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.

NFL Stat Oddity: Week 15

If last Sunday in the NFL was boring, then this week more than made up for it. Even though the “Game of the Year” (Chiefs-Saints) wasn’t even the best game played in the last seven days (Ravens-Browns), this was a Sunday filled with memorable action.

Favorites were 11-4 SU, but the Rams christened SoFi Stadium with one of the most embarrassing losses in NFL history.

Previous weeks in Stat Oddity:

Rams Lose, Jets Lose Out, Only Trevor Lawrence Wins

It is not hyperbole to say that the course of NFL history for the next two decades could have just been drastically altered on Sunday when the 0-13 Jets beat the Rams 23-20 for their first win of the season.

For a franchise familiar with low points, the 2020 season may have taken the Jets to a new low under head coach Adam Gase. Some people have been calling the Chiefs “inevitable” this year, but the most inevitable thing felt like the Jets cruising to 0-16. That is a horrific season, but it’s not like we haven’t seen the 2008 Lions and 2017 Browns already do this. In fact, the biggest surprise would be that the Jets weren’t already in the club (the 1996 team finished 1-15).

The reward at the end of such a terrible season was supposed to be a new coach and the No. 1 pick in the draft, undoubtedly, to be used on Clemson quarterback Trevor Lawrence. Gase will now likely go down as one of the most hated coaches in NFL history as he could not even finish 0-16 properly. The Jaguars are now in the driver’s seat for Lawrence in the draft, and if he is as generational as advertised – a mobile, long-haired Peyton Manning – then it is sure to be a move that has massive ripple effects around the league for years to come.

Why are the Jets always the ones botching history? They could have drafted generational passer Dan Marino in 1983 but chose Ken O’Brien instead. They drafted wide receiver Al Toon over all-time leading receiver Jerry Rice in 1985. They drafted running back Blair Thomas over all-time leading rusher Emmitt Smith in 1990. Maybe none of those picks lead to Super Bowls for the Jets, but they absolutely changed the course of the league at that time. Imagine the Dolphins without Marino and Don Shula. Imagine the 49ers’ dynasty without Rice. Joe Gibbs’ Washington teams may have been the dynasty of the 1980s instead. Likewise, Emmitt is probably not the all-time leading rusher if he started with the Jets instead of the dynastic Cowboys in the 90s.

Maybe Lawrence is better off if he doesn’t go to the Jets. In 1997, the Jets thought they could cash that 1-15 season in for Peyton Manning at the top of the draft, but Manning returned to Tennessee for another year and ended up going No. 1 to the rival Colts in 1998. Good move, but also a massive one for the league’s next two decades.

Oh, and never forget the Jets are more responsible for the New England dynasty than anyone after botching the hiring of head coach Bill Belichick in 2000 and injuring Drew Bledsoe in 2001, leading to the rise of Tom Brady.

Never has a win felt like such a loss for a team than this one. The fact that Frank Gore put the game away with two first downs is just the cherry on top of the shit sundae. Jacksonville fans will for sure be pushing Gore for Canton now.

And how about these Rams? So much for the new hyped “best team” in the NFC. I’m going to remember Sean McVay as the photographic memory wunderkind coach who lost a Super Bowl 13-3 and lost to the 0-13 Jets.

There has just been something about Game 14 where perfect seasons go to die. As I pointed out in my preview for this one, the 10 teams to start 0-13 are now 5-5 SU in Game 14. That means these teams went from a combined 0-130 to 5-5 in that 14th game. Interestingly enough, four of the eight 13-0 teams in NFL history also lost their first game in Game 14 (1998 Broncos, 2005 Colts, 2009 Saints, and 2011 Packers).

This is not quite the biggest upset in NFL history. You only have to go back to Week 17 last year to find a worse loss by the point spread when the 17.5-point favorite Patriots lost at home to the Dolphins to lose out on a first-round bye. However, this is only the fifth time since 1978 that a 17-point favorite lost outright.

But this is almost surely the most embarrassing loss a team has ever had to a team 0-13 or worse that notched its first win. The Rams lost this game wire-to-wire, meaning the Jets led the whole way, including a 20-3 lead. Only the 1962 Patriots can say they lost wire-to-wire to an 0-13 (or worse) team after they fell 20-0 to the Oakland Raiders to end the 1962 AFL season.

This was not some December game in trash weather at MetLife Stadium with a full, roaring crowd where Jared Goff melted down and threw a pick parade. The Rams only had one turnover (and one blocked punt) in the game, played in new SoFI Stadium. This was not a blown lead by the Rams. This was not a game where the Rams missed any field goals. The only fumble (on a Sam Darnold sack) went out of bounds.

The Rams were just outplayed by an inferior team. The Jets were able to convert 7-of-17 on third down while the Rams were only 2-of-11. Show up on a few more of those plays and this outcome is likely different, but the Jets deserved this win.

They just had no business actually pulling it off, putting the future of the franchise in doubt again.

The final magnitude of this loss for me personally remains to be seen after the Steelers play on Monday night. I was hot on my bets this weekend, but one game I needed was for the Rams to win and Cam Akers to score a touchdown. That seemed simple enough after Akers’ breakout game last week and the mismatch here, but neither part came through. I also liked Robert Woods scoring (he did), but still would have been screwed by the moneyline. I’ll scowl over this day forever that Akers’ 18-yard touchdown run in the fourth quarter was called back for a holding penalty if Diontae Johnson and the Steelers come through. I stood to win more than $36,000 on a series of round robin parlays that only cost $105.

I’m sad. Rams fans are sad. Jets fans are sad. Only Trevor Lawrence and Jacksonville fans are probably happy right now. And just think, if the Jets finish on a winning streak, they just may bring Gase and Darnold back for 2021…

I Fvcking Love Patrick Mahomes Chapter 50: Week 15 at Saints

Despite holding 14-point leads early and late, the Chiefs had to grind out another close win, 32-29, in the four-minute offense to knock off the Saints in Drew Brees’ return. The big matchup had some really strange plays, Brees got off to the slowest/worst start to a game in his 300th career start, and it technically never had a game-winning drive opportunity, but it was a decent game in the end.

How did New Orleans fare with my tips for beating the Chiefs? Not good as the only achievement was #6 as the Saints racked up four sacks, getting some of the best pressure any defense ever has (without blitzing too) on Mahomes, which was to be expected with the offensive line situation there.

The 29 points were not bad, but the Saints absolutely hurt themselves before halftime by not recovering the obligatory fumble on a ridiculous punt fielded by Demarcus Robinson with only seconds left in the half. The Saints had a great chance to fall on the ball in the end zone for a touchdown, but Alex Anzalone botched that play and the Saints only got a safety out of it. Those five points were a huge miss.

You know the standard for Mahomes is getting ridiculous when people scoff at putting up 32 points and 34 first downs on what was supposed to be one of the best defenses in the league. The Saints had not allowed more than 24 points in a game since doing it four games in a row in Weeks 2-5, but the Chiefs were able to do that in this one, scoring 11 points in the fourth quarter to keep the Saints down.

Much like the 26-17 win in Buffalo, the Chiefs were able to mix the pass and run in moving the ball effectively. This team’s success on the road is historic this season even if it could be asterisk worthy given the pandemic impact with limited or no crowds.

Still, the 2020 Chiefs are the first team in NFL history to win five road games in a season against teams with a winning record. This is set in stone with the Bills (11-3), Saints (10-4), Ravens (9-5), Dolphins (9-5), and Buccaneers (9-5) all guaranteed to have a winning record this season. The only mystery is if the Chiefs will pick up a sixth win if the Raiders (7-7) finish 9-7.

The Chiefs just had the seventh game in NFL history where they put up 32 points and 34 first downs on the road in regulation. That’s impressive when you also consider that they have the sixth such game this season when they did it in Las Vegas.

Now 50 starts into his career, I am still waiting to see what a legitimately bad game from Mahomes looks like. His consistency is unmatched. The 2020 Chiefs are now the fourth team in NFL history to score at least 22 points in each of their first 14 games in a season. The other teams on that list are the 1983 Redskins, 1998 Vikings, and 2018 Chiefs, so they have already done it twice here. Only that 2019 Colts game (19-13 loss) is stopping it from being 50-for-50 for Mahomes in scoring 22+ points as a team.

Sunday is the 33rd time Mahomes has led the Chiefs to at least 30 points in one of his starts. If he does it again next week against Atlanta, then that will be 34 times over his last 50 starts. That would match the best 50-game stretch of the careers of Manning and Brady. I included a chart that shows how the count of 30-point starts over those quarterback’s last 50 starts progressed over time, as well as the same data for Dan Marino, Aaron Rodgers, and Brees.

Like Mahomes, Marino got off to that super-fast start to the point where his best 50-game stretch was the first 50 games when he led the Dolphins to 30+ points 26 times. Marino and Mahomes are the only two listed to top 20 games in their first 50 starts (this includes playoffs). Some of this is about league trends as scoring went up in the later stages of these careers (think Manning in Denver or Brees in the Michael Thomas-Alvin Kamara years), but you can see where the peaks and valleys are.

These are just team points, but Mahomes has plenty of other superlatives through 50 games that we could go on about. Sunday was his 24th game with at least three touchdown passes, the most in NFL history for a quarterback through 50 starts (including playoffs). Marino had 22 such games that early.

It can still be debated if Mahomes is the best 50-game stretch of quarterback play in NFL history, but there is no debate if this is the best 50-game start to any quarterback’s career.

Eagles at Cardinals: The Jalen Hurts Era Is for Real

Carson Wentz may understandably not like it, but the rest of us are better with the Eagles moving forward with Jalen Hurts as their starting quarterback. Hurts impressed again in a fun 33-26 shootout with Kyler Murray in Arizona. Sure, the Eagles lost after playing in their 23rd straight game that was within one score in the fourth quarter, but Hurts showed so much poise and promise for a rookie.

Hurts passed for 338 yards, three touchdowns and rushed for 63 yards and another score. That 401 yards of total offense in Hurts’ second start is more than Wentz ever had in 69 career starts. Had Dallas Goedert been able to pull in a dagger of a throw from Hurts in the end zone late to tie the game, Hurts may have finished with over 365 passing yards, which also would top Wentz’s career high.

Look, I have said these things well before Hurts was drafted. Doug Pederson’s offense works best when his quarterback is NOT Carson Wentz. With Nick Foles, the Eagles could actually win high-scoring games, beat good teams, win without much rushing support, and come through in the clutch. Hurts still has plenty of room to grow but he is only a second-round pick with three games of relevance under his belt.

The fact that this was such an exciting game between two young, mobile quarterbacks who could run and throw is a great sign for the future of the NFC. Let Wentz go do his thing in Indianapolis where he thinks Frank Reich is the answer to all his problems.

The Eagles are in a better place now, and likely would still be in position to win this terrible division had Wentz been benched sooner. You can talk about heart and leadership if you want, but there’s just something about Wentz where things don’t all click with this coach and team when he’s the quarterback.

Bucs at Falcons: The Most Predictable 17-Point Comeback in NFL History

You could say Tom Brady holds a psychological edge on the Falcons after 28-3, but it could just be as simple as the Falcons are a joke of a franchise and blowing leads is what they do best. We have already seen it this year with the losses against Dallas, Chicago, and Detroit.

In fact, I even wrote in my preview for this one that Atlanta would blow a double-digit lead to the Bucs. Not even at 24-7 in the third quarter did this feel in doubt. Sure enough, the Atlanta offense folded while Tampa Bay scored on five straight drives. Antonio Brown made by far his biggest play for the team yet with a 46-yard game-winning touchdown catch with 6:19 left. Matt Ryan is still gunning for the only season of his career without a 4QC or GWD.

Tampa Bay scored 31 points in the second half. Something like that hasn’t happened in the NFL since… well, when the Falcons allowed 30 in the second half to the Cowboys this year.

Tampa Bay is now 4-3 when falling behind double digits this season. Doing that in half your games seems like a bad formula for the playoffs where you absolutely will not see a team as dumb as Atlanta. These slow starts are a problem, but the talent on this roster is still a lot to deal with as well. Don’t rule out Tampa lucking into a No. 2 seed with the way the other NFC teams are playing down the stretch. I still ultimately think the Saints will beat Carolina in Week 17 to secure the division if it’s not done on Christmas, but there is a chance here after this comeback for Tampa Bay to move up the standings.

In a crazy year, here is something that at least feels right: Falcons and Chargers lead the NFL with four blown leads in the fourth quarter or overtime.

Browns-Giants: What a Change from 2016

Sunday Night Football may not have been the most exciting game, a 20-6 win by Cleveland over the Giants, but consider where these teams were four years ago. The 0-11 Browns lost 27-13 to the offensively challenged Giants in a game with 17 punts and four turnovers. Gross.

Four years later, the Browns actually have a fun offense and won their 10th game last night. The Giants are still offensively challenged but did better than the 20-6 score shows. They just failed on too many fourth downs.

In fact, this is one of the most offensive-driven 20-6 games you’ll ever see in the NFL. This game only had 14 total possessions with five punts, no turnovers, and three stops on fourth down. The Browns scored 20 points (another Cody Parkey missed extra point) on their first five drives before staying understandably conservative with the big lead. The “Browns only scored 20” crowd seems to have overlooked just how few drives were in this game.

In the last three games, Baker Mayfield has thrown for over 900 yards with eight touchdowns and one interception. These were marquee games for the Browns too, including two in prime time and a big matchup in Tennessee. Winning two of these three games and only losing 47-42 to the Ravens is huge progress for this franchise. I’m not going to say the Browns have what it takes to go on a Super Bowl run this year, but this team has definitely improved and so has the quarterback. I’m not sure what more he should be doing in the last month to silence the critics, but I’m coming around on him with this recent performance.

It’s weird to talk about the Browns offense being worth a damn, but it’s 2020. All bets are off. Hell, even the Chicago Bears have scored at least 25 points in four straight games for the first time since 1995. If the Bears can do that, the Bills can win the division, then why not see Cleveland win 11 games and make the playoffs?

Patriots Done (For How Long?)

New England has been eliminated from the playoffs for the first time since the 2008 season after a 22-12 loss in Miami. The Dolphins will have a winning record this year while the Bills (11-3) have already won the AFC East for the first time since 1995. The Jets were also in position to get Trevor Lawrence, but you know what happened there.

It leaves the Patriots in a tricky position with quite arguably the worst long-term quarterback situation in the division depending what the Jets do. Cam Newton is not the answer but there is also not much of a roster here.

This last-gasp effort in Miami, a familiar losing venue for New England in December, showed some signs of life early that the Patriots could pull one out and stay alive another week. They were playing a Miami team missing its top wideouts and tight end. In classic bend-but-don’t-break fashion, the Patriots turned a 95-yard, 9:11 drive by the Dolphins into an interception after making Tua throw under pressure. Then Newton got away with a would-be 86-yard fumble return because the ball just grazed a Miami defender who was out of bounds. Instead of a turnover, the Patriots scored a field goal to lead 6-0. Miami finished off the half with a missed 52-yard field goal, because again, this is what the Patriots do.

But the second half was a different story. The Dolphins continued to put together long drives and finished them off this time while Newton and the limited offense couldn’t answer. Tua was credited with his second fourth-quarter comeback of the season and the defense shut things down with a fourth-down sack of Newton with 1:08 left.

It was the first time all season the Patriots blew a fourth-quarter lead, but this team was never in much of a position to do any damage in 2020 between the loss of Brady, the COVID opt-outs, the losses on defense, Julian Edelman’s surgery, and just general roster flaws like not having a tight end.

It would actually be a lot more enjoyable to see this team struggle if only they were recognizable as the Patriots, but they never really were such a team this season. Now they’re just another team, and it’s only fitting that the Bills and Dolphins have gotten some decisive licks in on them.

Can the Jets do it too? They almost beat them last time in a 30-27 game, and this may be one where Belichick decides to just let the Jets win to make sure Trevor Lawrence doesn’t find his way to the Jets after all.

I mean, there’s always a plan with Belichick. Just not much of one this year as far as a contender goes.

Cruel Close Game Regression: Texas Edition

My goodness, I know I said Houston could be in trouble in close games this year after Deshaun Watson led five game-winning drives in both 2018 and 2019, but this is ridiculous. For the second time this season, Watson had the Texans knocking on the door of a tying or go-ahead touchdown against the Colts. Last time it was a bad snap that led to a game-ending fumble in a 26-20 loss.

This time, down 27-20, Watson converted a 4th-and-5, but Keke Coutee went from looking like he was about to score to fumbling the ball into the end zone where the Colts recovered with 19 seconds left to end the game. Watson had some huge numbers again with 373 yards, but his teammates found another way to blow a game even without Bill O’Brien involved.

Houston is now 0-5 at 4QC/GWD opportunities this season.

Meanwhile in Dallas, the Cowboys had a minor upset of the 49ers in a 41-33 final that was filled with big plays and turnovers. Nick Mullens had three turnovers himself, including an interception that set up Andy Dalton for the lamest game-winning drive of the year: three incomplete passes and a 46-yard field goal by Greg Zuerlein.

In a game that would never end, the final 43 seconds saw a field goal, an onside kick returned for a touchdown, and a meaningless Hail Mary touchdown with no time left. Well, not entirely meaningless. Someone (not me) won or lost money on that bullshit.

So we will have a new NFC champion with San Francisco eliminated after an injury-ravaged, disappointing season. The 49ers are now 1-4 at 4QC/GWD opportunities this season, which has always been a problem during the Kyle Shanahan era in San Francisco outside of some Jimmy Garoppolo starts.

But last year with a healthy Garoppolo, the 49ers were 4-2 at GWD opportunities and only blew one fourth-quarter lead in the regular season. However, we know this team was struggling late in the year with that against Atlanta (lost), New Orleans (offense had to bail them out), and the Seattle game in Week 17 came down to the final stop at the 1-yard line. Then we of course know what happened with a 20-10 lead in the fourth quarter against the Chiefs in Super Bowl LIV. Stung by the Wasp.

The 49ers started this season with blown leads to the Cardinals and Eagles before the injuries and a tough schedule just seemed to be too much for this team to overcome. Will 2019 be a one-year wonder in the NFC again? We’ll need to see next year to verify, but it’s not a bad bet to say it was.

That is why every opportunity in this league must be taken seriously. You never know if things will come together at the right time again. You know, like when you’re going to finish 0-16 and draft a generational talent quarterback, but oh fuck, that’s enough about the Jets and Rams.

On to Week 16.

NFL Week 15 Predictions: Mahomes vs. Brees (Finally)

With two games on Saturday, I’m a day early with the preview for Week 15. You can read my look at how Aaron Rodgers got his groove back this year for CAR-GB, how I’ve given up on picking the Jets to cover, how Colt McCoy is 0-18 when his team allows 20+ points for CLE-NYG, and how I still expect the Falcons to blow a double-digit lead against Tampa Bay despite Matt Ryan having arguably his worst season yet.

Otherwise, all attention should be on the potential Game of the Year this regular season when the Chiefs face the Saints in the Superdome. It’s not everything it could have been, but at least we’ll get to see Patrick Mahomes and Drew Brees square off in an important game for both seeds in pursuit of the No. 1 seed. I wanted to see this as the Super Bowl for the last two seasons, but we’re getting it at least once this season.

Game of the Year: Chiefs at Saints (+3)

It’s amazing how fast fractured ribs can heal after your team loses to Philadelphia and loses control of the No. 1 seed. While the Saints did not plan to rush back Drew Brees, it is obvious that they need him to go far this season, and they certainly need him in a game like this one against the high-scoring Chiefs. This is nothing like playing Atlanta or a Denver team without a quarterback like the teams the Saints beat with Taysom Hill.

Despite the three interceptions in Miami last week, Patrick Mahomes still had the fourth-highest yards per attempt (11.56) in a game in his career in last week’s win. He doesn’t have bad games, but it’s inevitably going to come some day. If you were brewing up a perfect storm for it to happen, you would start with a strong opponent that has played well defensively this year like the Saints have, including an offense that can score and put pressure on Mahomes to match.

Then you have to look at the injury situation on the offensive line where both starting tackles are in question for the Chiefs. Left tackle Eric Fisher at least practiced Friday, so that sounds optimistic. But right tackle Mike Remmers is a bigger question mark and he’s already the backup to Mitchell Schwartz (IR). So we’re talking potentially about a third option (at best) to start at right tackle. Singular injuries on the line are really no big deal. You just go next man up and deal with it. If you think your quarterback can’t handle one lineman being out, then he’s probably not a franchise QB. However, when you start relying on the backup to the backup and potentially are missing both tackles, then that’s cause for concern. The Chiefs will hopefully get Fisher in this game and Andy Reid and Mahomes will just have to make due at RT.

The Saints are dealing with their own injuries to dampen the hype and potential of this matchup. It has been ridiculously hard for the Saints to put Brees and leading receiver Michael Thomas together on the field this year. Brees returns, but Thomas will reportedly be out of action again with another injury. That means the offense reverts to where it was earlier in the season with Alvin Kamara having to carry the load as a dual threat and dynamic YAC receiver. The Chiefs have allowed the third-most receiving yards (623) to running backs this year, but I feel like that’s not going to be enough for the Saints to outscore the Chiefs.

To beat the Chiefs you have to either have a dominant ground attack that shrinks the game, which is not something the Saints do that well, especially with Brees at QB instead of the run-heavy Taysom Hill. Or you have to hit big plays like the Raiders did in the only Kansas City loss over the last 22 games. Derek Carr had a career day hitting the deep ball, and while Thomas isn’t a big loss in that department for the Saints, the deep ball is not a big part of what they do these days. Still, this will have to be a big game for tight end Jared Cook. Also, when the Panthers pushed the Chiefs 33-31 this year, they had some really aggressive plays on fourth downs and a fake punt to stay close in that game. You have to make some really great plays to score enough on this Kansas City defense. I’m not sure Brees dinking and dunking behind the sticks is going to lead to an explosive enough 30+ point day.

I like the Chiefs in this matchup. I don’t think you’ll see the multiple picks from last week that came on two tipped balls and a one-handed catch by the league’s INT lead (Xavien Howard). I think the Chiefs will clean that up. But also, seemingly no matter how well the offense plays, the Chiefs still seem to find every game come down to the four-minute offense with Mahomes having to bail them out by running clock and adding to the lead. Some week it’s not going to work out and it’s going to be all on the defense to stop a game-winning drive for the opponent. Brees can certainly deliver that drive, but we’ll just have to see if he gets the chance or not.

The Chiefs can improve to 5-0 on the road against teams with a winning record this year. They’ve already won in Baltimore (8-5), Buffalo (10-3), Tampa Bay (8-5), and Miami (8-5). That is very impressive. The Saints, along with the Green Bay team they’re chasing for the NFC’s top seed, have played a league-low three teams currently with a winning record, including a game against each other. The Saints’ crowning achievement this year has been sweeping Tampa Bay in impressive fashion. Otherwise we’ve seen this team winning a lot of one-score games against teams with 4-6 wins right now, or blowing out a Denver team without a quarterback.

That’s not to say the Chiefs are blowing teams out weekly. Their last five wins have been by a combined 21 points. But they are battle tested, have the best player, and deserve to be favorites in this one. We’ll just have to see if this is the only time Mahomes and Brees match up in the NFL.

Final: Chiefs 27, Saints 23

NFL Week 15 Predictions

Sometimes you wonder if the NFL is fixed. I only needed a Nelson Agholor touchdown in overtime last night for a nice win, which would have covered the 3.5 spread for Las Vegas too. Of course, the Raiders came out on third-and-goal at the 5 with three tight ends and threw a hopeless pass into the flat at a fullback. WTF was that? Raiders settled for a field goal, Chargers won on a TD. Not to mention this came after Jon Gruden bypassed a Hail Mary for a 65-yard field goal to win the game that never even had a chance to be kicked.

Betting on football is insane, but let’s do it again Saturday, Sunday, and Monday.

The Steelers really need their heads examined if they can’t beat the Bengals. I’m not crazy about the spread here, but I’m more confident the Steelers can win 24-10 in Cincinnati than I am in being able to pick Zac Taylor out of a lineup.

Why the Saints are Really 8-0 Without Drew Brees Since 2019

Maybe I should wait for the Saints to extend their winning streak to 10 games before writing this, but consider it the beginning of the build-up for possibly the biggest game this regular season when the Chiefs (11-1) face the Saints (10-2) in Week 15.

Both No. 1 seeds could swing on the outcome of that game, and it could end up being the return of quarterback Drew Brees, who has been out with fractured ribs and a collapsed lung.

The Saints have won their last three games without Brees, starting Taysom Hill in his place. You may also recall that the Saints were 5-0 last year with Teddy Bridgewater starting for an injured Brees.

That adds up to an 8-0 record without Brees the last two years, and that’s not something you can sneak past the mainstream media.

It doesn’t take much scrolling in the replies to such tweets to see labels of “system QB” being thrown at Brees. Including 2020 in his record, Brees is now one of four notable QBs I have tracked that saw the backup win over 60% of starts when the starter was out.

The 11-6 record is not too far off from New England’s 13-6 record without Brady. Naturally, the worst football fans on the internet see this as making Brees equally a system QB if Brady is one.

The fact is the Saints have gone 8-0 without Brees the last two seasons by playing great team football against mostly bad teams instead of just relying on great quarterback efficiency.

If a team is well coached with a good roster, then there is a chance for success without the intended quarterback. These teams understand that the defense has to play even better to compensate for the loss of offensive efficiency, provided there is a decline with the backup (there usually is). The running game has to step up too. The special teams need to be solid.

Let’s look at how the Saints have actually done the last two years with and without Brees.

The Passing Stats

Teddy Bridgewater was a starting QB in Minnesota before his horrific knee injury. He’s a starting QB again in 2020 with Carolina. He’s not a top 10 guy and has limitations, but he is a starter in this league. Hill was still recently available as a tight end in fantasy football leagues. He’s a much bigger project than usual for the position — more than backup Jameis Winston would have been — but so far Sean Payton is making it work, and we know he has more confidence and faith in Hill than anyone on Earth.

On the surface, the passing stats for Bridgewater/Hill look respectable compared to Brees the last two years. Brees has completed 74% of his passes at 7.66 YPA (45 TD, 7 INT) while the others are at 68.6% and 7.31 YPA (11 TD, 3 INT). Certainly better numbers than the average backup in this league. Remember, Payton gets paid well to coach too. Those backups also provide more rushing value than Brees as Hill already has five rushing touchdowns this season.

However, once you start factoring in the down-and-distance on these plays, the notable difference in sack rates (3.8% for Brees, 6.5% for Hill/Teddy), and adjust the numbers for opponents, you get a different picture.

By ESPN’s QBR, you get a top 3 season with Brees the last two years that turns into a below-average one with Hill and Bridgewater if they had enough attempts to qualify for the season rankings.

2020 QBR

  • Drew Brees – 81.0 (ranked 3rd)
  • Taysom Hill – 54.3 (would rank 26th)

2019 QBR

  • Drew Brees – 73.3 (ranked 3rd)
  • Teddy Bridgewater – 50.9 (would rank 22nd)

Since joining the Saints in 2006, Brees has never ranked lower than 9th (2017) in a season in QBR.

We don’t have QBR for the days of Johnny Unitas and Roger Staubach, but when Tom Brady missed the 2008 season with a torn ACL, the Patriots led the league in first downs and Matt Cassel, a QB who hadn’t started since high school, finished 9th in QBR (63.4). When Jimmy Garoppolo had to start two games in 2016 for a suspended Brady, his QBR was a scintillating 87.5.

That’s a lot different than when Peyton Manning missed the 2011 season for Indianapolis. Curtis Painter’s 30.9 QBR would have ranked next to last. Dan Orlovsky’s 47.3 QBR would have ranked 22nd. Manning was at his professional worst in his final season with Denver in 2015 (44.2 QBR ranked 28th), but it’s not like Brock Osweiler (54.9, ranked 20th) was a significant upgrade. Manning reclaimed his starting job in Week 17 and the rest is history.

Likewise, Ben Roethlisberger missed the last 14.5 games last season and Mason Rudolph finished dead last in QBR (36.2). Devlin Hodges (31.8) would have ranked even lower if he had a few more plays to qualify. And for those keeping score at home, Brett Hundley (44.8) ranked 24th in QBR for the 2017 Packers when Aaron Rodgers broke his collarbone for the second time. QBR actually despised Green Bay’s Matt Flynn in 2013. His 18.3 QBR would be the second-worst season since 2006, only beating out 2010 Jimmy Clausen (13.8).

If you need that in a chart, then here you go.

This is not the first time I’ve looked at this.

So if you’re questioning why there’s still a stigma with Brady being more of a system QB than the other elites of his era, this is why in a nutshell. You see less of an offensive drop-off when you take him out of things. It’s also because the coach there was Bill Belichick, and love him or hate him, the guy knows how to coach.

The Other Offensive Stats

So we shouldn’t expect the Saints to have the same passing dominance without Brees, but what about the impact on scoring and the other offensive stats to get to 8-0?

Note: This won’t be a perfect comparison since Brees left the 2019 Rams loss early with injury and did not play the second half of the 2020 49ers win due to injury. Also, Taysom Hill is sprinkled into every game, because Sean Payton.

With Brees (15-5 record): 30.2 points per game, 380.1 yards per game, 22.9 first downs per game, 44.9% on third down.

Without Brees (8-0 record): 25.1 points per game, 353.8 yards per game, 20.8 first downs per game, 43.2% on third down.

As expected, the Saints with Brees score over 5 more points per game while averaging more yards, first downs and a higher conversion rate on third down. Not astronomically higher numbers, but still significant.

The scoring also doesn’t factor out return touchdowns. The Saints have five of those since 2019, but two of them came in the 33-27 win in Seattle that Bridgewater started. That helped a lot that day.

The offense has been more than serviceable without Brees, but it’s not the same level of greatness without him. It’s had an interesting effect on the main skill players in this offense too. Michael Thomas has gone over 100 yards in both Atlanta games with Hill as his passer, but Brees has rarely been able to play with Thomas this year because of injury.

The more interesting case is Alvin Kamara, who was having the best receiving season of his career in order to make up for the absence of Thomas (and Emmanuel Sanders some weeks). In three games with Hill as the starter, Kamara has 3 catches for 7 yards. In Week 11 against Atlanta, Kamara had the first game of his career without a reception. He followed that up with -2 receiving yards on one catch against Denver. He had 2 catches for 9 yards in the Atlanta rematch on Sunday.

As for the running game, the Saints averaged 113 yards and 4.26 YPC for Brees compared to 147 yards and 4.55 YPC for the backups. So they are running it more and a little better without Brees, but that can be misleading when Hill is a big part of the running game. He already was before taking over as the starter, but since Brees’ latest injury, Hill is getting over 10 runs a game now. He had 14 carries for 83 yards on Sunday in Atlanta, his most prolific rushing game yet. Again, these numbers can be difficult to present since Payton loves Hill so much and was playing him while Brees was the quarterback. For instance, Hill had 54 rushing yards, his second-highest game, in the 38-3 rout of the Buccaneers this year.

Ultimately, everything with this offense without Brees points to still being solid, but not as great. So what’s the real reason for 8-0?

The Defense and the Schedule

While the Saints lose over 5 points per game in scoring without Brees, they more than make up for it on defense.

  • Points allowed per game with Brees: 23.1
  • Points allowed per game without Brees: 15.0

Can a big-time offensive mind get his team to go 8-0 when they’re only allowing 15 points a week? Absolutely. The Saints won two games last year when they didn’t score 14 points (12-10 vs. Dallas, 13-6 at Jaguars). They have one such win with Brees since 2006.

Seth Galina had a breakdown of the EPA for the defense in these games:

By Pro Football Reference’s EPA measure, the Saints’ five best defensive games this season are their last five games (top six are the last six too). It has been quite a run, and sure, getting to play the 2020 Broncos without a quarterback helps juice the numbers, especially for the pass defense. But isn’t that part of the reason this split exists? They probably beat Denver with Drew Lock anyway, but it’s likely not a 31-3 win that covered up a poor game by Hill.
  • With Brees: Saints’ average spread is -6 since 2019 (10-10 ATS)
  • Without Brees: Saints’ average spread is -1.5 since 2019 (8-0 ATS)

Vegas doesn’t like the Saints as much without Brees, but they are an impressive 8-0 ATS without him. However, this is where the schedule and improved play on defense intersect. The Saints are not beating good teams without Brees. In fact, out of the eight opponents, only the 2019 Seahawks made the playoffs as a wild card team. We know the 2020 Falcons (4-8) and Broncos (4-8) are not going to finish with a winning record. Brees played at least seven likely playoff teams (maybe eight if Las Vegas makes it) in his 20-game sample.

That Seattle win was the first game without Brees and it was the one with the worst point spread for the Saints (+5). It was also the game where the Saints scored two return touchdowns and built a 33-14 lead before Russell Wilson led a couple late touchdown drives to make it look closer at 33-27. The last touchdown came on the final snap, an untimed down at that. Bridgewater passed for 177 yards with 146 of them going to Kamara (92) and Thomas (54). He was solid, but not spectacular. The Saints also had a 28-yard touchdown drive set up by the Seahawks turning the ball over on downs.

It was a great team win for New Orleans, but it’s also the only game where you wonder if the Saints would have won if Brees was the quarterback. Would they have still scored two return touchdowns if they thought they could just rely on the offense to do its normal thing? We’ll never know.

Beat the Chiefs with Hill and Then We’ll Talk

What’s next for the Saints? Why, of course, they get the 3-8-1 Eagles with rookie Jalen Hurts making his first start. Now this could be a trap game as Doug Pederson will want to look good on his decision to bench Carson Wentz. The Eagles have been within one score in the fourth quarter of every game this season, and there was a spark provided by Hurts in Green Bay on Sunday. So it’s an interesting game for multiple reasons, but it’s also one where you think the Saints would win comfortably if Brees was the quarterback.

For the Saints to continue the winning streak and keep Green Bay out of the No. 1 seed, they will have to get Brees back in the lineup. It is hard to see Hill outscoring Patrick Mahomes in Week 15, but then again, 2020 has been anything but predictable.

NFL Stat Oddity: Week 9

Clue: The day after Donald Trump lost the election, this famous friend lost 38-3 on Sunday Night Football, ruining the season debut for Antonio Brown, his new roommate and other alleged rapist friend.

Answer: Who is Tom Brady?

We’ll miss you, Alex Trebek. R.I.P.

Previous weeks in Stat Oddity:

Saints at Buccaneers: STOP THE COUNT, THEY’RE DEAD!

Wow, that was insane.

With the NFC West regressing, Seattle not having to play GB/TB/NO this year, the NFC East’s historic sucking, and the Packers in stasis without any real tough games left, you could easily argue this Saints-Buccaneers game was the biggest NFC matchup in the 2020 regular season. The winner would move into first place with Tampa Bay eying a No. 1 seed thanks to destroying Green Bay.

But if you thought that 38-10 rout of Green Bay was what made Tampa Bay the Super Bowl favorite in the NFC (if not NFL), then where are you now after the Saints (6-2) handed them a 38-3 home loss that was the biggest ass kicking of the season?

The 35-point margin is the largest halfway through 2020.

This was an absolutely unreal performance by the Saints on offense and defense. When Tampa Bay crushed Green Bay, it was literally a meltdown by Aaron Rodgers. He essentially threw two pick-sixes (one returned to the 2) and just crumbled from there. This game, it was pure domination. The Saints started with four touchdowns on five drives, only getting stopped when Jared Cook lost a fumble at the 2 after trying too hard to score. Meanwhile, Tom Brady came out ice cold and had four three-and-outs before he threw the first of his three interceptions on the night. Rob Gronkowski looked awful, Mike Evans struggled again with the Saints, and Antonio Brown (31 yards) was not much of a factor in his debut. Brown did at least break up a pick or else Brady would have had a four-interception night.

The Buccaneers finished with 194 yards, were stopped in a goal-to-go situation for the first time all year, and were 1-for-9 on third down (0-for-3 on fourth down). Even when it felt like the Saints were keeping the door open for a comeback, namely Cook’s fumble and his third-down drop that led to a field goal try instead of a touchdown, Brady and the Bucs never threatened. Their only points came on a cheap field goal late in the fourth quarter to avoid a 38-0 shutout.

Tampa Bay set an NFL record with just 5 rushes, and one of those was a kneeldown by backup Blaine Gabbert to end the game. The Buccaneers’ vaunted defense even made Taysom Hill look unstoppable. Hill was the game’s leading rusher (54 yards), completed two passes for 48 yards, and caught a 21-yard pass.

Drew Brees was fantastic with four touchdown passes, doing so for the record 38th time, and regaining the all-time lead by three over Brady.

It helped that Michael Thomas (5 catches, 51 yards) and Emmanuel Sanders (4 catches, 38 yards, TD) returned to the wide receiver corps, but the Saints were as dialed in as a team can be in this game. They tied the league record with 12 different players making a reception.

You still suspect these are both playoff teams, but that makes it even more shocking just how one-sided this was. Since 1970, only 13 games between playoff teams saw one take a 31+ point lead at halftime, and only one of those games (2010 Patriots at Bears) was by the road team.

For the first time in his career, Brady has been swept by a divisional opponent. For the first time in his career, Brady has a division rival worth a damn. Funny how that works. I’ve been saying this for years about the historic advantage the AFC East provided Brady in securing high playoff seeds over the years. We’ll never see another quarterback have such an advantage in his division for two decades like Brady did. The minute he left for a division with a first-ballot HOFer in Brees and an MVP like Matt Ryan, he’s already been swept by the Saints.

In my preseason predictions, I had the Saints finishing 13-3 and the No.1 seed while the Buccaneers at 11-5 and No. 5 seed. We’ll see where this goes, but the Saints are in a good position now. Both teams still have to host the Chiefs and Vikings and play the Falcons twice this year.

Does this make the Saints the new favorite in the NFC? Perhaps, it is a flawed conference where it’s hard to trust anyone right now. If this is what the Saints can look like at “full strength” then you must think they have as good of a shot as anyone.

All I know is, much like when the Chiefs went to Baltimore in Week 3, the Saints left no doubt as to whether they are a nightmare matchup for the Buccaneers. But then you think about Tampa Bay trailing by double digits in five games this year, blowing a 13-point lead in Chicago, now this domination, and it starts to become clear: Green Bay was the anomaly game this season.

Now we just have to see if the Buccaneers can ever put things together this season, or if the Saints end up being the team that goes on a run that lands them back on this field in February.

Small Game Steelers, But Spare Me the Worst 8-0 Team Ever Talk

My fear of the Steelers blowing off a small game to Dallas was well warranted. If you know this team well, you know they always underperform in games like this. The 15-point spread was always a bit too high coming off the three emotional wins in a row, and the fact that Dallas had an unknown fourth-stringer (Garrett Gilbert) at quarterback with a strong cast of skill players around him. This was going to be competitive, but it really shouldn’t have been the toughest win yet of the season for the 8-0 Steelers.

This was like the Steelers’ 2011 Colts/Curtis Painter or 2011 Chiefs/Tyler Palko or 2017 Colts/Jacoby Brissett wins. Yeah, they were ugly, but at least they were still wins.

The lack of an offensive identity is starting to catch up with Pittsburgh after a second straight slow start where they wasted four drives while the Cowboys jumped out to a 13-0 lead. The run defense also had some issues again and Gilbert played admirably for someone without experience, but the Steelers are taking too long to figure out the opponent.

Still, it was yet another game where they finished with 24 points, Ben Roethlisberger threw for 306 yards and three touchdowns, and they had zero turnovers. They probably should have had 26 or 27 points, but Chris Boswell was shaky on the day with two missed extra points (one blocked). Mike Tomlin also screwed up big time by going for a fourth-and-1 with 43 seconds left to seal the game when he should have kicked a short field goal to take a 27-19 lead. You can’t worry about a block there. It’s a routine kick and they already blocked one. Getting two in one game would be crazy improbable. Keeping yourself open to a loss with a touchdown is not the right move, and for the second week in a row the Steelers had to knock down a pass at the goal line to save the win.

Alas, the Steelers join some elite company as the fifth team to start 8-0 and score at least 24 points in every game: 2007 Patriots, 2009 Saints, 2011 Packers, and 2015 Patriots.

Now I would be the first person to start a debate on the worst 8-0 team in NFL history, but I cannot see how the 2020 Steelers win that title.

Not when the 2013 Chiefs exist, a team that started 9-0 by beating several backup quarterbacks with a boring brand of offense when Andy Reid was getting his feet wet in Kansas City with Alex Smith. Once that team started playing real quarterbacks (Peyton Manning, Philip Rivers, Andrew Luck) and teams, they finished 2-6 and blew a 28-point lead in their first playoff game.

I also refuse to buy that the Steelers aren’t better than the 2008 Titans, who started 10-0 in Jeff Fisher’s final playoff season with the team. That team finished 13-3 and had 13 touchdown passes with Kerry Collins as the main starter. They also went one-and-done, losing to the Ravens at home.

I would also bring up the 2015 Panthers, who started 14-0, and I was always saying they were the worst 15-1 team in NFL history (lost the Super Bowl to Denver and finished 6-10 the next year). When the Panthers were 8-0, they were doing it with the best defense in the NFC and Cam Newton was not having a great season. He was just getting ready to go on a big run, but he certainly didn’t have the numbers when they were 8-0 (14 TD, 9 INT, 53.7% complete, 7.40 YPA, 81.4 PR).

Roethlisberger has not been hitting the deep balls this year and it is getting frustrating. I think he can still turn that around, but similar to the Saints and Drew Brees, we should acknowledge that the way they do things now still is effective. It puts points on the board and wins games. Combine that with a defense that may not be anywhere close to historic, but even just merely good puts you a leg up on most of the league in 2020, and you have a pretty solid contender in a year where no one is blowing the field away.

Clearly, I do not see the Steelers going 16-0. They’ll slip up eventually, but I still think winning in Baltimore was a huge deal, a better win than most teams can point to this season, and they have a chance to complete a sweep of the Ravens on Thanksgiving.

I would love nothing more than to see the Steelers play the Chiefs in the AFC Championship Game, but until that feels more likely, let’s not make the whole season about that. Just like we shouldn’t overreact to this 24-19 (should have been 27-19) win in Dallas. Did Tampa Bay not just win 25-23 over the Giants? How did Sunday night go for the so-called NFC favorites? A New Orleans team that was in overtime with Chicago a week ago just destroyed them 38-3 in their house. That same New Orleans team squeaked by Carolina a couple weeks ago in a 27-24 game. Carolina just came up a FG short of knocking off the Chiefs in Arrowhead.

Pandemic football is a little different. You never know who will be available to play in a given week these days. If you want to put the Chiefs in a class of their own as the defending champs, that’s fine. But there’s no reason to say the Steelers aren’t up there with any other team in the league (Ravens, Saints, Buccaneers, Packers, Seahawks, etc.).

The Latest Records for the Chiefs

STOP THE COUNT! After a 33-31 decision against Carolina, Patrick Mahomes is now 45-0 in the NFL. That’s actually 45 games and 45 times he’s had a lead, but Sunday was one of the toughest wins yet this year for the Chiefs, now 8-1 and going into a bye week.

More history was made by Kansas City on Sunday. Mahomes threw his 100th touchdown pass in his 40th regular-season game, setting a new record (Dan Marino, 44 games).

The Chiefs also broke a record for the second time in the Mahomes era for consecutive games with at least 23 points (playoffs included):

This deserves some real attention. It’s practically unheard of in the NFL to break a record streak, have one off game, then immediately start up another record-setting streak. I showed you the only other team to reach 20 games was Joe Gibbs’ Redskins. The No. 4 spot is a tie at 19 games between Peyton Manning’s Broncos (2012-13) and Tom Brady’s Patriots (2006-07). The second-longest streak for the Patriots was 15 games in 2012 while the second-longest streak for a Manning-led team was 13 games for the 2004 Colts.

Now scoring is up in the NFL in the Mahomes era, but we just don’t see other teams in the league approaching these numbers. The longest streaks since 2017 that don’t belong to the Chiefs are 12 games by the 2018 Rams and a pair of 11-game streaks by the Ravens – oddly, one of them happened in 2017-18 pre-Lamar Jackson. The second-longest active streak of 23-point games is nine by Seattle.

We risk taking Mahomes for granted this early into his career, but that may be changing since this latest win seems to reignited the MVP race this year. Mahomes is up to 25 touchdown passes and one interception this season, which has never been done before in the NFL to start a season. He just threw for another 372 yards and four touchdowns in a 33-31 win after his running game finished with 10 carries for 30 yards. Mahomes is now second in QBR (85.3) and the Chiefs could set a modern record for the most yards per drive in a season as they were over 43 yards coming into the week.

This is the most enjoyable team to watch in the NFL today. The skill and creativity are second to none, and they find plenty of different ways to win now. Sunday was a little tougher than usual, but that’s always fun to watch too. It was actually the first time this season the Kansas City defense had to uphold a one-score lead in the fourth quarter. The game was right there for the win for Carolina, but Teddy Bridgewater is 0-6 at leading game-winning drives this season, the worst record in the NFL. Only needing a field goal, he took too much time with completions not going out of bounds and I did not agree with the final sequence when they bypassed a Hail Mary for a 67-yard field goal that was well off.

So I’ll miss not being able to watch the Chiefs in Week 10, but the march towards history resumes in Vegas in Week 11 when the team will look to avenge its only loss in the last 18 games.

Pete Carroll: What a Day for an Extension

While the Saints found a defense on Sunday night, the Seahawks continued to exhibit none after a 44-34 loss in Buffalo. The Seahawks are the first team in NFL history to have nine straight games where they scored and allowed at least 23 points, which includes last January’s 28-23 playoff loss.

That is a hell of a change for a team that once led the NFL in scoring defense four years in a row from 2012 to 2015. Those days are long over, we have gone from Legion of Boom to Let Russ Cook, and Pete Carroll just signed on for a multi-year extension.

Not the greatest timing right before this loss that makes you question if the Seahawks are headed for another No. 5 seed, a Wild Card win over a terrible NFC East winner, and then a divisional road loss.

This was a strange game in that Russell Wilson turned the ball over four times, the Seahawks registered seven sacks on Josh Allen, but Allen still completed 31-of-38 passes for 415 yards, three touchdowns and zero turnovers. It is the kind of game he would never have in 2018-19, but Allen is better this year and the Seahawks are historically bad against the pass.

The 2020 Seahawks have allowed 2,897 net passing yards, the most through eight games in NFL history. The previous record belonged to the 2002 Chiefs (2,589 yards). Apparently, trading good picks for a safety (Jamal Adams) isn’t a cure-all for the defense. Adams returned to action on Sunday and it was the nadir of the season so far as Allen had 282 yards and all three touchdowns at halftime alone.

What really caught my eye were some words from Carroll after the game about his surprise that Buffalo abandoned the run and came out passing:

Look, I know I’m just a data nerd who doesn’t leave the house, but it literally would take minutes to go through Buffalo games in 2020 and see that an Allen-dominant offense (his passes and runs) that ignores RB carries is something they are comfortable with this year. Here is some proof I grabbed in a couple minutes:

  • Jets (Week 1): 38 Allen dropbacks to 6 handoffs in first half
  • Raiders: 20 Allen dropbacks to 9 handoffs in first half
  • Titans: 24 Allen dropbacks to 10 handoffs in first half (38 to 13 through 3Q)
  • Jets (Rematch): 25 Allen dropbacks to 4 handoffs in first half
  • Chiefs: 27 Allen dropbacks to 14 handoffs through 3Q

It’s not that crazy for Buffalo to do this, and sure enough it treated the Seahawks like the Jets. Allen had 32 dropbacks to two handoffs in the first half against Seattle, so they took it to another level since it was working so easily.

I love the stat that Buffalo was 1-12 against playoff teams in 2018-19 and already lost this year to the Titans and Chiefs. The Bills usually don’t beat teams like Seattle, but Seattle is a team with a quarterback who is usually amazing – he wasn’t on Sunday – and a defense that is terrible.

While Carroll and company finally seem to understand this year that passing early and often is a good strategy, they still seem oblivious to the idea that other teams know this too and attack Seattle’s pass defense accordingly.

Carroll said he didn’t recognize his team on Sunday, but it looked like more of the same to me with too many giveaways to make it a hopeless road trip. Sean McVay and Jared Goff are next with the Rams, who also feature a defense that held Wilson to two field goals in the last meeting (28-12 loss in 2019).

We’ll see if there are any adjustments.

Dalvin Cook Actually Matters

If the Vikings are going to recover from a 1-5 start, it was sparked by Dalvin Cook’s domination of division foes the last two weeks. He scored four touchdowns and had 226 yards from scrimmage in last week’s upset win over Green Bay. On Sunday, he rushed for 206 yards in a 34-20 win over Detroit to get Minnesota to 3-5.

Add this to the file on “Why the Hell Is Matt Patricia Still Employed?”. The Vikings became the eighth offense since 1940 to average 8.0 yards per carry and 10 net yards per pass attempt in a game. It has only happened two other times since the 1970 merger: 2017 Chiefs vs. Jets (in a 38-31 loss) and 2012 49ers vs. Bills (45-3 win).

The Vikings just had one of the most explosive, but balanced offensive performances in NFL history. Minnesota finished with 275 rushing yards and averaged 8.1 yards per carry. Kirk Cousins completed 13-of-20 passes for 220 yards, three touchdowns and only one sack. His net yards per attempt was 10.1.

With an upcoming schedule that features the Bears, Cowboys, Panthers and Jaguars, it is not a stretch to say the Vikings could still win 9-10 games and reach the playoffs.

Almost, Atlanta

Well, Georgia blew one big lead this week, but for that I am grateful. How about the sports teams though? Can’t the Falcons ever just win a game with ease? You know, like the 2016 NFC Championship Game when they routed Green Bay?

On Sunday, Atlanta punted to Denver with 5:38 left and a 34-13 lead. That’s an easy win and 4-point cover, right? Think again. The Broncos drove 69 yards (nice) in 1:45, forced a three-and-out that included one incomplete pass, then drove 82 yards in 90 seconds to make it 34-27. Atlanta just needed one first down to ice the game, but botched that badly. On a 3rd-and-6 run, the Falcons were penalized for illegal formation. Denver declined that penalty, but it still stopped the clock. So instead of punting the ball back at 13 seconds, the Falcons had to punt at 50 seconds. Huge mistake.

Fortunately, the defense forced Denver into a pathetic four-and-out to end the game, but you can just see how this team (now 3-6 when it should be 6-3) is going to torture its fans with impressive starts against the Buccaneers and Saints before it all goes horribly wrong later this season.

New AFC Three Stooges: Texans, Bengals, Chargers

Unless you’re the Colts in Week 1, the 2020 Jaguars (1-7) have been like a Pandemic Relief Package granting wins to their opponents, especially those in dire situations. Houston completed the season sweep with a 27-25 win over the Jaguars, though rookie quarterback Jake Luton was more than respectable in his first start. He led a late touchdown drive (capped off by his 13-yard scramble score) but was unable to complete the two-point conversion to tie the game.

Houston is 2-0 against Jacksonville and 0-6 against the rest of the NFL this year. A couple other AFC teams are in similar spots. The Chargers are 2-6 after another close loss to the Raiders as their only wins have been against the Bengals and the Jaguars; the latter being rookie QB Justin Herbert’s lone win so far. The Jaguars were also the first NFL win for Joe Burrow and the Bengals.

That means out of six combined wins for the Texans, Chargers and Bengals this year, four of them are against Jacksonville, one against each other (LAC-CIN), and the Bengals also beat the Titans recently. Don’t forget the Texans took the Titans to overtime, their closest loss of the season so far, and even the Jaguars only had a 33-30 loss to the Titans in Week 2.

For the second time this season, Herbert saw his receiver drop a game-winning touchdown on the final play of the game after Donald Parham could not hang on in the end zone on a play that was initially ruled a touchdown. Mike Williams also did not come down with a ball on the previous snap. Against Carolina, the Chargers botched that incredible lateral (dropped by Austin Ekeler) that would have won that game too. Burrow can relate. In Week 1, A.J. Green caught a game-winning touchdown against the Chargers, but it was negated for offensive pass interference. Deshaun Watson can relate too. He thought he had a touchdown pass on fourth and goal down 31-23 against Minnesota, but it was overturned on replay to an incompletion and game over.

The futures may be bright for these teams given Burrow and Herbert’s rookie performances, and Watson getting a new coach in 2021, but for now they just cannot seem to find a win unless it’s coming against Jacksonville or each other.

Updates on the NFL’s Passing Touchdown Record

Tom Brady (552) is chasing Drew Brees (555) for the NFL’s all-time touchdown pass record, while Aaron Rodgers (377) still has an outside shot of passing both if he chooses to play long enough (and if they ever retire).

With Brady kicking off Week 5 against Chicago on Thursday night, it wouldn’t surprise me if he goes all out — think excessive throws from inside the 3-yard line — to throw three or four touchdowns to get at least a share of a record he has yet to hold.

It’s unclear if this will be the final season for Brees or Brady, but this should be a tight race in 2020, and neither may be able to entirely wipe out Peyton Manning from the leaderboard when you break down the touchdown passes by yards gained.

In the following chart, you can see the record holder for the most touchdown passes that gained at least X amount of yards from 1 to 99. So for the entry of 10, that means Peyton Manning threw 324 touchdown passes that gained at least 10 yards, still beating out Brees (320), Brett Favre (298), and Brady (293) for the time being.

CLICK HERE TO ENLARGE

Brees is within striking distance of basically the whole 1-45 block, but there are some amusing entries in the middle column that show how different the NFL used to be in regards to the long ball. John Hadl and the great Johnny Unitas threw long touchdown passes with amazing frequency that still holds up today. Eli Manning making a few appearances is also interesting. Ben Roethlisberger has a chance to take over the 80+ yard plays, but Aaron Rodgers isn’t far behind for the 70+ yard touchdowns. He has 18 of those, or one behind Brees.

We can also see some interesting things when we go by the game-by-game progression of these records.

CLICK HERE TO ENLARGE

Brees is at 555 touchdown passes in his 279th game. Brady will play in his 290th game on Thursday night. You can see Rodgers is ready to do some damage to this leaderboard after taking over from Dan Marino at Game 111 of his career. Remember, this includes the seven games he didn’t start as Favre’s backup in 2005-07. Rodgers is at 377 touchdown passes in 185 games, giving him a share of the record with Brees at 193 games. So that’s an eight-game cushion.

He still has a long way to go, but Patrick Mahomes may very well wipe out Marino, Rodgers, and anyone else in his path on this chart. Mahomes has a tie of the record at 39 games with Marino, but he’s only played 35 games so far. He should become the fastest player to 100 touchdown passes, then we’ll see from there.

NFL Week 3 Preview: Packers at Saints

The NFL’s Week 3 schedule is so packed I wanted to highlight earlier than usual Sunday Night Football’s big NFC matchup between the Packers (2-0) and Saints (1-1) in New Orleans. This is the fifth and potentially final matchup between future HOF quarterbacks Aaron Rodgers and Drew Brees, who have split the first four meetings and actually haven’t met since 2014. The Saints are 2-0 at home against Rodgers with 51 and 44 points scored in those games, but this offense right now doesn’t look like anything we’re used to seeing from New Orleans.

Thanks to Minnesota’s pointless upset in last year’s playoffs, we didn’t get to see these teams play last year when the Saints lost out on a first-round bye despite a stronger regular season than Green Bay because of the tie-breaking system. So we get the matchup now in a premiere prime time slot with the Saints actually being a 3-point favorite, but Drew Brees is throwing some major red flags our way, and one problem is he’s not throwing them that far either.

Drew Brees: Is 2020 the End?

Everything else is dying in 2020, so why won’t this be the end of this peak run of HOF QB play from Brees that he’s been on since 2004?

Brees has already talked about this being his last NFL season before retirement, but it’s not going to be a happy swansong if the first two weeks are any indicator of what’s to come. Despite the Week 1 win over Tom Brady and the Buccaneers where the Saints scored 34 points, the offense actually didn’t play well. They scored 27 points on 12 drives, one of which was a late field goal after the Bucs botched a kick return. Brees struggled to throw for 160 yards, only connecting on a deep ball after a pump fake late in the game. According to ESPN, Brees’ air yards per pass are the lowest in the first two weeks of a season since Brett Favre in 2009. Now that was the great Favre year in Minnesota and not the bad one in 2010 that made his retirement an obvious decision, but this is still alarming stuff from Brees. While he’s been throwing very short passes since 2017, especially on third down where some of his efficiency has declined, he’s taking things to young Alex Smith territory so far this season and it hasn’t worked as well for the Saints with Michael Thomas suffering a Week 1 high ankle sprain.

We know Thomas doesn’t stretch the field much, but that highly efficient connection the two have that can consistently gain 5, 8, 12 yard chunks has been crucial to the Saints offense. Emmanuel Sanders has had a slow start in his first year with the team so far. It’s mostly been checkdowns to Alvin Kamara so far.

However, some took the 34-24 upset loss in Las Vegas on Monday night to extremes, proving the point once again that the scoreboard really tricks people’s minds. The Saints actually were better on offense in the Week 2 loss without Thomas than they were in the Week 1 win where he played over 80% of the snaps and had 17 receiving yards. On one hand, Tampa Bay’s defense looks considerably better than the Raiders so far. Alas, the Saints scored 24 points on 9 drives on Monday night, and that ninth drive was one in the final 65 seconds where they kind of went through the motions, conceding defeat early instead of trying to get a quick field goal, onside kick recovery and Hail Mary — that may have needed Jameis Winston’s arm — to tie the game.

The bigger problem than Brees on Monday night was the defense that allowed Derek Carr, after a rough start with some embarrassing sacks, to pick apart the defense on long, time-consuming scoring drives. The Raiders scored on six of their last seven drives, and it would have been seven straight had Jalen Richard not fumbled. Richard also scored a 20-yard touchdown run on a 3rd-and-10. That kind of terrible defense brings back memories of the Saints of old, but without the high-powered offense to do better than a 34-24 defeat.

This is bad news when Aaron Rodgers, a more dangerous QB than Carr, is coming to town with a hot hand. That’s why the Saints will have to be much better early in the game on offense. Brees was far from great on Monday night, and he did piss away a drive before halftime with a bad interception, but when you only get eight real drives in the course of the game, it’s hard to be expected to do a lot better than 24 points. Not to mention on the Saints’ only third quarter drive, they self-destructed with three penalties, including a very questionable call on Sanders that led to a 2nd-and-31 situation. That’s a tough situation even if Patrick Mahomes is your QB.

So it was a horrible night on defense that should have been the bigger story for New Orleans, but of course the attention goes to the quarterback. People are already calling for him to be benched for Winston or to retire midseason, and it just reminds me that there’s too many days in between games, so people resort to filling that time with nonsense. There are alarming issues with Brees not showing his usual pinpoint accuracy or really attacking anything past 10 yards, but he’s not at the point where he needs benched. The Saints will just have to get a bit more creative without Thomas, which is why I don’t understand Sean Payton using a great trick play at the end of a sure win against Tampa Bay and not saving it for more desperate times.

With the Saints possibly slipping to 1-2 this week, desperate times are coming quickly.

Prime Aaron Rodgers: Is He Back?

If the 2020 Saints are the 2015 Broncos because of the old quarterback, then I guess they’re going to kick Green Bay’s ass on SNF, right?

That’s a reference to the 2015 SNF game when the 6-0 Packers, coming off a bye week, played the 6-0 Broncos with Peyton Manning in his final zombie-fied season. It’s one of the weirder games in NFL history in that the Broncos destroyed Green Bay 29-10 with huge performances on both sides of the ball, including the old QB, and it really seemed to set Rodgers, who only passed for 77 yards, into a tailspin after a big start to the season.

Before that game Rodgers was on a pretty incredible run of play that included two MVP awards and a Super Bowl MVP. But look at the drop in his statistics from the start of his career and ever since he returned from that bye week to face the 2015 Broncos:

You can see the YPA drop over 1.2 yards, the win percentage and passer rating down 10 points, and his touchdown pass rate has dropped by 1.46 percentage points. Sacks have been about the same, though he’s lost more fumbles per play and his completion percentage has dropped 3.3 percentage points as he’s fallen in love with throwing the ball away, which helps lower his interceptions.

Things have just not been at the peak level for Rodgers for years, and the coaching change to Matt LaFleur last year also didn’t have the desired impact. However, maybe it’s taking two years to have an impact as Rodgers is off to his best start in years. His Week 1 game in Minnesota was arguably as good as any game he’s had since 2015.

The 2020 Packers are the first team since the 2009 Saints (Payton-Brees’ Super Bowl year) to score at least 42 points in the first two games of a season. They’re only the sixth NFL team to do so since 1940. It’s not just Rodgers as RB Aaron Jones is off to a huge start to the season and the Packers lead the NFL in rushing yards (417) and yards per carry (6.2). Now they’ve only played stumbling division rivals so far, but the Packers look to be in great shape offensively so far. By Pro Football Reference’s metrics, they had their 2nd and 3rd best games by offensive EPA under LaFleur the last two weeks, and Rodgers has the second-lowest pass pressure rate (11.7%) as his line is doing a great job of protection.

If there’s a reason to be pessimistic, it’s the hamstring injury for Davante Adams. He may not play Sunday and he’s still the most trusted receiver on the team, catching 17 of his first 20 targets this year. It would be a shame for this game to go without Adams and Thomas as each team’s WR1, but that’s possibly reality and it’s only Week 3.

While the Saints need this one more than Green Bay, the fact of the matter is it’s a new season, and the Packers look like the superior team with the better QB right now.

The Pick

Under normal circumstances, I would be all in for the Saints rebounding with a win in this game. With a loud crowd amped up for Sunday night and Brees bringing his usual prime time mastery and accuracy, this is a spot where I’d expect Green Bay to fold and allow a lot of points in a loss.

But this year is different. The crowd is empty, the Saints are not playing complementary football, Green Bay and Rodgers are hot, and Brees sadly looks like what you’d expect to see from a 41-year-old QB. Maybe he takes all the criticism this week and it motivates him to a vintage performance, but if he doesn’t, then I think we’re just seeing the early stages of a rough season for New Orleans. The Packers going to 3-0 and dropping the Saints to 1-2 with a head-to-head tie-breaker would be huge for them in a conference where the rest of the South and North don’t look imposing so far, the East might be a bigger joke than last year, and the West is going to rough each other up all year.

Final: Packers 31, Saints 24