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 2020: Close Game Summary

While 2020 may have felt like a year for comebacks in the NFL, let’s examine the data. There were 143 games (55.9%) that saw at least one team have a fourth-quarter comeback or game-winning drive opportunity, which is a possession by the team tied or down 1-to-8 points. That is in line with recent years: 142 in 2019, 147 in 2018, and 139 in 2017.

So, the crowd-less, COVID season did not produce any shift in the closeness of games. There were just 43 double-digit comeback wins from deficits at any time in the game, which is an increase of nine or 10 games over 2019 (33) and 2018 (34).

The 2020 season featured 58 fourth-quarter comeback (4QC) wins and 76 game-winning drives (GWD). That is remarkably close to the numbers last regular season with 56 4QC and 77 GWD. This is the third time in the last four seasons that 4QC numbers fell under 60 for the season after ranging from 68 to 73 every year from 2011 to 2016. We also can thank the NFC East for oddities, such as the season’s lone tie when the Eagles came back late on the Bengals, and the only non-offensive game-winning score of 2020 was a fumble return touchdown by the Giants against Washington.  

Success rate for 4QC attempts was 30.0%, or just about average. GWD success rate was in the usual ballpark of 35.0% (2019 was 35.9%).

The following table shows a summary of each team’s success in close games this season. First, the offense’s record in games with a 4QC opportunity is shown. Next is the overall 4QC/GWD record, which also includes the games where the score was tied in the fourth quarter or overtime. For the defense, holds are games where the defense was successful in defending a one-score lead in the fourth quarter or overtime.

The number of games lost in which the team had a fourth-quarter lead is also shown. The last section shows the team’s overall record in close games, which are defined as games involving a 4QC/GWD opportunity on either side of the ball. Playoff teams are highlighted in gray. The table is in descending order of close game win percentage.

This information can be very useful for previewing the playoffs (which teams haven’t blown a lead and which struggle to hold them) or thinking about regression in 2021 for teams that won or lost a lot of close games.

More than usual, the playoff teams had the best records in close games with 11 of the top 12 teams qualifying for the playoffs. The only outlier happens to be Detroit, which was 4-2 in close games but 1-9 in non-close games. That is because of all the ass-kickings this team took this season, including Thanksgiving against Houston, losing 20-0 to P.J. Walker and the Panthers, and that demolition performed by Tampa Bay on a Saturday afternoon.

Washington (5-5) and the Rams (4-4) were only .500 in close games, but that is not uncommon for the coaching careers of Ron Rivera and Sean McVay. The most interesting playoff team here is Baltimore. For the second year in a row, the Ravens played in a league-low five close games. Last year, they were so dominant that they were 5-0 in close games. This year, the Ravens again finished with the best scoring differential (+165) in the NFL and led the league with nine wins of 14+ points. However, they were only 2-3 in close games, including a blown lead and overtime loss to the Titans in Week 11. Now the Ravens will have to avenge some past losses if they are to get back to the Super Bowl.

The Chiefs, Saints, and Titans are the only teams to not blow a late lead this year, though none of those defenses were tested more than four times in close games. The Titans were also bailed out heavily by their offense, including yesterday in Houston. Ryan Tannehill led the most 4QC (five) and GWD (six) in the league this season. Only Buffalo (6-1) tied the Titans for the best record in close games this season. No one really comes close to the 6-1 record the Titans had at GWD opportunities, and the only loss was against Pittsburgh after Stephen Gostkowski missed a field goal to force overtime.

The Seahawks may have blown a double-digit lead in Arizona in prime time this year, but otherwise, Seattle led the league with nine holds of a one-score lead, or two more than any team in 2020. The Seahawks were 9-2 in close games a year after finishing 7-2. It wasn’t as obvious this year since it wasn’t always Russell Wilson leading comebacks like he did on Sunday against the 49ers. But it’s those drives late in games to put away the Patriots, Cowboys, Cardinals, Washington, etc. that added up for Seattle’s 12-4 season. Now if only they can get the offense going like it was early in the season to match with the way the defense has played down the stretch. Then Seattle would have a fair shot of getting to the Super Bowl.

A year ago, the Packers were living off close game success, going 10-1 with eight holds and no blown leads. They added another hold in the playoffs against Seattle before getting blown out by the 49ers in the NFC Championship Game. This year the Packers are again 13-3, but it has come much differently with many more points scored. The Packers are still 5-2 at close games with five holds and one blown lead against the Colts.

The Eagles (15) and Chargers (14) played more close games than anyone. After winning some late in the season, the Chargers actually finished 6-8 in them while the Eagles limped to a 4-10-1 finish. The 10 failed 4QC/GWD (plus a tie) by the Eagles were the most in the league.

The 1995 expansion teams, Jaguars (1-7) and Panthers (2-9), had the worst records in close games this season. Jacksonville came back to beat the Colts in Week 1 and lost out the rest of the season, or what I’d call a “Weinke” as a nod to Chris Weinke and the 2001 Panthers, who also finished 1-15 with a 15-game losing streak.

The Panthers headlined five teams with a winless record at GWD opportunities. Carolina was 0-9 in a brutal year in crunch time for Teddy Bridgewater and Matt Rhule. The Falcons (0-7) did not have a single 4QC/GWD for the first time ever in the Matt Ryan era.

A year ago, I said that Houston could be a team to watch for with regression after 11 4QC/GWD in 2018-19. The Texans were 0-7 in their opportunities this year. The Jets (0-6) and Giants (0-5), with terrible offenses, were not surprisingly winless in these situations too.

It was a close battle, but the right team won in the end. The Atlanta Falcons led the league with five blown leads in the fourth quarter, beating out the Chargers and Texans with four each. All three teams fired their head coach this season. Atlanta (4-12) finishing dead last in the NFC despite only a -18 scoring differential is a shocker, but that’s what happens when you blow such winnable games in incredible fashion like the Falcons did this year.

In fact, the 2020 Falcons are hands down the best team to finish last in a conference in the 32-team era. I would advise owner Arthur Blank not to hang a banner for this achievement, but it is the closest thing the Falcons have to a trophy from this miserable, no good, rotten season.

NFL Stat Oddity: Week 13

It is getting harder to tell when an NFL week begins and ends this season, but the best of Week 13 may still be ahead of us on Monday and Tuesday. Even during a very “meh” late afternoon slate on Sunday, the NFL still surprised us with one of the biggest upsets of the season in Seattle, a ridiculous blowout in Los Angeles, and maybe the beginning of a new era in Philadelphia.

Even though I did not love these 12 games on Sunday, I still found something to write about eight of them. You might as well enjoy these NFL Sundays while you can as there are only four more of them this season.

Previous weeks in Stat Oddity:

I Fvcking Love Patrick Mahomes: Week 13 vs. Broncos

We start with the last game on Sunday night, the surprisingly low-scoring 22-16 win by the Chiefs over Denver. The Broncos not scoring much should come as no surprise, but for only the second time in 48 starts, Patrick Mahomes did not put up 23 points with the Chiefs.

Well, he actually did, but Andy Reid sent the punt team out in a hurry instead of challenging what would have been a 40-yard touchdown pass to Tyreek Hill in the second quarter after the receiver bobbled the ball, only for it to land on him without touching the ground.

That was one of just three drives (out of nine) where the Chiefs did not score points on the night, however the red zone was again a huge problem with Kansas City settling for four field goals down there.

One problem I see is too many cutesy, horizontal plays. Stop trying to flip the ball to multiple players or get Travis Kelce to throw a touchdown to Mahomes (that one was last week in Tampa Bay, another bad red zone day). In fact, the NBC graphic said that the Chiefs had seven straight red zone drives that did not result in a touchdown, the longest streak in the NFL this season. The Jets and Giants had streaks of six drives. You do not want to be compared to those offenses for anything. The Chiefs eventually ended that streak in this game with Mahomes’ lone touchdown pass to Travis Kelce late in the third quarter, but again, the Broncos are the only defense this season to hold Mahomes to a single touchdown pass and they did it twice. Mahomes has still technically never led his offense (not counting return touchdowns or the backup QB drives) to more than 30 points against Denver in seven starts, but he is 7-0 against them.

This game is another great example of how the Chiefs are their own worst enemy. Mahomes and Hill couldn’t connect on a potential 64-yard touchdown drive on the first drive of the game. You had Hill and Reid screw up the no-challenge, no-catch 40-yard touchdown. The only other drive without a score came in the fourth quarter with the Chiefs up 19-16. Mahomes thought he had an 18-yard completion to Sammy Watkins, but the pass was dropped. Two plays later, Mahomes threw a great 48-yard touchdown bomb to Hill, but a shady holding penalty negated that to bring up 3rd-and-20. Even then Mahomes nearly had the connection to Kelce, but the Chiefs had to punt.

This was the exact same stuff we saw in Tampa Bay last week between the red zone problems and the long fourth-quarter drive bogged down by penalties with Mahomes just missing on a 3rd-and-27 when it looked like the Chiefs were ready for the dagger.

But this time, the Chiefs failed to run out the final 6:07 on the clock. Mahomes was leading a good drive, but Reid was not quite aggressive enough after the Broncos used their final timeout at 2:28. If you have a 2nd-and-9 at the Denver 31 in that situation, you cannot worry about bringing the clock down to the two-minute warning with a “safe” run. You do not worry about the clock stopping for an incompletion. You have Mahomes. You let him touch the ball three straight plays if you have to, because he’s probably going to get those 9 yards and end this game. Instead, the “safe” run turned out to be a 3-yard loss by Le’Veon Bell, setting up a tough 3rd-and-12. Mahomes got 9 yards to Kelce, and then Reid let the clock go down to 1:12 before sending out the field goal unit.

Again, that is a mistake. Do not go for the 6-point lead and give the Broncos a minute to beat you with a touchdown. Let the best player win the game with one more play, and if he doesn’t get it, you know they’ll have a long field and will play for the field goal in that situation.

Harrison Butker made the 48-yard field goal after a penalty, but Drew Lock still had 64 seconds to drive 75 yards for the win. The Chiefs were fortunate to be playing Denver. The running game had a strong performance, but this was a time Lock had to make plays. He couldn’t even get one first down and ended the game the way he started it with an interception thrown to Tyrann Mathieu.

The Chiefs (11-1) escaped this one with another close win, but this felt more like a 2016-17 Chiefs game than what we are used to seeing. The play-calling in the red zone and the game management here would likely lead to playoff disappointment if the Chiefs were facing a stronger opponent with a more competent quarterback.

We are two weeks away from the Chiefs heading to New Orleans where maybe Drew Brees will be back for that game. That is one that could be so decisive for the No. 1 seed in both conferences, especially if the Steelers slip up on Monday or Sunday night in Buffalo.

Biggest Win for the Browns Since…

The Cleveland Browns have not won a playoff game since the 1994 season, but on Sunday they took a step closer to getting back to that level with a 41-35 win in Tennessee that was not as close as the final score suggests. Cleveland jumped out to a 38-7 halftime lead behind a monster half by Baker Mayfield before hanging on for the one-score win after a more than respectable comeback attempt by Tennessee.

The Browns were a 5-point underdog in this one and still have a negative scoring differential (-15) for the season, but Cleveland’s 9-3 record is now the third-best record in the AFC.

Since 1995, the Browns have had bigger upsets by the point spread than this game (most notably: a 12.5-point underdog in New Orleans in 2010). They have beaten higher-caliber playoff teams than the 2020 Titans, including last year’s 40-25 upset in Baltimore. They have certainly won some of these games by bigger margins, such as their 34-14 win over the 2010 Patriots that no one saw coming.

But none of those games happened in seasons where the Browns really mattered. Even in 2007, Cleveland’s only 10-win season since 1995, the only playoff team Cleveland beat that year was Seattle, and it was 33-30 in overtime. The only time the Browns have beaten a playoff Pittsburgh team in this time was in 2014, a 31-10 rout where the Browns were actually favored by 1.5 points at home.

When you consider the quality of the opponent and the magnitude of the game, you could argue this was the best Cleveland win since that 1994 playoff win.

Mayfield threw for more yards (290) and touchdowns (four) in the first half than he’s had in 15 of his last 16 full games. Will he get this many favorable looks against a defense better than the Titans in the playoffs? Probably not, but if the Browns are this prepared for a big game under rookie coach Kevin Stefanski as they were on Sunday, then it’s not unreasonable to think the Browns could win in Tennessee or Indy or Buffalo in the wild card round.

As for Tennessee, we can cancel the Derrick Henry MVP campaign immediately. Henry’s early stuffed run on 4th-and-1 and lost fumble set the tone for the avalanche Cleveland unleashed in the first half. Henry finished with 15 carries, ending his 20-game streak with at least 18 carries, the second-longest streak in NFL history (Emmitt Smith had a 23-game streak).

Had Henry been better on those two plays, the Titans may have had a real shot in this one. As it stands, the Titans are only the second team in NFL history to trail by 31 points at halftime and lose by fewer than seven points. The 1989 Packers trailed the Rams 38-7 at halftime and lost 41-38. Coincidentally enough, that game turned late on a fumble by fullback Brent Fullwood (a Pro Bowler in 1989 too) at the Rams 1-yard line after a 40-yard pass interference penalty put the Packers one yard away from tying the game after being down 31.

God damn, overrated power backs.

Seattle’s Giant Letdown

The last time I recall seeing the Seahawks trailing a mediocre team 14-5 in the second half, it was a 2016 game in Tampa Bay. Russell Wilson threw two picks and suffered six sacks while the 14-5 score never changed from halftime. It ended Seattle’s historic 98 game “no blowout” streak:

There was a sense of déjà vu seeing the Seahawks trail 14-5 into the fourth quarter on Sunday against a Giants team that was a 10.5-point underdog and starting Colt McCoy at quarterback. McCoy was about as limited as expected, throwing for 105 yards on 22 attempts. However, he kept his turnovers limited to one and took advantage of some big runs and field position provided to him.

This 17-12 loss, the final nail in Wilson receiving a single MVP vote this year, lies mostly with the offense, which scored 10 points on 12 drives (Seattle added a safety on a blocked punt before the end of the half).

Much like that 14-5 loss in 2016, Wilson accounted for two turnovers and five sacks in this one. However, the fumble was a botched exchange from center and the fourth-quarter interception was a drop-turned-pick by running back Chris Carson. That’s not to say this is not one of the most disappointing losses of the Pete Carroll-Wilson era. This was supposed to be the easiest part of Seattle’s schedule as it looked to take control of the NFC West, but now could have to settle for facing the NFC East division winner (and a potentially embarrassing repeat of this loss) in January.

Wilson had only lost one game in his career as a double-digit favorite before Sunday: a 27-13 loss to the 2015 Rams as a 12-point favorite. Multi-score favorites (9+ points) were absolutely crushing it this season, posting a 20-1 record coming into Week 13. The only loss was the Chiefs (-11) hosting the Raiders. That record is now 23-2 after Sunday.

Wilson had the chance to be the hero again on the final drive, but only moved the ball 26 yards to midfield before his 4th-and-18 Hail Mary fell incomplete with 37 seconds left. It was 4th-and-18 due to a third-down sack.

Seattle is hardly immune to offensive performances such as this one, but you have to go back to November 2017 against Washington (17-14 final) to find the last time Seattle lost a game without allowing at least 23 points. That covers a span of 20 losses.

Again, Wilson’s problem is that his “MVP seasons” always last for seven or nine-game spurts. After getting off to his best start ever in 2020, this year appears to be no different.

Eagles at Packers: Scrap the Wentz Wagon for Parts

It’s time, Philadelphia. No, not the time for me to write an “I told you so” essay about Carson Wentz. That will come later. It’s time for head coach Doug Pederson to do the right thing and bench Wentz for rookie Jalen Hurts.

He did so in the second half of this 30-16 loss to Green Bay, and it did provide some life and enough positives for the Eagles to go forward with this switch. Five of Philadelphia’s six longest gains on Sunday came with Hurts at quarterback and on his arm or legs, including a 32-yard touchdown pass on a 4th-and-18. The Eagles were down 23-3 in the fourth quarter but still made this a one-score game with that miracle touchdown and a punt return touchdown. Of course they failed again in the clutch, but Hurts showed more than Wentz did on this day and he did not look like the human pinata that Wentz masquerades as this season.

The Eagles have to face New Orleans (10-2) next, a tough task. However, the last time Wentz faced the Saints, he lost 48-7 in 2018. How could it be any worse with Hurts starting for the first time? Also, the Saints still have an unconventional quarterback in Hill instead of the efficient Drew Brees, and Philadelphia’s defense is decent enough to keep the game winnable.

With the Eagles (3-8-1) continuing to lose ground in the worst division ever, Pederson has nothing to lose by making the quarterback switch now, and everything to gain if Hurts looks like the real deal. The Eagles could still sneak into the playoffs if this run happens, or they can at least feel confident about not having to acquire another quarterback for 2021 with what will be a high draft pick.

Any other quarterback playing as poorly as Wentz has this season with sacks and turnovers would be benched by now. He’s not the franchise quarterback. He’s not owed anything for a Super Bowl run that Nick Foles finished three seasons ago. Wentz is just there dragging the team down while there might be a better option already available to the Eagles.

The Most Patriots-Chargers Game of All Time

I loathe seeing the Chargers play the Patriots because I just know they are going to find some way to shoot themselves in the foot and lose the game like they have almost every single time since the 2006 AFC divisional round loss.

While that playoff game was a sign of things to come, Sunday’s 45-0 blowout is probably the most hilarious Chargers-Patriots game yet, and it didn’t even need to feature Philip Rivers or Tom Brady.

Bill Belichick took his misfit toys to SoFi Stadium and won 45-0 in a game where Cam Newton only passed for 69 yards. The Patriots scored on a 70-yard punt return and blocked a field goal for a touchdown to end the first half. The Chargers have been horrible on special teams this year, but this game was quite the masterpiece even for their standards in this series.

While he was there, Belichick also saw his defense embarrass rookie quarterback Justin Herbert. If last week in Buffalo was Herbert’s first bad game, this week was his first terrible one. While the special teams stole the show in the first half, in the second half Herbert threw two interceptions and failed on three different fourth downs to end the game. He should not have even been playing that quarter with the deficit out of control, but this is why Anthony Lynn should not be the coach in 2021 and it was laughable to see the Chargers favored in this game (-1.5) with that disparity in coaching on display.

Holding the Chargers scoreless is an impressive feat. This franchise once scored at least 10 points in 105 consecutive games, which is still the NFL record. This current team, going back to 2015, had scored at least 10 points in 80 straight games (including playoffs), which was the fourth-longest streak in NFL history. That streak is now over and the longest active streak belongs to Kansas City at 56 games. You can see the scoring streak for each number of points in the table below, including a New Orleans streak that is still active and the domination the Chiefs have had with scoring 22-26 points (three separate streaks there).

Lions Stun Bears Without Matt Patricia

Just last week, I pointed out that Matt Patricia’s Lions were 3-15-1 (.184) in fourth-quarter comeback opportunities and 5-16-1 (.250) in all game-winning drive opportunities.

However, you might be shocked to know that the Lions are now 4-1 in GWD opportunities and close games this season. It was the ugly losses by 14+ points that got Patricia canned a week ago. The Lions didn’t start this first game with Darrell Bevell as the interim coach much better, but they had a strong finish.

Matthew Stafford led the 30th fourth-quarter comeback of his career, and one that could be among the most memorable given he passed for 402 yards in the game. The Lions returned the favor to Chicago from Week 1 when the Bears rallied from a 17-point deficit in the fourth quarter in a 27-23 win. Here, Detroit was down 30-20 with 4:33 left at its own 4. Stafford led a 96-yard touchdown drive with 2:18 left. Three plays later, Mitchell Trubisky fumbled on a sack and the Lions were 7 yards away from the end zone. No passing fancy here, the Lions handed off twice to Adrian Peterson, who scored the game-winning touchdown with 1:37 left. The Bears lost 34-30 after David Montgomery was stuffed on a 4th-and-1 at the Detroit 20 with 11 seconds left.

The game-winning drive was gifted to him, but it never means a thing without Stafford’s 96-yard drive to get things going. Stafford is the 13th quarterback to have 30 fourth-quarter comeback wins, and he did it in 164 games. Only Johnny Unitas (163) did it in fewer games.

Is Stafford the worst quarterback on this list? Yeah, I think that’s more than fair to say. But it would be nice to see how he would look on a competent team with an actual defense and everything. Maybe we still get that chance someday, but for now, the Lions are 1-0 in the post-Patricia era. Hell, win out (GB, at TEN, TB, MIN) and Detroit will probably promote Bevell to head coach.

With a 5-0 finish against that slate, it might actually be the right move too.

Jets Deliver Masterpiece on Way to Imperfect Season

As I was eating my steak dinner, I saw Derek Carr drawing multiple defensive holding flags on third and fourth down incompletions with the Raiders (-8) trailing the winless Jets late by a 28-24 score. I have seen this too many times before. Carr gets bailed out by the refs, then he finishes off a game-winning drive.

Except this time, it did not happen. He threw incomplete on another fourth down and the Jets took over with 1:37 left. I figured they had finally found a way to win a game in 2020. They will not join the 0-16 ranks of the 2008 Lions and 2017 Browns.

I was already thinking of how to trash the Raiders for this loss – I had money on Devontae Booker TD/Raiders ML combo — but the Jets seemed to have other ideas in mind. First, they ran the ball on 3rd-and-6 with the Raiders out of timeouts. It is not an indefensible call. Running would burn more time, you’re up a touchdown, and Sam Darnold is totally unreliable as a quarterback. I can justify giving the Raiders the ball back with 35 seconds, needing 61 yards.

But what in the bloody fvck was that defense on the final drive? They didn’t cover Darren Waller (200 yards, 2 TD) all day, so those 15 yards make sense. But how does Nelson Agholor get by three defenders in the back of the end zone when only a touchdown can beat you? Carr overthrew him and only 13 seconds remained.

On the next play, Jets defensive coordinator Greggggggg Williams just had to send seven pass-rushers at Carr, leaving speedy rookie wideout Henry Ruggs in single coverage on the outside. Ruggs burned his man for a 46-yard touchdown bomb with five seconds left.

The Raiders were going to win, and it seemed like the Jets wanted exactly that. Why not? You can get the No. 1 pick and Trevor Lawrence in the draft if you keep losing. If there was a way to compete hard, look like you want to win, but ultimately offer the game up on a silver platter if the opposing QB will take it, then this was exactly that kind of tanking finish.

ESPN had the details on that defensive play call:

Out of the last 251 plays, no one sent the house like Greggggggg did. Is it uncharacteristic for him under normal circumstances? Absolutely not. But is there any sense to doing that when a team needs a Hail Mary and only a touchdown will beat you? Hell no. Make him throw a jump ball to a crowd instead of attacking single coverage like that.

Carr is the 32nd quarterback to have 20 fourth-quarter comeback wins. He’s done so in the third-fewest games (106).

This was a disgraceful ending, but also the most perfect ending yet for the Jets this season as they look to achieve imperfection.

Colts at Texans: What the Half?

If there is anything more certain than the Patriots beating the Chargers or Derek Carr drawing crucial flags for a game-winning drive, it’s T.Y. Hilton dominating the Houston Texans. Hilton came into Sunday averaging a career-low 40.8 yards per game with just one touchdown this season. But sure enough, against his favorite team to face, Hilton had a season-high 110 yards and a touchdown to pace the Colts in their 26-20 win to move to 8-4.

I remember seeing the 24-20 score at halftime and thinking we were getting a pretty good shootout between the Colts and Texans, including Deshaun Watson still playing very well despite the six-game suspension for Will Fuller starting Sunday.

Then an odd thing happened in the second half: two more points were scored. Both offenses struggled mightily with sacks in the second half, Watson threw his first interception in almost 300 attempts after Brandin Cooks had the ball taken away from him by Kenny Moore, and the only scoring play was Justin Houston sacking Watson in the end zone for a safety with 6:02 left.

Watson still had a great chance for a game-winning drive, but a bad snap and fumble at the Indy 2-yd line doomed the comeback effort with 1:22 left. The game ended 26-20 after that 24-20 halftime score.

Props to Stephen Holder for pointing out the huge difference in scoring between the halves. After looking into it, I don’t think there’s ever been a game like this in NFL history before.

A couple teams, the last being Oilers-Chargers in 1964, got to at least 17 points in the first half before scoring nothing in the second half, but never just two points on a safety after at least 20 points in the first half before this one.

From my preseason predictions on Houston:

After leading five game-winning drives in each of the last two seasons, there’s a chance things don’t break Houston’s way for Watson in close games again. Maybe that loss of familiarity and comfort with Hopkins comes into play there. A more balanced team in Tennessee or a Philip Rivers resurgence in Indy could be enough to take the division away from Houston this year, but for now I’ll trust Watson. If things go too south, maybe it will be time for O’Brien to do the right thing and fire himself.

Sure enough, the Texans are 0-4 at 4QC/GWD opportunities this season and 2-4 in close games. At least Bill O’Brien was fired, but there is still a lot of work to be done in Houston.

NFL Stat Oddity: Week 7

The Steelers and Seahawks were the NFL’s last two undefeated teams, and both continued their hot scoring streaks by racing out to 27 points before Ben Roethlisberger and Russell Wilson both tossed three interceptions. One team still prevailed after a kicker missed, and the other team almost prevailed after a kicker missed (but didn’t miss twice).

Previous weeks in Stat Oddity:

We’ve Seen This Seattle Show Before

The Seahawks went into a prime-time game on the road against a division foe for their biggest test of the season as Russell Wilson was leading the MVP race. Wilson had a mixture of highlights and struggles, but led the Seahawks to a late 3-point lead, which was answered by a game-tying field goal and overtime. Wilson threw an inexplicable interception in the extra period, but Seattle still looked poised to win after the opponent missed a game-winning field goal.

If any of that sounds familiar, it’s because it wasn’t just last night in Arizona, but it’s basically the same script the Seahawks followed in their 27-24 Monday night win in San Francisco last November. The difference is Wilson’s interception this time was too much to overcome, and Arizona didn’t miss a game-winning field goal twice, downing the 5-0 Seahawks by a 37-34 final.

Look, we know Seattle loves to play dangerously close to the vest, and even on a night where the offense compiled 377 yards in the first half, the lead was never greater than 13 and the offense went cold in the second half (three punts, two interceptions, and a 45-yard touchdown drive). It sounds weird to say since the Cardinals never led outside of kicking the game-winning field goal late in overtime, but Arizona deserved to win this game for making fewer mistakes.

It’s the signature win so far for the Kliff Kingsbury/Kyler Murray era, but it wasn’t perfect of course. Murray saw a terrible interception from Wilson in the fourth quarter and immediately raised him one of his own on the next play. Still, it’s the first game in NFL history where both quarterbacks passed for over 300 yards and rushed for over 50 yards. For that matter they were both over 360/65, but we’ll footnote that one.

The worst part was in overtime when the Cardinals had the Seahawks on the ropes, but Murray lost 5 yards on a weird first-down play that looked like he was trying to center the ball. Kingsbury somehow was okay with kicking a 41-yard field goal on 2nd-and-15 instead of using the downs (and clock in case of a miss) to get closer. That’s when Zane Gonzalez was wide left on the game-winning kick after he made a warm-up try. That’s when you thought Seattle might pull this one out again, but after D.K. Metcalf had a game-winning touchdown taken away because of a correctly called holding penalty, Wilson threw his worst interception in quite some time as there was no receiver in the area. That set up redemption for Gonzalez in the form of a 48-yard field goal, and thankfully he made it to avoid the dreaded tie.

It was a classic Seattle letdown in the fourth quarter. The Seahawks led 34-24 with 6:44 left, but the Cardinals were able to slow roll their way to a touchdown, force a punt after five snaps using their four clock stoppages, and Murray delivered a last-minute field goal drive like a veteran.

It was classic Pete Carroll prevent in calling three-man rushes and even allowing the Cardinals to work in many run plays to complete the comeback. Murray even had a 15-yard QB draw on the game-tying field goal drive.

With the loss, the Seahawks broke a streak of posting a 59-0 record in the Wilson era (2012-20) when leading at halftime by at least 4 points. Now I’m not a big fan of such stats when we know this team blew a 10-point fourth-quarter lead to the Patriots in Super Bowl XLIX. We know in 2015 that Andy Dalton led a 17-point 4QC against the Seahawks and Cam Newton led the Panthers back from a 9-point deficit. Games like that tell me more about your ability to close teams out than some quirky stat about the score at halftime.

Of course, we used to see this often for Seattle. In Wilson’s first four years, they blew 15 fourth-quarter leads. That number has gone down in the four-plus seasons since to eight while Wilson has been leading a very similar share of close wins.

  • 2012-2015: 13 4QC wins for Seattle, 15 4QC wins for opponents
  • 2016-2020: 13 4QC wins for Seattle, 8 4QC wins for opponents

If you look at Wilson’s career compared to other great, successful quarterbacks, you’ll see he really stands out in just how many of his games come down to late theatrics like on Sunday night (or Sunday night against Minnesota, or Sunday night against the Patriots, or Sunday night against the 49ers in Week 17 last year, etc.)

The table is sorted by highest percentage of losses where the opponent had a 4QC win, and Wilson has a staggering rate now as 47.4% of his losses have been comebacks against Seattle. The other quarterbacks are all more than 15 percentage points behind him. Wilson is also the only quarterback listed to win more than 25% of his games via 4QC. Finally, Wilson has the highest rate of his starts that are a 4QC for his team (17.4%) and a 4QC against his team (15.4%).

Drew Brees has the most losses by a QB in NFL history after leading in the fourth quarter (39), but if Wilson plays as long as Brees has, he’ll be around 45 such games at this current pace.

Sunday was just the latest case where the ball bounced the opponent’s way too often, but it is also one where Wilson was largely at fault for the outcome. He’s still leading the MVP race in my eyes, but if he has more moments like this in the upcoming stretch of three division games out of the next four, then things are going to get interesting again.

However, when is it not interesting with Wilson and the Seahawks? Put them on SNF next week too against the 49ers. Spare us your Dallas-Philadelphia horseshit, NFL.

Steelers Win Big Road Game, But Are the Titans a Playoff Team?

The shocking stat I pulled out for my Steelers-Titans preview was that the Steelers had lost 36 of their last 37 road games to playoff teams when allowing more than 21 points. Well, either the Titans aren’t making the playoffs this year after a 5-0 start, or the Steelers just picked up their second such win in the last 38 tries.

Pittsburgh improved to 6-0, all alone with the best record in the NFL for the first time since 2004, by beating the Titans 27-24, but it sure wasn’t easy. They overcame an uneven game from Ben Roethlisberger, who was masterful on third down (Steelers: 13/18) and in building a 27-7 lead, but he also threw three interceptions. The Steelers only managed a field goal on their final six possessions.

The Titans hung in there to the end, but a rough day from Ryan Tannehill culminated with a huge intentional grounding penalty that led to a game-tying field goal attempt. Stephen Gostkowski has some great career numbers, but the reason he was never revered in New England like Adam Vinatieri is the lack of huge clutch kicks on his resume. It’s not that he was terrible at them, but he just wasn’t put in that position often. The Titans put him there from 45 yards away with 19 seconds left, but he pulled the kick wide right to end the game. He only lost one game in similar fashion for the Patriots back in 2012 against Arizona.

This was definitely as good as any road win the Steelers have had since knocking off the 5-0 Chiefs at Arrowhead in 2017. The second half gives me some pause, but this team can prove a lot of naysayers wrong next week with another win at Baltimore, the ultimate test of the season. If the Steelers can win that game, then it’s not a stretch to say they can be 10-0 when the teams meet again in Week 12 given the upcoming schedule (DAL, CIN, JAX).

The 2020 Steelers, along with this year’s Seahawks, remain very consistent scorers. They are the 11th and 12th teams since 1940 to score at least 26 points in each of their first six games:

Several of the best offenses of all time are in that list, and all of the teams in the Super Bowl era finished no worse than third in scoring and seven out of nine made it to at least a Conference Championship Game.

I’m not saying to pencil in a Super Bowl XL rematch by any means, but this has been good so far.

Denver’s Demoralizing Day

You know, it must suck to lose a game 43-16, but it must suck even more to do it when it’s snowing and the temperature is in the teens. The first snow game this season unsurprisingly took place in Denver, but it showed just how far behind the Broncos are not only to the Chiefs, but how they’re also falling behind the rest of the division with Justin Herbert looking like a stud for the Chargers.

Drew Lock, I’m not sure how he pissed off the football gods to draw Patrick Mahomes twice in the snow already, but Lock was the bigger story on Sunday for all the wrong reasons. Lock continuously missed throws, bypassed easier plays, and just looked lost out there even after the snow eased up. Sure, injuries have been horrible for Denver this season, but aside from Courtland Sutton, he had most of the intended offense out there around him on Sunday. Denver’s running game was quite good with the two main backs combining for 147 yards on 26 carries, but it didn’t matter. The defense did a more than respectable job on the Chiefs, holding Mahomes to 200 passing yards and the Chiefs were 0-for-8 on third down.

Do you know how hard it is to make a team go 0-8 on third down and still lose 43-16?

The Chiefs are the 98th team since 1991 to have zero third down conversions on at least eight attempts, but they’re the first team out of the 98 to win the game by more than 22 points. That’s what two return touchdowns can do for you, but it still capped off another big scoring day for a team that is so used to walking into the building with at least 23 points on the board.

That’s right, the Chiefs had a record-long streak of scoring 23+ points (including playoffs), had it stopped in a 19-13 loss to the Colts last year, and immediately continued on the second-longest streak in history that should replace the old one with the Jets and Panthers up next. Amazing stuff.

Denver has not beaten the Chiefs since a beaten down Peyton Manning had the worst game of his professional career in 2015. But it’s not a coincidence that the Broncos haven’t been relevant ever since Manning retired following that Super Bowl season, and it’s not looking good so far for Lock being the answer at the most important position on the team.

Lock may have rushed for a touchdown on Sunday, but even that was matched by Chad Henne in mop-up duty in the fourth quarter.

Don’t Bury Brees and the Saints Yet

New Orleans (4-2) won a third game in a row, taking down Carolina 27-24 after one of the best third-down performances on offense on record. The Saints finished 12 of 14 on third down (85.7%). The only better performance since 1991 (min. 8 attempts) belongs to Drew Brees and the Saints as well. They were 11 of 12 (91.7%) on third down against the Lions in a 42-7 win in 2008.

I really do wonder if the lack of a big crowd is helping some of these ridiculous third-down performances this year, though this game was in New Orleans. The Steelers were in Tennessee and the Eagles were in Pittsburgh a few weeks ago as examples of road teams feasting on third down. It’s something to keep an eye on in 2020.

We’ll learn plenty about the 2020 Saints as they travel to Chicago and Tampa Bay the next two weeks but going almost perfect on third down without your top two wideouts (Michael Thomas and Emmanuel Sanders) is impressive to me.

Games involving the Saints have been high scoring this year with both teams scoring at least 23 points in all six games. That’s only been done by two other teams in NFL history: 2002 Bills and 2012 Saints (go figure). The difference is the Saints were 2-4 in 2012 when they did that versus 4-2 this year. (Note: The 2020 Seahawks have also done this.)

If Thomas and Sanders can return for these upcoming games, then we’ll finally get a sense of what the offense can be at “full strength” this season.

F*** the Falcons

If you’re wondering why I’m not going over how the Falcons imploded this time against Detroit, it’s because I don’t feel like giving public attention to my abusers. I’m hurt and I’m tired of it.

Just take two knees, kick a field goal and the game should be won. Don’t even let Todd Gurley make a mistake by scoring a touchdown he had no business scoring, or that ridiculous defense taking the field on the final drive.

Enough is enough.

NFL Week 7 Predictions: Steelers at Titans

My family and I are not having the best health week, but I’d be remiss not to share some thoughts on a big game in the AFC.

The Steelers are 5-0 for the first time since 1978, which remains the gold standard Pittsburgh team, and that means it’s the first time in my lifetime they’ve started this well. The Titans, listed as a 1-point favorite on Sunday, are also 5-0 and ahead in the tie-breakers for the No. 1 seed.

This is only the fifth time since 2001 where two undefeated teams 5-0 or better are meeting, and it wouldn’t have happened if not for COVID-19 (game was originally scheduled for Week 4 when they were both 3-0):

Would most people still pick the Chiefs and Ravens as the best teams in the AFC over the Steelers and Titans? Probably, but it’s been fun starts for these teams and this is an interesting matchup.

The Steelers (and the 2020 Seahawks) are now on a list of 16 teams in the Super Bowl era who scored at least 26 points in each of their first five games:

There are a lot of really great offensive teams in that list — think 2013 Broncos, 1998 Vikings, 2018 Chiefs — but the 2020 Steelers don’t strike me as one of them yet. This is mostly because they’ve been able to produce this without establishing a real offensive identity.

We only saw six quarters of Ben Roethlisberger in 2019, but it was obvious then that this offense was not sure how to replace the departure of Antonio Brown. Roethlisberger was throwing a ton of short passes and they weren’t pushing the ball down the field like they used to. Then once Roethlisberger went out for the season, the offense really lacked talent and production. But since he’s returned this season, Roethlisberger still is feeling his way back into the game and throwing a lot of short, quick passes again. JuJu Smith-Schuster is only averaging 8.4 yards per reception this year and has seemingly been surpassed by rookie Chase Claypool as the new #1 receiver.

From his first catch on MNF against the Giants, Claypool has looked fantastic. He can make the deep sideline catch, make an 84-yard TD look effortless, he’s shown a little YAC ability, and they’ve even worked him into the goal line package with rushing plays for a pair of scores. I’m really fascinated by him so far, but I’d like to see more refined roles for JuJu, James Washington, and Diontae Johnson. It’s hard to say what the plan is with JuJu these days, but Washington should still be an outside deep threat and Johnson would be better in the slot while Claypool and JuJu can move around more.

Of course the Steelers always want to run the ball well, but that’s been hit or miss with James Conner this year. He’s ripped off several big runs, but sometimes the offensive line, which has gone through a few replacement starters already, just doesn’t open up anything for him.

So it’s still not clear if the Steelers want to be a shotgun dink-and-dunk offense, a big-play offense, a smash-mouth meets play-action (just kidding, they never use it) offense, or what mixture exactly. Maybe the fact that they’ve produced these results without having a clear identity is a good thing and they can only grow and get better as Roethlisberger works his way back from a year out, Claypool learns, Eric Ebron gets more comfortable at tight end, the line gels, etc.

Meanwhile, the Titans are back to a pretty clear offensive plan: get Derrick Henry his 20+ rushes, use a lot of play-action, and Ryan Tannehill has been very accurate and safe with the ball while also drastically cutting down on his sacks from 2019. The Titans just racked up 607 yards of offense in a 42-36 overtime win over Houston, though that was really the first game this year where Henry was unstoppable. I think the Steelers, an elite rushing defense by most metrics, will have bigger problems stopping the passing game this week than Henry.

The key injury news in this game is that LT Taylor Lewan and LB Devin Bush both tore their ACL, ending their seasons. It’s not good news for either team, but I think both will be able to replace them without much of a noticeable decline. It’s bigger news this week for the Titans as Pittsburgh’s aggressive defense led by T.J. Watt and Bud Dupree on the edges will be coming after Tannehill. The Steelers would be worse off if those guys (or Cameron Heyward) were out for the year than Bush. But I still want to see how the Steelers perform against a good passing offense. The Browns were scoring a lot of points coming into last week, but Baker Mayfield was not having a big season. The Steelers rattled him early into his worst statistical game, and it was one of the best performances by the Steelers defense in years. They’ll be dealing with a tougher quarterback this time around.

But are the Titans a bit overrated? Outside of the Buffalo game, the Titans have four wins by 12 points. Tannehill’s only the second QB ever (1966 Charley Johnson on the Cardinals) to lead four game-winning drives in his team’s first five games, but that’s rarely a recipe for later success in the season. Those 1966 Cardinals (8-5-1) still missed the playoffs, though it was at the expense of losing Johnson for five starts.

Even in the 42-16 win over Buffalo, the Titans had TD drives of 16, 30, 12, and 18 yards. That’s 28 points on 76 yards of offense. So if you don’t hand them the short fields, you have a decent shot. The Titans (3) and Steelers (4) have two of the lowest giveaway totals this year.

At the end of the day, I’m going with the home team. Homefield doesn’t mean what it used to in 2020, but the Steelers have played their last four games at home. This is a step up in competition for both teams, but I think this is a game where the Steelers offense will have to be sharp and productive. I don’t think all that highly of a mediocre Tennessee defense that’s already allowed 30 points three times this season, but they have come up with 9 takeaways to match Pittsburgh’s total.

The game likely comes down to which QB handles the pass rush and protects the ball better. As much as I’d like to pick the Steelers in this one, I just think it’s the kind of game they historically lose, either by a bad turnover day on offense, or the defense blows the lead late.

Stat to consider: Since 1993, the Steelers are 1-36 in road games against playoff teams that scored more than 21 points (1-18 with Ben Roethlisberger at QB). The only win was in 2013, 38-31 over a Green Bay team that started Matt Flynn in place of an injured Aaron Rodgers. If you believe the Titans are of playoff caliber at 5-0 and it’s going to be a shootout, then I’d go with Tennessee. If you think the Steelers kick their ass on defense, then that’s their path to victory in this one.

Final: Titans 27, Steelers 24

2020 NFL Week 7 Predictions

Here are the rest of my picks for the week.

With the new COVID protocols this feels like a week where things could be really stacked against some teams if they have a unit almost entirely wiped out over virus concerns. The tight ends for Buffalo are going through that, but fortunately they aren’t the engine in that offense and they’re only playing the Jets. I really wanted to pull the trigger on the Jets again, but I’ve already been burned five times in six weeks there this season. Similar thoughts on the Panthers-Saints game with the Saints down Michael Thomas and Emmanuel Sanders. Are they really going to play Taysom Hill out wide for 30+ snaps? Carolina’s been hit or miss this year, but that felt like a spot where I’ll hedge and take the underdog to cover. I’ve also temporarily given up on Dallas this year until Andy Dalton starts to look like he can put up points with those receivers.

Lastly, I have no idea if the Bears are any good again, but I know what their winning seasons tend to look like. The Rams are very unpredictable from week to week and I’m a little surprised the spread is that big on MNF. I think the Bears could get a return TD in that game and force Jared Goff into mistakes to win that one.

NFL Stat Oddity: Week 6

Most of Week 6’s excitement centered on Tennessee’s 42-36 overtime win over the Texans. Romeo Crennel did something cool, Mike Vrabel played it safe, and everyone from Rich Gannon to most of Twitter got on my nerves when it came to these two-point conversions that have been a big story this season.

Previous weeks:

AFC South Gone Wild: Texans at Titans

The Titans (5-0) hung on to the AFC’s top seed with their league-high fourth game-winning drive of the season after getting the only possession in overtime. It’s practically a miracle the game even reached that extra session after a hot finish from Deshaun Watson, a shot at a 9-point lead in the final two minutes, another crazy Tennessee touchdown that felt fishy to me, and a bypass of the two-point conversion from Mike Vrabel.

Let’s start with Watson, who led Houston to touchdowns on five of his last eight drives and two touchdowns on his final two drives. He didn’t have any turnovers and only took two sacks, which is low for him. Meanwhile, Ryan Tannehill had a strip-sack fumble and threw a pick in the fourth quarter that Watson seemed to cash in with a long drive to ice the game.

Houston scored with 1:50 left and a 36-29 lead. Now I never thought interim coach Romeo Crennel, being a crusty defensive guru, would actually do the right thing and go for two to put this one away with a 9-point lead, but he called for it. Watson had a receiver open on the play too, but just couldn’t make the throw.

CBS announcer Rich Gannon was immediately troubled by the call and thought the extra point was the right move to make it an 8-point game. He tried to justify it on Twitter too:

Uh, bollocks, Rich. For one, Zimmer made a mistake when he didn’t go for a two late in that Seattle game last week. Furthermore, by making it a 9-point game you have effectively just ended the game with 1:50 left with the Titans down to one timeout. Now the Titans have to hurry a score, which they may not even try for the end zone if it’s taking too long. Then they’ll have to recover an onside kick, and we all know that’s nearly impossible these days. The onside kick numbers were 12-of-114 recovered (10.5%) for 2018-19 and that’s not removing some surprise ones that have a better shot. Then if they do get one, they have to score again, either with a possible Hail Mary or long field goal from a kicker who has been inconsistent this season. So good luck with all of that.

Also, who cares if the Texans are up 8, Rich? Even if they’re up 7, they can get a stop or takeaway on defense to end the game. They can also still win in overtime because it’s no guarantee that the Titans would go for two to win in regulation (psst: they didn’t).

The point everyone needs to remember is that whether you’re up 9, 8, or 7, the goal on defense remains the same: don’t allow a touchdown. Period. You don’t allow a touchdown, you don’t lose the game. Stop them on a long field by any means necessary.

Of course Gannon finished his point by saying the guy in New England, Bill Belichick, kicks the extra point every time. I’m not so sure about that, but then again, I was disappointed to see Belichick mouth “why are they going for two?” when Pete Carroll and the Seahawks finally pulled this rare strategy on them in 2016. The Seahawks also didn’t convert in taking a 31-24 lead, but the defense did the job and stopped the Patriots from scoring a game-tying touchdown at the end. Going for nine was absolutely the right call for Houston, and it’s really a no-brainer in the final two minutes.

Also, Belichick happened to go for an early two-point conversion at the same time in his loss to Denver with the Patriots down 18-9. Was that a great call? Keep in mind the Patriots kicked a field goal on 4th-and-5 at the Denver 20 with 3:23 left to make it an 18-12 game. You’re not even guaranteed to get the ball back in that situation. If Belichick just kicked the extra point early and trailed 18-10, they could have gone for it on that 4th-and-5. It’s an extra opportunity in decent field position gone to waste.

For some reason, NFL Twitter seems to think it’s a great strategy to go for two on the first touchdown when you’re down 15, but these same people don’t seem to like going for two up seven to take a 9-point lead. This has always seemed really ass-backwards to me as they’re not respecting how safe a 9-point lead is late in the game:

The 8-point lead is overrated when the only difference it has over 7 is the two-point conversion, a near 50/50 proposition for the league. But if your defense just allowed a team to drive the length of the field for a touchdown, what makes you think they’re going to suddenly find their stopping prowess at the 2-yard line? It’s a fool’s safety blanket to think the two-point conversion will solve your inability to do the main goal your defense has: don’t allow a touchdown.

Now in Belichick’s case, there was 8:31 left when the Patriots failed on the 2PC. That’s more reasonable given the time left. The game isn’t going to just end at 8:31 like it probably would at 3:24 had the Rams on Sunday night gone for two early and failed. Sean McVay kicked the extra point instead and I think it was absolutely the right call even though Al Michaels and Cris Collinsworth had a half-assed disagreement about it. The Rams ended up never getting the ball back so it was a moot finish.

The worst assumption people make on this is that a team down 8 will take their sweet old time to score a touchdown until it’s too late to do anything else if they fail on the game-tying 2PC. That’s just not how the NFL works, especially if we’re talking about drives that start in the final minutes. Teams know they have to be in hurry-up mode at all times. They aren’t going to turn down a touchdown when they see one open to work the clock. That’s nonsense. They’ll take the score when they can get it and they usually get it before the game is over.

I only found 20 cases since 2001 where a team down 8 scored a touchdown in the final 60 seconds and failed on the two-point conversion. Only two of those teams (2004 ATL vs. SEA, 2005 NE vs. MIA) scored with no time left on the clock, so no onside kick was possible. It should be noted that in both cases it was teams playing backups in Week 17 with the starters resting for the playoffs. In fact, I’ll go to the grave saying that Belichick purposely told Matt Cassel to throw the 2PC away so the Patriots could face the overrated Jaguars in the Wild Card that year instead of red-hot Pittsburgh, the eventual champion.

Those two aside, that left 18 teams that scored with 10 to 47 seconds left. The funny thing is four of these 18 teams were able to recover an onside kick after failing on the 2PC. That’s 22.2%, or vintage onside kick recovery back when you could get one once in a while. The 2007 Cowboys infamously beat Buffalo on Monday Night Football after failing with 20 seconds left, but recovering an onside kick and Tony Romo set up a game-winning field goal. The 2007 Cardinals (vs. WAS), Romo’s 2012 Cowboys (vs. BAL), and Aaron Rodgers’ 2015 Packers (vs. Lions) also recovered onside kicks, but their kickers all missed from 50+ yards out to end the game. Remember, we’ve seen offenses set up a field goal in 6 seconds before. It’s not that hard from midfield these days.

So it’s not entirely hopeless if you fail on the late 2PC, and at least you extended the game and got to that point to tie it in the first place. When you chase the two early you risk bringing on the endgame situation sooner than you had to. The other part that’s odd is why isn’t the argument to go 8+8 and win the game in regulation? If you’re that confident about the 2PC, then why not go for two of them and the win? Except we know that’s very hard to do and NFL teams down 15 are almost always just playing for the tie.

I’m not going to pass this as my final research on the topic, but it’s going past 6 A.M. and I just want to get this out before getting some sleep with the double-header around the corner Monday. I just find it really annoying how people seem to be treating two-point conversions as both too hard and a great luxury. Pick a side. I think going for the 9-point lead is great in almost every case. I think going for two early down 15 could be okay if there’s a lot of time left, but usually it’s a never for me after the 5:00 or 4:00 mark. I’m at least consistent on this.

Someone who is not so aggressively consistent is Vrabel, who had a big decision to make when the Titans scored with 0:04 left and trailed 36-35. Now if there was ever a situation where the Two-or-Die attempt made sense, it would be this one.

  • You know your offense is better than your defense.
  • You know your offense is better than their defense.
  • You know their offense is better than your defense.
  • Your offense is over 500 yards in regulation, your QB is mobile, and your RB is a tank.
  • It’s a 36-35 game, so the first possession in overtime is likely going to be the last.
  • Deshaun Watson is a hell of a quarterback and playing really well.
  • Bill O’Brien isn’t there to do stupid shit.
  • Your kicker, Stephen Gostkowski, already has a few misses today.
  • With only 4 seconds left, barring a miracle lateral for them, you know this is for the win if you get it.

That really checks every box, but the Titans took it safe and played for overtime. They won the coin toss and Derrick Henry took over for an 82-yard drive to deny Watson ever getting the ball.

Watson finished with a 138.9 passer rating, the highest in a loss in NFL history with a minimum of 37 pass attempts. Again, he didn’t juice it with a ton of sacks or fumbles either like a Matt Ryan game that comes to mind. Watson’s 93.1 QBR was the highest in a loss this season. This is already the sixth lost comeback of Watson’s career, which have mostly come against very good teams too.

Outside of blasting Buffalo 42-16 on a Tuesday — lot of short-field touchdowns in that one — the Titans have been in nail-biters all year. It should be a great matchup with Pittsburgh, a battle of 5-0 teams, in Week 7.

Riverboat Ron at It Again

While Mike Vrabel passed on the game-winning two-point conversion down by a point, Ron Rivera dialed up another “Two or Die” situation for his team. It’s the third time since 2016 alone that Rivera has done this, but he’s now 0-3 without any conversions.

This time it was with Washington down 20-19 after a Kyle Allen touchdown pass with 36 seconds left. It’s not a terrible call given the time left and ineptitude of New York’s offense, but you have to remember that your quarterback is Kyle Allen. He couldn’t make the pass happen and the Football Team lost, which doesn’t sound like a big deal, but two wins in the NFC East has anyone right in line for the outright lead of this pathetic division.

Also, keep this in mind the next time you see someone say “it doesn’t matter who you play in the NFL.” Daniel Jones is now 3-0 as a starter against Washington, but 1-14 against the rest of the NFL.

Aaron Rodgers: Reality Check

Something tells me Aaron Rodgers won’t be saying his down games are career-best games for most quarterbacks after Sunday’s 38-10 beatdown in Tampa Bay, the site of now three of the worst games of his career.

You know I even laid out how this could happen, but still trusted Green Bay. The Packers always seem to fold on the road in games like this one. Since 2012, Green Bay is 2-16 on the road against NFC playoff teams outside the division. That doesn’t yet include this year where the Packers have won in New Orleans and now lost in Tampa Bay, so that record could be 3-17 or it could be 2-17 if this win catapults the Buccaneers forward and the Saints don’t recover. Either way, it was pretty clear that the Packers were no longer playing the bad NFC North defenses or the Saints/Falcons in this one. Tampa Bay, led by old Green Bay nemesis Ndamukong Suh up front, was fast and able to pressure Rodgers, who was rarely hit in the first four games.

I also mentioned Green Bay was flirting with disaster after having zero giveaways through four games. No team’s ever started a season with five straight games doing that. The Packers felt the regression hard after Rodgers threw back-to-back picks in the second quarter. He was 2 yards shy of doubling his career pick-six total as the plays gave the Buccaneers a quick 14 points after Rodgers looked exceptional in the first quarter to build a 10-0 lead.

That first quarter is about the only thing stopping me from saying hands down this was the worst game of Rodgers’ career, but it’s definitely right in the mix with 2014 Buffalo, 2015 Denver, and 2019 San Francisco (SNF). Rodgers’ QBR was 17.8 and he threw what could have easily been a third pick right to a defender that was dropped.

Tampa Bay meanwhile played about as clean of a game as one could in this league with no turnovers, penalties or sacks allowed. As I said in the preview, Brady was facing a pretty mediocre pass defense that has allowed good stats to four veterans not on top of their game in 2020. Brady finished with a 96.1 QBR in an efficient outing, throwing for 166 yards and getting some vintage plays out of Rob Gronkowski.

It’s a really bad look the way Rodgers was clearly rattled in that second quarter, and Green Bay’s defense appeared to be in give-up mode in the second half. After a game like this, it’s hard not to expect the Packers to fold the next time they’re presented with a similar opponent of this caliber.

That would make the 2020 Packers on par with just about every Green Bay team since 2011. Just when you thought things might be different…

NFL Week 6 Predictions: Reshuffling the AFC

It’s kind of crazy how we’ll know so much about the AFC by Week 8. As I’m about to show you, so many of the key games will be played in the first eight weeks (pandemic willing).

KC-BAL in Week 3 was supposed to be the Game of the Year, and it still might prove to be the game between the AFC’s two best. It was just very one sided.

KC-BUF in Week 6 was the new Game of the Year, thought to take place on a Thursday night before some COVID rescheduling pushed it to Monday night. It’s also no longer a game between undefeated teams as both the Chiefs and Bills lost this past week.

Yes, any thoughts Buffalo fans had of taking over the AFC from the Chiefs lasted two days after a poor showing in Tennessee on Tuesday night vaulted the Titans to 4-0 and in the driver’s seat for the AFC’s top seed.

The only other undefeated AFC team is Pittsburgh (4-0), which was supposed to play the Titans in Week 4 before Tennessee’s virus outbreak started moving the schedule around. These teams are set to meet in Week 7 in what could be a battle of 5-0 teams (instead of 3-0 as originally scheduled) if both take care of business against division rivals this week from Cleveland and Houston. This is some old-school AFC Central shit right here.

When the Chiefs play the Bills this week, that’s quite arguably the biggest AFC game left on their schedule unless the Raiders go on an unexpected run after last week’s upset. The Steelers play their first Baltimore game in Week 8, so that could be another big swing in the standings as its arguably Baltimore’s biggest game left this year (and Pittsburgh’s toughest). The Steelers really need to nip Cleveland’s confidence in the bud this week before that tough road slate of going to Tennessee and Baltimore in Weeks 7-8.

The Titans don’t meet the Ravens until Week 11 and Steelers-Bills happens in Week 14, but otherwise we really are going to see almost every significant AFC matchup this year by November 1. Even the first Patriots-Bills game is set for November 1, because yes, I can’t mention the AFC and completely ignore the Patriots just yet.

Josh Allen: Let’s Pump the Brakes

The KC-BUF game lost a bit of shine this week after the way the teams performed in Week 5, but I wanted to highlight this one for the play of Josh Allen. He had that 4-0 start with great numbers and the Buffalo offense was humming along just fine for a change. Maybe he really did turn the corner this year after two rough seasons to start his career.

However, even before the Tennessee game crashed this coming out party, I was still a bit skeptical about Allen. I’m sold enough that he’s playing better this year, but I don’t know if I’m sold that he’s now a great quarterback who you can trust to perform at a high level on any consistent basis.

Basically, I feel like there’s still a reckless nature to his game where he’s going to have to get lucky, especially against good opponents, or the defense is going to have to play much better for the Bills to finally overtake the Patriots in the division and do some damage in the playoffs.

In Week 2 against Miami, the Bills were leading 24-20 with just over three minutes left. Allen, after double-clutching, threw a deep ball to John Brown that easily could have been intercepted. Maybe he thought the receiver was going to keep going full speed for the ball, but maybe his hesitation made the receiver hesitate too. It was a dangerous play that could have set up the Dolphins for a game-winning drive opportunity. On the very next play, Allen again went deep to Brown with a better pass and this time it was successful for a 46-yard touchdown that basically iced the game. So he went from a near disaster pick to a 46-yard touchdown in one play.

The next week against the Rams, Allen was great in building a 28-3 lead, but then he had some mistakes in the second half and the Rams got back into it, forcing him to need a game-winning drive. He was moving the ball, but that pass interference call on fourth down with the game on the line was total rubbish to me. You just don’t call such minimal contact in that spot, so it gave Allen another chance he didn’t deserve after that bad throw. He cashed it in with a touchdown and the Bills won the game. Again, that’s lucky to me.

Tuesday night was my first live Bills game of 2020 and it was a big disappointment after seeing so many great numbers from this offense in the first four weeks. The Titans are obviously a contender too, so it’s another big game the Bills have not won in the McDermott/Allen era.

They get another chance with the Chiefs this week, but I’m backing Kansas City all the way. I don’t see Patrick Mahomes missing that many throws again this week and the Bills have absolutely declined on defense this year. The Bills have already had three games this season where they allowed at least 28 points after doing it one time in 17 games in 2019. If this is going to be a shootout, then I’m trusting Mahomes over Allen. That’s not saying a whole lot, but the fact is I’m still trusting Lamar Jackson, Ryan Tannehill, Cam Newton and Ben Roethlisberger over Allen as well in a big game.

That’s the kind of competition the Bills will have to beat this year, and until it starts happening, I’m not all in on Allen and this team.

NFL Week 6 Predictions

Let’s hope all these games are played on time this week.

Starting this week, I now have articles of the preview/pick variety on Sportsbook Review. My first piece was Aaron Rodgers and Tom Brady fighting over control of the Spice Melange. I also covered how the Jets will attempt to avoid being the third team in the last 20 years (2011 Rams, 2011 Dolphins) to start 0-6 and 0-6 against the spread. Finally, I looked at SNF between the Rams and 49ers.

2019 NFL Conference Championship Preview

The Chiefs are the odds-on favorite (43%) to win the Super Bowl and they are the only team to return to Championship Sunday from last year’s group. The Packers and 49ers are familiar faces in this round, but they are here after combining for 10 wins (plus one pesky tie) in 2018. The Titans had their usual 9-7 record, but they are halfway through a Super Bowl run that could be the most improbable ever. While this looks like a historically odd grouping, you’d only have to go back two seasons to find an odder one when the Eagles and Vikings competed for the Super Bowl a year removed from non-winning seasons and the Jaguars (with Blake Bortles) nearly pulled it off in New England.

These aren’t bad matchups, but I think impartial fans would agree that rematches of Chiefs-Ravens and Saints-49ers (or Seahawks-49ers III) would make for the best final four this season. But those teams didn’t deliver so here we are with only the fifth Championship Sunday since 1998 where both home teams are favored by at least 7.5 points. The good news (POV may vary) is that the last four times all featured one upset: 1998 Falcons over Vikings, 1999 Titans over Jaguars, 2001 Patriots over Steelers, and 2007 Giants over Packers. Two of those games went to overtime.

So don’t pencil in a Chiefs-49ers Super Bowl just yet, though that is the expected outcome. Home favorites of 7-plus points in the Conference Championship round are 29-6 (.829) straight up and 20-15 (.571) against the spread. But expectations and this year’s postseason haven’t gotten along well so far.

Before getting into each game, I want to share some historical stats on rematches in this round.

Conference Championship Rematches

The lack of rematches this postseason won’t continue this week with both games being a rematch from November. The Titans are the last team to beat Kansas City, doing so 35-32 in Week 10 at home. The 49ers crushed the Packers 37-8 on Sunday Night Football in Week 12. I’ll talk a lot about each game again, but you don’t have to be an NFL fan for long to know that every game is different and things can change drastically. While the Seahawks and Eagles played to two 17-9 finishes this year, you didn’t know Carson Wentz would leave injured in the first quarter or that Josh McCown would play on a torn hamstring. While the Texans scored 31 in Kansas City both times, you didn’t expect a 51-point onslaught from Mahomes and company after falling behind 24-0.

With that said, I want to share some rematch data from 1978-2018 on this round. Fans are no doubt going to be curious to know how much the venue change from Tennessee to Kansas City helps the Chiefs, or if the 49ers are going to smash the Packers again at home like they did in the regular season.

In instances where the teams were from the same division and meeting for a third time that year, I used only the most recent meeting as the first matchup.

CC_rematch

I thought it was interesting that the home team had the same record (37-19) in the last meeting and in the playoffs. In a case like San Francisco’s, they are hosting both games. That has happened 29 times and while those home teams were 24-5 (.828) in the first game, those 24 teams trying to pull off the sweep were only 14-10 (.583) in the title game. So the sweep happens just under half the time. Of course being the home team itself is beneficial in this round since it means you had a higher seed than the opponent.

For Kansas City’s situation, the venue switch from playing on the road to at home in the title game has been quite beneficial. Those teams were only 14-13 (.519) on the road in the regular season meeting, but 19-8 (.704) at home in the championship game. However, if you lost that first game on the road like Kansas City did, then it’s not as optimistic things will get better at home in the playoffs. Those teams were only 7-6 (.538) with the Super Bowl on the line, including last year’s Chiefs who lost 43-40 in New England and lost to the Patriots again at home 37-31 in overtime in the AFC Championship Game.

As for the spread, both home teams are favored by 7.5 this Sunday. In Tennessee, the Chiefs were a 5-point favorite and lost 35-32. In Week 12, the 49ers were 3-point favorites and smoked Green Bay 37-8 in a game that was over at halftime. Teams that are 7.5 point favorites in a rematch in the Conference Championship are 7-6 ATS and 10-3 SU. When the team was at least a 3-point favorite in both matchups, those teams are an impressive 19-10 ATS and 22-7 SU in the playoffs. When they were a 5-point favorite in both games like the Chiefs this year, they are 6-2 ATS and 7-1 SU.

That last line sounds great for Kansas City, but keep in mind the one loss was by Dan Marino’s Dolphins to the run-heavy, never-throw-the-ball Patriots in 1985, one of the most disappointing losses of Marino’s career. Everyone thought for sure he was headed back to another Super Bowl in his third season, so it’s the kind of fate that Mahomes will want to avoid this weekend. That game is a perfect segue into Titans-Chiefs.

Titans at Chiefs (-7.5)

We’re down to two games, so I’m going to break these down into sections to make sure I get all my points across succinctly.

Kansas City Sure Remembers the Titans

If not for a Ryan Fitzpatrick-led Miami comeback win in New England in Week 17, we would have had Titans at Chiefs on Wild Card weekend. What a shakeup that could have been to this postseason, because if any team has befuddled Andy Reid in his Kansas City tenure, it’s the Titans. Tennessee has won four straight against the Chiefs, including three games at Arrowhead. That includes a blown 10-point lead in the fourth quarter in 2016, a blown 21-3 halftime lead in the 2017 AFC Wild Card, and a blown 9-point lead in the fourth quarter this year in Tennessee (Week 10).

Only one of those games had Patrick Mahomes at quarterback for the Chiefs, but it’s also the last time KC lost this season. After already knocking off the Patriots in New England and the Ravens in Baltimore, the Titans are one more road upset away from completing quite arguably the toughest path to the Super Bowl in NFL history.

What if the Tennessee Defense Is Just Lucky?

The Chiefs faced the worst defense to make the playoffs in the Texans last week and scored 51 points. Tennessee is a tougher matchup, but I’m not convinced this defense is anything special or ready to shut down a healthy Mahomes at home. Kevin Byard is a very good safety, but none of the defensive backs on the Titans have had a particularly strong year in coverage. They don’t have a dominant pass rusher either. Harold Landry is fine and Jurrell Casey can make a play here and there, but there’s a pretty big drop off after those two. The only players to make the Pro Bowl on this Tennessee team were their running back and punter. Fitting.

The Titans are getting a lot of credit for allowing just 25 points on the road this postseason to the Patriots and Ravens. That’s an impressive total in places that are hard to win. But let’s not beat around the bush here. What if it’s simply a matter of Tom Brady is washed and the Ravens choked? Brady is 42 and could barely throw a touchdown a game down the stretch, and the Patriots were at their worst offensively this season. Still, Julian Edelman dropped a wide-open pass at his own 45 late in the game for the Titans to hang on to that 14-13 lead.

Then the Baltimore game was something to behold. When I write a playoff preview I try to lay out how the underdog could win. My Tennessee strategy ended up being one of the most prescient previews I’ve ever done. I basically said the Titans need to get lucky, have a fast start, and the Ravens need to make a lot of mistakes and exhibit rust from all the time off. I even nailed it down to Jackson being a little high on some throws to his tight end (like the tipped pick), botching some fourth downs they’ve made all year, and the young receiving corps catching a case of the yips after having the second-best drop rate in the regular season. As I laid out here on Saturday night, the Ravens flat out choked.

Baltimore racked up 530 yards of offense, but only scored 12 points. Since 1940, 326 teams have had at least 530 yards of offense in a game. The Ravens are the only one out of 326 to not score 14 points. Now you could chalk that up as “Titans were amazing, Baltimore got that high up there in garbage time!” Or you could just acknowledge that this had much more to do with the offense that had three turnovers, four failures on fourth down, and a slew of dropped passes and a tipped pick on a brutal night of execution.

When Mahomes led the Chiefs to 530 yards of offense in Week 10 in Tennessee, that put 32 points on the board and it really should have been more if not for three missed kicks. He will not waste the yardage the way the Ravens did. Lamar Jackson was a deserving MVP this year, but Mahomes is the best quarterback right now.

You also have to consider what the Titans have done on defense over the long haul and not just the last two games.

Since Tannehill took over in Week 7, the Titans allowed at least 20 points in eight of their next nine games (three games allowing 30+). The only game they didn’t was in Indianapolis when the Colts attempted a go-ahead field goal for a 20-17 lead in the fourth quarter, but it was blocked and returned for a game-winning touchdown. I think good offenses will move the ball against the Titans with ease this year. The Chargers didn’t have a good year, but they could have ended Tennessee’s season prematurely in Week 7 had they not botched the end of the game. The Chargers thought they scored a touchdown on three straight plays, which would have led to 27 points and a likely win. But they were stopped twice, and then in the ensuing chaos a fumble was ruled by Melvin Gordon at the 1-yard line. The Titans lucked out and went on a run from there. Drew Brees and the Saints hung 38 on this defense in Nashville, and we know the Chiefs have already scored 32 there. Then Week 17 happened and the Titans got to face Houston’s backups, holding them to 14 points to make the playoffs.

You can’t just rely on offensive failures to account for good defense every week. Having said that, the Chiefs showed us last week and earlier this season when they were only 6-4 that they could screw up too. That’s why they weren’t as efficient at scoring as they were in 2018 (plus all the injuries this year). In the first quarter against Houston last week, the Chiefs dropped five catchable passes, including a couple on third down to kill drives. In Week 10, we saw another Chiefs running back fumble and it was returned for a big touchdown by the Titans. The Chiefs have cut down on penalties in recent weeks, but that was another issue during the 6-4 start.

I’m not going to say the Chiefs won’t make mistakes this week that the Titans won’t capitalize on. But this is a much more dangerous offense than the Patriots, and Mahomes isn’t going to press like crazy if he falls behind the way Jackson has shown he will in this league so far. He also won’t fold after halftime if the Chiefs take a 21-3 lead like Alex Smith did two years ago in the playoffs. So the onus is more on the Tennessee offense to deliver at least 28 points in this game, because Mahomes is going to get his numbers one way or another.

What Is This Tennessee Offense?

While I may have gone out of my way to discredit the Tennessee defense, I’m not going to crucify the offense. At least, I’m not going to crush the offense that Tannehill took over for the last 10 games of the regular season that was actually fun to watch. The Titans kept his attempts low, but he was throwing a lot of vertical passes and hitting shot plays to A.J. Brown and company off play-action while they fed Derrick Henry consistently. It’s an offense that definitely works for them, but we have seen something much different in these two playoff games.

The Titans are the first NFL team since the 1985 Patriots to win consecutive games without gaining over 100 net passing yards and 16 pass attempts in either game. This is one of the craziest stats I’ve ever written in my life. This is the kind of offense the Houston Oilers dreamed about in the 1970s with Dan Pastorini and Earl Campbell. The Titans are living it with Tannehill only throwing for 160 yards (but three touchdowns) in the two playoff games combined while Henry has rushed for 377 yards this postseason.

So it may not be sustainable or logical against the Chiefs, but the Titans have continued to sustain their incredible red zone success. They are now 31-of-35 at scoring touchdowns in the red zone with Tannehill. They’ll definitely need that efficiency on Sunday.

I’ve seen arguments on Twitter about the Titans offense being average at best this postseason. There is some truth to that. They only scored 14 points in New England and 28 last week for an average of 21 per game. That’s below the league average. Tennessee had touchdown drives of 35, 45, and 20 yards last week, all set up by Baltimore’s offensive failures. That’s the part I would say is not sustainable, but there are some other drives where we’re probably not giving Tennessee enough credit. For example, against the Ravens the Titans were up 28-12 in the fourth quarter with 11:00 left. They called eight straight runs, gained 28 yards and punted. That doesn’t sound great on paper, but when you consider they consumed almost five minutes of clock and made the Ravens burn two timeouts, that’s a successful drive with a 16-point lead. The Titans also had a drive that lasted 8:01 in the fourth quarter in New England as they clung to a 14-13 lead.

That ability to bleed the clock, shorten the game and keep Mahomes on the sideline could be extremely valuable in this matchup. Of course it’s hard to do if you’re playing from behind, but the Titans would have to get down three scores before they abandon the run. We saw that in Week 10. Down 29-20 in the fourth to the Chiefs, they only called two passes on a 10-play drive for a key touchdown with 6:26 left.

I don’t think the Titans can win this game with Tannehill doing his sub-100 yard thing for a third straight week. That’s just the respect I have for what Mahomes brings to the scoreboard. However, the Titans certainly need to make Henry a focal point against a run defense that has been shaky at times for the Chiefs this year.

This tweet was posted recently about Kansas City being 9-0 when they hold opponents under 110 rushing yards:

Naturally, he was met with criticism for missing the correlation-causation and how winning teams run the ball late and trailing teams pass. That is undoubtedly true about how games flow in the NFL, but I think Analytics Twitter goes out of its way to exaggerate this point while not providing the evidence they should be looking at. If you just read tweets, you would think a team that rushed for 150 yards piled up 100 of those yards with a double-digit lead in the fourth quarter. That might happen a couple times a season league-wide, but that’s not the norm.

What if I told you that nearly 59% of teams that rush for 100 yards get there before the fourth quarter, or that over 72% get there with more than 10 minutes left in the game? What if I told you that teams that win by 17-plus points average 40.8 rushing yards in the fourth quarter while teams that win by 3-7 points average 34.0 rushing yards in the fourth quarter.

All of that was true in the 2019 season and I’ve seen similar results in past years. For playing the Chiefs, there are obvious advantages to shortening the game and minimizing Mahomes’ possessions. That way when there is a Travis Kelce drop on third down or a RB fumble, it hurts them even more when you’re giving him seven more possessions than it would in a game where he gets the ball 11 more times. We also know with the Chiefs that you’re not going to blow them out as they have one of the greatest streaks in NFL history of not losing a game by more than 7 points:

We saw it this year in Kansas City’s four losses, all of which were by 3-7 points and half of which they had a fourth-quarter lead. The offense only had five drives with a one-score 4Q deficit in those four games, and Mahomes only had one drive each against the Colts, Texans and Titans. Anything short of perfection wouldn’t work.

The Titans, who never ran a play in the second half with a lead, rushed for 177 yards in the second half after 48 yards in the first half, thanks in part to a 68-yard touchdown run by Henry. The Colts (105 after 77), Texans (118 after 82) and Packers (86 after 35) also had second-half rushing success in wins over the Chiefs this year. These were not stat-padding situations by any means. The Packers literally had one offensive drive with the lead in the second half, and called seven straight runs for 31 yards to help keep the ball away from the Chiefs in a 31-24 win. The Colts completed one pass in the fourth quarter against the Chiefs, but used two run-heavy drives to kick two field goals that secured the win after draining the Chiefs of their timeouts. A 14-play, 35-yard drive for a field goal to take a 16-10 lead doesn’t look good on paper, but it forced the Chiefs to be aggressive and go for a fourth-and-1 at their own 34. Damien Williams was stuffed and by the time Mahomes got the ball back he was down 19-10 and with 2:27 left. Game over barring a miracle.

We should be treating productive runs with a one-score lead in the fourth quarter as the best way to close out a game as they keep the clock running in a situation where that’s more important than scoring again. This is about the only part of the game where perceived inefficiency is the preferred offensive strategy. You’d rather take three (or four) plays to gain 10 yards than one pass play, EPA be damned.

The biggest detriment to Mahomes in his career has really been the clock, or not getting the ball last or with enough time. Had he a little more time at the end against the Patriots last year or the Titans this year, he may have scored the game-winning touchdown instead of settling for a field goal that only leads to overtime where he may never see the ball again. This is why the Titans will ride Henry on Sunday, but they’re still going to have to get back to their regular season strategy with Tannehill if they’re going to outscore the Chiefs again.

Pressure Is on Patrick Mahomes

Simply put, there will be more pressure on Mahomes to win this game than there’s been in any other game of his career so far. He gets a bit of a pass for last year since it was his first title game, the mystique of the Patriots, and he did drop 31 points in the second half before never touching the ball in overtime. However, if he loses this game he’ll be the guy who is 0-2 at home in Conference Championship Games. That’s when people start to forget about the 31-point second half and focus more on the missed touchdown (overthrown) or bad sack he took to fall behind 14-0 at halftime against the Patriots last year.

He can’t afford a bad game this weekend. In 31 regular-season games, Mahomes has thrown multiple interceptions just three times. He has only four games with multiple turnovers in his career. In three playoff games, Mahomes has zero turnovers. He’s the third quarterback in NFL history after Sid Luckman and Tobin Rote to lead his team to at least 31 points in each of his first three playoff games. He has led his team to at least 23 points in all but one game of his career so far.

Furthermore, Mahomes has already played a stellar game this year in Tennessee against this defense with 446 passing yards and no turnovers. It was his first game after the dislocated kneecap and it was his best recent game until last Sunday in the playoffs when he was as close to perfect as you can get at the position.

By the way, in the effort to score seven straight touchdowns against Houston, Mahomes had 7 carries for 9 yards from his running backs on those drives. These offenses couldn’t be any more different right now, but as long as the receivers are catching the ball, Mahomes should deliver against the Titans. You like to think he’ll get a little more rushing support this week than that, but he can do pretty much anything you want out of a quarterback. There’s no real weakness in his game other than something his teammates fail to do, or an overtime system that doesn’t give him the ball.

In fact, if the Chiefs lose this game I hope it happens the same way as last year: 37-31 in overtime with Mahomes never touching the ball. Then the Chiefs and their fans need to raise hell the likes of which New Orleans couldn’t even dream of for pass interference so we can change a flawed system for the playoffs.

Don’t Forget: Special Teams

Last but not least, we have to talk about special teams. The Chiefs had an excellent unit this year while the Titans were pretty bad (no kicking game of value), but that didn’t matter in Week 10. Special teams were arguably the main reason the Chiefs lost in Tennessee. Harrison Butker missed an extra point, then late in the fourth quarter the Chiefs botched a field goal that would have put them ahead 35-27, leading to overtime at worst after Tannehill tied the game. Then on the final play, Butker’s 52-yard field goal was blocked to give the Titans a 35-32 win.

In the divisional round, special teams threatened to end Kansas City’s season after a blocked punt for a touchdown and a muffed punt return by Tyreek Hill led to a 21-0 hole. However, this unit can giveth and taketh in the same game, and I don’t think it got much attention how special teams really redeemed themselves to make the comeback happen. It came in the form of three plays in the second quarter: Mecole Hardman’s 58-yard kick return to spark it, the stop on Houston’s fake punt, and the forced fumble on a kick return that set Mahomes up at the Houston 6.

The Chiefs have return specialists who can be dynamic, and Butker is usually good, but they can’t afford these mistakes again versus the Titans.

Before placing a bet on this game, it’d be nice if someone could get visual proof that Mike Vrabel still has his penis, because he may have already cut it off to secure this trophy. My boldest prediction may be that the Titans actually settle for a field goal this week, but it won’t be enough to stop Mahomes from reaching that first Super Bowl.

Final: Chiefs 34, Titans 24

 

Packers at 49ers (-7.5)

Remember when Steve Young couldn’t beat the Packers and it took a missed Jerry Rice fumble to finally do it? Okay, I’ll stick to the Rodgers’ era for the rest of the way.

Packers: Reversal of Fortune?

I left this out of my rematch data above, but teams that win the last matchup by at least 17 points are 9-2 in the Conference Championship Game with an average scoring differential of 13.5 points. That doesn’t bode well for the Packers overcoming the 37-8 smackdown in Week 12.

It’s not exactly breaking news that the Packers don’t excel in these spots: on the road against a physical team that should have advantages in the trenches again. In fact, the Packers led by Aaron Rodgers are 0-4 in his career when he’s an underdog of 7+ points. That includes losses to the 2014 Seahawks (twice), 2015 Cardinals (NFC-DIV), and 2018 Rams, all NFC West powerhouses on the road, which is the case again this week at No. 1 seed San Francisco (14-3).

But he is 3-1 against the spread in those games, so a close game is not out of the question. We’ve also seen Rodgers’ Packers have dramatically different playoff results in rematches from the regular season:

  • In 2010, the Packers lost a close one 20-17 in Atlanta, but blew the Falcons out 48-21 in the divisional round.
  • In 2011, the Packers got to 12-0 with a 38-35 win in New York, but fell 37-20 in stunning fashion at home to those Giants in the divisional round.
  • In 2014, the Packers fell 36-16 on opening night in Seattle, but had a 16-0 lead in the NFC Championship Game before losing 28-22 in overtime.
  • In 2015, and perhaps most comparable to this weekend, the Packers were destroyed 38-8 in Arizona in Week 16 (Rodgers sacked eight times). But in the divisional round they forced overtime with two Hail Mary’s by Rodgers, only to lose 26-20.
  • In 2016, Green Bay lost 30-16 at home to Dallas before winning there 34-31 in the playoffs, but also turned a tough 33-32 loss in Atlanta to a far more embarrassing 44-21 loss in the NFC Championship Game.

Points don’t carry over from last time and that’s really the NFL in a nutshell.

Injury Outlook

One of the simplest explanations for why matchups can change so much is the addition or subtraction of players through injury. However, most of the players taking the field this week were active in Week 12 and last week when these teams won a playoff game. If anything, the 49ers have the edge here as left tackle Joe Staley, running back Matt Breida, pass-rusher Dee Ford, linebacker Kwon Alexander and even kicker Robbie Gould were absent in Week 12. The 49ers have all of those guys back, though they did limit Ford’s snaps last week (still got a sack in 22 snaps). San Francisco’s running game has been at its worst when running off left tackle, though Staley missed nine games this year. Sure, the 49ers also lost center Weston Richburg in Week 14, but they’ve been fine without him. Right tackle Bryan Bulaga was out last week with an illness for the Packers, but he was on the field in Week 12 when Rodgers took five sacks.

Rodgers: Worst Night Ever?

Remember this in Week 12?

That historically bad night for Rodgers in Week 12 — a career-low 3.15 YPA — is hard to shake. The good news: he just had one of his best games of 2019 against Seattle. The bad news: San Francisco’s defense just had one of its best games of 2019 against Minnesota’s more talented offense.

What Should Green Bay’s Offense Do on Sunday?

Last week the Packers were basically a one-man receiving show with Davante Adams gaining 160 of Rodgers’ 243 passing yards against Seattle. Adams caught a touchdown in Week 12, but the 49ers held the connection to 7-of-12 for 43 yards that night. I don’t know how receivers like Adams (and Michael Thomas in New Orleans) are so consistently open when these teams lack other options at wideout, but the 49ers should do a much better job than the Seahawks did on Adams. The Packers averaged 12.3 PPG in four games this year when Adams was held under 50 yards.

Most offenses have failed to move the ball through the air against the 49ers this year. Eight teams were held to fewer than 135 net passing yards, and only three offenses exceeded 223 yards in 17 games. Of the six 100-yard receivers allowed by the 49ers, the top two were Julio Jones and Michael Thomas with 134 yards each, but they also had 15-20 targets between them. So Adams will probably have to be force-fed the ball to have a productive game this week. The Packers will likely prefer to get Aaron Jones involved more this time as he had 13 carries for 38 yards in Week 12. Jamaal Williams actually outgained him (11 carries for 45 yards) after getting most of that production on the final drive in garbage time. The 49ers just held Minnesota to 21 yards on 10 runs last week.

It’s a delicate balance for head coach Matt LaFleur to figure out. Do you go pass-happy with Rodgers when he has a more pedestrian receiving corps? If the San Francisco pass rush resembles last week and Week 12 and the early portion of the season when they were so dominant with rookie Nick Bosa and the D-line shining, then it’s a pretty tough matchup for Green Bay. The Packers also aren’t a dominant rushing team in the form of say the Titans, but they still get their share of yards most weeks because they often play from ahead thanks to good starts. Remember, last week I pointed out they were third in first-quarter scoring, but 27th, 9th and 26th in the rest of the quarters. The 49ers are faster starters with the running game. They’ve had seven games this year with more than 80 rushing yards at halftime compared to two for Green Bay.

The Packers are quite good in the red zone, but getting there is the biggest concern. Green Bay had one trip to the red zone in Rodgers’ 10 drives in Week 12. Only seven offenses went three-and-out more often than the Packers this year. I’m not really sure what the best strategy is for Green Bay’s offense this week, but I know they can’t go 1-of-15 on third down again like they did in Week 12. Rodgers will have to do a few things off script that work for Green Bay and hope he can deliver on third down as well as he did against Seattle last week (team was 9/13 before a kneeldown).

San Francisco’s Offense

While Green Bay’s offense was imploding in Week 12, it wasn’t until the fourth quarter when the 49ers converted a third down that night. The 49ers won that game easily despite only 16 first downs. Rodgers coughed up the ball on a strip-sack on the first drive, leading to a 2-yard touchdown drive. Two quick three-and-outs late in the first half were turned into 10 more points by the 49ers, which saw big YAC plays from George Kittle and Deebo Samuel for touchdowns. The Packers have had few answers for tight ends this year and Kittle is as good as anyone right now. YAC has been a big part of San Francisco’s passing game all year, though they only put 19 balls in the air against the Vikings in a run-heavy game plan.

Jimmy Garoppolo won his first playoff game by doing the bare minimum, so don’t say he didn’t learn anything from Tom Brady in New England. Garoppolo did most of his damage on the opening drive, but didn’t have to do much more when his defense and running game were so dominant. He was much better in Week 12 against the Packers and will have to play more like that in this game. It was actually the best statistical game any QB had against the 2019 Packers. Garoppolo has his full complement of backs to use and two fine wideouts to go along with Kittle, so what more can he ask for besides maybe a run call on 3rd-and-1 from Kyle Shanahan if they’re up big in the fourth? The Packers were terrible this year at stopping teams in short-yardage situations and stuffing runs for losses.

Garoppolo is more likely to turn the ball over than Rodgers. He does have a tendency to throw an interception early in games this year, though the 49ers are 10-1 in games where he is intercepted (11-0 if the kicker came through in overtime vs. Seattle), so it hasn’t been a problem. I watched all 13 of his interceptions last week and noticed about six that were tipped and one that was lobbed on a 4th-and-5 against Washington in the rain. So that was encouraging, though he does get fooled by linebackers on short throws a bit too much. The Packers are 11-0 this season when intercepting the starting QB, but only have three picks from non-defensive backs. Green Bay has mostly feasted on bad passers and served twice as Kirk Cousins’ kryptonite. Green Bay has some really good pass-rushers this year (The Smiths) and they got to Garoppolo three times in the last matchup. Only five passers avoided multiple sacks from Green Bay this year.

I think Garoppolo already held up well this year in marquee matchups against Lamar Jackson, Kirk Cousins, Drew Brees, Aaron Rodgers, and Russell Wilson. Maybe he implodes with the Super Bowl on the line, but I’m not concerned about him this week like I would be with certain quarterbacks.

Close Game or Nah?

The 49ers have lost three games on the final play this year, so they would have to have a Baltimore-sized choke to get blown out at home in this game. That’s more likely to happen to Green Bay again. If it’s a close game, we’ve already seen Garoppolo lead four comebacks and game-winning drives this season, something Rodgers still hasn’t done in any season of his career. But Rodgers (17-41 at 4QC opportunities) does have three game-winning drives for Green Bay in 2019 and the Packers are 11-1 in close games without a single blown lead in the fourth quarter.

If you want an ultra-specific prediction, I’m feeling a game where Garoppolo will overcome a rough start with his running game not dominating, only to lead the 49ers to a game-winning field goal to send San Francisco to another Super Bowl. Or at least I like the sound of that better than saying the refs hand Green Bay a horseshit illegal hands to the face penalty that gives us a rematch of Super Bowl I (Chiefs-Packers) in the 100th year of the NFL. That might be even more likely if the Titans pull off an upset in the early slot as I can’t imagine the NFL would be happy about promoting Titans-49ers to casual viewers.

But if there was ever a postseason to completely stick it to the status quo…

Final: 49ers 23, Packers 20

2019 NFL Divisional Round Preview

The NFL’s best weekend is a little sweeter this year. Thanks in large part to Ryan Fitzpatrick and the Titans these last two weeks, we don’t have to talk about the Patriots in the divisional round of the playoffs. This hasn’t happened in a decade, and I said when they were 8-0 that this was not a legitimately great Patriots team. So let’s enjoy it by not giving them any more time than they deserve. The AFC is moving forward with two better teams in Baltimore and Kansas City, but both must avoid an upset as two-score favorites this week if we’re going to get that desired title game next Sunday. I don’t think the Titans and Texans will go away easily.

The Wild Card weekend was excellent with four close, low-scoring games. Every game was decided by 3-8 points and no team scored 21 points in regulation. None of the offenses performed at a high level, which had a lot to do with the games being close, but it was good for dramatic reasons.

You should be counting on more points and at least one multi-score win this week. Seahawks-Packers is the easy choice for the close game lock, and it is the only game with a spread under 7.0 this week. However, we know the greatness of this round is from the road team upsets. They are not easy to come by either. Since 1970, the home team is 141-55 (.719) in the divisional round and that hasn’t tailed off in recent years. In fact, since the new CBA in 2011 the home team is 25-7 (.781) in the divisional round. Since 2002, home teams favored by at least 9 points in the divisional round are 9-5 straight up and 6-8 against the spread. There hasn’t been an upset loss of this magnitude since the 2012 Ravens (at Denver) and 2010 Jets (at Patriots).

Even though every home team won this round last year that is still a pretty rare feat. The only other times it happened in the current playoff format were 2015, 2004 and 2002.

Vikings at 49ers (-7)

You probably could have simulated the season 10 million times in August and not once would you have ended up with this as your #6 at #1 matchup in the NFC. But here we are and I actually believe the Vikings are a very formidable foe. The team is loaded with talent, but the offense just happened to play its worst against Green Bay in two important games this year. Kirk Cousins showed last week he can lead a clutch drive to beat a good team on the road, finishing off the Saints in overtime.

The 49ers don’t have much of a track record to point to, but they are 13-3 this year with three losses on the final play of the game. They were a missed field goal in OT against Seattle and a single defensive stop (inches on one snap) from beating the Falcons to win 15 games, only losing in Baltimore on a last-second field goal. The only times they didn’t score 20 points this year were in very wet conditions in Washington and Baltimore. It’s been a great Year 3 so far for Kyle Shanahan.

For me this game comes down to the Minnesota offensive line. Can they hold up on the road against a front seven that has slipped in the second half of the season? If Dalvin Cook has holes to run through, he and Alexander Mattison could have a nice day together. The 49ers run defense is nothing special (11th in DVOA, 23rd in yards per carry). Cook looked ready to Derrick Henry his way through the Saints defense until they got to him more in the second half. With the passing offense, Cousins clearly has the weapons as Adam Thielen stepped up with big catches and Kyle Rudolph caught the game winner in OT. Stefon Diggs was hardly involved, but that’s just another great option for this offense to go to this week. The 49ers allowed the fewest passing yards in the league this year, including 10 games where the opponent had fewer than 200 net passing yards (five games of no more than 100 yards). That’s very impressive, but the Vikings aren’t looking to go pass-happy in any game this year. Cousins was 11-2 (only losses to Green Bay) when he didn’t go above 35 pass attempts this season. They just want to run Cook and take advantage of play-action as much as they can.

The Saints had greater pass pressure metrics than the 49ers defense finished the year with. Cousins took a couple sacks and five QB hits in New Orleans, but overall the protection held up enough. The 49ers were destroying quarterbacks earlier this season, but that has really eased up. Rookie Nick Bosa had 7 sacks and 13 hits thru Week 8, but in the last nine games he’s only had 2 sacks and 12 hits. Through 11 games, the 49ers sacked 10 of their opposing quarterbacks at least three times. They haven’t done so since Week 12 and they have four sacks total in the last five games. Since Week 9, the 49ers have allowed at least 20 points in every game except for the big Packers win (37-8). Even though the Packers own the Vikings this year, the transitive property does not apply in the NFL, so don’t expect the 49ers to just own the Vikings too. San Francisco’s defense clearly peaked early as some injuries have set in too.

On the other side of the ball, the San Francisco offense is pretty legit. They were fifth in points per drive and 10th in yards per drive. It helps to be second in starting field position, but they still moved the ball well throughout the season. Jimmy Garoppolo started a bit shaky in the first half of the season when he was only averaging 212.7 passing yards per game with nearly an equal TD:INT ratio. Ever since the Arizona game in Week 9 he’s up to 276.6 yards per game with 18 TD, 6 INT, 107.6 PR, and a strong 8.67 YPA. He’s been asked to do more and he’s delivered so far. You know to expect a good running game from a Shanahan offense and they certainly have had that. The trade for Emmanuel Sanders was smart and the draft pick of Deebo Samuel was good. It may not be the flashiest receiving corps in the NFL, but it’s more than enough to win a Super Bowl when you factor in the run and George Kittle at tight end.

If there’s an area of concern I would say the red zone could be rough, especially on Garoppolo as a passer. Kittle is awesome, the best TE in this post-Gronk NFL, but he’s not much of a receiving threat in the red zone. He only has 12 TD catches in his career (on 216 catches) and only three this season came within 30 yards of the end zone. That’s just not something they do, which is why the 49ers led the league with 23 rushing touchdowns. But make no mistake about it — the 49ers are a middling red zone offense while the Vikings are No. 2 in most red zone defense metrics. The Vikings were also one of the best defenses at creating takeaways and were the only defense to get multiple turnovers from the Saints in 2019. I mentioned Danielle Hunter last week as a top pass-rusher this year. He and Everson Griffen delivered in New Orleans and will have to do so again here. Garoppolo has fumbled 10 times (equal to Cousins’ total) with five lost this year.

Something to keep in mind is that the Vikings are quite poor at coming from behind in the fourth quarter. Garoppolo is 7-3 (.700) at 4QC opportunities in his career compared to 8-25-2 (.257) for Cousins. Minnesota’s only 4QC win in the last two seasons was against Denver this season. Garoppolo (50%) and Cousins (48%) were the top two quarterbacks in 2019 at converting third-down passes into first downs.

I almost want to pick the Vikings to pull off another upset here, but I just picked the 49ers last week to reach the Super Bowl. Plus it’s January and we’re talking about the Minnesota Vikings having everything go their way in two straight playoff games. That just doesn’t compute for me, but this should be a pretty good game.

Final: 49ers 26, Vikings 23

 

Titans at Ravens (-9.5)

This was a short-lived AFC rivalry after the Browns moved to Baltimore and became the Ravens while the Oilers moved to Tennessee and changed their name to the Titans. The Ravens knocked the No. 1 seeded Titans out of the playoffs in 2000 and 2008. Those were potential Super Bowl years for Tennessee, and there really hasn’t been that type of excitement about this team ever since that day a rookie coach named John Harbaugh took his Baltimore team into that building and won.

Now the Titans can return the favor to the top-seeded Ravens, who are coming off a bye week and a Week 17 win where they rested key starters, including likely MVP QB Lamar Jackson. That means 20 days will have passed since Jackson played a game, and it’s a time in which he reportedly fought off the flu too. When your QB is such a unique player, a 1,200-yard rusher and not a high-volume passer, maybe rest is more important than any concern for rust. We saw in the past how precision-passing offenses like the 2005 Colts and 2011 Packers were hurt by giving their offense too much rest in addition to the bye week, but Baltimore is the most prolific rushing offense in NFL history (3,296 yards). No one has held the Ravens under 118 rushing yards this year and they’re the only offense in NFL history to rush for at least 170 yards in all eight home games. Baltimore hasn’t trailed in the fourth quarter since Week 5, a comeback win in Pittsburgh. The 2019 Ravens are the 11th team in NFL history to score at least 20 points in all 16 games of a season.

Still, I think Tennessee’s best shot at another upset is a fast start and some rust (or regression) from the Ravens. This is pretty hard when Baltimore leads the NFL in first-quarter scoring (128 points) and has allowed the fewest first-quarter points (31). I’m not trying to anger Tennessee fans, but the fact is your defense is not that great, and the Ravens have the most efficient offense in the league this year. It’s historic really as they averaged over 200 yards per game in passing and rushing. You need some help from the offense (unforced errors & mistakes) to slow them down. Jackson has improved his accuracy this year, but there are still times where the ball comes out a little high and one of his big tight ends needs to make a great catch. You hope he has a few of those bad throws on high-leverage third downs, or maybe a fourth down that the Ravens are very willing to go for this year. The Ravens also had the second-lowest rate of dropped passes in the league this year. Maybe this receiving corps, which is basically a rookie (Marquise Brown), a retread (Willie Snead) and three tight ends (Mark Andrews has been exceptional) have some yips on Saturday night and drop important passes. Jackson is hard to sack and the Baltimore line does a great job of protection and the defense always has to be cautious of the running attack.

The Ravens just offer a different challenge that NFL teams really aren’t used to competing against. That’s why I think it’s crucial for Ryan Tannehill to have a fast start and get the Titans ahead early to hopefully get the Ravens out of their element and play from behind like the Chargers did to a rookie Jackson in the playoffs last year. Then Derrick Henry can take the game over in the second half and kill the clock, but hopefully it will lead to more points this time. Just 14 points won’t win like it would have in New England last week. There’s no way Tannehill can get by without throwing for over 100 yards again. I wasn’t too encouraged by how he played in the biggest game of his career last week, but at least he made a couple key throws on third down. He’ll have to continue that here and get rookie A.J. Brown involved, which he didn’t last week. You don’t want to get into a big shootout with the Ravens, but I think the Titans have an explosive offense to put up the points necessary to grind out a win.

This tweet from ESPN’s Seth Walder caught my eye:

I thought the Patriots last week would use Cover Zero blitzes to force Tannehill into mistakes since he has taken a very high rate of sacks this year. However, he threw 15 passes in the whole game so it wasn’t that kind of night. He did take one sack and fumbled twice, but the Patriots were unable to recover either. Baltimore will look to force him into more mistakes in what should be a much higher volume passing game this time. I’m not sure it means anything this week, but the Titans have faced Baltimore in each of the last two seasons and Henry finished those games with a pathetic 15 carries for 47 yards (combined two games). That also can’t happen again. That was the day Mariota took 11 sacks for Tennessee. Tannehill’s not that bad thankfully.

We don’t think of the 2019 Ravens as a classic Baltimore defense, perhaps because there’s no Ray Lewis or Ed Reed or Terrell Suggs on the unit this year. They also struggled early in the season after allowing huge numbers in Kansas City (33 points and 503 yards) and to the Browns (40 points and 530 yards). That gave us an early impression that things weren’t good this year. However, in the other 14 games this year the Ravens never allowed more than 23 points or 349 yards. Only the 2010 Steelers (15 games) and 2011 Steelers (14 games) can say they’ve done that at least 14 times in a season this decade. Matt Judon emerged as their new star pass-rusher and the trade for corner Marcus Peters in Week 7 proved to be a steal as he made the All-Pro team thanks to his ball-hawking abilities. So the Ravens are in this familiar spot of having the best defense left in the AFC playoffs, but now they have the best offense to boot as well.

Not to trigger fans of the 2000 Titans, but it could be a bad thing if this game comes down to field goals. Justin Tucker is arguably the best kicker to ever do it, while the Titans were just 8-of-18 on field goals this year. Their current kicker, Greg Joseph, hasn’t even attempted a field goal in 2019. He missed three field goals and four extra points for the 2018 Browns.

That’s why the red zone matchup could be so huge in this one. Baltimore’s passing game was the best in the league in the red zone. Jackson’s 24 red zone touchdown passes trail only Russell Wilson (25), but he had 29 fewer pass attempts in the red zone than Wilson. That’s a lot different than the matchup with Tom Brady last week. Brady had 13 TD on a league-high 91 red zone passes in 2019. The only player coming close to Jackson’s absurd red zone TD% of 40% is Tannehill (37.8%).The Titans have been absolutely bonkers in the red zone with Tannehill since Week 7. Including the playoff game, they are 28-of-32 (87.5%) at scoring touchdowns in the red zone after starting 8-of-15 (53.3%) with Marcus Mariota. They are going to need to continue that hot streak and realize that field goals aren’t going to beat the best offense in the league on the road (unless it’s the final play of the game of course).

We’ve seen bigger upsets in NFL history before, but I just don’t like the Titans enough to pick them here. Baltimore is the better team in all three units, the home team, and the rested team. It would be cool to see another sixth seed make a run at things here, but the Ravens are legitimately great this season.

Final: Ravens 30, Titans 20

 

Texans at Chiefs (-9.5)

We usually have some rematches from the regular season to talk about in the playoffs, but this is only the second one through two rounds this year. The other one was last week when the Seahawks beat the Eagles by the same score (17-9) again. That would be very disappointing for the Chiefs, a two-score favorite, since Houston won 31-24 in Arrowhead in Week 6.

So what happened that day and why will things be different this time?

In Week 6, the Chiefs were coming off a rough 19-13 loss to the Colts, the first game where Patrick Mahomes didn’t lead the team to at least 26 points. Mahomes was injured a couple of times in that game and was missing left tackle Eric Fisher and Sammy Watkins for this Houston matchup. It started off really well when Mahomes notably threw for 116 yards on the opening drive thanks to some penalties. The Chiefs led 17-3 and seemed like they were going to roll over Houston, but the Texans came back. Mahomes got fooled on a second quarter interception when he thought the official was going to throw a flag on a free play, and he later lost a fumble that Deshaun Watson turned into a touchdown before halftime for a 23-17 lead. Watson engineered a 12-play, 93-yard drive in the fourth quarter — a drive that never featured a third down — to put the Texans ahead 31-24. The Chiefs had a very quick three-and-out with an odd call of a run on 2nd-and-14, and the Texans were able to run out the final 5:03 without giving Mahomes the ball back. Carlos Hyde was effective with 116 rushing yards, and Watson’s day could have been even bigger without some dropped passes. Houston racked up 35 first downs in that game, the most by any NFL road team since the Patriots had 36 first downs in their overtime win in Kansas City in the 2018 AFC Championship Game. The Chiefs were unable to gain 20 yards on any play after the opening drive.

That was arguably the low point of the season for the Chiefs on defense, but the good news is the offense is healthier now, especially in regards to Mahomes. They also have their leading sack defender back in Chris Jones, who missed that Week 6 game. The Texans got J.J. Watt back last week and he played well against Buffalo. The Texans didn’t have Kenny Stills in Week 6, but they’re looking to have their full wideout trio of DeAndre Hopkins, Stills and Will Fuller available for this one.

You expect the Chiefs to play better this time, but the spread rising from Chiefs -3.5 in Week 6 to Chiefs -9.5 given that last matchup is still a bit puzzling. Kansas City has cut down on penalties and turnovers since Week 6, but those mistakes and bad health have led the offense to take a step back from 2018’s historic level.

The injuries, most notably the dislocated kneecap that cost him nearly three full games, did take away from what was still an exceptional season for Mahomes. He actually had more touchdown passes of 40-plus yards (9) this year than he had in 2018 (7) despite throwing 24 fewer touchdowns overall. The big plays are still there in an offense built for speed, but in recent weeks we have seen a more pedestrian Mahomes. Since Week 11, Mahomes is at 7.28 yards per attempt with 8 touchdowns to 4 interceptions and a 92.0 passer rating. That’s fine for what the Chiefs needed to go 6-0 in those games, but Mahomes’ 16-game pace over this span is just 3,747 yards and 21 touchdown passes. That’s far from the record-setting dominance he showed us through his first 25 starts.

Mahomes has been overshadowed the last six games by his defense, which prompts the “watch out now that Mahomes has a defense!” angle. Yes, it would be scary to give this quarterback a legitimately great defense, but are we sure that’s the case? It was just in Week 10 when this defense was embarrassed by Ryan Tannehill in Tennessee, prompting us to take the Titans more seriously. I’m always leery of these “QB has [help]!” claims when we know the larger sample size usually points to that not being the case.

As always, the first thing to do is look at the schedule. Who have the Chiefs played in the last six weeks? That would be the Chargers twice. Philip Rivers had a turnover-heavy, washed-up type of season. Then there was Oakland and Derek Carr, who has a very poor history against the Chiefs. The only games he had this year with multiple interceptions were against the Chiefs, and he also had two picks in a 35-3 loss to the Chiefs in Week 17 last year. Throw in a 23-3 win over rookie Drew Lock and the Broncos in a snow game and that’s already four games out of six against division rivals they’re familiar with. The other two games were at New England and Chicago, where the quarterback play was close to equal for the first time in many years with Tom Brady having his worst season at 42 and Mitchell Trubisky being Mitchell Trubisky.

So color me unimpressed with this run. I think the Chiefs this postseason are more likely to look like the defense that had a few good moments mixed with tough times against the Packers, Vikings, Texans, Titans, Ravens and Lions (with Matthew Stafford). You know, better offensive competition.

If you look at the seven games where the Chiefs have positive EPA on defense on Pro Football Reference, five of the games are from Weeks 11-17. But you’ll also notice that the other two games were the early meetings against Denver (Week 7) and Oakland (Week 2). So those were just offenses the defense owned this season. By the same measure of EPA, the Chiefs had three games where they were worse than -17 EPA and those were against the Texans, Ravens and Packers so that could be interesting if that ends up being their next three opponents on a Super Bowl path.

Reid getting less out of the offense and more out of the defense is probably a net positive for this playoff run, but Mahomes is going to have to be stellar at some point here. If it’s not this week, then it will have to come in Baltimore most likely. Remember, Mahomes is getting the worst defense in the playoffs this week in Houston. He should play very well on Sunday, but the standards for his “very well” game are currently in flux.

The last thing I want to talk about is arguably the most important part in this game: Deshaun Watson. His A-level plays are just as good as Mahomes and Jackson, whether it’s the incredible runs or deep throws down the field. However, he does take too many sacks at times and we just haven’t seen him put together that consistent, MVP-worthy season yet like Mahomes (2018) and Jackson (2019) have. Of course, those quarterbacks have better support systems than Watson, who is stuck with Bill O’Brien and a franchise that doesn’t really have a GM. Mahomes has Andy Reid’s brain, and we know from Reid’s coaching tree that he puts together great staffs. Jackson has Harbaugh and Greg Roman, and the Ravens are on the forefront of analytics right now. Watson is basically pulling the weight in Houston himself, which is how the Texans end up falling behind 16-0 at home to lowly Buffalo in the Wild Card round, but also how they pull out a 22-19 win in overtime behind him.

Watson stands to be The Third Man in the AFC as Mahomes and Jackson battle for conference superiority in this new decade where the Patriots should finally be old news. Winning this game and breaking up the first of several expected AFC title games between Mahomes and Jackson would be huge for him, but the odds clearly aren’t in his favor Sunday.

But make no mistake about it — Watson is a gamer and the main reason Chiefs fans have to feel at least a little nervous about this one. If there’s someone who can match Mahomes, who isn’t coming in hot, score for score on that cursed playoff ground called Arrowhead, it is Watson.

Final: Chiefs 31, Texans 23

 

Seahawks at Packers (-4)

I have about 800 words left to keep this preview under 5,000, but how many does one really need for this game? Seattle’s offense is a little better than Green Bay’s, though the Packers have an edge in versatility with their top back (Aaron Jones) still healthy while the Seahawks won with 19 rushing yards from backs in Philadelphia last week. Green Bay’s play-action passing game remains broken this year and Rodgers still throws too many passes away and takes too many sacks he shouldn’t. Both teams are mediocre at best on defense and special teams. Both teams are in the running for the worst team to ever have the nice records (13-3 and 11-5) they have.

It would be shocking if we don’t see Russell Wilson in the fourth quarter of a lower scoring game trying to lead a game-winning drive. Does he get sacked in the arms of Za’Darius Smith, or does he make Green Bay blow its first fourth-quarter lead of 2019? From my 2019 close game summary, the Packers (NFL-high eight holds) and Seahawks (six holds including last week in Philly) have not blown any fourth-quarter leads this year, though Seattle did twice get lucky on missed field goals. The Packers are 10-1 in close games and haven’t lost one since Week 4 (Eagles). They have three more close wins than the next closest team. They also struggled like hell to sweep the 3-12-1 Lions this year, though I would be remiss to not mention Seattle’s 1-point win at home over a Cincinnati team that is picking first in the draft. Like I said, these teams are not that great; shells of the dominant teams they fielded in that classic 2014 NFC Championship Game.

Seattle just needs to survive the first quarter. That’s when Rodgers has by far been at his best in 2019 and Seattle has allowed more first-quarter points than all but five teams. The Packers rank third in first-quarter scoring, but are 27th in the second quarter, ninth in the third quarter and 26th in the fourth quarter. Much of Green Bay’s season has been about jumping out to an early lead, scoring 21-31 points in the game, and hanging on for the victory. That’s fine against most of the NFL, but Wilson is adept at leading comebacks.

However, Wilson has a very checkered past against the Packers: 4-3 record, 10 TD, 10 INT, 74.0 passer rating and 6.63 YPA. He’s had games with 4 and 5 INT against them, and the first meeting was the Fail Mary in 2012. His most complete game against Green Bay was probably last year’s win at home against Mike Pettine’s defense, but the Packers are better on that side of the ball in 2019.

After going through 2019 with next to zero pass rush, the Seahawks picked up 7 sacks and 9 QB hits in Philadelphia last week. That’s unlikely to repeat itself, but as the season has shown, Rodgers will take some sacks and leave teams hanging around late. The pressure will be on Wilson to deliver and for at least one more week I’m counting on him to deliver. Should Minnesota pull off the upset in San Francisco on Saturday, this game takes on even greater importance for the Packers because of how they have dominated that division matchup this year. The chances of going to the Super Bowl could go up before Green Bay even takes the field last this weekend.

If things go the other way, then we’ll just bet like crazy against the Packers in San Francisco next week.

Final: Seahawks 23, Packers 20