NFL Stat Oddity: Wild Card Weekend

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This season in Stat Oddity:

Patriots at Bills: The Perfect Game

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

49ers at Cowboys: Fourth Quarter Fvckery

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Eagles at Buccaneers: Pennsylvania Going Out Sad on Sunday

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

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

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

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

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

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

Raiders at Bengals: The Most Jerome Boger Game Ever

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

NFL 2021 NFC Wild Card Previews

Much like the AFC playoffs, rematches are a big deal in the NFC this week. The only “new” game over Super Wild Card Weekend is 49ers-Cowboys. We get a third meeting of Cardinals-Rams after the road team won the first two, and a venue switch with the No. 2 seed Buccaneers trying to sweep No. 7 Philadelphia.

Scroll to the bottom if you want to see my predictions on who wins the Super Bowl this year.

Eagles at Buccaneers (-8.5)

See my early preview for this game at BMR.

Tampa Bay is trying to end the longest drought in NFL history without a repeat champion. Like last year, they start this playoff run with the weakest team in the NFC field from everyone’s favorite NFC division to criticize. It looks like a good matchup for Tampa Bay as the Eagles are a run-heavy offense going up against a stout defense led by Vita Vea that hopes you run the ball instead of throwing against their injured secondary. The Eagles also have a rookie coach, inexperienced quarterback, and a pass defense that allows a generous 69.4% completion percentage.

The Eagles allowed five quarterbacks, including Tom Brady, to complete 80% of their passes this year, an NFL record. Not only do the Eagles allow a lot of easy completions, but the defense ranks 20th in points per drive allowed, 23rd in third-down conversion rate, 25th in takeaways per drive, and 28th in red zone touchdown rate. Guess who once again has a defense that ranks 6th in points per drive, 7th in takeaways per drive, 10th in red zone touchdown rate, and 12th on third down? Brady, the LOAT.

But you don’t actually need a big passing performance to beat the Buccaneers this season. Sure, Matthew Stafford and the Rams did it that way in Week 3 with a game that had zero turnovers, but the Saints swept the Buccaneers, and Washington beat them by playing smart, safe football. The Buccaneers were minus-6 in the turnover department in those games (seven giveaways to one takeaway). That’s Trevor Siemian, Taylor Heinicke, and Taysom Hill, or an unholy trinity of quarterbacks not as good as Jalen Hurts. The Giants forced Hurts into three interceptions in that horrific loss but Hurts only had eight turnovers in the other 14 games combined this year.

But as I said, the Eagles aren’t very good at taking the ball away. Each team one had giveaway in the Week 6 matchup, won 28-22 by the Buccaneers after leading 28-7. Things should look a bit different this week. Lane Johnson is back at tackle and both teams get their best tight end (Dallas Goedert and Rob Gronkowski) back. The Buccaneers no longer have Antonio Brown, the star that night, and Chris Godwin is out with a torn ACL. Leonard Fournette should be back from IR this week and he had two touchdowns in that game. Linebacker Lavonte David is also returning from IR just in time for the postseason.

The Eagles were still a work in progress in Week 6. They infamously handed the ball off three times to a running back in Dallas. They only had nine handoffs for 56 yards to Miles Sanders in Week 6 with Hurts rushing 10 times for 44 yards and two touchdowns. Since then, Nick Sirianni’s bunch have developed a running identity and should not be so afraid to run on the Buccaneers, who are not as elite as they were at stopping the run in 2020. Tampa has already allowed eight teams, including Philadelphia, to rush for 100 yards in 17 games this year after doing so six times in 20 games last year. Tampa has also gone from 3.6 yards per rush allowed (No. 1) in 2020 to 4.3 yards per rush allowed (No. 15) in 2021. Sanders, despite not having a touchdown this year on 163 touches, is the team’s best back and he has a broken hand. But they still have some capable backups in Boston Scott and Jordan Howard. There is optimism that Sanders can play on Sunday.

Whether Sanders plays or not, Hurts needs to channel his inner Colin Kaepernick and run wild this week. It’s the playoffs and you’re the underdog. Let it all hang out. The Eagles were also 3-of-10 on third down in Week 6 in a game where Hurts passed for 115 yards and had 4.42 YPA. On the season, Philadelphia converts 45.7% of third downs, good for fourth in the league with Tampa Bay at No. 2 (47.1%). These are also two of the top eight offenses at scoring touchdowns in the red zone where Hurts is a major threat with 10 rushing scores.

These are the only two defenses that allow an average depth of target under 7.0 yards this season. We know Brady will stay very patient and take the easy throws against the second-least likely defense to blitz (16.4%). But will Hurts do the same against the only defense that blitzes over 40% of the time this year? Only the Bills get a higher pressure rate on the QB this year than Tampa Bay. That could be the game right there.

Since penalties are a topic that seems to come up with Tampa Bay more than most teams, I had a few stats to share here. No defenses were penalized pre-snap more this year than the Buccaneers (18) and Eagles (15). Both defenses were top five in penalties, but on offense, the Buccaneers (33) had the second-fewest penalties while the Eagles (49) were 16th. After drawing a record 27 DPI flags last year, Tampa Bay’s offense only was the beneficiary of 11 such calls this season (tied for eighth). Tampa Bay’s defense however was flagged for the second-most DPI flags (14). Philadelphia’s offense only drew six DPI flags all year, but two of them were in Week 6 as they got the Buccaneers for gains of 45 and 50 yards. That adds some context to Hurts only passing for 115 yards. Tampa Bay’s 120 penalty yards that night is the most for the team in a game since 2015.

Tampa Bay started the year with the most loaded receiving corps in the NFL. Now that big four has been reduced to two without Brown and Godwin. I think if you had to pick the weakest version of the Buccaneers with two of those four players, it might be the Mike Evans and Rob Gronkowski combo they have now. Gronk is still awesome, and Evans is a special talent, but AB and Godwin are much more of the prototype for a Brady receiver. Guys who can get open from anywhere, especially in the slot, and they run smooth routes and can be dangerous with the ball in their hands. Evans is much more of a height advantage/catch radius receiver you can throw it up to and let him get it. Brady does that with him, but it’s not his main strength.

Still, I think Evans and Gronk with the running backs back, including Gio Bernard as a receiving option, and a top-tier offensive line are plenty to get past the Eagles again. Let’s not act like the Eagles aren’t the beneficiary of a seventh playoff seed. In past years, this 9-8 team would not have been good enough to make the playoffs.

In fact, the 2021 Eagles are a historic team for the wrong reasons. The 2021 Eagles are 0-6 against playoff teams, joining the 2011 Bengals (0-7) as the only playoff teams in NFL history to go 0-6 or worse against playoff teams in the regular season. Those Bengals lost a wild card game 31-10 to Houston too. The 2021 Eagles are also 1-7 against teams with a winning record, only getting a win over the Saints, who only got their ninth win in Week 18. That 1-7 record against winning teams is the worst for a playoff team since the 2011 Lions were 0-5, a feat only matched by the 1969 Oilers and 1991 Jets. None of those teams won a playoff game.

It’s nice that the Eagles got into the tournament in Sirianni’s first year, but I think quickly into Sunday’s game, we’re going to be looking at them like this:

Final: Buccaneers 27, Eagles 17

49ers at Cowboys (-3)

The smallest spread this weekend is likely related to this being the only non-rematch. There is that angle of uncertainty and it doesn’t help that Dallas has been so up-and-down this year. These teams met last December in a 41-33 game that saw 16 points scored in the final 40 seconds in a game that wouldn’t die.

But that game was also pretty meaningless. The starting quarterbacks were Andy Dalton and Nick Mullens instead of Dak Prescott and Jimmy Garoppolo. Deebo Samuel, George Kittle, Nick Bosa, and Ezekiel Elliott were inactive, among others.

I feel like Kyle Shanahan has gotten the best of Mike McCarthy over their careers. There was a 2018 game where the 49ers lost 33-30 in Green Bay. Aaron Rodgers had to bail out McCarthy with a 400-yard game as the 49ers nearly pulled that one off with C.J. Beathard as quarterback. As offensive coordinator, Shanahan’s 2016 Atlanta offense destroyed the Packers twice, including the NFC Championship Game.

Jimmy Garoppolo’s thrown four picks in his last two starts, but he had the 49ers tied late with the Titans on the road, and he led the team back from a 17-0 deficit to win in Los Angeles. Clutch touchdown drive to end the fourth quarter and finished it off in overtime. Garoppolo is 10-10 at GWD opportunities, one of the best records in the league. He also finished off the Bengals in Cincinnati this year. He just needs to be careful with the picks against a Dallas defense that feasts on turnovers.

The Cowboys have had a successful defensive turnaround with coordinator Dan Quinn and top draft pick Micah Parsons this year. They not only have the league-high 34 takeaways, but Dallas is sixth in yards per drive allowed, fifth in points allowed, and second in third-down conversion rate. Dallas (59.5%) is one of three defenses to allow under 60% completions while the 49ers (68.3%) allow the third-highest completion rate.

But there are big plays to be had against Dallas. The Cowboys allowed the fourth-most 20-yard pass plays (62) and the third-most 40-yard pass plays (14). Corner Trevon Diggs is a good example of this feast-or-famine style. He had 11 interceptions but also allowed over 900 yards and 8.8 yards per target.

The 49ers score a touchdown two-thirds of the time in the red zone, the highest rate in the league. Garoppolo has had some big turnovers in that area, but overall, the 49ers usually deliver down there.  

Dallas led the NFL in scoring with 530 points, but it sure wasn’t a consistent effort to get to that mark. Dallas loaded up with five games of 41-plus points, including four games against NFC East competition. This same Dallas team was down 30-0 at home to Denver with five minutes to play in Week 9. The Cowboys just recently struggled in a home loss to Arizona in Week 17 before dominating Philadelphia’s backups in a meaningless game a week ago.

Dak Prescott has had a fine season, but I would be shocked if the Cowboys don’t lead the NFL in miscommunication plays. It just seems like Prescott and his receivers are not on the same page as often as you’d expect from a team that leads the NFL in scoring. They will be facing a formidable defense this week. The 49ers are tied for fifth in sacks and lead the NFL in tackles for loss. San Francisco stops the run reasonably well and should have the rushing advantage in this game.

Games with Dallas are no strangers to penalties, especially on offense where the Cowboys have a league-high 62 penalties. The Cowboys have been flagged for a league-high 31 offensive holding penalties, but they also have been the beneficiary of a league-high 30 offensive holding penalties. As for the 49ers, their defense has been flagged 20 times for defensive pass interference, six more than any other defense. The Cowboys may want to take some shots in this one. The 49ers only have nine interceptions on defense.

But the 49ers really impressed me on defense last week. Despite limited blitzing, the 49ers sacked Stafford five times and pressured him 14 times. It was the worst game of the season for the Rams’ pass protection. If Bosa and company can get after Prescott like that, and if Samuel and Kittle can make the elite YAC plays they’re so good at, I like what the 49ers have to win this one on the road.

I didn’t pick an upset on the AFC side. I’m certainly not picking the Eagles to win in Tampa Bay. I think this is the right spot for a road team to pull off the upset. But it all depends on which Dallas team shows up.

Final: 49ers 30, Cowboys 27

Cardinals at Rams (-3.5)

If only I could pick both teams to go one-and-done…

Look, I’m salty that these teams allowed Tampa Bay to get the No. 2 seed. The Cardinals were the last unbeaten at 7-0 and fell off a cliff (or it was always a Kliff). The Rams were 7-1, had that big win over the Buccaneers, but the latest attempt at a super team still backed into a division title after blowing a 17-0 lead on Sunday. Sean McVay is no longer 45-0 when leading at halftime. Matthew Stafford went from MVP to same old Detroit QB.

Now someone has to win the rubber match after the road team won both games this year. Going for the road sweep in the playoffs is a difficult task, but it’s what Arizona is trying to do. Since 2002, the team going for the road sweep is 13-11. There were six successes in a row before the Texans blew a 24-0 lead in Kansas City two years ago.

But what makes this one interesting is that Arizona has sucked at home this season (3-5), finished 7-1 on the road, and the Rams really don’t have a home-field advantage in Los Angeles yet. The “home crowd” on Sunday was actually pro-49ers. While the Arizona fanbase is unlikely to travel or be as loud as the 49ers were on Sunday, it feels safe to assume the Rams won’t have a raucous crowd in their favor on Monday night.

Arizona played one of its best games this year in LA in Week 4, beating the Rams 37-20, a final that included a garbage-time touchdown by the Rams. Arizona was the only defense to hold Cooper Kupp under 90 yards this season. He had just 64 yards on 13 targets that day, a miracle given his latest standards. Kupp did come through for 123 yards and a touchdown in the Week 14 rematch, but at least Arizona can lay claim to having the best game against him this year.

J.J. Watt is practicing again for the Cardinals. His status is unknown, but even if he plays, it won’t make up for the loss of DeAndre Hopkins. The season has not gone as well for Kyler Murray without his stud wideout. In the first eight games, Murray was completing 72.7% of his passes, 8.89 YPA, and a 110.4 passer rating. In the last six games, most of which were played without Hopkins, Murray is down to 65.3% complete, 6.72 YPA, and an 89.3 passer rating. Arizona is 1-5 when allowing more than 22 points this season. The Rams are 0-5 when allowing 27+ points and 12-0 when allowing fewer than 27 points.

My big story coming into the season was Stafford’s career record of 8-68 (.105) against teams with a winning record. In his first year with the Rams, Stafford led the team to a 3-5 record in games against winning teams, the first season in his career where he logged multiple wins. But is 3-5 really that impressive? Ryan Tannehill led the Titans to an 8-3 record against winning teams this season, so he logged as many wins in one season as Stafford had in 12 years with Detroit. Also, Arizona is 5-3 against winning teams.

So, both quarterbacks have stumbled down the stretch, but Stafford really gets you worried with seven interceptions in his last three games. You can squeeze past a Baltimore or Minnesota doing that this year, but the Cardinals are more likely to capitalize on those mistakes. The “let me chuck it up to Odell Beckham Jr.” play has not gone well for Stafford, who may be missing the steadiness of Robert Woods (torn ACL) more than we give credit to after the two had disappointing production together. But an easy first down still beats trying to make a highlight play to Beckham that ends in disaster, such as Sunday’s season-ending pick in overtime.

But the Cardinals played a poor game in the Week 14 rematch. Aaron Donald tipped a pass in the red zone for an interception when it looked like the Cardinals were going up two scores. The Cardinals failed on a couple fourth downs, including a drop by Hopkins and a bad decision to bypass a field goal late in the game. It just looked like the Cardinals lacked common sense and urgency that night. This lingered on in other performances, including a terrible loss in Detroit and making Carson Wentz look like a legit quarterback on Christmas.

If the Cardinals had a healthy Hopkins and Watt, they might be the right pick here. But the fact is this team is shorthanded, 4-6 in the last 10 games, and not playing well going into Monday.

As much as I want to pick the Cardinals to win, I just can’t bring myself to do it. McVay has largely owned this team outside of Week 4, and I can’t see a postseason where we don’t get a rematch between the Rams and Packers and/or Buccaneers. It feels like we were sold all year that this was supposed to be a different outcome for Stafford and the Rams, so let’s see a wild card playoff win on Monday night against a team no one was expecting to be here.

But no matter what happens on Monday night, neither team can be trusted to go on a Super Bowl run this year.

Final: Rams 30, Cardinals 20

Playoff Predictions

So, how do I see this postseason shaking out? My preseason pick was a rematch of last year with Tampa Bay beating Kansas City again. I could still see it happening.

I guess you can start with my six picks this week, but it’s not like I’m certain about these NFC upsets happening this week. In the NFC, I still think it comes down to the Bucs-Packers rematch in the NFC Championship Game. Maybe the Rams toughen up and get it done in Green Bay this year with Stafford, but I still think it comes down to TB-GB and the Packers better get Jaire Alexander on Mike Evans and not let Kevin King ruin the game this time.

On the AFC side, obviously I’d love to see the Chiefs get back to a third straight Super Bowl. But I look at the bracket and it looks like they’ll have to beat two teams, Bills and Titans, that smacked them by three possessions this year. It’s tough to avenge one of those losses, let alone two in a row, and they’d have to go to Tennessee to do it this time, Mahomes’ first road playoff game. So, with the way the Chiefs make mistakes this year, I’m not sure I can trust them to get back to the big one.

I think right now, I’d go with a Bills vs. Packers Super Bowl. A role reversal of 1997 Packers-Broncos with the young gunslinger (Brett Favre/Josh Allen) against the old veteran (John Elway/Aaron Rodgers).

But I’ll literally sign up for any outcome that does not involve Tampa Bay in the Super Bowl. Give me Raiders-Eagles if need be. Maybe I was just a year too early in 2020 on Chiefs-Cowboys too.

Frankly, I just don’t know this year. The Titans are one of the shakiest No. 1 seeds ever, and the Packers do not have the defensive profile of a championship team. Don’t discount a Bills-Buccaneers rematch either.

I just want something different from last year even if my preseason prediction was the same damn thing as last year.

NFL 2021 Awards

Before I submit my PFWA ballot for this year’s NFL award winners, I thought I would share the thought process behind each pick on here. With a reminder that these are all regular-season awards, I want to make sure I get my picks in before any postseason game influences my choices.

Most Valuable Player: Aaron Rodgers, Packers

Let me start by saying that I think this was the weakest MVP race with the worst field in the salary cap era. If there was ever a year where a non-quarterback could have earned it, it should have been this one. But even that did not materialize as no defender was outstanding enough (or played enough of his team’s snaps to justify it), and the two skill players (Jonathan Taylor and Cooper Kupp) came up short of a 2,000-yard milestone (rushing or receiving).

I strongly believe MVP is a quarterback award, but it was not a good year for standout quarterback play. The rookies were weak, Dak Prescott’s season was too mistake-filled despite the Cowboys scoring the most points, and Russell Wilson ensured he’d still never get an MVP vote after having the first major injury of his career.

The top three quarterbacks in 2020 (Aaron Rodgers, Patrick Mahomes, and Josh Allen) all regressed in 2021.

I watched Allen against the Steelers in Week 1 and could see right away that something was off. He hit some big passes against the Chiefs in Week 5 when Kansas City was still playing horrific defense and Cris Collinsworth was ready to give him the MVP that night. The oddsmakers were even agreeing around that time, but I never bought it. After Allen imploded with three turnovers in a 9-6 loss to Jacksonville, I eliminated him in my mind.

Mahomes had the worst season of his career and still finished fifth in QBR and perhaps one fewer CEH fumble or blown lead in Cincinnati away from the top seed and best record in the NFL. High standard to be judged by. The Chiefs still finished No. 1 in yards and points per drive too, and Mahomes had several of the best games by any quarterback this year. However, there was an eight-game stretch where he threw 11 touchdowns to eight interceptions and averaged 6.43 YPA. Throw in the defensive turnaround during that time helping the Chiefs go on a winning streak, and there was just no way Mahomes was the MVP this season.

If we gave an MVP for the first half of the season, then Matthew Stafford should have run away with it. However, the Tennessee game happened and that kickstarted a slide into the Detroit Stafford we’re very familiar with.

Kyler Murray was another quarterback who I thought had a chance at MVP this season, but it was dicey when the Cardinals still managed to go 2-1 with Colt McCoy starting. Then Murray had some rough games and that was a no-go.

Justin Herbert was my MVP pick after Week 5, then he hit a slump. After the Pittsburgh win in Week 11 and the incredible long touchdown throw against the Giants in Week 14, I was back to thinking he had an argument. But then the Chiefs took over the division with that epic overtime win despite a decent game from Herbert, and that seemed to follow them to a bad loss against Houston. By that time, he had no realistic chance, and now after missing the playoffs despite another epic performance on Sunday night in Vegas, we know he’s not getting a vote this year. But his day should come.

So, I’ve just eliminated Allen, Mahomes, Stafford, Murray, and Herbert. I’ll quickly mention that Joe Burrow absolutely had a shot at this had he been able to close out those games against the Bears, Packers, Jets, and 49ers. Even just two of them might have done the trick, but he threw some bad interceptions in a couple of those games or couldn’t get the game-winning drive in the others. But he was a matter of a couple drives from deservedly pulling this off, so I think his day too may come for this award.

Who does that leave? Oh yeah, Aaron Rodgers and Tom Brady. By default, I ended up taking the 2020 standout who regressed the least and that was Rodgers. This is a default MVP choice in my eyes, just as Peyton Manning was the default pick in 2008 and Brady was the default pick in 2010 and 2017.

The last thing we need is Brady getting a third default MVP. Also, I had 2400 reasons to want it to happen based on my preseason bets as a $200 bet on Brady at +1200 was my top MVP bet.

Going into Week 15, Brady looked like he was going to be handed another MVP by default. My bet to win $2,400 had a cash out option of $1,300 at the time. It didn’t seem likely that the Bucs would lose another game after getting past Buffalo in overtime. It also didn’t seem likely that voters would vote for Rodgers after his numbers were down from 2020 and all the COVID nonsense he brought on himself.

Then 9-0 against New Orleans happened in front of a national audience. Brady had a chance to show his MVP worth on a night where the Bucs had a lot of injuries, and he couldn’t even put up a single point. He got swept by the Saints with Trevor Siemian and Taysom Hill at quarterback. In between he lost to a bad Washington team with Taylor Heinicke. But 9-0 was the death knell for his MVP case.

Of course, at no point this season did I think Brady was deserving of MVP despite my profitable bet if he won the award. He spent the year throwing to the best receiving corps in the league, which was accurate before Antonio Brown compounded the loss of Chris Godwin, behind an elite pass protection line. He was feasting on short fields for touchdowns. He threw the second-most passes in NFL history and had just the 13th-highest YPA of his career. He was completely outshined by Stafford in the showdown in Los Angeles. He wasn’t even more impressive than Allen in that head-to-head game in Week 14, a game largely decided by what was called pass interference at the end. The aforementioned ugly trio of losses, including the pick-six in New Orleans when he had a chance to win the game. Let’s not also forget that he only managed one touchdown drive in New England against Bill Belichick in one of the most overhyped regular-season games of all time.

Brady was the MVP this year only if MVP means Mass Volume Player. So, when Bruce Arians calls it a travesty if he doesn’t win it, I’m calling it a travesty if Brady gets a vote. And you know he will.

By the way, I cashed out my Brady MVP bet at $244 before Week 17, so I made $44 in the process. Something is rigged if Brady wins it when Rodgers is listed at -400 (or higher) at many sportsbooks right now.

Here is how Rodgers and Brady stack up to past MVP winners at quarterback in the stats I have tracked for MVP worthiness for years.

You can see the 2021 seasons are not up to par. Rodgers is the first season to lead in QBR without being at least 75.0. Maybe there was a formula change this year, but it doesn’t make any sense why they would not apply that to older seasons too. Rodgers’ DVOA is also the lowest to lead the league since Dan Marino in 1996, so it’s not just QBR. This will also be the first time in over a decade where the QB on the No. 1 points per drive offense isn’t the MVP.

So, what is the case for Rodgers? While not as good as his 2011, 2014, and 2020 seasons, Rodgers still led all quarterbacks in QBR, DVOA, TD%, lowest INT%, passer rating, and ANY/A. The Packers beat the odds and won 13 games for the third year in a row, the first team in NFL history to do so. The 17th game was not necessary for that too as the Packers already had the No. 1 seed locked up despite ranking 21st in points per drive allowed. He also lost his tight end (Robert Tonyan) and played without his stud left tackle (David Bakhtiari). The great throws for the highlight reel were still there for Rodgers this year. He had a memorable game-winning drive in San Francisco. He won in Cincinnati despite Mason Crosby having other ideas. He gutted out the win in Arizona against a 7-0 team despite his receivers missing with COVID. Despite the toe injury, he finished red hot with 20 touchdowns and no picks over the last seven games.

Are there arguments against him? Sure, he had a horrible Week 1 against the Saints, but it’s not like a horrible game in Tampa Bay last year prevented him from that MVP. It’s just one game and clearly an outlier for the season. The only other loss he finished was in Minnesota in a game where he threw for 385 yards and four touchdowns and didn’t get the ball last. That was an MVP-worthy day despite the final score.

Of course, you have the COVID situation where he misled about his situation and missed the big Kansas City game as an unvaccinated player. The Packers lost and his absence was huge, but it also weirdly added to his value as the team scored just one touchdown with Jordan Love making his first start.

Would that kind of stuff be enough to make him lose the award to Mahomes last year? I think so, but then again Mahomes was my MVP pick in 2020. But is it enough in a 2021 MVP field that was so weak to not give him the award? Hell no.

As a nod to Rodgers, you’d have to be a bum to vote for a different quarterback for MVP this year.

Offensive Player of the Year: Cooper Kupp, Rams

I jumped the gun on this one in December, claiming that Jonathan Taylor was a lock for it. Unfortunately, Taylor is stuck with Carson Wentz as his quarterback, so he was a bit at the mercy of that for the season’s first three games and the last two. Still, it was a sensational year for Taylor.

But Cooper Kupp is…god damn. Kupp had at least 92 receiving yards in every game this season except for the first Arizona meeting when he had 64 yards. Kupp’s active streak of 13 games with 90-plus receiving yards is already the NFL record.

If there was ever a modern season where a receiver could win MVP, we saw the elements for it this year with Kupp. He helped Matthew Stafford to a career year while making history of his own with the 90-yard streak. Kupp led the NFL with 145 catches, 1,947 yards, and 16 touchdowns. It also helped that it was a down year for quarterbacks, giving Kupp a shot at MVP.

But Kupp ended up being at the mercy of his coach, quarterback, and defense on Sunday. After a brilliant drive that he ended with a go-ahead touchdown, Kupp never got another catch. Imagine if he would have gone for a 62-yard touchdown in overtime to win the game and go over 2,000 receiving yards. That should have been able to get him at least a couple MVP votes, right? Alas, Stafford threw an interception and the chance at history was over.

Defensive Player of the Year: T.J. Watt, Steelers

Look, Aaron Donald is awesome, but it gets boring to pick him every year. Let’s honor someone who had a historic year. Watt led the league in sacks and tackles for loss for the second year in a row, but he chased history in stunning fashion. While playing a 17th game helped him tie Michael Strahan’s sack record at 22.5 sacks, the fact is Watt only played 15 games, and even that is misleading.

Seemingly getting injured every third drive, Watt missed two full games and had four other games where he played no more than 55% of the snaps. In the 11 games where Watt played at least 50 snaps, he had 20.5 of his 22.5 sacks, so I don’t want to hear a thing about him getting the record cheaply. Strahan is the one who had Favre take a dive for sack #22.5.

The Steelers were also 9-2 in the 11 games he played the most snaps. Watt played a huge role in wins over the Bills, Seahawks, Bears, Ravens, and Browns. In addition to the sacks, he forced five fumbles and got just enough pressure on Lamar Jackson to make a game-deciding two-point conversion fall incomplete in Week 13.

Was it frustrating to see Watt on the sidelines so often? Sure, but he gave it his all when he was on the field. If Watt could ever stay healthy for a 17-game season, I wouldn’t be surprised if he could get to 25 sacks. But he should be able to settle for a share of the record and the award for Defensive Player of the Year.

Offensive Rookie of the Year: Ja’Marr Chase, Bengals

I’ll admit I was falling off the Chase bandwagon and starting to come around to the idea of Mac Jones for this award. It was when Chase followed his 201-yard game against the Ravens with a seven-game stretch where he averaged 3.7 catches for 40.6 yards. But then he lit up the Ravens again before having the best game by any receiver this year against the Chiefs. Jones also had a rough finish to the season in New England.

Chase against Kansas City was actually one of the best receiving games in NFL history. Chase caught 11-of-12 targets for 266 yards and three touchdowns. He converted a third-and-27. He drew two DPI flags on third downs as well. His touchdowns were long and mostly all him with his YAC. He was absolutely incredible.

Justin Jefferson just had one of the all-time great rookie wide receiver seasons in 2020, but Chase was right there with him this season with 81 catches for 1,455 yards and 13 touchdowns. It was ballsy to pass on offensive line and pair Joe Burrow with his college teammate, but I cannot see the Bengals in the position they are in right now if the team took Penei Sewell or Rashawn Slater instead of Chase.

Defensive Rookie of the Year: Micah Parsons, Cowboys

The Cowboys nailed that 12th pick of the draft with Parsons, who finished with 13 sacks, three forced fumbles, and 30 QB hits. He helped the defense lead the NFL in takeaways (34) this year. He’s also personally a trip to watch.

Comeback Player of the Year: Joe Burrow, Bengals

It feels like Dak Prescott was predestined for this one, but I think Burrow, after his own serious knee injury, pulled away with those two monster performances against the Ravens and Chiefs. In the end, he led the NFL this season with 70.4% completions and 8.9 YPA. Prescott’s injury was gruesome and I’m definitely a fan, but I have to give it up for Burrow leading a culture change in Cincinnati and getting this team to a division title in his second year.

Most Improved Player of the Year: Joe Burrow, Bengals

Double-dipping on awards is usually not my style, but not only did Burrow return from a significant injury to lead the Bengals to a great season, but he had a breakout year after giving off some Sam Bradford vibes in 2020. No more concerns there after leading the league in YPA and averaging 12.6 YPC too.

James Conner in Arizona would have been a good pick too, though he only averaged a career-low 3.7 YPC. But he was money as a receiver, catching 37-of-39 targets, and he scored 18 touchdowns.

Coach of the Year: Mike Vrabel, Titans

Remember when this was going to be Brandon Staley, then Kliff Kingsbury, then a little Bill Belichick run too? In the end, Mike Vrabel is the choice after guiding the Titans to the AFC’s top seed despite so many games missed from Derrick Henry, A.J. Brown, and Julio Jones. The Titans had a couple embarrassing losses (Jets and Texans), but they also beat the Bills, Chiefs, Rams, Saints, and 49ers. They also swept the Colts to help win the division.

Tennessee is 8-3 against winning teams this year, the best record in the league. Destroying the Chiefs 27-3 is the main reason this team does not have to worry about travel this postseason.

Assistant Coach of the Year: Rich Bisaccia, Raiders

Did some thinking outside the box on this one. Bisaccia was just a special teams coach before taking over as the interim coach following the Jon Gruden fallout. This team had every reason to fall apart this year with the Gruden scandal and Henry Ruggs’ disaster, but the Raiders hung in there and caught some breaks down the stretch. They won a memorable game against the Chargers to get their 10th win and make the playoffs. Bisaccia could end up getting promoted to the real head coach for next year. I am generally against that move, but let’s see what they can do in this playoff run.

Executive of the Year: Les Snead, Rams

I struggled with this one because I felt like every contender from last year that remained on top this year didn’t do anything special to improve their teams. The New England roster, while improved, is still pretty basic. The Bengals made a great move to draft Chase, but I didn’t want to pick them again here. Dallas’ improvement was largely about getting Prescott back healthy.

So, why not the team that went all in and acquired Matthew Stafford, Von Miller, and Odell Beckham Jr.? So far, it has led to a 12-5 record and the NFC West crown. Things may not end well here at home, but the Rams are in better position to go farther than they did last year, and that was ultimately the goal behind these moves.

NFL Stat Oddity: Week 14

Once again I was ready to proclaim Week 14 as one of the worst I ever covered in my history with the NFL. That’s not hyperbole; that’s research on the closeness of games. Through the 1 p.m. slate, about the closest finish we had all week was the Thursday night game between the Steelers and Vikings, a game where Pittsburgh trailed 29-0 in the third quarter before an impressive attempt at a historic rally came up short. You know it’s bad when one of the six comeback attempts this week was Houston, down 19-13, against Seattle in a game that ended 33-13.

This shit was rotten, and the three games between teams with non-losing records were among the biggest offenders. The Chiefs led the no-show Raiders 35-0 in the first half, the Browns were up 24-3 on the Ravens, and the Cowboys took a 27-8 lead into the fourth quarter in Washington. Two of those games fabricated drama late thanks to the Cowboys and Browns nearly shitting their pants, but there were never any lead changes there.

The 4 p.m. slate always looked better on paper this week, but it was not helping matters with the Chargers and Broncos jumping all over the Giants and Lions in routs. Once again, the two games between non-losing teams were most disappointing. Instead of close, high-scoring affairs, the 49ers led Cincinnati 20-6 late and the Buccaneers got up 27-10 on Buffalo in the fourth quarter. Then a Bears-Packers game to cap off the day? Give me a break. Rams-Cardinals better be an instant classic on Monday night to salvage this.

Then some funny things happened. The Bills and Bengals found their offenses, forced overtime, and both still lost to the only game-winning drives of the week. Then the Bears-Packers game went off the rails in the second quarter with the teams combining for 45 points on a lot of long touchdowns. It was really the most exciting quarter I’ve ever seen in a Bears-Packers game.

So, it ended up not being an all-time stinker of a week (unless you are stuck watching the Jaguars, then they’re all epic stinkers).

This season in Stat Oddity:

Bills at Buccaneers: Interfering with My Plans

If there was an AFC-NFC matchup on the schedule this year that you would have circled as a Super Bowl preview, this was the choice for months. Sure, some would pick Packers-Chiefs, but even if you didn’t know Aaron Rodgers would miss it with COVID, you should still know better than to trust Green Bay to get back to a Super Bowl before the LOAT.

But the Bills looked far from Super coming into this one. They haven’t been able to stack wins since their season peaked with a Week 5 win in Kansas City. NBC’s Cris Collinsworth was ready to give Josh Allen the MVP that night just because the Chiefs couldn’t cover anything deep and couldn’t stop the ball from being tipped for interceptions.

You know who watched Buffalo fail to capitalize on multiple tipped balls in this one? Tom Brady. You know which defense didn’t give up a completion longer than 25 yards? Tampa Bay. But while the usually stout run defense watched Allen unconventionally do it his way for 109 rushing yards, it looked like the Bills putting 100% of the offense on Allen was a total bust.

Buffalo became the first NFL offense since at least 1991 to not give a single carry to a running back in the first half. The first non-quarterback run of the game was in the third quarter, and even that was a fake punt that failed miserably to convert. But despite getting two straight possessions inside Buffalo territory, Tampa Bay came away scoreless. That’s unusual.

Yet with Tampa Bay up 27-10 with 11:20 to play, this felt like it was finished. That’s when Allen quickly drove the Bills 75 yards for a touchdown, watched Brady go three-and-out with two incompletions, drove for another touchdown on a shorter field, and again the defense stopped Brady cold in the four-minute offense of a 27-24 game.

It was like watching Peyton Manning lead the 2009 or 2010 Colts against Brady’s Patriots those years, two attempts at 17-point comebacks in the fourth quarter with vastly different outcomes. Allen landed somewhere between game-winning touchdown and game-ending interception in this one.

The Bills, still winless (0-5) in close games this year, had a great drive going into the red zone, but Allen’s pass to Stefon Diggs in the end zone on third down did not draw a flag despite plenty of contact. I did not hate the no-call, but I’ve seen less get flagged. That led to a field goal and overtime.

While the Bills were red hot on offense, they immediately cooled with a disappointing three-and-out. A great punt pinned Tampa Bay at the 6, and a very close run by Leonard Fournette to convert a third-and-1 helped the Bucs avoid their own three-and-out. Imagine that. Then Brady got his bogus DPI penalty for 19 yards on a throw to Mike Evans, which again speaks to how inconsistently one of the most crucial penalties in the game is applied.

If that’s DPI, then why wasn’t it DPI on the Diggs play? The Bills could have easily won in regulation. When you give a receiver with Evans’ size and talent to a quarterback known to draw more DPI flags (a record number last year) seemingly out of reputation, it’s a nightmare for defenses. Alas, this was shockingly just the second DPI flag drawn by Evans this season. He led all wideouts with nine drawn DPI flags in 2020, not including two big phantom calls before halftime of the Super Bowl when it was still a game.

The Bills did not pass their first actual test without corner Tre’Davious White, though they did hold Brady to 6.78 yards per pass attempt on his first 45 throws. However, Throw 46 was fatal. On a third down near midfield, the game was decided once Brady found Breshad Perriman and he had a clear 58-yard path to the end zone to end this one. Tampa Bay is going 14-3 with this schedule, and this team may not lose another game this season unless someone really steps up. Maybe it’s Arizona or Green Bay or the hottest AFC team, but it probably isn’t Buffalo.

But if there somehow is a rematch in February, then maybe the Bills can take some notes and pride from this near comeback. Like how the Bucs turned things around from Week 12 on the Chiefs last year, or how the 2007 Giants gained confidence from the 16-0 game against the Patriots for that year’s Super Bowl upset.

49ers at Bengals: Look Who Can’t Close Again

The headline looks like I’m going to attack Kyle Shanahan again, but we know the 49ers got a big overtime win in Cincinnati. I’m going to attack Shanahan anyway, but the focus is on Zac Taylor, who is now 2-17 when his Bengals have a 4QC opportunity.

Worse, Taylor’s 4QC record is 1-8 with Joe Burrow as his quarterback. Compare this to the 49ers. Shanahan is a poor 9-21 (.300) at 4QC opportunities, but that record improves to a stellar 8-7 (.533) with Jimmy Garoppolo at quarterback, leaving him at 1-14 with the other quarterbacks.

Fairly small samples, but still about as night and day as it gets. This looks bad for Burrow, who only has a comeback win against the Jaguars, but he was not the big problem in this game. In fact, it could have easily ended in regulation after Burrow tied the game if Robbie Gould hit a 47-yard field goal as time expired for the 49ers. No overtime comeback necessary.

Of course, the 49ers got there after only scoring 20 points on their first 11 drives despite the return of Deebo Samuel. That even included an 8-yard field goal drive and a 31-yard touchdown drive set up by two muffed punts by the Bengals.

While George Kittle (13 catches for 151 yards and a touchdown) was a beast again, this Samuel thing fascinates me. He got eight carries for 37 yards and a touchdown, but Samuel received just one pass target, which he caught for a 22-yard gain. And while Deebo produced a 27-yard touchdown run, his other seven carries produced 10 yards and one first down. That’s kind of lousy production when you’re going to sacrifice his skills as a wideout for that type of rushing.

I thought the 49ers figured something out in their upset of the Rams when Deebo had five catches for 97 yards and a touchdown to go with five runs for 36 yards and a touchdown. Maybe this dual-threat thing is just a reaction to the injuries at running back and getting your most talented player the ball in space, but Samuel is a damn fine wide receiver too. In the last three games, he has three catches for 49 yards. That’s not an average; that’s his TOTAL for three games. In the first nine games this season, Samuel was AVERAGING six catches for 108.8 yards per game. They need to find a better balance of using him on some runs and still utilizing his skill as a No. 1 wide receiver.

This game nearly slipped away with the 49ers not being able to finish more scoring drives. The Bengals finally came to life in the fourth quarter with two touchdowns to Ja’Marr Chase after he dropped one earlier in the game. But after getting the ball first in overtime, the Bengals curled up a bit after two explosive passes and ran the ball twice. Nick Bosa logged a key sack of Burrow on third down and the 49ers held the Bengals to a field goal to extend the game. You’d like to see Burrow finish the game off, which he’s failed to do multiple times this year now against teams like the Bears and Packers.

Garoppolo drove the 49ers 75 yards with no real pressure of the clock and four downs to use. They only came up on a third down once and Kittle converted it with ease. Brandon Aiyuk showed some nifty moves on the game-winning touchdown, just doing enough to break the plane to end the game.

It is fitting for both teams to be 7-6 as they are above average but maddeningly inconsistent. I thought the Bengals would perform better after the Baltimore loss presented a big opportunity in the division race, but the 49ers led most of the game and nearly won in regulation.

It’s also crazy to me that the over (48.5 points) hit on the nose after getting the necessary and very precise combination of a 14-point Cincinnati comeback, a missed game-winning field goal in regulation, a go-ahead field goal to start overtime, and a game-winning touchdown to get to 49 points. Almost like it was fixed.

But when it comes to these Bengals and close games, count on disappointment.

Bears at Packers: 45-30? These Two?

These teams met in prime time for the 16th season in a row, but it may have actually been the best first half they ever played. If you told me Chicago scored 27 points in the first half and it didn’t involve multiple turnovers and return touchdowns a la “We let them off the hook!” I wouldn’t have believed it. The Bears are the first team since the 2020 Packers (in Indy) to score at least 27 points before halftime and lose the game.

In fact, since 1940 the Bears were 51-0 when scoring at least 27 points in the first half. Make that 51-1 now.

I also wouldn’t believe Jakeem Grant turning into Tyreek Hill. I knew he was a fine returner for Miami, but his impact in this game was ridiculous. I still can’t believe how horrific the special teams were for Green Bay, and that doesn’t even include the plays late in the game they caught huge breaks on, like a muffed punt getting wiped out by a player running out of bounds penalty, or a stupid NFL rule that says you cannot advance a muffed onside kick for a touchdown. You absolutely should be able to do that. The way the play happened tonight proves the rule should be changed for onside kicks. Make them a little more fun.

The Bears knocked Aaron Rodgers around in the first quarter, but once his pass protection settled in, he shredded them for 341 yards and four touchdowns. Yes, he still owns the Bears.

Justin Fields mixed some good (big plays and 74 rushing yards) with bad (they were mostly YAC and his pick-six). The Packers dominated the third quarter, 17-0, to prevent the fourth from having any real drama (outside of the spread).

But as far as a Packers-Bears game in prime time, this was passable. Who knows, it could even be the last time Rodgers is involved in one…

Raiders at Chiefs: That First Play Knockout…

I’m really starting to believe it’s impossible to fumble for a touchdown on the first play of scrimmage and not get completely blown out. The Raiders did this in Kansas City with a fumble by Josh Jacobs on a run. That’s less egregious than the high snap over Ben Roethlisberger’s head that led to a Cleveland touchdown in the wild card round last January, or the same thing that happened to Peyton Manning’s Broncos in Super Bowl 48 (for a Seattle safety that time).

The Raiders didn’t show up for this one. They turned the ball over five times, including four lost fumbles. Patrick Mahomes with an elite defense is terrifying, and that’s especially true when he is shredding the Las Vegas defense this season. The big plays returned for the Chiefs’ offense, and they nearly had the first shut out with a 35-point lead at halftime in the NFL since the 2015 Dolphins were up 41-0 on Houston.

The Chiefs get a big test with the Chargers (in LA) on a short week this Thursday. A true first-place battle for the division. But while the Ravens and Bills finally beat the Chiefs triumphantly early in the season, this team is playing much differently now. The defense has been incredible and the offense is not except for the Raiders games. Can’t wait to see that one on Thursday. Meanwhile, the Bills and Ravens are falling apart at the moment. The Chargers are doing well, but the Chiefs have a shot to maintain control of the division and maybe the conference once again.

I’ve been saying it for a couple of weeks, but it really is looking like a season where Patriots-Chiefs is the AFC Championship Game and the winner faces Tampa Bay in the Super Bowl. That sounds absolutely awful, but if no one else is going to step up in this era…

Ravens at Browns: Not This 15-Point Deficit Thing Again…

I really don’t feel like talking about this at 4 AM again, but there were a lot of games this week where a team was down 15 points in the fourth quarter, scored a touchdown, and had a decision to make with a 9-point deficit.

  • PIT/MIN: Steelers tried for two with 12:11 left, failed, got behind by 16, cut that in half, and eventually lost 36-28.
  • CAR/ATL: Panthers kicked extra point at 3:11, kicked off deep with four clock stoppages, but left Kyle Pitts wide open on a third-and-14 and couldn’t get the ball back in a 29-21 loss.
  • BAL/CLE: Ravens tried for two with 8:56 left, failed, scored a touchdown on their second drive with 1:17 left, recovered a miracle onside kick, and went four-and-out after a horrific ALEX throw on fourth down by backup Tyler Huntley, who performed better off the bench than Lamar Jackson (ankle) played in a win against Cleveland two weeks ago. The Browns won 24-22 this time as the Ravens (+2.5) got a miracle cover but still lost.

I was lukewarm with Pittsburgh’s decision, because I think Troy Aikman actually made the proper point that kicking and making it an 8-point game (one possession) would keep the pressure on a Minnesota team that has choked away games all year long. When you run a terrible two-point play and don’t get it like Pittsburgh did and trail by nine, that would take a lot of air out of my sail and let the Vikings relax a little. I think we saw that with the long touchdown the Steelers gave up falling behind 16, but after a Kirk Cousins pick, the Steelers had a chance at the end of the game still. But the main reason I didn’t hate Mike Tomlin’s call is that it was so early in the quarter that they had plenty of time to answer from a two-score deficit.

I thought Matt Rhule absolutely made the right call to kick, but he initially wanted to go for it and was only turned away by a false start that pushed the ball back 5 yards. Again, why effectively decide the game at 3:11? Extend the game, kick the extra point, make it a one-possession game, and put the pressure on an Atlanta team that folds as much as anyone. The Falcons even started with a holding penalty and 1st-and-20, but the Carolina defense collapsed and couldn’t get the ball back. But just keep extending the game.

Then we have this Baltimore one, which wasn’t as early in the game as Pittsburgh, but not as late as Carolina. I’m supposed to believe John Harbaugh is a genius because his failed 2PC with the backup QB led to a Cleveland 3-and-out, Baltimore 3-and-out, Cleveland 3-and-out, 90-yard Baltimore touchdown drive, and miracle onside kick recovery with 1:15 left? Really?

How about you let the best kicker ever make that extra point to go to 24-16, then when you get that touchdown later, you have your shot at the game-tying two-point conversion you fucked up a week ago? And guess what? If you blow it again, you can still onside kick and recover your miracle kick and go win on a field goal.

The “go for two early” crowd continue to make two bad assumptions and ignore that their decision is more likely to lead to needing to recover one, if not two onside kicks. It ignores that the difference in the likelihood of a seven and eight-point comeback is not more significant than the difference between seven and nine-point comebacks.

The first bad assumption is that “having more information” actually makes offenses play differently in these situations. They flat out don’t do that in the NFL. A team down 9-11 points is not going to run a super-fast no-huddle offense with so many minutes left in the quarter. They’re going to run things similar to a team down 4-8 points with an eye on the touchdown first. Were the Ravens in hurry-up mode down 15 with 11:30 left, knowing the information that they may need three scoring drives the rest of the way? No, they dicked around with a 2-yard run, a loss of 3 yards on a pass to the back that took up 40 seconds, and they were fortunate to convert a 4th-and-11 at their own 30 that should have effectively ended the game early if Cleveland got the stop.

It was only with 5:26 left, and the Ravens down two possessions thanks to the failed 2PC, that Baltimore got into a more conventional hurry-up offense.

The second bad assumption is that teams down 8 points are trying to score a touchdown as late as possible, leaving themselves little time if the tying 2PC fails. Again, this is wrong. Most offenses take touchdowns as they come. Many even try to force plays way too early that would leave too much time for the opponent to answer. Do I need to remind Baltimore fans of Joe Flacco’s interception down 35-31 in the 2014 playoffs in New England? What was that going to accomplish other than leaving Brady enough time to win the game in regulation?

In a perfect world you can score a touchdown at the exact time you want, but it doesn’t work that way in reality most of the time. Look at the Davante Adams touchdown before halftime for Green Bay. They left enough time for the Bears to add another field goal. It happens. That’s just the NFL.

So there is no reason to assume that the Ravens would have scored significantly later than the 1:17 that they scored their touchdown with. There’s also no reason not to think had they been down 24-22 and failed on a game-tying 2PC, they could still try the onside kick and recover like they did. It does not take long to set up a field goal, and Justin Tucker’s range is as good as anyone. Alas, the Ravens had a weak final drive and lost the game.

But acting like the failed 2PC call early is WHY the Ravens would have won rather than an inexplicable onside kick recovery is the type of silliness that makes me rant about this every single time. Why couldn’t they possibly get the same onside kick recovery and GW FG had they gone for two only when they had to?

Hopefully Lamar isn’t out long, because there are still some battles to be had with this Baltimore team even as it continues to struggle.

Cowboys at Washington: What the Dak?

Did you know Dak Prescott (45.9) is ranked 23rd in QBR this season, one spot ahead of Ben Roethlisberger (43.4)? Yet I don’t see much criticism of the 28-year-old quarterback who should be in his prime on a loaded offense like I do of the 39-year-old quarterback on his way to retirement. While Roethlisberger has gotten better over the last eight games, Prescott’s season seems to be going the other direction after a hot start.

But even going back to opening night in Tampa Bay when he sailed a pass for CeeDee Lamb for an interception, something just seems to be off with this offense too often for my liking. Even two months ago, I was not feeling the Dak for MVP love at all.

While the team’s best running back these days (Tony Pollard) was out, the Cowboys still gave Dak Tyron Smith at left tackle, his top three wideouts, and Ezekiel Elliott. The Cowboys scored one offensive touchdown on a 41-yard field set up by an outstanding interception by Randy Gregory, who should be a lock for NFC Defensive Player of the Week.

It was also Gregory who forced a crucial strip-sack of Washington backup quarterback Kyle Allen after the Cowboys nearly blew a 27-8 lead in the fourth quarter thanks to a Prescott pick-six with 4:13 left. But Gregory closed the door on that comeback at 27-20, and Dak finally ran for a game-clinching first down to end it.

I never thought the Dallas defense would jump ahead of the offense like this, but that seems to be where we’re at this season. With only one non-division game left on the schedule, we’ll see just how much of a contender Dallas can be in the playoffs when the Cowboys host Arizona in Week 17.

Hurry-Up Finish

Some quick thoughts as I race to complete more tasks before getting to sleep.

Giants at Chargers: Herbert, FTW

I may have to formally share my Justin Herbert MVP thoughts this week, but for now, here’s a brilliant deep throw for a touchdown to escape pressure and convert a third-and-long.

The ball traveled 63.8 yards in the air according to Next Gen Stats, second-longest completion of 2021. Herbert has hit 10 passes of 55-plus air yards since 2020 to lead the league. The kid is special, and in this game, he became just the 16th unique QB in NFL history to throw 30 touchdowns in consecutive seasons and the first to do it in his first two professional seasons.

Saints at Jets: Gambling Is Dumb (NFL Exhibit 18,194)

I made one Same Game Parlay on this silly game, and it hit because Taysom Hill decided to keep running for a 44-yard touchdown on 3rd-and-12 while leading 23-9 with just over a minute left. He could have gone down at any time after getting the first down, but he kept going, allowing his 60+ rushing yards prop to hit.

Gambling is dumb and winning doesn’t make you feel smart. But it still feels a hell of a lot better than losing.

Jaguars at Titans: Before You Make That 1998 Peyton Manning Comparison…

I promise I am going to make that piece about why bad rookie quarterback seasons should not be compared to Peyton Manning’s 1998 rookie campaign, which set a record for interceptions (28) but also smashed a lot of other rookie records at the time. By the seventh game, Manning started to figure things out and the Colts were an above-average offense. He showed real improvement while someone like Trevor Lawrence seems to be doing no such thing under the terrible coaching of Urban “Dead Man Walking” Meyer.

Lawrence threw four interceptions of varying degrees of egregiousness in Jacksonville’s 20-0 loss against the Titans. It was the fifth game this season where Lawrence led the Jaguars to fewer than 11 points, something that happened twice in Manning’s 16-game rookie season and five times in his first 72 starts. That Lawrence total does not include a sixth game against Denver where only a kick return touchdown got the Jaguars to 13 points as the offense managed one touchdown in a 23-13 loss.

Again, hold out hope that this is 2016-17 Jared Goff all over again, but the Jaguars better find one hell of a coach to get that kind of improvement in 2022. Adding some talent would help too. Lawrence was using Tavon Austin and Carlos Hyde on crucial downs today. In 2021. Christ.

Next week: The very rare, front-loaded week. I’m hoping Chiefs-Chargers (TNF) and Colts-Patriots (Saturday Night Football) deliver enough that I can forgive the shitfests to come on SNF (Saints-Bucs) and MNF (Bears-Vikings).

NFL Week 1 Predictions: 2021 Awards Edition

While the Buccaneers looked far from flawless on Thursday night against Dallas, they won again, getting off to a good start as the team I picked to repeat and beat the Chiefs again in February.

After writing those predictions and my mini-novel about the top 100 quarterbacks of the 21st century, I had no room left for my awards picks. I really struggle getting these right in September and my only hit last year was Chase Young for Defensive Rookie of the Year. I had Nick Bosa for DPOY and he tore his ACL in Week 2. I had Joe Burrow for OROY and injury (and Justin Herbert’s superior play) did him in as well. Injury also totally derailed my MVP/coach pick of Dak Prescott and Mike McCarthy in Dallas. I went back to the drawing board, though I did not erase Dalvin Cook for OPOY and Bosa for DPOY. I’m sticking with my gut on those two. I think people picking Aaron Donald is getting old and if the 49ers are supposed to have this great year, projected to do better than the Browns (Myles Garrett) and Steelers (T.J. Watt), then Bosa is probably going to be the star there.

  • Most Valuable Player: Tom Brady, Buccaneers
  • Coach of the Year: Brandon Staley, Chargers
  • Assistant Coach of the Year: Jack Del Rio, Washington
  • Offensive Player of the Year: Dalvin Cook, Vikings
  • Defensive Player of the Year: Nick Bosa, 49ers
  • Offensive Rookie of the Year: Kyle Pitts, Falcons
  • Defensive Rookie of the Year: Jamin Davis, Washington
  • Comeback Player of the Year: Dak Prescott, Cowboys

MVP: Last year I picked the Bucs to finish 11-5 and be the No. 5 seed, which came true. This time I picked Tampa Bay to finish 15-2, or two games ahead of any other team. I also picked the Chargers to make the playoffs with 10 wins, which is why I think you’ll see Brandon Staley get the coach award since it often goes to a newcomer who takes a losing team to the playoffs. Bruce Arians has already won the award twice, and besides, we know Brady gets all the credit for everything on his team. The “he’s 44!” line is going to be used every single game no matter how he plays.

But I’m not using Thursday night as a cheat code to make this pick after Brady threw four touchdowns. I’m sure this season I’ll show off the $200 ticket I got on Brady winning MVP (at +1200) that I made Wednesday night out of disgust for the season I saw coming. He finished last year on a high note. He has the most loaded receiving corps in the league as you can already see that Gronk is still a beast and Antonio Brown is going to milk this opportunity he doesn’t deserve for all it’s worth.

I already sense people take Patrick Mahomes for granted, and I do have some concerns that the Chiefs may not be as explosive or efficient on offense this year unless Mecole Hardman pulls his head out of his ass and has a breakout season. Where I think they can improve most is running the ball with the revamped line, but that should not bolster Mahomes’ MVP case. I just think he’ll have lesser stats than 2018 and a worse record than 2020.

I see Josh Allen and Aaron Rodgers taking a step back statistically in 2021. Rodgers has never gone MVP back-to-back. I think the 1-yard touchdowns are cut down and he won’t lead the league again in that stat or have such a high passer rating in a season that should feature more defense with the crowd backs. Maybe someone like Herbert or Dak (he could throw for 6,000 yards) is a darkhorse, but I felt confident with the Brady pick.

Enough to where I might as well win some money out of this crap.

NFL Week 1 Predictions

I started the year with a win as I changed my pick from Buccaneers -7.5 to Cowboys +9.5 as I saw the line move to that on Thursday. My final score was 31-23 TB, so I got the over as well. After updating my database in recent weeks so that I now have over 200 columns of data on every game in the last 20 seasons, I am ready to share some more interesting stats this season that you will find here and certainly on Twitter and in the articles I write.

I also discovered just how hard it is to write a Week 1 preview when we just don’t have any new data yet. Plus we are now seeing so many quarterbacks switch teams and new head coaches that it really is hard to say a lot about these games until we start seeing what these teams look like in 2021. But over at BMR I did write previews for Chargers-Washington, Bears-Rams, and Ravens-Raiders.

We have my first stat second-guessing of the season in Detroit where the 49ers are up to 8.5 as they try to spoil the Dan Campbell debut. I really want to stay away from that game after seeing that road favorites of 8.5+ in Week 1 are 0-6 ATS since 2001. Jared Goff is very familiar with them and while he is only 3-5 against the 49ers, only one of those games was a loss by more than eight points.

For Steelers-Bills, it is rare territory for the Steelers to be 6.5-point underdogs like this. It is only the ninth time that will happen for a game with Ben Roethlisberger at quarterback. He is 1-7 SU (beat the 2005 Colts in the playoffs) and 3-4-1 ATS. I would say a Josh Allen rushing TD is a good prop bet after Keith Butler talked up treating him like a RB on runs this week. I also like Najee Harris to find the end zone in that one. In fact, I like several rookies to score touchdowns this weekend, including Trevor Lawrence and Kyle Pitts. Seven rookies scored in their Week 1 debut last year, including Joe Burrow, Clyde Edwards-Helaire, and J.K. Dobbins. We’ve seen A.J. Green, Randall Cobb, and Tyler Lockett do it too as part of 64 rookies since 2011 who scored touchdowns in Week 1. Don’t be afraid to bet on these guys this weekend to make a good first impression.

I’ll be focusing on Steelers-Bills at 1 PM and Browns-Chiefs at 4:30 PM, so it won’t be much of a RedZone Sunday for me. Still very excited for Sunday and seeing these games play out. I’m also glad to see there is no MNF double-header as I always felt so drained by the time that second game came on in past years. Good move, NFL.

But it’s here. We get to see if some of these teams are for real, and if Carson Wentz can suck ass against the Seahawks with two different franchises.

Top 100 NFL Quarterbacks of the 21st Century: Part V (30-21)

Including the playoffs, there are 100 NFL quarterbacks who have started at least 30 games in the last 20 seasons (2001-20). In part I, I began to rank these quarterbacks from No. 100 to No. 87, looking at the worst of the bunch. In part II, I looked at some more serviceable players who may have had one special season in their career. In part III, the players included more multi-year starters who still may have only had that one peak year as well as some younger players still developing. In part IV, I had an especially difficult time with slotting quarterbacks I have criticized for years, but who definitely had a peak year.

Part I (#100-87)

Part II (#86-72)

Part III (#71-51)

Part IV (#50-31)

With these next 10 quarterbacks, we are finally getting into some legitimate franchise quarterbacks. Players who were very good for more than just one year. However, we start with a polarizing figure who is coming off a career year.

30. Josh Allen

Technically, Allen is still a one-year wonder until he proves that 2020 is not his only great season. He was awful as a rookie and rode his defense to the playoffs in his second season, only showing some marginal improvement as a passer. But last year, he had an MVP-caliber season. Not a fake one either like 2016 Derek Carr or 2017 Carson Wentz. It was also better than 2015 Andy Dalton, 2015 Cam Newton, 2018 Jared Goff, 2019 Ryan Tannehill, and 2019 Jimmy Garoppolo. You see where I’m going with this, right? This is why he’s at No. 30 and ahead of those guys.

I think the way the Bills let Allen take over games and that he led the offense to at least 20 first downs in every regular season game gives hope that he can repeat this success. He didn’t rely on a strong running game as the Bills barely broke 1,300 yards to support his dual-threat abilities. The defense regressed to mediocre last year and the Bills ranked No. 8 in starting field position, so it was not like the 2015 Panthers or 2017 Eagles feasting on short fields to aid their scoring. The Bills were middle of the road in YAC per completion, so he was not getting that boost a la Goff or Garoppolo.

I’m still very uneasy with the idea that Allen will be an elite quarterback on an annual basis, but going off last year, I have to believe now he has a good shot at it. I just never would have expected this a year ago.

29. Jeff Garcia

This just misses Garcia’s peak breakout year in 2000, but he was still very good for the 49ers in 2001, had an amazing playoff comeback against the Giants in 2002, and he also helped the Eagles (2006) and Buccaneers (2007) to the playoffs. Certainly, a player who enjoyed the West Coast Offense on a competent team as he wasn’t going to elevate the Browns (2004) or Lions (2005) when he was there. I’d rank him a little higher if he did, but Garcia was a good quarterback with accuracy and mobility in the right situations.

28. Trent Green

Green had a rough first season with the Chiefs in 2001 when he threw 24 picks to lead the NFL. But over the next four seasons (2002-05), Kansas City was right up there with the Colts as the most fun offense to watch. They were loaded with one of the best offensive lines, Priest Holmes and Larry Johnson in the backfield, and Tony Gonzalez at tight end. The wide receivers were lacking in comparison to what the other top offenses had, but they made it work with Green posting some great numbers. Unfortunately, the defenses were terrible in 2002 and 2004, so they missed the playoffs. They also missed out as a 10-win team in a loaded AFC in 2005. Then in 2003 when the team was 13-3, they opened with their nemesis from Indianapolis, and the Colts prevailed 38-31 in a game that did not feature a single punt.

By 2006, Green suffered a concussion and was never the same. He was outplayed by Damon Huard that year, and I think it’s clear that Huard should have started the wild card game in Indianapolis instead of Green. The Chiefs lost 23-8 with Green having one of the worst statistical games of his career (14-of-24 for 107 yards, 1 TD, 2 INT, four sacks). After 2005, he was 4-10 as a starter with 12 TD and 22 INT.

But that four-year period in 2002-05 was special. If you want an amusing stat on the context of where quarterback stats used to be in the NFL, consider this one. Green is the second quarterback in NFL history after Brett Favre (1994-97) to have four straight seasons with a passer rating over 90.0 (min. 450 attempts).

27. Chad Pennington

Odd-numbered year Pennington would not have made my list because he failed to start 30 games in those injury-plagued seasons in 2003, 2005, 2007, and 2009. But even-numbered year Pennington in 2002, 2004, 2006, and 2008? He was pretty much just as good and sometimes better than early Tom Brady but without Bill Belichick and all those great advantages of a complete team. Can you imagine Brady’s kicker missing two game-winning field goals in the playoffs against a 15-1 team? That denied Pennington his best shot at getting to a Super Bowl by beating Drew Brees, Ben Roethlisberger, and Brady in the same postseason.

Pennington finished No. 7 in QBR in 2006 and 2008. If the stat went back further, he probably would have finished close to that in 2004 and a good shot at No. 1 in 2002. That was the year he came off the bench to take over for Vinny Testaverde and led the Jets to a division title over Brady’s Patriots and a playoff win over Manning’s Colts. Pennington finished 2002 ranked No. 1 in DVOA, No. 2 in DYAR despite only 12 starts, and he led the NFL in completion percentage, TD%, and passer rating back when a 104.2 rating meant something.

Stylistically, Pennington was never my cup of tea. He was a dink-and-dunk quarterback like Brady, but his efficiency numbers in 2002 were something Brady never could achieve until 2007. But after numerous injuries, it just took more out of Pennington’s already limited arm. By 2008, he was in Miami and helped turn around a Dolphins team from 1-15 to 11-5 and the playoffs. He bombed in the playoffs with four interceptions against a tough Baltimore defense. In 2009, he lost a Monday night game to the Colts after his defense allowed 27 points in just 14:53 time of possession. That would be the last start he finished in the NFL.

Pennington was the closest thing to a formidable quarterback rival the Patriots had to deal with in their division for two decades during their dynasty run.

26. Michael Vick

My line on Vick a decade ago was when has a quarterback ever cost so much to produce so little? The answer to that is now Sam Bradford. At least Vick had some successful seasons, an incredible highlight reel, and I think he is still the most dangerous runner to ever play quarterback. Lamar Jackson runs more than Vick did and is a better passer, which is why he will have more success than Vick, but in terms of pure rushing ability, I’d still take Vick’s legs over anyone.

My first real glimpse of it was in 2002 when he erased a 17-point deficit in the fourth quarter in Pittsburgh. The game ended in a 34-34 tie, the first tie I ever remember watching in the NFL. Vick had more prolific rushing numbers in 2004 and 2006, but I still think 2002 was his best dual-threat season in Atlanta. He did not develop enough as a passer.

Then we started learning about the silliness of Ron Mexico, his immaturity, and then the disgusting details of his involvement in dogfighting in 2007. I’m not sure his career recovers in today’s climate, but the Eagles and Andy Reid gave him a second shot. He took over for an injured Kevin Kolb in 2010 and had a really fine season that could have even been MVP worthy if he had been a 16-game starter. Reid definitely got more out of him as a passer and I think if you watched a highlight reel of Vick, a lot of the throws would come from that 2010 season. Who can forget the Washington game when he threw for 333 yards, four touchdowns, and rushed for 80 yards and two more touchdowns? That was peak Vick in Philly.

Of course, his shot at glory came in the wild card playoffs and he missed it when he threw a game-ending interception against the Packers. It was inches away from being a touchdown, which could have meant zero rings for Aaron Rodgers to this day. After that stellar season, Vick signed yet another huge contract that I can recall bashing for an article on Cold, Hard Football Facts that is no longer active. Sure enough, the Dream Team faltered, and Vick did not repeat his success. He did not have a horrible season, but it was just not up to the level of the contract he just signed. He did have a poor season in 2012 that led to Reid being fired, and only for a few games did it look like the marriage with Chip Kelly would work. Nick Foles ended up being the star of that 2013 season and Vick’s time as a franchise quarterback was over.

It will be hard to write about the history of the NFL without mentioning Vick. We are seeing quarterbacks enter the league now who probably grew up watching him. But now these great athletes who decide to play quarterback tend to be passers first, rushers second. We have seen this with Cam Newton, Russell Wilson, Dak Prescott, Deshaun Watson, Patrick Mahomes, Josh Allen, etc. Even someone like Justin Herbert can move a little. The days of the statuesque pocket passer are numbered. I think Vick has influenced this more than any other quarterback, but his career shortcomings are also a lesson that the ability to pass and leadership are still very important to having a successful career at this position in the NFL.

25. Cam Newton

I feel like there are two dominant ways to cover Cam Newton’s career, and I have never fit in either one of them. One is to praise and prop him up no matter what. Inflate the greatness of his rookie season, give him an MVP he didn’t deserve, blame everything bad on his health and blame the Carolina offensive line for his health, etc. The other is to criticize him for some of the silliest things that have nothing to do with football like his style selection, his “fake smile” as was once used in a scouting report, the font in his social media posts, or if you’re a shitbag from Boston still stuck in the 1990s, you blame rap music for distracting Cam in practice.

For me, there has always been enough on-field issues with Newton to criticize his play on that basis and not worry about the other noise. So, that is what I’ve been doing for a decade on this blog and elsewhere. Newton has destroyed the quarterback record for rushing touchdowns with 70, but I still think with more than half of those coming from inside the 3-yard line and only two longer than 16 yards, it’s a reflection of unique usage rather than remarkable efficiency. Given the health problems he has had in his career, it is hard to argue that it has been the smart way to use him.

But it’s that rushing success that has to carry Cam over since his passing has never been consistent enough. Even when he won MVP in 2015, he finished 11th in QBR because he was only 12th in pass EPA. I will always say I think Carson Palmer deserved that award more that year, but Newton did have the 11-game peak of his career in Weeks 9-20 that season. From the Green Bay game through the NFC Championship Game win, he threw 27 touchdowns to three interceptions and rushed for eight more scores. That is the foundation of an MVP season, but he was nowhere near that level in the first seven games (11 TD, 8 INT, 78.1 PR). And we know how poorly he played in the Super Bowl against Denver’s tough defense. Those two fumbles caused by Von Miller were the difference in the game.

Newton regressed in 2016, bounced back in 2017, and was doing well in 2018 until he lost his last six starts and injury crept up again. He was not doing bad at all in his first three games with the Patriots last year, but once he got COVD, he was a mess. You couldn’t even trust him to throw for 100 yards, which he failed to do in three different starts.

I have not done the work to verify this yet, but it is hard to imagine there is another quarterback in NFL history with a winning record as a starter (75-63-1) who has had a losing record in 70% of his seasons (7-of-10). Newton is for a fact the only one to do it since 2001 (min. 30 starts).

Now, we have the surprise cut in New England last week as he lost his job to rookie Mac Jones. Newton had a chance to be Tom Brady’s successor and coached by Bill Belichick, but he dropped the bag again. That was the last sign I needed that I could not possibly rank him higher than 25th.

You are probably wondering why rank him this high at all? For starters, if I am ranking a player lower than I perceive the average person would, my instinct is to make the write-up more negative and focus on his flaws to justify my lower ranking. Likewise, if I rank a player higher than I perceive the average person would (like Jared Goff), I make it sound positive to justify why I am that high. That feels pretty logical and normal to me.

But without running back through the last 75 names, I can acknowledge that Newton is a unique talent as a runner and passer who has not played with the greatest collection of talent in the league. By the time he got to the Patriots, those shelves looked like a grocery store three months into the zombie apocalypse.

I can say that Cam’s A-game is top 25 worthy on this list. I think on the strength of his rookie season, his MVP/Super Bowl season, and that 2017 playoff season, just those three seasons alone have to put him in the top 40. With those highs on his resume, then it is just a matter of placing him over your hollow stat guys (Cousins/Bulger/Green), your injured/implosion guys (Pennington/Delhomme/Schaub/Cutler), your playoff heroes (Foles/Flacco), or a guy who was blackballed (Kaepernick) and one who took forever to break out (Tannehill). I also put Newton ahead of Vick because I think he’s been able to achieve more as a passer.

Will I have anything more to say about Newton going forward? That’s on him to decide. Either way, I’ll keep it focused to what he does on the field.

24. Matthew Stafford

While Cam Newton got cut by the Patriots, Matthew Stafford fetched a couple first-round picks from the Rams this year. That makes me feel justified in this ranking, though I’ve always kept them pretty close together since 2011 when they both had their breakout year.

Stafford is more my style of a passing quarterback, though he has never put together a truly elite season yet. He has had several very good seasons and taking the Lions to the playoffs three times is no small feat, but my line on him has been that most of the league would have to retire for him to be a top 10 quarterback. Well, we’re getting pretty close with retirements from Peyton Manning, Tony Romo, Carson Palmer, Andrew Luck, Philip Rivers, and Drew Brees in recent years. That’s a bit of a spoiler alert for who is still to come, by the way.

And yes, Stafford is 8-68 (.105) against teams that finish the season with a winning record as I wrote about in detail for the Rams preview. I was the writer who put that stat out many years ago and it became a talking point in the front office in Detroit, and I have to imagine Stafford is personally aware of his record.

So, we’ll see how he does with the Rams and Sean McVay and a roster with a few elite players. But it is a tough division, and he will have to do something he’s never done in 12 years: beat multiple teams with a winning record. Forget the playoffs, if you consider the teams he needs to beat in the regular season just to get a good seed to make that Super Bowl run realistic, we could be talking about six or more wins this year against winning teams. But again, I think he is a talented player who was limited in success by his surroundings in Detroit, so I am excited to see what happens this year.

23. Steve McNair

Some of McNair’s best work came before 2001, but I still have him high because I respected him. Watching him kick the Steelers’ ass almost annually was really frustrating. There was a stretch from 1997-2003 where he was 10-2 against the Steelers. One of those games he just came off the bench at the end and led a game-winning drive with ease. Another was that exciting divisional round playoff game in the 2002 season, a 34-31 overtime win for the Titans.

Given the way we roast Jeff Fisher as the 7-9 coach, McNair deserves a lot of credit for getting to so many big playoff games with him and winning co-MVP in 2003. Granted, I think Peyton Manning should have won that award outright, but I can understand where people were coming from on McNair leading the league in YPA and passer rating that year. I just didn’t like the fact that the Titans won both games he missed and he lost both head-to-head games and the division title to Manning’s Colts. But anyways, he absolutely had a shot to beat the Patriots in the divisional round that year, but Drew Bennett dropped a pass on fourth down. (You know who willed it.)

McNair was also a steady quarterback for a 2006 Baltimore team that just needed him to not screw things up. Well, he kind of did in the playoffs against the Colts and the team lost 15-6. He only started six more games in 2007 before retiring. But retirement was not for long after he was the victim of a murder-suicide on the Fourth of July in 2009. I still often think about McNair on that holiday as the breaking news of that moment was such a shocking, tragic event.

22. Deshaun Watson

Twenty-two, does that number ring a bell? That’s how many women are accusing Watson of sexual assault. If all 22 players on a football field accused Watson of some misconduct, and they each had a detailed story about it that shows some clear patterns of bad behavior, would you say all 22 are lying and fabricated their stories? The only All-22 I want from Watson right now is the truth about these accusations because it sure feels like he has pissed away a potential Hall of Fame career and deserves to go to prison.

Then again, we’re talking about the NFL – not the governor of New York or the host of Jeopardy! or The Jump, so maybe he still has a shot to continue his QB1 career somewhere. For a league that has blackballed Colin Kaepernick over social justice and ended Ray Rice’s career over one video of the worst moment of his life, they remain quiet and gutless over a superstar who may be the Bill Cosby of the NFL. I want to see some leadership and action on this, because letting him play this year with this hanging over the team would be a total farce.

I was definitely a fan of Watson’s, so this is disappointing on many levels. Some of my favorite athletes and directors have gone through scandal before, but never on a scale of this many accusers. While I doubt the full truth is ever going to come out as it rarely does in these cases, I hope we hear his side of the story. A bunch of settlements and sweeping this under the rug like it never happened would be inexcusable, but the cynic in me still sees that as the most likely outcome.

Today in this country we have a very fucked up system of deciding who must go away and who gets to continue their career. What ever happened to the punishment fitting the crime?

21. Dak Prescott

I still believe Dak Prescott had the best rookie quarterback season in NFL history in 2016. He just had the misfortune of running into a hot Aaron Rodgers in the playoffs that year and not getting the ball last. Prescott was off to a good start in his second season before hitting a rough patch when the offense was shorthanded (injured Tyron Smith, suspended Ezekiel Elliott). This alarmingly carried over into 2018 and it’s that 13-game slump that really soured a lot of people on Dak. But not me. If someone was really good for 24 games, then slumped for 13 games, I think you should still trust the larger sample size.

Once the Cowboys got Amari Cooper, who I never thought was that special in Oakland, situated as the No. 1 wideout, Prescott picked things up again. He led the team to a playoff win over the Seahawks, and then in 2019 he started to take control of the offense as a prolific passer. He threw for 4,902 yards, but the team went 0-8 when it failed to score at least 31 points. Last year, Dak was off to an incredible start before breaking his ankle. He was two attempts shy of qualifying his 371.2 passing yards per game average as a new NFL record. He passed for 450 yards in three straight games, another NFL first, but it was more out of necessity with Dallas’ horrific defense and his teammate’s lack of ball security with fumbles.

I think Prescott is easy to root for, he has continued to improve his game, and he has shown he can put the team on his back. He had 15 game-winning drives in his first three seasons but only one since 2019. I look for him to have a huge year in 2021, but I’m not so sure the Dallas defense is ready for it to be a special Super Bowl year.

But Prescott is absolutely a quarterback who can step up and take Dallas there in an NFC that should not have Tom Brady and Aaron Rodgers for that much longer.

Coming in Part VI: Two Hall of Famers and a few who could have been in Canton.

NFL Stat Oddity: Week 4

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

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

2020: Defense Does Not Exist

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Rookie QBs Make History, But with an Asterisk?

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

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

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

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

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

Of Course the Chargers Blew It Against Tom Brady

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Matt Patricia Is Who I Thought He Was

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

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

I roasted Patricia in 2018 when the Lions hired him:

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

Kyler Murray: Deja Ew

Rest in peace to the Kyler Murray 2020 MVP Campaign:

Born 9/13/2020

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

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

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

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

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

Mike McCarthy: When Trying Too Hard Backfired for the Cowboys

The Dallas Cowboys entered 2020 with high expectations — I picked them for the Super Bowl and an MVP season for Dak Prescott. While a Week 1 loss in Los Angeles on Sunday night doesn’t crush those hopes, it was one of the more disappointing debuts, a 20-17 final that played out much like many of the losses the Cowboys had in 2019.

It’s almost like head coach Jason Garrett never left, but his replacement, Mike McCarthy, may have been too eager to shed his past reputation with a decision that proved costly for Dallas.

Down 20-17 with just under 12 minutes remaining, the Cowboys eschewed a 29-yard game-tying field goal attempt to keep the offense on the field for a 4th-and-3 play at the Los Angeles 11. Prescott threw short of the sticks to rookie wideout CeeDee Lamb for only a 2-yard gain and the Cowboys turned the ball over on downs. They never got the ball past their own 34 on their next two drives and no more points were scored in the game.

That’s now 15 straight drives (spread across seven losses) where the Dallas offense has failed to tie or take the lead of a one-score game in the fourth quarter going back to the 2018 divisional round loss to the Rams.

The beginning of the end for McCarthy in Green Bay was the 2014 NFC Championship Game in Seattle when he made too many conservative calls for field goals early in the game despite great field position. He never was able to shake that reputation, and in his first game back after a year off from coaching, he may have tried too hard to show that he’s changed with this first big decision of his Dallas career.

McCarthy defended the call by saying he wanted to create more momentum and that “the conservative play is to kick the field goal, but I felt good about how we were moving.”

Believe it or not, but had Garrett still been the Dallas coach, this game likely would have gone to overtime. Garrett would have kicked the field goal to knot it at 20, clapped like they just won the Super Bowl, and the game where both offenses were not turning their opportunities into points would have gone on.

This was only the 12th game in NFL history where both offenses gained at least 380 yards, but zero points were scored in the fourth quarter. Sean McVay’s Rams were also involved in the 11th such game, a 24-10 win over Cincinnati in 2019.

But McCarthy went for it where a field goal actually would have been the better call. The Cowboys dialed up a play that clearly wasn’t trying to score a touchdown, but instead get the first down. Even that is arguable with the placement of the ball short of the sticks, but we’ll put that on Prescott and Lamb. The fact is Dallas was taking a risk to maybe get a first-and-goal situation. The drive still could have ended up with a field goal attempt for all we know. A sack or holding penalty on the very next snap could have easily led to that. So it’s not like the Cowboys were in a touchdown-or-bust situation where even a failure has the Rams backed up in front of their own end zone.

While there were still nearly 12 minutes left, that argument cuts both ways. It is defensible with that much time that they could still have multiple opportunities the rest of the way. However, it is not a sure thing that they’ll get the ball back down 20-17. It could be 27-17 too. Also, a 24-20 lead with that much time isn’t a lock to win the game as the Rams would have chances to still win with a touchdown too. Ultimately, it was not essential for the Cowboys to get a touchdown on this drive, so they should have just kicked the short field goal (not a lock, but close) and tied the game.

This call is really one of a kind in recent NFL history.

Since 1994, teams have faced 4th-and-2 or longer in the red zone while trailing by 1-3 points in the fourth quarter 349 times. A whopping 346 of those teams decided to kick a field goal.

Two teams (2003 Jaguars vs. Colts, 2005 Titans vs. Cardinals) botched their field goal process (snap/hold) and didn’t get a kick off, let alone score. Only three offenses actually stayed on the field:

  • 2009 Raiders vs. Broncos: Down 16-13 on the first play of the quarter, Darren McFadden was stopped after a 2-yard run on 4th-and-goal from the Denver 3.
  • 2017 Browns vs. Jets: Down 10-7 with 13:03 left, Isaiah Crowell was stopped after a 1-yard run on 4th-and-2 at the NYJ 4.
  • 2020 Cowboys vs. Rams: The only play of the three that came outside the 4-yard line.

Those other two decisions were more defensible than Dallas’ decision. While Cleveland’s play wasn’t goal-to-go, it was still an attempt to score or get the ball inside the 2. It failed, and the Jets actually drove 97 yards for a touchdown that basically put the game away.

That’s a great example of what makes fourth-quarter decision making so difficult and important. When the margin for error shrinks so much due to time, you can’t pass up sure things that often. The field goal to tie should have been a sure thing for Dallas. There could even be an advantage to tying the game instead of going up 24-20 if it means the Rams would be more conservative on offense if it was 20-20.

McCarthy has at least 15 more games to make up for this one, but it’s hard to believe after one game I’m already writing that The Clapper would have better served Dallas for one night. While now is not the time to panic, this game does add to the collection of Dallas’ failed 4QC/GWD attempts since 2018 that all have something else in common: the Cowboys never scored more than 24 points.

9/9/2018CAR (A)L 16-8
10/7/2018HOU (A)L 19-16 OT
10/21/2018WAS (A)L 20-17
11/5/2018TENL 28-14
1/12/2019LAR (A)L 30-22
9/29/2019NO (A)L 12-10
10/13/2019NYJ (A)L 24-22
11/10/2019MINL 28-24
11/24/2019NE (A)L 13-9
12/22/2019PHI (A)L 17-9
9/13/2020LAR (A)L 20-17

If the offense isn’t rolling in the first three quarters, there’s not much hope to expect them to turn it around in the fourth quarter. McCarthy was arguably the premiere front-running coach of the last decade, so it’ll be interesting to see how the rest of this season goes.

NFL Week 1 Predictions: Awards Edition

One game down, 255 to (hopefully) go for the NFL’s 2020 regular season. It was just nice to see the Chiefs start their title defense with a win and no significant injuries given they are my pick for the Super Bowl this year.

What about any Chiefs when it comes to winning other awards this season? As usual I wrote so much in my season preview that I had to wait for Saturday to post my award winners for 2020:

  • Most Valuable Player: Dak Prescott, Cowboys
  • Coach of the Year: Mike McCarthy, Cowboys
  • Assistant Coach of the Year: Don Martindale, Ravens
  • Offensive Player of the Year: Dalvin Cook, Vikings
  • Defensive Player of the Year: Nick Bosa, 49ers
  • Offensive Rookie of the Year: Joe Burrow, Bengals
  • Defensive Rookie of the Year: Chase Young, FOOTBALL TEAM (SMH)
  • Comeback Player of the Year: Ben Roethlisberger, Steelers

MVP/Coach: It’s a big year for Dallas, my other Super Bowl team. No ring in the end, but I think Dak Prescott and Mike McCarthy click right away and this offense produces more consistently than it did a year ago when Prescott threw for nearly 5,000 yards. The only reason I didn’t double up at OPOY is because it seems like voters don’t want to do that anymore. Lamar Jackson should have been a lock last year with his prolific passing and rushing season, but voters were still deterred by Michael Thomas and his 149 catches (but glossed over the 11.6 YPC, apparently). So let’s just go with Cook going all out on his new contract for a Minnesota team I predicted to finish No. 2 in the NFC. Also, for assistant coach I almost wanted to pick Dallas OC Kellen Moore, but that would feel like overkill. So let’s go with a DC that’s gaining respect quickly in Baltimore.

DPOY: Even though CB Stephon Gilmore won last year, expect it to return to an edge rusher this season. Nick Bosa, whether you like him or not, had a nice rookie season and should be even more prepared to explode this year for what’s still a good defense.

Rookies: It could be a difficult year for rookies given the lack of a real preseason, but that’s why I’m sticking to the first two names off the board in the draft. I could cheat here and say Clyde Edwards-Helaire after his big debut for the Chiefs on Thursday night. He looks like he’s going to be a productive one at a position that’s easy to produce right away, but I wouldn’t have picked him a couple days ago so I won’t do it here either. He could definitely win though. I also like Jerry Jeudy in Denver, but it’s so hard for a WR to win.

Comeback: Again, my preference is to pick a player returning from serious injury instead of someone who sucked last year and now doesn’t. The latter might end up describing Philip Rivers or Tom Brady, but I’d rather pick Ben Roethlisberger on what I expect to be a 10-win team again. His numbers may end up looking more like 2010-13 Ben than 2014-18 Ben, but that’s good enough.

NFL 2020 Week 1 Predictions

Started TNF with a win, so can’t beat that. A fair share of road favorites this week, but no game has a double-digit spread. I’m likely to watch RedZone at 1 PM before focusing more on Bucs-Saints in the late afternoon. Packers-Vikings is quietly a big one in the NFC though. The Vikings need a strong performance to wipe out the taste of last year when they were swept by Green Bay and Kirk Cousins played especially bad in the last matchup.

NFL Week 16 Predictions: The Wentz Playoff Game Edition

It’s a full weekend of NFL action, but the game I want to focus on is the battle for the NFC East between the (underachieving) Cowboys and Eagles. This is the 55th game of Carson Wentz’s career and it is the biggest one yet seeing as how he missed the playoff runs for the Eagles the last two years. This basically is the first playoff game of his career. The Eagles are home, Dak Prescott is banged up, but Dallas is still a 2-point favorite and has gotten the best of this matchup in recent years.

The Cowboys win the division with a win here. If they lose, the Eagles are likely to win the division instead, which could very well cost head coach Jason Garrett his job. So it’s a pretty big one, not only for this season, but for the future outlook of the division.

Neither team has done a whole lot of impressive winning this year. Both lost to the Vikings and Patriots, but I will point out that the Eagles were able to beat four teams the Cowboys lost to: Packers, Jets, Bills and Bears. Is that more relevant than the Eagles losing to the Dolphins and getting waxed 37-10 in Dallas? Maybe not, but the Cowboys have been a massive tease this season. Dallas is +90 in scoring differential and is only 7-7. The next closest team with a positive scoring differential and no winning record is Tampa Bay (+18 and 7-7). The Cowboys are looking at a top 5 finish all time in scoring differential for a .500 or worse team if these final games don’t go well.

The Eagles have played better defense for coordinator Jim Schwartz in the second half of the season, though that Week 13 clunker in Miami does stick out like a sore thumb. The Cowboys are coming off one of their best games of the season against the Rams and have played mostly well on offense aside from a few stinkers (NO/NE/BUF). Prescott’s health is something to monitor, though he expects to start Sunday. He has not led any game-winning drives this season while Wentz has had three in 2019, including two in the last two games against the Giants and Redskins. In fact three of his six 4QC have been against the Giants in his career and four of his seven GWD are against the Giants (3) and Redskins (1). If this comes down to another close finish I’m still going to trust the quarterback who is 15-14 (.517) in such games over the one who is 7-16 (.304). Prescott already has four GWD against the Eagles.

Special teams have been abysmal in numerous ways for Dallas this year. While the Eagles are just mediocre in that department, it could be an edge this week.

The Cowboys are a middling defense and the Eagles are a middling offense, but Philly has found some success in recent weeks with RB Miles Sanders and WR Greg Ward stepping up. The Cowboys are one of the better defenses at getting pressure on the QB this season. That could be a problem for Wentz who has seen his fumble issues return. Wentz didn’t have a single fumble thru Week 6, but after losing a pair in Dallas he’s up to 14 fumbles (7 lost) this year. No offense that uses play-action as frequently as the Eagles this year has been as poor when doing so (29th in yards per play according to SIS). It might be wise to ease up on that this week and not make Wentz turn his back to the defense.

As I wrote about earlier today, fans love to argue about the talent these players have around them on offense. The main argument tends to be the wide receiver help that Prescott has. That ignores that the Eagles have fielded a very competent OL over the years. They’ve had a great receiving back in Darren Sproles and some of their best pass plays this year have been RB screens. The Eagles also have arguably the best TE duo in the NFL with Zach Ertz and Dallas Goedert, which is better than the ancient Jason Witten that Prescott has known best at the position. #FreeBlakeJarwin

So once again it comes down to the wide receivers. While I don’t think Dez Bryant past his peak was great with Prescott, overall Dak has had better WRs than Wentz. The Amari Cooper trade was obviously big and they’ve also drafted Michael Gallup and brought in Randall Cobb this year.

The problem I have here, beyond the fact that I think WRs are the position most dependent on the QB to have success, is that Wentz fans brush over his accuracy issues. Even in 2017, his best year, he was a 60% passer with 7.5 YPA. There’s very little proof that he makes any WR better.

Alshon Jeffery was better in Chicago than he has been in Philly. Jordan Matthews was better with the Eagles under Chip Kelly’s offense than he has been with Doug Pederson and Wentz. Nelson Agholor was thought to have a breakout season in 2017, but he has been a bust otherwise with a poor connection with Wentz this year. JJ Arcega-Whiteside can barely get a target this year as a 2nd-round pick. Golden Tate has been very good in this league, but he couldn’t catch on with the Eagles in 2018. Torrey Smith washed out in 2017. Even noted bust Dorial Green-Beckham had a better rookie year with Mariota in Tennessee than he did with Wentz in 2016.

So when Eagles fans show their envy for Dak having Cooper, I tend to just laugh. This is the same Cooper who has 14 games in his career where he failed to surpass 10 receiving yards, including four bagels. Compare that 10-yard game total (14) to that of Calvin Johnson (four), Larry Fitzgerald (six) and Julio Jones (twice as a rookie). Cooper is a talented player, but he does have a tendency to disappear in games, and he’s not a transformative talent that will make one retool an entire offense. If Wentz had Cooper, I’m not sure that would be a great thing for Cooper, and that move alone wouldn’t suddenly make Wentz consistently accurate.

I hope this game delivers. The playoffs are on the line. Jobs and legacies are on the line. It sounds a hell of a lot more serious than it should be for two 7-7 teams, but this is the state of the NFC East. Pissing matches are never ending in that division, but if Cowboys fans don’t want to hear about this one for years to come like the 44-6 drubbing in 2008, then they better hope Dallas delivers on the road.

NFL Week 16 Predictions

Well here’s a disaster in the making. I picked eight teams to cover, but not win this week. I’ve only been doing that 4.4 times a week on average this season.

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How deep is your flush? What a toilet bowl between the Bengals and Dolphins this week. I’m also curious to see if the Browns could go down as one of those ultimate thorn-in-the-side teams in a division by tripping up the Ravens again. That 40-25 win in Baltimore is looking like the shocker of the season (aside from maybe Atlanta’s big win in New Orleans).

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