NFL Stat Oddity: Week 6

Most of Week 6’s excitement centered on Tennessee’s 42-36 overtime win over the Texans. Romeo Crennel did something cool, Mike Vrabel played it safe, and everyone from Rich Gannon to most of Twitter got on my nerves when it came to these two-point conversions that have been a big story this season.

Previous weeks:

AFC South Gone Wild: Texans at Titans

The Titans (5-0) hung on to the AFC’s top seed with their league-high fourth game-winning drive of the season after getting the only possession in overtime. It’s practically a miracle the game even reached that extra session after a hot finish from Deshaun Watson, a shot at a 9-point lead in the final two minutes, another crazy Tennessee touchdown that felt fishy to me, and a bypass of the two-point conversion from Mike Vrabel.

Let’s start with Watson, who led Houston to touchdowns on five of his last eight drives and two touchdowns on his final two drives. He didn’t have any turnovers and only took two sacks, which is low for him. Meanwhile, Ryan Tannehill had a strip-sack fumble and threw a pick in the fourth quarter that Watson seemed to cash in with a long drive to ice the game.

Houston scored with 1:50 left and a 36-29 lead. Now I never thought interim coach Romeo Crennel, being a crusty defensive guru, would actually do the right thing and go for two to put this one away with a 9-point lead, but he called for it. Watson had a receiver open on the play too, but just couldn’t make the throw.

CBS announcer Rich Gannon was immediately troubled by the call and thought the extra point was the right move to make it an 8-point game. He tried to justify it on Twitter too:

Uh, bollocks, Rich. For one, Zimmer made a mistake when he didn’t go for a two late in that Seattle game last week. Furthermore, by making it a 9-point game you have effectively just ended the game with 1:50 left with the Titans down to one timeout. Now the Titans have to hurry a score, which they may not even try for the end zone if it’s taking too long. Then they’ll have to recover an onside kick, and we all know that’s nearly impossible these days. The onside kick numbers were 12-of-114 recovered (10.5%) for 2018-19 and that’s not removing some surprise ones that have a better shot. Then if they do get one, they have to score again, either with a possible Hail Mary or long field goal from a kicker who has been inconsistent this season. So good luck with all of that.

Also, who cares if the Texans are up 8, Rich? Even if they’re up 7, they can get a stop or takeaway on defense to end the game. They can also still win in overtime because it’s no guarantee that the Titans would go for two to win in regulation (psst: they didn’t).

The point everyone needs to remember is that whether you’re up 9, 8, or 7, the goal on defense remains the same: don’t allow a touchdown. Period. You don’t allow a touchdown, you don’t lose the game. Stop them on a long field by any means necessary.

Of course Gannon finished his point by saying the guy in New England, Bill Belichick, kicks the extra point every time. I’m not so sure about that, but then again, I was disappointed to see Belichick mouth “why are they going for two?” when Pete Carroll and the Seahawks finally pulled this rare strategy on them in 2016. The Seahawks also didn’t convert in taking a 31-24 lead, but the defense did the job and stopped the Patriots from scoring a game-tying touchdown at the end. Going for nine was absolutely the right call for Houston, and it’s really a no-brainer in the final two minutes.

Also, Belichick happened to go for an early two-point conversion at the same time in his loss to Denver with the Patriots down 18-9. Was that a great call? Keep in mind the Patriots kicked a field goal on 4th-and-5 at the Denver 20 with 3:23 left to make it an 18-12 game. You’re not even guaranteed to get the ball back in that situation. If Belichick just kicked the extra point early and trailed 18-10, they could have gone for it on that 4th-and-5. It’s an extra opportunity in decent field position gone to waste.

For some reason, NFL Twitter seems to think it’s a great strategy to go for two on the first touchdown when you’re down 15, but these same people don’t seem to like going for two up seven to take a 9-point lead. This has always seemed really ass-backwards to me as they’re not respecting how safe a 9-point lead is late in the game:

The 8-point lead is overrated when the only difference it has over 7 is the two-point conversion, a near 50/50 proposition for the league. But if your defense just allowed a team to drive the length of the field for a touchdown, what makes you think they’re going to suddenly find their stopping prowess at the 2-yard line? It’s a fool’s safety blanket to think the two-point conversion will solve your inability to do the main goal your defense has: don’t allow a touchdown.

Now in Belichick’s case, there was 8:31 left when the Patriots failed on the 2PC. That’s more reasonable given the time left. The game isn’t going to just end at 8:31 like it probably would at 3:24 had the Rams on Sunday night gone for two early and failed. Sean McVay kicked the extra point instead and I think it was absolutely the right call even though Al Michaels and Cris Collinsworth had a half-assed disagreement about it. The Rams ended up never getting the ball back so it was a moot finish.

The worst assumption people make on this is that a team down 8 will take their sweet old time to score a touchdown until it’s too late to do anything else if they fail on the game-tying 2PC. That’s just not how the NFL works, especially if we’re talking about drives that start in the final minutes. Teams know they have to be in hurry-up mode at all times. They aren’t going to turn down a touchdown when they see one open to work the clock. That’s nonsense. They’ll take the score when they can get it and they usually get it before the game is over.

I only found 20 cases since 2001 where a team down 8 scored a touchdown in the final 60 seconds and failed on the two-point conversion. Only two of those teams (2004 ATL vs. SEA, 2005 NE vs. MIA) scored with no time left on the clock, so no onside kick was possible. It should be noted that in both cases it was teams playing backups in Week 17 with the starters resting for the playoffs. In fact, I’ll go to the grave saying that Belichick purposely told Matt Cassel to throw the 2PC away so the Patriots could face the overrated Jaguars in the Wild Card that year instead of red-hot Pittsburgh, the eventual champion.

Those two aside, that left 18 teams that scored with 10 to 47 seconds left. The funny thing is four of these 18 teams were able to recover an onside kick after failing on the 2PC. That’s 22.2%, or vintage onside kick recovery back when you could get one once in a while. The 2007 Cowboys infamously beat Buffalo on Monday Night Football after failing with 20 seconds left, but recovering an onside kick and Tony Romo set up a game-winning field goal. The 2007 Cardinals (vs. WAS), Romo’s 2012 Cowboys (vs. BAL), and Aaron Rodgers’ 2015 Packers (vs. Lions) also recovered onside kicks, but their kickers all missed from 50+ yards out to end the game. Remember, we’ve seen offenses set up a field goal in 6 seconds before. It’s not that hard from midfield these days.

So it’s not entirely hopeless if you fail on the late 2PC, and at least you extended the game and got to that point to tie it in the first place. When you chase the two early you risk bringing on the endgame situation sooner than you had to. The other part that’s odd is why isn’t the argument to go 8+8 and win the game in regulation? If you’re that confident about the 2PC, then why not go for two of them and the win? Except we know that’s very hard to do and NFL teams down 15 are almost always just playing for the tie.

I’m not going to pass this as my final research on the topic, but it’s going past 6 A.M. and I just want to get this out before getting some sleep with the double-header around the corner Monday. I just find it really annoying how people seem to be treating two-point conversions as both too hard and a great luxury. Pick a side. I think going for the 9-point lead is great in almost every case. I think going for two early down 15 could be okay if there’s a lot of time left, but usually it’s a never for me after the 5:00 or 4:00 mark. I’m at least consistent on this.

Someone who is not so aggressively consistent is Vrabel, who had a big decision to make when the Titans scored with 0:04 left and trailed 36-35. Now if there was ever a situation where the Two-or-Die attempt made sense, it would be this one.

  • You know your offense is better than your defense.
  • You know your offense is better than their defense.
  • You know their offense is better than your defense.
  • Your offense is over 500 yards in regulation, your QB is mobile, and your RB is a tank.
  • It’s a 36-35 game, so the first possession in overtime is likely going to be the last.
  • Deshaun Watson is a hell of a quarterback and playing really well.
  • Bill O’Brien isn’t there to do stupid shit.
  • Your kicker, Stephen Gostkowski, already has a few misses today.
  • With only 4 seconds left, barring a miracle lateral for them, you know this is for the win if you get it.

That really checks every box, but the Titans took it safe and played for overtime. They won the coin toss and Derrick Henry took over for an 82-yard drive to deny Watson ever getting the ball.

Watson finished with a 138.9 passer rating, the highest in a loss in NFL history with a minimum of 37 pass attempts. Again, he didn’t juice it with a ton of sacks or fumbles either like a Matt Ryan game that comes to mind. Watson’s 93.1 QBR was the highest in a loss this season. This is already the sixth lost comeback of Watson’s career, which have mostly come against very good teams too.

Outside of blasting Buffalo 42-16 on a Tuesday — lot of short-field touchdowns in that one — the Titans have been in nail-biters all year. It should be a great matchup with Pittsburgh, a battle of 5-0 teams, in Week 7.

Riverboat Ron at It Again

While Mike Vrabel passed on the game-winning two-point conversion down by a point, Ron Rivera dialed up another “Two or Die” situation for his team. It’s the third time since 2016 alone that Rivera has done this, but he’s now 0-3 without any conversions.

This time it was with Washington down 20-19 after a Kyle Allen touchdown pass with 36 seconds left. It’s not a terrible call given the time left and ineptitude of New York’s offense, but you have to remember that your quarterback is Kyle Allen. He couldn’t make the pass happen and the Football Team lost, which doesn’t sound like a big deal, but two wins in the NFC East has anyone right in line for the outright lead of this pathetic division.

Also, keep this in mind the next time you see someone say “it doesn’t matter who you play in the NFL.” Daniel Jones is now 3-0 as a starter against Washington, but 1-14 against the rest of the NFL.

Aaron Rodgers: Reality Check

Something tells me Aaron Rodgers won’t be saying his down games are career-best games for most quarterbacks after Sunday’s 38-10 beatdown in Tampa Bay, the site of now three of the worst games of his career.

You know I even laid out how this could happen, but still trusted Green Bay. The Packers always seem to fold on the road in games like this one. Since 2012, Green Bay is 2-16 on the road against NFC playoff teams outside the division. That doesn’t yet include this year where the Packers have won in New Orleans and now lost in Tampa Bay, so that record could be 3-17 or it could be 2-17 if this win catapults the Buccaneers forward and the Saints don’t recover. Either way, it was pretty clear that the Packers were no longer playing the bad NFC North defenses or the Saints/Falcons in this one. Tampa Bay, led by old Green Bay nemesis Ndamukong Suh up front, was fast and able to pressure Rodgers, who was rarely hit in the first four games.

I also mentioned Green Bay was flirting with disaster after having zero giveaways through four games. No team’s ever started a season with five straight games doing that. The Packers felt the regression hard after Rodgers threw back-to-back picks in the second quarter. He was 2 yards shy of doubling his career pick-six total as the plays gave the Buccaneers a quick 14 points after Rodgers looked exceptional in the first quarter to build a 10-0 lead.

That first quarter is about the only thing stopping me from saying hands down this was the worst game of Rodgers’ career, but it’s definitely right in the mix with 2014 Buffalo, 2015 Denver, and 2019 San Francisco (SNF). Rodgers’ QBR was 17.8 and he threw what could have easily been a third pick right to a defender that was dropped.

Tampa Bay meanwhile played about as clean of a game as one could in this league with no turnovers, penalties or sacks allowed. As I said in the preview, Brady was facing a pretty mediocre pass defense that has allowed good stats to four veterans not on top of their game in 2020. Brady finished with a 96.1 QBR in an efficient outing, throwing for 166 yards and getting some vintage plays out of Rob Gronkowski.

It’s a really bad look the way Rodgers was clearly rattled in that second quarter, and Green Bay’s defense appeared to be in give-up mode in the second half. After a game like this, it’s hard not to expect the Packers to fold the next time they’re presented with a similar opponent of this caliber.

That would make the 2020 Packers on par with just about every Green Bay team since 2011. Just when you thought things might be different…

NFL Quarterbacks: Franchise Records for Most Fourth-Quarter Comebacks and Game-Winning Drives

Nearly six years ago I posted a table of the franchise records for fourth-quarter comeback (4QC) wins and game-winning drives (GWD) for the 32 NFL teams. Here is the update to that through the 2019 season, and remember this includes playoff games.

Franchise4QCGWD

Among the changes since 2014:

  • Bengals: Andy Dalton surpassed Boomer Esiason in both categories
  • Raiders: Derek Carr surpassed Ken Stabler in 4QC, but he still trails The Snake by one GWD
  • Chargers: Philip Rivers surpassed Dan Fouts in both categories
  • Seahawks: Russell Wilson surpassed Dave Krieg in both categories
  • Eli Manning (Giants), Jay Cutler (Bears) and Tony Romo (Cowboys) all retired, but still hold their franchise records

The 2020 season could be a massive changing of the guard with Eli’s retirement and the Chargers parting ways with Rivers. We also don’t know if Cam Newton will return to Carolina, so Jake Delhomme may still hang onto these records. We don’t know if Andy Dalton will ever start another game in Cincinnati, clearing way for the Joe Burrow era to begin. We don’t know if Tom Brady will add to his record amounts in New England. We don’t know if Brees will do the same in New Orleans. We don’t even know if Carr is truly safe in what will now be the Las Vegas Raiders to break that Stabler record.

Deshaun Watson beating those low bars set by Matt Schaub in Houston is likely to happen in 2020 or 2021. Other than that, don’t expect many changes to this table in the coming years. Patrick Mahomes will be expected to have all the Kansas City records, but these two could take a few more years. The Chiefs, Jets, Raiders and Eagles are the only teams that have different players holding sole possession of the 4QC and GWD records.

The bottom four teams (SF/TB/TEN/WAS) have records held by quarterbacks who haven’t played for those teams since the salary cap era began (1994). That’s not likely to change any time soon either.

2019 NFL Divisional Round Preview

The NFL’s best weekend is a little sweeter this year. Thanks in large part to Ryan Fitzpatrick and the Titans these last two weeks, we don’t have to talk about the Patriots in the divisional round of the playoffs. This hasn’t happened in a decade, and I said when they were 8-0 that this was not a legitimately great Patriots team. So let’s enjoy it by not giving them any more time than they deserve. The AFC is moving forward with two better teams in Baltimore and Kansas City, but both must avoid an upset as two-score favorites this week if we’re going to get that desired title game next Sunday. I don’t think the Titans and Texans will go away easily.

The Wild Card weekend was excellent with four close, low-scoring games. Every game was decided by 3-8 points and no team scored 21 points in regulation. None of the offenses performed at a high level, which had a lot to do with the games being close, but it was good for dramatic reasons.

You should be counting on more points and at least one multi-score win this week. Seahawks-Packers is the easy choice for the close game lock, and it is the only game with a spread under 7.0 this week. However, we know the greatness of this round is from the road team upsets. They are not easy to come by either. Since 1970, the home team is 141-55 (.719) in the divisional round and that hasn’t tailed off in recent years. In fact, since the new CBA in 2011 the home team is 25-7 (.781) in the divisional round. Since 2002, home teams favored by at least 9 points in the divisional round are 9-5 straight up and 6-8 against the spread. There hasn’t been an upset loss of this magnitude since the 2012 Ravens (at Denver) and 2010 Jets (at Patriots).

Even though every home team won this round last year that is still a pretty rare feat. The only other times it happened in the current playoff format were 2015, 2004 and 2002.

Vikings at 49ers (-7)

You probably could have simulated the season 10 million times in August and not once would you have ended up with this as your #6 at #1 matchup in the NFC. But here we are and I actually believe the Vikings are a very formidable foe. The team is loaded with talent, but the offense just happened to play its worst against Green Bay in two important games this year. Kirk Cousins showed last week he can lead a clutch drive to beat a good team on the road, finishing off the Saints in overtime.

The 49ers don’t have much of a track record to point to, but they are 13-3 this year with three losses on the final play of the game. They were a missed field goal in OT against Seattle and a single defensive stop (inches on one snap) from beating the Falcons to win 15 games, only losing in Baltimore on a last-second field goal. The only times they didn’t score 20 points this year were in very wet conditions in Washington and Baltimore. It’s been a great Year 3 so far for Kyle Shanahan.

For me this game comes down to the Minnesota offensive line. Can they hold up on the road against a front seven that has slipped in the second half of the season? If Dalvin Cook has holes to run through, he and Alexander Mattison could have a nice day together. The 49ers run defense is nothing special (11th in DVOA, 23rd in yards per carry). Cook looked ready to Derrick Henry his way through the Saints defense until they got to him more in the second half. With the passing offense, Cousins clearly has the weapons as Adam Thielen stepped up with big catches and Kyle Rudolph caught the game winner in OT. Stefon Diggs was hardly involved, but that’s just another great option for this offense to go to this week. The 49ers allowed the fewest passing yards in the league this year, including 10 games where the opponent had fewer than 200 net passing yards (five games of no more than 100 yards). That’s very impressive, but the Vikings aren’t looking to go pass-happy in any game this year. Cousins was 11-2 (only losses to Green Bay) when he didn’t go above 35 pass attempts this season. They just want to run Cook and take advantage of play-action as much as they can.

The Saints had greater pass pressure metrics than the 49ers defense finished the year with. Cousins took a couple sacks and five QB hits in New Orleans, but overall the protection held up enough. The 49ers were destroying quarterbacks earlier this season, but that has really eased up. Rookie Nick Bosa had 7 sacks and 13 hits thru Week 8, but in the last nine games he’s only had 2 sacks and 12 hits. Through 11 games, the 49ers sacked 10 of their opposing quarterbacks at least three times. They haven’t done so since Week 12 and they have four sacks total in the last five games. Since Week 9, the 49ers have allowed at least 20 points in every game except for the big Packers win (37-8). Even though the Packers own the Vikings this year, the transitive property does not apply in the NFL, so don’t expect the 49ers to just own the Vikings too. San Francisco’s defense clearly peaked early as some injuries have set in too.

On the other side of the ball, the San Francisco offense is pretty legit. They were fifth in points per drive and 10th in yards per drive. It helps to be second in starting field position, but they still moved the ball well throughout the season. Jimmy Garoppolo started a bit shaky in the first half of the season when he was only averaging 212.7 passing yards per game with nearly an equal TD:INT ratio. Ever since the Arizona game in Week 9 he’s up to 276.6 yards per game with 18 TD, 6 INT, 107.6 PR, and a strong 8.67 YPA. He’s been asked to do more and he’s delivered so far. You know to expect a good running game from a Shanahan offense and they certainly have had that. The trade for Emmanuel Sanders was smart and the draft pick of Deebo Samuel was good. It may not be the flashiest receiving corps in the NFL, but it’s more than enough to win a Super Bowl when you factor in the run and George Kittle at tight end.

If there’s an area of concern I would say the red zone could be rough, especially on Garoppolo as a passer. Kittle is awesome, the best TE in this post-Gronk NFL, but he’s not much of a receiving threat in the red zone. He only has 12 TD catches in his career (on 216 catches) and only three this season came within 30 yards of the end zone. That’s just not something they do, which is why the 49ers led the league with 23 rushing touchdowns. But make no mistake about it — the 49ers are a middling red zone offense while the Vikings are No. 2 in most red zone defense metrics. The Vikings were also one of the best defenses at creating takeaways and were the only defense to get multiple turnovers from the Saints in 2019. I mentioned Danielle Hunter last week as a top pass-rusher this year. He and Everson Griffen delivered in New Orleans and will have to do so again here. Garoppolo has fumbled 10 times (equal to Cousins’ total) with five lost this year.

Something to keep in mind is that the Vikings are quite poor at coming from behind in the fourth quarter. Garoppolo is 7-3 (.700) at 4QC opportunities in his career compared to 8-25-2 (.257) for Cousins. Minnesota’s only 4QC win in the last two seasons was against Denver this season. Garoppolo (50%) and Cousins (48%) were the top two quarterbacks in 2019 at converting third-down passes into first downs.

I almost want to pick the Vikings to pull off another upset here, but I just picked the 49ers last week to reach the Super Bowl. Plus it’s January and we’re talking about the Minnesota Vikings having everything go their way in two straight playoff games. That just doesn’t compute for me, but this should be a pretty good game.

Final: 49ers 26, Vikings 23

 

Titans at Ravens (-9.5)

This was a short-lived AFC rivalry after the Browns moved to Baltimore and became the Ravens while the Oilers moved to Tennessee and changed their name to the Titans. The Ravens knocked the No. 1 seeded Titans out of the playoffs in 2000 and 2008. Those were potential Super Bowl years for Tennessee, and there really hasn’t been that type of excitement about this team ever since that day a rookie coach named John Harbaugh took his Baltimore team into that building and won.

Now the Titans can return the favor to the top-seeded Ravens, who are coming off a bye week and a Week 17 win where they rested key starters, including likely MVP QB Lamar Jackson. That means 20 days will have passed since Jackson played a game, and it’s a time in which he reportedly fought off the flu too. When your QB is such a unique player, a 1,200-yard rusher and not a high-volume passer, maybe rest is more important than any concern for rust. We saw in the past how precision-passing offenses like the 2005 Colts and 2011 Packers were hurt by giving their offense too much rest in addition to the bye week, but Baltimore is the most prolific rushing offense in NFL history (3,296 yards). No one has held the Ravens under 118 rushing yards this year and they’re the only offense in NFL history to rush for at least 170 yards in all eight home games. Baltimore hasn’t trailed in the fourth quarter since Week 5, a comeback win in Pittsburgh. The 2019 Ravens are the 11th team in NFL history to score at least 20 points in all 16 games of a season.

Still, I think Tennessee’s best shot at another upset is a fast start and some rust (or regression) from the Ravens. This is pretty hard when Baltimore leads the NFL in first-quarter scoring (128 points) and has allowed the fewest first-quarter points (31). I’m not trying to anger Tennessee fans, but the fact is your defense is not that great, and the Ravens have the most efficient offense in the league this year. It’s historic really as they averaged over 200 yards per game in passing and rushing. You need some help from the offense (unforced errors & mistakes) to slow them down. Jackson has improved his accuracy this year, but there are still times where the ball comes out a little high and one of his big tight ends needs to make a great catch. You hope he has a few of those bad throws on high-leverage third downs, or maybe a fourth down that the Ravens are very willing to go for this year. The Ravens also had the second-lowest rate of dropped passes in the league this year. Maybe this receiving corps, which is basically a rookie (Marquise Brown), a retread (Willie Snead) and three tight ends (Mark Andrews has been exceptional) have some yips on Saturday night and drop important passes. Jackson is hard to sack and the Baltimore line does a great job of protection and the defense always has to be cautious of the running attack.

The Ravens just offer a different challenge that NFL teams really aren’t used to competing against. That’s why I think it’s crucial for Ryan Tannehill to have a fast start and get the Titans ahead early to hopefully get the Ravens out of their element and play from behind like the Chargers did to a rookie Jackson in the playoffs last year. Then Derrick Henry can take the game over in the second half and kill the clock, but hopefully it will lead to more points this time. Just 14 points won’t win like it would have in New England last week. There’s no way Tannehill can get by without throwing for over 100 yards again. I wasn’t too encouraged by how he played in the biggest game of his career last week, but at least he made a couple key throws on third down. He’ll have to continue that here and get rookie A.J. Brown involved, which he didn’t last week. You don’t want to get into a big shootout with the Ravens, but I think the Titans have an explosive offense to put up the points necessary to grind out a win.

This tweet from ESPN’s Seth Walder caught my eye:

I thought the Patriots last week would use Cover Zero blitzes to force Tannehill into mistakes since he has taken a very high rate of sacks this year. However, he threw 15 passes in the whole game so it wasn’t that kind of night. He did take one sack and fumbled twice, but the Patriots were unable to recover either. Baltimore will look to force him into more mistakes in what should be a much higher volume passing game this time. I’m not sure it means anything this week, but the Titans have faced Baltimore in each of the last two seasons and Henry finished those games with a pathetic 15 carries for 47 yards (combined two games). That also can’t happen again. That was the day Mariota took 11 sacks for Tennessee. Tannehill’s not that bad thankfully.

We don’t think of the 2019 Ravens as a classic Baltimore defense, perhaps because there’s no Ray Lewis or Ed Reed or Terrell Suggs on the unit this year. They also struggled early in the season after allowing huge numbers in Kansas City (33 points and 503 yards) and to the Browns (40 points and 530 yards). That gave us an early impression that things weren’t good this year. However, in the other 14 games this year the Ravens never allowed more than 23 points or 349 yards. Only the 2010 Steelers (15 games) and 2011 Steelers (14 games) can say they’ve done that at least 14 times in a season this decade. Matt Judon emerged as their new star pass-rusher and the trade for corner Marcus Peters in Week 7 proved to be a steal as he made the All-Pro team thanks to his ball-hawking abilities. So the Ravens are in this familiar spot of having the best defense left in the AFC playoffs, but now they have the best offense to boot as well.

Not to trigger fans of the 2000 Titans, but it could be a bad thing if this game comes down to field goals. Justin Tucker is arguably the best kicker to ever do it, while the Titans were just 8-of-18 on field goals this year. Their current kicker, Greg Joseph, hasn’t even attempted a field goal in 2019. He missed three field goals and four extra points for the 2018 Browns.

That’s why the red zone matchup could be so huge in this one. Baltimore’s passing game was the best in the league in the red zone. Jackson’s 24 red zone touchdown passes trail only Russell Wilson (25), but he had 29 fewer pass attempts in the red zone than Wilson. That’s a lot different than the matchup with Tom Brady last week. Brady had 13 TD on a league-high 91 red zone passes in 2019. The only player coming close to Jackson’s absurd red zone TD% of 40% is Tannehill (37.8%).The Titans have been absolutely bonkers in the red zone with Tannehill since Week 7. Including the playoff game, they are 28-of-32 (87.5%) at scoring touchdowns in the red zone after starting 8-of-15 (53.3%) with Marcus Mariota. They are going to need to continue that hot streak and realize that field goals aren’t going to beat the best offense in the league on the road (unless it’s the final play of the game of course).

We’ve seen bigger upsets in NFL history before, but I just don’t like the Titans enough to pick them here. Baltimore is the better team in all three units, the home team, and the rested team. It would be cool to see another sixth seed make a run at things here, but the Ravens are legitimately great this season.

Final: Ravens 30, Titans 20

 

Texans at Chiefs (-9.5)

We usually have some rematches from the regular season to talk about in the playoffs, but this is only the second one through two rounds this year. The other one was last week when the Seahawks beat the Eagles by the same score (17-9) again. That would be very disappointing for the Chiefs, a two-score favorite, since Houston won 31-24 in Arrowhead in Week 6.

So what happened that day and why will things be different this time?

In Week 6, the Chiefs were coming off a rough 19-13 loss to the Colts, the first game where Patrick Mahomes didn’t lead the team to at least 26 points. Mahomes was injured a couple of times in that game and was missing left tackle Eric Fisher and Sammy Watkins for this Houston matchup. It started off really well when Mahomes notably threw for 116 yards on the opening drive thanks to some penalties. The Chiefs led 17-3 and seemed like they were going to roll over Houston, but the Texans came back. Mahomes got fooled on a second quarter interception when he thought the official was going to throw a flag on a free play, and he later lost a fumble that Deshaun Watson turned into a touchdown before halftime for a 23-17 lead. Watson engineered a 12-play, 93-yard drive in the fourth quarter — a drive that never featured a third down — to put the Texans ahead 31-24. The Chiefs had a very quick three-and-out with an odd call of a run on 2nd-and-14, and the Texans were able to run out the final 5:03 without giving Mahomes the ball back. Carlos Hyde was effective with 116 rushing yards, and Watson’s day could have been even bigger without some dropped passes. Houston racked up 35 first downs in that game, the most by any NFL road team since the Patriots had 36 first downs in their overtime win in Kansas City in the 2018 AFC Championship Game. The Chiefs were unable to gain 20 yards on any play after the opening drive.

That was arguably the low point of the season for the Chiefs on defense, but the good news is the offense is healthier now, especially in regards to Mahomes. They also have their leading sack defender back in Chris Jones, who missed that Week 6 game. The Texans got J.J. Watt back last week and he played well against Buffalo. The Texans didn’t have Kenny Stills in Week 6, but they’re looking to have their full wideout trio of DeAndre Hopkins, Stills and Will Fuller available for this one.

You expect the Chiefs to play better this time, but the spread rising from Chiefs -3.5 in Week 6 to Chiefs -9.5 given that last matchup is still a bit puzzling. Kansas City has cut down on penalties and turnovers since Week 6, but those mistakes and bad health have led the offense to take a step back from 2018’s historic level.

The injuries, most notably the dislocated kneecap that cost him nearly three full games, did take away from what was still an exceptional season for Mahomes. He actually had more touchdown passes of 40-plus yards (9) this year than he had in 2018 (7) despite throwing 24 fewer touchdowns overall. The big plays are still there in an offense built for speed, but in recent weeks we have seen a more pedestrian Mahomes. Since Week 11, Mahomes is at 7.28 yards per attempt with 8 touchdowns to 4 interceptions and a 92.0 passer rating. That’s fine for what the Chiefs needed to go 6-0 in those games, but Mahomes’ 16-game pace over this span is just 3,747 yards and 21 touchdown passes. That’s far from the record-setting dominance he showed us through his first 25 starts.

Mahomes has been overshadowed the last six games by his defense, which prompts the “watch out now that Mahomes has a defense!” angle. Yes, it would be scary to give this quarterback a legitimately great defense, but are we sure that’s the case? It was just in Week 10 when this defense was embarrassed by Ryan Tannehill in Tennessee, prompting us to take the Titans more seriously. I’m always leery of these “QB has [help]!” claims when we know the larger sample size usually points to that not being the case.

As always, the first thing to do is look at the schedule. Who have the Chiefs played in the last six weeks? That would be the Chargers twice. Philip Rivers had a turnover-heavy, washed-up type of season. Then there was Oakland and Derek Carr, who has a very poor history against the Chiefs. The only games he had this year with multiple interceptions were against the Chiefs, and he also had two picks in a 35-3 loss to the Chiefs in Week 17 last year. Throw in a 23-3 win over rookie Drew Lock and the Broncos in a snow game and that’s already four games out of six against division rivals they’re familiar with. The other two games were at New England and Chicago, where the quarterback play was close to equal for the first time in many years with Tom Brady having his worst season at 42 and Mitchell Trubisky being Mitchell Trubisky.

So color me unimpressed with this run. I think the Chiefs this postseason are more likely to look like the defense that had a few good moments mixed with tough times against the Packers, Vikings, Texans, Titans, Ravens and Lions (with Matthew Stafford). You know, better offensive competition.

If you look at the seven games where the Chiefs have positive EPA on defense on Pro Football Reference, five of the games are from Weeks 11-17. But you’ll also notice that the other two games were the early meetings against Denver (Week 7) and Oakland (Week 2). So those were just offenses the defense owned this season. By the same measure of EPA, the Chiefs had three games where they were worse than -17 EPA and those were against the Texans, Ravens and Packers so that could be interesting if that ends up being their next three opponents on a Super Bowl path.

Reid getting less out of the offense and more out of the defense is probably a net positive for this playoff run, but Mahomes is going to have to be stellar at some point here. If it’s not this week, then it will have to come in Baltimore most likely. Remember, Mahomes is getting the worst defense in the playoffs this week in Houston. He should play very well on Sunday, but the standards for his “very well” game are currently in flux.

The last thing I want to talk about is arguably the most important part in this game: Deshaun Watson. His A-level plays are just as good as Mahomes and Jackson, whether it’s the incredible runs or deep throws down the field. However, he does take too many sacks at times and we just haven’t seen him put together that consistent, MVP-worthy season yet like Mahomes (2018) and Jackson (2019) have. Of course, those quarterbacks have better support systems than Watson, who is stuck with Bill O’Brien and a franchise that doesn’t really have a GM. Mahomes has Andy Reid’s brain, and we know from Reid’s coaching tree that he puts together great staffs. Jackson has Harbaugh and Greg Roman, and the Ravens are on the forefront of analytics right now. Watson is basically pulling the weight in Houston himself, which is how the Texans end up falling behind 16-0 at home to lowly Buffalo in the Wild Card round, but also how they pull out a 22-19 win in overtime behind him.

Watson stands to be The Third Man in the AFC as Mahomes and Jackson battle for conference superiority in this new decade where the Patriots should finally be old news. Winning this game and breaking up the first of several expected AFC title games between Mahomes and Jackson would be huge for him, but the odds clearly aren’t in his favor Sunday.

But make no mistake about it — Watson is a gamer and the main reason Chiefs fans have to feel at least a little nervous about this one. If there’s someone who can match Mahomes, who isn’t coming in hot, score for score on that cursed playoff ground called Arrowhead, it is Watson.

Final: Chiefs 31, Texans 23

 

Seahawks at Packers (-4)

I have about 800 words left to keep this preview under 5,000, but how many does one really need for this game? Seattle’s offense is a little better than Green Bay’s, though the Packers have an edge in versatility with their top back (Aaron Jones) still healthy while the Seahawks won with 19 rushing yards from backs in Philadelphia last week. Green Bay’s play-action passing game remains broken this year and Rodgers still throws too many passes away and takes too many sacks he shouldn’t. Both teams are mediocre at best on defense and special teams. Both teams are in the running for the worst team to ever have the nice records (13-3 and 11-5) they have.

It would be shocking if we don’t see Russell Wilson in the fourth quarter of a lower scoring game trying to lead a game-winning drive. Does he get sacked in the arms of Za’Darius Smith, or does he make Green Bay blow its first fourth-quarter lead of 2019? From my 2019 close game summary, the Packers (NFL-high eight holds) and Seahawks (six holds including last week in Philly) have not blown any fourth-quarter leads this year, though Seattle did twice get lucky on missed field goals. The Packers are 10-1 in close games and haven’t lost one since Week 4 (Eagles). They have three more close wins than the next closest team. They also struggled like hell to sweep the 3-12-1 Lions this year, though I would be remiss to not mention Seattle’s 1-point win at home over a Cincinnati team that is picking first in the draft. Like I said, these teams are not that great; shells of the dominant teams they fielded in that classic 2014 NFC Championship Game.

Seattle just needs to survive the first quarter. That’s when Rodgers has by far been at his best in 2019 and Seattle has allowed more first-quarter points than all but five teams. The Packers rank third in first-quarter scoring, but are 27th in the second quarter, ninth in the third quarter and 26th in the fourth quarter. Much of Green Bay’s season has been about jumping out to an early lead, scoring 21-31 points in the game, and hanging on for the victory. That’s fine against most of the NFL, but Wilson is adept at leading comebacks.

However, Wilson has a very checkered past against the Packers: 4-3 record, 10 TD, 10 INT, 74.0 passer rating and 6.63 YPA. He’s had games with 4 and 5 INT against them, and the first meeting was the Fail Mary in 2012. His most complete game against Green Bay was probably last year’s win at home against Mike Pettine’s defense, but the Packers are better on that side of the ball in 2019.

After going through 2019 with next to zero pass rush, the Seahawks picked up 7 sacks and 9 QB hits in Philadelphia last week. That’s unlikely to repeat itself, but as the season has shown, Rodgers will take some sacks and leave teams hanging around late. The pressure will be on Wilson to deliver and for at least one more week I’m counting on him to deliver. Should Minnesota pull off the upset in San Francisco on Saturday, this game takes on even greater importance for the Packers because of how they have dominated that division matchup this year. The chances of going to the Super Bowl could go up before Green Bay even takes the field last this weekend.

If things go the other way, then we’ll just bet like crazy against the Packers in San Francisco next week.

Final: Seahawks 23, Packers 20

NFL Week 6 Predictions: I Did Not Speak Out Edition

Last week I did not say much about the actual games in Week 5, and I regret not going into detail on why I thought the Colts had a shot at upsetting the Chiefs. When you get as many predictions wrong as I have this season — though apparently the sites I’ve worked for before are doing just as bad against the spread — it’s nice to look right from time to time. This has been a lopsided season and I will even briefly hit on the Super Toilet Bowl this week in Miami.

But first, let’s start with a game that could be the (Early) Game of the Year that Ravens-Chiefs was not.

Texans at Chiefs (-4.5)

First they came for Kareem Hunt
And I did not speak out
Because running backs don’t matter

Then they came for Tyreek Hill
And I did not speak out
Because I believe in karma

Then they came for Eric Fisher and Sammy Watkins
And I did not speak out
Because I never thought they lived up to their draft expectations

Then they came for me, Patrick Mahomes
And there was no one left to run this historic offense

It took 24 games, but it finally happened. The Chiefs lost a game in the Mahomes era primarily because the offense didn’t perform or produce. While the Colts deserve credit for pressuring Mahomes (four sacks like they had in January’s playoff loss) and making some big plays, I find any talks of a “blueprint” existing to stifle this offense are way overblown. Most of the pivotal mistakes in KC’s 19-13 demise last Sunday night were self inflicted.

You can’t plan as a defense for things like that to happen every week. The Chiefs played a sloppy, penalty-filled game, and we haven’t even gotten into the injury side of it. You had to figure at some point the loss of a left tackle, top two wide receivers and the QB limping around during the game would catch up to the Chiefs. You could even argue this offense has been hemorrhaging talent since the team made the right move of cutting problematic RB Kareem Hunt last December. About the only player who has consistently remained healthy is Travis Kelce. A QB on a bad ankle, which Mahomes first injured in Week 1 against the Jaguars, can by itself explain why some of the deep throws in recent weeks have been just off despite an open receiver. In the last 23 games, the Chiefs have had four scoreless first quarters: the 2018 AFC Championship Game and three games this season. They fell behind 10-0 to both Oakland and Detroit this year. Things have been a little more scattershot despite the prolific start.

“Play more man coverage” is a bit simplistic of a plan to slow this offense down. It’s also easier to do when  you’re defending DeMarcus Robinson and someone named Pringle than Sammy Watkins and Tyreek Hill. So I think the Chiefs offense will be stronger as the season goes on and players come back, but this is a particularly interesting part of the schedule where they could really fall off the chase for the top seed with New England blazing through one of the most disgusting schedules you’ll ever see an NFL team gifted. The Chiefs now have to host a dangerous Houston team before going to Denver on Thursday night, and the Broncos have held Mahomes under 30 points in all three meetings. The Packers and Vikings soon follow too, so it’s not a good time to have injuries like this for Kansas City.

When Deshaun Watson brings his A game, he is absolutely on the level of what Mahomes can do offensively. He brought it against Atlanta last week for his third career game with 5 TD passes. He also tossed five against the Chiefs in 2017. The only issue is Watson has been up and down the last two seasons and takes too many sacks, but the Chiefs are more than vulnerable on defense for him to have a huge day and put a lot of pressure on Mahomes in what could be a fun shootout.

If these teams play up to their potential, this could only be the first meeting of two this year as they are quite arguably the 2nd and 3rd best teams in the AFC.

Redskins at Dolphins (+3.5)

You know things are bad when the 0-5 road team that just fired its coach is a 3.5-point favorite. My thoughts on Jay Gruden are that he struggled to establish an identity for his team, the firing was inevitable this year, but he probably deserves a second chance somewhere after dealing with a ton of bad injury luck. He usually kept the team around .500 despite all of the shortcomings in Washington.

Now you enter Bill Callahan in the job, who famously lost the Super Bowl to Tampa Bay after Jon Gruden knew what the Raiders were running on offense. Callahan also had a doozy of a media conference this week when he glorified rushing attempts, so don’t be surprised if Adrian Peterson is a name you hear a lot this week.

As for the Dolphins, the nicest thing you can say is that the margin of defeat has shrunk each week and they had a bye. Josh Rosen isn’t better right now than Washington starter Case Keenum, so that gives me pause to giving the Dolphins their first win, but if it’s going to happen this year, a home game with Washington’s putrid defense is a great opportunity.

This may not even be the worst matchup of the season as the Dolphins host the currently winless Bengals in Week 16, but by virtue of these games, we shouldn’t have multiple 0-16 teams this year.

Steelers at Chargers (-7)

I’m assuming NBC thought the Steelers looked competent enough against Cincinnati two weeks ago that they didn’t need to flex this one. They couldn’t have predicted that Mason Rudolph would go down with a concussion on Sunday against Baltimore. That was probably the scariest looking concussion I’ve ever seen a football player suffer with the way his body went limp, so I’m not surprised he is inactive this week.

It’s just a stunning development that the Steelers are now starting UDFA Devlin Hodges out of Samford. We’re talking an August preseason arm starting in prime time before Halloween for a flagship NFL franchise. To his credit, Hodges looked good off the bench against the Ravens. It’s not his fault that JuJu Smith-Schuster fumbled in overtime to set up a game-winning field goal for Baltimore. I liked that Hodges wasn’t afraid to pull the trigger on intermediate passes and he has some mobility as well. My biggest concern would be that after a week of “getting coached up” by one of the league’s most suspect coaching staffs that he’ll turtle in this big opportunity and they’ll try to hide him with the Wildcat and other gadget plays.

I don’t think the Chargers have been playing good football this year and it is a winnable game. I even recall the Chargers losing a prime-time game to the 2015 Steelers with Michael Vick at QB barely contributing any completions. The Steelers are better than their 1-4 record, giving Seattle, San Francisco and Baltimore all they could handle in losses.

I wouldn’t count on an upset, but I think the Steelers keep it close enough to where it’s not a disaster they didn’t get the flex option.

NFL Week 6 Predictions

I had the Patriots barely covering against the Giants on Thursday, which proved to be the case.

2019Wk6

I am also interested in the Seahawks-Browns game. Seattle has already won three games by 1-2 points. The Browns have mostly looked terrible, though did drop 40 points in Baltimore in a win. The top of the NFC West has been beating up on the disappointing AFC North so far, but let’s see if the Browns can get on track this week before a bye and trip to New England.

2019Wk1-5

NFL Week 5 Predictions: Pick and Choose

I didn’t have a good title this week, so I literally typed “Pick and Choose” right after hearing the lyric “pick and chews” from the song White Out by Joan of Arc, which is playing on my Spotify right now.

So far, this has been a season of “pick and choose.” If you asked me what’s a great team right now and what’s a terrible team, I would have some answers, but all I’m confident in is that they’re still close together in quality.

Jacksonville at Pittsburgh

Jacksonville’s defense ranks No. 1 against the pass, but No. 32 against the run. Ben Roethlisberger hasn’t been hitting the deep balls and has only topped 300 yards in the AFC Championship Game going back 13 games. All logic would tell you this is a big Le’Veon Bell day, who finally got it going in Baltimore last week. Yet the craziness of the NFL might just lead to a big day for Roethlisberger instead, as he’ll definitely want to get back on the same page with Antonio Brown, Jalen Ramsey be damned. Either way, I like the Steelers at home, and I can’t get over how little this defense has been challenged by opposing passing games so far. Blake Bortles on the road? Yeah, give me that fantasy defense.

Carolina at Detroit

Let’s focus on the football first. Detroit’s defense and running game have stepped up, and will need to again with a tough, but still heavily flawed Carolina team. I was surprised at how well Cam Newton played in New England, and no, it’s not just about the defense there, because we saw Drew Brees and Jameis Winston struggle to put up points on that defense (and they weren’t up in Foxboro). I just think for this matchup, Darius Slay can take on Kelvin Benjamin and the loss of Greg Olsen is still a big factor. I don’t expect Newton to play that well, and I think Matthew Stafford snaps out of this little funk at home and uses his plethora of weapons against a secondary that’s still not great to me.

I was leaning Detroit even before Cam Newton embarrassed himself this week with his belittling of females covering sports. I thought about what a female reporter could ask that would make Cam’s smirk and response logical, and all I could think of was “jock itch.” “It’s funny to hear a female talk about jock itch.” Yeah, that works. That line’s not going to cause a media shitstorm. Though I guess women can get jock itch too, and I suppose a yeast infection might present a similar discomfort, but we’re getting really off topic now. So yeah, the next time you’re asked a football question by a reporter, male or female, just answer the damn question like a professional. She earned her way into that job and has had it for several years. That should buy some respect from Cam to the local media. I don’t know why “route tree” is being brought up so much, because she didn’t even ask about any specific route or question the play design. It was just about a wideout running his routes physically. No big deal, but here we are because Cam said another stupid thing at the podium. I doubt it will be the last time either no matter how hard he worked on his apology video.

Chargers at Giants

It’s a little hard to believe these teams are 0-4, and one will be 0-5, but they have played like 2-2 teams to be honest. It’s just the kind of things we expected: Giants would regress in close 4Q games (blew a late lead the last two weeks) and the Chargers continue to lose close games at rapid pace. Give me the Giants in a 10:00 a.m. body clock game for the Chargers. I also just think the Giants have the more balanced team, and Eli Manning has gotten closer to on track the last two games.

Buffalo at Cincinnati

Interesting one since the Bengals have improved offensively after the OC change, but they’re going from playing arguably the worst defense (Browns) to the best (Bills) in the league so far. Andy Dalton has his work cut out for him here, but he still has more weapons than Tyrod Taylor. If the Bills can get LeSean McCoy going, then I think they have enough to keep the score down and win on the road, but I’m skeptical. Frankly, the Bills getting to 3-1 after some good fortune (Von Miller penalty, bogus fumble-six in Atlanta and injured Julio/Sanu) reeks of this team being a bit of a fraud like some past first-quarter teams that started hot (think 2011 Bills, 2012 Cardinals, 2012 Eagles, 2016 Eagles, 2016 Rams) record wise, but weren’t actually good teams in the end. But a win by the Bills would look really good here if the Patriots are to be seriously challenged in the AFC East.

Seattle at Rams

We’ll see if Sean McVay prepares for the Seahawks the way Jeff Fisher did, treating it like the Super Bowl. Very interesting game, because the Seahawks have shown some cracks on defense, and Cliff Avril is out. We know Aaron Donald is going to dominate the offensive line for Seattle, but Russell Wilson has had some big games recently. The Rams aren’t quite as stout defensively as we expected, and the offense has been way better than I think anyone could have imagined. But this is a great test for the team at home, and I really think I have to lean on the Rams making this look legit and getting to 4-1. I might regret that pick, because I would point out the Rams have had the 2nd-best starting field position this year to help out the offense, and Jared Goff’s low ALEX strategy isn’t likely to keep converting third down at such a high rate. Seattle’s still a contender too, so it’s really a toss up.

Green Bay at Dallas

I don’t think much has changed since the playoff game, though Jordy Nelson is much healthier this time around. His teammates, including Davante Adams (concussion) and Ty Montgomery (ribs) — not so much. Both teams can score, but can they defend? I think with some banged up skill players for Green Bay, Dallas might have the edge at home. Demarcus Lawrence against Green Bay’s banged up offensive line? Good matchup for Dallas. And really, a big sack on third down or two might be enough to tilt the difference in this one.

Kansas City at Houston

Is it too soon to totally rethink Houston’s chances and style this year? Led by Deshaun Watson’s prolific numbers the last two weeks against division favorites, the Texans look dominant on offense right now. This is closer to the type of impact I thought Watson had a chance to make on the Texans this year, and it would be great for the league if he can keep this up. Imagine, a Wild Card Saturday where the Texans aren’t a total bore to watch. Meanwhile, the Chiefs are the last unbeaten at 4-0, but another tough prime-time game after Monday’s close call. Despite the 4-0 record, the Chiefs have needed three game-winning drives and two 10-point comebacks so far. The late touchdowns in each game skew just how tight those games were, though I will add that the Chiefs have played arguably the toughest schedule so far. Maybe I’m just focusing too much on the last two weeks, but I think Watson can continue his success to put up 27+ in this game at home, and J.J. Watt can get his first sacks (yes, plural) of the season from an always welcoming Alex Smith, who is still the patron saint of ALEX.

2017 Week 5 Predictions

I had the Patriots on Thursday, though didn’t quite get the spread right.

Winners in bold.

  • Chargers at Giants
  • Jaguars at Steelers
  • Bills at Bengals
  • 49ers at Colts
  • Panthers at Lions
  • Titans at Dolphins
  • Cardinals at Eagles
  • Jets at Browns
  • Seahawks at Rams
  • Ravens at Raiders
  • Packers at Cowboys
  • Chiefs at Texans
  • Vikings at Bears

I’m going to assume that Marcus Mariota is gimpy and not 100%, and the Dolphins start to score some points or that whole situation is about to blow up. I also just gave the Browns win, not because I think they’re better than the Jets right now, but if they don’t win this game, when do they steal a win this year? I can’t faithfully predict 0-16.

  • Week 1: 8-7
  • Week 2: 11-5
  • Week 3: 9-7
  • Week 4: 8-8
  • Season: 36-27