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 Stat Oddity: Week 1

This is the first Week 1 edition of NFL Stat Oddity, a series I started on the spur of the moment last October. This is my space to recap the statistical quirks and oddities from Sunday in the NFL after some quickly researched numbers before I finally get to bed on Monday morning. Expect some rants too.

Normally, I pick out a few games of interest, but after the Week 1 we just had, I think I’m going to say something about every game besides the Thursday opener between the Cowboys and Buccaneers, the first game in NFL history where both teams passed at least 50 times and did not run 20 times.

Not Your Favorite

First, some stats relating to the spread. Favorites are only 7-8 SU this week with Monday night still to come. At best they’ll go 8-8. Is that unusual for Week 1 when uncertainty is so high for the new season? Yes, it is.

From 2001 to 2020, Week 1 favorites were 206-108-2 (.655) SU. Only in 2016 did they go 8-8, so if the Raiders pull off the upset on Baltimore, we’ll see the first outright losing Week 1 for favorites in at least two decades.

Browns at Chiefs: Is Cleveland Best Equipped to Beat the Chiefs in the AFC?

January’s divisional round matchup was supposed to be a high-powered shootout after the wild season the Browns had, but an injury to Patrick Mahomes in the third quarter took it from a blowout to a low-scoring, nail-biting finish won 22-17 by the Chiefs.

We got to that score again in this one, but this time it was Cleveland leading 22-17 in the third quarter after gaining at least 75 yards on all four of their first-half drives. The shootout was on, and the Browns were winning it, twice leading by 12 and making the Chiefs blink in the red zone. But mistakes in every unit really cost the Browns this huge win. Nick Chubb lost a fumble at midfield that got the ball rolling again for the Chiefs. The defense looked at a 29-20 lead in the fourth quarter for 14 seconds before Tyreek Hill burned the secondary for a 75-yard touchdown on a one-play drive. Then the botched punt after a three-and-out put Mahomes at the 15-yard line, setting up an easy game-winning touchdown to take a 33-29 lead.

But the ending was different this time. Last year, I covered in great detail how the Chiefs were so dominant in the four-minute offense with Mahomes closing out games so the defense didn’t have to. The best way to end games on your terms. But this time, he threw an incompletion and Myles Garrett sacked him on a third down. The Browns had 2:49 to drive 83 yards for the go-ahead touchdown, so it was going to be on the defense this time to save the day. The Chiefs were one of three teams to not blow a fourth-quarter lead in 2020.

Mayfield had a chance for his big game-winning drive moment, but after getting to midfield, he tried to throw a pass away under pressure. His foot was grabbed at the last moment and the ball came out poorly and was intercepted by Mike Hughes with 1:09 left. Game over. The defense, which was missing Tyrann Mathieu and Frank Clark, did just enough in the second half after being terrible for the first half. Chalk up another double-digit comeback win in the Mahomes era, and one of the toughest challenges he’s ever had to get a lead in a game. But he can still say he has always led in every start of his career, even Super Bowl LV.

Much like with the Cowboys in Tampa Bay on Thursday night, I think the Browns can look at this one as a moral victory. This team is different under Kevin Stefanski from past Cleveland teams who would have rolled over to the Chiefs. They came out looking very poised as we saw in a few big games last year, namely the Tennessee win and Pittsburgh playoff win. Mayfield threw the late pick, but I think this team hangs better with the Chiefs than even the Ravens and Bills have shown so far. Lamar Jackson and Josh Allen seem to press against Kansas City while Mayfield was very accurate for most of Sunday’s game, and the Browns just use their offensive line to stick with the run and stay patient against this defense. But defensively, the Browns are not reliable yet. Mahomes still found ways to score 33 points on eight drives while dominating on third down and hitting Hill for the big touchdown.

The Chiefs have Baltimore next. Mahomes is now 9-0 against Jackson (3-0), Mayfield (3-0), Allen (2-0), and Ben Roethlisberger (1-0). While the AFC struggles to find its best challenger for the Chiefs, it looks likely to be another year where the Chiefs are their own worst enemy, and where the Kansas City offense is the most consistent, must-watch unit in the game.

Packers at Saints: Is This “The Last Dance” or Dead Man Walking?

I know I’ve repeatedly said that Aaron Rodgers will regress this season against a tougher schedule and better defensive play around the league in general, but what the hell was that on Sunday in Jacksonville? In his 211th start, Rodgers lost by more than 30 points for the first time in a 38-3 rout by the Saints, a team he feasted on a year ago without Davante Adams in a 37-30 win.

Kudos to the Saints if they really did pick Jacksonville because of Rodgers’ history in Florida. He squeaked out a win over Miami in 2014, lost to the Jaguars in 2008, only averaged 5.85 YPA against the Jags in 2016, and he was 1-3 in Tampa Bay with multiple interceptions in all the losses, including that 38-10 eyesore on his MVP resume last year.

Even if the scoreboard said New Orleans Saints, with the game being played in Jacksonville and Jameis Winston at quarterback, it might as well have been a game against Tampa Bay. Once again, the Packers were pushed around by an NFC South team and had no answers for it. Rodgers looked like the quarterback in need of Lasik surgery in this one, throwing some of the most WTF? interceptions of his career.

It is impossible to even evaluate Jameis Winston in this first start. He could have won the game by throwing four touchdowns before he even broke 100 passing yards. Some of that was great field position, and some more was just great ground production. But Jameis did deliver a long touchdown pass for his fifth of the day for good measure. It will be interesting to see what happens when he plays a team who puts forth some effort.

It only took Matt LaFleur the opener to his third season to have more losses (five) without a 4QC opportunity than what Mike McCarthy (four) had in his first six seasons with Rodgers as his quarterback.

A year after winning MVP, Rodgers is dead last in QBR for Week 1 at 13.5. Is it just “one game” like Tampa Bay was one game last year? Maybe, but I think it fits the larger pattern with this team and what happens when they run into someone ready to punch them in the mouth. Now I’m just worried that the real last dance for Peak Aaron Rodgers was 2020.

But hell of a day for the Saints in Jacksonville against Green Bay, a sentence I never thought I’d get to write. Sean Payton just might make me eat some crow this year, which won’t disappoint me one bit if he delivers in the postseason. But just imagine if he can keep the defense nasty while helping Jameis manage the game.

Steelers at Bills: Don’t Believe the Hype?

I feel that the Steelers have spent years as the biggest target of groupthink on NFL Twitter, and everyone just wants to predict this team to completely bomb this season. I didn’t feel that, and I still picked them to win nine games this season and get in as a wild card team. Plenty of season to go, but I think Sunday showed why you can’t bury them yet. Not when they are on a short list of teams with a Hall of Fame quarterback and a defense that can play great most weeks.

There has been plenty of Super Bowl hype for the Bills, but I warned in my previews that this team faces a tough task of improving on a season where they won 13 games and scored over 500 points, feats almost never achieved in back-to-back years in NFL history. Then without adding any major pieces on either side of the ball, it was largely on the same guys who produced last year to deliver again for the Bills.

That starts with quarterback Josh Allen. I ended up ranking him No. 30 on my list of the top 100 quarterbacks of the 21st century and thought he could repeat his success since he is technically still a one-year wonder. On Sunday, he got his fourth season off to a poor start, though T.J. Watt and company may be the best defense he sees this year. Watt had a huge strip-sack in the first half when the Bills were in scoring range.

Maybe Allen just doesn’t play well against Pittsburgh, because I certainly haven’t been impressed in the last three years with him in those meetings. Allen’s passing YPA in his three starts against Pittsburgh: 5.56, 5.53, and 5.29 on Sunday. Given the way the Steelers have handled Lamar Jackson so far, this team might be in business in the playoffs if they could stop getting embarrassed by the likes of Blake Bortles and Baker Mayfield in January. Patrick Mahomes is a different story, but I am impressed with how the defense has handled Allen and Jackson, two of the leaders of the new AFC.

Allen’s accuracy, always the main knock on him, was simply off on Sunday. He was high, he was low, he was all over the map. Some of it was the pass rush, and some was just great defensive play to knock balls away. But the fact is he threw 51 passes and just one of them gained more than 16 yards. That’s a bad ratio of big plays.

I felt that horrible quarterback play doomed the Steelers against Buffalo in 2019 and 2020. It was last year when Ben Roethlisberger threw a big pick-six before halftime that really turned that game, but I also pointed out that the Bills did not score many points in that game or in any game against AFC playoff competition outside of the Colts in the wild card round.

This time, Roethlisberger avoided the big turnover. He was off early, and the offense again looked pretty December 2020-ish in the first half when the Steelers trailed 10-0 and had three first downs and 53 yards of offense. The new offensive line looked bad, and Najee Harris had nowhere to run. Harris also was tackled quickly with minimal effort by Buffalo and looked lost as a receiver. It was not an impressive debut by him outside of one 18-yard run.

But the second half was a pleasant surprise and turnaround. The offense moved the ball four drives in a row, and while they settled for three field goals, the Steelers were right back in the game. Diontae Johnson returned from injury for a great effort catch on the game-winning touchdown. That was set up after one of the worst 4th-and-1 plays I’ve ever seen from the Bills. They said no to a quarterback sneak with Allen and tried to get cute with a pitch to Matt Breida way in the backfield where he was buried for a 7-yard loss at midfield. I’d show a picture of how deep he was when he caught the ball, but NFL Game Pass has never been worse than it is right now, which is saying a lot for how horrid that product has always been.

The Steelers also blocked a punt for a huge touchdown to go up 20-10 in the fourth quarter as the Bills looked shook. Pittsburgh really showed up in all three phases for that second half to complete the 23-16 comeback win.

Roethlisberger is now 2-7 in his career as an underdog of more than six points. His only other big upset win was the 2005 AFC divisional round in Indianapolis when he saved the legacies of Jerome Bettis and Bill Cowher on that late fumble. But this was certainly a surprise victory for the Steelers, and arguably the best one the team has had since an 18-12 playoff win in Kansas City against the Chiefs in January 2017.

Time will tell how well the Bills bounce back from this and if the Steelers are still legitimate, but it was definitely a second half turnaround I did not see coming. And I usually have a good eye for how the Steelers will perform.

Seahawks at Colts: The Wentz Wagon Stalls in Indy

I think if Russell Wilson was allowed to play a different team every week, but they all had Carson Wentz at quarterback, he would finally win MVP and have a perfect season. Wilson is now 6-0 against teams starting Wentz at quarterback. He has 13 touchdowns to one interception after throwing four scores on Sunday. He has never needed a fourth-quarter comeback against a Wentz-lead team, often leading those games by multiple scores. Wentz has never scored more than 17 points on the Seahawks. 

The sad part is this was probably the best Wentz has ever played against Seattle, but it was still only good for a 28-16 loss at home where he disappeared for half the game. The Colts were not impressive along the offensive line, though Wentz still took three sacks and lost a fumble. Wilson also took three sacks, but as usual, was left unphased by those plays as he still delivers big plays to his receivers like a perfectly thrown 69-yard touchdown bomb to Tyler Lockett. The Colts had one play of 20-plus yards in the game. The Seahawks took control of the game after the Colts had six straight scoreless drives.

There should be better days ahead for Wentz in Indy as no team owns him quite like Seattle. But for the fans holding out hope that the return of wideout T.Y. Hilton or post-Achilles injury Eric Fisher at left tackle is going to make a big difference, you have to understand the hard truth. The Colts no longer have a quarterback who can elevate the play of those around him. Either by delivering accurate passes to his receivers or with great pocket presence and decision making to help his offensive line, Wentz has never been and will likely never be that guy.

The sooner you accept that, the easier it will be to understand how this team is going to fare with him. With the Rams up next, this could get uglier before it gets better.

Dolphins at Patriots: Well, Tom Brady Would NEVER…

After using Cam Newton as a one-year rental, the Patriots officially moved forward with the Mac Jones era on Sunday. Was it the first of many meetings between Jones and Miami’s Tua Tagovailoa in the new-look AFC East, or the first of, like, three such matchups? We’ll see, but the first one was a competitive 17-16 finish won by the underdog Dolphins.

Jones hardly set the NFL world on fire with his debut, but he had the highest QBR (75.1) of any first or second-year quarterback on Sunday, including Tua (39.9). The Patriots just played a sloppy, undisciplined game for Bill Belichick, including four fumbles (two lost), eight penalties for 84 yards, and they allowed Miami to pull off a double score around halftime.

Down 17-16 in the fourth quarter, the Patriots were driving in the red zone after a Tua interception at midfield. Damien Harris rushed to the Miami 9 to get to 100 yards on the ground, but he fumbled as Xavien Howard continues his high-turnover ways from 2020 with another huge one. Still, 3:31 remained and the Patriots had three timeouts, so that’s an eternity of time to get the ball back.

But the odd thing is they didn’t get the stop this time. Miami picked up two first downs, including a third-and-1 conversion with QB sneak cheat code and former Patriot Jacoby Brissett. The Dolphins were able to take three knees for the win after the two-minute warning. The Patriots averaged 46.1 yards per drive on eight possessions, but it is hard to score more than 16 points when you fumble away a quarter of your drives.

This is just the latest loss for the Patriots as they look downright mediocre in the post-Tom Brady era. However, last year it was Cam Newton doing what he usually does in close games and coming up short (at Seattle) or coughing up the ball (Buffalo). This was not a failure on Jones’ debut, and the way it played out is so amusing because this is exactly the kind of thing Brady never had to deal with in two decades. Just consider the facts:

  • 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 watched his teammate fumble on a first down in the red zone in a 17-16 game with 3:31 left.
  • (Excluding any lateral-filled plays on the final snap) In Brady’s whole career, he has watched one offensive teammate fumble in the fourth quarter while trailing by 1-3 points, and that was Julian Edelman in 2016 when the Patriots trailed Seattle 25-24. There was 8:29 left and Brady got the ball back in a 31-24 game with 4:24 left. He was stopped on fourth-and-goal at the 1. He never had to deal with an ending like this in 345 career starts.

What made the Patriots so successful for so long is the way they wouldn’t compound mistakes. Even if someone fumbled, you could count on the defense with four clock stoppages to get Brady the ball back. He is the king of second (and third) chances. But after years of draining away talent, the Patriots are just another team these days, and these teams compound mistakes, hence the failed defensive stop after the turnover.

The irony of Brissett converting a third-and-1 wasn’t lost on me here. You might say “that’s going to be nearly impossible for any team to stop.” True, but guess who got those stops at a higher rate than usual in crunch time? Brady’s defenses. From 2001 to 2020, the non-New England NFL defenses allowed conversions on 54.3% of runs on third or fourth down with 1 yard to go while leading by one score in the final three minutes (100-for-184). But against Brady’s defense, these teams were 1-for-6 (16.7%).

Why should those five stops matter? Well, look at the foundation they set for his career. If the defense doesn’t stop San Diego’s LaDainian Tomlinson on these short-yardage runs in 2001, Brady doesn’t get his first 4QC/GWD and the Patriots are not a first-round bye team that year. If that happens, then the Tuck Rule game against the Raiders in the playoffs never happens that year. You know, that dubious ending that only came after Zack Crockett was stopped on a third-and-1 before the Patriots used their final timeout. In 2002, Brady again had a late game-ending turnover reversed by replay in Chicago, but that only came after his defense stopped Anthony Thomas on back-to-back plays where 1 yard wins the game for the Bears. Instead, they blew a 21-point lead and Brady gets to say he’s never had a non-winning season after finishing 9-7 that year.

The whole foundation for Brady’s clutch legacy is built on those stops giving him extra chances. The ones that other quarterbacks just don’t get as often. You’re not going to tell me my grapes are sour when my research is always fresh and on point. When you combine these facts with all the other facts, like the single loss with a clutch field goal miss (2012 Arizona) in 22 seasons, or the most goal-line stands, or the fact that Atlanta had 1st-and-10 at the New England 22 in Super Bowl 51 and PUNTED, it’s beyond obvious who the Luckiest of All Time (LOAT) is.

Are the Patriots still capable of doing those things with Jones? We’ll see. But just wait until we get to the first blown fourth-quarter lead and the first missed clutch field goal this year with Jones. You know, things that didn’t happen to Brady, the LOAT, until his 66th and 183rd starts, respectively.

Eagles at Falcons: The Total Pitts

Tell me something, Atlanta fans. Would you rather watch your team play well for most of the game and blow it late in heart-breaking fashion, or would you rather they play like ass at home and lose 32-6 to a team that won four games last year? Four-and-a-half if we’re being generous.

The first game of the Arthur Smith era was absolutely the worst season opener in the Matt Ryan era and one of the most disappointing starts in his career. He has lost by bigger margins before and in more important games, but this was only the fourth time he failed to lead the Falcons to at least seven points.

A 32-6 final in a game with zero turnovers and one where the Falcons rushed for 124 yards? Who writes a game script like that? The Falcons are only the 10th team since 1940 to lose by at least 26 points in a game without a turnover. We are used to seeing Atlanta settle for field goals in the red zone, but 3-of-14 on third down and Ryan only throwing for 164 yards are unusual outcomes for the Falcons.

Historically, Ryan has struggled with the Eagles. This is the fourth time in the last five meetings that the Falcons failed to break 15 points. But I was shocked that this was not a one-score game with both teams scoring over 20 points. Neither team had a 30-yard play, but the Falcons didn’t even have a 20-yard one.

Heisman winner Devonta Smith came through with an 18-yard touchdown catch in his NFL debut, finishing with 71 yards to lead all receivers. I thought he would play well, but I had high expectations for Kyle Pitts, the highest drafted tight end in NFL history. He only caught 4-of-8 targets for 31 yards, getting outdone by old man Zach Ertz (34 yards) on the other side.

We’ll see if Jalen Hurts (27-of-35) can maintain a high completion percentage going forward, but the Eagles and rookie coach Nick Sirianni blew away Smith and the Falcons in this one.

Cardinals at Titans: Red Alert?

The Cardinals were my final wild card team, and the Titans were my regression red alert team this year. That had something to do with my pick of Arizona this week, but I had no idea we would see a 38-13 final in Tennessee.

While the defense struggled with Kyler Murray and his receivers (two touchdowns each to DeAndre Hopkins and Christian Kirk), this was Chandler Jones’ day. He missed most of 2020 and I knew his return was really the biggest story for this team. Jones has always had an incredible knack for turning his pressures into sacks. He came through with five sacks in this one and forced two fumbles. Just one of the most dominant defensive performances you will see from one player. He destroyed the Titans, who could never get Derrick Henry (58 yards) going on the ground.

After the way the Falcons bombed at home on Sunday, it’s not like “they really miss Arthur Smith” is going to be the story after this one. Maybe they do, but time will tell if this is the year that Ryan Tannehill turns back into a pumpkin and Henry breaks down, or if the Cardinals are just the real deal, improving in front of our eyes, and Jones was simply too dominant for them on Sunday.

Jaguars at Texans: Tyrod’s Day

I should have known better than to trust a team that has lost 15 games in a row (now 16) and hired a nepotism-loving control freak as its head coach. This was probably my biggest miss of Week 1 as I saw Urban Meyer leaning on his college roots and getting a decisive win against a poor Houston team without many talented players left and Tyrod Taylor at quarterback. I thought they would run the ball at will, get James Robinson his touches now that Travis Etienne is on IR, and Trevor Lawrence would run in a score in his NFL debut.

Well, little did I expect Tyrod to be the best quarterback in the division on Sunday. Taylor passed for 291 yards, and the only reason it wasn’t his first 300-yard passing game in regulation in the NFL is because Houston was ahead too much. Lawrence had minus-2 rushing yards and threw for 332 yards and three touchdowns, but also three interceptions in a mixed bag game. When Carlos Hyde got the first three carries over Robinson, I knew I was fucked.

I’m sure we won’t get to October before this Week 1 success for Houston is chalked up to “it was just Urban’s Jags,” but that’s okay. This was one of the only games I could see either team winning all season. I know better now than to trust the Jaguars to do anything good.

49ers at Lions: Score One for Research

When I posted my Week 1 picks, I said this about the 49ers-Lions game:

“We have my first stat second-guessing of the season in Detroit where the 49ers are up to 8.5 as they try to spoil the Dan Campbell debut. I really want to stay away from that game after seeing that road favorites of 8.5+ in Week 1 are 0-6 ATS since 2001. Jared Goff is very familiar with them and while he is only 3-5 against the 49ers, only one of those games was a loss by more than eight points.”

Make that 0-7 ATS now as the Lions got a cover in a game they were getting blown out 38-10. It was 41-17 with 5:45 left when Jared Goff got the ball back. Surely he can’t go 8+8+8 for one of the greatest comebacks in NFL history, right? But after a pair of touchdowns and two-point conversions with a key onside kick recovery in between, it was 41-33 with 1:07 left and Detroit still had all three timeouts left. Overtime was doable.

It looked like Jimmy Garoppolo was putting an end to things with a third-and-13 conversion to Deebo Samuel, but the receiver nearly spoiled his monster game (189 yards) with an inexplicable fumble. Goff had his chance to tie it but came up 24 yards short after pressure got to him on fourth down.

It was not a pretty debut for Goff, but he got what may go down as the improbable cover of the season against a San Francisco team that figures to be tough this year. There had to be some kneecaps chewed off in the process of this one.

Jets at Panthers: Sam Darnold Revenge Game

Something feels very right about the Sam Darnold Revenge Game ending in a 19-14 final. But at least it was a win, and he threw a nice 57-yard touchdown to Robby Anderson, who also played for the Jets.

Jets rookie quarterback Zach Wilson threw touchdowns but suffered six sacks in his debut. These are the last 10 quarterbacks to take at least six sacks in their first career start: DeShone Kizer (2017), Paxton Lynch (2016), Tyrod Taylor (2015), Greg McElroy (2012), Chad Henne (2009), Dan Orlovsky (2008), Patrick Ramsey (2002), David Carr (2002), Tim Couch (1999), and Bobby Hoying (1997).

Worried yet? Let’s relax, but that is not a promising list. Taylor is the best of the bunch and that is a fluke entry. He was the main quarterback in the 2015 opener for Buffalo, but Matt Cassel technically got the quarterback start since they lined up weird on the first play before Taylor took over and threw all 19 of the team’s passes without taking a sack against the Colts.

Chargers at Washington: The Third Down Game

As Justin Herbert tries not to live his best Philip Rivers life, the main thing the Chargers needed to do in Brandon Staley’s head coaching debut was avoid blowing a fourth-quarter lead. Stop being the same old Chargers, especially to a Washington team that lost Ryan Fitzpatrick to a hip injury and went with Taylor Heinicke.

Despite dominating the game, the Chargers were terrible in the red zone and trailed 16-13 in the fourth quarter. But after taking advantage of an Antonio Gibson fumble following his interception, Herbert delivered a touchdown pass on third down to take a 20-16 lead. The defense held, though it was really a clipping penalty that did Washington in on the ensuing drive.

With 6:43 left, Herbert took over and converted four more third downs to run out the rest of the clock, a very impressive finish to the game. The Chargers were 14-of-19 on third down, and that includes a kneeldown in the red zone on the final snap of the game. The Chargers are only the ninth team since 1991 to convert at least 14 third downs in a game and the first to do it since the 2011 Ravens in Pittsburgh.

Vikings at Bengals: Please, No Tie

It was a pretty good Sunday for the second-year quarterbacks. Joe Burrow still took five sacks behind his offensive line, but he had efficient passing stats, and rookie wideout Ja’Marr Chase can silence the critics a bit after going for 101 yards and a touchdown in his debut.

But the Bengals nearly mismanaged this one away after letting the Vikings take it to overtime after trailing 24-14 in the fourth quarter. Kirk Cousins has never been reliable with comebacks, but he had the right effort here and a clutch 53-yard field goal by Greg Joseph put us in overtime. On a Sunday with some big fumbles, Dalvin Cook had one of the biggest in overtime after the Vikings moved the ball to the Cincinnati 38 at the two-minute warning.

At this point, I was convinced we were heading for a 24-24 tie. Six of the last 10 ties in the NFL have involved either the Bengals, the Vikings, or Cousins. Hell, Cousins had a tie with the 2016 Bengals when he was with Washington. Burrow played in the NFL’s only tie in 2020 against the Eagles. It just seemed like destiny again.

Fortunately, Burrow converted a fourth down with a 32-yard play that set up the game-winning field goal for one of Week 1’s nicer upset stories. Cousins was not the problem this time, but it was interesting to see Chase outproduce Justin Jefferson and specially to see Joe Mixon outrush Cook 127-61. The only turnover in the game was a killer.

Broncos at Giants: Ted the Spread

I didn’t see a ton of this game, but when I did, Teddy Bridgewater looked pretty damn good in his Denver debut. I saw KJ Hamler drop a deep ball and it’s unfortunate that Jerry Jeudy left injured. This team could be a darkhorse for the wild card now that Von Miller is back on defense and the quarterback play is better. Bridgewater throwing downfield and Vic Fangio let his offense go 3-for-3 on fourth down? Very interesting.

Obviously, you want to see this team do it against someone better than the Giants, who continue to be a major disappointment. Only a meaningless Daniel Jones touchdown run on the final play of the game got Jason Garrett’s offense out of single digits in a 27-13 loss. However, it was not enough to cover the 3-point spread as Bridgewater covered again.

I’ve never been a fan of “Teddy H20” as a nickname, but I might be able to warm up to Ted the Spread.

Bears at Rams: Stafford’s Night

Did we really need Bears-Rams in prime time for the fourth season in a row? I would still like to bring criminal conspiracy charges to the people responsible for putting so many Chicago games in prime time. This year was supposed to be different after the team drafted Justin Fields, and while we saw him score a touchdown on his first carry, we still had to watch Andy Dalton throw 38 passes.

Then again, the Bears still scored more touchdowns (two) than the Packers, Bills, and Falcons combined on Sunday. Dalton settled down after an atrocious first quarter, but you can just tell that the ceiling for this offense is somewhere below his ridiculous mustache. It’s so limited. With Fields, those David Montgomery runs that worked so well could be even more plentiful, not to mention the extra mobility, arm strength, and play-making ability that Fields brings.

But enough about the silly Matt Nagy decision to start Dalton. This was about Matthew Stafford’s first game with the Rams after a dozen years in Detroit. He did not disappoint with 321 yards and three touchdowns, producing a career-high 156.1 passer rating. Yes, he never broke a 150 rating in 168 games with Detroit, but he did it in one game with Sean McVay’s offense. Very interesting. Stafford connected on two 50-yard touchdown passes, something that apparently John Stofa (1968 Bengals) was the last quarterback to do in his debut with a new team.

We could get into some amusing things like the fact that the Rams led 20-7 in the third quarter with Stafford having incredible stats and the play-action game working despite the running backs having 5 carries for 6 yards. Through three quarters, Darrell Henderson had 7 carries for 12 yards before finishing with 70 yards. How does that fit into the “he doesn’t have a running game!” discussion?

But I think it’s best to let this one glaze over, see how he does in his first road game in Indy, then get amped up for that huge showdown with Tampa Bay in Week 3. A game against the Bears is not going to convince me of much. Not when I thought I was already watching a Lions-Bears game that someone stuck in prime time to end the first Sunday of this 2021 season.

Stay tuned; things are bound to get stranger.

NFL Stat Oddity: 2020 Divisional Round

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

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

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

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

Previous weeks in Stat Oddity:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

That took some balls.

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

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

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

Just leave the runs to Henne’s discretion.  

Ravens at Bills: 17-3, But Of Course

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Rams at Packers: No. 1 Nothing

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The 2020 Rams defense allowed season highs in:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

NFL 2020 Divisional Round: Buccaneers at Saints

The New Orleans Saints hope to extend Drew Brees’ career at least another week by completing the season sweep of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.

For previews of Saturday’s games, click here.

For Browns-Chiefs, click here.

Buccaneers at Saints (-3)

Let’s get the 3-0 sweep part out of the way first with New Orleans looking to put the cherry on top of their 34-23 win in Week 1 and 38-3 win in Week 9 over Tampa Bay this season.

Going for the 3-0 Sweep

Yes, it is hard to beat a playoff team three times in one season. Beating a playoff team once is usually harder than average, and then to do it three times to a team that has to come from your division, who knows you so well, is certainly a tough task.

But the only time we ever talk about this is when a team has already won the first two games. By the playoffs, the brooms are already two-thirds of the way out.

Since the merger, a team has gone for the three-game sweep 21 times and is 14-7 at pulling it off. The sweep happens two-thirds of the time. It just so happens that the 2017 Saints are the last team to pull it off against Carolina, winning the NFC wild card game 31-26.

That was a good playoff win for the 2017 Saints when you consider that the home team is 1-5 in the last six playoff games between division rivals regardless of how the regular season series went. As we just saw with the Steelers-Browns in Week 17 and the wild card round, these rematches can look dramatically different, so the Saints cannot take too much faith in Week 9’s 38-3 obliteration of Tampa Bay.

Some other facts from this table:

  • The 2020 Saints outscored Tampa Bay by 46 points so far, the largest scoring differential for all 22 series.
  • The three teams with the largest scoring differential before the Saints went 0-3 in the playoffs: 1989 Oilers vs. Steelers (+34), 1994 Vikings vs. Bears (+34), and 1998 Cowboys vs. Cardinals (+35).
  • Those same three teams all happened to have the largest Game 1 margin of victory, winning Game 1 by 27+ points, only winning Game 2 by 6-7 points, and then 0-3 in the playoffs.
  • It would appear dominating the earliest matchup in the season has less relevancy for the playoffs.
  • The three teams who won Game 2 by 17+ points were 3-0 in the playoffs with a double-digit win each time (1999 TEN-JAX, 2000 NYG-PHI, 2009 DAL-PHI).
  • New Orleans’ 38-3 win in Game 2 over Tampa Bay is the largest margin of victory in any of the 65 games in the chart.
  • The only three teams before the 2020 Saints to win both games by double digits were 2-1 in the playoffs with wins for 2000 Giants-Eagles and 2017 Saints-Panthers and a loss for the 2007 Cowboys-Giants.
  • The 2-0 team is 7-5 in the wild card round, 3-1 in the divisional round, and 4-1 in the conference championship.

Basically, the only example that really compares to what Tampa Bay is trying to do here is the 2007 Cowboys-Giants. That’s the only one where a team lost both games by double digits before winning on the road in the playoffs. That’s also the only one where the 0-2 road team won after the wild card round. When the 1983 Seahawks lost to the Raiders in the AFC Championship Game, that game was played in Los Angeles because the Raiders (12-4) were a better team than Seattle (9-7), which just happened to get the best of them in the regular season before upsetting a rookie Dan Marino as well in the divisional round that year.

New Orleans having a home letdown in the playoffs wouldn’t be a new story, but the Saints are better than the Buccaneers.

Or are they?

So Which Team Is Better?

Thanks a lot, COVID-19, for this weird season. The Steelers were the last unbeaten at 11-0 and led the league in scoring differential for a while until falling off hard. Baltimore finished No. 1 in scoring differential despite only going 11-5 and No. 7 in DVOA (but No. 3 in SRS at Pro Football Reference). The Chiefs had the best record locked up with 14 wins before resting starters and getting their ass pointlessly kicked by the Chargers, so they finished 6th in DVOA, 6th in SRS, and not even in the top five for points scored. Green Bay scored the most points but finished No. 5 in SRS and No. 3 in DVOA. Buffalo is basically the Josh Allen cautious wave meme here, just chilling in the crowd.

Yet the place where DVOA and SRS seem to agree this season is that the Saints are No. 1 and the Buccaneers are No. 2, and the margin between the two isn’t that great despite the scoreboard difference in their first two meetings this season.

Frankly, I don’t know what to make of these numbers. I wish I had a better explanation for what the advanced stats sees in the Saints and Bucs this year. I think the Chiefs and Packers are more reliable to score points and win games this season. I think the Ravens are scarier to play than the Bucs or Saints. I think the 13-3 Bills, who have one loss on a Hail Mary and another to the Chiefs, have played better football than those teams as well this year.

Here are some things I do know the Saints and Buccaneers share in common this season:

  • Both lost to the Chiefs by three points after trailing by 14+ points.
  • Both had a 17-point comeback win in October over the Chargers, who hand those out as freely as mints on hotel pillows.
  • Both swept the Falcons and Panthers, who couldn’t win a close game to save their lives.
  • Both helped put the Vikings out of their misery in December. Alvin Kamara scored six touchdowns and it felt like Dan Bailey missed six kicks when he played Tampa Bay.
  • Both got to play in arguably the two biggest COVID farces of 2020: Saints beat Denver 31-3 after the Broncos were told the day before the game that none of their quarterbacks were eligible to play. They had to start a practice squad wide receiver at quarterback and completed one pass. The Buccaneers destroyed a Detroit team 47-7 in Week 16 after much of the coaching staff was out for COVID on short notice. It got so bad that Blaine Gabbert came in the third quarter and still threw two touchdowns on his first six throws.
  • Tampa Bay also sort of won in Denver without facing a quarterback when the Broncos played Jeff Driskel and Brett Rypien in Week 3.
  • Both beat a cupcake in the NFC wild card after the Buccaneers drew the 7-9 Washington No Names with MAGA Heinicke pulling out a 300-yard game on them, and the Saints jogged through a 21-9 win over Mitchell Trubisky and the 8-8 Bears.

Where did the Buccaneers and Saints differ this year?

  • New Orleans lost in the Raiders’ first game in Las Vegas while the Buccaneers pulled away late in a 45-20 win.
  • The Saints beat the Bears in overtime while Tampa Bay lost to Nick Foles in October.
  • Tampa Bay destroyed Green Bay’s No. 1 offense in a 38-10 victory while the Saints lost 37-30 at home following some Taysom Hill Hijinks.

And isn’t that always the difference this year when we talk about Tampa Bay? It’s that 38-10 Green Bay game, Tampa Bay’s only win against a team with a winning record. Otherwise, they are 0-4 against the Saints, Chiefs, and Rams, and even lost to the 8-8 Bears. The once 0-13 Jets still have more wins (two) against winning teams this year than the Buccaneers (one).

That is why Tampa Bay feels like such a paper tiger to me this year. They fatten their stats, especially on offense, in recent weeks against the Falcons (twice) and Lions, and then they draw a Jack Del Rio defense in the playoffs. Tom Brady has destroyed Del Rio his whole career and last week was more of the same with Washington leaving receivers wide open and getting minimal pressure.

So is Tampa now peaking, or is it just heavily related to the opponents? When they last played legitimate playoff teams in the Rams and Chiefs, they lost 27-24 at home in both games, outgained and outplayed.

For a team with some gaudy stats, the Buccaneers have had a lot of rough patches this season, rarely able to put in a complete game effort until recent weeks. In fact, the Buccaneers have five games this season where they trailed by at least 17 points, something Brady rarely experienced in New England.

They were able to come back and beat the Falcons and Chargers, because of course they were. That’s what those teams do. But Tampa didn’t beat the Chiefs or Saints in the other three games. Tampa Bay has trailed by 17+ in more games this season than the Packers, Chiefs, Bills, and Ravens combined as those teams have one game each. The Saints have two, and the Rams and Browns have three each.

This got me curious. How many games would you expect a legitimate Super Bowl team to fall behind by at least 17 points during a season? So I dug out the answer back to 1994, the start of the salary cap and two-point conversion era. As it turns out, Tampa Bay would be the highest.

The Super Bowl winner averages 1.4 such games a season and the Super Bowl loser averages 2.0 games a season.

No Super Bowl teams since the 2009 Colts and Saints have had more than two three-score deficits in the regular season. Even that’s misleading as both teams rested their starters in Week 17 to tally a third. The 2012 49ers actually had two in a row in the playoffs, but came back to beat the Falcons (duh) before losing to the Ravens in the Super Bowl. The 1994 Chargers, 1998 Falcons, 2000 Giants, 2002 Raiders, 2010 Steelers, and 2013 Broncos also had their last one of the season in the Super Bowl loss.

The only Super Bowl winner with a legitimate three games of trailing by 17+ is the 2007 Giants, which might not surprise you. The 2011 Giants played high-scoring, close games, but the 2007 Giants got their ass kicked a few times. Funny how this is the second time we’re bringing them up as the hopeful comparison for a Brady team since his 2007 Patriots are responsible for those Giants’ spot in lore.

The 2006 Colts, 2016 Patriots, and 2019 Chiefs are the only teams to win a Super Bowl after trailing by 15+ points in the playoffs. That is true for all time and not just since 1994. You know which games…

Green Bay may very well be the next challenge for the winner of this game, but for this week, it comes back to the crowning achievement of New Orleans’ season to this point: sweeping Tampa Bay.

Third Time the Charm?

If anything, the Saints should be expected to pull off this sweep, and FiveThirtyEight actually has them at 71% to win with an Elo point spread of -6 instead of the game’s -3 spread.

Yet why do I have this terrible feeling that Brees will have to go out having one postseason (2009) in his career with multiple wins?

Oh yeah, it’s the playoffs, and the rationing of luck among Tom Brady and every other great quarterback of this generation feels like this:

I bitch about Brady getting multiple chances to lead one late scoring drive to win a game. Now he’s getting a third chance to beat the Saints one time, and it may come in the way that I have dreaded since the 2018 season.

Sean Payton, here’s your opportunity to hand Brady a playoff win after going to Taysom Hill with the game on the line. Please don’t use it.

Jokes aside, thirteen months ago, I wrote about the lack of luck Brees has had in his career, especially in comparison to Brady. I pointed out how just five plays in his career that had nothing to do with him could have drastically altered things to the point where he might be 5-0 in Super Bowls, with a few wins over Brady himself, and going for a sixth ring this year.

Instead, Brees is 9-8 in the playoffs, meeting Brady there for the first time, and it’s probably his last game ever if he loses it. Even with a win on Sunday, there will always be some disappointment there.

So what can change from the first two meetings? I watched them both live and the Saints were absolutely the better team. I was behind the argument that Week 1 wasn’t that telling with Brady making his Tampa Bay debut after no real offseason or preseason. Brees and the offense actually weren’t that great at all in that matchup either. He struggled to move the ball too, but Brady threw a pick-six and struggled after the opening drive.

Flash forward to Week 9. The Saints were grinding out close wins against so-so teams. The Buccaneers were a few weeks removed from 38-10. They just activated Antonio Brown, because god knows you have to give the GOAT four different 1,300-yard receivers to make this offense shine. I picked the Buccaneers to win that rematch, and I couldn’t have been any more wrong.

That 38-3 game was the most one-sided domination I watched this season. It was about as perfect a game as you can have on offense and defense. Brady wasn’t able to complete passes, he started throwing interceptions, the Saints were getting anything they wanted on offense. Only some mistakes by Jared Cook kept that from being 45-0 at halftime. Tampa had to kick a cheap field goal late to avoid the shutout. The Buccaneers set an NFL record with only five rushing attempts. It was incredible.

But now, what changes this week?

Brees had his rib injury start in the Tampa Bay game. He missed four games, but he’s about to make his fifth start in a row. He had that really rough start against the Chiefs before finding his way back later in the game. In the last three weeks, he’s pretty much back to where he was, leading an effective offense again that is finally healthy with Alvin Kamara, Michael Thomas, and Emmanuel Sanders ready to play. The funny thing is with all those guys together, the Saints went to Deonte Harris for seven catches and 83 yards against the Bears on Sunday. Was that a way to not show their hand to Tampa Bay about what they might do with their normal offense in a third matchup this week? It was interesting and Harris looked good after doing almost nothing this season.

The Saints can score on this defense, but we know Todd Bowles loves to blitz. Brees faced his highest blitz count in the two Tampa games this year. He was sacked once in each game and hasn’t had a pressure rate above 23% in any game this season according to Pro Football Reference.

For Brady and the Bucs, can the Saints get to him again? They sacked him three times in both games and had a season-high 36.6% pressure rate in the 38-3 game. The Buccaneers usually protect well but have not done so against the Saints yet. Brady has also thrown five of his 12 interceptions this season against New Orleans.

While the argument of Week 1 rust didn’t work out for Tampa Bay last time, could the argument of Antonio Brown’s progress work this time? His first game was 38-3 and clearly it took some time for them to figure this offense out. Brown took Scotty Miller’s snaps after Miller started the season so well with making deep catches. Brown didn’t seem to click until he caught a touchdown bomb to beat the Falcons (of course) in Week 15. He has now scored in four straight games and looks more like the receiver we’re familiar with.

Brown’s impact could be huge if Mike Evans has his usual disappearing act in the Superdome. Evans has four games in his career with fewer than 10 receiving yards. Three of them are in New Orleans, including 2 yards in Week 1. He also had a 1-of-6 game with 13 yards in 2017. When you stack that many bad games against an opponent, it can’t just be a coincidence. This looks good for corner Marshon Lattimore, but he can only guard one guy. The Buccaneers still have Brown, Chris Godwin, Gronk, Miller, and even Cameron Brate reminded us he’s still there with 80 yards against Washington last week.

This offense just has too many weapons, and if they would ever play to their full potential, this team could go the distance. But they have to get over their biggest hump so far this year. Does Brees finally have a defense to rally around him and prevent his retirement before another ring? The Saints did not allow a 300-yard passer this season and are one of three defenses in 2020 (Rams and Steelers) to allow fewer than 275 net passing yards in all 17 games. That hasn’t been done since the 2006 Colts did not allow 250 net passing yards in a record all 20 of their games on their way to a Super Bowl win. Even though you can run on that team, which you usually can’t on these Saints, I am a bit shocked I only discovered this stat on January 15, 2021.

Nostalgia aside…

I hate to say it, but part of me expects Payton to do something really stupid in this game that gives Tampa Bay the edge. Don’t forget Bruce Arians is 32-26-1 (.551) in 4QC/GWD opportunities, so he’s had his own magic beans produce good luck over the years. Only Mike Vrabel (14-10) has a better record among active coaches.

If not Payton, could it be the refs again with the Saints in the playoffs? It blows my mind that the NFL tried one season of making pass interference reviewable, ditched it, but left nothing in place to prevent the same egregious, game-deciding call happen again at the end of a playoff game like that no-call in the 2018 NFC Championship Game. You don’t want to make PI challengeable? Fine. But at least make it subject to review by the replay system in the final two minutes of the game so we don’t see the same damn mistake again.

Not to make Saints fans more scared, but your defense now leads the league with 19 pass interference penalties this season. Tampa Bay set a record this year by being the beneficiary of 24 DPI flags. Do you see where this is going?

Do you believe my final score is legit or just another reverse jinx? I guess we’ll have to find out Sunday evening. Maybe even sooner, because if the Rams upset the Packers on Saturday, then you know which lucky bastard is going to the Super Bowl again. Bet accordingly.

Final: Buccaneers 28, Saints 24

NFL Stat Oddity: Wild Card

To sum up the NFL’s first “Super Wild Card Weekend” in one word: exhausting.

This has been a long weekend with six games to research, preview, bet, watch, tweet, analyze, and write about. Just think how incredible it could be if we get some games with more exciting finishes, fewer horrific challenges, and the AFC coaches find their balls before sending out the punt teams. Maybe we won’t have to see Mitchell Trubisky and the 8-8 Bears (or 8-9 Bears) next year as well.

For six playoff games decided by 3-12 points, we had exactly zero lead changes in the second half. The closest we came was Baltimore breaking a 10-10 tie early in the third quarter to take the lead for good. When the game is tied, there technically is no lead, so it’s not a true lead change in the way that we usually look at it.

The first game of the postseason, Colts-Bills, was really the best one this weekend as far as quality of play and drama. However, I want to work my way backwards through these games, because you know I have plenty to say about that 48-37 abomination the Steelers left on the field Sunday night.

In fact, I have so much to say about everything that I grossly underestimated how long it would take to finish this recap in one night. So I will post the five games now and save a separate link for Browns-Steelers to be posted by Monday evening.

Next year I’ll remember to get some thoughts down on Saturday’s games on Saturday night.

Previous weeks in Stat Oddity:

Bears at Saints: Seventh Seed Slime

Don’t be shocked, but the Bears sucked on offense to make this the most unwatchable game of the weekend, and that was despite Nickelodeon’s valiant effort to try a different kind of NFL broadcast. The animated slime cannons that fired during the game’s few touchdowns were cool, but I would have rather seen the Bears covered in buckets of slime every time they failed to convert a third down, which was nine times out of 10. Meanwhile, the Saints were 11-of-17 on third down.

Before Jimmy Graham caught a pointless, one-handed touchdown on the final snap of the game, Chicago could only manage a field goal on a 6-yard drive that started after Sean Payton’s latest erotic Taysom Hill fixation backfired with a turnover, the only giveaway in the game.

CBS’ Jim Nantz tried to say that Mitchell Trubisky is a different quarterback now, and the numbers prove it. I like to think I proved with numbers coming into the game that he was not different, and his “rebirth” was the result of feasting on play-action, a better running game with David Montgomery, and taking advantage of YAC plays and four of the league’s five worst defenses this season.

On Sunday, Trubisky had no help from the running game as Montgomery was held to 31 yards against one of the better defenses this season. He did not get much help from the receivers either. Javon Wims dropped a 40-yard touchdown in the end zone on a trick play that should have worked to perfection.

That drive ended with Trubisky casually running out of bounds two yards shy of the marker on fourth-and-4. It was that kind of day for the Bears. They never seriously threatened again. While I would point out that Trubisky’s touchdown pass, caught with one hand by Graham as time expired, was the most garbage of garbage-time touchdowns in the playoffs, I won’t knock him too hard for it since Wims absolutely screwed him out of a 40-yard score that could have made this one interesting.

My other memorable part of this game was Drew Brees getting up close and personal with the beautiful, new cameras they are using in these games after he did a late quarterback sneak on fourth-and-goal that was only a touchdown in the eyes of Jim Nantz.

It looked short in live action to me, and on replay it was obvious that Brees pulled the ball back too quickly and short of the plane, but Nantz was weirdly adamant about a touchdown there. The call was reversed, Brees didn’t score, I lost out on a $230 win on a Same Game Parlay for that reason, then Graham scored.

It sounds like Nantz must have lost out on way more.

The Saints will have to be sharper than this to beat Tampa Bay for a third time next week. On the bright side, Michael Thomas finally had a real productive game (73 yards and his first touchdown) with Brees this season, and they seem to have come out of the game healthy. It was just weird in a game where the Saints finally had their skill guys healthy, it was Deonte Harris leading the team with seven grabs for 83 yards. But he looked good and the Saints should have had three straight touchdown drives in the second half after controlling the ball for nearly 39 minutes in the game.

Just tell Brees to do his best Philip Rivers impersonation and don’t pull out early next time when he does his sneak.

Ravens at Titans: Running Quarterbacks Matter More than Running Backs

These former division rivals seem to genuinely hate one another now after playing three games in the last calendar year. I think that is a good thing for the NFL and would be all for a rubber match next postseason since they (as of now) do not meet in the 2021 regular season.

While the Titans ended Baltimore’s Super Bowl hopes a year ago, the Ravens extracted some payback with a low-scoring 20-13 win. It is especially surprising when you remember that the Titans were up 10-0 after the first quarter, taking advantage of a Lamar Jackson interception, his sixth turnover in nine quarters of playoff action.

Are the Titans also his kryptonite? Could he go 0-3 against the Titans, 0-3 against the Chiefs, and 0-3 in the playoffs? Baltimore had not won a game when trailing by double digits since September 18, 2016, the longest active streak in the NFL.

Of course, 10-point comebacks are easier to come by when you only allow 13 points in the game. After all, teams that fail to score at least 14 points lose 93% of the time in postseason history. You must be someone like the 2018 Patriots to win a big game doing that. Ryan Tannehill, surely you jest if you think I believe you pulled the rabbit’s foot out of Tom Brady’s ass last January.

But while the Titans were on their way to a season-low 13 points, let’s go back to the play that changed everything. Things were not looking good again for Lamar, who finished the game by taking five sacks against the league’s worst pass rush this year. However, with one play Jackson reminded us of what makes him one of the most unique quarterbacks in NFL history. Facing a third-and-9 late in the second quarter, Jackson dropped back to almost his own 40 before stepping up, avoiding a sack, running through the defense, and outracing everyone to the end zone for officially a 48-yard touchdown, the second-longest touchdown run by a quarterback in postseason history.

That is one of the greatest quarterback runs of all time. The Ravens added another touchdown to start the third quarter, then it was just a matter of hanging on against the team that had been a league-best 6-1 at game-winning drive opportunities this season. But the offense was not having its usual day on Sunday. Derrick Henry is the eighth running back to rush for 2,000 yards in a season, but when you exclude the Super Bowl winning season Terrell Davis had for Denver in 1998, those other 2,000-yard backs are 0-5 in the playoffs while O.J. Simpson (1973 Bills) and Chris Johnson (2009 Titans) didn’t even qualify for the tournament.

Henry may have had the worst playoff game yet for a 2,000-yard back. He finished with 18 carries for 40 yards. His longest rush was 8 yards. Henry had zero first downs rushing. He failed on a third-and-1 run late in the game that Ryan Tannehill had to convert with the quarterback sneak to keep the game alive.

While A.J. Brown had a big opening drive with a touchdown, he was quiet the rest of the game. Not as quiet as Corey Davis, who finished without a catch on two targets and was out of the game late with an injury. Tight end Jonnu Smith only had 9 yards. The Titans only had three plays that gained more than 14 yards.

After Justin Tucker missed only his second postseason field goal from 52 yards with 12:11 left, the Titans had a golden opportunity, trailing in a 17-13 game. That is when Henry broke his 8-yard run, but then Tannehill threw two incompletions. You would think head coach Mike Vrabel would go for it on fourth-and-2 at the Baltimore 40 with 10:06 left. This is the same coach who said a year ago that he would cut his dick off to win a Super Bowl, and this guy already has rings as a player, so that ring must mean everything to him if he’d rather have another than his penis.

And then like a coward, Vrabel punted. Since 1994, or as far back as the data goes on Stathead, no other team has punted in the fourth quarter of a playoff game while trailing with 1-3 yards to go from inside the opponent 40.

If you stretch it back to the opponent 45, then you do get one hit, and it was a game that Vrabel won as a player with the Patriots. Against the 2006 Chargers, the Patriots were down 14-13 and Bill Belichick punted on 4th-and-2 at the San Diego 41 with 13:19 left. The Chargers scored a touchdown, then probably could have put the game away, but fumbled Tom Brady’s interception back to him (on fourth down no less).

Not that Vrabel was even thinking of that game he won as a player, but no one in their right mind could think to replicate that type of luck. The Titans should have gone for it for sure. That was arguably the worst coaching decision this weekend.

The Ravens responded with a 51-yard field goal as Tucker redeemed himself, but I have to say the offensive pass interference penalty that wiped out a big fourth-down conversion by Baltimore’s offense was a very weak pick play call on Willie Snead. More egregious plays happen all the time and don’t draw a flag. That felt like the NFL trying to keep this close for the finish.

Tannehill had 4:13 to tie the game with a touchdown, but the Titans pissed around with the run and wasted the two-minute warning just to move 16 yards. So this was not looking promising, then it turned disastrous as Tannehill’s receiver, Kalif Raymond, fell on the play after some contact and Marcus Peters intercepted the ball. The Ravens picked up a really dumb taunting penalty, but Jackson bailed them out with a 33-yard run that allowed him to finish with 136 rushing yards. Of Baltimore’s four longest plays, three of them were Jackson rushes for 23+ yards. He is just so difficult to defend, and now he has a playoff win to get off the snide.

Plenty of time this week to talk about Ravens-Bills, but it should be one of the best games this postseason. This was a gut-check win for the Ravens after a poor start. It was good to see the defense shut down a top-scoring offense, but the Titans are so structured to do things in a specific way that if Henry isn’t going well, then it becomes easier to stop the play-action game and the big plays to Brown and Davis. Buffalo attacks much differently, but again, we can get to that later this week. For now, the Ravens can take comfort in the playoff win and getting back to that familiar role of road underdog that has suited the team so well in the John Harbaugh era.

As for the Titans, given the bleak injury history of high workload backs and the lack of passing production that Tannehill has shown in four playoff starts, we may be marking the 2019-20 Titans as a fun, two-year wonder who blew double-digit leads in the playoffs to the Chiefs and Ravens.

Then we will promptly punt on this team’s 2021 prospects, but at least we’ll still have our dicks.

Buccaneers at Football Team: My MAGA Beats Your MAGA

Well, not the worst thing to happen in D.C. this week, but the Washington Football Team lost in the wild card round for the fourth time since 2007. It was a respectable 31-23 effort by Ron Rivera’s team given the quarterback situation and talent mismatch with Tampa Bay.

Taylor Heinicke had to start for Alex Smith (calf) and provided the offense with a quarterback who could actually move and make things happen. It was one of the more unlikely 300-yard passing games you’ll ever see from a guy making his first start of the season, but Heinicke gave his team a chance on a night where the running game was MIA (16 carries for 36 yards). However, you did see some of the flaws in this roster and their lack of a consistent passing attack this year as the receivers had some letdowns with drops.

Heinicke has likely secured himself a job for years in this league with this performance. I’m sure it also helps that he’ll proudly stand for the anthem and never kneel since he is reportedly a MAGA douchebag of bigger proportions than the team’s defensive coordinator, Jack Del Rio.

Speaking of MAGA douchebags, Uncle Jack was back doing something he does so well: make Tom Brady look amazing by getting no pressure or covering his receivers. Here’s a tweet from over seven years ago to show that I’m not just saying this after Saturday night:

Still no answers, I see. However, it took Brady 42 playoff games to do something that had been done 114 times before Saturday: throw multiple touchdown passes of 20 yards in a playoff game.

I don’t know if it was the clueless Del Rio defense, Antonio Brown being wide open, or that he’s playing a 7-9 team with his four former 1,300-yard receivers, but Brady was in a groove and hitting deep balls on Saturday night. Only some drops prevented Tampa Bay from doing even more damage to Del Rio’s overmatched defense.

Brady’s average touchdown pass in the playoffs is now 12.2 yards, which ties him with Kerry Collins for the lowest among all passers with 10 touchdown passes in the playoffs. It’s always been a weird disparity to see how his average touchdown shrinks so much from the regular season unlike virtually all other quarterbacks, but we’ll see if he’s got any more long ones in him this postseason. He faces the Saints next, a team that has swept him this regular season, including that dominant 38-3 game last time out.

Oh, and the refs totally botched a catch-and-fumble out of bounds for Washington by calling incomplete when it should have set up a shorter third down before the sack that created 4th-and-21, which basically sealed the game. But you know, He willed it. I am frankly just surprised Brady didn’t will a Bears victory so he could get the Rams in Tampa on Sunday instead of going to the team that has made him look the worst this year.

The Jets (2) still have more wins against teams with winning records this year than the Buccaneers (1).

Rams at Seahawks: First Name Russell, Last Name Ozymandias

The date was September 15, 2013. The Seahawks were hosting the 49ers on Sunday Night Football in what would be a preview of that year’s fantastic NFC Championship Game. This first meeting was anything but fantastic. Lightning delayed it in the first quarter for an hour, which was perfect since AMC was airing the premiere of the “Ozymandias” episode of Breaking Bad, which is in my view the finest episode of any TV series.

After experiencing that emotional rollercoaster, I went back to the game, a 29-3 win by Seattle on a night where neither Russell Wilson nor Colin Kaepernick could move the ball via passing. In fact, it’s the last game in the NFL where both teams completed fewer than 50% of their passes, failed to net 170 passing yards, and took multiple sacks.

At least it was the last NFL game to do that before the Rams and Seahawks did it on Saturday in the wild card, a 30-20 win by the Rams that was as lifeless as any performance in the Pete Carroll-Wilson era.

I bring up that 2013 game not only for the statistical comparison, but also for the fact that it is the Ozymandias Night Game, and Wilson and Carroll just might be the embodiment of that poem: building a once great empire with a legacy that was inevitably going to decay and slide into oblivion.

Back in the day, the Seahawks could play a terrible offensive game and still find a way to win, sometime by huge margins even. As time wore on and the talent faded, the team found wins harder to come by. The margins kept getting smaller. Since 2018, Seattle has won 24 games by no more than eight points, five more than any other team in the league.

Even this year the Seahawks were 9-2 in close games. Seattle completely flipped the script on the scoreboard in the second half of this season. Their games had 204 fewer combined points in the final eight games compared to the first eight, the biggest dip in a 16-game season in NFL history.

If I told Seattle fans in early November that they would play the Rams at home in the wild card, the game would have 50 points, and the Rams’ starting quarterback was knocked out early with an injury, they would probably expect a nice win to come from that.

They would never expect it meant a 30-20 loss where the offense was a bigger letdown than the defense and it was Jared Goff coming off the bench with a surgically repaired thumb to replace John Wolford.

They would never expect Wilson to throw maybe the worst pick-six of his career in the first half. The third quarter that seemed to last ages saw stop after stop. By the fourth quarter, any glimmer of hope for a Seattle comeback ended when a fumbled punt return set up the Rams on a short field for another touchdown and a 30-13 lead.

Wilson took five sacks, which is nothing new for him against the Rams, but only completing 11-of-27 passes for 174 yards certainly puts this in a bottom tier of games in his career.

The Seahawks are done quickly after a 12-4 season that never felt complete. When the offense was great, the defense was terrible. When the defense played well against soft competition, the offense was an issue, especially in that ugly upset loss to the Giants.

But Saturday was rock bottom for this offense this season. It was the culmination of a season on decline offensively with “Let Russ Cook” serving up the Fyre Fest cheese sandwich for the final meal.

Wilson’s success rate was 7-for-25 (28%) leading into the drive where he got the ball back down 30-13 with 4:40 left. This was not a matter of going pass-happy against a tough defensive front or calling too many runs on early downs. This was all-around poor execution, too many penalties, and just no sense of direction for what this offense wants to do after spending the last half of the season barely scraping by.

Earlier this season, I warned that the numbers could be misleading because of the pandemic and the way defenses were behind the offenses. Even for a veteran like Wilson, the best start of his career had to be taken with some caution.

I just never thought things would get as low as they did on Saturday, with Wilson only managing a 10-point deficit with the ball in the fourth quarter. Once upon a time, this team had a 98-game streak of keeping things within one score or better.

I have always favorably compared Wilson’s career path to Ben Roethlisberger’s for the way they both came in as very successful rookies on run-heavy teams with great defenses. Both never got proper credit (or any MVP votes) for their passing efficiency, backyard football plays, deep ball accuracy, and ability to pull off game-winning drives and overcome bad offensive lines. Like Ben, Wilson started throwing with more volume and proved he can still be very efficient and a winner without an elite scoring defense. We’ll see if Wilson also drastically changes his playing style in his thirties to get rid of the ball faster and take fewer sacks and hits like Ben did in 2012.

But if we’re being honest, they also share this in common: they both won the Super Bowl in their second season and that early success has done some shielding for the criticism that should come with their other postseason efforts.

Roethlisberger, despite picking up that second ring in 2008, has thrown 28 interceptions in 22 playoff games and just lost his fifth home playoff game. Wilson was 5-0 at home in the playoffs before Saturday’s loss, but we know he threw four interceptions against the Packers in the 2014 NFC Championship Game, likely a loss had it not been for an onside kick recovery. Wilson also got a win in Minnesota in 2015 by a 10-9 final after Blair Walsh missed a short field goal. And while the pick-six on Saturday was bad, we know that Wilson threw the costliest interception in NFL history at the 1-yard line in Super Bowl XLIX. If there wasn’t such a “why did they even throw?” sentiment to that moment, and if Wilson hadn’t won the Super Bowl a year earlier, the criticism he’d get for that play would be far harsher than it is.

Since winning a playoff game where he threw four interceptions, Wilson has won three more playoff games in which his opponents scored 9, 6, and 9 points. Like Pittsburgh, Seattle has had high expectations for the playoffs the last decade, and the few wins they do have recently are not going to impress anyone. Losing to the COVID Browns and a Rams team that had an injured quarterback and even lost Aaron Donald to injury in the game is going to stand out to people more than those wins ever will.

When you rank the top 25 quarterbacks of all time, I think Roethlisberger and Wilson belong there despite the shorter career for Wilson. But when these bad moments in the playoffs seem to happen more frequently than you’d like to see, you can understand why Roethlisberger and Wilson are never going to rank as favorably as the Manning, Brady, Brees, and Rodgers (and soon Mahomes) of the league that they share the spotlight with.

Instead of joining Brees, Brady, and Rodgers in next week’s NFC divisional round, Wilson must look ahead to his age-33 season, putting behind a 2020 where he had his best start ever, but also his most disappointing finish.

‘My name is Ozymandias, king of kings:
Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!’
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away.”

Colts at Bills: The More Colts-Esque Team Won

I said this game was a bit of a role reversal with the Colts needing to run the ball well and play great defense while the Bills had the pass-happy offense (led by wide receivers) and franchise quarterback in Josh Allen.

I just did not expect it to play out so on brand. This was an impressive win by the Bills, who had to overcome some adversity with terrible field position. In the first half, all five Buffalo possessions started inside their 15. I have not seen anything like that since the infamous Mike Scifres punt game that pinned the Colts deep repeatedly in the 2008 AFC Wild Card. That was in San Diego and Philip Rivers was also the beneficiary of that effort.

Rivers did not get the win this time, but he was not the problem in a game with zero turnovers. Head coach Frank Reich had some really questionable calls, and the team was 2-for-5 in the red zone. He ran outside on a third down when he should have brought in Jacoby Brissett for a quarterback sneak. He then went for a 4th-and-4 where I think he should have kicked the field goal. He made one of the worst challenges I’ve ever seen on a down by contact ruling that had no shot of winning, and that lost timeout hurt the Colts in the second half.

Buffalo was fortunate in this one. The Colts also had one drive in the third quarter that lasted nearly eight minutes and ended with a missed 37-yard field goal (doink). Buffalo’s league-best third down offense was only 2/9 on that money down. Josh Allen played very well but was fortunate to recover a fumble on his final drive that could have been disastrous for the Bills. The Bills had 10 handoffs for 42 yards and lost Zack Moss to an injury. It was very much on Allen to deliver and he did with 324 passing yards, 54 rushing yards, and three total touchdowns against a solid defense that made the Bills earn every yard.

There were many “game of inches” plays in this one, and they usually favored the Bills. Despite Buffalo leading 24-10 in the fourth quarter, the Colts fought back impressively. The running game was not exactly dominant, but in the fourth quarter the Colts had runs of 29, 20, and 33 yards. Two of those were even by Hines instead of rookie Jonathan Taylor. Those plays really helped those drives get down the field quickly and aided the 300-yard passing game for Rivers, who also had a few drops his receivers would like back.

While the officials were doing a very good job on the close calls, they almost made a horrific error in the final minute when a Zach Pascal fumble on fourth-and-ballgame was somehow not immediately stopped for a review. Bills coach Sean McDermott had to get a last-second timeout to get New York to finally review the most important play in the game. It looked clear and obvious to me that the Bills waited for Pascal to get back to his feet before punching the ball out and recovering it, which would have meant game over. The replay review let the play stand and the Colts had a first down at midfield.

From there, Rivers couldn’t find open receivers and was throwing passes away, leaving time only for a Hail Mary. Isn’t this where Jacoby Brissett comes into the game?  He’s done it before. Reich even pulled Andrew Luck before to do this in 2018. He can surely pull Rivers, who doesn’t have the arm anymore to get that ball deep enough in Buffalo. But Rivers stayed in for the Hail Mary, the pass was well short of the end zone and incomplete to end the game.

The Bills escaped this one, 27-24, and major props to kicker Tyler Bass for his 54-yard field goal with 8:08 left that proved to be the difference maker.

Colts fans know all too well about the playoffs and clutch (or anti-clutch) kicking, terrible field position, a one-dimensional offense that puts everything on the QB and things aren’t going well on third downs, etc. Like I said, the Bills survived a gut-check early here, and now they’ll get a tougher opponent form Baltimore.

But it was good to see a pass-happy team in Buffalo come through for the team’s first playoff win since the 1995 season. The NFL (AFC in particular) has needed new blood and seeing the Browns and Bills win their first playoff games since 1994-95 is accomplishing that.

NFL 2020 Wild Card Sunday Previews

If one triple-header of NFL playoff action is not enough, we get two this year with Ravens-Titans looking like the highlight of the weekend on paper. All three games on Sunday are rematches from earlier this season, including two games that went to overtime.

That led me to a little digging. What happens in a playoff rematch from a game that went to overtime? I found all 17 examples since 1990. The team that won in overtime is 11-6 in the playoff rematch, so maybe that is good news for the Titans and Saints this weekend despite the Titans being an underdog again.

Click here for my three previews of Saturday’s games.

Ravens at Titans (+3)

BAL OFFENSE VS. TEN DEFENSE

I think this is a great, almost necessary matchup for the Ravens to get over the hump in the postseason. Last year, I wrote a rather prescient preview for how the Titans could pull off the upset in Baltimore, noting some potential rust for the rested Ravens, dropped passes on key downs, maybe a tipped interception, and Ryan Tannehill hitting a deep ball to open an early lead. All of those things happened, and the Ravens were down 14-0 quickly before losing 28-12. Lamar Jackson set an NFL record with 83 total plays (passes/sacks/runs) in that game, but it only led to a career-low 12 points for his Ravens.

In fact, Jackson has led the Ravens to at least 20 points in 36 of his 39 career starts, but only 17 and 12 points in his two home playoff losses. If the Bills and Steelers win this week, Jackson could be starting this postseason run against Tennessee and Kansas City, two teams he is 0-5 against so far.

So if this is going to be a revenge tour, then it sets up nicely. Baltimore is 5-0 since Jackson returned from his COVID-19 diagnosis. The competition has not been strong, but Jackson is back to efficient passing (8.09 YPA, 11 TD, 3 INT) and he’s rushing for 86 yards a game at 7.68 YPC. Baltimore has been lighting up the scoreboard and finished a second straight season with the highest scoring differential (+165) in the league. The 2020 Ravens are the 10th team since the merger to win at least nine games by 14+ points. The ninth team to do it was Baltimore a year ago.

You cannot be in this historic company and go one-and-done to Mike Vrabel two years in a row. Drawing the Tennessee defense is a dream for Jackson. Here is where the Titans rank in 2020 (asterisk denotes worst among playoff teams this year):

  • 27th in points per drive allowed*
  • 30th in yards per drive allowed*
  • 30th in touchdowns per drive allowed*
  • 29th in forcing three-and-out drives*
  • 25th in yards per play allowed*
  • 30th in first downs allowed*
  • 22nd in net yards per pass attempt*
  • 32nd in sack rate*
  • 31st in pressure rate*
  • 32nd in third down conversion rate* (worst since 1991)
  • 7th in takeaways per drive
  • 30th in red zone touchdown rate

Tennessee is the worst defense in the playoffs, and yes, that third down conversion rate of 51.9% is the worst season mark since the stat started being tracked in 1991. They’re the only team over 50%.

Turnovers are about the only way the Titans can do well on defense in this matchup, but Baltimore’s offense has only turned it over multiple times in three games this season, and two of those were against the Steelers.

In the Week 11 meeting, won 30-24 in overtime by Tennessee, the Ravens were 9/15 on third down with one interception on 10 drives. The problem was in the red zone where the Ravens were 1-for-4 at scoring touchdowns, including a late field goal to force overtime where a touchdown likely would have won the game. What happened in the playoff upset a year ago? Again, the Ravens were 1-for-4 in the red zone. They have to do better down there, but lately the Ravens have been scoring at will on teams.

Baltimore is coming off only the second 400-yard rushing game in the NFL in the last 60 years. We know the Ravens are going to run the ball well in this game, but to fully take advantage of this poor Tennessee defense, Jackson will have to throw well too.

I think he can do it this time. If not, then the Ravens will have taken two seasons where they outscored opponents by 414 points and turned it into zero playoff wins.

TEN OFFENSE VS. BAL DEFENSE

Given my takedown of the Tennessee defense, I better give a lot of credit to the offense for this 11-5 record. That’s easy to do. Ryan Tannehill proved 2019 was not just a fluke as he finished with the best full season of his career in leading one of the league’s top offenses. Derrick Henry rushed for 2,027 yards as he is practically on a one-man mission to prove that running backs matter, or at least they do in Tennessee. I think I would vote for him as the Offensive Player of the Year. Corey Davis even had a career year and A.J. Brown is still very good.

Tennessee’s excellent 6-1 record in close games is almost due entirely to the offense this year. Tannehill led the league in comebacks (five) and game-winning drives (six) with Henry scoring two game-winning touchdown runs in overtime games. The only failed comeback was against Pittsburgh after Stephen Gostkowski missed a makeable field goal that would have forced overtime.

In the Week 11 meeting in Baltimore, both teams looked offensively challenged at the half. Jackson had 54 yards passing, Tannehill had 42 yards passing, and Henry only had 13 carries for 37 yards. But the Titans are so committed to sticking with their formula of a play-action attack and feeding Henry that they turned things around and won that game with 30 points. Tannehill finished with 259 yards and Henry rushed for 133 yards, saving his 29-yard burst for overtime to win the game.

The Titans have to be thinking at least 30 points in this one again to win it, which isn’t out of question when the team has scored as much in 10 of the 16 games this season. The Titans are 2-4 when they don’t score 30 points this season.

Baltimore actually finished the season No. 2 in points allowed, but that involved a lot of feasting on putrid offenses this year, including six points in two games against the Bengals. We’ve seen the Ravens allow 30 to Tennessee, 34 to Kansas City, and the Browns lost that 47-42 game on a Monday night that I would deem the Game of the Year.

I think a top offense can score well on the Ravens this year.

I like both offenses in this game and apparently so does Vegas as the game has a total of 54.5 points. What it comes down to for me is that the Tennessee defense is so bad, and there is also a big gap in special teams as well between these teams. The Ravens are No. 2 in DVOA while the Titans are 28th. We have already seen special teams almost cost the Titans a win on opening night against Denver, Gostkowski screwed them over against the Steelers, and they had the worst game (aside from Chargers-Patriots) on special teams this season against the Colts in a loss at home.

FiveThirtyEight sees this as the most even game of the weekend with the Ravens at 57% to win and an Elo point spread of -2. I can buy that given Baltimore’s past struggles in big games and against a team that can score in bunches.

The whole “Ravens are the team no one wants to play” thing is usually just hype, but I actually believe it this time for Baltimore. I wouldn’t want to play this team right now even if I was Buffalo, Pittsburgh, or Kansas City. That doesn’t necessarily mean I am picking the Ravens to go all the way this year, but the way they can run the ball is just something you don’t have to deal with when you play other teams. Henry is great and will probably go for over 100 again, but chances are the Ravens as a team will outrush him and win this game. So that is where I am going with this one.

Final: Ravens 31, Titans 24

Bears at Saints (-10)

So in the very first year of the new playoff format, we had a Chicago team back into the No. 7 seed with an 8-8 record (thanks, Kliff), and a 12-4 Saints team that had a very nice season has to play them instead of enjoying a bye as they would have in the past. Cool.

My new playoff contempt aside, I guess it’s not the worst matchup in the world, and the 10-point spread is interesting. I’ll just say it would be a damn shame if the final game of Drew Brees’ career was a home playoff loss to Mitchell Trubisky and an 8-8 No. 7 seed. FiveThirtyEight sees this as the blowout of the week with the Saints at 85% win probability and Elo spread of -12. I think it could be closer than that. The Saints are not exactly known for easy playoff wins.

I watched a lot of the Week 8 meeting in Chicago live. The Saints were down 13-3 early, didn’t have their wideouts (not even Emmanuel Sanders), Brees ended up throwing a touchdown pass to Taysom Hill that put the Saints up 10 in the fourth quarter, but Nick Foles still forced overtime and even had a chance to win the game. But the Saints pulled through with a 26-23 win. It was probably the best game Foles had this year for the Bears, and as good as any game offensively for the team through 10 weeks before the bye.

Now the Bears are here with Trubisky, who has started the last six games. The Bears started this run by scoring at least 25 points in each game, a streak this team had not seen since the 1995 season with Erik Kramer. Was Trubisky great in this stretch? No, but it is clear he was better than what Foles was giving Matt Nagy and what Trubisky was doing at the start of the season. Running back David Montgomery has especially blown up with 99.7 rushing yards per game and 5.16 YPC over the last six games. That is quite the change for a guy who averaged 54.4 yards and 3.65 YPC in his first 25 games. Then Allen Robinson is still excellent, Jimmy Graham has started catching touchdowns again, and Darnell Mooney can get open. It is not an offense without talent. The results were just terrible for most of this season.

Then Sunday against Green Bay happened. The Bears moved the ball somewhat well, but only finished with 16 points after going 1-for-5 in the red zone. The offense also had two turnovers that set up the Packers for touchdown drives inside the 26-yard line. That was a bummer performance to end the regular season, but thanks to Arizona’s late-season collapse, the Bears are still in this tournament.

I am naturally skeptical of Trubisky given his full history. I thought he played terrible in the first Green Bay game and padded his stats in garbage time. He was much better against Detroit and Houston, but those are two of the most horrific defenses in a season filled with bad defenses. Minnesota and Jacksonville were not much better this year. Then it was Green Bay again and I noticed Trubisky had a really high completion percentage deep into the game, but not a lot of yards or points from it. Then I realized he completed 70.1% of his passes during these last six games and almost 74% over the last five games, which is uncharacteristic for him.

When I also noticed the Bears tried to convert six fourth downs against the Packers (they got five of them but not the crucial one in fourth quarter), that made me think about failed completions. Those are the plays where you complete a pass, but it doesn’t gain at least 45% of the needed yards for a first down on first down, 60% on second down, or 100% on third and fourth down. What if Trubisky was just dinking and dunking for hollow completions to pad his completion percentage, but not actually helping the offense? He finished 20th in QBR and 24th in DVOA after all.

To my surprise, Trubisky’s failed completion rate in 2020 was 15.6%, the lowest in the NFL, beating out No. 2 Patrick Mahomes (15.9%) and No. 3 Josh Allen (16.4%). Aaron Rodgers (21.5%) was only 11th and Brees is 23rd (24.7%). Furthermore, Trubisky did much better than Foles in this metric. Alex Smith (32.7%) and Dwayne Haskins (35.1%) were last in the league playing in the same Washington offense, but just ahead of them was Foles at 32.2%.

That is interesting to me because there are plenty of other metrics that show the impact of Chicago’s offensive system and supporting cast on the quarterback’s passing numbers.

  • Trubisky’s average pass was thrown 7.9 yards compared to 7.8 for Foles.
  • Trubisky’s average completed air yards was 5.1 to 5.3 for Foles.
  • Trubisky had 3.1% of his passes dropped compared to 3.0% for Foles – only Kyler Murray (2.5%) was lower [source: Pro Football Reference].
  • Trubisky ranked fourth in the league by throwing 21.2% of his passes into tight windows while Foles was ranked right behind him at 20.8% according to Next Gen Stats’ aggressiveness rate.

Suddenly, I was feeling better about Trubisky after seeing this, then I saw one more stat on Pro Football Reference. Trubisky finished 15th this year with 5.4 YAC/completion; Foles finished 35th (dead last) at 3.5 YAC/completion. Basically, the big YAC plays that existed in Chicago’s offense only seemed to happen for Trubisky. Of Chicago’s 20 completions with at least 15 YAC, Trubisky threw 14 of them compared to six for Foles. Trubisky had seven passes thrown behind the line of scrimmage that gained 15+ YAC; Foles had two.

Oh, and there is also this on play-action passing:

Foles used play-action on 18.6% of his passes this season, ranked 24th in the league. His play-action YPA was 8.07. Trubisky used it more often than anyone but Ryan Tannehill and his YPA was 8.31.

Now things started to make more sense. Trubisky was taking advantage of play-action looks, superior rushing help from Montgomery, and better YAC plays from his receivers during a four-game surge against trash defenses that finished 28th, 29th, 30th, and 32nd in points per drive allowed. Wow, better pay this man $140M over four years if he beats the Saints this weekend.

Okay, so there is no denying that Trubisky can move better than Foles. He can scramble and pick up some first downs that way. He had a lower pressure rate and almost identical sack rate to Foles, who looked like a statue more than ever this year. Maybe some of those YAC plays could be credited to Trubisky’s skills as well while someone like Foles throws a lot of hero balls that may not lend themselves well to YAC. It is a little easier for Nagy to run an offense with a quarterback who can actually move.

But am I sold on Trubisky’s “rebirth” here or his prospects in even just this game? No, I am not. The Saints just intercepted the Carolina quarterbacks five times on Sunday and won 33-7 with a running back room they signed off the streets this weekend. Ty Montgomery still rushed for over 100 yards. The New Orleans defense notched five sacks of Foles in Week 8 too, so the pass rush could be good again for the Saints in this one.

Basically, the Chicago path to victory is the same as it always is: defense/special teams kick ass, the run game works, and the quarterback doesn’t screw things up. The Saints will be lucky to get Alvin Kamara back in time after his COVID-19 infection. He was huge as a receiver in the last meeting with the wideouts not available. At least Sanders is back now, but Michael Thomas’ status is still iffy as it has been most of this year. The Saints have learned to play without him.

This is not your classic, dominant Saints offense because of the injuries and Brees’ age taking even more off the deep ball, but this offense still scores. In fact, the 2020 Saints are the sixth team in NFL history to score at least 21 points in all 16 regular season games. The first five teams to do that all reached the Conference Championship Game and three advanced to the Super Bowl. Now none of them had to play a No. 7 seed on Wild Card Weekend, but here we are.

I guess I could pick the Saints to cover with a 27-16 win, but I’m just going to add a touchdown to Chicago’s total to make it sound more interesting. Will it actually be that close? Eh, you probably didn’t think the last meeting would have two double-digit leads blown and go to overtime. Besides, wouldn’t it just be so fitting for the Bears (and Rams) to win so Tom Brady can get a home playoff game as a No. 5 seed and not have to worry about the New Orleans team that spanked him twice this year?

It sure would be nice for the Saints to send Brees off with a second Super Bowl. The defense showing up big against one of the worst offenses in this postseason would be a good start.

Final: Saints 27, Bears 23

Browns at Steelers (-6)

The last time the Browns were in the playoffs, they went to Heinz Field and blew a 17-point lead to the 2002 Steelers. The last time the Browns were an 11-5 playoff team and opened as a 3.5-point underdog, they lost 29-9 in the divisional round in Pittsburgh to the 1994 Steelers.

So here we are again. The Browns are 11-5 and finally back in the playoffs, but they have to beat a Pittsburgh team they just squeezed by on Sunday, 24-22, despite the Steelers resting several of their best players. The Browns opened as a 3.5-point underdog, but the spread has only been going up since a COVID outbreak has jacked up the team’s preparation this week. They have not been practicing in person, multiple players are on the COVID list, and head coach Kevin Stefanski is out with COVID.

I think the Stefanski news is rather significant. He should be the favorite for the Coach of the Year award and he was the play-caller for his team. This literally has stacked the odds against the Browns, who are trying to end a 17-game losing streak in Pittsburgh, which includes a 38-7 loss in Week 6. The Browns have not won in Pittsburgh since 2003, the season before Ben Roethlisberger was drafted.

Trying to compare the first two meetings this season is not easy. When the Steelers won 38-7 in Week 6, it was arguably the worst game of Baker Mayfield’s NFL career. He was rattled by this defense early. On Sunday, he played better, but a unit largely comprised of backups still got four sacks and held him under 200 passing yards. Mayfield compensated by rushing for a career-high 44 yards.

In five games against the Steelers, Mayfield is 2-3, has never passed for 200 yards, and Sunday was the first time he scored 24 points. I like to think a Pittsburgh defense that gets back T.J. Watt and Cameron Heyward will be in better shape to defend him this week. Watt has been dominant this year and Heyward is the third key component of the pass rush along with Stephon Tuitt. The Steelers will be without cornerback Joe Haden (COVID) again, but the Browns have not had any receiver break 60 yards on Pittsburgh this year. They’re not a high-volume passing team and without Odell Beckham Jr. available, it’s not really a matchup that Haden is desperately needed for. That comes potentially down the road with Stefon Diggs and the Bills.

Obviously, Nick Chubb and Kareem Hunt make for a great rushing duo, but the Steelers usually defend the run well. Chubb had a 47-yard touchdown run on Sunday after some poor tackling attempts by the Steelers, but his other 13 carries produced 61 yards. The Steelers can live with that as long as they don’t give up the huge play again. Mayfield’s rushing is usually not a problem, but it was Sunday. We’ll see if that’s part of the game plan again in his first playoff game where you do have to leave it all on the field really.

But I feel pretty confident about the Browns not being able to score more than the 24 points they had on Sunday, and it should be even less than that if we’re adding Watt and Heyward to the game.

As for the Pittsburgh offense, it’s a bit of a wild card even though we know what they’ll try to do in this one. It’s what they’ve done all year: tons of quick, short passes from the shotgun, virtually no play-action, great at not taking sacks, but a miniscule running game. The question is will they produce like the offense that started 10-0 and had a 28-24 comeback win on the Colts in Week 15, or will it look like the terrible month of offense where they couldn’t score 20 points? Will they add to their league-high 39 dropped passes?

Roethlisberger ended up having the greatest dink-and-dunk season in NFL history, as strange as that sounds.

I think I would trust the larger sample of games, but you never know how Pittsburgh will look on Sunday night. The week of rest should do Roethlisberger’s body well. He’ll return with Maurkice Pouncey at center and Eric Ebron at tight end, two more absences in Sunday’s game. The encouraging part is that Mason Rudolph just threw for 315 yards on this Cleveland defense on Sunday. Rudolph’s previous career high was 251 yards. Rudolph led two late touchdown drives, but failed on a two-point conversion pass to tie the game.

Rudolph attacked Cleveland deep multiple times and had three passes gain 40+ yards. Chase Claypool and Diontae Johnson played well. That should give Cleveland plenty to think about with how to defend this offense. Maybe they won’t just sit on the short routes like teams have been doing. The Steelers also seem to have figured out better routes and plays for JuJu Smith-Schuster in the last two games. While the Browns could get Denzel Ward back at corner, there is no one receiver to take away in this offense. Roethlisberger could throw to any of four wideouts or Ebron at any time. Trust me, I’ve been doing SGP every week since October on this team and you never know if it’s going to be a JuJu week, a Claypool week, a Diontae week, or an Ebron week.

We also know the Steelers cannot run the ball, becoming the first team in NFL history to win four games in a season without rushing for 50 yards. I am actually in favor of the idea of letting Josh Dobbs play backup quarterback and have a few packaged plays to run like he did on Sunday when he gained 20 yards on two plays. The Steelers didn’t do a whole lot more on the ground, but it is worth noting that James Conner’s last 100-yard rushing game was against Cleveland in Week 6.

The Browns beating the Steelers in an important game goes against all the football logic that I have learned over decades, so I cannot bring myself to make that pick for various reasons. Sure, I think the Steelers are vulnerable to losing to anyone at this point, but I also think if this team can combine the defense it has played most of the season with the productive scoring offense it had on the way to 10-0, then they could beat anyone this postseason, including on the road in Buffalo or Kansas City.

Final: Steelers 27, Browns 20

Next week we’ll talk about the record-setting offensive numbers in 2020, the first-round bye teams, and my picks for the rest of the playoffs.

NFL Stat Oddity: Week 15

If last Sunday in the NFL was boring, then this week more than made up for it. Even though the “Game of the Year” (Chiefs-Saints) wasn’t even the best game played in the last seven days (Ravens-Browns), this was a Sunday filled with memorable action.

Favorites were 11-4 SU, but the Rams christened SoFi Stadium with one of the most embarrassing losses in NFL history.

Previous weeks in Stat Oddity:

Rams Lose, Jets Lose Out, Only Trevor Lawrence Wins

It is not hyperbole to say that the course of NFL history for the next two decades could have just been drastically altered on Sunday when the 0-13 Jets beat the Rams 23-20 for their first win of the season.

For a franchise familiar with low points, the 2020 season may have taken the Jets to a new low under head coach Adam Gase. Some people have been calling the Chiefs “inevitable” this year, but the most inevitable thing felt like the Jets cruising to 0-16. That is a horrific season, but it’s not like we haven’t seen the 2008 Lions and 2017 Browns already do this. In fact, the biggest surprise would be that the Jets weren’t already in the club (the 1996 team finished 1-15).

The reward at the end of such a terrible season was supposed to be a new coach and the No. 1 pick in the draft, undoubtedly, to be used on Clemson quarterback Trevor Lawrence. Gase will now likely go down as one of the most hated coaches in NFL history as he could not even finish 0-16 properly. The Jaguars are now in the driver’s seat for Lawrence in the draft, and if he is as generational as advertised – a mobile, long-haired Peyton Manning – then it is sure to be a move that has massive ripple effects around the league for years to come.

Why are the Jets always the ones botching history? They could have drafted generational passer Dan Marino in 1983 but chose Ken O’Brien instead. They drafted wide receiver Al Toon over all-time leading receiver Jerry Rice in 1985. They drafted running back Blair Thomas over all-time leading rusher Emmitt Smith in 1990. Maybe none of those picks lead to Super Bowls for the Jets, but they absolutely changed the course of the league at that time. Imagine the Dolphins without Marino and Don Shula. Imagine the 49ers’ dynasty without Rice. Joe Gibbs’ Washington teams may have been the dynasty of the 1980s instead. Likewise, Emmitt is probably not the all-time leading rusher if he started with the Jets instead of the dynastic Cowboys in the 90s.

Maybe Lawrence is better off if he doesn’t go to the Jets. In 1997, the Jets thought they could cash that 1-15 season in for Peyton Manning at the top of the draft, but Manning returned to Tennessee for another year and ended up going No. 1 to the rival Colts in 1998. Good move, but also a massive one for the league’s next two decades.

Oh, and never forget the Jets are more responsible for the New England dynasty than anyone after botching the hiring of head coach Bill Belichick in 2000 and injuring Drew Bledsoe in 2001, leading to the rise of Tom Brady.

Never has a win felt like such a loss for a team than this one. The fact that Frank Gore put the game away with two first downs is just the cherry on top of the shit sundae. Jacksonville fans will for sure be pushing Gore for Canton now.

And how about these Rams? So much for the new hyped “best team” in the NFC. I’m going to remember Sean McVay as the photographic memory wunderkind coach who lost a Super Bowl 13-3 and lost to the 0-13 Jets.

There has just been something about Game 14 where perfect seasons go to die. As I pointed out in my preview for this one, the 10 teams to start 0-13 are now 5-5 SU in Game 14. That means these teams went from a combined 0-130 to 5-5 in that 14th game. Interestingly enough, four of the eight 13-0 teams in NFL history also lost their first game in Game 14 (1998 Broncos, 2005 Colts, 2009 Saints, and 2011 Packers).

This is not quite the biggest upset in NFL history. You only have to go back to Week 17 last year to find a worse loss by the point spread when the 17.5-point favorite Patriots lost at home to the Dolphins to lose out on a first-round bye. However, this is only the fifth time since 1978 that a 17-point favorite lost outright.

But this is almost surely the most embarrassing loss a team has ever had to a team 0-13 or worse that notched its first win. The Rams lost this game wire-to-wire, meaning the Jets led the whole way, including a 20-3 lead. Only the 1962 Patriots can say they lost wire-to-wire to an 0-13 (or worse) team after they fell 20-0 to the Oakland Raiders to end the 1962 AFL season.

This was not some December game in trash weather at MetLife Stadium with a full, roaring crowd where Jared Goff melted down and threw a pick parade. The Rams only had one turnover (and one blocked punt) in the game, played in new SoFI Stadium. This was not a blown lead by the Rams. This was not a game where the Rams missed any field goals. The only fumble (on a Sam Darnold sack) went out of bounds.

The Rams were just outplayed by an inferior team. The Jets were able to convert 7-of-17 on third down while the Rams were only 2-of-11. Show up on a few more of those plays and this outcome is likely different, but the Jets deserved this win.

They just had no business actually pulling it off, putting the future of the franchise in doubt again.

The final magnitude of this loss for me personally remains to be seen after the Steelers play on Monday night. I was hot on my bets this weekend, but one game I needed was for the Rams to win and Cam Akers to score a touchdown. That seemed simple enough after Akers’ breakout game last week and the mismatch here, but neither part came through. I also liked Robert Woods scoring (he did), but still would have been screwed by the moneyline. I’ll scowl over this day forever that Akers’ 18-yard touchdown run in the fourth quarter was called back for a holding penalty if Diontae Johnson and the Steelers come through. I stood to win more than $36,000 on a series of round robin parlays that only cost $105.

I’m sad. Rams fans are sad. Jets fans are sad. Only Trevor Lawrence and Jacksonville fans are probably happy right now. And just think, if the Jets finish on a winning streak, they just may bring Gase and Darnold back for 2021…

I Fvcking Love Patrick Mahomes Chapter 50: Week 15 at Saints

Despite holding 14-point leads early and late, the Chiefs had to grind out another close win, 32-29, in the four-minute offense to knock off the Saints in Drew Brees’ return. The big matchup had some really strange plays, Brees got off to the slowest/worst start to a game in his 300th career start, and it technically never had a game-winning drive opportunity, but it was a decent game in the end.

How did New Orleans fare with my tips for beating the Chiefs? Not good as the only achievement was #6 as the Saints racked up four sacks, getting some of the best pressure any defense ever has (without blitzing too) on Mahomes, which was to be expected with the offensive line situation there.

The 29 points were not bad, but the Saints absolutely hurt themselves before halftime by not recovering the obligatory fumble on a ridiculous punt fielded by Demarcus Robinson with only seconds left in the half. The Saints had a great chance to fall on the ball in the end zone for a touchdown, but Alex Anzalone botched that play and the Saints only got a safety out of it. Those five points were a huge miss.

You know the standard for Mahomes is getting ridiculous when people scoff at putting up 32 points and 34 first downs on what was supposed to be one of the best defenses in the league. The Saints had not allowed more than 24 points in a game since doing it four games in a row in Weeks 2-5, but the Chiefs were able to do that in this one, scoring 11 points in the fourth quarter to keep the Saints down.

Much like the 26-17 win in Buffalo, the Chiefs were able to mix the pass and run in moving the ball effectively. This team’s success on the road is historic this season even if it could be asterisk worthy given the pandemic impact with limited or no crowds.

Still, the 2020 Chiefs are the first team in NFL history to win five road games in a season against teams with a winning record. This is set in stone with the Bills (11-3), Saints (10-4), Ravens (9-5), Dolphins (9-5), and Buccaneers (9-5) all guaranteed to have a winning record this season. The only mystery is if the Chiefs will pick up a sixth win if the Raiders (7-7) finish 9-7.

The Chiefs just had the seventh game in NFL history where they put up 32 points and 34 first downs on the road in regulation. That’s impressive when you also consider that they have the sixth such game this season when they did it in Las Vegas.

Now 50 starts into his career, I am still waiting to see what a legitimately bad game from Mahomes looks like. His consistency is unmatched. The 2020 Chiefs are now the fourth team in NFL history to score at least 22 points in each of their first 14 games in a season. The other teams on that list are the 1983 Redskins, 1998 Vikings, and 2018 Chiefs, so they have already done it twice here. Only that 2019 Colts game (19-13 loss) is stopping it from being 50-for-50 for Mahomes in scoring 22+ points as a team.

Sunday is the 33rd time Mahomes has led the Chiefs to at least 30 points in one of his starts. If he does it again next week against Atlanta, then that will be 34 times over his last 50 starts. That would match the best 50-game stretch of the careers of Manning and Brady. I included a chart that shows how the count of 30-point starts over those quarterback’s last 50 starts progressed over time, as well as the same data for Dan Marino, Aaron Rodgers, and Brees.

Like Mahomes, Marino got off to that super-fast start to the point where his best 50-game stretch was the first 50 games when he led the Dolphins to 30+ points 26 times. Marino and Mahomes are the only two listed to top 20 games in their first 50 starts (this includes playoffs). Some of this is about league trends as scoring went up in the later stages of these careers (think Manning in Denver or Brees in the Michael Thomas-Alvin Kamara years), but you can see where the peaks and valleys are.

These are just team points, but Mahomes has plenty of other superlatives through 50 games that we could go on about. Sunday was his 24th game with at least three touchdown passes, the most in NFL history for a quarterback through 50 starts (including playoffs). Marino had 22 such games that early.

It can still be debated if Mahomes is the best 50-game stretch of quarterback play in NFL history, but there is no debate if this is the best 50-game start to any quarterback’s career.

Eagles at Cardinals: The Jalen Hurts Era Is for Real

Carson Wentz may understandably not like it, but the rest of us are better with the Eagles moving forward with Jalen Hurts as their starting quarterback. Hurts impressed again in a fun 33-26 shootout with Kyler Murray in Arizona. Sure, the Eagles lost after playing in their 23rd straight game that was within one score in the fourth quarter, but Hurts showed so much poise and promise for a rookie.

Hurts passed for 338 yards, three touchdowns and rushed for 63 yards and another score. That 401 yards of total offense in Hurts’ second start is more than Wentz ever had in 69 career starts. Had Dallas Goedert been able to pull in a dagger of a throw from Hurts in the end zone late to tie the game, Hurts may have finished with over 365 passing yards, which also would top Wentz’s career high.

Look, I have said these things well before Hurts was drafted. Doug Pederson’s offense works best when his quarterback is NOT Carson Wentz. With Nick Foles, the Eagles could actually win high-scoring games, beat good teams, win without much rushing support, and come through in the clutch. Hurts still has plenty of room to grow but he is only a second-round pick with three games of relevance under his belt.

The fact that this was such an exciting game between two young, mobile quarterbacks who could run and throw is a great sign for the future of the NFC. Let Wentz go do his thing in Indianapolis where he thinks Frank Reich is the answer to all his problems.

The Eagles are in a better place now, and likely would still be in position to win this terrible division had Wentz been benched sooner. You can talk about heart and leadership if you want, but there’s just something about Wentz where things don’t all click with this coach and team when he’s the quarterback.

Bucs at Falcons: The Most Predictable 17-Point Comeback in NFL History

You could say Tom Brady holds a psychological edge on the Falcons after 28-3, but it could just be as simple as the Falcons are a joke of a franchise and blowing leads is what they do best. We have already seen it this year with the losses against Dallas, Chicago, and Detroit.

In fact, I even wrote in my preview for this one that Atlanta would blow a double-digit lead to the Bucs. Not even at 24-7 in the third quarter did this feel in doubt. Sure enough, the Atlanta offense folded while Tampa Bay scored on five straight drives. Antonio Brown made by far his biggest play for the team yet with a 46-yard game-winning touchdown catch with 6:19 left. Matt Ryan is still gunning for the only season of his career without a 4QC or GWD.

Tampa Bay scored 31 points in the second half. Something like that hasn’t happened in the NFL since… well, when the Falcons allowed 30 in the second half to the Cowboys this year.

Tampa Bay is now 4-3 when falling behind double digits this season. Doing that in half your games seems like a bad formula for the playoffs where you absolutely will not see a team as dumb as Atlanta. These slow starts are a problem, but the talent on this roster is still a lot to deal with as well. Don’t rule out Tampa lucking into a No. 2 seed with the way the other NFC teams are playing down the stretch. I still ultimately think the Saints will beat Carolina in Week 17 to secure the division if it’s not done on Christmas, but there is a chance here after this comeback for Tampa Bay to move up the standings.

In a crazy year, here is something that at least feels right: Falcons and Chargers lead the NFL with four blown leads in the fourth quarter or overtime.

Browns-Giants: What a Change from 2016

Sunday Night Football may not have been the most exciting game, a 20-6 win by Cleveland over the Giants, but consider where these teams were four years ago. The 0-11 Browns lost 27-13 to the offensively challenged Giants in a game with 17 punts and four turnovers. Gross.

Four years later, the Browns actually have a fun offense and won their 10th game last night. The Giants are still offensively challenged but did better than the 20-6 score shows. They just failed on too many fourth downs.

In fact, this is one of the most offensive-driven 20-6 games you’ll ever see in the NFL. This game only had 14 total possessions with five punts, no turnovers, and three stops on fourth down. The Browns scored 20 points (another Cody Parkey missed extra point) on their first five drives before staying understandably conservative with the big lead. The “Browns only scored 20” crowd seems to have overlooked just how few drives were in this game.

In the last three games, Baker Mayfield has thrown for over 900 yards with eight touchdowns and one interception. These were marquee games for the Browns too, including two in prime time and a big matchup in Tennessee. Winning two of these three games and only losing 47-42 to the Ravens is huge progress for this franchise. I’m not going to say the Browns have what it takes to go on a Super Bowl run this year, but this team has definitely improved and so has the quarterback. I’m not sure what more he should be doing in the last month to silence the critics, but I’m coming around on him with this recent performance.

It’s weird to talk about the Browns offense being worth a damn, but it’s 2020. All bets are off. Hell, even the Chicago Bears have scored at least 25 points in four straight games for the first time since 1995. If the Bears can do that, the Bills can win the division, then why not see Cleveland win 11 games and make the playoffs?

Patriots Done (For How Long?)

New England has been eliminated from the playoffs for the first time since the 2008 season after a 22-12 loss in Miami. The Dolphins will have a winning record this year while the Bills (11-3) have already won the AFC East for the first time since 1995. The Jets were also in position to get Trevor Lawrence, but you know what happened there.

It leaves the Patriots in a tricky position with quite arguably the worst long-term quarterback situation in the division depending what the Jets do. Cam Newton is not the answer but there is also not much of a roster here.

This last-gasp effort in Miami, a familiar losing venue for New England in December, showed some signs of life early that the Patriots could pull one out and stay alive another week. They were playing a Miami team missing its top wideouts and tight end. In classic bend-but-don’t-break fashion, the Patriots turned a 95-yard, 9:11 drive by the Dolphins into an interception after making Tua throw under pressure. Then Newton got away with a would-be 86-yard fumble return because the ball just grazed a Miami defender who was out of bounds. Instead of a turnover, the Patriots scored a field goal to lead 6-0. Miami finished off the half with a missed 52-yard field goal, because again, this is what the Patriots do.

But the second half was a different story. The Dolphins continued to put together long drives and finished them off this time while Newton and the limited offense couldn’t answer. Tua was credited with his second fourth-quarter comeback of the season and the defense shut things down with a fourth-down sack of Newton with 1:08 left.

It was the first time all season the Patriots blew a fourth-quarter lead, but this team was never in much of a position to do any damage in 2020 between the loss of Brady, the COVID opt-outs, the losses on defense, Julian Edelman’s surgery, and just general roster flaws like not having a tight end.

It would actually be a lot more enjoyable to see this team struggle if only they were recognizable as the Patriots, but they never really were such a team this season. Now they’re just another team, and it’s only fitting that the Bills and Dolphins have gotten some decisive licks in on them.

Can the Jets do it too? They almost beat them last time in a 30-27 game, and this may be one where Belichick decides to just let the Jets win to make sure Trevor Lawrence doesn’t find his way to the Jets after all.

I mean, there’s always a plan with Belichick. Just not much of one this year as far as a contender goes.

Cruel Close Game Regression: Texas Edition

My goodness, I know I said Houston could be in trouble in close games this year after Deshaun Watson led five game-winning drives in both 2018 and 2019, but this is ridiculous. For the second time this season, Watson had the Texans knocking on the door of a tying or go-ahead touchdown against the Colts. Last time it was a bad snap that led to a game-ending fumble in a 26-20 loss.

This time, down 27-20, Watson converted a 4th-and-5, but Keke Coutee went from looking like he was about to score to fumbling the ball into the end zone where the Colts recovered with 19 seconds left to end the game. Watson had some huge numbers again with 373 yards, but his teammates found another way to blow a game even without Bill O’Brien involved.

Houston is now 0-5 at 4QC/GWD opportunities this season.

Meanwhile in Dallas, the Cowboys had a minor upset of the 49ers in a 41-33 final that was filled with big plays and turnovers. Nick Mullens had three turnovers himself, including an interception that set up Andy Dalton for the lamest game-winning drive of the year: three incomplete passes and a 46-yard field goal by Greg Zuerlein.

In a game that would never end, the final 43 seconds saw a field goal, an onside kick returned for a touchdown, and a meaningless Hail Mary touchdown with no time left. Well, not entirely meaningless. Someone (not me) won or lost money on that bullshit.

So we will have a new NFC champion with San Francisco eliminated after an injury-ravaged, disappointing season. The 49ers are now 1-4 at 4QC/GWD opportunities this season, which has always been a problem during the Kyle Shanahan era in San Francisco outside of some Jimmy Garoppolo starts.

But last year with a healthy Garoppolo, the 49ers were 4-2 at GWD opportunities and only blew one fourth-quarter lead in the regular season. However, we know this team was struggling late in the year with that against Atlanta (lost), New Orleans (offense had to bail them out), and the Seattle game in Week 17 came down to the final stop at the 1-yard line. Then we of course know what happened with a 20-10 lead in the fourth quarter against the Chiefs in Super Bowl LIV. Stung by the Wasp.

The 49ers started this season with blown leads to the Cardinals and Eagles before the injuries and a tough schedule just seemed to be too much for this team to overcome. Will 2019 be a one-year wonder in the NFC again? We’ll need to see next year to verify, but it’s not a bad bet to say it was.

That is why every opportunity in this league must be taken seriously. You never know if things will come together at the right time again. You know, like when you’re going to finish 0-16 and draft a generational talent quarterback, but oh fuck, that’s enough about the Jets and Rams.

On to Week 16.

NFL Week 15 Predictions: Mahomes vs. Brees (Finally)

With two games on Saturday, I’m a day early with the preview for Week 15. You can read my look at how Aaron Rodgers got his groove back this year for CAR-GB, how I’ve given up on picking the Jets to cover, how Colt McCoy is 0-18 when his team allows 20+ points for CLE-NYG, and how I still expect the Falcons to blow a double-digit lead against Tampa Bay despite Matt Ryan having arguably his worst season yet.

Otherwise, all attention should be on the potential Game of the Year this regular season when the Chiefs face the Saints in the Superdome. It’s not everything it could have been, but at least we’ll get to see Patrick Mahomes and Drew Brees square off in an important game for both seeds in pursuit of the No. 1 seed. I wanted to see this as the Super Bowl for the last two seasons, but we’re getting it at least once this season.

Game of the Year: Chiefs at Saints (+3)

It’s amazing how fast fractured ribs can heal after your team loses to Philadelphia and loses control of the No. 1 seed. While the Saints did not plan to rush back Drew Brees, it is obvious that they need him to go far this season, and they certainly need him in a game like this one against the high-scoring Chiefs. This is nothing like playing Atlanta or a Denver team without a quarterback like the teams the Saints beat with Taysom Hill.

Despite the three interceptions in Miami last week, Patrick Mahomes still had the fourth-highest yards per attempt (11.56) in a game in his career in last week’s win. He doesn’t have bad games, but it’s inevitably going to come some day. If you were brewing up a perfect storm for it to happen, you would start with a strong opponent that has played well defensively this year like the Saints have, including an offense that can score and put pressure on Mahomes to match.

Then you have to look at the injury situation on the offensive line where both starting tackles are in question for the Chiefs. Left tackle Eric Fisher at least practiced Friday, so that sounds optimistic. But right tackle Mike Remmers is a bigger question mark and he’s already the backup to Mitchell Schwartz (IR). So we’re talking potentially about a third option (at best) to start at right tackle. Singular injuries on the line are really no big deal. You just go next man up and deal with it. If you think your quarterback can’t handle one lineman being out, then he’s probably not a franchise QB. However, when you start relying on the backup to the backup and potentially are missing both tackles, then that’s cause for concern. The Chiefs will hopefully get Fisher in this game and Andy Reid and Mahomes will just have to make due at RT.

The Saints are dealing with their own injuries to dampen the hype and potential of this matchup. It has been ridiculously hard for the Saints to put Brees and leading receiver Michael Thomas together on the field this year. Brees returns, but Thomas will reportedly be out of action again with another injury. That means the offense reverts to where it was earlier in the season with Alvin Kamara having to carry the load as a dual threat and dynamic YAC receiver. The Chiefs have allowed the third-most receiving yards (623) to running backs this year, but I feel like that’s not going to be enough for the Saints to outscore the Chiefs.

To beat the Chiefs you have to either have a dominant ground attack that shrinks the game, which is not something the Saints do that well, especially with Brees at QB instead of the run-heavy Taysom Hill. Or you have to hit big plays like the Raiders did in the only Kansas City loss over the last 22 games. Derek Carr had a career day hitting the deep ball, and while Thomas isn’t a big loss in that department for the Saints, the deep ball is not a big part of what they do these days. Still, this will have to be a big game for tight end Jared Cook. Also, when the Panthers pushed the Chiefs 33-31 this year, they had some really aggressive plays on fourth downs and a fake punt to stay close in that game. You have to make some really great plays to score enough on this Kansas City defense. I’m not sure Brees dinking and dunking behind the sticks is going to lead to an explosive enough 30+ point day.

I like the Chiefs in this matchup. I don’t think you’ll see the multiple picks from last week that came on two tipped balls and a one-handed catch by the league’s INT lead (Xavien Howard). I think the Chiefs will clean that up. But also, seemingly no matter how well the offense plays, the Chiefs still seem to find every game come down to the four-minute offense with Mahomes having to bail them out by running clock and adding to the lead. Some week it’s not going to work out and it’s going to be all on the defense to stop a game-winning drive for the opponent. Brees can certainly deliver that drive, but we’ll just have to see if he gets the chance or not.

The Chiefs can improve to 5-0 on the road against teams with a winning record this year. They’ve already won in Baltimore (8-5), Buffalo (10-3), Tampa Bay (8-5), and Miami (8-5). That is very impressive. The Saints, along with the Green Bay team they’re chasing for the NFC’s top seed, have played a league-low three teams currently with a winning record, including a game against each other. The Saints’ crowning achievement this year has been sweeping Tampa Bay in impressive fashion. Otherwise we’ve seen this team winning a lot of one-score games against teams with 4-6 wins right now, or blowing out a Denver team without a quarterback.

That’s not to say the Chiefs are blowing teams out weekly. Their last five wins have been by a combined 21 points. But they are battle tested, have the best player, and deserve to be favorites in this one. We’ll just have to see if this is the only time Mahomes and Brees match up in the NFL.

Final: Chiefs 27, Saints 23

NFL Week 15 Predictions

Sometimes you wonder if the NFL is fixed. I only needed a Nelson Agholor touchdown in overtime last night for a nice win, which would have covered the 3.5 spread for Las Vegas too. Of course, the Raiders came out on third-and-goal at the 5 with three tight ends and threw a hopeless pass into the flat at a fullback. WTF was that? Raiders settled for a field goal, Chargers won on a TD. Not to mention this came after Jon Gruden bypassed a Hail Mary for a 65-yard field goal to win the game that never even had a chance to be kicked.

Betting on football is insane, but let’s do it again Saturday, Sunday, and Monday.

The Steelers really need their heads examined if they can’t beat the Bengals. I’m not crazy about the spread here, but I’m more confident the Steelers can win 24-10 in Cincinnati than I am in being able to pick Zac Taylor out of a lineup.

NFL Stat Oddity: Week 14

Do you like dramatic endings to NFL games? You’re here, so of course you do. While there is one game (Ravens-Browns) remaining in Week 14, this was hands down the least dramatic week of NFL action in the last decade.

Since I have been documenting this stuff on a weekly basis, I have never seen a week like this before. We had four games with a game-winning drive opportunity, tying Week 9 of 2014 for the lowest total since 2011. I didn’t even say comeback opportunity because the Falcons-Chargers game, seemingly a ripe one for lead changes, technically never had a 4QC opportunity since the score only changed on the final play of the game after it was tied at 17 all quarter. That was the only game-winning drive of Week 14.

Chiefs-Dolphins was the only 10+ point comeback win this week, snapping a streak of multiple double-digit comeback wins every week this season. There were five games where the losing team failed to score more than seven points (most since Week 17 in 2018).

Some special thank you notes for this boring week of action:

Thanks for nothing, Cam Newton, with your horrible pick-six that ruined any chance of TNF being good.

Thanks for not being able to field any of your top four wideouts, Houston, so now Deshaun Watson will hold a 36-7 loss in likely his only meeting with Mitchell Trubisky as a member of the Bears.

Thanks for not finding a better backup quarterback, Cincinnati, so that the Andy Dalton Revenge Game could be such a dud. Dallas finally won a game without scoring 31 points for the first time since the 2018 playoffs. The Cowboys still scored 30 though.

Thanks to the Jaguars (31-10 vs. Titans) and Jets (40-3 at Seahawks) for being your miserable selves.

Thanks to the referees for never giving Detroit any charity calls against the Green Bay Packers, unlike the numerous charity calls of DPI that Tom Brady gets this year and twice on Sunday.

Thanks to Dan Bailey for missing three field goals and an extra point, you Minnesota Masterclass of Muck.

But I guess I deserve everything I get for betting on both New York teams, neither of which even cracked 200 yards of offense on Sunday.

While it may have been lacking in drama, Week 14 was quite impactful on the season. The No. 1 seed changed hands in both conferences with the Chiefs and Packers moving ahead of the Steelers and Saints in moves that may stick through the rest of the season.

We need Drew Brees back next week for the showdown with the Chiefs. We need some drama again. But if you love one-handed interceptions by defenders, then Week 14 was incredible for that.

Previous weeks in Stat Oddity:

Steelers Flop Again in Buffalo

For evidence of how anticlimactic this week was, the Game of the Week on Sunday Night Football was decided after the Bills ran out the final 7:11 on the clock in their 26-15 win. The only people seemingly less interested in this final drive than Mike Tirico and Cris Collinsworth were Mike Tomlin and the Steelers, as the coach did not even use all three of his timeouts to try to get the ball back.

If this was the game to determine the main challenger to the Chiefs in the AFC, then Kansas City has little to worry about. If the Chiefs play their A game, neither one of these teams is beating them, especially not the Steelers right now.

During the first half, I remarked that this felt like a game Pittsburgh, a 2-point underdog, was going to win as long as Ben Roethlisberger did not give up some turnovers. In a first half puntfest on a cold night, the Pittsburgh pass rush was rattling Josh Allen as sacks and turnovers started to pile up for Buffalo, leading to the Steelers going up 7-0 after a short field.

Then the game took a turn. Allen remembered that Stefon Diggs had a huge advantage without cornerback Joe Haden (concussion) available and started to get him the ball. Buffalo scored and then quickly scored again after Roethlisberger floated a short pass that was returned 51 yards for a touchdown. The Buffalo defense seemed to know exactly what was coming and was just waiting for the throw.

Still, with two timeouts and 52 seconds left, you’d expect the Steelers to try to answer before halftime, trailing 9-7 now. Buffalo was getting the ball to start the second half too. But Pittsburgh seemingly raised a white flag, handing the ball off before waiting to throw another short pass and letting the clock expire. That was odd.

Much like on Monday against Washington, Pittsburgh’s defense went from having a great half to not being able to stop a thing afterwards. In fact, Pittsburgh’s only defensive stop in the second half was keyed by the Bills trying an ill-fated end-around run to Diggs that brought up a 3rd-and-6. Diggs was unstoppable as a receiver with 10 catches for 130 yards and a touchdown in the third quarter.

In between Buffalo’s two third-quarter touchdowns, Roethlisberger saw his no-sack streak end as the Bills finally got to him for a three-and-out. Cue an Ebron drop on third down to end the next drive before Roethlisberger finally engineered his best drive of the night, going 81 yards for a touchdown and two-point conversion to cut the 23-7 deficit in half to 23-15 with 12:18 to play.

But instead of the defense getting the ball back in a one-possession game, the Steelers faltered again and gave up a 35-yard pass interference penalty on third down in the end zone. That fortunately only led to a field goal after the Bills botched their goal-to-go offense, but the Bills led 26-15 now. Facing a 3rd-and-4, Roethlisberger badly underthrew a deep ball to James Washington that was intercepted with 7:11 left. Again, this is a spot where something shorter would have actually made sense, but he continued his all-or-nothing approach with the bomb.

From there, the Bills picked up four first downs and never even had to give the ball back. After nine possessions in the first half, the Steelers saw the ball just four times in the second half.

Much has been made of Pittsburgh playing three games in 12 days, but does that mean all the games have to look like a team suffering from the exact same problems?

They started the game with a dropped screen pass by Diontae Johnson, who had another non-contact drop and saw the bench for a while after that. Ebron had another big drop as well. The running game saw center Maurkice Pouncey and back James Conner return, but it was still terrible with 17 carries for 47 yards (2.7 YPC). Pittsburgh couldn’t create any play longer than 20 yards and scored fewer than 20 points for the third game in a row with a season-low 15 points.

Sadly, the problems have been there since 2019 started. The season opener, a 33-3 loss in New England, was the last time the Steelers played on SNF with Roethlisberger at quarterback. On that night, the Steelers seemed to have no plan on how to run their offense without Antonio Brown. Roethlisberger was throwing a ton of short, quick passes with Donte Moncrief, a free-agent signing, dropped several big passes. Pittsburgh also finished the game with 32 rushing yards. Sound familiar? Little did we know the Patriots would have such a historic first half of the season on defense, but that game was the first sign that things may be problematic with an offensive coordinator (Randy Fichtner) unable to adjust to the changes in talent on the unit.

Now you go to this year with Roethlisberger back from elbow surgery, and the Steelers drafted a talented receiver in Chase Claypool. However, this is still a young offense and receiving corps with talent, but not much experience or proof of consistent play. Pittsburgh got to 10-0 with Roethlisberger making this short-passing game work well thanks to playing strong situational football (red zones, third downs). And yes, the schedule helped too. Beating up on the Eagles, Bengals and Jaguars is different than an improved Washington defense or a Buffalo team that is really coming around on that side of the ball again. If Baltimore exposed anything in that Wednesday afternoon game, then Washington and Buffalo have found it easy to cheat from that tape with the Steelers not changing the answers.

The colder weather can certainly be contributing to the drops too, but this offense has been trending to dangerously one-dimensional since November started. Pittsburgh has failed to rush for 50 yards in five of their last seven games, a new franchise record. We know their usage level of play-action passing is almost criminal in this era.

The last three games are proof that you cannot expect to function as an offense in this league if all you can do is get in shotgun and throw short, quick passes with no play-action, no running game to speak of, and the most drops in the league.

The other contrast in this game was the athletic ability of a 38-year-old Roethlisberger and a young Allen. Obviously, Allen has the bigger arm and is more mobile. That likely made Roethlisberger look worse than he would in a normal week, but he did not look capable of throwing downfield well in this game outside of his bullet for a 19-yard touchdown to James Washington.

So why is this offense so broken looking the last three weeks? When you mix in the cold weather with the improved defensive opponents, and consider the three games in 12 days, it may also just be the fact that it is too much on an old quarterback who is leading the league now with over 500 pass attempts.

If the Steelers look this bad again on offense in Cincinnati next Monday night, then you can count on this team to flop in the first playoff game. But even when they play the Colts in Week 16, that could be a brutal home loss if this team continues to play the way it has the last couple of games.

Again, these offensive issues, both systematic and philosophical, have existed since 2019 started. Those issues likely are not going away this year. It’s just starting to look worse because the quarterback is wearing down.

He may not be ready to hang it up, but at least twice on Sunday night, the Steelers looked content to throw in the towel on this terrible game. Meanwhile, the Bills finally have their key AFC win before the playoffs start. Pittsburgh still has a great shot at the No. 2 seed, but that no longer means what it used to without a bye.

I Fvcking Love Patrick Mahomes Chapter 49: Week 14 at Dolphins

The 49th game of Patrick Mahomes’ career – first against Miami — was certainly an adventure. The first quarter was likely the worst quarter of his NFL career. He threw an interception inside the Miami 30 on a slow-developing screen pass that was tipped. Two plays after nearly losing a fumble, Mahomes tried to outrun a defender on third down before backtracking so far, he lost 30 yards on a sack, a historic feat you don’t want to put your name in the record books for. On his third drive, Mahomes was too high on a pass that was tipped by his receiver for a second interception, only the fifth multi-interception game of his career.

However, as I tweeted during the game, I felt pretty confident he could overcome fluky plays like tipped interceptions as there were receivers very open against this highly-ranked Miami defense.

Sure enough, Mahomes rebounded in a big way despite Miami taking a 10-0 lead. Mahomes completed 24 passes for 393 yards with two touchdowns. That is 16.4 yards per completion, or higher than any game in Mahomes’ career where he completed more than 15 passes.

Rather good when you can turn a personal worst quarter into a huge game. This game is also a reminder of just how annoying and noisy interceptions can be. Mahomes threw a third pick in the fourth quarter while the Chiefs were up 30-10. Xavien Howard made an incredible one-handed interception to save a touchdown. Meanwhile, the Chiefs had a shot at an easier interception thrown by Tua on the ensuing drive, but it still came down to the receiver for a touchdown to keep the game alive for Miami.

How did Miami fare with my tips for beating the Chiefs? Only scoring 10 points through three quarters is a huge no-no, as is giving up a punt return score and a safety. However, they were able to recover the obligatory fumble (a bad one by Mecole Hardman) and get some third-down sacks. But trying to come back from 20 down in the fourth quarter is a terrible idea against anyone, and Mahomes was able to get points in the four-minute offense once again.

Since 2019, the Chiefs are an incredible 8-1 with Mahomes when they trail by 10+ points in a game, only losing to the Raiders this year. That Las Vegas loss is also the only thing preventing the Chiefs from being on a 22-game winning streak, which would be the new record.

We are witnessing one of the best title defenses in recent history, and with Pittsburgh’s loss on Sunday night, the Chiefs have a clear shot at the No. 1 seed now. However, when does being a pass-happy team that gets into so many close games catch up to the Chiefs? Mahomes just broke the record for most passing yards over a six-game stretch in NFL history (2,309).

Despite all the yards and points, the Chiefs still seem to find every game come down to a one-score margin in the final four minutes with Mahomes in possession of the ball, like he was on Sunday again. This time, the key play was a 4th-and-1 conversion to Tyreek Hill for 22 yards, but Hill got very greedy in his attempt to score when all he had to do was go down and the game was over with Miami out of timeouts. That was a horrible mistake that could have cost the Chiefs. Instead of taking three kneeldowns, three plays with zero risk, the Chiefs ended up having to kick a 46-yard field goal, kickoff, defend five plays on defense, a field goal by Miami, and then finally recover an onside kick to secure the win.

That’s the risk Hill’s selfish move brought to the team in what should have been a simple 30-24 finish instead of 33-27. Maybe next time Harrison Butker isn’t good on the field goal with 1:08 left, opening the door for the defense to lose on a last-second touchdown again.

So, with four turnovers and that clock gaffe by Hill, this was another game where the Chiefs made things a lot more interesting than they needed to be. Maybe no one is good enough to make them pay for it in the end, but we’ll see how the Chiefs fare in New Orleans as they look for their sixth road win over a team with a winning record this season. The NFL record for such wins in a season is four, so that could be another record for Mahomes and the Chiefs depending on how the Buccaneers, Ravens, Raiders, and Dolphins finish this season.

Carson Wentz: If I Could Start Again, a Million Miles Away…

Does Doug Pederson have another late-season playoff push in him with a quarterback not named Carson Wentz? Jalen Hurts made his first start and the Eagles just so happened to knock off the 10-2 Saints with a 24-21 victory.

The Eagles even would have led 20-0 at halftime if not for missing a 22-yard field goal. I’m not going to pretend Hurts was the best thing since Mahomes arrived, but I’m also pretty confident in saying this game is not a Philadelphia win if Wentz started.

Hurts took zero sacks in this game despite throwing 30 passes and rushing 18 times (includes three knees). Wentz has one game this season (Rams) where he didn’t take a sack. He took at least three sacks in every other game and often a lot more than that. The Eagles scored 24 points after not topping 17 points in any of their four games since the bye week. This was also against a New Orleans defense that had been playing great football.

Hurts rushed for 106 yards and looks like he can be very effective as a runner (design and especially scrambles) in this league. He is simply faster and more elusive than Wentz ever will be. The passing can develop of course, but it was nice to see a 15-yard touchdown pass to Alshon Jeffery.

Miles Sanders also chipped in an 82-yard run on his way to 115 yards. The Saints hadn’t allowed a 100-yard rusher in 56 games, but allowed two Eagles to do it in this game. I just do not see that happening if Wentz was still the quarterback. If Pederson wanted to see a spark by making the quarterback move, he definitely got it on Sunday with this huge win to put the Eagles back in contention for that division at 4-8-1.

As I wrote earlier this week, the Saints were 8-0 without Drew Brees thanks mostly to the defense. But there were problems with Taysom Hill and sacks that you just don’t worry about with Brees in the game. Hill took five sacks in this game, or something Brees has done once in the last five seasons. The most costly one came in the fourth quarter with the Saints down 17-14 and facing a fourth-and-2. Hill took a sack and lost a fumble. The Eagles turned that into a 53-yard touchdown drive and 24-14 lead. Hill then took two more sacks, leading to a 57-yard field goal that was missed with 1:55 left.

Hill was not overall poor in this game, but there are just some inexperience flaws in his game that cost him against a defense that is better than given credit for this season. The Saints will have to get Brees back to have any legitimate shot at knocking off the Chiefs on Sunday.

But all of a sudden, the Eagles look interesting again with games left against the Cardinals, Cowboys, and Football Team. The Eagles no longer control their own fate, but it would be nice if Week 17 against Washington was for the division title.

The Falcons Out-Falcon the Chargers

This game might have mattered if these teams weren’t exactly who we thought they are: epic chokers. Incredibly, there was only a single score in the fourth quarter as the game was tied at 17.

Sure, there were three interceptions thrown in the last four minutes alone (two by Matt Ryan), but this was surprisingly a tame ending given the standards these teams have set for how to lose games.

Rookie Justin Herbert’s interception with 47 seconds left sure seemed like it would be a dagger to his team and leave him with one of the saddest stat lines in NFL history. At this point, Herbert was 33-of-40 for 195 yards. He would have been the first QB in NFL history to finish with fewer than 200 passing yards on at least 32 completions.

Fortunately, Ryan was picked three plays later and Herbert delivered two of his longest completions of the day, including a 25-yard pass to set up a 43-yard game-winning field goal with no time left. Surprisingly, there were no surprise penalties, icings of the kicker, or anything goofy on the play. It was just a simple kick and the Chargers made it to win the game 20-17.

Herbert finally has a game-winning drive, and he finished with 243 yards on 36 completions, avoiding the Chris Weinke benchmark of 223 yards.

This game actually would have been easier to explain if he did break the Weinke record. It’s the Chargers. It’s the Falcons. This is what they do. We’ll do this again in 2024.