Trust me, the title sounds way more ambitious than what the post is actually going to be. I’m settling into this new role of writing more on this blog during the season, but it’s going to come in the form of quick data dumps of interest rather than epic-length projects like the 43,000 words I wrote in a week on my top 100 quarterbacks of the 21st century.
Today’s topic is quarterback rivalries. These often drive the league’s intrigue, though we haven’t always seen a lot of great quarterbacks meet numerous times in the past with the way schedules used to work. For example, Dan Marino and John Elway were both drafted to the AFC in 1983, both active through 1998, both on a lot of winning teams, yet they only met a total of three times and two of those happened in 1998 when they were old. That’s just stunning. We’re about to see Round 4 of Patrick Mahomes vs. Lamar Jackson Sunday night, and Round 3 of Mahomes vs. Allen in Week 5.
But it’s not a real rivalry until the other side starts to win too, and that’s where we are stuck waiting right now.
The AFC: Patrick Mahomes vs. ?
I keep stressing that this is a transition period in the NFL, and perhaps the biggest story in the whole league is the reshaping of the AFC. We need to find the best challengers to Patrick Mahomes and the Kansas City Chiefs as the best QB and team in the conference. He just beat Baker Mayfield and Cleveland again. He has yet to lose to Josh Allen/Buffalo and Lamar Jackson/Ravens. He also will have his second meeting with Justin Herbert and the Chargers, who took him to overtime last year after Herbert got the surprise start following a team doctor’s incompetence.
Someone has to step up here, or Mahomes and the Chiefs are going to have an easy run to the Super Bowl year after year a la what we’ve seen recently with Tom Brady and LeBron James in the NBA. But even Brady needed his rival in Peyton Manning, who stopped him from getting to the Super Bowl more often than the other way around, and LeBron had the Golden State Warriors as a super team to deny him Michael Jordan’s ring count. Even Magic Johnson had a Larry Bird to deal with in the 80s. You need that rival or else it’s one-sided and the results are too predictable. It gets boring, even if watching Mahomes operate is anything but boring right now.
Oddly enough, Brady and his teams have been the biggest Mahomes stoppers so far, taking away a potential three-peat in 2018-20 for the Chiefs. These teams very well could meet again in February.
The NFC: The Future Is What Exactly?
Brady’s run is unlikely to go on forever, though his quack trainer Alex Guerrero has done a magnificent job of keeping the Lazarus Pit running for him. As for Aaron Rodgers, I swear he looked like he aged five years this weekend and I don’t even mean by the way he played, which was terrible in the first 35-point loss of his career. I mean when I saw the teaser for his FOX interview, he looked like a 44-year-old quarterback in the NFC. Maybe he just got out of practice and skipped makeup and a shower, but he just looked haggard to me.
With Brees tapped out and those two probably not far behind, it will soon look different in the NFC. But is it too soon to predict a Matthew Stafford vs. Russell Wilson showdown now that they’re in the same division? Or are we headed for a Trey Lance vs. Justin Fields run where Wilson still doesn’t get MVP votes and Stafford still can’t beat teams with winning records? It’s probably going to have to be those two rookies as the future unless Kyler Murray is ready to take that next step or Jalen Hurts in Philadelphia. You know I love Dak too, but that coaching combo of Mike McCarthy and Dan Quinn is bound to fail.
Not only has the AFC taken Mahomes, 2019 MVP Lamar Jackson, and 2020 MVP runner-up Josh Allen, but the AFC has drafted Trevor Lawrence and Joe Burrow with the last two No. 1 picks. Baker Mayfield was No. 1 in 2018 and even if you’re not sold on him yet, he’s really not that bad of a quarterback. The AFC also recently drafted Tua, Mac Jones, Zach Wilson, Herbert, and would have another stud in Deshaun Watson if he wasn’t an alleged sexual predator.
With respect to Dak possibly throwing for 6,000 yards this year to make up for his defense, there’s just not a lot of intrigue built into the NFC yet. We have to see how Winston and Stafford continue to do with their upgraded coaching and team situations. It’s only been one week.
The Sweet Sixteen to Meet a Dozen Times
Finally, the data dump. From 2001 to 2020, there were 16 quarterback matchups that had at least a dozen meetings when you include playoff games. I gathered the stats on win% and ANY/A (so I can account for sacks) for each quarterback in the matchup, so this chart has 32 points on it.
I have some good news for fans of the Falcons and Giants. Brees vs. Ryan and Romo vs. Eli are the only two matchups where the winning QB (Brees and Romo) had a lower ANY/A than the losing QB. No two quarterbacks were closer in ANY/A than Eli and Romo (0.14), though Manning-Brady (0.22) was a close second on the list. Considering this doesn’t adjust for the quality of the defense faced, that looks very good for the Manning brothers.
No matchup was more lopsided than Rodgers vs. Jay Cutler. Rodgers was 11-2 and +3.37 in ANY/A over Cutler, the biggest gap on the list. Rodgers vs. Stafford was also the second-biggest difference in ANY/A at +2.46 for Rodgers. We’ll see if Stafford can close that a little this year. The closest matchup by record was Philip Rivers going 7-6 vs. Derek Carr in the AFC West despite a difference of 1.27 ANY/A in Rivers’ favor. That speaks to the Chargers blowing games late while Carr inexplicably wins a lot of those games.
How many of these 16 matchups are still possible in the future? Brady-Fitzpatrick, Rodgers-Stafford, Ben-Brady, Ben-Dalton are about the only four realistic ones. Maybe something with Cam Newton if he ever gets another job and plays Matt Ryan again. Stafford vs. Rodgers is scheduled for Week 12 this year. The Bears are in Pittsburgh in Week 9, but Fields has to take over for Dalton by then, right? Fitzpatrick could face Brady in Week 10 if he doesn’t already lose the job to Taylor Heinicke by then. Hey, Brady could get a second win over Heinicke in that case.
But this was a great era with a lot of memorable and important games in that chart. New rivalries will emerge, but nothing is certain in this league. If you thought Mahomes-Watson in 2019 would be the first of several playoff meetings between the two, no rational person would have disagreed at the time. Now? Oof.
And if you’re a disappointed Ravens fan not looking forward to the Chiefs this week, then just remember that Manning’s Colts lost six straight to Brady’s Patriots in 2001-04 before turning that one around. For it to be a real rivalry, the other side has to start winning at some point. Maybe Sunday night is that turnaround moment for the Ravens.
While the Buccaneers looked far from flawless on Thursday night against Dallas, they won again, getting off to a good start as the team I picked to repeat and beat the Chiefs again in February.
After writing those predictions and my mini-novel about the top 100 quarterbacks of the 21st century, I had no room left for my awards picks. I really struggle getting these right in September and my only hit last year was Chase Young for Defensive Rookie of the Year. I had Nick Bosa for DPOY and he tore his ACL in Week 2. I had Joe Burrow for OROY and injury (and Justin Herbert’s superior play) did him in as well. Injury also totally derailed my MVP/coach pick of Dak Prescott and Mike McCarthy in Dallas. I went back to the drawing board, though I did not erase Dalvin Cook for OPOY and Bosa for DPOY. I’m sticking with my gut on those two. I think people picking Aaron Donald is getting old and if the 49ers are supposed to have this great year, projected to do better than the Browns (Myles Garrett) and Steelers (T.J. Watt), then Bosa is probably going to be the star there.
Most Valuable Player: Tom Brady, Buccaneers
Coach of the Year: Brandon Staley, Chargers
Assistant Coach of the Year: Jack Del Rio, Washington
Offensive Player of the Year: Dalvin Cook, Vikings
Defensive Player of the Year: Nick Bosa, 49ers
Offensive Rookie of the Year: Kyle Pitts, Falcons
Defensive Rookie of the Year: Jamin Davis, Washington
Comeback Player of the Year: Dak Prescott, Cowboys
MVP: Last year I picked the Bucs to finish 11-5 and be the No. 5 seed, which came true. This time I picked Tampa Bay to finish 15-2, or two games ahead of any other team. I also picked the Chargers to make the playoffs with 10 wins, which is why I think you’ll see Brandon Staley get the coach award since it often goes to a newcomer who takes a losing team to the playoffs. Bruce Arians has already won the award twice, and besides, we know Brady gets all the credit for everything on his team. The “he’s 44!” line is going to be used every single game no matter how he plays.
But I’m not using Thursday night as a cheat code to make this pick after Brady threw four touchdowns. I’m sure this season I’ll show off the $200 ticket I got on Brady winning MVP (at +1200) that I made Wednesday night out of disgust for the season I saw coming. He finished last year on a high note. He has the most loaded receiving corps in the league as you can already see that Gronk is still a beast and Antonio Brown is going to milk this opportunity he doesn’t deserve for all it’s worth.
I already sense people take Patrick Mahomes for granted, and I do have some concerns that the Chiefs may not be as explosive or efficient on offense this year unless Mecole Hardman pulls his head out of his ass and has a breakout season. Where I think they can improve most is running the ball with the revamped line, but that should not bolster Mahomes’ MVP case. I just think he’ll have lesser stats than 2018 and a worse record than 2020.
I see Josh Allen and Aaron Rodgers taking a step back statistically in 2021. Rodgers has never gone MVP back-to-back. I think the 1-yard touchdowns are cut down and he won’t lead the league again in that stat or have such a high passer rating in a season that should feature more defense with the crowd backs. Maybe someone like Herbert or Dak (he could throw for 6,000 yards) is a darkhorse, but I felt confident with the Brady pick.
Enough to where I might as well win some money out of this crap.
NFL Week 1 Predictions
I started the year with a win as I changed my pick from Buccaneers -7.5 to Cowboys +9.5 as I saw the line move to that on Thursday. My final score was 31-23 TB, so I got the over as well. After updating my database in recent weeks so that I now have over 200 columns of data on every game in the last 20 seasons, I am ready to share some more interesting stats this season that you will find here and certainly on Twitter and in the articles I write.
I also discovered just how hard it is to write a Week 1 preview when we just don’t have any new data yet. Plus we are now seeing so many quarterbacks switch teams and new head coaches that it really is hard to say a lot about these games until we start seeing what these teams look like in 2021. But over at BMR I did write previews for Chargers-Washington, Bears-Rams, and Ravens-Raiders.
We have my first stat second-guessing of the season in Detroit where the 49ers are up to 8.5 as they try to spoil the Dan Campbell debut. I really want to stay away from that game after seeing that road favorites of 8.5+ in Week 1 are 0-6 ATS since 2001. Jared Goff is very familiar with them and while he is only 3-5 against the 49ers, only one of those games was a loss by more than eight points.
For Steelers-Bills, it is rare territory for the Steelers to be 6.5-point underdogs like this. It is only the ninth time that will happen for a game with Ben Roethlisberger at quarterback. He is 1-7 SU (beat the 2005 Colts in the playoffs) and 3-4-1 ATS. I would say a Josh Allen rushing TD is a good prop bet after Keith Butler talked up treating him like a RB on runs this week. I also like Najee Harris to find the end zone in that one. In fact, I like several rookies to score touchdowns this weekend, including Trevor Lawrence and Kyle Pitts. Seven rookies scored in their Week 1 debut last year, including Joe Burrow, Clyde Edwards-Helaire, and J.K. Dobbins. We’ve seen A.J. Green, Randall Cobb, and Tyler Lockett do it too as part of 64 rookies since 2011 who scored touchdowns in Week 1. Don’t be afraid to bet on these guys this weekend to make a good first impression.
I’ll be focusing on Steelers-Bills at 1 PM and Browns-Chiefs at 4:30 PM, so it won’t be much of a RedZone Sunday for me. Still very excited for Sunday and seeing these games play out. I’m also glad to see there is no MNF double-header as I always felt so drained by the time that second game came on in past years. Good move, NFL.
But it’s here. We get to see if some of these teams are for real, and if Carson Wentz can suck ass against the Seahawks with two different franchises.
This is the 10th season of posting my NFL predictions here. In seven of the last nine years, I managed to predict one Super Bowl finalist, but somehow I had the wrong Super Bowl result for them all seven times. In the last two years, I had the Chiefs losing and then winning last year. It was the other way around, of course.
For that reason, we still are in the longest drought ever without a repeat champion. But could we be in store for a repeat Super Bowl between Tampa Bay and Kansas City? It has only happened one time in NFL history when the Cowboys beat the Bills in 1992-93. That was a case of Dallas putting together a dynasty run, and the Bills also had an incredible run of four straight Super Bowls with a core of Hall of Famers. Unfortunately, they lost all four games as Scott Norwood should die of gonorrhea and rot in hell*.
*That’s a well-executed reference to Ace Ventura, so I will not be doing a Brian Kelly and apologizing if you didn’t get the joke.
Predicting a rematch can often be the trendy pick that year, but I really think these teams are uniquely qualified for it. The Chiefs have hosted the AFC Championship Game three years in a row, have been money against their main competition (Ravens/Bills), and have the best player in the league right now in Patrick Mahomes. The Buccaneers have brought back every starter, including the 44-year-old King of Kings, most of their depth from last year, they are loaded on both sides of the ball, and they get a boost in the division with Drew Brees retiring. Are you really going to trust Matthew Stafford and Ryan Fitzpatrick joining the Rams and Washington to put up a fight with Tom Brady, the Luckiest Quarterback of All Time?
While I may have a familiar Super Bowl prediction for you, the rest of this preview is going to look different from past years. In the last four years I ended up writing over 16,000 words each time. I didn’t break 10,000 this time since I already wrote full previews (2,000-4,500 words each) on all 32 teams at Bookmakers Review (BMR) this summer. I have included the BMR links for each team in their section below and I promise they have all the stats and thoughts you’re used to seeing from me.
Don’t forget to check out the eight-part series I just finished on The Top 100 Quarterbacks of the 21st Century. The final part on the top five quarterbacks has the links at the top to the first seven parts.
What I’m Watching for in 2021
Before getting into the teams, I want to share some thoughts on what I’m watching for this season, the first 17-game season in NFL history.
First of all, I hate the 17 games and we haven’t even started. It’s going to screw up the stats and my databases, all the counting records, and end the longest, most consistent scheduling we’ve had in NFL history. I think 32 teams, 16 games, 12 playoff teams, and eight divisions was the perfect setup, but they killed it out of greed. Having an odd number of games also makes no sense as you get an unequal number of home and road games with the AFC teams getting a ninth home game this year while they’ll alternate next year. I just hate it. No more .500 teams unless you finish 8-8-1, which I’m sure Kirk Cousins is fucking stoked for. But it’s definitely a transition period in NFL history.
Last year I talked a lot about COVID and uncertainty here. This is going to be Pandemic Season No. 2, and I do fear that we could see more screwy things than last year just because of how more contagious the Delta variant is. We have triple the number of cases in the United States on Labor Day this year than we did one year ago. That’s scary.
To the NFL’s credit, they got every game in last year even though there were a few shams like the Ravens and Steelers playing on a Wednesday and the Broncos not having a quarterback to play the Saints. As it turns out in the news today, Denver was being properly punished for breaking protocol that week. So, hopefully teams are more professional about following rules this year, though a few teams like the Bills and Colts have projected vocal vomit about their anti-vaccine stances. I’d take a shot at Cole Beasley specifically, but he’d just run away. See what happens when you give a guy a completely unearned All-Pro vote?
But the crowds are back for now, so it will be very interesting to see what happens to the offensive stats after 2020 was the highest-scoring season in NFL history at 24.8 points per game, a full 1.4 points above the previous record (2013). Yards per play (5.6) were never higher and turnovers per game (1.3) were never lower. We had more first downs per game (21.7) than ever before as teams completed the most passes per game (23.0) at the highest completion percentage (65.2%) ever recorded. That led to the highest passer rating (93.6) for a season and the record for most touchdown passes (871 or 27.2 per team).
We only have complete data for third downs back to 1991, but 2020 saw offenses convert 41.6% of the time on third down, a new record. The only other season over 40% was 1995 (40.1%).
Likewise, I have red zone data going back to the 1999 season. Last season, offenses had more opportunities (1,750), touchdowns (1,071) and the highest red zone touchdown percentage (61.2%) since 1999. It was the first season with over 1,000 red zone touchdowns scored. I added the trend line here, so you can see this has been going up over the years likely due to teams finally going for more fourth downs in the red zone. But things were never better in the red zone for offenses than last year.
From not having a preseason to the quiet sounds of crowd-less stadiums, I definitely believe the pandemic helped produce these record-setting numbers last year. I would expect some regression to the mean in this department, so that could be something to keep in mind when you’re betting on over/unders this September, or on something I’m very interested in researching more: touchdown scorers. Last year, it seemed like Alvin Kamara, Davante Adams, and Tyreek Hill were good for a touchdown almost every week.
Passing yards cooled down a bit in the second half of the season after such a historic pace to start the year. I would keep that in mind for the rookies (Justin Herbert, Joe Burrow, WR Justin Jefferson) from last year, or Dak Prescott’s insane average in Dallas for five games, or the way Russell Wilson started the season, and even the numbers Aaron Rodgers had in his MVP season after years of not playing like that.
Things should get a little more defensive this season, but the game is still undeniably trending towards more offense. The only real hiccup to that could be if a lot of these young quarterbacks fail to pan out while the last few remaining legends soon retire.
One last note: I predicted over/under on each team’s win total at BMR. What I predicted in those articles in July/August may be different from my final W-L prediction in September after sitting down Monday night and going through the schedule like I always do to come up with these final predictions.
1. Kansas City Chiefs (13-4)
BMR Preview: “The Avengers have a Hulk, Vin Diesel has a family, and the Chiefs have Patrick Mahomes.” This was the first team preview I did back in July. I like the preview I wrote here but it contains an error in the very first paragraph that I don’t know how I made. The Chiefs are trying to become the FOURTH team to follow a Super Bowl loss with a Super Bowl win. I had the 71-72 Dolphins and 17-18 Patriots, but I somehow skipped right over the 70-71 Cowboys, who beat those Dolphins before they went on a repeat run.
I covered how the Chiefs did a great job addressing the weakness with the offensive line. It will be interesting to see if that means they run more (and better) this year or not. I also chose Mecole Hardman as the real X-factor in the offense. If he can have a breakout year in replacing Sammy Watkins’ role as the WR2, then this offense could soar to a new level. But given how mistake prone Hardman is, and how he looked at times with Mahomes in the preseason, I’m not confident about that. So, Travis Kelce and Tyreek Hill are going to have to stay healthy for sure.
I also covered how no team has ever won 14 games and then won more the next year in NFL history. Now the Chiefs get a bonus 17th game to try, but I still don’t think they win more than 13 in the regular season.
I went over Kansas City’s historic streak of winning seven straight games by fewer than seven points. The Chiefs finished 9-0 (including playoffs) in games decided by 1-7 points, the best record in the last 20 years.
Usually, those teams regress. Now it’s been pointed out that the teams with the great quarterbacks were fine, and that’s true. But this is also the second year in a row where the Chiefs had a lot of unusual wins. Remember, their whole Super Bowl run in 2019 saw them trail by double digits in every game before winning them all by double digits. Since 2019, the Chiefs are 9-3 when trailing by multiple scores. That is insane and not sustainable, no matter how great Mahomes is.
But as I was saying about this being more than one year, look at the Colts example with Peyton Manning. He led a ton of close wins in 2008 and 2009, which is why he deserved those MVP awards. He had seven comebacks in 2009, an NFL record. But in 2010, he had no comeback wins and the Colts were bounced by the Jets in the wild card round after blowing a late lead. The regression caught up to them.
Keep in mind that the Chiefs were only 10-8 (.556) in these close outcomes in 2018-19, and 10-9 including the playoffs. Going from 10-9 to 9-0 is a huge leap. The Chiefs were one of three teams to not blow a fourth-quarter lead last year. They almost certainly will blow one or more this year. Maybe they play fewer close games overall and win more in dominant fashion. But I don’t think you will see the same close game success for this team this year.
This is the first team in the preview you’re reading but the 32nd recap I’m writing. I wanted to finish up by touching on some things I said over the summer about this team. Some Chiefs fans got all riled up over what I was tweeting in July, but they just don’t understand that I have been very pro-Kansas City in recent years. I make no bones about being a huge fan of Mahomes, who I just ranked as the No. 2 quarterback of the 21st century. I wanted to see them win the Super Bowl again. You’re not going to get me to root against him because you misunderstood my tweets.
But 31-9 was a gut punch, one of the worst Super Bowls I’ve ever seen after the worst postseason I ever covered. Those four weeks soured me so much on football that I basically ignored it for five months as I covered the NBA for the first time in my career. And hey, I somehow went over 60% ATS at picking NBA games. Way better than I am at football. It was a nice escape before I got back into doing football in July.
I hope I’m wrong, but I think the potential for a dynasty for this team may have closed with 31-9. The common link between every NFL dynasty is that they don’t lose games like Super Bowl LV. You don’t lose the game where you can collect your second trophy and then go on to win several more. It just doesn’t happen that way.
The 1961-67 Packers were 5-0 in championship games. The 1970s Steelers and 1980s 49ers were 4-0 in the Super Bowl. The 1992-95 Cowboys and 2001-04 Patriots were 3-0 in the Super Bowl.
You know who loses their shot at a second ring? It’s the teams at the bottom of this table I’ve been keeping to myself since July, which has all the teams who won multiple rings in a five-year window on top. But the bottom includes those famous teams who lost their second shot and never got back like the 1997 Packers with Brett Favre, 2001 Rams with Kurt Warner, 2009 Colts with Peyton Manning, and 2014 Seahawks with Russell Wilson.
Being some of those teams on the bottom is not the worst thing in the world. Joe Gibbs did rebound to win three rings in Washington after that crushing 38-9 Super Bowl loss (sound familiar?) to the Raiders in 1983. But he had to wait until 1987 to get his second, and after the 49ers won back-to-back in 1988-89, it was clear that San Francisco was the team of the decade and not Washington, which is not traditionally thought of as a dynasty for winning with three different quarterbacks from 1982-91.
Now, the counterpoint to all of this is obvious. We’ve only had 55 seasons where a team could win the Super Bowl, a small sample size. There are plenty of firsts to come. Just look at Tampa Bay last year. The Bucs are the first team to trail by 17+ points in five games in a season and still win a Super Bowl. Someone will be the first No. 7 seed to win a Super Bowl. Someone will be the first rookie quarterback to win a Super Bowl. Some day we could even see a team finish 8-9 and win the Super Bowl since that’s possible now. Maybe the standard for a dynasty is changing, and we just finished a decade (2010s) where the same team (New England) remained on top since no one took the throne. And those Patriots went nine seasons (2005-13) without winning a Super Bowl, a period I want to call football heaven now.
However, if I’m just basing things on the NFL history we know, I have a bad feeling about the Chiefs’ future in big games after 31-9. When you consider that Super Bowl LIV is likely a loss too without WASP, you are reminded of just how difficult these championships are to win. The margin is so tiny between doing it and not.
But I’m just following everyone’s lead as expectations are high for Mahomes and the Chiefs to win multiple championships. Not just two either as polls I’ve seen on Twitter have said. People are expecting three or more. That’s the Brady effect, I’d say. The bar has been raised.
In Kansas City’s case, this team is heads and shoulders above the rest of the AFC. The Bills couldn’t beat Kansas City twice last year. The Ravens are 0-3 with Lamar Jackson against them. Those are the main challengers now. With an incredible youth movement going on at quarterback, the league is in a transition period. We are waiting for new powers to rise. The Chiefs have things figured out. They have the best player and one of the best coaches. This is their time to stack Super Bowls before these other teams catch up.
So when you blow a chance like last year, it feels extra worse. You don’t know if you’ll ever get back in this league. Ask Dan Marino, Drew Brees, and yeah, Aaron Rodgers. I think Mahomes will get back pretty soon (see the bottom for prediction). But any invincibility he built up is gone after 31-9. Now we’ll see how he and this team respond after that setback.
I hope it’s the revenge tour of the year.
2. Los Angeles Chargers (10-7)
BMR Preview: I am on the Justin Herbert bandwagon after what he did as a rookie last year. Dak Prescott (2016), Jared Goff (2017), Carson Wentz (2017), Patrick Mahomes (2018), Deshaun Watson (2018), Mitchell Trubisky (2018), Lamar Jackson (2019), and Josh Allen (2019) have all led their teams to double-digit wins and the playoffs in their first or second season since 2016. I have Herbert adding his name to the list, though with the Chiefs in the division, it is still hard to pick the Chargers to go too far this year. Plus, we’re talking about the Chargers. You just know there will be crippling injuries and shocking close losses to fill up a new BINGO card in the Herbert era.
By just the sixth game of the Herbert era, the Chargers blew as many 17-point leads (three) as they did in the entire Drew Brees (2001-05) and Philip Rivers (2006-19) eras. Hopefully with a new coach (Brandon Staley) and fresh eyes along the coaching staff, we’ll see better results this year and get a good season from the Chargers.
3. Denver Broncos (7-10)
BMR Preview: You wish this was Aaron Rodgers, but at least it will be Teddy Bridgewater instead of Drew Lock at quarterback for the Broncos to start the season. That’s what I thought would happen when I wrote this preview, one of the earliest teams I covered.
“Bridgewater gives the Broncos a different style of play. He is often conservative and will take plenty of checkdowns, which will at least cut down on the interceptions after Denver led the league with 23 of them last year. But in three seasons where he was a primary starter, Bridgewater never threw more than 15 touchdowns, which is unheard of in this era. In fact, Bridgewater is one of eight quarterbacks in NFL history to have three seasons with at least 400 pass attempts and no more than 15 touchdown passes. The last quarterback before Bridgewater to do that was Chad Henne.
Finally, the most amusing stat in this competition comes courtesy of Pro Football Reference. In 2020, Lock led all starting quarterbacks with a bad throw on 22.9% of his passes while Bridgewater had the lowest rate of bad throws at 13.0%. The stat is based on poorly aimed throws, excluding spikes and throwaways. If Lock is still reckless with the ball, then the Broncos have a pretty clear choice to make here. Go with the guy who can let the playmakers do the work and not put the defense in bad positions.”
Last year I was off by three games on Denver (8-8 vs. 5-11), the first time I slipped by more than a game on this team. I think with some better health luck and quarterback play, they’ll be in that 7-8 win range at least this year. Teddy did some good things with the Carolina wideouts last year, so it should be nice to see Courtland Sutton and Jerry Jeudy play together.
Also, I am one of the people who thinks the team should have just drafted Justin Fields in April. I’m sure some Denver fans have not been this interested in watching a Bears season since Jay Cutler was shipped there in 2009.
4. Las Vegas Raiders (6-11)
BMR Preview: Head coach Jon Gruden has still not taken a team to the postseason since 2007, and his 57-55 (.509) record in the regular season with the Raiders is the same mediocre record he had as the coach of Tampa Bay (2002-08).You know I’ve never been a fan of Derek Carr, but he had an argument that 2020 was his best season or certainly a top-two season for him along with 2016. The offense should be decent, but the defense still looks weak to me and that’s why I found it hard to find more wins for them on the schedule. Not when I see two playoff-caliber teams in the division, a better Denver team, and the Raiders also have to play the AFC North.
1. Los Angeles Rams (12-5)
BMR Preview: I think it’s cute that Sean McVay and Matthew Stafford are excited that people found stats that show Stafford is very good after throwing an interception in a game. But I’m not sure it really matters how he bounces back from a first-quarter pick when he’s playing a team that is about to finish with five wins on the season. The data I’m interested in with Stafford is that he’s 8-68 (.105) against teams that finish the season with a winning record. He never won multiple games against winning teams in the same season in 12 years with Detroit.
Stafford is 2-62 (.031) when a winning opponent scores more than 17 points against him. Even Jared Goff (12-16 record) has three playoff wins with the Rams when the team allowed at least 20 points. I go over these stats in the BMR preview.
Quarterback moves like this rarely happen, and I am excited to see Stafford out of Detroit and on a team with a coach who is supposed to be great, and a couple of top-tier players sprinkled along some scrub types. The offensive line is going to need a revamping and they’ve already lost Cam Akers (Achilles) in the backfield, so maybe Stafford is just cursed to have a running game. But this really needs to work right away with the team trading away two more first-round picks to get him here.
I think it works enough for a division title in a tough division, and I obviously am predicting Stafford to get multiple wins against winning teams. I just don’t think you can trust him to get three or four in a row in the playoffs, plus the few he’s going to need just to get a good record like 12-5. But that Week 3 game, Buccaneers at Rams, is the one to circle. No team could make a bigger statement this September than the Rams if they win that and get to 3-0. What better way to measure where this team is at than with the defending champions? They beat them last year in Tampa Bay too with Goff throwing over 50 times.
This will be interesting.
2. San Francisco 49ers (11-6)
BMR Preview: I think this is a huge year for Kyle Shanahan and Jimmy Garoppolo to show that 2019 was not a one-year fluke. The San Francisco 49ers have the dubious honor of being the first team in NFL history to sandwich a Super Bowl appearance (2019) in between two seasons with double-digit losses. They can get a pass for 2018 when Garoppolo tore his ACL in the third game. They can get a pass for last year after one of the most injury-plagued seasons on record. But this year we need to see something, and I would still start Garoppolo as I think he has very interesting numbers that they need to explore to see if he can stay healthy and sustain it. Trey Lance is exciting and will be the future of the team after the big move to get him, but he is so raw and has that high bust potential given his inexperience and caliber of competition faced in college. Garoppolo will probably be hurt before Halloween anyway, so it’s a good chance we see Lance in 2021 regardless. But I’m all for starting the season with the veteran and seeing what happens. If they can keep George Kittle, Deebo Samuel and Brandon Aiyuk healthy, then that can be an awesome trio for this offense.
3. Seattle Seahawks (11-6)
BMR Preview: Since drafting Russell Wilson in 2012, the Seahawks are the 19th team in NFL history to have at least nine straight winning seasons. Ten of those first 18 teams extended their streak to 10 seasons or more. Eight teams fell off in Year 10, but those were usually the end of eras.
Maybe the end of the Pete Carroll-Wilson era is afoot, but they’re still together with another new offensive coordinator this year. Russ might still cook, but I keep banging the drum that in Year 10, it’s time for Wilson to start making that change in playing style and take fewer sacks. He has taken over 40 sacks in eight straight seasons, an NFL record. Remarkably, he has never missed a game yet. If Ben Roethlisberger can tone down the sandlot ball and morph into a quarterback who gets rid of the ball super-fast, then I think Wilson has it in him to improve in that area too.
I still love the wide receiver duo of DK Metcalf and Tyler Lockett, and things may be a little deeper this year in that unit. The defense no longer is a threat, but the Seahawks had a very strange season. They went from allowing the third-most points through eight games to the fewest in the last eight. However, a lot of it was schedule based. They couldn’t figure out the Rams either, and with Stafford in town, that could be a tougher team to beat.
The close-game regression is always a worry with this team since I swear Wilson and Carroll get off on playing a close game. The Seahawks went from 29-29 in games decided by 1-to-7 points in Wilson’s first seven seasons to 16-5 in the last two seasons. Which one looks like an outlier to you?
I’ll always trust Wilson, but this team’s act has gotten a bit stale as it still hasn’t advanced to the NFC Championship Game since 2014. That is why, despite a really nice record, I still have them finishing in third place in a tightly contested division. But would it shock me if Stafford and Shanahan disappoint again and the Seahawks still win the NFC West? Not one bit.
4. Arizona Cardinals (9-8)
BMR Preview: This tweet sums it up best the way I find it alarming that the offense did not take a bigger leap in Year 2 after adding DeAndre Hopkins, who played very well.
I am not big on Arizona adding J.J. Watt and A.J. Green as the 2011 draft was a decade ago. Green especially could be problematic if he commands a decent target share and doesn’t play much better than he did last year with the Bengals. But Kyler Murray is a unique talent and I think his health late in the season brought the offense down and caused Arizona to miss the playoffs. Let’s see him stay healthy and improve in his third season. The defense is not bad and getting Chandler Jones back is a big plus, as is getting Matt Prater as the new kicker. They had some big misses in that department last year.
I’m not really loving this team or Kliff Kingsbury as a coach in a tough division race, but I found myself giving them nine wins in the end. Was it enough for the playoffs? See below.
1. Buffalo Bills (12-5)
BMR Preview: The Bills unleashed Josh Allen last year and he rewarded them with a staggeringly great season that will force us to entertain every crappy young quarterback still having a chance to break out in Year 3 because Allen did it in 2020. Thanks, Josh. I hope you got your vaccine because we know your second-best wideout didn’t.
Still, shouldn’t there be some concern for regression here? We know very few teams win 13 games or score 500 points in back-to-back years. A 17th game helps there, but then there’s also this fact with the context that 2020 was a record-breaking year for offenses during the pandemic:
“Ouch, not J.P. But I have good news, Bills fans. I don’t think this is going to be a flash in the pan like 2015 Cam Newton, 2016 Derek Carr, or 2017 Carson Wentz. What makes me a believer in Buffalo’s offense is the way it consistently moved the ball all season. The Bills tied the Chiefs for the NFL lead in first downs (397) and joined the 2012 Patriots as the only two teams in NFL history to have at least 20 first downs in all 16 regular-season games. Buffalo had the fewest punts per drive and the third-lowest rate in three-and-out drives (13.8%).
The Bills converted 49.7% of their third downs to lead the NFL. In the playoffs, the Bills were only 30.6% on third down, so that was disappointing. Still, teams that go on great offensive runs tend to rank highly on third downs each year. With that said, it would not be surprising to see the Bills drop a few spots in third down success.”
Basically, I think the offense will still be one of the best in the league, but you may see the individual numbers go down for Allen and Stefon Diggs as a guy like Gabriel Davis eats more. What concerns me is a middling defense didn’t add much. That could hurt in getting over the Kansas City hump, but they also have to watch out for the Patriots who should be better, and maybe Baltimore will find more of a passing game this year.
Mahomes needs that worthy rival in the AFC or else this is going to get pretty one sided like it did with the Patriots for years. Allen and the Bills could be that team to challenge them, but it’s only going to be a rivalry if they start playing better in those games. Still, this is refreshing as hell to be talking about the Bills and an exciting offense with actual Super Bowl aspirations.
2. New England Patriots (10-7)
BMR Preview: The saddest thing about the 2020 Patriots was that they were too unrecognizable to still hate. One of the main things I wanted to stress in my BMR preview was that the team was not just the 2019 Patriots minus Tom Brady. They were the team most affected by COVID and they lost a ton of snaps and players on both sides of the ball. Here are the stats and a chart I didn’t get to share in that article showing that.
The top 16 players in offensive snaps on the 2019 Patriots played a combined 11,114 snaps for the team that year.
Those same 16 players contributed 3,842 snaps to the 2020 Patriots with nine players not playing a single snap for the team.
The top 16 players in defensive snaps on the 2019 Patriots played a combined 9,855 snaps for the team that year.
Those same 16 players contributed 6,726 snaps to the 2020 Patriots with six of the top 11 players not playing a single snap for the team.
Now with a retooled group of skill players and a rookie QB with insane college stats in Mac Jones, this team could be very competitive again. But I still think Buffalo is the class of the division, which feels so nice to say. I never thought the day would come.
3. Miami Dolphins (8-9)
BMR Preview: Well, I hope the Deshaun Watson trade rumors were always just rumors, because how tone deaf could a team be to entertain that right now? Beyond the trouble Watson could cause in a city like Miami, what about Tua? I’m not a big fan of him either so far, but let’s at least give him this season to see if he can be a franchise player or not.
But given the way the Dolphins relied on turnovers on defense and Ryan Fitzpatrick saving the day a few times, I think this is one of the easiest picks for teams that take a few steps back this year.
Stats to consider: Last year, the Dolphins had some unusual numbers that can largely be explained by turnovers. Miami’s offense finished 22nd in yards, yet the Dolphins finished 15th in points scored. Miami’s defense finished 20th in yards allowed, yet the Dolphins finished sixth in points allowed. If you sum the difference in those rankings of yards and points, the Dolphins finished 21 spots above expectations. That makes the 2020 Dolphins the 18th team since 2002 to finish at least 20 spots above expectations between yards and points. Twelve of those 17 teams won fewer games the following season.
4. New York Jets (4-13)
BMR Preview: I recapped how the Tank for Trevor campaign went awry. You have to appreciate that Adam Gase found a way to win two games and it probably made the team worse for years to come. I am not overly confident with the additions of Robert Saleh and Zach Wilson. Part of that is because it’s the Jets making these moves, but maybe these are the guys who change it all there.
1. Dallas Cowboys (11-6)
BMR Preview: Finally, the Cowboys will be worth watching again. That’s assuming Dak Prescott’s health is fine. He hasn’t had the easiest training camp so far. He was so prolific last year, but again, I wonder how much of that was just the pandemic and defenses being so far behind. I highly doubt he’s going to smash the passing yards per game record, but then again, he did throw for nearly 5,000 yards in 2019. I think CeeDee Lamb will be ready to explode with him in this offense and it’s still going to have to be the offense that carries the team.
Included are some very interesting stats (to me at least) about how Dallas always has to score 30 to win the last two years. There’s never been another team like this for two years.
2. Philadelphia Eagles (8-9)
BMR Preview: I am optimistic about Jalen Hurts, though 8-9 is definitely a hedge on just how much. I’m not ready to buy in like I am with Justin Herbert and the Chargers. The accuracy in limited action last season is worrisome for sure. He only threw 148 passes, but according to Pro Football Reference, Hurts had the highest rate of bad passes (26.7%) by anyone with at least 125 attempts. The next closest quarterback was his new backup, Joe Flacco (23.4%). Worse, only 60.7% of Hurts’ throws were charted as being on-target passes, easily the lowest rate in the league.
Great, just what the Eagles need. An athletic quarterback with questionable accuracy but one hell of a highlight reel. Still, it beats whatever Carson Wentz was doing last year.
3. Washington Football Team (7-10)
BMR Preview: There is a lot to like but little to love with this Washington roster. Ryan Fitzpatrick should be an upgrade at quarterback as no playoff team had worse quarterback play than Washington last year. It also was far from a traditional playoff season at 7-9 in the worst division race in modern history. That schedule had a lot to do with the defense looking as good as it did statistically. The division games should be tougher. The overall schedule should be tougher. With Fitzpatrick’s career struggles in close games – Ron Rivera is no peach there either – I just don’t see this coming together for a winning season and certainly not a playoff trip. Remember, Fitzpatrick has never made the playoffs and Rivera has a losing record in 70% of his seasons.
4. New York Giants (4-13)
BMR Preview: The Giants have a lot of first-round picks on offense but are they legitimately good? That’s a big part of this preview. Seriously, if anyone can explain how Evan Engram made the Pro Bowl at tight end last year, I’d love to hear it.
If Daniel Jones doesn’t take a big step forward (without tripping over himself) in his third season, then it’s time to look for a new quarterback. They could have the worst situation in the division if he doesn’t pan out this year. I also think like Washington, the defense took advantage of a soft schedule.
1. Tennessee Titans (10-7)
BMR Preview: This team has regression red flags everywhere from all the close wins last season to Derrick Henry’s huge workload to the red zone offense efficiency after adding a receiver (Julio Jones) who never catches touchdowns to the defense being horrifically bad on third down. Actually, that last one should be positive regression as it can’t get worse than allowing 51.9% on third down, the only defense over 50% since 1991.
But it’s great to play in the AFC South right now. Houston and Jacksonville alone could be good for four wins. Plus, this is the first season in a long time where you can say the Titans are going in with the best quarterback. Oddly enough, Ryan Tannehill is maybe my most trusted asset on the Titans right now.
2. Indianapolis Colts (8-9)
BMR Preview: As you may expect, I wrote a scathing but factual account of Carson Wentz’s time in Philadelphia and how it got Doug Pederson fired. Now, he reunites with Frank Reich, his coordinator in 2017 and the guy who was allegedly the brains of the operation that year for the Super Bowl-winning Eagles. If he can’t fix Wentz, then no one can. Even I was surprised at how bad last season went for him.
I think Reich, who has had a different QB1 every year, will find a way to get better play out of Wentz. They’ll lean on Jonathan Taylor for sure. But a lot of injuries and some COVID nonsense with this team going into Week 1. I think playing in this division is their best hope of having a shot at the playoffs.
3. Jacksonville Jaguars (4-13)
BMR Preview: I’m already a bit worried about Urban Meyer wasting Trevor Lawrence on his rookie contract. This regime just feels like it will reek of nonsensical, nepotism-inspired moves. At least Meyer has shown he’ll cut ties quickly if you make him look bad as his strength & conditioning coach did as well as Tim Tebow’s performance as a “blocking tight end” in the preseason. But this team is still down bad and I don’t see much happening this year.
4. Houston Texans (3-14)
BMR Preview: Well, I didn’t hold back on Deshaun Watson in that preview or on here when I ranked him as the 22nd-best quarterback of the 21st century. Twenty-two, one point for each of his accusers of sexual assault. As a fan, I’m really frustrated about this development in his career, which could have been Hall of Fame bound, and the league’s slow response to it all. He can’t possibly play this year, can he? I hope we hear his side of the story some day and he takes accountability.
Even with Watson, this team went 4-12 last year. There was never a ton of hope for something great with Watson. Now with Tyrod Taylor, I think three wins is looking like a lot. I was more optimistic when I wrote the BMR preview. This team just has nothing to be excited about anymore. DeAndre Hopkins is gone. J.J. Watt is gone. Watson might be done. David Culley is just being set up for failure, and that might be the only reason they hired someone so old and underwhelming.
It’s just sad.
1. Tampa Bay Buccaneers (15-2)
BMR Preview: I detail the story of how the Buccaneers went from a 7-5 underachiever to a playoff overachiever to what should be the favorite to repeat as Super Bowl champion. It is remarkable to see a team return every starter from a Super Bowl winning roster. Most of the depth is back as well, and we know this team had one of the deepest receiving corps in recent years. The Bucs were the most balanced of the final four teams last year and that’s why they won the Super Bowl. They could defend and get turnovers and set up Tom Brady on short fields at a rate we haven’t seen in the playoffs all these years.
Then the masterclass coaching job in the Super Bowl against the Chiefs. Patrick Mahomes could play 300 games and that may be the only time he gets beat 31-9 and doesn’t score a touchdown. The Bucs also brought back both coordinators, Byron Leftwich and Todd Bowles, as well.
The biggest weakness this team has is that the quarterback is 44 years old, and the cliff could be there any week for him to walk off. Guys like Vinny Testaverde and Warren Moon played at that age, but it was a few games. This is a 20 or 21-game season the Bucs expect to have Brady for. But if he stays healthy again, they are absolutely loaded and should challenge for the best offense this year. Still, we know the best chance of repeating lies in staying balanced and having one of the best defenses too.
As disgusting as it sounds, I wouldn’t rule out a 20-0 season for this team. You know Brady is still sour over 2007 and a perfect season is about the only thing his resume can’t show. They should be favored in every game except maybe the Week 3 game in Los Angeles against the Rams.
Wait, a Matthew Stafford-led team is going to derail this team? Please. That’s exactly why I’m so on board with Tampa marching right back to the Super Bowl. You think Matthew Stafford and Ryan Fitzpatrick, quarterbacks who are a combined 17-122-1 against teams with a winning record, are going to help the Rams and Washington beat this team in a big game? I mean, just look at this:
That’s a quarter of the NFC now. Green Bay always gets smacked around by teams like this and hasn’t been back to the Super Bowl in a decade. Seattle can’t even get back to the NFC Championship Game since Malcolm Butler happened. No more Drew Brees in New Orleans. The Falcons, only if we could STOP THE COUNT before the fourth quarter. Where’s the threat? A Dallas team with Mike McCarthy and no defense? We’ll see that litmus test Thursday night.
I think it has to be an AFC team that knocks them out. If not the Chiefs, then it’s on Buffalo or Baltimore. We’ll see Bills at Buccaneers in Week 14.
The NFC is usually a surprise team at the top every year, but while this Tampa Bay run is not going to be a long one, it sure looks like it’s going to continue this year.
2. New Orleans Saints (8-9)
BMR Preview: I’m glad Sean Payton is giving Jameis Winston a chance to start. We’ll still see Taysom Hill of course, but Winston deserves this. It’s a huge opportunity for him to carve out a decent career after a stint in Tampa Bay that did not work out as planned. He is talented and obviously can move the ball at a high level, but turnovers have always been the problem. Now he has a better team around him, but I think it’s still a given there will be more sacks and turnovers in this offense without Drew Brees.
Time and time again, we see teams falter after losing such a great quarterback. Maybe the Saints won’t go all the way back to their 7-9 days with horrible defense, but until I see that Winston is the real deal in Payton’s offense, I am going with a step back to 8-9. This is a big opportunity for Payton too to show that Brees wasn’t the real offensive genius in New Orleans all those years. Winston is no slouch, but he needs to play more disciplined than he did in Tampa Bay. I’m excited to see this experiment.
3. Atlanta Falcons (8-9)
BMR Preview: No more Dan Quinn jokes, but no one can say he didn’t make history in his time in Atlanta. Fired after five games last year, but what a gem they were with two blown leads of 15+ points in the fourth quarter in back-to-back weeks. The 2020 Falcons were only outscored by 18 points on the season, the best scoring differential in NFL history for a team that finished 4-12 or worse.
I have higher hopes in Arthur Smith than most of the rookie coaches this year. I think he’ll be good for Matt Ryan and the offense, which is going to miss Julio Jones. But Calvin Ridley is a legit No. 1 receiver. Kyle Pitts is the highest drafted tight end ever. I have some good stats in the BMR preview about how hard it has been for rookie tight ends to dominate. He will try to join Mike Ditka as only the second one to break 1,000 yards as a rookie. He is in a great situation to do it.
4. Carolina Panthers (4-13)
BMR Preview: The Panthers were 0-9 at game-winning drive opportunities last year, tying the 2008 Lions for the worst record in the last 20 years. This sounds like a good chance for regression, but the Panthers have replaced Teddy Bridgewater with Sam Darnold, who I don’t believe in. I think the team is going to get worse despite Christian McCaffrey coming back.
1. Baltimore Ravens (12-5)
BMR Preview: I feel like I’m higher on Baltimore than most, but I just think this team is unique and built to beat most teams in the NFL. We know which ones they struggle with, namely the Chiefs. But they’ll have another shot at them in Week 2 at home. That’s the biggest one of the season as far as I’m concerned. We need to see something more from Lamar Jackson in that game. Even if he doesn’t win it, at least go toe to toe with Mahomes for a few quarters. The Ravens have gone from losing 27-24 in overtime, to 33-28 in Arrowhead, to 34-20 at home last year as the gap between Jackson and Mahomes grows in those games.
I keep pointing out how Jackson has led the Ravens to their lowest scoring total of the season in three straight postseasons, something you just don’t see from a great quarterback that often. That will need to change, but let’s get through this regular season first and worry about that later. The Ravens are losing running backs left and right, but I still think the running game is going to be successful and the defense will be good. The main thing is on Jackson to take this passing offense to the next level.
2. Pittsburgh Steelers (9-8)
BMR Preview: All the expectations are for the Steelers to fall apart this year, but I still don’t see it. I think people overlook the struggle the schedule changes caused last year. The Steelers weren’t supposed to have a Week 4 bye, but the Titans had a COVID problem. They ended up playing the COVID Ravens on a Wednesday afternoon in a game that needed multiple reschedules, and then they played five days later on a Monday against Washington, their first loss of the season after an 11-0 start. Then they had to go to Buffalo that Sunday night. It was three games over 12 days for a team that had an early bye.
Then when you have maybe the most one-dimensional offense in modern NFL history, those excessive number of throws are going to bother a 38-year-old quarterback who had elbow surgery a year earlier. I think the Steelers were just tired in December, they had flaws they never addressed, and they played horrible football for a few weeks.
But the comeback win against the Colts was vintage Roethlisberger. The playoff game against Cleveland was the worst first quarter start by a team in playoff history, down 28-0. I wrote all about the playoff failures of this team in this era here after the game. Same old Steelers.
Najee Harris should give the offense more balance. The offensive line can’t be any worse than it was last year, and it is all new. Roethlisberger gets rid of the ball so fast now that it can negate that weakness. I actually hope he holds onto the ball a little longer this year so they can get back to some big plays. The constant short throws and drag routes on 3rd-and-7 just have to go. But I think that’s still going to be an issue. At least the defense should be adequate as long as T.J. Watt gets his contract and doesn’t hold out.
The schedule looks tough, but I’m going to trust that the team that hasn’t had a losing season in 17 years still stays one game ahead of that mark. It could be the swansong for Roethlisberger, who won’t want to go out on a losing note.
3. Cleveland Browns (9-8)
BMR Preview: The 2020 Browns are only the second team after the 2012 Colts to win 11 games with a negative scoring differential. Coach of the Year Kevin Stefanski felt his impact in his first year as Baker Mayfield and the offense powered the team forward to their best season since the days of Marty Schottenheimer and Bernie Kosar.
Yet, it still feels shaky to trust them to do it again or get better. I think the Browns will be competitive on a weekly basis, but the defense still looks too flawed to slow down teams like the Chiefs, Bills, and Ravens, or the teams you have to beat to get far in the playoffs right now. Plus Mayfield still has to prove he has consistency, and he has yet to develop a great connection with Odell Beckham Jr., who missed most of last year’s success. Myles Garrett is great on defense but I’d just like to see them have more there.
4. Cincinnati Bengals (6-11)
BMR Preview: It would be hard to pick head coach Zac Taylor out of a lineup of Costco cashiers, let alone pin down the identity of his football team. Last year, Joe Burrow threw the ball a ton. I picked up some Sam Bradford vibes from it all, but he looked better than Bradford did to me. Still, I’m a bit worried about him in this offense after he tore his ACL and the offensive line continues to look bad. I’m hoping to see more big plays from him this year after they upgraded the receivers. A.J. Green just didn’t have it anymore last year.
But with Taylor, it’s hard to see this team winning. Predicting them to win six games with a coach who is 6-25-1 feels generous to me.
1. Green Bay Packers (12-5)
BMR Preview: No team in NFL history has won 13 games in three straight seasons. The Packers are on the doorstep after going 13-3 in each of Matt LaFleur’s first two seasons. Both ended in a loss in the NFC Championship Game, but they were different paths to get there. Last year, Prime Aaron Rodgers returned and won his third MVP. It was unexpected since we hadn’t seen that guy for an extended period since 2014, and it’s not like the Packers added a ton of different talent on offense. I don’t remember anyone saying Jimmy Graham was holding them back in 2019 and tight end Robert Tonyan would be the answer. So, I would caution some regression there on offense.
As for defense, the Packers have a new coordinator (Joe Barry) with a bad track record and they brought back 14 of the 15 defenders who played at least 340 snaps, including playoff scapegoat Kevin King. I always say it’s the same thing every year for the Packers, but this is a little too on the nose. They even brought back slot receiver Randall Cobb to the offense in getting ready for Rodgers’ Last Dance.
The Packers have been swept out of the playoffs seven times since 2012, including each of the last two years by the 2019 49ers and 2020 Buccaneers. The good news? Tampa Bay isn’t on the schedule this year. But Green Bay is probably going to have to step up and beat a team like that if it wants to get back to another Super Bowl in this closing Rodgers window.
2. Minnesota Vikings (9-8)
BMR Preview: This was one of my favorite paragraphs in any of these previews this year:
“Kirk Cousins is an absolutely fitting 51-51-2 as a starter in the regular season (plus 1-2 in the playoffs). Since 2015, his records have been 9-7, 8-7-1, 7-9, 8-7-1, 10-5, and 7-9. It is as if he is incapable of straying more than a game from .500 or the Earth will spin off its axis. The one time he did in 2019, the world was thrown into a global pandemic. That is just the facts.”
I have a lot of good Cousins stats in here. The team really does seem like it can not stray too far from .500 with him. Last year, the Vikings had a lot of defensive injuries, leading to a horrible unit. Of all the teams in the league that have a shot at vastly improving their defense, I’d put Minnesota at No. 1 on the list given how many different and better players will take the field this year. The offense still obviously has some weapons, though I would caution that Justin Jefferson may not be able to improve on such a sensational rookie season with 1,400 yards. Plus, if Jefferson or Adam Thielen gets hurt, I’m not sure what this team will do at receiver. It’s not deep at all and even Kyle Rudolph is gone at tight end and Irv Smith was lost to injury.
But I came up with 9-8 in the end. Is that enough for the playoffs as a No. 7 seed? See below.
3. Chicago Bears (8-9)
BMR Preview: Nothing like dangling Justin Fields in the preseason and giving us Andy Dalton in prime time against Aaron Donald in Week 1. The Ginger Snaps won’t last past Week 3, right? That’s my thought on when we see Fields take over, which will definitely happen this year. I’m not sure why Matt Nagy is delaying the inevitable, but that’s why he’s not considered a top-tier coach despite not having a losing record yet. But I didn’t think Chicago did enough to make the defense better after a subpar year for that unit. The schedule is also really tough, so 8-9 is a gut pick that they’ll just be a mediocre team who won’t hog up a No. 7 seed this year.
4. Detroit Lions (4-13)
BMR Preview: While Matt Patricia always looked like a coach for a fictional New England football team on Family Guy, Dan Campbell enters with his own cartoonish vibe – somewhere between South Park’s PC Principal and a jock in Revenge of the Nerds.
I don’t know how long the Campbell era will last, but it sure could be hilarious. I probably give Jared Goff more credit than most, but I don’t think this is a good fit for him. Moving on from Matthew Stafford after a dozen years of trying to make it work was definitely the right move. The draft picks should help the Lions in their search for their next quarterback.
1. Kansas City (13-4)
2. Buffalo (12-5)
3. Baltimore (12-5)
4. Tennessee (10-7)
5. New England (10-7)
6. Los Angeles (10-7)
7. Pittsburgh (9-8)
Wild Card Saturday games decided by three points could become a Josh Allen tradition at this rate. The Steelers barely edged out Cleveland for the final wild card spot, but they drop another one in Buffalo. The Ravens get some revenge for 2018 by beating the Chargers while Mike Vrabel improves to 2-0 vs. Bill Belichick in the playoffs. But as the AFC rarely likes to change, we again see the Chiefs beat the Titans and the Bills beat the Ravens, setting up a rematch of last year’s AFC Championship Game. Once again, it’s Mahomes over Allen, sending the Chiefs back to the Super Bowl for a third year in a row.
1. Tampa Bay (15-2)
2. Green Bay (12-5)
3. Los Angeles (12-5)
4. Dallas (11-6)
5. San Francisco (11-6)
6. Seattle (11-6)
7. Arizona (9-8)
Wow, it really worked out to get all four NFC West teams in the tournament. I do not feel confident about that, but I had 9-8 Arizona and 9-8 Minnesota, and since I have Arizona beating the Vikings in Week 2, that’s the tie-breaker. Let’s roll with it. I have Arizona losing in Green Bay, Rams beating Seattle again for Stafford’s first playoff win (fitting since his first big win of career was vs. Seattle), and I’ll take Dallas over the 49ers. Then it’s the opener rematch with Dallas losing again in Tampa Bay. Rams lose again in Green Bay. The Packers can’t solve Tampa again on the road in a game not even as close as last year’s finish. That sets up our rematch.
I feel good about four new division winners and five new playoff teams, but damn if these games playing out so much like last year doesn’t bug me. I have six playoff rematches from last year in here (BAL-BUF, BUF-KC, SEA-LAR, LAR-GB, GB-TB, KC-TB).
SUPER BOWL LVI
Tampa Bay 31, Kansas City 27
At least this one won’t be played in Tampa Bay and the Chiefs shouldn’t have a ravaged offensive line this time.
Can he finally just retire after this one? Eight Is Enough was a TV show that debuted in 1977, the year Tom Brady was born. I hope that’s the universe’s sign telling him to take a f’n hint.
Finally, the top five in my top 100 NFL quarterbacks of the 21st century. Something that started as a thought exercise last Tuesday has turned into an eight-part trip down memory lane totaling over 43,000 words. If you missed the beginning of the series, there is a recap with links below, and here is where the list stands from No. 100 to No. 6:
Including the playoffs, there are 100 NFL quarterbacks who have started at least 30 games in the last 20 seasons (2001-20). In part I, I began to rank these quarterbacks from No. 100 to No. 87, looking at the worst of the bunch. In part II, I looked at some more serviceable players who may have had one special season in their career. In part III, the players included more multi-year starters who still may have only had that one peak year as well as some younger players still developing. In part IV, I had an especially difficult time with slotting quarterbacks I have criticized for years, but who definitely had a peak year. In part V, we got into some MVP winners and a few quarterbacks I have struggled to root for over the years. In part VI, we had a few Hall of Famers and some players who may have gotten there had it not been for injuries. In part VII, I unveiled the first half of the top 10, including a detailed story on witnessing Ben Roethlisberger’s whole career unfold as a local.
I do not know if Green Bay fans are still mad at me, but they might be after reading this. On the other hand, maybe the last decade has worn them down to say, “he was onto something after all.”
Ten years ago, Aaron Rodgers was on top of the NFL world having just won Super Bowl MVP honors and leading the Packers back to championship glory in his third season as a starter. I was just a newbie writer covering my first NFL season as a freelancer, and I was known as “the comebacks guy” for my work on fourth-quarter comebacks and game-winning drives, the latter stat being officially adopted into record by the NFL after my work went viral.
One of the first times I ever did a 6,000-word opus was a piece called Aaron Rodgers: Front-runner Extraordinaire for Cold Hard Football Facts. The link no longer works, but basically I defined what a front-runner is, if it’s a bad thing or not, and how Rodgers and the Packers have an incredibly low number of comebacks and game-winning drives despite their overall success under head coach Mike McCarthy. At the time, Rodgers was 3-16 at 4QC opportunities with one of the wins against the 0-16 Lions in 2008.
I mentioned the long list of crucial interceptions the defense made off Michael Vick, Matt Ryan, Caleb Hanie, and Ben Roethlisberger in that 2010 Super Bowl run, and concluded with “Is it a repeatable strategy? Probably not, as that was a heavy reliance on key interceptions. But if they can figure it out and get more team performances like the Atlanta game, then this could be the league’s next dynasty.”
Well, the defense never returned to 2010’s level, and not only did they fail to become a dynasty, but we have gone 10 seasons and the Packers have yet to return to the Super Bowl with Rodgers. They are 0-4 in the NFC Championship Game. He has still never had more than three game-winning drives in any season (including playoffs), something that has been done 92 times by other quarterbacks since 2008.
Right after I wrote that article, the 2011 Packers started 13-0 without trailing once in the fourth quarter. Combined with their similar six-game winning streak to end 2010, that marked 19 straight wins without trailing in the fourth quarter, an NFL record. The previous record was 13 games by a World War II-era Washington team, so Green Bay smashed it. Greatest front-running team ever just like I said.
When a bad Chiefs team punched the Packers in the mouth that year, they folded and lost for the first time. Then in the playoffs against the Giants, they lost another game that was within one score early in the fourth quarter before New York won in shocking fashion, 37-20.
The whole time my thought process was that we need to slow down before proclaiming Rodgers as the next GOAT when I was able to pick up on this pattern throughout his first three seasons as a starter that showed up again in spades in 2011, his first MVP season. I knew from my research and general study of quarterback play that he could never reach GOAT status if he continues to practically never win any close games. When is front-running a bad thing? When it’s the only thing you do. I tried to tell Green Bay fans that if this continues, it is going to cost your team wins, division titles, higher playoff seeds, and ultimately Super Bowls.
I’d say I rest my case with the last decade as proof, but there’s so much more here to unpack. In 2012, the Packers again blew three close games early in the season to the 49ers, Seahawks (Fail Mary), and Colts (Andrew Luck’s coming out party). I continued to write about this close game subject at all the sites I was working with at the time, including Bleacher Report when I shared that Rodgers was 0-18 at 4QC opportunities against teams better than .500. The line “To reach the goal of another Super Bowl, the 2013 Packers will be looking for the balance the team had in 2010 between the offense and defense” could literally be reused every year for the last decade for Green Bay.
In 2013, Rodgers had a rough outing in Cincinnati in Week 3 and Green Bay blew a lead in a 34-30 loss. He came up short again on the final drive. I immediately wrote about “Aaron Rodgers’ Hidden Weakness” for a piece on ESPN Insider. “Rodgers is 9-26 (.257) when he has to score the winning points in the fourth quarter or overtime, but 49-5 (.907) in all other games, meaning the Packers are often on the winning end of blowouts. That .650 difference in winning percentage is the largest I have found in a sample of 67 quarterbacks.” I concluded by saying that for Rodgers to earn the status as the best quarterback in the league, he has to deliver more in these moments.
Shortly after, I was made aware that ESPN’s First Take did a segment about my Rodgers article. There has probably been nothing more surreal in my career than watching Stephen A. Smith and Skip Bayless holding a printout of my article in their hands as they screamed at each other about it on TV.
For better or worse, I got this comeback talk into the mainstream media. Rodgers broke his collarbone that season and missed seven starts. The team mostly flopped without him, but it sure was interesting when backup Matt Flynn led a comeback tie against Minnesota after trailing by 16 points and a 23-point comeback win over the Cowboys. These were the kind of games Green Bay never had with Rodgers at quarterback. So that started creeping into my stats, because Flynn also had a 9-point comeback against the 2011 Lions when he threw for 480 yards and six touchdowns in Week 17.
Soon you started seeing me put out stats with tables like this one:
Eventually, Rodgers snapped that 0-for streak with a Hail Mary win in Detroit in 2015. But it was during that 2015 season that things changed drastically in Green Bay. Rodgers won his second MVP in 2014’s “Relax” run. A deserving choice, though I think Tony Romo at least had a case. In 2015, he lost Jordy Nelson to a torn ACL, but the Packers were still 6-0 and his numbers were what you expect and in line with his peak of 2009-2014. However, the team then went on a bye week and came back and played Denver’s outstanding defense on Sunday Night Football. Rodgers looked lost and threw for 77 yards in a 29-10 loss. Without that Hail Mary in Detroit, which followed a bullshit facemask penalty on the Lions, the Packers would have lost five out of six following a 6-0 start.
What the hell kind of Palm Springs cave did Rodgers stumble into during that bye week that sapped him of his powers?
It was all pretty peculiar as Rodgers continued to rely on Hail Mary passes late that year just to keep the team competitive. He hit one in the playoffs in Arizona to force overtime, though I think the play on 4th-and-20 that preceded it was far more impressive. The Packers never touched the ball in overtime, losing on the final play for the third postseason in a row.
In 2016, the Packers started 4-6 with Rodgers continuing to underwhelm from what we’re used to seeing from him. There were also some uncharacteristic losses that weren’t even close games. My other advice for Green Bay fans about the front-running critique was to treat it as a positive since it shows that your team is in almost every game with Rodgers. No one blows him out. From 2008 to 2012, the Packers had a nice 69-game streak of being at least within one score in the fourth quarter. The 2012 Giants ended that one with a 38-10 blowout. The only longer streak in NFL history that I’ve found was 98 games by Seattle in 2011-16.
But now the Packers were not keeping it close, and Rodgers still had no comebacks in 2016. However, he talked about running the table, and that kicked off an eight-game win streak where he was hot and in his MVP form, reaching the NFC Championship Game again after an impressive game-winning drive in Dallas in the divisional round. But the real MVP that season, Matt Ryan, lit up Rodgers’ defense and the Packers lost 44-21. Prior to that game, I unveiled a crazy Rodgers stat that I have since regretted posting because of how Brady fans have used it so recklessly. I’m not repeating it here, but if you’re curious, you can click those links.
In 2017, Rodgers had the Packers off to a solid 4-1 start, but another collarbone injury derailed his season. Again, the team flopped without him, but boy was it amusing to see Brett Hundley lead a 14-point 4QC win against Cleveland. There was no magic this time when Rodgers returned late in the season, and the team missed the playoffs for the first time since his 2008 season.
In the 2018 opener against the Bears, the Packers were down 20-3 to start the fourth quarter. Rodgers’ success rate was 0-for-10 in the first half, and he suffered what looked like a season-ending injury. But something crazy happened. Rodgers returned after being carted off the field, and he led the biggest comeback of his career and the Packers won 24-23. It ended a record of 0-31 when Rodgers trailed by double digits in the fourth quarter.
That was Rodgers’ sixth game-winning drive in his last 16 appearances, the hottest clutch streak of his career. Maybe 2018 was going to be the turning point. In Week 16, Rodgers led a 15-point 4QC against the Jets. He finished the season with 25 touchdowns to two interceptions. If I told you that Rodgers led two 15+ point 4QCs and had that touchdown-to-interception ratio, you would predict a great season, right? Wrong. The Packers finished 6-9-1 with a middling offense as Rodgers was too conservative with taking sacks and making throwaways to keep his picks down that season. In the end, Mike McCarthy was fired as his stale offense was often the scapegoat for Rodgers’ decline.
Whatever the cause, the change from Peak Aaron Rodgers (2009-14) to Not Peak Aaron Rodgers (2015-19) was fascinating to see and unprecedented for a player of this caliber.
That does not have the numbers updated for 2018-19, but they could not have been much better. Even after bringing in Matt LaFleur as the head coach in 2019, the Packers were still middling on offense and Rodgers had his lowest QBR (52.5) yet, which ranked 20th in the league. The difference in going 13-3 was that the defense played better, and the Packers hung on from ahead in a lot of one-score games in the fourth quarter. But the 49ers pushed them around twice and beat them badly, 37-20, in the NFC Championship Game.
Last year, Prime Aaron Rodgers made his unexpected but triumphant return for his third MVP season despite the biggest offensive change being Robert Tonyan taking over for Jimmy Graham at tight end. I detailed that rise here. I feel like it was the weakest of his MVP seasons, and his record for 1-yard touchdown passes (eight) in a season did not impress me. But overall, it was a great season, I can understand why he won the award, and it was good to see him back to playing at that level. I just wish he didn’t implode in Tampa Bay, because that sure seemed to give the Buccaneers confidence that they could win in Green Bay in the title game. Rodgers played much better that second time around, but the uncharacteristic red-zone struggles hurt on a day the Packers needed more touchdowns. But nothing hurt more than the play of corner Kevin King and Aaron Jones’ fumble, the double whammy in the middle of the game that led to a 28-10 deficit.
We could have had two straight Super Bowls with Rodgers vs. Mahomes, but instead we are still hoping to see their first matchup this regular season. The Packers have been swept out of the playoffs seven times since the 2012 season. They just never seem to figure out these teams that get the best of them in the regular season.
Being pushed around by those NFC West and NFC South teams has really taken over as my preferred talking point on the Rodgers-era Packers. He tends to own his division and Dallas and the crummy East, but the 49ers (2012-13, 2019), Seahawks (2014), Cardinals (2015), Falcons (2016), and Buccaneers (2020) are the seven NFC teams that have swept Green Bay since 2012.
There is still a shortage of comebacks in Green Bay, but I can say that Rodgers has at least improved his record and my expectations of him in that department. 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 15-17-1 (.470), which would be just behind the career records of Ben Roethlisberger (51-56-1, .477) and Russell Wilson (35-39-1, .473) near the top of the league.
I have often said that Rodgers’ A-game is as good as any quarterback in the history of the NFL. From a pure talent standpoint, he has to be right up there with Mahomes and Steve Young as the best players. His highlight reel could run the longest of anyone on this list, which speaks to his skill and longevity.
But when it comes to having to brush off a bad start or when the game does not go according to plan, I still have a hard time trusting Rodgers as much as I do some other quarterbacks. The lack of comebacks has always bugged me with him, but beyond that, I think the abyss he fell into during 2015-19 eliminates him from the conversation of the greatest to ever play. That kind of thing just does not happen.
When Peyton Manning became an elite quarterback in his second season (1999), he basically stayed that way until his quad injury late in 2014. When Tom Brady finally started producing good numbers (2004) and he then had his statistical down years (2006, 2013, 2019), he didn’t let it linger beyond those seasons. When Drew Brees broke out in 2004, he basically rode that wave all the way through retirement after 2020 with only a couple short-lived slumps. For five whole seasons, Rodgers basically had his six-game hot streak to start 2015 and his eight-game hot streak in 2016. The rest of the time he was hovering around mediocrity, which is unacceptable for someone this talented.
We’ll see just how long Peak Aaron Rodgers 2.0 sticks around too. Was it just a one-year revival, or does he do it again this year, which could very well be his last with Green Bay? Does he go to another team in 2022 and add to his legacy a la Manning and Brady? The book isn’t finished here, but I’ve sure as hell written a good draft for my time in covering the one and only Aaron Rodgers.
4. Drew Brees
That’s right, we have a change at the top of my list. In December 2019, I wrote about how Drew Brees was the Hypothetical GOAT. Already the passing king with records for touchdowns and yards, Brees also dominates the metrics that look at passing accuracy (things like CPOE and plus-minus), so he has a good argument as the most accurate quarterback of all time. But he also could have been the biggest playoff winner with the best playoff stats of his era as well, not to mention hold records for the most comebacks and game-winning drives. That’s the hypothetical part.
“Imagine if Brees was 5-0 in Super Bowls with wins over Peyton (2009), Roethlisberger (2010), and 3-0 against Brady (2011, 2017-18). He’d be considered the GOAT for sure, also having kept Rodgers to zero rings. Remember, it was Rodgers’ run in 2010 that propelled him ahead of Brees during the year where Brees was supposed to join the Manning/Brady tier after 2009’s win.”
How did I get to that? All I did was change five outcomes in his career that had nothing to even do with his play, including a 29-yard field goal being made instead of missed, three defensive stops instead of scores allowed, and a flag for pass interference on the 2018 Rams. It’s really that simple and that thin of a margin between the multiple Super Bowls he played well enough to make and only the one appearance he got.
That was my epiphany moment on Brees’ career as he was having another stellar season in 2019 and Brady was floundering at the end of his run in New England. That led me to rank Brees ahead of Brady on my all-time list for the first time, putting Brees at No. 4 and Brady at No. 5. I’m really going to test people’s patience with reading full articles with this one as they’re going to complain on Twitter that I wrote one sentence about Brady below, but the fact is he’s sprinkled throughout this top five and in great detail below.
But my prediction that Brees will probably jinx me and have his worst postseason proved true. The Saints lost to the Vikings in overtime in the wild card round. Last year, Brees looked noticeably weaker at getting the ball down the field, then he suffered multiple fractured ribs (starting at the hands of Brady’s Tampa Bay defense) and a collapsed lung. He was never quite the same when he came back and he had arguably his worst game in a Saints uniform in the playoffs against Tampa Bay, a 30-20 loss in the divisional round that sent him into retirement.
Brees really did not have my back on this one, so after seeing him tap out at 41 and play a huge role in Brady winning a Super Bowl with Tampa Bay, I feel like I can no longer justify ranking him ahead of Brady. That doesn’t mean I wouldn’t pick a 22-year-old Brees over a 22-year-old Brady to start a fictional team from scratch, but that’s a whole different argument than something like this, which I’ve always based on a mixture of achievement and ability. Hell, the list of quarterbacks I’d take over a 22-year-old Brady would be massive, but again, that’s a different perspective.
I’ll certainly miss Brees in New Orleans. I’ve talked about a quarterback’s A-game multiple times already, and we know that when Brees was playing in the Superdome in prime time, he was absolute money for over a decade. That was him in his element. It’s also not like the Saints spent a ton of draft resources on offense or always had high-priced free agents on that side of the ball. Brees helped so many receivers to ridiculously high catch rates and great receiving metrics with his accuracy. There will almost certainly be more Hall of Fame teammates from the four years that Brees started in San Diego than there will be from his time in New Orleans. I just wish Sean Payton would have cared more about coaching defense and they could have had more success on that side of the ball.
In five seasons with serious Super Bowl aspirations, Brees watched Rex Grossman (2006), Alex Smith (2011), Case Keenum (2017), Jared Goff (2018), and Kirk Cousins (2019) get the most significant win of their careers against his Saints. Otherwise, those quarterbacks were 3-13 as playoff starters. That’s a tough pill to swallow, and that doesn’t even include the “Beastquake” loss to the 7-9 Seahawks in 2010 or his only playoff game with San Diego, an overtime loss to the Jets after Nate Kaeding missed a makeable overtime field goal.
Brees goes down as the king of the lost comeback, or games where he led his team from behind to a lead in the fourth quarter, but the team still lost the game. He did that 19 times, the most in NFL history and more than Brady (nine) and Manning (seven) combined.
With Brees retired, I did want to update these numbers from that 2019 article through 2020. These are their adjusted records in the clutch if every go-ahead FG/XP was successful and every go-ahead drive was held up by the defense. (Note that if a kick would have just tied the game, we’re sticking with that as a loss.)
Revised Career 4QC/GWD Opportunity Records with All Leads Upheld and 100% FGs
Drew Brees: 86-44 (.662) from 57-73 (.438)
Tom Brady: 74-37 (.667) from 63-48 (.568)
Peyton Manning: 70-44 (.614) from 58-56 (.509)
That last head-to-head game won by Tampa now gives Brady the edge in adjusted win rate, but Brees still has by far the largest total of wins and the biggest increase in wins from his actual record (+29).
As for why I still put Brees ahead of Rodgers, it’s because I don’t think Brees had a slump that lasted longer than four games in the 17-year period of 2004-20. He did take longer to shine than Rodgers, who was already good in his first year as a starter, then great in 2009. But once Brees broke out in 2004, I see very few cracks in his game outside of a rough four-game start to 2007 and a few too many multi-pick games in 2010. He definitely didn’t have a 2015-19 run on his resume, and even when the Saints weren’t making the playoffs in those 7-9 seasons, it was because Brees had the worst team support (D/ST) of these top five quarterbacks in his career. Also, yes, he is better with the game on the line than Rodgers and I think he’s performed better in the postseason. The fact that both have only reached one Super Bowl while never meeting in the playoffs is mind blowing to me. It’s not like they were holding each other back. Rodgers still has time to pass Brees for me.
Brees’ place in history figures to be as the best quarterback to never win an MVP, but he deserves better than that. My concern is with the 17-game season, 5,000-yard passing seasons are going to become more common and people are going to overlook just how prolific Brees was in a league with great competition at his position.
3. Tom Brady
Pretty good for a sixth-round pick who only got his start because Drew Bledsoe was injured.
2. Patrick Mahomes
Did you guess it? I may have let it slip a month ago on Twitter.
While I might not be able to bring myself to rank Mahomes second in all of NFL history after 54 starts, I have no doubt that no other quarterback has been this great so soon in their career. It also could be the best 54-game stretch any quarterback has ever had. Definitely the best 53-game streak.
Yes, that 31-9 loss in Super Bowl LV has removed Mahomes’ invincibility. It was the first time he lost a game by more than eight points and the first time he did not lead a touchdown drive. But in reviewing the game, I still have a hard time saying he was bad that night given the pass rush and two potential dropped touchdowns. It was a dreadful game for his standards, but his standards are so ridiculously high. If this game or the Atlanta game in Week 16 is what a “bad” Mahomes game looks like, then I guess his bad games are still decent.
But one thing I am certain of is that Mahomes has no discernible weakness in his game. Your basic rebuttal of “just pressure him like the Raiders and Bucs did last year” is not exposing a weakness. All quarterbacks do worse under pressure vs. not pressured. But guess who the best quarterback under pressure has been? Mahomes.
When I reviewed the 2020 offense, I found just how hard it is to stop Mahomes.
“By the numbers, the Chiefs are more likely to score than be stopped with Mahomes this season. In 160 drives with him including the playoffs, the Chiefs have scored 85 times (56 touchdowns and 29 field goals) and did not score 75 times. Even the 75 non-scoring drives include positive offensive results such as three missed field goals and running out the clock on three opponents, including the Buccaneers in Week 12.
The Chiefs just may be their own worst enemy. They missed out on seven extra touchdowns this season just because of dropped passes (four) or penalties that wiped out scores (three). Mahomes has turned the ball over eight times this season via interceptions (six) or lost fumbles (two), but he is more likely to see a drive end because of a dropped pass that would have extended the drive, which happened 11 times to the Chiefs this year. The skill players have also lost six fumbles and the short-yardage offense has been stopped nine times when trying to move the ball without Mahomes.”
I could spend a lot of time sharing crazy Mahomes stats and facts:
I’m sure there will be more to come soon. We’re already getting to the point where the nitpicking on Mahomes will be things like “he’s never had to play a road playoff game” and “he’s never had a great four-quarter performance in a Super Bowl!” While both are true, if that’s the best thing you can come up with after 54 games….
The only real concern about Mahomes at this point would be his health. He’s narrowly avoided a season-ending injury two years in a row with his dislocated kneecap and that scary situation against Cleveland only costing him about a dozen quarters of action combined. Health is always the No. 1 thing for every quarterback. Look at how many careers I wrote about here that were negatively impacted by injuries. So, let’s hope Mahomes is one of the more durable players at his position.
I guess the other thing I would caution is that he’s been all instant peak. The quarterbacks who peaked so high right out the gate had a difficult time ever finding their way back to that level of play. Think Johnny Unitas after 1959, Dan Marino after 1987, and Kurt Warner after 2001.
For as great as Mahomes has been in the last three years, can he keep that pace up for another eight or 12 years? Can he stay this dominant when Travis Kelce is no longer his tight end or Andy Reid is not the head coach? Remember, Aaron Rodgers was at a ridiculous level for six seasons and six games before he fell off in 2015. But when it comes to keeping up a ridiculous prime for over a decade, someone else is still the gold standard, and that is why Mahomes cannot be ranked No. 1 yet.
1. Peyton Manning
Simply put, Peyton Manning is the most valuable player in NFL history. Just in the 10 seasons he was active from 2003 to 2013, he won five MVP awards (most ever) and was named first-team All-Pro seven times (most ever). That is an insane run that we may never see again. Even Mahomes is only 1-for-3 in winning those honors so far.
Honestly, he should have won eight of each, but fatigued voters still loved their running backs (2005, 2006, 2012) instead of true value, and someone so clueless picked Marc Bulger to rob Manning of the All-Pro nod in 2006, still his best season ever in my eyes. I do not say that because it was his only Super Bowl win in Indy. His drive engineering was never better than in 2006, his third-down performance was record breaking (peep the QBR), he was at his physical peak in throwing downfield and moving in the pocket better after that 2005 Pittsburgh loss made him improve that area of his game. He had bigger statistical years (2004, 2013), and he carried weaker teams in 2008-09, but 2006 was the all-around greatest Peyton Manning season. It’s also the last time since 1999 Kurt Warner that the best quarterback in the regular season won the Super Bowl that year.
Pick your proprietary metric – QBR, DVOA, DYAR, EPA, WPA, ANY/A – and he’s going to outshine his peers. He led the most efficient offenses on a per-drive basis of any quarterback, and his units often did great on third down and in the red zone. He had the career records for comebacks and game-winning drives, including a record seven comeback wins in that 2009 season as the team started 14-0. Along with Dan Marino, he was the hardest quarterback to pressure and sack because of how quick he released the ball, making him able to succeed with any offensive line. He was one of the most durable quarterbacks of all time before a Gregg Williams defense got to his neck. Only missed one play due to injury from 1998 to 2010. He got to his final of 539 touchdown passes in fewer games and pass attempts than Brees and Brady did. He broke the touchdown record twice with 49 and 55 touchdown passes. Breaking a significant record like that twice is unheard of and unlikely to ever happen again.
Like having a coach on the field, you will never see another quarterback go to four Super Bowls with four different head coaches and two different teams, becoming the first quarterback to win one with two teams. His Super Bowl teams were among the most imbalanced winners ever as one great offense (2006 Colts) and one great defense (2015 Broncos). Even his other two appearances were two of the biggest one-man show runs to the big game, which does a lot to explain why those were not wins. He always drew the toughest matchup possible in all four of his Super Bowls too.
Mahomes may be raising the standard for a quarterback avoiding bad games, but Manning rarely had cold streaks. When he threw 11 interceptions in a three-game losing streak for the Colts in 2010, it was headline news in the NFL. He shook it off with a four-game winning streak that led the Colts to the playoffs one last time. In the 17 seasons he started, he made the playoffs and won 10+ games 15 times. The only times he didn’t were the seasons where he had the bottom ranked scoring defense in the league and schedules loaded with playoff teams.
He was awful for his first six games as a rookie, but once he settled down and figured out how to play in the NFL, he basically rode that wave until late in 2014 when his body started to fail him. A quad injury exacerbated by the four neck surgeries as he had to adjust his mechanics to account for the lost arm strength. Manning was never physically the same quarterback in Denver as he was in Indy, but his anticipation on throws got even better to compensate. The fact that he could throw 55 touchdowns and 5,477 yard (both records) in 2013 with such limited arm strength is amazing.
In watching the state of defense continue to decline in the NFL since Manning retired, you only wonder what kind of numbers he would put up if he was getting his start now. While the position is moving to athletic playmakers who can run and pass, Manning’s intelligence, preparation, accuracy, and ability to get rid of the ball would make him a great success in any era. He is his own offensive system.
The Lousy Arguments vs. Manning
What I loved about Manning is that he disproved every garbage argument thrown his way in his career.
“He’s only good cause he has Edgerrin James at running back and defenses bite on the play-action and stretch plays.”
Edge left in 2006 and Manning immediately won a Super Bowl. Indy’s running game disappeared in 2007 and he continued to thrive and win MVP awards.
“He’s only good cause he has Tarik Glenn at left tackle.”
Glenn retired after 2006, the Colts put a turnstile named Tony Ugoh in his place, and the 12-win seasons and MVP awards kept coming. Manning could make any offensive line combination work out.
“He’s only good cause he has Marvin Harrison.”
Harrison was also one of the worst playoff receivers in NFL history as I’ve documented before. As soon as he left, Manning won his fourth MVP in 2009, but people love to ignore 88’s contributions to the down years in the playoffs.
If the best wide receiver in NFL history isn’t Jerry Rice, then it’s the guy who was Manning’s No. 1 wide receiver. That’s part Marvin, part Reggie Wayne, and part Demaryius Thomas in Denver. Put those numbers together and they are outstanding, because that’s what a consistently accurate elite passer can do for his receivers. Manning got many guys paid after big seasons, including the likes of Brandon Stokley, Jacob Tamme, Pierre Garcon, Austin Collie, Eric Decker, Emmanuel Sanders, Julius Thomas, etc.
This also speaks to the weak “he threw to first-round picks” argument, especially since that argument is most beloved by people who worship a sixth-round pick at quarterback and advocate for Julian Edelman to make the Hall of Fame.
The truth is Harrison (1.19), Wayne (1.30), Dallas Clark (1.30), Anthony Gonzalez (1.32), and Demaryius Thomas (1.22) were all chosen 19th or later in the first round, making them more of a crapshoot to succeed. It is a fact that players in the lower portion of the first round have inferior careers, on average, to players at the top of the draft. The only thing keeping those averages closer is Manning’s contributions to helping those players have several of the best careers for players drafted in the bottom half of the first round. But he never played with a surefire receiver like Julio Jones, Calvin Johnson, Larry Fitzgerald, or A.J. Green. He played with a lot of shorter, possession receivers who ran great routes, but did not do much after the catch. The ball was expected to be on time, and it often was as Manning was never a “just throw it up and hope something good happens” passer. His offense was built on precision, timing, and exploiting matchups pre-snap.
“His stats are inflated by the dome.”
Ah, the dome quarterback. This one always pisses me off because it shows no understanding of the game. For one, only a few quarterbacks (Manning, Brees, Ryan, Stafford, maybe Warren Moon back in the day) ever get this label because there aren’t that many domes in the NFL. Also, you must actually be good to get this criticism. No one has ever said “Joey Harrington would suck in Detroit if he wasn’t a dome QB.” No, Joey Harrington would suck on every playing surface known to man because he was a shit quarterback. I could say the same about Sam Bradford, who played for the Rams, Vikings, and Cardinals.
When someone like Brady or Rodgers has great stats in games played indoors, it’s because that’s a small sample of games against a fixed, limited set of opponents who often have bad defenses (Saints, Lions, Vikings, Falcons, etc.). But for someone like Manning or Brees, they played at least half their seasons indoors for extended periods of their careers. They faced all different types of defenses in home games doing that, including elite ones. So, if you’re going to compare indoor stats, compare apples to apples and compare only indoor road games for the quarterbacks who have an indoor home stadium.
Plus, Manning proved it quite well in Denver that he didn’t need an indoor stadium to dominate. He also was one of the best cold weather quarterbacks, but people who act like the only games that matter are two snowy playoff games in New England missed that fact.
With Manning and Brees retired, Ryan aging, and Stafford moving to LA, it will be interesting to see where the future of dome passing stats go. Especially in an AFC that has totally retooled the quarterback position with guys in outdoor stadiums (Mahomes, Allen, Lamar, Baker, Burrow, Tua, Herbert, Lawrence, Z.Wilson, Mac Jones, etc.). Things may not look so hot if Jameis Winston, Jared Goff, Kirk Cousins, Derek Carr, and Carson Wentz are our new indoor passers.
“Best regular-season QB ever, but he was a playoff choker!”
While he absolutely disproved this on the field, to this day too many people still believe it. I have written about the topic extensively on this blog, on ESPN Insider, and in two parts on FO where I think I really solved it. Manning’s teams blew a record six fourth-quarter leads in the playoffs, and most of them came in the first game of a playoff run, which explains why he had the record for nine one-and-done postseasons. No other quarterback has seen his team blow that many playoff leads. Then when you do it right in the first game, there’s no next week after that. When Manning’s teams got past the first game of the playoffs, they were very good. Ask Rodgers and Brees how hard it is to get to more than one Super Bowl.
But Manning was one of the best playoff performers in NFL history. How else do you explain his first three AFC Championship Game wins that were some of the best games of his career? The way he dominated the Broncos in back-to-back years, beating the Chiefs in Kansas City in a game without any punts.
Yet when he threw the interception to Tracy Porter in Super Bowl 44, people treated it as him doing what he always does in the playoffs. What pattern is that when it’s literally the first time in his playoff career that he turned the ball over in a 4QC/GWD opportunity? Are people pretending that throwing picks when you’re down 34-0, 41-0, and 20-3 in the final minute of the fourth quarter are what lost those games to the 2002 Jets and 2004 Patriots? Manning was 6-6 when he threw zero interceptions in a playoff game, still the most losses in playoff history doing that.
From 1998-2010, Manning’s Colts were 1-5 (.167) in the playoffs when they had zero turnovers. The rest of the NFL was 43-4 (.915). Chew on that one for a minute.
If these articles won’t work, I guess a documentary is the next step for me, but unfortunately, we live in an era where people can be shown video evidence and facts and still not change their beliefs. They see what they want to see. Worse, Manning’s career took place during Tom Brady’s career, and there is no quarterback who gets his worshippers more riled up to defend his honor than the King of Kings himself.
I’ve Been Coming at the King for Two Decades
That’s right, Brady fans. If you think I was only going to leave him at one sentence above, then you clearly don’t know any better. I’m going to go over the whole origin story of why I think he’s the most overrated player ever.
They say first impressions are everything.
I caught my first Tom Brady game on January 19, 2002. All I knew about him was that he was a sixth-round pick who took over after Drew Bledsoe was injured early in the season. I heard he was supposed to be decent, but the Patriots had a bunch of players I never heard of while I saw the likes of Jerry Rice, Tim Brown, and Charles Woodson on the Raiders. I wasn’t into rooting for either team, but it was a big playoff game and the snow looked cool on our new 27-inch TV.
Late in the game, it looked like the Raiders had wrapped it up, 13-10 with a strip-sack fumble recovery. But there was a review, and from there I learned all about things like Walt Coleman’s pro-Patriots past and this new rule called the Tuck Rule. It no longer exists because it never made any sense, it has been applied liberally and inconsistently, and to this day, that looks like a fumble to me. Game over. But the Patriots kept the ball, Brady completed only one more pass, and Adam Vinatieri was tasked with a super difficult field goal to tie the game. He hit it from 45 yards away and it is still the greatest kick in NFL history if you ask me.
The Patriots won the overtime coin toss, they dinked and dunked down the field, and Vinatieri hit a game-winning field goal, another weak element of the game that had to go years later. I read a recap online after the game that the Patriots got really lucky, which I thought was obvious. Then I saw this snotty quote from Brady about the play that saved his bacon. “You know, he hit me. I wasn’t sure. Yeah, I was throwing the ball. How do you like that? Damn right. Damn right.”
How do I like that? This low-rent Matt Damon looking mug couldn’t even admit he got away with one. I was looking forward to seeing the Steelers face this team since I thought the Raiders would have been a tougher out in the AFC Championship Game.
Of course, Kordell Stewart pulled his usual big-game display with three picks. The special teams got absolutely hosed on a missed penalty that should have negated a touchdown return. And Brady? He dinked and dunked, then he left the game injured in the second quarter and they hung on with Drew Bledsoe finishing the game. Brady led his offense to 29 points in the entire postseason. He started in the Super Bowl against the Rams, a team I was fond of at the time for their high-flying offense. It was supposed to be a rout, which the Super Bowl usually was in those days, but it turned out to be a huge upset. However, if you watch that game now, it’s pretty boring. The Patriots would back the Rams up, they’d get a few first downs, then either stall or turn the ball over and set the Patriots up on short fields.
Brady didn’t even break 70 air yards in that game, and he never converted a third down. He led his offense to 13 points, but that was good enough for the win as Ty Law, who should have been named MVP, had a pick-six. The Rams tied it up, John Madden gave horrible advice on sitting on the ball that teams did not follow even back then, and then I watched Brady throw three dump passes, get away with intentional grounding, make one nice pass to Troy Brown, and before you know it there’s Vinatieri kicking a 48-yard field goal that somehow took seven seconds off the clock to end the game.
Aside from the U2 halftime show, that was not a fun night. It was hard to tell a difference between what Brady did that postseason and what Trent Dilfer did with Baltimore the year before.
The Patriots missed the playoffs in 2002 and started 0-1 in 2003 after letting Lawyer Milloy go before the season. Brady threw four picks in that opener, a 31-0 loss to Buffalo. I used to watch ESPN in the afternoon at the time and they would have talking heads like Sean Salisbury ask if the players hate Bill Belichick as their coach. But soon enough, this team embarked on a record 21-game winning streak that looked like the luckiest damn thing I’d ever seen in football.
They won a game 19-13 in overtime in Miami after Olindo Mare missed two 35-yard field goals in crunch time. At least one was blocked, but he flat out missed the game-winner in overtime. That was Game No. 3 and it proved to be the difference in making a record.
In Game No. 5 in Denver, they took an intentional safety while trailing 24-23 late in the game as Belichick did not want to punt from his own 1. That felt ballsy. Denver gave the ball back in record time, and Brady only had to go 58 yards for the game-winning touchdown. You rarely see the intentional safety work out that well.
Game No. 8 in Indianapolis was the real ball buster and the true beginning of the Manning-Brady, Colts-Patriots rivalry. New England led 31-10 in the third quarter, but Manning turned a couple of Brady picks into touchdowns and quickly tied the game up at 31 in the fourth. Just when you expect a good finish, Bethel Johnson has a 67-yard kick return to give Brady great field position for another touchdown. Johnson also had a 92-yard kick return touchdown to end the first half, which you almost never see in this league.
The Colts were down 38-34 late with the ball. They got a first-and-goal at the 2-yard line. Edgerrin James ended up getting stuffed three times, including a loss on fourth down. Linebacker Willie McGinest, who ran off the field “injured” on the drive, returned to make that tackle before high-stepping in celebration. There was my introduction to faking an injury in the NFL.
In Game No. 13, the Patriots hosted the Titans in the AFC divisional round. Now I hated the Titans as an old division rival of the Steelers, but I kinda felt myself rooting for them in this one because of how annoying the narrative was on this Patriots team. ESPN was already moving onto the “Brady just wins” crap that would only get worse. Keep in mind this was a season where the Patriots had the No. 1 defense, ranked 16th in points per drive on offense, and Brady was on the fringes of the top 10 in passer rating and YPA behind the legendary Jon Kitna. I mean, I hated Jeff Fisher and his team, but I was fine with seeing them win this one.
It was a freezing cold night, but the offenses started hot before tanking. It was 14-14 in the fourth quarter when Vinatieri once again enhanced his legacy and connected on a 46-yard field goal. Steve McNair had so much time to answer, but pressure did him in, resulting in penalties for grounding and holding. He had to go for it on a 4th-and-12. He threw a pass to Drew Bennett, but Bennett dropped it down the field and the game was over. The Patriots had another playoff win by three points.
January 18, 2004 – This was the day that changed the course of NFL history, how quarterbacks are judged in the mainstream media, and it had a huge impact on me as well.
Peyton Manning was co-MVP with McNair that year, but after winning his first two playoff games in dominant fashion, he was ready to go into New England with a Super Bowl on the line. I was really excited for this one.
I actually watched several Brady games before I watched a full Manning game in the NFL. Sounds shocking, but that’s the truth. I knew his name for years and that his dad played for the Saints in the paper bag over the head days. I knew he was a highly touted player and “the next Dan Marino” and all that. I knew from playing Madden that he was a pain in the ass with the audibles, and in one of my franchise modes, he actually suffered a career-ending injury, the only time I remember seeing one that notable in my game.
But outside of some highlights, I never really saw him play a whole game. That changed in October 2002 when the Steelers hosted the Colts on MNF. Expecting to see something great, the game was a rout. The Steelers were up 21-0 in the second quarter while Manning had a few passes knocked away and Mike Vanderjagt missed a field goal. Manning ended up throwing three interceptions and the Colts lost 28-10 in a forgettable game.
But I knew new coach Tony Dungy was a Pittsburgh guy and someone my family wanted to root for. A year later, the Steelers were off to a lousy start and disinteresting me in the season. I watched Manning throw six touchdowns in New Orleans on SNF in a 55-21 win. I hadn’t seen anything like it since Steve Young threw six touchdowns in the Super Bowl against the Chargers, which is my earliest Super Bowl memory. As it turns out, Manning’s six touchdown night in New Orleans was the first one in the NFL since that Young Super Bowl win. Young (and Rice) was my favorite non-Pittsburgh player in the 90s.
I was excited to see this 4-0 Colts team take on the Buccaneers in Tampa Bay the next Monday night. I was not happy that Tampa Bay won the Super Bowl the previous year and liked to root against Warren Sapp and company. The pre-game show focused on it being Dungy’s birthday, his return to Tampa, and that he never started 5-0 before. Well, it looked like a bad night with the Bucs up three touchdowns early. Manning threw a pick-six with just over five minutes left and Tampa Bay led 35-14. That’s game over for sure.
I was watching it with my grandma, and we decided to let it finish before calling it a night. I was a senior in high school and usually went to bed late anyway. The Colts got a 90-yard kick return and a short touchdown run on fourth down. No big deal. Then they recovered an onside kick, which I had almost never seen done to that point. It got interesting again after Manning threw a 28-yard touchdown to Harrison on 4th-and-6. The defense got the ball back, and there goes Harrison again for 52 yards. They were really doing this. The Colts scored a touchdown and forced overtime after blocking a 62-yard field goal attempt. Each team touched the ball once. Manning was able to complete three third downs in a row and set up a field goal attempt to win it. The Vanderjagt kick was no good, but a penalty was called on Simeon Rice for leaping. Leaping? What the hell is that? I didn’t even know that was a penalty. Vanderjagt got another chance from 29 and he nearly choked that one away too, but it doinked in for the stunning win.
I went to school the next day and a kid who sat at my lunch table had his Mike Alstott jersey on. He clearly didn’t stay up and watch the end of the game like I did with my grandma. That remains the only game in NFL history where a team down 21 points in the final five minutes won. I was hooked from there. I started following along with the live play-by-play updates on the NFL website during games, running from the living room to the dining room computer to see what the Colts were up to. Seeing every updated Manning to Harrison touchdown was exciting.
CBS cut live to the end of the Colts-Patriots game in Week 13. I was bummed at that ending, but maybe they would meet again. In the playoffs, Manning was about as perfect as any quarterback has ever been through two playoff games. He was 22-of-26 for 377 yards and five touchdowns against Denver. He had another 300-yard game in Kansas City, a 38-31 win where neither team punted. He was on a roll.
Then we get to the 2003 AFC Championship Game in New England. The Patriots had a far better defense than the Colts and it was snowing, so that’s a really bad mixture for a “soft dome team” as the Colts were at the time. The Patriots scored on their opening drive. Manning hit a pass for 32 yards on his first play. But on a third down from the NE 5, Manning got careless and forced a pass into the end zone. Rodney Harrison intercepted it and that ended his perfect postseason run. Manning’s next pass was intercepted by career nemesis Ty Law. The Colts also botched a punt for a safety and Marvin fumbled in the red zone before halftime. The team was a mess and trailed 15-0.
While the Colts eventually got the deficit to 21-14 and had the ball late, Manning’s drive came up empty quickly. The Patriots played the receivers very physically all game long, but it especially looked like they held tight end Marcus Pollard on consecutive plays. Walt “Tuck Rule” Coleman was the referee, there were no flags, and the Patriots took over on downs and added a cheap field goal for a 24-14 final.
The league later admitted that those should have been flags on New England on third and fourth down, and there were several other missed calls in the game as well that favored the Patriots. With similar tactics used by Carolina in Philadelphia that day, the league ended up making a league-wide reinforcement of illegal contact in 2004. That opened up the passing game again as the stats were down in 2003.
As for the game itself, Manning had his worst playoff game ever with four interceptions. Law really got the best of him and even got a pick on a pass Manning was trying to throw away. However, I watched the same game as everyone else and I couldn’t believe how careless Brady was with the ball against a far lesser defense. He tried to match Manning pick for pick, and the only reason the game was still close late is a Brady interception in the red zone. But seriously, just watch this video I made years ago of Brady floating the ball out there to the defense. Even Phil Simms goes on about the Patriots having so much luck and catching breaks that year.
After watching Brady start 5-0 in the playoffs with five pretty damn mediocre games, I was beyond annoyed with the way the media fawned over this team. After he finally had a great game in the Super Bowl against Carolina, it was still one where he threw a red-zone pick, arguably got outplayed by Jake Delhomme, and got a John Kasay kickoff out of bounds to start his game-winning drive at the 40. That hasn’t happened in the last 2:00 of any tied NFL game since.
Then 2004 started on opening night with the Patriots hosting the Colts. Once again, Manning played very well against a far better defense, and it was a tight game late. Down 27-24 after a Brady pick, Manning had his offense with first-and-goal at the 1. Edge got the carry and fumbled with 3:43 left. Are you kidding me? After getting the ball back, Manning hit a 45-yard pass right away. On a third down, McGinest was somehow unblocked and came in for a 12-yard sack. Vanderjagt, one of the biggest choker kickers in NFL history, came out and missed a 48-yard field goal to end the game. Does Vinatieri miss there? I think not.
Two years in a row the Colts finished 12-4 and the Patriots finished 14-2 with the Patriots beating the Colts, then beating them again in snowy New England in January. Yet if Edgerrin James could just score from the 1-yard line in both games, that could be two playoff games in Indy instead. The quarterback with homefield was 5-0 in the Manning-Brady playoff games. And those Edge runs had nothing to do with Manning or Brady, yet they were so critical at that point in the rivalry. Despite Manning winning both MVPs in 2003-04, the Patriots won all four head-to-head meetings and both Super Bowls to lock up dynasty status with three rings in four years.
The talking heads like Salisbury just ate this “Brady just wins” shit up. I knew I could do better analysis than this. Meanwhile, I had started to collect data on quarterbacks in those pre-Pro Football Reference days and kept track of things like points allowed and what they did in one-score games, and nothing was adding up for me. How can the best quarterback in the league be someone with stats barely distinguishable from Matt Hasselbeck, Aaron Brooks, and Marc Bulger?
So, I just continued watching games and collecting game logs and even moved on to downloading torrents of games and going through play-by-play data. Learning what I can about this game as guys like Brees and Roethlisberger started to come into the fold as well. I tracked down Manning’s oldest playoff games and I’m watching his receivers drop 7-8 passes against the Titans and Jets. In his first playoff game against the 1999 Titans, Manning watched Jerome Pathon drop a first down on 3rd-and-10, Harrison drop one on 3rd-and-22, and Edge drop one on 4th-and-4. That’s just one quarter of one game the Colts went on to lose 19-16 after Eddie “3.0 YPC” George ran wild. In 2000 against Miami, I watch Pathon drop a touchdown on another third down, and saw how Vanderjagt sent that game-winning attempt into the parking lot that day. He did the same thing against the Steelers in the 2005 AFC Divisional Round.
At least by that weekend in January 2006, Brady had his first playoff loss after starting 10-0. He threw a brutal pick in the end zone that Champ Bailey returned 100 yards, but it didn’t go for a pick-six because athletic tight end Ben Watson tracked him down and tackled him short. To this day, I kind of feel like that ball went through the end zone and it should have gone to New England on one of the dumbest rules in sports, but god damn, New England had enough breaks already.
You just start thinking about these things. Vinatieri makes a 45-yard field goal in the snow after the Tuck Rule while Vanderjagt can’t make a 45-yard field goal indoors against Pittsburgh after Manning caught a rare break with the Jerome Bettis fumble. Vinatieri makes a 46-yard field goal in 4-degree temperatures against Tennessee while Vanderjagt can’t make a 49-yard field goal in Miami weather that he told his coach he could make. All because of four swings of the leg by these two kickers, one quarterback gets to go 6-0 in the playoffs and the other comes out 0-2 those years.
And guys in suits arguing with each other on TV can’t see this stuff for what it is? They have to talk up one player being a better leader or “more clutch” to justify the outcome on the scoreboard that fell in the lap of another player? Fuck that. We can do better.
Fortunately, in 2005-06, the Colts were 3-0 against the Patriots, twice winning in Foxboro to set up an AFC Championship Game in Indy. We all know how that one started and ended, and while I could tell a great story about it, I’ll save that for another time.
The fact is the Colts got over the New England hump and Manning won a Super Bowl that year. But in that same postseason, I watched Brady throw three picks against San Diego and still win a playoff game. I saw him do it again a year later in the AFC Championship Game too. Hell, we just watched him do it in Green Bay this January but forget about recent times for a second. When Manning lost to the Chargers in back-to-back postseasons (2007-08) and his only turnovers were tipped balls off his own receiver’s hands, I was livid again.
After watching Brady flop in Super Bowl 42, self-destruct at home against the 2009 Ravens, and have a shockingly terrible game against the 2010 Jets one month after 45-3, I had seen enough. Not only was Brady not a great playoff quarterback, but Manning was better. Look at where they were through 19 playoff starts through 2010 before Manning left for Denver. It’s even wilder when you consider how the Colts receivers dropped so many more passes (including some tipped picks) and Manning threw more interceptions in garbage time.
Rather than continue writing about each season, I will just show you a graphic I put together of how their careers overlapped when they were competing against each other. Nothing but facts.
Manning and Brady played the same team in the playoffs five times (2007 Chargers, 2009 Ravens, 2010 Jets, 2012 Ravens, and 2014 Colts). Manning played a better game than Brady every time but the last against the Colts. That’s why 2014 is the only season on this chart where I think Brady comes out looking much more favorable than Manning based on the way they both played.
While the rivalry between the teams was one sided at the beginning, I never believed it was like that between the quarterbacks. By the time he retired, Manning was 3-2 in the playoffs and 3-1 in the AFC Championship Game against Brady. He was eliminated in the playoffs as often by Philip Rivers (with an assist from Billy Volek) as he was by Brady.
Manning was actually more detrimental at limiting Brady’s playoff success than vice versa. The NFL needed this rivalry for competitive balance. In the seasons from 2002 to 2015 where both played, Manning’s teams had five No. 1 seeds compared to four for Brady. It was also tied 7-7 as far as which team had a deeper run with each getting an easy win in the year the quarterback missed for injury. I gave Manning the tie-breaker in 2005 since they both lost in the divisional round, but the top-seeded Colts were eliminated on Sunday and lost a closer game to Pittsburgh than the Pats did to Denver.
Once Manning retired after 2015, Brady has admittedly enhanced his playoff legacy, getting to four more Super Bowls and winning three more, including matching Manning’s feat of winning one with a second franchise. A worthy successor in the AFC failed to step up and challenge the Patriots, because we know the Steelers sure as hell weren’t prepared to do it. Andy Reid’s Chiefs were the best option, and you’d expect that now with Mahomes, but we have seen his only two playoff losses come at the hands of Brady-led teams. Dee Ford a centimeter offsides and not getting the ball in OT was one thing two years ago, but 31-9 is a gut punch. Just wait until you see my 2021 season predictions too.
Conclusion (No, Really)
Manning (seven) has as many first-team All-Pro seasons than Brady (three), Rodgers (three), and Brees (one) combined. Is that because he’s more talented than all of them combined? Of course not. But is it because of his effort and unrivaled consistency that he earned those honors with his individual play? Yes, it was.
Brady (seven) has more Super Bowl rings than Manning (two), Brees (one), and Rodgers (one) combined. Scratch that, he has as many as them since 2014 alone compared to their whole careers (53 seasons). Is that because he’s more talented than all of them combined? No, he’s the least talented of the group. But is it because of his effort and that he’s played that much better than those guys in the regular season and postseason?
No, not at all. It’s because Brady had better team support and is the luckiest quarterback of all time. He’s the LOAT, not the GOAT.
Outside of Brady actually being Faust, it beats me why the football gods have chosen this guy as the one who gets the best coaching, the best defenses, the best starting field position, the best special teams, the most clutch kicking, a poverty division of historic proportions for two decades, and almost any other break he could ask for.
Brees played 20 years and gets one postseason with Tracy Porter saving the day with two picks. Any other year, it was someone making a mockery of his defense. Marcus Williams against Stefon Diggs, anyone? Rodgers has seen the same thing in Green Bay where the defense was only dominant and clutch in the playoffs in that 2010 season. Otherwise, we think of things like Brandon Bostick on the onside kick recovery in Seattle or what Kevin King was doing in January against Tampa Bay. But Rodgers is holding out hope for a second act by his defense in the playoffs. Manning got one in Denver with Von Miller dominating in 2015. Now if only he willed Rahim Moore to pick off Flacco in 2012…
We don’t talk up Alvin Kamara or Aaron Jones for what they do in the playoffs. Instead, they are used against those quarterbacks to say that they have a Pro Bowl back and ignore their weak production or fumbles in the big games. Meanwhile, LeGarrette Blount is the clutch running back or “Playoff Lenny” Fournette is a sensation again in Florida. Hell, Julian Edelman caught as many touchdowns (two) in his playoff debut as Marvin Harrison had in 16 playoff games combined. Even though they’ll argue that Edelman should be in the HOF, “Brady has no weapons” somehow remains a thing even though he’s the only one who played with the most stat-inflating wideout (Randy Moss) and tight end (Rob Gronkowski) of the 21st century. And the most clutch kicker (Adam Vinatieri) ever, and the best coach ever (Bill Belichick). But no help.
Mahomes could play 300 games and Super Bowl LV might be the only one he doesn’t score a touchdown in. Brady: best two-way player ever. Hasn’t given up a touchdown in his last two Super Bowls. Held two all-time great offenses to 12 points.
While we talk about Marcus Williams, Kevin King, Rahim Moore, and trigger PTSD in fans of Brees, Rodgers, and Peyton, with Brady we can bring up Ty Law (twice), Rodney Harrison, Malcolm Butler, and Stephon Gilmore, all of whom should have won a Super Bowl MVP for the Patriots. That’s not including Sterling Moore, who helped make Lee Evans drop a game-winning touchdown in the end zone in the 2011 AFC Championship Game for Baltimore. Brady didn’t get a ring out of that one, but he still got to another Super Bowl after one of his defenders saved him again.
The Brady difference is the things that have nothing to do with the quarterback. The things that are out of his control that still benefit him. The textbook definition of luck. He has that in spades.
It’s been an exhausting two decades, hasn’t it? I only thought about doing this a week ago as a project with some one-liners about 100 quarterbacks, and here I am 86 pages into a 43,000-word document. I took a nice five-month break from football this year, but it is cathartic for me to get this out before the season starts.
I’d compare Brady to Tim Duncan, but the thing is Duncan was actually great in the playoffs. There really is no comparison for Brady. If you bring up Michael Jordan, you’re ignoring how dominant and record-setting he was, and how great he was in those Finals MVP runs. The best Brady may have ever played in a full playoff run was in 2017, a year that did not end in a championship. Go figure.
Manning’s career has a lot in common with that of LeBron James, another generational talent we are fortunate to have experienced. They came into their leagues with so much hype and expectations, and somehow, they lived up to it and even exceeded them. Yet because their record in the final round and their ring count aren’t the greatest ever, they still get criticized for that.
I know that no one else would have been able to take the teams they played with and had more success than they did. That is why they are the best players in their respective sport in the 21st century, or at least, that is how I have viewed the last 20 years. That concludes this trip down memory lane.
If this is somehow still on the internet decades from now, and you’ve managed to read it all, I just want to say thank you, and I’m sorry.
All those moments will be lost in time, like tears in rain.
Defense wins championships. Football games are decided in the trenches. Overhyped quarterback matchups tend to disappoint.
The first two were reinforced by Super Bowl LV, and while that last one isn’t part of NFL lore, it should be after a 13-game postseason peaked right at the beginning with Philip Rivers (Colts) and Josh Allen (Bills) providing us the best-played game at the quarterback position. When Patrick Mahomes vs. Tom Brady turns out worse than Taylor Heinicke vs. Tom Brady, you know you are watching one defense rise to the occasion and do something special.
On Sunday night, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers dominated the lines of the Kansas City Chiefs in one of the most decisive Super Bowls in the salary cap era. The 31-9 final is easily the worst loss of Patrick Mahomes’ NFL career and the worst stat line and performance in 54 games. It is his only game without an offensive touchdown as the Chiefs could do no better than three field goals on 10 possessions.
Tom Brady threw for 201 yards, three touchdowns, and was named Super Bowl MVP, because of course he was. It would be too difficult to split it among the 11 defensive starters in a game where turnovers were not the decisive story for a change. This was a masterclass in coaching by Bruce Arians and his staff, an eyesore for Andy Reid and his, and the image that I think sums this game up best would be this one of Mahomes trying to make a throw on fourth down to no avail.
It was that kind of night. Maybe the most concerning part is that last year in the Super Bowl was almost the same night for the Chiefs, who will enter the 2021 season with a “prove it in the Super Bowl” demand from their harshest critics as the latest attempt at reaching a new dynasty hit a serious road bump in Tampa.
Story of the Game: Pressure vs. No Pressure
A year ago in Super Bowl LIV, it was looking like a great defense (49ers) was about to shut down another prolific offense. Patrick Mahomes was having the worst game of his NFL career halfway through the fourth quarter as the Chiefs trailed 20-10. Then “Wasp” happened on 3rd-and-15 and the rest is history.
There was no Wasp this time. Just the Chiefs repeatedly getting stung by the pass rush and coverage of the Tampa Bay defense, which was outstanding. Meanwhile, the Buccaneers found offense come easy after a slow start. Tampa Bay completely took the game over in a six-drive stretch where it scored four touchdowns, one field goal, and got stopped at the 1-yard line on fourth down on the only non-scoring drive.
It comes down to pressure. When Brady’s Patriots beat Mahomes’ Chiefs in the 2018 AFC Championship Game, I noted the large pressure difference in that game. Mahomes was pressured almost 45% of the time while Brady was just under 11% according to ESPN Stats & Info. I wish I had an awesome database of pressure differences for every game in recent years, but that doesn’t appear to be in my collection. I just know something in the neighborhood of 34% is huge.
Well, this time it was worse. According to ESPN Stats & Info again, Mahomes was pressured on 29-of-56 dropbacks (51.8%), the worst in Super Bowl history. Meanwhile, the Chiefs only got to Brady on 4-of-30 plays (13.3%), his lowest rate in 10 Super Bowls. We are talking a difference of 38.5% in pressure percentage points. That is massive.
We joke about Brady “willing his defense” to do this stuff, but look at these results. Mahomes has four games in his career where he was held to six or fewer points at halftime and two of them are his playoff losses to Brady. What a two-way legend.
Obviously, the Eric Fisher injury and offensive line issue was a major concern going into this game for the Chiefs. I called it the wild card to the matchup, but I thought if any offense was able to make it a footnote instead of the main story, it’s these Chiefs and Mahomes.
I was wrong, the line did become the main story, but it’s still only half of it. Eric Fisher himself isn’t going to cut off 20+ pressures. Maybe not even getting right tackle Mitchell Schwartz back could have prevented this. Sure, we probably need a new rule that Mike Remmers should never be allowed to start at tackle in the playoffs again, but the Chiefs’ other problem was the defense had no answers for making things hard on Tampa Bay.
The pressure disparity was mind blowing to watch. I said during the game that Brady was feasting on screens, play-action, and DPI, but little did I know how right I was until after the game.
Brady started 0-for-4 in success rate in this game. He then went on to have 15 successful dropbacks the rest of the game, including his first touchdown drive in the first quarter of a Super Bowl. Thirteen of those 15 plays involved play-action, screens/pick plays, or checkdowns over the middle to the running back. The only two plays that didn’t fit that was a quick out to Gronk on third down in the second quarter for 5 yards and the 1-yard touchdown pass to Antonio Brown on the same drive, a good throw into not the smallest window you’ll ever see.
There was no pressure on any of these plays as Brady had time and great windows to deliver easy throws for all of his yards. And yeah, this doesn’t even get into the penalties we’ll get into later. I’m not saying Blaine Gabbert wins this game 31-9 for the Buccaneers, but I don’t see a throw he couldn’t make here.
Throw in a more than solid rushing attack and the Buccaneers just got whatever they wanted for a six-drive stretch in this game. Meanwhile, the Chiefs were in trouble from the first series of the game. On their second snap, Mahomes narrowly avoided a sack by getting rid of the ball for an incompletion. On the first third down, he scrambled for a first down. Kansas City would only go 2-of-12 on third down the rest of the night.
It felt like the Chiefs were worried about the protection, wanted to use quick passes on early downs, but it just did not work and set the offense back in the down-and-distance.
Even the first pass of the game was a quick one to Byron Pringle, who was fortunate to get 3 yards on forward progress after the fast defense knocked him back.
Another quick first-quarter throw to Mecole Hardman, who did not look for the ball, was so off with the timing because of the edge pressure that it could have been a pick-six if the throw were worse.
After the first Gronkowski touchdown, Mahomes tried a quick throw to the back and Jason Pierre-Paul batted it down with ease.
Same drive, but the first play of the second quarter was a big 3rd-and-4. The Chiefs tried to set up a RB screen, but the pressure again got there too well and the pass was off for an incompletion.
After the Chiefs got a 14-yard gain to Hill from their own 1, Mahomes tried a slow-developing pass in the backfield to Hardman that he couldn’t handle, but it would have lost yards anyways.
At the two-minute warning, Mahomes checked down to Hill in the backfield for a loss of a yard as the receiver ran out of bounds and stopped the clock, another fatal mistake.
On the first drive of the third quarter, Mahomes was low on a quick pass to Hardman, who made the catch and then slipped for no gain. That set up 3rd-and-7, pressure forced another tough throw the Chiefs couldn’t complete, and they settled for a field goal. Six plays later they were down 28-9 halfway through the third quarter, completely changing the game and putting everything in miracle/hero territory.
I just highlighted seven early-down quick throws that failed to do anything for the Chiefs before it got to 28-9. This game got away from them quickly, trailing 28-9 after having the ball six times. The Chiefs also didn’t seem interested in giving the tackles any help in this one, according to Next Gen Stats.
Tyreek Hill finished with 73 yards, a decline of 196 yards from Week 12, and even those 73 yards were mostly gathered with the game out of reach.
So what did Bowles do differently? For any game of his over the last five years, he blitzed the least (9.6% of snaps) and played two-high safety (87% of snaps) the most to take away the big plays.
Frankly, this is some of the coolest stat shit I’ve ever read. A true tendency breaker in the biggest game of his career, and it worked to great success. More coaches need to do this instead of the usual “we do what we do” crap that passes as coaching in this league. You have two weeks to prepare, it’s a great opponent, do something different to attack their specific strengths and weaknesses.
However, I feel the Chiefs gave in to this approach with the quick throws I mentioned before. They were so worried about the protection for obvious reasons, but if you look at this game before it got out of reach, their best shots at making plays came when Mahomes let the ball rip.
On the opening drive’s 3rd-and-8, he had Hardman open deep, but the young, mistake prone receiver seemed more occupied with staring at the ball instead of going for it. On the second drive, Mahomes did a great job under pressure to get off a pass on 3rd-and-11, but it hit Hill in the face instead of a potential touchdown or at least first down. On the fourth drive, Mahomes again made a great play under pressure, but Kelce had a bad drop on 3rd-and-8 that would have extended the drive. Maybe they still punt, but it likely would have helped the field position that ended up being awful after a penalty wiped out a punt and the punter continued his lousy night with a shank. Tampa Bay started at the Kansas City 38 and scored a touchdown to go up 14-3. Then of course there was the play on fourth down that I led this recap with where Mahomes got that pass off in mid-flight, but that too hit Williams in the face instead of him coming down with the touchdown catch to give this game a little life early in the fourth quarter. It was the last real gasp and Mahomes’ dejected face at the end of that play said it all.
I say the Chiefs are their own worst enemy, and that may not have been true on this night. Tampa Bay’s defense was tough, but there were still plays to be had by the Chiefs that they failed to make. This is why I cannot buy the notion that Mahomes “choked” in this Super Bowl. Where are the drives that he specifically screwed up or the open throws he missed or big opportunities he didn’t take advantage of? He didn’t bring his A game, probably not his B game either, but he had three drive-killing drops on plays where he made incredible efforts to even give his guys a shot at making a play. We are used to seeing this offense make highlight-worthy plays, but they couldn’t buy one in this game.
There were also 11 plays where Mahomes avoided a sack that a lot of quarterbacks wouldn’t. These were still successful plays for the Tampa Bay defense, but all I’m saying is the three sacks don’t begin to tell the story with how much pressure Mahomes was under in this game.
ESPN’s Seth Walder shared from Next Gen Stats what may be my favorite stat from the whole game: Patrick Mahomes ran a total of 497 yards before his passes/sacks in this game, the highest total in any game in the last five seasons. He broke his own record as he ran 495 yards against the Raiders this year, his only other loss in the previous 26 games, another game where his pressure rate was significantly high against a non-blitzing defense.
Walder also said that the third-highest game was Mahomes against the Saints (441 yards), another game where the offensive line took a beating. Josh Allen had the fourth-highest game at 403 yards in the AFC Championship Game. So perhaps we have the blueprint to beat Mahomes: make him run a full Fran Tarkenton scramble drill clinic and hope his receivers don’t make any plays on those throws. I mean, it worked this night to perfection.
The degree of difficulty in this game for each quarterback could not be any different. That’s why the Buccaneers are champions, and the Chiefs did not repeat. Give credit to the coaches of Tampa for exploiting the weaknesses in the Chiefs and taking advantage of the Fisher injury. However, there was another factor at play here that I warned about.
The Refs: Welcome to My Shit List, Carl Cheffers
Walt Coleman, Ron Winter, Bill Vinovich. Let’s add Carl Cheffers to my shit list of worst refs because he just had to make his crew a big first-half headline in this game. The worst thing a ref could do in a Super Bowl is become part of the story, but this crew did that, and I warned in one of my previews that this could happen with the way Tampa Bay draws defensive pass interference (DPI) flags at historic rates and Cheffers loves to call that on the road team (or any team) at crazy rates this year.
Obviously, the Chiefs had a brutal penalty night, racking up 11 calls for 120 yards. Tampa Bay had six first downs via penalty, something only four other teams have had in the playoffs since 1999. Only the 2002 Titans (against Oakland) had seven first downs via penalty. No team in the Super Bowl since 1999 had more than four first downs via penalty until Tampa Bay. Most of the damage came in the first half for Kansas City.
There was a lot of undisciplined football by the Chiefs. Chris Jones had a stupid retaliation penalty that wiped out a 3rd-and-7 and gave Tampa an automatic first down. Hardman was offsides on a 40-yard field goal on 4th-and-5, which led to a new set of downs and a touchdown, a 4-point penalty. There was also that holding on a punt with a good tackle that led to a re-kick, which gave Tampa great field position at the KC 38.
You can live with that stuff. It is what it is. But the way these officials catered to the Tampa Bay receivers in the second quarter, especially Mike Evans, really does make you question if these games are on the level. First, there was the “defensive holding” call to negate a Chiefs interception on a drive that ended in a Tampa Bay touchdown to take a 14-3 lead.
Are you kidding me with this? Where’s the jersey grab? Where’s the penalty on Evans for pushing off to try creating separation? Green Bay’s receivers were visibly held two weeks ago and couldn’t buy these calls at home. Yet they call this to negate a pick.
Then you get into the last minute of the second quarter. Brady does one of his classic chuck-and-duck plays, just throwing one up for Evans, who sells some incidental contact by falling down on a bad ball and it gets a 34-yard flag for DPI, the longest “play” from scrimmage on the night. That call was bullshit as well. Two plays later, Brady sails a pass for Evans into the first row because he knows it wasn’t there and he didn’t have time to waste. There was a little contact in the end zone, but the pass was so clearly uncatchable. Defensive pass interference, put the ball at the 1-yard line. How do you completely ignore the uncatchable part here? That pass had a better chance of being caught by a cardboard cutout than a human being.
People who say 5 yards for illegal contact are wrong too. By the time the ball is released, there is no relevant contact that you don’t see on every play. It’s either PI or nothing. The fact that Tyrann Mathieu was also called for taunting after this drive despite Brady doing the same things to him is also telling of how biased the refs were in this half.
One of the network ex-officials also saw a disparity in how this half was called compared to normal games.
Maybe the Chiefs still bomb in the second half of a closer game, but those two touchdown drives in the second quarter looked tainted to me, and it’s worse because I was predicting this would happen in Tampa Bay’s favor with this referee.
So Cheffers will be on my shit list going forward. People think it’s funny when Brady tries to high-five an official like he did in the Saints game this postseason, but I think he does it because he really does expect them to have his back in these games.
This time they did.
The 10th Mahomes Loss: Where Does It Stack Up?
I have been posting charts about every Mahomes game, and here are the 10 losses updated for this game.
Where does Tampa Bay stack up? Obviously the > 28-points threshold was reached, and it probably didn’t have to be, but that’s always important. The Buccaneers did not dominate time of possession, but they still won it. They sure didn’t mind the Chiefs taking up over eight minutes on the two drives that ended with a turnover on downs, or the five-minute field goal drive late in the second quarter. The Buccaneers did not push the ball much offensively after going up 31-9, so they only finished with 340 yards, the second fewest in a win over the Chiefs.
The Chiefs obviously had one of their worst penalty games (11 for 120 yards) in the Mahomes era, and that was big in this one as I just went over.
The running game was helpful for the Buccaneers with Leonard Fournette (89 yards) and Ronald Jones (61 yards) combining for 150 yards and a touchdown. It may have even been two touchdowns if the Bucs used Fournette instead of Jones at the 1-yard line in the second quarter on the only great stop of the game for the Kansas City defense. The Chiefs weren’t horrible at running the ball as Clyde Edwards-Helaire was one of the few good players on the night, finishing with 64 yards on nine carries. It just wasn’t a favorable game script to run a lot, or maybe one could argue the Chiefs should have tried some more runs early to give the tackles a break in the pass protection area.
All I know is it’s not the game to laugh at them for taking a running back in the first round, but CEH was not the downfall here. If anything, the backs should have been more involved with chipping and protecting since they weren’t good at catching. Darrel Williams only came down with two catches for 10 yards on seven targets and Le’Veon Bell didn’t even play. Fournette pitched in four helpful catches for 46 yards, so there’s really no comparison in the production the Buccaneers got from their backs versus the Chiefs.
While the Chiefs had two turnovers (Mahomes picks), this was oddly a Super Bowl not determined by those plays. They didn’t come until midway through the third quarter with the Chiefs already in the unenviable position of trailing 28-9. Not to mention the first was a tipped deep ball thrown on 3rd-and-13.
The biggest shock is that the fourth quarter was just never close, the first time Mahomes has never been within one score in the fourth quarter in his career. The score was 31-9 at the 2:46 mark of the third quarter and it never changed again.
Worst Postseason, But I’ll Eat Crow on the COVID Season
The 2020 NFL season is completed. All 269 games were played, only a few were a farce because of COVID, and the Super Bowl was finished on time. I never thought that would happen, but they pushed through and got it done, so I’ll eat some crow on that.
Of course, I don’t think the postseason could have gone any worse than it did from both an entertainment standpoint and my own personal rooting interests. This was terrible after a season in which a lot of teams had good seasons and it seemed like we would get interesting games in the playoffs. Remember all the double-digit comebacks every week?
We couldn’t even get a single fourth-quarter lead change, the first time that’s happened since the 2005 season. At least that postseason gave us Steelers-Colts in the divisional round, which was one of the most dramatic fourth quarters in NFL history from the Colts’ comeback attempt to Jerome Bettis’ fumble, Nick Harper’s return and tackle by Ben Roethlisberger, and Mike Vanderjagt shanking the kick for overtime. I know people hate Super Bowl XL, but at least it was a better game than tonight. So I’ll take the 2005 postseason any day over this one.
The longest drought without a repeat champion in NFL history continues. If Tampa Bay ends it next year, I may have to start focusing more attention on the NBA or learn hockey analytics, because it’s hard for me to want to invest so much time in a league where one ancient quarterback continues to see his defense hold prolific offenses out of the end zone. Two of the last three Super Bowls have been downright awful representations of the product after regular seasons that were legitimately good.
In a league that is dying for new blood and new powers to emerge in a transition period, we’re left with a 43-year-old quarterback who probably is pumped full of blood from random men half his age.
I will say this, Brady did a hell of a job at picking his new team. He stayed out of the AFC, making it easier to get back to the Super Bowl since the NFC loves those flash in the pan teams where everything just clicks one year. If he goes to someone like Indy or Miami or the cursed Chargers, he’s likely getting put down early by the Ravens or Bills or Chiefs. Instead, he goes to the NFC where his main competition becomes the Saints and Packers. Guess who stops those teams short of the Super Bowl in the NFC? EVERYBODY THE LAST DECADE. Well, minus Dallas. So he gets to the final four with statistically the best defense left and a loaded receiving corps that even got to add Gronk and AB. You think the Colts are bringing in Gronk and AB? I doubt it. They scored the first three touchdowns in the Super Bowl too. So I do have to give him credit for picking the best team possible to make this happen.
Defense wins championships. Football games are decided in the trenches. Tom Brady’s luck is the greatest of all time. If he doesn’t have to change his game, then neither do I. But I will start doing video work this offseason in addition to being more active as a writer.
If you think a Super Bowl blowout is going to make me hibernate for seven months, then you don’t know me very well — not that that’s ever stopped randoms on the internet from trying. I’m over 11 months into my diet and feeling good about hitting important milestones this year. I’ll definitely write about that if it comes to pass as it would mean a lot to me if I could help even just one person out there. I look forward to getting a COVID vaccine and being able to see people I care about in person. This last year has been tough, and while a Chiefs win would have made this a more enjoyable offseason and put the league on a better timeline for the future, the fact is it’s just a football game. The outcome doesn’t change a thing that I planned to do tomorrow, this week, or the next.
When I started this blog in 2012, the very first post was titled “You Are Now About to Witness the Strength of Street Knowledge.” I’ll end the 2020 NFL season with another N.W.A. reference just for the haters out there:
Super Bowl LV is not about Tom Brady “passing the torch” to Patrick Mahomes. It is a battle to see if Mahomes can pull the lucky horseshoe out of Brady’s ass and end the longest drought without a repeat champion in NFL history.
It’s the possible real GOAT against the LOAT (Luckiest of All Time).
I have already written around 10,000 words on this game (links below), but the general theme is the same: Kansas City should win, but if the Buccaneers are to pull it off, it will take some fortunate breaks. That is the high standard for beating the Chiefs with Mahomes these days. This team moved on quickly from the “amazing offense, poor defense” team we saw in 2018 that Brady’s Patriots slipped by twice playing keep-away with the ball from Mahomes at the end. This defense is not great, but it is good enough under Steve Spagnuolo, who has a track record of success against Brady-led offenses.
Five-Piece Super Bowl Preview Links
This will not be one of my extra long blog previews for the Super Bowl since I have spent the last two weeks already doing five articles on the game for Sportsbook Review. These are companion pieces going over different aspects of the matchup with very little overlap other than me repeating that the Chiefs won 27-24 in Tampa Bay in Week 12, it’s the first time a team is playing the Super Bowl in its home stadium, the Chiefs can end the longest drought without a repeat champion in NFL history (2003-04 Patriots the last), the Eric Fisher injury is a wild card, and that 16 of the last 17 Super Bowls have been within one score in the fourth quarter. Also, we are looking for our first true fourth quarter lead change this postseason, something every postseason since 2006 has had.
Why the Chiefs Can Beat the Buccaneers– “Few champions have ever repeated with as much style and consistency, but the pairing of Reid and Mahomes has been heaven for Kansas City and hell for the rest of the NFL.” This first piece looks at the incredible lengths a team must go to beat the Chiefs, who are often their own worst enemy. This also takes on the Eric Fisher injury and some Week 12 recap.
Why the Buccaneers Can Beat the Chiefs – “It is hard to bet against the Chiefs, but it may be even harder to bet against Brady’s unrivaled luck and team success in big games like this one.” This one looks at how the Buccaneers actually scored more points this season than the Chiefs, the impact Leonard Fournette and Ronald Jones need to have, reasons to trust the Tampa Bay defense this time, and some of Brady’s luck in Super Bowls alone.
Matchup Analysis: Chiefs Offense vs. Buccaneers Defense – “The Chiefs already had a season-high 543 yards of offense in Tampa Bay in Week 12’s 27-24 win, but it was far from their most efficient scoring output this year. Now without left tackle Eric Fisher, can the Chiefs repeat their passing success, or will the Tampa Bay defense slow down a third straight legendary quarterback this postseason?” Fourth straight if you count Taylor Heinicke. This one looks at some stats on how the Chiefs are their own worst enemy (more on this below), a detailed recap of this matchup from Week 12, what might look different on Sunday, and how it all comes down to the four-minute offense.
Matchup Analysis: Buccaneers Offense vs. Chiefs Defense– “If the Buccaneers can get this game into the fourth quarter within reach, then they have done a great job of finishing this year. The 2020 Buccaneers have a plus-90 scoring differential in the fourth quarter, the highest for any team, including playoffs, since the 2013 Patriots (plus-103). The 2020 Chiefs are the only team in the last two seasons to allow over 40% of their opponent’s points in the fourth quarter. The 2020 Buccaneers have allowed 17.2% of their points in the fourth quarter, the lowest percentage in the NFL in the last five seasons.” This looks at the way Tampa Bay starts too many games slowly, needs to call more than just bad runs on first down, and how the offense has feasted on short fields this postseason. Also a Week 12 recap against the Chiefs, how things might look different this time, and the way the Chiefs do not fear blitzing Brady.
Super Bowl Game Pick and Prediction – “Can the Buccaneers replicate those breaks on top of playing great on both sides of the ball? Maybe the Chiefs will get cute with play-calling at the 1-yard line and have Kelce try to throw a touchdown to Mahomes before Reid shockingly settles for a field goal. Maybe Hardman will drop an 89-yard touchdown pass with no one around him. Maybe the defense can recover a Mahomes fumble in the red zone. Maybe the Chiefs will get called for offensive holding three times on one drive in the fourth quarter, leading to a punt after a dropped pass on third-and-27.
Oh wait, all those things already happened in Week 12 for the Buccaneers and they still lost to the Chiefs.”
This was my general prediction piece that touches on the Fisher injury, Tampa Bay’s likelihood of repeating the Raiders’ blueprint for beating the Chiefs, special teams mistakes by the Chiefs, and some very interesting notes on head referee Carl Cheffers and defensive pass interference, a penalty the 2020 Buccaneers have benefited from more than any team in the last 12 years (and perhaps all of NFL history).
But wait, there’s more…
How Do You Stop the Chiefs? (And the 2020 Packers for That Matter?)
Frankly, I am tired. I wish it were gameday instead of Friday. This is the last section I am writing before Sunday night. Originally, this was going to be research I used for what I hoped was a Chiefs-Packers Super Bowl where I can talk about the MVP award between Aaron Rodgers and Patrick Mahomes. Of course, Green Bay didn’t get here again, so now I’m left with charting data I spent a good number of hours in late December compiling.
Like I said, I’m tired, and I know it’s not like me to turn in something incomplete, but including any data on Green Bay at all feels like a gift anyway. So the following data is for the Chiefs’ whole season, but only the regular season is included for Green Bay. Only drives started by Aaron Rodgers or Mahomes are included, and kneeldown-only drives are excluded as always.
How do you stop these offenses? Well, they both scored more times than they didn’t this year, but here’s a look at what I found when charting what ended the non-touchdown drives.
I fully expect Aaron Rodgers to win the MVP, and I get it, I really do. Personally, I voted for Mahomes on my PFWA ballot and thought he had the more valuable season, and some of my argument for that would have been reflected in these stats. Let’s not make this a big MVP debate, but let’s go through some of these numbers.
Both offenses were fantastic, but I felt like Rodgers had a bit more help from his teammates than Mahomes did. The first section that highlights teammate mistakes on non-touchdown drives shows an extra four lost fumbles by Mahomes’ teammates, five extra failures in short-yardage situations (those are mostly runs), two more touchdowns wiped out by penalty, and more missed kicks by Kansas City. There were a similar number of drops, but the Chiefs lost three more probable touchdowns and had more come on third or fourth down plays.
The section titled “OTHER THIRD DOWN STOPS” are the drives where the defense really stepped up and earned the stop of these offenses, usually on third down. The numbers there are similar though the Chiefs had considerably more passes defensed or batted at the line or Mahomes hit in motion.
As for QB turnovers, again, I thought it was silly how Mahomes having eight turnovers (one in one loss) to Rodgers having seven (five in three losses) was supposed to be a positive for Rodgers. It never was. Mahomes’ only “failure” on fourth down was a play against the Ravens where he just chucked up a pass in the final 30 seconds with a 34-20 lead. No biggie.
The final section, CLOCK & MISC., are drives that were not even really defensive stops, but the offenses were up against the time crunch late in the half or were just working the clock. It also makes note of the playoff drive against Cleveland where Mahomes was knocked out with his injury.
Finally for some more context, here are the reasons why the Chiefs settled for 32 field goal attempts this season:
This kind of analysis was something I have always wanted to do. To answer the question of “what caused the drive to end?” to see if I can figure out how much a great offense was stopped versus how often they stopped themselves.
In the case of the Chiefs, I do think they are their own worst enemy a lot of the times, and the numbers here support this to a degree when you consider they are scoring more than they aren’t.
Also, Marques Valdes-Scantling is frustrating as hell with his consistency, and he was responsible for several of the Green Bay mistakes this year, but obviously he played very well in the NFC Championship Game. Just a shame we are not talking about a Chiefs-Packers game so we could see who gets the Super Bowl MVP between Rodgers and Mahomes in their first ever matchup while both had such great seasons.
But of course, we get the potential real GOAT vs. the LOAT.
Here are some research tweets I have made in the leadup to the big game:
“I have seen some concerns that this could be a Seahawks-Broncos sized blowout with the 49ers’ physical defense attacking a “finesse” Kansas City offense, but I really don’t buy that narrative. Yes, pass-happy teams have a rather poor history in title games against tough defenses, but some teams are just different.”
Yes, the Chiefs are just different, but this year the story is looking similar. Replace the 49ers with the Buccaneers, add some extra tension over the offensive line shortcomings, and I am seeing the same things said this week. I even have someone in my Twitter mentions taking bets with people that the Chiefs won’t score more than 14 points.
I don’t want to make a “they’re only going to score 14 points?” remark, because I’ve already seen enough comparisons between the 2007 Giants and 2020 Buccaneers. It started with beating the Saints in the divisional round after getting swept by them in the regular season, something we’ve only seen the 2007 Giants do to Dallas. Then both won a one-score game in the NFC Championship Game in Green Bay. Both teams have three road wins to reach the Super Bowl. Both teams have won three games this postseason despite allowing at least a 50% conversion rate on third down, which is the most wins in a playoff run since 1991.
While the Chiefs aren’t undefeated, it’s pretty close with Mahomes having won 25 of his last 26 starts. To be safe, I threw a couple bucks on a Tampa Bay 17-14 win, but I’d hold my breath on that one from cashing. This is arguably the most skill player firepower in Super Bowl history and I expect both teams to score at least 20 points. Every Tampa Bay opponent has scored at least 20 this postseason.
But I will say I was watching some of Chiefs-49ers the other day and that was a grind for Kansas City’s offense. I don’t think the Tampa Bay defense is as good as the 49ers, but if JPP and Shaq Barrett go nuts against that line, well, pressure is pressure, and it makes any offense look bad. It was wild to remember that the Chiefs had 10 points halfway through the fourth quarter, and you can argue it’s the least impressive playoff start of the Mahomes era. That 31-20 final may be the most misleading in Super Bowl history for how that game actually played out. It was not an easy win for the Chiefs, but you still have to stop them for 60 minutes, not 53.
Tyreek Hill Dud Incoming?
Finally, one last piece of research I was interested in this week that could be telling in how this game plays out, or at the very least could have use for people placing bets (especially SGP) is what happens in a playoff rematch after a receiver torches a defense in the regular season?
Hill had 269 yards and three touchdowns in Tampa Bay in Week 12, making Carlton Davis look like Carlton Banks. Obviously, that won’t happen again on Sunday, but should we expect Hill to put up 60 yards, 120 yards, 20 yards, or what? He went from 20 yards against Buffalo in Week 6 to 172 yards in the AFC Championship Game, so you just never know. This is the reverse situation though. Hill had 66 yards in the final three quarters in Week 12 after that absurd 203 yards in the first quarter alone.
For my approach to finding similar examples, I did not want to limit it to 200-yard days, since those are rare. I also did not want to go down to 150 and dig through a lot of game logs, so I capped it at 175 yards and found that this will be the 19th time since 1970 that a receiver is getting a playoff rematch with a defense he torched for 175+ yards in the regular season. This does not include what would have been another example when Antonio Brown had 189 yards against the 2015 Broncos, but was unavailable for the playoff rematch after getting knocked out by Vontaze Burfict in Cincinnati.
Here are the results sorted by the biggest declines in receiving yards in the playoffs.
This is not a ton of examples in 50 years, and Hill may be the most dangerous receiver on the list, but this is not an encouraging sign for him going off again. The average receiver declined by almost 140 yards in the playoffs and only two of the 18 (Tim Brown and Michael Haynes) were able to hit 100 yards again. Touchdowns also dropped from 28 to six. There were also four extra losses in the playoffs, and the only Super Bowl on the list saw Charlie Brown’s 1983 Washington team get blown out 38-9.
I thought Washington’s Gary Clark (-241 yards) in the 1986 NFC Championship Game may have been injured early, but I checked the gamebook and it looks like he caught zero balls on 13 targets with four drops. Ouch. Don Beebe going off for 220 yards against the 49ers in 1996 is pretty damn amusing as well. It’s not that big of a surprise he only had 2 yards in the playoffs.
My gut is on Travis Kelce taking over as the leading receiver for the Chiefs this week. No one has been able to effectively shut Hill and Kelce down in the same game outside of maybe Denver in the snow. They held them to 86 yards and one touchdown.
Hill going off for 200 yards again in the Super Bowl would be legendary, but I’m putting my money more on Kelce, and if I do include Hill in my parlays, I’m likely taking the under 94.5.
I put a $25 bet on Bucs 31-27 (+13000), basically repeating the Week 12 game script, except for an ending where Tampa Bay gets the ball back and scores a game-winning touchdown late. No, I still wouldn’t be happy if I nailed it. Last year, I had the Chiefs winning by four, which was in the bank until Darrel Williams took that last run 38 yards for a touchdown.
If you’ve followed me for a little or a long time, you know it’s S.O.P. for me to pick the Brady-led team in these things. It stems back to how I’d often pick against the Patriots and they would still win, so I stopped doing it for the 2006 AFC Championship Game in Indianapolis, which the Colts came back to win. So I automatically pick Brady as a reverse jinx. You basically have to ignore my final prediction and read what I wrote in the preview to gauge if I think his team is going to win or not.
In this one, I think it’s clear I believe the Chiefs should win, but I just know how close to the vest they play it and how that could easily backfire against Tampa. Especially when you are at a disadvantage in the trenches. Especially when you are facing the LOAT. Especially when Arians has the magic beans that shit out close wins as well as any active coach in the NFL.
But like Mahomes said after the Buffalo win, he trusts his guys over anybody, and I trust him (and Reid and Kelce and Mathieu, etc.). I trust this team so much that I am going to pick the Chiefs straight up to win the whole damn thing again.
(But you know damn well I am hedging like crazy in bets on Tampa Bay winning just in case, and Tampa Bay +3.5 is legitimately a good pick in my opinion)
Final: Chiefs 31, Buccaneers 28 (MVP: Patrick Mahomes)
History doesn’t repeat itself, but it often rhymes.
While we shouldn’t have taken two Week 6 games to heart for Sunday, there were plenty of qualities in both that carried over to the rematch in these title games, won again by the Buccaneers and Chiefs. Their defenses made life extra difficult again for Aaron Rodgers and Josh Allen as the latest quarterbacks to fall short of a Super Bowl win on 500-point teams. That sets up an overhyped Super Bowl that will likely end after Travis Kelce throws an interception to tackle-eligible Mike Remmers or something ridiculous.
Or it could end with crowning the first repeat champion in the NFL since the 2003-04 Patriots. We have two weeks to worry about that, so for now let’s just recap a high scoring, but relatively low drama Championship Sunday in the NFL.
It would have been difficult for the Packers and Bills to crash harder on Sunday than they already did in the regular season against these opponents. However, both lost after scoring over 500 points in the regular season. Neither was able to score more than 26 points, meaning the 2011 Saints (32) and 2018 Chiefs (31) are still the only 500-point teams who scored at least 30 points in their playoff loss. Only five of the 26 teams won a championship.
Buccaneers at Packers: The LOAT vs. Not the GOAT
This may (not) shock you, but I don’t think the greatest quarterback of all time was on the field in Green Bay on Sunday afternoon. I only view Tom Brady as the Luckiest of All Time (LOAT), never the GOAT. I have never seen Aaron Rodgers, the greatest front-runner in NFL history, as the GOAT. I would take Peyton Manning over both of them any day, and I already like what Patrick Mahomes is doing so much that I probably never have to change the initials for my answer to that tired question of who is the best to ever do it.
All Sunday’s game did for me was solidify why I never view these players that way. I saw Rodgers come up short again and miss too many opportunities after rarely faltering the rest of the year. Still, this is probably his best NFC Championship Game performance yet, which says a lot about his career. I saw Brady take advantage of inexplicable mistakes by the opponent before throwing three straight interceptions and trying to give the game away, which his defense of course would not allow. No quarterback has won more playoff games with three interceptions than Brady’s three wins, doing it for the second time in a title game. Brady is also the only quarterback to ever throw three interceptions in a road Conference Championship Game and win. All other quarterbacks were 0-17.
If I wanted to see the pinnacle of the position, apparently I had to wait until 6:40 P.M. At the very least, it wasn’t 38-10 this time.
Part I: The Nice Start
One thing I prefaced this game with was that hyped-up quarterback battles rarely result in games where both play very well. For about a quarter and a half, these two were looking to prove me wrong. Both started hot with some great third-down plays while the running games were rather stagnant outside of Leonard Fournette’s 20-yard touchdown run. He loves the spin button more than the most devoted Madden player.
Rodgers especially seemed to have a moment late in the first quarter with the Packers, down 7-0, facing a 3rd-and-15 at their own 5 after a sack. Rodgers rolled out in his own end zone and fired a pass to Allen Lazard for 23 yards. That led to a game-tying 50-yard touchdown pass that was perfectly dropped in on another third down to Marques Valdes-Scantling (MVS). We had a tied game instead of Tampa Bay getting great field position and going up two scores.
The Buccaneers did score a second touchdown after the Green Bay secondary again misjudged a ball in the air and Chris Godwin came down with the prayer for a 52-yard gain to set up Fournette’s score. Rodgers seemed to be answering right back and got Aaron Jones involved on the ground after the back nearly lost a fumble in the red zone, but it was recovered by an alert Robert Tonyan.
But things were looking fine as the Packers called their first timeout with 5:13 left in the second quarter with the ball at the Tampa Bay 6.
Then the collapse started.
Part II: The Collapse
Green Bay was outstanding in the red zone this year, scoring a touchdown on 80% of attempts to lead the league. I gave Rodgers shit for throwing so many short touchdowns on early downs to pad his stats so he could win MVP this year, but admittedly, they were really effective down here. It’s just that these were not attempts from the 1-yard line on Sunday. These were all from the 6-yard line, and that’s where Rodgers locked in with tunnel vision to Davante Adams on three straight incompletions.
On the first one, Rodgers absolutely put the ball on a spot that Adams could catch it on a back-shoulder play. Not the most egregious drop you’ll ever see, and not the kind of play any receiver can make, but it is the kind of timing play that Rodgers and Adams have been hitting this year because of how high of a level they’ve been playing. Just not this time.
On second down, Rodgers forced another one that was batted at the line. On third down, he again went to Adams in the back of the end zone, but Adams ran out of room and couldn’t even establish one foot in bounds. Meanwhile, replay clearly showed Lazard beat his man, who fell down, at the line and was wide open on a slant in the front of the end zone.
Again, I am never a big fan of the “he should have thrown to this guy” analysis, but there was a strong argument here that Rodgers screwed up. The Packers kicked a field goal and trailed 14-10.
Even the best red-zone offense can mess up one drive, right? Green Bay got the ball back with 2:10 left for an opportunity at a double score since the Packers deferred and would get the ball first in the third quarter. Cue the game management malfeasance. Now it’s one thing to slow-walk a third-down snap when you don’t know if you’ll convert or not. But once the Packers converted with 23 yards to Lazard, they should have used their second timeout or hurried up to snap the ball quickly. The Packers were very slow to snap the ball, taking over 25 seconds to get the next play off while spending at least half that time set at the line. The result of the play was a sack too with 34 seconds left.
That was a killer. I have no idea why the Packers would wait so long for that play when they had a chance for points, if not a touchdown before halftime. Again, one thing I always appreciated about a Manning-led offense was the quickness he could get the next play off with the clock moving. Rodgers either had a brain fart here or Matt LaFleur was not playing for enough points.
On the next play, Rodgers made his first real bad decision with a pick caught in tight coverage by Sean Murphy-Bunting at midfield. On replay, Murphy-Bunting clearly had a jersey grab on Lazard as he undercut him to make the pick, but it wasn’t called as part of a first half with zero penalties. If you’re going to let them play, you have to keep it consistent…
Tampa Bay seemed to waste the good field position after three plays, but sent the offense back out on a fourth down, which was converted with a short pass to Fournette with 8 seconds left. At the Green Bay 39 and the Buccaneers out of timeouts, the Packers had to be thinking the sidelines or Hail Mary. The Bucs really had no other choices there.
Somehow, the Buccaneers ran just three receivers on routes and Kevin King, who had a horrible game, wasn’t able to cover Scotty Miller, giving up a 39-yard touchdown to end the half. It’s an inexplicable defense to play in that spot.
All three of those touchdowns happened in Lambeau Field in the last 10 seasons, but the other two were Hail Mary attempts. This was just a blown coverage that never should have been single coverage. All I could think is if Antonio Brown (inactive with injury) was in the game, would they have covered this one so poorly? King was getting beat by every Tampa Bay receiver in the game, but would they at least give more attention to Brown than Miller? Defenses just don’t seem to show him any respect despite him getting open deep several times this year, including the only big one last week in New Orleans.
Tampa Bay led 21-10 at halftime, but it was about to get worse. Three plays into the third quarter, Rodgers flipped a short pass to Aaron Jones. He may not have been able to get a first down, but he had the right momentum carrying him towards the sticks. However, he was hit by Devin White and the ball popped out. Tampa Bay was inside the Green Bay 8 and the Packers had two more turnovers after having a league-low 11 in the first 17 games this year.
It took Brady one play to make it a touchdown as, like I said in my preview, no one covers Cameron Brate this postseason. The tight end was all alone in the end zone for the easiest touchdown of the day and the Packers were down 28-10 with 13:54 left in the third quarter. Tampa Bay is the only offense in the last 20 postseasons to have three touchdown drives start inside the opponent 20. Tampa Bay’s offense has four drives that started inside the opponent 40 this postseason. The rest of the league has three, and that includes Buffalo last night.
In a span of barely six minutes of game time, the Packers went from looking like a team about to tie the game, then to maybe pulling off the double score, only to fall behind 28-10. There was the Green Bay collapse, because the Packers came back to outscore Tampa 16-3 the rest of the way. But the game was largely lost in that six-minute span, and I find it hard to see how quarterback skill was the main difference in that stretch.
I did not mention that Brady threw up this deep pass two plays before the Miller touchdown, shades of last week in New Orleans when the Saints could not capitalize on three interception chances from Brady.
It did however look like the quarterbacks were going to decide how the comeback portion went, if only Rodgers could actually make the biggest comeback of his career. It took a 21-3 deficit against Brady and the Patriots in the 2006 AFC Championship Game for Manning to break through in the playoffs. Rodgers had his shot here now.
Part III: The Failed Comeback
Some of my earliest writing was on how Rodgers is the greatest quarterback in NFL history to rarely pull off comeback wins. For as much as he wins and how many points he scores and how many opportunities he’s had, you just expect more from him in this department. Rodgers is now 18-44 (.290) at fourth-quarter comeback opportunities and the Packers have won three games with him after trailing by at least 16 points at any time. Now he has gotten better since those early seasons, but I would be lying if I thought he would make this a great game.
Some of that is my thoughts on him mentally folding against a team that was sacking him more than he’s used to. I felt he folded in Week 6 after throwing the two picks. But this time, it was a Jones fumble that was a huge play to go against him.
My other big concern with Green Bay has nothing to do with Rodgers. It’s when they get down big in playoff games like this one, or 31-0 in the 2016 title game (Atlanta), or last year’s 37-20 loss in San Francisco, they don’t stop the bleeding on defense. They continue trading scores, making it impossible to ever make a comeback when you need stops. A string of stops, and usually a turnover for good field position to make it easier.
Well, this time Rodgers got his turnovers. Way more than anyone could imagine really. While Rodgers got the rally attempt started with a nice 75-yard touchdown drive, the defense really got things going with a pick of a terrible Brady deep ball. Rodgers turned that into a 68-yard touchdown drive with 24 seconds left in the third, but Equanimeous St. Brown dropped a two-point conversion pass to keep the score at 28-23. Ndamukong Suh got a very small tip of the ball, but not enough to knock it off path to where St. Brown shouldn’t have caught it.
So that was disappointing, but at least we had a one-score game going into the fourth quarter. Tampa Bay looked to add more points, but Brady was high on a pass to an extended Mike Evans (all 6’5” of him), and that ball was deflected to an interception by Jaire Alexander.
Rodgers had his chance to take Green Bay’s first lead of the day, but this of course ended up being the only game all season where the Packers never led. The pass protection continued to fail Rodgers. He was hit on the first play of the drive after trying to hit a big play. On third down, he was sacked as edge pressure again hurt the Packers. Shaq Barrett (3.0) and Jason Pierre-Paul (2.0 sacks) lived in the backfield as the Packers tied their season-high in allowing five sacks. No one got a higher pressure rate on Rodgers this year than Tampa Bay in Week 6, and it felt rather high again on Sunday as Rodgers took multiple sacks for only the fourth time all season.
Rodgers enjoyed the best pass protection this season, but a late-season injury to David Bakhtiari was a big warning flag for this postseason run, especially against a blitz-happy Tampa defense that already owned the Packers with Bakhtiari in the lineup for 40 snaps that day. I find it hard to believe Rodgers takes five sacks in this game if he played, but there were issues on the right side of the line as well. There were always going to be issue when these teams met if you ask me, and I don’t think Rodgers and LaFleur had a good enough plan to overcome that from 38-10.
The Packers went three-and-out after losing 5 yards. Brady threw his third straight interception on another poor prayer of a pass he just lobbed up. Barrett got an incredible jump on the snap and sacked Rodgers again to start the next drive, also a three-and-out that lost yards. Is that not a great summary of Brady’s career? He throws two picks, but his defense doesn’t even give up a single positive yard, let alone a first down or points out of it. Not to mention this was against the best offense in 2020.
Rob Gronkowski got me to bet real money on him to score a touchdown, but of course he screwed me over and only got one target in the game. It was a big one, however, as it was a screen pass that he rumbled for 29 yards on. Go figure, his over/under for the game was 28.5 yards. I don’t know how Vegas does it so often. That set up Ryan Succop for a 46-yard field goal, and despite his ill-fitting last name, the veteran came through unlike some superior kickers this postseason. Tampa Bay still led 31-23, but Rodgers had another shot with 4:33 left.
Last time it was at the 6-yard line where the Packers failed in the red zone. This time it was getting the ball to the 8-yard line at 2:22. Once again, the sequence focused too heavily on Adams and it was poorly done. Rodgers and Lazard seemed to be on the wrong page on first down. On second down, Rodgers stepped up and threw the ball away through the back of the end zone after pressure got to him. On third down, this is the heavily criticized play where he had a chance to run and didn’t. He forced a terrible pass low to Adams between two defenders.
The throw was terrible, but I really do not see the run as a viable option here. Rodgers looked like he could outrun Tampa’s defense a few times in the game, only for them to trap him quickly. They are a fast defense, and I think #90 (JPP) could have taken him down in a hurry there, which would have used up the two-minute warning clock stoppage.
Then LaFleur threw his name in the Mike McCarthy potluck by kicking a field goal with 2:05 left on fourth down from the 8. I am not sure this is a horrible decision, but as the hours pass since this game ended, I am leaning towards hating it more. I’m not big on trying the fourth-and-8 and needing that and a two-point conversion just to tie and force the Bucs into some aggressive offense with two minutes left. That sounds like a shitty spot to be in to me. I kind of like the idea of getting a chipshot field goal, 31-26, then use my four clock stoppages to get the ball back from an offense that likes 1-2 yard runs and a quarterback with a spotty history in the four-minute offense, before I drive for the game-winning touchdown. I can at least see the rationale and appeal of that way.
But overall, I think the Packers failed on early downs, should have considered a run there, and set up a shorter throw like they have all season. That third down was no man’s land for Rodgers. No one was open and a run wouldn’t have gained much of anything. Maybe it makes the fourth down a little shorter, but still difficult. The fourth down is also no man’s land. Just not the spot you want to be in for that situation.
The Packers were 2-for-4 in goal-to-go situations on Sunday after converting them 90.5% of the time in the regular season (No. 2 in NFL). Green Bay finishes 5-of-9 (55.6%) in goal-to-go this postseason after going 38-for-42 in the regular season, matching their total stops in 16 games in just two playoff games. How disappointing.
The offense never saw the ball again. The defense was able to set up a crucial third-and-4, but the pass rush didn’t get home and Brady had time to throw a pass in the general direction of Tyler Johnson, who had his jersey pulled. Go figure, it was Kevin King on the penalty, which was a late flag on a ball you’d think would be uncatchable, but no one ever pays attention to that part of the rule. The most frustrating part is that this wasn’t called a penalty earlier in the game on the interception when Tampa Bay grabbed the jersey of Rodgers’ receiver, but they called it here and it effectively ended the game. It also helped that Johnson sold it with a soccer flop.
The Buccaneers set an NFL record for defensive pass interference penalties drawn in the regular season (24), so go figure they ice the game with one here.
Rodgers made some big strides from 38-10 against this defense, but it wasn’t an MVP-caliber performance from him when he badly needed one in the biggest home game of his career. Aaron Jones was a disappointment, the offensive line was a huge letdown, and the connection with Adams didn’t look as good as it usually does.
Still, I do not understand the criticism of Green Bay not drafting a wide receiver this year for this game. MVS had over 100 yards and Lazard was open a good deal too. He should have had an easy touchdown if Rodgers was looking for someone besides Adams. I thought the secondary wideouts were good. It was the defensive backs that were a bigger problem. Jaire Alexander is a fine player, but he can only cover one receiver at a time. The Packers had a big weakness in King and the Buccaneers exploited him in the worst ways. This is why you can never have enough good corners in the NFL today. In fact, it’s better to have a solid group of corners without any great players than it is to have a great corner but a liability in coverage. The Packers had the liability today and it cost them.
Rodgers, 38 next season, talked of an “uncertain future” after this game. I would be shocked if he wasn’t the Green Bay quarterback in 2021. I think he was just dealing with one of the toughest losses of his career and will be back.
But will anything change for the Packers? They have now been swept out of seven straight postseasons by the 2012 49ers, 2013 49ers, 2014 Seahawks, 2015 Cardinals, 2016 Falcons, 2019 49ers, and 2020 Buccaneers. Very fine teams for sure, but notice none of them so far have won a Super Bowl. LaFleur might as well have been wearing a McCarthy costume today. When you beat this team in the regular season, it doesn’t seem like they ever have an answer for how to reverse it in the playoffs. Same old Packers.
But if the Buccaneers do get to the Super Bowl, it’s in Tampa Bay this year, a homefield advantage no team has ever had before in the big game. If anyone was lucky enough to reap those benefits…
Brady is now 2-0 when he throws at least three interceptions in a Conference Championship Game. All other quarterbacks are 5-25. Of course, he’s still in another Super Bowl. Good thing Tampa Bay will be facing a better quarterback and coach this time.
Bills at Chiefs: Patrick Mahomes Is What Fans Wanted Aaron Rodgers to Be
So much for 6-point wins, near interceptions, and struggling in the red zone: Kansas City is back in the Super Bowl. I’ll keep this recap short and simple, just like the Chiefs kept the competitive portion of this 38-24 win over Buffalo.
No one will remember Buffalo led 9-0 after a quarter, but it was fool’s gold. The Bills got an opening field goal after the Chiefs dropped an interception. The Chiefs went three-and-out after Tyreek Hill dropped a deep ball on third down. The Bills got a 3-yard touchdown drive after Mecole Hardman muffed a punt return before he was even hit. Again, you have to hope this team beats itself to have a chance.
Once the Chiefs found their hands, they answered back with three straight touchdowns to take a 21-12 lead at halftime, never looking back. Patrick Mahomes looked healthy as could be a week after a big scare against Cleveland. Even when he didn’t need to bring his A-game, this offense made things look easy. Mahomes finished 29-of-38 for 325 yards, three touchdowns, and no turnovers, real or otherwise. It was a clean game for Travis Kelce and Hill to show they are no match for soft coverage, and Hill also exploded after the catch on a 71-yard play.
The only surprise was that the Chiefs barely got anything out of the ground game after a season-high 245 yards in Week 6 in Buffalo. The running backs finished with 19 carries for 59 yards, and a good chunk of that was with the game already decided. Hardman made up for his blunder with a 50-yard run.
The Bills ended up rushing for 129 yards, but Josh Allen had 88 of those yards on scrambles. It was much better than his passing as he completed 28-of-48 passes for 287 yards. He also took four sacks for 53 yards, the second-most sack yards he’s lost in a game in his career. Allen was too indecisive at getting rid of the ball and too inaccurate when he did.
I brought up twice this week that Buffalo’s offense had been a third-down disappointment this postseason after finishing No. 1 in the regular season. The Bills were only 5-of-14 (35.7%) in this game while the Chiefs were 6-of-10 (6-of-9 excluding a game-ending kneeldown).
Much like in Week 6, Allen and the Bills couldn’t make any big plays on the Chiefs defense. It wasn’t until 4:06 remained that the Bills had their first play of 25+ yards from scrimmage against Kansas City this year. That was a 34-yard catch by Stefon Diggs, who finished with 77 yards on a quiet night for him.
Head coach Sean McDermott did not improve his profile in this game, choosing to kick two short field goals with only 2-3 yards to go on fourth down after it was evident his defense did not have the ability to stop the Chiefs. That was poorly managed, and I do not agree with the two-point conversion attempt late to try cutting it to a 15-point game at 4:08. Kick the extra point, make it 38-22, then after they miraculously recovered the onside kick, you’re still in business with a chance to cut the lead in half and make Mahomes do something with an 8-point lead. Instead, the Bills were down 17, settled for a field goal after Allen’s fourth huge sack of the night nearly caused a fight, and then the Bills watched Mahomes run five times to burn the rest of the clock for a 38-24 final. Lame.
Buffalo is in better shape than most AFC teams. It is no guarantee there are more rounds to come in future Bills-Chiefs playoff matchups – we are still waiting for the first Ravens-Chiefs playoff game in this era after all – but this was the team’s best season since the Super Bowl runs. Buffalo can still grow and get better, and it will be interesting to see if it becomes a hot free agent destination for teams wanting to knock off the Chiefs. Unless players rather take discounts and just go to Kansas City while the Bills have to pay Allen a fortune very soon. We’ll see.
The 2020 Chiefs are not a very dominant 16-2 team, but they absolutely have shown they can turn on a switch at times for big matchups. They dominated the Ravens 34-20 in Baltimore. They swept the Bills by multiple scores, and this Buffalo team was 15-2 with a Hail Mary loss in Arizona when it wasn’t playing the Chiefs. The Chiefs also came out red hot on offense the night they avenged their loss to the Raiders, and of course that electric first quarter in Tampa Bay in Week 12 that will be more closely scrutinized the next two weeks than the Week 6 games were for these rematches that went the same way on Sunday.
Now the Chiefs just need one more big performance against a team they already beat in an unusual road setting for the Super Bowl. It is hard to ever bet against Mahomes, who is now 10-4 SU and 11-2-1 ATS as either an underdog or favorite of no more than 3 points.
But not all news was great from this one as left tackle Eric Fisher injured his Achilles and will likely miss the Super Bowl. We already saw what happened to Green Bay against Tampa Bay without its star left tackle. However, Mahomes does look to be a different beast than any other quarterback you could name.
While Aaron Rodgers will almost certainly win his third MVP award the night before the Super Bowl, Mahomes is the only No. 1 seed who will be playing on February 7. Mahomes will have the chance to cap off a three-year run that has been better than any three-year run in the careers of Rodgers or Brady. While he was inevitably going to have to share the stage with one of them in two weeks, there is no denying that Mahomes is doing everything you want at the position in a way that puts him in a class of his own. He might be the greatest hope we have in a quarterback who can unite the ring counters, film junkies, and stat nerds in their praise of a legitimate GOAT.
Few games in the NFL actually amount to a legacy game, but this is absolutely one for Aaron Rodgers and Tom Brady. That’s a scary thought when most will focus on the result instead of how each actually plays, but this is undoubtedly a big opportunity for the No. 12 in green. Rodgers did not reach the Super Bowl in his first two MVP seasons, and this is looking like the third opportunity, but it is also his first NFC Championship Game at home after playing four of them on the road. He is still looking for that first signature performance in this round of the playoffs, a round that has also seen a lot of subpar Brady performances. But can the Packers capitalize on any mistakes unlike the Saints defense on Sunday?
Say what you will about the lack of homefield advantage this year, but Green Bay just doesn’t seem to turn the ball over at Lambeau Field like it does elsewhere. Seven of Green Bay’s league-low 11 giveaways were on the road this year. Rodgers has thrown one interception in seven home playoff games and that happened nine years ago. Rodgers has had 14 of his 19 multi-interception games on the road, including three in Tampa Bay where he’s also had half of his four career games with three interceptions.
He damn near threw four picks in Tampa Bay in Week 6 this year, the 38-10 loss that will either prove to be the harbinger of Green Bay’s undoing or the true anomaly of a Super Bowl season. The Packers scored at least 22 points in every other game this season.
If you are wondering why the title says Part II, that is partially a reference to this being a Week 6 rematch as both Conference Championship Games are this weekend, but also because I already wrote a preview for this game at Sportsbook Review. You should read that for details on what led to 38-10 and the individual matchups this weekend. I’m using this space for more of my personal opinions on this game’s place in history.
First, some quick notes on Conference Championship Games that were rematches from the regular season since 1978 that can apply to both games on Sunday:
The playoff record for the team that won the last meeting is 34-24 (.586) as the 49ers swept the Packers last year, but the Chiefs came back to beat the Titans.
The home team in the playoffs is 39-19 (.672).
Teams like Kansas City who played the last matchup on the road and are at home in the title game are 20-8 (.714).
Teams like Kansas City who won the last matchup on the road and are at home in the title game are 12-2 (.857), but the two losers were Andy Reid’s 2003 Eagles (vs. Panthers) and the 2007 Packers (vs. Giants).
The playoff record for a road loser switching venues in the playoffs like Green Bay this week is 8-6 (.571) as the Chiefs were able to beat the Titans that way last year but lost to Tom Brady’s Patriots at home the previous year.
The team who was at least a 3-point favorite in both matchups (2020 Chiefs and Packers apply) is 21-10 (.677) ATS and 24-7 (.774) SU in the title game.
Buccaneers at Packers (-3.5)
Well, we are basically where I expected we would be. Your move, Aaron.
With the roster Tampa Bay has, you would have expected a better record than 11-5 this year. But some spotty performances and getting owned twice by the Saints led to a No. 5 seed in the tournament. That’s not so bad when you get to open with the worst division winner in NFL history and Drew Brees on his last legs in a quiet Superdome.
The highlight of the season has always been that 38-10 demolition of Rodgers and the Packers, which was actually a preview of how the Bucs ended up finally beating the Saints in the playoffs last week. The defense pounced on interceptions and set up multiple touchdowns for Tampa Bay while Brady didn’t throw for 200 yards again, just like in Week 6. The difference on Sunday from Week 6 is that the Buccaneers didn’t have a touchdown drive over 40 yards. Even Bill Belichick’s girlfriend can see the defense won that game.
I cannot see it happening again that way. Rodgers came up a tackle at the 2-yard line short of throwing back-to-back pick-sixes, or plays he had twice in his entire career. That seemed to mentally break him that day, and then the physical beatdown came with the Tampa defense getting good pressure and four sacks on him. Green Bay’s had the best pass protection all year, but that day it was Todd Bowles’ aggressive defense getting the upper hand.
I was already reviewing this game in December in anticipation we’d see the playoff rematch, and it was then I remembered just why I was so disgusted by Rodgers and Green Bay’s performance. It looked like so many old Green Bay losses where the team goes on the road, gets punched in the mouth, and just crumbles. The way Rodgers started missing open receivers and nearly having two more interceptions that Tampa Bay dropped, it was a pure meltdown and it felt like he gave up in the second half. That game was the main reason I was so against giving him the MVP for this season, but it does remain his only poor performance of 2020 so far.
Rodgers now must overcome that defense to get to the Super Bowl. That is only fair in my book. This is the matchup we deserve with the way the Saints and Seahawks limped across the finish line. It’s like the opposite of 1996 when Brett Favre avoided the Cowboys, a team he always struggled with, in the playoffs. Dallas beat Green Bay 21-6 in Week 12, but Favre never had to beat them in the playoffs to get his only Super Bowl win. It would not feel right for Rodgers to avoid Tampa Bay this season.
This is a game where the home quarterback needs to hold serve. When Peyton Manning and Brady met five times in the playoffs, the home team won all five games with the last three AFC title games going to Manning’s teams. Brees just blew his only shot at Brady in the playoffs. Rodgers cannot have a second stinker, but go figure, the only defense that has shown the ability to shut him down this year comes attached with Brady, who has the only defense playing this Sunday with the defensive profile you’d expect from a Super Bowl champion with the other three units being pretty mediocre.
Throw in the Super Bowl being in Tampa with a trash Florida governor cocky enough to allow that stadium to fill with fans, and yeah, you can see where this is going. (Note: attendance may end up capped at 20%, but do not underestimate corporate greed).
Unless Tampa starts slowly again and Rodgers dunks on them early, this is going to be a tough one. Remember, before the collapse in Week 6 the Packers were leading 10-0 in the second quarter and had the ball.
It seems for over a decade, many people picked a Rodgers vs Brady Super Bowl before the season even starts, only for it to never happen. This is the closest we’ll get to it now with them sharing the conference, but there were some close calls before. It probably should have happened in 2010 or 2011, but each team experienced a major upset at home in the divisional round those years: New England to the 2010 Jets, Green Bay to the 2011 Giants.
Then there was the 2014 season. They met for the first time in the regular season and Rodgers pulled out a solid 26-21 game that was a breakout moment for a rookie named Davante Adams (121 yards). We could have had this again in the Super Bowl, but the Packers blew a 16-0 lead in Seattle in the NFC Championship Game, most notably failing to recover an onside kick that probably sets up a Packers-Patriots Super Bowl.
The more I think about that postseason now, the more I’ve come to realize in hindsight that the 2014 Seahawks are my most hated team of the last decade. There is nothing I personally object to with that team. I am generally pro-Russell Wilson, pro-Pete Carroll, and Seattle was the team I picked to become the NFL’s next dynasty before the 2013 season started.
But the path that 2014 Seattle team set the league on aggravates me so much. They took their injured Legion of Boom secondary from that game into the Super Bowl, teased us with a good start against the Patriots, then blew a 24-14 lead in the fourth quarter in one of the worst ways possible. Yes, Malcolm Butler’s interception at the 1-yard line is the costliest interception in NFL history. This also makes for one of the most annoying comparisons ever when people compare the 2013 Broncos’ performance in the Super Bowl against the best Seattle team to New England’s in 2014 when Seattle was not the same.
Seriously, I might hate Brandon Bostick more than I hate Hank Baskett. (If you know your botched onside kick recoveries, good for you).
Seattle has yet to have much postseason success since that game, the same one that helped end a nine-year drought of titles for the Patriots and led to winning two more. In hindsight, I would have much rather seen Rodgers and the Packers get their shot in Super Bowl XLIX than Seattle’s choke job. Rodgers was not fully healthy late in that season after Ndamukong Suh, another old foe he’ll have to deal with this Sunday, cheaply stepped on him with Detroit.
Maybe Rodgers has an ineffective Super Bowl against one of Belichick’s best pass defenses, and Brady gets the win anyway. All I know is the chance for Rodgers to win that game could have made the ring count 3-2 at the time, and we know it’s the easiest thing in the world to discount Brady’s first ring. Maybe “Prime Aaron Rodgers” doesn’t fall off in 2015 if he’s coming off a second Super Bowl MVP season.
That postseason was a huge turning point for the league. This one can be too, but a lot of that depends on Patrick Mahomes’ health and the Chiefs. For more on that game, click here.
Now six years later, Rodgers is still searching for that second Super Bowl appearance. Brees was in a similar boat with his own history of playoff disappointment. It should have been him instead of Jared Goff and the Rams challenging the Patriots in 2018, but that’s what happens when you get the worst no-call in NFL history to go against you. Still, Brees had another shot on Sunday and played his first terrible playoff game and maybe the worst game he’s had in a Saints uniform. Sadly, it will likely be his final NFL game as he retires at 42.
But Rodgers isn’t nearing the end yet. He’s playing at a very high level and this is a complete offense with a running game they’ll need to continue getting huge production from, especially against a tough Buccaneers defense. There may also be considerable snow in this game with the Packers already impressing in those conditions with a 40-14 win over Tennessee in December.
Historically, home teams do very well in freezing temperatures at home in the playoffs against teams not used to those conditions, though Green Bay has had a few high-profile losses over the years (2002 Falcons, 2004 Vikings, 2013 49ers).
38-10 aside, I am fairly confident in Rodgers playing well in this game. Justin Herbert did a great job against this Tampa Bay defense before the Chargers did their usual act of blowing a 17-point lead. Ditto for Matt Ryan and the Falcons, who twice scored 27 points late in the season on Tampa. Taylor Heinicke didn’t even know he was going to start until late in the week and threw for over 300 yards in a playoff game for one of the worst offenses in the league. I know Brees just had that brutal game, but before this Tampa defense broke his ribs, he embarrassed them that night in Week 9’s 38-3 win. Even Daniel Jones had many open receivers against this defense and should have been able to win that game, a 25-23 loss on Monday night.
I really want to pick the Packers to answer 38-10 in a huge way here. For once, let’s see Brady play a historic offense without Bill Belichick figuring out a way to make them look impotent, but instead for them to run up the score to 44 or more. You know, something that’s happened three times to Rodgers in the playoffs and not once to Brady in 342 career starts, which is unheard of.
But then I think about how defeated Rodgers looked in Week 6, and how his last six playoff exits have all been to teams he lost to in the regular season. How Matt LaFleur was not impressive at all in playing the 49ers a second time in last year’s NFC Championship Game, a 37-20 loss. How this defense is unlikely to defend all these receivers as well as the Saints did. How Ronald Jones rushed for over 100 yards in Week 6 and looked very good, along with Leonard Fournette, in New Orleans on Sunday. How no one is even covering Cameron Brate this postseason. How Mike Evans and Chris Godwin are likely to make much bigger impacts this week. Maybe Antonio Brown too if he’s healthy.
Then I just think about the general fortune of Rodgers-led teams in the playoffs compared to Brady-led teams, and I have a bad feeling about this one.
Like as if my claims of Rodgers folding when a team makes it tough on him come true again, or that his stat-padding from the 1-yard line means the game is going to end after he throws four straight incompletions from the 1. No, not a Malcolm Butler interception repeat, but just four straight misses after leading one of the most effective red zone offenses this century. Or Mason Crosby misses several kicks after getting shaken up last week. Or Marques Valdes-Scantling drops three drive-extending passes on third down – that might be the most realistic one.
I think this season deserves a Packers-Chiefs Super Bowl, a rematch of Super Bowl I. This would be between the two No. 1 seeds and the first (if not last) meeting between the two best quarterbacks in the game right now. But I can’t help but think the events of last Sunday were the football gods throwing up the middle finger at me again.
I’ll save the rants for Sunday night if necessary, but one thing I feel like I can count on is that it is unlikely Rodgers and Brady will both play great on Sunday.
Remember when Lamar Jackson vs. Patrick Mahomes in Week 3 was going to be the Game of the Year? Whoops, only one MVP showed up. Look at the other matchups of note. A high-quality quarterback duel didn’t happen in Week 6 for Rodgers-Brady or even for Allen-Mahomes. It didn’t happen when Rodgers and Brady met in 2018. It didn’t happen three times this year between Brady and Brees. It never happened in five playoff games between Manning and Brady. It didn’t happen in the Super Bowl when Joe Montana faced two Cincinnati MVP winners (Ken Anderson, Boomer Esiason) or Hall of Famers Dan Marino or John Elway. Rodgers and Ben Roethlisberger had one of the great ones, but it was a regular season game in 2009 and not Super Bowl XLV the following year.
The only playoff game in NFL history where both quarterbacks passed for 400 yards happened in 1981 and it involved Don Strock, who didn’t even start the game. There is a reason 2009 Matthew Stafford vs. Brady Quinn once ranked in the top 10 for a show about the greatest quarterback duels in NFL history.
Maybe I’m selling Rodgers short though. After all, he is part of one of the six duels in playoff history where both quarterbacks threw at least three touchdowns and had a 100+ passer rating. He and Kurt Warner in 2009 are the only pair that will be in the Hall of Fame too.
Games like this are expected to be shootouts or well-played classics, but one guy usually blows the other away before halftime and we’re left watching a dud, or neither quarterback plays well and the other players become the determining factor of who wins and who loses, like we saw with Bucs-Saints on Sunday.
The divisional round is no longer going to be my favorite week of the NFL year if the games are going to start looking like this every season. You know it was a rough slate when Jared Goff kept up his end of the bargain to make that game in Green Bay the best played from the quarterback position this weekend.
Lamar Jackson and Patrick Mahomes, the last two MVP winners, will not be having their first postseason meeting in the AFC Championship Game next week. Both quarterbacks left their games in the third quarter after suffering a concussion. If Jackson’s didn’t occur on a freak play after a bad snap and while he was already down 17-3, this weekend might have caused a referendum on the usage of quarterbacks in the running game. For decades, the argument was that you cannot run college-style plays or the speed-option at the professional level without getting your quarterback killed.
Well, Andy Reid almost got his quarterback killed, nearly killing his team’s wonderful season in the process. Mahomes is reportedly doing okay, but of course they are going to say that, so who knows what will happen next week. The Chiefs were fortunate to survive the Browns by a 22-17 final. Still, it has to make you think about when your quarterback should get the greenlight to run and when he should stick to passing and only running out of necessity.
Maybe Jackson-Mahomes wouldn’t have been a great title game anyway. You know, these big-time quarterback matchups rarely play out as great performances by both players. Just look at the combined 85-year-olds in New Orleans on Sunday, which is where we must start for I am willed by Him to do so.
Buccaneers at Saints: The Swansong for Drew Brees You Hate to See
It took a record 10 games, but this postseason finally had a second-half lead change and a game-winning drive in the fourth quarter. If I told you it was a Tom Brady-led team beating a Drew Brees-led team, you probably wouldn’t be surprised by that part.
However, I am sad to say this was not the result of Brees’ defense blowing a late lead in explicable fashion, or wasting one of his go-ahead drives again, or any obscene officiating error in the final minutes. I can’t even blame Taysom Hill for a failed gadget play, because he was inactive with an injury.
No, this game fell largely on Drew Brees, who had his worst ever playoff game by far with three interceptions and just 134 passing yards on 34 attempts (3.94 YPA). It will likely be the final game of his stellar career too as he is expected to retire even though nothing is official yet.
Based on how he looked in this one, it is time. Watching Brees unable to get any mustard on the ball any time the Buccaneers got close to him was sad. The Saints’ only 20-yard play in this game was a brilliant gadget design with Jameis Winston throwing a 56-yard touchdown to a very wide open Tre’Quan Smith, who caught both of the Saints touchdowns in the game. Alvin Kamara never scored, and Michael Thomas never caught a pass on four targets.
While Brees had a horrible game, the fact is Tom Brady wasn’t much better. In fact, this first (and last) playoff meeting between Brady and Brees looked a lot like the first playoff match between a young Brady and Peyton Manning in the 2003 AFC Championship Game. The Patriots won that game 24-14 after Manning was intercepted four times by the No. 1 defense in the snow. But the part that always gets lost in that one is how Brady also played terrible, trying to match all four of Manning’s interceptions with his own bad throws, but the Colts could not take advantage of more than one of them. I posted a video of this over eight years ago.
I could do the same thing for this game as Brady left three opportunities out there for Saints defenders to make interceptions, something they did five times against Carolina in Week 17, but zero times in the playoffs. Brady threw five interceptions against the Saints in the regular season, but again, the defense was empty in the big games here in January.
One of the missed picks was when the defensive back did not drag his second foot in bounds to secure the pass, which is noticeably different from the Buccaneers when Brady’s teammate made sure to get his footwork right on one of Brees’ three interceptions.
In classic Brady fashion, he saved the worst for the fourth quarter to cap off a game-winning drive. Marshon Lattimore jumped Scotty Miller on a third down and nearly picked Brady off with a diving attempt. Even infamous QB apologist Troy Aikman had to note how he got lucky there. The Buccaneers instead kicked a 36-yard field goal to take a 23-20 lead. Brees was intercepted five plays later on what may have been a miscommunication with Kamara down the field.
For the third time, Tampa Bay had great field position and turned it into a touchdown to make it 30-20 with 4:57 left. If Brees had one more miracle in him, and this would have been a huge one, he had to score quickly on a day where the big plays just weren’t happening for him. Four plays into the drive, his third interception came on a pass deflected off Jared Cook. So you had one that looked woeful and late, one that looked like miscommunication, and one that was just a bad luck deflection.
And that might be the final pass of Brees’ career.
There is plenty of valid criticism to aim at Brees for this performance. The 3.94 YPA is his second-lowest in a game with the Saints (he was at 3.87 against the 2013 Seahawks on MNF). The fact that Winston had to come in to throw the deep ball on the gadget is a bad look for him too.
However, this idea that one quarterback outplayed the other because he was more “clutch” or is a better “winner” is the same type of horseshit that was shoveled after the 2003 AFC Championship Game with Manning and Brady.
This game was about two old quarterbacks playing like shit against good defenses, but only the Tampa Bay defense made big plays to get turnovers. The Saints couldn’t get one despite three offerings.
The other annoying part is that the biggest play of the game was a Jared Cook fumble in the third quarter, another play that has nothing to do with either of these quarterbacks.
The Saints were leading 20-13 in the third quarter and looked to be driving again with Brees converting on a third down into Tampa territory, but Cook had the ball knocked out. Instead of taking a two-score lead, the Saints were at their own 40 and couldn’t keep the Buccaneers out of the end zone from tying the game.
That was the killer turnover in the second half, but the first three turnovers for the Saints set up Tampa Bay in incredible field position. The Buccaneers only had to move 63 total yards on their three touchdown drives (3, 40, and 20 yards). On the eight drives that did not start in Saints territory, the Bucs had no touchdowns.
I had to look it up, and sure enough, this puts the game in rare territory for field position. The average touchdown drive in the playoffs is about 65 yards. This is only the fourth playoff game since 2001 where a team had three touchdown drives that started inside the opponent 40. Three of the four games involve Tom Brady, though not quite like you might think.
2014 AFC Championship Game, New England vs. Indianapolis: It’s the Deflategate game. The Patriots had touchdown drives of 26, 13, and 40 yards, but at least they had other long drives too in a 45-7 win.
2005 AFC Championship Game, Pittsburgh at Denver: The Steelers had touchdown drives of 39, 38, and 17 yards. They did have an 80-yard touchdown drive in the second quarter too in a 34-17 win.
2005 AFC Divisional, Denver vs. New England: How did Denver get to that Pittsburgh game? They beat Brady and the Patriots the week before. They did it with touchdown drives of 40, 1, and 15 yards. They had no other touchdown drives, meaning the 2005 Broncos and the 2020 Buccaneers are the only offenses in the last 20 postseasons to have three touchdown drives start inside the 40 and nothing longer. The kicker is the only reason this isn’t Tampa Bay alone is Denver’s 1-yard touchdown drive that was the result of a Brady interception returned by Champ Bailey that Ben Watson miraculously tracked down and saved from being a pick-six. If not for that Brady error that looked similar to what Lamar Jackson did on Saturday night, Brady would be the only quarterback of his era to have a playoff game where he needed so many short fields to score his touchdowns. I wish I could make this stuff up.
It is hard for me to see the Bucs winning this one without those turnovers producing such amazing field position. Brady was not able to pass for 200 yards on this defense. The loaded receiving corps of Mike Evans, Chris Godwin, Rob Gronkowski, and Antonio Brown combined for 61 yards. That’s it. It was Tyler Johnson who had the big catch of the day, stretching out for a 15-yard gain on 3rd-and-11 on what became the game-winning drive instead of a three-and-out. Scotty Miller then chipped in the only 20-yard catch of the game by coming down with a 29-yard gain.
What a disappointing game, but it should have been expected. When do you really see these big QB battles play out as being shootouts or with both players playing at a high level? Brees and Manning once delivered a pretty good Super Bowl, but more often than not, these games are one-sided (think Dan Marino or John Elway against Joe Montana in the Super Bowl) or the quarterback play isn’t even that good and the game is decided by other factors. Hell, just look at these three Brees-Brady games this year. They both sucked in the first and third games, and Brady was horrific in the second while Brees played very well in the 38-3 rout.
But this is the only Saints-Bucs game people will remember from 2020, and that is the unfortunate part for Brees, especially if it proves to be his swansong. Now it’s up to the Packers to see if they can reverse the 38-10 outcome the way Tampa Bay recovered from 38-3 in this game.
But remember, for all the hype to come with Brady vs. Rodgers, it’s unlikely to be a game where both quarterbacks play great. It didn’t happen in 38-10. It didn’t happen when they met in 2018. If we’re lucky, it will look like the 2014 game, which Rodgers and the Packers won 26-21.
Browns at Chiefs: Andy Reid Kills Season Before Bringing It Back to Life
For the second year in a row, the Chiefs’ Super Bowl hopes hinge on the health of Patrick Mahomes. Last year it was a dislocated kneecap in Week 7 that only ended up costing him 11 quarters. This year, if he misses even one game it could very well mean the season is over for the Chiefs. When I warned that “one mistake could end the season” for this Chiefs team with all their nail-biting finishes, I certainly never thought it would mean a concussion that left Mahomes, who was already grimacing through a toe injury from the first half, visibly shaken and out of sorts.
This was a tough game to watch, but it was nice seeing the Chiefs operating on offense as if it hadn’t been three weeks since the starters last played. Mahomes led two 75-yard touchdown drives to start things, but the touchdown pass to Travis Kelce is where the toe injury happened, leading to his first trip to the blue medical tent. You could see it start to affect his planting and throwing on the next drive, which ended in a field goal. The Chiefs tacked on another field goal to end the half, scoring 19 points on four first-half possessions just like No. 1 seed Green Bay did on Saturday.
The Browns could have started this game with the ball and try to take a 7-0 lead before Mahomes took the field for the first time in three weeks, but they deferred to the second half. I hated that decision, and sure enough, it didn’t help them out. Baker Mayfield threw an interception three plays into the third quarter and this looked like a rout was on. However, the Chiefs didn’t get a first down and Harrison Butker missed a 33-yard field goal after already missing an extra point terribly to start the game. Those four points could have been huge too. The quarter basically reset, and the Browns were able to find the end zone without fumbling through it like Rashard Higgins did late in the second quarter. One of the dumbest rules in the game got Cleveland in a big way, but at least Browns 2.0 fans have a new version of “The Fumble” to call their own.
Still, the Chiefs led 19-10. That’s when the outlook changed as Mahomes kept the ball on an option run and was hit awkwardly. He struggled to get up and had to be helped off the field. This looked like an obvious concussion and you just figured his day was over, but hopefully not his season.
First, I have to say this was a horrible call to make in this game. Mahomes clearly was not 100% after the toe injury. Why would you have him run an option play on a 3rd-and-1 at the Kansas City 48 in a 19-10 game in the third quarter? Mahomes scored a little touchdown to open the game on a similar play, but I can live with that. It was to score. This was, at best, going to get a first down at midfield, and he didn’t even convert it. The Chiefs have to be smarter than this, and it’s a joke that they would be content with this call when they are afraid to use Mahomes on a quarterback sneak, the most effective short-yardage weapon in the game, because Mahomes was injured on one in 2019.
Well, he’s injured again, and it will be questionable if he’s cleared and able to play well next week in the AFC Championship Game. Again, save the designed runs for the big spots like icing the game at the end, converting a fourth down, or scoring a touchdown. The risk there was not worth it.
This game only had 15 possessions, which makes the 22-17 final look misleading as to how well the offenses played. Cleveland had an 18-play touchdown drive after the Mahomes injury to pull within five. Enter Chad Henne, the veteran who has really nothing to show on his lengthy resume in the NFL, but hopefully this will be the one bright spot. It started well with big completions to Hill and Kelce, but then Henne got greedy on a first-and-25 and air-mailed an easy interception in the end zone. Really? He’s just going to lob that one up there on first down close to field goal range? Isn’t the whole point of a backup quarterback to take care of the ball? But it would show that Reid was not afraid to take some chances with Henne in the game.
Now the Chiefs had to get a stop on defense with 8:00 left. This is a spot where I said they weren’t tested much at all this season because of how successful Mahomes was at leading the offense with a one-score lead. If Mahomes was in the game, the Chiefs would probably add a field goal or touchdown to that 22-17 lead and feel safer about closing things out. But Henne threw the pick and it was clenched ass time.
Frankly, the Browns sucked here, and I’m not even talking about Jarvis Landry setting a WR playoff record for the fewest receiving yards (20) on at least 7 catches. Kareem Hunt looked like the livelier, fresher back than Nick Chubb did. I would have gone to Hunt on this drive, but the Browns were still infatuated with short Chubb runs and trying to get him involved in the passing game, which isn’t a strength of his. Maybe the screen last week in Pittsburgh (40-yard TD) proved to be fool’s gold for Cleveland as Chubb had 4 yards on five targets in this game. On a 3rd-and-11, Mayfield checked down to Hunt for 2 yards to set up 4th-and-9 at the Cleveland 32 with just over four minutes left.
Head coach Kevin Stefanski was really in no man’s land with this decision. It is a hard conversion and Baker was not playing that well. If you don’t get it, the Chiefs are probably able to add a field goal, which would keep it a one-possession game at 25-17. Maybe they get two first downs and run out the clock. A horrible challenge by Stefanski earlier in the quarter on a clear catch by Hill cost the team a timeout, which came back to hurt as you’d expect.
I feel with Henne in the game, you think you can get the three-and-out stop and get the ball back with plenty of time to go win the game. So I would support the decision to punt. The Chiefs stayed aggressive though with Henne twice dropping back on second-down plays, which is almost unheard of in the four-minute offense in this league. He converted one third down, but faced a third-and-14 after taking a big sack by Myles Garrett.
It felt like Mayfield would get one last chance to win the game. It seemed like the Chiefs needed to just run this one and punt the ball back with about 70 seconds left. But Reid called a pass and Henne pulled out a 13-yard scramble that came up just short of the conversion. I did not know he had wheels like that at 35. The 2013 season was the last time Henne had a 14-yard run.
This set up a 4th-and-1 at the Kansas City 48. I thought punting was the right call, because in a 22-17 game, if you go for it and don’t get it, you’re really putting the screws to yourself for a potential game-losing touchdown drive the other way. In a 25-17 game I’d go for it, maybe even in a 24-17 game I’d go for it, but not in that 4-to-6 point danger zone.
It looked like the Chiefs were just going to try to draw the Browns offsides, but to the shock of everyone, they snapped the ball with 5 on the play clock and Henne threw a quick pass to Hill for the game-sealing first down.
That took some balls.
Balls we really haven’t seen before. I cannot find a play, regular season or playoffs, since 1994 where an offense threw a pass on fourth down in their own territory in the final 80 seconds with a 1-8 point lead that wouldn’t have been the final snap of the game. Sometimes you’ll see a team do this on fourth down just to run out the clock instead of punting. Drew Lock did this for Denver this year against Miami and actually ended up completing the pass to Tim Patrick for 61 yards.
So good on Chad Henne. Let his NFL career be remembered by this moment instead of him being probably the last player who will ever have three seasons with more interceptions than touchdowns (min. 400 attempts).
We sure do not want to see him start next week against Buffalo with the Super Bowl on the line. If worst comes to worst, then Reid will just have to cook up his greatest recipe yet to outscore the Bills.
Just leave the runs to Henne’s discretion.
Ravens at Bills: 17-3, But Of Course
“Instant classic,” he said. “These franchises finally have exciting quarterbacks,” he said.
Leave it to the Ravens and Bills to tease us with recent 500-point seasons, hot winning streaks leading up to this matchup, and then to shit the bed on Saturday night and give us a jittery 17-3 game with one offensive touchdown. It is the fourth-lowest scoring playoff game in the 32-game era.
It was sitting in a tie with the lowest scoring playoff game since 2002, a 10-3 loss by Sean McDermott’s 2017 Bills to Jacksonville, until Lamar Jackson threw a pass that, fairly or not, will define where he is as a big-time quarterback in this league.
Down 10-3, Jackson was leading his best drive of the night when he saw the field poorly and forced a pass on third and goal from the 9 that was intercepted and returned 101 yards for a touchdown by Taron Johnson, tying the longest pick-six in playoff history.
Oddly enough, it’s the first time a quarterback has thrown a pick-six in the third quarter of a playoff game while trailing by 1-7 points since Dan Marino did it against the 1997 Patriots. That game also ended 17-3.
That was going to force Jackson into the biggest comeback attempt of his career, but it all ended two snaps later when another piss-poor snap by center Patrick Mekari had to be gathered by Jackson to save points for his team. Jackson hit his head after throwing the ball away best he could (still a grounding penalty), which caused the concussion and knocked him out of the game. The Ravens couldn’t score anything with backup Tyler Huntley.
Look, it was a weird game. There was no snow, but there was some wind, though it seemed to bother the kickers more than anyone with both missing a pair of kicks in the 41–46 yard range. You know it’s not your night when Justin Tucker misses two field goals under 50 yards for the first time in his career. There were at least three terrible snaps by Mekari that hurt the Ravens. What is it with these AFC North centers this postseason? Jackson had one brilliant scramble drill where he found J.K. Dobbins with a pass on third down, but Dobbins dropped it as he’s not used to catching the ball in this offense. That ended drive No. 2 on the night, but let’s just say I had my doubts that the Ravens would have made it the last 75 yards to score a touchdown.
The wind didn’t seem to bother the Bills from giving Josh Allen the ball 25 times as opposed to one handoff in the first half. The Bills are the first team in NFL history to not register a rushing attempt in the first quarter of a playoff game. The Bills ended up finishing with 9 carries for 29 yards. Frankly, I don’t think this extreme pass-happy approach worked that well and would not advise it for their game in Kansas City. One thing is clear though: Stefon Diggs is a beast. He had 106 yards and the game’s only offensive touchdown after the Ravens left a clear mismatch in numbers (3 vs. 2) on a screen that was too easy for Diggs.
Baltimore’s sloppy night was a big disappointment for John Harbaugh’s team, but the attention is going to go on Jackson and the offense, and I would say rightfully so as we are now seeing a clear pattern here with this team.
Jackson has started six games where the Ravens trailed by at least 14 points (0-6 record). Half of them are the three playoff losses and two more are his last two games against the Chiefs. How does this team ever expect to get to another Super Bowl if they can’t score points in the playoffs and keep up with Mahomes, Allen, and anyone else on the rise in the AFC?
Is this style of offense still capable of delivering in the playoffs? Baltimore started this game with three nice runs for 32 yards, looking like business as usual for this offense. But the Bills tightened things up and the run was not as effective as usual, especially for Jackson who had 34 yards on nine runs.
When will the Ravens try to throw the ball more like a normal offense in today’s game? In the second quarter, Jackson had just made his best throw of the night, picking up 21 yards on a 3rd-and-18 to Marquise Brown. Two plays later, he kept the ball on a zone-read and had to eat it in the backfield for a 4-yard loss. It totally blew up the drive and the Ravens had to punt. I love his scrambles and think there are spots to take advantage of the designed runs, but a first down after you’ve finally hit a big throw is not the place for that.
After the game, slot receiver Willie Snead had some interesting comments about Jackson’s career progress, hoping this will be a wake-up call:
While Snead may have called Jackson an elite passer first, he’s clearly not a believer of that yet and thinks it’s on Jackson the most to improve there. He’s right too. The idea that you can just acquire a wide receiver and he’s going to automatically fix your ability to throw with accuracy and read the defense and make good throws to other receivers is nonsensical. Diggs was great for Buffalo this year. He still had barely more than a quarter of the targets. Allen had to make a lot of leaps in his third year and he did. Jackson seemingly has not when it comes to being a passer.
Once is an accident, twice is a coincidence, three times is a pattern.
This is the third year in a row where Jackson has led the Ravens to their season low in points in the playoffs. This is considering only games he started. It is now 17 points against the Chargers in 2018, 12 points against the Titans in 2019, and three points in this game. Even if Tucker made his field goals and Jackson wasn’t concussed, what’s the most realistic total for them to score here? Seventeen maybe? That’s usually not going to be good enough.
Meanwhile, Jackson has led the Ravens to 20+ points in 37 of his 41 career starts. Three times he has failed to do it in the playoffs, and the only regular season game was the 23-17 loss in New England in heavy rain this year.
So part of the reason this fact exists is because Jackson sets such a high bar in the regular season. If he had a regular season dud where they scored nine points, then it would be easier for him to not set the season low in the playoffs. Still, this is a higher-scoring era and 2020 was the highest-scoring season in NFL history.
What really gets on my nerves is that Peyton Manning is now the go-to comparison for a quarterback who is struggling to win playoff games like Jackson (now 1-3) is. This is because Manning started 0-3, but if you know anything about those first two games especially, you know that he didn’t play poorly. He actually had leads while Jackson never led (not even 3-0 in the first quarter) in his three playoff losses. Jackson also has seven turnovers in four playoff games. Manning had two turnovers in his first five playoff games, and they came against the 2002 Jets when his team trailed 34-0 and 41-0 in the fourth quarter.
Manning’s early losses also weren’t season-lows in scoring for the Colts like these games have been for Jackson, and he never in his career had a season-low in scoring in back-to-back postseasons.
In fact, here’s how often some recent top quarterbacks (plus one elite name) have fared at having their season-low scoring game in the playoffs. You’ll see that Jackson’s three-for-three is a huge eyesore. It’s as many times as Manning, Rodgers, and Roethlisberger combined.
Lamar Jackson: three times in three postseasons (2018, 2019, 2020)
Joe Flacco: once in six postseasons (2009)
Tom Brady: five times in 18 postseasons (2005, 2007, 2011-T, 2012, 2019-T)
Peyton Manning: three times in 15 postseasons (2002, 2004, 2013)
Aaron Rodgers: zero times in 11 postseasons
Ben Roethlisberger: zero times in 11 postseasons
Drew Brees: once in 10 postseasons (2020)
Russell Wilson: once in eight postseasons (2015; still won game 10-9)
This has happened once to Cam Newton (Super Bowl 50) and Deshaun Watson (2018) and twice for Andrew Luck (2012-T, 2014-T) as well. However, it only happened once to Andy Dalton (2013-T) in his four postseasons despite the 0-4 record.
Until Jackson shows us otherwise, he is closer to Andy Dalton in the playoffs than he is Peyton Manning (or Joe Flacco for that matter.)
Rams at Packers: No. 1 Nothing
When I previewed this game, I wanted to stress that No. 1 defenses are known for doing great in the playoffs because of their success in Super Bowls (6-1) against No. 1 offenses. However, if a team made the Super Bowl, that means they already delivered in the postseason a couple times, probably because the defense was great, and probably because the offense didn’t screw them over.
No one wants to point out that the No. 1 defense was only 3-5 (now 3-6) against the No. 1 offense in earlier playoff rounds such as this game on Saturday in Green Bay. The expectations were that the Packers would score too much, and the Jared Goff-led Rams couldn’t possibly keep up.
Well, that did happen. It wasn’t 44-3 like the 1993 Giants/49ers matchup, but the Packers won 32-18 in a game that never felt overly close despite the Rams having a fourth-quarter comeback opportunity at one point.
However, I am more disappointed with the Rams No. 1 defense than I am the No. 22 offense (or No. 25 on a per-drive basis). Sure, the offense only chipped in 18 points, making it six straight games to end the season for Sean McVay’s unit not scoring more than 23 points. Green Bay was very successful in coming up with four sacks in a game that had no turnovers.
But where was this great Los Angeles defense that led the league in so many categories when the Packers scored 25 points on their first five drives? The Packers had 29 seconds before halftime after the Rams cut into the 16-10 lead with a touchdown. You would think they could get to the half with that respectable margin, but the Packers quickly hit big plays to get into scoring range. Aaron Rodgers forced back-to-back throws in the end zone that should have been intercepted, but the Rams failed to come away with either of them, the first more egregious than the second. That led to a field goal and suddenly 19-10 felt like that offensive touchdown didn’t even happen.
Then to top it off, Aaron Jones breaks off a 60-yard run to start the third quarter, leading to another touchdown and a 25-10 deficit.
You’ll hear about Aaron Donald’s rib injury and that he was limited, but this goes well beyond Donald, who was ineffective when he played and even hurt his team with a 15-yard penalty in the first half that wiped out a 3rd-and-7 situation.
The 2020 Rams defense allowed season highs in:
Yards – 484 (only game over 400)
Rushing yards – 188 (only game over 140)
Passing yards – 296 (only game over 275)
First downs – 28
Is this what happens when over half of your schedule was the NFC East, an injured Kyler Murray, the Jets (still lost to them), Broken Cam Newton, and getting Seattle three times during its second-half offensive slump? The Rams even drew Tom Brady and the Buccaneers during the stretch where he couldn’t hit a deep ball to save his life.
That’s why I wrote in my preview that Buffalo was the only comparable top offense to Green Bay that the Rams faced this season. What happened that day? They allowed 35 points and were shredded by Josh Allen. What happened this time? Rodgers put up 32 points on nine drives and the final drive was just running out the last five minutes on the clock.
If the 2020 Rams wanted to be a legendary No. 1 defense, they would have showed up in these games against Buffalo and Green Bay instead of making those offenses look better than their average output.
Maybe things would have been a hair different if Donald was 100%, but the Rams had little pressure and no sacks of Rodgers. More glaring was the way the run defense failed in the worst way this season. Green Bay’s success in that department arguably put the game away. After the Rams had the ball with a 25-18 deficit in the fourth quarter and punted because of another sack on Goff, the defense needed to get a second straight stop to have any hope. But on a second-and-6, Rodgers used play-action to set up one of the few deep pass attempts of the game. He hit it to an open Allen Lazard for a 58-yard touchdown. Green Bay led 32-18 with 6:52 left and the game was essentially over there. Goff took his final sack on a fourth down and the Packers ran out the clock.
Any time the Rams looked to have made some traction in this game, they would take a step back, like a false start penalty when they were going to go for a fourth down, having to then settle for a field goal. Another inexcusable spot was McVay calling a timeout on 3rd-and-16 in the fourth quarter instead of just taking the delay of game and saving the timeout. Worse, Goff threw a short pass that had no hope of converting and only ran more time as the Rams punted. Five plays later, Rodgers hit the dagger to Lazard.
I am not sure anyone in these playoffs could beat the Packers without scoring 30-plus points, but I like to think these other defenses would give it a better effort than the Rams’ “No. 1 defense” did on Saturday.
As for the Rams going forward, it could be tough to get back to this point. Goff is limited obviously, though I think he played better than expected in this one. The offense only had eight drives and wasted too many of them and he could have had better protection. At least Cam Akers seems to be the solution at running back, and it would be nice if Cooper Kupp (injured again) could stay healthy for a playoff run. He didn’t in 2018 either.
Now the Packers get to prove that 38-10 in Tampa Bay was the outlier of the season. I have to preview this game twice this week so there’s no point in talking about it now, but let’s just say the stars seem to be aligning for the worst postseason I could imagine.
I guess that’s what I get for enjoying last year’s so much.
Let’s get the 3-0 sweep part out of the way first with New Orleans looking to put the cherry on top of their 34-23 win in Week 1 and 38-3 win in Week 9 over Tampa Bay this season.
Going for the 3-0 Sweep
Yes, it is hard to beat a playoff team three times in one season. Beating a playoff team once is usually harder than average, and then to do it three times to a team that has to come from your division, who knows you so well, is certainly a tough task.
But the only time we ever talk about this is when a team has already won the first two games. By the playoffs, the brooms are already two-thirds of the way out.
Since the merger, a team has gone for the three-game sweep 21 times and is 14-7 at pulling it off. The sweep happens two-thirds of the time. It just so happens that the 2017 Saints are the last team to pull it off against Carolina, winning the NFC wild card game 31-26.
That was a good playoff win for the 2017 Saints when you consider that the home team is 1-5 in the last six playoff games between division rivals regardless of how the regular season series went. As we just saw with the Steelers-Browns in Week 17 and the wild card round, these rematches can look dramatically different, so the Saints cannot take too much faith in Week 9’s 38-3 obliteration of Tampa Bay.
Some other facts from this table:
The 2020 Saints outscored Tampa Bay by 46 points so far, the largest scoring differential for all 22 series.
The three teams with the largest scoring differential before the Saints went 0-3 in the playoffs: 1989 Oilers vs. Steelers (+34), 1994 Vikings vs. Bears (+34), and 1998 Cowboys vs. Cardinals (+35).
Those same three teams all happened to have the largest Game 1 margin of victory, winning Game 1 by 27+ points, only winning Game 2 by 6-7 points, and then 0-3 in the playoffs.
It would appear dominating the earliest matchup in the season has less relevancy for the playoffs.
The three teams who won Game 2 by 17+ points were 3-0 in the playoffs with a double-digit win each time (1999 TEN-JAX, 2000 NYG-PHI, 2009 DAL-PHI).
New Orleans’ 38-3 win in Game 2 over Tampa Bay is the largest margin of victory in any of the 65 games in the chart.
The only three teams before the 2020 Saints to win both games by double digits were 2-1 in the playoffs with wins for 2000 Giants-Eagles and 2017 Saints-Panthers and a loss for the 2007 Cowboys-Giants.
The 2-0 team is 7-5 in the wild card round, 3-1 in the divisional round, and 4-1 in the conference championship.
Basically, the only example that really compares to what Tampa Bay is trying to do here is the 2007 Cowboys-Giants. That’s the only one where a team lost both games by double digits before winning on the road in the playoffs. That’s also the only one where the 0-2 road team won after the wild card round. When the 1983 Seahawks lost to the Raiders in the AFC Championship Game, that game was played in Los Angeles because the Raiders (12-4) were a better team than Seattle (9-7), which just happened to get the best of them in the regular season before upsetting a rookie Dan Marino as well in the divisional round that year.
New Orleans having a home letdown in the playoffs wouldn’t be a new story, but the Saints are better than the Buccaneers.
Or are they?
So Which Team Is Better?
Thanks a lot, COVID-19, for this weird season. The Steelers were the last unbeaten at 11-0 and led the league in scoring differential for a while until falling off hard. Baltimore finished No. 1 in scoring differential despite only going 11-5 and No. 7 in DVOA (but No. 3 in SRS at Pro Football Reference). The Chiefs had the best record locked up with 14 wins before resting starters and getting their ass pointlessly kicked by the Chargers, so they finished 6th in DVOA, 6th in SRS, and not even in the top five for points scored. Green Bay scored the most points but finished No. 5 in SRS and No. 3 in DVOA. Buffalo is basically the Josh Allen cautious wave meme here, just chilling in the crowd.
Yet the place where DVOA and SRS seem to agree this season is that the Saints are No. 1 and the Buccaneers are No. 2, and the margin between the two isn’t that great despite the scoreboard difference in their first two meetings this season.
Frankly, I don’t know what to make of these numbers. I wish I had a better explanation for what the advanced stats sees in the Saints and Bucs this year. I think the Chiefs and Packers are more reliable to score points and win games this season. I think the Ravens are scarier to play than the Bucs or Saints. I think the 13-3 Bills, who have one loss on a Hail Mary and another to the Chiefs, have played better football than those teams as well this year.
Here are some things I do know the Saints and Buccaneers share in common this season:
Both lost to the Chiefs by three points after trailing by 14+ points.
Both had a 17-point comeback win in October over the Chargers, who hand those out as freely as mints on hotel pillows.
Both swept the Falcons and Panthers, who couldn’t win a close game to save their lives.
Both helped put the Vikings out of their misery in December. Alvin Kamara scored six touchdowns and it felt like Dan Bailey missed six kicks when he played Tampa Bay.
Both got to play in arguably the two biggest COVID farces of 2020: Saints beat Denver 31-3 after the Broncos were told the day before the game that none of their quarterbacks were eligible to play. They had to start a practice squad wide receiver at quarterback and completed one pass. The Buccaneers destroyed a Detroit team 47-7 in Week 16 after much of the coaching staff was out for COVID on short notice. It got so bad that Blaine Gabbert came in the third quarter and still threw two touchdowns on his first six throws.
Tampa Bay also sort of won in Denver without facing a quarterback when the Broncos played Jeff Driskel and Brett Rypien in Week 3.
Both beat a cupcake in the NFC wild card after the Buccaneers drew the 7-9 Washington No Names with MAGA Heinicke pulling out a 300-yard game on them, and the Saints jogged through a 21-9 win over Mitchell Trubisky and the 8-8 Bears.
Where did the Buccaneers and Saints differ this year?
New Orleans lost in the Raiders’ first game in Las Vegas while the Buccaneers pulled away late in a 45-20 win.
The Saints beat the Bears in overtime while Tampa Bay lost to Nick Foles in October.
Tampa Bay destroyed Green Bay’s No. 1 offense in a 38-10 victory while the Saints lost 37-30 at home following some Taysom Hill Hijinks.
And isn’t that always the difference this year when we talk about Tampa Bay? It’s that 38-10 Green Bay game, Tampa Bay’s only win against a team with a winning record. Otherwise, they are 0-4 against the Saints, Chiefs, and Rams, and even lost to the 8-8 Bears. The once 0-13 Jets still have more wins (two) against winning teams this year than the Buccaneers (one).
That is why Tampa Bay feels like such a paper tiger to me this year. They fatten their stats, especially on offense, in recent weeks against the Falcons (twice) and Lions, and then they draw a Jack Del Rio defense in the playoffs. Tom Brady has destroyed Del Rio his whole career and last week was more of the same with Washington leaving receivers wide open and getting minimal pressure.
So is Tampa now peaking, or is it just heavily related to the opponents? When they last played legitimate playoff teams in the Rams and Chiefs, they lost 27-24 at home in both games, outgained and outplayed.
For a team with some gaudy stats, the Buccaneers have had a lot of rough patches this season, rarely able to put in a complete game effort until recent weeks. In fact, the Buccaneers have five games this season where they trailed by at least 17 points, something Brady rarely experienced in New England.
They were able to come back and beat the Falcons and Chargers, because of course they were. That’s what those teams do. But Tampa didn’t beat the Chiefs or Saints in the other three games. Tampa Bay has trailed by 17+ in more games this season than the Packers, Chiefs, Bills, and Ravens combined as those teams have one game each. The Saints have two, and the Rams and Browns have three each.
This got me curious. How many games would you expect a legitimate Super Bowl team to fall behind by at least 17 points during a season? So I dug out the answer back to 1994, the start of the salary cap and two-point conversion era. As it turns out, Tampa Bay would be the highest.
The Super Bowl winner averages 1.4 such games a season and the Super Bowl loser averages 2.0 games a season.
No Super Bowl teams since the 2009 Colts and Saints have had more than two three-score deficits in the regular season. Even that’s misleading as both teams rested their starters in Week 17 to tally a third. The 2012 49ers actually had two in a row in the playoffs, but came back to beat the Falcons (duh) before losing to the Ravens in the Super Bowl. The 1994 Chargers, 1998 Falcons, 2000 Giants, 2002 Raiders, 2010 Steelers, and 2013 Broncos also had their last one of the season in the Super Bowl loss.
The only Super Bowl winner with a legitimate three games of trailing by 17+ is the 2007 Giants, which might not surprise you. The 2011 Giants played high-scoring, close games, but the 2007 Giants got their ass kicked a few times. Funny how this is the second time we’re bringing them up as the hopeful comparison for a Brady team since his 2007 Patriots are responsible for those Giants’ spot in lore.
The 2006 Colts, 2016 Patriots, and 2019 Chiefs are the only teams to win a Super Bowl after trailing by 15+ points in the playoffs. That is true for all time and not just since 1994. You know which games…
Green Bay may very well be the next challenge for the winner of this game, but for this week, it comes back to the crowning achievement of New Orleans’ season to this point: sweeping Tampa Bay.
Third Time the Charm?
If anything, the Saints should be expected to pull off this sweep, and FiveThirtyEight actually has them at 71% to win with an Elo point spread of -6 instead of the game’s -3 spread.
Yet why do I have this terrible feeling that Brees will have to go out having one postseason (2009) in his career with multiple wins?
Oh yeah, it’s the playoffs, and the rationing of luck among Tom Brady and every other great quarterback of this generation feels like this:
I bitch about Brady getting multiple chances to lead one late scoring drive to win a game. Now he’s getting a third chance to beat the Saints one time, and it may come in the way that I have dreaded since the 2018 season.
Sean Payton, here’s your opportunity to hand Brady a playoff win after going to Taysom Hill with the game on the line. Please don’t use it.
Jokes aside, thirteen months ago, I wrote about the lack of luck Brees has had in his career, especially in comparison to Brady. I pointed out how just five plays in his career that had nothing to do with him could have drastically altered things to the point where he might be 5-0 in Super Bowls, with a few wins over Brady himself, and going for a sixth ring this year.
Instead, Brees is 9-8 in the playoffs, meeting Brady there for the first time, and it’s probably his last game ever if he loses it. Even with a win on Sunday, there will always be some disappointment there.
So what can change from the first two meetings? I watched them both live and the Saints were absolutely the better team. I was behind the argument that Week 1 wasn’t that telling with Brady making his Tampa Bay debut after no real offseason or preseason. Brees and the offense actually weren’t that great at all in that matchup either. He struggled to move the ball too, but Brady threw a pick-six and struggled after the opening drive.
Flash forward to Week 9. The Saints were grinding out close wins against so-so teams. The Buccaneers were a few weeks removed from 38-10. They just activated Antonio Brown, because god knows you have to give the GOAT four different 1,300-yard receivers to make this offense shine. I picked the Buccaneers to win that rematch, and I couldn’t have been any more wrong.
That 38-3 game was the most one-sided domination I watched this season. It was about as perfect a game as you can have on offense and defense. Brady wasn’t able to complete passes, he started throwing interceptions, the Saints were getting anything they wanted on offense. Only some mistakes by Jared Cook kept that from being 45-0 at halftime. Tampa had to kick a cheap field goal late to avoid the shutout. The Buccaneers set an NFL record with only five rushing attempts. It was incredible.
But now, what changes this week?
Brees had his rib injury start in the Tampa Bay game. He missed four games, but he’s about to make his fifth start in a row. He had that really rough start against the Chiefs before finding his way back later in the game. In the last three weeks, he’s pretty much back to where he was, leading an effective offense again that is finally healthy with Alvin Kamara, Michael Thomas, and Emmanuel Sanders ready to play. The funny thing is with all those guys together, the Saints went to Deonte Harris for seven catches and 83 yards against the Bears on Sunday. Was that a way to not show their hand to Tampa Bay about what they might do with their normal offense in a third matchup this week? It was interesting and Harris looked good after doing almost nothing this season.
The Saints can score on this defense, but we know Todd Bowles loves to blitz. Brees faced his highest blitz count in the two Tampa games this year. He was sacked once in each game and hasn’t had a pressure rate above 23% in any game this season according to Pro Football Reference.
For Brady and the Bucs, can the Saints get to him again? They sacked him three times in both games and had a season-high 36.6% pressure rate in the 38-3 game. The Buccaneers usually protect well but have not done so against the Saints yet. Brady has also thrown five of his 12 interceptions this season against New Orleans.
While the argument of Week 1 rust didn’t work out for Tampa Bay last time, could the argument of Antonio Brown’s progress work this time? His first game was 38-3 and clearly it took some time for them to figure this offense out. Brown took Scotty Miller’s snaps after Miller started the season so well with making deep catches. Brown didn’t seem to click until he caught a touchdown bomb to beat the Falcons (of course) in Week 15. He has now scored in four straight games and looks more like the receiver we’re familiar with.
Brown’s impact could be huge if Mike Evans has his usual disappearing act in the Superdome. Evans has four games in his career with fewer than 10 receiving yards. Three of them are in New Orleans, including 2 yards in Week 1. He also had a 1-of-6 game with 13 yards in 2017. When you stack that many bad games against an opponent, it can’t just be a coincidence. This looks good for corner Marshon Lattimore, but he can only guard one guy. The Buccaneers still have Brown, Chris Godwin, Gronk, Miller, and even Cameron Brate reminded us he’s still there with 80 yards against Washington last week.
This offense just has too many weapons, and if they would ever play to their full potential, this team could go the distance. But they have to get over their biggest hump so far this year. Does Brees finally have a defense to rally around him and prevent his retirement before another ring? The Saints did not allow a 300-yard passer this season and are one of three defenses in 2020 (Rams and Steelers) to allow fewer than 275 net passing yards in all 17 games. That hasn’t been done since the 2006 Colts did not allow 250 net passing yards in a record all 20 of their games on their way to a Super Bowl win. Even though you can run on that team, which you usually can’t on these Saints, I am a bit shocked I only discovered this stat on January 15, 2021.
I hate to say it, but part of me expects Payton to do something really stupid in this game that gives Tampa Bay the edge. Don’t forget Bruce Arians is 32-26-1 (.551) in 4QC/GWD opportunities, so he’s had his own magic beans produce good luck over the years. Only Mike Vrabel (14-10) has a better record among active coaches.
If not Payton, could it be the refs again with the Saints in the playoffs? It blows my mind that the NFL tried one season of making pass interference reviewable, ditched it, but left nothing in place to prevent the same egregious, game-deciding call happen again at the end of a playoff game like that no-call in the 2018 NFC Championship Game. You don’t want to make PI challengeable? Fine. But at least make it subject to review by the replay system in the final two minutes of the game so we don’t see the same damn mistake again.
Not to make Saints fans more scared, but your defense now leads the league with 19 pass interference penalties this season. Tampa Bay set a record this year by being the beneficiary of 24 DPI flags. Do you see where this is going?
Do you believe my final score is legit or just another reverse jinx? I guess we’ll have to find out Sunday evening. Maybe even sooner, because if the Rams upset the Packers on Saturday, then you know which lucky bastard is going to the Super Bowl again. Bet accordingly.