NFL 2020 Divisional Round: Buccaneers at Saints

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

For previews of Saturday’s games, click here.

For Browns-Chiefs, click here.

Buccaneers at Saints (-3)

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

Going for the 3-0 Sweep

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

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

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

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

Some other facts from this table:

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

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

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

Or are they?

So Which Team Is Better?

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

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

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

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

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

Where did the Buccaneers and Saints differ this year?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Third Time the Charm?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But now, what changes this week?

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

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

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

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

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

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

Nostalgia aside…

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

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

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

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

Final: Buccaneers 28, Saints 24

NFL Stat Oddity: 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.

Why the Saints are Really 8-0 Without Drew Brees Since 2019

Maybe I should wait for the Saints to extend their winning streak to 10 games before writing this, but consider it the beginning of the build-up for possibly the biggest game this regular season when the Chiefs (11-1) face the Saints (10-2) in Week 15.

Both No. 1 seeds could swing on the outcome of that game, and it could end up being the return of quarterback Drew Brees, who has been out with fractured ribs and a collapsed lung.

The Saints have won their last three games without Brees, starting Taysom Hill in his place. You may also recall that the Saints were 5-0 last year with Teddy Bridgewater starting for an injured Brees.

That adds up to an 8-0 record without Brees the last two years, and that’s not something you can sneak past the mainstream media.

It doesn’t take much scrolling in the replies to such tweets to see labels of “system QB” being thrown at Brees. Including 2020 in his record, Brees is now one of four notable QBs I have tracked that saw the backup win over 60% of starts when the starter was out.

The 11-6 record is not too far off from New England’s 13-6 record without Brady. Naturally, the worst football fans on the internet see this as making Brees equally a system QB if Brady is one.

The fact is the Saints have gone 8-0 without Brees the last two seasons by playing great team football against mostly bad teams instead of just relying on great quarterback efficiency.

If a team is well coached with a good roster, then there is a chance for success without the intended quarterback. These teams understand that the defense has to play even better to compensate for the loss of offensive efficiency, provided there is a decline with the backup (there usually is). The running game has to step up too. The special teams need to be solid.

Let’s look at how the Saints have actually done the last two years with and without Brees.

The Passing Stats

Teddy Bridgewater was a starting QB in Minnesota before his horrific knee injury. He’s a starting QB again in 2020 with Carolina. He’s not a top 10 guy and has limitations, but he is a starter in this league. Hill was still recently available as a tight end in fantasy football leagues. He’s a much bigger project than usual for the position — more than backup Jameis Winston would have been — but so far Sean Payton is making it work, and we know he has more confidence and faith in Hill than anyone on Earth.

On the surface, the passing stats for Bridgewater/Hill look respectable compared to Brees the last two years. Brees has completed 74% of his passes at 7.66 YPA (45 TD, 7 INT) while the others are at 68.6% and 7.31 YPA (11 TD, 3 INT). Certainly better numbers than the average backup in this league. Remember, Payton gets paid well to coach too. Those backups also provide more rushing value than Brees as Hill already has five rushing touchdowns this season.

However, once you start factoring in the down-and-distance on these plays, the notable difference in sack rates (3.8% for Brees, 6.5% for Hill/Teddy), and adjust the numbers for opponents, you get a different picture.

By ESPN’s QBR, you get a top 3 season with Brees the last two years that turns into a below-average one with Hill and Bridgewater if they had enough attempts to qualify for the season rankings.

2020 QBR

  • Drew Brees – 81.0 (ranked 3rd)
  • Taysom Hill – 54.3 (would rank 26th)

2019 QBR

  • Drew Brees – 73.3 (ranked 3rd)
  • Teddy Bridgewater – 50.9 (would rank 22nd)

Since joining the Saints in 2006, Brees has never ranked lower than 9th (2017) in a season in QBR.

We don’t have QBR for the days of Johnny Unitas and Roger Staubach, but when Tom Brady missed the 2008 season with a torn ACL, the Patriots led the league in first downs and Matt Cassel, a QB who hadn’t started since high school, finished 9th in QBR (63.4). When Jimmy Garoppolo had to start two games in 2016 for a suspended Brady, his QBR was a scintillating 87.5.

That’s a lot different than when Peyton Manning missed the 2011 season for Indianapolis. Curtis Painter’s 30.9 QBR would have ranked next to last. Dan Orlovsky’s 47.3 QBR would have ranked 22nd. Manning was at his professional worst in his final season with Denver in 2015 (44.2 QBR ranked 28th), but it’s not like Brock Osweiler (54.9, ranked 20th) was a significant upgrade. Manning reclaimed his starting job in Week 17 and the rest is history.

Likewise, Ben Roethlisberger missed the last 14.5 games last season and Mason Rudolph finished dead last in QBR (36.2). Devlin Hodges (31.8) would have ranked even lower if he had a few more plays to qualify. And for those keeping score at home, Brett Hundley (44.8) ranked 24th in QBR for the 2017 Packers when Aaron Rodgers broke his collarbone for the second time. QBR actually despised Green Bay’s Matt Flynn in 2013. His 18.3 QBR would be the second-worst season since 2006, only beating out 2010 Jimmy Clausen (13.8).

If you need that in a chart, then here you go.

This is not the first time I’ve looked at this.

So if you’re questioning why there’s still a stigma with Brady being more of a system QB than the other elites of his era, this is why in a nutshell. You see less of an offensive drop-off when you take him out of things. It’s also because the coach there was Bill Belichick, and love him or hate him, the guy knows how to coach.

The Other Offensive Stats

So we shouldn’t expect the Saints to have the same passing dominance without Brees, but what about the impact on scoring and the other offensive stats to get to 8-0?

Note: This won’t be a perfect comparison since Brees left the 2019 Rams loss early with injury and did not play the second half of the 2020 49ers win due to injury. Also, Taysom Hill is sprinkled into every game, because Sean Payton.

With Brees (15-5 record): 30.2 points per game, 380.1 yards per game, 22.9 first downs per game, 44.9% on third down.

Without Brees (8-0 record): 25.1 points per game, 353.8 yards per game, 20.8 first downs per game, 43.2% on third down.

As expected, the Saints with Brees score over 5 more points per game while averaging more yards, first downs and a higher conversion rate on third down. Not astronomically higher numbers, but still significant.

The scoring also doesn’t factor out return touchdowns. The Saints have five of those since 2019, but two of them came in the 33-27 win in Seattle that Bridgewater started. That helped a lot that day.

The offense has been more than serviceable without Brees, but it’s not the same level of greatness without him. It’s had an interesting effect on the main skill players in this offense too. Michael Thomas has gone over 100 yards in both Atlanta games with Hill as his passer, but Brees has rarely been able to play with Thomas this year because of injury.

The more interesting case is Alvin Kamara, who was having the best receiving season of his career in order to make up for the absence of Thomas (and Emmanuel Sanders some weeks). In three games with Hill as the starter, Kamara has 3 catches for 7 yards. In Week 11 against Atlanta, Kamara had the first game of his career without a reception. He followed that up with -2 receiving yards on one catch against Denver. He had 2 catches for 9 yards in the Atlanta rematch on Sunday.

As for the running game, the Saints averaged 113 yards and 4.26 YPC for Brees compared to 147 yards and 4.55 YPC for the backups. So they are running it more and a little better without Brees, but that can be misleading when Hill is a big part of the running game. He already was before taking over as the starter, but since Brees’ latest injury, Hill is getting over 10 runs a game now. He had 14 carries for 83 yards on Sunday in Atlanta, his most prolific rushing game yet. Again, these numbers can be difficult to present since Payton loves Hill so much and was playing him while Brees was the quarterback. For instance, Hill had 54 rushing yards, his second-highest game, in the 38-3 rout of the Buccaneers this year.

Ultimately, everything with this offense without Brees points to still being solid, but not as great. So what’s the real reason for 8-0?

The Defense and the Schedule

While the Saints lose over 5 points per game in scoring without Brees, they more than make up for it on defense.

  • Points allowed per game with Brees: 23.1
  • Points allowed per game without Brees: 15.0

Can a big-time offensive mind get his team to go 8-0 when they’re only allowing 15 points a week? Absolutely. The Saints won two games last year when they didn’t score 14 points (12-10 vs. Dallas, 13-6 at Jaguars). They have one such win with Brees since 2006.

Seth Galina had a breakdown of the EPA for the defense in these games:

By Pro Football Reference’s EPA measure, the Saints’ five best defensive games this season are their last five games (top six are the last six too). It has been quite a run, and sure, getting to play the 2020 Broncos without a quarterback helps juice the numbers, especially for the pass defense. But isn’t that part of the reason this split exists? They probably beat Denver with Drew Lock anyway, but it’s likely not a 31-3 win that covered up a poor game by Hill.
  • With Brees: Saints’ average spread is -6 since 2019 (10-10 ATS)
  • Without Brees: Saints’ average spread is -1.5 since 2019 (8-0 ATS)

Vegas doesn’t like the Saints as much without Brees, but they are an impressive 8-0 ATS without him. However, this is where the schedule and improved play on defense intersect. The Saints are not beating good teams without Brees. In fact, out of the eight opponents, only the 2019 Seahawks made the playoffs as a wild card team. We know the 2020 Falcons (4-8) and Broncos (4-8) are not going to finish with a winning record. Brees played at least seven likely playoff teams (maybe eight if Las Vegas makes it) in his 20-game sample.

That Seattle win was the first game without Brees and it was the one with the worst point spread for the Saints (+5). It was also the game where the Saints scored two return touchdowns and built a 33-14 lead before Russell Wilson led a couple late touchdown drives to make it look closer at 33-27. The last touchdown came on the final snap, an untimed down at that. Bridgewater passed for 177 yards with 146 of them going to Kamara (92) and Thomas (54). He was solid, but not spectacular. The Saints also had a 28-yard touchdown drive set up by the Seahawks turning the ball over on downs.

It was a great team win for New Orleans, but it’s also the only game where you wonder if the Saints would have won if Brees was the quarterback. Would they have still scored two return touchdowns if they thought they could just rely on the offense to do its normal thing? We’ll never know.

Beat the Chiefs with Hill and Then We’ll Talk

What’s next for the Saints? Why, of course, they get the 3-8-1 Eagles with rookie Jalen Hurts making his first start. Now this could be a trap game as Doug Pederson will want to look good on his decision to bench Carson Wentz. The Eagles have been within one score in the fourth quarter of every game this season, and there was a spark provided by Hurts in Green Bay on Sunday. So it’s an interesting game for multiple reasons, but it’s also one where you think the Saints would win comfortably if Brees was the quarterback.

For the Saints to continue the winning streak and keep Green Bay out of the No. 1 seed, they will have to get Brees back in the lineup. It is hard to see Hill outscoring Patrick Mahomes in Week 15, but then again, 2020 has been anything but predictable.

NFL Week 11 Predictions: Taysom Hell

This is probably the worst NFL season to write game previews due to the coronavirus making it difficult to judge which players are going to be allowed to play that weekend.

So naturally, it’s the season where I started writing them weekly at Sportsbook Review. I wrote about Eagles-Browns before finding out Myles Garrett has COVID-19. I also did Packers-Colts this week, a game that could be a really good one on a solid looking Sunday slate.

I’m most proud of my Chiefs-Raiders preview. I think it’s the best one I’ve written this season, really parsing out the anomalies the Raiders and Chiefs had in Week 5 to produce the biggest upset of the season so far.

But the one that bugs me the most this week is my Falcons-Saints preview, something I turned in around Wednesday. I really just assumed Jameis Winston would start the game for Drew Brees while Taysom Hill was sprinkled in to run his usual QB draw plays here and there. Either way, I liked the Falcons to pull off the upset when they were a 5-point favorite.

Come Friday, we hear that Hill is starting the game and there’s no offensive package planned for Winston. Ain’t that a bitch? So Hill is the only QB in New Orleans who is allowed to play 100% of the snaps in this offense. Either he has dirt on Sean Payton or he is his love child. It just hasn’t made sense what he sees in Mormon Tim Tebow, but unfortunately it’s up to the Atlanta defense to put an end to the madness with a good showing.

The spread has dropped from 5 to 3.5, and I’m still going with Atlanta, but the game has to be one of the highest variance outcomes this week. Not a good one to bet on other than the over on Hill’s rushing yards (about 40.5 right now) since he loves to keep the ball on those plays.

Personally, I would have started Winston. Sure, he might throw three interceptions, but he can also throw for 300 yards and three touchdowns. Hill might fumble three times while only passing for 130 yards. I think the Falcons are catching the Saints at the right time and they’ll even get them without Brees again in a few weeks.

NFL Week 11 Predictions

Finally, I had a good read on TNF when I picked the Seahawks in a less offensive rematch against the Cardinals.

It would really fill out the Chargers’ BINGO card to lose to the 0-9 Jets, but I still picked the Chargers in that one. I probably should at least take the Jets ATS, but oh well, let’s leave it for now.

Update: Missed DET (-1.5) at CAR. I’ll take the Lions in that one.