NFL Stat Oddity: Week 13

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

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

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

This season in Stat Oddity:

Ravens at Steelers: Tomlin 16, Harbaugh 14

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Broncos at Chiefs: I Should Name My Son Javonte

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But tonight, I can choose happiness.

Chargers at Bengals: What in Tarnation…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Vikings at Lions: 1-15-1 Still Possible

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Hurry-Up Finish

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

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

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

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

Washington at Raiders: No Flag, No Win

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

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

Eagles at Jets: Minshew Mania Returns

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

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

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

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

Pittsburgh Steelers: The Day the Whole Offense Went Away

The date was December 2, 2020. It was a Wednesday afternoon. The Pittsburgh Steelers were 10-0 and while it was rarely pretty, they led the NFL in scoring differential (+124). They were the 10th team in NFL history to score at least 24 points in each of their first 10 games, and while they stick out like a sore thumb on such a list, they were still there. Ben Roethlisberger’s arm strength was limited post elbow surgery, but his anticipation was better than ever, and he was delivering good touchdown throws and performing on third down and in the red zone.

Things were working out for the team.

In a game that was rescheduled multiple times for COVID-19 reasons, the Steelers were finally hosting a reduced roster from Baltimore. Whether it was restlessness from the delays or rust or division familiarity or the weirdness of playing on Wednesday afternoon in an empty stadium, the Steelers struggled to score in a way they hadn’t all season. They got a pick-six to start the game, but the offense only contributed 13 points in the 19-14 win. Roethlisberger completed 36-of-51 passes, but for only 266 yards as the Steelers dropped way too many passes. But he delivered a great pass late to James Washington to put the game away and move the Steelers to 11-0.

Little did we know that this hiccup would become a chronic cough that has choked the life out of the offense and the team to this day.

The Steelers had a very similar performance the following Monday against Washington, but this time they did not find a way to close the game and suffered their first loss of the season. Things got even worse in Buffalo with Roethlisberger throwing a 51-yard pick-six before halftime that led to a 26-15 loss. In Week 15 in Cincinnati on a Monday night, the Steelers turned in maybe their worst offensive half of football in the Roethlisberger era. No play summarized the struggle better than Roethlisberger throwing a drag route to JuJu Smith-Schuster on a third-and-7 where he was blown up and fumbled. The Steelers were about to lose their fourth game in a row to the Colts before a vintage Roethlisberger rally from down 17 points in the second half at home. But then the starters rested against Cleveland, lost 24-22 to let the Browns make the playoffs, and then were blown away 28-0 in the first quarter in the wild card game after center Maurkice Pouncey blew the opening snap for a touchdown. The Steelers tried to make a brilliant comeback but fell well short in a 48-37 loss.

Offensive coordinator Randy Fichtner fell on the sword and lost his job, one that he was never cut out for. However, the Steelers made the same mistake by promoting from within to give Matt Canada the job for 2021. The offensive line was completely replaced by players of little caliber or value. Alabama running back Najee Harris was drafted in the first round despite a lack of blocking in place for him after the Steelers finished dead last in rushing in 2020. Roethlisberger decided to give it one more go and return for his 18th season.

And yet September 2021 looked like much of December 2020 and January 2021. The new offensive line is worse and Roethlisberger is taking more hits and sacks now despite getting rid of the ball faster than any quarterback. The Steelers remain last in rushing, not even cracking 50 yards in either of the last two losses. The receivers just dropped eight passes on Sunday, though most of the short variety again as the air yards remain limited in Pittsburgh. The defense has not been able to play well the last two weeks due to mounting injuries, most notably with T.J. Watt’s groin.

Nothing is working out now, and with four tough opponents coming up, it is hard to see how the Steelers stay relevant into December this year.

I’m not interested in rehashing everything that has gone wrong for the Steelers in the last year. I mean, I will share this JuJu route chart again just because it’s hilarious and sad and sums up things well for this inept offense:

But with such a noticeable decline starting in that Wednesday game against Baltimore, I wanted to do a comparison of the 10-0 start to the now 10-game sample since that has seen the Steelers go 3-7 with a win over the COVID Ravens, a huge comeback against the Colts, and a surprise comeback in Buffalo in Week 1 that looks like a mirage now.

Yeah, that’s a pretty big decline in everything but sack rate, but Roethlisberger not wanting to hold the ball long anymore has not really been a bonus for this offense. This year he is just running out of time sooner.

But if anything, I would hope this comparison shows that it is flat out wrong to say the Steelers were playing this bad when they were 10-0 last year. The offense clearly had limitations and the running game decay was settling in by Week 8 when the Steelers became the first team in NFL history to win three straight games without rushing for 50 yards. But this offense still produced and found ways to put up points every week for 10 games.

Then December came and all hell broke loose. Scoring has gone down 9.3 points per game. They are throwing the ball more but throwing it worse with more interceptions and dropping more balls. The offense has not scored a single point in the first quarter since Week 10 against the Bengals last year. They are worse in the red zone and on third and fourth down.

But the running game has particularly been a historic embarrassment with 54.0 yards per game and 3.1 YPC in the last 10 games. This is not an indictment on Harris as it starts up front and this goes back long before he was drafted. It was never a smart draft pick.

If it wasn’t for James Conner popping a 25-yard run in Jacksonville last year, the Steelers would be on a 14-game streak of not rushing for more than 86 yards. They can soon tie and break the post-WWII record for games without rushing for 90 yards, having not done so in 10 games going into Green Bay on Sunday.

The Steelers have failed to rush for 50 yards in eight of their last 14 games. In Bill Cowher’s 261 games as coach of the Steelers (1992-2006), they had nine games where they didn’t crack 50 rushing yards. My how times have changed. The post-merger record for most games in a two-year span with under 50 rushing yards is 11 by the 2006-07 Lions. The Steelers have a decent shot at breaking that one with 14 games to go this year.

When you can’t run the ball for simple 3 or 4-yard gains…

When you waste the first quarter every week…

When you don’t throw to the middle of the field anymore…

When you don’t throw deep except for go routes down the left sideline and DPI is your best hope of advancement…

When you don’t bother to use play-action passing…

When you drop easy passes…

When you can’t block for more than 2.3 seconds…

You don’t have an NFL offense anymore. You are more akin to putting 11 crash-test dummies through the motions for three hours a week.

As much as the 10-0 start had me feeling awkward, I didn’t know how bad things would get. When Roethlisberger retires after this season and the Steelers are back in the hunt for a franchise quarterback — the last search took two decades — I have a feeling we’ll be looking back at December 2, 2020 as a date that will live in infamy.

It was the day the whole offense went away in Pittsburgh.

Same Old Browns? No, Same Old Steelers

“The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.”

When Steelers wide receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster brushed off Cleveland as being the “same old Browns” leading up to Sunday night’s game, he seemed to forget which team he was still playing for.

No team in the NFL keeps the status quo in check like the Pittsburgh Steelers. That’s why if they’re not playing down to the competition in a small game like the Bengals in Week 15, they come out looking unprepared for playoff games as well. They expect to win on the strength of their history alone when the other teams have Tim Tebow or Blake Bortles at quarterback or are missing their head coach and could not practice in person due to COVID-19 like the Browns just faced.

Following an 11-0 start, Pittsburgh spent a whole month watching its offense decay and fail to score 20 points. While defenses had caught up to arguably the most one-dimensional offense in NFL history, the Steelers did nothing to make any changes to it. One fortunate second-half comeback against the Colts was enough for the Steelers to blow off Week 17 and rest the stars for the playoff run to come.

“The standard is the standard” is head coach Mike Tomlin’s favorite phrase, and he now has as many one-and-done playoff losses (five) as he has seasons not making the tournament at all. Pittsburgh’s idea of analytics still looks like a random flip of the coin for when Tomlin decides to go for a fourth down or punt like a coward. Not to mention this team had two decades to figure out how to slow down the New England offense and never really did. After going 0-3 to Patrick Mahomes and Josh Allen since 2018, it is hard to believe the Steelers would have reached the Super Bowl anyway this season.

Unlike across the state in Philadelphia, winning that Super Bowl in his second season way back in 2008 has given Tomlin incredible job security and a shield from criticism for all the shortcomings since. Ben Roethlisberger winning his second Super Bowl in that second Tomlin season should have did the same, but off-field incidents from over a decade ago always left him as the scapegoat in Pittsburgh, even getting the brunt of the blame when the team had public falling outs with star players Le’Veon Bell and Antonio Brown.

With JuJu’s ill-advised bulletin board material as the latest proof, Tomlin still has no control over the egos in his locker room. The standard is the standard, and for Tomlin and Roethlisberger, the Steelers painted their masterpiece of disappointment and embarrassment on Sunday night, losing 48-37 to the rival Browns, a team Ben was 24-2-1 against and a team the Steelers had never lost to at home since he was drafted in 2004.

For perhaps the last time in the Roethlisberger era, let’s recap where the Steelers fell short on Sunday night.

For recaps of the other five wild card games, click here.

The Worst First Quarter in Playoff History

If you asked me how the 2020 Steelers were going to lose in the playoffs, I would have predicted a Buffalo rematch next week that looked like the Sunday night meeting the Bills won 26-15. One where the Steelers just didn’t have it offensively and the defense couldn’t get Josh Allen off the field enough. Or something uglier with turnovers like the Cincinnati loss, except against a better quality opponent and quarterback. All in all, a game where Roethlisberger was too inaccurate, and they sucked on third down and threw an obscene amount of passes way short of the sticks with too many drops. You know, like the whole month of struggles we recently saw from this team.

I never would have imagined the Steelers would essentially repeat their 2017 AFC divisional loss, 45-42, to the Jaguars and Blake Bortles. After last week’s 24-22 loss in Cleveland with most of the stars out, this game could not have gone any differently from that one. It looks far worse when Browns coach Kevin Stefanski wasn’t even there because of COVID and this team had not practiced all week.

Simply put, this game was decided in the first quarter, if not the first snap from scrimmage.

Center Maurkice Pouncey snapped the ball well over Roethlisberger’s head and the Browns were able to ultimately recover it for a touchdown just 14 seconds into the game. It’s the first NFL game to start with a fumble by the center since Super Bowl XLVIII, except Denver only gave up a safety to Seattle that time. It seems likely these are the only two times this has happened in NFL playoff history.

The Steelers only appeared to implode from there. Roethlisberger overthrew a short pass under pressure, and it was intercepted at midfield. The defense had a chance to force a three-and-out, but Jarvis Landry caught a short pass on 3rd-and-6 and turned it into a 40-yard touchdown. Landry gained 30 YAC on the play. His season high for YAC on a catch was 23 yards.

Pittsburgh allowed two 40-yard touchdown passes in this game with YAC totals of 30 and 42 yards. The Browns had one such play all season and that was 40 YAC after a 35-yard deep ball to Donovan Peoples-Jones. These were short throws, including a screen later in the game to Nick Chubb. In the regular season, Pittsburgh’s defense only allowed two touchdown passes with at least 15 YAC. They matched that in this one playoff game.

Down 14-0, Pittsburgh’s short-yardage rushing woes struck as Derek Watt was held to no gain on 3rd-and-1. At this point I joked about a long Chubb TD run coming next.

I was close. Chubb started the next drive with runs of 17 and 20 yards. Kareem Hunt finished the drive with an 11-yard touchdown run. The Browns led 21-0 with 4:40 left in the first quarter as the Steelers looked completely lost and unready to play this game in every phase.

To this point, Roethlisberger only made one mistake with the panicked throw getting picked off, yet he was down 21-0 already. I don’t feel that’s being taken into consideration at all when people criticize him for this game. The Steelers were getting dominated on every side of the ball at this point. It was only down 21-0 when he made another mistake that wasn’t even all on him. Diontae Johnson’s drops showed up again as a pass that was a little high above his head clanged off his hands and went to a defender for a second interception. Roethlisberger could have gotten the ball down a little, but there was bad luck to that pick.

That set up the Browns for a 15-yard touchdown drive capped off by Hunt again. Cleveland led 28-0 after the first quarter, a differential that has only happened 14 times since 1940. The only playoff game to start 28-0 after a quarter was when the 6-6-2 Oilers were crushed 56-7 by the Raiders in 1969. Out of the 14 teams to fall behind by 28 through a quarter, only the Steelers last night were able to lose by fewer than 17 points. But the point is they all lost.

You just cannot expect to turn the ball over three times and get outscored 28-0 in the first quarter and still win that game. Pittsburgh outscored the Browns in each of the last three quarters and 37-20 overall, but that first 15 minutes killed the season.

Look, games in this league almost never start out this dominant. We have seen plenty of mismatches over the years (think Chiefs-Jets this season), but 28-0 after a quarter is really hard to do, and it is especially hard to imagine in a playoff game between division rivals. This is only the fourth game where it happened between two teams who finished the season with a winning record.

However, it was just recently when the Browns led the Titans by 31 points at halftime and only won that game by six. So you had to figure the Steelers had a chance at a comeback. It would have been the ultimate Cleveland collapse, but the main reason that didn’t happen was the Pittsburgh defense failed to show up.

Pittsburgh’s Fraudulent Defense Exposed Again

In their last 78 games, the Steelers defense has registered a sack and/or takeaway in 76 of them. The only two games where they didn’t get a sack or turnover were their last two playoff games at home against the Jaguars and the Browns. Cleveland was even missing multiple starters on the offensive line.

Pittsburgh was on a streak of 31 straight games without allowing 30 points, tied for the second-longest streak in the salary cap era (1994-2020). That is really impressive when half the games came this year, the highest-scoring season in NFL history. Of course, Pittsburgh’s defense wasn’t facing Jeff Driskel, Jake Luton, Carson Wentz, Garrett Gilbert, or Ryan Finley last night. They allowed 48 to the talented Browns, the most Pittsburgh has allowed since the Jaguars scored 45 in the 2017 playoffs.

Are you sensing a theme yet?

Cleveland only scored 7 points in Pittsburgh in Week 6 with Baker Mayfield having perhaps the worst game of his career. But he now has his first 200-yard passing game in six starts against the Steelers. I already mentioned the two big YAC plays for 40-yard touchdowns that were so uncharacteristic for the Cleveland offense and Pittsburgh defense this year. Throw in not getting a sack or turnover and you are looking at a flat-out choke by this supposedly great defense. If you told me T.J. Watt and Cameron Heyward sat out this one too like they did in Week 17, I’d have believed it. They were ghosts last night.

Pittsburgh’s defense needed some kind of splash play to get this comeback going last night. It never came. After the Steelers got on the board in the second quarter, the defense had a chance to force a three-and-out and get the ball back. Instead, Mayfield scrambled for a first down on third-and-6 and turned that into a 64-yard touchdown drive. The offense was able to muster a field goal despite only having 28 seconds to work with. Pittsburgh trailed 35-10 at halftime.

The third quarter was Pittsburgh’s best defensively, but still no sacks or turnovers. They forced three punts and two three-and-outs. But when the defense had to get the ball back in the fourth quarter, they may have saved their worst for last, which is shades of the Jacksonville game all over again. Mayfield led an 80-yard touchdown drive with half of it coming on the Chubb screen. Cleveland led 42-23. A quick touchdown made it 42-29 with 11:08 left, so the game wasn’t over. Again, the defense was a major letdown, allowing the Browns to hold the ball for 6:40, gain four first downs, and add a field goal to make it 45-29 with 4:28 left. At that point you’re in total miracle territory and the game is essentially over. Roethlisberger threw his fourth interception with 3:16 left and the rest of the scoring was just going through the motions.

This talk that the Browns were conservative so Pittsburgh’s defense couldn’t get after them is bunk. Ryan Finley threw 13 passes against the Steelers in Week 15 and they still sacked him twice that night. Mayfield didn’t have to air it out 50 times or anything, but he still threw 34 passes and had multiple linemen out. There were chances to make plays for this defense. None were capitalized.

The loss was so eerily similar to the 2017 Jacksonville loss. In that one, Pittsburgh’s offense continued to score and make a game of it, but the Jaguars also scored 17 points in the fourth quarter. You can’t keep matching scores in a huge comeback attempt.

This disappointing defense is par for the course for Pittsburgh in the playoffs. While the offense tends to take the blame, the defense is usually the superior unit (top 10 ranked) in the regular season, only to fail in the playoffs.

  • 2004 (No. 1 scoring D): Allowed season-high 41 points to Patriots in 41-27 AFC Championship Game loss (pick-six included) after never allowing more than 30 points during season. Zero takeaways.
  • 2007 (No. 2 scoring D): Allowed at least 29 points to Jaguars for the second time at home, losing 31-29 in the wild card (pick-six included). Allowed a game-winning drive.
  • 2010 (No. 1 scoring D): Allowed second-most points of season (31; including pick-six) to Green Bay in 31-25 Super Bowl loss. Zero takeaways.
  • 2011 (No. 1 scoring D): Allowed most points since Week 1, including a game-losing touchdown one play into overtime, in 29-23 loss to Tim Tebow (316 yards on 10 completions) and the Broncos.
  • 2016 (No. 10 scoring D): Allowed season-high 36 points in AFC Championship Game loss to Patriots (36-17). Zero takeaways.
  • 2017 (No. 7 scoring D): Allowed season-high 45 points (including fumble return) to Jaguars in 45-42 loss in AFC divisional. Zero takeaways.
  • 2020 (No. 3 scoring D): Allowed season-high 48 points (including fumble return) to Browns after not allowing 30 points all season in 48-37 loss in wild card. Zero takeaways.

Sure, there was a return touchdown allowed in five of those games, but even without them the defense was still at or near season-worst performance levels in these playoff losses.

Note the last three losses in particular. The Steelers are the only team in NFL history to have three straight playoff games where they allowed at least 36 points and had zero takeaways. No other team has even done it in two straight playoff games. This comes as no surprise, but teams who allow 36 points and don’t get a takeaway are 0-38 in the playoffs.

Where are the Takeaways?

I wrote this about the Steelers in the Football Outsiders Almanac 2016 and it still holds true today:

Fans often complain that “we beat ourselves more than the opponent did,” but Steelers fans have the best statistical evidence for this claim. Since 2004, the Steelers are the only team to actually outgain their opponents in yardage (plus-748) in games lost. But they’ve shot themselves in the foot with the worst turnover differential per game (minus-1.6) in losses since 2004.

Updating these numbers through 2020 and last night, the Steelers are still the only team with a positive yardage differential (+80) in their losses. Every other team has been outgained by thousands of yards, including Cleveland (-14,419) at the very bottom.

But Pittsburgh still has the worst turnover differential per game (minus-1.46) in losses since 2004. So when they lose, they usually have a lot of turnovers and not many takeaways.

Since 2002, there have been 16 playoff games where a team scored more than 24 points despite at least three turnovers. The Steelers have five of those 16 games and the only other team with more than one is the Colts (two).

Sloppy, mistake-filled starts have been a problem in the postseason during the Roethlisberger era. Still, the team tends to rebound from those starts and still make a game of it. There’s also this fact:

It’s worth noting that the Steelers rested Roethlisberger and other starters in Week 17 in 2007, 2017, and 2020. There are always counter examples to the rest vs. rust debate, but I cannot help but think some players are hurt more than they are helped from the rest. I get why teams do it, but I have never been a fan of it.

This list also means Roethlisberger is the only quarterback in NFL history to lose multiple playoff games after scoring at least 37 points, and both were as a home favorite. He has thrown for 970 yards and nine touchdowns in his last two playoff games and lost them both. He also threw five interceptions in the two games, so it’s not all been good obviously, but there were positives last night once he got in a rhythm in the second quarter. This offense had not produced such a game like this since late in 2018.

However, I knew late in the first half that he wouldn’t get the help he needed to make this comeback go to completion.

Sure enough, he didn’t. This goes back to a point I made during the 2018 season about Rodgers and Brady. You can’t have a huge comeback without stopping the other team too, and that part is not on the quarterback.

When the 1992 Bills with Frank Reich at quarterback made the all-time comeback of 32 points against the Oilers, they got a lot of help from the special teams. Down 35-3, a bad kickoff set them up at the 50 for a touchdown drive. The special teams then recovered an onside kick to set up another touchdown. Defense forced a three-and-out, a bad punt, and Buffalo again only had to drive 59 yards for a third touchdown to make it 35-24. Then Warren Moon threw an interception to set the Bills up at the Houston 23, leading to another touchdown. There’s your splash play and short field combo to really have a ballgame again at 35-31 with 17 minutes left. I won’t recap the rest, but it was really getting that onside kick and an interception that made that comeback feasible.

Now flash forward to Super Bowl LI, which Sunday night was starting to look like at one point. The Steelers were actually well ahead of New England’s pace in trying to make this 25-point comeback in the second half. Roethlisberger threw a touchdown on fourth down to make it 35-23 with 2:57 left in the third quarter.

In LI, the Patriots were still down 28-3 to Atlanta with the ball at that point. Five minutes into the fourth quarter, Brady took a sack on third down and the Patriots had to settle for a field goal. They trailed 28-12 with 9:44 left, but things still looked dire. That’s when the real play of the game happened and Matt Ryan lost the ball on a strip-sack on a 3rd-and-1 that never should have been a pass play. Not only was it a stop and turnover, but it set Brady up 25 yards away from the end zone with 8:24 left.

There is the huge break that quarterbacks not named Brady just don’t get in this league.

On Sunday, Pittsburgh had possession to start the fourth quarter of a 35-23 game, but faced a 4th-and-1 decision at their own 46. It’s a shame this was after a commercial break, because Roethlisberger should have pulled a Peyton Manning and waved off the punt team to go for this. But Tomlin sent them in, tried to draw the defense offsides, and eventually took a delay of game penalty and punted. Pure cowardice. The worst punt yet, and this is the same coach who punted on 4th-and-1 early in the game and on fourth down inside the Cleveland 40 down 28-0 in the second quarter.

So the coach didn’t have Ben’s back, and then the defense showed it didn’t either. Instead of getting a Baker strip-sack like Brady got, they allowed an 80-yard touchdown drive, half of it coming on the Chubb screen. That made it 42-23 with 12:32 left. It should have been over there, but a quick Pittsburgh touchdown kept it alive at 42-29. Again, this is where the defense is supposed to get the huge turnover like Brady (or Frank f’n Reich) got, right? Nope, Ben must not have willed it to be. Instead, the defense let a long field goal drive happen.

By the time Ben got the ball back, he had 4:28 left and a 16-point deficit from his own 25. The Patriots gave Brady a 16-point deficit and the ball back at the Atlanta 25 with 8:24 left.

There is the difference right there. It has nothing to do with any “clutch” nonsense or the idea that Brady was playing better (he wasn’t). It’s all circumstances out of the quarterback’s control that favored Brady and allowed him a much better shot to win the game. You know, the advantage he tends to have over every other QB in NFL history. And that’s without even getting into Atlanta later having a first down at the New England 22 and punting the ball back.

Had Roethlisberger been able to start that drive with just over four minutes left at the Cleveland 25, then I would actually give a damn if he threw a pick or not. That would at least keep the game winnable. But it’s not wrong to downplay that bad throw with just over three minutes left when the game clearly was in all-time miracle territory.

If you want to bash Ben for that fourth pick, then you better do the same for Brady when he threw a pick down by 14 in Denver (2005) or the two he tossed down 15 points against the Ravens in the 2012 AFC Championship Game.

Is This the End?

Wherever the Steelers go from this one, the choices are obviously quite limited with a quarterback who will be 39 in 2021.

Roethlisberger had a game that will stand out in the record books with infamy, especially if it turns out to be his final playoff game. His 47 completions are an NFL record for any game, regular season or postseason. Roethlisberger threw 68 passes and did not take a single sack – only Drew Bledsoe (1994 Patriots vs. Vikings) has done better than that with 70 attempts in an overtime game.

His final completion, a 7-yard touchdown, put him at 501 yards, extending his record with a fourth 500-yard passing game. However, this is the first time the Steelers lost when he threw for 500 yards. Roethlisberger now has five games with 40 completions in his career, and the Steelers are 3-2 in those games. No other quarterback has more than two games with 500 yards or 40 completions.

The Steelers have a lot of tough roster decisions to make. With the way several players broke into tears after the game, it sure felt like the last hurrah, the end of an era in Pittsburgh. With the Ravens still playing great and the Browns now a playoff winner, this could be the last big game for the Steelers for quite some time.

If only they could have stepped up for the moment and embraced how precious these opportunities are, then maybe they would still be playing this week instead of embarrassing themselves with that first quarter that will go down as the worst any team has had in the playoffs.

Last night did not scar me. I have evolved my fandom enough to where I don’t need the hometown team to be great to keep my interest in the league. But watching the Steelers the last couple of decades lose so many big games by shooting themselves in the foot early, crawling back to make a game of it, provide some hope, then still seeing them lose has probably left a big mark in how I analyze the game.

I’m probably not giving enough credit to Cleveland for this performance with a shorthanded roster and without the coach I’m voting for as Coach of the Year. The Browns clearly wanted it more from the start and were playing great on every side of the ball, overwhelming the Steelers in a way we just don’t see in this competitive league. They’ll have a shot in Kansas City next week.

Pittsburgh’s last playoff win was in Kansas City in the 2016 season. They won 18-16 behind six field goals. The Chiefs immediately drafted Patrick Mahomes in the first round in 2017, and the rest is history. The AFC is moving on with teams like Kansas City, Baltimore, Buffalo and Cleveland headed in exciting, new directions.

Pittsburgh must be open to change or it stands to get left behind and fade into obscurity, much like the Patriots this year and their roster of nameless gray faces. But make the wrong moves, and “same old Steelers” might sound like a nostalgic compliment in the near future.

C’est la vie.

NFL Week 11 Predictions: Well, It’s Football Edition

How great was Week 10 in the NFL? I’m not just playing it up either because of the shit week that preceded it. The best games (DAL-PIT, SEA-NE) were the best games — only games with seven lead changes this season — and we had a season-high 10 games decided with a fourth-quarter score. I doubt the next seven weeks will be able to top that one.

I feel very certain that the Week 11 slate is going to pale in comparison. In fact, this might be the weakest week yet this season, with not much standing out other than the DVOA Title Match between the Eagles and Seahawks. Of course, I expect Seattle to prevail at home in that one by forcing Carson Wentz into mistakes, but that could be a tight, low-scoring affair for sure.

I think the turnaround of Tennessee’s offense has been very unexpected, and good for the league, but I also think the Colts will play better off their bye week and find a way to win yet another one against the Titans. Andrew Luck has yet to lose to that team.

Baltimore at Dallas is interesting only in the sense that how will Dak and Zeke perform against a pretty solid defense? Otherwise, it just seems like the Ravens won’t be able to score enough on the road to really make that a great game.

Buffalo at Cincinnati almost feels like a no-brainer game I’ll have to cover in Clutch Encounters on Tuesday, as a game between two evenly-matched teams this year. Might be a sneaky good fantasy game as well with the way Buffalo has been defending big plays/No. 1 WRs right now.

Vikings-Cardinals was one of my absolute favorite games to watch and write about in 2015. This year, the teams are just not as good, and I expect some pretty subpar QB play in that one.

The Rams are finally going to start Jared Goff, which should have been the case since Week 1. Not sure how two months of sitting will have made a difference, but Goff will make his debut in the 10th game of his career. I don’t expect much at all from him this week, but at least it’s something fresh to watch, even if it does reek of that Jeff Fisher 7-9 bullshit.

Packers-Redskins: I’m frankly just tired of watching Green Bay this season. Think I’ve seen them play live seven times this year, and it’s just not the same well-oiled machine we used to see on offense, and the defense has been poor with too many corners and Clay Matthews out. I think the Redskins have been getting quietly better on defense and balancing the offense with the run game, and should be able to get this one at home. Of course, for as long as I’ve been watching the NFL (post-Joe Gibbs 1.0), trusting Washington to come through in a fairly big moment (home SNF game) is asking for trouble.

And I’m definitely not all that interested to see Brock Osweiler try to play QB again on Monday night. The Texans sure have gotten a tough draw on the road schedule (NE, MIN, DEN), but at least this one is more like a neutral field in Mexico City.

I left out the Steelers-Browns until now, because you figured I would talk about that one in more detail. Yes, I absolutely think the 0-10 Browns can win this game. It would be a defining moment for the “Mike Tomlin’s team plays down to the competition” story. After all, this team struggled like hell with a 2011 Colts team that started the season 0-13. They went down 10-0 and had to win in OT against a 2012 Chiefs team that was 1-7 at the time. Tomlin has another loss to a 2-14 team in the 2014 Buccaneers at home. This would not be that shocking at all, especially if the weather gets nasty. The Steelers were not able to run the ball at all in two games against Cleveland last year. Hue Jackson knows this team very well from his experience in the division. Cody Kessler has not been great, but at least he has protected the ball, and should respond to his weird benching in the previous game. Isaiah Crowell has gone MIA in recent weeks after a good start, but that was more about game script and the opponents faced. Pittsburgh is a bad defense, and it just lost arguably its best player (Cam Heyward) for the season, which should make the run D even worse. While everyone has been able to beat the Browns, they were at least competitive in five games with 5 failed 4QC attempts. Pittsburgh isn’t anywhere near good enough to walk into this game lightly and expect a win. Ben Roethlisberger will have to play very well, and he usually does in Cleveland, but like I said, you have the potential for a one-dimensional offense here. Matchup wise, he should have a field day with Antonio Brown (Steelers are thin at WR otherwise), but if the passing game is hampered at all, then Cleveland will have a good shot in this one at home.

Pittsburgh’s season really hangs in the balance this week. A loss at Cleveland would be devastating, but there’s also a game in Indy on Thursday night. For a team that was largely considered the non-NE favorite to reach the Super Bowl, this has to be the week to get on track, or it’s over.

2016 Week 11 Predictions

I went with the Panthers on TNF, and they barely hung on in 2015 style for the win. Still a very disappointing season from that team.

Winners in bold:

  • Titans at Colts
  • Bears at Giants
  • Buccaneers at Chiefs
  • Ravens at Cowboys
  • Jaguars at Lions
  • Bills at Bengals
  • Cardinals at Vikings
  • Steelers at Browns
  • Dolphins at Rams
  • Patriots at 49ers
  • Eagles at Seahawks
  • Packers at Redskins
  • Texans at Raiders

Bloody hell, I was even going to pick the Rams, but figured this was already too many home teams for the week. Upsets to the rescue I guess.

  • 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
  • Season: 84-63