NFL 2021 Awards

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

Most Valuable Player: Aaron Rodgers, Packers

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Offensive Player of the Year: Cooper Kupp, Rams

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Defensive Rookie of the Year: Micah Parsons, Cowboys

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

Comeback Player of the Year: Joe Burrow, Bengals

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

Most Improved Player of the Year: Joe Burrow, Bengals

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

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

Coach of the Year: Mike Vrabel, Titans

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

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

Assistant Coach of the Year: Rich Bisaccia, Raiders

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

Executive of the Year: Les Snead, Rams

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

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

NFL Stat Oddity: Week 18

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

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

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

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

Season Predictions: Not to Toot My Own Horn But…

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

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

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

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

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

This season in Stat Oddity:

Colts at Jaguars: WTF, Frank?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Steelers at Ravens: It’s Not Over Yet

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Chargers at Raiders: And That’s BINGO

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

49ers at Rams: The McVay Halftime Stat Is Dead

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saints at Falcons: Tough Year

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

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

Seahawks at Cardinals: Bring the Band Back?

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

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

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

Jets at Bills: AFC East Supremacy

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

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

Patriots at Dolphins: Miami Does It Again

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

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

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

Panthers at Buccaneers: Of Course They Get Philly

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

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

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

Titans at Texans: Her?

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

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

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

Chiefs at Broncos: Melvin on Melvin Violence

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

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

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

Cowboys at Eagles: Artificial Fight

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

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

Bears at Vikings: End of Two Eras?

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

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

Bengals at Browns: Ohio Rests

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

Packers at Lions: Some Kneecaps Were Eaten

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

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

Washington at Giants: War Crime

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

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

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

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

NFL Stat Oddity: Week 15

I was right that Chiefs-Chargers set too high of a bar for a quality game in Week 15. But in terms of pure craziness? The weekend gave it its best shot. Who could have imagined we’d see Bill Belichick and Tom Brady both lose by two scores in prime time with Carson Wentz and Taysom Hill playing like quarterbacks from 1928?

But you kind of had to expect a wild Sunday in the NFL with so many games having a huge point spread. Maybe in other seasons this would have been dull, but not in 2021. We didn’t even get to the COVID-delayed games yet, but we’ve already seen the 1-11-1 Lions down the 10-3 Cardinals, and the Ravens gave Green Bay all it could handle with Tyler Huntley at quarterback.

At least we saw the post-Urban Jaguars still lose 30-16 despite being favored over a bad Houston team. Also, the Falcons lost 31-13 in San Francisco and scored three points on two drives where they hit 49-yard passes – very on brand for the red-zone rejects. The Dolphins have also followed up their seven-game losing streak with a six-game winning streak to get back to .500 by beating the Jets if anyone cares. No? I figured as much.

The Bills and Cowboys both had comfortable wins over the Panthers and Giants respectively in their hope to stay relevant as contenders this year. A Buffalo-Dallas Super Bowl would be on brand in this era of “let’s do everything from the 90s again.” If they can make another Matrix movie and reboot Sex and the City

But while this season has been begging for something different to happen at the end, it’s still not far-fetched to think we see Aaron Rodgers repeat as MVP, and Championship Sunday is just another day of rematches (BUF-KC and TB-GB) setting up another Super Bowl rematch.

Oh, did you think last night invalidates Tampa Bay? Then you don’t understand how Brady’s luck works. I hope I’m completely wrong, but I think this week will just be a blip before a familiar ending in January and February. A little Christmas gift of joy that you’ll forget before Groundhog Day rears its ugly head.

This season in Stat Oddity:

Saints at Buccaneers: 9-0? MVP? GTFO!

Tom Brady has matched Joe Montana once again. Brady and Montana are the only two quarterbacks in the Super Bowl era to get shut out as a double-digit favorite. Montana did it in his second (and final) season with the Chiefs in 1994, a 16-0 loss to the Rams early in the season when Montana was favored to win by 14.5. Brady has been swept again by the Saints despite being an 11.5-point home favorite this time. Instead of winning the NFC South for the first time since 2007, the Buccaneers are left with a perplexing result and a long list of injuries.

Brady proved once again that he saves his best luck for the postseason as the Saints made him look bad with another multiple turnover game in the third shutout of his career. It’s the first Brady shutout since he lost 21-0 to a 2006 Miami team coached by Nick Saban and quarterbacked by Joey Harrington.

But this one was in prime time for all to see. Brady’s first pass of the night should have been intercepted by Marshon Lattimore, but the pass was dropped. I thought that would be a sign of things to come, but the Buccaneers punted. Then they punted again, and again, missed a field goal, punted three more times, and then Brady started really getting off his game with bad deep shots and a comical fumble after trying to scramble. Throw in a couple more punts and a late interception, and the Saints turned Tampa away on 13 drives for one of the most improbable shutouts in history.

According to NBC, it’s the first time since the merger that the team leading the NFL in scoring was shutout at home in December or January. Add that to the Brady record list.

Of course, there is going to be an outcry to the injuries Tampa Bay suffered in this game. They were unusually high profile and significant. Mike Evans, Chris Godwin, and Leonard Fournette did not finish the game. With Antonio Brown (suspension), Giovani Bernard (IR), and Breshad Perriman (COVID list) also inactive, the deepest set of skill players in the league took a big hit against a defense that has had its number the last two seasons.

But in terms of winning this game, I don’t want to hear about injuries when for more than three-quarters of the game, all Brady needed was a touchdown drive to take the lead. If this is your supposed GOAT and MVP, then how can he get shut out like this? Do you really need to walk on water to score one touchdown drive with Gronk, Ronald Jones, Scotty Miller, Tyler Johnson, Cameron Brate, O.J. Howard, and what’s supposed to be a top-tier offensive line? Not to mention that trio of Evans/Godwin/Fournette still combined for 23 touches and 130 yards from scrimmage. They were still shutout with them.

I don’t want to hear about one team’s injuries when the Saints were missing key offensive linemen (both tackles), haven’t had Michael Thomas all year, Deonte Harris is suspended, and there really isn’t a great playmaker outside of Kamara. Not to mention Jameis Winston tore his ACL in the last game against Tampa Bay or else this team could be dangerous right now. Still the No. 7 seed going into Monday regardless of all the injuries.

Oh yeah, the Saints did all this without their head coach.

Sean Payton gets credit for a win in a game he didn’t attend because of his COVID diagnosis. Maybe he helped with meetings during the week, but it’s still weird to me that a coach gets credit, win or loss, for games he didn’t actually coach. This also happens to be the biggest spread of Payton’s career as the Saints weren’t an underdog like this before his arrival after the Hurricane Katrina season (2005).

Maybe Payton’s absence is why the defense was so good (wink wink). But really, it was an incredible effort by Cameron Jordan and the guys to make up for an offense that did so little. The Saints had three offensive plays that gained 10+ yards all night and they were all Marquez Callaway receptions. I’ve never seen anything like that before. The Saints had 11 first downs and were 3-of-16 on third down. Alvin Kamara had 11 carries for 18 yards. Taysom Hill (13-of-27 for 154 yards) could barely throw with his injured finger and his talent level in general, and he only rushed for 33 yards this time.

Yet the Saints still won by two scores. The key this time? They didn’t turn the ball over once. Hill absolutely tried to, but the defense did not capitalize this time like they did four times in the playoff win in New Orleans, the worst game Drew Brees played in a Saints uniform. There was also that crucial Jared Cook fumble that we don’t talk enough about when the Saints were looking to go up two scores.

If it wasn’t for that game, this Tampa Bay team should be viewed as a big fraud that doesn’t step up in big games. Instead, they got to win a Super Bowl at home and can’t be counted out to repeat. Yes, not even after this 9-0 shocker.

Unfortunately, I’m not seeing this as a real season-changing game. Sure, it might take Tampa Bay out of the top seed and Brady out of an MVP he never deserved, but is there really a seeding that would be problematic for this team? The only way might be if the Saints use this to go on a run and claim the No. 7 seed and meet up with this team in Tampa again as a 7-2 matchup. The Saints definitely have Tampa’s number, but do you really see this playing out well for the third time this year? There’s no blueprint behind “play them like the Saints, hope for mass injuries, and hope all your key sacks/pressures come on third down.”

Especially when Antonio Brown will be back (even though Bruce Arians is a liar who said he’d cut him after one mistake). Evans, Godwin, and Fournette should be back for the playoffs. Still have Gronk, who only played six snaps in the first loss to the Saints. You know, all that actual value that makes Tampa so dangerous should be back when it matters most. The rest of the schedule is a cakewalk (Jets between Carolina twice) too, so it’s not like the Bucs need to rush their studs back to finish 13-4.

Meanwhile, the Saints could still easily miss the playoffs after going 4-0 against the Packers, Patriots, and Buccaneers. That’s what happens when you get owned by Sam Darnold/Panthers and Daniel Jones/Giants in such a weird season. But things certainly could have been different if Winston was not injured in the last Tampa Bay game. Then again, maybe Winston turns the ball over trying to stick it to his former team.

The Saints were able to sweep the Bucs again this year by having zero giveaways and five Brady takeaways in those two games. The role was reversed in the playoff game, which is why Tampa Bay won. I had to laugh at NBC’s Cris Collinsworth talking about Brady having answers for the Saints in that playoff game. He had two answers: drop my picks and let me start inside your 40 three times. The Saints obliged, and the rest is history.

Props to the Saints for playing hard and showing that they didn’t want their season to end Sunday night. I just wish I saw more season-changing ramifications from this game, other than me losing thousands in gambling wins (MVP race) while still seeing Brady and the Bucs in good shape to repeat.

But it was a nice early Christmas present to watch 9-0 take place.

Packers at Ravens: Go for Two Early (For a Change)

Who saw this being the big shootout of the day with the most dramatic ending? Well, I can take some credit for that one.

I liked Aaron Rodgers to have another big day with the injuries in the Baltimore secondary. Outside of the opening drive and the last two when he could have put the game away, he did not disappoint. But even with Lamar Jackson out, I thought the 9-point underdog Ravens had a shot to be very competitive. Most Baltimore games are close and this team has been scrapping since Week 1 with all the injuries. This also is the fourth game in a row where the Packers allowed at least 28 points.

Tyler Huntley likely made himself a lot of future money with his performance in his last three appearances. He’s certainly looked better than Jordan Love so far, and I’d gladly take him in Pittsburgh over Mason Rudolph. Huntley is not quite as elusive as Lamar, but he still rushed for 73 yards and two touchdowns, giving the Packers fits at times. Tight end Mark Andrews (136 yards and two touchdowns) also looked like prime Gronk, which does not bode well if that matchup comes up in the playoffs again.

But the Ravens had a couple of fourth-down failures that left them in a tough spot, down 31-17 in the fourth quarter. Nothing indefensible, but just bad execution. Still, the talk of the game again became John Harbaugh’s decision to go for a two-point conversion (2PC) when he did. This has come up in three straight games now for the Ravens, including the Pittsburgh loss when they went for the win with 12 seconds left and Lamar didn’t get the pass to Andrews. It also happened last week against Cleveland when, down 24-15, the Ravens failed to convert with 8:56 left.

Baltimore is now 2-for-8 on 2PC attempts this season, and the three-game losing streak here isn’t going to make fans happy. But what I couldn’t understand in this one is why Harbaugh did not go for two when the Ravens scored their first touchdown.

Not to get back into last week’s decision again, but I guess you can say I don’t agree with the general thrust of the analytics community when it comes to a lot of 2PC decisions. I think in many cases, they should be held off until you absolutely need one, and I do not want to make the choices in a game that are more likely to lead me to needing to recover an onside kick (or two). I highly value a 9-point lead and greatly fear a 9-point deficit, which seems to be no big deal for people who prefer going for two early. But that’s not me, and based on all my years of research on comeback attempts, I don’t think I’m going to change that view.

But one 2PC decision I am totally down with that analytics will support is to go for two on your first touchdown when you’re down 14 points. Make it a 6-point game and then you can win with a touchdown and extra point on your second touchdown. If you don’t get it, then it’s still an eight-point game and you can try it to tie on your second touchdown. It makes a ton of sense. For years, coaches play down 14 as a tying situation anyway. So by going for two on the first one, you might set yourself up for a win in regulation. I’m all for it in pretty much any situation unless I think my offense is total shit against this defense. But in that case, I’m probably not expecting to score two touchdowns in the fourth quarter anyway.

Harbaugh has to know this too as the Ravens are ahead of the curve on these things. Yet, the Ravens kicked the extra point on their first touchdown at 4:47 to make it a 31-24 game. They went for two with 42 seconds left in an attempt to take a 32-31 lead, and once again a pass to Andrews was incomplete. Green Bay recovered the onside kick and the game was over, putting more doubt into Baltimore’s playoff hopes.

I think Harbaugh going for two at 4:47 would have been his best 2PC decision this month. I think Harbaugh going for two at 0:42 was his worst 2PC decision this month. When he did it in Pittsburgh, there were only 12 seconds left, so that should have been enough to win the game with the Steelers not having a good deep passing game in a stadium that is difficult to get super long field goals. No 66-yard miracle is happening at Heinz Field like it did in Detroit for Justin Tucker this year. I liked that decision that day.

But 42 seconds when Rodgers still has a timeout left? That’s too much time as he has set these up multiple times before (ask the 49ers this year). I think under 20 seconds is the ideal spot of when it’s right to go for the win like that. When you do this to take a 1-point lead, you force the opponent to go balls out aggressive for the win. No throw is off limits. But if the game is tied with 42 seconds left, Rodgers is not in four-down territory. He’s got to be a little more careful with the ball as playing hero ball in that situation can make you look foolish. As someone who studied under Brett Favre, he knows better than most.

But the fact is in a tied game you are more likely to get a conservative approach from the opponent with 42 seconds left. Then when it comes to overtime, they may never see the ball a la the Chargers on Thursday against Kansas City if you take care of business with your offense. The clock is the main reason I liked the Pittsburgh 2PC call and did not like the Green Bay one on Sunday.

Baltimore (8-6) has managed to lose all of these games and will have to fight just to make the playoffs, let alone win the division. I could easily see a 8-7-1 Pittsburgh team going into Baltimore to take on a 9-7 Ravens team in the final game of the regular season. That might be the best game on the Week 18 schedule if things fall into place for it.

But the Ravens need to find a win in Cincinnati or against the Rams first. Maybe even a game that does not come down to us arguing about Harbaugh’s 2PC decision.

Titans at Steelers: Fumbled the Top Seed

Over 10 hours later, I’m still shocked the Steelers won this one. They trailed 13-3 at halftime and were outdone at every phase.

The offense couldn’t buy a third-down conversion or open a running lane for Najee Harris, and that really never improved after halftime either. The Steelers finished 2-of-11 on third down and Harris had 12 carries for 18 yards. Ben Roethlisberger’s touchdown pass streak ended at 27 games, and this is the first game in his career where Pittsburgh won despite not breaking 200 yards of offense (168). In fact, it’s only the second time during his career where they won like that as they had 127 yards in a 19-11 win over the 2010 Titans when he was suspended.

The defense could not stop the run again as D’Onta Foreman had 108 of the team’s 201 rushing yards. Imagine if Derrick Henry played, not to mention A.J. Brown or if Julio Jones didn’t leave again with his hamstring bothered. Devin Bush dropped a red-zone pick on Tennessee’s only offensive touchdown drive. Some of Ryan Tannehill’s best throws were dropped or fumbled by his receivers as the Steelers got solid pressure on him, but stopping the run is still a nightmare for this unit.

The special teams had terrible punts and coverage again. Chris Boswell even missed a 56-yard field goal before halftime on a cold day, but that kick never should have been that long. That happened because Mike Tomlin mismanaged the clock, not using his timeouts to save the offense a minute to respond to a 19-play drive by the Titans, who were getting the ball to start the third too. Roethlisberger only had 12 seconds at his own 22 to work with but still did a good job to put Boswell in position for an attempt.

It was another shitshow from a team that’s been getting clobbered in the first half for a month. So, what were the magic adjustments in the second half to spark the 19-13 comeback win? Simply put, the Titans kept turning the ball over. Pittsburgh’s defense made some good plays, but also caught some breaks with Tennessee’s lesser skill players putting the ball on the ground. They also got a tipped pick from Tannehill in the fourth quarter.

But even with the outstanding field position, Pittsburgh’s offense kept stalling. The Steelers started three straight drives at the Tennessee 41 or better after turnovers, and they gained two first downs and settled for three field goals. The last two field goal drives were technically three-and-out performances.

It was on the defense to make one more stop with Tannehill having 4:29 to drive for the go-ahead touchdown. This half, Tomlin had burned two of his timeouts foolishly, so it was looking like the Steelers might give up the go-ahead score with under 30 seconds left. But another critical sack changed things, and on fourth-and-7, Tannehill got into the business of throwing short of the sticks. Westbrook-Ikhine, who dropped a 40-yard bomb earlier in the game, was unable to gain the first down after a great tackle by corner Joe Haden, who returned in the nick of time for this one. It was absurd that the spot was so good for Tennessee when he clearly was never that close to converting, but replay got it sorted out and the Steelers held on for the much-needed win.

NFL teams who rush for 200 yards and hold their opponent under 200 net yards were 366-8-1 (.977) since the merger. But add a ninth loss to that stat for the Titans on Sunday. Losing the turnover battle 4-0 is the simplest way to lose a game like this.

What does it mean? The Titans (9-5) should be safe for the division, though they’ll need an upset of Kansas City to reclaim the top seed. As for Pittsburgh (7-6-1), I still think there’s nothing more on brand for Tomlin than to go 8-8-1, miss the playoffs due to a tie with Detroit, and keep up this “he’s never had a losing season!” thing. Lose in Kansas City, beat the Browns on MNF in Ben’s last home game, and have a hell of a finale in Baltimore in Week 18.

That’s really the best-case scenario at this point, and this goofy win makes it possible.

Cardinals at Lions: Broken Arizona

Matthew Stafford vs. 2021 Cardinals: 1-1. Jared Goff vs. 2021 Cardinals: 1-0. So, who really won that trade?

Jokes aside, this week was a f’n disaster for Arizona after losing to the Rams on Monday night, losing DeAndre Hopkins for possibly the season, and getting clobbered by the 1-11-1 Lions in Detroit. I liked Detroit +12.5, but my goodness, this was a wire-to-wire rout. Goff didn’t even have his best RB (Swift) or TE (Hockenson), yet he was 21-of-26 for 216 yards and three touchdowns while Kyler Murray struggled.

Kliff Kingsbury didn’t have a good day either. I thought he should have kicked the field goal on 4th-and-goal at the 3 while trailing 10-0 with 2:02 left. Get something on the board after a rough start, back to a one-score game, and use your timeouts to get the ball back. They went for it, failed, and the Lions drove 97 yards for a touchdown thanks to two roughing the passer penalties. Brutal.

The Cardinals had another shot to make it a game after getting a fumble in the third quarter, down 17-3. But Murray’s pass was jumped for a huge interception that set up a 6-yard touchdown drive to make it 24-3. It was boring from there as Detroit won 30-12. This is a team that had a 2-point win over Minnesota on the final play and a tie with the Steelers this year. They just blew out the former top seed in the NFC.

In fact, this is the first time the Lions beat a 10-win team by 18 points since a 27-9 win over Tampa Bay (10-6) in 1997. But that was early in the season when Tampa Bay was 5-1. The last time the Lions beat a team this bad that had 10 wins coming into the game? 38-6 over the 1991 Cowboys (12-5) in the NFC divisional round, the only Detroit playoff win since 1958.

Kneecaps were f’n devoured on this day by Dan Campbell’s boys.

Bengals at Broncos: Lock Down

A competitive, low-scoring game in Denver really turned in the fourth quarter when backup Drew Lock had the ball taken away from him on an ill-advised designed run that never had a chance. It was very close to being a play where the defender fumbled the ball back to the offense, but replay showed the defender was just down by contact after first getting the ball. That was still a contender for the wildest snap of the season, and it proved costly to the Broncos, who never got past midfield again in a 15-10 loss that buries them in the AFC playoff race.

This was the second week in a row where Zac Taylor’s Bengals were playing a team nearly as shitty as they are in close games. Last week, Kyle Shanahan’s 49ers came back to win in overtime. But this time, Vic Fangio dropped to 3-13 (.188) in 4QC opportunities as Denver’s coach with Lock in the game for the injured Teddy Bridgewater.

However, a mismanaged sequence before halftime also proved costly when the Broncos failed to call a run on 3rd-and-1 at the Cincinnati 33 with 17 seconds and one timeout left. Let’s be realistic. You’re not throwing a touchdown there with Bridgewater as your quarterback. This is all about the field goal and getting that first down with your offense that has been pushing the run with your duo of backs is the goal to close out this half. Run the ball, get the first, call your last timeout, then maybe you could try one throw at the end zone before sending out the kicker. Denver threw an incomplete pass, Brandon McManus missed the 51-yard field goal with nine seconds left, and Joe Burrow had enough time and a timeout to complete a 19-yard pass. That set up the Bengals for a 58-yard field goal that was good to take a 6-3 lead into the locker room.

Fangio does a lot of good things with the defense, but his teams lose a lot of these excruciatingly close, low-scoring games because of mismanaged situations like that and the red-zone play with Lock in the fourth quarter.

Next week: What? When does this week even end? There are two games on Monday and Tuesday, a Thursday night game, and two games on Saturday (Christmas). I suppose my main interest is to see if the Roethlisberger-era Steelers have one more crazy road upset left in them when they take on the Chiefs in Kansas City.

NFL Stat Oddity: Week 14

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

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

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

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

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

This season in Stat Oddity:

Bills at Buccaneers: Interfering with My Plans

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Bears at Packers: 45-30? These Two?

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

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

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

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

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

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

Raiders at Chiefs: That First Play Knockout…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Cowboys at Washington: What the Dak?

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

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

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

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

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

Hurry-Up Finish

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

Giants at Chargers: Herbert, FTW

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

NFL Stat Oddity: Week 11

What did I say Saturday about Jonathan Taylor scoring a touchdown being the safest bet in the NFL this season? I never imagined him scoring five in Buffalo, the first time anyone has scored five touchdowns on a defense that ranked No. 1 that week, but he delivered in a big way to shake up the AFC playoff picture again. The Bills have fallen to the No. 7 seed while the No. 3 Patriots are leading the AFC East behind a dominant defense, great special teams, and a young quarterback propped up by the media for his win-loss record.

While I am going to lay into Josh Allen below, I swear to f’n Christ the last reboot I want to see is the Patriots dynasty. Buffalo better figure this out ASAP.

But Indy’s Taylor not only should be the front-runner for Offensive Player of the Year, but I think we need to punish the inconsistent QB play this season and put him in the MVP conversation. It’s not like anyone has stepped up to earn it with consistently high-level play.

Did the close games return in Week 11? Not exactly. We had seven games with a comeback opportunity and a couple fake close games in the late afternoon, but at least there were three games with multiple fourth-quarter lead changes this week. Aaron Rodgers, Andy Dalton (!), and Ben Roethlisberger all registered a lost comeback after their go-ahead efforts were wasted on Sunday. But we really haven’t seen too many finishes like that this season regardless of the NFL trying to push “games decided on the final play” graphics on us.

This season in Stat Oddity:

Steelers at Chargers: No BINGO This Time

I want to re-share one of my favorite bits of research from the offseason on the Justin Herbert-era Chargers:

We were so close to getting the first blown 17-point lead in the fourth quarter of the Brandon Staley era, but once again, this team has been different this year. Despite Pittsburgh scoring 27 points in the fourth quarter and taking a 37-34 lead, Herbert calmly responded with a game-winning drive, exploiting a blown coverage for a 53-yard touchdown pass to Mike Williams with 2:09 left. The defense responded immediately with back-to-back sacks of Ben Roethlisberger to set up a 4th-and-32 incompletion to clinch the 41-37 win.

The Chargers are tied with the Ravens for the most game-winning drives (five) this season, and no defense has more holds (five) of a one-score lead than Los Angeles. In fact, the only game the Chargers lost with a fourth-quarter lead this year was against the Patriots, and that was Herbert throwing a pick-six to turn a 17-16 lead into a 24-17 deficit.

This team is 6-4 and refreshingly different. Now on Sunday night, they got a break with Pittsburgh missing key defensive starters in T.J. Watt, Joe Haden, and Minkah Fitzpatrick. But Pittsburgh still had Cameron Heyward, who wasn’t going to allow the Chargers to score on every drive as they did through three quarters. With the help of a blocked punt and a tipped ball for an interception, the Steelers scored on some short fields to make this a tied game. Then they got a fourth-and-1 stop in Los Angeles territory to take over with 3:43 left.

That’s where I think Pittsburgh really blew the golden opportunity. That could have been a moment to run out the clock and win on a field goal, but the Steelers couldn’t even get a first down. Maybe the lack of push all night on the ground and the absence of Najee Harris (concussion protocol) at the time limited their options, but that drive was poorly run. That led to the Chargers going 75 yards in just three plays after Herbert became the first quarterback to ever pass for over 380 yards and rush for over 90 yards in the same game. The Steelers had 18 carries for 55 yards against the worst run defense in the league.

I thought Roethlisberger looked very good after missing time and practice with COVID. He made some of his best throws in the last few seasons in this game. That last drive falling apart so quickly was a disappointing finish to a wild game. The Steelers (5-4-1) should have better defensive days ahead, but with the tough schedule, it’s going to be hard to finish better than 8-8-1.

Offense had been a struggle for the Chargers in three of their last four games coming into this one. I think the defense still showed a lot of cracks, but if Herbert can play at this level in the big games more often, then this team can hang with anyone this year.

It’s not like any team is running away with things this season.

Cowboys at Chiefs: The Shootout That Wasn’t

Thanks to the Steelers and Chargers for delivering the game we were supposed to get from the Chiefs and Cowboys. Both teams have had their offensive hiccups in the last month, but they were both red hot in Week 10. I can’t get behind the injury excuse for Dallas when we’ve seen this offense soar without Tyron Smith in the past and on days where Amari Cooper (COVID) was especially quiet. CeeDee Lamb played the whole first half on Sunday before leaving injured and was just ineffective as the whole Dallas offense was off.

While the Chiefs looked great in scoring on their first three drives, they too hit a funk in this surprising 19-9 final. There were two more turnovers for Patrick Mahomes, who again got hit with an interception on a pass that Travis Kelce should have caught. Kansas City only managed a field goal on its last eight drives, but that was enough to hang on for the win as the defense stepped up once again.

Prescott was just off and spent much of the game under 4.0 YPA. He finished with 216 yards on 43 passes but also took five sacks as the line was no match for an energized pass rush by the Chiefs. Chris Jones more than doubled his season sack total with 3.5 on the day.

It wasn’t the resounding “they’re fully back” performance the Chiefs may have hoped for, but it’s scary when you give Mahomes a defense. He is 38-1 when the Chiefs allow fewer than 27 points. The last time they played a stretch of football this ugly, it was 2019 and they were about to go on a Super Bowl run. They still have to avoid those bad-luck turnovers, but the defense has absolutely turned things around and getting to the bye with a 7-4 record against this schedule is an achievement.

As for Dallas, I think you have to be worried this is a typical Mike McCarthy team. Pass-happy offense and turnover-reliant defense. They’ll be ready for most of the scrubs on the schedule, but put them up against a good opponent, especially on the road, and they won’t look prepared or adaptable. That may work for a wild card win over a lesser foe, but go on the road against Green Bay, Tampa Bay, or Arizona, and I don’t see it working out for them this year.

Colts at Bills: Maybe Josh Allen Is Carson Wentz 2.0

The episode of What If…? that Marvel didn’t show you:

From the archives:

I still believe Carson Wentz’s success in 2017, which proved to be the outlier to his career, had people looking much harder than they normally would have at a raw Wyoming prospect named Josh Allen in 2018. Allen would struggle with accuracy and consistency for two years before putting together an MVP-caliber season in 2020.

But this year, right from the Week 1 loss to Pittsburgh, something has looked off with Allen. The offense added the capable Emmanuel Sanders and tight end Dawson Knox has really taken off this year to give the Bills a deeper receiving corps than 2020. Yet Allen’s QBR has dropped from 76.6 to 58.8. NBC’s Cris Collinsworth was ready to give him the MVP in Week 5 just because the Chiefs couldn’t cover deep passes. But in the weeks since, we’ve seen Allen come up short at the end of the Tennessee game, play one ugly and one great half against Miami, implode against the Jaguars, light up the lousy Jets on an abundance of play-action, and now he struggled at home with the Colts on Sunday in a blowout loss.

Last year, I thought that wild card playoff game between the Colts and Bills to open the tournament was the best-played playoff game we got. It is the only good playoff performance for Allen in four tries so far. It was a rare feat of the pass-happy, offensive juggernaut overcoming bad field position and a balanced team to get a win.

But on Sunday, the Bills were anything but ready to match the Colts, who got an MVP-caliber effort out of Jonathan Taylor with five touchdowns and 204 yards from scrimmage. Buffalo’s No. 1 defensive ranking was influenced by a soft schedule, but the Bills were shredded by the running game in this one. Wentz only completed 11-of-20 passes for 106 yards as Frank Reich mostly kept him in a game manager role.

Wentz has had much better games this season, but what if covering up some of his flaws with a running game is something the Bills should be looking into for Allen? He was the show last year and it worked (outside of Kansas City games), but now the Bills are trailing the Patriots in the division and still have to play them twice.

Both the 2016 and 2018 quarterback draft classes have shown that we shouldn’t rush to conclusions and that situation does matter for how good these quarterbacks really are. But what if like 2017 for Wentz, 2020 was just the career outlier for Allen? A perfect storm that produced a mirage of an elite quarterback, but the rest of the career shows a talented athlete with some aggravating flaws still in his game.

After 2020, I thought Allen was legitimately going to remain a top-tier quarterback and not repeat Wentz’s career path. But after 10 games this season, I’m starting to think Wentz 2.0 is what Allen was destined to be. That doesn’t mean he can’t be an upgrade on the original, but like with Wentz, let’s not pretend the one season outweighs the rest combined.

Texans at Titans: They Didn’t Get Away with It This Time

Suddenly, losing to the Patriots wouldn’t be surprising for Tennessee. While I was joking in the tweet above, how does a team beat so many contenders, usually in impressive fashion, and take such ugly losses to the Jets and Texans in 2021? I liked and picked Houston +10.5. I cited on Saturday the two close games last year and that Tyrod Taylor might be able to play closer to the player he was in the first two games this season.

That happened in this one. Taylor rushed for Houston’s only two touchdowns. But it’s not like Houston’s offense did much to win this one. The Texans were 6/17 on third down and finished with 190 yards. This was about turnovers. Not only did Ryan Tannehill throw four picks, including a dagger in the fourth quarter when he was down 19-13 and had another chance for a game-winning drive. But that muffed punt on a fluky play halfway through the third quarter was a killer. That led to a 5-yard touchdown drive and 19-0 lead for Houston, which pretty much went into the tank offensively after that.

The Titans had the ball six times in the fourth quarter alone and only scored one touchdown. They had numerous chances in this one, but the offense doomed them with mistakes. This was bound to happen when you take away Derrick Henry and Julio Jones, but I still expected better than this. I can’t imagine Tannehill has had a worse game for the Titans than this one.

This team works better as an underdog. The conference-leading favorite? I never liked that role for them. Now we’ll just see if they can stop the Patriots from getting the top seed.

Cardinals at Seahawks: Russ & Pete Going Out Sad

Remember when the Giants won in Seattle last year as a double-digit underdog despite starting backup Colt McCoy? That was a rough day for Russell Wilson and the offense as McCoy did very little. Well, he won in Seattle again as the backup-turned-starter, and this time he outplayed Wilson in his second game back from injury.

The Cardinals leaned on McCoy, and he responded with a dink-and-dunk masterclass, completing 35-of-44 passes for 328 yards and two touchdowns. He got away with three fumbles in a game that finished with zero turnovers. Even after Seattle closed it to 16-13 in the fourth, McCoy delivered a great touchdown drive to put it away at 23-13. It would have been decided sooner without an atrocious day by the usually reliable Matt Prater. He missed two sub-40 yard field goals and an extra point. But A.J. Green and Zach Ertz put in vintage performances to help this offense thrive without Kyler Murray and DeAndre Hopkins again.

The Cardinals are a league-best 9-2 and I think you have to say Kliff Kingsbury is the front-runner for Coach of the Year. The Seahawks are 3-7 and look like they will be shopping for a new coach and possibly moving Wilson in 2022.

Packers at Vikings: Captain Kirk’s Lucky Day

I don’t know if I even want to entertain Aaron Rodgers’ Toegate saga, but I know he was healthy enough to throw a touchdown pass on his last four drives after a slow start. He looked just fine doing that. This game was more about the other matchup where Minnesota’s offense really took it to Green Bay’s defense, which had been garnering praise this season. But remember, the Cardinals were crushing teams defensively and still should have lost to Minnesota, 36-34, had it not been for a missed field goal at the end. Most Minnesota games this season come down to a clutch field goal as this one did.

Minnesota (+1.5) was one of my favorite upset picks of the season in this one because this was the best team in the league with a losing record going into Week 11. They get a good lead on everyone but haven’t been able to hold enough of them. Their stars all showed up for this one as Dalvin Cook, Justin Jefferson, and Adam Thielen all scored a touchdown.

Kirk Cousins had one of the best games of his career against a defense that has embarrassed him in recent years. But he absolutely caught a break in a tied game just before the two-minute warning when a Darnell Savage interception was overturned for not completing the process. Tough break for Green Bay, but a game-changer for Minnesota. Cousins completed his next three passes and set the Vikings up for the game-winning field goal from 29 yards out. They did not Blair Walsh this one and got the 34-31 win to move to 5-5.

Bet the farm on the Packers in the Week 17 rematch in prime time.

Hurry-Up Finish

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

Washington at Carolina: Ron vs. Cam

I think it’s a safe prediction that Ron Rivera and Cam Newton will enjoy their most NFL success together rather than apart, but they were opponents on Sunday for the first time. Rivera got the better of things behind a stellar game from Taylor Heinicke, who outdueled Newton in his first start back with the Panthers. Newton did rush for a 24-yard touchdown, which is only the third time out of 74 career scores where he was outside of the red zone on a touchdown run. But Heinicke threw three touchdowns and finished with a Week 11-best 92.5 QBR.

As the case has been for his whole NFL career, Newton came up a drive (and a yard) short in the fourth quarter. He threw a yard short of the sticks to Christian McCaffrey on a fourth-and-3, and then took a sack at midfield on another fourth-and-3 to end the 27-21 loss.

Carolina coach Matt Rhule is now 0-12 in games where his offense has a 4QC/GWD opportunity. This was the first loss with Newton, but if Cam’s career continues the way it used to go under Rivera, he won’t be helping Rhule on that record. Newton’s 20-44-1 (.315) record at 4QC/GWD opportunities is the worst among the 16 quarterbacks to win NFL MVP since 1984.

49ers at Jaguars: The Longest Drive Ever?

There’s not much to say about the 49ers blowing out a terrible Jacksonville team 30-10, but how about that opening drive? San Francisco ran 20 plays to cover 87 yards before settling for a field goal (after a timeout, no less) on a drive that consumed the first 13:05 of the game. It’s probably the second-longest drive in the NFL since 1997. Maybe the second-longest in history. Not sure.

The previous longest drive in Stathead’s database going back to 2001 is 13:00 by the 2010 Giants in Seattle during the fourth quarter of a 41-7 win. A drive people used to say was the longest (it’s not) was the 2000 Giants running out the final 12:53 in the NFC Championship Game against the Vikings, a 41-0 rout. I have seen the play-by-play confirm a 13:27 drive by the 1997 Titans against Dallas, a 21-play, 90-yard drive that started in the third quarter and ended in the fourth. There are reports of the 1935 Boston Redskins, led by the incomparable Sammy Baugh, having a drive that lasted 14:03 against the Bears.

The previous longest drive to start a game since 2001 also belongs to the 49ers. It was a 12:07 drive that also ended in a field goal against the 2002 Rams in a game where the 49ers blew a 20-3 fourth-quarter lead after allowing St. Louis to score four unanswered touchdowns.

Let’s just say it might take the 2021 Jaguars the better part of a month to score four touchdowns.

Ravens at Bears: The Tyler Huntley Game

How is it the Ravens prepare Tyler Huntley in a surprise start without Marquise Brown better than the Bears prepare Justin Fields after a bye week and his best game in Pittsburgh? Oh, that’s right, a thing called coaching. This was shaping up to be your classic Kyle Boller vs. Craig Krenzel 9-6 game between these teams, but some offense broke out at the end. An injury to Fields gave way to Andy Dalton, who basically hit two fluky touchdown passes as Chicago’s only real offense on the day. The second came on a fourth-and-11 as Dalton tried to repeat his 2017 magic when he knocked the Ravens out of the playoffs in Week 17.

But Dalton left too much time for… Is it Tyler or Taylor Huntley? Tyler Huntley. Taylor is the MAGA one. Huntley had his struggles, but that 29-yard pass to Sammy Watkins to set up Devonta Freeman’s 3-yard touchdown run with 22 seconds left was a thing of beauty. That was all the Ravens needed to get to 7-3 and their fifth game-winning drive of the season.

Lions at Browns: Tim Boyle Edition

The top NFL rivalry of the early 1950s, these two teams have not seen much glory since. How about some memorable meetings? Remember the Brady Quinn-Matthew Stafford shootout in 2009? Well, Sunday’s game looked nothing like that. It was closer to the 2001 meeting where Detroit’s Ty Detmer threw seven interceptions, yet Tim Couch threw the only pick-six in what was still a 24-14 win for the Browns.

This time, Baker Mayfield (8.6) and Tim Boyle (6.7) had the only single-digit QBRs for Week 11. The Lions probably could have won this game with a healthy Jared Goff, but it was not meant to be. Boyle, who wasn’t even good in college, making his first NFL start and throwing to the worst receiving corps in the league. What could go wrong? Apparently, not enough to not cover the spread (+13) as the Lions were in this one thanks to their run game and defense. But the understandable lack of trust in the QB proved fatal to the Lions (0-9-1) in this one. Detroit ran the ball on a 3rd-and-14 with just over three minutes left before punting the ball back in a 13-10 game. Despite having four clock stoppages left, I feel that the run was a bad decision as it burned more clock. Let the bad QB throw a bomb and if it’s picked, it’s an arm punt. The Browns actually screwed up by Nick Chubb twice running out of bounds on runs that gained first downs. So it took three first downs to finally put the Lions away.

Who wants to learn how to cook this Thanksgiving instead of watching Andy Dalton vs. Tim Boyle?

Saints at Eagles: Hurts Them Again

Two of the trickiest teams in 2021, I improved to 3-7 ATS in picking New Orleans games this season by going with the Eagles (-2.5). I guess Jalen Hurts just owns the Saints on the ground after last year’s upset and now this effort with three rushing touchdowns. The 40-29 final – somehow not an NFL first – was more points than this one deserved, but the Eagles briefly made it too close for comfort despite leading 33-7 going into the fourth quarter.

Trevor Siemian warmed up after a terrible start and the Saints were only down 33-19 and in the red zone with half a quarter to play. But I have no idea what Sean Payton got out of kicking a 28-yard field goal on fourth-and-7 with 7:14 left. It was still a two-possession game. That seemed like one of the worst decisions this week. The Eagles then made the Saints burn their timeouts before Hurts put them away with his third rushing touchdown. The Saints were an elite rushing defense this season, but the Eagles finished with 50 carries for 242 yards in this one. Washington (131) had been the only offense to surpass 90 yards on the ground against the Saints before this game.

I still don’t know what the plan is for Payton this year, but at least things are trending in the right direction for Sirianni’s Eagles.

Bengals at Raiders: This Turkey Is Cooked

The Raiders really came out of their bye week with a 5-2 record before failing to score more than 16 points in their next three games, all losses. They haven’t even cracked 300 yards in the last two. They’ve had three straight games with multiple turnovers after having none in the first seven games. They are terrible on third down (1-for-7 in this game). The Bengals were nothing special in this one themselves, also failing to hit 300 yards and averaging 4.1 yards per play. But they finished drives in the fourth quarter and got Derek Carr to throw a bad interception with 4:43 left in his own territory.

This was one of the picks I was most confident in this week, but even I was surprised at a lifeless 32-13 final (surprisingly the fourth game in NFL history to end with that score).

Next week: All six teams playing on Thanksgiving lost on Sunday. Sounds fun. At least Sunday looks loaded as far as this season goes. Titans-Patriots and Rams-Packers are the marquee games of the day, and Bucs-Colts and Steelers-Bengals aren’t half bad either. Even Vikings-49ers is a potential launching point towards the No. 7 seed game in the NFC.

NFL Stat Oddity: Week 9

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

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

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

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

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

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

This season in Stat Oddity:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Vikings at Ravens: Par for the Course

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

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

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

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

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

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

Packers at Chiefs: Love Did Not Tear the Chiefs Apart

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

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

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

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

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

Broncos at Cowboys: WTF?

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

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

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

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

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

Bills at Jaguars: WTF? The Sequel

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Falcons at Saints: The Atlanta Sports Renaissance?

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

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

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

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

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

Hurry-Up Finish

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

Cardinals at 49ers: 2021 49ers Gone Fishin’

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

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

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

Browns at Bengals: One-Sided Battle of Ohio

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

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

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

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

Chargers at Eagles: The 7-on-7 Defense

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

Raiders at Giants: No Penalty, No Comeback

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

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

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

NFL Week 1 Predictions: 2021 Awards Edition

While the Buccaneers looked far from flawless on Thursday night against Dallas, they won again, getting off to a good start as the team I picked to repeat and beat the Chiefs again in February.

After writing those predictions and my mini-novel about the top 100 quarterbacks of the 21st century, I had no room left for my awards picks. I really struggle getting these right in September and my only hit last year was Chase Young for Defensive Rookie of the Year. I had Nick Bosa for DPOY and he tore his ACL in Week 2. I had Joe Burrow for OROY and injury (and Justin Herbert’s superior play) did him in as well. Injury also totally derailed my MVP/coach pick of Dak Prescott and Mike McCarthy in Dallas. I went back to the drawing board, though I did not erase Dalvin Cook for OPOY and Bosa for DPOY. I’m sticking with my gut on those two. I think people picking Aaron Donald is getting old and if the 49ers are supposed to have this great year, projected to do better than the Browns (Myles Garrett) and Steelers (T.J. Watt), then Bosa is probably going to be the star there.

  • Most Valuable Player: Tom Brady, Buccaneers
  • Coach of the Year: Brandon Staley, Chargers
  • Assistant Coach of the Year: Jack Del Rio, Washington
  • Offensive Player of the Year: Dalvin Cook, Vikings
  • Defensive Player of the Year: Nick Bosa, 49ers
  • Offensive Rookie of the Year: Kyle Pitts, Falcons
  • Defensive Rookie of the Year: Jamin Davis, Washington
  • Comeback Player of the Year: Dak Prescott, Cowboys

MVP: Last year I picked the Bucs to finish 11-5 and be the No. 5 seed, which came true. This time I picked Tampa Bay to finish 15-2, or two games ahead of any other team. I also picked the Chargers to make the playoffs with 10 wins, which is why I think you’ll see Brandon Staley get the coach award since it often goes to a newcomer who takes a losing team to the playoffs. Bruce Arians has already won the award twice, and besides, we know Brady gets all the credit for everything on his team. The “he’s 44!” line is going to be used every single game no matter how he plays.

But I’m not using Thursday night as a cheat code to make this pick after Brady threw four touchdowns. I’m sure this season I’ll show off the $200 ticket I got on Brady winning MVP (at +1200) that I made Wednesday night out of disgust for the season I saw coming. He finished last year on a high note. He has the most loaded receiving corps in the league as you can already see that Gronk is still a beast and Antonio Brown is going to milk this opportunity he doesn’t deserve for all it’s worth.

I already sense people take Patrick Mahomes for granted, and I do have some concerns that the Chiefs may not be as explosive or efficient on offense this year unless Mecole Hardman pulls his head out of his ass and has a breakout season. Where I think they can improve most is running the ball with the revamped line, but that should not bolster Mahomes’ MVP case. I just think he’ll have lesser stats than 2018 and a worse record than 2020.

I see Josh Allen and Aaron Rodgers taking a step back statistically in 2021. Rodgers has never gone MVP back-to-back. I think the 1-yard touchdowns are cut down and he won’t lead the league again in that stat or have such a high passer rating in a season that should feature more defense with the crowd backs. Maybe someone like Herbert or Dak (he could throw for 6,000 yards) is a darkhorse, but I felt confident with the Brady pick.

Enough to where I might as well win some money out of this crap.

NFL Week 1 Predictions

I started the year with a win as I changed my pick from Buccaneers -7.5 to Cowboys +9.5 as I saw the line move to that on Thursday. My final score was 31-23 TB, so I got the over as well. After updating my database in recent weeks so that I now have over 200 columns of data on every game in the last 20 seasons, I am ready to share some more interesting stats this season that you will find here and certainly on Twitter and in the articles I write.

I also discovered just how hard it is to write a Week 1 preview when we just don’t have any new data yet. Plus we are now seeing so many quarterbacks switch teams and new head coaches that it really is hard to say a lot about these games until we start seeing what these teams look like in 2021. But over at BMR I did write previews for Chargers-Washington, Bears-Rams, and Ravens-Raiders.

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

For Steelers-Bills, it is rare territory for the Steelers to be 6.5-point underdogs like this. It is only the ninth time that will happen for a game with Ben Roethlisberger at quarterback. He is 1-7 SU (beat the 2005 Colts in the playoffs) and 3-4-1 ATS. I would say a Josh Allen rushing TD is a good prop bet after Keith Butler talked up treating him like a RB on runs this week. I also like Najee Harris to find the end zone in that one. In fact, I like several rookies to score touchdowns this weekend, including Trevor Lawrence and Kyle Pitts. Seven rookies scored in their Week 1 debut last year, including Joe Burrow, Clyde Edwards-Helaire, and J.K. Dobbins. We’ve seen A.J. Green, Randall Cobb, and Tyler Lockett do it too as part of 64 rookies since 2011 who scored touchdowns in Week 1. Don’t be afraid to bet on these guys this weekend to make a good first impression.

I’ll be focusing on Steelers-Bills at 1 PM and Browns-Chiefs at 4:30 PM, so it won’t be much of a RedZone Sunday for me. Still very excited for Sunday and seeing these games play out. I’m also glad to see there is no MNF double-header as I always felt so drained by the time that second game came on in past years. Good move, NFL.

But it’s here. We get to see if some of these teams are for real, and if Carson Wentz can suck ass against the Seahawks with two different franchises.

Top 100 NFL Quarterbacks of the 21st Century: Part V (30-21)

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.

Part I (#100-87)

Part II (#86-72)

Part III (#71-51)

Part IV (#50-31)

With these next 10 quarterbacks, we are finally getting into some legitimate franchise quarterbacks. Players who were very good for more than just one year. However, we start with a polarizing figure who is coming off a career year.

30. Josh Allen

Technically, Allen is still a one-year wonder until he proves that 2020 is not his only great season. He was awful as a rookie and rode his defense to the playoffs in his second season, only showing some marginal improvement as a passer. But last year, he had an MVP-caliber season. Not a fake one either like 2016 Derek Carr or 2017 Carson Wentz. It was also better than 2015 Andy Dalton, 2015 Cam Newton, 2018 Jared Goff, 2019 Ryan Tannehill, and 2019 Jimmy Garoppolo. You see where I’m going with this, right? This is why he’s at No. 30 and ahead of those guys.

I think the way the Bills let Allen take over games and that he led the offense to at least 20 first downs in every regular season game gives hope that he can repeat this success. He didn’t rely on a strong running game as the Bills barely broke 1,300 yards to support his dual-threat abilities. The defense regressed to mediocre last year and the Bills ranked No. 8 in starting field position, so it was not like the 2015 Panthers or 2017 Eagles feasting on short fields to aid their scoring. The Bills were middle of the road in YAC per completion, so he was not getting that boost a la Goff or Garoppolo.

I’m still very uneasy with the idea that Allen will be an elite quarterback on an annual basis, but going off last year, I have to believe now he has a good shot at it. I just never would have expected this a year ago.

29. Jeff Garcia

This just misses Garcia’s peak breakout year in 2000, but he was still very good for the 49ers in 2001, had an amazing playoff comeback against the Giants in 2002, and he also helped the Eagles (2006) and Buccaneers (2007) to the playoffs. Certainly, a player who enjoyed the West Coast Offense on a competent team as he wasn’t going to elevate the Browns (2004) or Lions (2005) when he was there. I’d rank him a little higher if he did, but Garcia was a good quarterback with accuracy and mobility in the right situations.

28. Trent Green

Green had a rough first season with the Chiefs in 2001 when he threw 24 picks to lead the NFL. But over the next four seasons (2002-05), Kansas City was right up there with the Colts as the most fun offense to watch. They were loaded with one of the best offensive lines, Priest Holmes and Larry Johnson in the backfield, and Tony Gonzalez at tight end. The wide receivers were lacking in comparison to what the other top offenses had, but they made it work with Green posting some great numbers. Unfortunately, the defenses were terrible in 2002 and 2004, so they missed the playoffs. They also missed out as a 10-win team in a loaded AFC in 2005. Then in 2003 when the team was 13-3, they opened with their nemesis from Indianapolis, and the Colts prevailed 38-31 in a game that did not feature a single punt.

By 2006, Green suffered a concussion and was never the same. He was outplayed by Damon Huard that year, and I think it’s clear that Huard should have started the wild card game in Indianapolis instead of Green. The Chiefs lost 23-8 with Green having one of the worst statistical games of his career (14-of-24 for 107 yards, 1 TD, 2 INT, four sacks). After 2005, he was 4-10 as a starter with 12 TD and 22 INT.

But that four-year period in 2002-05 was special. If you want an amusing stat on the context of where quarterback stats used to be in the NFL, consider this one. Green is the second quarterback in NFL history after Brett Favre (1994-97) to have four straight seasons with a passer rating over 90.0 (min. 450 attempts).

27. Chad Pennington

Odd-numbered year Pennington would not have made my list because he failed to start 30 games in those injury-plagued seasons in 2003, 2005, 2007, and 2009. But even-numbered year Pennington in 2002, 2004, 2006, and 2008? He was pretty much just as good and sometimes better than early Tom Brady but without Bill Belichick and all those great advantages of a complete team. Can you imagine Brady’s kicker missing two game-winning field goals in the playoffs against a 15-1 team? That denied Pennington his best shot at getting to a Super Bowl by beating Drew Brees, Ben Roethlisberger, and Brady in the same postseason.

Pennington finished No. 7 in QBR in 2006 and 2008. If the stat went back further, he probably would have finished close to that in 2004 and a good shot at No. 1 in 2002. That was the year he came off the bench to take over for Vinny Testaverde and led the Jets to a division title over Brady’s Patriots and a playoff win over Manning’s Colts. Pennington finished 2002 ranked No. 1 in DVOA, No. 2 in DYAR despite only 12 starts, and he led the NFL in completion percentage, TD%, and passer rating back when a 104.2 rating meant something.

Stylistically, Pennington was never my cup of tea. He was a dink-and-dunk quarterback like Brady, but his efficiency numbers in 2002 were something Brady never could achieve until 2007. But after numerous injuries, it just took more out of Pennington’s already limited arm. By 2008, he was in Miami and helped turn around a Dolphins team from 1-15 to 11-5 and the playoffs. He bombed in the playoffs with four interceptions against a tough Baltimore defense. In 2009, he lost a Monday night game to the Colts after his defense allowed 27 points in just 14:53 time of possession. That would be the last start he finished in the NFL.

Pennington was the closest thing to a formidable quarterback rival the Patriots had to deal with in their division for two decades during their dynasty run.

26. Michael Vick

My line on Vick a decade ago was when has a quarterback ever cost so much to produce so little? The answer to that is now Sam Bradford. At least Vick had some successful seasons, an incredible highlight reel, and I think he is still the most dangerous runner to ever play quarterback. Lamar Jackson runs more than Vick did and is a better passer, which is why he will have more success than Vick, but in terms of pure rushing ability, I’d still take Vick’s legs over anyone.

My first real glimpse of it was in 2002 when he erased a 17-point deficit in the fourth quarter in Pittsburgh. The game ended in a 34-34 tie, the first tie I ever remember watching in the NFL. Vick had more prolific rushing numbers in 2004 and 2006, but I still think 2002 was his best dual-threat season in Atlanta. He did not develop enough as a passer.

Then we started learning about the silliness of Ron Mexico, his immaturity, and then the disgusting details of his involvement in dogfighting in 2007. I’m not sure his career recovers in today’s climate, but the Eagles and Andy Reid gave him a second shot. He took over for an injured Kevin Kolb in 2010 and had a really fine season that could have even been MVP worthy if he had been a 16-game starter. Reid definitely got more out of him as a passer and I think if you watched a highlight reel of Vick, a lot of the throws would come from that 2010 season. Who can forget the Washington game when he threw for 333 yards, four touchdowns, and rushed for 80 yards and two more touchdowns? That was peak Vick in Philly.

Of course, his shot at glory came in the wild card playoffs and he missed it when he threw a game-ending interception against the Packers. It was inches away from being a touchdown, which could have meant zero rings for Aaron Rodgers to this day. After that stellar season, Vick signed yet another huge contract that I can recall bashing for an article on Cold, Hard Football Facts that is no longer active. Sure enough, the Dream Team faltered, and Vick did not repeat his success. He did not have a horrible season, but it was just not up to the level of the contract he just signed. He did have a poor season in 2012 that led to Reid being fired, and only for a few games did it look like the marriage with Chip Kelly would work. Nick Foles ended up being the star of that 2013 season and Vick’s time as a franchise quarterback was over.

It will be hard to write about the history of the NFL without mentioning Vick. We are seeing quarterbacks enter the league now who probably grew up watching him. But now these great athletes who decide to play quarterback tend to be passers first, rushers second. We have seen this with Cam Newton, Russell Wilson, Dak Prescott, Deshaun Watson, Patrick Mahomes, Josh Allen, etc. Even someone like Justin Herbert can move a little. The days of the statuesque pocket passer are numbered. I think Vick has influenced this more than any other quarterback, but his career shortcomings are also a lesson that the ability to pass and leadership are still very important to having a successful career at this position in the NFL.

25. Cam Newton

I feel like there are two dominant ways to cover Cam Newton’s career, and I have never fit in either one of them. One is to praise and prop him up no matter what. Inflate the greatness of his rookie season, give him an MVP he didn’t deserve, blame everything bad on his health and blame the Carolina offensive line for his health, etc. The other is to criticize him for some of the silliest things that have nothing to do with football like his style selection, his “fake smile” as was once used in a scouting report, the font in his social media posts, or if you’re a shitbag from Boston still stuck in the 1990s, you blame rap music for distracting Cam in practice.

For me, there has always been enough on-field issues with Newton to criticize his play on that basis and not worry about the other noise. So, that is what I’ve been doing for a decade on this blog and elsewhere. Newton has destroyed the quarterback record for rushing touchdowns with 70, but I still think with more than half of those coming from inside the 3-yard line and only two longer than 16 yards, it’s a reflection of unique usage rather than remarkable efficiency. Given the health problems he has had in his career, it is hard to argue that it has been the smart way to use him.

But it’s that rushing success that has to carry Cam over since his passing has never been consistent enough. Even when he won MVP in 2015, he finished 11th in QBR because he was only 12th in pass EPA. I will always say I think Carson Palmer deserved that award more that year, but Newton did have the 11-game peak of his career in Weeks 9-20 that season. From the Green Bay game through the NFC Championship Game win, he threw 27 touchdowns to three interceptions and rushed for eight more scores. That is the foundation of an MVP season, but he was nowhere near that level in the first seven games (11 TD, 8 INT, 78.1 PR). And we know how poorly he played in the Super Bowl against Denver’s tough defense. Those two fumbles caused by Von Miller were the difference in the game.

Newton regressed in 2016, bounced back in 2017, and was doing well in 2018 until he lost his last six starts and injury crept up again. He was not doing bad at all in his first three games with the Patriots last year, but once he got COVD, he was a mess. You couldn’t even trust him to throw for 100 yards, which he failed to do in three different starts.

I have not done the work to verify this yet, but it is hard to imagine there is another quarterback in NFL history with a winning record as a starter (75-63-1) who has had a losing record in 70% of his seasons (7-of-10). Newton is for a fact the only one to do it since 2001 (min. 30 starts).

Now, we have the surprise cut in New England last week as he lost his job to rookie Mac Jones. Newton had a chance to be Tom Brady’s successor and coached by Bill Belichick, but he dropped the bag again. That was the last sign I needed that I could not possibly rank him higher than 25th.

You are probably wondering why rank him this high at all? For starters, if I am ranking a player lower than I perceive the average person would, my instinct is to make the write-up more negative and focus on his flaws to justify my lower ranking. Likewise, if I rank a player higher than I perceive the average person would (like Jared Goff), I make it sound positive to justify why I am that high. That feels pretty logical and normal to me.

But without running back through the last 75 names, I can acknowledge that Newton is a unique talent as a runner and passer who has not played with the greatest collection of talent in the league. By the time he got to the Patriots, those shelves looked like a grocery store three months into the zombie apocalypse.

I can say that Cam’s A-game is top 25 worthy on this list. I think on the strength of his rookie season, his MVP/Super Bowl season, and that 2017 playoff season, just those three seasons alone have to put him in the top 40. With those highs on his resume, then it is just a matter of placing him over your hollow stat guys (Cousins/Bulger/Green), your injured/implosion guys (Pennington/Delhomme/Schaub/Cutler), your playoff heroes (Foles/Flacco), or a guy who was blackballed (Kaepernick) and one who took forever to break out (Tannehill). I also put Newton ahead of Vick because I think he’s been able to achieve more as a passer.

Will I have anything more to say about Newton going forward? That’s on him to decide. Either way, I’ll keep it focused to what he does on the field.

24. Matthew Stafford

While Cam Newton got cut by the Patriots, Matthew Stafford fetched a couple first-round picks from the Rams this year. That makes me feel justified in this ranking, though I’ve always kept them pretty close together since 2011 when they both had their breakout year.

Stafford is more my style of a passing quarterback, though he has never put together a truly elite season yet. He has had several very good seasons and taking the Lions to the playoffs three times is no small feat, but my line on him has been that most of the league would have to retire for him to be a top 10 quarterback. Well, we’re getting pretty close with retirements from Peyton Manning, Tony Romo, Carson Palmer, Andrew Luck, Philip Rivers, and Drew Brees in recent years. That’s a bit of a spoiler alert for who is still to come, by the way.

And yes, Stafford is 8-68 (.105) against teams that finish the season with a winning record as I wrote about in detail for the Rams preview. I was the writer who put that stat out many years ago and it became a talking point in the front office in Detroit, and I have to imagine Stafford is personally aware of his record.

So, we’ll see how he does with the Rams and Sean McVay and a roster with a few elite players. But it is a tough division, and he will have to do something he’s never done in 12 years: beat multiple teams with a winning record. Forget the playoffs, if you consider the teams he needs to beat in the regular season just to get a good seed to make that Super Bowl run realistic, we could be talking about six or more wins this year against winning teams. But again, I think he is a talented player who was limited in success by his surroundings in Detroit, so I am excited to see what happens this year.

23. Steve McNair

Some of McNair’s best work came before 2001, but I still have him high because I respected him. Watching him kick the Steelers’ ass almost annually was really frustrating. There was a stretch from 1997-2003 where he was 10-2 against the Steelers. One of those games he just came off the bench at the end and led a game-winning drive with ease. Another was that exciting divisional round playoff game in the 2002 season, a 34-31 overtime win for the Titans.

Given the way we roast Jeff Fisher as the 7-9 coach, McNair deserves a lot of credit for getting to so many big playoff games with him and winning co-MVP in 2003. Granted, I think Peyton Manning should have won that award outright, but I can understand where people were coming from on McNair leading the league in YPA and passer rating that year. I just didn’t like the fact that the Titans won both games he missed and he lost both head-to-head games and the division title to Manning’s Colts. But anyways, he absolutely had a shot to beat the Patriots in the divisional round that year, but Drew Bennett dropped a pass on fourth down. (You know who willed it.)

McNair was also a steady quarterback for a 2006 Baltimore team that just needed him to not screw things up. Well, he kind of did in the playoffs against the Colts and the team lost 15-6. He only started six more games in 2007 before retiring. But retirement was not for long after he was the victim of a murder-suicide on the Fourth of July in 2009. I still often think about McNair on that holiday as the breaking news of that moment was such a shocking, tragic event.

22. Deshaun Watson

Twenty-two, does that number ring a bell? That’s how many women are accusing Watson of sexual assault. If all 22 players on a football field accused Watson of some misconduct, and they each had a detailed story about it that shows some clear patterns of bad behavior, would you say all 22 are lying and fabricated their stories? The only All-22 I want from Watson right now is the truth about these accusations because it sure feels like he has pissed away a potential Hall of Fame career and deserves to go to prison.

Then again, we’re talking about the NFL – not the governor of New York or the host of Jeopardy! or The Jump, so maybe he still has a shot to continue his QB1 career somewhere. For a league that has blackballed Colin Kaepernick over social justice and ended Ray Rice’s career over one video of the worst moment of his life, they remain quiet and gutless over a superstar who may be the Bill Cosby of the NFL. I want to see some leadership and action on this, because letting him play this year with this hanging over the team would be a total farce.

I was definitely a fan of Watson’s, so this is disappointing on many levels. Some of my favorite athletes and directors have gone through scandal before, but never on a scale of this many accusers. While I doubt the full truth is ever going to come out as it rarely does in these cases, I hope we hear his side of the story. A bunch of settlements and sweeping this under the rug like it never happened would be inexcusable, but the cynic in me still sees that as the most likely outcome.

Today in this country we have a very fucked up system of deciding who must go away and who gets to continue their career. What ever happened to the punishment fitting the crime?

21. Dak Prescott

I still believe Dak Prescott had the best rookie quarterback season in NFL history in 2016. He just had the misfortune of running into a hot Aaron Rodgers in the playoffs that year and not getting the ball last. Prescott was off to a good start in his second season before hitting a rough patch when the offense was shorthanded (injured Tyron Smith, suspended Ezekiel Elliott). This alarmingly carried over into 2018 and it’s that 13-game slump that really soured a lot of people on Dak. But not me. If someone was really good for 24 games, then slumped for 13 games, I think you should still trust the larger sample size.

Once the Cowboys got Amari Cooper, who I never thought was that special in Oakland, situated as the No. 1 wideout, Prescott picked things up again. He led the team to a playoff win over the Seahawks, and then in 2019 he started to take control of the offense as a prolific passer. He threw for 4,902 yards, but the team went 0-8 when it failed to score at least 31 points. Last year, Dak was off to an incredible start before breaking his ankle. He was two attempts shy of qualifying his 371.2 passing yards per game average as a new NFL record. He passed for 450 yards in three straight games, another NFL first, but it was more out of necessity with Dallas’ horrific defense and his teammate’s lack of ball security with fumbles.

I think Prescott is easy to root for, he has continued to improve his game, and he has shown he can put the team on his back. He had 15 game-winning drives in his first three seasons but only one since 2019. I look for him to have a huge year in 2021, but I’m not so sure the Dallas defense is ready for it to be a special Super Bowl year.

But Prescott is absolutely a quarterback who can step up and take Dallas there in an NFC that should not have Tom Brady and Aaron Rodgers for that much longer.

Coming in Part VI: Two Hall of Famers and a few who could have been in Canton.

NFL MVP Update: Why Not Kyler Murray?

Just past the midpoint of 2020, I always like to weigh in on the NFL MVP race around this time. In my first non-game preview piece for Sportsbook Review, I looked at the MVP cases for the three leaders according to the oddsmakers at Bovada: Russell Wilson (+185), Patrick Mahomes (+200), and Aaron Rodgers (+333).

How close is this thing? I wrote that article just before MNF and the odds have changed again as the bets pour in. Mahomes (+180) is the favorite, followed by Wilson (+225), Rodgers (+300), and Kyler Murray (+550) has crept up to fourth after Sunday’s memorable comeback win. Murray was +700 on Monday night, by the way.

Since I was trying to stay under a word limit, I wanted to add a little more context to my piece here, including some answers to tweets about it. Also, I have a table to share that probably would look like crap on that site as it barely fits on here well because of how wide it is.

This is a table of MVP winners (QB only) back to 1987 that I’ve maintained for several years now as a fine litmus test to see who is in the running. I included the four 2020 quarterbacks at the bottom with their ranks in ESPN’s QBR, YPA, the FO efficiency stats, and the drive stats that I always push as being important. Remember, you can build a very good QB ranking list from just looking at the average rank in offensive yards per drive for the careers of these quarterbacks.

You can see leading the league in these metrics (#1, darkest green) is a great way to justify winning MVP as a quarterback. Perhaps the most telling one is that no one has been able to win MVP without finishing in the top five in points per drive, and even 2003 Steve McNair, a co-MVP who should not have gotten a share of it with Peyton Manning, was the only season that finished fifth.

This also leads credence to the way I wrote about the race: it’s mostly between Mahomes and Rodgers as Wilson is trending downwards.

As for why not Murray, he certainly could win the award when it’s all said and done. I think he would have to throw for 4,000 yards, rush for 1,000 yards, and finish with over 40 total touchdowns to have a case. Winning the division would also really help. That’s doable, but when I pitched this article a week ago it looked like a three-man race to me, the oddsmakers agreed, and then only until a crazy Hail Mary that DeAndre Hopkins came down with did we really start to think of Murray in this conversation.

But the numbers also show why I think the Murray MVP talk is premature. He’s not in the green for any stats, and he would have the lowest rank of any MVP winner for most of them, especially the passing ones.

Now you can say what about his rushing value? Why isn’t that factored in? You can’t say it’s not factored in as QBR certainly looks at that, and we’ve already seen this play out with 2015 Cam Newton and 2019 Lamar Jackson. The difference is Jackson was still very efficient as a passer last year, certainly more than Murray has been this year through nine games. As for Newton, well you can see why I have always been on the Carson Palmer bandwagon for 2015 as the best quarterback start to finish that season. Newton is an outlier on this MVP table, and 2015 is an outlier in his career as well.

So I am interested to see how the rest of this one plays out with several interesting matchups left, including the next game on Thursday night between Wilson and Murray. That could be the game where Murray leapfrogs Wilson in the standings for good, or it could also be Wilson regaining the lead going into the weekend. This is far from decided.

Finally, I’ll just say that throwing $10 on Ben Roethlisberger (+2500) wouldn’t be the worst bet you can make this week. I still don’t think 16-0 is going to happen for the Steelers. They will slip up at least once. But if he got them there with about 40 touchdown passes, and the running game continues to stink, then that’s going to be a really hard case to ignore.

Imagine that, the season where Russell Wilson was finally going to get MVP votes turns into a year where Big Ben gets his first and wins it all.

I know, it’s 2020, this is going to end horribly with Tom Lucky Fvcking Brady winning MVP, but just let me have some nice thoughts.

Aaron Rodgers’ Down Years Are Not Career Years for Most QBs

It only took one week for the Russell Wilson MVP season to take a back seat to the Aaron Rodgers 2020 Revenge Tour. A big part of that is Wilson playing fruitless Miami in Sunday’s early slate rather than roasting the winless Falcons on Monday night, but the fact is Wilson already has major competition from Rodgers, who seeks his third MVP and first since 2014.

On Tuesday, Rodgers took to Pat McAfee’s show and had this exchange about his so-called down years and how they would be career years for most quarterbacks:

If he’s counting backups, then of course he’s right about this. Rodgers has done more in the first four games this season than most backups have done in their whole careers.

But if we’re expanding this to the other 31 starting quarterbacks in 2020, then Rodgers is really stretching the definitions of “most” and “career years.” Even if we’re being generous and looking for 15 quarterbacks to qualify, he still comes up short, and it’s only a number as high as it is because of the current youth movement at the position with a lot of first and second-year starters in place.

Step 1: Which Seasons Are Down Year Aaron?

First, let’s figure out what “down years” are for Rodgers so we can count how many quarterbacks haven’t had a career year as good as them. His first year as a starter (2008) was good as far as expectations should go for a first-year starter in that era, but we’ll ignore that one since he technically had nothing to come down from at the time. I’m also going to overlook 2017 when he broke his collarbone again and missed nine full games.

This leaves three obvious choices, which also happen to be Rodgers’ bottom three seasons in ESPN’s QBR and completion percentage:

  • 2015: The Jordy Nelson-less year, the 6-0 start, then the Denver nightmare and fall from grace.
  • 2018: Mike McCarthy’s swansong as Rodgers fell in love with throwaways in a 6-9-1 season.
  • 2019: The Packers made it to the NFC Championship Game, but Rodgers finished lower than ever (20th) in QBR and barely threw for 4,000 yards.

These are the three seasons we’ll work with.

Step 2: Cross Out the Obvious Ones

While we are undergoing a transition period at the position, there are still plenty of accomplished players, both young and old, at quarterback in the NFL. So let’s cross out all the obvious ones who have a career year better than any of Rodgers’ down years. Some of the peak years I’ve chosen could be debated (some have multiple listed for that reason), but there is no debate that these quarterbacks can say they’ve had a career year better than Rodgers’ 2015, 2018 or 2019.

  • Tom Brady (peak: 2007)
  • Philip Rivers (peak: 2008/2009)
  • Drew Brees (peak: 2011)
  • Matthew Stafford (peak: 2011)
  • Nick Foles (peak: 2013)
  • Ben Roethlisberger (peak: 2014)
  • Cam Newton (peak: 2015)
  • Russell Wilson (peak: 2015/2019)
  • Matt Ryan (peak: 2016)
  • Dak Prescott (peak: 2016)
  • Derek Carr (peak: 2016)
  • Carson Wentz (peak: 2017)
  • Patrick Mahomes (peak: 2018)
  • Jared Goff (peak: 2018)
  • Deshaun Watson (peak: 2018/2019)
  • Lamar Jackson (peak: 2019)
  • Kirk Cousins (peak: 2019)
  • Jimmy Garoppolo (peak: 2019)
  • Ryan Tannehill (peak: 2019)

That’s already 19 quarterbacks, leaving 12 left besides Rodgers.

Step 3: The Dirty Dozen

As I list these 12 quarterbacks, note their years of experience in the NFL in parenthesis. Seven of them are in their first or second season.

  • Joe Burrow (1)
  • Justin Herbert (1)
  • Kyler Murray (2)
  • Gardner Minshew (2)
  • Daniel Jones (2)
  • Dwayne Haskins (2)
  • Drew Lock (2)
  • Baker Mayfield (3)
  • Sam Darnold (3)
  • Josh Allen (3)
  • Teddy Bridgewater (7; peak in 2015)
  • Ryan Fitzpatrick (16; peak was 2015 or 2018)

Let’s quickly call off the dogs from at least four fan bases, starting with the Bills Mafia. Yes, if Josh Allen plays anything like he has the first four games for the rest of the season, then he’ll be added to the previous group to make it an even 20 quarterbacks. Meanwhile, Joe Burrow and Justin Herbert are rookies just three or four games into their careers. If the starts are any indication, they won’t have a problem soon outdoing Down Year Aaron. Kyler Murray’s had a couple of disappointing games after a good start to 2020, but he’s just 20 games into his career. Give him time.

Given the draft prospects of Gardner Minshew (sixth-round pick) and Daniel Jones (expected bust), their rookie seasons were way better than expectations. They still have potential. Drew Lock has only started seven games, so there’s hardly any certainty there. He’s still better off than Dwayne Haskins, who may not have the job by November at this rate.

Baker Mayfield and Sam Darnold were the first two quarterbacks off the board in 2018, and they’re certainly looking like disappointments relative to Allen and Lamar. Maybe if Darnold can get away from Adam Gase and/or the Jets he’ll have a shot, but it hasn’t been pretty so far. Mayfield’s rookie season (2018) actually stacks up pretty close to Rodgers’ 2018 from an efficiency basis, so he’s not that far off here. He just is much more likely to throw interceptions, but we’ll see if he can get the Browns back to the playoffs this year.

The only starters with more than three years in the league are Teddy Bridgewater and Ryan Fitzpatrick. Bridgewater actually won the division over Rodgers in 2015 before suffering that catastrophic leg injury in the following offseason, so this is only his third year as a full-time starter. This could be his career year for a Carolina team no one expected much from.

That means Fitzpatrick is the only quarterback who has started full time for more than three years and hasn’t really beaten out Down Year Aaron, though he was in the ballpark in 2015 with the Jets when he threw 31 touchdowns for a 10-win team. Fitzpatrick actually finished higher in QBR (62.0; 10th) than Rodgers (60.0; 14th) that year. Almost splitting hairs here. Fitzpatrick is just a Tua placeholder in Miami these days.

If we went back to the 2015-19 period of starters, then we’d still have a lot of quarterbacks who clearly have a better peak year than Down Year Aaron, including Peyton Manning, Tony Romo, Carson Palmer, Alex Smith, Jay Cutler, Michael Vick, Eli Manning, Andrew Luck, Joe Flacco, Andy Dalton, Colin Kaepernick, etc.

However, Rodgers would at least win the argument over Blake Bortles and Brock Osweiler…

Conclusion: Rodgers Was Wrong

So when Rodgers claimed his down years are career years for most quarterbacks, he may have had the Brett Hundleys and Jordan Loves of the world in mind. He probably didn’t think he was just dunking on Fitzmagic, Cheesecake Factory Baker, Teddy’s Wounded Knee, and that hot mess that plays at MetLife Stadium right now. When you go through the starters in this league, what Rodgers said about his down years is simply not true.

Hey, it’s just the facts, bro.

(If you listened to the end of the McAfee clip, then you already knew how I was going to end this)