NFL Stat Oddity: Week 5

Now that the Atlanta Falcons have fired head coach Dan Quinn, we’ll see if we continue to get improbable losses out of that team, but there were plenty of other stat oddities to go around from Sunday’s action.

Previous weeks:

Raiders Came at the King, Didn’t Miss

When you’re in your seventh season like Derek Carr and you still haven’t started a playoff game, you have to treat a win like this as something extra special. The Raiders (3-2) are now fully alive in the AFC West race after ending Kansas City’s 13-game winning streak, a signature win for Carr.

Carr is now 3-10 against the Chiefs, but all three of the wins are really among his most notable. There’s the first win of his career in 2014, a comeback against the Chiefs on Thursday Night Football. There’s the untimed down game in 2017 on another Thursday night, the time he threw a game-winning touchdown to Michael Crabtree on the final snap.

Now we’re talking about out-gunning Patrick Mahomes and the Chiefs in Arrowhead, albeit with 2020 attendance. This is a bit different, and it was certainly a different experience for the Chiefs after an outrageous shootout in the first half where both teams scored 24 points and had over 300 yards of offense. The Chiefs twice led by 11, but Carr kept the Raiders on pace with uncharacteristic deep shots that led to touchdown passes of 59 and 72 yards.

The Chiefs hurt themselves in the first half with offensive penalties that negated two touchdowns, but in the second half the offense was ice cold on four straight drives. That’s when the Raiders took control and scored the game’s next 16 points, building a 40-24 lead with 5:26 left.

This is the first time Mahomes has ever trailed by 16 points past the midway point of the second quarter in his NFL career. Oakland Las Vegas almost hung the first multi-score loss on the Chiefs since 2017, but Mahomes had another answer. He frankly had to after throwing a terrible pick that was returned to the 2-yard line to set up another Josh Jacobs touchdown run. Mahomes cut the lead in half to 40-32 after a touchdown and two-point conversion pass, but only 3:57 remained. At the two-minute warning, the Raiders had a no-brainer decision on fourth-and-1 to put the game away. While Carr has been a shockingly ineffective rusher, it’s not asking much to convert a quarterback sneak. He had one to end the third quarter and he had another here to end the Chiefs’ winning streak at 13 games.

It also ends Kansas City’s NFL record streak of 49 games without losing by more than seven points, though it does extend their record to 50 games without losing by more than eight points. That’s still a one-possession game in the NFL, but fortunately the Raiders didn’t have to give the Chiefs the ball back for one more possession.

Carr’s game-winning drive gives him 21, which is the new franchise record. Here is the franchise leader in fourth-quarter comeback wins and game-winning drives for all 32 teams:

Someday Mahomes should be able to hold these records for the Chiefs, but on Sunday, it just wasn’t his best stuff. So throw away the undefeated season talk or taking down New England’s 21-game winning streak. The Chiefs still have work to do.

Washington, Are You a Football Team?

Clearly, it’s not just a Dwayne Haskins issue in Washington. The Redskins Football Team started Kyle Allen at quarterback against the Rams, but suffered a 30-10 defeat with one of the most inept offensive performances of the last decade.

Washington gained just 108 yards, the fewest in a game by an offense since Luke Falk led the Jets to 105 yards against the Patriots last season. Worse, Washington gained 108 yards on 52 plays, or 2.08 yards per play. That’s the fifth-lowest average in a game since 2010, and somehow not even the worst Washington game in recent years. In 2018, Washington averaged 2.02 yards per play in a Week 17 loss (24-0) to the Eagles.

How sad was this showing? Washington’s longest gain of the day was an 18-yard completion from Allen. The second-longest “play” was actually a 2-yard loss on a run that netted 13 yards because of a 15-yard penalty for unnecessary roughness on the Rams.

Alex Smith replaced an injured Allen in the second quarter for his first action in nearly two years since a gruesome leg injury in 2018. He led the team on a field goal drive before halftime, but frankly would have been better off rehabbing on the sideline after that. In the second half, Smith’s success rate was 0-for-17 with a net loss of 24 yards. That’s hard to believe, but he took 5 sacks, had 4 failed completions, one failed scramble, and threw 7 incompletions. The rain intensified, but that didn’t stop the Rams from gaining positive yardage in the second half.

The Rams are now 4-0 against the NFC East and 0-1 against the refs this season.

Pennsylvania’s Historic Third Down Day

The Steelers have never blown a 17-point lead at home in franchise history, but this came awfully close.

What paced both offenses was an incredible display on third down. The Eagles finished 10 of 14 (71%) and the Steelers finished 11 of 15 (73%). According to Stathead, this is the only NFL game since 1991 where both offenses converted at least 10 third downs with a conversion rate over 70%.

It’s only the third game since 1991 where both offenses converted at least 10 third downs period (2015 Giants-Falcons and 2014 Ravens-Panthers the other two). Given what we know about pre-1991 offenses, this is a favorite for the best offensive display on third down in any game in NFL history. The Eagles’ four longest plays from scrimmage came on third down, including the game’s longest play, a 74-yard run by Miles Sanders on third-and-9.

But in the fourth quarter, the Steelers were just a little better. After Travis Fulgham, apparently the new No. 1 in Philadelphia, killed the secondary all day with 10 catches for 152 yards, the defense finally tightened. Joe Haden had the coverage on a third down that led to the Eagles making a questionable decision to try a 57-yard field goal with 3:23 left on a fourth-and-5. The longest field goal in Heinz Field history is 53 yards and everyone knows the stadium is historically difficult to connect from long distance. Jake Elliott gave it a shot, but was wide right.

The Steelers needed one more conversion to ice this one, and Ben Roethlisberger delivered it on a third-and-8 with a 35-yard touchdown pass to rookie Chase Claypool, who somehow caught the defense napping again for his fourth touchdown of the game.

This battle of Pennsylvania ended 38-29, which surprisingly is not the first such score in NFL history. The Raiders beat the Jets 38-29 in 1967 in the AFL thanks to a two-point conversion that didn’t make much sense for New York. Similarly, we got on the path to this score after the Eagles went against conventional wisdom and converted a two-pointer in the third quarter to cut Pittsburgh’s lead, once 31-14, to 31-22.

FOX may have had the biggest statistical oddity of the day with a graphic that showed that Pittsburgh had the longest active drought (40 years) of seasons without a 4-0 start until getting there this year. That’s hard to believe given the general success the Steelers have had since the merger, but it’s true. The Steelers have not started 4-0 since 1979 until now. That means even teams like Detroit (1980, 2011) and Cleveland (1979) have done it more recently, though that Cleveland one is a bit misleading. The 1979 Browns improved to 4-0 one day after the Steelers did due to a Monday night game.

So Cleveland has the longest drought now, and next week is one of the biggest Pittsburgh-Cleveland games in many years.

Andy Dalton: The Ginger Cowboy Rides Again

Dallas makes everything look hard this year, and now things will get really difficult after Dak Prescott suffered a compound ankle fracture during the game on Sunday. Andy Dalton, the butt of many jokes the last decade, is still one of the best backup quarterbacks in the league all things considered, but he’ll have his work cut out for him without a defense to speak of. Even the lowest-scoring team in football, the Giants, scored 34 in this game.

The 2020 Cowboys are the first team in NFL history to score and allow at least 31 points in four straight games. At least this one led to a much-needed comeback win in the division after Dalton was able to lead a one-minute drill to set up Greg Zuerlein for a 40-yard field goal that he was just able to squeeze inside the uprights in a 37-34 victory.

It’s a shame for Prescott, who has never missed a game due to injury, on so many levels given he didn’t have his long-term deal he deserved locked up with the team, and he was having a historic start to this season in leading this talented, but mistake-prone offense. I don’t see how Dalton will magically have a defense around him in the coming weeks, so the Cowboys may have to win some more shootouts. The good news is this is still the worst division by far in the NFL, and Dalton is capable of putting up some points with these receivers.

Russell Wilson’s Best Game-Winning Drive Yet?

The Vikings (1-4) lost a tough one, 27-26, on Sunday night in Seattle. They outgained Seattle by 135 yards, held the ball for 39:28, and forced the Seahawks to finish 0-for-7 on third down. But in the end, it was fourth down that doomed Minnesota. The Vikings, leading 26-21 at the two-minute warning, bypassed a 24-yard field goal to keep the offense on the field for a fourth-and-1 at the Seattle 6. They didn’t run a quarterback sneak like the Raiders did to put away the Chiefs earlier in the day. Instead, they called backup running back Alexander Mattison to carry off right guard for no gain.

Twitter is killing Mattison, the new Trent Richardson, for this play. It looks bad from still images, but you have to respect an unblocked Bobby Wagner’s speed to come across the line and tackle Mattison if he did try to bounce this outside the edge instead of hammering into the pile of bodies.

Having said that, I think the Vikings should have kicked the field goal. I think NFL Twitter tends to overrate the greatness of an 8-point lead, though many sure did seem to forget all about that on this night as they cheered for Mike Zimmer to go for it. But I know I hate nothing more than watching my helpless defense cling to a 5-point lead while a team is in hurry-up mode with four-down, pass-happy football coming.

It’s also a big deal when the quarterback has some experience at this. Wilson now has the most game-winning drives (34) through a player’s first nine seasons in NFL history. He also tied Matthew Stafford with his 26th fourth-quarter comeback win, the most through nine seasons in history.

The thought process for Minnesota was clear. Get a first down and the game is over. But if you fail, you are leaving yourself vulnerable to getting beat by a 94-yard touchdown drive, and Wilson still had 1:57 and one timeout left. That’s why I kick the field goal, but Minnesota still had two fourth-down opportunities on defense to put this one away. D.K. Metcalf, quickly on his way to becoming the best wideout in the game, was not to be stopped. He tracked down a 39-yard desperation heave on fourth-and-10. He actually dropped a game-winner on second down in the end zone with 24 seconds left. But two plays later on fourth and goal, Metcalf caught a bullet from Wilson and held on for the game-winning touchdown with 15 seconds left.

This is the third time in his career Wilson took over in the final two minutes of the fourth quarter and led a game-winning touchdown drive. The first was the Fail Mary game against Green Bay in 2012, and the last time was 2017 against Houston when he went 80 yards with 1:39 left. This was 94 yards with 1:57 left and in prime time.

That’s going to be a memorable one to get to 5-0, but any NFC fans groaning about how lucky the Seahawks got in 2019 have to be frustrated with this one. Had the Vikings just kicked a short field goal, something that isn’t always a given for them against Seattle of course, then Wilson’s drive may have only forced overtime at best. It could have still ended in defeat given the Seahawks failed on the two-point conversion after the Metcalf score.

I know there’s pressure on coaches to do more with fourth downs and two-point conversions, but it sure doesn’t feel like they’re properly weighing the pros and cons of these situations on the fly. If Zimmer didn’t chase a two-point conversion in the third quarter, this situation may have been avoided all together. Worse than that, why would he kick an extra point with 7:08 left to take a 26-21 lead when he should have gone for two there? Leading by 4 or 5 doesn’t make a difference. That way if it was 27-21, then the field goal to make it 30-21 would have been a no-brainer later.

Still, it felt like a no-brainer to me, but losing coaches are letting it all hang out this pandemic season.

2019 NFL Wild Card and Full Playoff Predictions

To this point it is hard to say if the NFL’s 100th season is the Changing of the Guard Year some of us thought it should be. Half of the NFC field has very familiar faces in Green Bay, New Orleans, and Seattle. The Eagles are also back for the third year in a row. The AFC had all the same division winners as last year, but the Ravens, Chiefs and Texans were all able to defeat the Patriots in 2019 with their exciting, young quarterbacks.

Can they do it in January too? They’ll have to wait as Ryan Tannehill gets first crack with the Titans — yes, this is real life in 2020.

If the 2019 season has taught me anything, it’s that having a mobile, playmaking quarterback is more important than ever in the NFL. We saw much of the old guard decline (Brady, Rodgers, Rivers) or get demoted (Eli, Flacco) or injured (Roethlisberger, Newton, Stafford) this season. Of course, this probably means we’ll get a Brady-Brees Super Bowl, but I think the game is changing before our eyes as the league enters a second century. Maybe 1,200-yard rushing quarterbacks like MVP favorite Lamar Jackson won’t become the norm, but the statue-esque pocket passers do seem to be going the way of statues: relics of the past.

Before I reveal my full playoff predictions, let’s preview each of the four Wild Card games this weekend.

Bills at Texans (-3)

I called this matchup over a month ago on Twitter:

“The knock on Josh Allen has always been his accuracy. But I’ll tell you this much, Tess. If he’s throwing the ball and these receivers are catching it, his completion percentage will in fact increase.”

— Booger McFarland, 2020

Houston kicking off the playoffs has become a tradition no one asked for. This is Bill O’Brien’s fourth postseason and the fourth time his Texans are opening up the playoffs at 4:30 on Saturday. Their only win so far was against the 2016 Raiders, who had to start Connor Cook at quarterback. Last year the Colts beat Houston 21-7, the first time Deshaun Watson lost an NFL start by more than 8 points. So he doesn’t want to quickly build up a legacy of underperforming in home playoff games, because we know that stuff sticks with a quarterback forever.

Josh Allen is at least better than Cook, but the Bills are largely here because they hit the Schedule Lotto: In addition to six wins against the brutal East divisions, they have a 17-10 win over Duck Hodges in Pittsburgh, a late comeback against the 2-win Bengals, a 20-3 win over the Brandon Allen-led Broncos, and they beat the Mariota-led Titans 14-7 in a game Tennessee missed four field goals.

The Bills are 1-4 against teams with a winning record and didn’t score more than 17 points in any of those five games. Buffalo never scored more than 28 points against anyone but Miami (twice).

I’m not going to say Buffalo didn’t deserve to make the playoffs, especially when the Steelers and those 7-9 teams were so unimpressive, but the Bills are arguably the least threatening team in the whole tournament. Houston has been terribly inconsistent, but at least we know Watson can play at an elite level any given week. At least the Texans can say they’ve won in Kansas City and embarrassed the Patriots on SNF. Granted, Watson hasn’t looked really good in any game since that Patriots win, but hopefully the week of rest will have done some good. J.J. Watt is also back in the lineup for the first time since Week 8.

Houston has better elite talent while the Bills are going to rely on their very good defense to play excellent, force turnovers, and to keep the game close for Allen to sneak out a win late. That may not be an edge this time though. Allen, Watson and Russell Wilson all tied for the league lead with five game-winning drives in 2019, so both teams are used to winning the close ones. When these teams met in 2018, Watson tied the game late before Nathan Peterman threw a pick-six in a 20-13 loss for Buffalo. That game was a low-scoring struggle, which could be the case again on Saturday since Watson will see a lot of the same defenders.

Fun fact: Allen is 11-0 when he completes at least 60% of his passes (min. 20 attempts). That’s a low bar in this era, but more than half the time he doesn’t clear it. The Bills have the highest rate of dropped passes (7.4%) in the league according to PFR so it’s not always his fault this year, but his progression from 2018 is not as significant as some think. The good news is the Texans are the worst defense in the playoffs. Houston (26th) and Tennessee (21st) were the only playoff teams to field a pass defense in the bottom half of the league in DVOA. Houston (27th) and Seattle (17th) are the only defenses in the playoffs to rank in the bottom half in points per drive allowed. Finally, Houston ranks 31st in yards per play allowed (6.1) and 31st in third-down conversion rate allowed (48%).

A couple of YOLO QBs putting their bodies on the line in the playoffs could be fun, but I have to think this will be a slugfest possibly decided by a huge turnover from one of the star players. Maybe that’s Tre’Davious White jumping a pass for DeAndre Hopkins and picking it off, or maybe that’s Watt getting a strip-sack of Allen.

If Allen brings his ‘A’ game then this is a Houston defense that can be had. I’m just going to put my trust in Watson this time.

Final: Texans 20, Bills 16

Titans at Patriots (-4.5)

Just like Miami fans imagined for years, Ryan Tannehill has a chance to end the New England dynasty. I’ll give you a minute to let that one sink in.

The last time the Patriots played a Wild Card game, they were a 4-point home favorite against the 2009 Ravens. Baltimore won 33-14. The fact that New England is playing on Wild Card weekend for the first time in a decade is almost as crazy as Tannehill having a breakout year in his eighth season. The Patriots were once 10-1 with a death grip on a first-round bye for months, only to see the Dolphins take it away from them in Week 17 as a 17-point road underdog. The Patriots have lost three of their last five games and their best wins all year are stopping the Bills (once with Matt Barkley at QB) from scoring a late touchdown twice. At least the Titans can say they beat the Chiefs.

Tennessee was one of the surprising non-playoff teams to stomp the Patriots in 2018, a 34-10 win during coach Mike Vrabel’s first year on the job with Marcus Mariota as his quarterback. The Titans just finished 9-7 for the fourth year in a row, but things feel different this year thanks to the switch from Mariota to Tannehill in Week 7.

Tennessee was going nowhere fast with Mariota, who started 2-4 and was taking a sack on 13.5% of his dropbacks. Tannehill’s sack rate is still alarming at 9.8%, but he has consistently hit big plays and has thrown multiple touchdown passes in nine of his 10 starts (7-3 record). While he didn’t do it over a full season, Tannehill’s 2019 ranks as the fourth-highest season in passer rating (117.5) and the eighth-highest season in YPA (9.6) in NFL history. Absurd. We don’t know how Tannehill will perform in the biggest game of his career, but he’s now on the list of QBs with odd career arcs by breaking out so late and after lost injury years. Part of what makes those guys so odd is that they performed unexpectedly well in the playoffs too. I’m talking about Jeff Hostetler, Kurt Warner, Alex Smith and Nick Foles to name four examples. Maybe Tannehill is the next one.

Mobile quarterbacks also have been giving the Patriots fits for years, so this should be an interesting matchup between an improbably hot passer and a No. 1 defense that has to prove its early-season historical dominance wasn’t just the result of a pathetic schedule. If you look at New England’s top nine games in defensive EPA on PFR, eight of them are Weeks 1-8 (the other game was lowly Cincinnati).

The Patriots are 0-4 when allowing more than 17 points this year and no one has held Tannehill under 20 yet.

The Titans execute the type of offense coaches gloat about, but don’t actually run. They pound you consistently with Derrick Henry, the league’s leading rusher and one of the most north-and-south runners. Henry hasn’t dipped under 4.0 yards per carry in any of Tannehill’s starts. Then they use play-action with the best of them and average almost 11 yards per play doing that. Overall, Tannehill’s average pass comes 9.7 yards down the field, third highest in the league according to Next Gen Stats. They limit Tannehill’s throws — he’s only surpassed 33 passes in two games they lost playing catch-up — and he takes a good share of sacks, but the Titans are fully embracing the “run the ball and throw deep” philosophy that teams only tend to talk about doing. Rookie WR A.J. Brown has also been an exceptional big-play threat for Tannehill this year. Cornerback Stephon Gilmore can have his hands full there.

Then you have the New England offense that peaked in the first two weeks of the season. Since Week 3, Brady’s YPA is 6.29 and it usually takes some type of trick play for him to throw a touchdown pass these days. Antonio Brown was too much of a distraction to last more than a game. They cut Josh Gordon before he could be suspended again. Mohamed Sanu was a poor value trade for a second-round pick. Julian Edelman isn’t 100% right now. Ben Watson is almost as old as Brady and they have done very little in replacing Rob Gronkowski at tight end. This offense is basically gadgets, James White’s YAC and an improved running game that ranks sixth in yards and 10th in YPC since Week 12.

Brady is still getting adequate protection, but he needs it more than ever to move the offense. The Titans aren’t a good pass defense, but they have sacked the opposing quarterback at least three times in 10 of 16 games, and they are 8-1 when the QB passes for 260 or more yards. Tennessee’s comfort zone is making big plays early and pounding Henry late.

Could this be Brady’s final game with the Patriots? Certainly could be the final home game, unless the Patriots luck out again and draw the Bills for the AFC Championship Game. But this doesn’t feel like New England’s year. Maybe they have enough in the tank and the experience and edge from Belichick’s coaching to squeak past the Titans at home, but this doesn’t look like a team ready to go on the road to beat what should be two superior opponents in Kansas City and Baltimore.

But first is Tennessee’s chance to earn the team’s biggest win in a long time. For Tannehill, an impressive game could lead to a contract exceeding $30 million per year. My only concern is the Patriots blitz him relentlessly, he can’t find any receivers underneath, and he takes eight sacks like Mariota did in the playoffs two years ago.

The difference is he could still throw three touchdowns too, which might be enough to beat this version of the Patriots.

Final: Patriots 23, Titans 20

Vikings at Saints (-8)

This game having the weekend’s largest spread makes sense to me. Drew Brees has been on a tear since Week 11 with 22 touchdowns to one interception. The only loss the Saints have in their last seven games was after scoring 46 points against the 49ers. Meanwhile, the Vikings had a good 10-6 season with Kirk Cousins also producing an excellent seven-game stretch (18 touchdowns to one pick), but that ended in Week 11 while Brees’ streak was just beginning. Cousins had his best overall season yet, but there were familiar issues with his team not stepping up against the better competition. Green Bay swept Minnesota, including that horrific Monday night game where Cousins was looking for the signature win of his career. He finished with 3.94 YPA and we haven’t seen him since after he rested for the playoffs in Week 17, another Minnesota loss to Chicago.

So we have two teams coming in on entirely different wavelengths, but at least for Minnesota the game isn’t on Saturday night where we know Brees is even more ridiculous in the Superdome. Brees hasn’t lost a home game he finished in which the Saints allowed fewer than 25 points since December 2009.

It goes without saying that Cousins has to play exceptional football to get this win. That’s been the case his whole career. He’s the only QB in NFL history to have a record of 0-26 when his passer rating is under 85.0. The Vikings like to run the ball with Dalvin Cook (should be available) and use play-action passing, but it was still a top 10 offense without using play-action this year too. The Saints are below average at defending play-action, but not terrible. Their biggest luxury is that they usually play from ahead and teams give up on using it against them. Cousins has very capable receivers in Stefon Diggs, Adam Thielen and TE Kyle Rudolph, but it’s been a while since this group has put together a complete game due to injuries for Cook and Thielen. They should have all these weapons available Sunday, but getting into a shootout is still not ideal for the Vikings.

These are two of the best tackling teams in the league, and their last playoff matchup should be all the warning in the world to not blow a tackle in the open field. According to Pro Football Reference’s advanced data, the Saints (2) and Vikings (1) combined for three RPO plays all season, so that’s not their game. Cousins rarely leaves the pocket while Brees is still a little nimble for 40, but generally these quarterbacks are going to play the game from the pocket. Cameron Jordan and Danielle Hunter were two of the top four pass rushers in getting pressures this year, according to Sports Info Solutions. They’ll have to come through this week, but it is worth noting that Next Gen Stats has Cousins as the only quarterback holding the ball for an average of over 3 seconds this season. We’ve seen strip-sacks cause him problems before, especially as a Viking. Brees doesn’t have a single fumble this year, let alone any lost.

Speaking of turnovers, the Saints just made history by turning the ball over eight times in 2019, a new single-season record low. The Saints only have three giveaways in their last 11 games. If you’re an optimist, then this is awesome. If 2020 hasn’t changed you from being a cynic, then you might think this is a regression disaster in the making, especially in regards to the fumbles. The Vikings also finished third in takeaways per drive, so we’ll see what happens here. It’s hard to see the Vikings winning this game without a big turnover or two.

In a perfect world, you’d match Xavier Rhodes up with Michael Thomas and double team him to force the ball elsewhere. After Thomas and Kamara in the backfield, no one on the Saints caught more than 43 balls. Unfortunately, Rhodes has had a horrible season and no defense seems to go the extra effort to take Thomas away like they should. At this point you just expect him to put up numbers as the Saints continue to pile on the points.

This year basically did set up as a perfect revenge tour for the Brees-Payton era after last year’s blown call in the title game cost them a Super Bowl appearance.

  • Saints won in Chicago, site of the first playoff loss (2006 NFC-CG) for the Brees-Payton era
  • Saints won in Seattle, site of the Beastquake playoff loss and the 2013 divisional round loss
  • Saints returned the favor from last year and beat Dallas in a low-scoring game. Dallas also ended New Orleans’ perfect season at 13-0 in 2009.
  • Saints stiff-armed division rival Matt Ryan into oblivion on Thanksgiving night.
  • Saints could beat the Vikings on Sunday as revenge for the Minnesota Miracle two years ago.
  • Saints could see the 49ers again in the NFC Championship Game, taking revenge for 2011’s playoff loss and the 48-46 game this year.

The only thing missing would be a win in LA against the Rams, but that was the Week 2 game where the refs botched a fumble touchdown call and Brees suffered his injury. Brees is back and playing as well as ever and the Saints are poised to do something great this postseason.

However, I went through the history here just as a reminder that this team has suffered some heart-breaking playoff losses over the years. If Rex Grossman, Alex Smith and Case Keenum can have the biggest wins of their careers against the Saints, then what’s holding Cousins back but his own history?

Final: Saints 30, Vikings 20

Seahawks at Eagles (+2.5)

Let me make sure I frame this one properly. The Seahawks are 11-5 and on the road because of how good the 49ers were this year. But Seattle also outscored its schedule by just 7 points, getting to 11 wins thanks to Russell Wilson leading the league in comebacks (four) and game-winning drives (five). This is the worst defense Wilson has had in the NFL, and his run-heavy offense lost its best back in Chris Carson. They also don’t have Rashaad Penny, who rushed for 91 yards on a single touchdown drive for Seattle in its 17-9 win in Philadelphia in Week 12. Yes, that was not a big Wilson day, as most lately have not been. Wilson has gone from MVP front-runner through nine games to merely decent play over the last seven games. Meanwhile, the Eagles were left for dead at 5-7 after a loss in Miami, but have won four straight against division foes to claim the league’s worst division and a home playoff game. The Eagles remain banged up too, but actually have a better scoring differential (+31) than Seattle this year. Seattle’s played a tougher schedule of course, but that’s still surprising.

This sounds like it’s adding up to another disappointing early exit for Seattle, but this team is 7-1 on the road, including the aforementioned 17-9 win in Philly. An 8-point win for this Seattle team is like a 17-point win for a regular playoff team. They just don’t know how to blow anyone out and Wilson is usually too good over the course of 60 minutes to get blown out. So it would be a surprise to not see a competitive game with two teams fielding a lot of middling units right now.

One thing I’m pretty certain about is that the Seahawks still have the QB edge in this matchup. While Wilson’s play has been down for his standards, Carson Wentz is getting way too much credit for his play — tale as old as time — over the last month. Head coach Doug Pederson deserves more credit for changing the offense to adjust for injuries and these players, including Wentz, have played well against bad division foes that failed to adjust to these changes.

It would go against everything I’ve ever written about quarterbacks to pretend this is some MVP stretch of QB play from Wentz. Let’s review the facts:

  • Since Week 14, Wentz ranks dead last in average depth of target. He’s the only quarterback throwing his average pass shorter than 6 yards beyond the line of scrimmage in that time.
  • Wentz has 14 more passes than the next closest player that were thrown at or behind the line of scrimmage since Week 14.
  • Since Week 14, Wentz ranks 16th in passing DYAR and 17th in DVOA (-2.8%) among 32 qualified passers. That’s mediocre.
  • Wentz’s QBR in his last four games: 40.2, 63.5, 72.3, and 32.1. That’s not good and none of those games were higher than his 78.3 in the Miami loss.
  • Since Week 14, Wentz is one of 10 quarterbacks to throw at least seven touchdown passes. He has 7. Wentz ranks eighth in passer rating (100.8) and 20th in yards per attempt (6.93).
  • Wentz’s last four opponents were the lowly NFC East: Giants twice (31st ranked pass defense in DVOA), Redskins (24th) and Cowboys (23rd).
  • The 2019 NFC East finished 12-28 (.300) in non-division games, one of the worst records since 2002 realignment.
  • Wentz’s 2019 vs. NFC East: 5-1, 67.65% complete, 11 TD, 1 INT, 101.9 PR, 7.16 YPA
  • Dak Prescott’s 2019 vs. NFC East: 5-1, 70.65% complete, 15 TD, 3 INT, 115.6 PR, 8.65 YPA.
  • Josh Allen threw five touchdowns and no picks against the NFC East this year with 101.4 rating and 7.53 YPA.
  • Sam Darnold was 3-0 against the NFC East with 112.6 rating and 9.36 YPA.
  • Ryan Fitzpatrick also had his best 2019 numbers (104.8 PR and 8.05 YPA) against the NFC East.

I didn’t even mention that Wentz fumbled seven times (two lost) in that four-game stretch. This is not what the pinnacle of QB play looks like, folks. This is a quarterback executing a dink-and-dunk offense that is taking advantage of the matchups the Eagles have at running back and tight end and exploiting them against crap competition in games they had to eek out in the fourth quarter or overtime. Has he made some great throws? Yes, I’ve tweeted about the dart TD throw against Washington and the two longer throws against Giants in Week 17. But he’s still under 7.0 YPA and relying on YAC in these games. Is it good that he’s finally finishing off game-winning drives? Of course, though it’s not like beating terrible Giants and Redskins teams has been an issue for him. I’ve said a long time ago that’s his jam. Four of his eight game-winning drives are against the Giants. He’s won three games he finished in which the Eagles allowed more than 24 points, and two of them are the 2019 Redskins (3-13 team).

There’s a cottage industry dedicated to making Wentz’s career sound better than it has been so far. For example, this stat has gained traction since last Sunday: Wentz is the first ever 4,000-yard passer who did not have a 500-yard wide receiver. And? Alshon Jeffery had 490 yards in 10 games before going on IR. Would an extra 10 yards from him change anything this season?

Let’s frame the stat better. Wentz is the NFL’s first 4,000-yard passer that had a running back and two tight ends go over 500 yards in the same season. Yes, that’s never been done before either and it’s a better way to highlight the type of offense the Eagles operate. It’s not a badge of honor for Wentz like the no WR stat sounds like, but a sign that their offense is unique. Also, if the 2019 Eagles are the sample size of one for having an offense like this, then it’s not really a good thing. The Eagles finished 17th in points per drive and are only in the playoffs because of their terrible division.

As I ranted about in December, wide receivers are the position most dependent on good quarterback play. Throws to running backs and tight ends are easier to complete, but they’re not necessarily as valuable to an offense. With Wentz’s accuracy problems, it makes sense that the Eagles would build more around Miles Sanders (impressive rookie back) and the best tight end duo in the league (Zach Ertz and Dallas Goedert). No matter what Eagles fans try to sell you, Wentz has accuracy issues. The Eagles had issues with drops early in the season, but finished 19th in drop rate (4.8%). They also had the eighth-worst rate of on-target throws because that excludes throwaways, which isn’t something Wentz does that often.

Accurate quarterbacks can make household names out of nobodies, which is the final point I’m going to make about this Wentz run. It’s being led by the line that he’s carrying — by totally “shredding” defenses — the Eagles to the playoffs with practice squad players. This is the kind of angle you’d only get for a player the media loves to pump up. When Matt Ryan throws a 93-yard touchdown to a rookie UDFA no one’s ever heard of (Olamide Zaccheaus), the media doesn’t blink an eye. Yet when Wentz completes a 6-yard pass to Robert Davis, they act like he cured cancer.

After arguing about football on the internet for two decades, I can honestly say I’ve never seen people ignore draft position and fixate on this practice squad thing like they are with the Eagles. Yes, Robert Davis spent a brief period on the Eagles practice squad before moving up, but he was a sixth-round pick by Washington in 2017 and he’s only caught 1-of-3 targets for 6 yards with Wentz. RB Boston Scott is another player promoted from a practice squad, but he was a sixth-round pick by the 2018 Saints. He’s played pretty well at times, especially in Week 17, and we know RB is a position notorious for producing stars off the street. Hell, Marshawn Lynch hadn’t played in 14.5 months and looked pretty solid for Seattle last Sunday night, scoring on a touchdown plunge.

It’s absolutely true that the Eagles have been rocked by injury, but it’s facetious to sell this offense as one that is thriving by practice squad players. For one, the fans complained about Alshon Jeffery and Nelson Agholor when they were healthy and playing. Jeffery messed with the leadership and chemistry in the locker room. Agholor was statistically the worst receiver in football this year, so his targets going to anyone else is a good thing. Calling Jordan Howard RB1 may be technically true, but he’s not as dynamic as the rookie Sanders, and I can’t believe people are using “rookie RB” as a negative given the rich history of instant success at the position. But hey, anything to pump up Wentz.

Over the last four games, 54.2% of Wentz’s passing yardage has gone through four players the Eagles have spent top 60 draft picks on: Zach Ertz, Miles Sanders, Dallas Goedert, and J.J. Arcega-Whiteside. These are players they were expecting to produce for them, but a couple are producing a little more sooner because of the injuries. Wentz made a great 40-yard play to Deontay Burnett last week. It was one play, but at least it was great. Josh Perkins caught a great 24-yard touchdown from Wentz last week. Perkins also caught a TD from Matt Ryan in his 2016 MVP season, but that wasn’t part of the MVP case for Ryan that year.

The guy who has been really producing out of nowhere with no NFL track record is WR Greg Ward, who had his first six catches in the Seattle game in Week 12. He has 254 yards for the Eagles this year. Call me crazy, but is it not possible that Ward is just a decent receiver who has played well for the team so far? He’s been in their building since 2017. He’s not going to be played by Mark Wahlberg in a movie in 20 years for various reasons, but let’s calm down on acting like he’s proof that Wentz is a top QB now.

Even Aaron Rodgers fans aren’t bowing to their God because Allen Lazard has 477 yards this year. I also don’t remember anyone saying this about Zach Pascal on the Colts last year, who had 268 yards and a couple of touchdowns with Andrew Luck. Pascal improved in 2019 without Luck and had 607 yards and five touchdowns. Sometimes guys just slip through the draft process, but that doesn’t mean they’re incapable of playing in this league. I’ll give Ward some respect, and probably more than some of the opposing defenses who won’t cover him as tightly since they don’t understand who he is yet. Like I always said with the early 2000s Patriots, not having someone to draw double coverage or key on could be used as an advantage to the offense where the ball could literally go anywhere on a given play. The Eagles have that type of advantage right now.

So I don’t know if we’ll be talking about the Eagles beyond this weekend, but I just thought there were some really misleading things in the media about this last month’s stretch of play for Wentz and the offense. You can appreciate their effort as an undermanned unit, but let’s stop with the hyperbole and remember which teams they beat to get in this spot. If you want more respect, then beat the Seahawks. Pete Carroll is 5-0 against the Eagles as coach of the Seahawks.

Home underdogs are rare in the playoffs, but they also have a winning record (29-26) since the merger, including two wins by the 2017 Eagles. In fact, home underdogs would have four wins in a row in the playoffs had Minnesota’s Blair Walsh not missed a short field goal against the Seahawks in 2015. Of course, the Eagles won a Wild Card game last year in Chicago after the Bears missed a game-winning field goal. I only point to those two results as this is a game with a spread of 2.5, so it could come down to a kick again. Or maybe Pederson rolls the dice with a two-point conversion with the Eagles only down a point late, placing Football Analytics Twitter into the center of hell.

Who am I kidding? You know it’s going to be hell there regardless of the outcome in this one.

Final: Seahawks 24, Eagles 23

2019 Full NFL Playoff Predictions

Here is my latest crack at predicting the whole tournament.

Wild Card:

  • Texans over Bills
  • Patriots over Titans
  • Saints over Vikings
  • Seahawks over Eagles

Divisional:

  • Ravens over Texans
  • Chiefs over Patriots
  • Saints over Packers
  • 49ers over Seahawks

Conference Championship:

  • Ravens over Chiefs
  • 49ers over Saints

Super Bowl LIV:

  • Ravens over 49ers (Super Bowl MVP: Lamar Jackson)

Last year I predicted Saints over Chiefs. I thought we should have had that matchup, but things went the opposite way on Championship Sunday. This year I’d still prefer to see it over any other matchup, but I think this has been Baltimore and Lamar Jackson’s season. If we get that Chiefs-Ravens AFC Championship Game, I think it could have the kind of career-defining implications that the 2003 AFC Championship Game had for Manning and Brady, but more on that in the weeks to come provided we get there. After all, something crazy could happen any given week. The fact that Ryan Tannehill is here and playing so well could shake things up, and I also think the Bills could blow up some of the playoff matchups we hope to see in the AFC for years to come. The 49ers have also really impressed me in the NFC and I think they have enough to go the distance.

It should be a significant month for legacies.

Finally, here’s the recap of my picks this season:

2019Wk1-17

NFL Week 16 Predictions: The Wentz Playoff Game Edition

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

NFL Week 16 Predictions

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

2019Wk16

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

2019Wk1-15

NFL Week 11 Predictions: Wentz and The Crown Edition

I said this about the NFL’s 100th season two months ago today:

I’m not sure things have gotten that much better, but Week 10 was without question the best week of this season. Eleven of the 13 games had a 4QC opportunity, the first week with a double-digit number of such games this season. Three underdogs of more than 6 points won straight up — there was one in Weeks 1-3 and zero in Weeks 7-9. The single best hour of the sports week, roughly 3:15 to 4:15 P.M. EST, finally delivered late-game drama in multiple cities at the same time. Thursday night was a comical Philip Rivers/Chargers loss. Sunday night was a good MIN/DAL game. Monday night was the Game of the Week on paper, and while it was sloppily played, SEA-SF delivered a memorable one that went down to the final snap of overtime.

That’s the NFL we crave and eagerly wait seven months for each year. Now that every team has a loss, perhaps we’re in store for a great second half.

Then Thursday night happened. The Steelers laid an egg in Cleveland with Mason Rudolph turning in one of the worst QB performances of the season. Then the absurd brawl happened at the end of the game and we weren’t even talking about Cleveland’s win over its chief rival anymore. It was about the ugliness from Myles Garrett going after Rudolph with his own helmet.

I’m not interested in a hot take or in-depth analysis of that moment. You saw it. Punishments were handed out quickly and look fair to me. There’s no place for that in the NFL. Fortunately, Garrett and Maurkice Pouncey won’t be on the field when these teams meet again in a couple of weeks. Rudolph probably shouldn’t be either, but only because I think he’s worthy of being benched for playing terrible football.

If only there was another readily available QB the Steelers could bring in to try salvaging this season…

From one shitshow to another, the league took the bizarre move to host a workout for Colin Kaepernick in Atlanta on Saturday. Again, not a story I feel like recapping all the details of while I try to squeeze this out on a Saturday evening before watching a bunch of TV. But it was indeed a shitshow with the venue being moved at the last moment and Hue Jackson, who was set to run it, opting to head back to the airport. Add another loss to his career total. The workout eventually took place at a high school field, though it appears barely a handful of the 24 expected teams actually attended it.

Hopefully Sunday won’t be the type of shitshow this week has been so far for the NFL. So rather than talk about Garrett and Kaepernick, I’m going to keep my blood pressure down and talk about…Brady-Wentz I.

…Shit.

GOTW: Patriots at Eagles (+4.5)

It’s rare to see two teams meeting after a bye week and it’s not the Super Bowl. Clearly the NFL thought highly of this Super Bowl 52 rematch. One problem is the Eagles come in at just 5-4 without an overly impressive offense or defense this season. The Patriots (8-1), coming off their first loss in Baltimore, still have the top defense, but the offense is in contention for the worst in the Brady-Belichick era. Brady and Carson Wentz come in not even ranked in the top 12 in DVOA or the top 18 in YPA this season.

I’m seeing the Eagles as a 4.5-point underdog, which is exactly what they were in SB 52 when they won 41-33 behind an MVP performance by Nick Foles. Those teams were very different that night than what they are right now, and it’s not just about the QB difference. The Eagles were much stronger on both sides of the ball while the Patriots are playing better defense now (but definitely a big decline offensively). I certainly wouldn’t expect a repeat of the game with the most total yardage in NFL history.

Head coach Doug Pederson is 3-5 straight up as an underdog of more than 4 points, but that’s 3-1 with Foles and 0-4 with Wentz as his QB.

CWPH

Sunday is Wentz’s 50th NFL game. Given that he still hasn’t started a playoff game, you could say a win here would be the biggest achievement of Wentz’s NFL career.

It’s fitting that Wentz resembles Prince Harry. Both receive massive media coverage and the respect of royalty despite not really accomplishing much of anything. Harry is sixth in line to the British throne. Wentz is maybe sixth in line to the throne of the best QB in the NFL. I’ll spare you any King of Kings talk for Brady, because this one is about Wentz.

I’ve been sitting on that comparison for months and it just so happens to work perfectly on a weekend where Wentz is playing a big game and The Crown Season 3 is on Netflix. It’s absolutely true though. Wentz was hailed as a god just three games into his career in 2016. Remember the “pre-snap Peyton, post-snap Rodgers” takes? It’s not just Philly media either. This season I’ve seen national voices (Colin Cowherd and Dan Orlovsky) praise Wentz after managerial wins over the Packers and Bills. When the numbers don’t back it up, just stick with the eye test and you can’t lose that argument. You just know you’re seeing something special even if there isn’t tangible proof of it.

Fortunately, people don’t wait too long on quarterbacks before moving on to shiny, new things. I mentioned Wentz being sixth in line to the throne. Well, this season has had a clear top five in QB performances:

The top 5 in QBR all happen to be African-American quarterbacks doing outstanding things in 2019. Russell Wilson has been a known commodity and is having the most MVP caliber season of his career. Patrick Mahomes hit superstar status last year with his MVP season and has still been great this year in spite of the rest of his team. Lamar Jackson just handed the Patriots a loss in prime time and could have a very historic season with what he’s doing as a true dual-threat with his passing and rushing. Deshaun Watson is reminding people that he was going to have the best rookie QB season ever until he tore his ACL in 2017. Dak Prescott still doesn’t get as much respect as he deserves, but people are coming around to just how good he is in Dallas. I’ve repeatedly said his 2016 was the best rookie QB season ever.

We’re getting close to that point where the old guard is going to enter retirement. That’s Brady, Brees, Roethlisberger, Eli, Rivers. We’ve already lost Andrew Luck at a surprisingly young age. Matt Ryan and Aaron Rodgers are getting up there, but could still play well into the next decade.

There’s going to be that transition period where the young quarterbacks become the best in the game. Perhaps we’re already there in the NFL’s 100th season. Wentz was expected to be right in that group, but I don’t think he’s as good as that group of five. I’m not even convinced he’s better than Kirk Cousins.

Since the Eagles and Patriots only meet once every four years, this could very well be the first and only meeting between Wentz and Brady/Belichick. If you know me well enough, you know I won’t just accept an Eagles win as a great Wentz accomplishment or an Eagles loss as a Wentz failure. I’m going to watch this game closely to see if he plays well against a top-tier defense/secondary. While I think the Eagles have a shaky secondary, I don’t think they’ll be embarrassed this week and the game should be within reach late.

I want to see Wentz play really well. I want to see him accomplish something with this performance. It’s also a pretty big game since Philadelphia is in such a tight race for the NFC East with Dallas. If the Eagles can win this one at home, that gives them an advantage over Dallas, which has to go to NE (Week 12) and we know how tough it is to win there. This could propel a run for the Eagles with Wentz instead of Foles this time.

Even if it’s just for one day, I want to see what others think they see with Wentz. While no crowns or rings get handed out in Week 11, I think it’d be a big one for him.

NFL Week 11 Predictions

I had the Steelers on TNF, and yeah, that didn’t go so well. Got the under at least.

2019Wk11

My big upset pick this week is Arizona against the 49ers. I just think a 5-quarter, emotional game on MNF and the injury report for the 49ers looks favorable for an Arizona team that played them well a couple weeks ago. Might regret the SU pick, but that would be my big upset for Week 11.

2019Wk1-10

2018 NFL Divisional Round Predictions

Even though the home team wins 71.4% of the games in this round since 1970, it’s often the most dramatic and best weekend of the year. In the 32-team era, 2002, 2004 and 2015 are the only seasons where the home teams finished 4-0 in the divisional round. Someone is likely getting upset and leaving their fans upset in the process. Even the Patriots have an actual challenge this week with the smallest spread (-4) of the weekend.

Colts at Chiefs (-5)

This was my big preview at FO, so go there and read that one. Basically, I’m going to assume the snow isn’t a big deal today. The game comes down to Andrew Luck playing efficiently and effectively to limit Patrick Mahomes’ drives and make him score more than 30 to win. The Colts defense isn’t that good, but the Chiefs are certainly worse in that area despite better numbers at home. I see Mahomes putting up his usual points, but Luck will have a chance for a late game-winning TD drive and this defense is going to have to make a play to stop him. So do something this time, Orlando Scandrick.

Final: Chiefs 30, Colts 26

(IND +5, Under 56.5)

Cowboys at Rams (-7)

Both offenses are a little shaky to me. Dak Prescott takes way too many sacks and isn’t aggressive enough on third downs this season. That’s bad news against Wade Phillips’ defense, and especially with Aaron Donald against this interior OL. Dallas is 10-0 when scoring 20+ points this season and they’ll definitely need to hit that total here. It should be noted that Dallas only surpassed 17 points on the road three times, though LA isn’t a huge home-field advantage yet and the Cowboys may actually feel at home with more fans in the seats. Still, the Rams have scored 23+ in every game this season except for the disaster in Chicago (15-6). Jared Goff has been shaky since the bye, but at least the last two games were good. Dallas has a good defense but I’m not blown away by it or anything.

With this week’s coaching hires revolving around finding the next Sean McVay, it would look really bad if McVay lost this game to fall to 0-2 at home in the playoffs. He was a favorite of 6.5+ points in each game too. I’m going to back the Rams in this one, but I think it’s still an underrated story of how the offense misses Cooper Kupp in the slot.

Final: Rams 26, Cowboys 20

(DAL +7, Under 49)

Chargers at Patriots (-4)

The Chargers have played better than the Patriots this season, but there’s just something about this opponent where San Diego Los Angeles goes into extra Chargering mode. I’ll spare the lowlights of Nate Kaeding or Marlon McCree from many years ago, but just look at this Travis Benjamin punt return from a 2017 game coached by Anthony Lynn in New England:

There’s a good reason why Philip Rivers is 0-7 against the Patriots with Tom Brady at quarterback. They are their own worst enemy in these games. Now Rivers can stand to play better against Bill Belichick’s defense, but at least his ACL won’t be torn this time around. He however has not been sharp in the last month and will need to play better. And it figures it could be a snow game when Melvin Gordon has been banged up for the Chargers. On defense, the Patriots are 2nd in DVOA at home and 31st on the road. Nice to get this game at home against a team with a better record. Don’t let the fact that NE is 4-0 against playoff teams hide the fact they lost five times to non-playoff teams.

Again, I think the Chargers are a better team this year, but I can’t bring myself to picking them in this venue. Especially not with the Patriots coming off a bye, which I think is huge for their old offensive players (not just Brady, but Rob Gronkowski and Julian Edelman). Also, despite the loss to the Eagles in the Super Bowl, Belichick is still money against new playoff opponents and the Chargers have only seen this team once in the last four seasons. It was a comedy of errors in that 21-13 loss last year, and I can just imagine what they’ll cook up this time. Maybe Hunter Henry fumbles in the red zone in his season debut (I cribbed this from Marvin Harrison vs. 2007 Chargers in AFC-DIV). Maybe their kicker (Michael Badgley) gets hurt so the new guy they signed for kickoffs blows a game-winning field goal.

This is the game where the Chargers can show it truly is a different year, but do you trust them?

Final: Patriots 27, Chargers 20

(NE -4, Under 48)

Eagles at Saints (-8)

This would definitely be a huge upset if the Eagles can continue their late run here behind Nick Foles. In Week 11, the Saints waxed Philly 48-7 with Sean Payton and Drew Brees pouring it on with a long touchdown pass on fourth-and-6 in the fourth quarter. The Eagles come in with virtually zero pressure to win while the Saints are the favorites to go all the way.

I’m ultimately picking the Saints to win, but let me just state some facts and thoughts why an upset is possible here:

  • Carson Wentz had the worst game of his career in Week 11. He’ll be replaced by a QB in Foles who has incredible playoff stats in five starts and is simply better at getting this team to win games of this magnitude, not to mention better in crunch time and in shootouts. The Eagles aren’t just a front-running team with Foles under center.
  • Doug Pederson is one of the most aggressive coaches on fourth downs and two-point conversions, so knowing he has nothing to lose here, look for him to take advantage of +EV chances.
  • The Saints are a below-average passing defense and struggle with wide receivers, especially on deep throws (32nd in DVOA). Foles gets the WRs involved in this offense and is willing to take deep chances.
  • Brees struggled down the stretch this season, though most of those games were on the road. He took off Week 17 as the Saints really didn’t put much effort into that game period. Now with a bye week too, could we see some rust and a slow start? It’s happened before to teams that rest early in addition to the bye.
  • Perhaps we can keep talking about this if Saints advance, but it’s incredible to me that this passing offense is so successful despite how much it relies on Michael Thomas and Alvin Kamara. Thomas is great, but he’s not the all-around athlete Julio Jones is, he’s not as good after the catch as Odell Beckham, not as good at the catch point as DeAndre Hopkins, and not the kind of deep threat Tyreek Hill is. He has a great connection with the accurate Brees, but I would often double team him and make other players step up to beat you. Kamara is dangerous after the catch and on screens, but he’s still limited as a RB in just how much damage he’ll do to you. His only catch vs. Eagles was that 37-yard run-up-the-score TD. Now the Eagles are too banged up in the secondary to really afford to double team, but it’s something to think about should Thomas have a bad game. Where else will the production come from?
  • Finally, in Week 11 there was this stat (see below) where Brees had a completion rate that was +20.5% above expectation based on next gen charting data. He was on fire that day, but obviously with that being his best performance this season, it’s hard to expect him to repeat that. So what if the Eagles are able to get him to throw into tight windows with good coverage again, but some of those passes just don’t connect this time? I think this is a good sign for the Eagles going into this one.

I mean, if the 2010 Jets can go from 45-3 to beating the Patriots with Mark Sanchez at quarterback a month later, is it really asking that much for the defending champion Eagles to turn 48-7 around with Foles going into the Superdome? This wouldn’t be the upset of the decade, but it would create one hell of a quarterback controversy in Philadelphia, if we aren’t already there. For that reason alone I wouldn’t mind seeing the Eagles win, but I’m not betting on it.

Final: Saints 30, Eagles 27

(PHI +8, Over 52)

2018 NFL Wild Card and Full Playoff Predictions

The 2018 NFL season has been so competitive that I can’t help but think we’ll get some stunning playoff results this year. The point spreads being quite small (1-to-2.5 points) in three of the games this week looks like a good start for that. The last five chalky postseasons have produced nine No. 1 seeds in the Super Bowl and the 2016 Falcons were a No. 2 seed. The wild card teams aren’t necessarily strong this season, but the Chargers had a good year, the Colts are hot with Andrew Luck, the Eagles won the Super Bowl with Nick Foles last year, and the Seahawks are always a tough out. Throw in Baltimore’s old-school approach and the Chicago defense, and there’s a better chance we see a non-bye team go on a good run again.

Before I pick the whole tournament, I’m going to preview each of the four wild card games. I’m really just throwing out some thoughts at 5 A.M. (sleep schedule is FUBAR) rather than building a structured narrative or detailed analysis of the matchups. You can read the previews on FO for more of that.

Colts at Texans (-1)

It’s amazing these teams are here with double-digit wins after starting 0-3 and 1-5. Both defenses have benefited from a soft schedule (the softest of any two defenses in the NFL), though that’s a bit immaterial when they’re playing each other this week with a good quarterback matchup. I like the over. Houston has won a lot of close games and relied on some opposing coaching mistakes, including that memorable Frank Reich move in overtime in the 37-34 win by Houston. Had he taken the tie, this game would likely be in Indy this week, but I don’t think it’s a huge deal for the Colts in the end. They have won in Houston this year, they’ve won there before, and if you’re going to win a Super Bowl this year, you have to go beat a team like Kansas City anyway. Hell, it might even set up better if the Ravens or Chargers can knock off the Patriots, Indy’s personal nightmare venue.

But before we get too far ahead of ourselves, it’s Round 3 with Houston and a roster with some really talented players. None of those players are on the offensive line however, and I think Deshaun Watson’s tendency to hold the ball and take sacks can really help out an Indy defense that doesn’t have a dominant pass-rusher. Watson took 5 sacks in the last meeting and had to lead his team in rushing against a Colts defense that stops the run well. DeAndre Hopkins is always a problem, but T.Y. Hilton has been incredible in his career against Houston. He had 199 yards in the last matchup and has been playing at a high level despite his health. The Colts protect Luck much better this year, he’s changed his playing style to be more dart thrower than gunslinger, and I think the Colts can win this one on the road as long as he avoids the dumb interceptions like we saw on the pick-six in Tennessee on Sunday night.

Houston was 1-4 this year when allowing 24+ points with the only win being 37-34 over the Colts in overtime. Indy has scored 24+ in 11 games this year, including both against Houston. I like the Colts to score enough in this one and close it out late.

Final: Colts 27, Texans 24

Seahawks at Cowboys (-2)

Like the first game on Saturday, these teams are hot, and in Dallas’ case, playing a schedule with the AFC South and NFC East has helped out too. The Cowboys are 7-1 in their last eight, and 7-2 since the trade for Amari Cooper. He’s turned in some huge games that helped the Cowboys win the NFC East, but he also has 13 catches for 83 yards and a lost fumble in his last three games combined. That’s the problem with Cooper in that he’ll put up 180 and a score one week, then struggle to break 20 yards the next. The Seahawks don’t have Richard Sherman anymore, and while a respectable defense overall, they were 25th in DVOA against #1 wide receivers. Cooper needs to come up big in this one.

I like that Dallas has put more responsibility on Dak Prescott in recent weeks. He threw for 455 yards against the Eagles and added 387 against the Giants in Week 17, a game where Ezekiel Elliott and a couple star lineman didn’t even play. Prescott has been playing better the last eight games, but his problems this year are that he takes way too many sacks and he doesn’t pull the trigger as much as he should. If he’s not taking a sack, he’s settling for a checkdown, which is why he has the worst third down ALEX in the league. Those third-down struggles are also why his advanced stats aren’t too hot.

I’ll still take Russell Wilson any day over Prescott, but I think in many ways the Seahawks are the team Dallas wants to be when it comes to running and defense. The Seahawks are running the ball as much as anyone not named Baltimore, and it’s worked for the most part this year. Wilson didn’t even throw for 3500 yards, but he was efficient, had a dominant efficiency season with Tyler Lockett, and he still threw 35 touchdowns. Wilson hasn’t even broke 200 yards against Dallas in the last two meetings, and this Cowboys defense is playing better, but it didn’t matter. The Seahawks still won 21-12 and 24-13 after Prescott and the offense struggled in both matchups. I can see that happening again here, though with Cooper in the mix, Elliott back in action, and Prescott having experience to pull games out late, I think Dallas has a good shot in this matchup.

I’m still going with Seattle just because I trust Wilson and Pete Carroll more than I do Prescott and Jason Garrett. But it really is a game that could come down to Prescott hitting Gallup on a deep shot and Wilson not connecting with Lockett on a similar play like they have done so well this year.

Final: Seahawks 23, Cowboys 20

Chargers at Ravens (-2.5)

This was my big preview at FO, so go there for 3500+ words on the matchup. Basically, it boils down to both teams need to have a good start, but it’s even more important for the Ravens so they can keep up their style of running the ball and pressuring on defense. Philip Rivers can lead a comeback, but probably not from 14+ late against this defense. Can Lamar Jackson deliver enough with his arm if called upon? It’s best if the Ravens don’t find out yet, but with the way they play defense, special teams, and one of the best home-field advantages in the league, I think they take care of the Chargers in this one.

Final: Ravens 26, Chargers 20

Eagles at Bears (-6.5)

Outside of Colts-Texans, this might be the game with the widest range of possible outcomes this week. The Bears have a great defense that gets the most turnovers, but the Eagles have played better offensively with Nick Foles at quarterback. He’s also been prolific in the postseason, albeit that’s four starts. He seems to be good to go this week with the rib injury. With Mitchell Trubisky, the Bears aren’t exactly sure what they’re getting. I see him as a deluxe Rex Grossman with scrambling skills maxed out, but as a passer, he’s either Good Mitch or Bad Mitch each week. If the Eagles can pressure him and force him into mistakes, then they have a great shot of advancing as a true underdog this year.

Something I really like about the Bears under Matt Nagy is that they haven’t had a bad game yet this season. They finished 12-4, but they lost two games in overtime. They blew a huge lead in Week 1 against Green Bay and would have won that game if Kyle Fuller held onto Aaron Rodgers’ interception late. They would have beat the Dolphins with a field goal in overtime. They had a Hail Mary completed to the 1-yard line vs. New England, so maybe go for two there to win in regulation if they could have got that yard. They should have gone for two at the end of regulation against the Giants on a day Chase Daniel was QB1. Nagy, like Doug Pederson, hasn’t been afraid to try unorthodox fourth downs or two-point conversions this year. So the Bears haven’t laid any eggs this season, which is impressive for a rookie head coach with a team that hasn’t been to the playoffs since 2010.

The Eagles definitely win out at big-game experience, but I’ll trust the Bears to deliver on defense at home. The Bears are 12-0 when allowing fewer than 24 points this year (0-4 when allowing 24+). The Eagles have gotten to 24 points in Foles’ last three starts, but none of those defenses are on the level of Chicago.

Final: Bears 26, Eagles 19

In the end, I’m going with road dogs on Saturday with the better quarterbacks and the top two scoring defenses at home on Sunday.

2018 Full NFL Playoff Predictions

Here is my crack at predicting the whole tournament.

Wild Card:

  • Colts over Texans
  • Seahawks over Cowboys
  • Ravens over Chargers
  • Bears over Eagles

Divisional:

  • Chiefs over Colts
  • Saints over Seahawks
  • Patriots over Ravens
  • Rams over Bears

Conference Championship:

  • Chiefs over Patriots
  • Saints over Rams

Super Bowl LIII

  • Saints over Chiefs (Super Bowl MVP: Drew Brees)

As always, every postseason has its own narrative and I tried to craft one here but still couldn’t force too many upsets. I honestly think the Colts can win in KC and same with Baltimore in New England, but I’ll go with home-field advantage in the AFC again. After the two No. 1 seeds squaring off (with the better defense winning and the Drew Brees fanboys celebrating his Super Bowl MVP over Patrick Mahomes’ regular season MVP), my 2nd pick for the Super Bowl would actually be McVay and the Rams beating Belichick and the Patriots. That’d be the second year in a row an NFC team with a second-year head coach outdid the Patriots on the big stage. Then again, I can just as easily see the Bears knocking off the Rams in the divisional round to create a much different McVay narrative (0-2 at home!), but I can’t wait to see how things play out here.

One final look at my 2018 results, which were pretty good on straight up picks at least.

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NFL Week 15 Predictions: Pennsylvania Blues Edition

I think the NFL clearly pegged Week 15 as a showdown week across the league before the schedule softens up in the last two weeks heading into the holidays and postseason. You can see it right away with the battle on Thursday night between the Chiefs and Chargers, and the week ends with Panthers-Saints, which should have been a much bigger game than it’s turned out to be in the NFC South.

But the two biggest games of Week 15 intended to be Patriots-Steelers and Eagles-Rams. Unfortunately, the Pennsylvania teams, who entered the season as Super Bowl contenders, have both disappointed and are in serious danger of missing the playoffs entirely. Philadelphia hasn’t been right since September, and will now have to make due with Nick Foles at quarterback. That worked great last year, but I’d expect the Rams to bounce back at home and put the Eagles out of their misery at 6-8 this time.

The Steelers are a whole different story. Every year we have the same talking points, because nothing ever really changes with this team. Can they ever get back to developing a great defense again, especially in the secondary? (Nope). Can they avoid losing the small games to teams they’re expected to beat? (Nope). Can they beat the Patriots to avoid having to go to New England in January? That one’s on their plate tomorrow, but the inexplicable three-game losing streak heading into this one makes even a win nowhere near as valuable as it should have been.

Remember, when these teams met in Week 15 last year with the Jesse James TD overturned, it was for the No. 1 seed. Now, even a Pittsburgh win is unlikely to give the Steelers homefield over the Patriots. It might not even help them to anything more than the No. 4 seed. The best thing it could do is help the Steelers make the playoffs, since that is in serious doubt with a trip to New Orleans up next and a favorable schedule for Baltimore. The second-best thing it could do is actually make the Patriots a No. 3 seed and not get a first-round bye for the ninth year in a row. That would still require Houston and the AFC West teams to finish strong, which isn’t a guarantee. The only other good thing it could do is give the Steelers some confidence they can beat the Patriots, which may still be required in January if they were the 4 and 3 seeds and both made it to the AFC Championship Game (a la Indy-NE in 2006). But that’s a ways off, and as this last week has shown, no one is a safe bet to do anything this year. These teams are coming off embarrassing losses to the Dolphins and Raiders after all.

As for the matchup itself, I’m not feeling Pittsburgh, a 3-point home underdog. We know the defense always struggles with this offense, but in the last three weeks, they’re barely even covering the other team’s top receiving threat (Emmanuel Sanders, Keenan Allen, Jared Cook). Now you bring the Patriots to town with Rob Gronkowski, Julian Edelman and Josh Gordon, and the Steelers definitely have their hands full. Don’t discount the running game and James White as a receiver too. Brady has also played better in the three games since the bye than he was earlier this season.

The 2018 Steelers are essentially a passing offense and nothing more. I think you’d have to go back to 2002 to find the last time the Steelers were so built around the pass with a suspect defense, a shoddy running game and terrible special teams (especially the kicker). But even that team finished 10-5-1 and made the playoffs because they came through on defense in the red zone when they had to. Last week, the Steelers had a fourth down to win the game and failed to stop Derek Carr in Oakland. They had an 8-minute drive against the Chargers with a 23-7 lead and Sean Davis turned an interception in the end zone into a touchdown for Allen after dislodging the ball with a hit on his own teammate. That was the play of the game and hurt more than any officiating blunder did. I think the Steelers hold on for the win if that pick went their way. Then the week before against Denver, that was about a comedy of errors by the OFF/ST in a game they should have scored way more than 17 points. So it’s been a frustrating three weeks after a pretty solid 7-2-1 start.

Ben Roethlisberger looked fine after the rib injury last week, so I’m not really worried about that part. James Conner possibly being out isn’t good since they may end up running for ~30 yards again, but it has to be a huge Roethlisberger game either way. I just don’t see how you beat the Patriots when you’re that one-dimensional of a team, but it’s a dimension they better at least utilize properly this week. That means no punting on fourth-and-short in NE territory.  No settling for long field goals to try to get Chris Boswell’s confidence back when he’s been terrible and is on the verge of getting cut. You need touchdowns in this game and you need to limit Brady’s possessions.

Do I trust Mike Tomlin to understand this? Of course not. He punted on 4th-and-1 with a 24-19 lead last year with 2:16 left when the Steelers might have put the game away. Do I expect the Steelers to make any changes if they lose five or six in a row and miss the playoffs? Of course not, even though it’s the same argument as Mike McCarthy in Green Bay, and the Packers fired him already. Tomlin should go too if they show they can’t beat the Patriots even when NE hasn’t looked this vulnerable since 2013 or 2005. Oh yeah, the Steelers lost to those New England teams as well.

Final: Patriots 30, Steelers 24

NFL Week 15 Predictions

That was a bad beat on Thursday as Chiefs and the under was the right call all night until the last 4 seconds.

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I think the Colts figure out the Cowboys at home, but it might be lower scoring than expected. Hate trusting the Giants, but they have been playing better since the bye. Titans can be very unpredictable, so I’d stay away from putting money on that game. I really like Seattle in SF.

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NFL Week 8 Predictions: Roller Coaster Edition

Warning: the following contains more personal feelings than any sports talk. Read at your own risk, but remember I’ll always write anything I want here.

When life hands you lemons, make lemonade. That’s what I did on Friday, and it turned out to be a great decision. I went to bed late last night with an overwhelming sense of peace. But life also can be a roller coaster you have no control over. The problem with feeling so high is that things can come crashing down quickly. I think my own roller coaster has a lot of up-and-down dips (pretty normal, right?). But in the last few years there have been some unbelievable high points that were met almost immediately with a huge drop. As if the universe didn’t want me to enjoy my position in life for even a day or two before something terrible came up.

On Saturday, I wasn’t expecting to wake up to the news that the latest mass shooting was only a few miles away. Anyone that’s been a student at a Pittsburgh campus has likely been to Squirrel Hill before. It’s one of the most diverse areas around. My favorite restaurant as a youth (Gullifty’s) was located there before it was shut down in the last decade. I wasn’t there to witness it because of school, but Gullifty’s was the place that served my grandma a hamburger without a beef patty after she had cataract surgery, and she didn’t even notice until several bites in. “Mmm, this burger is good,” she allegedly said. Silly little stories like that are the things you remember about local areas. It sickens me to know that Squirrel Hill will now forever be synonymous with mass shootings.

When despicable acts like this happen, just getting out of bed is hard. Talking about football feels pointless. I’m interested in several of the games this weekend, but I currently lack the motivation to write about them.

I’m sure Sunday will be a better day than Saturday as we start the ascending process all over again. I just know the next time things feel really great, I’m going to dread the inevitable descent back to reality.

The great thing about actual roller coasters is we have a choice not to ride them. I’ve never liked them. Unfortunately, we’re strapped in for life’s roller coaster, and people who have some control over where things head do not have our best interests in mind. I screwed up by not voting in 2016. I won’t do that again next week. Other than that, I’m not sure what else I can do right now but try to enjoy the ride whenever possible.

And how the fvck is it already Week 8?

NFL Week 8 Predictions

I had Houston winning on TNF, but Miami (+7.5) covering. That was silly, because Adam Gase’s Dolphins tend to only win close games or lose big. Duh, Scott.

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We have a major Disappointment Bowl to start Sunday in London with the Eagles vs. Jaguars. Both teams are 3-4. Since 1990, the only 3-4 teams to still reach the Super Bowl were the 1995 Steelers and 2001 Patriots, so it’s not looking too hot for these teams. The Jaguars apparently had a few players arrested in London already. I think Blake Bortles will play better to keep the leash longer on his job, but I have the Eagles pulling this one out 24-20 after getting enough mistakes from Bortles.

My favorite bet this week is Cincinnati -4. It’s a 1 p.m. home game, coming off a big loss, against a bad defense with a turnover-prone QB. This is Marvin Lewis in his element: a game called by Chris Myers and Daryl Johnson that no one is watching. I also like a teaser on the side of this week’s big favorites (PIT, KC, NE, LAR). Finally, I think the Giants steal one at home against the Redskins, though it’s not like Washington is an easy team to figure out this year.

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Super Bowl LII Preview

To say another Super Bowl between the Patriots and Eagles is less than ideal for me would be an understatement. I didn’t think I could swing a dead cat without hitting angry tweets from both fan bases the last two weeks, but I think my Mute and Block lists have done a good job there.

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My SB LII feelings.

This idea that I want the Eagles so badly to lose is an odd one. You guys realize the Patriots are the other team in this game, right? No matter how much I disagree with Eagles fans*, you’re the anti-hero we non-NE people need this week. You let us down 13 years ago in what was really the least dramatic finish in the last seven Patriots Super Bowls. It was also the last time the NFL had a repeat champion, so this is the longest span in NFL history without one, and here are the Eagles with another chance to stop the Patriots from doing so. Sure, I think jokes about the Eagles having an empty trophy case are fun, but who the hell wants to live in a world where the Patriots have won three out of four two times? Philly, you’re losing your shot to become the most insufferable fan base in this country if your team doesn’t win this game. They’ll have it on lockdown if they win.

*And let’s face it, this stems from the Carson Wentz stuff going back to September 2016. I didn’t think he was all that at 3-0, and I still didn’t think he was MVP caliber this year. The fact that the Eagles are here in the Super Bowl without him supports the idea that this is a quality team with a talented offense and a system that is very beneficial to the quarterback. The Eagles winning the Super Bowl behind game MVP Nick Foles would be the best possible outcome for me, so let’s get that part straight on what I’d prefer to see happen.

I’m not going to do a super long preview of the game here like I usually have in past years. It’s not that I don’t care, but it’s because I’ve already shared my research and talking points elsewhere for this one.

Supplemental reading:

How the Patriots are 15-0 in the playoffs against new opponents, and how the Eagles can end that streak that’s been built on some of NE’s luckiest playoff moments. Statistically, they don’t actually play better against new opponents.

Sneaky stats that could decide Super Bowl LII – a look at weighted DVOA (Patriots are No. 1, Eagles are No. 7), another unique New England defense, how these offenses handle pass pressure, and the all-too-familiar Super Bowl script for the Patriots.

Football Outsiders Big Super Bowl II Preview – I co-authored this with Aaron Schatz this year, and it’s probably not that hard to tell which paragraphs each of us wrote. But it is a long read and I think we covered everything we possibly could between two teams who only meet every other four years.

Like last year with Atlanta, I think this is a game where the Eagles could win, but I’m not going to predict it to happen. It’s just way easier to trust the Patriots’ big-game experience and track record of finding ways to win. I thought the Eagles were outstanding against Minnesota, but this is a whole different beast.

To summarize why I think the Patriots win

It starts with the offensive matchup for New England. I think running backs, slot receivers and tight ends are where the Eagles are most vulnerable, so look for Danny Amendola, Rob Gronkowski, and Dion Lewis/James White to combine for a big game. The secondary is not as good as Jacksonville’s was, and the Patriots even broke some tendencies by challenging the outside corners with Brandin Cooks, yet another big weapon in their arsenal. Even if the Patriots fall behind, we know they can come back, and the Eagles have struggled against the no-huddle offense. The Patriots just wear you out (ask Atlanta), and we always hear about the second-half fatigue in a Super Bowl after a long halftime. The Patriots are used to this environment while the Eagles simply are not. I strongly believe in success against New England requires experience and success against them (learn to beat Belichick) — look at Gary Kubiak’s Denver teams (both as OC and HC), teams led by a Manning, John Harbaugh’s Ravens, and even Rex Ryan took 3-of-5 games with the Jets in 2009-2010. I don’t trust defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz to back off and effectively pressure Brady with four pass rushers, and I think Foles is going to be asked to do more than he’s comfortable with the biggest game of his life. I also think there’s some possible turnover regression there since Foles has never thrown a pick in the playoffs and the Patriots have one takeaway in the last six games. Maybe James Harrison makes his mark on another Super Bowl with a strip-sack, making the entire state of Pennsylvania groan in disgust.

When it’s all said and done, I think there will be a moment in this game where we’ll look back and say “boy, if the Eagles just did that, they would have had them.” But that’s how the Patriots win Super Bowls. They either make the big plays in the big moments, or they take advantage when you pass those opportunities up.

To summarize why I think the Eagles have a shot

This game could very well be about Doug Pederson and Nick Foles rather than Belichick and Brady. They have an opportunity to do something memorable here. The plan behind beating the Patriots is not a complex one. You generally have to score a fair amount and can’t keep settling for field goals. You have to limit Brady’s possessions and get pressure without blitzing much. You have to win the turnover battle and play from ahead. It’s not rocket science, but few teams in the NFL are talented and prepared enough to pull off that type of team effort.

The Patriots make you play your A game to beat them, but any team that lost to Jay Cutler and the Dolphins can surely be beat. It will just take quite an effort from Pederson in mixing up his gameplans on both sides of the ball to deal with the inevitable Belichick adjustments. Foles can’t play hero, but he has to avoid the big mistakes and continue his success in moving the chains on third down and possessing the ball. The Falcons and Vikings only had nine possessions in the playoff games. When the Giants beat NE twice in the Super Bowl, Brady only had nine possessions in each game. You have to shorten the game by sticking with the run, even if you’re averaging 3.0 YPC, and making plays on third down with smart passes. Remember, the Patriots were awful on defense for the first four games of the season. Things have really improved since then, but they don’t have Dont’a Hightower, they have gotten away with several overturned touchdowns, kickers have been bad against them, and they haven’t been tested by many great offenses since Week 5. Remember, the Steelers lost Antonio Brown in the second quarter of the Week 15 matchup. Even with Foles, the Eagles are clearly a better offense than what the Titans and Jaguars brought with them to Foxboro. This defense held up very well against Adam Thielen and Stefon Diggs last time out. The Eagles have the talent and stats on defense to be a Super Bowl-caliber defense — certainly moreso than with the Patriots.

But when that opportunity comes to put the Patriots away, will Pederson come through with the right call that the Seahawks and Falcons failed to make? It’s Saturday night and I hate to keep looking up stats on this matchup, but the Eagles were only a mediocre 16th at power runs. LeGarrette Blount has had issues in the past with that, so maybe running him (or Jay Ajayi) up the gut isn’t the smartest move, but that doesn’t mean a play-action pass with a moving pocket for Foles that shrinks the field on third-and-1 is the right call either. It’s that balance between smart and aggressive that so many teams fail to make work against the Patriots.

I debated whether or not to write about the Patriots’ legacy at the end here. I’m talking more about the run as a whole rather than Brady or Belichick specifically. Like I’ve said before, where you rank those guys should have been decided before this game or the Atlanta game or maybe even the Seattle game. Ultimately, I decided to just let the game play out. Maybe if they win easily for the first time in a Super Bowl, I’ll swap my usual Clutch Encounters recap for a commentary piece on their run’s place in history.

If not, then I’m sure I’ll still have plenty to write about tomorrow night after another close New England Super Bowl.

FINAL: PATRIOTS 29, EAGLES 23

Remember, eat Arby’s.

2017 NFL Conference Championship Predictions

Going back to September’s preview, this 2017 season was my pessimistic “Eat Arby’s” and “Patriots vs. the NFL” season. Here we are for Championship Sunday and…it’s the Patriots again, and the Three Stooges/Sacrificial Lambs.

OK, that’s not fair to some really good defensive teams, and we should respect that Case Keenum had a career year for the Vikings, and that the Eagles essentially earned a bye before the Carson Wentz injury. Blake Bortles also can’t help that he’s Blake Bortles, but I still think this is one of the weaker simulations that the 2017 season could have spit out for us. Hopefully the games will actually be good, and I think at least one of them will be.

Jaguars at Patriots

You might say I saw this one coming a few months ago.

I’m not going to actually predict 20-9 as the final, but I think we have our story for how this one will be perceived. Tom Brady has a right hand injury. It was feared to be serious at one point, but now it’s sounding more like a cut that caused him to miss Thursday’s practice (he practiced Friday), and maybe he’ll wear a glove. A big deal? Doubtful, because we’re talking about a cut rather than some actual ligament damage or something that would impact his strength. It basically comes down to pain tolerance, and Brady often gets irritated on the field no matter how healthy he is. I’m chalking this up as a non-story, but that won’t stop Jim Nantz and Tony Romo from giving every throw and close-up replay the Zapruder analysis.

This also offers Brady a “he gutted it out against the No. 1 defense with a bad hand” storyline. Great. I will stick to my prediction that Brady won’t have a great game against this defense, which plays a Seattle style of defense and can rush the passer and cover without needing to blitz. I think Brady has seen several better defenses than this one, including the 2015 Broncos and 2009 Jets, but it’s a pretty talented unit.

Brady generally doesn’t impress in the AFC Championship Game, unless he’s playing the Steelers. I definitely like the under in this one, because I think the Jacksonville offense is going to struggle to score. This isn’t Pittsburgh. The Patriots actually figured out how to improve on defense this season after a bad four-week start. They’ve done everything they could to change the perception of how the season started, but those perceptions are hard to shake. This defense has caught some lucky breaks with dropped or overturned touchdowns, missed field goals, and the schedule easing up, but Bill Belichick and Matt Patricia have figured out how to keep the score (and yards even) down without the services of Dont’a Hightower. If you’re going to blame the Steelers’ defensive collapse on Ryan Shazier’s injury, then how do you explain the Patriots doing what they’ve done without Hightower? It’s just better coaching, simple as that.

Jacksonville’s running game isn’t efficient. Leonard Fournette is not that big of a difference maker as some think, and I expect the Patriots to contain him on the ground while taking away the play-action options for Bortles and forcing him into third-and-long situations. Bortles should try to scramble in this one as much as he can, but I just don’t think he has the receiving weapons to make plays against this defense that does still allow a good number of successful plays in some weeks. You absolutely have to finish drives for touchdowns instead of field goals and that’s really hard to do in Foxboro.

I think Bortles will flop in the biggest game of his career and those mistakes (setting up short fields) will be capitalized on by Brady and the offense. I’d be alarmed with how Jacksonville’s defense has given up a lot of big plays down the stretch of the season. They also haven’t played NE yet, and the Patriots are 14-0 in the playoffs since 2001 against new opponents. Jalen Ramsey might cover Gronkowski, but that’s not something the Jaguars are used to doing. I’d do it though, putting my best player on their best. Gronk is the player who can make some jaw-dropping catches like the Steelers did last week in their effort to hang 42 points on this defense. The 49ers also scored a lot on the Jags with Jimmy Garoppolo, but there was a return touchdown and some short fields involved in that output. Still, the Patriots can do the same thing, and they can do it by using their running backs and Gronk. If Brady tries to win this game by going bombs away to Brandin Cooks and Chris Hogan, then I like the Jaguars in an upset, but we know the Patriots understand matchups too well for that to happen. It will be getting rid of the ball quickly and this is probably the deepest backfield in the NFL.

For Jacksonville to pull off the upset, it needs to control the game early with a turnover or two, don’t fall behind, and make sure Brady is getting hit repeatedly. Doug Marrone may even need to get brave with a big fourth down or fake punt or surprise onside kick. It’s all just asking too much from this team if you ask me. At least when the 2010 Jets won in New England with Mark Sanchez, they had the experience of the 2009 AFC Championship Game and already beat the Patriots earlier that year. When the 2012 Ravens won in New England, that completed a season sweep and we know they should have won the 2011 AFC Championship Game too (Lee Evans and Billy Cundiff had other plans). This is all still new for Jacksonville, who matched up well with Pittsburgh this year, but we’re talking about the Patriots here. That’s going from checkers to chess.

Final: Patriots 23, Jaguars 16

Vikings at Eagles

I previewed this game at FO, so definitely check that out for the stats and my thoughts. Basically, I think it comes down to which unlikely QB1 screws things up the most. I don’t think there’s enough of an advantage with special teams or the running games for it to be about that. It’s going to be about whether Nick Foles or Case Keenum throws a pick parade or takes some dreadful sacks or just has that one big giveaway in the fourth quarter that so often highlights a team’s run to the Super Bowl. I also think the Eagles’ front seven can be a tough matchup for Minnesota’s OL, so Keenum especially can’t panic and throw a terrible pick like he did last week at home.

While I lean towards Minnesota having the better team, I do think home-field advantage matters here. Not just playing outdoors with the rowdy crowd, but the Vikings also had a huge emotional win against the Saints thanks to the miracle play by Stefon Diggs. They need to come off of that with a good start on the road instead of playing flat. This should be low scoring with two strong defenses, but look for the turnover battle to be extra decisive.

Let’s just hope it doesn’t come down to a kicker, but I could definitely see that too.

Final: Vikings 20, Eagles 17