NFL Week 8 Predictions: AFC Gone Wild Edition

After the Packers stunned Arizona on Thursday night, both teams still hold the best record in the NFL at 7-1 to start Week 8. In fact, the NFC has the top five records in the NFL this year with Tampa Bay, (6-1), Los Angeles Rams (6-1), and Dallas (5-1) all with one loss through Week 7.

This makes the 2021 NFC the first conference since the 1970 merger to hold the five best records in the league through Week 7. This is history. Once you get past those five teams, there’s not much going on in the NFC right now.

But in the AFC, there’s a staggering amount of competition now that the Chiefs have lost to almost every contender except the Browns while the Titans beat the Bills, who blew a 10-0 lead to the Steelers, but Tennessee also lost in overtime to the Jets, and while the Raiders beat the Ravens in overtime and lost badly to the Chargers, those Chargers lost 34-6 to the Ravens, who promptly lost big to the Bengals. Something something the Raiders and Bengals have also lost to the Bears, so everyone is flawed here.

Got it?

This start is also producing some history in the eight-division era. The 2021 AFC is the first conference since 2002 where the top six records through Week 7 are all teams with two losses: Bengals (5-2), Ravens (5-2), Titans (5-2), Bills (4-2), and Chargers (4-2).

This is only the third time where a conference did not have a team with zero or one losses through Week 7. The other times were the 2010 NFC (ultimately won by No. 1 seed Atlanta, then Green Bay in the playoffs) and the 2017 AFC (ultimately won by New England thanks to Jesse James and the stupid NFL catch rule). But even in those years, there were teams with three losses in the top six.

Competition is a great thing. While I still expect the NFC to meltdown and let Tampa Bay back to the Super Bowl, the AFC has a lot of options for a change this year.

NFL Week 8 Predictions

I backed a lot of dogs last week and it did not go so well. This week, I found it hard to pick any, even ATS.

I’m so done with the Eagles for now. Give me Dan Campbell over the Fertilizer Guy this week for Detroit’s first win.

I’m not sure why the spread has changed so much in Indy. I know Julio Jones is out, but he’s not worth 2 points himself. But I’m used to the Colts beating the Titans, so I’m predicting the split on the season here.

NE-LAC: Had to hedge with the spread here. The Chargers see Bill Belichick on the sideline and immediately shit their pants. If you think it was because of Tom Brady, then you must have missed last year when they had that special teams debacle and lost 45-0 to a New England team that threw for 126 net yards.

WAS-DEN: Gotta back Ted the Spread against a bad QB/terrible defense at Mile High. That’s him in his element. If not, then Drew Lock is going to get back on the field and Vic Fangio is getting fired soon. Denver has to win that one.

DAL-MIN: A potentially great shootout could go away if Dak Prescott can’t go. The spread has already swung from Dallas -2.5 to Minnesota -3 given the Dak news with his calf. That would be unfortunate, though Andy Dalton did get a win over the Vikings a year ago. Cooper Rush would be the QB this time for Dallas.

NYG-KC: See my preview here at BMR on MNF. The Chiefs still move the ball at an elite level, but so does the opposing offense on their defense that ranks 32nd in yards and points per drive. The Chiefs are also on pace to have the highest turnover rate of any offense since at least 1993.

NFL Stat Oddity: Week 7

I knew we were in for a rough two weeks of NFL action, but I didn’t think it would be this bad. While Week 6 only featured five games with a comeback opportunity, at least it ended on a high note on Monday night between the Bills and Titans. But in Week 7, we’ve had just three of the 12 games feature a comeback opportunity. That’s eight games in two weeks after there were 11 close games in just Week 5.

That’s why announcers need to stop playing up the number of overtime games or this cutesy stat about a record number of games where the winning points were scored in the final minute – again, something directly correlated to the overtimes. This season is not giving us many close games and I have some theories below on why that is the case.

Going into Monday night, the average margin of victory in Week 7 is 18.6 points. That ranks as the third-highest week (regular season only) since 2001, only trailing Week 7 in 2009 (20.3) and Week 15 in 2012 (18.7). As long as Seahawks-Saints is decided by at least six points, it will stay as the third-highest week in the 21st century.

Without gambling, a lot of these games would be unwatchable. Hell, even with it I’m having a hard time.

This season in Stat Oddity:

Cardinals/Rams/Bucs: Big Favorites Win in Top-Heavy NFC Race

I wrote on Saturday how big favorites (11+ points) almost never all cover the spread. It happened again as the Cardinals hit scorigami with a 31-5 win over Houston and the Bears repeatedly gave Tampa Bay a shortcut to the end zone, but the Rams had a tight one with the Lions before finally winning 28-19 in one of the only two 4QC/GWD this week. Go figure, Matthew Stafford had his 40th game-winning drive against his former team.

Stafford had a nice revenge game but hats off to Dan Campbell for coaching the Lions the way a huge underdog should approach a David vs. Goliath matchup like this. He had a surprise onside kick and fake punt in the first quarter as Detroit led 10-0. Jared Goff had arguably his best game of the season, but in the end, Goff goofed in the red zone and threw an interception to Jalen Ramsey when he had a chance to throw a go-ahead touchdown.

It did not feel like the Cardinals brought their A-game against the Texans, but the fact that they still won 31-5 and got all their main weapons, including new tight end Zach Ertz, involved for touchdowns tells you just how bad Houston is. Huge game coming up Thursday against Green Bay. Kyler Murray took a lot of big hits in this game, but he should be okay for Thursday. It’ll be a great opportunity for the Cardinals to show how serious they are as Super Bowl contenders in a prime-time game with a chance to go 8-0.

Chicago basically TKO’d itself in the first quarter in Tampa Bay, spotting Tom Brady three possessions inside the 40 in the first quarter alone. Tampa Bay ended up starting six drives inside Chicago territory in the game. Half the league came into Week 7 without six such drives on the season. It was last season when the Buccaneers had a league-high 23 drives start inside the opponent 40 when you add in the six they had in the playoffs. Now they had five such drives in this game, scoring three touchdowns and a field goal on them. Teams have no shot if they’re going to keep gifting the Bucs these short fields. I’ll be surprised if Matt Nagy survives the season in Chicago.

But this does create a very interesting NFC where the Cardinals are 7-0, the Rams and Bucs are 6-1, and the Cowboys (on a bye) are 5-1. Those four teams have only lost to each other with the Cowboys losing to a late field goal in Tampa Bay, and the Bucs were blown out by the Rams, who were blown out by the Cardinals. The Packers are also 6-1 but we’ll see how they fare against Arizona this week and the Rams in Week 12.

Chiefs at Titans: STOP THE COUNT! Kansas City Is Dazed and Confused

Was that the worst game of Patrick Mahomes’ NFL career?

It was the question we asked after the Chiefs scored 17 points and barely beat the Falcons in Week 16 last year to clinch the No. 1 seed.

Was that the worst game of Patrick Mahomes’ NFL career?

It was the question we asked after the Chiefs lost 31-9 in Super Bowl 55 against Tampa Bay, the first time Mahomes lost by more than eight points and the offense failed to score a touchdown.

Was that the worst game of Patrick Mahomes’ NFL career?

It was the question we asked after the Chiefs lost 38-20 at home to the Bills in Week 5 with Mahomes having more turnover problems in the worst home loss of his career.

Was that the worst game of Patrick Mahomes’ NFL career?

It is the question of the day after the Chiefs lost 27-3 in Tennessee, the first wire-to-wire loss in Mahomes’ career, and the answer is undoubtedly yes. This is the lowest point of the Mahomes era in Kansas City. But can it get lower?

It is not a good sign that this question about the worst game has come up four times in the last 11 starts for Mahomes. But for the first time since Week 12 against Buffalo in 2017, the Chiefs failed to hold a lead in a game. That snaps a streak of 68 straight games with a lead. The only known streak longer than that in NFL history is the first 70 starts of the Russell Wilson era in Seattle.

Never losing wire-to-wire was about the last streak the Chiefs had left. While I picked the Titans to win on Sunday, I never expected a 27-0 score at halftime, or that the Chiefs would score the only points of the second half on a field goal. Stopping Derrick Henry (29 carries for 86 yards) was about the only thing the Chiefs did well, but that seemed to make them bad against everything else as Ryan Tannehill had plenty of open receivers and time to throw, and Henry even faked a run for a touchdown pass to start the game. The Titans just beat Buffalo with great offense, but it’s not like the defense was masterful outside of stopping a couple late Josh Allen runs. But three points to the Chiefs? Really?

Sacks and turnovers led the Chiefs to self-destruct in the first half. Mahomes had another tipped interception but also lost a fumble on a scramble at midfield. The Chiefs never really threatened in the second half, and Mahomes had to leave the game after getting sandwiched on a nasty hit (but not illegal or intentionally violent) to the face as he was going down. Mecole Hardman fumbling at the Tennessee 6 to end the game and ensure that the Chiefs would not score a touchdown and have another turnover to add to their league-high total was the perfect ending for this shitshow.

The Chiefs are 3-4, in real danger of missing the playoffs, and they don’t scare any contender in the AFC anymore after losing to the Ravens, Chargers, Bills, and Titans. Of course, that tough schedule is having a big impact on this poor start to the season. The Chiefs could potentially face 11 games against playoff teams this season, which (albeit with a 17th game added in 2021) would tie the single-season record by the 1993 Buccaneers.

I’ve compared Mahomes to Peyton Manning many times already, but one thing I have repeatedly noted is that the only two ways Manning ever missed the playoffs in his career (1998 and 2001) was to have a schedule with 10 playoff teams and the worst scoring defense in the NFL. Well, the 2021 Chiefs are looking an awful lot like the 2001 Colts right now with the terrible defense and having a ton of turnovers.

Those Colts finished 6-10 and fired head coach Jim Mora, who delivered his infamous “playoffs!?” speech that season. I don’t know if these Chiefs are headed for that fate, but I do know you can no longer trust this team against any decent opponent. The invincibility is gone. The mystique is gone.

Until further notice, the Chiefs are just another struggling NFL team that’s a one-unit show on a good day and a total mess on a bad day. Sunday was another bad day, and to think it was just last December when we used to say the Chiefs never had bad games under Mahomes.

Bengals at Ravens: Biggest Cincinnati Win in How Long?

You can make the argument that the Bengals just had their biggest win in over 30 years on Sunday in Baltimore. The Bengals have not won a playoff game since the 1990 season. From 1991-2020, the Bengals had just 17 wins against teams that made the playoffs in a season where Cincinnati also made the playoffs. Winning in Pittsburgh in December 2005 was a really big deal as it helped the Bengals win the AFC North that year, but you can absolutely make the argument that this 41-17 demolition of the Ravens in Baltimore tops that one.

At worst, it’s the second-biggest Cincinnati win in over 30 years.

Remember, the Ravens were 5-1 and just got a ton of hype for beating the Chargers 34-6 a week ago. You know, last week’s hyped AFC team as this thing changes every week now.

For three quarters, this was living up to being the game of the week on paper (garbage week withstanding). Both quarterbacks were dealing with good pressure before they started to make plays down the field in a back-and-forth affair. But once Ja’Marr Chase took off for an 82-yard touchdown to highlight his monster 201-yard day, the Bengals led by double digits for the final 20 minutes.

While a much different game script, this performance from Joe Burrow (career-high 416 yards) and the offense reminds me of this 2004 game by Carson Palmer against Baltimore when he threw for 382 yards and the light seemed to click for him late in his first season as a starter. Burrow and Chase look like they have been doing this for much longer than they have, and that’s even acknowledging their one magical year together at LSU. This is one of the top duos to watch right now.

As for the Ravens, the injuries have clearly not helped this season. The defense cannot be trusted like it used to be, though I thought the Chargers performance was encouraging on that front. They went backwards this week. Still, part of me wonders if the increase in blowouts this season has something to do with the record number of fourth-down attempts we are seeing.

The Ravens were down 27-17 in the fourth quarter with 11:43 to play. They faced a 4th-and-7 at their own 38. In past years, this would almost certainly be a punt. Pin them deep, get the ball back in a few minutes down 10 and go from there. But the Ravens went for it and didn’t get it. It’s not a terrible call since giving up the field goal does not change much, but giving up a 38-yard touchdown drive to an offense that was hot basically ended the game with just over nine minutes left. I feel that in past years, John Harbaugh punts that ball and gets it back 27-17 later. But not these Ravens.

Baltimore then failed on a 4th-and-15 from their own 33, setting up another short field for the Bengals to add yet another touchdown to produce the 41-17 final. The game was closer than that score suggests, but these failed fourth downs really sparked the rout this became. I cannot say if that is happening at the league-wide level more than usual this year, but I felt the risky fourth downs deep in their own end is what sunk the Chargers so quickly (34-6) in Baltimore a week ago.

It is something to keep in mind this season as we see teams winning by huge margins quite regularly now. But I will be careful in anointing the Bengals as the team to beat in the AFC. I don’t think such a thing exists right now. These Bengals struggled like hell with the Jaguars during their 20-game losing streak just three weeks ago.

I think it’s just proof that the AFC is up for grabs, and it will not run through Kansas City like it has the last three seasons as hosts of the AFC Championship Game. And competition is a very good thing for this league. You want to see the Bengals’ fortune change after a couple smart picks at the top of the draft from LSU.

As I said in the beginning, this franchise has almost no huge wins in the last three decades. I’m okay with Cincinnati fans wanting to celebrate the hell out of this one. They just have to lose to the Jets next week and the Bizarro AFC is back on track in 2021. The days of one team dominating are over.

Hurry-Up Finish

Some quick thoughts as I have more articles to write before I get to sleep.

Washington Meets Cruel Regression

Coming into Week 7, offenses were 15-for-15 at scoring touchdowns on the Packers in the red zone. Obviously, the Packers were going to get some red-zone stops eventually this season. But the comedy of errors that led to Washington going 0-for-4 in the red zone was too much. The highlight was Taylor Heinicke doing a Lambeau Leap, since of course he idolized Brett Favre, only for the drive to end in no points after he was ruled to give himself up short of the end zone (stupid rule), and then fumbled at the goal line and was stopped short again on fourth down. Washington was a respectable 10-of-16 in the red zone this year coming into the game, but what a disastrous outing in a 24-10 loss that should have been much closer.

The Jets Backup Is the Creator of The White Lotus?

I’m not sure how the Jets came into this season with Mike White as the backup behind rookie Zach Wilson, but that was another mistake for a team that somehow remains the worst in the NFL despite getting rid of Adam Gase and Sam Darnold (a pumpkin in his own right who was benched on Sunday). The Patriots toyed with the Jets on their way to scoring 54 points (seven touchdowns and two field goals on 10 drives). Three players threw a pass, six players registered a rush, and 11 players caught a pass.

Defund the Eagles

Philly really let Derek Carr complete 31-of-34 passes with Darren Waller inactive. The Eagles might be the worst team in the NFC East. I’m still not buying the Raiders until I see them come out of this upcoming stretch (KC/CIN/DAL) with a good record intact.

Atlanta Almost Did It Again

You know it’s a weird week when the Falcons had one of the only two fourth-quarter comeback wins. Of course, it came after the team blew a 13-point lead that never should have been a 13-point lead. Someone needs to teach Arthur Smith that you go for two when up 12 in the fourth quarter. That extra point and 13-point lead kept the door open for Miami, but fortunately Matt Ryan was on point to Kyle Pitts (163 yards) and came through with a game-winning drive.

Wentz Wagon Rebuilding

As soon as I paid Carson Wentz a compliment on Twitter, he tried to throw four interceptions in the next 25 minutes. But the rain made it extra tough on the 49ers and Colts on Sunday night, and he made enough plays to get the win. It’s still the best month of his career and not one of his overrated three-or-four game stretches like the beginning of his career, the end of the 2019 season, or any of his best runs in 2017. Frank Reich’s offense is working out for him, and you just wonder if the Colts dug too big of a hole at 0-3 for it to matter this season.

Next week: Island games that look good or will they be mirages too? Can we at least get some more competitive, close games?

NFL Stat Oddity: Week 6

With three more NFL games going to overtime on Sunday, the 2021 season has already surpassed the total number of overtime games for the entire 2020 season (10) and matched 2019’s playoff-included total of 11 overtime games.

These overtime games are covering up a shortage of close games in the NFL this season. In Week 6, the only non-overtime game that presented a fourth-quarter comeback opportunity was the London game between Jacksonville and Miami. It was a woefully bad week for the NFL brand.

But props to Jacksonville kicker Matthew Wright for that amazing curve on a 54-yard field goal that led to the Jaguars breaking their 20-game losing streak. Unfortunately, the rest of Sunday’s slate did not build on that start. Through five weeks this season, there were six games where a team scored at least 31 points and allowed fewer than 15 points. There were six such games on Sunday alone. You know things are bad when the 0-5 Jags vs. the 1-4 Dolphins in London turned out to be arguably the best played, most competitive game of the day.

With Bills-Titans left on Monday night, the average margin of victory in Week 6 is 14.69. That’s not so nice. In fact, it’s the 34th-largest MOV in a regular season week since 2001 and it is the largest since Week 7 of the 2019 season (15.1 points per game).

Let’s dissect a terrible week and agree to never speak of it again.

This season in Stat Oddity:

Game of the Week Flops (Chargers and Browns)

I don’t know if the Chargers and Browns blew their wads in that 47-42 game last week, but their performances on Sunday are the best evidence of what a disappointment Week 6 was. On paper, no games were better than Chargers-Ravens and Cardinals-Browns. Those AFC teams have been playing very exciting, high-scoring games while the Cardinals are a fun offense and the last unbeaten team too.

Sure, there were injury concerns coming into both games. Players such as Nick Chubb, Chandler Jones, and Sammy Watkins were ruled out, while players such as Myles Garrett and Mike Williams were questionable, and Williams did not finish the game for the Chargers. The Cardinals did not have some coaches make the trip due to COVID-19, including head coach Kliff Kingsbury.

But there was still plenty of talent on both sides for both games, and they were both one-sided hot garbage.

Let’s start with the Chargers. Maybe the early body clock start in Baltimore did not help this inexperienced team with the rookie coach, but I think Brandon Staley got too cocky in this one given the praise he’s (rightfully) received for his fourth-down aggression this season. But what happens when Justin Herbert is playing like a mere mortal, Williams is banged up, and you’re playing on the road against a veteran defense and team that’s playing well too?

All of a sudden, going for a 4th-and-3 at your own 39 while down 14-0 in the second quarter looks a bit foolish. That’s what the Chargers did, and they failed to convert this time. The Ravens tacked on a field goal from that. In the third quarter, the Chargers were down 24-6 and went for a 4th-and-1 at their own 19. Again, they tried to throw for it and failed. I can understand wanting to go for that one better than the first one, but it was really putting a lot of pressure on that conversion while the reward was only going to be a first down deep in your own territory. Maybe try a run? The Ravens again added a field goal as this was not the sharpest passing game for Lamar Jackson. The Ravens got their ground game back together against the league’s worst run defense as three different backs had walk-in touchdowns.

The Chargers were never a threat after their failed fourth downs, but overall, it was just disappointing to see this game play out so one-sided and uneventful. These offenses only combined for one play over 25 yards, and it was a 26-yard gain to Williams that led to an injury.

Any hope that Cardinals-Browns would deliver in the late window died quickly when Arizona jumped out to a 20-0 lead. The announcers kept making references to the Browns missing Nick Chubb on the ground, but that’s misleading. Kareem Hunt is arguably the best RB2 in the league and he had 66 rushing yards before leaving this one injured. The Browns were missing their tackles, which was a much bigger deal when facing J.J. Watt, who turned in a vintage performance. Baker Mayfield was under a lot of pressure and sacked five times. He barely got out of the game with his season intact after another arm injury, and it wouldn’t shock me if I wake up Monday to find that he’ll be out Thursday night.

But there was a brief glimmer of hope before halftime that this game might deliver when the Browns hit a 57-yard Hail Mary touchdown. That made it 23-14, but multiple sacks and the Mayfield injury in the third quarter led to a forgettable finish with Arizona cruising to a 37-14 win to get to 6-0.

While we came into this week with a lot of hype and attention for Lamar & Herbert (MVP) and Staley (Coach of the Year), I think my main takeaway is that we need to start showing this respect to the Arizona Cardinals. Maybe Kyler Murray and Kingsbury (even without him being there on Sunday) are the real front-runners for those awards as this team continues to play better than anyone outside of Buffalo. After they were the least talked about team in the NFC West all offseason, the Cardinals could end up running away with the division and more.

Chiefs Escape with Worst 18-Point Road Win Ever

The headline is a joke that plays on the fact that we are never going to get rational analysis on the Mahomes-era Chiefs by the mainstream media ever again. Yes, the Chiefs turned the ball over three times in the second quarter and trailed 13-10 at halftime. That is true.

The Chiefs also pitched a second-half shutout and finally held an opponent under 29 points this season. Washington only averaged 4.7 yards per pass. The Chiefs were also 11-of-17 on third down and finished with 499 yards. For an offense that supposedly cannot go methodically down the field, the Chiefs opened the game with a 10-play, 95-yard touchdown drive and finished it with a 15-play, 96-yard touchdown drive.

Yet so much of the focus is on the turnovers despite this being an 18-point win with a relatively drama-free fourth quarter. This is where we are with the Chiefs now. Yes, the turnovers need to chill. They cannot get away with this against good teams and expect to win. It’s fine against the Team with No Name and the Defensive Coordinator with No Clue, but eventually the Chiefs will have to tighten up that ball security.

The obligatory Chiefs fumble, this time by Mecole Hardman in scoring territory, is something I’ve joked about for years. This team has fumbled more than you’d like to see for multiple seasons now. But Mahomes throwing a red-zone pass to Tyreek Hill that bounces off his hands for a pick? Just bad luck. Mahomes fumbling a snap before halftime and forcing up a pass that gets picked because he didn’t want to take the sack on third down in field goal range? An unlucky bounce compounded by panicked decision making.

You hope they can clean this up, because the rest of the game shows that it’s still the best offense in the league. They are their own worst enemy. There is no magic blueprint out there. Any one of those three drives in the second quarter that ended in a turnover could have easily ended in a touchdown. Then the Chiefs would have had 38 points on their first 10 drives, a historic rate of production.

Tougher opponents than Washington are on the way, but once the Chiefs inevitably get around to a more realistic turnover rate and level of defensive play, this team is still going to be the measuring stick in the AFC. The only way you disagree with that is if you don’t want it to be true.

Cowboys at Patriots: McCarthyism vs. Belitricks

To honor the randomness and absurdity of one of Sunday’s only competitive games, I am going to write a disorganized recap of Dallas’ 35-29 overtime win.

The last three quarterbacks to throw for 440+ yards and get credited with a 4QC win: Dak Prescott (445) at New England on Sunday, Lamar Jackson (442) vs. Indianapolis on Monday night, and Dak Prescott (450) at Atlanta in 2020. It is also the only time in the last three seasons where Dak has led a 4QC without the need of an absurd onside kick recovery. Dak’s 445 passing yards are the most ever against the Patriots in the Belichick era.

But that goal-line stand the Patriots had in the second quarter was something else, right? If only we had seen this before under Belichick. And if only the NFL would put a chip system in place to figure out when the ball breaks the plane, because in true Patriots fashion, there was controversy as it looked clear and obvious that Dak scored on third down before fumbling into the end zone on fourth down. All’s well that ends well…

Speaking of things not ending well, Mac Jones has checked off a few more boxes after his sixth start that his predecessor rarely had to in two decades. He’s got a high-scoring loss on his resume, another lost comeback, another go-ahead touchdown drive in the fourth quarter that resulted in a loss, and he’s also done something Tom Brady never has in 350 career starts. See if you can spot it in the table I felt compelled to put together instead of updating this text every couple of weeks when the Patriots lose in ways we’re not used to seeing.

Not pictured: Jones is now 2-3 when completing at least 71.4% of his passes. Brady is 72-3 (.960) in his career doing that (min. 20 attempts) and was 66-2 doing it with the Patriots.

Jones led multiple go-ahead touchdown drives in the fourth quarter and still lost. I guess he should have willed the Cowboys to not get a tipped pick-six off him, or to miss another clutch field goal. But maybe the goal-line stand and one missed field goal is the best he can do after six starts. At least he finally completed a pass for more than a 32-yard gain with that 75-yard dime touchdown to Kendrick Bourne.

Much like last year when the Patriots were a play away from beating Seattle and Buffalo, and a better quarterback away from giving the Chiefs a rough night in Kansas City, this team can at least hang with Tampa Bay and Dallas in 2021. The defense can frustrate those high-scoring offenses. But they’re not good enough to beat them yet.

Maybe that will come back in time, but the Patriots are the 11th-placed team in the AFC with a 69-year-old head coach and a rookie quarterback. You’d much rather be in Dallas’ position as the team ranked third in the NFC with a Super Bowl-winning coach getting carried by his quarterback who is entering his prime. Now hopefully Dak will ditch the walking boot soon during this bye week and the Cowboys can get back to winning in a couple weeks here.

Parting shot: Since Belichick has been the coach of the Patriots (2000-21), they have had 14 clutch field goals (game-tying or go-ahead kicks in 4Q/OT) of 48-plus yards attempted against them, including two in this game. When Tom Brady was New England’s quarterback of record, kickers were 1-for-8 on these long clutch kicks as opposed to 5-for-6 when Brady was not the quarterback. Teams never had a game without a make against the non-Brady teams. Greg Zuerlein’s 49-yard field goal with 20 seconds left to force overtime is the longest clutch field goal anyone has made against the Patriots in the last 5:00 of the fourth quarter or overtime since 2000.

You can’t make this stuff up. The Patriots will never have another LOAT.

Seahawks at Steelers: T.J. Watt Is the Standard

Pittsburgh struggling at home to put away a 2-3 team with a backup quarterback? Yeah, I’ve heard this one before. A 14-0 lead in Pittsburgh used to mean an automatic victory for the Steelers, but those days are gone. Now the team has to scrap for every yard, and in some cases of where their short passes travel, every inch.

The Seahawks would not go away easy in their first game without Russell Wilson since 2011. While Geno Smith was mostly a caretaker through three quarters, the Seahawks got back into things with a strong running game as Alex Collins rushed for 101 yards, surpassing his output (99 yards) from the last three games. Pittsburgh’s tackling was shoddy and the Seahawks were running the ball better than the Steelers were with Najee Harris. At least the pass protection was adequate for Ben Roethlisberger, who had another one of his “QB release slipped” plays he has once a year. This one was ruled a fumble in Pittsburgh territory, but the defense held in a tight game thanks to a holding penalty that short-circuited the drive.

It was an up-and-down night for Pittsburgh on both sides of the ball. I thought for sure they were going to blow this one when Chase Claypool had the laughable combo of pushing off downfield and still catching the ball out of bounds. That OPI moved the ball back to the Seattle 46, but Roethlisberger was able to hit Harris for a 12-yard gain to set up Chris Boswell for a 52-yard field goal and 20-17 lead.

The Seahawks had to survive two skill player fumbles on the ensuing drive, including one by D.K. Metcalf after he inexcusably stayed in bounds to fight for a couple more yards when the team was out of timeouts. He needed to get out immediately there with the team in field goal range and to save a shot at the end zone for the win. He was fortunate the Seahawks got the spike off in time. Well, the spike that never counted because of a late call to review the play for no good reason as it was clearly a catch. Weird sequence.

But in overtime, it was the T.J. Watt show. His brother had a hell of a day in Cleveland, so he had to outdo it with two sacks in overtime alone. The strip-sack of Geno set the Steelers up at the Seattle 16 for the cheapest game-winning drive of Roethlisberger’s career, though I know I’ve seen worse.

The Steelers are 3-3 and could use the bye week, but some of their problems are not going to go away this season. The Seahawks are 2-4 and currently rank 14th in the NFC with Wilson not set to come back for weeks. Both teams feel like they’re living on borrowed time.

‘Cause it’s a bittersweet symphony, that’s life.

Remember the 3-0 Panthers and Broncos?

Almost every NFL season has a 3-0 or 3-1 team that excites a fanbase and aggravates a data-hungry analyst like me to tell them it’s fool’s gold. It’s not real. I’ll take my licks in September and October for it, but by Christmas time I can enjoy the gift of silence because I’m usually going to be right on such teams. The giveaway is usually a soft schedule and a lucky bounce or two for a team without a track record of success.

This year, we seem to have two of these teams as the Panthers and Broncos both started 3-0 and neither has won since. It’s been so long since they’ve won that Squid Game was brand new to me when they last did.

What happened on Sunday? Sam Darnold had a few more turnovers and only completed 17-of-41 passes against Minnesota. The Panthers only hung around in this game thanks to an 18-yard touchdown drive (after a Justin Jefferson fumble) and a blocked punt returned for a touchdown. I’ll give Darnold credit for the clutch 96-yard game-tying drive to force overtime where he never got the ball back. The Vikings destroyed the Carolina defense with 571 yards and should have won in regulation but missed another game-winning field goal. That’s four games this year for the Vikings where a clutch kick could have decided the winner. They’re 2-2 in those games though no team has played the Cardinals better than Minnesota did.  This team looks playoff capable while the Panthers look like third place in the NFC South is their peak. Matt Rhule is now 0-11 in games with a fourth quarter comeback opportunity.

Meanwhile, Denver’s Teddy Bridgewater had four turnovers in a 34-24 loss to the Raiders, who hit big plays and were aggressive on defense without Jon Gruden around in a fine road performance. The Broncos continue to stink on third down, and the uncharacteristic turnovers made it really hard for Denver to avoid a third straight loss. While the Chiefs (3-3) are stunningly still in last place in the division, it is hard not to see Denver headed towards that cellar spot by season’s end.

Next week: If Week 6 was terrible, then what happens in a Week 7 slate headlined by Bengals-Ravens?

NFL Week 6 Predictions: Everybody Hurts Edition

I’m prepared to be hurt this weekend. Not hurt in the way Russell Wilson, Nick Chubb, DeVante Parker, Saquon Barkley, and a long list of others are going into Week 6. If a game this week doesn’t have a big name out with injury, then you can bet it has someone questionable with a real 50/50 shot to not suit up.

When you put those injury questions into consideration as well as a slate that isn’t too hot to begin with…

When you acknowledge that Week 5 was finally one filled with a season-high 11 close games in the fourth quarter…

When you see that Week 5 was a good one for favorites and good for me personally (I was 13-3 SU and 9-6-1 ATS)…

When you remember how many TD scorers and other things I nailed in Week 5…

When you already suffer a gut punch on Thursday night with the way Philadelphia covered that 6.5 (or 7) point spread and Tom Brady’s rushing prop settled…

You just know it’s going to be a weird week with more blowouts, upsets, and general randomness. So, I’m going to bet conservatively and not lose my whole ass on a Sunday that just isn’t worth going all in for. There will be better weeks to come.

Dolphins at Jaguars: My apologies to Jets-Falcons since the NFL did find an even worse game to send to London. But yeah, I’m going to roll with the Jaguars ending their 20-game losing streak. I like James Robinson to find the end zone again too. Of course, I’m probably going to wake up and find the Jaguars down 20 points and read that Urban Meyer left at halftime to find the nearest pub or the first blonde that catches his eye.

Texans at Colts: How do the Colts respond after their epic blown lead in Baltimore on Monday night? My gut was to go big on Indy anyways, but then you remember that the Texans actually had a big offensive showing against the Patriots last week. Then there’s the fact that all 14 meetings since 2014 between these teams haven been decided by fewer than 10 points. Hell, all but one of them was decided by fewer than eight points. Even when the Colts played their best game this season in Miami, they won by 10 points. I’m going to hedge my pick with taking Houston to cover.

Packers at Bears: See my preview here. Just Year 30 of the Packers being much better off at QB than Chicago.

Chiefs at Washington: The Chiefs are due for an easy win, aren’t they? Maybe nothing is easy with this historically-bad defense (still minus Chris Jones too), and it doesn’t help that Tyreek Hill has a quad injury. My gut is to play Hill for a TD and a big game from Travis Kelce too. That Washington defense is the closest thing in the NFC to being as bad as the Chiefs. In his career, Patrick Mahomes is 17-2 SU and 9-10 ATS against defenses that finish in the bottom 12 in points per drive allowed. Washington is currently 30th thru Week 5.

Vikings at Panthers: I was burned badly by the Panthers a week ago. I think the Vikings are the better team but this should be one decided by single digits either way.

Chargers at Ravens: It’s the Game of the Week. We have been getting wild, high-scoring games between the top AFC teams this year, and this one should be no different. Justin Herbert and Lamar Jackson are MVP candidates and they have led their teams to a league-high three fourth-quarter comeback wins already. Neither defense has been very good, but I still think the Ravens are doing better on that side of the ball, and their run game against the Chargers’ bottom-ranked run defense (32nd in yards and YPC) should get back to starting another streak of 100+ yards on the ground. Mike Williams being questionable is also worrisome. Sammy Watkins out is just par for the course for him. I’ll take the Ravens at home and am definitely looking forward to it.

Bengals at Lions: Hedging on the spread here. I don’t think we can trust the Bengals on the road just yet to win games like this. Detroit keeps getting closer to pulling one out for Dan Campbell. If the Bengals win, I can see it being by 3 points.

Rams at Giants: The Rams are clearly the better team and I like to fade a quarterback coming off a concussion like Daniel Jones in this case. They played a 17-9 game a season ago.

Cardinals at Browns: The No. 2 Game of the Week, but it’s losing some luster with Nick Chubb (calf) already ruled out as well as several members of the Arizona coaching staff, including head coach Kliff Kingsbury. This has me worried for the undefeated Cardinals, who may not be out of the woods with COVID before this one kicks off on Sunday. I’m going to trust the Browns as I think Kareem Hunt will be great in Chubb’s absence and I can see that defensive line frustrating Kyler Murray.

Raiders at Broncos: Of course I’m backing Ted the Spread against a team going through turmoil now. Broncos end their losing skid.

Cowboys at Patriots: I’ve watched the Cowboys go 0-5 against New England in 2003, 2007, 2011, 2015, and 2019. But this is the first time the Cowboys clearly have the better team and are playing better football. I’ll take Dallas.

Seahawks at Steelers: Read my preview here. I love “Steelers by 1-13” for this game, though it will be interesting to see the Seahawks without Russell Wilson for the first time since 2011.

Bills at Titans: Read my preview here. The Bills are on a historic roll right now. Four straight wins by 18+ points and four straight games scoring 35+ are proof of that. I like the revenge tour to continue here and hopefully the game won’t get moved to Tuesday like last year…

But I’m ready to be hurt.

NFL Stat Oddity: Week 5

Sunday in the NFL lasted just over 15 hours from the first snap in London to the last snap in Kansas City after a weather delay. If that wasn’t the longest day of action in NFL history, then I don’t know what else could be.

It was a day of ugly field goal kicking, yet the Vikings somehow pulled off a 54-yard game-winning kick. Of course, Detroit helped by making its incredible 10-point comeback (helped by an Alexander Mattison fumble) a 1-point lead by going for two with 37 seconds left. That was too much time with the Vikings having two timeouts. I know Kirk Cousins kind of sucks at comebacks and his kickers are not reliable, but that was a bad decision to go for two there. Play for overtime after holding down the Vikings from scoring much all day. Instead, the Vikings got a drive together because they had to and won the game on a 54-yard field goal that Greg Joseph actually made despite being an employee of the Vikings. At least it gave us this moment:

It was a day of close games as we had 10 comeback opportunities in Week 5, outdoing the previous high of any week this season (eight). Let’s quickly hit on three of them since I need to wrap this up after getting a late start.

49ers at Cardinals: Trey Lance made his starting debut, but he couldn’t keep the rocket launcher under wraps when the 49ers just needed a simple scoring drive in a 17-10 loss to the now 5-0 Cardinals, who apparently are not going to score 31-plus every week this season. Kyle Shanahan loses another close game? Jimmy Garoppolo and George Kittle out with injuries again? Who could have imagined?

Patriots at Texans: The Patriots came through with a comeback win over the Houston Texans after Davis Mills had maybe the most absurd stat line yet for a rookie against a Bill Belichick-coached defense. Mills just had an early contender for worst game of the decade against Buffalo last week, but now he has the ninth game on record where a QB lost with a passer rating of at least 140.0 (min. 25 passes). I guess the Patriots can still win games where their quarterback was not the best one on the field.

Bears at Raiders: Finally, Jon Gruden’s Raiders had their “but his emails” loss at home to the Bears. Maybe it was too much of a distraction, and maybe he just showed his true colors. All I know is once you blow some smoke up his ass, this is the kind of performance you can count on in the next game. The last two sentences are about Derek Carr, by the way.

But the only game that came close to pulling off instant classic status came in the late afternoon slate instead of the prime-time matchup between the Bills and Chiefs. Browns-Chargers was the Shawn Michaels vs. Razor Ramon Ladder Match in WrestleMania X of Week 5 in the NFL, but I have to start with the perception-changing game that played out in Kansas City.

This season in Stat Oddity:

Bills at Chiefs: About That Dynasty…

About the last thing I want to do is write an obituary for the 2021 Chiefs after Week 5 and after a ridiculously tough schedule where the Browns, Ravens, Chargers, and now Bills all gave them their best shot. But there is no denying that the Chiefs failed three of those tests from their key AFC challengers and barely escaped the Browns in Arrowhead in Week 1. The offense has too many turnovers and the defense is going for historic levels of suck. The 2021 Chiefs are the fourth team in NFL history to allow more than 28 points in each of the first five games, joining the 1954 Cardinals, 2012 Titans, and 2013 Giants. It’s like watching the 2000 Rams, the forgotten little defense-less brother to the 1999 and 2001 Super Bowl teams in St. Louis.

But through four weeks, the defense could be excused to a point as the offense was scoring a touchdown on 50% of its drives and converting on third down at a record rate. If not for a fumble in Baltimore, this team could easily be 3-1.

But that took a hit Sunday night as the Bills came in to avenge their two losses from 2020 and wiped the floor with the Chiefs, 38-20, despite a long weather delay at halftime. Getting blown out at home is just another layer of invincibility ripped away from the Chiefs in the Patrick Mahomes era. While the stakes were not as high, the 18-point loss looked worse than the team’s 31-9 loss in Super Bowl 55 to Tampa Bay. At least on that night the reshuffled offensive line was a built-in excuse for the poor pass protection. The Chiefs just couldn’t come down with any of Mahomes’ miracle passes and the defense was stumped by simple play-action throws.

This was more of a beatdown. Mahomes played the first truly awful game of his NFL career, missing often on throws regardless of pressure or an open receiver. He completed 33-of-54 passes for 272 yards and had three turnovers, including a pick-six, a red-zone pick after another tipped ball, and a fumbled snap in the rain to end things. The bounces? They’re no longer going Kansas City’s way and that was predictable.

But this was not another blown lead in the fourth quarter like Baltimore and Los Angeles. The Chiefs led 10-7 early in the second quarter and never led again. The best they could do was make it 31-20 in the fourth quarter. But after Josh Allen seemingly threw an interception from his own end zone, the Chiefs were flagged for roughing the passer. It was a weak call, but it was also in a series of calls on both teams that made me question what roughing the passer and pass interference are in this league anymore. The refs had a bad night, but they didn’t decide this game.

That roughing call stands out the most just because it killed any chance for an exciting finish. Allen was still at his own 23 after that call. The Chiefs could have stopped the Bills, but instead they watched them march 77 more yards for a game-clinching touchdown to go up 38-20.

Maybe that Buffalo defense is for real as this was not a matter of beating up on a wounded offense like in the first four weeks of the season. They smacked the Chiefs around in Arrowhead. I asked in the offseason what really changed to improve this Buffalo defense from the mediocre unit it was a year ago that had no real hope of winning a Super Bowl? Well, one name I underestimated was first-round pick Gregory Roussea. The defensive end did his best J.J. Watt impersonation and tipped a Mahomes pass at the line to himself for a big red-zone pick in the third quarter. The Bills reportedly did not even blitz Mahomes once in this game, choosing to rush four and play Cover 2 to take away the big plays.

The Chiefs had just two plays that gained more than 17 yards in the game, a shockingly low figure for this offense. One was a 23-yard scramble by Mahomes too. This was a big difference in the meetings last year when the Chiefs did what they wanted, and Allen’s offense couldn’t get anything big. On Sunday night, the Bills had seven plays of 20-plus yards, including four completions of 35-plus yards (two for touchdowns).

Allen had 315 yards on 15 completions. Other than a slow third quarter after the 70-plus minute halftime delay, the Bills were just about unstoppable on offense. Combine that with a defense capable of playing the Chiefs like this and it’s a championship combination. The Bills may only be an underdog one more time this season when they play in Tampa Bay. It seems rather likely that this team will be the favorite for the No. 1 seed in the AFC.

The Chiefs may be fortunate just to get a wild card at this point if things don’t tighten up on both sides of the ball but especially on defense.

With the Bills and Ravens stepping up this season against the Chiefs as well as the two teams I’m writing about next (Browns and Chargers), the AFC might be just fine going forward as a super competitive conference where any one of these teams can advance each year. It’s not going to be a runaway for Mahomes and the Chiefs to keep hosting AFC Championship Games and going to the Super Bowl. They had that window for three years and turned it into one championship while the rest of the teams were figuring themselves out.

If 2021 is any indication, those teams have figured out the Chiefs too.

Browns at Chargers: 47-42 Part Deux

What a whacky, fun game with huge plays, terrible tackling, six fourth down attempts (and then some negated by penalty), and 41 points in the fourth quarter alone. Of course, the Browns ended up on the wrong side of history again.

We may need to start calling Baker Mayfield the “Score 42 and Lose” QB after it happened to him for a third time. He lost his first career start, 45-42, to the Raiders in 2018. He lost 47-42 to the Ravens last year after Lamar Jackson returned from taking a shit. Now he’s lost 47-42 again to the Chargers in the second 47-42 game in NFL history. Mayfield is somehow 2-3 when he leads his team to at least 42 points while the rest of the NFL is 69-2 since 2018. The Browns (four times) have broken their tie with Washington and the Chiefs (three each) for the most losses in NFL history after scoring at least 42 points.

None of this is to say that Mayfield is the reason Cleveland loses these games. He was great on Sunday at playing through a torn labrum after some struggles in recent weeks. The offense was fantastic, but it is hard to win on the road when you allow five touchdowns on six second-half drives like the Browns did.

This thing was back and forth and not even a failed game-tying extra point by the Chargers with 3:15 left could derail it. That actually ended up helping the Chargers since the Browns did not go all out in a tied 42-42 game. Instead with a 42-41 lead, they ran on first down and on third-and-9 and let the Chargers get the ball back with plenty of time. Justin Herbert only needed one pass to get into field-goal range. After Austin Ekeler slid down at the Cleveland 3 with 1:38 left, the Browns called their final timeout. That slide tells me the Chargers were content with kicking the field goal to win 44-42 at the buzzer. A smart move even if you are shaky about it given the team’s historic struggles on special teams in crunch time.

So, why wouldn’t Herbert just take a series of knees to bleed the clock and kick the field goal? Head coach Brandon Staley is getting a ton of buzz for his embrace of analytics despite being a defensive coach, but he bungled the end of the Chiefs game by scoring a touchdown and giving Mahomes a shot to answer, and it happened again here. Ekeler got the carry and while he tried to not score, the Browns did the smart thing and pulled his ass into the end zone for the score with 91 seconds left.

Wow, just typing “91 seconds” really sells how much of a mistake this was. They gave a hot offense they couldn’t stop all day plenty of time to answer. It could have been an even more delicious addition to Chargers BINGO given the offense came up short on the two-point conversion and only led 47-42. Now the Browns could win it with a touchdown in regulation.

But it took 50 seconds for Mayfield to move the offense 11 yards as he only made short throws. That was piss-poor execution in that moment. After getting to the Cleveland 46, the Browns could not gain another yard and Mayfield’s Hail Mary fell incomplete with players bumping into each other.

Behind Staley and Herbert, the CHARGERS are leading the league with three game-winning drives. The CHARGERS are 4-1 in close games and lead the league with four defensive holds of a one-score lead.

Staley is far from perfect. His defense just gave up 42 points to a team that scored 14 last week. He’s mismanaged two of the last three finishes. He’s inherited an incredible young quarterback in Herbert who is making strides in his second season. But there is no denying that Staley is pushing this team to aggressively get leads and hold onto them once they have them. The Chargers of old would never be 4-1 right now and that is a credit to this new coach.

The Browns may still be the “good enough to get beat close” team in the AFC, which is still a huge step up from the pre-Mayfield era. But for a change, the Chargers just may have the potential to be closers and real contenders this season. That sounds like the setup for an incoming beatdown in Baltimore next Sunday, but what if this team is just finally different?

Packers at Bengals: Kicking Woes

Weird things always happen when Aaron Rodgers plays the Bengals, but this game takes the cake. If you wanted to script an overtime tie, apparently you have to get the Packers or Bengals involved. I thought for sure this one was headed there after the two kickers combined to miss five go-ahead field goals in a span of six drives.

Fortunately, we got a winner. Fortunately, it was the right winner too as Green Bay should have put this game away multiple times in the fourth quarter and again to start overtime.

Would I have been happy if Rodgers got credit for a game-winning drive after Aaron Jones ripped off a 57-yard run and he threw two incomplete passes? No, but Mason Crosby has to hit that 36-yard field goal after a streak of 27 straight makes. Would I have said Rodgers was unlucky had he lost after his kicker missed from 36 and Cincinnati kicker Evan McPherson hit from 57? Yes, absolutely. But the Bengals called a run on third-and-2 instead of letting Joe Burrow deliver a dagger throw to set up a higher-percentage kick. Shame on them.

Would I have been fine with Rodgers getting a game-winning drive after a 20-yard pass to Davante Adams, who shined with 206 yards, to set up Crosby from 51? Sure, that’s another one-minute drill for him this season. But Crosby was wide left to set up overtime.

Would I have been amused had Rodgers lost another overtime game without touching the ball? Probably. But Burrow seemed to erase any chance of that with an instant pick to start overtime.

Would I have been pissed if Rodgers got credit for a game-winning drive in overtime for losing 5 yards on two Jones runs and watching Crosby hit from 40? Damn right. But the kicker missed again. At least it spared us a crap game-winning drive.

Burrow hit a pass for 21 yards to the Green Bay 41 again, but did they learn anything from the previous mistake? No, they ran the ball three times again and settled for a 49-yard field goal by a no-name kicker. He missed wide left too.

Finally, Rodgers hit passes of 20 and 15 yards to put this one to an end after Crosby finally connected from 49 yards out with 1:55 left. I am content with that being the game-winning drive in this one.

At least it had a winner, because I can’t remember ever seeing a clutch kicking display this bad.

Broncos at Steelers: The Standard Improved?

Last week in Green Bay, the Steelers showed they can score an opening-drive touchdown, and they did it again on Sunday after a beautiful 50-yard pass from Ben Roethlisberger to Diontae Johnson again gave the Steelers the early lead. Last week, the Steelers showed some offensive line improvement and a running game that actually could get gains of 3-4 yards instead of seeing Najee Harris get hit in the backfield immediately. This continued against Denver with Harris rushing for 122 yards to finally snap the team’s 11-game streak of not rushing for 90 yards.

Dare I say, the Steelers showed offensive improvement for the second week in a row? The other problem last week was inaccuracy from Roethlisberger. He was sharp in this game, especially early and especially on third down where the Steelers finished 7/12 compared to Denver going 2/12 on third down (but ¾ on fourth down). One week after a concussion, I was not impressed with Teddy Bridgewater or this Denver offense at all until he started to mount a 24-6 comeback in the fourth quarter. The game got a bit tight at 27-19, but he eventually struggled in the red zone again and threw an interception in the final seconds to end it.

While far from dominant, this was much closer to a classic game from the Steelers where both units played well for much of the game and they were able to win at home. Can they stack another one against the Geno Smith-led Seahawks next week? We’ll see, but if this offense shows up in prime time against that Seattle defense, then it may not be such an ugly display of football from Pittsburgh like in recent times. I was not surprised by the win, but that says more about my thoughts on how legit Denver was. But I can see actual improvement from the Pittsburgh offense in the last two weeks compared to the first three.

Eagles at Panthers: Pumpkins and Pretenders

What the fvck were these teams doing?

Jalen Hurts had nine failed completions in the first half, but none in the second as the offense finally started making plays that gained more than 10 yards. He also got his legs involved as the passing in this game was just atrocious for both teams. At least the Panthers got Chuba Hubbard to rush for 101 yards in Christian McCaffrey’s absence. The Eagles once again barely handed the ball off to their backs until very late in the game.

Sam Darnold had three interceptions and may have turned back into a pumpkin just in time for Halloween. But it was a blocked punt that set the Eagles up at the Carolina 27 for their game-winning drive. Darnold then threw his third pick and the Eagles ran out the clock.

Obviously, the transitive property never has and never will mean a thing in the NFL. If you just judged Carolina and Philadelphia by how they played against the Cowboys, then you wouldn’t have expected the Panthers to blow this one. But they did after leading 15-3 early.

Is either team going anywhere this season? I doubt it, but this was some low-key horrific offensive football.

Lamar Jackson: Breaking Stats, Hearts, and Minds

While the talk surrounding Baltimore’s 23-7 win in Denver on Sunday is about Lamar Jackson’s late run to extend the team’s record streak of 100-yard rushing games, it has been quiet on the NFL media front that he threw 37 passes and registered his third 300-yard passing game in his career. It is only the fifth game in Jackson’s career where he threw the ball at least 35 times.

Jackson recently broke 1,000 pass attempts in his regular season career, which must have prompted this Deadspin article last week about how Jackson has the “NFL’s greatest QB start ever.” I’ll get into multiple things from the article below, but it ends by saying, “Lamar Jackson is only 24 years old, and just posted the greatest FIRST 1,000 Pass start in modern quarterback history. Now write about it.”

Challenge accepted, because I already subtweeted about this article the other day, but it and Lamar’s unique career deserve a more in-depth look. I have neither any beef nor familiarity with the author (Chuck Modiano) of the piece. I just think Lamar’s career is the right place to talk about quarterback statistics in a game that is evolving.

Yes, Running QBs Make Life Harder on Statistics

The premise of the Deadspin article is that stat companies such as PFF and Football Outsiders continue to miss the mark on running quarterbacks like Lamar Jackson (and Cam Newton). The author concludes that if you combine Lamar’s elite passing production through 1,000 attempts, his historic rushing production, and his team impact (high winning percentage), then he’s had the greatest first 1,000 pass start in modern history for an NFL quarterback.

I have certainly read worse arguments over the years, but I disagree with this one on the obviousness of Patrick Mahomes dominating the league and rewriting the record books at the same time as Jackson’s rise.

Not to mention Mahomes is still 3-1 in the head-to-head matchups. While Jackson unanimously won MVP in 2019, Mahomes ended that season with the Super Bowl MVP and had another stellar run last season. 2020 also brought the return of Peak Aaron Rodgers in Green Bay and the breakout of Josh Allen in Buffalo. Of course, we also live in a world where Tom Brady reverse ages and annually hits the “EASY” button he sold his soul for each postseason to add to his ring collection. So given Lamar’s playoff struggles, it is no surprise that the media does not revolve around Jackson in this era.

But one thing I won’t argue is that Jackson is indisputably the most prolific rushing quarterback in NFL history. He proved that after back-to-back 1,000-yard rushing seasons and leading the NFL in yards per carry both years. He has also shown he can be durable doing it (so far) as only COVID-19 has kept him out of one game, plus that night in Cleveland where he had to take a shit and missed a few plays.

However, this rushing part of his game that makes him so unique also makes him harder to evaluate statistically. While the author is correct that the stat companies have struggled in this area, his remedy to fix it also misses the mark.

Any time you see someone try to combine rushing with passing in a quarterback metric, it tends to overvalue the running quarterback. ESPN’s QBR is notorious for having a hard-on for rushing quarterbacks, especially when they scramble for a big gain on a third down. You can see it in the way that Mitchell Trubisky (71.0) was their No. 3 quarterback in 2018, or how David Garrard’s 2007 with Jacksonville is still the No. 8 season since 2006. You also should note that Lamar’s 2019 (83.0) is the fourth highest season in QBR.

I cannot find the link now, but about 15 years ago I saw a guy rank the top ~50 quarterbacks of all time, and he used a formula that put a bonus for rushing. It ended up having Mark Brunell in the top 30 if I’m not mistaken. Yeah, adding rushing is problematic. Football Outsiders has not figured out a good way of doing it in two decades, so rushing is still kept separate from passing.

While the author wants to include Jackson’s rushing, there are parts early in the article where he keeps it separate. But by not thinking about Jackson’s attempts on the ground, you’re presenting what are misleading figures for Jackson’s touchdown passes. Through 1,000 passes, Jackson (70) has the fourth-most touchdown passes, trailing only Dan Marino (75), Kurt Warner (73), and Mahomes (71).

This looks great for Jackson but think about what the average touchdown drive looks like for these quarterbacks. The other three were going to throw a lot of passes while Marino and Warner would rarely ever run. Mahomes scrambles at times, but most of the offense is him passing. For Lamar, his Ravens run a lot and so does he, so he can keep his pass attempts lower while still ending drives with touchdown passes. This is why we need to stop fixating on that number of 1,000 passes and start focusing on things like an equal number of games played and rate stats.

On Pro Football Reference, you can search a quarterback’s first four seasons and find their Adjusted Net Yards per Pass Attempt index (ANY/A), which will factor in sacks (but not rushing) and the era the quarterback played in. When you run that search for quarterbacks with 1,000-plus attempts, Jackson comes in 14th at 112 ANY/A+, right behind the likes of Russell Wilson (115), Peyton Manning (113), and Deshaun Watson (113). Warner (133), Marino (132), and Mahomes (129) are the only players above 120, and it is hard to argue with anyone having better starts to their careers than those three.

But that does not include rushing, which means it also does not look at fumbles, or something that Jackson does a fair amount since he handles the ball so much with defenders coming after him. The author talks about interception totals by decade, but again, that can be misleading as mobile quarterbacks often have lower interceptions due to their love of scrambling and taking more sacks than pocket passers. We should be looking at total turnovers by including fumbles lost.

The author makes an argument for combining rush and pass stats instead of segregating them. “When Lamar ran for two 4th-quarter TDs to beat the Chiefs, it counted for the same exact points as if he threw those TDs. So why don’t we show that PRODUCTION?”

By making that argument, and earlier saying that he favors substance over style and will not reward style points, then he must agree that we should be treating a 6-yard completion on a curl route the same as a quarterback escaping a blitzing linebacker and scrambling for a 6-yard gain. That simple pass play still counts for the same yards as if he ran the ball, right?

So here is what I did. I gathered data for the first 45 starts (playoffs included) of the 60 quarterbacks who have made their starting debut since 2001. Jackson just made his 45th start on Sunday in Denver in case you’re confused why I picked 45. I looked at their passes, sacks, runs, and fumbles and combined those stats to figure out their total number of plays, total yards gained, total touchdowns, and total turnovers. From there I can figure out their yards per play and touchdown rate (TD%) per play.

Finally, I took the ANY/A formula and tweaked it to include fumbles and rushes. I thought this was better than tweaking passer rating for rushing as the author did at the end to get a 109.5 Production Rating for Lamar. I’ve just never liked the idea of giving a quarterback completion bonuses for every run, so I stuck with ANY/A.

Here are some of the findings on where Lamar stacks up among the 60 quarterbacks thru 45 starts:

Win% and Average Points Scored: Jackson is 34-11 (.756) as a starter, second only to Mahomes (36-9, .800). Brady, Roethlisberger, and Wilson were all 33-12 (.733), or just one game behind Jackson. Scoring has gone up in recent years, so it is not a big surprise to see Mahomes (32.4) and Jackson (28.7) average the most team points per start.

Jackson’s Passing Ranks and Rushing:

  • 14th in completion percentage (62.8%)
  • 49th in passing yards (8,975)
  • 15th in yards per attempt (7.51)
  • 11th in touchdown passes (74; tied with Kirk Cousins)
  • 2nd in touchdown pass rate (6.19%)
  • 12th in lowest interception rate (2.18%)
  • 5th in passer rating (97.3)
  • 7th in ANY/A (6.80; passes only).

In rushing, Jackson is easily No. 1 in attempts (550) and rushing yards (3,413), and he is No. 4 in YPC (6.21) and No. 3 in TD runs (21). Jackson’s 38 fumbles trail only Josh McCown (42) and Michael Vick (39). His 14 lost fumbles are tied for the seventh most. Jackson’s 40 total turnovers are tied for the ninth fewest.

Advanced Metrics to Include All Play Types: Jackson is No. 7 in total yards (11,891) and tied with Josh Allen for No. 4 in total touchdowns (95). That’s good company, but on a per-play basis, Jackson falls as the increased choice to be a 6.2 YPC runner instead of a 7.5 YPA passer hurts his numbers. Jackson ranks 15th in yards per play (6.46) and 6th in TD% (5.16%). When I include everything into ANY/A, he ranks No. 6 in that too (6.51).

Here is a graph of all 60 quarterbacks through their first 45 starts since 2001. The x-axis is their total TD% and the y-axis is their ANY/A with all plays included.

Yep, Jackson is doing very well, but Mahomes is killing the league. Running for over 100 yards as a team every week is cool and the Ravens have been historic with that under Lamar, but it still does not produce the results of being a lethal passing team like the Chiefs.

Jackson Is Still Developing

You can appreciate Jackson’s unique greatness while still having valid questions and criticisms about his ability to perform in certain situations or what his long-term success will be.

The four playoff games bring Jackson down a bit, but shouldn’t we have some higher expectations for him there? Most of the players who come up in comparison to him here (Mahomes, Wilson, Marino, Warner, Roethlisberger, Brady) all won or were in a Super Bowl within two seasons as a starter. Jackson is 1-3 with his best game being a low-scoring wild card win in Tennessee last year.

While we talk about Jackson’s unique place in history, his postseason history leaves so much to be desired. 2020 was the third postseason in a row where the Ravens scored their season-low in points with Jackson at quarterback. Safe to say that stat will not come up in his contract negotiations. When you compare that to some other recent quarterbacks for how often they scored their season-low in a playoff game, Jackson’s three-for-three is a huge eyesore. It is as many times as Peyton Manning, Aaron Rodgers, and Ben Roethlisberger combined.

  • Lamar Jackson (100%): three times in three postseasons (2018, 2019, 2020)
  • Patrick Mahomes (33.3%): once in three postseasons (2020)
  • Philip Rivers (28.6%): two times in seven postseasons (2007, 2009)
  • Tom Brady (27.8%): five times in 18 postseasons (2005, 2007, 2011-T, 2012, 2019-T)
  • Cam Newton (25.0%): once in four postseasons (2015)
  • Peyton Manning (20.0%): three times in 15 postseasons (2002, 2004, 2013)
  • Joe Flacco (16.7%): once in six postseasons (2009)
  • Matt Ryan (16.7%): once in six postseasons (2011)
  • Russell Wilson (12.5%): once in eight postseasons (2015)
  • Drew Brees (10.0%): once in 10 postseasons (2020)
  • Aaron Rodgers (0.0%): zero times in 10 postseasons
  • Ben Roethlisberger (0.0%): zero times in 11 postseasons

The other thing I saw in that article was a link to another piece saying that Jackson has debunked that he can’t be clutch because of the Detroit finish in Week 3. I also saw Ryan Clark on Twitter ask why people weren’t talking about Lamar’s play on 4th-and-19 to Sammy Watkins to set up the game-winning field goal.

Well, I think it’s pretty obvious why a record-setting 66-yard field goal by the great Justin Tucker stole all the headlines. Especially with the way it bounced in good. Just an incredible, history-making play.

But this is another situation where if Jackson played the position better, he’d get more of the attention. No one was expecting the Ravens to be down late in that game. Drops by Marquise Brown aside, it was Jackson who forced an interception on third down in Detroit territory, which the Lions turned into a go-ahead scoring drive. On the last drive, it was a 4th-and-19 after Jackson took two sacks on the drive. If he plays the drive better and sets Tucker up for a shorter, easier field goal, then Jackson gets more credit. He didn’t, so we go nuts over what Tucker did to bail the team out. Simple as that.

Similar things with the Chiefs win the week before. While Jackson did his part in the fourth quarter, most people can see that it took a really bad fumble by Clyde Edwards-Helaire in field goal range to decide that game. Jackson put them away on the ground, but he was only in that position after a rare fumble. Had the Ravens lost 38-36, Jackson would have still been credited for having his best game yet against the Chiefs, but those early interceptions, including a pick-six to start the game, would have stood out too.

If that CEH fumble and 66-yard field goal are the new proof that Jackson is clutch, well then that’s just not a good argument either.  Jackson has six game-winning drives in his career and five of them were field goals by Tucker from distances of 24, 46, 49, 55, and 66 yards. Oof. He did at least have the touchdown drives against the Chiefs and the long touchdown on fourth down to Hollywood Brown in the Cleveland Poop Game (47-42), but to say Jackson is proven in this department is just not true at all.

While Jackson is absolutely unique and fun to watch, let’s roll back the hyperbole that he’s off to the greatest start in NFL history by a quarterback. No metric, no matter how much you want to overvalue his runs, is going to support that.

It’s not even the best start by someone drafted in the last five years.

NFL Stat Oddity: Week 4

You know what this 2021 NFL season is missing? More close games that end in failure by one team, such as the Vikings’ failed comeback attempt in a 14-7 loss to the Browns. It was a shock to see The Kevin Stefanski Bowl end with 21 points on 22 drives, but Baker Mayfield was inaccurate, and the Browns got through Minnesota’s line with ease. But there was Kirk Cousins with a whopping five drive attempts in the fourth quarter, trying to get that elusive touchdown and never doing so.

There were only six games in Week 4 with a comeback opportunity, and one of them was in the Jacksonville-Cincinnati game on Thursday night. Joe Burrow left that one with the first fourth-quarter comeback win of his NFL career. Urban Meyer left for some college comforts at the bar.

But the funny thing is NFL teams are now 19-24 (.442) at comeback opportunities in 2021. In each of the last two seasons, that success rate was just about 30% like it usually is. Now we are seeing closer to a coin flip this season and I think part of the problem is a lack of close games overall as we’ve only had 28 through Week 4.

Some games have been quasi-close with the leading team having the ball in the fourth quarter before extending to a two-score lead or running out the clock. I do not specifically track that number of games weekly, but I might need to start if this keeps up.

This season in Stat Oddity:

Buccaneers at Patriots: Now We Can Get on with the Important Games

After hearing for a week how this was the most “anticipated game of the season” and to see more promos for it than any non-Super Bowl game, you just know I have to vent a bit now that it’s over.

Yes, the most over-hyped regular-season game in NFL history is behind us, but I have to give them credit for playing a competitive, 60-minute game. The low-scoring chess match between Tom Brady and Bill Belichick was at least compelling, and the rain and injuries evened the playing field a bit for an outmatched New England roster.

If only we could have seen the Patriots win a game despite rushing for minus-1 yard (franchise record) and being minus-two in turnovers. But Brady getting his 50th fourth-quarter comeback win at the expense of a coaching blunder and missed field goal in that stadium was all too familiar.

This was really just the fourth all-time matchup of a legendary quarterback returning to face his former team, but on paper it was the weakest one of them all with Brady (of course) having the biggest advantages.

  • Joe Montana (1994 Chiefs) had to overcome a 49ers team led by MVP Steve Young in a 24-17 game where he threw for two touchdowns and a 101.9 passer rating.
  • Brett Favre (2009 Vikings) returned to Lambeau Field to take on the Aaron Rodgers-led Packers in a 38-26 win where he threw four touchdowns and a 128.6 passer rating.
  • Peyton Manning (2013 Broncos) took his team into Indianapolis on SNF to take on Andrew Luck in a 39-33 loss where he still threw for 386 yards and three touchdowns with a 96.1 passer rating.
  • Tom Brady, as only he can, got to celebrate a 19-17 homecoming win in New England against a team with rookie Mac Jones in a game where Brady had no touchdowns and a 70.8 passer rating.

Even in something as trivial as this, Manning takes the loss because the other quarterback was fantastic against his defense while Brady played the worst and still gets the only game-winning drive credit.

It never fails, does it? But I probably should have expected disappointment like this. I shouldn’t have expected Brady to throw for 300-plus yards and three or four touchdowns to his assortment of weapons. After all, Brady and Belichick have given us several of the lowest-scoring Super Bowls in NFL history, including 13-3 against the 2018 Rams. Brady just came off a 31-9 Super Bowl win. He’s the “we’re only going to score 17 points?” quarterback from Super Bowl 42 against the Giants, flopping hard on the big stage as he tried to throw deep and make memorable highlight plays to get to 19-0.

I saw some of that in this game as Brady’s deep ball was off. He was throwing high often. He had receivers open almost every play and adequate protection, but the rain and unprecedented emotions he was feeling about the situation probably played a bigger role than any specific game plan by Belichick. You could also tell Brady was missing Rob Gronkowski as the connection to Cameron Brate in particular looked out of sync. I’m not sure why Brady was throwing deep late to Antonio Brown other than to stick it to Belichick, because that was strategically the wrong move even if Brown had a good shot at making one of those throws a touchdown.

It was just not an impressive performance, and in hindsight, it makes those ridiculous props of Brady throwing for 555 yards or seven touchdowns look even funnier for this game.

You could easily argue that Mac Jones outplayed Brady on what was supposed to be his night. Jones even made a lot of classic Brady plays with the screens and play-action to a wide-open tight end to start the fourth quarter with a touchdown that put the Patriots on top. Jones even put the ball into danger multiple times on a go-ahead drive in the fourth, but the Buccaneers and their ravaged secondary did not make him pay. He completed 19 passes in a row at one point, tying Brady’s career-long streak. It’s too early for anyone to say if Jones is going to be the real deal, but you have to feel better with him after this game than you did a week ago when he played the Saints.

But Brady still gets the win after Belichick of all people mismanaged the final drive. The rain was coming down good at this point with New England down 19-17. Jones just had a pass knocked down to set up 4th-and-3 at the Tampa Bay 37 with 59 seconds left. The Buccaneers had a couple timeouts. You could try the 56-yard field goal, but that cannot be any better than a 50/50 shot, and it would leave Brady with nearly a minute (plus timeouts) to answer. That sounds bad. But if you can convert the fourth-and-3, that should be able to set up a last-second field goal from shorter distance.

That’s what I would have gone for, but Belichick reportedly did not even think about it. He sent out Nick Folk and the 56-yard field goal hit the left upright with 55 seconds left. Game over. Kickers are now 0-for-7 on clutch field goals of 50-plus yards against a Brady-led team. Folk has three of those seven misses, which only includes field goals in the final half of the fourth quarter or any time in overtime, tied or down 1-3 points). While this would have been a bigger miracle kick than most, it’s just something how Brady literally never ends up on the wrong side of these finishes.

In trying to find an old tweet, I stumbled on this research of mine that said the Patriots were 47-1 at home from 2001-2017 when a team threw 40 passes. That record was 53-1 a game into the 2019 season, but the Patriots have since gone 0-4 in these games, losing to Patrick Mahomes (Chiefs) and Ryan Fitzpatrick (Dolphins) with Brady at quarterback in 2019, and getting blown out by Josh Allen and the Bills (38-9) on Monday Night Football in 2020.

Now Brady did it to them last night on 43 throws, but he didn’t throw a touchdown pass. The record since 2001 for road teams that threw 40-plus passes without a touchdown and scoring fewer than 20 points was 8-174 (.044). Ho-hum.

With some better play in the red zone late in the game, the Patriots could easily be 3-1 right now. As I detailed in Week 1 when the Patriots lost to the Dolphins, Jones is quickly experiencing things it took years for Brady to see in New England, if he’s ever seen them at all in 22 years in the NFL. Let’s update a few of those that I said would be coming soon.

  • Mac Jones lost in his NFL debut with a 102.6 passer rating (29-of-39 for 281 yards, 1 TD, 0 INT).
  • It took Brady 79 starts and 18 losses to lose a game with a passer rating higher than 83.3. He was in his sixth season then.
  • Jones lost in his fourth NFL start vs. Tampa Bay with a 101.6 passer rating (31-of-40 for 275 yards, 2 TD, 1 INT).
  • It took Brady 137 starts and 30 losses to lose a second game with a passer rating higher than 100.0. He was in his 10th season then (it was 4th-and-2 Night).
  • It took Jones four starts to lose a game after a clutch field goal was missed.
  • It took Brady 183 starts to lose a game after a clutch field goal was missed (it’s happened once in 348 career starts).
  • It took Jones four starts to lose a game after leading in the fourth quarter.
  • It took Brady 66 starts to lose a game after leading in the fourth quarter. He threw four interceptions that night against the 2004 Dolphins, a 2-11 team.

A couple things I can say with certainty about Jones so far. He won’t melt in the rain like Davis Mills did for the Texans in Buffalo. But he’s also not destined to be the LOAT like Brady is. If he was, then he would have willed Folk to drill that kick followed by some random defender to intercept Brady to end the game.

This would have been a hell of a win for the Patriots, but now they can just focus on improving and getting back to winning important games in the AFC. Taking the division back from Buffalo. Frustrating Patrick Mahomes and the Chiefs better than most have. All the Brady stuff is in the past and the Patriots have to cope with mediocrity for now.

You can’t take a picture of this – it’s already gone.

Steelers at Packers: The Standard Is the Standard

What did the Steelers do differently this week in Green Bay compared to their last 10 games with a broken offense? They scored an opening-drive touchdown! Ben Roethlisberger threw a dime for 45 yards to Diontae Johnson to take an early 7-0 lead.

Unfortunately, this was not a sign of things to come as the normal broken offense returned for the rest of the game. The defense had another letdown before halftime for the fourth week in a row, and the Packers led 27-10 in the third quarter after Aaron Rodgers went on a hot five-drive scoring streak to put up all of Green Bay’s points.

Najee Harris scored a late touchdown for the Steelers to make it 27-17, but it was too little too late after a couple more horrible fourth-down throws short of the sticks. The only reason I can think of Roethlisberger turning into Alex Smith this season is that he doesn’t want to throw more interceptions, since those tend to get quarterbacks benched. But his quick throws on fourth down that lose yards are unheard of. He never had such a play in his whole career, but he now has such a completion in back-to-back games.

But maybe no play better symbolizes how broken this offense is than this 2-yard completion to JuJu Smith-Schuster on 4th-and-5 where he extends the ball as far as he could and is still multiple yards short of the marker.

You have to love how taking a screenshot on Game Pass is worthless these days since the player details won’t disappear even after 10 seconds. App is about as worthless as this Pittsburgh offense.

Not pictured: James Washington pointing like JuJu got the first down. Hilarious. Sad. Fvcked.

In eight of their last 10 games following last year’s 11-0 start, the Steelers have allowed 23-27 points. In seven of their last 10 games, the Pittsburgh offense has scored 10-17 points. This consistency of being so painfully below average on offense and also below average on defense is just ridiculous.

And yet I still say anyone who thinks benching the future Hall of Famer with a cap number just south of $26 million this year for Mason Rudolph or Dwayne Haskins is crazy if they think that solves anything. It is broken and this coaching staff is not qualified to fix it.

NFC West: Tough Day for the McVay and Shanahan Fanboys

While I was busy hate-watching Steelers-Packers, the first two NFC West showdowns of the season took place. Both road dogs, the Seahawks and Cardinals, came through with big wins in games that were far from classics, but they could be seen as real turning points for these franchises in what has been the NFL’s most competitive division since 2012.

Los Angeles’ Sean McVay was 8-0 against Arizona and all but one of those games was won by double digits. He has Matthew Stafford now and they just had that outstanding win over Tampa Bay. I certainly let all of that play into my decision making for betting on this game, but I couldn’t have been more wrong on this one.

The Cardinals just went in there and kicked their ass in a 37-20 final that was never closer than 11 points in the second half. Arizona just may have built something special here as this is the high point of the Kliff Kingsbury era so far. The Cardinals have produced at least 31 points and 400 yards of offense in each of their first four games. That’s only been done by the 2007 Patriots, 2011 Patriots, and 2013 Broncos in NFL history. Two of those teams set the single-season scoring record and all three lost the Super Bowl.

Why not Arizona in the Super Bowl this season? This is what you draft a quarterback like Kyler Murray No. 1 overall for. Murray (80.4) finished sixth in QBR this week – his third top-six game in four weeks – while Stafford (50.2) was 17th in his weakest game yet for the Rams. The Los Angeles running game produced 17 carries for 100 yards, so you could argue it was their best running game of the season. Yet Stafford still had his worst passing game. The Rams were sitting on 13 points until a drive in garbage time. Robert Woods had 30 yards and a touchdown on that final drive but only 18 yards before it. He is averaging just 43 yards per game with Stafford this year, making it one of the least-productive months of his career. That connection has just not taken off yet, and even the Stafford-to-Cooper Kupp connection was off in this one. Cupp had 64 yards on 13 targets.

This will continue to be one of the more fascinating parts of 2021 as so far the running success seems to have no correlation with how Stafford is doing in that game each week. But the Rams were outclassed on both sides of the ball, and this team still has a ton of work to do before we think of it as the favorite in the division. That may have just transferred over to the Cardinals.

The Seahawks will still have their say in this division as long as Russell Wilson and Pete Carroll are there. After beating the 49ers again 28-21, Wilson has still never lost three games in a row in the same season. This week had a different script though. In recent weeks, the Seahawks started fast before fading. On Sunday, they punted five times to start the game, scored four touchdowns over their next six drives, then just held on while the 49ers tried to mount a 15-point comeback with Trey Lance taking over the half for an injured Jimmy Garoppolo (calf).

Lance hit on a 76-yard touchdown pass to Deebo Samuel after a hideous blown coverage, but he showed why he is a raw rookie in need of reps. It sounds like he will be getting them with Garoppolo expected to be out some time. Will it be permanent? That depends on how well Lance plays, but he’ll have to do better than this game.

But with Samuel off to a dominant start and George Kittle still healthy, Kyle Shanahan is really lacking in the excuses department if this offense does not start to take off regardless if it’s Garoppolo or Lance at quarterback.

Ravens Stop Denver from Moving to 4-0, Panthers Finally Trail This Season

No 3-0 teams surprised people more than the Panthers and Broncos, but both had to deal with legitimate offenses in their biggest challenges yet this season.

I liked the Cowboys (-4) against Carolina, but it was a dogfight into the third quarter. But after Zane Gonzalez missed a 54-yard field goal, Dallas’ offense really took off with balance and big plays. Dallas led 36-14 in the fourth quarter before Sam Darnold, who rushed for two more touchdowns as he apparently wants to crush Cam Newton’s single-season record, led back-to-back touchdown drives to make it 36-28 with just over four minutes left. But when you think maybe this was another Mike McCarthy team collapsing with a lead, the Cowboys put the game away on offense and denied Darnold the game-tying drive opportunity.

Dallas has been impressive this season. When the offense is balanced like this – Prescott had four touchdown passes and only 188 yards passing while the backs rushed for 210 yards – they are going to be a challenge for anyone in the league. Clearly, the Carolina defense boosted its stats against cupcakes in the first three weeks. But I wouldn’t just write off the Panthers this season. They do look legitimately improved and D.J. Moore is a legit No. 1 wide receiver. They probably missed the greatness of Christian McCaffrey as an outlet receiver to deal with the pass rush better in this one. Darnold was sacked five times.

I saw very little of Ravens-Broncos, but it doesn’t seem like there was much there. Both teams have a lot of injuries, but the Ravens still have better players to make up for it. Teddy Bridgewater left with a concussion and Drew Lock was no match for Baltimore’s defense.

Lamar Jackson had just his third 300-yard passing game in the NFL and he has thrown for at least 235 yards in all four games this season. The only other time he’s done that in his career was his four-game start to his 2019 MVP season. Marquise Brown held on this week and finished with 91 yards and a touchdown.

Like Carolina, the Broncos were abusing bad, inexperienced quarterbacks to beef up their stats, but Jackson took it to them in one of the most pass-centric games the Ravens have had with him. His 37 pass attempts are tied for his third-highest amount in a game.

The Ravens were actually in danger of not rushing for 100 yards in this game, something they had done in 38 straight games (including playoffs). But after getting the ball back with three seconds left and an insurmountable 23-7 lead, John Harbaugh had the team run Lamar for a 5-yard gain instead of taking a knee like anyone else would. That gave the Ravens 102 yards and a new record of 39 straight 100-yard games, beating out the 1973-76 Bills. This does end their record streak of 38 games with at least 110 rushing yards.

But when coaches tell you they don’t care about numbers or records, there’s a decent chance they are lying. Extending the record, which is ultimately meaningless like most things in life, by having your star quarterback run with three seconds left is the definition of cheap.

Maybe the Ravens get there easier if they could figure out their running back rotation better. Latavius Murray led the way with 18 carries while Le’Veon Bell (4 for 11 yards) and Devonta Freeman (one 4-yard run) also saw action with Ty’Son Williams a healthy scratch. Maybe they’re saving him? Either way, it would be a good thing for the Ravens to continue developing this passing game.

Chiefs at Eagles: Let’s Not Take This for Granted

The Chiefs ended their two-game slide with a commanding 42-30 win, or only their second win by more than six points since the middle of last season. The bad news: the 2021 Chiefs are now the 14th team in NFL history to allow more than 28 points in each of their first four games. The good news: a dozen of those teams started 0-4 and the other (2012 Titans) was 1-3. The Chiefs (2-2) are now back to .500 after nearly having a perfect game on offense that should not be taken for granted.

The Chiefs were 9-of-10 on third down and scored a touchdown on six of their seven drives. Every touchdown drive was at least 65 yards and all but one of them was 75-plus yards. Literally the only mistake all day was a Patrick Mahomes interception forced under pressure on a third down, the only third-down stop of the day for the Eagles.

The Chiefs did it differently by rushing for 200 yards while Tyreek Hill had 186 receiving yards and three touchdowns. No other Kansas City receiver had more than 23 yards through the air. Travis Kelce hadn’t been held to that little yardage and kept out of the end zone in a game with Mahomes since their first start together in 2018 against the Chargers.

But the Chiefs were spectacular on that side of the ball and still left something to be desired on defense. Granted, they limited the Eagles to three field goals in the first three quarters, and Philadelphia’s last touchdown was a garbage-time score with four seconds left.

We’ll see just how ready the Chiefs are for a real test when they get the Bills next Sunday night in another potential AFC Game of the Year. But six touchdowns on seven drives is insane production in the NFL.

Giants at Saints: Seriously, WTF?

No team has puzzled me more on a weekly basis in 2021 than the Saints. They killed Aaron Rodgers and the Packers in Week 1, which looks like we can safely call it a fluke. They were embarrassed 26-7 by the Panthers in Week 2, which looks like a combo of division familiarity, an improved Carolina team, and some injuries and COVID problems in the coaching staff. They picked off Mac Jones three times in New England last week and took advantage of the rookie and limited offense there.

But then this 27-21 overtime loss to the Giants happened in the Superdome with a full crowd on hand, and I am more confused than ever. At least Jameis Winston passed for over 200 yards in regulation this week, but how the hell does a team throw 26 passes and not have one go to Alvin Kamara? He had 26 carries for 120 yards but no touchdowns since Taysom Hill, the touchdown vulture who threw a pick, hijinks happened, and it was the first game in Kamara’s career with no targets.

That is inexcusable, especially with the given lack of weapons in the passing game. But speaking of weapons, how do you let Daniel Jones pass for 402 yards and make only the second fourth-quarter comeback of his career (he was 1-13) on a day where Sterling Shepard and Darius Slayton were inactive? It does not make sense. Jones had failed to pass for more than 280 yards in every start with Jason Garrett as his offensive coordinator since 2020. Yet here he was getting two huge plays for 50-plus yard touchdowns out of John Ross and Saquon Barkley. Both players also delivered in overtime with Barkley taking in the game-winning score from 6 yards out on the only drive of overtime.

This is New Orleans’ 19th loss as a favorite of more than seven points since Sean Payton came to coach the team in 2006. The Saints are 39-19 SU (.672) as a favorite of more than seven points since 2006. Only Washington (6-4) has a worse winning percentage in such games.

I really thought the Saints would play better at home on offense. In some ways, they definitely did. But there were some key misses in this game like Kamara only getting two yards on a 4th-and-3 run, settling for a 58-yard field goal that was missed and led to the Ross touchdown, the Hill interception right after a long Winston touchdown pass was negated by penalty, and not closing out in the fourth quarter.

If this is what the Saints are post-Brees, then I’m out. I want nothing to do with Kamara’s prop bets anymore and I can’t even trust them to beat the Giants in the Superdome. Granted, Payton has lost in this spot more than you’d like to see in his career, but this was a really bad loss for the team. Daniel Jones is only supposed to do this shit against the Washington franchise.

Titans and Lions: Extend the Game vs. End the Game

Finally, I just wanted to highlight two coaching decisions on Sunday. Last week, I was happy when Tennessee’s Mike Vrabel went for two with a seven-point lead. He has been a bit of a renegade in breaking norms on two-point conversions. So, it kind of shocked me when he did not have his Titans go for the win against the lowly Jets after getting a touchdown with 16 seconds left in the game.

The timing was excellent with the Jets out of timeouts. This is the ideal spot to do it in and it’s not like the Jets were doing a great job of stopping Derrick Henry in the game. Ryan Tannehill also found his rhythm late after playing the game without Julio Jones and A.J. Brown available.

If you’re playing a lousy team on the road and the offense is the strength of your team, why not go for the win? That extra point surprised me. The Jets almost ended this one immediately in overtime, but eventually did settle for a field goal and 27-24 lead. The Titans had a rough time answering, needing to convert two fourth downs, but they eventually got into field goal range. It looks like we were about to have a damn tie, but fortunately, Randy Bullock is a bum kicker. From 49 yards out, he was wide left in the final 20 seconds to end the game.

The Jets had their first win in the Robert Saleh era. Rookie quarterback Zach Wilson had his first 4QC/GWD and it is one he can feel good about after a rough first three weeks. Wide receiver Corey Davis (111 yards and a touchdown) had a sweet revenge game on his former team.

While I wanted the Titans to end the game on one play, the Detroit Lions made a mistake of not extending the game. It was a rough afternoon in Chicago for the Lions, but they were down 24-14 in the fourth quarter with the ball. The Jared Goff-led drive stalled, setting up a 4th-and-1 at the Chicago 8 with 4:19 left. I get that it’s tempting to go for it there, but you have to realize you are still down 10 points (two scores) and time is a factor. Even if you go for it and get it, there is still no guarantee you are getting a touchdown here. In three more snaps, you could be kicking a field goal anyway if there’s a bad snap – oh, they had one of THOSE on Sunday – or a sack. Kick the field goal, use your three clock stoppages to get the ball back, and then get a touchdown and go for two or play for overtime.

But the Lions went for it, Goff’s pass was incomplete, and the Bears ran out the final 4:15 on the clock thanks to the Lions being offsides on a punt. Incredibly, the Lions had five drives inside the Chicago 8, and they only scored one touchdown on them, turning the ball over twice on fumbles and twice on downs.

Again, it was a lousy performance for the Lions against a Chicago team that seemed to be on the brink of collapse. But the Bears turned things around and got their second win of the season while the Lions remain 0-4.

NFL Stat Oddity: Week 2

I am trying to rationalize the ending of Chiefs-Ravens by thinking that this NFL season is just not going to make any sense. I’m not the only one struggling with my predictions. Favorites are just 10-21 ATS through Week 2, which would replace 2002 (10-20) for the worst start to a season for favorites in the 32-team era if the Packers can’t cover a big spread against Detroit on Monday night.

How likely are the Packers to do that when they lost 38-3 to a New Orleans team that just got pantsed by a Sam Darnold-led Panthers team? Again, uncertainty is very high right now. Let’s try to make some sense of these Week 2 results.

This season in Stat Oddity:

Chiefs at Ravens: We Have a Rivalry

I have been harping on the idea that the biggest story in the AFC these days, and maybe the whole NFL, is finding the worthy rival to the Kansas City Chiefs and Patrick Mahomes. Lamar Jackson and the Baltimore Ravens have been the most logical choice with the team’s balanced, consistent success, but the Chiefs have continued to clean their clock by a wider margin each year since 2018. It’s not a real rivalry until the Ravens show they can win one of these games.

Well, it happened, and it happened in one of the most unusual ways for Baltimore. The 36-35 win is the first time in Jackson’s career that he won a game after trailing by 11 points, and the first time he won after trailing by multiple scores in the second half. He still did it his way too by rushing 16 times for 107 yards and two touchdowns while only making 26 throws. However, he had 239 yards on those 26 throws for one of the best passing games of his career.

Jackson was almost flawless in the fourth quarter, putting away the Chiefs with two touchdown runs and a run on 4th-and-1 from his own 43 with just over a minute left to deny Mahomes one more chance with the ball. The inevitability of his rushing from the quarterback position was a feeling I hadn’t had in a game since I watched Vince Young destroy USC in the 2005 Rose Bowl.

Once is an accident, twice is a coincidence, but three times is a pattern. I will wait until I see the Chiefs play Justin Herbert and the Chargers next week before I make it my take, but I have serious doubts about the Chiefs having a defense that is capable of getting to a Super Bowl this year. Not everyone can run like Nick Chubb behind Cleveland’s line and this unique Baltimore rushing attack is the best in the league, but this run defense has been dreadful and the pass defense hasn’t been much better. They could see those teams again in January too.

Tyrann Mathieu’s season debut led to two picks and a pick-six in the first quarter, but he felt more like a liability in the final 45 minutes. No one seemed to be of any value after that as the Ravens were stopped once on their last seven drives. Jackson shaking off an ugly start and delivering is what made this one so different for Baltimore.

I hyped it up all summer. Would the Chiefs falter if the offense did not close the game out in the fourth quarter and the defense had to get the job done? This happened last week and the defense intercepted Baker Mayfield. But this time, the offense failed on three straight drives and so did the defense. The Chiefs blew their first fourth-quarter lead since the Tennessee loss in Week 10 of 2019.

Mahomes is 21-5 as a starter on the road and scored at least 31 points in every loss. But like the 31-9 Super Bowl loss, this game peels away another layer of invincibility around him. It was fun to say he’s never lost to the Ravens or lost a September game or thrown an interception in the month, but it all happened in this game, and it was all connected. Up 35-24 in the third quarter, Mahomes should have taken a sack on a third-and-12 at midfield, but he still tried to complete a pass (short of the sticks too) and it was intercepted. The Ravens turned that into a 56-yard touchdown drive. Just a bad mistake on a night where he had almost no others.

When he was down 36-35, Mahomes seemed to have another game-winning drive in the works by getting the ball to the Baltimore 32 on three passes. But the Chiefs dialed up a run and Clyde Edwards-Helaire continued his rough half with a devastating fumble with 1:20 left. We just went over something like this a week ago when Damien Harris of the Patriots coughed it up against the Dolphins. This was even later in the game though.

We can think of worse and bigger fumbles in NFL history, but there really is no point margin more agonizing to lose a fumble in the last two minutes than with a 1-to-2 point deficit. If you’re down 3, you lost that chance to tie or take the lead, and that’s a bummer. Ditto for being down 4-9. But you weren’t in position to win on a field goal there. In a tied game, it’s also a bummer, but at least you’re still tied after the turnover. This one just stings the most since the Chiefs were already in range, and despite having Mahomes, it seemingly hasn’t stopped Andy Reid from settling for a 45+ yard field goal in these situations. I understand why they ran, but you almost wish the Chiefs were down more points to incentivize them to keep the ball in Mahomes’ hands.

Stat of the night: Excluding kick returns, laterals, and quarterbacks taking strip-sacks, Edwards-Helaire’s fumble is only the third one by a skill player in opponent territory in the last 2:00 of a game while trailing by 1-2 points since 2001. The last player to do it was Denver running back Quentin Griffin in 2004 — incredibly on the same date (9/19) as CEH — in a 7-6 loss against Jacksonville. The only other “recent” example was when Reche Caldwell fumbled on a Drew Brees completion against the Chiefs in a 24-22 loss in 2002. That’s how rare this is as it is only the second one on a handoff.

Bumping the deficit up to three points only adds these five plays since 2001 (and no, I’m not sure what Brees and the Saints did to deserve to be on here so often):

  • 2019 Melvin Gordon (Chargers vs. Titans)
  • 2018 JuJu Smith-Schuster (Steelers vs. Saints)
  • 2018 Rashad Greene (Jaguars vs. Colts)
  • 2005 Reche Caldwell (again on a pass from Brees; Chargers vs. Eagles)
  • 2003 Deuce McAllister (Falcons vs. Saints; Atlanta fumbled ball back to Saints on same play; Saints won game in OT)

Still, because the Chiefs had all three timeouts, a stop was possible to get Mahomes the ball back. But on 4th-and-1 from the Baltimore 43 with 1:05 left, John Harbaugh asked Lamar if he wanted to go for it. Of course he did, as he should. From what I know about quarterback runs in short-yardage situations, he had to be at least 80% likely to convert there. If he converts, the game is over. If he doesn’t convert, then that is bad news as Mahomes would only need a first down to set up a reasonable field goal. So this was for the game, and I absolutely agreed with it as Baltimore needed to deliver that knockout punch and not trust the defense that has let them down so many times before in these moments. Not when you’re playing someone like Mahomes and he has a minute to set up the field goal.

If they called a pathetic play that didn’t work, then this would be a defining play of the season. But they called the smart play against a defense that couldn’t stop Lamar in the second half, and he delivered with the first down to ice it, making it a defining play of the season in a good way for Baltimore.

It’s a signature win for the Jackson era and should give the Ravens hope should they meet this team again in January. I’ll have to wait for the charting data to see if the Ravens dialed back their blitzing on Mahomes. It felt like they did, and they were smart to double team Tyreek Hill and limit him to 14 yards on three catches. Those big YAC plays for touchdowns to Travis Kelce and Byron Pringle could be defended better next time. It was a pretty loose offensive game with players on both teams running wild all over the field.

You can see how hard it is to still beat the Chiefs, but the cracks are starting to show with this team. In Mahomes’ last 12 starts, the Chiefs have one win by more than six points. That was Buffalo (38-24) in the AFC Championship Game. The Bills will get their next shot at the Chiefs on SNF in Week 5. If the Ravens can break through with a win, what about the Bills? What about the Chargers in Arrowhead next week?

This just may not be a waltz back to the Super Bowl for Kansas City after all.

Bad Afternoon for QB Injuries (MIA/CHI/HOU/IND)

While Week 1 could have been defined by underdog wins and a lot of bad fumbles, Week 2’s early afternoon slate was rocked hard by injuries, especially at the quarterback position.

Tua Tagovailoa left the game early for Miami, which turned into a 35-0 rout for the Bills. I don’t think that injury changed the outcome for the winner, but it was still a game that looked more like the 2019 Bills than the precise, efficient offense the team had with Josh Allen in 2020.

An Andy Dalton injury in Chicago gave way to Justin Fields, who did what most Chicago quarterbacks are used to doing: riding the defense to a win after Joe Burrow threw a pick-six in the fourth quarter in a 20-17 win by the Bears. While Fields failed to impress, it will be interesting to see if Dalton gets the job back again.

Tyrod Taylor was tearing up the Browns, one of his former teams, in the first half before injury took him out again. He won’t play Thursday night at the very least. The game was all Cleveland after that, so this was a real disappointing one as it seemed like Taylor was really making the most of this Houston opportunity. Poor guy can’t make it to October anymore.

The play-by-play for Texans-Browns had a whopping 10 mentions of a player being injured on a play. Taylor was not one of those, which just goes to show this is not a designation that can cover every injury that occurs in a game as sometimes they just don’t know which play did it. But 10 sure sounds like a game that was plagued by injury. Baker Mayfield barely got through it in one piece too, and it was Mayfield who took over for Taylor in Cleveland in 2018 when he was injured there.

Then there was the Rams-Colts game, which only listed one injury (Darrell Henderson) in the play-by-play list. But Carson Wentz did not finish this game after another injury. I would have loved to see what he would do in an ideal game-winning drive situation, down 27-24 with just over two minutes left and no timeouts. Instead, we got Jacob Eason, who promptly turned into Nathan Peterman and lobbed this one to Jalen Ramsey.

A rough day at the office. I’d say more about the Rams, but I plan to talk about them more during the week in the buildup for the game of the month between the Rams and Buccaneers. Let’s just say I think this close win in Indy takes a lot of the shine off this being a super team with Stafford, but it was a fine road win.

Saints at Panthers: WTF?

Suddenly, I don’t feel so bad about predicting mediocrity for the 2021 Saints. Any hope that the defense was going to morph into an elite unit without Drew Brees after what the Saints did to Aaron Rodgers last week quickly vanished after this 26-7 walloping at the hands of the Panthers, a team the Saints have owned for years.

That makes two weeks in a row the Saints had the real “WTF? game of the week” and now they were on the opposite end of the spectrum. I always had a lot of respect for Drew Brees, and I thought the shots some were taking about the Saints now having a deep ball because of one Jameis Winston touchdown last week were absurd.

I don’t remember Brees ever struggling to throw for 100 yards in New Orleans like Winston has in these first two games as the starter. It’s so weird too since Winston is one of the most prolific quarterbacks in NFL history at gaining passing yards. Is Sean Payton hiding him from throwing picks and it’s hurting their ability to produce as a legitimate offense? Supporters will cite COVID wiping out much of the offensive coaching staff this week, but it’s not like last week was a normal performance with the short fields. It’s not like the Panthers are some juggernaut, and they still had Payton there coaching this game.

The Saints were outgained by 255 yards. That only happened to Brees one time in New Orleans when he was outgained by 278 yards against Peyton Manning’s 2012 Broncos. A bit different than Sam Darnold’s Panthers. The 128 yards of offense were the worst for the Saints since the 2001 finale against the 49ers (126 yards). Really, it took two games after Brees retired to have a game almost 50 yards lower than his lowest game? (176 yards in Dallas in 2018).

I don’t know what to make of these teams yet. I need to see them play a normal game and a good opponent first.

Cowboys at Chargers: Dallas Wins Fake Low-Scoring Game

The streak is finally over. For the first time since the 2018 playoffs, the Cowboys won a game without scoring 30 points. Since beating the Seahawks 24-22 in the 2018 wild card round, the Cowboys were 14-2 when scoring at least 30 points and 0-18 when scoring fewer than 30 points. No other team in NFL history has ever had a two-year run like these Cowboys just had where 30 was such a magic number for them.

But even in pulling out a shorthanded 20-17 win in Los Angeles against the Chargers, the Cowboys still played in an offensively-driven game that only had 15 total possessions. One of Dallas’ eight drives was before halftime with three seconds left, and they nearly pulled out a miracle score. Since Dak Prescott and Justin Herbert only combined to throw 14 incompletions, and the Cowboys really got their running game to explode with 198 yards (109 from Tony Pollard), this was a fast-moving game with much better per-drive averages for the offenses. This is only the third non-overtime game in NFL history where both offenses had over 400 yards, but neither scored more than 20 points. The first two were 2012 Raiders-Browns and 2017 Buccaneers-Patriots.

The lack of possessions just made every mistake hurt more, such as the two picks from Herbert and the missed field goal. Herbert also had two touchdown passes taken away on penalties with the Chargers settling for three points on those drives, including a game-tying field goal with 3:54 left instead of a go-ahead touchdown. The officiating left a lot to be desired in this one.

Prescott made a lot of simple, short throws on the game-winning drive, and Mike McCarthy’s bunch did not handle the clock and situation the best they could have. Greg Zuerlein ended up coming out for a 56-yard field goal. But unlike some kickers this week, he only needed one attempt to drill it for the win with no time left.

Both teams are going to be a tough out for anyone this year, but both still seem like their own worst enemy at times.

Patriots at Jets: Weekly Zach Wilson Data Dump

When Zach Wilson threw his fourth interception on his 10th pass attempt of the day against the Patriots, I knew the Jets had their quarterback for the next 30 games. After all, what other franchise does a stat line like that remind you of? If it’s not the great Joe Namath or Richard Todd or Vinny Testaverde or Mark Sanchez or Geno Smith or Ryan Fitzpatrick or Sam Darnold, what other franchise screams “four picks” like the Jets?

Last week I had Wilson in an unpleasant list of quarterbacks who took six sacks in their first start. Now I can add Wilson to this “yikes” list of the last 12 quarterbacks to throw at least four interceptions in their first or second start:

  • Nathan Peterman (2017)
  • Ryan Lindley (2012)
  • Brandon Weeden (2012)
  • Keith Null (2009)
  • Ryan Fitzpatrick (2005)
  • Brooks Bollinger (2005)
  • Alex Smith (2005)
  • John Navarre (2004)
  • Henry Burris (2002)
  • Patrick Ramsey (2002)
  • Joey Harrington (2002)
  • Clint Stoerner (2001)

Now it’s been said that Bill Belichick has done this a lot to opponents. This is true. Belichick has absolutely won more games than anyone with a quarterback dinking and dunking and taking advantage of his opponent’s mistakes in easy three-score wins as Mac Jones demonstrated on Sunday.

Oh, but you were thinking about Belichick’s defense against rookie quarterbacks? Yes, there’s some truth to that too. Belichick is far from undefeated against rookies as he has lost notable games to Ben Roethlisberger (2004), Mark Sanchez (2009), Colt McCoy (2010), Russell Wilson (2012), Geno Smith (2013), and Tua last year.

But I was able to pull together the data on this, and instead of limiting it to rookies, I looked at inexperienced starters in general as quarterbacks who were making their 1st to 16th start of their NFL career. How do such inexperienced quarterbacks fare against Belichick relative to all other coaches since 2001? I made a graph with all 63 coaches with at least 15 such games through 2020.

Inexperienced quarterbacks have only won 18.5% of their games against Belichick from 2001 to 2020, going 15-66 in the process. Only Baltimore’s John Harbaugh (9-42, .176) has a better record. The 4.53 ANY/A for those quarterbacks against Belichick ranks him as the 14th-best coach in this sample of 63. Mike Zimmer (3-13 record, 3.65 ANY/A) has also been very impressive in this split.

Interestingly enough, two of the worst coaches against inexperienced quarterbacks were Jason Garrett (14-15 record, 5.98 ANY/A) and Adam Gase (9-9 record, 5.98 ANY/A). Jets fans should be glad that Gase is gone, but more afternoons like this from Robert Saleh (and Wilson), and it’ll start to feel like he never left.

Raiders at Steelers: Actually, Not the Same Old Steelers

(Note: If you’re not aware, the reason you get a more detailed Steelers game recap is because you can count on that being a game I watched in full each Sunday.)

I wish I can say the Steelers had another one of their whacky, unexpected losses to the Raiders on Sunday despite being a 6.5-point home favorite. The fact is the game was fairly normal and indicative of the kind of team Pittsburgh is when it does not have a good season. The Steelers upset Buffalo last week by getting contributions from all three units. While the special teams helped with a 56-yard field goal, a Heinz Field record, the offense was not good enough again and the defense struggled after its best player (T.J. Watt) left with a groin injury.

While I felt the Steelers used to lose to the Raiders by overlooking them and getting some bad bounces, this time it just felt like Pittsburgh was the inferior team heading in the wrong direction while maybe the Raiders are on the right path. With Josh Jacobs out, the Raiders had no problem in going one-dimensional and using Derek Carr through the air (382 yards) while not excessively targeting tight end Darren Waller after he had 19 targets on Monday night. Hunter Renfrow played very well on pivotal downs and Carr was money on the 61-yard bomb to Henry Ruggs that really made the difference in the fourth quarter.

Pittsburgh just failed to stack good plays. Carr got away with fumbles on consecutive plays before the Raiders settled for a field goal to begin the scoring. Melvin Ingram did his best to step up for Watt’s absence with a sack, but Carr simply converted the ensuing third-and-9 to Renfrow, which led to another touchdown in the third quarter. After the Pittsburgh offense answered with a fourth-quarter touchdown to make it 16-14, the defense folded again on third-and-10 on the Ruggs bomb to make it 23-14. The Steelers never touched the ball again with a one-score deficit.

The Pittsburgh offense is definitely stuck in what I call the post-Antonio Brown malaise that has been there since 2019 started, but this was very much a team loss and not about one unit over the other. Strangely enough, the quick/short passes are working this year for first downs and successful gains rather than the 1-yard gains on early downs and the pathetic failed completions on third-and-long that they seemed to always be last year. Ben Roethlisberger even hit a couple deep bombs in this game and got Najee Harris his first receiving touchdown on a 25-yard play.

So, what was the issue? Again, they’re not good enough to stack successes and score more points. Sometimes it’s Roethlisberger being off with his post-surgery arm strength not being good enough. Other times it’s Eric Ebron dropping a catchable ball on a third down after Roethlisberger shows some vintage escapability, like on the opening drive. Or it’s Diontae Johnson flat out giving up on a route when Roethlisberger threw one up on a third-and-long that was picked off. The running game with Harris and the new line just isn’t there yet either.

Finally, there is the coaching incompetency. While we saw the Ravens go for broke with a fourth down to put away the Chiefs on Sunday night, Mike Tomlin shriveled up again in a big spot. The Steelers faced a 4th-and-1 at their own 34 with 8:36 left and a 23-14 deficit. The defense had just given up five scores on the last seven possessions and could not be trusted. If the offense cannot be trusted to gain a yard, then how is this team ever going anywhere this year? Like in the playoff game against Cleveland, Pittsburgh punted on 4th-and-1 in the fourth quarter while down two scores. At least the defense got a stop this time, but after settling for the 56-yard field goal, the Steelers failed again on defense, allowing a 25-yard play to Waller that set up one more field goal and the 26-17 final. Johnson was then injured on a meaningless final play.

I think the Steelers will be 5-6 or 6-5 by the time December comes and they host Baltimore. But once the injuries pile up and that tough finish to the schedule arrives, the ground may be ready to crumble a la The Dark Knight Rises.

Then it may be time for fans to adopt the darkness to come.

Vikings at Cardinals: Another September MVP Campaign for Kyler Murray?

I knew Kirk Cousins (77.8) was going to finish this game with a higher QBR than Kyler Murray (65.5) once I saw him scramble for a 29-yard gain. QBR loves that stuff, and Cousins actually finished with more rushing yards (35 to 29) than Murray in this one. He also did not have a turnover while Murray threw two pretty bad picks, including one returned for a touchdown, that made this one a struggle for Arizona to win.

But which quarterback had the more impressive plays on the day? That was Murray, hands down. The best 5-foot-10 QB in NFL history made plays all over the field on his way to 400 passing yards and four more total touchdowns. He completed five passes of 25-plus yards to four different receivers.

Most games in NFL history with 360+ passing yards, 3+ passing TD, 1+ rushing TD:

  • 1. Aaron Rodgers – 5
  • 2. Drew Brees – 4
  • 3. Peyton Manning – 3
  • 3. KYLER MURRAY – 3
  • 5. Tom Brady – 2

When Murray is healthy, this offense is a lot of fun. Murray delivered on a key fourth down for 35 yards to set up Arizona’s go-ahead field goal. Cousins had two chances to answer, and on the last one, he did. The Vikings could have hurried to the line and ran another play with Dalvin Cook once they got to the Arizona 19 before calling their final timeout. However, they let the clock go down to four seconds before using that timeout.

Greg Joseph came out for the 37-yard field goal to win the game as the Vikings trailed 34-33. Vikings. Kicker. Game-winning field goal. You knew what was going to happen even before the ball was snapped. He missed it wide right, and the Vikings have an argument for the most painful loss of the young season. Go figure, Cousins, Mahomes and Mac Jones last week against Miami are the only three quarterbacks to lose after having a QBR above 70. That’s what a missed field goal or your teammate fumbling the game away in field goal range does.

As I pointed out in my preseason previews, the biggest moves for the Cardinals were getting Chandler Jones back on defense and a real kicker in Matt Prater. The Cardinals were the team last year that had several big misses in the clutch from their kicker. Prater made a huge 62-yard field goal before halftime in this one and he did not go Blair Walsh on the 27-yard game-winner. Sorry Vikings fans, I don’t know why your franchise is cursed at this position. But the Cardinals added a good one in Prater.

Titans at Seahawks: Regression vs. Regression

After piling up 33 points, 33 first downs, and 532 yards of offense, we can confirm that the Titans are still a fun and functional offense. Julio Jones showed out with 128 yards and Derrick Henry rushed for 182 yards and three touchdowns to lead a 15-point comeback in the second half and a 14-point comeback in the fourth quarter.

Meanwhile, the Seahawks blinked first in the NFC West, which would be 8-0 right now as a division had the Seahawks hung on for this win. Seattle is no stranger to blowing big leads in the Pete Carroll era, but this has been unusual in recent years as Seattle has compiled such an unsustainable great record in close games since 2019.

But on Sunday, the Seahawks went from three straight touchdown drives in the second quarter to one score on their six drives in the second half. Third down was a weakness for the offense in 2020 and it happened again in this one. Seattle finished 4-of-12 on third down but failed on third-and-short twice in the second half. The Seahawks were going to go for a fourth-and-1 but were flagged for a false start, leading to a punt and game-tying touchdown drive for the Titans.

In overtime, I really thought Russell Wilson was sacked in the end zone for a game-ending safety, which wouldn’t be the first (or second) time Ryan Tannehill has won a game that way if you can believe it. Seriously, this could have been the third game-winning safety game he was involved in. But it was not to be, and despite the generous spot, Seattle punted from the 1, which gave the Titans the ball at the Seattle 39. Four Henry runs set up Randy Bullock to redeem himself with a 36-yard field goal for the stunning win.

That was only one yard shorter than the kick that Minnesota missed to give Arizona a win and 2-0 start. I don’t want to give Arizona much grief since it destroyed this Tennessee team in Week 1. But with the Rams about to host Tampa Bay and the 49ers not dominating teams, Seattle is still right up there in the division. Still, there is something stale with this team’s approach. The defense stopped being scary years ago. Wilson is still great, but he does seem to be relying a bit too much on the rainbows for big plays instead of doing more to sustain offense with longer drives (more third-down conversions).

But this was definitely the kind of comeback the Titans made a year ago, so they are still good at that. Still the favorites for sure in the AFC South.

NFL Quarterback Rivalries: Past, Present, Future

Trust me, the title sounds way more ambitious than what the post is actually going to be. I’m settling into this new role of writing more on this blog during the season, but it’s going to come in the form of quick data dumps of interest rather than epic-length projects like the 43,000 words I wrote in a week on my top 100 quarterbacks of the 21st century.

Today’s topic is quarterback rivalries. These often drive the league’s intrigue, though we haven’t always seen a lot of great quarterbacks meet numerous times in the past with the way schedules used to work. For example, Dan Marino and John Elway were both drafted to the AFC in 1983, both active through 1998, both on a lot of winning teams, yet they only met a total of three times and two of those happened in 1998 when they were old. That’s just stunning. We’re about to see Round 4 of Patrick Mahomes vs. Lamar Jackson Sunday night, and Round 3 of Mahomes vs. Allen in Week 5.

But it’s not a real rivalry until the other side starts to win too, and that’s where we are stuck waiting right now.

The AFC: Patrick Mahomes vs. ?

I keep stressing that this is a transition period in the NFL, and perhaps the biggest story in the whole league is the reshaping of the AFC. We need to find the best challengers to Patrick Mahomes and the Kansas City Chiefs as the best QB and team in the conference. He just beat Baker Mayfield and Cleveland again. He has yet to lose to Josh Allen/Buffalo and Lamar Jackson/Ravens. He also will have his second meeting with Justin Herbert and the Chargers, who took him to overtime last year after Herbert got the surprise start following a team doctor’s incompetence.

Someone has to step up here, or Mahomes and the Chiefs are going to have an easy run to the Super Bowl year after year a la what we’ve seen recently with Tom Brady and LeBron James in the NBA. But even Brady needed his rival in Peyton Manning, who stopped him from getting to the Super Bowl more often than the other way around, and LeBron had the Golden State Warriors as a super team to deny him Michael Jordan’s ring count. Even Magic Johnson had a Larry Bird to deal with in the 80s. You need that rival or else it’s one-sided and the results are too predictable. It gets boring, even if watching Mahomes operate is anything but boring right now.

Oddly enough, Brady and his teams have been the biggest Mahomes stoppers so far, taking away a potential three-peat in 2018-20 for the Chiefs. These teams very well could meet again in February.

The NFC: The Future Is What Exactly?

Brady’s run is unlikely to go on forever, though his quack trainer Alex Guerrero has done a magnificent job of keeping the Lazarus Pit running for him. As for Aaron Rodgers, I swear he looked like he aged five years this weekend and I don’t even mean by the way he played, which was terrible in the first 35-point loss of his career. I mean when I saw the teaser for his FOX interview, he looked like a 44-year-old quarterback in the NFC. Maybe he just got out of practice and skipped makeup and a shower, but he just looked haggard to me.

With Brees tapped out and those two probably not far behind, it will soon look different in the NFC. But is it too soon to predict a Matthew Stafford vs. Russell Wilson showdown now that they’re in the same division? Or are we headed for a Trey Lance vs. Justin Fields run where Wilson still doesn’t get MVP votes and Stafford still can’t beat teams with winning records? It’s probably going to have to be those two rookies as the future unless Kyler Murray is ready to take that next step or Jalen Hurts in Philadelphia. You know I love Dak too, but that coaching combo of Mike McCarthy and Dan Quinn is bound to fail.

Not only has the AFC taken Mahomes, 2019 MVP Lamar Jackson, and 2020 MVP runner-up Josh Allen, but the AFC has drafted Trevor Lawrence and Joe Burrow with the last two No. 1 picks. Baker Mayfield was No. 1 in 2018 and even if you’re not sold on him yet, he’s really not that bad of a quarterback. The AFC also recently drafted Tua, Mac Jones, Zach Wilson, Herbert, and would have another stud in Deshaun Watson if he wasn’t an alleged sexual predator.

With respect to Dak possibly throwing for 6,000 yards this year to make up for his defense, there’s just not a lot of intrigue built into the NFC yet. We have to see how Winston and Stafford continue to do with their upgraded coaching and team situations. It’s only been one week.

The Sweet Sixteen to Meet a Dozen Times

Finally, the data dump. From 2001 to 2020, there were 16 quarterback matchups that had at least a dozen meetings when you include playoff games. I gathered the stats on win% and ANY/A (so I can account for sacks) for each quarterback in the matchup, so this chart has 32 points on it.

CLICK TO ENLARGE

I have some good news for fans of the Falcons and Giants. Brees vs. Ryan and Romo vs. Eli are the only two matchups where the winning QB (Brees and Romo) had a lower ANY/A than the losing QB. No two quarterbacks were closer in ANY/A than Eli and Romo (0.14), though Manning-Brady (0.22) was a close second on the list. Considering this doesn’t adjust for the quality of the defense faced, that looks very good for the Manning brothers.

No matchup was more lopsided than Rodgers vs. Jay Cutler. Rodgers was 11-2 and +3.37 in ANY/A over Cutler, the biggest gap on the list. Rodgers vs. Stafford was also the second-biggest difference in ANY/A at +2.46 for Rodgers. We’ll see if Stafford can close that a little this year. The closest matchup by record was Philip Rivers going 7-6 vs. Derek Carr in the AFC West despite a difference of 1.27 ANY/A in Rivers’ favor. That speaks to the Chargers blowing games late while Carr inexplicably wins a lot of those games.

How many of these 16 matchups are still possible in the future? Brady-Fitzpatrick, Rodgers-Stafford, Ben-Brady, Ben-Dalton are about the only four realistic ones. Maybe something with Cam Newton if he ever gets another job and plays Matt Ryan again. Stafford vs. Rodgers is scheduled for Week 12 this year. The Bears are in Pittsburgh in Week 9, but Fields has to take over for Dalton by then, right? Fitzpatrick could face Brady in Week 10 if he doesn’t already lose the job to Taylor Heinicke by then. Hey, Brady could get a second win over Heinicke in that case.

But this was a great era with a lot of memorable and important games in that chart. New rivalries will emerge, but nothing is certain in this league. If you thought Mahomes-Watson in 2019 would be the first of several playoff meetings between the two, no rational person would have disagreed at the time. Now? Oof.

And if you’re a disappointed Ravens fan not looking forward to the Chiefs this week, then just remember that Manning’s Colts lost six straight to Brady’s Patriots in 2001-04 before turning that one around. For it to be a real rivalry, the other side has to start winning at some point. Maybe Sunday night is that turnaround moment for the Ravens.

2021 NFL Predictions

This is the 10th season of posting my NFL predictions here. In seven of the last nine years, I managed to predict one Super Bowl finalist, but somehow I had the wrong Super Bowl result for them all seven times. In the last two years, I had the Chiefs losing and then winning last year. It was the other way around, of course.

For that reason, we still are in the longest drought ever without a repeat champion. But could we be in store for a repeat Super Bowl between Tampa Bay and Kansas City? It has only happened one time in NFL history when the Cowboys beat the Bills in 1992-93. That was a case of Dallas putting together a dynasty run, and the Bills also had an incredible run of four straight Super Bowls with a core of Hall of Famers. Unfortunately, they lost all four games as Scott Norwood should die of gonorrhea and rot in hell*.

*That’s a well-executed reference to Ace Ventura, so I will not be doing a Brian Kelly and apologizing if you didn’t get the joke.

Predicting a rematch can often be the trendy pick that year, but I really think these teams are uniquely qualified for it. The Chiefs have hosted the AFC Championship Game three years in a row, have been money against their main competition (Ravens/Bills), and have the best player in the league right now in Patrick Mahomes. The Buccaneers have brought back every starter, including the 44-year-old King of Kings, most of their depth from last year, they are loaded on both sides of the ball, and they get a boost in the division with Drew Brees retiring. Are you really going to trust Matthew Stafford and Ryan Fitzpatrick joining the Rams and Washington to put up a fight with Tom Brady, the Luckiest Quarterback of All Time?

While I may have a familiar Super Bowl prediction for you, the rest of this preview is going to look different from past years. In the last four years I ended up writing over 16,000 words each time. I didn’t break 10,000 this time since I already wrote full previews (2,000-4,500 words each) on all 32 teams at Bookmakers Review (BMR) this summer. I have included the BMR links for each team in their section below and I promise they have all the stats and thoughts you’re used to seeing from me.

Don’t forget to check out the eight-part series I just finished on The Top 100 Quarterbacks of the 21st Century. The final part on the top five quarterbacks has the links at the top to the first seven parts.

What I’m Watching for in 2021

Before getting into the teams, I want to share some thoughts on what I’m watching for this season, the first 17-game season in NFL history.

First of all, I hate the 17 games and we haven’t even started. It’s going to screw up the stats and my databases, all the counting records, and end the longest, most consistent scheduling we’ve had in NFL history. I think 32 teams, 16 games, 12 playoff teams, and eight divisions was the perfect setup, but they killed it out of greed. Having an odd number of games also makes no sense as you get an unequal number of home and road games with the AFC teams getting a ninth home game this year while they’ll alternate next year. I just hate it. No more .500 teams unless you finish 8-8-1, which I’m sure Kirk Cousins is fucking stoked for. But it’s definitely a transition period in NFL history.

Last year I talked a lot about COVID and uncertainty here. This is going to be Pandemic Season No. 2, and I do fear that we could see more screwy things than last year just because of how more contagious the Delta variant is. We have triple the number of cases in the United States on Labor Day this year than we did one year ago. That’s scary.

To the NFL’s credit, they got every game in last year even though there were a few shams like the Ravens and Steelers playing on a Wednesday and the Broncos not having a quarterback to play the Saints. As it turns out in the news today, Denver was being properly punished for breaking protocol that week. So, hopefully teams are more professional about following rules this year, though a few teams like the Bills and Colts have projected vocal vomit about their anti-vaccine stances. I’d take a shot at Cole Beasley specifically, but he’d just run away. See what happens when you give a guy a completely unearned All-Pro vote?

But the crowds are back for now, so it will be very interesting to see what happens to the offensive stats after 2020 was the highest-scoring season in NFL history at 24.8 points per game, a full 1.4 points above the previous record (2013). Yards per play (5.6) were never higher and turnovers per game (1.3) were never lower. We had more first downs per game (21.7) than ever before as teams completed the most passes per game (23.0) at the highest completion percentage (65.2%) ever recorded. That led to the highest passer rating (93.6) for a season and the record for most touchdown passes (871 or 27.2 per team).

We only have complete data for third downs back to 1991, but 2020 saw offenses convert 41.6% of the time on third down, a new record. The only other season over 40% was 1995 (40.1%).

Likewise, I have red zone data going back to the 1999 season. Last season, offenses had more opportunities (1,750), touchdowns (1,071) and the highest red zone touchdown percentage (61.2%) since 1999. It was the first season with over 1,000 red zone touchdowns scored. I added the trend line here, so you can see this has been going up over the years likely due to teams finally going for more fourth downs in the red zone. But things were never better in the red zone for offenses than last year.

From not having a preseason to the quiet sounds of crowd-less stadiums, I definitely believe the pandemic helped produce these record-setting numbers last year. I would expect some regression to the mean in this department, so that could be something to keep in mind when you’re betting on over/unders this September, or on something I’m very interested in researching more: touchdown scorers. Last year, it seemed like Alvin Kamara, Davante Adams, and Tyreek Hill were good for a touchdown almost every week.

Passing yards cooled down a bit in the second half of the season after such a historic pace to start the year. I would keep that in mind for the rookies (Justin Herbert, Joe Burrow, WR Justin Jefferson) from last year, or Dak Prescott’s insane average in Dallas for five games, or the way Russell Wilson started the season, and even the numbers Aaron Rodgers had in his MVP season after years of not playing like that.

Things should get a little more defensive this season, but the game is still undeniably trending towards more offense. The only real hiccup to that could be if a lot of these young quarterbacks fail to pan out while the last few remaining legends soon retire.

One last note: I predicted over/under on each team’s win total at BMR. What I predicted in those articles in July/August may be different from my final W-L prediction in September after sitting down Monday night and going through the schedule like I always do to come up with these final predictions.

AFC WEST

1. Kansas City Chiefs (13-4)

BMR Preview: “The Avengers have a Hulk, Vin Diesel has a family, and the Chiefs have Patrick Mahomes.” This was the first team preview I did back in July. I like the preview I wrote here but it contains an error in the very first paragraph that I don’t know how I made. The Chiefs are trying to become the FOURTH team to follow a Super Bowl loss with a Super Bowl win. I had the 71-72 Dolphins and 17-18 Patriots, but I somehow skipped right over the 70-71 Cowboys, who beat those Dolphins before they went on a repeat run.

I covered how the Chiefs did a great job addressing the weakness with the offensive line. It will be interesting to see if that means they run more (and better) this year or not. I also chose Mecole Hardman as the real X-factor in the offense. If he can have a breakout year in replacing Sammy Watkins’ role as the WR2, then this offense could soar to a new level. But given how mistake prone Hardman is, and how he looked at times with Mahomes in the preseason, I’m not confident about that. So, Travis Kelce and Tyreek Hill are going to have to stay healthy for sure.

I also covered how no team has ever won 14 games and then won more the next year in NFL history. Now the Chiefs get a bonus 17th game to try, but I still don’t think they win more than 13 in the regular season.

I went over Kansas City’s historic streak of winning seven straight games by fewer than seven points. The Chiefs finished 9-0 (including playoffs) in games decided by 1-7 points, the best record in the last 20 years.

Usually, those teams regress. Now it’s been pointed out that the teams with the great quarterbacks were fine, and that’s true. But this is also the second year in a row where the Chiefs had a lot of unusual wins. Remember, their whole Super Bowl run in 2019 saw them trail by double digits in every game before winning them all by double digits. Since 2019, the Chiefs are 9-3 when trailing by multiple scores. That is insane and not sustainable, no matter how great Mahomes is.

But as I was saying about this being more than one year, look at the Colts example with Peyton Manning. He led a ton of close wins in 2008 and 2009, which is why he deserved those MVP awards. He had seven comebacks in 2009, an NFL record. But in 2010, he had no comeback wins and the Colts were bounced by the Jets in the wild card round after blowing a late lead. The regression caught up to them.

Keep in mind that the Chiefs were only 10-8 (.556) in these close outcomes in 2018-19, and 10-9 including the playoffs. Going from 10-9 to 9-0 is a huge leap. The Chiefs were one of three teams to not blow a fourth-quarter lead last year. They almost certainly will blow one or more this year. Maybe they play fewer close games overall and win more in dominant fashion. But I don’t think you will see the same close game success for this team this year.

This is the first team in the preview you’re reading but the 32nd recap I’m writing. I wanted to finish up by touching on some things I said over the summer about this team. Some Chiefs fans got all riled up over what I was tweeting in July, but they just don’t understand that I have been very pro-Kansas City in recent years. I make no bones about being a huge fan of Mahomes, who I just ranked as the No. 2 quarterback of the 21st century. I wanted to see them win the Super Bowl again. You’re not going to get me to root against him because you misunderstood my tweets.

But 31-9 was a gut punch, one of the worst Super Bowls I’ve ever seen after the worst postseason I ever covered. Those four weeks soured me so much on football that I basically ignored it for five months as I covered the NBA for the first time in my career. And hey, I somehow went over 60% ATS at picking NBA games. Way better than I am at football. It was a nice escape before I got back into doing football in July.

I hope I’m wrong, but I think the potential for a dynasty for this team may have closed with 31-9. The common link between every NFL dynasty is that they don’t lose games like Super Bowl LV. You don’t lose the game where you can collect your second trophy and then go on to win several more. It just doesn’t happen that way.

The 1961-67 Packers were 5-0 in championship games. The 1970s Steelers and 1980s 49ers were 4-0 in the Super Bowl. The 1992-95 Cowboys and 2001-04 Patriots were 3-0 in the Super Bowl.

You know who loses their shot at a second ring? It’s the teams at the bottom of this table I’ve been keeping to myself since July, which has all the teams who won multiple rings in a five-year window on top. But the bottom includes those famous teams who lost their second shot and never got back like the 1997 Packers with Brett Favre, 2001 Rams with Kurt Warner, 2009 Colts with Peyton Manning, and 2014 Seahawks with Russell Wilson.

Being some of those teams on the bottom is not the worst thing in the world. Joe Gibbs did rebound to win three rings in Washington after that crushing 38-9 Super Bowl loss (sound familiar?) to the Raiders in 1983. But he had to wait until 1987 to get his second, and after the 49ers won back-to-back in 1988-89, it was clear that San Francisco was the team of the decade and not Washington, which is not traditionally thought of as a dynasty for winning with three different quarterbacks from 1982-91.

Now, the counterpoint to all of this is obvious. We’ve only had 55 seasons where a team could win the Super Bowl, a small sample size. There are plenty of firsts to come. Just look at Tampa Bay last year. The Bucs are the first team to trail by 17+ points in five games in a season and still win a Super Bowl. Someone will be the first No. 7 seed to win a Super Bowl. Someone will be the first rookie quarterback to win a Super Bowl. Some day we could even see a team finish 8-9 and win the Super Bowl since that’s possible now. Maybe the standard for a dynasty is changing, and we just finished a decade (2010s) where the same team (New England) remained on top since no one took the throne. And those Patriots went nine seasons (2005-13) without winning a Super Bowl, a period I want to call football heaven now.

However, if I’m just basing things on the NFL history we know, I have a bad feeling about the Chiefs’ future in big games after 31-9. When you consider that Super Bowl LIV is likely a loss too without WASP, you are reminded of just how difficult these championships are to win. The margin is so tiny between doing it and not.

But I’m just following everyone’s lead as expectations are high for Mahomes and the Chiefs to win multiple championships. Not just two either as polls I’ve seen on Twitter have said. People are expecting three or more. That’s the Brady effect, I’d say. The bar has been raised.

In Kansas City’s case, this team is heads and shoulders above the rest of the AFC. The Bills couldn’t beat Kansas City twice last year. The Ravens are 0-3 with Lamar Jackson against them. Those are the main challengers now. With an incredible youth movement going on at quarterback, the league is in a transition period. We are waiting for new powers to rise. The Chiefs have things figured out. They have the best player and one of the best coaches. This is their time to stack Super Bowls before these other teams catch up.

So when you blow a chance like last year, it feels extra worse. You don’t know if you’ll ever get back in this league. Ask Dan Marino, Drew Brees, and yeah, Aaron Rodgers. I think Mahomes will get back pretty soon (see the bottom for prediction). But any invincibility he built up is gone after 31-9. Now we’ll see how he and this team respond after that setback.

I hope it’s the revenge tour of the year.

2. Los Angeles Chargers (10-7)

BMR Preview: I am on the Justin Herbert bandwagon after what he did as a rookie last year. Dak Prescott (2016), Jared Goff (2017), Carson Wentz (2017), Patrick Mahomes (2018), Deshaun Watson (2018), Mitchell Trubisky (2018), Lamar Jackson (2019), and Josh Allen (2019) have all led their teams to double-digit wins and the playoffs in their first or second season since 2016. I have Herbert adding his name to the list, though with the Chiefs in the division, it is still hard to pick the Chargers to go too far this year. Plus, we’re talking about the Chargers. You just know there will be crippling injuries and shocking close losses to fill up a new BINGO card in the Herbert era.

By just the sixth game of the Herbert era, the Chargers blew as many 17-point leads (three) as they did in the entire Drew Brees (2001-05) and Philip Rivers (2006-19) eras. Hopefully with a new coach (Brandon Staley) and fresh eyes along the coaching staff, we’ll see better results this year and get a good season from the Chargers.

3. Denver Broncos (7-10)

BMR Preview: You wish this was Aaron Rodgers, but at least it will be Teddy Bridgewater instead of Drew Lock at quarterback for the Broncos to start the season. That’s what I thought would happen when I wrote this preview, one of the earliest teams I covered.

“Bridgewater gives the Broncos a different style of play. He is often conservative and will take plenty of checkdowns, which will at least cut down on the interceptions after Denver led the league with 23 of them last year. But in three seasons where he was a primary starter, Bridgewater never threw more than 15 touchdowns, which is unheard of in this era. In fact, Bridgewater is one of eight quarterbacks in NFL history to have three seasons with at least 400 pass attempts and no more than 15 touchdown passes. The last quarterback before Bridgewater to do that was Chad Henne.

Finally, the most amusing stat in this competition comes courtesy of Pro Football Reference. In 2020, Lock led all starting quarterbacks with a bad throw on 22.9% of his passes while Bridgewater had the lowest rate of bad throws at 13.0%. The stat is based on poorly aimed throws, excluding spikes and throwaways. If Lock is still reckless with the ball, then the Broncos have a pretty clear choice to make here. Go with the guy who can let the playmakers do the work and not put the defense in bad positions.”

Last year I was off by three games on Denver (8-8 vs. 5-11), the first time I slipped by more than a game on this team. I think with some better health luck and quarterback play, they’ll be in that 7-8 win range at least this year. Teddy did some good things with the Carolina wideouts last year, so it should be nice to see Courtland Sutton and Jerry Jeudy play together.

Also, I am one of the people who thinks the team should have just drafted Justin Fields in April. I’m sure some Denver fans have not been this interested in watching a Bears season since Jay Cutler was shipped there in 2009.

4. Las Vegas Raiders (6-11)

BMR Preview: Head coach Jon Gruden has still not taken a team to the postseason since 2007, and his 57-55 (.509) record in the regular season with the Raiders is the same mediocre record he had as the coach of Tampa Bay (2002-08).  You know I’ve never been a fan of Derek Carr, but he had an argument that 2020 was his best season or certainly a top-two season for him along with 2016. The offense should be decent, but the defense still looks weak to me and that’s why I found it hard to find more wins for them on the schedule. Not when I see two playoff-caliber teams in the division, a better Denver team, and the Raiders also have to play the AFC North.

NFC WEST

1. Los Angeles Rams (12-5)

BMR Preview: I think it’s cute that Sean McVay and Matthew Stafford are excited that people found stats that show Stafford is very good after throwing an interception in a game. But I’m not sure it really matters how he bounces back from a first-quarter pick when he’s playing a team that is about to finish with five wins on the season. The data I’m interested in with Stafford is that he’s 8-68 (.105) against teams that finish the season with a winning record. He never won multiple games against winning teams in the same season in 12 years with Detroit.

Stafford is 2-62 (.031) when a winning opponent scores more than 17 points against him. Even Jared Goff (12-16 record) has three playoff wins with the Rams when the team allowed at least 20 points. I go over these stats in the BMR preview.

Quarterback moves like this rarely happen, and I am excited to see Stafford out of Detroit and on a team with a coach who is supposed to be great, and a couple of top-tier players sprinkled along some scrub types. The offensive line is going to need a revamping and they’ve already lost Cam Akers (Achilles) in the backfield, so maybe Stafford is just cursed to have a running game. But this really needs to work right away with the team trading away two more first-round picks to get him here.

I think it works enough for a division title in a tough division, and I obviously am predicting Stafford to get multiple wins against winning teams. I just don’t think you can trust him to get three or four in a row in the playoffs, plus the few he’s going to need just to get a good record like 12-5. But that Week 3 game, Buccaneers at Rams, is the one to circle. No team could make a bigger statement this September than the Rams if they win that and get to 3-0. What better way to measure where this team is at than with the defending champions? They beat them last year in Tampa Bay too with Goff throwing over 50 times.

This will be interesting.

2. San Francisco 49ers (11-6)

BMR Preview: I think this is a huge year for Kyle Shanahan and Jimmy Garoppolo to show that 2019 was not a one-year fluke. The San Francisco 49ers have the dubious honor of being the first team in NFL history to sandwich a Super Bowl appearance (2019) in between two seasons with double-digit losses. They can get a pass for 2018 when Garoppolo tore his ACL in the third game. They can get a pass for last year after one of the most injury-plagued seasons on record. But this year we need to see something, and I would still start Garoppolo as I think he has very interesting numbers that they need to explore to see if he can stay healthy and sustain it. Trey Lance is exciting and will be the future of the team after the big move to get him, but he is so raw and has that high bust potential given his inexperience and caliber of competition faced in college. Garoppolo will probably be hurt before Halloween anyway, so it’s a good chance we see Lance in 2021 regardless. But I’m all for starting the season with the veteran and seeing what happens. If they can keep George Kittle, Deebo Samuel and Brandon Aiyuk healthy, then that can be an awesome trio for this offense.

3. Seattle Seahawks (11-6)

BMR Preview: Since drafting Russell Wilson in 2012, the Seahawks are the 19th team in NFL history to have at least nine straight winning seasons. Ten of those first 18 teams extended their streak to 10 seasons or more. Eight teams fell off in Year 10, but those were usually the end of eras.

Maybe the end of the Pete Carroll-Wilson era is afoot, but they’re still together with another new offensive coordinator this year. Russ might still cook, but I keep banging the drum that in Year 10, it’s time for Wilson to start making that change in playing style and take fewer sacks. He has taken over 40 sacks in eight straight seasons, an NFL record. Remarkably, he has never missed a game yet. If Ben Roethlisberger can tone down the sandlot ball and morph into a quarterback who gets rid of the ball super-fast, then I think Wilson has it in him to improve in that area too.

I still love the wide receiver duo of DK Metcalf and Tyler Lockett, and things may be a little deeper this year in that unit. The defense no longer is a threat, but the Seahawks had a very strange season. They went from allowing the third-most points through eight games to the fewest in the last eight. However, a lot of it was schedule based. They couldn’t figure out the Rams either, and with Stafford in town, that could be a tougher team to beat.

The close-game regression is always a worry with this team since I swear Wilson and Carroll get off on playing a close game. The Seahawks went from 29-29 in games decided by 1-to-7 points in Wilson’s first seven seasons to 16-5 in the last two seasons. Which one looks like an outlier to you?

I’ll always trust Wilson, but this team’s act has gotten a bit stale as it still hasn’t advanced to the NFC Championship Game since 2014. That is why, despite a really nice record, I still have them finishing in third place in a tightly contested division. But would it shock me if Stafford and Shanahan disappoint again and the Seahawks still win the NFC West? Not one bit.

4. Arizona Cardinals (9-8)

BMR Preview: This tweet sums it up best the way I find it alarming that the offense did not take a bigger leap in Year 2 after adding DeAndre Hopkins, who played very well.

I am not big on Arizona adding J.J. Watt and A.J. Green as the 2011 draft was a decade ago. Green especially could be problematic if he commands a decent target share and doesn’t play much better than he did last year with the Bengals. But Kyler Murray is a unique talent and I think his health late in the season brought the offense down and caused Arizona to miss the playoffs. Let’s see him stay healthy and improve in his third season. The defense is not bad and getting Chandler Jones back is a big plus, as is getting Matt Prater as the new kicker. They had some big misses in that department last year.

I’m not really loving this team or Kliff Kingsbury as a coach in a tough division race, but I found myself giving them nine wins in the end. Was it enough for the playoffs? See below.

AFC EAST

1. Buffalo Bills (12-5)

BMR Preview: The Bills unleashed Josh Allen last year and he rewarded them with a staggeringly great season that will force us to entertain every crappy young quarterback still having a chance to break out in Year 3 because Allen did it in 2020. Thanks, Josh. I hope you got your vaccine because we know your second-best wideout didn’t.

Still, shouldn’t there be some concern for regression here? We know very few teams win 13 games or score 500 points in back-to-back years. A 17th game helps there, but then there’s also this fact with the context that 2020 was a record-breaking year for offenses during the pandemic:

“Ouch, not J.P. But I have good news, Bills fans. I don’t think this is going to be a flash in the pan like 2015 Cam Newton, 2016 Derek Carr, or 2017 Carson Wentz. What makes me a believer in Buffalo’s offense is the way it consistently moved the ball all season. The Bills tied the Chiefs for the NFL lead in first downs (397) and joined the 2012 Patriots as the only two teams in NFL history to have at least 20 first downs in all 16 regular-season games. Buffalo had the fewest punts per drive and the third-lowest rate in three-and-out drives (13.8%).

The Bills converted 49.7% of their third downs to lead the NFL. In the playoffs, the Bills were only 30.6% on third down, so that was disappointing. Still, teams that go on great offensive runs tend to rank highly on third downs each year. With that said, it would not be surprising to see the Bills drop a few spots in third down success.”

Basically, I think the offense will still be one of the best in the league, but you may see the individual numbers go down for Allen and Stefon Diggs as a guy like Gabriel Davis eats more. What concerns me is a middling defense didn’t add much. That could hurt in getting over the Kansas City hump, but they also have to watch out for the Patriots who should be better, and maybe Baltimore will find more of a passing game this year.

Mahomes needs that worthy rival in the AFC or else this is going to get pretty one sided like it did with the Patriots for years. Allen and the Bills could be that team to challenge them, but it’s only going to be a rivalry if they start playing better in those games. Still, this is refreshing as hell to be talking about the Bills and an exciting offense with actual Super Bowl aspirations.

2. New England Patriots (10-7)

BMR Preview: The saddest thing about the 2020 Patriots was that they were too unrecognizable to still hate. One of the main things I wanted to stress in my BMR preview was that the team was not just the 2019 Patriots minus Tom Brady. They were the team most affected by COVID and they lost a ton of snaps and players on both sides of the ball. Here are the stats and a chart I didn’t get to share in that article showing that.

  • The top 16 players in offensive snaps on the 2019 Patriots played a combined 11,114 snaps for the team that year.
  • Those same 16 players contributed 3,842 snaps to the 2020 Patriots with nine players not playing a single snap for the team.
  • The top 16 players in defensive snaps on the 2019 Patriots played a combined 9,855 snaps for the team that year.
  • Those same 16 players contributed 6,726 snaps to the 2020 Patriots with six of the top 11 players not playing a single snap for the team.

Now with a retooled group of skill players and a rookie QB with insane college stats in Mac Jones, this team could be very competitive again. But I still think Buffalo is the class of the division, which feels so nice to say. I never thought the day would come.

3. Miami Dolphins (8-9)

BMR Preview: Well, I hope the Deshaun Watson trade rumors were always just rumors, because how tone deaf could a team be to entertain that right now? Beyond the trouble Watson could cause in a city like Miami, what about Tua? I’m not a big fan of him either so far, but let’s at least give him this season to see if he can be a franchise player or not.

But given the way the Dolphins relied on turnovers on defense and Ryan Fitzpatrick saving the day a few times, I think this is one of the easiest picks for teams that take a few steps back this year.

Stats to consider: Last year, the Dolphins had some unusual numbers that can largely be explained by turnovers. Miami’s offense finished 22nd in yards, yet the Dolphins finished 15th in points scored. Miami’s defense finished 20th in yards allowed, yet the Dolphins finished sixth in points allowed. If you sum the difference in those rankings of yards and points, the Dolphins finished 21 spots above expectations. That makes the 2020 Dolphins the 18th team since 2002 to finish at least 20 spots above expectations between yards and points. Twelve of those 17 teams won fewer games the following season.

4. New York Jets (4-13)

BMR Preview: I recapped how the Tank for Trevor campaign went awry. You have to appreciate that Adam Gase found a way to win two games and it probably made the team worse for years to come. I am not overly confident with the additions of Robert Saleh and Zach Wilson. Part of that is because it’s the Jets making these moves, but maybe these are the guys who change it all there.

NFC EAST

1. Dallas Cowboys (11-6)

BMR Preview: Finally, the Cowboys will be worth watching again. That’s assuming Dak Prescott’s health is fine. He hasn’t had the easiest training camp so far. He was so prolific last year, but again, I wonder how much of that was just the pandemic and defenses being so far behind. I highly doubt he’s going to smash the passing yards per game record, but then again, he did throw for nearly 5,000 yards in 2019. I think CeeDee Lamb will be ready to explode with him in this offense and it’s still going to have to be the offense that carries the team.

Included are some very interesting stats (to me at least) about how Dallas always has to score 30 to win the last two years. There’s never been another team like this for two years.

2. Philadelphia Eagles (8-9)

BMR Preview: I am optimistic about Jalen Hurts, though 8-9 is definitely a hedge on just how much. I’m not ready to buy in like I am with Justin Herbert and the Chargers. The accuracy in limited action last season is worrisome for sure. He only threw 148 passes, but according to Pro Football Reference, Hurts had the highest rate of bad passes (26.7%) by anyone with at least 125 attempts. The next closest quarterback was his new backup, Joe Flacco (23.4%). Worse, only 60.7% of Hurts’ throws were charted as being on-target passes, easily the lowest rate in the league.

Great, just what the Eagles need. An athletic quarterback with questionable accuracy but one hell of a highlight reel. Still, it beats whatever Carson Wentz was doing last year.

3. Washington Football Team (7-10)

BMR Preview: There is a lot to like but little to love with this Washington roster. Ryan Fitzpatrick should be an upgrade at quarterback as no playoff team had worse quarterback play than Washington last year. It also was far from a traditional playoff season at 7-9 in the worst division race in modern history. That schedule had a lot to do with the defense looking as good as it did statistically. The division games should be tougher. The overall schedule should be tougher. With Fitzpatrick’s career struggles in close games – Ron Rivera is no peach there either – I just don’t see this coming together for a winning season and certainly not a playoff trip. Remember, Fitzpatrick has never made the playoffs and Rivera has a losing record in 70% of his seasons.

4. New York Giants (4-13)

BMR Preview: The Giants have a lot of first-round picks on offense but are they legitimately good? That’s a big part of this preview. Seriously, if anyone can explain how Evan Engram made the Pro Bowl at tight end last year, I’d love to hear it.

If Daniel Jones doesn’t take a big step forward (without tripping over himself) in his third season, then it’s time to look for a new quarterback. They could have the worst situation in the division if he doesn’t pan out this year. I also think like Washington, the defense took advantage of a soft schedule.

AFC SOUTH

1. Tennessee Titans (10-7)

BMR Preview: This team has regression red flags everywhere from all the close wins last season to Derrick Henry’s huge workload to the red zone offense efficiency after adding a receiver (Julio Jones) who never catches touchdowns to the defense being horrifically bad on third down. Actually, that last one should be positive regression as it can’t get worse than allowing 51.9% on third down, the only defense over 50% since 1991.

But it’s great to play in the AFC South right now. Houston and Jacksonville alone could be good for four wins. Plus, this is the first season in a long time where you can say the Titans are going in with the best quarterback. Oddly enough, Ryan Tannehill is maybe my most trusted asset on the Titans right now.

2. Indianapolis Colts (8-9)

BMR Preview: As you may expect, I wrote a scathing but factual account of Carson Wentz’s time in Philadelphia and how it got Doug Pederson fired. Now, he reunites with Frank Reich, his coordinator in 2017 and the guy who was allegedly the brains of the operation that year for the Super Bowl-winning Eagles. If he can’t fix Wentz, then no one can. Even I was surprised at how bad last season went for him.

I think Reich, who has had a different QB1 every year, will find a way to get better play out of Wentz. They’ll lean on Jonathan Taylor for sure. But a lot of injuries and some COVID nonsense with this team going into Week 1. I think playing in this division is their best hope of having a shot at the playoffs.

3. Jacksonville Jaguars (4-13)

BMR Preview: I’m already a bit worried about Urban Meyer wasting Trevor Lawrence on his rookie contract. This regime just feels like it will reek of nonsensical, nepotism-inspired moves. At least Meyer has shown he’ll cut ties quickly if you make him look bad as his strength & conditioning coach did as well as Tim Tebow’s performance as a “blocking tight end” in the preseason. But this team is still down bad and I don’t see much happening this year.

4. Houston Texans (3-14)

BMR Preview: Well, I didn’t hold back on Deshaun Watson in that preview or on here when I ranked him as the 22nd-best quarterback of the 21st century. Twenty-two, one point for each of his accusers of sexual assault. As a fan, I’m really frustrated about this development in his career, which could have been Hall of Fame bound, and the league’s slow response to it all. He can’t possibly play this year, can he? I hope we hear his side of the story some day and he takes accountability.

Even with Watson, this team went 4-12 last year. There was never a ton of hope for something great with Watson. Now with Tyrod Taylor, I think three wins is looking like a lot. I was more optimistic when I wrote the BMR preview. This team just has nothing to be excited about anymore. DeAndre Hopkins is gone. J.J. Watt is gone. Watson might be done. David Culley is just being set up for failure, and that might be the only reason they hired someone so old and underwhelming.

It’s just sad.

NFC SOUTH

1. Tampa Bay Buccaneers (15-2)

BMR Preview: I detail the story of how the Buccaneers went from a 7-5 underachiever to a playoff overachiever to what should be the favorite to repeat as Super Bowl champion. It is remarkable to see a team return every starter from a Super Bowl winning roster. Most of the depth is back as well, and we know this team had one of the deepest receiving corps in recent years. The Bucs were the most balanced of the final four teams last year and that’s why they won the Super Bowl. They could defend and get turnovers and set up Tom Brady on short fields at a rate we haven’t seen in the playoffs all these years.

Then the masterclass coaching job in the Super Bowl against the Chiefs. Patrick Mahomes could play 300 games and that may be the only time he gets beat 31-9 and doesn’t score a touchdown. The Bucs also brought back both coordinators, Byron Leftwich and Todd Bowles, as well.

The biggest weakness this team has is that the quarterback is 44 years old, and the cliff could be there any week for him to walk off. Guys like Vinny Testaverde and Warren Moon played at that age, but it was a few games. This is a 20 or 21-game season the Bucs expect to have Brady for. But if he stays healthy again, they are absolutely loaded and should challenge for the best offense this year. Still, we know the best chance of repeating lies in staying balanced and having one of the best defenses too.

As disgusting as it sounds, I wouldn’t rule out a 20-0 season for this team. You know Brady is still sour over 2007 and a perfect season is about the only thing his resume can’t show. They should be favored in every game except maybe the Week 3 game in Los Angeles against the Rams.

Wait, a Matthew Stafford-led team is going to derail this team? Please. That’s exactly why I’m so on board with Tampa marching right back to the Super Bowl. You think Matthew Stafford and Ryan Fitzpatrick, quarterbacks who are a combined 17-122-1 against teams with a winning record, are going to help the Rams and Washington beat this team in a big game? I mean, just look at this:

That’s a quarter of the NFC now. Green Bay always gets smacked around by teams like this and hasn’t been back to the Super Bowl in a decade. Seattle can’t even get back to the NFC Championship Game since Malcolm Butler happened. No more Drew Brees in New Orleans. The Falcons, only if we could STOP THE COUNT before the fourth quarter. Where’s the threat? A Dallas team with Mike McCarthy and no defense? We’ll see that litmus test Thursday night.

I think it has to be an AFC team that knocks them out. If not the Chiefs, then it’s on Buffalo or Baltimore. We’ll see Bills at Buccaneers in Week 14.

The NFC is usually a surprise team at the top every year, but while this Tampa Bay run is not going to be a long one, it sure looks like it’s going to continue this year.

2. New Orleans Saints (8-9)

BMR Preview: I’m glad Sean Payton is giving Jameis Winston a chance to start. We’ll still see Taysom Hill of course, but Winston deserves this. It’s a huge opportunity for him to carve out a decent career after a stint in Tampa Bay that did not work out as planned. He is talented and obviously can move the ball at a high level, but turnovers have always been the problem. Now he has a better team around him, but I think it’s still a given there will be more sacks and turnovers in this offense without Drew Brees.

Time and time again, we see teams falter after losing such a great quarterback. Maybe the Saints won’t go all the way back to their 7-9 days with horrible defense, but until I see that Winston is the real deal in Payton’s offense, I am going with a step back to 8-9. This is a big opportunity for Payton too to show that Brees wasn’t the real offensive genius in New Orleans all those years. Winston is no slouch, but he needs to play more disciplined than he did in Tampa Bay. I’m excited to see this experiment.

3. Atlanta Falcons (8-9)

BMR Preview: No more Dan Quinn jokes, but no one can say he didn’t make history in his time in Atlanta. Fired after five games last year, but what a gem they were with two blown leads of 15+ points in the fourth quarter in back-to-back weeks. The 2020 Falcons were only outscored by 18 points on the season, the best scoring differential in NFL history for a team that finished 4-12 or worse.

I have higher hopes in Arthur Smith than most of the rookie coaches this year. I think he’ll be good for Matt Ryan and the offense, which is going to miss Julio Jones. But Calvin Ridley is a legit No. 1 receiver. Kyle Pitts is the highest drafted tight end ever. I have some good stats in the BMR preview about how hard it has been for rookie tight ends to dominate. He will try to join Mike Ditka as only the second one to break 1,000 yards as a rookie. He is in a great situation to do it.

4. Carolina Panthers (4-13)

BMR Preview: The Panthers were 0-9 at game-winning drive opportunities last year, tying the 2008 Lions for the worst record in the last 20 years. This sounds like a good chance for regression, but the Panthers have replaced Teddy Bridgewater with Sam Darnold, who I don’t believe in. I think the team is going to get worse despite Christian McCaffrey coming back.

AFC NORTH

1. Baltimore Ravens (12-5)

BMR Preview: I feel like I’m higher on Baltimore than most, but I just think this team is unique and built to beat most teams in the NFL. We know which ones they struggle with, namely the Chiefs. But they’ll have another shot at them in Week 2 at home. That’s the biggest one of the season as far as I’m concerned. We need to see something more from Lamar Jackson in that game. Even if he doesn’t win it, at least go toe to toe with Mahomes for a few quarters. The Ravens have gone from losing 27-24 in overtime, to 33-28 in Arrowhead, to 34-20 at home last year as the gap between Jackson and Mahomes grows in those games.

I keep pointing out how Jackson has led the Ravens to their lowest scoring total of the season in three straight postseasons, something you just don’t see from a great quarterback that often. That will need to change, but let’s get through this regular season first and worry about that later. The Ravens are losing running backs left and right, but I still think the running game is going to be successful and the defense will be good. The main thing is on Jackson to take this passing offense to the next level.

2. Pittsburgh Steelers (9-8)

BMR Preview: All the expectations are for the Steelers to fall apart this year, but I still don’t see it. I think people overlook the struggle the schedule changes caused last year. The Steelers weren’t supposed to have a Week 4 bye, but the Titans had a COVID problem. They ended up playing the COVID Ravens on a Wednesday afternoon in a game that needed multiple reschedules, and then they played five days later on a Monday against Washington, their first loss of the season after an 11-0 start. Then they had to go to Buffalo that Sunday night. It was three games over 12 days for a team that had an early bye.

Then when you have maybe the most one-dimensional offense in modern NFL history, those excessive number of throws are going to bother a 38-year-old quarterback who had elbow surgery a year earlier. I think the Steelers were just tired in December, they had flaws they never addressed, and they played horrible football for a few weeks.

But the comeback win against the Colts was vintage Roethlisberger. The playoff game against Cleveland was the worst first quarter start by a team in playoff history, down 28-0. I wrote all about the playoff failures of this team in this era here after the game. Same old Steelers.

Najee Harris should give the offense more balance. The offensive line can’t be any worse than it was last year, and it is all new. Roethlisberger gets rid of the ball so fast now that it can negate that weakness. I actually hope he holds onto the ball a little longer this year so they can get back to some big plays. The constant short throws and drag routes on 3rd-and-7 just have to go. But I think that’s still going to be an issue. At least the defense should be adequate as long as T.J. Watt gets his contract and doesn’t hold out.

The schedule looks tough, but I’m going to trust that the team that hasn’t had a losing season in 17 years still stays one game ahead of that mark. It could be the swansong for Roethlisberger, who won’t want to go out on a losing note.

3. Cleveland Browns (9-8)

BMR Preview: The 2020 Browns are only the second team after the 2012 Colts to win 11 games with a negative scoring differential. Coach of the Year Kevin Stefanski felt his impact in his first year as Baker Mayfield and the offense powered the team forward to their best season since the days of Marty Schottenheimer and Bernie Kosar.

Yet, it still feels shaky to trust them to do it again or get better. I think the Browns will be competitive on a weekly basis, but the defense still looks too flawed to slow down teams like the Chiefs, Bills, and Ravens, or the teams you have to beat to get far in the playoffs right now. Plus Mayfield still has to prove he has consistency, and he has yet to develop a great connection with Odell Beckham Jr., who missed most of last year’s success. Myles Garrett is great on defense but I’d just like to see them have more there.

4. Cincinnati Bengals (6-11)

BMR Preview: It would be hard to pick head coach Zac Taylor out of a lineup of Costco cashiers, let alone pin down the identity of his football team. Last year, Joe Burrow threw the ball a ton. I picked up some Sam Bradford vibes from it all, but he looked better than Bradford did to me. Still, I’m a bit worried about him in this offense after he tore his ACL and the offensive line continues to look bad. I’m hoping to see more big plays from him this year after they upgraded the receivers. A.J. Green just didn’t have it anymore last year.

But with Taylor, it’s hard to see this team winning. Predicting them to win six games with a coach who is 6-25-1 feels generous to me.

NFC NORTH

1. Green Bay Packers (12-5)

BMR Preview: No team in NFL history has won 13 games in three straight seasons. The Packers are on the doorstep after going 13-3 in each of Matt LaFleur’s first two seasons. Both ended in a loss in the NFC Championship Game, but they were different paths to get there. Last year, Prime Aaron Rodgers returned and won his third MVP. It was unexpected since we hadn’t seen that guy for an extended period since 2014, and it’s not like the Packers added a ton of different talent on offense. I don’t remember anyone saying Jimmy Graham was holding them back in 2019 and tight end Robert Tonyan would be the answer. So, I would caution some regression there on offense.

As for defense, the Packers have a new coordinator (Joe Barry) with a bad track record and they brought back 14 of the 15 defenders who played at least 340 snaps, including playoff scapegoat Kevin King. I always say it’s the same thing every year for the Packers, but this is a little too on the nose. They even brought back slot receiver Randall Cobb to the offense in getting ready for Rodgers’ Last Dance.

The Packers have been swept out of the playoffs seven times since 2012, including each of the last two years by the 2019 49ers and 2020 Buccaneers. The good news? Tampa Bay isn’t on the schedule this year. But Green Bay is probably going to have to step up and beat a team like that if it wants to get back to another Super Bowl in this closing Rodgers window.

2. Minnesota Vikings (9-8)

BMR Preview: This was one of my favorite paragraphs in any of these previews this year:

“Kirk Cousins is an absolutely fitting 51-51-2 as a starter in the regular season (plus 1-2 in the playoffs). Since 2015, his records have been 9-7, 8-7-1, 7-9, 8-7-1, 10-5, and 7-9. It is as if he is incapable of straying more than a game from .500 or the Earth will spin off its axis. The one time he did in 2019, the world was thrown into a global pandemic. That is just the facts.”

I have a lot of good Cousins stats in here. The team really does seem like it can not stray too far from .500 with him. Last year, the Vikings had a lot of defensive injuries, leading to a horrible unit. Of all the teams in the league that have a shot at vastly improving their defense, I’d put Minnesota at No. 1 on the list given how many different and better players will take the field this year. The offense still obviously has some weapons, though I would caution that Justin Jefferson may not be able to improve on such a sensational rookie season with 1,400 yards. Plus, if Jefferson or Adam Thielen gets hurt, I’m not sure what this team will do at receiver. It’s not deep at all and even Kyle Rudolph is gone at tight end and Irv Smith was lost to injury.

But I came up with 9-8 in the end. Is that enough for the playoffs as a No. 7 seed? See below.

3. Chicago Bears (8-9)

BMR Preview: Nothing like dangling Justin Fields in the preseason and giving us Andy Dalton in prime time against Aaron Donald in Week 1. The Ginger Snaps won’t last past Week 3, right? That’s my thought on when we see Fields take over, which will definitely happen this year. I’m not sure why Matt Nagy is delaying the inevitable, but that’s why he’s not considered a top-tier coach despite not having a losing record yet. But I didn’t think Chicago did enough to make the defense better after a subpar year for that unit. The schedule is also really tough, so 8-9 is a gut pick that they’ll just be a mediocre team who won’t hog up a No. 7 seed this year.

4. Detroit Lions (4-13)

BMR Preview: While Matt Patricia always looked like a coach for a fictional New England football team on Family Guy, Dan Campbell enters with his own cartoonish vibe – somewhere between South Park’s PC Principal and a jock in Revenge of the Nerds.

I don’t know how long the Campbell era will last, but it sure could be hilarious. I probably give Jared Goff more credit than most, but I don’t think this is a good fit for him. Moving on from Matthew Stafford after a dozen years of trying to make it work was definitely the right move. The draft picks should help the Lions in their search for their next quarterback.

PLAYOFFS

AFC

  • 1. Kansas City (13-4)
  • 2. Buffalo (12-5)
  • 3. Baltimore (12-5)
  • 4. Tennessee (10-7)
  • 5. New England (10-7)
  • 6. Los Angeles (10-7)
  • 7. Pittsburgh (9-8)

Wild Card Saturday games decided by three points could become a Josh Allen tradition at this rate. The Steelers barely edged out Cleveland for the final wild card spot, but they drop another one in Buffalo. The Ravens get some revenge for 2018 by beating the Chargers while Mike Vrabel improves to 2-0 vs. Bill Belichick in the playoffs. But as the AFC rarely likes to change, we again see the Chiefs beat the Titans and the Bills beat the Ravens, setting up a rematch of last year’s AFC Championship Game. Once again, it’s Mahomes over Allen, sending the Chiefs back to the Super Bowl for a third year in a row.

NFC

  • 1. Tampa Bay (15-2)
  • 2. Green Bay (12-5)
  • 3. Los Angeles (12-5)
  • 4. Dallas (11-6)
  • 5. San Francisco (11-6)
  • 6. Seattle (11-6)
  • 7. Arizona (9-8)

Wow, it really worked out to get all four NFC West teams in the tournament. I do not feel confident about that, but I had 9-8 Arizona and 9-8 Minnesota, and since I have Arizona beating the Vikings in Week 2, that’s the tie-breaker. Let’s roll with it. I have Arizona losing in Green Bay, Rams beating Seattle again for Stafford’s first playoff win (fitting since his first big win of career was vs. Seattle), and I’ll take Dallas over the 49ers. Then it’s the opener rematch with Dallas losing again in Tampa Bay. Rams lose again in Green Bay. The Packers can’t solve Tampa again on the road in a game not even as close as last year’s finish. That sets up our rematch.

I feel good about four new division winners and five new playoff teams, but damn if these games playing out so much like last year doesn’t bug me. I have six playoff rematches from last year in here (BAL-BUF, BUF-KC, SEA-LAR, LAR-GB, GB-TB, KC-TB).

SUPER BOWL LVI

Tampa Bay 31, Kansas City 27

At least this one won’t be played in Tampa Bay and the Chiefs shouldn’t have a ravaged offensive line this time.

Can he finally just retire after this one? Eight Is Enough was a TV show that debuted in 1977, the year Tom Brady was born. I hope that’s the universe’s sign telling him to take a f’n hint.

TL;DR version: New year, same playoff shit.