NFL 2021 NFC Championship Game Preview: 49ers at Rams

The NFC West was all the rage coming into this 2021 season, and sure enough, it delivered. While the Seahawks regressed and the 7-0 Cardinals imploded after being the NFL’s last unbeaten team, the 49ers and Rams are meeting in the NFC Championship Game after vanquishing Aaron Rodgers and Tom Brady, perhaps for good, in Green Bay and Tampa Bay.

The NFC West will represent the NFC in the Super Bowl for the sixth time in the last 10 seasons. San Francisco is looking for a three-game sweep after the team’s 17-point comeback in Los Angeles in Week 18 got them in the tournament in the first place. One more win is either going to put Sean McVay or Kyle Shanahan in their second Super Bowl in the last four years with the hope of winning it all this time.

Is it going to be a rematch of Super Bowl 54 between the 49ers and Chiefs, a rematch of the 54-51 game in 2018 between the Rams and Chiefs should both home teams win, or could two road upsets produce the third 49ers-Bengals Super Bowl? I’m not sure the league and networks want any part of a Rams-Bengals Super Bowl this year.

The AFC will be decided first on Sunday afternoon with the Chiefs a strong favorite at home. This game looks more likely to produce an upset with the 49ers as a 3.5-point underdog. Both teams should enter it with confidence, but I feel there is more pressure on the Rams to overcome one of their toughest opponents and make this “all in” approach with their roster construction pay off with a Super Bowl.

See my full Bengals-Chiefs preview here (link to come).

How Hard Is It to Beat a Team Three Times?

On the surface, of course it is hard to beat a division foe three times in the same season, which would include a playoff meeting. But what happens when a team is already 2-0 heading into that playoff matchup? It didn’t work out for the Saints against Tampa Bay last year thanks to four turnovers, but the 49ers are also in an unusual position of being the road team this week.

Of the 23 times in the modern era where a team was going for the 3-0 sweep in the playoffs, this is only the fifth time that team is on the road. Those road teams are 2-2 in the playoffs with the 1999 Titans most famously handing Jacksonville all three of its losses that season. These teams in the conference championship round are 4-1, and the overall playoff record for the team going for the sweep is 14-8 (.636), so it happens more often than not.

But What If This Rivalry Is One Sided?

McVay and Shanahan, former colleagues in Washington, took over as the coaches of these teams in 2017. Shanahan is 7-3 against McVay and has won six straight despite generally having lesser teams and quarterbacks than the Rams. The 49ers have already upset the Rams, the closest thing to a super team this year, twice.

In Week 10 in mid-November, the 49ers were an aimless 3-5 team, but everything changed that night in a 31-10 upset. The offense only had two legitimate possessions in the first half, but they strung together 29 plays for 184 yards and two touchdowns on them. Matthew Stafford had a drop by Tyler Higbee that turned into a tipped pick-six to put the Rams in a big hole they never climbed out of. Deebo Samuel showed off his YAC ability on a 40-yard touchdown catch on a fourth down, but that was also the night where he started being used as a runner again. Samuel had six carries for 22 yards in Weeks 1-9 combined but had five runs for 36 yards and a touchdown against the Rams. He has continued to be that dual-threat for the team and iced their game-winning drive in Green Bay last week with a 9-yard run on third-and-7. He is an incredible weapon and hopefully he’ll be healthy after hobbling off the field Saturday night.

When these teams met again in Week 18 in Los Angeles, the crowd was very pro-49ers. The game was pro-Rams for a half though as the Rams led 17-0. But Jimmy Garoppolo led a key drive in the last 38 seconds to get a field goal on the board. There was that annoying stat going around for years that McVay was 45-0 when leading at halftime. It’s annoying because it implies that he’s never lost a game when leading in the second half. He has. Multiple times. This game would be the most stunning loss since the 49ers had to overcome some long odds.

Even after quickly tying the game, things stalled out and Garoppolo was intercepted in the red zone by Jalen Ramsey with half a quarter left. Cooper Kupp took over for the Rams and put them up 24-17. The 49ers went three-and-out with Garoppolo taking a sack that brought up fourth-and-18 at the two-minute warning. That was no man’s land, but Shanahan made the ultimately wise decision to punt the ball back and use his three timeouts. I still think most coaches punt there, but John Harbaugh and Brandon Staley likely go for it. They also likely fail, fall behind by 10 points, and the game is over.

But McVay did the 49ers a favor by sticking with three straight runs, including a cowardly run on third-and-7. Was this not the situation you brought Stafford in for? Wasn’t protecting Jared Goff from throwing a pick the excuse for past years of conservative play calls from McVay? The 49ers got the ball back at their own 12 with 1:27 left, but Garoppolo again got the job done with an 88-yard touchdown drive, one of the best all year in that situation.

In overtime, the 49ers settled for a field goal before Stafford forced a deep ball on first down for a game-ending interception. The 49ers would have been replaced by the Saints for the playoffs had they not come back to win this game.

Stafford was nearly unstoppable in this game until the pass rush got after him. The 49ers sacked him five times and pressured him 14 times for a pressure rate of 37.8%, easily the worst pass protection game of the season for the Rams.

That comeback paved the way for this rematch, but Shanahan has beaten McVay in a variety of ways the last three seasons. He’s come back on him a couple weeks ago, he’s shut down his offense in 20-7 (2019) and 31-10 wins, he won a 34-31 shootout in 2020, and he’s even had Nick Mullens lead a two-minute drill and game-winning drive for a field goal last season.

We see it all the time in sports where one team has another’s number, but if you’re ever going to slay that dragon, this is the stage to do it for the Rams. Peyton Manning’s Colts once had to get over the New England hump by coming back to beat them in the 2006 AFC Championship Game. However, that’s not a good comparison for these Rams, because the Colts already beat the Patriots earlier that season and they kicked their ass in New England the previous season.

You also couldn’t really bring up Steve Young getting “the monkey off his back” against Dallas in the 1994 NFC Championship Game, a revenge win after the Cowboys knocked the 49ers out the previous two seasons. But even that season in Week 11, the 49ers notched a win over Dallas. This is six losses in a row the Rams must overcome, but it’s not like Stafford, Von Miller, and Odell Beckham Jr., the big additions this year, were on the team for all six games.

Still, it’s one handsome man on the other side who may be the x-factor in this game.

Jimmy Garoppolo: We Are Going to Start a Dialogue

Honestly, I love the way Jimmy Garoppolo breaks people’s minds.

Under any normal circumstances, would we be questioning if a quarterback who completes 67.7% of his passes with 8.36 yards per attempt and a 98.9 passer rating is helping his team win games?

Among quarterbacks with at least 1,400 career attempts, Garoppolo ranks second in completion percentage, second in yards per attempt, and fifth in passer rating. With those numbers, it should come as no surprise that Garoppolo is 37-15 (.712) as a starter in the NFL. He is one win away from being able to say that he’s taken his team to the Super Bowl in both seasons where he started more than six games, the modern equivalent of Kurt Warner’s strange career arc.

And yet, people still pass him off as the answer to what if Jared Goff was hot? It’s always Shanahan’s scheme that gets the credit. While it does create big plays with two of the best YAC players in the world (Samuel and George Kittle), someone is going to have to explain what happens to Shanahan’s wonderful scheme and those talented players when Garoppolo is not available, which happens often as he’s hurt a lot. He’s even ailing right now with a finger injury that seemed to spur general manager John Lynch to almost end his tenure by “accidentally” liking a negative tweet at Christmas Eve mass.

But Garoppolo returned for this playoff run. Garoppolo just finished his 50th start for Shanahan and has a 35-15 (.700) record. With any other quarterback, Shanahan is 8-28 (.222) as San Francisco’s head coach. That’s a Peyton Manning in Indy type of split. That’s not supposed to happen, especially to a “genius” coach.

But again, Garoppolo doesn’t get any credit for this. If it’s not Shanahan’s scheme, it’s credit to Nick Bosa and the defense, even though Garoppolo won a 48-46 game in New Orleans in 2019, which is why the 49ers had the No. 1 seed that year.

Yet, somehow “Dropback Jimmy” is a thing as if this guy does nothing but live on play-action passes.

Garoppolo play-action vs. no play-action splits via Pro Football Reference:

  • 2019 play-action: 68.8% completions, 11.5 YPA, 6 TD, 3 INT, 113.4 PR
  • 2019 no play-action: 69.2% completions, 7.2 YPA, 21 TD, 10 INT, 98.0 PR
  • 2021 play-action: 71.0% completions, 10.2 YPA, 4 TD, 2 INT, 108.6 PR
  • 2021 no play-action: 67.5% completions, 8.2 YPA, 16 TD, 10 INT, 95.8 PR

You’ll never see anyone point out that Buffalo’s Josh Allen dropped from 9.2 YPA to 5.9 YPA without play-action this season, something he used to a great advantage (as he should).

If Garoppolo was able to throw a better deep ball to Emmanuel Sanders in Super Bowl LIV against the Chiefs, the perception around him would be much different now. Of course, that’s assuming the defense would have held up against Patrick Mahomes, which looks unlikely these days. The 49ers likely lost their ring when they couldn’t stop Mahomes from finding Tyreek Hill on a third-and-15 in that game.

But Super Bowl LIV is one of the few moments in Garoppolo’s brief career where he did not deliver in crunch time. For a guy as ridiculed as he is, he tends to deliver in fourth-quarter comeback and game-winning drive opportunities.

Garoppolo has the second-best record (11-10) among active quarterbacks behind only Brady. Included in those 10 losses is this year’s 20-17 loss in Tennessee, the AFC’s No. 1 seed, when Garoppolo led a game-tying touchdown drive before the Titans drove for the winning field goal. It was the second time in three years Garoppolo lost a 20-17 game on the road against the AFC’s top seed as it also happened in Baltimore in 2019. Another loss was Garoppolo’s go-ahead touchdown drive against the Packers in Week 3 before Aaron Rodgers found Davante Adams to set up a game-winning field goal.

Garoppolo has been better than he’s given credit for. There are things you don’t like, such as the lack of durability. The decision making can be spotty as some of his interceptions look really bad. He looked like he was dying to throw a pick-six in Green Bay last week with some of those late floaters to the sideline. So, the eye test isn’t there like it is for an Allen or Mahomes or a Hall of Fame talent.

But I’ll be damned if a quarterback playing in a smart coach’s YAC-based system with a great defense is something no one cared about two decades ago when a QB named Tom Brady was celebrated for doing it.

Too bad Jimmy didn’t stick around long enough for Brady to teach him how to defend Mahomes on third down…

But if there’s something to really not like about Garoppolo, it is his playoff games where he turns into a poor man’s Bob Griese. In 2019, the 49ers beat the Vikings with Garoppolo throwing 19 times for 131 yards. They crushed the Packers with Garoppolo completing 6-of-8 passes for 77 yards. That’s like one drive for his Super Bowl counterpart, Mahomes. In the big game, Garoppolo didn’t hit 200 yards passing until the two-minute warning. Again, he missed his shot at lore with that deep throw to Sanders. Since 2018, Garoppolo is 17-1 when he gains a first down on at least 40% of his pass attempts. Super Bowl LIV was the only loss in that time. It somehow remains Garoppolo’s best playoff game while being the only loss. Five of those 18 games were against the Rams, by the way.

This year in Dallas, Garoppolo was nothing special in building the lead the team almost blew thanks in part to a pick he threw. Then in Green Bay, he really capped off a sham of a 4-1 playoff start by leading his offense to six points, including a field goal drive that started at midfield after a long kick return by Samuel. Garoppolo completed two passes on the game-winning drive. Without that blocked punt return for a touchdown, I don’t see the 49ers winning that game.

But it’s another big opportunity this week for Garoppolo against a defense he usually does well against. Garoppolo is 6-0 against the Rams, completing 68.4% of his passes at 8.75 YPA. He led the clutch comeback in Week 18, and he might have to do something similar this time against a talented defense that has terrorized Kyler Murray and Brady this postseason. He may even have to do it shorthanded with Samuel, Kittle, and tackle Trent Williams limping off the field Saturday. All three will probably try to play, but none are likely to be at full strength.

We’ll see if this Shanahan coaching edge presents itself again. But if Playoff Jimmy shows up again? He better hope the Rams have some fumbles left in them, or that Brady taught him how to will them in the playoffs.

Stafford’s Time?

The NFC loves these flash in the pan teams where everything comes together for a Super Bowl run. Think 2015 Panthers, 2016 Falcons, 2017 Eagles, and the 2020 Buccaneers these Rams are modeling themselves after right down to getting to play the Super Bowl in their home stadium. But these teams are a bit different in that they were just in the big game in 2018 and 2019, so someone is getting a second appearance in a short period of time.

But the odds favor the Rams after going all in with Stafford, Miller, and Beckham to go along with their established stars in Cooper Kupp, Aaron Donald, and Jalen Ramsey. While Ramsey did get beat for a long touchdown against Mike Evans on Sunday, the stars shined for the Rams in a real gut-check of a victory after blowing a 27-3 lead with four fumbles and a 47-yard field goal that came up short. A sub-50-yard kick coming up short in Florida. I still can’t believe that one, but that’s what happens when you face the LOAT.

Stafford is the first QB in NFL history to win a playoff game where his team had four turnovers where none of the giveaways were charged to him. They better hold onto the ball better this week, especially Cam Akers after his 2.0 yards per carry against Tampa’s stout defense. I see the 49ers allowing more runs this week, but the game is still going to come down to how well Stafford handles the pass rush from Bosa and company. They chewed up Dak Prescott and Aaron Rodgers this postseason. They chewed up Stafford and his line in Week 18, thought left tackle Andrew Whitworth could be back after missing Sunday’s game in Tampa Bay. That’s big.

How good has Stafford been this postseason? He joins 2003 Peyton Manning as the only quarterbacks to have back-to-back games with over 73% completions and 9.5 YPA. Hopefully he won’t implode in the title game like Manning did in New England that season. But Stafford has been doing great and the 49ers have a weakness in the secondary, which should be great news for Kupp, who had 118 and 122 yards receiving in the two meetings this year.

I’ve always compared Stafford to volume passers taken No. 1 in the draft like Drew Bledsoe and Eli Manning. If those guys can get to the Super Bowl, so can Stafford with a very good team around him. He’s unlikely to get a better chance than this one.

49ers: Road Warriors or End of the Road?

Before I make my prediction, I just want to touch on this grueling, historic schedule the 49ers are trying to get through to reach the Super Bowl. This is essentially their fourth-straight elimination game on the road when you consider they had to win in LA in Week 18 to make the playoffs. The five teams in NFL history that won three road playoff games before getting to the Super Bowl, including Tampa Bay last year, did not have to beat a playoff team on the road in the regular-season finale like the 49ers did. In fact, all five of those teams were at home to end the regular season, and only one played a playoff opponent in what was still a historic, helpful game.

  • 1985 Patriots: beat Bengals (7-9) at home before winning on the road against the Jets, Raiders, Dolphins, and losing Super Bowl vs. Bears.
  • 2005 Steelers: beat Lions (5-11) at home before winning on the road against the Bengals, Colts, Broncos, and winning Super Bowl vs. Seahawks.
  • 2007 Giants: lost to Patriots (16-0) at home in a game they didn’t need to win before winning on the road against the Buccaneers, Cowboys, Packers, and coming back to beat those undefeated Patriots in the Super Bowl.
  • 2010 Packers: beat Bears (11-5) at home before winning on the road against the Eagles, Falcons, Bears, and winning Super Bowl vs. Steelers.
  • 2020 Buccaneers: beat Falcons (4-12) at home before winning on the road against Washington, Saints, Packers, and winning Super Bowl (in home stadium) vs. Chiefs.

The 2021 49ers already have tied the NFL record for most road wins against a playoff team in a season (including playoff games) with five wins. In addition to the last three weeks, they’ve won in Philadelphia early (weak) and late in the season in Cincinnati (good). The only other teams to have five such wins in a season are the 2010 Packers (won Super Bowl), 1992 Bills (lost Super Bowl), and the 1982 Jets despite a nine-game strike season (lost AFC Championship Game).

By my count, the only other team since the 1970 merger to beat a playoff team in the final game of the regular season and then play three road playoff games was Tennessee in 2019. The Titans got to 9-7 with a Week 17 win over Houston, which rested Deshaun Watson, before pulling off upsets in New England and Baltimore. The Titans were up 10 points in Kansas City in the AFC Championship Game before losing 35-24.

To put it another way, the 2021 49ers can become the only team since at least 1978 to win four straight road games as an underdog of at least three points. Sure, most teams do not play four straight road games, let alone all against playoff teams, because of scheduling reasons, but this is why the 49ers are on the verge of history with this postseason run.

But of the 18 teams since the merger who were 2-0 on the road in the playoffs, they were 5-13 (.278) on the road in the Conference Championship Game.

The Prediction

McVay’s Rams have already burned me twice this season against the 49ers. I hate to pick them a third time, but I still think they’re the better team with the better quarterback and the defense has been really strong in the playoffs. Unless they want to be embarrassed again, I think the crowd will be more in favor of the home team this time, unlike Week 18. As long as Stafford avoids the turnovers like he has this postseason, the offense should be good. The 49ers will score more than six points this week, but it won’t be enough to get the road sweep and stop this loaded team from reaching the Super Bowl.

Final: Rams 27, 49ers 20

NFL Stat Oddity: Divisional Round

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

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

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

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

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

This season in Stat Oddity:

Bills at Chiefs: The Greatest Divisional Round Game Ever

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The best.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Make that 55-2.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Bengals at Titans: Ryan Tannehill’s Interception Sudoku

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

NFL 2021 NFC Divisional Round Preview

The divisional round on the NFC side brings us two rematches from Week 3, which feels like eons ago. The Rams will attempt to win a third-straight game against Tom Brady’s Buccaneers. Only three teams have handed Brady three straight losses: 2005-06 Broncos (four if you count 2009), 2005-06 Colts, and 2007-11 Giants.

But first, the Packers try to win a playoff game against the 49ers, something that was not a problem in the 90s, proving that is still the best decade ever.

A lot of people are going to predict a rematch of the Bays next week, but wouldn’t that be something if it was 49ers-Rams III? Good luck though. Since 1990, only twice has a conference saw both home teams lose in the divisional round: 2006 AFC (Chargers and Ravens lost to Patriots and Colts) and 2008 NFC (Panthers and Giants lost to Cardinals and Eagles). 2008 was also a weekend where the top-seeded Titans lost to the Ravens, leaving the home teams at 1-3.

Will history repeat itself in a year begging for some upsets and with a top-seeded Titans team people like to disrespect?

You can see my two AFC previews here.

49ers at Packers (-5.5)

Every time these teams play that clip resurfaces of a young Aaron Rodgers at the 2005 draft. When asked how disappointed he was that the 49ers didn’t draft him, he says “not as disappointed as the 49ers will be that they didn’t draft me.”

Rodgers is right that the 49ers likely would have been happier had they drafted him instead of Alex Smith. While there is no guarantee he would go on to be a multi-MVP winner and one of the greatest ever had he started out on Mike Nolan’s team in 2005, I think it’s a given he’d have done a better job than Smith, who was given numerous opportunities to be a franchise quarterback there.

And yet, the fact remains all these years later that Rodgers is 0-3 in the playoffs against San Francisco, and the 49ers have done more to keep him out of Super Bowls than vice versa. The 49ers have even been to one more Super Bowl than Rodgers has so far. They just didn’t get a win because of where a pass Colin Kaepernick threw in the end zone on fourth down landed and because of Patrick Mahomes on third-and-15.

So, this one is pretty personal as buddies Kyle Shanahan and Matt LaFleur meet in their second playoff game after the 49ers routed the Packers in the 2019 NFC Championship Game. But out of the four matchups, this is Rodgers’ best chance to beat the 49ers in the playoffs. If he loses this one at home where the Packers are 8-0 this year, it could even be his last game with the team.

49ers: Why Things Can Be Different This Time

When these teams met in San Francisco on SNF in Week 3, the 49ers did a good job of rallying back from a 17-0 deficit. The defense made just enough stops to prevent the Packers from putting the game away late. Jimmy Garoppolo led a solid 75-yard touchdown drive to take the lead with 37 seconds left. But even that was too much time as Rodgers found Davante Adams twice for 42 yards to set up a game-winning field goal and the Packers won 30-28.

If you want to believe in the 49ers this weekend, you have to like that the team is different than it was in Week 3, especially on offense. Trey Sermon was the leading back that night and he only had 10 carries for 31 yards. Apparently, Shanahan can’t just sub in any back and embarrass the Packers like he did with Raheem Mostert (220 yards, four touchdowns) in the 2019 NFC title game.

Rookie back Elijah Mitchell was out that night. He’s back, and in his last eight games of the season, he averaged 96.8 rushing yards. What did he have in Dallas on Sunday in the playoffs? He had 96 rushing yads and a touchdown. He has been fairly consistent. The 49ers also started using Deebo Samuel more as a runner in Week 10, which kickstarted this 8-2 run after a 3-5 start. While I still think Samuel is too valuable of a receiver to not get him more targets in the passing game, this has been successful for the 49ers. Deebo has rushed for a touchdown in seven of the last nine games and he is ridiculously hard to tackle. The Packers held him to 52 yards on seven touches in Week 3, an impressive effort. But he’s going to be more productive this time.

The question is can the 49ers get tight end George Kittle going again to go along with Mitchell, Samuel, and the sometimes useful Brandon Aiyuk? Kittle had a 39-yard catch that was mostly YAC, his specialty, in Week 3 to help the 49ers get that go-ahead touchdown drive started. It was San Francisco’s only 20-yard play that night.

But Kittle only has 78 yards in his last four games combined. He caught one ball for 18 yards in Dallas and was fortunate to drop a low ball late in the game or else it would have been a brutal fumble. He needs to do more in this matchup.

The 49ers look to be getting good news on the injury front as Garoppolo, Nick Bosa, and Fred Warner are trending towards playing Saturday. There was some concern that rookie Trey Lance would have to start this game, which would likely be disastrous for the 49ers. Remember when Jordan Love had to start against the Chiefs? It’d probably look like a slightly better version of that. The 49ers are going to have to bring the offense this week as Rodgers has led the Packers to at least 20 points in all 20 of his playoff starts, an NFL record.

But I definitely give the 49ers a fighting a chance as that offense has shown the ability to put together very long scoring drives that can shorten the game and shrink Rodgers’ margin of error. The 49ers had a 13:05 drive for a field goal against Jacksonville and a touchdown drive against the Rams that took 11:03 off the clock.

The 49ers are 8-2 in the last 10 games. The Seahawks own them, but the only other loss was on a last-second field goal in Tennessee, the other No. 1 seed this year. Say what you want about Garoppolo and his mistakes, but he led road wins in Cincinnati, Los Angeles (after trailing 17-0), and Dallas last week. That’s two weeks in a row with huge road wins as underdogs, so three in a row would be really hard to do against a rested No. 1 seed.

But the 49ers bring in a good mixture of talent, coaching, balance, and experience to pull off such an upset. It wouldn’t even be a top-four shocking upset in Lambeau this century.

Packers: Same Old Story Or…?

Another year, another likely MVP for Aaron Rodgers, another No. 1 seed, but will it be another playoff exit short of the Super Bowl? The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results.

As much as I personally need the Packers to do well this postseason, I have a hard time buying that this team is better suited for a deep run this season. It especially doesn’t help that I think all three remaining teams (49ers, Rams, Buccaneers) are capable of winning in Green Bay.

The offense regressed from 2020. Rodgers will still win MVP by default, but he was better a year ago. Davante Adams remains incredible, but Marques Valdes-Scantling has been hurt and is doubtful this Saturday. They don’t have a tight end with 250 yards after losing Robert Tonyan. Left tackle David Bakhtiari only returned in Week 18 and played his first 27 snaps in over a year as the offensive line was not as dominant. I do like running back A.J. Dillon, who provides more of a physical style than Aaron Jones, but I don’t see the Packers riding their RB2 to the Super Bowl here.

The defense has actually declined from 14th in yards per drive and 17th in points per drive to 21st in both categories this year. In Weeks 11-14, the Packers allowed 28-34 points in each game, including games against the lowly Bears and the Ravens with a backup QB (Tyler Huntley). Sure, injuries have not been kind to that unit. The Packers lost Za’Darius Smith in Week 1. Corner Jaire Alexander has not played since Week 4. He hopes to return, which could be big, especially if the Packers make it to next week. He intercepted Garoppolo in Week 3.

Spoiler alert: defenses that finish 21st in points per drive tend to do poorly in the playoffs. You basically have to be the 2006 Colts or 2011 Giants to still win a championship. The Packers are also disastrous on special teams, but fortunately, that’s not a strength for the 49ers either. But it is something that could come back to bite Green Bay before this season is over.

But if I’m being optimistic about the Packers this week, then I like what I saw in Week 3. While the 49ers are using their offensive players differently now, they didn’t have any 20-yard plays until Kittle in the final minute. They didn’t run all over Green Bay. Nick Bosa and company got almost no pressure on Rodgers, who had his lowest pressure rate of the season in a game he attacked downfield. Adams got whatever he wanted against that secondary, the weakness of the defense. What are they going to do, guard him with Josh Norman? Allen Lazard has also come along well late in the season as another option for Rodgers, who plays better at home. The 49ers have committed a league-high 20 defensive pass interference penalties, six more than any other defense. Few quarterbacks draw more of those than Rodgers.

When the 49ers swept the Packers in 2019, we saw that domination right away in the first matchup. We didn’t see anything like it this year with the Packers going up 17-0 before a long kick return before halftime got the 49ers back in the game. The Packers have had an issue with putting games away comfortably this year.

The Prediction

The Packers have lost two games this year that Rodgers finished. One was that weird Week 1 game in Jacksonville against the Saints. Bad things just happen when Rodgers goes down to Florida. The other was a 34-31 shootout with the Vikings, a division foe that knows them well. This team has answered every other challenge, including a 4-0 record against the NFC West that has plagued them for a decade.

I do not know if you’ll see me pick the Packers to win another game this season after this week. I do not know if this will end up being the end of the road for Rodgers in Green Bay. But I do know I’m confident enough to pick the Packers to pull out a win on Saturday. I’m just skeptical enough to pick the 49ers to cover.

Final: Packers 27, 49ers 23

Rams at Buccaneers (-3)

The 2021 Rams are trying to be the 2020 Buccaneers but standing in their way is a Tampa team trying to repeat as champions. This is a very intriguing matchup with both teams looking a bit different from their Week 3 showdown, won 34-24 by the Rams. That was a wire-to-wire win, but now that we’re in a pivotal playoff round, you have to worry about some LOAT stuff going down Sunday. Anything is possible if Tom Brady puts his willpower to it.

Rams: To Be the Man…

Fair or not, the Matthew Stafford narrative is about to write its biggest chapter yet. For a team that is going all in on a Super Bowl this season, this would be a major disappointment to lose Sunday even if it is on the road against the defending champions. But the Rams are only a three-point dog and already handed Tampa Bay a 10-point loss this year.

This is the kind of win that could really change the perception for Stafford, who infamously entered this season with an 8-68 (.105) record against teams that finished the season with a winning record. How have things gone so far?

  • Stafford has led the Rams to a 4-5 record against winning teams, including the first winning streak of his career with wins over the Colts and Buccaneers in Weeks 2-3.
  • It is the first season in Stafford’s career where he has logged multiple wins over winning teams.
  • Stafford is still 5-35 (.125) on the road against winning teams (2-2 this year).
  • Stafford is 3-28 (.097) against 12-win teams, but he did get the win over Tampa Bay (13-4) this year.
  • Stafford is 42-52-1 (.447) at 4QC/GWD opportunities in his career, but that record drops to 3-35 (.079) against teams with a winning record.
  • Stafford is still 0-53 when his team allows more than 24 points against a winning team. The Rams are 0-5 when allowing more than 24 points this year and 13-0 otherwise.

That last part feels most significant as the Buccaneers are used to scoring a lot of points. Since 2020, Tampa Bay is 26-0 when scoring at least 28 points, easily the best record in the league and the most such games.

That is why this weekend cannot be all about Stafford as road virtuoso performances by a quarterback are few and far between in NFL playoff history. He needs his defense to step up and there are big names in that group too with Aaron Donald, Von Miller, and Jalen Ramsey. Despite those names and the injuries throughout the season to the Tampa Bay secondary, the Bucs still boast a championship-caliber defense, coordinated by Todd Bowles, who showed in the playoffs that he can adjust to specific opponents like he did for the Chiefs in the Super Bowl.

The Buccaneers rank No. 6 in points per drive allowed, No. 7 in takeaways per drive, No. 12 in third-down conversion rate, No. 4 in net yards per pass attempt, and allowed the third-fewest rushing yards. That bests the Rams’ defense in each category.

The Rams could catch a break this week with the health of the Tampa Bay offensive line, one of the best units in the league. Right tackle Tristan Wirfs and center Ryan Jensen were injured in the wild card game against the Eagles. Wirfs tried to return before leaving for good. Jensen was back almost immediately and finished the game. Neither practiced on Wednesday and Thursday, but there is optimism they’ll be on the field Sunday. Jensen in particular looks like a guy who could have his hand amputated and still want to return to the game. Maybe then Brady would deserve the excessive praise if he played with a center missing a hand. But chances are his studs will be there against a Los Angeles defense that only ranks 25th in pressure rate (via Pro Football Reference), the lowest of any defense in the playoffs this year.

The Eagles had the second-lowest pressure rate among the playoff field, and they are much less aggressive with blitzing, but they still sacked Brady four times and held the Bucs to 4-of-13 on third down. It stands to reason to believe Jensen and Wirfs will not be 100% if they play Sunday. This is why that trio of Donald, Miller (sack in five straight games), and Leonard Floyd must cause havoc in Brady’s face if the Rams are to win this one. Despite their low pressure rate, the Rams had 50 sacks because of how impactful their talent can be when they get to the quarterback. Those guys have to get Brady’s jersey dirty early in this one. He took three sacks on 61 plays in Week 3.

In the secondary, I would shadow Mike Evans with Jalen Ramsey and double Rob Gronkowski on obvious passing downs. This is a different ballgame when Chris Godwin and Antonio Brown are out. It changes to a speed & size matchup with Evans and Gronk having some advantages. But I’d make the other players earn it first. Gio Bernard led the Bucs with nine catches in Week 3. Brady will dink and dunk all day with those throws to the backs, but I’m confident I would not give up more than 24 points if Bernard is the leading receiver again. The Rams cannot let Evans and Gronk beat them.

But things really do come back to Stafford and if he’ll protect the ball well. He threw 13 interceptions in the last nine games of the regular season after having four picks in the first eight games.

Sean McVay’s defense held Brady to 13 points in the Super Bowl a couple years ago, but the offense was of no help that night. The offense has a grand total of 34 points in McVay’s three playoff losses combined. He brought in Stafford to change this history. Last season, the Rams went into Tampa Bay for a Monday night game in Week 11. Jared Goff threw 51 passes for 376 yards while the running game only contributed 19 carries for 37 yards. The Rams still scored 27 points and won by three with the defense forcing Brady into an ugly game. Stafford is 1-3 this year when he throws 40 passes, the only win coming against awful Detroit.

McVay’s plan the last three years against Tampa Bay has been to neglect the run game in favor of the pass. Will he continue that in a road playoff game? Stafford threw just 17 passes on Monday night against Arizona, the first game in his 186-game career where he threw less than 21 passes without leaving injured. That’s some way to win your first playoff game, but it wasn’t necessary to throw more with the way Arizona shit the bed all night.

Stafford is going to have to do more this week and I’m skeptical. If we go back to Week 3, he was outstanding. But Stafford had completions of 75 (TD) and 40 yards to DeSean Jackson, who is no longer with the team. No other play went for more than 22 yards. Cooper Kupp has been incredible all season and in recent games against Tampa Bay. He had two touchdowns in Week 3. The only two games Kupp was under 92 yards all year were the two home games against Arizona. Odell Beckham also looked good on Monday, though he is still averaging career lows across the board with the Rams this season. Cam Akers looked so explosive despite his Achilles injury this summer.

But chances are the Rams are not going to have a good rushing performance this week, and the defense is going to be tested far more than it was against the Cardinals. Stafford is going to have to deliver in the biggest game of his career, and even then, he might need to pull that horseshoe out of Brady’s ass to get the win.

Buccaneers: Everything Is Alright?

For two decades, the best way to beat Tom Brady is to make him play poorly. Take an early lead, force him into mistakes, and put the game out of reach so he can’t come back to win it. Don’t let his team hang around. His statistics in losses have always been well behind those of his lofty peers, because if he is playing well, there’s almost no hope of beating his teams.

This is why I am really concerned about the Rams pulling off another win over this team. In Week 3, Brady dropped back 61 times and did not have a turnover in a game that had zero turnovers from both teams. Brady was 41-of-55 for 432 yards, a touchdown, a rush touchdown, and the Buccaneers only turned it over on downs once. They also missed a 55-yard field goal before halftime, which was set up by a Brady strip-sack by Aaron Donald that the Bucs recovered.

It was not an offensive masterclass, but it was not a total dud like he had in the 9-0 shutout loss to the Saints, or turnover-filled losses against the Saints and Washington this year. It was a 34-24 game where the Rams were just better on offense at home. Brady was also his team’s leading rusher with 14 yards as the Bucs abandoned the run. That is unlikely to happen again this week, especially with Leonard Fournette likely making his return.

This is not the formula to beating Brady, who is 45-4 when he throws for at least 325 yards with zero interceptions. Of course, that Rams game is only the second game in that 49-game sample where his team didn’t score at least 29 points. Brady is also 111-7 (.941) when averaging at least 7.2 yards per attempt and not throwing an interception.

In 2020, the Rams delivered on defense in Tampa Bay the way you want to see. Brady had a season-low 2.8 completed air yards per attempt and 3.2 YAC/completion. He threw a season-high 13 inaccurate throws. The Rams barely pressured him, but it didn’t matter because they covered well, intercepted two passes, including one in crunch time, and they held Brady to 4.5 YPA, his second-worst game with Tampa Bay. That would work this week. But in Week 3, the Rams actually blitzed Brady 13 times, pressured him 11 times (season high and second-highest rate), and he still threw for a first down on 41.4% of his passes (fourth-highest game of season). That’s not going to be winning defense for the Rams this time around.

The Buccaneers are not whole on offense, but if the line is intact, then Gronk and Evans are plenty to get things moving. Gronk had one of his lowest snap counts in Week 3 as that was the game he took a shot in the back, which started his injury problems. He’s been playing at a high level once again. Evans just had a season-high 117 yards against the Eagles.

If the Buccaneers win the turnover battle, they are likely winning this game. In the last two postseasons, Tampa Bay has seven touchdown drives that started in opponent territory. The rest of the NFL has nine in this time. Only the Patriots (11) and Chiefs (seven) have as many playoff touchdown drives on short fields as Tampa Bay since 2014, and the Bucs did not even make the playoffs in 2014-19.

Shawn Hochuli, Ed’s son, is the head referee for this game, which is probably not a good thing for either team or any fan watching the game. His games have had 1,903 penalty yards this season, the third-highest amount in the league. His crew called 28 penalties in Dallas on Thanksgiving, but he may not be that biased towards home teams. He also flagged Tampa Bay 11 times on opening night against Dallas. But chances are this game will trend towards more penalties with him getting his precious screen time, a Hochuli family tradition. At the very least, it’s not Carl Cheffers, who called the most penalties this year and gave Tampa Bay two phantom DPI flags in the second quarter of Super Bowl 55. Then again, Hochuli called 22 DPI flags this year, tied with Cheffers for the second most.

The Prediction

The Rams have a lot of the right elements to deal with Tampa Bay, but I’d sooner go bankrupt than back Stafford to overcome Brady’s luck in a road playoff game. After no turnovers in Week 3, I expect them to be the story of this game. The Rams are 6-1 in close games, the best record in the league, but they did just blow a 17-0 lead to the 49ers in excruciating fashion in Week 18.

I’ve been saying for weeks that Tampa Bay vs. Green Bay is all that matters in the NFC playoffs this year. It’s up to the 49ers and Rams to prove me wrong.

Final: Buccaneers 27, Rams 24

NFL Stat Oddity: Wild Card Weekend

After a terrible postseason last year, how did the NFL start things this January? A whistle controversy. The perfect offensive game in frigid conditions. A couple of No. 7 seeds from Pennsylvania offered up as sacrificial lambs to guarantee the Chiefs and Buccaneers don’t go one-and-done after last year’s Super Bowl meeting. And an asshole, calling a QB run with 14 seconds left and no timeouts.

Some fun was had. Memories were made. A legend came to a sobering end.

But you know what we didn’t get? Not a single fourth-quarter lead change. The whole 2020 postseason also did not have a fourth-quarter lead change. The closest was the Buccaneers breaking a 20-20 tie in New Orleans in the divisional round.

That means we have gone 18 straight NFL playoff games without a single fourth-quarter lead change. The last was in Super Bowl 54 between the Chiefs and 49ers, thanks to one third-and-15 play.

Is this the longest drought in NFL playoff history? I’m not sure as of right now, but I know it ties the last longest drought of 18 games from the 2004 divisional round (Saturday night game) through the 2006 wild card round (Saturday afternoon game).

But at least that stretch gave us one of the most dramatic playoff games ever: 2005 AFC divisional between the Steelers and Colts. It’s a fitting game to bring up at the end of Ben Roethlisberger’s career as his tackle of Nick Harper after Jerome Bettis’ fumble affected so many legacies, including his own. Bettis and head coach Bill Cowher likely are never inducted into the Hall of Fame without Ben’s tackle. If Hines Ward ever gets into Canton on the strength of a Super Bowl MVP from that year, he can thank Ben for that tackle as well. Would Adam Vinatieri ever end up as Indy’s kicker had Mike Vanderjagt not come on to choke so badly on the game-tying field goal? Nick Harper also would be a hero and only get hate mail from Pittsburgh addresses.

This is what the playoffs can do. One moment can change everything about how we view players, coaches, and teams. So, can we cook up some more drama next week? It looks like a good one on paper. As for the Rams and Cardinals, I’ll see you when I see you. But let’s get things started with the only team that was truly perfect this weekend.

This season in Stat Oddity:

Patriots at Bills: The Perfect Game

On Saturday night, the Bills left no doubt that the AFC East belongs to them now with a 47-17 thrashing of the Patriots, the worst playoff loss in Bill Belichick’s career. About the only thing the Bills did wrong was fail on two extra points. When these teams met in Week 16, the Bills scored on six of eight drives and never punted in an impressive performance.

This time, the Bills had quite arguably the greatest offensive performance in NFL history.

  • Buffalo’s offense scored seven touchdowns on seven offensive possessions. The eighth “drive” was just three kneeldowns.
  • These drives covered lengths of 70, 80, 81, 89, 58, 77, and 39 yards.
  • Buffalo was 6-of-7 on third down with the only “failure” being a kneeldown to end the game. Those were also the only plays where Buffalo lost yardage and the Bills did not allow a sack.
  • This means the Bills never faced a fourth down in the entire game.
  • Josh Allen had more touchdown passes (five) than incompletions as he was 21-of-25 passing.

Under any circumstances, this would be in the running for the best offensive game in NFL history. But when you add in that it was a playoff game against a division rival with a defensive coach many consider the greatest to ever do it, and the Bills performed like this in single-digit temperatures against the No. 2 scoring defense, I think it is hands down the best offensive performance in NFL history.

This is only the third NFL game since World War II where a team had seven touchdowns, zero punts, and zero turnovers. But Buffalo is the only team to not kick a field goal as well.

This is actually the fourth NFL game since 2000 where an offense scored at least six touchdowns and scored on every drive except for the last one that ended in kneeldowns to run out the clock, but none of the other three matched Buffalo’s perfection.

  • 2000 Rams vs. Chargers: Rams had 6 TD, 5 FG and ran out the clock with three knees in 57-31 win.
  • 2015 Patriots vs. Jaguars: Patriots had 6 TD, 3 FG and ran out the clock with two knees in 51-17 win.
  • 2018 Saints at Bengals: Saints had 6 TD, 3 FG and ran out the final 4:42 on the clock (three knees after the two-minute warning) in a 51-14 win.

All great performances, but all against weak competition and none hit that 7-for-7 touchdown mark.

Buffalo’s performance was so divine that it hardly mattered what the New England offense did or didn’t do this time. Rookie quarterback Mac Jones had six incompletions at halftime, including a spike, a couple drops, and one incredible interception in the end zone by Micah Hyde. But New England trailed 27-3 at halftime, the most points the Patriots have allowed in the first half of any game under Belichick. The 47 points are the most the Patriots have allowed in a game since giving up 48 to the 1990 Eagles.

I told you in September that Jones would never match the luck of Brady, the LOAT. Brady has started 362 games in the NFL and his teams have never allowed more than 42 points. Jones led the Patriots to 17 points in this game and lost by 30. Brady started his playoff career 4-0 despite leading his offense to 16, 0, 13, and 17 points in those games. That era of getting by with the bare minimum on offense and relying on great defense is dead.

For the second time in three years, Belichick coached a paper tiger that fell apart down the stretch and couldn’t get past the first day of the postseason. We probably should have seen this coming. Any team that loses by 10 points to Carson Wentz when he throws for 57 yards should raise every red flag about their legitimacy.

The Patriots started this season 2-4 with wins over the lowly Jets and Texans. We gave them credit for hanging tough with superior Tampa Bay and Dallas teams, but they were an afterthought early in the season. The Patriots later finished the season losing four of five and only beating the awful Jaguars 50-10 to pad the season stats.

But it was that fool’s gold 7-0 run in the middle that had some people drinking the New England Kool-Aid again. As it turns out, beating up on the Jets, the Panthers without Christian McCaffrey, the Browns with an injured Baker Mayfield, the Falcons and Titans without their skill players, and another choke by the Chargers isn’t the stuff that makes for an elite team.

Things peaked with that 14-10 win in Buffalo where NFL talking heads wanted to hang the three pass gameplan in the Hall of Fame.

I never bought it. I knew in a normal weather game, the Bills would show their superiority. I just never imagined we would see this type of perfection in those conditions. But while cold-weather games can be low scoring like the 10-9 game between the 2015 Vikings and Seahawks, wind is still the bigger issue. This game did not have wind problems like Week 13 presented. Allen was able to throw the ball accurately and all five of his touchdown passes came on play-action.

The Game Where Buffalo Scored a Touchdown on Every Drive is going to be one that people remember and cite for years to come. It’s that historic. But I imagine for it to take on an even greater relevance, the Bills are going to have to win the Super Bowl this year. We never really talk about the 1990 Bills scoring 44 and 51 points on their way to the Super Bowl because they didn’t get the job done against the Giants (thanks for nothing, Scott Norwood).

But after seeing how the Bills handled the Patriots in this one, who wants to bet against them? Of course, they must contend with the Chiefs in Kansas City, so get ready for a week of looking back at 38-20 (and 38-24 in last year’s AFC Championship Game).

Steelers at Chiefs: Well, At Least It Wasn’t 62-7

I usually write some form of eulogy for the Steelers after their latest playoff loss, but now I am just wondering when that opportunity will come again. The team heads into an era without Ben Roethlisberger following his likely last game in Kansas City, a 42-21 defeat that only showed promise for one quarter before snowballing into another record-setting loss, the fourth in a row for the Steelers in the playoffs. I’ll compile my thoughts on Roethlisberger’s career at a later date, but for now, it’s about this game.

Despite the scoreless first quarter, these teams combined for 63 points, a playoff record for a game that was scoreless after 15 minutes. This was made possible by the Steelers once again allowing their season-high in points in the playoffs, something they have done in four straight playoffs (2016-17 and 2020-21).

Pittsburgh is the first team in NFL history to allow at least 36 points in four straight playoff games, and the first team in NFL history to allow at least 42 points in three straight playoff games. Oh, at least they had three sacks and two takeaways this time, but T.J. Watt’s fumble return touchdown in the second quarter only seemed to ignite Patrick Mahomes on a historic playoff scoring run.

The turnover only happened because the Chiefs were foolish enough to run a wildcat play, but once Mahomes got back in control, he destroyed the Pittsburgh defense in a way few ever have. Mahomes threw five touchdown passes in a span of 11 minutes and 31 seconds, a playoff record.

Mahomes used the whole playbook to pick apart the Steelers. There was a shovel pass touchdown, there was a great throw on third down to Byron Pringle for a 12-yard touchdown, there was a 48-yard touchdown to Travis Kelce on third-and-20 right before halftime, the second-longest touchdown catch of Kelce’s career. If third-and-20 wasn’t enough of a back-breaker to make it 21-7 at halftime, the Chiefs doubled up with Mahomes throwing a 1-yard touchdown to an eligible lineman to make it 28-7.

All four of those drives were 68-plus yards. Only after the lone Pittsburgh turnover did the Chiefs get a short field that ended in a fifth touchdown to Tyreek Hill on a deep ball. Mahomes had a chance at six touchdowns, but Kelce ended up throwing a 2-yard touchdown to Pringle on another trick play the Steelers had no answer for.

If the Steelers hadn’t established such a pathetic standard of postseason defense under Mike Tomlin, and if the Bills weren’t so sublime on Saturday night, this Kansas City domination would be the talk of the weekend. Even with another tipped interception and the obligatory fumble, the Chiefs smoked the Steelers out of the playoffs and perhaps out of contention for some time to come. Since losing Super Bowl 45 to Green Bay, Tomlin and Roethlisberger were just 3-8 in the playoffs.

As far as final games go, Roethlisberger finished somewhere in the large area between awful and great. He usually has multiple turnovers in a playoff loss but finished this game with none. He was however a non-factor for the first half, passing for 24 yards on 14 attempts as the Steelers started with seven straight punts. Diontae Johnson did him no favors with a couple of drive-killing drops, but the offense never had any real plan. Najee Harris did not look healthy and lost the first fumble of his career to start the third quarter. That fumble led to Mahomes’ fifth touchdown pass and the rout was on at 35-7. Roethlisberger led two straight touchdown drives with James Washington making some great catches, but it was too little too late. Ben’s last march, down 42-21, got to the Kansas City 3 before the final seconds ticked away to end an era in Pittsburgh.

The Chiefs have another huge one with Buffalo while the Steelers have plenty of questions. It was nice to see JuJu Smith-Schuster return to action for Roethlisberger’s final game, but it’s not like offensive coordinator Matt Canada and this coaching staff has any idea how to use him properly in this offense. JuJu may be gone as well as a slew of other players. The bigger question is which heads are going to roll in the coaching staff? We know Tomlin is safe for 2022, but how can defensive coordinator Keith Butler possibly return after this pathetic display in the playoffs again? You just let Jerick McKinnon gain 142 yards from scrimmage. This team is unlikely to beat Cincinnati (Joe Burrow) in a big game any time soon, let alone Mahomes and the Chiefs without big changes.

The “never had a losing season” thing wears thin when there is such a lack of playoff success attached to it. Given what usually happens to a team the first year without their Hall of Fame quarterback, I imagine it won’t be a fact to point to much longer for Tomlin. The standard needs to change.

49ers at Cowboys: Fourth Quarter Fvckery

Jesus Christ, is this what we get when Kyle Shanahan is trying to hold off a 16-point comeback in the playoffs by a Mike McCarthy-coached team? This game did not want to die as numerous people volunteered to be the scapegoat, but no one wanted to be the hero. Still, it was the most dramatic game of the weekend and the closest we came to a fourth-quarter lead change.

I picked the 49ers outright as my upset of the week. I liked the San Francisco pass rush after what it did to Matthew Stafford last week, and sure enough, it got after Dak Prescott well to throw him off his game (five sacks) despite Nick Bosa leaving with a head injury. I was big on Deebo Samuel, and he did not disappoint with 110 yards from scrimmage and another touchdown. Also, I thought the Cowboys were a mistake-prone, fraudulent No. 1 offense and a 12-win team that got half of its wins against the lowly NFC East competition. Despite having the most points and yards in the league, Dallas was only No. 8 in both yards and points per drive this season, a very unusual discrepancy.

But even I did not expect Dallas to look so bad for much of the game. The 49ers were settling for a lot of field goals early or else we’d have another blowout this weekend. But the 49ers were avoiding the turnovers the Cowboys capitalized on all year. The Cowboys, who complain a lot about officiating, were flagged 14 times for 89 yards in the game. Of the four times a team had 14 penalties this season, two of them were Dallas, including both the Cowboys and Raiders in that Thanksgiving game.

But at some point, you have to stop doing dumb shit and hurting your team. CeeDee Lamb had a rough game and wiped out an 18-yard completion with an illegal shift late in the third quarter as the Cowboys still trailed 23-7. The drive eventually stalled at midfield when it looked like McCarthy was going to punt again, which I didn’t agree with this time as time was running out in a 16-point game. Alas, it was a predictable fake that still caught the 49ers off guard for a conversion. But instead of continuing the drive, the Cowboys kept the special teams unit out there on first down against San Francisco’s defense, hoping to make the 49ers burn a timeout. WTF? The only confusion was on Dallas, which got hit with a delay of game penalty after trying to get the offense on late. That was a great preview of the fourth-quarter fvckery to come.

The Cowboys ended up settling for a 51-yard field goal on 4th-and-7. Personally, I didn’t mind the call with the way Dak was playing. I had very little faith in a conversion, and a stop there would really make things dire. Down 16, you almost have to assume you’re going to need three scores anyway as going 8+8 just to tie is very difficult. Just keep extending the game and make something happen. I even predicted as much and was rewarded with a gift from Jimmy Garoppolo.

Just four snaps later, Garoppolo got careless and threw an interception that was returned to the San Francisco 28. Hello, short field. Fred Warner joined Bosa on the sidelines with an injury, and Prescott scrambled for a touchdown to make it 23-17 after an extra point that never seemed to be second guessed by Dallas’ staff.

Out of all the two-point conversion dialogue, we never really spend time on what to do when you’re down 13 but going for two seems to be the smart call, especially with just over eight minutes left against an offense that had been scoring on you.

  • If you go for it and fail, you’re still down 23-16 and can tie with a normal touchdown drive.
  • If you go for it and succeed, you’re only down 23-18, can go up 26-23 with a TD/2PC, or if the 49ers add a field goal to go up 26-18, you’re still in a one-possession game, which is crucial given the time crunch.
  • If you kick the extra point to make it 23-17 like Dallas did, a San Francisco field goal still makes it 26-17, a two-possession game. Also, if you get a touchdown, you’re almost certainly going to kick an extra point to go ahead 24-23, which means you can still lose to a field goal.

After never giving it much thought before Sunday, I have to say I’ll fully be in favor of going for two when down 13 going forward. But Dallas didn’t even bother.

The 49ers took advantage of two more penalties on Dallas’ defense to have a long drive, but they still faced a 4th-and-1. They were going to go for it, which I’m not sure about, but their own penalties forced them to punt. Prescott only needed two snaps to get to midfield before the drive stalled out on four straight failed plays. I loved the 49ers sending pressure on fourth-and-11 with their best natural rusher (Bosa) out of the game. Prescott threw up a decent deep ball to Cedrick Wilson, but he failed to adjust and make the catch.

It still wasn’t over with Dallas having all three timeouts and 1:42. Randy Gregory, no stranger to penalties, had another big one for defensive holding on a second down. That should have set the 49ers up nicely, but they hurt themselves with a false start. Samuel got the ball on third-and-10 for what was initially ruled a game-sealing first down, but he was inches short of the marker. I think going for the QB sneak to end it was the right call at 40 seconds, but the 49ers even botched that with a false start after using too much motion. Punt was the only option left.

We’ve seen crazier things than a team go 80 yards in 32 seconds. The Cowboys had three really nice plays in a row to get 39 of those yards as the 49ers played inexplicably soft. But then came the call that will go down in infamy. Teams usually believe they need about 16 seconds to complete a play in bounds and regroup for the spike and one more play. Teams practice this. Dallas had 14 seconds left, so this was really going to test that limit if the play wasn’t super fast. The play ended up being a QB draw that Dak milked for 17 yards to the San Francisco 24. But in trying to get the spike off, the ball had to be touched by the official, who bumped into Prescott under center, and the spike ended the game. It didn’t even look like the spike beat the game clock to be honest.

The game was over in shame for Dallas. I don’t care if the call was the idea of McCarthy, Dak, or offensive coordinator Kellen Moore, it was the wrong decision all the way. I’d rather take two shots to the end zone from the SF 41. Maybe even three if I draw a pass interference flag, something the 49ers led the league in this year by a wide margin.

Maybe someone a little faster like Lamar Jackson pulls off that spike with a second to spare, but it was too damn cute in a situation that had zero margin for error.

The 49ers move on, barely. Dallas proved to be a paper tiger once again. This marks the 11th straight postseason where the Cowboys failed to advance to the NFC Championship Game, which is an NFL record. Can never complain about a weekend where Robert Kraft and Jerry Jones watch their teams lose in embarrassing fashion, but I feel weird about Prescott after this game. I was hoping for a much better performance than this as it was his first postseason start since the 2018 season. I do not believe the Cowboys have a quarterback problem, but I get the sense that promoting Moore to head coach won’t change a thing in Dallas and its playoff misfortunes.

At least Amari Cooper showed up and caught a touchdown, so I don’t have to end by calling him soft again. Save the criticism for Lamb, who really disappointed in his playoff debut with one catch on five targets.

If the 49ers can stay out of their own way, they might be a dangerous team this postseason. Great challenge coming up in Green Bay on Saturday night.

Eagles at Buccaneers: Pennsylvania Going Out Sad on Sunday

The worst game of the weekend should come as no surprise. The 2021 Eagles slipped to 0-7 against playoff teams, something only the 2011 Bengals (0-8) can claim they’ve done among all playoff teams in NFL history. This is what happens when you let a 5-7 team play the Jets, Giants, and Washington (twice) so they can get the No. 7 seed, which grants them a road game against a team that used to get a bye week.

Philadelphia trailed as badly as 31-0 as Jalen Hurts struggled to make on-time plays or establish any offensive rhythm against a Tampa Bay defense that is getting healthy at the right time. The running game was pretty much shut down outside of Boston Scott exploding for a 34-yard touchdown run on his only carry. Miles Sanders (7 carries for 16 yards) finishes his 2021 allergic to the end zone.

Hurts threw two picks and Jalen Reagor had an awful day in every way with a muffed punt that blew open the game. Tampa Bay’s offense was nothing special and was stalling out after taking a 17-0 lead. But once Reagor muffed that punt in the third quarter, the Buccaneers took advantage with a 48-yard touchdown drive as no one decided to cover Rob Gronkowski for an easy touchdown. Hurts was picked on a fourth down and Tom Brady only needed one play to find Mike Evans for a 36-yard touchdown.

Despite two touchdowns in the fourth quarter, the Eagles never seriously threatened. But the Eagles were able to sack Brady four times and hold Tampa Bay to 4-of-13 on third down. The Buccaneers will have to be sharper in their next game, and it could be without elite right tackle Tristan Wirfs, who was injured early in the game. He tried to return, which was probably a bad idea, before leaving for good. The Bucs also lost center Ryan Jensen, but that was brief, and he finished the game.

We’ll see what happens with Wirfs going forward, but Tampa Bay is still in a good position to get back to the NFC Championship Game, if not host it should the 49ers upset the Packers.

The highlight of this game was FOX’s Troy Aikman visibly complaining on camera about having to call this game instead of being in Dallas for the San Francisco game everyone knew would be better. Troy was right, but I didn’t mind hearing CBS’ Tony Romo take some enjoyment in the Cowboys losing a rough playoff game instead of listening to Romo slurp Brady for three hours.

Raiders at Bengals: The Most Jerome Boger Game Ever

We can talk about the officials, or we can talk about the Bengals nailing their draft picks of Joe Burrow and Ja’Marr Chase and winning a division title and home playoff game in their first season together to end a 30-year playoff drought. That’s an important achievement in what could be the start of a great run in Cincinnati.

Of course, you’re not always going to draw an opponent as weak as the Raiders, who were outscored by 65 points this season. But after having the worst red-zone defense in 30 years, the Raiders can thank their red-zone defense for keeping this a close game instead of another rout. The Raiders allowed a touchdown 81.4% of the time in the red zone this year – no one else was above 70.0%. But the Cincinnati offense finished 2-of-5 in the red zone in this game.

The second of those conversions created the controversy in this one. Joe Burrow scrambled near the sideline before throwing a 10-yard touchdown pass to Tyler Boyd, who was wide open in the back of the end zone. It was ruled a touchdown and gave the Bengals a 20-6 lead after the two-minute warning in the first half.

But a whistle clearly blows on the play, which by rule, should have blown the play dead and led to a replaying of the down, which was a third-and-4 at the Las Vegas 10. Maybe the Bengals still score on the next play. Maybe they get a first down and score later, not leaving the Raiders enough time for their touchdown drive they finished with 13 seconds to spare. Maybe the Bengals miss a short field goal. Maybe, maybe, maybe.

The NFL did itself no favors by saying after the game that the whistle came after the ball was caught by Boyd. Here’s my take: I think the whistle blew while Boyd was going up to catch the ball. He was already wide open. Burrow was in bounds and threw a perfectly legal pass. Boyd was in bounds and caught the ball for a touchdown. The players did everything right on the play. The only mistake was an inadvertent whistle by a referee. Why should we bail out the Raiders on defense for a mistake like that? It’s sour grapes. The touchdown is legitimate.

There were other officiating controversies in the game, but that’s basically cooked into the product any time Jerome Boger is the referee. Long delays are his specialty too. I cannot imagine we’ll see this crew do another game this postseason, so maybe it’s for the best that we got this snafu out of the way in a wild card game.

Burrow was impressive in his first playoff game, especially when you consider the running game failed with Joe Mixon only rushing for 48 yards on 17 carries. Chase was impressive too, though Tee Higgins remained a ghost against this Vegas defense for a second time this season.

But because of those red-zone failures early in the game, the Bengals never ran away with things. The Raiders got the late stops and Derek Carr got all he could ask for: a chance at a game-tying (or game-winning with a two-point conversion) touchdown drive, down 26-19 with 1:51 left.

As always, I expected him to get BS flags, especially with what happened earlier in the game to Vegas. Immediately, he got an extra 15 yards on one of the worst roughing calls you’ll see in a big spot. But after a brilliant throw to Darren Waller to convert a third-and-17, Carr went back to making bad plays. Eventually, he hit another third down but ended up wasting a down with a spike. At 30 seconds, I thought he had enough time to have a play called and not waste that down. This proved costly.

Carr had a fourth-and-goal at the 9 with 17 seconds left. The Raiders certainly did not run a play with good design. Hunter Renfrow should be doing something towards the end zone, for starters. But I think Carr ultimately panicked and forced a pass short of the goal line to Zay Jones in double coverage. It was a game-ending interception, but even a completion there would have ended the game short of the goal line.

Carr blew his chance to be a hero in the biggest game of his career. Waller running a wheel route would have been the better decision. Put some air on it and let your best guy use his size to his advantage. At least throw it in the end zone with the game on the line.

At least they didn’t run Carr on a quarterback draw, I guess.

This is the first season in NFL history where the Bengals and Buccaneers both won a playoff game. Throw in the Bills in the AFC and consider how long those playoff win droughts were (1996-2019 for Buffalo), and we are really seeing that changing of the guard in the AFC. It’s exciting for the league as another huge Bills-Chiefs game looms next week. But the Bengals may have an upset in mind in Tennessee as well. Exciting times for the Bengals for a change.

NFL 2021 NFC Wild Card Previews

Much like the AFC playoffs, rematches are a big deal in the NFC this week. The only “new” game over Super Wild Card Weekend is 49ers-Cowboys. We get a third meeting of Cardinals-Rams after the road team won the first two, and a venue switch with the No. 2 seed Buccaneers trying to sweep No. 7 Philadelphia.

Scroll to the bottom if you want to see my predictions on who wins the Super Bowl this year.

Eagles at Buccaneers (-8.5)

See my early preview for this game at BMR.

Tampa Bay is trying to end the longest drought in NFL history without a repeat champion. Like last year, they start this playoff run with the weakest team in the NFC field from everyone’s favorite NFC division to criticize. It looks like a good matchup for Tampa Bay as the Eagles are a run-heavy offense going up against a stout defense led by Vita Vea that hopes you run the ball instead of throwing against their injured secondary. The Eagles also have a rookie coach, inexperienced quarterback, and a pass defense that allows a generous 69.4% completion percentage.

The Eagles allowed five quarterbacks, including Tom Brady, to complete 80% of their passes this year, an NFL record. Not only do the Eagles allow a lot of easy completions, but the defense ranks 20th in points per drive allowed, 23rd in third-down conversion rate, 25th in takeaways per drive, and 28th in red zone touchdown rate. Guess who once again has a defense that ranks 6th in points per drive, 7th in takeaways per drive, 10th in red zone touchdown rate, and 12th on third down? Brady, the LOAT.

But you don’t actually need a big passing performance to beat the Buccaneers this season. Sure, Matthew Stafford and the Rams did it that way in Week 3 with a game that had zero turnovers, but the Saints swept the Buccaneers, and Washington beat them by playing smart, safe football. The Buccaneers were minus-6 in the turnover department in those games (seven giveaways to one takeaway). That’s Trevor Siemian, Taylor Heinicke, and Taysom Hill, or an unholy trinity of quarterbacks not as good as Jalen Hurts. The Giants forced Hurts into three interceptions in that horrific loss but Hurts only had eight turnovers in the other 14 games combined this year.

But as I said, the Eagles aren’t very good at taking the ball away. Each team one had giveaway in the Week 6 matchup, won 28-22 by the Buccaneers after leading 28-7. Things should look a bit different this week. Lane Johnson is back at tackle and both teams get their best tight end (Dallas Goedert and Rob Gronkowski) back. The Buccaneers no longer have Antonio Brown, the star that night, and Chris Godwin is out with a torn ACL. Leonard Fournette should be back from IR this week and he had two touchdowns in that game. Linebacker Lavonte David is also returning from IR just in time for the postseason.

The Eagles were still a work in progress in Week 6. They infamously handed the ball off three times to a running back in Dallas. They only had nine handoffs for 56 yards to Miles Sanders in Week 6 with Hurts rushing 10 times for 44 yards and two touchdowns. Since then, Nick Sirianni’s bunch have developed a running identity and should not be so afraid to run on the Buccaneers, who are not as elite as they were at stopping the run in 2020. Tampa has already allowed eight teams, including Philadelphia, to rush for 100 yards in 17 games this year after doing so six times in 20 games last year. Tampa has also gone from 3.6 yards per rush allowed (No. 1) in 2020 to 4.3 yards per rush allowed (No. 15) in 2021. Sanders, despite not having a touchdown this year on 163 touches, is the team’s best back and he has a broken hand. But they still have some capable backups in Boston Scott and Jordan Howard. There is optimism that Sanders can play on Sunday.

Whether Sanders plays or not, Hurts needs to channel his inner Colin Kaepernick and run wild this week. It’s the playoffs and you’re the underdog. Let it all hang out. The Eagles were also 3-of-10 on third down in Week 6 in a game where Hurts passed for 115 yards and had 4.42 YPA. On the season, Philadelphia converts 45.7% of third downs, good for fourth in the league with Tampa Bay at No. 2 (47.1%). These are also two of the top eight offenses at scoring touchdowns in the red zone where Hurts is a major threat with 10 rushing scores.

These are the only two defenses that allow an average depth of target under 7.0 yards this season. We know Brady will stay very patient and take the easy throws against the second-least likely defense to blitz (16.4%). But will Hurts do the same against the only defense that blitzes over 40% of the time this year? Only the Bills get a higher pressure rate on the QB this year than Tampa Bay. That could be the game right there.

Since penalties are a topic that seems to come up with Tampa Bay more than most teams, I had a few stats to share here. No defenses were penalized pre-snap more this year than the Buccaneers (18) and Eagles (15). Both defenses were top five in penalties, but on offense, the Buccaneers (33) had the second-fewest penalties while the Eagles (49) were 16th. After drawing a record 27 DPI flags last year, Tampa Bay’s offense only was the beneficiary of 11 such calls this season (tied for eighth). Tampa Bay’s defense however was flagged for the second-most DPI flags (14). Philadelphia’s offense only drew six DPI flags all year, but two of them were in Week 6 as they got the Buccaneers for gains of 45 and 50 yards. That adds some context to Hurts only passing for 115 yards. Tampa Bay’s 120 penalty yards that night is the most for the team in a game since 2015.

Tampa Bay started the year with the most loaded receiving corps in the NFL. Now that big four has been reduced to two without Brown and Godwin. I think if you had to pick the weakest version of the Buccaneers with two of those four players, it might be the Mike Evans and Rob Gronkowski combo they have now. Gronk is still awesome, and Evans is a special talent, but AB and Godwin are much more of the prototype for a Brady receiver. Guys who can get open from anywhere, especially in the slot, and they run smooth routes and can be dangerous with the ball in their hands. Evans is much more of a height advantage/catch radius receiver you can throw it up to and let him get it. Brady does that with him, but it’s not his main strength.

Still, I think Evans and Gronk with the running backs back, including Gio Bernard as a receiving option, and a top-tier offensive line are plenty to get past the Eagles again. Let’s not act like the Eagles aren’t the beneficiary of a seventh playoff seed. In past years, this 9-8 team would not have been good enough to make the playoffs.

In fact, the 2021 Eagles are a historic team for the wrong reasons. The 2021 Eagles are 0-6 against playoff teams, joining the 2011 Bengals (0-7) as the only playoff teams in NFL history to go 0-6 or worse against playoff teams in the regular season. Those Bengals lost a wild card game 31-10 to Houston too. The 2021 Eagles are also 1-7 against teams with a winning record, only getting a win over the Saints, who only got their ninth win in Week 18. That 1-7 record against winning teams is the worst for a playoff team since the 2011 Lions were 0-5, a feat only matched by the 1969 Oilers and 1991 Jets. None of those teams won a playoff game.

It’s nice that the Eagles got into the tournament in Sirianni’s first year, but I think quickly into Sunday’s game, we’re going to be looking at them like this:

Final: Buccaneers 27, Eagles 17

49ers at Cowboys (-3)

The smallest spread this weekend is likely related to this being the only non-rematch. There is that angle of uncertainty and it doesn’t help that Dallas has been so up-and-down this year. These teams met last December in a 41-33 game that saw 16 points scored in the final 40 seconds in a game that wouldn’t die.

But that game was also pretty meaningless. The starting quarterbacks were Andy Dalton and Nick Mullens instead of Dak Prescott and Jimmy Garoppolo. Deebo Samuel, George Kittle, Nick Bosa, and Ezekiel Elliott were inactive, among others.

I feel like Kyle Shanahan has gotten the best of Mike McCarthy over their careers. There was a 2018 game where the 49ers lost 33-30 in Green Bay. Aaron Rodgers had to bail out McCarthy with a 400-yard game as the 49ers nearly pulled that one off with C.J. Beathard as quarterback. As offensive coordinator, Shanahan’s 2016 Atlanta offense destroyed the Packers twice, including the NFC Championship Game.

Jimmy Garoppolo’s thrown four picks in his last two starts, but he had the 49ers tied late with the Titans on the road, and he led the team back from a 17-0 deficit to win in Los Angeles. Clutch touchdown drive to end the fourth quarter and finished it off in overtime. Garoppolo is 10-10 at GWD opportunities, one of the best records in the league. He also finished off the Bengals in Cincinnati this year. He just needs to be careful with the picks against a Dallas defense that feasts on turnovers.

The Cowboys have had a successful defensive turnaround with coordinator Dan Quinn and top draft pick Micah Parsons this year. They not only have the league-high 34 takeaways, but Dallas is sixth in yards per drive allowed, fifth in points allowed, and second in third-down conversion rate. Dallas (59.5%) is one of three defenses to allow under 60% completions while the 49ers (68.3%) allow the third-highest completion rate.

But there are big plays to be had against Dallas. The Cowboys allowed the fourth-most 20-yard pass plays (62) and the third-most 40-yard pass plays (14). Corner Trevon Diggs is a good example of this feast-or-famine style. He had 11 interceptions but also allowed over 900 yards and 8.8 yards per target.

The 49ers score a touchdown two-thirds of the time in the red zone, the highest rate in the league. Garoppolo has had some big turnovers in that area, but overall, the 49ers usually deliver down there.  

Dallas led the NFL in scoring with 530 points, but it sure wasn’t a consistent effort to get to that mark. Dallas loaded up with five games of 41-plus points, including four games against NFC East competition. This same Dallas team was down 30-0 at home to Denver with five minutes to play in Week 9. The Cowboys just recently struggled in a home loss to Arizona in Week 17 before dominating Philadelphia’s backups in a meaningless game a week ago.

Dak Prescott has had a fine season, but I would be shocked if the Cowboys don’t lead the NFL in miscommunication plays. It just seems like Prescott and his receivers are not on the same page as often as you’d expect from a team that leads the NFL in scoring. They will be facing a formidable defense this week. The 49ers are tied for fifth in sacks and lead the NFL in tackles for loss. San Francisco stops the run reasonably well and should have the rushing advantage in this game.

Games with Dallas are no strangers to penalties, especially on offense where the Cowboys have a league-high 62 penalties. The Cowboys have been flagged for a league-high 31 offensive holding penalties, but they also have been the beneficiary of a league-high 30 offensive holding penalties. As for the 49ers, their defense has been flagged 20 times for defensive pass interference, six more than any other defense. The Cowboys may want to take some shots in this one. The 49ers only have nine interceptions on defense.

But the 49ers really impressed me on defense last week. Despite limited blitzing, the 49ers sacked Stafford five times and pressured him 14 times. It was the worst game of the season for the Rams’ pass protection. If Bosa and company can get after Prescott like that, and if Samuel and Kittle can make the elite YAC plays they’re so good at, I like what the 49ers have to win this one on the road.

I didn’t pick an upset on the AFC side. I’m certainly not picking the Eagles to win in Tampa Bay. I think this is the right spot for a road team to pull off the upset. But it all depends on which Dallas team shows up.

Final: 49ers 30, Cowboys 27

Cardinals at Rams (-3.5)

If only I could pick both teams to go one-and-done…

Look, I’m salty that these teams allowed Tampa Bay to get the No. 2 seed. The Cardinals were the last unbeaten at 7-0 and fell off a cliff (or it was always a Kliff). The Rams were 7-1, had that big win over the Buccaneers, but the latest attempt at a super team still backed into a division title after blowing a 17-0 lead on Sunday. Sean McVay is no longer 45-0 when leading at halftime. Matthew Stafford went from MVP to same old Detroit QB.

Now someone has to win the rubber match after the road team won both games this year. Going for the road sweep in the playoffs is a difficult task, but it’s what Arizona is trying to do. Since 2002, the team going for the road sweep is 13-11. There were six successes in a row before the Texans blew a 24-0 lead in Kansas City two years ago.

But what makes this one interesting is that Arizona has sucked at home this season (3-5), finished 7-1 on the road, and the Rams really don’t have a home-field advantage in Los Angeles yet. The “home crowd” on Sunday was actually pro-49ers. While the Arizona fanbase is unlikely to travel or be as loud as the 49ers were on Sunday, it feels safe to assume the Rams won’t have a raucous crowd in their favor on Monday night.

Arizona played one of its best games this year in LA in Week 4, beating the Rams 37-20, a final that included a garbage-time touchdown by the Rams. Arizona was the only defense to hold Cooper Kupp under 90 yards this season. He had just 64 yards on 13 targets that day, a miracle given his latest standards. Kupp did come through for 123 yards and a touchdown in the Week 14 rematch, but at least Arizona can lay claim to having the best game against him this year.

J.J. Watt is practicing again for the Cardinals. His status is unknown, but even if he plays, it won’t make up for the loss of DeAndre Hopkins. The season has not gone as well for Kyler Murray without his stud wideout. In the first eight games, Murray was completing 72.7% of his passes, 8.89 YPA, and a 110.4 passer rating. In the last six games, most of which were played without Hopkins, Murray is down to 65.3% complete, 6.72 YPA, and an 89.3 passer rating. Arizona is 1-5 when allowing more than 22 points this season. The Rams are 0-5 when allowing 27+ points and 12-0 when allowing fewer than 27 points.

My big story coming into the season was Stafford’s career record of 8-68 (.105) against teams with a winning record. In his first year with the Rams, Stafford led the team to a 3-5 record in games against winning teams, the first season in his career where he logged multiple wins. But is 3-5 really that impressive? Ryan Tannehill led the Titans to an 8-3 record against winning teams this season, so he logged as many wins in one season as Stafford had in 12 years with Detroit. Also, Arizona is 5-3 against winning teams.

So, both quarterbacks have stumbled down the stretch, but Stafford really gets you worried with seven interceptions in his last three games. You can squeeze past a Baltimore or Minnesota doing that this year, but the Cardinals are more likely to capitalize on those mistakes. The “let me chuck it up to Odell Beckham Jr.” play has not gone well for Stafford, who may be missing the steadiness of Robert Woods (torn ACL) more than we give credit to after the two had disappointing production together. But an easy first down still beats trying to make a highlight play to Beckham that ends in disaster, such as Sunday’s season-ending pick in overtime.

But the Cardinals played a poor game in the Week 14 rematch. Aaron Donald tipped a pass in the red zone for an interception when it looked like the Cardinals were going up two scores. The Cardinals failed on a couple fourth downs, including a drop by Hopkins and a bad decision to bypass a field goal late in the game. It just looked like the Cardinals lacked common sense and urgency that night. This lingered on in other performances, including a terrible loss in Detroit and making Carson Wentz look like a legit quarterback on Christmas.

If the Cardinals had a healthy Hopkins and Watt, they might be the right pick here. But the fact is this team is shorthanded, 4-6 in the last 10 games, and not playing well going into Monday.

As much as I want to pick the Cardinals to win, I just can’t bring myself to do it. McVay has largely owned this team outside of Week 4, and I can’t see a postseason where we don’t get a rematch between the Rams and Packers and/or Buccaneers. It feels like we were sold all year that this was supposed to be a different outcome for Stafford and the Rams, so let’s see a wild card playoff win on Monday night against a team no one was expecting to be here.

But no matter what happens on Monday night, neither team can be trusted to go on a Super Bowl run this year.

Final: Rams 30, Cardinals 20

Playoff Predictions

So, how do I see this postseason shaking out? My preseason pick was a rematch of last year with Tampa Bay beating Kansas City again. I could still see it happening.

I guess you can start with my six picks this week, but it’s not like I’m certain about these NFC upsets happening this week. In the NFC, I still think it comes down to the Bucs-Packers rematch in the NFC Championship Game. Maybe the Rams toughen up and get it done in Green Bay this year with Stafford, but I still think it comes down to TB-GB and the Packers better get Jaire Alexander on Mike Evans and not let Kevin King ruin the game this time.

On the AFC side, obviously I’d love to see the Chiefs get back to a third straight Super Bowl. But I look at the bracket and it looks like they’ll have to beat two teams, Bills and Titans, that smacked them by three possessions this year. It’s tough to avenge one of those losses, let alone two in a row, and they’d have to go to Tennessee to do it this time, Mahomes’ first road playoff game. So, with the way the Chiefs make mistakes this year, I’m not sure I can trust them to get back to the big one.

I think right now, I’d go with a Bills vs. Packers Super Bowl. A role reversal of 1997 Packers-Broncos with the young gunslinger (Brett Favre/Josh Allen) against the old veteran (John Elway/Aaron Rodgers).

But I’ll literally sign up for any outcome that does not involve Tampa Bay in the Super Bowl. Give me Raiders-Eagles if need be. Maybe I was just a year too early in 2020 on Chiefs-Cowboys too.

Frankly, I just don’t know this year. The Titans are one of the shakiest No. 1 seeds ever, and the Packers do not have the defensive profile of a championship team. Don’t discount a Bills-Buccaneers rematch either.

I just want something different from last year even if my preseason prediction was the same damn thing as last year.

NFL 2021 Awards

Before I submit my PFWA ballot for this year’s NFL award winners, I thought I would share the thought process behind each pick on here. With a reminder that these are all regular-season awards, I want to make sure I get my picks in before any postseason game influences my choices.

Most Valuable Player: Aaron Rodgers, Packers

Let me start by saying that I think this was the weakest MVP race with the worst field in the salary cap era. If there was ever a year where a non-quarterback could have earned it, it should have been this one. But even that did not materialize as no defender was outstanding enough (or played enough of his team’s snaps to justify it), and the two skill players (Jonathan Taylor and Cooper Kupp) came up short of a 2,000-yard milestone (rushing or receiving).

I strongly believe MVP is a quarterback award, but it was not a good year for standout quarterback play. The rookies were weak, Dak Prescott’s season was too mistake-filled despite the Cowboys scoring the most points, and Russell Wilson ensured he’d still never get an MVP vote after having the first major injury of his career.

The top three quarterbacks in 2020 (Aaron Rodgers, Patrick Mahomes, and Josh Allen) all regressed in 2021.

I watched Allen against the Steelers in Week 1 and could see right away that something was off. He hit some big passes against the Chiefs in Week 5 when Kansas City was still playing horrific defense and Cris Collinsworth was ready to give him the MVP that night. The oddsmakers were even agreeing around that time, but I never bought it. After Allen imploded with three turnovers in a 9-6 loss to Jacksonville, I eliminated him in my mind.

Mahomes had the worst season of his career and still finished fifth in QBR and perhaps one fewer CEH fumble or blown lead in Cincinnati away from the top seed and best record in the NFL. High standard to be judged by. The Chiefs still finished No. 1 in yards and points per drive too, and Mahomes had several of the best games by any quarterback this year. However, there was an eight-game stretch where he threw 11 touchdowns to eight interceptions and averaged 6.43 YPA. Throw in the defensive turnaround during that time helping the Chiefs go on a winning streak, and there was just no way Mahomes was the MVP this season.

If we gave an MVP for the first half of the season, then Matthew Stafford should have run away with it. However, the Tennessee game happened and that kickstarted a slide into the Detroit Stafford we’re very familiar with.

Kyler Murray was another quarterback who I thought had a chance at MVP this season, but it was dicey when the Cardinals still managed to go 2-1 with Colt McCoy starting. Then Murray had some rough games and that was a no-go.

Justin Herbert was my MVP pick after Week 5, then he hit a slump. After the Pittsburgh win in Week 11 and the incredible long touchdown throw against the Giants in Week 14, I was back to thinking he had an argument. But then the Chiefs took over the division with that epic overtime win despite a decent game from Herbert, and that seemed to follow them to a bad loss against Houston. By that time, he had no realistic chance, and now after missing the playoffs despite another epic performance on Sunday night in Vegas, we know he’s not getting a vote this year. But his day should come.

So, I’ve just eliminated Allen, Mahomes, Stafford, Murray, and Herbert. I’ll quickly mention that Joe Burrow absolutely had a shot at this had he been able to close out those games against the Bears, Packers, Jets, and 49ers. Even just two of them might have done the trick, but he threw some bad interceptions in a couple of those games or couldn’t get the game-winning drive in the others. But he was a matter of a couple drives from deservedly pulling this off, so I think his day too may come for this award.

Who does that leave? Oh yeah, Aaron Rodgers and Tom Brady. By default, I ended up taking the 2020 standout who regressed the least and that was Rodgers. This is a default MVP choice in my eyes, just as Peyton Manning was the default pick in 2008 and Brady was the default pick in 2010 and 2017.

The last thing we need is Brady getting a third default MVP. Also, I had 2400 reasons to want it to happen based on my preseason bets as a $200 bet on Brady at +1200 was my top MVP bet.

Going into Week 15, Brady looked like he was going to be handed another MVP by default. My bet to win $2,400 had a cash out option of $1,300 at the time. It didn’t seem likely that the Bucs would lose another game after getting past Buffalo in overtime. It also didn’t seem likely that voters would vote for Rodgers after his numbers were down from 2020 and all the COVID nonsense he brought on himself.

Then 9-0 against New Orleans happened in front of a national audience. Brady had a chance to show his MVP worth on a night where the Bucs had a lot of injuries, and he couldn’t even put up a single point. He got swept by the Saints with Trevor Siemian and Taysom Hill at quarterback. In between he lost to a bad Washington team with Taylor Heinicke. But 9-0 was the death knell for his MVP case.

Of course, at no point this season did I think Brady was deserving of MVP despite my profitable bet if he won the award. He spent the year throwing to the best receiving corps in the league, which was accurate before Antonio Brown compounded the loss of Chris Godwin, behind an elite pass protection line. He was feasting on short fields for touchdowns. He threw the second-most passes in NFL history and had just the 13th-highest YPA of his career. He was completely outshined by Stafford in the showdown in Los Angeles. He wasn’t even more impressive than Allen in that head-to-head game in Week 14, a game largely decided by what was called pass interference at the end. The aforementioned ugly trio of losses, including the pick-six in New Orleans when he had a chance to win the game. Let’s not also forget that he only managed one touchdown drive in New England against Bill Belichick in one of the most overhyped regular-season games of all time.

Brady was the MVP this year only if MVP means Mass Volume Player. So, when Bruce Arians calls it a travesty if he doesn’t win it, I’m calling it a travesty if Brady gets a vote. And you know he will.

By the way, I cashed out my Brady MVP bet at $244 before Week 17, so I made $44 in the process. Something is rigged if Brady wins it when Rodgers is listed at -400 (or higher) at many sportsbooks right now.

Here is how Rodgers and Brady stack up to past MVP winners at quarterback in the stats I have tracked for MVP worthiness for years.

You can see the 2021 seasons are not up to par. Rodgers is the first season to lead in QBR without being at least 75.0. Maybe there was a formula change this year, but it doesn’t make any sense why they would not apply that to older seasons too. Rodgers’ DVOA is also the lowest to lead the league since Dan Marino in 1996, so it’s not just QBR. This will also be the first time in over a decade where the QB on the No. 1 points per drive offense isn’t the MVP.

So, what is the case for Rodgers? While not as good as his 2011, 2014, and 2020 seasons, Rodgers still led all quarterbacks in QBR, DVOA, TD%, lowest INT%, passer rating, and ANY/A. The Packers beat the odds and won 13 games for the third year in a row, the first team in NFL history to do so. The 17th game was not necessary for that too as the Packers already had the No. 1 seed locked up despite ranking 21st in points per drive allowed. He also lost his tight end (Robert Tonyan) and played without his stud left tackle (David Bakhtiari). The great throws for the highlight reel were still there for Rodgers this year. He had a memorable game-winning drive in San Francisco. He won in Cincinnati despite Mason Crosby having other ideas. He gutted out the win in Arizona against a 7-0 team despite his receivers missing with COVID. Despite the toe injury, he finished red hot with 20 touchdowns and no picks over the last seven games.

Are there arguments against him? Sure, he had a horrible Week 1 against the Saints, but it’s not like a horrible game in Tampa Bay last year prevented him from that MVP. It’s just one game and clearly an outlier for the season. The only other loss he finished was in Minnesota in a game where he threw for 385 yards and four touchdowns and didn’t get the ball last. That was an MVP-worthy day despite the final score.

Of course, you have the COVID situation where he misled about his situation and missed the big Kansas City game as an unvaccinated player. The Packers lost and his absence was huge, but it also weirdly added to his value as the team scored just one touchdown with Jordan Love making his first start.

Would that kind of stuff be enough to make him lose the award to Mahomes last year? I think so, but then again Mahomes was my MVP pick in 2020. But is it enough in a 2021 MVP field that was so weak to not give him the award? Hell no.

As a nod to Rodgers, you’d have to be a bum to vote for a different quarterback for MVP this year.

Offensive Player of the Year: Cooper Kupp, Rams

I jumped the gun on this one in December, claiming that Jonathan Taylor was a lock for it. Unfortunately, Taylor is stuck with Carson Wentz as his quarterback, so he was a bit at the mercy of that for the season’s first three games and the last two. Still, it was a sensational year for Taylor.

But Cooper Kupp is…god damn. Kupp had at least 92 receiving yards in every game this season except for the first Arizona meeting when he had 64 yards. Kupp’s active streak of 13 games with 90-plus receiving yards is already the NFL record.

If there was ever a modern season where a receiver could win MVP, we saw the elements for it this year with Kupp. He helped Matthew Stafford to a career year while making history of his own with the 90-yard streak. Kupp led the NFL with 145 catches, 1,947 yards, and 16 touchdowns. It also helped that it was a down year for quarterbacks, giving Kupp a shot at MVP.

But Kupp ended up being at the mercy of his coach, quarterback, and defense on Sunday. After a brilliant drive that he ended with a go-ahead touchdown, Kupp never got another catch. Imagine if he would have gone for a 62-yard touchdown in overtime to win the game and go over 2,000 receiving yards. That should have been able to get him at least a couple MVP votes, right? Alas, Stafford threw an interception and the chance at history was over.

Defensive Player of the Year: T.J. Watt, Steelers

Look, Aaron Donald is awesome, but it gets boring to pick him every year. Let’s honor someone who had a historic year. Watt led the league in sacks and tackles for loss for the second year in a row, but he chased history in stunning fashion. While playing a 17th game helped him tie Michael Strahan’s sack record at 22.5 sacks, the fact is Watt only played 15 games, and even that is misleading.

Seemingly getting injured every third drive, Watt missed two full games and had four other games where he played no more than 55% of the snaps. In the 11 games where Watt played at least 50 snaps, he had 20.5 of his 22.5 sacks, so I don’t want to hear a thing about him getting the record cheaply. Strahan is the one who had Favre take a dive for sack #22.5.

The Steelers were also 9-2 in the 11 games he played the most snaps. Watt played a huge role in wins over the Bills, Seahawks, Bears, Ravens, and Browns. In addition to the sacks, he forced five fumbles and got just enough pressure on Lamar Jackson to make a game-deciding two-point conversion fall incomplete in Week 13.

Was it frustrating to see Watt on the sidelines so often? Sure, but he gave it his all when he was on the field. If Watt could ever stay healthy for a 17-game season, I wouldn’t be surprised if he could get to 25 sacks. But he should be able to settle for a share of the record and the award for Defensive Player of the Year.

Offensive Rookie of the Year: Ja’Marr Chase, Bengals

I’ll admit I was falling off the Chase bandwagon and starting to come around to the idea of Mac Jones for this award. It was when Chase followed his 201-yard game against the Ravens with a seven-game stretch where he averaged 3.7 catches for 40.6 yards. But then he lit up the Ravens again before having the best game by any receiver this year against the Chiefs. Jones also had a rough finish to the season in New England.

Chase against Kansas City was actually one of the best receiving games in NFL history. Chase caught 11-of-12 targets for 266 yards and three touchdowns. He converted a third-and-27. He drew two DPI flags on third downs as well. His touchdowns were long and mostly all him with his YAC. He was absolutely incredible.

Justin Jefferson just had one of the all-time great rookie wide receiver seasons in 2020, but Chase was right there with him this season with 81 catches for 1,455 yards and 13 touchdowns. It was ballsy to pass on offensive line and pair Joe Burrow with his college teammate, but I cannot see the Bengals in the position they are in right now if the team took Penei Sewell or Rashawn Slater instead of Chase.

Defensive Rookie of the Year: Micah Parsons, Cowboys

The Cowboys nailed that 12th pick of the draft with Parsons, who finished with 13 sacks, three forced fumbles, and 30 QB hits. He helped the defense lead the NFL in takeaways (34) this year. He’s also personally a trip to watch.

Comeback Player of the Year: Joe Burrow, Bengals

It feels like Dak Prescott was predestined for this one, but I think Burrow, after his own serious knee injury, pulled away with those two monster performances against the Ravens and Chiefs. In the end, he led the NFL this season with 70.4% completions and 8.9 YPA. Prescott’s injury was gruesome and I’m definitely a fan, but I have to give it up for Burrow leading a culture change in Cincinnati and getting this team to a division title in his second year.

Most Improved Player of the Year: Joe Burrow, Bengals

Double-dipping on awards is usually not my style, but not only did Burrow return from a significant injury to lead the Bengals to a great season, but he had a breakout year after giving off some Sam Bradford vibes in 2020. No more concerns there after leading the league in YPA and averaging 12.6 YPC too.

James Conner in Arizona would have been a good pick too, though he only averaged a career-low 3.7 YPC. But he was money as a receiver, catching 37-of-39 targets, and he scored 18 touchdowns.

Coach of the Year: Mike Vrabel, Titans

Remember when this was going to be Brandon Staley, then Kliff Kingsbury, then a little Bill Belichick run too? In the end, Mike Vrabel is the choice after guiding the Titans to the AFC’s top seed despite so many games missed from Derrick Henry, A.J. Brown, and Julio Jones. The Titans had a couple embarrassing losses (Jets and Texans), but they also beat the Bills, Chiefs, Rams, Saints, and 49ers. They also swept the Colts to help win the division.

Tennessee is 8-3 against winning teams this year, the best record in the league. Destroying the Chiefs 27-3 is the main reason this team does not have to worry about travel this postseason.

Assistant Coach of the Year: Rich Bisaccia, Raiders

Did some thinking outside the box on this one. Bisaccia was just a special teams coach before taking over as the interim coach following the Jon Gruden fallout. This team had every reason to fall apart this year with the Gruden scandal and Henry Ruggs’ disaster, but the Raiders hung in there and caught some breaks down the stretch. They won a memorable game against the Chargers to get their 10th win and make the playoffs. Bisaccia could end up getting promoted to the real head coach for next year. I am generally against that move, but let’s see what they can do in this playoff run.

Executive of the Year: Les Snead, Rams

I struggled with this one because I felt like every contender from last year that remained on top this year didn’t do anything special to improve their teams. The New England roster, while improved, is still pretty basic. The Bengals made a great move to draft Chase, but I didn’t want to pick them again here. Dallas’ improvement was largely about getting Prescott back healthy.

So, why not the team that went all in and acquired Matthew Stafford, Von Miller, and Odell Beckham Jr.? So far, it has led to a 12-5 record and the NFC West crown. Things may not end well here at home, but the Rams are in better position to go farther than they did last year, and that was ultimately the goal behind these moves.

NFL Stat Oddity: Week 15

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

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

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

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

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

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

This season in Stat Oddity:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Titans at Steelers: Fumbled the Top Seed

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Cardinals at Lions: Broken Arizona

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

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

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

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

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

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

Bengals at Broncos: Lock Down

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

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

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

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

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

NFL Stat Oddity: Week 14

Once again I was ready to proclaim Week 14 as one of the worst I ever covered in my history with the NFL. That’s not hyperbole; that’s research on the closeness of games. Through the 1 p.m. slate, about the closest finish we had all week was the Thursday night game between the Steelers and Vikings, a game where Pittsburgh trailed 29-0 in the third quarter before an impressive attempt at a historic rally came up short. You know it’s bad when one of the six comeback attempts this week was Houston, down 19-13, against Seattle in a game that ended 33-13.

This shit was rotten, and the three games between teams with non-losing records were among the biggest offenders. The Chiefs led the no-show Raiders 35-0 in the first half, the Browns were up 24-3 on the Ravens, and the Cowboys took a 27-8 lead into the fourth quarter in Washington. Two of those games fabricated drama late thanks to the Cowboys and Browns nearly shitting their pants, but there were never any lead changes there.

The 4 p.m. slate always looked better on paper this week, but it was not helping matters with the Chargers and Broncos jumping all over the Giants and Lions in routs. Once again, the two games between non-losing teams were most disappointing. Instead of close, high-scoring affairs, the 49ers led Cincinnati 20-6 late and the Buccaneers got up 27-10 on Buffalo in the fourth quarter. Then a Bears-Packers game to cap off the day? Give me a break. Rams-Cardinals better be an instant classic on Monday night to salvage this.

Then some funny things happened. The Bills and Bengals found their offenses, forced overtime, and both still lost to the only game-winning drives of the week. Then the Bears-Packers game went off the rails in the second quarter with the teams combining for 45 points on a lot of long touchdowns. It was really the most exciting quarter I’ve ever seen in a Bears-Packers game.

So, it ended up not being an all-time stinker of a week (unless you are stuck watching the Jaguars, then they’re all epic stinkers).

This season in Stat Oddity:

Bills at Buccaneers: Interfering with My Plans

If there was an AFC-NFC matchup on the schedule this year that you would have circled as a Super Bowl preview, this was the choice for months. Sure, some would pick Packers-Chiefs, but even if you didn’t know Aaron Rodgers would miss it with COVID, you should still know better than to trust Green Bay to get back to a Super Bowl before the LOAT.

But the Bills looked far from Super coming into this one. They haven’t been able to stack wins since their season peaked with a Week 5 win in Kansas City. NBC’s Cris Collinsworth was ready to give Josh Allen the MVP that night just because the Chiefs couldn’t cover anything deep and couldn’t stop the ball from being tipped for interceptions.

You know who watched Buffalo fail to capitalize on multiple tipped balls in this one? Tom Brady. You know which defense didn’t give up a completion longer than 25 yards? Tampa Bay. But while the usually stout run defense watched Allen unconventionally do it his way for 109 rushing yards, it looked like the Bills putting 100% of the offense on Allen was a total bust.

Buffalo became the first NFL offense since at least 1991 to not give a single carry to a running back in the first half. The first non-quarterback run of the game was in the third quarter, and even that was a fake punt that failed miserably to convert. But despite getting two straight possessions inside Buffalo territory, Tampa Bay came away scoreless. That’s unusual.

Yet with Tampa Bay up 27-10 with 11:20 to play, this felt like it was finished. That’s when Allen quickly drove the Bills 75 yards for a touchdown, watched Brady go three-and-out with two incompletions, drove for another touchdown on a shorter field, and again the defense stopped Brady cold in the four-minute offense of a 27-24 game.

It was like watching Peyton Manning lead the 2009 or 2010 Colts against Brady’s Patriots those years, two attempts at 17-point comebacks in the fourth quarter with vastly different outcomes. Allen landed somewhere between game-winning touchdown and game-ending interception in this one.

The Bills, still winless (0-5) in close games this year, had a great drive going into the red zone, but Allen’s pass to Stefon Diggs in the end zone on third down did not draw a flag despite plenty of contact. I did not hate the no-call, but I’ve seen less get flagged. That led to a field goal and overtime.

While the Bills were red hot on offense, they immediately cooled with a disappointing three-and-out. A great punt pinned Tampa Bay at the 6, and a very close run by Leonard Fournette to convert a third-and-1 helped the Bucs avoid their own three-and-out. Imagine that. Then Brady got his bogus DPI penalty for 19 yards on a throw to Mike Evans, which again speaks to how inconsistently one of the most crucial penalties in the game is applied.

If that’s DPI, then why wasn’t it DPI on the Diggs play? The Bills could have easily won in regulation. When you give a receiver with Evans’ size and talent to a quarterback known to draw more DPI flags (a record number last year) seemingly out of reputation, it’s a nightmare for defenses. Alas, this was shockingly just the second DPI flag drawn by Evans this season. He led all wideouts with nine drawn DPI flags in 2020, not including two big phantom calls before halftime of the Super Bowl when it was still a game.

The Bills did not pass their first actual test without corner Tre’Davious White, though they did hold Brady to 6.78 yards per pass attempt on his first 45 throws. However, Throw 46 was fatal. On a third down near midfield, the game was decided once Brady found Breshad Perriman and he had a clear 58-yard path to the end zone to end this one. Tampa Bay is going 14-3 with this schedule, and this team may not lose another game this season unless someone really steps up. Maybe it’s Arizona or Green Bay or the hottest AFC team, but it probably isn’t Buffalo.

But if there somehow is a rematch in February, then maybe the Bills can take some notes and pride from this near comeback. Like how the Bucs turned things around from Week 12 on the Chiefs last year, or how the 2007 Giants gained confidence from the 16-0 game against the Patriots for that year’s Super Bowl upset.

49ers at Bengals: Look Who Can’t Close Again

The headline looks like I’m going to attack Kyle Shanahan again, but we know the 49ers got a big overtime win in Cincinnati. I’m going to attack Shanahan anyway, but the focus is on Zac Taylor, who is now 2-17 when his Bengals have a 4QC opportunity.

Worse, Taylor’s 4QC record is 1-8 with Joe Burrow as his quarterback. Compare this to the 49ers. Shanahan is a poor 9-21 (.300) at 4QC opportunities, but that record improves to a stellar 8-7 (.533) with Jimmy Garoppolo at quarterback, leaving him at 1-14 with the other quarterbacks.

Fairly small samples, but still about as night and day as it gets. This looks bad for Burrow, who only has a comeback win against the Jaguars, but he was not the big problem in this game. In fact, it could have easily ended in regulation after Burrow tied the game if Robbie Gould hit a 47-yard field goal as time expired for the 49ers. No overtime comeback necessary.

Of course, the 49ers got there after only scoring 20 points on their first 11 drives despite the return of Deebo Samuel. That even included an 8-yard field goal drive and a 31-yard touchdown drive set up by two muffed punts by the Bengals.

While George Kittle (13 catches for 151 yards and a touchdown) was a beast again, this Samuel thing fascinates me. He got eight carries for 37 yards and a touchdown, but Samuel received just one pass target, which he caught for a 22-yard gain. And while Deebo produced a 27-yard touchdown run, his other seven carries produced 10 yards and one first down. That’s kind of lousy production when you’re going to sacrifice his skills as a wideout for that type of rushing.

I thought the 49ers figured something out in their upset of the Rams when Deebo had five catches for 97 yards and a touchdown to go with five runs for 36 yards and a touchdown. Maybe this dual-threat thing is just a reaction to the injuries at running back and getting your most talented player the ball in space, but Samuel is a damn fine wide receiver too. In the last three games, he has three catches for 49 yards. That’s not an average; that’s his TOTAL for three games. In the first nine games this season, Samuel was AVERAGING six catches for 108.8 yards per game. They need to find a better balance of using him on some runs and still utilizing his skill as a No. 1 wide receiver.

This game nearly slipped away with the 49ers not being able to finish more scoring drives. The Bengals finally came to life in the fourth quarter with two touchdowns to Ja’Marr Chase after he dropped one earlier in the game. But after getting the ball first in overtime, the Bengals curled up a bit after two explosive passes and ran the ball twice. Nick Bosa logged a key sack of Burrow on third down and the 49ers held the Bengals to a field goal to extend the game. You’d like to see Burrow finish the game off, which he’s failed to do multiple times this year now against teams like the Bears and Packers.

Garoppolo drove the 49ers 75 yards with no real pressure of the clock and four downs to use. They only came up on a third down once and Kittle converted it with ease. Brandon Aiyuk showed some nifty moves on the game-winning touchdown, just doing enough to break the plane to end the game.

It is fitting for both teams to be 7-6 as they are above average but maddeningly inconsistent. I thought the Bengals would perform better after the Baltimore loss presented a big opportunity in the division race, but the 49ers led most of the game and nearly won in regulation.

It’s also crazy to me that the over (48.5 points) hit on the nose after getting the necessary and very precise combination of a 14-point Cincinnati comeback, a missed game-winning field goal in regulation, a go-ahead field goal to start overtime, and a game-winning touchdown to get to 49 points. Almost like it was fixed.

But when it comes to these Bengals and close games, count on disappointment.

Bears at Packers: 45-30? These Two?

These teams met in prime time for the 16th season in a row, but it may have actually been the best first half they ever played. If you told me Chicago scored 27 points in the first half and it didn’t involve multiple turnovers and return touchdowns a la “We let them off the hook!” I wouldn’t have believed it. The Bears are the first team since the 2020 Packers (in Indy) to score at least 27 points before halftime and lose the game.

In fact, since 1940 the Bears were 51-0 when scoring at least 27 points in the first half. Make that 51-1 now.

I also wouldn’t believe Jakeem Grant turning into Tyreek Hill. I knew he was a fine returner for Miami, but his impact in this game was ridiculous. I still can’t believe how horrific the special teams were for Green Bay, and that doesn’t even include the plays late in the game they caught huge breaks on, like a muffed punt getting wiped out by a player running out of bounds penalty, or a stupid NFL rule that says you cannot advance a muffed onside kick for a touchdown. You absolutely should be able to do that. The way the play happened tonight proves the rule should be changed for onside kicks. Make them a little more fun.

The Bears knocked Aaron Rodgers around in the first quarter, but once his pass protection settled in, he shredded them for 341 yards and four touchdowns. Yes, he still owns the Bears.

Justin Fields mixed some good (big plays and 74 rushing yards) with bad (they were mostly YAC and his pick-six). The Packers dominated the third quarter, 17-0, to prevent the fourth from having any real drama (outside of the spread).

But as far as a Packers-Bears game in prime time, this was passable. Who knows, it could even be the last time Rodgers is involved in one…

Raiders at Chiefs: That First Play Knockout…

I’m really starting to believe it’s impossible to fumble for a touchdown on the first play of scrimmage and not get completely blown out. The Raiders did this in Kansas City with a fumble by Josh Jacobs on a run. That’s less egregious than the high snap over Ben Roethlisberger’s head that led to a Cleveland touchdown in the wild card round last January, or the same thing that happened to Peyton Manning’s Broncos in Super Bowl 48 (for a Seattle safety that time).

The Raiders didn’t show up for this one. They turned the ball over five times, including four lost fumbles. Patrick Mahomes with an elite defense is terrifying, and that’s especially true when he is shredding the Las Vegas defense this season. The big plays returned for the Chiefs’ offense, and they nearly had the first shut out with a 35-point lead at halftime in the NFL since the 2015 Dolphins were up 41-0 on Houston.

The Chiefs get a big test with the Chargers (in LA) on a short week this Thursday. A true first-place battle for the division. But while the Ravens and Bills finally beat the Chiefs triumphantly early in the season, this team is playing much differently now. The defense has been incredible and the offense is not except for the Raiders games. Can’t wait to see that one on Thursday. Meanwhile, the Bills and Ravens are falling apart at the moment. The Chargers are doing well, but the Chiefs have a shot to maintain control of the division and maybe the conference once again.

I’ve been saying it for a couple of weeks, but it really is looking like a season where Patriots-Chiefs is the AFC Championship Game and the winner faces Tampa Bay in the Super Bowl. That sounds absolutely awful, but if no one else is going to step up in this era…

Ravens at Browns: Not This 15-Point Deficit Thing Again…

I really don’t feel like talking about this at 4 AM again, but there were a lot of games this week where a team was down 15 points in the fourth quarter, scored a touchdown, and had a decision to make with a 9-point deficit.

  • PIT/MIN: Steelers tried for two with 12:11 left, failed, got behind by 16, cut that in half, and eventually lost 36-28.
  • CAR/ATL: Panthers kicked extra point at 3:11, kicked off deep with four clock stoppages, but left Kyle Pitts wide open on a third-and-14 and couldn’t get the ball back in a 29-21 loss.
  • BAL/CLE: Ravens tried for two with 8:56 left, failed, scored a touchdown on their second drive with 1:17 left, recovered a miracle onside kick, and went four-and-out after a horrific ALEX throw on fourth down by backup Tyler Huntley, who performed better off the bench than Lamar Jackson (ankle) played in a win against Cleveland two weeks ago. The Browns won 24-22 this time as the Ravens (+2.5) got a miracle cover but still lost.

I was lukewarm with Pittsburgh’s decision, because I think Troy Aikman actually made the proper point that kicking and making it an 8-point game (one possession) would keep the pressure on a Minnesota team that has choked away games all year long. When you run a terrible two-point play and don’t get it like Pittsburgh did and trail by nine, that would take a lot of air out of my sail and let the Vikings relax a little. I think we saw that with the long touchdown the Steelers gave up falling behind 16, but after a Kirk Cousins pick, the Steelers had a chance at the end of the game still. But the main reason I didn’t hate Mike Tomlin’s call is that it was so early in the quarter that they had plenty of time to answer from a two-score deficit.

I thought Matt Rhule absolutely made the right call to kick, but he initially wanted to go for it and was only turned away by a false start that pushed the ball back 5 yards. Again, why effectively decide the game at 3:11? Extend the game, kick the extra point, make it a one-possession game, and put the pressure on an Atlanta team that folds as much as anyone. The Falcons even started with a holding penalty and 1st-and-20, but the Carolina defense collapsed and couldn’t get the ball back. But just keep extending the game.

Then we have this Baltimore one, which wasn’t as early in the game as Pittsburgh, but not as late as Carolina. I’m supposed to believe John Harbaugh is a genius because his failed 2PC with the backup QB led to a Cleveland 3-and-out, Baltimore 3-and-out, Cleveland 3-and-out, 90-yard Baltimore touchdown drive, and miracle onside kick recovery with 1:15 left? Really?

How about you let the best kicker ever make that extra point to go to 24-16, then when you get that touchdown later, you have your shot at the game-tying two-point conversion you fucked up a week ago? And guess what? If you blow it again, you can still onside kick and recover your miracle kick and go win on a field goal.

The “go for two early” crowd continue to make two bad assumptions and ignore that their decision is more likely to lead to needing to recover one, if not two onside kicks. It ignores that the difference in the likelihood of a seven and eight-point comeback is not more significant than the difference between seven and nine-point comebacks.

The first bad assumption is that “having more information” actually makes offenses play differently in these situations. They flat out don’t do that in the NFL. A team down 9-11 points is not going to run a super-fast no-huddle offense with so many minutes left in the quarter. They’re going to run things similar to a team down 4-8 points with an eye on the touchdown first. Were the Ravens in hurry-up mode down 15 with 11:30 left, knowing the information that they may need three scoring drives the rest of the way? No, they dicked around with a 2-yard run, a loss of 3 yards on a pass to the back that took up 40 seconds, and they were fortunate to convert a 4th-and-11 at their own 30 that should have effectively ended the game early if Cleveland got the stop.

It was only with 5:26 left, and the Ravens down two possessions thanks to the failed 2PC, that Baltimore got into a more conventional hurry-up offense.

The second bad assumption is that teams down 8 points are trying to score a touchdown as late as possible, leaving themselves little time if the tying 2PC fails. Again, this is wrong. Most offenses take touchdowns as they come. Many even try to force plays way too early that would leave too much time for the opponent to answer. Do I need to remind Baltimore fans of Joe Flacco’s interception down 35-31 in the 2014 playoffs in New England? What was that going to accomplish other than leaving Brady enough time to win the game in regulation?

In a perfect world you can score a touchdown at the exact time you want, but it doesn’t work that way in reality most of the time. Look at the Davante Adams touchdown before halftime for Green Bay. They left enough time for the Bears to add another field goal. It happens. That’s just the NFL.

So there is no reason to assume that the Ravens would have scored significantly later than the 1:17 that they scored their touchdown with. There’s also no reason not to think had they been down 24-22 and failed on a game-tying 2PC, they could still try the onside kick and recover like they did. It does not take long to set up a field goal, and Justin Tucker’s range is as good as anyone. Alas, the Ravens had a weak final drive and lost the game.

But acting like the failed 2PC call early is WHY the Ravens would have won rather than an inexplicable onside kick recovery is the type of silliness that makes me rant about this every single time. Why couldn’t they possibly get the same onside kick recovery and GW FG had they gone for two only when they had to?

Hopefully Lamar isn’t out long, because there are still some battles to be had with this Baltimore team even as it continues to struggle.

Cowboys at Washington: What the Dak?

Did you know Dak Prescott (45.9) is ranked 23rd in QBR this season, one spot ahead of Ben Roethlisberger (43.4)? Yet I don’t see much criticism of the 28-year-old quarterback who should be in his prime on a loaded offense like I do of the 39-year-old quarterback on his way to retirement. While Roethlisberger has gotten better over the last eight games, Prescott’s season seems to be going the other direction after a hot start.

But even going back to opening night in Tampa Bay when he sailed a pass for CeeDee Lamb for an interception, something just seems to be off with this offense too often for my liking. Even two months ago, I was not feeling the Dak for MVP love at all.

While the team’s best running back these days (Tony Pollard) was out, the Cowboys still gave Dak Tyron Smith at left tackle, his top three wideouts, and Ezekiel Elliott. The Cowboys scored one offensive touchdown on a 41-yard field set up by an outstanding interception by Randy Gregory, who should be a lock for NFC Defensive Player of the Week.

It was also Gregory who forced a crucial strip-sack of Washington backup quarterback Kyle Allen after the Cowboys nearly blew a 27-8 lead in the fourth quarter thanks to a Prescott pick-six with 4:13 left. But Gregory closed the door on that comeback at 27-20, and Dak finally ran for a game-clinching first down to end it.

I never thought the Dallas defense would jump ahead of the offense like this, but that seems to be where we’re at this season. With only one non-division game left on the schedule, we’ll see just how much of a contender Dallas can be in the playoffs when the Cowboys host Arizona in Week 17.

Hurry-Up Finish

Some quick thoughts as I race to complete more tasks before getting to sleep.

Giants at Chargers: Herbert, FTW

I may have to formally share my Justin Herbert MVP thoughts this week, but for now, here’s a brilliant deep throw for a touchdown to escape pressure and convert a third-and-long.

The ball traveled 63.8 yards in the air according to Next Gen Stats, second-longest completion of 2021. Herbert has hit 10 passes of 55-plus air yards since 2020 to lead the league. The kid is special, and in this game, he became just the 16th unique QB in NFL history to throw 30 touchdowns in consecutive seasons and the first to do it in his first two professional seasons.

Saints at Jets: Gambling Is Dumb (NFL Exhibit 18,194)

I made one Same Game Parlay on this silly game, and it hit because Taysom Hill decided to keep running for a 44-yard touchdown on 3rd-and-12 while leading 23-9 with just over a minute left. He could have gone down at any time after getting the first down, but he kept going, allowing his 60+ rushing yards prop to hit.

Gambling is dumb and winning doesn’t make you feel smart. But it still feels a hell of a lot better than losing.

Jaguars at Titans: Before You Make That 1998 Peyton Manning Comparison…

I promise I am going to make that piece about why bad rookie quarterback seasons should not be compared to Peyton Manning’s 1998 rookie campaign, which set a record for interceptions (28) but also smashed a lot of other rookie records at the time. By the seventh game, Manning started to figure things out and the Colts were an above-average offense. He showed real improvement while someone like Trevor Lawrence seems to be doing no such thing under the terrible coaching of Urban “Dead Man Walking” Meyer.

Lawrence threw four interceptions of varying degrees of egregiousness in Jacksonville’s 20-0 loss against the Titans. It was the fifth game this season where Lawrence led the Jaguars to fewer than 11 points, something that happened twice in Manning’s 16-game rookie season and five times in his first 72 starts. That Lawrence total does not include a sixth game against Denver where only a kick return touchdown got the Jaguars to 13 points as the offense managed one touchdown in a 23-13 loss.

Again, hold out hope that this is 2016-17 Jared Goff all over again, but the Jaguars better find one hell of a coach to get that kind of improvement in 2022. Adding some talent would help too. Lawrence was using Tavon Austin and Carlos Hyde on crucial downs today. In 2021. Christ.

Next week: The very rare, front-loaded week. I’m hoping Chiefs-Chargers (TNF) and Colts-Patriots (Saturday Night Football) deliver enough that I can forgive the shitfests to come on SNF (Saints-Bucs) and MNF (Bears-Vikings).

NFL Stat Oddity: Week 13

Wait, was that actually more of a normal week in the NFL? What does a return to “normalcy” in the NFL in 2021 even look like? It still means a week where the Lions win a game against the Vikings on the final play, the No. 1 seed Ravens lose to their bitter rival, the Dolphins stepped over Mike Glennon’s neck to continue one of the most irrelevant five-game winning streaks you’ll ever see, and the Chiefs beat Denver for the 12th time in a row.

But it was also easy wins for Tampa Bay, Arizona, and the Rams as Rob Gronkowski, DeAndre Hopkins, and Cooper Kupp all got reacquainted with the end zone, territory unbeknownst to the Falcons, Bears, and Jaguars. Jonathan Taylor vacations there every week and he scored two more times to help the Colts beat the Texans 31-0, a rout worse than the first one this season. Thanks for shitting up the product, Deshaun. But at least it was nice to see Kyler Murray and Hopkins return to action for an Arizona team that continues to win in impressive fashion, now 10-2.

Overall, we had just five close games in the fourth quarter this week. Monday night between the Bills and Patriots could be the game of the week, but I am going to start with (probably) the last time Ben Roethlisberger faces the Baltimore defense at Heinz Field. I also have a personal story to share in Broncos-Chiefs.

This season in Stat Oddity:

Ravens at Steelers: Tomlin 16, Harbaugh 14

The Ravens-Steelers rivalry may be an acquired taste, but there are no two teams I’d rather watch play a low-scoring game than these two. The 30th meeting between the Ravens and Steelers since 2008 was another memorable finish with Mike Tomlin taking a 16-14 edge against John Harbaugh with a coaching decision at the end very much being the headline.

But it is also the 21st meeting out of 30 where both coaches had their desired starting quarterback available. Tomlin is now 14-7 in those matchups compared to 2-7 with the quarterback disadvantage.

Ben Roethlisberger, 7-1 against the Ravens since Christmas 2016, may have played his final home game against his main division rival. He delivered one of his best performances of the last three years, completing 21-of-31 passes for 236 yards and two touchdowns. Diontae Johnson even dropped a 35-yard touchdown before halftime, and Ray-Ray McCloud had a 32-yard completion taken away after a suspect review. The numbers could have been even nicer for Roethlisberger, who led the Steelers to three straight scores in the fourth quarter. He now has 11 game-winning drives against the Ravens in his career.

Baltimore hogged the ball early but did not finish enough drives for points. The Pittsburgh defense fluctuated between incredible and terrible as only this 2021 unit can. The pressure was at times unbelievable, and Lamar Jackson did not handle it well, taking seven sacks and throwing a pick in the end zone on the opening drive. But there were plenty of other times where the Steelers displayed shoddy tackling and left receivers wide open.

On Pittsburgh’s game-winning drive, the Steelers had a 2nd-and-2 at the Baltimore 13 at the two-minute warning with the Ravens still having all their timeouts. I’m positive Harbaugh had the Ravens do something smart that I’ve seen them exploit before. The Ravens were blatantly offsides, giving the Steelers a first down without running clock. Had the Steelers taken a few plays to get the first down, they may have been able to run out the clock and kick a field goal on the last snap. This made it easier for the Ravens to use their timeouts and really encouraged the Steelers to convert a third down for a touchdown. They did with Roethlisberger’s pass to Johnson, who stepped up big after his drop earlier. The critical two-point conversion to Pat Freiermuth was also completed with 1:48 left.

Pittsburgh kicker Chris Boswell looked like he might be the scapegoat for this one after badly missing a game-tying extra point in the fourth quarter and bouncing his late kick-off out of bounds to put the Ravens at the 40 with a chance to tie. Again, the defense fluctuated between great and terrible as the Ravens marched for a touchdown with 12 seconds left. Instead of playing for overtime, Harbaugh had his team go for the win.

I liked the decision. Harbaugh mentioned the injuries at corner and was worried the Steelers would continue to march on their defense with ease. Beyond that, I just think the Ravens had a good shot of converting and winning the game on that one play. However, I would have preferred something that used Lamar’s mobility like a QB draw or run-pass option. T.J. Watt, who had a monster game with 3.5 sacks, was able to get just enough pressure on Jackson to make his two-point pass inaccurate for Mark Andrews, who was open to win the game.

The Steelers dodged a bullet, but this season has seen both teams win a lot of close games like this one. Pittsburgh keeps its playoff hopes alive and this could lead to a very interesting rematch in Baltimore in Week 18.

I said I enjoy the low-scoring games between those two. I’m not sure I will feel that way when Roethlisberger moves on and the Steelers are trying to win with the likes of Mason Rudolph and the latest Kordell Maddo’Donnell. But Sunday felt important for this team. You wish they showed some of this intensity in Cincinnati last week, but nothing seems to get this team going quite like a Baltimore game.

If this is the last big one for this era, then at least it ended the way it deserves to.

Broncos at Chiefs: I Should Name My Son Javonte

Do I have to talk about Kansas City’s ho-hum 22-9 win we all watched together on Sunday night, or do I jump straight to my biggest gambling win of the season?

Let’s get the game over with. The defensive turnaround for the Chiefs continues. Barring what the Patriots do on Monday night, this could be the top scoring defense in points per game since Week 6 after being the worst in the first five weeks. Remarkable stuff.

Were the Broncos lighting the league up this year? Of course not, but the nine points are only the second time Denver was held under 13 this year. Meanwhile, the Broncos held Patrick Mahomes’ offense to 16 points, Mahomes under 200 yards passing, Travis Kelce and Tyreek Hill under 50 yards combined, and the Broncos still couldn’t cover a 9.5-point spread. I felt that dropped passes, including another tipped pick, contributed largely to Kansas City’s offense being ineffective in this one. But as I have pointed out before, Denver defends Mahomes better than most. This game will be another data point in favor of that for sure.

Teddy Bridgewater played a terrible game and had his second multi-interception game of the season, including a pick-six to Dan Sorensen in the fourth quarter to put the exclamation point on this one.

Well, one exclamation point. That pick-six helped give the Broncos the ball back in a 22-3 game. Perhaps that took away some of the intensity from the defense, knowing the win was all but in the bag at this point. The Broncos finally marched down the field, and instead of taking 11 minutes to come away with zero points like they did in the second quarter, Bridgewater found rookie back Javonte Williams in the flat on fourth-and-7 for a 13-yard touchdown with 5:12 left.

A meaningless touchdown in the grand scheme of things? Sure, but an extremely important one for me. It was the final leg to five parlays for me, including my biggest win of the season at +15381

The reason there was no Stat Oddity in Week 12 is because I was at home nervously waiting to hear what was going on with my mom in the emergency room. Her blood pressure was out of control, and I wasn’t allowed in the ambulance with her because of the protocol during COVID, the same virus that had just taken my only aunt from me on Thanksgiving Day. The stress of that is what caused my mom’s blood pressure to spike. She does not have COVID.

Trying to watch the Ravens and Browns finish that ugly game was a tough 90 minutes before I started to get updates that my mom was alright. She is doing better this week and will be fine. I got my booster on Wednesday, and it was no big deal. Just a sore shoulder for about 72 hours.

From dark thoughts a week ago to screams of joy at Javonte’s touchdown, these last few weeks really encapsulate the extreme ups and downs that life can bring. Sunday was that kind of day all around, from the Steelers’ nail-biting win over Baltimore to the agony and glory of watching Williams pull off a golden score for me.

It’s the type of successful betting day I feel I should have had three or four times during this crazy season. But I’m happy with this one. I thought for sure I blew it on the final leg again, and I would have blown it either way as I probably would have picked Hill or Kelce or CEH to score for the Chiefs had I not gone for Javonte. Alas, I picked the right guy who scored Denver’s only touchdown of the night in what was a golden opportunity with Melvin Gordon out. Williams shined with 178 yards from scrimmage, but that touchdown will always stick with me as a happy memory during what have been some very unhappy times during this pandemic.

But tonight, I can choose happiness.

Chargers at Bengals: What in Tarnation…

This conference is f’n weird this year. The Bengals annihilated the Steelers a week ago. The Chargers had an ugly loss in Denver. I thought this would be the closest finish in the 1 p.m. slate. So, of course the Chargers jumped out to a 24-0 lead.

However, while the Bengals did not try 8+8+8, they were a two-point conversion away from tying this one late in the third quarter as the Chargers were looking to blow another huge lead in a game with so many ugly, fluky turnovers from both sides. Austin Ekeler especially was trying to create his own Chargers BINGO square with two lost fumbles.

But Joe Mixon outdid him. The Bengals failed on their game-tying two, but they got the ball back down 24-22 going into the fourth quarter. They were in field-goal range too when Mixon just lost the ball, and it was returned 61 yards for a crushing touchdown. The Chargers led 31-22, sacked an ailing Joe Burrow (pinky), and added a knockout score in a game that eventually ended 41-22.

So, it was a blowout, then a huge comeback attempt that made it the tightest game going around 3 p.m., then a blowout again. Just a weird game where both quarterbacks were absolutely under siege at times by the defenses (10 sacks between them). But the Chargers made fewer mistakes and got the big win to move to 7-5.

49ers at Seahawks: Don’t Call it a Comeback

This was my most confident upset pick of the week. As I said on Saturday, Russell Wilson/Pete Carroll/D.K. Metcalf were due a good showing at home after such a poor run of things lately, including that Monday night loss to Washington. Wilson owns the 49ers in his career (17-4 now). Kyle Shanahan is an overrated coach. George Kittle was amazing in this game (181 yards and two touchdowns), but I think Deebo Samuel is a big security blanket for Jimmy Garoppolo, and he’s been a huge part of the running game recently. If Samuel wasn’t out injured for this game, I don’t think I would have been confident enough to pick Seattle. Certainly not enough to put $50 on them in my big parlay that hit above.

Still, it wasn’t the prettiest game. The Seahawks needed a 73-yard touchdown run on a fake punt to get things going. Wilson was an uncharacteristic 30-of-37 for 231 yards, the fewest passing yards he’s ever had in a game with at least 25 completions. He also lost 50 yards on four sacks. Tight end Gerald Everett nearly choked the game away with two lost fumbles, including one at the 2-yard line when the Seahawks could have gone up two scores in the final four minutes.

I always question Shanahan’s late-and-close decision making. The 49ers looked like they wanted to score at the last possible second and either go to overtime or win on a two-point conversion. That’s nice but things rarely work out that way. The Elijah Mitchell runs were not effective on the day, and the 49ers used two downs on them inside the Seattle 7. After one incompletion, the 49ers were already facing fourth-and-ballgame. Garoppolo’s pass was tipped at the line and that was enough for the Seahawks to hold on for the 30-23 win.

I don’t think Seattle is “back” by any means, but at least we know this team can still sweep the 49ers.

Vikings at Lions: 1-15-1 Still Possible

Bust out the Faygo for the 2008 Lions and 2017 Browns. These Lions will not be going 0-16-1. I warned in Saturday’s preview that the Vikings already came dangerously close to losing to this team this year. They had to set up a 54-yard field goal in 37 seconds to win that one.

Dalvin Cook missed both Detroit games for Minnesota, but I don’t think you can fault the way Alexander Mattison played in his place for why the Vikings struggled. Mattison had 124 yards and a touchdown in this one. Adam Thielen left injured, but Kirk Cousins still threw for 340 yards and Justin Jefferson had 182 yards. The offense came back to deliver another late lead at 27-23, but the defense was a huge letdown against Jared Goff and the league’s worst receiving corps. Goff threw for 296 yards and three touchdowns in this one, which Detroit led most of the way.

I want to quickly highlight something stupid Jay Feely said late in the game. I know that’s his brand, but the strategy is worth talking about. He criticized Dan Campbell’s aggressive move to go for a 4th-and-1 at his own 28 with a 23-21 lead and 4:08 left. It was incredibly aggressive as the Vikings had four clock stoppages, would have been in go-ahead field goal range with a stop, and the Lions were down to one timeout. In fact, I probably would have punted there.

But Feely’s reasoning just made me like the decision more. Feely tried to say that the Lions should punt because like on Thanksgiving against Chicago, the Bears ran out the final eight minutes and Detroit never got the ball back. He added that Cleveland ran out the clock on Detroit in Week 11 too. It could happen again.

Well guess what? IT’S MORE LIKELY TO HAPPEN HERE IF YOU GIVE THEM FOUR MINUTES TO SET UP A FIELD GOAL. While converting and running out the clock is the ideal outcome, by Goff getting strip-sacked and putting the Vikings in the red zone, he actually helped facilitate a quicker go-ahead score and saved his offense time for their game-winning drive. The Vikings had to score on a third down with 1:50 left, saving Goff almost two minutes to answer the 27-23 deficit.

He needed every second of it on the 14-play, 75-yard drive. The Vikings used their timeouts late in the red zone, and Mike Zimmer’s defense was shameful in allowing such a large cushion on the last play of the game when you know they have to go for the end zone. How are you going to give someone like Aroma St. Brown a cushion to score the game-winning touchdown with no time left? His name is actually Amon-Ra, but he must have had a strong aroma if you weren’t attaching someone to his hip as the only receiver to run towards the left side of the end zone. Just a ridiculous ending.

But somehow perfectly fitting for the Minnesota franchise. A lead of at least six points in every game this season and the Vikings are 5-7. I knew the Lions would win one this year. Campbell’s had them too close too many times not to.

Hurry-Up Finish

Some quick thoughts as I race to complete more tasks before getting to sleep.

Tampa Bay at Atlanta: Tom Brady for MVP (Mass Volume Player)

Leave it up to Tom Brady to throw 51 passes in a game his team never trailed, where his defense only allowed 10 points on nine drives, and it only looked semi-close because he threw an embarrassing pick-six before halftime to a defensive lineman.

Has the standard at the position fallen off so much this year that we have to seriously consider this as the front-runner for MVP? Oh, and he’ll be getting the Bills on Sunday, fresh off their huge clash with the Patriots in shitty weather and after losing Tre’Davious White to a torn ACL. You see how the stars are aligning, right? While Antonio Brown’s buffoonery leading to a suspension may have been a problem in this past, this offense is simply too loaded when Rob Gronkowski is playing this well to go along with Mike Evans, Chris Godwin, Leonard Fournette, and that offensive line. Brown will be back for the playoffs too…

Washington at Raiders: No Flag, No Win

Tell me you weren’t expecting a flag when Derek Carr threw a bomb, down 17-15, with 31 seconds left to start his final drive. I cannot knock him for the smart, aggressive play to try to immediately get into range for a game-winning field goal. But something tells me he specifically threw that one with the intent to get a flag instead of a completion. The refs did not oblige, and the Raiders lost another low-scoring game to a Washington team that’s suddenly won four in a row.

Washington (6-6) has all five of its games left against the NFC East in a real scheduling quirk. The Chiefs can deliver a potential knockout blow to these Raiders (6-6) in Week 14 – that’s if they didn’t already do it in Week 10. Since their bye week, the Raiders are 1-4 and have been held under 17 points in each loss. Only the flag fest on Turkey Day in Dallas was a high-scoring win.

Eagles at Jets: Minshew Mania Returns

Will Zach Wilson ever have a game in the NFL as good as Gardner Minshew’s first surprise start for the Eagles on Sunday? It’s a legitimate question. Minshew was 20-of-25 for 242 yards and two touchdowns. This was tight end Dallas Goedert’s 57th NFL game and it was the first time he had two touchdowns to go along with a career-high 105 receiving yards. Not bad.

This was actually a shootout at first with the Jets scoring three touchdowns on their first three drives. But they soon remembered they were the Jets and scored nothing on their last five drives. The Eagles scored three touchdowns, four field goals, then punted on their eighth and final possession.

In a game between the Jets and Eagles with Wilson and Minshew getting the starts, a 33-18 finish with only one ugly Wilson interception is about the best experience you could have asked for.

Next week: Depending on how the Bills look against the Patriots on Monday night, this could be two weeks in a row where MNF draws the best game. Next week has Arizona-Rams, an important one in the NFC. While Bills-Buccaneers looked like the great one on paper from April through recently, I’m not sure these teams are delivering on expectations so far. But that won’t stop Tony Romo from salivating over it as a Super Bowl preview.  

NFL Stat Oddity: Week 10

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Until now.

This season in Stat Oddity:

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

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

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

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

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

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

Buccaneers at Washington: Belichick Would Never…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Seahawks at Packers: What the Russ?

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

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

Lions at Steelers: The Tomlin Special

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

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

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

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

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

Hurry-Up Finish

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

Panthers at Cardinals: Meh

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

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

Vikings at Chargers: That’s It?

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

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

Eagles at Broncos: Teddy’s Business Decision

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

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

Bills and Cowboys Rebound

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

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

Jaguars at Colts: Trevor Fumbles His Peyton Moment

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

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

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