Justin Herbert & Matthew Stafford: Keep On Chucking in the Free World

From Joe Burrow last Thursday night to Tom Brady on Sunday night to Justin Herbert on Monday night to Matthew Stafford tonight, the NFL is showing us four of the most prolific passers in history in prime time.

Prolific in which way? Simply by throwing the football. After Monday night’s win over the Raiders, Herbert (759) now has the most pass attempts through 20 career games in NFL history. The thing is he’s only played 19 games, but he’s already one ahead of the record pace.

Who has thrown the most passes in NFL history? The guy who has played the longest, of course. Brady recently surpassed Brees for the most attempts through 300 games in NFL history.

But then there is the case of Matthew Stafford, who was a Volume God in Detroit with pass attempts. You can already see this when I posted the most passing yards by game in NFL history, and Patrick Mahomes is doing his best to erase Stafford from that chart.

Now I have a new chart that shows the most pass attempts by career game number in regular-season history, and Stafford is dominating this one too. Unless Herbert keeps up with him, Stafford could be poised to fill out most of this chart if he stays healthy.

CLICK TO ENLARGE

First, who thought it was a good idea to let Mike Glennon throw 181 passes in his first four games with the 2013 Buccaneers? That was a shocking entry I never would have guessed, nor was I counting on Todd Marinovich to show up after two games with the early 90s Raiders.

Right from the first game with Sam Bradford, there is a striking trend here. In the first 175 slots, 167 of them are filled with a QB who was drafted No. 1 overall. This league just loves drafting a quarterback with the first pick and throwing him into the role of savior where he loads up on pass attempts each week even though he’s not that efficient at doing so. We see Bradford, Drew Bledsoe, Stafford, Andrew Luck, and Joe Burrow all crack this list.

Most of these charts have been runaways by a few players, but I was definitely amused at filling out the first column with the unexpected names and the battle that ensued between Bledsoe and Stafford. By Game No. 38, Stafford took over for good. I’ve definitely drawn comparisons between the two several times before:

Stafford has the most pass attempts through 175 games in NFL history, and he has only played 169 games. We’ll see if he can make this second act with the Rams so prolific that it lands him in the Hall of Fame some day.

Russell Wilson and the Lonesome Crowded NFC West

In Week 4, the NFC West takes center stage with two standout matchups in the late afternoon slot: Cardinals/Rams and Seahawks/49ers. These are the first division games of the year in what is shaping up to be the best division race in the league just like we expected coming into 2021.

But the Seahawks (1-2), winners of last year’s race, are in danger of slipping to 1-3 for the first time in the Russell Wilson era. While Wilson has some impressive stats again this season, he has the lowest QBR ranking – 55.6 is only good for 15th – of the four quarterbacks in the NFC West, and the Seahawks (15th) are the only NFC West offense not ranked in the top eight in points per drive through three games.

Matthew Stafford and Kyler Murray both have their teams at 3-0, top four in points, and both are top five in QBR with Stafford (82.6) leading the whole NFL so far. If they keep this up, we might see multiple quarterbacks in the NFC West get MVP votes before Wilson ever gets one in his career.

It’s almost like Wilson is becoming the forgotten man in the division that he has been the top star of for a decade now.

But this is nothing new for Wilson. Ever since his rookie year in 2012, he has had to share the spotlight with several quarterbacks in his division as they led their teams to great success too. This has made Wilson’s path to the Hall of Fame a bumpier ride than most of his great peers.

Russell Wilson vs. His Peers vs. Their Division Rivals

It would be wrong to say that Russell Wilson is the only top quarterback to face a real challenger from every team in his division in the last decade.

Ben Roethlisberger faced the Ravens (2014), Bengals (2015), and Browns (2020) in wild card playoff games in the last seven seasons, losing two of them at home. Aaron Rodgers had his toughest division competition early in his career when the 2009 Vikings had Brett Favre and the 2010 Bears gave Jay Cutler a great defense. But in the last decade, he has seen playoff seasons from the Lions with Matthew Stafford, Mike Zimmer’s Vikings with Teddy Bridgewater/Case Keenum’s one-year wonder/Kirk Cousins, and a couple Chicago seasons when Mitchell Trubisky managed Matt Nagy’s offense to something better than 1 net passing yard.

In the NFC South, Drew Brees watched Cam Newton (2015 Panthers) and Matt Ryan (2016 Falcons) win MVP and lose the Super Bowl, while the Saints lost to Tom Brady and the 2020 Buccaneers in the final game of Brees’ career, a pivotal divisional round game that launched Tampa Bay on the path to a Super Bowl win.

However, Wilson has experienced multiple runs and at least one elite season from his NFC West counterparts in addition to some strong quarterback seasons and some of the most successful new coaching hires in the NFL in the last decade.

San Francisco: The 49ers were in the middle of a three-year run to the NFC Championship Game under head coach Jim Harbaugh when Wilson joined the division in 2012. Led by the dynamic Colin Kaepernick, the 49ers lost the Super Bowl that year and lost a tight game to Wilson’s Seahawks in the 2013 NFC Championship Game. Things were bad after that, but after hiring Kyle Shanahan and acquiring Jimmy Garoppolo from the Patriots, the 49ers rebounded with a great 13-3 season in 2019, clinching the No. 1 seed in the season finale after stopping Wilson’s Seahawks at the 1-yard line. The 49ers blew a 10-point lead in the fourth quarter against the Chiefs in Super Bowl 54.

Arizona: The least successful team in the division, but the Cardinals won at least 10 games in every season from 2013 to 2015 under head coach Bruce Arians. He had a good thing going when Carson Palmer was healthy, and in 2015, Palmer had what I will always say was an MVP season, leading the Cardinals to a 14-4 record and the NFC Championship Game where they lost to Carolina. Things declined after, but now with Kliff Kingsbury and 2019 No. 1 pick Kyler Murray, the Cardinals could be heading back to the playoffs as long as Murray stays healthy. He had a great start to 2020 before his health diminished his play in the second half.

Los Angeles: The Rams were in rough shape with Jeff Fisher as the coach when Wilson joined the league, but they started acquiring talent like the best defender in the game, Aaron Donald. Once they drafted Jared Goff No. 1 overall and hired Sean McVay as the head coach, the team immediately took off. McVay has never had a losing record and is looking to make the playoffs for the fourth time in five years. Goff had great seasons in 2017-18 and the Rams were in the Super Bowl in 2018 before losing 13-3 to the Patriots. They leaned on their defense last year to make the playoffs and beat Wilson’s Seahawks in Seattle in the wild card round. Now they have the top-ranked offense with Matthew Stafford poised to have a career year. It’s just another huge challenge for Seattle.

Outside of 2016 when the Seahawks won the NFC West with ease, Wilson has always had to deal with at least another 10-win team in his division. Outside of 2016 and last year when the Rams finished 10-6 thanks to a late loss to the Seahawks, Wilson has always had to deal with an 11-win team or better.

Since 2002’s divisional realignment, the NFC West is the only division where every team has won at least 13 games in a season. That is thanks to the Seahawks (2013), Cardinals (2015), Rams (2018), and 49ers (2019) all finishing 13-3. The Lions, Bengals, Jets, Buccaneers, Texans, and Browns (AAFC excluded) have never won 13 games in their franchise’s history, so it never could have happened for the two North divisions, the two South divisions, or any version of the AFC East. That also disqualifies the defunct AFC and NFC Central divisions. It technically has happened for the original NFC West (49ers/Rams/Falcons/Saints), but the Saints didn’t hit 13 wins until the Brees era (2009), or well after realignment and long after Joe Montana and Steve Young retired.

In fact, the only other divisions that can say all four of their teams have won 13 games before are the AFC West and NFC East. Given that the Raiders haven’t done it since 1976 and the Chiefs didn’t do it until 1995, no one has a career that spanned that long to say they were in a division where all four did it. The Seahawks also used to be part of that AFC West and didn’t win 13 games until 2005 in the NFC West.

As for the NFC East, it hasn’t happened for the Giants since 1990 and for Washington since 1991. Dallas first won 13 games in 1992, so you might think, hey, this probably happened to a young Troy Aikman or an old Phil Simms. Nope, because the Eagles never won 13 games until 2004, or after they were long retired.

This puts Wilson and his division in unprecedented territory as it confirms he is the only quarterback in NFL history to play in a division where every team actively won 13 games in a season. Goff and Garoppolo weren’t in the NFC West prior to 2016 when Seattle and Arizona did it, and Palmer was retired before the Rams and 49ers did it. So there you have it. History.

If Only Wilson Had Tom Brady’s Division Luck…

Now compare this to Tom Brady, the LOAT. His first full season as a starter happened to coincide with realignment in 2002 when the Patriots were put in a revamped AFC East with the Jets, Dolphins, and Bills, or as I like to call them, The Three Stooges. From 2002 to 2019, The Three Stooges managed just two 11-5 seasons to challenge Brady in the division. One was by the 2008 Dolphins, a team that shocked the Patriots with the Wildcat in the year Brady tore his ACL in Week 1. The other was the 2010 Jets, who beat Brady in the regular season to get one of their 11 wins, and then shocked him at home in the playoffs in one of the biggest upsets in NFL history.

But for two decades, the best The Three Stooges could do was 11-5, the best they could do at quarterback was Even-Years Chad Pennington, and the best they could do at head coach was probably Rex Ryan. Flash forward to Brady joining the 2020 NFC South. The Falcons and Panthers had two of the worst seasons in NFL history in close games. The Saints with Brees were a worthy foe and they swept Brady to finish 12-4, the first time Brady was ever swept by a division rival. This also means of the only two 11+ win teams Brady’s ever had in his division, he was complicit in them winning that many games. Compare this to Peyton Manning, who swept the 2003 Titans (12-4), 2005 Jaguars (12-4), 2007 Jaguars (11-5), and 2013 Chiefs (11-5) but still watched them win 11-12 games. Wilson was able to hang one loss on the 2015 Cardinals and 2019 49ers. He was swept by the 2018 Rams despite scoring 31 points in both games. Let’s just say not anyone could beat the 2018 Rams by a final of 13-3.

Brady’s division now consists of an Atlanta team that lost all its offensive mojo after hiring Arthur Smith. Matt Ryan has gotten off to the worst start of his career in 2021. With Brees retired, the Saints are weirdly leaning on defense with Jameis Winston throwing for 387 yards in three full games. The Panthers are 3-0 and have never trailed this season, but only time will tell if Sam Darnold, an old foe from The Three Stooges, will turn back to a pumpkin. Go figure, the AFC East only got another elite passer (Josh Allen) the second Brady moved to the other conference.

Wilson and Brady are certainly on two different ends of the spectrum for division rivals. What if Brady had to deal with this NFC West that Wilson has been in since 2012? He is only 5-6 as a starter against those teams in the Wilson era, including playoffs and including Sunday’s loss to the Rams. I plotted every quarterback with at least five starts against Wilson’s NFC West since 2012 through 2020, looking at their win percentage and their Adjusted Net Yards per Pass Attempt (ANY/A).

Wilson has a better winning percentage (.598) against his division than Rodgers (.440), Brees (.474), Brady (.500), and Peyton (.400). Wilson (6.26) and Brady (6.24) are almost identical in ANY/A, though Wilson is not that great statistically here compared to his other top peers. Of course, he’s played 56 division games against teams who know him well compared to 25 for Rodgers, 19 for Brees, 10 for Brady, and five each for Manning and Mahomes. On the other hand, Wilson never has to play his own defense, which has been the strongest of the bunch in this division since 2012, which also explains why the other quarterbacks have lesser records and stats. But it’s an amusing chart.

I have better, including this look at how quarterbacks have done against Brady’s Three Stooges in the AFC East from 2002 to 2019. Can you notice anyone who stands out?

Yep, that’s Russell Wilson (8.16) and Alex Smith (7.58) as the only quarterbacks with an ANY/A above 7.5. Brady’s record is 81-21 (.794), but are we really going to pretend his top peers couldn’t replicate that in this division or even improve on it given those ugly upset losses in Miami? The guy once lost 21-0 to Joey Harrington.

I am proud of these next two charts since they visualize what I have been saying for years about these divisions. This looks at 2002-2020 for Wilson, Brady, Peyton, Rodgers, Brees, and Roethlisberger while excluding the full year those quarterbacks missed for injury. The entry that is their full name is every game that quarterback played in 2002-2020. The other entries show what the starting quarterbacks for each division rival cumulatively did in every game while the quarterback was in that division, so that would be the AFC South teams for Peyton in 2002-10 and the AFC West teams in 2012-15. The x-axis is win% and the y-axis is ANY/A.

That cluster of The Three Stooges as losing teams with bad quarterback play that only the Browns 2.0 can rival is perfect.

Finally, here is a similar chart that sums up each quarterback’s division rivals into one entry.

As I have been saying for years, no quarterback has had a bigger advantage over his division rivals than Brady, and it’s due to a lack of competition rather than his play being that much better. Brady ranks third in ANY/A here and is only 0.01 above Brees in fourth, and Brady’s division has the worst win rate (.435) and ANY/A (5.24). Wilson’s division has the best record (.496) and second-highest ANY/A (5.88) behind only Brees (6.05).

You cannot deny that the careers of Wilson and Brady will forever be linked. Super Bowl XLIX was the most pivotal game in the NFL in the last dozen years. The Seahawks were a yard away from repeating and possibly being the next dynasty, while bringing the ring count to 3-2 for Brady vs. Wilson and dropping the Patriots to 3-3 in Super Bowls under Belichick and Brady. Then a call for a pass came in and the rest is history. Brady has won three more Super Bowls since and the Seahawks have not even been back to the NFC Championship Game.

In the lonesome crowded NFC West, Russell Wilson is starting to sound like Cowboy Dan.

I got mine but I want more.

With the way the NFC West is developing, and the Seahawks are decaying under Pete Carroll, we may never see Wilson past the second round of the playoffs again, or at least not with Seattle. Maybe he can replace Rodgers in Green Bay some day, a return to Wisconsin.

Also, I didn’t even mention the potential of Trey Lance in San Francisco.

Shit Luck.

This plane is definitely crashing

This boat is obviously sinking

This building’s totally burning down

And my heart has slowly dried up

Tom Brady and His Incredible Luck in High-Scoring Games (Part II)

In Part I, I looked at the common breakdown for any Tom Brady statistic or split. He’ll have the best record, but he won’t have the best statistics. When looking at how he does relative to his top peers in games split by points allowed, the only key range where he excels is with 26-32 points allowed. From 0-25 points and anything above 32, Brady does not impress over his peers. His sweet spot is in that 26-32 range where teams struggle to win but it’s still not a hopeless endeavor (NFL average win rate since 2001: 25.7%).

Why is this the case? Let’s continue but be sure to read Part I first if you haven’t, because it explains why 26-32 is a key range. It also shows how Brady faces fewer games with 30 or 40-plus points allowed relative to his peers.

Tom Brady’s 26-32 Range Voodoo Exposed

As a refresher for those who skipped Part I, Brady is easily outpacing his peers in starts from 2001 to 2020 where his team allowed 26-32 points:

  • Tom Brady: 37-31 (.544)
  • Peyton Manning: 21-28 (.429)
  • Drew Brees: 29-48 (.377)
  • Aaron Rodgers: 13-24-1 (.355)
  • Ben Roethlisberger: 12-29 (.293)

Given that Brady’s lone high-scoring game that he left early for playoff rest (28-26 vs. 2005 Dolphins) is included here, he’s more like 37-30 (.552). To be fair, Manning should also have three playoff rest games removed (2005 Seahawks, 2009 Jets and 2009 Bills) to make him 21-25 (.457), or still nearly 10 percentage points behind. Rodgers should have two games removed for early exit after injury (2013 Bears, 2018 Lions) to make him 13-22-1 (.375). Brees should have one injury (2019 Rams) and one playoff rest (2006 Panthers) exclusion to make him 29-46 (.387). Roethlisberger should have one injury exclusion (2019 Seahawks) to make him 12-28 (.300).

Still, this all comes despite a lack of statistical dominance from Brady in his QB stats. I tried to look at every piece of data I had available on these games for these quarterbacks to find where Brady’s team had a glaring advantage, and I was coming up empty. This made me want to look at more quarterbacks for help, so I expanded the list to 35 quarterbacks with at least 20 starts from 2001-2020 (playoffs included) where their teams allowed 26-32 points.

Brady, Andrew Luck (10-10, .500), and Peyton were the only three with a win rate above 38%. I’ve included a scatter plot of these 35 quarterbacks looking at their win % vs. their Adjusted Net Yards Per Pass Attempt (ANY/A). I did not exclude playoff rest games or games left injured for anyone.

Brady’s ANY/A (6.65) is almost identical to that of Kirk Cousins (6.67), but his win% is nearly triple that of Cousins’. Okay, I can understand that one. Cousins is Hollow Stat Man, but how do you explain Peyton and Russell Wilson being the only quarterbacks above 7.0 ANY/A and they still have a losing record?

Now that I had data for 35 quarterbacks, I still could not find what led to such a better record for Brady.

  • Brady (28.3) had the highest scoring average of anyone on the list. Only Luck (27.3) and Peyton (27.3) were also above 26.0 points per game.
  • That can explain them having the three best records, but these rankings for Brady in the other stats among the 35 quarterbacks adds to the confusion of how he got the most points and wins.
  • Brady ranks 20th in completion percentage, 17th in YPA, ninth in passer rating, and seventh in ANY/A. Not quite elite.
  • Brady received an average of 98.6 rushing yards per game, which ranks 21st. His team’s average rushing yardage margin was minus-14.8, which ranks 13th. That’s a lot better than Peyton’s minus-47.2 (second worst), but it’s not like the ground game made a huge difference for Brady’s teams.
  • Brady’s offense converted on third down 43.1% of the time in these games, good for fifth but still trailing Peyton (46.8%, first) and Brees (43.4%, fourth).
  • Brady’s defense allowed the sixth-highest conversion rate on third down (45.0%), which doesn’t help. Still, that’s better than Peyton’s defense allowing 48.3% or Rodgers’ Packers allowing 46.2%, the two worst marks.
  • Brady (-3.9) edged out Roethlisberger (-3.3), Peyton (-3.2), Brees (-2.7), and Rodgers (-2.4) for the highest average spread going into these games, so that should help that they were favored by the most. But a Vegas line says more about expectations than what actually happened once the ball was snapped.
  • Brady’s average opponent won 56.3% of its games on the season, the 13th-highest mark in this group. Their average defensive rank in points per drive allowed was 15.0, also about average. It’s not like he beat up on easier teams than anyone in these games.
  • Brady’s team’s average fourth quarter scoring margin was +0.9, the fourth best in the group, trailing Luck (+2.5), Matt Schaub (+2.2, WTF?), and Peyton (+1.6). Closing certainly helps a ton, but I didn’t see the scoring from Brady and the stops from his defense in the numbers here to suggest his win % should be so much better.

At this point, I can only rely on my ace in the hole: an encyclopedia-like knowledge (and documentation) of the close finishes in the last 20 years in the NFL.

There are facts I know about Brady’s luck that are just not the case for these other quarterbacks. Like how he’s only lost one game in his whole career after a kicker missed a clutch field goal, and that was in a game not in this bin (20-18 vs. 2012 Cardinals). I’m sure Manning would have liked Mike Vanderjagt to make his field goal and take the 2004 Patriots to overtime, 27-27, on opening night instead of a miss in a 27-24 loss. That was one of several missed kicks in the clutch from the liquored-up idiot kicker.

Outdated but still relevant and accurate for Brady (and Manning):

Brady has the lowest percentage of blown fourth-quarter/OT leads against his teams. It’s only happened 21 times despite him holding more late leads than anyone in NFL history. How many of those 21 fall into the 26-32 range? Just five games, including the 29-28 loss in Miami (2004) after Brady threw four interceptions and lost to A.J. Feeley. The Dolphins shocked Brady again in 2019 as a 17.5-point underdog in New England with Ryan Fitzpatrick throwing a late game-winning touchdown. But Brady also had good chances to put away the 2012 Ravens (31-30), 2015 Broncos (30-24 in overtime to lose the No. 1 seed), and 2016 Seahawks (31-24) before failing to close.

How many blown 4Q/OT leads for the other quarterbacks in the 26-32 bin since 2001? Brees (16), Ben (10), Peyton (7), and Rodgers (7 plus one tie) all had more than Brady’s five even though he’s played the most games and had the most leads to blow.

As I said before, in the 26-32 range, Brady is 37-30 and Manning is 21-25 when you remove the playoff rest games for both of them. Manning’s actual record would be worse if you included 1998-2000 for him, but I’ve kept this whole study to the time period of Brady’s career since my game database goes back to 2001, and I am not changing now.

But there is no need for me to write off all 37 of Brady’s wins in this range. That’s pointless, a waste of my time and yours. But if I can just write off four wins as his ass getting lucky when he should have lost? That already puts him under .500. If I just find three should-be wins for Manning, that puts him up to 24-22, a winning record.

I can easily do that. I went right to the 68 games in Brady’s career in the 26-32 points allowed range and simply started remembering what happened and how unique (or exclusive) some of these finishes were.

  • 2020 Packers (W 31-26): Thank Matt LaFleur for kicking that field goal to add this game to the bin. It was 28-10 before this rally attempt came up short, by the way.
  • 2015 Giants (W 27-26): Landon Collins dropped a game-ending interception in the last 2:00. Brady then gets a game-winning 54-yard field goal from Gostkowski.
  • 2013 Browns (W 27-26): Every HOF QB should get one game in their career where an onside kick recovery helps them win. Surprisingly, this was the only one for Brady to help pull off an improbable comeback in the final minutes. Also, a bogus DPI penalty to put the ball at the 1 on the game-winning drive
  • 2003 Broncos (W 30-26): The intentional safety game. Try naming another game in the last 20 years where a trailing team took a safety on purpose in the fourth quarter and still won.
  • 2013 Saints (W 30-27): Brady needed three different game-winning drive opportunities in the final 3:35 after turning it over on downs with 2:46 left and throwing an interception with 2:16 left. This never happens to anyone else.
  • 2010 Colts (W 31-28): After nearly throwing a pick with 2:32 left, Brady let Manning get the ball back again for another improbable 17-point 4QC. But this time Manning was hit as he threw in field goal range and the pass was intercepted to end the game.
  • 2018 Chiefs (W 37-31 OT): Must be nice to get Dee Ford a millimeter offsides to negate a season-ending interception, then win the coin toss in overtime and not see Patrick Mahomes get the ball back because of the worst overtime system in professional sports.
  • 2016 Falcons (W 34-28 OT): Ah, 28-3. Just imagine if Peyton Manning threw a pass to New Orleans’ Tracy Porter in Super Bowl 44, it goes through his hands, and Austin Collie makes a diving catch to secure it before it touches the ground. Then Manning goes on to score a game-tying touchdown, watch his defense hold against Drew Brees, win an overtime coin toss, and never have to see Brees touch the ball, because again, overtime is a broken system. Beyond all the other fuckery the Falcons did in Super Bowl LI after 28-3, this is what Brady did at the end after Robert Alford dropped a game-ending interception, Julian Edelman made that catch, and Brady cemented his legacy as the undisputed LOAT.

That’s eight games and there were several more I could mention. However, to do this properly I need to play devil’s advocate and point out the games among the 30 losses where Brady should have won.

Except that’s incredibly hard to do when Brady just doesn’t have the bad luck of other quarterbacks, especially in the 26-32 range. For starters, in 15 of the 30 losses he failed to score more than 20 points and lost by at least eight points (lost by double-digits 14 times). In a 28-20 loss to the 2005 Broncos, he was down 28-3 and couldn’t luck his way into a win that day. Just like that, I’ve cut the sample of losses in half.

Brady also was outplayed in back-to-back weeks at home in 27-24 losses to the Rams and Chiefs last year, games he never led in the fourth quarter. He’s also been outplayed by Aaron Rodgers and the 2014 Packers (L 26-21), Deshaun Watson and the 2019 Texans (L 28-22), Mark Sanchez and the 2010 Jets in a playoff stunner that wasn’t as close as the final score suggests (L 28-21), and several other games he never sniffed a late lead like the 4-INT night against the 2006 Colts (L 27-20) or losing to Jay Cutler as a 10.5-point favorite in Miami in 2017 (L 27-20).

I simply cannot point to any missed field goals or miracle field goals that went against Brady. Hell, New York’s Daniel Jones just lost a 30-29 game in Washington because of a lame offsides penalty on a missed field goal. Never happens to Brady. He could have lost his first ever comeback win (2001 Chargers) if Wade Richey made a 59-yard field goal, but that didn’t happen. In fact, kickers are 0-for-6 on clutch field goals of 50-plus yards against Brady in his career. Peyton lost three games to Jacksonville alone on 50-plus yard field goals (53 in 2004, 51 in 2008, 59 in 2010). Scobee-Motherfuckin’-Do.

I can’t point to a rare fumble by a teammate like what Clyde Edwards-Helaire just did to Patrick Mahomes in Baltimore. There’s never been a no-call penalty so egregious that Brady went on to lose a championship game 26-23 in overtime like Drew Brees did against the 2018 Rams after that defensive pass interference was missed. That sent the Rams and all three of their points they’d score to the Super Bowl against Brady too. How convenient.

Like I said, there were just five games where Brady had a fourth-quarter lead and he completely shit the bed in the first one (2004 Dolphins). Brady also didn’t get the ball in overtime against the 2015 Jets (L 26-20) after Ryan Fitzpatrick threw a game-winning touchdown, a few rare occurrences mixing indeed, but Brady also needed three drives in the fourth quarter just to get one game-tying touchdown. But I guess we can count that one. It looks better than the 30-27 loss to Geno Smith and the 2013 Jets when Brady did fail in overtime after having a poor game.

It’s not my fault that Brady isn’t a more dominant winner or a more lovable loser. Definitely better than Drew Bledsoe though. Never denied that one.

Now let’s switch gears and do a few Manning losses really quick. I’ve already mentioned a few actually with the 2004 Patriots (27-24), 2009 Saints (31-17), and 2010 Patriots (31-28).

  • 2006 Texans (L 27-24): One of the most underrated losses in regular season history. Manning was limited to just six possessions because of his historically bad run defense, and he even lost one to a running back fumble and settled for a field goal after a third-down drop. He scored 24 points on the other four drives but lost to a last-second field goal after tying the game.
  • 2010 Jaguars (L 31-28): Manning followed Reggie Wayne’s red zone fumble with two touchdown drives to tie it at 28 before the Jaguars won on a 59-yard field goal. Manning also had a superb game against the 2004 Jaguars and lost 27-24 to a 53-yard field goal.
  • 2013 Patriots (L 34-31 OT): Oh look, another Manning-Brady game where the ending was decided by neither quarterback. After seven straight failed drives between the two, Manning expected to get the ball back before Tony Carter muffed the punt, setting Brady up for a game-winning drive where he just sat on the ball at the Denver 13 and the Patriots kicked a field goal. You know, LOAT stuff.
  • 2014 Seahawks (L 26-20 OT): Manning led the first game-tying drive in NFL history where a team was down eight in the final 60 seconds at the start of the drive, doing it in Seattle when the Legion of Boom was healthy. He never saw the ball in overtime as Marshawn Lynch got the 6-yard game-winning run instead of Russell Wilson throwing a slant to Malcolm Butler, because of course that’s what happened.

Again, I could bring up more games, but Brady’s luck is unrivaled in all of NFL history.

Scoring 30 on Brady Usually Requires Him Screwing Up

By going over these games and talking about how infrequently Brady’s teams allow 30 or 40-plus points, I was reminded of something. It used to be that if the Patriots allowed 30 points in a game, they probably had a return touchdown, usually from a Brady turnover, to get over that benchmark. There were very few games when the defense (and we’ll add special teams too in the context of what a quarterback is dealing with from a points allowed perspective) allowed 30 real points on its own.

So, I decided to go through just the 10 seasons where Brady was in the Super Bowl to see how many games got into the higher-scoring bins because of non-offensive scores. I highlighted the six games where Brady’s Patriots allowed 30-plus points thanks to him having a turnover returned for a touchdown.

  • 2001 Chargers (W 29-26 OT): After a Brady three-and-out, the Patriots botch getting a punt off and it’s returned for a touchdown.
  • 2001 Dolphins (L 30-10): A Brady fumble is returned by Jason Taylor for a touchdown to give Miami a 27-10 lead.
  • 2001 Broncos (L 31-20): On a four-INT night for Brady, he throws a pick-six while trailing 24-20 with 2:24 left.
  • 2003 Bills (L 31-0): Brady’s four-INT game includes a pick-six.
  • 2003 Broncos (W 30-26): The aforementioned intentional safety after Brady couldn’t move the offense out of his end zone moved this game into the 26-32 bin.
  • 2004 Steelers (L 34-20): The only game the Patriots allowed 30 all season, it got there because of a Brady pick-six in the first quarter that gave the Steelers a 21-3 lead to end New England’s 21-game winning streak.
  • 2007 Giants (W 38-35): The 16-0 game was the only time all season the Patriots allowed more than 28 points. The Giants needed a kickoff return touchdown and a late touchdown (down 10) to get there.
  • 2011 Bills (L 34-31): Brady threw a pick-six as part of another 4-INT game. It was the only game all season where New England allowed more than 27 points.
  • 2014 Chiefs (L 41-14): One of only seven 40-burgers in Brady’s career, he threw a pick-six down 34-7 to get it there.
  • 2016 Falcons (W 34-28 OT): Lost in 28-3 is that New England held the prolific Atlanta offense led by MVP Matt Ryan to 21 points and 1-of-8 on third down. Brady’s pick-six in the second quarter opened up a 21-0 lead.
  • 2017 Texans (W 36-33): Brady gave up a touchdown on a strip-sack in the second quarter. He later threw a game-winning touchdown after another game-ending interception was dropped.

Brady has even carried this tradition with him to Tampa Bay. The Buccaneers have had three games where they allowed 30-plus points with Brady, and he threw a pick-six in two of them to get them over that mark (34-23 loss in New Orleans and 38-31 comeback win over Chargers).

Remember that this is only using Super Bowl appearance seasons, and that’s still eight games where Brady’s team allowed 30-plus points thanks to him having a return touchdown involved. That’s only one fewer than Manning and Rodgers had combined using their full career starts, as well as how many Roethlisberger has had in his whole career:

  • Drew Brees – 13 games (2006 Ravens, 2006 Bengals, 2007 Titans, 2008 Falcons, 2010 Cardinals, 2010 Browns, 2011 Rams, 2012 49ers, 2012 Panthers, 2013 Seahawks, 2014 Buccaneers, 2014 Ravens, 2014 Falcons) [1-12 record]
  • Ben Roethlisberger – 8 games (2007 Broncos, 2007 Jaguars, 2008 Titans, 2010 Packers, 2012 Broncos, 2012 Chargers, 2013 Bears, 2017 Jaguars) [0-8 record]
  • Peyton Manning – 7 games (1999 Dolphins, 2003 Buccaneers, 2006 Patriots, 2008 Packers, 2009 Saints, 2010 Chargers, 2010 Cowboys) [3-4 record]
  • Aaron Rodgers – 2 games (2015 Cardinals, 2017 Falcons) [0-2 record]

When including Brady’s whole career, the number goes up to 10 games, so 80% of his games came in those Super Bowl seasons. That also means he has the highest rate of 30-points allowed games that he is partly responsible for.

  • Tom Brady – 10/48 (20.8%)
  • Ben Roethlisberger – 8/41 (19.5%)
  • Drew Brees – 13/82 (15.9%)
  • Peyton Manning – 7/53 (13.2%)
  • Aaron Rodgers – 2/51 (3.9%)

Conclusion: Drive Stats Are the (Huge) Missing Piece

Before I even started writing this week, I knew that the best solution to this points allowed area is a huge dataset that I am sad to say I don’t have even though I have been writing about drive stats for as long as anyone out there (cringey lede included).

Drive stats are the best way to go about this. If you had drive stats broken down for every game in the last 20 years, you could learn so much. Which quarterback starts the highest rate of games in a 7-0 hole on his first possession? Who really gets the best field position? The shortest touchdown drives? The longest? Does Brady really do better on a short field than his peers? Does Brady’s defense give up more garbage time touchdowns to create more artificial high-scoring games that he won with ease?

That last point is something I noticed when going through his 26-32 range. Brady beat both the 2012 Texans and 2018 Chargers in the playoffs by the final score of 41-28. However, those were fake high-scoring games. Brady went into the fourth quarter with a 31-13 lead on Houston, grew it to 38-13, then the defense allowed two touchdowns in a 41-28 final. Same thing with the Chargers. The Patriots were up 38-13 after three quarters, which you’d gladly take from your defense against a top offense through three quarters every single time. Then Rivers threw two touchdowns in garbage time for the 41-28 final. The outcome was never in doubt. The threat was never there.

Does this type of game happen more often for Brady? The answer is yes. From 2001 to 2019, the Patriots allowed a league-high 63 touchdowns in the fourth quarter when leading by at least 17 points (three scores), lapping the next closest teams in the Packers (52), Broncos (50), Steelers (47), and Colts (43). But of course they did. Brady’s the only consistently high-scoring quarterback to play with a consistently great scoring defense for two decades.

But if you look at how many of those games went into Brady’s 26-32 bin, the answer is nine games. That’s more than Brees (5), Peyton (3), Rodgers (2), and Roethlisberger (2) ever had.

One day I will have to suck it up and put the drive stats together for the regular seasons, likely using the tools on Stathead as my starting point. But I’ve seen enough data errors in the drive finder there over the years to scare me away from doing that. The thoughts of manually going through 267 games a year are too overwhelming, but I really need to get this data at some point.

If you had really good drive stats, you can map out how these games play out for the quarterback. How many points do they average on their first four drives? How much does the defense allow? Again, what’s the field position impact?

People never seem to want to even acknowledge field position, but it’s not something that all quarterbacks are playing on equal grounds with. Is it any surprise that since 2020, Brady’s Buccaneers average the shortest touchdown drives in the league at 60.8 yards? Mahomes’ Chiefs are the fourth longest at 71.4 yards. Ditto for the period of 2001-2019 when Brady’s Patriots had the sixth-shortest touchdown drives at 62.8 yards. Where were the other great offensive teams? They had the longest average touchdown drives in the league: Colts (66.8), Packers (66.2), Saints (65.6), Chargers (65.5), and the Cowboys (65.2) rounded out the top five. Imagine that.

Maybe dominating the field position battle is the missing piece of data in Brady’s success in the 26-32 range. It has to be something. When it’s clearly not just skill, you look at the advantageous factors out of his control, also known as his luck, and that to me is what he has in spades and no one else has been able to come even close to matching. The excess success in his career is a result of his great luck. That doesn’t mean his whole career is lucky or that luck is the only driving force behind his success. It’s that he gets to win more games and get to more Super Bowls than other quarterbacks because of what’s been around him and what’s happened in his favor.

You can still ignore the data and facts if you want, but nothing I ever say about Brady will be better than the quote the man gave about himself in 2017:

“I know myself as a player. I’m really a product of what I’ve been around, who I was coached by, what I played against, in the era I played in. I really believe if a lot of people were in my shoes they could accomplish the same kinds of things. So I’ve been very fortunate.”

Tom Brady, The Luckiest of All Time

Tom Brady and His Incredible Luck in High-Scoring Games (Part I)

On Sunday afternoon, Tom Brady improved to 92-0 as a starter in games where his team scored at least 35 points, easily the best record in NFL history for a feat that leads to a win about 92% of the time since 2001. Peyton Manning (63-3), Drew Brees (56-5), Aaron Rodgers (42-2), and Ben Roethlisberger (35-4) not only all have multiple losses in games where they scored 35-plus, but they all lost a playoff game (two in Ben’s case) after scoring that much as well.

But never Brady. When the King of Kings puts up points, even if it involves two Matt Ryan pick-sixes as it did in Sunday’s 48-25 win over Atlanta, his teams win the game every time. On Sunday night in Baltimore, Patrick Mahomes just lost his third career game in 56 starts after scoring at least 35 points. He is 15-3 now. Thanks for nothing, Clyde.

I guess Brady’s just better than everyone else in high-scoring games then. End of post. No 5,000 words and graphs necessary.

But that’s just not my style. Instead, I am finally going to provide a deep dive into the data on quarterbacks and points allowed after years of citing these stats without much context. As it turns out, there is a sweet spot on the scoreboard where Brady does in fact outperform his top peers, but like with virtually every Brady stat that’s ever existed, he only outperforms them in team win percentage.

The Background

With roughly 18 years of experience in dealing with Tom Brady’s cult-like following on the internet, I know how his worshippers think better than probably anyone. While the casuals post pictures of his rings, and the weirdos post pictures of Gisele – as if her bank account isn’t the hottest thing about her – it’s easy to just ignore those people. Life is too short and you’re never going to find any substance there.

What better draws my attention is when they try to use any number besides the ring count to justify the case for their alleged GOAT.

Look, I get why they are so defensive and protective of his legacy. It’s really hard to prop up Brady as the greatest thing since sliced bread, which he doesn’t even eat. Would you feel comfortable in telling someone that the greatest football player of all time is someone who has been named first-team All-Pro, the best at their position, just one more time than Rich Gannon?

When someone brings up Michael Jordan or Wayne Gretzky as the GOAT in their leagues, they don’t need to rely on a ring count or team winning percentage to make their case. The individual resume speaks for itself. The record-setting dominance in both the regular season and postseason that still resonates decades after their retirements, as well as the eye test, it all speaks for itself. Just look:

When I come at the king, I don’t miss. Brady just pales in comparison to those two actual GOATs. But enough GOAT talk for today. The point is any pro-Brady numbers argument boils down into something very simple:

First, pick a split. Playoff games, division games, island games, December games, games after a bye week, 4QC/GWD opportunities, games against top 10 defenses, games against playoff/winning teams, games with 50+ pass attempts, games with 3+ interceptions, games taking three sacks, games in freezing temperatures, games with a passer rating under 80, etc.

When you compare Brady to his peers in the split, chances are he will have the best winning percentage, but he won’t have the best individual statistics. Pick any metric (PR, YPA, ANY/A, DVOA, DYAR, QBR, EPA, WPA, CPOE) that’s not the equivalent of an English teacher subjectively grading your Catcher in the Rye essay, and this will be true for just about anything you dig into.

This has always been the case too. He is eternally “Brady Just Wins” and that’s the way he was covered by media for six seasons in the Spygate era. You know, back when he shared a lunch table with Marc Bulger and Matt Hasselbeck when it came to quarterback stats, but the media forced him on us as the best in the game because his team won three Super Bowls by three points each. Jim Nantz would cream his pants weekly on CBS about the latest “Brady record” that was just a graphic of him (grinning pre-plastic surgery) with some crazy win percentage record the Patriots had back in 2001-06 or some “attempts without an interception streak” that Brady would then end with a pick in a playoff game he still went on to win.

But after Spygate came about in 2007, Brady developed into a better player and started playing with loaded offenses and the two most stat-inflating receivers (Randy Moss and Rob Gronkowski) of this era, if not of all time. He’s currently on a Tampa Bay offense that features four Hall of Fame-caliber receivers, three of which he had nothing to do with developing into studs. Keep in mind the 2018-19 Tampa Bay offenses, which did not have Gronk or Antonio Brown, and had error-prone Jameis Winston and Ryan Fitzpatrick at quarterback, threw for over 10,400 yards and 69 touchdowns in those two years. Yet here we are hyping up Brady for a nine-game winning streak with scoring 30 points where three of the games were against the Atlanta Falcons during a pandemic.

But the big-picture stuff can wait for another day as I’m getting off track again. This is about points allowed. Like Bruce Wayne seeing the Bat Signal, I was pointed to a tweet last week about Brady winning high-scoring games better than his peers.

I was asked if the graph was wrong, and initially I thought it was since the curves shouldn’t be that smooth. Then I realized the x-axis was when the “opponent scored at least x points” instead of “opponent scored exactly x points.” It reminded me of this old ESPN article that featured this paragraph:

“NFL teams have won just 23.6 percent of the time since 2001 when they gave up 21-plus points. Brady’s 66-50 record in these higher-scoring games equates to a .569 winning percentage — a whopping 2.4 times better than the league average. No other QB with 50 games played since 2001 has won even half of those tough-to-win games. Brady remains on top as the scoring bar climbs even higher. He is a league-best 20-29 (.408) when the other team scores 28-plus points, far above the .151 league average.”

The graph and this paragraph are both correct, but they are both very misleading. By using a minimum number of points allowed and not putting a cap on the other end, both are ignoring that Brady’s teams do a much better job of not having games where they allow 30+ and 40+ points. I’ve been on this for years.

While teams have won 27.2% of their games during Brady’s career where they allowed 21-plus points (it’s gone up since that 2016 article), that includes games where they allowed 38, 45, or 54 points too. Literally anything 21 or higher would count. However, when teams allow 35-plus points, they win just 7.9% of the time. If you look at games where teams allowed exactly 21 points since 2001, they win those 63.8% of the time. Why? That’s a below-average amount of points in this era. You should win those games, and if you’re a Hall of Fame quarterback, you should win those at a high rate.

In fact, I just tweeted something to this effect on September 3 about Brady, Jared Goff, and games where a QB’s team allowed 28-plus points. While 28 is the minimum, that ignores how far past 28 points the teams went. Sure enough, Brady’s average 28+ game had the lowest average (32.3) of points allowed while Goff’s had the highest (37.7) of the 46 QBs in the study. So, is Brady having the best win% really as impressive as it sounds when you learn that additional information? I don’t think so.

Confession: I too am guilty in the past of presenting these points allowed stats in misleading fashion or at least not with better context.

So, how do we improve on this?

The Key Ranges for Points Allowed

With NFL teams averaging a record-high 24.7 points per game in 2020, these are stats that will have to be adjusted in the future. It was harder to win a game in 2001, Brady’s first year as a starter, when a team allowed 21 points and the league average was 20.3 points scored. Now if you allow 21 points in a league where the average scored is 24.7 points, then you got an above-average game out of your defense in that regard. For reference, teams in 2021 are averaging exactly 24.0 points per game thru Week 2.

My thinking for over a decade on these points allowed stats is to bunch everything under 17 points together as a low-scoring game. Peyton Manning was 89-0 in games he finished when the team allowed fewer than 17 points, which is still the gold standard for that range. His only technical loss was in 2007 against the Titans (16-10) in a Week 17 game where he left very early for his playoff rest. I always figured anything under 17 just means you can score two touchdowns and a field goal and get the win. Should be no big deal for a Hall of Famer.

Then using 24-plus or “more than 24 points” are probably the way I’ve used these stats the most over the years on Twitter. Fans of Alex Smith and Carson Wentz can attest to that. From 2007 to 2019, the average points scored was 22.5 in the NFL. Since teams rarely land on exactly 22 or 23, I viewed 24+ as the minimum standard for a game with above-average scoring, especially since you likely need to land on 27-28 or 30+ to win that day.

My third favorite range of points was to use 27+ or 28+ points. This is basically saying “games where you had to score 30+ to win.” Anything higher and we’re probably stuck in a land of small sample sizes and terrible win percentages.

But with all the data available to us these days, we can do something better than this, right? What’s really the difference between allowing 22 and 24 points? So, I looked at every game for 2001-2020 (playoffs included) and got the winning percentage for each point allowed total. First, a bubble graph that shows the win percentage for each point total.

Obviously, as points allowed goes up, win percentage decreases. But you can see four little outliers with small samples of games (smaller bubbles) at 32, 39, 46, and 51 points allowed where winning percentage is higher than expected. The 46 is when the 2019 49ers won that huge 48-46 game in New Orleans to help them get the No. 1 seed. I think you know what 54-51 is all about.

Now here is the data grouped together in what I am going to consider the six key ranges for points allowed: 0-11, 12-18, 19-25, 26-32, 33-39, and 40+.

0-11: These are the easy games. With the exception of 9 points, these are all above 92% win rates. At 9 points, a few more teams are content with winning after kicking three field goals. Sounds like a Jets thing to me.

12-18: All still winning records above 60%, but we dip under 80% every time except for a bump at 14 points. Why are there bumps at 7, 14, 21, and 28? Those are the more common scores with touchdowns and extra points in this game. If a team scores exactly 14 points, chances are those two touchdowns were all they could get that day, but it wasn’t all they needed. If a team finishes on 13 or 15, they may have only needed a late field goal to win a 13-10 or 15-12 type of game.

19-25: Now we start to see losing records except for at 20 and 21. Why the bump there? Again, the more common scores. If a team scores 19, it could have just won a 19-9 or 19-16 game. You don’t see too many teams down 21-19 lose on a game-tying two-point conversion attempt. Nineteen is just what they needed that day. Similar thing at 23 points when a lot of games could end 23-16 or 23-20. But 23 is the lowest win% here at 36.3%.

26-32: Now we’re dropping under 26.5% except for the expected bump at 28 (35.8%) and the aforementioned outlier at 32 (42.9%) on just 63 games. Every other point total from 19 to 35 has at least 108 games in the sample.

33-39: This is miracle territory as only the outlier at 39 points is above 18%. What do we have to thank for that 6-22 record at 39 points? Thank Dan Quinn’s Falcons for not picking up that onside kick and losing to Dallas 40-39 last year. Thank Dwayne Rudd for taking his helmet off and helping the Browns lose to the Chiefs on opening day in 2002. Also a shoutout to the 2004 Seahawks for this inexplicable choke against the Cowboys on Monday night in a 43-39 loss. Two onside kick recoveries and Rudd keeping his helmet on from making that 3-25 (.107).

40+: I think it’s safe to group everything from 40 through 62 (the night the Saints destroyed the 2011 Colts) together for the last range. The only one with a winning percentage above 6.7% is that outlier at 46 due to the George Kittle play on fourth down in New Orleans in 2019.

Okay, now I have six ranges I feel better about using for this. Again, we’ll have to keep an eye on how things progress in the NFL with scoring. Maybe my days of doing “since 2001” stats can be dialed back once Brady (and Ben and Rodgers) finally retires. Then “since 2008” might become my new standard, since that was the year Ryan and Flacco changed the rookie quarterback expectations, and the 2007 Patriots had an influence on the league with the shotgun-spread offense. Team scoring shot up to 22.0 points per game in 2008 for the first time since 1965. But we’re not there yet, so it’s since 2001 for now.

Brady vs. His Peers in High-Scoring Games

How does Brady fare against his peers in these six different ranges? Unlike the original chart, I’m interested in comparing Brady to the only four quarterbacks who have sustained success with both winning games and accumulating stats on their way to locking up a first-ballot bust in Canton: Peyton Manning, Drew Brees, Ben Roethlisberger, and Aaron Rodgers. I’m sure the day will come when we can add Russell Wilson and Patrick Mahomes to this, but not today.

First, a very telling scatter plot of these five quarterbacks for each of the six key points allowed ranges. The x-axis is their win% as a starter with no games removed for injury (would affect Rodgers and Ben the most) or playoff rest (would affect Manning the most). The y-axis is their Adjusted Net Yards per Pass Attempt (ANY/A) in these games, which takes sacks into account, but does not include rushing touchdowns (would help Rodgers the most) or fumbles (would help Manning the most). This methodology is arguably most beneficial to Brady than the other four given his history of injury/playoff rest games/fumbles/rushing TDs. The original tweet’s graph used 1999-2020, so he also excluded Manning’s rookie year. I am excluding 1999-2000 as well, but that shouldn’t change much here. But for every other quarterback it is their full career minus two games in 2021 for Brady, Rodgers, and Roethlisberger, the last three standing.

Tale as old as time: Brady does not have the best statistics in any of the point ranges, but he has the best winning percentage (or at least a tie for it) in half of the six ranges. However, that’s not as dominant as one would expect from the way the original tweet by a guy named Tucker claimed it to be. You can also see that Brady’s lone sweet spot is the 26-32 range, but again, more on that below.

0-11: These QBs are a combined 248-2 in this range. Ben’s loss was a 9-0 game on MNF to the Jaguars in 2006, his first game after his motorcycle accident and an emergency appendectomy. He was just not healthy enough at that point. Likewise, Rodgers lost a 7-3 game to the 2010 Lions after leaving with a concussion after only 11 pass attempts. Brees had the most dominant stats (110.9 PR, 8.09 ANY/A). Brady (7.51) has the second-lowest ANY/A in this range.

12-18: Manning had the best record here (59-2), even including that playoff rest loss to the 2007 Titans. Brees (.909) and Rodgers (.902) are one game behind Brady (.919) in win%, but Brady has the lowest completion percentage, YPA, and second-lowest passer rating and ANY/A in this range.  The Tuck Rule is literally the difference here in Brady having the second-best win% and the fourth-best win% as he easily could have lost that game 13-10 without that rule and the greatest kick in NFL history. Meanwhile, Rodgers has the Fail Mary as one of his losses here (14-12 in Seattle) and a 2015 game against Detroit that would have been a 19-18 win if Mason Crosby made a 52-yard field goal. Remember, Brady has lost one game in his whole career after a missed clutch field goal (20-18 vs. 2012 Cardinals) and that comes in the next range.

19-25: In this range Brees does drop off statistically with the lowest win% (.629) and second-lowest ANY/A (6.92). Manning (.762) just edges out Brady (.753) for the best win percentage with Rodgers (.733) not far behind. In this range Brady moves up to third in passer rating (97.8) and ANY/A (7.24), but he certainly doesn’t dominate his peers or the stats Rodgers had (107.0 PR and 7.94 ANY/A). While I did mention the Stephen Gostkowski miss against Arizona costing Brady a win here, I raise you Adam Vinatieri missing a 29-yard field goal against the 2007 Chargers (23-21 loss) and Mike Vanderjagt missing a 45-yard field goal against the 2005 Steelers (21-18 loss) in this range for Manning. The point is Brady does not dominate his peers at winning games or how he performed in them at this range (or the first two ranges).

26-32: Every range is pretty tight, but this one has the most separation of them all. Despite Brady firmly ranking third in ANY/A (6.65) behind Manning (7.19) and Rodgers (6.90), he still has a winning record (37-31, .544) in this range while the others are all under 43%. Roethlisberger is especially bad here at 12-29 (.293) and 5.74 ANY/A. Why does Brady have such a winning advantage here despite not blowing away his toughest peers statistically? See Part II. I’ll give you a hint though: 28-3 is a game in this range.

33-39: Brady has the worst record (4-16, .200) and the lowest YPA (6.81), passer rating (85.7), and ANY/A (5.70) in this range. It includes two of his highest-scoring losses of his career in games against Manning: 38-34 in the 2006 AFC Championship Game and 35-34 on 4th-and-2 in 2009, a game that could have ended 34-28 if he didn’t turn into Alex Smith and threw past the sticks on that drive to deny Peyton the ball. But this is a bad looking range for Brady as his teams scored the fewest points (25.6) and allowed the fewest too (34.9). Manning had the best record (5-13) but not the best stats thanks to some of his most improbable comebacks. Not just the Patriots wins but also that 38-35 overtime win in Tampa Bay in 2003.

40+: While Roethlisberger had the lowest ANY/A in the first four ranges, he has the highest ANY/A in both the 33-39 and 40+ ranges. As I wrote in January after the 48-37 playoff loss to the Browns, he has a way of trying his best with huge passing days when the defense completely shits the bed to Baker Mayfield and Blake Bortles. So, this was amusing to see. Manning (1-11) definitely had some incredibly bad days when his team gave up a 40-burger, but it usually was a sign that the whole team imploded like the 41-0 playoff loss to the Jets and the 2013 Super Bowl against Seattle (43-8) that basically fell apart on the first snap over his head for a safety. Not only does Brady (1-6) have the lowest rate of 40+ games in his career, but his teams allowed the lowest average (40.9) above 40 points compared to Manning (43.2), Brees (44.0), Ben (44.6), and Rodgers (46.3). Brady got one win over Mahomes in 2018 (43-40) by virtue of getting the ball last that night. All Brees needed was one defensive stop on fourth down against Kittle in 2019 to beat the 49ers 46-45 and get the No. 1 seed, but he didn’t get it of course. Otherwise, he’d have the best record here at 3-13.

Again, where exactly does Brady shine over his peers? I removed the 26-32 range and summed up all the remaining games and put it in this chart:

Brady has the highest win% despite having the lowest YPA, completion percentage, and the second-lowest passer rating and ANY/A. His team averages the third-most points, but the key thing is his teams still allow the fewest points per game in these five ranges (23.8).

We should try to account for the different distributions of games into each range for the quarterbacks. For example, 23.8% of Brady’s starts have seen his team allow fewer than 12 points. That’s almost double that of Brees (12.2%) and Rodgers (13.8%). If Brees had 23.8% of his starts play out like that, he’d have over 72 such games instead of his actual number of 37. Remember, he was 37-0 when this happened. Likewise, Brady has the lowest percentage of starts with 33-39 points allowed (5.8%) and 40+ points allowed (2.0%).

In giving everyone the same distribution of points allowed as Brady, this is what the numbers look like for all games for 2001-2020:

Brady still has the best record without the best stats, but that’s always a given. Manning is right behind him now and Brees makes a huge leap with an extra 33 wins and raising his win rate nearly 11 percentage points. He’s definitely had the worst defensive support of these five quarterbacks.

Maybe the worst luck too, but when it comes to luck, no one holds a candle to Brady, the LOAT.

Check back for Part II where I find Brady’s voodoo magic in the 26-32 range.

NFL Stat Oddity: Week 2

I am trying to rationalize the ending of Chiefs-Ravens by thinking that this NFL season is just not going to make any sense. I’m not the only one struggling with my predictions. Favorites are just 10-21 ATS through Week 2, which would replace 2002 (10-20) for the worst start to a season for favorites in the 32-team era if the Packers can’t cover a big spread against Detroit on Monday night.

How likely are the Packers to do that when they lost 38-3 to a New Orleans team that just got pantsed by a Sam Darnold-led Panthers team? Again, uncertainty is very high right now. Let’s try to make some sense of these Week 2 results.

This season in Stat Oddity:

Chiefs at Ravens: We Have a Rivalry

I have been harping on the idea that the biggest story in the AFC these days, and maybe the whole NFL, is finding the worthy rival to the Kansas City Chiefs and Patrick Mahomes. Lamar Jackson and the Baltimore Ravens have been the most logical choice with the team’s balanced, consistent success, but the Chiefs have continued to clean their clock by a wider margin each year since 2018. It’s not a real rivalry until the Ravens show they can win one of these games.

Well, it happened, and it happened in one of the most unusual ways for Baltimore. The 36-35 win is the first time in Jackson’s career that he won a game after trailing by 11 points, and the first time he won after trailing by multiple scores in the second half. He still did it his way too by rushing 16 times for 107 yards and two touchdowns while only making 26 throws. However, he had 239 yards on those 26 throws for one of the best passing games of his career.

Jackson was almost flawless in the fourth quarter, putting away the Chiefs with two touchdown runs and a run on 4th-and-1 from his own 43 with just over a minute left to deny Mahomes one more chance with the ball. The inevitability of his rushing from the quarterback position was a feeling I hadn’t had in a game since I watched Vince Young destroy USC in the 2005 Rose Bowl.

Once is an accident, twice is a coincidence, but three times is a pattern. I will wait until I see the Chiefs play Justin Herbert and the Chargers next week before I make it my take, but I have serious doubts about the Chiefs having a defense that is capable of getting to a Super Bowl this year. Not everyone can run like Nick Chubb behind Cleveland’s line and this unique Baltimore rushing attack is the best in the league, but this run defense has been dreadful and the pass defense hasn’t been much better. They could see those teams again in January too.

Tyrann Mathieu’s season debut led to two picks and a pick-six in the first quarter, but he felt more like a liability in the final 45 minutes. No one seemed to be of any value after that as the Ravens were stopped once on their last seven drives. Jackson shaking off an ugly start and delivering is what made this one so different for Baltimore.

I hyped it up all summer. Would the Chiefs falter if the offense did not close the game out in the fourth quarter and the defense had to get the job done? This happened last week and the defense intercepted Baker Mayfield. But this time, the offense failed on three straight drives and so did the defense. The Chiefs blew their first fourth-quarter lead since the Tennessee loss in Week 10 of 2019.

Mahomes is 21-5 as a starter on the road and scored at least 31 points in every loss. But like the 31-9 Super Bowl loss, this game peels away another layer of invincibility around him. It was fun to say he’s never lost to the Ravens or lost a September game or thrown an interception in the month, but it all happened in this game, and it was all connected. Up 35-24 in the third quarter, Mahomes should have taken a sack on a third-and-12 at midfield, but he still tried to complete a pass (short of the sticks too) and it was intercepted. The Ravens turned that into a 56-yard touchdown drive. Just a bad mistake on a night where he had almost no others.

When he was down 36-35, Mahomes seemed to have another game-winning drive in the works by getting the ball to the Baltimore 32 on three passes. But the Chiefs dialed up a run and Clyde Edwards-Helaire continued his rough half with a devastating fumble with 1:20 left. We just went over something like this a week ago when Damien Harris of the Patriots coughed it up against the Dolphins. This was even later in the game though.

We can think of worse and bigger fumbles in NFL history, but there really is no point margin more agonizing to lose a fumble in the last two minutes than with a 1-to-2 point deficit. If you’re down 3, you lost that chance to tie or take the lead, and that’s a bummer. Ditto for being down 4-9. But you weren’t in position to win on a field goal there. In a tied game, it’s also a bummer, but at least you’re still tied after the turnover. This one just stings the most since the Chiefs were already in range, and despite having Mahomes, it seemingly hasn’t stopped Andy Reid from settling for a 45+ yard field goal in these situations. I understand why they ran, but you almost wish the Chiefs were down more points to incentivize them to keep the ball in Mahomes’ hands.

Stat of the night: Excluding kick returns, laterals, and quarterbacks taking strip-sacks, Edwards-Helaire’s fumble is only the third one by a skill player in opponent territory in the last 2:00 of a game while trailing by 1-2 points since 2001. The last player to do it was Denver running back Quentin Griffin in 2004 — incredibly on the same date (9/19) as CEH — in a 7-6 loss against Jacksonville. The only other “recent” example was when Reche Caldwell fumbled on a Drew Brees completion against the Chiefs in a 24-22 loss in 2002. That’s how rare this is as it is only the second one on a handoff.

Bumping the deficit up to three points only adds these five plays since 2001 (and no, I’m not sure what Brees and the Saints did to deserve to be on here so often):

  • 2019 Melvin Gordon (Chargers vs. Titans)
  • 2018 JuJu Smith-Schuster (Steelers vs. Saints)
  • 2018 Rashad Greene (Jaguars vs. Colts)
  • 2005 Reche Caldwell (again on a pass from Brees; Chargers vs. Eagles)
  • 2003 Deuce McAllister (Falcons vs. Saints; Atlanta fumbled ball back to Saints on same play; Saints won game in OT)

Still, because the Chiefs had all three timeouts, a stop was possible to get Mahomes the ball back. But on 4th-and-1 from the Baltimore 43 with 1:05 left, John Harbaugh asked Lamar if he wanted to go for it. Of course he did, as he should. From what I know about quarterback runs in short-yardage situations, he had to be at least 80% likely to convert there. If he converts, the game is over. If he doesn’t convert, then that is bad news as Mahomes would only need a first down to set up a reasonable field goal. So this was for the game, and I absolutely agreed with it as Baltimore needed to deliver that knockout punch and not trust the defense that has let them down so many times before in these moments. Not when you’re playing someone like Mahomes and he has a minute to set up the field goal.

If they called a pathetic play that didn’t work, then this would be a defining play of the season. But they called the smart play against a defense that couldn’t stop Lamar in the second half, and he delivered with the first down to ice it, making it a defining play of the season in a good way for Baltimore.

It’s a signature win for the Jackson era and should give the Ravens hope should they meet this team again in January. I’ll have to wait for the charting data to see if the Ravens dialed back their blitzing on Mahomes. It felt like they did, and they were smart to double team Tyreek Hill and limit him to 14 yards on three catches. Those big YAC plays for touchdowns to Travis Kelce and Byron Pringle could be defended better next time. It was a pretty loose offensive game with players on both teams running wild all over the field.

You can see how hard it is to still beat the Chiefs, but the cracks are starting to show with this team. In Mahomes’ last 12 starts, the Chiefs have one win by more than six points. That was Buffalo (38-24) in the AFC Championship Game. The Bills will get their next shot at the Chiefs on SNF in Week 5. If the Ravens can break through with a win, what about the Bills? What about the Chargers in Arrowhead next week?

This just may not be a waltz back to the Super Bowl for Kansas City after all.

Bad Afternoon for QB Injuries (MIA/CHI/HOU/IND)

While Week 1 could have been defined by underdog wins and a lot of bad fumbles, Week 2’s early afternoon slate was rocked hard by injuries, especially at the quarterback position.

Tua Tagovailoa left the game early for Miami, which turned into a 35-0 rout for the Bills. I don’t think that injury changed the outcome for the winner, but it was still a game that looked more like the 2019 Bills than the precise, efficient offense the team had with Josh Allen in 2020.

An Andy Dalton injury in Chicago gave way to Justin Fields, who did what most Chicago quarterbacks are used to doing: riding the defense to a win after Joe Burrow threw a pick-six in the fourth quarter in a 20-17 win by the Bears. While Fields failed to impress, it will be interesting to see if Dalton gets the job back again.

Tyrod Taylor was tearing up the Browns, one of his former teams, in the first half before injury took him out again. He won’t play Thursday night at the very least. The game was all Cleveland after that, so this was a real disappointing one as it seemed like Taylor was really making the most of this Houston opportunity. Poor guy can’t make it to October anymore.

The play-by-play for Texans-Browns had a whopping 10 mentions of a player being injured on a play. Taylor was not one of those, which just goes to show this is not a designation that can cover every injury that occurs in a game as sometimes they just don’t know which play did it. But 10 sure sounds like a game that was plagued by injury. Baker Mayfield barely got through it in one piece too, and it was Mayfield who took over for Taylor in Cleveland in 2018 when he was injured there.

Then there was the Rams-Colts game, which only listed one injury (Darrell Henderson) in the play-by-play list. But Carson Wentz did not finish this game after another injury. I would have loved to see what he would do in an ideal game-winning drive situation, down 27-24 with just over two minutes left and no timeouts. Instead, we got Jacob Eason, who promptly turned into Nathan Peterman and lobbed this one to Jalen Ramsey.

A rough day at the office. I’d say more about the Rams, but I plan to talk about them more during the week in the buildup for the game of the month between the Rams and Buccaneers. Let’s just say I think this close win in Indy takes a lot of the shine off this being a super team with Stafford, but it was a fine road win.

Saints at Panthers: WTF?

Suddenly, I don’t feel so bad about predicting mediocrity for the 2021 Saints. Any hope that the defense was going to morph into an elite unit without Drew Brees after what the Saints did to Aaron Rodgers last week quickly vanished after this 26-7 walloping at the hands of the Panthers, a team the Saints have owned for years.

That makes two weeks in a row the Saints had the real “WTF? game of the week” and now they were on the opposite end of the spectrum. I always had a lot of respect for Drew Brees, and I thought the shots some were taking about the Saints now having a deep ball because of one Jameis Winston touchdown last week were absurd.

I don’t remember Brees ever struggling to throw for 100 yards in New Orleans like Winston has in these first two games as the starter. It’s so weird too since Winston is one of the most prolific quarterbacks in NFL history at gaining passing yards. Is Sean Payton hiding him from throwing picks and it’s hurting their ability to produce as a legitimate offense? Supporters will cite COVID wiping out much of the offensive coaching staff this week, but it’s not like last week was a normal performance with the short fields. It’s not like the Panthers are some juggernaut, and they still had Payton there coaching this game.

The Saints were outgained by 255 yards. That only happened to Brees one time in New Orleans when he was outgained by 278 yards against Peyton Manning’s 2012 Broncos. A bit different than Sam Darnold’s Panthers. The 128 yards of offense were the worst for the Saints since the 2001 finale against the 49ers (126 yards). Really, it took two games after Brees retired to have a game almost 50 yards lower than his lowest game? (176 yards in Dallas in 2018).

I don’t know what to make of these teams yet. I need to see them play a normal game and a good opponent first.

Cowboys at Chargers: Dallas Wins Fake Low-Scoring Game

The streak is finally over. For the first time since the 2018 playoffs, the Cowboys won a game without scoring 30 points. Since beating the Seahawks 24-22 in the 2018 wild card round, the Cowboys were 14-2 when scoring at least 30 points and 0-18 when scoring fewer than 30 points. No other team in NFL history has ever had a two-year run like these Cowboys just had where 30 was such a magic number for them.

But even in pulling out a shorthanded 20-17 win in Los Angeles against the Chargers, the Cowboys still played in an offensively-driven game that only had 15 total possessions. One of Dallas’ eight drives was before halftime with three seconds left, and they nearly pulled out a miracle score. Since Dak Prescott and Justin Herbert only combined to throw 14 incompletions, and the Cowboys really got their running game to explode with 198 yards (109 from Tony Pollard), this was a fast-moving game with much better per-drive averages for the offenses. This is only the third non-overtime game in NFL history where both offenses had over 400 yards, but neither scored more than 20 points. The first two were 2012 Raiders-Browns and 2017 Buccaneers-Patriots.

The lack of possessions just made every mistake hurt more, such as the two picks from Herbert and the missed field goal. Herbert also had two touchdown passes taken away on penalties with the Chargers settling for three points on those drives, including a game-tying field goal with 3:54 left instead of a go-ahead touchdown. The officiating left a lot to be desired in this one.

Prescott made a lot of simple, short throws on the game-winning drive, and Mike McCarthy’s bunch did not handle the clock and situation the best they could have. Greg Zuerlein ended up coming out for a 56-yard field goal. But unlike some kickers this week, he only needed one attempt to drill it for the win with no time left.

Both teams are going to be a tough out for anyone this year, but both still seem like their own worst enemy at times.

Patriots at Jets: Weekly Zach Wilson Data Dump

When Zach Wilson threw his fourth interception on his 10th pass attempt of the day against the Patriots, I knew the Jets had their quarterback for the next 30 games. After all, what other franchise does a stat line like that remind you of? If it’s not the great Joe Namath or Richard Todd or Vinny Testaverde or Mark Sanchez or Geno Smith or Ryan Fitzpatrick or Sam Darnold, what other franchise screams “four picks” like the Jets?

Last week I had Wilson in an unpleasant list of quarterbacks who took six sacks in their first start. Now I can add Wilson to this “yikes” list of the last 12 quarterbacks to throw at least four interceptions in their first or second start:

  • Nathan Peterman (2017)
  • Ryan Lindley (2012)
  • Brandon Weeden (2012)
  • Keith Null (2009)
  • Ryan Fitzpatrick (2005)
  • Brooks Bollinger (2005)
  • Alex Smith (2005)
  • John Navarre (2004)
  • Henry Burris (2002)
  • Patrick Ramsey (2002)
  • Joey Harrington (2002)
  • Clint Stoerner (2001)

Now it’s been said that Bill Belichick has done this a lot to opponents. This is true. Belichick has absolutely won more games than anyone with a quarterback dinking and dunking and taking advantage of his opponent’s mistakes in easy three-score wins as Mac Jones demonstrated on Sunday.

Oh, but you were thinking about Belichick’s defense against rookie quarterbacks? Yes, there’s some truth to that too. Belichick is far from undefeated against rookies as he has lost notable games to Ben Roethlisberger (2004), Mark Sanchez (2009), Colt McCoy (2010), Russell Wilson (2012), Geno Smith (2013), and Tua last year.

But I was able to pull together the data on this, and instead of limiting it to rookies, I looked at inexperienced starters in general as quarterbacks who were making their 1st to 16th start of their NFL career. How do such inexperienced quarterbacks fare against Belichick relative to all other coaches since 2001? I made a graph with all 63 coaches with at least 15 such games through 2020.

Inexperienced quarterbacks have only won 18.5% of their games against Belichick from 2001 to 2020, going 15-66 in the process. Only Baltimore’s John Harbaugh (9-42, .176) has a better record. The 4.53 ANY/A for those quarterbacks against Belichick ranks him as the 14th-best coach in this sample of 63. Mike Zimmer (3-13 record, 3.65 ANY/A) has also been very impressive in this split.

Interestingly enough, two of the worst coaches against inexperienced quarterbacks were Jason Garrett (14-15 record, 5.98 ANY/A) and Adam Gase (9-9 record, 5.98 ANY/A). Jets fans should be glad that Gase is gone, but more afternoons like this from Robert Saleh (and Wilson), and it’ll start to feel like he never left.

Raiders at Steelers: Actually, Not the Same Old Steelers

(Note: If you’re not aware, the reason you get a more detailed Steelers game recap is because you can count on that being a game I watched in full each Sunday.)

I wish I can say the Steelers had another one of their whacky, unexpected losses to the Raiders on Sunday despite being a 6.5-point home favorite. The fact is the game was fairly normal and indicative of the kind of team Pittsburgh is when it does not have a good season. The Steelers upset Buffalo last week by getting contributions from all three units. While the special teams helped with a 56-yard field goal, a Heinz Field record, the offense was not good enough again and the defense struggled after its best player (T.J. Watt) left with a groin injury.

While I felt the Steelers used to lose to the Raiders by overlooking them and getting some bad bounces, this time it just felt like Pittsburgh was the inferior team heading in the wrong direction while maybe the Raiders are on the right path. With Josh Jacobs out, the Raiders had no problem in going one-dimensional and using Derek Carr through the air (382 yards) while not excessively targeting tight end Darren Waller after he had 19 targets on Monday night. Hunter Renfrow played very well on pivotal downs and Carr was money on the 61-yard bomb to Henry Ruggs that really made the difference in the fourth quarter.

Pittsburgh just failed to stack good plays. Carr got away with fumbles on consecutive plays before the Raiders settled for a field goal to begin the scoring. Melvin Ingram did his best to step up for Watt’s absence with a sack, but Carr simply converted the ensuing third-and-9 to Renfrow, which led to another touchdown in the third quarter. After the Pittsburgh offense answered with a fourth-quarter touchdown to make it 16-14, the defense folded again on third-and-10 on the Ruggs bomb to make it 23-14. The Steelers never touched the ball again with a one-score deficit.

The Pittsburgh offense is definitely stuck in what I call the post-Antonio Brown malaise that has been there since 2019 started, but this was very much a team loss and not about one unit over the other. Strangely enough, the quick/short passes are working this year for first downs and successful gains rather than the 1-yard gains on early downs and the pathetic failed completions on third-and-long that they seemed to always be last year. Ben Roethlisberger even hit a couple deep bombs in this game and got Najee Harris his first receiving touchdown on a 25-yard play.

So, what was the issue? Again, they’re not good enough to stack successes and score more points. Sometimes it’s Roethlisberger being off with his post-surgery arm strength not being good enough. Other times it’s Eric Ebron dropping a catchable ball on a third down after Roethlisberger shows some vintage escapability, like on the opening drive. Or it’s Diontae Johnson flat out giving up on a route when Roethlisberger threw one up on a third-and-long that was picked off. The running game with Harris and the new line just isn’t there yet either.

Finally, there is the coaching incompetency. While we saw the Ravens go for broke with a fourth down to put away the Chiefs on Sunday night, Mike Tomlin shriveled up again in a big spot. The Steelers faced a 4th-and-1 at their own 34 with 8:36 left and a 23-14 deficit. The defense had just given up five scores on the last seven possessions and could not be trusted. If the offense cannot be trusted to gain a yard, then how is this team ever going anywhere this year? Like in the playoff game against Cleveland, Pittsburgh punted on 4th-and-1 in the fourth quarter while down two scores. At least the defense got a stop this time, but after settling for the 56-yard field goal, the Steelers failed again on defense, allowing a 25-yard play to Waller that set up one more field goal and the 26-17 final. Johnson was then injured on a meaningless final play.

I think the Steelers will be 5-6 or 6-5 by the time December comes and they host Baltimore. But once the injuries pile up and that tough finish to the schedule arrives, the ground may be ready to crumble a la The Dark Knight Rises.

Then it may be time for fans to adopt the darkness to come.

Vikings at Cardinals: Another September MVP Campaign for Kyler Murray?

I knew Kirk Cousins (77.8) was going to finish this game with a higher QBR than Kyler Murray (65.5) once I saw him scramble for a 29-yard gain. QBR loves that stuff, and Cousins actually finished with more rushing yards (35 to 29) than Murray in this one. He also did not have a turnover while Murray threw two pretty bad picks, including one returned for a touchdown, that made this one a struggle for Arizona to win.

But which quarterback had the more impressive plays on the day? That was Murray, hands down. The best 5-foot-10 QB in NFL history made plays all over the field on his way to 400 passing yards and four more total touchdowns. He completed five passes of 25-plus yards to four different receivers.

Most games in NFL history with 360+ passing yards, 3+ passing TD, 1+ rushing TD:

  • 1. Aaron Rodgers – 5
  • 2. Drew Brees – 4
  • 3. Peyton Manning – 3
  • 3. KYLER MURRAY – 3
  • 5. Tom Brady – 2

When Murray is healthy, this offense is a lot of fun. Murray delivered on a key fourth down for 35 yards to set up Arizona’s go-ahead field goal. Cousins had two chances to answer, and on the last one, he did. The Vikings could have hurried to the line and ran another play with Dalvin Cook once they got to the Arizona 19 before calling their final timeout. However, they let the clock go down to four seconds before using that timeout.

Greg Joseph came out for the 37-yard field goal to win the game as the Vikings trailed 34-33. Vikings. Kicker. Game-winning field goal. You knew what was going to happen even before the ball was snapped. He missed it wide right, and the Vikings have an argument for the most painful loss of the young season. Go figure, Cousins, Mahomes and Mac Jones last week against Miami are the only three quarterbacks to lose after having a QBR above 70. That’s what a missed field goal or your teammate fumbling the game away in field goal range does.

As I pointed out in my preseason previews, the biggest moves for the Cardinals were getting Chandler Jones back on defense and a real kicker in Matt Prater. The Cardinals were the team last year that had several big misses in the clutch from their kicker. Prater made a huge 62-yard field goal before halftime in this one and he did not go Blair Walsh on the 27-yard game-winner. Sorry Vikings fans, I don’t know why your franchise is cursed at this position. But the Cardinals added a good one in Prater.

Titans at Seahawks: Regression vs. Regression

After piling up 33 points, 33 first downs, and 532 yards of offense, we can confirm that the Titans are still a fun and functional offense. Julio Jones showed out with 128 yards and Derrick Henry rushed for 182 yards and three touchdowns to lead a 15-point comeback in the second half and a 14-point comeback in the fourth quarter.

Meanwhile, the Seahawks blinked first in the NFC West, which would be 8-0 right now as a division had the Seahawks hung on for this win. Seattle is no stranger to blowing big leads in the Pete Carroll era, but this has been unusual in recent years as Seattle has compiled such an unsustainable great record in close games since 2019.

But on Sunday, the Seahawks went from three straight touchdown drives in the second quarter to one score on their six drives in the second half. Third down was a weakness for the offense in 2020 and it happened again in this one. Seattle finished 4-of-12 on third down but failed on third-and-short twice in the second half. The Seahawks were going to go for a fourth-and-1 but were flagged for a false start, leading to a punt and game-tying touchdown drive for the Titans.

In overtime, I really thought Russell Wilson was sacked in the end zone for a game-ending safety, which wouldn’t be the first (or second) time Ryan Tannehill has won a game that way if you can believe it. Seriously, this could have been the third game-winning safety game he was involved in. But it was not to be, and despite the generous spot, Seattle punted from the 1, which gave the Titans the ball at the Seattle 39. Four Henry runs set up Randy Bullock to redeem himself with a 36-yard field goal for the stunning win.

That was only one yard shorter than the kick that Minnesota missed to give Arizona a win and 2-0 start. I don’t want to give Arizona much grief since it destroyed this Tennessee team in Week 1. But with the Rams about to host Tampa Bay and the 49ers not dominating teams, Seattle is still right up there in the division. Still, there is something stale with this team’s approach. The defense stopped being scary years ago. Wilson is still great, but he does seem to be relying a bit too much on the rainbows for big plays instead of doing more to sustain offense with longer drives (more third-down conversions).

But this was definitely the kind of comeback the Titans made a year ago, so they are still good at that. Still the favorites for sure in the AFC South.

Top 100 NFL Quarterbacks of the 21st Century: Part VIII (5-1)

Finally, the top five in my top 100 NFL quarterbacks of the 21st century. Something that started as a thought exercise last Tuesday has turned into an eight-part trip down memory lane totaling over 43,000 words. If you missed the beginning of the series, there is a recap with links below, and here is where the list stands from No. 100 to No. 6:

Including the playoffs, there are 100 NFL quarterbacks who have started at least 30 games in the last 20 seasons (2001-20). In part I, I began to rank these quarterbacks from No. 100 to No. 87, looking at the worst of the bunch. In part II, I looked at some more serviceable players who may have had one special season in their career. In part III, the players included more multi-year starters who still may have only had that one peak year as well as some younger players still developing. In part IV, I had an especially difficult time with slotting quarterbacks I have criticized for years, but who definitely had a peak year. In part V, we got into some MVP winners and a few quarterbacks I have struggled to root for over the years. In part VI, we had a few Hall of Famers and some players who may have gotten there had it not been for injuries. In part VII, I unveiled the first half of the top 10, including a detailed story on witnessing Ben Roethlisberger’s whole career unfold as a local.

Part I (#100-87)

Part II (#86-72)

Part III (#71-51)

Part IV (#50-31)

Part V (#30-21)

Part VI (#20-11)

Part VII (#10-6)

5. Aaron Rodgers

I do not know if Green Bay fans are still mad at me, but they might be after reading this. On the other hand, maybe the last decade has worn them down to say, “he was onto something after all.”

Ten years ago, Aaron Rodgers was on top of the NFL world having just won Super Bowl MVP honors and leading the Packers back to championship glory in his third season as a starter. I was just a newbie writer covering my first NFL season as a freelancer, and I was known as “the comebacks guy” for my work on fourth-quarter comebacks and game-winning drives, the latter stat being officially adopted into record by the NFL after my work went viral.

One of the first times I ever did a 6,000-word opus was a piece called Aaron Rodgers: Front-runner Extraordinaire for Cold Hard Football Facts. The link no longer works, but basically I defined what a front-runner is, if it’s a bad thing or not, and how Rodgers and the Packers have an incredibly low number of comebacks and game-winning drives despite their overall success under head coach Mike McCarthy. At the time, Rodgers was 3-16 at 4QC opportunities with one of the wins against the 0-16 Lions in 2008.

I mentioned the long list of crucial interceptions the defense made off Michael Vick, Matt Ryan, Caleb Hanie, and Ben Roethlisberger in that 2010 Super Bowl run, and concluded with “Is it a repeatable strategy? Probably not, as that was a heavy reliance on key interceptions. But if they can figure it out and get more team performances like the Atlanta game, then this could be the league’s next dynasty.”

Well, the defense never returned to 2010’s level, and not only did they fail to become a dynasty, but we have gone 10 seasons and the Packers have yet to return to the Super Bowl with Rodgers. They are 0-4 in the NFC Championship Game. He has still never had more than three game-winning drives in any season (including playoffs), something that has been done 92 times by other quarterbacks since 2008.

Right after I wrote that article, the 2011 Packers started 13-0 without trailing once in the fourth quarter. Combined with their similar six-game winning streak to end 2010, that marked 19 straight wins without trailing in the fourth quarter, an NFL record. The previous record was 13 games by a World War II-era Washington team, so Green Bay smashed it. Greatest front-running team ever just like I said.

When a bad Chiefs team punched the Packers in the mouth that year, they folded and lost for the first time. Then in the playoffs against the Giants, they lost another game that was within one score early in the fourth quarter before New York won in shocking fashion, 37-20.

The whole time my thought process was that we need to slow down before proclaiming Rodgers as the next GOAT when I was able to pick up on this pattern throughout his first three seasons as a starter that showed up again in spades in 2011, his first MVP season. I knew from my research and general study of quarterback play that he could never reach GOAT status if he continues to practically never win any close games. When is front-running a bad thing? When it’s the only thing you do. I tried to tell Green Bay fans that if this continues, it is going to cost your team wins, division titles, higher playoff seeds, and ultimately Super Bowls.

I’d say I rest my case with the last decade as proof, but there’s so much more here to unpack. In 2012, the Packers again blew three close games early in the season to the 49ers, Seahawks (Fail Mary), and Colts (Andrew Luck’s coming out party). I continued to write about this close game subject at all the sites I was working with at the time, including Bleacher Report when I shared that Rodgers was 0-18 at 4QC opportunities against teams better than .500. The line “To reach the goal of another Super Bowl, the 2013 Packers will be looking for the balance the team had in 2010 between the offense and defense” could literally be reused every year for the last decade for Green Bay.

In 2013, Rodgers had a rough outing in Cincinnati in Week 3 and Green Bay blew a lead in a 34-30 loss. He came up short again on the final drive. I immediately wrote about “Aaron Rodgers’ Hidden Weakness” for a piece on ESPN Insider. “Rodgers is 9-26 (.257) when he has to score the winning points in the fourth quarter or overtime, but 49-5 (.907) in all other games, meaning the Packers are often on the winning end of blowouts. That .650 difference in winning percentage is the largest I have found in a sample of 67 quarterbacks.” I concluded by saying that for Rodgers to earn the status as the best quarterback in the league, he has to deliver more in these moments.

Shortly after, I was made aware that ESPN’s First Take did a segment about my Rodgers article. There has probably been nothing more surreal in my career than watching Stephen A. Smith and Skip Bayless holding a printout of my article in their hands as they screamed at each other about it on TV.

For better or worse, I got this comeback talk into the mainstream media. Rodgers broke his collarbone that season and missed seven starts. The team mostly flopped without him, but it sure was interesting when backup Matt Flynn led a comeback tie against Minnesota after trailing by 16 points and a 23-point comeback win over the Cowboys. These were the kind of games Green Bay never had with Rodgers at quarterback. So that started creeping into my stats, because Flynn also had a 9-point comeback against the 2011 Lions when he threw for 480 yards and six touchdowns in Week 17.

Soon you started seeing me put out stats with tables like this one:

Eventually, Rodgers snapped that 0-for streak with a Hail Mary win in Detroit in 2015. But it was during that 2015 season that things changed drastically in Green Bay. Rodgers won his second MVP in 2014’s “Relax” run. A deserving choice, though I think Tony Romo at least had a case. In 2015, he lost Jordy Nelson to a torn ACL, but the Packers were still 6-0 and his numbers were what you expect and in line with his peak of 2009-2014. However, the team then went on a bye week and came back and played Denver’s outstanding defense on Sunday Night Football. Rodgers looked lost and threw for 77 yards in a 29-10 loss. Without that Hail Mary in Detroit, which followed a bullshit facemask penalty on the Lions, the Packers would have lost five out of six following a 6-0 start.

What the hell kind of Palm Springs cave did Rodgers stumble into during that bye week that sapped him of his powers?

It was all pretty peculiar as Rodgers continued to rely on Hail Mary passes late that year just to keep the team competitive. He hit one in the playoffs in Arizona to force overtime, though I think the play on 4th-and-20 that preceded it was far more impressive. The Packers never touched the ball in overtime, losing on the final play for the third postseason in a row.

In 2016, the Packers started 4-6 with Rodgers continuing to underwhelm from what we’re used to seeing from him. There were also some uncharacteristic losses that weren’t even close games. My other advice for Green Bay fans about the front-running critique was to treat it as a positive since it shows that your team is in almost every game with Rodgers. No one blows him out. From 2008 to 2012, the Packers had a nice 69-game streak of being at least within one score in the fourth quarter. The 2012 Giants ended that one with a 38-10 blowout. The only longer streak in NFL history that I’ve found was 98 games by Seattle in 2011-16.

But now the Packers were not keeping it close, and Rodgers still had no comebacks in 2016. However, he talked about running the table, and that kicked off an eight-game win streak where he was hot and in his MVP form, reaching the NFC Championship Game again after an impressive game-winning drive in Dallas in the divisional round. But the real MVP that season, Matt Ryan, lit up Rodgers’ defense and the Packers lost 44-21. Prior to that game, I unveiled a crazy Rodgers stat that I have since regretted posting because of how Brady fans have used it so recklessly. I’m not repeating it here, but if you’re curious, you can click those links.

In 2017, Rodgers had the Packers off to a solid 4-1 start, but another collarbone injury derailed his season. Again, the team flopped without him, but boy was it amusing to see Brett Hundley lead a 14-point 4QC win against Cleveland. There was no magic this time when Rodgers returned late in the season, and the team missed the playoffs for the first time since his 2008 season.

In the 2018 opener against the Bears, the Packers were down 20-3 to start the fourth quarter. Rodgers’ success rate was 0-for-10 in the first half, and he suffered what looked like a season-ending injury. But something crazy happened. Rodgers returned after being carted off the field, and he led the biggest comeback of his career and the Packers won 24-23. It ended a record of 0-31 when Rodgers trailed by double digits in the fourth quarter.

That was Rodgers’ sixth game-winning drive in his last 16 appearances, the hottest clutch streak of his career. Maybe 2018 was going to be the turning point. In Week 16, Rodgers led a 15-point 4QC against the Jets. He finished the season with 25 touchdowns to two interceptions. If I told you that Rodgers led two 15+ point 4QCs and had that touchdown-to-interception ratio, you would predict a great season, right? Wrong. The Packers finished 6-9-1 with a middling offense as Rodgers was too conservative with taking sacks and making throwaways to keep his picks down that season. In the end, Mike McCarthy was fired as his stale offense was often the scapegoat for Rodgers’ decline.

Whatever the cause, the change from Peak Aaron Rodgers (2009-14) to Not Peak Aaron Rodgers (2015-19) was fascinating to see and unprecedented for a player of this caliber.

That does not have the numbers updated for 2018-19, but they could not have been much better. Even after bringing in Matt LaFleur as the head coach in 2019, the Packers were still middling on offense and Rodgers had his lowest QBR (52.5) yet, which ranked 20th in the league. The difference in going 13-3 was that the defense played better, and the Packers hung on from ahead in a lot of one-score games in the fourth quarter. But the 49ers pushed them around twice and beat them badly, 37-20, in the NFC Championship Game.

Last year, Prime Aaron Rodgers made his unexpected but triumphant return for his third MVP season despite the biggest offensive change being Robert Tonyan taking over for Jimmy Graham at tight end. I detailed that rise here. I feel like it was the weakest of his MVP seasons, and his record for 1-yard touchdown passes (eight) in a season did not impress me. But overall, it was a great season, I can understand why he won the award, and it was good to see him back to playing at that level. I just wish he didn’t implode in Tampa Bay, because that sure seemed to give the Buccaneers confidence that they could win in Green Bay in the title game. Rodgers played much better that second time around, but the uncharacteristic red-zone struggles hurt on a day the Packers needed more touchdowns. But nothing hurt more than the play of corner Kevin King and Aaron Jones’ fumble, the double whammy in the middle of the game that led to a 28-10 deficit.

We could have had two straight Super Bowls with Rodgers vs. Mahomes, but instead we are still hoping to see their first matchup this regular season. The Packers have been swept out of the playoffs seven times since the 2012 season. They just never seem to figure out these teams that get the best of them in the regular season.

Being pushed around by those NFC West and NFC South teams has really taken over as my preferred talking point on the Rodgers-era Packers. He tends to own his division and Dallas and the crummy East, but the 49ers (2012-13, 2019), Seahawks (2014), Cardinals (2015), Falcons (2016), and Buccaneers (2020) are the seven NFC teams that have swept Green Bay since 2012.

There is still a shortage of comebacks in Green Bay, but I can say that Rodgers has at least improved his record and my expectations of him in that department. Through 2014, he was 12-29 (.293) at 4QC/GWD opportunities, which would be one of the worst records in the league. Since 2015, he is 15-17-1 (.470), which would be just behind the career records of Ben Roethlisberger (51-56-1, .477) and Russell Wilson (35-39-1, .473) near the top of the league.

I have often said that Rodgers’ A-game is as good as any quarterback in the history of the NFL. From a pure talent standpoint, he has to be right up there with Mahomes and Steve Young as the best players. His highlight reel could run the longest of anyone on this list, which speaks to his skill and longevity.

But when it comes to having to brush off a bad start or when the game does not go according to plan, I still have a hard time trusting Rodgers as much as I do some other quarterbacks. The lack of comebacks has always bugged me with him, but beyond that, I think the abyss he fell into during 2015-19 eliminates him from the conversation of the greatest to ever play. That kind of thing just does not happen.

When Peyton Manning became an elite quarterback in his second season (1999), he basically stayed that way until his quad injury late in 2014. When Tom Brady finally started producing good numbers (2004) and he then had his statistical down years (2006, 2013, 2019), he didn’t let it linger beyond those seasons. When Drew Brees broke out in 2004, he basically rode that wave all the way through retirement after 2020 with only a couple short-lived slumps. For five whole seasons, Rodgers basically had his six-game hot streak to start 2015 and his eight-game hot streak in 2016. The rest of the time he was hovering around mediocrity, which is unacceptable for someone this talented.

We’ll see just how long Peak Aaron Rodgers 2.0 sticks around too. Was it just a one-year revival, or does he do it again this year, which could very well be his last with Green Bay? Does he go to another team in 2022 and add to his legacy a la Manning and Brady? The book isn’t finished here, but I’ve sure as hell written a good draft for my time in covering the one and only Aaron Rodgers.

4. Drew Brees

That’s right, we have a change at the top of my list. In December 2019, I wrote about how Drew Brees was the Hypothetical GOAT. Already the passing king with records for touchdowns and yards, Brees also dominates the metrics that look at passing accuracy (things like CPOE and plus-minus), so he has a good argument as the most accurate quarterback of all time. But he also could have been the biggest playoff winner with the best playoff stats of his era as well, not to mention hold records for the most comebacks and game-winning drives. That’s the hypothetical part.

“Imagine if Brees was 5-0 in Super Bowls with wins over Peyton (2009), Roethlisberger (2010), and 3-0 against Brady (2011, 2017-18). He’d be considered the GOAT for sure, also having kept Rodgers to zero rings. Remember, it was Rodgers’ run in 2010 that propelled him ahead of Brees during the year where Brees was supposed to join the Manning/Brady tier after 2009’s win.”

How did I get to that? All I did was change five outcomes in his career that had nothing to even do with his play, including a 29-yard field goal being made instead of missed, three defensive stops instead of scores allowed, and a flag for pass interference on the 2018 Rams. It’s really that simple and that thin of a margin between the multiple Super Bowls he played well enough to make and only the one appearance he got.

That was my epiphany moment on Brees’ career as he was having another stellar season in 2019 and Brady was floundering at the end of his run in New England. That led me to rank Brees ahead of Brady on my all-time list for the first time, putting Brees at No. 4 and Brady at No. 5. I’m really going to test people’s patience with reading full articles with this one as they’re going to complain on Twitter that I wrote one sentence about Brady below, but the fact is he’s sprinkled throughout this top five and in great detail below.

But my prediction that Brees will probably jinx me and have his worst postseason proved true. The Saints lost to the Vikings in overtime in the wild card round. Last year, Brees looked noticeably weaker at getting the ball down the field, then he suffered multiple fractured ribs (starting at the hands of Brady’s Tampa Bay defense) and a collapsed lung. He was never quite the same when he came back and he had arguably his worst game in a Saints uniform in the playoffs against Tampa Bay, a 30-20 loss in the divisional round that sent him into retirement.

Brees really did not have my back on this one, so after seeing him tap out at 41 and play a huge role in Brady winning a Super Bowl with Tampa Bay, I feel like I can no longer justify ranking him ahead of Brady. That doesn’t mean I wouldn’t pick a 22-year-old Brees over a 22-year-old Brady to start a fictional team from scratch, but that’s a whole different argument than something like this, which I’ve always based on a mixture of achievement and ability. Hell, the list of quarterbacks I’d take over a 22-year-old Brady would be massive, but again, that’s a different perspective.

I’ll certainly miss Brees in New Orleans. I’ve talked about a quarterback’s A-game multiple times already, and we know that when Brees was playing in the Superdome in prime time, he was absolute money for over a decade. That was him in his element. It’s also not like the Saints spent a ton of draft resources on offense or always had high-priced free agents on that side of the ball. Brees helped so many receivers to ridiculously high catch rates and great receiving metrics with his accuracy. There will almost certainly be more Hall of Fame teammates from the four years that Brees started in San Diego than there will be from his time in New Orleans. I just wish Sean Payton would have cared more about coaching defense and they could have had more success on that side of the ball.

In five seasons with serious Super Bowl aspirations, Brees watched Rex Grossman (2006), Alex Smith (2011), Case Keenum (2017), Jared Goff (2018), and Kirk Cousins (2019) get the most significant win of their careers against his Saints. Otherwise, those quarterbacks were 3-13 as playoff starters. That’s a tough pill to swallow, and that doesn’t even include the “Beastquake” loss to the 7-9 Seahawks in 2010 or his only playoff game with San Diego, an overtime loss to the Jets after Nate Kaeding missed a makeable overtime field goal.

Brees goes down as the king of the lost comeback, or games where he led his team from behind to a lead in the fourth quarter, but the team still lost the game. He did that 19 times, the most in NFL history and more than Brady (nine) and Manning (seven) combined.

With Brees retired, I did want to update these numbers from that 2019 article through 2020. These are their adjusted records in the clutch if every go-ahead FG/XP was successful and every go-ahead drive was held up by the defense. (Note that if a kick would have just tied the game, we’re sticking with that as a loss.)

Revised Career 4QC/GWD Opportunity Records with All Leads Upheld and 100% FGs

  • Drew Brees: 86-44 (.662) from 57-73 (.438)
  • Tom Brady: 74-37 (.667) from 63-48 (.568)
  • Peyton Manning: 70-44 (.614) from 58-56 (.509)

That last head-to-head game won by Tampa now gives Brady the edge in adjusted win rate, but Brees still has by far the largest total of wins and the biggest increase in wins from his actual record (+29).

As for why I still put Brees ahead of Rodgers, it’s because I don’t think Brees had a slump that lasted longer than four games in the 17-year period of 2004-20. He did take longer to shine than Rodgers, who was already good in his first year as a starter, then great in 2009. But once Brees broke out in 2004, I see very few cracks in his game outside of a rough four-game start to 2007 and a few too many multi-pick games in 2010. He definitely didn’t have a 2015-19 run on his resume, and even when the Saints weren’t making the playoffs in those 7-9 seasons, it was because Brees had the worst team support (D/ST) of these top five quarterbacks in his career. Also, yes, he is better with the game on the line than Rodgers and I think he’s performed better in the postseason. The fact that both have only reached one Super Bowl while never meeting in the playoffs is mind blowing to me. It’s not like they were holding each other back. Rodgers still has time to pass Brees for me.

Brees’ place in history figures to be as the best quarterback to never win an MVP, but he deserves better than that. My concern is with the 17-game season, 5,000-yard passing seasons are going to become more common and people are going to overlook just how prolific Brees was in a league with great competition at his position.

3. Tom Brady

Pretty good for a sixth-round pick who only got his start because Drew Bledsoe was injured.

2. Patrick Mahomes

Did you guess it? I may have let it slip a month ago on Twitter.

While I might not be able to bring myself to rank Mahomes second in all of NFL history after 54 starts, I have no doubt that no other quarterback has been this great so soon in their career. It also could be the best 54-game stretch any quarterback has ever had. Definitely the best 53-game streak.

Yes, that 31-9 loss in Super Bowl LV has removed Mahomes’ invincibility. It was the first time he lost a game by more than eight points and the first time he did not lead a touchdown drive. But in reviewing the game, I still have a hard time saying he was bad that night given the pass rush and two potential dropped touchdowns. It was a dreadful game for his standards, but his standards are so ridiculously high. If this game or the Atlanta game in Week 16 is what a “bad” Mahomes game looks like, then I guess his bad games are still decent.

But one thing I am certain of is that Mahomes has no discernible weakness in his game. Your basic rebuttal of “just pressure him like the Raiders and Bucs did last year” is not exposing a weakness. All quarterbacks do worse under pressure vs. not pressured. But guess who the best quarterback under pressure has been? Mahomes.

When I reviewed the 2020 offense, I found just how hard it is to stop Mahomes.

“By the numbers, the Chiefs are more likely to score than be stopped with Mahomes this season. In 160 drives with him including the playoffs, the Chiefs have scored 85 times (56 touchdowns and 29 field goals) and did not score 75 times. Even the 75 non-scoring drives include positive offensive results such as three missed field goals and running out the clock on three opponents, including the Buccaneers in Week 12.

The Chiefs just may be their own worst enemy. They missed out on seven extra touchdowns this season just because of dropped passes (four) or penalties that wiped out scores (three). Mahomes has turned the ball over eight times this season via interceptions (six) or lost fumbles (two), but he is more likely to see a drive end because of a dropped pass that would have extended the drive, which happened 11 times to the Chiefs this year. The skill players have also lost six fumbles and the short-yardage offense has been stopped nine times when trying to move the ball without Mahomes.”

I could spend a lot of time sharing crazy Mahomes stats and facts:

I’m sure there will be more to come soon. We’re already getting to the point where the nitpicking on Mahomes will be things like “he’s never had to play a road playoff game” and “he’s never had a great four-quarter performance in a Super Bowl!” While both are true, if that’s the best thing you can come up with after 54 games….

The only real concern about Mahomes at this point would be his health. He’s narrowly avoided a season-ending injury two years in a row with his dislocated kneecap and that scary situation against Cleveland only costing him about a dozen quarters of action combined. Health is always the No. 1 thing for every quarterback. Look at how many careers I wrote about here that were negatively impacted by injuries. So, let’s hope Mahomes is one of the more durable players at his position.

I guess the other thing I would caution is that he’s been all instant peak. The quarterbacks who peaked so high right out the gate had a difficult time ever finding their way back to that level of play. Think Johnny Unitas after 1959, Dan Marino after 1987, and Kurt Warner after 2001.

For as great as Mahomes has been in the last three years, can he keep that pace up for another eight or 12 years? Can he stay this dominant when Travis Kelce is no longer his tight end or Andy Reid is not the head coach? Remember, Aaron Rodgers was at a ridiculous level for six seasons and six games before he fell off in 2015. But when it comes to keeping up a ridiculous prime for over a decade, someone else is still the gold standard, and that is why Mahomes cannot be ranked No. 1 yet.

1. Peyton Manning

Simply put, Peyton Manning is the most valuable player in NFL history. Just in the 10 seasons he was active from 2003 to 2013, he won five MVP awards (most ever) and was named first-team All-Pro seven times (most ever). That is an insane run that we may never see again. Even Mahomes is only 1-for-3 in winning those honors so far.

Honestly, he should have won eight of each, but fatigued voters still loved their running backs (2005, 2006, 2012) instead of true value, and someone so clueless picked Marc Bulger to rob Manning of the All-Pro nod in 2006, still his best season ever in my eyes. I do not say that because it was his only Super Bowl win in Indy. His drive engineering was never better than in 2006, his third-down performance was record breaking (peep the QBR), he was at his physical peak in throwing downfield and moving in the pocket better after that 2005 Pittsburgh loss made him improve that area of his game. He had bigger statistical years (2004, 2013), and he carried weaker teams in 2008-09, but 2006 was the all-around greatest Peyton Manning season. It’s also the last time since 1999 Kurt Warner that the best quarterback in the regular season won the Super Bowl that year.

Pick your proprietary metric – QBR, DVOA, DYAR, EPA, WPA, ANY/A – and he’s going to outshine his peers. He led the most efficient offenses on a per-drive basis of any quarterback, and his units often did great on third down and in the red zone. He had the career records for comebacks and game-winning drives, including a record seven comeback wins in that 2009 season as the team started 14-0. Along with Dan Marino, he was the hardest quarterback to pressure and sack because of how quick he released the ball, making him able to succeed with any offensive line. He was one of the most durable quarterbacks of all time before a Gregg Williams defense got to his neck. Only missed one play due to injury from 1998 to 2010. He got to his final of 539 touchdown passes in fewer games and pass attempts than Brees and Brady did. He broke the touchdown record twice with 49 and 55 touchdown passes. Breaking a significant record like that twice is unheard of and unlikely to ever happen again.

Like having a coach on the field, you will never see another quarterback go to four Super Bowls with four different head coaches and two different teams, becoming the first quarterback to win one with two teams. His Super Bowl teams were among the most imbalanced winners ever as one great offense (2006 Colts) and one great defense (2015 Broncos). Even his other two appearances were two of the biggest one-man show runs to the big game, which does a lot to explain why those were not wins. He always drew the toughest matchup possible in all four of his Super Bowls too.

Mahomes may be raising the standard for a quarterback avoiding bad games, but Manning rarely had cold streaks. When he threw 11 interceptions in a three-game losing streak for the Colts in 2010, it was headline news in the NFL. He shook it off with a four-game winning streak that led the Colts to the playoffs one last time. In the 17 seasons he started, he made the playoffs and won 10+ games 15 times. The only times he didn’t were the seasons where he had the bottom ranked scoring defense in the league and schedules loaded with playoff teams.

He was awful for his first six games as a rookie, but once he settled down and figured out how to play in the NFL, he basically rode that wave until late in 2014 when his body started to fail him. A quad injury exacerbated by the four neck surgeries as he had to adjust his mechanics to account for the lost arm strength. Manning was never physically the same quarterback in Denver as he was in Indy, but his anticipation on throws got even better to compensate. The fact that he could throw 55 touchdowns and 5,477 yard (both records) in 2013 with such limited arm strength is amazing.

In watching the state of defense continue to decline in the NFL since Manning retired, you only wonder what kind of numbers he would put up if he was getting his start now. While the position is moving to athletic playmakers who can run and pass, Manning’s intelligence, preparation, accuracy, and ability to get rid of the ball would make him a great success in any era. He is his own offensive system.

The Lousy Arguments vs. Manning

What I loved about Manning is that he disproved every garbage argument thrown his way in his career.

“He’s only good cause he has Edgerrin James at running back and defenses bite on the play-action and stretch plays.”

Edge left in 2006 and Manning immediately won a Super Bowl. Indy’s running game disappeared in 2007 and he continued to thrive and win MVP awards.

“He’s only good cause he has Tarik Glenn at left tackle.”

Glenn retired after 2006, the Colts put a turnstile named Tony Ugoh in his place, and the 12-win seasons and MVP awards kept coming. Manning could make any offensive line combination work out.

“He’s only good cause he has Marvin Harrison.”

Harrison was also one of the worst playoff receivers in NFL history as I’ve documented before. As soon as he left, Manning won his fourth MVP in 2009, but people love to ignore 88’s contributions to the down years in the playoffs.

If the best wide receiver in NFL history isn’t Jerry Rice, then it’s the guy who was Manning’s No. 1 wide receiver. That’s part Marvin, part Reggie Wayne, and part Demaryius Thomas in Denver. Put those numbers together and they are outstanding, because that’s what a consistently accurate elite passer can do for his receivers. Manning got many guys paid after big seasons, including the likes of Brandon Stokley, Jacob Tamme, Pierre Garcon, Austin Collie, Eric Decker, Emmanuel Sanders, Julius Thomas, etc.

This also speaks to the weak “he threw to first-round picks” argument, especially since that argument is most beloved by people who worship a sixth-round pick at quarterback and advocate for Julian Edelman to make the Hall of Fame.

The truth is Harrison (1.19), Wayne (1.30), Dallas Clark (1.30), Anthony Gonzalez (1.32), and Demaryius Thomas (1.22) were all chosen 19th or later in the first round, making them more of a crapshoot to succeed. It is a fact that players in the lower portion of the first round have inferior careers, on average, to players at the top of the draft. The only thing keeping those averages closer is Manning’s contributions to helping those players have several of the best careers for players drafted in the bottom half of the first round. But he never played with a surefire receiver like Julio Jones, Calvin Johnson, Larry Fitzgerald, or A.J. Green. He played with a lot of shorter, possession receivers who ran great routes, but did not do much after the catch. The ball was expected to be on time, and it often was as Manning was never a “just throw it up and hope something good happens” passer. His offense was built on precision, timing, and exploiting matchups pre-snap.

“His stats are inflated by the dome.”

Ah, the dome quarterback. This one always pisses me off because it shows no understanding of the game. For one, only a few quarterbacks (Manning, Brees, Ryan, Stafford, maybe Warren Moon back in the day) ever get this label because there aren’t that many domes in the NFL. Also, you must actually be good to get this criticism. No one has ever said “Joey Harrington would suck in Detroit if he wasn’t a dome QB.” No, Joey Harrington would suck on every playing surface known to man because he was a shit quarterback. I could say the same about Sam Bradford, who played for the Rams, Vikings, and Cardinals.

When someone like Brady or Rodgers has great stats in games played indoors, it’s because that’s a small sample of games against a fixed, limited set of opponents who often have bad defenses (Saints, Lions, Vikings, Falcons, etc.). But for someone like Manning or Brees, they played at least half their seasons indoors for extended periods of their careers. They faced all different types of defenses in home games doing that, including elite ones. So, if you’re going to compare indoor stats, compare apples to apples and compare only indoor road games for the quarterbacks who have an indoor home stadium.

Plus, Manning proved it quite well in Denver that he didn’t need an indoor stadium to dominate. He also was one of the best cold weather quarterbacks, but people who act like the only games that matter are two snowy playoff games in New England missed that fact.

With Manning and Brees retired, Ryan aging, and Stafford moving to LA, it will be interesting to see where the future of dome passing stats go. Especially in an AFC that has totally retooled the quarterback position with guys in outdoor stadiums (Mahomes, Allen, Lamar, Baker, Burrow, Tua, Herbert, Lawrence, Z.Wilson, Mac Jones, etc.). Things may not look so hot if Jameis Winston, Jared Goff, Kirk Cousins, Derek Carr, and Carson Wentz are our new indoor passers.

“Best regular-season QB ever, but he was a playoff choker!”

While he absolutely disproved this on the field, to this day too many people still believe it. I have written about the topic extensively on this blog, on ESPN Insider, and in two parts on FO where I think I really solved it. Manning’s teams blew a record six fourth-quarter leads in the playoffs, and most of them came in the first game of a playoff run, which explains why he had the record for nine one-and-done postseasons. No other quarterback has seen his team blow that many playoff leads. Then when you do it right in the first game, there’s no next week after that. When Manning’s teams got past the first game of the playoffs, they were very good. Ask Rodgers and Brees how hard it is to get to more than one Super Bowl.

But Manning was one of the best playoff performers in NFL history. How else do you explain his first three AFC Championship Game wins that were some of the best games of his career? The way he dominated the Broncos in back-to-back years, beating the Chiefs in Kansas City in a game without any punts.

Yet when he threw the interception to Tracy Porter in Super Bowl 44, people treated it as him doing what he always does in the playoffs. What pattern is that when it’s literally the first time in his playoff career that he turned the ball over in a 4QC/GWD opportunity? Are people pretending that throwing picks when you’re down 34-0, 41-0, and 20-3 in the final minute of the fourth quarter are what lost those games to the 2002 Jets and 2004 Patriots? Manning was 6-6 when he threw zero interceptions in a playoff game, still the most losses in playoff history doing that.

From 1998-2010, Manning’s Colts were 1-5 (.167) in the playoffs when they had zero turnovers. The rest of the NFL was 43-4 (.915). Chew on that one for a minute.

If these articles won’t work, I guess a documentary is the next step for me, but unfortunately, we live in an era where people can be shown video evidence and facts and still not change their beliefs. They see what they want to see. Worse, Manning’s career took place during Tom Brady’s career, and there is no quarterback who gets his worshippers more riled up to defend his honor than the King of Kings himself.

I’ve Been Coming at the King for Two Decades

That’s right, Brady fans. If you think I was only going to leave him at one sentence above, then you clearly don’t know any better. I’m going to go over the whole origin story of why I think he’s the most overrated player ever.

RIP Michael K. Williams

They say first impressions are everything.

I caught my first Tom Brady game on January 19, 2002. All I knew about him was that he was a sixth-round pick who took over after Drew Bledsoe was injured early in the season. I heard he was supposed to be decent, but the Patriots had a bunch of players I never heard of while I saw the likes of Jerry Rice, Tim Brown, and Charles Woodson on the Raiders. I wasn’t into rooting for either team, but it was a big playoff game and the snow looked cool on our new 27-inch TV.

Late in the game, it looked like the Raiders had wrapped it up, 13-10 with a strip-sack fumble recovery. But there was a review, and from there I learned all about things like Walt Coleman’s pro-Patriots past and this new rule called the Tuck Rule. It no longer exists because it never made any sense, it has been applied liberally and inconsistently, and to this day, that looks like a fumble to me. Game over. But the Patriots kept the ball, Brady completed only one more pass, and Adam Vinatieri was tasked with a super difficult field goal to tie the game. He hit it from 45 yards away and it is still the greatest kick in NFL history if you ask me.

The Patriots won the overtime coin toss, they dinked and dunked down the field, and Vinatieri hit a game-winning field goal, another weak element of the game that had to go years later. I read a recap online after the game that the Patriots got really lucky, which I thought was obvious. Then I saw this snotty quote from Brady about the play that saved his bacon. “You know, he hit me. I wasn’t sure. Yeah, I was throwing the ball. How do you like that? Damn right. Damn right.”

How do I like that? This low-rent Matt Damon looking mug couldn’t even admit he got away with one. I was looking forward to seeing the Steelers face this team since I thought the Raiders would have been a tougher out in the AFC Championship Game.

Of course, Kordell Stewart pulled his usual big-game display with three picks. The special teams got absolutely hosed on a missed penalty that should have negated a touchdown return. And Brady? He dinked and dunked, then he left the game injured in the second quarter and they hung on with Drew Bledsoe finishing the game. Brady led his offense to 29 points in the entire postseason. He started in the Super Bowl against the Rams, a team I was fond of at the time for their high-flying offense. It was supposed to be a rout, which the Super Bowl usually was in those days, but it turned out to be a huge upset. However, if you watch that game now, it’s pretty boring. The Patriots would back the Rams up, they’d get a few first downs, then either stall or turn the ball over and set the Patriots up on short fields.

Brady didn’t even break 70 air yards in that game, and he never converted a third down. He led his offense to 13 points, but that was good enough for the win as Ty Law, who should have been named MVP, had a pick-six. The Rams tied it up, John Madden gave horrible advice on sitting on the ball that teams did not follow even back then, and then I watched Brady throw three dump passes, get away with intentional grounding, make one nice pass to Troy Brown, and before you know it there’s Vinatieri kicking a 48-yard field goal that somehow took seven seconds off the clock to end the game.

Aside from the U2 halftime show, that was not a fun night. It was hard to tell a difference between what Brady did that postseason and what Trent Dilfer did with Baltimore the year before.

The Patriots missed the playoffs in 2002 and started 0-1 in 2003 after letting Lawyer Milloy go before the season. Brady threw four picks in that opener, a 31-0 loss to Buffalo. I used to watch ESPN in the afternoon at the time and they would have talking heads like Sean Salisbury ask if the players hate Bill Belichick as their coach. But soon enough, this team embarked on a record 21-game winning streak that looked like the luckiest damn thing I’d ever seen in football.

They won a game 19-13 in overtime in Miami after Olindo Mare missed two 35-yard field goals in crunch time. At least one was blocked, but he flat out missed the game-winner in overtime. That was Game No. 3 and it proved to be the difference in making a record.

In Game No. 5 in Denver, they took an intentional safety while trailing 24-23 late in the game as Belichick did not want to punt from his own 1. That felt ballsy. Denver gave the ball back in record time, and Brady only had to go 58 yards for the game-winning touchdown. You rarely see the intentional safety work out that well.

Game No. 8 in Indianapolis was the real ball buster and the true beginning of the Manning-Brady, Colts-Patriots rivalry. New England led 31-10 in the third quarter, but Manning turned a couple of Brady picks into touchdowns and quickly tied the game up at 31 in the fourth. Just when you expect a good finish, Bethel Johnson has a 67-yard kick return to give Brady great field position for another touchdown. Johnson also had a 92-yard kick return touchdown to end the first half, which you almost never see in this league.

The Colts were down 38-34 late with the ball. They got a first-and-goal at the 2-yard line. Edgerrin James ended up getting stuffed three times, including a loss on fourth down. Linebacker Willie McGinest, who ran off the field “injured” on the drive, returned to make that tackle before high-stepping in celebration. There was my introduction to faking an injury in the NFL.

In Game No. 13, the Patriots hosted the Titans in the AFC divisional round. Now I hated the Titans as an old division rival of the Steelers, but I kinda felt myself rooting for them in this one because of how annoying the narrative was on this Patriots team. ESPN was already moving onto the “Brady just wins” crap that would only get worse. Keep in mind this was a season where the Patriots had the No. 1 defense, ranked 16th in points per drive on offense, and Brady was on the fringes of the top 10 in passer rating and YPA behind the legendary Jon Kitna. I mean, I hated Jeff Fisher and his team, but I was fine with seeing them win this one.

It was a freezing cold night, but the offenses started hot before tanking. It was 14-14 in the fourth quarter when Vinatieri once again enhanced his legacy and connected on a 46-yard field goal. Steve McNair had so much time to answer, but pressure did him in, resulting in penalties for grounding and holding. He had to go for it on a 4th-and-12. He threw a pass to Drew Bennett, but Bennett dropped it down the field and the game was over. The Patriots had another playoff win by three points.

January 18, 2004 – This was the day that changed the course of NFL history, how quarterbacks are judged in the mainstream media, and it had a huge impact on me as well.

Peyton Manning was co-MVP with McNair that year, but after winning his first two playoff games in dominant fashion, he was ready to go into New England with a Super Bowl on the line. I was really excited for this one.

I actually watched several Brady games before I watched a full Manning game in the NFL. Sounds shocking, but that’s the truth. I knew his name for years and that his dad played for the Saints in the paper bag over the head days. I knew he was a highly touted player and “the next Dan Marino” and all that. I knew from playing Madden that he was a pain in the ass with the audibles, and in one of my franchise modes, he actually suffered a career-ending injury, the only time I remember seeing one that notable in my game.

But outside of some highlights, I never really saw him play a whole game. That changed in October 2002 when the Steelers hosted the Colts on MNF. Expecting to see something great, the game was a rout. The Steelers were up 21-0 in the second quarter while Manning had a few passes knocked away and Mike Vanderjagt missed a field goal. Manning ended up throwing three interceptions and the Colts lost 28-10 in a forgettable game.

But I knew new coach Tony Dungy was a Pittsburgh guy and someone my family wanted to root for. A year later, the Steelers were off to a lousy start and disinteresting me in the season. I watched Manning throw six touchdowns in New Orleans on SNF in a 55-21 win. I hadn’t seen anything like it since Steve Young threw six touchdowns in the Super Bowl against the Chargers, which is my earliest Super Bowl memory. As it turns out, Manning’s six touchdown night in New Orleans was the first one in the NFL since that Young Super Bowl win. Young (and Rice) was my favorite non-Pittsburgh player in the 90s.

I was excited to see this 4-0 Colts team take on the Buccaneers in Tampa Bay the next Monday night. I was not happy that Tampa Bay won the Super Bowl the previous year and liked to root against Warren Sapp and company. The pre-game show focused on it being Dungy’s birthday, his return to Tampa, and that he never started 5-0 before. Well, it looked like a bad night with the Bucs up three touchdowns early. Manning threw a pick-six with just over five minutes left and Tampa Bay led 35-14. That’s game over for sure.

I was watching it with my grandma, and we decided to let it finish before calling it a night. I was a senior in high school and usually went to bed late anyway. The Colts got a 90-yard kick return and a short touchdown run on fourth down. No big deal. Then they recovered an onside kick, which I had almost never seen done to that point. It got interesting again after Manning threw a 28-yard touchdown to Harrison on 4th-and-6. The defense got the ball back, and there goes Harrison again for 52 yards. They were really doing this. The Colts scored a touchdown and forced overtime after blocking a 62-yard field goal attempt. Each team touched the ball once. Manning was able to complete three third downs in a row and set up a field goal attempt to win it. The Vanderjagt kick was no good, but a penalty was called on Simeon Rice for leaping. Leaping? What the hell is that? I didn’t even know that was a penalty. Vanderjagt got another chance from 29 and he nearly choked that one away too, but it doinked in for the stunning win.

I went to school the next day and a kid who sat at my lunch table had his Mike Alstott jersey on. He clearly didn’t stay up and watch the end of the game like I did with my grandma. That remains the only game in NFL history where a team down 21 points in the final five minutes won. I was hooked from there. I started following along with the live play-by-play updates on the NFL website during games, running from the living room to the dining room computer to see what the Colts were up to. Seeing every updated Manning to Harrison touchdown was exciting.

CBS cut live to the end of the Colts-Patriots game in Week 13. I was bummed at that ending, but maybe they would meet again. In the playoffs, Manning was about as perfect as any quarterback has ever been through two playoff games. He was 22-of-26 for 377 yards and five touchdowns against Denver. He had another 300-yard game in Kansas City, a 38-31 win where neither team punted. He was on a roll.

Then we get to the 2003 AFC Championship Game in New England. The Patriots had a far better defense than the Colts and it was snowing, so that’s a really bad mixture for a “soft dome team” as the Colts were at the time. The Patriots scored on their opening drive. Manning hit a pass for 32 yards on his first play. But on a third down from the NE 5, Manning got careless and forced a pass into the end zone. Rodney Harrison intercepted it and that ended his perfect postseason run. Manning’s next pass was intercepted by career nemesis Ty Law. The Colts also botched a punt for a safety and Marvin fumbled in the red zone before halftime. The team was a mess and trailed 15-0.

While the Colts eventually got the deficit to 21-14 and had the ball late, Manning’s drive came up empty quickly. The Patriots played the receivers very physically all game long, but it especially looked like they held tight end Marcus Pollard on consecutive plays. Walt “Tuck Rule” Coleman was the referee, there were no flags, and the Patriots took over on downs and added a cheap field goal for a 24-14 final.

The league later admitted that those should have been flags on New England on third and fourth down, and there were several other missed calls in the game as well that favored the Patriots. With similar tactics used by Carolina in Philadelphia that day, the league ended up making a league-wide reinforcement of illegal contact in 2004. That opened up the passing game again as the stats were down in 2003.

As for the game itself, Manning had his worst playoff game ever with four interceptions. Law really got the best of him and even got a pick on a pass Manning was trying to throw away. However, I watched the same game as everyone else and I couldn’t believe how careless Brady was with the ball against a far lesser defense. He tried to match Manning pick for pick, and the only reason the game was still close late is a Brady interception in the red zone. But seriously, just watch this video I made years ago of Brady floating the ball out there to the defense. Even Phil Simms goes on about the Patriots having so much luck and catching breaks that year.

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After watching Brady start 5-0 in the playoffs with five pretty damn mediocre games, I was beyond annoyed with the way the media fawned over this team. After he finally had a great game in the Super Bowl against Carolina, it was still one where he threw a red-zone pick, arguably got outplayed by Jake Delhomme, and got a John Kasay kickoff out of bounds to start his game-winning drive at the 40. That hasn’t happened in the last 2:00 of any tied NFL game since.

Then 2004 started on opening night with the Patriots hosting the Colts. Once again, Manning played very well against a far better defense, and it was a tight game late. Down 27-24 after a Brady pick, Manning had his offense with first-and-goal at the 1. Edge got the carry and fumbled with 3:43 left. Are you kidding me? After getting the ball back, Manning hit a 45-yard pass right away. On a third down, McGinest was somehow unblocked and came in for a 12-yard sack. Vanderjagt, one of the biggest choker kickers in NFL history, came out and missed a 48-yard field goal to end the game. Does Vinatieri miss there? I think not.

Two years in a row the Colts finished 12-4 and the Patriots finished 14-2 with the Patriots beating the Colts, then beating them again in snowy New England in January. Yet if Edgerrin James could just score from the 1-yard line in both games, that could be two playoff games in Indy instead. The quarterback with homefield was 5-0 in the Manning-Brady playoff games. And those Edge runs had nothing to do with Manning or Brady, yet they were so critical at that point in the rivalry. Despite Manning winning both MVPs in 2003-04, the Patriots won all four head-to-head meetings and both Super Bowls to lock up dynasty status with three rings in four years.

The talking heads like Salisbury just ate this “Brady just wins” shit up. I knew I could do better analysis than this. Meanwhile, I had started to collect data on quarterbacks in those pre-Pro Football Reference days and kept track of things like points allowed and what they did in one-score games, and nothing was adding up for me. How can the best quarterback in the league be someone with stats barely distinguishable from Matt Hasselbeck, Aaron Brooks, and Marc Bulger?

So, I just continued watching games and collecting game logs and even moved on to downloading torrents of games and going through play-by-play data. Learning what I can about this game as guys like Brees and Roethlisberger started to come into the fold as well. I tracked down Manning’s oldest playoff games and I’m watching his receivers drop 7-8 passes against the Titans and Jets. In his first playoff game against the 1999 Titans, Manning watched Jerome Pathon drop a first down on 3rd-and-10, Harrison drop one on 3rd-and-22, and Edge drop one on 4th-and-4. That’s just one quarter of one game the Colts went on to lose 19-16 after Eddie “3.0 YPC” George ran wild. In 2000 against Miami, I watch Pathon drop a touchdown on another third down, and saw how Vanderjagt sent that game-winning attempt into the parking lot that day. He did the same thing against the Steelers in the 2005 AFC Divisional Round.

At least by that weekend in January 2006, Brady had his first playoff loss after starting 10-0. He threw a brutal pick in the end zone that Champ Bailey returned 100 yards, but it didn’t go for a pick-six because athletic tight end Ben Watson tracked him down and tackled him short. To this day, I kind of feel like that ball went through the end zone and it should have gone to New England on one of the dumbest rules in sports, but god damn, New England had enough breaks already.

You just start thinking about these things. Vinatieri makes a 45-yard field goal in the snow after the Tuck Rule while Vanderjagt can’t make a 45-yard field goal indoors against Pittsburgh after Manning caught a rare break with the Jerome Bettis fumble. Vinatieri makes a 46-yard field goal in 4-degree temperatures against Tennessee while Vanderjagt can’t make a 49-yard field goal in Miami weather that he told his coach he could make. All because of four swings of the leg by these two kickers, one quarterback gets to go 6-0 in the playoffs and the other comes out 0-2 those years.

And guys in suits arguing with each other on TV can’t see this stuff for what it is? They have to talk up one player being a better leader or “more clutch” to justify the outcome on the scoreboard that fell in the lap of another player? Fuck that. We can do better.

Fortunately, in 2005-06, the Colts were 3-0 against the Patriots, twice winning in Foxboro to set up an AFC Championship Game in Indy. We all know how that one started and ended, and while I could tell a great story about it, I’ll save that for another time.

The fact is the Colts got over the New England hump and Manning won a Super Bowl that year. But in that same postseason, I watched Brady throw three picks against San Diego and still win a playoff game. I saw him do it again a year later in the AFC Championship Game too. Hell, we just watched him do it in Green Bay this January but forget about recent times for a second. When Manning lost to the Chargers in back-to-back postseasons (2007-08) and his only turnovers were tipped balls off his own receiver’s hands, I was livid again.

After watching Brady flop in Super Bowl 42, self-destruct at home against the 2009 Ravens, and have a shockingly terrible game against the 2010 Jets one month after 45-3, I had seen enough. Not only was Brady not a great playoff quarterback, but Manning was better. Look at where they were through 19 playoff starts through 2010 before Manning left for Denver. It’s even wilder when you consider how the Colts receivers dropped so many more passes (including some tipped picks) and Manning threw more interceptions in garbage time.

Rather than continue writing about each season, I will just show you a graphic I put together of how their careers overlapped when they were competing against each other. Nothing but facts.

Manning and Brady played the same team in the playoffs five times (2007 Chargers, 2009 Ravens, 2010 Jets, 2012 Ravens, and 2014 Colts). Manning played a better game than Brady every time but the last against the Colts. That’s why 2014 is the only season on this chart where I think Brady comes out looking much more favorable than Manning based on the way they both played.

While the rivalry between the teams was one sided at the beginning, I never believed it was like that between the quarterbacks. By the time he retired, Manning was 3-2 in the playoffs and 3-1 in the AFC Championship Game against Brady. He was eliminated in the playoffs as often by Philip Rivers (with an assist from Billy Volek) as he was by Brady.

Manning was actually more detrimental at limiting Brady’s playoff success than vice versa. The NFL needed this rivalry for competitive balance. In the seasons from 2002 to 2015 where both played, Manning’s teams had five No. 1 seeds compared to four for Brady. It was also tied 7-7 as far as which team had a deeper run with each getting an easy win in the year the quarterback missed for injury. I gave Manning the tie-breaker in 2005 since they both lost in the divisional round, but the top-seeded Colts were eliminated on Sunday and lost a closer game to Pittsburgh than the Pats did to Denver.

Once Manning retired after 2015, Brady has admittedly enhanced his playoff legacy, getting to four more Super Bowls and winning three more, including matching Manning’s feat of winning one with a second franchise. A worthy successor in the AFC failed to step up and challenge the Patriots, because we know the Steelers sure as hell weren’t prepared to do it. Andy Reid’s Chiefs were the best option, and you’d expect that now with Mahomes, but we have seen his only two playoff losses come at the hands of Brady-led teams. Dee Ford a centimeter offsides and not getting the ball in OT was one thing two years ago, but 31-9 is a gut punch. Just wait until you see my 2021 season predictions too.

Conclusion (No, Really)

Manning (seven) has as many first-team All-Pro seasons than Brady (three), Rodgers (three), and Brees (one) combined. Is that because he’s more talented than all of them combined? Of course not. But is it because of his effort and unrivaled consistency that he earned those honors with his individual play? Yes, it was.

Brady (seven) has more Super Bowl rings than Manning (two), Brees (one), and Rodgers (one) combined. Scratch that, he has as many as them since 2014 alone compared to their whole careers (53 seasons). Is that because he’s more talented than all of them combined? No, he’s the least talented of the group. But is it because of his effort and that he’s played that much better than those guys in the regular season and postseason?

No, not at all. It’s because Brady had better team support and is the luckiest quarterback of all time. He’s the LOAT, not the GOAT.

Outside of Brady actually being Faust, it beats me why the football gods have chosen this guy as the one who gets the best coaching, the best defenses, the best starting field position, the best special teams, the most clutch kicking, a poverty division of historic proportions for two decades, and almost any other break he could ask for.

Brees played 20 years and gets one postseason with Tracy Porter saving the day with two picks. Any other year, it was someone making a mockery of his defense. Marcus Williams against Stefon Diggs, anyone? Rodgers has seen the same thing in Green Bay where the defense was only dominant and clutch in the playoffs in that 2010 season. Otherwise, we think of things like Brandon Bostick on the onside kick recovery in Seattle or what Kevin King was doing in January against Tampa Bay. But Rodgers is holding out hope for a second act by his defense in the playoffs. Manning got one in Denver with Von Miller dominating in 2015. Now if only he willed Rahim Moore to pick off Flacco in 2012…

We don’t talk up Alvin Kamara or Aaron Jones for what they do in the playoffs. Instead, they are used against those quarterbacks to say that they have a Pro Bowl back and ignore their weak production or fumbles in the big games. Meanwhile, LeGarrette Blount is the clutch running back or “Playoff Lenny” Fournette is a sensation again in Florida. Hell, Julian Edelman caught as many touchdowns (two) in his playoff debut as Marvin Harrison had in 16 playoff games combined. Even though they’ll argue that Edelman should be in the HOF, “Brady has no weapons” somehow remains a thing even though he’s the only one who played with the most stat-inflating wideout (Randy Moss) and tight end (Rob Gronkowski) of the 21st century. And the most clutch kicker (Adam Vinatieri) ever, and the best coach ever (Bill Belichick). But no help.

Mahomes could play 300 games and Super Bowl LV might be the only one he doesn’t score a touchdown in. Brady: best two-way player ever. Hasn’t given up a touchdown in his last two Super Bowls. Held two all-time great offenses to 12 points.

While we talk about Marcus Williams, Kevin King, Rahim Moore, and trigger PTSD in fans of Brees, Rodgers, and Peyton, with Brady we can bring up Ty Law (twice), Rodney Harrison, Malcolm Butler, and Stephon Gilmore, all of whom should have won a Super Bowl MVP for the Patriots. That’s not including Sterling Moore, who helped make Lee Evans drop a game-winning touchdown in the end zone in the 2011 AFC Championship Game for Baltimore. Brady didn’t get a ring out of that one, but he still got to another Super Bowl after one of his defenders saved him again.

The Brady difference is the things that have nothing to do with the quarterback. The things that are out of his control that still benefit him. The textbook definition of luck. He has that in spades.

It’s been an exhausting two decades, hasn’t it? I only thought about doing this a week ago as a project with some one-liners about 100 quarterbacks, and here I am 86 pages into a 43,000-word document. I took a nice five-month break from football this year, but it is cathartic for me to get this out before the season starts.

I’d compare Brady to Tim Duncan, but the thing is Duncan was actually great in the playoffs. There really is no comparison for Brady. If you bring up Michael Jordan, you’re ignoring how dominant and record-setting he was, and how great he was in those Finals MVP runs. The best Brady may have ever played in a full playoff run was in 2017, a year that did not end in a championship. Go figure.

Manning’s career has a lot in common with that of LeBron James, another generational talent we are fortunate to have experienced. They came into their leagues with so much hype and expectations, and somehow, they lived up to it and even exceeded them. Yet because their record in the final round and their ring count aren’t the greatest ever, they still get criticized for that.

I know that no one else would have been able to take the teams they played with and had more success than they did. That is why they are the best players in their respective sport in the 21st century, or at least, that is how I have viewed the last 20 years. That concludes this trip down memory lane.

If this is somehow still on the internet decades from now, and you’ve managed to read it all, I just want to say thank you, and I’m sorry.

All those moments will be lost in time, like tears in rain.

NFL Stat Oddity: 2020 Divisional Round

The divisional round is no longer going to be my favorite week of the NFL year if the games are going to start looking like this every season. You know it was a rough slate when Jared Goff kept up his end of the bargain to make that game in Green Bay the best played from the quarterback position this weekend.

Lamar Jackson and Patrick Mahomes, the last two MVP winners, will not be having their first postseason meeting in the AFC Championship Game next week. Both quarterbacks left their games in the third quarter after suffering a concussion. If Jackson’s didn’t occur on a freak play after a bad snap and while he was already down 17-3, this weekend might have caused a referendum on the usage of quarterbacks in the running game. For decades, the argument was that you cannot run college-style plays or the speed-option at the professional level without getting your quarterback killed.

Well, Andy Reid almost got his quarterback killed, nearly killing his team’s wonderful season in the process. Mahomes is reportedly doing okay, but of course they are going to say that, so who knows what will happen next week. The Chiefs were fortunate to survive the Browns by a 22-17 final. Still, it has to make you think about when your quarterback should get the greenlight to run and when he should stick to passing and only running out of necessity.

Maybe Jackson-Mahomes wouldn’t have been a great title game anyway. You know, these big-time quarterback matchups rarely play out as great performances by both players. Just look at the combined 85-year-olds in New Orleans on Sunday, which is where we must start for I am willed by Him to do so.

Previous weeks in Stat Oddity:

Buccaneers at Saints: The Swansong for Drew Brees You Hate to See

It took a record 10 games, but this postseason finally had a second-half lead change and a game-winning drive in the fourth quarter. If I told you it was a Tom Brady-led team beating a Drew Brees-led team, you probably wouldn’t be surprised by that part.

However, I am sad to say this was not the result of Brees’ defense blowing a late lead in explicable fashion, or wasting one of his go-ahead drives again, or any obscene officiating error in the final minutes. I can’t even blame Taysom Hill for a failed gadget play, because he was inactive with an injury.

No, this game fell largely on Drew Brees, who had his worst ever playoff game by far with three interceptions and just 134 passing yards on 34 attempts (3.94 YPA). It will likely be the final game of his stellar career too as he is expected to retire even though nothing is official yet.

Based on how he looked in this one, it is time. Watching Brees unable to get any mustard on the ball any time the Buccaneers got close to him was sad. The Saints’ only 20-yard play in this game was a brilliant gadget design with Jameis Winston throwing a 56-yard touchdown to a very wide open Tre’Quan Smith, who caught both of the Saints touchdowns in the game. Alvin Kamara never scored, and Michael Thomas never caught a pass on four targets.

While Brees had a horrible game, the fact is Tom Brady wasn’t much better. In fact, this first (and last) playoff meeting between Brady and Brees looked a lot like the first playoff match between a young Brady and Peyton Manning in the 2003 AFC Championship Game. The Patriots won that game 24-14 after Manning was intercepted four times by the No. 1 defense in the snow. But the part that always gets lost in that one is how Brady also played terrible, trying to match all four of Manning’s interceptions with his own bad throws, but the Colts could not take advantage of more than one of them. I posted a video of this over eight years ago.

I could do the same thing for this game as Brady left three opportunities out there for Saints defenders to make interceptions, something they did five times against Carolina in Week 17, but zero times in the playoffs. Brady threw five interceptions against the Saints in the regular season, but again, the defense was empty in the big games here in January.

One of the missed picks was when the defensive back did not drag his second foot in bounds to secure the pass, which is noticeably different from the Buccaneers when Brady’s teammate made sure to get his footwork right on one of Brees’ three interceptions.

In classic Brady fashion, he saved the worst for the fourth quarter to cap off a game-winning drive. Marshon Lattimore jumped Scotty Miller on a third down and nearly picked Brady off with a diving attempt. Even infamous QB apologist Troy Aikman had to note how he got lucky there. The Buccaneers instead kicked a 36-yard field goal to take a 23-20 lead. Brees was intercepted five plays later on what may have been a miscommunication with Kamara down the field.

For the third time, Tampa Bay had great field position and turned it into a touchdown to make it 30-20 with 4:57 left. If Brees had one more miracle in him, and this would have been a huge one, he had to score quickly on a day where the big plays just weren’t happening for him. Four plays into the drive, his third interception came on a pass deflected off Jared Cook. So you had one that looked woeful and late, one that looked like miscommunication, and one that was just a bad luck deflection.

And that might be the final pass of Brees’ career.

There is plenty of valid criticism to aim at Brees for this performance. The 3.94 YPA is his second-lowest in a game with the Saints (he was at 3.87 against the 2013 Seahawks on MNF). The fact that Winston had to come in to throw the deep ball on the gadget is a bad look for him too.

However, this idea that one quarterback outplayed the other because he was more “clutch” or is a better “winner” is the same type of horseshit that was shoveled after the 2003 AFC Championship Game with Manning and Brady.

This game was about two old quarterbacks playing like shit against good defenses, but only the Tampa Bay defense made big plays to get turnovers. The Saints couldn’t get one despite three offerings.

The other annoying part is that the biggest play of the game was a Jared Cook fumble in the third quarter, another play that has nothing to do with either of these quarterbacks.

The Saints were leading 20-13 in the third quarter and looked to be driving again with Brees converting on a third down into Tampa territory, but Cook had the ball knocked out. Instead of taking a two-score lead, the Saints were at their own 40 and couldn’t keep the Buccaneers out of the end zone from tying the game.

That was the killer turnover in the second half, but the first three turnovers for the Saints set up Tampa Bay in incredible field position. The Buccaneers only had to move 63 total yards on their three touchdown drives (3, 40, and 20 yards). On the eight drives that did not start in Saints territory, the Bucs had no touchdowns.

I had to look it up, and sure enough, this puts the game in rare territory for field position. The average touchdown drive in the playoffs is about 65 yards. This is only the fourth playoff game since 2001 where a team had three touchdown drives that started inside the opponent 40. Three of the four games involve Tom Brady, though not quite like you might think.

2014 AFC Championship Game, New England vs. Indianapolis: It’s the Deflategate game. The Patriots had touchdown drives of 26, 13, and 40 yards, but at least they had other long drives too in a 45-7 win.

2005 AFC Championship Game, Pittsburgh at Denver: The Steelers had touchdown drives of 39, 38, and 17 yards. They did have an 80-yard touchdown drive in the second quarter too in a 34-17 win.

2005 AFC Divisional, Denver vs. New England: How did Denver get to that Pittsburgh game? They beat Brady and the Patriots the week before. They did it with touchdown drives of 40, 1, and 15 yards. They had no other touchdown drives, meaning the 2005 Broncos and the 2020 Buccaneers are the only offenses in the last 20 postseasons to have three touchdown drives start inside the 40 and nothing longer. The kicker is the only reason this isn’t Tampa Bay alone is Denver’s 1-yard touchdown drive that was the result of a Brady interception returned by Champ Bailey that Ben Watson miraculously tracked down and saved from being a pick-six. If not for that Brady error that looked similar to what Lamar Jackson did on Saturday night, Brady would be the only quarterback of his era to have a playoff game where he needed so many short fields to score his touchdowns. I wish I could make this stuff up.

It is hard for me to see the Bucs winning this one without those turnovers producing such amazing field position. Brady was not able to pass for 200 yards on this defense. The loaded receiving corps of Mike Evans, Chris Godwin, Rob Gronkowski, and Antonio Brown combined for 61 yards. That’s it. It was Tyler Johnson who had the big catch of the day, stretching out for a 15-yard gain on 3rd-and-11 on what became the game-winning drive instead of a three-and-out. Scotty Miller then chipped in the only 20-yard catch of the game by coming down with a 29-yard gain.

What a disappointing game, but it should have been expected. When do you really see these big QB battles play out as being shootouts or with both players playing at a high level? Brees and Manning once delivered a pretty good Super Bowl, but more often than not, these games are one-sided (think Dan Marino or John Elway against Joe Montana in the Super Bowl) or the quarterback play isn’t even that good and the game is decided by other factors. Hell, just look at these three Brees-Brady games this year. They both sucked in the first and third games, and Brady was horrific in the second while Brees played very well in the 38-3 rout.

But this is the only Saints-Bucs game people will remember from 2020, and that is the unfortunate part for Brees, especially if it proves to be his swansong. Now it’s up to the Packers to see if they can reverse the 38-10 outcome the way Tampa Bay recovered from 38-3 in this game.

But remember, for all the hype to come with Brady vs. Rodgers, it’s unlikely to be a game where both quarterbacks play great. It didn’t happen in 38-10. It didn’t happen when they met in 2018. If we’re lucky, it will look like the 2014 game, which Rodgers and the Packers won 26-21.

Browns at Chiefs: Andy Reid Kills Season Before Bringing It Back to Life

For the second year in a row, the Chiefs’ Super Bowl hopes hinge on the health of Patrick Mahomes. Last year it was a dislocated kneecap in Week 7 that only ended up costing him 11 quarters. This year, if he misses even one game it could very well mean the season is over for the Chiefs. When I warned that “one mistake could end the season” for this Chiefs team with all their nail-biting finishes, I certainly never thought it would mean a concussion that left Mahomes, who was already grimacing through a toe injury from the first half, visibly shaken and out of sorts.

This was a tough game to watch, but it was nice seeing the Chiefs operating on offense as if it hadn’t been three weeks since the starters last played. Mahomes led two 75-yard touchdown drives to start things, but the touchdown pass to Travis Kelce is where the toe injury happened, leading to his first trip to the blue medical tent. You could see it start to affect his planting and throwing on the next drive, which ended in a field goal. The Chiefs tacked on another field goal to end the half, scoring 19 points on four first-half possessions just like No. 1 seed Green Bay did on Saturday.

The Browns could have started this game with the ball and try to take a 7-0 lead before Mahomes took the field for the first time in three weeks, but they deferred to the second half. I hated that decision, and sure enough, it didn’t help them out. Baker Mayfield threw an interception three plays into the third quarter and this looked like a rout was on. However, the Chiefs didn’t get a first down and Harrison Butker missed a 33-yard field goal after already missing an extra point terribly to start the game. Those four points could have been huge too. The quarter basically reset, and the Browns were able to find the end zone without fumbling through it like Rashard Higgins did late in the second quarter. One of the dumbest rules in the game got Cleveland in a big way, but at least Browns 2.0 fans have a new version of “The Fumble” to call their own.

Still, the Chiefs led 19-10. That’s when the outlook changed as Mahomes kept the ball on an option run and was hit awkwardly. He struggled to get up and had to be helped off the field. This looked like an obvious concussion and you just figured his day was over, but hopefully not his season.

First, I have to say this was a horrible call to make in this game. Mahomes clearly was not 100% after the toe injury. Why would you have him run an option play on a 3rd-and-1 at the Kansas City 48 in a 19-10 game in the third quarter? Mahomes scored a little touchdown to open the game on a similar play, but I can live with that. It was to score. This was, at best, going to get a first down at midfield, and he didn’t even convert it. The Chiefs have to be smarter than this, and it’s a joke that they would be content with this call when they are afraid to use Mahomes on a quarterback sneak, the most effective short-yardage weapon in the game, because Mahomes was injured on one in 2019.

Well, he’s injured again, and it will be questionable if he’s cleared and able to play well next week in the AFC Championship Game. Again, save the designed runs for the big spots like icing the game at the end, converting a fourth down, or scoring a touchdown. The risk there was not worth it.

This game only had 15 possessions, which makes the 22-17 final look misleading as to how well the offenses played. Cleveland had an 18-play touchdown drive after the Mahomes injury to pull within five. Enter Chad Henne, the veteran who has really nothing to show on his lengthy resume in the NFL, but hopefully this will be the one bright spot. It started well with big completions to Hill and Kelce, but then Henne got greedy on a first-and-25 and air-mailed an easy interception in the end zone. Really? He’s just going to lob that one up there on first down close to field goal range? Isn’t the whole point of a backup quarterback to take care of the ball? But it would show that Reid was not afraid to take some chances with Henne in the game.

Now the Chiefs had to get a stop on defense with 8:00 left. This is a spot where I said they weren’t tested much at all this season because of how successful Mahomes was at leading the offense with a one-score lead. If Mahomes was in the game, the Chiefs would probably add a field goal or touchdown to that 22-17 lead and feel safer about closing things out. But Henne threw the pick and it was clenched ass time.

Frankly, the Browns sucked here, and I’m not even talking about Jarvis Landry setting a WR playoff record for the fewest receiving yards (20) on at least 7 catches. Kareem Hunt looked like the livelier, fresher back than Nick Chubb did. I would have gone to Hunt on this drive, but the Browns were still infatuated with short Chubb runs and trying to get him involved in the passing game, which isn’t a strength of his. Maybe the screen last week in Pittsburgh (40-yard TD) proved to be fool’s gold for Cleveland as Chubb had 4 yards on five targets in this game. On a 3rd-and-11, Mayfield checked down to Hunt for 2 yards to set up 4th-and-9 at the Cleveland 32 with just over four minutes left.

Head coach Kevin Stefanski was really in no man’s land with this decision. It is a hard conversion and Baker was not playing that well. If you don’t get it, the Chiefs are probably able to add a field goal, which would keep it a one-possession game at 25-17. Maybe they get two first downs and run out the clock. A horrible challenge by Stefanski earlier in the quarter on a clear catch by Hill cost the team a timeout, which came back to hurt as you’d expect.

I feel with Henne in the game, you think you can get the three-and-out stop and get the ball back with plenty of time to go win the game. So I would support the decision to punt. The Chiefs stayed aggressive though with Henne twice dropping back on second-down plays, which is almost unheard of in the four-minute offense in this league. He converted one third down, but faced a third-and-14 after taking a big sack by Myles Garrett.

It felt like Mayfield would get one last chance to win the game. It seemed like the Chiefs needed to just run this one and punt the ball back with about 70 seconds left. But Reid called a pass and Henne pulled out a 13-yard scramble that came up just short of the conversion. I did not know he had wheels like that at 35. The 2013 season was the last time Henne had a 14-yard run.

This set up a 4th-and-1 at the Kansas City 48. I thought punting was the right call, because in a 22-17 game, if you go for it and don’t get it, you’re really putting the screws to yourself for a potential game-losing touchdown drive the other way. In a 25-17 game I’d go for it, maybe even in a 24-17 game I’d go for it, but not in that 4-to-6 point danger zone.

It looked like the Chiefs were just going to try to draw the Browns offsides, but to the shock of everyone, they snapped the ball with 5 on the play clock and Henne threw a quick pass to Hill for the game-sealing first down.

That took some balls.

Balls we really haven’t seen before. I cannot find a play, regular season or playoffs, since 1994 where an offense threw a pass on fourth down in their own territory in the final 80 seconds with a 1-8 point lead that wouldn’t have been the final snap of the game. Sometimes you’ll see a team do this on fourth down just to run out the clock instead of punting. Drew Lock did this for Denver this year against Miami and actually ended up completing the pass to Tim Patrick for 61 yards.

So good on Chad Henne. Let his NFL career be remembered by this moment instead of him being probably the last player who will ever have three seasons with more interceptions than touchdowns (min. 400 attempts).

We sure do not want to see him start next week against Buffalo with the Super Bowl on the line. If worst comes to worst, then Reid will just have to cook up his greatest recipe yet to outscore the Bills.

Just leave the runs to Henne’s discretion.  

Ravens at Bills: 17-3, But Of Course

“Instant classic,” he said. “These franchises finally have exciting quarterbacks,” he said.

Leave it to the Ravens and Bills to tease us with recent 500-point seasons, hot winning streaks leading up to this matchup, and then to shit the bed on Saturday night and give us a jittery 17-3 game with one offensive touchdown. It is the fourth-lowest scoring playoff game in the 32-game era.

It was sitting in a tie with the lowest scoring playoff game since 2002, a 10-3 loss by Sean McDermott’s 2017 Bills to Jacksonville, until Lamar Jackson threw a pass that, fairly or not, will define where he is as a big-time quarterback in this league.

Down 10-3, Jackson was leading his best drive of the night when he saw the field poorly and forced a pass on third and goal from the 9 that was intercepted and returned 101 yards for a touchdown by Taron Johnson, tying the longest pick-six in playoff history.

Oddly enough, it’s the first time a quarterback has thrown a pick-six in the third quarter of a playoff game while trailing by 1-7 points since Dan Marino did it against the 1997 Patriots. That game also ended 17-3.

That was going to force Jackson into the biggest comeback attempt of his career, but it all ended two snaps later when another piss-poor snap by center Patrick Mekari had to be gathered by Jackson to save points for his team. Jackson hit his head after throwing the ball away best he could (still a grounding penalty), which caused the concussion and knocked him out of the game. The Ravens couldn’t score anything with backup Tyler Huntley.

Look, it was a weird game. There was no snow, but there was some wind, though it seemed to bother the kickers more than anyone with both missing a pair of kicks in the 41–46 yard range. You know it’s not your night when Justin Tucker misses two field goals under 50 yards for the first time in his career. There were at least three terrible snaps by Mekari that hurt the Ravens. What is it with these AFC North centers this postseason? Jackson had one brilliant scramble drill where he found J.K. Dobbins with a pass on third down, but Dobbins dropped it as he’s not used to catching the ball in this offense. That ended drive No. 2 on the night, but let’s just say I had my doubts that the Ravens would have made it the last 75 yards to score a touchdown.

The wind didn’t seem to bother the Bills from giving Josh Allen the ball 25 times as opposed to one handoff in the first half. The Bills are the first team in NFL history to not register a rushing attempt in the first quarter of a playoff game. The Bills ended up finishing with 9 carries for 29 yards. Frankly, I don’t think this extreme pass-happy approach worked that well and would not advise it for their game in Kansas City. One thing is clear though: Stefon Diggs is a beast. He had 106 yards and the game’s only offensive touchdown after the Ravens left a clear mismatch in numbers (3 vs. 2) on a screen that was too easy for Diggs.

Baltimore’s sloppy night was a big disappointment for John Harbaugh’s team, but the attention is going to go on Jackson and the offense, and I would say rightfully so as we are now seeing a clear pattern here with this team.

Jackson has started six games where the Ravens trailed by at least 14 points (0-6 record). Half of them are the three playoff losses and two more are his last two games against the Chiefs. How does this team ever expect to get to another Super Bowl if they can’t score points in the playoffs and keep up with Mahomes, Allen, and anyone else on the rise in the AFC?

Is this style of offense still capable of delivering in the playoffs? Baltimore started this game with three nice runs for 32 yards, looking like business as usual for this offense. But the Bills tightened things up and the run was not as effective as usual, especially for Jackson who had 34 yards on nine runs.

When will the Ravens try to throw the ball more like a normal offense in today’s game? In the second quarter, Jackson had just made his best throw of the night, picking up 21 yards on a 3rd-and-18 to Marquise Brown. Two plays later, he kept the ball on a zone-read and had to eat it in the backfield for a 4-yard loss. It totally blew up the drive and the Ravens had to punt. I love his scrambles and think there are spots to take advantage of the designed runs, but a first down after you’ve finally hit a big throw is not the place for that.

After the game, slot receiver Willie Snead had some interesting comments about Jackson’s career progress, hoping this will be a wake-up call:

While Snead may have called Jackson an elite passer first, he’s clearly not a believer of that yet and thinks it’s on Jackson the most to improve there. He’s right too. The idea that you can just acquire a wide receiver and he’s going to automatically fix your ability to throw with accuracy and read the defense and make good throws to other receivers is nonsensical. Diggs was great for Buffalo this year. He still had barely more than a quarter of the targets. Allen had to make a lot of leaps in his third year and he did. Jackson seemingly has not when it comes to being a passer.

Once is an accident, twice is a coincidence, three times is a pattern.

This is the third year in a row where Jackson has led the Ravens to their season low in points in the playoffs.  This is considering only games he started. It is now 17 points against the Chargers in 2018, 12 points against the Titans in 2019, and three points in this game. Even if Tucker made his field goals and Jackson wasn’t concussed, what’s the most realistic total for them to score here? Seventeen maybe? That’s usually not going to be good enough.

Meanwhile, Jackson has led the Ravens to 20+ points in 37 of his 41 career starts. Three times he has failed to do it in the playoffs, and the only regular season game was the 23-17 loss in New England in heavy rain this year.

So part of the reason this fact exists is because Jackson sets such a high bar in the regular season. If he had a regular season dud where they scored nine points, then it would be easier for him to not set the season low in the playoffs. Still, this is a higher-scoring era and 2020 was the highest-scoring season in NFL history.

What really gets on my nerves is that Peyton Manning is now the go-to comparison for a quarterback who is struggling to win playoff games like Jackson (now 1-3) is. This is because Manning started 0-3, but if you know anything about those first two games especially, you know that he didn’t play poorly. He actually had leads while Jackson never led (not even 3-0 in the first quarter) in his three playoff losses. Jackson also has seven turnovers in four playoff games. Manning had two turnovers in his first five playoff games, and they came against the 2002 Jets when his team trailed 34-0 and 41-0 in the fourth quarter.

Manning’s early losses also weren’t season-lows in scoring for the Colts like these games have been for Jackson, and he never in his career had a season-low in scoring in back-to-back postseasons.

In fact, here’s how often some recent top quarterbacks (plus one elite name) have fared at having their season-low scoring game in the playoffs. You’ll see that Jackson’s three-for-three is a huge eyesore. It’s as many times as Manning, Rodgers, and Roethlisberger combined.

  • Lamar Jackson: three times in three postseasons (2018, 2019, 2020)
  • Joe Flacco: once in six postseasons (2009)
  • Tom Brady: five times in 18 postseasons (2005, 2007, 2011-T, 2012, 2019-T)
  • Peyton Manning: three times in 15 postseasons (2002, 2004, 2013)
  • Aaron Rodgers: zero times in 11 postseasons
  • Ben Roethlisberger: zero times in 11 postseasons
  • Drew Brees: once in 10 postseasons (2020)
  • Russell Wilson: once in eight postseasons (2015; still won game 10-9)

This has happened once to Cam Newton (Super Bowl 50) and Deshaun Watson (2018) and twice for Andrew Luck (2012-T, 2014-T) as well. However, it only happened once to Andy Dalton (2013-T) in his four postseasons despite the 0-4 record.

Until Jackson shows us otherwise, he is closer to Andy Dalton in the playoffs than he is Peyton Manning (or Joe Flacco for that matter.)

Rams at Packers: No. 1 Nothing

When I previewed this game, I wanted to stress that No. 1 defenses are known for doing great in the playoffs because of their success in Super Bowls (6-1) against No. 1 offenses. However, if a team made the Super Bowl, that means they already delivered in the postseason a couple times, probably because the defense was great, and probably because the offense didn’t screw them over.

No one wants to point out that the No. 1 defense was only 3-5 (now 3-6) against the No. 1 offense in earlier playoff rounds such as this game on Saturday in Green Bay. The expectations were that the Packers would score too much, and the Jared Goff-led Rams couldn’t possibly keep up.

Well, that did happen. It wasn’t 44-3 like the 1993 Giants/49ers matchup, but the Packers won 32-18 in a game that never felt overly close despite the Rams having a fourth-quarter comeback opportunity at one point.

However, I am more disappointed with the Rams No. 1 defense than I am the No. 22 offense (or No. 25 on a per-drive basis). Sure, the offense only chipped in 18 points, making it six straight games to end the season for Sean McVay’s unit not scoring more than 23 points. Green Bay was very successful in coming up with four sacks in a game that had no turnovers.

But where was this great Los Angeles defense that led the league in so many categories when the Packers scored 25 points on their first five drives? The Packers had 29 seconds before halftime after the Rams cut into the 16-10 lead with a touchdown. You would think they could get to the half with that respectable margin, but the Packers quickly hit big plays to get into scoring range. Aaron Rodgers forced back-to-back throws in the end zone that should have been intercepted, but the Rams failed to come away with either of them, the first more egregious than the second. That led to a field goal and suddenly 19-10 felt like that offensive touchdown didn’t even happen.

Then to top it off, Aaron Jones breaks off a 60-yard run to start the third quarter, leading to another touchdown and a 25-10 deficit.

You’ll hear about Aaron Donald’s rib injury and that he was limited, but this goes well beyond Donald, who was ineffective when he played and even hurt his team with a 15-yard penalty in the first half that wiped out a 3rd-and-7 situation.

The 2020 Rams defense allowed season highs in:

  • Yards – 484 (only game over 400)
  • Rushing yards – 188 (only game over 140)
  • Passing yards – 296 (only game over 275)
  • First downs – 28

Is this what happens when over half of your schedule was the NFC East, an injured Kyler Murray, the Jets (still lost to them), Broken Cam Newton, and getting Seattle three times during its second-half offensive slump? The Rams even drew Tom Brady and the Buccaneers during the stretch where he couldn’t hit a deep ball to save his life.

That’s why I wrote in my preview that Buffalo was the only comparable top offense to Green Bay that the Rams faced this season. What happened that day? They allowed 35 points and were shredded by Josh Allen. What happened this time? Rodgers put up 32 points on nine drives and the final drive was just running out the last five minutes on the clock.

If the 2020 Rams wanted to be a legendary No. 1 defense, they would have showed up in these games against Buffalo and Green Bay instead of making those offenses look better than their average output.

Maybe things would have been a hair different if Donald was 100%, but the Rams had little pressure and no sacks of Rodgers. More glaring was the way the run defense failed in the worst way this season. Green Bay’s success in that department arguably put the game away. After the Rams had the ball with a 25-18 deficit in the fourth quarter and punted because of another sack on Goff, the defense needed to get a second straight stop to have any hope. But on a second-and-6, Rodgers used play-action to set up one of the few deep pass attempts of the game. He hit it to an open Allen Lazard for a 58-yard touchdown. Green Bay led 32-18 with 6:52 left and the game was essentially over there. Goff took his final sack on a fourth down and the Packers ran out the clock.

Any time the Rams looked to have made some traction in this game, they would take a step back, like a false start penalty when they were going to go for a fourth down, having to then settle for a field goal. Another inexcusable spot was McVay calling a timeout on 3rd-and-16 in the fourth quarter instead of just taking the delay of game and saving the timeout. Worse, Goff threw a short pass that had no hope of converting and only ran more time as the Rams punted. Five plays later, Rodgers hit the dagger to Lazard.

I am not sure anyone in these playoffs could beat the Packers without scoring 30-plus points, but I like to think these other defenses would give it a better effort than the Rams’ “No. 1 defense” did on Saturday.

As for the Rams going forward, it could be tough to get back to this point. Goff is limited obviously, though I think he played better than expected in this one. The offense only had eight drives and wasted too many of them and he could have had better protection. At least Cam Akers seems to be the solution at running back, and it would be nice if Cooper Kupp (injured again) could stay healthy for a playoff run. He didn’t in 2018 either.  

Now the Packers get to prove that 38-10 in Tampa Bay was the outlier of the season. I have to preview this game twice this week so there’s no point in talking about it now, but let’s just say the stars seem to be aligning for the worst postseason I could imagine.

I guess that’s what I get for enjoying last year’s so much.

NFL 2020 Divisional Round: Buccaneers at Saints

The New Orleans Saints hope to extend Drew Brees’ career at least another week by completing the season sweep of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.

For previews of Saturday’s games, click here.

For Browns-Chiefs, click here.

Buccaneers at Saints (-3)

Let’s get the 3-0 sweep part out of the way first with New Orleans looking to put the cherry on top of their 34-23 win in Week 1 and 38-3 win in Week 9 over Tampa Bay this season.

Going for the 3-0 Sweep

Yes, it is hard to beat a playoff team three times in one season. Beating a playoff team once is usually harder than average, and then to do it three times to a team that has to come from your division, who knows you so well, is certainly a tough task.

But the only time we ever talk about this is when a team has already won the first two games. By the playoffs, the brooms are already two-thirds of the way out.

Since the merger, a team has gone for the three-game sweep 21 times and is 14-7 at pulling it off. The sweep happens two-thirds of the time. It just so happens that the 2017 Saints are the last team to pull it off against Carolina, winning the NFC wild card game 31-26.

That was a good playoff win for the 2017 Saints when you consider that the home team is 1-5 in the last six playoff games between division rivals regardless of how the regular season series went. As we just saw with the Steelers-Browns in Week 17 and the wild card round, these rematches can look dramatically different, so the Saints cannot take too much faith in Week 9’s 38-3 obliteration of Tampa Bay.

Some other facts from this table:

  • The 2020 Saints outscored Tampa Bay by 46 points so far, the largest scoring differential for all 22 series.
  • The three teams with the largest scoring differential before the Saints went 0-3 in the playoffs: 1989 Oilers vs. Steelers (+34), 1994 Vikings vs. Bears (+34), and 1998 Cowboys vs. Cardinals (+35).
  • Those same three teams all happened to have the largest Game 1 margin of victory, winning Game 1 by 27+ points, only winning Game 2 by 6-7 points, and then 0-3 in the playoffs.
  • It would appear dominating the earliest matchup in the season has less relevancy for the playoffs.
  • The three teams who won Game 2 by 17+ points were 3-0 in the playoffs with a double-digit win each time (1999 TEN-JAX, 2000 NYG-PHI, 2009 DAL-PHI).
  • New Orleans’ 38-3 win in Game 2 over Tampa Bay is the largest margin of victory in any of the 65 games in the chart.
  • The only three teams before the 2020 Saints to win both games by double digits were 2-1 in the playoffs with wins for 2000 Giants-Eagles and 2017 Saints-Panthers and a loss for the 2007 Cowboys-Giants.
  • The 2-0 team is 7-5 in the wild card round, 3-1 in the divisional round, and 4-1 in the conference championship.

Basically, the only example that really compares to what Tampa Bay is trying to do here is the 2007 Cowboys-Giants. That’s the only one where a team lost both games by double digits before winning on the road in the playoffs. That’s also the only one where the 0-2 road team won after the wild card round. When the 1983 Seahawks lost to the Raiders in the AFC Championship Game, that game was played in Los Angeles because the Raiders (12-4) were a better team than Seattle (9-7), which just happened to get the best of them in the regular season before upsetting a rookie Dan Marino as well in the divisional round that year.

New Orleans having a home letdown in the playoffs wouldn’t be a new story, but the Saints are better than the Buccaneers.

Or are they?

So Which Team Is Better?

Thanks a lot, COVID-19, for this weird season. The Steelers were the last unbeaten at 11-0 and led the league in scoring differential for a while until falling off hard. Baltimore finished No. 1 in scoring differential despite only going 11-5 and No. 7 in DVOA (but No. 3 in SRS at Pro Football Reference). The Chiefs had the best record locked up with 14 wins before resting starters and getting their ass pointlessly kicked by the Chargers, so they finished 6th in DVOA, 6th in SRS, and not even in the top five for points scored. Green Bay scored the most points but finished No. 5 in SRS and No. 3 in DVOA. Buffalo is basically the Josh Allen cautious wave meme here, just chilling in the crowd.

Yet the place where DVOA and SRS seem to agree this season is that the Saints are No. 1 and the Buccaneers are No. 2, and the margin between the two isn’t that great despite the scoreboard difference in their first two meetings this season.

Frankly, I don’t know what to make of these numbers. I wish I had a better explanation for what the advanced stats sees in the Saints and Bucs this year. I think the Chiefs and Packers are more reliable to score points and win games this season. I think the Ravens are scarier to play than the Bucs or Saints. I think the 13-3 Bills, who have one loss on a Hail Mary and another to the Chiefs, have played better football than those teams as well this year.

Here are some things I do know the Saints and Buccaneers share in common this season:

  • Both lost to the Chiefs by three points after trailing by 14+ points.
  • Both had a 17-point comeback win in October over the Chargers, who hand those out as freely as mints on hotel pillows.
  • Both swept the Falcons and Panthers, who couldn’t win a close game to save their lives.
  • Both helped put the Vikings out of their misery in December. Alvin Kamara scored six touchdowns and it felt like Dan Bailey missed six kicks when he played Tampa Bay.
  • Both got to play in arguably the two biggest COVID farces of 2020: Saints beat Denver 31-3 after the Broncos were told the day before the game that none of their quarterbacks were eligible to play. They had to start a practice squad wide receiver at quarterback and completed one pass. The Buccaneers destroyed a Detroit team 47-7 in Week 16 after much of the coaching staff was out for COVID on short notice. It got so bad that Blaine Gabbert came in the third quarter and still threw two touchdowns on his first six throws.
  • Tampa Bay also sort of won in Denver without facing a quarterback when the Broncos played Jeff Driskel and Brett Rypien in Week 3.
  • Both beat a cupcake in the NFC wild card after the Buccaneers drew the 7-9 Washington No Names with MAGA Heinicke pulling out a 300-yard game on them, and the Saints jogged through a 21-9 win over Mitchell Trubisky and the 8-8 Bears.

Where did the Buccaneers and Saints differ this year?

  • New Orleans lost in the Raiders’ first game in Las Vegas while the Buccaneers pulled away late in a 45-20 win.
  • The Saints beat the Bears in overtime while Tampa Bay lost to Nick Foles in October.
  • Tampa Bay destroyed Green Bay’s No. 1 offense in a 38-10 victory while the Saints lost 37-30 at home following some Taysom Hill Hijinks.

And isn’t that always the difference this year when we talk about Tampa Bay? It’s that 38-10 Green Bay game, Tampa Bay’s only win against a team with a winning record. Otherwise, they are 0-4 against the Saints, Chiefs, and Rams, and even lost to the 8-8 Bears. The once 0-13 Jets still have more wins (two) against winning teams this year than the Buccaneers (one).

That is why Tampa Bay feels like such a paper tiger to me this year. They fatten their stats, especially on offense, in recent weeks against the Falcons (twice) and Lions, and then they draw a Jack Del Rio defense in the playoffs. Tom Brady has destroyed Del Rio his whole career and last week was more of the same with Washington leaving receivers wide open and getting minimal pressure.

So is Tampa now peaking, or is it just heavily related to the opponents? When they last played legitimate playoff teams in the Rams and Chiefs, they lost 27-24 at home in both games, outgained and outplayed.

For a team with some gaudy stats, the Buccaneers have had a lot of rough patches this season, rarely able to put in a complete game effort until recent weeks. In fact, the Buccaneers have five games this season where they trailed by at least 17 points, something Brady rarely experienced in New England.

They were able to come back and beat the Falcons and Chargers, because of course they were. That’s what those teams do. But Tampa didn’t beat the Chiefs or Saints in the other three games. Tampa Bay has trailed by 17+ in more games this season than the Packers, Chiefs, Bills, and Ravens combined as those teams have one game each. The Saints have two, and the Rams and Browns have three each.

This got me curious. How many games would you expect a legitimate Super Bowl team to fall behind by at least 17 points during a season? So I dug out the answer back to 1994, the start of the salary cap and two-point conversion era. As it turns out, Tampa Bay would be the highest.

The Super Bowl winner averages 1.4 such games a season and the Super Bowl loser averages 2.0 games a season.

No Super Bowl teams since the 2009 Colts and Saints have had more than two three-score deficits in the regular season. Even that’s misleading as both teams rested their starters in Week 17 to tally a third. The 2012 49ers actually had two in a row in the playoffs, but came back to beat the Falcons (duh) before losing to the Ravens in the Super Bowl. The 1994 Chargers, 1998 Falcons, 2000 Giants, 2002 Raiders, 2010 Steelers, and 2013 Broncos also had their last one of the season in the Super Bowl loss.

The only Super Bowl winner with a legitimate three games of trailing by 17+ is the 2007 Giants, which might not surprise you. The 2011 Giants played high-scoring, close games, but the 2007 Giants got their ass kicked a few times. Funny how this is the second time we’re bringing them up as the hopeful comparison for a Brady team since his 2007 Patriots are responsible for those Giants’ spot in lore.

The 2006 Colts, 2016 Patriots, and 2019 Chiefs are the only teams to win a Super Bowl after trailing by 15+ points in the playoffs. That is true for all time and not just since 1994. You know which games…

Green Bay may very well be the next challenge for the winner of this game, but for this week, it comes back to the crowning achievement of New Orleans’ season to this point: sweeping Tampa Bay.

Third Time the Charm?

If anything, the Saints should be expected to pull off this sweep, and FiveThirtyEight actually has them at 71% to win with an Elo point spread of -6 instead of the game’s -3 spread.

Yet why do I have this terrible feeling that Brees will have to go out having one postseason (2009) in his career with multiple wins?

Oh yeah, it’s the playoffs, and the rationing of luck among Tom Brady and every other great quarterback of this generation feels like this:

I bitch about Brady getting multiple chances to lead one late scoring drive to win a game. Now he’s getting a third chance to beat the Saints one time, and it may come in the way that I have dreaded since the 2018 season.

Sean Payton, here’s your opportunity to hand Brady a playoff win after going to Taysom Hill with the game on the line. Please don’t use it.

Jokes aside, thirteen months ago, I wrote about the lack of luck Brees has had in his career, especially in comparison to Brady. I pointed out how just five plays in his career that had nothing to do with him could have drastically altered things to the point where he might be 5-0 in Super Bowls, with a few wins over Brady himself, and going for a sixth ring this year.

Instead, Brees is 9-8 in the playoffs, meeting Brady there for the first time, and it’s probably his last game ever if he loses it. Even with a win on Sunday, there will always be some disappointment there.

So what can change from the first two meetings? I watched them both live and the Saints were absolutely the better team. I was behind the argument that Week 1 wasn’t that telling with Brady making his Tampa Bay debut after no real offseason or preseason. Brees and the offense actually weren’t that great at all in that matchup either. He struggled to move the ball too, but Brady threw a pick-six and struggled after the opening drive.

Flash forward to Week 9. The Saints were grinding out close wins against so-so teams. The Buccaneers were a few weeks removed from 38-10. They just activated Antonio Brown, because god knows you have to give the GOAT four different 1,300-yard receivers to make this offense shine. I picked the Buccaneers to win that rematch, and I couldn’t have been any more wrong.

That 38-3 game was the most one-sided domination I watched this season. It was about as perfect a game as you can have on offense and defense. Brady wasn’t able to complete passes, he started throwing interceptions, the Saints were getting anything they wanted on offense. Only some mistakes by Jared Cook kept that from being 45-0 at halftime. Tampa had to kick a cheap field goal late to avoid the shutout. The Buccaneers set an NFL record with only five rushing attempts. It was incredible.

But now, what changes this week?

Brees had his rib injury start in the Tampa Bay game. He missed four games, but he’s about to make his fifth start in a row. He had that really rough start against the Chiefs before finding his way back later in the game. In the last three weeks, he’s pretty much back to where he was, leading an effective offense again that is finally healthy with Alvin Kamara, Michael Thomas, and Emmanuel Sanders ready to play. The funny thing is with all those guys together, the Saints went to Deonte Harris for seven catches and 83 yards against the Bears on Sunday. Was that a way to not show their hand to Tampa Bay about what they might do with their normal offense in a third matchup this week? It was interesting and Harris looked good after doing almost nothing this season.

The Saints can score on this defense, but we know Todd Bowles loves to blitz. Brees faced his highest blitz count in the two Tampa games this year. He was sacked once in each game and hasn’t had a pressure rate above 23% in any game this season according to Pro Football Reference.

For Brady and the Bucs, can the Saints get to him again? They sacked him three times in both games and had a season-high 36.6% pressure rate in the 38-3 game. The Buccaneers usually protect well but have not done so against the Saints yet. Brady has also thrown five of his 12 interceptions this season against New Orleans.

While the argument of Week 1 rust didn’t work out for Tampa Bay last time, could the argument of Antonio Brown’s progress work this time? His first game was 38-3 and clearly it took some time for them to figure this offense out. Brown took Scotty Miller’s snaps after Miller started the season so well with making deep catches. Brown didn’t seem to click until he caught a touchdown bomb to beat the Falcons (of course) in Week 15. He has now scored in four straight games and looks more like the receiver we’re familiar with.

Brown’s impact could be huge if Mike Evans has his usual disappearing act in the Superdome. Evans has four games in his career with fewer than 10 receiving yards. Three of them are in New Orleans, including 2 yards in Week 1. He also had a 1-of-6 game with 13 yards in 2017. When you stack that many bad games against an opponent, it can’t just be a coincidence. This looks good for corner Marshon Lattimore, but he can only guard one guy. The Buccaneers still have Brown, Chris Godwin, Gronk, Miller, and even Cameron Brate reminded us he’s still there with 80 yards against Washington last week.

This offense just has too many weapons, and if they would ever play to their full potential, this team could go the distance. But they have to get over their biggest hump so far this year. Does Brees finally have a defense to rally around him and prevent his retirement before another ring? The Saints did not allow a 300-yard passer this season and are one of three defenses in 2020 (Rams and Steelers) to allow fewer than 275 net passing yards in all 17 games. That hasn’t been done since the 2006 Colts did not allow 250 net passing yards in a record all 20 of their games on their way to a Super Bowl win. Even though you can run on that team, which you usually can’t on these Saints, I am a bit shocked I only discovered this stat on January 15, 2021.

Nostalgia aside…

I hate to say it, but part of me expects Payton to do something really stupid in this game that gives Tampa Bay the edge. Don’t forget Bruce Arians is 32-26-1 (.551) in 4QC/GWD opportunities, so he’s had his own magic beans produce good luck over the years. Only Mike Vrabel (14-10) has a better record among active coaches.

If not Payton, could it be the refs again with the Saints in the playoffs? It blows my mind that the NFL tried one season of making pass interference reviewable, ditched it, but left nothing in place to prevent the same egregious, game-deciding call happen again at the end of a playoff game like that no-call in the 2018 NFC Championship Game. You don’t want to make PI challengeable? Fine. But at least make it subject to review by the replay system in the final two minutes of the game so we don’t see the same damn mistake again.

Not to make Saints fans more scared, but your defense now leads the league with 19 pass interference penalties this season. Tampa Bay set a record this year by being the beneficiary of 24 DPI flags. Do you see where this is going?

Do you believe my final score is legit or just another reverse jinx? I guess we’ll have to find out Sunday evening. Maybe even sooner, because if the Rams upset the Packers on Saturday, then you know which lucky bastard is going to the Super Bowl again. Bet accordingly.

Final: Buccaneers 28, Saints 24

NFL 2020 Wild Card Sunday Previews

If one triple-header of NFL playoff action is not enough, we get two this year with Ravens-Titans looking like the highlight of the weekend on paper. All three games on Sunday are rematches from earlier this season, including two games that went to overtime.

That led me to a little digging. What happens in a playoff rematch from a game that went to overtime? I found all 17 examples since 1990. The team that won in overtime is 11-6 in the playoff rematch, so maybe that is good news for the Titans and Saints this weekend despite the Titans being an underdog again.

Click here for my three previews of Saturday’s games.

Ravens at Titans (+3)

BAL OFFENSE VS. TEN DEFENSE

I think this is a great, almost necessary matchup for the Ravens to get over the hump in the postseason. Last year, I wrote a rather prescient preview for how the Titans could pull off the upset in Baltimore, noting some potential rust for the rested Ravens, dropped passes on key downs, maybe a tipped interception, and Ryan Tannehill hitting a deep ball to open an early lead. All of those things happened, and the Ravens were down 14-0 quickly before losing 28-12. Lamar Jackson set an NFL record with 83 total plays (passes/sacks/runs) in that game, but it only led to a career-low 12 points for his Ravens.

In fact, Jackson has led the Ravens to at least 20 points in 36 of his 39 career starts, but only 17 and 12 points in his two home playoff losses. If the Bills and Steelers win this week, Jackson could be starting this postseason run against Tennessee and Kansas City, two teams he is 0-5 against so far.

So if this is going to be a revenge tour, then it sets up nicely. Baltimore is 5-0 since Jackson returned from his COVID-19 diagnosis. The competition has not been strong, but Jackson is back to efficient passing (8.09 YPA, 11 TD, 3 INT) and he’s rushing for 86 yards a game at 7.68 YPC. Baltimore has been lighting up the scoreboard and finished a second straight season with the highest scoring differential (+165) in the league. The 2020 Ravens are the 10th team since the merger to win at least nine games by 14+ points. The ninth team to do it was Baltimore a year ago.

You cannot be in this historic company and go one-and-done to Mike Vrabel two years in a row. Drawing the Tennessee defense is a dream for Jackson. Here is where the Titans rank in 2020 (asterisk denotes worst among playoff teams this year):

  • 27th in points per drive allowed*
  • 30th in yards per drive allowed*
  • 30th in touchdowns per drive allowed*
  • 29th in forcing three-and-out drives*
  • 25th in yards per play allowed*
  • 30th in first downs allowed*
  • 22nd in net yards per pass attempt*
  • 32nd in sack rate*
  • 31st in pressure rate*
  • 32nd in third down conversion rate* (worst since 1991)
  • 7th in takeaways per drive
  • 30th in red zone touchdown rate

Tennessee is the worst defense in the playoffs, and yes, that third down conversion rate of 51.9% is the worst season mark since the stat started being tracked in 1991. They’re the only team over 50%.

Turnovers are about the only way the Titans can do well on defense in this matchup, but Baltimore’s offense has only turned it over multiple times in three games this season, and two of those were against the Steelers.

In the Week 11 meeting, won 30-24 in overtime by Tennessee, the Ravens were 9/15 on third down with one interception on 10 drives. The problem was in the red zone where the Ravens were 1-for-4 at scoring touchdowns, including a late field goal to force overtime where a touchdown likely would have won the game. What happened in the playoff upset a year ago? Again, the Ravens were 1-for-4 in the red zone. They have to do better down there, but lately the Ravens have been scoring at will on teams.

Baltimore is coming off only the second 400-yard rushing game in the NFL in the last 60 years. We know the Ravens are going to run the ball well in this game, but to fully take advantage of this poor Tennessee defense, Jackson will have to throw well too.

I think he can do it this time. If not, then the Ravens will have taken two seasons where they outscored opponents by 414 points and turned it into zero playoff wins.

TEN OFFENSE VS. BAL DEFENSE

Given my takedown of the Tennessee defense, I better give a lot of credit to the offense for this 11-5 record. That’s easy to do. Ryan Tannehill proved 2019 was not just a fluke as he finished with the best full season of his career in leading one of the league’s top offenses. Derrick Henry rushed for 2,027 yards as he is practically on a one-man mission to prove that running backs matter, or at least they do in Tennessee. I think I would vote for him as the Offensive Player of the Year. Corey Davis even had a career year and A.J. Brown is still very good.

Tennessee’s excellent 6-1 record in close games is almost due entirely to the offense this year. Tannehill led the league in comebacks (five) and game-winning drives (six) with Henry scoring two game-winning touchdown runs in overtime games. The only failed comeback was against Pittsburgh after Stephen Gostkowski missed a makeable field goal that would have forced overtime.

In the Week 11 meeting in Baltimore, both teams looked offensively challenged at the half. Jackson had 54 yards passing, Tannehill had 42 yards passing, and Henry only had 13 carries for 37 yards. But the Titans are so committed to sticking with their formula of a play-action attack and feeding Henry that they turned things around and won that game with 30 points. Tannehill finished with 259 yards and Henry rushed for 133 yards, saving his 29-yard burst for overtime to win the game.

The Titans have to be thinking at least 30 points in this one again to win it, which isn’t out of question when the team has scored as much in 10 of the 16 games this season. The Titans are 2-4 when they don’t score 30 points this season.

Baltimore actually finished the season No. 2 in points allowed, but that involved a lot of feasting on putrid offenses this year, including six points in two games against the Bengals. We’ve seen the Ravens allow 30 to Tennessee, 34 to Kansas City, and the Browns lost that 47-42 game on a Monday night that I would deem the Game of the Year.

I think a top offense can score well on the Ravens this year.

I like both offenses in this game and apparently so does Vegas as the game has a total of 54.5 points. What it comes down to for me is that the Tennessee defense is so bad, and there is also a big gap in special teams as well between these teams. The Ravens are No. 2 in DVOA while the Titans are 28th. We have already seen special teams almost cost the Titans a win on opening night against Denver, Gostkowski screwed them over against the Steelers, and they had the worst game (aside from Chargers-Patriots) on special teams this season against the Colts in a loss at home.

FiveThirtyEight sees this as the most even game of the weekend with the Ravens at 57% to win and an Elo point spread of -2. I can buy that given Baltimore’s past struggles in big games and against a team that can score in bunches.

The whole “Ravens are the team no one wants to play” thing is usually just hype, but I actually believe it this time for Baltimore. I wouldn’t want to play this team right now even if I was Buffalo, Pittsburgh, or Kansas City. That doesn’t necessarily mean I am picking the Ravens to go all the way this year, but the way they can run the ball is just something you don’t have to deal with when you play other teams. Henry is great and will probably go for over 100 again, but chances are the Ravens as a team will outrush him and win this game. So that is where I am going with this one.

Final: Ravens 31, Titans 24

Bears at Saints (-10)

So in the very first year of the new playoff format, we had a Chicago team back into the No. 7 seed with an 8-8 record (thanks, Kliff), and a 12-4 Saints team that had a very nice season has to play them instead of enjoying a bye as they would have in the past. Cool.

My new playoff contempt aside, I guess it’s not the worst matchup in the world, and the 10-point spread is interesting. I’ll just say it would be a damn shame if the final game of Drew Brees’ career was a home playoff loss to Mitchell Trubisky and an 8-8 No. 7 seed. FiveThirtyEight sees this as the blowout of the week with the Saints at 85% win probability and Elo spread of -12. I think it could be closer than that. The Saints are not exactly known for easy playoff wins.

I watched a lot of the Week 8 meeting in Chicago live. The Saints were down 13-3 early, didn’t have their wideouts (not even Emmanuel Sanders), Brees ended up throwing a touchdown pass to Taysom Hill that put the Saints up 10 in the fourth quarter, but Nick Foles still forced overtime and even had a chance to win the game. But the Saints pulled through with a 26-23 win. It was probably the best game Foles had this year for the Bears, and as good as any game offensively for the team through 10 weeks before the bye.

Now the Bears are here with Trubisky, who has started the last six games. The Bears started this run by scoring at least 25 points in each game, a streak this team had not seen since the 1995 season with Erik Kramer. Was Trubisky great in this stretch? No, but it is clear he was better than what Foles was giving Matt Nagy and what Trubisky was doing at the start of the season. Running back David Montgomery has especially blown up with 99.7 rushing yards per game and 5.16 YPC over the last six games. That is quite the change for a guy who averaged 54.4 yards and 3.65 YPC in his first 25 games. Then Allen Robinson is still excellent, Jimmy Graham has started catching touchdowns again, and Darnell Mooney can get open. It is not an offense without talent. The results were just terrible for most of this season.

Then Sunday against Green Bay happened. The Bears moved the ball somewhat well, but only finished with 16 points after going 1-for-5 in the red zone. The offense also had two turnovers that set up the Packers for touchdown drives inside the 26-yard line. That was a bummer performance to end the regular season, but thanks to Arizona’s late-season collapse, the Bears are still in this tournament.

I am naturally skeptical of Trubisky given his full history. I thought he played terrible in the first Green Bay game and padded his stats in garbage time. He was much better against Detroit and Houston, but those are two of the most horrific defenses in a season filled with bad defenses. Minnesota and Jacksonville were not much better this year. Then it was Green Bay again and I noticed Trubisky had a really high completion percentage deep into the game, but not a lot of yards or points from it. Then I realized he completed 70.1% of his passes during these last six games and almost 74% over the last five games, which is uncharacteristic for him.

When I also noticed the Bears tried to convert six fourth downs against the Packers (they got five of them but not the crucial one in fourth quarter), that made me think about failed completions. Those are the plays where you complete a pass, but it doesn’t gain at least 45% of the needed yards for a first down on first down, 60% on second down, or 100% on third and fourth down. What if Trubisky was just dinking and dunking for hollow completions to pad his completion percentage, but not actually helping the offense? He finished 20th in QBR and 24th in DVOA after all.

To my surprise, Trubisky’s failed completion rate in 2020 was 15.6%, the lowest in the NFL, beating out No. 2 Patrick Mahomes (15.9%) and No. 3 Josh Allen (16.4%). Aaron Rodgers (21.5%) was only 11th and Brees is 23rd (24.7%). Furthermore, Trubisky did much better than Foles in this metric. Alex Smith (32.7%) and Dwayne Haskins (35.1%) were last in the league playing in the same Washington offense, but just ahead of them was Foles at 32.2%.

That is interesting to me because there are plenty of other metrics that show the impact of Chicago’s offensive system and supporting cast on the quarterback’s passing numbers.

  • Trubisky’s average pass was thrown 7.9 yards compared to 7.8 for Foles.
  • Trubisky’s average completed air yards was 5.1 to 5.3 for Foles.
  • Trubisky had 3.1% of his passes dropped compared to 3.0% for Foles – only Kyler Murray (2.5%) was lower [source: Pro Football Reference].
  • Trubisky ranked fourth in the league by throwing 21.2% of his passes into tight windows while Foles was ranked right behind him at 20.8% according to Next Gen Stats’ aggressiveness rate.

Suddenly, I was feeling better about Trubisky after seeing this, then I saw one more stat on Pro Football Reference. Trubisky finished 15th this year with 5.4 YAC/completion; Foles finished 35th (dead last) at 3.5 YAC/completion. Basically, the big YAC plays that existed in Chicago’s offense only seemed to happen for Trubisky. Of Chicago’s 20 completions with at least 15 YAC, Trubisky threw 14 of them compared to six for Foles. Trubisky had seven passes thrown behind the line of scrimmage that gained 15+ YAC; Foles had two.

Oh, and there is also this on play-action passing:

Foles used play-action on 18.6% of his passes this season, ranked 24th in the league. His play-action YPA was 8.07. Trubisky used it more often than anyone but Ryan Tannehill and his YPA was 8.31.

Now things started to make more sense. Trubisky was taking advantage of play-action looks, superior rushing help from Montgomery, and better YAC plays from his receivers during a four-game surge against trash defenses that finished 28th, 29th, 30th, and 32nd in points per drive allowed. Wow, better pay this man $140M over four years if he beats the Saints this weekend.

Okay, so there is no denying that Trubisky can move better than Foles. He can scramble and pick up some first downs that way. He had a lower pressure rate and almost identical sack rate to Foles, who looked like a statue more than ever this year. Maybe some of those YAC plays could be credited to Trubisky’s skills as well while someone like Foles throws a lot of hero balls that may not lend themselves well to YAC. It is a little easier for Nagy to run an offense with a quarterback who can actually move.

But am I sold on Trubisky’s “rebirth” here or his prospects in even just this game? No, I am not. The Saints just intercepted the Carolina quarterbacks five times on Sunday and won 33-7 with a running back room they signed off the streets this weekend. Ty Montgomery still rushed for over 100 yards. The New Orleans defense notched five sacks of Foles in Week 8 too, so the pass rush could be good again for the Saints in this one.

Basically, the Chicago path to victory is the same as it always is: defense/special teams kick ass, the run game works, and the quarterback doesn’t screw things up. The Saints will be lucky to get Alvin Kamara back in time after his COVID-19 infection. He was huge as a receiver in the last meeting with the wideouts not available. At least Sanders is back now, but Michael Thomas’ status is still iffy as it has been most of this year. The Saints have learned to play without him.

This is not your classic, dominant Saints offense because of the injuries and Brees’ age taking even more off the deep ball, but this offense still scores. In fact, the 2020 Saints are the sixth team in NFL history to score at least 21 points in all 16 regular season games. The first five teams to do that all reached the Conference Championship Game and three advanced to the Super Bowl. Now none of them had to play a No. 7 seed on Wild Card Weekend, but here we are.

I guess I could pick the Saints to cover with a 27-16 win, but I’m just going to add a touchdown to Chicago’s total to make it sound more interesting. Will it actually be that close? Eh, you probably didn’t think the last meeting would have two double-digit leads blown and go to overtime. Besides, wouldn’t it just be so fitting for the Bears (and Rams) to win so Tom Brady can get a home playoff game as a No. 5 seed and not have to worry about the New Orleans team that spanked him twice this year?

It sure would be nice for the Saints to send Brees off with a second Super Bowl. The defense showing up big against one of the worst offenses in this postseason would be a good start.

Final: Saints 27, Bears 23

Browns at Steelers (-6)

The last time the Browns were in the playoffs, they went to Heinz Field and blew a 17-point lead to the 2002 Steelers. The last time the Browns were an 11-5 playoff team and opened as a 3.5-point underdog, they lost 29-9 in the divisional round in Pittsburgh to the 1994 Steelers.

So here we are again. The Browns are 11-5 and finally back in the playoffs, but they have to beat a Pittsburgh team they just squeezed by on Sunday, 24-22, despite the Steelers resting several of their best players. The Browns opened as a 3.5-point underdog, but the spread has only been going up since a COVID outbreak has jacked up the team’s preparation this week. They have not been practicing in person, multiple players are on the COVID list, and head coach Kevin Stefanski is out with COVID.

I think the Stefanski news is rather significant. He should be the favorite for the Coach of the Year award and he was the play-caller for his team. This literally has stacked the odds against the Browns, who are trying to end a 17-game losing streak in Pittsburgh, which includes a 38-7 loss in Week 6. The Browns have not won in Pittsburgh since 2003, the season before Ben Roethlisberger was drafted.

Trying to compare the first two meetings this season is not easy. When the Steelers won 38-7 in Week 6, it was arguably the worst game of Baker Mayfield’s NFL career. He was rattled by this defense early. On Sunday, he played better, but a unit largely comprised of backups still got four sacks and held him under 200 passing yards. Mayfield compensated by rushing for a career-high 44 yards.

In five games against the Steelers, Mayfield is 2-3, has never passed for 200 yards, and Sunday was the first time he scored 24 points. I like to think a Pittsburgh defense that gets back T.J. Watt and Cameron Heyward will be in better shape to defend him this week. Watt has been dominant this year and Heyward is the third key component of the pass rush along with Stephon Tuitt. The Steelers will be without cornerback Joe Haden (COVID) again, but the Browns have not had any receiver break 60 yards on Pittsburgh this year. They’re not a high-volume passing team and without Odell Beckham Jr. available, it’s not really a matchup that Haden is desperately needed for. That comes potentially down the road with Stefon Diggs and the Bills.

Obviously, Nick Chubb and Kareem Hunt make for a great rushing duo, but the Steelers usually defend the run well. Chubb had a 47-yard touchdown run on Sunday after some poor tackling attempts by the Steelers, but his other 13 carries produced 61 yards. The Steelers can live with that as long as they don’t give up the huge play again. Mayfield’s rushing is usually not a problem, but it was Sunday. We’ll see if that’s part of the game plan again in his first playoff game where you do have to leave it all on the field really.

But I feel pretty confident about the Browns not being able to score more than the 24 points they had on Sunday, and it should be even less than that if we’re adding Watt and Heyward to the game.

As for the Pittsburgh offense, it’s a bit of a wild card even though we know what they’ll try to do in this one. It’s what they’ve done all year: tons of quick, short passes from the shotgun, virtually no play-action, great at not taking sacks, but a miniscule running game. The question is will they produce like the offense that started 10-0 and had a 28-24 comeback win on the Colts in Week 15, or will it look like the terrible month of offense where they couldn’t score 20 points? Will they add to their league-high 39 dropped passes?

Roethlisberger ended up having the greatest dink-and-dunk season in NFL history, as strange as that sounds.

I think I would trust the larger sample of games, but you never know how Pittsburgh will look on Sunday night. The week of rest should do Roethlisberger’s body well. He’ll return with Maurkice Pouncey at center and Eric Ebron at tight end, two more absences in Sunday’s game. The encouraging part is that Mason Rudolph just threw for 315 yards on this Cleveland defense on Sunday. Rudolph’s previous career high was 251 yards. Rudolph led two late touchdown drives, but failed on a two-point conversion pass to tie the game.

Rudolph attacked Cleveland deep multiple times and had three passes gain 40+ yards. Chase Claypool and Diontae Johnson played well. That should give Cleveland plenty to think about with how to defend this offense. Maybe they won’t just sit on the short routes like teams have been doing. The Steelers also seem to have figured out better routes and plays for JuJu Smith-Schuster in the last two games. While the Browns could get Denzel Ward back at corner, there is no one receiver to take away in this offense. Roethlisberger could throw to any of four wideouts or Ebron at any time. Trust me, I’ve been doing SGP every week since October on this team and you never know if it’s going to be a JuJu week, a Claypool week, a Diontae week, or an Ebron week.

We also know the Steelers cannot run the ball, becoming the first team in NFL history to win four games in a season without rushing for 50 yards. I am actually in favor of the idea of letting Josh Dobbs play backup quarterback and have a few packaged plays to run like he did on Sunday when he gained 20 yards on two plays. The Steelers didn’t do a whole lot more on the ground, but it is worth noting that James Conner’s last 100-yard rushing game was against Cleveland in Week 6.

The Browns beating the Steelers in an important game goes against all the football logic that I have learned over decades, so I cannot bring myself to make that pick for various reasons. Sure, I think the Steelers are vulnerable to losing to anyone at this point, but I also think if this team can combine the defense it has played most of the season with the productive scoring offense it had on the way to 10-0, then they could beat anyone this postseason, including on the road in Buffalo or Kansas City.

Final: Steelers 27, Browns 20

Next week we’ll talk about the record-setting offensive numbers in 2020, the first-round bye teams, and my picks for the rest of the playoffs.

Most Passing Touchdowns and Yards Thru Game X in NFL History (2020 Update)

Now that the 2020 NFL regular season is over, it is time to update the leaders in most passing touchdown and yards through game X in NFL history.

First is the table for touchdown passes, which saw Drew Brees and Tom Brady battle back and forth over the all-time record until Brees’ rib injury cost him four games. But Brees still makes 48 appearances on the list compared to just three for Brady, who did not surpass him until Game #299.

(Click on picture to enlarge)

Take note of Justin Herbert sneaking in there to make it four quarterbacks with 15 touchdown passes through six games. I’m rooting for someone to soon start super hot and throw 16 to clean that cell up a little.

Dan Marino’s days of having a whole column (51-100) to himself are numbered. Patrick Mahomes is currently tied with Marino for the most touchdown passes (114) through 50 games in NFL history. Problem is Mahomes has only played 46 games. Marino’s prime for throwing touchdowns lasted 63 games, so there is a chance he could still hang onto a spot here. Mahomes would have to throw 43 touchdowns in his next 17 games to wipe Marino’s prime out entirely.

Contrary to what happened in 2020, I don’t think 40 touchdown pass seasons grow on trees, though there is a good chance of a 17-game season in 2021. Of course, that may not matter as much if it means the Chiefs are going to end up resting Mahomes again late in the season with the top seed wrapped up.

After a career-high 48 touchdown passes this season, Aaron Rodgers has picked up the pace and is currently wiping out a lot of Drew Brees entries. Rodgers is currently 12 games ahead of Brees’ pace. Whether he can wipe out Brees and Peyton Manning depends on how long Rodgers wants to play. If he played four complete 17-game seasons, that would take him to 265 games through his age-41 season. If he were to average 2.2 touchdowns per start, that would put him at 562 touchdowns through 265 games, easily topping the current mark of 539 by Manning. But projecting out that far with a quarterback who has had multiple collarbone fractures and recent down seasons is tricky. Still, the main takeaway is that he has a shot to take over much of this table.

If reports are accurate, Brees’ regular season career is over at 287 games. He plans to retire after this postseason. It took Brady an additional 12 games to surpass Brees with 573 touchdowns in his 299th game. With one more start in 2021, Brady will be the first QB in NFL history to start 300 regular season games.

Now let’s look at the table for passing yardage leaders, which does not feature as many names as the touchdown pass table.

(Click on picture to enlarge)

So we have Cam Newton for six games before Mahomes takes over. Mahomes has now wiped out all of the old Kurt Warner entries. Mahomes’ lead on Matthew Stafford is actually not that substantial, but he has a good shot to start erasing the beginning of Stafford’s high-volume run.

Stafford just recently took out the little four-game blip that Matt Ryan had taken from Drew Brees before Brees took over for good. Stafford may possibly be done in Detroit, but once he goes to another team he’ll still be able to keep taking spots from Brees. It just seems unlikely that he’ll play long enough to take all of them.

Again, Brees is expected to be finished at 80,358 yards in 287 games. With Brady at 79,204 yards in 301 games, this expects to be another table of mine that he’ll screw up by making me add another column as he surpasses 80k in over 300 games.

There is no denying that longevity plays a huge part in career records.