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 AFC Wild Card Previews

The AFC playoffs begin with three rematches of games that took place in Week 11 or later. Patriots-Bills is a third divisional matchup, but if you just consider the last meeting, then all three road teams this weekend are trying to avenge a loss by 12-plus points.

It’s a tall task, but not impossible as these fan bases should know from past experiences. Just last year, the Steelers beat Cleveland 38-7 at Heinz Field before losing 48-37 to the Browns in the playoffs. Tampa Bay was swept by New Orleans in the regular season, including a 38-3 bloodbath in Week 9, but the Buccaneers won 30-20 in the divisional round, the crucial turning point in last year’s championship run.

And of course I have to bring up how the 2010 Patriots once beat the Jets 45-3 in December, then lost 28-21 to Mark Sanchez a month later in the divisional round. That 49-point turnaround is the stuff of legends, but it would not be the craziest thing ever if the Raiders or Steelers pulled off wins this week.

But it’s not very likely. Double-digit underdogs, like Pittsburgh, in playoff rematches since 2002 are just 4-13 SU. Most of the closest games all happened in the 2007 playoffs with Philip Rivers tearing his ACL in Indy, playing on said injury in New England, and those 18-0 Patriots choking in the Super Bowl to the Giants. Other upsets include the Beastquake against the 2010 Saints and Jake Delhomme’s career imploding against the 2008 Cardinals.

Since 2002, the team winning the regular-season matchup by at least 12 points is 32-17 (.653) in the playoff rematch with an average margin of victory of 11.3 points. However, only 13 of the 49 teams were able to win the rematch by 12 or more points too. The record is 14-10 (.583) for the previous game winner when it’s a rematch from Week 11 or later.

The NFC previews will be posted on Friday.

Raiders at Bengals (-4.5)

See my early preview for this game at BMR.

The spread keeps moving towards the Raiders and I think I understand that. A large chunk of the world was not born yet when the Bengals last won a playoff game. Then again, the Raiders haven’t won one since the 2002 AFC Championship Game.

This one is interesting with both teams having almost no big-game experience (let alone success) to speak of, and I think the 32-13 win in Week 11 by the Bengals in Las Vegas is a misleading score.

Joe Burrow had a spectacular second season, leading the NFL in completion percentage (70.4%) and yards per attempt (8.9). However, he also took a league-high 51 sacks. The Raiders are about average at getting to the quarterback, but that might be more impressive than it sounds when you consider they send the lowest blitz rate (12.1%) by far according to Pro Football Reference. Burrow faced a season-low two blitzes against the Raiders in Week 11, but they still got him for three sacks and nine pressures. Maxx Crosby did not have a sack, but he has been a beast with pressures this year. The Raiders are 8-2 when Crosby has at least two pressures, so he needs to have a bigger game this time.

But if I’m a Cincinnati fan, I am worried that my big-play passing offense did not materialize in Week 11. Against the Raiders, Burrow had a season-low 148 yards with no play gaining more than 17 yards. He only threw 29 passes, but he also set season lows in YPA (5.1), air yards per completion (3.2), and completed air yards per attempt (2.2). The great wide receiver trio was held to 96 yards and a touchdown by Ja’Marr Chase, who was in the process of a seven-game slump where he only averaged 40.6 yards per game. The Bengals are 3-5 when Chase has under 60 yards compared to 7-2 when he goes over that number.

The only 20-yard play Cincinnati had against the Raiders was a 20-yard run by Joe Mixon, who shined that day with 30 carries for 123 yards and two touchdowns. Mixon ended the season with COVID, but he should be rested and ready for this one. The Raiders are nothing special at stopping the run.

Despite the 32-13 final, neither team cracked 300 yards in Week 11. It was a 16-13 game in the fourth quarter before the Bengals put it away with a 62-yard touchdown drive. A couple turnovers by Carr in the final minutes padded the score with 10 more points by Cincinnati.

Third down was a killer as the Raiders were 1-of-7 and the Bengals were 8-of-16. Those rates should be closer this time though the Bengals (39.6%; ranked 16th) are a little better than the Raiders (37.4%; ranked 23rd) this year. Both offenses have also scored 31 touchdowns in the red zone, and while the Raiders get there a little more often, they rank 26th in red zone touchdown percentage (51.7%).

The Bengals did get to rest key starters against the Browns on Sunday. The Raiders of course had to play a full fifth quarter to put away the Chargers on Sunday night to get in the tournament. That potential for some fatigue on Saturday may be offset by potential rust and jumpiness by the young Bengals to start the game. We have no idea how Burrow and company will react to the postseason setting.

Of course, betting on Derek Carr in the biggest game of his life (first playoff start in Year 8) is also an unknown. Is he going to turn into Andy Dalton or surprise us like a Nick Foles or Jeff Hostetler to reference a former Raider? You probably know I think the guy is not a legit franchise quarterback and relies on penalties to boost his admittedly impressive collection of game-winning drives. Carr has 30 game-winning drives in eight seasons, which trails only Russell Wilson (32) and Matt Ryan (31) for the most in a quarterback’s first eight seasons.

Hell, Carr has a better record at 4QC/GWD opportunities (30-33, .476) than he has as a starter in general (57-70, .449). That’s not supposed to happen in the NFL.

The problem has been keeping the game close enough to win it late. If we’re being honest, the Raiders were an afterthought at 6-7 following a 1-5 stretch where they only beat Dallas on Thanksgiving thanks to an absurd number of crucial penalties. But then the Raiders drew the Browns in a COVID crunch, having to start Nick Mullens at quarterback. They won it 16-14 on a 48-yard field goal. They got Drew Lock, another lousy backup quarterback in Denver, and won 17-13. They beat the Colts on a last-second field goal despite Carr throwing two interceptions. But it sure is good to play Carson Wentz (coming off COVID to boot). Then the epic against the Chargers where Justin Herbert refused to die, but a lot of Chargering ensued. How about a run for a first down on 3rd-and-23, or a bullshit 41-yard DPI flag on an uncatchable pass on the same drive for a crucial touchdown before halftime?

Carr led the Raiders on six game-winning drives this year to get to 10-7, which covers up the fact that they were outscored by 65 points. Before you say no big deal, consider that the 2021 Raiders are the only 10-win team in NFL history to be outscored by more than 30 points.

Likewise, the 2021 Raiders are only the fourth playoff team in NFL history to be outscored by at least 65 points. The 2004 Rams (-73) managed to beat the rival Seahawks before losing badly in Atlanta. The 2010 Seahawks (-97) were 7-9, but had home-field advantage and beat the Saints 41-36 after Marshawn Lynch’s crazy run. The 2011 Broncos (-81) were 8-8 but got to host a 12-4 Pittsburgh team that was missing its safety (Ryan Clark) because of the altitude’s effect on his sickle cell issue. Tebow 3:16 happened, Demaryius Thomas (RIP) one play into overtime happened, and the rest is history. Well, including the fact that they got their shit pushed in 45-10 in New England the following week.

But the pattern there is two teams that got to play at home and one that got to play a division rival it pretty much owned. The Raiders do not have those advantages this week. The 1989 Steelers, 1998 Cardinals, and 2004 Rams are the only teams in NFL history to win their first playoff game on the road after being outscored by at least 40 points in the regular season.

The Raiders feel like they’re either going to pull off a close win or get blown out. A close win is possible given their season, and the fact that it’s not an area where the Bengals have been strong under Zac Taylor and Burrow. They didn’t close this year in losses to the Bears, Packers, Jets, and 49ers. Burrow is 3-8-1 (.292) at GWD opportunities.

But I do want to point out something significant with penalties. The Raiders have the most penalty yards (1,119) and the Bengals have the fewest (620) this season. Cincinnati is plus-44 in penalty differential, the best in the league. Las Vegas is minus-25 in penalty count differential, tied for the worst in the league. Jerome Boger was the referee in Week 11 when the Bengals had one penalty for 5 yards and the Raiders had seven penalties for 77 yards. Boger will be the referee on Saturday too, so maybe the Raiders won’t be getting much help from the zebras.

For my pick, I’m willing to hedge on the Raiders covering, Bengals winning the game. But this is the best chance I’ve ever seen the Bengals have to finally win a playoff game.

Final: Bengals 24, Raiders 20

Patriots at Bills (-4)

Plain and simple: Buffalo has a better roster than New England, and the biggest advantage is at quarterback. The only issue is the weather can negate that advantage as it did in Week 13 when the Patriots won 14-10 despite throwing three passes.

Guess what? Saturday night in Buffalo might be around zero degrees, the coldest playoff game since we saw the 2015 Seahawks win 10-9 in Minnesota. You remember the Blair Walsh game, right?

The over/under for this game is 44 points. Pro Football Reference shows 12 playoff games with a temperature under 10 degrees, and only one of those games hit 44 points. The 1993 Bills beat the Raiders 29-23, but I’d be stunned to see that kind of offensive prowess on Saturday night.

When the teams met in more normal conditions in Week 16, Josh Allen was fantastic in the 33-21 win. Allen was the 57th quarterback to throw at least 45 passes against Bill Belichick’s Patriots, but he is the only one to escape that game with zero sacks or interceptions. Meanwhile, rookie Mac Jones has struggled down the stretch. In his last five games, Jones has six touchdowns to five interceptions with 6.79 YPA. He was completing 70.3% of his passes in Weeks 1-12, but that fell to 60.0% in the last five games. The Patriots do not have a dominant enough passing game or receiver to take advantage of the Bills losing corner Tre’Davious White to a torn ACL.

These defenses are another reason to bet the under. The Bills (289 points allowed) were the only team to allow fewer than 300 points this season, but right behind them was New England (303). The Bills also allowed nearly 600 fewer yards than the next closest defense. The Bills (4.6) were the only defense to allow under 5.0 yards per play this year. The Bills and Patriots both had 30 takeaways, which ranks third in 2021.

These teams are front-runners. Each team had a four-game streak of winning games by 18+ points, the only teams to have such a streak in the last four seasons. The Patriots (3-4) and Bills (1-5) were the only playoff teams this year to have losing records in close games (within one score in fourth quarter/OT). The Bills were 0-5 at GWD opportunities despite Allen’s gaudy fourth-quarter statistics overall. Jones’ only game-winning drive was against Houston.

The Bills have not won a game by fewer than 10 points since opening last year’s postseason with a 27-24 win over the Colts. I expect fewer points this time, but there is no denying that if the weather is brutal, it helps the Patriots more. New England is going to want to run Damien Harris and company, but the Bills just need to limit the big play. They very well could have won the first meeting if Harris didn’t break that 64-yard touchdown run.

New England had 11 first downs and was 2-of-12 on third down in the infamous Week 13 win. I’m pretty sure the Bills would gladly sign up for those numbers again. It was not a good offensive strategy to attempt just three passes, but the Bills couldn’t get it done offensively that night. Ever since that game, the Patriots have come out of the bye and gone 1-3 with ugly performances in Indy and Miami to go along with the Buffalo loss at home. This team might just be a paper tiger not yet ready to compete for the Lombardi again.

The Patriots have not done a good job of taking away Stefon Diggs in these meetings. He had 85 yards and a touchdown in Week 16. In that game, Cole Beasley was out with COVID, and the Bills used a wrinkle of throwing a bunch of short passes to Isaiah McKenzie, who caught 11-of-12 targets for 125 yards and a touchdown. McKenzie has nine catches in all other games this season combined. That likely won’t be the plan again this time, but Beasley is back, and the Bills have gotten Devin Singletary going on the ground in the last month. The Patriots held him to 39 yards in Week 16, but Allen was dynamic with 12 runs for 64 yards to go along with his 314 passing yards.

Rookie quarterbacks are hard to trust in the playoffs. The Patriots are 1-6 in games where Jones is pressured at least 20% of the time, and yes, I refuse to count his three-attempt game in that statistic.

It’s the playoffs. I think Allen should run more in this game and just take what the defense gives him. I see the Patriots having to lean on Jones for more than three passes and him not delivering against what’s been one of the stingiest defenses this season. Allen may have ugly numbers in this one, but I’m trusting the Bills to get the job done.

Final: Bills 23, Patriots 13

Steelers at Chiefs (-12.5)

On Sunday night, the Steelers return to the site of their last playoff win almost five years to the date. It was an 18-16 divisional round win in Kansas City, shocking the Chiefs with six field goals. It likely was the inciting incident for the Chiefs to pull the trigger on Patrick Mahomes in the 2017 draft and begin a new era of dominance in the AFC.

Now Mahomes can help end an era with Ben Roethlisberger heading into retirement in Pittsburgh. The Steelers have not been this big of an underdog in any game since Super Bowl XXX against Dallas. This is the first wild card game of the Mahomes era, but the Chiefs are a deserving heavy favorite over a Pittsburgh team that snuck into the playoffs after the Jaguars beat the Colts and the Raiders and Chargers narrowly avoided a tie.

This would be a massive upset for Pittsburgh. Not only do the Chiefs have a great pedigree with back-to-back Super Bowl appearances, but that Week 16 win (36-10) was so lopsided. Even without Travis Kelce, the Chiefs scored 36 points with ease and let up in the fourth quarter. Tyreek Hill only had two catches for 19 yards. The Chiefs are going to have to get Hill and Kelce, who were both banged up last week, going at a high level again, but they’ve been doing well as of late without them producing huge numbers aside from the Chargers win in Week 15.

Mahomes and the offense did what it wanted, including rushing for 127 yards against a Pittsburgh run defense that has been horrific this year. T.J. Watt and Cam Heyward can only do so much.

Roethlisberger had one of his least effective games of the season as the Steelers trailed 17-0 very quickly. Even Chris Boswell missed a 36-yard field goal in that half as Kansas City led 23-0. Diontae Johnson fumbled a ball without even being contacted. It was an all-around no-show performance by the Steelers.

Did you see above where I said the Raiders are one of the worst playoff teams in history based on scoring differential? Pittsburgh’s in that mix too at minus-55. The Steelers needed seven game-winning drives and a tie against Detroit to get to 9-7-1, and even then, help from other teams was needed.

It’s been an emotional few weeks for Roethlisberger. He had his last home game in prime time where his family attended, and it was one of the least effective games of his career despite the win. He had to go into Sunday’s game in Baltimore expecting that was it, and maybe after seeing what the Colts were doing in Jacksonville, that sparked him to some more late-game magic with one of the best game-winning drives of his career. Then he had to sweat out the Chargers-Raiders tie that almost ended his career.

What more can he have left for this one, a game where he is the biggest underdog of his career? Pittsburgh’s only hope is that they get a classic Andy Reid performance with bad clock management, a completely one-dimensional attack instead of running on this terrible defense, and some of the usual favors from the Chiefs in tipped balls turning into interceptions, the obligatory fumble, or the stupid drive-extending penalty. None of which the Chiefs are above doing, and Kansas City has blown three fourth-quarter leads this season. But Pittsburgh has eons to go to close the gap from 36-10.

When the 2010 Jets, who I mentioned in the intro, shocked the Patriots, at least we can point to their win over the Patriots earlier in the season as precedent. For that matter, the 2007 Giants winning Super Bowl 42 can be traced back to how well they played New England in Week 17. The Steelers just don’t have much to tip their hat to in this matchup. Anyone trying to compare this team to 2005 (sixth seed winning it all) should not be talking seriously about football. That team was one of the best in the league and lost two games in overtime with their third-string quarterback playing terribly. The 2021 Steelers are a legitimately bad football team held together by a ton of close wins led by the Defensive Player of the Year and a quarterback who is making sure he fires every last bullet in the chamber before he goes out.

Mahomes is 42-1 when the Chiefs allow fewer than 27 points. I just do not see Pittsburgh scoring enough to get this done. I think it will be closer than 36-10, but that’s not saying much. You have to respect how the Steelers play up to the competition. They’ve already defeated Buffalo and Tennessee and lost by 10 in Green Bay despite playing poorly. This is a big spread for the Chiefs to cover.

Confession: Prior to writing this, I knew I was going to choose 27-17 as my final score. I had no idea the Steelers had not been a 13-point underdog since Super Bowl XXX, which also ended 27-17. So, that symmetry just reinforces my pick here. As a Roethlisberger fan since Day 1, I just hope he doesn’t lose 62-7 like Dan Marino did in his last game. At least give us a respectable, if not dramatic ending on Sunday night.

Final: Chiefs 27, Steelers 17

I’ll be back Friday with the NFC previews and a prediction on how this tournament shakes out. Do I still go with my preseason pick of a Super Bowl rematch between the Chiefs and Buccaneers?

Same Old Browns? No, Same Old Steelers

“The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.”

When Steelers wide receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster brushed off Cleveland as being the “same old Browns” leading up to Sunday night’s game, he seemed to forget which team he was still playing for.

No team in the NFL keeps the status quo in check like the Pittsburgh Steelers. That’s why if they’re not playing down to the competition in a small game like the Bengals in Week 15, they come out looking unprepared for playoff games as well. They expect to win on the strength of their history alone when the other teams have Tim Tebow or Blake Bortles at quarterback or are missing their head coach and could not practice in person due to COVID-19 like the Browns just faced.

Following an 11-0 start, Pittsburgh spent a whole month watching its offense decay and fail to score 20 points. While defenses had caught up to arguably the most one-dimensional offense in NFL history, the Steelers did nothing to make any changes to it. One fortunate second-half comeback against the Colts was enough for the Steelers to blow off Week 17 and rest the stars for the playoff run to come.

“The standard is the standard” is head coach Mike Tomlin’s favorite phrase, and he now has as many one-and-done playoff losses (five) as he has seasons not making the tournament at all. Pittsburgh’s idea of analytics still looks like a random flip of the coin for when Tomlin decides to go for a fourth down or punt like a coward. Not to mention this team had two decades to figure out how to slow down the New England offense and never really did. After going 0-3 to Patrick Mahomes and Josh Allen since 2018, it is hard to believe the Steelers would have reached the Super Bowl anyway this season.

Unlike across the state in Philadelphia, winning that Super Bowl in his second season way back in 2008 has given Tomlin incredible job security and a shield from criticism for all the shortcomings since. Ben Roethlisberger winning his second Super Bowl in that second Tomlin season should have did the same, but off-field incidents from over a decade ago always left him as the scapegoat in Pittsburgh, even getting the brunt of the blame when the team had public falling outs with star players Le’Veon Bell and Antonio Brown.

With JuJu’s ill-advised bulletin board material as the latest proof, Tomlin still has no control over the egos in his locker room. The standard is the standard, and for Tomlin and Roethlisberger, the Steelers painted their masterpiece of disappointment and embarrassment on Sunday night, losing 48-37 to the rival Browns, a team Ben was 24-2-1 against and a team the Steelers had never lost to at home since he was drafted in 2004.

For perhaps the last time in the Roethlisberger era, let’s recap where the Steelers fell short on Sunday night.

For recaps of the other five wild card games, click here.

The Worst First Quarter in Playoff History

If you asked me how the 2020 Steelers were going to lose in the playoffs, I would have predicted a Buffalo rematch next week that looked like the Sunday night meeting the Bills won 26-15. One where the Steelers just didn’t have it offensively and the defense couldn’t get Josh Allen off the field enough. Or something uglier with turnovers like the Cincinnati loss, except against a better quality opponent and quarterback. All in all, a game where Roethlisberger was too inaccurate, and they sucked on third down and threw an obscene amount of passes way short of the sticks with too many drops. You know, like the whole month of struggles we recently saw from this team.

I never would have imagined the Steelers would essentially repeat their 2017 AFC divisional loss, 45-42, to the Jaguars and Blake Bortles. After last week’s 24-22 loss in Cleveland with most of the stars out, this game could not have gone any differently from that one. It looks far worse when Browns coach Kevin Stefanski wasn’t even there because of COVID and this team had not practiced all week.

Simply put, this game was decided in the first quarter, if not the first snap from scrimmage.

Center Maurkice Pouncey snapped the ball well over Roethlisberger’s head and the Browns were able to ultimately recover it for a touchdown just 14 seconds into the game. It’s the first NFL game to start with a fumble by the center since Super Bowl XLVIII, except Denver only gave up a safety to Seattle that time. It seems likely these are the only two times this has happened in NFL playoff history.

The Steelers only appeared to implode from there. Roethlisberger overthrew a short pass under pressure, and it was intercepted at midfield. The defense had a chance to force a three-and-out, but Jarvis Landry caught a short pass on 3rd-and-6 and turned it into a 40-yard touchdown. Landry gained 30 YAC on the play. His season high for YAC on a catch was 23 yards.

Pittsburgh allowed two 40-yard touchdown passes in this game with YAC totals of 30 and 42 yards. The Browns had one such play all season and that was 40 YAC after a 35-yard deep ball to Donovan Peoples-Jones. These were short throws, including a screen later in the game to Nick Chubb. In the regular season, Pittsburgh’s defense only allowed two touchdown passes with at least 15 YAC. They matched that in this one playoff game.

Down 14-0, Pittsburgh’s short-yardage rushing woes struck as Derek Watt was held to no gain on 3rd-and-1. At this point I joked about a long Chubb TD run coming next.

I was close. Chubb started the next drive with runs of 17 and 20 yards. Kareem Hunt finished the drive with an 11-yard touchdown run. The Browns led 21-0 with 4:40 left in the first quarter as the Steelers looked completely lost and unready to play this game in every phase.

To this point, Roethlisberger only made one mistake with the panicked throw getting picked off, yet he was down 21-0 already. I don’t feel that’s being taken into consideration at all when people criticize him for this game. The Steelers were getting dominated on every side of the ball at this point. It was only down 21-0 when he made another mistake that wasn’t even all on him. Diontae Johnson’s drops showed up again as a pass that was a little high above his head clanged off his hands and went to a defender for a second interception. Roethlisberger could have gotten the ball down a little, but there was bad luck to that pick.

That set up the Browns for a 15-yard touchdown drive capped off by Hunt again. Cleveland led 28-0 after the first quarter, a differential that has only happened 14 times since 1940. The only playoff game to start 28-0 after a quarter was when the 6-6-2 Oilers were crushed 56-7 by the Raiders in 1969. Out of the 14 teams to fall behind by 28 through a quarter, only the Steelers last night were able to lose by fewer than 17 points. But the point is they all lost.

You just cannot expect to turn the ball over three times and get outscored 28-0 in the first quarter and still win that game. Pittsburgh outscored the Browns in each of the last three quarters and 37-20 overall, but that first 15 minutes killed the season.

Look, games in this league almost never start out this dominant. We have seen plenty of mismatches over the years (think Chiefs-Jets this season), but 28-0 after a quarter is really hard to do, and it is especially hard to imagine in a playoff game between division rivals. This is only the fourth game where it happened between two teams who finished the season with a winning record.

However, it was just recently when the Browns led the Titans by 31 points at halftime and only won that game by six. So you had to figure the Steelers had a chance at a comeback. It would have been the ultimate Cleveland collapse, but the main reason that didn’t happen was the Pittsburgh defense failed to show up.

Pittsburgh’s Fraudulent Defense Exposed Again

In their last 78 games, the Steelers defense has registered a sack and/or takeaway in 76 of them. The only two games where they didn’t get a sack or turnover were their last two playoff games at home against the Jaguars and the Browns. Cleveland was even missing multiple starters on the offensive line.

Pittsburgh was on a streak of 31 straight games without allowing 30 points, tied for the second-longest streak in the salary cap era (1994-2020). That is really impressive when half the games came this year, the highest-scoring season in NFL history. Of course, Pittsburgh’s defense wasn’t facing Jeff Driskel, Jake Luton, Carson Wentz, Garrett Gilbert, or Ryan Finley last night. They allowed 48 to the talented Browns, the most Pittsburgh has allowed since the Jaguars scored 45 in the 2017 playoffs.

Are you sensing a theme yet?

Cleveland only scored 7 points in Pittsburgh in Week 6 with Baker Mayfield having perhaps the worst game of his career. But he now has his first 200-yard passing game in six starts against the Steelers. I already mentioned the two big YAC plays for 40-yard touchdowns that were so uncharacteristic for the Cleveland offense and Pittsburgh defense this year. Throw in not getting a sack or turnover and you are looking at a flat-out choke by this supposedly great defense. If you told me T.J. Watt and Cameron Heyward sat out this one too like they did in Week 17, I’d have believed it. They were ghosts last night.

Pittsburgh’s defense needed some kind of splash play to get this comeback going last night. It never came. After the Steelers got on the board in the second quarter, the defense had a chance to force a three-and-out and get the ball back. Instead, Mayfield scrambled for a first down on third-and-6 and turned that into a 64-yard touchdown drive. The offense was able to muster a field goal despite only having 28 seconds to work with. Pittsburgh trailed 35-10 at halftime.

The third quarter was Pittsburgh’s best defensively, but still no sacks or turnovers. They forced three punts and two three-and-outs. But when the defense had to get the ball back in the fourth quarter, they may have saved their worst for last, which is shades of the Jacksonville game all over again. Mayfield led an 80-yard touchdown drive with half of it coming on the Chubb screen. Cleveland led 42-23. A quick touchdown made it 42-29 with 11:08 left, so the game wasn’t over. Again, the defense was a major letdown, allowing the Browns to hold the ball for 6:40, gain four first downs, and add a field goal to make it 45-29 with 4:28 left. At that point you’re in total miracle territory and the game is essentially over. Roethlisberger threw his fourth interception with 3:16 left and the rest of the scoring was just going through the motions.

This talk that the Browns were conservative so Pittsburgh’s defense couldn’t get after them is bunk. Ryan Finley threw 13 passes against the Steelers in Week 15 and they still sacked him twice that night. Mayfield didn’t have to air it out 50 times or anything, but he still threw 34 passes and had multiple linemen out. There were chances to make plays for this defense. None were capitalized.

The loss was so eerily similar to the 2017 Jacksonville loss. In that one, Pittsburgh’s offense continued to score and make a game of it, but the Jaguars also scored 17 points in the fourth quarter. You can’t keep matching scores in a huge comeback attempt.

This disappointing defense is par for the course for Pittsburgh in the playoffs. While the offense tends to take the blame, the defense is usually the superior unit (top 10 ranked) in the regular season, only to fail in the playoffs.

  • 2004 (No. 1 scoring D): Allowed season-high 41 points to Patriots in 41-27 AFC Championship Game loss (pick-six included) after never allowing more than 30 points during season. Zero takeaways.
  • 2007 (No. 2 scoring D): Allowed at least 29 points to Jaguars for the second time at home, losing 31-29 in the wild card (pick-six included). Allowed a game-winning drive.
  • 2010 (No. 1 scoring D): Allowed second-most points of season (31; including pick-six) to Green Bay in 31-25 Super Bowl loss. Zero takeaways.
  • 2011 (No. 1 scoring D): Allowed most points since Week 1, including a game-losing touchdown one play into overtime, in 29-23 loss to Tim Tebow (316 yards on 10 completions) and the Broncos.
  • 2016 (No. 10 scoring D): Allowed season-high 36 points in AFC Championship Game loss to Patriots (36-17). Zero takeaways.
  • 2017 (No. 7 scoring D): Allowed season-high 45 points (including fumble return) to Jaguars in 45-42 loss in AFC divisional. Zero takeaways.
  • 2020 (No. 3 scoring D): Allowed season-high 48 points (including fumble return) to Browns after not allowing 30 points all season in 48-37 loss in wild card. Zero takeaways.

Sure, there was a return touchdown allowed in five of those games, but even without them the defense was still at or near season-worst performance levels in these playoff losses.

Note the last three losses in particular. The Steelers are the only team in NFL history to have three straight playoff games where they allowed at least 36 points and had zero takeaways. No other team has even done it in two straight playoff games. This comes as no surprise, but teams who allow 36 points and don’t get a takeaway are 0-38 in the playoffs.

Where are the Takeaways?

I wrote this about the Steelers in the Football Outsiders Almanac 2016 and it still holds true today:

Fans often complain that “we beat ourselves more than the opponent did,” but Steelers fans have the best statistical evidence for this claim. Since 2004, the Steelers are the only team to actually outgain their opponents in yardage (plus-748) in games lost. But they’ve shot themselves in the foot with the worst turnover differential per game (minus-1.6) in losses since 2004.

Updating these numbers through 2020 and last night, the Steelers are still the only team with a positive yardage differential (+80) in their losses. Every other team has been outgained by thousands of yards, including Cleveland (-14,419) at the very bottom.

But Pittsburgh still has the worst turnover differential per game (minus-1.46) in losses since 2004. So when they lose, they usually have a lot of turnovers and not many takeaways.

Since 2002, there have been 16 playoff games where a team scored more than 24 points despite at least three turnovers. The Steelers have five of those 16 games and the only other team with more than one is the Colts (two).

Sloppy, mistake-filled starts have been a problem in the postseason during the Roethlisberger era. Still, the team tends to rebound from those starts and still make a game of it. There’s also this fact:

It’s worth noting that the Steelers rested Roethlisberger and other starters in Week 17 in 2007, 2017, and 2020. There are always counter examples to the rest vs. rust debate, but I cannot help but think some players are hurt more than they are helped from the rest. I get why teams do it, but I have never been a fan of it.

This list also means Roethlisberger is the only quarterback in NFL history to lose multiple playoff games after scoring at least 37 points, and both were as a home favorite. He has thrown for 970 yards and nine touchdowns in his last two playoff games and lost them both. He also threw five interceptions in the two games, so it’s not all been good obviously, but there were positives last night once he got in a rhythm in the second quarter. This offense had not produced such a game like this since late in 2018.

However, I knew late in the first half that he wouldn’t get the help he needed to make this comeback go to completion.

Sure enough, he didn’t. This goes back to a point I made during the 2018 season about Rodgers and Brady. You can’t have a huge comeback without stopping the other team too, and that part is not on the quarterback.

When the 1992 Bills with Frank Reich at quarterback made the all-time comeback of 32 points against the Oilers, they got a lot of help from the special teams. Down 35-3, a bad kickoff set them up at the 50 for a touchdown drive. The special teams then recovered an onside kick to set up another touchdown. Defense forced a three-and-out, a bad punt, and Buffalo again only had to drive 59 yards for a third touchdown to make it 35-24. Then Warren Moon threw an interception to set the Bills up at the Houston 23, leading to another touchdown. There’s your splash play and short field combo to really have a ballgame again at 35-31 with 17 minutes left. I won’t recap the rest, but it was really getting that onside kick and an interception that made that comeback feasible.

Now flash forward to Super Bowl LI, which Sunday night was starting to look like at one point. The Steelers were actually well ahead of New England’s pace in trying to make this 25-point comeback in the second half. Roethlisberger threw a touchdown on fourth down to make it 35-23 with 2:57 left in the third quarter.

In LI, the Patriots were still down 28-3 to Atlanta with the ball at that point. Five minutes into the fourth quarter, Brady took a sack on third down and the Patriots had to settle for a field goal. They trailed 28-12 with 9:44 left, but things still looked dire. That’s when the real play of the game happened and Matt Ryan lost the ball on a strip-sack on a 3rd-and-1 that never should have been a pass play. Not only was it a stop and turnover, but it set Brady up 25 yards away from the end zone with 8:24 left.

There is the huge break that quarterbacks not named Brady just don’t get in this league.

On Sunday, Pittsburgh had possession to start the fourth quarter of a 35-23 game, but faced a 4th-and-1 decision at their own 46. It’s a shame this was after a commercial break, because Roethlisberger should have pulled a Peyton Manning and waved off the punt team to go for this. But Tomlin sent them in, tried to draw the defense offsides, and eventually took a delay of game penalty and punted. Pure cowardice. The worst punt yet, and this is the same coach who punted on 4th-and-1 early in the game and on fourth down inside the Cleveland 40 down 28-0 in the second quarter.

So the coach didn’t have Ben’s back, and then the defense showed it didn’t either. Instead of getting a Baker strip-sack like Brady got, they allowed an 80-yard touchdown drive, half of it coming on the Chubb screen. That made it 42-23 with 12:32 left. It should have been over there, but a quick Pittsburgh touchdown kept it alive at 42-29. Again, this is where the defense is supposed to get the huge turnover like Brady (or Frank f’n Reich) got, right? Nope, Ben must not have willed it to be. Instead, the defense let a long field goal drive happen.

By the time Ben got the ball back, he had 4:28 left and a 16-point deficit from his own 25. The Patriots gave Brady a 16-point deficit and the ball back at the Atlanta 25 with 8:24 left.

There is the difference right there. It has nothing to do with any “clutch” nonsense or the idea that Brady was playing better (he wasn’t). It’s all circumstances out of the quarterback’s control that favored Brady and allowed him a much better shot to win the game. You know, the advantage he tends to have over every other QB in NFL history. And that’s without even getting into Atlanta later having a first down at the New England 22 and punting the ball back.

Had Roethlisberger been able to start that drive with just over four minutes left at the Cleveland 25, then I would actually give a damn if he threw a pick or not. That would at least keep the game winnable. But it’s not wrong to downplay that bad throw with just over three minutes left when the game clearly was in all-time miracle territory.

If you want to bash Ben for that fourth pick, then you better do the same for Brady when he threw a pick down by 14 in Denver (2005) or the two he tossed down 15 points against the Ravens in the 2012 AFC Championship Game.

Is This the End?

Wherever the Steelers go from this one, the choices are obviously quite limited with a quarterback who will be 39 in 2021.

Roethlisberger had a game that will stand out in the record books with infamy, especially if it turns out to be his final playoff game. His 47 completions are an NFL record for any game, regular season or postseason. Roethlisberger threw 68 passes and did not take a single sack – only Drew Bledsoe (1994 Patriots vs. Vikings) has done better than that with 70 attempts in an overtime game.

His final completion, a 7-yard touchdown, put him at 501 yards, extending his record with a fourth 500-yard passing game. However, this is the first time the Steelers lost when he threw for 500 yards. Roethlisberger now has five games with 40 completions in his career, and the Steelers are 3-2 in those games. No other quarterback has more than two games with 500 yards or 40 completions.

The Steelers have a lot of tough roster decisions to make. With the way several players broke into tears after the game, it sure felt like the last hurrah, the end of an era in Pittsburgh. With the Ravens still playing great and the Browns now a playoff winner, this could be the last big game for the Steelers for quite some time.

If only they could have stepped up for the moment and embraced how precious these opportunities are, then maybe they would still be playing this week instead of embarrassing themselves with that first quarter that will go down as the worst any team has had in the playoffs.

Last night did not scar me. I have evolved my fandom enough to where I don’t need the hometown team to be great to keep my interest in the league. But watching the Steelers the last couple of decades lose so many big games by shooting themselves in the foot early, crawling back to make a game of it, provide some hope, then still seeing them lose has probably left a big mark in how I analyze the game.

I’m probably not giving enough credit to Cleveland for this performance with a shorthanded roster and without the coach I’m voting for as Coach of the Year. The Browns clearly wanted it more from the start and were playing great on every side of the ball, overwhelming the Steelers in a way we just don’t see in this competitive league. They’ll have a shot in Kansas City next week.

Pittsburgh’s last playoff win was in Kansas City in the 2016 season. They won 18-16 behind six field goals. The Chiefs immediately drafted Patrick Mahomes in the first round in 2017, and the rest is history. The AFC is moving on with teams like Kansas City, Baltimore, Buffalo and Cleveland headed in exciting, new directions.

Pittsburgh must be open to change or it stands to get left behind and fade into obscurity, much like the Patriots this year and their roster of nameless gray faces. But make the wrong moves, and “same old Steelers” might sound like a nostalgic compliment in the near future.

C’est la vie.

NFL Stat Oddity: Wild Card

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

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

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

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

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

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

Previous weeks in Stat Oddity:

Bears at Saints: Seventh Seed Slime

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ravens at Titans: Running Quarterbacks Matter More than Running Backs

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Buccaneers at Football Team: My MAGA Beats Your MAGA

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Rams at Seahawks: First Name Russell, Last Name Ozymandias

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Colts at Bills: The More Colts-Esque Team Won

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

2017 NFL Wild Card and Full Playoff Predictions

The Titans, Rams, Bills, and Jaguars are playing this weekend. Are we sure it’s the playoffs, or is it January 2000? I can’t help but feel that something strange is going to happen this postseason, but here we go.

Titans at Chiefs

I already did my big preview on this one at FO, so check that out. I just think the Chiefs are on a good run going into the playoffs and they should be able to get this win without too much trouble. Too much offense for the Titans to overcome on the road. Good offenses all put up 25+ on the Titans this year. This could be the start to an incredible playoff run by the Chiefs a la the 2011 Giants/2012 Ravens.

Final: Chiefs 27, Titans 17

Falcons at Rams

I think this game has the widest range of outcomes this weekend. The Falcons should have won the Super Bowl last year, and are lucky to be in the tournament this year. Don’t forget the dropped game-winning touchdown by the Bears in Week 1, the Golden Tate GW TD coming up inches short in Detroit, the way Seattle and Tampa Bay missed game-tying field goals at the end, or Drew Brees’ unthinkable pick in the red zone in a 3-point game. The Falcons can be 4-12 just as easily as 13-3 right now. It’s just been that kind of year.

Meanwhile, the Rams bring inexperience and unpredictability to the tournament. They rested starters last week, and this is all new for Sean McVay, Jared Goff, Todd Gurley, Buffalo’s wide receivers, and Aaron Donald. The Rams had the highest weekly DVOA variance this season while the Falcons had the lowest. The Rams really stomped some teams, including Seattle in Seattle, and they play great special teams and give Goff incredible field position. They also struggled to get the offense going against some better defenses like the Vikings and Seahawks (first time when they were healthy).

The matchup seems to favor the Rams in that the Falcons were 25th in QBR against play-action passes, and Goff uses play-action more than anyone. He also loves throwing to Gurley, who is on a tear, and no defense gives up more catches to running backs than the Falcons. However, Goff still worries me. He had the third-highest rate of off-target passes this year according to ESPN Stats & Info. So you’re talking about a quarterback who relies heavily on YAC and play-action in a QB-friendly system. When it comes to making big throws in big moments, the Falcons have a big edge there with Matt Ryan, who’s had a stellar run in the postseason going back to 2012 even. Sure, this season wasn’t what we thought he could do, but he really did have an epic amount of tipped interceptions and some egregious touchdown drops. He’s clearly not leading an offense as great as 2016’s, but this is still a talented bunch who can score on this defense and won’t be afraid of the big stage. It also doesn’t sound like a strong home-field advantage is going to be there for the Rams yet, but win this game and that will change too in the future.

Atlanta’s only allowed more than 26 points once this season (31 to Seattle), so I think the game can remain close. This is the smallest spread this week at 6 points, and I really think Atlanta might be the underdog to back on that front.

Final: Falcons 26, Rams 23

Bills at Jaguars

Not only are the Bills and Jaguars in the playoffs, but one of these teams is guaranteed to advance to the next round. It’s too bad LeSean McCoy isn’t 100 percent, because he’s sorely needed in this matchup. Buffalo is a low-volume passing offense to begin with, but you don’t want to throw much against the top pass defense in football when you are so limited in receiving weapons. Not only could McCoy be a threat on the ground, but he can catch a lot of passes too. He led the Bills with 59 catches, 10 more than any other teammate. I’m sure McCoy is going to suit up to give it a go, but I can’t see him being too effective after his ankle injury. Tyrod Taylor gets pressured enough as is, but throwing him against the wolves of Sacksonville? It can’t be a pretty day for this offense.

So I think the only way for Jacksonville to blow this at home is for Blake Bortles to turn the ball over multiple times (or once for a touchdown). We have called Buffalo an opportunistic defense all season long with takeaways. Tre’Davious White is not just a guy who Gronkowski delivered a cheapshot to, but the rookie was involved in a lot of takeaways this year. The Bills were actually a subpar defense (26th in yards per drive, 23rd in points), but eighth in takeaways per drive, which really helped this team win nine games to sneak into the playoffs.

Look, the Jaguars held eight teams to 0-10 points this year. That’s impressive stuff. I think they’ll hide Bortles enough this week, lean on the running game and defense, and the Jaguars will go to Pittsburgh next week for a rematch.

Final: Jaguars 24, Bills 13

Panthers at Saints

Again, I think the AFC games are pretty one-sided this week, but the NFC ones could easily go either way. The Saints got the best of Carolina in both games this year, and neither was really that close. You always hear how it’s hard to beat a team three times in one year, but it’s not so hard if you’re already 2-0. In fact, it’s the expected result as it’s happened 65% of the time in this scenario. Part of what helps there is that usually the 2-0 team gets the third game at home in the playoffs. If this game wasn’t in the Superdome, then I could see trusting Carolina a lot more. But that’s not the case since the Panthers bombed in Atlanta last week when winning the division was possible.

Neither of these teams are charging ahead into the playoffs on a good note. Both lost in Week 17. The Panthers also nearly lost to Tampa Bay in Week 16. This is a real Jekyll and Hyde team, and it starts with the erratic Cam Newton. I think he’s had some downright incredible games this year (NE, DET, MIA, GB), but then you remember the 4 losses to CHI/NO/ATL/PHI where he threw 2 TD, 11 INT. Cam actually had a career-high in rushing yards (754), but I don’t think you can really trust him to deliver in this matchup. He’s also failed to pass for 200 yards in his last three games against this defense, and he’s only topped 260 passing yards three times in 14 career matchups with the Saints. Remember, there were a lot of terrible defensive seasons from the Saints in that span. Things have certainly improved this year, but like I said before, the Saints have looked like a .500 ball club ever since that dominant 7-game winning streak where none of the games were too close.

Mix in the familiarity these teams have with each other, and I think you could see Carolina find a way to pull this one out if Newton brings his A game. He needs to get Greg Olsen involved heavily again, who hasn’t been much of a factor in an injury-plagued season.

All I know is I’m just glad to see Drew Brees in another playoff game. It’s been a while, and he’s been one of the most prolific postseason passers ever (see below). I think he’ll get the job done at home.

Final: Saints 27, Panthers 21

(That means my spread picks are KC, ATL, JAX, CAR)

PODVOA

2017 NFL Full Playoff Predictions

This is where I pick the whole tournament. I came pretty close last year, only missing on KC beating Pittsburgh in the divisional round, and Atlanta beating New England in the Super Bowl (d’oh). You don’t know how badly I want to pick the Chiefs to get some revenge this year by knocking off the Patriots and Steelers, two teams who eliminated them the last two years.

Wild Card:

  • Titans at Chiefs
  • Falcons at Rams
  • Bills at Jaguars
  • Panthers at Saints

Divisional:

  • Falcons at Eagles
  • Chiefs at Patriots
  • Jaguars at Steelers
  • Saints at Vikings

Conference Championship:

  • Steelers at Patriots
  • Falcons at Vikings

Super Bowl LII:

Patriots vs. VIKINGS

Super Bowl MVP: The home crowd in Minnesota

  • Week 1: 8-7
  • Week 2: 11-5
  • Week 3: 9-7
  • Week 4: 8-8
  • Week 5: 6-8
  • Week 6: 6-8
  • Week 7: 11-4
  • Week 8: 12-1
  • Week 9: 6-7
  • Week 10: 12-2 (Spread: 6-8)
  • Week 11: 8-6 (Spread: 8-5-1)
  • Week 12: 12-4 (Spread: 7-9)
  • Week 13: 11-5 (Spread: 10-6)
  • Week 14: 6-10 (Spread: 7-9)
  • Week 15: 14-2 (Spread: 7-6-3)
  • Week 16: 12-4 (Spread: 7-8-1)
  • Week 17: 10-6 (Spread: 8-8)
  • Season: 162-94 (Spread: 60-59-5)

2016 NFL Wild Card Predictions

It’s playoff time, so let’s start crushing bad narratives and picking winners.

Oakland at Houston

Okay, so maybe the playoffs don’t actually start until Saturday evening. We have to spend three hours watching one of these teams line up to be slaughtered in New England next week. Seriously, this is not the caliber of playoff game we have come to expect, and it’s certainly the worst on paper that I can ever recall. Of course, injuries to three different quarterbacks in the last two weeks is how we’ve gotten to Connor Cook (first start!) against Brock Osweiler. I’d like to think we’ll see a lot of DeAndre Hopkins and Amari Cooper bailing out bad throws, but I frankly doubt either quarterback hits 250 passing yards. This needs to be a Lamar Miller game if you’re Houston, and a Khalil Mack game if you’re Oakland. Mack sacked Osweiler five times in Denver last year and had a big strip-sack in the end zone. He needs to create a splash play like that again to get some points for his team in what should be a low-scoring game. Frankly, I thought Houston should have won the matchup in Mexico City, but Bill O’Brien coached a horrible game and the referees didn’t help either. So I already think Houston, one of the worst playoff teams since 1989, had a decent shot in this matchup to begin with, but should be able to get the home win by relying on its defense against a complete unknown in Cook. Oakland’s offensive line and running backs are certainly good enough to carry Cook to a 13-10 win should that be the case, but I just feel like Oakland’s defense is not reliable enough to keep the score that low. Osweiler might also be surprisingly not horrific, and hell, he can’t be any worse than what Brian Hoyer did in this spot a year ago, right? Fuck, why are we always starting the playoffs with the Texans?

This is all Indianapolis’ fault.

Final: Raiders 13, Texans 20

Detroit at Seattle

Most of us have been trained to expect the Lions to lose this game. They already have the longest playoff losing streak in NFL history, and Seattle has clearly been one of the premiere teams in recent seasons, especially at home. However, I give Matthew Stafford a fighting chance after seeing him have a few successful moments against the Legion of Boom, which is just not the same without Earl Thomas. What do I tend to say beats Seattle? Short, quick throws combined with a willingness to make the big play down the field. That about sums up Stafford to a tee in Jim Bob Cooter’s offense. Yeah, he’s gone to a more dink-and-dunk attack, and Calvin Johnson is no longer there for the spectacular catch, but Stafford has done well to get more receivers involved and he’ll still make the occasional side-arm throw or risk that most passers won’t take. So he’s the right quarterback against Seattle without Thomas, and Eric Ebron needs to really step up since you figure Golden Tate will against his former team, and Anquan Boldin usually seizes these opportunities well. The white running back may not make much traction, but the Seahawks will respect him, including Michael Bennett.

Meanwhile, it’s really a matter of the Seahawks being able to flip the switch or not. The DVOA dynasty is dead. Seattle finished 9th in DVOA after leading the league four years in a row. Russell Wilson’s early injuries hampered his play, but the offense has still continued to sputter on the ground all year, and the recent loss of Tyler Lockett hurts. The defense has gone without Michael Bennett at times, and now Thomas is done. It’s just not going to be the same team when the superstars are not healthy. That’s just a fact of the game. So while I think Seattle should win at home, an upset wouldn’t shock me one bit. The competitive streak died at 98 games this year. The Packers completely blew this team out already. And yeah, Detroit likes to hang around in the fourth quarter, though the eight comeback wins are a little misleading. Seven of Detroit’s comebacks have been from a 1-4 point deficit, and only one was a 7-point deficit (Rams). If Seattle can get up double digits, it’s likely over, but can you really count on this offense to do that right now? Sure, the Detroit pass defense just allowed the worst completion percentage in NFL history, but you can always get Wilson to go off script and hold onto the ball, opening up the potential for sacks to stall drives. I see a pretty competitive game here, and I know the illegal bat penalty that was missed a year ago is going to be on some Lions’ minds, but I’m still going Seattle.

Final: Lions 16, Seahawks 24

Miami at Pittsburgh

I already put 3700 words down on this game for my FO preview, so please check that out. Basically, I think Pittsburgh has too many weapons for Miami to shut the offense down (unless they injure Roethlisberger again). It does sound like Ladarius Green might not play again, but the point still stands that the Steelers are at home and they’re finally healthy, so the pressure is on them to perform. As for Miami, I wouldn’t count out Matt Moore playing well, but I think Adam Gase needs to show trust in him. If the Dolphins come out trying to establish Ajayi early and often, then I think that plays into the strength of the Pittsburgh defense, and if the offense is doing its part, then the Dolphins could see things snowball quickly on the scoreboard. They have to start well and stay balanced. Pittsburgh just needs to protect the ball better and should get this win, but I sure as hell wouldn’t bet them with the 10-point spread. After all, this is a Mike Tomlin team in a game it’s expected to win comfortably. No thanks.

Final: Dolphins 17, Steelers 24

New York Giants at Green Bay

This is the most interesting game of the weekend. One that can go many different ways, and I honestly believe this could be the most pivotal game of the 2016 postseason. The winner here just might go all the way. Lambeau Field lost its postseason mystique years ago, and the Giants are a big reason for that. You know damn well Eli Manning won’t be bothered by the situation, but we have no idea how someone like Odell Beckham Jr. will handle his first playoff game. Does he go off like a Steve Smith or turtle up like a Marvin Harrison? The matchup is certainly good with Green Bay’s damaged secondary, but all year we have wondered why the Giants aren’t scoring more despite the talent on offense. This team brings the best defense to the playoffs, and the Giants’ DVOA variance is the smallest of any team since 1989. It’s basically always a close, low-scoring game where the defense has to hold on at the end. The Giants are 11-2 in close games this year. If you’re just a football fan, you’d love nothing more than to see Aaron Rodgers with the ball late in a 4-6 point game against this defense. But the Giants have to get to that lead first, and it’s certainly doable with the standouts in the secondary (Landon Collins, Janoris Jenkins, Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie). These guys can cover Green Bay’s receivers, and they already forced Rodgers into one of his worst games of the season, at home nonetheless. Of course, Rodgers can still buy time and no matter how good your secondary is, receivers will get open. This pass rush is not on the 2007 or 2011 Giants level when they had guys like Michael Strahan, Osi Umenyiora and Justin Tuck. This is more of a coverage defense, so Eli better bring some points to the table.

My line on Eli has been that he’s only able to make the playoffs when his team is good, and only able to win there when his team is playing great. The Giants are 0-3 in the playoffs when they haven’t gone on their two miracle SB runs. This is also Ben McAdoo rather than Tom Coughlin putting the team in position to go on a run, and I think that’s a negative. Not that Mike McCarthy is great, but you have to give a coaching edge to Green Bay here for experience. But hopefully this is a good game that comes down to the final possession. I really have wanted to pick the Giants, but I just don’t see the points coming in this one.

Final: Giants 16, Packers 20

Full Playoff Predictions

I figured I’ll go through my whole playoff predictions before things get started.

Wild Card:

  • Raiders at Texans
  • Lions at Seahawks
  • Dolphins at Steelers
  • Giants at Packers

Divisional:

  • Texans at Patriots
  • Steelers at Chiefs
  • Seahawks at Falcons
  • Packers at Cowboys

Conference Championship:

  • Chiefs at Patriots
  • Packers at Falcons

Super Bowl 51:

Patriots vs. Falcons

Super Bowl MVP: Matt Ryan

I regret picking almost all home teams, but this is an unusually crappy playoff field this year, and no regrets on this final pick. I think Matt Ryan is having his 2006 Peyton Manning season.

Do I think the Steelers can win in KC and NE? Absolutely, but I sure wouldn’t bet on it. Just like how I think the Giants could rip through all of these top offenses to get back to another SB, but that’s just not going to be my pick. My preseason pick was Seahawks over Patriots, and while it wouldn’t shock me if we ended up there again, I don’t have enough trust in this incarnation of the Seahawks. Finally, after such a shaky regular season, I hope we do see a great postseason filled with exciting finishes and upsets. If so many of these teams are unusually flawed, then it’s safe to say the top teams are flawed too. No one is that much of a juggernaut that they can’t go down in any given week.

Season recap

  • Week 1: 7-9
  • Week 2: 10-6
  • Week 3: 8-8
  • Week 4: 8-7
  • Week 5: 7-7
  • Week 6: 12-3
  • Week 7: 10-5
  • Week 8: 7-6
  • Week 9: 8-5
  • Week 10: 7-7
  • Week 11: 12-2
  • Week 12: 12-4
  • Week 13: 10-5
  • Week 14: 9-7
  • Week 15: 12-4
  • Week 16: 9-7
  • Week 17: 11-5
  • Season: 159-97

2015 NFL Wild Card Predictions

This weekend probably more than any is where you try to weigh the value of full-season statistics vs. recent performance when a team is playing much differently, such as in the cases of Chiefs-Texans and Packers-Redskins.

We can’t just ignore Green Bay started 6-0, but man that sure feels like a long time ago based on the way the last 10 games went. To some extent we’ve seen a turnaround from Minnesota too, but the last awful performance was unfortunately against this same Seattle opponent coming back to the scene of its 38-7 assault. But we also have a multi-year trend of Seattle blowing fourth-quarter leads, so that 2-4 start was not as shocking as it appears now. Seattle is a little more vulnerable than it was heading into the playoffs the previous three years in my opinion. Then you have a team like Cincinnati playing without its starting quarterback after a career season from Andy Dalton. Is it fair to put the same lofty offensive expectations on AJ McCarron? Of course not. Likewise, the data on the Pittsburgh running game basically gets thrown out the window with DeAngelo Williams unable to go this week after an ankle injury. Do we worry about a one-dimensional Pittsburgh offense given that Ben Roethlisberger hasn’t had a stellar playoff game in five years and has his highest interception rate since he was 24 years old?

Then there is the process of tuning out the narrative-driven bullshit from the media at playoff time.

“The Chiefs have all the momentum; 10 wins in a row!” – Yeah, and the last four teams to enter the playoffs on a winning streak of 10-11 games all went one-and-done, and they were at home even. The last time the Chiefs won a playoff game, I had yet to watch a full NFL game in my life.

“Pittsburgh is the scariest team in the AFC; no one wants to play them!” – The 2015 Ravens wouldn’t mind, seeing as how two of their five wins came against this team, including Week 16 with a lot on the line. We do realize the Bengals are the 12-4 home team with better balance, right?

“Cancel the tournament, Seattle has already won according to big dog Mike Silver!” – Backwards-Hat Jeff Fisher would like to remind you he swept this team, including a Week 16 win with Case Keenum barely doing anything on the road. Think Teddy Bridgewater can hand off to Adrian Peterson at home in the bitter cold?

“Green Bay just sucks this year; how you like that!?” – Well, this one might be true, but I’ll be damned if I’m going to just start trusting the Washington Redskins to take care of business. What happened to our season-long ridicule of the NFC East?

But since this is the playoffs, people will boast about being proven right by the win-loss outcome even if they had all the wrong reasons. Let the play on the field this weekend speak for itself. What happened in Week 1 or last week really doesn’t matter at this point. The teams that play better on Saturday and Sunday will move on.

Chiefs at Texans

I wrote a good 4,300 words on this game as my preview at FO, so please check that out along with our other wild-card previews. We put a lot of work into them, including 1994 Royal Rumble references.

Houston has a fighting chance thanks to home-field advantage and having the best player on the field (J.J. Watt). You won’t impress me with AFC South wins, but holding Drew Brees and the Bengals to 6 points each was impressive. If the defense can keep this limited KC offense to 10 points, they definitely have a shot here. I just think Brian Hoyer’s struggles while pressured against a strong defense are going to put the Houston defense in a few bad spots for field position and that will be the difference again. But I’ll be pretty surprised if this isn’t low scoring.

Steelers at Bengals

You can probably look up my blog entries from the last few years and find me pointing out each time that Marvin Lewis is just 2-12 at home against the Steelers in his career. That’s incredible. I’ve come to expect Pittsburgh to play well in this building, and for the Bengals to play better in Pittsburgh. That’s just how it has been for a dozen years, and sure enough, the road team won each game this season. What seems to be the main difference for Pittsburgh is the play of Ben Roethlisberger. His numbers are much better in Cincinnati than they are at home against the Bengals, and again, we’re talking about over a sample size of 12 years and 25 games.

benroeth

The comp. % and YPA alone are big, but obviously the interceptions are the key difference. Roethlisberger has never thrown more than one interception in the 13 road games. He has five multi-INT games at home, including some of his worst home games ever. Now does he play better in Cincy because the team is playing better, or does the team play better because he is much more efficient? That’s a little chicken-or-the-egg dilemma, but Roethlisberger obviously has to show up big, which is not something he’s really done in the postseason since the 2010 AFC Divisional against Baltimore. Even that game had a bad first half to it.

For all the hype about Pittsburgh’s offense, 17 of its 28 turnovers have come on the road this year (at least one in every game). That could be a big problem. Roethlisberger has 5 TD to 9 INT on the road this year, though his other numbers look great. He’ll have to protect the ball better.

The other troublesome part here is Roethlisberger has not played that well against the Cincinnati defense this season, and he will likely have little support from a running game since DeAngelo Williams is out. Incredibly, this is the fourth time since 2007 that Mike Tomlin and Roethlisberger go to the playoffs after losing the lead running back to injury in Week 16 or 17.

Pittsburgh went one-and-done the previous three times, though I would not put any of the losses squarely on the running game. Isaac Redman did a solid job in Denver in 2011, but Ben had a high ankle sprain to deal with and Dick LeBeau drew up an embarrassing defense for “Him” to throw for 316 yards on 10 completions. Let’s not even go there right now. Bad memories. I also cannot blame the Steelers this year for not having a backup plan since DeAngelo was the backup (and was excellent) to Le’Veon Bell, who also was lost this season. That also reminds me of something. Cincinnati fans point to the Bengals losing Andy Dalton and Tyler Eifert in Week 14, but in the first meeting this year, Roethlisberger was rusty in his return from injury and Bell went out early in the second quarter. So both teams have had some big injuries in the loss. Hopefully this game is the healthiest one yet.

I just do not have good expectations for Fitzgerald Toussaint, though it’s not like the offensive line stinks anymore. I think a pass-heavy approach like the Steelers used against Denver and Seattle, two superior pass defenses to the Bengals, should be the game plan here. Live and die by Ben’s arm with this receiving corps. I did not get the sense the Bengals have an answer for Antonio Brown based on that last game. I also think Markus Wheaton is gaining more confidence, Heath Miller has two 10-catch games vs. CIN this year, and Martavis Bryant, if healthy, will react well to the “call out” from Ben to play tougher. The offense has to be smart and take what’s there this game instead of forcing deep shots. The Bengals rank 1st against deep passes (thrown 15+ yards) and 27th against short passes. Let’s not overthink this. Be smart, Todd Haley.

Cincinnati’s defense is really the key to this game. If it plays well, the Bengals are likely to win. If this gets into a track meet, I’m not sure AJ McCarron won’t screw up enough times to blow the game. Marvin Lewis has gotten nothing out of his offense in six playoff games (never more than 17 points), so I’m curious to see how that pans out here. The drop-off from Dalton to McCarron is not as huge as it would be for some of these other playoff teams, but there is one. McCarron’s lack of experience causes him to hold the ball longer and be less decisive. That will open him up to more pressure, more sacks and takeaway opportunities. McCarron threw a really awful pick-six on a delayed play to William Gay in the last meeting. He should play better with more experience and prep, and he has a nice cast around him of receivers. I expect A.J. Green to play big, especially if Antwon Blake is anywhere near him. Well, that’s assuming Blake can catch up to Green after he’s beat after his 8-yard cushion. I don’t expect Jeremy Hill and the running game to do much, so McCarron will have to make plays against a defense that is totally reliant on takeaways and red-zone stops. On a per-drive basis, Pittsburgh’s defense is 13th in points allowed, 7th in takeaways, 3rd in red zone and 26th at forcing punts/three-and-outs. Pittsburgh only has 10 takeaways in 8 road games, though got a big trio of them in Cincinnati.

This does feel a little similar to last year when the Steelers lost to the Ravens. Pittsburgh brings the better quarterback, but the Bengals have a more balanced roster and can win the game in a greater variety of ways. I made the mistake of trusting the Steelers last year, though I also think Baltimore’s coaching and big-game history trumps that of the Bengals, who have a lot to prove here. A win would be huge for this franchise. I just wish it was Dalton getting the opportunity to do it for them.

Seahawks at Vikings

This is the game I have the least to say about, because I frankly just think Seattle has always been the better team this year and should win. Yes, it is really dumb that the NFL scheduled this for 10:00 A.M. PST, but I don’t buy that as a great excuse if Seattle doesn’t play well. They played at this time in the 38-7 beatdown in Week 13 in Minnesota. And how do you not get ready for a playoff game? It’s the season on the line.

This should be one of the coldest games in NFL history, so hey, great f’n timing on the roofed stadium, Minnesota. One year too late. But I don’t think the playing surface will be bothered and both teams should be able to run their usual offense, which is a lot of physical running anyway.

I just think Russell Wilson will handle the adversity and elements better than Teddy Bridgewater, who has been pedestrian for much of the year. Wilson won’t be as spectacular as he has been, though I don’t think he needs to be. I don’t see the Vikings scoring many points at all here. They were shut out the last game with Cordarrelle Patterson providing the only points on a return touchdown. This offense is just too limited to attack Seattle’s defense and the Seahawks can go all in at stopping Adrian Peterson, who hasn’t had many great games down the stretch here. It sucks that we won’t be seeing Marshawn Lynch in this one, but I think the Seahawks will manage in a game that might need the cold element to stay interesting since I think it will be the weekend’s most boring watch. Al Michaels might need thawed out by the fourth quarter.

However, I would warn that Seattle fans better hope the team’s head isn’t getting too big after all the hype following that domination in Arizona. You still have three road games to get to another Super Bowl, and Mike Zimmer is a tough coach. He’ll have his guys ready to hit in the cold and all it takes is a few fumbles to turn a game like this one. The hype, the early start time, the Lynch downgrade, the fact that Minnesota is playing much better since the last meeting…it all adds up for me to expect a much closer game than 38-7, but I still think Seattle should win. If they lose, we know it won’t be clinched until the final minute of the game.

Packers at Redskins

This is the weekend’s most volatile game. Stay away, gamblers, because you just don’t know if Aaron Rodgers will throw five touchdowns or if the Redskins will win by 17. Okay, both of those outcomes are pretty far-fetched, but I would be very careful about trusting either team in this one.

When you look at the stats this season, you’ll swear someone switched Aaron Rodgers’ stat line with Kirk Cousins’. I never thought we’d see Rodgers under 7 YPA until his old-man decline stage, but he finished the season at 6.68 YPA as Green Bay’s offense has really struggled for 13 games now. He’s at a horrific 5.97 YPA over the last 10 games, and that’s boosted a little by that Hail Mary in Detroit that shouldn’t have happened, dropping Green Bay to 3-7 in its last 10 games instead of 4-6. Rodgers just had the 5th-largest decline in YPA (2.22) in the last 10 games of a season vs. first 6 games since 1978.

Coinciding with Green Bay’s 10-game slump is Cousins’ “You like that!” moment in the comeback win over Tampa Bay. In the last 10 games, Cousins leads the NFL in completion percentage (72.38%) and YPA (8.72). He has 23 touchdowns to 3 INT, which again, looks like MVP-form Aaron Rodgers. This is crazy stuff, but I still have a hard time trusting him. Interceptions were his red flag coming into the season, and he threw multiple picks in four of the first six games before this hot streak. Did he turn the corner as a still relatively young quarterback, or is this just a hot streak against a soft schedule? Out of Washington’s 9 wins, the Bills had the best record at 8-8, and Rex Ryan’s defense was a huge disappointment this year. Cousins is pretty decisive. He gets rid of the ball quickly and with good short-throw accuracy, so he takes very few hits. He can hit some impressive passes down the field, but he’s not exactly Rodgers in the arm department despite the Rodgers-esque stat line. I think Jay Gruden is doing a fine job with Cousins and he’ll be more likely to continue his success for Washington than the smoke and mirrors of Robert Griffin’s rookie season, but I’m still a bit skeptical about him ever repeating these numbers again. It reminds me of where I stood on Nick Foles after 2013, though I don’t think Cousins will sink that low.

Can I see Cousins getting into some interception trouble and getting sacked a few times in this one from a Green Bay defense that is really the best part of the team? Yes, I sure can. And I think it will be necessary for Green Bay to win, because the offense cannot be trusted anymore. You know how I feel about Rodgers playing from behind, and I think that strengthens his slump this year since he’s not getting the hot start he wants, so Mike McCarthy struggles to adjust and games just snowball from there. That Arizona game was a disaster; easily one of the worst performances of Rodgers’ career. Washington can’t do that to him, but I think they’ll be stout against an unreliable running game and amp up the pass rush on Rodgers. James Jones might have a good game on broken plays, but you flat out cannot trust Randall Cobb at this point. Calling him a No. 2 wide receiver right now would be an excessive compliment.

In the way that Colin Kaepernick seemingly “let it all hang out” in the playoffs with his running a few years ago, I think Rodgers may have to scramble more in this game to make plays for his offense. That’s either scrambles for yards or to extend plays for some backyard football. There is no next week if you lose, so why not go all out? The traditional Green Bay offense is broken, and I don’t think simply adding Jordy Nelson is going to cure everything in 2016. The Packers will need to make some changes in the offseason, but winning a playoff game after this sustained stretch of poor play would be some achievement.

FINAL PREDICTIONS

There have been four seasons in NFL history (2004, 2005, 2010, 2013) where 3 road teams won on wild-card weekend, but never a year with four. The closest we came was in 2013 given the only home winner (Colts) had to come back from a 38-10 deficit. Hey, Chiefs. I feel like this slate has solid potential for four road winners, but I’m not going to pick it to happen.

  • Chiefs over Texans, 20-16
  • Steelers over Bengals, 23-16
  • Seahawks over Vikings, 17-6
  • Redskins over Packers, 27-20

Season Results

  • Week 1: 10-6
  • Week 2: 6-10
  • Week 3: 14-2
  • Week 4: 11-4
  • Week 5: 9-5
  • Week 6: 8-6
  • Week 7: 10-4
  • Week 8: 10-4
  • Week 9: 8-5
  • Week 10: 4-10
  • Week 11: 9-5
  • Week 12: 8-8
  • Week 13: 11-5
  • Week 14: 10-6
  • Week 15: 11-5
  • Week 16: 9-7
  • Week 17: 8-8
  • Season: 156-100 (.609)

This might have been my worst record since I started picking games a decade ago. Last season was one of my best.

NFL Wild Card Predictions, MVP Voting and Writing Recap

Playoffs. I have already been feeling some postseason pressure to get things done, but it was a successful week and am looking forward to more significant research to put out there before we head into the offseason. This intro would sound much better read by Don Cheadle.

Last year I recapped every 4QC/GWD in playoff history for each round (can be found under Captain Comeback 2011 archives). The Wild Card round is home to the all-time NFL comeback, Houston’s 32-point collapse in Buffalo 20 years ago this week. It also has the only two playoff games ever ending on a defensive score in overtime, and both games involved the Packers. Finally, the only two playoff games to have two lead changes in the final minute are also on Wild Card weekend.

The best game last season ended up being the Steelers in Denver, with the longest game-winning TD pass in NFL playoff history from Tim Tebow to Demaryius Thomas. I have a feeling Sunday’s games could live up to that one again.

This Week’s Articles

Captain Comeback Week 17: 2012 NFL Regular Season Review – Cold, Hard Football Facts

It’s the year-end review of the regular season, with a ranking of all 32 offenses in the clutch. Go figure the Colts and Broncos were among the best, while San Diego was the only team in the league without a single comeback or GWD in 2012.

The Biggest Flaw for Each NFL Playoff Team – Bleacher Report

It may be a  slideshow, but you are getting 12 articles in one here. A look at each playoff team’s fatal flaw, whether it be something tangible or a perception they must overcome. Framing each team the proper way before the postseason starts.

Following a Legend: Andrew Luck Week 17 vs. Houston Texans – Colts Authority

Houston blitzed Andrew Luck on 75.9 percent of his drop backs this week, but the battered offensive line actually held up enough for one of the most efficient offensive performances of the year for the Colts. Luck threw perhaps his pass of the season with a 70-yard touchdown strike to T.Y. Hilton in the fourth quarter on a 3rd and 23 to ice the game and the Colts’ 11th win.

The Thinking Man’s Guide: NFL Wild Card Predictions – Bleacher Report

The four-game preview format of TMG works best here, looking at each Wild Card matchup. Also included is a review of some postseason studies I did in the last year on home-field advantage, quality wins in the regular season, and marquee blowouts in 2012.

Best Rookie QB Class Ever Makes Postseason Debut – NBC Sports

Andrew Luck, Robert Griffin III and Russell Wilson will be the 12th-14th rookie quarterbacks to start a playoff game. A look at their record-breaking success, and whether or not one of them can make more history by reaching the Super Bowl.

Voting History: Why Peyton Manning Should Run Away with NFL MVP Award – Cold, Hard Football Facts

Not only was this the argument for Peyton Manning clearly being the MVP over Adrian Peterson in 2012, but you also get a chance to view all the MVP voting results (AP award) for 1986-2011. A great resource given this information is nowhere to be found elsewhere in one place. Find out who the only TE to receive a MVP vote is, or the only cornerback.

 NFL Wild Card Predictions

I’m not a fan of picking the final score, but here’s a shot at it.

  • Texans over Bengals, 19-16
  • Packers over Vikings, 24-13
  • Colts over Ravens, 20-17
  • Seahawks over Redskins, 24-20

Season results:

  • Week 1: 12-4
  • Week 2: 11-5
  • Week 3: 4-12
  • Week 4: 10-5
  • Week 5: 10-4
  • Week 6: 5-9
  • Week 7: 12-1
  • Week 8: 10-4
  • Week 9: 11-3
  • Week 10: 9-4-1
  • Week 11: 11-3
  • Week 12: 10-6
  • Week 13: 8-8
  • Week 14: 11-5
  • Week 15: 11-5
  • Week 16: 12-4
  • Week 17: 11-5
  • Season: 168-87-1 (.658)