NFL Stat Oddity: 2020 Conference Championship Games

Two playoff rematches, two sweeps completed.

History doesn’t repeat itself, but it often rhymes.

While we shouldn’t have taken two Week 6 games to heart for Sunday, there were plenty of qualities in both that carried over to the rematch in these title games, won again by the Buccaneers and Chiefs. Their defenses made life extra difficult again for Aaron Rodgers and Josh Allen as the latest quarterbacks to fall short of a Super Bowl win on 500-point teams. That sets up an overhyped Super Bowl that will likely end after Travis Kelce throws an interception to tackle-eligible Mike Remmers or something ridiculous.

Or it could end with crowning the first repeat champion in the NFL since the 2003-04 Patriots. We have two weeks to worry about that, so for now let’s just recap a high scoring, but relatively low drama Championship Sunday in the NFL.

Previous weeks in Stat Oddity:

The 500-Point Club Falls Short Again

It would have been difficult for the Packers and Bills to crash harder on Sunday than they already did in the regular season against these opponents. However, both lost after scoring over 500 points in the regular season. Neither was able to score more than 26 points, meaning the 2011 Saints (32) and 2018 Chiefs (31) are still the only 500-point teams who scored at least 30 points in their playoff loss. Only five of the 26 teams won a championship.

Buccaneers at Packers: The LOAT vs. Not the GOAT

This may (not) shock you, but I don’t think the greatest quarterback of all time was on the field in Green Bay on Sunday afternoon. I only view Tom Brady as the Luckiest of All Time (LOAT), never the GOAT. I have never seen Aaron Rodgers, the greatest front-runner in NFL history, as the GOAT. I would take Peyton Manning over both of them any day, and I already like what Patrick Mahomes is doing so much that I probably never have to change the initials for my answer to that tired question of who is the best to ever do it.

All Sunday’s game did for me was solidify why I never view these players that way. I saw Rodgers come up short again and miss too many opportunities after rarely faltering the rest of the year. Still, this is probably his best NFC Championship Game performance yet, which says a lot about his career. I saw Brady take advantage of inexplicable mistakes by the opponent before throwing three straight interceptions and trying to give the game away, which his defense of course would not allow. No quarterback has won more playoff games with three interceptions than Brady’s three wins, doing it for the second time in a title game. Brady is also the only quarterback to ever throw three interceptions in a road Conference Championship Game and win. All other quarterbacks were 0-17.

If I wanted to see the pinnacle of the position, apparently I had to wait until 6:40 P.M. At the very least, it wasn’t 38-10 this time.

Part I: The Nice Start

One thing I prefaced this game with was that hyped-up quarterback battles rarely result in games where both play very well. For about a quarter and a half, these two were looking to prove me wrong. Both started hot with some great third-down plays while the running games were rather stagnant outside of Leonard Fournette’s 20-yard touchdown run. He loves the spin button more than the most devoted Madden player.

Rodgers especially seemed to have a moment late in the first quarter with the Packers, down 7-0, facing a 3rd-and-15 at their own 5 after a sack. Rodgers rolled out in his own end zone and fired a pass to Allen Lazard for 23 yards. That led to a game-tying 50-yard touchdown pass that was perfectly dropped in on another third down to Marques Valdes-Scantling (MVS). We had a tied game instead of Tampa Bay getting great field position and going up two scores.

The Buccaneers did score a second touchdown after the Green Bay secondary again misjudged a ball in the air and Chris Godwin came down with the prayer for a 52-yard gain to set up Fournette’s score. Rodgers seemed to be answering right back and got Aaron Jones involved on the ground after the back nearly lost a fumble in the red zone, but it was recovered by an alert Robert Tonyan.

But things were looking fine as the Packers called their first timeout with 5:13 left in the second quarter with the ball at the Tampa Bay 6.

Then the collapse started.

Part II: The Collapse

Green Bay was outstanding in the red zone this year, scoring a touchdown on 80% of attempts to lead the league. I gave Rodgers shit for throwing so many short touchdowns on early downs to pad his stats so he could win MVP this year, but admittedly, they were really effective down here. It’s just that these were not attempts from the 1-yard line on Sunday. These were all from the 6-yard line, and that’s where Rodgers locked in with tunnel vision to Davante Adams on three straight incompletions.

On the first one, Rodgers absolutely put the ball on a spot that Adams could catch it on a back-shoulder play. Not the most egregious drop you’ll ever see, and not the kind of play any receiver can make, but it is the kind of timing play that Rodgers and Adams have been hitting this year because of how high of a level they’ve been playing. Just not this time.

On second down, Rodgers forced another one that was batted at the line. On third down, he again went to Adams in the back of the end zone, but Adams ran out of room and couldn’t even establish one foot in bounds. Meanwhile, replay clearly showed Lazard beat his man, who fell down, at the line and was wide open on a slant in the front of the end zone.

Again, I am never a big fan of the “he should have thrown to this guy” analysis, but there was a strong argument here that Rodgers screwed up. The Packers kicked a field goal and trailed 14-10.

Even the best red-zone offense can mess up one drive, right? Green Bay got the ball back with 2:10 left for an opportunity at a double score since the Packers deferred and would get the ball first in the third quarter. Cue the game management malfeasance. Now it’s one thing to slow-walk a third-down snap when you don’t know if you’ll convert or not. But once the Packers converted with 23 yards to Lazard, they should have used their second timeout or hurried up to snap the ball quickly. The Packers were very slow to snap the ball, taking over 25 seconds to get the next play off while spending at least half that time set at the line. The result of the play was a sack too with 34 seconds left.

That was a killer. I have no idea why the Packers would wait so long for that play when they had a chance for points, if not a touchdown before halftime. Again, one thing I always appreciated about a Manning-led offense was the quickness he could get the next play off with the clock moving. Rodgers either had a brain fart here or Matt LaFleur was not playing for enough points.

On the next play, Rodgers made his first real bad decision with a pick caught in tight coverage by Sean Murphy-Bunting at midfield. On replay, Murphy-Bunting clearly had a jersey grab on Lazard as he undercut him to make the pick, but it wasn’t called as part of a first half with zero penalties. If you’re going to let them play, you have to keep it consistent…

Tampa Bay seemed to waste the good field position after three plays, but sent the offense back out on a fourth down, which was converted with a short pass to Fournette with 8 seconds left. At the Green Bay 39 and the Buccaneers out of timeouts, the Packers had to be thinking the sidelines or Hail Mary. The Bucs really had no other choices there.

Somehow, the Buccaneers ran just three receivers on routes and Kevin King, who had a horrible game, wasn’t able to cover Scotty Miller, giving up a 39-yard touchdown to end the half. It’s an inexplicable defense to play in that spot.

All three of those touchdowns happened in Lambeau Field in the last 10 seasons, but the other two were Hail Mary attempts. This was just a blown coverage that never should have been single coverage. All I could think is if Antonio Brown (inactive with injury) was in the game, would they have covered this one so poorly? King was getting beat by every Tampa Bay receiver in the game, but would they at least give more attention to Brown than Miller? Defenses just don’t seem to show him any respect despite him getting open deep several times this year, including the only big one last week in New Orleans.

Tampa Bay led 21-10 at halftime, but it was about to get worse. Three plays into the third quarter, Rodgers flipped a short pass to Aaron Jones. He may not have been able to get a first down, but he had the right momentum carrying him towards the sticks. However, he was hit by Devin White and the ball popped out. Tampa Bay was inside the Green Bay 8 and the Packers had two more turnovers after having a league-low 11 in the first 17 games this year.

It took Brady one play to make it a touchdown as, like I said in my preview, no one covers Cameron Brate this postseason. The tight end was all alone in the end zone for the easiest touchdown of the day and the Packers were down 28-10 with 13:54 left in the third quarter. Tampa Bay is the only offense in the last 20 postseasons to have three touchdown drives start inside the opponent 20. Tampa Bay’s offense has four drives that started inside the opponent 40 this postseason. The rest of the league has three, and that includes Buffalo last night.

In a span of barely six minutes of game time, the Packers went from looking like a team about to tie the game, then to maybe pulling off the double score, only to fall behind 28-10. There was the Green Bay collapse, because the Packers came back to outscore Tampa 16-3 the rest of the way. But the game was largely lost in that six-minute span, and I find it hard to see how quarterback skill was the main difference in that stretch.

I did not mention that Brady threw up this deep pass two plays before the Miller touchdown, shades of last week in New Orleans when the Saints could not capitalize on three interception chances from Brady.

It did however look like the quarterbacks were going to decide how the comeback portion went, if only Rodgers could actually make the biggest comeback of his career. It took a 21-3 deficit against Brady and the Patriots in the 2006 AFC Championship Game for Manning to break through in the playoffs. Rodgers had his shot here now.

Part III: The Failed Comeback

Some of my earliest writing was on how Rodgers is the greatest quarterback in NFL history to rarely pull off comeback wins. For as much as he wins and how many points he scores and how many opportunities he’s had, you just expect more from him in this department. Rodgers is now 18-44 (.290) at fourth-quarter comeback opportunities and the Packers have won three games with him after trailing by at least 16 points at any time. Now he has gotten better since those early seasons, but I would be lying if I thought he would make this a great game.

Some of that is my thoughts on him mentally folding against a team that was sacking him more than he’s used to. I felt he folded in Week 6 after throwing the two picks. But this time, it was a Jones fumble that was a huge play to go against him.

My other big concern with Green Bay has nothing to do with Rodgers. It’s when they get down big in playoff games like this one, or 31-0 in the 2016 title game (Atlanta), or last year’s 37-20 loss in San Francisco, they don’t stop the bleeding on defense. They continue trading scores, making it impossible to ever make a comeback when you need stops. A string of stops, and usually a turnover for good field position to make it easier.

Well, this time Rodgers got his turnovers. Way more than anyone could imagine really. While Rodgers got the rally attempt started with a nice 75-yard touchdown drive, the defense really got things going with a pick of a terrible Brady deep ball. Rodgers turned that into a 68-yard touchdown drive with 24 seconds left in the third, but Equanimeous St. Brown dropped a two-point conversion pass to keep the score at 28-23. Ndamukong Suh got a very small tip of the ball, but not enough to knock it off path to where St. Brown shouldn’t have caught it.

So that was disappointing, but at least we had a one-score game going into the fourth quarter. Tampa Bay looked to add more points, but Brady was high on a pass to an extended Mike Evans (all 6’5” of him), and that ball was deflected to an interception by Jaire Alexander.

Rodgers had his chance to take Green Bay’s first lead of the day, but this of course ended up being the only game all season where the Packers never led. The pass protection continued to fail Rodgers. He was hit on the first play of the drive after trying to hit a big play. On third down, he was sacked as edge pressure again hurt the Packers. Shaq Barrett (3.0) and Jason Pierre-Paul (2.0 sacks) lived in the backfield as the Packers tied their season-high in allowing five sacks. No one got a higher pressure rate on Rodgers this year than Tampa Bay in Week 6, and it felt rather high again on Sunday as Rodgers took multiple sacks for only the fourth time all season.

Rodgers enjoyed the best pass protection this season, but a late-season injury to David Bakhtiari was a big warning flag for this postseason run, especially against a blitz-happy Tampa defense that already owned the Packers with Bakhtiari in the lineup for 40 snaps that day. I find it hard to believe Rodgers takes five sacks in this game if he played, but there were issues on the right side of the line as well. There were always going to be issue when these teams met if you ask me, and I don’t think Rodgers and LaFleur had a good enough plan to overcome that from 38-10.

The Packers went three-and-out after losing 5 yards. Brady threw his third straight interception on another poor prayer of a pass he just lobbed up. Barrett got an incredible jump on the snap and sacked Rodgers again to start the next drive, also a three-and-out that lost yards. Is that not a great summary of Brady’s career? He throws two picks, but his defense doesn’t even give up a single positive yard, let alone a first down or points out of it. Not to mention this was against the best offense in 2020.

Rob Gronkowski got me to bet real money on him to score a touchdown, but of course he screwed me over and only got one target in the game. It was a big one, however, as it was a screen pass that he rumbled for 29 yards on. Go figure, his over/under for the game was 28.5 yards. I don’t know how Vegas does it so often. That set up Ryan Succop for a 46-yard field goal, and despite his ill-fitting last name, the veteran came through unlike some superior kickers this postseason. Tampa Bay still led 31-23, but Rodgers had another shot with 4:33 left.

Last time it was at the 6-yard line where the Packers failed in the red zone. This time it was getting the ball to the 8-yard line at 2:22. Once again, the sequence focused too heavily on Adams and it was poorly done. Rodgers and Lazard seemed to be on the wrong page on first down. On second down, Rodgers stepped up and threw the ball away through the back of the end zone after pressure got to him. On third down, this is the heavily criticized play where he had a chance to run and didn’t. He forced a terrible pass low to Adams between two defenders.

The throw was terrible, but I really do not see the run as a viable option here. Rodgers looked like he could outrun Tampa’s defense a few times in the game, only for them to trap him quickly. They are a fast defense, and I think #90 (JPP) could have taken him down in a hurry there, which would have used up the two-minute warning clock stoppage.

Then LaFleur threw his name in the Mike McCarthy potluck by kicking a field goal with 2:05 left on fourth down from the 8. I am not sure this is a horrible decision, but as the hours pass since this game ended, I am leaning towards hating it more. I’m not big on trying the fourth-and-8 and needing that and a two-point conversion just to tie and force the Bucs into some aggressive offense with two minutes left. That sounds like a shitty spot to be in to me. I kind of like the idea of getting a chipshot field goal, 31-26, then use my four clock stoppages to get the ball back from an offense that likes 1-2 yard runs and a quarterback with a spotty history in the four-minute offense, before I drive for the game-winning touchdown. I can at least see the rationale and appeal of that way.

But overall, I think the Packers failed on early downs, should have considered a run there, and set up a shorter throw like they have all season. That third down was no man’s land for Rodgers. No one was open and a run wouldn’t have gained much of anything. Maybe it makes the fourth down a little shorter, but still difficult. The fourth down is also no man’s land. Just not the spot you want to be in for that situation.

The Packers were 2-for-4 in goal-to-go situations on Sunday after converting them 90.5% of the time in the regular season (No. 2 in NFL). Green Bay finishes 5-of-9 (55.6%) in goal-to-go this postseason after going 38-for-42 in the regular season, matching their total stops in 16 games in just two playoff games. How disappointing.

The offense never saw the ball again. The defense was able to set up a crucial third-and-4, but the pass rush didn’t get home and Brady had time to throw a pass in the general direction of Tyler Johnson, who had his jersey pulled. Go figure, it was Kevin King on the penalty, which was a late flag on a ball you’d think would be uncatchable, but no one ever pays attention to that part of the rule. The most frustrating part is that this wasn’t called a penalty earlier in the game on the interception when Tampa Bay grabbed the jersey of Rodgers’ receiver, but they called it here and it effectively ended the game. It also helped that Johnson sold it with a soccer flop.

The Buccaneers set an NFL record for defensive pass interference penalties drawn in the regular season (24), so go figure they ice the game with one here.

Conclusion

Rodgers made some big strides from 38-10 against this defense, but it wasn’t an MVP-caliber performance from him when he badly needed one in the biggest home game of his career. Aaron Jones was a disappointment, the offensive line was a huge letdown, and the connection with Adams didn’t look as good as it usually does.

Still, I do not understand the criticism of Green Bay not drafting a wide receiver this year for this game. MVS had over 100 yards and Lazard was open a good deal too. He should have had an easy touchdown if Rodgers was looking for someone besides Adams. I thought the secondary wideouts were good. It was the defensive backs that were a bigger problem. Jaire Alexander is a fine player, but he can only cover one receiver at a time. The Packers had a big weakness in King and the Buccaneers exploited him in the worst ways. This is why you can never have enough good corners in the NFL today. In fact, it’s better to have a solid group of corners without any great players than it is to have a great corner but a liability in coverage. The Packers had the liability today and it cost them.

Rodgers, 38 next season, talked of an “uncertain future” after this game. I would be shocked if he wasn’t the Green Bay quarterback in 2021. I think he was just dealing with one of the toughest losses of his career and will be back.

But will anything change for the Packers? They have now been swept out of seven straight postseasons by the 2012 49ers, 2013 49ers, 2014 Seahawks, 2015 Cardinals, 2016 Falcons, 2019 49ers, and 2020 Buccaneers. Very fine teams for sure, but notice none of them so far have won a Super Bowl. LaFleur might as well have been wearing a McCarthy costume today. When you beat this team in the regular season, it doesn’t seem like they ever have an answer for how to reverse it in the playoffs. Same old Packers.

As for Tampa Bay, this is what I said in my preseason predictions when I picked them to finish 11-5 and be the No. 5 seed:

But if the Buccaneers do get to the Super Bowl, it’s in Tampa Bay this year, a homefield advantage no team has ever had before in the big game. If anyone was lucky enough to reap those benefits…

Brady is now 2-0 when he throws at least three interceptions in a Conference Championship Game. All other quarterbacks are 5-25. Of course, he’s still in another Super Bowl. Good thing Tampa Bay will be facing a better quarterback and coach this time.

Bills at Chiefs: Patrick Mahomes Is What Fans Wanted Aaron Rodgers to Be

So much for 6-point wins, near interceptions, and struggling in the red zone: Kansas City is back in the Super Bowl. I’ll keep this recap short and simple, just like the Chiefs kept the competitive portion of this 38-24 win over Buffalo.

No one will remember Buffalo led 9-0 after a quarter, but it was fool’s gold. The Bills got an opening field goal after the Chiefs dropped an interception. The Chiefs went three-and-out after Tyreek Hill dropped a deep ball on third down. The Bills got a 3-yard touchdown drive after Mecole Hardman muffed a punt return before he was even hit. Again, you have to hope this team beats itself to have a chance.

Once the Chiefs found their hands, they answered back with three straight touchdowns to take a 21-12 lead at halftime, never looking back. Patrick Mahomes looked healthy as could be a week after a big scare against Cleveland. Even when he didn’t need to bring his A-game, this offense made things look easy. Mahomes finished 29-of-38 for 325 yards, three touchdowns, and no turnovers, real or otherwise. It was a clean game for Travis Kelce and Hill to show they are no match for soft coverage, and Hill also exploded after the catch on a 71-yard play.

The only surprise was that the Chiefs barely got anything out of the ground game after a season-high 245 yards in Week 6 in Buffalo. The running backs finished with 19 carries for 59 yards, and a good chunk of that was with the game already decided. Hardman made up for his blunder with a 50-yard run.

The Bills ended up rushing for 129 yards, but Josh Allen had 88 of those yards on scrambles. It was much better than his passing as he completed 28-of-48 passes for 287 yards. He also took four sacks for 53 yards, the second-most sack yards he’s lost in a game in his career. Allen was too indecisive at getting rid of the ball and too inaccurate when he did.

I brought up twice this week that Buffalo’s offense had been a third-down disappointment this postseason after finishing No. 1 in the regular season. The Bills were only 5-of-14 (35.7%) in this game while the Chiefs were 6-of-10 (6-of-9 excluding a game-ending kneeldown).

Much like in Week 6, Allen and the Bills couldn’t make any big plays on the Chiefs defense. It wasn’t until 4:06 remained that the Bills had their first play of 25+ yards from scrimmage against Kansas City this year. That was a 34-yard catch by Stefon Diggs, who finished with 77 yards on a quiet night for him.

Head coach Sean McDermott did not improve his profile in this game, choosing to kick two short field goals with only 2-3 yards to go on fourth down after it was evident his defense did not have the ability to stop the Chiefs. That was poorly managed, and I do not agree with the two-point conversion attempt late to try cutting it to a 15-point game at 4:08. Kick the extra point, make it 38-22, then after they miraculously recovered the onside kick, you’re still in business with a chance to cut the lead in half and make Mahomes do something with an 8-point lead. Instead, the Bills were down 17, settled for a field goal after Allen’s fourth huge sack of the night nearly caused a fight, and then the Bills watched Mahomes run five times to burn the rest of the clock for a 38-24 final. Lame.

Buffalo is in better shape than most AFC teams. It is no guarantee there are more rounds to come in future Bills-Chiefs playoff matchups – we are still waiting for the first Ravens-Chiefs playoff game in this era after all – but this was the team’s best season since the Super Bowl runs. Buffalo can still grow and get better, and it will be interesting to see if it becomes a hot free agent destination for teams wanting to knock off the Chiefs. Unless players rather take discounts and just go to Kansas City while the Bills have to pay Allen a fortune very soon. We’ll see.

The 2020 Chiefs are not a very dominant 16-2 team, but they absolutely have shown they can turn on a switch at times for big matchups. They dominated the Ravens 34-20 in Baltimore. They swept the Bills by multiple scores, and this Buffalo team was 15-2 with a Hail Mary loss in Arizona when it wasn’t playing the Chiefs. The Chiefs also came out red hot on offense the night they avenged their loss to the Raiders, and of course that electric first quarter in Tampa Bay in Week 12 that will be more closely scrutinized the next two weeks than the Week 6 games were for these rematches that went the same way on Sunday.

Now the Chiefs just need one more big performance against a team they already beat in an unusual road setting for the Super Bowl. It is hard to ever bet against Mahomes, who is now 10-4 SU and 11-2-1 ATS as either an underdog or favorite of no more than 3 points.

But not all news was great from this one as left tackle Eric Fisher injured his Achilles and will likely miss the Super Bowl. We already saw what happened to Green Bay against Tampa Bay without its star left tackle. However, Mahomes does look to be a different beast than any other quarterback you could name.

While Aaron Rodgers will almost certainly win his third MVP award the night before the Super Bowl, Mahomes is the only No. 1 seed who will be playing on February 7. Mahomes will have the chance to cap off a three-year run that has been better than any three-year run in the careers of Rodgers or Brady. While he was inevitably going to have to share the stage with one of them in two weeks, there is no denying that Mahomes is doing everything you want at the position in a way that puts him in a class of his own. He might be the greatest hope we have in a quarterback who can unite the ring counters, film junkies, and stat nerds in their praise of a legitimate GOAT.

NFL 2020 NFC Championship Game: Buccaneers at Packers Part II

Few games in the NFL actually amount to a legacy game, but this is absolutely one for Aaron Rodgers and Tom Brady. That’s a scary thought when most will focus on the result instead of how each actually plays, but this is undoubtedly a big opportunity for the No. 12 in green. Rodgers did not reach the Super Bowl in his first two MVP seasons, and this is looking like the third opportunity, but it is also his first NFC Championship Game at home after playing four of them on the road. He is still looking for that first signature performance in this round of the playoffs, a round that has also seen a lot of subpar Brady performances. But can the Packers capitalize on any mistakes unlike the Saints defense on Sunday?

Say what you will about the lack of homefield advantage this year, but Green Bay just doesn’t seem to turn the ball over at Lambeau Field like it does elsewhere. Seven of Green Bay’s league-low 11 giveaways were on the road this year. Rodgers has thrown one interception in seven home playoff games and that happened nine years ago. Rodgers has had 14 of his 19 multi-interception games on the road, including three in Tampa Bay where he’s also had half of his four career games with three interceptions.

He damn near threw four picks in Tampa Bay in Week 6 this year, the 38-10 loss that will either prove to be the harbinger of Green Bay’s undoing or the true anomaly of a Super Bowl season. The Packers scored at least 22 points in every other game this season.

If you are wondering why the title says Part II, that is partially a reference to this being a Week 6 rematch as both Conference Championship Games are this weekend, but also because I already wrote a preview for this game at Sportsbook Review. You should read that for details on what led to 38-10 and the individual matchups this weekend. I’m using this space for more of my personal opinions on this game’s place in history.

For my first preview of Buccaneers-Packers, click here.

First, some quick notes on Conference Championship Games that were rematches from the regular season since 1978 that can apply to both games on Sunday:

  • The playoff record for the team that won the last meeting is 34-24 (.586) as the 49ers swept the Packers last year, but the Chiefs came back to beat the Titans.
  • The home team in the playoffs is 39-19 (.672).
  • Teams like Kansas City who played the last matchup on the road and are at home in the title game are 20-8 (.714).
  • Teams like Kansas City who won the last matchup on the road and are at home in the title game are 12-2 (.857), but the two losers were Andy Reid’s 2003 Eagles (vs. Panthers) and the 2007 Packers (vs. Giants).
  • The playoff record for a road loser switching venues in the playoffs like Green Bay this week is 8-6 (.571) as the Chiefs were able to beat the Titans that way last year but lost to Tom Brady’s Patriots at home the previous year.
  • The team who was at least a 3-point favorite in both matchups (2020 Chiefs and Packers apply) is 21-10 (.677) ATS and 24-7 (.774) SU in the title game.

Buccaneers at Packers (-3.5)

Well, we are basically where I expected we would be. Your move, Aaron.

With the roster Tampa Bay has, you would have expected a better record than 11-5 this year. But some spotty performances and getting owned twice by the Saints led to a No. 5 seed in the tournament. That’s not so bad when you get to open with the worst division winner in NFL history and Drew Brees on his last legs in a quiet Superdome.

The highlight of the season has always been that 38-10 demolition of Rodgers and the Packers, which was actually a preview of how the Bucs ended up finally beating the Saints in the playoffs last week. The defense pounced on interceptions and set up multiple touchdowns for Tampa Bay while Brady didn’t throw for 200 yards again, just like in Week 6. The difference on Sunday from Week 6 is that the Buccaneers didn’t have a touchdown drive over 40 yards. Even Bill Belichick’s girlfriend can see the defense won that game.

I cannot see it happening again that way. Rodgers came up a tackle at the 2-yard line short of throwing back-to-back pick-sixes, or plays he had twice in his entire career. That seemed to mentally break him that day, and then the physical beatdown came with the Tampa defense getting good pressure and four sacks on him. Green Bay’s had the best pass protection all year, but that day it was Todd Bowles’ aggressive defense getting the upper hand.

I was already reviewing this game in December in anticipation we’d see the playoff rematch, and it was then I remembered just why I was so disgusted by Rodgers and Green Bay’s performance. It looked like so many old Green Bay losses where the team goes on the road, gets punched in the mouth, and just crumbles. The way Rodgers started missing open receivers and nearly having two more interceptions that Tampa Bay dropped, it was a pure meltdown and it felt like he gave up in the second half. That game was the main reason I was so against giving him the MVP for this season, but it does remain his only poor performance of 2020 so far.

Rodgers now must overcome that defense to get to the Super Bowl. That is only fair in my book. This is the matchup we deserve with the way the Saints and Seahawks limped across the finish line. It’s like the opposite of 1996 when Brett Favre avoided the Cowboys, a team he always struggled with, in the playoffs. Dallas beat Green Bay 21-6 in Week 12, but Favre never had to beat them in the playoffs to get his only Super Bowl win. It would not feel right for Rodgers to avoid Tampa Bay this season.

This is a game where the home quarterback needs to hold serve. When Peyton Manning and Brady met five times in the playoffs, the home team won all five games with the last three AFC title games going to Manning’s teams. Brees just blew his only shot at Brady in the playoffs. Rodgers cannot have a second stinker, but go figure, the only defense that has shown the ability to shut him down this year comes attached with Brady, who has the only defense playing this Sunday with the defensive profile you’d expect from a Super Bowl champion with the other three units being pretty mediocre.

Throw in the Super Bowl being in Tampa with a trash Florida governor cocky enough to allow that stadium to fill with fans, and yeah, you can see where this is going. (Note: attendance may end up capped at 20%, but do not underestimate corporate greed).

Unless Tampa starts slowly again and Rodgers dunks on them early, this is going to be a tough one. Remember, before the collapse in Week 6 the Packers were leading 10-0 in the second quarter and had the ball.

It seems for over a decade, many people picked a Rodgers vs Brady Super Bowl before the season even starts, only for it to never happen. This is the closest we’ll get to it now with them sharing the conference, but there were some close calls before. It probably should have happened in 2010 or 2011, but each team experienced a major upset at home in the divisional round those years: New England to the 2010 Jets, Green Bay to the 2011 Giants.

Then there was the 2014 season. They met for the first time in the regular season and Rodgers pulled out a solid 26-21 game that was a breakout moment for a rookie named Davante Adams (121 yards). We could have had this again in the Super Bowl, but the Packers blew a 16-0 lead in Seattle in the NFC Championship Game, most notably failing to recover an onside kick that probably sets up a Packers-Patriots Super Bowl.

The more I think about that postseason now, the more I’ve come to realize in hindsight that the 2014 Seahawks are my most hated team of the last decade. There is nothing I personally object to with that team. I am generally pro-Russell Wilson, pro-Pete Carroll, and Seattle was the team I picked to become the NFL’s next dynasty before the 2013 season started.

But the path that 2014 Seattle team set the league on aggravates me so much. They took their injured Legion of Boom secondary from that game into the Super Bowl, teased us with a good start against the Patriots, then blew a 24-14 lead in the fourth quarter in one of the worst ways possible. Yes, Malcolm Butler’s interception at the 1-yard line is the costliest interception in NFL history. This also makes for one of the most annoying comparisons ever when people compare the 2013 Broncos’ performance in the Super Bowl against the best Seattle team to New England’s in 2014 when Seattle was not the same.

Seriously, I might hate Brandon Bostick more than I hate Hank Baskett. (If you know your botched onside kick recoveries, good for you).

Seattle has yet to have much postseason success since that game, the same one that helped end a nine-year drought of titles for the Patriots and led to winning two more. In hindsight, I would have much rather seen Rodgers and the Packers get their shot in Super Bowl XLIX than Seattle’s choke job. Rodgers was not fully healthy late in that season after Ndamukong Suh, another old foe he’ll have to deal with this Sunday, cheaply stepped on him with Detroit.

Maybe Rodgers has an ineffective Super Bowl against one of Belichick’s best pass defenses, and Brady gets the win anyway. All I know is the chance for Rodgers to win that game could have made the ring count 3-2 at the time, and we know it’s the easiest thing in the world to discount Brady’s first ring. Maybe “Prime Aaron Rodgers” doesn’t fall off in 2015 if he’s coming off a second Super Bowl MVP season.

That postseason was a huge turning point for the league. This one can be too, but a lot of that depends on Patrick Mahomes’ health and the Chiefs. For more on that game, click here.

Now six years later, Rodgers is still searching for that second Super Bowl appearance. Brees was in a similar boat with his own history of playoff disappointment. It should have been him instead of Jared Goff and the Rams challenging the Patriots in 2018, but that’s what happens when you get the worst no-call in NFL history to go against you. Still, Brees had another shot on Sunday and played his first terrible playoff game and maybe the worst game he’s had in a Saints uniform. Sadly, it will likely be his final NFL game as he retires at 42.

But Rodgers isn’t nearing the end yet. He’s playing at a very high level and this is a complete offense with a running game they’ll need to continue getting huge production from, especially against a tough Buccaneers defense. There may also be considerable snow in this game with the Packers already impressing in those conditions with a 40-14 win over Tennessee in December.

Historically, home teams do very well in freezing temperatures at home in the playoffs against teams not used to those conditions, though Green Bay has had a few high-profile losses over the years (2002 Falcons, 2004 Vikings, 2013 49ers).

38-10 aside, I am fairly confident in Rodgers playing well in this game. Justin Herbert did a great job against this Tampa Bay defense before the Chargers did their usual act of blowing a 17-point lead. Ditto for Matt Ryan and the Falcons, who twice scored 27 points late in the season on Tampa. Taylor Heinicke didn’t even know he was going to start until late in the week and threw for over 300 yards in a playoff game for one of the worst offenses in the league. I know Brees just had that brutal game, but before this Tampa defense broke his ribs, he embarrassed them that night in Week 9’s 38-3 win. Even Daniel Jones had many open receivers against this defense and should have been able to win that game, a 25-23 loss on Monday night.

I really want to pick the Packers to answer 38-10 in a huge way here. For once, let’s see Brady play a historic offense without Bill Belichick figuring out a way to make them look impotent, but instead for them to run up the score to 44 or more. You know, something that’s happened three times to Rodgers in the playoffs and not once to Brady in 342 career starts, which is unheard of.

But then I think about how defeated Rodgers looked in Week 6, and how his last six playoff exits have all been to teams he lost to in the regular season. How Matt LaFleur was not impressive at all in playing the 49ers a second time in last year’s NFC Championship Game, a 37-20 loss. How this defense is unlikely to defend all these receivers as well as the Saints did. How Ronald Jones rushed for over 100 yards in Week 6 and looked very good, along with Leonard Fournette, in New Orleans on Sunday. How no one is even covering Cameron Brate this postseason. How Mike Evans and Chris Godwin are likely to make much bigger impacts this week. Maybe Antonio Brown too if he’s healthy.

Then I just think about the general fortune of Rodgers-led teams in the playoffs compared to Brady-led teams, and I have a bad feeling about this one.

Like as if my claims of Rodgers folding when a team makes it tough on him come true again, or that his stat-padding from the 1-yard line means the game is going to end after he throws four straight incompletions from the 1. No, not a Malcolm Butler interception repeat, but just four straight misses after leading one of the most effective red zone offenses this century. Or Mason Crosby misses several kicks after getting shaken up last week. Or Marques Valdes-Scantling drops three drive-extending passes on third down – that might be the most realistic one.

I think this season deserves a Packers-Chiefs Super Bowl, a rematch of Super Bowl I. This would be between the two No. 1 seeds and the first (if not last) meeting between the two best quarterbacks in the game right now. But I can’t help but think the events of last Sunday were the football gods throwing up the middle finger at me again.

I’ll save the rants for Sunday night if necessary, but one thing I feel like I can count on is that it is unlikely Rodgers and Brady will both play great on Sunday.

Remember when Lamar Jackson vs. Patrick Mahomes in Week 3 was going to be the Game of the Year? Whoops, only one MVP showed up. Look at the other matchups of note. A high-quality quarterback duel didn’t happen in Week 6 for Rodgers-Brady or even for Allen-Mahomes. It didn’t happen when Rodgers and Brady met in 2018. It didn’t happen three times this year between Brady and Brees. It never happened in five playoff games between Manning and Brady. It didn’t happen in the Super Bowl when Joe Montana faced two Cincinnati MVP winners (Ken Anderson, Boomer Esiason) or Hall of Famers Dan Marino or John Elway. Rodgers and Ben Roethlisberger had one of the great ones, but it was a regular season game in 2009 and not Super Bowl XLV the following year.

The only playoff game in NFL history where both quarterbacks passed for 400 yards happened in 1981 and it involved Don Strock, who didn’t even start the game. There is a reason 2009 Matthew Stafford vs. Brady Quinn once ranked in the top 10 for a show about the greatest quarterback duels in NFL history.

Maybe I’m selling Rodgers short though. After all, he is part of one of the six duels in playoff history where both quarterbacks threw at least three touchdowns and had a 100+ passer rating. He and Kurt Warner in 2009 are the only pair that will be in the Hall of Fame too.

Games like this are expected to be shootouts or well-played classics, but one guy usually blows the other away before halftime and we’re left watching a dud, or neither quarterback plays well and the other players become the determining factor of who wins and who loses, like we saw with Bucs-Saints on Sunday.

For all the impressive things Rodgers has done in this rebirth season, I’m not sure he has learned how to “activate the will of those around him” as only Brady, King of Kings, can.

Final: Buccaneers 34, Packers 24

NFL Stat Oddity: 2020 Divisional Round

The divisional round is no longer going to be my favorite week of the NFL year if the games are going to start looking like this every season. You know it was a rough slate when Jared Goff kept up his end of the bargain to make that game in Green Bay the best played from the quarterback position this weekend.

Lamar Jackson and Patrick Mahomes, the last two MVP winners, will not be having their first postseason meeting in the AFC Championship Game next week. Both quarterbacks left their games in the third quarter after suffering a concussion. If Jackson’s didn’t occur on a freak play after a bad snap and while he was already down 17-3, this weekend might have caused a referendum on the usage of quarterbacks in the running game. For decades, the argument was that you cannot run college-style plays or the speed-option at the professional level without getting your quarterback killed.

Well, Andy Reid almost got his quarterback killed, nearly killing his team’s wonderful season in the process. Mahomes is reportedly doing okay, but of course they are going to say that, so who knows what will happen next week. The Chiefs were fortunate to survive the Browns by a 22-17 final. Still, it has to make you think about when your quarterback should get the greenlight to run and when he should stick to passing and only running out of necessity.

Maybe Jackson-Mahomes wouldn’t have been a great title game anyway. You know, these big-time quarterback matchups rarely play out as great performances by both players. Just look at the combined 85-year-olds in New Orleans on Sunday, which is where we must start for I am willed by Him to do so.

Previous weeks in Stat Oddity:

Buccaneers at Saints: The Swansong for Drew Brees You Hate to See

It took a record 10 games, but this postseason finally had a second-half lead change and a game-winning drive in the fourth quarter. If I told you it was a Tom Brady-led team beating a Drew Brees-led team, you probably wouldn’t be surprised by that part.

However, I am sad to say this was not the result of Brees’ defense blowing a late lead in explicable fashion, or wasting one of his go-ahead drives again, or any obscene officiating error in the final minutes. I can’t even blame Taysom Hill for a failed gadget play, because he was inactive with an injury.

No, this game fell largely on Drew Brees, who had his worst ever playoff game by far with three interceptions and just 134 passing yards on 34 attempts (3.94 YPA). It will likely be the final game of his stellar career too as he is expected to retire even though nothing is official yet.

Based on how he looked in this one, it is time. Watching Brees unable to get any mustard on the ball any time the Buccaneers got close to him was sad. The Saints’ only 20-yard play in this game was a brilliant gadget design with Jameis Winston throwing a 56-yard touchdown to a very wide open Tre’Quan Smith, who caught both of the Saints touchdowns in the game. Alvin Kamara never scored, and Michael Thomas never caught a pass on four targets.

While Brees had a horrible game, the fact is Tom Brady wasn’t much better. In fact, this first (and last) playoff meeting between Brady and Brees looked a lot like the first playoff match between a young Brady and Peyton Manning in the 2003 AFC Championship Game. The Patriots won that game 24-14 after Manning was intercepted four times by the No. 1 defense in the snow. But the part that always gets lost in that one is how Brady also played terrible, trying to match all four of Manning’s interceptions with his own bad throws, but the Colts could not take advantage of more than one of them. I posted a video of this over eight years ago.

I could do the same thing for this game as Brady left three opportunities out there for Saints defenders to make interceptions, something they did five times against Carolina in Week 17, but zero times in the playoffs. Brady threw five interceptions against the Saints in the regular season, but again, the defense was empty in the big games here in January.

One of the missed picks was when the defensive back did not drag his second foot in bounds to secure the pass, which is noticeably different from the Buccaneers when Brady’s teammate made sure to get his footwork right on one of Brees’ three interceptions.

In classic Brady fashion, he saved the worst for the fourth quarter to cap off a game-winning drive. Marshon Lattimore jumped Scotty Miller on a third down and nearly picked Brady off with a diving attempt. Even infamous QB apologist Troy Aikman had to note how he got lucky there. The Buccaneers instead kicked a 36-yard field goal to take a 23-20 lead. Brees was intercepted five plays later on what may have been a miscommunication with Kamara down the field.

For the third time, Tampa Bay had great field position and turned it into a touchdown to make it 30-20 with 4:57 left. If Brees had one more miracle in him, and this would have been a huge one, he had to score quickly on a day where the big plays just weren’t happening for him. Four plays into the drive, his third interception came on a pass deflected off Jared Cook. So you had one that looked woeful and late, one that looked like miscommunication, and one that was just a bad luck deflection.

And that might be the final pass of Brees’ career.

There is plenty of valid criticism to aim at Brees for this performance. The 3.94 YPA is his second-lowest in a game with the Saints (he was at 3.87 against the 2013 Seahawks on MNF). The fact that Winston had to come in to throw the deep ball on the gadget is a bad look for him too.

However, this idea that one quarterback outplayed the other because he was more “clutch” or is a better “winner” is the same type of horseshit that was shoveled after the 2003 AFC Championship Game with Manning and Brady.

This game was about two old quarterbacks playing like shit against good defenses, but only the Tampa Bay defense made big plays to get turnovers. The Saints couldn’t get one despite three offerings.

The other annoying part is that the biggest play of the game was a Jared Cook fumble in the third quarter, another play that has nothing to do with either of these quarterbacks.

The Saints were leading 20-13 in the third quarter and looked to be driving again with Brees converting on a third down into Tampa territory, but Cook had the ball knocked out. Instead of taking a two-score lead, the Saints were at their own 40 and couldn’t keep the Buccaneers out of the end zone from tying the game.

That was the killer turnover in the second half, but the first three turnovers for the Saints set up Tampa Bay in incredible field position. The Buccaneers only had to move 63 total yards on their three touchdown drives (3, 40, and 20 yards). On the eight drives that did not start in Saints territory, the Bucs had no touchdowns.

I had to look it up, and sure enough, this puts the game in rare territory for field position. The average touchdown drive in the playoffs is about 65 yards. This is only the fourth playoff game since 2001 where a team had three touchdown drives that started inside the opponent 40. Three of the four games involve Tom Brady, though not quite like you might think.

2014 AFC Championship Game, New England vs. Indianapolis: It’s the Deflategate game. The Patriots had touchdown drives of 26, 13, and 40 yards, but at least they had other long drives too in a 45-7 win.

2005 AFC Championship Game, Pittsburgh at Denver: The Steelers had touchdown drives of 39, 38, and 17 yards. They did have an 80-yard touchdown drive in the second quarter too in a 34-17 win.

2005 AFC Divisional, Denver vs. New England: How did Denver get to that Pittsburgh game? They beat Brady and the Patriots the week before. They did it with touchdown drives of 40, 1, and 15 yards. They had no other touchdown drives, meaning the 2005 Broncos and the 2020 Buccaneers are the only offenses in the last 20 postseasons to have three touchdown drives start inside the 40 and nothing longer. The kicker is the only reason this isn’t Tampa Bay alone is Denver’s 1-yard touchdown drive that was the result of a Brady interception returned by Champ Bailey that Ben Watson miraculously tracked down and saved from being a pick-six. If not for that Brady error that looked similar to what Lamar Jackson did on Saturday night, Brady would be the only quarterback of his era to have a playoff game where he needed so many short fields to score his touchdowns. I wish I could make this stuff up.

It is hard for me to see the Bucs winning this one without those turnovers producing such amazing field position. Brady was not able to pass for 200 yards on this defense. The loaded receiving corps of Mike Evans, Chris Godwin, Rob Gronkowski, and Antonio Brown combined for 61 yards. That’s it. It was Tyler Johnson who had the big catch of the day, stretching out for a 15-yard gain on 3rd-and-11 on what became the game-winning drive instead of a three-and-out. Scotty Miller then chipped in the only 20-yard catch of the game by coming down with a 29-yard gain.

What a disappointing game, but it should have been expected. When do you really see these big QB battles play out as being shootouts or with both players playing at a high level? Brees and Manning once delivered a pretty good Super Bowl, but more often than not, these games are one-sided (think Dan Marino or John Elway against Joe Montana in the Super Bowl) or the quarterback play isn’t even that good and the game is decided by other factors. Hell, just look at these three Brees-Brady games this year. They both sucked in the first and third games, and Brady was horrific in the second while Brees played very well in the 38-3 rout.

But this is the only Saints-Bucs game people will remember from 2020, and that is the unfortunate part for Brees, especially if it proves to be his swansong. Now it’s up to the Packers to see if they can reverse the 38-10 outcome the way Tampa Bay recovered from 38-3 in this game.

But remember, for all the hype to come with Brady vs. Rodgers, it’s unlikely to be a game where both quarterbacks play great. It didn’t happen in 38-10. It didn’t happen when they met in 2018. If we’re lucky, it will look like the 2014 game, which Rodgers and the Packers won 26-21.

Browns at Chiefs: Andy Reid Kills Season Before Bringing It Back to Life

For the second year in a row, the Chiefs’ Super Bowl hopes hinge on the health of Patrick Mahomes. Last year it was a dislocated kneecap in Week 7 that only ended up costing him 11 quarters. This year, if he misses even one game it could very well mean the season is over for the Chiefs. When I warned that “one mistake could end the season” for this Chiefs team with all their nail-biting finishes, I certainly never thought it would mean a concussion that left Mahomes, who was already grimacing through a toe injury from the first half, visibly shaken and out of sorts.

This was a tough game to watch, but it was nice seeing the Chiefs operating on offense as if it hadn’t been three weeks since the starters last played. Mahomes led two 75-yard touchdown drives to start things, but the touchdown pass to Travis Kelce is where the toe injury happened, leading to his first trip to the blue medical tent. You could see it start to affect his planting and throwing on the next drive, which ended in a field goal. The Chiefs tacked on another field goal to end the half, scoring 19 points on four first-half possessions just like No. 1 seed Green Bay did on Saturday.

The Browns could have started this game with the ball and try to take a 7-0 lead before Mahomes took the field for the first time in three weeks, but they deferred to the second half. I hated that decision, and sure enough, it didn’t help them out. Baker Mayfield threw an interception three plays into the third quarter and this looked like a rout was on. However, the Chiefs didn’t get a first down and Harrison Butker missed a 33-yard field goal after already missing an extra point terribly to start the game. Those four points could have been huge too. The quarter basically reset, and the Browns were able to find the end zone without fumbling through it like Rashard Higgins did late in the second quarter. One of the dumbest rules in the game got Cleveland in a big way, but at least Browns 2.0 fans have a new version of “The Fumble” to call their own.

Still, the Chiefs led 19-10. That’s when the outlook changed as Mahomes kept the ball on an option run and was hit awkwardly. He struggled to get up and had to be helped off the field. This looked like an obvious concussion and you just figured his day was over, but hopefully not his season.

First, I have to say this was a horrible call to make in this game. Mahomes clearly was not 100% after the toe injury. Why would you have him run an option play on a 3rd-and-1 at the Kansas City 48 in a 19-10 game in the third quarter? Mahomes scored a little touchdown to open the game on a similar play, but I can live with that. It was to score. This was, at best, going to get a first down at midfield, and he didn’t even convert it. The Chiefs have to be smarter than this, and it’s a joke that they would be content with this call when they are afraid to use Mahomes on a quarterback sneak, the most effective short-yardage weapon in the game, because Mahomes was injured on one in 2019.

Well, he’s injured again, and it will be questionable if he’s cleared and able to play well next week in the AFC Championship Game. Again, save the designed runs for the big spots like icing the game at the end, converting a fourth down, or scoring a touchdown. The risk there was not worth it.

This game only had 15 possessions, which makes the 22-17 final look misleading as to how well the offenses played. Cleveland had an 18-play touchdown drive after the Mahomes injury to pull within five. Enter Chad Henne, the veteran who has really nothing to show on his lengthy resume in the NFL, but hopefully this will be the one bright spot. It started well with big completions to Hill and Kelce, but then Henne got greedy on a first-and-25 and air-mailed an easy interception in the end zone. Really? He’s just going to lob that one up there on first down close to field goal range? Isn’t the whole point of a backup quarterback to take care of the ball? But it would show that Reid was not afraid to take some chances with Henne in the game.

Now the Chiefs had to get a stop on defense with 8:00 left. This is a spot where I said they weren’t tested much at all this season because of how successful Mahomes was at leading the offense with a one-score lead. If Mahomes was in the game, the Chiefs would probably add a field goal or touchdown to that 22-17 lead and feel safer about closing things out. But Henne threw the pick and it was clenched ass time.

Frankly, the Browns sucked here, and I’m not even talking about Jarvis Landry setting a WR playoff record for the fewest receiving yards (20) on at least 7 catches. Kareem Hunt looked like the livelier, fresher back than Nick Chubb did. I would have gone to Hunt on this drive, but the Browns were still infatuated with short Chubb runs and trying to get him involved in the passing game, which isn’t a strength of his. Maybe the screen last week in Pittsburgh (40-yard TD) proved to be fool’s gold for Cleveland as Chubb had 4 yards on five targets in this game. On a 3rd-and-11, Mayfield checked down to Hunt for 2 yards to set up 4th-and-9 at the Cleveland 32 with just over four minutes left.

Head coach Kevin Stefanski was really in no man’s land with this decision. It is a hard conversion and Baker was not playing that well. If you don’t get it, the Chiefs are probably able to add a field goal, which would keep it a one-possession game at 25-17. Maybe they get two first downs and run out the clock. A horrible challenge by Stefanski earlier in the quarter on a clear catch by Hill cost the team a timeout, which came back to hurt as you’d expect.

I feel with Henne in the game, you think you can get the three-and-out stop and get the ball back with plenty of time to go win the game. So I would support the decision to punt. The Chiefs stayed aggressive though with Henne twice dropping back on second-down plays, which is almost unheard of in the four-minute offense in this league. He converted one third down, but faced a third-and-14 after taking a big sack by Myles Garrett.

It felt like Mayfield would get one last chance to win the game. It seemed like the Chiefs needed to just run this one and punt the ball back with about 70 seconds left. But Reid called a pass and Henne pulled out a 13-yard scramble that came up just short of the conversion. I did not know he had wheels like that at 35. The 2013 season was the last time Henne had a 14-yard run.

This set up a 4th-and-1 at the Kansas City 48. I thought punting was the right call, because in a 22-17 game, if you go for it and don’t get it, you’re really putting the screws to yourself for a potential game-losing touchdown drive the other way. In a 25-17 game I’d go for it, maybe even in a 24-17 game I’d go for it, but not in that 4-to-6 point danger zone.

It looked like the Chiefs were just going to try to draw the Browns offsides, but to the shock of everyone, they snapped the ball with 5 on the play clock and Henne threw a quick pass to Hill for the game-sealing first down.

That took some balls.

Balls we really haven’t seen before. I cannot find a play, regular season or playoffs, since 1994 where an offense threw a pass on fourth down in their own territory in the final 80 seconds with a 1-8 point lead that wouldn’t have been the final snap of the game. Sometimes you’ll see a team do this on fourth down just to run out the clock instead of punting. Drew Lock did this for Denver this year against Miami and actually ended up completing the pass to Tim Patrick for 61 yards.

So good on Chad Henne. Let his NFL career be remembered by this moment instead of him being probably the last player who will ever have three seasons with more interceptions than touchdowns (min. 400 attempts).

We sure do not want to see him start next week against Buffalo with the Super Bowl on the line. If worst comes to worst, then Reid will just have to cook up his greatest recipe yet to outscore the Bills.

Just leave the runs to Henne’s discretion.  

Ravens at Bills: 17-3, But Of Course

“Instant classic,” he said. “These franchises finally have exciting quarterbacks,” he said.

Leave it to the Ravens and Bills to tease us with recent 500-point seasons, hot winning streaks leading up to this matchup, and then to shit the bed on Saturday night and give us a jittery 17-3 game with one offensive touchdown. It is the fourth-lowest scoring playoff game in the 32-game era.

It was sitting in a tie with the lowest scoring playoff game since 2002, a 10-3 loss by Sean McDermott’s 2017 Bills to Jacksonville, until Lamar Jackson threw a pass that, fairly or not, will define where he is as a big-time quarterback in this league.

Down 10-3, Jackson was leading his best drive of the night when he saw the field poorly and forced a pass on third and goal from the 9 that was intercepted and returned 101 yards for a touchdown by Taron Johnson, tying the longest pick-six in playoff history.

Oddly enough, it’s the first time a quarterback has thrown a pick-six in the third quarter of a playoff game while trailing by 1-7 points since Dan Marino did it against the 1997 Patriots. That game also ended 17-3.

That was going to force Jackson into the biggest comeback attempt of his career, but it all ended two snaps later when another piss-poor snap by center Patrick Mekari had to be gathered by Jackson to save points for his team. Jackson hit his head after throwing the ball away best he could (still a grounding penalty), which caused the concussion and knocked him out of the game. The Ravens couldn’t score anything with backup Tyler Huntley.

Look, it was a weird game. There was no snow, but there was some wind, though it seemed to bother the kickers more than anyone with both missing a pair of kicks in the 41–46 yard range. You know it’s not your night when Justin Tucker misses two field goals under 50 yards for the first time in his career. There were at least three terrible snaps by Mekari that hurt the Ravens. What is it with these AFC North centers this postseason? Jackson had one brilliant scramble drill where he found J.K. Dobbins with a pass on third down, but Dobbins dropped it as he’s not used to catching the ball in this offense. That ended drive No. 2 on the night, but let’s just say I had my doubts that the Ravens would have made it the last 75 yards to score a touchdown.

The wind didn’t seem to bother the Bills from giving Josh Allen the ball 25 times as opposed to one handoff in the first half. The Bills are the first team in NFL history to not register a rushing attempt in the first quarter of a playoff game. The Bills ended up finishing with 9 carries for 29 yards. Frankly, I don’t think this extreme pass-happy approach worked that well and would not advise it for their game in Kansas City. One thing is clear though: Stefon Diggs is a beast. He had 106 yards and the game’s only offensive touchdown after the Ravens left a clear mismatch in numbers (3 vs. 2) on a screen that was too easy for Diggs.

Baltimore’s sloppy night was a big disappointment for John Harbaugh’s team, but the attention is going to go on Jackson and the offense, and I would say rightfully so as we are now seeing a clear pattern here with this team.

Jackson has started six games where the Ravens trailed by at least 14 points (0-6 record). Half of them are the three playoff losses and two more are his last two games against the Chiefs. How does this team ever expect to get to another Super Bowl if they can’t score points in the playoffs and keep up with Mahomes, Allen, and anyone else on the rise in the AFC?

Is this style of offense still capable of delivering in the playoffs? Baltimore started this game with three nice runs for 32 yards, looking like business as usual for this offense. But the Bills tightened things up and the run was not as effective as usual, especially for Jackson who had 34 yards on nine runs.

When will the Ravens try to throw the ball more like a normal offense in today’s game? In the second quarter, Jackson had just made his best throw of the night, picking up 21 yards on a 3rd-and-18 to Marquise Brown. Two plays later, he kept the ball on a zone-read and had to eat it in the backfield for a 4-yard loss. It totally blew up the drive and the Ravens had to punt. I love his scrambles and think there are spots to take advantage of the designed runs, but a first down after you’ve finally hit a big throw is not the place for that.

After the game, slot receiver Willie Snead had some interesting comments about Jackson’s career progress, hoping this will be a wake-up call:

While Snead may have called Jackson an elite passer first, he’s clearly not a believer of that yet and thinks it’s on Jackson the most to improve there. He’s right too. The idea that you can just acquire a wide receiver and he’s going to automatically fix your ability to throw with accuracy and read the defense and make good throws to other receivers is nonsensical. Diggs was great for Buffalo this year. He still had barely more than a quarter of the targets. Allen had to make a lot of leaps in his third year and he did. Jackson seemingly has not when it comes to being a passer.

Once is an accident, twice is a coincidence, three times is a pattern.

This is the third year in a row where Jackson has led the Ravens to their season low in points in the playoffs.  This is considering only games he started. It is now 17 points against the Chargers in 2018, 12 points against the Titans in 2019, and three points in this game. Even if Tucker made his field goals and Jackson wasn’t concussed, what’s the most realistic total for them to score here? Seventeen maybe? That’s usually not going to be good enough.

Meanwhile, Jackson has led the Ravens to 20+ points in 37 of his 41 career starts. Three times he has failed to do it in the playoffs, and the only regular season game was the 23-17 loss in New England in heavy rain this year.

So part of the reason this fact exists is because Jackson sets such a high bar in the regular season. If he had a regular season dud where they scored nine points, then it would be easier for him to not set the season low in the playoffs. Still, this is a higher-scoring era and 2020 was the highest-scoring season in NFL history.

What really gets on my nerves is that Peyton Manning is now the go-to comparison for a quarterback who is struggling to win playoff games like Jackson (now 1-3) is. This is because Manning started 0-3, but if you know anything about those first two games especially, you know that he didn’t play poorly. He actually had leads while Jackson never led (not even 3-0 in the first quarter) in his three playoff losses. Jackson also has seven turnovers in four playoff games. Manning had two turnovers in his first five playoff games, and they came against the 2002 Jets when his team trailed 34-0 and 41-0 in the fourth quarter.

Manning’s early losses also weren’t season-lows in scoring for the Colts like these games have been for Jackson, and he never in his career had a season-low in scoring in back-to-back postseasons.

In fact, here’s how often some recent top quarterbacks (plus one elite name) have fared at having their season-low scoring game in the playoffs. You’ll see that Jackson’s three-for-three is a huge eyesore. It’s as many times as Manning, Rodgers, and Roethlisberger combined.

  • Lamar Jackson: three times in three postseasons (2018, 2019, 2020)
  • Joe Flacco: once in six postseasons (2009)
  • Tom Brady: five times in 18 postseasons (2005, 2007, 2011-T, 2012, 2019-T)
  • Peyton Manning: three times in 15 postseasons (2002, 2004, 2013)
  • Aaron Rodgers: zero times in 11 postseasons
  • Ben Roethlisberger: zero times in 11 postseasons
  • Drew Brees: once in 10 postseasons (2020)
  • Russell Wilson: once in eight postseasons (2015; still won game 10-9)

This has happened once to Cam Newton (Super Bowl 50) and Deshaun Watson (2018) and twice for Andrew Luck (2012-T, 2014-T) as well. However, it only happened once to Andy Dalton (2013-T) in his four postseasons despite the 0-4 record.

Until Jackson shows us otherwise, he is closer to Andy Dalton in the playoffs than he is Peyton Manning (or Joe Flacco for that matter.)

Rams at Packers: No. 1 Nothing

When I previewed this game, I wanted to stress that No. 1 defenses are known for doing great in the playoffs because of their success in Super Bowls (6-1) against No. 1 offenses. However, if a team made the Super Bowl, that means they already delivered in the postseason a couple times, probably because the defense was great, and probably because the offense didn’t screw them over.

No one wants to point out that the No. 1 defense was only 3-5 (now 3-6) against the No. 1 offense in earlier playoff rounds such as this game on Saturday in Green Bay. The expectations were that the Packers would score too much, and the Jared Goff-led Rams couldn’t possibly keep up.

Well, that did happen. It wasn’t 44-3 like the 1993 Giants/49ers matchup, but the Packers won 32-18 in a game that never felt overly close despite the Rams having a fourth-quarter comeback opportunity at one point.

However, I am more disappointed with the Rams No. 1 defense than I am the No. 22 offense (or No. 25 on a per-drive basis). Sure, the offense only chipped in 18 points, making it six straight games to end the season for Sean McVay’s unit not scoring more than 23 points. Green Bay was very successful in coming up with four sacks in a game that had no turnovers.

But where was this great Los Angeles defense that led the league in so many categories when the Packers scored 25 points on their first five drives? The Packers had 29 seconds before halftime after the Rams cut into the 16-10 lead with a touchdown. You would think they could get to the half with that respectable margin, but the Packers quickly hit big plays to get into scoring range. Aaron Rodgers forced back-to-back throws in the end zone that should have been intercepted, but the Rams failed to come away with either of them, the first more egregious than the second. That led to a field goal and suddenly 19-10 felt like that offensive touchdown didn’t even happen.

Then to top it off, Aaron Jones breaks off a 60-yard run to start the third quarter, leading to another touchdown and a 25-10 deficit.

You’ll hear about Aaron Donald’s rib injury and that he was limited, but this goes well beyond Donald, who was ineffective when he played and even hurt his team with a 15-yard penalty in the first half that wiped out a 3rd-and-7 situation.

The 2020 Rams defense allowed season highs in:

  • Yards – 484 (only game over 400)
  • Rushing yards – 188 (only game over 140)
  • Passing yards – 296 (only game over 275)
  • First downs – 28

Is this what happens when over half of your schedule was the NFC East, an injured Kyler Murray, the Jets (still lost to them), Broken Cam Newton, and getting Seattle three times during its second-half offensive slump? The Rams even drew Tom Brady and the Buccaneers during the stretch where he couldn’t hit a deep ball to save his life.

That’s why I wrote in my preview that Buffalo was the only comparable top offense to Green Bay that the Rams faced this season. What happened that day? They allowed 35 points and were shredded by Josh Allen. What happened this time? Rodgers put up 32 points on nine drives and the final drive was just running out the last five minutes on the clock.

If the 2020 Rams wanted to be a legendary No. 1 defense, they would have showed up in these games against Buffalo and Green Bay instead of making those offenses look better than their average output.

Maybe things would have been a hair different if Donald was 100%, but the Rams had little pressure and no sacks of Rodgers. More glaring was the way the run defense failed in the worst way this season. Green Bay’s success in that department arguably put the game away. After the Rams had the ball with a 25-18 deficit in the fourth quarter and punted because of another sack on Goff, the defense needed to get a second straight stop to have any hope. But on a second-and-6, Rodgers used play-action to set up one of the few deep pass attempts of the game. He hit it to an open Allen Lazard for a 58-yard touchdown. Green Bay led 32-18 with 6:52 left and the game was essentially over there. Goff took his final sack on a fourth down and the Packers ran out the clock.

Any time the Rams looked to have made some traction in this game, they would take a step back, like a false start penalty when they were going to go for a fourth down, having to then settle for a field goal. Another inexcusable spot was McVay calling a timeout on 3rd-and-16 in the fourth quarter instead of just taking the delay of game and saving the timeout. Worse, Goff threw a short pass that had no hope of converting and only ran more time as the Rams punted. Five plays later, Rodgers hit the dagger to Lazard.

I am not sure anyone in these playoffs could beat the Packers without scoring 30-plus points, but I like to think these other defenses would give it a better effort than the Rams’ “No. 1 defense” did on Saturday.

As for the Rams going forward, it could be tough to get back to this point. Goff is limited obviously, though I think he played better than expected in this one. The offense only had eight drives and wasted too many of them and he could have had better protection. At least Cam Akers seems to be the solution at running back, and it would be nice if Cooper Kupp (injured again) could stay healthy for a playoff run. He didn’t in 2018 either.  

Now the Packers get to prove that 38-10 in Tampa Bay was the outlier of the season. I have to preview this game twice this week so there’s no point in talking about it now, but let’s just say the stars seem to be aligning for the worst postseason I could imagine.

I guess that’s what I get for enjoying last year’s so much.

NFL 2020 Divisional Round Saturday Previews

Even after the questionable changes to wild card weekend, the divisional round is still my favorite week of the whole NFL season. The games look really good on paper this week and we should get a dramatic finish or two after not having a single second-half lead change in last week’s six playoff games.

Again, I am breaking my previews in half, starting with the two Saturday games before I post Sunday’s games tomorrow. I have already posted my previews (links below) for Rams-Packers and Ravens-Bills on Sportsbook Review, so check those out first, but I am providing more content and my final score prediction below.

Rams at Packers (-6.5)

See my full preview for this game at SBR.

Defense wins championships, right? When Aaron Rodgers reached his only Super Bowl, he had his best Green Bay defense in 2010. That unit delivered in the playoffs with a game-ending interception off Michael Vick, a game-changing pick-six off Matt Ryan, a game-sealing pick-six off Caleb Hanie, and more crucial takeaways and a final defensive stop against Ben Roethlisberger and the Steelers in the Super Bowl.

The 2020 Rams have scored a defensive touchdown in five of their last seven games, including a pick-six off Russell Wilson in Saturday’s 30-20 wild card win. Interesting.

However, you still have to score points on offense to win playoff games. The Rams have scored more than 23 offensive points in only one of their last seven games. That’s not going to get the job done against the NFL’s highest-scoring team, who has the fewest turnovers (11) in the league.

Does anyone remember the 1993 Giants? Dan Reeves took his schtick to New York and got a Pro Bowl season out of a 38-year-old Phil Simms, sparing us one more year before the bad commentary to come. That team won with the No. 1 defense. In fact, they only had one game all season where they allowed more than 20 points. But while they won a wild card game 17-10, they had to travel to San Francisco in the divisional round and take on the No. 1 offense and Steve Young. Guess what happened? (Or don’t.) The 49ers won 44-3. The great defense, saddled by an inept offense that put them in some bad field position, allowed 44 points on the first 10 drives.

No one remembers this game, but it is one of the eight playoff games in the earlier rounds (non-Super Bowl) since the merger where the No. 1 scoring offense faced the No. 1 scoring defense. The defense is 3-5 in those games. One of those defensive wins was the 2014 Seahawks completing the season sweep of Rodgers’ Packers in the NFC Championship Game, but even that took an insane comeback from the offense with a crucial onside kick recovery by the special teams just to get to overtime.

While people should be skeptical of how Rodgers will perform against another stout NFC West defense, I’m more concerned with the Rams shitting their pants offensively so that Rodgers doesn’t need to score many points to win this game at home in weather that gives Jared Goff night terrors when he’s healthy, let alone nursing his thumb boo-boo.

Simply put, this is a great offense/suspect defense hosting a shoddy offense/great defense. While NFL history is filled with examples of great defenses shutting down great offenses, those games are usually played in the championship round like the two recent Denver Super Bowls where the 2013 offense lost to Seattle, but the 2015 defense beat Carolina.

I only picked Denver as an example because the games are recent, but it is interesting to point out how the Broncos turned so quickly from an offensive team to a defensive team. Does that sound like anyone else we know? Sean McVay’s 2018 Rams were in the Super Bowl after scoring 527 points. They had three points in that last game, dropped out of the top 10 offenses in 2019, and this season has seen the Rams fall to 25th in points per drive while boasting the best defense led by the best defensive player, Aaron Donald.

Remember how the Broncos had a great pass rusher like Von Miller but the results weren’t there defensively until 2015 when they added more talent? Now the Rams have All-Pro cornerback Jalen Ramsey for his first full season with the team and look where they are again. Can this be a Denver-like turnaround for the Rams where they win a championship with a weak offense and great defense? The 2015 Broncos ranked 25th in offensive points per drive too.

Well, I think the run ends this week, but I can at least understand how the Rams could pull off this upset. Run the ball great with Cam Akers, Goff protects the ball and makes his easy play-action throws, and the defense kicks ass. There is a formula there, and at least a defense like the Rams holding down the Packers would make sense unlike the mediocre 2019 Titans shutting down Baltimore’s insane offense a year ago.

NFL history is loaded with playoff burnouts from its highest scoring teams. The 12 highest-scoring teams in NFL history have won zero championships. Only the 2011 Saints (32) and 2018 Chiefs (31) scored 30 points in their playoff loss.

Fortunately, the Packers are the 20th highest-scoring team at 509 points, or one behind the 2009 Saints, the only No. 1 scoring offense to win a Super Bowl since 2000. But you can see only five of the 24 teams in the 500-point club won a championship, and that includes the 1961 Oilers winning the AFL Championship Game by a score of 10-3. Even the 1999 Rams, the last team with a player (Kurt Warner) to win MVP and Super Bowl in the same season, needed an 11-6 win over Tampa Bay in the NFC Championship Game.

You usually need your defense to show up at some point in the playoffs, but this is not the matchup where I am concerned with Green Bay’s so-so unit costing them the season.

Green Bay’s best unit, the offense, just cannot feed into the upset chances by gifting the Rams turnovers (field position) in a way they did against the Buccaneers and Colts this year. The Packers had six of their 11 turnovers this season in those two losses. On the bright side for the Rams, their offense is coming off its first game this season without a giveaway.

While left tackle David Bakhtiari is out, the Rams get their best pressure from the interior with Donald, who has torn rib cartilage, which you would think makes it humanly impossible for him to be 100% on Saturday. That is big for the Packers, but it is why it would be coaching malpractice if the Rams do not deploy their other huge weapon in this matchup.

This is much easier to say from behind a keyboard, but Jalen Ramsey, you have to want all the smoke from Davante Adams this week. It might lead to you getting smoked for a big play, but just limit it to one early drive. If Ramsey can shadow Adams and successfully slow him down, it should make things so much easier on the Rams to win this game. The Rams have allowed three 100-yard receivers, good for second fewest in 2020.

The Rams defended the run very well this year. They were the only defense in either of the last two seasons to allow fewer than 140 rushing yards in all 16 games. I’m putting Ramsey on Adams and taking my chances with Robert Tonyan (high catch rate but hasn’t topped 40 yards since Week 12) and Marques Valdes-Scantling (big plays, big mistakes) beating me.

I know all the narratives and cliches about pass-happy offensive teams going up against stout defenses in the playoffs. I know the Packers have lost multiple home playoff games, including 2011 when they last were the No. 1 seed, and still do not handle teams that punch them in the mouth well. I just cannot find the faith in Goff to channel his inner Eli Manning and get this road win. Despite starting a Super Bowl already, Goff has been very underwhelming in his playoff games. At least in 2011 Manning had a track record (Super Bowl MVP) and was having his best season.

Not to mention the Rams failed to beat the 0-13 Jets…

Final: Packers 24, Rams 16

Ravens at Bills (-2.5)

See my full preview for this game at SBR.

I had so much to say about this game already that it turned out to be my first 2,000-word preview on SBR. The potential for an instant classic feels high with this one as the AFC finally gets some new blood in this round. It’s just too bad the stadium cannot be full. I think the Ravens already played in the regular season Game of the Year when they won 47-42 in Cleveland.

Notice that the Bills made my table above for the 500-point club a year after the Ravens did it behind Lamar Jackson’s MVP season. Josh Allen won’t win MVP this season but the fact that he was in the conversation says so much about how far he has come. And he’ll probably still get a vote before Russell Wilson does.

Both offenses do great things, and while I like Buffalo’s style better and find it more sustainable for the long term, I have to admit that the Ravens are better designed to go far this postseason. In this particular matchup, if there’s snow, it’s even more pronounced for me despite Jackson’s candid lack of experience playing in such weather.

Thanks to Jackson, Baltimore is arguably the most consistent rushing offense in NFL history. The Ravens have only been held under 110 rushing yards once in his 40 career starts, though I must point out that was his first playoff game (90 yards vs. 2018 Chargers) and that the 2019 Bills held the Ravens to a season-low 118 rushing yards (121 excluding those pesky kneeldowns). But the Buffalo defense is not as good this year and has had five games (two losses and three wins by a field goal each) that would make me incredibly nervous that the Ravens are going to run wild Saturday night. Baltimore has rushed for at least 230 yards in five of the last six games since Jackson returned from COVID, which were all wins of course. He’s in full YOLO mode, and by the Pro Football Reference EPA model, the Ravens offense had its five best games this season in Weeks 13-17 after Jackson returned from his COVID battle.

The Ravens are not going to do something stupid and come out throwing a ton of passes. They’ll do what they do best, and they know that is running the ball, often with Jackson taking it himself by design or like his brilliant 48-yard touchdown scramble on Sunday in Tennessee.

Jackson is 26-1 when he attempts fewer than 28 passes, and that one loss (2018 at Kansas City) saw Robert Griffin III finish the final drive in overtime. He keeps his attempts low and the turnovers low. Jackson’s four-turnover meltdown against the Steelers was the only time this season the Ravens had multiple turnovers with him at quarterback. When they had their second pick against Washington, that was with RG3 in the game late. Jackson usually protects the ball well and he’ll have to here as the Bills were good with 26 takeaways (but none against the Colts in the wild card).

Also, when they do throw, they have tight end Mark Andrews or wide receiver Marquise Brown. It’s usually one or the other who goes off, and on Sunday, it was Brown with a season-high 109 yards on seven catches. Interesting to note that Brown had 126 yards (his most since his NFL debut game) against the Titans in the 2019 playoffs and 128 scrimmage yards (his most this year) on Sunday. Maybe he just likes playing the Titans, but he better hope history doesn’t repeat itself with the Bills. Last year, Buffalo held Brown to -3 yards on 3 catches, the worst statistical game of his career. I find that unlikely to repeat itself despite the Bills still having Tre’Davious White at corner, but maybe this is an Andrews week after the way the Colts got some big plays to tight ends in Buffalo last week.

So we know the Ravens are running out the gate. When it comes the Bills, we are looking at the most blitzed quarterback this season against the most blitz-happy defense in football. Allen was blitzed a career-high 31 times last year when he played the Ravens and he was terrible against it. He’s gotten a lot of experience with seeing it this year and has managed very well. Still, I think the Ravens will continue to do it and rely on their excellent secondary to cover these wide receivers, who looked very good on Saturday against the Colts.

But the weather was quite nice for January in Buffalo on Saturday, and if things are indeed freezing and/or snowy in this one, then a precision passing game and one-dimensional offense that barely hands the ball off to running backs just may not work that great this time around. Does Gabriel Davis make those sideline toe-drag catches by a matters of centimeters in harsher conditions? Probably not. Some (not me) don’t even think he caught them last week, but the 50/50 plays largely went Buffalo’s way in a tough game where they had horrible field position in the first half and were a season-worst 2/9 on third down after leading all offenses in conversion rate this regular season.

If you came here to read both previews and already read my take in LAR-GB on great offense vs. great defense in the playoffs, then you might expect one of these 500-point club members is likely to disappoint this weekend.

If it happens, then I think it will be Buffalo just because the Ravens have the offense and dynamic quarterback that can score a lot of points, unlike the Rams. Allen is going to have to be special and handle the blitz well. Baltimore has allowed a league-low two 100-yard receivers this year, and none of the top 100 performances in receiving yards have come against the Ravens. Even though Corey Davis got them for over 100 in Week 11, he had no catches on Sunday. This defense just held the Titans to a season-low 13 points and we know that offense was also one of the best all year.

Much like the Rams have to contain Davante Adams, the Ravens need to contain Stefon Diggs. You can live with Cole Beasley making the short catches (just not too many on third down), you don’t expect Davis to be as great this week, but you cannot get roasted by Diggs, who has been on a tear for a team that would be on an 11-game winning streak had it not been for a Hail Mary in Arizona.

Again, this is probably the first time I have ever been excited to watch a Ravens-Bills game, but that is what happens when you finally have great offenses and exciting quarterbacks to watch. We have been waiting a long time to see that from Baltimore and Buffalo, and maybe this will be the first of multiple playoff meetings to come.

Final: Ravens 27, Bills 24

I’ll be back tomorrow to put the Chiefs on upset alert and explain why I think the Buccaneers are a paper tiger.

NFL 2020: Close Game Summary

While 2020 may have felt like a year for comebacks in the NFL, let’s examine the data. There were 143 games (55.9%) that saw at least one team have a fourth-quarter comeback or game-winning drive opportunity, which is a possession by the team tied or down 1-to-8 points. That is in line with recent years: 142 in 2019, 147 in 2018, and 139 in 2017.

So, the crowd-less, COVID season did not produce any shift in the closeness of games. There were just 43 double-digit comeback wins from deficits at any time in the game, which is an increase of nine or 10 games over 2019 (33) and 2018 (34).

The 2020 season featured 58 fourth-quarter comeback (4QC) wins and 76 game-winning drives (GWD). That is remarkably close to the numbers last regular season with 56 4QC and 77 GWD. This is the third time in the last four seasons that 4QC numbers fell under 60 for the season after ranging from 68 to 73 every year from 2011 to 2016. We also can thank the NFC East for oddities, such as the season’s lone tie when the Eagles came back late on the Bengals, and the only non-offensive game-winning score of 2020 was a fumble return touchdown by the Giants against Washington.  

Success rate for 4QC attempts was 30.0%, or just about average. GWD success rate was in the usual ballpark of 35.0% (2019 was 35.9%).

The following table shows a summary of each team’s success in close games this season. First, the offense’s record in games with a 4QC opportunity is shown. Next is the overall 4QC/GWD record, which also includes the games where the score was tied in the fourth quarter or overtime. For the defense, holds are games where the defense was successful in defending a one-score lead in the fourth quarter or overtime.

The number of games lost in which the team had a fourth-quarter lead is also shown. The last section shows the team’s overall record in close games, which are defined as games involving a 4QC/GWD opportunity on either side of the ball. Playoff teams are highlighted in gray. The table is in descending order of close game win percentage.

This information can be very useful for previewing the playoffs (which teams haven’t blown a lead and which struggle to hold them) or thinking about regression in 2021 for teams that won or lost a lot of close games.

More than usual, the playoff teams had the best records in close games with 11 of the top 12 teams qualifying for the playoffs. The only outlier happens to be Detroit, which was 4-2 in close games but 1-9 in non-close games. That is because of all the ass-kickings this team took this season, including Thanksgiving against Houston, losing 20-0 to P.J. Walker and the Panthers, and that demolition performed by Tampa Bay on a Saturday afternoon.

Washington (5-5) and the Rams (4-4) were only .500 in close games, but that is not uncommon for the coaching careers of Ron Rivera and Sean McVay. The most interesting playoff team here is Baltimore. For the second year in a row, the Ravens played in a league-low five close games. Last year, they were so dominant that they were 5-0 in close games. This year, the Ravens again finished with the best scoring differential (+165) in the NFL and led the league with nine wins of 14+ points. However, they were only 2-3 in close games, including a blown lead and overtime loss to the Titans in Week 11. Now the Ravens will have to avenge some past losses if they are to get back to the Super Bowl.

The Chiefs, Saints, and Titans are the only teams to not blow a late lead this year, though none of those defenses were tested more than four times in close games. The Titans were also bailed out heavily by their offense, including yesterday in Houston. Ryan Tannehill led the most 4QC (five) and GWD (six) in the league this season. Only Buffalo (6-1) tied the Titans for the best record in close games this season. No one really comes close to the 6-1 record the Titans had at GWD opportunities, and the only loss was against Pittsburgh after Stephen Gostkowski missed a field goal to force overtime.

The Seahawks may have blown a double-digit lead in Arizona in prime time this year, but otherwise, Seattle led the league with nine holds of a one-score lead, or two more than any team in 2020. The Seahawks were 9-2 in close games a year after finishing 7-2. It wasn’t as obvious this year since it wasn’t always Russell Wilson leading comebacks like he did on Sunday against the 49ers. But it’s those drives late in games to put away the Patriots, Cowboys, Cardinals, Washington, etc. that added up for Seattle’s 12-4 season. Now if only they can get the offense going like it was early in the season to match with the way the defense has played down the stretch. Then Seattle would have a fair shot of getting to the Super Bowl.

A year ago, the Packers were living off close game success, going 10-1 with eight holds and no blown leads. They added another hold in the playoffs against Seattle before getting blown out by the 49ers in the NFC Championship Game. This year the Packers are again 13-3, but it has come much differently with many more points scored. The Packers are still 5-2 at close games with five holds and one blown lead against the Colts.

The Eagles (15) and Chargers (14) played more close games than anyone. After winning some late in the season, the Chargers actually finished 6-8 in them while the Eagles limped to a 4-10-1 finish. The 10 failed 4QC/GWD (plus a tie) by the Eagles were the most in the league.

The 1995 expansion teams, Jaguars (1-7) and Panthers (2-9), had the worst records in close games this season. Jacksonville came back to beat the Colts in Week 1 and lost out the rest of the season, or what I’d call a “Weinke” as a nod to Chris Weinke and the 2001 Panthers, who also finished 1-15 with a 15-game losing streak.

The Panthers headlined five teams with a winless record at GWD opportunities. Carolina was 0-9 in a brutal year in crunch time for Teddy Bridgewater and Matt Rhule. The Falcons (0-7) did not have a single 4QC/GWD for the first time ever in the Matt Ryan era.

A year ago, I said that Houston could be a team to watch for with regression after 11 4QC/GWD in 2018-19. The Texans were 0-7 in their opportunities this year. The Jets (0-6) and Giants (0-5), with terrible offenses, were not surprisingly winless in these situations too.

It was a close battle, but the right team won in the end. The Atlanta Falcons led the league with five blown leads in the fourth quarter, beating out the Chargers and Texans with four each. All three teams fired their head coach this season. Atlanta (4-12) finishing dead last in the NFC despite only a -18 scoring differential is a shocker, but that’s what happens when you blow such winnable games in incredible fashion like the Falcons did this year.

In fact, the 2020 Falcons are hands down the best team to finish last in a conference in the 32-team era. I would advise owner Arthur Blank not to hang a banner for this achievement, but it is the closest thing the Falcons have to a trophy from this miserable, no good, rotten season.

NFL Stat Oddity: Week 11

What were some of the things I said leading into Week 11 in the NFL?

It should probably be a golden gambling rule to never bet on the Atlanta Falcons. Check (I’m done).

Hold on to your butts, Eagles-Browns could provide some laughs. Check (thanks, Carson Wentz).

I should at least be taking the Jets (+9.5) against the spread since the Chargers can never make it easy. Check.

Finally, Patrick Mahomes is your best bet for MVP this season, especially after he outduels Derek Carr, and the Packers get punched in the mouth by the Colts in a field goal decision on Sunday. Check, check, and discount double check.

With all this foresight you might think I had a profitable week, but somehow my fate rests in Tom Brady covering a 4-point spread in a game ripe for him to get all the credit for a 3-point win against the Rams. Fun.

No really, I did enjoy this Week 11. It lived up to what looked like a strong week on paper. The only terrible part, aside from seeing Jake Luton throw, was seeing Joe Burrow suffer a season-ending injury. Now there is literally no reason to watch or care about a Cincinnati game the rest of the season. I hope he’s 100% come 2021, and that they build a better team around him.

Previous weeks in Stat Oddity:

As I start to write this at 4:15 AM, I’m not sure I want to get too in-depth with this week’s recap since I know it has only three parts: brief look at the Steelers’ effort to hit 10-0, the ridiculous ending of Packers-Colts, and being thankful that I’m watching Patrick Mahomes and the Chiefs every week.

I Fvcking Love Patrick Mahomes

In all seriousness, I am considering devoting a whole section to this blog for how incredible Patrick Mahomes is at quarterback. We are taking things for granted that we just should not be doing with this guy so soon, 46 games into his career.

Sure, I am glad that Mahomes had my back when I said the Raiders’ Week 5 win was the anomaly of the season and wouldn’t happen again on Sunday night.

To his credit, Derek Carr was still pretty great in this game, just in a different way from Week 5. The Raiders did not have a 30-yard play this time, and they didn’t have a play over 21 yards after the first three minutes of the game. But both offenses marched up and down the field with scoring drives that really left little margin for error.

Mahomes even made an error before halftime with his second interception of 2020, both against the Raiders. That could have been crucial in a game where the Chiefs only had eight offensive possessions.

Yet, on eight drives, Mahomes led the Chiefs to five touchdowns. I mentioned how in Week 5 that it was the only time all season a defense stopped the Chiefs on four straight drives. The Raiders got three stops all night in this one. A second-quarter stop was a punt on a drive derailed by penalties (face mask and false start leading to 2nd-and-25) on Kansas City’s lesser wideouts. In the fourth quarter, the Chiefs went three-and-out after a 4-yard loss on a first-down run and a false start by Travis Kelce led to a 3rd-and-16 that Mahomes could not produce a miracle on.

If there was ever a weakness in Mahomes’ game in the NFL, he solved it quickly. If this was a 2018 game, the Chiefs probably lose this one. Mahomes would have forced some pass he shouldn’t have, and that mistake you saw before halftime may have doubled and made the difference in a 31-28 defeat.

But now Mahomes is simply taking what the defense gives him, and this game was maybe the greatest example of that yet.

Kansas City had 36 first downs, a total that has only been surpassed eight times in NFL history (three in games that went to overtime). The drive engineering was off the charts for the Chiefs. They had three touchdown drives that were at least 12 plays and 85 yards.

This only happens on nights where the big plays are not happening. Mahomes’ four longest completions of the game were 19-22 yards, all caught by Kelce. The Chiefs lived on 9-yard gains all night.

Mahomes is probably the only quarterback I can enjoy running a dink-and-dunk offense. A big reason for that is that the way he backpedals so deep in the pocket, his short throws are still longer than the average quarterback’s throws to that depth of the field. This also makes him harder to sack, which he avoided all night despite attempting 45 passes.

When Mahomes got the ball back with 1:43 left, trailing 31-28, I would be lying if I said victory felt inevitable. Getting into field goal range felt inevitable with the way the NFL is these days, but little did I expect the touchdown drive to look as easy as Mahomes made it. Seven passes, six completions, and he saved his longest one of the night (22 yards) to a wide open Kelce in the end zone with 28 seconds left.

On a day where three MVPs (Mahomes, Lamar Jackson, Aaron Rodgers) had the ball in the final 2:00, down a field goal, only Mahomes was able to get the game-winning touchdown, which he made look easy. The other two got to the red zone and had to settle for game-tying field goals (and overtime losses).

Kansas City’s defense has some serious problems to solve with Jon Gruden’s offense should the teams meet a third time in the playoffs. But as long as Mahomes is at quarterback, you have to like this team’s chances not only to win, but to do it impressively.

Up next: Chiefs travel to Tampa Bay in a game that just might get a little hype and attention this week.

Undefeated Watch: Thanks, Jake Luton

It is not lost on me that the Steelers have played such an easy schedule that if they do go 16-0, it doesn’t touch what the Patriots did in 2007. I hate to admit that, but it’s undeniably the truth. At least those Patriots beat the Cowboys and Colts, arguably the second and third-best NFL teams that year. Pittsburgh’s big road wins over Tennessee and Baltimore lose their luster a little more each week. Even the blowout over Cleveland is what might be a win over the worst 7-3 team ever. In the last three weeks, the Steelers have taken care of the Cowboys (barely) with Garrett Gilbert at quarterback, the Bengals with a green Joe Burrow, and now the real cherry on top of this shit schedule sandwich: Jake Luton and the Jaguars.

I am glad to see the Steelers winning 36-10 and 27-3 the last two weeks like they should be, but Luton was hard-to-believe horrible on Sunday. It was the worst game I’ve seen from a quarterback this year since… well, since Tom Brady played the Saints at home.

While Luton didn’t lose by five touchdowns like a Florida chump, that’s because the Steelers weren’t at their sharpest offensively. It was a good performance by Ben Roethlisberger and company, but not a great one. They still hit 27 points again. Luton threw four interceptions and had several more passes that were nearly picked or tipped by Pittsburgh defenders. The only thing I really learned about Jacksonville in this game is that Luton should not be starting for any team right now.

Definitely a trap game in past years, it’s nice that the Steelers got an easy win and can go into Thursday night’s battle with Baltimore with the goal of ending their rival’s division title hopes.

I’m still not on the 16-0 bandwagon until I see the win in Buffalo, but I know that’s not the ultimate goal. It would be great to see the Steelers finish 18-1 and still make it count for something, unlike the 2007 Patriots. Plus, if the Steelers beat the Chiefs in the playoffs, there is no better validation of their season than that.

Packers at Colts: Hold Up

This was not your classic Green Bay road loss to a good team, because the Packers actually scored four touchdowns in the first half and Aaron Rodgers only took one sack in the game. However, the four giveaways and near shutout in the second half while the Colts kept grinding away fits in nicely with what we’ve seen from Green Bay since 2011.

I want to focus on the absurd final minutes in regulation to this one.

After Rodgers failed on a 4th-and-1 pass with 3:06 left, the Colts, leading 31-28, had a chance to ice this game. The Packers did not even crack 275 yards of offense yet, which would have been the seventh time in 10 games the Colts held a team under 300 yards this year (most in NFL). No one has been able to gain 400 yards yet on the Colts either. I know yards are not the best metric, but in a season where offenses average 360 yards per game (an all-time high), what the Colts do to limit that is worth noting if you ask me.

The drive even started great with Philip Rivers hitting a 14-yard pass to get an instant first down. That took the clock down to 2:22, then things started getting crazy. There were five straight instances where a penalty was called: two on Green Bay, three on Indy. That stopped the clock every single time, as did a 15-yard completion by Rivers at the two-minute warning on the resulting 3rd-and-19.

Somehow the Colts snapped the ball five times and only burned 24 seconds.

With 1:58 left, coach Frank Reich had a big decision. Do you go for it on 4th-and-4, or do you kick a 54-yard field goal to take a 6-point lead? The 6-point lead is poison there, giving Rodgers nearly two minutes (plus all three timeouts) to beat you with a touchdown. Pinning them deep with a punt is another option, but that’s going to look really awful if you get a touchback or a bad punt. So why not just go for it given it’s makeable and you don’t want Rodgers to touch the ball again?

That is what I would have done, and that’s what Reich did. Rivers delivered with the slant for 13 yards, and Green Bay had to burn the first timeout at 1:55. Now the game was not over, but worst-case scenario, you give Rodgers the ball back with under a minute to go, needing a touchdown. But the Colts botched it again because they kept getting called for holding. In fact, they were flagged nine times for offensive holding in this game. I don’t  know if they were all legit, but in a season where that penalty has been called far less than usual, that feels  like an absurd amount.

To make matters worse, Rivers threw an incomplete pass on 1st-and-20 after one holding penalty. Rivers ended up taking a sack on 3rd-and-26 to take the Colts out of field goal range.

Incredibly, the Packers managed to get the ball back at their own 6 with 1:25 and one timeout left. That means from the 2:22 mark, the Colts snapped the ball 12 times and only burned 57 seconds and still saved the Packers a timeout. I have never seen anything like it.

After Rodgers hit a 47-yard deep ball, it felt like the Colts were going to blow this one. However, the Packers had their own clock management issues with Rodgers using two spikes where he really didn’t need to rush like that and could save the down. The drive ended with a field goal and we had overtime.

You know the rest from there. Marquez Valdes-Scantling fumbled two snaps into overtime, setting up the Colts for maybe the easiest game-winning drive of Rivers’ career. Three handoffs for 8 yards and a 39-yard field goal for the win.

For Green Bay, what more can be said? We’ve seen this script too often before. This was really the last good road test for the Packers before a potential playoff trip somewhere in January.

For the Colts, can they close the gap with Buffalo and creep up to being the third-best team in the AFC this year? They still have to play Tennessee, Houston twice, Pittsburgh and the Raiders, but this team is interesting. If you remember that they’re the only team to hold Patrick Mahomes and the Chiefs under 23 points, then you could see how a 3/2 playoff matchup in Arrowhead could be very intriguing if the Colts finish that high.

I’m being told that the Colts were flagged three more times for offensive holding since I started this section. Oh well, better luck at not getting called next week.

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