, but the Colts blew their share of big leads under Manning during the Jim Mora years (1998-2001). At some point, the coach takes the brunt of the blame there when the team continues to collapse.
The Colts continue to collapse under Reich, and now they are 12th in the conference. As much as I would like to say this is all about Wentz, it’s clearly not. But the Colts have two young playmakers proving their worth in Taylor and Michael Pittman, and I don’t think Reich is getting the most out of this offense with them and Wentz.
This team should be better than 3-5 right now.
Bengals at Jets: The Mike White Lotus
You might think a Sunday where Brady and Wentz threw pick-sixes in late losses would energize me, but I was already bummed out from earlier events. In the latest adventures of me getting screwed out of over $10,000 in one weekend, the top-seeded Bengals choked in epic fashion against the Jets.
I knew something was fishy when the Jets opened the game with a 75-yard touchdown drive, which is almost unheard of for this offense in the first quarter. I knew I should have been worried when Mike White was on pace for 46 completions at halftime despite him making his first start, and, well for being Mike White. I should have realized that Joe Mixon getting repeatedly stuffed on the ground was a bad sign for the Bengals, a team that has already lost to the Bears and struggled with the Jaguars, putting this one away.
But when Joe Burrow threw a touchdown to Tyler Boyd and the Bengals led 31-20 with 7:29 left, I stopped paying attention. I thought it was in the bag. But White continued to move the offense with passes, and the Jets were back in the end zone. Then Burrow threw an interception on the next play and the Jets were 14 yards away from the lead. They got it, the Bengals promptly punted, and Cincinnati never saw the ball again thanks to a weak call for unnecessary roughness after the Bengals looked to get a stop on third-and-11. Game over.
With my luck and how much I had riding on the Bengals winning, this could just be the one-game outlier of the season right here. White probably isn’t that superior to Zach Wilson, though it could be a long time (if not eternity) for Wilson to have a game as good as 37-of-45 for 405 yards in this league. It’s not like the Bengals came in playing terrible pass defense this year. It’s not like White was hitting fluke plays to incredible talent. None of his receivers hit 100 yards, and arguably the most talented one (Corey Davis) on the roster was inactive.
The Jets had 32 first downs, their most in a game since 1988. The Jets had 511 yards of offense, only their third 500-yard game since 2001. The Bengals only had that one turnover, but it was a costly one.
Extra costly for me, the sad sack who trusted the Bengals to pay his bills this month. The moral of the story: don’t trust anyone in the AFC this year unless maybe if they’re playing Houston. Otherwise, just don’t.
Cowboys at Vikings: What a Rush…
There is just something so fitting about the Kirk Cousins-led Vikings losing to the Cooper Rush-led Cowboys with Rush nearly doubling up Cousins in passing yards (325-184) in his first start.
Dallas coach Mike McCarthy has gotten some big performances and crazy comeback wins out of his backups (Matt Flynn and Brett Hundley) when he was in Green Bay. He’s done it again with Rush having to start for Dak Prescott (calf). The offense definitely missed Prescott in what should have been an easier win, but Rush did just enough to get the Cowboys over the hump. Amari Cooper bailed him out with a crazy 33-yard catch after a fortunate bounce, then Minnesota coach Mike Zimmer helped with five free yards on third-and-long after trying to call timeout twice in a row. That led to a 3rd-and-11 where Rush checked down to Ezekiel Elliott, who made an incredible play to knife through multiple defenders for a 15-yard gain and the first down. One of the best YAC plays I’ve ever seen in a crucial situation. On the next play, Rush went back to Cooper for the game-winning touchdown with 51 seconds left.
The Vikings could not move the ball after getting one first down on their ensuing drive. The offense never found the end zone after the opening drive, and even the go-ahead field goal drive in the fourth quarter was carried by three shady personal foul penalties on Dallas.
Minnesota (3-4) has been right there with the likes of the Bengals, Cardinals, and now Cowboys. But in typical Minnesota fashion, they know how to come out on the wrong side of these close ones. Now with the Ravens, Chargers, and Packers up next, this team can likely kiss the playoffs goodbye this season.
Patriots at Chargers: New England Always Tricks the Chargers
You just had to know a Patriots-Chargers game on Halloween would involve some weird plays and utter misery for the Chargers. That’s their history against this team in the Bill Belichick era. Apparently, Belichick can still confuse the hell out of a gifted, young passer:
Justin Herbert had the worst game of his career in last year’s 45-0 loss to the Patriots. On Sunday, he was in the ballpark again. Herbert exacerbated his struggles with a pass to Jared Cook in the fourth quarter that the receiver never saw and it was intercepted for a touchdown. That plus the two-point conversion took the Patriots from a 17-16 deficit to a 24-17 lead, making it the first non-offensive comeback win of the season in the NFL.
Herbert was not able to respond with the offense until they fell behind 27-17 with 2:12 left. At that point, Herbert added 80 yards and a touchdown pass to his totals, but the damage was already done. It was another rough game for Brandon Staley’s Chargers, who have quickly gone from 4-1 sensation to 4-3 disappointment.
Five of New England’s last six wins are against the Jets (three) and Chargers (two). He still owns those teams.
Steelers at Browns: Pittsburgh Sends Cleveland to Last Place
While nothing could make up for the embarrassing playoff loss the Steelers had to Cleveland in January, this was some decent revenge as the 15-10 win sent Cleveland down to ninth in the AFC and last place in the AFC North while the Steelers moved up to No. 6 in the conference.
This was a slugfest between teams who are not fond of one another. Baker Mayfield looked healthy, but his throws were sometimes off with his not-so-healthy receivers. Pittsburgh’s defense played very well despite this being the first time all season that the Browns had Mayfield, Nick Chubb, Jarvis Landry, and Odell Beckham together. At this point, Beckham looks washed up.
Not completely washed up: Ben Roethlisberger. It was far from a masterpiece, but he played well enough to lead the Steelers to 20 points on their first eight drives with the ninth being a run-out-the-clock drive. However, Mike Tomlin tried to sabotage that output with another ill-advised fake field goal in the second quarter that not only failed, but it led to kicker Chris Boswell getting knocked out with a concussion. That forced the Steelers to try multiple two-point conversions, but it did also lead to a fourth-down attempt for the game-winning touchdown instead of settling for three points. But Tomlin’s random aggressiveness remains problematic for this team. He would not go for a 4th-and-1 at midfield in a high-scoring playoff game against the Browns in January, but he thought going for this fake on 4th-and-9 at a time when the offense cannot be trusted to score a lot was a good idea? It’s inconsistent at best and incompetent at worst.
But the Steelers managed to overcome that with great defense and getting the tight ends more involved in the offense. Jarvis Landry fumbled Cleveland’s best chance at taking the late lead.
Roethlisberger walks out of Cleveland likely for the last time with his 40th fourth-quarter comeback win, joining Tom Brady (50) and Peyton Manning (45) as the only players with 40.
The Steelers (4-3) have won three in a row after being left for dead at 1-3. Their next two games are at home against the Bears and Lions. But in typical Steelers fashion, they’ll skate by the Bears on Monday night in a low-scoring game and lose to the 0-8 Lions in Week 10.
But the Steelers are not dead yet as much as the Browns especially wanted them to be. Cleveland (4-4) is suddenly the team in trouble, losing three of its last four games with the Bengals and Patriots next up on the road.
Dolphins at Bills: Good Halves vs. Good Games
When does a team play a good half as opposed to a good game? Buffalo’s 26-11 win over Miami makes a good case study. For starters, it’s shockingly the third 26-11 game in NFL history and not a scorigami. But it is a case where the Bills slept-walk through a half against a division rival they have crushed in recent meetings, including 35-0 in Week 2 this year.
On paper, this is going to look like a good win for the Bills. They covered the 14-point spread, and Josh Allen finished with over 300 total yards, three total touchdowns, and a 100.2 passer rating. Piece of cake, right?
But it really wasn’t. This 3-3 slog at halftime tied Pittsburgh-Cleveland, which was going on at the same time, for the lowest scoring first half in the NFL this season. The Bills were in a dogfight and could only muster a 57-yard field goal on their first five drives. Allen was called for a grounding penalty on a fourth down that threatened to allow Miami to drive for the lead at the half, but the Dolphins fumbled in the red zone.
But after a three-and-out to start the third quarter, the Bills looked like the Bills. They scored three touchdowns and a field goal on their last four drives, albeit the last touchdown was from 11 yards out after Tua was intercepted with 2:21 left. A matter of 21 fewer seconds and the Bills are kneeling out the clock in a 20-11 win.
Miami had its shot to really make this a game, trailing 17-11 and putting the Bills in a 3rd-and-11 situation. But that’s when Allen found Cole Beasley, the main receiver on the day, for a 20-yard gain that put the Bills into scoring range to open it up to a two-score margin.
Buffalo may still prove to be the team to beat in the AFC this year, but uneven performances like this one do not help advance that narrative.
Some quick thoughts as I race to complete another preview before getting to sleep.
Panthers at Falcons: The Old Familiar Sting
Younghoe Koo has been a dependable kicker for the Falcons. Over the last two seasons, he is 49-of-52 on field goals. However, his last miss in 2020 was a 39-yard game tying kick to send the Chiefs to overtime. His first miss in 2021 was a 45-yard go-ahead field goal to start the fourth quarter against Carolina on Sunday. That’s not how you become known as one of the great ones. That’s preparing your resume for future kicker of the Minnesota Vikings. The Panthers then drove 65 yards for a touchdown and 19-10 lead that essentially wrapped things up, denying the Falcons a record above .500 this year. With road games against the Saints and Cowboys up next, that might be it for the competitive part of this Atlanta season.
Eagles at Lions: Philly Uses Lions for Fertilizer
This league can drive you nuts since sanity does not exist. How do the Lions push the Ravens, Vikings, and Rams to the brink of defeat and give a real scare to the 49ers, only to get destroyed 44-6 at home by the awful Eagles? It’s not like DeVonta Smith (one catch for 15 yards) went crazy with big plays. Dallas Goedert was the only Eagle with more than two catches or 18 receiving yards. They were getting shredded by Boston Scott and Jordan Howard (yes, the former Bear). The Lions didn’t even turn the ball over until the third quarter when it was already 31-0, and figures it had to be Darius Slay returning a fumble for a score against his former team. I guess the 0-8 Lions will have to wait until Week 10 in Pittsburgh to get their first win.
49ers at Bears: Run, Quarterback, Run
Jimmy Garoppolo went into Sunday’s game with three career rushing touchdowns and left with five, an unexpected outcome for sure. Not so unexpected: Deebo Samuel continuing to dominate. He had 171 yards for his third 150-yard game of the season. That makes him the 14th player since 1950 to have three 150-yard games by his team’s seventh game of the season. Antonio Brown (2017 Steelers) was the last player to do this.
While the Bears lost 33-22, it was encouraging for Justin Fields to use his legs more and rush for 103 yards and a touchdown. No surprise it helped the Bears to their best game on offense this season. They just have to finish better as the offense froze up after the 49ers took a 30-22 lead.
Jaguars at Seahawks: Urban Meyer Is Bad at This
The Jaguars were down 24-0 in Seattle before finally scoring a touchdown with 1:49 left. The only logical decision is to go for two no matter how unrealistic 8+8+8 is in this situation. What did head coach Urban Meyer do? He kicked the extra point, keeping it a three-possession game at 24-7. At that point, you’re not really trying to win anymore. So, why did he try the onside kick? Seattle was right to return that baby for a touchdown and 31-7 final. The Jaguars failed to have a play longer than 17 yards against what was once a Seattle defense on pace for the worst season ever in yards allowed.
Washington at Broncos: Protect the Damn Ball
One of my favorite bets in Week 8 was Denver (-3.5) to cover the spread against a lousy Washington team. This is what Teddy Bridgewater does in his career, and while he got the cover and the game-winning drive on Sunday, it was not easy. After Taylor Heinicke was intercepted in the end zone with 37 seconds left and Washington down 17-10, the game was not over due to the team having all three timeouts. That made it hard to justify going super conservative and taking three knees before punting the ball back with just over 20 seconds. Washington probably would have had decent field position too to set up a Hail Mary.
But what happened next almost justifies taking that safe route. The Broncos tried their hardest to blow the game. They ran Javonte Williams on first down and the rookie almost fumbled (not actually credited as one though). For some reason, they tried a pass to Williams on second down, and instead of sliding down to run the clock and make Washington burn a timeout, Bridgewater threw incomplete. On third down, veteran Melvin Gordon got the carry and Chase Young made him fumble. Just like that, Washington had life at the Denver 24 with 21 seconds left. Fortunately, the Washington offense fell apart in that range again and the Denver defense held on for the win.
But game management continues to be a big problem around the league.
Next week: Do we finally get Aaron Rodgers vs. Patrick Mahomes, and will it be memorable? The Chiefs probably first can’t let Daniel Jones throw for 400 yards on Monday night.
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.
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?
This is the 10th season of posting my NFL predictions here. In seven of the last nine years, I managed to predict one Super Bowl finalist, but somehow I had the wrong Super Bowl result for them all seven times. In the last two years, I had the Chiefs losing and then winning last year. It was the other way around, of course.
For that reason, we still are in the longest drought ever without a repeat champion. But could we be in store for a repeat Super Bowl between Tampa Bay and Kansas City? It has only happened one time in NFL history when the Cowboys beat the Bills in 1992-93. That was a case of Dallas putting together a dynasty run, and the Bills also had an incredible run of four straight Super Bowls with a core of Hall of Famers. Unfortunately, they lost all four games as Scott Norwood should die of gonorrhea and rot in hell*.
*That’s a well-executed reference to Ace Ventura, so I will not be doing a Brian Kelly and apologizing if you didn’t get the joke.
Predicting a rematch can often be the trendy pick that year, but I really think these teams are uniquely qualified for it. The Chiefs have hosted the AFC Championship Game three years in a row, have been money against their main competition (Ravens/Bills), and have the best player in the league right now in Patrick Mahomes. The Buccaneers have brought back every starter, including the 44-year-old King of Kings, most of their depth from last year, they are loaded on both sides of the ball, and they get a boost in the division with Drew Brees retiring. Are you really going to trust Matthew Stafford and Ryan Fitzpatrick joining the Rams and Washington to put up a fight with Tom Brady, the Luckiest Quarterback of All Time?
While I may have a familiar Super Bowl prediction for you, the rest of this preview is going to look different from past years. In the last four years I ended up writing over 16,000 words each time. I didn’t break 10,000 this time since I already wrote full previews (2,000-4,500 words each) on all 32 teams at Bookmakers Review (BMR) this summer. I have included the BMR links for each team in their section below and I promise they have all the stats and thoughts you’re used to seeing from me.
Don’t forget to check out the eight-part series I just finished on The Top 100 Quarterbacks of the 21st Century. The final part on the top five quarterbacks has the links at the top to the first seven parts.
What I’m Watching for in 2021
Before getting into the teams, I want to share some thoughts on what I’m watching for this season, the first 17-game season in NFL history.
First of all, I hate the 17 games and we haven’t even started. It’s going to screw up the stats and my databases, all the counting records, and end the longest, most consistent scheduling we’ve had in NFL history. I think 32 teams, 16 games, 12 playoff teams, and eight divisions was the perfect setup, but they killed it out of greed. Having an odd number of games also makes no sense as you get an unequal number of home and road games with the AFC teams getting a ninth home game this year while they’ll alternate next year. I just hate it. No more .500 teams unless you finish 8-8-1, which I’m sure Kirk Cousins is fucking stoked for. But it’s definitely a transition period in NFL history.
Last year I talked a lot about COVID and uncertainty here. This is going to be Pandemic Season No. 2, and I do fear that we could see more screwy things than last year just because of how more contagious the Delta variant is. We have triple the number of cases in the United States on Labor Day this year than we did one year ago. That’s scary.
To the NFL’s credit, they got every game in last year even though there were a few shams like the Ravens and Steelers playing on a Wednesday and the Broncos not having a quarterback to play the Saints. As it turns out in the news today, Denver was being properly punished for breaking protocol that week. So, hopefully teams are more professional about following rules this year, though a few teams like the Bills and Colts have projected vocal vomit about their anti-vaccine stances. I’d take a shot at Cole Beasley specifically, but he’d just run away. See what happens when you give a guy a completely unearned All-Pro vote?
But the crowds are back for now, so it will be very interesting to see what happens to the offensive stats after 2020 was the highest-scoring season in NFL history at 24.8 points per game, a full 1.4 points above the previous record (2013). Yards per play (5.6) were never higher and turnovers per game (1.3) were never lower. We had more first downs per game (21.7) than ever before as teams completed the most passes per game (23.0) at the highest completion percentage (65.2%) ever recorded. That led to the highest passer rating (93.6) for a season and the record for most touchdown passes (871 or 27.2 per team).
We only have complete data for third downs back to 1991, but 2020 saw offenses convert 41.6% of the time on third down, a new record. The only other season over 40% was 1995 (40.1%).
Likewise, I have red zone data going back to the 1999 season. Last season, offenses had more opportunities (1,750), touchdowns (1,071) and the highest red zone touchdown percentage (61.2%) since 1999. It was the first season with over 1,000 red zone touchdowns scored. I added the trend line here, so you can see this has been going up over the years likely due to teams finally going for more fourth downs in the red zone. But things were never better in the red zone for offenses than last year.
From not having a preseason to the quiet sounds of crowd-less stadiums, I definitely believe the pandemic helped produce these record-setting numbers last year. I would expect some regression to the mean in this department, so that could be something to keep in mind when you’re betting on over/unders this September, or on something I’m very interested in researching more: touchdown scorers. Last year, it seemed like Alvin Kamara, Davante Adams, and Tyreek Hill were good for a touchdown almost every week.
Passing yards cooled down a bit in the second half of the season after such a historic pace to start the year. I would keep that in mind for the rookies (Justin Herbert, Joe Burrow, WR Justin Jefferson) from last year, or Dak Prescott’s insane average in Dallas for five games, or the way Russell Wilson started the season, and even the numbers Aaron Rodgers had in his MVP season after years of not playing like that.
Things should get a little more defensive this season, but the game is still undeniably trending towards more offense. The only real hiccup to that could be if a lot of these young quarterbacks fail to pan out while the last few remaining legends soon retire.
One last note: I predicted over/under on each team’s win total at BMR. What I predicted in those articles in July/August may be different from my final W-L prediction in September after sitting down Monday night and going through the schedule like I always do to come up with these final predictions.
1. Kansas City Chiefs (13-4)
BMR Preview: “The Avengers have a Hulk, Vin Diesel has a family, and the Chiefs have Patrick Mahomes.” This was the first team preview I did back in July. I like the preview I wrote here but it contains an error in the very first paragraph that I don’t know how I made. The Chiefs are trying to become the FOURTH team to follow a Super Bowl loss with a Super Bowl win. I had the 71-72 Dolphins and 17-18 Patriots, but I somehow skipped right over the 70-71 Cowboys, who beat those Dolphins before they went on a repeat run.
I covered how the Chiefs did a great job addressing the weakness with the offensive line. It will be interesting to see if that means they run more (and better) this year or not. I also chose Mecole Hardman as the real X-factor in the offense. If he can have a breakout year in replacing Sammy Watkins’ role as the WR2, then this offense could soar to a new level. But given how mistake prone Hardman is, and how he looked at times with Mahomes in the preseason, I’m not confident about that. So, Travis Kelce and Tyreek Hill are going to have to stay healthy for sure.
I also covered how no team has ever won 14 games and then won more the next year in NFL history. Now the Chiefs get a bonus 17th game to try, but I still don’t think they win more than 13 in the regular season.
I went over Kansas City’s historic streak of winning seven straight games by fewer than seven points. The Chiefs finished 9-0 (including playoffs) in games decided by 1-7 points, the best record in the last 20 years.
Usually, those teams regress. Now it’s been pointed out that the teams with the great quarterbacks were fine, and that’s true. But this is also the second year in a row where the Chiefs had a lot of unusual wins. Remember, their whole Super Bowl run in 2019 saw them trail by double digits in every game before winning them all by double digits. Since 2019, the Chiefs are 9-3 when trailing by multiple scores. That is insane and not sustainable, no matter how great Mahomes is.
But as I was saying about this being more than one year, look at the Colts example with Peyton Manning. He led a ton of close wins in 2008 and 2009, which is why he deserved those MVP awards. He had seven comebacks in 2009, an NFL record. But in 2010, he had no comeback wins and the Colts were bounced by the Jets in the wild card round after blowing a late lead. The regression caught up to them.
Keep in mind that the Chiefs were only 10-8 (.556) in these close outcomes in 2018-19, and 10-9 including the playoffs. Going from 10-9 to 9-0 is a huge leap. The Chiefs were one of three teams to not blow a fourth-quarter lead last year. They almost certainly will blow one or more this year. Maybe they play fewer close games overall and win more in dominant fashion. But I don’t think you will see the same close game success for this team this year.
This is the first team in the preview you’re reading but the 32nd recap I’m writing. I wanted to finish up by touching on some things I said over the summer about this team. Some Chiefs fans got all riled up over what I was tweeting in July, but they just don’t understand that I have been very pro-Kansas City in recent years. I make no bones about being a huge fan of Mahomes, who I just ranked as the No. 2 quarterback of the 21st century. I wanted to see them win the Super Bowl again. You’re not going to get me to root against him because you misunderstood my tweets.
But 31-9 was a gut punch, one of the worst Super Bowls I’ve ever seen after the worst postseason I ever covered. Those four weeks soured me so much on football that I basically ignored it for five months as I covered the NBA for the first time in my career. And hey, I somehow went over 60% ATS at picking NBA games. Way better than I am at football. It was a nice escape before I got back into doing football in July.
I hope I’m wrong, but I think the potential for a dynasty for this team may have closed with 31-9. The common link between every NFL dynasty is that they don’t lose games like Super Bowl LV. You don’t lose the game where you can collect your second trophy and then go on to win several more. It just doesn’t happen that way.
The 1961-67 Packers were 5-0 in championship games. The 1970s Steelers and 1980s 49ers were 4-0 in the Super Bowl. The 1992-95 Cowboys and 2001-04 Patriots were 3-0 in the Super Bowl.
You know who loses their shot at a second ring? It’s the teams at the bottom of this table I’ve been keeping to myself since July, which has all the teams who won multiple rings in a five-year window on top. But the bottom includes those famous teams who lost their second shot and never got back like the 1997 Packers with Brett Favre, 2001 Rams with Kurt Warner, 2009 Colts with Peyton Manning, and 2014 Seahawks with Russell Wilson.
Being some of those teams on the bottom is not the worst thing in the world. Joe Gibbs did rebound to win three rings in Washington after that crushing 38-9 Super Bowl loss (sound familiar?) to the Raiders in 1983. But he had to wait until 1987 to get his second, and after the 49ers won back-to-back in 1988-89, it was clear that San Francisco was the team of the decade and not Washington, which is not traditionally thought of as a dynasty for winning with three different quarterbacks from 1982-91.
Now, the counterpoint to all of this is obvious. We’ve only had 55 seasons where a team could win the Super Bowl, a small sample size. There are plenty of firsts to come. Just look at Tampa Bay last year. The Bucs are the first team to trail by 17+ points in five games in a season and still win a Super Bowl. Someone will be the first No. 7 seed to win a Super Bowl. Someone will be the first rookie quarterback to win a Super Bowl. Some day we could even see a team finish 8-9 and win the Super Bowl since that’s possible now. Maybe the standard for a dynasty is changing, and we just finished a decade (2010s) where the same team (New England) remained on top since no one took the throne. And those Patriots went nine seasons (2005-13) without winning a Super Bowl, a period I want to call football heaven now.
However, if I’m just basing things on the NFL history we know, I have a bad feeling about the Chiefs’ future in big games after 31-9. When you consider that Super Bowl LIV is likely a loss too without WASP, you are reminded of just how difficult these championships are to win. The margin is so tiny between doing it and not.
But I’m just following everyone’s lead as expectations are high for Mahomes and the Chiefs to win multiple championships. Not just two either as polls I’ve seen on Twitter have said. People are expecting three or more. That’s the Brady effect, I’d say. The bar has been raised.
In Kansas City’s case, this team is heads and shoulders above the rest of the AFC. The Bills couldn’t beat Kansas City twice last year. The Ravens are 0-3 with Lamar Jackson against them. Those are the main challengers now. With an incredible youth movement going on at quarterback, the league is in a transition period. We are waiting for new powers to rise. The Chiefs have things figured out. They have the best player and one of the best coaches. This is their time to stack Super Bowls before these other teams catch up.
So when you blow a chance like last year, it feels extra worse. You don’t know if you’ll ever get back in this league. Ask Dan Marino, Drew Brees, and yeah, Aaron Rodgers. I think Mahomes will get back pretty soon (see the bottom for prediction). But any invincibility he built up is gone after 31-9. Now we’ll see how he and this team respond after that setback.
I hope it’s the revenge tour of the year.
2. Los Angeles Chargers (10-7)
BMR Preview: I am on the Justin Herbert bandwagon after what he did as a rookie last year. Dak Prescott (2016), Jared Goff (2017), Carson Wentz (2017), Patrick Mahomes (2018), Deshaun Watson (2018), Mitchell Trubisky (2018), Lamar Jackson (2019), and Josh Allen (2019) have all led their teams to double-digit wins and the playoffs in their first or second season since 2016. I have Herbert adding his name to the list, though with the Chiefs in the division, it is still hard to pick the Chargers to go too far this year. Plus, we’re talking about the Chargers. You just know there will be crippling injuries and shocking close losses to fill up a new BINGO card in the Herbert era.
By just the sixth game of the Herbert era, the Chargers blew as many 17-point leads (three) as they did in the entire Drew Brees (2001-05) and Philip Rivers (2006-19) eras. Hopefully with a new coach (Brandon Staley) and fresh eyes along the coaching staff, we’ll see better results this year and get a good season from the Chargers.
3. Denver Broncos (7-10)
BMR Preview: You wish this was Aaron Rodgers, but at least it will be Teddy Bridgewater instead of Drew Lock at quarterback for the Broncos to start the season. That’s what I thought would happen when I wrote this preview, one of the earliest teams I covered.
“Bridgewater gives the Broncos a different style of play. He is often conservative and will take plenty of checkdowns, which will at least cut down on the interceptions after Denver led the league with 23 of them last year. But in three seasons where he was a primary starter, Bridgewater never threw more than 15 touchdowns, which is unheard of in this era. In fact, Bridgewater is one of eight quarterbacks in NFL history to have three seasons with at least 400 pass attempts and no more than 15 touchdown passes. The last quarterback before Bridgewater to do that was Chad Henne.
Finally, the most amusing stat in this competition comes courtesy of Pro Football Reference. In 2020, Lock led all starting quarterbacks with a bad throw on 22.9% of his passes while Bridgewater had the lowest rate of bad throws at 13.0%. The stat is based on poorly aimed throws, excluding spikes and throwaways. If Lock is still reckless with the ball, then the Broncos have a pretty clear choice to make here. Go with the guy who can let the playmakers do the work and not put the defense in bad positions.”
Last year I was off by three games on Denver (8-8 vs. 5-11), the first time I slipped by more than a game on this team. I think with some better health luck and quarterback play, they’ll be in that 7-8 win range at least this year. Teddy did some good things with the Carolina wideouts last year, so it should be nice to see Courtland Sutton and Jerry Jeudy play together.
Also, I am one of the people who thinks the team should have just drafted Justin Fields in April. I’m sure some Denver fans have not been this interested in watching a Bears season since Jay Cutler was shipped there in 2009.
4. Las Vegas Raiders (6-11)
BMR Preview: Head coach Jon Gruden has still not taken a team to the postseason since 2007, and his 57-55 (.509) record in the regular season with the Raiders is the same mediocre record he had as the coach of Tampa Bay (2002-08).You know I’ve never been a fan of Derek Carr, but he had an argument that 2020 was his best season or certainly a top-two season for him along with 2016. The offense should be decent, but the defense still looks weak to me and that’s why I found it hard to find more wins for them on the schedule. Not when I see two playoff-caliber teams in the division, a better Denver team, and the Raiders also have to play the AFC North.
1. Los Angeles Rams (12-5)
BMR Preview: I think it’s cute that Sean McVay and Matthew Stafford are excited that people found stats that show Stafford is very good after throwing an interception in a game. But I’m not sure it really matters how he bounces back from a first-quarter pick when he’s playing a team that is about to finish with five wins on the season. The data I’m interested in with Stafford is that he’s 8-68 (.105) against teams that finish the season with a winning record. He never won multiple games against winning teams in the same season in 12 years with Detroit.
Stafford is 2-62 (.031) when a winning opponent scores more than 17 points against him. Even Jared Goff (12-16 record) has three playoff wins with the Rams when the team allowed at least 20 points. I go over these stats in the BMR preview.
Quarterback moves like this rarely happen, and I am excited to see Stafford out of Detroit and on a team with a coach who is supposed to be great, and a couple of top-tier players sprinkled along some scrub types. The offensive line is going to need a revamping and they’ve already lost Cam Akers (Achilles) in the backfield, so maybe Stafford is just cursed to have a running game. But this really needs to work right away with the team trading away two more first-round picks to get him here.
I think it works enough for a division title in a tough division, and I obviously am predicting Stafford to get multiple wins against winning teams. I just don’t think you can trust him to get three or four in a row in the playoffs, plus the few he’s going to need just to get a good record like 12-5. But that Week 3 game, Buccaneers at Rams, is the one to circle. No team could make a bigger statement this September than the Rams if they win that and get to 3-0. What better way to measure where this team is at than with the defending champions? They beat them last year in Tampa Bay too with Goff throwing over 50 times.
This will be interesting.
2. San Francisco 49ers (11-6)
BMR Preview: I think this is a huge year for Kyle Shanahan and Jimmy Garoppolo to show that 2019 was not a one-year fluke. The San Francisco 49ers have the dubious honor of being the first team in NFL history to sandwich a Super Bowl appearance (2019) in between two seasons with double-digit losses. They can get a pass for 2018 when Garoppolo tore his ACL in the third game. They can get a pass for last year after one of the most injury-plagued seasons on record. But this year we need to see something, and I would still start Garoppolo as I think he has very interesting numbers that they need to explore to see if he can stay healthy and sustain it. Trey Lance is exciting and will be the future of the team after the big move to get him, but he is so raw and has that high bust potential given his inexperience and caliber of competition faced in college. Garoppolo will probably be hurt before Halloween anyway, so it’s a good chance we see Lance in 2021 regardless. But I’m all for starting the season with the veteran and seeing what happens. If they can keep George Kittle, Deebo Samuel and Brandon Aiyuk healthy, then that can be an awesome trio for this offense.
3. Seattle Seahawks (11-6)
BMR Preview: Since drafting Russell Wilson in 2012, the Seahawks are the 19th team in NFL history to have at least nine straight winning seasons. Ten of those first 18 teams extended their streak to 10 seasons or more. Eight teams fell off in Year 10, but those were usually the end of eras.
Maybe the end of the Pete Carroll-Wilson era is afoot, but they’re still together with another new offensive coordinator this year. Russ might still cook, but I keep banging the drum that in Year 10, it’s time for Wilson to start making that change in playing style and take fewer sacks. He has taken over 40 sacks in eight straight seasons, an NFL record. Remarkably, he has never missed a game yet. If Ben Roethlisberger can tone down the sandlot ball and morph into a quarterback who gets rid of the ball super-fast, then I think Wilson has it in him to improve in that area too.
I still love the wide receiver duo of DK Metcalf and Tyler Lockett, and things may be a little deeper this year in that unit. The defense no longer is a threat, but the Seahawks had a very strange season. They went from allowing the third-most points through eight games to the fewest in the last eight. However, a lot of it was schedule based. They couldn’t figure out the Rams either, and with Stafford in town, that could be a tougher team to beat.
The close-game regression is always a worry with this team since I swear Wilson and Carroll get off on playing a close game. The Seahawks went from 29-29 in games decided by 1-to-7 points in Wilson’s first seven seasons to 16-5 in the last two seasons. Which one looks like an outlier to you?
I’ll always trust Wilson, but this team’s act has gotten a bit stale as it still hasn’t advanced to the NFC Championship Game since 2014. That is why, despite a really nice record, I still have them finishing in third place in a tightly contested division. But would it shock me if Stafford and Shanahan disappoint again and the Seahawks still win the NFC West? Not one bit.
4. Arizona Cardinals (9-8)
BMR Preview: This tweet sums it up best the way I find it alarming that the offense did not take a bigger leap in Year 2 after adding DeAndre Hopkins, who played very well.
I am not big on Arizona adding J.J. Watt and A.J. Green as the 2011 draft was a decade ago. Green especially could be problematic if he commands a decent target share and doesn’t play much better than he did last year with the Bengals. But Kyler Murray is a unique talent and I think his health late in the season brought the offense down and caused Arizona to miss the playoffs. Let’s see him stay healthy and improve in his third season. The defense is not bad and getting Chandler Jones back is a big plus, as is getting Matt Prater as the new kicker. They had some big misses in that department last year.
I’m not really loving this team or Kliff Kingsbury as a coach in a tough division race, but I found myself giving them nine wins in the end. Was it enough for the playoffs? See below.
1. Buffalo Bills (12-5)
BMR Preview: The Bills unleashed Josh Allen last year and he rewarded them with a staggeringly great season that will force us to entertain every crappy young quarterback still having a chance to break out in Year 3 because Allen did it in 2020. Thanks, Josh. I hope you got your vaccine because we know your second-best wideout didn’t.
Still, shouldn’t there be some concern for regression here? We know very few teams win 13 games or score 500 points in back-to-back years. A 17th game helps there, but then there’s also this fact with the context that 2020 was a record-breaking year for offenses during the pandemic:
“Ouch, not J.P. But I have good news, Bills fans. I don’t think this is going to be a flash in the pan like 2015 Cam Newton, 2016 Derek Carr, or 2017 Carson Wentz. What makes me a believer in Buffalo’s offense is the way it consistently moved the ball all season. The Bills tied the Chiefs for the NFL lead in first downs (397) and joined the 2012 Patriots as the only two teams in NFL history to have at least 20 first downs in all 16 regular-season games. Buffalo had the fewest punts per drive and the third-lowest rate in three-and-out drives (13.8%).
The Bills converted 49.7% of their third downs to lead the NFL. In the playoffs, the Bills were only 30.6% on third down, so that was disappointing. Still, teams that go on great offensive runs tend to rank highly on third downs each year. With that said, it would not be surprising to see the Bills drop a few spots in third down success.”
Basically, I think the offense will still be one of the best in the league, but you may see the individual numbers go down for Allen and Stefon Diggs as a guy like Gabriel Davis eats more. What concerns me is a middling defense didn’t add much. That could hurt in getting over the Kansas City hump, but they also have to watch out for the Patriots who should be better, and maybe Baltimore will find more of a passing game this year.
Mahomes needs that worthy rival in the AFC or else this is going to get pretty one sided like it did with the Patriots for years. Allen and the Bills could be that team to challenge them, but it’s only going to be a rivalry if they start playing better in those games. Still, this is refreshing as hell to be talking about the Bills and an exciting offense with actual Super Bowl aspirations.
2. New England Patriots (10-7)
BMR Preview: The saddest thing about the 2020 Patriots was that they were too unrecognizable to still hate. One of the main things I wanted to stress in my BMR preview was that the team was not just the 2019 Patriots minus Tom Brady. They were the team most affected by COVID and they lost a ton of snaps and players on both sides of the ball. Here are the stats and a chart I didn’t get to share in that article showing that.
The top 16 players in offensive snaps on the 2019 Patriots played a combined 11,114 snaps for the team that year.
Those same 16 players contributed 3,842 snaps to the 2020 Patriots with nine players not playing a single snap for the team.
The top 16 players in defensive snaps on the 2019 Patriots played a combined 9,855 snaps for the team that year.
Those same 16 players contributed 6,726 snaps to the 2020 Patriots with six of the top 11 players not playing a single snap for the team.
Now with a retooled group of skill players and a rookie QB with insane college stats in Mac Jones, this team could be very competitive again. But I still think Buffalo is the class of the division, which feels so nice to say. I never thought the day would come.
3. Miami Dolphins (8-9)
BMR Preview: Well, I hope the Deshaun Watson trade rumors were always just rumors, because how tone deaf could a team be to entertain that right now? Beyond the trouble Watson could cause in a city like Miami, what about Tua? I’m not a big fan of him either so far, but let’s at least give him this season to see if he can be a franchise player or not.
But given the way the Dolphins relied on turnovers on defense and Ryan Fitzpatrick saving the day a few times, I think this is one of the easiest picks for teams that take a few steps back this year.
Stats to consider: Last year, the Dolphins had some unusual numbers that can largely be explained by turnovers. Miami’s offense finished 22nd in yards, yet the Dolphins finished 15th in points scored. Miami’s defense finished 20th in yards allowed, yet the Dolphins finished sixth in points allowed. If you sum the difference in those rankings of yards and points, the Dolphins finished 21 spots above expectations. That makes the 2020 Dolphins the 18th team since 2002 to finish at least 20 spots above expectations between yards and points. Twelve of those 17 teams won fewer games the following season.
4. New York Jets (4-13)
BMR Preview: I recapped how the Tank for Trevor campaign went awry. You have to appreciate that Adam Gase found a way to win two games and it probably made the team worse for years to come. I am not overly confident with the additions of Robert Saleh and Zach Wilson. Part of that is because it’s the Jets making these moves, but maybe these are the guys who change it all there.
1. Dallas Cowboys (11-6)
BMR Preview: Finally, the Cowboys will be worth watching again. That’s assuming Dak Prescott’s health is fine. He hasn’t had the easiest training camp so far. He was so prolific last year, but again, I wonder how much of that was just the pandemic and defenses being so far behind. I highly doubt he’s going to smash the passing yards per game record, but then again, he did throw for nearly 5,000 yards in 2019. I think CeeDee Lamb will be ready to explode with him in this offense and it’s still going to have to be the offense that carries the team.
Included are some very interesting stats (to me at least) about how Dallas always has to score 30 to win the last two years. There’s never been another team like this for two years.
2. Philadelphia Eagles (8-9)
BMR Preview: I am optimistic about Jalen Hurts, though 8-9 is definitely a hedge on just how much. I’m not ready to buy in like I am with Justin Herbert and the Chargers. The accuracy in limited action last season is worrisome for sure. He only threw 148 passes, but according to Pro Football Reference, Hurts had the highest rate of bad passes (26.7%) by anyone with at least 125 attempts. The next closest quarterback was his new backup, Joe Flacco (23.4%). Worse, only 60.7% of Hurts’ throws were charted as being on-target passes, easily the lowest rate in the league.
Great, just what the Eagles need. An athletic quarterback with questionable accuracy but one hell of a highlight reel. Still, it beats whatever Carson Wentz was doing last year.
3. Washington Football Team (7-10)
BMR Preview: There is a lot to like but little to love with this Washington roster. Ryan Fitzpatrick should be an upgrade at quarterback as no playoff team had worse quarterback play than Washington last year. It also was far from a traditional playoff season at 7-9 in the worst division race in modern history. That schedule had a lot to do with the defense looking as good as it did statistically. The division games should be tougher. The overall schedule should be tougher. With Fitzpatrick’s career struggles in close games – Ron Rivera is no peach there either – I just don’t see this coming together for a winning season and certainly not a playoff trip. Remember, Fitzpatrick has never made the playoffs and Rivera has a losing record in 70% of his seasons.
4. New York Giants (4-13)
BMR Preview: The Giants have a lot of first-round picks on offense but are they legitimately good? That’s a big part of this preview. Seriously, if anyone can explain how Evan Engram made the Pro Bowl at tight end last year, I’d love to hear it.
If Daniel Jones doesn’t take a big step forward (without tripping over himself) in his third season, then it’s time to look for a new quarterback. They could have the worst situation in the division if he doesn’t pan out this year. I also think like Washington, the defense took advantage of a soft schedule.
1. Tennessee Titans (10-7)
BMR Preview: This team has regression red flags everywhere from all the close wins last season to Derrick Henry’s huge workload to the red zone offense efficiency after adding a receiver (Julio Jones) who never catches touchdowns to the defense being horrifically bad on third down. Actually, that last one should be positive regression as it can’t get worse than allowing 51.9% on third down, the only defense over 50% since 1991.
But it’s great to play in the AFC South right now. Houston and Jacksonville alone could be good for four wins. Plus, this is the first season in a long time where you can say the Titans are going in with the best quarterback. Oddly enough, Ryan Tannehill is maybe my most trusted asset on the Titans right now.
2. Indianapolis Colts (8-9)
BMR Preview: As you may expect, I wrote a scathing but factual account of Carson Wentz’s time in Philadelphia and how it got Doug Pederson fired. Now, he reunites with Frank Reich, his coordinator in 2017 and the guy who was allegedly the brains of the operation that year for the Super Bowl-winning Eagles. If he can’t fix Wentz, then no one can. Even I was surprised at how bad last season went for him.
I think Reich, who has had a different QB1 every year, will find a way to get better play out of Wentz. They’ll lean on Jonathan Taylor for sure. But a lot of injuries and some COVID nonsense with this team going into Week 1. I think playing in this division is their best hope of having a shot at the playoffs.
3. Jacksonville Jaguars (4-13)
BMR Preview: I’m already a bit worried about Urban Meyer wasting Trevor Lawrence on his rookie contract. This regime just feels like it will reek of nonsensical, nepotism-inspired moves. At least Meyer has shown he’ll cut ties quickly if you make him look bad as his strength & conditioning coach did as well as Tim Tebow’s performance as a “blocking tight end” in the preseason. But this team is still down bad and I don’t see much happening this year.
4. Houston Texans (3-14)
BMR Preview: Well, I didn’t hold back on Deshaun Watson in that preview or on here when I ranked him as the 22nd-best quarterback of the 21st century. Twenty-two, one point for each of his accusers of sexual assault. As a fan, I’m really frustrated about this development in his career, which could have been Hall of Fame bound, and the league’s slow response to it all. He can’t possibly play this year, can he? I hope we hear his side of the story some day and he takes accountability.
Even with Watson, this team went 4-12 last year. There was never a ton of hope for something great with Watson. Now with Tyrod Taylor, I think three wins is looking like a lot. I was more optimistic when I wrote the BMR preview. This team just has nothing to be excited about anymore. DeAndre Hopkins is gone. J.J. Watt is gone. Watson might be done. David Culley is just being set up for failure, and that might be the only reason they hired someone so old and underwhelming.
It’s just sad.
1. Tampa Bay Buccaneers (15-2)
BMR Preview: I detail the story of how the Buccaneers went from a 7-5 underachiever to a playoff overachiever to what should be the favorite to repeat as Super Bowl champion. It is remarkable to see a team return every starter from a Super Bowl winning roster. Most of the depth is back as well, and we know this team had one of the deepest receiving corps in recent years. The Bucs were the most balanced of the final four teams last year and that’s why they won the Super Bowl. They could defend and get turnovers and set up Tom Brady on short fields at a rate we haven’t seen in the playoffs all these years.
Then the masterclass coaching job in the Super Bowl against the Chiefs. Patrick Mahomes could play 300 games and that may be the only time he gets beat 31-9 and doesn’t score a touchdown. The Bucs also brought back both coordinators, Byron Leftwich and Todd Bowles, as well.
The biggest weakness this team has is that the quarterback is 44 years old, and the cliff could be there any week for him to walk off. Guys like Vinny Testaverde and Warren Moon played at that age, but it was a few games. This is a 20 or 21-game season the Bucs expect to have Brady for. But if he stays healthy again, they are absolutely loaded and should challenge for the best offense this year. Still, we know the best chance of repeating lies in staying balanced and having one of the best defenses too.
As disgusting as it sounds, I wouldn’t rule out a 20-0 season for this team. You know Brady is still sour over 2007 and a perfect season is about the only thing his resume can’t show. They should be favored in every game except maybe the Week 3 game in Los Angeles against the Rams.
Wait, a Matthew Stafford-led team is going to derail this team? Please. That’s exactly why I’m so on board with Tampa marching right back to the Super Bowl. You think Matthew Stafford and Ryan Fitzpatrick, quarterbacks who are a combined 17-122-1 against teams with a winning record, are going to help the Rams and Washington beat this team in a big game? I mean, just look at this:
That’s a quarter of the NFC now. Green Bay always gets smacked around by teams like this and hasn’t been back to the Super Bowl in a decade. Seattle can’t even get back to the NFC Championship Game since Malcolm Butler happened. No more Drew Brees in New Orleans. The Falcons, only if we could STOP THE COUNT before the fourth quarter. Where’s the threat? A Dallas team with Mike McCarthy and no defense? We’ll see that litmus test Thursday night.
I think it has to be an AFC team that knocks them out. If not the Chiefs, then it’s on Buffalo or Baltimore. We’ll see Bills at Buccaneers in Week 14.
The NFC is usually a surprise team at the top every year, but while this Tampa Bay run is not going to be a long one, it sure looks like it’s going to continue this year.
2. New Orleans Saints (8-9)
BMR Preview: I’m glad Sean Payton is giving Jameis Winston a chance to start. We’ll still see Taysom Hill of course, but Winston deserves this. It’s a huge opportunity for him to carve out a decent career after a stint in Tampa Bay that did not work out as planned. He is talented and obviously can move the ball at a high level, but turnovers have always been the problem. Now he has a better team around him, but I think it’s still a given there will be more sacks and turnovers in this offense without Drew Brees.
Time and time again, we see teams falter after losing such a great quarterback. Maybe the Saints won’t go all the way back to their 7-9 days with horrible defense, but until I see that Winston is the real deal in Payton’s offense, I am going with a step back to 8-9. This is a big opportunity for Payton too to show that Brees wasn’t the real offensive genius in New Orleans all those years. Winston is no slouch, but he needs to play more disciplined than he did in Tampa Bay. I’m excited to see this experiment.
3. Atlanta Falcons (8-9)
BMR Preview: No more Dan Quinn jokes, but no one can say he didn’t make history in his time in Atlanta. Fired after five games last year, but what a gem they were with two blown leads of 15+ points in the fourth quarter in back-to-back weeks. The 2020 Falcons were only outscored by 18 points on the season, the best scoring differential in NFL history for a team that finished 4-12 or worse.
I have higher hopes in Arthur Smith than most of the rookie coaches this year. I think he’ll be good for Matt Ryan and the offense, which is going to miss Julio Jones. But Calvin Ridley is a legit No. 1 receiver. Kyle Pitts is the highest drafted tight end ever. I have some good stats in the BMR preview about how hard it has been for rookie tight ends to dominate. He will try to join Mike Ditka as only the second one to break 1,000 yards as a rookie. He is in a great situation to do it.
4. Carolina Panthers (4-13)
BMR Preview: The Panthers were 0-9 at game-winning drive opportunities last year, tying the 2008 Lions for the worst record in the last 20 years. This sounds like a good chance for regression, but the Panthers have replaced Teddy Bridgewater with Sam Darnold, who I don’t believe in. I think the team is going to get worse despite Christian McCaffrey coming back.
1. Baltimore Ravens (12-5)
BMR Preview: I feel like I’m higher on Baltimore than most, but I just think this team is unique and built to beat most teams in the NFL. We know which ones they struggle with, namely the Chiefs. But they’ll have another shot at them in Week 2 at home. That’s the biggest one of the season as far as I’m concerned. We need to see something more from Lamar Jackson in that game. Even if he doesn’t win it, at least go toe to toe with Mahomes for a few quarters. The Ravens have gone from losing 27-24 in overtime, to 33-28 in Arrowhead, to 34-20 at home last year as the gap between Jackson and Mahomes grows in those games.
I keep pointing out how Jackson has led the Ravens to their lowest scoring total of the season in three straight postseasons, something you just don’t see from a great quarterback that often. That will need to change, but let’s get through this regular season first and worry about that later. The Ravens are losing running backs left and right, but I still think the running game is going to be successful and the defense will be good. The main thing is on Jackson to take this passing offense to the next level.
2. Pittsburgh Steelers (9-8)
BMR Preview: All the expectations are for the Steelers to fall apart this year, but I still don’t see it. I think people overlook the struggle the schedule changes caused last year. The Steelers weren’t supposed to have a Week 4 bye, but the Titans had a COVID problem. They ended up playing the COVID Ravens on a Wednesday afternoon in a game that needed multiple reschedules, and then they played five days later on a Monday against Washington, their first loss of the season after an 11-0 start. Then they had to go to Buffalo that Sunday night. It was three games over 12 days for a team that had an early bye.
Then when you have maybe the most one-dimensional offense in modern NFL history, those excessive number of throws are going to bother a 38-year-old quarterback who had elbow surgery a year earlier. I think the Steelers were just tired in December, they had flaws they never addressed, and they played horrible football for a few weeks.
But the comeback win against the Colts was vintage Roethlisberger. The playoff game against Cleveland was the worst first quarter start by a team in playoff history, down 28-0. I wrote all about the playoff failures of this team in this era here after the game. Same old Steelers.
Najee Harris should give the offense more balance. The offensive line can’t be any worse than it was last year, and it is all new. Roethlisberger gets rid of the ball so fast now that it can negate that weakness. I actually hope he holds onto the ball a little longer this year so they can get back to some big plays. The constant short throws and drag routes on 3rd-and-7 just have to go. But I think that’s still going to be an issue. At least the defense should be adequate as long as T.J. Watt gets his contract and doesn’t hold out.
The schedule looks tough, but I’m going to trust that the team that hasn’t had a losing season in 17 years still stays one game ahead of that mark. It could be the swansong for Roethlisberger, who won’t want to go out on a losing note.
3. Cleveland Browns (9-8)
BMR Preview: The 2020 Browns are only the second team after the 2012 Colts to win 11 games with a negative scoring differential. Coach of the Year Kevin Stefanski felt his impact in his first year as Baker Mayfield and the offense powered the team forward to their best season since the days of Marty Schottenheimer and Bernie Kosar.
Yet, it still feels shaky to trust them to do it again or get better. I think the Browns will be competitive on a weekly basis, but the defense still looks too flawed to slow down teams like the Chiefs, Bills, and Ravens, or the teams you have to beat to get far in the playoffs right now. Plus Mayfield still has to prove he has consistency, and he has yet to develop a great connection with Odell Beckham Jr., who missed most of last year’s success. Myles Garrett is great on defense but I’d just like to see them have more there.
4. Cincinnati Bengals (6-11)
BMR Preview: It would be hard to pick head coach Zac Taylor out of a lineup of Costco cashiers, let alone pin down the identity of his football team. Last year, Joe Burrow threw the ball a ton. I picked up some Sam Bradford vibes from it all, but he looked better than Bradford did to me. Still, I’m a bit worried about him in this offense after he tore his ACL and the offensive line continues to look bad. I’m hoping to see more big plays from him this year after they upgraded the receivers. A.J. Green just didn’t have it anymore last year.
But with Taylor, it’s hard to see this team winning. Predicting them to win six games with a coach who is 6-25-1 feels generous to me.
1. Green Bay Packers (12-5)
BMR Preview: No team in NFL history has won 13 games in three straight seasons. The Packers are on the doorstep after going 13-3 in each of Matt LaFleur’s first two seasons. Both ended in a loss in the NFC Championship Game, but they were different paths to get there. Last year, Prime Aaron Rodgers returned and won his third MVP. It was unexpected since we hadn’t seen that guy for an extended period since 2014, and it’s not like the Packers added a ton of different talent on offense. I don’t remember anyone saying Jimmy Graham was holding them back in 2019 and tight end Robert Tonyan would be the answer. So, I would caution some regression there on offense.
As for defense, the Packers have a new coordinator (Joe Barry) with a bad track record and they brought back 14 of the 15 defenders who played at least 340 snaps, including playoff scapegoat Kevin King. I always say it’s the same thing every year for the Packers, but this is a little too on the nose. They even brought back slot receiver Randall Cobb to the offense in getting ready for Rodgers’ Last Dance.
The Packers have been swept out of the playoffs seven times since 2012, including each of the last two years by the 2019 49ers and 2020 Buccaneers. The good news? Tampa Bay isn’t on the schedule this year. But Green Bay is probably going to have to step up and beat a team like that if it wants to get back to another Super Bowl in this closing Rodgers window.
2. Minnesota Vikings (9-8)
BMR Preview: This was one of my favorite paragraphs in any of these previews this year:
“Kirk Cousins is an absolutely fitting 51-51-2 as a starter in the regular season (plus 1-2 in the playoffs). Since 2015, his records have been 9-7, 8-7-1, 7-9, 8-7-1, 10-5, and 7-9. It is as if he is incapable of straying more than a game from .500 or the Earth will spin off its axis. The one time he did in 2019, the world was thrown into a global pandemic. That is just the facts.”
I have a lot of good Cousins stats in here. The team really does seem like it can not stray too far from .500 with him. Last year, the Vikings had a lot of defensive injuries, leading to a horrible unit. Of all the teams in the league that have a shot at vastly improving their defense, I’d put Minnesota at No. 1 on the list given how many different and better players will take the field this year. The offense still obviously has some weapons, though I would caution that Justin Jefferson may not be able to improve on such a sensational rookie season with 1,400 yards. Plus, if Jefferson or Adam Thielen gets hurt, I’m not sure what this team will do at receiver. It’s not deep at all and even Kyle Rudolph is gone at tight end and Irv Smith was lost to injury.
But I came up with 9-8 in the end. Is that enough for the playoffs as a No. 7 seed? See below.
3. Chicago Bears (8-9)
BMR Preview: Nothing like dangling Justin Fields in the preseason and giving us Andy Dalton in prime time against Aaron Donald in Week 1. The Ginger Snaps won’t last past Week 3, right? That’s my thought on when we see Fields take over, which will definitely happen this year. I’m not sure why Matt Nagy is delaying the inevitable, but that’s why he’s not considered a top-tier coach despite not having a losing record yet. But I didn’t think Chicago did enough to make the defense better after a subpar year for that unit. The schedule is also really tough, so 8-9 is a gut pick that they’ll just be a mediocre team who won’t hog up a No. 7 seed this year.
4. Detroit Lions (4-13)
BMR Preview: While Matt Patricia always looked like a coach for a fictional New England football team on Family Guy, Dan Campbell enters with his own cartoonish vibe – somewhere between South Park’s PC Principal and a jock in Revenge of the Nerds.
I don’t know how long the Campbell era will last, but it sure could be hilarious. I probably give Jared Goff more credit than most, but I don’t think this is a good fit for him. Moving on from Matthew Stafford after a dozen years of trying to make it work was definitely the right move. The draft picks should help the Lions in their search for their next quarterback.
1. Kansas City (13-4)
2. Buffalo (12-5)
3. Baltimore (12-5)
4. Tennessee (10-7)
5. New England (10-7)
6. Los Angeles (10-7)
7. Pittsburgh (9-8)
Wild Card Saturday games decided by three points could become a Josh Allen tradition at this rate. The Steelers barely edged out Cleveland for the final wild card spot, but they drop another one in Buffalo. The Ravens get some revenge for 2018 by beating the Chargers while Mike Vrabel improves to 2-0 vs. Bill Belichick in the playoffs. But as the AFC rarely likes to change, we again see the Chiefs beat the Titans and the Bills beat the Ravens, setting up a rematch of last year’s AFC Championship Game. Once again, it’s Mahomes over Allen, sending the Chiefs back to the Super Bowl for a third year in a row.
1. Tampa Bay (15-2)
2. Green Bay (12-5)
3. Los Angeles (12-5)
4. Dallas (11-6)
5. San Francisco (11-6)
6. Seattle (11-6)
7. Arizona (9-8)
Wow, it really worked out to get all four NFC West teams in the tournament. I do not feel confident about that, but I had 9-8 Arizona and 9-8 Minnesota, and since I have Arizona beating the Vikings in Week 2, that’s the tie-breaker. Let’s roll with it. I have Arizona losing in Green Bay, Rams beating Seattle again for Stafford’s first playoff win (fitting since his first big win of career was vs. Seattle), and I’ll take Dallas over the 49ers. Then it’s the opener rematch with Dallas losing again in Tampa Bay. Rams lose again in Green Bay. The Packers can’t solve Tampa again on the road in a game not even as close as last year’s finish. That sets up our rematch.
I feel good about four new division winners and five new playoff teams, but damn if these games playing out so much like last year doesn’t bug me. I have six playoff rematches from last year in here (BAL-BUF, BUF-KC, SEA-LAR, LAR-GB, GB-TB, KC-TB).
SUPER BOWL LVI
Tampa Bay 31, Kansas City 27
At least this one won’t be played in Tampa Bay and the Chiefs shouldn’t have a ravaged offensive line this time.
Can he finally just retire after this one? Eight Is Enough was a TV show that debuted in 1977, the year Tom Brady was born. I hope that’s the universe’s sign telling him to take a f’n hint.
It’s over. The NFL was able to complete the first – and hopefully last – pandemic regular season on Sunday. Is it asterisk worthy? There are definitely some fishy, eye-popping numbers in a season with historic offensive production, but more on that later this week. As for an asterisk, I guess we’ll see what kind of postseason we get as the virus continues to mutate and increase in spread. However, only a couple of the 256 games this season were a total sham, including a Ravens-Steelers game that might have had much larger implications if it was played at a later date like next week.
Then again, the league greatly weakened the No. 2 seed with the new playoff format, and home-field advantage has never meant less than it does right now.
I am nervous and excited as hell at the same time about where things are headed, which is the perfect summary of how I feel about 2021 in general. But before we move onto the playoffs, let’s recap how things finished around the eight divisions in Week 17.
The best drama of the day came from the AFC South. Even though the Titans were not in any danger of missing the playoffs after Miami lost, the division title was still up for grabs as Deshaun Watson made the Titans work hard for a win while the Colts teased Jacksonville in a 28-14 final that was stuck on 20-14 for far too long. Seriously, the Colts were up 20-0 and almost blew this one to Mike Glennon. I’m a bit concerned about this team, but it’s not like I expect them to have a huge lead in Buffalo on Saturday. They are going to have to be sharper than the last two weeks. Just getting by a Jacksonville team that lost 15 straight is not going to impress anyone, but crashing the Buffalo parade early sure would.
So basically, the two good teams beat the two shitty teams with Derrick Henry (250 yards) and Jonathan Taylor (253 yards) running wild. Performances of 250 rushing yards are rare, but we had two on the same day from the same division. They are the 13th and 14th such games since 1950. The Titans are the first offense in NFL history to have a 250-yard rusher and a 150-yard receiver (A.J. Brown) in the same game. It was also a historic game in that Brandin Cooks had 166 receiving yards for Houston.
The big-time players showed up in this one, but it was Brown’s 52-yard catch that set up the game-winning field goal with no time left. That is how you get into game-winning field goal range in eight seconds. It was the most fitting way for the Titans to win the division in a season where Ryan Tannehill has led the most fourth-quarter comebacks (five) and game-winning drives (six) in the league.
Henry needed 223 rushing yards to get to 2,000 on the season and he got 250. This offense is absurdly great at times and I cannot wait to see this matchup with Baltimore, a playoff rematch from a year ago that this season definitely needs.
NFC East Total Landscaping Division Champions: The Team with No Name
We did not make history with a 6-10 division winner, but the NFC East sure did try its damnedest on Sunday to deliver.
First up was Dallas at the Giants, a team the Cowboys had a seven-game winning streak against and usually score 30+ points on. Unfortunately, Andy Dalton must have gotten the memo that this was a de facto playoff game that his team could not lose or they would be eliminated from the division race. In true January Andy Dalton fashion, he finished with no touchdown passes, a crucial interception in the final two minutes, and the Cowboys lost 23-19. Dalton was not protected well and took six sacks, including a big one two plays before his interception in the end zone. Wayne Gallman then fumbled for the Giants, but saved his ass by recovering it to run out the clock on Dallas’ season.
So Jason Garrett, the Giants’ offensive coordinator, gets the last laugh for 2020 as this was the game that sent the Cowboys home.
Over the last two seasons, Dallas is 0-16 when not scoring at least 30 points and 14-2 when scoring 30 or more points. There has never been a split like that in NFL history over multiple seasons. Teams who don’t score 30 points win about 36% of their games since 2019. The Cowboys’ 14 straight wins with at least 30 points in each is the longest such streak in NFL history. This team simply cannot win without scoring a lot of points.
Does that really change even if Dak Prescott is back healthy in 2021? No, more changes need to happen too. This roster does not work.
Alas, the Giants did not turn this win into a division title after the Washington Football Team was able to squeeze out a 20-14 stinker in Philadelphia on Sunday night. The second half, which only produced a Washington field goal on a 1-yard drive, was one of the worst halves of football I was subjected to all season. Doug Pederson basically threw in the towel by benching starter Jalen Hurts for backup Nate Sudfeld for the whole fourth quarter of a one-score game. It was shameless tanking. If he’s going to play a bad quarterback with no future in Philadelphia, he could have just started Carson Wentz.
Alex Smith had a lot of rough moments and was again carried by the defense to a victory and home playoff game next week. For as much as people like the courageous stories behind Ron Rivera’s cancer battle and Smith’s rehab, this team is one of the worst to watch play football this year. Now we have to see them host Tampa Bay on Saturday night.
Just the thought of a Washington-Tampa Bay game gives me PTSD to the 2005 NFC Wild Card matchup, which had to be one of the worst playoff games ever played. Mark Brunell got a win for Washington in a game where he completed 7-of-15 passes for 41 yards and an interception. I watched the game in freezing cold temperatures as the furnace gave out that weekend. The only thing that could have made the viewing experience worse was if Tom Brady was playing the game and the announcers were up his ass over it.
That awaits us Saturday night. At least I should have heat this time. But then again, if Brunell can win a playoff game doing that and Brady could lose one to Joe Flacco (2009 Ravens) where he threw for 34 yards and a pick, then anything is possible this week.
NFC South: Eat the Rich
In another case of the top of the division making short work of the bottom-feeders, the Saints and Buccaneers cruised to wire-to-wire victories over the Panthers and Falcons on Sunday. Not even losing Alvin Kamara and the running back room to COVID could stop the Saints from throwing in Ty Montgomery and getting 105 yards on the ground out of him in a 33-7 win, reportedly the final regular season game in Drew Brees’ stellar career. Brees finished with three more touchdown passes and enough completions (needed eight) to Emmanuel Sanders to earn the receiver a $500,000 bonus.
Tampa Bay showed even more gall in getting to milestone numbers for its loaded receiving corps, but that came at a price when Mike Evans dropped a touchdown and hyperextended his knee after hitting his benchmark. His status for the playoffs is uncertain but he appears to have dodged the worst of it. Evans is the first receiver in NFL history to have 1,000 yards receiving in his first seven seasons, but this was the first time he ever needed all 16 games to cross the mark.
You might think the Evans scare would knock some sense into them, but that didn’t stop Tom Brady and Antonio Brown from connecting three more times with the game well decided – up 44-27 at the 2:14 mark – just so the receiver could get a $250,000 bonus. It is the only time in the last 20 years where an offense started a drive pass-pass-pass with a three-score lead in the final four minutes.
Maybe the Buccaneers would have done better than a fifth seed in a weak conference had this connection been stronger against better opponents. As it stands, the Jets (two) have more wins against 2020 playoff teams than the Buccaneers (one).
Now Brady will start a playoff run on the road for the first time in his career, and he gets to do it in a crowd-less stadium for a nameless 7-9 Washington team that came out of the worst division since the merger.
Play us off, Rod…
AFC East: The Right Stuff
The Buffalo Bills (13-3) completed their best season since the Super Bowl years by going 6-0 against the AFC East and eliminating Miami from the playoffs in a 56-26 rout. Josh Allen and other starters could have rested the whole game, but they played a half and put up a commanding 28-6 lead before every other phase of the team stepped up with four more touchdowns in the second half.
We knew one of the five 10-5 teams in the AFC was going to be kept out of the playoffs, and Miami was the only underdog against the spread. Sure enough, the Bills got the dominant win and Miami’s season is over. It’s fitting really because Miami was the weakest contender of the five. The switch to Tua Tagovailoa at quarterback did not serve the Dolphins well enough this season, and I think this will cost Brian Flores the Coach of the Year award. Ryan Fitzpatrick was out this week with COVID, but maybe things would have gone differently had he remained the starter. Tua really struggled on Sunday with 58 pass attempts and three interceptions, even after Buffalo was playing backups.
The Bills are clearly in the best shape in this division. The Patriots pulled away from the Jets in the fourth quarter in a 28-14 win as Cam Newton had one of his few good passing games of the year. Is it his last game with the team? Pretty likely, and certainly it’s the last game for Adam Gase in New York. Now if only this team didn’t bother to beat the Rams and Browns, they would be 0-16 and have their choice of head coach and the attractive option of drafting Trevor Lawrence with the top pick. But the Jets are almost never on the right side of history.
NFC West: Goff Clap
Russell Wilson may have saved his best fourth-quarter comeback of 2020 for Week 17, rallying the Seahawks from a 10-point deficit to a 26-23 win against the 49ers, who were very competitive in the final weeks of the season. But go figure, another blown lead and close loss for the Kyle Shanahan era.
Meanwhile, the closest thing to a de facto playoff game between both teams was my expected shitshow between the Rams and Cardinals. It ended up being the eighth 18-7 final score in NFL history, which is a surprisingly high number to me. More surprising than the final was the leading passer for each team: Chris Streveler for the Cardinals and John Wolford for the Rams. When I saw that Streveler threw an early touchdown pass, my first thought was the Cardinals tried a fake field goal and a holder or random player threw the score. I never heard of this player in my life, and Wolford was another unknown to me coming into this one.
We knew coming in that Jared Goff was out with an injured thumb and Kyler Murray was banged up. Murray started and finished, but for a large chunk in between it was Streveler at quarterback. Go figure, the game’s only offensive touchdown was a 14-yard drive set up by Wolford’s interception. The Rams came back thanks to a safety and pick-six.
The quarterbacks in this game were so jacked up that even Boomer Esiason replaced Tony Romo in the booth for CBS due to COVID. Esiason seemed more impressed than anyone with Wolford’s play. I guess given the circumstances and lack of experience, he was okay? He led the team in rushing with 56 yards. He threw for 231 yards and only took two sacks. It was a more mobile Jared Goff-type performance on one of his basic bitch days. In the end, the Rams scored three field goals on 10 drives and were fortunate that the Cardinals were in worse offensive shape than they were. Larry Fitzgerald didn’t even play in what could have been his final game due to injury, and now the Cardinals (8-8) are out of the playoffs.
Sean McVay certainly owns the Cardinals, but we’ll see if he can find his success again with the Seahawks in a third meeting next week. After getting so much praise early in the season, this division really limped across the finish line to get two teams in the tournament.
AFC North: Browns vs. Big Brother
The Steelers-Browns game went about as I expected. Even though the Steelers were missing most of their best players, they weren’t just going to lay down and let Cleveland get a big win to make the playoffs and finish 11-5 for the first time since 1994. Mason Rudolph showed some of his usual lack of pocket awareness, but he converted several third downs and tested the Browns deep with success. Even after Pittsburgh fell behind 24-9 a play into the fourth quarter, Rudolph led two touchdown drives, but missed on the game-tying two-point conversion. The Browns got the one first down needed to run out the clock and secure the 24-22 win.
These teams will meet on Sunday night, meaning it will be the Steelers the Browns have to get past in the playoffs for the third straight postseason after losing to their hated rival in 1994 and 2002. I may end up having to write two previews for this game, so I’ll save my thoughts for later this week, but I like the prospects of the Steelers in that game with their starters back.
Then there is Baltimore, the scariest 11-5 team in the league with the best scoring differential (+165) in football again. How absurd were the Ravens against Cincinnati? They were up 38-3 going into the fourth quarter and basically called off the dogs, finishing with 404 rushing yards, the most in the NFL since the 2000 Bengals had 407 against Denver.
Baltimore could be the most fascinating story this postseason as a legit contender to win it all, or it could flame out again in the playoffs and to the Titans again.
NFC North: Bears Back In
The Chicago Bears had a chance to enter the playoffs on a four-game winning streak with confidence if they could knock off the Packers and prove they haven’t just been scoring on bad teams lately.
They flopped again, going down in a 35-16 loss and only backing into the playoffs at 8-8 because of Arizona’s collapse. The 19 and 16-point losses to the Packers this year are Chicago’s worst margins of defeat in 2020. However, this one felt closer than last time despite the final score. The Bears were down 21-16 and 25 yards away from the end zone in the fourth quarter before failing on a 4th-and-1 pass. With nine minutes left, the Bears had their second dropped interception of the day thrown by Aaron Rodgers. More than five minutes later, the Packers were back in the end zone and then added a fifth touchdown after Chicago’s second turnover of the game.
Once again, the Chicago defense could not create splash plays against the Packers, allowing five touchdowns on seven drives. Meanwhile, the Chicago offense was 5-of-6 on fourth down, but that one miss in the fourth quarter hurt. Chicago actually played into Green Bay’s hands a bit with a game that featured very few big plays despite each team having a 50-yard pass play. Green Bay’s second-longest gain of the day was only 17 yards. The Bears only had two plays gain more than 14 yards. Chicago tried to dink and dunk with Trubisky on these long drives that also featured a lot of David Montgomery runs (3.1 YPC on 22 carries), which helped shrink the game, but it also led to too many fourth downs and not enough touchdowns. The Bears were 1-for-5 at scoring in the red zone.
I really hope the Bears do not end Drew Brees’ career in New Orleans next weekend, especially since it sets up another Bears-Packers game. We don’t need a third one of these. The Bears just do not have it against their hated rival, no matter what type of game they play against them.
In the Hollow Shootout of the Week, the Vikings took care of Detroit 37-35. The 2020 Lions allowed 519 points, the second-highest mark in NFL history between the 1981 Colts (533) and the 2008 Lions (517) of 0-16 fame.
Kirk Cousins was 0-22 as a starter in his career when his team allowed more than 30 points, but he has a win now. We’ll have to see if the final snap of Matthew Stafford’s Detroit career is an inaccurate miss on a game-tying two-point conversion attempt before his defense failed to get the ball back one more time.
AFC West: Boo-Urns
The least eventful division on Sunday was the AFC West with the Broncos and Raiders having an old-fashioned shootout that was ultimately meaningless. The fact that Denver had field goals of 70 and 63 yards (to win the game) blocked might tell you all you need to know about that one, a 32-31 comeback win by the Raiders to finish 8-8.
Then there’s the Chargers-Chiefs finale, won 38-21 by the Chargers. This one personally ruined my Sunday, and it’s not just because we didn’t get to see Patrick Mahomes or any of the interesting players on the Chiefs play. It’s because I put way too much trust in the Chargers to fill out their BINGO card with a performance that shouldn’t have blown away the Chiefs even if they were playing heavy backups. I lost quite the potential winnings on this game.
I was worried this meaningless game for the Chiefs would end all of their best streaks, but it only ended up taking out the record one of 60 straight games without losing by more than eight points. I guess we’ll have to put that one in the context of Mahomes from now on.
By resting, Mahomes missed out on leading the league in passing yards, joining Drew Brees as the only quarterbacks with multiple seasons of 5,000 yards/40 TD passes, and becoming the first quarterback to win 18 games and a championship in the same season. Achieving that in a 17 or 18-game regular season wouldn’t be as impressive, as this was the end of the 16-game era. The 2020 Chiefs should still have the record for most yards per drive at over 43.
Alas, the rest is for the postseason where the Chiefs have their ultimate goal still in front of them. It is just a bit of a bummer to see a throwaway game like this one. It was not a good showing by the Chiefs, and neither was the 17-14 escape win over the Falcons last week. Now they will go on a bye while these other AFC teams are in playoff mode for a few weeks now and competing this weekend in the wild card.
If the Steelers take care of the Browns and the Bills take care of the Colts, the Chiefs could have to start this title defense with a Tennessee or Baltimore team looking to punch them in the mouth and avenge past losses. That is a tough, physical draw after weeks off. I know Mahomes is different and Andy Reid has the great bye success, but these playoffs are guaranteed to be a bigger challenge than a year ago when the Chiefs still had to rally from double-digit deficits in all three playoff games.
My Preseason Predictions
Finally, something I am always quick to recap is seeing how my preseason predictions for team final records fared. I knew this would be a challenging season with COVID, a lot of quarterback movement, and the lack of a real offseason. My pick of Dallas making the Super Bowl in the NFC certainly did not pan out, and that was probably going to be the case even if Dak Prescott stayed healthy. However, I’m still on track for the Chiefs repeating, but let’s see how I did with all 32 teams.
As it turns out, this was my worst year of predicting since 2013, but not by much. I was off by an average of 2.78 wins. I have had some years before where I was off by 2.75 wins. A good year is 2.1 or 2.2. The 2019 season was one where I was only off by 2.16 wins. At least I was not off by more than six games for anyone this time.
I did not foresee Miami and Cleveland having this much success this season, which is why I think Kevin Stefanski should win the Coach of the Year award. I also obviously was disappointed by the Vikings and Texans in addition to the Cowboys. Even just those four very winnable division games the Texans had against the Colts and Titans could have made a huge difference for my predictions (2.78 down to 2.53).
But we’ll get into the close game summary of 2020 very soon. That is where teams like Houston, Atlanta, and Philadelphia flopped the hardest. Also, at least I can say I nailed Tampa Bay’s record. Now if only I could nail their postseason prediction later this week, but that is also to come.
Saints at Buccaneers: STOP THE COUNT, THEY’RE DEAD!
Wow, that was insane.
With the NFC West regressing, Seattle not having to play GB/TB/NO this year, the NFC East’s historic sucking, and the Packers in stasis without any real tough games left, you could easily argue this Saints-Buccaneers game was the biggest NFC matchup in the 2020 regular season. The winner would move into first place with Tampa Bay eying a No. 1 seed thanks to destroying Green Bay.
But if you thought that 38-10 rout of Green Bay was what made Tampa Bay the Super Bowl favorite in the NFC (if not NFL), then where are you now after the Saints (6-2) handed them a 38-3 home loss that was the biggest ass kicking of the season?
The 35-point margin is the largest halfway through 2020.
This was an absolutely unreal performance by the Saints on offense and defense. When Tampa Bay crushed Green Bay, it was literally a meltdown by Aaron Rodgers. He essentially threw two pick-sixes (one returned to the 2) and just crumbled from there. This game, it was pure domination. The Saints started with four touchdowns on five drives, only getting stopped when Jared Cook lost a fumble at the 2 after trying too hard to score. Meanwhile, Tom Brady came out ice cold and had four three-and-outs before he threw the first of his three interceptions on the night. Rob Gronkowski looked awful, Mike Evans struggled again with the Saints, and Antonio Brown (31 yards) was not much of a factor in his debut. Brown did at least break up a pick or else Brady would have had a four-interception night.
The Buccaneers finished with 194 yards, were stopped in a goal-to-go situation for the first time all year, and were 1-for-9 on third down (0-for-3 on fourth down). Even when it felt like the Saints were keeping the door open for a comeback, namely Cook’s fumble and his third-down drop that led to a field goal try instead of a touchdown, Brady and the Bucs never threatened. Their only points came on a cheap field goal late in the fourth quarter to avoid a 38-0 shutout.
Tampa Bay set an NFL record with just 5 rushes, and one of those was a kneeldown by backup Blaine Gabbert to end the game. The Buccaneers’ vaunted defense even made Taysom Hill look unstoppable. Hill was the game’s leading rusher (54 yards), completed two passes for 48 yards, and caught a 21-yard pass.
Drew Brees was fantastic with four touchdown passes, doing so for the record 38th time, and regaining the all-time lead by three over Brady.
It helped that Michael Thomas (5 catches, 51 yards) and Emmanuel Sanders (4 catches, 38 yards, TD) returned to the wide receiver corps, but the Saints were as dialed in as a team can be in this game. They tied the league record with 12 different players making a reception.
You still suspect these are both playoff teams, but that makes it even more shocking just how one-sided this was. Since 1970, only 13 games between playoff teams saw one take a 31+ point lead at halftime, and only one of those games (2010 Patriots at Bears) was by the road team.
For the first time in his career, Brady has been swept by a divisional opponent. For the first time in his career, Brady has a division rival worth a damn. Funny how that works. I’ve been saying this for years about the historic advantage the AFC East provided Brady in securing high playoff seeds over the years. We’ll never see another quarterback have such an advantage in his division for two decades like Brady did. The minute he left for a division with a first-ballot HOFer in Brees and an MVP like Matt Ryan, he’s already been swept by the Saints.
In my preseason predictions, I had the Saints finishing 13-3 and the No.1 seed while the Buccaneers at 11-5 and No. 5 seed. We’ll see where this goes, but the Saints are in a good position now. Both teams still have to host the Chiefs and Vikings and play the Falcons twice this year.
Does this make the Saints the new favorite in the NFC? Perhaps, it is a flawed conference where it’s hard to trust anyone right now. If this is what the Saints can look like at “full strength” then you must think they have as good of a shot as anyone.
All I know is, much like when the Chiefs went to Baltimore in Week 3, the Saints left no doubt as to whether they are a nightmare matchup for the Buccaneers. But then you think about Tampa Bay trailing by double digits in five games this year, blowing a 13-point lead in Chicago, now this domination, and it starts to become clear: Green Bay was the anomaly game this season.
Now we just have to see if the Buccaneers can ever put things together this season, or if the Saints end up being the team that goes on a run that lands them back on this field in February.
Small Game Steelers, But Spare Me the Worst 8-0 Team Ever Talk
My fear of the Steelers blowing off a small game to Dallas was well warranted. If you know this team well, you know they always underperform in games like this. The 15-point spread was always a bit too high coming off the three emotional wins in a row, and the fact that Dallas had an unknown fourth-stringer (Garrett Gilbert) at quarterback with a strong cast of skill players around him. This was going to be competitive, but it really shouldn’t have been the toughest win yet of the season for the 8-0 Steelers.
This was like the Steelers’ 2011 Colts/Curtis Painter or 2011 Chiefs/Tyler Palko or 2017 Colts/Jacoby Brissett wins. Yeah, they were ugly, but at least they were still wins.
The lack of an offensive identity is starting to catch up with Pittsburgh after a second straight slow start where they wasted four drives while the Cowboys jumped out to a 13-0 lead. The run defense also had some issues again and Gilbert played admirably for someone without experience, but the Steelers are taking too long to figure out the opponent.
Still, it was yet another game where they finished with 24 points, Ben Roethlisberger threw for 306 yards and three touchdowns, and they had zero turnovers. They probably should have had 26 or 27 points, but Chris Boswell was shaky on the day with two missed extra points (one blocked). Mike Tomlin also screwed up big time by going for a fourth-and-1 with 43 seconds left to seal the game when he should have kicked a short field goal to take a 27-19 lead. You can’t worry about a block there. It’s a routine kick and they already blocked one. Getting two in one game would be crazy improbable. Keeping yourself open to a loss with a touchdown is not the right move, and for the second week in a row the Steelers had to knock down a pass at the goal line to save the win.
Alas, the Steelers join some elite company as the fifth team to start 8-0 and score at least 24 points in every game: 2007 Patriots, 2009 Saints, 2011 Packers, and 2015 Patriots.
Now I would be the first person to start a debate on the worst 8-0 team in NFL history, but I cannot see how the 2020 Steelers win that title.
Not when the 2013 Chiefs exist, a team that started 9-0 by beating several backup quarterbacks with a boring brand of offense when Andy Reid was getting his feet wet in Kansas City with Alex Smith. Once that team started playing real quarterbacks (Peyton Manning, Philip Rivers, Andrew Luck) and teams, they finished 2-6 and blew a 28-point lead in their first playoff game.
I also refuse to buy that the Steelers aren’t better than the 2008 Titans, who started 10-0 in Jeff Fisher’s final playoff season with the team. That team finished 13-3 and had 13 touchdown passes with Kerry Collins as the main starter. They also went one-and-done, losing to the Ravens at home.
I would also bring up the 2015 Panthers, who started 14-0, and I was always saying they were the worst 15-1 team in NFL history (lost the Super Bowl to Denver and finished 6-10 the next year). When the Panthers were 8-0, they were doing it with the best defense in the NFC and Cam Newton was not having a great season. He was just getting ready to go on a big run, but he certainly didn’t have the numbers when they were 8-0 (14 TD, 9 INT, 53.7% complete, 7.40 YPA, 81.4 PR).
Roethlisberger has not been hitting the deep balls this year and it is getting frustrating. I think he can still turn that around, but similar to the Saints and Drew Brees, we should acknowledge that the way they do things now still is effective. It puts points on the board and wins games. Combine that with a defense that may not be anywhere close to historic, but even just merely good puts you a leg up on most of the league in 2020, and you have a pretty solid contender in a year where no one is blowing the field away.
Clearly, I do not see the Steelers going 16-0. They’ll slip up eventually, but I still think winning in Baltimore was a huge deal, a better win than most teams can point to this season, and they have a chance to complete a sweep of the Ravens on Thanksgiving.
I would love nothing more than to see the Steelers play the Chiefs in the AFC Championship Game, but until that feels more likely, let’s not make the whole season about that. Just like we shouldn’t overreact to this 24-19 (should have been 27-19) win in Dallas. Did Tampa Bay not just win 25-23 over the Giants? How did Sunday night go for the so-called NFC favorites? A New Orleans team that was in overtime with Chicago a week ago just destroyed them 38-3 in their house. That same New Orleans team squeaked by Carolina a couple weeks ago in a 27-24 game. Carolina just came up a FG short of knocking off the Chiefs in Arrowhead.
Pandemic football is a little different. You never know who will be available to play in a given week these days. If you want to put the Chiefs in a class of their own as the defending champs, that’s fine. But there’s no reason to say the Steelers aren’t up there with any other team in the league (Ravens, Saints, Buccaneers, Packers, Seahawks, etc.).
The Latest Records for the Chiefs
STOP THE COUNT! After a 33-31 decision against Carolina, Patrick Mahomes is now 45-0 in the NFL. That’s actually 45 games and 45 times he’s had a lead, but Sunday was one of the toughest wins yet this year for the Chiefs, now 8-1 and going into a bye week.
More history was made by Kansas City on Sunday. Mahomes threw his 100th touchdown pass in his 40th regular-season game, setting a new record (Dan Marino, 44 games).
The Chiefs also broke a record for the second time in the Mahomes era for consecutive games with at least 23 points (playoffs included):
This deserves some real attention. It’s practically unheard of in the NFL to break a record streak, have one off game, then immediately start up another record-setting streak. I showed you the only other team to reach 20 games was Joe Gibbs’ Redskins. The No. 4 spot is a tie at 19 games between Peyton Manning’s Broncos (2012-13) and Tom Brady’s Patriots (2006-07). The second-longest streak for the Patriots was 15 games in 2012 while the second-longest streak for a Manning-led team was 13 games for the 2004 Colts.
Now scoring is up in the NFL in the Mahomes era, but we just don’t see other teams in the league approaching these numbers. The longest streaks since 2017 that don’t belong to the Chiefs are 12 games by the 2018 Rams and a pair of 11-game streaks by the Ravens – oddly, one of them happened in 2017-18 pre-Lamar Jackson. The second-longest active streak of 23-point games is nine by Seattle.
We risk taking Mahomes for granted this early into his career, but that may be changing since this latest win seems to reignited the MVP race this year. Mahomes is up to 25 touchdown passes and one interception this season, which has never been done before in the NFL to start a season. He just threw for another 372 yards and four touchdowns in a 33-31 win after his running game finished with 10 carries for 30 yards. Mahomes is now second in QBR (85.3) and the Chiefs could set a modern record for the most yards per drive in a season as they were over 43 yards coming into the week.
This is the most enjoyable team to watch in the NFL today. The skill and creativity are second to none, and they find plenty of different ways to win now. Sunday was a little tougher than usual, but that’s always fun to watch too. It was actually the first time this season the Kansas City defense had to uphold a one-score lead in the fourth quarter. The game was right there for the win for Carolina, but Teddy Bridgewater is 0-6 at leading game-winning drives this season, the worst record in the NFL. Only needing a field goal, he took too much time with completions not going out of bounds and I did not agree with the final sequence when they bypassed a Hail Mary for a 67-yard field goal that was well off.
So I’ll miss not being able to watch the Chiefs in Week 10, but the march towards history resumes in Vegas in Week 11 when the team will look to avenge its only loss in the last 18 games.
Pete Carroll: What a Day for an Extension
While the Saints found a defense on Sunday night, the Seahawks continued to exhibit none after a 44-34 loss in Buffalo. The Seahawks are the first team in NFL history to have nine straight games where they scored and allowed at least 23 points, which includes last January’s 28-23 playoff loss.
That is a hell of a change for a team that once led the NFL in scoring defense four years in a row from 2012 to 2015. Those days are long over, we have gone from Legion of Boom to Let Russ Cook, and Pete Carroll just signed on for a multi-year extension.
Not the greatest timing right before this loss that makes you question if the Seahawks are headed for another No. 5 seed, a Wild Card win over a terrible NFC East winner, and then a divisional road loss.
This was a strange game in that Russell Wilson turned the ball over four times, the Seahawks registered seven sacks on Josh Allen, but Allen still completed 31-of-38 passes for 415 yards, three touchdowns and zero turnovers. It is the kind of game he would never have in 2018-19, but Allen is better this year and the Seahawks are historically bad against the pass.
The 2020 Seahawks have allowed 2,897 net passing yards, the most through eight games in NFL history. The previous record belonged to the 2002 Chiefs (2,589 yards). Apparently, trading good picks for a safety (Jamal Adams) isn’t a cure-all for the defense. Adams returned to action on Sunday and it was the nadir of the season so far as Allen had 282 yards and all three touchdowns at halftime alone.
What really caught my eye were some words from Carroll after the game about his surprise that Buffalo abandoned the run and came out passing:
Look, I know I’m just a data nerd who doesn’t leave the house, but it literally would take minutes to go through Buffalo games in 2020 and see that an Allen-dominant offense (his passes and runs) that ignores RB carries is something they are comfortable with this year. Here is some proof I grabbed in a couple minutes:
Jets (Week 1): 38 Allen dropbacks to 6 handoffs in first half
Raiders: 20 Allen dropbacks to 9 handoffs in first half
Titans: 24 Allen dropbacks to 10 handoffs in first half (38 to 13 through 3Q)
Jets (Rematch): 25 Allen dropbacks to 4 handoffs in first half
Chiefs: 27 Allen dropbacks to 14 handoffs through 3Q
It’s not that crazy for Buffalo to do this, and sure enough it treated the Seahawks like the Jets. Allen had 32 dropbacks to two handoffs in the first half against Seattle, so they took it to another level since it was working so easily.
I love the stat that Buffalo was 1-12 against playoff teams in 2018-19 and already lost this year to the Titans and Chiefs. The Bills usually don’t beat teams like Seattle, but Seattle is a team with a quarterback who is usually amazing – he wasn’t on Sunday – and a defense that is terrible.
While Carroll and company finally seem to understand this year that passing early and often is a good strategy, they still seem oblivious to the idea that other teams know this too and attack Seattle’s pass defense accordingly.
Carroll said he didn’t recognize his team on Sunday, but it looked like more of the same to me with too many giveaways to make it a hopeless road trip. Sean McVay and Jared Goff are next with the Rams, who also feature a defense that held Wilson to two field goals in the last meeting (28-12 loss in 2019).
We’ll see if there are any adjustments.
Dalvin Cook Actually Matters
If the Vikings are going to recover from a 1-5 start, it was sparked by Dalvin Cook’s domination of division foes the last two weeks. He scored four touchdowns and had 226 yards from scrimmage in last week’s upset win over Green Bay. On Sunday, he rushed for 206 yards in a 34-20 win over Detroit to get Minnesota to 3-5.
Add this to the file on “Why the Hell Is Matt Patricia Still Employed?”. The Vikings became the eighth offense since 1940 to average 8.0 yards per carry and 10 net yards per pass attempt in a game. It has only happened two other times since the 1970 merger: 2017 Chiefs vs. Jets (in a 38-31 loss) and 2012 49ers vs. Bills (45-3 win).
The Vikings just had one of the most explosive, but balanced offensive performances in NFL history. Minnesota finished with 275 rushing yards and averaged 8.1 yards per carry. Kirk Cousins completed 13-of-20 passes for 220 yards, three touchdowns and only one sack. His net yards per attempt was 10.1.
With an upcoming schedule that features the Bears, Cowboys, Panthers and Jaguars, it is not a stretch to say the Vikings could still win 9-10 games and reach the playoffs.
Well, Georgia blew one big lead this week, but for that I am grateful. How about the sports teams though? Can’t the Falcons ever just win a game with ease? You know, like the 2016 NFC Championship Game when they routed Green Bay?
On Sunday, Atlanta punted to Denver with 5:38 left and a 34-13 lead. That’s an easy win and 4-point cover, right? Think again. The Broncos drove 69 yards (nice) in 1:45, forced a three-and-out that included one incomplete pass, then drove 82 yards in 90 seconds to make it 34-27. Atlanta just needed one first down to ice the game, but botched that badly. On a 3rd-and-6 run, the Falcons were penalized for illegal formation. Denver declined that penalty, but it still stopped the clock. So instead of punting the ball back at 13 seconds, the Falcons had to punt at 50 seconds. Huge mistake.
Fortunately, the defense forced Denver into a pathetic four-and-out to end the game, but you can just see how this team (now 3-6 when it should be 6-3) is going to torture its fans with impressive starts against the Buccaneers and Saints before it all goes horribly wrong later this season.
New AFC Three Stooges: Texans, Bengals, Chargers
Unless you’re the Colts in Week 1, the 2020 Jaguars (1-7) have been like a Pandemic Relief Package granting wins to their opponents, especially those in dire situations. Houston completed the season sweep with a 27-25 win over the Jaguars, though rookie quarterback Jake Luton was more than respectable in his first start. He led a late touchdown drive (capped off by his 13-yard scramble score) but was unable to complete the two-point conversion to tie the game.
Houston is 2-0 against Jacksonville and 0-6 against the rest of the NFL this year. A couple other AFC teams are in similar spots. The Chargers are 2-6 after another close loss to the Raiders as their only wins have been against the Bengals and the Jaguars; the latter being rookie QB Justin Herbert’s lone win so far. The Jaguars were also the first NFL win for Joe Burrow and the Bengals.
That means out of six combined wins for the Texans, Chargers and Bengals this year, four of them are against Jacksonville, one against each other (LAC-CIN), and the Bengals also beat the Titans recently. Don’t forget the Texans took the Titans to overtime, their closest loss of the season so far, and even the Jaguars only had a 33-30 loss to the Titans in Week 2.
For the second time this season, Herbert saw his receiver drop a game-winning touchdown on the final play of the game after Donald Parham could not hang on in the end zone on a play that was initially ruled a touchdown. Mike Williams also did not come down with a ball on the previous snap. Against Carolina, the Chargers botched that incredible lateral (dropped by Austin Ekeler) that would have won that game too. Burrow can relate. In Week 1, A.J. Green caught a game-winning touchdown against the Chargers, but it was negated for offensive pass interference. Deshaun Watson can relate too. He thought he had a touchdown pass on fourth and goal down 31-23 against Minnesota, but it was overturned on replay to an incompletion and game over.
The futures may be bright for these teams given Burrow and Herbert’s rookie performances, and Watson getting a new coach in 2021, but for now they just cannot seem to find a win unless it’s coming against Jacksonville or each other.
I’ve done the big Pittsburgh games the last two weeks, but this time they’re in Dallas for a late afternoon game about to be forced on the masses. The Cowboys are starting (I think) Garrett Gilbert at quarterback. He was a 6th-round pick by the Rams in 2014 and has managed to throw six passes in the NFL.
I know nothing about him, but would have assumed he was the son of former Chargers backup QB Gale Gilbert, and sure enough, that is true. Gotta love NFL nepotism where the nobody son of a former nobody can stick around for years while Colin Ka–you know the rest.
Normally, this is a game that would scare the hell out of me as a Steelers fan. The dreaded road game where they play down to the competition, especially after hearing praise for this 7-0 start.
The last time the Steelers were a 15-point favorite, they lost 27-24 to the 2009 Raiders. The last time the Steelers were favored by more than 11 points on the road, they lost 27-24 in OT to the 2009 Chiefs. Maybe it’s not a coincidence both were in 2009, a mistake-prone season, but it’s something to think about before picking that game. Mike Tomlin is 23-5 SU and 10-18 ATS as a double-digit favorite.
Dallas is 0-8 ATS this year, but I haven’t seen the Steelers win on the road by more than 15 points since Christmas 2017 (34-6 in Houston). I’ll cautiously take Dallas ATS, Pittsburgh SU.
NFL Week 9 Predictions
Started off with a win on TNF with Green Bay beating the varsity 49ers.
I like the Ravens a lot to rebound this week. That spread surprises me the most.
Now that the Atlanta Falcons have fired head coach Dan Quinn, we’ll see if we continue to get improbable losses out of that team, but there were plenty of other stat oddities to go around from Sunday’s action.
When you’re in your seventh season like Derek Carr and you still haven’t started a playoff game, you have to treat a win like this as something extra special. The Raiders (3-2) are now fully alive in the AFC West race after ending Kansas City’s 13-game winning streak, a signature win for Carr.
Carr is now 3-10 against the Chiefs, but all three of the wins are really among his most notable. There’s the first win of his career in 2014, a comeback against the Chiefs on Thursday Night Football. There’s the untimed down game in 2017 on another Thursday night, the time he threw a game-winning touchdown to Michael Crabtree on the final snap.
Now we’re talking about out-gunning Patrick Mahomes and the Chiefs in Arrowhead, albeit with 2020 attendance. This is a bit different, and it was certainly a different experience for the Chiefs after an outrageous shootout in the first half where both teams scored 24 points and had over 300 yards of offense. The Chiefs twice led by 11, but Carr kept the Raiders on pace with uncharacteristic deep shots that led to touchdown passes of 59 and 72 yards.
The Chiefs hurt themselves in the first half with offensive penalties that negated two touchdowns, but in the second half the offense was ice cold on four straight drives. That’s when the Raiders took control and scored the game’s next 16 points, building a 40-24 lead with 5:26 left.
This is the first time Mahomes has ever trailed by 16 points past the midway point of the second quarter in his NFL career.Oakland Las Vegas almost hung the first multi-score loss on the Chiefs since 2017, but Mahomes had another answer. He frankly had to after throwing a terrible pick that was returned to the 2-yard line to set up another Josh Jacobs touchdown run. Mahomes cut the lead in half to 40-32 after a touchdown and two-point conversion pass, but only 3:57 remained. At the two-minute warning, the Raiders had a no-brainer decision on fourth-and-1 to put the game away. While Carr has been a shockingly ineffective rusher, it’s not asking much to convert a quarterback sneak. He had one to end the third quarter and he had another here to end the Chiefs’ winning streak at 13 games.
It also ends Kansas City’s NFL record streak of 49 games without losing by more than seven points, though it does extend their record to 50 games without losing by more than eight points. That’s still a one-possession game in the NFL, but fortunately the Raiders didn’t have to give the Chiefs the ball back for one more possession.
Carr’s game-winning drive gives him 21, which is the new franchise record. Here is the franchise leader in fourth-quarter comeback wins and game-winning drives for all 32 teams:
Someday Mahomes should be able to hold these records for the Chiefs, but on Sunday, it just wasn’t his best stuff. So throw away the undefeated season talk or taking down New England’s 21-game winning streak. The Chiefs still have work to do.
Washington, Are You a Football Team?
Clearly, it’s not just a Dwayne Haskins issue in Washington. The Redskins Football Team started Kyle Allen at quarterback against the Rams, but suffered a 30-10 defeat with one of the most inept offensive performances of the last decade.
Washington gained just 108 yards, the fewest in a game by an offense since Luke Falk led the Jets to 105 yards against the Patriots last season. Worse, Washington gained 108 yards on 52 plays, or 2.08 yards per play. That’s the fifth-lowest average in a game since 2010, and somehow not even the worst Washington game in recent years. In 2018, Washington averaged 2.02 yards per play in a Week 17 loss (24-0) to the Eagles.
How sad was this showing? Washington’s longest gain of the day was an 18-yard completion from Allen. The second-longest “play” was actually a 2-yard loss on a run that netted 13 yards because of a 15-yard penalty for unnecessary roughness on the Rams.
Alex Smith replaced an injured Allen in the second quarter for his first action in nearly two years since a gruesome leg injury in 2018. He led the team on a field goal drive before halftime, but frankly would have been better off rehabbing on the sideline after that. In the second half, Smith’s success rate was 0-for-17 with a net loss of 24 yards. That’s hard to believe, but he took 5 sacks, had 4 failed completions, one failed scramble, and threw 7 incompletions. The rain intensified, but that didn’t stop the Rams from gaining positive yardage in the second half.
The Rams are now 4-0 against the NFC East and 0-1 against the refs this season.
Pennsylvania’s Historic Third Down Day
The Steelers have never blown a 17-point lead at home in franchise history, but this came awfully close.
What paced both offenses was an incredible display on third down. The Eagles finished 10 of 14 (71%) and the Steelers finished 11 of 15 (73%). According to Stathead, this is the only NFL game since 1991 where both offenses converted at least 10 third downs with a conversion rate over 70%.
It’s only the third game since 1991 where both offenses converted at least 10 third downs period (2015 Giants-Falcons and 2014 Ravens-Panthers the other two). Given what we know about pre-1991 offenses, this is a favorite for the best offensive display on third down in any game in NFL history. The Eagles’ four longest plays from scrimmage came on third down, including the game’s longest play, a 74-yard run by Miles Sanders on third-and-9.
But in the fourth quarter, the Steelers were just a little better. After Travis Fulgham, apparently the new No. 1 in Philadelphia, killed the secondary all day with 10 catches for 152 yards, the defense finally tightened. Joe Haden had the coverage on a third down that led to the Eagles making a questionable decision to try a 57-yard field goal with 3:23 left on a fourth-and-5. The longest field goal in Heinz Field history is 53 yards and everyone knows the stadium is historically difficult to connect from long distance. Jake Elliott gave it a shot, but was wide right.
The Steelers needed one more conversion to ice this one, and Ben Roethlisberger delivered it on a third-and-8 with a 35-yard touchdown pass to rookie Chase Claypool, who somehow caught the defense napping again for his fourth touchdown of the game.
This battle of Pennsylvania ended 38-29, which surprisingly is not the first such score in NFL history. The Raiders beat the Jets 38-29 in 1967 in the AFL thanks to a two-point conversion that didn’t make much sense for New York. Similarly, we got on the path to this score after the Eagles went against conventional wisdom and converted a two-pointer in the third quarter to cut Pittsburgh’s lead, once 31-14, to 31-22.
FOX may have had the biggest statistical oddity of the day with a graphic that showed that Pittsburgh had the longest active drought (40 years) of seasons without a 4-0 start until getting there this year. That’s hard to believe given the general success the Steelers have had since the merger, but it’s true. The Steelers have not started 4-0 since 1979 until now. That means even teams like Detroit (1980, 2011) and Cleveland (1979) have done it more recently, though that Cleveland one is a bit misleading. The 1979 Browns improved to 4-0 one day after the Steelers did due to a Monday night game.
So Cleveland has the longest drought now, and next week is one of the biggest Pittsburgh-Cleveland games in many years.
Andy Dalton: The Ginger Cowboy Rides Again
Dallas makes everything look hard this year, and now things will get really difficult after Dak Prescott suffered a compound ankle fracture during the game on Sunday. Andy Dalton, the butt of many jokes the last decade, is still one of the best backup quarterbacks in the league all things considered, but he’ll have his work cut out for him without a defense to speak of. Even the lowest-scoring team in football, the Giants, scored 34 in this game.
The 2020 Cowboys are the first team in NFL history to score and allow at least 31 points in four straight games. At least this one led to a much-needed comeback win in the division after Dalton was able to lead a one-minute drill to set up Greg Zuerlein for a 40-yard field goal that he was just able to squeeze inside the uprights in a 37-34 victory.
It’s a shame for Prescott, who has never missed a game due to injury, on so many levels given he didn’t have his long-term deal he deserved locked up with the team, and he was having a historic start to this season in leading this talented, but mistake-prone offense. I don’t see how Dalton will magically have a defense around him in the coming weeks, so the Cowboys may have to win some more shootouts. The good news is this is still the worst division by far in the NFL, and Dalton is capable of putting up some points with these receivers.
Russell Wilson’s Best Game-Winning Drive Yet?
The Vikings (1-4) lost a tough one, 27-26, on Sunday night in Seattle. They outgained Seattle by 135 yards, held the ball for 39:28, and forced the Seahawks to finish 0-for-7 on third down. But in the end, it was fourth down that doomed Minnesota. The Vikings, leading 26-21 at the two-minute warning, bypassed a 24-yard field goal to keep the offense on the field for a fourth-and-1 at the Seattle 6. They didn’t run a quarterback sneak like the Raiders did to put away the Chiefs earlier in the day. Instead, they called backup running back Alexander Mattison to carry off right guard for no gain.
Twitter is killing Mattison, the new Trent Richardson, for this play. It looks bad from still images, but you have to respect an unblocked Bobby Wagner’s speed to come across the line and tackle Mattison if he did try to bounce this outside the edge instead of hammering into the pile of bodies.
Having said that, I think the Vikings should have kicked the field goal. I think NFL Twitter tends to overrate the greatness of an 8-point lead, though many sure did seem to forget all about that on this night as they cheered for Mike Zimmer to go for it. But I know I hate nothing more than watching my helpless defense cling to a 5-point lead while a team is in hurry-up mode with four-down, pass-happy football coming.
It’s also a big deal when the quarterback has some experience at this. Wilson now has the most game-winning drives (34) through a player’s first nine seasons in NFL history. He also tied Matthew Stafford with his 26th fourth-quarter comeback win, the most through nine seasons in history.
The thought process for Minnesota was clear. Get a first down and the game is over. But if you fail, you are leaving yourself vulnerable to getting beat by a 94-yard touchdown drive, and Wilson still had 1:57 and one timeout left. That’s why I kick the field goal, but Minnesota still had two fourth-down opportunities on defense to put this one away. D.K. Metcalf, quickly on his way to becoming the best wideout in the game, was not to be stopped. He tracked down a 39-yard desperation heave on fourth-and-10. He actually dropped a game-winner on second down in the end zone with 24 seconds left. But two plays later on fourth and goal, Metcalf caught a bullet from Wilson and held on for the game-winning touchdown with 15 seconds left.
This is the third time in his career Wilson took over in the final two minutes of the fourth quarter and led a game-winning touchdown drive. The first was the Fail Mary game against Green Bay in 2012, and the last time was 2017 against Houston when he went 80 yards with 1:39 left. This was 94 yards with 1:57 left and in prime time.
That’s going to be a memorable one to get to 5-0, but any NFC fans groaning about how lucky the Seahawks got in 2019 have to be frustrated with this one. Had the Vikings just kicked a short field goal, something that isn’t always a given for them against Seattle of course, then Wilson’s drive may have only forced overtime at best. It could have still ended in defeat given the Seahawks failed on the two-point conversion after the Metcalf score.
I know there’s pressure on coaches to do more with fourth downs and two-point conversions, but it sure doesn’t feel like they’re properly weighing the pros and cons of these situations on the fly. If Zimmer didn’t chase a two-point conversion in the third quarter, this situation may have been avoided all together. Worse than that, why would he kick an extra point with 7:08 left to take a 26-21 lead when he should have gone for two there? Leading by 4 or 5 doesn’t make a difference. That way if it was 27-21, then the field goal to make it 30-21 would have been a no-brainer later.
Still, it felt like a no-brainer to me, but losing coaches are letting it all hang out this pandemic season.