NFL Week 4 Predictions: Lost the Best Games Edition

The 2020 NFL season has hit its first COVID-19 hurdle and how it handles this week could go a long way in determining just how long this season goes. Unfortunately, the two Sunday games I was excited to watch and planned to write about here (and bet a SGP on FanDuel since they’re fun) are not happening now.

The Titans have at least 16 members of the organization with a positive COVID test, so that battle of 3-0 teams with Pittsburgh has been moved to Week 7, which pushes the first Ravens-Steelers game a week later to Week 8. It’s the kind of scenario that was inevitable outside of a bubble, but also one like my example in this season’s predictions where the NFL actually lucked out with bye weeks allowing for a little change to get all 256 games on the schedule.

Will they be as lucky next time when it’s a near certainty there will be a next time? It’ll get harder each week, and that’s why it was a mistake for the NFL not to build in bye weeks at the midpoint and end of the regular season to add flexibility in making up games when this happens. Given the alarming number of injuries we’re seeing in games after an unusual offseason, it just makes no sense why the league wasn’t more cautious in its approach with the schedule. These are the most unusual times in NFL history, a league that started just after the terrible 1918 flu pandemic.

They also better hope the Vikings don’t have anyone test positive tomorrow on gameday after playing Tennessee last week. So far, Minnesota hasn’t had any positive cases. The Chiefs and Patriots each have a quarterback with a positive COVID test, but it’s thankfully not Patrick Mahomes for the Chiefs. Still, that puts Cam Newton out and casts doubt on this game, an important one in the AFC, even getting played this week. How did Cam get the virus and who else has he been in contact with? The NFL’s contact tracing system has to be working flawlessly to control this from spreading, especially for two teams with arguably the two best coaches in the league, both up there in age and more vulnerable to having a rough COVID battle.

The NFL clearly has a big problem in tests not being reliable enough or quick enough on game day to test everyone. A bunch of false positives on a Sunday morning could lead to a game being cancelled or holding out a lot of players who aren’t actually infected. That would be problematic. If they wanted to do a test that’s reliable, it apparently isn’t feasible to do one on Sunday morning and get the results back in time for kickoff. Again, our failures as a country in not getting the best testing in the world are coming home to roost here.

Playing this Chiefs-Patriots game on Monday or Tuesday is the current plan, but that doesn’t seem very feasible given the long incubation period the virus has in producing a positive test result. They could be putting multiple infected players on both teams on the field in this one, so I’ll be surprised if it actually gets played in Week 4.

That’s a shame because it was the real highlight game of the week. My best wishes to Cam Newton for a speedy recovery, but he will be one of the more interesting case subjects for the impact COVID can have on an athlete. While there hasn’t been any high-profile deaths in sports, not everyone has recovered well from COVID. Newton plays a more physical style than most quarterbacks in the league. Will he have breathing and fatigue issues when he returns to action in a couple of weeks? All of this remains to be seen as we’re in uncharted territory with the first NFL season during a pandemic.

Without PIT-TEN and NE-KC, we have a fairly bland Week 4 schedule remaining. In fact, I ended up picking all favorites and almost every one of them to cover the spread, which is as boring as it gets:


Would I be surprised with any upset? Sure, the Ravens not rebounding from Monday night and crushing the Football Team would be shocking. The Giants beating the Rams would also be up there, but other than that, nothing would really shock me.

I could see the Dallas defense laying another egg and Mike McCarthy doing something weird in a close game that Cleveland pulls off. I could see the Jaguars rebound from last week and beat what is still a bad Bengals team. I just happened to go for the sentimental pick of giving Joe Burrow his first win. It wouldn’t shock me if the Saints lost in Detroit with Matthew Stafford picking apart that defense, but I like to think Sean Payton can avoid a three-game losing streak in that one.

Then there’s the night games. The banged-up 49ers host the banged-up Eagles, and Nick Mullens is playing better than Carson Wentz right now if you can believe it. This game looks terrible but will still likely do way better numbers than the NBA Finals Game 3 with the Lakers up 2-0 on Miami. The 49ers may be down a lot of starters, but George Kittle and Deebo Samuel return to the offense. I picked the Eagles to cover just for the hell of it really, but usually each season there’s a couple of teams where I lose on for a month by thinking they can’t possibly be this bad only to find out they are. The 2020 Eagles look to be one of those teams. Houston and Minnesota have been that way too so far this year, and go figure, they play each other to see who will start 0-4. Assuming the virus doesn’t shut that game down, of course.

Then there’s Monday night where the Falcons take their historic losing ways to Green Bay against a red-hot Aaron Rodgers. The best hope is it looks like the 2014 MNF game (43-37) between these two where the Falcons at least put up a good fight before losing.

What’s turned into a boring NFL week on paper could turn into one of the most notable weeks in the history of the United States. Any day now we could awake to see shocking news, either about the president, the election, or if this NFL season is going to crumble before our eyes.

Things were likely to get worse before they get better, but we truly are living in uncertain times where breaking news (and doomscrolling) is keeping us on the edge of our seats. Football was a great idea to keep our minds occupied on something other than the pandemic, but as this week has shown, there is no escaping this thing yet. We can make the days go by faster debating if the Chiefs can go undefeated or if Josh Allen is actually legit, but COVID is part of everything now.

Somehow the world feels different since the Jets and Broncos mercifully left the field Thursday night, and while the game wasn’t bad enough for me to say it triggered the apocalypse, I’m pretty high on anxiety right now.

Find joy where you can tomorrow. Enjoy the last couple of basketball games if you’re a Lakers or LeBron fan. Anything else, I couldn’t possibly speculate at this point.

It is what it is.

NFL Week 2 Predictions: Wilson v. Belichick IV

The NFL is back, but how has it looked so far? The limited crowd seemed more than loud enough at the first Kansas City game on opening night, and the fake noise used in most of the other games wasn’t too much of a distraction to me. There were seven fourth-quarter comebacks in Week 1, including a pair of 17-point comebacks by the Bears and Redskins Football Team. Holding penalties were way down, so that’s good for watching the games, but not so great for fairness. There’s a lot of soft tissues injuries already and some big name pass catchers who will be down this week, but at least the quarterbacks have been unusually healthy to this point. Kickers got off to their worst start since the 9-game strike season of 1982.

This is the first NFL season since 1984 where no team has been a favorite of 10 or more points through the first two weeks. The closest we got there, which is essentially there when rounding, was opening night when the 9.5-point favorite Chiefs beat Houston by 14. Kansas City also has the largest spread of Week 2 with -9 in Los Angeles.

There are nine teams favored by at least 6 points this week, but you can be sure there will be some upsets mixed in with blowouts and games going down to the wire. We already saw the Bengals cover in the final minute against the Browns on Thursday night (to my dismay).

Several of the 0-1 teams will meet each other in what is close to a must-win game if they are to amount to anything this season. Here’s looking at you in the NFC: Cowboys, 49ers, Buccaneers, and Vikings. All face winless teams this week. The Eagles host the 1-0 Rams, but that’s another important early-season game too. The narrative is that Aaron Donald will devour Carson Wentz, who took eight sacks last week behind a banged up offensive line. You might be surprised to see I’m taking the Eagles to win that one, because if that team is going to do anything this year, this is a game where they’ll make adjustments there, play better on offense, and do enough defensively against a Rams team that only scored 20 on Dallas last week to get this win. Remember, a lot of short fields hurt the Eagles against Washington. The defense wasn’t the problem.

There aren’t many games between 1-0 teams, but none are more surprising than the Washington Football Team and Arizona Cardinals (-7). The Cardinals haven’t been a 7-point favorite against any team since they went to Indianapolis (no Andrew Luck) in the second game of the 2017 season. Kyler Murray led his first 4QC win last week against the 49ers, but he still may be a bit of a volume passer instead of an efficient one. It’ll be interesting to see how well he’s protected against the aforementioned Washington defense that had eight sacks last week. Oddly enough, Murray has six games in his career where he’s taken four sacks and five of those games were at home.

SNF: Wilson v. Belichick IV

NBC definitely nailed the best game with the 1-0 Patriots traveling out to Seattle after the Seahawks lit up the Falcons. These teams have played three great games in a row in the Russell Wilson era, and had it not been for you know what call in the Super Bowl, the Seahawks would probably be 3-0 in those games with three game-winning drives for Wilson.

Now you remove Tom Brady and put in Cam Newton, who threw 19 passes and ran 15 times with a couple of touchdowns for the Patriots in his debut last week. He was efficient, and it likely would have led to a 28-point day had his receiver not fumbled through the end zone to trigger one of the dumbest rules in the sport. However, you would expect that Cam will need to throw a bit more on the road to match what Wilson can do on his side of the ball.

The Seahawks were pass happy (for them) last week in Atlanta, but the Falcons have spent over half a decade not figuring out how to stop passes to the running backs. Wilson had two of his four touchdown passes to Chris Carson. It’ll be interesting to see if the Seahawks continue to throw more or revert to more of a running game this time around given the better pass defense they’ll see. New England cornerback Stephon Gilmore will also hope to bounce back from a game where he had a couple of big defensive pass interference penalties called on him on fourth down and third-and-18 in the fourth quarter.

Clearly, both teams are going to get a much stronger test than the foes they beat last week. This game could be the shortest of the week if both teams are completing passes at such a high rate with a lot of runs, but I’m thinking more of a defensive slugfest with hopefully another great finish.

Final: Seahawks 23, Patriots 17

Upset Alert: Raiders over Saints (-5.5)

I know, trusting Derek Carr is scary, but one situation where I actually have some confidence in him is with the game on the line. He delivered another 4QC/GWD last week, albeit another one where he needed a pass interference penalty on a third down to keep the drive alive. But Carr won a 34-30 game on the road against Carolina and had the offense moving well. I watched the Saints-Buccaneers game and was generally impressed by New Orleans, but not by the offense. Drew Brees looked old and inaccurate in one of the more disappointing performances from that offense in a long time. Michael Thomas was injured late in the game and his high-ankle sprain will keep him out this week. Emmanuel Sanders is a fine player, but what else does this offense really have at WR now?

That’s why I like the Raiders to open their new Las Vegas stadium with a win on Monday night. They can protect Carr and the Raiders seem further ahead offensively right now than the new-look Buccaneers did last week. If you’re going for an upset this week, this is the one to end the week with.

Final: Raiders 24, Saints 20

NFL Week 2 Predictions

I had a 9-6-1 ATS start to 2020, but already 0-1 in Week 2 after Joe Burrow found a way late to beat the spread in Cleveland.

I’ m not giving up on the Vikings yet, though that’s a game I’d stay away from this week. Could go many ways.

2019 NFL Wild Card and Full Playoff Predictions

To this point it is hard to say if the NFL’s 100th season is the Changing of the Guard Year some of us thought it should be. Half of the NFC field has very familiar faces in Green Bay, New Orleans, and Seattle. The Eagles are also back for the third year in a row. The AFC had all the same division winners as last year, but the Ravens, Chiefs and Texans were all able to defeat the Patriots in 2019 with their exciting, young quarterbacks.

Can they do it in January too? They’ll have to wait as Ryan Tannehill gets first crack with the Titans — yes, this is real life in 2020.

If the 2019 season has taught me anything, it’s that having a mobile, playmaking quarterback is more important than ever in the NFL. We saw much of the old guard decline (Brady, Rodgers, Rivers) or get demoted (Eli, Flacco) or injured (Roethlisberger, Newton, Stafford) this season. Of course, this probably means we’ll get a Brady-Brees Super Bowl, but I think the game is changing before our eyes as the league enters a second century. Maybe 1,200-yard rushing quarterbacks like MVP favorite Lamar Jackson won’t become the norm, but the statue-esque pocket passers do seem to be going the way of statues: relics of the past.

Before I reveal my full playoff predictions, let’s preview each of the four Wild Card games this weekend.

Bills at Texans (-3)

I called this matchup over a month ago on Twitter:

“The knock on Josh Allen has always been his accuracy. But I’ll tell you this much, Tess. If he’s throwing the ball and these receivers are catching it, his completion percentage will in fact increase.”

— Booger McFarland, 2020

Houston kicking off the playoffs has become a tradition no one asked for. This is Bill O’Brien’s fourth postseason and the fourth time his Texans are opening up the playoffs at 4:30 on Saturday. Their only win so far was against the 2016 Raiders, who had to start Connor Cook at quarterback. Last year the Colts beat Houston 21-7, the first time Deshaun Watson lost an NFL start by more than 8 points. So he doesn’t want to quickly build up a legacy of underperforming in home playoff games, because we know that stuff sticks with a quarterback forever.

Josh Allen is at least better than Cook, but the Bills are largely here because they hit the Schedule Lotto: In addition to six wins against the brutal East divisions, they have a 17-10 win over Duck Hodges in Pittsburgh, a late comeback against the 2-win Bengals, a 20-3 win over the Brandon Allen-led Broncos, and they beat the Mariota-led Titans 14-7 in a game Tennessee missed four field goals.

The Bills are 1-4 against teams with a winning record and didn’t score more than 17 points in any of those five games. Buffalo never scored more than 28 points against anyone but Miami (twice).

I’m not going to say Buffalo didn’t deserve to make the playoffs, especially when the Steelers and those 7-9 teams were so unimpressive, but the Bills are arguably the least threatening team in the whole tournament. Houston has been terribly inconsistent, but at least we know Watson can play at an elite level any given week. At least the Texans can say they’ve won in Kansas City and embarrassed the Patriots on SNF. Granted, Watson hasn’t looked really good in any game since that Patriots win, but hopefully the week of rest will have done some good. J.J. Watt is also back in the lineup for the first time since Week 8.

Houston has better elite talent while the Bills are going to rely on their very good defense to play excellent, force turnovers, and to keep the game close for Allen to sneak out a win late. That may not be an edge this time though. Allen, Watson and Russell Wilson all tied for the league lead with five game-winning drives in 2019, so both teams are used to winning the close ones. When these teams met in 2018, Watson tied the game late before Nathan Peterman threw a pick-six in a 20-13 loss for Buffalo. That game was a low-scoring struggle, which could be the case again on Saturday since Watson will see a lot of the same defenders.

Fun fact: Allen is 11-0 when he completes at least 60% of his passes (min. 20 attempts). That’s a low bar in this era, but more than half the time he doesn’t clear it. The Bills have the highest rate of dropped passes (7.4%) in the league according to PFR so it’s not always his fault this year, but his progression from 2018 is not as significant as some think. The good news is the Texans are the worst defense in the playoffs. Houston (26th) and Tennessee (21st) were the only playoff teams to field a pass defense in the bottom half of the league in DVOA. Houston (27th) and Seattle (17th) are the only defenses in the playoffs to rank in the bottom half in points per drive allowed. Finally, Houston ranks 31st in yards per play allowed (6.1) and 31st in third-down conversion rate allowed (48%).

A couple of YOLO QBs putting their bodies on the line in the playoffs could be fun, but I have to think this will be a slugfest possibly decided by a huge turnover from one of the star players. Maybe that’s Tre’Davious White jumping a pass for DeAndre Hopkins and picking it off, or maybe that’s Watt getting a strip-sack of Allen.

If Allen brings his ‘A’ game then this is a Houston defense that can be had. I’m just going to put my trust in Watson this time.

Final: Texans 20, Bills 16

Titans at Patriots (-4.5)

Just like Miami fans imagined for years, Ryan Tannehill has a chance to end the New England dynasty. I’ll give you a minute to let that one sink in.

The last time the Patriots played a Wild Card game, they were a 4-point home favorite against the 2009 Ravens. Baltimore won 33-14. The fact that New England is playing on Wild Card weekend for the first time in a decade is almost as crazy as Tannehill having a breakout year in his eighth season. The Patriots were once 10-1 with a death grip on a first-round bye for months, only to see the Dolphins take it away from them in Week 17 as a 17-point road underdog. The Patriots have lost three of their last five games and their best wins all year are stopping the Bills (once with Matt Barkley at QB) from scoring a late touchdown twice. At least the Titans can say they beat the Chiefs.

Tennessee was one of the surprising non-playoff teams to stomp the Patriots in 2018, a 34-10 win during coach Mike Vrabel’s first year on the job with Marcus Mariota as his quarterback. The Titans just finished 9-7 for the fourth year in a row, but things feel different this year thanks to the switch from Mariota to Tannehill in Week 7.

Tennessee was going nowhere fast with Mariota, who started 2-4 and was taking a sack on 13.5% of his dropbacks. Tannehill’s sack rate is still alarming at 9.8%, but he has consistently hit big plays and has thrown multiple touchdown passes in nine of his 10 starts (7-3 record). While he didn’t do it over a full season, Tannehill’s 2019 ranks as the fourth-highest season in passer rating (117.5) and the eighth-highest season in YPA (9.6) in NFL history. Absurd. We don’t know how Tannehill will perform in the biggest game of his career, but he’s now on the list of QBs with odd career arcs by breaking out so late and after lost injury years. Part of what makes those guys so odd is that they performed unexpectedly well in the playoffs too. I’m talking about Jeff Hostetler, Kurt Warner, Alex Smith and Nick Foles to name four examples. Maybe Tannehill is the next one.

Mobile quarterbacks also have been giving the Patriots fits for years, so this should be an interesting matchup between an improbably hot passer and a No. 1 defense that has to prove its early-season historical dominance wasn’t just the result of a pathetic schedule. If you look at New England’s top nine games in defensive EPA on PFR, eight of them are Weeks 1-8 (the other game was lowly Cincinnati).

The Patriots are 0-4 when allowing more than 17 points this year and no one has held Tannehill under 20 yet.

The Titans execute the type of offense coaches gloat about, but don’t actually run. They pound you consistently with Derrick Henry, the league’s leading rusher and one of the most north-and-south runners. Henry hasn’t dipped under 4.0 yards per carry in any of Tannehill’s starts. Then they use play-action with the best of them and average almost 11 yards per play doing that. Overall, Tannehill’s average pass comes 9.7 yards down the field, third highest in the league according to Next Gen Stats. They limit Tannehill’s throws — he’s only surpassed 33 passes in two games they lost playing catch-up — and he takes a good share of sacks, but the Titans are fully embracing the “run the ball and throw deep” philosophy that teams only tend to talk about doing. Rookie WR A.J. Brown has also been an exceptional big-play threat for Tannehill this year. Cornerback Stephon Gilmore can have his hands full there.

Then you have the New England offense that peaked in the first two weeks of the season. Since Week 3, Brady’s YPA is 6.29 and it usually takes some type of trick play for him to throw a touchdown pass these days. Antonio Brown was too much of a distraction to last more than a game. They cut Josh Gordon before he could be suspended again. Mohamed Sanu was a poor value trade for a second-round pick. Julian Edelman isn’t 100% right now. Ben Watson is almost as old as Brady and they have done very little in replacing Rob Gronkowski at tight end. This offense is basically gadgets, James White’s YAC and an improved running game that ranks sixth in yards and 10th in YPC since Week 12.

Brady is still getting adequate protection, but he needs it more than ever to move the offense. The Titans aren’t a good pass defense, but they have sacked the opposing quarterback at least three times in 10 of 16 games, and they are 8-1 when the QB passes for 260 or more yards. Tennessee’s comfort zone is making big plays early and pounding Henry late.

Could this be Brady’s final game with the Patriots? Certainly could be the final home game, unless the Patriots luck out again and draw the Bills for the AFC Championship Game. But this doesn’t feel like New England’s year. Maybe they have enough in the tank and the experience and edge from Belichick’s coaching to squeak past the Titans at home, but this doesn’t look like a team ready to go on the road to beat what should be two superior opponents in Kansas City and Baltimore.

But first is Tennessee’s chance to earn the team’s biggest win in a long time. For Tannehill, an impressive game could lead to a contract exceeding $30 million per year. My only concern is the Patriots blitz him relentlessly, he can’t find any receivers underneath, and he takes eight sacks like Mariota did in the playoffs two years ago.

The difference is he could still throw three touchdowns too, which might be enough to beat this version of the Patriots.

Final: Patriots 23, Titans 20

Vikings at Saints (-8)

This game having the weekend’s largest spread makes sense to me. Drew Brees has been on a tear since Week 11 with 22 touchdowns to one interception. The only loss the Saints have in their last seven games was after scoring 46 points against the 49ers. Meanwhile, the Vikings had a good 10-6 season with Kirk Cousins also producing an excellent seven-game stretch (18 touchdowns to one pick), but that ended in Week 11 while Brees’ streak was just beginning. Cousins had his best overall season yet, but there were familiar issues with his team not stepping up against the better competition. Green Bay swept Minnesota, including that horrific Monday night game where Cousins was looking for the signature win of his career. He finished with 3.94 YPA and we haven’t seen him since after he rested for the playoffs in Week 17, another Minnesota loss to Chicago.

So we have two teams coming in on entirely different wavelengths, but at least for Minnesota the game isn’t on Saturday night where we know Brees is even more ridiculous in the Superdome. Brees hasn’t lost a home game he finished in which the Saints allowed fewer than 25 points since December 2009.

It goes without saying that Cousins has to play exceptional football to get this win. That’s been the case his whole career. He’s the only QB in NFL history to have a record of 0-26 when his passer rating is under 85.0. The Vikings like to run the ball with Dalvin Cook (should be available) and use play-action passing, but it was still a top 10 offense without using play-action this year too. The Saints are below average at defending play-action, but not terrible. Their biggest luxury is that they usually play from ahead and teams give up on using it against them. Cousins has very capable receivers in Stefon Diggs, Adam Thielen and TE Kyle Rudolph, but it’s been a while since this group has put together a complete game due to injuries for Cook and Thielen. They should have all these weapons available Sunday, but getting into a shootout is still not ideal for the Vikings.

These are two of the best tackling teams in the league, and their last playoff matchup should be all the warning in the world to not blow a tackle in the open field. According to Pro Football Reference’s advanced data, the Saints (2) and Vikings (1) combined for three RPO plays all season, so that’s not their game. Cousins rarely leaves the pocket while Brees is still a little nimble for 40, but generally these quarterbacks are going to play the game from the pocket. Cameron Jordan and Danielle Hunter were two of the top four pass rushers in getting pressures this year, according to Sports Info Solutions. They’ll have to come through this week, but it is worth noting that Next Gen Stats has Cousins as the only quarterback holding the ball for an average of over 3 seconds this season. We’ve seen strip-sacks cause him problems before, especially as a Viking. Brees doesn’t have a single fumble this year, let alone any lost.

Speaking of turnovers, the Saints just made history by turning the ball over eight times in 2019, a new single-season record low. The Saints only have three giveaways in their last 11 games. If you’re an optimist, then this is awesome. If 2020 hasn’t changed you from being a cynic, then you might think this is a regression disaster in the making, especially in regards to the fumbles. The Vikings also finished third in takeaways per drive, so we’ll see what happens here. It’s hard to see the Vikings winning this game without a big turnover or two.

In a perfect world, you’d match Xavier Rhodes up with Michael Thomas and double team him to force the ball elsewhere. After Thomas and Kamara in the backfield, no one on the Saints caught more than 43 balls. Unfortunately, Rhodes has had a horrible season and no defense seems to go the extra effort to take Thomas away like they should. At this point you just expect him to put up numbers as the Saints continue to pile on the points.

This year basically did set up as a perfect revenge tour for the Brees-Payton era after last year’s blown call in the title game cost them a Super Bowl appearance.

  • Saints won in Chicago, site of the first playoff loss (2006 NFC-CG) for the Brees-Payton era
  • Saints won in Seattle, site of the Beastquake playoff loss and the 2013 divisional round loss
  • Saints returned the favor from last year and beat Dallas in a low-scoring game. Dallas also ended New Orleans’ perfect season at 13-0 in 2009.
  • Saints stiff-armed division rival Matt Ryan into oblivion on Thanksgiving night.
  • Saints could beat the Vikings on Sunday as revenge for the Minnesota Miracle two years ago.
  • Saints could see the 49ers again in the NFC Championship Game, taking revenge for 2011’s playoff loss and the 48-46 game this year.

The only thing missing would be a win in LA against the Rams, but that was the Week 2 game where the refs botched a fumble touchdown call and Brees suffered his injury. Brees is back and playing as well as ever and the Saints are poised to do something great this postseason.

However, I went through the history here just as a reminder that this team has suffered some heart-breaking playoff losses over the years. If Rex Grossman, Alex Smith and Case Keenum can have the biggest wins of their careers against the Saints, then what’s holding Cousins back but his own history?

Final: Saints 30, Vikings 20

Seahawks at Eagles (+2.5)

Let me make sure I frame this one properly. The Seahawks are 11-5 and on the road because of how good the 49ers were this year. But Seattle also outscored its schedule by just 7 points, getting to 11 wins thanks to Russell Wilson leading the league in comebacks (four) and game-winning drives (five). This is the worst defense Wilson has had in the NFL, and his run-heavy offense lost its best back in Chris Carson. They also don’t have Rashaad Penny, who rushed for 91 yards on a single touchdown drive for Seattle in its 17-9 win in Philadelphia in Week 12. Yes, that was not a big Wilson day, as most lately have not been. Wilson has gone from MVP front-runner through nine games to merely decent play over the last seven games. Meanwhile, the Eagles were left for dead at 5-7 after a loss in Miami, but have won four straight against division foes to claim the league’s worst division and a home playoff game. The Eagles remain banged up too, but actually have a better scoring differential (+31) than Seattle this year. Seattle’s played a tougher schedule of course, but that’s still surprising.

This sounds like it’s adding up to another disappointing early exit for Seattle, but this team is 7-1 on the road, including the aforementioned 17-9 win in Philly. An 8-point win for this Seattle team is like a 17-point win for a regular playoff team. They just don’t know how to blow anyone out and Wilson is usually too good over the course of 60 minutes to get blown out. So it would be a surprise to not see a competitive game with two teams fielding a lot of middling units right now.

One thing I’m pretty certain about is that the Seahawks still have the QB edge in this matchup. While Wilson’s play has been down for his standards, Carson Wentz is getting way too much credit for his play — tale as old as time — over the last month. Head coach Doug Pederson deserves more credit for changing the offense to adjust for injuries and these players, including Wentz, have played well against bad division foes that failed to adjust to these changes.

It would go against everything I’ve ever written about quarterbacks to pretend this is some MVP stretch of QB play from Wentz. Let’s review the facts:

  • Since Week 14, Wentz ranks dead last in average depth of target. He’s the only quarterback throwing his average pass shorter than 6 yards beyond the line of scrimmage in that time.
  • Wentz has 14 more passes than the next closest player that were thrown at or behind the line of scrimmage since Week 14.
  • Since Week 14, Wentz ranks 16th in passing DYAR and 17th in DVOA (-2.8%) among 32 qualified passers. That’s mediocre.
  • Wentz’s QBR in his last four games: 40.2, 63.5, 72.3, and 32.1. That’s not good and none of those games were higher than his 78.3 in the Miami loss.
  • Since Week 14, Wentz is one of 10 quarterbacks to throw at least seven touchdown passes. He has 7. Wentz ranks eighth in passer rating (100.8) and 20th in yards per attempt (6.93).
  • Wentz’s last four opponents were the lowly NFC East: Giants twice (31st ranked pass defense in DVOA), Redskins (24th) and Cowboys (23rd).
  • The 2019 NFC East finished 12-28 (.300) in non-division games, one of the worst records since 2002 realignment.
  • Wentz’s 2019 vs. NFC East: 5-1, 67.65% complete, 11 TD, 1 INT, 101.9 PR, 7.16 YPA
  • Dak Prescott’s 2019 vs. NFC East: 5-1, 70.65% complete, 15 TD, 3 INT, 115.6 PR, 8.65 YPA.
  • Josh Allen threw five touchdowns and no picks against the NFC East this year with 101.4 rating and 7.53 YPA.
  • Sam Darnold was 3-0 against the NFC East with 112.6 rating and 9.36 YPA.
  • Ryan Fitzpatrick also had his best 2019 numbers (104.8 PR and 8.05 YPA) against the NFC East.

I didn’t even mention that Wentz fumbled seven times (two lost) in that four-game stretch. This is not what the pinnacle of QB play looks like, folks. This is a quarterback executing a dink-and-dunk offense that is taking advantage of the matchups the Eagles have at running back and tight end and exploiting them against crap competition in games they had to eek out in the fourth quarter or overtime. Has he made some great throws? Yes, I’ve tweeted about the dart TD throw against Washington and the two longer throws against Giants in Week 17. But he’s still under 7.0 YPA and relying on YAC in these games. Is it good that he’s finally finishing off game-winning drives? Of course, though it’s not like beating terrible Giants and Redskins teams has been an issue for him. I’ve said a long time ago that’s his jam. Four of his eight game-winning drives are against the Giants. He’s won three games he finished in which the Eagles allowed more than 24 points, and two of them are the 2019 Redskins (3-13 team).

There’s a cottage industry dedicated to making Wentz’s career sound better than it has been so far. For example, this stat has gained traction since last Sunday: Wentz is the first ever 4,000-yard passer who did not have a 500-yard wide receiver. And? Alshon Jeffery had 490 yards in 10 games before going on IR. Would an extra 10 yards from him change anything this season?

Let’s frame the stat better. Wentz is the NFL’s first 4,000-yard passer that had a running back and two tight ends go over 500 yards in the same season. Yes, that’s never been done before either and it’s a better way to highlight the type of offense the Eagles operate. It’s not a badge of honor for Wentz like the no WR stat sounds like, but a sign that their offense is unique. Also, if the 2019 Eagles are the sample size of one for having an offense like this, then it’s not really a good thing. The Eagles finished 17th in points per drive and are only in the playoffs because of their terrible division.

As I ranted about in December, wide receivers are the position most dependent on good quarterback play. Throws to running backs and tight ends are easier to complete, but they’re not necessarily as valuable to an offense. With Wentz’s accuracy problems, it makes sense that the Eagles would build more around Miles Sanders (impressive rookie back) and the best tight end duo in the league (Zach Ertz and Dallas Goedert). No matter what Eagles fans try to sell you, Wentz has accuracy issues. The Eagles had issues with drops early in the season, but finished 19th in drop rate (4.8%). They also had the eighth-worst rate of on-target throws because that excludes throwaways, which isn’t something Wentz does that often.

Accurate quarterbacks can make household names out of nobodies, which is the final point I’m going to make about this Wentz run. It’s being led by the line that he’s carrying — by totally “shredding” defenses — the Eagles to the playoffs with practice squad players. This is the kind of angle you’d only get for a player the media loves to pump up. When Matt Ryan throws a 93-yard touchdown to a rookie UDFA no one’s ever heard of (Olamide Zaccheaus), the media doesn’t blink an eye. Yet when Wentz completes a 6-yard pass to Robert Davis, they act like he cured cancer.

After arguing about football on the internet for two decades, I can honestly say I’ve never seen people ignore draft position and fixate on this practice squad thing like they are with the Eagles. Yes, Robert Davis spent a brief period on the Eagles practice squad before moving up, but he was a sixth-round pick by Washington in 2017 and he’s only caught 1-of-3 targets for 6 yards with Wentz. RB Boston Scott is another player promoted from a practice squad, but he was a sixth-round pick by the 2018 Saints. He’s played pretty well at times, especially in Week 17, and we know RB is a position notorious for producing stars off the street. Hell, Marshawn Lynch hadn’t played in 14.5 months and looked pretty solid for Seattle last Sunday night, scoring on a touchdown plunge.

It’s absolutely true that the Eagles have been rocked by injury, but it’s facetious to sell this offense as one that is thriving by practice squad players. For one, the fans complained about Alshon Jeffery and Nelson Agholor when they were healthy and playing. Jeffery messed with the leadership and chemistry in the locker room. Agholor was statistically the worst receiver in football this year, so his targets going to anyone else is a good thing. Calling Jordan Howard RB1 may be technically true, but he’s not as dynamic as the rookie Sanders, and I can’t believe people are using “rookie RB” as a negative given the rich history of instant success at the position. But hey, anything to pump up Wentz.

Over the last four games, 54.2% of Wentz’s passing yardage has gone through four players the Eagles have spent top 60 draft picks on: Zach Ertz, Miles Sanders, Dallas Goedert, and J.J. Arcega-Whiteside. These are players they were expecting to produce for them, but a couple are producing a little more sooner because of the injuries. Wentz made a great 40-yard play to Deontay Burnett last week. It was one play, but at least it was great. Josh Perkins caught a great 24-yard touchdown from Wentz last week. Perkins also caught a TD from Matt Ryan in his 2016 MVP season, but that wasn’t part of the MVP case for Ryan that year.

The guy who has been really producing out of nowhere with no NFL track record is WR Greg Ward, who had his first six catches in the Seattle game in Week 12. He has 254 yards for the Eagles this year. Call me crazy, but is it not possible that Ward is just a decent receiver who has played well for the team so far? He’s been in their building since 2017. He’s not going to be played by Mark Wahlberg in a movie in 20 years for various reasons, but let’s calm down on acting like he’s proof that Wentz is a top QB now.

Even Aaron Rodgers fans aren’t bowing to their God because Allen Lazard has 477 yards this year. I also don’t remember anyone saying this about Zach Pascal on the Colts last year, who had 268 yards and a couple of touchdowns with Andrew Luck. Pascal improved in 2019 without Luck and had 607 yards and five touchdowns. Sometimes guys just slip through the draft process, but that doesn’t mean they’re incapable of playing in this league. I’ll give Ward some respect, and probably more than some of the opposing defenses who won’t cover him as tightly since they don’t understand who he is yet. Like I always said with the early 2000s Patriots, not having someone to draw double coverage or key on could be used as an advantage to the offense where the ball could literally go anywhere on a given play. The Eagles have that type of advantage right now.

So I don’t know if we’ll be talking about the Eagles beyond this weekend, but I just thought there were some really misleading things in the media about this last month’s stretch of play for Wentz and the offense. You can appreciate their effort as an undermanned unit, but let’s stop with the hyperbole and remember which teams they beat to get in this spot. If you want more respect, then beat the Seahawks. Pete Carroll is 5-0 against the Eagles as coach of the Seahawks.

Home underdogs are rare in the playoffs, but they also have a winning record (29-26) since the merger, including two wins by the 2017 Eagles. In fact, home underdogs would have four wins in a row in the playoffs had Minnesota’s Blair Walsh not missed a short field goal against the Seahawks in 2015. Of course, the Eagles won a Wild Card game last year in Chicago after the Bears missed a game-winning field goal. I only point to those two results as this is a game with a spread of 2.5, so it could come down to a kick again. Or maybe Pederson rolls the dice with a two-point conversion with the Eagles only down a point late, placing Football Analytics Twitter into the center of hell.

Who am I kidding? You know it’s going to be hell there regardless of the outcome in this one.

Final: Seahawks 24, Eagles 23

2019 Full NFL Playoff Predictions

Here is my latest crack at predicting the whole tournament.

Wild Card:

  • Texans over Bills
  • Patriots over Titans
  • Saints over Vikings
  • Seahawks over Eagles

Divisional:

  • Ravens over Texans
  • Chiefs over Patriots
  • Saints over Packers
  • 49ers over Seahawks

Conference Championship:

  • Ravens over Chiefs
  • 49ers over Saints

Super Bowl LIV:

  • Ravens over 49ers (Super Bowl MVP: Lamar Jackson)

Last year I predicted Saints over Chiefs. I thought we should have had that matchup, but things went the opposite way on Championship Sunday. This year I’d still prefer to see it over any other matchup, but I think this has been Baltimore and Lamar Jackson’s season. If we get that Chiefs-Ravens AFC Championship Game, I think it could have the kind of career-defining implications that the 2003 AFC Championship Game had for Manning and Brady, but more on that in the weeks to come provided we get there. After all, something crazy could happen any given week. The fact that Ryan Tannehill is here and playing so well could shake things up, and I also think the Bills could blow up some of the playoff matchups we hope to see in the AFC for years to come. The 49ers have also really impressed me in the NFC and I think they have enough to go the distance.

It should be a significant month for legacies.

Finally, here’s the recap of my picks this season:

2019Wk1-17

NFL Week 14 Predictions: The Best Week of the Year Edition

December 8 was always the date to circle since the NFL schedule came out in April. That was the big Chiefs-Patriots game in New England, but now that we’re here, it’s actually a much bigger weekend with four marquee games. Those two teams aren’t even the current No. 1 seed in the AFC. That’s Baltimore, which has its final big road test in Buffalo, a surprise 9-3 team that almost controls its own destiny for home-field advantage. We also could see the Saints inch closer to the No. 1 seed in the NFC, and we should get some clarity on an MVP race that is down to Lamar Jackson and Russell Wilson.

It took a little pure dumb luck with the 49ers and Bills stepping up, but the NFL has one hell of a schedule planned tomorrow. It shouldn’t get as big as this again until the playoffs, but first those seeds could really shake up because of what happens on Sunday.

49ers at Saints (-2)

The 49ers come in as a 2-point underdog in a tough place to play, though the Saints haven’t been able to blow out anyone at home aside from Arizona. Don’t forget that stunning 26-9 loss to the Falcons as well. I think the 49ers showed a lot of quality play on the road in rainy Baltimore last week and will welcome the dome conditions in this one. It is a bit of a disadvantage to be on the road in the early slot on the East for the second week in a row, but teams are better at handling that these days with travel.

The main reason I like the 49ers to win is their physical defense. I think they can key in on Michael Thomas — a matchup with Richard Sherman would be fun — as the Saints don’t have another player with 500 receiving yards. They have the front seven talent to harass Drew Brees, who took 6 sacks in the Atlanta loss but only three the rest of the season. Also, the Saints are the first team in NFL history to have just 7 giveaways thru 12 games of a season. They’ve lost just one fumble all year. That screams regression and the 49ers are the type of defense to make them pay there (24 takeaways rank 4th this year).

The 49ers are also No. 2 in points scored and points allowed this season. This is a very good team and I think Jimmy Garoppolo will shine just enough with the running game always being a threat to pull off this road win. If you’re continuing to compare the 2019 49ers to the 2017 Eagles, then think of this as their road win over the 2017 Rams which helped the Eagles get the top seed.

Ravens at Bills (+6.5)

The Bills have seven wins against teams picking in the top 11 of the 2020 draft as of right now. This would be a huge step up in class to beat a Baltimore team that has entered historic territory. The Ravens average 45 yards per drive on offense, which would set a record for the modern era. They can still become the first NFL offense ever to average 200 yards passing and 200 yards rushing per game. Lamar Jackson is the MVP front-runner and the consistent threat that Bills fans wish Josh Allen was right now. Allen has been playing better in recent weeks, but the Bills are definitely at a disadvantage with an offense that ranks just 16th in yards per drive and 21st in points per drive. The Baltimore defense is also picking things up and actually do better at forcing turnovers than the Bills.

The spread feels about right for this one, but if there is a game where Jackson is going to look mortal, it would be a road game against a solid defense. Yet even when he’s contained as a passer, he’s still a major threat as a rusher so it’s been really hard on defenses this year to figure this unique offense out. I think Baltimore delivers on the road and continues holding onto the No. 1 seed over New England.

But don’t lose sight that this is one of the biggest games in Buffalo in the last 20 years. They could really use a win like this.

Chiefs at Patriots (-3)

So much for the 43-40 and 37-31 offensive shootouts of last year. These teams aren’t playing great offensively and that shouldn’t surprise you with New England. The old QB is having one of his worst slumps ever, but it’s rarely mattered thanks to the defense being so strong. The surprise is that Patrick Mahomes has just turned in the worst 8 quarters of his career. Over the last two games, Mahomes has completed 55.7 percent of his passes at 5.85 YPA with just 2 TD and 1 INT. He didn’t even crack 200 yards in either game. Fortunately, his defense picked off Philip Rivers and Derek Carr enough for it to not matter as the Chiefs won both games (sound familiar?).

This is a bad time for Mahomes to be slumping with a road test against a veteran secondary and all-around difficult defense to pass against this year. If the big plays aren’t there like they were for Mahomes last year against NE, then this one could be another ugly offensive game. Keep in mind that despite those high scores last year, the Patriots twice did something no other team has.

In 29 career games with Mahomes, the Chiefs have been held under 10 points in the first half twice: 9 points at Patriots (lost 43-40), 0 points vs. Patriots (lost 37-31 OT).

Mahomes needs to stop fading away from the line on so many of his passes and find a rhythm early so that he can play a complete game against the Patriots and force Brady to actually be good. My thought is that after the ugly loss in Houston, Brady will be sharper at home — I’d be all in on Chiefs if this was in Arrowhead — and the running game that’s gotten going in recent weeks will be used effectively against a subpar Chiefs defense.

So it’s not quite the super important game for the AFC as we thought it would be, but you’d still rather win it than not. It’s just unfortunate that between the Mahomes injury and some of the sloppy play the team has showed this year, even a win in NE doesn’t mean Kansas City won’t have to come back and do it all over again in January in a 3/2 matchup.

Seahawks at Rams (+1)

Their first meeting on TNF was one of the best games this season, one that the Rams would have won had it not been for a missed field goal by Greg Zuerlein. I said this almost two months ago:

Missed field goals have been great to Seattle this year. The 49ers also missed one in overtime that would have won that game after Russell Wilson’s inexplicable interception. So had those two NFC West kickers connected, this would be the 8-4 Seahawks at the 8-4 Rams. But because of two swings of the leg, it’s the 10-2 Seahawks at the 7-5 Rams. Wilson is still in the MVP race despite cooling off, and there’s a lot of disappointment surrounding Sean McVay and Jared Goff right now. What a league.

But it has been a wildly inconsistent year for the Rams and Goff. He’s had a few brilliant games, including last week when he was over 320 passing yards at halftime. He’s also had some major stinkers as has the defense, led by DC Wade Phillips and Aaron Donald, that always seems to escape any criticism.

I said earlier this week that the 2019 Saints and 2019 Seahawks are two of the worst 10-2 teams ever because of their tiny point differentials. Seattle is just +36, the smallest scoring differential ever for a 10-2 team. I think if Lamar Jackson shines in Buffalo and Wilson struggles in this game (another prime time one), the MVP is all but locked up for Jackson. So that’s another layer to keep in mind.

The outcome of SF-NO will give us a better idea of how big this game is on Sunday night, but it’s a last gasp effort for the Rams either way. They have to win this game and they easily could if their star players play up to their potential. I’m not surprised the spread is damn near a pick ’em with how unpredictable the Rams have been and how close to the vest Seattle has been. In the end, you trust Wilson over Goff in crunch time, but as this season has shown, all it takes is one play sometimes to decide a game. I wouldn’t bet on this one like I would the other three big games on Sunday.

NFL Week 14 Predictions

I had the Cowboys on TNF, so there’s another trainwreck to talk about some other time.

2019Wk14

A quick note on PIT-ARI: this would definitely fit the classic Mike Tomlin letdown game on the road. The Cardinals are an interesting young team without a lot of tape that the Steelers are familiar with. I think it’s a game where either the Cardinals win outright, or Duck Hodges has a breakout game against a terrible pass defense. Obviously I went with the former because I think the Steelers lack the weapons to get the job done without JuJu available again. James Washington had his career game last week so I can’t see him repeating it, but I am glad to see the Steelers get back to throwing downfield to wide receivers. This one could be fun, though I’d much rather be watching KC-NE.

2019Wk1-13

NFL Week 12 Predictions: RC Cola Popping Edition

So last week kind of sucked in the NFL, which was my concern going into last Sunday. The early afternoon slate was especially low on drama. A total of six teams won by at least 17 points in Week 11, the most since Week 17 last year. Some teams clearly mailed in their performance to end that season, so this was especially one-sided.

When I look at the 1 P.M. slate for Week 12, I see very little to get excited for. My preference would be to just watch Seahawks-Eagles with some RedZone sprinkled in, because it’s one of the closest games of the season by many projection models. Could be a true pick ’em with a Seattle team that’s been scraping by all the close ones against an Eagles team that can stop the run and should be desperately playing to hang onto division title hopes.

But instead I’ll probably be focusing on the Steelers looking to continue their mastery in Cincinnati, or perhaps add another soul-crushing loss to a terrible team to Mike Tomlin’s resume.

Steelers at Bengals (+6.5): Don’t Bet on 0-16

It’s a safe bet to pick a team to NOT go 0-16 in the NFL. Only the 2008 Lions and 2017 Browns have done it. Meanwhile, 10 teams have finished 1-15 and 32 teams have finished 2-14 since 1978. The 0-10 Bengals have a favorable schedule coming up for a win, but none may be sweeter than this opportunity against Pittsburgh (5-5).

I’ve probably been writing about this for a decade now,  but Mike Tomlin’s Steelers love to come up small in the small games, especially on the road against teams they’re expected to beat. Losing to the 0-10 Bengals as a 6.5 point underdog would certainly fit that bill. Since 2007, the Steelers are 16-9 (.640) straight up and 8-17 (.320) against the spread on the road as a 6+ point favorite.

It’s a bit surprising the Steelers remain a 6.5 point favorite. They beat the Bengals 27-3 at Heinz Field earlier this season, but they won’t have QB1 (Ben Roethlisberger), RB1 (James Conner), or WR1 (JuJu Smith-Schuster) for this game. You’d have to go back to 1999, if not further, to find a Pittsburgh offense this devoid of talent, and I’m saying that even with the consideration of the RB and WR returning soon. Oh, not to mention the center is suspended.

Yes, Mason Rudolph has already won a game against the Bengals, but he is coming off one of the worst QB performances of the season. There’s also obviously some controversy surrounding him from his role in the Myles Garrett incident. There’s no Maurkice Pouncey at center because of his suspension from the fight. The Steelers are going to rely heavily on defense to win this game, which it can do with the way it has gotten turnovers this year. Andy Dalton was also sacked a career-high 8 times in the last meeting. Ryan Finley has taken over and done nothing to really impress anyone. He’s not afraid to scramble though. The Bengals have been competitive at times with 3 blown fourth quarter leads, and the running game has gone for over 150 yards in consecutive weeks. It’s likely to be a game decided by turnovers.

One of the most stunning stats I’ve ever seen in the NFL is this one: ex-Cincinnati head coach Marvin Lewis was 2-16 at home against the Steelers. Rookie head coach Zac Taylor has done practically nothing to establish a name for himself this season, but reversing that home trend and pulling off an upset win over the Steelers would easily be the team’s highlight this year.

With the Steelers lacking so much talent on offense, I feel like this is a great upset to pick. Keep the RC Cola bottles ready, Detroit and Cleveland. Your 0-16 club may be closing up membership for at least another year very soon.

GOTW: Cowboys at Patriots (-3)

It sure would be nice if this turns out to be a great game seeing as how Jags-Titans is the only other game scheduled for the late afternoon. I’m not sure how that happened, but clearly the NFL wants to milk what should be Brady/Belichick vs. Dallas for the last time.

Standing in the Cowboys’ way is The Clapper (Jason Garrett). The thought of him outsmarting Belichick is why I have no issue picking the Patriots in this one, but there are reasons to be optimistic about Dallas’ chances. Concern is do they run Zeke too much and put Dak Prescott in tough third-and-long situations. It could be tempting to run if you look at the success Cleveland and Baltimore had doing so against New England this year. If it’s working you really can’t knock it, but Dallas will have to be careful to not fall into the trap of continuing to slam Elliott into the line on so many early downs.

This is the best pass defense Prescott has seen in his NFL career. He’s playing better than ever this season, but he’ll definitely have to bring his A game to succeed in this one. If the Patriots want to take Amari Cooper away with Stephon Gilmore, then I think Dallas is still fine in this matchup. Michael Gallup and Randall Cobb are healthy and playing well. The tight ends can contribute as well. Cooper only had 38 yards in Detroit last week, but Dak still threw for 444. Dallas (52.1%) is the only offense in the league converting more than 50% on third down in 2019. That’s helped this offense lead the league in yards per game, yards per play and first downs per game thru Week 11. This offense has evolved thanks to the progression of a young QB and new OC Kellen Moore.

I just worry about this coaching staff preparing for a team they only see once every four years. The Cowboys have another game like that on Thanksgiving against Buffalo, so a lot of eyes will be on them this week. It’s the type of week that could launch Dak on an MVP path, or sink this team’s season if the Eagles can go on a run too.

The Patriots have really only played four teams of note this season: PIT, BUF, BAL, PHI. Everyone else has a losing record. If you look at the expected points added breakdown on Pro Football Reference, their three worst games on offense were against PHI/BAL/BUF. Their four worst games on defense were against BUF/PIT/PHI/BUF. Dallas has played a similarly weak schedule (plays the AFC East and NFC East), but this is one of the best challenges the Patriots will see all year. Dallas doesn’t have a great defense, but it has been respectable most weeks.

I don’t want to belabor the point about NE’s mediocre offense, because it should be obvious at this point. They basically peaked in the first two weeks of the season when they played a Pittsburgh defense they always murder at home and a Miami team that was completely lost. Since then the offense has rarely been good. Brady’s TD% is a career low 3.5% right now. Replacing Rob Gronkowski with an ancient Ben Watson isn’t doing a whole lot. They’ve already gone through Antonio Brown and Josh Gordon. It’s basically Julian Edelman moving the chains and their big plays are coming down to James White turning a screen pass into 30+ yards.

Only the Patriots can trade a 2nd-round pick for a 30-year-old WR who was averaging a career-low in yards per catch and have people think it’s a great move. That’s Mohamed Sanu and now he’s injured and may not even be active. Oh and the Patriots stink at running the ball this year to boot. I’d love to see Dallas just double up on Edelman and shrink the field, forcing Brady to beat them deep.

New England basically loses one home game a year and blow one 4Q lead a year, so if there’s a game on the schedule where that’s most likely to happen this season, it’s probably this one. However, keep in mind that Dallas is 0-3 at 4QC opportunities this season as we knew regression was going to come in that area for them. Still, you can trust Dak on a game-winning drive opportunity. The Patriots offense has yet to have one this season since the defense always has them ahead, and they couldn’t do any better than trail by 10 in their lone loss in Baltimore.

I think this one goes down to the final drive, but I’m still going to take Belichick over Garrett every time.

NFL Week 12 Predictions

I had Houston by 6 points on TNF, but of course they wouldn’t kick a late FG and only won by 3. I should probably feel lucky that the Texans even won that game.

2019Wk12

The Bengals are not my only upset pick this week. I think the Jets take care of Oakland in the early game after showing some life offensively last week. I also have the Buccaneers beating Atlanta for no good reason other than the NFC South doesn’t make sense right now, but I still don’t believe the Falcons have magically fixed their defense the last two weeks.

2019Wk1-11

NFL Week 11 Predictions: Wentz and The Crown Edition

I said this about the NFL’s 100th season two months ago today:

I’m not sure things have gotten that much better, but Week 10 was without question the best week of this season. Eleven of the 13 games had a 4QC opportunity, the first week with a double-digit number of such games this season. Three underdogs of more than 6 points won straight up — there was one in Weeks 1-3 and zero in Weeks 7-9. The single best hour of the sports week, roughly 3:15 to 4:15 P.M. EST, finally delivered late-game drama in multiple cities at the same time. Thursday night was a comical Philip Rivers/Chargers loss. Sunday night was a good MIN/DAL game. Monday night was the Game of the Week on paper, and while it was sloppily played, SEA-SF delivered a memorable one that went down to the final snap of overtime.

That’s the NFL we crave and eagerly wait seven months for each year. Now that every team has a loss, perhaps we’re in store for a great second half.

Then Thursday night happened. The Steelers laid an egg in Cleveland with Mason Rudolph turning in one of the worst QB performances of the season. Then the absurd brawl happened at the end of the game and we weren’t even talking about Cleveland’s win over its chief rival anymore. It was about the ugliness from Myles Garrett going after Rudolph with his own helmet.

I’m not interested in a hot take or in-depth analysis of that moment. You saw it. Punishments were handed out quickly and look fair to me. There’s no place for that in the NFL. Fortunately, Garrett and Maurkice Pouncey won’t be on the field when these teams meet again in a couple of weeks. Rudolph probably shouldn’t be either, but only because I think he’s worthy of being benched for playing terrible football.

If only there was another readily available QB the Steelers could bring in to try salvaging this season…

From one shitshow to another, the league took the bizarre move to host a workout for Colin Kaepernick in Atlanta on Saturday. Again, not a story I feel like recapping all the details of while I try to squeeze this out on a Saturday evening before watching a bunch of TV. But it was indeed a shitshow with the venue being moved at the last moment and Hue Jackson, who was set to run it, opting to head back to the airport. Add another loss to his career total. The workout eventually took place at a high school field, though it appears barely a handful of the 24 expected teams actually attended it.

Hopefully Sunday won’t be the type of shitshow this week has been so far for the NFL. So rather than talk about Garrett and Kaepernick, I’m going to keep my blood pressure down and talk about…Brady-Wentz I.

…Shit.

GOTW: Patriots at Eagles (+4.5)

It’s rare to see two teams meeting after a bye week and it’s not the Super Bowl. Clearly the NFL thought highly of this Super Bowl 52 rematch. One problem is the Eagles come in at just 5-4 without an overly impressive offense or defense this season. The Patriots (8-1), coming off their first loss in Baltimore, still have the top defense, but the offense is in contention for the worst in the Brady-Belichick era. Brady and Carson Wentz come in not even ranked in the top 12 in DVOA or the top 18 in YPA this season.

I’m seeing the Eagles as a 4.5-point underdog, which is exactly what they were in SB 52 when they won 41-33 behind an MVP performance by Nick Foles. Those teams were very different that night than what they are right now, and it’s not just about the QB difference. The Eagles were much stronger on both sides of the ball while the Patriots are playing better defense now (but definitely a big decline offensively). I certainly wouldn’t expect a repeat of the game with the most total yardage in NFL history.

Head coach Doug Pederson is 3-5 straight up as an underdog of more than 4 points, but that’s 3-1 with Foles and 0-4 with Wentz as his QB.

CWPH

Sunday is Wentz’s 50th NFL game. Given that he still hasn’t started a playoff game, you could say a win here would be the biggest achievement of Wentz’s NFL career.

It’s fitting that Wentz resembles Prince Harry. Both receive massive media coverage and the respect of royalty despite not really accomplishing much of anything. Harry is sixth in line to the British throne. Wentz is maybe sixth in line to the throne of the best QB in the NFL. I’ll spare you any King of Kings talk for Brady, because this one is about Wentz.

I’ve been sitting on that comparison for months and it just so happens to work perfectly on a weekend where Wentz is playing a big game and The Crown Season 3 is on Netflix. It’s absolutely true though. Wentz was hailed as a god just three games into his career in 2016. Remember the “pre-snap Peyton, post-snap Rodgers” takes? It’s not just Philly media either. This season I’ve seen national voices (Colin Cowherd and Dan Orlovsky) praise Wentz after managerial wins over the Packers and Bills. When the numbers don’t back it up, just stick with the eye test and you can’t lose that argument. You just know you’re seeing something special even if there isn’t tangible proof of it.

Fortunately, people don’t wait too long on quarterbacks before moving on to shiny, new things. I mentioned Wentz being sixth in line to the throne. Well, this season has had a clear top five in QB performances:

The top 5 in QBR all happen to be African-American quarterbacks doing outstanding things in 2019. Russell Wilson has been a known commodity and is having the most MVP caliber season of his career. Patrick Mahomes hit superstar status last year with his MVP season and has still been great this year in spite of the rest of his team. Lamar Jackson just handed the Patriots a loss in prime time and could have a very historic season with what he’s doing as a true dual-threat with his passing and rushing. Deshaun Watson is reminding people that he was going to have the best rookie QB season ever until he tore his ACL in 2017. Dak Prescott still doesn’t get as much respect as he deserves, but people are coming around to just how good he is in Dallas. I’ve repeatedly said his 2016 was the best rookie QB season ever.

We’re getting close to that point where the old guard is going to enter retirement. That’s Brady, Brees, Roethlisberger, Eli, Rivers. We’ve already lost Andrew Luck at a surprisingly young age. Matt Ryan and Aaron Rodgers are getting up there, but could still play well into the next decade.

There’s going to be that transition period where the young quarterbacks become the best in the game. Perhaps we’re already there in the NFL’s 100th season. Wentz was expected to be right in that group, but I don’t think he’s as good as that group of five. I’m not even convinced he’s better than Kirk Cousins.

Since the Eagles and Patriots only meet once every four years, this could very well be the first and only meeting between Wentz and Brady/Belichick. If you know me well enough, you know I won’t just accept an Eagles win as a great Wentz accomplishment or an Eagles loss as a Wentz failure. I’m going to watch this game closely to see if he plays well against a top-tier defense/secondary. While I think the Eagles have a shaky secondary, I don’t think they’ll be embarrassed this week and the game should be within reach late.

I want to see Wentz play really well. I want to see him accomplish something with this performance. It’s also a pretty big game since Philadelphia is in such a tight race for the NFC East with Dallas. If the Eagles can win this one at home, that gives them an advantage over Dallas, which has to go to NE (Week 12) and we know how tough it is to win there. This could propel a run for the Eagles with Wentz instead of Foles this time.

Even if it’s just for one day, I want to see what others think they see with Wentz. While no crowns or rings get handed out in Week 11, I think it’d be a big one for him.

NFL Week 11 Predictions

I had the Steelers on TNF, and yeah, that didn’t go so well. Got the under at least.

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My big upset pick this week is Arizona against the 49ers. I just think a 5-quarter, emotional game on MNF and the injury report for the 49ers looks favorable for an Arizona team that played them well a couple weeks ago. Might regret the SU pick, but that would be my big upset for Week 11.

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NFL Week 9 Predictions: QB Tiers Edition

This week I posted an update to the “QB Tiers in My Eyes” which isn’t necessarily a ranking of the QBs in the league, but the groupings in which I view them right now with a big emphasis on track records.

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I just wanted to include 32 entries, but you could easily put Eli Manning in the “So Long, Farewell” section with Joe Flacco and Andy Dalton. You could also create a “Tall, White, Named Allen” tier for Josh, Kyle and Brandon if you want. I’m not sure where the league keeps finding these guys but three of them are starting this weekend. I really couldn’t tell you anything about Brandon Allen, so good job, John Elway. Dwayne Haskins also seems to be taking over in Washington, so you could add him to the rookie tier (I made this on Wednesday).

My biggest takeaway from this is that people need to chill with lumping in everyone as great or terrible. That’s why the “Not Great, Not Terrible” tier is the biggest with 10 QBs. These are all guys fighting for that top 10 status, and in some weeks they absolutely look that part, and in other weeks they’re very disappointing to watch. They’re just not consistent enough to get into a better tier for now.

For the first ballot HOF locks, it’s not that I think those are the four best QBs in the league right now, but they are the most proven and deserve the most trust. “The Holy Trinity” is more in line with the best right now in 2019, but I also grouped them together because I see Mahomes, Wilson and Watson as possibly the top trio of QBs for the 2020s as well. Those are the guys you really want to watch on a weekly basis.

Matt Ryan is someone I generally would rank in a top two tier, but I don’t think he’s a lock for the HOF (certainly not a first ballot), and he didn’t fit in with the “trinity” vibe I was going for in the other group. But it’s not a coincidence that he’s at the very top of my next tier. The tiers are almost in order of best to worst, but not exactly.

If anything, the Carson Wentz fanboys need to just cool it and realize their guy isn’t showing us anything that a lot of other active QBs haven’t already achieved in this league. And don’t forget about Nick Foles, the Unicorn. I find him impossible to rank on something like this, but hopefully he’ll come back soon.

It Goes A-1, 2, 3

I just want to highlight the three games I’ll be watching at length on Sunday.

Texans at Jaguars (+1.5)

If they’re going to put a London game I wouldn’t mind watching on at 9:30 AM EST, then at least they’re doing it after I get an extra hour tonight for the end of daylight-saving time. I’m just not sure if the game will be worth watching until the second half anyway since the Texans tend to start slowly. I want to take this Houston team seriously, but with the injuries mounting up (J.J. Watt to IR again) it’s getting harder to buy this team as a real contender. It’s good for Deshaun Watson’s MVP candidacy, but they expect him to deliver so much on a weekly basis and I think the Jaguars are game enough to steal this one.

Colts at Steelers (+1)

The only thing more surprising than how rarely these AFC teams meet — this is the 10th time since 2002 — is how rarely they have their star quarterback in the lineup when they do. Ben Roethlisberger and Peyton Manning (Indy days) only met three times, including that playoff game in 2005. They had a fourth meeting scheduled for 2011, but Manning missed that entire season for his neck surgeries. Roethlisberger vs. Andrew Luck has technically been scheduled five times, but only the first game (2014) actually had both in the lineup. It was quite the offensive show with Pittsburgh winning 51-34 with Ben having one of the best passing games in NFL history. In 2015, Luck was absent with a lacerated kidney. In 2016, Luck only missed one game, but it was the Thanksgiving one against Pittsburgh. Luck then missed all of 2017 while both quarterbacks are out of the picture this weekend with Luck’s retirement and Ben’s elbow surgery.

So that leaves Jacoby Brissett, Mason Rudolph, and a lot to be desired. This game also won’t have T.Y. Hilton and it doesn’t sound like James Conner will go for Pittsburgh. I will point out that all three of Pittsburgh’s wins were in prime time against really incompetent teams (CIN/LAC/MIA), but they also have three losses where they played SEA/SF/BAL very tough so it’s hard to figure this team out right now. Just like the Colts had a tougher time with the Broncos and Raiders at home as they did with the Chiefs and Texans in wins.

It could easily be another ugly game, which the Colts have won their fair share of already this season. The Steelers have been feasting on turnovers and could get after Brissett in this matchup. I think if Rudolph is trusted more to take shots to his wide receivers then the Steelers will be able to score enough for another win over Indy. They’re 7-2 against the Colts since 2002.

It’s just that most of these games weren’t what they were expected to be when the schedules were made.

Patriots at Ravens (+3.5)

Finally, the Patriots are done with their Division III schedule and the season can really begin. I’m inclined to believe any team who is 40 yards away from losing to Matt Barkley is not going to go 19-0, such as the Patriots were in Buffalo earlier this season. I actually think the Browns outplayed them the final three quarters last week, but Cleveland had that horrific three turnovers in a row stretch that no team could recover from in New England.

I don’t think the 2019 Patriots are the greatest team ever and any claims of that are going to look absurd by season’s end. I don’t even think it’s the first or second best 8-0 run by these Patriots this century. I posted that earlier this week on Twitter when you look at their 8-0 start in 2007 and their 8-0 finish in the 2010 regular season. The latter is always overlooked because of how that team imploded in the first playoff game against the Jets, a team they beat 45-3 in December.

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The Patriots have fattened their record and gaudy defensive stats against a schedule likely to feature seven teams with a losing record by season’s end. Buffalo is the best team they played and Buffalo is statistically one of the worst 5-2 teams ever. You can’t throw the games away because they happened, but you also can’t tell me you can take the numbers at face value when the competition is this bad.

The Steelers are the only team the Patriots throttled in a way no one else has this year so far, but think about that matchup logically. First, we’ve seen New England’s offense do that to Pittsburgh’s defense at home for two decades now. Notice how the NE offense, which has been pretty mediocre this year, peaked in that Week 1 game. The difference was on offense, and that was the least talented offense the Steelers have fielded in arguably two decades. No Antonio Brown. No Le’Veon Bell. Ben Roethlisberger with an elbow injury, tossing a 40-yard bomb for a pick while down huge in the 4Q. Oh and way too much Donte Moncrief (released this weekend), who dropped a fourth down and dropped a touchdown in a game where the Steelers couldn’t call a good play in short-yardage situations. And despite all of that, NE’s defensive EPA was a season low +9.50 in that game according to Pro Football Reference.

Now enter Baltimore for what is low-key a No. 1 offense vs. No. 1 defense matchup. The Ravens are second to the Patriots in scoring, but that’s because of the surplus in return scores by NE this year. The Ravens are actually No. 1 in the league in yards per drive and points per drive (the Patriots are 20th and 14th in those categories). They’re also No. 1 in plays per drive and time of possession per drive, keyed by their No. 1 rushing offense led by Lamar Jackson, the quarterback.

This is far from a normal BAL-NE matchup, which has often gone well for head coach John Harbaugh in his career, at least relative to how the rest of the league plays New England. The Ravens won’t be intimidated by this team. Despite the fact that Baltimore hasn’t beaten NE since that 2012 sweep, the Ravens offer a different challenge from the rest of the NFL that could prove to be the toughest game the Patriots have this regular season. While the defense is not up to usual Baltimore standards — it’s mediocre at best at keeping the score down and even weaker at generation turnovers — it did limit Russell Wilson to one of his worst home games ever in the last outing. With Jackson resting on the bye week, he can use his legs with reckless abandon on Sunday night, though I think scrambles will be the way to go over the designed runs they like to use too. The Patriots aren’t their usual offensive selves this year, so I don’t think he’ll have to score a ton to win this game and the Ravens can shrink the number of possessions by controlling the clock through their run-heavy attack.

This is only Jackson’s 16th start and Bill Belichick will certainly hope to confuse him to make some mistakes with his arm against that veteran secondary. That’s why I don’t think the Ravens need to go away from their run-heavy approach because it would just be playing right into NE’s hands. Jackson has to be cautious early and avoid the turnovers that put Cleveland and the Jets in such quick, huge holes the last two weeks against the Patriots.

I still believe that experience matters in beating the Patriots, so Jackson’s first look could be a rough one here, but if it serves him better come playoff time then so be it. I’m just glad to see the Patriots are getting an opponent who shouldn’t crap its pants before the first quarter is over.

Also, the Patriots don’t have a good kicker anymore while the Ravens have maybe the best one ever in Justin Tucker. So if it’s a really tight game, that could be crucial. No Billy Cundiff here.

NFL Week 9 Predictions

I felt alright about the 49ers covering on Thursday night, but the Cardinals were very competitive once again against Kyle Shanahan’s team. Just weren’t able to get the ball back late.

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I’ll update the picks on Twitter on Sunday when we find out if Patrick Mahomes is playing for the Chiefs. I like KC if he is, but we’ll see how that one shakes out.

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NFL Week 7 Predictions: Patrick Mahomes Panic Button Edition

I certainly wasn’t trying to conjure up an injury to Patrick Mahomes last week when I wrote that spoof that ended with him being the final piece of the Chiefs puzzle to disappear this year. Just a week earlier I said he was the most exciting part of the NFL right now and without this offense my interest in the league would be at its lowest point since 2000.

So are we there after Thursday night’s injury? Maybe not, but it was scary to see him unable to get off the field and reports of the cart coming out. Mahomes walked off after a dislocated kneecap and the thought is he may only miss 3-4 games before returning for the stretch run. It’s still a big risk to rush him back when the long-term outlook is more important than anything, and keep in mind he hasn’t received that monster payday yet.

But the fact that he’s not been ruled out for the season is great news for football fans and especially the AFC in general, which badly needs someone to stand up to the Patriots. More on that shortly.

Mahomes’ expedited return is already drawing comparisons to RG3 rushing back in Washington, a scary thought for such a promising player’s potential if he comes back too soon. I also thought about the cases of Daunte Culpepper, Carson Palmer and Andrew Luck, and that despite modern medicine’s best efforts, sometimes health can derail a player’s career. When it’s someone like Mahomes who has shown the potential to be the best to ever play the position, it’s a situation where decisions must not be made in haste.

Do You Push the Button?

So let’s talk about a hasty hypothetical decision that I saw on Twitter that has continued to fascinate me as this Chiefs season unfolds. Carrington Harrison initially posted the poll on October 3:

You have a button where if you push it, you lock Mahomes into what is essentially the 13-year run Peyton Manning had with the Colts (1998-2010). That means 11 seasons with 10+ wins, 11 trips to the playoffs, a 1-1 Super Bowl record, a SB MVP, and four regular season MVPs. It’s the type of career very few achieve as even Drew Brees and Aaron Rodgers have not gotten to more than one Super Bowl yet and they combine for half as many MVPs as Manning won in Indy.

I voted Yes to lock it in. I was a little surprised that only 52% went for the lock, but since Harrison is Kansas City-based, I figured he might attract more votes from the local fans who are more interested in ring counting than their QB’s legacy.

Then a funny thing happened. Just a couple days later, Mahomes had the first “bad game” of his career against the Colts when they only scored 13 points, snapping a historic streak of scoring 26+ in every start. Mahomes also twice was visibly injured and limped slowly off the field. I almost thought about re-running the poll again myself after that game, which showed Mahomes is in fact mortal.

Then the Texans came to town and after some weird sequences where Mahomes lost a fumble before the half and threw his first interception of the season after a DPI flag was picked up, the Chiefs lost another home game and didn’t score 26 points again. The defense looked horrible — worse than the box score since multiple TD were dropped by the Texans — and couldn’t get Mahomes the ball in the second half. If that’s how they’re going to handle semi-contenders like Indy and Houston, how does this team have any hope at going to New England and winning this year?

Finally, Thursday night happened. Mahomes looked sharp early in Denver, but a simple QB sneak was the play he injured his kneecap on. It’s a freak accident and you almost never see that on hundreds and hundreds of sneaks that I’ve personally studied over the years. Maybe they shouldn’t have been calling that with his ankle already compromised, but it is generally a safe play.

So after two losses and major injury concerns, I ran the poll again myself. Do you push the button?

As of Saturday afternoon, 52% are saying No to my poll. I figured my followers would have less interest in the Chiefs’ success and care more about Mahomes’ potential legacy. I also thought after the events of the last three games more would be willing to lock this in, so that definitely surprised me. I will note that some were confused that the 1 Super Bowl MVP means a ring, which I thought was obvious, but never assume on Twitter. So I don’t know how many votes that would swing if it said RING in caps, but I digress.

I’m not going to break into a 5000-word analysis over this one, but I want to talk about the prevailing thought that the potential landscape of the AFC going forward are reasons enough to vote No and to let things play out Mahomes’ own way. If Mahomes is going to be the premiere QB of the next decade, then why not better than a 1-1 SB record in a league where the Patriots should fall off soon, Andrew Luck already retired, Ben Roethlisberger and Philip Rivers are nearing the end, the 2018 QBs (Baker/Darnold/Allen/Rosen/Lamar) aren’t leaps and bounds better this year, the AFC West looks like a mess, and the NFC never seems to have a consistently dominant team?

I’ve definitely considered all of that.

However, this is the NFL, a league where we can barely predict what will happen next week, let alone 10, five, or even three years from now. For all we know the Bengals could land Tua and Cincinnati can have a dynastic run in the 2020s. Don’t laugh; at least Marvin Lewis is gone.

The AFC’s Great Decline

One thing I mentioned two weeks ago was that Peyton Manning had to deal with a much stronger AFC during his Indy days before it fell off in his Denver days, so that could definitely be an advantage for Mahomes. Of course, a Patriots fan had to butt in with this:

So here we are on to the topic that I should probably write a book about at this point: the decline of the AFC. I don’t know how anyone could follow the NFL in the 21st century and not see what’s happened to this conference. Typically in the NFL you’ll see challengers come and go while only a couple of teams hang on as consistent winners. Think about the NFC West this decade. The Seahawks have been the consistent winner since drafting Russell Wilson in 2012. The 49ers had that three-year run of NFC-CG (2011-13) when Jim Harbaugh took over. The Cardinals had a three-year run of 10-win seasons with Bruce Arians and Carson Palmer (2013-15). The Rams have won the division the last two years and been to a SB since Sean McVay took over as head coach. That’s just one division.

Meanwhile in the AFC, you basically have had the same couple of teams rule the conference for 2010-19 that ruled it in 2000-09. That’s practically unheard of. That’s New England, Pittsburgh, the team with Peyton Manning (IND/DEN), and Baltimore. The Chargers fell off and the Titans fell even further this decade. Also, the Steelers were stronger circa 2004-2011 when they had a great defense, and the Colts were stronger with Manning than without him despite Luck’s potential. Denver has been an also-ran since Manning retired too, though that 4-year run (2012-15) was a great challenge to the Patriots. The only other team the AFC has built up this decade is Andy Reid’s tenure in Kansas City since 2013, now bolstered by the addition of Mahomes.

Those three stooges in the AFC East (MIA/BUF/NYJ)? Losers for two decades. The Browns and Raiders? Terrible for two decades. Even the Bengals are back to being under .500 since 2010 despite five straight playoff trips at one point.

I talked about three-year runs in the NFC West this decade. We can’t do that in the AFC. “Hey, remember when Marcus Mariota had the Titans in the playoffs two years in a row?” Nope, didn’t happen. “Hey, remember that awesome Jacksonville defense helping Bortles to back-to-back AFC title games?” Oh, you mean the team for one season that took advantage of Luck and Watson (rookie sensation cut down by non-contact injury) being out in 2017? I liked it better when they were called the 2009-10 Jets with Mark Sanchez, the last time New York did anything worth a damn and actually knocked the Patriots out of the playoffs.

It’s not just the AFC East that New England has taken advantage of. It’s the whole conference this decade that has been a disappointment. As I always point out, the reason the 49ers didn’t continue to make a bunch of Super Bowls in the 90s (despite great regular seasons) is because they actually had legit competition from the Cowboys and Packers. The Patriots had one of those foes for four years (Denver), but nothing else has really materialized in the AFC.

It’s too early to know if Mahomes is someone capable of sustaining this incredible offensive play for years to come, leading to 12-win season after 12-win season. That’s what Manning did in his career. The Chiefs are 5-2 right now, and even if Mahomes was 100 percent healthy, they still may win 10 or 11 games instead of 12. However, with the shape of the AFC right now, don’t be shocked if 11-5 doesn’t get a first-round bye again. It happened for New England last year.

You knew there’d be a table eventually and it’s a wordy one. My theory was that Manning had a tougher AFC to navigate in his Indy days than in his Denver time and the current AFC. So I used 12 wins as the litmus test to see just where that would have gotten Manning each year since 2002 realignment, and I did the same thing for Brady and the Patriots. I also looked at the Chiefs since 2016 since they have basically taken the mantle from Denver in the AFC West as NE’s best challenger. I know very well that neither Manning nor Mahomes was in the NFL in 2016, but just go with it. I also looked at the best-case scenario for what 12 wins would have done for these teams without getting crazy into tie-breakers and not changing the game results for any head-to-head meetings that would have gone into that.

 

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My main findings:

1. On four occasions (2003-04, 2006, 2008), Manning led the Colts to 12 actual wins and that was still not enough for a first-round bye. One year (2008) it even led to a No. 5 Wild Card and road playoff game. That happened just once in 17 years to the Patriots in 2006 when they were the No. 4 seed at 12-4.

2. That would be unheard of in the AFC these days. You have to go back to 2009 to find the last time 12 wins wouldn’t have given the Patriots a bye. In six of the last seven seasons, 12 wins would have given the AFC West winner a bye. Not pictured here, but the Patriots could have won 11 games in six of the last nine seasons and still received a first-round bye six times and a No. 3 seed three times. Those days of a 15-1 Pittsburgh or 14-2 San Diego or a random 13-3 Tennessee are long gone.

3. The 2018 Patriots are the first AFC team since the 2002 Raiders/Titans to get a first-round bye with 11 wins. No one won 12 games in 2002. If you look at the way the AFC is trending this year, the No. 2 seed may not win 12 games again. Also note that the 2001 Patriots, the beginning of the dynasty, had a No. 2 seed with an 11-5 record, but this is only looking at since realignment.

4. Despite the IND/DEN/KC teams having inferior defenses/ST/coaching, they won at least 12 games in 13 of the 17 seasons compared to 12-of-17 for the Patriots. However, the Patriots did have seven seasons in excess of 12 wins (13+) compared to five for the other side. That’s still pretty respectable when you consider the defenses Indy had in the old days or KC last year.

There are many different ways one can take this Mahomes button decision. I’m not going to rehash the playoff struggles the Colts had in the Manning era here, but let’s not forget that the Chiefs have a long history of losing at home in the playoffs, including three straight seasons of doing exactly that. The defense doesn’t exactly look ready for a dynasty run. If you can lock in a ring with a lot of exciting seasons to watch, I think that’s too hard to pass up. While I understand the AFC horizon looks tempting, just remember that you’ll be watching with bated breath the next time Mahomes takes a hit. Maybe every time from now on. Also don’t forget that Dan Marino got to the Super Bowl in 1984 and never returned. He never won another MVP. He only had two more 12-win seasons after 1984 as well. Marino is about the only QB who compares to Mahomes through 26 games.

You just never know how things are going to turn out in this league. All I know is we’ve been looking for greatness to step up in the AFC for many years now. The AFC has tried to sell us on many franchise changers, including Adam Gase, Ryan Tannehill, Andrew Luck, Chuck Pagano, Trent Richardson, Johnny Manziel, Marcus Mariota, Jadeveon Clowney, Baker Mayfield, Hue Jackson, Josh Allen, Sammy Watkins, Luke Joeckel, Sam Darnold, Derek Carr, Blake Bortles, Justin Blackmon, Corey Davis, Doug Marrone, Bill O’Brien, Leonard Fournette, Andy Dalton, Jake Locker, Blaine Gabbert, and the list goes on. Even Jalen Ramsey jumped ship to the NFC (Rams) this week.

Mahomes is the one who actually looks like he can be the face of the league for the next decade. One name I left out was Deshaun Watson, who also looked to set the record books on fire before tearing his ACL as a rookie. Could Mahomes vs. Watson be the 2020’s version of Manning vs. Brady?

That would certainly beat what the AFC has turned into since 2016: Brady vs. the field & Father Time. That’s why the sentiment around Thursday night was “this would be terrible for the league if Mahomes is seriously injured” and not just for the Chiefs.

So do I press the button and lock in a first-ballot HOF career for Mahomes that I know I’ll enjoy watching for the next decade? Damn right I do.

NFL Week 7 Predictions

I had the Chiefs covering on TNF, and lost in all the Mahomes injury talk was a horrific performance by Joe Flacco and the Denver offense.

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I’m laughing at the thought of Josh Allen being favored by 17 in an NFL game. Yes, Miami is truly terrible, but I think Ryan Fitzpatrick gives them a better chance than Josh Rosen did. So even if it’s done in garbage time, I think he can cover that one.

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NFL Week 4 Predictions: Scoring Edition

You hate to “call” a season this early, but the NFL in 2019 looks a lot like an NBA season at this point where only a few teams are even worth mentioning as serious title contenders. The Patriots and Chiefs stand above the pack, but the Patriots still look more balanced and have home-field advantage for the Week 14 meeting. The NFC is looking for an elite team, and while that could be Dallas this year, let’s see how the next four games go after three weeks of beating up on the Little Sisters of the Poor.

So when I look at the Week 4 schedule, I immediately focus on the two games between unbeaten teams: Patriots at Bills, Chiefs at Lions (2-0-1 is technically unbeaten).

Chiefs at Lions (+7.5)

Vegas doesn’t show much faith in Detroit even at home, but it’s understandable. No team this year has probably walked a finer line between 0-3 and 3-0 than the Lions. They’ve gotten sacks (3 per game), but not much overall pressure at all, and the defense has been gifted drops in Philly and an inexplicable interception thrown by Philip Rivers in Week 2. Patrick Mahomes got away with some dangerous throws against Baltimore last week, but he still made incredible plays in that game to rack up another huge stat line. Now there’s hype over his first indoor NFL game that matters and the Lions could be with a limited Darius Slay (or without him at all) at corner. Throw in the fact that Detroit almost never beats the best teams in the NFL and it’s not a good recipe for an upset here.

Maybe this has jinx written all over it, but I compiled a chart of the top scoring streaks in NFL history. The Chiefs have scored at least 26 points in every Mahomes start, which is an NFL record, but they also have the most consecutive 20-point games in NFL history with 27. When it comes to scoring at least 22 points, the Chiefs are currently tied with the 1997-98 Vikings at 21 games.

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Patriots at Bills (+7.5)

Just like the Chiefs, the Patriots are 7.5 point road favorites this week. Tom Brady is famously 30-3 against Buffalo in his career, and that’s 30-2 if you exclude the 2014 Week 17 game he left early for playoff rest. That’s why I always say Buffalo’s only method of beating him has been a four INT pick parade (2003 and 2011). The Patriots have hardly been challenged this year while Buffalo has already needed a 16-point comeback against the Jets and to pull one out late against the lowly Bengals just to get to 3-0.

But hey, this is a chance for Buffalo to make a huge statement in the young Josh Allen era. We’ve seen 3-0 teams crash and burn before. In fact it’s happened almost 80 times where a team started 3-0 and didn’t make the playoffs, including Buffalo in 2008 and 2011. Since 1990, 104 out of 141 teams to start 3-0 made the playoffs (73.8%), so more than a quarter still miss. Buffalo might still have a good shot at a wild card just because of the dysfunction in the AFC, but any thoughts of dethroning the Patriots this year have to start with a win at home on Sunday.

While the Chiefs are doing historic things on the scoring front, the Patriots are also on a historic run defensively, which we know is harder to sustain but still very impressive in this era. Going back to the 13-3 Super Bowl win in February, the Patriots have not allowed an offensive touchdown in four straight games. They are the first team to do this since the 2000 Steelers and it’s something that has only been done eight times since the 1970 merger. The only touchdowns against NE this year were returns against the offense and ST. Meanwhile the defense also scored on two pick 6’s in Miami, so their net defensive points allowed is still at minus-11 through three games and -8 since the Super Bowl.

A lot can happen between now and December 8, but we could see a historic offense going up against a historic defense in New England.

NFL Week 4 Predictions

For the love of God could we retire the Ricardo Lockette play at the goal line? I loved the Eagles to cover on TNF, but thought Green Bay would win by a field goal. Instead of getting to overtime where that could have happened the Packers seemed content to follow 2014 Seattle’s miserable plan of running the clock down and trying to throw into a tight area short of the goal line. The pass was tipped and intercepted, the first time Aaron Rodgers, who had one of his best games in the last five seasons, has done that in the red zone in crunch time since 2015 Carolina.

The Eagles covering on the road means road teams are 34-14-1 (.704) ATS this season. Every week has seen 11 road teams cover so far. That seems crazy to me but I need to do the research before a Saturday to see where that really stacks up historically. I do know that road teams are also 24-23-1 (.510) SU thru three weeks. Odd? Absolutely. I had to dig back to 2006 to find a season where road teams didn’t start with a losing record through three weeks:

  • 2019: 24-23-1 (.510)
  • 2018: 17-29-2 (.375)
  • 2017: 20-27 (.426)
  • 2016: 22-26 (.458)
  • 2015: 21-27 (.438)
  • 2014: 20-28 (.417)
  • 2013: 16-32 (.333)
  • 2012: 17-31 (.354)
  • 2011: 17-31 (.354)
  • 2010: 20-28 (.417)
  • 2009: 23-25 (.479)
  • 2008: 19-28 (.404)
  • 2007: 18-30 (.375)
  • 2006: 25-21 (.543)

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If you think about home teams making a comeback in Week 4, then how can you not entertain the thought of the banged up Chargers losing to pathetic Miami? I wouldn’t go that far, but I actually think they give them enough of a scare to cover the spread finally.

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NFL Week 3 Predictions: Greatest Plays Edition

Once is an accident. Twice is a coincidence. Three times is a pattern. In Week 3, nine NFL teams will attempt to move to 3-0 while nine more are looking for their first win. There’s not a whole lot about the slate that interests me on paper, so let’s start with a look back at something NFL Network completed last night before we get to the early game of the year (BAL-KC) as well as my thoughts on Ben Roethlisberger’s season-ending injury.

100 Greatest Plays

Last night the NFL wrapped up its four-part series on the 100 Greatest Plays in NFL history (see list here). When you have more than a million plays to choose from, narrowing it down to 100 is no easy task. Okay, granted we can chop off hundreds of thousands runs for 4 yards or less, but it’s still a challenge.

For the most part, I thought they came up with a pretty solid list. The biggest omission for me was the TD pass Joe Flacco threw to Jacoby Jones with Rahim Moore blowing the coverage. That was a more stunning and ultimately more important play than the 76th-ranked Tim Tebow OT winner to Demaryius Thomas from the previous season. It’s not like the argument that one play won the game while the other forced overtime is valid either, because they put John Elway’s TD pass to cap off The Drive to force overtime at #30. In the context of highlighting singular plays rather than drives or full games, it’s pretty absurd that ranks 30th and Jones doesn’t rank at all. In short, they really botched the Denver playoff games with this list.

But I thought they did well to include perhaps the funniest play in NFL history (The Butt-Fumble), the most memorable blocked punt in NFL history (Steve Gleason in 2006), the best lateral-filled plays (River City Relay, Miracle in Miami), the most shocking punt return TD (Miracle at the Meadowlands II), and my favorite QB run ever (Steve Young TD vs. Vikings). A little too much love for RBs, but like I always say, that nostalgic love for the workhorse back dies hard with old-school fans.

There’s an error on the NFL site that attributes Elway’s aforementioned TD vs. Cleveland to being a 49ers play. So the 49ers are tied with the Vikings for the most plays (15) in the top 100. Obviously they weren’t always on the positive side of those plays, especially the Vikings with He Did What, Old Man Willie, The Hail Mary/Push Off, Tony Dorsett 99 yards, Vick’s OT TD run, Cromartie’s 109 yard TD return, 65 Toss Power Trap, and Steve Young’s TD run. The other teams in double digits were the Cowboys (10), Packers (10), Patriots (12), and Giants (12).

While they only had 9 plays, I have to say the Steelers are as well represented as any team in this feature. They have four of the top 12 plays, including The Immaculate Reception (#1), Roethlisberger to Holmes in the SB (#6), James Harrison’s 100-yard pick-six (#7), and Lynn Swann’s SB Circus Catch (#12).

I would be remiss not to highlight the six positive plays that were featured from the Patriots dynasty (2001-present):

  • No. 99 – The Butt Fumble (Mark Sanchez runs into his own teammate for a fumble returned by NE for a TD)
  • No. 85 – Brady throws an interception to Champ Bailey, but Ben Watson tracks him down 100 yards to prevent a pick-six
  • No. 84 – Randy Moss makes a one-handed touchdown catch against Darrelle Revis in 2010
  • No. 22 – In SB 51, Brady’s pass goes through Robert Alford’s hands and is caught by Julian Edelman inches off the ground for a 20+ yard completion.
  • No. 18 – The greatest FG in NFL history is Adam Vinatier’s snow kick vs. Oakland after The Tuck Rule.
  • No. 5 – The greatest INT in NFL history is Malcolm Butler at the 1-yd line vs. Seattle in SB 49.

Notice who isn’t highlighted in any of these plays: Tom Brady. He was on the sideline for three of them. As for the other three, he should have had two interceptions (including a pick-six), but was bailed out by his teammates, and Moss made a great catch for him. While it’s not like inclusion on this list is necessary for being the greatest player (Jerry Rice has zero plays too), this just shows what I’ve been saying for years. Some of the greatest plays in history have gone NE’s way because of players not named Brady, and he’s taken advantage of that to get such a surplus of rings and SB appearances.

Half the rings disappear without three of the top 22 plays in history. That’s why they’re understandably so high on the list.

Steelers without Ben Roethlisberger

Ben Roethlisberger (elbow surgery) is out for the season. He’s had plenty of injuries throughout his career, but he’s always avoided the serious ones until now. With this season-ending one, he’s up to 29 career games missed due to injury and you can see where that ranks among active starters:

So now what? The Steelers look terrible on defense too, but NE-SEA was a tough opening slate and the schedule should ease up. Second-year QB Mason Rudolph takes over as the starter and he’s more talented than previous backups such as Dennis Dixon, Landry Jones and Josh Dobbs. The Steelers have had a significant decline in passing production without Roethlisberger in his career, but there are some reasons for optimism around Rudolph beyond just having a college rapport with WR James Washington.

For one, the Steelers might have to actually coach for a change. I think there’s a serious downside to having a franchise quarterback that no one ever talks about or has studied. It’s when your team becomes so reliant on that player that the other parts of the team slack off and don’t pull their own weight because they trust the QB can pick up the slack. You can apply this to the careers of Dan Marino, Peyton Manning, Andrew Luck, Aaron Rodgers in recent years, etc. Smart organizations like Bill Walsh’s 49ers or Bill Belichick’s Patriots don’t rely on the QB as much so if Joe Montana or Tom Brady missed games, those teams didn’t just fall apart like the others did.

The Steelers got off to a sluggish offensive start this season, but there were some clear trends in the limited time that Roethlisberger was the QB. Without Antonio Brown, they have tried to field a variety of wide receivers to fill the production and things have started poorly with Donte Moncrief playing terrible football.

Basically, with Roethlisberger the 2019 Steelers tried to go with an empty backfield and have Ben throw quick, short passes to receivers who couldn’t catch or do anything with the ball in their hands. There was no running game to speak of. It wasn’t working and they only scored 3 points in NE before another slow start against Seattle. But once Rudolph came into the game, the Steelers went to the play-action attack, something they do the least in the league since last season. They called a flea-flicker, which Rudolph completed for 45 yards even if it was a little underthrown. He also got one great catch out of rookie Diontae Johnson, so those two plays accounted for more than half of his yardage last week.

Leave it up to Mike Tomlin’s staff to think that they have to make the game easier on the young QB by using play-action and getting the tight end involved more. Meanwhile, they could have been doing the same things with Roethlisberger in the game as we know play-action can be such an effective tool for anyone. Unfortunately, the Steelers have this mindset that without Le’Veon Bell no one will respect the run, but that’s just not the case with how play-action gets linebackers to instinctively pause to play the run before adjusting to it being a pass. So if the Steelers are going to call more “easy plays” to help out Rudolph, then it’s a good thing even if these are things they already should have been doing with Roethlisberger. Benching (hell, flat out cutting is the right move) Moncrief and getting Washington and Vance McDonald more involved are moves that should get the offense back on track, but it could very well be a long season.

So we’ll see how the offense changes with Rudolph, but also keep an eye on the defense. That unit can field eight first-round picks to start the game now that they traded for Minkah Fitzpatrick, so Tomlin and Keith Butler have no excuses about not having the talent. It’s not good that the game is in San Francisco and the 49ers are the only offense to not go three-and-out so far this season. 0-3 could be the reality for Pittsburgh, but I still believe the schedule has 7-9 wins if Rudolph plays well.

Ravens at Chiefs (-6)

I’m really excited about this game after it was one of the best in 2018, and these definitely look like two of the only three good teams in the AFC. So this one should be important for seeding. I’m a little surprised the Chiefs are still a 6-point favorite after being a 6.5-point favorite last season over a Baltimore team that didn’t look as good offensively as it has this year.

The quarterbacks have been awesome, but what’s it going to take for Patrick Mahomes to have a so-so game (let alone bad) in the NFL? It hasn’t happened yet, but the Ravens came the closest to keeping him under his scoring threshold (26+ points) last year. Remember, the Chiefs were down 24-17 after 59 minutes of last December’s meeting. Baltimore ran the ball a lot that day and played some keep-away from Mahomes, though he did still dazzle with the no-look pass in the first half. Harrison Butker missed two FGs that day too, but the fact is Mahomes had to convert a miracle 4th-and-9 to save this game as well as a TD on 4th-and-3. That 4th-and-9 bomb was to Tyreek Hill, who is still out injured. Eric Fisher and Damien Williams are also out so injuries are piling up for the offense. Baltimore may not be as strong defensively and CB Jimmy Smith is out, so it does suck that we’re already talking about so many injuries for a Week 3 game.

I like the Chiefs in this one because I was encouraged by Arizona’s 23-17 final in Baltimore last week. If Kyler Murray was able to throw for 349 yards and repeatedly get his offense inside the 5-yard line, I trust Mahomes to do the same and finish more drives with touchdowns instead of wimpy FGs. But don’t discredit the way Lamar Jackson has started this season, and I’m sure he’s licking his chops at a defense that is allowing 6 YPC and over 70% completions. Baltimore could go on some really long drives again that shrink Mahomes’ opportunities and force him to be close to perfect.

This should be a lot of fun.

NFL Week 3 Predictions

It’s pretty embarrassing to see spreads of 22 and 23 in any week in the NFL, let alone Week 3. I like to believe that teams take that to heart and usually cover, but I’m not sure the Jets and Dolphins care right now.

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I can’t figure out the Titans once again this year. I was probably too trusting of the team that beat Cleveland by 30, but they looked terrible in Jacksonville. They might be the worst team in the AFC South actually.

Keep in mind road teams have been killing it with 11 wins ATS in each of the first two weeks. I have a lot of home teams getting the job done this week, though that’s not on purpose.

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