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.

NFL Stat Oddity: Week 10

Another week in the NFL in 2021 meant more upsets, more injuries, more blowouts, and more confusion in the playoff picture and MVP race. I’m finding out that I really don’t like it when the only “sure things” in the NFL this year are Jonathan Taylor and James Conner finding the end zone.

Can we put the “games are closer this year” thing to rest? With one game left to go on Monday night, Week 10 just tied Week 7 for a season-low four games with a comeback opportunity. It was the first week this season without a single lead change in the fourth quarter or a single game-winning drive or any game where a team down double digits came back to win. Oh, we got a bloody f’n tie, but more on that below.

For anyone selling the “games are so close!” narrative this season, please refer to this chart for games through Week 10 going back to 2001 and how many were decided by 10-plus, 17-plus, and 24-plus points.

  • 2021’s 75 games decided by 10+ points are the most since 2014 (85) and the second most in any season since 2010.
  • 2021’s 42 games decided by 17+ points are the most since 2014 (49) and well above the average of 32.7 such games over the last six seasons.
  • 2021’s 24 games decided by 24+ points are tied with 2011 for the most such games through Week 10 since 2001. There were five such games on Sunday.

Granted, I’m usually not one to judge the closeness of a game by the final score, but I have more stats to share. Here’s how the fourth-quarter comeback opportunities through Week 10 stack up for recent seasons:

  • 2021: 71 of 149 games (47.7%)
  • 2020: 83 of 147 games (56.5%)
  • 2019: 83 of 148 games (56.1%)
  • 2018: 81 of 148 games (54.7%)
  • 2017: 77 of 146 games (52.7%)
  • 2016: 90 of 147 games (61.2%)
  • 2015: 90 of 146 games (61.6%)
  • 2014: 79 of 147 games (53.7%)
  • 2013: 93 of 147 games (63.3%)
  • 2012: 84 of 146 games (57.5%)

For as long as I’ve been doing this weekly, I’ve never seen a season where more than half the games are not this close.

Until now.

This season in Stat Oddity:

Chiefs at Raiders: Well, That Takes Care of Vegas for the Season

Before we get crazy claiming that the Chiefs are back on track for the Super Bowl, let’s not forget that the Raiders are immune to winning big games like this one was for possession of first place in the AFC West.

But after a 41-14 blowout win, the Chiefs are back in first and looking pretty damn good. Only the special teams had a rough night in Vegas, but even that unit made up for it with a fake punt pass that led to a knockout punch touchdown to Darrel Williams. Patrick Mahomes finished with 406 yards and five touchdowns to break out of his five-game slump. The Chiefs were 9-of-15 on third down while the Raiders were just 1-of-9. Derek Carr throwing up a jump ball interception to Daniel Sorensen was another dagger moment in this one. So was DeSean Jackson fumbling his first catch with the team in hysterical fashion when it looked like he could score a touchdown.

After starting the game with a three-and-out, Mahomes led the Chiefs to scores on seven of their next eight drives, only missing out on a missed field goal before halftime. It was an almost-perfect offensive night, which is how I described Kansas City’s win in Las Vegas on Sunday Night Football last season.

Does that mean the Chiefs are back? We’ll see against Dallas next week, but it was always a matter of the defense not being historically terrible and the offense not being historically awful at turning the ball over. The defense has stepped up in the last month after acquiring Melvin Ingram, sliding Chris Jones back to defensive tackle, cutting down Sorensen’s snaps, and just playing better. The offense showed plenty of patience and the only turnover was on special teams this time.

In a season that is wide open for the taking, the Chiefs just have to stop being their own worst enemy. On Sunday night, they were the Raiders’ worst enemy, and I now expect Las Vegas (5-4) to implode and miss the playoffs just like after they lost to the Chiefs at home last year.

Buccaneers at Washington: Belichick Would Never…

On a day where Bill Belichick coached his Patriots to a thorough 45-7 rout of the Browns, the Buccaneers fell flat as a heavy favorite in a 29-19 loss to Washington. Tom Brady finished with a season-low 31.7 QBR. That’s now a losing streak to Taylor Heinicke and Trevor Siemian (off the bench) for the Bucs.

It’s the kind of game Brady would almost never lose as a member of the Patriots. Not as a 9.5-point favorite against a terrible Washington defense, with a coordinator (Jack Del Rio) Brady has crucified his whole career, and a unit that lost Chase Young to an ACL tear.

But he was outplayed by Heinicke, who put the game away with one of the best drives of the season. Washington needed that because it sure felt like the Football Team was going to blow this one after leading wire-to-wire. Tampa Bay was gifted an untimed down field goal before halftime after a facemask penalty, and Brady led two more touchdown drives that started in opponent territory in the second half to make it 23-19.

But Heinicke took over with 10:50 left and drained all but 29 seconds off the clock with an epic 19-play, 80-yard touchdown drive. Washington converted four third downs on the drive, and finally ended it with a 4th-and-1 touchdown run by Antonio Gibson. I could see an argument for kicking a field goal and taking a 26-19 lead with 30 seconds left, but you can’t tempt Brady’s luck. The touchdown puts the game away. While I thought the kneeldown on the two-point conversion was playing it too safe, Tampa Bay waved the white flag and only ran Leonard Fournette twice on the ensuing drive to end it. I guess Brady didn’t want to risk a third interception against a coordinator he’s almost never been picked against.

Washington held the ball for 39 minutes in the upset. This is Brady’s fourth wire-to-wire loss (never led) with Tampa Bay. He had five such losses in his last four seasons with New England (2016-19). To me, this game shows the difference between what advantages Brady used to have with Belichick as his coach. I cannot see a talented team coached by Belichick losing to this Washington team, especially coming off a loss and a bye week.

Brady is now 17-8 as Tampa Bay’s starter in the regular season. That 68% winning percentage would be the lowest he had in any New England season since 2009 (10-6). Tampa Bay is starting to look like the 7-5 underachiever it was a season ago before going on that championship run. Do things get significantly better when Antonio Brown and Rob Gronkowski return? Most likely. But if so much value to the offense is added with those players, who were not part of the high-scoring Tampa Bay offenses in 2018-19, then how could Brady have any real MVP argument this season?

This team is not a juggernaut, and he is not having an MVP season. Not if he can’t outscore the likes of Siemian and Heinicke in consecutive games.

Saints at Titans: They Can’t Keep Getting Away with It (Can They?)

Yes, I’m starting to feel like Jesse Pinkman when it comes to watching this Tennessee winning streak, which has now reached five games against teams who were in the playoffs last year.

But honestly, this team is starting to remind me of the early 2000s Jeff Fisher-coached Tennessee teams. They are big and physical, and they’ll win games that way instead of being really efficient or exciting on offense. Consider it a knock if you will, because you know how those seasons always ended for Tennessee (hint: poorly).

Maybe my latest act is to throw cold water on each Tennessee win, but I’m just not ready to buy this being the team to beat. Yes, the Titans don’t have Julio Jones (IR), and that makes it that much harder with Derrick Henry out. But they are far from the only team dealing with injuries right now. Look across the field. They just squeaked by the Saints without Jameis Winston, Alvin Kamara, and Michael Thomas will miss the whole season.

While the Titans were better on offense this week than their Los Angeles win that was fueled by two Matthew Stafford interceptions, these results are still not sustainable. Hence the “they can’t keep getting away with it” meme. The Titans finished with 264 yards of offense, averaged 2.2 yards per carry, and were 3-of-12 on third down. That’s bad.

The success this week was aided by an absolute horseshit call of roughing the passer on New Orleans in the second quarter. Instead of Ryan Tannehill throwing an interception in the end zone before halftime, the Titans went on to score a touchdown and led 13-6. They started the third quarter with a 19-yard touchdown drive thanks to the Saints fumbling the opening kick return.

From there it was just a matter of hanging on as Siemian staged a respectable rally. The Saints had a chance at a game-tying two-point conversion with 1:16 left, but a false start moved it back five yards and Siemian threw a bad incompletion. The Titans recovered the onside kick and that was the end of it.

Thanks to a remaining schedule that features four games against Houston (twice), Jacksonville and Miami, the Titans (8-2) really shouldn’t fare worse than 13-4. But if the post-Henry offense does not pick things up soon, then even those games with the little sisters of the poor could spell trouble for the team that has already lost to the Jets this year.

Seahawks at Packers: What the Russ?

Totally reasonable for Russell Wilson and Aaron Rodgers to be rusty and off after some missed time for health reasons. But the lowest scoring first half in the NFL this season (3-0)? The trading of red-zone interceptions? This was bad stuff, but the first shutout of Wilson’s career combined with what the Packers did to Arizona and Kansas City in the last two games makes me think that Green Bay may finally have a better defense this year. Is it going to stop Dallas, Tampa, or the Rams from scoring 30+ in January? I’m not sure about that, and Seattle is clearly not the measuring stick it used to be, but the Packers are improving on that side of the ball.

I just wish the offense would look a bit closer to the 2020 one. But the Packers are certainly closer to their past glory than the Seahawks (3-6) are right now.

Lions at Steelers: The Tomlin Special

I have been warning for the last couple of weeks that the Steelers would lose to the winless Lions. Frankly, it should have happened, but an inexperienced kicker made a horrible attempt at a 48-yard game-winning field goal in overtime. Instead, we get the first tie of 2021, which feels like a loss if you’re the 5-3 team badly in need of this win given the upcoming schedule.

Alas, I never expected Mason Rudolph to be QB1 in this game. Ben Roethlisberger came down with a positive COVID test on Saturday and Rudolph got the surprise start. This was absolutely a game that Ben would have won on his experience alone. Rudolph had a lousy pick, missed badly in the red zone, and mismanaged several other drives with inaccurate passes. He has no touch to his throws. The offense really did not change much. There were still throws well short of the sticks on crucial downs, too many horizontal attempts, and the occasional underthrown go route down the sideline. Najee Harris (26 carries for 105 yards) should have got more carries than he did on a wet, cold afternoon.

Against a Detroit defense that was allowing 9.3 yards per attempt through eight games, Rudolph finished at 4.84 YPA (242 yards on 50 passes). Yet somehow, Jared Goff was the worst QB in this game. Detroit ran the ball 39 times for 229 yards, yet Goff finished 14/25 for 114 yards and four sacks. Head coach Dan Campbell was calling plays into Goff for the first time this season, and apparently his idea is to feature less of Goss than ever before. I’m not sure I’ve ever seen a team in a tight game run the ball on third down as much as Detroit did (seven times). It makes sense if you saw some of the Goff throws in this one, either missing a wide-open receiver deep or being late with a hospital ball to another in the flat. Goff wasted a superb ground game from his stable of backs.

Despite the comedy of errors in overtime from both teams, I think this is another example of why the change to 10-minute overtime was stupid. If this was a 15-minute overtime, the Steelers likely would have been able to get Chris Boswell in position for a game-winning field goal. But in being pressed for time, they threw an ill-advised pass to Pat Freiermuth, who was going to get tackled in bounds with the Steelers out of timeouts. That pass could not be made, so if the Steelers were going to do that, they should have just tried the 57-yard field goal instead. But Freiermuth ended up fumbling the ball with eight seconds left, and Detroit’s lateral attempt stalled out 40 yards shy of the end zone.

A tie just feels like a waste of nearly four hours. Not a real outcome. We’ll see how the tie impacts the playoff race, but after losing Roethlisberger to COVID, and T.J. Watt during the game to an injury, and not getting into first place with a win over Detroit, it sure feels like Pittsburgh lost in many ways this weekend.

Hurry-Up Finish

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

Panthers at Cardinals: Meh

You know something is wrong when the No. 7 seed pounds the No. 1 seed 34-10 in their own building and I am giving it footnote treatment. But I just struggle to take a game like this seriously when the Cardinals were without Kyler Murray and DeAndre Hopkins. Carolina was the better team on Sunday, but let’s face some facts. They were going up against Colt McCoy, who coughed up a fumble and was stopped on a fourth down in the beginning of the game. Those mistakes led to a 14-0 lead for the Panthers, who only had to drive a total of 56 yards to get those scores.

Arizona even lost McCoy during the game, but Carolina’s backup (Cam Newton) was probably the best active quarterback on Sunday anyway. I loved Carolina to cover given what it had done to Arizona the last two years, but I was not expecting 34-10. This makes Kyle Shanahan and the 49ers look even worse for last week. It’s the first truly awful performance of the season for Arizona, but I am willing to believe things will turn around when their best players return. But this could make for quite the headlines should we see this as a playoff rematch in January.

Vikings at Chargers: That’s It?

I knew this game was going to be decided by one possession after the way the season has been for these teams, but this was a fake close game with a disappointing finish. Between the Vikings and Chargers, we should have gotten some sort of ludicrous finish. Not a matter of Minnesota clutching up and extending to a two-score lead, and then running out the final 4:36 to deny Justin Herbert, who struggled on the day, a chance at tying the game.

I was pretty disappointed. It felt like every time they showed this game, the Vikings had the ball (time of possession was 36:15). In that regard, the ending was a fitting one. The disappearance of Mike Williams (playing but ineffective) over the last month seems to explain why Herbert has been off in three of the last four games. This offense needs something more than all the short and intermediate passes to Keenan Allen.

Eagles at Broncos: Teddy’s Business Decision

In a week where we saw a kicker recover a fumble (Chris Boswell on Monday night) and a punter force a fumble on a kick return (Raiders vs. Chiefs), Teddy Bridgewater looked extra soft when he did this on a huge fumble that was returned for an 83-yard touchdown to end the third quarter and basically end the game for Denver in a 30-13 loss.

The effort was definitely lacking there. Even if he doesn’t forcibly tackle Slay to the ground, he could have at least got in his path more to slow him down or make him cut. This looked really bad, and I guess the fault starts with Melvin Gordon for fumbling in the first place, but I think some quarterbacks would have done a better job here. Also, Jalen Hurts had a very respectable game and the Eagles showed they can be an effective, balanced offense.

Bills and Cowboys Rebound

My gambling woes in Week 9 were marked heavily by the failures of the Bills and Cowboys to find the end zone. Buffalo never got there against Jacksonville while Dallas was down 30-0 before some garbage-time scores against Denver. On Sunday, both got in the end zone not even four whole minutes into their games and continued to pile it on in easy, blowout wins over the Jets and Falcons.

Mike White being a four-pick disaster – also known as a New York Jets quarterback – was not that big of a surprise. Buffalo’s defense has been arguably more reliable than its offense this season, and they feasted on the inexperienced passer. But with the Falcons, I was really surprised that this wasn’t a competitive game and a high-scoring one. Maybe I’m thinking too much about the 40-39 stunner they played a year ago, but I never expected 43-3 with Matt Ryan passing for 117 yards. That’s already the third time in nine games where Arthur Smith has lost by 23+ points. It happened three times in six seasons when Dan Quinn was there. His defense only giving up a field goal to his old team had to feel good, but now we’ll see where the Cowboys are when they go into Kansas City next week.

Jaguars at Colts: Trevor Fumbles His Peyton Moment

Colts fans, can you recall what happened on November 15, 1998? No. 1 pick Peyton Manning was down 23-17 against the New York Jets before leading the first game-winning drive of his career, throwing a 14-yard touchdown to Marcus Pollard in the final 30 seconds in a 24-23 win. It would be the first of many memorable wins in crunch time for Manning.

Almost 23 years later to the date, Jacksonville’s No. 1 pick Trevor Lawrence found himself in a similar spot, down 23-17 to the Colts, largely thanks to the ineffectiveness of Indy’s current QB (Carson Wentz). Lawrence and the Jags had a chance to steal one from the Colts, who have blown as many games as any team this season. But after getting into Indy territory, Lawrence suffered a strip-sack, the only true turnover of the game. Just another tough loss for a team trying to turn things around.

Next week: Can Cowboys-Chiefs be the classic shootout it should be? Can Peyton and Eli take unlimited shots at Brady and the Bucs when they host the Giants on Monday night? If the close game regression hits Week 11 like it did Week 8, just remember that Patriots-Falcons is the first game on Thursday night…

NFL Stat Oddity: Week 9

There are some NFL weeks with a lot of upsets. There are some weeks with multiple crazy finishes. There are some weeks with a lot of blowouts.

Then there’s Week 9 of the 2021 season, the type of week best summed up by this classic Vince Lombardi moment:

There were only six games with a comeback opportunity and four with a game-winning drive. But in a season where teams favored by more than seven points were 26-1 SU, those heavy favorites were 1-3 SU on Sunday. The Bills (-14.5) lost to the Jaguars of all teams, the Cowboys (-10) were getting blanked 30-0 by Denver before some garbage-time scores, and the Rams (-7.5) finished the day in appropriate fashion with a bad loss to the Titans.

You could say big favorites were due some losses this season, but three in one day? The last time that happened in a non-Week 17 slate was Week 9 of the 2011 season, and even that included a Monday night game (Dream Team Eagles vs. Bears). You have to go all the way back to Week 10 of the 2006 season to find the last time there were three such upsets in the same day.

Has there ever been a season where seemingly no team wants to embrace the role of being the favorite? Ditto for the MVP race after brutal games for Dak Prescott, Josh Allen, and the should-have-been-frontrunner Matthew Stafford. Even Kyler Murray lost some luster after seeing backup Colt McCoy handle the 49ers without DeAndre Hopkins, and Aaron Rodgers, well, his self-imposed absence will probably screw the Packers out of the No. 1 seed this year.

Of course, a day where most of the NFC’s top teams lose and the MVP candidates flounder helps no one more than Tom Brady and the Buccaneers. This league can’t go a week without doing everything it can to help him advance without breaking a sweat. That’s one thing about Week 9 that made sense.

This season in Stat Oddity:

Titans at Rams: Mike Vrabel Chopped Off His Penis and Paris Hilton Sucked the Soul Out of the Rams

(Congrats, you’re an NFL junkie if you understood that headline.)

While NBC’s Cris Collinsworth said that the Rams did not beat themselves on Sunday night, I’m not so sure about that one. Also, the incoming takes that the Titans don’t need Derrick Henry at all may also be very premature following a game that was almost solely decided by two Matthew Stafford interceptions – both of a fine Detroit vintage circa 2012 – turning into a quick 14 points. Even the best quarterbacks in MVP seasons can overcome that sort of swing as we saw last year with Aaron Rodgers in Tampa Bay in Week 6.

Stafford just so happened to pick his worst night for the Rams in an island game where he should have been able to take a clear lead in the MVP race. Pressure got to him, and he made a bad play (probable safety) a worse one by forcing a throw for the first pick that was returned to the 2-yard line. Then he followed it up with a worse throw for a pick-six. The Titans’ pass rush looked incredible, and it really covered up for an offense that did very little outside of two drives.

The Titans finished the game with just 194 yards of offense. Had it not been for Stafford’s touchdown drive in pure garbage time to make it a 28-16 final, the Titans would have had a rare three-score blowout win despite failing to break 200 yards. However, they still had the rare 12+ point win despite not breaking 200 yards, though it’s the second time Stafford has done that in his career.

Mike Vrabel improves to 13-2 ATS and an incredible 12-3 SU as head coach of the Titans when his team is an underdog of 4+ points. Being the underdog works for this team, a team that arguably has more big wins in the last four seasons than any franchise that has not gone to the Super Bowl in that time.

Now the Titans are chugging along at 7-2 after a winning streak over the Chiefs, Bills, Colts, and Rams. Had it not been for that garbage-time score, they would have held both the Chiefs and Rams out of the end zone for 60 minutes.

This is impressive stuff, and still, you wouldn’t be shocked if this team went 2-2 over the next four games against the Saints, Texans, Patriots, and Jaguars. The Titans are not going to keep beating good teams while failing to crack 3.0 yards per carry like they have in the last three games. Tennessee did not have a play from scrimmage longer than 16 yards against the Rams.

I see no reason to trust any team in the AFC this year. But can the Titans go on a run and play great defense and be physical with teams to win a few big games? Yeah, I think they have proven that enough now.

Can the Rams beat multiple good teams in succession with Stafford as their quarterback? From what we’ve seen so far this year, I don’t think so, and that was always the concern going into this experiment. The people who decided to take an early victory lap must not have been paying attention to the first eight weeks this season. No one is trustworthy or reliable this season to deliver on a weekly basis.

Vikings at Ravens: Par for the Course

I have nothing truly profound to say about yet another close finish that could have easily gone either way for the Vikings and Ravens this year. All I know is the Ravens are 4-1 in close finishes and the Vikings are now 2-5.

That makes the ending sound a bit predictable, but it was another difficult path to a 14-point comeback win for the Ravens. The type of big comeback win that has eluded this team for years seems to be coming every other week this season. The Vikings led 24-10 after returning the opening kickoff of the second half 98 yards for a touchdown. Big plays like that one and a 50-yard touchdown to Justin Jefferson are not the kind of plays we’re used to seeing Baltimore allow, but those are the signs that this team is struggling and becoming more reliant on the quarterback.

Lamar Jackson did not have a clean game with two picks, but he still finished with 266 passing yards and 120 rushing yards. Kirk Cousins had one of his standard days with solid efficiency stats and neither winning nor losing the game for his team. He came up big with a game-tying touchdown drive to force overtime, but the Vikings were stopped on their only overtime possession following a Jackson interception in scoring territory.

I was asked on Twitter how many times does a team turn the ball over in overtime and still go on to win the game? Baltimore fans know it’s happened more than once this season as the Raiders did it to the Ravens in Week 1 after Derek Carr’s interception was not capitalized on. Before that, it did not happen in 2020 and only happened once in 2019 when Russell Wilson threw an interception against the 49ers and still got the win. But you’re lucky if this happens once a season in the league.

But the Ravens were the better team and more deserving of the win in this one. They outgained the Vikings 500-318 in yards and 36-13 in first downs. The 36 first downs are a franchise record.

Would it have looked better if the Ravens stopped the Vikings on fourth-and-9 with 1:10 left and won 31-24 in regulation? Sure, but these Ravens are not as talented as past teams and things are harder this year. Living on the edge like this is not good for long-term success, but against teams like Minnesota that have mastered losing these games, it can work out for the Ravens.

Packers at Chiefs: Love Did Not Tear the Chiefs Apart

Jordan Love had only the second-worst performance by a Green Bay quarterback this season, but it was still not enough to take down a struggling Kansas City team as the Packers fell 13-7. The Chiefs, held scoreless in a second half for only the second time in the Patrick Mahomes era, definitely caught a break with Aaron Rodgers being a bad liar, because this probably would have been a Green Bay win with their starting quarterback. The Packers botched two field goals and a fourth down in the first half alone.

I think there is hyperbole about how bad Love was, but his inexperience shined through. The Chiefs were able to relentlessly blitz him with a lot of success, especially on third downs. They wouldn’t play that way against Rodgers or someone with experience. It was just one game, but I do at least sense some escapability from Love and he might have some gunslinger in him. He’s going to give his receivers a chance, but it could end in picks against a better defense.

Still, it’s a good thing the Chiefs went back to their 2020 four-minute offense and put this game away or else this was begging to be the worst 13-0 lead turned 14-13 collapse since Santana Moss met the 2005 Cowboys. Mahomes had another candidate for the worst game of his career as his 166 passing yards are the fewest of any full game in his career. The 4.49 yards per attempt is also his first career game under 5.0 YPA. Outside of a bad Mecole Hardman drop on a third-and-1, Mahomes was a huge reason for the offense not playing well in this game and that’s despite the Chiefs finally not having any giveaways.

But Mahomes was able to throw for three first downs, including a vintage extended play to Tyreek Hill to ice the game on third-and-10, to run out the final 4:49 on the clock after the Packers cut into the 13-0 lead with a touchdown.

The Chiefs (5-4) can celebrate the win, and the defense can feel good about their performance as we have seen plenty of inexperienced quarterbacks light it up better than this in the past. But the offense is in a five-game slump now and I’m not sure what it’s going to take to snap out of it, or if they will snap out of it.

Broncos at Cowboys: WTF?

Dallas was on a short list of teams to start 7-0 ATS while the Broncos tend to only beat up on bad teams and lose to the good ones, a hallmark of Teddy Bridgewater’s career. But this was a domination that makes the 30-16 final such a mirage.

Dak Prescott returned from his calf injury, and as far as I could tell, he looked healthy enough to be playing on Sunday. But was this the worst game of his career as far as moving the ball goes? The Cowboys turned the ball over on downs on three of their first six possessions. They were down 30-0 with 6:32 to play and Prescott barely had 100 passing yards at that point.

Fans tend to do a bad job of defining garbage time. Like what the Jets were doing against the Colts on Thursday night, that was never garbage time. They were still in that game and just needed to finish their scoring drive and get an onside kick to tie the game with another score. But for Dallas, the two late touchdown drives were pure garbage time. At that point I would have sat the stars who have been ailing in recent weeks and finished the game with Cooper Rush, Tony Pollard, and the likes of Cedrick Wilson and Malik Turner at receiver.

Dallas never had it on either side of the ball, and it was apparent from the opening possession when Ezekiel Elliott was stuffed on a fourth-and-1. You knew it wasn’t Dallas’ day when a blocked punt went forward and the Broncos ended up recovering after it touched a Dallas player, making it a live ball and a muff.

We knew the Dallas defense could be a liability when the turnover well ran dry as it did in this game, but who could have imagined the offense would play so poorly with Dak back? A good win for Denver, but an alarming performance for Mike McCarthy and the Cowboys.

Bills at Jaguars: WTF? The Sequel

Josh Allen won the game for Jacksonville. Josh Allen lost the game for Buffalo. The fact that I’m talking about two different players makes this one of the more amusing upsets in NFL history.

It also appears to be a historic one. The Bills lost 9-6 in Jacksonville despite being a 14.5-point favorite. There is no game in Pro Football Reference’s database where a favorite of that many points lost a game in which it allowed fewer than 10 points. The closest was when John Elway’s 1986 Broncos, who still made the Super Bowl, lost 9-3 as a 13.5-point favorite to the Chargers. That was almost 35 years to the date.

The last double-digit favorite to lose a 9-6 kind of game was actually the 2018 Jaguars early in the season to the Titans. This is arguably Jacksonville’s biggest win since that 2017 playoff run.

So much of it was thanks to the splash plays made by Jacksonville’s Josh Allen, the No. 7 pick in the 2019 draft that we’ve forgotten about since he plays in Jacksonville. But in this game, Allen recorded the first fumble recovery and first interception of his career. As if he has been waiting for this moment against his namesake. The Jaguars put a lot of effective pressure on Allen as the Bills only ran the ball nine times for 22 yards. Cole Beasley caught eight short passes for 33 yards. The Bills were scoreless on their final seven drives, turning it over three times and ending the game with a failed fourth down.

Buffalo is the first team since the 2019 Redskins (9-0 against San Francisco on a soaked field) to lose a game after allowing fewer than 10 points.

The Bills were gifted such a soft schedule that you have to wonder what kind of pact the AFC East made with the league for this sort of luck year after year. But the difference between those Patriots teams with Bill Belichick and Tom Brady and these Buffalo teams with Sean McDermott and Josh Allen is that the Patriots still delivered year after year. They still had to win those games time and time again. If the Bills can lose a 9-6 game in Jacksonville, then nothing is a given on their schedule.

It’s not like there weren’t some worrying flaws with this team before this week. I used this space last week to talk about a good half vs. a good game as the Bills sleepwalked for 30 minutes against awful Miami before a misleading final box score. I said during the week that it made no sense why Allen was the MVP favorite at +200. I know Dawson Knox is out at tight end, but the wide receiver corps is more than deep enough to move the ball well against a Jacksonville team that couldn’t even compete with Geno Smith and the Seahawks last week.

This is a brutal loss for Buffalo. We’ll see if it’s a wake-up call as there will be plenty of games where the Bills will be heavily favored the rest of the season.

Falcons at Saints: The Atlanta Sports Renaissance?

Very similar to the Miami win this year, the Falcons flirted with another fourth-quarter disaster that Matt Ryan and the offense rescued with a game-winning field goal drive. The Falcons were up 24-6 with 10:39 to play, but that did not stop the Saints from scoring three touchdowns to take a 25-24 lead with 1:01 left.

However, you better come prepared with a great two-point conversion play for every game in this league. You never know when it can decide a game as it did here. When a team scores a late touchdown to take a one-point lead, that two-point conversion becomes absolutely crucial. The Saints ran Alvin Kamara and were stopped, keeping the score at 25-24. Ryan is the king of one-minute drills, and he technically just missed out on a sixth in his career with the drive starting at 1:01. But he hit Cordarrelle Patterson, who has turned into a fascinating all-around weapon this year in Atlanta, for a 64-yard gain to start the drive. Younghoe Koo put away the Saints with a 29-yard field goal for the 27-25 win.

Despite not having Calvin Ridley and the running game producing 26 yards on 20 carries, Ryan passed for 343 yards and had three total touchdowns in the win. He has been playing very well after a slow start to the new offense and life without Julio Jones.

Attention will go to New Orleans’ difficult quarterback situation with Trevor Siemian having to take over for Jameis Winston (torn ACL). Do they stick with Siemian or go back to Taysom Hill as the starter? I think the defense needs to take more of the blame for this one. Ryan hit four passes of 34-plus yards on Sunday.

There is no such thing as a normal Saints game in 2021, but it was pretty interesting to see the Falcons dominate this game, nearly choke it away, and still come away with a win in the end. That wouldn’t have happened in past years.

Hurry-Up Finish

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

Cardinals at 49ers: 2021 49ers Gone Fishin’

It should have been a golden opportunity for San Francisco (3-5) to get back to .500 before playing the Rams next week. For really the first time all season, the 49ers had the passing offense they should have thrived with on paper with Jimmy Garoppolo throwing to Deebo Samuel, George Kittle, and Brandon Aiyuk. Unfortunately, those players had three turnovers and the 49ers finished with just 17 points in a humiliating 31-17 defeat.

Arizona did not have Kyler Murray, DeAndre Hopkins, or A.J. Green on offense, but that did not stop Colt McCoy from completing 22-of-26 passes for 249 yards or James Conner from scoring three touchdowns. The Cardinals led this one wire-to-wire, and this was a 49ers defense that had given them problems in the last two matchups.

At what point can we all admit that Kyle Shanahan is not a good head coach? He punted on a 4th-and-13 at the Arizona 39 while trailing by 17 points in the fourth quarter. Is he saving his brilliant play design for Trey Lance in that situation? At this point, Shanahan will be lucky if he gets to hang around for the Lance era as it looks like another failed season in San Francisco. Props to Arizona for coming prepared without several of its best players.

Browns at Bengals: One-Sided Battle of Ohio

Maybe the Browns can bring Odell Beckham Jr. back and cut him again before their next game? I don’t know if anything was really gained from that this week, but the Browns did look focused and ready for this one. It started going off the rails for Cincinnati on the opening drive after Joe Burrow threw a 99-yard pick-six to Denzel Ward. Burrow has had several huge picks this year in losses. This was the first game of the season where he failed to throw a touchdown as the Bengals never seriously threatened in the second half.

Baker Mayfield took advantage of the Cincinnati turnovers and the big plays, including a 70-yard touchdown run by Nick Chubb, to lead an easy 41-16 win. I’d be very cautious to make any definitive statements about either team, but I do think we were too quick to prop up the Bengals without taking a deeper look at the loss to Chicago or the struggle with Jacksonville.

Patriots at Panthers: Look Who Is Back in the Playoff Picture

The Patriots (5-4) are above .500 for the first time this season and currently rank seventh in the AFC. Getting to play Sam Darnold (three interceptions, including a pick-six) was like getting a third Jets game, so the Patriots cannot count on that cheat code anymore this season. But it was another workmanlike performance in getting an easy win that should give the team some confidence going into tougher stretches.

Chargers at Eagles: The 7-on-7 Defense

Add another 4QC/GWD to the 2021 Chargers’ total to bring it to four. The Chargers finished off the Eagles in the fourth quarter despite allowing a game-tying touchdown drive and having to convert a pair of fourth downs on the game-winning field goal drive. But the Chargers were paced all day by Justin Herbert completing 32 of his 38 passes. Herbert has been deadly accurate this year, but this was already the fifth game where the 2021 Eagles allowed at least 80% completions. That is two more games than the old NFL record (min. 20 attempts) and we still have half a season to go. Playing this defense is like playing 7-on-7 in practice.

Raiders at Giants: No Penalty, No Comeback

What did I say earlier this season? If Derek Carr isn’t getting game-altering penalties on crucial downs in the fourth quarter, he isn’t good at fourth-quarter comebacks. The Giants were not penalized in the fourth quarter and Carr stunk up the joint with a pick and a game-sealing fumble in the red zone while trailing 23-16. Kicker Daniel Carlson also reminded people of his Minnesota roots by missing a 25-yard field goal while the Raiders trailed 20-16. This was a bad performance after another bad off-the-field week for the Raiders with the release of Henry Ruggs. They signed DeSean Jackson, but I would sooner pick this team to finish last in the AFC West than to finish first.

Guess who gets the Chiefs next. That’s the Sunday night game in Week 10, which might be the only hope for a good island game in this slate.

Next week: Can the Steelers avoid handing the Lions their first win of the season, and is it really a revenge game for Dan Quinn against the Falcons when he has himself to blame for being in Dallas right now?

NFL Stat Oddity: Week 8

After two weeks of blowouts, we saw the return of competitive games in Week 8. There were 10 games with a comeback opportunity through Sunday, and the week set season highs with seven comeback wins and eight game-winning drives.

Technically, seven game-winning drives and an eighth game-winning score in the Patriots-Chargers game, because of course the Chargers would be adding to their BINGO card against New England on Halloween.

You know it’s a weird week when Mike White, Trevor Siemian, and Cooper Rush had 4QC/GWDs.

The weekly rise and fall of teams in the AFC this year is unlike anything I’ve ever seen before. I’ve always felt like I know this conference well, but I have never been so confused with it as I am this year.

Meanwhile, if we add the Saints to the big six in the NFC, that puts Green Bay (7-1), Arizona (7-1), Dallas (6-1), Tampa Bay (6-2), LA Rams (7-1), and New Orleans (5-2) at a combined 38-8 this season. Six of the eight losses are to each other with only the Saints, the worst team of the bunch, losing elsewhere to the Panthers and Giants.

This season in Stat Oddity:

Buccaneers at Saints: Is Brady Saving His Luck for the Playoffs Again?

I am going to be forever mad with the Packers and Saints for legitimizing this Tampa Bay team. Had it not been for Aaron Rodgers’ meltdown in Week 6 last year and the fumbles by Jared Cook and Aaron Jones in the playoffs, this Tampa Bay team goes down as a fraudulent underachiever that pads its stats against lousy competition and falters in almost every big game it plays.

In the 2020 regular season, Tampa Bay was 1-5 against playoff teams, only beating Green Bay 38-10 after Rodgers basically threw pick-sixes on consecutive drives and fell apart. But that’s it; a single win over a playoff team. Even the 2020 Jets beat the Rams and Browns. Hell, the 2021 Jets are likely to have at least two wins over playoff teams already (Titans and Bengals). Meanwhile, the 2021 Bucs needed a last-second field goal to beat Dallas, lost 34-24 in Los Angeles, and now lost 36-27 in New Orleans to Trevor Siemian at quarterback after Jameis Winston likely tore his ACL.

I don’t know if the Saints (5-2) are headed for the playoffs without a quarterback right now, but I know it’s the second year in a row when a big win over Tampa Bay could be a pyrrhic victory. It was in last year’s 38-3 demolition where Drew Brees initially suffered his broken ribs against Tampa’s defense that led to a collapsed lung. He was never the same again.

Sean Payton’s Saints are now 3-1 against Tampa Bay since Tom Brady joined them last season. In the three wins, they forced Brady into multiple turnovers, including three on Sunday. But in the playoff loss last January, it was three interceptions by Brees and a very crucial fumble by Jared Cook in the third quarter that turned that game around for Tampa, putting the Bucs on a timeline towards that Super Bowl win instead of a second-round exit.

You know what else happened in that playoff game? The Saints dropped multiple Brady interceptions. He was still playing poorly against them in that game, but they couldn’t capitalize. Instead, he got to start three touchdown drives inside the 40 thanks to New Orleans’ turnovers. Go figure, his luck was at its greatest in the playoff matchup.

On Sunday, he had his best game yet against the Saints in four tries with the Bucs, but it was still a sloppy one. The Saints crucially avoided turning the ball over in this game, though they did turn it over on downs to start the game. Naturally, Brady turned that 44-yard field into a touchdown drive. But when he had to start every other drive at his 25 or worse in the first half, the Bucs were scoreless, and the Saints were up 23-7 a drive into the second half.

While the comeback still felt inevitable with Siemian in the game, the defense got a stop thanks to a holding penalty on the Bucs that ruined their drive to start the fourth quarter. The offense then used a couple of penalties on Tampa Bay’s defense to get a field goal and 26-21 lead. Tampa Bay had 11 penalties for 99 yards.

But then the bad Saints defense struck. Cyril Grayson (who?) was left all alone for a 50-yard touchdown pass from Brady with 5:44 left. I know in 2018 Brady had the record over the last three seasons for the most wide-open completion to Chris Hogan against Pittsburgh, but this one is a contender for that title. No one was even close to Grayson. Fortunately, the defense rebounded to stop the two-point conversion and Tampa Bay led 27-26 instead of 29-26.

Siemian did just enough on a go-ahead field goal drive. The Bucs reportedly had a historically bad day at getting pressure on the blitz. They had 22 blitzes and zero pressures on them in this game.

Payton seemed to outsmart himself by calling early-down passes from the Tampa Bay 9. Siemian threw two incompletions, stopping the clock and saving timeouts for the opponent. In the end, Brady just needed a field goal and had 101 seconds and a timeout to set it up.

That seems almost too predictable/inevitable. You can already envision the couple of dump passes over the middle to the running back, followed by a sideline route to Chris Godwin or Mike Evans, the latter who actually beat Marshon Lattimore for a long touchdown on the day. Just like that, field-goal range.

But every once in a while, Brady gets greedy and screws this up. He came out trying to throw deep to Evans, resulting in a long incompletion. Then he got a little greedy with one to Godwin that was intercepted by P.J. Williams and returned 40 yards for a pick-six that probably should have been a dive to run out the clock. But when you get a chance to pick-six Brady in that situation, it’s hard to pass up.

Brady then took two sacks for a four-and-out to end things. The Saints have managed to beat Rodgers and Brady this year while losing to Sam Darnold and Daniel Jones. The division is still very much in play, but it’s going to be hard after Winston’s injury looks severe.

So, I’m not sure we learned a whole lot about either team, but one thing that stands out is that Tampa Bay tends to come up small in these games. Of course, the only games on the remaining schedule that look like this are at home in Weeks 14-15 against the Bills and Saints. This team is still going at least 13-4, but another regular season with just one win against a playoff team is also a good possibility at this point.

Are you still willing to bet on someone else in the NFC to beat them in January? I’m not there yet.

Titans at Colts: Wentz Wagon Crashes Again

In what could be the closest thing that Carson Wentz gets to a playoff game in Indianapolis, the Colts came up short in overtime to the rival Titans to fall to 3-5. Derrick Henry (28 carries, 68 yards) was stopped on the ground for the second week in a row, Ryan Tannehill threw an early interception that led to a 7-yard touchdown drive, the Titans had one play that gained more than 14 yards, and the Colts were up 14-0. Yet, it was still not enough to prevent the Titans from sweeping the Colts for only the third time since 2002 as they did in 2002 and 2017.

Part of what made the Colts so successful on offense in the last month was the reemergence of running back Jonathan Taylor. He only had 16 carries for 70 yards in this one. The Colts went pass-happy, but Wentz completed 27-of-51 passes for 231 yards with three touchdowns and two costly picks late in the game. That makes Wentz the 17th quarterback since 1950 to throw more than 50 passes in a game and not throw for 240 yards in the process. Those quarterbacks are now 1-16 in those games with only Donovan McNabb getting a fortunate win for the 2000 Eagles in Pittsburgh.

The longest “plays” of the day for the Colts were defensive pass interference penalties worth 41 and 42 yards. One set up Taylor for a game-tying touchdown with 22 seconds left to force overtime. But the Colts shouldn’t have been in that situation. They got there because an ill-advised screen pass on first down at their own 8 was attempted by Wentz, who threw a pick-six with 1:26 left to fall behind 31-24. While he got the game to overtime, Wentz could only get one first down on two drives in the extra period after throwing a second interception. That set up the Titans on a short field, which they used to drive a total of 5 yards before kicking the game-winning field goal.

This is already the fifth lead of more than 10 points that the Colts have blown under head coach Frank Reich. Worse, the Colts have blown leads of 17 points (at Pittsburgh), 19 points (at Baltimore), and now 14 points on Sunday in just their last 11 games.

Three blown leads of 14+ points in 11 games? The Colts had two such blown leads in all of the 2002-2011 seasons under Tony Dungy and Jim Caldwell combined. Not having Prime Peyton Manning certainly makes a difference, but the Colts blew their share of big leads under Manning during the Jim Mora years (1998-2001). At some point, the coach takes the brunt of the blame there when the team continues to collapse.

The Colts continue to collapse under Reich, and now they are 12th in the conference. As much as I would like to say this is all about Wentz, it’s clearly not. But the Colts have two young playmakers proving their worth in Taylor and Michael Pittman, and I don’t think Reich is getting the most out of this offense with them and Wentz.

This team should be better than 3-5 right now.

Bengals at Jets: The Mike White Lotus

You might think a Sunday where Brady and Wentz threw pick-sixes in late losses would energize me, but I was already bummed out from earlier events. In the latest adventures of me getting screwed out of over $10,000 in one weekend, the top-seeded Bengals choked in epic fashion against the Jets.

I knew something was fishy when the Jets opened the game with a 75-yard touchdown drive, which is almost unheard of for this offense in the first quarter. I knew I should have been worried when Mike White was on pace for 46 completions at halftime despite him making his first start, and, well for being Mike White. I should have realized that Joe Mixon getting repeatedly stuffed on the ground was a bad sign for the Bengals, a team that has already lost to the Bears and struggled with the Jaguars, putting this one away.

But when Joe Burrow threw a touchdown to Tyler Boyd and the Bengals led 31-20 with 7:29 left, I stopped paying attention. I thought it was in the bag. But White continued to move the offense with passes, and the Jets were back in the end zone. Then Burrow threw an interception on the next play and the Jets were 14 yards away from the lead. They got it, the Bengals promptly punted, and Cincinnati never saw the ball again thanks to a weak call for unnecessary roughness after the Bengals looked to get a stop on third-and-11. Game over.

With my luck and how much I had riding on the Bengals winning, this could just be the one-game outlier of the season right here. White probably isn’t that superior to Zach Wilson, though it could be a long time (if not eternity) for Wilson to have a game as good as 37-of-45 for 405 yards in this league. It’s not like the Bengals came in playing terrible pass defense this year. It’s not like White was hitting fluke plays to incredible talent. None of his receivers hit 100 yards, and arguably the most talented one (Corey Davis) on the roster was inactive.

The Jets had 32 first downs, their most in a game since 1988. The Jets had 511 yards of offense, only their third 500-yard game since 2001. The Bengals only had that one turnover, but it was a costly one.

Extra costly for me, the sad sack who trusted the Bengals to pay his bills this month. The moral of the story: don’t trust anyone in the AFC this year unless maybe if they’re playing Houston. Otherwise, just don’t.

Cowboys at Vikings: What a Rush…

There is just something so fitting about the Kirk Cousins-led Vikings losing to the Cooper Rush-led Cowboys with Rush nearly doubling up Cousins in passing yards (325-184) in his first start.

Dallas coach Mike McCarthy has gotten some big performances and crazy comeback wins out of his backups (Matt Flynn and Brett Hundley) when he was in Green Bay. He’s done it again with Rush having to start for Dak Prescott (calf). The offense definitely missed Prescott in what should have been an easier win, but Rush did just enough to get the Cowboys over the hump. Amari Cooper bailed him out with a crazy 33-yard catch after a fortunate bounce, then Minnesota coach Mike Zimmer helped with five free yards on third-and-long after trying to call timeout twice in a row. That led to a 3rd-and-11 where Rush checked down to Ezekiel Elliott, who made an incredible play to knife through multiple defenders for a 15-yard gain and the first down. One of the best YAC plays I’ve ever seen in a crucial situation. On the next play, Rush went back to Cooper for the game-winning touchdown with 51 seconds left.

The Vikings could not move the ball after getting one first down on their ensuing drive. The offense never found the end zone after the opening drive, and even the go-ahead field goal drive in the fourth quarter was carried by three shady personal foul penalties on Dallas.

Minnesota (3-4) has been right there with the likes of the Bengals, Cardinals, and now Cowboys. But in typical Minnesota fashion, they know how to come out on the wrong side of these close ones. Now with the Ravens, Chargers, and Packers up next, this team can likely kiss the playoffs goodbye this season.

Patriots at Chargers: New England Always Tricks the Chargers

You just had to know a Patriots-Chargers game on Halloween would involve some weird plays and utter misery for the Chargers. That’s their history against this team in the Bill Belichick era. Apparently, Belichick can still confuse the hell out of a gifted, young passer:

Justin Herbert had the worst game of his career in last year’s 45-0 loss to the Patriots. On Sunday, he was in the ballpark again. Herbert exacerbated his struggles with a pass to Jared Cook in the fourth quarter that the receiver never saw and it was intercepted for a touchdown. That plus the two-point conversion took the Patriots from a 17-16 deficit to a 24-17 lead, making it the first non-offensive comeback win of the season in the NFL.

Herbert was not able to respond with the offense until they fell behind 27-17 with 2:12 left. At that point, Herbert added 80 yards and a touchdown pass to his totals, but the damage was already done. It was another rough game for Brandon Staley’s Chargers, who have quickly gone from 4-1 sensation to 4-3 disappointment.

Five of New England’s last six wins are against the Jets (three) and Chargers (two). He still owns those teams.

Steelers at Browns: Pittsburgh Sends Cleveland to Last Place

While nothing could make up for the embarrassing playoff loss the Steelers had to Cleveland in January, this was some decent revenge as the 15-10 win sent Cleveland down to ninth in the AFC and last place in the AFC North while the Steelers moved up to No. 6 in the conference.

This was a slugfest between teams who are not fond of one another. Baker Mayfield looked healthy, but his throws were sometimes off with his not-so-healthy receivers. Pittsburgh’s defense played very well despite this being the first time all season that the Browns had Mayfield, Nick Chubb, Jarvis Landry, and Odell Beckham together. At this point, Beckham looks washed up.

Not completely washed up: Ben Roethlisberger. It was far from a masterpiece, but he played well enough to lead the Steelers to 20 points on their first eight drives with the ninth being a run-out-the-clock drive. However, Mike Tomlin tried to sabotage that output with another ill-advised fake field goal in the second quarter that not only failed, but it led to kicker Chris Boswell getting knocked out with a concussion. That forced the Steelers to try multiple two-point conversions, but it did also lead to a fourth-down attempt for the game-winning touchdown instead of settling for three points. But Tomlin’s random aggressiveness remains problematic for this team. He would not go for a 4th-and-1 at midfield in a high-scoring playoff game against the Browns in January, but he thought going for this fake on 4th-and-9 at a time when the offense cannot be trusted to score a lot was a good idea? It’s inconsistent at best and incompetent at worst.

But the Steelers managed to overcome that with great defense and getting the tight ends more involved in the offense. Jarvis Landry fumbled Cleveland’s best chance at taking the late lead.

Roethlisberger walks out of Cleveland likely for the last time with his 40th fourth-quarter comeback win, joining Tom Brady (50) and Peyton Manning (45) as the only players with 40.

The Steelers (4-3) have won three in a row after being left for dead at 1-3. Their next two games are at home against the Bears and Lions. But in typical Steelers fashion, they’ll skate by the Bears on Monday night in a low-scoring game and lose to the 0-8 Lions in Week 10.

But the Steelers are not dead yet as much as the Browns especially wanted them to be. Cleveland (4-4) is suddenly the team in trouble, losing three of its last four games with the Bengals and Patriots next up on the road.

Dolphins at Bills: Good Halves vs. Good Games

When does a team play a good half as opposed to a good game? Buffalo’s 26-11 win over Miami makes a good case study. For starters, it’s shockingly the third 26-11 game in NFL history and not a scorigami. But it is a case where the Bills slept-walk through a half against a division rival they have crushed in recent meetings, including 35-0 in Week 2 this year.

On paper, this is going to look like a good win for the Bills. They covered the 14-point spread, and Josh Allen finished with over 300 total yards, three total touchdowns, and a 100.2 passer rating. Piece of cake, right?

But it really wasn’t. This 3-3 slog at halftime tied Pittsburgh-Cleveland, which was going on at the same time, for the lowest scoring first half in the NFL this season. The Bills were in a dogfight and could only muster a 57-yard field goal on their first five drives. Allen was called for a grounding penalty on a fourth down that threatened to allow Miami to drive for the lead at the half, but the Dolphins fumbled in the red zone.

But after a three-and-out to start the third quarter, the Bills looked like the Bills. They scored three touchdowns and a field goal on their last four drives, albeit the last touchdown was from 11 yards out after Tua was intercepted with 2:21 left. A matter of 21 fewer seconds and the Bills are kneeling out the clock in a 20-11 win.

Miami had its shot to really make this a game, trailing 17-11 and putting the Bills in a 3rd-and-11 situation. But that’s when Allen found Cole Beasley, the main receiver on the day, for a 20-yard gain that put the Bills into scoring range to open it up to a two-score margin.

Buffalo may still prove to be the team to beat in the AFC this year, but uneven performances like this one do not help advance that narrative.

Hurry-Up Finish

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

Panthers at Falcons: The Old Familiar Sting

Younghoe Koo has been a dependable kicker for the Falcons. Over the last two seasons, he is 49-of-52 on field goals. However, his last miss in 2020 was a 39-yard game tying kick to send the Chiefs to overtime. His first miss in 2021 was a 45-yard go-ahead field goal to start the fourth quarter against Carolina on Sunday. That’s not how you become known as one of the great ones. That’s preparing your resume for future kicker of the Minnesota Vikings. The Panthers then drove 65 yards for a touchdown and 19-10 lead that essentially wrapped things up, denying the Falcons a record above .500 this year. With road games against the Saints and Cowboys up next, that might be it for the competitive part of this Atlanta season.

Eagles at Lions: Philly Uses Lions for Fertilizer

This league can drive you nuts since sanity does not exist. How do the Lions push the Ravens, Vikings, and Rams to the brink of defeat and give a real scare to the 49ers, only to get destroyed 44-6 at home by the awful Eagles? It’s not like DeVonta Smith (one catch for 15 yards) went crazy with big plays. Dallas Goedert was the only Eagle with more than two catches or 18 receiving yards. They were getting shredded by Boston Scott and Jordan Howard (yes, the former Bear). The Lions didn’t even turn the ball over until the third quarter when it was already 31-0, and figures it had to be Darius Slay returning a fumble for a score against his former team. I guess the 0-8 Lions will have to wait until Week 10 in Pittsburgh to get their first win.

49ers at Bears: Run, Quarterback, Run

Jimmy Garoppolo went into Sunday’s game with three career rushing touchdowns and left with five, an unexpected outcome for sure. Not so unexpected: Deebo Samuel continuing to dominate. He had 171 yards for his third 150-yard game of the season. That makes him the 14th player since 1950 to have three 150-yard games by his team’s seventh game of the season. Antonio Brown (2017 Steelers) was the last player to do this.

While the Bears lost 33-22, it was encouraging for Justin Fields to use his legs more and rush for 103 yards and a touchdown. No surprise it helped the Bears to their best game on offense this season. They just have to finish better as the offense froze up after the 49ers took a 30-22 lead.

Jaguars at Seahawks: Urban Meyer Is Bad at This

The Jaguars were down 24-0 in Seattle before finally scoring a touchdown with 1:49 left. The only logical decision is to go for two no matter how unrealistic 8+8+8 is in this situation. What did head coach Urban Meyer do? He kicked the extra point, keeping it a three-possession game at 24-7. At that point, you’re not really trying to win anymore. So, why did he try the onside kick? Seattle was right to return that baby for a touchdown and 31-7 final. The Jaguars failed to have a play longer than 17 yards against what was once a Seattle defense on pace for the worst season ever in yards allowed.

Washington at Broncos: Protect the Damn Ball

One of my favorite bets in Week 8 was Denver (-3.5) to cover the spread against a lousy Washington team. This is what Teddy Bridgewater does in his career, and while he got the cover and the game-winning drive on Sunday, it was not easy. After Taylor Heinicke was intercepted in the end zone with 37 seconds left and Washington down 17-10, the game was not over due to the team having all three timeouts. That made it hard to justify going super conservative and taking three knees before punting the ball back with just over 20 seconds. Washington probably would have had decent field position too to set up a Hail Mary.

But what happened next almost justifies taking that safe route. The Broncos tried their hardest to blow the game. They ran Javonte Williams on first down and the rookie almost fumbled (not actually credited as one though). For some reason, they tried a pass to Williams on second down, and instead of sliding down to run the clock and make Washington burn a timeout, Bridgewater threw incomplete. On third down, veteran Melvin Gordon got the carry and Chase Young made him fumble. Just like that, Washington had life at the Denver 24 with 21 seconds left. Fortunately, the Washington offense fell apart in that range again and the Denver defense held on for the win.

But game management continues to be a big problem around the league.

Next week: Do we finally get Aaron Rodgers vs. Patrick Mahomes, and will it be memorable? The Chiefs probably first can’t let Daniel Jones throw for 400 yards on Monday night.

NFL Stat Oddity: Week 7

I knew we were in for a rough two weeks of NFL action, but I didn’t think it would be this bad. While Week 6 only featured five games with a comeback opportunity, at least it ended on a high note on Monday night between the Bills and Titans. But in Week 7, we’ve had just three of the 12 games feature a comeback opportunity. That’s eight games in two weeks after there were 11 close games in just Week 5.

That’s why announcers need to stop playing up the number of overtime games or this cutesy stat about a record number of games where the winning points were scored in the final minute – again, something directly correlated to the overtimes. This season is not giving us many close games and I have some theories below on why that is the case.

Going into Monday night, the average margin of victory in Week 7 is 18.6 points. That ranks as the third-highest week (regular season only) since 2001, only trailing Week 7 in 2009 (20.3) and Week 15 in 2012 (18.7). As long as Seahawks-Saints is decided by at least six points, it will stay as the third-highest week in the 21st century.

Without gambling, a lot of these games would be unwatchable. Hell, even with it I’m having a hard time.

This season in Stat Oddity:

Cardinals/Rams/Bucs: Big Favorites Win in Top-Heavy NFC Race

I wrote on Saturday how big favorites (11+ points) almost never all cover the spread. It happened again as the Cardinals hit scorigami with a 31-5 win over Houston and the Bears repeatedly gave Tampa Bay a shortcut to the end zone, but the Rams had a tight one with the Lions before finally winning 28-19 in one of the only two 4QC/GWD this week. Go figure, Matthew Stafford had his 40th game-winning drive against his former team.

Stafford had a nice revenge game but hats off to Dan Campbell for coaching the Lions the way a huge underdog should approach a David vs. Goliath matchup like this. He had a surprise onside kick and fake punt in the first quarter as Detroit led 10-0. Jared Goff had arguably his best game of the season, but in the end, Goff goofed in the red zone and threw an interception to Jalen Ramsey when he had a chance to throw a go-ahead touchdown.

It did not feel like the Cardinals brought their A-game against the Texans, but the fact that they still won 31-5 and got all their main weapons, including new tight end Zach Ertz, involved for touchdowns tells you just how bad Houston is. Huge game coming up Thursday against Green Bay. Kyler Murray took a lot of big hits in this game, but he should be okay for Thursday. It’ll be a great opportunity for the Cardinals to show how serious they are as Super Bowl contenders in a prime-time game with a chance to go 8-0.

Chicago basically TKO’d itself in the first quarter in Tampa Bay, spotting Tom Brady three possessions inside the 40 in the first quarter alone. Tampa Bay ended up starting six drives inside Chicago territory in the game. Half the league came into Week 7 without six such drives on the season. It was last season when the Buccaneers had a league-high 23 drives start inside the opponent 40 when you add in the six they had in the playoffs. Now they had five such drives in this game, scoring three touchdowns and a field goal on them. Teams have no shot if they’re going to keep gifting the Bucs these short fields. I’ll be surprised if Matt Nagy survives the season in Chicago.

But this does create a very interesting NFC where the Cardinals are 7-0, the Rams and Bucs are 6-1, and the Cowboys (on a bye) are 5-1. Those four teams have only lost to each other with the Cowboys losing to a late field goal in Tampa Bay, and the Bucs were blown out by the Rams, who were blown out by the Cardinals. The Packers are also 6-1 but we’ll see how they fare against Arizona this week and the Rams in Week 12.

Chiefs at Titans: STOP THE COUNT! Kansas City Is Dazed and Confused

Was that the worst game of Patrick Mahomes’ NFL career?

It was the question we asked after the Chiefs scored 17 points and barely beat the Falcons in Week 16 last year to clinch the No. 1 seed.

Was that the worst game of Patrick Mahomes’ NFL career?

It was the question we asked after the Chiefs lost 31-9 in Super Bowl 55 against Tampa Bay, the first time Mahomes lost by more than eight points and the offense failed to score a touchdown.

Was that the worst game of Patrick Mahomes’ NFL career?

It was the question we asked after the Chiefs lost 38-20 at home to the Bills in Week 5 with Mahomes having more turnover problems in the worst home loss of his career.

Was that the worst game of Patrick Mahomes’ NFL career?

It is the question of the day after the Chiefs lost 27-3 in Tennessee, the first wire-to-wire loss in Mahomes’ career, and the answer is undoubtedly yes. This is the lowest point of the Mahomes era in Kansas City. But can it get lower?

It is not a good sign that this question about the worst game has come up four times in the last 11 starts for Mahomes. But for the first time since Week 12 against Buffalo in 2017, the Chiefs failed to hold a lead in a game. That snaps a streak of 68 straight games with a lead. The only known streak longer than that in NFL history is the first 70 starts of the Russell Wilson era in Seattle.

Never losing wire-to-wire was about the last streak the Chiefs had left. While I picked the Titans to win on Sunday, I never expected a 27-0 score at halftime, or that the Chiefs would score the only points of the second half on a field goal. Stopping Derrick Henry (29 carries for 86 yards) was about the only thing the Chiefs did well, but that seemed to make them bad against everything else as Ryan Tannehill had plenty of open receivers and time to throw, and Henry even faked a run for a touchdown pass to start the game. The Titans just beat Buffalo with great offense, but it’s not like the defense was masterful outside of stopping a couple late Josh Allen runs. But three points to the Chiefs? Really?

Sacks and turnovers led the Chiefs to self-destruct in the first half. Mahomes had another tipped interception but also lost a fumble on a scramble at midfield. The Chiefs never really threatened in the second half, and Mahomes had to leave the game after getting sandwiched on a nasty hit (but not illegal or intentionally violent) to the face as he was going down. Mecole Hardman fumbling at the Tennessee 6 to end the game and ensure that the Chiefs would not score a touchdown and have another turnover to add to their league-high total was the perfect ending for this shitshow.

The Chiefs are 3-4, in real danger of missing the playoffs, and they don’t scare any contender in the AFC anymore after losing to the Ravens, Chargers, Bills, and Titans. Of course, that tough schedule is having a big impact on this poor start to the season. The Chiefs could potentially face 11 games against playoff teams this season, which (albeit with a 17th game added in 2021) would tie the single-season record by the 1993 Buccaneers.

I’ve compared Mahomes to Peyton Manning many times already, but one thing I have repeatedly noted is that the only two ways Manning ever missed the playoffs in his career (1998 and 2001) was to have a schedule with 10 playoff teams and the worst scoring defense in the NFL. Well, the 2021 Chiefs are looking an awful lot like the 2001 Colts right now with the terrible defense and having a ton of turnovers.

Those Colts finished 6-10 and fired head coach Jim Mora, who delivered his infamous “playoffs!?” speech that season. I don’t know if these Chiefs are headed for that fate, but I do know you can no longer trust this team against any decent opponent. The invincibility is gone. The mystique is gone.

Until further notice, the Chiefs are just another struggling NFL team that’s a one-unit show on a good day and a total mess on a bad day. Sunday was another bad day, and to think it was just last December when we used to say the Chiefs never had bad games under Mahomes.

Bengals at Ravens: Biggest Cincinnati Win in How Long?

You can make the argument that the Bengals just had their biggest win in over 30 years on Sunday in Baltimore. The Bengals have not won a playoff game since the 1990 season. From 1991-2020, the Bengals had just 17 wins against teams that made the playoffs in a season where Cincinnati also made the playoffs. Winning in Pittsburgh in December 2005 was a really big deal as it helped the Bengals win the AFC North that year, but you can absolutely make the argument that this 41-17 demolition of the Ravens in Baltimore tops that one.

At worst, it’s the second-biggest Cincinnati win in over 30 years.

Remember, the Ravens were 5-1 and just got a ton of hype for beating the Chargers 34-6 a week ago. You know, last week’s hyped AFC team as this thing changes every week now.

For three quarters, this was living up to being the game of the week on paper (garbage week withstanding). Both quarterbacks were dealing with good pressure before they started to make plays down the field in a back-and-forth affair. But once Ja’Marr Chase took off for an 82-yard touchdown to highlight his monster 201-yard day, the Bengals led by double digits for the final 20 minutes.

While a much different game script, this performance from Joe Burrow (career-high 416 yards) and the offense reminds me of this 2004 game by Carson Palmer against Baltimore when he threw for 382 yards and the light seemed to click for him late in his first season as a starter. Burrow and Chase look like they have been doing this for much longer than they have, and that’s even acknowledging their one magical year together at LSU. This is one of the top duos to watch right now.

As for the Ravens, the injuries have clearly not helped this season. The defense cannot be trusted like it used to be, though I thought the Chargers performance was encouraging on that front. They went backwards this week. Still, part of me wonders if the increase in blowouts this season has something to do with the record number of fourth-down attempts we are seeing.

The Ravens were down 27-17 in the fourth quarter with 11:43 to play. They faced a 4th-and-7 at their own 38. In past years, this would almost certainly be a punt. Pin them deep, get the ball back in a few minutes down 10 and go from there. But the Ravens went for it and didn’t get it. It’s not a terrible call since giving up the field goal does not change much, but giving up a 38-yard touchdown drive to an offense that was hot basically ended the game with just over nine minutes left. I feel that in past years, John Harbaugh punts that ball and gets it back 27-17 later. But not these Ravens.

Baltimore then failed on a 4th-and-15 from their own 33, setting up another short field for the Bengals to add yet another touchdown to produce the 41-17 final. The game was closer than that score suggests, but these failed fourth downs really sparked the rout this became. I cannot say if that is happening at the league-wide level more than usual this year, but I felt the risky fourth downs deep in their own end is what sunk the Chargers so quickly (34-6) in Baltimore a week ago.

It is something to keep in mind this season as we see teams winning by huge margins quite regularly now. But I will be careful in anointing the Bengals as the team to beat in the AFC. I don’t think such a thing exists right now. These Bengals struggled like hell with the Jaguars during their 20-game losing streak just three weeks ago.

I think it’s just proof that the AFC is up for grabs, and it will not run through Kansas City like it has the last three seasons as hosts of the AFC Championship Game. And competition is a very good thing for this league. You want to see the Bengals’ fortune change after a couple smart picks at the top of the draft from LSU.

As I said in the beginning, this franchise has almost no huge wins in the last three decades. I’m okay with Cincinnati fans wanting to celebrate the hell out of this one. They just have to lose to the Jets next week and the Bizarro AFC is back on track in 2021. The days of one team dominating are over.

Hurry-Up Finish

Some quick thoughts as I have more articles to write before I get to sleep.

Washington Meets Cruel Regression

Coming into Week 7, offenses were 15-for-15 at scoring touchdowns on the Packers in the red zone. Obviously, the Packers were going to get some red-zone stops eventually this season. But the comedy of errors that led to Washington going 0-for-4 in the red zone was too much. The highlight was Taylor Heinicke doing a Lambeau Leap, since of course he idolized Brett Favre, only for the drive to end in no points after he was ruled to give himself up short of the end zone (stupid rule), and then fumbled at the goal line and was stopped short again on fourth down. Washington was a respectable 10-of-16 in the red zone this year coming into the game, but what a disastrous outing in a 24-10 loss that should have been much closer.

The Jets Backup Is the Creator of The White Lotus?

I’m not sure how the Jets came into this season with Mike White as the backup behind rookie Zach Wilson, but that was another mistake for a team that somehow remains the worst in the NFL despite getting rid of Adam Gase and Sam Darnold (a pumpkin in his own right who was benched on Sunday). The Patriots toyed with the Jets on their way to scoring 54 points (seven touchdowns and two field goals on 10 drives). Three players threw a pass, six players registered a rush, and 11 players caught a pass.

Defund the Eagles

Philly really let Derek Carr complete 31-of-34 passes with Darren Waller inactive. The Eagles might be the worst team in the NFC East. I’m still not buying the Raiders until I see them come out of this upcoming stretch (KC/CIN/DAL) with a good record intact.

Atlanta Almost Did It Again

You know it’s a weird week when the Falcons had one of the only two fourth-quarter comeback wins. Of course, it came after the team blew a 13-point lead that never should have been a 13-point lead. Someone needs to teach Arthur Smith that you go for two when up 12 in the fourth quarter. That extra point and 13-point lead kept the door open for Miami, but fortunately Matt Ryan was on point to Kyle Pitts (163 yards) and came through with a game-winning drive.

Wentz Wagon Rebuilding

As soon as I paid Carson Wentz a compliment on Twitter, he tried to throw four interceptions in the next 25 minutes. But the rain made it extra tough on the 49ers and Colts on Sunday night, and he made enough plays to get the win. It’s still the best month of his career and not one of his overrated three-or-four game stretches like the beginning of his career, the end of the 2019 season, or any of his best runs in 2017. Frank Reich’s offense is working out for him, and you just wonder if the Colts dug too big of a hole at 0-3 for it to matter this season.

Next week: Island games that look good or will they be mirages too? Can we at least get some more competitive, close games?

NFL Stat Oddity: Week 3

What a Sunday in the NFL for record-long field goal attempts, but there is only one Justin Tucker. You know some games were real shit when you lead with that, but we haven’t seen a ton of close finishes in 2021. Only 22 of the first 47 games have had a fourth-quarter comeback opportunity, including six on Sunday. That is down from 29 games through Week 3 of the 2020 season.

Did favorites have a better week? Not really as 6-9 ATS makes it 17-30 ATS (.362) through Week 3. Home teams were 7-8 SU too, so another losing record there as we watch home-field advantage disintegrate even with the return of crowds.

Maybe we are just having a real “changing of the guard” season after the four teams with the best records in the period of 2013-2020 are all 1-2 right now (Patriots, Chiefs, Seahawks, and Steelers). The Colts have slipped into the basement of the 0-3 teams with the Giants, Jets, Jaguars, and Lions. But don’t worry, Sunday’s Game of the Week should give Jim Irsay the courage to raise another banner.

This season in Stat Oddity:

Buccaneers at Rams: Stafford Delivers in Biggest Game of Career (Take One)

The reverse psychologist in me was hoping that Matthew Stafford and the Rams would take this big opportunity at home against Tom Brady and the Buccaneers to clinch the biggest win for any team in September. I think they did that with a 34-24 win that was not as close as the final score suggests as Stafford threw four touchdowns in a wire-to-wire win while Brady had a hollow 432-yard day. Brady is now 4-17 when his team allows 33-39 points, his least impressive range of high-scoring games, or the one where luck isn’t on his side for a change.

Unless Stafford is so unlucky that the Buccaneers slip to a losing record and this game doesn’t improve on his 8-68 record against winning teams, then this is the biggest win of his career to date. It’s the first time he will have beaten a winning team (I assume) by throwing four touchdowns. It’s the first time he will have beaten a winning team (I assume) by throwing for 300 yards without a giveaway.

In fact, this was a weird game in that it had zero turnovers and started with five punts as both teams looked a little nervous. But once the Rams settled down, they got into some fine play designs, Stafford was unstoppable on third down, Cooper Kupp is Cole Beasley if he turned face and had more talent, and DeSean Jackson went old-school with a 75-yard touchdown and making us nervous by slowly crossing the goal line. Neither team could run the ball, and you know that’s a fact when Brady (14 yards) led Tampa Bay in rushing. The Rams added some numbers in the second half with the lead, but the ground game was not the story here.

The fact is for a hyped-up game, there weren’t that many pivotal moments or memorable spots to talk about. If there is to be a rematch in the playoffs, it will be a matter of whether the Buccaneers, with their injury-ravaged secondary that seems to add a new injury each week, can keep up with these receivers. A sack and a shanked punt really put the Bucs in trouble in the third quarter, leading to a 31-14 lead by the Rams. Brady never touched the ball again with a deficit smaller than 17 points.

It was interesting to see him still in the game with 4:50 and a 34-17 deficit. Bill Belichick pulled Brady from a 38-17 blowout at the hands of the 2009 Saints in New Orleans with 5:26 to play in that one for the Patriots. This is the fourth time since 2019 that Brady was in the ballgame in the final five minutes with a deficit of 17-plus points. He had three such games from all of 2003-2018.

This now marks six times in 19 regular-season games with Tampa Bay where Brady has trailed by at least 17 points. He trailed by 17+ six times in his last four seasons with the Patriots combined (2016-19). He will visit the Patriots and Belichick next Sunday night, but the 10-game winning streak and 30-point streak are over after this one, which I always said was the biggest test of the regular season for Tampa barring an incredible run by Josh Allen when they host the Bills in Week 14.

But Stafford and the Rams passed their first big test of the season and take an early lead towards the No. 1 seed. However, the division games start next week and will be tough. Stafford in the “biggest game of his career” could be something that comes up three or more times this season. If you’re a fan of the Rams, you hope it’s a high number because that means they are likely winning these games.

Packers at 49ers: One-Minute Drills

What was looking like another blowout between these teams turned into one of the best finishes of Week 3. The 49ers used a double score around halftime to turn around a 17-0 deficit and make this a game. The Packers were up 24-21 with the ball late. They faced a fourth-and-4 at the San Francisco 20 with 2:43 left. Had the 49ers been out of timeouts, I would have said go for it. Let Aaron Rodgers end the game with one play as anything converted in bounds would run out the clock in that situation. Don’t kick a field goal and go up by six, inviting them to beat you on a late touchdown.

But the 49ers had four clock stoppages at that point. I think there’s a good chance Green Bay would have settled for the field goal anyway on that drive, so I do support the field goal in that case. Jimmy Garoppolo was shaky on the night, but he got good plays out of his top guys, including George Kittle for 39 yards on another big YAC play.

But after getting to the Green Bay 12 in the last minute, the 49ers needed to think about the clock. Green Bay was out of timeouts. You couldn’t leave Rodgers that much time, only needing a field goal. If I was the 49ers, I would have called a run on first down just to bring the clock under 30 seconds. But San Francisco was not into bleeding the clock. It snapped the ball with 12 seconds left on the play clock, and Kyle Juszczyk fought his way through contact for a 12-yard touchdown with 37 seconds left.

Again, you almost wish he would just go down at the 1 and they could score from there. But he scored, and the Packers had to be somewhat glad about that. Now Rodgers would get his chance. Worse, the kickoff to the end zone was a touchback, so that burned no more time off the clock and put the ball at the Green Bay 25. Why not a hard squib kick or something shorter to make them burn some time? I didn’t like that decision.

Rodgers was able to hit Davante Adams, who took a nasty shot to the head earlier in the quarter, for two plays worth 42 yards. He got the spike off in time and the Packers looked like they had practiced that situation well. Mason Crosby is a shaky kicker in these situations, but he’s no Minnesota kicker. He nailed the 51-yard field goal and the Packers jumped ahead of the 49ers in the standings at 2-1, finally winning a good game against this team even if we’re still not sure how good the 49ers will be this year.

As I said in my top 100 quarterbacks project, Rodgers and the Packers have improved in these clutch situations. Through 2014, he was 12-29 (.293) at 4QC/GWD opportunities, which would be one of the worst records in the league. Since 2015, he is 16-17-1 (.485), which would be the fourth-best career record among active starters (minimum 20 games).

This is the fourth time in Rodgers’ career that he led the Packers on a game-winning drive after taking over in the final 60 seconds. His first three were against the 2011 Giants (38-35 win), 2015 Lions (Richard Rodgers Hail Mary), and the 2016 Cowboys (playoff win).

It is the second one-minute drill in the NFL this season after Derek Carr led the Raiders to one against Baltimore in Week 1 to force overtime. Anymore, you really have to get the clock under 20 seconds if you hope to win after leaving the opponent in position to only need a field goal. It has just gotten too easy to move into field goal range and some kickers are too damn good from long distance these days.

This is an unofficial count of successful one-minute drills in the NFL in the last 40 years, but it’s the best I can do at 5:00 A.M. on a couple hours of sleep this weekend:

  • 1981-89: 30
  • 1990-99: 26
  • 2000-09: 36
  • 2010-21: 68

The Packers are very much alive again, though no more trips to Florida would probably be best.

Chargers at Chiefs: Ruh-Roh

A 1-2 start is certainly cause for concern for the Chiefs, who are now in last place in the AFC West thanks to the Broncos and Raiders as the lone 3-0 teams in the AFC. Even the Chargers are now 2-1 after this win, the biggest one yet in the young career of Justin Herbert, who was great with four touchdown passes in Arrowhead to get this 30-24 win.

I don’t feel like digging through every old tweet and article leading up to this season, but a lot of the things I’ve said about the Chiefs are coming true so far. They blew a fourth-quarter lead for the second week in a row after having none in their previous 29 games. The running game did step up with 100 yards from Clyde Edwards-Helaire, but he fumbled again. The Chiefs had four turnovers in this one including two more fumbles by the skill players inside the opponent 30. Just the preview for this game was accurate in pointing out how the Chargers limit Patrick Mahomes better than most. He had 260 yards on 44 attempts with two picks, which is a very non-Mahomes stat line even if you consider the first one was tipped off a Chief.

But even with the 14-0 deficit and four turnovers, the Chiefs were solid on third down and scored 24 points with Mahomes putting the team ahead 24-21 with 6:43 left. He kept the streak alive of leading in every game. But this defense is a massive sieve and was up to no good again on Sunday. Herbert answered almost immediately with a 43-yard pass to Mike Williams, the longest play of the game, to put the Chargers in range. After having two touchdown passes negated by penalty last week against Dallas, Herbert had another one wiped out here for an illegal shift. The Chargers settled for a game-tying field goal with 2:14 left.

Alright, piece of cake for Mahomes to go get a game-winning field goal, right? Wrong this week. On a third-and-8, he again tried a bit too hard to make something happen and threw a pick on a deep ball. That was equivalent to getting a 32-yard net punt, but it still wasn’t a good decision or play.

The Chargers had the ball at their own 41 with 1:42 left, tied 24-24. They could blow this, right? Wrong this week, though God knows they tried their best to blow it. Herbert moved the ball to the Kansas City 30 and the Chiefs used their second timeout at 54 seconds. While not ideal, the Chargers could have run the ball twice and kicked a ~45-yard field goal with seconds remaining for the win. That would at least deny Mahomes a chance in regulation. Instead, Brandon Staley’s team came up with two incompletions to stop the clock and save the Chiefs their final timeout. Then they were hit with a false start to make it 4th-and-9 and a 53-yard field goal attempt. That was brutal game management. Anthony Lynn would be proud.

But Staley showed some balls by keeping the offense out there and not settling for that long field goal without a great kicker on his side. Herbert threw and the Chiefs were flagged 15 yards for defensive pass interference on a legit call. That secondary is just too handsy at times. Incredibly, Herbert stuck with two more passes to Williams, including a 4-yard touchdown with 32 seconds left. The Chargers missed the extra point, because branding is important, and they led 30-24 with 32 seconds left.

Again, not exactly ideal as Mahomes had a timeout and a chance to win, but it was going to be hard needing a touchdown. He got to the Los Angeles 49 but could not make anything happen on the last three snaps. Some felt the Hail Mary could have been flagged for DPI on the Chargers, which would have been perfect for Chargers BINGO (lose on an untimed down after Hail Mary DPI), but it was not to be this time.

We are going to hear about the “Tampa Bay blueprint” to beat the Chiefs, but I don’t know what blueprint produces multiple fumbles or turnovers a week while still letting this team gain a bunch of yards and score 24-35 points. If you’re not going to blitz Mahomes and play a bunch of two-high safety to take away the big plays, the Chiefs are still producing against that. They just need to protect the ball better, which should be correctable. But this defense leaves little margin for error from the offense, and on Sunday, there were way too many errors.

The Chargers are now a good enough football team to take advantage of that. We’ll see if the Broncos and Raiders are too, and the Chiefs also have a rematch with the Bills coming up soon. If things don’t get better here, I just may be winning that $500 bet sooner than I thought.

Ravens at Lions: Justin Tucker Is One Bad Motherfu…

I guess we must thank Marquise Brown for his big drops and some weird running back rotations for this uninspired Baltimore performance that nearly resulted in a huge Detroit upset, but ultimately resulted in a field goal that can cement Justin Tucker as the baddest motherfvcker to ever play the kicker position.

The Lions were able to take a 17-16 lead with 1:04 left, and the defense had Lamar Jackson down bad on 4th-and-19 with 26 seconds left. But he made some magic happen with a 36-yard pass to Sammy Watkins. After a spike and incompletion, the Ravens turned things to Tucker in the dome.

It was in a 2013 game in Detroit when Tucker made a 61-yard game-winning field goal to help the Ravens to an 18-16 win. I had that at the time as the third-longest game-winning field goal in NFL history. Now Tucker has pushed himself down to fourth with a 66-yard field goal that not only won the game, but it is the longest field goal ever made in NFL history, beating Matt Prater’s record of 65 yards.

Incredibly, Prater, who used to play for the Lions, tried from 68 yards in Jacksonville on Sunday, missed, and it was returned for a touchdown before halftime. But Tucker was good enough to hit it straight and to the crossbar, where it took a fortunate bounce through for the win. An absolute stunner to end the game and the kind of historic field goal that deserves to belong to the best in the business.

By the time the shock in this one wears off, maybe we’ll figure out how the Ravens nearly went from a huge win over the Chiefs to blowing a game to the Lions.

Also, you have to feel bad for Lions fans for… well for many reasons. But of the four game-winning field goals of more than 60 yards in NFL history, three of them have come against the Lions, and two have come from the leg of Tucker.

Bad Afternoon for Rookie Quarterbacks

Early returns have not been good for the 2021 rookie quarterback class. Of the nine times a QB has finished with a QBR under 20.0 this season, six of them were rookies, including the bottom two games by Justin Fields, and Zach Wilson also has two games on the list to join Trevor Lawrence and Davis Mills (his Cleveland game off the bench).

It puts Denver’s 3-0 start into some perspective when the Broncos have feasted on Lawrence and Wilson in the first three weeks, including a 26-0 shutout of the Jets on Sunday. This time Wilson only took five sacks and threw two picks, which I guess is an improvement over Week 1 (six sacks) and Week 2 (four picks).

The Urban Meyer-Lawrence era had its first two-score lead on Sunday over heavily favored Arizona, but that evaporated quickly in the third quarter. It was always a bit of fool’s gold after a 68-yard field goal try was returned for a 109-yard touchdown to end the first half. Lawrence finished the day with four turnovers and contributed just a 3-yard run to the team’s only scoring drive after halftime, a 75-yard march where no pass was thrown. Technically, the game-winning score for Arizona late in the third quarter was the pick-six Lawrence forced on a flea flicker. I mean, who throws a pick-six on a flea flicker? A rookie trying too hard.

Mac Jones also tossed three picks, including a pick-six, against the Saints in a 28-13 home loss for the Patriots. I guess the Saints are destined to not play a normal, close game with reasonable passing yardage this year. Jameis Winston only finished with 128 yards, already matching in three weeks the total number of sub-130 yard passing games (two) Drew Brees had in games he didn’t leave early in 15 years with the Saints. Sean Payton’s idea on limiting Winston’s mistakes seems to be hiding him as much as possible. Even when Winston tried to throw a wild one in the end zone, it went for a touchdown on Sunday. That was a 9-yard drive too, taking advantage of a Jones pick. Man, if only Brees had games against the Packers and Patriots where the Saints were allowing so few points and getting multiple picks.

But no rookie had a rougher Sunday than the one we wanted to see so bad.

Bears at Browns: Cleveland Has Field Day on Fields’ Day

I am not sure if I need to apologize or eat crow for a coach who just saw him team get outgained 418 to 47 in yards, but maybe Matt Nagy had his reasons to not put Justin Fields out there as QB1 so soon. He had to do it on Sunday with Andy Dalton’s injury, but maybe Fields is not ready after taking nine sacks and helping the Bears finish with 1 net passing yard. Fields’ success rate was 5-for-32 on Sunday, an unbelievably bad debut in a 26-6 loss.

Now some expected caveats apply. It’s the Bears, it’s Nagy, we are used to him having bad offenses. But 418 to 47? That’s beyond the pale. The offensive line is also pure trash, but I cannot imagine this happening if Dalton was the quarterback. Nine sacks to 20 throws and three rushing attempts? That’s insane.

The Bears are only the 11th team since the 1970 merger to be outgained by at least 165 yards on the ground and at least 200 yards in the air in the same game. The last time this happened was when the Lions beat up the Packers (without Aaron Rodgers) on Thanksgiving in 2013.

My feeling on this topic is always consistent. It’s that a game like this should not ruin Fields. If he is destined to be a franchise quarterback, then this is just a big bump in the start of the road. You don’t ruin him in September of his first season. But if future games result in games like this, then yikes, they may need to pull him and sit him down.

Of course, it would help if the Bears actually had some semblance of a coaching staff that knows how to get productive offensive out of its roster. That has never been a strong suit for Nagy, and the returns have only been diminishing since his first season ended. The coach who ultimately fixes Fields in Chicago, assuming that happens, may not even be in the organization yet.

A few more games like Sunday’s and Nagy may not have an office in the building much longer. This was horrific.

Bengals at Steelers: I’ve Come to Talk with You Again

Much like last week against the Raiders, I never felt that the Steelers overlooked the Bengals. It didn’t matter that Cincinnati has not beaten them by more than 10 points since 1995, or that Zac Taylor had one road win in his career as head coach. They never thought they’d lose by 14-plus points at home for only the fifth time in Ben Roethlisberger’s career.

It’s not really an upset when you expect it as the Steelers continue their December decay while the Bengals are on the upswing. This is just where these teams are right now.

For anyone singling out Roethlisberger as the problem, and the idea that benching him for bums like Mason Rudolph or Dwyane Haskins will solve anything, just admit you’re not watching this team play. It’s okay. They’re the worst hate-watch I’ve had since NBC’s Revolution. That’s been my experience watching this team for the last three Sunday afternoons and I wouldn’t recommend it to anyone who wants to watch an NFL team capable of doing something good. They’ve had one good half in Buffalo and that was it.

The offense remains historically limited. The Steelers rushed for fewer than 90 yards for the 10th-straight game. Just one more and they can tie the 2002-03 Rams (11 games) for the post-World War II record. The Steelers drafting Najee Harris in the first round is like inviting a rich family to your house for dinner when all you can serve them is stale crackers and tap water in dirty, chipped glasses.

If someone had the energy or interest, they could create a pretty amusing montage of how often Harris is met right at the line (or behind it) by the defense due to a lack of blocking. He had one 20-yard run on Sunday and 20 yards on his other 13 carries combined. I’d say he showed his hands by catching 14-of-19 targets as Ben fell in love with the checkdowns, but Harris also ended the game with multiple drops as the Steelers stumbled badly to a 24-10 loss.

Maybe the most egregious play was when Roethlisberger dumped the ball to Harris almost immediately on a 4th-and-10 in the red zone in the fourth quarter. It lost a yard because it was so bad. What a sad time to see Ben turn into Alex Smith. In past years, he would have chucked that thing to the end zone and not care if it resulted in his third pick. But I guess he never thought things would be this bad, throwing to Ray-Ray McCloud and Cody White with Diontae Johnson and JuJu Smith-Schuster out injured while trying to mount a 14-point comeback against the lowly Bengals.

The Pittsburgh offense self-sabotaged itself all day with eight penalties, constantly putting themselves in poor down-and-distance situations. That should never happen at home. For about the first time since 2018, Roethlisberger took a few sacks because he held the ball too long. But that was an effort to try to make something happen. Too often the protection was poor, and he was hit quickly, like on his first pick. Other times he just looked old and slow, like on his second pick. This offense remains a complete mess and it is criminal in nature to put an old quarterback and a rookie back behind an offensive line this inexperienced and poor.

The defense also has its issues without T.J. Watt, Stephon Tuitt, and a couple more in the front seven. Joe Burrow was pressured one time in the game. Yes, the Cincinnati line allowed one pressure and no sacks, ending Pittsburgh’s record 75-game streak with a sack. Now that record was always asterisk-worthy since it ignores the multiple playoff games where this unit failed to get a sack in that time, but it was a shocker to see zero production against the Bengals.

Outside of one deep ball for a 34-yard touchdown before halftime, Burrow had no other completions of 20-plus yards in the game. He had a 17-yard touchdown to Tyler Boyd that was created by some of the worst tackling effort you’ll ever see from Melvin Ingram. But it’s not like the Bengals piled up 24 points with a younger, more athletic quarterback stretching the field. They just aren’t incapable of doing literally anything well like the Steelers, who even missed a 42-yard field goal on Sunday, are right now.

Ben will go into retirement after the season as the scapegoat, but unless they ever hire a real offensive coordinator from outside the organization and invest in a real starting quarterback, then Mike Tomlin is not going to see another winning season any time soon.

I don’t know how many more weeks I’ll go into detail recapping the latest poor performance, because we have pretty much seen 10 straight games of this.

Colts at Titans: Go for Two Up Seven

The Titans did something cool that coaches almost never do in the NFL: go for two after a touchdown that put you up seven. Head coach Mike Vrabel watched Houston do this to his Titans last year, but it didn’t work out for them. The Titans still won in overtime. This time, Vrabel’s team did it with 12:56 to play. That’s a bit earlier than I’d like to see it as I think the last five or six minutes is the sweet spot for it. But when you’re playing Carson Wentz on two bad ankles, why not? What’s he going to do, lead three field goal drives to beat you?

The Titans converted with a Derrick Henry run to lead 22-13. The Colts answered with a field goal to make it 22-16. The Titans had another long drive for a field goal to make it 25-16 with 2:58 left, which puts the Colts in miracle territory down two possessions. The Colts missed a 51-yard field goal with 57 seconds left and the game was over.

But had the Titans, who have had their share of kicking problems, gone for the extra point and led 21-13, then it easily could have been 24-16 when the Colts got the ball back at 2:58. That’s still a reasonable time – with a good quarterback that is – to tie the game and go to overtime. But at 25-16, you’re pretty much screwed.

The misconception people tend to have here is that the “extra information” of being down nine is going to drastically change how the team approaches things. Except this is the NFL and most coaches are basic bitches. It didn’t change a thing. The Colts moved at the pace you would expect them to when trailing in the fourth quarter, and they didn’t go to the real hurry-up or no-huddle offense until the final three minutes told them they were screwed.

Vrabel had every excuse to be a meathead and failure of a coach, coasting on his past connection to Bill Belichick, but he has been ahead of the pack in trying different things to close out tight games. I applaud him for that.

NFL Stat Oddity: Week 2

I am trying to rationalize the ending of Chiefs-Ravens by thinking that this NFL season is just not going to make any sense. I’m not the only one struggling with my predictions. Favorites are just 10-21 ATS through Week 2, which would replace 2002 (10-20) for the worst start to a season for favorites in the 32-team era if the Packers can’t cover a big spread against Detroit on Monday night.

How likely are the Packers to do that when they lost 38-3 to a New Orleans team that just got pantsed by a Sam Darnold-led Panthers team? Again, uncertainty is very high right now. Let’s try to make some sense of these Week 2 results.

This season in Stat Oddity:

Chiefs at Ravens: We Have a Rivalry

I have been harping on the idea that the biggest story in the AFC these days, and maybe the whole NFL, is finding the worthy rival to the Kansas City Chiefs and Patrick Mahomes. Lamar Jackson and the Baltimore Ravens have been the most logical choice with the team’s balanced, consistent success, but the Chiefs have continued to clean their clock by a wider margin each year since 2018. It’s not a real rivalry until the Ravens show they can win one of these games.

Well, it happened, and it happened in one of the most unusual ways for Baltimore. The 36-35 win is the first time in Jackson’s career that he won a game after trailing by 11 points, and the first time he won after trailing by multiple scores in the second half. He still did it his way too by rushing 16 times for 107 yards and two touchdowns while only making 26 throws. However, he had 239 yards on those 26 throws for one of the best passing games of his career.

Jackson was almost flawless in the fourth quarter, putting away the Chiefs with two touchdown runs and a run on 4th-and-1 from his own 43 with just over a minute left to deny Mahomes one more chance with the ball. The inevitability of his rushing from the quarterback position was a feeling I hadn’t had in a game since I watched Vince Young destroy USC in the 2005 Rose Bowl.

Once is an accident, twice is a coincidence, but three times is a pattern. I will wait until I see the Chiefs play Justin Herbert and the Chargers next week before I make it my take, but I have serious doubts about the Chiefs having a defense that is capable of getting to a Super Bowl this year. Not everyone can run like Nick Chubb behind Cleveland’s line and this unique Baltimore rushing attack is the best in the league, but this run defense has been dreadful and the pass defense hasn’t been much better. They could see those teams again in January too.

Tyrann Mathieu’s season debut led to two picks and a pick-six in the first quarter, but he felt more like a liability in the final 45 minutes. No one seemed to be of any value after that as the Ravens were stopped once on their last seven drives. Jackson shaking off an ugly start and delivering is what made this one so different for Baltimore.

I hyped it up all summer. Would the Chiefs falter if the offense did not close the game out in the fourth quarter and the defense had to get the job done? This happened last week and the defense intercepted Baker Mayfield. But this time, the offense failed on three straight drives and so did the defense. The Chiefs blew their first fourth-quarter lead since the Tennessee loss in Week 10 of 2019.

Mahomes is 21-5 as a starter on the road and scored at least 31 points in every loss. But like the 31-9 Super Bowl loss, this game peels away another layer of invincibility around him. It was fun to say he’s never lost to the Ravens or lost a September game or thrown an interception in the month, but it all happened in this game, and it was all connected. Up 35-24 in the third quarter, Mahomes should have taken a sack on a third-and-12 at midfield, but he still tried to complete a pass (short of the sticks too) and it was intercepted. The Ravens turned that into a 56-yard touchdown drive. Just a bad mistake on a night where he had almost no others.

When he was down 36-35, Mahomes seemed to have another game-winning drive in the works by getting the ball to the Baltimore 32 on three passes. But the Chiefs dialed up a run and Clyde Edwards-Helaire continued his rough half with a devastating fumble with 1:20 left. We just went over something like this a week ago when Damien Harris of the Patriots coughed it up against the Dolphins. This was even later in the game though.

We can think of worse and bigger fumbles in NFL history, but there really is no point margin more agonizing to lose a fumble in the last two minutes than with a 1-to-2 point deficit. If you’re down 3, you lost that chance to tie or take the lead, and that’s a bummer. Ditto for being down 4-9. But you weren’t in position to win on a field goal there. In a tied game, it’s also a bummer, but at least you’re still tied after the turnover. This one just stings the most since the Chiefs were already in range, and despite having Mahomes, it seemingly hasn’t stopped Andy Reid from settling for a 45+ yard field goal in these situations. I understand why they ran, but you almost wish the Chiefs were down more points to incentivize them to keep the ball in Mahomes’ hands.

Stat of the night: Excluding kick returns, laterals, and quarterbacks taking strip-sacks, Edwards-Helaire’s fumble is only the third one by a skill player in opponent territory in the last 2:00 of a game while trailing by 1-2 points since 2001. The last player to do it was Denver running back Quentin Griffin in 2004 — incredibly on the same date (9/19) as CEH — in a 7-6 loss against Jacksonville. The only other “recent” example was when Reche Caldwell fumbled on a Drew Brees completion against the Chiefs in a 24-22 loss in 2002. That’s how rare this is as it is only the second one on a handoff.

Bumping the deficit up to three points only adds these five plays since 2001 (and no, I’m not sure what Brees and the Saints did to deserve to be on here so often):

  • 2019 Melvin Gordon (Chargers vs. Titans)
  • 2018 JuJu Smith-Schuster (Steelers vs. Saints)
  • 2018 Rashad Greene (Jaguars vs. Colts)
  • 2005 Reche Caldwell (again on a pass from Brees; Chargers vs. Eagles)
  • 2003 Deuce McAllister (Falcons vs. Saints; Atlanta fumbled ball back to Saints on same play; Saints won game in OT)

Still, because the Chiefs had all three timeouts, a stop was possible to get Mahomes the ball back. But on 4th-and-1 from the Baltimore 43 with 1:05 left, John Harbaugh asked Lamar if he wanted to go for it. Of course he did, as he should. From what I know about quarterback runs in short-yardage situations, he had to be at least 80% likely to convert there. If he converts, the game is over. If he doesn’t convert, then that is bad news as Mahomes would only need a first down to set up a reasonable field goal. So this was for the game, and I absolutely agreed with it as Baltimore needed to deliver that knockout punch and not trust the defense that has let them down so many times before in these moments. Not when you’re playing someone like Mahomes and he has a minute to set up the field goal.

If they called a pathetic play that didn’t work, then this would be a defining play of the season. But they called the smart play against a defense that couldn’t stop Lamar in the second half, and he delivered with the first down to ice it, making it a defining play of the season in a good way for Baltimore.

It’s a signature win for the Jackson era and should give the Ravens hope should they meet this team again in January. I’ll have to wait for the charting data to see if the Ravens dialed back their blitzing on Mahomes. It felt like they did, and they were smart to double team Tyreek Hill and limit him to 14 yards on three catches. Those big YAC plays for touchdowns to Travis Kelce and Byron Pringle could be defended better next time. It was a pretty loose offensive game with players on both teams running wild all over the field.

You can see how hard it is to still beat the Chiefs, but the cracks are starting to show with this team. In Mahomes’ last 12 starts, the Chiefs have one win by more than six points. That was Buffalo (38-24) in the AFC Championship Game. The Bills will get their next shot at the Chiefs on SNF in Week 5. If the Ravens can break through with a win, what about the Bills? What about the Chargers in Arrowhead next week?

This just may not be a waltz back to the Super Bowl for Kansas City after all.

Bad Afternoon for QB Injuries (MIA/CHI/HOU/IND)

While Week 1 could have been defined by underdog wins and a lot of bad fumbles, Week 2’s early afternoon slate was rocked hard by injuries, especially at the quarterback position.

Tua Tagovailoa left the game early for Miami, which turned into a 35-0 rout for the Bills. I don’t think that injury changed the outcome for the winner, but it was still a game that looked more like the 2019 Bills than the precise, efficient offense the team had with Josh Allen in 2020.

An Andy Dalton injury in Chicago gave way to Justin Fields, who did what most Chicago quarterbacks are used to doing: riding the defense to a win after Joe Burrow threw a pick-six in the fourth quarter in a 20-17 win by the Bears. While Fields failed to impress, it will be interesting to see if Dalton gets the job back again.

Tyrod Taylor was tearing up the Browns, one of his former teams, in the first half before injury took him out again. He won’t play Thursday night at the very least. The game was all Cleveland after that, so this was a real disappointing one as it seemed like Taylor was really making the most of this Houston opportunity. Poor guy can’t make it to October anymore.

The play-by-play for Texans-Browns had a whopping 10 mentions of a player being injured on a play. Taylor was not one of those, which just goes to show this is not a designation that can cover every injury that occurs in a game as sometimes they just don’t know which play did it. But 10 sure sounds like a game that was plagued by injury. Baker Mayfield barely got through it in one piece too, and it was Mayfield who took over for Taylor in Cleveland in 2018 when he was injured there.

Then there was the Rams-Colts game, which only listed one injury (Darrell Henderson) in the play-by-play list. But Carson Wentz did not finish this game after another injury. I would have loved to see what he would do in an ideal game-winning drive situation, down 27-24 with just over two minutes left and no timeouts. Instead, we got Jacob Eason, who promptly turned into Nathan Peterman and lobbed this one to Jalen Ramsey.

A rough day at the office. I’d say more about the Rams, but I plan to talk about them more during the week in the buildup for the game of the month between the Rams and Buccaneers. Let’s just say I think this close win in Indy takes a lot of the shine off this being a super team with Stafford, but it was a fine road win.

Saints at Panthers: WTF?

Suddenly, I don’t feel so bad about predicting mediocrity for the 2021 Saints. Any hope that the defense was going to morph into an elite unit without Drew Brees after what the Saints did to Aaron Rodgers last week quickly vanished after this 26-7 walloping at the hands of the Panthers, a team the Saints have owned for years.

That makes two weeks in a row the Saints had the real “WTF? game of the week” and now they were on the opposite end of the spectrum. I always had a lot of respect for Drew Brees, and I thought the shots some were taking about the Saints now having a deep ball because of one Jameis Winston touchdown last week were absurd.

I don’t remember Brees ever struggling to throw for 100 yards in New Orleans like Winston has in these first two games as the starter. It’s so weird too since Winston is one of the most prolific quarterbacks in NFL history at gaining passing yards. Is Sean Payton hiding him from throwing picks and it’s hurting their ability to produce as a legitimate offense? Supporters will cite COVID wiping out much of the offensive coaching staff this week, but it’s not like last week was a normal performance with the short fields. It’s not like the Panthers are some juggernaut, and they still had Payton there coaching this game.

The Saints were outgained by 255 yards. That only happened to Brees one time in New Orleans when he was outgained by 278 yards against Peyton Manning’s 2012 Broncos. A bit different than Sam Darnold’s Panthers. The 128 yards of offense were the worst for the Saints since the 2001 finale against the 49ers (126 yards). Really, it took two games after Brees retired to have a game almost 50 yards lower than his lowest game? (176 yards in Dallas in 2018).

I don’t know what to make of these teams yet. I need to see them play a normal game and a good opponent first.

Cowboys at Chargers: Dallas Wins Fake Low-Scoring Game

The streak is finally over. For the first time since the 2018 playoffs, the Cowboys won a game without scoring 30 points. Since beating the Seahawks 24-22 in the 2018 wild card round, the Cowboys were 14-2 when scoring at least 30 points and 0-18 when scoring fewer than 30 points. No other team in NFL history has ever had a two-year run like these Cowboys just had where 30 was such a magic number for them.

But even in pulling out a shorthanded 20-17 win in Los Angeles against the Chargers, the Cowboys still played in an offensively-driven game that only had 15 total possessions. One of Dallas’ eight drives was before halftime with three seconds left, and they nearly pulled out a miracle score. Since Dak Prescott and Justin Herbert only combined to throw 14 incompletions, and the Cowboys really got their running game to explode with 198 yards (109 from Tony Pollard), this was a fast-moving game with much better per-drive averages for the offenses. This is only the third non-overtime game in NFL history where both offenses had over 400 yards, but neither scored more than 20 points. The first two were 2012 Raiders-Browns and 2017 Buccaneers-Patriots.

The lack of possessions just made every mistake hurt more, such as the two picks from Herbert and the missed field goal. Herbert also had two touchdown passes taken away on penalties with the Chargers settling for three points on those drives, including a game-tying field goal with 3:54 left instead of a go-ahead touchdown. The officiating left a lot to be desired in this one.

Prescott made a lot of simple, short throws on the game-winning drive, and Mike McCarthy’s bunch did not handle the clock and situation the best they could have. Greg Zuerlein ended up coming out for a 56-yard field goal. But unlike some kickers this week, he only needed one attempt to drill it for the win with no time left.

Both teams are going to be a tough out for anyone this year, but both still seem like their own worst enemy at times.

Patriots at Jets: Weekly Zach Wilson Data Dump

When Zach Wilson threw his fourth interception on his 10th pass attempt of the day against the Patriots, I knew the Jets had their quarterback for the next 30 games. After all, what other franchise does a stat line like that remind you of? If it’s not the great Joe Namath or Richard Todd or Vinny Testaverde or Mark Sanchez or Geno Smith or Ryan Fitzpatrick or Sam Darnold, what other franchise screams “four picks” like the Jets?

Last week I had Wilson in an unpleasant list of quarterbacks who took six sacks in their first start. Now I can add Wilson to this “yikes” list of the last 12 quarterbacks to throw at least four interceptions in their first or second start:

  • Nathan Peterman (2017)
  • Ryan Lindley (2012)
  • Brandon Weeden (2012)
  • Keith Null (2009)
  • Ryan Fitzpatrick (2005)
  • Brooks Bollinger (2005)
  • Alex Smith (2005)
  • John Navarre (2004)
  • Henry Burris (2002)
  • Patrick Ramsey (2002)
  • Joey Harrington (2002)
  • Clint Stoerner (2001)

Now it’s been said that Bill Belichick has done this a lot to opponents. This is true. Belichick has absolutely won more games than anyone with a quarterback dinking and dunking and taking advantage of his opponent’s mistakes in easy three-score wins as Mac Jones demonstrated on Sunday.

Oh, but you were thinking about Belichick’s defense against rookie quarterbacks? Yes, there’s some truth to that too. Belichick is far from undefeated against rookies as he has lost notable games to Ben Roethlisberger (2004), Mark Sanchez (2009), Colt McCoy (2010), Russell Wilson (2012), Geno Smith (2013), and Tua last year.

But I was able to pull together the data on this, and instead of limiting it to rookies, I looked at inexperienced starters in general as quarterbacks who were making their 1st to 16th start of their NFL career. How do such inexperienced quarterbacks fare against Belichick relative to all other coaches since 2001? I made a graph with all 63 coaches with at least 15 such games through 2020.

Inexperienced quarterbacks have only won 18.5% of their games against Belichick from 2001 to 2020, going 15-66 in the process. Only Baltimore’s John Harbaugh (9-42, .176) has a better record. The 4.53 ANY/A for those quarterbacks against Belichick ranks him as the 14th-best coach in this sample of 63. Mike Zimmer (3-13 record, 3.65 ANY/A) has also been very impressive in this split.

Interestingly enough, two of the worst coaches against inexperienced quarterbacks were Jason Garrett (14-15 record, 5.98 ANY/A) and Adam Gase (9-9 record, 5.98 ANY/A). Jets fans should be glad that Gase is gone, but more afternoons like this from Robert Saleh (and Wilson), and it’ll start to feel like he never left.

Raiders at Steelers: Actually, Not the Same Old Steelers

(Note: If you’re not aware, the reason you get a more detailed Steelers game recap is because you can count on that being a game I watched in full each Sunday.)

I wish I can say the Steelers had another one of their whacky, unexpected losses to the Raiders on Sunday despite being a 6.5-point home favorite. The fact is the game was fairly normal and indicative of the kind of team Pittsburgh is when it does not have a good season. The Steelers upset Buffalo last week by getting contributions from all three units. While the special teams helped with a 56-yard field goal, a Heinz Field record, the offense was not good enough again and the defense struggled after its best player (T.J. Watt) left with a groin injury.

While I felt the Steelers used to lose to the Raiders by overlooking them and getting some bad bounces, this time it just felt like Pittsburgh was the inferior team heading in the wrong direction while maybe the Raiders are on the right path. With Josh Jacobs out, the Raiders had no problem in going one-dimensional and using Derek Carr through the air (382 yards) while not excessively targeting tight end Darren Waller after he had 19 targets on Monday night. Hunter Renfrow played very well on pivotal downs and Carr was money on the 61-yard bomb to Henry Ruggs that really made the difference in the fourth quarter.

Pittsburgh just failed to stack good plays. Carr got away with fumbles on consecutive plays before the Raiders settled for a field goal to begin the scoring. Melvin Ingram did his best to step up for Watt’s absence with a sack, but Carr simply converted the ensuing third-and-9 to Renfrow, which led to another touchdown in the third quarter. After the Pittsburgh offense answered with a fourth-quarter touchdown to make it 16-14, the defense folded again on third-and-10 on the Ruggs bomb to make it 23-14. The Steelers never touched the ball again with a one-score deficit.

The Pittsburgh offense is definitely stuck in what I call the post-Antonio Brown malaise that has been there since 2019 started, but this was very much a team loss and not about one unit over the other. Strangely enough, the quick/short passes are working this year for first downs and successful gains rather than the 1-yard gains on early downs and the pathetic failed completions on third-and-long that they seemed to always be last year. Ben Roethlisberger even hit a couple deep bombs in this game and got Najee Harris his first receiving touchdown on a 25-yard play.

So, what was the issue? Again, they’re not good enough to stack successes and score more points. Sometimes it’s Roethlisberger being off with his post-surgery arm strength not being good enough. Other times it’s Eric Ebron dropping a catchable ball on a third down after Roethlisberger shows some vintage escapability, like on the opening drive. Or it’s Diontae Johnson flat out giving up on a route when Roethlisberger threw one up on a third-and-long that was picked off. The running game with Harris and the new line just isn’t there yet either.

Finally, there is the coaching incompetency. While we saw the Ravens go for broke with a fourth down to put away the Chiefs on Sunday night, Mike Tomlin shriveled up again in a big spot. The Steelers faced a 4th-and-1 at their own 34 with 8:36 left and a 23-14 deficit. The defense had just given up five scores on the last seven possessions and could not be trusted. If the offense cannot be trusted to gain a yard, then how is this team ever going anywhere this year? Like in the playoff game against Cleveland, Pittsburgh punted on 4th-and-1 in the fourth quarter while down two scores. At least the defense got a stop this time, but after settling for the 56-yard field goal, the Steelers failed again on defense, allowing a 25-yard play to Waller that set up one more field goal and the 26-17 final. Johnson was then injured on a meaningless final play.

I think the Steelers will be 5-6 or 6-5 by the time December comes and they host Baltimore. But once the injuries pile up and that tough finish to the schedule arrives, the ground may be ready to crumble a la The Dark Knight Rises.

Then it may be time for fans to adopt the darkness to come.

Vikings at Cardinals: Another September MVP Campaign for Kyler Murray?

I knew Kirk Cousins (77.8) was going to finish this game with a higher QBR than Kyler Murray (65.5) once I saw him scramble for a 29-yard gain. QBR loves that stuff, and Cousins actually finished with more rushing yards (35 to 29) than Murray in this one. He also did not have a turnover while Murray threw two pretty bad picks, including one returned for a touchdown, that made this one a struggle for Arizona to win.

But which quarterback had the more impressive plays on the day? That was Murray, hands down. The best 5-foot-10 QB in NFL history made plays all over the field on his way to 400 passing yards and four more total touchdowns. He completed five passes of 25-plus yards to four different receivers.

Most games in NFL history with 360+ passing yards, 3+ passing TD, 1+ rushing TD:

  • 1. Aaron Rodgers – 5
  • 2. Drew Brees – 4
  • 3. Peyton Manning – 3
  • 3. KYLER MURRAY – 3
  • 5. Tom Brady – 2

When Murray is healthy, this offense is a lot of fun. Murray delivered on a key fourth down for 35 yards to set up Arizona’s go-ahead field goal. Cousins had two chances to answer, and on the last one, he did. The Vikings could have hurried to the line and ran another play with Dalvin Cook once they got to the Arizona 19 before calling their final timeout. However, they let the clock go down to four seconds before using that timeout.

Greg Joseph came out for the 37-yard field goal to win the game as the Vikings trailed 34-33. Vikings. Kicker. Game-winning field goal. You knew what was going to happen even before the ball was snapped. He missed it wide right, and the Vikings have an argument for the most painful loss of the young season. Go figure, Cousins, Mahomes and Mac Jones last week against Miami are the only three quarterbacks to lose after having a QBR above 70. That’s what a missed field goal or your teammate fumbling the game away in field goal range does.

As I pointed out in my preseason previews, the biggest moves for the Cardinals were getting Chandler Jones back on defense and a real kicker in Matt Prater. The Cardinals were the team last year that had several big misses in the clutch from their kicker. Prater made a huge 62-yard field goal before halftime in this one and he did not go Blair Walsh on the 27-yard game-winner. Sorry Vikings fans, I don’t know why your franchise is cursed at this position. But the Cardinals added a good one in Prater.

Titans at Seahawks: Regression vs. Regression

After piling up 33 points, 33 first downs, and 532 yards of offense, we can confirm that the Titans are still a fun and functional offense. Julio Jones showed out with 128 yards and Derrick Henry rushed for 182 yards and three touchdowns to lead a 15-point comeback in the second half and a 14-point comeback in the fourth quarter.

Meanwhile, the Seahawks blinked first in the NFC West, which would be 8-0 right now as a division had the Seahawks hung on for this win. Seattle is no stranger to blowing big leads in the Pete Carroll era, but this has been unusual in recent years as Seattle has compiled such an unsustainable great record in close games since 2019.

But on Sunday, the Seahawks went from three straight touchdown drives in the second quarter to one score on their six drives in the second half. Third down was a weakness for the offense in 2020 and it happened again in this one. Seattle finished 4-of-12 on third down but failed on third-and-short twice in the second half. The Seahawks were going to go for a fourth-and-1 but were flagged for a false start, leading to a punt and game-tying touchdown drive for the Titans.

In overtime, I really thought Russell Wilson was sacked in the end zone for a game-ending safety, which wouldn’t be the first (or second) time Ryan Tannehill has won a game that way if you can believe it. Seriously, this could have been the third game-winning safety game he was involved in. But it was not to be, and despite the generous spot, Seattle punted from the 1, which gave the Titans the ball at the Seattle 39. Four Henry runs set up Randy Bullock to redeem himself with a 36-yard field goal for the stunning win.

That was only one yard shorter than the kick that Minnesota missed to give Arizona a win and 2-0 start. I don’t want to give Arizona much grief since it destroyed this Tennessee team in Week 1. But with the Rams about to host Tampa Bay and the 49ers not dominating teams, Seattle is still right up there in the division. Still, there is something stale with this team’s approach. The defense stopped being scary years ago. Wilson is still great, but he does seem to be relying a bit too much on the rainbows for big plays instead of doing more to sustain offense with longer drives (more third-down conversions).

But this was definitely the kind of comeback the Titans made a year ago, so they are still good at that. Still the favorites for sure in the AFC South.

NFL Stat Oddity: Wild Card

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

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

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

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

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

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

Previous weeks in Stat Oddity:

Bears at Saints: Seventh Seed Slime

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ravens at Titans: Running Quarterbacks Matter More than Running Backs

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Buccaneers at Football Team: My MAGA Beats Your MAGA

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Rams at Seahawks: First Name Russell, Last Name Ozymandias

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Colts at Bills: The More Colts-Esque Team Won

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

NFL 2020 Wild Card Sunday Previews

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

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

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

Ravens at Titans (+3)

BAL OFFENSE VS. TEN DEFENSE

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

TEN OFFENSE VS. BAL DEFENSE

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Final: Ravens 31, Titans 24

Bears at Saints (-10)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Final: Saints 27, Bears 23

Browns at Steelers (-6)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Final: Steelers 27, Browns 20

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

NFL 2020: Close Game Summary

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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