The 2022 Vikings Are Young, Dumb, and Full of Comebacks

It’s only fitting for a blog I named “Captain Comeback” that I would give proper respect to the largest comeback in NFL history. For a league that has been around since 1920, this is only the second time ever that a team trailed by more than 28 points and came back to win the game. That’s it. Twice in over 100 years.

Growing up in the 90s, I only heard about Frank Reich, Buffalo’s backup quarterback, leading a 32-point rally in a playoff game for the biggest comeback in NFL history. I got to watch it years later thanks to NFL Films. Then you read about how Reich also once held the NCAA record for a 31-point comeback with Maryland against Miami in 1984.

Truthfully, Reich may have been what piqued my interest in comebacks as a research project. This backup quarterback being the only person to lead a 31-point comeback in college and 32-point comeback in the NFL can’t just be a coincidence, right? There has to be something more to this stuff.

Speaking of eerie coincidences…

Oddly enough, Reich was fired this year as the head coach of the team (Colts) who ended up blowing the 33-0 lead to beat his old record. That 33-0 lead was also on the heels of a game in Dallas where the Colts were outscored 33-0 in the fourth quarter, the first team to do that since 1925. Oh, and the Colts had Matt Ryan at quarterback on Saturday, the only quarterback to blow a 25-point lead in a championship game in NFL history. Now he has the all-time blown lead in an NFL game. Unbelievable.

Am I little annoyed that the biggest comeback ever now belongs to a Kirk Cousins-led team I have called the worst 11-3 team in NFL history instead of it being a playoff game with a backup QB? Yeah, I am. But I got to watch this one live, and it was quite the experience.

As a holiday treat, and the nicest things I’ll probably say about the 2022 Vikings all year, here is my definitive recap of what happened on Saturday in Minnesota.

Colts at Vikings: The Biggest Comeback/Collapse in NFL History

It is not surprising to see the Colts and Vikings involved in an all-time comeback. They are two franchises who have been involved in several of the biggest comebacks ever, including famous and not so famous ones. I even wrote in 2014 about a preseason game where the Colts blew a 26-0 fourth-quarter lead to the Giants, which would be an NFL record for biggest blown lead in the fourth quarter.

Last December, I did a timely Twitter thread about big comeback attempts when these Vikings nearly blew a 29-0 lead in the second half against the Steelers. Pittsburgh got it to 36-28 (same score as Saturday at one point), but Pat Freiermuth was unable to hold onto Ben Roethlisberger’s pass in the end zone to end it.

Only a few teams have been able to come close to erasing a 30+ point deficit. Other than the 1992 Bills coming back from 35-3 down to beat the Oilers in overtime, the only other 30+ point comeback attempt before Saturday that didn’t end in a loss was when the 1960 Broncos were able to tie the Bills at 38 after trailing 38-7 in the third quarter. There was no overtime then.

Here is the updated chart for all comeback wins of at least 23 points in NFL history. Colts-Vikings is fittingly the 33rd game on this list, which highlights road games in yellow and playoff games in blue.

Minnesota’s comeback and Indy’s collapse puts each team in a tie for the most such wins or losses in franchise history:

  • The Vikings (3) join the Broncos, Eagles, and Patriots as the only franchises with three such comeback wins in their history.
  • The Colts (3) join the Patriots and Buccaneers as the only franchises with three such blown leads in their history.

The game also makes for some interesting history for Cousins and Ryan:

  • The last two teams to come back from at least 24 points down and win a regular-season game were both quarterbacked by Kirk Cousins, including a 2015 win over Tampa with Washington (the “You like that?” game).
  • Kirk Cousins joins Dan Pastorini, Neil Lomax, and Tom Brady as the only quarterbacks with multiple wins when trailing by at least 23 points.  
  • Cousins and Brady are the only quarterbacks in NFL history with multiple 24-point comeback wins in their careers.
  • This is only the eighth comeback from 25-plus points in NFL history, and Matt Ryan has been the losing quarterback for the last two instances (only quarterback with multiple losses).
  • Matt Ryan, Tony Romo, and Jim Plunkett are the only quarterbacks to lose multiple games with at least a 23-point lead.

With the Vikings down 33-0 at halftime, this is also a historic comeback for halftime deficits:

  • Minnesota has the largest comeback win from a halftime deficit (33 points) in NFL history.
  • The only other team with a comeback win from a halftime deficit of greater than 25 points was when the 1980 49ers came back from 28 down to beat the Saints.
  • Patrick Mahomes and the Chiefs are the only team on this list of 33 games that led at halftime despite trailing by at least 23 points in the game. They were down 24-0 in the 2019 playoffs to Houston before storming back for a 51-31 win.

Down 33-0, the Vikings got their comeback going with a drive that started with 11:16 left in the third quarter. This was less time than the 1992 Bills, who trailed 35-3 when they got the ball with 13:15 left in the third quarter before they scored their first touchdown.

The Colts added a field goal to make it 36-7 with 4:53 left in the third. That means the Vikings made a 29-point comeback, which by itself would be the second largest in history, with just under 20 minutes left to play in regulation – a new gold standard. Near the 5:00 mark of the third in Bills-Oilers, the Bills were already driving at midfield down 35-17. They made it a very doable 35-24 game with 4:21 left in the third. By the 2:00 mark of the third quarter, Buffalo made it 35-32, so their record comeback happened very fast with four touchdowns scored in just over 11 minutes of action in the third.

The Vikings still had plenty of work to do at the start of the fourth quarter, trailing 36-14 after Cousins took a sack to end the third.

By my records, the Vikings are the fifth team to come back to win from a fourth-quarter deficit of 22-plus points, joining these teams:

  • 1952 Rams vs. Packers (22 points, trailed 28-6, won 30-28)
  • 1985 Vikings vs. Eagles (23 points, trailed 23-0, won 28-23)
  • 1987 Cardinals vs. Buccaneers (25 points, trailed 28-3, won 31-28)
  • 2000 Jets vs. Dolphins (23 points, trailed 30-7, won 40-37 OT)
  • 2022 Vikings vs. Colts (22 points, trailed 36-14, won 39-36 OT)

No matter how you slice it, this was a historic comeback and collapse. If you’ve been following the Vikings and Colts this year, you could start to see it coming too around the time Justin Jefferson caught a touchdown with 12:53 left and the Vikings now down 36-21.

Colts-Vikings: Perfect Storm for a Record-Setting Comeback

In many ways, the ingredients for a record-setting comeback were present in this one:

  • The 2022 Vikings already had six fourth-quarter comeback wins (three from double digits) to lead the NFL as they have been living on the edge all season.
  • Colts were coming off a 33-0 fourth quarter in Dallas and we know they turn the ball over often.
  • Colts lost star running back Jonathan Taylor after his first touch, and his presence was missed on a few critical plays.
  • Colts have an interim coach (Jeff Saturday) who just doesn’t have much experience at this job.
  • Vikings were at home.
  • Matt Ryan is cursed.

On that last point, part of why I wanted to do a deeper dive on this game is to contrast it with Ryan’s other big blown lead with Atlanta against the Patriots in Super Bowl LI.

The truth is Super Bowl LI and 33-0 couldn’t be any more different as games.

In that Super Bowl, Ryan was playing an incredible game with the offense moving up and down the field, the defense jumped a Tom Brady pass for a pick-six, and the Falcons were rolling along at 28-3 in the third quarter. Then time after time, the Falcons failed to make the one last play they needed to put the game away.

When I wrote my 2017 NFL predictions, I highlighted eight breaking points where the Falcons just needed to do one good thing and the game was over. They were 0-for-8.

Obviously, you can take every play in a game like this and say “well, they should have forced a fumble and returned it for a touchdown.” But that is just silly talk ignoring the physics and reality of all these snaps. I’m just talking about things like don’t try to throw the ball on third-and-1 deep in your own end where your RB is going to miss the pass rusher and your quarterback fumbles. Or don’t drop a game-ending interception and help keep the ball alive in the air for Julian Edelman to catch it for a 23-yard gain. Stuff like that.

What breaking points did the Colts have that failed? We’ll get to that list soon, but the other important distinction I want to make for this game compared to Super Bowl LI is that the Colts didn’t actually play that well to earn such a big lead here.

Atlanta went from a dominant performance to playing dumb football with the lead and helping the Patriots get back into it. By the end of the game, the defense was tired, the Patriots won the coin toss, and the end was inevitable.

In this game, it’s not like Ryan had a great day with 19-of-33 for 182 yards and a touchdown. He took three sacks. The Colts averaged 4.0 yards per carry without Jonathan Taylor. They were 6-of-19 (31.6%) on third down, which is lousy. The Vikings ended up outgaining them 518-341 in yards.

While SB LI was Atlanta going from a beatdown to a meltdown, this game was more about the Colts trying to hang on to something they didn’t really deserve in the first place:

  • Minnesota started the game with a three-and-out, which led to a blocked punt return touchdown and 10-0 lead for the Colts. There’s always a lot of randomness to a blocked punt return TD (unless you’re the 2021 Packers).
  • On the next two drives, Dalvin Cook fumbled after a 40-yard run and was stuffed on a fourth-and-1 with horrible spacing and design at his own 31. The Colts settled for a FG and 20-0 lead on a 21-yard drive.
  • After another three-and-out, the Vikings ran the most expected fake punt ever and botched it at their own 31. The Colts again failed to move the sticks (or even gain a yard) and kicked a field goal for a 23-0 lead.
  • (7:03 left in 2Q) The officials hosed Minnesota by calling forward progress for Michael Pittman on a third-down catch when he was still fighting to get upfield, had the ball knocked out, and there was a clear scoop and score for the Vikings. But it didn’t count and the Colts got to punt.
  • (5:57 left in 2Q) On the very next drive, Cousins threw a pick-six intended for Jalen Reagor, who came in to replace an injured Justin Jefferson, who would return later. That made it 30-0 in a sequence where the Vikings defense should have made it 23-7.
  • (4:55 left in 2Q) K.J. Osborn appeared to make a 40-yard catch downfield, but only when you slow the replay down to a snail pace can you see the ball move out of his one hand, making it incomplete. The call was correct, but it’s just another example of how the Vikings were shooting themselves in the foot far more than anything Indy was doing to them.

After the Osborn drop, the Colts would have their last offensive drive of the game that gained more than 31 yards and two first downs. It led to a field goal and 33-0 lead at halftime, an incredible coincidence for a team that was outscored 33-0 in the last quarter we watched them play.

Into the second half, now I’m going to look at the breaking points for the Colts. The moments where if they just did one thing better that was in their control, they likely win the game. I had eight for Atlanta in SB 51, but that was just going by memory of a game that ended seven months before I wrote that. This one is a bit fresher in mind.

  • 10:41 left, 3Q (IND leads 33-0): Every comeback needs a starting point and Minnesota’s was when Dayo Odeyingbo was penalized 15 yards for taunting after he tackled Reagor on a run that lost 5 yards. Not only did it give the Vikings a first down, but it negated a 2nd-and-15 situation. It looked like a lame call, but just make the tackle and don’t stare down the opponent, and maybe that drive ends in another three-and-out. Two plays later, Osborn burned them for a 63-yard gain and finished the drive with a touchdown. Game on.
  • 0:25 left, 3Q (IND leads 36-14): This is at least the third time I’m criticizing Matt Ryan for throwing incompletions in a game with a big lead he went on to lose. Just burn some clock, my guy. Ryan threw an incompletion on second-and-7 with 25 seconds left. Run the ball there, get a couple yards, and take this thing into the fourth quarter. Ryan then threw another incompletion on third down, so the Vikings got the ball back and ran a play in the third quarter. It’s bad clock management, though this is probably more on Saturday’s inexperience than Ryan.
  • 8:09 left, 4Q (IND leads 36-21): After another minor injury knocks Jefferson out of the game, Cousins goes deep for Reagor, who stopped on the route and it was intercepted, though the Colts went out of bounds at their own 2 to give them poor field position. This is another case of the Vikings (namely Reagor) shooting themselves in the foot and the Colts catching a break with a Jefferson injury. But after the pick, Ryan again throws two incompletions on first and third down. The drive burns 56 seconds and the Vikings are already back at the 50 with the ball. This is probably where not having Taylor at RB hurt, but again, I hate the way Ryan continuously throws multiple interceptions on drives like this. He did it against the 2020 Bears too for another blown 16-point 4Q lead.
  • 3:28 left, 4Q (IND leads 36-28): Here is where the Colts definitely missed JT in a one-score game where you need first downs to end it. Deon Jackson got a first-down carry and he fumbled, which should have been returned for yet another Minnesota touchdown, but for the second time (and this was more egregious) the refs blew it and whistled the play dead. So, the Colts actually got lucky here that it wasn’t a fumble return touchdown, but just hang onto the ball and put this game away. Awful job by Jackson.
  • 2:52 left, 4Q (IND leads 36-28): After the Colts tackled Cousins on a 4th-and-15 scramble (ha), they needed to make the Vikings burn their four clock stoppages. But on the very first play, they run a toss which is more likely to get the runner out of bounds, which is bad. Zack Moss tried to slide down after picking up 11 yards and a first, but they ruled him out of bounds. He got a meaningless first down and only burned 7 seconds. Bad play.
  • 2:31 left, 4Q (IND leads 36-28): You knew it was coming, the biggest breaking point in the game. After three more Moss runs, it was 4th-and-1 at the Minnesota 36. One yard and the game is over with the Vikings out of timeouts. Do you go for a 54-yard field goal with a suspect kicker to make it 39-28 and likely wrap it up? Do you just go for the 1 yard on a QB sneak? Again, not having Taylor here didn’t help, but I can’t argue with the call for a QB sneak. Unfortunately, Ryan just couldn’t get any push and he failed to convert it, the most unstoppable play in the book.
  • 2:15 left, 4Q (IND leads 36-34): After Dalvin Cook embarrassed the defense on a screen that went 64 yards for a touchdown on a one-play drive, the Colts could essentially end it by stopping the two-point conversion. But Cousins remained calm in the pocket and found tight end T.J. Hockenson with a mismatch in the end zone to tie the game.

So, those are seven breaking points, but several are just me complaining that the Colts didn’t burn clock more efficiently, and they even got lucky with another Reagor-aided pick and the refs hosing the Vikings on a fumble touchdown.

Minnesota was the better team, and we saw it the rest of the way as Ryan took a sack on the very next play after the tie, and that short-circuited that drive. The Colts were so shook they even looked like they were going to go for a fourth-and-1 at their own 34 with 1:22 left, but a false start killed that idea. I feel like that was a game saver because I don’t see them converting there. That would have been super ballsy.

You would think the Vikings would march right down the field in overtime, but Cousins took a sack inside the Indy 40 and that killed that idea. More pressure on Ryan nearly led him into a devastating fumble, but the Colts were able to recover the ball as the clock moved under 3:00. The Colts were unable to get the ball deeper than their own 44 before punting.

Cousins had 1:41 left, and after already leading six game-winning drives this season, a seventh was not an issue. All three wide receivers had a big catch as Osborn completed his career day (157 yards), Adam Thielen had a good game (earlier touchdown), and of course Jefferson came up with the dagger for 13 yards to get into field goal range. The Colts were so blatant and aggressive at keeping Jefferson on the ground after his catch that they were penalized for delay of game, making the kick 5 yards easier. Thanks, guys. Minnesota kickers need all the help they can get.

But kicker Greg Joseph has been almost perfect from 40 yards and under in his career, and he was good from 40 here to put the official bow on the largest comeback in NFL history. That concluded a Saturday afternoon game that took four hours to play.

Almost took me four hours to recap as my ass has been slacking with some of the comeback data, but I got it all together for this rarest of games.

Love them or hate them, these 2022 Vikings are already a memorable, historic team. Their scoring differential may only be +2, but they have already given us the modern day equivalent to The Miracle at the Meadowlands by turning Josh Allen on a QB sneak into Joe Pisarcik. Now they have given us the largest comeback in any NFL game ever played. We still have at least four more games (playoffs included) to watch what this team does next.

Cousins only needs one more game-winning drive to tie 2016 Matthew Stafford for the single-season record:

Monty Python voice: And now for something completely different (the following is mostly satire and fiction. Mostly).

Did Kevin O’Connell Pull Tom Brady’s Lucky Horseshoe Out of His Ass?

Don’t blame Gisele taking her witch powers with her in the divorce for Tom Brady struggling with a 6-8 record and the worst offense of his career.

I think I know what’s really going on here.

When I wrote my Buccaneers-Bengals recap, I mentioned Joe Burrow pulled the remaining piece of lucky horseshoe out of Brady’s anal cavity at halftime. But without writing about this Vikings-Colts game first, that may not have made sense.

My new working theory is that Vikings coach Kevin O’Connell is actually the person who got to Brady last January and stole the LOAT’s source of incredible luck. But O’Connell has been trying to get to Brady’s luck for almost 15 years now.

For those who do not know, O’Connell was a quarterback and third-round pick by the Patriots in the 2008 draft. You know what happened in 2008, right? O’Connell shows up, and suddenly Brady tears his ACL in Week 1 for the only major injury of his 23-year career. Suspicious to say the least.

But the Patriots bypassed O’Connell and went with high school QB Matt Cassel to replace Brady and earn a huge contract from Kansas City. After struggling in a preseason game in 2009, the Patriots unexpectedly cut O’Connell and his quarterback career fizzled from there.

But as the Rams’ offensive coordinator, O’Connell had success in Tampa Bay’s building in 2020 and returned there in 2021 for the divisional round game this past January. If O’Connell stole Brady’s lucky horseshoe that day, he must have only gotten the offensive half of it, explaining this pathetic offense we have seen for 15 games now from the Buccaneers.

We still see Brady with a top 10 defense and one that forced four Rams turnovers to almost steal back in that game.

But going back to that divisional round game, O’Connell as the Rams coordinator and Vikings head coach has done this:

  • 13-0 in close games
  • 10-0 at game-winning drive opportunities
  • 9 fourth-quarter comebacks (five when trailing by 10+ points)
  • First team in NFL history to win three straight playoff games by 3 points
  • The most improbable fumble return TD since Joe Pisarcik and the Miracle at the Meadowlands
  • Largest comeback in NFL history (33 points)

The NFL hasn’t seen a run of luck like this in close games since, well since the 2003-04 Patriots won 21 straight games with a 17-0 record in close games.

Meanwhile, since that January playoff loss, Brady has botched a 40-day retirement, lost his marriage, has been outscored 35-0 and 34-0 in the last two weeks, and he’s stuck at 6-8 in the worst division in the NFL with the worst offensive performance of his career.

Yeah, O’Connell stole that shit, and we’ll see if Burrow grabbed the D/ST piece at halftime on Sunday, because that Gio Bernard fake punt got everything rolling for the Bengals.

Kevin O’Connell: LOAT Slayer.

Conclusion: Pouring One Out for Matt Ryan

Guess we’ll end on the sad note, but I really do feel bad that Matt Ryan has secured this legacy of being the guy who blew the biggest lead in NFL history and the biggest lead in Super Bowl history.

When people talk about Warren Moon the last three decades, they talk about him being a prolific passer and a pioneer for the Black quarterback. No one really talks about him blowing a 32-point lead, which wasn’t the only lead those Oilers blew in the postseason during that run. But when it comes to Ryan, that is going to be the focus barring a miracle.

As I led off with Frank Reich, Ryan holding this distinction may not be a coincidence, but it is hard for me to say he was ever the leading cause of either loss. He was barely a supporting actor in Saturday’s game, and he should have been a hero in LI if Kyle Shanahan had any common sense and ran the ball. Or Robert Alford wins Super Bowl MVP with his second pick. Fuck Edelman.

But if Ryan’s career only bombs from here or if he retires after this season, I think this season may have seriously damaged his chances at the Hall of Fame. We’ll see how things go with Eli Manning and Philip Rivers in the upcoming years, but it’s going to be hard for people to overlook these blown leads and a quarterback who hasn’t been to the postseason or had a winning record in any season since 2017.

To paraphrase my football friend Vinny Lospinuso, Ryan may go down as the Ken Anderson of his era.

Someone who won an MVP and took an unsuccessful franchise to a Super Bowl only to lose to a dynasty, but he isn’t in the Hall of Fame, and only stat nerds really appreciate him.

Ever since the Falcons blew that 2012 NFC Championship Game lead, Ryan has spent the last decade as Sisyphus, the character in Greek mythology whose punishment was to roll a heavy boulder up a hill, only to see it roll back down every time he got near the top.

After Saturday’s game, I’m not sure how Sisyphus still finds the joy to continue working towards inevitable failure. Ryan is too old to be like these Vikings. Look at them. Young, dumb, and full of comebacks.

But their day is coming soon too. That inevitable playoff loss where the boulder flattens their run of close-game success. Enjoy it while it lasts, Minnesota. You already got a few for the lifetime highlight reels and record books this year.

NFL Stat Oddity: Week 15

When your weekend starts with the biggest comeback in NFL history, you know things are going to be wilder than usual. The NFL’s Week 15 can lay claim to being the wildest week of the 2022 season with a record 33-point comeback, two more 17-point comebacks, three overtime games won on touchdowns, two non-offensive game-winning touchdowns, a snowy fourth quarter classic in Buffalo, and we still have to see what Baker Mayfield can do in Green Bay on Monday night.

After a lack of drama and lead changes in Week 14, the week I called the worst of the year, every single game but one was within one score at some point in the fourth quarter. It took the greatest kicker of all time having a 50-yard field goal blocked in his face to not have it happen in 100% of the games this week.

That does not mean we had 15 games with a comeback opportunity. We had 11 for the first time since Week 5 now that the bye weeks are over. But what a week it was with plenty to recap.

This season in Stat Oddity:

Colts at Vikings: The Biggest Comeback/Collapse in NFL History

For a special recap of this historic game, check out my feature, The 2022 Vikings Are Young, Dumb, and Full of Comebacks

Giants at Commanders: Fumbles and Bad Refs

We finally had a winner in Giants-Commanders this year despite how close this was to going to overtime with the score 20-20 again. But Taylor Heinicke and Washington had a brutal night at the ends of each field. The Giants got back on track with a win thanks to the familiar formula of pressure defense and grinding out the fourth quarter.

The Commanders could have taken control early like they did two weeks ago when these teams met, but a third-down sack of Heinicke knocked them out of field goal range on the opening drive, then rookie Kayvon Thibodeaux had perhaps his play of the season with a strip-sack returned for a touchdown in the second quarter.

Washington trailed 17-9 to start the fourth quarter but struggled to hold onto the ball and put it in the end zone. Antonio Gibson narrowly avoided another lost fumble on a drive that ended with a 51-yard field goal two plays later to make it 17-12. Just like two weeks ago, the Giants couldn’t put things away on offense despite driving into Washington territory.

But after Heinicke hit a deep ball to Jahan Dotson for 61 yards, that drive would also stall after he was strip-sacked for the second time on third-and-goal with 6:06 left. The Giants added another 50-yard field goal to make it 20-12, but we were in almost the exact same situation as two weeks ago with Heinicke having the ball with a chance to tie. The clock was less favorable, and they would need a two this time, but it was very close to the same thing.

The Giants also looked like they were going to blow it again on a night that showed the Commanders have a really nice trio of wide receivers in Terry McLaurin, Curtis Samuel, and rookie Dotson. But do you know who apparently are not fans of this receiving trio? The refs. After a Heinicke scramble set up third-and-goal from the 1, Brian Robinson’s touchdown plunge was nullified by an illegal formation penalty on McLaurin.

This is the kind of thing you could struggle to notice at the snap, and according to former official Terry McAuley via NBC broadcast, this was a weak call that did not need to be made. McLaurin says the ref told him he was lined up fine, so make of that what you will.

But the big stink came on fourth-and-6. Heinicke threw a pass out of desperation to Samuel in the end zone, and corner Darnay Holmes was there early, interfered with Samuel, but no flag was thrown for defensive pass interference. Game over, Giants win.

Now in that video, Holmes is perfectly fine at the beginning. Samuel even uses his right hand to push Holmes away at the 7-second mark. But after that push creates some separation, you can see Holmes panic and start to ride Samuel’s back at 9-10 seconds. By 12 seconds, he decides to grab onto the receiver’s chest with both hands and leap on his back again to help knock the ball away.

What more do you need for DPI? Oh yeah, I guess it would help if Samuel was Mike Evans and Heinicke was Tom Brady, because we know that is getting flagged 100% of the time if they were involved. It would also have gone the way of Davante Adams no matter if Aaron Rodgers or Derek Carr threw him the ball, and the same is true for Mahomes and Kelce, or any other star players you want to throw into the mix.

Officials call the game differently at the very end of the game even though a foul is a foul is a foul. Call it preferential treatment or giving the benefit of the doubt, but some players tend to get calls others wouldn’t from refs too. That’s just an unfortunate part of the game.

What can be done to change that? I’m not sure. I just know it is a very bad look for the league when NBC’s rules expert (McAuley), a former official himself, can quickly look at these plays and call the illegal formation unnecessary and the missed DPI blatant.

I am not saying we need a game where every play in the final 2:00 is highly scrutinized and reviewed for every possible little penalty. But maybe some kind of “eye in the sky” in New York with all the best angles and replays can quickly be the third-party ruler in these cases and come up with the best calls for game-deciding plays like this one.

But they know we’re still going to watch the next game no matter how bad the last call (or no call) was.

Patriots at Raiders: Belichick Is Going to Bury Jakobi Meyers with Joe Pesci in the Desert

Bill Belichick is now 11-12 against his former New England assistants, including an 0-2 record against Josh McDaniels. But in none of those games did his team ever look as stupid and undisciplined as they did in Vegas.

Forget that play. We’ll get to that. Before the final minute, you had the Patriots completely botch a goal-to-go sequence, blow a coverage on a second-and-20 resulting in a Darren Waller touchdown, have a punt blocked, and Mac Jones struggled to throw for 100 yards.

But the nice thing was they were playing the 2022 Raiders. Despite leading 17-3, you know this team forgets there are two halves to each game. Once again, the Raiders blew a two-touchdown lead after some big plays by the Patriots quickly put together a go-ahead touchdown drive with 3:43 left. New England went from trailing 17-3 to leading 24-17.

Derek Carr adopted the Brady approach of “suck fast and hope for DPI” after throwing three incomplete passes, the last being a deep ball on third down that almost connected with Mack Hollins. But since the drive was so bad and only consumed 27 seconds (punt included), Carr was going to get another shot, because you knew the Patriots would be conservative with Jones and the lead.

In fact, Carr had 2:11 left to tie it. The game could have been over with a four-and-out, but the New England defense lost Hollins on the sideline for a 12-yard gain to keep the game alive. On a play that should quiet the Raiders fans who think the refs are always out to get them, the Raiders were ruled to have scored a touchdown when Keelan Cole hauled one in the back of the end zone from 30 yards out with 32 seconds left.

There was a video of what looked like his one foot may have been on the white and out of bounds. But this was one of those plays where it stood just because you had to stay with the call on the field, which was a touchdown. Had they ruled it incomplete on the field, it likely would have stayed incomplete and brought up third down.

Tough one for Patriots fans, but they have a long way to go to make up for all the crap that went their way the last two decades. The game was only tied and likely headed for overtime, except the Patriots did one of the dumbest things in NFL history:

We have seen fumbles returned for touchdowns on the final play of the game before. It happened when Washington upset the Eagles this year. It happened to the Raiders in overtime in Arizona when Hunter Renfrow coughed up the ball.

But those were different situations. You don’t see a team try to lateral in a tied game with overtime in their back pocket, because that would be stupid for the exact reason we saw. I just said the other day that Chandler Jones was having the worst season of his career, but hey, at least he has a highlight play for the rest of his life to enjoy.

I don’t actually mind the initial lateral from Rhamondre Stevenson. It was risky and it wasn’t planned that way, but he made a decent play. But if you are Meyers, who says he knew it was tied and not meant to be a lateral, then how in the world do you make that lateral that far back into the field of play because you thought Mac Jones was open?

Him?

If he can’t throw a Hail Mary from his 45, he wasn’t going to do anything here. Just an incredibly bad decision by Meyers and maybe even a worse throw as that ball was right to Chandler Jones and nowhere close to Mac Jones. If Kendrick Bourne or Nelson Agholor made the play Meyers did, they probably get cut Monday.

With games coming up against the Bengals, Dolphins, and Bills, the Patriots (7-7) are likely toast for the playoffs. When you look at the roster, it makes sense. But you never expect the Patriots to do something so incredibly stupid like they did on Sunday.

That’s what you expect the Raiders to do.

Dolphins at Bills: Buffalo Powder Is Different Than Miami Powder

Unlike Sunday night, this was just a great, dramatic game between two quality division rivals in Buffalo on Saturday night. I could watch these teams play a best-of-seven if things are going to be as good and interesting as the first two games this year.

I had been waiting since Week 3 to see this rematch, because I thought the Bills shot themselves in the foot that game and blew it way more than Miami found a way to win it. I was ultimately wrong about the Bills blowing them out here in the cold, but it was a great game with neither team able to lead by more than one possession.

The much-hyped snow did not arrive until the fourth quarter, but when it did, that made every snap an adventure down the stretch. But the game was filled with intrigue as a better version of Tua Tagovailoa showed up than the last two weeks. But the biggest surprise was Raheem Mostert (136 yards) giving the Dolphins a dominant run attack they haven’t had this year.

That’s what made the fourth quarter so questionable when the Dolphins took to the air on six of their final seven plays after the snow started. How do you not feed Mostert on a third-and-1? Instead, Tua threw a quick pass that lost 2 yards and the Dolphins settled for a 47-yard field goal.

Allen made up for his strip-sack on the previous drive with an excellent 44-yard run and a great touchdown throw to Dawson Knox for a 5-yard score. Allen dove for the end zone on the game-tying two-point conversion, and despite NFL Network cutting to a commercial break long enough for analyst Mark Sanchez to scarf down two hot dogs, the play was good and not a fumble as it appeared.

Miami’s pass-happy drive in a tied game with the snow coming down just did not make sense to me. The Bills had the ball back with 5:56 left in a 29-29 game. Allen led a drive as good as any in his career with pinpoint accuracy and sharp decision making. When any little slip or bad bounce of the ball in the increasingly slick conditions could end the game, this was impressive stuff in a very important game. I would say he’s put himself back in the MVP race if the losses to the Jets and Vikings weren’t so damaging.

Devin Singletary pulled up short of a go-ahead touchdown with 34 seconds left, which was probably the smartest thing to do in that spot. The field was cleaned off by Buffalo players well enough to give kicker Tyler Bass a very fair shot at a 25-yard field goal. He nailed it and the Bills won 32-29 and should be the AFC East champs when it’s all said and done.

I still think Miami is a playoff team this year, but with its second three-game losing streak of the year, you can see how the inexperience with success is hurting Mike McDaniel and Tua.

After zero game-winning drives in the 2021 season, the Bills are already up to four engineered by Allen this year (at Ravens, at Chiefs, at Lions, and vs. Dolphins). When you take away someone like Von Miller, on top of a loss like safety Micah Hyde, it is going to be more of a grind for this team. There is no easy path to the Super Bowl in this AFC.

More and more, the AFC is looking like a three-team race that will be a repeat of last year: two coin-flip games between the trio of Buffalo, Kansas City, and Cincinnati. Fortunately, we get to see the Bills and Bengals in prime time in Week 17, the first matchup between Allen and Joe Burrow in their NFL careers.

Eagles at Bears: Just Some Hiccups

How did Jalen Hurts fare in his first game as the odds-on MVP favorite this year? He probably played his worst game of the season with two early picks, but he still finished with 376 total yards (315 passing) and scored three rushing touchdowns in a 25-20 win.

The Bears did their usual thing: plenty of rushing yards, some good highlights from Justin Fields, but not good on third down, not enough passing, and no fourth-quarter comeback despite the Eagles letting them hang around in a 17-13 game after a doinked field goal attempt.

A.J. Brown got open for a 68-yard catch that set up Hurts’ third touchdown to basically wrap it up at 25-13 with 4:20 left. The Eagles had some blown coverage on a 35-yard touchdown to Byron Pringle with 2:42 left, but Philadelphia was able to convert one more third down to Brown to move the chains and end the game with a 25-20 win to move to 13-1.

A better team could have made the Eagles pay in that first half, but Fields had some really bad plays on third-and-1 early, and too many sacks (six for 61 yards) on the day.

The Eagles will not go into their big game with Dallas next week at their sharpest like the last three weeks, but after the way Dallas has played against Houston and Jacksonville, does it matter? Even a Dallas win is unlikely to cost the Eagles the No. 1 seed. Still, I am surprised to see the Cowboys are a 1.5-point home favorite next Saturday.

Cowboys at Jaguars: The Return of McCarthyism

If Houston was supposed to be the wake-up call for this Dallas team to get its shit together before the showdown with the Eagles, then the message was initially received. Then in the third quarter, (Mike) McCarthyism crept in and this team fell apart, blowing a 27-10 lead and losing 40-34 in overtime.

I do not know if the Jaguars are legitimately turning it around after a 2-6 start, or if they’re just the lucky beneficiaries of playing two of the worst teams ever to hold leads (Raiders and Ravens), a Tennessee team during its worst losing streak in years, and now this Dallas team that should have lost to Houston a week ago.

I do know turnovers have played a crucial part in Jacksonville’s recent wins against Baltimore, Tennessee, and now Dallas. A Dak Prescott interception late in the third quarter set the Jaguars up 39 yards away from another touchdown to quickly make this very interesting after it was 27-10 not even three minutes before that.

Like last week against Houston, Prescott would atone for his mistake with a 75-yard touchdown drive, finding Noah Brown for another 13-yard score to take a 34-31 lead. The great Dallas defense we keep hearing about? It mostly did its job the rest of the way. Trevor Lawrence put a nasty spin move on the defense, but he got a bit greedy on the play and fumbled in Dallas territory with 1:28 left.

It wasn’t a dagger with the Jaguars having all three timeouts left, but the Cowboys botched this drive. Two runs for net 0 yards by each back, then Dak tried to throw a deep one to Brown that fell incomplete. The Cowboys burned 27 seconds and even saved the Jaguars a timeout, which they desperately needed.

With CeeDee Lamb catching all seven targets on the day – he had five of the offense’s seven longest gains – I think you have to be aggressive and work an early-down pass in there, maybe off play-action. If the end result is just going to be giving them the ball back anyway with time to do something, then I am giving my best players a chance to end things on offense.

Lawrence had 1:01 to get a field goal and he needed just about every second of it. Zay Jones was the big target on the day with three touchdowns, and his 19-yard catch to the Dallas 30 was a game saver. The game is over there if the Jaguars didn’t have that last timeout. Silly Cowboys.

The Jaguars were good from 48 yards out on the field goal to send it to overtime. The Dallas defense again did a great job to force a three-and-out. But after a few Tony Pollard runs, Dak’s first dropback in overtime was a disaster with a tipped ball going to Rayshawn Jenkins for a 52-yard game-winning pick-six.

You just can’t trust these teams this year. It would be such a McCarthy thing to restore false hope and beat the Eagles next week. But guess what? The Eagles are unlikely to be caught for the No. 1 seed, let alone the division at this point.

We would really be looking at the NFC’s Game of the Year next week in Dallas if this team didn’t blow a 14-point fourth-quarter lead in Green Bay and a 17-point third-quarter lead in Jacksonville.

13-1 at 12-2 on Christmas Eve? Hell yeah, that would have been a spectacle. But if you’re talking about the NFC Game of the Year this season, the answer has never been more obvious what that should be.

It’s the 49ers at Eagles in the NFC Championship Game. It sure isn’t a game involving this Dallas team.

Bengals at Buccaneers: Joe Burrow Pulls the Remaining Horseshoe Out of Tom Brady’s Ass

If I told you a team in this game blew a 17-0 lead by doing a stupid fake punt, turning the ball over four times in a row, which set up three touchdowns inside the opponent’s 40-yard line, then wasted a huge fourth-down sack with a tacky 5-yard penalty, you’d bet everything you owned on the team who blew it being Cincinnati, right?

Well, this was some role reversal. This game went from nauseating (blame Tony Romo’s hard-on for Tom Brady) to hilarious in record time. The Bengals trailed 17-0 late in the first half and got into the locker room with 83 yards, the worst first half for any Joe Burrow start in his career. Meanwhile, the Buccaneers actually looked like a competent, balanced team like they were in 2020-21.

But before I could even start joking that Brady at age 45 plays tighter defense on Burrow’s receivers than Mahomes or Allen could ever dream of, this one took a sharp turn in the third quarter. The Buccaneers tried a fake punt from their own 26, and the direct snap to Gio Bernard seemed to catch him by surprise, and the play failed. The Bengals only got a field goal out of it, but better than nothing.

Then Brady threw a pick as he tried to make one of those very low throws to a diving receiver, but he got the defender instead. Still, his defense looked like it was going to force a four-and-out after Burrow took a 23-yard sack on fourth-and-3, or one of the worst plays you’ll ever see a quarterback make. However, he was bailed out by a defensive holding penalty on Lavonte David.

If Kevin O’Connell stole part of Brady’s lucky horseshoe back in January with the Rams, then Burrow must have snuck in there at halftime to extract the other piece lodged up Brady’s ass. This turnaround was absurd.

The Bengals turned that first turnover into a touchdown. Three plays later, Brady was strip-sacked and the Bengals were 13 yards away from the lead, which they took quickly at 20-17.

How about three in a row? Brady was just trying to hand off on a running play, and I’ve never seen the ball just pop right out of a quarterback’s hand when he was about to do so. The ball never got to the back and that goes down as another turnover for Brady.

The Bengals turned that into a touchdown too on a drive from 39 yards out with Ja’Marr Chase getting in on the action. Burrow even got away with a dropped interception or two this half. Everything was clicking for our young LOAT.

But Brady could come back, right? Cue the DPI throw to Mike Evans, and this was still a ballgame at 27-17. But nope. Under pressure, Brady’s pass fluttered from the contact and the Bengals came up with a diving interception and great defensive effort for the fourth straight turnover. That one only led to a quick three-and-out, but it changed field position, and Tampa responded with a three-and-out back. Perhaps a curious decision to punt on fourth-and-1 from your own 11 with 9:26 left after the game this team was having.

This time, Burrow put together a more legitimate drive on a longer field (62 yards) and he put away the Bucs with his fourth touchdown pass to a fourth different receiver. He even drew the Bucs offsides on a fourth down during the drive.

Brady added a 75-yard touchdown drive in garbage time to get the Bucs to 23 points for just the second time in 2022, but the Bengals recovered the onside kick to end it at 34-23.

I should be enjoying this Tampa Bay season a lot more than I am, and I know I would had the Rams and Saints not blown those two games against them. This team should be 4-10 right now, last place in the worst division. But ever since Week 1, I felt it was inevitable they were going to win the division and get rewarded with a home playoff game. Even as they continue to lose, I still think the odds of them beating Dallas in the wild card round in Tampa are incredibly high.

But this was still stunning because they went from looking the most competent they have all season to just a pure disaster all around.

Are the Bucs the first team in NFL history to give up at least a 34-0 scoring run in back-to-back weeks? They were down 35-0 to the 49ers last week. The quick answer is no. The 1961 Raiders were shut out 55-0 and 44-0 to start their season 0-2 if you can believe that. The 1978 Colts also did really bad with 38-0 and 42-0 losses to begin their season.

But for Brady, eight days ago he had only experienced a team scoring more than 31 straight points on him once (2020 Saints led 38-0 and won 38-3). Now it’s happened the last two games.

I just hope this doesn’t somehow end up as the Super Bowl matchup, because there is no way the Bengals are repeating this.

Chiefs at Texans: Just Needed the Rosencopter

The comparison of Peyton Manning to Patrick Mahomes wouldn’t be complete without a hard-fought win in Houston against the Texans when you least expect it. But the Chiefs are now 4-9-1 ATS, second-worst record in the league, after failing to cover a 14.5-point spread that was, frankly, ridiculous for a road team. Not to mention what happened with these teams a week ago.

This would have been a brutal loss for the Chiefs as they had nearly 300 more yards (502-219) than the Texans. But once again it was the turnovers that kept it close, and it was a turnover that made sure the Chiefs would still win.

This week it was not one but two obligatory fumbles by the Chiefs, including one from Isiah Pacheco and one from JuJu Smith-Schuster. JuJu’s led to the Texans taking a 21-16 lead into the fourth quarter.

But Patrick Mahomes used his legs again on a 5-yard scramble for a touchdown run. He completed the two-point conversion pass and the Chiefs led 24-21. But like I said in Week 11 after the Chargers game, we got to see what is becoming the signature Mahomes comeback. He leads them from behind with a go-ahead touchdown, the defense gives it up, then he still gets the win with a touchdown anyway.

But this one had no business going to overtime like that. After the Texans used a long drive to kick a game-tying field goal, Mahomes had the Chiefs right back in scoring range thanks to a 14-yard scramble on another third down. But instead of trying to get a little closer for a kicker who had missed another extra point, Andy Reid seemed content with staying conservative and settling for a long field goal. A designed run by Mahomes for 2 yards and a RB screen that lost a yard prove that.

Butker has been solid from long range, but from 51 yards out with 12 seconds left, he was wide right and the Chiefs were going to overtime. The Chiefs won another coin toss, but Mahomes made one of his few mistakes in the game by taking a sack on third down that knocked the offense out of field goal range.

But Davis Mills immediately returned the favor on a scramble when Frank Clark knocked the ball out and the Chiefs recovered. All that was missing was Mills spinning through the air a la the Rosencopter.

Unable to trust Butker, the Chiefs couldn’t just take a knee from the 26. With Pacheco fumbling earlier, the Chiefs turned to Jerick McKinnon, who has been money for them as of late. He immediately ripped off a 26-yard touchdown run against a run defense I crap on every single week in previews, prop picks, and recaps. That was the right call for sure, and while Mahomes gets a cheap game-winning TD drive, he should have had the game won on a field goal in regulation. Mahomes had the highest QBR (92.3) in Week 15.

Still, it turns out to be the fifth time that Mahomes has led a fourth-quarter comeback win with two go-ahead touchdown drives. That’s already more than the total Aaron Rodgers (two), Peyton Manning (one), and Tom Brady (one) have in their careers combined.

Mahomes finished 36-of-41 passing, setting an NFL record for highest completion percentage (87.8%) in a game with at least 40 pass attempts. He hit his last 20 passes, starting with a great touchdown grab by Marquez Valdes-Scantling to end the first half. He also had the two-point conversion pass in there, so it’s arguably 21 in a row.

Mahomes didn’t hit anything deep in this game as the Chiefs dinked and dunked and picked the Texans apart in the 0-15 yard range. They used short passes as an extension of the run game against the worst run defense, so it was a smart plan. Mahomes’ success rate was 30/49 (61.2%), which is very high for a game. If they can ever figure out how to hang onto the ball better, they wouldn’t need overtime and late-game heroics to beat teams like this.

Titans at Chargers: Herbert Gets Help

Justin Herbert is back to .500 (23-23) in his career after getting more help than usual in a 17-14 win over the Titans. Sure, he still had to throw for over 300 yards, including an absolute dime for 35 yards to Mike Williams on the game-winning drive, but he got some decent contributions from his running game and defense in this one.

Herbert was able to win his first game when throwing multiple interceptions. He was previously 0-6 when that happened. Hell, before Sunday, Herbert was 6-20 when throwing an interception.

The Titans had a team record four straight games without a takeaway before playing some volleyball in the end zone before halftime to end that streak with a Herbert pick. Incredible play. It was that kind of stuff that kept this a 7-7 game for so long. It didn’t help that Ryan Tannehill and Austin Ekeler were knocked out early, but both returned to finish the game. Ekeler showed his strength on a touchdown run and finished with 12 carries for 58 yards. That may not sound like much, but when you can get Herbert 22 carries for 82 yards from the running back position, that’s better than a lot of Chargers games.

After Ekeler’s touchdown gave the Chargers a 14-7 lead in the fourth quarter, both offenses struggled. Eventually, the Titans got the ball back with 2:57 left. Derrick Henry was able to get over 100 yards rushing, and the Titans needed it with Tannehill looking limited on his ankle injury. The drive was starting to flounder before back-to-back throws by Tannehill picked up 45 yards. The Chargers were wise to use timeouts after each red-zone snap, because Mike Vrabel is definitely a coach who will wind the clock down and go for two to win after the touchdown.

Tannehill snuck in the touchdown himself with 48 seconds left. The extra point was the right decision. Overtime and a possible tie would still be advantageous to the Titans in their division race with Jacksonville.

But even without a timeout and 44 seconds left at his own 23, Herbert is good enough to get the job done. He picked up 22 yards in 12 seconds with receivers getting out of bounds, hit the great throw to Williams for 35, then got the spike down. A delay of game penalty wasn’t great, but it wouldn’t be a Chargers game without some drama.

Dicker the Kicker was true from 43 yards with 4 seconds left. The Titans were stopped on the kick return to end the game at 17-4. Tennessee (7-7) has lost four in a row while the Chargers (8-6) are up to the No. 6 seed thanks to the head-to-head win over Miami last week and the losses by the Patriots and Jets.

We are getting closer to Herbert in the postseason after he’s led five game-winning drives in consecutive seasons. Herbert’s 13 game-winning drives are tied with Matt Ryan for the third most in a quarterback’s first three seasons. Only Russell Wilson (15) and Dak Prescott (15) had more.

Lions at Jets: Greg Not Enough Leg Helps Detroit Continue Playoff Push

Bit of an unexpected passing duel outdoors in December between Jared Goff (252 yards) and Zach Wilson (317 yards on 18 completions) with only one turnover in the game.

But most of the game was about defense. You figure the Lions would be at a disadvantage with the No. 31 defense in points and No. 32 in yards while the Jets have been one of the best, but it took one play to swing things. After the Jets took a 17-13 lead, the Lions faced a fourth-and-1 at midfield at the two-minute warning. The Lions rolled the dice with a pass, and backup tight end Brock Wright leaked out uncovered and caught an easy one that he was able to turn into a 51-yard touchdown. It was Detroit’s only 20-yard offensive play in the game.

Only needing a field goal, Wilson took some annoying sacks, but he also did a good job with some miraculous throws and catches by rookie Garrett Wilson. An even greater fourth-and-18 conversion went for 20 yards to Elijah Moore, and the Jets were able to use their final timeout with a second left after that play.

Overtime or a Detroit win would come down to the leg of Greg Zuerlein on a 58-yard field goal. The kick wasn’t even close, and the Lions escaped with the 20-17 win. Both teams are .500 now with 7-7 records. Huge win for Detroit with a more than doable remaining schedule of Panthers, Bears, and Packers.

Ravens at Browns: Not Baltimore’s Day

Hard to believe this was the only game in Week 15 where one team led by 10+ points for the entire 15 minutes of the fourth quarter. It was a lousy kicking day with both kickers missing twice, though Justin Tucker being one of those kickers is the shocking part. He had a 50-yard field goal blocked in the first minute of the fourth quarter to keep it a 13-3 game.

Beyond the uncharacteristic, awful kicking day, the Ravens just didn’t seem to recognize the situation. Cleveland’s offense sucks with Deshaun Watson, who has managed two touchdown drives in three games, and you were playing this game without Lamar Jackson again. Take easy points when they come, so that means not going for it on fourth-and-1 at the Cleveland 7 on your long opening drive by giving the ball to the fullback Patrick Ricard, who was stuffed.

There went three points. Tucker missed a 48-yard field goal before halftime despite making from 53 earlier, so that’s six points. To start the third quarter, Huntley forced an awful pass on third down in the red zone that would have been short of the sticks even if it was caught, and that was intercepted. There’s nine points. The Tucker blocked field goal could have been 12. DeMarcus Robinson also lost a fumble near midfield on a completion in the third quarter.

Just a poor game all around by the passing game and kicking unit. Defense and run game (nearly 200 yards again) were just fine.

It’s the first of Huntley’s eight major appearances that wasn’t decided by 1-to-3 points. The Ravens (9-5) are now in second place in the AFC North and things may very well stay that way the rest of the season.

Falcons at Saints: Bad Start to the Ridder Era

Atlanta rookie quarterback Desmond Ridder made his first start, getting a quick taste of the Saints rivalry. It did not go well. Ridder finished 13-of-26 for 97 yards, took four sacks, and ran six times for 38 yards. The Falcons gave him nearly 200 yards of rushing support to help keep the game close, but he definitely showed some inaccuracy and a lack of experience as you would expect from a third-round rookie in his first start.

Ridder joins a weird list of five other quarterbacks to throw for fewer than 100 yards on more than 25 pass attempts in their first NFL start since 1950:

  • Don Meredith (1960 Cowboys; turned out to be a good player for Dallas)
  • Will Cureton (1975 Browns; only game in his career)
  • Heath Shuler (1994 Redskins; first-round bust for Washington)
  • Jonathan Quinn (1998 Jaguars; forgettable career backup who was a third-round pick in 1998)
  • Doug Pederson (1999 Eagles; much better career as head coach)

We’ll see where Ridder ends up. Rookie wide receiver Drake London had 70 of Ridder’s 97 passing yards, but he also had the big blunder of the game that prevented Ridder from becoming a legend in his first start against the hated Saints. Down 21-18, Ridder looked to convert a fourth-and-5 to London at midfield, but he was stripped of the ball and the Saints recovered with 2:06 left.

The Saints kind of botched the clock situation from there, so Ridder got the ball back with 9 seconds left. After a short completion, he took off for an 18-yard run and dipped out of bounds even though the clock had already expired.

Take note, New England. That’s the moment where you are supposed to throw a lateral back into the field of play.

Ridder will learn. Maybe.


Steelers at Panthers: Pittsburgh Sweeps NFC South

I should have known better with that shit division. The Steelers completed their 4-0 sweep of the NFC South with a 24-16 win in Carolina that wasn’t even that close. The Steelers converted 12-of-16 third downs, used the first 11:43 of the third quarter to go on a 21-play, 91-yard touchdown drive, and completely shut down Carolina’s running game (16 carries for 21 yards).

Earlier this week, I researched what happens the next game after Mike Tomlin’s run defense gives up 180 yards like it did last week against Baltimore, and they still usually allow an average of 107 yards the next game. There’s rarely a huge improvement. But this was a complete shutdown of D’Onta Foreman and Chuba Hubbard.

The Steelers would be right in that 8-6 or 9-5 wild card mix if they played this complete of a game a few more times this year against those weaker opponents like the Jets, Patriots, Browns, and even the Dolphins.

Surprisingly, the AFC is only 34-34 vs. NFC this season. However, the NFC South is 3-15 against AFC teams. Of course.

Cardinals at Broncos: Playing Out the String

Week 15 is a little early for a game to be irrelevant, but this matchup had it in spades with the 4-9 Cardinals against the 3-10 Broncos with backup quarterbacks for both sides. Even Colt McCoy didn’t finish the game for the Cardinals due to a concussion. Backup Trace McSorley had to replace him, and McSorley was intercepted in the fourth quarter while trailing 17-9, giving safety Justin Simmons a pick off each Arizona quarterback.

That led to a 5-yard touchdown drive, which all but put the game away at 24-9 in case you were wondering how Denver managed 24 points. Keep in mind the Cardinals entered the week allowing the most points in the league this season, so giving up 24 to Brett Rypien and the Broncos is on brand.

Both teams are 4-10 now and their recaps will only get shorter from here on out. Happy holidays.

Next Week

  • Jags-Jets is the NFL’s classic “if you want to get some late Christmas shopping done Thursday night, go for it” matchup. But this year it’s better than usual with both teams in the playoff hunt and must-win mode.
  • Saturday’s early slate is a bit meh when NYG-MIN is the highlight, but we’ll see how the Vikings follow that 33-point comeback.
  • The Game of the Year in the NFC is probably going to be a 49ers-Eagles NFC Championship Game that we deserve, but I guess Eagles at Cowboys in the 4:25 slot will have to suffice for the regular season. Dallas’ loss in Jacksonville takes some more luster off this one.
  • Watching Derek Carr against the Steelers or a Christmas movie at night? Tough call.
  • Boy, the NFL got hosed on Christmas day. Hard to blame them for thinking GB-MIA, DEN-LAR, and TB-ARI would be hits, but they ended up scheduling five of the most disappointing teams in the league this year.
  • Chargers-Colts should be up for some shenanigans on Monday night.

NFL Stat Oddity: Week 6

Week 6 was a great one in the NFL because Sunday felt like a throwback to what I view as the game’s golden era:

  • An epic, hyped game lives up to the hype and ends 24-20
  • Tom Brady vs. Mike Tomlin’s defense
  • The Giants pull off another upset and are improbably a good team
  • The Colts threw the hell out of the ball to sneak past the Jaguars in the fourth quarter
  • An NFC East showdown on SNF that actually matters this year
  • Even Tony Romo was good today and I watched a great college football game on Saturday (Alabama-Tennessee)

You could have written this list for some random Sunday in October in 2007, and I have to say I enjoyed it from start to finish. If the 2007 connection doesn’t click yet, just read below about the top game, because Bills-Chiefs lived up to the hype.

This season in Stat Oddity:

Bills at Chiefs: Game of the Year (and Buffalo) Delivers

I ended last week’s column with saying this game was going to be hyped almost to the level of 2007 Patriots-Colts when both were undefeated going into Week 9. These teams were 4-1, and Josh Allen vs. Patrick Mahomes is still not up to the drawing power of Peyton Manning vs. Tom Brady, but it might be getting there after a fantastic game that now gives Buffalo the inside track to home-field advantage after a 24-20 win.

24-20 sound familiar? That was the winning margin for the Patriots in that 2007 game, which featured a fourth-quarter comeback led by Brady and Randy Moss. In this game, Allen and Stefon Diggs (148 yards) really put in the work after Diggs had just 7 yards in the 42-36 playoff classic. But No. 1 wide receivers have toasted the Chiefs every week since Mike Williams in Week 2.

It may not have been the smoothest game for both teams, but this is what a great, lower-scoring game looks like between two of the best teams in the league in a game that means so much. You want to see a good mixture of offense and defense, and we got exactly that.

You still had plenty of offensive highlights. Both quarterbacks manipulated the defenses well with their legs while throwing 40 passes with 329 yards for Allen and 338 for Mahomes. Five different players caught a touchdown, including the first with the Chiefs for JuJu Smith-Schuster and the first of 2022 for tight end Dawson Knox on the game winner with 1:04 left.

Special teams showed up with Harrison Butker hitting a 62-yard field goal to end the half after the Bills left Mahomes 16 seconds, which we know is a few seconds too many. Butker was wide left on a 51-yard field goal to start the third quarter, however.

Then there were the defenses. According to CBS, this was the first NFL game since 2001 where both offenses started the game with a red-zone turnover. Allen and the Bills got too cute with a late pitch on an option run that went backwards and was recovered for a fumble, an unforced error. Mahomes got too greedy on a third-and-goal and forced an interception in the end zone.

Allen failed on a couple of big fourth downs, including one from midfield in a 17-17 game early in the fourth quarter. Unfortunately, bad officiating threatened to mess up the finish to this one. The Chiefs had a big play to Travis Kelce wiped out on a horrendous offensive pass interference call, leading to only a field goal and a 20-17 lead.

Buffalo had lost its last 12 games when trailing in the fourth quarter. The last fourth-quarter comeback win was against the Rams in Week 3 of the 2020 season. With that in mind, Allen took a third-down sack by Chris Jones to quickly end his first response drive, but it was also clear as day that Jones tripped him. No call for tripping, however. Why even have the rule in the book if you’re not going to call one that obvious? It would have given the Bills an automatic first down too, so it was a huge no-call from the refs.

Fortunately, Von Miller had his offense’s back. This was exactly the game and moment they acquired him for. Miller sacked Mahomes on a third-and-6 to force a three-and-out, Miller’s second sack in the game. Miller and the defense did its part. Now it was up to Allen with 5:31 left to lead the signature game-winning drive of his young career.

He had to sneak for a first down to avoid it from being a four-and-out, but he got the job done. Diggs couldn’t be guarded with three more catches for 34 yards. Allen’s legs moved the ball to the 14 where the Bills were in a tough spot, because you know you want the touchdown but you don’t want to leave Mahomes much time.

The good news is unlike in the 42-36 game, the Bills would be up by four points here assuming the extra point is good, so Mahomes would need a touchdown this time. Still, when Allen threw a 14-yard touchdown to Knox (great throw) with 1:04 left, it felt like too much time for Mahomes with two timeouts.

But two snaps into the drive, the Bills worried Mahomes enough into double clutching and Taron Johnson added to his little collection of huge plays with a game-ending pick of Mahomes with 51 seconds left.

Buffalo pulled it out and really checked off a lot of boxes in the process. Allen delivered the big game-winning drive, Diggs dominated Kansas City’s secondary, the Buffalo defense emphatically stopped Mahomes at the end, Von Miller was a force, and even the running game (Devin Singletary had 85 yards) showed up early to make sure Allen wasn’t doing this alone.

It is a fantastic win for Buffalo, and it fits into what I have been saying all offseason and leading into this game. For this to be Buffalo’s year, it had to win this game and take the inside track to home-field advantage so that any possible rematch is in Buffalo in January. Mahomes has never played a true road playoff game.

If we are keeping things in perspective, this win guarantees nothing for Buffalo. Last season in Week 5, the Bills won 38-20 in more dominant fashion in Kansas City than they did in this game. That dropped the Chiefs to 2-3 and the Bills moved to 4-1. Yet, look what happened the rest of the season. The Bills finished 11-6 and Kansas City was 12-5, leading to the Chiefs hosting the Bills in the divisional round. That cannot happen again if Buffalo wants to win it all. The Bills need to let this fuel them towards greater things because this game is hardly the end goal.

But this is the kind of game we will talk about for years as we do with 2007 Patriots-Colts and 2017 Patriots-Steelers. Of course, the NFC East (2007 Giants and 2017 Eagles) still improbably won the Super Bowls in those years, but that’s just how the NFL goes sometimes.

I still think these are the two most trustworthy contenders in the league and would love to see an AFC Championship Game rematch in Buffalo this time.

Buccaneers at Steelers: One Wedding and a Funeral

If Sunday was the last time the Steelers ever have to face Tom Brady, then they ended things on a high note in a 20-18 upset.

Pittsburgh is the first double-digit underdog to win outright this NFL season. Tampa Bay was a 10-point favorite because half of the Pittsburgh starting defense was out, including the top three corners, safety Minkah Fitzpatrick, and some guy named T.J. Watt. Even with some of those players available, the Steelers lost 38-3 in Buffalo last week, allowing a career-high 424 yards to Josh Allen.

Now here comes Brady, the long-time nemesis who has picked apart far better defenses in Pittsburgh over the years. It made sense why Pittsburgh was such a big underdog at home, even if Tampa Bay hasn’t looked right all year. There’s also the fact that rookie quarterback Kenny Pickett was facing a defense that had yet to allow more than 15 points to non-Kansas City opponents.

But color me shocked that Pittsburgh had 4:38 left in a 20-18 game with Brady and denied him from getting the ball cause Mitch Trubisky and Chase Claypool turned into vintage Ben Roethlisberger and Hines Ward.

It was that kind of weird afternoon. Pickett started and threw his first touchdown pass to Najee Harris on a well-designed opening drive that seemed to be scripted, because he did very little afterwards and seemed to fall into the usual trappings of this offense with too many passes short of the sticks. Then he banged his head off the ground in the third quarter and had to leave for the concussion protocol.

Still, Pittsburgh led wire-to-wire thanks to one of the most inspired performances by a Mike Tomlin-coached defense:

  • I did not believe the Steelers were for real on defense, not even after an opening-drive three-and-out where they pressured Brady on third down.
  • Not after repeatedly stopping him in the red zone and holding Tampa Bay to field goals.
  • Not after stuffing Leonard Fournette at the 1-yard line.
  • Not after misplaying the end of half and allowing a 54-yard field goal.
  • Not after stuffing Fournette again on a third-and-1 to start the fourth quarter.

But when they stuffed Brady on the quarterback sneak, his go-to play that works over 90% of the time, I started to believe something with the Steelers up 20-12 halfway through the fourth quarter.

Where was this defense against Brady in years where Pittsburgh was a real contender? It did help that he chose Sunday to play like crap, skipping balls off the ground left and right in an attempt to kill earthworms while bitching his teammates out on the sidelines. Did going to Bob Kraft’s wedding on Friday night piss him off that much? He looked miserable once again and played like it to boot. If the large group of pigeons on the field in the second half were there in the first half when Brady was so off, he may have pulled a Randy Johnson and killed some with his throws into the dirt.

Of course, Tampa moved on from the failed sneak on third-and-1, converted two more fourth downs on that drive, and still got the touchdown with 4:38 left. No one’s going to talk about Brady missing a Saturday walkthrough with the team when the win was still right in front of him.

But Brady’s pass failed on the two-point conversion and the Steelers led 20-18. That’s when I switched to thinking the offense was going to lose this game now by being too conservative. Run-run-incomplete. Run-run-sack. Give Brady plenty of time to dink and dunk for a field goal and 21-20 win. The defense did what it could today. Steelers about to be 1-5 for the first time since 1988.

But Trubisky seemed to have something to prove in the fourth quarter, as did wide receiver Chase Claypool. Trubisky and Claypool hooked up on a touchdown earlier in the quarter, but Pittsburgh seemed like it was going to fall into the run-run-punt strategy. They even nearly turned the ball over inside their 25 due to a bad snap that Trubisky fortunately got on. But on a third-and-15, Trubisky found Claypool for 17 yards. Three plays later on a third-and-11, Trubisky found Claypool for 26 yards. It was Trubisky’s fourth third-down conversion of the quarter with all but one of them needing at least 11 yards to convert.

Where the hell did that come from? It was the best game for Claypool in a calendar year, if not longer. Trubisky’s legs took care of the third and final first down to run out the clock. Trubisky somehow proved to be the best quarterback in this game.

Underdog is always a role that seems to suit the Steelers well, but this was completely unexpected. While I would still bet on Tampa Bay (3-3) in a heartbeat in a playoff game against the likes of the Vikings and Giants, this team has taken a big step back this year after multiple retirements and a downgrade at coach and offensive line. Brady and the offensive line aren’t as good, the receivers aren’t as loaded, and the defense can be had.

Meanwhile, Pittsburgh (2-4) is only a game back in the division, and the only blowout loss was in Buffalo last week. I still would start Pickett if he clears the concussion protocol in time for next week in Miami in prime time, but Trubisky definitely earned his paycheck on Sunday.

If the only thing that comes of Trubisky’s Pittsburgh tenure is that he came off the bench to outplay Tom Brady, then it was worth every penny to sign him.

Ravens at Giants: So Much for Close-Game Regression (Both Ways)

Despite a historic number of injuries, the 2021 Ravens lost five games by a combined eight points as part of a six-game losing streak to close the season. Things were supposed to be better on the health front, a new defensive coordinator, and the returns of Lamar Jackson, Ronnie Stanley, Marcus Peters, and J.K. Dobbins.

But while there have been some more injuries, this season is starting to turn out more frustrating than last year when the team did start 8-3 before that losing streak. At least that team didn’t blow their third double-digit lead after halftime by mid-October.

Meanwhile, the Giants (5-1) making all these fourth-quarter comebacks is crazy to see after the way this team has played since winning Super Bowl XLVI:

Giants when trailing by 7+ points in fourth quarter

  • 2012-2021 combined: 3-78 (.037)
  • Thru Week 6, 2022: 3-1 (.750)

If we limited it to wins in regulation, the count would be 3-to-1 for six games of this season compared to the last 10 seasons combined.

So, do we just give Brian Daboll the Coach of the Year award now, or what? It is not sustainable for winning, but Daboll is getting a 4-1 record in game-winning drives out of a quarterback, Daniel Jones, who came into 2022 with a career record of 3-14 (.176) in those games.

The defense (and Lamar Jackson) helped a great deal in this one, but the 20-10 comeback in the fourth quarter started with a 75-yard touchdown drive. The Ravens had a lot of time to burn but were halfway through it until disaster struck. Jackson got on a loose ball and made a bad play terrible by forcing an interception. The Giants only needed to travel 13 yards for the go-ahead touchdown and 24-20 lead with 1:43 left.

Jackson had plenty of time to answer, but rookie Kayvon Thibodeaux, the No. 5 pick in the draft, picked a great time to get his first career sack.

Thibodeaux knocked the ball from Jackson two plays into the drive and the Giants were able to recover and run out the clock for another stunning win. The Baltimore defense could have done a few little things better, but the Giants didn’t even have a 20-yard play in the whole game.

Like the Buffalo loss, this blown lead was more on the offense than the defense. Can’t turn the ball over like that in the fourth quarter of a close game. Jackson is quickly playing himself out of any MVP conversation with these finishes.

Cowboys at Eagles: Second Quarter Does the Trick Again for 6-0 Eagles

I was about to sneak this game into the bottom section, but I figured Sunday Night Football always shows up somewhere near the top of the page. This game just did not have high expectations for me as I expected the Eagles to do exactly what they did: jump out to a big lead in the second quarter and hang on for the cover. It would have been a lot more interesting if this was Dak Prescott’s return game from surgery, but the timing was just off for that.

At the very least, we saw the inevitable result of when Cooper Rush plays a legit defense and a team that can take Dallas out of its comfort zone. He was brutal on the night with three picks before finding somewhat of a rhythm late, though Dallas had success running the ball too to crawl back from a 20-0 deficit to make it 20-17 in the fourth quarter.

I do think there is something troubling about the way the Eagles can be so good offensively in the second quarter and barely score in the other three quarters. That’s just setting them up for playoff disappointment, but they have time to work at it. Still, they led 20-3 after a scoreless first, and were outscored 14-6 after halftime.

But the touchdown drive in the fourth after Dallas cut it to 20-17 was great to see. The Eagles can grind games away with their rushing attack, and Jalen Hurts is just about unstoppable on those sneaks.

Still, I think Cris Collinsworth was much more enamored with this Philadelphia team than I am so far. The Cardinals were arguably more interesting at 7-0 last year. The 2019 49ers were 8-0. The 2018 Rams were 8-0 before losing in New Orleans (huge matchup), who moved to 7-1 at the time.

The NFC has had some teams really flash for a year before fizzling out quickly. The 2017 Eagles were one of them that actually came through for a championship. This is the best Philadelphia team since that one, and it has a chance to be better, but I guess I’m just looking for something a little more than “dominates second quarter, finishes in the 20-to-29 points range.”

And yeah, I’m sure they will drop 30+ on the Steelers in two weeks. Road games are where the Steelers get blown out.

Bengals at Saints: Good Homecoming for Burrow and Chase

Starting to sound like a broken record, but good job by the Saints to fight hard in a losing effort despite missing their quarterback, top three wide receivers, and best corner. They pushed the Bengals and led most of the game, but some poor tackling on Ja’Marr Chase gave the Bengals the win:

True story: that right there was the only play on the first game-winning touchdown drive of Joe Burrow’s NFL career. Andy Dalton still had a chance to lead a game-winning touchdown drive, but a huge sack led to an incompletion on fourth-and-17 to end the game.

The Bengals are at their best when Chase and Burrow are playing this way, but you still have to wonder how the Bengals (3-3) will fare after the Week 10 bye when they hopefully will be playing some real quarterbacks and not a bunch of backups or injury replacements.

As for the Saints (2-4), they join the Giants as the only teams to play six close games so far this season. Much better results for the Giants in those games.

Jets at Packers: We Can’t Play This Game Anymore, But Can We…

Regression is coming harder than a Peter North video for these Packers.

We knew they were going to miss Davante Adams and not win 13 games again, but these last few weeks have been rough.

I have Aaron Rodgers (last two weeks), Carson Wentz (2021 Colts), Jimmy Garoppolo (2020 49ers), and Alex Smith (2017 Chiefs) as the last four quarterbacks to lose consecutive starts as a favorite of at least 7.5 points. Sounds about right with the other three, but what exactly is going on here in Green Bay?

This is the second time in Rodgers’ career at home that he played in a game where neither team had 280 yards of offense (both finished at 278), and the first was January’s 10-3 playoff loss to the 49ers.

Before these last two losses to the Jets (7.5-point underdogs) and Giants (8-point underdogs), Green Bay was a 9.5-point favorite at home to the Patriots and had to force overtime to win that one. I think three times is enough to say the Packers shouldn’t be -7.5 against anyone these days.

The Jets just bullied Green Bay with four sacks and shutting down Aaron Jones (9 carries for 19 yards). It’s not like the offense was lighting it up. Zach Wilson passed for 110 yards. New York blew the game open in the middle of the third quarter by sacking Rodgers on third down at midfield to force a punt, which was blocked and returned for a touchdown to take a 17-3 lead. Apparently, that’s still a problem for the special teams in Green Bay.

The Jets had their only other touchdown drive to answer a Rodgers touchdown with Breece Hall ripping off a 34-yard touchdown run to start the fourth quarter. The Packers then shot themselves in the foot with a holding penalty and delay of game penalty, leading to Rodgers throwing an incompletion on fourth-and-14. The Jets put together a long field goal drive to take a 27-10 lead with 2:34 left, which meant Jordan Love time.

The 17-point home loss ties the worst of Rodgers’ career in a game he finished, matching the 37-20 margin in the 2011 Giants’ upset of the Packers in the NFC divisional round. That means you just witnessed Rodgers’ worst regular-season home loss of his career. Rodgers’ 16.9 QBR was the lowest of any quarterback in Week 6.

Have the last few weeks been the lowest point of Rodgers’ NFL career? You could make that argument given the expectations that were still there, even if the Giants and Jets look improved. Green Bay just looks that more on the decline.

49ers at Falcons: Still No Winning Record for Kyle Shanahan

Coming into Sunday, 49ers coach Kyle Shanahan was 46-46 including playoff games. He was looking to get his career record above .500 for the first time in the NFL, so of course, the Falcons shut that shit down with the quickness.

I should have known something was sneaky about the way the spread kept moving towards Atlanta, but the smaller it got, the more I figured the 49ers would be safe. You know, because it’s Atlanta. Even if you don’t deserve the win, they are usually willing to give you one on a silver platter in the fourth quarter. Plus, that San Francisco defense has been so good, but when you take away Nick Bosa, Jimmie Ward, Arik Armstead (then some more), it becomes a problem.

Still, it was one of the surprises of the day to see the 49ers allow their first two touchdown passes since Week 1. Marcus Mariota finished 13-of-14 for 129 yards after hitting his first 13 passes.

  • By my count, the Falcons are the first team in NFL history to finish a game 13-of-14 passing.
  • Falcons are the first team since the 1983 Seahawks to throw one incompletion with fewer than 15 pass attempts in a game.
  • Falcons are the 11th team in NFL history to have one incomplete pass on at least 14 pass attempts.

Atlanta didn’t shred the run defense (40 carries for 168 yards with Mariota rushing for an efficient 50), but it paced the offense well enough that the lack of passing didn’t matter for them to get three touchdown drives.

Meanwhile, the San Francisco offense did not have a 15-yard gain until more than 53 minutes into the game. Jeff Wilson lost a fumble that was returned for a touchdown to put the 49ers in an early 14-0 hole. They tied the game quickly but mismanaged the drives to end the first half and start the second, and that’s when Atlanta punched them again for a 28-14 lead. The 49ers never responded, and Shanahan will have to wait at least a few more games to get over .500. With the Chiefs up next, maybe wait until November for this to come up again.

But I think it’d be funny and fitting if he never gets there despite approaching 100 games in the league.

Hurry-Up Finish

Finally, so I can get to bed at a not grotesque time, here are some quicker thoughts on the other games in Week 6.

Jaguars at Colts: Matt Ryan still has something in the tank. Down his top two running backs and facing the team that blanked him 24-0 in Week 2, Ryan threw 58 passes without taking a sack. That’s something that has only been done 13 other times in NFL history. Ryan had one game in his career where he took zero sacks on even 48-plus attempts. He also had the 14th game in NFL history with 42 pass completions, getting familiar with his new receiving corps.

But what I really liked here was the ending and the way the Colts didn’t settle for a 50-yard field goal to win the game after some major kicking issues the last two years. It looked like they were going to do just that after Ryan took a 4-yard loss and just handed off for a 1-yard gain to bring up a third-and-13. Really, Frank Reich? But Ryan stood tall in the pocket, took the hit, and still got a deep throw away to rookie Alec Pierce, Midwest Cooper Kupp, for a 32-yard touchdown with 17 seconds left to take a 34-27 lead. The Jags didn’t have enough time to answer.

If the Colts are actually going to block, play with a fast tempo, and put up points like this? Might still pull this division out after all. Ryan moves into sole possession of fifth place with his 37th fourth-quarter comeback win.

Patriots at Browns: Guess who wasn’t at Robert Kraft’s wedding on Friday night cause he had a game to win this weekend? Sure, it’s the Lions and Browns, but the Patriots have won their last two games by 23-plus points each, shutting out the Lions’ top-ranked scoring offense and containing Nick Chubb better than anyone has this year. They also are doing it with rookie Bailey Zappe, who threw for 309 yards and two touchdowns on Sunday. Zach Wilson and Justin Fields have yet to throw for 300 yards in the NFL. Coaching matters.

Seriously, imagine Tom Brady telling Bill Belichick that they need to ditch the team to attend Kraft’s oddly-timed wedding less than 48 hours before a road game.

Vikings at Dolphins: Miami is not making things easy on the NFL this year with these quarterback injuries. A thumb injury knocked Skylar Thompson out of this game, leading to one of the least expected 300-yard passing games ever from Teddy Bridgewater, who was in the concussion protocol. He was not starting this game because he apparently lacked preparation time by being in the protocol. Okay. He did well enough to get Jaylen Waddle and Tyreek Hill heavily involved as the duo both went over 120 yards again. But it only led to 16 points as Bridgewater threw two picks and the Vikings racked up six sacks.

Minnesota had a strange game as Kirk Cousins only passed for 175 yards and took three sacks. The running game produced almost nothing until Dalvin Cook exploded for a 53-yard touchdown run to put the Vikings up 24-10 with 3:15 left, basically clinching the game. That drive was set up by Harrison Smith forcing Waddle to fumble in scoring territory while the Dolphins were driving in a 16-10 game. That’s the second week in a row the Vikings forced a wideout to fumble late in a game.

That is one way to get to 5-1, but man, I am not sure this team is a contender this year. But that probably says more about the NFC in general than just Minnesota.

Cardinals at Seahawks: Christ, this was supposed to be a shootout or at least a running back showcase. Seattle rookie Kenneth Walker did well with a touchdown and nearly 100 yards, but somehow Kyler Murray turned 222 passing yards and 100 rushing yards into an opening-drive field goal and zero offensive points on the last 10 drives. He also took six sacks. It’s about time we admit that Kliff Kingsbury is just Matt Rhule with better talent around him. Underachievers all the same.

Panthers at Rams: This game stayed competitive for about as long as Matthew Stafford felt like keeping Carolina in it. He added another pick-six bringing his career total to 29, tying Dan Marino and only trailing Brett Favre (32) now. Carolina’s offense managed just one field goal as new starter P.J. Walker had 60 yards passing despite playing into the final five minutes of the game. Again, the Rams are going to be okay against the cupcakes, but it is hard to see them winning in Tampa Bay, Kansas City, or Green Bay later this year. The schedule also has the 49ers next, Sean McVay’s kryptonite.

Next week: We go from the best week of the season to one of the worst (on paper) I’ve ever seen. Maybe Chiefs-49ers will still be interesting. Maybe Terry Bradshaw and Dan Marino will play quarterback in Pittsburgh-Miami if these teams can’t keep their quarterbacks in the game.

NFL Stat Oddity: Week 9

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

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

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

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

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

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

This season in Stat Oddity:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Vikings at Ravens: Par for the Course

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

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

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

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

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

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

Packers at Chiefs: Love Did Not Tear the Chiefs Apart

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

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

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

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

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

Broncos at Cowboys: WTF?

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

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

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

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

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

Bills at Jaguars: WTF? The Sequel

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Falcons at Saints: The Atlanta Sports Renaissance?

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

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

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

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

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

Hurry-Up Finish

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

Cardinals at 49ers: 2021 49ers Gone Fishin’

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

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

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

Browns at Bengals: One-Sided Battle of Ohio

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

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

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

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

Chargers at Eagles: The 7-on-7 Defense

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

Raiders at Giants: No Penalty, No Comeback

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

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

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

Top 100 NFL Quarterbacks of the 21st Century: Part VII (10-6)

If you missed the beginning of my series on the top 100 NFL quarterbacks of the 21st century, there is a recap with links below, and here is where the list stands from No. 100 to No. 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. In part VI, we had a few Hall of Famers and some players who may have gotten there had it not been for injuries.

Part I (#100-87)

Part II (#86-72)

Part III (#71-51)

Part IV (#50-31)

Part V (#30-21)

Part VI (#20-11)

10. Philip Rivers

I am going to miss Philip Rivers in the NFL. I’ll miss the shot-put throwing motion, the epic rivalry with beating the 40-second play clock, and all the games he pulled out and the jokes about the times he didn’t pull out of his wife. I’ll miss the memes and GIFs, the sideline reactions, and the post-game interviews where he did his best to be fiery while avoiding swear words.

But I’m really going to miss predicting all the game-ending interceptions as he was one of the safest bets for that. Rivers had 82 games with a failed game-winning drive opportunity in his career, an NFL record. When you combine that fact with a shoddy playoff resume (5-7 record, 59.4% complete, 85.3 PR) and this fact below, it is why I would vote no on Rivers for the Hall of Fame.

I am content with drawing the line just above Rivers and making him the best QB not in the Hall of Fame. He’s probably still going to end up there, but I’m just explaining why I placed him 10th and would vote no. He just never had that one special year where everything came together, and that stings extra hard in an era where just about every other notable quarterback won an MVP or got to a Super Bowl (or both). Rivers clearly peaked early with his initial run as starter in 2006-10 back when the Chargers were considered the most talented team in the league. His 2008-09 seasons specifically were him at his best.

But he never had that great playoff run like Eli and Roethlisberger, his 2004 classmates, did to get to Super Bowls. He was a hell of an ironman and competitor, but he lacked the mobility to make plays that way and a great pass rush could really disrupt him. He loved throwing to running backs more than anyone not named Drew Brees, and he certainly played with many of the most talented to catch the ball. He also loved Antonio Gates in the red zone and throwing deep to really tall receivers, but I felt like there was something lacking in the more intermediate ranges. When Keenan Allen became his best receiver, those offenses were just not as special as the ones he led in his prime.

It was in that 2010 season where I think he started becoming more of a hollow stat QB and the struggles in all those close games piled up. He finished 36-82 (.305) in game-winning drive opportunities, a record only surpassing Ryan Fitzpatrick (18-49-1, .272) among experienced starters. Vintage Rivers only really showed up again in those 2013 and 2018 seasons. He was steady with the Colts and gave them a good effort last year before retiring.

I can acknowledge that Rivers did not have an easy job sharing a conference with Manning, Brady, and Roethlisberger, then later sharing a division with Manning (2012-15) and Patrick Mahomes (2018-19). While the Chargers had the Colts’ number in the 2000s, they were usually had by the Patriots and Steelers. Rivers was 0-8 against the Patriots with Brady at quarterback. In a cruel twist of fate, Rivers started 252 consecutive games, the second longest streak in history behind only Brett Favre. But in the biggest game of his career, the 2007 AFC Championship Game in New England, he played through it on a torn ACL and was very ineffective in a 21-12 loss. Also, being saddled with a choker kicker (Nate Kaeding) did not help Rivers in his prime.

Could Rivers have won a Super Bowl under better circumstances? Of course he could. But when you look at the paths all 15 champions had to take since 2006, I really struggle to see Rivers winning with most of those teams. Not when most of them had to go through the Patriots or overcome their offensive line (2008 Steelers, 2013 Seahawks, 2015 Broncos) or win a lot of close games.

I just don’t trust Rivers not to screw things up eventually. And we know he is really damn good at screwing. Enjoy retirement, king.

9. Matt Ryan

Ah, the NFC’s answer to Philip Rivers. I have always been intrigued by Matt Ryan ever since he threw a 62-yard touchdown pass on his first dropback in 2008 and won Offensive Rookie of the Year. You see, unlike Rivers, Ryan had that instant success, he had a historic number of comebacks and game-winning drives at one point, and he had an all-time peak season in 2016. Including the playoffs, Ryan’s YPA never dipped below 7.9 in any game that year, a completely absurd and consistent season. It was one that should have ended in a Super Bowl MVP and maybe the best postseason run since 1989 Joe Montana, but Atlanta did what Atlanta does. 28-3.

For a solid eight years, I called Ryan the Poor Man’s Peyton. That was about the closest comparison for his playing style as someone who plays from the pocket and does a really good job of avoiding sacks and fumbles. Ryan had his own early playoff struggles, but he still had a flair for the dramatic with 32 4QC/GWD in 2008-15 (several starting in the final 60 seconds of the game), and we watched his Falcons blow a 17-point lead in the 2012 NFC Championship Game.

The 2016 Falcons also blew a lot of leads, which is why that team was only an 11-5 No. 2 seed despite Ryan’s historic season. But never could I have expected they would blow a 28-3 lead in the Super Bowl. I’ve written before about the many breaking points in that game where if just one play went right for Atlanta, the Falcons win. Many of those plays had nothing to do with Ryan too. While I cite the Hightower forced fumble on a third down strip sack as the biggest turning point, we know the blame is more on OC Kyle Shanahan for calling a pass on third-and-short in the first place.

Alas, that’s in the past. While Rivers is retired, Ryan’s career continues with a new head coach and weapon in tight end Kyle Pitts. For his career, Ryan’s average offense ranks 6.8 in yards per drive, trailing only Peyton (4.5) and Brees (5.8) at the top. Ryan’s average offense ranks 8.8 in points per drive, trailing only Rodgers (7.8), Brady (6.0), Brees (5.4), and Peyton (5.1).

Ryan has continued to put up very good numbers in the four seasons since 28-3, but Atlanta continues to blow leads and not win enough games. He has thrown for over 4,000 yards in 10 straight seasons, but the Falcons have missed the playoffs six times in that span. I think he is going to need one more deep playoff run under Arthur Smith to really cement a Hall of Fame spot in the future. People are so generally unenthused by Ryan that even in 2016 he only got 25 MVP votes when it should have been a bigger margin of victory. He cannot continue to miss the playoffs and just retire in a couple years and expect voters to pound the table for him. He needs that noteworthy part in his final act to get over the top.

8. Tony Romo

If Tony Romo needed to hire an apologist, I could have filled that role during his playing career. Some of my earliest articles were in defense of him. I’d share the links, but they are no longer active, unfortunately. However, one of the posts was so good that Dallas radio host Chris Arnold blatantly plagiarized it in 2013, and you can still read that absurd example of plagiarism right here as I broke it down.

That happened right after the all-time Tony Romo game against the 2013 Broncos, a 51-48 loss. He threw for 506 yards, five touchdowns, but the defense blew the lead late, and when he was asked to break the NFL record for yardage in a game to break this 48-48 tie, he threw an interception that set up Denver’s winning field goal. You got the full Romo experience in that one.

I think Romo is the greatest undrafted success story of the 21st century in the NFL (Kurt Warner was 20th century). Yet he still got criticized so much, and I think the main reasons for that are that people hate Dallas and love to root against Jerry Jones, and since they are in prime time so often, we see them a lot in high-profile games. Romo was already a “future Hall of Famer” after throwing five touchdowns on Thanksgiving in 2006, his fifth start. People get annoyed with that stuff. So, when he has a boneheaded moment like the botched hold on the field goal against Seattle in the playoffs, millions are watching that and taking delight in his failure. That play likely was the impetus for teams ending the practice of using their quarterback as the holder. If Romo started his career now, he’d never be in that position.

When Romo throws a game-ending interception against the Giants in the playoffs a year later as the No. 1 seed, people take note of that too. When he loses 44-6 to the Eagles in Week 17 in 2008 and misses the playoffs, a lot of people probably watched that game. So, for years you had a quarterback who had a lot of his bad moments in front of national audiences, and a lot of his clutch moments and game-winning drives were in the early Sunday afternoon games that not so many eyes were on, especially in the pre-RedZone era.

I think that created a lot of the negative stigma for Romo, who did end up leading 25 4QC and 30 GWD in his career, both franchise records. He was 30-34 (.469) at all 4QC/GWD opportunities, which ranks very favorably to Ben Roethlisberger (51-56-1, .477), Drew Brees (57-73, .438), Russell Wilson (35-39-1, .473) and Aaron Rodgers (27-46-1, .372) to name a few.

Romo had a slight case for MVP in 2014, his best overall season, and you better believe #DezCaughtIt. But just when it seemed like Romo was going to be healthy and had things figured out, his body started giving out in 2015, limiting him to four starts. Then it happened again in 2016 and the team moved on with Dak Prescott, who was so good as a rookie that it just made it clear that Romo should retire before his age-37 season. Now he is a beloved announcer, though frankly I liked him better as a quarterback.

If you include all 16 games in 2016, then Romo missed 43 starts due to injury in his career. That’s after he was a bench player for his first three seasons and the beginning of his fourth in 2006. We basically got a decade of Romo (2006-2015) with a couple of throwaway seasons (2010 and 2015) in that mix. For that reason, I would not vote him into the Hall of Fame since I don’t think he excelled long enough.

But when Romo was at his best, he was fun to watch, he was a great quarterback, and his playmaking ability separates him from Rivers and Ryan for me. Now if only he had their durability combined with the fact that most people just don’t care enough to hate on the Chargers and Falcons.

7. Russell Wilson

Wilson is one of the very few quarterbacks in the top 15 with a chance to still add to his legacy. Since I started writing about the NFL on a full-time basis in 2011, that makes his career among the first of the great ones that I got to cover from the start. I have been a very big fan since his rookie season in 2012, and again, the links are dead now, but I had articles about people overlooking him for his height and how he was a better rookie than RGIII. And in case you forgot, I also infamously defended Golden Tate’s game-winning touchdown, The Fail Mary, against Green Bay as a touchdown.

I have also written that Wilson threw the costliest interception in NFL history in Super Bowl 49, and that his zero career MVP votes has been totally justified. Frankly, I am still mystified that the Seahawks threw in that situation and how last year ended after Wilson had the best start of his career. If two MVP awards were handed out for each half season, I think Wilson would have about four by now (2012 2H, 2015 2H, 2019 1H, 2020 1H).

Seattle’s record competitive streak of 98 games of being at least within one score in the fourth quarter never happens without a quarterback like Wilson joining the team.

Wilson has the most fourth-quarter comeback wins (27) and game-winning drives (35) through a quarterback’s first nine seasons in NFL history. Not only does Wilson have a flair for the dramatic, I swear he and head coach Pete Carroll get off on playing these really tight games. It has mostly worked out for them but had Marshawn Lynch needed an extra run at the goal line to score on the 2012 Falcons (NFC Divisional) and if Lynch got multiple carries at the goal line against the 2014 Patriots, we could be talking about a three-peat for this team. Alas, the Seahawks have not been back to the NFC Championship Game ever since Malcolm Butler, and they remain only a DVOA Dynasty and not the real thing, which I once predicted they would be prior to the 2013 season.

During the 2012 season, Wilson was one of the hyped young quarterbacks who used their legs to aid their success. But when you look at what’s happened to the careers of Colin Kaepernick (regressed, blackballed), Cam Newton (regressed, injuries), Robert Griffin III (regressed, injuries), and even Andrew Luck (injuries, retired), Wilson looks like a unicorn in retrospect given his size and durability. He has started all 160 games of his career despite taking 443 sacks and running the ball over 880 times when you include the playoffs. That is remarkable.

But I have also made many comparisons between Wilson and Ben Roethlisberger over the years as they are probably the two best quarterbacks in NFL history to never receive a single MVP vote. Both had to earn respect as elite quarterbacks who did not throw the ball a ton at the beginning of their careers on teams that featured the run and a top scoring defense. Both were very efficient passers who made things happen off script, but they did take their share of sacks too as it’s a double-edged sword. Both showed they can still handle a bigger volume of passes and maintain their efficiency while leading the team to the playoffs without a top defense. Was there as much playoff success when that happened as the defenses eroded? No, but that’s just how the NFL works.

Now Wilson needs to follow Roethlisberger’s lead from 2012 (his ninth season) when he began to get rid of the ball quicker and cut down on the sacks after the Steelers replaced Bruce Arians with Todd Haley. Wilson is going into his 10th season and has a new offensive coordinator too. While he doesn’t need to adopt Ben’s 2020 style of treating the ball like a hot potato, Wilson does need to start cutting down on the sacks to make sure he extends his career deep into his thirties and maybe beyond.

With the youth movement at quarterback right now, Wilson could soon be the elder statesman of the NFC. Maybe then he’ll get that MVP vote.

6. Ben Roethlisberger

Ben Roethlisberger is the Rodney Dangerfield of the NFL. No respect. All he’s done since his NFL debut in 2004 is put himself on the path to being a first-ballot Hall of Famer. It is no coincidence that the Steelers have not had a losing record in the 17 years since he was drafted. While his days are numbered now, he has changed the standard forever for future quarterbacks in Pittsburgh. As someone who grew up with no choice but to watch Neil O’Donnell, Mike Tomczak, Kordell Stewart, and Tommy Maddox, I am grateful for Roethlisberger’s career.

So, why does he not get more respect?

You can say it was his off-field issues that turned people sour on him, but a lot of that stuff was unknown to the public or didn’t even happen until 2009. By then, he had already led the Steelers to two Super Bowls wins, including the first run by a No. 6 seed where he played fantastic on the road, and his game-winning touchdown pass in Super Bowl 43 to Santonio Holmes, capping off one of the all-time drives. In the years since, Roethlisberger grew into a better leader, started a family, and the only stories you hear about him nowadays are him playing up his injuries or someone in the media fabricating team drama. Given the way Le’Veon Bell, Martavis Bryant, and Antonio Brown have acted since leaving Pittsburgh, it’s ridiculous to paint Roethlisberger as the villain there.

But it has always been difficult on Roethlisberger to carve out his place in an NFL that has always had someone better to promote at the top. Timing is so important to success in life, and most of the time things happen out of your control. While Roethlisberger’s 2004 rookie season was incredible, it was overshadowed by a year where MVP Peyton Manning threw 49 touchdowns, Drew Brees had his breakout year in San Diego, and Tom Brady had his best statistical season yet in leading the Patriots to a third ring in four years.

Roethlisberger would spend his career in their shadows (as well as a few others).

While Roethlisberger had his own incredible run to the Super Bowl in 2005, people may have missed just how good his season was since he missed four games to injury. He led the NFL in TD%, YPC, and YPA in leading the most vertical passing game in the league. He was outstanding on the road in the playoffs against the Bengals, Colts, and Broncos, and his tackle of Nick Harper after Jerome Bettis fumbled is the best non-traditional quarterback play someone at his position has ever made in this sport. But since he had a down game in the Super Bowl against Seattle, people can look past the build up to that game even despite a win. A 22.6 passer rating does not care about his rushing touchdown or that he converted eight third downs, including a third-and-28, still a Super Bowl record.

If 2006 was his time to shine, then his carelessness to ride a motorcycle without a helmet was his own undoing. His accident put his season in question, then an emergency appendectomy delayed his season debut. He really struggled with zero touchdowns and seven interceptions as he started 0-3. But after shredding the Chiefs and Falcons for six quarters, things looked back on track. Then he had a concussion in Atlanta and had to leave that game. He came back too soon – recall the Tommy Maddox game in 2002 against Houston – and threw four picks against an awful Oakland team in another loss. The hole was too big to climb out of that year.

Roethlisberger returned with a great 2007 season, throwing 32 touchdowns and a 104.1 passer rating. But Brady’s 50 touchdowns and New England’s 16-0 season overshadowed everything that year. When Brady tore his ACL in Week 1 of 2008, that opened the door in the AFC for the Steelers. They came through with a Super Bowl win with Roethlisberger leading that masterful touchdown drive.

But if he was ready to jump into the Manning-Brady conversation, that offseason put a pause on things when a woman accused him of sexual assault in a hotel room. In March 2010, another woman came forward with allegations after an encounter in a nightclub bathroom in Georgia. Roethlisberger was suspended for six games, reduced to four, to start the 2010 season. Had this happened now, I’m not sure he would have been able to continue his career in Pittsburgh or any NFL city. I guess we’ll see how things are handled with Deshaun Watson, though that’s a whole different level with 22 accusers. You can read the case details on Roethlisberger and draw your own conclusions. I’d compare my thoughts on what Roethlisberger, Kobe Bryant, and Watson did, but that seems beyond foolish to say publicly in 2021. None of us know the truth.

Back to the field, Drew Brees and Aaron Rodgers both won Super Bowl MVP honors in the 2009 and 2010 seasons while Roethlisberger missed the playoffs and was outplayed by Rodgers in Super Bowl 45. Instead of joining Manning and Brady, Roethlisberger was lucky if he could get a No. 5 ranking behind that foursome.

But I’ve always had him with those four guys. Many people have tried to hype other quarterbacks ahead of Ben in the last decade or longer. I never bought the idea that Rivers, his 2004 classmate, was better. If you want rings, you can go with Eli. If you want stats, you could go with Rivers. If you want both, you take Ben in that draft class.

Then what good did that prove when people tried to put Cam Newton, Matthew Stafford, Colin Kaepernick, Robert Griffin, Andrew Luck, Derek Carr, Carson Wentz, etc. above a future first ballot HOFer? Luck could have been one, but we know what happened there.

That’s because health is definitely a big deal, and Roethlisberger has struggled in that department. However, 2019 was the only long-term injury he had. Like with Russell Wilson, Roethlisberger never receiving an MVP vote is totally justified. For starters, he only made it through a full 16-game season four times in 17 years, and one of those seasons (2008) was his worst statistically when he battled multiple injuries and left multiple games injured. He was great as a rookie in 2004, but Peyton threw 49 touchdowns. He was great in Mike Tomlin’s first year in 2007, but Brady threw 50 touchdowns. He was great in 2009 and 2014, but so were most of the top quarterbacks in those two years. He had a darkhorse MVP shot in 2017, but the NFL’s pathetic catch rule screwed Jesse James out of a game-winning touchdown against the Patriots, leading to a tipped Roethlisberger interception that gave the Patriots the No. 1 seed and locked up MVP for Brady that year.

Then you add Patrick Mahomes, Lamar Jackson, and Josh Allen as fresh blood to the AFC in the last few years, and it’s just really hard for Roethlisberger to carve out his own records and history in this golden era of passers that spans his whole career.

He has some though. When he was on his A-game, Roethlisberger was incredible. Roethlisberger has four 500-yard passing games, or as many as Brees (2) and Brady (2) combined. No other quarterback has more than one, and Roethlisberger’s first three 500-yard games were all wins against teams with winning records. The one he had against the 2014 Colts is as good as any game you’ll see a quarterback play. He was 40/49 for 522 yards, six touchdowns, no picks, and no sacks. A week later against Baltimore, he threw six touchdowns again, the first QB to do that in consecutive games. He joins Peyton as the only quarterbacks to hit a “perfect” 158.3 passer rating four times.

He also completed an NFL-record 47 passes in his last outing, a playoff loss to the Browns. That was not a good night, but I wrote about Pittsburgh’s baffling history of falling apart on defense in the playoffs. Roethlisberger’s defense is responsible for the best playoff moments in the careers of David Garrard, Aaron Rodgers, Tim Tebow, Blake Bortles, and now Baker Mayfield. Rodgers is one thing, but the rest are ridiculous. That’s also just quarterbacks as I did not point out the atrocity of letting New England’s Chris Hogan go for 180 yards and two touchdowns in the 2016 AFC Championship Game.

Finally, I would point out that no quarterback has seen his career more impacted by running back fumbles. Jerome Bettis lost three big ones in the 2004-05 playoffs, and had Roethlisberger not saved his ass on that Nick Harper play in Indy, I honestly don’t think Bettis or Bill Cowher ever make the Hall of Fame. Then there was the Rashard Mendenhall fumble to start the fourth quarter of Super Bowl 45 when it looked like the Steelers were driving for the lead. That’s a real legacy changer if Ben gets to three Super Bowl wins and keeps Rodgers at zero. Then in 2015, Cincinnati’s Jeremy Hill fumbled late in the game, allowing Ben to re-enter the game after being injured and leading a game-winning drive. But a week later in Denver, Fitzgerald Toussaint fumbled for the Steelers with a 13-12 lead in the fourth quarter when Pittsburgh was driving. Denver went on to score the game-winning touchdown. Roethlisberger, without Antonio Brown, played better against Denver’s tough defense than Brady and Newton did that postseason.

A lot of legacy-changing moments in there just based on which team recovers a fumble. That’s the breaks in the NFL. By the way, Rodney Dangerfield died two days after Ben’s second career start, so if you believe in reincarnation…

No one expects Roethlisberger to go out on a high note. It wouldn’t surprise me if this is the year the wheels fall off entirely. But in the future when you catch the Steelers in an island game and some bum like Mason Rudolph is struggling for four quarters, maybe then you’ll have some respect for what Roethlisberger brought to the Steelers.

Coming in the part VIII finale: you know the five names, but you probably won’t predict the order I am going with.

Falcons Meet Bears: The Rest Is History

When I ended my piece on the Atlanta Falcons last week, I didn’t think “Sunday was just the latest exhibit, but unlikely the last” would mean the very next game would result in another epic collapse. It certainly didn’t seem likely when Atlanta led 26-10 with just over nine minutes left and the Bears were struggling with Nick Foles, who came off the bench in the third quarter to replace Mitchell Trubisky following an interception.

But given the first two weeks of the season for these teams and Foles’ history of beating Atlanta (2017 playoffs and 2018 opener), maybe it was inevitable. Either way, it was historic.

The 2020 Falcons are the first team in NFL history to blow a fourth-quarter lead of 15+ points twice in the same season, doing so in back-to-back games. The only other team to do it twice in one 365-day period was the 2003-04 Seahawks against Baltimore and St. Louis. The 2020 Bears are the first team in NFL history to win two games in the same season after trailing by at least 16 points in the fourth quarter. They also finished off Detroit in Week 1 after trailing 23-6.

Prior to 2020, a 15+ point comeback win in the fourth quarter was something that only happened 64 times in NFL history. These are pretty rare outcomes, though we have seen 10 of them since 2016, including four games that involved at least one of these teams. This is the third time the Falcons have blown one since 2016 and I don’t even need to mention what the third game was. You just know.

What struck me about this game and motivated me to write something was just how improbable it was for Chicago to win despite a lot of failure in making the 26-10 comeback:

  • In the third quarter, Foles threw a 50/50 ball on his first drive replacing Trubisky and it was intercepted in the end zone.
  • With 10:46 left to play, Anthony Miller dropped a touchdown on fourth down in the end zone.
  • After scoring one touchdown, Foles was intercepted on a two-point conversion try with 6:20 left, keeping it a two-score game at 26-16.

That’s not the cleanest comeback you’ll ever see, and yet the Bears were able to drive for three touchdowns in SEVEN MINUTES AND 17 SECONDS without even using a timeout. How the hell does Atlanta allow that to happen?

As you may expect, it’s more coaching malpractice from Dan Quinn and company. The kicking game also missed a 48-yard field goal with 13:35 left that could have made a big difference late.

However, what shocked me was how complicit Matt Ryan was in this collapse. Last week I covered how great he was in the games they’ve lost before, but this was not the case on Sunday. He didn’t have Julio Jones available, but Ryan played well enough for most of the game. But in the fourth quarter, Ryan started by throwing seven straight incompletions and taking a sack that made the missed field goal harder. I’m not even going to talk about the final drive where Ryan threw an interception to effectively end the game.

The game never should have reached that point, but the Atlanta offense went three-and-out on three straight drives that consumed a mind-boggling TWO MINUTES AND 58 SECONDS. He could have taken seven god damn kneeldowns and likely would have walked away a winner (and with a higher completion percentage).

I watched the seven throws. They increasingly got worse, and only one was dropped, which may have set up a third-and-medium situation with around four minutes left. It was a terrible finish for the quarterback.

Perhaps the main complaint against Atlanta in the 28-3 Super Bowl collapse was not running the ball in the fourth quarter. It happened again here as if the team’s learned nothing.

What happens if the Falcons just run the ball instead of throwing so many clock-stopping incompletions in the fourth quarter? Now the quick analysis I’m going to do next isn’t the greatest method in the world, because it’s making a big assumption that Chicago would do things the same exact way they did. It also can’t predict exactly what Atlanta’s runs would bring, but let’s just look at how easy Atlanta made this comeback for Chicago. I’m going to take off about a net of 43 seconds for each run assuming the time to run the play after milking the play clock to one:

4Q Drive 1: Falcons run instead of throwing incomplete on 2nd-and-7, clock goes down to 13:40. Falcons run on third down instead of a sack, clock goes down to 12:57 before field goal attempt. Chicago gets ball back with 12:51 left, a total loss of 44 seconds.

4Q Drive 2: Instead of throwing on 3rd-and-5 up 16, Falcons just go conservative and run again before punting. Bears get ball back with another loss of 38 seconds (82 seconds total).

4Q Drive 3: Up 10, Atlanta starts with 4:53 left instead of the actual drive time of 6:15. Maybe this is where the Bears start to use their three timeouts, but two extra runs instead of passes and a punt could chop off an extra 75 seconds, leaving the Bears with 3:00 left.

At this point, even if the Bears only used a minute (they used 59 seconds in real life) to score another touchdown, they’d still be down 26-23 at just about the two-minute warning. They could kick deep given their three timeouts, or they could do the onside kick. Maybe they already used their timeouts and have some extra time left, but either way, it’d be much better than what really happened: Atlanta throwing three straight incompletions with 4:21 left and a drive that consumed an embarrassing 22 seconds.

Running the ball may not be cool anymore, but it’s the safest way to bleed the clock. They signed Todd Gurley for a reason, right? Just run more when you’re up 16, your quarterback can’t get the ball wet if he was in the ocean, and your defense can’t be trusted.

Seven straight incompletions to help the Bears score three touchdowns in 7:17 without even using a timeout. It’s just baffling stuff for a team that should be 2-1 right now and looking at a division where they can actually do something this year. But will there be any fight left in Atlanta by the Week 10 bye? Afterwards their schedule is loaded with two games against Drew Brees and the Saints, two games against Tom Brady and the Buccaneers, and they’ll see Patrick Mahomes right after Christmas. Oh, and they’ll be in Aaron Rodgers’ house this Monday night.

Maybe we won’t see many more Atlanta leads this season, and if the last two weeks are any indication, maybe that’s a good thing.

Start cleaning house.

The Atlanta Falcons and the Art of Failure

Most NFL teams lose games because they were outplayed over the course of 60 minutes. They were sloppy and made too many mistakes. They weren’t aggressive enough or prepared for every new detail. Even if they still had their chances at the end, you just know they weren’t good enough that day to earn the win.

Then there’s the Atlanta Falcons, who have mastered the art of f*cking people over for three hours without a happy ending. Oh, there’s plenty of teasing and choking, but it always seems to end in unsatisfactory disappointment in the Matt Ryan era.

From the team that brought us 28-3, the Falcons may have found their regular season equivalent on Sunday in Dallas with a 40-39 loss that likely just killed their season.

Atlanta is the first team in NFL history to lose after scoring 39 points without a turnover.

Since 1940, teams are now 457-1 when scoring at least 39 points without a turnover. That includes playoff games and excludes two AAFC games. The Falcons led 20-0 in the first quarter after Dallas lost three fumbles. That’s right, the Falcons finished +3 in turnovers and still lost. Since 1940, teams are now 492-1 when scoring at least 38 points without a turnover and with multiple takeaways. The Falcons own the only loss.

Sound familiar? Of course, the worst part of this loss felt like a turnover when the Falcons calmly watched an onside kick attempt with 1:49 left trickle just over 10 yards before the Cowboys legally recovered it. That set up Greg Zuerlein’s 46-yard game-winning field goal at the buzzer to stun the Falcons. The play doesn’t count as a turnover since the Falcons never had possession and it wasn’t a fumble or interception, but it hurt just the same. Head coach Dan Quinn even managed the late stages so poorly that the Falcons were out of timeouts for the final drive, unable to save any time for Ryan to have a chance to answer.

Yet if you told a person this was how a game ended on Sunday without mentioning the teams, chances are if they know their NFL they would have guessed the Falcons came out on the losing end.

It Wasn’t Always Like This in Atlanta

To say things were always this bad in the Ryan era would simply be untrue. Let’s not forget how the Mike Smith era started.

From 2008 through the 2012 regular season (Ryan’s first five seasons), the Falcons under head coach Mike Smith blew just three fourth-quarter leads, including two tussles with Drew Brees and the Saints. That was the lowest total in the NFL in that time span. That was a great job of protecting leads for a team that had five straight winning seasons for the first and only time in franchise history.

But on the cusp of greatness, everything started to change in the 2012 playoffs. The top-seeded Falcons hosted Seattle in the divisional round, and despite taking a 27-7 lead into the fourth quarter, Atlanta surrendered three touchdowns in the quarter and trailed 28-27 with 31 seconds left. It was going to be a monumental collapse to a team with a rookie quarterback (Russell Wilson), but Ryan was able to complete two passes for 41 yards to set up a game-winning field goal, saving Atlanta’s season for the moment.

The following week in the NFC Championship Game against San Francisco, the Falcons again started hot and rolled to a 17-0 lead before things fell apart. Colin Kaepernick led the 49ers back to a 28-24 lead and Ryan was unable to connect on a fourth down in the red zone to keep the season alive. It was at the time the second-largest blown lead in a championship game in NFL history.

Atlanta didn’t recover for years, falling into a pattern of blown leads and red-zone failures. From the 2012 NFC Championship Game through the 2014 season, Smith’s Falcons blew eight fourth-quarter leads and he was fired.

Enter Dan Quinn in 2015

Quinn was the former Seattle defensive coordinator, so his most recent game was not the most flattering part of his resume. Yes, the guy who blew 28-3 and a 19-point fourth quarter lead in the Super Bowl already held the record for the biggest blown fourth quarter lead (10 points) in a Super Bowl. The Seahawks blew a 24-14 lead in the fourth quarter of Super Bowl XLIX against New England. Outside of that stellar 2013 Super Bowl season, the Seahawks have had consistent problems with holding leads in the fourth quarter, and Quinn is very much a believer in Pete Carroll’s defensive philosophies. You’re rarely going to see these defenses send the house and blitz in critical situations. They believe they can limit big plays and keep everything in front of them with strong tackling, but time and time again we have seen opposing quarterbacks pick their way down the field against soft zones with ease.

In Quinn’s first four seasons (2015-18), the Falcons blew 13 leads in the fourth quarter, which trailed only the Chargers during that stretch of time. Even in the Super Bowl year and MVP season for Ryan (2016), the Falcons managed to blow four leads while the rest of the NFL’s playoff field that year combined to blow one. That’s why the Falcons were only 11-5 and a No.2 seed despite having superior statistics to most teams in the NFL.

Against the 2016 Chiefs, Atlanta invented a new way to lose a game. Ryan led the Falcons back from an 11-point deficit in the fourth quarter to a 28-27 lead with 4:32 left, but something funny happened on the two-point conversion attempt. Ryan was intercepted by Eric Berry, who returned the ball for two points to give the Chiefs the first “Pick 2” in NFL history, not to mention they regained a 29-28 lead.

Ryan never got another chance on the field to make up for the error. The Chiefs ran out the clock and won the game. However, it looked like this was going to be the last time the 2016 Falcons lost after crushing their next six opponents to reach Super Bowl LI.

Unfortunately, that only set the stage for Atlanta’s masterpiece.

28-3

I’ve detailed on here before the numerous breaking points where if Atlanta just made one positive play, the Falcons win that Super Bowl. Even something as simple as Jake Matthews not getting a holding penalty in New England territory should have done the trick.

6:04 left, 3Q (ATL leads 28-3): NE converts a fourth-and-3 to Danny Amendola. A stop at midfield would have put Atlanta in great shape to score again.

1:30 left, 3Q (ATL leads 28-9): A holding penalty on Jake Matthews turns a second-and-1 at the NE 32 into second-and-11 at the NE 42, out of FG range. An incompletion and sack of Ryan lead to a punt.

8:31 left, 4Q (ATL leads 28-12): The turning point. Falcons throw on third-and-1, Devonta Freeman misses the block, Ryan is sacked and fumbles. Patriots take over at the ATL 25. This had to be a running play.

5:56 left, 4Q (ATL leads 28-18): Stop a two-point conversion and you’re still in great shape. The Falcons didn’t. James White takes a direct snap to make it 28-20. Game on.

3:56 left, 4Q (ATL leads 28-20): Ryan is sacked for a 12-yard loss on second down at the NE 23. The other major turning point. You just hit the Julio Jones pass to get into field-goal range. Kneel down three times if you have to. The pass here was insane.

3:50 left, 4Q (ATL leads 28-20): Matthews has another horrible holding penalty, wiping out a Ryan completion to the NE 26. Matt Bryant could have made a field goal there, but on third-and-33, Ryan threw incomplete and the Falcons had to punt from the NE 45.

2:28 left, 4Q (ATL leads 28-20): Robert Alford can clinch his Super Bowl MVP with a second interception of Tom Brady, but the pass goes off his hands, and he even helps keep the ball alive with his leg while a diving Julian Edelman makes an unbelievable catch for 23 yards.

0:57 left, 4Q (ATL leads 28-26): Alright, you’re not going to give up TWO two-point conversions, are you Atlanta? Yes, you did, and on a bubble screen of all things. By then, your goose was cooked, because you know the Patriots weren’t going to give the ball back in overtime after winning the coin toss.

Any one of those eight things goes right for the Falcons and Atlanta is the reigning champion.

It’s hard to imagine a team finding a more soul-crushing way to lose a Super Bowl than Atlanta. Teams that start games that well just do not lose in this league’s 100-year history. The 25-point blown lead is of course the worst in championship game history now, so the Falcons have the first and third spots on that list.

While Ryan’s five sacks, including a huge strip-sack fumble in the fourth quarter, were pivotal in the loss, he still finished the game with a 144.1 passer rating and 12.35 yards per attempt. Both of those numbers are the highest in NFL history for a playoff loss (min. 15 attempts).

Thanks for the PTSD, Atlanta

In the seasons since Super Bowl LI, the Falcons have looked like only a shell of the team that created the greatest collapse in NFL history. Maybe that’s all that’s left of the psyche for Quinn, Ryan, Julio Jones and company. The defense hasn’t been good since 2017 and has fallen back to terrible status much like the seasons that canned Smith in Atlanta. Ryan’s had some moments and a big stat line in 2018, but he hasn’t consistently put a full year together like his peak MVP performance of 2016 when Kyle Shanahan was the offensive coordinator before taking the San Francisco job.

So what the Falcons provide us now are games like Sunday: PTSD-triggering moments of 28-3 where a game performance that has been a sure win in NFL history turns into a loss for Atlanta.

The last four NFL quarterbacks to lose a game with a passer rating of 140+ (min. 20 attempts):

  • 2019 Matt Ryan at Arizona
  • 2018 Marcus Mariota at Houston
  • 2018 Matt Ryan vs. New Orleans
  • 2016 Matt Ryan vs. New England

The last three NFL quarterbacks to lose a game with 350+ passing yards and a 130+ passer rating:

  • 2019 Matt Ryan at Arizona
  • 2018 Matt Ryan vs. Cincinnati
  • 2018 Matt Ryan vs. New Orleans

Ryan’s passer rating against the 2018 Saints (148.1) is the highest in regular season history in a loss with at least 25 pass attempts. His 144.9 rating against the 2019 Cardinals ranks third on the same list.

It’s not just Ryan either, but the offense as a whole has lost in historic fashion in these games highlighted against the Saints, Bengals and Cardinals. The Saints and Bengals were back-to-back home games in 2018.

That means the 2018 Falcons lost back-to-back home games after scoring at least 36 points and having zero turnovers. Since 1940, home teams not named the 2018 Falcons are 428-3 when scoring at least 36 points and having zero turnovers. The Falcons were 1-2 doing that.

Since 1991, home teams that converted at least 70 percent of their third downs and scored at least 25 points are 83-2. The Falcons, against the 2018 Bengals, had the first loss in that group. (The 2018 Raiders also lost 40-33 to Patrick Mahomes and the Chiefs)

Sunday was the sixth time since 2012 that the Falcons have lost after leading by at least 17 points, two more than any other team in the NFL. It’s almost like the Falcons spent years looking for the perfect way to lose a game in inexplicable fashion, painted their masterpiece in Super Bowl LI, and have struggled to recreate that art in lower-stakes environments.

If Vincent Van Gogh can lose it and cut off his left ear at 35, then I hate to see what Ryan will become if he has to go beyond this season with Quinn as his coach. This is not the legacy you’d like to see for players the caliber of Ryan and Julio, but the fact is the Falcons are best known for the games they’ve artfully lost than anything they’ve ever won.

Sunday was just the latest exhibit, but unlikely the last.

Super Bowl LI Preview

Before the playoffs started, I picked Atlanta to beat New England in Super Bowl LI. I’m 9-1 this postseason, and have found the games to not be very enjoyable for the most part. This is the first time since 2002 Raiders-Buccaneers when both teams entered the Super Bowl after winning each of their playoff games by 16+ points. Yeah, that 2002 postseason was a bit of a bore too outside of wild-card Sunday, and the Super Bowl was a joke.

Super Bowl LI should be a competitive game, because I see two great offenses that are never out of a game, and two vulnerable defenses. In fact, this is probably the most offensive-oriented in Super Bowl history, so the record-setting O/U makes sense. I don’t think the score will be really high, but we could see long drives and a high points per drive average in this game. The Patriots deserve to be 3-point favorites, but don’t play that “Atlanta has no shot” noise. This game is a pretty strong step up in competition for both teams, and both teams belong in this year’s Super Bowl.

Supplemental reading:

Film Room: Receiving Backs in Super Bowl LI – a look at every pass thrown to a RB in games with NE and ATL this year

Sneaky stats that could swing SB LI – ESPN Insider article that basically serves as a mini-preview from me on things like the scoring defenses, blitzing the QBs, YAC and comeback ability/holding leads.

Super Bowl LI Preview – Aaron Schatz’s game preview at FO

Super Bowl LI in a Nutshell

The wrong framing for this game is to call it the No. 1 offense (ATL) vs. the No. 1 defense (NE). We had that in Super Bowl XLVIII, and Dan Quinn’s defense (Seattle) prevailed in a big way over Denver. We had the same thing last year, but I thought Carolina’s offense was a fraudulent No. 1 scoring offense, and Denver’s defense was very legit. I see the same thing this year, but flipped around. The Falcons are a strong No. 1 offense, but the Patriots might be the biggest frauds to ever claim a scoring defense title. That matchup is likely going to determine who wins this game, which is really a meeting of the top two offenses. However, while the Patriots may not be a great D, they are clearly better than the Falcons on that side of the ball, and that is why you should trust the Patriots more to win this game. Well, that and the better head coach. While both offenses can be great, there’s just an easier path (of less resistance) to success for the Patriots, who can get big games from a variety of players depending on how they choose to attack a young defense. With the Falcons, guys like Taylor Gabriel, Mohamed Sanu and Tevin Coleman are going to have to deliver, because I don’t think it can just be a big Julio Jones and/or Devonta Freeman evening. When both teams should score a good amount, it’s a game that comes down to turnovers (both very good here), red zone (advantage: NE) and third down (advantage: NE).

It will be very difficult for Atlanta to win this game without a stellar offensive performance, and while the offense has been so good this year, we have seen so many top offenses crash and burn on this exact stage through decades of NFL history. I don’t think that will happen, but I think you’ll be hearing at the end of the night how “defense wins championships” even if there was no such thing as a truly great D in this postseason. It’s just going to come down to being the best on Sunday night, and that should be New England again.

That’s really my summary of the game, but continue on reading if you want to see the statistical support and research, as well as some ranting about legacies, weapons and such bullshit. If not, then scroll down to the bottom to see my final score.

New England’s Misleading Defense

The Patriots allowed the fewest points in the NFL this season. Fewest per drive too, though this was nowhere close to the caliber of your usual No. 1 scoring D. The Patriots only ranked 16th in DVOA, which is a far cry from where No. 1 scoring Ds have ranked in the previous 19 seasons.

neno1

Since 1997, a total of 60 teams have ranked in the top 3 in Points per Drive allowed. Only the 2007 Patriots (11th) and 2016 Patriots (16th) ranked out of the top 10 in DVOA. This is Bill Belichick’s bend-but-don’t-break shining through. Fundamentally, it’s a flawed, if not illogical style of playing defense, but the Patriots tend to make it work. It’s even easier to pull off when you play the easiest schedule of offenses in the league, and then you draw the worst offense in the playoffs (Houston), and then you get a team that’s been leaning heavily on Le’Veon Bell, only to see him go down after six carries in the first quarter. The Patriots also lucked out in the postseason when Brock Osweiler finally threw a great pass, only to see Will Fuller drop a touchdown in the end zone. Ben Roethlisberger’s best throws down the field in the AFC-CG were also not caught by Sammie Coates and Cobi Hamilton. If the Falcons can get their skill guys to make the big plays that Matt Ryan should find down the field, then the offense is going to continue scoring as it has all season.

Credit to Denmark NFL writer Soren Hygum Hansen for sharing with me weeks ago that the Patriots are the first team since the 1970 merger to make the Super Bowl without playing a QB that finished the season ranked in the top 10 in passer rating. They’ll get the best QB in 2016 in Ryan, so if they want to make their mark defensively, they’re certainly going to get a shot with the Falcons coming in hot. The Falcons do have some banged up players in Julio Jones and Alex Mack, but neither injury appears to be a serious one in the vein of what Dwight Freeney (2009), Rob Gronkowski (2011), or the whole Legion of Boom (2014) went into past Super Bowls with, limiting their effectiveness. All of those teams lost by the way, because an injured star isn’t much help.

Matt Ryan’s 2016 vs. “Curse” of MVP/500-Pt Club

Matt Ryan has been playing the best football of his career, and you could see it from an early point in the season.

Well, three months later, here we are. Ryan has been phenomenal and consistent. His YPA has been at least 7.91 in all 18 games — the previous benchmark for every game in a season was 6.87 by Kurt Warner in 2001. It’s that consistency that makes Ryan’s season one of the best in NFL history by a quarterback. Yes, it’s been that good. He does have the benefit of using the most play-action passing in the league, but he has been great in almost every situation this season, and has done so against a schedule that ranked as the second toughest in the league defensively. In the playoffs, the Seahawks were missing Earl Thomas and the Packers were really banged up in the secondary too, but again, Atlanta has been more battle tested than NE this season. The game is a step up in competition for both sides though.

Ryan is trying to become the first MVP winner since Kurt Warner in 1999 to win the Super Bowl in the same season. The Falcons are also trying to become the highest-scoring team to ever win a Super Bowl with 540 points. Only four of the NFL’s 500-point club has won a Super Bowl. The losers averaged 16.7 PPG in their playoff loss. “We’re only going to score 17 points?” indeed. Big-time offenses tend to fall apart in the playoffs.

500club

Now these MVPs and high-scoring teams aren’t cursed. It’s actually a simple explanation for why they keep losing in the playoffs. The team is not balanced enough, and too much reliance is put on the quarterback to play great. In the playoffs, you usually can never get a quarterback and offense that play at a high level in each game. There’s usually that one off game, and these teams tend to not have the defense or running game or special teams to save their bacon when those off-days occur.

Atlanta is a perfect example of imbalance. The 11 wins were the most ever for a team that allowed 400 points in a season. The six wins in games where the Falcons allowed at least 28 points are another single-season record. These reflect well on the offense Ryan was able to lead this season, but it’s not a good sign for him to pull out a high-scoring win over the Patriots, a defense that rarely ever allows a 30-point game, especially without return scores involved. In fact, just look at the MVP race this year where Brady was the runner-up. NE did allow the fewest points and still went 3-1 without Brady. Do you see Atlanta going 3-1 without Ryan? Of course not. The Patriots could still beat Houston by 18 points with a subpar Brady performance, but if Ryan has a game where he throws two picks and completes fewer than 50 percent of his passes, then you can bet the Falcons are getting their ass kicked. OK, maybe it wouldn’t happen against Houston, but if Ryan is just “alright” on Sunday night, the Falcons will not win this game. He has to be great; one of the best games of his career.

Yet, in keeping with my 2006 Peyton Manning = 2016 Matt Ryan comparison, I think Ryan is going to have to probably lead a high-scoring comeback win to knock off these Patriots, much like Manning did in the 2006 AFC-CG and the 2009 “4th-and-2” game. In fact, in his last game against NE in 2013, Ryan nearly led a Manning-like 17-point comeback in the final 6:18. He trimmed a 30-13 deficit to a 30-23 game, and the Falcons reached the 10-yard line in the final minute. Belichick had his defense double team Tony Gonzalez, basically holding him out of the play, and the Falcons failed in the red zone again (shades of 2012 NFC-CG loss vs. 49ers). That game is ultimately meaningless to Sunday night, but I just think Ryan is going to have to throw for at least 350 yards in this game and be on point.

New England’s defense ranked 28th in DVOA in Late & Close situations, so if he can get the opportunity, then we know he’s good at delivering in these moments. We also know the Patriots are the best at preventing comebacks, though not quite as good at it away from home.

The Falcons had more than one turnover in just one game this season (at Seattle), though technically Ryan did throw two picks to Eric Berry, including a pick-two that provided the winning score for Kansas City, the last time the Falcons lost. Still, I always get nervous with these low-turnover teams imploding in the playoffs. 11 giveaways in 18 games is crazy low. The Falcons will have to win the turnover battle here to win this game. The Patriots probably capitalize on mistakes better than any team.

Atlanta’s Defense

Simply put, the Falcons are in the conversation for the worst defense to reach a Super Bowl.

Before the season, I did a three-part study on building a Super Bowl winner, looking at balance since 1989.

The conclusion was that balance is a little overrated, and it doesn’t hurt to have one really dominant unit (offense or defense). Well, the Falcons would be the most imbalanced SB winner yet with the No. 1 offense and No. 27 defense. Yes, that’s DVOA, but the Atlanta defense also ranked 27th in points per drive allowed. They were dead last in red zone TD%, and 29th in red zone DVOA. They were 27th on third down, while the NE O was No. 1. This is a huge problem.

Even without Rob Gronkowski, the NE offense is still scoring at a high level. They can beat the Falcons in a variety of ways. Brady has eaten up the blitz this season, but I don’t think Quinn will blitz him much at all. Seattle didn’t, and was able to get decent pressure in the only win over the Pats with Brady this season. Quinn likely studied the heck out of that tape, and the only issue is that his D just isn’t as good as Seattle’s. Vic Beasley had a lot of sacks, but overall it’s not that strong of a pass rush. The Falcons will have to tackle well, which has not been a strength for them, and mix things up against Brady.

In a game like this, it’s about getting timely pressure. We can reasonably predict that the Pats will hold up pretty well against Atlanta’s rush, but it’s going to come down to when the Falcons can get pressure. They got Aaron Rodgers on some key third downs last time out, but that was also their most aggressive (read: blitz happiest) game of the season. They can’t afford to do that against Brady, but they have to pick some spots. Atlanta was 7-1 when getting a pass pressure rate of at least 30 percent.

Let’s say the Atlanta defense registers five pressures all game. Not a good number by any means, but what if one produces a takeaway, one produces a drive-killing sack, one forces a field goal attempt, one brings out the punting unit on fourth down, and one makes it third-and-10? That’s all extremely helpful to a defense that will need a lot of help in this game. So it’s about timely pressure.

Also, the Atlanta defense has improved in the second half of the season. In starting four rookies, gains in experience should matter. After allowing 26+ points in eight of the first nine games, the D has only done so in one of the last nine games, and that needed a late Drew Brees TD drive to happen in Week 17. Kansas City scored 29 points, but that was 9 points by Eric Berry on pick returns. Now you can choose to look at the whole season as being more telling, but the Atlanta defense has gotten better.

#QBWeaponz Rant

I’ve tried to avoid a lot of the pre-game coverage for the last two weeks. Namely, I don’t leave NFL Network on as much as I usually do, because I’m sick of hearing about the underdog Falcons against the planned coronation ceremony for the Patriots. Yes, we get it, the Patriots have a lot more experience at this sort of thing than Atlanta.

But I still had the TV on enough to hear Deion Sanders talk about how Ryan has the Julio’s and “the Gabriel’s” while Brady has the “Edelman’s, the Hogan’s, the Amendola’s.” Yes, Deion is the kind of guy who wants you to think Brady still doesn’t know who Hogan is, while at the same time praising Brady’s leadership and work ethic. Well, if he was that hard of a worker, wouldn’t he be getting on the same page with his new teammates in the offseason? It’s a contradiction, as well as a lazy narrative that “Brady makes his receivers better.” As if he’s the only QB capable of doing this.

Meanwhile, apparently the Falcons signed two mega stars this offseason known as Tyler Gabriel and Mohamed Sanu. The state of Ohio wasn’t interested in keeping them around, and while neither has ever cracked an 800-yard receiving season, apparently they give Ryan a cast better than when he had Tony Gonzalez and Roddy White.

Huh? Since when is Taylor f’n Gabriel a gem to have?

Oh, but what this really is is nothing more than the way quarterbacks get perceived differently based on playoff success. If you win a ring early as a starter, like Brady did, you get a pass for failures and extra credit for your team’s success. If you take too long to win a ring, like Ryan in his ninth season and first Super Bowl, then you have years of blame being placed on your shoulders for not getting that done. Without question, Ryan’s career season is fueling this offense more than the supporting cast, which I wouldn’t rank that high at all among QB MVP seasons.

Sure, Julio is great, but he also was the target of more than half of Ryan’s picks this year, including some pretty big drops in key moments.

This is really old hat. Star receivers are put on this pedestal, and it’s as if they can do no wrong, and people refuse to credit the QB when playing with one of these guys. Meanwhile, Ryan had better stats when throwing to players not named Quintorris in 2016. He had two awesome games, albeit against weak competition, when Julio was out entirely. Sure, then it turns to “oh, but Kyle Shanahan!” but we can save that for another day. Yes, Shanahan has done a great job for his career this season, but Ryan is the one driving this offense at a historic level. He has a lot of good guys along for the ride this time, but he is still the driver.

We know if Gabriel was in NE, Brady would get all the credit for his season. Same with Sanu. It’s basically the David Givens and Deion Branch thing there, yet Ryan won’t dare get that kind of credit just because his team hasn’t won a Super Bowl yet. It’s nonsense, and we need to stop acting like one great receiver dictates everything in this game. Matthew Stafford, as I predicted, just had arguably his best season without Calvin Johnson. There’s an advantage to playing with several good receivers that the defense can’t key on versus that mega-star who runs the deeper routes down the field, draws the toughest assignments and faces the most complex coverages to beat. Try forcing that guy the ball when you need to versus throwing to a guy that’s so wide open just because the defense doesn’t understand he should be respected.

And the Patriots make a killing out of those types (the Edelman’s, the Hogan’s, the Amendola’s). They take talented players inferior franchises discard, and use them properly to maximize their talent. You can add LeGarrette Blount and Dion Lewis to that list too. Hogan had Julio-esque stats in the game against Pittsburgh, because it looked as if the Steelers had no clue how to defend the guy. He was wide open all night, and it was all about scheme and defensive breakdowns more than the talent of the passer and the receiver himself. Without Gronkowksi, the Patriots don’t have great weapons right now, but they have a lot of very good ones who can do a variety of things.

Sunday night is an opportunity for the non-Julio players on Atlanta to step up and prove that they can be as good as advertised. I’m not of the belief that Belichick will be able to take Jones away. The Patriots were just 20th in DVOA against No. 1 WRs this year. Jones can do a lot of things from different spots on the field to have an impact. Still, even if he is contained, the Falcons were 4-0 this season when Jones was held to 35 yards or fewer (6-0 counting the games he missed entirely). In fact, domination by Jones might be a bad thing for Atlanta if it means his teammates aren’t stepping up. Atlanta was 2-4 in Jones’ top six receiving games this season.

X-Factor: The Running Backs

The running backs could be huge in this game for both teams, and that’s why I spent time doing a Film Room study of them in the passing game in particular. With the Patriots, it could be LeGarrette Blount on the ground AND Dion Lewis/James White through the air. You never know with NE, but the Falcons need to tackle much better than they have this season. Still, Atlanta is 8-2 when allowing 100+ rushing yards this season, which is a very good record in that situation. Obviously they have the firepower on the other side to counter.

If Tevin Coleman, who led all NFL backs with 3 catches of 40+ yards, doesn’t go deep against these linebackers at least once, then I don’t know what Kyle Shanahan was watching the last two weeks. 49ers lowlights? The LBs are a weakness in this defense, and I would be using Freeman and Coleman together (only played 5 pass snaps together in 2016) to exploit that. I really do like that matchup more than one of the non-Julio wideouts against an Eric Rowe or Logan Ryan. Freeman could be good on the ground too, but I really think this game is about Ryan and the passing game, and I would be making sure the backs are a huge part of that.

The Forgotten Tight Ends

Without Rob Gronkowski, this position is a bit of a dead zone in this matchup. The Falcons’ best tight end is whichever one is open, and there’s not much attention drawn to Levine Toilolo or rookie Austin Hooper. Now Hooper might turn into a good player down the road, but he’s not really established yet. I feel like Kyle Shanahan does a really good job of scheming these guys open more than their own skills, but they have to get them involved at some point here. I still think it’s asinine that the Seahawks did not throw a single pass to a TE in SB XLIX even though the NE D was 32nd in DVOA against tight ends. Can’t ignore the position even if most of American can’t even guess a name of a TE on Atlanta. No, Jacob Tamme is on IR.

As for Martellus Bennett, he’s only surpassed 35 receiving yards once in his last nine games since Gronk got hurt. That’s surprising, though it seems like he has to scrape himself off the field once a week, so health is an issue. Is this the game where he explodes for 100 yards? Doubtful, and the Falcons were a solid 11th in DVOA against TE, but you never know with the Patriots.

Protection, Blitzing and YAC

Talked about NE O/ATL D earlier on this, but the Patriots might want to consider blitzing Ryan, who had the third-highest pressure rate when blitzed this season. Of course, he still killed it with 9.5 YPA, but he took 15 sacks vs. blitz compared to two for Brady. Performance under pressure is a tricky thing. We know guys like Ben Roethlisberger and Russell Wilson are usually good each season in a messy pocket, but a lot of performance under pressure is inconsistent. After all, pass pressure leads to chaos on the field with QBs scrambling, receivers making new routes on the fly, improv plays, backyard football.

Ryan has been great this year when pressured, and it’s the highest pressure rate of his career. Yes, the OL is quite good for Atlanta, but that’s moreso in the run blocking department. Ryan has seen his share of pressure even though the Falcons still have him get rid of the ball quickly as he always has. So if the Patriots can get some timely pressures of their own, they might get a game-changing turnover out of it. Sometimes, it just takes one of those to decide a game. So it’s a fascinating chess match with how these defensive coaches will approach these varied offenses, but aggression is going to have to come into play at some point. You can’t just sit back the whole game, though the Patriots were far and away the leaders in 3-man rushes this season. It just so happens that Ryan was below league-average against such rushes, so maybe that’s the strategy again to maximize the defenders in coverage against these receivers. You know Belichick likes to have his defenders get grabby with great passing offenses, and I’d expect that again on Sunday.

Ryan and Brady led all QBs in YAC per completion, though Ryan did throw deeper passes. Both offenses have a lot of skill with the ball in their hands, so tackling is crucial. This is just another area where I see an advantage for the Patriots. Including the playoffs, Atlanta was 10-0 when allowing less than 4.2 YAC per completion, but only 3-5 when quarterbacks surpassed that mark. Brady has surpassed that YAC mark in 12 of his 14 games this season, and in 83.0 percent of his games since 2011.

Brady Legacy Rant

My thoughts on this are really the same exact thing they were two years ago. There’s really nothing that Brady could do on Sunday evening to change my opinion on his place in history. He can’t go up or down with this one game. Why should he, or any player be judged so strongly by one game’s outcome? You already should have known going into Sunday night where you had Brady ranked all time, and I still think I’d have to put him fifth all time behind Dan Marino, Johnny Unitas, Joe Montana and Peyton Manning. I can definitely see myself putting him ahead of Marino after some offseason reflection, but I doubt I’d go any higher than that unless he really does continue playing at a high level into his mid-40’s. That would be a first.

Now there are definitely degrees of how impressive a win here could be. I don’t think 5 SBs free of context proves anything. After all, Bart Starr won 5 championships as a starter, yet we don’t hear about that just because three weren’t called Super Bowl. It was still the same decade though. But obviously playing a huge game and winning a high-scoring game will reflect better on Brady than slumping to a 21-14 win just because the D’s were unexpectedly great, and Brady’s D was again the best on the field. Maybe he does get the Montana treatment here. Montana twice played against MVP QBs on the No.1  offense in the league, but Marino’s 84 Dolphins and Boomer Esiason’s 1988 Bengals failed to crack 17 points in the Super Bowl. Montana, dropped pick in the red zone aside, was great, but didn’t even need to score many points to get those wins. If the Patriots shut down Ryan and this prolific offense, then I think that’s a much stronger statement for Belichick more than anyone here.

After all, Belichick is constant that has been there for every game during this run for the Patriots, not Brady. If anyone should be cemented with GOAT status from one game, it could be him on Sunday night. Of course, you should already have strong feelings about this either way and one game against Atlanta shouldn’t be your last needed piece of evidence.

Special Teams

Both units are pretty solid here, and not spectacular on returns. I trust both kickers, though I like Matt Bryant a tad more with the game on the line. He is 35-of-40 on clutch field goals in his career. He just has to hope that Belichick doesn’t have a voodoo doll prepared for him to add to the collection with Scott Norwood and Billy Cundiff.

Comeback?

Atlanta has scored an opening-drive touchdown in eight straight games, which is a very impressive streak. If the Falcons can do it again to get an early lead, it would be New England’s first deficit since Week 12 against the Jets, the longest span in the NFL without trailing by a team since the 2005 Colts. Of course, the Patriots haven’t been challenged much in that stretch, but it’s an impressive streak since even a 3-0 deficit would count for ending it. The Falcons need a good start here, and New England has historically had very slow starts in Super Bowls under Brady and Belichick. Of course, even a 10-0 start by Atlanta would be far from game over like it technically was for Carolina against Denver last season.

I post this table in every SB preview, because no team has won a Super Bowl after trailing by more than 10 points.

sbcbw

This could be the matchup for it to happen, and you can see several New England games already on this list. Twelve of the last 13 Super Bowls have had a 4QC opportunity. The Falcons have also blown four 4Q leads this season, so keep that in mind.Brady has the best active 4QC/GWD record at 50-37 (.575), but Ryan is fourth at 34-37 (.479), and Ryan has the most one-minute drills (5) to win a game in NFL history. This is the kind of game where you definitely want the ball last.

And you want to run the f’n ball from the 1-yard line, four times in a row if you have to. Hopefully Dan Quinn has learned that the hard way.

FINAL SCORE

I see another precarious New England lead hanging in the balance in the final minute, and while no Malcolm Butler interception this time, a stop in the red zone happens again. Because you know who willed it to happen.

Final: Patriots 28, Falcons 24

2016 NFL Conference Championship Predictions

An offensive-driven team is going to win the Super Bowl this year, but the defense that plays the best over the next two games is still going to be the one holding the trophy. I would expect a game-changing turnover to highlight this weekend.

Green Bay at Atlanta

Both games are rematches, but I think this one is more likely to resemble the first matchup, a 33-32 shootout won by the Falcons in Week 8. I think both offenses and quarterbacks are going to be very good, but I do have some concerns with the health of Green Bay’s receivers; Jordy Nelson in particular. I also think in a game with two bad defenses, Atlanta should be able to run the ball better with the duo of Devonta Freeman and Tevin Coleman compared to Green Bay with Ty Montgomery. This isn’t going to be a game where one defense surprises everyone with a dominant performance. Both offenses are going to move the ball and score frequently. It’s just a matter of situational stops, like on third down, forcing a field goal attempt or coming up with an unexpected fumble recovery. If the Packers get the hot start they so need like in Dallas last week, Matt Ryan can’t afford to press and throw a terrible pick like he did to Tramon Williams before halftime in his last playoff meeting with the Packers. But that was a long time ago, and Ryan is playing the best ball of his career. He’s been the MVP this season. Aaron Rodgers has been on an incredible hot streak, but this is the time of year where I start looking at how teams have done against good teams. With Green Bay, you’re talking about a team that’s 9-18 on the road against teams with a winning record since 2011. There was a 2-15 stretch going there before these last two wins in Detroit (31-24 in Week 17) and Dallas last week (34-31). Last week was the first time Rodgers won a game in his career as an underdog when Green Bay allowed more than 26 points. He was 0-17 before that. The Falcons are favored at home and have scored at least 24 in every single home game this year. Similar research also led me to this crazy stat.

Packers are 0-35 with Aaron Rodgers at QB when trailing by more than one point in the fourth quarter against a team with a winning record.

ar035

We knew Rodgers had the 10-34 record at 4QC opportunities, but I was reminded this week that only two of the 10 wins came against teams with a winning record (2014 Cowboys in Dez Caught It game, 2015 Seahawks), and both of those were 1-point deficits erased early in the quarter. Throw out a 2008 Minnesota game where he only trailed by 1 late (28-27 loss after long FG missed by Mason Crosby) and a 2008 loss in OT to the Bears in which he only had the ball in a tied game, and that’s how you end up with 0-35. Matt Flynn led GB’s only win in this situation against the Lions in 2011 (his 6 TD game).

It’s very important for Atlanta to start hot. You might recall Ryan had the Falcons up 17-0 in his last NFC Championship Game (2012 against the 49ers), but that lead was blown and the Falcons came up 10 yards short of the Super Bowl, or maybe Harry Douglas keeping his feet away from the big game. This time is the last game in the Georgia Dome. I think the crowd will understand the magnitude of this one and help the home team to victory in another high-scoring game.

Final: Packers 28, Falcons 34

Pittsburgh at New England

I already cranked out over 4200 words on this one at FO, so please read that. I rarely read my own articles, but I read this one on Friday evening and thought it came together very well. If you know me well, you know that I am sometimes not truthful in my game predictions in big games involving the Patriots. I always pick them anyway, but it’s hard to tell when I honestly believe them to win or I’m just conjuring up a reverse jinx. I think the first paragraph in my outlook for this game subtly hints at my real feelings about this one on Sunday night. But as I wrote back in Week 7, Tomlin vs. Belichick is like checkers vs. chess. If Tomlin wants to win this game as an underdog, he’s going to have to make some ballsy calls, whether it’s a fourth-down attempt at midfield or a two-point conversion try to win the game. And when Antonio Brown drops the game-winning 2PC in the final 20 seconds, maybe I start looking for work in a different field on Monday. But I think Brown will play well, Bell will play well, and Roethlisberger usually plays well against the Patriots, but not good enough to overcome the defense. Still, the loss of Gronk should be felt in this one, and I still believe the Patriots defense is vastly overrated and can be exposed by a top quarterback. We just need to see top QB play from Pittsburgh again, and it’s rarely been there even during this winning streak.

Go figure, I like the home teams, both of which I picked to get to the Super Bowl a few weeks ago.

Final: Steelers 21, Patriots 28

Season recap

  • Week 1: 7-9
  • Week 2: 10-6
  • Week 3: 8-8
  • Week 4: 8-7
  • Week 5: 7-7
  • Week 6: 12-3
  • Week 7: 10-5
  • Week 8: 7-6
  • Week 9: 8-5
  • Week 10: 7-7
  • Week 11: 12-2
  • Week 12: 12-4
  • Week 13: 10-5
  • Week 14: 9-7
  • Week 15: 12-4
  • Week 16: 9-7
  • Week 17: 11-5
  • Wild Card: 4-0
  • Divisional: 3-1
  • Season: 166-98

The Top 64 Quarterbacks in NFL History (2015 Edition) – Part I

This definitely won’t be short. However, I’m not wasting any time in showing you my updated list of the 64 greatest quarterbacks in NFL history.

top64QB15

This is not created with a formula. I put everything I’ve learned and experienced from over a decade of research into creating this ranking. The only things I do not factor in are college career and time spent in other professional leagues like the AAFC, USFL, CFL, XFL, Arena, etc. So you’re still just a one-year wonder to me, Tommy Maddox.

Some players moved around from the 2014 edition, posted last August. So why is this going to be written in two parts on my blog? I figured some people won’t want to scroll through the epic length of Manning vs. Brady to read about the other players. For those who want to see the irrational debate rationalized, I promise Part II is worth the wait.

This might actually be the first time I have formally written about my list of the 64 greatest quarterbacks in NFL history. It was a personal project I started six years ago in an effort to figure out where Ben Roethlisberger stood historically after his fifth season (2008). Such rankings are subjective of course, but sports wouldn’t be the same without this stuff. Even if “that’s your opinion!” means you can’t objectively prove Roethlisberger is a better QB than Neil O’Donnell, Kordell Stewart, Mark Malone and Bubby Brister, you damn sure can make a convincing argument why he is better.

Just look at my list. Once you get past 30 or so, you’re looking at guys who maybe had six quality seasons, or a phenomenal four-year run like Rich Gannon (1999-2002) in Oakland. There aren’t many quarterbacks who sustained greatness over a long period of time in the NFL’s 95-year history. A total of 221 players have thrown at least 1,000 passes in the regular season in NFL history. Unless you mostly played before 1932 (Benny Friedman), are the latest hot rookie/sophomore (Teddy Bridgewater), or your name is Greg Cook or Cecil Isbell, you’re not even relevant from an all-time perspective. A thousand passes is about two seasons these days for a starter. Even the Browns let Derek Anderson throw 992 passes in 2007-09.

My method was to move up the list of all-time attempts, picking out which quarterbacks Roethlisberger was clearly better than, and grouping those he still has to surpass. A few years later I did something very similar to gauge where Joe Flacco stood after his fifth season (2012) led to the destruction of the QB salary market. Since then I’ve had a more concrete list and have updated it annually before the new season. The following explains some of my thought process, especially for the active players.

Five Actives in the Top 15 OF ALL TIME!?!?

I know some people are wondering how I could possibly think five of the 15 greatest QBs in NFL history are playing right now. Well, from 1991-94 we had Montana, Marino, Favre, Young and Elway active. That’s five of my top eight, so there*. Throw in Aikman, Kelly and Moon, and that’s eight of my top 28. It clearly can be done, and I think this has been a golden age of passing that’s not likely to be matched any time soon.

*Counter (because I know how to argue with myself): But Scott, were those five guys worthy of the top eight in 1991-94? This is a fair point. I don’t think Favre and Young were thru 1994, though both were well on their way. I think you could definitely have ranked Montana, Marino and Elway that high by then. My list thru 1994 would look something like Montana, Unitas, Marino, Staubach, Baugh, Tarkenton, Graham, Elway (ahead of Starr and Bradshaw). So yeah, three in the top eight with Young coming off his 6 TDs in the Super Bowl/2nd MVP award and Favre just getting ready for a 3-MVP run. This is legit.

Are the modern rules and modern medicine making it easier to sustain QB success in the NFL? I hesitate to say yes to that, because look at how many quarterbacks can’t sustain their success. Robert Griffin III had his one good year, but has been a disaster ever since. Josh Freeman (2010) can kind of relate, and I hate to see the path Colin Kaepernick is starting to head down after such early promise. Matt Schaub crumbled in 2013 after Richard Sherman picked off his confidence. Carson Palmer has fallen apart a few times, literally and figuratively. Michael Vick was never consistent and managed to have his best years four years apart (2002, 2006 and 2010). Jay Cutler and Cam Newton still can’t hit a 90.0 passer rating season in an era where it’s become common to do so. Matthew Stafford’s pretty much in the same tier, starring as the volume-heavy Drew Bledsoe of his era. Highly drafted quarterbacks are still flopping hard too (see: JaMarcus Russell, Brady Quinn, Joey Harrington, Matt Leinart, Blaine Gabbert, Christian Ponder, Jake Locker, etc.). Are rookie QBs overall more successful now? Sure, but they’re also getting more opportunities as of 2008. Try telling Blake Bortles and Derek Carr this is an easy game.

QBHOFCB

Where are all the great quarterbacks coming into the NFL since 2006? We’ve seen dips before, but this is starting to get alarming. Andrew Luck and Russell Wilson look like the best options, and I obviously think highly of Flacco and Ryan’s seven-year starts, but that’s about it since 2006. Save us, Tannehill, Bridgewater, Mariota and Winston. We need to start having some insurance that this next era when these HOF passers are retired will still be good.

(B)rees, Rodgers, Roethlisberger

We have clearly been spoiled from watching the highest level of sustained QB play in NFL history. We’ve known about “1812” for so long now, but the consistency of Drew Brees, Aaron Rodgers and Ben Roethlisberger is also special. Brees broke out in 2004, the rookie season breakout for Ben. Rodgers didn’t get to start until 2008, but I think he just locked up his spot in Canton after his second MVP season in 2014. No, it wasn’t as good as his 2011, but it was another monster year of dominant efficiency and it moved him up from 26th to 14th for me. Roethlisberger is the first great QB I can say I’ve been able to watch every game of his career live. You could definitely make the claim 2014 was his finest season yet. He’ll always be the first quarterback to have multiple 500-yard passing games, and the first to have back-to-back games with six touchdown passes. All of those games were against teams that made the playoffs.

The reasons I keep Brees ahead at 13th are that I think this 11-year run he’s been on (zero starts missed due to injury) is incredible, and he has quite arguably been better in the playoffs than the other two. He just needs to get there with more consistency, though he’s gotten the short end of the stick defensively when it comes to that top five active group. Brees was still great in 2014, but he had some bad decisions at important times. I don’t think he’s done yet by any means, though I question how much higher I could rank him on this list. He might be fifth in his era when it’s all said and done. That’s really not an insult either. This group is simply special.

Some might even put Rodgers higher than 14th, but I think that’s pretty generous for someone who has been a starter for seven years, including a debut season that was more solid than spectacular (2008) and a half-season due to injury (2013). Rodgers’ stats look off the charts right now, but that’s also the benefit of having 100 percent peak performance in this era of great stats. When you look at advanced metrics, especially ones that include sacks, Rodgers is much closer to his peers. Rodgers has led the league in Total QBR one time (2011) and in passing DVOA two times (2011 and 2014).

Any mainstream criticism of Rodgers is almost nonexistent, but I expect that to change if he continues to not shine in January as has been the case since he won a Super Bowl in 2010. His struggles against the other NFC champions in that time have been troublesome, but the good news is the Giants and 49ers don’t look to be contenders any time soon. Seattle is the defense he has to figure out. And yes, I still think he struggles more than the other top quarterbacks when it comes to comebacks or having to win in different styles. If he doesn’t start a game well, I just don’t expect him to pull it together late. Winning ugly is not on the menu yet. He needs to come out with his ‘A’ game, and his ‘A’ game is pretty much as good as any quarterback’s that’s ever played in the NFL. When he’s on, he’s unstoppable. But when he’s off like in Buffalo and Detroit last year or against Seattle, he doesn’t impress.

But if these other guys ever retire soon and the young quarterbacks don’t pan out, Rodgers could enjoy a nice run at various league-leads and awards if his only real competition is Luck. Going forward, I worry a little about Rodgers’ durability, because he still takes some really bad sacks. It’s hard to believe this is already going to be his age-32 season. Health is about the only thing that could stop him from cracking the top 10 soon. If his next seven years are in line with the last seven, I expect to see Rodgers in my top five one day.

apvotes

The elite MVP seasons of Rodgers are what put him over Ben, who hasn’t had years like that yet. Amazingly, Roethlisberger has never received an All-Pro vote in his career. He’s also only had three seasons where he’s started all 16 games. The main problem is his best seasons (2007, 2009 and 2014) are years where a lot of quarterbacks were standouts, so it’s understandable why he didn’t get a vote. But considering Luck and Brady got AP votes last year, you could definitely argue Ben deserved one in 2014.

Roethlisberger is having an unusual career path. He had personal and team success immediately, but he’s been statistically better in the second half of his career when he’s had to pick up more of the slack. However, he hasn’t had much playoff success since the night he led that epic drive to beat Arizona in Super Bowl 43. This year the Steelers seem to be fielding their worst defense yet around Ben, which feels like an 8-8 season in the making. Basically, the Steelers are turning into the Saints, which is good for Ben’s fantasy numbers, but terrible for his playoff success. He definitely doesn’t need to get to another Super Bowl, but how is this thing going to end? Is he going through a rough team patch like 1992-95 Elway, only to get a better team around him at the end? Is he going to fade away like Aikman in Dallas, unable to keep the team consistently in the playoffs after their talent core declined? Is he going to have an abrupt ending after taking a shot so big he can’t recover from it?

I’ll end this section by explaining some of the decision to move Rodgers and Roethlisberger past the players previously ranked 14-25. Since most of us can agree Rodgers has had the more dominant career, we’ll just look at this from Ben’s standpoint.

Roethlisberger is entering his 12th year as a starter, which already puts him on a short list of QBs in NFL history. Jim Kelly played 11 NFL seasons. Are you really going to tell me Roethlisberger’s play in the regular season and postseason hasn’t exceeded Kelly’s? It’s not a huge difference, which is why there are only five players between them, but Roethlisberger has put together a better resume with more to come. Kurt Warner played 12 seasons, and we know only six of them really count for his HOF push. He had higher highs than Ben, but good lord did he have many lower lows.

Quarterback is a position where you need to be the full-time starter to have value for your team. This is why I don’t put much stock at all in partial seasons where a guy throws like 150 passes and wins some games off the bench, or makes four decent starts, or has a good seven-game stretch before a season-ending injury. Screw that. True value is found by suiting up every week year after year. Ben’s missed 17 games in his career for various reasons, but he’s found a way to start at least 12 games in every season. That’s important. If he does it in 2015, he’ll be the 10th QB with a dozen starts in at least a dozen different seasons. I factored this into a lot of my decisions here, as a guy like Len Dawson played 19 seasons, but you can basically chop off the first five and the last three, leaving 11 years (1962-1972). Do I think that stretch, largely done in the AFL, is more impressive than Roethlisberger’s 11 years? I don’t anymore, so I moved him past Dawson this year.

Similarly, I downplay Sid Luckman vs. Ben due to his peak coming in WWII seasons, and I don’t see any value in his final two seasons (1949-50). I downplay Norm Van Brocklin’s career for spending time in his prime in a two-QB system with Bob Waterfield and facing some suspect competition. For Y.A. Tittle, I really respect his 1961-63 seasons with the Giants, but he’s another guy with a ton of seasons you have to throw away due to the AAFC, injuries or him just being terrible (1964 swansong). He had about seven or eight really solid years overall, which again I think Roethlisberger has exceeded. So I moved him ahead of those guys.

When the worst thing you can point to in Roethlisberger’s career is his 2006 season, that’s very telling of the quality of his career. Yes, he threw 23 picks, but he still finished 10th in DYAR and 13th in DVOA. He dealt with a motorcycle accident, an emergency appendectomy and a concussion after he was getting back to form. If that’s the low point of your 11-year career, then you’re probably having a hell of a career. A lot of guys sink lower than that.

Which finally leads me to putting Ben (and Rodgers) ahead of Dan Fouts, Troy Aikman, Terry Bradshaw and Bart Starr. Let’s get Fouts of the way quickly. He was great for eight years (1978-1985) in a record-setting passing offense, which I really respect. That’s why he’s 19th. His other seven seasons and his lack of playoff success — started and ended with 5-INT games — are why he isn’t higher. That’s a good chunk of negative that you can’t just ignore, though I admittedly don’t do a good enough job of punishing for the bad years.

Speaking of bad years, Aikman, Bradshaw and Starr had several and it’s only fitting to talk about this trio together. In fact, Starr was almost worthless without Vince Lombardi as his head coach. Bradshaw is lucky Joe Gilliam was ineffective in 1974, because he may have lost his starting job for good after an (extended) awful start to his career. Aikman was one of the worst QBs in the NFL his first two years, and his finale (2000) was on that level. Yet all three were the quarterbacks of dynasties, the best teams in their decades with great players on both sides of the ball and fantastic coaching. They all won at least three titles and had some great efficiency stats in those playoff wins. These quarterbacks had some nice regular-season numbers at times, but the volume wasn’t there to match their peers. Unitas was better than Starr. Staubach was better than Bradshaw. Young and Favre were better than Aikman if we’re just talking 1990’s NFC. But #RINGZ.

When asked to carry flawed teams, these quarterbacks weren’t capable of getting the job done. When their team’s talent wasn’t up to the level of all-time great, they couldn’t get them into the playoffs with any consistency. Now I won’t slam these guys as much as I would a caretaker like Bob Griese — they’re still in my top 18 — but they just had easier jobs in their primes. Throwing the ball 30 or 40 times wasn’t the plan, let alone a necessity.

I think Roethlisberger would have more than two rings if he had the Steel Curtain defense instead of Dick LeBeau’s “My Defense Works for 75% of the Game Against 75% of the NFL” shtick. But just to start any game with an average team, I’m taking Roethlisberger over Bradshaw, Starr and Aikman. That trio was only effective for about 8-9 years each. Roethlisberger has already surpassed that.

But without a strong finish, I think Ben is going to be stuck at 15 until someone moves ahead of him, or if his play really declines. His career has essentially peaked from an all-time perspective, but as long as the story is still being written, there’s always a chance of changing your legacy. I just don’t think the Steelers are going to build another balanced team in time for him to do so.

Change of Heart: Tarkenton over Graham

The only other change in my top 30 was swapping Fran Tarkenton for Otto Graham. Given what I value in QBs, this should have been the case years ago. Career length is a big factor. Tarkenton was essentially a starting QB for 18 NFL seasons compared to just six for Graham. Remember, I don’t care about the AAFC. What’s amazing is how Tarkenton was such a model of consistency despite his chaotic, scrambling style — he had one below-average passing efficiency season (1962) in 18 years according to Pro-Football-Reference’s advanced tables that adjust for era. Despite all his running around, he was very durable and never had more than eight fumbles in a season. While he never had the stunning peak of a Tittle or Jurgensen, Tarkenton ranks as high as anyone when it comes to the number of quality QB seasons in the NFL. He was a star for nearly two decades, and he retired as the all-time leader in wins, passing yards and touchdown passes. In fact, he’s held the passing yardage record longer than any player in NFL history.

PYDREC

Tarkenton amassed those numbers without throwing more than 25 touchdowns to any player. John Gilliam was his top guy. Tarkenton excelled under multiple coaches and for multiple teams (Giants and Vikings). He might have been the first great one-man show at quarterback, but unfortunately those guys don’t win rings. With or without Tarkenton, Bud Grant’s Vikings great defense (“Purple People Eaters”) was routinely run over in big games. In his 1975 MVP season, Tarkenton lost at home in the playoffs to Dallas thanks to a 50-yard Hail Mary from Roger Staubach to Drew Pearson (push off?) in the final minute. It remains the only game-winning Hail Mary in NFL playoff history and it came at the expense of one of the game’s finest players.

When it comes to Otto Graham, the first thing people like to mention is he led the Browns to 10 championship games in his 10 seasons. It’s as if Graham was the only player in the AAFC, and he’s certainly the only player people ever choose to recognize the stats and accomplishments of from the AAFC. I just want to point out Graham won just as many NFL Championship Games (3) as he lost. Some of the losses were absolutely brutal too. We weren’t that far off from having Bobby Layne and the Lions as the dynasty of that time.

The truth is Graham was a great player on the league’s most loaded team (7-9 HOFers every year), with a great defense and a true innovator (Paul Brown) as his head coach. Players in such situations don’t get full credit from me, because their job was easier. I still think enough of Graham to rank him 12th, and he was the best quarterback of that era (1950-55). He also wasn’t just some caretaker as he won two passing yardage titles. When you rank first in NFL history in passing yards per attempt (8.63), albeit in six seasons, you’re going to earn my respect. I just wish we would stop padding the AAFC stuff onto his legacy, because that league was not up to par with the NFL, which actually drafted Graham in 1944 (Lions). He didn’t play then because of World War II.

Graham is a player I expect to keep dropping as some of the players in my previous section continue to have long, successful careers in a more competitive era.

Eli Manning: Why?

Every year I post this list one of the main responses is why is Eli Manning so high? It bothers me too, because he should be about 10 spots lower with the other New York guys and right there with Romo and Rivers. I just haven’t had the heart to move him since first putting him 29th after the 2012 season. He was a joke in 2013 and played much better last year, but the fact is the Giants have missed the playoffs in five of the last six seasons. Eli and the Giants are like leap year: they strike every four years in February. 2008, 2012, and uh-oh, 2016 is next. It would only be fitting for the Giants to start with a bang (JPP), end with a bang (third title…Odell Beckham Jr. one-handed catch to beat New England of course) and for Eli to become the highest-paid player in NFL history.

At least that scenario would help keep my sanity about ranking him this high. Eli really is frustrating because you see the moments of older brother-like brilliance, but then you see the plays that would make Archie shake his head. Eli’s always been very good in 4QC/GWD situations, and I still think he engineered the greatest drive in NFL history with everything at stake in Super Bowl 42. The fact that he starts every single game cannot be undervalued either. It’s not easy to have 10 straight 3,000-yard passing seasons in the NFL. Only six other quarterbacks have had more such years. I think Eli’s 2011 season was one of the finest jobs of a QB carrying his team that we’ve seen, and even then it was a 9-7 year that barely resulted in a division title. Eli just doesn’t have the same efficiency as his peers, though his offenses do well at scoring and he doesn’t take many sacks.

If Eli’s playoff record remains intact at 8-3, then that’s very disappointing for the Giants, because that means they continued to miss the playoffs. You can’t go one-and-done or throw game-ending interceptions in January if you keep failing enough from September through December. That’s probably the single most frustrating thing about Eli. His regular-season defenses haven’t been good, so he gets credit for dealing with that. But in the playoffs, those defenses were outstanding, never allowing more than 23 points in any game and shutting down some of the best offenses in NFL history. And yet the QB still gets the most credit there. I want to see some more playoff losses, Eli. Preferably wins, but just get in the damn tournament. Increase that sample size. Give us some insurance you didn’t just have two one-month hot streaks four years apart. I’m going to drop him next year if 2015 doesn’t go well. Promise.

Ken Stabler for the HOF?

As I predicted this summer, the passing of Ken Stabler has led to him getting another look from the Hall of Fame as 2016’s senior nominee. Unfortunately he won’t be able to enjoy it if he gets in (good chance), but that’s how these things work sometimes. I believe enough time has passed to where a discussion on the merits of Stabler’s HOF case wouldn’t sound insensitive.

Stabler is one of four QBs (Charlie Conerly, Ken Anderson and Kurt Warner) to be a HOF finalist without getting voted in. We know there was some media vitriol going back to his playing days going on behind the scenes to keep Stabler out, so with new voters, that’s not likely to remain an issue. Personally, I can accept Stabler getting into the HOF. I’d sooner back Ken Anderson, but Stabler wouldn’t be a bad choice.

The argument for Stabler is simple: you’ve let George Blanda and Joe Namath in already. You can see I put Stabler ahead of both. Those guys had their peak years in the AFL. Stabler’s best years all came in the 1970’s NFL, the toughest modern decade of passing. He played against a lot of legendary defenses and teams, and definitely had the “Fame” part down with big plays in games with names. He was a very good postseason performer, winning a Super Bowl in 1976. He was also league MVP in 1974 and at least the second-best QB in 1976 (AP second-team All-Pro). Not many QBs can claim those accolades in NFL history. Stabler’s peak really lasted seven seasons (1973-79), but as we have looked at here, that’s still very good from a historical standpoint.

One problem for The Snake is that he threw a lot of interceptions, even for his era. In fact, here are some damning facts:

  • Most games with 4+ interceptions since 1970 merger (including playoffs): Ken Stabler (14)
  • Most games with 5+ interceptions since 1970 merger (including playoffs): Ken Stabler (5)

Stabler is also tied for the third-most games with at least three interceptions (29). Stabler somehow threw 20-30 interceptions in each season from 1977-1980, but still had a winning record each season. It was a different game then, but Stabler still threw too many picks. But again, that didn’t stop voters from keeping Namath and Blanda out. Stabler’s last few years with the Oilers and Saints don’t do him any favors. It’s all about the Oakland run, and that was strong enough in my book to crack the top 30. That also looks to be enough for the standards of the HOF. If you haven’t figured it out, the players in yellow in the list are in the HOF (red are active).

Marginal Moves You Probably Don’t Care About

I moved Phil Simms down four spots to 38 after becoming more impressed with the Giants’ defense and less impressed with his individual contributions.

I moved John Brodie up three spots to 32 after seeing he was one of the hardest quarterbacks to sack. Not quite Marino or Peyton level, but right up there. Part of his ascension was also at the cost of moving Bob Griese down a notch. Why did I do that? Well…

The Same Guy, But One’s Slower: Tony Romo and Philip Rivers

I’ve compared Rivers and Romo a few times over the years as equivalents in each conference. They’re basically the Dan Fouts and Warren Moon of this era: the best quarterbacks to not reach a Super Bowl. It’s a shame because this is the era of the Super Bowl quarterback. A record eight active QBs have a Super Bowl ring. Rivers and Romo have some of the highest passer ratings and YPA averages in NFL history, but haven’t enjoyed much January success for various reasons.

I had these guys 53rd and 54th last year. Romo just had probably the best year of his career, and probably deserved to be MVP if he didn’t get hurt against the Redskins on MNF. He moves ahead of Rivers, who had a MVP-like start, but faded fast after a probable rib injury hampered his play.

Both of these guys became relevant in the 2006 season as first-time starters. Here’s how I stack them up.

  • 2006: Rivers gets the edge for being the full-year starter (1-0)
  • 2007: Big edge to Romo (1-1)
  • 2008: Big edge to Rivers (2-1)
  • 2009: Romo good, but Rivers arguably at his best (3-1)
  • 2010: Not enthralled with this Rivers season, but Romo had broken collarbone (4-1)
  • 2011: Big edge to Romo (4-2)
  • 2012: Big edge to Romo (4-3)
  • 2013: Both did great things, but slight edge to Rivers (5-3)
  • 2014: Big edge to Romo (5-4)

Rivers wins the total seasons, 5-4, but Romo had more decisively better years. I also can’t help but side with Romo in the difference of styles. Romo can improvise under pressure, while Rivers can waddle towards the sideline and throw the ball away. Either way they are close, and you’d be fooling yourself to think otherwise.

These guys have been at it for nine years, and have mostly been consistent in that time. In fact, Romo has hit these bare minimums in a record nine straight seasons: 61.3% completions, 7.2 YPA and 90.5 passer rating.

These guys have winning records. They’ve led teams to No. 1 seeds and multiple 12-win seasons. They’ve had more playoff heartbreak than success, but at least they have won some games. More than Y.A. Tittle and Sonny Jurgensen for starters — that’d be none for those guys. And nine seasons as annual top 5-10 quarterbacks is really damn good. That’s why I ended up moving them past the guys with six good years or a smaller number of great years.

Yes, neither has won an MVP award like Steve McNair, Rich Gannon, Boomer Esiason, Bert Jones and Joe Theismann did, but just remember the competition from that elite group. This is the hardest era to win an award like that in. You really think Theismann, who was good for six years, is a better QB than these two? Give these guys Joe Gibbs and the Hogs instead of Norv Turner and Jason Garrett and see what happens. You want to talk about playoff failures? Boomer Esiason never threw for more than 150 yards in his five playoff starts. McNair, may he rest in peace, was a dreadful postseason QB who can thank the Music City Miracle for not leaving him with a 2-5 career playoff record. Bert Jones never won a playoff game either, was a hit machine and couldn’t stay healthy. Rivers has never missed a start in his career and even played on a torn ACL.

I think Romo and Rivers can crack the top 30 with strong finishes. As you can see, there’s just not much separating these players at this part of the table. A Super Bowl for either is likely a ticket to Canton as well.

More Shit You Really Don’t Care About

I dropped Don Meredith six spots to 58 after acknowledging he’s another QB with just about six relevant years.

I dropped Dave Krieg five spots after realizing some of his best seasons were small samples due to injury or being a backup. It’s kind of amazing he made the Pro Bowl despite playing 9 games in 1988, and it’s baffling why he made it at all in 1989. That was a poor year for the AFC though.

I got Matt Hasselbeck ahead of Bernie Kosar now, because I think his run of relevance (2002-07) is underappreciated. I don’t really blame Kosar for not getting to a Super Bowl (bad Cleveland luck), but I blame him for only having about six or seven relevant seasons.

Ryan vs. Flacco (Again)

Seriously, the Joe Flacco vs. Matt Ryan debates are quite heated — or elite as fvck depending whom you ask — on the internet. I guess I’m adding to it by simply ranking Ryan one spot ahead, the same as I did last year, but these two deserve to be very close. Advanced metrics will tell you Ryan is considerably better in his career, but 2014 was a different story. Flacco was 8th in DYAR; Ryan was 7th. Flacco was 8th in DVOA; Ryan was 9th. Flacco was 10th in QBR; Ryan was 7th. Hmm, that last one seemed to change more with the new QBR system, which surprises me since it’s supposed to devalue YAC. You saw those Antone Smith touchdowns last year, right? Then again, what do you do with the Steve Smith fluky touchdown against Carolina?

Either way, they were very close last year, which was arguably Flacco’s best regular season. Of course what happens here is Flacco has the edge in the playoffs, including getting there all but one time in his seven seasons. Ryan has had strong numbers the last two years, but Atlanta is just 10-22 and couldn’t win a pathetic division last year. Advantage: Flacco.

But I really wish something major would happen to create some separation between these two. Until it does, I’m going to continue ranking them side by side. I just hope other people can appreciate the seven-year starts they’ve had to their careers. Appreciate them even more when you consider the lack of quality signal callers joining the NFL since 2006 as detailed above.

Whither Andrew Luck and Russell Wilson?

Why didn’t I include Luck and Wilson? Well, they’ve only played three seasons. Despite the lack of great all-time quarterbacks, three seasons, no matter how impressive they are as a start, are a tiny sample to get into the top 64. However, I quickly threw together some names to branch out of the top 64 and I feel like it’s very possible Luck and Wilson could join this list after 2015. I also think it’s just as possible that at least one takes an unexpected step back this year. We’ll see what happens. And really, I just kept adding to this list Saturday night, and didn’t spend anywhere near as much time on it as I’ve spent on the top 64. I can tell you Nick Foles, Ryan Tannehill and even Andy Dalton are a big 2015 away from showing up in the top 130. Yes, even Dalton, which just goes to show how little you have to do to be considered an all-time quarterback.

Part II Preview

Why did Tom Brady stay put at No. 5 after his fourth Super Bowl, and why is Peyton Manning still on top? That’s what I’ll tackle in Part II, along with taking down the thin margin of what makes success in the postseason possible.

If you want an advanced copy of the tl;dr version of Part II, here it is:

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