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

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

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

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

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

Step 1: Which Seasons Are Down Year Aaron?

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

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

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

These are the three seasons we’ll work with.

Step 2: Cross Out the Obvious Ones

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

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

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

Step 3: The Dirty Dozen

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Conclusion: Rodgers Was Wrong

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

Hey, it’s just the facts, bro.

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

NFL Week 3 Preview: Packers at Saints

The NFL’s Week 3 schedule is so packed I wanted to highlight earlier than usual Sunday Night Football’s big NFC matchup between the Packers (2-0) and Saints (1-1) in New Orleans. This is the fifth and potentially final matchup between future HOF quarterbacks Aaron Rodgers and Drew Brees, who have split the first four meetings and actually haven’t met since 2014. The Saints are 2-0 at home against Rodgers with 51 and 44 points scored in those games, but this offense right now doesn’t look like anything we’re used to seeing from New Orleans.

Thanks to Minnesota’s pointless upset in last year’s playoffs, we didn’t get to see these teams play last year when the Saints lost out on a first-round bye despite a stronger regular season than Green Bay because of the tie-breaking system. So we get the matchup now in a premiere prime time slot with the Saints actually being a 3-point favorite, but Drew Brees is throwing some major red flags our way, and one problem is he’s not throwing them that far either.

Drew Brees: Is 2020 the End?

Everything else is dying in 2020, so why won’t this be the end of this peak run of HOF QB play from Brees that he’s been on since 2004?

Brees has already talked about this being his last NFL season before retirement, but it’s not going to be a happy swansong if the first two weeks are any indicator of what’s to come. Despite the Week 1 win over Tom Brady and the Buccaneers where the Saints scored 34 points, the offense actually didn’t play well. They scored 27 points on 12 drives, one of which was a late field goal after the Bucs botched a kick return. Brees struggled to throw for 160 yards, only connecting on a deep ball after a pump fake late in the game. According to ESPN, Brees’ air yards per pass are the lowest in the first two weeks of a season since Brett Favre in 2009. Now that was the great Favre year in Minnesota and not the bad one in 2010 that made his retirement an obvious decision, but this is still alarming stuff from Brees. While he’s been throwing very short passes since 2017, especially on third down where some of his efficiency has declined, he’s taking things to young Alex Smith territory so far this season and it hasn’t worked as well for the Saints with Michael Thomas suffering a Week 1 high ankle sprain.

We know Thomas doesn’t stretch the field much, but that highly efficient connection the two have that can consistently gain 5, 8, 12 yard chunks has been crucial to the Saints offense. Emmanuel Sanders has had a slow start in his first year with the team so far. It’s mostly been checkdowns to Alvin Kamara so far.

However, some took the 34-24 upset loss in Las Vegas on Monday night to extremes, proving the point once again that the scoreboard really tricks people’s minds. The Saints actually were better on offense in the Week 2 loss without Thomas than they were in the Week 1 win where he played over 80% of the snaps and had 17 receiving yards. On one hand, Tampa Bay’s defense looks considerably better than the Raiders so far. Alas, the Saints scored 24 points on 9 drives on Monday night, and that ninth drive was one in the final 65 seconds where they kind of went through the motions, conceding defeat early instead of trying to get a quick field goal, onside kick recovery and Hail Mary — that may have needed Jameis Winston’s arm — to tie the game.

The bigger problem than Brees on Monday night was the defense that allowed Derek Carr, after a rough start with some embarrassing sacks, to pick apart the defense on long, time-consuming scoring drives. The Raiders scored on six of their last seven drives, and it would have been seven straight had Jalen Richard not fumbled. Richard also scored a 20-yard touchdown run on a 3rd-and-10. That kind of terrible defense brings back memories of the Saints of old, but without the high-powered offense to do better than a 34-24 defeat.

This is bad news when Aaron Rodgers, a more dangerous QB than Carr, is coming to town with a hot hand. That’s why the Saints will have to be much better early in the game on offense. Brees was far from great on Monday night, and he did piss away a drive before halftime with a bad interception, but when you only get eight real drives in the course of the game, it’s hard to be expected to do a lot better than 24 points. Not to mention on the Saints’ only third quarter drive, they self-destructed with three penalties, including a very questionable call on Sanders that led to a 2nd-and-31 situation. That’s a tough situation even if Patrick Mahomes is your QB.

So it was a horrible night on defense that should have been the bigger story for New Orleans, but of course the attention goes to the quarterback. People are already calling for him to be benched for Winston or to retire midseason, and it just reminds me that there’s too many days in between games, so people resort to filling that time with nonsense. There are alarming issues with Brees not showing his usual pinpoint accuracy or really attacking anything past 10 yards, but he’s not at the point where he needs benched. The Saints will just have to get a bit more creative without Thomas, which is why I don’t understand Sean Payton using a great trick play at the end of a sure win against Tampa Bay and not saving it for more desperate times.

With the Saints possibly slipping to 1-2 this week, desperate times are coming quickly.

Prime Aaron Rodgers: Is He Back?

If the 2020 Saints are the 2015 Broncos because of the old quarterback, then I guess they’re going to kick Green Bay’s ass on SNF, right?

That’s a reference to the 2015 SNF game when the 6-0 Packers, coming off a bye week, played the 6-0 Broncos with Peyton Manning in his final zombie-fied season. It’s one of the weirder games in NFL history in that the Broncos destroyed Green Bay 29-10 with huge performances on both sides of the ball, including the old QB, and it really seemed to set Rodgers, who only passed for 77 yards, into a tailspin after a big start to the season.

Before that game Rodgers was on a pretty incredible run of play that included two MVP awards and a Super Bowl MVP. But look at the drop in his statistics from the start of his career and ever since he returned from that bye week to face the 2015 Broncos:

You can see the YPA drop over 1.2 yards, the win percentage and passer rating down 10 points, and his touchdown pass rate has dropped by 1.46 percentage points. Sacks have been about the same, though he’s lost more fumbles per play and his completion percentage has dropped 3.3 percentage points as he’s fallen in love with throwing the ball away, which helps lower his interceptions.

Things have just not been at the peak level for Rodgers for years, and the coaching change to Matt LaFleur last year also didn’t have the desired impact. However, maybe it’s taking two years to have an impact as Rodgers is off to his best start in years. His Week 1 game in Minnesota was arguably as good as any game he’s had since 2015.

The 2020 Packers are the first team since the 2009 Saints (Payton-Brees’ Super Bowl year) to score at least 42 points in the first two games of a season. They’re only the sixth NFL team to do so since 1940. It’s not just Rodgers as RB Aaron Jones is off to a huge start to the season and the Packers lead the NFL in rushing yards (417) and yards per carry (6.2). Now they’ve only played stumbling division rivals so far, but the Packers look to be in great shape offensively so far. By Pro Football Reference’s metrics, they had their 2nd and 3rd best games by offensive EPA under LaFleur the last two weeks, and Rodgers has the second-lowest pass pressure rate (11.7%) as his line is doing a great job of protection.

If there’s a reason to be pessimistic, it’s the hamstring injury for Davante Adams. He may not play Sunday and he’s still the most trusted receiver on the team, catching 17 of his first 20 targets this year. It would be a shame for this game to go without Adams and Thomas as each team’s WR1, but that’s possibly reality and it’s only Week 3.

While the Saints need this one more than Green Bay, the fact of the matter is it’s a new season, and the Packers look like the superior team with the better QB right now.

The Pick

Under normal circumstances, I would be all in for the Saints rebounding with a win in this game. With a loud crowd amped up for Sunday night and Brees bringing his usual prime time mastery and accuracy, this is a spot where I’d expect Green Bay to fold and allow a lot of points in a loss.

But this year is different. The crowd is empty, the Saints are not playing complementary football, Green Bay and Rodgers are hot, and Brees sadly looks like what you’d expect to see from a 41-year-old QB. Maybe he takes all the criticism this week and it motivates him to a vintage performance, but if he doesn’t, then I think we’re just seeing the early stages of a rough season for New Orleans. The Packers going to 3-0 and dropping the Saints to 1-2 with a head-to-head tie-breaker would be huge for them in a conference where the rest of the South and North don’t look imposing so far, the East might be a bigger joke than last year, and the West is going to rough each other up all year.

Final: Packers 31, Saints 24

2019 NFL Conference Championship Preview

The Chiefs are the odds-on favorite (43%) to win the Super Bowl and they are the only team to return to Championship Sunday from last year’s group. The Packers and 49ers are familiar faces in this round, but they are here after combining for 10 wins (plus one pesky tie) in 2018. The Titans had their usual 9-7 record, but they are halfway through a Super Bowl run that could be the most improbable ever. While this looks like a historically odd grouping, you’d only have to go back two seasons to find an odder one when the Eagles and Vikings competed for the Super Bowl a year removed from non-winning seasons and the Jaguars (with Blake Bortles) nearly pulled it off in New England.

These aren’t bad matchups, but I think impartial fans would agree that rematches of Chiefs-Ravens and Saints-49ers (or Seahawks-49ers III) would make for the best final four this season. But those teams didn’t deliver so here we are with only the fifth Championship Sunday since 1998 where both home teams are favored by at least 7.5 points. The good news (POV may vary) is that the last four times all featured one upset: 1998 Falcons over Vikings, 1999 Titans over Jaguars, 2001 Patriots over Steelers, and 2007 Giants over Packers. Two of those games went to overtime.

So don’t pencil in a Chiefs-49ers Super Bowl just yet, though that is the expected outcome. Home favorites of 7-plus points in the Conference Championship round are 29-6 (.829) straight up and 20-15 (.571) against the spread. But expectations and this year’s postseason haven’t gotten along well so far.

Before getting into each game, I want to share some historical stats on rematches in this round.

Conference Championship Rematches

The lack of rematches this postseason won’t continue this week with both games being a rematch from November. The Titans are the last team to beat Kansas City, doing so 35-32 in Week 10 at home. The 49ers crushed the Packers 37-8 on Sunday Night Football in Week 12. I’ll talk a lot about each game again, but you don’t have to be an NFL fan for long to know that every game is different and things can change drastically. While the Seahawks and Eagles played to two 17-9 finishes this year, you didn’t know Carson Wentz would leave injured in the first quarter or that Josh McCown would play on a torn hamstring. While the Texans scored 31 in Kansas City both times, you didn’t expect a 51-point onslaught from Mahomes and company after falling behind 24-0.

With that said, I want to share some rematch data from 1978-2018 on this round. Fans are no doubt going to be curious to know how much the venue change from Tennessee to Kansas City helps the Chiefs, or if the 49ers are going to smash the Packers again at home like they did in the regular season.

In instances where the teams were from the same division and meeting for a third time that year, I used only the most recent meeting as the first matchup.

CC_rematch

I thought it was interesting that the home team had the same record (37-19) in the last meeting and in the playoffs. In a case like San Francisco’s, they are hosting both games. That has happened 29 times and while those home teams were 24-5 (.828) in the first game, those 24 teams trying to pull off the sweep were only 14-10 (.583) in the title game. So the sweep happens just under half the time. Of course being the home team itself is beneficial in this round since it means you had a higher seed than the opponent.

For Kansas City’s situation, the venue switch from playing on the road to at home in the title game has been quite beneficial. Those teams were only 14-13 (.519) on the road in the regular season meeting, but 19-8 (.704) at home in the championship game. However, if you lost that first game on the road like Kansas City did, then it’s not as optimistic things will get better at home in the playoffs. Those teams were only 7-6 (.538) with the Super Bowl on the line, including last year’s Chiefs who lost 43-40 in New England and lost to the Patriots again at home 37-31 in overtime in the AFC Championship Game.

As for the spread, both home teams are favored by 7.5 this Sunday. In Tennessee, the Chiefs were a 5-point favorite and lost 35-32. In Week 12, the 49ers were 3-point favorites and smoked Green Bay 37-8 in a game that was over at halftime. Teams that are 7.5 point favorites in a rematch in the Conference Championship are 7-6 ATS and 10-3 SU. When the team was at least a 3-point favorite in both matchups, those teams are an impressive 19-10 ATS and 22-7 SU in the playoffs. When they were a 5-point favorite in both games like the Chiefs this year, they are 6-2 ATS and 7-1 SU.

That last line sounds great for Kansas City, but keep in mind the one loss was by Dan Marino’s Dolphins to the run-heavy, never-throw-the-ball Patriots in 1985, one of the most disappointing losses of Marino’s career. Everyone thought for sure he was headed back to another Super Bowl in his third season, so it’s the kind of fate that Mahomes will want to avoid this weekend. That game is a perfect segue into Titans-Chiefs.

Titans at Chiefs (-7.5)

We’re down to two games, so I’m going to break these down into sections to make sure I get all my points across succinctly.

Kansas City Sure Remembers the Titans

If not for a Ryan Fitzpatrick-led Miami comeback win in New England in Week 17, we would have had Titans at Chiefs on Wild Card weekend. What a shakeup that could have been to this postseason, because if any team has befuddled Andy Reid in his Kansas City tenure, it’s the Titans. Tennessee has won four straight against the Chiefs, including three games at Arrowhead. That includes a blown 10-point lead in the fourth quarter in 2016, a blown 21-3 halftime lead in the 2017 AFC Wild Card, and a blown 9-point lead in the fourth quarter this year in Tennessee (Week 10).

Only one of those games had Patrick Mahomes at quarterback for the Chiefs, but it’s also the last time KC lost this season. After already knocking off the Patriots in New England and the Ravens in Baltimore, the Titans are one more road upset away from completing quite arguably the toughest path to the Super Bowl in NFL history.

What if the Tennessee Defense Is Just Lucky?

The Chiefs faced the worst defense to make the playoffs in the Texans last week and scored 51 points. Tennessee is a tougher matchup, but I’m not convinced this defense is anything special or ready to shut down a healthy Mahomes at home. Kevin Byard is a very good safety, but none of the defensive backs on the Titans have had a particularly strong year in coverage. They don’t have a dominant pass rusher either. Harold Landry is fine and Jurrell Casey can make a play here and there, but there’s a pretty big drop off after those two. The only players to make the Pro Bowl on this Tennessee team were their running back and punter. Fitting.

The Titans are getting a lot of credit for allowing just 25 points on the road this postseason to the Patriots and Ravens. That’s an impressive total in places that are hard to win. But let’s not beat around the bush here. What if it’s simply a matter of Tom Brady is washed and the Ravens choked? Brady is 42 and could barely throw a touchdown a game down the stretch, and the Patriots were at their worst offensively this season. Still, Julian Edelman dropped a wide-open pass at his own 45 late in the game for the Titans to hang on to that 14-13 lead.

Then the Baltimore game was something to behold. When I write a playoff preview I try to lay out how the underdog could win. My Tennessee strategy ended up being one of the most prescient previews I’ve ever done. I basically said the Titans need to get lucky, have a fast start, and the Ravens need to make a lot of mistakes and exhibit rust from all the time off. I even nailed it down to Jackson being a little high on some throws to his tight end (like the tipped pick), botching some fourth downs they’ve made all year, and the young receiving corps catching a case of the yips after having the second-best drop rate in the regular season. As I laid out here on Saturday night, the Ravens flat out choked.

Baltimore racked up 530 yards of offense, but only scored 12 points. Since 1940, 326 teams have had at least 530 yards of offense in a game. The Ravens are the only one out of 326 to not score 14 points. Now you could chalk that up as “Titans were amazing, Baltimore got that high up there in garbage time!” Or you could just acknowledge that this had much more to do with the offense that had three turnovers, four failures on fourth down, and a slew of dropped passes and a tipped pick on a brutal night of execution.

When Mahomes led the Chiefs to 530 yards of offense in Week 10 in Tennessee, that put 32 points on the board and it really should have been more if not for three missed kicks. He will not waste the yardage the way the Ravens did. Lamar Jackson was a deserving MVP this year, but Mahomes is the best quarterback right now.

You also have to consider what the Titans have done on defense over the long haul and not just the last two games.

Since Tannehill took over in Week 7, the Titans allowed at least 20 points in eight of their next nine games (three games allowing 30+). The only game they didn’t was in Indianapolis when the Colts attempted a go-ahead field goal for a 20-17 lead in the fourth quarter, but it was blocked and returned for a game-winning touchdown. I think good offenses will move the ball against the Titans with ease this year. The Chargers didn’t have a good year, but they could have ended Tennessee’s season prematurely in Week 7 had they not botched the end of the game. The Chargers thought they scored a touchdown on three straight plays, which would have led to 27 points and a likely win. But they were stopped twice, and then in the ensuing chaos a fumble was ruled by Melvin Gordon at the 1-yard line. The Titans lucked out and went on a run from there. Drew Brees and the Saints hung 38 on this defense in Nashville, and we know the Chiefs have already scored 32 there. Then Week 17 happened and the Titans got to face Houston’s backups, holding them to 14 points to make the playoffs.

You can’t just rely on offensive failures to account for good defense every week. Having said that, the Chiefs showed us last week and earlier this season when they were only 6-4 that they could screw up too. That’s why they weren’t as efficient at scoring as they were in 2018 (plus all the injuries this year). In the first quarter against Houston last week, the Chiefs dropped five catchable passes, including a couple on third down to kill drives. In Week 10, we saw another Chiefs running back fumble and it was returned for a big touchdown by the Titans. The Chiefs have cut down on penalties in recent weeks, but that was another issue during the 6-4 start.

I’m not going to say the Chiefs won’t make mistakes this week that the Titans won’t capitalize on. But this is a much more dangerous offense than the Patriots, and Mahomes isn’t going to press like crazy if he falls behind the way Jackson has shown he will in this league so far. He also won’t fold after halftime if the Chiefs take a 21-3 lead like Alex Smith did two years ago in the playoffs. So the onus is more on the Tennessee offense to deliver at least 28 points in this game, because Mahomes is going to get his numbers one way or another.

What Is This Tennessee Offense?

While I may have gone out of my way to discredit the Tennessee defense, I’m not going to crucify the offense. At least, I’m not going to crush the offense that Tannehill took over for the last 10 games of the regular season that was actually fun to watch. The Titans kept his attempts low, but he was throwing a lot of vertical passes and hitting shot plays to A.J. Brown and company off play-action while they fed Derrick Henry consistently. It’s an offense that definitely works for them, but we have seen something much different in these two playoff games.

The Titans are the first NFL team since the 1985 Patriots to win consecutive games without gaining over 100 net passing yards and 16 pass attempts in either game. This is one of the craziest stats I’ve ever written in my life. This is the kind of offense the Houston Oilers dreamed about in the 1970s with Dan Pastorini and Earl Campbell. The Titans are living it with Tannehill only throwing for 160 yards (but three touchdowns) in the two playoff games combined while Henry has rushed for 377 yards this postseason.

So it may not be sustainable or logical against the Chiefs, but the Titans have continued to sustain their incredible red zone success. They are now 31-of-35 at scoring touchdowns in the red zone with Tannehill. They’ll definitely need that efficiency on Sunday.

I’ve seen arguments on Twitter about the Titans offense being average at best this postseason. There is some truth to that. They only scored 14 points in New England and 28 last week for an average of 21 per game. That’s below the league average. Tennessee had touchdown drives of 35, 45, and 20 yards last week, all set up by Baltimore’s offensive failures. That’s the part I would say is not sustainable, but there are some other drives where we’re probably not giving Tennessee enough credit. For example, against the Ravens the Titans were up 28-12 in the fourth quarter with 11:00 left. They called eight straight runs, gained 28 yards and punted. That doesn’t sound great on paper, but when you consider they consumed almost five minutes of clock and made the Ravens burn two timeouts, that’s a successful drive with a 16-point lead. The Titans also had a drive that lasted 8:01 in the fourth quarter in New England as they clung to a 14-13 lead.

That ability to bleed the clock, shorten the game and keep Mahomes on the sideline could be extremely valuable in this matchup. Of course it’s hard to do if you’re playing from behind, but the Titans would have to get down three scores before they abandon the run. We saw that in Week 10. Down 29-20 in the fourth to the Chiefs, they only called two passes on a 10-play drive for a key touchdown with 6:26 left.

I don’t think the Titans can win this game with Tannehill doing his sub-100 yard thing for a third straight week. That’s just the respect I have for what Mahomes brings to the scoreboard. However, the Titans certainly need to make Henry a focal point against a run defense that has been shaky at times for the Chiefs this year.

This tweet was posted recently about Kansas City being 9-0 when they hold opponents under 110 rushing yards:

Naturally, he was met with criticism for missing the correlation-causation and how winning teams run the ball late and trailing teams pass. That is undoubtedly true about how games flow in the NFL, but I think Analytics Twitter goes out of its way to exaggerate this point while not providing the evidence they should be looking at. If you just read tweets, you would think a team that rushed for 150 yards piled up 100 of those yards with a double-digit lead in the fourth quarter. That might happen a couple times a season league-wide, but that’s not the norm.

What if I told you that nearly 59% of teams that rush for 100 yards get there before the fourth quarter, or that over 72% get there with more than 10 minutes left in the game? What if I told you that teams that win by 17-plus points average 40.8 rushing yards in the fourth quarter while teams that win by 3-7 points average 34.0 rushing yards in the fourth quarter.

All of that was true in the 2019 season and I’ve seen similar results in past years. For playing the Chiefs, there are obvious advantages to shortening the game and minimizing Mahomes’ possessions. That way when there is a Travis Kelce drop on third down or a RB fumble, it hurts them even more when you’re giving him seven more possessions than it would in a game where he gets the ball 11 more times. We also know with the Chiefs that you’re not going to blow them out as they have one of the greatest streaks in NFL history of not losing a game by more than 7 points:

We saw it this year in Kansas City’s four losses, all of which were by 3-7 points and half of which they had a fourth-quarter lead. The offense only had five drives with a one-score 4Q deficit in those four games, and Mahomes only had one drive each against the Colts, Texans and Titans. Anything short of perfection wouldn’t work.

The Titans, who never ran a play in the second half with a lead, rushed for 177 yards in the second half after 48 yards in the first half, thanks in part to a 68-yard touchdown run by Henry. The Colts (105 after 77), Texans (118 after 82) and Packers (86 after 35) also had second-half rushing success in wins over the Chiefs this year. These were not stat-padding situations by any means. The Packers literally had one offensive drive with the lead in the second half, and called seven straight runs for 31 yards to help keep the ball away from the Chiefs in a 31-24 win. The Colts completed one pass in the fourth quarter against the Chiefs, but used two run-heavy drives to kick two field goals that secured the win after draining the Chiefs of their timeouts. A 14-play, 35-yard drive for a field goal to take a 16-10 lead doesn’t look good on paper, but it forced the Chiefs to be aggressive and go for a fourth-and-1 at their own 34. Damien Williams was stuffed and by the time Mahomes got the ball back he was down 19-10 and with 2:27 left. Game over barring a miracle.

We should be treating productive runs with a one-score lead in the fourth quarter as the best way to close out a game as they keep the clock running in a situation where that’s more important than scoring again. This is about the only part of the game where perceived inefficiency is the preferred offensive strategy. You’d rather take three (or four) plays to gain 10 yards than one pass play, EPA be damned.

The biggest detriment to Mahomes in his career has really been the clock, or not getting the ball last or with enough time. Had he a little more time at the end against the Patriots last year or the Titans this year, he may have scored the game-winning touchdown instead of settling for a field goal that only leads to overtime where he may never see the ball again. This is why the Titans will ride Henry on Sunday, but they’re still going to have to get back to their regular season strategy with Tannehill if they’re going to outscore the Chiefs again.

Pressure Is on Patrick Mahomes

Simply put, there will be more pressure on Mahomes to win this game than there’s been in any other game of his career so far. He gets a bit of a pass for last year since it was his first title game, the mystique of the Patriots, and he did drop 31 points in the second half before never touching the ball in overtime. However, if he loses this game he’ll be the guy who is 0-2 at home in Conference Championship Games. That’s when people start to forget about the 31-point second half and focus more on the missed touchdown (overthrown) or bad sack he took to fall behind 14-0 at halftime against the Patriots last year.

He can’t afford a bad game this weekend. In 31 regular-season games, Mahomes has thrown multiple interceptions just three times. He has only four games with multiple turnovers in his career. In three playoff games, Mahomes has zero turnovers. He’s the third quarterback in NFL history after Sid Luckman and Tobin Rote to lead his team to at least 31 points in each of his first three playoff games. He has led his team to at least 23 points in all but one game of his career so far.

Furthermore, Mahomes has already played a stellar game this year in Tennessee against this defense with 446 passing yards and no turnovers. It was his first game after the dislocated kneecap and it was his best recent game until last Sunday in the playoffs when he was as close to perfect as you can get at the position.

By the way, in the effort to score seven straight touchdowns against Houston, Mahomes had 7 carries for 9 yards from his running backs on those drives. These offenses couldn’t be any more different right now, but as long as the receivers are catching the ball, Mahomes should deliver against the Titans. You like to think he’ll get a little more rushing support this week than that, but he can do pretty much anything you want out of a quarterback. There’s no real weakness in his game other than something his teammates fail to do, or an overtime system that doesn’t give him the ball.

In fact, if the Chiefs lose this game I hope it happens the same way as last year: 37-31 in overtime with Mahomes never touching the ball. Then the Chiefs and their fans need to raise hell the likes of which New Orleans couldn’t even dream of for pass interference so we can change a flawed system for the playoffs.

Don’t Forget: Special Teams

Last but not least, we have to talk about special teams. The Chiefs had an excellent unit this year while the Titans were pretty bad (no kicking game of value), but that didn’t matter in Week 10. Special teams were arguably the main reason the Chiefs lost in Tennessee. Harrison Butker missed an extra point, then late in the fourth quarter the Chiefs botched a field goal that would have put them ahead 35-27, leading to overtime at worst after Tannehill tied the game. Then on the final play, Butker’s 52-yard field goal was blocked to give the Titans a 35-32 win.

In the divisional round, special teams threatened to end Kansas City’s season after a blocked punt for a touchdown and a muffed punt return by Tyreek Hill led to a 21-0 hole. However, this unit can giveth and taketh in the same game, and I don’t think it got much attention how special teams really redeemed themselves to make the comeback happen. It came in the form of three plays in the second quarter: Mecole Hardman’s 58-yard kick return to spark it, the stop on Houston’s fake punt, and the forced fumble on a kick return that set Mahomes up at the Houston 6.

The Chiefs have return specialists who can be dynamic, and Butker is usually good, but they can’t afford these mistakes again versus the Titans.

Before placing a bet on this game, it’d be nice if someone could get visual proof that Mike Vrabel still has his penis, because he may have already cut it off to secure this trophy. My boldest prediction may be that the Titans actually settle for a field goal this week, but it won’t be enough to stop Mahomes from reaching that first Super Bowl.

Final: Chiefs 34, Titans 24

 

Packers at 49ers (-7.5)

Remember when Steve Young couldn’t beat the Packers and it took a missed Jerry Rice fumble to finally do it? Okay, I’ll stick to the Rodgers’ era for the rest of the way.

Packers: Reversal of Fortune?

I left this out of my rematch data above, but teams that win the last matchup by at least 17 points are 9-2 in the Conference Championship Game with an average scoring differential of 13.5 points. That doesn’t bode well for the Packers overcoming the 37-8 smackdown in Week 12.

It’s not exactly breaking news that the Packers don’t excel in these spots: on the road against a physical team that should have advantages in the trenches again. In fact, the Packers led by Aaron Rodgers are 0-4 in his career when he’s an underdog of 7+ points. That includes losses to the 2014 Seahawks (twice), 2015 Cardinals (NFC-DIV), and 2018 Rams, all NFC West powerhouses on the road, which is the case again this week at No. 1 seed San Francisco (14-3).

But he is 3-1 against the spread in those games, so a close game is not out of the question. We’ve also seen Rodgers’ Packers have dramatically different playoff results in rematches from the regular season:

  • In 2010, the Packers lost a close one 20-17 in Atlanta, but blew the Falcons out 48-21 in the divisional round.
  • In 2011, the Packers got to 12-0 with a 38-35 win in New York, but fell 37-20 in stunning fashion at home to those Giants in the divisional round.
  • In 2014, the Packers fell 36-16 on opening night in Seattle, but had a 16-0 lead in the NFC Championship Game before losing 28-22 in overtime.
  • In 2015, and perhaps most comparable to this weekend, the Packers were destroyed 38-8 in Arizona in Week 16 (Rodgers sacked eight times). But in the divisional round they forced overtime with two Hail Mary’s by Rodgers, only to lose 26-20.
  • In 2016, Green Bay lost 30-16 at home to Dallas before winning there 34-31 in the playoffs, but also turned a tough 33-32 loss in Atlanta to a far more embarrassing 44-21 loss in the NFC Championship Game.

Points don’t carry over from last time and that’s really the NFL in a nutshell.

Injury Outlook

One of the simplest explanations for why matchups can change so much is the addition or subtraction of players through injury. However, most of the players taking the field this week were active in Week 12 and last week when these teams won a playoff game. If anything, the 49ers have the edge here as left tackle Joe Staley, running back Matt Breida, pass-rusher Dee Ford, linebacker Kwon Alexander and even kicker Robbie Gould were absent in Week 12. The 49ers have all of those guys back, though they did limit Ford’s snaps last week (still got a sack in 22 snaps). San Francisco’s running game has been at its worst when running off left tackle, though Staley missed nine games this year. Sure, the 49ers also lost center Weston Richburg in Week 14, but they’ve been fine without him. Right tackle Bryan Bulaga was out last week with an illness for the Packers, but he was on the field in Week 12 when Rodgers took five sacks.

Rodgers: Worst Night Ever?

Remember this in Week 12?

That historically bad night for Rodgers in Week 12 — a career-low 3.15 YPA — is hard to shake. The good news: he just had one of his best games of 2019 against Seattle. The bad news: San Francisco’s defense just had one of its best games of 2019 against Minnesota’s more talented offense.

What Should Green Bay’s Offense Do on Sunday?

Last week the Packers were basically a one-man receiving show with Davante Adams gaining 160 of Rodgers’ 243 passing yards against Seattle. Adams caught a touchdown in Week 12, but the 49ers held the connection to 7-of-12 for 43 yards that night. I don’t know how receivers like Adams (and Michael Thomas in New Orleans) are so consistently open when these teams lack other options at wideout, but the 49ers should do a much better job than the Seahawks did on Adams. The Packers averaged 12.3 PPG in four games this year when Adams was held under 50 yards.

Most offenses have failed to move the ball through the air against the 49ers this year. Eight teams were held to fewer than 135 net passing yards, and only three offenses exceeded 223 yards in 17 games. Of the six 100-yard receivers allowed by the 49ers, the top two were Julio Jones and Michael Thomas with 134 yards each, but they also had 15-20 targets between them. So Adams will probably have to be force-fed the ball to have a productive game this week. The Packers will likely prefer to get Aaron Jones involved more this time as he had 13 carries for 38 yards in Week 12. Jamaal Williams actually outgained him (11 carries for 45 yards) after getting most of that production on the final drive in garbage time. The 49ers just held Minnesota to 21 yards on 10 runs last week.

It’s a delicate balance for head coach Matt LaFleur to figure out. Do you go pass-happy with Rodgers when he has a more pedestrian receiving corps? If the San Francisco pass rush resembles last week and Week 12 and the early portion of the season when they were so dominant with rookie Nick Bosa and the D-line shining, then it’s a pretty tough matchup for Green Bay. The Packers also aren’t a dominant rushing team in the form of say the Titans, but they still get their share of yards most weeks because they often play from ahead thanks to good starts. Remember, last week I pointed out they were third in first-quarter scoring, but 27th, 9th and 26th in the rest of the quarters. The 49ers are faster starters with the running game. They’ve had seven games this year with more than 80 rushing yards at halftime compared to two for Green Bay.

The Packers are quite good in the red zone, but getting there is the biggest concern. Green Bay had one trip to the red zone in Rodgers’ 10 drives in Week 12. Only seven offenses went three-and-out more often than the Packers this year. I’m not really sure what the best strategy is for Green Bay’s offense this week, but I know they can’t go 1-of-15 on third down again like they did in Week 12. Rodgers will have to do a few things off script that work for Green Bay and hope he can deliver on third down as well as he did against Seattle last week (team was 9/13 before a kneeldown).

San Francisco’s Offense

While Green Bay’s offense was imploding in Week 12, it wasn’t until the fourth quarter when the 49ers converted a third down that night. The 49ers won that game easily despite only 16 first downs. Rodgers coughed up the ball on a strip-sack on the first drive, leading to a 2-yard touchdown drive. Two quick three-and-outs late in the first half were turned into 10 more points by the 49ers, which saw big YAC plays from George Kittle and Deebo Samuel for touchdowns. The Packers have had few answers for tight ends this year and Kittle is as good as anyone right now. YAC has been a big part of San Francisco’s passing game all year, though they only put 19 balls in the air against the Vikings in a run-heavy game plan.

Jimmy Garoppolo won his first playoff game by doing the bare minimum, so don’t say he didn’t learn anything from Tom Brady in New England. Garoppolo did most of his damage on the opening drive, but didn’t have to do much more when his defense and running game were so dominant. He was much better in Week 12 against the Packers and will have to play more like that in this game. It was actually the best statistical game any QB had against the 2019 Packers. Garoppolo has his full complement of backs to use and two fine wideouts to go along with Kittle, so what more can he ask for besides maybe a run call on 3rd-and-1 from Kyle Shanahan if they’re up big in the fourth? The Packers were terrible this year at stopping teams in short-yardage situations and stuffing runs for losses.

Garoppolo is more likely to turn the ball over than Rodgers. He does have a tendency to throw an interception early in games this year, though the 49ers are 10-1 in games where he is intercepted (11-0 if the kicker came through in overtime vs. Seattle), so it hasn’t been a problem. I watched all 13 of his interceptions last week and noticed about six that were tipped and one that was lobbed on a 4th-and-5 against Washington in the rain. So that was encouraging, though he does get fooled by linebackers on short throws a bit too much. The Packers are 11-0 this season when intercepting the starting QB, but only have three picks from non-defensive backs. Green Bay has mostly feasted on bad passers and served twice as Kirk Cousins’ kryptonite. Green Bay has some really good pass-rushers this year (The Smiths) and they got to Garoppolo three times in the last matchup. Only five passers avoided multiple sacks from Green Bay this year.

I think Garoppolo already held up well this year in marquee matchups against Lamar Jackson, Kirk Cousins, Drew Brees, Aaron Rodgers, and Russell Wilson. Maybe he implodes with the Super Bowl on the line, but I’m not concerned about him this week like I would be with certain quarterbacks.

Close Game or Nah?

The 49ers have lost three games on the final play this year, so they would have to have a Baltimore-sized choke to get blown out at home in this game. That’s more likely to happen to Green Bay again. If it’s a close game, we’ve already seen Garoppolo lead four comebacks and game-winning drives this season, something Rodgers still hasn’t done in any season of his career. But Rodgers (17-41 at 4QC opportunities) does have three game-winning drives for Green Bay in 2019 and the Packers are 11-1 in close games without a single blown lead in the fourth quarter.

If you want an ultra-specific prediction, I’m feeling a game where Garoppolo will overcome a rough start with his running game not dominating, only to lead the 49ers to a game-winning field goal to send San Francisco to another Super Bowl. Or at least I like the sound of that better than saying the refs hand Green Bay a horseshit illegal hands to the face penalty that gives us a rematch of Super Bowl I (Chiefs-Packers) in the 100th year of the NFL. That might be even more likely if the Titans pull off an upset in the early slot as I can’t imagine the NFL would be happy about promoting Titans-49ers to casual viewers.

But if there was ever a postseason to completely stick it to the status quo…

Final: 49ers 23, Packers 20

2019 NFL Divisional Round Preview

The NFL’s best weekend is a little sweeter this year. Thanks in large part to Ryan Fitzpatrick and the Titans these last two weeks, we don’t have to talk about the Patriots in the divisional round of the playoffs. This hasn’t happened in a decade, and I said when they were 8-0 that this was not a legitimately great Patriots team. So let’s enjoy it by not giving them any more time than they deserve. The AFC is moving forward with two better teams in Baltimore and Kansas City, but both must avoid an upset as two-score favorites this week if we’re going to get that desired title game next Sunday. I don’t think the Titans and Texans will go away easily.

The Wild Card weekend was excellent with four close, low-scoring games. Every game was decided by 3-8 points and no team scored 21 points in regulation. None of the offenses performed at a high level, which had a lot to do with the games being close, but it was good for dramatic reasons.

You should be counting on more points and at least one multi-score win this week. Seahawks-Packers is the easy choice for the close game lock, and it is the only game with a spread under 7.0 this week. However, we know the greatness of this round is from the road team upsets. They are not easy to come by either. Since 1970, the home team is 141-55 (.719) in the divisional round and that hasn’t tailed off in recent years. In fact, since the new CBA in 2011 the home team is 25-7 (.781) in the divisional round. Since 2002, home teams favored by at least 9 points in the divisional round are 9-5 straight up and 6-8 against the spread. There hasn’t been an upset loss of this magnitude since the 2012 Ravens (at Denver) and 2010 Jets (at Patriots).

Even though every home team won this round last year that is still a pretty rare feat. The only other times it happened in the current playoff format were 2015, 2004 and 2002.

Vikings at 49ers (-7)

You probably could have simulated the season 10 million times in August and not once would you have ended up with this as your #6 at #1 matchup in the NFC. But here we are and I actually believe the Vikings are a very formidable foe. The team is loaded with talent, but the offense just happened to play its worst against Green Bay in two important games this year. Kirk Cousins showed last week he can lead a clutch drive to beat a good team on the road, finishing off the Saints in overtime.

The 49ers don’t have much of a track record to point to, but they are 13-3 this year with three losses on the final play of the game. They were a missed field goal in OT against Seattle and a single defensive stop (inches on one snap) from beating the Falcons to win 15 games, only losing in Baltimore on a last-second field goal. The only times they didn’t score 20 points this year were in very wet conditions in Washington and Baltimore. It’s been a great Year 3 so far for Kyle Shanahan.

For me this game comes down to the Minnesota offensive line. Can they hold up on the road against a front seven that has slipped in the second half of the season? If Dalvin Cook has holes to run through, he and Alexander Mattison could have a nice day together. The 49ers run defense is nothing special (11th in DVOA, 23rd in yards per carry). Cook looked ready to Derrick Henry his way through the Saints defense until they got to him more in the second half. With the passing offense, Cousins clearly has the weapons as Adam Thielen stepped up with big catches and Kyle Rudolph caught the game winner in OT. Stefon Diggs was hardly involved, but that’s just another great option for this offense to go to this week. The 49ers allowed the fewest passing yards in the league this year, including 10 games where the opponent had fewer than 200 net passing yards (five games of no more than 100 yards). That’s very impressive, but the Vikings aren’t looking to go pass-happy in any game this year. Cousins was 11-2 (only losses to Green Bay) when he didn’t go above 35 pass attempts this season. They just want to run Cook and take advantage of play-action as much as they can.

The Saints had greater pass pressure metrics than the 49ers defense finished the year with. Cousins took a couple sacks and five QB hits in New Orleans, but overall the protection held up enough. The 49ers were destroying quarterbacks earlier this season, but that has really eased up. Rookie Nick Bosa had 7 sacks and 13 hits thru Week 8, but in the last nine games he’s only had 2 sacks and 12 hits. Through 11 games, the 49ers sacked 10 of their opposing quarterbacks at least three times. They haven’t done so since Week 12 and they have four sacks total in the last five games. Since Week 9, the 49ers have allowed at least 20 points in every game except for the big Packers win (37-8). Even though the Packers own the Vikings this year, the transitive property does not apply in the NFL, so don’t expect the 49ers to just own the Vikings too. San Francisco’s defense clearly peaked early as some injuries have set in too.

On the other side of the ball, the San Francisco offense is pretty legit. They were fifth in points per drive and 10th in yards per drive. It helps to be second in starting field position, but they still moved the ball well throughout the season. Jimmy Garoppolo started a bit shaky in the first half of the season when he was only averaging 212.7 passing yards per game with nearly an equal TD:INT ratio. Ever since the Arizona game in Week 9 he’s up to 276.6 yards per game with 18 TD, 6 INT, 107.6 PR, and a strong 8.67 YPA. He’s been asked to do more and he’s delivered so far. You know to expect a good running game from a Shanahan offense and they certainly have had that. The trade for Emmanuel Sanders was smart and the draft pick of Deebo Samuel was good. It may not be the flashiest receiving corps in the NFL, but it’s more than enough to win a Super Bowl when you factor in the run and George Kittle at tight end.

If there’s an area of concern I would say the red zone could be rough, especially on Garoppolo as a passer. Kittle is awesome, the best TE in this post-Gronk NFL, but he’s not much of a receiving threat in the red zone. He only has 12 TD catches in his career (on 216 catches) and only three this season came within 30 yards of the end zone. That’s just not something they do, which is why the 49ers led the league with 23 rushing touchdowns. But make no mistake about it — the 49ers are a middling red zone offense while the Vikings are No. 2 in most red zone defense metrics. The Vikings were also one of the best defenses at creating takeaways and were the only defense to get multiple turnovers from the Saints in 2019. I mentioned Danielle Hunter last week as a top pass-rusher this year. He and Everson Griffen delivered in New Orleans and will have to do so again here. Garoppolo has fumbled 10 times (equal to Cousins’ total) with five lost this year.

Something to keep in mind is that the Vikings are quite poor at coming from behind in the fourth quarter. Garoppolo is 7-3 (.700) at 4QC opportunities in his career compared to 8-25-2 (.257) for Cousins. Minnesota’s only 4QC win in the last two seasons was against Denver this season. Garoppolo (50%) and Cousins (48%) were the top two quarterbacks in 2019 at converting third-down passes into first downs.

I almost want to pick the Vikings to pull off another upset here, but I just picked the 49ers last week to reach the Super Bowl. Plus it’s January and we’re talking about the Minnesota Vikings having everything go their way in two straight playoff games. That just doesn’t compute for me, but this should be a pretty good game.

Final: 49ers 26, Vikings 23

 

Titans at Ravens (-9.5)

This was a short-lived AFC rivalry after the Browns moved to Baltimore and became the Ravens while the Oilers moved to Tennessee and changed their name to the Titans. The Ravens knocked the No. 1 seeded Titans out of the playoffs in 2000 and 2008. Those were potential Super Bowl years for Tennessee, and there really hasn’t been that type of excitement about this team ever since that day a rookie coach named John Harbaugh took his Baltimore team into that building and won.

Now the Titans can return the favor to the top-seeded Ravens, who are coming off a bye week and a Week 17 win where they rested key starters, including likely MVP QB Lamar Jackson. That means 20 days will have passed since Jackson played a game, and it’s a time in which he reportedly fought off the flu too. When your QB is such a unique player, a 1,200-yard rusher and not a high-volume passer, maybe rest is more important than any concern for rust. We saw in the past how precision-passing offenses like the 2005 Colts and 2011 Packers were hurt by giving their offense too much rest in addition to the bye week, but Baltimore is the most prolific rushing offense in NFL history (3,296 yards). No one has held the Ravens under 118 rushing yards this year and they’re the only offense in NFL history to rush for at least 170 yards in all eight home games. Baltimore hasn’t trailed in the fourth quarter since Week 5, a comeback win in Pittsburgh. The 2019 Ravens are the 11th team in NFL history to score at least 20 points in all 16 games of a season.

Still, I think Tennessee’s best shot at another upset is a fast start and some rust (or regression) from the Ravens. This is pretty hard when Baltimore leads the NFL in first-quarter scoring (128 points) and has allowed the fewest first-quarter points (31). I’m not trying to anger Tennessee fans, but the fact is your defense is not that great, and the Ravens have the most efficient offense in the league this year. It’s historic really as they averaged over 200 yards per game in passing and rushing. You need some help from the offense (unforced errors & mistakes) to slow them down. Jackson has improved his accuracy this year, but there are still times where the ball comes out a little high and one of his big tight ends needs to make a great catch. You hope he has a few of those bad throws on high-leverage third downs, or maybe a fourth down that the Ravens are very willing to go for this year. The Ravens also had the second-lowest rate of dropped passes in the league this year. Maybe this receiving corps, which is basically a rookie (Marquise Brown), a retread (Willie Snead) and three tight ends (Mark Andrews has been exceptional) have some yips on Saturday night and drop important passes. Jackson is hard to sack and the Baltimore line does a great job of protection and the defense always has to be cautious of the running attack.

The Ravens just offer a different challenge that NFL teams really aren’t used to competing against. That’s why I think it’s crucial for Ryan Tannehill to have a fast start and get the Titans ahead early to hopefully get the Ravens out of their element and play from behind like the Chargers did to a rookie Jackson in the playoffs last year. Then Derrick Henry can take the game over in the second half and kill the clock, but hopefully it will lead to more points this time. Just 14 points won’t win like it would have in New England last week. There’s no way Tannehill can get by without throwing for over 100 yards again. I wasn’t too encouraged by how he played in the biggest game of his career last week, but at least he made a couple key throws on third down. He’ll have to continue that here and get rookie A.J. Brown involved, which he didn’t last week. You don’t want to get into a big shootout with the Ravens, but I think the Titans have an explosive offense to put up the points necessary to grind out a win.

This tweet from ESPN’s Seth Walder caught my eye:

I thought the Patriots last week would use Cover Zero blitzes to force Tannehill into mistakes since he has taken a very high rate of sacks this year. However, he threw 15 passes in the whole game so it wasn’t that kind of night. He did take one sack and fumbled twice, but the Patriots were unable to recover either. Baltimore will look to force him into more mistakes in what should be a much higher volume passing game this time. I’m not sure it means anything this week, but the Titans have faced Baltimore in each of the last two seasons and Henry finished those games with a pathetic 15 carries for 47 yards (combined two games). That also can’t happen again. That was the day Mariota took 11 sacks for Tennessee. Tannehill’s not that bad thankfully.

We don’t think of the 2019 Ravens as a classic Baltimore defense, perhaps because there’s no Ray Lewis or Ed Reed or Terrell Suggs on the unit this year. They also struggled early in the season after allowing huge numbers in Kansas City (33 points and 503 yards) and to the Browns (40 points and 530 yards). That gave us an early impression that things weren’t good this year. However, in the other 14 games this year the Ravens never allowed more than 23 points or 349 yards. Only the 2010 Steelers (15 games) and 2011 Steelers (14 games) can say they’ve done that at least 14 times in a season this decade. Matt Judon emerged as their new star pass-rusher and the trade for corner Marcus Peters in Week 7 proved to be a steal as he made the All-Pro team thanks to his ball-hawking abilities. So the Ravens are in this familiar spot of having the best defense left in the AFC playoffs, but now they have the best offense to boot as well.

Not to trigger fans of the 2000 Titans, but it could be a bad thing if this game comes down to field goals. Justin Tucker is arguably the best kicker to ever do it, while the Titans were just 8-of-18 on field goals this year. Their current kicker, Greg Joseph, hasn’t even attempted a field goal in 2019. He missed three field goals and four extra points for the 2018 Browns.

That’s why the red zone matchup could be so huge in this one. Baltimore’s passing game was the best in the league in the red zone. Jackson’s 24 red zone touchdown passes trail only Russell Wilson (25), but he had 29 fewer pass attempts in the red zone than Wilson. That’s a lot different than the matchup with Tom Brady last week. Brady had 13 TD on a league-high 91 red zone passes in 2019. The only player coming close to Jackson’s absurd red zone TD% of 40% is Tannehill (37.8%).The Titans have been absolutely bonkers in the red zone with Tannehill since Week 7. Including the playoff game, they are 28-of-32 (87.5%) at scoring touchdowns in the red zone after starting 8-of-15 (53.3%) with Marcus Mariota. They are going to need to continue that hot streak and realize that field goals aren’t going to beat the best offense in the league on the road (unless it’s the final play of the game of course).

We’ve seen bigger upsets in NFL history before, but I just don’t like the Titans enough to pick them here. Baltimore is the better team in all three units, the home team, and the rested team. It would be cool to see another sixth seed make a run at things here, but the Ravens are legitimately great this season.

Final: Ravens 30, Titans 20

 

Texans at Chiefs (-9.5)

We usually have some rematches from the regular season to talk about in the playoffs, but this is only the second one through two rounds this year. The other one was last week when the Seahawks beat the Eagles by the same score (17-9) again. That would be very disappointing for the Chiefs, a two-score favorite, since Houston won 31-24 in Arrowhead in Week 6.

So what happened that day and why will things be different this time?

In Week 6, the Chiefs were coming off a rough 19-13 loss to the Colts, the first game where Patrick Mahomes didn’t lead the team to at least 26 points. Mahomes was injured a couple of times in that game and was missing left tackle Eric Fisher and Sammy Watkins for this Houston matchup. It started off really well when Mahomes notably threw for 116 yards on the opening drive thanks to some penalties. The Chiefs led 17-3 and seemed like they were going to roll over Houston, but the Texans came back. Mahomes got fooled on a second quarter interception when he thought the official was going to throw a flag on a free play, and he later lost a fumble that Deshaun Watson turned into a touchdown before halftime for a 23-17 lead. Watson engineered a 12-play, 93-yard drive in the fourth quarter — a drive that never featured a third down — to put the Texans ahead 31-24. The Chiefs had a very quick three-and-out with an odd call of a run on 2nd-and-14, and the Texans were able to run out the final 5:03 without giving Mahomes the ball back. Carlos Hyde was effective with 116 rushing yards, and Watson’s day could have been even bigger without some dropped passes. Houston racked up 35 first downs in that game, the most by any NFL road team since the Patriots had 36 first downs in their overtime win in Kansas City in the 2018 AFC Championship Game. The Chiefs were unable to gain 20 yards on any play after the opening drive.

That was arguably the low point of the season for the Chiefs on defense, but the good news is the offense is healthier now, especially in regards to Mahomes. They also have their leading sack defender back in Chris Jones, who missed that Week 6 game. The Texans got J.J. Watt back last week and he played well against Buffalo. The Texans didn’t have Kenny Stills in Week 6, but they’re looking to have their full wideout trio of DeAndre Hopkins, Stills and Will Fuller available for this one.

You expect the Chiefs to play better this time, but the spread rising from Chiefs -3.5 in Week 6 to Chiefs -9.5 given that last matchup is still a bit puzzling. Kansas City has cut down on penalties and turnovers since Week 6, but those mistakes and bad health have led the offense to take a step back from 2018’s historic level.

The injuries, most notably the dislocated kneecap that cost him nearly three full games, did take away from what was still an exceptional season for Mahomes. He actually had more touchdown passes of 40-plus yards (9) this year than he had in 2018 (7) despite throwing 24 fewer touchdowns overall. The big plays are still there in an offense built for speed, but in recent weeks we have seen a more pedestrian Mahomes. Since Week 11, Mahomes is at 7.28 yards per attempt with 8 touchdowns to 4 interceptions and a 92.0 passer rating. That’s fine for what the Chiefs needed to go 6-0 in those games, but Mahomes’ 16-game pace over this span is just 3,747 yards and 21 touchdown passes. That’s far from the record-setting dominance he showed us through his first 25 starts.

Mahomes has been overshadowed the last six games by his defense, which prompts the “watch out now that Mahomes has a defense!” angle. Yes, it would be scary to give this quarterback a legitimately great defense, but are we sure that’s the case? It was just in Week 10 when this defense was embarrassed by Ryan Tannehill in Tennessee, prompting us to take the Titans more seriously. I’m always leery of these “QB has [help]!” claims when we know the larger sample size usually points to that not being the case.

As always, the first thing to do is look at the schedule. Who have the Chiefs played in the last six weeks? That would be the Chargers twice. Philip Rivers had a turnover-heavy, washed-up type of season. Then there was Oakland and Derek Carr, who has a very poor history against the Chiefs. The only games he had this year with multiple interceptions were against the Chiefs, and he also had two picks in a 35-3 loss to the Chiefs in Week 17 last year. Throw in a 23-3 win over rookie Drew Lock and the Broncos in a snow game and that’s already four games out of six against division rivals they’re familiar with. The other two games were at New England and Chicago, where the quarterback play was close to equal for the first time in many years with Tom Brady having his worst season at 42 and Mitchell Trubisky being Mitchell Trubisky.

So color me unimpressed with this run. I think the Chiefs this postseason are more likely to look like the defense that had a few good moments mixed with tough times against the Packers, Vikings, Texans, Titans, Ravens and Lions (with Matthew Stafford). You know, better offensive competition.

If you look at the seven games where the Chiefs have positive EPA on defense on Pro Football Reference, five of the games are from Weeks 11-17. But you’ll also notice that the other two games were the early meetings against Denver (Week 7) and Oakland (Week 2). So those were just offenses the defense owned this season. By the same measure of EPA, the Chiefs had three games where they were worse than -17 EPA and those were against the Texans, Ravens and Packers so that could be interesting if that ends up being their next three opponents on a Super Bowl path.

Reid getting less out of the offense and more out of the defense is probably a net positive for this playoff run, but Mahomes is going to have to be stellar at some point here. If it’s not this week, then it will have to come in Baltimore most likely. Remember, Mahomes is getting the worst defense in the playoffs this week in Houston. He should play very well on Sunday, but the standards for his “very well” game are currently in flux.

The last thing I want to talk about is arguably the most important part in this game: Deshaun Watson. His A-level plays are just as good as Mahomes and Jackson, whether it’s the incredible runs or deep throws down the field. However, he does take too many sacks at times and we just haven’t seen him put together that consistent, MVP-worthy season yet like Mahomes (2018) and Jackson (2019) have. Of course, those quarterbacks have better support systems than Watson, who is stuck with Bill O’Brien and a franchise that doesn’t really have a GM. Mahomes has Andy Reid’s brain, and we know from Reid’s coaching tree that he puts together great staffs. Jackson has Harbaugh and Greg Roman, and the Ravens are on the forefront of analytics right now. Watson is basically pulling the weight in Houston himself, which is how the Texans end up falling behind 16-0 at home to lowly Buffalo in the Wild Card round, but also how they pull out a 22-19 win in overtime behind him.

Watson stands to be The Third Man in the AFC as Mahomes and Jackson battle for conference superiority in this new decade where the Patriots should finally be old news. Winning this game and breaking up the first of several expected AFC title games between Mahomes and Jackson would be huge for him, but the odds clearly aren’t in his favor Sunday.

But make no mistake about it — Watson is a gamer and the main reason Chiefs fans have to feel at least a little nervous about this one. If there’s someone who can match Mahomes, who isn’t coming in hot, score for score on that cursed playoff ground called Arrowhead, it is Watson.

Final: Chiefs 31, Texans 23

 

Seahawks at Packers (-4)

I have about 800 words left to keep this preview under 5,000, but how many does one really need for this game? Seattle’s offense is a little better than Green Bay’s, though the Packers have an edge in versatility with their top back (Aaron Jones) still healthy while the Seahawks won with 19 rushing yards from backs in Philadelphia last week. Green Bay’s play-action passing game remains broken this year and Rodgers still throws too many passes away and takes too many sacks he shouldn’t. Both teams are mediocre at best on defense and special teams. Both teams are in the running for the worst team to ever have the nice records (13-3 and 11-5) they have.

It would be shocking if we don’t see Russell Wilson in the fourth quarter of a lower scoring game trying to lead a game-winning drive. Does he get sacked in the arms of Za’Darius Smith, or does he make Green Bay blow its first fourth-quarter lead of 2019? From my 2019 close game summary, the Packers (NFL-high eight holds) and Seahawks (six holds including last week in Philly) have not blown any fourth-quarter leads this year, though Seattle did twice get lucky on missed field goals. The Packers are 10-1 in close games and haven’t lost one since Week 4 (Eagles). They have three more close wins than the next closest team. They also struggled like hell to sweep the 3-12-1 Lions this year, though I would be remiss to not mention Seattle’s 1-point win at home over a Cincinnati team that is picking first in the draft. Like I said, these teams are not that great; shells of the dominant teams they fielded in that classic 2014 NFC Championship Game.

Seattle just needs to survive the first quarter. That’s when Rodgers has by far been at his best in 2019 and Seattle has allowed more first-quarter points than all but five teams. The Packers rank third in first-quarter scoring, but are 27th in the second quarter, ninth in the third quarter and 26th in the fourth quarter. Much of Green Bay’s season has been about jumping out to an early lead, scoring 21-31 points in the game, and hanging on for the victory. That’s fine against most of the NFL, but Wilson is adept at leading comebacks.

However, Wilson has a very checkered past against the Packers: 4-3 record, 10 TD, 10 INT, 74.0 passer rating and 6.63 YPA. He’s had games with 4 and 5 INT against them, and the first meeting was the Fail Mary in 2012. His most complete game against Green Bay was probably last year’s win at home against Mike Pettine’s defense, but the Packers are better on that side of the ball in 2019.

After going through 2019 with next to zero pass rush, the Seahawks picked up 7 sacks and 9 QB hits in Philadelphia last week. That’s unlikely to repeat itself, but as the season has shown, Rodgers will take some sacks and leave teams hanging around late. The pressure will be on Wilson to deliver and for at least one more week I’m counting on him to deliver. Should Minnesota pull off the upset in San Francisco on Saturday, this game takes on even greater importance for the Packers because of how they have dominated that division matchup this year. The chances of going to the Super Bowl could go up before Green Bay even takes the field last this weekend.

If things go the other way, then we’ll just bet like crazy against the Packers in San Francisco next week.

Final: Seahawks 23, Packers 20

NFL 2019: Close Game Summary

Before moving onto the playoffs, let’s review how teams fared in close games in the 2019 NFL season. Unless you watched the Lions every week, this wasn’t a season filled with close games. A total of 142 games (55.5%) 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’s down a hair from 147 games in 2018 and just above the 139 games from an offensively-limited 2017.

The 2019 season featured 56 fourth-quarter comeback (4QC) wins and 77 game-winning drives (GWD). In 2018, there were 69 4QC and 88 GWD in the regular season. So things were down this year and more in line with 2017 than the rest of the decade when there were always 68 to 73 4QC. We also had a Week 1 tie with Arizona and Detroit each having to come back late, and Tennessee’s Ryan Tannehill added another unique win in Indianapolis on a blocked FG return for a touchdown to break a tie. There were also 33 comeback wins from a double-digit deficit at any point in the game, down one from 2018 (34).

Success rate for 4QC attempts was 29.7%, or a little below average. GWD success rate was in the usual ballpark of 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.

2019CGSUM

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 2020 for teams that won or lost a lot of close games.

Most playoff teams had an excellent record in close games, but the Vikings (2-5) had another rough year and the Chiefs and Titans were just 4-4 each. The Titans are 4-2 with Tannehill and 0-2 with Marcus Mariota at QB.

The Ravens, Packers and Seahawks are three playoff teams that did not blow a 4Q/OT lead this year, but Seattle was fortunate to have the Rams and 49ers both miss game-winning field goals against them in prime time. Baltimore actually has a league-best 5-0 record in close games, but that’s because the 33-28 loss at Kansas City and shocking 40-25 loss to Cleveland weren’t opportunities with the ball in Lamar Jackson’s hands late. In fact, the Ravens haven’t trailed in the 4Q in 11 straight games, which is one of the best streaks in NFL history.

The 2010-11 Packers still hold the greatest front-runner streak in NFL history: 19 consecutive wins without trailing in the fourth quarter. This year the Packers have been cutting it close by not scoring as much as those 2010-11 teams did, but they lead the league with eight defensive holds of a one-score lead with no blown leads yet. Maybe Drew Brees will get a chance to bust that in the second round. Green Bay’s 10 close wins are three more than any other 2019 team.

The Packers have twice broken the hearts of Detroit fans this year, but it’s been that kind of season decade half-century for Detroit. The Lions finished 3-12-1 with a staggering 3-11-1 record in close games. That’s right, a year after playing in a league-low six close games, the Lions played in a league-high 15 close games in 2019 and nearly lost them all. Detroit blew six 4Q leads, or two more than any other team. Using three quarterbacks, Matt Patricia’s teams finished 1-10 at 4QC/GWD opportunities. They are 2-15-1 (.139) in such games since 2018 under Patricia so it’s not just a matter of not having Matthew Stafford. Maybe things finally get back on track in 2020, but the Lions have struggled mightily in close games since setting that record with eight 4QC wins in 2016.

Cincinnati was the only team to go winless in close games on the way to 2-14, finishing 0-8 at 4QC opportunities and blowing three 4Q leads. The Chargers (1-8), Giants (1-7) and Colts (2-8) were also atrocious at a high volume of 4QC attempts. Philip Rivers now has the most failed 4QC//GWD attempts in NFL history (78), but Jacoby Brissett (3-14, .176) has the worst success rate at them among active quarterbacks. Colts fans can accept mediocrity at the position in different ways, but blowing so many winnable games is hard to stomach when you know Andrew Luck would have pulled out enough of these games for the playoffs this year.

QBRecs123119

Seattle, Houston and Buffalo led the way with five 4QC/GWD wins this year. Houston also had six in 2018 so that could be a team to watch for regression in 2020. Remember, Dallas had four or five GWD in each of Dak Prescott’s first three seasons, but in 2019 he didn’t lead a single go-ahead drive in 4Q/OT for the disappointing 8-8 Cowboys.

The Broncos and Buccaneers each blew four 4Q leads and finished 7-9. They could be teams to watch on the upswing in 2020, but Jameis Winston will have to cut down on the interceptions first. His pick-six against the Falcons in overtime on Sunday was the only game-winning interception touchdown in 2019.

NFL Week 1 Predictions: Awards Edition

NFL 2018 Award Predictions

Let’s start with my picks for the top awards this season. I was 0-for-8 last year after Aaron Rodgers, David Johnson and J.J. Watt all suffered serious injuries before Week 6 ended.

  • Most Valuable Player: Aaron Rodgers, Packers
  • Coach of the Year: Mike Zimmer, Vikings
  • Assistant Coach of the Year: Teryl Austin, Bengals
  • Offensive Player of the Year: Aaron Rodgers, Packers
  • Defensive Player of the Year: Jalen Ramsey, Jaguars
  • Offensive Rookie of the Year: Saquon Barkley, Giants
  • Defensive Rookie of the Year: Derwin James, Chargers
  • Comeback Player of the Year: Deshaun Watson, Texans

For comeback player, I’m sticking with my predictions that have the Texans edging out the Colts for the playoffs, so Deshaun Watson gets it over Andrew Luck (another great candidate for that) after proving he is the real deal over a full season. I had Aaron Rodgers as MVP last year, and I think that had a decent shot had he not broke his collarbone again. Give Rodgers a mediocre defense and a soft schedule and I think he’ll be on top of things again this year. I struggled with the coaches because I didn’t really pick surprise teams to come out of nowhere this season. So I’m sticking with my No. 1 seed in the NFC in Minnesota as Zimmer wins again with another quarterback.

NFL Week 1 Thoughts

Steelers at Browns

The weather for this one sounds brutal with a ton of rain in the area this weekend. I’d imagine they’ll keep the field in better working condition than the time Heinz Field had a 3-0 game with Miami in town (when the punt stuck in the ground). But it could be pretty nasty so I definitely like the under in this one.

It was only a 21-18 win by Pittsburgh in Week 1 last year, one of Cleveland’s closest calls on the way to 0-16. The offense scored just 14 points after getting a punt blocked for a touchdown to start things. That’s right, even with Le’Veon Bell, who finished with 10 carries for 32 yards, the Steelers’ starting offense scored 14 points on the Browns last year.

That’s why I’m hoping people can be rational, especially if the field is a mess, if the results of this game are not favorable to the offense with Bell holding out. For one, I think James Conner will be just fine in his absence. But as I just showed, the bar was already set so low for the offense with Bell in Cleveland last year. You know the Browns, with a much improved roster, will be fired up to finally win a game by beating their hated rival. If Myles Garrett and company wreck the line like they did a year ago, it wouldn’t matter if Bell was playing or not.

So I’m a bit worried about the outcome of this one driving a ton of irrational “Pay the man!” and “This is what you get Steelers!” hot takes. Since 2014 the Steelers are 12-6 without Bell. They score just about as many points without him as they do with him. Let’s not act like Mike Tomlin and Ben Roethlisberger haven’t had first-round bye seasons and been to multiple Super Bowls before Bell.

As long as the offensive line plays well, Conner should be just fine. However, this is a game the Steelers should win on the road against a team not expected to be anything this year. So you know I’m already skeptical of a good performance coming from Pittsburgh in this one. If the weather evens the playing field even more, well we could be looking at the upset of the week right here.

Texans at Patriots

This was one of the better matchups in 2017, a game that Houston should have won had it not dropped a late interception by Tom Brady. That was only Deshaun Watson’s second start and our first glimpse at just how exciting he can be as a dual-threat quarterback. He threw for over 300 yards in that game and had the Texans over 30 points in Foxboro, a very difficult feat to pull off. I’m excited to see him and J.J. Watt back, but the Patriots have done a very good job of limiting Watt in past matchups. It’s also a fact that we haven’t really seen Watt playing at a high level since the 2015 season.

DeAndre Hopkins won’t have Malcolm Butler to deal with, but the Patriots still have Stephon Gilmore and will likely make Houston’s other receivers try to beat them. Will Fuller did not play in that game last season. I’m interested to see how the Patriots operate without Julian Edelman (suspended) and Danny Amendola (Miami). At least Edelman will be back soon, but for a month they’ll have to go without one of their prototypical slot receivers. They still have Chris Hogan, Gronkowski and the receiving backs, but it’s another new-look offense for the Patriots, albeit one that’s less impressive than last year’s.

Bears at Packers

I usually groan at this matchup that we probably get in prime-time every single year, but this one could actually be good on Sunday night. Aaron Rodgers is back, which is the only storyline Green Bay really needs. The Bears have a new offensive-minded coach, Mitchell Trubisky is no longer a rookie stuck in a dead-ball passing offense, they have noteworthy receivers again, and they managed to add Khalil Mack. The Bears should finally be watchable again, but how about good?

I think the Packers should feel very fortunate that they get this home game in Week 1. Chicago should be a much better team later in the season when the offense gets to mature together under Nagy. You get Mack and rookie Roquan Smith arriving very late in the preseason, so that too can take time to get the front seven going. I think they can give Green Bay a good fight tomorrow night, because most teams do with the Packers these days. But I wouldn’t count on an upset just yet unless Mack is an absolute monster to spoil several drives for Rodgers.

NFL Week 1 Predictions

I’ll be picking every game against the spread this season. In my first partial season of trying that, I finished 60-59-5 (basically .500) last year. I’m looking to do better, but I already am 0-1 after picking the Falcons to win by a touchdown in Philadelphia, forgetting about the cursed red zone.

2018Wk1

2016 NFL Conference Championship Predictions

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

Green Bay at Atlanta

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

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

ar035

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

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

Final: Packers 28, Falcons 34

Pittsburgh at New England

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

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

Final: Steelers 21, Patriots 28

Season recap

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

2016 NFL Divisional Round Predictions

I always say the divisional round is my favorite weekend of the NFL year. My past reasoning was that we get four playoff games matching the (typically) best teams of the season against four teams coming off a playoff win. However, it is a round where home-field advantage is the strongest, with the home team winning over 71 percent of the time compared to 63 percent in the Wild Card and 66 percent in the Conference Championship Game.

This week I figured out the real reason I think I love this weekend: the despair. While 2017 has gotten off to a pretty incredible start for me personally, I am a pessimistic person. So the cynic in me just loves to focus on the games where the home team choked in the divisional round. The dream seasons that died in an instant. While the other rounds have so many notable classic playoff moments, the divisional round is probably best known for epic home chokejobs. Think of Red-Right 88, 1996 Jaguars-Broncos, 2005 Steelers-Colts, 2007 Giants-Cowboys, 2010 Jets shocking New England, Rahim Moore on Jacoby Jones, etc. You remember the moments when the home team did not come through.

You can pretty much count on one home team to lose this weekend, but I think we have three fantastic games that could go either way, and one piece of shit to endure.

Seattle at Atlanta

Maybe he’s not dominating the headlines just because he is Matt Ryan, but I don’t think any other player is under more pressure to perform well this week. Ryan’s 1-4 in the playoffs, and the lone win was a home game against the Seahawks in 2012. That came on a late game-winning drive after Atlanta blew a 27-7 4Q lead. The Seahawks are tough, and #AllRussellWilsonGamesEndUpCloseEventually. Of course, you don’t know which Seattle team will show up anymore, and the offense has really struggled on the road. I still think Jimmy Graham and Doug Baldwin, combined with Wilson’s scrambling and playmaking are enough to give this Atlanta D some fits. I also think C.J. Prosise could be a big boost if he makes his return from injury, because receiving backs have been very productive against the Falcons’ young defense this season. But this game is really about Ryan continuing his MVP season — at least 7.91 YPA in every game — against a defense that dearly misses Earl Thomas. It’s also a scheme that Dan Quinn knows well, and it’s a defense that Ryan has had some of the best success against over the last six years.

I really wanted a rematch of this one after the Week 6 game ended, a game where I think DPI was clearly missed on Seattle that could have led to a Matt Bryant game-winning field goal. The fact that Atlanta hit big plays and got Julio Jones heavily involved in Seattle with Earl Thomas active is a good sign that the Falcons can have success again on offense. They’ll have to I think, because I see Wilson putting up at least 24 on this D in what could be the highest-scoring game this weekend. The Seahawks will be thankful for the start time not being 10:00 A.M. PST, but I think Atlanta gets off to a good start and puts the pressure on Seattle to play from behind, which can help Vic Beasley and the pass rush get through Seattle’s known weakness: the OL.

Final: Seahawks 24, Falcons 30

Houston at New England

Usually when you watch a playoff game, you can at least think of a feasible way for the underdog to win. In this one, I can’t think of any way Houston wins this game that wouldn’t involve a total fluke or some massive chokejob by the Patriots. Bill Belichick is not going to have his team put up a no-show performance either. This isn’t so much about New England’s greatness, because I don’t think this team is better than the 2014 and 2015 versions, especially without Rob Gronkowski available, but this is about how bad Houston is.

9-7? DOESN’T MATTER, BRIAN. YOU PLAYED IN THE AFC SOUTH

PLAYOFF WIN? DOESN’T MATTER BRIAN, YOU GOT THE OVERRATED RAIDERS WITH CONNOR COOK PISSING HIS PANTS

But you can see how this would satisfy the requirements to be the biggest NFL upset since the 1970 merger if Houston did win.

HOW DO YOU LOSE TO A TEAM THAT JACOBY BRISSETT BEAT 27-0 IN HIS FIRST START?

Oh, it would be hilarious to see Brock Osweiler move to 2-0 against Tom Brady, knocking him out at home before he turns 40 in what looks like a cakewalk Super Bowl year for this team. But how the hell does it happen? Jadeveon Clowney and Whitney Mercilus would have to completely dominate this game and get multiple turnovers from Brady much the way the Ravens did in the 2009 AFC Wild Card game. I doubt that happens. I also don’t see how Houston scores more than 14 points, and that might be kind. They were already shutout in this building once this year.

I expect the Patriots to lead by 17+ points at some point in this game, but I’m not sure they cover. Garbage-time scores count too, folks.

Final: Texans 16, Patriots 31

Green Bay at Dallas

Reminder: the Dallas Cowboys, America’s Team, has not been to the NFC Championship Game since the 1995 season.

I don’t think that changes this year either. I’ve been picking nothing but home teams this postseason, but this is where I go with the road team. Out of all the matchups, this is the one where I worry most about momentum vs. rust. Some might view it as early mediocrity vs. rest, and Dallas already beat GB convincingly on the road this season. But the Packers have been in playoff mode since starting 4-6, and Aaron Rodgers is back to playing high-caliber football that few QBs could ever match. The Cowboys haven’t tried to win a game since the day after Christmas, and this is the first playoff start for rookies Dak Prescott and Ezekiel Elliott. I don’t think the situation will be too big for them, but you never know how a player will respond to that pressure. Odell Beckham Jr. didn’t fare too well a week ago in a matchup he should have been able to dominate against Green Bay’s battered secondary.

The loss of Jordy Nelson is significant, but you should know I don’t put too much credit on star wideouts. The Cowboys were able to score 30 in Green Bay without Dez Bryant, and I would have said Bryant was more valuable to Dallas than Nelson was to GB due to the presence of Randall Cobb (great last week) and Davante Adams (Cowboys fans remember him well from two years ago). This is also a good matchup for Jared Cook, and someone like Geronimo Allison can be the Jeff Janis this year for the PAckers and step up in Nelson’s absence. The Packers still have weapons, and they still have an OL that can allow Rodgers to move around forever before finding an open receiver. The Cowboys are healthy on D, but simply have not been a SB-caliber unit at any time this season. They give up too many completions and don’t get enough pressure or takeaways. I was surprised at just how many bad plays Rodgers made in Week 6 in watching the game again Friday afternoon, but he has been playing much better since that point. I also noticed some DB’s falling for Green Bay on Dallas completions. It was a sloppy game.

I think the game will be lower scoring than expected, and I do see some struggles coming for Prescott in his playoff debut. Leaning on Elliott will be crucial, and I’m sure Bryant would love some revenge for the catch call two years ago, but I like Green Bay here.

Final: Packers 27, Cowboys 21

Pittsburgh at Kansas City

I wrote about 4300 words on this game at FO, so please check that out. Basically, if the Le’Veon Bell has a big game and Ben Roethlisberger doesn’t turn the ball over, Pittsburgh should be in good shape to win. However, I just think the Chiefs are going to get those takeaways to win a close one, and that Travis Kelce and Tyreek Hill are way more involved with the offense than they were in that Week 4 disaster at Pittsburgh. The change of venue will matter, and I think moving the start time to night because of weather will rile up the crowd even more under the lights, putting more pressure on Pittsburgh to communicate effectively in the no-huddle offense. This should be a great game.

Final: Steelers 17, Chiefs 20

Season recap

  • Week 1: 7-9
  • Week 2: 10-6
  • Week 3: 8-8
  • Week 4: 8-7
  • Week 5: 7-7
  • Week 6: 12-3
  • Week 7: 10-5
  • Week 8: 7-6
  • Week 9: 8-5
  • Week 10: 7-7
  • Week 11: 12-2
  • Week 12: 12-4
  • Week 13: 10-5
  • Week 14: 9-7
  • Week 15: 12-4
  • Week 16: 9-7
  • Week 17: 11-5
  • Wild Card: 4-0
  • Season: 163-97

2016 NFL Wild Card Predictions

It’s playoff time, so let’s start crushing bad narratives and picking winners.

Oakland at Houston

Okay, so maybe the playoffs don’t actually start until Saturday evening. We have to spend three hours watching one of these teams line up to be slaughtered in New England next week. Seriously, this is not the caliber of playoff game we have come to expect, and it’s certainly the worst on paper that I can ever recall. Of course, injuries to three different quarterbacks in the last two weeks is how we’ve gotten to Connor Cook (first start!) against Brock Osweiler. I’d like to think we’ll see a lot of DeAndre Hopkins and Amari Cooper bailing out bad throws, but I frankly doubt either quarterback hits 250 passing yards. This needs to be a Lamar Miller game if you’re Houston, and a Khalil Mack game if you’re Oakland. Mack sacked Osweiler five times in Denver last year and had a big strip-sack in the end zone. He needs to create a splash play like that again to get some points for his team in what should be a low-scoring game. Frankly, I thought Houston should have won the matchup in Mexico City, but Bill O’Brien coached a horrible game and the referees didn’t help either. So I already think Houston, one of the worst playoff teams since 1989, had a decent shot in this matchup to begin with, but should be able to get the home win by relying on its defense against a complete unknown in Cook. Oakland’s offensive line and running backs are certainly good enough to carry Cook to a 13-10 win should that be the case, but I just feel like Oakland’s defense is not reliable enough to keep the score that low. Osweiler might also be surprisingly not horrific, and hell, he can’t be any worse than what Brian Hoyer did in this spot a year ago, right? Fuck, why are we always starting the playoffs with the Texans?

This is all Indianapolis’ fault.

Final: Raiders 13, Texans 20

Detroit at Seattle

Most of us have been trained to expect the Lions to lose this game. They already have the longest playoff losing streak in NFL history, and Seattle has clearly been one of the premiere teams in recent seasons, especially at home. However, I give Matthew Stafford a fighting chance after seeing him have a few successful moments against the Legion of Boom, which is just not the same without Earl Thomas. What do I tend to say beats Seattle? Short, quick throws combined with a willingness to make the big play down the field. That about sums up Stafford to a tee in Jim Bob Cooter’s offense. Yeah, he’s gone to a more dink-and-dunk attack, and Calvin Johnson is no longer there for the spectacular catch, but Stafford has done well to get more receivers involved and he’ll still make the occasional side-arm throw or risk that most passers won’t take. So he’s the right quarterback against Seattle without Thomas, and Eric Ebron needs to really step up since you figure Golden Tate will against his former team, and Anquan Boldin usually seizes these opportunities well. The white running back may not make much traction, but the Seahawks will respect him, including Michael Bennett.

Meanwhile, it’s really a matter of the Seahawks being able to flip the switch or not. The DVOA dynasty is dead. Seattle finished 9th in DVOA after leading the league four years in a row. Russell Wilson’s early injuries hampered his play, but the offense has still continued to sputter on the ground all year, and the recent loss of Tyler Lockett hurts. The defense has gone without Michael Bennett at times, and now Thomas is done. It’s just not going to be the same team when the superstars are not healthy. That’s just a fact of the game. So while I think Seattle should win at home, an upset wouldn’t shock me one bit. The competitive streak died at 98 games this year. The Packers completely blew this team out already. And yeah, Detroit likes to hang around in the fourth quarter, though the eight comeback wins are a little misleading. Seven of Detroit’s comebacks have been from a 1-4 point deficit, and only one was a 7-point deficit (Rams). If Seattle can get up double digits, it’s likely over, but can you really count on this offense to do that right now? Sure, the Detroit pass defense just allowed the worst completion percentage in NFL history, but you can always get Wilson to go off script and hold onto the ball, opening up the potential for sacks to stall drives. I see a pretty competitive game here, and I know the illegal bat penalty that was missed a year ago is going to be on some Lions’ minds, but I’m still going Seattle.

Final: Lions 16, Seahawks 24

Miami at Pittsburgh

I already put 3700 words down on this game for my FO preview, so please check that out. Basically, I think Pittsburgh has too many weapons for Miami to shut the offense down (unless they injure Roethlisberger again). It does sound like Ladarius Green might not play again, but the point still stands that the Steelers are at home and they’re finally healthy, so the pressure is on them to perform. As for Miami, I wouldn’t count out Matt Moore playing well, but I think Adam Gase needs to show trust in him. If the Dolphins come out trying to establish Ajayi early and often, then I think that plays into the strength of the Pittsburgh defense, and if the offense is doing its part, then the Dolphins could see things snowball quickly on the scoreboard. They have to start well and stay balanced. Pittsburgh just needs to protect the ball better and should get this win, but I sure as hell wouldn’t bet them with the 10-point spread. After all, this is a Mike Tomlin team in a game it’s expected to win comfortably. No thanks.

Final: Dolphins 17, Steelers 24

New York Giants at Green Bay

This is the most interesting game of the weekend. One that can go many different ways, and I honestly believe this could be the most pivotal game of the 2016 postseason. The winner here just might go all the way. Lambeau Field lost its postseason mystique years ago, and the Giants are a big reason for that. You know damn well Eli Manning won’t be bothered by the situation, but we have no idea how someone like Odell Beckham Jr. will handle his first playoff game. Does he go off like a Steve Smith or turtle up like a Marvin Harrison? The matchup is certainly good with Green Bay’s damaged secondary, but all year we have wondered why the Giants aren’t scoring more despite the talent on offense. This team brings the best defense to the playoffs, and the Giants’ DVOA variance is the smallest of any team since 1989. It’s basically always a close, low-scoring game where the defense has to hold on at the end. The Giants are 11-2 in close games this year. If you’re just a football fan, you’d love nothing more than to see Aaron Rodgers with the ball late in a 4-6 point game against this defense. But the Giants have to get to that lead first, and it’s certainly doable with the standouts in the secondary (Landon Collins, Janoris Jenkins, Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie). These guys can cover Green Bay’s receivers, and they already forced Rodgers into one of his worst games of the season, at home nonetheless. Of course, Rodgers can still buy time and no matter how good your secondary is, receivers will get open. This pass rush is not on the 2007 or 2011 Giants level when they had guys like Michael Strahan, Osi Umenyiora and Justin Tuck. This is more of a coverage defense, so Eli better bring some points to the table.

My line on Eli has been that he’s only able to make the playoffs when his team is good, and only able to win there when his team is playing great. The Giants are 0-3 in the playoffs when they haven’t gone on their two miracle SB runs. This is also Ben McAdoo rather than Tom Coughlin putting the team in position to go on a run, and I think that’s a negative. Not that Mike McCarthy is great, but you have to give a coaching edge to Green Bay here for experience. But hopefully this is a good game that comes down to the final possession. I really have wanted to pick the Giants, but I just don’t see the points coming in this one.

Final: Giants 16, Packers 20

Full Playoff Predictions

I figured I’ll go through my whole playoff predictions before things get started.

Wild Card:

  • Raiders at Texans
  • Lions at Seahawks
  • Dolphins at Steelers
  • Giants at Packers

Divisional:

  • Texans at Patriots
  • Steelers at Chiefs
  • Seahawks at Falcons
  • Packers at Cowboys

Conference Championship:

  • Chiefs at Patriots
  • Packers at Falcons

Super Bowl 51:

Patriots vs. Falcons

Super Bowl MVP: Matt Ryan

I regret picking almost all home teams, but this is an unusually crappy playoff field this year, and no regrets on this final pick. I think Matt Ryan is having his 2006 Peyton Manning season.

Do I think the Steelers can win in KC and NE? Absolutely, but I sure wouldn’t bet on it. Just like how I think the Giants could rip through all of these top offenses to get back to another SB, but that’s just not going to be my pick. My preseason pick was Seahawks over Patriots, and while it wouldn’t shock me if we ended up there again, I don’t have enough trust in this incarnation of the Seahawks. Finally, after such a shaky regular season, I hope we do see a great postseason filled with exciting finishes and upsets. If so many of these teams are unusually flawed, then it’s safe to say the top teams are flawed too. No one is that much of a juggernaut that they can’t go down in any given week.

Season recap

  • Week 1: 7-9
  • Week 2: 10-6
  • Week 3: 8-8
  • Week 4: 8-7
  • Week 5: 7-7
  • Week 6: 12-3
  • Week 7: 10-5
  • Week 8: 7-6
  • Week 9: 8-5
  • Week 10: 7-7
  • Week 11: 12-2
  • Week 12: 12-4
  • Week 13: 10-5
  • Week 14: 9-7
  • Week 15: 12-4
  • Week 16: 9-7
  • Week 17: 11-5
  • Season: 159-97

NFL Week 17 Predictions: One More Try Edition

Earlier this week I did a deep dive into the MVP race heading into Week 17. The only logical conclusion is for Matt Ryan to run away with the award, but some want to make it a career achievement thing and dismiss Ryan for a Tom Brady or Aaron Rodgers, or a flashy new thing out of Dallas. The absurd part is that should Ryan lose on Sunday in a 38-35 game after some typical Drew Brees masterclass performance against his bad defense, while someone like Brady or Rodgers has a nice week to close the season against an opponent clearly worse than its record suggests, then you can almost guarantee that Ryan will finish with no more than a handful of the 50 votes. That’s crazy, because the race has simply not been that close if you actually value the whole season like you should. It’s almost impossible for a player who was suspended for a quarter of the season to be considered the most valuable player in the league. That’s 25% of the season where he’s given no value, and we know the Patriots are more likely to succeed without Brady than most teams would be without their top quarterback. Or in the case of Aaron Rodgers, why is the 4-6 start and spotty play just getting ignored here when someone like Ryan has carried a worse defense further in the NFC while turning in one of the most consistent QB seasons on record? It’s nuts. We’re going into 2017. Let’s do better, people. Then again, an NFL Network ad that glorified “analysis from guys with rings” is clearly a step in the wrong direction, but we’ll have all of January and the start of February to talk about ring fluff.

The drama in Week 17 really centers on clearing up the AFC West, and whether or not the Patriots will lay another bizarre egg in Miami like they did a year ago. I doubt the latter happens, and I think Matt McGloin is going to struggle in Denver for Oakland. However, the Raiders might just be able to lean on that run offense again, and Denver’s poor offense won’t be able to take advantage in a 8-8 finish for the year. Oakland gets the two seed, though that’s probably the best possible outcome for this AFC playoffs. Let’s see Kansas City at New England early, and then maybe Pittsburgh gets there too.

NFC North Title Match: Green Bay at Detroit

There’s only one other game worth highlighting, and that is the finale in Detroit between the Lions and Packers. My gut says Detroit finds a way to avenge the Hail Mary last year and win this game, though I’m just not sure I trust Matthew Stafford to come through in the biggest game of his career. Yes, he’s started two playoff games, but those were on the road. This is to get a home playoff game for the Lions. That’s huge. He played well in Green Bay in Week 3, but that was before Marvin Jones ended up on milk cartons and a lot of it came after a 28-point lead for the Packers. Rodgers has already shredded this No. 32 defense, and the health of Darius Slay is a big thing to monitor against Jordy Nelson and company. The Lions are allowing a 72.9 completion percentage this season, the worst in NFL history. Oddly enough, the 2011 Colts, also coached by Jim Caldwell, hold the record at 71.2%. Five of the 12 worst rates ever belong to Detroit teams. I don’t expect either running game to take off in a huge way, so it really comes down to the passing games. I just think Rodgers has the experience, superior talent and more weapons to deal with than Stafford here, and we know the Lions have been in a scoring rut lately. I’m going to take Green Bay, which seems to be in one of these seed-determining Week 17 games each year, though a Detroit win wouldn’t shock me. Ideally, you’d want to see this game come down to the final drive given the eight comebacks for the Lions this year and GB’s history in that department under Mike McCarthy. Six of Detroit’s comebacks have been at home, and seven of the eight have been from just a 1-4 point deficit. It’s a myth that this team waits to turn it on until the fourth. It’s a fact that they’re just not a very good team that gets involved in a ton of close games and usually trails each week. This one shouldn’t be any different, but a blowout sure would be disappointing to end this regular season on Sunday night.

Final: Packers 27, Lions 23

2016 Week 17 Predictions

Man, I knew I should have picked San Diego to lose to Cleveland last week.  Here’s one more try at a 16-0 week (yeah right).

Winners in bold:

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

Season recap

  • Week 1: 7-9
  • Week 2: 10-6
  • Week 3: 8-8
  • Week 4: 8-7
  • Week 5: 7-7
  • Week 6: 12-3
  • Week 7: 10-5
  • Week 8: 7-6
  • Week 9: 8-5
  • Week 10: 7-7
  • Week 11: 12-2
  • Week 12: 12-4
  • Week 13: 10-5
  • Week 14: 9-7
  • Week 15: 12-4
  • Week 16: 9-7
  • Season: 148-92