Sunday in the NFL lasted just over 15 hours from the first snap in London to the last snap in Kansas City after a weather delay. If that wasn’t the longest day of action in NFL history, then I don’t know what else could be.
It was a day of ugly field goal kicking, yet the Vikings somehow pulled off a 54-yard game-winning kick. Of course, Detroit helped by making its incredible 10-point comeback (helped by an Alexander Mattison fumble) a 1-point lead by going for two with 37 seconds left. That was too much time with the Vikings having two timeouts. I know Kirk Cousins kind of sucks at comebacks and his kickers are not reliable, but that was a bad decision to go for two there. Play for overtime after holding down the Vikings from scoring much all day. Instead, the Vikings got a drive together because they had to and won the game on a 54-yard field goal that Greg Joseph actually made despite being an employee of the Vikings. At least it gave us this moment:
It was a day of close games as we had 10 comeback opportunities in Week 5, outdoing the previous high of any week this season (eight). Let’s quickly hit on three of them since I need to wrap this up after getting a late start.
49ers at Cardinals: Trey Lance made his starting debut, but he couldn’t keep the rocket launcher under wraps when the 49ers just needed a simple scoring drive in a 17-10 loss to the now 5-0 Cardinals, who apparently are not going to score 31-plus every week this season. Kyle Shanahan loses another close game? Jimmy Garoppolo and George Kittle out with injuries again? Who could have imagined?
Patriots at Texans: The Patriots came through with a comeback win over the Houston Texans after Davis Mills had maybe the most absurd stat line yet for a rookie against a Bill Belichick-coached defense. Mills just had an early contender for worst game of the decade against Buffalo last week, but now he has the ninth game on record where a QB lost with a passer rating of at least 140.0 (min. 25 passes). I guess the Patriots can still win games where their quarterback was not the best one on the field.
Bears at Raiders: Finally, Jon Gruden’s Raiders had their “but his emails” loss at home to the Bears. Maybe it was too much of a distraction, and maybe he just showed his true colors. All I know is once you blow some smoke up his ass, this is the kind of performance you can count on in the next game. The last two sentences are about Derek Carr, by the way.
But the only game that came close to pulling off instant classic status came in the late afternoon slate instead of the prime-time matchup between the Bills and Chiefs. Browns-Chargers was the Shawn Michaels vs. Razor Ramon Ladder Match in WrestleMania X of Week 5 in the NFL, but I have to start with the perception-changing game that played out in Kansas City.
About the last thing I want to do is write an obituary for the 2021 Chiefs after Week 5 and after a ridiculously tough schedule where the Browns, Ravens, Chargers, and now Bills all gave them their best shot. But there is no denying that the Chiefs failed three of those tests from their key AFC challengers and barely escaped the Browns in Arrowhead in Week 1. The offense has too many turnovers and the defense is going for historic levels of suck. The 2021 Chiefs are the fourth team in NFL history to allow more than 28 points in each of the first five games, joining the 1954 Cardinals, 2012 Titans, and 2013 Giants. It’s like watching the 2000 Rams, the forgotten little defense-less brother to the 1999 and 2001 Super Bowl teams in St. Louis.
But through four weeks, the defense could be excused to a point as the offense was scoring a touchdown on 50% of its drives and converting on third down at a record rate. If not for a fumble in Baltimore, this team could easily be 3-1.
But that took a hit Sunday night as the Bills came in to avenge their two losses from 2020 and wiped the floor with the Chiefs, 38-20, despite a long weather delay at halftime. Getting blown out at home is just another layer of invincibility ripped away from the Chiefs in the Patrick Mahomes era. While the stakes were not as high, the 18-point loss looked worse than the team’s 31-9 loss in Super Bowl 55 to Tampa Bay. At least on that night the reshuffled offensive line was a built-in excuse for the poor pass protection. The Chiefs just couldn’t come down with any of Mahomes’ miracle passes and the defense was stumped by simple play-action throws.
This was more of a beatdown. Mahomes played the first truly awful game of his NFL career, missing often on throws regardless of pressure or an open receiver. He completed 33-of-54 passes for 272 yards and had three turnovers, including a pick-six, a red-zone pick after another tipped ball, and a fumbled snap in the rain to end things. The bounces? They’re no longer going Kansas City’s way and that was predictable.
But this was not another blown lead in the fourth quarter like Baltimore and Los Angeles. The Chiefs led 10-7 early in the second quarter and never led again. The best they could do was make it 31-20 in the fourth quarter. But after Josh Allen seemingly threw an interception from his own end zone, the Chiefs were flagged for roughing the passer. It was a weak call, but it was also in a series of calls on both teams that made me question what roughing the passer and pass interference are in this league anymore. The refs had a bad night, but they didn’t decide this game.
That roughing call stands out the most just because it killed any chance for an exciting finish. Allen was still at his own 23 after that call. The Chiefs could have stopped the Bills, but instead they watched them march 77 more yards for a game-clinching touchdown to go up 38-20.
Maybe that Buffalo defense is for real as this was not a matter of beating up on a wounded offense like in the first four weeks of the season. They smacked the Chiefs around in Arrowhead. I asked in the offseason what really changed to improve this Buffalo defense from the mediocre unit it was a year ago that had no real hope of winning a Super Bowl? Well, one name I underestimated was first-round pick Gregory Roussea. The defensive end did his best J.J. Watt impersonation and tipped a Mahomes pass at the line to himself for a big red-zone pick in the third quarter. The Bills reportedly did not even blitz Mahomes once in this game, choosing to rush four and play Cover 2 to take away the big plays.
The Chiefs had just two plays that gained more than 17 yards in the game, a shockingly low figure for this offense. One was a 23-yard scramble by Mahomes too. This was a big difference in the meetings last year when the Chiefs did what they wanted, and Allen’s offense couldn’t get anything big. On Sunday night, the Bills had seven plays of 20-plus yards, including four completions of 35-plus yards (two for touchdowns).
Allen had 315 yards on 15 completions. Other than a slow third quarter after the 70-plus minute halftime delay, the Bills were just about unstoppable on offense. Combine that with a defense capable of playing the Chiefs like this and it’s a championship combination. The Bills may only be an underdog one more time this season when they play in Tampa Bay. It seems rather likely that this team will be the favorite for the No. 1 seed in the AFC.
The Chiefs may be fortunate just to get a wild card at this point if things don’t tighten up on both sides of the ball but especially on defense.
With the Bills and Ravens stepping up this season against the Chiefs as well as the two teams I’m writing about next (Browns and Chargers), the AFC might be just fine going forward as a super competitive conference where any one of these teams can advance each year. It’s not going to be a runaway for Mahomes and the Chiefs to keep hosting AFC Championship Games and going to the Super Bowl. They had that window for three years and turned it into one championship while the rest of the teams were figuring themselves out.
If 2021 is any indication, those teams have figured out the Chiefs too.
Browns at Chargers: 47-42 Part Deux
What a whacky, fun game with huge plays, terrible tackling, six fourth down attempts (and then some negated by penalty), and 41 points in the fourth quarter alone. Of course, the Browns ended up on the wrong side of history again.
We may need to start calling Baker Mayfield the “Score 42 and Lose” QB after it happened to him for a third time. He lost his first career start, 45-42, to the Raiders in 2018. He lost 47-42 to the Ravens last year after Lamar Jackson returned from taking a shit. Now he’s lost 47-42 again to the Chargers in the second 47-42 game in NFL history. Mayfield is somehow 2-3 when he leads his team to at least 42 points while the rest of the NFL is 69-2 since 2018. The Browns (four times) have broken their tie with Washington and the Chiefs (three each) for the most losses in NFL history after scoring at least 42 points.
None of this is to say that Mayfield is the reason Cleveland loses these games. He was great on Sunday at playing through a torn labrum after some struggles in recent weeks. The offense was fantastic, but it is hard to win on the road when you allow five touchdowns on six second-half drives like the Browns did.
This thing was back and forth and not even a failed game-tying extra point by the Chargers with 3:15 left could derail it. That actually ended up helping the Chargers since the Browns did not go all out in a tied 42-42 game. Instead with a 42-41 lead, they ran on first down and on third-and-9 and let the Chargers get the ball back with plenty of time. Justin Herbert only needed one pass to get into field-goal range. After Austin Ekeler slid down at the Cleveland 3 with 1:38 left, the Browns called their final timeout. That slide tells me the Chargers were content with kicking the field goal to win 44-42 at the buzzer. A smart move even if you are shaky about it given the team’s historic struggles on special teams in crunch time.
So, why wouldn’t Herbert just take a series of knees to bleed the clock and kick the field goal? Head coach Brandon Staley is getting a ton of buzz for his embrace of analytics despite being a defensive coach, but he bungled the end of the Chiefs game by scoring a touchdown and giving Mahomes a shot to answer, and it happened again here. Ekeler got the carry and while he tried to not score, the Browns did the smart thing and pulled his ass into the end zone for the score with 91 seconds left.
Wow, just typing “91 seconds” really sells how much of a mistake this was. They gave a hot offense they couldn’t stop all day plenty of time to answer. It could have been an even more delicious addition to Chargers BINGO given the offense came up short on the two-point conversion and only led 47-42. Now the Browns could win it with a touchdown in regulation.
But it took 50 seconds for Mayfield to move the offense 11 yards as he only made short throws. That was piss-poor execution in that moment. After getting to the Cleveland 46, the Browns could not gain another yard and Mayfield’s Hail Mary fell incomplete with players bumping into each other.
Behind Staley and Herbert, the CHARGERS are leading the league with three game-winning drives. The CHARGERS are 4-1 in close games and lead the league with four defensive holds of a one-score lead.
Staley is far from perfect. His defense just gave up 42 points to a team that scored 14 last week. He’s mismanaged two of the last three finishes. He’s inherited an incredible young quarterback in Herbert who is making strides in his second season. But there is no denying that Staley is pushing this team to aggressively get leads and hold onto them once they have them. The Chargers of old would never be 4-1 right now and that is a credit to this new coach.
The Browns may still be the “good enough to get beat close” team in the AFC, which is still a huge step up from the pre-Mayfield era. But for a change, the Chargers just may have the potential to be closers and real contenders this season. That sounds like the setup for an incoming beatdown in Baltimore next Sunday, but what if this team is just finally different?
Packers at Bengals: Kicking Woes
Weird things always happen when Aaron Rodgers plays the Bengals, but this game takes the cake. If you wanted to script an overtime tie, apparently you have to get the Packers or Bengals involved. I thought for sure this one was headed there after the two kickers combined to miss five go-ahead field goals in a span of six drives.
Fortunately, we got a winner. Fortunately, it was the right winner too as Green Bay should have put this game away multiple times in the fourth quarter and again to start overtime.
Would I have been happy if Rodgers got credit for a game-winning drive after Aaron Jones ripped off a 57-yard run and he threw two incomplete passes? No, but Mason Crosby has to hit that 36-yard field goal after a streak of 27 straight makes. Would I have said Rodgers was unlucky had he lost after his kicker missed from 36 and Cincinnati kicker Evan McPherson hit from 57? Yes, absolutely. But the Bengals called a run on third-and-2 instead of letting Joe Burrow deliver a dagger throw to set up a higher-percentage kick. Shame on them.
Would I have been fine with Rodgers getting a game-winning drive after a 20-yard pass to Davante Adams, who shined with 206 yards, to set up Crosby from 51? Sure, that’s another one-minute drill for him this season. But Crosby was wide left to set up overtime.
Would I have been amused had Rodgers lost another overtime game without touching the ball? Probably. But Burrow seemed to erase any chance of that with an instant pick to start overtime.
Would I have been pissed if Rodgers got credit for a game-winning drive in overtime for losing 5 yards on two Jones runs and watching Crosby hit from 40? Damn right. But the kicker missed again. At least it spared us a crap game-winning drive.
Burrow hit a pass for 21 yards to the Green Bay 41 again, but did they learn anything from the previous mistake? No, they ran the ball three times again and settled for a 49-yard field goal by a no-name kicker. He missed wide left too.
Finally, Rodgers hit passes of 20 and 15 yards to put this one to an end after Crosby finally connected from 49 yards out with 1:55 left. I am content with that being the game-winning drive in this one.
At least it had a winner, because I can’t remember ever seeing a clutch kicking display this bad.
Broncos at Steelers: The Standard Improved?
Last week in Green Bay, the Steelers showed they can score an opening-drive touchdown, and they did it again on Sunday after a beautiful 50-yard pass from Ben Roethlisberger to Diontae Johnson again gave the Steelers the early lead. Last week, the Steelers showed some offensive line improvement and a running game that actually could get gains of 3-4 yards instead of seeing Najee Harris get hit in the backfield immediately. This continued against Denver with Harris rushing for 122 yards to finally snap the team’s 11-game streak of not rushing for 90 yards.
Dare I say, the Steelers showed offensive improvement for the second week in a row? The other problem last week was inaccuracy from Roethlisberger. He was sharp in this game, especially early and especially on third down where the Steelers finished 7/12 compared to Denver going 2/12 on third down (but ¾ on fourth down). One week after a concussion, I was not impressed with Teddy Bridgewater or this Denver offense at all until he started to mount a 24-6 comeback in the fourth quarter. The game got a bit tight at 27-19, but he eventually struggled in the red zone again and threw an interception in the final seconds to end it.
While far from dominant, this was much closer to a classic game from the Steelers where both units played well for much of the game and they were able to win at home. Can they stack another one against the Geno Smith-led Seahawks next week? We’ll see, but if this offense shows up in prime time against that Seattle defense, then it may not be such an ugly display of football from Pittsburgh like in recent times. I was not surprised by the win, but that says more about my thoughts on how legit Denver was. But I can see actual improvement from the Pittsburgh offense in the last two weeks compared to the first three.
Eagles at Panthers: Pumpkins and Pretenders
What the fvck were these teams doing?
Jalen Hurts had nine failed completions in the first half, but none in the second as the offense finally started making plays that gained more than 10 yards. He also got his legs involved as the passing in this game was just atrocious for both teams. At least the Panthers got Chuba Hubbard to rush for 101 yards in Christian McCaffrey’s absence. The Eagles once again barely handed the ball off to their backs until very late in the game.
Sam Darnold had three interceptions and may have turned back into a pumpkin just in time for Halloween. But it was a blocked punt that set the Eagles up at the Carolina 27 for their game-winning drive. Darnold then threw his third pick and the Eagles ran out the clock.
Obviously, the transitive property never has and never will mean a thing in the NFL. If you just judged Carolina and Philadelphia by how they played against the Cowboys, then you wouldn’t have expected the Panthers to blow this one. But they did after leading 15-3 early.
Is either team going anywhere this season? I doubt it, but this was some low-key horrific offensive football.
You know what this 2021 NFL season is missing? More close games that end in failure by one team, such as the Vikings’ failed comeback attempt in a 14-7 loss to the Browns. It was a shock to see The Kevin Stefanski Bowl end with 21 points on 22 drives, but Baker Mayfield was inaccurate, and the Browns got through Minnesota’s line with ease. But there was Kirk Cousins with a whopping five drive attempts in the fourth quarter, trying to get that elusive touchdown and never doing so.
There were only six games in Week 4 with a comeback opportunity, and one of them was in the Jacksonville-Cincinnati game on Thursday night. Joe Burrow left that one with the first fourth-quarter comeback win of his NFL career. Urban Meyer left for some college comforts at the bar.
But the funny thing is NFL teams are now 19-24 (.442) at comeback opportunities in 2021. In each of the last two seasons, that success rate was just about 30% like it usually is. Now we are seeing closer to a coin flip this season and I think part of the problem is a lack of close games overall as we’ve only had 28 through Week 4.
Some games have been quasi-close with the leading team having the ball in the fourth quarter before extending to a two-score lead or running out the clock. I do not specifically track that number of games weekly, but I might need to start if this keeps up.
Buccaneers at Patriots: Now We Can Get on with the Important Games
After hearing for a week how this was the most “anticipated game of the season” and to see more promos for it than any non-Super Bowl game, you just know I have to vent a bit now that it’s over.
Yes, the most over-hyped regular-season game in NFL history is behind us, but I have to give them credit for playing a competitive, 60-minute game. The low-scoring chess match between Tom Brady and Bill Belichick was at least compelling, and the rain and injuries evened the playing field a bit for an outmatched New England roster.
If only we could have seen the Patriots win a game despite rushing for minus-1 yard (franchise record) and being minus-two in turnovers. But Brady getting his 50th fourth-quarter comeback win at the expense of a coaching blunder and missed field goal in that stadium was all too familiar.
This was really just the fourth all-time matchup of a legendary quarterback returning to face his former team, but on paper it was the weakest one of them all with Brady (of course) having the biggest advantages.
Joe Montana (1994 Chiefs) had to overcome a 49ers team led by MVP Steve Young in a 24-17 game where he threw for two touchdowns and a 101.9 passer rating.
Brett Favre (2009 Vikings) returned to Lambeau Field to take on the Aaron Rodgers-led Packers in a 38-26 win where he threw four touchdowns and a 128.6 passer rating.
Peyton Manning (2013 Broncos) took his team into Indianapolis on SNF to take on Andrew Luck in a 39-33 loss where he still threw for 386 yards and three touchdowns with a 96.1 passer rating.
Tom Brady, as only he can, got to celebrate a 19-17 homecoming win in New England against a team with rookie Mac Jones in a game where Brady had no touchdowns and a 70.8 passer rating.
Even in something as trivial as this, Manning takes the loss because the other quarterback was fantastic against his defense while Brady played the worst and still gets the only game-winning drive credit.
It never fails, does it? But I probably should have expected disappointment like this. I shouldn’t have expected Brady to throw for 300-plus yards and three or four touchdowns to his assortment of weapons. After all, Brady and Belichick have given us several of the lowest-scoring Super Bowls in NFL history, including 13-3 against the 2018 Rams. Brady just came off a 31-9 Super Bowl win. He’s the “we’re only going to score 17 points?” quarterback from Super Bowl 42 against the Giants, flopping hard on the big stage as he tried to throw deep and make memorable highlight plays to get to 19-0.
I saw some of that in this game as Brady’s deep ball was off. He was throwing high often. He had receivers open almost every play and adequate protection, but the rain and unprecedented emotions he was feeling about the situation probably played a bigger role than any specific game plan by Belichick. You could also tell Brady was missing Rob Gronkowski as the connection to Cameron Brate in particular looked out of sync. I’m not sure why Brady was throwing deep late to Antonio Brown other than to stick it to Belichick, because that was strategically the wrong move even if Brown had a good shot at making one of those throws a touchdown.
It was just not an impressive performance, and in hindsight, it makes those ridiculous props of Brady throwing for 555 yards or seven touchdowns look even funnier for this game.
You could easily argue that Mac Jones outplayed Brady on what was supposed to be his night. Jones even made a lot of classic Brady plays with the screens and play-action to a wide-open tight end to start the fourth quarter with a touchdown that put the Patriots on top. Jones even put the ball into danger multiple times on a go-ahead drive in the fourth, but the Buccaneers and their ravaged secondary did not make him pay. He completed 19 passes in a row at one point, tying Brady’s career-long streak. It’s too early for anyone to say if Jones is going to be the real deal, but you have to feel better with him after this game than you did a week ago when he played the Saints.
But Brady still gets the win after Belichick of all people mismanaged the final drive. The rain was coming down good at this point with New England down 19-17. Jones just had a pass knocked down to set up 4th-and-3 at the Tampa Bay 37 with 59 seconds left. The Buccaneers had a couple timeouts. You could try the 56-yard field goal, but that cannot be any better than a 50/50 shot, and it would leave Brady with nearly a minute (plus timeouts) to answer. That sounds bad. But if you can convert the fourth-and-3, that should be able to set up a last-second field goal from shorter distance.
That’s what I would have gone for, but Belichick reportedly did not even think about it. He sent out Nick Folk and the 56-yard field goal hit the left upright with 55 seconds left. Game over. Kickers are now 0-for-7 on clutch field goals of 50-plus yards against a Brady-led team. Folk has three of those seven misses, which only includes field goals in the final half of the fourth quarter or any time in overtime, tied or down 1-3 points). While this would have been a bigger miracle kick than most, it’s just something how Brady literally never ends up on the wrong side of these finishes.
In trying to find an old tweet, I stumbled on this research of mine that said the Patriots were 47-1 at home from 2001-2017 when a team threw 40 passes. That record was 53-1 a game into the 2019 season, but the Patriots have since gone 0-4 in these games, losing to Patrick Mahomes (Chiefs) and Ryan Fitzpatrick (Dolphins) with Brady at quarterback in 2019, and getting blown out by Josh Allen and the Bills (38-9) on Monday Night Football in 2020.
Now Brady did it to them last night on 43 throws, but he didn’t throw a touchdown pass. The record since 2001 for road teams that threw 40-plus passes without a touchdown and scoring fewer than 20 points was 8-174 (.044). Ho-hum.
With some better play in the red zone late in the game, the Patriots could easily be 3-1 right now. As I detailed in Week 1 when the Patriots lost to the Dolphins, Jones is quickly experiencing things it took years for Brady to see in New England, if he’s ever seen them at all in 22 years in the NFL. Let’s update a few of those that I said would be coming soon.
Mac Jones lost in his NFL debut with a 102.6 passer rating (29-of-39 for 281 yards, 1 TD, 0 INT).
It took Brady 79 starts and 18 losses to lose a game with a passer rating higher than 83.3. He was in his sixth season then.
Jones lost in his fourth NFL start vs. Tampa Bay with a 101.6 passer rating (31-of-40 for 275 yards, 2 TD, 1 INT).
It took Brady 137 starts and 30 losses to lose a second game with a passer rating higher than 100.0. He was in his 10th season then (it was 4th-and-2 Night).
It took Jones four starts to lose a game after a clutch field goal was missed.
It took Brady 183 starts to lose a game after a clutch field goal was missed (it’s happened once in 348 career starts).
It took Jones four starts to lose a game after leading in the fourth quarter.
It took Brady 66 starts to lose a game after leading in the fourth quarter. He threw four interceptions that night against the 2004 Dolphins, a 2-11 team.
A couple things I can say with certainty about Jones so far. He won’t melt in the rain like Davis Mills did for the Texans in Buffalo. But he’s also not destined to be the LOAT like Brady is. If he was, then he would have willed Folk to drill that kick followed by some random defender to intercept Brady to end the game.
This would have been a hell of a win for the Patriots, but now they can just focus on improving and getting back to winning important games in the AFC. Taking the division back from Buffalo. Frustrating Patrick Mahomes and the Chiefs better than most have. All the Brady stuff is in the past and the Patriots have to cope with mediocrity for now.
You can’t take a picture of this – it’s already gone.
Steelers at Packers: The Standard Is the Standard
What did the Steelers do differently this week in Green Bay compared to their last 10 games with a broken offense? They scored an opening-drive touchdown! Ben Roethlisberger threw a dime for 45 yards to Diontae Johnson to take an early 7-0 lead.
Unfortunately, this was not a sign of things to come as the normal broken offense returned for the rest of the game. The defense had another letdown before halftime for the fourth week in a row, and the Packers led 27-10 in the third quarter after Aaron Rodgers went on a hot five-drive scoring streak to put up all of Green Bay’s points.
Najee Harris scored a late touchdown for the Steelers to make it 27-17, but it was too little too late after a couple more horrible fourth-down throws short of the sticks. The only reason I can think of Roethlisberger turning into Alex Smith this season is that he doesn’t want to throw more interceptions, since those tend to get quarterbacks benched. But his quick throws on fourth down that lose yards are unheard of. He never had such a play in his whole career, but he now has such a completion in back-to-back games.
But maybe no play better symbolizes how broken this offense is than this 2-yard completion to JuJu Smith-Schuster on 4th-and-5 where he extends the ball as far as he could and is still multiple yards short of the marker.
Not pictured: James Washington pointing like JuJu got the first down. Hilarious. Sad. Fvcked.
In eight of their last 10 games following last year’s 11-0 start, the Steelers have allowed 23-27 points. In seven of their last 10 games, the Pittsburgh offense has scored 10-17 points. This consistency of being so painfully below average on offense and also below average on defense is just ridiculous.
And yet I still say anyone who thinks benching the future Hall of Famer with a cap number just south of $26 million this year for Mason Rudolph or Dwayne Haskins is crazy if they think that solves anything. It is broken and this coaching staff is not qualified to fix it.
NFC West: Tough Day for the McVay and Shanahan Fanboys
While I was busy hate-watching Steelers-Packers, the first two NFC West showdowns of the season took place. Both road dogs, the Seahawks and Cardinals, came through with big wins in games that were far from classics, but they could be seen as real turning points for these franchises in what has been the NFL’s most competitive division since 2012.
Los Angeles’ Sean McVay was 8-0 against Arizona and all but one of those games was won by double digits. He has Matthew Stafford now and they just had that outstanding win over Tampa Bay. I certainly let all of that play into my decision making for betting on this game, but I couldn’t have been more wrong on this one.
The Cardinals just went in there and kicked their ass in a 37-20 final that was never closer than 11 points in the second half. Arizona just may have built something special here as this is the high point of the Kliff Kingsbury era so far. The Cardinals have produced at least 31 points and 400 yards of offense in each of their first four games. That’s only been done by the 2007 Patriots, 2011 Patriots, and 2013 Broncos in NFL history. Two of those teams set the single-season scoring record and all three lost the Super Bowl.
Why not Arizona in the Super Bowl this season? This is what you draft a quarterback like Kyler Murray No. 1 overall for. Murray (80.4) finished sixth in QBR this week – his third top-six game in four weeks – while Stafford (50.2) was 17th in his weakest game yet for the Rams. The Los Angeles running game produced 17 carries for 100 yards, so you could argue it was their best running game of the season. Yet Stafford still had his worst passing game. The Rams were sitting on 13 points until a drive in garbage time. Robert Woods had 30 yards and a touchdown on that final drive but only 18 yards before it. He is averaging just 43 yards per game with Stafford this year, making it one of the least-productive months of his career. That connection has just not taken off yet, and even the Stafford-to-Cooper Kupp connection was off in this one. Cupp had 64 yards on 13 targets.
This will continue to be one of the more fascinating parts of 2021 as so far the running success seems to have no correlation with how Stafford is doing in that game each week. But the Rams were outclassed on both sides of the ball, and this team still has a ton of work to do before we think of it as the favorite in the division. That may have just transferred over to the Cardinals.
The Seahawks will still have their say in this division as long as Russell Wilson and Pete Carroll are there. After beating the 49ers again 28-21, Wilson has still never lost three games in a row in the same season. This week had a different script though. In recent weeks, the Seahawks started fast before fading. On Sunday, they punted five times to start the game, scored four touchdowns over their next six drives, then just held on while the 49ers tried to mount a 15-point comeback with Trey Lance taking over the half for an injured Jimmy Garoppolo (calf).
Lance hit on a 76-yard touchdown pass to Deebo Samuel after a hideous blown coverage, but he showed why he is a raw rookie in need of reps. It sounds like he will be getting them with Garoppolo expected to be out some time. Will it be permanent? That depends on how well Lance plays, but he’ll have to do better than this game.
But with Samuel off to a dominant start and George Kittle still healthy, Kyle Shanahan is really lacking in the excuses department if this offense does not start to take off regardless if it’s Garoppolo or Lance at quarterback.
Ravens Stop Denver from Moving to 4-0, Panthers Finally Trail This Season
No 3-0 teams surprised people more than the Panthers and Broncos, but both had to deal with legitimate offenses in their biggest challenges yet this season.
I liked the Cowboys (-4) against Carolina, but it was a dogfight into the third quarter. But after Zane Gonzalez missed a 54-yard field goal, Dallas’ offense really took off with balance and big plays. Dallas led 36-14 in the fourth quarter before Sam Darnold, who rushed for two more touchdowns as he apparently wants to crush Cam Newton’s single-season record, led back-to-back touchdown drives to make it 36-28 with just over four minutes left. But when you think maybe this was another Mike McCarthy team collapsing with a lead, the Cowboys put the game away on offense and denied Darnold the game-tying drive opportunity.
Dallas has been impressive this season. When the offense is balanced like this – Prescott had four touchdown passes and only 188 yards passing while the backs rushed for 210 yards – they are going to be a challenge for anyone in the league. Clearly, the Carolina defense boosted its stats against cupcakes in the first three weeks. But I wouldn’t just write off the Panthers this season. They do look legitimately improved and D.J. Moore is a legit No. 1 wide receiver. They probably missed the greatness of Christian McCaffrey as an outlet receiver to deal with the pass rush better in this one. Darnold was sacked five times.
I saw very little of Ravens-Broncos, but it doesn’t seem like there was much there. Both teams have a lot of injuries, but the Ravens still have better players to make up for it. Teddy Bridgewater left with a concussion and Drew Lock was no match for Baltimore’s defense.
Lamar Jackson had just his third 300-yard passing game in the NFL and he has thrown for at least 235 yards in all four games this season. The only other time he’s done that in his career was his four-game start to his 2019 MVP season. Marquise Brown held on this week and finished with 91 yards and a touchdown.
Like Carolina, the Broncos were abusing bad, inexperienced quarterbacks to beef up their stats, but Jackson took it to them in one of the most pass-centric games the Ravens have had with him. His 37 pass attempts are tied for his third-highest amount in a game.
The Ravens were actually in danger of not rushing for 100 yards in this game, something they had done in 38 straight games (including playoffs). But after getting the ball back with three seconds left and an insurmountable 23-7 lead, John Harbaugh had the team run Lamar for a 5-yard gain instead of taking a knee like anyone else would. That gave the Ravens 102 yards and a new record of 39 straight 100-yard games, beating out the 1973-76 Bills. This does end their record streak of 38 games with at least 110 rushing yards.
But when coaches tell you they don’t care about numbers or records, there’s a decent chance they are lying. Extending the record, which is ultimately meaningless like most things in life, by having your star quarterback run with three seconds left is the definition of cheap.
Maybe the Ravens get there easier if they could figure out their running back rotation better. Latavius Murray led the way with 18 carries while Le’Veon Bell (4 for 11 yards) and Devonta Freeman (one 4-yard run) also saw action with Ty’Son Williams a healthy scratch. Maybe they’re saving him? Either way, it would be a good thing for the Ravens to continue developing this passing game.
Chiefs at Eagles: Let’s Not Take This for Granted
The Chiefs ended their two-game slide with a commanding 42-30 win, or only their second win by more than six points since the middle of last season. The bad news: the 2021 Chiefs are now the 14th team in NFL history to allow more than 28 points in each of their first four games. The good news: a dozen of those teams started 0-4 and the other (2012 Titans) was 1-3. The Chiefs (2-2) are now back to .500 after nearly having a perfect game on offense that should not be taken for granted.
The Chiefs were 9-of-10 on third down and scored a touchdown on six of their seven drives. Every touchdown drive was at least 65 yards and all but one of them was 75-plus yards. Literally the only mistake all day was a Patrick Mahomes interception forced under pressure on a third down, the only third-down stop of the day for the Eagles.
The Chiefs did it differently by rushing for 200 yards while Tyreek Hill had 186 receiving yards and three touchdowns. No other Kansas City receiver had more than 23 yards through the air. Travis Kelce hadn’t been held to that little yardage and kept out of the end zone in a game with Mahomes since their first start together in 2018 against the Chargers.
But the Chiefs were spectacular on that side of the ball and still left something to be desired on defense. Granted, they limited the Eagles to three field goals in the first three quarters, and Philadelphia’s last touchdown was a garbage-time score with four seconds left.
We’ll see just how ready the Chiefs are for a real test when they get the Bills next Sunday night in another potential AFC Game of the Year. But six touchdowns on seven drives is insane production in the NFL.
Giants at Saints: Seriously, WTF?
No team has puzzled me more on a weekly basis in 2021 than the Saints. They killed Aaron Rodgers and the Packers in Week 1, which looks like we can safely call it a fluke. They were embarrassed 26-7 by the Panthers in Week 2, which looks like a combo of division familiarity, an improved Carolina team, and some injuries and COVID problems in the coaching staff. They picked off Mac Jones three times in New England last week and took advantage of the rookie and limited offense there.
But then this 27-21 overtime loss to the Giants happened in the Superdome with a full crowd on hand, and I am more confused than ever. At least Jameis Winston passed for over 200 yards in regulation this week, but how the hell does a team throw 26 passes and not have one go to Alvin Kamara? He had 26 carries for 120 yards but no touchdowns since Taysom Hill, the touchdown vulture who threw a pick, hijinks happened, and it was the first game in Kamara’s career with no targets.
That is inexcusable, especially with the given lack of weapons in the passing game. But speaking of weapons, how do you let Daniel Jones pass for 402 yards and make only the second fourth-quarter comeback of his career (he was 1-13) on a day where Sterling Shepard and Darius Slayton were inactive? It does not make sense. Jones had failed to pass for more than 280 yards in every start with Jason Garrett as his offensive coordinator since 2020. Yet here he was getting two huge plays for 50-plus yard touchdowns out of John Ross and Saquon Barkley. Both players also delivered in overtime with Barkley taking in the game-winning score from 6 yards out on the only drive of overtime.
This is New Orleans’ 19th loss as a favorite of more than seven points since Sean Payton came to coach the team in 2006. The Saints are 39-19 SU (.672) as a favorite of more than seven points since 2006. Only Washington (6-4) has a worse winning percentage in such games.
I really thought the Saints would play better at home on offense. In some ways, they definitely did. But there were some key misses in this game like Kamara only getting two yards on a 4th-and-3 run, settling for a 58-yard field goal that was missed and led to the Ross touchdown, the Hill interception right after a long Winston touchdown pass was negated by penalty, and not closing out in the fourth quarter.
If this is what the Saints are post-Brees, then I’m out. I want nothing to do with Kamara’s prop bets anymore and I can’t even trust them to beat the Giants in the Superdome. Granted, Payton has lost in this spot more than you’d like to see in his career, but this was a really bad loss for the team. Daniel Jones is only supposed to do this shit against the Washington franchise.
Titans and Lions: Extend the Game vs. End the Game
Finally, I just wanted to highlight two coaching decisions on Sunday. Last week, I was happy when Tennessee’s Mike Vrabel went for two with a seven-point lead. He has been a bit of a renegade in breaking norms on two-point conversions. So, it kind of shocked me when he did not have his Titans go for the win against the lowly Jets after getting a touchdown with 16 seconds left in the game.
The timing was excellent with the Jets out of timeouts. This is the ideal spot to do it in and it’s not like the Jets were doing a great job of stopping Derrick Henry in the game. Ryan Tannehill also found his rhythm late after playing the game without Julio Jones and A.J. Brown available.
If you’re playing a lousy team on the road and the offense is the strength of your team, why not go for the win? That extra point surprised me. The Jets almost ended this one immediately in overtime, but eventually did settle for a field goal and 27-24 lead. The Titans had a rough time answering, needing to convert two fourth downs, but they eventually got into field goal range. It looks like we were about to have a damn tie, but fortunately, Randy Bullock is a bum kicker. From 49 yards out, he was wide left in the final 20 seconds to end the game.
The Jets had their first win in the Robert Saleh era. Rookie quarterback Zach Wilson had his first 4QC/GWD and it is one he can feel good about after a rough first three weeks. Wide receiver Corey Davis (111 yards and a touchdown) had a sweet revenge game on his former team.
While I wanted the Titans to end the game on one play, the Detroit Lions made a mistake of not extending the game. It was a rough afternoon in Chicago for the Lions, but they were down 24-14 in the fourth quarter with the ball. The Jared Goff-led drive stalled, setting up a 4th-and-1 at the Chicago 8 with 4:19 left. I get that it’s tempting to go for it there, but you have to realize you are still down 10 points (two scores) and time is a factor. Even if you go for it and get it, there is still no guarantee you are getting a touchdown here. In three more snaps, you could be kicking a field goal anyway if there’s a bad snap – oh, they had one of THOSE on Sunday – or a sack. Kick the field goal, use your three clock stoppages to get the ball back, and then get a touchdown and go for two or play for overtime.
But the Lions went for it, Goff’s pass was incomplete, and the Bears ran out the final 4:15 on the clock thanks to the Lions being offsides on a punt. Incredibly, the Lions had five drives inside the Chicago 8, and they only scored one touchdown on them, turning the ball over twice on fumbles and twice on downs.
Again, it was a lousy performance for the Lions against a Chicago team that seemed to be on the brink of collapse. But the Bears turned things around and got their second win of the season while the Lions remain 0-4.
What a Sunday in the NFL for record-long field goal attempts, but there is only one Justin Tucker. You know some games were real shit when you lead with that, but we haven’t seen a ton of close finishes in 2021. Only 22 of the first 47 games have had a fourth-quarter comeback opportunity, including six on Sunday. That is down from 29 games through Week 3 of the 2020 season.
Did favorites have a better week? Not really as 6-9 ATS makes it 17-30 ATS (.362) through Week 3. Home teams were 7-8 SU too, so another losing record there as we watch home-field advantage disintegrate even with the return of crowds.
Maybe we are just having a real “changing of the guard” season after the four teams with the best records in the period of 2013-2020 are all 1-2 right now (Patriots, Chiefs, Seahawks, and Steelers). The Colts have slipped into the basement of the 0-3 teams with the Giants, Jets, Jaguars, and Lions. But don’t worry, Sunday’s Game of the Week should give Jim Irsay the courage to raise another banner.
Buccaneers at Rams: Stafford Delivers in Biggest Game of Career (Take One)
The reverse psychologist in me was hoping that Matthew Stafford and the Rams would take this big opportunity at home against Tom Brady and the Buccaneers to clinch the biggest win for any team in September. I think they did that with a 34-24 win that was not as close as the final score suggests as Stafford threw four touchdowns in a wire-to-wire win while Brady had a hollow 432-yard day. Brady is now 4-17 when his team allows 33-39 points, his least impressive range of high-scoring games, or the one where luck isn’t on his side for a change.
Unless Stafford is so unlucky that the Buccaneers slip to a losing record and this game doesn’t improve on his 8-68 record against winning teams, then this is the biggest win of his career to date. It’s the first time he will have beaten a winning team (I assume) by throwing four touchdowns. It’s the first time he will have beaten a winning team (I assume) by throwing for 300 yards without a giveaway.
In fact, this was a weird game in that it had zero turnovers and started with five punts as both teams looked a little nervous. But once the Rams settled down, they got into some fine play designs, Stafford was unstoppable on third down, Cooper Kupp is Cole Beasley if he turned face and had more talent, and DeSean Jackson went old-school with a 75-yard touchdown and making us nervous by slowly crossing the goal line. Neither team could run the ball, and you know that’s a fact when Brady (14 yards) led Tampa Bay in rushing. The Rams added some numbers in the second half with the lead, but the ground game was not the story here.
The fact is for a hyped-up game, there weren’t that many pivotal moments or memorable spots to talk about. If there is to be a rematch in the playoffs, it will be a matter of whether the Buccaneers, with their injury-ravaged secondary that seems to add a new injury each week, can keep up with these receivers. A sack and a shanked punt really put the Bucs in trouble in the third quarter, leading to a 31-14 lead by the Rams. Brady never touched the ball again with a deficit smaller than 17 points.
It was interesting to see him still in the game with 4:50 and a 34-17 deficit. Bill Belichick pulled Brady from a 38-17 blowout at the hands of the 2009 Saints in New Orleans with 5:26 to play in that one for the Patriots. This is the fourth time since 2019 that Brady was in the ballgame in the final five minutes with a deficit of 17-plus points. He had three such games from all of 2003-2018.
This now marks six times in 19 regular-season games with Tampa Bay where Brady has trailed by at least 17 points. He trailed by 17+ six times in his last four seasons with the Patriots combined (2016-19). He will visit the Patriots and Belichick next Sunday night, but the 10-game winning streak and 30-point streak are over after this one, which I always said was the biggest test of the regular season for Tampa barring an incredible run by Josh Allen when they host the Bills in Week 14.
But Stafford and the Rams passed their first big test of the season and take an early lead towards the No. 1 seed. However, the division games start next week and will be tough. Stafford in the “biggest game of his career” could be something that comes up three or more times this season. If you’re a fan of the Rams, you hope it’s a high number because that means they are likely winning these games.
Packers at 49ers: One-Minute Drills
What was looking like another blowout between these teams turned into one of the best finishes of Week 3. The 49ers used a double score around halftime to turn around a 17-0 deficit and make this a game. The Packers were up 24-21 with the ball late. They faced a fourth-and-4 at the San Francisco 20 with 2:43 left. Had the 49ers been out of timeouts, I would have said go for it. Let Aaron Rodgers end the game with one play as anything converted in bounds would run out the clock in that situation. Don’t kick a field goal and go up by six, inviting them to beat you on a late touchdown.
But the 49ers had four clock stoppages at that point. I think there’s a good chance Green Bay would have settled for the field goal anyway on that drive, so I do support the field goal in that case. Jimmy Garoppolo was shaky on the night, but he got good plays out of his top guys, including George Kittle for 39 yards on another big YAC play.
But after getting to the Green Bay 12 in the last minute, the 49ers needed to think about the clock. Green Bay was out of timeouts. You couldn’t leave Rodgers that much time, only needing a field goal. If I was the 49ers, I would have called a run on first down just to bring the clock under 30 seconds. But San Francisco was not into bleeding the clock. It snapped the ball with 12 seconds left on the play clock, and Kyle Juszczyk fought his way through contact for a 12-yard touchdown with 37 seconds left.
Again, you almost wish he would just go down at the 1 and they could score from there. But he scored, and the Packers had to be somewhat glad about that. Now Rodgers would get his chance. Worse, the kickoff to the end zone was a touchback, so that burned no more time off the clock and put the ball at the Green Bay 25. Why not a hard squib kick or something shorter to make them burn some time? I didn’t like that decision.
Rodgers was able to hit Davante Adams, who took a nasty shot to the head earlier in the quarter, for two plays worth 42 yards. He got the spike off in time and the Packers looked like they had practiced that situation well. Mason Crosby is a shaky kicker in these situations, but he’s no Minnesota kicker. He nailed the 51-yard field goal and the Packers jumped ahead of the 49ers in the standings at 2-1, finally winning a good game against this team even if we’re still not sure how good the 49ers will be this year.
As I said in my top 100 quarterbacks project, Rodgers and the Packers have improved in these clutch situations. Through 2014, he was 12-29 (.293) at 4QC/GWD opportunities, which would be one of the worst records in the league. Since 2015, he is 16-17-1 (.485), which would be the fourth-best career record among active starters (minimum 20 games).
This is the fourth time in Rodgers’ career that he led the Packers on a game-winning drive after taking over in the final 60 seconds. His first three were against the 2011 Giants (38-35 win), 2015 Lions (Richard Rodgers Hail Mary), and the 2016 Cowboys (playoff win).
It is the second one-minute drill in the NFL this season after Derek Carr led the Raiders to one against Baltimore in Week 1 to force overtime. Anymore, you really have to get the clock under 20 seconds if you hope to win after leaving the opponent in position to only need a field goal. It has just gotten too easy to move into field goal range and some kickers are too damn good from long distance these days.
This is an unofficial count of successful one-minute drills in the NFL in the last 40 years, but it’s the best I can do at 5:00 A.M. on a couple hours of sleep this weekend:
The Packers are very much alive again, though no more trips to Florida would probably be best.
Chargers at Chiefs: Ruh-Roh
A 1-2 start is certainly cause for concern for the Chiefs, who are now in last place in the AFC West thanks to the Broncos and Raiders as the lone 3-0 teams in the AFC. Even the Chargers are now 2-1 after this win, the biggest one yet in the young career of Justin Herbert, who was great with four touchdown passes in Arrowhead to get this 30-24 win.
I don’t feel like digging through every old tweet and article leading up to this season, but a lot of the things I’ve said about the Chiefs are coming true so far. They blew a fourth-quarter lead for the second week in a row after having none in their previous 29 games. The running game did step up with 100 yards from Clyde Edwards-Helaire, but he fumbled again. The Chiefs had four turnovers in this one including two more fumbles by the skill players inside the opponent 30. Just the preview for this game was accurate in pointing out how the Chargers limit Patrick Mahomes better than most. He had 260 yards on 44 attempts with two picks, which is a very non-Mahomes stat line even if you consider the first one was tipped off a Chief.
But even with the 14-0 deficit and four turnovers, the Chiefs were solid on third down and scored 24 points with Mahomes putting the team ahead 24-21 with 6:43 left. He kept the streak alive of leading in every game. But this defense is a massive sieve and was up to no good again on Sunday. Herbert answered almost immediately with a 43-yard pass to Mike Williams, the longest play of the game, to put the Chargers in range. After having two touchdown passes negated by penalty last week against Dallas, Herbert had another one wiped out here for an illegal shift. The Chargers settled for a game-tying field goal with 2:14 left.
Alright, piece of cake for Mahomes to go get a game-winning field goal, right? Wrong this week. On a third-and-8, he again tried a bit too hard to make something happen and threw a pick on a deep ball. That was equivalent to getting a 32-yard net punt, but it still wasn’t a good decision or play.
The Chargers had the ball at their own 41 with 1:42 left, tied 24-24. They could blow this, right? Wrong this week, though God knows they tried their best to blow it. Herbert moved the ball to the Kansas City 30 and the Chiefs used their second timeout at 54 seconds. While not ideal, the Chargers could have run the ball twice and kicked a ~45-yard field goal with seconds remaining for the win. That would at least deny Mahomes a chance in regulation. Instead, Brandon Staley’s team came up with two incompletions to stop the clock and save the Chiefs their final timeout. Then they were hit with a false start to make it 4th-and-9 and a 53-yard field goal attempt. That was brutal game management. Anthony Lynn would be proud.
But Staley showed some balls by keeping the offense out there and not settling for that long field goal without a great kicker on his side. Herbert threw and the Chiefs were flagged 15 yards for defensive pass interference on a legit call. That secondary is just too handsy at times. Incredibly, Herbert stuck with two more passes to Williams, including a 4-yard touchdown with 32 seconds left. The Chargers missed the extra point, because branding is important, and they led 30-24 with 32 seconds left.
Again, not exactly ideal as Mahomes had a timeout and a chance to win, but it was going to be hard needing a touchdown. He got to the Los Angeles 49 but could not make anything happen on the last three snaps. Some felt the Hail Mary could have been flagged for DPI on the Chargers, which would have been perfect for Chargers BINGO (lose on an untimed down after Hail Mary DPI), but it was not to be this time.
We are going to hear about the “Tampa Bay blueprint” to beat the Chiefs, but I don’t know what blueprint produces multiple fumbles or turnovers a week while still letting this team gain a bunch of yards and score 24-35 points. If you’re not going to blitz Mahomes and play a bunch of two-high safety to take away the big plays, the Chiefs are still producing against that. They just need to protect the ball better, which should be correctable. But this defense leaves little margin for error from the offense, and on Sunday, there were way too many errors.
The Chargers are now a good enough football team to take advantage of that. We’ll see if the Broncos and Raiders are too, and the Chiefs also have a rematch with the Bills coming up soon. If things don’t get better here, I just may be winning that $500 bet sooner than I thought.
Ravens at Lions: Justin Tucker Is One Bad Motherfu…
I guess we must thank Marquise Brown for his big drops and some weird running back rotations for this uninspired Baltimore performance that nearly resulted in a huge Detroit upset, but ultimately resulted in a field goal that can cement Justin Tucker as the baddest motherfvcker to ever play the kicker position.
The Lions were able to take a 17-16 lead with 1:04 left, and the defense had Lamar Jackson down bad on 4th-and-19 with 26 seconds left. But he made some magic happen with a 36-yard pass to Sammy Watkins. After a spike and incompletion, the Ravens turned things to Tucker in the dome.
It was in a 2013 game in Detroit when Tucker made a 61-yard game-winning field goal to help the Ravens to an 18-16 win. I had that at the time as the third-longest game-winning field goal in NFL history. Now Tucker has pushed himself down to fourth with a 66-yard field goal that not only won the game, but it is the longest field goal ever made in NFL history, beating Matt Prater’s record of 65 yards.
Incredibly, Prater, who used to play for the Lions, tried from 68 yards in Jacksonville on Sunday, missed, and it was returned for a touchdown before halftime. But Tucker was good enough to hit it straight and to the crossbar, where it took a fortunate bounce through for the win. An absolute stunner to end the game and the kind of historic field goal that deserves to belong to the best in the business.
By the time the shock in this one wears off, maybe we’ll figure out how the Ravens nearly went from a huge win over the Chiefs to blowing a game to the Lions.
Also, you have to feel bad for Lions fans for… well for many reasons. But of the four game-winning field goals of more than 60 yards in NFL history, three of them have come against the Lions, and two have come from the leg of Tucker.
Bad Afternoon for Rookie Quarterbacks
Early returns have not been good for the 2021 rookie quarterback class. Of the nine times a QB has finished with a QBR under 20.0 this season, six of them were rookies, including the bottom two games by Justin Fields, and Zach Wilson also has two games on the list to join Trevor Lawrence and Davis Mills (his Cleveland game off the bench).
It puts Denver’s 3-0 start into some perspective when the Broncos have feasted on Lawrence and Wilson in the first three weeks, including a 26-0 shutout of the Jets on Sunday. This time Wilson only took five sacks and threw two picks, which I guess is an improvement over Week 1 (six sacks) and Week 2 (four picks).
The Urban Meyer-Lawrence era had its first two-score lead on Sunday over heavily favored Arizona, but that evaporated quickly in the third quarter. It was always a bit of fool’s gold after a 68-yard field goal try was returned for a 109-yard touchdown to end the first half. Lawrence finished the day with four turnovers and contributed just a 3-yard run to the team’s only scoring drive after halftime, a 75-yard march where no pass was thrown. Technically, the game-winning score for Arizona late in the third quarter was the pick-six Lawrence forced on a flea flicker. I mean, who throws a pick-six on a flea flicker? A rookie trying too hard.
Mac Jones also tossed three picks, including a pick-six, against the Saints in a 28-13 home loss for the Patriots. I guess the Saints are destined to not play a normal, close game with reasonable passing yardage this year. Jameis Winston only finished with 128 yards, already matching in three weeks the total number of sub-130 yard passing games (two) Drew Brees had in games he didn’t leave early in 15 years with the Saints. Sean Payton’s idea on limiting Winston’s mistakes seems to be hiding him as much as possible. Even when Winston tried to throw a wild one in the end zone, it went for a touchdown on Sunday. That was a 9-yard drive too, taking advantage of a Jones pick. Man, if only Brees had games against the Packers and Patriots where the Saints were allowing so few points and getting multiple picks.
But no rookie had a rougher Sunday than the one we wanted to see so bad.
Bears at Browns: Cleveland Has Field Day on Fields’ Day
I am not sure if I need to apologize or eat crow for a coach who just saw him team get outgained 418 to 47 in yards, but maybe Matt Nagy had his reasons to not put Justin Fields out there as QB1 so soon. He had to do it on Sunday with Andy Dalton’s injury, but maybe Fields is not ready after taking nine sacks and helping the Bears finish with 1 net passing yard. Fields’ success rate was 5-for-32 on Sunday, an unbelievably bad debut in a 26-6 loss.
Now some expected caveats apply. It’s the Bears, it’s Nagy, we are used to him having bad offenses. But 418 to 47? That’s beyond the pale. The offensive line is also pure trash, but I cannot imagine this happening if Dalton was the quarterback. Nine sacks to 20 throws and three rushing attempts? That’s insane.
The Bears are only the 11th team since the 1970 merger to be outgained by at least 165 yards on the ground and at least 200 yards in the air in the same game. The last time this happened was when the Lions beat up the Packers (without Aaron Rodgers) on Thanksgiving in 2013.
My feeling on this topic is always consistent. It’s that a game like this should not ruin Fields. If he is destined to be a franchise quarterback, then this is just a big bump in the start of the road. You don’t ruin him in September of his first season. But if future games result in games like this, then yikes, they may need to pull him and sit him down.
Of course, it would help if the Bears actually had some semblance of a coaching staff that knows how to get productive offensive out of its roster. That has never been a strong suit for Nagy, and the returns have only been diminishing since his first season ended. The coach who ultimately fixes Fields in Chicago, assuming that happens, may not even be in the organization yet.
A few more games like Sunday’s and Nagy may not have an office in the building much longer. This was horrific.
Bengals at Steelers: I’ve Come to Talk with You Again
Much like last week against the Raiders, I never felt that the Steelers overlooked the Bengals. It didn’t matter that Cincinnati has not beaten them by more than 10 points since 1995, or that Zac Taylor had one road win in his career as head coach. They never thought they’d lose by 14-plus points at home for only the fifth time in Ben Roethlisberger’s career.
It’s not really an upset when you expect it as the Steelers continue their December decay while the Bengals are on the upswing. This is just where these teams are right now.
For anyone singling out Roethlisberger as the problem, and the idea that benching him for bums like Mason Rudolph or Dwyane Haskins will solve anything, just admit you’re not watching this team play. It’s okay. They’re the worst hate-watch I’ve had since NBC’s Revolution. That’s been my experience watching this team for the last three Sunday afternoons and I wouldn’t recommend it to anyone who wants to watch an NFL team capable of doing something good. They’ve had one good half in Buffalo and that was it.
The offense remains historically limited. The Steelers rushed for fewer than 90 yards for the 10th-straight game. Just one more and they can tie the 2002-03 Rams (11 games) for the post-World War II record. The Steelers drafting Najee Harris in the first round is like inviting a rich family to your house for dinner when all you can serve them is stale crackers and tap water in dirty, chipped glasses.
If someone had the energy or interest, they could create a pretty amusing montage of how often Harris is met right at the line (or behind it) by the defense due to a lack of blocking. He had one 20-yard run on Sunday and 20 yards on his other 13 carries combined. I’d say he showed his hands by catching 14-of-19 targets as Ben fell in love with the checkdowns, but Harris also ended the game with multiple drops as the Steelers stumbled badly to a 24-10 loss.
Maybe the most egregious play was when Roethlisberger dumped the ball to Harris almost immediately on a 4th-and-10 in the red zone in the fourth quarter. It lost a yard because it was so bad. What a sad time to see Ben turn into Alex Smith. In past years, he would have chucked that thing to the end zone and not care if it resulted in his third pick. But I guess he never thought things would be this bad, throwing to Ray-Ray McCloud and Cody White with Diontae Johnson and JuJu Smith-Schuster out injured while trying to mount a 14-point comeback against the lowly Bengals.
The Pittsburgh offense self-sabotaged itself all day with eight penalties, constantly putting themselves in poor down-and-distance situations. That should never happen at home. For about the first time since 2018, Roethlisberger took a few sacks because he held the ball too long. But that was an effort to try to make something happen. Too often the protection was poor, and he was hit quickly, like on his first pick. Other times he just looked old and slow, like on his second pick. This offense remains a complete mess and it is criminal in nature to put an old quarterback and a rookie back behind an offensive line this inexperienced and poor.
The defense also has its issues without T.J. Watt, Stephon Tuitt, and a couple more in the front seven. Joe Burrow was pressured one time in the game. Yes, the Cincinnati line allowed one pressure and no sacks, ending Pittsburgh’s record 75-game streak with a sack. Now that record was always asterisk-worthy since it ignores the multiple playoff games where this unit failed to get a sack in that time, but it was a shocker to see zero production against the Bengals.
Outside of one deep ball for a 34-yard touchdown before halftime, Burrow had no other completions of 20-plus yards in the game. He had a 17-yard touchdown to Tyler Boyd that was created by some of the worst tackling effort you’ll ever see from Melvin Ingram. But it’s not like the Bengals piled up 24 points with a younger, more athletic quarterback stretching the field. They just aren’t incapable of doing literally anything well like the Steelers, who even missed a 42-yard field goal on Sunday, are right now.
Ben will go into retirement after the season as the scapegoat, but unless they ever hire a real offensive coordinator from outside the organization and invest in a real starting quarterback, then Mike Tomlin is not going to see another winning season any time soon.
I don’t know how many more weeks I’ll go into detail recapping the latest poor performance, because we have pretty much seen 10 straight games of this.
Colts at Titans: Go for Two Up Seven
The Titans did something cool that coaches almost never do in the NFL: go for two after a touchdown that put you up seven. Head coach Mike Vrabel watched Houston do this to his Titans last year, but it didn’t work out for them. The Titans still won in overtime. This time, Vrabel’s team did it with 12:56 to play. That’s a bit earlier than I’d like to see it as I think the last five or six minutes is the sweet spot for it. But when you’re playing Carson Wentz on two bad ankles, why not? What’s he going to do, lead three field goal drives to beat you?
The Titans converted with a Derrick Henry run to lead 22-13. The Colts answered with a field goal to make it 22-16. The Titans had another long drive for a field goal to make it 25-16 with 2:58 left, which puts the Colts in miracle territory down two possessions. The Colts missed a 51-yard field goal with 57 seconds left and the game was over.
But had the Titans, who have had their share of kicking problems, gone for the extra point and led 21-13, then it easily could have been 24-16 when the Colts got the ball back at 2:58. That’s still a reasonable time – with a good quarterback that is – to tie the game and go to overtime. But at 25-16, you’re pretty much screwed.
The misconception people tend to have here is that the “extra information” of being down nine is going to drastically change how the team approaches things. Except this is the NFL and most coaches are basic bitches. It didn’t change a thing. The Colts moved at the pace you would expect them to when trailing in the fourth quarter, and they didn’t go to the real hurry-up or no-huddle offense until the final three minutes told them they were screwed.
Vrabel had every excuse to be a meathead and failure of a coach, coasting on his past connection to Bill Belichick, but he has been ahead of the pack in trying different things to close out tight games. I applaud him for that.
This is the 10th season of posting my NFL predictions here. In seven of the last nine years, I managed to predict one Super Bowl finalist, but somehow I had the wrong Super Bowl result for them all seven times. In the last two years, I had the Chiefs losing and then winning last year. It was the other way around, of course.
For that reason, we still are in the longest drought ever without a repeat champion. But could we be in store for a repeat Super Bowl between Tampa Bay and Kansas City? It has only happened one time in NFL history when the Cowboys beat the Bills in 1992-93. That was a case of Dallas putting together a dynasty run, and the Bills also had an incredible run of four straight Super Bowls with a core of Hall of Famers. Unfortunately, they lost all four games as Scott Norwood should die of gonorrhea and rot in hell*.
*That’s a well-executed reference to Ace Ventura, so I will not be doing a Brian Kelly and apologizing if you didn’t get the joke.
Predicting a rematch can often be the trendy pick that year, but I really think these teams are uniquely qualified for it. The Chiefs have hosted the AFC Championship Game three years in a row, have been money against their main competition (Ravens/Bills), and have the best player in the league right now in Patrick Mahomes. The Buccaneers have brought back every starter, including the 44-year-old King of Kings, most of their depth from last year, they are loaded on both sides of the ball, and they get a boost in the division with Drew Brees retiring. Are you really going to trust Matthew Stafford and Ryan Fitzpatrick joining the Rams and Washington to put up a fight with Tom Brady, the Luckiest Quarterback of All Time?
While I may have a familiar Super Bowl prediction for you, the rest of this preview is going to look different from past years. In the last four years I ended up writing over 16,000 words each time. I didn’t break 10,000 this time since I already wrote full previews (2,000-4,500 words each) on all 32 teams at Bookmakers Review (BMR) this summer. I have included the BMR links for each team in their section below and I promise they have all the stats and thoughts you’re used to seeing from me.
Don’t forget to check out the eight-part series I just finished on The Top 100 Quarterbacks of the 21st Century. The final part on the top five quarterbacks has the links at the top to the first seven parts.
What I’m Watching for in 2021
Before getting into the teams, I want to share some thoughts on what I’m watching for this season, the first 17-game season in NFL history.
First of all, I hate the 17 games and we haven’t even started. It’s going to screw up the stats and my databases, all the counting records, and end the longest, most consistent scheduling we’ve had in NFL history. I think 32 teams, 16 games, 12 playoff teams, and eight divisions was the perfect setup, but they killed it out of greed. Having an odd number of games also makes no sense as you get an unequal number of home and road games with the AFC teams getting a ninth home game this year while they’ll alternate next year. I just hate it. No more .500 teams unless you finish 8-8-1, which I’m sure Kirk Cousins is fucking stoked for. But it’s definitely a transition period in NFL history.
Last year I talked a lot about COVID and uncertainty here. This is going to be Pandemic Season No. 2, and I do fear that we could see more screwy things than last year just because of how more contagious the Delta variant is. We have triple the number of cases in the United States on Labor Day this year than we did one year ago. That’s scary.
To the NFL’s credit, they got every game in last year even though there were a few shams like the Ravens and Steelers playing on a Wednesday and the Broncos not having a quarterback to play the Saints. As it turns out in the news today, Denver was being properly punished for breaking protocol that week. So, hopefully teams are more professional about following rules this year, though a few teams like the Bills and Colts have projected vocal vomit about their anti-vaccine stances. I’d take a shot at Cole Beasley specifically, but he’d just run away. See what happens when you give a guy a completely unearned All-Pro vote?
But the crowds are back for now, so it will be very interesting to see what happens to the offensive stats after 2020 was the highest-scoring season in NFL history at 24.8 points per game, a full 1.4 points above the previous record (2013). Yards per play (5.6) were never higher and turnovers per game (1.3) were never lower. We had more first downs per game (21.7) than ever before as teams completed the most passes per game (23.0) at the highest completion percentage (65.2%) ever recorded. That led to the highest passer rating (93.6) for a season and the record for most touchdown passes (871 or 27.2 per team).
We only have complete data for third downs back to 1991, but 2020 saw offenses convert 41.6% of the time on third down, a new record. The only other season over 40% was 1995 (40.1%).
Likewise, I have red zone data going back to the 1999 season. Last season, offenses had more opportunities (1,750), touchdowns (1,071) and the highest red zone touchdown percentage (61.2%) since 1999. It was the first season with over 1,000 red zone touchdowns scored. I added the trend line here, so you can see this has been going up over the years likely due to teams finally going for more fourth downs in the red zone. But things were never better in the red zone for offenses than last year.
From not having a preseason to the quiet sounds of crowd-less stadiums, I definitely believe the pandemic helped produce these record-setting numbers last year. I would expect some regression to the mean in this department, so that could be something to keep in mind when you’re betting on over/unders this September, or on something I’m very interested in researching more: touchdown scorers. Last year, it seemed like Alvin Kamara, Davante Adams, and Tyreek Hill were good for a touchdown almost every week.
Passing yards cooled down a bit in the second half of the season after such a historic pace to start the year. I would keep that in mind for the rookies (Justin Herbert, Joe Burrow, WR Justin Jefferson) from last year, or Dak Prescott’s insane average in Dallas for five games, or the way Russell Wilson started the season, and even the numbers Aaron Rodgers had in his MVP season after years of not playing like that.
Things should get a little more defensive this season, but the game is still undeniably trending towards more offense. The only real hiccup to that could be if a lot of these young quarterbacks fail to pan out while the last few remaining legends soon retire.
One last note: I predicted over/under on each team’s win total at BMR. What I predicted in those articles in July/August may be different from my final W-L prediction in September after sitting down Monday night and going through the schedule like I always do to come up with these final predictions.
1. Kansas City Chiefs (13-4)
BMR Preview: “The Avengers have a Hulk, Vin Diesel has a family, and the Chiefs have Patrick Mahomes.” This was the first team preview I did back in July. I like the preview I wrote here but it contains an error in the very first paragraph that I don’t know how I made. The Chiefs are trying to become the FOURTH team to follow a Super Bowl loss with a Super Bowl win. I had the 71-72 Dolphins and 17-18 Patriots, but I somehow skipped right over the 70-71 Cowboys, who beat those Dolphins before they went on a repeat run.
I covered how the Chiefs did a great job addressing the weakness with the offensive line. It will be interesting to see if that means they run more (and better) this year or not. I also chose Mecole Hardman as the real X-factor in the offense. If he can have a breakout year in replacing Sammy Watkins’ role as the WR2, then this offense could soar to a new level. But given how mistake prone Hardman is, and how he looked at times with Mahomes in the preseason, I’m not confident about that. So, Travis Kelce and Tyreek Hill are going to have to stay healthy for sure.
I also covered how no team has ever won 14 games and then won more the next year in NFL history. Now the Chiefs get a bonus 17th game to try, but I still don’t think they win more than 13 in the regular season.
I went over Kansas City’s historic streak of winning seven straight games by fewer than seven points. The Chiefs finished 9-0 (including playoffs) in games decided by 1-7 points, the best record in the last 20 years.
Usually, those teams regress. Now it’s been pointed out that the teams with the great quarterbacks were fine, and that’s true. But this is also the second year in a row where the Chiefs had a lot of unusual wins. Remember, their whole Super Bowl run in 2019 saw them trail by double digits in every game before winning them all by double digits. Since 2019, the Chiefs are 9-3 when trailing by multiple scores. That is insane and not sustainable, no matter how great Mahomes is.
But as I was saying about this being more than one year, look at the Colts example with Peyton Manning. He led a ton of close wins in 2008 and 2009, which is why he deserved those MVP awards. He had seven comebacks in 2009, an NFL record. But in 2010, he had no comeback wins and the Colts were bounced by the Jets in the wild card round after blowing a late lead. The regression caught up to them.
Keep in mind that the Chiefs were only 10-8 (.556) in these close outcomes in 2018-19, and 10-9 including the playoffs. Going from 10-9 to 9-0 is a huge leap. The Chiefs were one of three teams to not blow a fourth-quarter lead last year. They almost certainly will blow one or more this year. Maybe they play fewer close games overall and win more in dominant fashion. But I don’t think you will see the same close game success for this team this year.
This is the first team in the preview you’re reading but the 32nd recap I’m writing. I wanted to finish up by touching on some things I said over the summer about this team. Some Chiefs fans got all riled up over what I was tweeting in July, but they just don’t understand that I have been very pro-Kansas City in recent years. I make no bones about being a huge fan of Mahomes, who I just ranked as the No. 2 quarterback of the 21st century. I wanted to see them win the Super Bowl again. You’re not going to get me to root against him because you misunderstood my tweets.
But 31-9 was a gut punch, one of the worst Super Bowls I’ve ever seen after the worst postseason I ever covered. Those four weeks soured me so much on football that I basically ignored it for five months as I covered the NBA for the first time in my career. And hey, I somehow went over 60% ATS at picking NBA games. Way better than I am at football. It was a nice escape before I got back into doing football in July.
I hope I’m wrong, but I think the potential for a dynasty for this team may have closed with 31-9. The common link between every NFL dynasty is that they don’t lose games like Super Bowl LV. You don’t lose the game where you can collect your second trophy and then go on to win several more. It just doesn’t happen that way.
The 1961-67 Packers were 5-0 in championship games. The 1970s Steelers and 1980s 49ers were 4-0 in the Super Bowl. The 1992-95 Cowboys and 2001-04 Patriots were 3-0 in the Super Bowl.
You know who loses their shot at a second ring? It’s the teams at the bottom of this table I’ve been keeping to myself since July, which has all the teams who won multiple rings in a five-year window on top. But the bottom includes those famous teams who lost their second shot and never got back like the 1997 Packers with Brett Favre, 2001 Rams with Kurt Warner, 2009 Colts with Peyton Manning, and 2014 Seahawks with Russell Wilson.
Being some of those teams on the bottom is not the worst thing in the world. Joe Gibbs did rebound to win three rings in Washington after that crushing 38-9 Super Bowl loss (sound familiar?) to the Raiders in 1983. But he had to wait until 1987 to get his second, and after the 49ers won back-to-back in 1988-89, it was clear that San Francisco was the team of the decade and not Washington, which is not traditionally thought of as a dynasty for winning with three different quarterbacks from 1982-91.
Now, the counterpoint to all of this is obvious. We’ve only had 55 seasons where a team could win the Super Bowl, a small sample size. There are plenty of firsts to come. Just look at Tampa Bay last year. The Bucs are the first team to trail by 17+ points in five games in a season and still win a Super Bowl. Someone will be the first No. 7 seed to win a Super Bowl. Someone will be the first rookie quarterback to win a Super Bowl. Some day we could even see a team finish 8-9 and win the Super Bowl since that’s possible now. Maybe the standard for a dynasty is changing, and we just finished a decade (2010s) where the same team (New England) remained on top since no one took the throne. And those Patriots went nine seasons (2005-13) without winning a Super Bowl, a period I want to call football heaven now.
However, if I’m just basing things on the NFL history we know, I have a bad feeling about the Chiefs’ future in big games after 31-9. When you consider that Super Bowl LIV is likely a loss too without WASP, you are reminded of just how difficult these championships are to win. The margin is so tiny between doing it and not.
But I’m just following everyone’s lead as expectations are high for Mahomes and the Chiefs to win multiple championships. Not just two either as polls I’ve seen on Twitter have said. People are expecting three or more. That’s the Brady effect, I’d say. The bar has been raised.
In Kansas City’s case, this team is heads and shoulders above the rest of the AFC. The Bills couldn’t beat Kansas City twice last year. The Ravens are 0-3 with Lamar Jackson against them. Those are the main challengers now. With an incredible youth movement going on at quarterback, the league is in a transition period. We are waiting for new powers to rise. The Chiefs have things figured out. They have the best player and one of the best coaches. This is their time to stack Super Bowls before these other teams catch up.
So when you blow a chance like last year, it feels extra worse. You don’t know if you’ll ever get back in this league. Ask Dan Marino, Drew Brees, and yeah, Aaron Rodgers. I think Mahomes will get back pretty soon (see the bottom for prediction). But any invincibility he built up is gone after 31-9. Now we’ll see how he and this team respond after that setback.
I hope it’s the revenge tour of the year.
2. Los Angeles Chargers (10-7)
BMR Preview: I am on the Justin Herbert bandwagon after what he did as a rookie last year. Dak Prescott (2016), Jared Goff (2017), Carson Wentz (2017), Patrick Mahomes (2018), Deshaun Watson (2018), Mitchell Trubisky (2018), Lamar Jackson (2019), and Josh Allen (2019) have all led their teams to double-digit wins and the playoffs in their first or second season since 2016. I have Herbert adding his name to the list, though with the Chiefs in the division, it is still hard to pick the Chargers to go too far this year. Plus, we’re talking about the Chargers. You just know there will be crippling injuries and shocking close losses to fill up a new BINGO card in the Herbert era.
By just the sixth game of the Herbert era, the Chargers blew as many 17-point leads (three) as they did in the entire Drew Brees (2001-05) and Philip Rivers (2006-19) eras. Hopefully with a new coach (Brandon Staley) and fresh eyes along the coaching staff, we’ll see better results this year and get a good season from the Chargers.
3. Denver Broncos (7-10)
BMR Preview: You wish this was Aaron Rodgers, but at least it will be Teddy Bridgewater instead of Drew Lock at quarterback for the Broncos to start the season. That’s what I thought would happen when I wrote this preview, one of the earliest teams I covered.
“Bridgewater gives the Broncos a different style of play. He is often conservative and will take plenty of checkdowns, which will at least cut down on the interceptions after Denver led the league with 23 of them last year. But in three seasons where he was a primary starter, Bridgewater never threw more than 15 touchdowns, which is unheard of in this era. In fact, Bridgewater is one of eight quarterbacks in NFL history to have three seasons with at least 400 pass attempts and no more than 15 touchdown passes. The last quarterback before Bridgewater to do that was Chad Henne.
Finally, the most amusing stat in this competition comes courtesy of Pro Football Reference. In 2020, Lock led all starting quarterbacks with a bad throw on 22.9% of his passes while Bridgewater had the lowest rate of bad throws at 13.0%. The stat is based on poorly aimed throws, excluding spikes and throwaways. If Lock is still reckless with the ball, then the Broncos have a pretty clear choice to make here. Go with the guy who can let the playmakers do the work and not put the defense in bad positions.”
Last year I was off by three games on Denver (8-8 vs. 5-11), the first time I slipped by more than a game on this team. I think with some better health luck and quarterback play, they’ll be in that 7-8 win range at least this year. Teddy did some good things with the Carolina wideouts last year, so it should be nice to see Courtland Sutton and Jerry Jeudy play together.
Also, I am one of the people who thinks the team should have just drafted Justin Fields in April. I’m sure some Denver fans have not been this interested in watching a Bears season since Jay Cutler was shipped there in 2009.
4. Las Vegas Raiders (6-11)
BMR Preview: Head coach Jon Gruden has still not taken a team to the postseason since 2007, and his 57-55 (.509) record in the regular season with the Raiders is the same mediocre record he had as the coach of Tampa Bay (2002-08).You know I’ve never been a fan of Derek Carr, but he had an argument that 2020 was his best season or certainly a top-two season for him along with 2016. The offense should be decent, but the defense still looks weak to me and that’s why I found it hard to find more wins for them on the schedule. Not when I see two playoff-caliber teams in the division, a better Denver team, and the Raiders also have to play the AFC North.
1. Los Angeles Rams (12-5)
BMR Preview: I think it’s cute that Sean McVay and Matthew Stafford are excited that people found stats that show Stafford is very good after throwing an interception in a game. But I’m not sure it really matters how he bounces back from a first-quarter pick when he’s playing a team that is about to finish with five wins on the season. The data I’m interested in with Stafford is that he’s 8-68 (.105) against teams that finish the season with a winning record. He never won multiple games against winning teams in the same season in 12 years with Detroit.
Stafford is 2-62 (.031) when a winning opponent scores more than 17 points against him. Even Jared Goff (12-16 record) has three playoff wins with the Rams when the team allowed at least 20 points. I go over these stats in the BMR preview.
Quarterback moves like this rarely happen, and I am excited to see Stafford out of Detroit and on a team with a coach who is supposed to be great, and a couple of top-tier players sprinkled along some scrub types. The offensive line is going to need a revamping and they’ve already lost Cam Akers (Achilles) in the backfield, so maybe Stafford is just cursed to have a running game. But this really needs to work right away with the team trading away two more first-round picks to get him here.
I think it works enough for a division title in a tough division, and I obviously am predicting Stafford to get multiple wins against winning teams. I just don’t think you can trust him to get three or four in a row in the playoffs, plus the few he’s going to need just to get a good record like 12-5. But that Week 3 game, Buccaneers at Rams, is the one to circle. No team could make a bigger statement this September than the Rams if they win that and get to 3-0. What better way to measure where this team is at than with the defending champions? They beat them last year in Tampa Bay too with Goff throwing over 50 times.
This will be interesting.
2. San Francisco 49ers (11-6)
BMR Preview: I think this is a huge year for Kyle Shanahan and Jimmy Garoppolo to show that 2019 was not a one-year fluke. The San Francisco 49ers have the dubious honor of being the first team in NFL history to sandwich a Super Bowl appearance (2019) in between two seasons with double-digit losses. They can get a pass for 2018 when Garoppolo tore his ACL in the third game. They can get a pass for last year after one of the most injury-plagued seasons on record. But this year we need to see something, and I would still start Garoppolo as I think he has very interesting numbers that they need to explore to see if he can stay healthy and sustain it. Trey Lance is exciting and will be the future of the team after the big move to get him, but he is so raw and has that high bust potential given his inexperience and caliber of competition faced in college. Garoppolo will probably be hurt before Halloween anyway, so it’s a good chance we see Lance in 2021 regardless. But I’m all for starting the season with the veteran and seeing what happens. If they can keep George Kittle, Deebo Samuel and Brandon Aiyuk healthy, then that can be an awesome trio for this offense.
3. Seattle Seahawks (11-6)
BMR Preview: Since drafting Russell Wilson in 2012, the Seahawks are the 19th team in NFL history to have at least nine straight winning seasons. Ten of those first 18 teams extended their streak to 10 seasons or more. Eight teams fell off in Year 10, but those were usually the end of eras.
Maybe the end of the Pete Carroll-Wilson era is afoot, but they’re still together with another new offensive coordinator this year. Russ might still cook, but I keep banging the drum that in Year 10, it’s time for Wilson to start making that change in playing style and take fewer sacks. He has taken over 40 sacks in eight straight seasons, an NFL record. Remarkably, he has never missed a game yet. If Ben Roethlisberger can tone down the sandlot ball and morph into a quarterback who gets rid of the ball super-fast, then I think Wilson has it in him to improve in that area too.
I still love the wide receiver duo of DK Metcalf and Tyler Lockett, and things may be a little deeper this year in that unit. The defense no longer is a threat, but the Seahawks had a very strange season. They went from allowing the third-most points through eight games to the fewest in the last eight. However, a lot of it was schedule based. They couldn’t figure out the Rams either, and with Stafford in town, that could be a tougher team to beat.
The close-game regression is always a worry with this team since I swear Wilson and Carroll get off on playing a close game. The Seahawks went from 29-29 in games decided by 1-to-7 points in Wilson’s first seven seasons to 16-5 in the last two seasons. Which one looks like an outlier to you?
I’ll always trust Wilson, but this team’s act has gotten a bit stale as it still hasn’t advanced to the NFC Championship Game since 2014. That is why, despite a really nice record, I still have them finishing in third place in a tightly contested division. But would it shock me if Stafford and Shanahan disappoint again and the Seahawks still win the NFC West? Not one bit.
4. Arizona Cardinals (9-8)
BMR Preview: This tweet sums it up best the way I find it alarming that the offense did not take a bigger leap in Year 2 after adding DeAndre Hopkins, who played very well.
I am not big on Arizona adding J.J. Watt and A.J. Green as the 2011 draft was a decade ago. Green especially could be problematic if he commands a decent target share and doesn’t play much better than he did last year with the Bengals. But Kyler Murray is a unique talent and I think his health late in the season brought the offense down and caused Arizona to miss the playoffs. Let’s see him stay healthy and improve in his third season. The defense is not bad and getting Chandler Jones back is a big plus, as is getting Matt Prater as the new kicker. They had some big misses in that department last year.
I’m not really loving this team or Kliff Kingsbury as a coach in a tough division race, but I found myself giving them nine wins in the end. Was it enough for the playoffs? See below.
1. Buffalo Bills (12-5)
BMR Preview: The Bills unleashed Josh Allen last year and he rewarded them with a staggeringly great season that will force us to entertain every crappy young quarterback still having a chance to break out in Year 3 because Allen did it in 2020. Thanks, Josh. I hope you got your vaccine because we know your second-best wideout didn’t.
Still, shouldn’t there be some concern for regression here? We know very few teams win 13 games or score 500 points in back-to-back years. A 17th game helps there, but then there’s also this fact with the context that 2020 was a record-breaking year for offenses during the pandemic:
“Ouch, not J.P. But I have good news, Bills fans. I don’t think this is going to be a flash in the pan like 2015 Cam Newton, 2016 Derek Carr, or 2017 Carson Wentz. What makes me a believer in Buffalo’s offense is the way it consistently moved the ball all season. The Bills tied the Chiefs for the NFL lead in first downs (397) and joined the 2012 Patriots as the only two teams in NFL history to have at least 20 first downs in all 16 regular-season games. Buffalo had the fewest punts per drive and the third-lowest rate in three-and-out drives (13.8%).
The Bills converted 49.7% of their third downs to lead the NFL. In the playoffs, the Bills were only 30.6% on third down, so that was disappointing. Still, teams that go on great offensive runs tend to rank highly on third downs each year. With that said, it would not be surprising to see the Bills drop a few spots in third down success.”
Basically, I think the offense will still be one of the best in the league, but you may see the individual numbers go down for Allen and Stefon Diggs as a guy like Gabriel Davis eats more. What concerns me is a middling defense didn’t add much. That could hurt in getting over the Kansas City hump, but they also have to watch out for the Patriots who should be better, and maybe Baltimore will find more of a passing game this year.
Mahomes needs that worthy rival in the AFC or else this is going to get pretty one sided like it did with the Patriots for years. Allen and the Bills could be that team to challenge them, but it’s only going to be a rivalry if they start playing better in those games. Still, this is refreshing as hell to be talking about the Bills and an exciting offense with actual Super Bowl aspirations.
2. New England Patriots (10-7)
BMR Preview: The saddest thing about the 2020 Patriots was that they were too unrecognizable to still hate. One of the main things I wanted to stress in my BMR preview was that the team was not just the 2019 Patriots minus Tom Brady. They were the team most affected by COVID and they lost a ton of snaps and players on both sides of the ball. Here are the stats and a chart I didn’t get to share in that article showing that.
The top 16 players in offensive snaps on the 2019 Patriots played a combined 11,114 snaps for the team that year.
Those same 16 players contributed 3,842 snaps to the 2020 Patriots with nine players not playing a single snap for the team.
The top 16 players in defensive snaps on the 2019 Patriots played a combined 9,855 snaps for the team that year.
Those same 16 players contributed 6,726 snaps to the 2020 Patriots with six of the top 11 players not playing a single snap for the team.
Now with a retooled group of skill players and a rookie QB with insane college stats in Mac Jones, this team could be very competitive again. But I still think Buffalo is the class of the division, which feels so nice to say. I never thought the day would come.
3. Miami Dolphins (8-9)
BMR Preview: Well, I hope the Deshaun Watson trade rumors were always just rumors, because how tone deaf could a team be to entertain that right now? Beyond the trouble Watson could cause in a city like Miami, what about Tua? I’m not a big fan of him either so far, but let’s at least give him this season to see if he can be a franchise player or not.
But given the way the Dolphins relied on turnovers on defense and Ryan Fitzpatrick saving the day a few times, I think this is one of the easiest picks for teams that take a few steps back this year.
Stats to consider: Last year, the Dolphins had some unusual numbers that can largely be explained by turnovers. Miami’s offense finished 22nd in yards, yet the Dolphins finished 15th in points scored. Miami’s defense finished 20th in yards allowed, yet the Dolphins finished sixth in points allowed. If you sum the difference in those rankings of yards and points, the Dolphins finished 21 spots above expectations. That makes the 2020 Dolphins the 18th team since 2002 to finish at least 20 spots above expectations between yards and points. Twelve of those 17 teams won fewer games the following season.
4. New York Jets (4-13)
BMR Preview: I recapped how the Tank for Trevor campaign went awry. You have to appreciate that Adam Gase found a way to win two games and it probably made the team worse for years to come. I am not overly confident with the additions of Robert Saleh and Zach Wilson. Part of that is because it’s the Jets making these moves, but maybe these are the guys who change it all there.
1. Dallas Cowboys (11-6)
BMR Preview: Finally, the Cowboys will be worth watching again. That’s assuming Dak Prescott’s health is fine. He hasn’t had the easiest training camp so far. He was so prolific last year, but again, I wonder how much of that was just the pandemic and defenses being so far behind. I highly doubt he’s going to smash the passing yards per game record, but then again, he did throw for nearly 5,000 yards in 2019. I think CeeDee Lamb will be ready to explode with him in this offense and it’s still going to have to be the offense that carries the team.
Included are some very interesting stats (to me at least) about how Dallas always has to score 30 to win the last two years. There’s never been another team like this for two years.
2. Philadelphia Eagles (8-9)
BMR Preview: I am optimistic about Jalen Hurts, though 8-9 is definitely a hedge on just how much. I’m not ready to buy in like I am with Justin Herbert and the Chargers. The accuracy in limited action last season is worrisome for sure. He only threw 148 passes, but according to Pro Football Reference, Hurts had the highest rate of bad passes (26.7%) by anyone with at least 125 attempts. The next closest quarterback was his new backup, Joe Flacco (23.4%). Worse, only 60.7% of Hurts’ throws were charted as being on-target passes, easily the lowest rate in the league.
Great, just what the Eagles need. An athletic quarterback with questionable accuracy but one hell of a highlight reel. Still, it beats whatever Carson Wentz was doing last year.
3. Washington Football Team (7-10)
BMR Preview: There is a lot to like but little to love with this Washington roster. Ryan Fitzpatrick should be an upgrade at quarterback as no playoff team had worse quarterback play than Washington last year. It also was far from a traditional playoff season at 7-9 in the worst division race in modern history. That schedule had a lot to do with the defense looking as good as it did statistically. The division games should be tougher. The overall schedule should be tougher. With Fitzpatrick’s career struggles in close games – Ron Rivera is no peach there either – I just don’t see this coming together for a winning season and certainly not a playoff trip. Remember, Fitzpatrick has never made the playoffs and Rivera has a losing record in 70% of his seasons.
4. New York Giants (4-13)
BMR Preview: The Giants have a lot of first-round picks on offense but are they legitimately good? That’s a big part of this preview. Seriously, if anyone can explain how Evan Engram made the Pro Bowl at tight end last year, I’d love to hear it.
If Daniel Jones doesn’t take a big step forward (without tripping over himself) in his third season, then it’s time to look for a new quarterback. They could have the worst situation in the division if he doesn’t pan out this year. I also think like Washington, the defense took advantage of a soft schedule.
1. Tennessee Titans (10-7)
BMR Preview: This team has regression red flags everywhere from all the close wins last season to Derrick Henry’s huge workload to the red zone offense efficiency after adding a receiver (Julio Jones) who never catches touchdowns to the defense being horrifically bad on third down. Actually, that last one should be positive regression as it can’t get worse than allowing 51.9% on third down, the only defense over 50% since 1991.
But it’s great to play in the AFC South right now. Houston and Jacksonville alone could be good for four wins. Plus, this is the first season in a long time where you can say the Titans are going in with the best quarterback. Oddly enough, Ryan Tannehill is maybe my most trusted asset on the Titans right now.
2. Indianapolis Colts (8-9)
BMR Preview: As you may expect, I wrote a scathing but factual account of Carson Wentz’s time in Philadelphia and how it got Doug Pederson fired. Now, he reunites with Frank Reich, his coordinator in 2017 and the guy who was allegedly the brains of the operation that year for the Super Bowl-winning Eagles. If he can’t fix Wentz, then no one can. Even I was surprised at how bad last season went for him.
I think Reich, who has had a different QB1 every year, will find a way to get better play out of Wentz. They’ll lean on Jonathan Taylor for sure. But a lot of injuries and some COVID nonsense with this team going into Week 1. I think playing in this division is their best hope of having a shot at the playoffs.
3. Jacksonville Jaguars (4-13)
BMR Preview: I’m already a bit worried about Urban Meyer wasting Trevor Lawrence on his rookie contract. This regime just feels like it will reek of nonsensical, nepotism-inspired moves. At least Meyer has shown he’ll cut ties quickly if you make him look bad as his strength & conditioning coach did as well as Tim Tebow’s performance as a “blocking tight end” in the preseason. But this team is still down bad and I don’t see much happening this year.
4. Houston Texans (3-14)
BMR Preview: Well, I didn’t hold back on Deshaun Watson in that preview or on here when I ranked him as the 22nd-best quarterback of the 21st century. Twenty-two, one point for each of his accusers of sexual assault. As a fan, I’m really frustrated about this development in his career, which could have been Hall of Fame bound, and the league’s slow response to it all. He can’t possibly play this year, can he? I hope we hear his side of the story some day and he takes accountability.
Even with Watson, this team went 4-12 last year. There was never a ton of hope for something great with Watson. Now with Tyrod Taylor, I think three wins is looking like a lot. I was more optimistic when I wrote the BMR preview. This team just has nothing to be excited about anymore. DeAndre Hopkins is gone. J.J. Watt is gone. Watson might be done. David Culley is just being set up for failure, and that might be the only reason they hired someone so old and underwhelming.
It’s just sad.
1. Tampa Bay Buccaneers (15-2)
BMR Preview: I detail the story of how the Buccaneers went from a 7-5 underachiever to a playoff overachiever to what should be the favorite to repeat as Super Bowl champion. It is remarkable to see a team return every starter from a Super Bowl winning roster. Most of the depth is back as well, and we know this team had one of the deepest receiving corps in recent years. The Bucs were the most balanced of the final four teams last year and that’s why they won the Super Bowl. They could defend and get turnovers and set up Tom Brady on short fields at a rate we haven’t seen in the playoffs all these years.
Then the masterclass coaching job in the Super Bowl against the Chiefs. Patrick Mahomes could play 300 games and that may be the only time he gets beat 31-9 and doesn’t score a touchdown. The Bucs also brought back both coordinators, Byron Leftwich and Todd Bowles, as well.
The biggest weakness this team has is that the quarterback is 44 years old, and the cliff could be there any week for him to walk off. Guys like Vinny Testaverde and Warren Moon played at that age, but it was a few games. This is a 20 or 21-game season the Bucs expect to have Brady for. But if he stays healthy again, they are absolutely loaded and should challenge for the best offense this year. Still, we know the best chance of repeating lies in staying balanced and having one of the best defenses too.
As disgusting as it sounds, I wouldn’t rule out a 20-0 season for this team. You know Brady is still sour over 2007 and a perfect season is about the only thing his resume can’t show. They should be favored in every game except maybe the Week 3 game in Los Angeles against the Rams.
Wait, a Matthew Stafford-led team is going to derail this team? Please. That’s exactly why I’m so on board with Tampa marching right back to the Super Bowl. You think Matthew Stafford and Ryan Fitzpatrick, quarterbacks who are a combined 17-122-1 against teams with a winning record, are going to help the Rams and Washington beat this team in a big game? I mean, just look at this:
That’s a quarter of the NFC now. Green Bay always gets smacked around by teams like this and hasn’t been back to the Super Bowl in a decade. Seattle can’t even get back to the NFC Championship Game since Malcolm Butler happened. No more Drew Brees in New Orleans. The Falcons, only if we could STOP THE COUNT before the fourth quarter. Where’s the threat? A Dallas team with Mike McCarthy and no defense? We’ll see that litmus test Thursday night.
I think it has to be an AFC team that knocks them out. If not the Chiefs, then it’s on Buffalo or Baltimore. We’ll see Bills at Buccaneers in Week 14.
The NFC is usually a surprise team at the top every year, but while this Tampa Bay run is not going to be a long one, it sure looks like it’s going to continue this year.
2. New Orleans Saints (8-9)
BMR Preview: I’m glad Sean Payton is giving Jameis Winston a chance to start. We’ll still see Taysom Hill of course, but Winston deserves this. It’s a huge opportunity for him to carve out a decent career after a stint in Tampa Bay that did not work out as planned. He is talented and obviously can move the ball at a high level, but turnovers have always been the problem. Now he has a better team around him, but I think it’s still a given there will be more sacks and turnovers in this offense without Drew Brees.
Time and time again, we see teams falter after losing such a great quarterback. Maybe the Saints won’t go all the way back to their 7-9 days with horrible defense, but until I see that Winston is the real deal in Payton’s offense, I am going with a step back to 8-9. This is a big opportunity for Payton too to show that Brees wasn’t the real offensive genius in New Orleans all those years. Winston is no slouch, but he needs to play more disciplined than he did in Tampa Bay. I’m excited to see this experiment.
3. Atlanta Falcons (8-9)
BMR Preview: No more Dan Quinn jokes, but no one can say he didn’t make history in his time in Atlanta. Fired after five games last year, but what a gem they were with two blown leads of 15+ points in the fourth quarter in back-to-back weeks. The 2020 Falcons were only outscored by 18 points on the season, the best scoring differential in NFL history for a team that finished 4-12 or worse.
I have higher hopes in Arthur Smith than most of the rookie coaches this year. I think he’ll be good for Matt Ryan and the offense, which is going to miss Julio Jones. But Calvin Ridley is a legit No. 1 receiver. Kyle Pitts is the highest drafted tight end ever. I have some good stats in the BMR preview about how hard it has been for rookie tight ends to dominate. He will try to join Mike Ditka as only the second one to break 1,000 yards as a rookie. He is in a great situation to do it.
4. Carolina Panthers (4-13)
BMR Preview: The Panthers were 0-9 at game-winning drive opportunities last year, tying the 2008 Lions for the worst record in the last 20 years. This sounds like a good chance for regression, but the Panthers have replaced Teddy Bridgewater with Sam Darnold, who I don’t believe in. I think the team is going to get worse despite Christian McCaffrey coming back.
1. Baltimore Ravens (12-5)
BMR Preview: I feel like I’m higher on Baltimore than most, but I just think this team is unique and built to beat most teams in the NFL. We know which ones they struggle with, namely the Chiefs. But they’ll have another shot at them in Week 2 at home. That’s the biggest one of the season as far as I’m concerned. We need to see something more from Lamar Jackson in that game. Even if he doesn’t win it, at least go toe to toe with Mahomes for a few quarters. The Ravens have gone from losing 27-24 in overtime, to 33-28 in Arrowhead, to 34-20 at home last year as the gap between Jackson and Mahomes grows in those games.
I keep pointing out how Jackson has led the Ravens to their lowest scoring total of the season in three straight postseasons, something you just don’t see from a great quarterback that often. That will need to change, but let’s get through this regular season first and worry about that later. The Ravens are losing running backs left and right, but I still think the running game is going to be successful and the defense will be good. The main thing is on Jackson to take this passing offense to the next level.
2. Pittsburgh Steelers (9-8)
BMR Preview: All the expectations are for the Steelers to fall apart this year, but I still don’t see it. I think people overlook the struggle the schedule changes caused last year. The Steelers weren’t supposed to have a Week 4 bye, but the Titans had a COVID problem. They ended up playing the COVID Ravens on a Wednesday afternoon in a game that needed multiple reschedules, and then they played five days later on a Monday against Washington, their first loss of the season after an 11-0 start. Then they had to go to Buffalo that Sunday night. It was three games over 12 days for a team that had an early bye.
Then when you have maybe the most one-dimensional offense in modern NFL history, those excessive number of throws are going to bother a 38-year-old quarterback who had elbow surgery a year earlier. I think the Steelers were just tired in December, they had flaws they never addressed, and they played horrible football for a few weeks.
But the comeback win against the Colts was vintage Roethlisberger. The playoff game against Cleveland was the worst first quarter start by a team in playoff history, down 28-0. I wrote all about the playoff failures of this team in this era here after the game. Same old Steelers.
Najee Harris should give the offense more balance. The offensive line can’t be any worse than it was last year, and it is all new. Roethlisberger gets rid of the ball so fast now that it can negate that weakness. I actually hope he holds onto the ball a little longer this year so they can get back to some big plays. The constant short throws and drag routes on 3rd-and-7 just have to go. But I think that’s still going to be an issue. At least the defense should be adequate as long as T.J. Watt gets his contract and doesn’t hold out.
The schedule looks tough, but I’m going to trust that the team that hasn’t had a losing season in 17 years still stays one game ahead of that mark. It could be the swansong for Roethlisberger, who won’t want to go out on a losing note.
3. Cleveland Browns (9-8)
BMR Preview: The 2020 Browns are only the second team after the 2012 Colts to win 11 games with a negative scoring differential. Coach of the Year Kevin Stefanski felt his impact in his first year as Baker Mayfield and the offense powered the team forward to their best season since the days of Marty Schottenheimer and Bernie Kosar.
Yet, it still feels shaky to trust them to do it again or get better. I think the Browns will be competitive on a weekly basis, but the defense still looks too flawed to slow down teams like the Chiefs, Bills, and Ravens, or the teams you have to beat to get far in the playoffs right now. Plus Mayfield still has to prove he has consistency, and he has yet to develop a great connection with Odell Beckham Jr., who missed most of last year’s success. Myles Garrett is great on defense but I’d just like to see them have more there.
4. Cincinnati Bengals (6-11)
BMR Preview: It would be hard to pick head coach Zac Taylor out of a lineup of Costco cashiers, let alone pin down the identity of his football team. Last year, Joe Burrow threw the ball a ton. I picked up some Sam Bradford vibes from it all, but he looked better than Bradford did to me. Still, I’m a bit worried about him in this offense after he tore his ACL and the offensive line continues to look bad. I’m hoping to see more big plays from him this year after they upgraded the receivers. A.J. Green just didn’t have it anymore last year.
But with Taylor, it’s hard to see this team winning. Predicting them to win six games with a coach who is 6-25-1 feels generous to me.
1. Green Bay Packers (12-5)
BMR Preview: No team in NFL history has won 13 games in three straight seasons. The Packers are on the doorstep after going 13-3 in each of Matt LaFleur’s first two seasons. Both ended in a loss in the NFC Championship Game, but they were different paths to get there. Last year, Prime Aaron Rodgers returned and won his third MVP. It was unexpected since we hadn’t seen that guy for an extended period since 2014, and it’s not like the Packers added a ton of different talent on offense. I don’t remember anyone saying Jimmy Graham was holding them back in 2019 and tight end Robert Tonyan would be the answer. So, I would caution some regression there on offense.
As for defense, the Packers have a new coordinator (Joe Barry) with a bad track record and they brought back 14 of the 15 defenders who played at least 340 snaps, including playoff scapegoat Kevin King. I always say it’s the same thing every year for the Packers, but this is a little too on the nose. They even brought back slot receiver Randall Cobb to the offense in getting ready for Rodgers’ Last Dance.
The Packers have been swept out of the playoffs seven times since 2012, including each of the last two years by the 2019 49ers and 2020 Buccaneers. The good news? Tampa Bay isn’t on the schedule this year. But Green Bay is probably going to have to step up and beat a team like that if it wants to get back to another Super Bowl in this closing Rodgers window.
2. Minnesota Vikings (9-8)
BMR Preview: This was one of my favorite paragraphs in any of these previews this year:
“Kirk Cousins is an absolutely fitting 51-51-2 as a starter in the regular season (plus 1-2 in the playoffs). Since 2015, his records have been 9-7, 8-7-1, 7-9, 8-7-1, 10-5, and 7-9. It is as if he is incapable of straying more than a game from .500 or the Earth will spin off its axis. The one time he did in 2019, the world was thrown into a global pandemic. That is just the facts.”
I have a lot of good Cousins stats in here. The team really does seem like it can not stray too far from .500 with him. Last year, the Vikings had a lot of defensive injuries, leading to a horrible unit. Of all the teams in the league that have a shot at vastly improving their defense, I’d put Minnesota at No. 1 on the list given how many different and better players will take the field this year. The offense still obviously has some weapons, though I would caution that Justin Jefferson may not be able to improve on such a sensational rookie season with 1,400 yards. Plus, if Jefferson or Adam Thielen gets hurt, I’m not sure what this team will do at receiver. It’s not deep at all and even Kyle Rudolph is gone at tight end and Irv Smith was lost to injury.
But I came up with 9-8 in the end. Is that enough for the playoffs as a No. 7 seed? See below.
3. Chicago Bears (8-9)
BMR Preview: Nothing like dangling Justin Fields in the preseason and giving us Andy Dalton in prime time against Aaron Donald in Week 1. The Ginger Snaps won’t last past Week 3, right? That’s my thought on when we see Fields take over, which will definitely happen this year. I’m not sure why Matt Nagy is delaying the inevitable, but that’s why he’s not considered a top-tier coach despite not having a losing record yet. But I didn’t think Chicago did enough to make the defense better after a subpar year for that unit. The schedule is also really tough, so 8-9 is a gut pick that they’ll just be a mediocre team who won’t hog up a No. 7 seed this year.
4. Detroit Lions (4-13)
BMR Preview: While Matt Patricia always looked like a coach for a fictional New England football team on Family Guy, Dan Campbell enters with his own cartoonish vibe – somewhere between South Park’s PC Principal and a jock in Revenge of the Nerds.
I don’t know how long the Campbell era will last, but it sure could be hilarious. I probably give Jared Goff more credit than most, but I don’t think this is a good fit for him. Moving on from Matthew Stafford after a dozen years of trying to make it work was definitely the right move. The draft picks should help the Lions in their search for their next quarterback.
1. Kansas City (13-4)
2. Buffalo (12-5)
3. Baltimore (12-5)
4. Tennessee (10-7)
5. New England (10-7)
6. Los Angeles (10-7)
7. Pittsburgh (9-8)
Wild Card Saturday games decided by three points could become a Josh Allen tradition at this rate. The Steelers barely edged out Cleveland for the final wild card spot, but they drop another one in Buffalo. The Ravens get some revenge for 2018 by beating the Chargers while Mike Vrabel improves to 2-0 vs. Bill Belichick in the playoffs. But as the AFC rarely likes to change, we again see the Chiefs beat the Titans and the Bills beat the Ravens, setting up a rematch of last year’s AFC Championship Game. Once again, it’s Mahomes over Allen, sending the Chiefs back to the Super Bowl for a third year in a row.
1. Tampa Bay (15-2)
2. Green Bay (12-5)
3. Los Angeles (12-5)
4. Dallas (11-6)
5. San Francisco (11-6)
6. Seattle (11-6)
7. Arizona (9-8)
Wow, it really worked out to get all four NFC West teams in the tournament. I do not feel confident about that, but I had 9-8 Arizona and 9-8 Minnesota, and since I have Arizona beating the Vikings in Week 2, that’s the tie-breaker. Let’s roll with it. I have Arizona losing in Green Bay, Rams beating Seattle again for Stafford’s first playoff win (fitting since his first big win of career was vs. Seattle), and I’ll take Dallas over the 49ers. Then it’s the opener rematch with Dallas losing again in Tampa Bay. Rams lose again in Green Bay. The Packers can’t solve Tampa again on the road in a game not even as close as last year’s finish. That sets up our rematch.
I feel good about four new division winners and five new playoff teams, but damn if these games playing out so much like last year doesn’t bug me. I have six playoff rematches from last year in here (BAL-BUF, BUF-KC, SEA-LAR, LAR-GB, GB-TB, KC-TB).
SUPER BOWL LVI
Tampa Bay 31, Kansas City 27
At least this one won’t be played in Tampa Bay and the Chiefs shouldn’t have a ravaged offensive line this time.
Can he finally just retire after this one? Eight Is Enough was a TV show that debuted in 1977, the year Tom Brady was born. I hope that’s the universe’s sign telling him to take a f’n hint.
History doesn’t repeat itself, but it often rhymes.
While we shouldn’t have taken two Week 6 games to heart for Sunday, there were plenty of qualities in both that carried over to the rematch in these title games, won again by the Buccaneers and Chiefs. Their defenses made life extra difficult again for Aaron Rodgers and Josh Allen as the latest quarterbacks to fall short of a Super Bowl win on 500-point teams. That sets up an overhyped Super Bowl that will likely end after Travis Kelce throws an interception to tackle-eligible Mike Remmers or something ridiculous.
Or it could end with crowning the first repeat champion in the NFL since the 2003-04 Patriots. We have two weeks to worry about that, so for now let’s just recap a high scoring, but relatively low drama Championship Sunday in the NFL.
It would have been difficult for the Packers and Bills to crash harder on Sunday than they already did in the regular season against these opponents. However, both lost after scoring over 500 points in the regular season. Neither was able to score more than 26 points, meaning the 2011 Saints (32) and 2018 Chiefs (31) are still the only 500-point teams who scored at least 30 points in their playoff loss. Only five of the 26 teams won a championship.
Buccaneers at Packers: The LOAT vs. Not the GOAT
This may (not) shock you, but I don’t think the greatest quarterback of all time was on the field in Green Bay on Sunday afternoon. I only view Tom Brady as the Luckiest of All Time (LOAT), never the GOAT. I have never seen Aaron Rodgers, the greatest front-runner in NFL history, as the GOAT. I would take Peyton Manning over both of them any day, and I already like what Patrick Mahomes is doing so much that I probably never have to change the initials for my answer to that tired question of who is the best to ever do it.
All Sunday’s game did for me was solidify why I never view these players that way. I saw Rodgers come up short again and miss too many opportunities after rarely faltering the rest of the year. Still, this is probably his best NFC Championship Game performance yet, which says a lot about his career. I saw Brady take advantage of inexplicable mistakes by the opponent before throwing three straight interceptions and trying to give the game away, which his defense of course would not allow. No quarterback has won more playoff games with three interceptions than Brady’s three wins, doing it for the second time in a title game. Brady is also the only quarterback to ever throw three interceptions in a road Conference Championship Game and win. All other quarterbacks were 0-17.
If I wanted to see the pinnacle of the position, apparently I had to wait until 6:40 P.M. At the very least, it wasn’t 38-10 this time.
Part I: The Nice Start
One thing I prefaced this game with was that hyped-up quarterback battles rarely result in games where both play very well. For about a quarter and a half, these two were looking to prove me wrong. Both started hot with some great third-down plays while the running games were rather stagnant outside of Leonard Fournette’s 20-yard touchdown run. He loves the spin button more than the most devoted Madden player.
Rodgers especially seemed to have a moment late in the first quarter with the Packers, down 7-0, facing a 3rd-and-15 at their own 5 after a sack. Rodgers rolled out in his own end zone and fired a pass to Allen Lazard for 23 yards. That led to a game-tying 50-yard touchdown pass that was perfectly dropped in on another third down to Marques Valdes-Scantling (MVS). We had a tied game instead of Tampa Bay getting great field position and going up two scores.
The Buccaneers did score a second touchdown after the Green Bay secondary again misjudged a ball in the air and Chris Godwin came down with the prayer for a 52-yard gain to set up Fournette’s score. Rodgers seemed to be answering right back and got Aaron Jones involved on the ground after the back nearly lost a fumble in the red zone, but it was recovered by an alert Robert Tonyan.
But things were looking fine as the Packers called their first timeout with 5:13 left in the second quarter with the ball at the Tampa Bay 6.
Then the collapse started.
Part II: The Collapse
Green Bay was outstanding in the red zone this year, scoring a touchdown on 80% of attempts to lead the league. I gave Rodgers shit for throwing so many short touchdowns on early downs to pad his stats so he could win MVP this year, but admittedly, they were really effective down here. It’s just that these were not attempts from the 1-yard line on Sunday. These were all from the 6-yard line, and that’s where Rodgers locked in with tunnel vision to Davante Adams on three straight incompletions.
On the first one, Rodgers absolutely put the ball on a spot that Adams could catch it on a back-shoulder play. Not the most egregious drop you’ll ever see, and not the kind of play any receiver can make, but it is the kind of timing play that Rodgers and Adams have been hitting this year because of how high of a level they’ve been playing. Just not this time.
On second down, Rodgers forced another one that was batted at the line. On third down, he again went to Adams in the back of the end zone, but Adams ran out of room and couldn’t even establish one foot in bounds. Meanwhile, replay clearly showed Lazard beat his man, who fell down, at the line and was wide open on a slant in the front of the end zone.
Again, I am never a big fan of the “he should have thrown to this guy” analysis, but there was a strong argument here that Rodgers screwed up. The Packers kicked a field goal and trailed 14-10.
Even the best red-zone offense can mess up one drive, right? Green Bay got the ball back with 2:10 left for an opportunity at a double score since the Packers deferred and would get the ball first in the third quarter. Cue the game management malfeasance. Now it’s one thing to slow-walk a third-down snap when you don’t know if you’ll convert or not. But once the Packers converted with 23 yards to Lazard, they should have used their second timeout or hurried up to snap the ball quickly. The Packers were very slow to snap the ball, taking over 25 seconds to get the next play off while spending at least half that time set at the line. The result of the play was a sack too with 34 seconds left.
That was a killer. I have no idea why the Packers would wait so long for that play when they had a chance for points, if not a touchdown before halftime. Again, one thing I always appreciated about a Manning-led offense was the quickness he could get the next play off with the clock moving. Rodgers either had a brain fart here or Matt LaFleur was not playing for enough points.
On the next play, Rodgers made his first real bad decision with a pick caught in tight coverage by Sean Murphy-Bunting at midfield. On replay, Murphy-Bunting clearly had a jersey grab on Lazard as he undercut him to make the pick, but it wasn’t called as part of a first half with zero penalties. If you’re going to let them play, you have to keep it consistent…
Tampa Bay seemed to waste the good field position after three plays, but sent the offense back out on a fourth down, which was converted with a short pass to Fournette with 8 seconds left. At the Green Bay 39 and the Buccaneers out of timeouts, the Packers had to be thinking the sidelines or Hail Mary. The Bucs really had no other choices there.
Somehow, the Buccaneers ran just three receivers on routes and Kevin King, who had a horrible game, wasn’t able to cover Scotty Miller, giving up a 39-yard touchdown to end the half. It’s an inexplicable defense to play in that spot.
All three of those touchdowns happened in Lambeau Field in the last 10 seasons, but the other two were Hail Mary attempts. This was just a blown coverage that never should have been single coverage. All I could think is if Antonio Brown (inactive with injury) was in the game, would they have covered this one so poorly? King was getting beat by every Tampa Bay receiver in the game, but would they at least give more attention to Brown than Miller? Defenses just don’t seem to show him any respect despite him getting open deep several times this year, including the only big one last week in New Orleans.
Tampa Bay led 21-10 at halftime, but it was about to get worse. Three plays into the third quarter, Rodgers flipped a short pass to Aaron Jones. He may not have been able to get a first down, but he had the right momentum carrying him towards the sticks. However, he was hit by Devin White and the ball popped out. Tampa Bay was inside the Green Bay 8 and the Packers had two more turnovers after having a league-low 11 in the first 17 games this year.
It took Brady one play to make it a touchdown as, like I said in my preview, no one covers Cameron Brate this postseason. The tight end was all alone in the end zone for the easiest touchdown of the day and the Packers were down 28-10 with 13:54 left in the third quarter. Tampa Bay is the only offense in the last 20 postseasons to have three touchdown drives start inside the opponent 20. Tampa Bay’s offense has four drives that started inside the opponent 40 this postseason. The rest of the league has three, and that includes Buffalo last night.
In a span of barely six minutes of game time, the Packers went from looking like a team about to tie the game, then to maybe pulling off the double score, only to fall behind 28-10. There was the Green Bay collapse, because the Packers came back to outscore Tampa 16-3 the rest of the way. But the game was largely lost in that six-minute span, and I find it hard to see how quarterback skill was the main difference in that stretch.
I did not mention that Brady threw up this deep pass two plays before the Miller touchdown, shades of last week in New Orleans when the Saints could not capitalize on three interception chances from Brady.
It did however look like the quarterbacks were going to decide how the comeback portion went, if only Rodgers could actually make the biggest comeback of his career. It took a 21-3 deficit against Brady and the Patriots in the 2006 AFC Championship Game for Manning to break through in the playoffs. Rodgers had his shot here now.
Part III: The Failed Comeback
Some of my earliest writing was on how Rodgers is the greatest quarterback in NFL history to rarely pull off comeback wins. For as much as he wins and how many points he scores and how many opportunities he’s had, you just expect more from him in this department. Rodgers is now 18-44 (.290) at fourth-quarter comeback opportunities and the Packers have won three games with him after trailing by at least 16 points at any time. Now he has gotten better since those early seasons, but I would be lying if I thought he would make this a great game.
Some of that is my thoughts on him mentally folding against a team that was sacking him more than he’s used to. I felt he folded in Week 6 after throwing the two picks. But this time, it was a Jones fumble that was a huge play to go against him.
My other big concern with Green Bay has nothing to do with Rodgers. It’s when they get down big in playoff games like this one, or 31-0 in the 2016 title game (Atlanta), or last year’s 37-20 loss in San Francisco, they don’t stop the bleeding on defense. They continue trading scores, making it impossible to ever make a comeback when you need stops. A string of stops, and usually a turnover for good field position to make it easier.
Well, this time Rodgers got his turnovers. Way more than anyone could imagine really. While Rodgers got the rally attempt started with a nice 75-yard touchdown drive, the defense really got things going with a pick of a terrible Brady deep ball. Rodgers turned that into a 68-yard touchdown drive with 24 seconds left in the third, but Equanimeous St. Brown dropped a two-point conversion pass to keep the score at 28-23. Ndamukong Suh got a very small tip of the ball, but not enough to knock it off path to where St. Brown shouldn’t have caught it.
So that was disappointing, but at least we had a one-score game going into the fourth quarter. Tampa Bay looked to add more points, but Brady was high on a pass to an extended Mike Evans (all 6’5” of him), and that ball was deflected to an interception by Jaire Alexander.
Rodgers had his chance to take Green Bay’s first lead of the day, but this of course ended up being the only game all season where the Packers never led. The pass protection continued to fail Rodgers. He was hit on the first play of the drive after trying to hit a big play. On third down, he was sacked as edge pressure again hurt the Packers. Shaq Barrett (3.0) and Jason Pierre-Paul (2.0 sacks) lived in the backfield as the Packers tied their season-high in allowing five sacks. No one got a higher pressure rate on Rodgers this year than Tampa Bay in Week 6, and it felt rather high again on Sunday as Rodgers took multiple sacks for only the fourth time all season.
Rodgers enjoyed the best pass protection this season, but a late-season injury to David Bakhtiari was a big warning flag for this postseason run, especially against a blitz-happy Tampa defense that already owned the Packers with Bakhtiari in the lineup for 40 snaps that day. I find it hard to believe Rodgers takes five sacks in this game if he played, but there were issues on the right side of the line as well. There were always going to be issue when these teams met if you ask me, and I don’t think Rodgers and LaFleur had a good enough plan to overcome that from 38-10.
The Packers went three-and-out after losing 5 yards. Brady threw his third straight interception on another poor prayer of a pass he just lobbed up. Barrett got an incredible jump on the snap and sacked Rodgers again to start the next drive, also a three-and-out that lost yards. Is that not a great summary of Brady’s career? He throws two picks, but his defense doesn’t even give up a single positive yard, let alone a first down or points out of it. Not to mention this was against the best offense in 2020.
Rob Gronkowski got me to bet real money on him to score a touchdown, but of course he screwed me over and only got one target in the game. It was a big one, however, as it was a screen pass that he rumbled for 29 yards on. Go figure, his over/under for the game was 28.5 yards. I don’t know how Vegas does it so often. That set up Ryan Succop for a 46-yard field goal, and despite his ill-fitting last name, the veteran came through unlike some superior kickers this postseason. Tampa Bay still led 31-23, but Rodgers had another shot with 4:33 left.
Last time it was at the 6-yard line where the Packers failed in the red zone. This time it was getting the ball to the 8-yard line at 2:22. Once again, the sequence focused too heavily on Adams and it was poorly done. Rodgers and Lazard seemed to be on the wrong page on first down. On second down, Rodgers stepped up and threw the ball away through the back of the end zone after pressure got to him. On third down, this is the heavily criticized play where he had a chance to run and didn’t. He forced a terrible pass low to Adams between two defenders.
The throw was terrible, but I really do not see the run as a viable option here. Rodgers looked like he could outrun Tampa’s defense a few times in the game, only for them to trap him quickly. They are a fast defense, and I think #90 (JPP) could have taken him down in a hurry there, which would have used up the two-minute warning clock stoppage.
Then LaFleur threw his name in the Mike McCarthy potluck by kicking a field goal with 2:05 left on fourth down from the 8. I am not sure this is a horrible decision, but as the hours pass since this game ended, I am leaning towards hating it more. I’m not big on trying the fourth-and-8 and needing that and a two-point conversion just to tie and force the Bucs into some aggressive offense with two minutes left. That sounds like a shitty spot to be in to me. I kind of like the idea of getting a chipshot field goal, 31-26, then use my four clock stoppages to get the ball back from an offense that likes 1-2 yard runs and a quarterback with a spotty history in the four-minute offense, before I drive for the game-winning touchdown. I can at least see the rationale and appeal of that way.
But overall, I think the Packers failed on early downs, should have considered a run there, and set up a shorter throw like they have all season. That third down was no man’s land for Rodgers. No one was open and a run wouldn’t have gained much of anything. Maybe it makes the fourth down a little shorter, but still difficult. The fourth down is also no man’s land. Just not the spot you want to be in for that situation.
The Packers were 2-for-4 in goal-to-go situations on Sunday after converting them 90.5% of the time in the regular season (No. 2 in NFL). Green Bay finishes 5-of-9 (55.6%) in goal-to-go this postseason after going 38-for-42 in the regular season, matching their total stops in 16 games in just two playoff games. How disappointing.
The offense never saw the ball again. The defense was able to set up a crucial third-and-4, but the pass rush didn’t get home and Brady had time to throw a pass in the general direction of Tyler Johnson, who had his jersey pulled. Go figure, it was Kevin King on the penalty, which was a late flag on a ball you’d think would be uncatchable, but no one ever pays attention to that part of the rule. The most frustrating part is that this wasn’t called a penalty earlier in the game on the interception when Tampa Bay grabbed the jersey of Rodgers’ receiver, but they called it here and it effectively ended the game. It also helped that Johnson sold it with a soccer flop.
The Buccaneers set an NFL record for defensive pass interference penalties drawn in the regular season (24), so go figure they ice the game with one here.
Rodgers made some big strides from 38-10 against this defense, but it wasn’t an MVP-caliber performance from him when he badly needed one in the biggest home game of his career. Aaron Jones was a disappointment, the offensive line was a huge letdown, and the connection with Adams didn’t look as good as it usually does.
Still, I do not understand the criticism of Green Bay not drafting a wide receiver this year for this game. MVS had over 100 yards and Lazard was open a good deal too. He should have had an easy touchdown if Rodgers was looking for someone besides Adams. I thought the secondary wideouts were good. It was the defensive backs that were a bigger problem. Jaire Alexander is a fine player, but he can only cover one receiver at a time. The Packers had a big weakness in King and the Buccaneers exploited him in the worst ways. This is why you can never have enough good corners in the NFL today. In fact, it’s better to have a solid group of corners without any great players than it is to have a great corner but a liability in coverage. The Packers had the liability today and it cost them.
Rodgers, 38 next season, talked of an “uncertain future” after this game. I would be shocked if he wasn’t the Green Bay quarterback in 2021. I think he was just dealing with one of the toughest losses of his career and will be back.
But will anything change for the Packers? They have now been swept out of seven straight postseasons by the 2012 49ers, 2013 49ers, 2014 Seahawks, 2015 Cardinals, 2016 Falcons, 2019 49ers, and 2020 Buccaneers. Very fine teams for sure, but notice none of them so far have won a Super Bowl. LaFleur might as well have been wearing a McCarthy costume today. When you beat this team in the regular season, it doesn’t seem like they ever have an answer for how to reverse it in the playoffs. Same old Packers.
But if the Buccaneers do get to the Super Bowl, it’s in Tampa Bay this year, a homefield advantage no team has ever had before in the big game. If anyone was lucky enough to reap those benefits…
Brady is now 2-0 when he throws at least three interceptions in a Conference Championship Game. All other quarterbacks are 5-25. Of course, he’s still in another Super Bowl. Good thing Tampa Bay will be facing a better quarterback and coach this time.
Bills at Chiefs: Patrick Mahomes Is What Fans Wanted Aaron Rodgers to Be
So much for 6-point wins, near interceptions, and struggling in the red zone: Kansas City is back in the Super Bowl. I’ll keep this recap short and simple, just like the Chiefs kept the competitive portion of this 38-24 win over Buffalo.
No one will remember Buffalo led 9-0 after a quarter, but it was fool’s gold. The Bills got an opening field goal after the Chiefs dropped an interception. The Chiefs went three-and-out after Tyreek Hill dropped a deep ball on third down. The Bills got a 3-yard touchdown drive after Mecole Hardman muffed a punt return before he was even hit. Again, you have to hope this team beats itself to have a chance.
Once the Chiefs found their hands, they answered back with three straight touchdowns to take a 21-12 lead at halftime, never looking back. Patrick Mahomes looked healthy as could be a week after a big scare against Cleveland. Even when he didn’t need to bring his A-game, this offense made things look easy. Mahomes finished 29-of-38 for 325 yards, three touchdowns, and no turnovers, real or otherwise. It was a clean game for Travis Kelce and Hill to show they are no match for soft coverage, and Hill also exploded after the catch on a 71-yard play.
The only surprise was that the Chiefs barely got anything out of the ground game after a season-high 245 yards in Week 6 in Buffalo. The running backs finished with 19 carries for 59 yards, and a good chunk of that was with the game already decided. Hardman made up for his blunder with a 50-yard run.
The Bills ended up rushing for 129 yards, but Josh Allen had 88 of those yards on scrambles. It was much better than his passing as he completed 28-of-48 passes for 287 yards. He also took four sacks for 53 yards, the second-most sack yards he’s lost in a game in his career. Allen was too indecisive at getting rid of the ball and too inaccurate when he did.
I brought up twice this week that Buffalo’s offense had been a third-down disappointment this postseason after finishing No. 1 in the regular season. The Bills were only 5-of-14 (35.7%) in this game while the Chiefs were 6-of-10 (6-of-9 excluding a game-ending kneeldown).
Much like in Week 6, Allen and the Bills couldn’t make any big plays on the Chiefs defense. It wasn’t until 4:06 remained that the Bills had their first play of 25+ yards from scrimmage against Kansas City this year. That was a 34-yard catch by Stefon Diggs, who finished with 77 yards on a quiet night for him.
Head coach Sean McDermott did not improve his profile in this game, choosing to kick two short field goals with only 2-3 yards to go on fourth down after it was evident his defense did not have the ability to stop the Chiefs. That was poorly managed, and I do not agree with the two-point conversion attempt late to try cutting it to a 15-point game at 4:08. Kick the extra point, make it 38-22, then after they miraculously recovered the onside kick, you’re still in business with a chance to cut the lead in half and make Mahomes do something with an 8-point lead. Instead, the Bills were down 17, settled for a field goal after Allen’s fourth huge sack of the night nearly caused a fight, and then the Bills watched Mahomes run five times to burn the rest of the clock for a 38-24 final. Lame.
Buffalo is in better shape than most AFC teams. It is no guarantee there are more rounds to come in future Bills-Chiefs playoff matchups – we are still waiting for the first Ravens-Chiefs playoff game in this era after all – but this was the team’s best season since the Super Bowl runs. Buffalo can still grow and get better, and it will be interesting to see if it becomes a hot free agent destination for teams wanting to knock off the Chiefs. Unless players rather take discounts and just go to Kansas City while the Bills have to pay Allen a fortune very soon. We’ll see.
The 2020 Chiefs are not a very dominant 16-2 team, but they absolutely have shown they can turn on a switch at times for big matchups. They dominated the Ravens 34-20 in Baltimore. They swept the Bills by multiple scores, and this Buffalo team was 15-2 with a Hail Mary loss in Arizona when it wasn’t playing the Chiefs. The Chiefs also came out red hot on offense the night they avenged their loss to the Raiders, and of course that electric first quarter in Tampa Bay in Week 12 that will be more closely scrutinized the next two weeks than the Week 6 games were for these rematches that went the same way on Sunday.
Now the Chiefs just need one more big performance against a team they already beat in an unusual road setting for the Super Bowl. It is hard to ever bet against Mahomes, who is now 10-4 SU and 11-2-1 ATS as either an underdog or favorite of no more than 3 points.
But not all news was great from this one as left tackle Eric Fisher injured his Achilles and will likely miss the Super Bowl. We already saw what happened to Green Bay against Tampa Bay without its star left tackle. However, Mahomes does look to be a different beast than any other quarterback you could name.
While Aaron Rodgers will almost certainly win his third MVP award the night before the Super Bowl, Mahomes is the only No. 1 seed who will be playing on February 7. Mahomes will have the chance to cap off a three-year run that has been better than any three-year run in the careers of Rodgers or Brady. While he was inevitably going to have to share the stage with one of them in two weeks, there is no denying that Mahomes is doing everything you want at the position in a way that puts him in a class of his own. He might be the greatest hope we have in a quarterback who can unite the ring counters, film junkies, and stat nerds in their praise of a legitimate GOAT.
Few games in the NFL actually amount to a legacy game, but this is absolutely one for Aaron Rodgers and Tom Brady. That’s a scary thought when most will focus on the result instead of how each actually plays, but this is undoubtedly a big opportunity for the No. 12 in green. Rodgers did not reach the Super Bowl in his first two MVP seasons, and this is looking like the third opportunity, but it is also his first NFC Championship Game at home after playing four of them on the road. He is still looking for that first signature performance in this round of the playoffs, a round that has also seen a lot of subpar Brady performances. But can the Packers capitalize on any mistakes unlike the Saints defense on Sunday?
Say what you will about the lack of homefield advantage this year, but Green Bay just doesn’t seem to turn the ball over at Lambeau Field like it does elsewhere. Seven of Green Bay’s league-low 11 giveaways were on the road this year. Rodgers has thrown one interception in seven home playoff games and that happened nine years ago. Rodgers has had 14 of his 19 multi-interception games on the road, including three in Tampa Bay where he’s also had half of his four career games with three interceptions.
He damn near threw four picks in Tampa Bay in Week 6 this year, the 38-10 loss that will either prove to be the harbinger of Green Bay’s undoing or the true anomaly of a Super Bowl season. The Packers scored at least 22 points in every other game this season.
If you are wondering why the title says Part II, that is partially a reference to this being a Week 6 rematch as both Conference Championship Games are this weekend, but also because I already wrote a preview for this game at Sportsbook Review. You should read that for details on what led to 38-10 and the individual matchups this weekend. I’m using this space for more of my personal opinions on this game’s place in history.
First, some quick notes on Conference Championship Games that were rematches from the regular season since 1978 that can apply to both games on Sunday:
The playoff record for the team that won the last meeting is 34-24 (.586) as the 49ers swept the Packers last year, but the Chiefs came back to beat the Titans.
The home team in the playoffs is 39-19 (.672).
Teams like Kansas City who played the last matchup on the road and are at home in the title game are 20-8 (.714).
Teams like Kansas City who won the last matchup on the road and are at home in the title game are 12-2 (.857), but the two losers were Andy Reid’s 2003 Eagles (vs. Panthers) and the 2007 Packers (vs. Giants).
The playoff record for a road loser switching venues in the playoffs like Green Bay this week is 8-6 (.571) as the Chiefs were able to beat the Titans that way last year but lost to Tom Brady’s Patriots at home the previous year.
The team who was at least a 3-point favorite in both matchups (2020 Chiefs and Packers apply) is 21-10 (.677) ATS and 24-7 (.774) SU in the title game.
Buccaneers at Packers (-3.5)
Well, we are basically where I expected we would be. Your move, Aaron.
With the roster Tampa Bay has, you would have expected a better record than 11-5 this year. But some spotty performances and getting owned twice by the Saints led to a No. 5 seed in the tournament. That’s not so bad when you get to open with the worst division winner in NFL history and Drew Brees on his last legs in a quiet Superdome.
The highlight of the season has always been that 38-10 demolition of Rodgers and the Packers, which was actually a preview of how the Bucs ended up finally beating the Saints in the playoffs last week. The defense pounced on interceptions and set up multiple touchdowns for Tampa Bay while Brady didn’t throw for 200 yards again, just like in Week 6. The difference on Sunday from Week 6 is that the Buccaneers didn’t have a touchdown drive over 40 yards. Even Bill Belichick’s girlfriend can see the defense won that game.
I cannot see it happening again that way. Rodgers came up a tackle at the 2-yard line short of throwing back-to-back pick-sixes, or plays he had twice in his entire career. That seemed to mentally break him that day, and then the physical beatdown came with the Tampa defense getting good pressure and four sacks on him. Green Bay’s had the best pass protection all year, but that day it was Todd Bowles’ aggressive defense getting the upper hand.
I was already reviewing this game in December in anticipation we’d see the playoff rematch, and it was then I remembered just why I was so disgusted by Rodgers and Green Bay’s performance. It looked like so many old Green Bay losses where the team goes on the road, gets punched in the mouth, and just crumbles. The way Rodgers started missing open receivers and nearly having two more interceptions that Tampa Bay dropped, it was a pure meltdown and it felt like he gave up in the second half. That game was the main reason I was so against giving him the MVP for this season, but it does remain his only poor performance of 2020 so far.
Rodgers now must overcome that defense to get to the Super Bowl. That is only fair in my book. This is the matchup we deserve with the way the Saints and Seahawks limped across the finish line. It’s like the opposite of 1996 when Brett Favre avoided the Cowboys, a team he always struggled with, in the playoffs. Dallas beat Green Bay 21-6 in Week 12, but Favre never had to beat them in the playoffs to get his only Super Bowl win. It would not feel right for Rodgers to avoid Tampa Bay this season.
This is a game where the home quarterback needs to hold serve. When Peyton Manning and Brady met five times in the playoffs, the home team won all five games with the last three AFC title games going to Manning’s teams. Brees just blew his only shot at Brady in the playoffs. Rodgers cannot have a second stinker, but go figure, the only defense that has shown the ability to shut him down this year comes attached with Brady, who has the only defense playing this Sunday with the defensive profile you’d expect from a Super Bowl champion with the other three units being pretty mediocre.
Throw in the Super Bowl being in Tampa with a trash Florida governor cocky enough to allow that stadium to fill with fans, and yeah, you can see where this is going. (Note: attendance may end up capped at 20%, but do not underestimate corporate greed).
Unless Tampa starts slowly again and Rodgers dunks on them early, this is going to be a tough one. Remember, before the collapse in Week 6 the Packers were leading 10-0 in the second quarter and had the ball.
It seems for over a decade, many people picked a Rodgers vs Brady Super Bowl before the season even starts, only for it to never happen. This is the closest we’ll get to it now with them sharing the conference, but there were some close calls before. It probably should have happened in 2010 or 2011, but each team experienced a major upset at home in the divisional round those years: New England to the 2010 Jets, Green Bay to the 2011 Giants.
Then there was the 2014 season. They met for the first time in the regular season and Rodgers pulled out a solid 26-21 game that was a breakout moment for a rookie named Davante Adams (121 yards). We could have had this again in the Super Bowl, but the Packers blew a 16-0 lead in Seattle in the NFC Championship Game, most notably failing to recover an onside kick that probably sets up a Packers-Patriots Super Bowl.
The more I think about that postseason now, the more I’ve come to realize in hindsight that the 2014 Seahawks are my most hated team of the last decade. There is nothing I personally object to with that team. I am generally pro-Russell Wilson, pro-Pete Carroll, and Seattle was the team I picked to become the NFL’s next dynasty before the 2013 season started.
But the path that 2014 Seattle team set the league on aggravates me so much. They took their injured Legion of Boom secondary from that game into the Super Bowl, teased us with a good start against the Patriots, then blew a 24-14 lead in the fourth quarter in one of the worst ways possible. Yes, Malcolm Butler’s interception at the 1-yard line is the costliest interception in NFL history. This also makes for one of the most annoying comparisons ever when people compare the 2013 Broncos’ performance in the Super Bowl against the best Seattle team to New England’s in 2014 when Seattle was not the same.
Seriously, I might hate Brandon Bostick more than I hate Hank Baskett. (If you know your botched onside kick recoveries, good for you).
Seattle has yet to have much postseason success since that game, the same one that helped end a nine-year drought of titles for the Patriots and led to winning two more. In hindsight, I would have much rather seen Rodgers and the Packers get their shot in Super Bowl XLIX than Seattle’s choke job. Rodgers was not fully healthy late in that season after Ndamukong Suh, another old foe he’ll have to deal with this Sunday, cheaply stepped on him with Detroit.
Maybe Rodgers has an ineffective Super Bowl against one of Belichick’s best pass defenses, and Brady gets the win anyway. All I know is the chance for Rodgers to win that game could have made the ring count 3-2 at the time, and we know it’s the easiest thing in the world to discount Brady’s first ring. Maybe “Prime Aaron Rodgers” doesn’t fall off in 2015 if he’s coming off a second Super Bowl MVP season.
That postseason was a huge turning point for the league. This one can be too, but a lot of that depends on Patrick Mahomes’ health and the Chiefs. For more on that game, click here.
Now six years later, Rodgers is still searching for that second Super Bowl appearance. Brees was in a similar boat with his own history of playoff disappointment. It should have been him instead of Jared Goff and the Rams challenging the Patriots in 2018, but that’s what happens when you get the worst no-call in NFL history to go against you. Still, Brees had another shot on Sunday and played his first terrible playoff game and maybe the worst game he’s had in a Saints uniform. Sadly, it will likely be his final NFL game as he retires at 42.
But Rodgers isn’t nearing the end yet. He’s playing at a very high level and this is a complete offense with a running game they’ll need to continue getting huge production from, especially against a tough Buccaneers defense. There may also be considerable snow in this game with the Packers already impressing in those conditions with a 40-14 win over Tennessee in December.
Historically, home teams do very well in freezing temperatures at home in the playoffs against teams not used to those conditions, though Green Bay has had a few high-profile losses over the years (2002 Falcons, 2004 Vikings, 2013 49ers).
38-10 aside, I am fairly confident in Rodgers playing well in this game. Justin Herbert did a great job against this Tampa Bay defense before the Chargers did their usual act of blowing a 17-point lead. Ditto for Matt Ryan and the Falcons, who twice scored 27 points late in the season on Tampa. Taylor Heinicke didn’t even know he was going to start until late in the week and threw for over 300 yards in a playoff game for one of the worst offenses in the league. I know Brees just had that brutal game, but before this Tampa defense broke his ribs, he embarrassed them that night in Week 9’s 38-3 win. Even Daniel Jones had many open receivers against this defense and should have been able to win that game, a 25-23 loss on Monday night.
I really want to pick the Packers to answer 38-10 in a huge way here. For once, let’s see Brady play a historic offense without Bill Belichick figuring out a way to make them look impotent, but instead for them to run up the score to 44 or more. You know, something that’s happened three times to Rodgers in the playoffs and not once to Brady in 342 career starts, which is unheard of.
But then I think about how defeated Rodgers looked in Week 6, and how his last six playoff exits have all been to teams he lost to in the regular season. How Matt LaFleur was not impressive at all in playing the 49ers a second time in last year’s NFC Championship Game, a 37-20 loss. How this defense is unlikely to defend all these receivers as well as the Saints did. How Ronald Jones rushed for over 100 yards in Week 6 and looked very good, along with Leonard Fournette, in New Orleans on Sunday. How no one is even covering Cameron Brate this postseason. How Mike Evans and Chris Godwin are likely to make much bigger impacts this week. Maybe Antonio Brown too if he’s healthy.
Then I just think about the general fortune of Rodgers-led teams in the playoffs compared to Brady-led teams, and I have a bad feeling about this one.
Like as if my claims of Rodgers folding when a team makes it tough on him come true again, or that his stat-padding from the 1-yard line means the game is going to end after he throws four straight incompletions from the 1. No, not a Malcolm Butler interception repeat, but just four straight misses after leading one of the most effective red zone offenses this century. Or Mason Crosby misses several kicks after getting shaken up last week. Or Marques Valdes-Scantling drops three drive-extending passes on third down – that might be the most realistic one.
I think this season deserves a Packers-Chiefs Super Bowl, a rematch of Super Bowl I. This would be between the two No. 1 seeds and the first (if not last) meeting between the two best quarterbacks in the game right now. But I can’t help but think the events of last Sunday were the football gods throwing up the middle finger at me again.
I’ll save the rants for Sunday night if necessary, but one thing I feel like I can count on is that it is unlikely Rodgers and Brady will both play great on Sunday.
Remember when Lamar Jackson vs. Patrick Mahomes in Week 3 was going to be the Game of the Year? Whoops, only one MVP showed up. Look at the other matchups of note. A high-quality quarterback duel didn’t happen in Week 6 for Rodgers-Brady or even for Allen-Mahomes. It didn’t happen when Rodgers and Brady met in 2018. It didn’t happen three times this year between Brady and Brees. It never happened in five playoff games between Manning and Brady. It didn’t happen in the Super Bowl when Joe Montana faced two Cincinnati MVP winners (Ken Anderson, Boomer Esiason) or Hall of Famers Dan Marino or John Elway. Rodgers and Ben Roethlisberger had one of the great ones, but it was a regular season game in 2009 and not Super Bowl XLV the following year.
The only playoff game in NFL history where both quarterbacks passed for 400 yards happened in 1981 and it involved Don Strock, who didn’t even start the game. There is a reason 2009 Matthew Stafford vs. Brady Quinn once ranked in the top 10 for a show about the greatest quarterback duels in NFL history.
Maybe I’m selling Rodgers short though. After all, he is part of one of the six duels in playoff history where both quarterbacks threw at least three touchdowns and had a 100+ passer rating. He and Kurt Warner in 2009 are the only pair that will be in the Hall of Fame too.
Games like this are expected to be shootouts or well-played classics, but one guy usually blows the other away before halftime and we’re left watching a dud, or neither quarterback plays well and the other players become the determining factor of who wins and who loses, like we saw with Bucs-Saints on Sunday.
The divisional round is no longer going to be my favorite week of the NFL year if the games are going to start looking like this every season. You know it was a rough slate when Jared Goff kept up his end of the bargain to make that game in Green Bay the best played from the quarterback position this weekend.
Lamar Jackson and Patrick Mahomes, the last two MVP winners, will not be having their first postseason meeting in the AFC Championship Game next week. Both quarterbacks left their games in the third quarter after suffering a concussion. If Jackson’s didn’t occur on a freak play after a bad snap and while he was already down 17-3, this weekend might have caused a referendum on the usage of quarterbacks in the running game. For decades, the argument was that you cannot run college-style plays or the speed-option at the professional level without getting your quarterback killed.
Well, Andy Reid almost got his quarterback killed, nearly killing his team’s wonderful season in the process. Mahomes is reportedly doing okay, but of course they are going to say that, so who knows what will happen next week. The Chiefs were fortunate to survive the Browns by a 22-17 final. Still, it has to make you think about when your quarterback should get the greenlight to run and when he should stick to passing and only running out of necessity.
Maybe Jackson-Mahomes wouldn’t have been a great title game anyway. You know, these big-time quarterback matchups rarely play out as great performances by both players. Just look at the combined 85-year-olds in New Orleans on Sunday, which is where we must start for I am willed by Him to do so.
Buccaneers at Saints: The Swansong for Drew Brees You Hate to See
It took a record 10 games, but this postseason finally had a second-half lead change and a game-winning drive in the fourth quarter. If I told you it was a Tom Brady-led team beating a Drew Brees-led team, you probably wouldn’t be surprised by that part.
However, I am sad to say this was not the result of Brees’ defense blowing a late lead in explicable fashion, or wasting one of his go-ahead drives again, or any obscene officiating error in the final minutes. I can’t even blame Taysom Hill for a failed gadget play, because he was inactive with an injury.
No, this game fell largely on Drew Brees, who had his worst ever playoff game by far with three interceptions and just 134 passing yards on 34 attempts (3.94 YPA). It will likely be the final game of his stellar career too as he is expected to retire even though nothing is official yet.
Based on how he looked in this one, it is time. Watching Brees unable to get any mustard on the ball any time the Buccaneers got close to him was sad. The Saints’ only 20-yard play in this game was a brilliant gadget design with Jameis Winston throwing a 56-yard touchdown to a very wide open Tre’Quan Smith, who caught both of the Saints touchdowns in the game. Alvin Kamara never scored, and Michael Thomas never caught a pass on four targets.
While Brees had a horrible game, the fact is Tom Brady wasn’t much better. In fact, this first (and last) playoff meeting between Brady and Brees looked a lot like the first playoff match between a young Brady and Peyton Manning in the 2003 AFC Championship Game. The Patriots won that game 24-14 after Manning was intercepted four times by the No. 1 defense in the snow. But the part that always gets lost in that one is how Brady also played terrible, trying to match all four of Manning’s interceptions with his own bad throws, but the Colts could not take advantage of more than one of them. I posted a video of this over eight years ago.
I could do the same thing for this game as Brady left three opportunities out there for Saints defenders to make interceptions, something they did five times against Carolina in Week 17, but zero times in the playoffs. Brady threw five interceptions against the Saints in the regular season, but again, the defense was empty in the big games here in January.
One of the missed picks was when the defensive back did not drag his second foot in bounds to secure the pass, which is noticeably different from the Buccaneers when Brady’s teammate made sure to get his footwork right on one of Brees’ three interceptions.
In classic Brady fashion, he saved the worst for the fourth quarter to cap off a game-winning drive. Marshon Lattimore jumped Scotty Miller on a third down and nearly picked Brady off with a diving attempt. Even infamous QB apologist Troy Aikman had to note how he got lucky there. The Buccaneers instead kicked a 36-yard field goal to take a 23-20 lead. Brees was intercepted five plays later on what may have been a miscommunication with Kamara down the field.
For the third time, Tampa Bay had great field position and turned it into a touchdown to make it 30-20 with 4:57 left. If Brees had one more miracle in him, and this would have been a huge one, he had to score quickly on a day where the big plays just weren’t happening for him. Four plays into the drive, his third interception came on a pass deflected off Jared Cook. So you had one that looked woeful and late, one that looked like miscommunication, and one that was just a bad luck deflection.
And that might be the final pass of Brees’ career.
There is plenty of valid criticism to aim at Brees for this performance. The 3.94 YPA is his second-lowest in a game with the Saints (he was at 3.87 against the 2013 Seahawks on MNF). The fact that Winston had to come in to throw the deep ball on the gadget is a bad look for him too.
However, this idea that one quarterback outplayed the other because he was more “clutch” or is a better “winner” is the same type of horseshit that was shoveled after the 2003 AFC Championship Game with Manning and Brady.
This game was about two old quarterbacks playing like shit against good defenses, but only the Tampa Bay defense made big plays to get turnovers. The Saints couldn’t get one despite three offerings.
The other annoying part is that the biggest play of the game was a Jared Cook fumble in the third quarter, another play that has nothing to do with either of these quarterbacks.
The Saints were leading 20-13 in the third quarter and looked to be driving again with Brees converting on a third down into Tampa territory, but Cook had the ball knocked out. Instead of taking a two-score lead, the Saints were at their own 40 and couldn’t keep the Buccaneers out of the end zone from tying the game.
That was the killer turnover in the second half, but the first three turnovers for the Saints set up Tampa Bay in incredible field position. The Buccaneers only had to move 63 total yards on their three touchdown drives (3, 40, and 20 yards). On the eight drives that did not start in Saints territory, the Bucs had no touchdowns.
I had to look it up, and sure enough, this puts the game in rare territory for field position. The average touchdown drive in the playoffs is about 65 yards. This is only the fourth playoff game since 2001 where a team had three touchdown drives that started inside the opponent 40. Three of the four games involve Tom Brady, though not quite like you might think.
2014 AFC Championship Game, New England vs. Indianapolis: It’s the Deflategate game. The Patriots had touchdown drives of 26, 13, and 40 yards, but at least they had other long drives too in a 45-7 win.
2005 AFC Championship Game, Pittsburgh at Denver: The Steelers had touchdown drives of 39, 38, and 17 yards. They did have an 80-yard touchdown drive in the second quarter too in a 34-17 win.
2005 AFC Divisional, Denver vs. New England: How did Denver get to that Pittsburgh game? They beat Brady and the Patriots the week before. They did it with touchdown drives of 40, 1, and 15 yards. They had no other touchdown drives, meaning the 2005 Broncos and the 2020 Buccaneers are the only offenses in the last 20 postseasons to have three touchdown drives start inside the 40 and nothing longer. The kicker is the only reason this isn’t Tampa Bay alone is Denver’s 1-yard touchdown drive that was the result of a Brady interception returned by Champ Bailey that Ben Watson miraculously tracked down and saved from being a pick-six. If not for that Brady error that looked similar to what Lamar Jackson did on Saturday night, Brady would be the only quarterback of his era to have a playoff game where he needed so many short fields to score his touchdowns. I wish I could make this stuff up.
It is hard for me to see the Bucs winning this one without those turnovers producing such amazing field position. Brady was not able to pass for 200 yards on this defense. The loaded receiving corps of Mike Evans, Chris Godwin, Rob Gronkowski, and Antonio Brown combined for 61 yards. That’s it. It was Tyler Johnson who had the big catch of the day, stretching out for a 15-yard gain on 3rd-and-11 on what became the game-winning drive instead of a three-and-out. Scotty Miller then chipped in the only 20-yard catch of the game by coming down with a 29-yard gain.
What a disappointing game, but it should have been expected. When do you really see these big QB battles play out as being shootouts or with both players playing at a high level? Brees and Manning once delivered a pretty good Super Bowl, but more often than not, these games are one-sided (think Dan Marino or John Elway against Joe Montana in the Super Bowl) or the quarterback play isn’t even that good and the game is decided by other factors. Hell, just look at these three Brees-Brady games this year. They both sucked in the first and third games, and Brady was horrific in the second while Brees played very well in the 38-3 rout.
But this is the only Saints-Bucs game people will remember from 2020, and that is the unfortunate part for Brees, especially if it proves to be his swansong. Now it’s up to the Packers to see if they can reverse the 38-10 outcome the way Tampa Bay recovered from 38-3 in this game.
But remember, for all the hype to come with Brady vs. Rodgers, it’s unlikely to be a game where both quarterbacks play great. It didn’t happen in 38-10. It didn’t happen when they met in 2018. If we’re lucky, it will look like the 2014 game, which Rodgers and the Packers won 26-21.
Browns at Chiefs: Andy Reid Kills Season Before Bringing It Back to Life
For the second year in a row, the Chiefs’ Super Bowl hopes hinge on the health of Patrick Mahomes. Last year it was a dislocated kneecap in Week 7 that only ended up costing him 11 quarters. This year, if he misses even one game it could very well mean the season is over for the Chiefs. When I warned that “one mistake could end the season” for this Chiefs team with all their nail-biting finishes, I certainly never thought it would mean a concussion that left Mahomes, who was already grimacing through a toe injury from the first half, visibly shaken and out of sorts.
This was a tough game to watch, but it was nice seeing the Chiefs operating on offense as if it hadn’t been three weeks since the starters last played. Mahomes led two 75-yard touchdown drives to start things, but the touchdown pass to Travis Kelce is where the toe injury happened, leading to his first trip to the blue medical tent. You could see it start to affect his planting and throwing on the next drive, which ended in a field goal. The Chiefs tacked on another field goal to end the half, scoring 19 points on four first-half possessions just like No. 1 seed Green Bay did on Saturday.
The Browns could have started this game with the ball and try to take a 7-0 lead before Mahomes took the field for the first time in three weeks, but they deferred to the second half. I hated that decision, and sure enough, it didn’t help them out. Baker Mayfield threw an interception three plays into the third quarter and this looked like a rout was on. However, the Chiefs didn’t get a first down and Harrison Butker missed a 33-yard field goal after already missing an extra point terribly to start the game. Those four points could have been huge too. The quarter basically reset, and the Browns were able to find the end zone without fumbling through it like Rashard Higgins did late in the second quarter. One of the dumbest rules in the game got Cleveland in a big way, but at least Browns 2.0 fans have a new version of “The Fumble” to call their own.
Still, the Chiefs led 19-10. That’s when the outlook changed as Mahomes kept the ball on an option run and was hit awkwardly. He struggled to get up and had to be helped off the field. This looked like an obvious concussion and you just figured his day was over, but hopefully not his season.
First, I have to say this was a horrible call to make in this game. Mahomes clearly was not 100% after the toe injury. Why would you have him run an option play on a 3rd-and-1 at the Kansas City 48 in a 19-10 game in the third quarter? Mahomes scored a little touchdown to open the game on a similar play, but I can live with that. It was to score. This was, at best, going to get a first down at midfield, and he didn’t even convert it. The Chiefs have to be smarter than this, and it’s a joke that they would be content with this call when they are afraid to use Mahomes on a quarterback sneak, the most effective short-yardage weapon in the game, because Mahomes was injured on one in 2019.
Well, he’s injured again, and it will be questionable if he’s cleared and able to play well next week in the AFC Championship Game. Again, save the designed runs for the big spots like icing the game at the end, converting a fourth down, or scoring a touchdown. The risk there was not worth it.
This game only had 15 possessions, which makes the 22-17 final look misleading as to how well the offenses played. Cleveland had an 18-play touchdown drive after the Mahomes injury to pull within five. Enter Chad Henne, the veteran who has really nothing to show on his lengthy resume in the NFL, but hopefully this will be the one bright spot. It started well with big completions to Hill and Kelce, but then Henne got greedy on a first-and-25 and air-mailed an easy interception in the end zone. Really? He’s just going to lob that one up there on first down close to field goal range? Isn’t the whole point of a backup quarterback to take care of the ball? But it would show that Reid was not afraid to take some chances with Henne in the game.
Now the Chiefs had to get a stop on defense with 8:00 left. This is a spot where I said they weren’t tested much at all this season because of how successful Mahomes was at leading the offense with a one-score lead. If Mahomes was in the game, the Chiefs would probably add a field goal or touchdown to that 22-17 lead and feel safer about closing things out. But Henne threw the pick and it was clenched ass time.
Frankly, the Browns sucked here, and I’m not even talking about Jarvis Landry setting a WR playoff record for the fewest receiving yards (20) on at least 7 catches. Kareem Hunt looked like the livelier, fresher back than Nick Chubb did. I would have gone to Hunt on this drive, but the Browns were still infatuated with short Chubb runs and trying to get him involved in the passing game, which isn’t a strength of his. Maybe the screen last week in Pittsburgh (40-yard TD) proved to be fool’s gold for Cleveland as Chubb had 4 yards on five targets in this game. On a 3rd-and-11, Mayfield checked down to Hunt for 2 yards to set up 4th-and-9 at the Cleveland 32 with just over four minutes left.
Head coach Kevin Stefanski was really in no man’s land with this decision. It is a hard conversion and Baker was not playing that well. If you don’t get it, the Chiefs are probably able to add a field goal, which would keep it a one-possession game at 25-17. Maybe they get two first downs and run out the clock. A horrible challenge by Stefanski earlier in the quarter on a clear catch by Hill cost the team a timeout, which came back to hurt as you’d expect.
I feel with Henne in the game, you think you can get the three-and-out stop and get the ball back with plenty of time to go win the game. So I would support the decision to punt. The Chiefs stayed aggressive though with Henne twice dropping back on second-down plays, which is almost unheard of in the four-minute offense in this league. He converted one third down, but faced a third-and-14 after taking a big sack by Myles Garrett.
It felt like Mayfield would get one last chance to win the game. It seemed like the Chiefs needed to just run this one and punt the ball back with about 70 seconds left. But Reid called a pass and Henne pulled out a 13-yard scramble that came up just short of the conversion. I did not know he had wheels like that at 35. The 2013 season was the last time Henne had a 14-yard run.
This set up a 4th-and-1 at the Kansas City 48. I thought punting was the right call, because in a 22-17 game, if you go for it and don’t get it, you’re really putting the screws to yourself for a potential game-losing touchdown drive the other way. In a 25-17 game I’d go for it, maybe even in a 24-17 game I’d go for it, but not in that 4-to-6 point danger zone.
It looked like the Chiefs were just going to try to draw the Browns offsides, but to the shock of everyone, they snapped the ball with 5 on the play clock and Henne threw a quick pass to Hill for the game-sealing first down.
That took some balls.
Balls we really haven’t seen before. I cannot find a play, regular season or playoffs, since 1994 where an offense threw a pass on fourth down in their own territory in the final 80 seconds with a 1-8 point lead that wouldn’t have been the final snap of the game. Sometimes you’ll see a team do this on fourth down just to run out the clock instead of punting. Drew Lock did this for Denver this year against Miami and actually ended up completing the pass to Tim Patrick for 61 yards.
So good on Chad Henne. Let his NFL career be remembered by this moment instead of him being probably the last player who will ever have three seasons with more interceptions than touchdowns (min. 400 attempts).
We sure do not want to see him start next week against Buffalo with the Super Bowl on the line. If worst comes to worst, then Reid will just have to cook up his greatest recipe yet to outscore the Bills.
Just leave the runs to Henne’s discretion.
Ravens at Bills: 17-3, But Of Course
“Instant classic,” he said. “These franchises finally have exciting quarterbacks,” he said.
Leave it to the Ravens and Bills to tease us with recent 500-point seasons, hot winning streaks leading up to this matchup, and then to shit the bed on Saturday night and give us a jittery 17-3 game with one offensive touchdown. It is the fourth-lowest scoring playoff game in the 32-game era.
It was sitting in a tie with the lowest scoring playoff game since 2002, a 10-3 loss by Sean McDermott’s 2017 Bills to Jacksonville, until Lamar Jackson threw a pass that, fairly or not, will define where he is as a big-time quarterback in this league.
Down 10-3, Jackson was leading his best drive of the night when he saw the field poorly and forced a pass on third and goal from the 9 that was intercepted and returned 101 yards for a touchdown by Taron Johnson, tying the longest pick-six in playoff history.
Oddly enough, it’s the first time a quarterback has thrown a pick-six in the third quarter of a playoff game while trailing by 1-7 points since Dan Marino did it against the 1997 Patriots. That game also ended 17-3.
That was going to force Jackson into the biggest comeback attempt of his career, but it all ended two snaps later when another piss-poor snap by center Patrick Mekari had to be gathered by Jackson to save points for his team. Jackson hit his head after throwing the ball away best he could (still a grounding penalty), which caused the concussion and knocked him out of the game. The Ravens couldn’t score anything with backup Tyler Huntley.
Look, it was a weird game. There was no snow, but there was some wind, though it seemed to bother the kickers more than anyone with both missing a pair of kicks in the 41–46 yard range. You know it’s not your night when Justin Tucker misses two field goals under 50 yards for the first time in his career. There were at least three terrible snaps by Mekari that hurt the Ravens. What is it with these AFC North centers this postseason? Jackson had one brilliant scramble drill where he found J.K. Dobbins with a pass on third down, but Dobbins dropped it as he’s not used to catching the ball in this offense. That ended drive No. 2 on the night, but let’s just say I had my doubts that the Ravens would have made it the last 75 yards to score a touchdown.
The wind didn’t seem to bother the Bills from giving Josh Allen the ball 25 times as opposed to one handoff in the first half. The Bills are the first team in NFL history to not register a rushing attempt in the first quarter of a playoff game. The Bills ended up finishing with 9 carries for 29 yards. Frankly, I don’t think this extreme pass-happy approach worked that well and would not advise it for their game in Kansas City. One thing is clear though: Stefon Diggs is a beast. He had 106 yards and the game’s only offensive touchdown after the Ravens left a clear mismatch in numbers (3 vs. 2) on a screen that was too easy for Diggs.
Baltimore’s sloppy night was a big disappointment for John Harbaugh’s team, but the attention is going to go on Jackson and the offense, and I would say rightfully so as we are now seeing a clear pattern here with this team.
Jackson has started six games where the Ravens trailed by at least 14 points (0-6 record). Half of them are the three playoff losses and two more are his last two games against the Chiefs. How does this team ever expect to get to another Super Bowl if they can’t score points in the playoffs and keep up with Mahomes, Allen, and anyone else on the rise in the AFC?
Is this style of offense still capable of delivering in the playoffs? Baltimore started this game with three nice runs for 32 yards, looking like business as usual for this offense. But the Bills tightened things up and the run was not as effective as usual, especially for Jackson who had 34 yards on nine runs.
When will the Ravens try to throw the ball more like a normal offense in today’s game? In the second quarter, Jackson had just made his best throw of the night, picking up 21 yards on a 3rd-and-18 to Marquise Brown. Two plays later, he kept the ball on a zone-read and had to eat it in the backfield for a 4-yard loss. It totally blew up the drive and the Ravens had to punt. I love his scrambles and think there are spots to take advantage of the designed runs, but a first down after you’ve finally hit a big throw is not the place for that.
After the game, slot receiver Willie Snead had some interesting comments about Jackson’s career progress, hoping this will be a wake-up call:
While Snead may have called Jackson an elite passer first, he’s clearly not a believer of that yet and thinks it’s on Jackson the most to improve there. He’s right too. The idea that you can just acquire a wide receiver and he’s going to automatically fix your ability to throw with accuracy and read the defense and make good throws to other receivers is nonsensical. Diggs was great for Buffalo this year. He still had barely more than a quarter of the targets. Allen had to make a lot of leaps in his third year and he did. Jackson seemingly has not when it comes to being a passer.
Once is an accident, twice is a coincidence, three times is a pattern.
This is the third year in a row where Jackson has led the Ravens to their season low in points in the playoffs. This is considering only games he started. It is now 17 points against the Chargers in 2018, 12 points against the Titans in 2019, and three points in this game. Even if Tucker made his field goals and Jackson wasn’t concussed, what’s the most realistic total for them to score here? Seventeen maybe? That’s usually not going to be good enough.
Meanwhile, Jackson has led the Ravens to 20+ points in 37 of his 41 career starts. Three times he has failed to do it in the playoffs, and the only regular season game was the 23-17 loss in New England in heavy rain this year.
So part of the reason this fact exists is because Jackson sets such a high bar in the regular season. If he had a regular season dud where they scored nine points, then it would be easier for him to not set the season low in the playoffs. Still, this is a higher-scoring era and 2020 was the highest-scoring season in NFL history.
What really gets on my nerves is that Peyton Manning is now the go-to comparison for a quarterback who is struggling to win playoff games like Jackson (now 1-3) is. This is because Manning started 0-3, but if you know anything about those first two games especially, you know that he didn’t play poorly. He actually had leads while Jackson never led (not even 3-0 in the first quarter) in his three playoff losses. Jackson also has seven turnovers in four playoff games. Manning had two turnovers in his first five playoff games, and they came against the 2002 Jets when his team trailed 34-0 and 41-0 in the fourth quarter.
Manning’s early losses also weren’t season-lows in scoring for the Colts like these games have been for Jackson, and he never in his career had a season-low in scoring in back-to-back postseasons.
In fact, here’s how often some recent top quarterbacks (plus one elite name) have fared at having their season-low scoring game in the playoffs. You’ll see that Jackson’s three-for-three is a huge eyesore. It’s as many times as Manning, Rodgers, and Roethlisberger combined.
Lamar Jackson: three times in three postseasons (2018, 2019, 2020)
Joe Flacco: once in six postseasons (2009)
Tom Brady: five times in 18 postseasons (2005, 2007, 2011-T, 2012, 2019-T)
Peyton Manning: three times in 15 postseasons (2002, 2004, 2013)
Aaron Rodgers: zero times in 11 postseasons
Ben Roethlisberger: zero times in 11 postseasons
Drew Brees: once in 10 postseasons (2020)
Russell Wilson: once in eight postseasons (2015; still won game 10-9)
This has happened once to Cam Newton (Super Bowl 50) and Deshaun Watson (2018) and twice for Andrew Luck (2012-T, 2014-T) as well. However, it only happened once to Andy Dalton (2013-T) in his four postseasons despite the 0-4 record.
Until Jackson shows us otherwise, he is closer to Andy Dalton in the playoffs than he is Peyton Manning (or Joe Flacco for that matter.)
Rams at Packers: No. 1 Nothing
When I previewed this game, I wanted to stress that No. 1 defenses are known for doing great in the playoffs because of their success in Super Bowls (6-1) against No. 1 offenses. However, if a team made the Super Bowl, that means they already delivered in the postseason a couple times, probably because the defense was great, and probably because the offense didn’t screw them over.
No one wants to point out that the No. 1 defense was only 3-5 (now 3-6) against the No. 1 offense in earlier playoff rounds such as this game on Saturday in Green Bay. The expectations were that the Packers would score too much, and the Jared Goff-led Rams couldn’t possibly keep up.
Well, that did happen. It wasn’t 44-3 like the 1993 Giants/49ers matchup, but the Packers won 32-18 in a game that never felt overly close despite the Rams having a fourth-quarter comeback opportunity at one point.
However, I am more disappointed with the Rams No. 1 defense than I am the No. 22 offense (or No. 25 on a per-drive basis). Sure, the offense only chipped in 18 points, making it six straight games to end the season for Sean McVay’s unit not scoring more than 23 points. Green Bay was very successful in coming up with four sacks in a game that had no turnovers.
But where was this great Los Angeles defense that led the league in so many categories when the Packers scored 25 points on their first five drives? The Packers had 29 seconds before halftime after the Rams cut into the 16-10 lead with a touchdown. You would think they could get to the half with that respectable margin, but the Packers quickly hit big plays to get into scoring range. Aaron Rodgers forced back-to-back throws in the end zone that should have been intercepted, but the Rams failed to come away with either of them, the first more egregious than the second. That led to a field goal and suddenly 19-10 felt like that offensive touchdown didn’t even happen.
Then to top it off, Aaron Jones breaks off a 60-yard run to start the third quarter, leading to another touchdown and a 25-10 deficit.
You’ll hear about Aaron Donald’s rib injury and that he was limited, but this goes well beyond Donald, who was ineffective when he played and even hurt his team with a 15-yard penalty in the first half that wiped out a 3rd-and-7 situation.
The 2020 Rams defense allowed season highs in:
Yards – 484 (only game over 400)
Rushing yards – 188 (only game over 140)
Passing yards – 296 (only game over 275)
First downs – 28
Is this what happens when over half of your schedule was the NFC East, an injured Kyler Murray, the Jets (still lost to them), Broken Cam Newton, and getting Seattle three times during its second-half offensive slump? The Rams even drew Tom Brady and the Buccaneers during the stretch where he couldn’t hit a deep ball to save his life.
That’s why I wrote in my preview that Buffalo was the only comparable top offense to Green Bay that the Rams faced this season. What happened that day? They allowed 35 points and were shredded by Josh Allen. What happened this time? Rodgers put up 32 points on nine drives and the final drive was just running out the last five minutes on the clock.
If the 2020 Rams wanted to be a legendary No. 1 defense, they would have showed up in these games against Buffalo and Green Bay instead of making those offenses look better than their average output.
Maybe things would have been a hair different if Donald was 100%, but the Rams had little pressure and no sacks of Rodgers. More glaring was the way the run defense failed in the worst way this season. Green Bay’s success in that department arguably put the game away. After the Rams had the ball with a 25-18 deficit in the fourth quarter and punted because of another sack on Goff, the defense needed to get a second straight stop to have any hope. But on a second-and-6, Rodgers used play-action to set up one of the few deep pass attempts of the game. He hit it to an open Allen Lazard for a 58-yard touchdown. Green Bay led 32-18 with 6:52 left and the game was essentially over there. Goff took his final sack on a fourth down and the Packers ran out the clock.
Any time the Rams looked to have made some traction in this game, they would take a step back, like a false start penalty when they were going to go for a fourth down, having to then settle for a field goal. Another inexcusable spot was McVay calling a timeout on 3rd-and-16 in the fourth quarter instead of just taking the delay of game and saving the timeout. Worse, Goff threw a short pass that had no hope of converting and only ran more time as the Rams punted. Five plays later, Rodgers hit the dagger to Lazard.
I am not sure anyone in these playoffs could beat the Packers without scoring 30-plus points, but I like to think these other defenses would give it a better effort than the Rams’ “No. 1 defense” did on Saturday.
As for the Rams going forward, it could be tough to get back to this point. Goff is limited obviously, though I think he played better than expected in this one. The offense only had eight drives and wasted too many of them and he could have had better protection. At least Cam Akers seems to be the solution at running back, and it would be nice if Cooper Kupp (injured again) could stay healthy for a playoff run. He didn’t in 2018 either.
Now the Packers get to prove that 38-10 in Tampa Bay was the outlier of the season. I have to preview this game twice this week so there’s no point in talking about it now, but let’s just say the stars seem to be aligning for the worst postseason I could imagine.
I guess that’s what I get for enjoying last year’s so much.
Even after the questionable changes to wild card weekend, the divisional round is still my favorite week of the whole NFL season. The games look really good on paper this week and we should get a dramatic finish or two after not having a single second-half lead change in last week’s six playoff games.
Again, I am breaking my previews in half, starting with the two Saturday games before I post Sunday’s games tomorrow. I have already posted my previews (links below) for Rams-Packers and Ravens-Bills on Sportsbook Review, so check those out first, but I am providing more content and my final score prediction below.
Defense wins championships, right? When Aaron Rodgers reached his only Super Bowl, he had his best Green Bay defense in 2010. That unit delivered in the playoffs with a game-ending interception off Michael Vick, a game-changing pick-six off Matt Ryan, a game-sealing pick-six off Caleb Hanie, and more crucial takeaways and a final defensive stop against Ben Roethlisberger and the Steelers in the Super Bowl.
The 2020 Rams have scored a defensive touchdown in five of their last seven games, including a pick-six off Russell Wilson in Saturday’s 30-20 wild card win. Interesting.
However, you still have to score points on offense to win playoff games. The Rams have scored more than 23 offensive points in only one of their last seven games. That’s not going to get the job done against the NFL’s highest-scoring team, who has the fewest turnovers (11) in the league.
Does anyone remember the 1993 Giants? Dan Reeves took his schtick to New York and got a Pro Bowl season out of a 38-year-old Phil Simms, sparing us one more year before the bad commentary to come. That team won with the No. 1 defense. In fact, they only had one game all season where they allowed more than 20 points. But while they won a wild card game 17-10, they had to travel to San Francisco in the divisional round and take on the No. 1 offense and Steve Young. Guess what happened? (Or don’t.) The 49ers won 44-3. The great defense, saddled by an inept offense that put them in some bad field position, allowed 44 points on the first 10 drives.
No one remembers this game, but it is one of the eight playoff games in the earlier rounds (non-Super Bowl) since the merger where the No. 1 scoring offense faced the No. 1 scoring defense. The defense is 3-5 in those games. One of those defensive wins was the 2014 Seahawks completing the season sweep of Rodgers’ Packers in the NFC Championship Game, but even that took an insane comeback from the offense with a crucial onside kick recovery by the special teams just to get to overtime.
While people should be skeptical of how Rodgers will perform against another stout NFC West defense, I’m more concerned with the Rams shitting their pants offensively so that Rodgers doesn’t need to score many points to win this game at home in weather that gives Jared Goff night terrors when he’s healthy, let alone nursing his thumb boo-boo.
Simply put, this is a great offense/suspect defense hosting a shoddy offense/great defense. While NFL history is filled with examples of great defenses shutting down great offenses, those games are usually played in the championship round like the two recent Denver Super Bowls where the 2013 offense lost to Seattle, but the 2015 defense beat Carolina.
I only picked Denver as an example because the games are recent, but it is interesting to point out how the Broncos turned so quickly from an offensive team to a defensive team. Does that sound like anyone else we know? Sean McVay’s 2018 Rams were in the Super Bowl after scoring 527 points. They had three points in that last game, dropped out of the top 10 offenses in 2019, and this season has seen the Rams fall to 25th in points per drive while boasting the best defense led by the best defensive player, Aaron Donald.
Remember how the Broncos had a great pass rusher like Von Miller but the results weren’t there defensively until 2015 when they added more talent? Now the Rams have All-Pro cornerback Jalen Ramsey for his first full season with the team and look where they are again. Can this be a Denver-like turnaround for the Rams where they win a championship with a weak offense and great defense? The 2015 Broncos ranked 25th in offensive points per drive too.
Well, I think the run ends this week, but I can at least understand how the Rams could pull off this upset. Run the ball great with Cam Akers, Goff protects the ball and makes his easy play-action throws, and the defense kicks ass. There is a formula there, and at least a defense like the Rams holding down the Packers would make sense unlike the mediocre 2019 Titans shutting down Baltimore’s insane offense a year ago.
NFL history is loaded with playoff burnouts from its highest scoring teams. The 12 highest-scoring teams in NFL history have won zero championships. Only the 2011 Saints (32) and 2018 Chiefs (31) scored 30 points in their playoff loss.
Fortunately, the Packers are the 20th highest-scoring team at 509 points, or one behind the 2009 Saints, the only No. 1 scoring offense to win a Super Bowl since 2000. But you can see only five of the 24 teams in the 500-point club won a championship, and that includes the 1961 Oilers winning the AFL Championship Game by a score of 10-3. Even the 1999 Rams, the last team with a player (Kurt Warner) to win MVP and Super Bowl in the same season, needed an 11-6 win over Tampa Bay in the NFC Championship Game.
You usually need your defense to show up at some point in the playoffs, but this is not the matchup where I am concerned with Green Bay’s so-so unit costing them the season.
Green Bay’s best unit, the offense, just cannot feed into the upset chances by gifting the Rams turnovers (field position) in a way they did against the Buccaneers and Colts this year. The Packers had six of their 11 turnovers this season in those two losses. On the bright side for the Rams, their offense is coming off its first game this season without a giveaway.
While left tackle David Bakhtiari is out, the Rams get their best pressure from the interior with Donald, who has torn rib cartilage, which you would think makes it humanly impossible for him to be 100% on Saturday. That is big for the Packers, but it is why it would be coaching malpractice if the Rams do not deploy their other huge weapon in this matchup.
This is much easier to say from behind a keyboard, but Jalen Ramsey, you have to want all the smoke from Davante Adams this week. It might lead to you getting smoked for a big play, but just limit it to one early drive. If Ramsey can shadow Adams and successfully slow him down, it should make things so much easier on the Rams to win this game. The Rams have allowed three 100-yard receivers, good for second fewest in 2020.
The Rams defended the run very well this year. They were the only defense in either of the last two seasons to allow fewer than 140 rushing yards in all 16 games. I’m putting Ramsey on Adams and taking my chances with Robert Tonyan (high catch rate but hasn’t topped 40 yards since Week 12) and Marques Valdes-Scantling (big plays, big mistakes) beating me.
I know all the narratives and cliches about pass-happy offensive teams going up against stout defenses in the playoffs. I know the Packers have lost multiple home playoff games, including 2011 when they last were the No. 1 seed, and still do not handle teams that punch them in the mouth well. I just cannot find the faith in Goff to channel his inner Eli Manning and get this road win. Despite starting a Super Bowl already, Goff has been very underwhelming in his playoff games. At least in 2011 Manning had a track record (Super Bowl MVP) and was having his best season.
Not to mention the Rams failed to beat the 0-13 Jets…
I had so much to say about this game already that it turned out to be my first 2,000-word preview on SBR. The potential for an instant classic feels high with this one as the AFC finally gets some new blood in this round. It’s just too bad the stadium cannot be full. I think the Ravens already played in the regular season Game of the Year when they won 47-42 in Cleveland.
Notice that the Bills made my table above for the 500-point club a year after the Ravens did it behind Lamar Jackson’s MVP season. Josh Allen won’t win MVP this season but the fact that he was in the conversation says so much about how far he has come. And he’ll probably still get a vote before Russell Wilson does.
Both offenses do great things, and while I like Buffalo’s style better and find it more sustainable for the long term, I have to admit that the Ravens are better designed to go far this postseason. In this particular matchup, if there’s snow, it’s even more pronounced for me despite Jackson’s candid lack of experience playing in such weather.
Thanks to Jackson, Baltimore is arguably the most consistent rushing offense in NFL history. The Ravens have only been held under 110 rushing yards once in his 40 career starts, though I must point out that was his first playoff game (90 yards vs. 2018 Chargers) and that the 2019 Bills held the Ravens to a season-low 118 rushing yards (121 excluding those pesky kneeldowns). But the Buffalo defense is not as good this year and has had five games (two losses and three wins by a field goal each) that would make me incredibly nervous that the Ravens are going to run wild Saturday night. Baltimore has rushed for at least 230 yards in five of the last six games since Jackson returned from COVID, which were all wins of course. He’s in full YOLO mode, and by the Pro Football Reference EPA model, the Ravens offense had its five best games this season in Weeks 13-17 after Jackson returned from his COVID battle.
The Ravens are not going to do something stupid and come out throwing a ton of passes. They’ll do what they do best, and they know that is running the ball, often with Jackson taking it himself by design or like his brilliant 48-yard touchdown scramble on Sunday in Tennessee.
Jackson is 26-1 when he attempts fewer than 28 passes, and that one loss (2018 at Kansas City) saw Robert Griffin III finish the final drive in overtime. He keeps his attempts low and the turnovers low. Jackson’s four-turnover meltdown against the Steelers was the only time this season the Ravens had multiple turnovers with him at quarterback. When they had their second pick against Washington, that was with RG3 in the game late. Jackson usually protects the ball well and he’ll have to here as the Bills were good with 26 takeaways (but none against the Colts in the wild card).
Also, when they do throw, they have tight end Mark Andrews or wide receiver Marquise Brown. It’s usually one or the other who goes off, and on Sunday, it was Brown with a season-high 109 yards on seven catches. Interesting to note that Brown had 126 yards (his most since his NFL debut game) against the Titans in the 2019 playoffs and 128 scrimmage yards (his most this year) on Sunday. Maybe he just likes playing the Titans, but he better hope history doesn’t repeat itself with the Bills. Last year, Buffalo held Brown to -3 yards on 3 catches, the worst statistical game of his career. I find that unlikely to repeat itself despite the Bills still having Tre’Davious White at corner, but maybe this is an Andrews week after the way the Colts got some big plays to tight ends in Buffalo last week.
So we know the Ravens are running out the gate. When it comes the Bills, we are looking at the most blitzed quarterback this season against the most blitz-happy defense in football. Allen was blitzed a career-high 31 times last year when he played the Ravens and he was terrible against it. He’s gotten a lot of experience with seeing it this year and has managed very well. Still, I think the Ravens will continue to do it and rely on their excellent secondary to cover these wide receivers, who looked very good on Saturday against the Colts.
But the weather was quite nice for January in Buffalo on Saturday, and if things are indeed freezing and/or snowy in this one, then a precision passing game and one-dimensional offense that barely hands the ball off to running backs just may not work that great this time around. Does Gabriel Davis make those sideline toe-drag catches by a matters of centimeters in harsher conditions? Probably not. Some (not me) don’t even think he caught them last week, but the 50/50 plays largely went Buffalo’s way in a tough game where they had horrible field position in the first half and were a season-worst 2/9 on third down after leading all offenses in conversion rate this regular season.
If you came here to read both previews and already read my take in LAR-GB on great offense vs. great defense in the playoffs, then you might expect one of these 500-point club members is likely to disappoint this weekend.
If it happens, then I think it will be Buffalo just because the Ravens have the offense and dynamic quarterback that can score a lot of points, unlike the Rams. Allen is going to have to be special and handle the blitz well. Baltimore has allowed a league-low two 100-yard receivers this year, and none of the top 100 performances in receiving yards have come against the Ravens. Even though Corey Davis got them for over 100 in Week 11, he had no catches on Sunday. This defense just held the Titans to a season-low 13 points and we know that offense was also one of the best all year.
Much like the Rams have to contain Davante Adams, the Ravens need to contain Stefon Diggs. You can live with Cole Beasley making the short catches (just not too many on third down), you don’t expect Davis to be as great this week, but you cannot get roasted by Diggs, who has been on a tear for a team that would be on an 11-game winning streak had it not been for a Hail Mary in Arizona.
Again, this is probably the first time I have ever been excited to watch a Ravens-Bills game, but that is what happens when you finally have great offenses and exciting quarterbacks to watch. We have been waiting a long time to see that from Baltimore and Buffalo, and maybe this will be the first of multiple playoff meetings to come.
Final: Ravens 27, Bills 24
I’ll be back tomorrow to put the Chiefs on upset alert and explain why I think the Buccaneers are a paper tiger.
While 2020 may have felt like a year for comebacks in the NFL, let’s examine the data. There were 143 games (55.9%) that saw at least one team have a fourth-quarter comeback or game-winning drive opportunity, which is a possession by the team tied or down 1-to-8 points. That is in line with recent years: 142 in 2019, 147 in 2018, and 139 in 2017.
So, the crowd-less, COVID season did not produce any shift in the closeness of games. There were just 43 double-digit comeback wins from deficits at any time in the game, which is an increase of nine or 10 games over 2019 (33) and 2018 (34).
The 2020 season featured 58 fourth-quarter comeback (4QC) wins and 76 game-winning drives (GWD). That is remarkably close to the numbers last regular season with 56 4QC and 77 GWD. This is the third time in the last four seasons that 4QC numbers fell under 60 for the season after ranging from 68 to 73 every year from 2011 to 2016. We also can thank the NFC East for oddities, such as the season’s lone tie when the Eagles came back late on the Bengals, and the only non-offensive game-winning score of 2020 was a fumble return touchdown by the Giants against Washington.
Success rate for 4QC attempts was 30.0%, or just about average. GWD success rate was in the usual ballpark of 35.0% (2019 was 35.9%).
The following table shows a summary of each team’s success in close games this season. First, the offense’s record in games with a 4QC opportunity is shown. Next is the overall 4QC/GWD record, which also includes the games where the score was tied in the fourth quarter or overtime. For the defense, holds are games where the defense was successful in defending a one-score lead in the fourth quarter or overtime.
The number of games lost in which the team had a fourth-quarter lead is also shown. The last section shows the team’s overall record in close games, which are defined as games involving a 4QC/GWD opportunity on either side of the ball. Playoff teams are highlighted in gray. The table is in descending order of close game win percentage.
This information can be very useful for previewing the playoffs (which teams haven’t blown a lead and which struggle to hold them) or thinking about regression in 2021 for teams that won or lost a lot of close games.
More than usual, the playoff teams had the best records in close games with 11 of the top 12 teams qualifying for the playoffs. The only outlier happens to be Detroit, which was 4-2 in close games but 1-9 in non-close games. That is because of all the ass-kickings this team took this season, including Thanksgiving against Houston, losing 20-0 to P.J. Walker and the Panthers, and that demolition performed by Tampa Bay on a Saturday afternoon.
Washington (5-5) and the Rams (4-4) were only .500 in close games, but that is not uncommon for the coaching careers of Ron Rivera and Sean McVay. The most interesting playoff team here is Baltimore. For the second year in a row, the Ravens played in a league-low five close games. Last year, they were so dominant that they were 5-0 in close games. This year, the Ravens again finished with the best scoring differential (+165) in the NFL and led the league with nine wins of 14+ points. However, they were only 2-3 in close games, including a blown lead and overtime loss to the Titans in Week 11. Now the Ravens will have to avenge some past losses if they are to get back to the Super Bowl.
The Chiefs, Saints, and Titans are the only teams to not blow a late lead this year, though none of those defenses were tested more than four times in close games. The Titans were also bailed out heavily by their offense, including yesterday in Houston. Ryan Tannehill led the most 4QC (five) and GWD (six) in the league this season. Only Buffalo (6-1) tied the Titans for the best record in close games this season. No one really comes close to the 6-1 record the Titans had at GWD opportunities, and the only loss was against Pittsburgh after Stephen Gostkowski missed a field goal to force overtime.
The Seahawks may have blown a double-digit lead in Arizona in prime time this year, but otherwise, Seattle led the league with nine holds of a one-score lead, or two more than any team in 2020. The Seahawks were 9-2 in close games a year after finishing 7-2. It wasn’t as obvious this year since it wasn’t always Russell Wilson leading comebacks like he did on Sunday against the 49ers. But it’s those drives late in games to put away the Patriots, Cowboys, Cardinals, Washington, etc. that added up for Seattle’s 12-4 season. Now if only they can get the offense going like it was early in the season to match with the way the defense has played down the stretch. Then Seattle would have a fair shot of getting to the Super Bowl.
A year ago, the Packers were living off close game success, going 10-1 with eight holds and no blown leads. They added another hold in the playoffs against Seattle before getting blown out by the 49ers in the NFC Championship Game. This year the Packers are again 13-3, but it has come much differently with many more points scored. The Packers are still 5-2 at close games with five holds and one blown lead against the Colts.
The Eagles (15) and Chargers (14) played more close games than anyone. After winning some late in the season, the Chargers actually finished 6-8 in them while the Eagles limped to a 4-10-1 finish. The 10 failed 4QC/GWD (plus a tie) by the Eagles were the most in the league.
The 1995 expansion teams, Jaguars (1-7) and Panthers (2-9), had the worst records in close games this season. Jacksonville came back to beat the Colts in Week 1 and lost out the rest of the season, or what I’d call a “Weinke” as a nod to Chris Weinke and the 2001 Panthers, who also finished 1-15 with a 15-game losing streak.
The Panthers headlined five teams with a winless record at GWD opportunities. Carolina was 0-9 in a brutal year in crunch time for Teddy Bridgewater and Matt Rhule. The Falcons (0-7) did not have a single 4QC/GWD for the first time ever in the Matt Ryan era.
A year ago, I said that Houston could be a team to watch for with regression after 11 4QC/GWD in 2018-19. The Texans were 0-7 in their opportunities this year. The Jets (0-6) and Giants (0-5), with terrible offenses, were not surprisingly winless in these situations too.
It was a close battle, but the right team won in the end. The Atlanta Falcons led the league with five blown leads in the fourth quarter, beating out the Chargers and Texans with four each. All three teams fired their head coach this season. Atlanta (4-12) finishing dead last in the NFC despite only a -18 scoring differential is a shocker, but that’s what happens when you blow such winnable games in incredible fashion like the Falcons did this year.
In fact, the 2020 Falcons are hands down the best team to finish last in a conference in the 32-team era. I would advise owner Arthur Blank not to hang a banner for this achievement, but it is the closest thing the Falcons have to a trophy from this miserable, no good, rotten season.
With all this foresight you might think I had a profitable week, but somehow my fate rests in Tom Brady covering a 4-point spread in a game ripe for him to get all the credit for a 3-point win against the Rams. Fun.
No really, I did enjoy this Week 11. It lived up to what looked like a strong week on paper. The only terrible part, aside from seeing Jake Luton throw, was seeing Joe Burrow suffer a season-ending injury. Now there is literally no reason to watch or care about a Cincinnati game the rest of the season. I hope he’s 100% come 2021, and that they build a better team around him.
As I start to write this at 4:15 AM, I’m not sure I want to get too in-depth with this week’s recap since I know it has only three parts: brief look at the Steelers’ effort to hit 10-0, the ridiculous ending of Packers-Colts, and being thankful that I’m watching Patrick Mahomes and the Chiefs every week.
I Fvcking Love Patrick Mahomes
In all seriousness, I am considering devoting a whole section to this blog for how incredible Patrick Mahomes is at quarterback. We are taking things for granted that we just should not be doing with this guy so soon, 46 games into his career.
Sure, I am glad that Mahomes had my back when I said the Raiders’ Week 5 win was the anomaly of the season and wouldn’t happen again on Sunday night.
To his credit, Derek Carr was still pretty great in this game, just in a different way from Week 5. The Raiders did not have a 30-yard play this time, and they didn’t have a play over 21 yards after the first three minutes of the game. But both offenses marched up and down the field with scoring drives that really left little margin for error.
Mahomes even made an error before halftime with his second interception of 2020, both against the Raiders. That could have been crucial in a game where the Chiefs only had eight offensive possessions.
Yet, on eight drives, Mahomes led the Chiefs to five touchdowns. I mentioned how in Week 5 that it was the only time all season a defense stopped the Chiefs on four straight drives. The Raiders got three stops all night in this one. A second-quarter stop was a punt on a drive derailed by penalties (face mask and false start leading to 2nd-and-25) on Kansas City’s lesser wideouts. In the fourth quarter, the Chiefs went three-and-out after a 4-yard loss on a first-down run and a false start by Travis Kelce led to a 3rd-and-16 that Mahomes could not produce a miracle on.
If there was ever a weakness in Mahomes’ game in the NFL, he solved it quickly. If this was a 2018 game, the Chiefs probably lose this one. Mahomes would have forced some pass he shouldn’t have, and that mistake you saw before halftime may have doubled and made the difference in a 31-28 defeat.
But now Mahomes is simply taking what the defense gives him, and this game was maybe the greatest example of that yet.
Kansas City had 36 first downs, a total that has only been surpassed eight times in NFL history (three in games that went to overtime). The drive engineering was off the charts for the Chiefs. They had three touchdown drives that were at least 12 plays and 85 yards.
This only happens on nights where the big plays are not happening. Mahomes’ four longest completions of the game were 19-22 yards, all caught by Kelce. The Chiefs lived on 9-yard gains all night.
Mahomes is probably the only quarterback I can enjoy running a dink-and-dunk offense. A big reason for that is that the way he backpedals so deep in the pocket, his short throws are still longer than the average quarterback’s throws to that depth of the field. This also makes him harder to sack, which he avoided all night despite attempting 45 passes.
When Mahomes got the ball back with 1:43 left, trailing 31-28, I would be lying if I said victory felt inevitable. Getting into field goal range felt inevitable with the way the NFL is these days, but little did I expect the touchdown drive to look as easy as Mahomes made it. Seven passes, six completions, and he saved his longest one of the night (22 yards) to a wide open Kelce in the end zone with 28 seconds left.
On a day where three MVPs (Mahomes, Lamar Jackson, Aaron Rodgers) had the ball in the final 2:00, down a field goal, only Mahomes was able to get the game-winning touchdown, which he made look easy. The other two got to the red zone and had to settle for game-tying field goals (and overtime losses).
Kansas City’s defense has some serious problems to solve with Jon Gruden’s offense should the teams meet a third time in the playoffs. But as long as Mahomes is at quarterback, you have to like this team’s chances not only to win, but to do it impressively.
Up next: Chiefs travel to Tampa Bay in a game that just might get a little hype and attention this week.
Undefeated Watch: Thanks, Jake Luton
It is not lost on me that the Steelers have played such an easy schedule that if they do go 16-0, it doesn’t touch what the Patriots did in 2007. I hate to admit that, but it’s undeniably the truth. At least those Patriots beat the Cowboys and Colts, arguably the second and third-best NFL teams that year. Pittsburgh’s big road wins over Tennessee and Baltimore lose their luster a little more each week. Even the blowout over Cleveland is what might be a win over the worst 7-3 team ever. In the last three weeks, the Steelers have taken care of the Cowboys (barely) with Garrett Gilbert at quarterback, the Bengals with a green Joe Burrow, and now the real cherry on top of this shit schedule sandwich: Jake Luton and the Jaguars.
I am glad to see the Steelers winning 36-10 and 27-3 the last two weeks like they should be, but Luton was hard-to-believe horrible on Sunday. It was the worst game I’ve seen from a quarterback this year since… well, since Tom Brady played the Saints at home.
While Luton didn’t lose by five touchdowns like a Florida chump, that’s because the Steelers weren’t at their sharpest offensively. It was a good performance by Ben Roethlisberger and company, but not a great one. They still hit 27 points again. Luton threw four interceptions and had several more passes that were nearly picked or tipped by Pittsburgh defenders. The only thing I really learned about Jacksonville in this game is that Luton should not be starting for any team right now.
Definitely a trap game in past years, it’s nice that the Steelers got an easy win and can go into Thursday night’s battle with Baltimore with the goal of ending their rival’s division title hopes.
I’m still not on the 16-0 bandwagon until I see the win in Buffalo, but I know that’s not the ultimate goal. It would be great to see the Steelers finish 18-1 and still make it count for something, unlike the 2007 Patriots. Plus, if the Steelers beat the Chiefs in the playoffs, there is no better validation of their season than that.
Packers at Colts: Hold Up
This was not your classic Green Bay road loss to a good team, because the Packers actually scored four touchdowns in the first half and Aaron Rodgers only took one sack in the game. However, the four giveaways and near shutout in the second half while the Colts kept grinding away fits in nicely with what we’ve seen from Green Bay since 2011.
I want to focus on the absurd final minutes in regulation to this one.
After Rodgers failed on a 4th-and-1 pass with 3:06 left, the Colts, leading 31-28, had a chance to ice this game. The Packers did not even crack 275 yards of offense yet, which would have been the seventh time in 10 games the Colts held a team under 300 yards this year (most in NFL). No one has been able to gain 400 yards yet on the Colts either. I know yards are not the best metric, but in a season where offenses average 360 yards per game (an all-time high), what the Colts do to limit that is worth noting if you ask me.
The drive even started great with Philip Rivers hitting a 14-yard pass to get an instant first down. That took the clock down to 2:22, then things started getting crazy. There were five straight instances where a penalty was called: two on Green Bay, three on Indy. That stopped the clock every single time, as did a 15-yard completion by Rivers at the two-minute warning on the resulting 3rd-and-19.
Somehow the Colts snapped the ball five times and only burned 24 seconds.
With 1:58 left, coach Frank Reich had a big decision. Do you go for it on 4th-and-4, or do you kick a 54-yard field goal to take a 6-point lead? The 6-point lead is poison there, giving Rodgers nearly two minutes (plus all three timeouts) to beat you with a touchdown. Pinning them deep with a punt is another option, but that’s going to look really awful if you get a touchback or a bad punt. So why not just go for it given it’s makeable and you don’t want Rodgers to touch the ball again?
That is what I would have done, and that’s what Reich did. Rivers delivered with the slant for 13 yards, and Green Bay had to burn the first timeout at 1:55. Now the game was not over, but worst-case scenario, you give Rodgers the ball back with under a minute to go, needing a touchdown. But the Colts botched it again because they kept getting called for holding. In fact, they were flagged nine times for offensive holding in this game. I don’t know if they were all legit, but in a season where that penalty has been called far less than usual, that feels like an absurd amount.
To make matters worse, Rivers threw an incomplete pass on 1st-and-20 after one holding penalty. Rivers ended up taking a sack on 3rd-and-26 to take the Colts out of field goal range.
Incredibly, the Packers managed to get the ball back at their own 6 with 1:25 and one timeout left. That means from the 2:22 mark, the Colts snapped the ball 12 times and only burned 57 seconds and still saved the Packers a timeout. I have never seen anything like it.
After Rodgers hit a 47-yard deep ball, it felt like the Colts were going to blow this one. However, the Packers had their own clock management issues with Rodgers using two spikes where he really didn’t need to rush like that and could save the down. The drive ended with a field goal and we had overtime.
You know the rest from there. Marquez Valdes-Scantling fumbled two snaps into overtime, setting up the Colts for maybe the easiest game-winning drive of Rivers’ career. Three handoffs for 8 yards and a 39-yard field goal for the win.
For Green Bay, what more can be said? We’ve seen this script too often before. This was really the last good road test for the Packers before a potential playoff trip somewhere in January.
For the Colts, can they close the gap with Buffalo and creep up to being the third-best team in the AFC this year? They still have to play Tennessee, Houston twice, Pittsburgh and the Raiders, but this team is interesting. If you remember that they’re the only team to hold Patrick Mahomes and the Chiefs under 23 points, then you could see how a 3/2 playoff matchup in Arrowhead could be very intriguing if the Colts finish that high.
I’m being told that the Colts were flagged three more times for offensive holding since I started this section. Oh well, better luck at not getting called next week.