NFL Stat Oddity: Week 13

Wait, was that actually more of a normal week in the NFL? What does a return to “normalcy” in the NFL in 2021 even look like? It still means a week where the Lions win a game against the Vikings on the final play, the No. 1 seed Ravens lose to their bitter rival, the Dolphins stepped over Mike Glennon’s neck to continue one of the most irrelevant five-game winning streaks you’ll ever see, and the Chiefs beat Denver for the 12th time in a row.

But it was also easy wins for Tampa Bay, Arizona, and the Rams as Rob Gronkowski, DeAndre Hopkins, and Cooper Kupp all got reacquainted with the end zone, territory unbeknownst to the Falcons, Bears, and Jaguars. Jonathan Taylor vacations there every week and he scored two more times to help the Colts beat the Texans 31-0, a rout worse than the first one this season. Thanks for shitting up the product, Deshaun. But at least it was nice to see Kyler Murray and Hopkins return to action for an Arizona team that continues to win in impressive fashion, now 10-2.

Overall, we had just five close games in the fourth quarter this week. Monday night between the Bills and Patriots could be the game of the week, but I am going to start with (probably) the last time Ben Roethlisberger faces the Baltimore defense at Heinz Field. I also have a personal story to share in Broncos-Chiefs.

This season in Stat Oddity:

Ravens at Steelers: Tomlin 16, Harbaugh 14

The Ravens-Steelers rivalry may be an acquired taste, but there are no two teams I’d rather watch play a low-scoring game than these two. The 30th meeting between the Ravens and Steelers since 2008 was another memorable finish with Mike Tomlin taking a 16-14 edge against John Harbaugh with a coaching decision at the end very much being the headline.

But it is also the 21st meeting out of 30 where both coaches had their desired starting quarterback available. Tomlin is now 14-7 in those matchups compared to 2-7 with the quarterback disadvantage.

Ben Roethlisberger, 7-1 against the Ravens since Christmas 2016, may have played his final home game against his main division rival. He delivered one of his best performances of the last three years, completing 21-of-31 passes for 236 yards and two touchdowns. Diontae Johnson even dropped a 35-yard touchdown before halftime, and Ray-Ray McCloud had a 32-yard completion taken away after a suspect review. The numbers could have been even nicer for Roethlisberger, who led the Steelers to three straight scores in the fourth quarter. He now has 11 game-winning drives against the Ravens in his career.

Baltimore hogged the ball early but did not finish enough drives for points. The Pittsburgh defense fluctuated between incredible and terrible as only this 2021 unit can. The pressure was at times unbelievable, and Lamar Jackson did not handle it well, taking seven sacks and throwing a pick in the end zone on the opening drive. But there were plenty of other times where the Steelers displayed shoddy tackling and left receivers wide open.

On Pittsburgh’s game-winning drive, the Steelers had a 2nd-and-2 at the Baltimore 13 at the two-minute warning with the Ravens still having all their timeouts. I’m positive Harbaugh had the Ravens do something smart that I’ve seen them exploit before. The Ravens were blatantly offsides, giving the Steelers a first down without running clock. Had the Steelers taken a few plays to get the first down, they may have been able to run out the clock and kick a field goal on the last snap. This made it easier for the Ravens to use their timeouts and really encouraged the Steelers to convert a third down for a touchdown. They did with Roethlisberger’s pass to Johnson, who stepped up big after his drop earlier. The critical two-point conversion to Pat Freiermuth was also completed with 1:48 left.

Pittsburgh kicker Chris Boswell looked like he might be the scapegoat for this one after badly missing a game-tying extra point in the fourth quarter and bouncing his late kick-off out of bounds to put the Ravens at the 40 with a chance to tie. Again, the defense fluctuated between great and terrible as the Ravens marched for a touchdown with 12 seconds left. Instead of playing for overtime, Harbaugh had his team go for the win.

I liked the decision. Harbaugh mentioned the injuries at corner and was worried the Steelers would continue to march on their defense with ease. Beyond that, I just think the Ravens had a good shot of converting and winning the game on that one play. However, I would have preferred something that used Lamar’s mobility like a QB draw or run-pass option. T.J. Watt, who had a monster game with 3.5 sacks, was able to get just enough pressure on Jackson to make his two-point pass inaccurate for Mark Andrews, who was open to win the game.

The Steelers dodged a bullet, but this season has seen both teams win a lot of close games like this one. Pittsburgh keeps its playoff hopes alive and this could lead to a very interesting rematch in Baltimore in Week 18.

I said I enjoy the low-scoring games between those two. I’m not sure I will feel that way when Roethlisberger moves on and the Steelers are trying to win with the likes of Mason Rudolph and the latest Kordell Maddo’Donnell. But Sunday felt important for this team. You wish they showed some of this intensity in Cincinnati last week, but nothing seems to get this team going quite like a Baltimore game.

If this is the last big one for this era, then at least it ended the way it deserves to.

Broncos at Chiefs: I Should Name My Son Javonte

Do I have to talk about Kansas City’s ho-hum 22-9 win we all watched together on Sunday night, or do I jump straight to my biggest gambling win of the season?

Let’s get the game over with. The defensive turnaround for the Chiefs continues. Barring what the Patriots do on Monday night, this could be the top scoring defense in points per game since Week 6 after being the worst in the first five weeks. Remarkable stuff.

Were the Broncos lighting the league up this year? Of course not, but the nine points are only the second time Denver was held under 13 this year. Meanwhile, the Broncos held Patrick Mahomes’ offense to 16 points, Mahomes under 200 yards passing, Travis Kelce and Tyreek Hill under 50 yards combined, and the Broncos still couldn’t cover a 9.5-point spread. I felt that dropped passes, including another tipped pick, contributed largely to Kansas City’s offense being ineffective in this one. But as I have pointed out before, Denver defends Mahomes better than most. This game will be another data point in favor of that for sure.

Teddy Bridgewater played a terrible game and had his second multi-interception game of the season, including a pick-six to Dan Sorensen in the fourth quarter to put the exclamation point on this one.

Well, one exclamation point. That pick-six helped give the Broncos the ball back in a 22-3 game. Perhaps that took away some of the intensity from the defense, knowing the win was all but in the bag at this point. The Broncos finally marched down the field, and instead of taking 11 minutes to come away with zero points like they did in the second quarter, Bridgewater found rookie back Javonte Williams in the flat on fourth-and-7 for a 13-yard touchdown with 5:12 left.

A meaningless touchdown in the grand scheme of things? Sure, but an extremely important one for me. It was the final leg to five parlays for me, including my biggest win of the season at +15381

The reason there was no Stat Oddity in Week 12 is because I was at home nervously waiting to hear what was going on with my mom in the emergency room. Her blood pressure was out of control, and I wasn’t allowed in the ambulance with her because of the protocol during COVID, the same virus that had just taken my only aunt from me on Thanksgiving Day. The stress of that is what caused my mom’s blood pressure to spike. She does not have COVID.

Trying to watch the Ravens and Browns finish that ugly game was a tough 90 minutes before I started to get updates that my mom was alright. She is doing better this week and will be fine. I got my booster on Wednesday, and it was no big deal. Just a sore shoulder for about 72 hours.

From dark thoughts a week ago to screams of joy at Javonte’s touchdown, these last few weeks really encapsulate the extreme ups and downs that life can bring. Sunday was that kind of day all around, from the Steelers’ nail-biting win over Baltimore to the agony and glory of watching Williams pull off a golden score for me.

It’s the type of successful betting day I feel I should have had three or four times during this crazy season. But I’m happy with this one. I thought for sure I blew it on the final leg again, and I would have blown it either way as I probably would have picked Hill or Kelce or CEH to score for the Chiefs had I not gone for Javonte. Alas, I picked the right guy who scored Denver’s only touchdown of the night in what was a golden opportunity with Melvin Gordon out. Williams shined with 178 yards from scrimmage, but that touchdown will always stick with me as a happy memory during what have been some very unhappy times during this pandemic.

But tonight, I can choose happiness.

Chargers at Bengals: What in Tarnation…

This conference is f’n weird this year. The Bengals annihilated the Steelers a week ago. The Chargers had an ugly loss in Denver. I thought this would be the closest finish in the 1 p.m. slate. So, of course the Chargers jumped out to a 24-0 lead.

However, while the Bengals did not try 8+8+8, they were a two-point conversion away from tying this one late in the third quarter as the Chargers were looking to blow another huge lead in a game with so many ugly, fluky turnovers from both sides. Austin Ekeler especially was trying to create his own Chargers BINGO square with two lost fumbles.

But Joe Mixon outdid him. The Bengals failed on their game-tying two, but they got the ball back down 24-22 going into the fourth quarter. They were in field-goal range too when Mixon just lost the ball, and it was returned 61 yards for a crushing touchdown. The Chargers led 31-22, sacked an ailing Joe Burrow (pinky), and added a knockout score in a game that eventually ended 41-22.

So, it was a blowout, then a huge comeback attempt that made it the tightest game going around 3 p.m., then a blowout again. Just a weird game where both quarterbacks were absolutely under siege at times by the defenses (10 sacks between them). But the Chargers made fewer mistakes and got the big win to move to 7-5.

49ers at Seahawks: Don’t Call it a Comeback

This was my most confident upset pick of the week. As I said on Saturday, Russell Wilson/Pete Carroll/D.K. Metcalf were due a good showing at home after such a poor run of things lately, including that Monday night loss to Washington. Wilson owns the 49ers in his career (17-4 now). Kyle Shanahan is an overrated coach. George Kittle was amazing in this game (181 yards and two touchdowns), but I think Deebo Samuel is a big security blanket for Jimmy Garoppolo, and he’s been a huge part of the running game recently. If Samuel wasn’t out injured for this game, I don’t think I would have been confident enough to pick Seattle. Certainly not enough to put $50 on them in my big parlay that hit above.

Still, it wasn’t the prettiest game. The Seahawks needed a 73-yard touchdown run on a fake punt to get things going. Wilson was an uncharacteristic 30-of-37 for 231 yards, the fewest passing yards he’s ever had in a game with at least 25 completions. He also lost 50 yards on four sacks. Tight end Gerald Everett nearly choked the game away with two lost fumbles, including one at the 2-yard line when the Seahawks could have gone up two scores in the final four minutes.

I always question Shanahan’s late-and-close decision making. The 49ers looked like they wanted to score at the last possible second and either go to overtime or win on a two-point conversion. That’s nice but things rarely work out that way. The Elijah Mitchell runs were not effective on the day, and the 49ers used two downs on them inside the Seattle 7. After one incompletion, the 49ers were already facing fourth-and-ballgame. Garoppolo’s pass was tipped at the line and that was enough for the Seahawks to hold on for the 30-23 win.

I don’t think Seattle is “back” by any means, but at least we know this team can still sweep the 49ers.

Vikings at Lions: 1-15-1 Still Possible

Bust out the Faygo for the 2008 Lions and 2017 Browns. These Lions will not be going 0-16-1. I warned in Saturday’s preview that the Vikings already came dangerously close to losing to this team this year. They had to set up a 54-yard field goal in 37 seconds to win that one.

Dalvin Cook missed both Detroit games for Minnesota, but I don’t think you can fault the way Alexander Mattison played in his place for why the Vikings struggled. Mattison had 124 yards and a touchdown in this one. Adam Thielen left injured, but Kirk Cousins still threw for 340 yards and Justin Jefferson had 182 yards. The offense came back to deliver another late lead at 27-23, but the defense was a huge letdown against Jared Goff and the league’s worst receiving corps. Goff threw for 296 yards and three touchdowns in this one, which Detroit led most of the way.

I want to quickly highlight something stupid Jay Feely said late in the game. I know that’s his brand, but the strategy is worth talking about. He criticized Dan Campbell’s aggressive move to go for a 4th-and-1 at his own 28 with a 23-21 lead and 4:08 left. It was incredibly aggressive as the Vikings had four clock stoppages, would have been in go-ahead field goal range with a stop, and the Lions were down to one timeout. In fact, I probably would have punted there.

But Feely’s reasoning just made me like the decision more. Feely tried to say that the Lions should punt because like on Thanksgiving against Chicago, the Bears ran out the final eight minutes and Detroit never got the ball back. He added that Cleveland ran out the clock on Detroit in Week 11 too. It could happen again.

Well guess what? IT’S MORE LIKELY TO HAPPEN HERE IF YOU GIVE THEM FOUR MINUTES TO SET UP A FIELD GOAL. While converting and running out the clock is the ideal outcome, by Goff getting strip-sacked and putting the Vikings in the red zone, he actually helped facilitate a quicker go-ahead score and saved his offense time for their game-winning drive. The Vikings had to score on a third down with 1:50 left, saving Goff almost two minutes to answer the 27-23 deficit.

He needed every second of it on the 14-play, 75-yard drive. The Vikings used their timeouts late in the red zone, and Mike Zimmer’s defense was shameful in allowing such a large cushion on the last play of the game when you know they have to go for the end zone. How are you going to give someone like Aroma St. Brown a cushion to score the game-winning touchdown with no time left? His name is actually Amon-Ra, but he must have had a strong aroma if you weren’t attaching someone to his hip as the only receiver to run towards the left side of the end zone. Just a ridiculous ending.

But somehow perfectly fitting for the Minnesota franchise. A lead of at least six points in every game this season and the Vikings are 5-7. I knew the Lions would win one this year. Campbell’s had them too close too many times not to.

Hurry-Up Finish

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

Tampa Bay at Atlanta: Tom Brady for MVP (Mass Volume Player)

Leave it up to Tom Brady to throw 51 passes in a game his team never trailed, where his defense only allowed 10 points on nine drives, and it only looked semi-close because he threw an embarrassing pick-six before halftime to a defensive lineman.

Has the standard at the position fallen off so much this year that we have to seriously consider this as the front-runner for MVP? Oh, and he’ll be getting the Bills on Sunday, fresh off their huge clash with the Patriots in shitty weather and after losing Tre’Davious White to a torn ACL. You see how the stars are aligning, right? While Antonio Brown’s buffoonery leading to a suspension may have been a problem in this past, this offense is simply too loaded when Rob Gronkowski is playing this well to go along with Mike Evans, Chris Godwin, Leonard Fournette, and that offensive line. Brown will be back for the playoffs too…

Washington at Raiders: No Flag, No Win

Tell me you weren’t expecting a flag when Derek Carr threw a bomb, down 17-15, with 31 seconds left to start his final drive. I cannot knock him for the smart, aggressive play to try to immediately get into range for a game-winning field goal. But something tells me he specifically threw that one with the intent to get a flag instead of a completion. The refs did not oblige, and the Raiders lost another low-scoring game to a Washington team that’s suddenly won four in a row.

Washington (6-6) has all five of its games left against the NFC East in a real scheduling quirk. The Chiefs can deliver a potential knockout blow to these Raiders (6-6) in Week 14 – that’s if they didn’t already do it in Week 10. Since their bye week, the Raiders are 1-4 and have been held under 17 points in each loss. Only the flag fest on Turkey Day in Dallas was a high-scoring win.

Eagles at Jets: Minshew Mania Returns

Will Zach Wilson ever have a game in the NFL as good as Gardner Minshew’s first surprise start for the Eagles on Sunday? It’s a legitimate question. Minshew was 20-of-25 for 242 yards and two touchdowns. This was tight end Dallas Goedert’s 57th NFL game and it was the first time he had two touchdowns to go along with a career-high 105 receiving yards. Not bad.

This was actually a shootout at first with the Jets scoring three touchdowns on their first three drives. But they soon remembered they were the Jets and scored nothing on their last five drives. The Eagles scored three touchdowns, four field goals, then punted on their eighth and final possession.

In a game between the Jets and Eagles with Wilson and Minshew getting the starts, a 33-18 finish with only one ugly Wilson interception is about the best experience you could have asked for.

Next week: Depending on how the Bills look against the Patriots on Monday night, this could be two weeks in a row where MNF draws the best game. Next week has Arizona-Rams, an important one in the NFC. While Bills-Buccaneers looked like the great one on paper from April through recently, I’m not sure these teams are delivering on expectations so far. But that won’t stop Tony Romo from salivating over it as a Super Bowl preview.  

Lamar Jackson: Breaking Stats, Hearts, and Minds

While the talk surrounding Baltimore’s 23-7 win in Denver on Sunday is about Lamar Jackson’s late run to extend the team’s record streak of 100-yard rushing games, it has been quiet on the NFL media front that he threw 37 passes and registered his third 300-yard passing game in his career. It is only the fifth game in Jackson’s career where he threw the ball at least 35 times.

Jackson recently broke 1,000 pass attempts in his regular season career, which must have prompted this Deadspin article last week about how Jackson has the “NFL’s greatest QB start ever.” I’ll get into multiple things from the article below, but it ends by saying, “Lamar Jackson is only 24 years old, and just posted the greatest FIRST 1,000 Pass start in modern quarterback history. Now write about it.”

Challenge accepted, because I already subtweeted about this article the other day, but it and Lamar’s unique career deserve a more in-depth look. I have neither any beef nor familiarity with the author (Chuck Modiano) of the piece. I just think Lamar’s career is the right place to talk about quarterback statistics in a game that is evolving.

Yes, Running QBs Make Life Harder on Statistics

The premise of the Deadspin article is that stat companies such as PFF and Football Outsiders continue to miss the mark on running quarterbacks like Lamar Jackson (and Cam Newton). The author concludes that if you combine Lamar’s elite passing production through 1,000 attempts, his historic rushing production, and his team impact (high winning percentage), then he’s had the greatest first 1,000 pass start in modern history for an NFL quarterback.

I have certainly read worse arguments over the years, but I disagree with this one on the obviousness of Patrick Mahomes dominating the league and rewriting the record books at the same time as Jackson’s rise.

Not to mention Mahomes is still 3-1 in the head-to-head matchups. While Jackson unanimously won MVP in 2019, Mahomes ended that season with the Super Bowl MVP and had another stellar run last season. 2020 also brought the return of Peak Aaron Rodgers in Green Bay and the breakout of Josh Allen in Buffalo. Of course, we also live in a world where Tom Brady reverse ages and annually hits the “EASY” button he sold his soul for each postseason to add to his ring collection. So given Lamar’s playoff struggles, it is no surprise that the media does not revolve around Jackson in this era.

But one thing I won’t argue is that Jackson is indisputably the most prolific rushing quarterback in NFL history. He proved that after back-to-back 1,000-yard rushing seasons and leading the NFL in yards per carry both years. He has also shown he can be durable doing it (so far) as only COVID-19 has kept him out of one game, plus that night in Cleveland where he had to take a shit and missed a few plays.

However, this rushing part of his game that makes him so unique also makes him harder to evaluate statistically. While the author is correct that the stat companies have struggled in this area, his remedy to fix it also misses the mark.

Any time you see someone try to combine rushing with passing in a quarterback metric, it tends to overvalue the running quarterback. ESPN’s QBR is notorious for having a hard-on for rushing quarterbacks, especially when they scramble for a big gain on a third down. You can see it in the way that Mitchell Trubisky (71.0) was their No. 3 quarterback in 2018, or how David Garrard’s 2007 with Jacksonville is still the No. 8 season since 2006. You also should note that Lamar’s 2019 (83.0) is the fourth highest season in QBR.

I cannot find the link now, but about 15 years ago I saw a guy rank the top ~50 quarterbacks of all time, and he used a formula that put a bonus for rushing. It ended up having Mark Brunell in the top 30 if I’m not mistaken. Yeah, adding rushing is problematic. Football Outsiders has not figured out a good way of doing it in two decades, so rushing is still kept separate from passing.

While the author wants to include Jackson’s rushing, there are parts early in the article where he keeps it separate. But by not thinking about Jackson’s attempts on the ground, you’re presenting what are misleading figures for Jackson’s touchdown passes. Through 1,000 passes, Jackson (70) has the fourth-most touchdown passes, trailing only Dan Marino (75), Kurt Warner (73), and Mahomes (71).

This looks great for Jackson but think about what the average touchdown drive looks like for these quarterbacks. The other three were going to throw a lot of passes while Marino and Warner would rarely ever run. Mahomes scrambles at times, but most of the offense is him passing. For Lamar, his Ravens run a lot and so does he, so he can keep his pass attempts lower while still ending drives with touchdown passes. This is why we need to stop fixating on that number of 1,000 passes and start focusing on things like an equal number of games played and rate stats.

On Pro Football Reference, you can search a quarterback’s first four seasons and find their Adjusted Net Yards per Pass Attempt index (ANY/A), which will factor in sacks (but not rushing) and the era the quarterback played in. When you run that search for quarterbacks with 1,000-plus attempts, Jackson comes in 14th at 112 ANY/A+, right behind the likes of Russell Wilson (115), Peyton Manning (113), and Deshaun Watson (113). Warner (133), Marino (132), and Mahomes (129) are the only players above 120, and it is hard to argue with anyone having better starts to their careers than those three.

But that does not include rushing, which means it also does not look at fumbles, or something that Jackson does a fair amount since he handles the ball so much with defenders coming after him. The author talks about interception totals by decade, but again, that can be misleading as mobile quarterbacks often have lower interceptions due to their love of scrambling and taking more sacks than pocket passers. We should be looking at total turnovers by including fumbles lost.

The author makes an argument for combining rush and pass stats instead of segregating them. “When Lamar ran for two 4th-quarter TDs to beat the Chiefs, it counted for the same exact points as if he threw those TDs. So why don’t we show that PRODUCTION?”

By making that argument, and earlier saying that he favors substance over style and will not reward style points, then he must agree that we should be treating a 6-yard completion on a curl route the same as a quarterback escaping a blitzing linebacker and scrambling for a 6-yard gain. That simple pass play still counts for the same yards as if he ran the ball, right?

So here is what I did. I gathered data for the first 45 starts (playoffs included) of the 60 quarterbacks who have made their starting debut since 2001. Jackson just made his 45th start on Sunday in Denver in case you’re confused why I picked 45. I looked at their passes, sacks, runs, and fumbles and combined those stats to figure out their total number of plays, total yards gained, total touchdowns, and total turnovers. From there I can figure out their yards per play and touchdown rate (TD%) per play.

Finally, I took the ANY/A formula and tweaked it to include fumbles and rushes. I thought this was better than tweaking passer rating for rushing as the author did at the end to get a 109.5 Production Rating for Lamar. I’ve just never liked the idea of giving a quarterback completion bonuses for every run, so I stuck with ANY/A.

Here are some of the findings on where Lamar stacks up among the 60 quarterbacks thru 45 starts:

Win% and Average Points Scored: Jackson is 34-11 (.756) as a starter, second only to Mahomes (36-9, .800). Brady, Roethlisberger, and Wilson were all 33-12 (.733), or just one game behind Jackson. Scoring has gone up in recent years, so it is not a big surprise to see Mahomes (32.4) and Jackson (28.7) average the most team points per start.

Jackson’s Passing Ranks and Rushing:

  • 14th in completion percentage (62.8%)
  • 49th in passing yards (8,975)
  • 15th in yards per attempt (7.51)
  • 11th in touchdown passes (74; tied with Kirk Cousins)
  • 2nd in touchdown pass rate (6.19%)
  • 12th in lowest interception rate (2.18%)
  • 5th in passer rating (97.3)
  • 7th in ANY/A (6.80; passes only).

In rushing, Jackson is easily No. 1 in attempts (550) and rushing yards (3,413), and he is No. 4 in YPC (6.21) and No. 3 in TD runs (21). Jackson’s 38 fumbles trail only Josh McCown (42) and Michael Vick (39). His 14 lost fumbles are tied for the seventh most. Jackson’s 40 total turnovers are tied for the ninth fewest.

Advanced Metrics to Include All Play Types: Jackson is No. 7 in total yards (11,891) and tied with Josh Allen for No. 4 in total touchdowns (95). That’s good company, but on a per-play basis, Jackson falls as the increased choice to be a 6.2 YPC runner instead of a 7.5 YPA passer hurts his numbers. Jackson ranks 15th in yards per play (6.46) and 6th in TD% (5.16%). When I include everything into ANY/A, he ranks No. 6 in that too (6.51).

Here is a graph of all 60 quarterbacks through their first 45 starts since 2001. The x-axis is their total TD% and the y-axis is their ANY/A with all plays included.

Yep, Jackson is doing very well, but Mahomes is killing the league. Running for over 100 yards as a team every week is cool and the Ravens have been historic with that under Lamar, but it still does not produce the results of being a lethal passing team like the Chiefs.

Jackson Is Still Developing

You can appreciate Jackson’s unique greatness while still having valid questions and criticisms about his ability to perform in certain situations or what his long-term success will be.

The four playoff games bring Jackson down a bit, but shouldn’t we have some higher expectations for him there? Most of the players who come up in comparison to him here (Mahomes, Wilson, Marino, Warner, Roethlisberger, Brady) all won or were in a Super Bowl within two seasons as a starter. Jackson is 1-3 with his best game being a low-scoring wild card win in Tennessee last year.

While we talk about Jackson’s unique place in history, his postseason history leaves so much to be desired. 2020 was the third postseason in a row where the Ravens scored their season-low in points with Jackson at quarterback. Safe to say that stat will not come up in his contract negotiations. When you compare that to some other recent quarterbacks for how often they scored their season-low in a playoff game, Jackson’s three-for-three is a huge eyesore. It is as many times as Peyton Manning, Aaron Rodgers, and Ben Roethlisberger combined.

  • Lamar Jackson (100%): three times in three postseasons (2018, 2019, 2020)
  • Patrick Mahomes (33.3%): once in three postseasons (2020)
  • Philip Rivers (28.6%): two times in seven postseasons (2007, 2009)
  • Tom Brady (27.8%): five times in 18 postseasons (2005, 2007, 2011-T, 2012, 2019-T)
  • Cam Newton (25.0%): once in four postseasons (2015)
  • Peyton Manning (20.0%): three times in 15 postseasons (2002, 2004, 2013)
  • Joe Flacco (16.7%): once in six postseasons (2009)
  • Matt Ryan (16.7%): once in six postseasons (2011)
  • Russell Wilson (12.5%): once in eight postseasons (2015)
  • Drew Brees (10.0%): once in 10 postseasons (2020)
  • Aaron Rodgers (0.0%): zero times in 10 postseasons
  • Ben Roethlisberger (0.0%): zero times in 11 postseasons

The other thing I saw in that article was a link to another piece saying that Jackson has debunked that he can’t be clutch because of the Detroit finish in Week 3. I also saw Ryan Clark on Twitter ask why people weren’t talking about Lamar’s play on 4th-and-19 to Sammy Watkins to set up the game-winning field goal.

Well, I think it’s pretty obvious why a record-setting 66-yard field goal by the great Justin Tucker stole all the headlines. Especially with the way it bounced in good. Just an incredible, history-making play.

But this is another situation where if Jackson played the position better, he’d get more of the attention. No one was expecting the Ravens to be down late in that game. Drops by Marquise Brown aside, it was Jackson who forced an interception on third down in Detroit territory, which the Lions turned into a go-ahead scoring drive. On the last drive, it was a 4th-and-19 after Jackson took two sacks on the drive. If he plays the drive better and sets Tucker up for a shorter, easier field goal, then Jackson gets more credit. He didn’t, so we go nuts over what Tucker did to bail the team out. Simple as that.

Similar things with the Chiefs win the week before. While Jackson did his part in the fourth quarter, most people can see that it took a really bad fumble by Clyde Edwards-Helaire in field goal range to decide that game. Jackson put them away on the ground, but he was only in that position after a rare fumble. Had the Ravens lost 38-36, Jackson would have still been credited for having his best game yet against the Chiefs, but those early interceptions, including a pick-six to start the game, would have stood out too.

If that CEH fumble and 66-yard field goal are the new proof that Jackson is clutch, well then that’s just not a good argument either.  Jackson has six game-winning drives in his career and five of them were field goals by Tucker from distances of 24, 46, 49, 55, and 66 yards. Oof. He did at least have the touchdown drives against the Chiefs and the long touchdown on fourth down to Hollywood Brown in the Cleveland Poop Game (47-42), but to say Jackson is proven in this department is just not true at all.

While Jackson is absolutely unique and fun to watch, let’s roll back the hyperbole that he’s off to the greatest start in NFL history by a quarterback. No metric, no matter how much you want to overvalue his runs, is going to support that.

It’s not even the best start by someone drafted in the last five years.

NFL Stat Oddity: Week 2

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

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

This season in Stat Oddity:

Chiefs at Ravens: We Have a Rivalry

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saints at Panthers: WTF?

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

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

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

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

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

Cowboys at Chargers: Dallas Wins Fake Low-Scoring Game

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

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

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

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

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

Patriots at Jets: Weekly Zach Wilson Data Dump

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Raiders at Steelers: Actually, Not the Same Old Steelers

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Titans at Seahawks: Regression vs. Regression

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

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

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

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

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

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

NFL Week 2 Predictions: Embrace the Weird

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

NFL Week 2 Predictions

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

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

Some gambling things I really like this week:

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

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

Let’s have a memorable one.

NFL Quarterback Rivalries: Past, Present, Future

Trust me, the title sounds way more ambitious than what the post is actually going to be. I’m settling into this new role of writing more on this blog during the season, but it’s going to come in the form of quick data dumps of interest rather than epic-length projects like the 43,000 words I wrote in a week on my top 100 quarterbacks of the 21st century.

Today’s topic is quarterback rivalries. These often drive the league’s intrigue, though we haven’t always seen a lot of great quarterbacks meet numerous times in the past with the way schedules used to work. For example, Dan Marino and John Elway were both drafted to the AFC in 1983, both active through 1998, both on a lot of winning teams, yet they only met a total of three times and two of those happened in 1998 when they were old. That’s just stunning. We’re about to see Round 4 of Patrick Mahomes vs. Lamar Jackson Sunday night, and Round 3 of Mahomes vs. Allen in Week 5.

But it’s not a real rivalry until the other side starts to win too, and that’s where we are stuck waiting right now.

The AFC: Patrick Mahomes vs. ?

I keep stressing that this is a transition period in the NFL, and perhaps the biggest story in the whole league is the reshaping of the AFC. We need to find the best challengers to Patrick Mahomes and the Kansas City Chiefs as the best QB and team in the conference. He just beat Baker Mayfield and Cleveland again. He has yet to lose to Josh Allen/Buffalo and Lamar Jackson/Ravens. He also will have his second meeting with Justin Herbert and the Chargers, who took him to overtime last year after Herbert got the surprise start following a team doctor’s incompetence.

Someone has to step up here, or Mahomes and the Chiefs are going to have an easy run to the Super Bowl year after year a la what we’ve seen recently with Tom Brady and LeBron James in the NBA. But even Brady needed his rival in Peyton Manning, who stopped him from getting to the Super Bowl more often than the other way around, and LeBron had the Golden State Warriors as a super team to deny him Michael Jordan’s ring count. Even Magic Johnson had a Larry Bird to deal with in the 80s. You need that rival or else it’s one-sided and the results are too predictable. It gets boring, even if watching Mahomes operate is anything but boring right now.

Oddly enough, Brady and his teams have been the biggest Mahomes stoppers so far, taking away a potential three-peat in 2018-20 for the Chiefs. These teams very well could meet again in February.

The NFC: The Future Is What Exactly?

Brady’s run is unlikely to go on forever, though his quack trainer Alex Guerrero has done a magnificent job of keeping the Lazarus Pit running for him. As for Aaron Rodgers, I swear he looked like he aged five years this weekend and I don’t even mean by the way he played, which was terrible in the first 35-point loss of his career. I mean when I saw the teaser for his FOX interview, he looked like a 44-year-old quarterback in the NFC. Maybe he just got out of practice and skipped makeup and a shower, but he just looked haggard to me.

With Brees tapped out and those two probably not far behind, it will soon look different in the NFC. But is it too soon to predict a Matthew Stafford vs. Russell Wilson showdown now that they’re in the same division? Or are we headed for a Trey Lance vs. Justin Fields run where Wilson still doesn’t get MVP votes and Stafford still can’t beat teams with winning records? It’s probably going to have to be those two rookies as the future unless Kyler Murray is ready to take that next step or Jalen Hurts in Philadelphia. You know I love Dak too, but that coaching combo of Mike McCarthy and Dan Quinn is bound to fail.

Not only has the AFC taken Mahomes, 2019 MVP Lamar Jackson, and 2020 MVP runner-up Josh Allen, but the AFC has drafted Trevor Lawrence and Joe Burrow with the last two No. 1 picks. Baker Mayfield was No. 1 in 2018 and even if you’re not sold on him yet, he’s really not that bad of a quarterback. The AFC also recently drafted Tua, Mac Jones, Zach Wilson, Herbert, and would have another stud in Deshaun Watson if he wasn’t an alleged sexual predator.

With respect to Dak possibly throwing for 6,000 yards this year to make up for his defense, there’s just not a lot of intrigue built into the NFC yet. We have to see how Winston and Stafford continue to do with their upgraded coaching and team situations. It’s only been one week.

The Sweet Sixteen to Meet a Dozen Times

Finally, the data dump. From 2001 to 2020, there were 16 quarterback matchups that had at least a dozen meetings when you include playoff games. I gathered the stats on win% and ANY/A (so I can account for sacks) for each quarterback in the matchup, so this chart has 32 points on it.

CLICK TO ENLARGE

I have some good news for fans of the Falcons and Giants. Brees vs. Ryan and Romo vs. Eli are the only two matchups where the winning QB (Brees and Romo) had a lower ANY/A than the losing QB. No two quarterbacks were closer in ANY/A than Eli and Romo (0.14), though Manning-Brady (0.22) was a close second on the list. Considering this doesn’t adjust for the quality of the defense faced, that looks very good for the Manning brothers.

No matchup was more lopsided than Rodgers vs. Jay Cutler. Rodgers was 11-2 and +3.37 in ANY/A over Cutler, the biggest gap on the list. Rodgers vs. Stafford was also the second-biggest difference in ANY/A at +2.46 for Rodgers. We’ll see if Stafford can close that a little this year. The closest matchup by record was Philip Rivers going 7-6 vs. Derek Carr in the AFC West despite a difference of 1.27 ANY/A in Rivers’ favor. That speaks to the Chargers blowing games late while Carr inexplicably wins a lot of those games.

How many of these 16 matchups are still possible in the future? Brady-Fitzpatrick, Rodgers-Stafford, Ben-Brady, Ben-Dalton are about the only four realistic ones. Maybe something with Cam Newton if he ever gets another job and plays Matt Ryan again. Stafford vs. Rodgers is scheduled for Week 12 this year. The Bears are in Pittsburgh in Week 9, but Fields has to take over for Dalton by then, right? Fitzpatrick could face Brady in Week 10 if he doesn’t already lose the job to Taylor Heinicke by then. Hey, Brady could get a second win over Heinicke in that case.

But this was a great era with a lot of memorable and important games in that chart. New rivalries will emerge, but nothing is certain in this league. If you thought Mahomes-Watson in 2019 would be the first of several playoff meetings between the two, no rational person would have disagreed at the time. Now? Oof.

And if you’re a disappointed Ravens fan not looking forward to the Chiefs this week, then just remember that Manning’s Colts lost six straight to Brady’s Patriots in 2001-04 before turning that one around. For it to be a real rivalry, the other side has to start winning at some point. Maybe Sunday night is that turnaround moment for the Ravens.

How Many NFL Weeks Do We See More Fumbles than Interceptions?

In my last post about the high number (52) of fourth down attempts in Week 1 of the 2021 season, I briefly mentioned that it was a bad weekend for costly fumbles too. Lamar Jackson’s second lost fumble, something he’s only done in one other game (Pittsburgh last year), put the bow on Week 1 as it led to the Raiders’ game-winning drive in overtime.

In total, there were 22 lost fumbles in Week 1 of the 2021 season. That is something we’ve seen happen plenty of times in the NFL, but there were also just 17 interceptions, tied for the second-lowest total in the 32-team era (since 2002) when all 32 teams were in action. That fumble-to-INT ratio of 1.29 sounds unusually high.

But is it?

Since I’ve compiled so much data to get ready for this season, I figured I’d better start sharing it more frequently. If we look at the 172 weeks where all 32 teams were in action, this Week 1 is only the 17th week where there were more fumbles lost than interceptions thrown. Here is a chart in chronological order of the weekly fumble-to-INT ratio in the 32-team era:

Week 1’s 1.29 fumble-to-INT ratio ranks second behind only the 1.35 in Week 2 of the 2015 season when there were 31 fumbles and 23 interceptions. That Week 2 in 2015 was most memorable for Peyton Manning leading a comeback in Kansas City in prime time and Derek Carr throwing a game-winning touchdown pass in the final minute of the game to beat the Ravens.

So, I guess six years later, some things never change. But with interceptions continuing to be harder to come by for defenses, we may start to see more weeks where the fumble, whether it’s a strip-sack or a lucky recovery of a botched snap, becomes the No. 1 way for a defense to take the ball back.

Top 100 NFL Quarterbacks of the 21st Century: Part VI (20-11)

Including the playoffs, there are 100 NFL quarterbacks who have started at least 30 games in the last 20 seasons (2001-20). In part I, I began to rank these quarterbacks from No. 100 to No. 87, looking at the worst of the bunch. In part II, I looked at some more serviceable players who may have had one special season in their career. In part III, the players included more multi-year starters who still may have only had that one peak year as well as some younger players still developing. In part IV, I had an especially difficult time with slotting quarterbacks I have criticized for years, but who definitely had a peak year. In part V, we got into some MVP winners and a few quarterbacks I have struggled to root for over the years.

Part I (#100-87)

Part II (#86-72)

Part III (#71-51)

Part IV (#50-31)

Part V (#30-21)

20. Matt Hasselbeck

After sleeping on it, I realized I messed up here, but it is too late for an edit. Matt Hasselbeck should be closer to where Trent Green (No. 28) is. When the Peyton Manning-Tom Brady rivalry really took off after 2003 and the two camps of stats vs. rings formed, Hasselbeck was on a short list of quarterbacks who had multiple playoff seasons and could compare favorably to Spygate-era Brady. He just didn’t have the defensive support, his receivers (Koren Robinson, Darrell Jackson) were known for dropping the ball, his star running back (Shaun Alexander) was also known as The Tiptoe Burglar, and he had that “we want the ball and we’re going to score” moment in the playoffs in Green Bay. He scored alright, throwing a pick-six in overtime.

But from 2002-07, Hasselbeck was a very good quarterback in Mike Holmgren’s West Coast Offense in Seattle. He was 52-32 as a starter, 133 TD, 76 INT, 7.2 YPA, and 88.0 passer rating. Seattle made the playoffs five years in a row, including Super Bowl XL. Hasselbeck threw a critical interception in that Super Bowl that not a lot of people seem to remember because of the bogus penalty that was tacked onto the end of it for a low block, but he still threw one in the fourth quarter at the Pittsburgh 27, down 14-10. One drive later the Seahawks were down 21-10 and that was the ballgame.

Hasselbeck’s last big season was in 2007. He started to regress in Seattle but did manage a playoff berth for that 7-9 team in 2010. He had arguably the best playoff game of his career when he threw four touchdowns against the Saints in one of the bigger upsets of this era. He also had a solid season for the Titans in 2011 that just missed out on the playoffs.

Russell Wilson has since arrived to be the best quarterback in Seahawks history, but Hasselbeck had a run to appreciate there in the 2000s. I just went a little too high in slotting him into the top 20.

19. Rich Gannon

Gannon is basically here on the strength of just two seasons in 2001-02. The timeframe here hurts him more than most since it cuts off half of his four-year Pro Bowl run with the Raiders at ages 34-37. Gannon had achieved very little in a long career prior to joining Jon Gruden in Oakland in 1999, but he ended up accumulating two first-team All-Pro seasons, an MVP award in 2002, and he got the Raiders back to the Super Bowl.

Gannon could run and he was a very effective dink-and-dunk quarterback who could move an offense without a running game. I still remember him shredding the Steelers in 2002 when he threw 64 passes and completed 43 of them for 403 yards in a game the Raiders led for more than 45 minutes. He led the NFL with 4,689 yards that year.

But Gannon suffered some real playoff heartbreak during his run too. He was injured in the 2000 AFC Championship Game against Baltimore, a 16-3 loss. He lost to the 2001 Patriots in the snowy Tuck Rule game after he never got the ball in overtime and after Adam Vinatieri bailed out the Patriots with the greatest kick ever, only made possible by that horrible rule being applied. Then when he got to the Super Bowl in 2002, he just so happened to face an all-time great pass defense (2002 Buccaneers) with his former head coach (Gruden) calling out his plays. Gannon had that “deer in the headlights” look after he threw five picks that night in a blowout loss.

After the Super Bowl, Gannon only started 10 more games before retirement. But the Raiders have not had a quarterback as good as him ever since then.

18. Daunte Culpepper

Get your roll on, Pep. Before he tore his ACL in 2005 and it ruined his career, Daunte Culpepper was one of the most exciting quarterbacks to watch. Was he as consistent as you’d like? Absolutely not. He followed up his breakout year in 2000 with a so-so season in 2001, then he fumbled 23 times and threw 23 picks in 2002. Yikes. But in 2003, he had another strong Pro Bowl year, and the Vikings missed the playoffs after the defense allowed Josh McCown to throw a game-winning touchdown pass on 4th-and-25 in Week 17.

I personally liked Culpepper more than the other mobile quarterbacks of that era because his size made his runs a little more impressive, and he was still a high completion rate passer (64.4% with Minnesota) who got the ball to his wide receivers down the field. Sure, having Randy Moss helps a ton for that, but Moss was injured or ineffective for a huge portion of that 2004 season when Culpepper was at his best with 39 touchdowns and a 110.9 passer rating. Had his defense not been so terrible and if Peyton Manning didn’t throw 49 touchdowns, that could have easily been an MVP year for Culpepper.

Culpepper’s 2005 season was also a teaching moment for me that the NFL preseason is bullshit and should not be taken seriously. That August, Culpepper looked MVP ready again without Moss as he completed 81.8% of his passes for 520 yards and 11.82 yards per attempt. Nothing was going to stop him in his prime. Flash forward to Week 2 in September and the Vikings were 0-2 while Culpepper had zero touchdowns with eight interceptions. Oof. Things were that bad before the ACL tear, which just made him a shell of his former self when he went to the Dolphins, Raiders, and Lions.

With smaller quarterbacks starting to dominate the league, we may never see another one who was 6-foot-4, 260 pounds, and could throw it deep while also running for first downs like Culpepper.

17. Carson Palmer

This must be the section for ridiculously skilled passers with amazing peaks who were ruined by injuries in the 2005 season. Carson Palmer had all the accolades from college as a Heisman winner and No. 1 overall pick, but the Bengals made us wait a year to see him. His debut in 2004 was not good after 10 games, but then he played the Browns and threw four touchdowns in a 58-48 win. Then he led an incredible comeback win against a very good Baltimore defense, throwing for 382 yards and three touchdowns. Then he played well against New England before leaving the game injured and his season was over. This would be a precursor of things to come.

The young quarterback seemed to figure things out in those last three games. In the 2005 preseason, he was the opposite of Daunte Culpepper, who had those incredible stats I just referenced. Palmer only completed 52.2% of his passes with 6.45 YPA that August. It didn’t look pretty, but then again, neither did the preseason for rival Ben Roethlisberger in Pittsburgh. He was 16-of-36 and averaged 4.03 YPA. The Colts were also 0-5 that preseason. I remember being worried about all these things, then the real games started. Culpepper was awful, Palmer and Ben were terrific, and the Colts started 13-0 that season. So yeah, 2005 was the end of taking preseason seriously for me.

Palmer had a stellar season in leading the Bengals to a division title. His passer rating was over 100.0 in 11 of the first 12 games. He won the pivotal game in Pittsburgh that regular season. The Bengals were the No. 3 seed and finally back in the playoffs. Then disaster struck on the first drive against Pittsburgh as Palmer was rolled into after completing a 66-yard pass on his first dropback. He tore both his ACL and MCL and his season was over.

Palmer had good numbers in 2006-07, but he was never quite up to his 2005 level. Then injury cost him 12 games in 2008, he had a ton of close wins in 2009 that led to another wild card loss, then a ton of close losses after regression hit hard in 2010. Just like that, he demanded a trade out of Cincinnati and was with the Raiders where he did nothing of value. Palmer wound up with Bruce Arians in Arizona in 2013 and had a so-so season that still resulted in 10 wins, but no playoffs. In 2014, he was 6-0 as a starter, but once again injury took him out early and the team was stuck with Ryan Lindley come postseason time.

In 2015, Palmer seemed to put it all together again for the first time since 2005. He led the league’s most vertical offense and led the NFL in YPA (8.7), YPC (13.7), and QBR (76.4). He had big-time wins in prime time against the Seahawks and Bengals in consecutive weeks. He was the most consistently great quarterback from Week 1 to Week 17 that year, which is why I will always say he should have won MVP over Cam Newton.

But that injury to his index finger late in the season seemed to bother his performance down the stretch. Palmer barely got past the Packers in the divisional round, a 26-20 overtime win, for the first and only playoff win of his career. I made a naïve bet on a message board back in 2005 or 2006 that Palmer would never win a playoff game in his career. It was foolish, but damn if I didn’t nearly win that one. Sack-less Packers should have gone for two after the Hail Mary.

I was hyped for the NFC Championship Game in Carolina, but the Cardinals didn’t bother to show up. Palmer threw four picks and it was a blowout loss. The team lost too many close games in 2016 to return to the playoffs, then Palmer was injured again in 2017 and missed nine games before retiring.

It is very unusual to see a quarterback have his two peak seasons a decade apart, but Palmer did that. He helped lift two franchises in Cincinnati and Arizona that we are used to seeing struggle. But his career definitely leaves you wanting more as there were just too many injuries. With some better health, he had a shot at the Hall of Fame.

16. Lamar Jackson

I’m not sure if I have been vague or clear as day with my thoughts on Lamar Jackson so far. He is obviously ranked very high after only three seasons and 41 starts. There are outstanding numbers everywhere from his record (31-10) to his passing stats (68 TD-18 INT, 7.5 YPA, 102.6 PR) to rushing for over 1,000 yards in back-to-back seasons. He could easily eclipse Michael Vick’s rushing if he stays healthy, and I think he’s much further along as a passer. His unanimous MVP was 100% legit and earned in 2019.

Yet, timing is not on his side as he’s doing this in the shadow of Patrick Mahomes, who has taken the position over since 2018 and is a far better passer than Jackson. While Mahomes succeeds in multiple ways, I still feel like Jackson has a limited number of game scripts that he can follow to success. You don’t want him throwing a lot or getting into a shootout or needing a big comeback. The Ravens are a front-running team, and when they match up with Mahomes and the Chiefs, Jackson just can’t keep up.

I’m also worried that Buffalo with Josh Allen could leapfrog the Ravens as the main rival to the Chiefs in the AFC if January’s playoff game is any indication. Jackson leading the Ravens to their lowest point total of the season in three straight playoffs is very concerning. I also still have my doubts that he can maintain this rushing volume over an extended period without suffering significant injuries. As we have seen with other quarterbacks, those injuries can really wear a quarterback down and limit his career success.

I want to see Jackson improve his passing ASAP because he has definite Hall of Fame potential already.

15. Donovan McNabb

McNabb is a perfect example of a quarterback who was able to improve his passing and rely less on his legs when he got older and more experienced. From 1999-03, he only completed 57% of his passes and was at 6.2 YPA. The Eagles won largely on the back of a great defense while McNabb relied on his legs and a lot of screen passes and timely calls from Andy Reid. Even though he went to four straight Pro Bowls after his rookie season, I was not as impressed with him as McNair or Culpepper from that era.

There were also the postseason losses where you can count on McNabb to have multiple turnovers as he did all seven times he lost. Having as many picks as points (3) in the 2003 NFC Championship Game loss at home was worse than his uneven performance against the Patriots in Super Bowl 39.

But it was in that 2004 season where McNabb was at his best after he got Terrell Owens. While it never got better than that year, McNabb improved his time in Philadelphia (2004-09) by getting his completion percentage up to 60.6% and his YPA up to 7.5. He was still never the most accurate passer, and I used to joke that his ground ball incompletions were attempts at killing Earthworm Jim. His inaccuracy combined with a tendency to scramble and take an above-average number of sacks kept his interceptions down.

McNabb was mostly healthy through 2004, but injuries started to plague him after the Super Bowl loss. I can recall a sports hernia (2005) and a torn ACL (2006). He had one more NFC Championship Game run left in him in 2008, but he was outdueled by Kurt Warner in that one. He never won another playoff game and his chances for the Hall of Fame went in the toilet after Philadelphia traded him to Washington in 2010. Getting benched for Rex Grossman there and giving way to Christian Ponder in Minnesota in 2011 was the end of the line for McNabb.

But he was definitely one of the top quarterbacks in the 2000s. He just did not deliver enough in crunch time outside of that one time the Packers lost Freddie Mitchell on 4th-and-26.

14. Eli Manning

I’ve been warning people for a long time that the Eli Manning Hall of Fame debate is going to brutally linger in the room for years. It seemed like no matter how bad he played down the stretch of his career, people want to make his induction inevitable while I think it is a real challenging debate.

I’m not going to lay out the debate today because I only have a few days left to write four game previews, a full season preview, and get ready for Thursday’s opener, but even my placement of Eli at 14th was very difficult for me.

On the one hand, we should be bowing down to this guy for his superhero act of taking out the Patriots in the Super Bowl twice, especially sparing us a world where that team finished 19-0 in 2007. I’ve said Eli led the greatest drive in NFL history in Super Bowl 42 and I’m sticking to it. That drive four years later with the throw to Mario Manningham was pretty sweet too, his eighth game-winning drive in 2011, Eli’s best season in the NFL.

On the other hand, when Eli wasn’t going on those incredible Super Bowl runs, he was either 0-4 in the playoffs with shoddy numbers or failed to get there at all. He finished 117-117 as a starter in the regular season, which is a fairly accurate representation of his career. He had weeks where he could look like Peyton, then he had weeks where he looked like Cooper Manning. Hell, he had quarters where he could fluctuate between those levels of play. He was just not the mark of consistency like his older brother, though he was quite durable and a total flatliner no matter the situation.

From 2005-12, Eli was 77-51 as a starter in the regular season, always leading the Giants to a record of .500 or better. He had the volume stats but never the great efficiency stats. Combined with the two Super Bowl runs, that may not be the foundation for an elite quarterback, but it is the foundation for a Hall of Fame career. But starting in 2013 when he threw 27 interceptions, Eli finished just 39-60 as a starter with pretty bland numbers while the rest of the league’s averages only got higher. He had a losing record in six of his last seven seasons, and that 2016 playoff season was nothing to write home about.

Look, I love that Eli’s career happened, but I just would not vote him into the Hall of Fame. But I’m sure there will be much more to say about this going forward.

13. Andrew Luck

Luck might be the hardest player to rank in the whole list because I have to balance the expectations of what we thought he was coming into the league, what he actually did when he was here, and the potential of what he could have been if he had better health and support from the Colts.

When Luck shocked everyone and retired before the 2019 season, I wrote about my top 10 Luck moments, so you should read that here since I don’t want to repeat them now. But since I started this list by saying that 2001 was my first full season watching the whole league, I missed out on any of the pre-draft hype for Peyton Manning in 1998. As we know, a lot of people considered Luck the best prospect since Manning or even since John Elway in 1983. By coming out of Elway’s alma mater (Stanford) and going to the Colts to replace Manning, it just seemed like the stars were aligning for Luck to be a generational talent and player. Someone who was smart and could lead an offense like Peyton did, but with more mobility and athleticism.

The truth is Luck was closer to a young, sandlot football Ben Roethlisberger than he was to an accurate, methodical Manning. He was a gunslinger and sometimes he shot wildly. Luck had his share of dumb interceptions and sacks where he was trying to play hero ball. Maybe starting out in a Bruce Arians offense had that effect on him, but it carried on after Arians left in 2013.

But even if the passing efficiency was never quite what we wanted to see with Luck, there was no denying he could carry a team like only the all-time greats did. Luck could catch fire and lead a comeback with the best of them. The Colts were unrecognizable from the Manning days as much of the roster was turned over, and head coach Chuck Pagano was less than an asset, but Luck put that team on his back for three straight 11-5 seasons to begin his career. I’m not sure how many other quarterbacks in the league at that time would have been able to do that with those rosters.

With the passing numbers exploding around the league, maybe Luck won’t look that interesting to future generations. But for someone who twice threw for over 4,500 yards and 39 touchdowns, that puts him in rare company with only Marino, Peyton, Brees, and Brady.

It still is shocking that Luck walked away from the NFL before his age-30 season at a time when the Colts finally looked to have an offensive line and good coach in place for him. His best was yet to come, but as we get ready to start a third season without him, the sad reality is that we’re all out of Luck.

12. Kurt Warner

This list has gone through many strange career arcs from Tommy Maddox, Matt Cassel, Case Keenum, Ryan Fitzpatrick, Ryan Tannehill, Nick Foles, and Michael Vick. But no one can match the magic of Kurt Warner’s story: something so surreal that it has been turned into a Hollywood movie.

From undrafted to the Arena Football League to bagging groceries to taking over in the preseason as an unknown and winning Super Bowl MVP after one of the finest seasons ever, even just the first part of Warner’s career sounds like a movie. But then he led one of the most prolific three-year runs of offense in league history, won his second MVP in 2001, and nearly won his second ring after a spirited comeback in the Super Bowl against the Patriots.

Then the injuries started, the fumbilitis took over, the sacks piled up, the scoreboard dried up, and he was benched for Marc Bulger, Eli Manning, and Matt Leinart in three different cities. Well, it’s a good thing Leinart always enjoyed the hot tub, because in 2007, Warner won his job back in Arizona and was able to prove that there was still something in the tank.

In 2008, Warner nearly had another MVP season after starting every game, but he settled for going 3-for-3 at making the Super Bowl every time he started 16 games in a season. He once again nearly had another epic Super Bowl comeback, but the defense let down against Ben Roethlisberger and Santonio Holmes. Warner still had one more playoff season and 51-45 playoff win over Aaron Rodgers left in him before getting injured against the Saints, his final game.

Warner only started more than 10 games in six seasons, but he had two incredible peaks with the Rams and Cardinals, lifting two of the weakest franchises in the NFL in the process. That is why he is in the Hall of Fame and one of the game’s great legends. He would be higher here if I was putting emphasis on 1999-00. To this day, 1999 Warner is still the last player to win MVP and a Super Bowl in the same season.

11. Brett Favre

More than anyone on this list, Favre is hurt by the emphasis on since 2001. It was before that period in the first 10 seasons of his career when he won three MVPs in a row, started two Super Bowls in a row, and led the league in touchdown passes three times and yardage twice.

In the last 10 years of his career, Favre led the league in interceptions (2005, 2008) more times than he did touchdown passes (2003). But it was still a very notable decade where he went 95-62 as a starter, was MVP runner-up multiple times, and he threw 253 touchdowns and 37,132 yards. Four times he led his team to 12 or more wins in the second half of his career, or something he did twice in the first half.

It’s just that those postseasons ended so badly, which is why I do not have him in the top 10. Favre threw six picks against the 2001 Rams, lost 27-7 at home to the 2002 Falcons, threw an awful pick in overtime against the 2003 Eagles (4th-and-26 game), threw four picks at home against a lousy 2004 Vikings defense, threw the big interception in overtime against the 2007 Giants in the NFC Championship Game, and threw a pick to Tracy Porter late in regulation against the 2009 Saints in the NFC Championship Game. The Vikings lost in overtime after Favre never touched the ball again. Favre also flopped late in the season with the Jets in 2008 after an 8-3 start. He also just had generally bad non-playoff seasons in 2005, 2006, and 2010 before he retired for good.

Favre gave us a lot of moments in that decade. The game against the 2003 Raiders the night after his father died was an incredible performance under any circumstances, but even more amazing under those. With the 2009 Vikings, his sweep of the Packers and the Hail Mary winner to beat the 49ers were must-see moments.

Favre was a lock for Canton before this portion of his career even started. Would he have made it just based on these last 10 years? I don’t think so. But that’s why I have him at No. 11 on my list.

Coming in Part VII (10-1): the top 10 are revealed. You probably know who I have at No. 1, but can you guess the top five?

NFL Stat Oddity: 2020 Divisional Round

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

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

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

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

Previous weeks in Stat Oddity:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

That took some balls.

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

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

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

Just leave the runs to Henne’s discretion.  

Ravens at Bills: 17-3, But Of Course

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Rams at Packers: No. 1 Nothing

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The 2020 Rams defense allowed season highs in:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

NFL 2020 Divisional Round Saturday Previews

Even after the questionable changes to wild card weekend, the divisional round is still my favorite week of the whole NFL season. The games look really good on paper this week and we should get a dramatic finish or two after not having a single second-half lead change in last week’s six playoff games.

Again, I am breaking my previews in half, starting with the two Saturday games before I post Sunday’s games tomorrow. I have already posted my previews (links below) for Rams-Packers and Ravens-Bills on Sportsbook Review, so check those out first, but I am providing more content and my final score prediction below.

Rams at Packers (-6.5)

See my full preview for this game at SBR.

Defense wins championships, right? When Aaron Rodgers reached his only Super Bowl, he had his best Green Bay defense in 2010. That unit delivered in the playoffs with a game-ending interception off Michael Vick, a game-changing pick-six off Matt Ryan, a game-sealing pick-six off Caleb Hanie, and more crucial takeaways and a final defensive stop against Ben Roethlisberger and the Steelers in the Super Bowl.

The 2020 Rams have scored a defensive touchdown in five of their last seven games, including a pick-six off Russell Wilson in Saturday’s 30-20 wild card win. Interesting.

However, you still have to score points on offense to win playoff games. The Rams have scored more than 23 offensive points in only one of their last seven games. That’s not going to get the job done against the NFL’s highest-scoring team, who has the fewest turnovers (11) in the league.

Does anyone remember the 1993 Giants? Dan Reeves took his schtick to New York and got a Pro Bowl season out of a 38-year-old Phil Simms, sparing us one more year before the bad commentary to come. That team won with the No. 1 defense. In fact, they only had one game all season where they allowed more than 20 points. But while they won a wild card game 17-10, they had to travel to San Francisco in the divisional round and take on the No. 1 offense and Steve Young. Guess what happened? (Or don’t.) The 49ers won 44-3. The great defense, saddled by an inept offense that put them in some bad field position, allowed 44 points on the first 10 drives.

No one remembers this game, but it is one of the eight playoff games in the earlier rounds (non-Super Bowl) since the merger where the No. 1 scoring offense faced the No. 1 scoring defense. The defense is 3-5 in those games. One of those defensive wins was the 2014 Seahawks completing the season sweep of Rodgers’ Packers in the NFC Championship Game, but even that took an insane comeback from the offense with a crucial onside kick recovery by the special teams just to get to overtime.

While people should be skeptical of how Rodgers will perform against another stout NFC West defense, I’m more concerned with the Rams shitting their pants offensively so that Rodgers doesn’t need to score many points to win this game at home in weather that gives Jared Goff night terrors when he’s healthy, let alone nursing his thumb boo-boo.

Simply put, this is a great offense/suspect defense hosting a shoddy offense/great defense. While NFL history is filled with examples of great defenses shutting down great offenses, those games are usually played in the championship round like the two recent Denver Super Bowls where the 2013 offense lost to Seattle, but the 2015 defense beat Carolina.

I only picked Denver as an example because the games are recent, but it is interesting to point out how the Broncos turned so quickly from an offensive team to a defensive team. Does that sound like anyone else we know? Sean McVay’s 2018 Rams were in the Super Bowl after scoring 527 points. They had three points in that last game, dropped out of the top 10 offenses in 2019, and this season has seen the Rams fall to 25th in points per drive while boasting the best defense led by the best defensive player, Aaron Donald.

Remember how the Broncos had a great pass rusher like Von Miller but the results weren’t there defensively until 2015 when they added more talent? Now the Rams have All-Pro cornerback Jalen Ramsey for his first full season with the team and look where they are again. Can this be a Denver-like turnaround for the Rams where they win a championship with a weak offense and great defense? The 2015 Broncos ranked 25th in offensive points per drive too.

Well, I think the run ends this week, but I can at least understand how the Rams could pull off this upset. Run the ball great with Cam Akers, Goff protects the ball and makes his easy play-action throws, and the defense kicks ass. There is a formula there, and at least a defense like the Rams holding down the Packers would make sense unlike the mediocre 2019 Titans shutting down Baltimore’s insane offense a year ago.

NFL history is loaded with playoff burnouts from its highest scoring teams. The 12 highest-scoring teams in NFL history have won zero championships. Only the 2011 Saints (32) and 2018 Chiefs (31) scored 30 points in their playoff loss.

Fortunately, the Packers are the 20th highest-scoring team at 509 points, or one behind the 2009 Saints, the only No. 1 scoring offense to win a Super Bowl since 2000. But you can see only five of the 24 teams in the 500-point club won a championship, and that includes the 1961 Oilers winning the AFL Championship Game by a score of 10-3. Even the 1999 Rams, the last team with a player (Kurt Warner) to win MVP and Super Bowl in the same season, needed an 11-6 win over Tampa Bay in the NFC Championship Game.

You usually need your defense to show up at some point in the playoffs, but this is not the matchup where I am concerned with Green Bay’s so-so unit costing them the season.

Green Bay’s best unit, the offense, just cannot feed into the upset chances by gifting the Rams turnovers (field position) in a way they did against the Buccaneers and Colts this year. The Packers had six of their 11 turnovers this season in those two losses. On the bright side for the Rams, their offense is coming off its first game this season without a giveaway.

While left tackle David Bakhtiari is out, the Rams get their best pressure from the interior with Donald, who has torn rib cartilage, which you would think makes it humanly impossible for him to be 100% on Saturday. That is big for the Packers, but it is why it would be coaching malpractice if the Rams do not deploy their other huge weapon in this matchup.

This is much easier to say from behind a keyboard, but Jalen Ramsey, you have to want all the smoke from Davante Adams this week. It might lead to you getting smoked for a big play, but just limit it to one early drive. If Ramsey can shadow Adams and successfully slow him down, it should make things so much easier on the Rams to win this game. The Rams have allowed three 100-yard receivers, good for second fewest in 2020.

The Rams defended the run very well this year. They were the only defense in either of the last two seasons to allow fewer than 140 rushing yards in all 16 games. I’m putting Ramsey on Adams and taking my chances with Robert Tonyan (high catch rate but hasn’t topped 40 yards since Week 12) and Marques Valdes-Scantling (big plays, big mistakes) beating me.

I know all the narratives and cliches about pass-happy offensive teams going up against stout defenses in the playoffs. I know the Packers have lost multiple home playoff games, including 2011 when they last were the No. 1 seed, and still do not handle teams that punch them in the mouth well. I just cannot find the faith in Goff to channel his inner Eli Manning and get this road win. Despite starting a Super Bowl already, Goff has been very underwhelming in his playoff games. At least in 2011 Manning had a track record (Super Bowl MVP) and was having his best season.

Not to mention the Rams failed to beat the 0-13 Jets…

Final: Packers 24, Rams 16

Ravens at Bills (-2.5)

See my full preview for this game at SBR.

I had so much to say about this game already that it turned out to be my first 2,000-word preview on SBR. The potential for an instant classic feels high with this one as the AFC finally gets some new blood in this round. It’s just too bad the stadium cannot be full. I think the Ravens already played in the regular season Game of the Year when they won 47-42 in Cleveland.

Notice that the Bills made my table above for the 500-point club a year after the Ravens did it behind Lamar Jackson’s MVP season. Josh Allen won’t win MVP this season but the fact that he was in the conversation says so much about how far he has come. And he’ll probably still get a vote before Russell Wilson does.

Both offenses do great things, and while I like Buffalo’s style better and find it more sustainable for the long term, I have to admit that the Ravens are better designed to go far this postseason. In this particular matchup, if there’s snow, it’s even more pronounced for me despite Jackson’s candid lack of experience playing in such weather.

Thanks to Jackson, Baltimore is arguably the most consistent rushing offense in NFL history. The Ravens have only been held under 110 rushing yards once in his 40 career starts, though I must point out that was his first playoff game (90 yards vs. 2018 Chargers) and that the 2019 Bills held the Ravens to a season-low 118 rushing yards (121 excluding those pesky kneeldowns). But the Buffalo defense is not as good this year and has had five games (two losses and three wins by a field goal each) that would make me incredibly nervous that the Ravens are going to run wild Saturday night. Baltimore has rushed for at least 230 yards in five of the last six games since Jackson returned from COVID, which were all wins of course. He’s in full YOLO mode, and by the Pro Football Reference EPA model, the Ravens offense had its five best games this season in Weeks 13-17 after Jackson returned from his COVID battle.

The Ravens are not going to do something stupid and come out throwing a ton of passes. They’ll do what they do best, and they know that is running the ball, often with Jackson taking it himself by design or like his brilliant 48-yard touchdown scramble on Sunday in Tennessee.

Jackson is 26-1 when he attempts fewer than 28 passes, and that one loss (2018 at Kansas City) saw Robert Griffin III finish the final drive in overtime. He keeps his attempts low and the turnovers low. Jackson’s four-turnover meltdown against the Steelers was the only time this season the Ravens had multiple turnovers with him at quarterback. When they had their second pick against Washington, that was with RG3 in the game late. Jackson usually protects the ball well and he’ll have to here as the Bills were good with 26 takeaways (but none against the Colts in the wild card).

Also, when they do throw, they have tight end Mark Andrews or wide receiver Marquise Brown. It’s usually one or the other who goes off, and on Sunday, it was Brown with a season-high 109 yards on seven catches. Interesting to note that Brown had 126 yards (his most since his NFL debut game) against the Titans in the 2019 playoffs and 128 scrimmage yards (his most this year) on Sunday. Maybe he just likes playing the Titans, but he better hope history doesn’t repeat itself with the Bills. Last year, Buffalo held Brown to -3 yards on 3 catches, the worst statistical game of his career. I find that unlikely to repeat itself despite the Bills still having Tre’Davious White at corner, but maybe this is an Andrews week after the way the Colts got some big plays to tight ends in Buffalo last week.

So we know the Ravens are running out the gate. When it comes the Bills, we are looking at the most blitzed quarterback this season against the most blitz-happy defense in football. Allen was blitzed a career-high 31 times last year when he played the Ravens and he was terrible against it. He’s gotten a lot of experience with seeing it this year and has managed very well. Still, I think the Ravens will continue to do it and rely on their excellent secondary to cover these wide receivers, who looked very good on Saturday against the Colts.

But the weather was quite nice for January in Buffalo on Saturday, and if things are indeed freezing and/or snowy in this one, then a precision passing game and one-dimensional offense that barely hands the ball off to running backs just may not work that great this time around. Does Gabriel Davis make those sideline toe-drag catches by a matters of centimeters in harsher conditions? Probably not. Some (not me) don’t even think he caught them last week, but the 50/50 plays largely went Buffalo’s way in a tough game where they had horrible field position in the first half and were a season-worst 2/9 on third down after leading all offenses in conversion rate this regular season.

If you came here to read both previews and already read my take in LAR-GB on great offense vs. great defense in the playoffs, then you might expect one of these 500-point club members is likely to disappoint this weekend.

If it happens, then I think it will be Buffalo just because the Ravens have the offense and dynamic quarterback that can score a lot of points, unlike the Rams. Allen is going to have to be special and handle the blitz well. Baltimore has allowed a league-low two 100-yard receivers this year, and none of the top 100 performances in receiving yards have come against the Ravens. Even though Corey Davis got them for over 100 in Week 11, he had no catches on Sunday. This defense just held the Titans to a season-low 13 points and we know that offense was also one of the best all year.

Much like the Rams have to contain Davante Adams, the Ravens need to contain Stefon Diggs. You can live with Cole Beasley making the short catches (just not too many on third down), you don’t expect Davis to be as great this week, but you cannot get roasted by Diggs, who has been on a tear for a team that would be on an 11-game winning streak had it not been for a Hail Mary in Arizona.

Again, this is probably the first time I have ever been excited to watch a Ravens-Bills game, but that is what happens when you finally have great offenses and exciting quarterbacks to watch. We have been waiting a long time to see that from Baltimore and Buffalo, and maybe this will be the first of multiple playoff meetings to come.

Final: Ravens 27, Bills 24

I’ll be back tomorrow to put the Chiefs on upset alert and explain why I think the Buccaneers are a paper tiger.

NFL 2020 Wild Card Sunday Previews

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

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

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

Ravens at Titans (+3)

BAL OFFENSE VS. TEN DEFENSE

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

TEN OFFENSE VS. BAL DEFENSE

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Final: Ravens 31, Titans 24

Bears at Saints (-10)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Final: Saints 27, Bears 23

Browns at Steelers (-6)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Final: Steelers 27, Browns 20

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