NFL Stat Oddity: Week 3

I questioned on Saturday how a week with no games with a point spread of 7+ would go, especially this early in the season when we are trying to figure out what these teams really are.

As it turns out, this was only the fourth NFL week (regular season) since 2001 where no game had a spread larger than 6.5 points. We’ll see what Monday night brings with Cowboys-Giants, but so far, the four games with spreads of 1-2 points were all decided by 1-4 points. #VegasKnew

One of the most incredible stats so far is that the rookie head coaches are 9-1 this season at 4QC/GWD opportunities:

The only loss was when Nathaniel Hackett lost his mind and tried to do a 64-yard field goal in Seattle.

Some Week 3 games had a fake close finish this week (PIT-CLE on TNF, NO-CAR), but in the end, there have been 11 games with a comeback opportunity. If we get a 12th on MNF, that will be the most in any week since the 2016 season started with 13 close games.

But after seeing the Bills and Chiefs lose in dramatic fashion in the fourth quarter, the Chargers lose at home by four touchdowns to the Jaguars, a 14-12 Aaron Rodgers vs. Tom Brady game, and the unholy clusterfvck that was 49ers vs. Broncos on Sunday night, “Any Given Sunday” is still very much in effect.

This season in Stat Oddity:

Bills at Dolphins: Miami’s Rope-a-Dope

Before I piss off the Miami fans, I want to remind everyone that I picked Miami to make the playoffs and Mike McDaniel to win Coach of the Year. This game helps with both of those, but I think by Week 15 when the rematch is played on a December afternoon in Buffalo, this game is going to look like the New England 14-10 extreme winds game on Monday night last year.

The Bills dominated this game and only have themselves to blame for losing it. They literally melted in the Miami heat and wore themselves out while outgaining the Dolphins 497-212 in yards, 31-15 in first downs, and holding the ball for 40:20.

Yes, Josh Allen had some notable screwups in this one. He lost the ball on a strip-sack that led to a 6-yard touchdown drive for Miami. He had to do a fake spike before halftime after bobbling another snap, potentially costing the team another three points. He didn’t come through again on three straight plays from inside the 2-yard line after the two-minute warning. His final drive, with 85 seconds to get the winning field goal set up, was not the stuff of legends and does not help his MVP case as he couldn’t get the spike off to beat the buzzer.

But while Allen had a ridiculous 75 dropbacks, I am not sure how Tua Tagovailoa returned to the game after banging his head off the ground in the second quarter and looking wobbly. Instead of expecting the Bills to feast on Teddy Bridgewater, Tua was soon back in the game and ended up leading a go-ahead drive in the fourth quarter keyed by big catches that Jaylen Waddle made (45 and 32 yards) that I doubt Bridgewater would have completed, even if the Bills were badly shorthanded in the secondary in this game.

But back to Allen, he had help in blowing this game. In the third quarter, the Bills had one full possession and Gabriel Davis dropped a sure touchdown on it. Almost a Lee Evans-Sterling Moore type of play if you know what I mean (2011 AFC Championship Game). The Bills had to settle for a field goal and 17-14 lead after a 9:22 drive.

Then in the fourth quarter, the Bills settled for another field goal and missed it from 38 yards out. What the hell? Miami took the lead, then it was another march of over eight minutes where the Bills came up empty at the goal line. Even after Miami’s butt-punt inside the end zone produced a safety and 21-19 score, Allen still couldn’t deliver the final game-winning drive.

Since 1970, teams with an edge of 275+ yards are 300-13-1 (.957), so come on, Buffalo. The last team to outgain an opponent by 275+ yards and lose was the 2020 Rams in Miami, Tua’s first start when Jared Goff imploded with turnovers. Those articles I wrote during the playoffs asking if Joe Burrow was the new Brady, did I have the wrong 2020 draft quarterback in mind?

But going back to last season, the Bills are now 1-7 in close games. Allen has not had a fourth-quarter comeback since the third game of the 2020 season against the Rams, a game where the refs bailed him out with a penalty to wipe out a fourth-down incompletion.

This team may have a big front-runner problem. I would still pick Buffalo in a rematch in a heartbeat, but they are going to have to win a game late at some point this year if they are going to win a Super Bowl or even get to one.

Chiefs at Colts: That Horseshoe Voodoo

Some franchises just seem snake-bitten against certain teams. Over the last 30 years, the Chiefs are 4-14 against the Colts, including a 1-4 record in playoff games. From Lin Elliott’s missed field goals in the 1995 playoffs to the no-punts playoff loss in Arrowhead in 2003 to the blown 28-point lead in 2013 AFC Wild Card to that weird 19-13 game in 2019, it’s just one heartbreak after another for the Chiefs.

But most of those games did not happen in the Patrick Mahomes era, and he even won his first playoff game – feels like a shock now – at home against the Colts in 2018, Andrew Luck’s final game.

But Mahomes and the Chiefs are 0-2 against the Colts ever since, and Sunday’s 20-17 loss ranks right up there with the 19-13 loss that was such a one-of-a-kind in Mahomes’ career.

We have 20-17 as a nice cousin to 19-13:

  • They are the only two losses in Mahomes’ career to an opponent that scored fewer than 26 points (45-2 record).
  • They are the only two losses in Mahomes’ career to a team with under 340 yards of offense (28-2 record) as the Colts had just 259 yards on Sunday.
  • 19-13 was the first time in 24 starts that Mahomes did not lead the Chiefs to at least 26 points.
  • 19-13 is the only game in Mahomes’ first 50 starts where the Chiefs did not score at least 22 points.
  • Pending on 2022 results, 19-13 is the only loss in Mahomes’ career to a team with fewer than eight wins (2019 Colts finished 7-9).
  • 19-13 is the only loss in Mahomes’ career when a team blitzes him at least 12 times (12-1 record). [Note: waiting for 20-17 data.]
  • Mahomes is 28-2 SU as a favorite of more than 7 points and 19-13 was the first loss.

How did this one happen? Special teams played a huge part in a variety of ways, making you wonder if the team should have bit the bullet and cut someone to add another kicker while Harrison Butker is injured.

  • First, rookie Skyy Moore muffed a punt that led to an easy 4-yard touchdown drive for the Colts.
  • A punt pinned Mahomes to his 1-yard line for Drive No. 2.
  • The Chiefs missed an extra point on their first touchdown.
  • Leading 17-13 in the fourth quarter, the Chiefs tried a terrible fake field goal instead of trying a 42-yard kick.
  • Matt Ammendola missed a 34-yard field goal wide left with 8:38 left that would have had the game tied if the Colts still got the touchdown.

That was a brutal performance, but the offense also was not that great for the second week in a row as the Chargers and Colts have held this offense to 37 points.  Apparently, not every defense is as clueless as Arizona.

The defense had five sacks of Matt Ryan and made some good plays, but there was a fourth-and-1 sneak at the Indy 33 that could have been game-deciding if the Chiefs stopped Ryan. They didn’t. Worse, a sack to bring up fourth-and-14 with 5:08 left should have changed things dramatically, but Chris Jones was penalized for apparently saying some naughty words after the play, leading to an automatic first down. Ridiculous.

The Colts took a whopping 8:14 to drive for the winning touchdown with Ryan cashing in again to rookie Jelani Woods with 24 seconds left to take a 20-17 lead.

We know Mahomes doesn’t need a ton of time to get into field goal range, but what exactly is that without Butker and with a kicker who can’t make an extra point or kick from 34 yards out? After a 24-yard completion from Mahomes, who struggled to break 250 yards passing, he had 0:08 left at the Indy 46. Something quick over the middle for 10-15 yards and getting down to use a timeout would work well with Butker, but again, the kick was going to be a nightmare in this situation. But we never got to see one as Mahomes forced a pass that was intercepted, and the game was over. The Colts did it again to the Chiefs.

This game is exactly why I said it’d be so interesting if the Chiefs had to play the Colts in the 2020 or 2021 playoffs. They did this without their best defender (Shaquille Leonard) active, but Michael Pittman’s return was a huge boost to Ryan’s confidence despite the pressure he faced.

If we ignore Weeks 1-2, this game is exactly why I felt the Colts would be better without Wentz this year, and why I had the Chiefs taking a step back to 10-7. Time will tell if this was just some more Horseshoe Voodoo when these teams meet up, but if there’s a playoff rematch, I don’t blame any Kansas City fans having dread over the outcome.

The muffed punt to start the game was just the first sign of what was to come. The Chiefs have some issues to take care of in this post-Tyreek Hill era, and a trip to Tampa Bay (allowing 9.0 points per game) is unlikely to make things better.

The good news is the rest of the AFC West looks terrible right now.

Packers at Buccaneers: Okay, Boomers

Tom Brady had the 50th failed 4QC of his career on Sunday, and yet I felt nothing from this 14-12 odyssey that could be the final time he and Aaron Rodgers match up in the NFL.

Is it because this didn’t feel like the real version of the Buccaneers with Mike Evans suspended and Chris Godwin (hamstring) out? Sure, we can talk about Julio Jones being out for Tampa and Sammy Watkins being out for Green Bay, but that’s like talking about the sun coming up and going back down. It’s just assumed at this point.

But there’s the rub. The Packers are not going to get that much better talent-wise than what they had here, and they still got the 14-12 win despite not scoring on their final nine drives. Aaron Jones had another huge fumble in a game against Tampa when the Packers could have gone up 21-3.

But Tampa should get better soon with Evans coming back and Godwin probably in a couple more weeks. The Buccaneers didn’t run well at all in this game (35 yards for Leonard Fournette) and Brady was sacked three times. But he threw for 271 yards with Russell Gage and Breshad Perriman each losing fumbles.

The Tampa Bay defense is allowing 9.0 points per game this season to lead the NFL, but the offense is averaging one offensive touchdown per game. This defense gave the offense plenty of chances to win this, as did the Green Bay offense with a bad second half.

Brady had four drives in a 14-6 game and finally cashed in the last one for a touchdown. But just when you thought Fournette was going to run in the two-point conversion to force overtime, the Buccaneers were hit with a delay of game. They barely avoided one on the touchdown too. How do teams keep screwing this up this season?

Pushed 5 yards back, Brady’s pass was deflected and incomplete in the end zone. The Packers recovered the onside kick, and it was over at 14-12.

It’s a fun win for Green Bay, but would you trust this team in a playoff rematch with the Bucs having better receivers? No way I would.

49ers at Broncos: 11-10, Rockies Edge Out the Giants

Do I need to say much about the second 11-10 game in NFL history? You probably saw this mess on Sunday night. Along the way to those 21 points, we had a 55-yard field goal, a safety after Jimmy Garoppolo pulled a Dan Orlovsky and stepped out of bounds, and a 51-yard field goal on a drive without any first downs.

That set up the 10-5 score in the fourth quarter, which set the stage for Russell Wilson to have one good drive where the old magic showed up and the Broncos actually ran in a touchdown. But even with an 11-10 deficit, Garoppolo should be able to get a game-winning field goal, right? It’s the other bums that lose every close game for Kyle Shanahan.

Well, on a night where the crowd was again booing Denver’s boo-worthy offense, the 49ers weren’t much better. Without a great drive at the end, you could even say they were worse given the talent involved.

Garoppolo threw a terrible interception with 2:06 left. I have no idea what he saw there. But then Nathaniel Hackett put some gutless touches on the win. He called three straight runs and punted the ball back with 1:42 left in a 1-point game. Do you not understand that the 49ers had four clock stoppages? Did you forget why this team traded so much to get Wilson? That wasn’t Drew Lock out there, even if some Wilson’s accuracy looked like Lock’s on Sunday night.

That was pathetic and it should have lost Denver the game. But the 49ers had coach’s back with another sack and Jeff Wilson fumbled a catch to end it 11-10. The 49ers were 1-for-10 on third down.

The Broncos are 2-1 yet feel like an 0-3 team that has yet to score more than 16 points. On Sunday night, the Broncos went three-and-out nine times, the most ever for a Wilson start.

Since 1970, NFL teams with at least 10 punts and no more than 11 points are 16-162-4.

Can we unplug the 2022 Broncos and plug them back in? I don’t know what this team is doing, but I know I don’t like watching it, and they will be on TNF in Week 5 too against the Colts.

Ravens at Patriots: Lamar’s Season?

If not for one disastrous quarter against Miami, the Ravens would be the talk of the NFL going into their showdown with Buffalo next week. Maybe they still should be, and Lamar Jackson should be the new odds-on MVP favorite after another stellar game with 325 total yards and five total touchdowns in what was a surprisingly wild, high-scoring 37-26 win in New England.

Jackson rushed for over 100 yards again while throwing for four scores. It looked like the defense was going to blow another fourth-quarter lead (31-20) too after some spirited plays from a mobile Mac Jones, but Marlon Humphrey came through with a huge pick in the end zone in a 31-26 game.

Next, Nelson Agholor fumbled on a catch inside the Baltimore 40 as the Patriots were sloppy with four giveaways. Jackson turned that into a 73-yard touchdown drive that basically put the game away.

Jones then suffered some sort of leg injury on his third pick, which looked painful as he hobbled off the field. We’ll see what his status is but early reports seem to suggest sprain more than torn knee ligaments. So, hopefully his season won’t be over after the 2021 draft class already lost Trey Lance.

Jackson putting the Ravens on his back against a Buffalo defense that is suddenly vulnerable with injuries should make for an exciting Week 4. He is playing better now than when he won MVP in 2019.

Raiders at Titans: 0-3 Bowl

Going into Sunday, we expected someone to come out of this game 0-3, but just a few weeks ago, who would have imagined the Raiders would be the only 0-3 team in the NFL?

The Titans clearly took their embarrassing loss to Buffalo on Monday night to heart. Ryan Tannehill got Robert Woods (85 yards) involved, and not only did Derrick Henry look better on the ground, but he had five catches for 58 yards, easily one of the most productive receiving games of his career.

Tennessee led 24-10 at halftime, but this was a game I had lined up as a 4QC/GWD for Derek Carr. It didn’t seem like it would get there after Darren Waller, who had a terrible game, tipped a red-zone pass for a pick with 9:22 left. But the Raiders had the ball in a 24-16 game with 2:57 left. After Carr hit a deep ball to Mack Hollins to convert a fourth-and-15 at the two-minute warning, overtime was looking likely.

Carr even added to his legacy of getting bailed out of a fourth-down incompletion with a defensive holding penalty on the Titans to extend the game. You knew the touchdown was inevitable at that point, and Hollins caught that too as apparently Davante Adams isn’t allowed to hit 40 yards in this offense.

But when it came time for the game-tying two-point conversion with 1:14 left, Carr could not hook up with Waller in the end zone. The Titans recovered the onside kick and the game was over.

We knew the Raiders were a big regression candidate with their 4-0 overtime record and poor (-65) scoring differential to get to 10-7 last season. But the inability of head coach Josh McDaniels and Carr to figure out how to use the receivers in this offense has been stunning. Hollins, the leading receiver this season, had almost as many yards on Sunday as Adams has in three games combined. He had more Sunday than Waller in three games.

If the Raiders lose to the Broncos and Chiefs next to start 0-5, then this season is already cooked going into the Week 6 bye.

Lions at Vikings: I Like Dan Campbell But…

As someone who was on Lions +6/Vikings ML, it’s amusing that that was not the winning combo until the game’s last 45 seconds. Detroit blew leads of 14-0 in the first half and 24-14 in the fourth quarter to a team with Kirk Cousins getting 14 receiving yards out of Justin Jefferson. It doesn’t sound feasible, but then you remember it’s the Lions.

Detroit was just 3-of-16 on third down but made up for some of it by going 4-of-6 on fourth down as head coach Dan Campbell was aggressive again. I loved it when he bypassed a 48-yard field goal while leading 24-21 with 3:35 left, because a 6-point lead is not that helpful in that spot. Unfortunately, the running game was stuffed on fourth-and-1.

But the defense held, and soon Campbell was faced with another decision on fourth-and-4 at the Minnesota 36 with 1:14 left. He decided to kick the 54-yard field goal, which was wide right. I think he should have gone for it to try ending the game with a first down. If you don’t get it, the Vikings will be down 24-21 and will have an incentive to only kick the field goal and go to overtime. Since it’s the Vikings, the game-tying field goal going in is far from a guarantee no matter what distance it is.

It’ s not like Detroit had Justin Tucker at kicker, so getting the three points was far from a given, and a miss put the Vikings at their own 44. Even if it was good, you are giving the Vikings over a minute to beat you with a touchdown. After going for it on fourth down so often in this game, I think Campbell made a mistake by not doing it once more.

Cousins only needed three throws to win the game. K.J. Osborn made a pair of 28-yard catches, scoring the go-ahead touchdown with 45 seconds left. It took 25 seconds for the Vikings to score from midfield.

Jared Goff was in a tough spot and his Hail Mary was intercepted short of the end zone to end the game. I would say that is the toughest loss of Campbell’s career since this team would have felt great at 2-1 with Seattle up next and having made some history with a streak of 18 quarters scoring a touchdown. It is the second-longest streak since 1925. Who would have imagined the Goff-led Lions would be on that kind of list with the 1942 Packers (19 quarters)?

But instead, it’s the Vikings who are 2-1. Winning division games is something you can trust them to do. Anything else? Meh.

Hurry-Up Finish

Since I need to get to bed, here are some quick thoughts on the other games in Week 3:

Eagles at Commanders: Do you think those Philadelphia defenders like Fletcher Cox and Brandon Graham were ready for this one? They sacked Carson Wentz a career-high nine times, including three dropbacks in a row in the game’s first five minutes. Meanwhile, Jalen Hurts passed for 340 yards and three touchdowns, a stat line Wentz has yet to achieve in his NFL career. The Eagles cruised to a 24-8 win with DeVonta Smith (8/169/1) and A.J. Brown (5/85/1) quickly turning into one of the most dangerous duos in the game. Isn’t it great to make the right move at quarterback, Eagles fans?

Side note: I swear the Eagles just had the two greatest offensive games back-to-back in which a team only scored 24 points and didn’t score in the second half. They scored all 24 of their points on Monday against the Vikings in the first half and all 24 points against Washington came in the second quarter. I don’t think the lack of second-half scoring is something to get worried about yet, but it has been an interesting two games with Hurts lighting it up and improving his MVP odds.

Bengals at Jets: This was one of the few games where I was really dialed in on how everything would play out. Joe Flacco threw the ball a ton, but no busted coverage meant no big plays and the Jets only scored 12 points. Joe Burrow didn’t have a dominant pass rusher to deal with, so he had his best game of the season (only two sacks) and took advantage of poor coverage for a long touchdown to Tyler Boyd. Bengals finally get a win this season but will have tough game with Miami on Thursday night.

Texans at Bears: So much for that under 40 points. The Texans cannot stop the run (281 yards), which is a good thing since the Bears still only threw 17 passes and took five sacks. But we may have seen another 20-20 tie for this Houston team if Davis Mills didn’t have a pass tipped at the line and intercepted by Roquan Smith with 1:05 left. That set up a cheap game-winning drive that consisted of a 1-yard run and two kneeldowns by Justin Fields before a 30-yard field goal at the buzzer. It’s the kind of finish Lovie Smith would be proud of… if he was still on the other side.

Falcons at Seahawks: Can you believe the Falcons and the Browns are the only teams to score at least 26 points in all three games this season? I liked the Falcons in this one because of the way they have been competing and scoring this season, and the Seahawks are still too hard to trust for me. But this was one of the closest games of the week with a fourth quarter that featured more unauthorized drones flying over the stadium than points. But in the end, Geno Smith reminded us why he’s 3-14 (.176) at 4QC opportunities with a sack and interception in Atlanta territory. The Falcons finally closed a game.

Saints at Panthers: I knew Carolina wasn’t going to go 0-17, so a home game with the Saints after Jameis Winston imploded last week felt like an appropriate spot to give Matt Rhule his first win. It was also typical Rhule in that the Panthers led wire-to-wire thanks to scooping up an early Alvin Kamara fumble for a touchdown, and they only allowed 14 points. The Jameis turnovers came later, and he technically had a failed 4QC/GWD, but it was in just about the most impossible situation you can have: down 8, no timeouts, 18 seconds left at your own 1. Just time for another desperation pick.  

Rams at Cardinals: For the second week in a row, the Rams could have smoked a team in the fourth quarter, but Cam Akers fumbled at the 1-yard line in a 20-9 game. That spoiled what could have been a game with 27 points on eight drives. But the Rams are not the Raiders, and Kyler Murray’s long marches in the fourth only led to a field goal and 20-12 loss despite him throwing 58 passes.

On the bright side, the Cardinals held Cooper Kupp to 44 receiving yards on six targets and four catches. Since 2021, Kupp has had at least 90 yards in every game except for three, but all three have been against Arizona. This is the first time Kupp has been under 60 yards since 2020. He finishes with a 25-game streak of 60-plus receiving yards, which did edge out Antonio Brown (24) for a new record. He’ll just have to start another streak next week, but maybe these Cardinals are doing something right with him. Just ignore the tape of the 20-yard touchdown run he had on Sunday that looked too easy.

Jaguars at Chargers: I picked the Jaguars to win just because Justin Herbert seemed to be trending downward to play. I loved Jacksonville at +6.5 when the line went back up to that, but truthfully, I probably would have picked the Chargers to win on Saturday had that been the line when I posted my Week 3 picks. Still, it was shocking to see the way Jacksonville rolled this team in that building.

Most of the damage was done in the second and third quarters. I do not think Herbert’s ribs were physically limiting him too much, and he sure doesn’t play defense where Trevor Lawrence and company did what they wanted. Kudos to Doug Pederson for getting great early results out of an offense with Zay Jones, Christian Kirk, and Evan Engram at tight end. I really did not think it would work, but for three games it has, and this team realistically could win the AFC South this year. Might even be upgrading to say they should win it in a few weeks if things keep up.

As for Chargers coach Brandon Staley, has a coach’s stock ever dropped so fast? His answer to keeping Herbert in a 38-10 game in the final five minutes was absurd. This team seems destined to waste one of the best young quarterbacks in the league.

Next week: Bills-Ravens is a huge one, Dolphins-Bengals might be good on Thursday night, and of course I’ve already done a preview for Chiefs-Bucs before writing this. Even Jaguars-Eagles looks like a game to watch, which might be the best way to sum up September in this NFL season.

This season has to give us something more than Bills-Chiefs III meets Brady in the Super Bowl.

NFL 2021 AFC Championship Game Preview: Bengals at Chiefs

The Kansas City Chiefs are 11-1 in their last 12 games, but they must avenge their Week 17 loss to the Cincinnati Bengals if they are to become the fourth team to get to a third-straight Super Bowl.

See my NFC Championship Game preview for 49ers-Rams here.

With both championship games being rematches for the fourth year in a row, here is some pertinent data for all conference championship game rematches since 1978.

  • Teams like the Chiefs who played on the road in the regular season are only 15-15 in that game, but they are 21-9 in the home championship game.
  • However, when that road loser switches venues back home, their title game record is only 8-7.
  • Green Bay lost at home last year to Tampa Bay. The Chiefs were swept by the 2018 Patriots, the only team to beat Patrick Mahomes twice in the same season. Kansas City was able to come back to beat the Titans a year later.
  • For division matchups, only the last meeting is used, so a team trying to complete the road sweep like San Francisco has to improve on a 1-4 record for teams in position to do that. Only the 1992 Bills were able to sweep the Dolphins on the road in the title game.

Kansas City turned around the worst home loss of Mahomes’ career against Buffalo with a thrilling 42-36 overtime win in an instant classic last week. What will the encore be?

Bengals at Chiefs (-7)

See my early preview for this game at BMR.

After a rough 3-4 start, the Chiefs are back to being a very difficult team to beat. But the Bengals will have some confidence after being the last to take this team down. Let’s update the losses chart in the Mahomes era (with some tweaks) that I introduced last postseason.

When you look at the five losses this season, running the ball and controlling the clock were less important against the 2021 Chiefs. The most important thing is still to score at least 27 points as Mahomes is 43-1 when a team doesn’t hit that number.

Cincinnati’s win was unique in that it was a passing explosion from Joe Burrow to Ja’Marr Chase (more on that below), but the Bengals had the fewest rushing yards (60) in a win over Mahomes. They are also only the third team to beat Mahomes without getting a takeaway as that Week 17 game had zero takeaways from both teams. If you look at the other four losses this year, the Chiefs always had multiple turnovers, including games with three or four.

The Chiefs also had one of their worst penalty games in Week 17, but the ref for this one is Bill Vinovich. While I’m certainly no Vinovich fan, his games this year had the fewest penalties and penalty yards. Part of what made the Bills-Chiefs game so sublime was that the teams combined for four penalties, so it would be nice to see another clean game.

Kansas City is definitely going to have to be careful with how grabby they get with these receivers. In Week 17, the Bengals overcame three third downs thanks to defensive pass interference calls. There were also two fourth-down stops in the final minute that would have given Mahomes the ball back had the defense not been called for penalties to negate both.

Seeing that Mahomes only needed 13 seconds to set up a field goal against Buffalo, you can see why the Bengals opted to go for that second fourth-and-1 at the 1-yard line in a tied game with 50 seconds left. As the chart shows, denying Mahomes the ball late in the game is the best chance to beat him. Only twice in his career (2018 Rams and 2021 Chargers) has he been unable to drive into field-goal range late in the game.

Will These Playoff Offenses Regress?

The Chiefs are red hot right now with 42 points in back-to-back playoff games, something only the 1990 Bills have ever done. Mahomes threw five touchdown passes in just over 11 minutes against the Steelers before Travis Kelce later threw a sixth on a trick play. Against Buffalo’s No. 1 defense, he led the Chiefs to eight scores on 11 drives, including five more touchdowns. Of the three non-scoring drives, one was a missed field goal and the other was a dropped ball on third down. That means the Chiefs have scored 11 touchdowns on 23 drives this postseason.

Meanwhile, the Bengals have three touchdowns on 20 drives this postseason. They have settled for eight field goals. Rookie kicker Evan McPherson is great and has long range, but we know settling for field goals, especially long ones, is a losing formula in Kansas City. The Bengals are going to have to be sharper, particularly in the red zone where they were mediocre this season. In fact, the Bengals were 16th in red zone touchdown rate and 16th in third down conversion rate. Drop down two sections for more on their offense.

As for the Chiefs keeping up this historic pace, how did those 1990 Bills fare in their third playoff game after the scoring explosion? They had one week instead of two to prepare for the Giants, a great defense, in the Super Bowl. They lost 20-19, but that is one of the most overrated defensive performances in NFL history. The Bills moved the ball great, but only had possession for 19:27 because of New York’s ball-control offense. The Bills only allowed one sack and had zero turnovers, and still gained 371 yards in under 20 minutes, but they were 1-of-7 on third down and Scott Norwood missed a game-winning field goal at the end. It was the night defensive coordinator Bill Belichick first sold his soul to the devil.

The Chiefs were the best third-down offense this season at 52.2%, and they have not disappointed in the playoffs. None of this should really come as a surprise after the Chiefs led the NFL in yards per drive, points per drive, and the fewest three-and-outs. As always, it comes back to turnovers with this team.

Chiefs: There Is No Repeatable Blueprint

I don’t care if it gets boring to say this every week, but there is no magical blueprint to stop the Chiefs. They are still their own worst enemy, and that comes largely in the form of turnovers, dropped passes, penalties, or the rare times Andy Reid forgets to put the ball in Mahomes’ hands. The turnovers especially have been killers this year, and so many were self-inflicted with tipped balls or just calling a stupid Wildcat play like the fumble touchdown against Pittsburgh. If you get the turnovers, recover the obligatory Chiefs fumble (didn’t happen last week), you give yourself a chance.

If Clyde Edwards-Helaire doesn’t have the first fumble of his career in field goal range in Baltimore, the Chiefs are winning that 36-35 game. If they don’t turn it over three times in a row to start the Chargers game, they probably win that one too. They would have given the Bills a better game the first time around without a tipped ball pick six and another ball batted at the line for a pick in the red zone.

As the Bengals showed in Tennessee last week with Ryan Tannehill’s pick parade, any game can be a win if you get enough takeaways. It doesn’t even matter if you give up nine sacks and score 19 points.

When the Buccaneers supposedly showed the blueprint to crush the Chiefs in Super Bowl 55, it was missing some context. For one, the Buccaneers were shredded by the Chiefs in Week 12, so they had a recent game tape to study and improve from. The Bengals have that advantage as well from Week 17.

Secondly, the Buccaneers had an extra week to prepare and dramatically altered their scheme to surprise the Chiefs. Defensive coordinator Todd Bowles is known for being an aggressive blitzer, but he called the lowest blitz rate in a game of his since 2015 and played two-high safety shells at his highest rate as well. Teams have emulated this often against Kansas City in 2021, but the Chiefs have adjusted. Last week, Buffalo used two-high safeties on 92% of plays, but Mahomes shredded it with 29-of-38 passing for 344 yards and two touchdowns. He didn’t attempt a single deep pass for the first time in his career as he took advantage of the short, easy plays. He also used his legs to great success and rushed for a career-high 69 yards. Last postseason, Mahomes had a toe injury and wasn’t as willing to run on it as we’ve seen he is willing to do in playoff games.

Finally, the Buccaneers caught a break with left tackle Eric Fisher injuring his Achilles in the game before the Super Bowl, throwing the already limited offensive line into flux. Mahomes was pressured a Super Bowl record number of times depending which source you want to use, and the Chiefs failed to make any special plays that night and did not score a touchdown. The Chiefs reinvested in the offensive line and have gotten better results. They’re also healthy now, and the toughest game this year may have been the Cincinnati one where left tackle Orlando Brown was inactive, his backup got hurt after six snaps, but the Chiefs still made it work. Brown is back now and the Bengals still did not sack Mahomes in Week 17.

So, the fabled Tampa blueprint is a mirage. You just have to trust Reid and Mahomes to figure things out.

But if I have a concern for this matchup, it would be that in Week 17, Travis Kelce and Tyreek Hill did not have a play longer than 17 yards. They had 13 touches for 66 yards and one touchdown as basically everyone else got involved with big plays that day.

It still led to four touchdowns in a row in the first half, but I’m not convinced the Chiefs can sustain their scoring if their two studs aren’t more involved. Both showed up big time against the Bills last week. But in that second half of Week 17, the Chiefs punted twice and settled for a field goal on their final drive before the Bengals ran out the final six minutes for the game-winning field goal.

Despite their turnovers and struggles, the Titans hit up the Bengals for three 40-yard plays last week. A.J. Brown had a monster receiving game. I’m confident the Chiefs will figure it out and get Hill and Kelce more involved this week.

Cincinnati Offense Vs. Kansas City’s Liability

The Chiefs started this season with arguably the worst defense in the league. Things turned around dramatically and they allowed the fewest points in Weeks 6-18, but as I laid out last week, the schedule had a lot to do with that.

After the way the Chiefs have performed on defense late in the season against the Chargers, Bengals, and Bills, it’s safe to say this defense is a liability again. If it doesn’t catch up with them this week against Ja’Marr Chase for a second time, then it could in the Super Bowl with Deebo Samuel or Cooper Kupp being the latest skill player to destroy them.

Hell, it was Buffalo’s Gabriel Davis who had 201 yards and a playoff-record four touchdown catches last week. He was 13 seconds away from ending Kansas City’s season, and the defense never had to get another stop after failing to do so multiple times in the quarter. Without coin flip wins in overtime against the Chargers (Week 15) and Bills, this Kansas City season could look very different right now. I’d be leery of this defense.

In Week 17, Chase had one of the greatest receiving games in NFL history. He caught 11-of-12 targets for 266 yards and three touchdowns. He added two first downs via pass interference flags on third downs. He caught a 30-yard pass on third-and-27 on the game-winning drive. He had two long touchdowns that were largely YAC and individual efforts from him. He was sensational and so was his rookie season. While not finding the end zone in the playoffs, he has still been very good and did a lot of damage on screens in Tennessee.

The good news for the Chiefs is that safety Tyrann Mathieu should be back after leaving the Bills game early with a concussion. I’m not going to pretend he stops all those Davis plays, but the Chiefs are better with him on the field than off. They’re also better when Daniel Sorensen doesn’t have to play much. Sunday saw Sorensen play 92% of the snaps, his highest in a game since Week 5 when he allowed two long completions to Buffalo and saw his role diminished afterwards. Sorensen was also beat for 86 yards and a touchdown in Cincinnati. They cannot rely on him with the Bengals having a legitimate wide receiver trio.

Can Chase really dominate like that again? This will be the 20th time since 1970 that a receiver had at least 175 receiving yards against a defense he will face in the playoffs. The Chiefs just saw this a year ago with Tyreek Hill lighting up the Buccaneers for 269 yards and three touchdowns. But in the Super Bowl, Hill couldn’t pull in an early touchdown and finished with seven catches for 73 yards.

On average, these receivers declined by 142.9 receiving yards in the playoff rematch. Only Tim Brown and Michael Haynes were able to break 100 yards again, and touchdowns dropped from 31 to six.

The Chiefs have allowed eight 100-yard receivers this season. You would think after Davis last week and Chase last time, the Chiefs will make him the top priority this week. Short of a return touchdown, the Bengals will struggle to hit that 27-point minimum if Chase is held under 80 yards, which can be gleaned from the 11 times it happened this season.  

Kansas City’s defense has allowed four completions to gain more than 23 YAC this season. The first was a lateral play on 4th-and-31 to end the first half by Cleveland in Week 1, so that really shouldn’t count. The second was a little toss to Devontae Booker for the Giants for an extra 35 yards in the middle of the season. But the two longest YAC plays of the year were by Chase in Week 17 for touchdowns with 43 and 61 YAC. The Bengals had four YAC plays of 40-plus yards this season and you’re looking at half of them.

I’m not going to pretend that the Chiefs won’t allow any big plays this week, especially after what the defense did against Buffalo last week. But I don’t think crazy YAC is as repeatable as a great deep ball, and I don’t believe Burrow’s deep ball is as good as Josh Allen is capable of, such as that 75-yard rocket to Davis that kept the game from getting out of hand.

I also don’t think Burrow can escape all the sacks Allen did. Allen had 10 designed runs in that game, but his only scramble was a crucial fourth down late in the game. Burrow is not a statue by any means, but let’s face it. He took a league-high 51 sacks and was sacked nine times in Tennessee. He takes plenty of bad sacks and the Chiefs got him down four times in Week 17, which had a lot to do with the Bengals trailing 14-0, 21-7, and 28-14. Why did Burrow have to convert a third-and-27 on the game-winning drive? Because he took a sack that knocked them out of field goal range on first down. He’ll learn, they’ll improve the offensive line eventually, but for right now, Burrow is a liability to take bad sacks.

The Chiefs need to take advantage of that at home and I believe they will.

The Prediction

The low-hanging fruit would be to gush over this Cincinnati renaissance and crap on the Titans as the No. 1 seed, but I built the theme to my season predictions around finding a worthy contender for the Chiefs in the AFC. Maybe that proves to be the Bengals if they can become the second team to sweep Mahomes, but I still think Kansas City is the team to beat. The Chargers couldn’t beat them twice. The Bills couldn’t beat them twice. I don’t think the Bengals are better qualified to do it either this year.

Losing that game in Cincinnati with Burrow and Chase playing so well to fall to the No. 2 seed may ultimately prove to be a blessing for these Chiefs. It installed the Titans as the No.1 seed, which they promptly choked away, giving the Chiefs a record fourth-straight AFC title game at home against these Bengals, who they led by 14 points three times in Week 17. I really do believe the Chiefs would have had a harder time reversing 27-3 on the road in Tennessee this week.

I like the Chiefs to get a double-digit lead again and not blow it this time. Give me that 54-51 rematch in two weeks.

Final: Chiefs 34, Bengals 24

NFL Stat Oddity: Divisional Round

The last five rounds of the NFL playoffs had been historically low on drama, so you might say regression hit hard with the best divisional round weekend in history. All four games were decided by a walk-off score, a grand total of 15 points separating the teams, and three road underdogs won.

We were 13 seconds away from the first perfect road sweep in the divisional round. It was however the first time ever that both No. 1 seeds (Titans and Packers) lost on the same day. We could even have watched the last games in the Hall of Fame careers of Aaron Rodgers and Tom Brady. That expected NFC Championship Game rematch between the two? Forget about it. We’re getting 49ers-Rams III.

Cincinnati’s halftime lead in Tennessee before winning 19-16 made it a 26-0 run for the team leading at halftime in the playoffs. But the 49ers-Packers ended that historic streak. A blocked punt return touchdown by the 49ers also helped lead to the first fourth-quarter lead change in the playoffs since Super Bowl LIV. We tied the all-time streak at 20 playoff games (set in 1935-50) without a fourth-quarter lead change, but that is thankfully over.

But even if last-second field goals in tied games were still not enough drama for you, the Bills and Chiefs made sure we got all the lead changes you could imagine. Try four after the two-minute warning alone, or one too many if you’re a Buffalo fan.  

We start with one of the absolute best playoff games ever played.

This season in Stat Oddity:

Bills at Chiefs: The Greatest Divisional Round Game Ever

If the Chiefs go on to win the Super Bowl, we’ll be talking about this one on our deathbeds. Rarely does a heavyweight matchup like this one deliver, but this game blew away all expectations.

There were 31 points scored AFTER the two-minute warning. If that’s not the NFL record, then I don’t know what is. The 2013 Vikings-Ravens scored 36 points in the final 2:04, but only 28 came after the two-minute warning.

Even if it wasn’t a significant playoff game with an incredible ending, this was one of the best-played games ever. It is the first game in NFL history where both teams scored 30 points, had no turnovers, and combined for fewer than five penalties. You want clean, efficient play with two incredibly athletic quarterbacks? This was the game to watch.

Josh Allen led the Bills to five touchdowns on nine drives. You could say he’s slipping after going 7-for-7 a week ago, but he was great in this game. Patrick Mahomes led the Chiefs to five touchdowns, three field goals, one missed field goal, and two punts on their 11 drives.

You know you’re dealing with an incredible game when the biggest complaint is the overtime system not letting the other team answer on offense. No officiating controversy. No bogus play to decide it. Just one score after another.

Right from the start you could see this game was going to be special with the teams exchanging touchdowns in a fast-moving first quarter. Mahomes had the toe injury last postseason, so we did not see him run as effectively as he did in the previous postseason. He does seem to have some Colin Kaepernick in him where he “lets it all hang out” in these playoff games. In this game, Mahomes had 49 yards rushing on the first drive alone, scored a touchdown, and finished with a career-high 69 rushing yards to lead the Chiefs.

I said in my preview that the Bills had the No. 1 scoring defense and the Chiefs were No. 1 since Week 6, but both used weak schedules to boost those stats. Against top offenses, they were not reliable this year. Sure enough, the two offenses that were so efficient a week ago had their way with these defenses this night. But for anyone thinking a 42-36 shootout had no defense, that would gloss over all the incredible plays Allen and Mahomes made to avoid sacks. Each took two sacks, but the number would have been so much higher with lesser quarterbacks. Mahomes especially had better pocket movement and sack avoidance in this game than I’ve ever seen from him. Buffalo had to be sick at how often he got away, but tackling was an issue on other plays too, including a 25-yard touchdown run by Mecole Hardman that looked like it would gain a couple yards at best.

Before the 31-point bonanza at the end, this looked like a game where the Chiefs were going to be kicking themselves for a bad kicking night by Harrison Butker (missed a field goal before halftime and an extra point) and a terrible red-zone call in the fourth quarter. Up 23-21, the Chiefs had a chance to go up two scores, but decided to run an option play with Blake Bell pitching to Jerick McKinnon on third-and-1 for a 3-yard loss. WTF was that? Did they not learn from the Wildcat disaster a week ago? Don’t take the ball out of Mahomes’ hands. That’s way too cute on a pivotal play.

Down 26-21, the stage was set for Allen. I predicted he would lead the first game-winning drive with a touchdown for the Bills (0-5 at them in 2021) in this game. I didn’t think he’d almost use the final nine minutes to do it, but the Chiefs could not stop his runs as he had 68 yards on 11 carries. None were bigger than his 6-yard scramble on a fourth-and-4 with 2:48 left. It looked like the Chiefs had him dead to rights on the play, but he escaped a la Steve McNair and picked it up.

After a bad completion to Devin Singletary lost 7 yards when Allen should have thrown the ball at his feet, the Bills faced a 4th-and-13. Allen found Gabriel Davis wide open for 27 yards in the end zone. Davis was the target on Allen’s 75-yard rocket in the third quarter as well. Stefon Diggs had a shockingly quiet night (three catches for 7 yards), but he came through on the receiving end of a two-point conversion after Allen extended the play.

Down 29-26, you knew Mahomes would answer, but could you trust Butker on this night? Didn’t have to. The connection to Tyreek Hill struck playoff gold again over the middle and Hill turned on the jets for a 64-yard touchdown. But did he leave too much time? The Bills had 1:02 and all three timeouts, an eternity in this game. Davis continued to deliver and was the open target again on a 19-yard touchdown, his fourth of the game, a playoff record. The Chiefs were badly missing safety Tyrann Mathieu, who left early with a concussion.

The Butker misses and the cutesy play call were almost forgotten at this point, but I knew I’d be talking about them in recapping this loss for the Chiefs. It’d be the fourth blown fourth-quarter lead for the defense this year. But as long as you have 13 seconds, your timeouts, and Mahomes, you still have a chance in a 36-33 game.

This was going to be tough, but the Bills could not have played it any worse on three straight plays. First, why a touchback? Kick it short and make them burn a few seconds. Every second is crucial. Then the defense was way too soft as the Chiefs picked up 19 yards to Hill in five seconds before using the first timeout. Still difficult, but not impossible. Then the back-breaker: Kelce left way too open for a 25-yard gain right down the seam. Timeout at three seconds and Butker came on to deliver from 49 yards out. Overtime. That’s 44 yards in 10 seconds. That can’t happen.

There have been some miraculous touchdown drives in less time thanks to a Hail Mary or lateral-filled play. But I have the Chiefs as the only offense since 1981 to drive 40-plus yards for a field goal in the last 15 seconds to tie or win a game.

You hate to see it come down to a coin flip, but if ever there was a game where that was inevitable, it was this one. The Chiefs, like they did in Los Angeles against the Chargers in my regular season Game of the Year 2021, won the coin toss and took the ball right down the field for a touchdown. Mahomes threw a perfect ball to Kelce for an 8-yard touchdown to end it.

Since 2011, the team receiving first in overtime in the playoffs is 10-1 and seven games ended on a first-drive touchdown. Only the 2018 Saints lost to the Rams in a game any rational person would tell you had no business going to overtime. But this tells me the system is not working, and for years I have said we need a system that doesn’t have to be as corny as college, but it has to be better for the postseason than this. It’s a damn shame we didn’t get to see Allen answer after his second go-ahead touchdown pass to Davis after the two-minute warning. The Chiefs ended up with 11 drives to nine for the Bills in this game.

I guess the Bills just needed to be closer to perfect like they were a week ago, but at the same time, don’t blow it with 13 seconds or you leave yourself open to exactly this type of ending. But what a game these teams put on. Allen has earned a lot of respect from me with his playoff run, and really going back to that near-comeback attempt in Tampa Bay and his great game in New England. He is a legitimate stud, but Mahomes is still just better.

The best.

Is it the greatest divisional round game ever? Yes, and I don’t answer that as a prisoner of the moment. I hyped this game up as having massive potential for only being a second-round matchup. If I was going full wrestling writer here and creating a system to judge the best games, I would look at things like relevancy/importance, past history/rivalry, roster talent, quarterback performance, game script/drama/lead changes, highlight plays/visual imprints it left, and how it ended.

This one is going to score higher than anything using such criteria. It was a rematch of last year’s AFC Championship Game, so there was history and relevance. Both teams have major Super Bowl aspirations again, and after the three upsets preceding it, this arguably was this year’s Super Bowl. Then after the way the quarterbacks performed, the Gabriel Davis record-setting performance, the 31 points scored after the two-minute warning, the 13-second game-tying drive, a game with no turnovers and four penalties, a walk-off touchdown to a Hall of Fame tight end in overtime – the whole thing was just incredible football.

In the divisional round, you have a lot of games famous for one play or drive in particular:

  • The Immaculate Reception
  • The Sea of Hands
  • Ghost to the Post
  • Red-Right 88
  • Danny White to Drew Pearson in Atlanta (1980)
  • John Elway’s bomb against the 1991 Oilers.
  • The Tuck Rule (two plays, counting Adam Vinatieri’s field goal).
  • Fourth-and-26.
  • Brady having his fourth-down interception fumbled back to him in San Diego (2006).
  • San Diego backup QB Billy Volek’s game-winning drive in Indy (2007).
  • Antonio Brown’s coming out party on third-and-19 against the 2010 Ravens.
  • Alex Smith to Vernon Davis against the 2011 Saints.
  • Joe Flacco to Jacoby Jones via Rahim Moore in Denver (2012).
  • Dez Caught It (2014)
  • Aaron Rodgers to Jeff Janis twice, but Larry Fitzgerald in OT (2015)
  • Rodgers to Jared Cook in Dallas (2016)
  • The Minneapolis Miracle to Stefon Diggs (2017)

A lot of great moments, and some were even great games before that moment. But I would still put this game ahead of them all, as well as any other overtime game like 1971 Chiefs-Dolphins (longest game but forgettable), 2003 Panthers-Rams (Steve Smith in double overtime), or a 2002 Steelers-Titans shootout involving Tommy Maddox (and kicker/actor Joe Nedney).

When you get to the cream of the crop in the divisional round, I think you’re talking about 2005 Steelers at Colts. It was the first time a No. 6 seed beat the No. 1 seed, and it was one of the most dramatic fourth quarters in playoff history with the Colts trying to rally from a 21-3 deficit. Jerome Bettis’ fumble, Nick Harper’s recovery, and Ben Roethlisberger’s tackle set up a crushing missed field goal by Mike Vanderjagt, creating a montage of “he missed it” quips from Bettis, Bill Cowher, Tony Dungy, and Peyton Manning. The Steelers went on to win the Super Bowl that year. Harper being stabbed by his wife the night before the game just adds to the lore. But it loses points for not having any lead changes and coming down to that liquored-up kicker you knew would choke.

The other game that will usually come up in the best divisional round game talk is The Epic in Miami: 1981 Chargers at Dolphins. The favored Chargers led 24-0 before the Dolphins, led by backup QB Don Strock off the bench, rallied the team to a 24-24 tie. The teams exchanged touchdowns before the Dolphins even took a 38-31 lead, which was answered by Dan Fouts and his high-powered offense to tie the game at 38. Strock had his interception fumbled back to him, but Miami’s 43-yard field goal was tipped by tight end Kellen Winslow to end regulation. The Chargers could have ended things immediately, but missed a 27-yard field goal to start overtime. Oof. Several more drives took place, including Miami’s 34-yard field goal being blocked. The Chargers finally won 41-38 on a 29-yard field goal.

Great game (I’ve seen a full replay), certainly an epic, but I’m not putting any game that involves Don f’n Strock throwing for 403 yards off the bench and a bunch of failed field goals as the No. 1 game over what we just saw on Sunday.

So, there you have it. This was the best of the best. I can only hope we see these teams meet in the playoffs more. This was already the fourth Mahomes-Allen game in the last two seasons. John Elway and Dan Marino met three times in 16 seasons despite being drafted into the same conference in the same year. This could be the NFL’s next great rivalry with a signature game to boot already.

Of course, now it’s the Bengals’ turn to take on the Chiefs in Kansas City. The Chiefs do not have to make up that 27-3 loss in Tennessee. They get to stay home and make up that 34-31 loss in Cincinnati. Let’s just say I won’t be voting against Mahomes again any time soon.

Not even 13 seconds is good enough to put him away. But props to Buffalo for closing the gap from last season. Just have to make one more stride to get over the hump next year.

Rams at Buccaneers: Did Tom Brady’s Luck Finally Run Out?

If I was writing the script for Tom Brady’s final NFL game, it might look quite similar to what happened on Sunday. You know I would have him lose as a home favorite in an early round of the playoffs. You know I would have him commit multiple turnovers. But I would write in all sorts of absurd Brady Bullshit (Trademark 2003) to leave no doubt that he was the luckiest player to ever lace them up in this sport. The LOAT. The first unsportsmanlike conduct penalty of his career was a nice twist I didn’t see coming, but he kind of made himself a target for that this week.

But even after getting a mind-numbing number of breaks to go his way, he would still lose in the end. And that’s exactly what happened against the Rams, though my script would have been better for my blood pressure.

But there will not be a repeat champion, extending the longest drought without one in NFL history. As for Brady retiring? I’ll believe it when I see a Week 1 without him. I don’t think we’re lucky enough to be done with him, but the days have to be numbered.

I also have to do a bit of an apology to Matthew Stafford. I’ve been hard on him about the 8-68 record against winning teams, though I wanted that to go viral to motivate him this season. You also should know by now that my game predictions for Brady are reverse jinxes, which is why you see me pick his team to win every time. You have to read between the lines. When I say things like “The Rams have a lot of the right elements to deal with Tampa Bay,” but then you see me bring up Brady’s luck, that’s a pretty good sign I actually believe the Rams should win this game. They’re the better team.

While I was absolutely right that turnovers would be the story of this game, none of them were Stafford’s fault as I feared. Stafford was money on the road, saw the field very well, and made the biggest throws of the game to Cooper Kupp. He passed for 366 yards despite Cam Akers (24 carries for 48 yards) only averaging 2.0 yards per carry and wasting a lot of first downs.

Stafford was 0-53 in his career when his team allowed more than 24 points against a team with a winning record. Make that 1-53 after the biggest win of his career.

But my lord did the Rams make this tougher than it needed to be. You could see early on that the Rams, who had already won two in a row over Brady’s Bucs, were a tough matchup for this team. Neither team had their best tackle (Andrew Whitworth for Rams, Tristan Wirfs for Bucs), but the Rams’ superior pass-rushing talent took over while Stafford was better at delivering throws from different angles.

Brady was off early, missing his first four throws as the Rams built a 10-0 lead. Stafford found Kupp inexplicably open for a 70-yard touchdown on third-and-20 to take a 17-3 lead. The Buccaneers missed a 48-yard field goal on the drive where Brady was penalized for cursing at a ref, though it should be pointed out they eventually had a first down four yards beyond where that penalty was marked off. The drive just stalled out as was often the case for the Bucs, who finished 3-of-14 on third down, even worse than their bad week against the Eagles on third down. The Buccaneers were all-around sloppy in this game, kicking off out of bounds multiple times, and drawing multiple 15-yard flags.

LOAT MOMENT #1: But with the Rams up 20-3 at the two-minute warning, that’s when the LOAT kicked into gear, or perhaps when Brady sacrificed a newborn’s soul for one last pact with the devil. Brady just threw up a pass for Gronk that was intercepted and returned to the Tampa Bay 31 with 1:53 left. Now if someone like Peyton Manning, Drew Brees, or Aaron Rodgers throws that pick in a big game, they’re falling behind 27-3 at the half. Maybe 24-3 at best. But what makes Brady the LOAT is he wills his defense to force Cam Akers to fumble at the 1-yard line after the ball just started coming out prior to Akers’ head being down on the ground.

What a break. As you might expect, the last team to lead a playoff game by 14+ points and lose a fumble before losing the game was Atlanta in Super Bowl 51. That was the big Hightower strip-sack of Matt Ryan with the Falcons up 28-12 on third-and-1. When Al Michaels and Cris Collinsworth remind you that if anyone can lead this comeback, it’s Brady, they’re burying the lede that he isn’t even on the god damn field when these crucial plays are happening. But if Jimmy Garoppolo can lead a 17-point second-half comeback against these Rams in Week 18, Brady could too.

The Rams seemed to overcome this one. They used a sequence of a great punt, three-and-out on defense, and a big punt return to set up a 28-yard touchdown drive. Stafford’s QB sneak looked better this week and the Rams were in the end zone again. Brady had to settle for a field goal, and it was 27-6 late in the third quarter. Again, this is Super Bowl LI territory. Just make one more good drive and you win the game, which is exactly what Atlanta failed to do despite so many chances. After Tampa’s second kickoff out of bounds, things were looking good at the 40. However…

LOAT MOMENT #2: The reliable Kupp fumbled a short completion and Brady was at the 30. Here we go again.

According to Stathead, the Rams are the only team in the playoffs since at least 1994 to lose two fumbles from scrimmage in a game while leading by at least 14 points.

Four plays later on a fourth-and-9, there’s Brady suddenly with a wall of pass protection and a big cushion on Scotty Miller, who caught the ball for 16 yards. Again, learn from Atlanta. One good play ends the game. Three plays later, Leonard Fournette was in the end zone and it was 27-13 going into the fourth quarter.

The Rams used a whopping 31 seconds to go three-and-out. But just when you thought you knew where this one was headed, Von Miller said enough of this bullshit. He got to Brady for a strip sack and the Rams had the ball back at the Tampa 25. At worst, they’d kick a field goal and take a three-score lead again. Well, about that…

LOAT MOMENT #3: Stafford was not expecting the snap from center and the ball went over his head for a third fumble. The strip-sack actually helped Brady gain 25 yards in field position.

When I just told you the Rams are the only playoff team to fumble two times when leading by at least 14 points, you know damn well that means they’re the only team to do it three times since at least 1994. As far as regular-season games, you have to go back to 2002 Bills vs. Bengals to find the last team to cough it up three times with a 14+ point lead. But at least two of those Buffalo turnovers were in the final four minutes of the game with a 27-9 lead.

Surprisingly, Brady did not turn this one into points despite starting at the Los Angeles 45. He took a big sack from Leonard Floyd to bring up a fourth-and-14. Brady threw incomplete for Mike Evans, but Eric Weddle was there for a late hit that was unnecessary. That’s a 15-yard penalty, but the interesting part is that it’s a dead ball foul assessed after the change of possession as the hit came a split second after the ball hit the ground. Maybe something to look at for a rule change, but a rare case of things going against Brady. Though, let’s be real. A bad throw bailed out by a late hit would have just been LOAT MOMENT #4. Speaking of which…

LOAT MOMENT #4: Just when you think the Rams are going to put it out of reach at 17 points, kicker Matt Gay comes up short on a 47-yard field goal with 6:31.

Now a 47-yard field goal is not a lock, but who in the NFL comes up SHORT on a kick from that distance in a game played in Florida? Absurd effort from the kicker there to keep the Bucs alive. But again, Brady couldn’t respond. He didn’t see a wide-open Miller on a fourth-and-9 and threw incomplete with 4:26 left. The Bucs had to use their three timeouts to get a three-and-out and get the ball back with 3:56 left.

All the Los Angeles defense has to do is not give up a touchdown before the two-minute warning. Ideally, you stop them cold. But if you give up a touchdown after the 2MW, then it’s just a matter of recovering the onside kick to end it. Of course, Tampa probably recovers that with the way this one was going, but whatever. Just play defense.

LOAT MOOh wait, let’s give him one here. Knowing this clock situation, Brady took his shot deep and finally hit a good pass in the game, finding Evans in coverage with Jalen Ramsey for a 55-yard touchdown with 3:20 left. The Bucs trailed 27-20.

One first down can win the game with the Bucs out of timeouts. McVay shrunk in this situation against the 49ers in Week 18. He couldn’t do it again, could he? Passing on second-and-7 to end it certainly was an option, but they stuck with Akers. He looked to have a hole, but oh shit.

LOAT MOMENT #5: Akers fumbles at the LA 30 with 2:25 left. Brady is 30 yards away from the tie, his ninth playoff touchdown drive starting in opponent territory since 2020. This is only the third time during Brady’s NFL career that a player fumbled in the final 3:00 of a playoff game with a one-score lead. The other two involved the Steelers: they forced Cincinnati’s Jeremy Hill to fumble in 2015 and Jerome Bettis lost his infamous one in Indy in 2005 before Ben Roethlisberger tackled Nick Harper.

Now the only question was if “no risk it, no biscuit” Bruce Arians would go for two if the Bucs get a touchdown. The Brady sneak on fourth-and-1 may have made that more likely, but with everyone expecting it, the Bucs went with a run to Fournette, who broke a tackle in the backfield and ran for a 9-yard touchdown with 42 seconds left. I think the extra point to tie the game at 27 was the right call with that much time left.

It’s probably a good thing I didn’t tweet about a pick-six coming next, but it sure felt like the Rams were going to blow this one. They’ve already coughed up four fumbles and you couldn’t trust the kicker. The ensuing drive got off to a rough start too with Stafford taking a sack. But that final timeout by McVay at 35 seconds bought the team time to compose itself before making some plays. Stafford found Kupp for 20 yards, then against the blitz-happiest defense in the league, Stafford went back to the most targeted receiver against the blitz in the NFL this season. Kupp ran right down the middle of the field and the ball was perfect for a 44-yard gain. The spike operation was smoothly done, and Gay was able to make the kick from 30 yards out to win the game.

I would have preferred a more humorous ending for Brady to lose, but this works for me. A signature game-winning drive for Stafford and a memorable throw to Kupp, the best wideout this year.

It seems crazy that the Rams still have to beat another nemesis next week to get to the Super Bowl, because this was some real slay the dragon shit in Tampa. They overcame four fumbles in the LOAT’s house, blew a 24-point lead, and still found a way to win. The Rams are the first team since the merger to have zero interceptions and lose four fumbles in a playoff game.

It took 13 years, but Stafford has a signature win. This Tampa team’s success last year was a model for what the Rams are doing this season. Now they are just two more wins away from getting it done, but neither game expects to be easy.

As for Tampa Bay, I’ll just let Antonio Brown have the final words:

49ers at Packers: Aaron Rodgers To Go Through with Super Bowl Boycott After All

Wait, was that it? Did we really just see the end of Aaron Rodgers’ run in Green Bay with a 13-10 home loss to the 49ers in the divisional round? He’s the first quarterback in NFL history to lose four playoff games to the same opponent, but none have been more shocking or disappointing than this one.

In fact, I think it’s the worst loss of Rodgers’ career.

The Packers were swept out of the playoffs by the 2012 49ers, 2013 49ers, 2014 Seahawks, 2015 Cardinals, 2016 Falcons, 2019 49ers, and 2020 Buccaneers. That means they were 0-2 against all those teams, opponents that were usually just better and they never found an answer for. This is the first time Green Bay didn’t get swept out of the playoffs since they lost 37-20 to the 2011 Giants in the divisional round. That was another team, like the 2021 49ers in Week 3, where they escaped with a road win on a last-second field goal. But come playoff time, they shit the bed. At least in 2011, the Packers could blame a slow start on resting Rodgers after the 15th game and having the bye. Those Giants also completed a second historic Super Bowl run that year, and I do not believe these 49ers are those Giants reincarnated. These 49ers needed a 17-point comeback in LA to make the tournament before holding on for dear life in Dallas last week.

Sure, the 2011, 2014, and 2020 Packers all looked more prepared to win a championship than this year’s version, a team that had key players injured on both sides, relied too much on Davante Adams, ranked 21st in points per drive allowed, and had a hard time putting teams away comfortably. Those three MVP seasons by Rodgers were better versions of him than what we saw this year, which will still likely net him a fourth MVP as it’s a regular-season award and the votes have been cast.

But what I’m most stunned by is the 13-10 final. Prior to Saturday night, Rodgers was 41-0 in starts he finished where the Packers allowed fewer than 14 points. The only loss by actual record in that situation was a 7-3 game he left early (concussion) against the 2010 Lions. But he was undefeated in games he finished. Keyword: was. You could also say Rodgers was 55-1 in games where the Packers allowed under 16 points with the only loss being the Fail Mary in Seattle (2012).

Make that 55-2.

Incredibly, the slow-starting Packers opened this game with a nice 69-yard touchdown drive to take a 7-0 lead. The defense, which was excellent, forced a three-and-out, collecting the first of four third-down sacks on the night. You couldn’t ask for a better start. But Marcedes Lewis fumbled in San Francisco territory on the second drive, and the Packers gained more than one first down on one of their last eight drives.

You don’t deserve to win when you only score 10 points. I inadvertently jinxed Rodgers big time when I pointed out he had by far the longest streak in playoff history (20 games) of leading his team to 20 points. But he only got halfway there this time, and it’s only the second playoff game where he did not throw a touchdown pass.

But this offensive dud has another major storyline. It was one I could see coming weeks ago.

The Packers had the worst special teams (in a variety of ways) this season, and while it was not a strength for the 49ers this season, sure enough it was a huge part of this upset loss. As predicted, here is that bullet-point list of special teams woes. I’m not even going to bother listing a few short punts and kickoffs that gave the 49ers good field position. We’ll just stick with the big ones.

  • Mason Crosby’s 39-yard field goal was blocked to end the first half, wasting a 75-yard catch by Aaron Jones and keeping the score at 7-0.
  • Deebo Samuel, who had another great game, returned the opening kickoff of the second half 45 yards to give the 49ers the ball at the 50. The drive ended with a field goal.
  • One for playoff lore: up 10-3 with 4:50 left, Green Bay’s punt was blocked deep in their own end, the ball took forever and a day to land on the ground, and the 49ers were there for the 6-yard touchdown return to tie the game.
  • San Francisco kicker Robbie Gould nailed a 45-yard field goal at the buzzer to win the game, 13-10.

That was a brutal special teams performance, but there is some solace in watching your weakness end your season. It hurts more when your strength lets you down, and that happened here too with the offense. Last season against the Buccaneers, it was the historically-great red zone offense that let down a couple times, including that famed sequence late that led to a field goal when the Packers were down eight points.

But this year? Things were all around sour after the opening drive. Lewis’ fumble was just a bad play by him, but it also speaks to the lack of a tight end after losing Robert Tonyan. The new running attack was stalled out when A.J. Dillon, who scored the touchdown, left with injury. Dillon and Jones combined for just 66 yards on 19 carries. Jones had 129 receiving yards to lead the team, but 75 of those yards were on that blown coverage before halftime. Rodgers only passed for 55 yards in the second half. A whopping 18 of his 20 completions went to Adams and Jones as only four Packers caught a ball.

Rodgers took five sacks against a defense that could barely touch him in Week 3. Nick Bosa was indeed a beast this time around. He probably dedicated the performance to Kyle Rittenhouse. The offensive line has not been as strong this year, and left tackle David Bakhtiari was not able to go again, but Rodgers took some really costly sacks in this one, a usual hallmark of a disappointing Green Bay loss.

The defense was not a scapegoat this time though. Garoppolo flirted with multiple picks, forced an awful one in the end zone on first down despite George Kittle being wide open, and his internal clock seemed to be frozen on this snowy, freezing night. But the 49ers also seemed to adjust better to the conditions than the Packers, which was weird. It was the 49ers hurting themselves more with drops, including a wide-open one by Kittle that would have been a big play. The 49ers hung in there, got the huge break on the blocked punt, and just waited for their chance as the Packers could not move the ball.

When Garoppolo just has to complete two quick passes for 26 yards to get a game-winning drive going, that’s going to be ideal for the 49ers. When you can just hand the ball to Samuel three times to get a first down that puts you in field-goal range, including a 9-yard run on third-and-7 where almost any other quarterback would have to make a huge throw, that’s stealing for the 49ers.

And they stole this victory away from Green Bay to end its season in one of the most painful ways possible. Rodgers was numb after the loss and that’s easy to understand. He has opened himself up to more criticism than ever before this season with the way he’s handled himself on podcasts and media interviews. I’m not going to pile on here. I’m just glad we don’t have to entertain the idea of him letting Brady get to a second Super Bowl in the NFC before he does. After this loss, I don’t think he will ever get back to the big game.

Matt LaFleur’s 2019-21 Packers are the first team in NFL history to win at least 13 games in three straight regular seasons. But they are also going to go down as the only team to win 39 games in a three-year span and not reach the Super Bowl.

Is this the end of an era of Hall of Fame quarterback play in Green Bay from 1992 through 2021? I don’t know what it’s like to watch an NFL where the Packers don’t have Favre or Rodgers. I got a little taste of it in 2013 and 2017 when he had his collarbone injuries, and yeah, the Packers weren’t relevant those weeks.

We’ll see what the future holds, but it’s crazy to think the 49ers are one win away from sending Jimmy Garoppolo to more Super Bowls than the Packers reached with Rodgers.

Bengals at Titans: Ryan Tannehill’s Interception Sudoku

I usually do not boil a playoff game down to one quarterback choking, but Ryan Tannehill choked this one away for the Titans, who fell to 0-3 in Tennessee in home playoff games as the No. 1 seed. They never scored more than 16 points in any of those games either. This comes on the heels of a 20-13 wild card loss to the Ravens last year in which Tannehill also had a late interception.

This time, Tannehill threw an interception on his first pass of the game, his first pass of the second half, and his last pass of the game. It’s like filling in an interception sudoku. He would have tried to add one in overtime if the game ever got there, and the fact that it didn’t is the most egregious part of this all.

Well, there’s also this fact: teams who score under 20 points and take nine sacks are 2-126-2 (.023) since 1960. The 1990 Seahawks had the first win against the Chiefs after Dave Krieg escaped Derrick Thomas’ final sack attempt. Now the Bengals have the first playoff win after Joe Burrow, who led the league in sacks taken this year (51), took nine sacks and still got the low-scoring road win. Tennessee’s pass rush was impressive at overwhelming the Bengals throughout the game, but it went to waste from an offensive performance that would make Jeff Fisher nod with approval.

The Titans waited basically all season to get their offense healthy for this playoff run. A.J. Brown was awesome with 142 yards and a one-handed touchdown catch. Julio Jones looked good with six grabs for 62 yards. Derrick Henry had screws in his foot, didn’t look quite ready for his 20-carry workload, but he scored a touchdown and had a few vintage runs. The Titans probably should have given D’Onta Foreman more touches as he had four carries for 66 yards, including a 45-yard run for the offense’s biggest play of the game.

But even after getting all his guys back, Tannehill did not go to them on the crucial play of the game. On a third-and-5 at his own 40 with 28 seconds left, Tannehill decided to force a pass at midfield to Nick Westbrook-Ikhine. The result was a tipped interception, which set up the Bengals for their game-winning field goal with no time left after Burrow found Ja’Marr Chase for 19 yards. Evan McPherson has been an outstanding rookie kicker and he drilled a 52-yard field goal to win this game.

The last thing Tannehill could do was turn the ball over in bad field position. If he wanted to throw a bomb to Brown or Jones that was picked 40 yards downfield, that probably would get the game to overtime too. But with overtime in his back pocket, Tannehill got greedy and didn’t even pick a good option.

That was a killer, but so was the tipped pick after Foreman’s 45-yard run got the ball into the red zone. Mike Hilton made an incredible play on the ball, so it wasn’t all Tannehill’s fault, but he was not sharp in the game. The offensive line also did not get any push on a couple of key Henry runs, including a fourth-and-1 in a tied game with 7:16 left. Mike Vrabel is willing to chop his dick off for a Super Bowl ring, but he can’t get behind a quarterback sneak? Is he afraid he’ll have to actually go through with the castration if the Titans get a Super Bowl on his watch?

Watching Tannehill in the last three postseasons, where he averages 150.8 passing yards per game, I’m not sure Vrabel has to worry about any Super Bowl in the near future.

One thing blowing back on Vrabel from this game was his decision to go for a two-point conversion with the game tied at 6-6. It was early in the game (second quarter), the extra point puts Tennessee up 7-6, but I liked it just because there was a penalty that put the ball at the 1. I liked the call to give the ball to Henry, but he came up inches short and the game remained tied.

Would we have a 9-7 game at halftime if the Titans go for one? Probably. Would the Bengals go for two on their touchdown to start the third quarter to make it 17-7 instead of 16-7? Probably not. Do the Titans take a 17-16 lead late third quarter if they had gone for one? Good chance. But would Burrow still take a brutal sack that knocks the Bengals out of field goal range in the fourth quarter if he was down 17-16 instead of tied 16-16? Maybe, maybe not. The whole fourth quarter could play out much differently from there, so I’m not going to put the loss all on that one decision. There were more missed opportunities than that in the game. The Titans had three plays of 40-plus yards and turned those drives into just nine points.

It was the second year in a row that the Titans had an offensive letdown at home for a one-and-done postseason. Turn the ball over enough and you can lose to anyone in this league. If it’s true against the Texans in Week 11, it’s for sure true in the playoffs against Cincinnati.

After watching the Bills-Chiefs game on Sunday night, it’s still hard to believe the Titans beat both of those teams the way they did this year. It’s also hard to believe they could have done it again next week, or next year for that matter.

If Tannehill could learn anything from Burrow in this game, it may be that eating the ball is sometimes the smartest option. Don’t throw the game away.

Next week: Can we actually get a third Bengals-49ers Super Bowl? It’s the worst option available and would require two road upsets, but we’ll see. Personally, I want a rematch of 54-51 between the Rams and Chiefs. It’s the best matchup and provides the best storylines. Even 49ers-Chiefs isn’t so bad since it would be a rematch of Super Bowl LIV.

NFL 2021 AFC Divisional Round Preview

Despite only one team getting a first-round bye now, the divisional weekend is still prime for some of the richest drama in NFL history. I just recapped some of the most dramatic games in divisional round history that tested 14 eventual Super Bowl champions.

Of course, the bigger story in that link is that we have gone 19 straight playoff games without a fourth-quarter lead change, one shy of tying the record from 1935-50.

Maybe we’ll get something memorable this weekend, but this has been a difficult round for the road teams to win. Since 2011, home teams are 31-9 (.775) in the divisional round. But most years have that one upset and 2016 was the last time there were two road winners (Packers in Dallas and Steelers in Kansas City).

The Titans stunned the hell out of the top-seeded Ravens in 2019, and the Buccaneers avoided a three-game sweep by the Saints last year, propelling them to a Super Bowl win.

The NFC previews will be posted on Friday. Let’s start with a new matchup in the AFC and a crucial rematch of last year’s AFC Championship Game.

Bengals at Titans (-3.5)

See my early preview for this game at BMR.

The Bengals finally ended their long playoff drought last week with a 26-19 win over the Raiders. The young offense, led by Joe Burrow and Ja’Marr Chase, did not crack in the first playoff game for this new era of Cincinnati football, but the Raiders were one of the worst playoff teams in history.

Now the Bengals must try to shake an 0-7 road playoff record against the top-seeded Titans. And no, the Titans are not the worst No. 1 seed in history. I refuse to even call them the worst Tennessee team to be the No. 1 seed in the AFC. That 2008 team with Jeff Fisher and Kerry Collins was such fool’s gold at 10-0 before stumbling down the stretch.

These Titans have much better skill players when healthy, Mike Vrabel has been an awesome coach when playing the role of an underdog, and this team can win high-scoring games and close games. They are also battled tested, winning more games (eight) in one season against teams with a winning record than any team in NFL history and having the best win percentage (8-3, .727) in such games (min. nine games).

Now, are those records a little misleading? Yes, the 17th game helped 8-8 teams Tennessee beat like the Saints and Dolphins finish with a winning record at 9-8. But the Titans still boast more quality wins than any team this year, already hammering the Chiefs and beating the Bills in a shootout. Now the Titans just have to beat an inexperienced Cincinnati team and only one of those AFC powerhouses to get to a Super Bowl. Yeah, the Titans lost to the Jets, but so did the Bengals.

Derrick Henry expects to be back for his first game since Week 8, but I think the Titans have shown they can win some big games without him or with him being ineffective. The health of A.J. Brown may be more important to the offense than any other non-quarterback. Tennessee is 10-1 when Brown plays at least 60% of the snaps in a game and 2-4 when he does not. He needs to have a big game. Brown scored Tennessee’s only touchdown in a disappointing 20-13 home playoff loss to the Ravens last year. This team seems to perform better when the chips are stacked against them.

Three of the four biggest receiving games against the Bengals this year were done by top-tier tight ends, but Davante Adams also had 206 yards and a touchdown in Cincinnati. Julio Jones being back should also help the passing game. It’s been so rare this season for the Titans to have Brown, Jones, and Henry on the field together. The wideouts being out had a lot to do with that overtime loss to the Jets early this season, and the significant injuries that hit the Titans in losses to the Steelers, Patriots, and Texans had to contribute to Tennessee turning the ball over 13 times in those three games. This offense usually protects the ball well. The Bengals are not great at taking the ball away.

I think the week of rest is big for the Titans to get as healthy as possible for this matchup. I was surprised to see how close the Titans and Bengals are defensively this season, but I’d still give the Titans an edge there. No quarterbacks have been sacked more than Burrow (51) and Ryan Tannehill (47) this year. The Bengals have the better quarterback right now as Tannehill did not have his best season with the injuries around him, and Tannehill has been pedestrian in his four playoff starts. But I think unlike the Raiders, who called 58 passes and ran Josh Jacobs 13 times despite success on the ground, the Titans are going to stay balanced and stick to their usual game plan. The Titans are also better on third down and in the red zone. The Bengals struggled in the red zone against a historically bad red zone defense last week. That area has been money for the Titans under Tannehill, and they were fifth this year in touchdown rate (63.9%).

This isn’t Jeff Fisher and Kerry Collins trying to win a 13-10 game. I’m sticking with my gut and the NFL history that says a pass-happy team with a young offensive core is prime for a letdown on the road in the playoffs against a physical team, especially when it’s that team’s first postseason. Maybe Henry is rusty and fumbles early or is completely ineffective like he was last year against the Ravens, and the Bengals ride their top pass connection to an early lead. We’ve seen it before. But I’m going to trust the better coach and the team that’s been better this year and should be healthy at the right time to win this one.

We can talk next week about why the Titans won’t get to the Super Bowl, but I like them on Saturday. Just hang onto the victory cigar for later, Joe.

Final: Titans 28, Bengals 20

Bills at Chiefs (-1.5)

It is not unheard of to consider a game early in the playoffs to be “the real Super Bowl” if you will. When the NFC won every Super Bowl from 1984 through 1996, the NFC Championship Game was often thought of as the real Super Bowl those years, especially when it was Dallas vs. San Francisco in 1992-94. The 2006 AFC Championship Game between the Patriots and Colts was thought to be the real Super Bowl that year because of the entity known as Rex Grossman waiting for the winner in Miami.

But wow, I cannot remember a divisional round game being thought of as the Super Bowl, especially between two teams that are not the No. 1 seed. Maybe I’m tripping and this is too high praise, but I think these teams are the real deal in the AFC and this is an epic rematch of last year’s AFC Championship Game. The Chiefs were the AFC favorites going into the season, and the Bills took over that spot when they won 38-20 in Kansas City in Week 5. They had some bad losses since, but Buffalo just had the most perfect offensive game imaginable in crazy conditions against the Patriots, scoring a touchdown on all seven possessions. In fact, this is the first playoff game in NFL history between two quarterbacks who threw five touchdown passes the previous week. Patrick Mahomes threw his five touchdowns in a span of 11:31 against the Steelers.

This could be the next great rivalry in the NFL. This will already be the fourth meeting between Mahomes and Josh Allen in the last two years. John Elway and Dan Marino were in the same conference for 16 seasons and only met three times with two of those coming in Elway’s final season (1998). The Chiefs sent Buffalo home last year to end an eight-game winning streak. The Bills got some revenge this year by handing Mahomes the worst home loss of his career (18 points). His other home losses have been by no more than eight points. The spread has already moved a point towards Buffalo since opening at Chiefs -2.5.

I’m going to break this preview up into the two main questions I have about this matchup.

Question 1: Can the Chiefs turn around the 38-20 defeat from Week 5, and was it really that lopsided?

Results can vary wildly from week to week in the NFL, but on wild card weekend, all five rematches were won by the team who won the previous matchup, including these Bills and Chiefs. Buffalo scored the most points anyone has against New England since 1990. The Chiefs pounded the Steelers for the second time in a month, sending Ben Roethlisberger into retirement.

Both offenses should cool down a little from that historic territory, but there should be more pressure on Kansas City to adjust from that 38-20 walloping the Bills put on them in Week 5. It is hard to beat a great team twice in the same season, but for teams that have already done it, on the road no less, it actually is easier than average in the rematch.

Since 2002, road teams attempting a sweep in the playoffs are now 13-13. The Bills and Rams just reversed their home losses last week by beating the Patriots and Cardinals. The Rams in particular turned a 17-point home loss into a 23-point win on Monday night, but obviously the Cardinals were on life support down the stretch and already lost a home game to their division rival Rams. Likewise, the Patriots flopped down the stretch this year, including two games (without the bad wind) where they couldn’t get the Bills to punt. This is Mahomes in Kansas City, so a bit different.

However, consider these numbers. Since 2002, teams that win the regular-season matchup by at least 18 points are 25-9 (.735) in the playoff rematch. When those teams are the underdog in the playoffs, a rare situation, they are still 5-1 in the playoffs. The only loss was the 2004 Broncos vs. Colts, but that whole example is misleading since Indy rested starters in Week 17 before blowing the Broncos out at home in the playoffs.

But let me rant on my own stat for a brief moment here. This is something I really need to start focusing on more in the offseason. I just gave you a stat on a sample size of 34 games based on games where a team won by at least 18 points. Yes, the Bills beat the Chiefs by 18 points, but an 18-point win is a lot closer to an 11-point win than it is a 31-point win like seven of the games in that sample were. So, why am I looking at a group of “comparable games” when my game is at the lowest end of that qualifier? I’d be better off looking at games decided by 11-to-25 points, or a 7-point window around 18 points. In that case, 23-17 (.575) is the record since 2002, not nearly as one-sided as 25-9 (.735). Just something to think about with stats like that.

It is fair to say the Chiefs were embarrassed by Buffalo in Week 5 as the Bills learned a few things from their 2020 losses. The “don’t blitz Mahomes” thing that got so popular this year? The Bills were actually the first defense to do that, blitzing zero times in the 2020 game on Monday Night Football. The Chiefs just had a great running attack that night and Mahomes made an incredible conversion on third-and-12 to Byron Pringle to put the game away. But it was the lowest-scoring game between these two at 26-17.

In Week 5, Mahomes threw a season-high 54 passes but was only blitzed twice. He was not even pressured that often – 14.3% tied for second-lowest game this season – but did not handle the different looks well. Mahomes scrambled seven times that night, twice more than any other game, as he was not comfortable in the pocket. The Bills, who were destroyed by short throws and YAC from the Chiefs in the AFC Championship Game, also tackled very well in Week 5, holding Mahomes to 4.2 YAC/completion, his second-lowest game of 2021.

On the other side of the ball, the Bills struggled to get any big plays going in their two losses to the 2020 Chiefs. That sure changed in Week 5. Allen had pass completions of 61, 53 (TD), 41, and 35 (TD) yards as he completed 15-of-26 passes for 315 yards without a sack or turnover. Despite his reputation for a big arm, Week 5 remains the only game of Allen’s NFL career where he threw multiple touchdown passes of 25-plus yards. Mahomes has 11 such games in his career.

As it turns out, throwing the deep ball with safety Daniel Sorensen in coverage is quite profitable. Sorensen allowed the two longest completions for 114 yards that night. For the season, he allows 12.1 yards per target in coverage, but the Chiefs have been wise to limit his snaps since that night. Sorensen went from playing 98% of snaps in Weeks 1-5 to 47% of snaps in Weeks 6-17.

Allen also rushed for a team-high 59 yards and a touchdown. Mahomes led the Chiefs with 61 rushing yards but that is not as ideal for Kansas City as it is Buffalo. Jerick McKinnon just had the game of his life for the Chiefs with 142 yards from scrimmage against Pittsburgh, but the Steelers were horrible against running backs this year. With the Kansas City backfield being so inconsistent this year, look for the Bills to contain whichever back gets the majority of touches this time.

There’s this idea that Mahomes has had to adjust with the way defenses are playing the Chiefs, copying that Super Bowl blueprint of minimal blitzes and two-deep safeties. There is definitely truth to this. Mahomes has six games this season with an aDOT under 6.5 yards and all six of those games are since Week 11. His lowest game of the season (5.0 yards) was against the Steelers on Sunday as the Chiefs had big YAC plays.

So, while there is truth to it, let’s not overblow it out of proportion. The Chiefs have had success with long drives in past years. They weren’t all 60-yard bombs to Hill for scores. In fact, Mahomes just threw the longest touchdown pass of his career to Kelce (48 yards) on Sunday night. Mahomes did still attack the Steelers (Week 16) and Bengals (Week 17) deep late in the season with success. I just think it’s important for Kansas City to get Hill and Kelce involved this week. They’ve had some really quiet games down the stretch here, and while the lesser players have stepped up, I’m not sure the Chiefs can continuously score without their stars doing big things.

More than anything, the Chiefs are simply going to have to protect the ball better this time after losing the turnover battle 4-0 in Week 5. Sure, there was a tipped ball off Tyreek Hill’s hands that went to the Bills for a pick-six to make it 31-13 in the third quarter. But guess what? Hill has tipped multiple picks for interceptions this year as Mahomes has had numerous picks come off tipped balls. There was also that red-zone pick by Buffalo, a very good defense at forcing takeaways, on a tipped ball that cost the Chiefs more points that night. Again, guess what? The Chiefs have had multiple tipped picks in scoring territory this year, including against the Giants on MNF and last Sunday against the Steelers.

Mistakes just happen at bad times for this offense, and it’s been that way for much of the season. I’m not sure we can just magically count on them to not do it this week against one of the best defenses they’ll see. On the other hand, one thing they could control is to not give up the obligatory Chiefs fumble by not calling a fvcking Wildcat play when you have Mahomes at QB. The Chiefs called a wildcat play against Pittsburgh, and it blew up for a touchdown return by T.J. Watt. So, let’s scratch that one from the playbook this week, but you’re on your own fortune for tipped picks.

I guess what I’m getting at is if you keep Sorensen off the field and don’t give up as many big plays, and you avoid the tipped pick-six, that could cut 14 points off that 18-point deficit. I think this game should be a lot closer this time, and that could be a bad thing for the Bills, who are 0-5 at 4QC/GWD opportunities this season. Buffalo’s 1-5 record in close games was the worst in the NFL this season.

This was not an issue for Allen’s first three seasons, and his fourth quarter stats look great this year (71.1% complete, 10 TD, 0 INT, 7.6 YPA, 117.7 PR). But they are simply not finishing the drives in crunch time. You saw the red-zone failures in the windy game against New England, a 14-10 loss. He was erratic against the Steelers in Week 1. He was stopped short on the sneak in Tennessee. He choked badly against Jacksonville in a 9-6 stunner. Mahomes is 43-1 when the Chiefs allow fewer than 27 points. The Bills cannot expect to be in position to win a low-scoring game this week.

But in my view, that effort to come back from 17 points down in the fourth quarter in Tampa Bay was big for this team. While they did not win the game in overtime, they tied it up and had a chance in regulation had the referees called defensive pass interference the way they called it for Tampa in overtime (go figure; #LOAT). If I’m a Chiefs fan and Allen has the ball late to win the game, I am nervous as hell. After not blowing a fourth-quarter lead in 2020, the Chiefs have done it three times this year (Ravens, Chargers, Bengals), and that doesn’t even include the epic comeback in Los Angeles when the Chiefs had to win in overtime. Those losses are the reason why this team wasn’t resting as the No. 1 seed and opening with a softer opponent like the Bengals.

Question 2: Do we trust Buffalo’s No. 1 scoring defense for the whole season or Kansas City’s No. 1 scoring defense since Week 6?

This is an interesting matchup as the Bills have the No. 1 scoring defense and were the only team to allow fewer than 300 points this season. But after a horrible start to the season where the Chiefs allowed at least 29 points in all five games, Kansas City turned things around under veteran defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo. Since Week 6, the Chiefs have the No. 1 scoring defense, allowing 24 fewer points than No. 5 Buffalo in that time. The Bengals (34) were the only team to hit 29 points on the Chiefs since Week 6.

Do we trust the season stats or the more recent stats? I’m not sure anyone has ever posted a definitive study of this, or if anything on it would even be conclusive enough as the league is just goofy like that. For example, when I look at the fewest points allowed by a team in Games 6-16 since 2011, the top of the list is the 2011 Steelers. You know, the defense that let Tim Tebow complete 10 passes for 316 yards in a 29-23 wild card loss. Right behind them are the 2014 Seahawks, famous for blowing a 10-point fourth-quarter lead in the Super Bowl, and the 2015 Chiefs, who lost 27-20 in New England.

With defense, it’s all about how you play that day, and who you play usually plays a huge role in that. Sure, we can say the Bills padded their defensive stats by playing rookie Davis Mills in the rain, a 40-0 shutout where he threw for 87 yards and four picks. We can see that Mahomes (272) and Brady (363) were the only quarterbacks to pass for more than 260 yards on Buffalo this year, and Brady (105.6) was the only one to have a passer rating higher than 86.7. That looks daunting for Mahomes, but it’s less daunting when you see this starting QB list for Buffalo:

  • Three cast members of The Walking Dead (2021 Big Ben, Matt Ryan, Cam Newton)
  • Six rookies in a terrible rookie year (Trevor Lawrence, Zach Wilson, Davis Mills, Mac Jones 3x)
  • Two hopeful employees in 2022 (Taylor Heinicke, Trevor Siemian)
  • One bus driver (Carson Wentz)
  • One create-a-player with a generic name (Mike White)

That leaves Brady and his aforementioned big game that still needed overtime and one blown coverage, Mahomes and the game we went over, and Ryan Tannehill got a huge game from Derrick Henry on an effective night where the Titans scored 34 points in a win.

In other words, I’m not sure the Chiefs need to be that scared of this defense, especially without corner Tre’Davious White (ACL) to take on Hill. In Week 5, Mahomes was just 5-of-11 for 36 yards when targeting White in coverage. He’s gone now.

On the other hand, the Bills can look at this Kansas City defensive improvement and point to the schedule as well. Like getting Daniel Jones and the Giants on any week. Getting the Cowboys when they were in a funk and Amari Cooper had COVID and CeeDee Lamb left at halftime with a concussion. Two games against zombie Big Ben with a foot in the door for retirement. Two games against Derek Carr, who has spent eight years teasing the Raiders he’s a franchise quarterback. One big game against Green Bay where Aaron Rodgers was out with COVID, forcing Jordan Love to make his first start. It didn’t go well. Teddy and Drew Lock? Please, and they actually let Lock run wild in that rematch. A huge fumble by Melvin Gordon won that game for the Chiefs.

But what happened when the improved Chiefs faced the Chargers in a first-place showdown in Week 15 and a red-hot Joe Burrow with the No. 1 seed in contention in Week 16? The defense did not perform well. Mahomes and the offense had to rally in Los Angeles, hope for some Chargering, and got the ball first in overtime to end it 34-28. Despite leading by double-digits multiple times in Cincinnati, the Chiefs gave up 34 points and the game-winning drive to end it after committing multiple penalties again. The defense even allowed a third-and-27 conversion for 30 yards to Ja’Marr Chase.

So, the over/under is 54 points and you can see why with the way these offenses are capable of lighting it up, and neither defense is exactly reliable against what would be considered a good offense this year.

The Chiefs are undeniably playing better defense than they did to start the season when they were arguably the worst in the league. But is this a championship-caliber defense like 2019 was? After seeing the games in Week 15-16, I say no. But they’ll have a great opportunity to prove it on Sunday, as will Buffalo’s top-ranked scoring defense. I said last year that if the Bills could combine their 2020 offense with their 2019 defense, they would win the Super Bowl. The 2021 Bills, Jacksonville loss be damned, are trying to be that team.

The Prediction

In the preseason, I picked the Chiefs to get back to the Super Bowl. But it’s really hard to get back to a third in a row, especially coming off such a brutal 31-9 loss. We’ve already seen the Chiefs lose this year to the Ravens, Chargers, Bills, Titans, and Bengals. They are 0-3 against the remaining playoff field in the AFC. I think this is the week where having the bad-bounce turnovers and giving up too many plays to good offenses combine to hurt the Chiefs and send the Bills to the next round and a step closer to that elusive Super Bowl win.

My detailed prediction: I see the Chiefs leading 27-24 late as KC and under bettors are sweating bullets. Allen finally puts his gaudy fourth-quarter stats to use this year and leads the first game-winning drive of the season for a touchdown in the final minute.

Is it the ending I want? No, but if the early game on Sunday goes my way, I can watch this one in peace and be satisfied with anything that happens.

Final: Bills 31, Chiefs 27

Where Did the NFL’s Close Playoff Games Go?

Losing is one thing, but when you don’t even make it competitive, it’s another thing.

That was Arizona quarterback Kyler Murray after his team’s embarrassing 34-11 playoff loss to the Rams on Monday night, concluding a not-so-competitive Super Wild Card weekend with four routs and two close finishes.

None of the six games saw a second-half lead change, let alone a fourth-quarter lead change. We have gone 19 straight playoff games without a fourth-quarter lead change. The last was Kansas City, thanks to a third-and-15 conversion, in Super Bowl LIV against the 49ers. The last second-half lead change was in the 2020 NFC divisional between the Saints and Buccaneers after Jared Cook fumbled at midfield in the third quarter with the Saints up 20-13.

But this past weekend and all last postseason have sucked a lot of the usual drama and breaking point moments we are accustomed to seeing out of the NFL playoffs. You want to know who wins these games ahead of time? Pick the team leading after the third quarter. Hell, pound the live moneyline for the team leading at halftime.

Excluding ties, the team leading at halftime has won 25 straight playoff games. The last loss was the 2019 Bills in Houston in the wild card round. Teams leading at halftime win 79.4% of all playoff games since the 1970 merger, so it’s not that surprising these teams usually win the game. But 25 in a row? We haven’t seen a streak like that in the Super Bowl era.

I did the research, and learned some annoying things along the way about how Excel treats times copied from Stathead, and I compiled a chronological database of all 589 playoff games in NFL history. If the Bengals-Titans game on Saturday afternoon does not deliver a fourth-quarter lead change (AKA comeback), this streak of 20 straight playoff games without one would tie the NFL record. We just surpassed an 18-game streak from 2004-06 as the second longest in NFL history.

A total of 129 of the 589 NFL playoff games have been won by a team trailing in the fourth quarter (21.9%).

Interestingly enough, the first two playoff games in NFL history both saw fourth-quarter comebacks. The Bears exchanged touchdowns with the Giants in a 23-21 finish in 1933, and the Giants paid them back a year later with a 27-0 fourth quarter run that turned a 13-3 deficit into a 30-13 win. Can you believe that record for points in a fourth quarter of a playoff game (27) still stands today? Something that was set in 1934 in the second playoff game ever.

But after those two thrillers to start the postseason, fans were treated to 20 straight playoff games without a fourth-quarter lead change, which spanned a time from 1935 to 1950. That means the pre-TV era where you’d have to listen to the game on the radio at best, or read about it in the newspaper the next day, and that’s if you weren’t worried about bigger things like World War II.

Finally, in 1950 things changed when a few AAFC teams integrated into the NFL and the Cleveland Browns were the best of the bunch. In their first season against the prolific Rams, the Browns played one of the best championship games ever, a 30-28 comeback win. The rest is history.

 But we are definitely in a drought for playoff excitement. I’ve already mentioned Super Bowl 54, famous for Kansas City’s “Wasp” call on third-and-15, and that Texans-Bills overtime game that started the 2019 postseason. Those are the only two fourth-quarter comebacks in the last three postseasons. That means 28 of the last 29 playoff games have not had a fourth-quarter lead change.

To find something comparable, you have to go back to a stretch in 1983-86 when 24 out of 25 playoff games did not have a 4QC. That’s as close as it gets, so we are really in uncharted territory.

While I am not a fan of it, I do not believe the expansion to a 14-team playoff field is causing this drought. I’ve said repeatedly since last year ended that the most competitive and best played playoff game by both teams was the inaugural No. 7 vs. No. 2 seed when the Colts and Bills opened the playoffs in Philip Rivers’ last game.

The 2021 Raiders had a minus-65 point differential and still came the closest to pulling out a clutch win this weekend. Yes, technically they would have gone to overtime with a touchdown and extra point, but going for two and the win was an option, and at least they threw near the goal line instead of having Derek Carr run without timeouts like some slapdick team this weekend.

If you like decisive wins, then these recent postseasons should keep you happy. But as a fan of drama, a connoisseur of comebacks, a bettor who hates what blowouts do to prop bets, I am not having a good time with the pandemic playoffs.

I’ll have previews on the divisional round games, my favorite week of the NFL year, on Thursday and Friday. Hopefully we’ll get some much needed drama from these games, because this is often a round where many teams that go on to win the Super Bowl experience a real breaking point during their run. It’s especially common for lower seeds who had to fight off a tougher road opponent coming off a bye in this round. I have highlighted 14 of those Super Bowl winners since 1978 when the 16-game season and expanded wild card playoff era began where the divisional round gave them a major test, if not their biggest on the way to a championship.

  • 1980 Raiders at Browns: Red-Right 88 in Cleveland. Tom Flores is never sniffing the Hall of Fame if Brian Sipe didn’t foolishly throw a red-zone pick in a 14-12 game in bad weather.
  • 1987 Redskins at Bears: An obscure one, but Chicago’s Jim McMahon threw a red-zone interception down 21-17 early in the fourth quarter, a scoreless quarter that saw the Redskins pull off the upset.
  • 1997 Broncos at Chiefs: Steve Atwater tips away a fourth-down pass from Elvis Grbac at the goal line in Kansas City as the Broncos hang on for a 14-10 win over the No. 1 seed.
  • 2000 Ravens at Titans: Tied 10-10, the Ravens block Al Del Greco’s field goal and return it 90 yards for the game-winning touchdown. Ray Lewis also adds a pick-six off Steve McNair.
  • 2001 Patriots vs. Raiders: The Tuck Rule, followed by the greatest field goal in NFL history. Enough said.
  • 2003 Patriots vs. Titans: On a frigid night, the Patriots broke a tie with a 46-yard field goal by Adam Vinatieri. The Titans had a chance to answer late, but Drew Bennett dropped a fourth-and-12 pass from co-MVP Steve McNair in a 17-14 loss.
  • 2005 Steelers at Colts: One of the most dramatic fourth quarters in NFL history, the Steelers nearly blow a 21-3 lead in Indianapolis. Jerome Bettis’ late fumble could have been returned for a touchdown by Nick Harper, who was stabbed by his wife the previous night, but Ben Roethlisberger made the all-time tackle by an offensive player, and Mike Vanderjagt cemented his legacy as an all-time choker at kicker. The Steelers went on to become the first sixth seed to win a Super Bowl after going 3-0 on the road.
  • 2007 Giants at Cowboys: Tony Romo was intercepted at the end of a 21-17 upset by the Giants, who were swept by Dallas in the regular season.
  • 2012 Ravens at Broncos: Down 35-28 with 40 seconds left, Joe Flacco’s deep ball is misplayed by safety Rahim Moore and caught for a 70-yard touchdown by Jacoby Jones. The Ravens would go on to win in overtime.
  • 2014 Patriots vs. Ravens: New England trailed by 14 twice in the game but led 35-31 late when Joe Flacco forced a deep ball (in a situation he didn’t have to) and was intercepted, because He willed it.
  • 2015 Broncos vs. Steelers: Fitzgerald Toussaint, a third-string RB for Pittsburgh, fumbles in Denver territory with the Steelers up 13-12 in the fourth quarter. Not pressed for time or relying on a liquored-up kicker, Manning makes the Steelers pay for their RB fumble this time with a game-winning touchdown drive.
  • 2017 Eagles vs. Falcons: Up 15-10, the Eagles had to hang on with a red-zone stop against Matt Ryan’s offense at the end of the game. Final play: incomplete on fourth down from the 2-yard line. 
  • 2019 Chiefs vs. Texans: A drama-free second half believe it or not, but the Chiefs were down 24-0 to start their Super Bowl run before rallying for a 51-31 rout. We might never see one like that again.
  • 2020 Buccaneers at Saints: Really the turning point of the whole postseason a year ago, Jared Cook fumbled at midfield with the Saints up 20-13 in the third quarter. It was one of three turnovers the Buccaneers used to get touchdown drives that started inside the New Orleans 40 in the final game of Drew Brees’ career – his worst game in a Saints uniform.

Do we add something from this year’s slate? Maybe Joe Burrow and Ja’Marr Chase pull off an upset or give the surprising No. 1 seed Titans a real scare before what would be a shocking Super Bowl appearance for either team. The 49ers could move to 4-0 in the playoffs against Aaron Rodgers and the Packers. The Bills are looking for revenge from last year’s AFC Championship Game and have already handed Patrick Mahomes the worst home loss of his career (38-20) earlier this season. If any second-round matchup has ever had a “winner wins the Super Bowl” vibe to it, it’s this one.

That all sounds good on paper until the young Bengals get exposed on the road, the 49ers get rocked with Jimmy Garoppolo playing injured, Matthew Stafford turns into a pick machine in Tampa Bay, and someone wins by two touchdowns in Kansas City.

But we can still dream it will be great.

NFL 2021: Close Game Summary

With three overtime games on Sunday, the NFL had 21 overtime games this season, tied with 1995 and 2015 for the fourth most in NFL history. With so many walk-off scores in those games – Detroit-Pittsburgh tie aside – it beefed up the total for a stat that NFL media adopted this year that became a pet peeve of mine.

Between that stat and the lack of dominant teams quickly locking up playoff spots, it gave the impression that the 2021 NFL season was historically competitive and games were closer than ever.

Having studied this stuff for a living, I can say that this was not the case. There were 136 games that saw at least one team have a fourth-quarter comeback or game-winning drive opportunity, which is a possession by the team tied or down 1-to-8 points in the fourth quarter or overtime. While a lower number, that is in line with recent years: 143 in 2020, 142 in 2019, 147 in 2018, and 139 in 2017.

But this season introduced a 17th game for the first time, so we had 272 games instead of the usual 256. So, when it’s 136 out of 272, that means exactly half of the games this season had a comeback opportunity. That rate is usually in the 55-60% range.

We also had 48 games in 2021 where a team was favored by at least 10 points. Only the 2009 season (62) has had more games with a double-digit favorite out of all the seasons since the salary cap in 1994.

The spread is about expectations. What about results? There were 137 wins by double digits this season, second to only the 2014 season (141). The 78 wins by 17-plus points are the most since 2014 had the same amount. There were 62 wins by 1-3 points, but that’s a number that was hit five other times since 2001.

This season had 35 comeback wins from a double-digit deficit at any point in the game. That is more in line with the totals from 2019 (33) and 2018 (34) than 2020’s outlier of 43 such wins.

The 2021 season featured 63 fourth-quarter comeback (4QC) wins and 81 game-winning drives (GWD). In 2020, those numbers were 58 4QC wins and 76 GWD. Through Week 17 this year, there were 58 4QC wins, which tied the numbers for 2019 and 2020 (including playoffs those years).

In the game Ben Roethlisberger missed with COVID, Mason Rudolph got credit for a 4QC tie against the Lions. There were also two games won with a non-offensive score. The Patriots came back to beat the Chargers (of course) after a Justin Herbert pick-six. Then on Saturday, the Chiefs came back to beat the Broncos with a fumble return touchdown.

Success rate for 4QC attempts was 32.4%, or just about average. GWD success rate was in the usual ballpark of 37.7% (2020 was 35.0% and 2019 was 35.9%).

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

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

This information can be very useful for previewing the playoffs (which teams haven’t blown a lead and which struggle to hold them) or thinking about regression in 2022 for teams that won or lost a lot of close games.

Oddly enough, the last Sunday of the regular season saw the Rams lose their first close game of the year to the 49ers, and the Bills technically won their first “close game” of the year against the Jets. For starters, both teams are in these positions because of how one-sided their outcomes have been this season. The Rams didn’t have close losses before Sunday because they were too busy getting their ass kicked in the other losses this year. The Bills never had a close win because all of their wins this year have been by double digits and they couldn’t buy a win in an actual one-score game where they had to come from behind.

But even Sunday’s win over the Jets was a 27-10 final. However, the Jets had the ball down 13-10 to start the fourth quarter. That’s why the game qualifies. The Bills stopped them cold the rest of the way and added two touchdowns for good measure.

If you’re thinking about the postseason, it’s quite possible the Rams shit their pants in any game. They’ve already lost 37-20 at home to the Cardinals, their Monday night playoff opponent. That is not much of a home-field advantage in Los Angeles yet, and the Cardinals have played better on the road this year.

As for the Bills, I’d love to see them play another close game in Tennessee to see if they can avenge that MNF loss earlier this year. But it’s looking like we won’t see that matchup until the AFC Championship Game. Up first, the Bills get New England, the only other playoff team this year with a losing record in close games.

Miami, Atlanta, New Orleans, and even the Chargers all had winning records in close games despite still missing the playoffs. The Falcons and Chargers won more close games than they lost? Sounds like a miracle.

Last year, I spent a whole paragraph on Baltimore, which had only played a league-low five close games in both 2019 and 2020. Well, you can say (thanks to injury) regression hit, because the Ravens played an NFL-high 13 close games this year and went 6-7 in them on their way to missing the playoffs at 8-9. The six-game losing streak to end the year was a masterclass in losing (five) close games, but I don’t think people acknowledged enough how fortunate this team was to ever get to 8-3 in the first place. The Ravens needed a Clyde Edwards-Helaire fumble (first of his career) against the Chiefs in field goal range, a record 66-yard field goal (via bounce) in Detroit, and a missed 47-yard field goal by the Colts to get those three wins. Never mind Lamar Jackson beating the Browns despite throwing four picks. It was a wild season for the Ravens.

The Steelers, Chargers, and Vikings all played 12 close games as well, including two of the games against each other. Incredibly enough, the Chargers and Vikings were the only two close games the Steelers lost this year, producing a 9-2-1 record in such games. Ben Roethlisberger led some incredible comeback attempts in those games, including from 29-0 in Minnesota, before the Steelers came up short at the end. Yet, it took a close Chargers loss (and not a tie) in the final game of the season to send the Steelers to the playoffs while the Chargers missed out and the Vikings fired Mike Zimmer on Monday. Roethlisberger finished with a career-high six 4QC and seven GWD to lead the league and help the Steelers play at least one more game.

Arizona was the lone team to not blow a fourth quarter/overtime lead this season. In 2020, the Chiefs, Saints, and Titans were the only teams to not blow a lead, but they all had multiple losses this season. A third one by the Chiefs in Cincinnati in Week 16 helped the Titans get the No. 1 seed in the AFC. We’ll see how costly that might turn out to be.

We have a six-way tie for the most blown leads at four each by the Bears, Lions, Ravens, Colts, Vikings, and Browns. Naturally, they all missed the playoffs. The Colts especially had some daggers in there with the Ravens and Titans games. Carson Wentz was unable to lead a single game-winning drive or comeback for the Colts, but what did you expect?

With the Steelers winning so many close games, it is no surprise they led the league with seven defensive holds of a one-score lead. Sunday’s win in Baltimore does not count as one given the overtime drive, but the first Baltimore matchup was a classic example of a stop of a game-deciding two-point conversion play. T.J. Watt got just enough pressure on Lamar Jackson to force an errant pass to Mark Andrews. The Rams, Dolphins, and Chargers all had six holds.

Seattle was a team I cautioned about close-game regression with after the Seahawks were 16-4 in close games in 2019-20. Well, it hit hard in 2021. Seattle finished 3-7 in close games, 0-6 at 4QC opportunities, and 1-7 at GWD opportunities. The only GWD came Sunday in Arizona on a 10-yard touchdown drive early in the fourth quarter. The first Russell Wilson injury led way to the first losing season in the Wilson era, but these close-game failures obviously contributed too.

The Eagles (9-8) have had an odd playoff season. One year after playing the most close games (15) in the league, Philadelphia played in a league-low four close games and are 0-6 against playoff teams. One of their close wins was against Carolina, a game I’m still regretting on betting on Sam Darnold.

How are Matt Rhule’s Panthers so bad in close games? In 2020, the Panthers were 0-9 at GWD opportunities. Throw in 0-4 this year and that’s 0-13 under Rhule.

The Bills (0-5), Colts (0-5), and Texans (0-5) were also winless at GWDs, but the worst team this year was Cleveland at 0-7. Not every loss was Baker Mayfield’s fault, but he needs to start coming through as 2022 should be his last chance in Cleveland. Maybe with some better close-game fortune, health, and desperation to hold onto a job, Cleveland could be a sleeper playoff pick in 2022.

Let’s hope we get a legitimately close playoff game this year. Last season, there was not a single fourth-quarter lead change in any of the 13 playoff games. The only game-winning drive went to the LOAT in New Orleans. Throw in a sorry ass Super Bowl and it was the worst postseason I’ve ever experienced.

But if the season trends tell us anything, it’s to not expect a lot of close finishes.

NFL Stat Oddity: Week 18

The NFL can be hard to understand or predict. The NFL can be difficult to love or watch. But days like Sunday, a perfect season finale, are why we keep up with it year after year.

The inaugural 17th regular-season game got off to a dodgy start on Saturday, but Sunday’s slate delivered the most drama of any Sunday this season. As always, the NFL won out in the end. Sure, it helped that each time slot had a very meaningful game go to overtime. The Colts, a 15-point favorite in Jacksonville, also helped by laying an instant egg that set up the rest of the day for great drama.

Ben Roethlisberger didn’t need to say a prayer Sunday to extend his career. He just needed to believe that Carson Wentz and the Chargers are who we thought they were.

They indeed are. Now, two better statistical teams (Colts and Chargers) are staying home while two teams with below minus-50 scoring differentials (Steelers and Raiders) are in the tournament. I really did not expect that from Sunday.

Season Predictions: Not to Toot My Own Horn But…

I’ll get to every game below, but I do want to start by saying that I’m really proud of my preseason predictions this season. I don’t like to toot my own horn this way, but in dark times like these, it feels good to see some hard work pay off. This was the first season where I wrote a detailed season preview of all 32 teams. I’m not sure if that was the reason I had my most accurate predictions yet or not, or if it was because of how competitive this season was with 25 teams getting at least seven wins.

Not only did I predict 11 of the 14 playoff teams correctly, but I was only off by an average of 1.3 wins for all 32 teams’ final record. That is by far my best job yet as I’m usually off by about 2.5 wins. My previous best was 2.06 wins in 2014. I predicted 24 teams to within one game of their record in 2021 after only getting eight in 2020 and an average of 12 teams from 2013-20. I was within two games of 28 teams after an average of 18.6 from 2013-20.

My weekly predictions also ended on a decent note. As I explained on Saturday, I thought I was doing terrible because of my record on the game previews I’ve been assigned, but my overall record for the season is fine. It happened again this week as my articles were 1-3 ATS but I still finished 10-6 ATS for Week 18.

That leaves my final records for the 2021 season at 158-113-1 ATS (.583) and 174-97-1 SU (.642).

For a season thought to be so historically wild and competitive, I’ll take these numbers any day. Hopefully I can improve on them next year.

This season in Stat Oddity:

Colts at Jaguars: WTF, Frank?

Sunday in the NFL goes much differently if the Colts, a 15-point favorite, did not choke so badly in Jacksonville. They fell victim to a season-high 26 points and career-best game from Trevor Lawrence, who massively outplayed Carson Wentz with the Colts’ season on the line. Jonathan Taylor only rushed for 77 yards and did not find the end zone, likely missing out on every award now this year. The Colts have gone from the team “no one wants to face” to the team watching the playoffs from home despite a plus-86 scoring differential.

You probably already know my thoughts about Wentz, and how this game validates the type of fool’s gold he is and how he’ll never lead the Colts to anywhere significant.

But I’m more concerned about head coach Frank Reich after this one. You can’t be considered a top-tier head coach if you can’t figure out how to beat the Jaguars in Jacksonville. This stat is flat out embarrassing and it doesn’t even go back to 2018 where he lost 6-0 down there with Andrew Luck as his quarterback. The Colts haven’t won in Jacksonville since 2014.

How do you not get your team fired up to win as a 15-point favorite with the playoffs on the line? How is the “run the damn ball” offensive line not hyped to get Jonathan Taylor a 2,000-yard rushing season if need be? The Colts came out flat and they paid for it as they finish 2021 without a single 4QC/GWD. It was the finest wire-to-wire win for Jacksonville since beating the Patriots in the second game of the 2018 season.

When Lawrence converted a pair of third-and-10+ on the first drive, you thought this could be interesting. A game-opening touchdown that took up half the quarter was not expected. Taylor getting stuffed on a 4th-and-2 on the ensuing drive was not expected. Lawrence completing 19-of-25 for 208 yards at halftime and a 13-3 lead was certainly not expected after the brutal rookie year he’s had.

Now in the third quarter when Wentz is expected to make things happen, that’s when you get nervous as a Colts fan. He did nothing to alleviate those concerns. Wentz coughed up a strip-sack on the fourth play of the half, which the Jaguars fortunately only turned into a field goal despite amazing field position. Then came the bad interception, and that one was not so fortunate to avoid turning into seven points.

Down 23-3, the damage was already done by the coddled caretaker at quarterback. To Wentz’s credit, he was not the problem after it got out of hand at 23-3. Taylor was stuffed on a 4th-and-goal at the 1, a money moment for him the rest of the season, but not on Sunday. Wentz later threw a good enough deep ball on a 4th-and-12, but Parris Campbell failed to make a play on it in a situation where he absolutely needed to. The Colts got eight points on their next drive to make it 26-11 with 4:26 left, but out of timeouts, the defense failed to get the ball back.

Imagine beating the Bills, Patriots, and Cardinals before losing to the Raiders and Jaguars to miss the playoffs. What a way to give up a first-round pick to the playoff-bound Eagles, who certainly don’t miss Wentz’s bullshit.

The Colts had two decades to build great teams around Peyton Manning and Andrew Luck, which they rarely ever did. Now after building up the offensive line, finding a great back, a supposedly great coach, and getting a ton of turnovers on defense, none of it is going to matter because now they don’t have a real franchise quarterback.

Unless the Jaguars make the most AFC South move of all time and hire Bill O’Brien, I’d sooner bet on Jacksonville doing something in the playoffs before the Colts as long as Wentz is the quarterback.

Steelers at Ravens: It’s Not Over Yet

I was not emotionally prepared to watch Ben Roethlisberger’s final game. He’s really the first Hall of Fame athlete I can say I experienced the whole career of from the first preseason game to the final snap. As it turns out, his final snap will have to wait at least a week.

The early control of the Colts by Jacksonville added some major intrigue to this game, even if it didn’t seem like either team had a clue what was going on in Florida in the first half. This was your typical Steelers-Ravens game, which means one team was missing its starting quarterback (Lamar Jackson) and it was an ugly, physical street fight.

Frankly, the Ravens should have ran more than the 36 carries for 249 yards got them. A good chunk (72 yards) of that was quarterback Tyler Huntley scrambling, but it felt like a relief when the Ravens called a pass play and he didn’t scramble. The Steelers were getting gashed again by the run as they have all year. Latavius Murray had 150 yards himself. But the defense came up with some crucial stops in the second half, including an interception in the end zone when Baltimore was up 10-6 and looking for more. That really changed the game, as did a forced fumble by T.J. Watt on a play where he thought he tied the sack record but it wasn’t actually a sack. He later tied Michael Strahan’s single-season sack record.

The game was also a great example of why watching Roethlisberger is so conflicting these days. On the one hand, you can see why he needs to retire as his body seems to be running on fumes down the stretch. After hitting a good stride for eight games, he’s struggled since the Minnesota loss. Roethlisberger became the first quarterback since 2008 Kyle Orton to throw for fewer than 160 yards in three straight games on at least 25 attempts.

This was looking like a fourth straight game of that, which would tie the NFL record, but then Roethlisberger showed us why he’s one of the all-time leaders in clutch wins. Pittsburgh kept trying to run its backup running back – Najee Harris was injured on the third snap and missed a large chunk of the game – against one of the worst pass defenses in the league. It led to the backs gaining 35 yards on their first 23 carries, constantly putting Roethlisberger on a wet field in bad down-and-distance situations.

But finally, the Steelers let Ben take over in what could have easily been his final game. In the last six minutes of regulation and overtime, he converted all five of his passes on third or fourth down with at least six yards to go. The 20-yard pass on third-and-9 to Ray Ray McCloud is vintage Roethlisberger, as was the fourth down conversion in overtime with pressure applied.

Three of those conversions in overtime alone led to Roethlisberger’s seventh game-winning drive of the season. Harris finally broke a 15-yard run as the 24th carry of the game for the backs was a success to set up Chris Boswell for the 36-yard game-winning field goal. He got it, and the Steelers (9-7-1) just needed the Raiders and Chargers to not tie at night.

That was a hell of a lot harder than it needed to be, but the Steelers made this season so difficult. The Detroit tie that saved them in the end almost cost them too as that should have been a 10th win that wouldn’t have made a tie feasible for the Raiders and Chargers. But neither the Detroit tie after Ben got COVID nor the lousy run defense could keep the Steelers out of this postseason as the seventh seed. Their reward is a trip to Kansas City where they lost 36-10 two weeks ago, but you’d still rather be playing than done for good.

Just don’t lose 62-7 like Dan Marino’s final game in Jacksonville and I’ll call it a success.

Chargers at Raiders: And That’s BINGO

I thought the Chargers already played in the Game of the Year against the Chiefs in Week 15, an overtime classic. This one too should go down as an instant overtime classic, and go figure, the Chargers came up short again despite an incredible performance from Justin Herbert. So many plays in this game were inches away from going the other way.

The Chargers were 6-of-7 on fourth down, only failing on an ill-advised run in the third quarter deep in their own end. Almost all these other decisions were out of necessity as Herbert converted the last five fourth downs where failure on any one of them would have ended the Chargers’ season right there.

While Herbert won’t be going to the playoffs in his second season, my respect for him shot up with this game. He outplayed Derek Carr, who got a more competent team performance on the night. The Chargers fumbled a punt return that led to a 23-yard touchdown drive and early 10-0 hole. Jalen Richard ran for a first down on a 3rd-and-23 before halftime on a drive that also included a 41-yard penalty for pass interference despite Carr’s pass landing nowhere near any receiver.

The Chargers missed a game-tying 51-yard field goal to start the third quarter while the Raiders hit a 52-yard field goal in the fourth quarter to take a 29-14 lead. It was just that kind of night for the Chargers, but that’s also where the fun really started with the fourth downs. Herbert threw a touchdown on a 4th-and-21 and converted a two-point conversion with 4:28 left. A failure there would also have made the end of the game fairly moot. But in getting the ball back, Herbert embarked on a 19-play marathon drive that felt like a whole quarter itself despite taking only 2:06 off the game clock. Herbert found Mike Williams for a 12-yard touchdown as time expired.

I’m not surprised Brandon Staley settled for the extra point there. It was common sense as a tie did put both teams in the playoffs. I didn’t agree with a lot of his decisions in this game, but that one was agreeable. After the teams exchanged field goals in overtime, it sure looked like Pittsburgh was going to get screwed with a tie, but Carr and the Raiders were still hungry for a win. Maybe avoiding the Chiefs next week was on their mind given the way those two matchups went this year. Plus, the added bonus of eliminating a division rival is hard to pass up.

Carr made a great throw to Zay Jones on a third-and-8 to avoid the tie from happening. It still may have happened if the Raiders kept running with a lazy approach to the final minute, but Staley called timeout with 38 seconds left before a third-and-4. That seemed to change the Raiders’ approach and they broke off a 10-yard run against a terrible run defense.

With two seconds left, there was still a little risk associated with kicking a field goal. If you get blocked for a touchdown there and miss the playoffs, you’ll be an all-time laughingstock in NFL history. I normally don’t care about the block, but this situation (tie equals playoffs) was so unique. But the Raiders executed, and Daniel Carlson made a great 47-yard field goal to win the game at the buzzer.

Carr’s 30th game-winning drive is the third most in a quarterback’s first eight seasons behind only Russell Wilson (32) and Matt Ryan (31).

I don’t want to get bogged down with Staley’s decision making after a classic game where his team came up short. The Chargers followed a 4-1 start with a 1-3 slump and will end with a 1-3 slump to miss the playoffs. I’d just like to see the team do a better job of building up the defense so Herbert isn’t trying to win 35-32 games so much.

But knowing my NFL history, this game will somehow be the first chapter in the “Herbert isn’t clutch” narrative despite him rescuing this game time and time again to even give it a chance to be an all-time tie.

But they even screwed that up too. I would have loved to see Williams take that fourth-down catch in overtime all the way for a winning touchdown, but I’ll take the outcome as is.

I never had to root harder for a non-tie.

49ers at Rams: The McVay Halftime Stat Is Dead

I was torn on this one. Do I root for Kyle Shanahan to underperform and miss the playoffs to let the Saints in, or do I look to add another loss to Matthew Stafford’s record against teams with a winning record? I guess since my best parlays went in LA’s favor this week, karma took care of the rest with one of the most stunning losses of the Sean McVay era.

Talk about backing into a division title. The Rams seemed to be exorcising their San Francisco demons when they led 17-0 and Stafford couldn’t miss a throw. But then the pressure did come for him. The 49ers trailed 17-3 at halftime, and McVay was infamously 45-0 in his career when leading at halftime. I always hated hearing this stat referenced since it implies that he’s never lost a game when leading in the second half. He has. Multiple times.

The 49ers did not need much time to erase that deficit thanks to the multiple talents of Deebo Samuel, who ran for a score, threw a touchdown, and is a beast after the catch. But it still looked like the Rams were going to send the 49ers home and the Saints, who were winning in Atlanta, into the playoffs. Jimmy Garoppolo saw a tipped ball get picked in the end zone by Jalen Ramsey in a tied game in the fourth quarter. Cooper Kupp absolutely should have locked up the Offensive Player of the Year award with an incredible drive that saw him go over 90 yards for a record-extending 13th straight game, and he caught the go-ahead touchdown with 2:29 left.

Von Miller notched a third-down sack to set up 4th-and-18 at the San Francisco 17 as the two-minute warning hit. Almost surprisingly, Shanahan punted with his three timeouts left. It’s no man’s land, for sure, but I have to say I agree with the punt. The conversion is so low percentage, and if you don’t get it, the game is basically over as you’ll be down two scores at best when you get the ball back. If you punt and force a three-and-out, you have a chance with plenty of time to get the tying touchdown. I really find it hard to believe the 49ers were at 0.4% in win probability there.

Basically, it’s a punt call I think almost every coach would do, but Brandon Staley and John Harbaugh may go for it and lose the game right there. The 49ers got it to work largely because of a cowardly decision by McVay to run Sony Michel three times and punt. I can understand a second-down run, even if that would have been the perfect time to throw deep to Kupp, who was still in position to get to 2,000 receiving yards on the season. But after trading for Stafford and having Kupp chasing history, you run Sony Michel on third-and-7 for 2 yards? Pathetic.

But Garoppolo got the job done with his receiver showing their incredible YAC again. Samuel had a 43-yard play and that set up a 15-yard touchdown to Jennings with 26 seconds left. The 49ers settled for a field goal in overtime, but the defense just had to stop Stafford one more time. He threw up a pick on first down when he had plenty of time to be more methodical in a 27-24 game. Game over. Fortunately, the Cardinals lost to Seattle, so the Rams still win the division.

But if the Rams go one-and-done after losing this game, the bugaboo for Stafford against good competition is only going to grow. After going 8-68 against winning teams coming into 2021, Stafford finishes the regular season with a 3-5 record against winning teams. Still a career year and the first time he notched multiple wins in the same season. But with the expectations pointing towards Super Bowl or bust with the moves this team has made, a 3-6 finish against winning teams (assuming a loss to Arizona next week) would be a massive disappointment.

Maybe even McVay, Mr. 3 Points in the Super Bowl, will feel the criticism this time as well. He no longer has Goff as the scapegoat. The Rams had no business losing this game and still did. On the bright side, we never have to hear again how he’s undefeated when leading at halftime.

Saints at Falcons: Tough Year

I feel bad for Jameis Winston tearing his ACL in Week 8. Would the Saints still have swept the Buccaneers if he was QB1 in those games for all eight quarters? That’s not certain. The Saints were also taking a very conservative approach with him all season long, but I think they still had real potential for 10-plus wins if he stayed healthy. The Ian Book game was also certainly a debacle as New Orleans’ only loss in the last five games.

Get Winston healthy and add some receivers, and maybe the Saints can challenge for the division again next season. As for the Falcons, congrats on setting the worst scoring differential record for a seven-win team in NFL history one year after setting the best scoring differential record for a four-win team in NFL history. That at least shows the better coaching this year, or maybe just the better luck in close games as the Falcons didn’t shit their pants at the end against the Giants, Jets, Dolphins, Lions, and Saints (first time).

Seahawks at Cardinals: Bring the Band Back?

I was pretty high on the Seattle upset this week as I don’t believe in Arizona and felt that the Russell Wilson-Pete Carroll era needed to end on a high note. After the 38-30 win where Wilson played well with his receivers and Rashaad Penny again had a huge rushing performance, I’m starting to think the Seahawks will bring the band back for 2022. It’s not over. They’ll cite Wilson’s injury and some bad luck in close games as they were 0-7 at game-winning drive opportunities before getting one in this game due to a short field.

And maybe that’s not the worst idea in the world. When you see teams wanting to interview Bill O’Brien and Dan Quinn as their head coach, is there an obvious upgrade to Pete out there? And there is validity in thinking this offense could work if those key skill players stay healthy.

Seattle just scored 38 points in consecutive games for the first time since the 2015 season. As for Arizona, it was a big missed opportunity with the Rams losing to the 49ers but still winning the NFC West. Arizona will settle for the No. 5 seed despite starting 7-0. The Cardinals are just 3-5 at home. However, maybe starting the playoffs on the road isn’t the worst thing in the world.

Jets at Bills: AFC East Supremacy

You wouldn’t know it, but the Bills technically won their first “close game” of the 2021 season. The Jets were only down 13-10 and had the ball to start the fourth quarter. Of course, they were backed up in their own end and couldn’t do anything about it. Buffalo scored touchdowns on back-to-back drives that started at midfield to take a 27-10 lead while the Jets couldn’t get another first down. So, it goes down as an easy 17-point cover, but it was another tough game for three quarters in the wind for the Bills.

I would have loved to see rematches of Bills-Titans and Bengals-Chiefs in the divisional round, but it’s more likely going to be a Bills-Chiefs rematch in that round now. That’s assuming the Bills, now back-to-back winners of the AFC East, can knock off the Patriots again this week.

Patriots at Dolphins: Miami Does It Again

Robert Kraft has to stop taking the Patriots to those special massage parlors when they visit Miami each season. That’s about the only explanation I have for why this team underperforms so badly down there.

Well, scratch that. Some combination of former Belichick assistants (Nick Saban, Tony Sparano was a Bill Parcells guy at least, and Brian Flores), Tom Brady shitting his pants, the heat, and some general randomness (2018 Miami Miracle) likely have contributed too. But the Dolphins have won three in a row against the Patriots now.

Once a contender for the No. 1 seed, the Patriots have really stumbled down the stretch, finishing 1-3 out of the bye. This team might be the Eagles of the AFC this year. Prompted up by the schedule and trying to win with defense and running the ball. However, unlike the Eagles, the Patriots have a quality win over a playoff team this year. They beat the Bills in Buffalo in that windy game where they only threw three passes. I think the Bills are clearly the better team in fair weather, so we’ll see if Belichick can sell someone else’s soul to conjure up some hellish wind on Saturday when these teams meet for the third time in six weeks.

Panthers at Buccaneers: Of Course They Get Philly

The Panthers hung in there for a half with Tampa Bay, but too much Rob Gronkowski and Mike Evans were enough for Carolina. Throw in a loss by the Rams and the Patriots Buccaneers move up to the No. 2 seed, because what else would you expect? Of course Tom Brady is going to start a playoff run with a Philadelphia team that is 0-6 against playoff teams and built to run the ball while Tampa Bay is an elite run defense that needs to be passed on to have success.

Throw in a potential Dallas matchup in the second round, and it’s looking like winning a couple of NFC East rematches is all it will take to get back to the NFC Championship Game in Green Bay. Or hosting it in Tampa should the Packers falter out of the bye.

It’s LOAT season again. Hold on to your butts, or hope for a couple new Philly Specials.

Titans at Texans: Her?

The Titans are the No. 1 seed as adding “swept by Texans and lost to Jets” to the resume along with “wins over the Chiefs, Bills, Rams, 49ers” was too crazy to be true. They still survived a scare from Davis Mills, who threw for 301 yards and three touchdowns as the Texans put up a fight after trailing 21-0.

We’ll see if the return of Derrick Henry in the playoffs is a catalyst to push this team to a Super Bowl, or if they’ll compete with the 2000 Titans and 2008 Titans for the title of weakest No. 1 seed in the expanded playoff era.

Do you need a reminder that both of those teams lost at home in the divisional round?

Chiefs at Broncos: Melvin on Melvin Violence

Quickly going back to Saturday, the Chiefs were in another dogfight with the Broncos before Melvin Ingram blew up Melvin Gordon in the red zone for a fumble that was returned 86 yards for a game-winning touchdown. It’s just the second non-offensive game-winning score of the season following New England’s pick-six against the Chargers.

Like I said last week, the Chiefs probably cannot continue to reliably score if Travis Kelce and Tyreek Hill are both going to be limited in production. Hill had an injury that limited him to 2 yards in this one and Kelce only had 34 yards again and was shaken up on his last catch. Hopefully they’ll both be alright as the Chiefs prepare to play the first wild card game of the Patrick Mahomes era.

As for the Broncos, blow it all up, I say. New coach and new direction at quarterback.

Cowboys at Eagles: Artificial Fight

Dak Prescott’s first game with five touchdown passes came against a very backup-heavy Eagles team on Saturday night. I think Dallas still wins with both teams at full strength, but this isn’t far off from the meaningless season finales these teams also played against each other in 2016 and 2017. Still, it drops the Eagles to 1-7 vs. teams with a winning record, and that one win (Saints) only became official on Sunday with New Orleans getting that ninth win. That means the Eagles are 0-6 against playoff teams this year.

I’ll have plenty more to say about both in the playoff previews this week.

Bears at Vikings: End of Two Eras?

By the time you read this, Matt Nagy and Mike Zimmer could both be fired from their jobs. It’s definitely time for Nagy to go and to get someone in there to coach up Justin Fields so he doesn’t make mistakes like Andy Dalton did on Sunday. But Zimmer has likely run his course too after getting to one NFC Championship Game in eight seasons and just one postseason in four tries with Kirk Cousins as his quarterback.

The Vikings (8-9) have some amazing offensive talent to only finish ninth in the NFC. It could be a much different outcome for Zimmer and Cousins without a missed field goal in Arizona or a last-second touchdown allowed in Detroit. But too many of those games go the other way for this Minnesota team year after year.

Bengals at Browns: Ohio Rests

Not much you can say about a game where both starting quarterbacks were out and the Bengals rested plenty of other key guys for the playoffs. Good on the Bengals for the backdoor cover. Now let’s see if Joe Burrow and Ja’Marr Chase can lead them to their finest season since the 1988 Super Bowl team with a playoff win.

Packers at Lions: Some Kneecaps Were Eaten

I liked that the Packers got Aaron Rodgers and Davante Adams some good reps in this one. Stay sharp for the playoffs and don’t fall into the trap of the double rest weeks with the bye coming. Jordan Love also got some important playing time and had some mixed results. Good on Jared Goff to lead a game-winning drive and end his season on a high note for Dan Campbell’s bunch. Definitely more competitive than the 3-13-1 record will suggest.

Sunday was the first time the Jaguars and Lions won games in the same week since October 27, 2019 (Week 8). They were playing the Jets and Giants that day, of course.

Washington at Giants: War Crime

While the Giants actually had two gains of 20-plus yards this week despite the 22-7 loss, this game was still an atrocity on an otherwise stellar Sunday.

This was the first NFL game since the 2017 Colts-Bills snow game where neither team had 100 net passing yards. You have to go back to the historically bad 2010 Panthers-Bears game to find the last time it happened in a non-snow game.

At the very least, it helped me nail my predictions of 7-10 Football Team (adios to that name) and 4-13 Giants. Now will 2022 please make these teams more watchable? You know the next time they play we’ll probably have to see it on an island.

This week: Busy one coming up. I’ll have the close game summary report for 2021, my season award picks, and full previews for all six wild card games.

NFL Stat Oddity: Week 17

The NFL regular season is over, or at least it used to be after Week 17, but we have to entertain another week now. That means some time is left for crazy moves in the playoff races, but I think it’s mostly a matter of irrelevant seeding jockeying and a play-in game between the Chargers and Raiders to close it next Sunday night.

Week 17 saw eight games with a comeback opportunity but it did also tie the season high with four comeback wins from a double-digit deficit. This season now has 58 fourth-quarter comeback wins, matching the total from the previous two seasons (playoffs included).

Full season recap next week, but for now, let’s go through all 15 of Sunday games.

This season in Stat Oddity:

Chiefs at Bengals: The Next Rivalry?

My theme this season was which AFC team is going to step up as a legit contender to the Chiefs? So far this season, the Chiefs have lost to the Ravens, Bills, Titans, split with the Chargers, and now blew a 14-point lead in Cincinnati.

It looks like most of the playoff field can beat the Chiefs, yet in this weird season, doesn’t it still feel like Kansas City is the team to beat? The Bengals and Titans couldn’t beat the Jets, the Bills lost 9-6 to the Jaguars, the Ravens should have lost in Detroit if not for a 66-yard field goal, and yet they all stepped up and gave their best shot to take down the Chiefs.

But can they do it a second time? The Ravens already look tapped out for the season. The Chargers came close but couldn’t get the sweep, and there may be a third round coming up. It may be the first time we see the Chiefs play a wild card game in the Patrick Mahomes era, and he could have to play his first road playoff game in Tennessee where he lost 27-3 this year. This loss knocking the Chiefs out of the top seed really could come back to haunt them.

That’s still all down the road, but what about this game on Sunday? It was a great game with a garbage ending. Generally, any game where a team gets to kneel, spike the ball, and kick a last-second field goal is a lame ending. It’s much worse when that sequence comes after back-to-back penalties on fourth-down snaps.

Remember when I posted those charts on how hard it is to beat the Chiefs before it got a little easier early this season? Cincinnati went a bit off script in this one. The Bengals had the fewest rushing yards (60) in a win over Mahomes of any team and they did not win time of possession. Mahomes was 18-2 when the Chiefs had no takeaways, but the Bengals have made that 18-3.

It was a weird game in that the Chiefs were really sold in getting the whole offense involved. In the first half alone, seven Chiefs had a carry and eight caught a pass. Meanwhile, the Bengals relied on the excellence of the Joe Burrow to Ja’Marr Chase connection. Chase, who caught 11-of-12 targets, ended up with touchdowns of 72, 18, and 69 yards on his way to 266 yards, a rookie record.

Beyond this being the best receiving game in NFL history by a rookie, I think you have to say it’s an easy contender for a top 10 all-time receiving game. Only 14 players since 1950 had more than Chase’s 266 yards, and only four of those players had at least three touchdowns. When you consider the YAC he gained on some of those long plays and the fact that he caught a 30-yard pass on a third-and-27 on the game-winning drive against a team trying for the No. 1 seed, it absolutely puts it up there with Calvin Johnson’s 329-yard game or Jerry Rice’s five-touchdown game. Chase also gained two first downs on third downs via defensive pass interference flags on Kansas City.

As for the Chiefs, it seemed like everyone but Travis Kelce and Tyreek Hill were getting big plays. Hill and Kelce combined for 66 yards and one touchdown on 13 touches. It’s hard to argue with four straight touchdown drives in the first half, but did those big weapons not getting heavily involved kill the offense the rest of the game? Hill in particular had a huge drop before halftime that should have put up at least three points for the Chiefs. In the second half, the Chiefs only had three drives. The first saw Kelce drop a first down before Mahomes was nearly picked. The second got knocked out of scoring range by a third-down penalty as the offensive line was reshuffled due to injuries. The third was a game-tying field goal drive in the fourth quarter, but a quick pressure led to an incompletion on third down with 6:04 left. Mahomes never touched the ball again.

The Chiefs never blew a fourth-quarter lead in 2020 but have done so three times this season (Ravens, Chargers, Bengals). Cincinnati’s game-winning drive had the key conversion to Chase on third-and-27, and in hindsight, the Chiefs would have been better off if the Bengals scored a touchdown. The same can be said for the next 10 snaps that took place as we got into the ridiculous end game I mentioned earlier.

It was unclear if the Bengals were purposely trying to not score or if the Chiefs kept stopping them. But when it was fourth down at the 1 with 58 seconds left, a big decision had to be made. I can fully understand why the Bengals would go for it as nearly a minute is plenty of time for Mahomes to get a field goal. But I’m not a fan of the pass there, and it should have been short of the goal line to Joe Mixon, but the Bengals were bailed out by offsetting penalties. You might think that would trigger a change of mind and a field goal, but the Bengals passed again with 50 seconds left. That was incomplete but the Bengals were bailed out by an illegal hands to the face penalty on the Chiefs. The automatic first down made it obvious the kneel-spike-field goal trio were coming, especially after Burrow limped away in pain at that point, leading backup Brandon Allen to finish the drive.

The Chargers beat the Chiefs in September by going for broke on fourth down even when it really didn’t make sense at the end of the game. The Bengals were similarly aggressive here and it paid off again thanks to the Chiefs defense committing a penalty like it did against the Chargers.

A year ago, the Bengals were 4-11-1 while the Steelers, Ravens, and Browns all made the playoffs. This year, the Bengals win the AFC North while the other three likely all miss the playoffs. That’s “worst to first” on steroids, or whatever you want to call the serious gourmet shit Alex Guerrero buys.

By virtue of this loss, we could see the rematch in Kansas City in the 3-2 matchup in the divisional round. The Colts vs. Patriots, Manning vs. Brady rivalry really kicked off in 2003 with a goal-line stand in Indy by the Patriots. Maybe the start to a Burrow vs. Mahomes rivalry was this game, a pivotal moment in Cincinnati history.

The league needs something like that as we move past a transition period into the new era. The Chiefs can’t just cakewalk to hosting the AFC Championship Game every year. Why not the Bengals for a change? That’s what the draft can do when you get it right with picks like Burrow and Chase.

Cardinals at Cowboys: Did Someone Tell Mike McCarthy This Was the NFC Championship Game?

These teams are the Spider-Man pointing meme as I think both are mentally weak paper tigers who don’t have a shot in hell of advancing past the divisional round this year. That may be harsh for the NFL’s last unbeaten and the No. 1 scoring team coming into Week 17, but that’s how I feel, and I think the results speak for themselves. Something is off with these two.

Still, I thought Dallas would keep rolling in this one and continue Arizona’s struggles without DeAndre Hopkins, James Conner, and J.J. Watt. I was wrong. As it turns out, the Washington rematch was the outlier for Dallas as the mistake-heavy offense we have seen for a huge chunk of the season returned.

Arizona led wire-to-wire. Dallas lost Michael Gallup (torn ACL) and got very little out of the running game or big-name receivers. After finally getting a chance to tie the game in the fourth quarter down 22-14, Dak Prescott was pressing on a scramble and fumbled the ball deep in his own territory. That set up the Cardinals for a field goal and another two-possession lead. While the Cowboys responded with eight points to make it 25-22, Arizona put on a clinic in the four-minute offense and ran out the final 4:42 on the clock to deny Prescott one more drive. I never thought they’d do that after wildly throwing a deep incompletion to start the drive, but Kliff Kingsbury had the right calls with some option plays for Kyler Murray, and the Cardinals were smart in staying in bounds to keep the clock running. It was an impressive drive to close the game, and no, I don’t think the “fumble” the Cowboys couldn’t challenge due to being out of timeouts was conclusively a fumble.

Much like the Chiefs in Cincinnati, we saw that the Dallas defense was not so hot when it wasn’t getting takeaways and facing a formidable opponent. I’m still very skeptical of these teams having playoff success this year, but if this game was any indication, I think Arizona would feel comfortable going back to Dallas for a rematch in a couple weeks.

Buccaneers at Jets: APB on AB

Two yards. The Jets were 2 yards away from notching a third big win this year after already beating the playoff-bound Titans and Bengals. Throw in two wins last year against the Browns and Rams, and that’d be five wins over playoff teams the last two years for the lowly Jets.

That would only put them one behind Tampa Bay’s regular-season total in the Tom Brady era. After already losing to the holy trinity of Trevor Siemian, Taylor Heinicke, and Taysom Hill, why not lose to Zach Wilson too? Wilson was dealing early on third downs, Brady threw a costly pick before halftime, and the Jets were up 24-10 in the third quarter.

While his team was on offense and down two touchdowns, Antonio Brown decided to take off his equipment and walk off the field and out of the stadium. That should be the last we see of Brown on an NFL field after screwing a fourth franchise over, but it was still a stunning and bizarre moment from a career field with stunning and bizarre moments.

Brown released rap songs later in the day, so maybe this was all staged. Brain damage on the mic don’t manage, nothing but making a sucker and you equal.

Could the Jets hang on? Of course not. Wilson’s success rate was 1-for-10 to end the game after taking that 24-10 lead. But leading 24-20, he had a chance to do what Heinicke did to the Buccaneers by leading a long drive that runs out the clock. The Jets got the ball back with 7:36 left and got it down to a fourth-and-2 at the Tampa Bay 7 with 2:17 left. The safe play is to kick the field goal and play defense, which definitely would have been the right call if it made it a two-possession game. But at 27-20, you still give Brady a chance to tie and possibly win in regulation, so I can understand the aggressive move to go for it to win the game with Tampa Bay out of timeouts.

Unfortunately, the Jets called a QB sneak on 4th-and-2 against one of the most stout fronts and run defenses in the league. Of course it failed miserably. You’re supposed to sneak it with a yard to go, not two against that defense. Terrible decision to call that play in that spot.

The Jets were doing fine defensively until Tyler Johnson got open for a 27-yard gain in the last minute. Then the inevitable happened. Cyril Grayson didn’t get lost and wide open like he did on his touchdown in New Orleans earlier this year, but the Jets didn’t respect him enough and he burned them on two straight plays for 43 yards and the game-winning touchdown with 15 seconds left. The Bucs also made an interesting decision to go for two so the Jets couldn’t tie them on a field goal. It worked, but I’m not sure there are too many situations where that is the wise call. Could open yourself up to losing by a point if you’re playing a competent opponent.

But the Jets are not competent. Losing games like this is what they do. Brown being an asshole doesn’t stop the defense from rising to the occasion or Rob Gronkowski going over 100 yards again.

But without Brown and Chris Godwin, the Bucs are definitely less of a threat to repeat. Not that I wouldn’t put it past the LOAT to will Matthew Stafford to throw a pick-six to Vita Vea, or for Kevin King to allow 150 yards and two touchdowns to Tyler Johnson and Grayson, but if it’s taking this kind of effort to beat the Jets, the Bucs are not rolling into the playoffs on a high note like last year.

Someone will just have to step up and put them out of their misery in January. Not calling a QB sneak on 4th-and-2 would be a good start.

Raiders at Colts: When Hide the Quarterback Goes Wrong

My rooting interest in a Carson Wentz vs. Derek Carr game is pure chaos where nothing goes right because of either quarterback and every success is because of a teammate (or official). This was a big matchup for the playoff standings, and I think I got my fill of chaos even if Wentz technically had no turnovers while Carr got the win despite two picks.

However, it was the first time all year the Colts got over 100 rushing yards out of Jonathan Taylor and lost the game. It was another example of Wentz coming up small as the team tried to hide him in an important game. While Wentz had a 45-yard touchdown pass to T.Y. Hilton in the third quarter, it was a terribly underthrown deep ball into double coverage where Wentz couldn’t get the ball 50 yards despite a running start. The ball was tipped and went to Hilton, who wasn’t even the intended receiver, in the end zone. Take away that fluke and Wentz had 103 passing yards on his other 26 attempts. That’s not going to beat good teams, nor will the offense going 3-of-11 on third down.

Down 20-17 in the fourth quarter, the Colts embarked on a long, methodical drive that consumed 9:22. But things bogged down once the Colts got to the Vegas 25 and relied on Wentz’s arm. They had to settle for a 41-yard field goal to tie the game with 1:56 left.

You probably know what I think of Carr by now. If the game is late and close, he’s not bad, especially if the refs feel like throwing flags. But he did not need one this time. He actually needed a Hunter Renfrow 48-yard touchdown to be reversed to a 24-yard completion with down by contact. If that play stood as a touchdown, the Colts would have had 48 seconds to answer. But by being down, it actually helped the Raiders set up a field goal as the final play. Daniel Carlson made the 33-yard field goal and the Raiders won 23-20, giving them the same 9-7 record as Indy with the head-to-head tiebreaker.

But now for the Raiders it could come down to a showdown with the Chargers on Sunday Night Football. The Colts should take care of the Jaguars, though they have not won in Jacksonville since the 2014 season if you can believe that.

I still think an AFC playoff field with the Colts and Chargers as the last two playoff teams is the best field this year, but the Raiders have a shot to break that up. I just don’t think either team has a shot to go far because of what they have at quarterback.

Rams at Ravens: Matthew Stafford, King of the SICO

Back in 2016, Matthew Stafford led Detroit to some history with an eighth fourth-quarter comeback win that season. But I called the eighth one a Self-Imposed Comeback Opportunity, or SICO for short.

On Sunday in Baltimore, he kind of did another SICO. The Rams were down 16-7 going into the fourth largely because of turnovers by Stafford, including a pick-six and a fumble in the red zone. But Stafford’s receivers were getting open, and Cooper Kupp came to life with yet another 90-yard game this season.

The Baltimore offense never found the end zone and kept settling for field goals. Tyler Huntley started for Lamar Jackson again but was not as successful as he was in previous outings. A delay of game and sack taken by Huntley took four-down territory out of the picture for the Ravens, leading to another field goal and a late 19-14 lead.

Stafford was no stranger to game-winning drives in Detroit, but he had to convert a tough 4th-and-5 to keep the game alive late. Odell Beckham Jr. came up with his best play of the season and finished the drive with a 7-yard touchdown on the next play. The Rams had a nice lateral idea for the crucial two-point conversion, but it was snuffed out, keeping the lead vulnerable at 20-19.

All these close games for Baltimore this year. Huntley took too long to get a first down before Von Miller made his biggest contribution to the season with a sack. That forced the Ravens into miracle lateral territory, which failed of course.

Beckham and Miller were moves that have been criticized for the Rams after the instant returns were poor, but both did their part to help this comeback win and put the Rams in position to win the NFC West.

You can get by a banged-up Baltimore team with Stafford playing like this, but it won’t be a long playoff run if he’s going to turn the ball over like he did on Sunday.

Eagles at Washington: Golf Clap

Congrats to the Eagles (9-7) for securing a playoff spot, but good lord this is going to be an easy team to pick to regress should there not be real improvement in 2022. This is one of the most schedule-based playoff berths I’ve ever seen. The Eagles are 0-6 against teams with a winning record. Their only win against a team that is currently .500 was against the 8-8 Saints, who were missing Alvin Kamara and started Trevor Siemian, their third-best quarterback, that day.

Now the Eagles get a Dallas team on Saturday night in a game where neither may have much incentive to go full throttle with starters. What a bummer.

It was really these two Washington games that clinched things for the Eagles. Washington led by 10 points in both games before the Eagles came back to win. The first was a COVID-affected game on a Tuesday with Garrett Gilbert getting the quarterback start. This time Washington was at home, in its shitty stadium, and Taylor Heinicke was basically playing for his career. But the offense sputtered and Heinicke threw a game-ending interception with 24 seconds left as Washington was 20 yards away from victory.

Washington just needed to find ways to not blow these Philadelphia games and the roles would be reversed. Alas, Washington already got an undeserved playoff spot thanks to being in the NFC East last year. Let’s throw the Eagles a bone this time even if I know it probably means a first-round playoff exit in Tampa Bay, the team best prepared to stop this running game.

Dolphins at Titans: The No Respect Bowl

Look, I just don’t buy these teams. It was either going to be the Titans marching towards one of the worst No. 1 seeds ever, or the Dolphins having one of the worst eight-game winning streaks in history. In the end, the Titans got the job done in a 34-3 win that exposed Miami as the bad offense it is when a competent opponent can see past the elongated handoffs to Jaylen Waddle that count as completions.

Waddle even had a 45-yard gain in this one, but his other six targets produced 2 yards. The drive with the 45-yard gain also ended in a turnover on downs. While it was a Ryan Tannehill Revenge Game, he was a bus driver, throwing for 120 yards on 18 passes as D’Onta Foreman did his best Derrick Henry impersonation with 26 carries for 132 yards and a touchdown.

The Titans could be getting the real Henry back soon after already getting back A.J. Brown. Does it make them more dangerous? Absolutely. Does it make them the favorite to go to the Super Bowl? I’m still not sold. I’m just glad we don’t have to entertain the idea of Miami as a playoff team anymore.

Vikings at Packers: Green Bay Makes History

The Packers are the first team in NFL history to win at least 13 games in three straight seasons. In getting to 13-3 and the No. 1 seed (again) in the NFC, the Packers did not need the 17th game to secure this record. I’ve had my share of doubts and gripes with the Matt LaFleur-era Packers regarding how many of their wins were impressive or high quality, but the guy absolutely can coach and has gotten the most out of an aging Aaron Rodgers, the favorite to win another MVP even if it is mostly a default pick this year.

The Vikings never stood a chance with Kirk Cousins testing positive for COVID, moving the spread up to 13 points, or higher than the temperature in Green Bay. Rodgers to Davante Adams was unstoppable and the Packers won 37-10 without much of a challenge after another first-quarter struggle.

That will end the Vikings’ 12-game streak of games decided by fewer than nine points, which was two shy of tying the NFL record. But you probably knew that was a lock to end once the Cousins news broke. Now we wait for the inevitable news that Mike Zimmer is gone after hitching his wagon to Cousins for four years and having one postseason to show for it.

Falcons at Bills: Dome Team in the Snow

Watching old Matt “Dome QB” Ryan handle passing in snowy Buffalo better than Josh “Big Arm” Allen was amusing while it lasted. Almost as amusing as Ryan getting flagged for a taunting penalty after getting a rushing touchdown taken away on a stupid rule that basically made the game an easy win for the Bills.

Seriously, something is wrong when the lunge forward here in an obvious attempt to score is ruled down at the 1. But the Falcons couldn’t even take advantage of that because of the 15-yard flag for taunting.

Allen had a brutal passing day (11-of-26 for 120 yards, 3 INT) but he rushed for over 80 yards and two scores to offset it. The Bills won 29-15, giving them a 17th straight regular-season win by at least 10 points. Only the 1941-42 Bears (20 games) had a longer streak in NFL history. If you include playoff games, then Buffalo’s last 11 wins have all been by double digits, the first team to do that since the 1998-99 Rams, who did it in 15 wins (the post-WWII record).

Buffalo’s “win big or lose close” way may not serve the team well in a playoff run. While the Bills beat the Colts 27-24 in one of last year’s closest playoff games, the Bills cannot expect to roll over teams like the Titans and Chiefs in the postseason.

Texans at 49ers: Playoff Hopes Alive

This will go down as an “easy” 23-7 win and cover for the 49ers (-12.5) with Trey Lance having decent surface stats in his second start for the injured Jimmy Garoppolo. But this game was not easy for the 49ers, who trailed 7-3 at halftime. The Texans were a 45-yard field goal away from tying this game at 10 with 12 minutes left, but the kick was missed and the 49ers added a long touchdown to Deebo Samuel.

Houston coach David Culley then had one of the worst punts of the season. When your season is so hopeless in Week 17, why are you punting on 4th-and-8 at the opponent 41 in a 17-7 game with 6:54 left? It took the 49ers five snaps (and nearly three minutes) to move past that part of the field and eventually add a field goal to make it 20-7. Just go for it there. Instead, Culley later went for it on a 4th-and-2 at his own 27 with 2:44 left. It failed and the 49ers added a cheap field goal to give the spread some insurance.

I still believe the 49ers need Garoppolo back to make a playoff run this year, and that opportunity should present itself next week against the Rams, a team that Kyle Shanahan has owned.

Panthers at Saints: Cardiac Arrest Cats

The Saints held on for an 18-10 win to keep their playoff hopes alive. You probably should have known that Carolina would not come back to win. Not just because their quarterback was Sam Darnold, who took seven sacks (two on the last drive). It’s because head coach Matt Rhule is now 0-13 at comeback opportunities in his two seasons. He is also 0-20 when Carolina allows more than 21 points. That did not happen in this one, but it’s another loss just the same.

Rhule, Darnold (and Cam Newton) may not be back next season in Carolina at this rate.

Broncos at Chargers: Drew Lock’s Odd Day

The Chargers (9-7) did well to rebound from their upset loss in Denver (Week 12) with an all-around effort in this 34-13 win. The big names (Austin Ekeler, Keenan Allen, Mike Williams) all found the end zone and the special teams even added a kick return touchdown. Drew Lock left the game early with an injury before returning and finishing with almost 10.0 YPA on 25 attempts. Yet, the Broncos were 3-of-11 on third down and only scored 13 points in an odd game. Failing three times on fourth down did not help.

Lions at Seahawks: Adios, Russ?

As someone who has compared the careers of Ben Roethlisberger and Russell Wilson many times, it would be fitting if they both played their last home game for their drafted teams in the same week. If Sunday was it for Wilson, he went out with a bang, throwing four touchdowns (three to DK Metcalf) in an easy 51-29 win over Detroit. The Seahawks also rushed for 265 yards.

Hopefully the Seahawks aren’t crazy enough to think doing this against the Lions warrants a continuation of the Wilson-Carroll era. I still think Wilson is worth keeping around in Seattle, but we’ll see what happens. I’d love to see him replace Roethlisberger in Pittsburgh, but that feels so unlikely no matter how right it looks on paper.

Giants at Bears: Passing Game Hibernation

I would normally pretend this 29-3 win by the Bears didn’t exist, but it included one of the most amusing facts of the season.

Despite Saquon Barkley having one of the best rushing games of his career (21 carries for 102 yards), the Giants had -10 net passing yards and scored three points.

This one has everything from highlighting how much the Giants suck to the laughable idea that Barkley was the right pick for them in the draft, and it speaks to the overstated relationship between the run and the pass, which almost look like two different sports when an offense like the Giants is trying to do them in the same game. Mike Glennon managed to lose 10 yards on 15 pass plays, including taking four sacks that erased his four completions for 24 yards. Barkley had eight runs that gained 8-10 yards, but it was no use.

New York’s -10 passing yards are the fewest since the 1998 Chargers had -19 in the most infamous Ryan Leaf game.

Jaguars at Patriots: Urban Meyer Was Right

Urban Meyer was a terrible coach for the Jaguars, but he was right when he said his assistant coaches were losers. He deserves some blame for putting that staff together, but he was not wrong about their incompetence. After getting outscored 56-37 by the lowly Jets and Texans the last two weeks, the Jaguars were down 50-3 in New England before a garbage-time touchdown made it 50-10.

The Patriots had as many touchdown drives (seven) in the game as the Jaguars have had in their last seven games combined. The next coach better be one hell of a hire, and he better bring some quality minds with him if they’re going to right this ship with Trevor Lawrence.

Next week: Brandon Staley gets to take his fourth-down approach to a do-or-die game against a flag-seeking Derek Carr in the biggest game of his career. What could possibly go wrong for the Chargers in Vegas?

NFL Stat Oddity: Week 15

I was right that Chiefs-Chargers set too high of a bar for a quality game in Week 15. But in terms of pure craziness? The weekend gave it its best shot. Who could have imagined we’d see Bill Belichick and Tom Brady both lose by two scores in prime time with Carson Wentz and Taysom Hill playing like quarterbacks from 1928?

But you kind of had to expect a wild Sunday in the NFL with so many games having a huge point spread. Maybe in other seasons this would have been dull, but not in 2021. We didn’t even get to the COVID-delayed games yet, but we’ve already seen the 1-11-1 Lions down the 10-3 Cardinals, and the Ravens gave Green Bay all it could handle with Tyler Huntley at quarterback.

At least we saw the post-Urban Jaguars still lose 30-16 despite being favored over a bad Houston team. Also, the Falcons lost 31-13 in San Francisco and scored three points on two drives where they hit 49-yard passes – very on brand for the red-zone rejects. The Dolphins have also followed up their seven-game losing streak with a six-game winning streak to get back to .500 by beating the Jets if anyone cares. No? I figured as much.

The Bills and Cowboys both had comfortable wins over the Panthers and Giants respectively in their hope to stay relevant as contenders this year. A Buffalo-Dallas Super Bowl would be on brand in this era of “let’s do everything from the 90s again.” If they can make another Matrix movie and reboot Sex and the City

But while this season has been begging for something different to happen at the end, it’s still not far-fetched to think we see Aaron Rodgers repeat as MVP, and Championship Sunday is just another day of rematches (BUF-KC and TB-GB) setting up another Super Bowl rematch.

Oh, did you think last night invalidates Tampa Bay? Then you don’t understand how Brady’s luck works. I hope I’m completely wrong, but I think this week will just be a blip before a familiar ending in January and February. A little Christmas gift of joy that you’ll forget before Groundhog Day rears its ugly head.

This season in Stat Oddity:

Saints at Buccaneers: 9-0? MVP? GTFO!

Tom Brady has matched Joe Montana once again. Brady and Montana are the only two quarterbacks in the Super Bowl era to get shut out as a double-digit favorite. Montana did it in his second (and final) season with the Chiefs in 1994, a 16-0 loss to the Rams early in the season when Montana was favored to win by 14.5. Brady has been swept again by the Saints despite being an 11.5-point home favorite this time. Instead of winning the NFC South for the first time since 2007, the Buccaneers are left with a perplexing result and a long list of injuries.

Brady proved once again that he saves his best luck for the postseason as the Saints made him look bad with another multiple turnover game in the third shutout of his career. It’s the first Brady shutout since he lost 21-0 to a 2006 Miami team coached by Nick Saban and quarterbacked by Joey Harrington.

But this one was in prime time for all to see. Brady’s first pass of the night should have been intercepted by Marshon Lattimore, but the pass was dropped. I thought that would be a sign of things to come, but the Buccaneers punted. Then they punted again, and again, missed a field goal, punted three more times, and then Brady started really getting off his game with bad deep shots and a comical fumble after trying to scramble. Throw in a couple more punts and a late interception, and the Saints turned Tampa away on 13 drives for one of the most improbable shutouts in history.

According to NBC, it’s the first time since the merger that the team leading the NFL in scoring was shutout at home in December or January. Add that to the Brady record list.

Of course, there is going to be an outcry to the injuries Tampa Bay suffered in this game. They were unusually high profile and significant. Mike Evans, Chris Godwin, and Leonard Fournette did not finish the game. With Antonio Brown (suspension), Giovani Bernard (IR), and Breshad Perriman (COVID list) also inactive, the deepest set of skill players in the league took a big hit against a defense that has had its number the last two seasons.

But in terms of winning this game, I don’t want to hear about injuries when for more than three-quarters of the game, all Brady needed was a touchdown drive to take the lead. If this is your supposed GOAT and MVP, then how can he get shut out like this? Do you really need to walk on water to score one touchdown drive with Gronk, Ronald Jones, Scotty Miller, Tyler Johnson, Cameron Brate, O.J. Howard, and what’s supposed to be a top-tier offensive line? Not to mention that trio of Evans/Godwin/Fournette still combined for 23 touches and 130 yards from scrimmage. They were still shutout with them.

I don’t want to hear about one team’s injuries when the Saints were missing key offensive linemen (both tackles), haven’t had Michael Thomas all year, Deonte Harris is suspended, and there really isn’t a great playmaker outside of Kamara. Not to mention Jameis Winston tore his ACL in the last game against Tampa Bay or else this team could be dangerous right now. Still the No. 7 seed going into Monday regardless of all the injuries.

Oh yeah, the Saints did all this without their head coach.

Sean Payton gets credit for a win in a game he didn’t attend because of his COVID diagnosis. Maybe he helped with meetings during the week, but it’s still weird to me that a coach gets credit, win or loss, for games he didn’t actually coach. This also happens to be the biggest spread of Payton’s career as the Saints weren’t an underdog like this before his arrival after the Hurricane Katrina season (2005).

Maybe Payton’s absence is why the defense was so good (wink wink). But really, it was an incredible effort by Cameron Jordan and the guys to make up for an offense that did so little. The Saints had three offensive plays that gained 10+ yards all night and they were all Marquez Callaway receptions. I’ve never seen anything like that before. The Saints had 11 first downs and were 3-of-16 on third down. Alvin Kamara had 11 carries for 18 yards. Taysom Hill (13-of-27 for 154 yards) could barely throw with his injured finger and his talent level in general, and he only rushed for 33 yards this time.

Yet the Saints still won by two scores. The key this time? They didn’t turn the ball over once. Hill absolutely tried to, but the defense did not capitalize this time like they did four times in the playoff win in New Orleans, the worst game Drew Brees played in a Saints uniform. There was also that crucial Jared Cook fumble that we don’t talk enough about when the Saints were looking to go up two scores.

If it wasn’t for that game, this Tampa Bay team should be viewed as a big fraud that doesn’t step up in big games. Instead, they got to win a Super Bowl at home and can’t be counted out to repeat. Yes, not even after this 9-0 shocker.

Unfortunately, I’m not seeing this as a real season-changing game. Sure, it might take Tampa Bay out of the top seed and Brady out of an MVP he never deserved, but is there really a seeding that would be problematic for this team? The only way might be if the Saints use this to go on a run and claim the No. 7 seed and meet up with this team in Tampa again as a 7-2 matchup. The Saints definitely have Tampa’s number, but do you really see this playing out well for the third time this year? There’s no blueprint behind “play them like the Saints, hope for mass injuries, and hope all your key sacks/pressures come on third down.”

Especially when Antonio Brown will be back (even though Bruce Arians is a liar who said he’d cut him after one mistake). Evans, Godwin, and Fournette should be back for the playoffs. Still have Gronk, who only played six snaps in the first loss to the Saints. You know, all that actual value that makes Tampa so dangerous should be back when it matters most. The rest of the schedule is a cakewalk (Jets between Carolina twice) too, so it’s not like the Bucs need to rush their studs back to finish 13-4.

Meanwhile, the Saints could still easily miss the playoffs after going 4-0 against the Packers, Patriots, and Buccaneers. That’s what happens when you get owned by Sam Darnold/Panthers and Daniel Jones/Giants in such a weird season. But things certainly could have been different if Winston was not injured in the last Tampa Bay game. Then again, maybe Winston turns the ball over trying to stick it to his former team.

The Saints were able to sweep the Bucs again this year by having zero giveaways and five Brady takeaways in those two games. The role was reversed in the playoff game, which is why Tampa Bay won. I had to laugh at NBC’s Cris Collinsworth talking about Brady having answers for the Saints in that playoff game. He had two answers: drop my picks and let me start inside your 40 three times. The Saints obliged, and the rest is history.

Props to the Saints for playing hard and showing that they didn’t want their season to end Sunday night. I just wish I saw more season-changing ramifications from this game, other than me losing thousands in gambling wins (MVP race) while still seeing Brady and the Bucs in good shape to repeat.

But it was a nice early Christmas present to watch 9-0 take place.

Packers at Ravens: Go for Two Early (For a Change)

Who saw this being the big shootout of the day with the most dramatic ending? Well, I can take some credit for that one.

I liked Aaron Rodgers to have another big day with the injuries in the Baltimore secondary. Outside of the opening drive and the last two when he could have put the game away, he did not disappoint. But even with Lamar Jackson out, I thought the 9-point underdog Ravens had a shot to be very competitive. Most Baltimore games are close and this team has been scrapping since Week 1 with all the injuries. This also is the fourth game in a row where the Packers allowed at least 28 points.

Tyler Huntley likely made himself a lot of future money with his performance in his last three appearances. He’s certainly looked better than Jordan Love so far, and I’d gladly take him in Pittsburgh over Mason Rudolph. Huntley is not quite as elusive as Lamar, but he still rushed for 73 yards and two touchdowns, giving the Packers fits at times. Tight end Mark Andrews (136 yards and two touchdowns) also looked like prime Gronk, which does not bode well if that matchup comes up in the playoffs again.

But the Ravens had a couple of fourth-down failures that left them in a tough spot, down 31-17 in the fourth quarter. Nothing indefensible, but just bad execution. Still, the talk of the game again became John Harbaugh’s decision to go for a two-point conversion (2PC) when he did. This has come up in three straight games now for the Ravens, including the Pittsburgh loss when they went for the win with 12 seconds left and Lamar didn’t get the pass to Andrews. It also happened last week against Cleveland when, down 24-15, the Ravens failed to convert with 8:56 left.

Baltimore is now 2-for-8 on 2PC attempts this season, and the three-game losing streak here isn’t going to make fans happy. But what I couldn’t understand in this one is why Harbaugh did not go for two when the Ravens scored their first touchdown.

Not to get back into last week’s decision again, but I guess you can say I don’t agree with the general thrust of the analytics community when it comes to a lot of 2PC decisions. I think in many cases, they should be held off until you absolutely need one, and I do not want to make the choices in a game that are more likely to lead me to needing to recover an onside kick (or two). I highly value a 9-point lead and greatly fear a 9-point deficit, which seems to be no big deal for people who prefer going for two early. But that’s not me, and based on all my years of research on comeback attempts, I don’t think I’m going to change that view.

But one 2PC decision I am totally down with that analytics will support is to go for two on your first touchdown when you’re down 14 points. Make it a 6-point game and then you can win with a touchdown and extra point on your second touchdown. If you don’t get it, then it’s still an eight-point game and you can try it to tie on your second touchdown. It makes a ton of sense. For years, coaches play down 14 as a tying situation anyway. So by going for two on the first one, you might set yourself up for a win in regulation. I’m all for it in pretty much any situation unless I think my offense is total shit against this defense. But in that case, I’m probably not expecting to score two touchdowns in the fourth quarter anyway.

Harbaugh has to know this too as the Ravens are ahead of the curve on these things. Yet, the Ravens kicked the extra point on their first touchdown at 4:47 to make it a 31-24 game. They went for two with 42 seconds left in an attempt to take a 32-31 lead, and once again a pass to Andrews was incomplete. Green Bay recovered the onside kick and the game was over, putting more doubt into Baltimore’s playoff hopes.

I think Harbaugh going for two at 4:47 would have been his best 2PC decision this month. I think Harbaugh going for two at 0:42 was his worst 2PC decision this month. When he did it in Pittsburgh, there were only 12 seconds left, so that should have been enough to win the game with the Steelers not having a good deep passing game in a stadium that is difficult to get super long field goals. No 66-yard miracle is happening at Heinz Field like it did in Detroit for Justin Tucker this year. I liked that decision that day.

But 42 seconds when Rodgers still has a timeout left? That’s too much time as he has set these up multiple times before (ask the 49ers this year). I think under 20 seconds is the ideal spot of when it’s right to go for the win like that. When you do this to take a 1-point lead, you force the opponent to go balls out aggressive for the win. No throw is off limits. But if the game is tied with 42 seconds left, Rodgers is not in four-down territory. He’s got to be a little more careful with the ball as playing hero ball in that situation can make you look foolish. As someone who studied under Brett Favre, he knows better than most.

But the fact is in a tied game you are more likely to get a conservative approach from the opponent with 42 seconds left. Then when it comes to overtime, they may never see the ball a la the Chargers on Thursday against Kansas City if you take care of business with your offense. The clock is the main reason I liked the Pittsburgh 2PC call and did not like the Green Bay one on Sunday.

Baltimore (8-6) has managed to lose all of these games and will have to fight just to make the playoffs, let alone win the division. I could easily see a 8-7-1 Pittsburgh team going into Baltimore to take on a 9-7 Ravens team in the final game of the regular season. That might be the best game on the Week 18 schedule if things fall into place for it.

But the Ravens need to find a win in Cincinnati or against the Rams first. Maybe even a game that does not come down to us arguing about Harbaugh’s 2PC decision.

Titans at Steelers: Fumbled the Top Seed

Over 10 hours later, I’m still shocked the Steelers won this one. They trailed 13-3 at halftime and were outdone at every phase.

The offense couldn’t buy a third-down conversion or open a running lane for Najee Harris, and that really never improved after halftime either. The Steelers finished 2-of-11 on third down and Harris had 12 carries for 18 yards. Ben Roethlisberger’s touchdown pass streak ended at 27 games, and this is the first game in his career where Pittsburgh won despite not breaking 200 yards of offense (168). In fact, it’s only the second time during his career where they won like that as they had 127 yards in a 19-11 win over the 2010 Titans when he was suspended.

The defense could not stop the run again as D’Onta Foreman had 108 of the team’s 201 rushing yards. Imagine if Derrick Henry played, not to mention A.J. Brown or if Julio Jones didn’t leave again with his hamstring bothered. Devin Bush dropped a red-zone pick on Tennessee’s only offensive touchdown drive. Some of Ryan Tannehill’s best throws were dropped or fumbled by his receivers as the Steelers got solid pressure on him, but stopping the run is still a nightmare for this unit.

The special teams had terrible punts and coverage again. Chris Boswell even missed a 56-yard field goal before halftime on a cold day, but that kick never should have been that long. That happened because Mike Tomlin mismanaged the clock, not using his timeouts to save the offense a minute to respond to a 19-play drive by the Titans, who were getting the ball to start the third too. Roethlisberger only had 12 seconds at his own 22 to work with but still did a good job to put Boswell in position for an attempt.

It was another shitshow from a team that’s been getting clobbered in the first half for a month. So, what were the magic adjustments in the second half to spark the 19-13 comeback win? Simply put, the Titans kept turning the ball over. Pittsburgh’s defense made some good plays, but also caught some breaks with Tennessee’s lesser skill players putting the ball on the ground. They also got a tipped pick from Tannehill in the fourth quarter.

But even with the outstanding field position, Pittsburgh’s offense kept stalling. The Steelers started three straight drives at the Tennessee 41 or better after turnovers, and they gained two first downs and settled for three field goals. The last two field goal drives were technically three-and-out performances.

It was on the defense to make one more stop with Tannehill having 4:29 to drive for the go-ahead touchdown. This half, Tomlin had burned two of his timeouts foolishly, so it was looking like the Steelers might give up the go-ahead score with under 30 seconds left. But another critical sack changed things, and on fourth-and-7, Tannehill got into the business of throwing short of the sticks. Westbrook-Ikhine, who dropped a 40-yard bomb earlier in the game, was unable to gain the first down after a great tackle by corner Joe Haden, who returned in the nick of time for this one. It was absurd that the spot was so good for Tennessee when he clearly was never that close to converting, but replay got it sorted out and the Steelers held on for the much-needed win.

NFL teams who rush for 200 yards and hold their opponent under 200 net yards were 366-8-1 (.977) since the merger. But add a ninth loss to that stat for the Titans on Sunday. Losing the turnover battle 4-0 is the simplest way to lose a game like this.

What does it mean? The Titans (9-5) should be safe for the division, though they’ll need an upset of Kansas City to reclaim the top seed. As for Pittsburgh (7-6-1), I still think there’s nothing more on brand for Tomlin than to go 8-8-1, miss the playoffs due to a tie with Detroit, and keep up this “he’s never had a losing season!” thing. Lose in Kansas City, beat the Browns on MNF in Ben’s last home game, and have a hell of a finale in Baltimore in Week 18.

That’s really the best-case scenario at this point, and this goofy win makes it possible.

Cardinals at Lions: Broken Arizona

Matthew Stafford vs. 2021 Cardinals: 1-1. Jared Goff vs. 2021 Cardinals: 1-0. So, who really won that trade?

Jokes aside, this week was a f’n disaster for Arizona after losing to the Rams on Monday night, losing DeAndre Hopkins for possibly the season, and getting clobbered by the 1-11-1 Lions in Detroit. I liked Detroit +12.5, but my goodness, this was a wire-to-wire rout. Goff didn’t even have his best RB (Swift) or TE (Hockenson), yet he was 21-of-26 for 216 yards and three touchdowns while Kyler Murray struggled.

Kliff Kingsbury didn’t have a good day either. I thought he should have kicked the field goal on 4th-and-goal at the 3 while trailing 10-0 with 2:02 left. Get something on the board after a rough start, back to a one-score game, and use your timeouts to get the ball back. They went for it, failed, and the Lions drove 97 yards for a touchdown thanks to two roughing the passer penalties. Brutal.

The Cardinals had another shot to make it a game after getting a fumble in the third quarter, down 17-3. But Murray’s pass was jumped for a huge interception that set up a 6-yard touchdown drive to make it 24-3. It was boring from there as Detroit won 30-12. This is a team that had a 2-point win over Minnesota on the final play and a tie with the Steelers this year. They just blew out the former top seed in the NFC.

In fact, this is the first time the Lions beat a 10-win team by 18 points since a 27-9 win over Tampa Bay (10-6) in 1997. But that was early in the season when Tampa Bay was 5-1. The last time the Lions beat a team this bad that had 10 wins coming into the game? 38-6 over the 1991 Cowboys (12-5) in the NFC divisional round, the only Detroit playoff win since 1958.

Kneecaps were f’n devoured on this day by Dan Campbell’s boys.

Bengals at Broncos: Lock Down

A competitive, low-scoring game in Denver really turned in the fourth quarter when backup Drew Lock had the ball taken away from him on an ill-advised designed run that never had a chance. It was very close to being a play where the defender fumbled the ball back to the offense, but replay showed the defender was just down by contact after first getting the ball. That was still a contender for the wildest snap of the season, and it proved costly to the Broncos, who never got past midfield again in a 15-10 loss that buries them in the AFC playoff race.

This was the second week in a row where Zac Taylor’s Bengals were playing a team nearly as shitty as they are in close games. Last week, Kyle Shanahan’s 49ers came back to win in overtime. But this time, Vic Fangio dropped to 3-13 (.188) in 4QC opportunities as Denver’s coach with Lock in the game for the injured Teddy Bridgewater.

However, a mismanaged sequence before halftime also proved costly when the Broncos failed to call a run on 3rd-and-1 at the Cincinnati 33 with 17 seconds and one timeout left. Let’s be realistic. You’re not throwing a touchdown there with Bridgewater as your quarterback. This is all about the field goal and getting that first down with your offense that has been pushing the run with your duo of backs is the goal to close out this half. Run the ball, get the first, call your last timeout, then maybe you could try one throw at the end zone before sending out the kicker. Denver threw an incomplete pass, Brandon McManus missed the 51-yard field goal with nine seconds left, and Joe Burrow had enough time and a timeout to complete a 19-yard pass. That set up the Bengals for a 58-yard field goal that was good to take a 6-3 lead into the locker room.

Fangio does a lot of good things with the defense, but his teams lose a lot of these excruciatingly close, low-scoring games because of mismanaged situations like that and the red-zone play with Lock in the fourth quarter.

Next week: What? When does this week even end? There are two games on Monday and Tuesday, a Thursday night game, and two games on Saturday (Christmas). I suppose my main interest is to see if the Roethlisberger-era Steelers have one more crazy road upset left in them when they take on the Chiefs in Kansas City.

NFL Stat Oddity: Week 11

What did I say Saturday about Jonathan Taylor scoring a touchdown being the safest bet in the NFL this season? I never imagined him scoring five in Buffalo, the first time anyone has scored five touchdowns on a defense that ranked No. 1 that week, but he delivered in a big way to shake up the AFC playoff picture again. The Bills have fallen to the No. 7 seed while the No. 3 Patriots are leading the AFC East behind a dominant defense, great special teams, and a young quarterback propped up by the media for his win-loss record.

While I am going to lay into Josh Allen below, I swear to f’n Christ the last reboot I want to see is the Patriots dynasty. Buffalo better figure this out ASAP.

But Indy’s Taylor not only should be the front-runner for Offensive Player of the Year, but I think we need to punish the inconsistent QB play this season and put him in the MVP conversation. It’s not like anyone has stepped up to earn it with consistently high-level play.

Did the close games return in Week 11? Not exactly. We had seven games with a comeback opportunity and a couple fake close games in the late afternoon, but at least there were three games with multiple fourth-quarter lead changes this week. Aaron Rodgers, Andy Dalton (!), and Ben Roethlisberger all registered a lost comeback after their go-ahead efforts were wasted on Sunday. But we really haven’t seen too many finishes like that this season regardless of the NFL trying to push “games decided on the final play” graphics on us.

This season in Stat Oddity:

Steelers at Chargers: No BINGO This Time

I want to re-share one of my favorite bits of research from the offseason on the Justin Herbert-era Chargers:

We were so close to getting the first blown 17-point lead in the fourth quarter of the Brandon Staley era, but once again, this team has been different this year. Despite Pittsburgh scoring 27 points in the fourth quarter and taking a 37-34 lead, Herbert calmly responded with a game-winning drive, exploiting a blown coverage for a 53-yard touchdown pass to Mike Williams with 2:09 left. The defense responded immediately with back-to-back sacks of Ben Roethlisberger to set up a 4th-and-32 incompletion to clinch the 41-37 win.

The Chargers are tied with the Ravens for the most game-winning drives (five) this season, and no defense has more holds (five) of a one-score lead than Los Angeles. In fact, the only game the Chargers lost with a fourth-quarter lead this year was against the Patriots, and that was Herbert throwing a pick-six to turn a 17-16 lead into a 24-17 deficit.

This team is 6-4 and refreshingly different. Now on Sunday night, they got a break with Pittsburgh missing key defensive starters in T.J. Watt, Joe Haden, and Minkah Fitzpatrick. But Pittsburgh still had Cameron Heyward, who wasn’t going to allow the Chargers to score on every drive as they did through three quarters. With the help of a blocked punt and a tipped ball for an interception, the Steelers scored on some short fields to make this a tied game. Then they got a fourth-and-1 stop in Los Angeles territory to take over with 3:43 left.

That’s where I think Pittsburgh really blew the golden opportunity. That could have been a moment to run out the clock and win on a field goal, but the Steelers couldn’t even get a first down. Maybe the lack of push all night on the ground and the absence of Najee Harris (concussion protocol) at the time limited their options, but that drive was poorly run. That led to the Chargers going 75 yards in just three plays after Herbert became the first quarterback to ever pass for over 380 yards and rush for over 90 yards in the same game. The Steelers had 18 carries for 55 yards against the worst run defense in the league.

I thought Roethlisberger looked very good after missing time and practice with COVID. He made some of his best throws in the last few seasons in this game. That last drive falling apart so quickly was a disappointing finish to a wild game. The Steelers (5-4-1) should have better defensive days ahead, but with the tough schedule, it’s going to be hard to finish better than 8-8-1.

Offense had been a struggle for the Chargers in three of their last four games coming into this one. I think the defense still showed a lot of cracks, but if Herbert can play at this level in the big games more often, then this team can hang with anyone this year.

It’s not like any team is running away with things this season.

Cowboys at Chiefs: The Shootout That Wasn’t

Thanks to the Steelers and Chargers for delivering the game we were supposed to get from the Chiefs and Cowboys. Both teams have had their offensive hiccups in the last month, but they were both red hot in Week 10. I can’t get behind the injury excuse for Dallas when we’ve seen this offense soar without Tyron Smith in the past and on days where Amari Cooper (COVID) was especially quiet. CeeDee Lamb played the whole first half on Sunday before leaving injured and was just ineffective as the whole Dallas offense was off.

While the Chiefs looked great in scoring on their first three drives, they too hit a funk in this surprising 19-9 final. There were two more turnovers for Patrick Mahomes, who again got hit with an interception on a pass that Travis Kelce should have caught. Kansas City only managed a field goal on its last eight drives, but that was enough to hang on for the win as the defense stepped up once again.

Prescott was just off and spent much of the game under 4.0 YPA. He finished with 216 yards on 43 passes but also took five sacks as the line was no match for an energized pass rush by the Chiefs. Chris Jones more than doubled his season sack total with 3.5 on the day.

It wasn’t the resounding “they’re fully back” performance the Chiefs may have hoped for, but it’s scary when you give Mahomes a defense. He is 38-1 when the Chiefs allow fewer than 27 points. The last time they played a stretch of football this ugly, it was 2019 and they were about to go on a Super Bowl run. They still have to avoid those bad-luck turnovers, but the defense has absolutely turned things around and getting to the bye with a 7-4 record against this schedule is an achievement.

As for Dallas, I think you have to be worried this is a typical Mike McCarthy team. Pass-happy offense and turnover-reliant defense. They’ll be ready for most of the scrubs on the schedule, but put them up against a good opponent, especially on the road, and they won’t look prepared or adaptable. That may work for a wild card win over a lesser foe, but go on the road against Green Bay, Tampa Bay, or Arizona, and I don’t see it working out for them this year.

Colts at Bills: Maybe Josh Allen Is Carson Wentz 2.0

The episode of What If…? that Marvel didn’t show you:

From the archives:

I still believe Carson Wentz’s success in 2017, which proved to be the outlier to his career, had people looking much harder than they normally would have at a raw Wyoming prospect named Josh Allen in 2018. Allen would struggle with accuracy and consistency for two years before putting together an MVP-caliber season in 2020.

But this year, right from the Week 1 loss to Pittsburgh, something has looked off with Allen. The offense added the capable Emmanuel Sanders and tight end Dawson Knox has really taken off this year to give the Bills a deeper receiving corps than 2020. Yet Allen’s QBR has dropped from 76.6 to 58.8. NBC’s Cris Collinsworth was ready to give him the MVP in Week 5 just because the Chiefs couldn’t cover deep passes. But in the weeks since, we’ve seen Allen come up short at the end of the Tennessee game, play one ugly and one great half against Miami, implode against the Jaguars, light up the lousy Jets on an abundance of play-action, and now he struggled at home with the Colts on Sunday in a blowout loss.

Last year, I thought that wild card playoff game between the Colts and Bills to open the tournament was the best-played playoff game we got. It is the only good playoff performance for Allen in four tries so far. It was a rare feat of the pass-happy, offensive juggernaut overcoming bad field position and a balanced team to get a win.

But on Sunday, the Bills were anything but ready to match the Colts, who got an MVP-caliber effort out of Jonathan Taylor with five touchdowns and 204 yards from scrimmage. Buffalo’s No. 1 defensive ranking was influenced by a soft schedule, but the Bills were shredded by the running game in this one. Wentz only completed 11-of-20 passes for 106 yards as Frank Reich mostly kept him in a game manager role.

Wentz has had much better games this season, but what if covering up some of his flaws with a running game is something the Bills should be looking into for Allen? He was the show last year and it worked (outside of Kansas City games), but now the Bills are trailing the Patriots in the division and still have to play them twice.

Both the 2016 and 2018 quarterback draft classes have shown that we shouldn’t rush to conclusions and that situation does matter for how good these quarterbacks really are. But what if like 2017 for Wentz, 2020 was just the career outlier for Allen? A perfect storm that produced a mirage of an elite quarterback, but the rest of the career shows a talented athlete with some aggravating flaws still in his game.

After 2020, I thought Allen was legitimately going to remain a top-tier quarterback and not repeat Wentz’s career path. But after 10 games this season, I’m starting to think Wentz 2.0 is what Allen was destined to be. That doesn’t mean he can’t be an upgrade on the original, but like with Wentz, let’s not pretend the one season outweighs the rest combined.

Texans at Titans: They Didn’t Get Away with It This Time

Suddenly, losing to the Patriots wouldn’t be surprising for Tennessee. While I was joking in the tweet above, how does a team beat so many contenders, usually in impressive fashion, and take such ugly losses to the Jets and Texans in 2021? I liked and picked Houston +10.5. I cited on Saturday the two close games last year and that Tyrod Taylor might be able to play closer to the player he was in the first two games this season.

That happened in this one. Taylor rushed for Houston’s only two touchdowns. But it’s not like Houston’s offense did much to win this one. The Texans were 6/17 on third down and finished with 190 yards. This was about turnovers. Not only did Ryan Tannehill throw four picks, including a dagger in the fourth quarter when he was down 19-13 and had another chance for a game-winning drive. But that muffed punt on a fluky play halfway through the third quarter was a killer. That led to a 5-yard touchdown drive and 19-0 lead for Houston, which pretty much went into the tank offensively after that.

The Titans had the ball six times in the fourth quarter alone and only scored one touchdown. They had numerous chances in this one, but the offense doomed them with mistakes. This was bound to happen when you take away Derrick Henry and Julio Jones, but I still expected better than this. I can’t imagine Tannehill has had a worse game for the Titans than this one.

This team works better as an underdog. The conference-leading favorite? I never liked that role for them. Now we’ll just see if they can stop the Patriots from getting the top seed.

Cardinals at Seahawks: Russ & Pete Going Out Sad

Remember when the Giants won in Seattle last year as a double-digit underdog despite starting backup Colt McCoy? That was a rough day for Russell Wilson and the offense as McCoy did very little. Well, he won in Seattle again as the backup-turned-starter, and this time he outplayed Wilson in his second game back from injury.

The Cardinals leaned on McCoy, and he responded with a dink-and-dunk masterclass, completing 35-of-44 passes for 328 yards and two touchdowns. He got away with three fumbles in a game that finished with zero turnovers. Even after Seattle closed it to 16-13 in the fourth, McCoy delivered a great touchdown drive to put it away at 23-13. It would have been decided sooner without an atrocious day by the usually reliable Matt Prater. He missed two sub-40 yard field goals and an extra point. But A.J. Green and Zach Ertz put in vintage performances to help this offense thrive without Kyler Murray and DeAndre Hopkins again.

The Cardinals are a league-best 9-2 and I think you have to say Kliff Kingsbury is the front-runner for Coach of the Year. The Seahawks are 3-7 and look like they will be shopping for a new coach and possibly moving Wilson in 2022.

Packers at Vikings: Captain Kirk’s Lucky Day

I don’t know if I even want to entertain Aaron Rodgers’ Toegate saga, but I know he was healthy enough to throw a touchdown pass on his last four drives after a slow start. He looked just fine doing that. This game was more about the other matchup where Minnesota’s offense really took it to Green Bay’s defense, which had been garnering praise this season. But remember, the Cardinals were crushing teams defensively and still should have lost to Minnesota, 36-34, had it not been for a missed field goal at the end. Most Minnesota games this season come down to a clutch field goal as this one did.

Minnesota (+1.5) was one of my favorite upset picks of the season in this one because this was the best team in the league with a losing record going into Week 11. They get a good lead on everyone but haven’t been able to hold enough of them. Their stars all showed up for this one as Dalvin Cook, Justin Jefferson, and Adam Thielen all scored a touchdown.

Kirk Cousins had one of the best games of his career against a defense that has embarrassed him in recent years. But he absolutely caught a break in a tied game just before the two-minute warning when a Darnell Savage interception was overturned for not completing the process. Tough break for Green Bay, but a game-changer for Minnesota. Cousins completed his next three passes and set the Vikings up for the game-winning field goal from 29 yards out. They did not Blair Walsh this one and got the 34-31 win to move to 5-5.

Bet the farm on the Packers in the Week 17 rematch in prime time.

Hurry-Up Finish

Some quick thoughts as I race to complete another preview before getting to sleep.

Washington at Carolina: Ron vs. Cam

I think it’s a safe prediction that Ron Rivera and Cam Newton will enjoy their most NFL success together rather than apart, but they were opponents on Sunday for the first time. Rivera got the better of things behind a stellar game from Taylor Heinicke, who outdueled Newton in his first start back with the Panthers. Newton did rush for a 24-yard touchdown, which is only the third time out of 74 career scores where he was outside of the red zone on a touchdown run. But Heinicke threw three touchdowns and finished with a Week 11-best 92.5 QBR.

As the case has been for his whole NFL career, Newton came up a drive (and a yard) short in the fourth quarter. He threw a yard short of the sticks to Christian McCaffrey on a fourth-and-3, and then took a sack at midfield on another fourth-and-3 to end the 27-21 loss.

Carolina coach Matt Rhule is now 0-12 in games where his offense has a 4QC/GWD opportunity. This was the first loss with Newton, but if Cam’s career continues the way it used to go under Rivera, he won’t be helping Rhule on that record. Newton’s 20-44-1 (.315) record at 4QC/GWD opportunities is the worst among the 16 quarterbacks to win NFL MVP since 1984.

49ers at Jaguars: The Longest Drive Ever?

There’s not much to say about the 49ers blowing out a terrible Jacksonville team 30-10, but how about that opening drive? San Francisco ran 20 plays to cover 87 yards before settling for a field goal (after a timeout, no less) on a drive that consumed the first 13:05 of the game. It’s probably the second-longest drive in the NFL since 1997. Maybe the second-longest in history. Not sure.

The previous longest drive in Stathead’s database going back to 2001 is 13:00 by the 2010 Giants in Seattle during the fourth quarter of a 41-7 win. A drive people used to say was the longest (it’s not) was the 2000 Giants running out the final 12:53 in the NFC Championship Game against the Vikings, a 41-0 rout. I have seen the play-by-play confirm a 13:27 drive by the 1997 Titans against Dallas, a 21-play, 90-yard drive that started in the third quarter and ended in the fourth. There are reports of the 1935 Boston Redskins, led by the incomparable Sammy Baugh, having a drive that lasted 14:03 against the Bears.

The previous longest drive to start a game since 2001 also belongs to the 49ers. It was a 12:07 drive that also ended in a field goal against the 2002 Rams in a game where the 49ers blew a 20-3 fourth-quarter lead after allowing St. Louis to score four unanswered touchdowns.

Let’s just say it might take the 2021 Jaguars the better part of a month to score four touchdowns.

Ravens at Bears: The Tyler Huntley Game

How is it the Ravens prepare Tyler Huntley in a surprise start without Marquise Brown better than the Bears prepare Justin Fields after a bye week and his best game in Pittsburgh? Oh, that’s right, a thing called coaching. This was shaping up to be your classic Kyle Boller vs. Craig Krenzel 9-6 game between these teams, but some offense broke out at the end. An injury to Fields gave way to Andy Dalton, who basically hit two fluky touchdown passes as Chicago’s only real offense on the day. The second came on a fourth-and-11 as Dalton tried to repeat his 2017 magic when he knocked the Ravens out of the playoffs in Week 17.

But Dalton left too much time for… Is it Tyler or Taylor Huntley? Tyler Huntley. Taylor is the MAGA one. Huntley had his struggles, but that 29-yard pass to Sammy Watkins to set up Devonta Freeman’s 3-yard touchdown run with 22 seconds left was a thing of beauty. That was all the Ravens needed to get to 7-3 and their fifth game-winning drive of the season.

Lions at Browns: Tim Boyle Edition

The top NFL rivalry of the early 1950s, these two teams have not seen much glory since. How about some memorable meetings? Remember the Brady Quinn-Matthew Stafford shootout in 2009? Well, Sunday’s game looked nothing like that. It was closer to the 2001 meeting where Detroit’s Ty Detmer threw seven interceptions, yet Tim Couch threw the only pick-six in what was still a 24-14 win for the Browns.

This time, Baker Mayfield (8.6) and Tim Boyle (6.7) had the only single-digit QBRs for Week 11. The Lions probably could have won this game with a healthy Jared Goff, but it was not meant to be. Boyle, who wasn’t even good in college, making his first NFL start and throwing to the worst receiving corps in the league. What could go wrong? Apparently, not enough to not cover the spread (+13) as the Lions were in this one thanks to their run game and defense. But the understandable lack of trust in the QB proved fatal to the Lions (0-9-1) in this one. Detroit ran the ball on a 3rd-and-14 with just over three minutes left before punting the ball back in a 13-10 game. Despite having four clock stoppages left, I feel that the run was a bad decision as it burned more clock. Let the bad QB throw a bomb and if it’s picked, it’s an arm punt. The Browns actually screwed up by Nick Chubb twice running out of bounds on runs that gained first downs. So it took three first downs to finally put the Lions away.

Who wants to learn how to cook this Thanksgiving instead of watching Andy Dalton vs. Tim Boyle?

Saints at Eagles: Hurts Them Again

Two of the trickiest teams in 2021, I improved to 3-7 ATS in picking New Orleans games this season by going with the Eagles (-2.5). I guess Jalen Hurts just owns the Saints on the ground after last year’s upset and now this effort with three rushing touchdowns. The 40-29 final – somehow not an NFL first – was more points than this one deserved, but the Eagles briefly made it too close for comfort despite leading 33-7 going into the fourth quarter.

Trevor Siemian warmed up after a terrible start and the Saints were only down 33-19 and in the red zone with half a quarter to play. But I have no idea what Sean Payton got out of kicking a 28-yard field goal on fourth-and-7 with 7:14 left. It was still a two-possession game. That seemed like one of the worst decisions this week. The Eagles then made the Saints burn their timeouts before Hurts put them away with his third rushing touchdown. The Saints were an elite rushing defense this season, but the Eagles finished with 50 carries for 242 yards in this one. Washington (131) had been the only offense to surpass 90 yards on the ground against the Saints before this game.

I still don’t know what the plan is for Payton this year, but at least things are trending in the right direction for Sirianni’s Eagles.

Bengals at Raiders: This Turkey Is Cooked

The Raiders really came out of their bye week with a 5-2 record before failing to score more than 16 points in their next three games, all losses. They haven’t even cracked 300 yards in the last two. They’ve had three straight games with multiple turnovers after having none in the first seven games. They are terrible on third down (1-for-7 in this game). The Bengals were nothing special in this one themselves, also failing to hit 300 yards and averaging 4.1 yards per play. But they finished drives in the fourth quarter and got Derek Carr to throw a bad interception with 4:43 left in his own territory.

This was one of the picks I was most confident in this week, but even I was surprised at a lifeless 32-13 final (surprisingly the fourth game in NFL history to end with that score).

Next week: All six teams playing on Thanksgiving lost on Sunday. Sounds fun. At least Sunday looks loaded as far as this season goes. Titans-Patriots and Rams-Packers are the marquee games of the day, and Bucs-Colts and Steelers-Bengals aren’t half bad either. Even Vikings-49ers is a potential launching point towards the No. 7 seed game in the NFC.