Same Old Browns? No, Same Old Steelers

“The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.”

When Steelers wide receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster brushed off Cleveland as being the “same old Browns” leading up to Sunday night’s game, he seemed to forget which team he was still playing for.

No team in the NFL keeps the status quo in check like the Pittsburgh Steelers. That’s why if they’re not playing down to the competition in a small game like the Bengals in Week 15, they come out looking unprepared for playoff games as well. They expect to win on the strength of their history alone when the other teams have Tim Tebow or Blake Bortles at quarterback or are missing their head coach and could not practice in person due to COVID-19 like the Browns just faced.

Following an 11-0 start, Pittsburgh spent a whole month watching its offense decay and fail to score 20 points. While defenses had caught up to arguably the most one-dimensional offense in NFL history, the Steelers did nothing to make any changes to it. One fortunate second-half comeback against the Colts was enough for the Steelers to blow off Week 17 and rest the stars for the playoff run to come.

“The standard is the standard” is head coach Mike Tomlin’s favorite phrase, and he now has as many one-and-done playoff losses (five) as he has seasons not making the tournament at all. Pittsburgh’s idea of analytics still looks like a random flip of the coin for when Tomlin decides to go for a fourth down or punt like a coward. Not to mention this team had two decades to figure out how to slow down the New England offense and never really did. After going 0-3 to Patrick Mahomes and Josh Allen since 2018, it is hard to believe the Steelers would have reached the Super Bowl anyway this season.

Unlike across the state in Philadelphia, winning that Super Bowl in his second season way back in 2008 has given Tomlin incredible job security and a shield from criticism for all the shortcomings since. Ben Roethlisberger winning his second Super Bowl in that second Tomlin season should have did the same, but off-field incidents from over a decade ago always left him as the scapegoat in Pittsburgh, even getting the brunt of the blame when the team had public falling outs with star players Le’Veon Bell and Antonio Brown.

With JuJu’s ill-advised bulletin board material as the latest proof, Tomlin still has no control over the egos in his locker room. The standard is the standard, and for Tomlin and Roethlisberger, the Steelers painted their masterpiece of disappointment and embarrassment on Sunday night, losing 48-37 to the rival Browns, a team Ben was 24-2-1 against and a team the Steelers had never lost to at home since he was drafted in 2004.

For perhaps the last time in the Roethlisberger era, let’s recap where the Steelers fell short on Sunday night.

For recaps of the other five wild card games, click here.

The Worst First Quarter in Playoff History

If you asked me how the 2020 Steelers were going to lose in the playoffs, I would have predicted a Buffalo rematch next week that looked like the Sunday night meeting the Bills won 26-15. One where the Steelers just didn’t have it offensively and the defense couldn’t get Josh Allen off the field enough. Or something uglier with turnovers like the Cincinnati loss, except against a better quality opponent and quarterback. All in all, a game where Roethlisberger was too inaccurate, and they sucked on third down and threw an obscene amount of passes way short of the sticks with too many drops. You know, like the whole month of struggles we recently saw from this team.

I never would have imagined the Steelers would essentially repeat their 2017 AFC divisional loss, 45-42, to the Jaguars and Blake Bortles. After last week’s 24-22 loss in Cleveland with most of the stars out, this game could not have gone any differently from that one. It looks far worse when Browns coach Kevin Stefanski wasn’t even there because of COVID and this team had not practiced all week.

Simply put, this game was decided in the first quarter, if not the first snap from scrimmage.

Center Maurkice Pouncey snapped the ball well over Roethlisberger’s head and the Browns were able to ultimately recover it for a touchdown just 14 seconds into the game. It’s the first NFL game to start with a fumble by the center since Super Bowl XLVIII, except Denver only gave up a safety to Seattle that time. It seems likely these are the only two times this has happened in NFL playoff history.

The Steelers only appeared to implode from there. Roethlisberger overthrew a short pass under pressure, and it was intercepted at midfield. The defense had a chance to force a three-and-out, but Jarvis Landry caught a short pass on 3rd-and-6 and turned it into a 40-yard touchdown. Landry gained 30 YAC on the play. His season high for YAC on a catch was 23 yards.

Pittsburgh allowed two 40-yard touchdown passes in this game with YAC totals of 30 and 42 yards. The Browns had one such play all season and that was 40 YAC after a 35-yard deep ball to Donovan Peoples-Jones. These were short throws, including a screen later in the game to Nick Chubb. In the regular season, Pittsburgh’s defense only allowed two touchdown passes with at least 15 YAC. They matched that in this one playoff game.

Down 14-0, Pittsburgh’s short-yardage rushing woes struck as Derek Watt was held to no gain on 3rd-and-1. At this point I joked about a long Chubb TD run coming next.

I was close. Chubb started the next drive with runs of 17 and 20 yards. Kareem Hunt finished the drive with an 11-yard touchdown run. The Browns led 21-0 with 4:40 left in the first quarter as the Steelers looked completely lost and unready to play this game in every phase.

To this point, Roethlisberger only made one mistake with the panicked throw getting picked off, yet he was down 21-0 already. I don’t feel that’s being taken into consideration at all when people criticize him for this game. The Steelers were getting dominated on every side of the ball at this point. It was only down 21-0 when he made another mistake that wasn’t even all on him. Diontae Johnson’s drops showed up again as a pass that was a little high above his head clanged off his hands and went to a defender for a second interception. Roethlisberger could have gotten the ball down a little, but there was bad luck to that pick.

That set up the Browns for a 15-yard touchdown drive capped off by Hunt again. Cleveland led 28-0 after the first quarter, a differential that has only happened 14 times since 1940. The only playoff game to start 28-0 after a quarter was when the 6-6-2 Oilers were crushed 56-7 by the Raiders in 1969. Out of the 14 teams to fall behind by 28 through a quarter, only the Steelers last night were able to lose by fewer than 17 points. But the point is they all lost.

You just cannot expect to turn the ball over three times and get outscored 28-0 in the first quarter and still win that game. Pittsburgh outscored the Browns in each of the last three quarters and 37-20 overall, but that first 15 minutes killed the season.

Look, games in this league almost never start out this dominant. We have seen plenty of mismatches over the years (think Chiefs-Jets this season), but 28-0 after a quarter is really hard to do, and it is especially hard to imagine in a playoff game between division rivals. This is only the fourth game where it happened between two teams who finished the season with a winning record.

However, it was just recently when the Browns led the Titans by 31 points at halftime and only won that game by six. So you had to figure the Steelers had a chance at a comeback. It would have been the ultimate Cleveland collapse, but the main reason that didn’t happen was the Pittsburgh defense failed to show up.

Pittsburgh’s Fraudulent Defense Exposed Again

In their last 78 games, the Steelers defense has registered a sack and/or takeaway in 76 of them. The only two games where they didn’t get a sack or turnover were their last two playoff games at home against the Jaguars and the Browns. Cleveland was even missing multiple starters on the offensive line.

Pittsburgh was on a streak of 31 straight games without allowing 30 points, tied for the second-longest streak in the salary cap era (1994-2020). That is really impressive when half the games came this year, the highest-scoring season in NFL history. Of course, Pittsburgh’s defense wasn’t facing Jeff Driskel, Jake Luton, Carson Wentz, Garrett Gilbert, or Ryan Finley last night. They allowed 48 to the talented Browns, the most Pittsburgh has allowed since the Jaguars scored 45 in the 2017 playoffs.

Are you sensing a theme yet?

Cleveland only scored 7 points in Pittsburgh in Week 6 with Baker Mayfield having perhaps the worst game of his career. But he now has his first 200-yard passing game in six starts against the Steelers. I already mentioned the two big YAC plays for 40-yard touchdowns that were so uncharacteristic for the Cleveland offense and Pittsburgh defense this year. Throw in not getting a sack or turnover and you are looking at a flat-out choke by this supposedly great defense. If you told me T.J. Watt and Cameron Heyward sat out this one too like they did in Week 17, I’d have believed it. They were ghosts last night.

Pittsburgh’s defense needed some kind of splash play to get this comeback going last night. It never came. After the Steelers got on the board in the second quarter, the defense had a chance to force a three-and-out and get the ball back. Instead, Mayfield scrambled for a first down on third-and-6 and turned that into a 64-yard touchdown drive. The offense was able to muster a field goal despite only having 28 seconds to work with. Pittsburgh trailed 35-10 at halftime.

The third quarter was Pittsburgh’s best defensively, but still no sacks or turnovers. They forced three punts and two three-and-outs. But when the defense had to get the ball back in the fourth quarter, they may have saved their worst for last, which is shades of the Jacksonville game all over again. Mayfield led an 80-yard touchdown drive with half of it coming on the Chubb screen. Cleveland led 42-23. A quick touchdown made it 42-29 with 11:08 left, so the game wasn’t over. Again, the defense was a major letdown, allowing the Browns to hold the ball for 6:40, gain four first downs, and add a field goal to make it 45-29 with 4:28 left. At that point you’re in total miracle territory and the game is essentially over. Roethlisberger threw his fourth interception with 3:16 left and the rest of the scoring was just going through the motions.

This talk that the Browns were conservative so Pittsburgh’s defense couldn’t get after them is bunk. Ryan Finley threw 13 passes against the Steelers in Week 15 and they still sacked him twice that night. Mayfield didn’t have to air it out 50 times or anything, but he still threw 34 passes and had multiple linemen out. There were chances to make plays for this defense. None were capitalized.

The loss was so eerily similar to the 2017 Jacksonville loss. In that one, Pittsburgh’s offense continued to score and make a game of it, but the Jaguars also scored 17 points in the fourth quarter. You can’t keep matching scores in a huge comeback attempt.

This disappointing defense is par for the course for Pittsburgh in the playoffs. While the offense tends to take the blame, the defense is usually the superior unit (top 10 ranked) in the regular season, only to fail in the playoffs.

  • 2004 (No. 1 scoring D): Allowed season-high 41 points to Patriots in 41-27 AFC Championship Game loss (pick-six included) after never allowing more than 30 points during season. Zero takeaways.
  • 2007 (No. 2 scoring D): Allowed at least 29 points to Jaguars for the second time at home, losing 31-29 in the wild card (pick-six included). Allowed a game-winning drive.
  • 2010 (No. 1 scoring D): Allowed second-most points of season (31; including pick-six) to Green Bay in 31-25 Super Bowl loss. Zero takeaways.
  • 2011 (No. 1 scoring D): Allowed most points since Week 1, including a game-losing touchdown one play into overtime, in 29-23 loss to Tim Tebow (316 yards on 10 completions) and the Broncos.
  • 2016 (No. 10 scoring D): Allowed season-high 36 points in AFC Championship Game loss to Patriots (36-17). Zero takeaways.
  • 2017 (No. 7 scoring D): Allowed season-high 45 points (including fumble return) to Jaguars in 45-42 loss in AFC divisional. Zero takeaways.
  • 2020 (No. 3 scoring D): Allowed season-high 48 points (including fumble return) to Browns after not allowing 30 points all season in 48-37 loss in wild card. Zero takeaways.

Sure, there was a return touchdown allowed in five of those games, but even without them the defense was still at or near season-worst performance levels in these playoff losses.

Note the last three losses in particular. The Steelers are the only team in NFL history to have three straight playoff games where they allowed at least 36 points and had zero takeaways. No other team has even done it in two straight playoff games. This comes as no surprise, but teams who allow 36 points and don’t get a takeaway are 0-38 in the playoffs.

Where are the Takeaways?

I wrote this about the Steelers in the Football Outsiders Almanac 2016 and it still holds true today:

Fans often complain that “we beat ourselves more than the opponent did,” but Steelers fans have the best statistical evidence for this claim. Since 2004, the Steelers are the only team to actually outgain their opponents in yardage (plus-748) in games lost. But they’ve shot themselves in the foot with the worst turnover differential per game (minus-1.6) in losses since 2004.

Updating these numbers through 2020 and last night, the Steelers are still the only team with a positive yardage differential (+80) in their losses. Every other team has been outgained by thousands of yards, including Cleveland (-14,419) at the very bottom.

But Pittsburgh still has the worst turnover differential per game (minus-1.46) in losses since 2004. So when they lose, they usually have a lot of turnovers and not many takeaways.

Since 2002, there have been 16 playoff games where a team scored more than 24 points despite at least three turnovers. The Steelers have five of those 16 games and the only other team with more than one is the Colts (two).

Sloppy, mistake-filled starts have been a problem in the postseason during the Roethlisberger era. Still, the team tends to rebound from those starts and still make a game of it. There’s also this fact:

It’s worth noting that the Steelers rested Roethlisberger and other starters in Week 17 in 2007, 2017, and 2020. There are always counter examples to the rest vs. rust debate, but I cannot help but think some players are hurt more than they are helped from the rest. I get why teams do it, but I have never been a fan of it.

This list also means Roethlisberger is the only quarterback in NFL history to lose multiple playoff games after scoring at least 37 points, and both were as a home favorite. He has thrown for 970 yards and nine touchdowns in his last two playoff games and lost them both. He also threw five interceptions in the two games, so it’s not all been good obviously, but there were positives last night once he got in a rhythm in the second quarter. This offense had not produced such a game like this since late in 2018.

However, I knew late in the first half that he wouldn’t get the help he needed to make this comeback go to completion.

Sure enough, he didn’t. This goes back to a point I made during the 2018 season about Rodgers and Brady. You can’t have a huge comeback without stopping the other team too, and that part is not on the quarterback.

When the 1992 Bills with Frank Reich at quarterback made the all-time comeback of 32 points against the Oilers, they got a lot of help from the special teams. Down 35-3, a bad kickoff set them up at the 50 for a touchdown drive. The special teams then recovered an onside kick to set up another touchdown. Defense forced a three-and-out, a bad punt, and Buffalo again only had to drive 59 yards for a third touchdown to make it 35-24. Then Warren Moon threw an interception to set the Bills up at the Houston 23, leading to another touchdown. There’s your splash play and short field combo to really have a ballgame again at 35-31 with 17 minutes left. I won’t recap the rest, but it was really getting that onside kick and an interception that made that comeback feasible.

Now flash forward to Super Bowl LI, which Sunday night was starting to look like at one point. The Steelers were actually well ahead of New England’s pace in trying to make this 25-point comeback in the second half. Roethlisberger threw a touchdown on fourth down to make it 35-23 with 2:57 left in the third quarter.

In LI, the Patriots were still down 28-3 to Atlanta with the ball at that point. Five minutes into the fourth quarter, Brady took a sack on third down and the Patriots had to settle for a field goal. They trailed 28-12 with 9:44 left, but things still looked dire. That’s when the real play of the game happened and Matt Ryan lost the ball on a strip-sack on a 3rd-and-1 that never should have been a pass play. Not only was it a stop and turnover, but it set Brady up 25 yards away from the end zone with 8:24 left.

There is the huge break that quarterbacks not named Brady just don’t get in this league.

On Sunday, Pittsburgh had possession to start the fourth quarter of a 35-23 game, but faced a 4th-and-1 decision at their own 46. It’s a shame this was after a commercial break, because Roethlisberger should have pulled a Peyton Manning and waved off the punt team to go for this. But Tomlin sent them in, tried to draw the defense offsides, and eventually took a delay of game penalty and punted. Pure cowardice. The worst punt yet, and this is the same coach who punted on 4th-and-1 early in the game and on fourth down inside the Cleveland 40 down 28-0 in the second quarter.

So the coach didn’t have Ben’s back, and then the defense showed it didn’t either. Instead of getting a Baker strip-sack like Brady got, they allowed an 80-yard touchdown drive, half of it coming on the Chubb screen. That made it 42-23 with 12:32 left. It should have been over there, but a quick Pittsburgh touchdown kept it alive at 42-29. Again, this is where the defense is supposed to get the huge turnover like Brady (or Frank f’n Reich) got, right? Nope, Ben must not have willed it to be. Instead, the defense let a long field goal drive happen.

By the time Ben got the ball back, he had 4:28 left and a 16-point deficit from his own 25. The Patriots gave Brady a 16-point deficit and the ball back at the Atlanta 25 with 8:24 left.

There is the difference right there. It has nothing to do with any “clutch” nonsense or the idea that Brady was playing better (he wasn’t). It’s all circumstances out of the quarterback’s control that favored Brady and allowed him a much better shot to win the game. You know, the advantage he tends to have over every other QB in NFL history. And that’s without even getting into Atlanta later having a first down at the New England 22 and punting the ball back.

Had Roethlisberger been able to start that drive with just over four minutes left at the Cleveland 25, then I would actually give a damn if he threw a pick or not. That would at least keep the game winnable. But it’s not wrong to downplay that bad throw with just over three minutes left when the game clearly was in all-time miracle territory.

If you want to bash Ben for that fourth pick, then you better do the same for Brady when he threw a pick down by 14 in Denver (2005) or the two he tossed down 15 points against the Ravens in the 2012 AFC Championship Game.

Is This the End?

Wherever the Steelers go from this one, the choices are obviously quite limited with a quarterback who will be 39 in 2021.

Roethlisberger had a game that will stand out in the record books with infamy, especially if it turns out to be his final playoff game. His 47 completions are an NFL record for any game, regular season or postseason. Roethlisberger threw 68 passes and did not take a single sack – only Drew Bledsoe (1994 Patriots vs. Vikings) has done better than that with 70 attempts in an overtime game.

His final completion, a 7-yard touchdown, put him at 501 yards, extending his record with a fourth 500-yard passing game. However, this is the first time the Steelers lost when he threw for 500 yards. Roethlisberger now has five games with 40 completions in his career, and the Steelers are 3-2 in those games. No other quarterback has more than two games with 500 yards or 40 completions.

The Steelers have a lot of tough roster decisions to make. With the way several players broke into tears after the game, it sure felt like the last hurrah, the end of an era in Pittsburgh. With the Ravens still playing great and the Browns now a playoff winner, this could be the last big game for the Steelers for quite some time.

If only they could have stepped up for the moment and embraced how precious these opportunities are, then maybe they would still be playing this week instead of embarrassing themselves with that first quarter that will go down as the worst any team has had in the playoffs.

Last night did not scar me. I have evolved my fandom enough to where I don’t need the hometown team to be great to keep my interest in the league. But watching the Steelers the last couple of decades lose so many big games by shooting themselves in the foot early, crawling back to make a game of it, provide some hope, then still seeing them lose has probably left a big mark in how I analyze the game.

I’m probably not giving enough credit to Cleveland for this performance with a shorthanded roster and without the coach I’m voting for as Coach of the Year. The Browns clearly wanted it more from the start and were playing great on every side of the ball, overwhelming the Steelers in a way we just don’t see in this competitive league. They’ll have a shot in Kansas City next week.

Pittsburgh’s last playoff win was in Kansas City in the 2016 season. They won 18-16 behind six field goals. The Chiefs immediately drafted Patrick Mahomes in the first round in 2017, and the rest is history. The AFC is moving on with teams like Kansas City, Baltimore, Buffalo and Cleveland headed in exciting, new directions.

Pittsburgh must be open to change or it stands to get left behind and fade into obscurity, much like the Patriots this year and their roster of nameless gray faces. But make the wrong moves, and “same old Steelers” might sound like a nostalgic compliment in the near future.

C’est la vie.

NFL Stat Oddity: Wild Card

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

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

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

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

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

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

Previous weeks in Stat Oddity:

Bears at Saints: Seventh Seed Slime

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ravens at Titans: Running Quarterbacks Matter More than Running Backs

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Buccaneers at Football Team: My MAGA Beats Your MAGA

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Rams at Seahawks: First Name Russell, Last Name Ozymandias

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Colts at Bills: The More Colts-Esque Team Won

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

NFL 2020 Wild Card Sunday Previews

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

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

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

Ravens at Titans (+3)

BAL OFFENSE VS. TEN DEFENSE

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

TEN OFFENSE VS. BAL DEFENSE

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Final: Ravens 31, Titans 24

Bears at Saints (-10)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Final: Saints 27, Bears 23

Browns at Steelers (-6)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Final: Steelers 27, Browns 20

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

NFL Stat Oddity: Week 17

It’s over. The NFL was able to complete the first – and hopefully last – pandemic regular season on Sunday. Is it asterisk worthy? There are definitely some fishy, eye-popping numbers in a season with historic offensive production, but more on that later this week. As for an asterisk, I guess we’ll see what kind of postseason we get as the virus continues to mutate and increase in spread. However, only a couple of the 256 games this season were a total sham, including a Ravens-Steelers game that might have had much larger implications if it was played at a later date like next week.

Then again, the league greatly weakened the No. 2 seed with the new playoff format, and home-field advantage has never meant less than it does right now.

I am nervous and excited as hell at the same time about where things are headed, which is the perfect summary of how I feel about 2021 in general. But before we move onto the playoffs, let’s recap how things finished around the eight divisions in Week 17.

Previous weeks in Stat Oddity:

AFC South: King Henry Reigns Supreme

The best drama of the day came from the AFC South. Even though the Titans were not in any danger of missing the playoffs after Miami lost, the division title was still up for grabs as Deshaun Watson made the Titans work hard for a win while the Colts teased Jacksonville in a 28-14 final that was stuck on 20-14 for far too long. Seriously, the Colts were up 20-0 and almost blew this one to Mike Glennon. I’m a bit concerned about this team, but it’s not like I expect them to have a huge lead in Buffalo on Saturday. They are going to have to be sharper than the last two weeks. Just getting by a Jacksonville team that lost 15 straight is not going to impress anyone, but crashing the Buffalo parade early sure would.

So basically, the two good teams beat the two shitty teams with Derrick Henry (250 yards) and Jonathan Taylor (253 yards) running wild. Performances of 250 rushing yards are rare, but we had two on the same day from the same division. They are the 13th and 14th such games since 1950. The Titans are the first offense in NFL history to have a 250-yard rusher and a 150-yard receiver (A.J. Brown) in the same game. It was also a historic game in that Brandin Cooks had 166 receiving yards for Houston.

The big-time players showed up in this one, but it was Brown’s 52-yard catch that set up the game-winning field goal with no time left. That is how you get into game-winning field goal range in eight seconds. It was the most fitting way for the Titans to win the division in a season where Ryan Tannehill has led the most fourth-quarter comebacks (five) and game-winning drives (six) in the league.

Henry needed 223 rushing yards to get to 2,000 on the season and he got 250. This offense is absurdly great at times and I cannot wait to see this matchup with Baltimore, a playoff rematch from a year ago that this season definitely needs.

NFC East Total Landscaping Division Champions: The Team with No Name

We did not make history with a 6-10 division winner, but the NFC East sure did try its damnedest on Sunday to deliver.

First up was Dallas at the Giants, a team the Cowboys had a seven-game winning streak against and usually score 30+ points on. Unfortunately, Andy Dalton must have gotten the memo that this was a de facto playoff game that his team could not lose or they would be eliminated from the division race. In true January Andy Dalton fashion, he finished with no touchdown passes, a crucial interception in the final two minutes, and the Cowboys lost 23-19. Dalton was not protected well and took six sacks, including a big one two plays before his interception in the end zone. Wayne Gallman then fumbled for the Giants, but saved his ass by recovering it to run out the clock on Dallas’ season.

So Jason Garrett, the Giants’ offensive coordinator, gets the last laugh for 2020 as this was the game that sent the Cowboys home.

Over the last two seasons, Dallas is 0-16 when not scoring at least 30 points and 14-2 when scoring 30 or more points. There has never been a split like that in NFL history over multiple seasons. Teams who don’t score 30 points win about 36% of their games since 2019. The Cowboys’ 14 straight wins with at least 30 points in each is the longest such streak in NFL history. This team simply cannot win without scoring a lot of points.

Does that really change even if Dak Prescott is back healthy in 2021? No, more changes need to happen too. This roster does not work.

Alas, the Giants did not turn this win into a division title after the Washington Football Team was able to squeeze out a 20-14 stinker in Philadelphia on Sunday night. The second half, which only produced a Washington field goal on a 1-yard drive, was one of the worst halves of football I was subjected to all season. Doug Pederson basically threw in the towel by benching starter Jalen Hurts for backup Nate Sudfeld for the whole fourth quarter of a one-score game. It was shameless tanking. If he’s going to play a bad quarterback with no future in Philadelphia, he could have just started Carson Wentz.

Alex Smith had a lot of rough moments and was again carried by the defense to a victory and home playoff game next week. For as much as people like the courageous stories behind Ron Rivera’s cancer battle and Smith’s rehab, this team is one of the worst to watch play football this year. Now we have to see them host Tampa Bay on Saturday night.

Just the thought of a Washington-Tampa Bay game gives me PTSD to the 2005 NFC Wild Card matchup, which had to be one of the worst playoff games ever played. Mark Brunell got a win for Washington in a game where he completed 7-of-15 passes for 41 yards and an interception. I watched the game in freezing cold temperatures as the furnace gave out that weekend. The only thing that could have made the viewing experience worse was if Tom Brady was playing the game and the announcers were up his ass over it.

That awaits us Saturday night. At least I should have heat this time. But then again, if Brunell can win a playoff game doing that and Brady could lose one to Joe Flacco (2009 Ravens) where he threw for 34 yards and a pick, then anything is possible this week.

NFC South: Eat the Rich

In another case of the top of the division making short work of the bottom-feeders, the Saints and Buccaneers cruised to wire-to-wire victories over the Panthers and Falcons on Sunday. Not even losing Alvin Kamara and the running back room to COVID could stop the Saints from throwing in Ty Montgomery and getting 105 yards on the ground out of him in a 33-7 win, reportedly the final regular season game in Drew Brees’ stellar career. Brees finished with three more touchdown passes and enough completions (needed eight) to Emmanuel Sanders to earn the receiver a $500,000 bonus.

Tampa Bay showed even more gall in getting to milestone numbers for its loaded receiving corps, but that came at a price when Mike Evans dropped a touchdown and hyperextended his knee after hitting his benchmark. His status for the playoffs is uncertain but he appears to have dodged the worst of it. Evans is the first receiver in NFL history to have 1,000 yards receiving in his first seven seasons, but this was the first time he ever needed all 16 games to cross the mark.

You might think the Evans scare would knock some sense into them, but that didn’t stop Tom Brady and Antonio Brown from connecting three more times with the game well decided – up 44-27 at the 2:14 mark – just so the receiver could get a $250,000 bonus. It is the only time in the last 20 years where an offense started a drive pass-pass-pass with a three-score lead in the final four minutes.

Maybe the Buccaneers would have done better than a fifth seed in a weak conference had this connection been stronger against better opponents. As it stands, the Jets (two) have more wins against 2020 playoff teams than the Buccaneers (one).

Now Brady will start a playoff run on the road for the first time in his career, and he gets to do it in a crowd-less stadium for a nameless 7-9 Washington team that came out of the worst division since the merger.

Play us off, Rod…

AFC East: The Right Stuff

The Buffalo Bills (13-3) completed their best season since the Super Bowl years by going 6-0 against the AFC East and eliminating Miami from the playoffs in a 56-26 rout. Josh Allen and other starters could have rested the whole game, but they played a half and put up a commanding 28-6 lead before every other phase of the team stepped up with four more touchdowns in the second half.

We knew one of the five 10-5 teams in the AFC was going to be kept out of the playoffs, and Miami was the only underdog against the spread. Sure enough, the Bills got the dominant win and Miami’s season is over. It’s fitting really because Miami was the weakest contender of the five. The switch to Tua Tagovailoa at quarterback did not serve the Dolphins well enough this season, and I think this will cost Brian Flores the Coach of the Year award. Ryan Fitzpatrick was out this week with COVID, but maybe things would have gone differently had he remained the starter. Tua really struggled on Sunday with 58 pass attempts and three interceptions, even after Buffalo was playing backups.

The Bills are clearly in the best shape in this division. The Patriots pulled away from the Jets in the fourth quarter in a 28-14 win as Cam Newton had one of his few good passing games of the year. Is it his last game with the team? Pretty likely, and certainly it’s the last game for Adam Gase in New York. Now if only this team didn’t bother to beat the Rams and Browns, they would be 0-16 and have their choice of head coach and the attractive option of drafting Trevor Lawrence with the top pick. But the Jets are almost never on the right side of history.

NFC West: Goff Clap

Russell Wilson may have saved his best fourth-quarter comeback of 2020 for Week 17, rallying the Seahawks from a 10-point deficit to a 26-23 win against the 49ers, who were very competitive in the final weeks of the season. But go figure, another blown lead and close loss for the Kyle Shanahan era.

Meanwhile, the closest thing to a de facto playoff game between both teams was my expected shitshow between the Rams and Cardinals. It ended up being the eighth 18-7 final score in NFL history, which is a surprisingly high number to me. More surprising than the final was the leading passer for each team: Chris Streveler for the Cardinals and John Wolford for the Rams. When I saw that Streveler threw an early touchdown pass, my first thought was the Cardinals tried a fake field goal and a holder or random player threw the score. I never heard of this player in my life, and Wolford was another unknown to me coming into this one.

We knew coming in that Jared Goff was out with an injured thumb and Kyler Murray was banged up. Murray started and finished, but for a large chunk in between it was Streveler at quarterback. Go figure, the game’s only offensive touchdown was a 14-yard drive set up by Wolford’s interception. The Rams came back thanks to a safety and pick-six.

The quarterbacks in this game were so jacked up that even Boomer Esiason replaced Tony Romo in the booth for CBS due to COVID. Esiason seemed more impressed than anyone with Wolford’s play. I guess given the circumstances and lack of experience, he was okay? He led the team in rushing with 56 yards. He threw for 231 yards and only took two sacks. It was a more mobile Jared Goff-type performance on one of his basic bitch days. In the end, the Rams scored three field goals on 10 drives and were fortunate that the Cardinals were in worse offensive shape than they were. Larry Fitzgerald didn’t even play in what could have been his final game due to injury, and now the Cardinals (8-8) are out of the playoffs.

Sean McVay certainly owns the Cardinals, but we’ll see if he can find his success again with the Seahawks in a third meeting next week. After getting so much praise early in the season, this division really limped across the finish line to get two teams in the tournament.

AFC North: Browns vs. Big Brother

The Steelers-Browns game went about as I expected. Even though the Steelers were missing most of their best players, they weren’t just going to lay down and let Cleveland get a big win to make the playoffs and finish 11-5 for the first time since 1994. Mason Rudolph showed some of his usual lack of pocket awareness, but he converted several third downs and tested the Browns deep with success. Even after Pittsburgh fell behind 24-9 a play into the fourth quarter, Rudolph led two touchdown drives, but missed on the game-tying two-point conversion. The Browns got the one first down needed to run out the clock and secure the 24-22 win.

These teams will meet on Sunday night, meaning it will be the Steelers the Browns have to get past in the playoffs for the third straight postseason after losing to their hated rival in 1994 and 2002. I may end up having to write two previews for this game, so I’ll save my thoughts for later this week, but I like the prospects of the Steelers in that game with their starters back.

Then there is Baltimore, the scariest 11-5 team in the league with the best scoring differential (+165) in football again. How absurd were the Ravens against Cincinnati? They were up 38-3 going into the fourth quarter and basically called off the dogs, finishing with 404 rushing yards, the most in the NFL since the 2000 Bengals had 407 against Denver.

Baltimore could be the most fascinating story this postseason as a legit contender to win it all, or it could flame out again in the playoffs and to the Titans again.

NFC North: Bears Back In

The Chicago Bears had a chance to enter the playoffs on a four-game winning streak with confidence if they could knock off the Packers and prove they haven’t just been scoring on bad teams lately.

They flopped again, going down in a 35-16 loss and only backing into the playoffs at 8-8 because of Arizona’s collapse. The 19 and 16-point losses to the Packers this year are Chicago’s worst margins of defeat in 2020. However, this one felt closer than last time despite the final score. The Bears were down 21-16 and 25 yards away from the end zone in the fourth quarter before failing on a 4th-and-1 pass. With nine minutes left, the Bears had their second dropped interception of the day thrown by Aaron Rodgers. More than five minutes later, the Packers were back in the end zone and then added a fifth touchdown after Chicago’s second turnover of the game.

Once again, the Chicago defense could not create splash plays against the Packers, allowing five touchdowns on seven drives. Meanwhile, the Chicago offense was 5-of-6 on fourth down, but that one miss in the fourth quarter hurt. Chicago actually played into Green Bay’s hands a bit with a game that featured very few big plays despite each team having a 50-yard pass play. Green Bay’s second-longest gain of the day was only 17 yards. The Bears only had two plays gain more than 14 yards. Chicago tried to dink and dunk with Trubisky on these long drives that also featured a lot of David Montgomery runs (3.1 YPC on 22 carries), which helped shrink the game, but it also led to too many fourth downs and not enough touchdowns. The Bears were 1-for-5 at scoring in the red zone.

I really hope the Bears do not end Drew Brees’ career in New Orleans next weekend, especially since it sets up another Bears-Packers game. We don’t need a third one of these. The Bears just do not have it against their hated rival, no matter what type of game they play against them.

In the Hollow Shootout of the Week, the Vikings took care of Detroit 37-35. The 2020 Lions allowed 519 points, the second-highest mark in NFL history between the 1981 Colts (533) and the 2008 Lions (517) of 0-16 fame.

Kirk Cousins was 0-22 as a starter in his career when his team allowed more than 30 points, but he has a win now. We’ll have to see if the final snap of Matthew Stafford’s Detroit career is an inaccurate miss on a game-tying two-point conversion attempt before his defense failed to get the ball back one more time.

AFC West: Boo-Urns

The least eventful division on Sunday was the AFC West with the Broncos and Raiders having an old-fashioned shootout that was ultimately meaningless. The fact that Denver had field goals of 70 and 63 yards (to win the game) blocked might tell you all you need to know about that one, a 32-31 comeback win by the Raiders to finish 8-8.

Then there’s the Chargers-Chiefs finale, won 38-21 by the Chargers. This one personally ruined my Sunday, and it’s not just because we didn’t get to see Patrick Mahomes or any of the interesting players on the Chiefs play. It’s because I put way too much trust in the Chargers to fill out their BINGO card with a performance that shouldn’t have blown away the Chiefs even if they were playing heavy backups. I lost quite the potential winnings on this game.

I was worried this meaningless game for the Chiefs would end all of their best streaks, but it only ended up taking out the record one of 60 straight games without losing by more than eight points. I guess we’ll have to put that one in the context of Mahomes from now on.

By resting, Mahomes missed out on leading the league in passing yards, joining Drew Brees as the only quarterbacks with multiple seasons of 5,000 yards/40 TD passes, and becoming the first quarterback to win 18 games and a championship in the same season. Achieving that in a 17 or 18-game regular season wouldn’t be as impressive, as this was the end of the 16-game era. The 2020 Chiefs should still have the record for most yards per drive at over 43.

Alas, the rest is for the postseason where the Chiefs have their ultimate goal still in front of them. It is just a bit of a bummer to see a throwaway game like this one. It was not a good showing by the Chiefs, and neither was the 17-14 escape win over the Falcons last week. Now they will go on a bye while these other AFC teams are in playoff mode for a few weeks now and competing this weekend in the wild card.

If the Steelers take care of the Browns and the Bills take care of the Colts, the Chiefs could have to start this title defense with a Tennessee or Baltimore team looking to punch them in the mouth and avenge past losses. That is a tough, physical draw after weeks off. I know Mahomes is different and Andy Reid has the great bye success, but these playoffs are guaranteed to be a bigger challenge than a year ago when the Chiefs still had to rally from double-digit deficits in all three playoff games.

My Preseason Predictions

Finally, something I am always quick to recap is seeing how my preseason predictions for team final records fared. I knew this would be a challenging season with COVID, a lot of quarterback movement, and the lack of a real offseason. My pick of Dallas making the Super Bowl in the NFC certainly did not pan out, and that was probably going to be the case even if Dak Prescott stayed healthy. However, I’m still on track for the Chiefs repeating, but let’s see how I did with all 32 teams.

As it turns out, this was my worst year of predicting since 2013, but not by much. I was off by an average of 2.78 wins. I have had some years before where I was off by 2.75 wins. A good year is 2.1 or 2.2. The 2019 season was one where I was only off by 2.16 wins. At least I was not off by more than six games for anyone this time.

I did not foresee Miami and Cleveland having this much success this season, which is why I think Kevin Stefanski should win the Coach of the Year award. I also obviously was disappointed by the Vikings and Texans in addition to the Cowboys. Even just those four very winnable division games the Texans had against the Colts and Titans could have made a huge difference for my predictions (2.78 down to 2.53).

But we’ll get into the close game summary of 2020 very soon. That is where teams like Houston, Atlanta, and Philadelphia flopped the hardest. Also, at least I can say I nailed Tampa Bay’s record. Now if only I could nail their postseason prediction later this week, but that is also to come.

NFL Week 17 Predictions: Rest vs. Rust Edition

In the NFL, sometimes Week 17 is great drama, and sometimes you just want to get it over with as quickly as possible to get to the playoffs.

Last year was more on the drama side with the Patriots getting upset by the Dolphins to lose out on a bye and the No. 2 seed to the Chiefs, who rode that to a Super Bowl win. The regular season concluded with a good game between the 49ers and Seahawks that came down to the 1-yard line to decide the NFC’s No. 1 seed.

This year looks to be more on the get it over with side of things, especially during a pandemic and another situation (Saints’ running backs) where a team’s whole position group is being wiped out by protocol.

Despite half of the 14 playoff spots still not clinched, this Sunday lacks that game for both teams that has a “win or go home” pressure to it. Plus with the new system only giving out one bye week in a year where being at home doesn’t even matter, there’s not much of an incentive to improve your seeding if you’re Pittsburgh or Buffalo.

But let’s sort this out quickly. I wrote previews already for Ravens-Bengals, Steelers-Browns, and Vikings-Lions.

AFC Picture

It is shocking to think that the AFC could have eight teams with at least 11 wins if all five of the 10-5 teams win on Sunday. Four of the 10-5 teams are favored by at least a touchdown too with only Miami (+2) at Buffalo as an underdog.

Chances are at least one of them will slip up and lose, but which one?

The Colts should be able to avenge that Week 1 loss to the Jaguars with a win. The Ravens should feel good about the way they’ve been rolling, only needing to beat the Bengals (no 2017, 4th-and-12 vs. Andy Dalton repeat). Deshaun Watson absolutely could give the Titans a game, but I think Tennessee scores a lot there. Still, that might be the best game of the day for SGP.

Pittsburgh is basically throwing in the towel on Week 17 and the No. 2 seed, inviting the Browns to suffer an embarrassing loss to Mason Rudolph. The Steelers also won’t have Cameron Heyward, T.J. Watt, and Maurkice Pouncey for rest, or Joe Haden and Eric Ebron for COVID reasons. This sets up nicely for a Cleveland win, but pure hell if they lose. I still think the Steelers can cover this one as they rarely lose by more than 10 points and will want to make this as hard as possible on Cleveland even without their best players active.

MIA-BUF is an interesting one because how much Josh Allen will we see? Cole Beasley is already out for the Bills, who really don’t need this one like Miami does. If the Dolphins need a comeback, they can’t go to the bench for Ryan Fitzpatrick either because he has COVID. So it’s all on Tua at QB, but he may only need to outscore Matt Barkley for a half or so. Again, not a game I’d want to bet any money on.

Finally, the Chiefs have the No. 1 seed wrapped up and won’t play Patrick Mahomes among several other starters. That makes the Chargers a 4.5 point favorite in Arrowhead and leaves a few great Chiefs streaks in jeopardy.

Yeah, I’m not a fan of Week 17 and I don’t think eliminating a bye was a good idea. That would have at the very least made the Steelers and Bills go all out tomorrow.

NFC Picture

I think the top three seeds (GB/NO/SEA) are all going to win, making Green Bay the coveted No. 1 this year. I however wouldn’t overlook the Saints dropping a game to the Panthers. Last time it was a 27-24 final and the Saints are down Michael Thomas and Alvin Kamara. Plus, aren’t the Panthers due to at least win one close game? That should be the most interesting of the three games there.

I just don’t believe in Chicago or Mitchell Trubisky, though I will say the Bears at least beat Tampa Bay this year. And if beating the Lions, Falcons, Panthers, Texans, Vikings and Jaguars doesn’t impress you, well, that’s eight of Green Bay’s wins this season too.

The NFC East is still open to a 6-10 division winner if it’s the Giants, but I think Dallas takes that one to get to 7-9. Then it’s all about SNF and the no-name team against Philadelphia. It appears Alex Smith is starting, but that’s really a marginal improvement over the recently released Dwayne Haskins these days. Still, the Eagles are good for disappointment this year and Washington has been a tough opponent for them the last few years. So I guess based on my picks I still have Washington taking this one at 7-9 thanks to a sweep of Dallas this year.

And to think this could have been Dak Prescott’s division at 8-8…

That leaves probably the closest thing we have to a Week 17 de facto playoff game for both teams between the Rams and Cardinals. I hate betting on the Rams to begin with, but now we’re talking about unknown John Wolford starting at quarterback for an injured Jared Goff. Running back Cam Akers is also still out for the Rams. Arizona quarterback Kyler Murray was also banged up at the end of Week 16’s game, so this might not be an offensive showcase.

I’m going to trust my gut and go with Sean McVay in this one as he has owned the Cardinals in his career. If his system and mind are so great, then he should be able to get production out of Wolford in a big spot. The star defenders (Jalen Ramsey, Aaron Donald) need to show up too. The Rams are a 3-point underdog, but I just don’t trust Kliff Kingsbury, especially not after that brutal performance to the 49ers last Saturday.

NFL Week 17 Predictions

Here are the picks for every game:

During the week I’ll have Stat Oddity for Week 17, a close game summary of 2020, a look at the historic offensive marks achieved this season, and wild card previews. Maybe some other things if I’m feeling that energetic.

NFL Stat Oddity: Week 16

You know it was a strange NFL Sunday when the Jets started a win streak, the Chargers pulled off their third game-winning drive in a row, and the Bengals won a 37-31 shootout with Brandon Allen throwing for 371 yards. That means Zac Taylor is no longer 0-24-1 when trailing after the 12:00 mark of the third quarter. He is 1-24-1 now. Big baller who I still couldn’t identify to save my life.

Two of the biggest games on paper were Rams-Seahawks and Titans-Packers, but neither could live up to the comeback by the Steelers against the Colts. The Steelers are now 9-2 against Indianapolis since 2002, and this very well might be the most painful of those losses for Colts fans since the 2005 AFC divisional round loss. The Colts (10-5) blew a 17-point lead in the second half and are in danger of missing the playoffs now.

Previous weeks in Stat Oddity:

Colts at Steelers: This (Eventually) Looked Like the 10-0 Start

The spread saw this as a tight game, but for nearly three quarters, this was all Indianapolis. The Steelers came out in the most predictable way possible with three quick slant passes out of shotgun, all with a chance to be caught, and none of them actually hauled in or even looking like potential first downs. Throw in 4 rushing yards on 7 carries at halftime and the offense still looked to be stuck in pathetic mode from the last few weeks.

The defense also seemed to be mailing it in with 24 points allowed on the first seven drives. Save for a strip-sack that set up a short field, the defense was getting gashed on the ground by Jonathan Taylor and Philip Rivers found some deep-ball success. Despite not having both offensive tackles available, the Colts looked to be a well-oiled machine on their way to the playoffs after a big win.

In the third quarter, Chase Claypool dropped a touchdown on third down and the Steelers went for it at the 2-yard line on fourth down. The pass was knocked away and Pittsburgh still trailed 24-7 with 5:01 left in the third.

That seemed like the end for hope of any miraculous comeback, but the Steelers were able to force a three-and-out and got good field position at the Indy 39. Ben Roethlisberger finally uncorked a good deep ball on the first play and Diontae Johnson came down with it for a 39-yard touchdown. That was a good enough spark because the defense forced another three-and-out and the offense was able to string together three straight touchdown drives to take a 28-24 lead. Roethlisberger finally looked like he found his groove again from earlier in the season when the Steelers were undefeated and scored 24+ points every week. He was able to hit on throws more than 10 yards down the field and that opened up some of the shorter stuff to not get tackled immediately for a change. JuJu Smith-Schuster, after a tumultuous week, also stepped up big with his finest game of the season. He caught a 25-yard game-winning touchdown with 7:38 left.

You know no one sees more comeback attempts fail than Philip Rivers, and sure enough he got hit a little as he threw for an interception. Instead of trying to get the running game going, Roethlisberger continued to throw short passes with 6:05 left, and they actually all worked until the last one brought up a 4th-and-1. Pittsburgh punted and trusted the defense to stop Rivers from driving 85 yards in the final 2:18.

It took a while, but eventually the Steelers got the fourth-and-ballgame stop after Rivers’ pass was just a tad off for Zac Pascal with 1:14 left. The Steelers pulled off their first comeback win of 17 points in the second half since the 2002 AFC Wild Card win over Cleveland. Roethlisberger finished with 349 yards, 3 TD, and zero turnovers, or the kind of stat line he was having earlier this season when the team looked capable of doing something big in the playoffs.

The Steelers finished with 14 carries for 20 yards, so this was all about the passing game again on offense. The 2020 Steelers are the first team in NFL history to win four games in a season without rushing for 50 yards. This is also a rare win against a good team without being able to run for 25 yards:

The win secured the AFC North, and Pittsburgh can breathe easy after showing a strong effort in the second half of this one. In fact, the Steelers should probably rest the key players in Week 17 since it has been a long season with multiple games moved around and not a traditional bye week for the team.

For the Colts, it could be a fatal loss. Does it happen if the Colts had their tackles? Maybe not, but Rivers had time early to make plays before succumbing to five sacks on the day. He was not sacked on the final drive either but failed to get the ball deep down the field.

Truth be told, the Colts blew their most winnable game of the season in Week 1 to the Jaguars, a team that has not won since. That’s the team the Colts close with looking for their 11th win, but this team did not come through in so many important games this season, losing the rematch with the Titans and losing all three games to the good AFC North teams. Now the Colts will hope the Texans do them another solid and beat the Titans next week.

But as for the Steelers, this formula of a defense with a pass rush and an offense that can string together touchdown drives could still be effective for them in the playoffs. Again, the Chiefs are not blowing anyone out. If they got after Mahomes the way they have other quarterbacks, and if Roethlisberger is accurate, that is a game they could win. Or they could go one-and-done to anyone who gets in this stacked AFC tournament.

I just think it is foolish to write this team off completely, and Sunday proved they still know what it takes to win the tough games. The Steelers are now 5-1 against teams with a winning record this season. Only Kansas City (5-0) has a better record.

The Patrick Mahomes Memoirs, Chapter 51: Week 16 vs. Falcons

The time is 4:44 A.M. This game, a 17-14 win by the Chiefs over Atlanta, ended over 12 hours ago. I am only now watching for the first time the highlights from the final drive (the dropped interception and the game-winning touchdown pass). Between being dialed in to the end of Colts-Steelers and checking my dozens of parlays before SNF, I just never saw the highlights until now.

Yeah, Mahomes won that game with some Brady Bullshit, as I have called it for 17 years. First of all, it was the first scoreless opening quarter (both teams) of the Mahomes era. It was the longest a Chiefs game had gone scoreless (mid-2Q) since a December 2015 game against San Diego. To start a 7-7 tied fourth quarter, he was off target on a pass to Sammy Watkins who was in an awkward position, and that was nearly intercepted. Harrison Butker saved the drive with a 53-yard field goal for KC’s first lead of the day (STOP THE COUNT!). The Falcons fumbled in the red zone, another gift. The Chiefs had a weird 3rd-and-4 run call that led to a punt. After the Falcons took a 14-10 lead, Mahomes was delivering on a drive late as you’d expect. He hit some big plays to Travis Kelce on the day. But with 2:07 left, he underthrew Tyreek Hill in the end zone and A.J. Terrell on the undercut had a great shot at an interception. He dropped it. Raheem Morris wasted a challenge/timeout on it. Terrell dropped it.

Now was it game over if he caught it? At 2:01, the Chiefs had four clock stoppages, so no, it definitely wasn’t unlike some other QBs I can think of who get away with these plays. Would it have made the game much harder for the Chiefs to win? Most definitely. But Mahomes caught this break and he immediately made up for it with a 25-yard touchdown pas to Demarcus Robinson. Then Younghoe Koo put an eyesore on his great season by missing a 39-yard field goal that would have sent the game to overtime with 9 seconds left. Atlanta lost 17-14.

Yes, that is some Brady/Patriots Bullshit. Win a low-scoring game after getting a long FG, getting a red zone fumble on defense, get a go-ahead TD pass after a dropped INT in the end zone, and watch the opponent choke on a field goal for OT. Yes, the true definition of the Patriot Way.

Now the idea (on Twitter) that I wouldn’t bring any of this up is bullshit. I always keep it real with my tweets and writing. I call it like I see it, except I didn’t see this drive until more than 12 hours after the game ended. I heard about it, but I can’t always trust everything I hear. If you do that, you might believe some made up stats, but more about that later. I’m not going to apologize for watching the exciting Colts-Steelers finish instead. This was the first time I didn’t watch Mahomes play a full live game since Week 8 (Jets). It wasn’t my top priority on Sunday.

How did the Falcons fare with my tips for beating the Chiefs?

Each team only had nine drives, which is good for the underdog. The Falcons just did not score enough, though 20-23 in overtime may have done the trick. Can’t lose that fumble and miss that FG though. The Chiefs did not allow a sack or fumble in this game and limited their penalty damage. Andy Reid called that weird 3rd-and-4 run, but it was the trick play with Sammy Watkins trying to throw a deep pass to Mahomes on 4th-and-2 that backfired the most. Just call a normal play there, please. Then Mahomes threw a red-zone pick that was as ugly as any he’s ever thrown. Not sure why he forced that. Pick either one of those two plays and there is your main culprit for why the Chiefs didn’t score a more normal 24 points and were held under 22 for only the second time in Mahomes’ career.

I’ve been predicting for weeks about Mahomes having the worst game of his career and Aaron Rodgers taking over the MVP lead. That’s what happened on Sunday. Was it a bad Mahomes game? Weighing the dropped pick heavily, yes it was. Was it a bad game by an NFL QB? That’s harder to answer. He’s had lower passer ratings (79.5) and QBR (68.2; ranked 12th for Week 16) before in his career. He still had 299 yards, no sacks, two touchdown passes, and a 4QC/GWD. If this is his bad game, then he still makes bad look decent.

Now we probably won’t see him until the playoffs with the Chiefs wrapping up the No. 1 seed and first-round bye. So goodbye to a second 40 touchdown pass/5,000-yard season, and a chance to become the first QB in NFL history to win 18 games and a championship in the same season. That’s disappointing from a history standpoint, but I think that’s what Reid will do. He’s rested starters in Week 17 multiple times in his career.

The only other thing I want to address here is the use of a bogus statistic and the absurdity of how that can spread in this social media age. People are passing around this article on The Big Lead that talks about Mahomes setting an NFL record for dropped interceptions in a season with 16 this year, and apparently that doesn’t include two (Terrell is obviously one) in this Atlanta game.

1. How do you get a record for something that is an unofficial statistic, open to extreme subjectiveness, and has a very limited window of data that will never encapsulate anywhere near all of NFL history?

2. How do you verify such a record when the only proof is a tweet from someone named “El Capitan” on Twitter with the username @DomGonzo12? There’s no supporting link, list, video, or pictures of the 16 plays. There’s nothing but the words of some random Twitter user with barely 1,000 followers.

3. Guess what? I had this user blocked before this weekend. He’s a Patriots fan/douchebag who carries the water for Tom Brady and will find any way he can to prop up his golden boy and put down other quarterbacks.

I think The Big Lead should delete the story and raise their journalistic standards. This is pathetic.

I brought up dropped picks for Mahomes a month ago. I think he had about six at the time.

Leave it up to Green Bay fans to eat up this fake statistic and claim that Mahomes has 16 (or now 18) dropped interceptions, therefore he has no business being MVP. I think someone should try proving it first. After all, the burden of proof comes on the person making the claim. Yet here we are in the Trumpian era of where you can say any bullshit and get enough of a cult following to believe you.

All I know is this won’t be the first or last time the Falcons drop a crucial interception against a future HOF QB. If Tom Brady can get away with it in a Super Bowl in a bigger spot, then Mahomes can get away with one in Week 16.

If Mahomes is going to average one bad game every 51 games, then he’s still well on track to be the GOAT. But for one Sunday afternoon, he got to experience what Brady Bullshit looks like.

Browns Got the Rona

I am not 100% clear on what all the playoff scenarios are now or if teams like the Steelers (Cleveland’s final opponent) or Bills will even bother to play starters in Week 17. All I know is the Browns missed a golden opportunity for an 11th win and it wasn’t entirely their fault. On Saturday, the team found out it would be missing its top four wide receivers (not including the old loss of Odell Beckham Jr.) for a game against the Jets because they were close contacts to a positive COVID test. That is a tough blow a day before a game. I really hope this doesn’t happen to someone in the playoffs, but if it does, you know it’ll probably benefit Tampa Bay.

Anyway, Baker Mayfield was in a tough spot here and to make matters worse, the vaunted rushing attack only produced 15 carries for 39 yards. The Jets again had a 17-point lead for the second week in a row before holding off a comeback attempt by the Browns. Mayfield fumbled twice in the final minutes, including a quarterback sneak on fourth down in the red zone with 1:18 left.

It was an unfortunate loss for the Browns, but the season isn’t over yet. I guess the Colts are in worse shape than the Browns since they lost to them head-to-head, but we’ll see if Cleveland can rebound with a win over a Pittsburgh team that should really be resting on Sunday.

NFC East: Root for the Worst Outcome

So it has come to this: Washington vs. Philadelphia on SNF in the final game of the 2020 regular season. Maybe that’s a fitting way to end the pandemic regular season with a game to decide the worst division since the merger.

If you want to see a 6-10 division winner, you have to root for the Giants to beat the Cowboys and the Eagles to beat Washington. It’s possible, especially if Alex Smith doesn’t return for Washington. Dwayne Haskins is terrible and should be gone already there. Washington had no offense to speak of in a 20-13 loss to Carolina until Taylor Heinicke replaced Haskins for a mild comeback attempt.

The Cowboys had plenty of offense on Sunday with Andy Dalton posting a huge stat line on the Eagles defense once Fletcher Cox went down. Jalen Hurts was hot early but struggled late. The Eagles couldn’t get any closer than a 13-point deficit in the final quarter and a half, ending a streak of 23 straight games that were within one score in the fourth quarter.

Is Dallas the favorite again? Hard to say, but it is the team with the best offense to do damage in the playoffs. It just has the worst defense out of the three. Hey, maybe they could throw all three rosters together to create the best team they could? It’s bad enough we have to give them a home playoff game, let’s at least make it exciting.

Alas, it is still likely that the worst division winner since the merger will start the playoffs with Tampa Bay and Tom Brady. How does he do it, folks?

Ryan Tannehill Proves ESPN’s QBR Is Broken

The hyped Sunday night game between the two highest-scoring teams, Titans and Packers, was a letdown. Sure, there was snow, but that only seemed to bother Tennessee, which fell behind 19-0 early before making a minor game of it until the Titans were asleep at the wheel in the third quarter and failed to challenge a 59-yard run by Aaron Jones where he stepped out of bounds early.

Green Bay won 40-14, holding the Titans to their lowest point total since Ryan Tannehill took over at quarterback last year. But fear not, in the loss, Tannehill still produced an 85.2 QBR at ESPN, the sixth-highest mark in Week 16.

Wait, what? How is that possible when Tannehill completed 11-of-24 passes for 121 yards, 1 TD, 2 INT, 40.5 PR, and took two sacks?

Ah, but in the third quarter, on a 3rd-and-1, Tannehill took off on a designed run for a 45-yard touchdown. It was a really nice play where he got to show off his mobility, but it wasn’t exactly the toughest play he’s ever made before.

I joke that ESPN’s QBR loves quarterback runs to an insane degree, but this game is proof of that. For Tannehill to finish with an 85.2 on the strength of that play is absurd. It’s just one drive. What about all the other failed plays and turnovers and sacks?

Things have been screwy for a couple of years with QBR once you started noticing that David Garrard’s 2007 season and Mitchell Trubisky’s 2018 season ranked surprisingly high. What’s the common link? Both quarterbacks scrambled a lot. Find a game that looks unusually high and chances are the quarterback did a big run on third down in it. QBR just eats that up and it clearly needs to be adjusted.

Sunday’s game was closer to Tannehill’s worst game with the Titans instead of his 8th best according to QBR. See, this is why we have to still question statistics and the processes that go into them. Even ones posted on a reputable website instead of a random Patriots fan’s Twitter timeline.

NFC West: In the End, Seattle Was the Best

So much for the NFC West getting four playoff teams or everyone finishing at least 8-8. The title was decided on Sunday in a lackluster game between the Seahawks and Rams, won 20-9 by Seattle. It was another good defensive showing for Seattle, which has not allowed more than 21 points in six straight games.

Jared Goff again struggled to move the offense and reportedly has a broken thumb now. This could mean that the Rams will turn to 2018 undrafted QB John Wolford out of Wake Forest for their critical Week 17 game against Arizona.

The timing is bad, but was Wolford really the best backup option the Rams could secure for this season? At this point, you have to invest in someone who either has starting experience as a veteran or is someone you drafted with what you think is real potential. For the latter, think 2012 Kirk Cousins in Washington or even more crudely Jalen Hurts in Philadelphia this year.

The fact is a contender needs a decent backup quarterback in case things go bad for a short stretch and you have to use one to stay afloat. The Saints would have been screwed this year if they didn’t have Taysom Hill (and Jameis Winston) to plug in for a month. Maybe Wolford can surprise people and Sean McVay can regain some of that “kid genius” clout, but after watching this team lose to the Jets and fail to get in the end zone against Seattle in their most important game this season, I’m not counting on McVay to accomplish anything the rest of the way here.

While the Rams take “Stars and Scrubs” to the extreme in their roster approach, they have to wrestle with the fact that they’re paying Goff to be a star when too often he looks like a scrub in this system. Things should be better than this in Year 4 together. Now Goff has the first injury issue of his career and it could not come at a worse time.

NFL Week 16 Predictions: Holiday Edition

It just hit me that with a game on Friday for Christmas and three games on Saturday, I needed to get this posted today.

Clearly, the NFL planned out a much better Week 16 than what reality has brought us this holiday weekend.

Vikings-Saints should have been a big-time Christmas matchup for the playoffs, but Minnesota’s struggles and the Saints’ two-game slide have lessened the hype over that playoff rematch from a year ago.

San Francisco is already eliminated from the playoffs and will finish last in the NFC West. I wrote a preview for 49ers-Cardinals here.

The Saturday night game between Miami and Las Vegas has playoff implications, though it would have been more interesting if the Raiders (7-7) didn’t lose last week. Also would prefer to see Marcus Mariota get the start, but here we go again with Derek Carr (see preview).

My third preview is on Falcons-Chiefs, noting that the Chiefs are the first team in NFL history to win six straight games by fewer than six points. Something, namely Atlanta, tells me this will be an easy win so that they can rest starters in Week 17 with the top seed wrapped up.

Eagles-Cowboys could have been for the division, but both teams disappointed and Dak Prescott suffered a serious injury. At least Jalen Hurts looks promising for the Eagles in taking over for Carson Wentz.

Rams-Seahawks could be good, though the Rams are coming off one of the most embarrassing losses in NFL history, and Seattle’s offense has not been great for a while now.

The Sunday night game should be a high-scoring affair between the Packers and Titans. I like the preview I came up for that one.

Then there’s Bills-Patriots on MNF. This could have been the passing of the torch game where Buffalo won the division, but the Bills already won it last week while the Patriots are eliminated at 6-8. New England is a brutal watch this season. Still, it’s a game where the Bills can complete the sweep and show off their dominance in the division this year.

I do want to backtrack to one other game this Sunday that I will be watching in full.

Colts at Steelers (+1.5)

It is a rare meeting between what I once considered my two favorite teams in the league. If I couldn’t root for the Steelers to win, I would root for the Colts, especially in the Peyton Manning years.

This is only going to be the 11th meeting between these teams since 2002 (including playoffs), though more interesting than that is the quarterback situation. This could be only the second time in the last seven meetings where both teams had their intended quarterback start and finish the game.

  • 2011: IND-Curtis Painter started for an injured Peyton Manning, who missed the whole season for neck surgery.
  • 2015: IND-Matt Hasselbeck started for an injured Andrew Luck (lacerated kidney).
  • 2016: IND-Scott Tolzien started on Thanksgiving for an injured Andrew Luck, who only missed one game that season.
  • 2017: IND-Jacoby Brissett started for an injured Andrew Luck, who missed the entire season.
  • 2019: PIT-Mason Rudolph started for an injured Ben Roethlisberger, who was on IR with elbow surgery. For Indy, Jacoby Brissett started the game after Luck retired just before the season, but Brissett left injured early and was replaced by Brian Hoyer.

The only time the Colts and Steelers had their quarterback stay healthy for the game was the 2014 shootout in Pittsburgh, won 51-34 by the Steelers. Luck was solid with 400 yards, but Roethlisberger had arguably the best passing stat line of the 21st century: 40/49 for 522 yards, 6 TD, 0 INT, 150.6 PR, 0 sacks.

This week, Roethlisberger and Philip Rivers are on track to start this game, with Rivers set to become the ninth quarterback to start 250 games (including playoffs). Roethlisberger is at 251.

But that 251st start for Roethlisberger on Monday night in Cincinnati is one of the most embarrassing games of his career. Frankly, given the opponent, I’ve never seen a poorer half of football from the Steelers than that first half. Things got a little better in the second half, but not by much. Pittsburgh has lost three in a row after an 11-0 start and hasn’t scored 20 points in four straight games. Throw in the Colts on a 5-1 run with 26+ points in every game and you can see why the Steelers are a 1.5-point underdog in this one.

I’m rushing this out on Christmas Eve so I’m not in any mood to go into details about the Steelers’ offensive struggles. There will be a time and place for that since, perhaps unfortunately, this team will have a playoff game. With the way they are playing, they will not win another game this season, potentially losing the division to Cleveland and going one-and-done as a wild card team.

With the way the offense has played the last two weeks, I think this team would lose to the Jaguars and Jets right now. For four straight weeks the offense has struggled and actually gotten worse each week instead of finding any changes or improvements.

Can I really expect anything to change on a short week against a superior opponent? No, I don’t. Pittsburgh’s best hope in this matchup is that Rivers lets the pass rush get to him and turns the ball over a few times, or at least once for a touchdown. Set up the offense on short fields and maybe they’ll take advantage. But the Colts are playing too well right now on both sides of the ball and the Steelers are not.

Final: Colts 24, Steelers 20

NFL Week 16 Predictions

Here are all my picks for the week.

I know I said I was done picking the Jets ATS, but I just kinda like this spot for them to tease us with maybe going on the most pointless winning streak of all time. But in the end the Browns will win that game.

NFL Stat Oddity: Week 14

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Previous weeks in Stat Oddity:

Steelers Flop Again in Buffalo

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Falcons Out-Falcon the Chargers

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

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

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

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

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

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

NFL Week 13 Predictions: MEH Edition

Here is an obvious sign the Week 13 NFL slate isn’t quite up to par: the big CBS game at 4:25 is Eagles-Packers.

Now it’s not the NFL’s fault that Drew Brees has been injured for both NO-ATL games, or that we’ll be lucky to see even half of the intended QB battles between Dak-Lamar and Burrow-Tua.

One game that has surprisingly turned out to be a big one is Cleveland at Tennessee, two 8-3 teams and almost the only two teams in the league with a good argument for building their offense around the run.

Alas, I already wrote my preview for that game, along with Lions-Bears, Bengals-Dolphins, and Broncos-Chiefs.

So what’s left?

We are finally getting the first Rams-Cardinals game this season, though it has lost some luster after both had disappointing losses in Week 12. Sean McVay is 14-7 against the NFC West, an impressive mark given the teams in that division since 2017. McVay is 6-0 against the Cardinals and has five wins of 16+ points against them. His smallest margin of victory is 7 points over Arizona. The Rams are very hard to predict from week to week, but I took that into consideration when I made my pick for that game.

Another game that interests me is Monday night where the Bills are a 1.5-point underdog in San Francisco despite having the better record (8-3 vs. 5-6). It’s only the sixth time in the last 20 seasons where an 8-3 team is an underdog to a 5-6 team. The last time was in 2008 when Carolina was a 3-point dog to the Packers in Lambeau in Aaron Rodgers’ first season as a starter. The Panthers won 35-31 with a fourth-quarter comeback. The 8-3 team is 5-0 against the 5-6 team. With the way Buffalo’s defense handled the Chargers last week, I think they’ll be adequate against Nick Mullens and an offense that has lost George Kittle for the season.

Finally, there’s the Steelers-Washington game on Monday. The line was about PIT -10 before Wednesday’s ugly win over Baltimore, but is now down to PIT -7.5. I have to say I really like the Steelers in this one, as they are still 8-3 ATS this season, a record as good as anyone in the league in 2020. I think they’ll put that weird game on Wednesday behind them quickly and play sharper on offense without all the dropped passes. An Alex Smith-led offense reliant on one wideout in the passing game is unlikely to do much damage to this defense.

We also have to put Washington’s recent performance in the context of the worst division in NFL history. Washington started the season 1-4 with all the losses by 14+ points. Then in their last six games they’re 3-3, but they’ve played four games against NFC East teams, the Bengals in a game Joe Burrow was injured (W 20-9), and a 30-27 loss in Detroit where they trailed 24-3 before making a game of it (typical Matt Patricia).

Put this team on the road against the Steelers and I’m very confident the home team will win by 8+ points. That’s my favorite spread pick this week, and yes, I don’t think it will be a pleasant game to watch again. Probably something in the 24-13 range of final scores.

NFL Week 13 Predictions

The full slate (at least every team has a QB, or someone posing as one this week):

I really wanted to pick Atlanta to beat the Saints again, but they screwed me over last time, and several of the skill players are on the injury report for the Falcons. I’m just going to stay away from that one. I hope I’ve learned a lesson there. But the Saints really need Drew Brees back ASAP.

NFL Stat Oddity: Week 11

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Previous weeks in Stat Oddity:

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

I Fvcking Love Patrick Mahomes

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Undefeated Watch: Thanks, Jake Luton

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

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

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

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

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

Packers at Colts: Hold Up

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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