NFL Stat Oddity: Super Bowl LVI

I certainly did not come into the 2021 NFL season expecting a Super Bowl between the Bengals and Rams. I had a Buccaneers-Chiefs rematch with the same outcome in the hopes that my uncanny ability to pick a Super Bowl team, but the wrong Super Bowl outcome would strike again. Either the Chiefs would win, or the Buccaneers would lose.

But the Bengals and Rams knocked those teams out on their way to this matchup, the first in Super Bowl history between No. 4 seeds. I still was able to live up to my half-right, ultimately-wrong Super Bowl outcome history by predicting the exact final score (23-20), but for the wrong winner. Got the spread right at least (Bengals +4), which concludes my most accurate season of predictions yet.

Super Bowl LVI will not go down as an all-time great Super Bowl, but it was a close, competitive game all the way through, and you can’t really argue with a game where so many of the best players on paper were the best players on the field. The Rams won largely on the strengths of their team (passing offense, pass rush) and the Bengals lost largely on their weaknesses (bad offensive line and red zone mediocrity). In other words, this game actually was decided by logical outcomes that can be easily explained, so that alone makes it a pretty fvcking good Super Bowl.

The officiating was a wash. There was a nice game-winning touchdown drive. The two best players in the game put the Rams over the top in the final 90 seconds to get this win. There were some interesting strategy decisions to question. The halftime show was good. Larry David had a pretty, pretty good commercial to make up for all the garbage we saw. Another championship was won in spite of the running game.

All in all, it was a good experience, and I want to share some final thoughts on the game and this 2021 season before finally pushing the start button on this offseason.

This season in Stat Oddity:

Sacks vs. Interceptions: 7-2 Wins for the Rams

If you read some of my Super Bowl previews, you know I was touting this as a matchup of sacks (Joe Burrow) vs. interceptions (Matthew Stafford), and the defense that would get the most splash plays should lead their team to a low-scoring win. I also said Cooper Kupp was inevitable and the best value bet for MVP, but I blew my parlay on that one because of one Nikola Jokic assist on Saturday. Bummer.

But the low scoring, defensive slugfest proved to be accurate. The Rams sacked Burrow seven times with six of those coming in bunches in the second half alone. Stafford was intercepted twice while the Bengals had no official turnovers, putting the Rams on a short list of just three teams that won the Super Bowl with a turnover differential of minus-2 or worse. The 1970 Colts (-3) beat the Cowboys and the 1979 Steelers (-2) beat the Rams.

Teams are now 30-3 in the Super Bowl when they are +2 or better in turnovers. But it makes perfect sense why the Rams were able to overcome this margin.

For starters, the Rams mitigated the impact of Stafford’s two picks. He did not have the big pick-six that he did four times in the regular season to hurt his team. He threw up a shot to the end zone on a third-and-14 at the Cincinnati 43 late in the second quarter. Could he have tried something safer to set up a field goal? Perhaps. Matt Gay is not exactly Justin Tucker when it comes to kickers. But I don’t hate him trying that shot with a 13-10 lead. It was one of the few times the Bengals tried their three-man rush they had success in Kansas City with, but it was feast or famine this time as Stafford had a couple touchdowns against it before the pick.

The Bengals also botched the moment with a taunting penalty after Vernon Hargreaves, a mega bust in this league, solidified his bust legacy by coming off the bench in street clothes to celebrate.

Instead of starting at the 20, the Bengals were at their own 10 and ended up punting after Leonard Floyd finally got to Burrow for the first sack of the night on a third down. The vaunted pass rush for the Rams was not doing anything worthwhile against this Cincinnati offensive line prior to that series.

When Stafford started the third quarter with an interception on a tipped ball, that’s when the game could have really fell apart for the Rams. They just allowed a 75-yard touchdown and the Bengals were leading 17-13. Stafford was a little off on the throw, but Ben Skowronek is the receiver who tipped it to turn it into an interception and give the Bengals the ball at the Los Angeles 31.

If the Rams allow a touchdown there and fall behind 24-13, this could go much differently. But again, this is when Aaron Donald and the pass rush came to life and saved the day. Donald pushed Burrow out of bounds on a scramble that went down as a sack. That seemed to fire him up and he finished the drive with a monster sack on third-and-3 at the LA 11. The Bengals had to settle for a 38-yard field goal and 20-13 lead.

Cincinnati never scored again and never got deeper than the Los Angeles 49 on the final five drives.

That Donald sack was massive to keep it a one-score game, and the Rams continued to take Burrow down from there with five more sacks. The Bengals tried to join the 2001 Jaguars and 2018 Texans as the only teams in NFL history to win multiple games when allowing seven sacks, and these would be two playoff games for the Bengals. But it was not to be this time.

While the Rams did not register an official takeaway, that ignores the way the Bengals started and ended this game with a failed pass play on fourth-and-1 at midfield. That basically evens up the turnover count at two a piece, and when you consider the plus-five advantage the Rams had in sacks, it makes sense why they ultimately won the game.

In both cases, the Bengals inexplicably tried to run backup running back Samaje Perine at Aaron Donald on third-and-1. I get why Perine was in there for the final drive as a receiving back, but is he really that much better at it than Joe Mixon? But if you’re going to run on third-and-1 early in the game, why not use Mixon? Why not go away from where Donald is? Both times it put the Bengals in a bind on fourth-and-1. The first time, Burrow did not see a wide open Tee Higgins, and his throw was deflected away and never had a chance. Just a bad play. On the last drive, the Bengals needed a quick hitter, but it was Donald coming dead-to-rights for that eighth sack, only to see Burrow still get the ball away. But the pass fell harmlessly incomplete with 39 seconds left, and the Rams were champions.

In the end, it was not a sack that ended the Bengals’ season, but it might as well have been with the way Donald got to Burrow on that play. But some better run choices or pass designs on third-and-1 could have helped the Bengals avoid those two fourth downs, which were really just two turnovers, stat sheet be damned.

Throwing two picks likely cost Stafford the glory of a Super Bowl MVP award, but they were done in a way that did not cost his team a championship. But it also helps that for the third playoff game in a row, he delivered the signature game-winning drive of his career.

Stafford and the Career Moment of a Signature Game-Winning Drive

The Rams are the first team in NFL history to win three straight playoff games by three points. If they didn’t, then the Bengals very well may have earned that distinction in overtime. That’s just how these teams were this postseason. All three Los Angeles wins required a game-winning drive with the winning points scored after the two-minute warning, but this was the first time it was a touchdown for Stafford and the Rams.

This feat is going to put the 2021 Rams in the conversation of the “luckiest” Super Bowl winners of all time, but I am not convinced they would rank that high on the list. What were their breaking points during this playoff run? They didn’t have a Red-Right 88 or Tuck Rule or Nick Harper getting tackled by Ben Roethlisberger or Rahim Moore-Jacoby Jones or Scott Norwood miss or Malcolm Butler interception at the 1 moment along the way.

Hell, the Rams aren’t luckier than the 2016 Patriots, who needed every break imaginable to come back from 28-3 against Atlanta. For that matter, these Rams almost repeated that failure with a blown 27-3 lead in Tampa Bay, but hopefully they have ended Tom Brady for good in the NFL. Stafford and Kupp beating Todd Bowles’ Cover-0 call on a great throw and catch was about talent beating stubbornness more than just random luck.

Speaking of luck, this whole postseason may have changed on the 49ers blocking a punt for a touchdown in Green Bay in the divisional round. Yes, the Green Bay special teams were historically awful, but that’s still a pretty fluky touchdown to score, no less a game-winning one. Without that, the Packers likely host these Rams, and that matchup has not been kind to McVay’s Rams, nor has Lambeau been good for Stafford’s career. Instead, the Rams got another crack at Jimmy Garoppolo and a 10-7 team that was the last to sneak into the NFC tournament on the strength of an overtime win in Los Angeles.

The 2021 Rams are the only Super Bowl winner to play teams with fewer than 11 wins in both the conference championship game and Super Bowl (minimum 16-game season).

Against the 49ers, Stafford did have an interception dropped in the fourth quarter while trailing 17-14 on what turned into a game-tying field goal. It wouldn’t have been the end of the season, but it could have been important. That was one of the scariest moments for the Rams this postseason, but they overcame every gut punch to win three straight nail-biters.

This Super Bowl was definitely a grind with Stafford receiving no help from the ground game. The Rams liked to run on first down, but it was not effective on any down. The three backs combined for 19 carries for 30 yards. Throw in a major knee injury to Odell Beckham Jr. in the second quarter after he looked poised for a huge game (52 yards and a touchdown), and Stafford must have felt like he was back in Detroit. Shaky line, no running game, one great receiver, and trying to win with randoms like Skowronek and tight end Brycen Hopkins, who I never even heard of before Sunday night. Hopkins had to play with Tyler Higbee inactive, so Stafford was down Beckham and Higbee for most of the game.

When Skowronek tipped that ball for an interception, it would have been easy for Stafford to start panicking and forcing things. But one of the sneakiest big plays of the game came on a third-and-8 following the pick and Cincinnati field goal that made it 20-13. The Rams were about to go three-and-out, but Stafford threw a great pass downfield to running back Darrell Henderson, which was something the Rams tried a few times in the game with their backs. He caught it for 15 yards, and the drive continued for a field goal. That could have been another game-changing moment if the Rams went three-and-out and put the Bengals in good field position.

But speaking of field position, you know this game was a defensive battle when these teams had six drives that started at their own 40 or better and only got one touchdown out of those drives. Four ended in no points.

One thing the Rams kept going to in this game was a quick snap in the hurry-up offense. It did not work well. In fact, Stafford rushed the first interception when he could have took it down to the two-minute warning and had a better play ready. It reminded me of the 2006 Colts trying to quick snap the Ravens in the divisional round. Peyton Manning said he saw Brady and the Patriots do this to the Jets the week before, and he wanted to try it. It did not work well either, but the Ravens lost that game because they scored six points.

The Rams looked lost on offense after the Beckham injury, which was tough to see after how well he’s been playing to get to this point. Stafford started losing his patience and throwing deep balls without success. Kupp was being covered better than usual. The Bengals really seemed to be in control, but the Cincinnati offense never added on to the lead.

If you give Stafford six chances at a clutch touchdown drive, he’s going to deliver at least once. When the Rams had to settle for a third-quarter field goal, that was because their little trick play, akin to the Philly Special, with Kupp throwing a pass to Stafford failed on a third-and-5. Even if the throw was good, it was setting Stafford up for a big hit at the sticks. Just a bad call that tried to match Cincinnati’s trick play earlier where Joe Mixon threw an impressive touchdown to Higgins.

Fortunately for Stafford, with 6:13 left, McVay finally put the game in his hands. Enough with the runs that kept stalling drives. The Rams were either going to win or lose on the quarterback they brought in and the few healthy receivers he had left. Fortunately, Kupp was still one of those healthy guys and he took the drive over to clinch his MVP award.

The whole thing could have gone south after four plays with the Rams facing a fourth-and-1 at their own 30. McVay went for it, and I was really concerned about a Stafford sneak because he’s looked terrible doing it this postseason. The line wasn’t getting any push either. But it was a good call to give the ball to Kupp in motion, who weaved his way for 7 yards. The Rams did not have a run longer than 8 yards on the night, but none were bigger than that play.

While I never heard of Hopkins before the night, he looked good, catching all four of his targets for 47 yards. He had two grabs for 15 yards on the game-winning drive, including the first 9 yards and a key third down conversion along the way. But Kupp took over with 46 yards on the drive.

One of the biggest plays of the game was a target to Kupp that was not complete. After the two-minute warning, the Rams were 8 yards away from the end zone, but it was already third down. Stafford threw incomplete for Kupp, which would have set up a big fourth-and-goal at the 8, but a flag was thrown for defensive holding. It felt like a make-up call to me for the offensive pass interference the referees didn’t call on Higgins’ 75-yard touchdown in the third quarter. If Skowronek or Hopkins is the target of this pass, I doubt it gets called. But with Kupp? I think it was a mixture of superstar treatment and a make-up call to give the Rams a first down. But again, the Bengals got a touchdown earlier they shouldn’t have had too, so I think the officiating, which was overall fine, was a wash in the end.

Kupp had a great catch for a touchdown negated by off-setting penalties. Eli Apple was called for DPI on a more obvious call that put the ball at the 1. You can certainly make an argument for letting them score to conserve time, even if it was a 20-16 game. A four-play stand at the 1 is tough. Stafford’s sneak failed, though that felt like it was on purpose to burn a Cincinnati timeout. Stafford threw for Kupp against Apple, and you know what happened there.

That was a 15-play, 79-yard drive. It is the 16th game-winning touchdown in the fourth quarter or overtime of a Super Bowl. I think an argument could be made for this ranking in the top five for game-winning Super Bowl drives, but still behind Eli Manning’s 2007 march against the 18-0 Patriots, Ben Roethlisberger to Santonio Holmes against Arizona, and Joe Montana against the 1988 Bengals. Maybe the other Eli drive (Mario Manningham catch) gets in there even though the touchdown was weak with Ahmad Bradshaw haphazardly breaking the plane. Maybe Nick Foles’ drive against the 2017 Patriots was better, though I don’t really remember anything outside of the Zach Ertz touchdown. This is somewhere around the top five for a Super Bowl.

Certainly, the biggest drive of Stafford’s career, which is crazy since I wrote the same thing about his game-winning drive in Tampa Bay, then again with the comeback over the 49ers, and now for sure the definitive 4QC/GWD of his career in the Super Bowl. What a three-week run.

With the win, Stafford now has 35 fourth-quarter comeback wins, which moves him into sixth all time with only select company ahead of him.

Suddenly, the quarterback who was 8-68 against teams with a winning record coming into 2021 almost doubled that total with seven such wins this season.

I still do not believe Stafford is a lock for the Hall of Fame, but his chances just shot up considerably. He likely has a better chance now than Matt Ryan and Philip Rivers. He is 5 yards away from 50,000, is one of six quarterbacks with multiple 40-touchdown pass seasons, has the high number of 4QC/GWD, and he’s always been a prolific volume passer. He’s just rarely ever been that efficient or considered a top 10 quarterback in his career. But if this Super Bowl run sparks an excellent finish for him in Los Angeles with another deep playoff run (or more), then I think he’ll be a lock soon as he passes 60,000 yards and 400 touchdown passes.

Defense did a lot of the heavy lifting for Stafford this postseason, but he also had to carry the offense without much help at all from the running game. I always blew off that criticism about a lack of 100-yard rushers in Detroit. As if it would matter if his backs combined for 90 or 110 yards in any given game. He needed more help from his defense, especially against good teams, and that was something he got this year.

Can he do it in more than one year to show that this isn’t the one-off special where everything just fell into place for the Rams? We’ll see but hats off to Stafford for reshaping his narrative this season in a way few quarterbacks ever have. In his 13th season, Stafford joins John Elway (15th) as the only quarterbacks to win their first Super Bowl more than a dozen years into their career.

Cooper Kupp: Best Wide Receiver Season Ever?

Had Stafford threw his game-winning touchdown to someone like Hopkins, perhaps the quarterback would have been named Super Bowl MVP. But Kupp catching it to cap off his night with 99 scrimmage yards and two touchdowns solidified his MVP award.

Now the question is was it the best wide receiver season in NFL history?

When you include the postseason, Kupp absolutely has an argument. No receiver has ever had a season this prolific end with a championship.

By playing 21 games, he has an unfair advantage in compiling totals, but he still caught 22 more passes than anyone (178 total), and he shattered 2008 Larry Fitzgerald’s yardage record by 448 yards in only one extra game. Kupp (2,425 yards) has the only 2,000-yard receiving season in NFL history when you include the playoffs, and his 22 touchdown catches are tied with two Jerry Rice seasons (13 games in 1987 and 19 games in 1989) for the second most in history. Randy Moss had 24 touchdown catches in 19 games in 2007, but those two touchdowns aren’t worth more than the near 900-yard difference between the two. Moss had just two catches for 32 yards in the first two playoff games that year before catching a touchdown in the Super Bowl after Corey Webster fell.

Kupp also got a rare MVP vote for a wide receiver in the regular season and became the fourth player since the merger to win the receiving triple crown. Kupp caught at least five passes for 60 yards in all 21 games this season; the second-longest streak in NFL history. He had at least 90 yards in 19 of 21 games, another new standard established. Only 2008 Fitzgerald (seven) had more touchdown catches in a postseason than Kupp’s six this year.

When you add a game-winning touchdown catch and Super Bowl MVP to this remarkable, historic production and consistency, I think you can conclude that Kupp just had the best receiving season in NFL history.

Fvck that 1951 Elroy Hirsch noise. My guy wasn’t stat padding on a Friday afternoon against the New York Yanks.

Joe Burrow: Not the LOAT

Pregame tweet:

Admit it. For a brief moment in the second and third quarters, you saw a glimmer of Joe Burrow becoming the new LOAT (Luckiest of All Time) in the first game after Tom Brady retired.

But then the avalanche of sacks came, Burrow actually had to score more than 13 points of offense to beat the Rams in the Super Bowl, and he couldn’t even get into field goal range on the final drive to force overtime. That’s not very Brady-like.

You’re probably never going to be the LOAT, Joe.

But there was a Brady-esque script for Burrow to follow in this one. He didn’t start the game well, just like Brady in every first quarter in every New England Super Bowl. Then Ja’Marr Chase beat Jalen Ramsey with a 46-yard gain on a one-handed catch. Joe Mixon helped fix the Bengals’ red zone mediocrity by throwing a nice touchdown to Higgins. Beckham injured his knee on a fluky no-contact play, and that seemed to destroy Stafford’s confidence. Burrow willed his defense to two picks, including a tipped ball, and just like that he was at the Los Angeles 31 with a 17-13 lead, which only came after Higgins got away with a facemask on Ramsey for a 75-yard touchdown that shouldn’t have counted. It was the longest catch Ramsey’s allowed in his career and Burrow had little to do with it happening.

THIS WAS BRADY BULLSHIT ALL OVER AGAIN.

Twenty years later and lazy Hollywood was giving us a god damn repeat. But Aaron Donald took things into his own hands and sacked Burrow on that third down to bring up a field goal and keep the game at 20-13.

From there, Burrow couldn’t do a thing with five sacks to come. Tyler Boyd let him down with a bad drop on third down at midfield prior to the Rams’ game-winning drive.

But Burrow had his Montana/Brady moment aligned for him. He got the ball back with 1:25 and two timeouts, only needing a field goal for overtime. That’s plenty of time to get a touchdown even. Brady had 1:21 left against the 2001 Rams in a tied game. But with a 2-9 record in 4QC opportunities, these are not the moments where we’ve seen Burrow shine so far in his career. Sacks and interceptions in fact feel more likely than touchdowns.

He got the drive off to a good start with two completions for 26 yards, but a deep ball on second-and-1 was questionable. Another Perine run on third down was ridiculous, stopped by Donald and company for no gain and costing the Bengals a timeout. With fourth-and-1 at the Los Angeles 49, the Bengals decided to throw much like the opening drive of the game where Burrow was off target. This time he was lucky to even get rid of the ball without Donald taking him out for a game-ending sack.

Burrow finished with a 39.7 QBR as seven sacks will kill you in that stat. Burrow only showed off his scrambling ability, which QBR loves, once in the game. A lot of times, he had no lane to take off.

I think Burrow’s Super Bowl performance will go down as one of the toughest games to analyze for a quarterback. For someone who dropped back over 40 times, it just never felt like he was an integral part of the game, for better or worse.

His two huge completions against Ramsey for 121 yards were basically all about what the receiver did on those plays. While the line held up early, the seven sacks show how outmatched they were against that front as Burrow had little time to throw. The Boyd drop was awful by Boyd. The Mixon TD pass was awesome by Mixon. Burrow was kind of just “being there” while the game unfolded around him all night. There’s very little that I would credit him for, positive or negative, in this game.

That’s why he better hopes he gets back to another of these, or his legacy is going to be difficult to say the least. I do not think this performance will age well. Youth is on the side of Burrow and this offense, and the offensive line will almost surely be upgraded in the offseason. But we have to stop doing that thing where we pencil in someone for future Super Bowl performances.

Only one LOAT existed in this era. Youth didn’t bring Dan Marino back to the Super Bowl after losing in his second season. Russell Wilson hasn’t been back after his third season. The last 11 seasons for Ben Roethlisberger in Pittsburgh (2011-21), Drew Brees in New Orleans (2010-20), and Aaron Rodgers in Green Bay (2011-21) have produced zero Super Bowl appearances.

Every opportunity is precious and must be seized, because you never know if there will be another one.

Burrow will not be joining Brady as the only quarterbacks in NFL history to win four straight playoff games by fewer than eight points. Believe it or not, Stafford has a chance to do that the next time he starts a playoff game.

But even that future is uncertain.

Conclusion: Can the Rams Repeat?

I’ll make my first 2022 NFL prediction: I won’t be predicting a Rams-Bengals rematch in the Super Bowl.

Bold, I know. But the Bengals have that tough AFC to deal with, and frankly I don’t see anything Burrow did this year that Justin Herbert couldn’t do with the Chargers if they spend a little to upgrade the defense. Not to mention the Chiefs and Josh Allen in Buffalo, who people will be dying to see in a playoff rematch after that classic this year.

The Rams should have an easier shot of repeating in the NFC, but that’s all down the road to talk about. We have to see where Aaron Rodgers, Russell Wilson, and maybe Kyler Murray end up, and if Brady is really retired or not.

But I will say this felt like the culmination of a tough five-year journey for McVay and the Rams. They went all in and it paid off with a championship at the end. It’s not ending quite like the 2011-15 Broncos when Peyton Manning retired, but the Rams may not be at the top of their powers in 2022 like the Packers were in 1997 coming off their win. Imagine if Reggie White retired after that 1996 win.

While McVay said he’s not retiring, what if Donald does? That would be a huge loss for the defense as he’s clearly the best in the game and had an argument for Super Bowl MVP, about the only award he hasn’t won in his career. Andrew Whitworth should retire at left tackle, and obviously the line needs some work. That might be a serious knee injury for Beckham, and Robert Woods is coming off his own torn ACL. Stafford to Kupp will continue to be awesome, but that connection alone doesn’t win a ring.

But these Rams did prove that if you’re a winning team that keeps coming up short, you can get aggressive and add those final missing pieces with proven players instead of relying on the draft picks to be gold. This team was not built like Washington’s Dan Snyder throwing money at over-the-hill players. The Rams made some smart moves to help improve a team that had a winning record the last four years. I have a hard time finding fault with their strategy, especially when their two biggest studs, Donald and Kupp, carried the team late in the game to a win. Those were homegrown talents, and they finally had the help around them to pull this off.

People could have dismissed Tampa Bay winning last year as Brady being Brady. But when Stafford can leave Detroit after 12 years and instantly win a Super Bowl, nearly doubling his career wins against winning teams in one season? That’s a potential game changer in this league if you ask me. We’ll see if other teams follow suit.

To end on a personal note, I hope to accomplish some things this offseason that I did not do or do as well as I wanted to last year. I want to take a serious look at starting a Patreon (or something similar) where I can share stats/databases, write articles, and hopefully get into video work as I have many ideas there. Just need to get comfortable with editing and narrating. I want to add even more columns to my master game database, which is already around 290 columns. I want to study player prop bets deeper and get better at those. I want to get my diet back on track with more exercise after slacking off too much the last seven months. I am going to continue doing NBA picks for Bookmakers Review through the end of the season.

While I’ll be begging for some real football in the summer, these last few years have shown me just how much I love the offseason and being able to take a break from the game. The season is a grind, and at 285 games, this was the longest season ever. I’m still not thrilled with the 17th game and the seventh seeds in the playoffs, but they’re never going to shrink from that. It can only expand from here and we just have to get used to fans hyping up their shitty quarterback because he threw for 4,000 yards in a 9-8 season that got him a playoff berth.

Am I going to lose some interest and material if Roethlisberger and Brady are retired for good? Yeah, it’s tough seeing the players who you got to see from the beginning of their careers hang them up. I think we were blessed to have the quarterback stability we saw in the 2000s and 2010s. If Ryan Fitzpatrick doesn’t return for 2022, then there’s not a quarterback in the league who started a game before the 2008 season. I was doing my final semester of college then. Predicting a Justin Herbert or Lamar Jackson season just isn’t as easy as Philip Rivers and Joe Flacco were for me. We have a lot to still learn about the new blood in this league, and if Donald really does retire for the Rams, could that set off a trend towards much shorter careers as players are making more money and are concerned about CTE and wanting to be able to walk without pain in their thirties?

All I know for sure is that the offseason is so much sweeter when you do not despise the team who just won the Super Bowl.

So, congrats to the Rams, McVay, Stafford, Donald, Kupp, Beckham, Von, and happy retirement for Whitworth and Eric Weddle. You redeemed yourselves from 13-3 in LIII and from 8-68 against winning teams. You saved us from having to see Brady and Tampa Bay in another Super Bowl. And maybe, just maybe, you spared us from white sportswriters pontificating that Burrow is Tom Brady for the Kid Cudi generation.

Until next time.

NFL Super Bowl LVI Preview: Rams vs. Bengals

Coming into Game No. 285 of the longest season in NFL history, I am tired. The conference championship outcomes and multiple Tom Brady retirement announcements feel like eons ago. The groundhog has seen its shadow, it’s almost Valentine’s Day, and I’ve spent the week losing at least nine NBA parlays on one leg (usually one stat). I’m streaming an episode of Doom Patrol on my phone and have Pulp Fiction on TV in the other room for the millionth time as I try to compile this, relax, and start the countdown to kickoff on Sunday evening.

Cause despite it being mid-February, there is still one more NFL game to be played. I have already written 10,000 words on this game at Bookmakers Review, which I will link and recap below. But first, allow me to vent about the potential this game could have on the future of the league.

Super Bowl LVI: The End of One Era Begins Anew?

It is unusual for me to not have such a vested interest in a Super Bowl. There’s no obvious villain for me to root against (Tom Brady, Ray Lewis, John Elway, Jerry Jones). While I would love to see Aaron Donald (Pitt) and Cooper Kupp (incredible season) get a Super Bowl ring, there’s no significant rooting interest like I’ve had with the Steelers, Peyton Manning, and Patrick Mahomes.

Eighteen of the last 20 Super Bowls gave me a chance to root for Steelers/Manning/Mahomes or root against Brady and the Patriots. Let that sink in. With 2002 Raiders-Buccaneers, I hated both teams. Ditto for the 2000 Giants-Ravens bore that put me to sleep. You’d probably have to go back to 1991 Bills-Redskins to find the last time I was this disinterested in who wins the Super Bowl, and I wasn’t even watching the NFL at the time. I was coming home every day and watching Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles II: The Secret of the Ooze. Cowabunga.

Of course, I say all this with a February 2022 mindset. For all we know, this could be a major butterfly effect game in NFL history. One that either kicks off a new dynasty in Cincinnati with Joe Burrow taking his crack at being the new LOAT, or a Los Angeles win could be the impetus for contending teams to start ditching draft picks and long-term success plans for the thrill of going all in by acquiring big-name free agents to “buy” a championship.

Just like the 2007-08 Boston Celtics weren’t the first super team in NBA history, the 2021 Rams aren’t the first attempt at a super team in the NFL. Hell, this is basically 2020 Tampa Bay on repeat, even including the part where they get to play the Super Bowl in their home stadium. Unlike these Rams, the Buccaneers had plenty of high draft picks they drafted, but it is true that all three players to score a touchdown in Super Bowl LV were brought in last year to help the key acquisition of Tom Brady (Rob Gronkowski, Antonio Brown, and Leonard Fournette). These Rams do however have some drafted studs in Aaron Donald and Cooper Kupp. But their attempt at going all in was based on bringing in Matthew Stafford, Von Miller, and Odell Beckham Jr. The Beckham trade even happened a day before wide receiver Robert Woods tore his ACL in practice. Donald and Kupp withstanding, the Rams largely outsourced their roster. The Bengals are mostly home grown on offense and spent peanuts to revamp their defense, which is playing over its head right now to get to this point.

If you’re a team-building purist, you’re definitely going to favor the Bengals’ traditional approach to the Rams taking a team that’s been winning for four years, but needed a few upgrades to get over the hump and win it all. Maybe setting a path to go seven years without drafting a player with a first-round pick is never going to be the standard plan of the future, but if the Rams pull this off, don’t be surprised if quarterbacks like Aaron Rodgers and Russell Wilson start to leverage their talent and force their way onto the next super team. If the 49ers didn’t spend so many resources to get Trey Lance, I would say Rodgers to San Francisco in 2022 was a mortal lock.

Those 2008 Celtics had a profound impact on the NBA, showing LeBron James that he needed to leave Cleveland and form his own super team in Miami if he wanted to win a ring. He did, and then he left for Cleveland to do the same thing with new players. But after coming back from a 3-1 deficit against the Warriors, LeBron saw that two can play this game. Kevin Durant took his talents to Golden State, and this would have been an even stronger dynasty if not for injuries. Now everyone wants a “big three” in the NBA, and superstar team-ups are as common as ever.

But you can’t buy health. After a record number of All-Star players were injured in last season’s NBA playoffs, we got an unexpected Finals between the Suns and Bucks. In a way, this Rams-Bengals matchup feels a little similar to that in that it was so unexpected. With both teams finishing fourth in their conference, this is the first Super Bowl matchup ever without a top-three seed.

It may be the last we see too if the era of super teams is upon us. It also may be the end of an era where quarterbacks stay many years in one place, especially after seeing zero Super Bowl appearances in the last 11 seasons for Drew Brees in New Orleans (2010-20), Ben Roethlisberger in Pittsburgh (2011-21), and Aaron Rodgers in Green Bay (2011-21). When mainstream NFL media is still largely driven by telling quarterbacks their greatness is measured by their ring count, isn’t the next logical move for these quarterbacks to start leaving their teams for places that give them better opportunities to win championships?

While you’d love to pencil in Josh Allen as Buffalo’s quarterback for the next 10 years, what if things go sour with the loss of Brian Daboll? What if the next few Buffalo postseasons are also defined by games where the defense was destroyed or the Buffalo weather was so windy (a la the Patriots game on MNF) that Allen couldn’t get the job done? When Allen is still searching for that first Super Bowl appearance in his seventh or eighth season, wouldn’t a trade to a team with a few studs and maybe a roof on the stadium be an attractive option for him?

Even Mahomes is no lock to be a Chief for life. Within five years, Mahomes will almost surely experience the retirements of Andy Reid and Travis Kelce, and Tyreek Hill should lose a step in his early 30s. If he is still stuck on one ring by that time, is a Kansas City rebuild the best thing for him?

If Matthew Stafford, Mr. 8-68 Against Winning Teams Before 2021, can leave the Lions and instantly win a Super Bowl, why can’t any other top 12 quarterback do the same? It almost makes you want to root for the Bengals just to show that hitting draft picks and giving a coaching staff time to develop can still work. Now not many teams are going to get top five draft picks to land Joe Burrow and Ja’Marr Chase, but the Bengals kept the same head coach — the one I said you couldn’t pick out of a lineup of Costco cashiers — and the same two coordinators from 2019-20 when the team was 6-25-1. They didn’t hire a new Bill Walsh or Bill Belichick by accident. They beat the Chiefs by going to a three-man rush. Not exactly revolutionizing the game.

On the other hand, these Bengals are already confident as hell. A win could only empower them to get even cockier, and the thought of Cincinnati replacing New England as the most annoying fanbase on the internet isn’t something I’m looking forward to even if they deserve a run for enduring decades of bad football.

So, like I said, I don’t have a strong preference for who should win this game, but the long-term effects it has on the league remain to be seen. They could be huge. Remember, a Joe Flacco Super Bowl run made it to where you have to pay at least $1 million per start for your quarterback even if he isn’t that great. It’s more like $2 million per start now.

Of course, after Super Bowl 47, Flacco won one more playoff game and Colin Kaepernick was blackballed out of the league before Sean McVay’s contact list became the most sought after item in the NFL coach hiring process.

This league moves in fast and sometimes mysterious ways, but either way, we are entering a new era in the NFL.

I have done five companion pieces on BMR to preview this game in great detail already. My general theme has been that the Rams are the more talented team, have been the better team all year, and they should win this game in their home stadium as the Bengals are statistically one of the weakest teams to ever reach a Super Bowl. While both teams boast a No. 1 pick at QB and a superstar wide receiver having a historic year, the defenses causing havoc with pressure and turnovers in the playoffs is the main reason these teams are here. Which defense makes the big splash plays to win this one? Is an upset possible? Hell yes, and it wouldn’t even be the biggest upset of the Rams in the Super Bowl this century.

Why Rams Can Beat Bengals – “If football games are won in the trenches and defense wins championships, then this game should largely be decided by how Cincinnati’s offensive line handles the pass rush of the Rams. The Bengals were 5-3 to start the season, 5-3 in the second half of the season, rested starters in Week 18, and have won three one-score games in the postseason that came down to the final snap. No team in NFL history has won four playoff games by fewer than eight points, and the Rams’ only loss since December was in overtime after blowing a 17-point lead.” I also look at Cooper Kupp’s historic season and how Stafford has had a better season than Burrow.

Why Bengals Can Beat Rams – “If Burrow really is the next chosen one, in the first game since Brady’s official retirement no less, then the Bengals are going to get a pick-six off Stafford, and McPherson is going to break a tie with a 48-yard field goal on the final play to beat the Rams just like Brady and the Patriots did 20 years ago to start a dynasty. After all, it’s the Year of the Tiger and everything is a sequel or reboot these days.” The headline after this game very well could be that “sacks hurt less than interceptions” if Burrow is taking sacks and Stafford is throwing crucial picks.

Rams Offense vs. Bengals Defense – “Again, all five teams to beat the Rams this year did three things: scored more than 24 points, held Stafford’s offense under 300 net passing yards, and forced multiple turnovers.” Both of these teams were 1-5 when allowing more than 24 points this season. The Bengals had the No. 1 scoring defense (17.6 PPG) in road games this year and intercepted 3.58% of passes on the road compared to 1.58% at home. Cooper Kupp is going to dominate, but this really is the wild card matchup in this game. If the Bengals can get picks, they should win, and you know Stafford is always going to leave some opportunities out there.

Bengals Offense vs. Rams Defense – “The wild card in this game is what Cincinnati’s opportunistic defense can do against Matthew Stafford and the talented Los Angeles offense. But the biggest mismatch on paper that could easily dictate the outcome is the inadequate Cincinnati offensive line against the Rams’ defensive front, led by future Hall of Famer Aaron Donald.” If the Bengals can hold up, they are arguably the most talented offense the Rams have faced this year. But Burrow has to get rid of the ball quickly or this could get ugly.

Super Bowl Game Pick and Prediction – Cincinnati is 6-1 ATS as a road underdog this season and 6-0 ATS in the last six games Burrow started. In this piece I ask the most pressing question: which defense creates the splash plays to win what should be a close, lower-scoring game? Sacks or interceptions? No quarterbacks had more of them this year than these two. I also look at officiating notes on Ron Torbert, how the Rams had a league-low 4 DPI penalties in 20 games, some comparisons on DVOA for Super Bowl teams, and how Cincinnati’s third-quarter dominance could set up a game script of the Bengals coming back to win another close one.

The Prediction

The moment of truth. The first article I wrote was why the Rams could win, then I did why the Bengals could win. If you compare those reasons, I think it’s obvious that I think the Rams should win. But then I started digging more, and after seeing how the Bengals play their best defense in the third quarter and on the road, and how I know Stafford is a guy who could throw a couple picks in any game, I started feeling the Bengals more.

The last four teams favored by more than 3.5 points lost the Super Bowl outright. I think Rams -2.5 is a lot more attractive line for them than Rams -4, which likely means winning by 7+ if you don’t want a push. But look at these teams’ games this season. They’re rarely blowing anyone out, at least not anyone good. I really believe it’s going to be a close game, like 16 of the last 18 Super Bowls have been in the fourth quarter.

Can Donald and Von turn this game into a rout by blowing up that offensive line? Of course. Football has shown us that many times over. But as I wrote in an old Super Bowl preview about Mahomes and the Chiefs being different, I mentioned Joe Burrow (+Chase) and LSU were different too. I remember Burrow starting shaky in the national championship game against Clemson’s top-ranked defense. Then he destroyed them. I don’t think this is a game where he’s throwing for 450+, but I don’t think he has to either. He just has to avoid the game-changing turnovers and hope (or will if he is the new fvcking Brady) his defense forces Stafford into those.

I think the Bengals are going to win the turnover battle, Kupp is going to play the Ricky Proehl part and score a game-tying touchdown late, and Burrow is going to set Evan McPherson up for a 48-yard game-winning field goal that somehow takes seven seconds off the clock.

It’s Super Bowl 36 (STL-NE) all over again as Burrow joins Brady as the only quarterbacks in NFL history to win four straight playoff games (their first four too) by fewer than eight points.

Okay, I am starting to find my rooting interest after all…

Final: Bengals, 23 Rams 20 (MVP: Joe Burrow even though Mike Hilton will have a pick-six)

NFL Stat Oddity: Championship Sunday

Two rematches. Two painfully familiar postseason outcomes for the teams on the losing side.

For the first time in 56 seasons of the Super Bowl era, we will have a Super Bowl without a team that seeded higher than fourth. The Rams and Bengals were both No. 4 seeds that spent very little time – if any in Cincinnati’s case – in the spotlight as the teams to beat this year.

But now they are all that’s left after erasing double-digit deficits in the second half. For Kyle Shanahan and Andy Reid, this is becoming old hat.

Of the five blown leads of 18-plus points in the NFL playoffs since 2013, Reid’s Chiefs have lost three of them and were the winning team in a fourth game against Houston (down 24-0 in 2019). The only other such game was of course Super Bowl LI, where as offensive coordinator of the Falcons, Shanahan infamously called doomed passes with a big lead in the fourth quarter. It has started a string of three postseasons where Shanahan’s teams have been bounced after leading by double digits in the fourth quarter and never scoring again.

This sets up a Super Bowl between two quarterbacks drafted No. 1 overall by the Lions and Bengals (11 years apart). It may be the last outcome I wanted to see out of the four possibilities, but if this is what the post-Tom Brady NFL is going to look like, I’m sure I will learn to love it.

This season in Stat Oddity:

Bengals at Chiefs: Whoops, They Did It Again

It was the best of halves, it was the worst of halves, it was the age of adjustment, it was the age of sloppiness, it was the season of defensive regression, it was the season of tipped giveaways, it was 13 seconds to restore hope, and it’s now another winter of despair for this failed attempt at a dynasty.

Even Charles Dickens knew he had to write different beginnings and endings to his books no matter how successful they were in the past. The Kansas City Chiefs continue to tease us with many wonderful things, but only one time (2019) did things end on a positive note.

If it wasn’t for Jet Chip Wasp on third-and-15 in Super Bowl LIV, we would be calling the Chiefs the biggest underachievers and disappointment in the NFL in the last decade.

They still might be even with that play.

As the favorite in the final four this year, the Chiefs just had to hold onto a 21-3 lead to become the fourth team to go to three straight Super Bowls. Instead, they became the fourth team in NFL playoff history to blow an 18-point lead at home and the first to do it in a championship game. In the process, the Bengals are the first team in NFL history to beat an opponent twice in the same season after trailing by double digits at halftime. The 18-point blown lead is the largest of the Patrick Mahomes era, and the Bengals own a tie for the second largest at 14 points in Week 17.

Why does this keep happening under Andy Reid? It’s his third playoff loss in nine seasons where the Chiefs led by at least 18 points. Since 2013, Reid has coached the Chiefs to a league-high nine different win streaks of at least five games, including an eight-game streak this season that again had people believing this was the team to beat.

But look at how things have gone for Kansas City under Reid:

  • 2013: 9-0 start built up by playing backup quarterbacks, but swept by Peyton Manning’s Broncos to lose division, and blew a 38-10 lead in the wild card round in Indianapolis.
  • 2014: thought to have ended the Patriots’ dynasty and also beat the Seahawks, the NFC’s Super Bowl team that year, but finished 9-7 and missed the playoffs.
  • 2015: took another suspicious 11-game winning streak into New England and took what felt like 11 minutes to score one late touchdown in a 27-20 loss in the divisional round.
  • 2016: came back to beat the Chargers, outdueled Drew Brees and Andrew Luck, scored 30 on Denver’s defense, beat MVP Matt Ryan on a pick-two, and still lost the first playoff game at home to six Pittsburgh field goals.
  • 2017: 5-0 start with a great win on opening night in New England but finished 10-6 and blew a 21-3 halftime lead at home to Marcus Mariota and the Titans in the Forward Progress Game in the wild card round.
  • 2018: Mahomes is the MVP, but lost 43-40 in New England, 54-51 to the Rams, and still ended up as the No. 1 seed thanks to a Miami miracle against the Patriots. But lost 37-31 in overtime at home to those Patriots after Dee Ford lined up offsides and negated a game-ending interception. Never touched the ball in overtime.
  • 2019: trailed by double digits in every playoff game before winning each game by double digits. Apparently, the right combo of opponents involves Bill O’Brien, Playoff Ryan Tannehill, and Playoff Jimmy Garoppolo. Still needed a 10-point fourth-quarter comeback to win the Super Bowl.
  • 2020: the hottest team in the league, but also a record winning streak of seven games by fewer than seven points. Kept it up in playoffs but lost offensive tackles for the Super Bowl and failed to score a touchdown in rematch with Tampa Bay. Dominated 31-9 by a play-action offense and two-high safety defense.
  • 2021: ugly 3-4 start before the defense turned things around thanks to the schedule. Offense started clicking again late in year, but defense regressed to early struggles. Very fortunate to win coin toss and march for a touchdown against the Chargers and Bills; the latter being 13 seconds away from knocking the Chiefs out in the divisional round. Fell apart after 21-3 lead on Sunday.

Like I said, this team teases us with wonderful things, then they shit the bed when it matters most. The one time they didn’t blow it, they were fortunate to be playing Kyle Shanahan, but scroll down for more on his chokejobs.

A team with Alex Smith at quarterback being exposed as fool’s gold is one thing, but expectations have been much higher with Mahomes the last four years. For 10-plus quarters this postseason, it wasn’t hard to see why. He was putting together a case for the best postseason run ever by a quarterback. Then he had arguably the worst half of his career.

It really was a tale of two halves similar to what happened in Week 17 when the Chiefs scored four straight touchdowns, led by 14 points, then were held to a field goal in the second half before losing by a field goal on the final snap. But the Bengals hit up the Chiefs with big YAC plays that day and controlled the clock at the end. Mahomes wasn’t inept in the second half like he was in this one. It was a different game with a similar outcome.

Mahomes was close to perfect in this first half. He hit 13 of his first 14 passes and the Chiefs scored three straight touchdowns to take a 21-3 lead. If you wanted the easy, short throws, he took them. The running game looked good with the backs fighting hard for extra yards. Tyreek Hill and Travis Kelce were heavily involved unlike they were in Week 17. It looked like an unstoppable offense while the Bengals looked unprepared for a big game.

But then a screen pass broke for the Bengals for a late 41-yard touchdown. The Chiefs were driving for another touchdown after getting a defensive pass interference flag, in a game where the refs really swallowed their whistles for both sides all day, that put the ball at the 1-yard line with 9 seconds left.

This is where the Chiefs basically lost the game. You get two quick throws into the end zone in that spot. The Chiefs should have had another timeout, but they wasted one early in the game before challenging a bad spot that should have been an easy first down for them. That didn’t help. But you have to know the clock situation and where the ball must go. One pass didn’t work, and it was risky to try another with five seconds. With the Chiefs getting the ball to start the third quarter, I would have been fine with a field goal and 24-10 lead.

Reid listened to Mahomes, and I’m not sure why everyone didn’t know the throw had to be quick and into the end zone. It was in the flat to Hill, and he danced around for no gain and the half ended. That pass never should have been thrown.

That failure really seemed to put the Chiefs in a funk. They were stopped on their first five drives in the second half, something you practically never see happen to this offense. They got away from the run. They got away from throwing to Kelce and Hill. Mahomes was not forcing deep throws, but his passes were just off and going to the wrong guys. A couple big sacks on third down in the fourth quarter also happened.

This was a mess of a half where the Bengals just hung in there with their game plan, even when it seemed nonsensical. Cincinnati continuously ran the ball on first down, setting up countless second-and-9 situations, which usually led to a short completion and tough third down situation. It made no sense why they did not attack more after throwing for more than 400 yards last time. Why not some play-action shots on first down? Ja’Marr Chase was held to 54 yards, a big drop of 212 yards from his 266-yard effort in Week 17. But Tee Higgins had 103 yards this time, even if his 44-yard grab, tied for the longest gain in the game, resulted in no points after the Bengals went right back to being conservative.

But after getting a field goal to make it 21-13, the Bengals got the first turnover in nearly six quarters of action between these teams this season. Mahomes tried to set up a short throw and threw it to a defensive lineman, who tipped it to himself for an interception at the Kansas City 27. The Bengals used that short field to drive for a game-tying touchdown (to Chase) and two-point conversion to end the third quarter.

You could see the tide turned when Joe Burrow threw an interception at midfield early in the fourth quarter, but the Chiefs went three-and-out with Mahomes taking his second third-down sack in two minutes.

Why did it look like Mahomes was constantly running around in the second half to no avail? The Bengals changed things up and kept dropping eight defenders into coverage. According to Next Gen Stats, they did it a season-high 35% of the time, increasing it from 24% of passes in the first half to 45% in the second half. It was very effective.

Like with Tampa Bay in the Super Bowl, this will be all the rage as the new blueprint to stop the Chiefs going into 2022. They’ll just have to figure it out because they did not have the answers on Sunday.

While Mahomes was taking fourth-quarter sacks, Burrow was very close to throwing consecutive interceptions. On a simple throw away, he for some reason threw a pass right to a diving defender, who dropped the ball. He would have been in bounds for the pick, stopping Cincinnati’s go-ahead drive after two plays. But Burrow took that gift and made perhaps his best play of the game with a 7-yard scramble for a first down on third-and-6. Three plays later, he was just as good with an 11-yard run to convert a third-and-7. We usually don’t see Burrow avoid sacks like that, but he only went down once in this game and had multiple good scrambles.

Rookie kicker Evan McPherson continued his perfect postseason with a clutch 52-yard field goal to take a 24-21 lead with 6:04 left. CBS’ Tony Romo kept talking about Burrow never getting the ball back, and I thought he was insane. Does he not see how this offense has been playing this half? Does he not realize the Bengals have three clock stoppages left?

And yet, it worked out to where Romo could have been right. But playing cute with the clock actually ended up costing the Chiefs in the end. Mahomes calmed down and found open receivers to move into field goal range quickly, but the Chiefs really made things hard after the two-minute warning. Mahomes was scrambling for his life and going out of bounds to stop the clock multiple times for meager gains. It was getting ridiculous like this:

Remember when Mahomes ran for 497 yards before passing/getting sacked in the Super Bowl? It was the highest game in the last five seasons, only topping Mahomes’ 495 yards in the 40-32 loss to Vegas. I would love to see if he broke 500 yards in this game.

But the Chiefs still had a first-and-goal at the Cincinnati 5 with 1:30 left in a 24-21 game. I can understand wanting to try a run and force the Bengals to call their last timeout. I don’t understand how anyone could advocate for letting the Chiefs score. You only do that if they’re able to kick a game-winning field goal with no time left. This wasn’t that.

But this is something that pisses me off about today’s NFL. Why should the offense be penalized for doing its job and scoring a touchdown? “They left too much time” is such a bullshit cop-out to let a defense off the hook for not doing its job. Don’t give up a touchdown. I don’t care if they have 20 seconds or 120 seconds left, don’t give up a touchdown. Do your job. The offense just did.

This is why I would have preferred to see the ball in Mahomes’ hands instead of a run for 1 yard by Jerick McKinnon. I want to maximize my touchdown probability, especially in a 3-point game against an offense that is struggling to score touchdowns now.

But on second down, Mahomes again ran around too much before taking a 5-yard sack. Not good. The clock was down to 39 seconds, but the ball was now at the 9 on third down. This would take an amazing throw like Mahomes had to open the game with a touchdown to Hill, but you have to be careful about forcing it and getting a tipped pick. We’ve seen it so many times with the Chiefs this season, including in the red zone.

So, Mahomes had to be smart. He wasn’t. He took too long again, Sam Hubbard sacked him again, and this time there was a fumble that the Chiefs were lucky to recover, or the season would be over. What a near disaster, and yes, this would be a season-ending turnover that the QB got away with for those keeping count. It made the field goal 17 yards harder, but Harrison Butker did his job and nailed it from 44 yards to force overtime. Good on the kickers this week.

After the Chiefs won the coin toss, you had to think the football gods aren’t going to let them do this three times since Week 15. Based on what I saw in the second half, I knew this wasn’t going to end well.

But it went worse than expected. For starters, why is he throwing to Demarcus Robinson twice in overtime after Robinson had one target with zero catches all day? Robinson wasn’t looking for the second-down throw and it nearly ended up in a pick-six by Eli Apple. A Hasselbeck, if you will. But for some #BallDontLie, the third-and-10 throw was deep for Hill, the pass was in the right location for his hands, but the defender made a great play too on the ball, and it was tipped to Von Bell for an interception. The Bengals were already at their own 45 and the ending felt inevitable at that point.

It is fitting that this team’s season would end after a big blown lead and tipped interception. It’s what plagued them during the 3-4 start. The Bengals came back from 14 down three times in Week 17 too. It was going to catch up with them eventually. The Chiefs were simply too sloppy this season to deserve to go back to the Super Bowl.

Joe Mixon had some strong runs to put the Bengals in chip-shot range. McPherson wasn’t going to miss a 31-yard field goal. He didn’t, and the Bengals are off to their third Super Bowl with a 27-24 win, the biggest road win in franchise history. Zach Taylor has as many playoff wins this year as Mike Tomlin (two) and John Harbaugh (one) have combined since 2016. You might actually be able to pick him out of a lineup of generic white men now.

Everyone knows Burrow and Chase now after this breakout season, but it really has been clutch kicking and clutch defense with incredibly timely and pivotal takeaways that have keyed this run to the Super Bowl for the Bengals.

This is the third game in a row where the Bengals have intercepted a quarterback in the final minute of the fourth quarter or overtime in a close game. This is something that has only happened 20 times in the playoffs since 2001, and the Bengals have done it three weeks in a row to Derek Carr (fourth-down pick at the goal line), Ryan Tannehill (third-down pick at midfield in a tied game), and now Mahomes in overtime to set up a game-winning drive.

The only other defenses to have two such plays in the same postseason are the 2007 Giants (Tony Romo and Brett Favre in back-to-back weeks) and 2010 Packers (Michael Vick in Philadelphia and Caleb Hanie two games later in Chicago).

Not even Tom Brady, the LOAT, has ever willed his defense to do this three times in his lengthy playoff career. Sure, he’s benefitted twice, including the most crucial interception in NFL history by Malcolm Butler, but you’d be hard pressed to find a team with big picks like this three weeks in a row.

Now the Bengals get their third chance to win their first Super Bowl. Maybe it’s the first of numerous chances for Burrow and company. Maybe it’s the best chance they ever see. Maybe it’s the start of the NFL’s next dynasty, and it happened on Kansas City’s field where the next dynasty was supposed to be.

We won’t know those things for some years, but as I hammered on this offseason, chances like Super Bowl 55 cannot be taken for granted. When you lose a game like that 31-9 instead of repeating, you never know if you’ll ever get back to the Super Bowl.

Ask Dan Marino and Don Shula.

Ask Brett Favre and Mike Holmgren.

Ask Kurt Warner and the Rams.

Ask Drew Brees and Sean Payton in New Orleans.

Ask the Steelers/Ben Roethlisberger and Packers/Aaron Rodgers after Super Bowl 45, which was 11 years ago.

Ask Russell Wilson and Pete Carroll in Seattle.

That little grace period in the AFC where Tom Brady had to move on from New England, Big Ben’s clock stopped ticking in Pittsburgh, Andrew Luck retired, Deshaun Watson ruined his career, Josh Allen had to improve dramatically, and Burrow was just a rookie? That time is over. The AFC has caught up to the Chiefs, and this is before we find out how high the ceiling is for Mac Jones and Trevor Lawrence, if Justin Herbert can get a defense in Los Angeles, and if Rodgers or Wilson want to join the conference.

You could be thrilled that the team is always competitive and will have a chance every year with Mahomes, and there is nothing wrong with that. But any dynasty talk? Kill that noise now. Scoffing at the thought of only winning two or three titles like you’re Jim Irsay? Have you seen the last nine seasons for the Chiefs? Did you ever watch a Kansas City playoff game from 1970-2010? Be happy with the one ring and hopeful there’s ever a second. The NFL is a con when it comes to making sure great quarterbacks walk away with Super Bowl titles.

We just watched a coach in his 23rd season get tripped up by two of his career bugaboos: managing the clock and neglecting the run even against a three-man rush. He lost to a coach who ran the ball 17 times on first-and-10 and roped-a-dope his way to a win. Like many of us, Reid has fallen in love with his superstar quarterback and expects him to be Superman at all times. Except the NFL playoffs are kryptonite to teams relying on the quarterback this much.

After halftime, the Chiefs got Clark Kent. Maybe on Earth-Two, Frank Clark gets a strip-sack on the most sacked QB in the NFL. But in our reality, the clips of Mahomes taking those sacks and throwing that pick in overtime are going to be played more than the brilliant ending last week against Buffalo.

Kick the field goal before halftime. Take the boring throwaway instead of the ridiculous sack. Not every situation requires a hero. Burrow just won two road playoff games by being pretty boring. Christ, he really might be the new Brady. Kansas City’s defense was not playing poorly enough to justify so much hero ball. Mahomes will learn this eventually, but he better hope it doesn’t happen after kickstarting a Cincinnati dynasty by playing one of the worst halves of his career.

I’ll end with an unmodified Dickens quote, because this must be what it feels like to love the Chiefs and not have them love you back.

I loved her against reason, against promise, against peace, against hope, against happiness, against all discouragement that could be.

49ers at Rams: Gut-Check Win for Stafford, McVay

Losing six games in a row to one rival is a big deal, but there is no better way to avenge it than with a playoff win that puts you in the Super Bowl. We had not really seen anything like it since the 2001-04 Colts lost all six games to the Patriots to kick off a rivalry between Peyton Manning and Tom Brady. The Colts finally won a game in 2005, followed it up with another road win in 2006, but didn’t truly slay the dragon until they came back from a 21-3 deficit in the 2006 AFC Championship Game and went on to win the Super Bowl.

49ers-Rams is less of a big deal than that, and the Rams have folded time after time to the 49ers in a variety of ways. But no matchup was bigger than this one, and the Rams did not have Matthew Stafford, Odell Beckham, and Von Miller for all six of those losses. Head coaches Sean McVay and Kyle Shanahan come from similar backgrounds with time spent in Tampa Bay with Jon Gruden and time together in Washington under Kyle’s famous dad. This game was to decide which one would be making their second Super Bowl appearance in the last four seasons.

The Rams had a clear advantage at quarterback with Matthew Stafford, but that did not pay enough dividends in the first two upsets by the 49ers this year. On Sunday, it looked bleak through three quarters with the 49ers leading 17-7 and the Rams having one of those classic “finesse team getting bullied by the physical team in the playoffs” type of performances. Jimmy Garoppolo even threw for 200 yards before the fourth quarter of a playoff game for the first time in his career. Little was going right for the Rams, which is why the comeback was such a gut-check and hallmark victory for McVay and Stafford.

It was ugly early. Stafford threw a red-zone pick on a tipped ball on a third down where the 49ers actually covered Cooper Kupp tightly like they should have been doing as much as possible. Make the other players beat you, and the Rams lost tight end Tyler Higbee to injury early in this one. Kupp was a monster on third down the rest of the game, catching 11-of-14 targets for 142 yards and two touchdowns (both on third down). If the MVP award included the playoffs, Kupp would run away with it this season.

Deebo Samuel also had a hell of a year and showed again his incredible strength on a 44-yard touchdown on a screen that was all him. Ben Skowronek dropped a 38-yard touchdown on his only target of the game. Following that, Matt Gay missed a 54-yard field goal for the Rams before the 49ers made their kick to take a 10-7 lead into the locker room, a half that certainly favors San Francisco’s style of play.

If you know me well, you know I’m not a big fan of the “genius” label that gets attached to McVay and Shanahan. I think both are good coaches, but they are far from flawless, and their game management leaves a lot to be desired. This second half was a perfect example of their shortcomings, and they should be glad they were coaching against each other. Someone had to win.

First, the Rams tried a pass on a third-and-1 at the San Francisco 43 in the middle of the third quarter. If you know you’re going for it, as you should there, just run the ball. Run it twice if you have to. Instead, Stafford threw a pass away after not liking what he saw, and the Rams tried to sneak him on fourth down. His sneaks, even when they worked, have looked awful this postseason. He also seemed to be banged up during this game. Sure enough, he was short again and it wasn’t even that close on replay. But McVay wasted a challenge and precious timeout on the play.

The 49ers seemed to deliver a huge blow with a 58-yard touchdown drive to take a 17-7 lead. Jauan Jennings fought for extra yards on a key third-and-10 to convert it. I guess everyone in San Francisco is just amazing with YAC.

Skowronek drop aside, Garoppolo was pretty much outplaying Stafford, or at least playing up to his level in the game. Stafford was going to have to have the biggest fourth-quarter comeback of his career against a good opponent. Remember, Stafford was just 4-35 (.103) at game-winning drive opportunities against teams with a winning record.

Stafford was 0-28 in his career when trailing by double-digits to start the fourth quarter against teams with winning records. That included an 0-4 record this season with the Rams. But the Rams were already at the San Francisco 20 to start the fourth quarter after a great play call to the backup tight end popped for 20 yards. McVay had to burn his second timeout with 20 seconds left in the quarter to call it on first down, but the play was a great one.

On a third-and-1, Stafford was in empty and threw an 11-yard touchdown to Kupp with 13:30 left. Again, how do you not double team the best receiver on the field? Odell Beckham had a very good 100-yard game, but I’d sooner take my chances with him beating me than leaving the most dominant receiver in the game in single coverage.

The 49ers could have stopped the bleeding, but once again, they failed to score any points with the lead under Shanahan. I’d be very worried that he is just never going to understand when to go aggressive vs. conservative. If you’re leading by 16 points in the fourth quarter, you can be conservative. If you’re only up three points and you’re the underdog, you need to take some chances. He has failed both situations in his career.

The 49ers may have botched their season when they faced a third-and-2 at the LA 45 and called a run for fullback Kyle Juszczyk with big, injured tackle Trent Williams in motion. It’s a cutesy play that did not work. McVay even thought the 49ers fumbled the ball, so he wasted his third challenge and was out of timeouts with 10 minutes to go. But the real sin here was giving the ball to maybe your sixth-best ball carrier in this offense? No disrespect to Juszczyk. He’s one of the finest in a dying breed of a position, but I’m giving the ball to Deebo or George Kittle or Brandon Aiyuk or Elijah Mitchell or maybe Jennings again.

The vaunted rushing attack for Shanahan’s offense? It produced 19 carries for 46 yards without a run longer than 9 yards. It looks like the Rams learned from the regular season and made an adjustment.

Still, the 49ers could have overcome the bad play with a fourth-and-2 conversion. But from early in the play clock, it was evident that they were just trying to draw the Rams offsides and never intended to snap the ball before taking a delay of game and punting. What a shame. The 49ers had as many delay of game penalties in the fourth quarter (two) as they had in the entire 2021 regular season, which is something they also did in the Dallas wild card win.

By the way, if there are two areas where the NFL should make use of modern technology and improve the game, it would be a light/sound system for delay of game and better spotting of the ball. It’s absurd how many times teams are getting away with snapping the ball after the clock hits zero, and the spots are sometimes so bad you wonder if the game is being fixed. If this led to more delay of game penalties, then so be it. It shouldn’t take 40 seconds to get a play ready.

Anyways, that punt was cowardly. Stafford must have let some of the LOAT rub off on him last week after nearly starting the next drive with a terrible interception, but Jaquiski Tartt dropped the deep ball pick with 9:47 left. Not a game ender, but it mattered. Stafford found Beckham for 29 yards on the next play, the Rams’ longest play of the night, and the drive ended with a game-tying field goal with 6:49 left.

Stafford was under siege by the 49ers in Week 18. Things didn’t feel that bad in this game, but apparently, they were. Next Gen Stats had it as his highest-pressure rate in a game for Stafford this season.

But this was a great chance for the 49ers to take advantage of McVay’s terrible clock management and drive into game-winning field goal range with no time left. But it was a brutal three-and-out with Garoppolo throwing three incompletions and the 49ers struggling to even beat the play clock multiple times. Stafford found Kupp for another big 25-yard gain on a third down, and only a sack at the two-minute warning stalled the drive to a field goal attempt. Gay was good from 30 yards out with 1:46 left.

Garoppolo certainly overcame longer odds in Week 18, needing a touchdown in similar time. Just a field goal would be fine here, but my did we get the worst of him in this offense with the season on the line. After a wild throw and a checkdown lost 3 yards, it was quickly third-and-13. With Aaron Donald in chase, Garoppolo tried to avoid a sack and just threw a pass up that was eventually tipped to the Rams for a game-ending interception with 1:09 left. Just nine more seconds and it’d be on the list I posted above.

Incredibly, or maybe sadly, this is still in the running for Garoppolo’s best playoff start out of his six. You could say his two best games were the two he lost. But after the way this one ended, it will begin the Trey Lance era in San Francisco. The 49ers invested way too much in him to not go that route next season. Garoppolo will have to catch on somewhere else as this should end the five-season run for him and Shanahan together in San Francisco. There will be more pressure on Shanahan to get things right with Lance, since he’s been given a pass for Garoppolo’s durability and limitations. If the 49ers are still blowing winnable big games with Lance, then we know the problem all along starts at the coach.

Now McVay is the one who looks to cap off this five-year journey with the Rams with a Super Bowl win as a favorite against the Bengals. He would join an impressive list of coaches who also took that five-year journey to their first ring: Mike Holmgren (1992-96 Packers), Tony Dungy (2002-06 Colts), Mike McCarthy (2006-10 Packers), and John Harbaugh (2008-12 Ravens). Holmgren is the only one on that list who won it with his best team, and while the Rams had better stats and record in 2018, this team is in better position to win in two weeks than that team was.

Sometimes that’s what matters most. Just keep making the playoffs and hope things fall into place for three or four weeks. The Rams took an aggressive approach to build this team and they are where they wanted to be. The quarterback who was 8-68 against teams with winning records can notch a seventh such win this season in two weeks. Maybe even make himself a case for a gold jacket one day as he can join John Elway as the only quarterbacks to win their first championship more than a dozen seasons into their careers.

This is what the Lions drafted Stafford to do. This is what we’ve been told McVay can do for a team. Now together, McVay and Stafford can finish this thing off in their home stadium in Year 1.

Next two weeks: Well, go figure. We get what I said days ago was the least attractive option of the four.

Watching the 49ers play on Sunday, maybe it’s the second or third-best outcome after all. All I know is the Rams better score more than three points this time. The Bengals better figure out how to get in the end zone more often. A third dud Super Bowl in four years would be a letdown.

NFL 2021 AFC Championship Game Preview: Bengals at Chiefs

The Kansas City Chiefs are 11-1 in their last 12 games, but they must avenge their Week 17 loss to the Cincinnati Bengals if they are to become the fourth team to get to a third-straight Super Bowl.

See my NFC Championship Game preview for 49ers-Rams here.

With both championship games being rematches for the fourth year in a row, here is some pertinent data for all conference championship game rematches since 1978.

  • Teams like the Chiefs who played on the road in the regular season are only 15-15 in that game, but they are 21-9 in the home championship game.
  • However, when that road loser switches venues back home, their title game record is only 8-7.
  • Green Bay lost at home last year to Tampa Bay. The Chiefs were swept by the 2018 Patriots, the only team to beat Patrick Mahomes twice in the same season. Kansas City was able to come back to beat the Titans a year later.
  • For division matchups, only the last meeting is used, so a team trying to complete the road sweep like San Francisco has to improve on a 1-4 record for teams in position to do that. Only the 1992 Bills were able to sweep the Dolphins on the road in the title game.

Kansas City turned around the worst home loss of Mahomes’ career against Buffalo with a thrilling 42-36 overtime win in an instant classic last week. What will the encore be?

Bengals at Chiefs (-7)

See my early preview for this game at BMR.

After a rough 3-4 start, the Chiefs are back to being a very difficult team to beat. But the Bengals will have some confidence after being the last to take this team down. Let’s update the losses chart in the Mahomes era (with some tweaks) that I introduced last postseason.

When you look at the five losses this season, running the ball and controlling the clock were less important against the 2021 Chiefs. The most important thing is still to score at least 27 points as Mahomes is 43-1 when a team doesn’t hit that number.

Cincinnati’s win was unique in that it was a passing explosion from Joe Burrow to Ja’Marr Chase (more on that below), but the Bengals had the fewest rushing yards (60) in a win over Mahomes. They are also only the third team to beat Mahomes without getting a takeaway as that Week 17 game had zero takeaways from both teams. If you look at the other four losses this year, the Chiefs always had multiple turnovers, including games with three or four.

The Chiefs also had one of their worst penalty games in Week 17, but the ref for this one is Bill Vinovich. While I’m certainly no Vinovich fan, his games this year had the fewest penalties and penalty yards. Part of what made the Bills-Chiefs game so sublime was that the teams combined for four penalties, so it would be nice to see another clean game.

Kansas City is definitely going to have to be careful with how grabby they get with these receivers. In Week 17, the Bengals overcame three third downs thanks to defensive pass interference calls. There were also two fourth-down stops in the final minute that would have given Mahomes the ball back had the defense not been called for penalties to negate both.

Seeing that Mahomes only needed 13 seconds to set up a field goal against Buffalo, you can see why the Bengals opted to go for that second fourth-and-1 at the 1-yard line in a tied game with 50 seconds left. As the chart shows, denying Mahomes the ball late in the game is the best chance to beat him. Only twice in his career (2018 Rams and 2021 Chargers) has he been unable to drive into field-goal range late in the game.

Will These Playoff Offenses Regress?

The Chiefs are red hot right now with 42 points in back-to-back playoff games, something only the 1990 Bills have ever done. Mahomes threw five touchdown passes in just over 11 minutes against the Steelers before Travis Kelce later threw a sixth on a trick play. Against Buffalo’s No. 1 defense, he led the Chiefs to eight scores on 11 drives, including five more touchdowns. Of the three non-scoring drives, one was a missed field goal and the other was a dropped ball on third down. That means the Chiefs have scored 11 touchdowns on 23 drives this postseason.

Meanwhile, the Bengals have three touchdowns on 20 drives this postseason. They have settled for eight field goals. Rookie kicker Evan McPherson is great and has long range, but we know settling for field goals, especially long ones, is a losing formula in Kansas City. The Bengals are going to have to be sharper, particularly in the red zone where they were mediocre this season. In fact, the Bengals were 16th in red zone touchdown rate and 16th in third down conversion rate. Drop down two sections for more on their offense.

As for the Chiefs keeping up this historic pace, how did those 1990 Bills fare in their third playoff game after the scoring explosion? They had one week instead of two to prepare for the Giants, a great defense, in the Super Bowl. They lost 20-19, but that is one of the most overrated defensive performances in NFL history. The Bills moved the ball great, but only had possession for 19:27 because of New York’s ball-control offense. The Bills only allowed one sack and had zero turnovers, and still gained 371 yards in under 20 minutes, but they were 1-of-7 on third down and Scott Norwood missed a game-winning field goal at the end. It was the night defensive coordinator Bill Belichick first sold his soul to the devil.

The Chiefs were the best third-down offense this season at 52.2%, and they have not disappointed in the playoffs. None of this should really come as a surprise after the Chiefs led the NFL in yards per drive, points per drive, and the fewest three-and-outs. As always, it comes back to turnovers with this team.

Chiefs: There Is No Repeatable Blueprint

I don’t care if it gets boring to say this every week, but there is no magical blueprint to stop the Chiefs. They are still their own worst enemy, and that comes largely in the form of turnovers, dropped passes, penalties, or the rare times Andy Reid forgets to put the ball in Mahomes’ hands. The turnovers especially have been killers this year, and so many were self-inflicted with tipped balls or just calling a stupid Wildcat play like the fumble touchdown against Pittsburgh. If you get the turnovers, recover the obligatory Chiefs fumble (didn’t happen last week), you give yourself a chance.

If Clyde Edwards-Helaire doesn’t have the first fumble of his career in field goal range in Baltimore, the Chiefs are winning that 36-35 game. If they don’t turn it over three times in a row to start the Chargers game, they probably win that one too. They would have given the Bills a better game the first time around without a tipped ball pick six and another ball batted at the line for a pick in the red zone.

As the Bengals showed in Tennessee last week with Ryan Tannehill’s pick parade, any game can be a win if you get enough takeaways. It doesn’t even matter if you give up nine sacks and score 19 points.

When the Buccaneers supposedly showed the blueprint to crush the Chiefs in Super Bowl 55, it was missing some context. For one, the Buccaneers were shredded by the Chiefs in Week 12, so they had a recent game tape to study and improve from. The Bengals have that advantage as well from Week 17.

Secondly, the Buccaneers had an extra week to prepare and dramatically altered their scheme to surprise the Chiefs. Defensive coordinator Todd Bowles is known for being an aggressive blitzer, but he called the lowest blitz rate in a game of his since 2015 and played two-high safety shells at his highest rate as well. Teams have emulated this often against Kansas City in 2021, but the Chiefs have adjusted. Last week, Buffalo used two-high safeties on 92% of plays, but Mahomes shredded it with 29-of-38 passing for 344 yards and two touchdowns. He didn’t attempt a single deep pass for the first time in his career as he took advantage of the short, easy plays. He also used his legs to great success and rushed for a career-high 69 yards. Last postseason, Mahomes had a toe injury and wasn’t as willing to run on it as we’ve seen he is willing to do in playoff games.

Finally, the Buccaneers caught a break with left tackle Eric Fisher injuring his Achilles in the game before the Super Bowl, throwing the already limited offensive line into flux. Mahomes was pressured a Super Bowl record number of times depending which source you want to use, and the Chiefs failed to make any special plays that night and did not score a touchdown. The Chiefs reinvested in the offensive line and have gotten better results. They’re also healthy now, and the toughest game this year may have been the Cincinnati one where left tackle Orlando Brown was inactive, his backup got hurt after six snaps, but the Chiefs still made it work. Brown is back now and the Bengals still did not sack Mahomes in Week 17.

So, the fabled Tampa blueprint is a mirage. You just have to trust Reid and Mahomes to figure things out.

But if I have a concern for this matchup, it would be that in Week 17, Travis Kelce and Tyreek Hill did not have a play longer than 17 yards. They had 13 touches for 66 yards and one touchdown as basically everyone else got involved with big plays that day.

It still led to four touchdowns in a row in the first half, but I’m not convinced the Chiefs can sustain their scoring if their two studs aren’t more involved. Both showed up big time against the Bills last week. But in that second half of Week 17, the Chiefs punted twice and settled for a field goal on their final drive before the Bengals ran out the final six minutes for the game-winning field goal.

Despite their turnovers and struggles, the Titans hit up the Bengals for three 40-yard plays last week. A.J. Brown had a monster receiving game. I’m confident the Chiefs will figure it out and get Hill and Kelce more involved this week.

Cincinnati Offense Vs. Kansas City’s Liability

The Chiefs started this season with arguably the worst defense in the league. Things turned around dramatically and they allowed the fewest points in Weeks 6-18, but as I laid out last week, the schedule had a lot to do with that.

After the way the Chiefs have performed on defense late in the season against the Chargers, Bengals, and Bills, it’s safe to say this defense is a liability again. If it doesn’t catch up with them this week against Ja’Marr Chase for a second time, then it could in the Super Bowl with Deebo Samuel or Cooper Kupp being the latest skill player to destroy them.

Hell, it was Buffalo’s Gabriel Davis who had 201 yards and a playoff-record four touchdown catches last week. He was 13 seconds away from ending Kansas City’s season, and the defense never had to get another stop after failing to do so multiple times in the quarter. Without coin flip wins in overtime against the Chargers (Week 15) and Bills, this Kansas City season could look very different right now. I’d be leery of this defense.

In Week 17, Chase had one of the greatest receiving games in NFL history. He caught 11-of-12 targets for 266 yards and three touchdowns. He added two first downs via pass interference flags on third downs. He caught a 30-yard pass on third-and-27 on the game-winning drive. He had two long touchdowns that were largely YAC and individual efforts from him. He was sensational and so was his rookie season. While not finding the end zone in the playoffs, he has still been very good and did a lot of damage on screens in Tennessee.

The good news for the Chiefs is that safety Tyrann Mathieu should be back after leaving the Bills game early with a concussion. I’m not going to pretend he stops all those Davis plays, but the Chiefs are better with him on the field than off. They’re also better when Daniel Sorensen doesn’t have to play much. Sunday saw Sorensen play 92% of the snaps, his highest in a game since Week 5 when he allowed two long completions to Buffalo and saw his role diminished afterwards. Sorensen was also beat for 86 yards and a touchdown in Cincinnati. They cannot rely on him with the Bengals having a legitimate wide receiver trio.

Can Chase really dominate like that again? This will be the 20th time since 1970 that a receiver had at least 175 receiving yards against a defense he will face in the playoffs. The Chiefs just saw this a year ago with Tyreek Hill lighting up the Buccaneers for 269 yards and three touchdowns. But in the Super Bowl, Hill couldn’t pull in an early touchdown and finished with seven catches for 73 yards.

On average, these receivers declined by 142.9 receiving yards in the playoff rematch. Only Tim Brown and Michael Haynes were able to break 100 yards again, and touchdowns dropped from 31 to six.

The Chiefs have allowed eight 100-yard receivers this season. You would think after Davis last week and Chase last time, the Chiefs will make him the top priority this week. Short of a return touchdown, the Bengals will struggle to hit that 27-point minimum if Chase is held under 80 yards, which can be gleaned from the 11 times it happened this season.  

Kansas City’s defense has allowed four completions to gain more than 23 YAC this season. The first was a lateral play on 4th-and-31 to end the first half by Cleveland in Week 1, so that really shouldn’t count. The second was a little toss to Devontae Booker for the Giants for an extra 35 yards in the middle of the season. But the two longest YAC plays of the year were by Chase in Week 17 for touchdowns with 43 and 61 YAC. The Bengals had four YAC plays of 40-plus yards this season and you’re looking at half of them.

I’m not going to pretend that the Chiefs won’t allow any big plays this week, especially after what the defense did against Buffalo last week. But I don’t think crazy YAC is as repeatable as a great deep ball, and I don’t believe Burrow’s deep ball is as good as Josh Allen is capable of, such as that 75-yard rocket to Davis that kept the game from getting out of hand.

I also don’t think Burrow can escape all the sacks Allen did. Allen had 10 designed runs in that game, but his only scramble was a crucial fourth down late in the game. Burrow is not a statue by any means, but let’s face it. He took a league-high 51 sacks and was sacked nine times in Tennessee. He takes plenty of bad sacks and the Chiefs got him down four times in Week 17, which had a lot to do with the Bengals trailing 14-0, 21-7, and 28-14. Why did Burrow have to convert a third-and-27 on the game-winning drive? Because he took a sack that knocked them out of field goal range on first down. He’ll learn, they’ll improve the offensive line eventually, but for right now, Burrow is a liability to take bad sacks.

The Chiefs need to take advantage of that at home and I believe they will.

The Prediction

The low-hanging fruit would be to gush over this Cincinnati renaissance and crap on the Titans as the No. 1 seed, but I built the theme to my season predictions around finding a worthy contender for the Chiefs in the AFC. Maybe that proves to be the Bengals if they can become the second team to sweep Mahomes, but I still think Kansas City is the team to beat. The Chargers couldn’t beat them twice. The Bills couldn’t beat them twice. I don’t think the Bengals are better qualified to do it either this year.

Losing that game in Cincinnati with Burrow and Chase playing so well to fall to the No. 2 seed may ultimately prove to be a blessing for these Chiefs. It installed the Titans as the No.1 seed, which they promptly choked away, giving the Chiefs a record fourth-straight AFC title game at home against these Bengals, who they led by 14 points three times in Week 17. I really do believe the Chiefs would have had a harder time reversing 27-3 on the road in Tennessee this week.

I like the Chiefs to get a double-digit lead again and not blow it this time. Give me that 54-51 rematch in two weeks.

Final: Chiefs 34, Bengals 24

NFL 2021 AFC Divisional Round Preview

Despite only one team getting a first-round bye now, the divisional weekend is still prime for some of the richest drama in NFL history. I just recapped some of the most dramatic games in divisional round history that tested 14 eventual Super Bowl champions.

Of course, the bigger story in that link is that we have gone 19 straight playoff games without a fourth-quarter lead change, one shy of tying the record from 1935-50.

Maybe we’ll get something memorable this weekend, but this has been a difficult round for the road teams to win. Since 2011, home teams are 31-9 (.775) in the divisional round. But most years have that one upset and 2016 was the last time there were two road winners (Packers in Dallas and Steelers in Kansas City).

The Titans stunned the hell out of the top-seeded Ravens in 2019, and the Buccaneers avoided a three-game sweep by the Saints last year, propelling them to a Super Bowl win.

The NFC previews will be posted on Friday. Let’s start with a new matchup in the AFC and a crucial rematch of last year’s AFC Championship Game.

Bengals at Titans (-3.5)

See my early preview for this game at BMR.

The Bengals finally ended their long playoff drought last week with a 26-19 win over the Raiders. The young offense, led by Joe Burrow and Ja’Marr Chase, did not crack in the first playoff game for this new era of Cincinnati football, but the Raiders were one of the worst playoff teams in history.

Now the Bengals must try to shake an 0-7 road playoff record against the top-seeded Titans. And no, the Titans are not the worst No. 1 seed in history. I refuse to even call them the worst Tennessee team to be the No. 1 seed in the AFC. That 2008 team with Jeff Fisher and Kerry Collins was such fool’s gold at 10-0 before stumbling down the stretch.

These Titans have much better skill players when healthy, Mike Vrabel has been an awesome coach when playing the role of an underdog, and this team can win high-scoring games and close games. They are also battled tested, winning more games (eight) in one season against teams with a winning record than any team in NFL history and having the best win percentage (8-3, .727) in such games (min. nine games).

Now, are those records a little misleading? Yes, the 17th game helped 8-8 teams Tennessee beat like the Saints and Dolphins finish with a winning record at 9-8. But the Titans still boast more quality wins than any team this year, already hammering the Chiefs and beating the Bills in a shootout. Now the Titans just have to beat an inexperienced Cincinnati team and only one of those AFC powerhouses to get to a Super Bowl. Yeah, the Titans lost to the Jets, but so did the Bengals.

Derrick Henry expects to be back for his first game since Week 8, but I think the Titans have shown they can win some big games without him or with him being ineffective. The health of A.J. Brown may be more important to the offense than any other non-quarterback. Tennessee is 10-1 when Brown plays at least 60% of the snaps in a game and 2-4 when he does not. He needs to have a big game. Brown scored Tennessee’s only touchdown in a disappointing 20-13 home playoff loss to the Ravens last year. This team seems to perform better when the chips are stacked against them.

Three of the four biggest receiving games against the Bengals this year were done by top-tier tight ends, but Davante Adams also had 206 yards and a touchdown in Cincinnati. Julio Jones being back should also help the passing game. It’s been so rare this season for the Titans to have Brown, Jones, and Henry on the field together. The wideouts being out had a lot to do with that overtime loss to the Jets early this season, and the significant injuries that hit the Titans in losses to the Steelers, Patriots, and Texans had to contribute to Tennessee turning the ball over 13 times in those three games. This offense usually protects the ball well. The Bengals are not great at taking the ball away.

I think the week of rest is big for the Titans to get as healthy as possible for this matchup. I was surprised to see how close the Titans and Bengals are defensively this season, but I’d still give the Titans an edge there. No quarterbacks have been sacked more than Burrow (51) and Ryan Tannehill (47) this year. The Bengals have the better quarterback right now as Tannehill did not have his best season with the injuries around him, and Tannehill has been pedestrian in his four playoff starts. But I think unlike the Raiders, who called 58 passes and ran Josh Jacobs 13 times despite success on the ground, the Titans are going to stay balanced and stick to their usual game plan. The Titans are also better on third down and in the red zone. The Bengals struggled in the red zone against a historically bad red zone defense last week. That area has been money for the Titans under Tannehill, and they were fifth this year in touchdown rate (63.9%).

This isn’t Jeff Fisher and Kerry Collins trying to win a 13-10 game. I’m sticking with my gut and the NFL history that says a pass-happy team with a young offensive core is prime for a letdown on the road in the playoffs against a physical team, especially when it’s that team’s first postseason. Maybe Henry is rusty and fumbles early or is completely ineffective like he was last year against the Ravens, and the Bengals ride their top pass connection to an early lead. We’ve seen it before. But I’m going to trust the better coach and the team that’s been better this year and should be healthy at the right time to win this one.

We can talk next week about why the Titans won’t get to the Super Bowl, but I like them on Saturday. Just hang onto the victory cigar for later, Joe.

Final: Titans 28, Bengals 20

Bills at Chiefs (-1.5)

It is not unheard of to consider a game early in the playoffs to be “the real Super Bowl” if you will. When the NFC won every Super Bowl from 1984 through 1996, the NFC Championship Game was often thought of as the real Super Bowl those years, especially when it was Dallas vs. San Francisco in 1992-94. The 2006 AFC Championship Game between the Patriots and Colts was thought to be the real Super Bowl that year because of the entity known as Rex Grossman waiting for the winner in Miami.

But wow, I cannot remember a divisional round game being thought of as the Super Bowl, especially between two teams that are not the No. 1 seed. Maybe I’m tripping and this is too high praise, but I think these teams are the real deal in the AFC and this is an epic rematch of last year’s AFC Championship Game. The Chiefs were the AFC favorites going into the season, and the Bills took over that spot when they won 38-20 in Kansas City in Week 5. They had some bad losses since, but Buffalo just had the most perfect offensive game imaginable in crazy conditions against the Patriots, scoring a touchdown on all seven possessions. In fact, this is the first playoff game in NFL history between two quarterbacks who threw five touchdown passes the previous week. Patrick Mahomes threw his five touchdowns in a span of 11:31 against the Steelers.

This could be the next great rivalry in the NFL. This will already be the fourth meeting between Mahomes and Josh Allen in the last two years. John Elway and Dan Marino were in the same conference for 16 seasons and only met three times with two of those coming in Elway’s final season (1998). The Chiefs sent Buffalo home last year to end an eight-game winning streak. The Bills got some revenge this year by handing Mahomes the worst home loss of his career (18 points). His other home losses have been by no more than eight points. The spread has already moved a point towards Buffalo since opening at Chiefs -2.5.

I’m going to break this preview up into the two main questions I have about this matchup.

Question 1: Can the Chiefs turn around the 38-20 defeat from Week 5, and was it really that lopsided?

Results can vary wildly from week to week in the NFL, but on wild card weekend, all five rematches were won by the team who won the previous matchup, including these Bills and Chiefs. Buffalo scored the most points anyone has against New England since 1990. The Chiefs pounded the Steelers for the second time in a month, sending Ben Roethlisberger into retirement.

Both offenses should cool down a little from that historic territory, but there should be more pressure on Kansas City to adjust from that 38-20 walloping the Bills put on them in Week 5. It is hard to beat a great team twice in the same season, but for teams that have already done it, on the road no less, it actually is easier than average in the rematch.

Since 2002, road teams attempting a sweep in the playoffs are now 13-13. The Bills and Rams just reversed their home losses last week by beating the Patriots and Cardinals. The Rams in particular turned a 17-point home loss into a 23-point win on Monday night, but obviously the Cardinals were on life support down the stretch and already lost a home game to their division rival Rams. Likewise, the Patriots flopped down the stretch this year, including two games (without the bad wind) where they couldn’t get the Bills to punt. This is Mahomes in Kansas City, so a bit different.

However, consider these numbers. Since 2002, teams that win the regular-season matchup by at least 18 points are 25-9 (.735) in the playoff rematch. When those teams are the underdog in the playoffs, a rare situation, they are still 5-1 in the playoffs. The only loss was the 2004 Broncos vs. Colts, but that whole example is misleading since Indy rested starters in Week 17 before blowing the Broncos out at home in the playoffs.

But let me rant on my own stat for a brief moment here. This is something I really need to start focusing on more in the offseason. I just gave you a stat on a sample size of 34 games based on games where a team won by at least 18 points. Yes, the Bills beat the Chiefs by 18 points, but an 18-point win is a lot closer to an 11-point win than it is a 31-point win like seven of the games in that sample were. So, why am I looking at a group of “comparable games” when my game is at the lowest end of that qualifier? I’d be better off looking at games decided by 11-to-25 points, or a 7-point window around 18 points. In that case, 23-17 (.575) is the record since 2002, not nearly as one-sided as 25-9 (.735). Just something to think about with stats like that.

It is fair to say the Chiefs were embarrassed by Buffalo in Week 5 as the Bills learned a few things from their 2020 losses. The “don’t blitz Mahomes” thing that got so popular this year? The Bills were actually the first defense to do that, blitzing zero times in the 2020 game on Monday Night Football. The Chiefs just had a great running attack that night and Mahomes made an incredible conversion on third-and-12 to Byron Pringle to put the game away. But it was the lowest-scoring game between these two at 26-17.

In Week 5, Mahomes threw a season-high 54 passes but was only blitzed twice. He was not even pressured that often – 14.3% tied for second-lowest game this season – but did not handle the different looks well. Mahomes scrambled seven times that night, twice more than any other game, as he was not comfortable in the pocket. The Bills, who were destroyed by short throws and YAC from the Chiefs in the AFC Championship Game, also tackled very well in Week 5, holding Mahomes to 4.2 YAC/completion, his second-lowest game of 2021.

On the other side of the ball, the Bills struggled to get any big plays going in their two losses to the 2020 Chiefs. That sure changed in Week 5. Allen had pass completions of 61, 53 (TD), 41, and 35 (TD) yards as he completed 15-of-26 passes for 315 yards without a sack or turnover. Despite his reputation for a big arm, Week 5 remains the only game of Allen’s NFL career where he threw multiple touchdown passes of 25-plus yards. Mahomes has 11 such games in his career.

As it turns out, throwing the deep ball with safety Daniel Sorensen in coverage is quite profitable. Sorensen allowed the two longest completions for 114 yards that night. For the season, he allows 12.1 yards per target in coverage, but the Chiefs have been wise to limit his snaps since that night. Sorensen went from playing 98% of snaps in Weeks 1-5 to 47% of snaps in Weeks 6-17.

Allen also rushed for a team-high 59 yards and a touchdown. Mahomes led the Chiefs with 61 rushing yards but that is not as ideal for Kansas City as it is Buffalo. Jerick McKinnon just had the game of his life for the Chiefs with 142 yards from scrimmage against Pittsburgh, but the Steelers were horrible against running backs this year. With the Kansas City backfield being so inconsistent this year, look for the Bills to contain whichever back gets the majority of touches this time.

There’s this idea that Mahomes has had to adjust with the way defenses are playing the Chiefs, copying that Super Bowl blueprint of minimal blitzes and two-deep safeties. There is definitely truth to this. Mahomes has six games this season with an aDOT under 6.5 yards and all six of those games are since Week 11. His lowest game of the season (5.0 yards) was against the Steelers on Sunday as the Chiefs had big YAC plays.

So, while there is truth to it, let’s not overblow it out of proportion. The Chiefs have had success with long drives in past years. They weren’t all 60-yard bombs to Hill for scores. In fact, Mahomes just threw the longest touchdown pass of his career to Kelce (48 yards) on Sunday night. Mahomes did still attack the Steelers (Week 16) and Bengals (Week 17) deep late in the season with success. I just think it’s important for Kansas City to get Hill and Kelce involved this week. They’ve had some really quiet games down the stretch here, and while the lesser players have stepped up, I’m not sure the Chiefs can continuously score without their stars doing big things.

More than anything, the Chiefs are simply going to have to protect the ball better this time after losing the turnover battle 4-0 in Week 5. Sure, there was a tipped ball off Tyreek Hill’s hands that went to the Bills for a pick-six to make it 31-13 in the third quarter. But guess what? Hill has tipped multiple picks for interceptions this year as Mahomes has had numerous picks come off tipped balls. There was also that red-zone pick by Buffalo, a very good defense at forcing takeaways, on a tipped ball that cost the Chiefs more points that night. Again, guess what? The Chiefs have had multiple tipped picks in scoring territory this year, including against the Giants on MNF and last Sunday against the Steelers.

Mistakes just happen at bad times for this offense, and it’s been that way for much of the season. I’m not sure we can just magically count on them to not do it this week against one of the best defenses they’ll see. On the other hand, one thing they could control is to not give up the obligatory Chiefs fumble by not calling a fvcking Wildcat play when you have Mahomes at QB. The Chiefs called a wildcat play against Pittsburgh, and it blew up for a touchdown return by T.J. Watt. So, let’s scratch that one from the playbook this week, but you’re on your own fortune for tipped picks.

I guess what I’m getting at is if you keep Sorensen off the field and don’t give up as many big plays, and you avoid the tipped pick-six, that could cut 14 points off that 18-point deficit. I think this game should be a lot closer this time, and that could be a bad thing for the Bills, who are 0-5 at 4QC/GWD opportunities this season. Buffalo’s 1-5 record in close games was the worst in the NFL this season.

This was not an issue for Allen’s first three seasons, and his fourth quarter stats look great this year (71.1% complete, 10 TD, 0 INT, 7.6 YPA, 117.7 PR). But they are simply not finishing the drives in crunch time. You saw the red-zone failures in the windy game against New England, a 14-10 loss. He was erratic against the Steelers in Week 1. He was stopped short on the sneak in Tennessee. He choked badly against Jacksonville in a 9-6 stunner. Mahomes is 43-1 when the Chiefs allow fewer than 27 points. The Bills cannot expect to be in position to win a low-scoring game this week.

But in my view, that effort to come back from 17 points down in the fourth quarter in Tampa Bay was big for this team. While they did not win the game in overtime, they tied it up and had a chance in regulation had the referees called defensive pass interference the way they called it for Tampa in overtime (go figure; #LOAT). If I’m a Chiefs fan and Allen has the ball late to win the game, I am nervous as hell. After not blowing a fourth-quarter lead in 2020, the Chiefs have done it three times this year (Ravens, Chargers, Bengals), and that doesn’t even include the epic comeback in Los Angeles when the Chiefs had to win in overtime. Those losses are the reason why this team wasn’t resting as the No. 1 seed and opening with a softer opponent like the Bengals.

Question 2: Do we trust Buffalo’s No. 1 scoring defense for the whole season or Kansas City’s No. 1 scoring defense since Week 6?

This is an interesting matchup as the Bills have the No. 1 scoring defense and were the only team to allow fewer than 300 points this season. But after a horrible start to the season where the Chiefs allowed at least 29 points in all five games, Kansas City turned things around under veteran defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo. Since Week 6, the Chiefs have the No. 1 scoring defense, allowing 24 fewer points than No. 5 Buffalo in that time. The Bengals (34) were the only team to hit 29 points on the Chiefs since Week 6.

Do we trust the season stats or the more recent stats? I’m not sure anyone has ever posted a definitive study of this, or if anything on it would even be conclusive enough as the league is just goofy like that. For example, when I look at the fewest points allowed by a team in Games 6-16 since 2011, the top of the list is the 2011 Steelers. You know, the defense that let Tim Tebow complete 10 passes for 316 yards in a 29-23 wild card loss. Right behind them are the 2014 Seahawks, famous for blowing a 10-point fourth-quarter lead in the Super Bowl, and the 2015 Chiefs, who lost 27-20 in New England.

With defense, it’s all about how you play that day, and who you play usually plays a huge role in that. Sure, we can say the Bills padded their defensive stats by playing rookie Davis Mills in the rain, a 40-0 shutout where he threw for 87 yards and four picks. We can see that Mahomes (272) and Brady (363) were the only quarterbacks to pass for more than 260 yards on Buffalo this year, and Brady (105.6) was the only one to have a passer rating higher than 86.7. That looks daunting for Mahomes, but it’s less daunting when you see this starting QB list for Buffalo:

  • Three cast members of The Walking Dead (2021 Big Ben, Matt Ryan, Cam Newton)
  • Six rookies in a terrible rookie year (Trevor Lawrence, Zach Wilson, Davis Mills, Mac Jones 3x)
  • Two hopeful employees in 2022 (Taylor Heinicke, Trevor Siemian)
  • One bus driver (Carson Wentz)
  • One create-a-player with a generic name (Mike White)

That leaves Brady and his aforementioned big game that still needed overtime and one blown coverage, Mahomes and the game we went over, and Ryan Tannehill got a huge game from Derrick Henry on an effective night where the Titans scored 34 points in a win.

In other words, I’m not sure the Chiefs need to be that scared of this defense, especially without corner Tre’Davious White (ACL) to take on Hill. In Week 5, Mahomes was just 5-of-11 for 36 yards when targeting White in coverage. He’s gone now.

On the other hand, the Bills can look at this Kansas City defensive improvement and point to the schedule as well. Like getting Daniel Jones and the Giants on any week. Getting the Cowboys when they were in a funk and Amari Cooper had COVID and CeeDee Lamb left at halftime with a concussion. Two games against zombie Big Ben with a foot in the door for retirement. Two games against Derek Carr, who has spent eight years teasing the Raiders he’s a franchise quarterback. One big game against Green Bay where Aaron Rodgers was out with COVID, forcing Jordan Love to make his first start. It didn’t go well. Teddy and Drew Lock? Please, and they actually let Lock run wild in that rematch. A huge fumble by Melvin Gordon won that game for the Chiefs.

But what happened when the improved Chiefs faced the Chargers in a first-place showdown in Week 15 and a red-hot Joe Burrow with the No. 1 seed in contention in Week 16? The defense did not perform well. Mahomes and the offense had to rally in Los Angeles, hope for some Chargering, and got the ball first in overtime to end it 34-28. Despite leading by double-digits multiple times in Cincinnati, the Chiefs gave up 34 points and the game-winning drive to end it after committing multiple penalties again. The defense even allowed a third-and-27 conversion for 30 yards to Ja’Marr Chase.

So, the over/under is 54 points and you can see why with the way these offenses are capable of lighting it up, and neither defense is exactly reliable against what would be considered a good offense this year.

The Chiefs are undeniably playing better defense than they did to start the season when they were arguably the worst in the league. But is this a championship-caliber defense like 2019 was? After seeing the games in Week 15-16, I say no. But they’ll have a great opportunity to prove it on Sunday, as will Buffalo’s top-ranked scoring defense. I said last year that if the Bills could combine their 2020 offense with their 2019 defense, they would win the Super Bowl. The 2021 Bills, Jacksonville loss be damned, are trying to be that team.

The Prediction

In the preseason, I picked the Chiefs to get back to the Super Bowl. But it’s really hard to get back to a third in a row, especially coming off such a brutal 31-9 loss. We’ve already seen the Chiefs lose this year to the Ravens, Chargers, Bills, Titans, and Bengals. They are 0-3 against the remaining playoff field in the AFC. I think this is the week where having the bad-bounce turnovers and giving up too many plays to good offenses combine to hurt the Chiefs and send the Bills to the next round and a step closer to that elusive Super Bowl win.

My detailed prediction: I see the Chiefs leading 27-24 late as KC and under bettors are sweating bullets. Allen finally puts his gaudy fourth-quarter stats to use this year and leads the first game-winning drive of the season for a touchdown in the final minute.

Is it the ending I want? No, but if the early game on Sunday goes my way, I can watch this one in peace and be satisfied with anything that happens.

Final: Bills 31, Chiefs 27

NFL Stat Oddity: Wild Card Weekend

After a terrible postseason last year, how did the NFL start things this January? A whistle controversy. The perfect offensive game in frigid conditions. A couple of No. 7 seeds from Pennsylvania offered up as sacrificial lambs to guarantee the Chiefs and Buccaneers don’t go one-and-done after last year’s Super Bowl meeting. And an asshole, calling a QB run with 14 seconds left and no timeouts.

Some fun was had. Memories were made. A legend came to a sobering end.

But you know what we didn’t get? Not a single fourth-quarter lead change. The whole 2020 postseason also did not have a fourth-quarter lead change. The closest was the Buccaneers breaking a 20-20 tie in New Orleans in the divisional round.

That means we have gone 18 straight NFL playoff games without a single fourth-quarter lead change. The last was in Super Bowl 54 between the Chiefs and 49ers, thanks to one third-and-15 play.

Is this the longest drought in NFL playoff history? I’m not sure as of right now, but I know it ties the last longest drought of 18 games from the 2004 divisional round (Saturday night game) through the 2006 wild card round (Saturday afternoon game).

But at least that stretch gave us one of the most dramatic playoff games ever: 2005 AFC divisional between the Steelers and Colts. It’s a fitting game to bring up at the end of Ben Roethlisberger’s career as his tackle of Nick Harper after Jerome Bettis’ fumble affected so many legacies, including his own. Bettis and head coach Bill Cowher likely are never inducted into the Hall of Fame without Ben’s tackle. If Hines Ward ever gets into Canton on the strength of a Super Bowl MVP from that year, he can thank Ben for that tackle as well. Would Adam Vinatieri ever end up as Indy’s kicker had Mike Vanderjagt not come on to choke so badly on the game-tying field goal? Nick Harper also would be a hero and only get hate mail from Pittsburgh addresses.

This is what the playoffs can do. One moment can change everything about how we view players, coaches, and teams. So, can we cook up some more drama next week? It looks like a good one on paper. As for the Rams and Cardinals, I’ll see you when I see you. But let’s get things started with the only team that was truly perfect this weekend.

This season in Stat Oddity:

Patriots at Bills: The Perfect Game

On Saturday night, the Bills left no doubt that the AFC East belongs to them now with a 47-17 thrashing of the Patriots, the worst playoff loss in Bill Belichick’s career. About the only thing the Bills did wrong was fail on two extra points. When these teams met in Week 16, the Bills scored on six of eight drives and never punted in an impressive performance.

This time, the Bills had quite arguably the greatest offensive performance in NFL history.

  • Buffalo’s offense scored seven touchdowns on seven offensive possessions. The eighth “drive” was just three kneeldowns.
  • These drives covered lengths of 70, 80, 81, 89, 58, 77, and 39 yards.
  • Buffalo was 6-of-7 on third down with the only “failure” being a kneeldown to end the game. Those were also the only plays where Buffalo lost yardage and the Bills did not allow a sack.
  • This means the Bills never faced a fourth down in the entire game.
  • Josh Allen had more touchdown passes (five) than incompletions as he was 21-of-25 passing.

Under any circumstances, this would be in the running for the best offensive game in NFL history. But when you add in that it was a playoff game against a division rival with a defensive coach many consider the greatest to ever do it, and the Bills performed like this in single-digit temperatures against the No. 2 scoring defense, I think it is hands down the best offensive performance in NFL history.

This is only the third NFL game since World War II where a team had seven touchdowns, zero punts, and zero turnovers. But Buffalo is the only team to not kick a field goal as well.

This is actually the fourth NFL game since 2000 where an offense scored at least six touchdowns and scored on every drive except for the last one that ended in kneeldowns to run out the clock, but none of the other three matched Buffalo’s perfection.

  • 2000 Rams vs. Chargers: Rams had 6 TD, 5 FG and ran out the clock with three knees in 57-31 win.
  • 2015 Patriots vs. Jaguars: Patriots had 6 TD, 3 FG and ran out the clock with two knees in 51-17 win.
  • 2018 Saints at Bengals: Saints had 6 TD, 3 FG and ran out the final 4:42 on the clock (three knees after the two-minute warning) in a 51-14 win.

All great performances, but all against weak competition and none hit that 7-for-7 touchdown mark.

Buffalo’s performance was so divine that it hardly mattered what the New England offense did or didn’t do this time. Rookie quarterback Mac Jones had six incompletions at halftime, including a spike, a couple drops, and one incredible interception in the end zone by Micah Hyde. But New England trailed 27-3 at halftime, the most points the Patriots have allowed in the first half of any game under Belichick. The 47 points are the most the Patriots have allowed in a game since giving up 48 to the 1990 Eagles.

I told you in September that Jones would never match the luck of Brady, the LOAT. Brady has started 362 games in the NFL and his teams have never allowed more than 42 points. Jones led the Patriots to 17 points in this game and lost by 30. Brady started his playoff career 4-0 despite leading his offense to 16, 0, 13, and 17 points in those games. That era of getting by with the bare minimum on offense and relying on great defense is dead.

For the second time in three years, Belichick coached a paper tiger that fell apart down the stretch and couldn’t get past the first day of the postseason. We probably should have seen this coming. Any team that loses by 10 points to Carson Wentz when he throws for 57 yards should raise every red flag about their legitimacy.

The Patriots started this season 2-4 with wins over the lowly Jets and Texans. We gave them credit for hanging tough with superior Tampa Bay and Dallas teams, but they were an afterthought early in the season. The Patriots later finished the season losing four of five and only beating the awful Jaguars 50-10 to pad the season stats.

But it was that fool’s gold 7-0 run in the middle that had some people drinking the New England Kool-Aid again. As it turns out, beating up on the Jets, the Panthers without Christian McCaffrey, the Browns with an injured Baker Mayfield, the Falcons and Titans without their skill players, and another choke by the Chargers isn’t the stuff that makes for an elite team.

Things peaked with that 14-10 win in Buffalo where NFL talking heads wanted to hang the three pass gameplan in the Hall of Fame.

I never bought it. I knew in a normal weather game, the Bills would show their superiority. I just never imagined we would see this type of perfection in those conditions. But while cold-weather games can be low scoring like the 10-9 game between the 2015 Vikings and Seahawks, wind is still the bigger issue. This game did not have wind problems like Week 13 presented. Allen was able to throw the ball accurately and all five of his touchdown passes came on play-action.

The Game Where Buffalo Scored a Touchdown on Every Drive is going to be one that people remember and cite for years to come. It’s that historic. But I imagine for it to take on an even greater relevance, the Bills are going to have to win the Super Bowl this year. We never really talk about the 1990 Bills scoring 44 and 51 points on their way to the Super Bowl because they didn’t get the job done against the Giants (thanks for nothing, Scott Norwood).

But after seeing how the Bills handled the Patriots in this one, who wants to bet against them? Of course, they must contend with the Chiefs in Kansas City, so get ready for a week of looking back at 38-20 (and 38-24 in last year’s AFC Championship Game).

Steelers at Chiefs: Well, At Least It Wasn’t 62-7

I usually write some form of eulogy for the Steelers after their latest playoff loss, but now I am just wondering when that opportunity will come again. The team heads into an era without Ben Roethlisberger following his likely last game in Kansas City, a 42-21 defeat that only showed promise for one quarter before snowballing into another record-setting loss, the fourth in a row for the Steelers in the playoffs. I’ll compile my thoughts on Roethlisberger’s career at a later date, but for now, it’s about this game.

Despite the scoreless first quarter, these teams combined for 63 points, a playoff record for a game that was scoreless after 15 minutes. This was made possible by the Steelers once again allowing their season-high in points in the playoffs, something they have done in four straight playoffs (2016-17 and 2020-21).

Pittsburgh is the first team in NFL history to allow at least 36 points in four straight playoff games, and the first team in NFL history to allow at least 42 points in three straight playoff games. Oh, at least they had three sacks and two takeaways this time, but T.J. Watt’s fumble return touchdown in the second quarter only seemed to ignite Patrick Mahomes on a historic playoff scoring run.

The turnover only happened because the Chiefs were foolish enough to run a wildcat play, but once Mahomes got back in control, he destroyed the Pittsburgh defense in a way few ever have. Mahomes threw five touchdown passes in a span of 11 minutes and 31 seconds, a playoff record.

Mahomes used the whole playbook to pick apart the Steelers. There was a shovel pass touchdown, there was a great throw on third down to Byron Pringle for a 12-yard touchdown, there was a 48-yard touchdown to Travis Kelce on third-and-20 right before halftime, the second-longest touchdown catch of Kelce’s career. If third-and-20 wasn’t enough of a back-breaker to make it 21-7 at halftime, the Chiefs doubled up with Mahomes throwing a 1-yard touchdown to an eligible lineman to make it 28-7.

All four of those drives were 68-plus yards. Only after the lone Pittsburgh turnover did the Chiefs get a short field that ended in a fifth touchdown to Tyreek Hill on a deep ball. Mahomes had a chance at six touchdowns, but Kelce ended up throwing a 2-yard touchdown to Pringle on another trick play the Steelers had no answer for.

If the Steelers hadn’t established such a pathetic standard of postseason defense under Mike Tomlin, and if the Bills weren’t so sublime on Saturday night, this Kansas City domination would be the talk of the weekend. Even with another tipped interception and the obligatory fumble, the Chiefs smoked the Steelers out of the playoffs and perhaps out of contention for some time to come. Since losing Super Bowl 45 to Green Bay, Tomlin and Roethlisberger were just 3-8 in the playoffs.

As far as final games go, Roethlisberger finished somewhere in the large area between awful and great. He usually has multiple turnovers in a playoff loss but finished this game with none. He was however a non-factor for the first half, passing for 24 yards on 14 attempts as the Steelers started with seven straight punts. Diontae Johnson did him no favors with a couple of drive-killing drops, but the offense never had any real plan. Najee Harris did not look healthy and lost the first fumble of his career to start the third quarter. That fumble led to Mahomes’ fifth touchdown pass and the rout was on at 35-7. Roethlisberger led two straight touchdown drives with James Washington making some great catches, but it was too little too late. Ben’s last march, down 42-21, got to the Kansas City 3 before the final seconds ticked away to end an era in Pittsburgh.

The Chiefs have another huge one with Buffalo while the Steelers have plenty of questions. It was nice to see JuJu Smith-Schuster return to action for Roethlisberger’s final game, but it’s not like offensive coordinator Matt Canada and this coaching staff has any idea how to use him properly in this offense. JuJu may be gone as well as a slew of other players. The bigger question is which heads are going to roll in the coaching staff? We know Tomlin is safe for 2022, but how can defensive coordinator Keith Butler possibly return after this pathetic display in the playoffs again? You just let Jerick McKinnon gain 142 yards from scrimmage. This team is unlikely to beat Cincinnati (Joe Burrow) in a big game any time soon, let alone Mahomes and the Chiefs without big changes.

The “never had a losing season” thing wears thin when there is such a lack of playoff success attached to it. Given what usually happens to a team the first year without their Hall of Fame quarterback, I imagine it won’t be a fact to point to much longer for Tomlin. The standard needs to change.

49ers at Cowboys: Fourth Quarter Fvckery

Jesus Christ, is this what we get when Kyle Shanahan is trying to hold off a 16-point comeback in the playoffs by a Mike McCarthy-coached team? This game did not want to die as numerous people volunteered to be the scapegoat, but no one wanted to be the hero. Still, it was the most dramatic game of the weekend and the closest we came to a fourth-quarter lead change.

I picked the 49ers outright as my upset of the week. I liked the San Francisco pass rush after what it did to Matthew Stafford last week, and sure enough, it got after Dak Prescott well to throw him off his game (five sacks) despite Nick Bosa leaving with a head injury. I was big on Deebo Samuel, and he did not disappoint with 110 yards from scrimmage and another touchdown. Also, I thought the Cowboys were a mistake-prone, fraudulent No. 1 offense and a 12-win team that got half of its wins against the lowly NFC East competition. Despite having the most points and yards in the league, Dallas was only No. 8 in both yards and points per drive this season, a very unusual discrepancy.

But even I did not expect Dallas to look so bad for much of the game. The 49ers were settling for a lot of field goals early or else we’d have another blowout this weekend. But the 49ers were avoiding the turnovers the Cowboys capitalized on all year. The Cowboys, who complain a lot about officiating, were flagged 14 times for 89 yards in the game. Of the four times a team had 14 penalties this season, two of them were Dallas, including both the Cowboys and Raiders in that Thanksgiving game.

But at some point, you have to stop doing dumb shit and hurting your team. CeeDee Lamb had a rough game and wiped out an 18-yard completion with an illegal shift late in the third quarter as the Cowboys still trailed 23-7. The drive eventually stalled at midfield when it looked like McCarthy was going to punt again, which I didn’t agree with this time as time was running out in a 16-point game. Alas, it was a predictable fake that still caught the 49ers off guard for a conversion. But instead of continuing the drive, the Cowboys kept the special teams unit out there on first down against San Francisco’s defense, hoping to make the 49ers burn a timeout. WTF? The only confusion was on Dallas, which got hit with a delay of game penalty after trying to get the offense on late. That was a great preview of the fourth-quarter fvckery to come.

The Cowboys ended up settling for a 51-yard field goal on 4th-and-7. Personally, I didn’t mind the call with the way Dak was playing. I had very little faith in a conversion, and a stop there would really make things dire. Down 16, you almost have to assume you’re going to need three scores anyway as going 8+8 just to tie is very difficult. Just keep extending the game and make something happen. I even predicted as much and was rewarded with a gift from Jimmy Garoppolo.

Just four snaps later, Garoppolo got careless and threw an interception that was returned to the San Francisco 28. Hello, short field. Fred Warner joined Bosa on the sidelines with an injury, and Prescott scrambled for a touchdown to make it 23-17 after an extra point that never seemed to be second guessed by Dallas’ staff.

Out of all the two-point conversion dialogue, we never really spend time on what to do when you’re down 13 but going for two seems to be the smart call, especially with just over eight minutes left against an offense that had been scoring on you.

  • If you go for it and fail, you’re still down 23-16 and can tie with a normal touchdown drive.
  • If you go for it and succeed, you’re only down 23-18, can go up 26-23 with a TD/2PC, or if the 49ers add a field goal to go up 26-18, you’re still in a one-possession game, which is crucial given the time crunch.
  • If you kick the extra point to make it 23-17 like Dallas did, a San Francisco field goal still makes it 26-17, a two-possession game. Also, if you get a touchdown, you’re almost certainly going to kick an extra point to go ahead 24-23, which means you can still lose to a field goal.

After never giving it much thought before Sunday, I have to say I’ll fully be in favor of going for two when down 13 going forward. But Dallas didn’t even bother.

The 49ers took advantage of two more penalties on Dallas’ defense to have a long drive, but they still faced a 4th-and-1. They were going to go for it, which I’m not sure about, but their own penalties forced them to punt. Prescott only needed two snaps to get to midfield before the drive stalled out on four straight failed plays. I loved the 49ers sending pressure on fourth-and-11 with their best natural rusher (Bosa) out of the game. Prescott threw up a decent deep ball to Cedrick Wilson, but he failed to adjust and make the catch.

It still wasn’t over with Dallas having all three timeouts and 1:42. Randy Gregory, no stranger to penalties, had another big one for defensive holding on a second down. That should have set the 49ers up nicely, but they hurt themselves with a false start. Samuel got the ball on third-and-10 for what was initially ruled a game-sealing first down, but he was inches short of the marker. I think going for the QB sneak to end it was the right call at 40 seconds, but the 49ers even botched that with a false start after using too much motion. Punt was the only option left.

We’ve seen crazier things than a team go 80 yards in 32 seconds. The Cowboys had three really nice plays in a row to get 39 of those yards as the 49ers played inexplicably soft. But then came the call that will go down in infamy. Teams usually believe they need about 16 seconds to complete a play in bounds and regroup for the spike and one more play. Teams practice this. Dallas had 14 seconds left, so this was really going to test that limit if the play wasn’t super fast. The play ended up being a QB draw that Dak milked for 17 yards to the San Francisco 24. But in trying to get the spike off, the ball had to be touched by the official, who bumped into Prescott under center, and the spike ended the game. It didn’t even look like the spike beat the game clock to be honest.

The game was over in shame for Dallas. I don’t care if the call was the idea of McCarthy, Dak, or offensive coordinator Kellen Moore, it was the wrong decision all the way. I’d rather take two shots to the end zone from the SF 41. Maybe even three if I draw a pass interference flag, something the 49ers led the league in this year by a wide margin.

Maybe someone a little faster like Lamar Jackson pulls off that spike with a second to spare, but it was too damn cute in a situation that had zero margin for error.

The 49ers move on, barely. Dallas proved to be a paper tiger once again. This marks the 11th straight postseason where the Cowboys failed to advance to the NFC Championship Game, which is an NFL record. Can never complain about a weekend where Robert Kraft and Jerry Jones watch their teams lose in embarrassing fashion, but I feel weird about Prescott after this game. I was hoping for a much better performance than this as it was his first postseason start since the 2018 season. I do not believe the Cowboys have a quarterback problem, but I get the sense that promoting Moore to head coach won’t change a thing in Dallas and its playoff misfortunes.

At least Amari Cooper showed up and caught a touchdown, so I don’t have to end by calling him soft again. Save the criticism for Lamb, who really disappointed in his playoff debut with one catch on five targets.

If the 49ers can stay out of their own way, they might be a dangerous team this postseason. Great challenge coming up in Green Bay on Saturday night.

Eagles at Buccaneers: Pennsylvania Going Out Sad on Sunday

The worst game of the weekend should come as no surprise. The 2021 Eagles slipped to 0-7 against playoff teams, something only the 2011 Bengals (0-8) can claim they’ve done among all playoff teams in NFL history. This is what happens when you let a 5-7 team play the Jets, Giants, and Washington (twice) so they can get the No. 7 seed, which grants them a road game against a team that used to get a bye week.

Philadelphia trailed as badly as 31-0 as Jalen Hurts struggled to make on-time plays or establish any offensive rhythm against a Tampa Bay defense that is getting healthy at the right time. The running game was pretty much shut down outside of Boston Scott exploding for a 34-yard touchdown run on his only carry. Miles Sanders (7 carries for 16 yards) finishes his 2021 allergic to the end zone.

Hurts threw two picks and Jalen Reagor had an awful day in every way with a muffed punt that blew open the game. Tampa Bay’s offense was nothing special and was stalling out after taking a 17-0 lead. But once Reagor muffed that punt in the third quarter, the Buccaneers took advantage with a 48-yard touchdown drive as no one decided to cover Rob Gronkowski for an easy touchdown. Hurts was picked on a fourth down and Tom Brady only needed one play to find Mike Evans for a 36-yard touchdown.

Despite two touchdowns in the fourth quarter, the Eagles never seriously threatened. But the Eagles were able to sack Brady four times and hold Tampa Bay to 4-of-13 on third down. The Buccaneers will have to be sharper in their next game, and it could be without elite right tackle Tristan Wirfs, who was injured early in the game. He tried to return, which was probably a bad idea, before leaving for good. The Bucs also lost center Ryan Jensen, but that was brief, and he finished the game.

We’ll see what happens with Wirfs going forward, but Tampa Bay is still in a good position to get back to the NFC Championship Game, if not host it should the 49ers upset the Packers.

The highlight of this game was FOX’s Troy Aikman visibly complaining on camera about having to call this game instead of being in Dallas for the San Francisco game everyone knew would be better. Troy was right, but I didn’t mind hearing CBS’ Tony Romo take some enjoyment in the Cowboys losing a rough playoff game instead of listening to Romo slurp Brady for three hours.

Raiders at Bengals: The Most Jerome Boger Game Ever

We can talk about the officials, or we can talk about the Bengals nailing their draft picks of Joe Burrow and Ja’Marr Chase and winning a division title and home playoff game in their first season together to end a 30-year playoff drought. That’s an important achievement in what could be the start of a great run in Cincinnati.

Of course, you’re not always going to draw an opponent as weak as the Raiders, who were outscored by 65 points this season. But after having the worst red-zone defense in 30 years, the Raiders can thank their red-zone defense for keeping this a close game instead of another rout. The Raiders allowed a touchdown 81.4% of the time in the red zone this year – no one else was above 70.0%. But the Cincinnati offense finished 2-of-5 in the red zone in this game.

The second of those conversions created the controversy in this one. Joe Burrow scrambled near the sideline before throwing a 10-yard touchdown pass to Tyler Boyd, who was wide open in the back of the end zone. It was ruled a touchdown and gave the Bengals a 20-6 lead after the two-minute warning in the first half.

But a whistle clearly blows on the play, which by rule, should have blown the play dead and led to a replaying of the down, which was a third-and-4 at the Las Vegas 10. Maybe the Bengals still score on the next play. Maybe they get a first down and score later, not leaving the Raiders enough time for their touchdown drive they finished with 13 seconds to spare. Maybe the Bengals miss a short field goal. Maybe, maybe, maybe.

The NFL did itself no favors by saying after the game that the whistle came after the ball was caught by Boyd. Here’s my take: I think the whistle blew while Boyd was going up to catch the ball. He was already wide open. Burrow was in bounds and threw a perfectly legal pass. Boyd was in bounds and caught the ball for a touchdown. The players did everything right on the play. The only mistake was an inadvertent whistle by a referee. Why should we bail out the Raiders on defense for a mistake like that? It’s sour grapes. The touchdown is legitimate.

There were other officiating controversies in the game, but that’s basically cooked into the product any time Jerome Boger is the referee. Long delays are his specialty too. I cannot imagine we’ll see this crew do another game this postseason, so maybe it’s for the best that we got this snafu out of the way in a wild card game.

Burrow was impressive in his first playoff game, especially when you consider the running game failed with Joe Mixon only rushing for 48 yards on 17 carries. Chase was impressive too, though Tee Higgins remained a ghost against this Vegas defense for a second time this season.

But because of those red-zone failures early in the game, the Bengals never ran away with things. The Raiders got the late stops and Derek Carr got all he could ask for: a chance at a game-tying (or game-winning with a two-point conversion) touchdown drive, down 26-19 with 1:51 left.

As always, I expected him to get BS flags, especially with what happened earlier in the game to Vegas. Immediately, he got an extra 15 yards on one of the worst roughing calls you’ll see in a big spot. But after a brilliant throw to Darren Waller to convert a third-and-17, Carr went back to making bad plays. Eventually, he hit another third down but ended up wasting a down with a spike. At 30 seconds, I thought he had enough time to have a play called and not waste that down. This proved costly.

Carr had a fourth-and-goal at the 9 with 17 seconds left. The Raiders certainly did not run a play with good design. Hunter Renfrow should be doing something towards the end zone, for starters. But I think Carr ultimately panicked and forced a pass short of the goal line to Zay Jones in double coverage. It was a game-ending interception, but even a completion there would have ended the game short of the goal line.

Carr blew his chance to be a hero in the biggest game of his career. Waller running a wheel route would have been the better decision. Put some air on it and let your best guy use his size to his advantage. At least throw it in the end zone with the game on the line.

At least they didn’t run Carr on a quarterback draw, I guess.

This is the first season in NFL history where the Bengals and Buccaneers both won a playoff game. Throw in the Bills in the AFC and consider how long those playoff win droughts were (1996-2019 for Buffalo), and we are really seeing that changing of the guard in the AFC. It’s exciting for the league as another huge Bills-Chiefs game looms next week. But the Bengals may have an upset in mind in Tennessee as well. Exciting times for the Bengals for a change.

NFL 2021 AFC Wild Card Previews

The AFC playoffs begin with three rematches of games that took place in Week 11 or later. Patriots-Bills is a third divisional matchup, but if you just consider the last meeting, then all three road teams this weekend are trying to avenge a loss by 12-plus points.

It’s a tall task, but not impossible as these fan bases should know from past experiences. Just last year, the Steelers beat Cleveland 38-7 at Heinz Field before losing 48-37 to the Browns in the playoffs. Tampa Bay was swept by New Orleans in the regular season, including a 38-3 bloodbath in Week 9, but the Buccaneers won 30-20 in the divisional round, the crucial turning point in last year’s championship run.

And of course I have to bring up how the 2010 Patriots once beat the Jets 45-3 in December, then lost 28-21 to Mark Sanchez a month later in the divisional round. That 49-point turnaround is the stuff of legends, but it would not be the craziest thing ever if the Raiders or Steelers pulled off wins this week.

But it’s not very likely. Double-digit underdogs, like Pittsburgh, in playoff rematches since 2002 are just 4-13 SU. Most of the closest games all happened in the 2007 playoffs with Philip Rivers tearing his ACL in Indy, playing on said injury in New England, and those 18-0 Patriots choking in the Super Bowl to the Giants. Other upsets include the Beastquake against the 2010 Saints and Jake Delhomme’s career imploding against the 2008 Cardinals.

Since 2002, the team winning the regular-season matchup by at least 12 points is 32-17 (.653) in the playoff rematch with an average margin of victory of 11.3 points. However, only 13 of the 49 teams were able to win the rematch by 12 or more points too. The record is 14-10 (.583) for the previous game winner when it’s a rematch from Week 11 or later.

The NFC previews will be posted on Friday.

Raiders at Bengals (-4.5)

See my early preview for this game at BMR.

The spread keeps moving towards the Raiders and I think I understand that. A large chunk of the world was not born yet when the Bengals last won a playoff game. Then again, the Raiders haven’t won one since the 2002 AFC Championship Game.

This one is interesting with both teams having almost no big-game experience (let alone success) to speak of, and I think the 32-13 win in Week 11 by the Bengals in Las Vegas is a misleading score.

Joe Burrow had a spectacular second season, leading the NFL in completion percentage (70.4%) and yards per attempt (8.9). However, he also took a league-high 51 sacks. The Raiders are about average at getting to the quarterback, but that might be more impressive than it sounds when you consider they send the lowest blitz rate (12.1%) by far according to Pro Football Reference. Burrow faced a season-low two blitzes against the Raiders in Week 11, but they still got him for three sacks and nine pressures. Maxx Crosby did not have a sack, but he has been a beast with pressures this year. The Raiders are 8-2 when Crosby has at least two pressures, so he needs to have a bigger game this time.

But if I’m a Cincinnati fan, I am worried that my big-play passing offense did not materialize in Week 11. Against the Raiders, Burrow had a season-low 148 yards with no play gaining more than 17 yards. He only threw 29 passes, but he also set season lows in YPA (5.1), air yards per completion (3.2), and completed air yards per attempt (2.2). The great wide receiver trio was held to 96 yards and a touchdown by Ja’Marr Chase, who was in the process of a seven-game slump where he only averaged 40.6 yards per game. The Bengals are 3-5 when Chase has under 60 yards compared to 7-2 when he goes over that number.

The only 20-yard play Cincinnati had against the Raiders was a 20-yard run by Joe Mixon, who shined that day with 30 carries for 123 yards and two touchdowns. Mixon ended the season with COVID, but he should be rested and ready for this one. The Raiders are nothing special at stopping the run.

Despite the 32-13 final, neither team cracked 300 yards in Week 11. It was a 16-13 game in the fourth quarter before the Bengals put it away with a 62-yard touchdown drive. A couple turnovers by Carr in the final minutes padded the score with 10 more points by Cincinnati.

Third down was a killer as the Raiders were 1-of-7 and the Bengals were 8-of-16. Those rates should be closer this time though the Bengals (39.6%; ranked 16th) are a little better than the Raiders (37.4%; ranked 23rd) this year. Both offenses have also scored 31 touchdowns in the red zone, and while the Raiders get there a little more often, they rank 26th in red zone touchdown percentage (51.7%).

The Bengals did get to rest key starters against the Browns on Sunday. The Raiders of course had to play a full fifth quarter to put away the Chargers on Sunday night to get in the tournament. That potential for some fatigue on Saturday may be offset by potential rust and jumpiness by the young Bengals to start the game. We have no idea how Burrow and company will react to the postseason setting.

Of course, betting on Derek Carr in the biggest game of his life (first playoff start in Year 8) is also an unknown. Is he going to turn into Andy Dalton or surprise us like a Nick Foles or Jeff Hostetler to reference a former Raider? You probably know I think the guy is not a legit franchise quarterback and relies on penalties to boost his admittedly impressive collection of game-winning drives. Carr has 30 game-winning drives in eight seasons, which trails only Russell Wilson (32) and Matt Ryan (31) for the most in a quarterback’s first eight seasons.

Hell, Carr has a better record at 4QC/GWD opportunities (30-33, .476) than he has as a starter in general (57-70, .449). That’s not supposed to happen in the NFL.

The problem has been keeping the game close enough to win it late. If we’re being honest, the Raiders were an afterthought at 6-7 following a 1-5 stretch where they only beat Dallas on Thanksgiving thanks to an absurd number of crucial penalties. But then the Raiders drew the Browns in a COVID crunch, having to start Nick Mullens at quarterback. They won it 16-14 on a 48-yard field goal. They got Drew Lock, another lousy backup quarterback in Denver, and won 17-13. They beat the Colts on a last-second field goal despite Carr throwing two interceptions. But it sure is good to play Carson Wentz (coming off COVID to boot). Then the epic against the Chargers where Justin Herbert refused to die, but a lot of Chargering ensued. How about a run for a first down on 3rd-and-23, or a bullshit 41-yard DPI flag on an uncatchable pass on the same drive for a crucial touchdown before halftime?

Carr led the Raiders on six game-winning drives this year to get to 10-7, which covers up the fact that they were outscored by 65 points. Before you say no big deal, consider that the 2021 Raiders are the only 10-win team in NFL history to be outscored by more than 30 points.

Likewise, the 2021 Raiders are only the fourth playoff team in NFL history to be outscored by at least 65 points. The 2004 Rams (-73) managed to beat the rival Seahawks before losing badly in Atlanta. The 2010 Seahawks (-97) were 7-9, but had home-field advantage and beat the Saints 41-36 after Marshawn Lynch’s crazy run. The 2011 Broncos (-81) were 8-8 but got to host a 12-4 Pittsburgh team that was missing its safety (Ryan Clark) because of the altitude’s effect on his sickle cell issue. Tebow 3:16 happened, Demaryius Thomas (RIP) one play into overtime happened, and the rest is history. Well, including the fact that they got their shit pushed in 45-10 in New England the following week.

But the pattern there is two teams that got to play at home and one that got to play a division rival it pretty much owned. The Raiders do not have those advantages this week. The 1989 Steelers, 1998 Cardinals, and 2004 Rams are the only teams in NFL history to win their first playoff game on the road after being outscored by at least 40 points in the regular season.

The Raiders feel like they’re either going to pull off a close win or get blown out. A close win is possible given their season, and the fact that it’s not an area where the Bengals have been strong under Zac Taylor and Burrow. They didn’t close this year in losses to the Bears, Packers, Jets, and 49ers. Burrow is 3-8-1 (.292) at GWD opportunities.

But I do want to point out something significant with penalties. The Raiders have the most penalty yards (1,119) and the Bengals have the fewest (620) this season. Cincinnati is plus-44 in penalty differential, the best in the league. Las Vegas is minus-25 in penalty count differential, tied for the worst in the league. Jerome Boger was the referee in Week 11 when the Bengals had one penalty for 5 yards and the Raiders had seven penalties for 77 yards. Boger will be the referee on Saturday too, so maybe the Raiders won’t be getting much help from the zebras.

For my pick, I’m willing to hedge on the Raiders covering, Bengals winning the game. But this is the best chance I’ve ever seen the Bengals have to finally win a playoff game.

Final: Bengals 24, Raiders 20

Patriots at Bills (-4)

Plain and simple: Buffalo has a better roster than New England, and the biggest advantage is at quarterback. The only issue is the weather can negate that advantage as it did in Week 13 when the Patriots won 14-10 despite throwing three passes.

Guess what? Saturday night in Buffalo might be around zero degrees, the coldest playoff game since we saw the 2015 Seahawks win 10-9 in Minnesota. You remember the Blair Walsh game, right?

The over/under for this game is 44 points. Pro Football Reference shows 12 playoff games with a temperature under 10 degrees, and only one of those games hit 44 points. The 1993 Bills beat the Raiders 29-23, but I’d be stunned to see that kind of offensive prowess on Saturday night.

When the teams met in more normal conditions in Week 16, Josh Allen was fantastic in the 33-21 win. Allen was the 57th quarterback to throw at least 45 passes against Bill Belichick’s Patriots, but he is the only one to escape that game with zero sacks or interceptions. Meanwhile, rookie Mac Jones has struggled down the stretch. In his last five games, Jones has six touchdowns to five interceptions with 6.79 YPA. He was completing 70.3% of his passes in Weeks 1-12, but that fell to 60.0% in the last five games. The Patriots do not have a dominant enough passing game or receiver to take advantage of the Bills losing corner Tre’Davious White to a torn ACL.

These defenses are another reason to bet the under. The Bills (289 points allowed) were the only team to allow fewer than 300 points this season, but right behind them was New England (303). The Bills also allowed nearly 600 fewer yards than the next closest defense. The Bills (4.6) were the only defense to allow under 5.0 yards per play this year. The Bills and Patriots both had 30 takeaways, which ranks third in 2021.

These teams are front-runners. Each team had a four-game streak of winning games by 18+ points, the only teams to have such a streak in the last four seasons. The Patriots (3-4) and Bills (1-5) were the only playoff teams this year to have losing records in close games (within one score in fourth quarter/OT). The Bills were 0-5 at GWD opportunities despite Allen’s gaudy fourth-quarter statistics overall. Jones’ only game-winning drive was against Houston.

The Bills have not won a game by fewer than 10 points since opening last year’s postseason with a 27-24 win over the Colts. I expect fewer points this time, but there is no denying that if the weather is brutal, it helps the Patriots more. New England is going to want to run Damien Harris and company, but the Bills just need to limit the big play. They very well could have won the first meeting if Harris didn’t break that 64-yard touchdown run.

New England had 11 first downs and was 2-of-12 on third down in the infamous Week 13 win. I’m pretty sure the Bills would gladly sign up for those numbers again. It was not a good offensive strategy to attempt just three passes, but the Bills couldn’t get it done offensively that night. Ever since that game, the Patriots have come out of the bye and gone 1-3 with ugly performances in Indy and Miami to go along with the Buffalo loss at home. This team might just be a paper tiger not yet ready to compete for the Lombardi again.

The Patriots have not done a good job of taking away Stefon Diggs in these meetings. He had 85 yards and a touchdown in Week 16. In that game, Cole Beasley was out with COVID, and the Bills used a wrinkle of throwing a bunch of short passes to Isaiah McKenzie, who caught 11-of-12 targets for 125 yards and a touchdown. McKenzie has nine catches in all other games this season combined. That likely won’t be the plan again this time, but Beasley is back, and the Bills have gotten Devin Singletary going on the ground in the last month. The Patriots held him to 39 yards in Week 16, but Allen was dynamic with 12 runs for 64 yards to go along with his 314 passing yards.

Rookie quarterbacks are hard to trust in the playoffs. The Patriots are 1-6 in games where Jones is pressured at least 20% of the time, and yes, I refuse to count his three-attempt game in that statistic.

It’s the playoffs. I think Allen should run more in this game and just take what the defense gives him. I see the Patriots having to lean on Jones for more than three passes and him not delivering against what’s been one of the stingiest defenses this season. Allen may have ugly numbers in this one, but I’m trusting the Bills to get the job done.

Final: Bills 23, Patriots 13

Steelers at Chiefs (-12.5)

On Sunday night, the Steelers return to the site of their last playoff win almost five years to the date. It was an 18-16 divisional round win in Kansas City, shocking the Chiefs with six field goals. It likely was the inciting incident for the Chiefs to pull the trigger on Patrick Mahomes in the 2017 draft and begin a new era of dominance in the AFC.

Now Mahomes can help end an era with Ben Roethlisberger heading into retirement in Pittsburgh. The Steelers have not been this big of an underdog in any game since Super Bowl XXX against Dallas. This is the first wild card game of the Mahomes era, but the Chiefs are a deserving heavy favorite over a Pittsburgh team that snuck into the playoffs after the Jaguars beat the Colts and the Raiders and Chargers narrowly avoided a tie.

This would be a massive upset for Pittsburgh. Not only do the Chiefs have a great pedigree with back-to-back Super Bowl appearances, but that Week 16 win (36-10) was so lopsided. Even without Travis Kelce, the Chiefs scored 36 points with ease and let up in the fourth quarter. Tyreek Hill only had two catches for 19 yards. The Chiefs are going to have to get Hill and Kelce, who were both banged up last week, going at a high level again, but they’ve been doing well as of late without them producing huge numbers aside from the Chargers win in Week 15.

Mahomes and the offense did what it wanted, including rushing for 127 yards against a Pittsburgh run defense that has been horrific this year. T.J. Watt and Cam Heyward can only do so much.

Roethlisberger had one of his least effective games of the season as the Steelers trailed 17-0 very quickly. Even Chris Boswell missed a 36-yard field goal in that half as Kansas City led 23-0. Diontae Johnson fumbled a ball without even being contacted. It was an all-around no-show performance by the Steelers.

Did you see above where I said the Raiders are one of the worst playoff teams in history based on scoring differential? Pittsburgh’s in that mix too at minus-55. The Steelers needed seven game-winning drives and a tie against Detroit to get to 9-7-1, and even then, help from other teams was needed.

It’s been an emotional few weeks for Roethlisberger. He had his last home game in prime time where his family attended, and it was one of the least effective games of his career despite the win. He had to go into Sunday’s game in Baltimore expecting that was it, and maybe after seeing what the Colts were doing in Jacksonville, that sparked him to some more late-game magic with one of the best game-winning drives of his career. Then he had to sweat out the Chargers-Raiders tie that almost ended his career.

What more can he have left for this one, a game where he is the biggest underdog of his career? Pittsburgh’s only hope is that they get a classic Andy Reid performance with bad clock management, a completely one-dimensional attack instead of running on this terrible defense, and some of the usual favors from the Chiefs in tipped balls turning into interceptions, the obligatory fumble, or the stupid drive-extending penalty. None of which the Chiefs are above doing, and Kansas City has blown three fourth-quarter leads this season. But Pittsburgh has eons to go to close the gap from 36-10.

When the 2010 Jets, who I mentioned in the intro, shocked the Patriots, at least we can point to their win over the Patriots earlier in the season as precedent. For that matter, the 2007 Giants winning Super Bowl 42 can be traced back to how well they played New England in Week 17. The Steelers just don’t have much to tip their hat to in this matchup. Anyone trying to compare this team to 2005 (sixth seed winning it all) should not be talking seriously about football. That team was one of the best in the league and lost two games in overtime with their third-string quarterback playing terribly. The 2021 Steelers are a legitimately bad football team held together by a ton of close wins led by the Defensive Player of the Year and a quarterback who is making sure he fires every last bullet in the chamber before he goes out.

Mahomes is 42-1 when the Chiefs allow fewer than 27 points. I just do not see Pittsburgh scoring enough to get this done. I think it will be closer than 36-10, but that’s not saying much. You have to respect how the Steelers play up to the competition. They’ve already defeated Buffalo and Tennessee and lost by 10 in Green Bay despite playing poorly. This is a big spread for the Chiefs to cover.

Confession: Prior to writing this, I knew I was going to choose 27-17 as my final score. I had no idea the Steelers had not been a 13-point underdog since Super Bowl XXX, which also ended 27-17. So, that symmetry just reinforces my pick here. As a Roethlisberger fan since Day 1, I just hope he doesn’t lose 62-7 like Dan Marino did in his last game. At least give us a respectable, if not dramatic ending on Sunday night.

Final: Chiefs 27, Steelers 17

I’ll be back Friday with the NFC previews and a prediction on how this tournament shakes out. Do I still go with my preseason pick of a Super Bowl rematch between the Chiefs and Buccaneers?

NFL 2021 Awards

Before I submit my PFWA ballot for this year’s NFL award winners, I thought I would share the thought process behind each pick on here. With a reminder that these are all regular-season awards, I want to make sure I get my picks in before any postseason game influences my choices.

Most Valuable Player: Aaron Rodgers, Packers

Let me start by saying that I think this was the weakest MVP race with the worst field in the salary cap era. If there was ever a year where a non-quarterback could have earned it, it should have been this one. But even that did not materialize as no defender was outstanding enough (or played enough of his team’s snaps to justify it), and the two skill players (Jonathan Taylor and Cooper Kupp) came up short of a 2,000-yard milestone (rushing or receiving).

I strongly believe MVP is a quarterback award, but it was not a good year for standout quarterback play. The rookies were weak, Dak Prescott’s season was too mistake-filled despite the Cowboys scoring the most points, and Russell Wilson ensured he’d still never get an MVP vote after having the first major injury of his career.

The top three quarterbacks in 2020 (Aaron Rodgers, Patrick Mahomes, and Josh Allen) all regressed in 2021.

I watched Allen against the Steelers in Week 1 and could see right away that something was off. He hit some big passes against the Chiefs in Week 5 when Kansas City was still playing horrific defense and Cris Collinsworth was ready to give him the MVP that night. The oddsmakers were even agreeing around that time, but I never bought it. After Allen imploded with three turnovers in a 9-6 loss to Jacksonville, I eliminated him in my mind.

Mahomes had the worst season of his career and still finished fifth in QBR and perhaps one fewer CEH fumble or blown lead in Cincinnati away from the top seed and best record in the NFL. High standard to be judged by. The Chiefs still finished No. 1 in yards and points per drive too, and Mahomes had several of the best games by any quarterback this year. However, there was an eight-game stretch where he threw 11 touchdowns to eight interceptions and averaged 6.43 YPA. Throw in the defensive turnaround during that time helping the Chiefs go on a winning streak, and there was just no way Mahomes was the MVP this season.

If we gave an MVP for the first half of the season, then Matthew Stafford should have run away with it. However, the Tennessee game happened and that kickstarted a slide into the Detroit Stafford we’re very familiar with.

Kyler Murray was another quarterback who I thought had a chance at MVP this season, but it was dicey when the Cardinals still managed to go 2-1 with Colt McCoy starting. Then Murray had some rough games and that was a no-go.

Justin Herbert was my MVP pick after Week 5, then he hit a slump. After the Pittsburgh win in Week 11 and the incredible long touchdown throw against the Giants in Week 14, I was back to thinking he had an argument. But then the Chiefs took over the division with that epic overtime win despite a decent game from Herbert, and that seemed to follow them to a bad loss against Houston. By that time, he had no realistic chance, and now after missing the playoffs despite another epic performance on Sunday night in Vegas, we know he’s not getting a vote this year. But his day should come.

So, I’ve just eliminated Allen, Mahomes, Stafford, Murray, and Herbert. I’ll quickly mention that Joe Burrow absolutely had a shot at this had he been able to close out those games against the Bears, Packers, Jets, and 49ers. Even just two of them might have done the trick, but he threw some bad interceptions in a couple of those games or couldn’t get the game-winning drive in the others. But he was a matter of a couple drives from deservedly pulling this off, so I think his day too may come for this award.

Who does that leave? Oh yeah, Aaron Rodgers and Tom Brady. By default, I ended up taking the 2020 standout who regressed the least and that was Rodgers. This is a default MVP choice in my eyes, just as Peyton Manning was the default pick in 2008 and Brady was the default pick in 2010 and 2017.

The last thing we need is Brady getting a third default MVP. Also, I had 2400 reasons to want it to happen based on my preseason bets as a $200 bet on Brady at +1200 was my top MVP bet.

Going into Week 15, Brady looked like he was going to be handed another MVP by default. My bet to win $2,400 had a cash out option of $1,300 at the time. It didn’t seem likely that the Bucs would lose another game after getting past Buffalo in overtime. It also didn’t seem likely that voters would vote for Rodgers after his numbers were down from 2020 and all the COVID nonsense he brought on himself.

Then 9-0 against New Orleans happened in front of a national audience. Brady had a chance to show his MVP worth on a night where the Bucs had a lot of injuries, and he couldn’t even put up a single point. He got swept by the Saints with Trevor Siemian and Taysom Hill at quarterback. In between he lost to a bad Washington team with Taylor Heinicke. But 9-0 was the death knell for his MVP case.

Of course, at no point this season did I think Brady was deserving of MVP despite my profitable bet if he won the award. He spent the year throwing to the best receiving corps in the league, which was accurate before Antonio Brown compounded the loss of Chris Godwin, behind an elite pass protection line. He was feasting on short fields for touchdowns. He threw the second-most passes in NFL history and had just the 13th-highest YPA of his career. He was completely outshined by Stafford in the showdown in Los Angeles. He wasn’t even more impressive than Allen in that head-to-head game in Week 14, a game largely decided by what was called pass interference at the end. The aforementioned ugly trio of losses, including the pick-six in New Orleans when he had a chance to win the game. Let’s not also forget that he only managed one touchdown drive in New England against Bill Belichick in one of the most overhyped regular-season games of all time.

Brady was the MVP this year only if MVP means Mass Volume Player. So, when Bruce Arians calls it a travesty if he doesn’t win it, I’m calling it a travesty if Brady gets a vote. And you know he will.

By the way, I cashed out my Brady MVP bet at $244 before Week 17, so I made $44 in the process. Something is rigged if Brady wins it when Rodgers is listed at -400 (or higher) at many sportsbooks right now.

Here is how Rodgers and Brady stack up to past MVP winners at quarterback in the stats I have tracked for MVP worthiness for years.

You can see the 2021 seasons are not up to par. Rodgers is the first season to lead in QBR without being at least 75.0. Maybe there was a formula change this year, but it doesn’t make any sense why they would not apply that to older seasons too. Rodgers’ DVOA is also the lowest to lead the league since Dan Marino in 1996, so it’s not just QBR. This will also be the first time in over a decade where the QB on the No. 1 points per drive offense isn’t the MVP.

So, what is the case for Rodgers? While not as good as his 2011, 2014, and 2020 seasons, Rodgers still led all quarterbacks in QBR, DVOA, TD%, lowest INT%, passer rating, and ANY/A. The Packers beat the odds and won 13 games for the third year in a row, the first team in NFL history to do so. The 17th game was not necessary for that too as the Packers already had the No. 1 seed locked up despite ranking 21st in points per drive allowed. He also lost his tight end (Robert Tonyan) and played without his stud left tackle (David Bakhtiari). The great throws for the highlight reel were still there for Rodgers this year. He had a memorable game-winning drive in San Francisco. He won in Cincinnati despite Mason Crosby having other ideas. He gutted out the win in Arizona against a 7-0 team despite his receivers missing with COVID. Despite the toe injury, he finished red hot with 20 touchdowns and no picks over the last seven games.

Are there arguments against him? Sure, he had a horrible Week 1 against the Saints, but it’s not like a horrible game in Tampa Bay last year prevented him from that MVP. It’s just one game and clearly an outlier for the season. The only other loss he finished was in Minnesota in a game where he threw for 385 yards and four touchdowns and didn’t get the ball last. That was an MVP-worthy day despite the final score.

Of course, you have the COVID situation where he misled about his situation and missed the big Kansas City game as an unvaccinated player. The Packers lost and his absence was huge, but it also weirdly added to his value as the team scored just one touchdown with Jordan Love making his first start.

Would that kind of stuff be enough to make him lose the award to Mahomes last year? I think so, but then again Mahomes was my MVP pick in 2020. But is it enough in a 2021 MVP field that was so weak to not give him the award? Hell no.

As a nod to Rodgers, you’d have to be a bum to vote for a different quarterback for MVP this year.

Offensive Player of the Year: Cooper Kupp, Rams

I jumped the gun on this one in December, claiming that Jonathan Taylor was a lock for it. Unfortunately, Taylor is stuck with Carson Wentz as his quarterback, so he was a bit at the mercy of that for the season’s first three games and the last two. Still, it was a sensational year for Taylor.

But Cooper Kupp is…god damn. Kupp had at least 92 receiving yards in every game this season except for the first Arizona meeting when he had 64 yards. Kupp’s active streak of 13 games with 90-plus receiving yards is already the NFL record.

If there was ever a modern season where a receiver could win MVP, we saw the elements for it this year with Kupp. He helped Matthew Stafford to a career year while making history of his own with the 90-yard streak. Kupp led the NFL with 145 catches, 1,947 yards, and 16 touchdowns. It also helped that it was a down year for quarterbacks, giving Kupp a shot at MVP.

But Kupp ended up being at the mercy of his coach, quarterback, and defense on Sunday. After a brilliant drive that he ended with a go-ahead touchdown, Kupp never got another catch. Imagine if he would have gone for a 62-yard touchdown in overtime to win the game and go over 2,000 receiving yards. That should have been able to get him at least a couple MVP votes, right? Alas, Stafford threw an interception and the chance at history was over.

Defensive Player of the Year: T.J. Watt, Steelers

Look, Aaron Donald is awesome, but it gets boring to pick him every year. Let’s honor someone who had a historic year. Watt led the league in sacks and tackles for loss for the second year in a row, but he chased history in stunning fashion. While playing a 17th game helped him tie Michael Strahan’s sack record at 22.5 sacks, the fact is Watt only played 15 games, and even that is misleading.

Seemingly getting injured every third drive, Watt missed two full games and had four other games where he played no more than 55% of the snaps. In the 11 games where Watt played at least 50 snaps, he had 20.5 of his 22.5 sacks, so I don’t want to hear a thing about him getting the record cheaply. Strahan is the one who had Favre take a dive for sack #22.5.

The Steelers were also 9-2 in the 11 games he played the most snaps. Watt played a huge role in wins over the Bills, Seahawks, Bears, Ravens, and Browns. In addition to the sacks, he forced five fumbles and got just enough pressure on Lamar Jackson to make a game-deciding two-point conversion fall incomplete in Week 13.

Was it frustrating to see Watt on the sidelines so often? Sure, but he gave it his all when he was on the field. If Watt could ever stay healthy for a 17-game season, I wouldn’t be surprised if he could get to 25 sacks. But he should be able to settle for a share of the record and the award for Defensive Player of the Year.

Offensive Rookie of the Year: Ja’Marr Chase, Bengals

I’ll admit I was falling off the Chase bandwagon and starting to come around to the idea of Mac Jones for this award. It was when Chase followed his 201-yard game against the Ravens with a seven-game stretch where he averaged 3.7 catches for 40.6 yards. But then he lit up the Ravens again before having the best game by any receiver this year against the Chiefs. Jones also had a rough finish to the season in New England.

Chase against Kansas City was actually one of the best receiving games in NFL history. Chase caught 11-of-12 targets for 266 yards and three touchdowns. He converted a third-and-27. He drew two DPI flags on third downs as well. His touchdowns were long and mostly all him with his YAC. He was absolutely incredible.

Justin Jefferson just had one of the all-time great rookie wide receiver seasons in 2020, but Chase was right there with him this season with 81 catches for 1,455 yards and 13 touchdowns. It was ballsy to pass on offensive line and pair Joe Burrow with his college teammate, but I cannot see the Bengals in the position they are in right now if the team took Penei Sewell or Rashawn Slater instead of Chase.

Defensive Rookie of the Year: Micah Parsons, Cowboys

The Cowboys nailed that 12th pick of the draft with Parsons, who finished with 13 sacks, three forced fumbles, and 30 QB hits. He helped the defense lead the NFL in takeaways (34) this year. He’s also personally a trip to watch.

Comeback Player of the Year: Joe Burrow, Bengals

It feels like Dak Prescott was predestined for this one, but I think Burrow, after his own serious knee injury, pulled away with those two monster performances against the Ravens and Chiefs. In the end, he led the NFL this season with 70.4% completions and 8.9 YPA. Prescott’s injury was gruesome and I’m definitely a fan, but I have to give it up for Burrow leading a culture change in Cincinnati and getting this team to a division title in his second year.

Most Improved Player of the Year: Joe Burrow, Bengals

Double-dipping on awards is usually not my style, but not only did Burrow return from a significant injury to lead the Bengals to a great season, but he had a breakout year after giving off some Sam Bradford vibes in 2020. No more concerns there after leading the league in YPA and averaging 12.6 YPC too.

James Conner in Arizona would have been a good pick too, though he only averaged a career-low 3.7 YPC. But he was money as a receiver, catching 37-of-39 targets, and he scored 18 touchdowns.

Coach of the Year: Mike Vrabel, Titans

Remember when this was going to be Brandon Staley, then Kliff Kingsbury, then a little Bill Belichick run too? In the end, Mike Vrabel is the choice after guiding the Titans to the AFC’s top seed despite so many games missed from Derrick Henry, A.J. Brown, and Julio Jones. The Titans had a couple embarrassing losses (Jets and Texans), but they also beat the Bills, Chiefs, Rams, Saints, and 49ers. They also swept the Colts to help win the division.

Tennessee is 8-3 against winning teams this year, the best record in the league. Destroying the Chiefs 27-3 is the main reason this team does not have to worry about travel this postseason.

Assistant Coach of the Year: Rich Bisaccia, Raiders

Did some thinking outside the box on this one. Bisaccia was just a special teams coach before taking over as the interim coach following the Jon Gruden fallout. This team had every reason to fall apart this year with the Gruden scandal and Henry Ruggs’ disaster, but the Raiders hung in there and caught some breaks down the stretch. They won a memorable game against the Chargers to get their 10th win and make the playoffs. Bisaccia could end up getting promoted to the real head coach for next year. I am generally against that move, but let’s see what they can do in this playoff run.

Executive of the Year: Les Snead, Rams

I struggled with this one because I felt like every contender from last year that remained on top this year didn’t do anything special to improve their teams. The New England roster, while improved, is still pretty basic. The Bengals made a great move to draft Chase, but I didn’t want to pick them again here. Dallas’ improvement was largely about getting Prescott back healthy.

So, why not the team that went all in and acquired Matthew Stafford, Von Miller, and Odell Beckham Jr.? So far, it has led to a 12-5 record and the NFC West crown. Things may not end well here at home, but the Rams are in better position to go farther than they did last year, and that was ultimately the goal behind these moves.

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 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).