NFL 2021 AFC Divisional Round Preview

Despite only one team getting a first-round bye now, the divisional weekend is still prime for some of the richest drama in NFL history. I just recapped some of the most dramatic games in divisional round history that tested 14 eventual Super Bowl champions.

Of course, the bigger story in that link is that we have gone 19 straight playoff games without a fourth-quarter lead change, one shy of tying the record from 1935-50.

Maybe we’ll get something memorable this weekend, but this has been a difficult round for the road teams to win. Since 2011, home teams are 31-9 (.775) in the divisional round. But most years have that one upset and 2016 was the last time there were two road winners (Packers in Dallas and Steelers in Kansas City).

The Titans stunned the hell out of the top-seeded Ravens in 2019, and the Buccaneers avoided a three-game sweep by the Saints last year, propelling them to a Super Bowl win.

The NFC previews will be posted on Friday. Let’s start with a new matchup in the AFC and a crucial rematch of last year’s AFC Championship Game.

Bengals at Titans (-3.5)

See my early preview for this game at BMR.

The Bengals finally ended their long playoff drought last week with a 26-19 win over the Raiders. The young offense, led by Joe Burrow and Ja’Marr Chase, did not crack in the first playoff game for this new era of Cincinnati football, but the Raiders were one of the worst playoff teams in history.

Now the Bengals must try to shake an 0-7 road playoff record against the top-seeded Titans. And no, the Titans are not the worst No. 1 seed in history. I refuse to even call them the worst Tennessee team to be the No. 1 seed in the AFC. That 2008 team with Jeff Fisher and Kerry Collins was such fool’s gold at 10-0 before stumbling down the stretch.

These Titans have much better skill players when healthy, Mike Vrabel has been an awesome coach when playing the role of an underdog, and this team can win high-scoring games and close games. They are also battled tested, winning more games (eight) in one season against teams with a winning record than any team in NFL history and having the best win percentage (8-3, .727) in such games (min. nine games).

Now, are those records a little misleading? Yes, the 17th game helped 8-8 teams Tennessee beat like the Saints and Dolphins finish with a winning record at 9-8. But the Titans still boast more quality wins than any team this year, already hammering the Chiefs and beating the Bills in a shootout. Now the Titans just have to beat an inexperienced Cincinnati team and only one of those AFC powerhouses to get to a Super Bowl. Yeah, the Titans lost to the Jets, but so did the Bengals.

Derrick Henry expects to be back for his first game since Week 8, but I think the Titans have shown they can win some big games without him or with him being ineffective. The health of A.J. Brown may be more important to the offense than any other non-quarterback. Tennessee is 10-1 when Brown plays at least 60% of the snaps in a game and 2-4 when he does not. He needs to have a big game. Brown scored Tennessee’s only touchdown in a disappointing 20-13 home playoff loss to the Ravens last year. This team seems to perform better when the chips are stacked against them.

Three of the four biggest receiving games against the Bengals this year were done by top-tier tight ends, but Davante Adams also had 206 yards and a touchdown in Cincinnati. Julio Jones being back should also help the passing game. It’s been so rare this season for the Titans to have Brown, Jones, and Henry on the field together. The wideouts being out had a lot to do with that overtime loss to the Jets early this season, and the significant injuries that hit the Titans in losses to the Steelers, Patriots, and Texans had to contribute to Tennessee turning the ball over 13 times in those three games. This offense usually protects the ball well. The Bengals are not great at taking the ball away.

I think the week of rest is big for the Titans to get as healthy as possible for this matchup. I was surprised to see how close the Titans and Bengals are defensively this season, but I’d still give the Titans an edge there. No quarterbacks have been sacked more than Burrow (51) and Ryan Tannehill (47) this year. The Bengals have the better quarterback right now as Tannehill did not have his best season with the injuries around him, and Tannehill has been pedestrian in his four playoff starts. But I think unlike the Raiders, who called 58 passes and ran Josh Jacobs 13 times despite success on the ground, the Titans are going to stay balanced and stick to their usual game plan. The Titans are also better on third down and in the red zone. The Bengals struggled in the red zone against a historically bad red zone defense last week. That area has been money for the Titans under Tannehill, and they were fifth this year in touchdown rate (63.9%).

This isn’t Jeff Fisher and Kerry Collins trying to win a 13-10 game. I’m sticking with my gut and the NFL history that says a pass-happy team with a young offensive core is prime for a letdown on the road in the playoffs against a physical team, especially when it’s that team’s first postseason. Maybe Henry is rusty and fumbles early or is completely ineffective like he was last year against the Ravens, and the Bengals ride their top pass connection to an early lead. We’ve seen it before. But I’m going to trust the better coach and the team that’s been better this year and should be healthy at the right time to win this one.

We can talk next week about why the Titans won’t get to the Super Bowl, but I like them on Saturday. Just hang onto the victory cigar for later, Joe.

Final: Titans 28, Bengals 20

Bills at Chiefs (-1.5)

It is not unheard of to consider a game early in the playoffs to be “the real Super Bowl” if you will. When the NFC won every Super Bowl from 1984 through 1996, the NFC Championship Game was often thought of as the real Super Bowl those years, especially when it was Dallas vs. San Francisco in 1992-94. The 2006 AFC Championship Game between the Patriots and Colts was thought to be the real Super Bowl that year because of the entity known as Rex Grossman waiting for the winner in Miami.

But wow, I cannot remember a divisional round game being thought of as the Super Bowl, especially between two teams that are not the No. 1 seed. Maybe I’m tripping and this is too high praise, but I think these teams are the real deal in the AFC and this is an epic rematch of last year’s AFC Championship Game. The Chiefs were the AFC favorites going into the season, and the Bills took over that spot when they won 38-20 in Kansas City in Week 5. They had some bad losses since, but Buffalo just had the most perfect offensive game imaginable in crazy conditions against the Patriots, scoring a touchdown on all seven possessions. In fact, this is the first playoff game in NFL history between two quarterbacks who threw five touchdown passes the previous week. Patrick Mahomes threw his five touchdowns in a span of 11:31 against the Steelers.

This could be the next great rivalry in the NFL. This will already be the fourth meeting between Mahomes and Josh Allen in the last two years. John Elway and Dan Marino were in the same conference for 16 seasons and only met three times with two of those coming in Elway’s final season (1998). The Chiefs sent Buffalo home last year to end an eight-game winning streak. The Bills got some revenge this year by handing Mahomes the worst home loss of his career (18 points). His other home losses have been by no more than eight points. The spread has already moved a point towards Buffalo since opening at Chiefs -2.5.

I’m going to break this preview up into the two main questions I have about this matchup.

Question 1: Can the Chiefs turn around the 38-20 defeat from Week 5, and was it really that lopsided?

Results can vary wildly from week to week in the NFL, but on wild card weekend, all five rematches were won by the team who won the previous matchup, including these Bills and Chiefs. Buffalo scored the most points anyone has against New England since 1990. The Chiefs pounded the Steelers for the second time in a month, sending Ben Roethlisberger into retirement.

Both offenses should cool down a little from that historic territory, but there should be more pressure on Kansas City to adjust from that 38-20 walloping the Bills put on them in Week 5. It is hard to beat a great team twice in the same season, but for teams that have already done it, on the road no less, it actually is easier than average in the rematch.

Since 2002, road teams attempting a sweep in the playoffs are now 13-13. The Bills and Rams just reversed their home losses last week by beating the Patriots and Cardinals. The Rams in particular turned a 17-point home loss into a 23-point win on Monday night, but obviously the Cardinals were on life support down the stretch and already lost a home game to their division rival Rams. Likewise, the Patriots flopped down the stretch this year, including two games (without the bad wind) where they couldn’t get the Bills to punt. This is Mahomes in Kansas City, so a bit different.

However, consider these numbers. Since 2002, teams that win the regular-season matchup by at least 18 points are 25-9 (.735) in the playoff rematch. When those teams are the underdog in the playoffs, a rare situation, they are still 5-1 in the playoffs. The only loss was the 2004 Broncos vs. Colts, but that whole example is misleading since Indy rested starters in Week 17 before blowing the Broncos out at home in the playoffs.

But let me rant on my own stat for a brief moment here. This is something I really need to start focusing on more in the offseason. I just gave you a stat on a sample size of 34 games based on games where a team won by at least 18 points. Yes, the Bills beat the Chiefs by 18 points, but an 18-point win is a lot closer to an 11-point win than it is a 31-point win like seven of the games in that sample were. So, why am I looking at a group of “comparable games” when my game is at the lowest end of that qualifier? I’d be better off looking at games decided by 11-to-25 points, or a 7-point window around 18 points. In that case, 23-17 (.575) is the record since 2002, not nearly as one-sided as 25-9 (.735). Just something to think about with stats like that.

It is fair to say the Chiefs were embarrassed by Buffalo in Week 5 as the Bills learned a few things from their 2020 losses. The “don’t blitz Mahomes” thing that got so popular this year? The Bills were actually the first defense to do that, blitzing zero times in the 2020 game on Monday Night Football. The Chiefs just had a great running attack that night and Mahomes made an incredible conversion on third-and-12 to Byron Pringle to put the game away. But it was the lowest-scoring game between these two at 26-17.

In Week 5, Mahomes threw a season-high 54 passes but was only blitzed twice. He was not even pressured that often – 14.3% tied for second-lowest game this season – but did not handle the different looks well. Mahomes scrambled seven times that night, twice more than any other game, as he was not comfortable in the pocket. The Bills, who were destroyed by short throws and YAC from the Chiefs in the AFC Championship Game, also tackled very well in Week 5, holding Mahomes to 4.2 YAC/completion, his second-lowest game of 2021.

On the other side of the ball, the Bills struggled to get any big plays going in their two losses to the 2020 Chiefs. That sure changed in Week 5. Allen had pass completions of 61, 53 (TD), 41, and 35 (TD) yards as he completed 15-of-26 passes for 315 yards without a sack or turnover. Despite his reputation for a big arm, Week 5 remains the only game of Allen’s NFL career where he threw multiple touchdown passes of 25-plus yards. Mahomes has 11 such games in his career.

As it turns out, throwing the deep ball with safety Daniel Sorensen in coverage is quite profitable. Sorensen allowed the two longest completions for 114 yards that night. For the season, he allows 12.1 yards per target in coverage, but the Chiefs have been wise to limit his snaps since that night. Sorensen went from playing 98% of snaps in Weeks 1-5 to 47% of snaps in Weeks 6-17.

Allen also rushed for a team-high 59 yards and a touchdown. Mahomes led the Chiefs with 61 rushing yards but that is not as ideal for Kansas City as it is Buffalo. Jerick McKinnon just had the game of his life for the Chiefs with 142 yards from scrimmage against Pittsburgh, but the Steelers were horrible against running backs this year. With the Kansas City backfield being so inconsistent this year, look for the Bills to contain whichever back gets the majority of touches this time.

There’s this idea that Mahomes has had to adjust with the way defenses are playing the Chiefs, copying that Super Bowl blueprint of minimal blitzes and two-deep safeties. There is definitely truth to this. Mahomes has six games this season with an aDOT under 6.5 yards and all six of those games are since Week 11. His lowest game of the season (5.0 yards) was against the Steelers on Sunday as the Chiefs had big YAC plays.

So, while there is truth to it, let’s not overblow it out of proportion. The Chiefs have had success with long drives in past years. They weren’t all 60-yard bombs to Hill for scores. In fact, Mahomes just threw the longest touchdown pass of his career to Kelce (48 yards) on Sunday night. Mahomes did still attack the Steelers (Week 16) and Bengals (Week 17) deep late in the season with success. I just think it’s important for Kansas City to get Hill and Kelce involved this week. They’ve had some really quiet games down the stretch here, and while the lesser players have stepped up, I’m not sure the Chiefs can continuously score without their stars doing big things.

More than anything, the Chiefs are simply going to have to protect the ball better this time after losing the turnover battle 4-0 in Week 5. Sure, there was a tipped ball off Tyreek Hill’s hands that went to the Bills for a pick-six to make it 31-13 in the third quarter. But guess what? Hill has tipped multiple picks for interceptions this year as Mahomes has had numerous picks come off tipped balls. There was also that red-zone pick by Buffalo, a very good defense at forcing takeaways, on a tipped ball that cost the Chiefs more points that night. Again, guess what? The Chiefs have had multiple tipped picks in scoring territory this year, including against the Giants on MNF and last Sunday against the Steelers.

Mistakes just happen at bad times for this offense, and it’s been that way for much of the season. I’m not sure we can just magically count on them to not do it this week against one of the best defenses they’ll see. On the other hand, one thing they could control is to not give up the obligatory Chiefs fumble by not calling a fvcking Wildcat play when you have Mahomes at QB. The Chiefs called a wildcat play against Pittsburgh, and it blew up for a touchdown return by T.J. Watt. So, let’s scratch that one from the playbook this week, but you’re on your own fortune for tipped picks.

I guess what I’m getting at is if you keep Sorensen off the field and don’t give up as many big plays, and you avoid the tipped pick-six, that could cut 14 points off that 18-point deficit. I think this game should be a lot closer this time, and that could be a bad thing for the Bills, who are 0-5 at 4QC/GWD opportunities this season. Buffalo’s 1-5 record in close games was the worst in the NFL this season.

This was not an issue for Allen’s first three seasons, and his fourth quarter stats look great this year (71.1% complete, 10 TD, 0 INT, 7.6 YPA, 117.7 PR). But they are simply not finishing the drives in crunch time. You saw the red-zone failures in the windy game against New England, a 14-10 loss. He was erratic against the Steelers in Week 1. He was stopped short on the sneak in Tennessee. He choked badly against Jacksonville in a 9-6 stunner. Mahomes is 43-1 when the Chiefs allow fewer than 27 points. The Bills cannot expect to be in position to win a low-scoring game this week.

But in my view, that effort to come back from 17 points down in the fourth quarter in Tampa Bay was big for this team. While they did not win the game in overtime, they tied it up and had a chance in regulation had the referees called defensive pass interference the way they called it for Tampa in overtime (go figure; #LOAT). If I’m a Chiefs fan and Allen has the ball late to win the game, I am nervous as hell. After not blowing a fourth-quarter lead in 2020, the Chiefs have done it three times this year (Ravens, Chargers, Bengals), and that doesn’t even include the epic comeback in Los Angeles when the Chiefs had to win in overtime. Those losses are the reason why this team wasn’t resting as the No. 1 seed and opening with a softer opponent like the Bengals.

Question 2: Do we trust Buffalo’s No. 1 scoring defense for the whole season or Kansas City’s No. 1 scoring defense since Week 6?

This is an interesting matchup as the Bills have the No. 1 scoring defense and were the only team to allow fewer than 300 points this season. But after a horrible start to the season where the Chiefs allowed at least 29 points in all five games, Kansas City turned things around under veteran defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo. Since Week 6, the Chiefs have the No. 1 scoring defense, allowing 24 fewer points than No. 5 Buffalo in that time. The Bengals (34) were the only team to hit 29 points on the Chiefs since Week 6.

Do we trust the season stats or the more recent stats? I’m not sure anyone has ever posted a definitive study of this, or if anything on it would even be conclusive enough as the league is just goofy like that. For example, when I look at the fewest points allowed by a team in Games 6-16 since 2011, the top of the list is the 2011 Steelers. You know, the defense that let Tim Tebow complete 10 passes for 316 yards in a 29-23 wild card loss. Right behind them are the 2014 Seahawks, famous for blowing a 10-point fourth-quarter lead in the Super Bowl, and the 2015 Chiefs, who lost 27-20 in New England.

With defense, it’s all about how you play that day, and who you play usually plays a huge role in that. Sure, we can say the Bills padded their defensive stats by playing rookie Davis Mills in the rain, a 40-0 shutout where he threw for 87 yards and four picks. We can see that Mahomes (272) and Brady (363) were the only quarterbacks to pass for more than 260 yards on Buffalo this year, and Brady (105.6) was the only one to have a passer rating higher than 86.7. That looks daunting for Mahomes, but it’s less daunting when you see this starting QB list for Buffalo:

  • Three cast members of The Walking Dead (2021 Big Ben, Matt Ryan, Cam Newton)
  • Six rookies in a terrible rookie year (Trevor Lawrence, Zach Wilson, Davis Mills, Mac Jones 3x)
  • Two hopeful employees in 2022 (Taylor Heinicke, Trevor Siemian)
  • One bus driver (Carson Wentz)
  • One create-a-player with a generic name (Mike White)

That leaves Brady and his aforementioned big game that still needed overtime and one blown coverage, Mahomes and the game we went over, and Ryan Tannehill got a huge game from Derrick Henry on an effective night where the Titans scored 34 points in a win.

In other words, I’m not sure the Chiefs need to be that scared of this defense, especially without corner Tre’Davious White (ACL) to take on Hill. In Week 5, Mahomes was just 5-of-11 for 36 yards when targeting White in coverage. He’s gone now.

On the other hand, the Bills can look at this Kansas City defensive improvement and point to the schedule as well. Like getting Daniel Jones and the Giants on any week. Getting the Cowboys when they were in a funk and Amari Cooper had COVID and CeeDee Lamb left at halftime with a concussion. Two games against zombie Big Ben with a foot in the door for retirement. Two games against Derek Carr, who has spent eight years teasing the Raiders he’s a franchise quarterback. One big game against Green Bay where Aaron Rodgers was out with COVID, forcing Jordan Love to make his first start. It didn’t go well. Teddy and Drew Lock? Please, and they actually let Lock run wild in that rematch. A huge fumble by Melvin Gordon won that game for the Chiefs.

But what happened when the improved Chiefs faced the Chargers in a first-place showdown in Week 15 and a red-hot Joe Burrow with the No. 1 seed in contention in Week 16? The defense did not perform well. Mahomes and the offense had to rally in Los Angeles, hope for some Chargering, and got the ball first in overtime to end it 34-28. Despite leading by double-digits multiple times in Cincinnati, the Chiefs gave up 34 points and the game-winning drive to end it after committing multiple penalties again. The defense even allowed a third-and-27 conversion for 30 yards to Ja’Marr Chase.

So, the over/under is 54 points and you can see why with the way these offenses are capable of lighting it up, and neither defense is exactly reliable against what would be considered a good offense this year.

The Chiefs are undeniably playing better defense than they did to start the season when they were arguably the worst in the league. But is this a championship-caliber defense like 2019 was? After seeing the games in Week 15-16, I say no. But they’ll have a great opportunity to prove it on Sunday, as will Buffalo’s top-ranked scoring defense. I said last year that if the Bills could combine their 2020 offense with their 2019 defense, they would win the Super Bowl. The 2021 Bills, Jacksonville loss be damned, are trying to be that team.

The Prediction

In the preseason, I picked the Chiefs to get back to the Super Bowl. But it’s really hard to get back to a third in a row, especially coming off such a brutal 31-9 loss. We’ve already seen the Chiefs lose this year to the Ravens, Chargers, Bills, Titans, and Bengals. They are 0-3 against the remaining playoff field in the AFC. I think this is the week where having the bad-bounce turnovers and giving up too many plays to good offenses combine to hurt the Chiefs and send the Bills to the next round and a step closer to that elusive Super Bowl win.

My detailed prediction: I see the Chiefs leading 27-24 late as KC and under bettors are sweating bullets. Allen finally puts his gaudy fourth-quarter stats to use this year and leads the first game-winning drive of the season for a touchdown in the final minute.

Is it the ending I want? No, but if the early game on Sunday goes my way, I can watch this one in peace and be satisfied with anything that happens.

Final: Bills 31, Chiefs 27

NFL Stat Oddity: Week 17

It’s over. The NFL was able to complete the first – and hopefully last – pandemic regular season on Sunday. Is it asterisk worthy? There are definitely some fishy, eye-popping numbers in a season with historic offensive production, but more on that later this week. As for an asterisk, I guess we’ll see what kind of postseason we get as the virus continues to mutate and increase in spread. However, only a couple of the 256 games this season were a total sham, including a Ravens-Steelers game that might have had much larger implications if it was played at a later date like next week.

Then again, the league greatly weakened the No. 2 seed with the new playoff format, and home-field advantage has never meant less than it does right now.

I am nervous and excited as hell at the same time about where things are headed, which is the perfect summary of how I feel about 2021 in general. But before we move onto the playoffs, let’s recap how things finished around the eight divisions in Week 17.

Previous weeks in Stat Oddity:

AFC South: King Henry Reigns Supreme

The best drama of the day came from the AFC South. Even though the Titans were not in any danger of missing the playoffs after Miami lost, the division title was still up for grabs as Deshaun Watson made the Titans work hard for a win while the Colts teased Jacksonville in a 28-14 final that was stuck on 20-14 for far too long. Seriously, the Colts were up 20-0 and almost blew this one to Mike Glennon. I’m a bit concerned about this team, but it’s not like I expect them to have a huge lead in Buffalo on Saturday. They are going to have to be sharper than the last two weeks. Just getting by a Jacksonville team that lost 15 straight is not going to impress anyone, but crashing the Buffalo parade early sure would.

So basically, the two good teams beat the two shitty teams with Derrick Henry (250 yards) and Jonathan Taylor (253 yards) running wild. Performances of 250 rushing yards are rare, but we had two on the same day from the same division. They are the 13th and 14th such games since 1950. The Titans are the first offense in NFL history to have a 250-yard rusher and a 150-yard receiver (A.J. Brown) in the same game. It was also a historic game in that Brandin Cooks had 166 receiving yards for Houston.

The big-time players showed up in this one, but it was Brown’s 52-yard catch that set up the game-winning field goal with no time left. That is how you get into game-winning field goal range in eight seconds. It was the most fitting way for the Titans to win the division in a season where Ryan Tannehill has led the most fourth-quarter comebacks (five) and game-winning drives (six) in the league.

Henry needed 223 rushing yards to get to 2,000 on the season and he got 250. This offense is absurdly great at times and I cannot wait to see this matchup with Baltimore, a playoff rematch from a year ago that this season definitely needs.

NFC East Total Landscaping Division Champions: The Team with No Name

We did not make history with a 6-10 division winner, but the NFC East sure did try its damnedest on Sunday to deliver.

First up was Dallas at the Giants, a team the Cowboys had a seven-game winning streak against and usually score 30+ points on. Unfortunately, Andy Dalton must have gotten the memo that this was a de facto playoff game that his team could not lose or they would be eliminated from the division race. In true January Andy Dalton fashion, he finished with no touchdown passes, a crucial interception in the final two minutes, and the Cowboys lost 23-19. Dalton was not protected well and took six sacks, including a big one two plays before his interception in the end zone. Wayne Gallman then fumbled for the Giants, but saved his ass by recovering it to run out the clock on Dallas’ season.

So Jason Garrett, the Giants’ offensive coordinator, gets the last laugh for 2020 as this was the game that sent the Cowboys home.

Over the last two seasons, Dallas is 0-16 when not scoring at least 30 points and 14-2 when scoring 30 or more points. There has never been a split like that in NFL history over multiple seasons. Teams who don’t score 30 points win about 36% of their games since 2019. The Cowboys’ 14 straight wins with at least 30 points in each is the longest such streak in NFL history. This team simply cannot win without scoring a lot of points.

Does that really change even if Dak Prescott is back healthy in 2021? No, more changes need to happen too. This roster does not work.

Alas, the Giants did not turn this win into a division title after the Washington Football Team was able to squeeze out a 20-14 stinker in Philadelphia on Sunday night. The second half, which only produced a Washington field goal on a 1-yard drive, was one of the worst halves of football I was subjected to all season. Doug Pederson basically threw in the towel by benching starter Jalen Hurts for backup Nate Sudfeld for the whole fourth quarter of a one-score game. It was shameless tanking. If he’s going to play a bad quarterback with no future in Philadelphia, he could have just started Carson Wentz.

Alex Smith had a lot of rough moments and was again carried by the defense to a victory and home playoff game next week. For as much as people like the courageous stories behind Ron Rivera’s cancer battle and Smith’s rehab, this team is one of the worst to watch play football this year. Now we have to see them host Tampa Bay on Saturday night.

Just the thought of a Washington-Tampa Bay game gives me PTSD to the 2005 NFC Wild Card matchup, which had to be one of the worst playoff games ever played. Mark Brunell got a win for Washington in a game where he completed 7-of-15 passes for 41 yards and an interception. I watched the game in freezing cold temperatures as the furnace gave out that weekend. The only thing that could have made the viewing experience worse was if Tom Brady was playing the game and the announcers were up his ass over it.

That awaits us Saturday night. At least I should have heat this time. But then again, if Brunell can win a playoff game doing that and Brady could lose one to Joe Flacco (2009 Ravens) where he threw for 34 yards and a pick, then anything is possible this week.

NFC South: Eat the Rich

In another case of the top of the division making short work of the bottom-feeders, the Saints and Buccaneers cruised to wire-to-wire victories over the Panthers and Falcons on Sunday. Not even losing Alvin Kamara and the running back room to COVID could stop the Saints from throwing in Ty Montgomery and getting 105 yards on the ground out of him in a 33-7 win, reportedly the final regular season game in Drew Brees’ stellar career. Brees finished with three more touchdown passes and enough completions (needed eight) to Emmanuel Sanders to earn the receiver a $500,000 bonus.

Tampa Bay showed even more gall in getting to milestone numbers for its loaded receiving corps, but that came at a price when Mike Evans dropped a touchdown and hyperextended his knee after hitting his benchmark. His status for the playoffs is uncertain but he appears to have dodged the worst of it. Evans is the first receiver in NFL history to have 1,000 yards receiving in his first seven seasons, but this was the first time he ever needed all 16 games to cross the mark.

You might think the Evans scare would knock some sense into them, but that didn’t stop Tom Brady and Antonio Brown from connecting three more times with the game well decided – up 44-27 at the 2:14 mark – just so the receiver could get a $250,000 bonus. It is the only time in the last 20 years where an offense started a drive pass-pass-pass with a three-score lead in the final four minutes.

Maybe the Buccaneers would have done better than a fifth seed in a weak conference had this connection been stronger against better opponents. As it stands, the Jets (two) have more wins against 2020 playoff teams than the Buccaneers (one).

Now Brady will start a playoff run on the road for the first time in his career, and he gets to do it in a crowd-less stadium for a nameless 7-9 Washington team that came out of the worst division since the merger.

Play us off, Rod…

AFC East: The Right Stuff

The Buffalo Bills (13-3) completed their best season since the Super Bowl years by going 6-0 against the AFC East and eliminating Miami from the playoffs in a 56-26 rout. Josh Allen and other starters could have rested the whole game, but they played a half and put up a commanding 28-6 lead before every other phase of the team stepped up with four more touchdowns in the second half.

We knew one of the five 10-5 teams in the AFC was going to be kept out of the playoffs, and Miami was the only underdog against the spread. Sure enough, the Bills got the dominant win and Miami’s season is over. It’s fitting really because Miami was the weakest contender of the five. The switch to Tua Tagovailoa at quarterback did not serve the Dolphins well enough this season, and I think this will cost Brian Flores the Coach of the Year award. Ryan Fitzpatrick was out this week with COVID, but maybe things would have gone differently had he remained the starter. Tua really struggled on Sunday with 58 pass attempts and three interceptions, even after Buffalo was playing backups.

The Bills are clearly in the best shape in this division. The Patriots pulled away from the Jets in the fourth quarter in a 28-14 win as Cam Newton had one of his few good passing games of the year. Is it his last game with the team? Pretty likely, and certainly it’s the last game for Adam Gase in New York. Now if only this team didn’t bother to beat the Rams and Browns, they would be 0-16 and have their choice of head coach and the attractive option of drafting Trevor Lawrence with the top pick. But the Jets are almost never on the right side of history.

NFC West: Goff Clap

Russell Wilson may have saved his best fourth-quarter comeback of 2020 for Week 17, rallying the Seahawks from a 10-point deficit to a 26-23 win against the 49ers, who were very competitive in the final weeks of the season. But go figure, another blown lead and close loss for the Kyle Shanahan era.

Meanwhile, the closest thing to a de facto playoff game between both teams was my expected shitshow between the Rams and Cardinals. It ended up being the eighth 18-7 final score in NFL history, which is a surprisingly high number to me. More surprising than the final was the leading passer for each team: Chris Streveler for the Cardinals and John Wolford for the Rams. When I saw that Streveler threw an early touchdown pass, my first thought was the Cardinals tried a fake field goal and a holder or random player threw the score. I never heard of this player in my life, and Wolford was another unknown to me coming into this one.

We knew coming in that Jared Goff was out with an injured thumb and Kyler Murray was banged up. Murray started and finished, but for a large chunk in between it was Streveler at quarterback. Go figure, the game’s only offensive touchdown was a 14-yard drive set up by Wolford’s interception. The Rams came back thanks to a safety and pick-six.

The quarterbacks in this game were so jacked up that even Boomer Esiason replaced Tony Romo in the booth for CBS due to COVID. Esiason seemed more impressed than anyone with Wolford’s play. I guess given the circumstances and lack of experience, he was okay? He led the team in rushing with 56 yards. He threw for 231 yards and only took two sacks. It was a more mobile Jared Goff-type performance on one of his basic bitch days. In the end, the Rams scored three field goals on 10 drives and were fortunate that the Cardinals were in worse offensive shape than they were. Larry Fitzgerald didn’t even play in what could have been his final game due to injury, and now the Cardinals (8-8) are out of the playoffs.

Sean McVay certainly owns the Cardinals, but we’ll see if he can find his success again with the Seahawks in a third meeting next week. After getting so much praise early in the season, this division really limped across the finish line to get two teams in the tournament.

AFC North: Browns vs. Big Brother

The Steelers-Browns game went about as I expected. Even though the Steelers were missing most of their best players, they weren’t just going to lay down and let Cleveland get a big win to make the playoffs and finish 11-5 for the first time since 1994. Mason Rudolph showed some of his usual lack of pocket awareness, but he converted several third downs and tested the Browns deep with success. Even after Pittsburgh fell behind 24-9 a play into the fourth quarter, Rudolph led two touchdown drives, but missed on the game-tying two-point conversion. The Browns got the one first down needed to run out the clock and secure the 24-22 win.

These teams will meet on Sunday night, meaning it will be the Steelers the Browns have to get past in the playoffs for the third straight postseason after losing to their hated rival in 1994 and 2002. I may end up having to write two previews for this game, so I’ll save my thoughts for later this week, but I like the prospects of the Steelers in that game with their starters back.

Then there is Baltimore, the scariest 11-5 team in the league with the best scoring differential (+165) in football again. How absurd were the Ravens against Cincinnati? They were up 38-3 going into the fourth quarter and basically called off the dogs, finishing with 404 rushing yards, the most in the NFL since the 2000 Bengals had 407 against Denver.

Baltimore could be the most fascinating story this postseason as a legit contender to win it all, or it could flame out again in the playoffs and to the Titans again.

NFC North: Bears Back In

The Chicago Bears had a chance to enter the playoffs on a four-game winning streak with confidence if they could knock off the Packers and prove they haven’t just been scoring on bad teams lately.

They flopped again, going down in a 35-16 loss and only backing into the playoffs at 8-8 because of Arizona’s collapse. The 19 and 16-point losses to the Packers this year are Chicago’s worst margins of defeat in 2020. However, this one felt closer than last time despite the final score. The Bears were down 21-16 and 25 yards away from the end zone in the fourth quarter before failing on a 4th-and-1 pass. With nine minutes left, the Bears had their second dropped interception of the day thrown by Aaron Rodgers. More than five minutes later, the Packers were back in the end zone and then added a fifth touchdown after Chicago’s second turnover of the game.

Once again, the Chicago defense could not create splash plays against the Packers, allowing five touchdowns on seven drives. Meanwhile, the Chicago offense was 5-of-6 on fourth down, but that one miss in the fourth quarter hurt. Chicago actually played into Green Bay’s hands a bit with a game that featured very few big plays despite each team having a 50-yard pass play. Green Bay’s second-longest gain of the day was only 17 yards. The Bears only had two plays gain more than 14 yards. Chicago tried to dink and dunk with Trubisky on these long drives that also featured a lot of David Montgomery runs (3.1 YPC on 22 carries), which helped shrink the game, but it also led to too many fourth downs and not enough touchdowns. The Bears were 1-for-5 at scoring in the red zone.

I really hope the Bears do not end Drew Brees’ career in New Orleans next weekend, especially since it sets up another Bears-Packers game. We don’t need a third one of these. The Bears just do not have it against their hated rival, no matter what type of game they play against them.

In the Hollow Shootout of the Week, the Vikings took care of Detroit 37-35. The 2020 Lions allowed 519 points, the second-highest mark in NFL history between the 1981 Colts (533) and the 2008 Lions (517) of 0-16 fame.

Kirk Cousins was 0-22 as a starter in his career when his team allowed more than 30 points, but he has a win now. We’ll have to see if the final snap of Matthew Stafford’s Detroit career is an inaccurate miss on a game-tying two-point conversion attempt before his defense failed to get the ball back one more time.

AFC West: Boo-Urns

The least eventful division on Sunday was the AFC West with the Broncos and Raiders having an old-fashioned shootout that was ultimately meaningless. The fact that Denver had field goals of 70 and 63 yards (to win the game) blocked might tell you all you need to know about that one, a 32-31 comeback win by the Raiders to finish 8-8.

Then there’s the Chargers-Chiefs finale, won 38-21 by the Chargers. This one personally ruined my Sunday, and it’s not just because we didn’t get to see Patrick Mahomes or any of the interesting players on the Chiefs play. It’s because I put way too much trust in the Chargers to fill out their BINGO card with a performance that shouldn’t have blown away the Chiefs even if they were playing heavy backups. I lost quite the potential winnings on this game.

I was worried this meaningless game for the Chiefs would end all of their best streaks, but it only ended up taking out the record one of 60 straight games without losing by more than eight points. I guess we’ll have to put that one in the context of Mahomes from now on.

By resting, Mahomes missed out on leading the league in passing yards, joining Drew Brees as the only quarterbacks with multiple seasons of 5,000 yards/40 TD passes, and becoming the first quarterback to win 18 games and a championship in the same season. Achieving that in a 17 or 18-game regular season wouldn’t be as impressive, as this was the end of the 16-game era. The 2020 Chiefs should still have the record for most yards per drive at over 43.

Alas, the rest is for the postseason where the Chiefs have their ultimate goal still in front of them. It is just a bit of a bummer to see a throwaway game like this one. It was not a good showing by the Chiefs, and neither was the 17-14 escape win over the Falcons last week. Now they will go on a bye while these other AFC teams are in playoff mode for a few weeks now and competing this weekend in the wild card.

If the Steelers take care of the Browns and the Bills take care of the Colts, the Chiefs could have to start this title defense with a Tennessee or Baltimore team looking to punch them in the mouth and avenge past losses. That is a tough, physical draw after weeks off. I know Mahomes is different and Andy Reid has the great bye success, but these playoffs are guaranteed to be a bigger challenge than a year ago when the Chiefs still had to rally from double-digit deficits in all three playoff games.

My Preseason Predictions

Finally, something I am always quick to recap is seeing how my preseason predictions for team final records fared. I knew this would be a challenging season with COVID, a lot of quarterback movement, and the lack of a real offseason. My pick of Dallas making the Super Bowl in the NFC certainly did not pan out, and that was probably going to be the case even if Dak Prescott stayed healthy. However, I’m still on track for the Chiefs repeating, but let’s see how I did with all 32 teams.

As it turns out, this was my worst year of predicting since 2013, but not by much. I was off by an average of 2.78 wins. I have had some years before where I was off by 2.75 wins. A good year is 2.1 or 2.2. The 2019 season was one where I was only off by 2.16 wins. At least I was not off by more than six games for anyone this time.

I did not foresee Miami and Cleveland having this much success this season, which is why I think Kevin Stefanski should win the Coach of the Year award. I also obviously was disappointed by the Vikings and Texans in addition to the Cowboys. Even just those four very winnable division games the Texans had against the Colts and Titans could have made a huge difference for my predictions (2.78 down to 2.53).

But we’ll get into the close game summary of 2020 very soon. That is where teams like Houston, Atlanta, and Philadelphia flopped the hardest. Also, at least I can say I nailed Tampa Bay’s record. Now if only I could nail their postseason prediction later this week, but that is also to come.

NFL Week 7 Predictions: Steelers at Titans

My family and I are not having the best health week, but I’d be remiss not to share some thoughts on a big game in the AFC.

The Steelers are 5-0 for the first time since 1978, which remains the gold standard Pittsburgh team, and that means it’s the first time in my lifetime they’ve started this well. The Titans, listed as a 1-point favorite on Sunday, are also 5-0 and ahead in the tie-breakers for the No. 1 seed.

This is only the fifth time since 2001 where two undefeated teams 5-0 or better are meeting, and it wouldn’t have happened if not for COVID-19 (game was originally scheduled for Week 4 when they were both 3-0):

Would most people still pick the Chiefs and Ravens as the best teams in the AFC over the Steelers and Titans? Probably, but it’s been fun starts for these teams and this is an interesting matchup.

The Steelers (and the 2020 Seahawks) are now on a list of 16 teams in the Super Bowl era who scored at least 26 points in each of their first five games:

There are a lot of really great offensive teams in that list — think 2013 Broncos, 1998 Vikings, 2018 Chiefs — but the 2020 Steelers don’t strike me as one of them yet. This is mostly because they’ve been able to produce this without establishing a real offensive identity.

We only saw six quarters of Ben Roethlisberger in 2019, but it was obvious then that this offense was not sure how to replace the departure of Antonio Brown. Roethlisberger was throwing a ton of short passes and they weren’t pushing the ball down the field like they used to. Then once Roethlisberger went out for the season, the offense really lacked talent and production. But since he’s returned this season, Roethlisberger still is feeling his way back into the game and throwing a lot of short, quick passes again. JuJu Smith-Schuster is only averaging 8.4 yards per reception this year and has seemingly been surpassed by rookie Chase Claypool as the new #1 receiver.

From his first catch on MNF against the Giants, Claypool has looked fantastic. He can make the deep sideline catch, make an 84-yard TD look effortless, he’s shown a little YAC ability, and they’ve even worked him into the goal line package with rushing plays for a pair of scores. I’m really fascinated by him so far, but I’d like to see more refined roles for JuJu, James Washington, and Diontae Johnson. It’s hard to say what the plan is with JuJu these days, but Washington should still be an outside deep threat and Johnson would be better in the slot while Claypool and JuJu can move around more.

Of course the Steelers always want to run the ball well, but that’s been hit or miss with James Conner this year. He’s ripped off several big runs, but sometimes the offensive line, which has gone through a few replacement starters already, just doesn’t open up anything for him.

So it’s still not clear if the Steelers want to be a shotgun dink-and-dunk offense, a big-play offense, a smash-mouth meets play-action (just kidding, they never use it) offense, or what mixture exactly. Maybe the fact that they’ve produced these results without having a clear identity is a good thing and they can only grow and get better as Roethlisberger works his way back from a year out, Claypool learns, Eric Ebron gets more comfortable at tight end, the line gels, etc.

Meanwhile, the Titans are back to a pretty clear offensive plan: get Derrick Henry his 20+ rushes, use a lot of play-action, and Ryan Tannehill has been very accurate and safe with the ball while also drastically cutting down on his sacks from 2019. The Titans just racked up 607 yards of offense in a 42-36 overtime win over Houston, though that was really the first game this year where Henry was unstoppable. I think the Steelers, an elite rushing defense by most metrics, will have bigger problems stopping the passing game this week than Henry.

The key injury news in this game is that LT Taylor Lewan and LB Devin Bush both tore their ACL, ending their seasons. It’s not good news for either team, but I think both will be able to replace them without much of a noticeable decline. It’s bigger news this week for the Titans as Pittsburgh’s aggressive defense led by T.J. Watt and Bud Dupree on the edges will be coming after Tannehill. The Steelers would be worse off if those guys (or Cameron Heyward) were out for the year than Bush. But I still want to see how the Steelers perform against a good passing offense. The Browns were scoring a lot of points coming into last week, but Baker Mayfield was not having a big season. The Steelers rattled him early into his worst statistical game, and it was one of the best performances by the Steelers defense in years. They’ll be dealing with a tougher quarterback this time around.

But are the Titans a bit overrated? Outside of the Buffalo game, the Titans have four wins by 12 points. Tannehill’s only the second QB ever (1966 Charley Johnson on the Cardinals) to lead four game-winning drives in his team’s first five games, but that’s rarely a recipe for later success in the season. Those 1966 Cardinals (8-5-1) still missed the playoffs, though it was at the expense of losing Johnson for five starts.

Even in the 42-16 win over Buffalo, the Titans had TD drives of 16, 30, 12, and 18 yards. That’s 28 points on 76 yards of offense. So if you don’t hand them the short fields, you have a decent shot. The Titans (3) and Steelers (4) have two of the lowest giveaway totals this year.

At the end of the day, I’m going with the home team. Homefield doesn’t mean what it used to in 2020, but the Steelers have played their last four games at home. This is a step up in competition for both teams, but I think this is a game where the Steelers offense will have to be sharp and productive. I don’t think all that highly of a mediocre Tennessee defense that’s already allowed 30 points three times this season, but they have come up with 9 takeaways to match Pittsburgh’s total.

The game likely comes down to which QB handles the pass rush and protects the ball better. As much as I’d like to pick the Steelers in this one, I just think it’s the kind of game they historically lose, either by a bad turnover day on offense, or the defense blows the lead late.

Stat to consider: Since 1993, the Steelers are 1-36 in road games against playoff teams that scored more than 21 points (1-18 with Ben Roethlisberger at QB). The only win was in 2013, 38-31 over a Green Bay team that started Matt Flynn in place of an injured Aaron Rodgers. If you believe the Titans are of playoff caliber at 5-0 and it’s going to be a shootout, then I’d go with Tennessee. If you think the Steelers kick their ass on defense, then that’s their path to victory in this one.

Final: Titans 27, Steelers 24

2020 NFL Week 7 Predictions

Here are the rest of my picks for the week.

With the new COVID protocols this feels like a week where things could be really stacked against some teams if they have a unit almost entirely wiped out over virus concerns. The tight ends for Buffalo are going through that, but fortunately they aren’t the engine in that offense and they’re only playing the Jets. I really wanted to pull the trigger on the Jets again, but I’ve already been burned five times in six weeks there this season. Similar thoughts on the Panthers-Saints game with the Saints down Michael Thomas and Emmanuel Sanders. Are they really going to play Taysom Hill out wide for 30+ snaps? Carolina’s been hit or miss this year, but that felt like a spot where I’ll hedge and take the underdog to cover. I’ve also temporarily given up on Dallas this year until Andy Dalton starts to look like he can put up points with those receivers.

Lastly, I have no idea if the Bears are any good again, but I know what their winning seasons tend to look like. The Rams are very unpredictable from week to week and I’m a little surprised the spread is that big on MNF. I think the Bears could get a return TD in that game and force Jared Goff into mistakes to win that one.