With three overtime games on Sunday, the NFL had 21 overtime games this season, tied with 1995 and 2015 for the fourth most in NFL history. With so many walk-off scores in those games – Detroit-Pittsburgh tie aside – it beefed up the total for a stat that NFL media adopted this year that became a pet peeve of mine.
Between that stat and the lack of dominant teams quickly locking up playoff spots, it gave the impression that the 2021 NFL season was historically competitive and games were closer than ever.
Having studied this stuff for a living, I can say that this was not the case. There were 136 games that saw at least one team have a fourth-quarter comeback or game-winning drive opportunity, which is a possession by the team tied or down 1-to-8 points in the fourth quarter or overtime. While a lower number, that is in line with recent years: 143 in 2020, 142 in 2019, 147 in 2018, and 139 in 2017.
But this season introduced a 17th game for the first time, so we had 272 games instead of the usual 256. So, when it’s 136 out of 272, that means exactly half of the games this season had a comeback opportunity. That rate is usually in the 55-60% range.
We also had 48 games in 2021 where a team was favored by at least 10 points. Only the 2009 season (62) has had more games with a double-digit favorite out of all the seasons since the salary cap in 1994.
The spread is about expectations. What about results? There were 137 wins by double digits this season, second to only the 2014 season (141). The 78 wins by 17-plus points are the most since 2014 had the same amount. There were 62 wins by 1-3 points, but that’s a number that was hit five other times since 2001.
This season had 35 comeback wins from a double-digit deficit at any point in the game. That is more in line with the totals from 2019 (33) and 2018 (34) than 2020’s outlier of 43 such wins.
The 2021 season featured 63 fourth-quarter comeback (4QC) wins and 81 game-winning drives (GWD). In 2020, those numbers were 58 4QC wins and 76 GWD. Through Week 17 this year, there were 58 4QC wins, which tied the numbers for 2019 and 2020 (including playoffs those years).
In the game Ben Roethlisberger missed with COVID, Mason Rudolph got credit for a 4QC tie against the Lions. There were also two games won with a non-offensive score. The Patriots came back to beat the Chargers (of course) after a Justin Herbert pick-six. Then on Saturday, the Chiefs came back to beat the Broncos with a fumble return touchdown.
Success rate for 4QC attempts was 32.4%, or just about average. GWD success rate was in the usual ballpark of 37.7% (2020 was 35.0% and 2019 was 35.9%).
The following table shows a summary of each team’s success in close games this season. First, the offense’s record in games with a 4QC opportunity is shown. Next is the overall 4QC/GWD record, which also includes the games where the score was tied in the fourth quarter or overtime. For the defense, holds are games where the defense was successful in defending a one-score lead in the fourth quarter or overtime.
The number of games lost in which the team had a fourth-quarter lead is also shown. The last section shows the team’s overall record in close games, which are defined as games involving a 4QC/GWD opportunity on either side of the ball. Playoff teams are highlighted in gray. The table is in descending order of close game win percentage.
This information can be very useful for previewing the playoffs (which teams haven’t blown a lead and which struggle to hold them) or thinking about regression in 2022 for teams that won or lost a lot of close games.
Oddly enough, the last Sunday of the regular season saw the Rams lose their first close game of the year to the 49ers, and the Bills technically won their first “close game” of the year against the Jets. For starters, both teams are in these positions because of how one-sided their outcomes have been this season. The Rams didn’t have close losses before Sunday because they were too busy getting their ass kicked in the other losses this year. The Bills never had a close win because all of their wins this year have been by double digits and they couldn’t buy a win in an actual one-score game where they had to come from behind.
But even Sunday’s win over the Jets was a 27-10 final. However, the Jets had the ball down 13-10 to start the fourth quarter. That’s why the game qualifies. The Bills stopped them cold the rest of the way and added two touchdowns for good measure.
If you’re thinking about the postseason, it’s quite possible the Rams shit their pants in any game. They’ve already lost 37-20 at home to the Cardinals, their Monday night playoff opponent. That is not much of a home-field advantage in Los Angeles yet, and the Cardinals have played better on the road this year.
As for the Bills, I’d love to see them play another close game in Tennessee to see if they can avenge that MNF loss earlier this year. But it’s looking like we won’t see that matchup until the AFC Championship Game. Up first, the Bills get New England, the only other playoff team this year with a losing record in close games.
Miami, Atlanta, New Orleans, and even the Chargers all had winning records in close games despite still missing the playoffs. The Falcons and Chargers won more close games than they lost? Sounds like a miracle.
Last year, I spent a whole paragraph on Baltimore, which had only played a league-low five close games in both 2019 and 2020. Well, you can say (thanks to injury) regression hit, because the Ravens played an NFL-high 13 close games this year and went 6-7 in them on their way to missing the playoffs at 8-9. The six-game losing streak to end the year was a masterclass in losing (five) close games, but I don’t think people acknowledged enough how fortunate this team was to ever get to 8-3 in the first place. The Ravens needed a Clyde Edwards-Helaire fumble (first of his career) against the Chiefs in field goal range, a record 66-yard field goal (via bounce) in Detroit, and a missed 47-yard field goal by the Colts to get those three wins. Never mind Lamar Jackson beating the Browns despite throwing four picks. It was a wild season for the Ravens.
The Steelers, Chargers, and Vikings all played 12 close games as well, including two of the games against each other. Incredibly enough, the Chargers and Vikings were the only two close games the Steelers lost this year, producing a 9-2-1 record in such games. Ben Roethlisberger led some incredible comeback attempts in those games, including from 29-0 in Minnesota, before the Steelers came up short at the end. Yet, it took a close Chargers loss (and not a tie) in the final game of the season to send the Steelers to the playoffs while the Chargers missed out and the Vikings fired Mike Zimmer on Monday. Roethlisberger finished with a career-high six 4QC and seven GWD to lead the league and help the Steelers play at least one more game.
Arizona was the lone team to not blow a fourth quarter/overtime lead this season. In 2020, the Chiefs, Saints, and Titans were the only teams to not blow a lead, but they all had multiple losses this season. A third one by the Chiefs in Cincinnati in Week 16 helped the Titans get the No. 1 seed in the AFC. We’ll see how costly that might turn out to be.
We have a six-way tie for the most blown leads at four each by the Bears, Lions, Ravens, Colts, Vikings, and Browns. Naturally, they all missed the playoffs. The Colts especially had some daggers in there with the Ravens and Titans games. Carson Wentz was unable to lead a single game-winning drive or comeback for the Colts, but what did you expect?
With the Steelers winning so many close games, it is no surprise they led the league with seven defensive holds of a one-score lead. Sunday’s win in Baltimore does not count as one given the overtime drive, but the first Baltimore matchup was a classic example of a stop of a game-deciding two-point conversion play. T.J. Watt got just enough pressure on Lamar Jackson to force an errant pass to Mark Andrews. The Rams, Dolphins, and Chargers all had six holds.
Seattle was a team I cautioned about close-game regression with after the Seahawks were 16-4 in close games in 2019-20. Well, it hit hard in 2021. Seattle finished 3-7 in close games, 0-6 at 4QC opportunities, and 1-7 at GWD opportunities. The only GWD came Sunday in Arizona on a 10-yard touchdown drive early in the fourth quarter. The first Russell Wilson injury led way to the first losing season in the Wilson era, but these close-game failures obviously contributed too.
The Eagles (9-8) have had an odd playoff season. One year after playing the most close games (15) in the league, Philadelphia played in a league-low four close games and are 0-6 against playoff teams. One of their close wins was against Carolina, a game I’m still regretting on betting on Sam Darnold.
How are Matt Rhule’s Panthers so bad in close games? In 2020, the Panthers were 0-9 at GWD opportunities. Throw in 0-4 this year and that’s 0-13 under Rhule.
The Bills (0-5), Colts (0-5), and Texans (0-5) were also winless at GWDs, but the worst team this year was Cleveland at 0-7. Not every loss was Baker Mayfield’s fault, but he needs to start coming through as 2022 should be his last chance in Cleveland. Maybe with some better close-game fortune, health, and desperation to hold onto a job, Cleveland could be a sleeper playoff pick in 2022.
Let’s hope we get a legitimately close playoff game this year. Last season, there was not a single fourth-quarter lead change in any of the 13 playoff games. The only game-winning drive went to the LOAT in New Orleans. Throw in a sorry ass Super Bowl and it was the worst postseason I’ve ever experienced.
But if the season trends tell us anything, it’s to not expect a lot of close finishes.
I was right that Chiefs-Chargers set too high of a bar for a quality game in Week 15. But in terms of pure craziness? The weekend gave it its best shot. Who could have imagined we’d see Bill Belichick and Tom Brady both lose by two scores in prime time with Carson Wentz and Taysom Hill playing like quarterbacks from 1928?
But you kind of had to expect a wild Sunday in the NFL with so many games having a huge point spread. Maybe in other seasons this would have been dull, but not in 2021. We didn’t even get to the COVID-delayed games yet, but we’ve already seen the 1-11-1 Lions down the 10-3 Cardinals, and the Ravens gave Green Bay all it could handle with Tyler Huntley at quarterback.
At least we saw the post-Urban Jaguars still lose 30-16 despite being favored over a bad Houston team. Also, the Falcons lost 31-13 in San Francisco and scored three points on two drives where they hit 49-yard passes – very on brand for the red-zone rejects. The Dolphins have also followed up their seven-game losing streak with a six-game winning streak to get back to .500 by beating the Jets if anyone cares. No? I figured as much.
The Bills and Cowboys both had comfortable wins over the Panthers and Giants respectively in their hope to stay relevant as contenders this year. A Buffalo-Dallas Super Bowl would be on brand in this era of “let’s do everything from the 90s again.” If they can make another Matrix movie and reboot Sex and the City…
But while this season has been begging for something different to happen at the end, it’s still not far-fetched to think we see Aaron Rodgers repeat as MVP, and Championship Sunday is just another day of rematches (BUF-KC and TB-GB) setting up another Super Bowl rematch.
Oh, did you think last night invalidates Tampa Bay? Then you don’t understand how Brady’s luck works. I hope I’m completely wrong, but I think this week will just be a blip before a familiar ending in January and February. A little Christmas gift of joy that you’ll forget before Groundhog Day rears its ugly head.
Tom Brady has matched Joe Montana once again. Brady and Montana are the only two quarterbacks in the Super Bowl era to get shut out as a double-digit favorite. Montana did it in his second (and final) season with the Chiefs in 1994, a 16-0 loss to the Rams early in the season when Montana was favored to win by 14.5. Brady has been swept again by the Saints despite being an 11.5-point home favorite this time. Instead of winning the NFC South for the first time since 2007, the Buccaneers are left with a perplexing result and a long list of injuries.
Brady proved once again that he saves his best luck for the postseason as the Saints made him look bad with another multiple turnover game in the third shutout of his career. It’s the first Brady shutout since he lost 21-0 to a 2006 Miami team coached by Nick Saban and quarterbacked by Joey Harrington.
But this one was in prime time for all to see. Brady’s first pass of the night should have been intercepted by Marshon Lattimore, but the pass was dropped. I thought that would be a sign of things to come, but the Buccaneers punted. Then they punted again, and again, missed a field goal, punted three more times, and then Brady started really getting off his game with bad deep shots and a comical fumble after trying to scramble. Throw in a couple more punts and a late interception, and the Saints turned Tampa away on 13 drives for one of the most improbable shutouts in history.
According to NBC, it’s the first time since the merger that the team leading the NFL in scoring was shutout at home in December or January. Add that to the Brady record list.
Of course, there is going to be an outcry to the injuries Tampa Bay suffered in this game. They were unusually high profile and significant. Mike Evans, Chris Godwin, and Leonard Fournette did not finish the game. With Antonio Brown (suspension), Giovani Bernard (IR), and Breshad Perriman (COVID list) also inactive, the deepest set of skill players in the league took a big hit against a defense that has had its number the last two seasons.
But in terms of winning this game, I don’t want to hear about injuries when for more than three-quarters of the game, all Brady needed was a touchdown drive to take the lead. If this is your supposed GOAT and MVP, then how can he get shut out like this? Do you really need to walk on water to score one touchdown drive with Gronk, Ronald Jones, Scotty Miller, Tyler Johnson, Cameron Brate, O.J. Howard, and what’s supposed to be a top-tier offensive line? Not to mention that trio of Evans/Godwin/Fournette still combined for 23 touches and 130 yards from scrimmage. They were still shutout with them.
I don’t want to hear about one team’s injuries when the Saints were missing key offensive linemen (both tackles), haven’t had Michael Thomas all year, Deonte Harris is suspended, and there really isn’t a great playmaker outside of Kamara. Not to mention Jameis Winston tore his ACL in the last game against Tampa Bay or else this team could be dangerous right now. Still the No. 7 seed going into Monday regardless of all the injuries.
Oh yeah, the Saints did all this without their head coach.
Sean Payton gets credit for a win in a game he didn’t attend because of his COVID diagnosis. Maybe he helped with meetings during the week, but it’s still weird to me that a coach gets credit, win or loss, for games he didn’t actually coach. This also happens to be the biggest spread of Payton’s career as the Saints weren’t an underdog like this before his arrival after the Hurricane Katrina season (2005).
Maybe Payton’s absence is why the defense was so good (wink wink). But really, it was an incredible effort by Cameron Jordan and the guys to make up for an offense that did so little. The Saints had three offensive plays that gained 10+ yards all night and they were all Marquez Callaway receptions. I’ve never seen anything like that before. The Saints had 11 first downs and were 3-of-16 on third down. Alvin Kamara had 11 carries for 18 yards. Taysom Hill (13-of-27 for 154 yards) could barely throw with his injured finger and his talent level in general, and he only rushed for 33 yards this time.
Yet the Saints still won by two scores. The key this time? They didn’t turn the ball over once. Hill absolutely tried to, but the defense did not capitalize this time like they did four times in the playoff win in New Orleans, the worst game Drew Brees played in a Saints uniform. There was also that crucial Jared Cook fumble that we don’t talk enough about when the Saints were looking to go up two scores.
If it wasn’t for that game, this Tampa Bay team should be viewed as a big fraud that doesn’t step up in big games. Instead, they got to win a Super Bowl at home and can’t be counted out to repeat. Yes, not even after this 9-0 shocker.
Unfortunately, I’m not seeing this as a real season-changing game. Sure, it might take Tampa Bay out of the top seed and Brady out of an MVP he never deserved, but is there really a seeding that would be problematic for this team? The only way might be if the Saints use this to go on a run and claim the No. 7 seed and meet up with this team in Tampa again as a 7-2 matchup. The Saints definitely have Tampa’s number, but do you really see this playing out well for the third time this year? There’s no blueprint behind “play them like the Saints, hope for mass injuries, and hope all your key sacks/pressures come on third down.”
Especially when Antonio Brown will be back (even though Bruce Arians is a liar who said he’d cut him after one mistake). Evans, Godwin, and Fournette should be back for the playoffs. Still have Gronk, who only played six snaps in the first loss to the Saints. You know, all that actual value that makes Tampa so dangerous should be back when it matters most. The rest of the schedule is a cakewalk (Jets between Carolina twice) too, so it’s not like the Bucs need to rush their studs back to finish 13-4.
Meanwhile, the Saints could still easily miss the playoffs after going 4-0 against the Packers, Patriots, and Buccaneers. That’s what happens when you get owned by Sam Darnold/Panthers and Daniel Jones/Giants in such a weird season. But things certainly could have been different if Winston was not injured in the last Tampa Bay game. Then again, maybe Winston turns the ball over trying to stick it to his former team.
The Saints were able to sweep the Bucs again this year by having zero giveaways and five Brady takeaways in those two games. The role was reversed in the playoff game, which is why Tampa Bay won. I had to laugh at NBC’s Cris Collinsworth talking about Brady having answers for the Saints in that playoff game. He had two answers: drop my picks and let me start inside your 40 three times. The Saints obliged, and the rest is history.
Props to the Saints for playing hard and showing that they didn’t want their season to end Sunday night. I just wish I saw more season-changing ramifications from this game, other than me losing thousands in gambling wins (MVP race) while still seeing Brady and the Bucs in good shape to repeat.
But it was a nice early Christmas present to watch 9-0 take place.
Packers at Ravens: Go for Two Early (For a Change)
Who saw this being the big shootout of the day with the most dramatic ending? Well, I can take some credit for that one.
I liked Aaron Rodgers to have another big day with the injuries in the Baltimore secondary. Outside of the opening drive and the last two when he could have put the game away, he did not disappoint. But even with Lamar Jackson out, I thought the 9-point underdog Ravens had a shot to be very competitive. Most Baltimore games are close and this team has been scrapping since Week 1 with all the injuries. This also is the fourth game in a row where the Packers allowed at least 28 points.
Tyler Huntley likely made himself a lot of future money with his performance in his last three appearances. He’s certainly looked better than Jordan Love so far, and I’d gladly take him in Pittsburgh over Mason Rudolph. Huntley is not quite as elusive as Lamar, but he still rushed for 73 yards and two touchdowns, giving the Packers fits at times. Tight end Mark Andrews (136 yards and two touchdowns) also looked like prime Gronk, which does not bode well if that matchup comes up in the playoffs again.
But the Ravens had a couple of fourth-down failures that left them in a tough spot, down 31-17 in the fourth quarter. Nothing indefensible, but just bad execution. Still, the talk of the game again became John Harbaugh’s decision to go for a two-point conversion (2PC) when he did. This has come up in three straight games now for the Ravens, including the Pittsburgh loss when they went for the win with 12 seconds left and Lamar didn’t get the pass to Andrews. It also happened last week against Cleveland when, down 24-15, the Ravens failed to convert with 8:56 left.
Baltimore is now 2-for-8 on 2PC attempts this season, and the three-game losing streak here isn’t going to make fans happy. But what I couldn’t understand in this one is why Harbaugh did not go for two when the Ravens scored their first touchdown.
Not to get back into last week’s decision again, but I guess you can say I don’t agree with the general thrust of the analytics community when it comes to a lot of 2PC decisions. I think in many cases, they should be held off until you absolutely need one, and I do not want to make the choices in a game that are more likely to lead me to needing to recover an onside kick (or two). I highly value a 9-point lead and greatly fear a 9-point deficit, which seems to be no big deal for people who prefer going for two early. But that’s not me, and based on all my years of research on comeback attempts, I don’t think I’m going to change that view.
But one 2PC decision I am totally down with that analytics will support is to go for two on your first touchdown when you’re down 14 points. Make it a 6-point game and then you can win with a touchdown and extra point on your second touchdown. If you don’t get it, then it’s still an eight-point game and you can try it to tie on your second touchdown. It makes a ton of sense. For years, coaches play down 14 as a tying situation anyway. So by going for two on the first one, you might set yourself up for a win in regulation. I’m all for it in pretty much any situation unless I think my offense is total shit against this defense. But in that case, I’m probably not expecting to score two touchdowns in the fourth quarter anyway.
Harbaugh has to know this too as the Ravens are ahead of the curve on these things. Yet, the Ravens kicked the extra point on their first touchdown at 4:47 to make it a 31-24 game. They went for two with 42 seconds left in an attempt to take a 32-31 lead, and once again a pass to Andrews was incomplete. Green Bay recovered the onside kick and the game was over, putting more doubt into Baltimore’s playoff hopes.
I think Harbaugh going for two at 4:47 would have been his best 2PC decision this month. I think Harbaugh going for two at 0:42 was his worst 2PC decision this month. When he did it in Pittsburgh, there were only 12 seconds left, so that should have been enough to win the game with the Steelers not having a good deep passing game in a stadium that is difficult to get super long field goals. No 66-yard miracle is happening at Heinz Field like it did in Detroit for Justin Tucker this year. I liked that decision that day.
But 42 seconds when Rodgers still has a timeout left? That’s too much time as he has set these up multiple times before (ask the 49ers this year). I think under 20 seconds is the ideal spot of when it’s right to go for the win like that. When you do this to take a 1-point lead, you force the opponent to go balls out aggressive for the win. No throw is off limits. But if the game is tied with 42 seconds left, Rodgers is not in four-down territory. He’s got to be a little more careful with the ball as playing hero ball in that situation can make you look foolish. As someone who studied under Brett Favre, he knows better than most.
But the fact is in a tied game you are more likely to get a conservative approach from the opponent with 42 seconds left. Then when it comes to overtime, they may never see the ball a la the Chargers on Thursday against Kansas City if you take care of business with your offense. The clock is the main reason I liked the Pittsburgh 2PC call and did not like the Green Bay one on Sunday.
Baltimore (8-6) has managed to lose all of these games and will have to fight just to make the playoffs, let alone win the division. I could easily see a 8-7-1 Pittsburgh team going into Baltimore to take on a 9-7 Ravens team in the final game of the regular season. That might be the best game on the Week 18 schedule if things fall into place for it.
But the Ravens need to find a win in Cincinnati or against the Rams first. Maybe even a game that does not come down to us arguing about Harbaugh’s 2PC decision.
Titans at Steelers: Fumbled the Top Seed
Over 10 hours later, I’m still shocked the Steelers won this one. They trailed 13-3 at halftime and were outdone at every phase.
The offense couldn’t buy a third-down conversion or open a running lane for Najee Harris, and that really never improved after halftime either. The Steelers finished 2-of-11 on third down and Harris had 12 carries for 18 yards. Ben Roethlisberger’s touchdown pass streak ended at 27 games, and this is the first game in his career where Pittsburgh won despite not breaking 200 yards of offense (168). In fact, it’s only the second time during his career where they won like that as they had 127 yards in a 19-11 win over the 2010 Titans when he was suspended.
The defense could not stop the run again as D’Onta Foreman had 108 of the team’s 201 rushing yards. Imagine if Derrick Henry played, not to mention A.J. Brown or if Julio Jones didn’t leave again with his hamstring bothered. Devin Bush dropped a red-zone pick on Tennessee’s only offensive touchdown drive. Some of Ryan Tannehill’s best throws were dropped or fumbled by his receivers as the Steelers got solid pressure on him, but stopping the run is still a nightmare for this unit.
The special teams had terrible punts and coverage again. Chris Boswell even missed a 56-yard field goal before halftime on a cold day, but that kick never should have been that long. That happened because Mike Tomlin mismanaged the clock, not using his timeouts to save the offense a minute to respond to a 19-play drive by the Titans, who were getting the ball to start the third too. Roethlisberger only had 12 seconds at his own 22 to work with but still did a good job to put Boswell in position for an attempt.
It was another shitshow from a team that’s been getting clobbered in the first half for a month. So, what were the magic adjustments in the second half to spark the 19-13 comeback win? Simply put, the Titans kept turning the ball over. Pittsburgh’s defense made some good plays, but also caught some breaks with Tennessee’s lesser skill players putting the ball on the ground. They also got a tipped pick from Tannehill in the fourth quarter.
But even with the outstanding field position, Pittsburgh’s offense kept stalling. The Steelers started three straight drives at the Tennessee 41 or better after turnovers, and they gained two first downs and settled for three field goals. The last two field goal drives were technically three-and-out performances.
It was on the defense to make one more stop with Tannehill having 4:29 to drive for the go-ahead touchdown. This half, Tomlin had burned two of his timeouts foolishly, so it was looking like the Steelers might give up the go-ahead score with under 30 seconds left. But another critical sack changed things, and on fourth-and-7, Tannehill got into the business of throwing short of the sticks. Westbrook-Ikhine, who dropped a 40-yard bomb earlier in the game, was unable to gain the first down after a great tackle by corner Joe Haden, who returned in the nick of time for this one. It was absurd that the spot was so good for Tennessee when he clearly was never that close to converting, but replay got it sorted out and the Steelers held on for the much-needed win.
NFL teams who rush for 200 yards and hold their opponent under 200 net yards were 366-8-1 (.977) since the merger. But add a ninth loss to that stat for the Titans on Sunday. Losing the turnover battle 4-0 is the simplest way to lose a game like this.
What does it mean? The Titans (9-5) should be safe for the division, though they’ll need an upset of Kansas City to reclaim the top seed. As for Pittsburgh (7-6-1), I still think there’s nothing more on brand for Tomlin than to go 8-8-1, miss the playoffs due to a tie with Detroit, and keep up this “he’s never had a losing season!” thing. Lose in Kansas City, beat the Browns on MNF in Ben’s last home game, and have a hell of a finale in Baltimore in Week 18.
That’s really the best-case scenario at this point, and this goofy win makes it possible.
Cardinals at Lions: Broken Arizona
Matthew Stafford vs. 2021 Cardinals: 1-1. Jared Goff vs. 2021 Cardinals: 1-0. So, who really won that trade?
Jokes aside, this week was a f’n disaster for Arizona after losing to the Rams on Monday night, losing DeAndre Hopkins for possibly the season, and getting clobbered by the 1-11-1 Lions in Detroit. I liked Detroit +12.5, but my goodness, this was a wire-to-wire rout. Goff didn’t even have his best RB (Swift) or TE (Hockenson), yet he was 21-of-26 for 216 yards and three touchdowns while Kyler Murray struggled.
Kliff Kingsbury didn’t have a good day either. I thought he should have kicked the field goal on 4th-and-goal at the 3 while trailing 10-0 with 2:02 left. Get something on the board after a rough start, back to a one-score game, and use your timeouts to get the ball back. They went for it, failed, and the Lions drove 97 yards for a touchdown thanks to two roughing the passer penalties. Brutal.
The Cardinals had another shot to make it a game after getting a fumble in the third quarter, down 17-3. But Murray’s pass was jumped for a huge interception that set up a 6-yard touchdown drive to make it 24-3. It was boring from there as Detroit won 30-12. This is a team that had a 2-point win over Minnesota on the final play and a tie with the Steelers this year. They just blew out the former top seed in the NFC.
In fact, this is the first time the Lions beat a 10-win team by 18 points since a 27-9 win over Tampa Bay (10-6) in 1997. But that was early in the season when Tampa Bay was 5-1. The last time the Lions beat a team this bad that had 10 wins coming into the game? 38-6 over the 1991 Cowboys (12-5) in the NFC divisional round, the only Detroit playoff win since 1958.
Kneecaps were f’n devoured on this day by Dan Campbell’s boys.
Bengals at Broncos: Lock Down
A competitive, low-scoring game in Denver really turned in the fourth quarter when backup Drew Lock had the ball taken away from him on an ill-advised designed run that never had a chance. It was very close to being a play where the defender fumbled the ball back to the offense, but replay showed the defender was just down by contact after first getting the ball. That was still a contender for the wildest snap of the season, and it proved costly to the Broncos, who never got past midfield again in a 15-10 loss that buries them in the AFC playoff race.
This was the second week in a row where Zac Taylor’s Bengals were playing a team nearly as shitty as they are in close games. Last week, Kyle Shanahan’s 49ers came back to win in overtime. But this time, Vic Fangio dropped to 3-13 (.188) in 4QC opportunities as Denver’s coach with Lock in the game for the injured Teddy Bridgewater.
However, a mismanaged sequence before halftime also proved costly when the Broncos failed to call a run on 3rd-and-1 at the Cincinnati 33 with 17 seconds and one timeout left. Let’s be realistic. You’re not throwing a touchdown there with Bridgewater as your quarterback. This is all about the field goal and getting that first down with your offense that has been pushing the run with your duo of backs is the goal to close out this half. Run the ball, get the first, call your last timeout, then maybe you could try one throw at the end zone before sending out the kicker. Denver threw an incomplete pass, Brandon McManus missed the 51-yard field goal with nine seconds left, and Joe Burrow had enough time and a timeout to complete a 19-yard pass. That set up the Bengals for a 58-yard field goal that was good to take a 6-3 lead into the locker room.
Fangio does a lot of good things with the defense, but his teams lose a lot of these excruciatingly close, low-scoring games because of mismanaged situations like that and the red-zone play with Lock in the fourth quarter.
Next week: What? When does this week even end? There are two games on Monday and Tuesday, a Thursday night game, and two games on Saturday (Christmas). I suppose my main interest is to see if the Roethlisberger-era Steelers have one more crazy road upset left in them when they take on the Chiefs in Kansas City.
The NFL probably thought highly of its Week 14 schedule back in April, and I’m not just referring to the way they are forcing Bears-Packers in prime time on us for the 16th season in a row. We also get a usually overrated Cowboys-Washington game that might be decent this time, and Raiders-Chiefs probably won’t deliver the way the league hoped either.
The elephant in the room is the downward spiral the Buffalo Bills have been on, which makes that matchup with Tampa Bay look like not much of a Super Bowl preview. This was supposed to be akin to Kansas City’s 27-24 win in Tampa Bay last season in Week 12, but now I’m just wondering how many turnovers Josh Allen has and if I should bet Mike Evans or Gronk (or both) to score touchdowns on short fields. Bummer.
But maybe the Bills can surprise us in normal weather, unless a December hurricane sweeps into Tampa Bay. Nah, they’re probably safe. Only Bill Belichick — not the LOAT — has the power to control the weather.
Yet if the first game of Week 14 is any indication, maybe we are in store for some wild stuff.
It may not feel like it, but since the late-afternoon slate in Week 12, I’ve been on a 14-5 ATS and 15-4 SU run with my picks. The Steelers failed me on Thursday, but it’s a miracle after falling behind 29-0 in the third quarter that they were a Pat Freiermuth catch in the end zone away from likely covering and possibly forcing overtime to go win it.
It was one of the best 29-point comeback efforts in NFL history, and as you can see in this thread below, those are rare. Only the 1992 Bills pulled it off for a win against the Oilers in the playoffs. This would have been the second-largest comeback ever and the largest in a regular-season game.
It was also a historic game in that the Vikings won despite Kirk Cousins finishing with a 63.4 passer rating. In his career, Cousins was 0-29 when his passer rating was under 85.0 (min. 20 attempts), the worst record in NFL history. But he finally got carried by the ground game and a late defensive stop to win a game where he did not play that well.
So, Cousins breaks his 0-29 streak in a game where the Vikings nearly blew a 29-0 lead that he would have received a lot of blame for. Crazy stuff.
As for the games this week, I feel like I leaned on a lot of dogs to cover as a hedge just because I don’t trust anyone this season. With Jonathan Taylor on a bye week, the lock of the week may be Taysom Hill hitting his over in rushing yards on the Jets. It’s around 52.5 yards right now, but the guy can’t really throw and it’s the Jets. That one feels very safe to me.
What did I say Saturday about Jonathan Taylor scoring a touchdown being the safest bet in the NFL this season? I never imagined him scoring five in Buffalo, the first time anyone has scored five touchdowns on a defense that ranked No. 1 that week, but he delivered in a big way to shake up the AFC playoff picture again. The Bills have fallen to the No. 7 seed while the No. 3 Patriots are leading the AFC East behind a dominant defense, great special teams, and a young quarterback propped up by the media for his win-loss record.
While I am going to lay into Josh Allen below, I swear to f’n Christ the last reboot I want to see is the Patriots dynasty. Buffalo better figure this out ASAP.
But Indy’s Taylor not only should be the front-runner for Offensive Player of the Year, but I think we need to punish the inconsistent QB play this season and put him in the MVP conversation. It’s not like anyone has stepped up to earn it with consistently high-level play.
Did the close games return in Week 11? Not exactly. We had seven games with a comeback opportunity and a couple fake close games in the late afternoon, but at least there were three games with multiple fourth-quarter lead changes this week. Aaron Rodgers, Andy Dalton (!), and Ben Roethlisberger all registered a lost comeback after their go-ahead efforts were wasted on Sunday. But we really haven’t seen too many finishes like that this season regardless of the NFL trying to push “games decided on the final play” graphics on us.
I want to re-share one of my favorite bits of research from the offseason on the Justin Herbert-era Chargers:
We were so close to getting the first blown 17-point lead in the fourth quarter of the Brandon Staley era, but once again, this team has been different this year. Despite Pittsburgh scoring 27 points in the fourth quarter and taking a 37-34 lead, Herbert calmly responded with a game-winning drive, exploiting a blown coverage for a 53-yard touchdown pass to Mike Williams with 2:09 left. The defense responded immediately with back-to-back sacks of Ben Roethlisberger to set up a 4th-and-32 incompletion to clinch the 41-37 win.
The Chargers are tied with the Ravens for the most game-winning drives (five) this season, and no defense has more holds (five) of a one-score lead than Los Angeles. In fact, the only game the Chargers lost with a fourth-quarter lead this year was against the Patriots, and that was Herbert throwing a pick-six to turn a 17-16 lead into a 24-17 deficit.
This team is 6-4 and refreshingly different. Now on Sunday night, they got a break with Pittsburgh missing key defensive starters in T.J. Watt, Joe Haden, and Minkah Fitzpatrick. But Pittsburgh still had Cameron Heyward, who wasn’t going to allow the Chargers to score on every drive as they did through three quarters. With the help of a blocked punt and a tipped ball for an interception, the Steelers scored on some short fields to make this a tied game. Then they got a fourth-and-1 stop in Los Angeles territory to take over with 3:43 left.
That’s where I think Pittsburgh really blew the golden opportunity. That could have been a moment to run out the clock and win on a field goal, but the Steelers couldn’t even get a first down. Maybe the lack of push all night on the ground and the absence of Najee Harris (concussion protocol) at the time limited their options, but that drive was poorly run. That led to the Chargers going 75 yards in just three plays after Herbert became the first quarterback to ever pass for over 380 yards and rush for over 90 yards in the same game. The Steelers had 18 carries for 55 yards against the worst run defense in the league.
I thought Roethlisberger looked very good after missing time and practice with COVID. He made some of his best throws in the last few seasons in this game. That last drive falling apart so quickly was a disappointing finish to a wild game. The Steelers (5-4-1) should have better defensive days ahead, but with the tough schedule, it’s going to be hard to finish better than 8-8-1.
Offense had been a struggle for the Chargers in three of their last four games coming into this one. I think the defense still showed a lot of cracks, but if Herbert can play at this level in the big games more often, then this team can hang with anyone this year.
It’s not like any team is running away with things this season.
Cowboys at Chiefs: The Shootout That Wasn’t
Thanks to the Steelers and Chargers for delivering the game we were supposed to get from the Chiefs and Cowboys. Both teams have had their offensive hiccups in the last month, but they were both red hot in Week 10. I can’t get behind the injury excuse for Dallas when we’ve seen this offense soar without Tyron Smith in the past and on days where Amari Cooper (COVID) was especially quiet. CeeDee Lamb played the whole first half on Sunday before leaving injured and was just ineffective as the whole Dallas offense was off.
While the Chiefs looked great in scoring on their first three drives, they too hit a funk in this surprising 19-9 final. There were two more turnovers for Patrick Mahomes, who again got hit with an interception on a pass that Travis Kelce should have caught. Kansas City only managed a field goal on its last eight drives, but that was enough to hang on for the win as the defense stepped up once again.
Prescott was just off and spent much of the game under 4.0 YPA. He finished with 216 yards on 43 passes but also took five sacks as the line was no match for an energized pass rush by the Chiefs. Chris Jones more than doubled his season sack total with 3.5 on the day.
It wasn’t the resounding “they’re fully back” performance the Chiefs may have hoped for, but it’s scary when you give Mahomes a defense. He is 38-1 when the Chiefs allow fewer than 27 points. The last time they played a stretch of football this ugly, it was 2019 and they were about to go on a Super Bowl run. They still have to avoid those bad-luck turnovers, but the defense has absolutely turned things around and getting to the bye with a 7-4 record against this schedule is an achievement.
As for Dallas, I think you have to be worried this is a typical Mike McCarthy team. Pass-happy offense and turnover-reliant defense. They’ll be ready for most of the scrubs on the schedule, but put them up against a good opponent, especially on the road, and they won’t look prepared or adaptable. That may work for a wild card win over a lesser foe, but go on the road against Green Bay, Tampa Bay, or Arizona, and I don’t see it working out for them this year.
Colts at Bills: Maybe Josh Allen Is Carson Wentz 2.0
The episode of What If…? that Marvel didn’t show you:
From the archives:
I still believe Carson Wentz’s success in 2017, which proved to be the outlier to his career, had people looking much harder than they normally would have at a raw Wyoming prospect named Josh Allen in 2018. Allen would struggle with accuracy and consistency for two years before putting together an MVP-caliber season in 2020.
But this year, right from the Week 1 loss to Pittsburgh, something has looked off with Allen. The offense added the capable Emmanuel Sanders and tight end Dawson Knox has really taken off this year to give the Bills a deeper receiving corps than 2020. Yet Allen’s QBR has dropped from 76.6 to 58.8. NBC’s Cris Collinsworth was ready to give him the MVP in Week 5 just because the Chiefs couldn’t cover deep passes. But in the weeks since, we’ve seen Allen come up short at the end of the Tennessee game, play one ugly and one great half against Miami, implode against the Jaguars, light up the lousy Jets on an abundance of play-action, and now he struggled at home with the Colts on Sunday in a blowout loss.
Last year, I thought that wild card playoff game between the Colts and Bills to open the tournament was the best-played playoff game we got. It is the only good playoff performance for Allen in four tries so far. It was a rare feat of the pass-happy, offensive juggernaut overcoming bad field position and a balanced team to get a win.
But on Sunday, the Bills were anything but ready to match the Colts, who got an MVP-caliber effort out of Jonathan Taylor with five touchdowns and 204 yards from scrimmage. Buffalo’s No. 1 defensive ranking was influenced by a soft schedule, but the Bills were shredded by the running game in this one. Wentz only completed 11-of-20 passes for 106 yards as Frank Reich mostly kept him in a game manager role.
Wentz has had much better games this season, but what if covering up some of his flaws with a running game is something the Bills should be looking into for Allen? He was the show last year and it worked (outside of Kansas City games), but now the Bills are trailing the Patriots in the division and still have to play them twice.
Both the 2016 and 2018 quarterback draft classes have shown that we shouldn’t rush to conclusions and that situation does matter for how good these quarterbacks really are. But what if like 2017 for Wentz, 2020 was just the career outlier for Allen? A perfect storm that produced a mirage of an elite quarterback, but the rest of the career shows a talented athlete with some aggravating flaws still in his game.
After 2020, I thought Allen was legitimately going to remain a top-tier quarterback and not repeat Wentz’s career path. But after 10 games this season, I’m starting to think Wentz 2.0 is what Allen was destined to be. That doesn’t mean he can’t be an upgrade on the original, but like with Wentz, let’s not pretend the one season outweighs the rest combined.
Texans at Titans: They Didn’t Get Away with It This Time
Suddenly, losing to the Patriots wouldn’t be surprising for Tennessee. While I was joking in the tweet above, how does a team beat so many contenders, usually in impressive fashion, and take such ugly losses to the Jets and Texans in 2021? I liked and picked Houston +10.5. I cited on Saturday the two close games last year and that Tyrod Taylor might be able to play closer to the player he was in the first two games this season.
That happened in this one. Taylor rushed for Houston’s only two touchdowns. But it’s not like Houston’s offense did much to win this one. The Texans were 6/17 on third down and finished with 190 yards. This was about turnovers. Not only did Ryan Tannehill throw four picks, including a dagger in the fourth quarter when he was down 19-13 and had another chance for a game-winning drive. But that muffed punt on a fluky play halfway through the third quarter was a killer. That led to a 5-yard touchdown drive and 19-0 lead for Houston, which pretty much went into the tank offensively after that.
The Titans had the ball six times in the fourth quarter alone and only scored one touchdown. They had numerous chances in this one, but the offense doomed them with mistakes. This was bound to happen when you take away Derrick Henry and Julio Jones, but I still expected better than this. I can’t imagine Tannehill has had a worse game for the Titans than this one.
This team works better as an underdog. The conference-leading favorite? I never liked that role for them. Now we’ll just see if they can stop the Patriots from getting the top seed.
Cardinals at Seahawks: Russ & Pete Going Out Sad
Remember when the Giants won in Seattle last year as a double-digit underdog despite starting backup Colt McCoy? That was a rough day for Russell Wilson and the offense as McCoy did very little. Well, he won in Seattle again as the backup-turned-starter, and this time he outplayed Wilson in his second game back from injury.
The Cardinals leaned on McCoy, and he responded with a dink-and-dunk masterclass, completing 35-of-44 passes for 328 yards and two touchdowns. He got away with three fumbles in a game that finished with zero turnovers. Even after Seattle closed it to 16-13 in the fourth, McCoy delivered a great touchdown drive to put it away at 23-13. It would have been decided sooner without an atrocious day by the usually reliable Matt Prater. He missed two sub-40 yard field goals and an extra point. But A.J. Green and Zach Ertz put in vintage performances to help this offense thrive without Kyler Murray and DeAndre Hopkins again.
The Cardinals are a league-best 9-2 and I think you have to say Kliff Kingsbury is the front-runner for Coach of the Year. The Seahawks are 3-7 and look like they will be shopping for a new coach and possibly moving Wilson in 2022.
Packers at Vikings: Captain Kirk’s Lucky Day
I don’t know if I even want to entertain Aaron Rodgers’ Toegate saga, but I know he was healthy enough to throw a touchdown pass on his last four drives after a slow start. He looked just fine doing that. This game was more about the other matchup where Minnesota’s offense really took it to Green Bay’s defense, which had been garnering praise this season. But remember, the Cardinals were crushing teams defensively and still should have lost to Minnesota, 36-34, had it not been for a missed field goal at the end. Most Minnesota games this season come down to a clutch field goal as this one did.
Minnesota (+1.5) was one of my favorite upset picks of the season in this one because this was the best team in the league with a losing record going into Week 11. They get a good lead on everyone but haven’t been able to hold enough of them. Their stars all showed up for this one as Dalvin Cook, Justin Jefferson, and Adam Thielen all scored a touchdown.
Kirk Cousins had one of the best games of his career against a defense that has embarrassed him in recent years. But he absolutely caught a break in a tied game just before the two-minute warning when a Darnell Savage interception was overturned for not completing the process. Tough break for Green Bay, but a game-changer for Minnesota. Cousins completed his next three passes and set the Vikings up for the game-winning field goal from 29 yards out. They did not Blair Walsh this one and got the 34-31 win to move to 5-5.
Bet the farm on the Packers in the Week 17 rematch in prime time.
Some quick thoughts as I race to complete another preview before getting to sleep.
Washington at Carolina: Ron vs. Cam
I think it’s a safe prediction that Ron Rivera and Cam Newton will enjoy their most NFL success together rather than apart, but they were opponents on Sunday for the first time. Rivera got the better of things behind a stellar game from Taylor Heinicke, who outdueled Newton in his first start back with the Panthers. Newton did rush for a 24-yard touchdown, which is only the third time out of 74 career scores where he was outside of the red zone on a touchdown run. But Heinicke threw three touchdowns and finished with a Week 11-best 92.5 QBR.
As the case has been for his whole NFL career, Newton came up a drive (and a yard) short in the fourth quarter. He threw a yard short of the sticks to Christian McCaffrey on a fourth-and-3, and then took a sack at midfield on another fourth-and-3 to end the 27-21 loss.
Carolina coach Matt Rhule is now 0-12 in games where his offense has a 4QC/GWD opportunity. This was the first loss with Newton, but if Cam’s career continues the way it used to go under Rivera, he won’t be helping Rhule on that record. Newton’s 20-44-1 (.315) record at 4QC/GWD opportunities is the worst among the 16 quarterbacks to win NFL MVP since 1984.
49ers at Jaguars: The Longest Drive Ever?
There’s not much to say about the 49ers blowing out a terrible Jacksonville team 30-10, but how about that opening drive? San Francisco ran 20 plays to cover 87 yards before settling for a field goal (after a timeout, no less) on a drive that consumed the first 13:05 of the game. It’s probably the second-longest drive in the NFL since 1997. Maybe the second-longest in history. Not sure.
The previous longest drive in Stathead’s database going back to 2001 is 13:00 by the 2010 Giants in Seattle during the fourth quarter of a 41-7 win. A drive people used to say was the longest (it’s not) was the 2000 Giants running out the final 12:53 in the NFC Championship Game against the Vikings, a 41-0 rout. I have seen the play-by-play confirm a 13:27 drive by the 1997 Titans against Dallas, a 21-play, 90-yard drive that started in the third quarter and ended in the fourth. There are reports of the 1935 Boston Redskins, led by the incomparable Sammy Baugh, having a drive that lasted 14:03 against the Bears.
The previous longest drive to start a game since 2001 also belongs to the 49ers. It was a 12:07 drive that also ended in a field goal against the 2002 Rams in a game where the 49ers blew a 20-3 fourth-quarter lead after allowing St. Louis to score four unanswered touchdowns.
Let’s just say it might take the 2021 Jaguars the better part of a month to score four touchdowns.
Ravens at Bears: The Tyler Huntley Game
How is it the Ravens prepare Tyler Huntley in a surprise start without Marquise Brown better than the Bears prepare Justin Fields after a bye week and his best game in Pittsburgh? Oh, that’s right, a thing called coaching. This was shaping up to be your classic Kyle Boller vs. Craig Krenzel 9-6 game between these teams, but some offense broke out at the end. An injury to Fields gave way to Andy Dalton, who basically hit two fluky touchdown passes as Chicago’s only real offense on the day. The second came on a fourth-and-11 as Dalton tried to repeat his 2017 magic when he knocked the Ravens out of the playoffs in Week 17.
But Dalton left too much time for… Is it Tyler or Taylor Huntley? Tyler Huntley. Taylor is the MAGA one. Huntley had his struggles, but that 29-yard pass to Sammy Watkins to set up Devonta Freeman’s 3-yard touchdown run with 22 seconds left was a thing of beauty. That was all the Ravens needed to get to 7-3 and their fifth game-winning drive of the season.
Lions at Browns: Tim Boyle Edition
The top NFL rivalry of the early 1950s, these two teams have not seen much glory since. How about some memorable meetings? Remember the Brady Quinn-Matthew Stafford shootout in 2009? Well, Sunday’s game looked nothing like that. It was closer to the 2001 meeting where Detroit’s Ty Detmer threw seven interceptions, yet Tim Couch threw the only pick-six in what was still a 24-14 win for the Browns.
This time, Baker Mayfield (8.6) and Tim Boyle (6.7) had the only single-digit QBRs for Week 11. The Lions probably could have won this game with a healthy Jared Goff, but it was not meant to be. Boyle, who wasn’t even good in college, making his first NFL start and throwing to the worst receiving corps in the league. What could go wrong? Apparently, not enough to not cover the spread (+13) as the Lions were in this one thanks to their run game and defense. But the understandable lack of trust in the QB proved fatal to the Lions (0-9-1) in this one. Detroit ran the ball on a 3rd-and-14 with just over three minutes left before punting the ball back in a 13-10 game. Despite having four clock stoppages left, I feel that the run was a bad decision as it burned more clock. Let the bad QB throw a bomb and if it’s picked, it’s an arm punt. The Browns actually screwed up by Nick Chubb twice running out of bounds on runs that gained first downs. So it took three first downs to finally put the Lions away.
Who wants to learn how to cook this Thanksgiving instead of watching Andy Dalton vs. Tim Boyle?
Saints at Eagles: Hurts Them Again
Two of the trickiest teams in 2021, I improved to 3-7 ATS in picking New Orleans games this season by going with the Eagles (-2.5). I guess Jalen Hurts just owns the Saints on the ground after last year’s upset and now this effort with three rushing touchdowns. The 40-29 final – somehow not an NFL first – was more points than this one deserved, but the Eagles briefly made it too close for comfort despite leading 33-7 going into the fourth quarter.
Trevor Siemian warmed up after a terrible start and the Saints were only down 33-19 and in the red zone with half a quarter to play. But I have no idea what Sean Payton got out of kicking a 28-yard field goal on fourth-and-7 with 7:14 left. It was still a two-possession game. That seemed like one of the worst decisions this week. The Eagles then made the Saints burn their timeouts before Hurts put them away with his third rushing touchdown. The Saints were an elite rushing defense this season, but the Eagles finished with 50 carries for 242 yards in this one. Washington (131) had been the only offense to surpass 90 yards on the ground against the Saints before this game.
I still don’t know what the plan is for Payton this year, but at least things are trending in the right direction for Sirianni’s Eagles.
Bengals at Raiders: This Turkey Is Cooked
The Raiders really came out of their bye week with a 5-2 record before failing to score more than 16 points in their next three games, all losses. They haven’t even cracked 300 yards in the last two. They’ve had three straight games with multiple turnovers after having none in the first seven games. They are terrible on third down (1-for-7 in this game). The Bengals were nothing special in this one themselves, also failing to hit 300 yards and averaging 4.1 yards per play. But they finished drives in the fourth quarter and got Derek Carr to throw a bad interception with 4:43 left in his own territory.
This was one of the picks I was most confident in this week, but even I was surprised at a lifeless 32-13 final (surprisingly the fourth game in NFL history to end with that score).
Next week: All six teams playing on Thanksgiving lost on Sunday. Sounds fun. At least Sunday looks loaded as far as this season goes. Titans-Patriots and Rams-Packers are the marquee games of the day, and Bucs-Colts and Steelers-Bengals aren’t half bad either. Even Vikings-49ers is a potential launching point towards the No. 7 seed game in the NFC.
There are some NFL weeks with a lot of upsets. There are some weeks with multiple crazy finishes. There are some weeks with a lot of blowouts.
Then there’s Week 9 of the 2021 season, the type of week best summed up by this classic Vince Lombardi moment:
There were only six games with a comeback opportunity and four with a game-winning drive. But in a season where teams favored by more than seven points were 26-1 SU, those heavy favorites were 1-3 SU on Sunday. The Bills (-14.5) lost to the Jaguars of all teams, the Cowboys (-10) were getting blanked 30-0 by Denver before some garbage-time scores, and the Rams (-7.5) finished the day in appropriate fashion with a bad loss to the Titans.
You could say big favorites were due some losses this season, but three in one day? The last time that happened in a non-Week 17 slate was Week 9 of the 2011 season, and even that included a Monday night game (Dream Team Eagles vs. Bears). You have to go all the way back to Week 10 of the 2006 season to find the last time there were three such upsets in the same day.
Has there ever been a season where seemingly no team wants to embrace the role of being the favorite? Ditto for the MVP race after brutal games for Dak Prescott, Josh Allen, and the should-have-been-frontrunner Matthew Stafford. Even Kyler Murray lost some luster after seeing backup Colt McCoy handle the 49ers without DeAndre Hopkins, and Aaron Rodgers, well, his self-imposed absence will probably screw the Packers out of the No. 1 seed this year.
Of course, a day where most of the NFC’s top teams lose and the MVP candidates flounder helps no one more than Tom Brady and the Buccaneers. This league can’t go a week without doing everything it can to help him advance without breaking a sweat. That’s one thing about Week 9 that made sense.
Titans at Rams: Mike Vrabel Chopped Off His Penis and Paris Hilton Sucked the Soul Out of the Rams
(Congrats, you’re an NFL junkie if you understood that headline.)
While NBC’s Cris Collinsworth said that the Rams did not beat themselves on Sunday night, I’m not so sure about that one. Also, the incoming takes that the Titans don’t need Derrick Henry at all may also be very premature following a game that was almost solely decided by two Matthew Stafford interceptions – both of a fine Detroit vintage circa 2012 – turning into a quick 14 points. Even the best quarterbacks in MVP seasons can overcome that sort of swing as we saw last year with Aaron Rodgers in Tampa Bay in Week 6.
Stafford just so happened to pick his worst night for the Rams in an island game where he should have been able to take a clear lead in the MVP race. Pressure got to him, and he made a bad play (probable safety) a worse one by forcing a throw for the first pick that was returned to the 2-yard line. Then he followed it up with a worse throw for a pick-six. The Titans’ pass rush looked incredible, and it really covered up for an offense that did very little outside of two drives.
The Titans finished the game with just 194 yards of offense. Had it not been for Stafford’s touchdown drive in pure garbage time to make it a 28-16 final, the Titans would have had a rare three-score blowout win despite failing to break 200 yards. However, they still had the rare 12+ point win despite not breaking 200 yards, though it’s the second time Stafford has done that in his career.
Mike Vrabel improves to 13-2 ATS and an incredible 12-3 SU as head coach of the Titans when his team is an underdog of 4+ points. Being the underdog works for this team, a team that arguably has more big wins in the last four seasons than any franchise that has not gone to the Super Bowl in that time.
Now the Titans are chugging along at 7-2 after a winning streak over the Chiefs, Bills, Colts, and Rams. Had it not been for that garbage-time score, they would have held both the Chiefs and Rams out of the end zone for 60 minutes.
This is impressive stuff, and still, you wouldn’t be shocked if this team went 2-2 over the next four games against the Saints, Texans, Patriots, and Jaguars. The Titans are not going to keep beating good teams while failing to crack 3.0 yards per carry like they have in the last three games. Tennessee did not have a play from scrimmage longer than 16 yards against the Rams.
I see no reason to trust any team in the AFC this year. But can the Titans go on a run and play great defense and be physical with teams to win a few big games? Yeah, I think they have proven that enough now.
Can the Rams beat multiple good teams in succession with Stafford as their quarterback? From what we’ve seen so far this year, I don’t think so, and that was always the concern going into this experiment. The people who decided to take an early victory lap must not have been paying attention to the first eight weeks this season. No one is trustworthy or reliable this season to deliver on a weekly basis.
Vikings at Ravens: Par for the Course
I have nothing truly profound to say about yet another close finish that could have easily gone either way for the Vikings and Ravens this year. All I know is the Ravens are 4-1 in close finishes and the Vikings are now 2-5.
That makes the ending sound a bit predictable, but it was another difficult path to a 14-point comeback win for the Ravens. The type of big comeback win that has eluded this team for years seems to be coming every other week this season. The Vikings led 24-10 after returning the opening kickoff of the second half 98 yards for a touchdown. Big plays like that one and a 50-yard touchdown to Justin Jefferson are not the kind of plays we’re used to seeing Baltimore allow, but those are the signs that this team is struggling and becoming more reliant on the quarterback.
Lamar Jackson did not have a clean game with two picks, but he still finished with 266 passing yards and 120 rushing yards. Kirk Cousins had one of his standard days with solid efficiency stats and neither winning nor losing the game for his team. He came up big with a game-tying touchdown drive to force overtime, but the Vikings were stopped on their only overtime possession following a Jackson interception in scoring territory.
I was asked on Twitter how many times does a team turn the ball over in overtime and still go on to win the game? Baltimore fans know it’s happened more than once this season as the Raiders did it to the Ravens in Week 1 after Derek Carr’s interception was not capitalized on. Before that, it did not happen in 2020 and only happened once in 2019 when Russell Wilson threw an interception against the 49ers and still got the win. But you’re lucky if this happens once a season in the league.
But the Ravens were the better team and more deserving of the win in this one. They outgained the Vikings 500-318 in yards and 36-13 in first downs. The 36 first downs are a franchise record.
Would it have looked better if the Ravens stopped the Vikings on fourth-and-9 with 1:10 left and won 31-24 in regulation? Sure, but these Ravens are not as talented as past teams and things are harder this year. Living on the edge like this is not good for long-term success, but against teams like Minnesota that have mastered losing these games, it can work out for the Ravens.
Packers at Chiefs: Love Did Not Tear the Chiefs Apart
Jordan Love had only the second-worst performance by a Green Bay quarterback this season, but it was still not enough to take down a struggling Kansas City team as the Packers fell 13-7. The Chiefs, held scoreless in a second half for only the second time in the Patrick Mahomes era, definitely caught a break with Aaron Rodgers being a bad liar, because this probably would have been a Green Bay win with their starting quarterback. The Packers botched two field goals and a fourth down in the first half alone.
I think there is hyperbole about how bad Love was, but his inexperience shined through. The Chiefs were able to relentlessly blitz him with a lot of success, especially on third downs. They wouldn’t play that way against Rodgers or someone with experience. It was just one game, but I do at least sense some escapability from Love and he might have some gunslinger in him. He’s going to give his receivers a chance, but it could end in picks against a better defense.
Still, it’s a good thing the Chiefs went back to their 2020 four-minute offense and put this game away or else this was begging to be the worst 13-0 lead turned 14-13 collapse since Santana Moss met the 2005 Cowboys. Mahomes had another candidate for the worst game of his career as his 166 passing yards are the fewest of any full game in his career. The 4.49 yards per attempt is also his first career game under 5.0 YPA. Outside of a bad Mecole Hardman drop on a third-and-1, Mahomes was a huge reason for the offense not playing well in this game and that’s despite the Chiefs finally not having any giveaways.
But Mahomes was able to throw for three first downs, including a vintage extended play to Tyreek Hill to ice the game on third-and-10, to run out the final 4:49 on the clock after the Packers cut into the 13-0 lead with a touchdown.
The Chiefs (5-4) can celebrate the win, and the defense can feel good about their performance as we have seen plenty of inexperienced quarterbacks light it up better than this in the past. But the offense is in a five-game slump now and I’m not sure what it’s going to take to snap out of it, or if they will snap out of it.
Broncos at Cowboys: WTF?
Dallas was on a short list of teams to start 7-0 ATS while the Broncos tend to only beat up on bad teams and lose to the good ones, a hallmark of Teddy Bridgewater’s career. But this was a domination that makes the 30-16 final such a mirage.
Dak Prescott returned from his calf injury, and as far as I could tell, he looked healthy enough to be playing on Sunday. But was this the worst game of his career as far as moving the ball goes? The Cowboys turned the ball over on downs on three of their first six possessions. They were down 30-0 with 6:32 to play and Prescott barely had 100 passing yards at that point.
Fans tend to do a bad job of defining garbage time. Like what the Jets were doing against the Colts on Thursday night, that was never garbage time. They were still in that game and just needed to finish their scoring drive and get an onside kick to tie the game with another score. But for Dallas, the two late touchdown drives were pure garbage time. At that point I would have sat the stars who have been ailing in recent weeks and finished the game with Cooper Rush, Tony Pollard, and the likes of Cedrick Wilson and Malik Turner at receiver.
Dallas never had it on either side of the ball, and it was apparent from the opening possession when Ezekiel Elliott was stuffed on a fourth-and-1. You knew it wasn’t Dallas’ day when a blocked punt went forward and the Broncos ended up recovering after it touched a Dallas player, making it a live ball and a muff.
We knew the Dallas defense could be a liability when the turnover well ran dry as it did in this game, but who could have imagined the offense would play so poorly with Dak back? A good win for Denver, but an alarming performance for Mike McCarthy and the Cowboys.
Bills at Jaguars: WTF? The Sequel
Josh Allen won the game for Jacksonville. Josh Allen lost the game for Buffalo. The fact that I’m talking about two different players makes this one of the more amusing upsets in NFL history.
It also appears to be a historic one. The Bills lost 9-6 in Jacksonville despite being a 14.5-point favorite. There is no game in Pro Football Reference’s database where a favorite of that many points lost a game in which it allowed fewer than 10 points. The closest was when John Elway’s 1986 Broncos, who still made the Super Bowl, lost 9-3 as a 13.5-point favorite to the Chargers. That was almost 35 years to the date.
The last double-digit favorite to lose a 9-6 kind of game was actually the 2018 Jaguars early in the season to the Titans. This is arguably Jacksonville’s biggest win since that 2017 playoff run.
So much of it was thanks to the splash plays made by Jacksonville’s Josh Allen, the No. 7 pick in the 2019 draft that we’ve forgotten about since he plays in Jacksonville. But in this game, Allen recorded the first fumble recovery and first interception of his career. As if he has been waiting for this moment against his namesake. The Jaguars put a lot of effective pressure on Allen as the Bills only ran the ball nine times for 22 yards. Cole Beasley caught eight short passes for 33 yards. The Bills were scoreless on their final seven drives, turning it over three times and ending the game with a failed fourth down.
Buffalo is the first team since the 2019 Redskins (9-0 against San Francisco on a soaked field) to lose a game after allowing fewer than 10 points.
The Bills were gifted such a soft schedule that you have to wonder what kind of pact the AFC East made with the league for this sort of luck year after year. But the difference between those Patriots teams with Bill Belichick and Tom Brady and these Buffalo teams with Sean McDermott and Josh Allen is that the Patriots still delivered year after year. They still had to win those games time and time again. If the Bills can lose a 9-6 game in Jacksonville, then nothing is a given on their schedule.
It’s not like there weren’t some worrying flaws with this team before this week. I used this space last week to talk about a good half vs. a good game as the Bills sleepwalked for 30 minutes against awful Miami before a misleading final box score. I said during the week that it made no sense why Allen was the MVP favorite at +200. I know Dawson Knox is out at tight end, but the wide receiver corps is more than deep enough to move the ball well against a Jacksonville team that couldn’t even compete with Geno Smith and the Seahawks last week.
This is a brutal loss for Buffalo. We’ll see if it’s a wake-up call as there will be plenty of games where the Bills will be heavily favored the rest of the season.
Falcons at Saints: The Atlanta Sports Renaissance?
Very similar to the Miami win this year, the Falcons flirted with another fourth-quarter disaster that Matt Ryan and the offense rescued with a game-winning field goal drive. The Falcons were up 24-6 with 10:39 to play, but that did not stop the Saints from scoring three touchdowns to take a 25-24 lead with 1:01 left.
However, you better come prepared with a great two-point conversion play for every game in this league. You never know when it can decide a game as it did here. When a team scores a late touchdown to take a one-point lead, that two-point conversion becomes absolutely crucial. The Saints ran Alvin Kamara and were stopped, keeping the score at 25-24. Ryan is the king of one-minute drills, and he technically just missed out on a sixth in his career with the drive starting at 1:01. But he hit Cordarrelle Patterson, who has turned into a fascinating all-around weapon this year in Atlanta, for a 64-yard gain to start the drive. Younghoe Koo put away the Saints with a 29-yard field goal for the 27-25 win.
Despite not having Calvin Ridley and the running game producing 26 yards on 20 carries, Ryan passed for 343 yards and had three total touchdowns in the win. He has been playing very well after a slow start to the new offense and life without Julio Jones.
Attention will go to New Orleans’ difficult quarterback situation with Trevor Siemian having to take over for Jameis Winston (torn ACL). Do they stick with Siemian or go back to Taysom Hill as the starter? I think the defense needs to take more of the blame for this one. Ryan hit four passes of 34-plus yards on Sunday.
There is no such thing as a normal Saints game in 2021, but it was pretty interesting to see the Falcons dominate this game, nearly choke it away, and still come away with a win in the end. That wouldn’t have happened in past years.
Some quick thoughts as I race to complete another preview before getting to sleep.
Cardinals at 49ers: 2021 49ers Gone Fishin’
It should have been a golden opportunity for San Francisco (3-5) to get back to .500 before playing the Rams next week. For really the first time all season, the 49ers had the passing offense they should have thrived with on paper with Jimmy Garoppolo throwing to Deebo Samuel, George Kittle, and Brandon Aiyuk. Unfortunately, those players had three turnovers and the 49ers finished with just 17 points in a humiliating 31-17 defeat.
Arizona did not have Kyler Murray, DeAndre Hopkins, or A.J. Green on offense, but that did not stop Colt McCoy from completing 22-of-26 passes for 249 yards or James Conner from scoring three touchdowns. The Cardinals led this one wire-to-wire, and this was a 49ers defense that had given them problems in the last two matchups.
At what point can we all admit that Kyle Shanahan is not a good head coach? He punted on a 4th-and-13 at the Arizona 39 while trailing by 17 points in the fourth quarter. Is he saving his brilliant play design for Trey Lance in that situation? At this point, Shanahan will be lucky if he gets to hang around for the Lance era as it looks like another failed season in San Francisco. Props to Arizona for coming prepared without several of its best players.
Browns at Bengals: One-Sided Battle of Ohio
Maybe the Browns can bring Odell Beckham Jr. back and cut him again before their next game? I don’t know if anything was really gained from that this week, but the Browns did look focused and ready for this one. It started going off the rails for Cincinnati on the opening drive after Joe Burrow threw a 99-yard pick-six to Denzel Ward. Burrow has had several huge picks this year in losses. This was the first game of the season where he failed to throw a touchdown as the Bengals never seriously threatened in the second half.
Baker Mayfield took advantage of the Cincinnati turnovers and the big plays, including a 70-yard touchdown run by Nick Chubb, to lead an easy 41-16 win. I’d be very cautious to make any definitive statements about either team, but I do think we were too quick to prop up the Bengals without taking a deeper look at the loss to Chicago or the struggle with Jacksonville.
Patriots at Panthers: Look Who Is Back in the Playoff Picture
The Patriots (5-4) are above .500 for the first time this season and currently rank seventh in the AFC. Getting to play Sam Darnold (three interceptions, including a pick-six) was like getting a third Jets game, so the Patriots cannot count on that cheat code anymore this season. But it was another workmanlike performance in getting an easy win that should give the team some confidence going into tougher stretches.
Chargers at Eagles: The 7-on-7 Defense
Add another 4QC/GWD to the 2021 Chargers’ total to bring it to four. The Chargers finished off the Eagles in the fourth quarter despite allowing a game-tying touchdown drive and having to convert a pair of fourth downs on the game-winning field goal drive. But the Chargers were paced all day by Justin Herbert completing 32 of his 38 passes. Herbert has been deadly accurate this year, but this was already the fifth game where the 2021 Eagles allowed at least 80% completions. That is two more games than the old NFL record (min. 20 attempts) and we still have half a season to go. Playing this defense is like playing 7-on-7 in practice.
Raiders at Giants: No Penalty, No Comeback
What did I say earlier this season? If Derek Carr isn’t getting game-altering penalties on crucial downs in the fourth quarter, he isn’t good at fourth-quarter comebacks. The Giants were not penalized in the fourth quarter and Carr stunk up the joint with a pick and a game-sealing fumble in the red zone while trailing 23-16. Kicker Daniel Carlson also reminded people of his Minnesota roots by missing a 25-yard field goal while the Raiders trailed 20-16. This was a bad performance after another bad off-the-field week for the Raiders with the release of Henry Ruggs. They signed DeSean Jackson, but I would sooner pick this team to finish last in the AFC West than to finish first.
Guess who gets the Chiefs next. That’s the Sunday night game in Week 10, which might be the only hope for a good island game in this slate.
Next week: Can the Steelers avoid handing the Lions their first win of the season, and is it really a revenge game for Dan Quinn against the Falcons when he has himself to blame for being in Dallas right now?
After two weeks of blowouts, we saw the return of competitive games in Week 8. There were 10 games with a comeback opportunity through Sunday, and the week set season highs with seven comeback wins and eight game-winning drives.
Technically, seven game-winning drives and an eighth game-winning score in the Patriots-Chargers game, because of course the Chargers would be adding to their BINGO card against New England on Halloween.
You know it’s a weird week when Mike White, Trevor Siemian, and Cooper Rush had 4QC/GWDs.
The weekly rise and fall of teams in the AFC this year is unlike anything I’ve ever seen before. I’ve always felt like I know this conference well, but I have never been so confused with it as I am this year.
Meanwhile, if we add the Saints to the big six in the NFC, that puts Green Bay (7-1), Arizona (7-1), Dallas (6-1), Tampa Bay (6-2), LA Rams (7-1), and New Orleans (5-2) at a combined 38-8 this season. Six of the eight losses are to each other with only the Saints, the worst team of the bunch, losing elsewhere to the Panthers and Giants.
Buccaneers at Saints: Is Brady Saving His Luck for the Playoffs Again?
I am going to be forever mad with the Packers and Saints for legitimizing this Tampa Bay team. Had it not been for Aaron Rodgers’ meltdown in Week 6 last year and the fumbles by Jared Cook and Aaron Jones in the playoffs, this Tampa Bay team goes down as a fraudulent underachiever that pads its stats against lousy competition and falters in almost every big game it plays.
In the 2020 regular season, Tampa Bay was 1-5 against playoff teams, only beating Green Bay 38-10 after Rodgers basically threw pick-sixes on consecutive drives and fell apart. But that’s it; a single win over a playoff team. Even the 2020 Jets beat the Rams and Browns. Hell, the 2021 Jets are likely to have at least two wins over playoff teams already (Titans and Bengals). Meanwhile, the 2021 Bucs needed a last-second field goal to beat Dallas, lost 34-24 in Los Angeles, and now lost 36-27 in New Orleans to Trevor Siemian at quarterback after Jameis Winston likely tore his ACL.
I don’t know if the Saints (5-2) are headed for the playoffs without a quarterback right now, but I know it’s the second year in a row when a big win over Tampa Bay could be a pyrrhic victory. It was in last year’s 38-3 demolition where Drew Brees initially suffered his broken ribs against Tampa’s defense that led to a collapsed lung. He was never the same again.
Sean Payton’s Saints are now 3-1 against Tampa Bay since Tom Brady joined them last season. In the three wins, they forced Brady into multiple turnovers, including three on Sunday. But in the playoff loss last January, it was three interceptions by Brees and a very crucial fumble by Jared Cook in the third quarter that turned that game around for Tampa, putting the Bucs on a timeline towards that Super Bowl win instead of a second-round exit.
You know what else happened in that playoff game? The Saints dropped multiple Brady interceptions. He was still playing poorly against them in that game, but they couldn’t capitalize. Instead, he got to start three touchdown drives inside the 40 thanks to New Orleans’ turnovers. Go figure, his luck was at its greatest in the playoff matchup.
On Sunday, he had his best game yet against the Saints in four tries with the Bucs, but it was still a sloppy one. The Saints crucially avoided turning the ball over in this game, though they did turn it over on downs to start the game. Naturally, Brady turned that 44-yard field into a touchdown drive. But when he had to start every other drive at his 25 or worse in the first half, the Bucs were scoreless, and the Saints were up 23-7 a drive into the second half.
While the comeback still felt inevitable with Siemian in the game, the defense got a stop thanks to a holding penalty on the Bucs that ruined their drive to start the fourth quarter. The offense then used a couple of penalties on Tampa Bay’s defense to get a field goal and 26-21 lead. Tampa Bay had 11 penalties for 99 yards.
But then the bad Saints defense struck. Cyril Grayson (who?) was left all alone for a 50-yard touchdown pass from Brady with 5:44 left. I know in 2018 Brady had the record over the last three seasons for the most wide-open completion to Chris Hogan against Pittsburgh, but this one is a contender for that title. No one was even close to Grayson. Fortunately, the defense rebounded to stop the two-point conversion and Tampa Bay led 27-26 instead of 29-26.
Siemian did just enough on a go-ahead field goal drive. The Bucs reportedly had a historically bad day at getting pressure on the blitz. They had 22 blitzes and zero pressures on them in this game.
Payton seemed to outsmart himself by calling early-down passes from the Tampa Bay 9. Siemian threw two incompletions, stopping the clock and saving timeouts for the opponent. In the end, Brady just needed a field goal and had 101 seconds and a timeout to set it up.
That seems almost too predictable/inevitable. You can already envision the couple of dump passes over the middle to the running back, followed by a sideline route to Chris Godwin or Mike Evans, the latter who actually beat Marshon Lattimore for a long touchdown on the day. Just like that, field-goal range.
But every once in a while, Brady gets greedy and screws this up. He came out trying to throw deep to Evans, resulting in a long incompletion. Then he got a little greedy with one to Godwin that was intercepted by P.J. Williams and returned 40 yards for a pick-six that probably should have been a dive to run out the clock. But when you get a chance to pick-six Brady in that situation, it’s hard to pass up.
Brady then took two sacks for a four-and-out to end things. The Saints have managed to beat Rodgers and Brady this year while losing to Sam Darnold and Daniel Jones. The division is still very much in play, but it’s going to be hard after Winston’s injury looks severe.
So, I’m not sure we learned a whole lot about either team, but one thing that stands out is that Tampa Bay tends to come up small in these games. Of course, the only games on the remaining schedule that look like this are at home in Weeks 14-15 against the Bills and Saints. This team is still going at least 13-4, but another regular season with just one win against a playoff team is also a good possibility at this point.
Are you still willing to bet on someone else in the NFC to beat them in January? I’m not there yet.
Titans at Colts: Wentz Wagon Crashes Again
In what could be the closest thing that Carson Wentz gets to a playoff game in Indianapolis, the Colts came up short in overtime to the rival Titans to fall to 3-5. Derrick Henry (28 carries, 68 yards) was stopped on the ground for the second week in a row, Ryan Tannehill threw an early interception that led to a 7-yard touchdown drive, the Titans had one play that gained more than 14 yards, and the Colts were up 14-0. Yet, it was still not enough to prevent the Titans from sweeping the Colts for only the third time since 2002 as they did in 2002 and 2017.
Part of what made the Colts so successful on offense in the last month was the reemergence of running back Jonathan Taylor. He only had 16 carries for 70 yards in this one. The Colts went pass-happy, but Wentz completed 27-of-51 passes for 231 yards with three touchdowns and two costly picks late in the game. That makes Wentz the 17th quarterback since 1950 to throw more than 50 passes in a game and not throw for 240 yards in the process. Those quarterbacks are now 1-16 in those games with only Donovan McNabb getting a fortunate win for the 2000 Eagles in Pittsburgh.
The longest “plays” of the day for the Colts were defensive pass interference penalties worth 41 and 42 yards. One set up Taylor for a game-tying touchdown with 22 seconds left to force overtime. But the Colts shouldn’t have been in that situation. They got there because an ill-advised screen pass on first down at their own 8 was attempted by Wentz, who threw a pick-six with 1:26 left to fall behind 31-24. While he got the game to overtime, Wentz could only get one first down on two drives in the extra period after throwing a second interception. That set up the Titans on a short field, which they used to drive a total of 5 yards before kicking the game-winning field goal.
This is already the fifth lead of more than 10 points that the Colts have blown under head coach Frank Reich. Worse, the Colts have blown leads of 17 points (at Pittsburgh), 19 points (at Baltimore), and now 14 points on Sunday in just their last 11 games.
Three blown leads of 14+ points in 11 games? The Colts had two such blown leads in all of the 2002-2011 seasons under Tony Dungy and Jim Caldwell combined. Not having Prime Peyton Manning certainly makes a difference, but the Colts blew their share of big leads under Manning during the Jim Mora years (1998-2001). At some point, the coach takes the brunt of the blame there when the team continues to collapse.
The Colts continue to collapse under Reich, and now they are 12th in the conference. As much as I would like to say this is all about Wentz, it’s clearly not. But the Colts have two young playmakers proving their worth in Taylor and Michael Pittman, and I don’t think Reich is getting the most out of this offense with them and Wentz.
This team should be better than 3-5 right now.
Bengals at Jets: The Mike White Lotus
You might think a Sunday where Brady and Wentz threw pick-sixes in late losses would energize me, but I was already bummed out from earlier events. In the latest adventures of me getting screwed out of over $10,000 in one weekend, the top-seeded Bengals choked in epic fashion against the Jets.
I knew something was fishy when the Jets opened the game with a 75-yard touchdown drive, which is almost unheard of for this offense in the first quarter. I knew I should have been worried when Mike White was on pace for 46 completions at halftime despite him making his first start, and, well for being Mike White. I should have realized that Joe Mixon getting repeatedly stuffed on the ground was a bad sign for the Bengals, a team that has already lost to the Bears and struggled with the Jaguars, putting this one away.
But when Joe Burrow threw a touchdown to Tyler Boyd and the Bengals led 31-20 with 7:29 left, I stopped paying attention. I thought it was in the bag. But White continued to move the offense with passes, and the Jets were back in the end zone. Then Burrow threw an interception on the next play and the Jets were 14 yards away from the lead. They got it, the Bengals promptly punted, and Cincinnati never saw the ball again thanks to a weak call for unnecessary roughness after the Bengals looked to get a stop on third-and-11. Game over.
With my luck and how much I had riding on the Bengals winning, this could just be the one-game outlier of the season right here. White probably isn’t that superior to Zach Wilson, though it could be a long time (if not eternity) for Wilson to have a game as good as 37-of-45 for 405 yards in this league. It’s not like the Bengals came in playing terrible pass defense this year. It’s not like White was hitting fluke plays to incredible talent. None of his receivers hit 100 yards, and arguably the most talented one (Corey Davis) on the roster was inactive.
The Jets had 32 first downs, their most in a game since 1988. The Jets had 511 yards of offense, only their third 500-yard game since 2001. The Bengals only had that one turnover, but it was a costly one.
Extra costly for me, the sad sack who trusted the Bengals to pay his bills this month. The moral of the story: don’t trust anyone in the AFC this year unless maybe if they’re playing Houston. Otherwise, just don’t.
Cowboys at Vikings: What a Rush…
There is just something so fitting about the Kirk Cousins-led Vikings losing to the Cooper Rush-led Cowboys with Rush nearly doubling up Cousins in passing yards (325-184) in his first start.
Dallas coach Mike McCarthy has gotten some big performances and crazy comeback wins out of his backups (Matt Flynn and Brett Hundley) when he was in Green Bay. He’s done it again with Rush having to start for Dak Prescott (calf). The offense definitely missed Prescott in what should have been an easier win, but Rush did just enough to get the Cowboys over the hump. Amari Cooper bailed him out with a crazy 33-yard catch after a fortunate bounce, then Minnesota coach Mike Zimmer helped with five free yards on third-and-long after trying to call timeout twice in a row. That led to a 3rd-and-11 where Rush checked down to Ezekiel Elliott, who made an incredible play to knife through multiple defenders for a 15-yard gain and the first down. One of the best YAC plays I’ve ever seen in a crucial situation. On the next play, Rush went back to Cooper for the game-winning touchdown with 51 seconds left.
The Vikings could not move the ball after getting one first down on their ensuing drive. The offense never found the end zone after the opening drive, and even the go-ahead field goal drive in the fourth quarter was carried by three shady personal foul penalties on Dallas.
Minnesota (3-4) has been right there with the likes of the Bengals, Cardinals, and now Cowboys. But in typical Minnesota fashion, they know how to come out on the wrong side of these close ones. Now with the Ravens, Chargers, and Packers up next, this team can likely kiss the playoffs goodbye this season.
Patriots at Chargers: New England Always Tricks the Chargers
You just had to know a Patriots-Chargers game on Halloween would involve some weird plays and utter misery for the Chargers. That’s their history against this team in the Bill Belichick era. Apparently, Belichick can still confuse the hell out of a gifted, young passer:
Justin Herbert had the worst game of his career in last year’s 45-0 loss to the Patriots. On Sunday, he was in the ballpark again. Herbert exacerbated his struggles with a pass to Jared Cook in the fourth quarter that the receiver never saw and it was intercepted for a touchdown. That plus the two-point conversion took the Patriots from a 17-16 deficit to a 24-17 lead, making it the first non-offensive comeback win of the season in the NFL.
Herbert was not able to respond with the offense until they fell behind 27-17 with 2:12 left. At that point, Herbert added 80 yards and a touchdown pass to his totals, but the damage was already done. It was another rough game for Brandon Staley’s Chargers, who have quickly gone from 4-1 sensation to 4-3 disappointment.
Five of New England’s last six wins are against the Jets (three) and Chargers (two). He still owns those teams.
Steelers at Browns: Pittsburgh Sends Cleveland to Last Place
While nothing could make up for the embarrassing playoff loss the Steelers had to Cleveland in January, this was some decent revenge as the 15-10 win sent Cleveland down to ninth in the AFC and last place in the AFC North while the Steelers moved up to No. 6 in the conference.
This was a slugfest between teams who are not fond of one another. Baker Mayfield looked healthy, but his throws were sometimes off with his not-so-healthy receivers. Pittsburgh’s defense played very well despite this being the first time all season that the Browns had Mayfield, Nick Chubb, Jarvis Landry, and Odell Beckham together. At this point, Beckham looks washed up.
Not completely washed up: Ben Roethlisberger. It was far from a masterpiece, but he played well enough to lead the Steelers to 20 points on their first eight drives with the ninth being a run-out-the-clock drive. However, Mike Tomlin tried to sabotage that output with another ill-advised fake field goal in the second quarter that not only failed, but it led to kicker Chris Boswell getting knocked out with a concussion. That forced the Steelers to try multiple two-point conversions, but it did also lead to a fourth-down attempt for the game-winning touchdown instead of settling for three points. But Tomlin’s random aggressiveness remains problematic for this team. He would not go for a 4th-and-1 at midfield in a high-scoring playoff game against the Browns in January, but he thought going for this fake on 4th-and-9 at a time when the offense cannot be trusted to score a lot was a good idea? It’s inconsistent at best and incompetent at worst.
But the Steelers managed to overcome that with great defense and getting the tight ends more involved in the offense. Jarvis Landry fumbled Cleveland’s best chance at taking the late lead.
Roethlisberger walks out of Cleveland likely for the last time with his 40th fourth-quarter comeback win, joining Tom Brady (50) and Peyton Manning (45) as the only players with 40.
The Steelers (4-3) have won three in a row after being left for dead at 1-3. Their next two games are at home against the Bears and Lions. But in typical Steelers fashion, they’ll skate by the Bears on Monday night in a low-scoring game and lose to the 0-8 Lions in Week 10.
But the Steelers are not dead yet as much as the Browns especially wanted them to be. Cleveland (4-4) is suddenly the team in trouble, losing three of its last four games with the Bengals and Patriots next up on the road.
Dolphins at Bills: Good Halves vs. Good Games
When does a team play a good half as opposed to a good game? Buffalo’s 26-11 win over Miami makes a good case study. For starters, it’s shockingly the third 26-11 game in NFL history and not a scorigami. But it is a case where the Bills slept-walk through a half against a division rival they have crushed in recent meetings, including 35-0 in Week 2 this year.
On paper, this is going to look like a good win for the Bills. They covered the 14-point spread, and Josh Allen finished with over 300 total yards, three total touchdowns, and a 100.2 passer rating. Piece of cake, right?
But it really wasn’t. This 3-3 slog at halftime tied Pittsburgh-Cleveland, which was going on at the same time, for the lowest scoring first half in the NFL this season. The Bills were in a dogfight and could only muster a 57-yard field goal on their first five drives. Allen was called for a grounding penalty on a fourth down that threatened to allow Miami to drive for the lead at the half, but the Dolphins fumbled in the red zone.
But after a three-and-out to start the third quarter, the Bills looked like the Bills. They scored three touchdowns and a field goal on their last four drives, albeit the last touchdown was from 11 yards out after Tua was intercepted with 2:21 left. A matter of 21 fewer seconds and the Bills are kneeling out the clock in a 20-11 win.
Miami had its shot to really make this a game, trailing 17-11 and putting the Bills in a 3rd-and-11 situation. But that’s when Allen found Cole Beasley, the main receiver on the day, for a 20-yard gain that put the Bills into scoring range to open it up to a two-score margin.
Buffalo may still prove to be the team to beat in the AFC this year, but uneven performances like this one do not help advance that narrative.
Some quick thoughts as I race to complete another preview before getting to sleep.
Panthers at Falcons: The Old Familiar Sting
Younghoe Koo has been a dependable kicker for the Falcons. Over the last two seasons, he is 49-of-52 on field goals. However, his last miss in 2020 was a 39-yard game tying kick to send the Chiefs to overtime. His first miss in 2021 was a 45-yard go-ahead field goal to start the fourth quarter against Carolina on Sunday. That’s not how you become known as one of the great ones. That’s preparing your resume for future kicker of the Minnesota Vikings. The Panthers then drove 65 yards for a touchdown and 19-10 lead that essentially wrapped things up, denying the Falcons a record above .500 this year. With road games against the Saints and Cowboys up next, that might be it for the competitive part of this Atlanta season.
Eagles at Lions: Philly Uses Lions for Fertilizer
This league can drive you nuts since sanity does not exist. How do the Lions push the Ravens, Vikings, and Rams to the brink of defeat and give a real scare to the 49ers, only to get destroyed 44-6 at home by the awful Eagles? It’s not like DeVonta Smith (one catch for 15 yards) went crazy with big plays. Dallas Goedert was the only Eagle with more than two catches or 18 receiving yards. They were getting shredded by Boston Scott and Jordan Howard (yes, the former Bear). The Lions didn’t even turn the ball over until the third quarter when it was already 31-0, and figures it had to be Darius Slay returning a fumble for a score against his former team. I guess the 0-8 Lions will have to wait until Week 10 in Pittsburgh to get their first win.
49ers at Bears: Run, Quarterback, Run
Jimmy Garoppolo went into Sunday’s game with three career rushing touchdowns and left with five, an unexpected outcome for sure. Not so unexpected: Deebo Samuel continuing to dominate. He had 171 yards for his third 150-yard game of the season. That makes him the 14th player since 1950 to have three 150-yard games by his team’s seventh game of the season. Antonio Brown (2017 Steelers) was the last player to do this.
While the Bears lost 33-22, it was encouraging for Justin Fields to use his legs more and rush for 103 yards and a touchdown. No surprise it helped the Bears to their best game on offense this season. They just have to finish better as the offense froze up after the 49ers took a 30-22 lead.
Jaguars at Seahawks: Urban Meyer Is Bad at This
The Jaguars were down 24-0 in Seattle before finally scoring a touchdown with 1:49 left. The only logical decision is to go for two no matter how unrealistic 8+8+8 is in this situation. What did head coach Urban Meyer do? He kicked the extra point, keeping it a three-possession game at 24-7. At that point, you’re not really trying to win anymore. So, why did he try the onside kick? Seattle was right to return that baby for a touchdown and 31-7 final. The Jaguars failed to have a play longer than 17 yards against what was once a Seattle defense on pace for the worst season ever in yards allowed.
Washington at Broncos: Protect the Damn Ball
One of my favorite bets in Week 8 was Denver (-3.5) to cover the spread against a lousy Washington team. This is what Teddy Bridgewater does in his career, and while he got the cover and the game-winning drive on Sunday, it was not easy. After Taylor Heinicke was intercepted in the end zone with 37 seconds left and Washington down 17-10, the game was not over due to the team having all three timeouts. That made it hard to justify going super conservative and taking three knees before punting the ball back with just over 20 seconds. Washington probably would have had decent field position too to set up a Hail Mary.
But what happened next almost justifies taking that safe route. The Broncos tried their hardest to blow the game. They ran Javonte Williams on first down and the rookie almost fumbled (not actually credited as one though). For some reason, they tried a pass to Williams on second down, and instead of sliding down to run the clock and make Washington burn a timeout, Bridgewater threw incomplete. On third down, veteran Melvin Gordon got the carry and Chase Young made him fumble. Just like that, Washington had life at the Denver 24 with 21 seconds left. Fortunately, the Washington offense fell apart in that range again and the Denver defense held on for the win.
But game management continues to be a big problem around the league.
Next week: Do we finally get Aaron Rodgers vs. Patrick Mahomes, and will it be memorable? The Chiefs probably first can’t let Daniel Jones throw for 400 yards on Monday night.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
“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.
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.
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.