NFL Stat Oddity: Week 18

The NFL can be hard to understand or predict. The NFL can be difficult to love or watch. But days like Sunday, a perfect season finale, are why we keep up with it year after year.

The inaugural 17th regular-season game got off to a dodgy start on Saturday, but Sunday’s slate delivered the most drama of any Sunday this season. As always, the NFL won out in the end. Sure, it helped that each time slot had a very meaningful game go to overtime. The Colts, a 15-point favorite in Jacksonville, also helped by laying an instant egg that set up the rest of the day for great drama.

Ben Roethlisberger didn’t need to say a prayer Sunday to extend his career. He just needed to believe that Carson Wentz and the Chargers are who we thought they were.

They indeed are. Now, two better statistical teams (Colts and Chargers) are staying home while two teams with below minus-50 scoring differentials (Steelers and Raiders) are in the tournament. I really did not expect that from Sunday.

Season Predictions: Not to Toot My Own Horn But…

I’ll get to every game below, but I do want to start by saying that I’m really proud of my preseason predictions this season. I don’t like to toot my own horn this way, but in dark times like these, it feels good to see some hard work pay off. This was the first season where I wrote a detailed season preview of all 32 teams. I’m not sure if that was the reason I had my most accurate predictions yet or not, or if it was because of how competitive this season was with 25 teams getting at least seven wins.

Not only did I predict 11 of the 14 playoff teams correctly, but I was only off by an average of 1.3 wins for all 32 teams’ final record. That is by far my best job yet as I’m usually off by about 2.5 wins. My previous best was 2.06 wins in 2014. I predicted 24 teams to within one game of their record in 2021 after only getting eight in 2020 and an average of 12 teams from 2013-20. I was within two games of 28 teams after an average of 18.6 from 2013-20.

My weekly predictions also ended on a decent note. As I explained on Saturday, I thought I was doing terrible because of my record on the game previews I’ve been assigned, but my overall record for the season is fine. It happened again this week as my articles were 1-3 ATS but I still finished 10-6 ATS for Week 18.

That leaves my final records for the 2021 season at 158-113-1 ATS (.583) and 174-97-1 SU (.642).

For a season thought to be so historically wild and competitive, I’ll take these numbers any day. Hopefully I can improve on them next year.

This season in Stat Oddity:

Colts at Jaguars: WTF, Frank?

Sunday in the NFL goes much differently if the Colts, a 15-point favorite, did not choke so badly in Jacksonville. They fell victim to a season-high 26 points and career-best game from Trevor Lawrence, who massively outplayed Carson Wentz with the Colts’ season on the line. Jonathan Taylor only rushed for 77 yards and did not find the end zone, likely missing out on every award now this year. The Colts have gone from the team “no one wants to face” to the team watching the playoffs from home despite a plus-86 scoring differential.

You probably already know my thoughts about Wentz, and how this game validates the type of fool’s gold he is and how he’ll never lead the Colts to anywhere significant.

But I’m more concerned about head coach Frank Reich after this one. You can’t be considered a top-tier head coach if you can’t figure out how to beat the Jaguars in Jacksonville. This stat is flat out embarrassing and it doesn’t even go back to 2018 where he lost 6-0 down there with Andrew Luck as his quarterback. The Colts haven’t won in Jacksonville since 2014.

How do you not get your team fired up to win as a 15-point favorite with the playoffs on the line? How is the “run the damn ball” offensive line not hyped to get Jonathan Taylor a 2,000-yard rushing season if need be? The Colts came out flat and they paid for it as they finish 2021 without a single 4QC/GWD. It was the finest wire-to-wire win for Jacksonville since beating the Patriots in the second game of the 2018 season.

When Lawrence converted a pair of third-and-10+ on the first drive, you thought this could be interesting. A game-opening touchdown that took up half the quarter was not expected. Taylor getting stuffed on a 4th-and-2 on the ensuing drive was not expected. Lawrence completing 19-of-25 for 208 yards at halftime and a 13-3 lead was certainly not expected after the brutal rookie year he’s had.

Now in the third quarter when Wentz is expected to make things happen, that’s when you get nervous as a Colts fan. He did nothing to alleviate those concerns. Wentz coughed up a strip-sack on the fourth play of the half, which the Jaguars fortunately only turned into a field goal despite amazing field position. Then came the bad interception, and that one was not so fortunate to avoid turning into seven points.

Down 23-3, the damage was already done by the coddled caretaker at quarterback. To Wentz’s credit, he was not the problem after it got out of hand at 23-3. Taylor was stuffed on a 4th-and-goal at the 1, a money moment for him the rest of the season, but not on Sunday. Wentz later threw a good enough deep ball on a 4th-and-12, but Parris Campbell failed to make a play on it in a situation where he absolutely needed to. The Colts got eight points on their next drive to make it 26-11 with 4:26 left, but out of timeouts, the defense failed to get the ball back.

Imagine beating the Bills, Patriots, and Cardinals before losing to the Raiders and Jaguars to miss the playoffs. What a way to give up a first-round pick to the playoff-bound Eagles, who certainly don’t miss Wentz’s bullshit.

The Colts had two decades to build great teams around Peyton Manning and Andrew Luck, which they rarely ever did. Now after building up the offensive line, finding a great back, a supposedly great coach, and getting a ton of turnovers on defense, none of it is going to matter because now they don’t have a real franchise quarterback.

Unless the Jaguars make the most AFC South move of all time and hire Bill O’Brien, I’d sooner bet on Jacksonville doing something in the playoffs before the Colts as long as Wentz is the quarterback.

Steelers at Ravens: It’s Not Over Yet

I was not emotionally prepared to watch Ben Roethlisberger’s final game. He’s really the first Hall of Fame athlete I can say I experienced the whole career of from the first preseason game to the final snap. As it turns out, his final snap will have to wait at least a week.

The early control of the Colts by Jacksonville added some major intrigue to this game, even if it didn’t seem like either team had a clue what was going on in Florida in the first half. This was your typical Steelers-Ravens game, which means one team was missing its starting quarterback (Lamar Jackson) and it was an ugly, physical street fight.

Frankly, the Ravens should have ran more than the 36 carries for 249 yards got them. A good chunk (72 yards) of that was quarterback Tyler Huntley scrambling, but it felt like a relief when the Ravens called a pass play and he didn’t scramble. The Steelers were getting gashed again by the run as they have all year. Latavius Murray had 150 yards himself. But the defense came up with some crucial stops in the second half, including an interception in the end zone when Baltimore was up 10-6 and looking for more. That really changed the game, as did a forced fumble by T.J. Watt on a play where he thought he tied the sack record but it wasn’t actually a sack. He later tied Michael Strahan’s single-season sack record.

The game was also a great example of why watching Roethlisberger is so conflicting these days. On the one hand, you can see why he needs to retire as his body seems to be running on fumes down the stretch. After hitting a good stride for eight games, he’s struggled since the Minnesota loss. Roethlisberger became the first quarterback since 2008 Kyle Orton to throw for fewer than 160 yards in three straight games on at least 25 attempts.

This was looking like a fourth straight game of that, which would tie the NFL record, but then Roethlisberger showed us why he’s one of the all-time leaders in clutch wins. Pittsburgh kept trying to run its backup running back – Najee Harris was injured on the third snap and missed a large chunk of the game – against one of the worst pass defenses in the league. It led to the backs gaining 35 yards on their first 23 carries, constantly putting Roethlisberger on a wet field in bad down-and-distance situations.

But finally, the Steelers let Ben take over in what could have easily been his final game. In the last six minutes of regulation and overtime, he converted all five of his passes on third or fourth down with at least six yards to go. The 20-yard pass on third-and-9 to Ray Ray McCloud is vintage Roethlisberger, as was the fourth down conversion in overtime with pressure applied.

Three of those conversions in overtime alone led to Roethlisberger’s seventh game-winning drive of the season. Harris finally broke a 15-yard run as the 24th carry of the game for the backs was a success to set up Chris Boswell for the 36-yard game-winning field goal. He got it, and the Steelers (9-7-1) just needed the Raiders and Chargers to not tie at night.

That was a hell of a lot harder than it needed to be, but the Steelers made this season so difficult. The Detroit tie that saved them in the end almost cost them too as that should have been a 10th win that wouldn’t have made a tie feasible for the Raiders and Chargers. But neither the Detroit tie after Ben got COVID nor the lousy run defense could keep the Steelers out of this postseason as the seventh seed. Their reward is a trip to Kansas City where they lost 36-10 two weeks ago, but you’d still rather be playing than done for good.

Just don’t lose 62-7 like Dan Marino’s final game in Jacksonville and I’ll call it a success.

Chargers at Raiders: And That’s BINGO

I thought the Chargers already played in the Game of the Year against the Chiefs in Week 15, an overtime classic. This one too should go down as an instant overtime classic, and go figure, the Chargers came up short again despite an incredible performance from Justin Herbert. So many plays in this game were inches away from going the other way.

The Chargers were 6-of-7 on fourth down, only failing on an ill-advised run in the third quarter deep in their own end. Almost all these other decisions were out of necessity as Herbert converted the last five fourth downs where failure on any one of them would have ended the Chargers’ season right there.

While Herbert won’t be going to the playoffs in his second season, my respect for him shot up with this game. He outplayed Derek Carr, who got a more competent team performance on the night. The Chargers fumbled a punt return that led to a 23-yard touchdown drive and early 10-0 hole. Jalen Richard ran for a first down on a 3rd-and-23 before halftime on a drive that also included a 41-yard penalty for pass interference despite Carr’s pass landing nowhere near any receiver.

The Chargers missed a game-tying 51-yard field goal to start the third quarter while the Raiders hit a 52-yard field goal in the fourth quarter to take a 29-14 lead. It was just that kind of night for the Chargers, but that’s also where the fun really started with the fourth downs. Herbert threw a touchdown on a 4th-and-21 and converted a two-point conversion with 4:28 left. A failure there would also have made the end of the game fairly moot. But in getting the ball back, Herbert embarked on a 19-play marathon drive that felt like a whole quarter itself despite taking only 2:06 off the game clock. Herbert found Mike Williams for a 12-yard touchdown as time expired.

I’m not surprised Brandon Staley settled for the extra point there. It was common sense as a tie did put both teams in the playoffs. I didn’t agree with a lot of his decisions in this game, but that one was agreeable. After the teams exchanged field goals in overtime, it sure looked like Pittsburgh was going to get screwed with a tie, but Carr and the Raiders were still hungry for a win. Maybe avoiding the Chiefs next week was on their mind given the way those two matchups went this year. Plus, the added bonus of eliminating a division rival is hard to pass up.

Carr made a great throw to Zay Jones on a third-and-8 to avoid the tie from happening. It still may have happened if the Raiders kept running with a lazy approach to the final minute, but Staley called timeout with 38 seconds left before a third-and-4. That seemed to change the Raiders’ approach and they broke off a 10-yard run against a terrible run defense.

With two seconds left, there was still a little risk associated with kicking a field goal. If you get blocked for a touchdown there and miss the playoffs, you’ll be an all-time laughingstock in NFL history. I normally don’t care about the block, but this situation (tie equals playoffs) was so unique. But the Raiders executed, and Daniel Carlson made a great 47-yard field goal to win the game at the buzzer.

Carr’s 30th game-winning drive is the third most in a quarterback’s first eight seasons behind only Russell Wilson (32) and Matt Ryan (31).

I don’t want to get bogged down with Staley’s decision making after a classic game where his team came up short. The Chargers followed a 4-1 start with a 1-3 slump and will end with a 1-3 slump to miss the playoffs. I’d just like to see the team do a better job of building up the defense so Herbert isn’t trying to win 35-32 games so much.

But knowing my NFL history, this game will somehow be the first chapter in the “Herbert isn’t clutch” narrative despite him rescuing this game time and time again to even give it a chance to be an all-time tie.

But they even screwed that up too. I would have loved to see Williams take that fourth-down catch in overtime all the way for a winning touchdown, but I’ll take the outcome as is.

I never had to root harder for a non-tie.

49ers at Rams: The McVay Halftime Stat Is Dead

I was torn on this one. Do I root for Kyle Shanahan to underperform and miss the playoffs to let the Saints in, or do I look to add another loss to Matthew Stafford’s record against teams with a winning record? I guess since my best parlays went in LA’s favor this week, karma took care of the rest with one of the most stunning losses of the Sean McVay era.

Talk about backing into a division title. The Rams seemed to be exorcising their San Francisco demons when they led 17-0 and Stafford couldn’t miss a throw. But then the pressure did come for him. The 49ers trailed 17-3 at halftime, and McVay was infamously 45-0 in his career when leading at halftime. I always hated hearing this stat referenced since it implies that he’s never lost a game when leading in the second half. He has. Multiple times.

The 49ers did not need much time to erase that deficit thanks to the multiple talents of Deebo Samuel, who ran for a score, threw a touchdown, and is a beast after the catch. But it still looked like the Rams were going to send the 49ers home and the Saints, who were winning in Atlanta, into the playoffs. Jimmy Garoppolo saw a tipped ball get picked in the end zone by Jalen Ramsey in a tied game in the fourth quarter. Cooper Kupp absolutely should have locked up the Offensive Player of the Year award with an incredible drive that saw him go over 90 yards for a record-extending 13th straight game, and he caught the go-ahead touchdown with 2:29 left.

Von Miller notched a third-down sack to set up 4th-and-18 at the San Francisco 17 as the two-minute warning hit. Almost surprisingly, Shanahan punted with his three timeouts left. It’s no man’s land, for sure, but I have to say I agree with the punt. The conversion is so low percentage, and if you don’t get it, the game is basically over as you’ll be down two scores at best when you get the ball back. If you punt and force a three-and-out, you have a chance with plenty of time to get the tying touchdown. I really find it hard to believe the 49ers were at 0.4% in win probability there.

Basically, it’s a punt call I think almost every coach would do, but Brandon Staley and John Harbaugh may go for it and lose the game right there. The 49ers got it to work largely because of a cowardly decision by McVay to run Sony Michel three times and punt. I can understand a second-down run, even if that would have been the perfect time to throw deep to Kupp, who was still in position to get to 2,000 receiving yards on the season. But after trading for Stafford and having Kupp chasing history, you run Sony Michel on third-and-7 for 2 yards? Pathetic.

But Garoppolo got the job done with his receiver showing their incredible YAC again. Samuel had a 43-yard play and that set up a 15-yard touchdown to Jennings with 26 seconds left. The 49ers settled for a field goal in overtime, but the defense just had to stop Stafford one more time. He threw up a pick on first down when he had plenty of time to be more methodical in a 27-24 game. Game over. Fortunately, the Cardinals lost to Seattle, so the Rams still win the division.

But if the Rams go one-and-done after losing this game, the bugaboo for Stafford against good competition is only going to grow. After going 8-68 against winning teams coming into 2021, Stafford finishes the regular season with a 3-5 record against winning teams. Still a career year and the first time he notched multiple wins in the same season. But with the expectations pointing towards Super Bowl or bust with the moves this team has made, a 3-6 finish against winning teams (assuming a loss to Arizona next week) would be a massive disappointment.

Maybe even McVay, Mr. 3 Points in the Super Bowl, will feel the criticism this time as well. He no longer has Goff as the scapegoat. The Rams had no business losing this game and still did. On the bright side, we never have to hear again how he’s undefeated when leading at halftime.

Saints at Falcons: Tough Year

I feel bad for Jameis Winston tearing his ACL in Week 8. Would the Saints still have swept the Buccaneers if he was QB1 in those games for all eight quarters? That’s not certain. The Saints were also taking a very conservative approach with him all season long, but I think they still had real potential for 10-plus wins if he stayed healthy. The Ian Book game was also certainly a debacle as New Orleans’ only loss in the last five games.

Get Winston healthy and add some receivers, and maybe the Saints can challenge for the division again next season. As for the Falcons, congrats on setting the worst scoring differential record for a seven-win team in NFL history one year after setting the best scoring differential record for a four-win team in NFL history. That at least shows the better coaching this year, or maybe just the better luck in close games as the Falcons didn’t shit their pants at the end against the Giants, Jets, Dolphins, Lions, and Saints (first time).

Seahawks at Cardinals: Bring the Band Back?

I was pretty high on the Seattle upset this week as I don’t believe in Arizona and felt that the Russell Wilson-Pete Carroll era needed to end on a high note. After the 38-30 win where Wilson played well with his receivers and Rashaad Penny again had a huge rushing performance, I’m starting to think the Seahawks will bring the band back for 2022. It’s not over. They’ll cite Wilson’s injury and some bad luck in close games as they were 0-7 at game-winning drive opportunities before getting one in this game due to a short field.

And maybe that’s not the worst idea in the world. When you see teams wanting to interview Bill O’Brien and Dan Quinn as their head coach, is there an obvious upgrade to Pete out there? And there is validity in thinking this offense could work if those key skill players stay healthy.

Seattle just scored 38 points in consecutive games for the first time since the 2015 season. As for Arizona, it was a big missed opportunity with the Rams losing to the 49ers but still winning the NFC West. Arizona will settle for the No. 5 seed despite starting 7-0. The Cardinals are just 3-5 at home. However, maybe starting the playoffs on the road isn’t the worst thing in the world.

Jets at Bills: AFC East Supremacy

You wouldn’t know it, but the Bills technically won their first “close game” of the 2021 season. The Jets were only down 13-10 and had the ball to start the fourth quarter. Of course, they were backed up in their own end and couldn’t do anything about it. Buffalo scored touchdowns on back-to-back drives that started at midfield to take a 27-10 lead while the Jets couldn’t get another first down. So, it goes down as an easy 17-point cover, but it was another tough game for three quarters in the wind for the Bills.

I would have loved to see rematches of Bills-Titans and Bengals-Chiefs in the divisional round, but it’s more likely going to be a Bills-Chiefs rematch in that round now. That’s assuming the Bills, now back-to-back winners of the AFC East, can knock off the Patriots again this week.

Patriots at Dolphins: Miami Does It Again

Robert Kraft has to stop taking the Patriots to those special massage parlors when they visit Miami each season. That’s about the only explanation I have for why this team underperforms so badly down there.

Well, scratch that. Some combination of former Belichick assistants (Nick Saban, Tony Sparano was a Bill Parcells guy at least, and Brian Flores), Tom Brady shitting his pants, the heat, and some general randomness (2018 Miami Miracle) likely have contributed too. But the Dolphins have won three in a row against the Patriots now.

Once a contender for the No. 1 seed, the Patriots have really stumbled down the stretch, finishing 1-3 out of the bye. This team might be the Eagles of the AFC this year. Prompted up by the schedule and trying to win with defense and running the ball. However, unlike the Eagles, the Patriots have a quality win over a playoff team this year. They beat the Bills in Buffalo in that windy game where they only threw three passes. I think the Bills are clearly the better team in fair weather, so we’ll see if Belichick can sell someone else’s soul to conjure up some hellish wind on Saturday when these teams meet for the third time in six weeks.

Panthers at Buccaneers: Of Course They Get Philly

The Panthers hung in there for a half with Tampa Bay, but too much Rob Gronkowski and Mike Evans were enough for Carolina. Throw in a loss by the Rams and the Patriots Buccaneers move up to the No. 2 seed, because what else would you expect? Of course Tom Brady is going to start a playoff run with a Philadelphia team that is 0-6 against playoff teams and built to run the ball while Tampa Bay is an elite run defense that needs to be passed on to have success.

Throw in a potential Dallas matchup in the second round, and it’s looking like winning a couple of NFC East rematches is all it will take to get back to the NFC Championship Game in Green Bay. Or hosting it in Tampa should the Packers falter out of the bye.

It’s LOAT season again. Hold on to your butts, or hope for a couple new Philly Specials.

Titans at Texans: Her?

The Titans are the No. 1 seed as adding “swept by Texans and lost to Jets” to the resume along with “wins over the Chiefs, Bills, Rams, 49ers” was too crazy to be true. They still survived a scare from Davis Mills, who threw for 301 yards and three touchdowns as the Texans put up a fight after trailing 21-0.

We’ll see if the return of Derrick Henry in the playoffs is a catalyst to push this team to a Super Bowl, or if they’ll compete with the 2000 Titans and 2008 Titans for the title of weakest No. 1 seed in the expanded playoff era.

Do you need a reminder that both of those teams lost at home in the divisional round?

Chiefs at Broncos: Melvin on Melvin Violence

Quickly going back to Saturday, the Chiefs were in another dogfight with the Broncos before Melvin Ingram blew up Melvin Gordon in the red zone for a fumble that was returned 86 yards for a game-winning touchdown. It’s just the second non-offensive game-winning score of the season following New England’s pick-six against the Chargers.

Like I said last week, the Chiefs probably cannot continue to reliably score if Travis Kelce and Tyreek Hill are both going to be limited in production. Hill had an injury that limited him to 2 yards in this one and Kelce only had 34 yards again and was shaken up on his last catch. Hopefully they’ll both be alright as the Chiefs prepare to play the first wild card game of the Patrick Mahomes era.

As for the Broncos, blow it all up, I say. New coach and new direction at quarterback.

Cowboys at Eagles: Artificial Fight

Dak Prescott’s first game with five touchdown passes came against a very backup-heavy Eagles team on Saturday night. I think Dallas still wins with both teams at full strength, but this isn’t far off from the meaningless season finales these teams also played against each other in 2016 and 2017. Still, it drops the Eagles to 1-7 vs. teams with a winning record, and that one win (Saints) only became official on Sunday with New Orleans getting that ninth win. That means the Eagles are 0-6 against playoff teams this year.

I’ll have plenty more to say about both in the playoff previews this week.

Bears at Vikings: End of Two Eras?

By the time you read this, Matt Nagy and Mike Zimmer could both be fired from their jobs. It’s definitely time for Nagy to go and to get someone in there to coach up Justin Fields so he doesn’t make mistakes like Andy Dalton did on Sunday. But Zimmer has likely run his course too after getting to one NFC Championship Game in eight seasons and just one postseason in four tries with Kirk Cousins as his quarterback.

The Vikings (8-9) have some amazing offensive talent to only finish ninth in the NFC. It could be a much different outcome for Zimmer and Cousins without a missed field goal in Arizona or a last-second touchdown allowed in Detroit. But too many of those games go the other way for this Minnesota team year after year.

Bengals at Browns: Ohio Rests

Not much you can say about a game where both starting quarterbacks were out and the Bengals rested plenty of other key guys for the playoffs. Good on the Bengals for the backdoor cover. Now let’s see if Joe Burrow and Ja’Marr Chase can lead them to their finest season since the 1988 Super Bowl team with a playoff win.

Packers at Lions: Some Kneecaps Were Eaten

I liked that the Packers got Aaron Rodgers and Davante Adams some good reps in this one. Stay sharp for the playoffs and don’t fall into the trap of the double rest weeks with the bye coming. Jordan Love also got some important playing time and had some mixed results. Good on Jared Goff to lead a game-winning drive and end his season on a high note for Dan Campbell’s bunch. Definitely more competitive than the 3-13-1 record will suggest.

Sunday was the first time the Jaguars and Lions won games in the same week since October 27, 2019 (Week 8). They were playing the Jets and Giants that day, of course.

Washington at Giants: War Crime

While the Giants actually had two gains of 20-plus yards this week despite the 22-7 loss, this game was still an atrocity on an otherwise stellar Sunday.

This was the first NFL game since the 2017 Colts-Bills snow game where neither team had 100 net passing yards. You have to go back to the historically bad 2010 Panthers-Bears game to find the last time it happened in a non-snow game.

At the very least, it helped me nail my predictions of 7-10 Football Team (adios to that name) and 4-13 Giants. Now will 2022 please make these teams more watchable? You know the next time they play we’ll probably have to see it on an island.

This week: Busy one coming up. I’ll have the close game summary report for 2021, my season award picks, and full previews for all six wild card games.

NFL Week 18 Predictions: “Where Are My Playoffs?” Edition

My NFL body clock feels off. It’s Saturday afternoon on January 8th. I should be watching a wild card playoff game in two hours; not Chiefs-Broncos part d’oh. But it’s an NFL first with the 17th regular-season game, and I guess it’s cool that Patrick Mahomes is part of it, especially since the Chiefs are playing to win with a small chance still at the No. 1 seed.

But these other games? Oof. When I look at the schedule this week, I have a hard time finding games I’d want to place a wager on. Take tonight’s Cowboys-Eagles game for one. Is Jalen Hurts playing? Is Dallas going to call off the dogs early? Is it even reasonable to go all out for either team? Then on Sunday, CLE-CIN is a classic throwaway game to end the season with both starting quarterbacks out. Is Aaron Rodgers going to play in Detroit? Does he play a quarter? A series?

I’m also not quite ready for the likely final game of Ben Roethlisberger’s career. His rookie year (2004) was my freshman year at Pitt, so he’s basically been the quarterback for my whole adult life. It took the Steelers 21 years to find him as Bradshaw’s true replacement, and I see some dark times ahead for the Steelers until they fix that spot again. This is no longer the 90s. You’re not going to win consistently with bums like Mason Rudolph at QB.

Needless to say, I’m rooting for the Jaguars to upset the Colts. It’d help my Steelers and make Carson Wentz look bad, and make the day much more interesting all around Would the Chargers and Raiders actually think of kneeling out SNF since they’d both make the playoffs with a tie? That would be insane. Roger Goodell would be so pissed.

Now do I think it’s going to happen? Of course not. Jonathan Taylor is more likely to rush for the yards he needs to get to 2,000 in an easy win than the Jaguars are to win the game. Wentz shouldn’t even have to throw for 100 yards.

My full-length previews at BMR include Packers-Lions, Jets-Bills, Seahawks-Cardinals, and 49ers-Rams.

Not once this season have I posted my cumulative record for my picks this season. I felt a little embarrassed that the picks weren’t doing well and just chalked it up to another goofy pandemic season. These previews I’ve been linking to each week, I’m only 31-33 ATS on them.

However, I was mostly assigned island games this year, and it’s those island games where the underdogs kept kicking ass and beating the odds. I didn’t catch on early enough. Then when I looked at my recent performance, I saw a lot of green (correct). So I decided to look at two splits for my picks this season: Weeks 1-10 and Weeks 11-17. While things definitely improved, I was surprised at by how much, and how I wasn’t doing so bad to start the season either.

My 2021 NFL Picks

Weeks 1-10: 83-66-1 ATS (.557), 90-59-1 SU (.603)

Weeks 11-17: 65-41 ATS (.613), 73-33 SU (.689)

Total: 148-107-1 ATS (.580), 163-92-1 SU (.639)

You know how island games can make people greatly exaggerate the value of a team/player? I did the same thing to myself using my article picks to paint a picture that I’m doing a bad job this season.

Alas, I’m looking forward to these games finishing Sunday so I can post my preseason predictions and how I fared there. I took a sneak peak earlier this week and it’s shaping up to be my most accurate season yet.

NFL Stat Oddity: Week 16

It is hard to tell when Week 15 ended and Week 16 began in the NFL, but I know I have taken a nap during four of the last six island games. Dolphins-Saints without the Manning brothers is another strong snooze contender tonight, but let’s get through Sunday’s recap first.

There are seven games with a comeback opportunity in Week 16 but only four of them came on Sunday. The only fourth-quarter lead change belonged to the Bears in Seattle.

It was a wildly successful week for a lot of the preseason favorites (KC, TB, LAR, GB, BUF, DAL, TEN). In fact, all seven of those teams won and are currently leading their division after they were the favorites to win the division before Week 1. Only the AFC North, currently led by Cincinnati, is an upside-down battle, but the Bengals took a big step forward to deciding that one.

This season in Stat Oddity:

Ravens at Bengals: Pennywise Floats the Ravens in Passing Yards

I hate to see COVID have a huge impact on deciding the AFC North for the second year in a row, and Baltimore has certainly got the shortest end of that stick, but let’s face some facts. The Ravens have not been a very good team all season and this fourth loss in a row was not on Josh Johnson, the latest quarterback to start in Baltimore.

Joe Burrow has had an imperfect second season, but he has been absolute money against the Ravens. You can claim the Ravens are down bad in the secondary now, but Burrow also had 416 yards and three touchdowns in the 41-17 win in Week 7. You know, that game right after the Ravens beat the Chargers 34-6 in one of their only convincing performances of 2021.

Burrow stepped things up into historic company on Sunday with 525 yards and four touchdowns in an easy 41-21 win. Burrow’s 525 yards are the fourth most in a game in NFL history. He’s the first quarterback to throw for 400 yards twice against the same team in a season, and his 941 combined yards in two games are a new record against a team in a season.

Baltimore defensive coordinator Wink Martindale said coming into the game that Burrow isn’t ready for a gold jacket, but he’ll be ready in record time if he got to play this Baltimore defense every week. The Bengals have displayed their excellent trio of wide receivers against the Ravens this season. Tee Higgins had the monster game this time with 194 yards and two touchdowns.

Johnson was more than respectable for Baltimore, his 13th NFL team (and not his first stint there), with a 300-yard game. But the Ravens never could slow down the Bengals. Even after making it 34-21 in the fourth quarter, the Ravens watched Burrow go 8-for-8 on a 78-yard touchdown drive.

A game like this completely justifies why Burrow was the No. 1 pick in the draft. The Bengals are 4-0 against the Ravens and Steelers this year with every win by double digits. This is why they should be favored to win the division now, but a huge test looms with the Chiefs coming to town on an eight-game winning streak. If Burrow can outduel Mahomes in that one, who is to say they can’t do it again in the playoffs next month?

But let’s not get ahead of ourselves. If you told me before the season that Burrow would throw for 400 yards twice on Baltimore, I’d say that’s crazy. If you told me Derek Carr and Carson Wentz also had 400-yard games against the Ravens, I’d say, “damn, they’ve really fallen off a cliff defensively in Baltimore.” That does put it into better perspective.

Success in the NFL is all about stacking. Stacking first downs, stacking scoring drives, and stacking wins. This game becomes a footnote for Burrow, much like Matt Schaub’s 527-yard game, if he follows it up with a dud against the Chiefs and gets swept by the Browns to lose the division title.

But let’s see if this one could be a launching point for this team to do something great this year.

Steelers at Chiefs: The Standard Is 8-8-1

Ever since the Steelers settled for a tie with the winless Lions, I saw a tough schedule and a likely march to 8-8-1 that would mean no playoffs, but we’ll still have to hear “Mike Tomlin has never had a losing season.”

I still think that’s likely with the Steelers (7-7-1) in position to rebound from another ugly game to win at home on Monday Night Football against Cleveland in what should be Ben Roethlisberger’s last home game. Hell, the AFC North is still up for grabs for all four teams, but let’s not get crazy. This Pittsburgh team does not deserve the postseason and the six games since the Detroit tie show why.

This team does not show up for games anymore. No touchdowns in the first half of the last five games, something that hasn’t been done in Pittsburgh since 1940. In Weeks 5-14, Roethlisberger actually figured out how to be effective again. But in the last two weeks, the hopeless passes well short of the sticks that plagued the offense in its 1-3 start have returned with a fury and the offense has suffered as a result. While the offense starts games so badly, the defense is also sinking to some of its lowest levels in franchise history. It’s a miracle T.J. Watt has as many sacks as he does when he seems to pull up injured every third drive.

Yet, the Chiefs played this game without superstar tight end Travis Kelce, without kicker Harrison Butker (the backup cost them four points), and Tyreek Hill only had 19 yards on two targets. Running back Clyde Edwards-Helaire also left after nine carries with a collarbone injury. You would think the Steelers had a fighting chance under those circumstances, but the game was over before halftime again when the Chiefs led 23-0.

Patrick Mahomes was 23-of-30 for 258 yards and three touchdowns, and the numbers could have been even better if Josh Gordon or Byron Pringle had better hands on a couple of plays. Pringle stepped up with 75 yards and two touchdowns as the Chiefs mostly did whatever they wanted on offense before calling off the dogs early as the Steelers had no fight this time.

This is the fifth time in a calendar year I thought I saw the worst half of football from the Steelers in the Roethlisberger era. The first was the start in Cincinnati on Monday Night Football last December. Then came the 28-0 deficit in the first quarter of the playoff game against Cleveland. Definitely the worst first quarter by a team in NFL playoff history. Then they were down 31-3 in Cincinnati at halftime this year after a Roethlisberger pick-six. Two weeks later, the Vikings were up 23-0 with Dalvin Cook looking like he could run for 400 yards, mostly untouched. Now this one is a contender.

Pittsburgh has trailed by at least 17 points before the fourth quarter in nine of their last 19 games, which is about a calendar year. This is something that only happened nine times in Roethlisberger’s first 143 starts, a period that spanned 10 seasons (2004-2013).

This has been a disastrous stretch of ugly football by the Steelers in all phases. The idea that the 39-year-old quarterback retiring is going to solve things is laughable. At some point, people need to catch on that Tomlin and his staff are to blame for the constant mistakes and lack of adjustments.

But these Chiefs are scary again. While other teams peaked early and faded fast, Kansas City fixed its defense, and the offense has adjusted to the way defenses are playing them and have cut down the turnovers. They scored 48 points on the Raiders with Kelce having 27 yards. They scored 34 points on the Chargers with Kelce and Hill going off for monster games. Now they score a conservative 36 in this one with those two combining for 19 yards as Mahomes got only his second data point in a game without his tight end.

The Chiefs are the team to beat again. I’m not even sure it matters if the Titans get the No. 1 seed. But with the way the Chiefs are playing, they have a very good shot to win in Cincinnati and claim home-field advantage again.

Bills at Patriots: Everything In Its Right Place

If these teams had to play a best-of-seven series in normal weather conditions, I think Buffalo wins the series in five games. When the conditions made it easier for Buffalo to throw and necessary for the Patriots to throw more than three times, the talent disparity in these teams showed up.

The glaring difference is at quarterback, which is why the Bills had been favored to win the AFC East they finally lead again after this 33-21 win. Josh Allen was able to go on the road and throw 47 passes without taking a sack. He also led the team with 64 rushing yards and the Bills never punted. Allen’s game marks the 57th time a quarterback has thrown at least 45 passes against Bill Belichick’s Patriots since 2000. It is the first time that quarterback did not take a sack or throw an interception, though he sure did try to do the latter. That’s just Allen’s style, and today it worked out well as he finished enough drives with touchdowns.

Even though Damien Harris returned from his hamstring injury to rush for 103 yards and three touchdowns, the Patriots only got 145 yards passing out of rookie Mac Jones. Isaiah McKenzie had 125 yards receiving for the Bills to nearly match Jones’ whole passing output. The inevitable Cole Beasley COVID situation may have been a blessing in disguise as McKenzie stepped up with 11 catches (one touchdown) on 12 targets. He had seven catches for 38 yards on the season coming into Sunday, so no one took advantage of the Beasley opportunity better than McKenzie. Gabriel Davis was also out, so maybe the Bills have found a new wrinkle to use here.

But even when the Patriots drew to within 20-14 and 26-21, Allen was able to lead long touchdown drives that put the game out of reach. This is one of the most impressive wins the Bills have had in the Sean McDermott era. No more slip-ups at home against the Falcons and Jets, and the Bills should be able to win this division at 11-6.

As adaptable as the Patriots are with weekly game plans, the talent limitations of the roster and inexperience at quarterback still leave them at a disadvantage in games against teams like the Bills, Buccaneers, and Cowboys.

We could still see a rubber match here in the wild card round. But unless Belichick can figure out how to control the weather, I like the Bills in that one too.

Chargers at Texans: They’re Going to Ruin Herbert Too

One of the more potentially crushing losses of this season just happened to the Chargers, a 10.5-point favorite in Houston. The Chargers were without Austin Ekeler and Mike Williams, but that shouldn’t have stopped them from putting up numbers in Houston. The problem is the defense, without Joey Bosa and Derwin James, couldn’t stop Davis Mills and Rex Burkhead from putting up 34 points on eight drives.

Justin Herbert made his 30th start and it’s already the 18th time the Chargers allowed at least 27 points, tying Mike Glennon for the most such games in a quarterback’s first 30 starts since 2001.

It may have been okay if the Chargers stopped the bleeding at 27 points. Justin Jackson had a big fumble at midfield in the fourth quarter with the Chargers down 24-15. Funny how you won’t see that in the highlight like you will Herbert’s pick-six in desperation mode down 34-23 after the two-minute warning. But Jackson made up for his mistake with another touchdown and a two-point conversion made it 27-23 with 5:50 left. Plenty of time for the Chargers to get the ball back and win.

But that’s when you count on your defense to make a stand. The Chargers folded and allowed a 72-yard touchdown drive that all but sealed it at 34-23. Herbert came through with the pick-six and meaningless touchdown pass to produce the 41-29 final. It puts the Chargers at 8-7 and the playoffs in doubt again.

This was practically a cover version of your typical Philip Rivers/Anthony Lynn (or Mike McCoy) upset loss. We thought Herbert and Brandon Staley were above that, but the spread was likely far too generous for a team coming off a crushing loss to the Chiefs and not having Ekeler/Williams/Bosa/James available. Plus, Mills has actually done a respectable job on a lousy roster when he’s not making his first start on short notice or playing in the rain in Buffalo.

Washington at Cowboys: The NFC East Is a Ponzi Scheme I

“Joyless suckfest” is the phrase I’ve used to describe the Washington football franchise.

They were in rare form on Sunday night after falling behind 42-7 at halftime in Dallas. It’s another masterpiece to add to defensive coordinator Jack Del Rio’s legacy as Dak Prescott threw for 322 yards and four touchdowns in the first half. You think Joe Burrow threw for a lot of yards on Sunday? The Cowboys could have broken Norm Van Brocklin’s record if there was any need to run another play in the second half.

Given how much the Dallas offense struggled in the first Washington game as well as some other recent games, this was an impressive showing. Throw in that turnover-heavy defense and this could be a team that rides this wave to a Super Bowl. Chiefs vs. Cowboys was my Super Bowl pick a season ago.

Giants at Eagles: The NFC East Is a Ponzi Scheme II

After a 3-3 first half, it looked like Jalen Hurts was going to repeat his career-worst game against the Giants with another stinker as the teams seemed to be playing a different sport than the rest of the league. But the Eagles got it together and cruised to a 34-10 win.

Mike Glennon came off the bench to have a historic performance: 17-of-27 for 93 yards and a pick-six.

Incredibly, Glennon wasn’t the worst quarterback in the game. Jake Fromm made his first start and finished 6-of-17 for 25 yards with a pick and two sacks. Fromm is the first quarterback to start a game, throw at least 15 passes, and finish with fewer than 25 yards since Nathan Peterman did it in 2018. Eli Manning (2004) and Joe Flacco (2017) have done this before too, but something tells me Fromm will be much closer to the career of Peterman than those two.

The NFC East is a Ponzi scheme, and we must prosecute the guilty.

Rams at Vikings: Stafford Thought He Was a Lion Again

Don’t let that 30-23 final or the fact that Cooper Kupp and Justin Jefferson both went over 100 yards fool you. What should have been an efficient, fun shootout was a mess of a game that saw the Rams lead wire to wire; the first time all year the Vikings didn’t lead by at least six points in a game. There was even a punt return touchdown by the Rams, and Matthew Stafford threw three picks, some uglier than others. It was like Stafford thought a 1 PM game in Minnesota on FOX meant he was a Lion all over again.

But Kupp was awesome again and really helped the Rams stay out of a dramatic ending. The Vikings were 2-of-12 on third down and couldn’t put together a long touchdown drive until the fourth quarter when they were down 27-13.

One Kupp touchdown would have made my (gambling) day, but alas, I cannot experience joy in this 2021 season. Speaking of which…

Buccaneers at Panthers: First Division Title Since 2007

Only Tom Brady can get the MSM to use the line “he’s throwing to receivers he just met!” in Week 16 during a season where teams are trotting out literal nobodies and street free agents due to COVID and injuries. But sure, what a courageous effort to get a 32-6 win over a bad Carolina team while only having Antonio Brown (101 yards in his return), Rob Gronkowski, two running backs combining for 135 yards and two touchdowns behind a top-tier offensive line, and an uncovered Cameron Brate for Brady’s only touchdown pass of the game.

That’s why he’s the GOAT.

Broncos at Raiders: Just Like You Imagined (Not)

In a battle of 7-7 teams, the Raiders prevailed 17-13 despite losing the turnover battle 3-0. Drew Lock did not throw an interception, but Denver was 1-of-10 on third down, had 158 yards of offense, the running backs carried 14 times for 8 yards, and the only touchdown “drive” was a 1-yard plunge after Derek Carr fumbled before halftime.

Teams that allow fewer than 20 points and win the turnover margin by three win 96% of NFL games, so thanks for screwing that up, Denver. At least you didn’t spoil the narrative that Carr needs carried to win games in this league.

Bears at Seahawks: Sweet, Painful Regression

Remember all those warnings about the Seahawks sustaining their unsustainable record in close games? Well, Seattle is now 0-7 at game-winning drive opportunities this season after blowing a 24-17 lead to the Bears in the snow. Russell Wilson took a 13-yard sack that led to a 39-yard field goal being missed that likely would have iced it. A holding penalty and bad play calls also led to the Bears getting the ball again with 2:56 left.

Nick Foles brought the full BDN energy for the ensuing touchdown drive, and got an amazing catch on the two-point conversion with 1:01 left to take a 25-24 lead. I’d normally never advise going for it with that much time, but this was a battle of 4-5 win teams the day after Christmas. Just get it over with as quickly as possible.

Seattle went four-and-out after a penalty-heavy drive. The Wilson-Carroll era is going out sad but look which active quarterback is now .500 in GWD opportunities.

Lions at Falcons: Boyle Foiled

Just when it looked like the Falcons were going to blow another one to the Lions after a Russell Gage fumble, the defense stepped up and intercepted Tim Boyle on a first-and-goal to secure the win, keeping Atlanta (7-8) alive for the playoffs.

Say what you want about Jared Goff, who was out with COVID, but the Lions likely beat Cleveland and win this game if he was available. The Lions may be 2-12-1, but I think they’re better than the other sub-five win teams this year (Jets, Giants, Jaguars, Texans).

As for the Falcons this season, they are now 4-3 at game-winning drive opportunities, 5-3 in close games, and they got their second defensive hold today while only blowing one fourth-quarter lead (Washington in Week 4). And yet, this team has gotten its ass kicked six times this season and will have a shot at the worst scoring differential (currently minus-122) for a 7-win team in NFL history. The 2011 Chiefs finished 7-9 at minus-126 points.

Keep in mind that it was just last year that Atlanta had the best scoring differential in NFL history for a team that finished 4-12 or worse at minus-18 points.

Jaguars at Jets: Wilson’s One Shining Moment

All things considered, this year’s Toilet Bowl wasn’t that bad outside of an unfortunate Achilles injury for James Robinson. Neither of the rookie quarterbacks threw an interception, there was a 102-yard kick return touchdown, and it came down to the wire where the Jaguars of course botched things from the goal line in a 26-21 loss.

But once you saw Zach Wilson scramble for a 52-yard touchdown on a third-and-5, you knew he was going to have a comically high QBR at ESPN. He finished at 92.4, the highest in Week 16 despite another subpar passing performance. But the run was great and it sure was more memorable than anything Trevor Lawrence has done this year. So much like Sam Darnold on a long touchdown run against the Broncos, Wilson now has that one shining moment in his Jets career.

Will there ever be a second?

Next week: If Chiefs-Bengals could be half as good as 2005 Colts-Bengals, I’d be satisfied. That’s by far the big one of the day after Rams-Ravens, Vikings-Packers, and Browns-Steelers have all lost their luster.  

NFL Week 15 Predictions: COVID Crunch Edition

It took 15 weeks this time, but COVID has led to the rescheduling of three NFL games this week. At a time when I’d be sitting down to watch Raiders-Browns, I’m writing this instead.

Is this a sign of things to come with the virus exploding again, or a one-off now that the NFL is changing its protocol? As you may expect, the league chose the option that will yield fewer positive test results, decreasing the number of negative headlines and headaches in having to reschedule any more games as we get closer to the playoffs and Super Bowl.

Maybe before the Super Bowl coin flip, they can hold a moment of silence for the elderly coach who dies after catching COVID from a room full of vaccinated, mask-less, asymptomatic players that didn’t get tested. Yes, asymptomatic people can still spread the virus. And no, an “honor system” where players have to report symptoms in a league where staying on the field at all costs is highly valued does not come across as a safe measure for dealing with this new wave.

But you’d have to not follow the NFL to think it would ever put people over profit. It is what it is. As for this week’s games, I tried to avoid Twitter on Friday since every third tweet was someone with a rooting interest in the Raiders/Eagles/Seahawks misreading a July memo and wanting a cheap victory via forfeit from the Browns/WFT/Rams this week.

I don’t want to see any cheap forfeit wins. While I thought the Broncos-Saints game last year was a sham when the NFL made the Broncos play without a real quarterback on 24 hours notice, I also acknowledge that the Denver QB room broke protocol and were punished for it.

Unless someone can show me evidence that CLE/WFT/LAR did silly things like held big parties or did something to bring on a COVID outbreak that has hit over 20 players on each team, then I don’t want to hear this nonsense about them not deserving a few days to contain the outbreak and get this game off with some semblance of competitiveness.

The whole approach by some LV/PHI/SEA players and fans this week is par for the course with COVID. It’s selfishness.

COVID is your problem, not mine.

Until it is, then you’ll change your tune. Then you’ll be the ones asking for a few more days to play. One thing I didn’t see in the last 24 hours was any compassion. No “hope they contain it and we get them at their best” or “hope everyone’s doing fine there.” I didn’t even see anyone saying they hope they don’t get COVID from playing one of these teams, especially in Las Vegas’ case if the game was played today.

It’s always selfishness, stupidity, and the spread of misinformation. The same as it’s always been during this pandemic, which is why it’s not close to ending any time soon.

NFL Week 15 Predictions

Good luck to any game this week topping the Chiefs-Chargers overtime classic from Thursday. Rarely does a week get so front-loaded, but Week 15 is doing that with Patriots-Colts tonight possibly being the other best game this week.

My full previews at BMR include Patriots-Colts, Saints-Bucs, and Vikings-Bears.

COVID changes aside, what a potentially shit week this is with six games having a spread of -9.5 or higher. WAS-PHI was fixing to be a seventh such game, but that spread has come down with the delay.

However, you know some of those games are going to finish close and someone is likely going to lose straight up. I chose the 49ers to fall on the upset sword, because I guess I’m thinking about 2019 when a superior San Francisco team blew a game late at home to a weak Atlanta team. But I think Buffalo responds in a big way against Carolina after that near comeback in Tampa, and I just don’t see the Giants getting it done against Dallas. Dak Prescott should play better against a team he owns.

One of my favorite bets in Week 1 was James Robinson tearing up the Texans in what I thought was one of the few winnable games for Jacksonville this season. Of course, that backfired badly, as did Urban Meyer’s whole terrible run as head coach. But with Meyer gone and Darrell Bevell taking over as the interim, I’m back on that pick this week. Robinson TD/JAX ML parlay pick. Bevell won his first game as Detroit’s interim last year after they fired Matt Patricia. I can see it happening a second time, and again, this is likely the last possible win of the season for Jacksonville.

As for Monday’s CLE-LV game, I originally chose the Browns but changed my pick. Not that Derek Carr needs my help to lose games in his career, but I’m starting to reverse jinx him just because it seems like he wins when I really don’t want him to (Thanksgiving a great example). Plus I know the Raiders won a very low-scoring game in Cleveland last year, the Browns haven’t been scoring much period, and who exactly are the Browns fielding Monday even with the delay? So I can see the Raiders fans bragging that “delayed the game and we still beat them!” Wow, congrats on your 7-7 mediocrity.

I’m looking at doing a shorter recap of Sunday’s games for Monday morning’s Stat Oddity. I have to be up early for a COVID funeral. But please, keep tweeting that it’s “just a cold.” Maybe one day you’ll just have to learn the difference the hard way.

Stay safe.

NFL Stat Oddity: Week 14

Once again I was ready to proclaim Week 14 as one of the worst I ever covered in my history with the NFL. That’s not hyperbole; that’s research on the closeness of games. Through the 1 p.m. slate, about the closest finish we had all week was the Thursday night game between the Steelers and Vikings, a game where Pittsburgh trailed 29-0 in the third quarter before an impressive attempt at a historic rally came up short. You know it’s bad when one of the six comeback attempts this week was Houston, down 19-13, against Seattle in a game that ended 33-13.

This shit was rotten, and the three games between teams with non-losing records were among the biggest offenders. The Chiefs led the no-show Raiders 35-0 in the first half, the Browns were up 24-3 on the Ravens, and the Cowboys took a 27-8 lead into the fourth quarter in Washington. Two of those games fabricated drama late thanks to the Cowboys and Browns nearly shitting their pants, but there were never any lead changes there.

The 4 p.m. slate always looked better on paper this week, but it was not helping matters with the Chargers and Broncos jumping all over the Giants and Lions in routs. Once again, the two games between non-losing teams were most disappointing. Instead of close, high-scoring affairs, the 49ers led Cincinnati 20-6 late and the Buccaneers got up 27-10 on Buffalo in the fourth quarter. Then a Bears-Packers game to cap off the day? Give me a break. Rams-Cardinals better be an instant classic on Monday night to salvage this.

Then some funny things happened. The Bills and Bengals found their offenses, forced overtime, and both still lost to the only game-winning drives of the week. Then the Bears-Packers game went off the rails in the second quarter with the teams combining for 45 points on a lot of long touchdowns. It was really the most exciting quarter I’ve ever seen in a Bears-Packers game.

So, it ended up not being an all-time stinker of a week (unless you are stuck watching the Jaguars, then they’re all epic stinkers).

This season in Stat Oddity:

Bills at Buccaneers: Interfering with My Plans

If there was an AFC-NFC matchup on the schedule this year that you would have circled as a Super Bowl preview, this was the choice for months. Sure, some would pick Packers-Chiefs, but even if you didn’t know Aaron Rodgers would miss it with COVID, you should still know better than to trust Green Bay to get back to a Super Bowl before the LOAT.

But the Bills looked far from Super coming into this one. They haven’t been able to stack wins since their season peaked with a Week 5 win in Kansas City. NBC’s Cris Collinsworth was ready to give Josh Allen the MVP that night just because the Chiefs couldn’t cover anything deep and couldn’t stop the ball from being tipped for interceptions.

You know who watched Buffalo fail to capitalize on multiple tipped balls in this one? Tom Brady. You know which defense didn’t give up a completion longer than 25 yards? Tampa Bay. But while the usually stout run defense watched Allen unconventionally do it his way for 109 rushing yards, it looked like the Bills putting 100% of the offense on Allen was a total bust.

Buffalo became the first NFL offense since at least 1991 to not give a single carry to a running back in the first half. The first non-quarterback run of the game was in the third quarter, and even that was a fake punt that failed miserably to convert. But despite getting two straight possessions inside Buffalo territory, Tampa Bay came away scoreless. That’s unusual.

Yet with Tampa Bay up 27-10 with 11:20 to play, this felt like it was finished. That’s when Allen quickly drove the Bills 75 yards for a touchdown, watched Brady go three-and-out with two incompletions, drove for another touchdown on a shorter field, and again the defense stopped Brady cold in the four-minute offense of a 27-24 game.

It was like watching Peyton Manning lead the 2009 or 2010 Colts against Brady’s Patriots those years, two attempts at 17-point comebacks in the fourth quarter with vastly different outcomes. Allen landed somewhere between game-winning touchdown and game-ending interception in this one.

The Bills, still winless (0-5) in close games this year, had a great drive going into the red zone, but Allen’s pass to Stefon Diggs in the end zone on third down did not draw a flag despite plenty of contact. I did not hate the no-call, but I’ve seen less get flagged. That led to a field goal and overtime.

While the Bills were red hot on offense, they immediately cooled with a disappointing three-and-out. A great punt pinned Tampa Bay at the 6, and a very close run by Leonard Fournette to convert a third-and-1 helped the Bucs avoid their own three-and-out. Imagine that. Then Brady got his bogus DPI penalty for 19 yards on a throw to Mike Evans, which again speaks to how inconsistently one of the most crucial penalties in the game is applied.

If that’s DPI, then why wasn’t it DPI on the Diggs play? The Bills could have easily won in regulation. When you give a receiver with Evans’ size and talent to a quarterback known to draw more DPI flags (a record number last year) seemingly out of reputation, it’s a nightmare for defenses. Alas, this was shockingly just the second DPI flag drawn by Evans this season. He led all wideouts with nine drawn DPI flags in 2020, not including two big phantom calls before halftime of the Super Bowl when it was still a game.

The Bills did not pass their first actual test without corner Tre’Davious White, though they did hold Brady to 6.78 yards per pass attempt on his first 45 throws. However, Throw 46 was fatal. On a third down near midfield, the game was decided once Brady found Breshad Perriman and he had a clear 58-yard path to the end zone to end this one. Tampa Bay is going 14-3 with this schedule, and this team may not lose another game this season unless someone really steps up. Maybe it’s Arizona or Green Bay or the hottest AFC team, but it probably isn’t Buffalo.

But if there somehow is a rematch in February, then maybe the Bills can take some notes and pride from this near comeback. Like how the Bucs turned things around from Week 12 on the Chiefs last year, or how the 2007 Giants gained confidence from the 16-0 game against the Patriots for that year’s Super Bowl upset.

49ers at Bengals: Look Who Can’t Close Again

The headline looks like I’m going to attack Kyle Shanahan again, but we know the 49ers got a big overtime win in Cincinnati. I’m going to attack Shanahan anyway, but the focus is on Zac Taylor, who is now 2-17 when his Bengals have a 4QC opportunity.

Worse, Taylor’s 4QC record is 1-8 with Joe Burrow as his quarterback. Compare this to the 49ers. Shanahan is a poor 9-21 (.300) at 4QC opportunities, but that record improves to a stellar 8-7 (.533) with Jimmy Garoppolo at quarterback, leaving him at 1-14 with the other quarterbacks.

Fairly small samples, but still about as night and day as it gets. This looks bad for Burrow, who only has a comeback win against the Jaguars, but he was not the big problem in this game. In fact, it could have easily ended in regulation after Burrow tied the game if Robbie Gould hit a 47-yard field goal as time expired for the 49ers. No overtime comeback necessary.

Of course, the 49ers got there after only scoring 20 points on their first 11 drives despite the return of Deebo Samuel. That even included an 8-yard field goal drive and a 31-yard touchdown drive set up by two muffed punts by the Bengals.

While George Kittle (13 catches for 151 yards and a touchdown) was a beast again, this Samuel thing fascinates me. He got eight carries for 37 yards and a touchdown, but Samuel received just one pass target, which he caught for a 22-yard gain. And while Deebo produced a 27-yard touchdown run, his other seven carries produced 10 yards and one first down. That’s kind of lousy production when you’re going to sacrifice his skills as a wideout for that type of rushing.

I thought the 49ers figured something out in their upset of the Rams when Deebo had five catches for 97 yards and a touchdown to go with five runs for 36 yards and a touchdown. Maybe this dual-threat thing is just a reaction to the injuries at running back and getting your most talented player the ball in space, but Samuel is a damn fine wide receiver too. In the last three games, he has three catches for 49 yards. That’s not an average; that’s his TOTAL for three games. In the first nine games this season, Samuel was AVERAGING six catches for 108.8 yards per game. They need to find a better balance of using him on some runs and still utilizing his skill as a No. 1 wide receiver.

This game nearly slipped away with the 49ers not being able to finish more scoring drives. The Bengals finally came to life in the fourth quarter with two touchdowns to Ja’Marr Chase after he dropped one earlier in the game. But after getting the ball first in overtime, the Bengals curled up a bit after two explosive passes and ran the ball twice. Nick Bosa logged a key sack of Burrow on third down and the 49ers held the Bengals to a field goal to extend the game. You’d like to see Burrow finish the game off, which he’s failed to do multiple times this year now against teams like the Bears and Packers.

Garoppolo drove the 49ers 75 yards with no real pressure of the clock and four downs to use. They only came up on a third down once and Kittle converted it with ease. Brandon Aiyuk showed some nifty moves on the game-winning touchdown, just doing enough to break the plane to end the game.

It is fitting for both teams to be 7-6 as they are above average but maddeningly inconsistent. I thought the Bengals would perform better after the Baltimore loss presented a big opportunity in the division race, but the 49ers led most of the game and nearly won in regulation.

It’s also crazy to me that the over (48.5 points) hit on the nose after getting the necessary and very precise combination of a 14-point Cincinnati comeback, a missed game-winning field goal in regulation, a go-ahead field goal to start overtime, and a game-winning touchdown to get to 49 points. Almost like it was fixed.

But when it comes to these Bengals and close games, count on disappointment.

Bears at Packers: 45-30? These Two?

These teams met in prime time for the 16th season in a row, but it may have actually been the best first half they ever played. If you told me Chicago scored 27 points in the first half and it didn’t involve multiple turnovers and return touchdowns a la “We let them off the hook!” I wouldn’t have believed it. The Bears are the first team since the 2020 Packers (in Indy) to score at least 27 points before halftime and lose the game.

In fact, since 1940 the Bears were 51-0 when scoring at least 27 points in the first half. Make that 51-1 now.

I also wouldn’t believe Jakeem Grant turning into Tyreek Hill. I knew he was a fine returner for Miami, but his impact in this game was ridiculous. I still can’t believe how horrific the special teams were for Green Bay, and that doesn’t even include the plays late in the game they caught huge breaks on, like a muffed punt getting wiped out by a player running out of bounds penalty, or a stupid NFL rule that says you cannot advance a muffed onside kick for a touchdown. You absolutely should be able to do that. The way the play happened tonight proves the rule should be changed for onside kicks. Make them a little more fun.

The Bears knocked Aaron Rodgers around in the first quarter, but once his pass protection settled in, he shredded them for 341 yards and four touchdowns. Yes, he still owns the Bears.

Justin Fields mixed some good (big plays and 74 rushing yards) with bad (they were mostly YAC and his pick-six). The Packers dominated the third quarter, 17-0, to prevent the fourth from having any real drama (outside of the spread).

But as far as a Packers-Bears game in prime time, this was passable. Who knows, it could even be the last time Rodgers is involved in one…

Raiders at Chiefs: That First Play Knockout…

I’m really starting to believe it’s impossible to fumble for a touchdown on the first play of scrimmage and not get completely blown out. The Raiders did this in Kansas City with a fumble by Josh Jacobs on a run. That’s less egregious than the high snap over Ben Roethlisberger’s head that led to a Cleveland touchdown in the wild card round last January, or the same thing that happened to Peyton Manning’s Broncos in Super Bowl 48 (for a Seattle safety that time).

The Raiders didn’t show up for this one. They turned the ball over five times, including four lost fumbles. Patrick Mahomes with an elite defense is terrifying, and that’s especially true when he is shredding the Las Vegas defense this season. The big plays returned for the Chiefs’ offense, and they nearly had the first shut out with a 35-point lead at halftime in the NFL since the 2015 Dolphins were up 41-0 on Houston.

The Chiefs get a big test with the Chargers (in LA) on a short week this Thursday. A true first-place battle for the division. But while the Ravens and Bills finally beat the Chiefs triumphantly early in the season, this team is playing much differently now. The defense has been incredible and the offense is not except for the Raiders games. Can’t wait to see that one on Thursday. Meanwhile, the Bills and Ravens are falling apart at the moment. The Chargers are doing well, but the Chiefs have a shot to maintain control of the division and maybe the conference once again.

I’ve been saying it for a couple of weeks, but it really is looking like a season where Patriots-Chiefs is the AFC Championship Game and the winner faces Tampa Bay in the Super Bowl. That sounds absolutely awful, but if no one else is going to step up in this era…

Ravens at Browns: Not This 15-Point Deficit Thing Again…

I really don’t feel like talking about this at 4 AM again, but there were a lot of games this week where a team was down 15 points in the fourth quarter, scored a touchdown, and had a decision to make with a 9-point deficit.

  • PIT/MIN: Steelers tried for two with 12:11 left, failed, got behind by 16, cut that in half, and eventually lost 36-28.
  • CAR/ATL: Panthers kicked extra point at 3:11, kicked off deep with four clock stoppages, but left Kyle Pitts wide open on a third-and-14 and couldn’t get the ball back in a 29-21 loss.
  • BAL/CLE: Ravens tried for two with 8:56 left, failed, scored a touchdown on their second drive with 1:17 left, recovered a miracle onside kick, and went four-and-out after a horrific ALEX throw on fourth down by backup Tyler Huntley, who performed better off the bench than Lamar Jackson (ankle) played in a win against Cleveland two weeks ago. The Browns won 24-22 this time as the Ravens (+2.5) got a miracle cover but still lost.

I was lukewarm with Pittsburgh’s decision, because I think Troy Aikman actually made the proper point that kicking and making it an 8-point game (one possession) would keep the pressure on a Minnesota team that has choked away games all year long. When you run a terrible two-point play and don’t get it like Pittsburgh did and trail by nine, that would take a lot of air out of my sail and let the Vikings relax a little. I think we saw that with the long touchdown the Steelers gave up falling behind 16, but after a Kirk Cousins pick, the Steelers had a chance at the end of the game still. But the main reason I didn’t hate Mike Tomlin’s call is that it was so early in the quarter that they had plenty of time to answer from a two-score deficit.

I thought Matt Rhule absolutely made the right call to kick, but he initially wanted to go for it and was only turned away by a false start that pushed the ball back 5 yards. Again, why effectively decide the game at 3:11? Extend the game, kick the extra point, make it a one-possession game, and put the pressure on an Atlanta team that folds as much as anyone. The Falcons even started with a holding penalty and 1st-and-20, but the Carolina defense collapsed and couldn’t get the ball back. But just keep extending the game.

Then we have this Baltimore one, which wasn’t as early in the game as Pittsburgh, but not as late as Carolina. I’m supposed to believe John Harbaugh is a genius because his failed 2PC with the backup QB led to a Cleveland 3-and-out, Baltimore 3-and-out, Cleveland 3-and-out, 90-yard Baltimore touchdown drive, and miracle onside kick recovery with 1:15 left? Really?

How about you let the best kicker ever make that extra point to go to 24-16, then when you get that touchdown later, you have your shot at the game-tying two-point conversion you fucked up a week ago? And guess what? If you blow it again, you can still onside kick and recover your miracle kick and go win on a field goal.

The “go for two early” crowd continue to make two bad assumptions and ignore that their decision is more likely to lead to needing to recover one, if not two onside kicks. It ignores that the difference in the likelihood of a seven and eight-point comeback is not more significant than the difference between seven and nine-point comebacks.

The first bad assumption is that “having more information” actually makes offenses play differently in these situations. They flat out don’t do that in the NFL. A team down 9-11 points is not going to run a super-fast no-huddle offense with so many minutes left in the quarter. They’re going to run things similar to a team down 4-8 points with an eye on the touchdown first. Were the Ravens in hurry-up mode down 15 with 11:30 left, knowing the information that they may need three scoring drives the rest of the way? No, they dicked around with a 2-yard run, a loss of 3 yards on a pass to the back that took up 40 seconds, and they were fortunate to convert a 4th-and-11 at their own 30 that should have effectively ended the game early if Cleveland got the stop.

It was only with 5:26 left, and the Ravens down two possessions thanks to the failed 2PC, that Baltimore got into a more conventional hurry-up offense.

The second bad assumption is that teams down 8 points are trying to score a touchdown as late as possible, leaving themselves little time if the tying 2PC fails. Again, this is wrong. Most offenses take touchdowns as they come. Many even try to force plays way too early that would leave too much time for the opponent to answer. Do I need to remind Baltimore fans of Joe Flacco’s interception down 35-31 in the 2014 playoffs in New England? What was that going to accomplish other than leaving Brady enough time to win the game in regulation?

In a perfect world you can score a touchdown at the exact time you want, but it doesn’t work that way in reality most of the time. Look at the Davante Adams touchdown before halftime for Green Bay. They left enough time for the Bears to add another field goal. It happens. That’s just the NFL.

So there is no reason to assume that the Ravens would have scored significantly later than the 1:17 that they scored their touchdown with. There’s also no reason not to think had they been down 24-22 and failed on a game-tying 2PC, they could still try the onside kick and recover like they did. It does not take long to set up a field goal, and Justin Tucker’s range is as good as anyone. Alas, the Ravens had a weak final drive and lost the game.

But acting like the failed 2PC call early is WHY the Ravens would have won rather than an inexplicable onside kick recovery is the type of silliness that makes me rant about this every single time. Why couldn’t they possibly get the same onside kick recovery and GW FG had they gone for two only when they had to?

Hopefully Lamar isn’t out long, because there are still some battles to be had with this Baltimore team even as it continues to struggle.

Cowboys at Washington: What the Dak?

Did you know Dak Prescott (45.9) is ranked 23rd in QBR this season, one spot ahead of Ben Roethlisberger (43.4)? Yet I don’t see much criticism of the 28-year-old quarterback who should be in his prime on a loaded offense like I do of the 39-year-old quarterback on his way to retirement. While Roethlisberger has gotten better over the last eight games, Prescott’s season seems to be going the other direction after a hot start.

But even going back to opening night in Tampa Bay when he sailed a pass for CeeDee Lamb for an interception, something just seems to be off with this offense too often for my liking. Even two months ago, I was not feeling the Dak for MVP love at all.

While the team’s best running back these days (Tony Pollard) was out, the Cowboys still gave Dak Tyron Smith at left tackle, his top three wideouts, and Ezekiel Elliott. The Cowboys scored one offensive touchdown on a 41-yard field set up by an outstanding interception by Randy Gregory, who should be a lock for NFC Defensive Player of the Week.

It was also Gregory who forced a crucial strip-sack of Washington backup quarterback Kyle Allen after the Cowboys nearly blew a 27-8 lead in the fourth quarter thanks to a Prescott pick-six with 4:13 left. But Gregory closed the door on that comeback at 27-20, and Dak finally ran for a game-clinching first down to end it.

I never thought the Dallas defense would jump ahead of the offense like this, but that seems to be where we’re at this season. With only one non-division game left on the schedule, we’ll see just how much of a contender Dallas can be in the playoffs when the Cowboys host Arizona in Week 17.

Hurry-Up Finish

Some quick thoughts as I race to complete more tasks before getting to sleep.

Giants at Chargers: Herbert, FTW

I may have to formally share my Justin Herbert MVP thoughts this week, but for now, here’s a brilliant deep throw for a touchdown to escape pressure and convert a third-and-long.

The ball traveled 63.8 yards in the air according to Next Gen Stats, second-longest completion of 2021. Herbert has hit 10 passes of 55-plus air yards since 2020 to lead the league. The kid is special, and in this game, he became just the 16th unique QB in NFL history to throw 30 touchdowns in consecutive seasons and the first to do it in his first two professional seasons.

Saints at Jets: Gambling Is Dumb (NFL Exhibit 18,194)

I made one Same Game Parlay on this silly game, and it hit because Taysom Hill decided to keep running for a 44-yard touchdown on 3rd-and-12 while leading 23-9 with just over a minute left. He could have gone down at any time after getting the first down, but he kept going, allowing his 60+ rushing yards prop to hit.

Gambling is dumb and winning doesn’t make you feel smart. But it still feels a hell of a lot better than losing.

Jaguars at Titans: Before You Make That 1998 Peyton Manning Comparison…

I promise I am going to make that piece about why bad rookie quarterback seasons should not be compared to Peyton Manning’s 1998 rookie campaign, which set a record for interceptions (28) but also smashed a lot of other rookie records at the time. By the seventh game, Manning started to figure things out and the Colts were an above-average offense. He showed real improvement while someone like Trevor Lawrence seems to be doing no such thing under the terrible coaching of Urban “Dead Man Walking” Meyer.

Lawrence threw four interceptions of varying degrees of egregiousness in Jacksonville’s 20-0 loss against the Titans. It was the fifth game this season where Lawrence led the Jaguars to fewer than 11 points, something that happened twice in Manning’s 16-game rookie season and five times in his first 72 starts. That Lawrence total does not include a sixth game against Denver where only a kick return touchdown got the Jaguars to 13 points as the offense managed one touchdown in a 23-13 loss.

Again, hold out hope that this is 2016-17 Jared Goff all over again, but the Jaguars better find one hell of a coach to get that kind of improvement in 2022. Adding some talent would help too. Lawrence was using Tavon Austin and Carlos Hyde on crucial downs today. In 2021. Christ.

Next week: The very rare, front-loaded week. I’m hoping Chiefs-Chargers (TNF) and Colts-Patriots (Saturday Night Football) deliver enough that I can forgive the shitfests to come on SNF (Saints-Bucs) and MNF (Bears-Vikings).

NFL Stat Oddity: Week 10

Another week in the NFL in 2021 meant more upsets, more injuries, more blowouts, and more confusion in the playoff picture and MVP race. I’m finding out that I really don’t like it when the only “sure things” in the NFL this year are Jonathan Taylor and James Conner finding the end zone.

Can we put the “games are closer this year” thing to rest? With one game left to go on Monday night, Week 10 just tied Week 7 for a season-low four games with a comeback opportunity. It was the first week this season without a single lead change in the fourth quarter or a single game-winning drive or any game where a team down double digits came back to win. Oh, we got a bloody f’n tie, but more on that below.

For anyone selling the “games are so close!” narrative this season, please refer to this chart for games through Week 10 going back to 2001 and how many were decided by 10-plus, 17-plus, and 24-plus points.

  • 2021’s 75 games decided by 10+ points are the most since 2014 (85) and the second most in any season since 2010.
  • 2021’s 42 games decided by 17+ points are the most since 2014 (49) and well above the average of 32.7 such games over the last six seasons.
  • 2021’s 24 games decided by 24+ points are tied with 2011 for the most such games through Week 10 since 2001. There were five such games on Sunday.

Granted, I’m usually not one to judge the closeness of a game by the final score, but I have more stats to share. Here’s how the fourth-quarter comeback opportunities through Week 10 stack up for recent seasons:

  • 2021: 71 of 149 games (47.7%)
  • 2020: 83 of 147 games (56.5%)
  • 2019: 83 of 148 games (56.1%)
  • 2018: 81 of 148 games (54.7%)
  • 2017: 77 of 146 games (52.7%)
  • 2016: 90 of 147 games (61.2%)
  • 2015: 90 of 146 games (61.6%)
  • 2014: 79 of 147 games (53.7%)
  • 2013: 93 of 147 games (63.3%)
  • 2012: 84 of 146 games (57.5%)

For as long as I’ve been doing this weekly, I’ve never seen a season where more than half the games are not this close.

Until now.

This season in Stat Oddity:

Chiefs at Raiders: Well, That Takes Care of Vegas for the Season

Before we get crazy claiming that the Chiefs are back on track for the Super Bowl, let’s not forget that the Raiders are immune to winning big games like this one was for possession of first place in the AFC West.

But after a 41-14 blowout win, the Chiefs are back in first and looking pretty damn good. Only the special teams had a rough night in Vegas, but even that unit made up for it with a fake punt pass that led to a knockout punch touchdown to Darrel Williams. Patrick Mahomes finished with 406 yards and five touchdowns to break out of his five-game slump. The Chiefs were 9-of-15 on third down while the Raiders were just 1-of-9. Derek Carr throwing up a jump ball interception to Daniel Sorensen was another dagger moment in this one. So was DeSean Jackson fumbling his first catch with the team in hysterical fashion when it looked like he could score a touchdown.

After starting the game with a three-and-out, Mahomes led the Chiefs to scores on seven of their next eight drives, only missing out on a missed field goal before halftime. It was an almost-perfect offensive night, which is how I described Kansas City’s win in Las Vegas on Sunday Night Football last season.

Does that mean the Chiefs are back? We’ll see against Dallas next week, but it was always a matter of the defense not being historically terrible and the offense not being historically awful at turning the ball over. The defense has stepped up in the last month after acquiring Melvin Ingram, sliding Chris Jones back to defensive tackle, cutting down Sorensen’s snaps, and just playing better. The offense showed plenty of patience and the only turnover was on special teams this time.

In a season that is wide open for the taking, the Chiefs just have to stop being their own worst enemy. On Sunday night, they were the Raiders’ worst enemy, and I now expect Las Vegas (5-4) to implode and miss the playoffs just like after they lost to the Chiefs at home last year.

Buccaneers at Washington: Belichick Would Never…

On a day where Bill Belichick coached his Patriots to a thorough 45-7 rout of the Browns, the Buccaneers fell flat as a heavy favorite in a 29-19 loss to Washington. Tom Brady finished with a season-low 31.7 QBR. That’s now a losing streak to Taylor Heinicke and Trevor Siemian (off the bench) for the Bucs.

It’s the kind of game Brady would almost never lose as a member of the Patriots. Not as a 9.5-point favorite against a terrible Washington defense, with a coordinator (Jack Del Rio) Brady has crucified his whole career, and a unit that lost Chase Young to an ACL tear.

But he was outplayed by Heinicke, who put the game away with one of the best drives of the season. Washington needed that because it sure felt like the Football Team was going to blow this one after leading wire-to-wire. Tampa Bay was gifted an untimed down field goal before halftime after a facemask penalty, and Brady led two more touchdown drives that started in opponent territory in the second half to make it 23-19.

But Heinicke took over with 10:50 left and drained all but 29 seconds off the clock with an epic 19-play, 80-yard touchdown drive. Washington converted four third downs on the drive, and finally ended it with a 4th-and-1 touchdown run by Antonio Gibson. I could see an argument for kicking a field goal and taking a 26-19 lead with 30 seconds left, but you can’t tempt Brady’s luck. The touchdown puts the game away. While I thought the kneeldown on the two-point conversion was playing it too safe, Tampa Bay waved the white flag and only ran Leonard Fournette twice on the ensuing drive to end it. I guess Brady didn’t want to risk a third interception against a coordinator he’s almost never been picked against.

Washington held the ball for 39 minutes in the upset. This is Brady’s fourth wire-to-wire loss (never led) with Tampa Bay. He had five such losses in his last four seasons with New England (2016-19). To me, this game shows the difference between what advantages Brady used to have with Belichick as his coach. I cannot see a talented team coached by Belichick losing to this Washington team, especially coming off a loss and a bye week.

Brady is now 17-8 as Tampa Bay’s starter in the regular season. That 68% winning percentage would be the lowest he had in any New England season since 2009 (10-6). Tampa Bay is starting to look like the 7-5 underachiever it was a season ago before going on that championship run. Do things get significantly better when Antonio Brown and Rob Gronkowski return? Most likely. But if so much value to the offense is added with those players, who were not part of the high-scoring Tampa Bay offenses in 2018-19, then how could Brady have any real MVP argument this season?

This team is not a juggernaut, and he is not having an MVP season. Not if he can’t outscore the likes of Siemian and Heinicke in consecutive games.

Saints at Titans: They Can’t Keep Getting Away with It (Can They?)

Yes, I’m starting to feel like Jesse Pinkman when it comes to watching this Tennessee winning streak, which has now reached five games against teams who were in the playoffs last year.

But honestly, this team is starting to remind me of the early 2000s Jeff Fisher-coached Tennessee teams. They are big and physical, and they’ll win games that way instead of being really efficient or exciting on offense. Consider it a knock if you will, because you know how those seasons always ended for Tennessee (hint: poorly).

Maybe my latest act is to throw cold water on each Tennessee win, but I’m just not ready to buy this being the team to beat. Yes, the Titans don’t have Julio Jones (IR), and that makes it that much harder with Derrick Henry out. But they are far from the only team dealing with injuries right now. Look across the field. They just squeaked by the Saints without Jameis Winston, Alvin Kamara, and Michael Thomas will miss the whole season.

While the Titans were better on offense this week than their Los Angeles win that was fueled by two Matthew Stafford interceptions, these results are still not sustainable. Hence the “they can’t keep getting away with it” meme. The Titans finished with 264 yards of offense, averaged 2.2 yards per carry, and were 3-of-12 on third down. That’s bad.

The success this week was aided by an absolute horseshit call of roughing the passer on New Orleans in the second quarter. Instead of Ryan Tannehill throwing an interception in the end zone before halftime, the Titans went on to score a touchdown and led 13-6. They started the third quarter with a 19-yard touchdown drive thanks to the Saints fumbling the opening kick return.

From there it was just a matter of hanging on as Siemian staged a respectable rally. The Saints had a chance at a game-tying two-point conversion with 1:16 left, but a false start moved it back five yards and Siemian threw a bad incompletion. The Titans recovered the onside kick and that was the end of it.

Thanks to a remaining schedule that features four games against Houston (twice), Jacksonville and Miami, the Titans (8-2) really shouldn’t fare worse than 13-4. But if the post-Henry offense does not pick things up soon, then even those games with the little sisters of the poor could spell trouble for the team that has already lost to the Jets this year.

Seahawks at Packers: What the Russ?

Totally reasonable for Russell Wilson and Aaron Rodgers to be rusty and off after some missed time for health reasons. But the lowest scoring first half in the NFL this season (3-0)? The trading of red-zone interceptions? This was bad stuff, but the first shutout of Wilson’s career combined with what the Packers did to Arizona and Kansas City in the last two games makes me think that Green Bay may finally have a better defense this year. Is it going to stop Dallas, Tampa, or the Rams from scoring 30+ in January? I’m not sure about that, and Seattle is clearly not the measuring stick it used to be, but the Packers are improving on that side of the ball.

I just wish the offense would look a bit closer to the 2020 one. But the Packers are certainly closer to their past glory than the Seahawks (3-6) are right now.

Lions at Steelers: The Tomlin Special

I have been warning for the last couple of weeks that the Steelers would lose to the winless Lions. Frankly, it should have happened, but an inexperienced kicker made a horrible attempt at a 48-yard game-winning field goal in overtime. Instead, we get the first tie of 2021, which feels like a loss if you’re the 5-3 team badly in need of this win given the upcoming schedule.

Alas, I never expected Mason Rudolph to be QB1 in this game. Ben Roethlisberger came down with a positive COVID test on Saturday and Rudolph got the surprise start. This was absolutely a game that Ben would have won on his experience alone. Rudolph had a lousy pick, missed badly in the red zone, and mismanaged several other drives with inaccurate passes. He has no touch to his throws. The offense really did not change much. There were still throws well short of the sticks on crucial downs, too many horizontal attempts, and the occasional underthrown go route down the sideline. Najee Harris (26 carries for 105 yards) should have got more carries than he did on a wet, cold afternoon.

Against a Detroit defense that was allowing 9.3 yards per attempt through eight games, Rudolph finished at 4.84 YPA (242 yards on 50 passes). Yet somehow, Jared Goff was the worst QB in this game. Detroit ran the ball 39 times for 229 yards, yet Goff finished 14/25 for 114 yards and four sacks. Head coach Dan Campbell was calling plays into Goff for the first time this season, and apparently his idea is to feature less of Goss than ever before. I’m not sure I’ve ever seen a team in a tight game run the ball on third down as much as Detroit did (seven times). It makes sense if you saw some of the Goff throws in this one, either missing a wide-open receiver deep or being late with a hospital ball to another in the flat. Goff wasted a superb ground game from his stable of backs.

Despite the comedy of errors in overtime from both teams, I think this is another example of why the change to 10-minute overtime was stupid. If this was a 15-minute overtime, the Steelers likely would have been able to get Chris Boswell in position for a game-winning field goal. But in being pressed for time, they threw an ill-advised pass to Pat Freiermuth, who was going to get tackled in bounds with the Steelers out of timeouts. That pass could not be made, so if the Steelers were going to do that, they should have just tried the 57-yard field goal instead. But Freiermuth ended up fumbling the ball with eight seconds left, and Detroit’s lateral attempt stalled out 40 yards shy of the end zone.

A tie just feels like a waste of nearly four hours. Not a real outcome. We’ll see how the tie impacts the playoff race, but after losing Roethlisberger to COVID, and T.J. Watt during the game to an injury, and not getting into first place with a win over Detroit, it sure feels like Pittsburgh lost in many ways this weekend.

Hurry-Up Finish

Some quick thoughts as I race to complete another preview before getting to sleep.

Panthers at Cardinals: Meh

You know something is wrong when the No. 7 seed pounds the No. 1 seed 34-10 in their own building and I am giving it footnote treatment. But I just struggle to take a game like this seriously when the Cardinals were without Kyler Murray and DeAndre Hopkins. Carolina was the better team on Sunday, but let’s face some facts. They were going up against Colt McCoy, who coughed up a fumble and was stopped on a fourth down in the beginning of the game. Those mistakes led to a 14-0 lead for the Panthers, who only had to drive a total of 56 yards to get those scores.

Arizona even lost McCoy during the game, but Carolina’s backup (Cam Newton) was probably the best active quarterback on Sunday anyway. I loved Carolina to cover given what it had done to Arizona the last two years, but I was not expecting 34-10. This makes Kyle Shanahan and the 49ers look even worse for last week. It’s the first truly awful performance of the season for Arizona, but I am willing to believe things will turn around when their best players return. But this could make for quite the headlines should we see this as a playoff rematch in January.

Vikings at Chargers: That’s It?

I knew this game was going to be decided by one possession after the way the season has been for these teams, but this was a fake close game with a disappointing finish. Between the Vikings and Chargers, we should have gotten some sort of ludicrous finish. Not a matter of Minnesota clutching up and extending to a two-score lead, and then running out the final 4:36 to deny Justin Herbert, who struggled on the day, a chance at tying the game.

I was pretty disappointed. It felt like every time they showed this game, the Vikings had the ball (time of possession was 36:15). In that regard, the ending was a fitting one. The disappearance of Mike Williams (playing but ineffective) over the last month seems to explain why Herbert has been off in three of the last four games. This offense needs something more than all the short and intermediate passes to Keenan Allen.

Eagles at Broncos: Teddy’s Business Decision

In a week where we saw a kicker recover a fumble (Chris Boswell on Monday night) and a punter force a fumble on a kick return (Raiders vs. Chiefs), Teddy Bridgewater looked extra soft when he did this on a huge fumble that was returned for an 83-yard touchdown to end the third quarter and basically end the game for Denver in a 30-13 loss.

The effort was definitely lacking there. Even if he doesn’t forcibly tackle Slay to the ground, he could have at least got in his path more to slow him down or make him cut. This looked really bad, and I guess the fault starts with Melvin Gordon for fumbling in the first place, but I think some quarterbacks would have done a better job here. Also, Jalen Hurts had a very respectable game and the Eagles showed they can be an effective, balanced offense.

Bills and Cowboys Rebound

My gambling woes in Week 9 were marked heavily by the failures of the Bills and Cowboys to find the end zone. Buffalo never got there against Jacksonville while Dallas was down 30-0 before some garbage-time scores against Denver. On Sunday, both got in the end zone not even four whole minutes into their games and continued to pile it on in easy, blowout wins over the Jets and Falcons.

Mike White being a four-pick disaster – also known as a New York Jets quarterback – was not that big of a surprise. Buffalo’s defense has been arguably more reliable than its offense this season, and they feasted on the inexperienced passer. But with the Falcons, I was really surprised that this wasn’t a competitive game and a high-scoring one. Maybe I’m thinking too much about the 40-39 stunner they played a year ago, but I never expected 43-3 with Matt Ryan passing for 117 yards. That’s already the third time in nine games where Arthur Smith has lost by 23+ points. It happened three times in six seasons when Dan Quinn was there. His defense only giving up a field goal to his old team had to feel good, but now we’ll see where the Cowboys are when they go into Kansas City next week.

Jaguars at Colts: Trevor Fumbles His Peyton Moment

Colts fans, can you recall what happened on November 15, 1998? No. 1 pick Peyton Manning was down 23-17 against the New York Jets before leading the first game-winning drive of his career, throwing a 14-yard touchdown to Marcus Pollard in the final 30 seconds in a 24-23 win. It would be the first of many memorable wins in crunch time for Manning.

Almost 23 years later to the date, Jacksonville’s No. 1 pick Trevor Lawrence found himself in a similar spot, down 23-17 to the Colts, largely thanks to the ineffectiveness of Indy’s current QB (Carson Wentz). Lawrence and the Jags had a chance to steal one from the Colts, who have blown as many games as any team this season. But after getting into Indy territory, Lawrence suffered a strip-sack, the only true turnover of the game. Just another tough loss for a team trying to turn things around.

Next week: Can Cowboys-Chiefs be the classic shootout it should be? Can Peyton and Eli take unlimited shots at Brady and the Bucs when they host the Giants on Monday night? If the close game regression hits Week 11 like it did Week 8, just remember that Patriots-Falcons is the first game on Thursday night…

NFL Stat Oddity: Week 9

There are some NFL weeks with a lot of upsets. There are some weeks with multiple crazy finishes. There are some weeks with a lot of blowouts.

Then there’s Week 9 of the 2021 season, the type of week best summed up by this classic Vince Lombardi moment:

There were only six games with a comeback opportunity and four with a game-winning drive. But in a season where teams favored by more than seven points were 26-1 SU, those heavy favorites were 1-3 SU on Sunday. The Bills (-14.5) lost to the Jaguars of all teams, the Cowboys (-10) were getting blanked 30-0 by Denver before some garbage-time scores, and the Rams (-7.5) finished the day in appropriate fashion with a bad loss to the Titans.

You could say big favorites were due some losses this season, but three in one day? The last time that happened in a non-Week 17 slate was Week 9 of the 2011 season, and even that included a Monday night game (Dream Team Eagles vs. Bears). You have to go all the way back to Week 10 of the 2006 season to find the last time there were three such upsets in the same day.

Has there ever been a season where seemingly no team wants to embrace the role of being the favorite? Ditto for the MVP race after brutal games for Dak Prescott, Josh Allen, and the should-have-been-frontrunner Matthew Stafford. Even Kyler Murray lost some luster after seeing backup Colt McCoy handle the 49ers without DeAndre Hopkins, and Aaron Rodgers, well, his self-imposed absence will probably screw the Packers out of the No. 1 seed this year.

Of course, a day where most of the NFC’s top teams lose and the MVP candidates flounder helps no one more than Tom Brady and the Buccaneers. This league can’t go a week without doing everything it can to help him advance without breaking a sweat. That’s one thing about Week 9 that made sense.

This season in Stat Oddity:

Titans at Rams: Mike Vrabel Chopped Off His Penis and Paris Hilton Sucked the Soul Out of the Rams

(Congrats, you’re an NFL junkie if you understood that headline.)

While NBC’s Cris Collinsworth said that the Rams did not beat themselves on Sunday night, I’m not so sure about that one. Also, the incoming takes that the Titans don’t need Derrick Henry at all may also be very premature following a game that was almost solely decided by two Matthew Stafford interceptions – both of a fine Detroit vintage circa 2012 – turning into a quick 14 points. Even the best quarterbacks in MVP seasons can overcome that sort of swing as we saw last year with Aaron Rodgers in Tampa Bay in Week 6.

Stafford just so happened to pick his worst night for the Rams in an island game where he should have been able to take a clear lead in the MVP race. Pressure got to him, and he made a bad play (probable safety) a worse one by forcing a throw for the first pick that was returned to the 2-yard line. Then he followed it up with a worse throw for a pick-six. The Titans’ pass rush looked incredible, and it really covered up for an offense that did very little outside of two drives.

The Titans finished the game with just 194 yards of offense. Had it not been for Stafford’s touchdown drive in pure garbage time to make it a 28-16 final, the Titans would have had a rare three-score blowout win despite failing to break 200 yards. However, they still had the rare 12+ point win despite not breaking 200 yards, though it’s the second time Stafford has done that in his career.

Mike Vrabel improves to 13-2 ATS and an incredible 12-3 SU as head coach of the Titans when his team is an underdog of 4+ points. Being the underdog works for this team, a team that arguably has more big wins in the last four seasons than any franchise that has not gone to the Super Bowl in that time.

Now the Titans are chugging along at 7-2 after a winning streak over the Chiefs, Bills, Colts, and Rams. Had it not been for that garbage-time score, they would have held both the Chiefs and Rams out of the end zone for 60 minutes.

This is impressive stuff, and still, you wouldn’t be shocked if this team went 2-2 over the next four games against the Saints, Texans, Patriots, and Jaguars. The Titans are not going to keep beating good teams while failing to crack 3.0 yards per carry like they have in the last three games. Tennessee did not have a play from scrimmage longer than 16 yards against the Rams.

I see no reason to trust any team in the AFC this year. But can the Titans go on a run and play great defense and be physical with teams to win a few big games? Yeah, I think they have proven that enough now.

Can the Rams beat multiple good teams in succession with Stafford as their quarterback? From what we’ve seen so far this year, I don’t think so, and that was always the concern going into this experiment. The people who decided to take an early victory lap must not have been paying attention to the first eight weeks this season. No one is trustworthy or reliable this season to deliver on a weekly basis.

Vikings at Ravens: Par for the Course

I have nothing truly profound to say about yet another close finish that could have easily gone either way for the Vikings and Ravens this year. All I know is the Ravens are 4-1 in close finishes and the Vikings are now 2-5.

That makes the ending sound a bit predictable, but it was another difficult path to a 14-point comeback win for the Ravens. The type of big comeback win that has eluded this team for years seems to be coming every other week this season. The Vikings led 24-10 after returning the opening kickoff of the second half 98 yards for a touchdown. Big plays like that one and a 50-yard touchdown to Justin Jefferson are not the kind of plays we’re used to seeing Baltimore allow, but those are the signs that this team is struggling and becoming more reliant on the quarterback.

Lamar Jackson did not have a clean game with two picks, but he still finished with 266 passing yards and 120 rushing yards. Kirk Cousins had one of his standard days with solid efficiency stats and neither winning nor losing the game for his team. He came up big with a game-tying touchdown drive to force overtime, but the Vikings were stopped on their only overtime possession following a Jackson interception in scoring territory.

I was asked on Twitter how many times does a team turn the ball over in overtime and still go on to win the game? Baltimore fans know it’s happened more than once this season as the Raiders did it to the Ravens in Week 1 after Derek Carr’s interception was not capitalized on. Before that, it did not happen in 2020 and only happened once in 2019 when Russell Wilson threw an interception against the 49ers and still got the win. But you’re lucky if this happens once a season in the league.

But the Ravens were the better team and more deserving of the win in this one. They outgained the Vikings 500-318 in yards and 36-13 in first downs. The 36 first downs are a franchise record.

Would it have looked better if the Ravens stopped the Vikings on fourth-and-9 with 1:10 left and won 31-24 in regulation? Sure, but these Ravens are not as talented as past teams and things are harder this year. Living on the edge like this is not good for long-term success, but against teams like Minnesota that have mastered losing these games, it can work out for the Ravens.

Packers at Chiefs: Love Did Not Tear the Chiefs Apart

Jordan Love had only the second-worst performance by a Green Bay quarterback this season, but it was still not enough to take down a struggling Kansas City team as the Packers fell 13-7. The Chiefs, held scoreless in a second half for only the second time in the Patrick Mahomes era, definitely caught a break with Aaron Rodgers being a bad liar, because this probably would have been a Green Bay win with their starting quarterback. The Packers botched two field goals and a fourth down in the first half alone.

I think there is hyperbole about how bad Love was, but his inexperience shined through. The Chiefs were able to relentlessly blitz him with a lot of success, especially on third downs. They wouldn’t play that way against Rodgers or someone with experience. It was just one game, but I do at least sense some escapability from Love and he might have some gunslinger in him. He’s going to give his receivers a chance, but it could end in picks against a better defense.

Still, it’s a good thing the Chiefs went back to their 2020 four-minute offense and put this game away or else this was begging to be the worst 13-0 lead turned 14-13 collapse since Santana Moss met the 2005 Cowboys. Mahomes had another candidate for the worst game of his career as his 166 passing yards are the fewest of any full game in his career. The 4.49 yards per attempt is also his first career game under 5.0 YPA. Outside of a bad Mecole Hardman drop on a third-and-1, Mahomes was a huge reason for the offense not playing well in this game and that’s despite the Chiefs finally not having any giveaways.

But Mahomes was able to throw for three first downs, including a vintage extended play to Tyreek Hill to ice the game on third-and-10, to run out the final 4:49 on the clock after the Packers cut into the 13-0 lead with a touchdown.

The Chiefs (5-4) can celebrate the win, and the defense can feel good about their performance as we have seen plenty of inexperienced quarterbacks light it up better than this in the past. But the offense is in a five-game slump now and I’m not sure what it’s going to take to snap out of it, or if they will snap out of it.

Broncos at Cowboys: WTF?

Dallas was on a short list of teams to start 7-0 ATS while the Broncos tend to only beat up on bad teams and lose to the good ones, a hallmark of Teddy Bridgewater’s career. But this was a domination that makes the 30-16 final such a mirage.

Dak Prescott returned from his calf injury, and as far as I could tell, he looked healthy enough to be playing on Sunday. But was this the worst game of his career as far as moving the ball goes? The Cowboys turned the ball over on downs on three of their first six possessions. They were down 30-0 with 6:32 to play and Prescott barely had 100 passing yards at that point.

Fans tend to do a bad job of defining garbage time. Like what the Jets were doing against the Colts on Thursday night, that was never garbage time. They were still in that game and just needed to finish their scoring drive and get an onside kick to tie the game with another score. But for Dallas, the two late touchdown drives were pure garbage time. At that point I would have sat the stars who have been ailing in recent weeks and finished the game with Cooper Rush, Tony Pollard, and the likes of Cedrick Wilson and Malik Turner at receiver.

Dallas never had it on either side of the ball, and it was apparent from the opening possession when Ezekiel Elliott was stuffed on a fourth-and-1. You knew it wasn’t Dallas’ day when a blocked punt went forward and the Broncos ended up recovering after it touched a Dallas player, making it a live ball and a muff.

We knew the Dallas defense could be a liability when the turnover well ran dry as it did in this game, but who could have imagined the offense would play so poorly with Dak back? A good win for Denver, but an alarming performance for Mike McCarthy and the Cowboys.

Bills at Jaguars: WTF? The Sequel

Josh Allen won the game for Jacksonville. Josh Allen lost the game for Buffalo. The fact that I’m talking about two different players makes this one of the more amusing upsets in NFL history.

It also appears to be a historic one. The Bills lost 9-6 in Jacksonville despite being a 14.5-point favorite. There is no game in Pro Football Reference’s database where a favorite of that many points lost a game in which it allowed fewer than 10 points. The closest was when John Elway’s 1986 Broncos, who still made the Super Bowl, lost 9-3 as a 13.5-point favorite to the Chargers. That was almost 35 years to the date.

The last double-digit favorite to lose a 9-6 kind of game was actually the 2018 Jaguars early in the season to the Titans. This is arguably Jacksonville’s biggest win since that 2017 playoff run.

So much of it was thanks to the splash plays made by Jacksonville’s Josh Allen, the No. 7 pick in the 2019 draft that we’ve forgotten about since he plays in Jacksonville. But in this game, Allen recorded the first fumble recovery and first interception of his career. As if he has been waiting for this moment against his namesake. The Jaguars put a lot of effective pressure on Allen as the Bills only ran the ball nine times for 22 yards. Cole Beasley caught eight short passes for 33 yards. The Bills were scoreless on their final seven drives, turning it over three times and ending the game with a failed fourth down.

Buffalo is the first team since the 2019 Redskins (9-0 against San Francisco on a soaked field) to lose a game after allowing fewer than 10 points.

The Bills were gifted such a soft schedule that you have to wonder what kind of pact the AFC East made with the league for this sort of luck year after year. But the difference between those Patriots teams with Bill Belichick and Tom Brady and these Buffalo teams with Sean McDermott and Josh Allen is that the Patriots still delivered year after year. They still had to win those games time and time again. If the Bills can lose a 9-6 game in Jacksonville, then nothing is a given on their schedule.

It’s not like there weren’t some worrying flaws with this team before this week. I used this space last week to talk about a good half vs. a good game as the Bills sleepwalked for 30 minutes against awful Miami before a misleading final box score. I said during the week that it made no sense why Allen was the MVP favorite at +200. I know Dawson Knox is out at tight end, but the wide receiver corps is more than deep enough to move the ball well against a Jacksonville team that couldn’t even compete with Geno Smith and the Seahawks last week.

This is a brutal loss for Buffalo. We’ll see if it’s a wake-up call as there will be plenty of games where the Bills will be heavily favored the rest of the season.

Falcons at Saints: The Atlanta Sports Renaissance?

Very similar to the Miami win this year, the Falcons flirted with another fourth-quarter disaster that Matt Ryan and the offense rescued with a game-winning field goal drive. The Falcons were up 24-6 with 10:39 to play, but that did not stop the Saints from scoring three touchdowns to take a 25-24 lead with 1:01 left.

However, you better come prepared with a great two-point conversion play for every game in this league. You never know when it can decide a game as it did here. When a team scores a late touchdown to take a one-point lead, that two-point conversion becomes absolutely crucial. The Saints ran Alvin Kamara and were stopped, keeping the score at 25-24. Ryan is the king of one-minute drills, and he technically just missed out on a sixth in his career with the drive starting at 1:01. But he hit Cordarrelle Patterson, who has turned into a fascinating all-around weapon this year in Atlanta, for a 64-yard gain to start the drive. Younghoe Koo put away the Saints with a 29-yard field goal for the 27-25 win.

Despite not having Calvin Ridley and the running game producing 26 yards on 20 carries, Ryan passed for 343 yards and had three total touchdowns in the win. He has been playing very well after a slow start to the new offense and life without Julio Jones.

Attention will go to New Orleans’ difficult quarterback situation with Trevor Siemian having to take over for Jameis Winston (torn ACL). Do they stick with Siemian or go back to Taysom Hill as the starter? I think the defense needs to take more of the blame for this one. Ryan hit four passes of 34-plus yards on Sunday.

There is no such thing as a normal Saints game in 2021, but it was pretty interesting to see the Falcons dominate this game, nearly choke it away, and still come away with a win in the end. That wouldn’t have happened in past years.

Hurry-Up Finish

Some quick thoughts as I race to complete another preview before getting to sleep.

Cardinals at 49ers: 2021 49ers Gone Fishin’

It should have been a golden opportunity for San Francisco (3-5) to get back to .500 before playing the Rams next week. For really the first time all season, the 49ers had the passing offense they should have thrived with on paper with Jimmy Garoppolo throwing to Deebo Samuel, George Kittle, and Brandon Aiyuk. Unfortunately, those players had three turnovers and the 49ers finished with just 17 points in a humiliating 31-17 defeat.

Arizona did not have Kyler Murray, DeAndre Hopkins, or A.J. Green on offense, but that did not stop Colt McCoy from completing 22-of-26 passes for 249 yards or James Conner from scoring three touchdowns. The Cardinals led this one wire-to-wire, and this was a 49ers defense that had given them problems in the last two matchups.

At what point can we all admit that Kyle Shanahan is not a good head coach? He punted on a 4th-and-13 at the Arizona 39 while trailing by 17 points in the fourth quarter. Is he saving his brilliant play design for Trey Lance in that situation? At this point, Shanahan will be lucky if he gets to hang around for the Lance era as it looks like another failed season in San Francisco. Props to Arizona for coming prepared without several of its best players.

Browns at Bengals: One-Sided Battle of Ohio

Maybe the Browns can bring Odell Beckham Jr. back and cut him again before their next game? I don’t know if anything was really gained from that this week, but the Browns did look focused and ready for this one. It started going off the rails for Cincinnati on the opening drive after Joe Burrow threw a 99-yard pick-six to Denzel Ward. Burrow has had several huge picks this year in losses. This was the first game of the season where he failed to throw a touchdown as the Bengals never seriously threatened in the second half.

Baker Mayfield took advantage of the Cincinnati turnovers and the big plays, including a 70-yard touchdown run by Nick Chubb, to lead an easy 41-16 win. I’d be very cautious to make any definitive statements about either team, but I do think we were too quick to prop up the Bengals without taking a deeper look at the loss to Chicago or the struggle with Jacksonville.

Patriots at Panthers: Look Who Is Back in the Playoff Picture

The Patriots (5-4) are above .500 for the first time this season and currently rank seventh in the AFC. Getting to play Sam Darnold (three interceptions, including a pick-six) was like getting a third Jets game, so the Patriots cannot count on that cheat code anymore this season. But it was another workmanlike performance in getting an easy win that should give the team some confidence going into tougher stretches.

Chargers at Eagles: The 7-on-7 Defense

Add another 4QC/GWD to the 2021 Chargers’ total to bring it to four. The Chargers finished off the Eagles in the fourth quarter despite allowing a game-tying touchdown drive and having to convert a pair of fourth downs on the game-winning field goal drive. But the Chargers were paced all day by Justin Herbert completing 32 of his 38 passes. Herbert has been deadly accurate this year, but this was already the fifth game where the 2021 Eagles allowed at least 80% completions. That is two more games than the old NFL record (min. 20 attempts) and we still have half a season to go. Playing this defense is like playing 7-on-7 in practice.

Raiders at Giants: No Penalty, No Comeback

What did I say earlier this season? If Derek Carr isn’t getting game-altering penalties on crucial downs in the fourth quarter, he isn’t good at fourth-quarter comebacks. The Giants were not penalized in the fourth quarter and Carr stunk up the joint with a pick and a game-sealing fumble in the red zone while trailing 23-16. Kicker Daniel Carlson also reminded people of his Minnesota roots by missing a 25-yard field goal while the Raiders trailed 20-16. This was a bad performance after another bad off-the-field week for the Raiders with the release of Henry Ruggs. They signed DeSean Jackson, but I would sooner pick this team to finish last in the AFC West than to finish first.

Guess who gets the Chiefs next. That’s the Sunday night game in Week 10, which might be the only hope for a good island game in this slate.

Next week: Can the Steelers avoid handing the Lions their first win of the season, and is it really a revenge game for Dan Quinn against the Falcons when he has himself to blame for being in Dallas right now?

NFL Week 2 Predictions: Embrace the Weird

The 2021 NFL season has gotten off to another strange start. Favorites are only 4-13 ATS and a shocking 8-9 SU. It was the first Week 1 where favorites had a losing record outright (7-9) since 1983. That was Dan Marino’s rookie season, so 5,000-yard passing seasons and the 1985 Bears didn’t even exist yet.

This is only the sixth time in the 32-team era where favorites had a losing record in a week where all 32 were in action. How did favorites fare the next week? They always won at least 10 games, including a 13-3 record in the Week 17 finale of the 2008 season. So that’s something to keep in mind this week.

We almost saw favorites start 7-10, but on Thursday night, Washington got a fortunate offsides penalty on a missed field goal against the Giants and won by one point on the retry. Now if Ron Rivera can just keep Taylor Heinicke away from today’s pathetic January 6th rally in D.C….

The only favorites who were able to cover so far were the Rams, Seahawks, Panthers, and Broncos. I think three of them have a pretty good shot at doing it again this week, though Titans-Seahawks could be a nail-biter and shootout if the 2019-20 Titans still exist inside this 2021 iteration of the team.

As for previews, I tackled Pittsburgh’s very frustrating history with the Raiders in the Ben Roethlisberger era.

I also looked at why the Ravens keep losing to the Chiefs, and how I don’t think Patrick Mahomes-Lamar Jackson will be much of a QB rivalry until we see Lamar step up in these games and for the Ravens to try something different on defense instead of blitzing a lot.

Finally, I looked at how unusual it is for a team like Green Bay to lose by 35 points and still be favored by 12 the next week. Hint: very unusual.

NFL Week 2 Predictions

I always think Week 2 can be the hardest week of the season to predict. You’re still trying to balance your preseason predictions with the one data point you got from Week 1. What’s real at this point? Is Matthew Stafford going to race Tom Brady and Patrick Mahomes to 50 touchdown passes and break up the Super Bowl rematch? Is Jalen Hurts going to leap ahead of Justin Herbert as the top 2nd-year QB? Are all the AFC East offenses ass now instead of the usual 75% quota? Is Teddy Bridgewater going to have a great year in Denver, or did he beat up on a Giants defense that Taylor Heinicke just threw for 300 yards against? Are the Jaguars really that horrible that they lost to a Houston team that is now a 13.5-point underdog in Cleveland? I mean, f’n Cleveland is favored by two touchdowns in the 21st century?

So, when I saw that I picked favorites to go 12-4 ATS this week, I had to erase all my picks and create a new table image. In the last 10 years, Week 2 favorites have always won 6-8 games ATS, landing on seven wins 60% of the time. Even when favorites were 14-2 SU in Week 2 last year, they were only 7-9 ATS. I ended up changing things to where I had six underdogs covering. That’s probably still too low, and that’s even with half of them being the teams favored by two touchdowns. But we’ll just see how it goes.

Some gambling things I really like this week:

  • Nick Chubb TD/Browns ML parlay.
  • Mecole Hardman over 40 yards and a touchdown (he has hit Baltimore for a long touchdown in each of the last two years).
  • Antonio Brown over 69.5 yards and a touchdown (Falcons were the only defense he broke 70 yards against last year and he did it twice with 93 and 138 and 3 TD in those games).
  • Melvin Gordon touchdown run vs. Jaguars but not the ML since I’m not ready to commit to Urban Meyer pulling a Bobby Petrino before October.
  • Austin Ekeler touchdown run vs. Dallas in a game that could be the shootout of the day.
  • I’m willing to let Davante Adams and GB hurt me again this week when his TD/ML parlay comes up on FanDuel.

I’m also holding out hope that my Hail Mary hits as the parts I still need are only about +2200 since I hedged on MNF spread.

Let’s have a memorable one.

NFL Stat Oddity: Week 1

This is the first Week 1 edition of NFL Stat Oddity, a series I started on the spur of the moment last October. This is my space to recap the statistical quirks and oddities from Sunday in the NFL after some quickly researched numbers before I finally get to bed on Monday morning. Expect some rants too.

Normally, I pick out a few games of interest, but after the Week 1 we just had, I think I’m going to say something about every game besides the Thursday opener between the Cowboys and Buccaneers, the first game in NFL history where both teams passed at least 50 times and did not run 20 times.

Not Your Favorite

First, some stats relating to the spread. Favorites are only 7-8 SU this week with Monday night still to come. At best they’ll go 8-8. Is that unusual for Week 1 when uncertainty is so high for the new season? Yes, it is.

From 2001 to 2020, Week 1 favorites were 206-108-2 (.655) SU. Only in 2016 did they go 8-8, so if the Raiders pull off the upset on Baltimore, we’ll see the first outright losing Week 1 for favorites in at least two decades.

Browns at Chiefs: Is Cleveland Best Equipped to Beat the Chiefs in the AFC?

January’s divisional round matchup was supposed to be a high-powered shootout after the wild season the Browns had, but an injury to Patrick Mahomes in the third quarter took it from a blowout to a low-scoring, nail-biting finish won 22-17 by the Chiefs.

We got to that score again in this one, but this time it was Cleveland leading 22-17 in the third quarter after gaining at least 75 yards on all four of their first-half drives. The shootout was on, and the Browns were winning it, twice leading by 12 and making the Chiefs blink in the red zone. But mistakes in every unit really cost the Browns this huge win. Nick Chubb lost a fumble at midfield that got the ball rolling again for the Chiefs. The defense looked at a 29-20 lead in the fourth quarter for 14 seconds before Tyreek Hill burned the secondary for a 75-yard touchdown on a one-play drive. Then the botched punt after a three-and-out put Mahomes at the 15-yard line, setting up an easy game-winning touchdown to take a 33-29 lead.

But the ending was different this time. Last year, I covered in great detail how the Chiefs were so dominant in the four-minute offense with Mahomes closing out games so the defense didn’t have to. The best way to end games on your terms. But this time, he threw an incompletion and Myles Garrett sacked him on a third down. The Browns had 2:49 to drive 83 yards for the go-ahead touchdown, so it was going to be on the defense this time to save the day. The Chiefs were one of three teams to not blow a fourth-quarter lead in 2020.

Mayfield had a chance for his big game-winning drive moment, but after getting to midfield, he tried to throw a pass away under pressure. His foot was grabbed at the last moment and the ball came out poorly and was intercepted by Mike Hughes with 1:09 left. Game over. The defense, which was missing Tyrann Mathieu and Frank Clark, did just enough in the second half after being terrible for the first half. Chalk up another double-digit comeback win in the Mahomes era, and one of the toughest challenges he’s ever had to get a lead in a game. But he can still say he has always led in every start of his career, even Super Bowl LV.

Much like with the Cowboys in Tampa Bay on Thursday night, I think the Browns can look at this one as a moral victory. This team is different under Kevin Stefanski from past Cleveland teams who would have rolled over to the Chiefs. They came out looking very poised as we saw in a few big games last year, namely the Tennessee win and Pittsburgh playoff win. Mayfield threw the late pick, but I think this team hangs better with the Chiefs than even the Ravens and Bills have shown so far. Lamar Jackson and Josh Allen seem to press against Kansas City while Mayfield was very accurate for most of Sunday’s game, and the Browns just use their offensive line to stick with the run and stay patient against this defense. But defensively, the Browns are not reliable yet. Mahomes still found ways to score 33 points on eight drives while dominating on third down and hitting Hill for the big touchdown.

The Chiefs have Baltimore next. Mahomes is now 9-0 against Jackson (3-0), Mayfield (3-0), Allen (2-0), and Ben Roethlisberger (1-0). While the AFC struggles to find its best challenger for the Chiefs, it looks likely to be another year where the Chiefs are their own worst enemy, and where the Kansas City offense is the most consistent, must-watch unit in the game.

Packers at Saints: Is This “The Last Dance” or Dead Man Walking?

I know I’ve repeatedly said that Aaron Rodgers will regress this season against a tougher schedule and better defensive play around the league in general, but what the hell was that on Sunday in Jacksonville? In his 211th start, Rodgers lost by more than 30 points for the first time in a 38-3 rout by the Saints, a team he feasted on a year ago without Davante Adams in a 37-30 win.

Kudos to the Saints if they really did pick Jacksonville because of Rodgers’ history in Florida. He squeaked out a win over Miami in 2014, lost to the Jaguars in 2008, only averaged 5.85 YPA against the Jags in 2016, and he was 1-3 in Tampa Bay with multiple interceptions in all the losses, including that 38-10 eyesore on his MVP resume last year.

Even if the scoreboard said New Orleans Saints, with the game being played in Jacksonville and Jameis Winston at quarterback, it might as well have been a game against Tampa Bay. Once again, the Packers were pushed around by an NFC South team and had no answers for it. Rodgers looked like the quarterback in need of Lasik surgery in this one, throwing some of the most WTF? interceptions of his career.

It is impossible to even evaluate Jameis Winston in this first start. He could have won the game by throwing four touchdowns before he even broke 100 passing yards. Some of that was great field position, and some more was just great ground production. But Jameis did deliver a long touchdown pass for his fifth of the day for good measure. It will be interesting to see what happens when he plays a team who puts forth some effort.

It only took Matt LaFleur the opener to his third season to have more losses (five) without a 4QC opportunity than what Mike McCarthy (four) had in his first six seasons with Rodgers as his quarterback.

A year after winning MVP, Rodgers is dead last in QBR for Week 1 at 13.5. Is it just “one game” like Tampa Bay was one game last year? Maybe, but I think it fits the larger pattern with this team and what happens when they run into someone ready to punch them in the mouth. Now I’m just worried that the real last dance for Peak Aaron Rodgers was 2020.

But hell of a day for the Saints in Jacksonville against Green Bay, a sentence I never thought I’d get to write. Sean Payton just might make me eat some crow this year, which won’t disappoint me one bit if he delivers in the postseason. But just imagine if he can keep the defense nasty while helping Jameis manage the game.

Steelers at Bills: Don’t Believe the Hype?

I feel that the Steelers have spent years as the biggest target of groupthink on NFL Twitter, and everyone just wants to predict this team to completely bomb this season. I didn’t feel that, and I still picked them to win nine games this season and get in as a wild card team. Plenty of season to go, but I think Sunday showed why you can’t bury them yet. Not when they are on a short list of teams with a Hall of Fame quarterback and a defense that can play great most weeks.

There has been plenty of Super Bowl hype for the Bills, but I warned in my previews that this team faces a tough task of improving on a season where they won 13 games and scored over 500 points, feats almost never achieved in back-to-back years in NFL history. Then without adding any major pieces on either side of the ball, it was largely on the same guys who produced last year to deliver again for the Bills.

That starts with quarterback Josh Allen. I ended up ranking him No. 30 on my list of the top 100 quarterbacks of the 21st century and thought he could repeat his success since he is technically still a one-year wonder. On Sunday, he got his fourth season off to a poor start, though T.J. Watt and company may be the best defense he sees this year. Watt had a huge strip-sack in the first half when the Bills were in scoring range.

Maybe Allen just doesn’t play well against Pittsburgh, because I certainly haven’t been impressed in the last three years with him in those meetings. Allen’s passing YPA in his three starts against Pittsburgh: 5.56, 5.53, and 5.29 on Sunday. Given the way the Steelers have handled Lamar Jackson so far, this team might be in business in the playoffs if they could stop getting embarrassed by the likes of Blake Bortles and Baker Mayfield in January. Patrick Mahomes is a different story, but I am impressed with how the defense has handled Allen and Jackson, two of the leaders of the new AFC.

Allen’s accuracy, always the main knock on him, was simply off on Sunday. He was high, he was low, he was all over the map. Some of it was the pass rush, and some was just great defensive play to knock balls away. But the fact is he threw 51 passes and just one of them gained more than 16 yards. That’s a bad ratio of big plays.

I felt that horrible quarterback play doomed the Steelers against Buffalo in 2019 and 2020. It was last year when Ben Roethlisberger threw a big pick-six before halftime that really turned that game, but I also pointed out that the Bills did not score many points in that game or in any game against AFC playoff competition outside of the Colts in the wild card round.

This time, Roethlisberger avoided the big turnover. He was off early, and the offense again looked pretty December 2020-ish in the first half when the Steelers trailed 10-0 and had three first downs and 53 yards of offense. The new offensive line looked bad, and Najee Harris had nowhere to run. Harris also was tackled quickly with minimal effort by Buffalo and looked lost as a receiver. It was not an impressive debut by him outside of one 18-yard run.

But the second half was a pleasant surprise and turnaround. The offense moved the ball four drives in a row, and while they settled for three field goals, the Steelers were right back in the game. Diontae Johnson returned from injury for a great effort catch on the game-winning touchdown. That was set up after one of the worst 4th-and-1 plays I’ve ever seen from the Bills. They said no to a quarterback sneak with Allen and tried to get cute with a pitch to Matt Breida way in the backfield where he was buried for a 7-yard loss at midfield. I’d show a picture of how deep he was when he caught the ball, but NFL Game Pass has never been worse than it is right now, which is saying a lot for how horrid that product has always been.

The Steelers also blocked a punt for a huge touchdown to go up 20-10 in the fourth quarter as the Bills looked shook. Pittsburgh really showed up in all three phases for that second half to complete the 23-16 comeback win.

Roethlisberger is now 2-7 in his career as an underdog of more than six points. His only other big upset win was the 2005 AFC divisional round in Indianapolis when he saved the legacies of Jerome Bettis and Bill Cowher on that late fumble. But this was certainly a surprise victory for the Steelers, and arguably the best one the team has had since an 18-12 playoff win in Kansas City against the Chiefs in January 2017.

Time will tell how well the Bills bounce back from this and if the Steelers are still legitimate, but it was definitely a second half turnaround I did not see coming. And I usually have a good eye for how the Steelers will perform.

Seahawks at Colts: The Wentz Wagon Stalls in Indy

I think if Russell Wilson was allowed to play a different team every week, but they all had Carson Wentz at quarterback, he would finally win MVP and have a perfect season. Wilson is now 6-0 against teams starting Wentz at quarterback. He has 13 touchdowns to one interception after throwing four scores on Sunday. He has never needed a fourth-quarter comeback against a Wentz-lead team, often leading those games by multiple scores. Wentz has never scored more than 17 points on the Seahawks. 

The sad part is this was probably the best Wentz has ever played against Seattle, but it was still only good for a 28-16 loss at home where he disappeared for half the game. The Colts were not impressive along the offensive line, though Wentz still took three sacks and lost a fumble. Wilson also took three sacks, but as usual, was left unphased by those plays as he still delivers big plays to his receivers like a perfectly thrown 69-yard touchdown bomb to Tyler Lockett. The Colts had one play of 20-plus yards in the game. The Seahawks took control of the game after the Colts had six straight scoreless drives.

There should be better days ahead for Wentz in Indy as no team owns him quite like Seattle. But for the fans holding out hope that the return of wideout T.Y. Hilton or post-Achilles injury Eric Fisher at left tackle is going to make a big difference, you have to understand the hard truth. The Colts no longer have a quarterback who can elevate the play of those around him. Either by delivering accurate passes to his receivers or with great pocket presence and decision making to help his offensive line, Wentz has never been and will likely never be that guy.

The sooner you accept that, the easier it will be to understand how this team is going to fare with him. With the Rams up next, this could get uglier before it gets better.

Dolphins at Patriots: Well, Tom Brady Would NEVER…

After using Cam Newton as a one-year rental, the Patriots officially moved forward with the Mac Jones era on Sunday. Was it the first of many meetings between Jones and Miami’s Tua Tagovailoa in the new-look AFC East, or the first of, like, three such matchups? We’ll see, but the first one was a competitive 17-16 finish won by the underdog Dolphins.

Jones hardly set the NFL world on fire with his debut, but he had the highest QBR (75.1) of any first or second-year quarterback on Sunday, including Tua (39.9). The Patriots just played a sloppy, undisciplined game for Bill Belichick, including four fumbles (two lost), eight penalties for 84 yards, and they allowed Miami to pull off a double score around halftime.

Down 17-16 in the fourth quarter, the Patriots were driving in the red zone after a Tua interception at midfield. Damien Harris rushed to the Miami 9 to get to 100 yards on the ground, but he fumbled as Xavien Howard continues his high-turnover ways from 2020 with another huge one. Still, 3:31 remained and the Patriots had three timeouts, so that’s an eternity of time to get the ball back.

But the odd thing is they didn’t get the stop this time. Miami picked up two first downs, including a third-and-1 conversion with QB sneak cheat code and former Patriot Jacoby Brissett. The Dolphins were able to take three knees for the win after the two-minute warning. The Patriots averaged 46.1 yards per drive on eight possessions, but it is hard to score more than 16 points when you fumble away a quarter of your drives.

This is just the latest loss for the Patriots as they look downright mediocre in the post-Tom Brady era. However, last year it was Cam Newton doing what he usually does in close games and coming up short (at Seattle) or coughing up the ball (Buffalo). This was not a failure on Jones’ debut, and the way it played out is so amusing because this is exactly the kind of thing Brady never had to deal with in two decades. Just consider the facts:

  • Mac Jones lost in his NFL debut with a 102.6 passer rating (29-of-39 for 281 yards, 1 TD, 0 INT).
  • It took Brady 79 starts and 18 losses to lose a game with a passer rating higher than 83.3. He was in his sixth season then.
  • Jones watched his teammate fumble on a first down in the red zone in a 17-16 game with 3:31 left.
  • (Excluding any lateral-filled plays on the final snap) In Brady’s whole career, he has watched one offensive teammate fumble in the fourth quarter while trailing by 1-3 points, and that was Julian Edelman in 2016 when the Patriots trailed Seattle 25-24. There was 8:29 left and Brady got the ball back in a 31-24 game with 4:24 left. He was stopped on fourth-and-goal at the 1. He never had to deal with an ending like this in 345 career starts.

What made the Patriots so successful for so long is the way they wouldn’t compound mistakes. Even if someone fumbled, you could count on the defense with four clock stoppages to get Brady the ball back. He is the king of second (and third) chances. But after years of draining away talent, the Patriots are just another team these days, and these teams compound mistakes, hence the failed defensive stop after the turnover.

The irony of Brissett converting a third-and-1 wasn’t lost on me here. You might say “that’s going to be nearly impossible for any team to stop.” True, but guess who got those stops at a higher rate than usual in crunch time? Brady’s defenses. From 2001 to 2020, the non-New England NFL defenses allowed conversions on 54.3% of runs on third or fourth down with 1 yard to go while leading by one score in the final three minutes (100-for-184). But against Brady’s defense, these teams were 1-for-6 (16.7%).

Why should those five stops matter? Well, look at the foundation they set for his career. If the defense doesn’t stop San Diego’s LaDainian Tomlinson on these short-yardage runs in 2001, Brady doesn’t get his first 4QC/GWD and the Patriots are not a first-round bye team that year. If that happens, then the Tuck Rule game against the Raiders in the playoffs never happens that year. You know, that dubious ending that only came after Zack Crockett was stopped on a third-and-1 before the Patriots used their final timeout. In 2002, Brady again had a late game-ending turnover reversed by replay in Chicago, but that only came after his defense stopped Anthony Thomas on back-to-back plays where 1 yard wins the game for the Bears. Instead, they blew a 21-point lead and Brady gets to say he’s never had a non-winning season after finishing 9-7 that year.

The whole foundation for Brady’s clutch legacy is built on those stops giving him extra chances. The ones that other quarterbacks just don’t get as often. You’re not going to tell me my grapes are sour when my research is always fresh and on point. When you combine these facts with all the other facts, like the single loss with a clutch field goal miss (2012 Arizona) in 22 seasons, or the most goal-line stands, or the fact that Atlanta had 1st-and-10 at the New England 22 in Super Bowl 51 and PUNTED, it’s beyond obvious who the Luckiest of All Time (LOAT) is.

Are the Patriots still capable of doing those things with Jones? We’ll see. But just wait until we get to the first blown fourth-quarter lead and the first missed clutch field goal this year with Jones. You know, things that didn’t happen to Brady, the LOAT, until his 66th and 183rd starts, respectively.

Eagles at Falcons: The Total Pitts

Tell me something, Atlanta fans. Would you rather watch your team play well for most of the game and blow it late in heart-breaking fashion, or would you rather they play like ass at home and lose 32-6 to a team that won four games last year? Four-and-a-half if we’re being generous.

The first game of the Arthur Smith era was absolutely the worst season opener in the Matt Ryan era and one of the most disappointing starts in his career. He has lost by bigger margins before and in more important games, but this was only the fourth time he failed to lead the Falcons to at least seven points.

A 32-6 final in a game with zero turnovers and one where the Falcons rushed for 124 yards? Who writes a game script like that? The Falcons are only the 10th team since 1940 to lose by at least 26 points in a game without a turnover. We are used to seeing Atlanta settle for field goals in the red zone, but 3-of-14 on third down and Ryan only throwing for 164 yards are unusual outcomes for the Falcons.

Historically, Ryan has struggled with the Eagles. This is the fourth time in the last five meetings that the Falcons failed to break 15 points. But I was shocked that this was not a one-score game with both teams scoring over 20 points. Neither team had a 30-yard play, but the Falcons didn’t even have a 20-yard one.

Heisman winner Devonta Smith came through with an 18-yard touchdown catch in his NFL debut, finishing with 71 yards to lead all receivers. I thought he would play well, but I had high expectations for Kyle Pitts, the highest drafted tight end in NFL history. He only caught 4-of-8 targets for 31 yards, getting outdone by old man Zach Ertz (34 yards) on the other side.

We’ll see if Jalen Hurts (27-of-35) can maintain a high completion percentage going forward, but the Eagles and rookie coach Nick Sirianni blew away Smith and the Falcons in this one.

Cardinals at Titans: Red Alert?

The Cardinals were my final wild card team, and the Titans were my regression red alert team this year. That had something to do with my pick of Arizona this week, but I had no idea we would see a 38-13 final in Tennessee.

While the defense struggled with Kyler Murray and his receivers (two touchdowns each to DeAndre Hopkins and Christian Kirk), this was Chandler Jones’ day. He missed most of 2020 and I knew his return was really the biggest story for this team. Jones has always had an incredible knack for turning his pressures into sacks. He came through with five sacks in this one and forced two fumbles. Just one of the most dominant defensive performances you will see from one player. He destroyed the Titans, who could never get Derrick Henry (58 yards) going on the ground.

After the way the Falcons bombed at home on Sunday, it’s not like “they really miss Arthur Smith” is going to be the story after this one. Maybe they do, but time will tell if this is the year that Ryan Tannehill turns back into a pumpkin and Henry breaks down, or if the Cardinals are just the real deal, improving in front of our eyes, and Jones was simply too dominant for them on Sunday.

Jaguars at Texans: Tyrod’s Day

I should have known better than to trust a team that has lost 15 games in a row (now 16) and hired a nepotism-loving control freak as its head coach. This was probably my biggest miss of Week 1 as I saw Urban Meyer leaning on his college roots and getting a decisive win against a poor Houston team without many talented players left and Tyrod Taylor at quarterback. I thought they would run the ball at will, get James Robinson his touches now that Travis Etienne is on IR, and Trevor Lawrence would run in a score in his NFL debut.

Well, little did I expect Tyrod to be the best quarterback in the division on Sunday. Taylor passed for 291 yards, and the only reason it wasn’t his first 300-yard passing game in regulation in the NFL is because Houston was ahead too much. Lawrence had minus-2 rushing yards and threw for 332 yards and three touchdowns, but also three interceptions in a mixed bag game. When Carlos Hyde got the first three carries over Robinson, I knew I was fucked.

I’m sure we won’t get to October before this Week 1 success for Houston is chalked up to “it was just Urban’s Jags,” but that’s okay. This was one of the only games I could see either team winning all season. I know better now than to trust the Jaguars to do anything good.

49ers at Lions: Score One for Research

When I posted my Week 1 picks, I said this about the 49ers-Lions game:

“We have my first stat second-guessing of the season in Detroit where the 49ers are up to 8.5 as they try to spoil the Dan Campbell debut. I really want to stay away from that game after seeing that road favorites of 8.5+ in Week 1 are 0-6 ATS since 2001. Jared Goff is very familiar with them and while he is only 3-5 against the 49ers, only one of those games was a loss by more than eight points.”

Make that 0-7 ATS now as the Lions got a cover in a game they were getting blown out 38-10. It was 41-17 with 5:45 left when Jared Goff got the ball back. Surely he can’t go 8+8+8 for one of the greatest comebacks in NFL history, right? But after a pair of touchdowns and two-point conversions with a key onside kick recovery in between, it was 41-33 with 1:07 left and Detroit still had all three timeouts left. Overtime was doable.

It looked like Jimmy Garoppolo was putting an end to things with a third-and-13 conversion to Deebo Samuel, but the receiver nearly spoiled his monster game (189 yards) with an inexplicable fumble. Goff had his chance to tie it but came up 24 yards short after pressure got to him on fourth down.

It was not a pretty debut for Goff, but he got what may go down as the improbable cover of the season against a San Francisco team that figures to be tough this year. There had to be some kneecaps chewed off in the process of this one.

Jets at Panthers: Sam Darnold Revenge Game

Something feels very right about the Sam Darnold Revenge Game ending in a 19-14 final. But at least it was a win, and he threw a nice 57-yard touchdown to Robby Anderson, who also played for the Jets.

Jets rookie quarterback Zach Wilson threw touchdowns but suffered six sacks in his debut. These are the last 10 quarterbacks to take at least six sacks in their first career start: DeShone Kizer (2017), Paxton Lynch (2016), Tyrod Taylor (2015), Greg McElroy (2012), Chad Henne (2009), Dan Orlovsky (2008), Patrick Ramsey (2002), David Carr (2002), Tim Couch (1999), and Bobby Hoying (1997).

Worried yet? Let’s relax, but that is not a promising list. Taylor is the best of the bunch and that is a fluke entry. He was the main quarterback in the 2015 opener for Buffalo, but Matt Cassel technically got the quarterback start since they lined up weird on the first play before Taylor took over and threw all 19 of the team’s passes without taking a sack against the Colts.

Chargers at Washington: The Third Down Game

As Justin Herbert tries not to live his best Philip Rivers life, the main thing the Chargers needed to do in Brandon Staley’s head coaching debut was avoid blowing a fourth-quarter lead. Stop being the same old Chargers, especially to a Washington team that lost Ryan Fitzpatrick to a hip injury and went with Taylor Heinicke.

Despite dominating the game, the Chargers were terrible in the red zone and trailed 16-13 in the fourth quarter. But after taking advantage of an Antonio Gibson fumble following his interception, Herbert delivered a touchdown pass on third down to take a 20-16 lead. The defense held, though it was really a clipping penalty that did Washington in on the ensuing drive.

With 6:43 left, Herbert took over and converted four more third downs to run out the rest of the clock, a very impressive finish to the game. The Chargers were 14-of-19 on third down, and that includes a kneeldown in the red zone on the final snap of the game. The Chargers are only the ninth team since 1991 to convert at least 14 third downs in a game and the first to do it since the 2011 Ravens in Pittsburgh.

Vikings at Bengals: Please, No Tie

It was a pretty good Sunday for the second-year quarterbacks. Joe Burrow still took five sacks behind his offensive line, but he had efficient passing stats, and rookie wideout Ja’Marr Chase can silence the critics a bit after going for 101 yards and a touchdown in his debut.

But the Bengals nearly mismanaged this one away after letting the Vikings take it to overtime after trailing 24-14 in the fourth quarter. Kirk Cousins has never been reliable with comebacks, but he had the right effort here and a clutch 53-yard field goal by Greg Joseph put us in overtime. On a Sunday with some big fumbles, Dalvin Cook had one of the biggest in overtime after the Vikings moved the ball to the Cincinnati 38 at the two-minute warning.

At this point, I was convinced we were heading for a 24-24 tie. Six of the last 10 ties in the NFL have involved either the Bengals, the Vikings, or Cousins. Hell, Cousins had a tie with the 2016 Bengals when he was with Washington. Burrow played in the NFL’s only tie in 2020 against the Eagles. It just seemed like destiny again.

Fortunately, Burrow converted a fourth down with a 32-yard play that set up the game-winning field goal for one of Week 1’s nicer upset stories. Cousins was not the problem this time, but it was interesting to see Chase outproduce Justin Jefferson and specially to see Joe Mixon outrush Cook 127-61. The only turnover in the game was a killer.

Broncos at Giants: Ted the Spread

I didn’t see a ton of this game, but when I did, Teddy Bridgewater looked pretty damn good in his Denver debut. I saw KJ Hamler drop a deep ball and it’s unfortunate that Jerry Jeudy left injured. This team could be a darkhorse for the wild card now that Von Miller is back on defense and the quarterback play is better. Bridgewater throwing downfield and Vic Fangio let his offense go 3-for-3 on fourth down? Very interesting.

Obviously, you want to see this team do it against someone better than the Giants, who continue to be a major disappointment. Only a meaningless Daniel Jones touchdown run on the final play of the game got Jason Garrett’s offense out of single digits in a 27-13 loss. However, it was not enough to cover the 3-point spread as Bridgewater covered again.

I’ve never been a fan of “Teddy H20” as a nickname, but I might be able to warm up to Ted the Spread.

Bears at Rams: Stafford’s Night

Did we really need Bears-Rams in prime time for the fourth season in a row? I would still like to bring criminal conspiracy charges to the people responsible for putting so many Chicago games in prime time. This year was supposed to be different after the team drafted Justin Fields, and while we saw him score a touchdown on his first carry, we still had to watch Andy Dalton throw 38 passes.

Then again, the Bears still scored more touchdowns (two) than the Packers, Bills, and Falcons combined on Sunday. Dalton settled down after an atrocious first quarter, but you can just tell that the ceiling for this offense is somewhere below his ridiculous mustache. It’s so limited. With Fields, those David Montgomery runs that worked so well could be even more plentiful, not to mention the extra mobility, arm strength, and play-making ability that Fields brings.

But enough about the silly Matt Nagy decision to start Dalton. This was about Matthew Stafford’s first game with the Rams after a dozen years in Detroit. He did not disappoint with 321 yards and three touchdowns, producing a career-high 156.1 passer rating. Yes, he never broke a 150 rating in 168 games with Detroit, but he did it in one game with Sean McVay’s offense. Very interesting. Stafford connected on two 50-yard touchdown passes, something that apparently John Stofa (1968 Bengals) was the last quarterback to do in his debut with a new team.

We could get into some amusing things like the fact that the Rams led 20-7 in the third quarter with Stafford having incredible stats and the play-action game working despite the running backs having 5 carries for 6 yards. Through three quarters, Darrell Henderson had 7 carries for 12 yards before finishing with 70 yards. How does that fit into the “he doesn’t have a running game!” discussion?

But I think it’s best to let this one glaze over, see how he does in his first road game in Indy, then get amped up for that huge showdown with Tampa Bay in Week 3. A game against the Bears is not going to convince me of much. Not when I thought I was already watching a Lions-Bears game that someone stuck in prime time to end the first Sunday of this 2021 season.

Stay tuned; things are bound to get stranger.

NFL 2020: Close Game Summary

While 2020 may have felt like a year for comebacks in the NFL, let’s examine the data. There were 143 games (55.9%) that saw at least one team have a fourth-quarter comeback or game-winning drive opportunity, which is a possession by the team tied or down 1-to-8 points. That is in line with recent years: 142 in 2019, 147 in 2018, and 139 in 2017.

So, the crowd-less, COVID season did not produce any shift in the closeness of games. There were just 43 double-digit comeback wins from deficits at any time in the game, which is an increase of nine or 10 games over 2019 (33) and 2018 (34).

The 2020 season featured 58 fourth-quarter comeback (4QC) wins and 76 game-winning drives (GWD). That is remarkably close to the numbers last regular season with 56 4QC and 77 GWD. This is the third time in the last four seasons that 4QC numbers fell under 60 for the season after ranging from 68 to 73 every year from 2011 to 2016. We also can thank the NFC East for oddities, such as the season’s lone tie when the Eagles came back late on the Bengals, and the only non-offensive game-winning score of 2020 was a fumble return touchdown by the Giants against Washington.  

Success rate for 4QC attempts was 30.0%, or just about average. GWD success rate was in the usual ballpark of 35.0% (2019 was 35.9%).

The following table shows a summary of each team’s success in close games this season. First, the offense’s record in games with a 4QC opportunity is shown. Next is the overall 4QC/GWD record, which also includes the games where the score was tied in the fourth quarter or overtime. For the defense, holds are games where the defense was successful in defending a one-score lead in the fourth quarter or overtime.

The number of games lost in which the team had a fourth-quarter lead is also shown. The last section shows the team’s overall record in close games, which are defined as games involving a 4QC/GWD opportunity on either side of the ball. Playoff teams are highlighted in gray. The table is in descending order of close game win percentage.

This information can be very useful for previewing the playoffs (which teams haven’t blown a lead and which struggle to hold them) or thinking about regression in 2021 for teams that won or lost a lot of close games.

More than usual, the playoff teams had the best records in close games with 11 of the top 12 teams qualifying for the playoffs. The only outlier happens to be Detroit, which was 4-2 in close games but 1-9 in non-close games. That is because of all the ass-kickings this team took this season, including Thanksgiving against Houston, losing 20-0 to P.J. Walker and the Panthers, and that demolition performed by Tampa Bay on a Saturday afternoon.

Washington (5-5) and the Rams (4-4) were only .500 in close games, but that is not uncommon for the coaching careers of Ron Rivera and Sean McVay. The most interesting playoff team here is Baltimore. For the second year in a row, the Ravens played in a league-low five close games. Last year, they were so dominant that they were 5-0 in close games. This year, the Ravens again finished with the best scoring differential (+165) in the NFL and led the league with nine wins of 14+ points. However, they were only 2-3 in close games, including a blown lead and overtime loss to the Titans in Week 11. Now the Ravens will have to avenge some past losses if they are to get back to the Super Bowl.

The Chiefs, Saints, and Titans are the only teams to not blow a late lead this year, though none of those defenses were tested more than four times in close games. The Titans were also bailed out heavily by their offense, including yesterday in Houston. Ryan Tannehill led the most 4QC (five) and GWD (six) in the league this season. Only Buffalo (6-1) tied the Titans for the best record in close games this season. No one really comes close to the 6-1 record the Titans had at GWD opportunities, and the only loss was against Pittsburgh after Stephen Gostkowski missed a field goal to force overtime.

The Seahawks may have blown a double-digit lead in Arizona in prime time this year, but otherwise, Seattle led the league with nine holds of a one-score lead, or two more than any team in 2020. The Seahawks were 9-2 in close games a year after finishing 7-2. It wasn’t as obvious this year since it wasn’t always Russell Wilson leading comebacks like he did on Sunday against the 49ers. But it’s those drives late in games to put away the Patriots, Cowboys, Cardinals, Washington, etc. that added up for Seattle’s 12-4 season. Now if only they can get the offense going like it was early in the season to match with the way the defense has played down the stretch. Then Seattle would have a fair shot of getting to the Super Bowl.

A year ago, the Packers were living off close game success, going 10-1 with eight holds and no blown leads. They added another hold in the playoffs against Seattle before getting blown out by the 49ers in the NFC Championship Game. This year the Packers are again 13-3, but it has come much differently with many more points scored. The Packers are still 5-2 at close games with five holds and one blown lead against the Colts.

The Eagles (15) and Chargers (14) played more close games than anyone. After winning some late in the season, the Chargers actually finished 6-8 in them while the Eagles limped to a 4-10-1 finish. The 10 failed 4QC/GWD (plus a tie) by the Eagles were the most in the league.

The 1995 expansion teams, Jaguars (1-7) and Panthers (2-9), had the worst records in close games this season. Jacksonville came back to beat the Colts in Week 1 and lost out the rest of the season, or what I’d call a “Weinke” as a nod to Chris Weinke and the 2001 Panthers, who also finished 1-15 with a 15-game losing streak.

The Panthers headlined five teams with a winless record at GWD opportunities. Carolina was 0-9 in a brutal year in crunch time for Teddy Bridgewater and Matt Rhule. The Falcons (0-7) did not have a single 4QC/GWD for the first time ever in the Matt Ryan era.

A year ago, I said that Houston could be a team to watch for with regression after 11 4QC/GWD in 2018-19. The Texans were 0-7 in their opportunities this year. The Jets (0-6) and Giants (0-5), with terrible offenses, were not surprisingly winless in these situations too.

It was a close battle, but the right team won in the end. The Atlanta Falcons led the league with five blown leads in the fourth quarter, beating out the Chargers and Texans with four each. All three teams fired their head coach this season. Atlanta (4-12) finishing dead last in the NFC despite only a -18 scoring differential is a shocker, but that’s what happens when you blow such winnable games in incredible fashion like the Falcons did this year.

In fact, the 2020 Falcons are hands down the best team to finish last in a conference in the 32-team era. I would advise owner Arthur Blank not to hang a banner for this achievement, but it is the closest thing the Falcons have to a trophy from this miserable, no good, rotten season.