Sixth-Seeds Survive

If there was ever a more obvious game plan, I have yet to see it.

WildCard Weekend began with a matchup of divisional rivals.  The Colts and Texans were meeting up for the third time this season.  If you knew nothing else about this game, you knew that the Indianapolis game plan would rely heavily on the arm of quarterback Andrew Luck.

In game one (a 37-34 OT win for Houston), Indianapolis had managed only 41 yards rushing.  In the rematch, 10 weeks later, the Colts worked their ground game for only 50 yards in their 24-21 victory. Meanwhile, Luck had found plenty of matchups he liked in the secondary.  He threw 62 times in the first game for 464 yards.  He threw 41 more times in the re-match for 399 yards.

The season numbers seemed to back the game history.  In spite of the fact that Indianapolis had rushed for 158 yards in their season-ending victory against Tennessee, they still ended the season with the NFL’s twentieth ranked rushing attack – averaging just 107.4 yards per game.

Against them was one of the better defensive front sevens, highlighted by stars like J.J. Watt, Jadeveon Clowney, Whitney Mercilus and Benardrick McKinney.  They finished the season third against the run, allowing just 82.7 yards per game.  The 3.4 yards per rushing attempt that opponents averaged against the Texans was the stingiest figure in the NFL.

In a weekend of down-to-the-wire action, the only game not to be decided on the last play (virtually) proved to be the most surprising.  That Indianapolis won may not be so surprising.  The Colts have wins in 10 of their last 11 games.  That it wasn’t a one score game is somewhat surprising.  Given the history of the two teams and the way the rest of the weekend went, you might have expected a last-minute field goal here.  That being said, the 21-7 final isn’t all that far from normal (gamebook) (summary).

The shocker here is how the Colts won.  On the ground.  On the road.  Against one of the three best run defenses in football.

With no apologies and little fanfare, Indianapolis blew Houston off the line of scrimmage to the tune of 200 rushing yards on 35 attempts, averaging 5.7 yards per attempt.

That, and a large early lead – Indy was up 21-0 at the half – forced Houston to pack away its own running attack (they were ranked eighth in the NFL) and try to win the game on the talented but inexperienced arm and legs of quarterback Deshaun Watson.  As things would play out, his first playoff game was not his finest hour.

First, the Colts Running Game

At the heart of Indy’s rebound from their 1-5 start is their re-invented offensive line.  They won fame this year by keeping Luck upright for 5 straight games.  There hasn’t been much mention made of this group’s ability to block for the run.  That seemed to be an ancillary function.

They were a most important cog in a passing game that saw their quarterback felled only 18 times all season.  They were a foundation upon which Andrew’s 4593-yard, 39-TD pass season was built.  If asked, I suppose most fans of the club would conjecture that these gentlemen could probably block for the run – if that need should ever arise.  But why would they want to?

Last Saturday afternoon, they wanted to.

Their 85 first-half rushing yards nearly equaled their total for the first two games played against these teams.  During the course of that back-breaking first half, the Colts ran the clock for 17:39, out first-downed Houston 20-6, rolled up 277 yards of total offense, went 6-6 on third down, committed just one 5-yard penalty, never punted (of course) and finished 3-4 in the red zone (the first half ran out on their last trip in).  And, of course, allowed no quarterback sacks – this would be yet another game that Andrew would not suffer a sack.

Even though they never scored in the second half, they kept brutalizing the Texan defense, adding 115 more rushing yards on 19 more carries to their total.  Running back Marlon Mack was the main beneficiary.  He ended the day with 148 rushing yards.

Most of that yardage, of course, came behind the blocks of sensational rookie left guard Quenton Nelson.  He set the tone for the night on Indy’s first long run of the game, Mack’s first-quarter, 25-yard sprint around left end.  Nelson pulled to lead, and drove Clowney off the edge and out of the picture.

Nelson has gotten a lot of praise – especially over the last several weeks – and all of it well earned.  But last Saturday the domination was general along the entire line.  This even includes the efforts of blocking tight-end Mo Alie-Cox.  He was also left to block against Clowney several times, and handled the assignment well – if not with the splash of the rookie Nelson.

In particular, I would like to make note of very strong games from the linemen who stand next to Nelson – center Ryan Kelly and left tackle Anthony Castonzo.

Kelly’s overall strong game was highlighted by key, impressive blocks made on the last series of the game, with Houston fully aware that the Colts would be trying to run out the clock.  With three minutes left, Kelly came quickly off his double-team block of Brandon Dunn to dig linebacker Zach Cunningham out of the middle.  That block sprung Mack for 15 yards.  On the very next play, while Kelly and right guard Mark Glowinski were in the act of crumpling Dunn to the ground, Ryan quickly bounced back up to get enough of the on-rushing Cunningham to help create the crease that led to Mack’s game-icing 26-yard run.

As good as Kelly was, Castonzo may have even been better.  He set the edge on numerous left side runs – including his own impressive take out of Clowney on a 29-yard run by Mack late in the third.

Castonzo was also in the middle of two very important runs by Luck.

On third-and-6, backed up at their own 16 early in the third, Houston flushed Luck out of the pocket with a blitz.  Damage was averted, though, as Castonzo was able to push Mercilus wide and open a running lane.  Luck’s 9-yard run netted a first-down and kept the clock moving.

On their next drive, they faced second-and-15 on their own 18.  The Texans blitzed again, with D.J. Reader bursting immediately up the middle.  Again, Castonzo provided the escape hatch as he wedged Clowney inside and gave Luck the corner.  He ran it for 10 yards.

Neither of these drives went on to produce points, but the Luck runs allowed them field position for the punts that would follow.

Containing Deshaun

When the football wasn’t in the hands of the Colts and their pounding offense, the Colts’ defense was busy putting its own imprint on the game.

As Deshaun Watson belongs to that class of young quarterbacks that is much better outside the pocket than in it, the Colts would challenge him all night to beat them from the pocket.  During the season, the Colts were one of the NFL’s most zone-heavy defenses.  Today they mixed freely, playing more man than usual, and blitzing more frequently than usual.

Even the blitzes, though, were designed to close escape lanes and keep Watson in the pocket.

From there, Deshaun had ample opportunities to damage the Colts, but kept at home, Watson was unable to consistently deliver accurate passes.  I counted at least 8 poorly thrown passes to open receivers from Watson while in the pocket – including the two potential game changers.  At the end of the second quarter, he had Hopkins in the end zone on fourth-and-one, but bounced the throw.  With 5:42 left in the third, he had Ryan Griffin all alone deep up the left sideline.  This pass he overthrew.

There were also times that he ignored other open receivers as he continued to look for DeAndre Hopkins, and other curious lapses of judgement.

Maybe the most curious of all occurred moments after he missed Griffin on the deep throw.  It is third-and-15, Houston on the Colts’ 47-yard line.  The Colts will blitz Kenny Moore off the slot to Watson’s left.

Deshaun looked right at him.  Saw him blitzing free from the slot.  And then casually turned away from him to see if Hopkins was opened.  Surprisingly, he was sacked by Moore on the play.

It was only his first playoff game, and young Mr. Watson is certainly a talented individual.  There is room for improvement in his game.

The Other Sixth Seed Also Survived.

Sunday night in Chicago, the other sixth-seed also advanced when Chicago kicker Cody Parkey (who kicked three field goals on the night) “double-doinked” (to borrow Chris Collingsworth’s phrase) the 47-yard field goal attempt that would have sent Chicago on to the divisional round.  After a season-long issue of hitting the right upright, this time Parkey hit the left.  From there the ball dropped down to the cross bar.  While it could just as easily have bounced over the crossbar, instead the ball bounced harmlessly back to the field.  And the rest was silence.

The statistical footnote on the Bears’ season? They finished the game 0-3 in the red zone.  They committed only three penalties in the entire game – all coming during Philadelphia’s lone touchdown drive.  They accounted for 52 of the 83 yards of that drive.

As I watched the game ending bounce of the field goal that sealed the 16-15 win (gamebook) (summary), I couldn’t help but remember that the Bears could have kept Philly from the playoffs if they had taken the second half of the last game of the season off.

Fodder for thought for the offseason.

Closing Out the Neanderthals

For thirty minutes last Sunday afternoon, the Los Angeles Chargers played about as perfect a half as they could have hoped for.  Embarrassed at home by the Baltimore Ravens two weeks earlier, the Chargers trotted off the field at halftime in Baltimore with a 12-0 lead.

Throughout their run to the playoffs, the Ravens and their Neanderthal running attack had gotten off to fast starts.  They had piled up over 100 rushing yards in the first quarter in the first matchup against the Chargers – a trend that had permitted rookie quarterback Lamar Jackson to find his way with the passing game.  To have any chance in this one, the Chargers knew they would have to bottle up the run game early.

Any NFL coach who gambles with something that has never been tried before, earns my respect.  Even more so when this gamble occurs against the backdrop of the playoffs.  And when this concept seems to be completely at odds with conventional wisdom, well, words fail me.  So, much of the credit for Los Angeles’ nail-biting 23-17 conquest of Baltimore (gamebook) (summary) goes to their very brave defensive coordinator Gus Bradley.

The idea of beginning the game against one of football’s most run-heavy team with seven defensive backs on the field seemed counter-intuitive.  Visions of large offensive linemen smashing through 140-pound cornerbacks to open gaping holes did pass through my mind.  But the concept was inspired.

Rather than a read-and-react approach to defending the run, the Chargers employed a penetration based concept – their quick secondary players shooting the gaps and disrupting the running game in the backfield.  As the half progressed, and the running game stalled, Jackson’s discomfort with the passing attack grew.  He finished the first half 2-for-8 with an interception.

As clever as the plan was, though, it was only half a concept.  If Baltimore was allowed to keep running the ball, eventually the big linemen would wear down the smaller defensive backs and the end result would be much the same as their first game.  Along with the early defensive success, Los Angeles desperately needed its offense to contribute enough points to force the Ravens to abandon the run and go to the air.

The offensive unit answered with a balanced, ball-control, safety-first game plan that almost out-Neanderthalled the Neanderthals.

Through the game’s first thirty minutes, the defense silenced Baltimore, holding them to just 69 total yards and 3 first downs while forcing 2 turnovers.  Offensively, the Chargers controlled the clock for 17:36 of the half, running the ball 14 times while committing no penalties or turnovers.  The only irritant for Los Angeles was an 0-for-2 mark in the red zone that forced them into kicking four field goals.  Even one touchdown – had they managed to achieve it – might have been enough to close out the Ravens.

The back-breaking play seemed to come on the opening kickoff of the second half.  Already hanging by their fingertips, the Ravens saw their season flash before their eyes as Los Angeles’ Desmond King took the second half kickoff 72 yards, putting the ball on the Baltimore 26-yard line.

It was at this point, though, that a looming blowout became the most compelling game of wildcard weekend.  In a matter of moments, the whole feel of the game flipped.

After the next three plays gained three yards, Baltimore’s Za’Darius Smith blocked the ensuing field goal attempt.  Baltimore’s offense still couldn’t unwrap itself, but at least they had an opportunity to punt the ball out of their own territory.  That would prove enormous when tight-end Virgil Green would fumble the second down pass, placing the Ravens at the Charger 21-yard line with a golden opportunity to get back into the game.  At this point, there was 10:26 left in the third quarter.

The frustration would continue for the Ravens’ offense.  Three more runs would manage only 6 yards, and the golden opportunity resulted in only a field goal.  But Baltimore’s special teams were not done with this one.  After the Baltimore defense – which finished the regular season ranked first in yardage allowed and second in points allowed – forced another three-and-out, Javorius Allen burst through the line and partially blocked the ensuing punt.  The Ravens, still down 12-3, were back in business on the Charger 40-yard line and (with 6:54 still left in the third) M&T Bank Stadium was shaking off its rafters.

But now the roller-coaster would tilt back the other way.  Baltimore’s still toothless offense would only manage 8 yards, and super-star kicker Justin Tucker would miss his first-ever playoff field goal (albeit it was a 50-yarder).

And now, back came the Chargers.

With 3:36 left in the third, LA quarterback Philip Rivers dropped a 12-yard pass into the arms of Antonio Gates.  That would be the first first-down by either team in the second half.  The Chargers would pick up two more on the drive, as their two longest plays of the second half would come on back to back plays.

With second-and-6 on the Raven 43, receiver Mike Williams managed some separation on a skinny post.  Rivers hit him in stride for a 28-yard gain.  That would be Los Angeles’ only 20-yard play of the game.  On the next play, Melvin Gordon gave the Charger’s dormant running attack it’s only spark of life as he picked his way around left-end for 14 more yards.

Now there are 11 seconds left in the half.  LA has a second-and-goal from the 2-yard line.  Little-used fullback Derek Watt (who had caught just one pass during the regular season), curled completely open into the right flat.  Rivers floated him the ball, but underthrew it just enough that Watt had to go to his knees to attempt the catch.

For a small eternity the ball bobbled between Derek’s hands, chest and knees – even as Watt was rolling his body toward the end zone, now close enough that he could breathe on it.  As he was rolling over the line – still untouched – he tucked the football securely into his grasp, just a heartbeat before Baltimore’s Chris Board touched him down.

The line judge ruled him down inches short.  Astonishingly – even though there seemed to be ample evidence to over-turn the ruling – the call withstood the review, and Los Angeles was denied the touchdown.

That call almost changed the game.

With the third quarter over, the teams switched sides.  But – mysteriously – the ball was now placed a full yard away from the goal line, instead of the fraction of an inch that it should have been.  This, too, would prove to be significant.

On third-and-one Gordon drove off left-tackle, stretching the ball for the end zone.  Then, suddenly, the ball was rolling free in the end zone.  It dribbled softly right up to cornerback Marlon Humphrey, who scooped it up, rolled to the opposite side of the end zone, and then soared up the offensive right sideline untouched for the score.

The apparent score.

While the Baltimore fandom erupted, thinking they had just closed the gap to 12-10 (assuming the extra-point), the scoreboard, in fact, now rendered the score as 18-3 Los Angeles, and the officials at the other end were signaling touchdown.  Touchdown, Chargers.  Their ruling was that Gordon had broken the plane before the ball came out.

After another extended review session, neither result held.  The final ruling was that Melvin had not broken the plane, but that he was down by contact just inches short of the goal line.  An argument could be made that the ball might have been loose before his elbow hit.  It is, of course, also true that had the officials either awarded Watt the touchdown to begin with – or even marked the ball appropriately to begin the quarter – all of this discussion could have been averted.

As it was, Gordon – running up the middle on fourth-and-1 – scored easily.  The resulting two-point conversion pushed the Charger lead to 20-3.  This became 23-3 when Michael Badgley added a 47-yard field goal with 9:09 left in the game.

At the beginning of the fourth quarter, the Baltimore fans were calling for Joe Flacco.  As the final quarter ticked away, those calls mostly faded, as the Ravens fans were starting to accept their fate. 

Using essentially the plan that I described here, the Chargers had mostly resisted the urge to blitz Jackson, opting, rather to keep him in the pocket and confuse him with coverages.  As expected, it forced Jackson to hold the ball.  Jackson was sacked six times alone in the second half of the game.  When Jackson’s third-down pass to Hayden Hurst fell incomplete, the Ravens faced fourth-and-11 from their own 40, with only 7:02 left in their season.

At that point, Baltimore had -2 passing yards for the game.

And then, the game would turn for one final time.

Almost off the field – almost ready to go into victory mode – the Charger pass defense fell asleep on two consecutive plays.  On fourth-and-11, Jackson lofted a touch pass to Willie Snead in behind the soft zone coverage.  That pass gained 29 yards and kept the season alive.

On the very next play, cornerback Casey Hayward stood nonchalantly staring into the Raven’s backfield while Michael Crabtree blew past him up the right sideline.  Jackson arched him a perfect pass, and suddenly – with 6:33 left – Baltimore had crept to within 23-10.  Up until the pass to Snead, Baltimore had managed one first down in the second half of the game.  But things, suddenly, were different now.

After another three-and-out, Baltimore was in business again.  With less than five minutes to go, however, and up by two scores, the Chargers were content to give short passes as long as the clock kept running.

Now, the Ravens had pushed their way to midfield, but with only 3:21 left.  It was second-and-10.  After managing to keep Lamar in the pocket for most of the game, here Jackson managed to escape.  Rolling to his right – a step ahead of the pass rush – he flung the ball back across his body to the other side of the field where Derwin James waited to intercept it.  But Jackson threw with just enough arm to layer it agonizingly over James’ fingertips, and into the waiting arms of Kenneth Dixon.  By the time James would run him down from behind, Dixon would take the pass all the way to LA’s 11-yard line.

A few moments later, Jackson would roll to his right again before firing a 7-yard touchdown pass to Crabtree (that one would also require a lengthy review).  With two minutes left, Jackson had brought them back to 23-17 on the strength of his arm.

That would be as close as it would get.  The defense would respond with its second consecutive three and out – the sixth time in the game the Chargers would go three-and-out – but, with one last chance – with 66 yards to drive and 45 seconds to get there – Jackson suffered his seventh (and final) sack of the game – a strip sack that ended Baltimore’s final possession of the season.

For the game, Baltimore’s second-ranked run offense finished with just 90 yards on 23 carries.  No running back managed more than 5 yards on any individual carry.  Jackson himself was responsible for almost all of the running damage done – 54 yards on 9 rushes.

The Ravens had been the last of the Neanderthals in the tournament.  On Saturday, Seattle had fallen to Dallas 24-22 (gamebook) (summary).

In that game, the Cowboys matched the Seahawks with the fifth-ranked run defense.  Their one-gap concept was much different than the one the Chargers used, but was equally effective.

That game followed a similar pattern, with Dallas owning the first-half time of possession (19:24) and holding the NFL’s most potent running attack to just 73 yards, while running for 164 yards of their own – 137 of them from the legs of Ezekiel Elliott.

The Cowboys can be that kind of defense.  They had a similar game earlier this year against New Orleans – a game in which their defensive line just dominated.  Although they are not consistently this good, this defense – with Elliott and the running game – is dangerous.  Their next matchup is with the explosive Los Angeles Rams.

As for Seattle, their Neanderthal style revived their season and put them into the playoffs.  In this particular game, though, with the running game stalling, it seemed that they should have turned more to the passing game.  But that is the thing with running teams.  If you are committed to your running attack, then you have to stay with it.  Almost always the results show in the fourth quarter.  Dallas, in stuffing the Seahawks running game for the full four quarters, did something few teams are able to achieve.

How Seattle will want to revisit this next year should be interesting, and give notice on the future of Neanderthalism in the NFL.  They could reasonably adopt a more modified position, balancing the run and pass more than they did this year.

As impressed as I was with their running attack this year, I will have to say that this Wildcard game was one time when I felt that quarterback Russell Wilson was inhibited by the game plan.

For the Seahawks – as with everyone else not still playing this season – it’s a matter of tune in next year and see.

Chargers Ready for the Rematch?

It took a while, but after a substantial review the officiating crews on the ground and in New York determined that Jarvis Landry had maintained control of the football.  What had originally been called an incomplete pass now put Cleveland on Baltimore’s 39-yard line with 80 seconds left in the season.

At that point, the fate of three teams and one division teetered on the negotiation of just six yards – the six yards Cleveland would need to put themselves into field goal range – albeit a long field goal.

Cleveland – winless a season ago – needed those six yards for a shot at finishing 2018 with a winning record.  The Pittsburgh Steelers – their own game finished – had not left the field in Pittsburgh.  They were helplessly watching the scoreboards from their own stadium.  They needed those six yards and a successful field goal to vault past Baltimore and claim a playoff spot.  For the Ravens, everything depended on keeping Cleveland off the scoreboard.  Losing this game – a game that they had led 20-7 at the half – would cost them a playoff berth and end their season.

The drama of the final minute overshadowed – for the moment, anyway – three big first half moments that eluded Cleveland and forced them into this position.

With 1:53 left in the first half, the Ravens had first-and-goal on the 1-yard line. Ahead 20-7, they had their opportunity to salt the game away.  Quarterback Lamar Jackson leapt over the line, extending the ball over the goal for the apparent game-icing touchdown.

But he hadn’t gone far enough.  Replays clearly showed Jackson pulling the ball back to him before it crossed the line.  That might have brought up fourth-and-goal, and the Ravens may have tried it again, but as Lamar was bringing the ball back in, defensive lineman Larry Ogunjobi stuck a hand between the ball and Jackson’s chest and batted the football out of Lamar’s grasp.

When Cleveland defensive back Jabrill Peppers picked up the ball on the 7-yard line, there was no one in front of him.  But the potential 93-yard fumble return touchdown was denied him.  Seeing the official rule the touchdown, someone blew the whistle, ending the play.  A review did give the ball to the Browns, but back on their own 7-yard line.

On the very next play, Landry, split the deep middle of the Raven defense.  Cleveland rookie Baker Mayfield saw him break clear and lofted the football in his direction.  It was a good throw, but not to either shoulder.  Baker tossed the ball directly over Landry’s head, and Jarvis was forced to try to run under it like Willie Mays making a basket catch.  As he looked up, the ball caromed right off his facemask – ending the opportunity for another huge play.

All of that bad luck notwithstanding, the Browns still ended the first half with Greg Joseph lining up a 46-yard field goal attempt.  Joseph – who would be tasked with attempting a 51-yarder if Cleveland could manage those last six yards – saw his 46-yard attempt fade wide to the left.

Had the results of any of those moments panned out in Cleveland’s favor, it might well have been the Ravens making a desperate late-game attempt.  Instead, it was the Browns sitting six agonizing yards away from field goal range.

Three incomplete passes later, Cleveland faced fourth down.  The second down pass had been open.  Landry – again – was running toward the left sideline with Jimmy Smith trailing.  But Mayfield’s pass was behind him and back toward the defender.

As they had on each of the preceding passes, Baltimore sent the house.  Eight players in pursuit of the Cleveland quarterback, who tried to get the ball to Duke Johnson on a crossing route that would probably have extended the drive.  But Baltimore linebacker C.J. Mosley – seeing that he had no chance to penetrate the Cleveland offensive line – instead took two steps backward.  Those two steps put him directly in line with the pass.  He stuck a hand up, batted the pass into the air, and then gathered it in on the way down.  The Ravens had held on, 26-24 (gamebook) (summary).

In a sense, the ending was anti-climactic (considering the setup), but it did finally bring clarity to the AFC North.  Pittsburgh was done.  After winning the previous two division titles and making four consecutive playoff appearances, the Steelers would be watching from home. (As a footnote, had the Tennessee-Indianapolis game later on that evening ended in a tie, the Steelers would have claimed the last playoff spot.  That of course, didn’t happen.)  Into the mix – breaking a three-year playoff drought – were the Ravens – even though by the skin of their collective teeth.

Inside the Baltimore Win

The Baltimore Ravens – in pure Neanderthal style – rolled up 121 rushing yards.  That was the first quarter.  They finished the first half with 179 rushing yards on 21 carries.  They finished the game with 296 rushing yards on 47 attempts.  These are college numbers, the kind the old Oklahoma Sooners used to ring up on the middling teams of the NCAA.  It was the fifth time in the last seven games that Baltimore had piled up more than 200 rushing yards, with Jackson throwing just 24 passes – only 8 in the second half.

Baltimore will be a tough matchup in the playoffs.  There is little mystery involved with them either offensively or defensively.  Their intentions are crystal clear.  But stopping them is another issue.

As far as this run-first offense goes, there are a couple troubling ways in which they are unique.  First of all, they usually find early success in the running game.  Over the years, running offenses have had to be a little patient and keep running, even if the early carries weren’t all that productive.  The process was a slow wearing down of the defense as the game progressed, with each successive running play – like a body blow – eroding the defense’s will.

This hasn’t been a problem with Baltimore. Even early in the contest, they rarely get stymied.  As mentioned earlier, here they had 121 yards in the first quarter.  Against the Chargers the week before, they ran for 119 in the first half – with 43 of those coming on the very first play from scrimmage.

It’s a tough thing for a defense to recover from.  When you are getting blown off the line of scrimmage from the very first play, it sends an impressive message.

Which brings me to the next point.  Unlike a lot of running teams, Baltimore’s running attack produces a surprising number of big plays.  Against Cleveland, Baltimore had seven runs of more than 15 yards, with five of those going for at least twenty.  When other teams run the ball on third-and-9, they are hoping either to fool someone or at least gain a few extra yards for the upcoming kick.  When Baltimore runs on third-and-9, they run with the expectation of getting the first down.

It’s actually a thing they feed off of.  Trailing 7-3 latish in the first quarter, Cleveland blitzed Jackson on second-and-3.  Lamar evaded all of the rushers, and then raced up the left sideline for 24 yards.  It was at that point, that the Ravens seemed to come alive.  Six plays later, Jackson sprinted right through the middle of the Cleveland defense almost untouched for the touchdown.  While they would sweat some at the end, Baltimore would never trail again.

The Baltimore passing game still trails its running game.  As he was in Los Angeles the week before, Jackson was as good as he needed to be Sunday against Cleveland, completing 14 of his 24 passes for 179 yards.  His best pass right now seems to be the slant – whether quick or deep.  When he has a receiver running away from a defender over the middle, Lamar usually delivers a confident accurate pass.  Fortunately for him, Cleveland frequently gave him that look as they blitzed him a lot, playing man behind.

As I contemplate defending Jackson and the Ravens in the playoffs, I’m not sure that I would blitz him all that much.  Teams blitz young quarterbacks to confuse them – and Cleveland did confuse Jackson some on Sunday.  But even when fooled, Lamar was consistently able to avoid the sack and resisted the urge to make dangerous passes.  He either threw the ball away, or turned on the blitzing defense for a big run.

That is the problem with blitzing Lamar.  You allow him to use his athleticism to surprise you.  If I were preparing Los Angeles’ defensive game plan, I would blitz Jackson sparsely.  I would show him the most exotic zone coverages I could manage, often showing him a false pre-snap.  My rush would focus on keeping Lamar in the pocket and making him beat me from there with his head and his arm.

Of course, I would still have to stop Gus Edwards, Kenneth Dixon, and that downhill running attack.

Los Angeles – having just played the Ravens two weeks ago – should profit somewhat from already seeing them up close.  With the WildCard round approaching, I don’t hold out a lot of hope for the Chargers in the re-match.  They are, in the first place, decidedly small up front.  In the second place, the Chargers haven’t looked much like themselves for a few weeks now.

The Fading Chargers

When Los Angeles won their Week 15 matchup against Kansas City by driving 60 yards in the final 2:37 for the winning touchdown, they secured their tenth victory over their previous eleven games.  At that point it was easy to see them as a dangerous team going into the playoffs.

That Chargers team hasn’t been seen much the last two weeks.  In Week 16 they were dominated by the Ravens.  Last Sunday they had an opportunity to re-discover themselves against a struggling Denver team.  The Chargers eventually pulled away for a 23-9 victory (gamebook) (summary), but still showed more cracks than one would expect from a 12-4 team.

My greatest concern, if I were Chargers head coach Anthony Lynn, would be an offense that struggled just as much against Denver and their twenty-second ranked defense as it did against Baltimore’s first-ranked defense.  In particular, it was the offensive line that has started to underperform coming down the stretch.

The Chargers tried repeatedly to run the ball against Denver’s twenty-first ranked run defense.  Austin Ekeler worked his way around right end for a clever 41-yard run in the second half, but that was the only real success they had on the ground.  Their other 29 running plays managed just 75 yards – 2.6 yards per attempt.

Meanwhile, the pressure up the middle on Philip Rivers was constant throughout the game.  They never sacked him, but truly with Rivers you would rather not sack him.  Even after all these years, Rivers is still inclined, under pressure, to make a dangerous pass to avoid a sack.  Denver intercepted him twice, bringing Rivers’ interception total to 12 for the year – six of those in the last three games.  Philip has, in fact, thrown an interception on the opening drive of each of those games.

Los Angeles’ best chance of subduing Baltimore rests with their offense.  The team that can manage to find some holes in that Raven defense and forge enough of a lead that Baltimore will have to abandon its running game stands an excellent chance to beat them.  But for that team to be the Chargers, they will have to fix an awful lot of things very, very quickly.

The Chargers, I think, are in trouble here.

Sizing Up Da Bears

Last Sunday afternoon in US Bank Stadium, Minneapolis Minnesota, the last real piece of business deciding the NFC side of the playoffs played out.

The suddenly re-invigorated Philadelphia Eagles would be playing against an injury-ravaged Washington team, so the Vikings had little hope that the Eagle season would perish quietly in the nation’s capital.  That left them with the imperative of winning their last game of the season – at home against division rival Chicago.

The Vikings had put themselves in “win-and-you’re-in” territory with consecutive solid wins against Miami and in Detroit.  On the one hand, they piled up 61 points in the two wins.  On the other hand, those two teams finished the season 7-9 and 6-10 respectively.  Would the recent success – which included 320 rushing yards in the two games – continue against this tougher opponent?

By the time the first half ended, it was more than apparent that it would not.  The Vikings hit the locker room trailing 13-3 with 18 rushing yards, and just 49 offensive yards in total.  They had no play gain more than 9 yards, were 1-7 on third down, punted 5 times and never made it into the red zone.

More than just being dominated by the Bear defense, Minnesota played tight, nervous football – none of them tighter or more nervous than quarterback Kirk Cousins – although, as Troy Aikman frequently pointed out, the Viking defense didn’t bring their best game either.

Trailing just 7-0 early in the second quarter, Minnesota surrendered a 10-play, 85-yard touchdown drive that ate 5:39 off the clock, and set the Bear victory in motion.  Crucial to the drive were two key third downs.

On third-and-11 from his own 24, Chicago quarterback Mitchell Trubisky overthrew his receiver up the left sideline.  Instead of bringing up fourth down, however, Chicago found themselves with a first-and-10 at their own 39, courtesy of a roughing the passer call against Stephen Weatherly.  The push to the ground was comparatively gentle, but he did take that extra step after the pass was thrown.

Five plays later, the Bears were in third down again – third-and-7 on the Viking 41.  This time Trubisky made the critical completion finding Taylor Gabriel up the left sideline for 40 yards.  Cornerback Holton Hill – filling in for the injured Xavier Rhodes – made an enticing target all night.  Chicago scored on the next play.

Minnesota made some small attempts to creep back into the game in the second half, but on this afternoon it was evident early that Chicago was the better team.  So, in the aftermath of their convincing 24-10 victory (gamebook) (summary), the only real question to come out of this game is about Chicago.  Are the Bears “playoff ready?”

Super Bowl Shuffle II?

Defensively, the Bears have looked ready for most of the season.  After the Vikings finished just 1-11 on third downs, amassing just 164 yards of offense, Chicago finished the season as statistically dominant as any defense in recent years.  They finished first in interceptions (27), in percentage of passes intercepted (4.40), in lowest passer rating against (72.9), fewest points allowed (283), and fewest rush yards allowed per game (80.0).  They finished second in yards allowed per completed pass (10.2).  While ranking third in total defense by yards allowed, they also finished third in lowest percentage of pass completions allowed (61.3) and fewest yards per attempted pass (6.27).  Additionally, they were fourth in average yards allowed per rush (3.8) and lowest percentage of third downs converted (34.2).  They finished fifth in fewest percentage of passes going for touchdowns (3.6) and lowest red zone touchdown percentage (50.0).

What these numbers represent is a defense with no visible weaknesses.  They have demonstrated themselves as elite against both the run and the pass, while handling the situational moments (third down, red zone) as well as any other unit in football.

They reached their peak during their Week 14 dismantling of the high-powered Los Angeles Rams.  In that 15-6 victory, they limited Los Angeles to 14 first downs and 214 yards while taking the ball away 4 times (Chicago’s 36 takeaways also led the league).

Certainly any offensive coordinator faced with scoring against this unit will be challenged.  My best council for any team facing Chicago – beginning with Philadelphia this Sunday – is to preach ball security.  Throwing the ball away on third down and punting isn’t always the worst decision.

You see, while the Bear defense has established themselves as one of the elite NFL units, Chicago’s offense is less accomplished.  They finished the season ranked just twenty-first in total yardage and passing yardage.  While not one of the Neanderthal teams that I wrote about last week, Chicago is still quite reliant on its running game.  After watching young Mr Trubisky come down the stretch, I am of the opinion that if Chicago needed to rely on his arm to win a playoff game this year, they might be in trouble.

Mitch was just OK against Minnesota on Sunday.  While he completed 18 of 26 (69.2%), he threw for just 163 yards (just 9.06 per completion). Almost without exception, Trubisky’s best passing performances this season have come in games where he throws fewer than 30 passes.

Six times this year, Mitch has had the luxury of throwing fewer than 30 passes in the game.  Chicago won all six of them.  His passer rating was over 100 in four of those games.  His passer rating in those games combined was 118.5, with a 12-1 touchdown to interception ratio.

In his other eight games, Mitch threw the ball at least 30 times.  The Bears were 5-3 in those games.  His rating surpassed 100 only twice in those games, while he had five games under 80.  His rating in those games was a modest 82.2 with a 12-11 touchdown to interception ratio.

Offensively, the Bears turned the ball over 24 times themselves.

So, the game plan looks to me to be the following:  Take care of the ball.  Don’t give them any easy scores.  Take away the Chicago running game, and make Mitch throw to beat you.

By next year (as Trubisky matures) this strategy may not work anymore.  But I’m not sure that this year Trubisky is a consistent enough reader of defenses and thrower of accurate passes to put this team on his shoulders and carry them to a title.

Mike Nagy’s Interesting Dilemma

Going into the game, Mike Nagy confessed to Misters Buck and Aikman that he was at something of a loss on how to proceed coaching a game that might quickly become meaningless – at least to his team.  Whether he would rest key players, whether he would keep fighting to win the game – all of these were decisions that he would make at the time.

As things turned out, this game was, indeed, quickly rendered meaningless to his Chicago Bears – and just as quickly turned all-important to the team he was facing.  As the Rams and Eagles moved quickly in front of their opponents – on their ways to easy victories – it was obvious by halftime that the Bears, whether they would win or lose, would be unable to improve their playoff position.

However, going in at the half ahead by just 10 points, they were in a position to determine their opponent in the wildcard round.  It’s a point worth making.  At this point, it was quite clear that the Bears were better than the Vikings.  The Eagles, making a late season run that was at least reminiscent of their championship run of last year, present something of an unknown quantity.  With thirty minutes of football remaining, the Bears had it within their power to eliminate Philadelphia before they could even set foot in the playoffs.  An uninspiring second half that would coax the Vikings to victory would set up the rematch between these two teams next weekend, and leave Nick Foles and the Eagles watching on television.

It’s unknown whether this thought crossed Nagy’s mind – and if it did, it is very unlikely that Mike would bend that way.  The basic integrity of the NFL is stronger than people might suspect.  Nagy and the Bears did the thing they came to Minnesota to do.  They beat the Vikings, eliminating them from the playoffs.

Depending on what happens Sunday afternoon against the defending champions, that may be an opportunity that could haunt them through the offseason.

The Return of Neanderthal Football

Thirty-one touchdown passes.  That was all, just 31.

With one game left in the 2018 Championship Season, seven different quarterbacks (led by Patrick Mahomes’ 48) have thrown at least 31 touchdown passes.  With good games on Sunday, Kirk Cousins and Jared Goff could swell that number to 9.

In 1922 – the first official year of the National Football League – 31 was the number of touchdown passes.  For the entire 15-team league for the entire season.  No team had more than the 4 touchdown passes managed by the Akron Pros in their ten games.  Mahomes, of course, has had seven different individual games this season in which he has tossed at least 4 touchdown passes.

During that same inaugural season, 123 rushing touchdowns were scored – again, divided among 15 teams.  In support of the “points come out of the passing game” doctrine, the league average points per game was a modest 9.1, with the Rock Island Independents averaging an astonishing 22 points over the 7 games that they played.

As individual statistics were generally unrecorded in those primordial days of the NFL, the names of the heroes who threw and caught those touchdown passes have been lost to history.

Names don’t really emerge until the 1932 season.  That year, a tail-back for the Green Bay Packers named Arnie Herber set the NFL’s very first record for passes attempted in an NFL season.  In 14 games, Arnie threw the ball an amazing 101 times – just over 7 passes a game.

Perhaps even more unbelievable, an end for the New York Giants named Ray Flaherty managed to catch 21 passes in a single season.

It wasn’t until 1924 that any team managed as many as 10 touchdown passes in a single season.  The cutting edge Buffalo Bisons managed that feat in just 11 games – almost a touchdown pass per game, imagine!

It wasn’t until 1930 that the scoring average of the teams in the NFL reached double-figures.  That year, the league average team scored 10.6 points per game.  The 11-team NFL accounted for 77 touchdown passes.

By the time the first semi-detailed statistics were kept (during that 1932 season) passing was up to an average of 10.9 attempted passes and 55.2 passing yards per team per game.  During that same year, NFL teams averaged 33.7 running plays and 109.9 running yards per game.  If the modern passer rating system had been applied to the NFL that year, the league average passer would score a 27.2 rate.

It took only 5 more years (til 1937) for passing touchdowns (90) to eclipse rushing touchdowns (67) for the first time.  Bernie Masterson of the Chicago Bears topped the list with 9 touchdown passes thrown.  The incomparable Don Hutson of Green Bay caught 41 passes that year – more than anyone had ever caught before.  A rookie for the Chicago Cardinals named Gaynell Tinsley caught just 36 passes, but made them good for an unheard of 675 yards – more passing yards than any receiver in the history of the NFL – to that point.

Two years later, league passing yardage (128.8 per team per game) eclipsed team rushing yardage (120.6 per team per game) for the first time.

Even though the forward pass quickly became an established NFL tactic, it still wasn’t until the 1980 season – 41 years later – that NFL quarterbacks averaged 30 attempted passes per game, and not until 1982 that the NFL attempted more forward passes (7,933) than running plays (7,763) for the very first time.  By this time, the league scoring average was up to 20.2 points per game, and touchdowns passes were outnumbering rushing touchdowns 320-231

So far in 2018, the average NFL team throws 34.6 passes per game, while running the ball just 25.9 times per game.  The yardage differential is 239.6 yards per game per team through the air, as opposed to just 114.4 over the ground.  With one week left, the touchdowns sit 795 through the air, against 413 on the ground.

(As a side note, in 1922 there were 7 pass interceptions returned for touchdowns – an average of 4.4 touchdown passes to every pick six.  This year so far, 40 pass interceptions have been returned for touchdowns – one for every 19.9 touchdown passes.  Today’s average quarterback rating is 93.2 after being in the high 70’s to low 80’s for most of the rating system’s existence.)

That earlier era – especially before 1950 – I will call the Neanderthal era.  Back in the earliest days, the football more resembled a rugby ball than it does the modern football.  It was quite a bit fatter, and therefore harder to throw deeply or accurately and harder to catch.

Just as important, the rules of the earlier era did the passing game no favors.  Back then, defenders could hang onto receivers all the way down the field until the pass was actually thrown.  A receiver in a normal route might actually be hit by three or four defenders on his way down field.  Also, most of the rules that protect the quarterbacks and defenseless receivers now were unimaginable then.

But of all the rule changes, perhaps none were more important than the rules allowing offensive linemen to use their hands in pass protection.  Frankly, before the changes in the early 80s that gave offensive linemen a fighting chance against the pass rush, any offensive identity that emphasized the pass over the run would only succeed in putting your quarterback in the hospital for most of the year.

So, pre-1980 – and especially pre-1950 – are legitimately understood as pro football’s Neanderthal era.

Neanderthal football was all about imposing one’s will on the opposition.  It was an era of the flying wedge – two or more backfield members barreling at full speed into the defensive front to open up enough daylight for the ball carrier to hurtle through.  Neanderthal football was far less scientific and quite a bit more savage that the almost artistic game we see today.  Neanderthal football reduced the majesty and mystery of pro football to its essential manhood.  Neanderthal football was as close as a modern society can get to the gladiatorial era of Rome.  It was a baseline litmus test of one’s essential courage.

Neanderthal football has, of course, long since passed into history.  1983 was, in fact, the very last season that the NFL ran the ball more than it passed – with the disparity between runs and passes growing consistently larger, and the individual teams who run more than they throw becoming increasingly fewer and farther between.

The absolute death-knell of the Neanderthals seemed to have rung on the evening of November 19, 2018.  There – in an offensive orgy the likes of which the NFL had never seen before – the Los Angeles Rams barely eclipsed the Kansas City Chiefs 54-51 in a game that featured only 174 combined rushing yards against 827 combined passing yards (that game is discussed a bit here).  It was a game now viewed as a glimpse at the future of the NFL – a high-tech, pinball-like NFL about as far removed from its Neanderthal roots as can be imagined.

How curious, and how compelling that in the midst of the most pass-happy season the NFL has ever known, three teams – all very much alive in the playoff hunt – are bringing about a NFL Neanderthal renaissance.  In fact, Week 16 saw the two top records in the AFC both run afoul of Neanderthal football.

The Tennessee Titans – Neanderthal Lite

Mike Vrabel started 140 games over his 14 year career as a linebacker – 8 of them in New England, where he was part of three world championships.  Now eight years past his last season as an active player, Mike begins a new journey as head coach in Tennessee.

As the season began, Tennessee figured to be one of those teams that would run the ball more than most others.  Not only do they possess a hammer back in the physically imposing Derrick Henry, they also boast a dangerous and elusive runner in quarterback Marcus Mariota.  Balance was certainly going to be the by-word in Nashville.

The plan was turned upside down almost immediately, as Mariota went down in the season’s first game with an elbow injury that would plague him off-and-on throughout the whole season.  When his back-up, Blaine Gabbert, when down in the early moments of Week Three, Vrabel was caught in a bind.

His answer was to turn to his compromised number one guy – Mariota.  With that decision came a simplified offensive approach.  Run the football.

While Tennessee has not embraced Neanderthalism to the extent of some others, the approach has served them generally well.  The Titans have bullied their way to fifth in the league in rushing, averaging 128.7 yards per game, and 4.4 yards a carry, on their way to a 9-6 record and a one-game, winner take all showdown with Indianapolis this Sunday evening with the final AFC playoff spot on the line.  Tennessee enters the contest with a few more running plays (438) than passes (408).

How Do You Solve a Problem Like Baltimore

The story in Baltimore is fairly similar.  They are – in a sense – an upgraded version of the Titans.

The problems with the Ravens’ conventional down-field passing attack began with the increasing difficulty that starting quarterback Joe Flacco was experiencing with his hip.  When it became apparent that Flacco could not finish the season, Baltimore used their Week Ten bye to re-invent themselves.  At that point of the season, the Ravens were averaging 23.7 points a game, 273.9 passing yards a game, and just 92.7 rushing yards a game.

The problem, of course, was that behind the experienced Flacco, all Baltimore had was rookie Lamar Jackson.  Jackson’s running abilities were comparable to Mariota’s, but his ability to manage an NFL passing attack was rudimentary.  With few other options, coach John Harbaugh and his staff embraced Neanderthal football to the point that even after Flacco’s hip had healed, Harbaugh kept Jackson under center.

It seems that once you have gone Neanderthal, you never go back.

Winners of only four of the nine games started by Flacco, Baltimore has gone 5-1 since.  Along the way, they may have discovered a feature back as well.  An undrafted rookie, Gus Edwards got his first prolonged look in the Week 11 game against Cincinnati.  He ran for 115 yards on just 17 carries.  He has started every game since, and now has 642 rushing yards for the season, averaging 5.1 yards per carry.

From the 92.7 rushing yards a game through their first 9 weeks, the Ravens have shot up to second in the league, averaging 143.0 yards per game.  The formula in Baltimore, now, is an aggressive, fearless defense that blitzes more than most and lives or dies with man coverage, supported by a pounding running game with just enough throwing from Jackson to force opponents to defend the possibility of a pass.  As game plans go, this doesn’t necessarily sound like much, but this is just how they de-railed the Los Angeles Chargers in Week 16.

Playing at home, with a chance to lay claim to the top seed in the AFC, a very good Charger team was overwhelmed by Baltimore.  By the time the 22-10 beating was in the books, Charger quarterback Philip Rivers had been hounded into 4 sacks and 2 interceptions, while only getting 51 yards from his running game.  The Ravens, on the other hand, ran the ball 35 times for 159 yards (getting 92 from Edwards).

The Chargers had come in as one of football’s hottest teams.  They had won 10 of their previous 11.  But they left the stadium that night no closer to decoding Baltimore’s Neanderthal attack than they were at the beginning.

Baltimore needs only to beat Cleveland in Week 17 to claim a wildcard spot.

Barbarians in the Midst

In the mystical Northwest kingdom of Seattle, high-tech is a cultural imperative.  In the land of Starbucks and Microsoft, the entire community seems to strive with one mind to see the world in ways never imagined before.

How compelling, then, to find the most savage of the NFL’s renegade Neanderthal teams nested in its midst.

Unlike the Titans and Ravens, the Seattle Seahawks chose Neanderthalism, rather than having it thrust upon them.  With elite quarterback Russell Wilson and two of the NFL’s best deep threats in Doug Baldwin and Tyler Lockett, the Seahawks could have chosen to fill the air with passes like the Rams and Chiefs, and they would probably have done quite well.

This makes them the most surprising of the Neanderthal teams.  It also makes them the best.

While Wilson currently sits third in the league in passer rating (his 112.7 trails only Drew Brees and Mahomes), his running attack has bludgeoned its way to first in the league.  After an indifferent start that saw them lose both of their first two games this season, running for only 138 total yards in those two games, Seattle re-committed to its running game. They have subsequently won 9 of their last 13.  During their last 12 games, they have piled up 150 or more rushing yards in all but one of them.  In an NFL that has become increasingly pass happy, Seattle has run the ball significantly more than they have passed (500 rushes to 406 passes).

Their most recent victims were those same high-flying Chiefs, who mostly learned the same lesson that the Chargers did.  Yes, Kansas City scored their points – 31 of them to be exact.  But it wasn’t enough.

With all the subtlety of a sledge hammer, Seattle pounded the center of the Chief defensive line.  New battering ram Chris Carson – evoking memories of Marshawn Lynch – piled up 116 rushing yards and two touchdowns.  Seattle finished the night with 43 rushes and 210 rushing yards, controlling the clock for 35:02.

The difference in Seattle is that the pounding of the running game opens up the passing attack in ways that the Titans and Ravens cannot yet duplicate.  Wilson only threw the ball 29 times last Sunday night, but he completed 18 of those throws for 271 yards and 3 touchdowns – leading his team to 38 points and the win.

With the win, Seattle punched its playoff ticket.  They, as well as the other potential Neanderthal teams that might force their way into the tournament, will have to go the wildcard route and win games on the road.

But Neanderthal football will present all of its opponents a unique challenge.  Any of these teams that make it in will bear close watching.

Another Losing Team in the Playoffs?

As there is no mechanism for keeping a losing team out of the NFL playoffs, it is a curiosity that does occur from time to time.  Usually, though, when it happens, it happens the way it did four years ago – the last time a losing team received a playoff invitation.

In 2014 the NFC had no shortage of winning teams.  That season, there were six NFC clubs with 10 wins or more.  But only five of them made it into the dance.  The 10-6 Philadelphia Eagles were forced to the sideline in favor of the 7-8-1 Carolina Panthers.

The NFL is now four, five-team divisions, with the champion of each division assured of a playoff spot.  It sometimes happens – as it did four years ago – that all the citizens of one of these division will have struggling years and none of them will finish over .500.  The NFC South was such a division that year, with the Panthers edging the 7-9 New Orleans Saints and the 6-10 Atlanta Falcons.  Tampa Bay – also in that division – was a non-factor at 2-14.

While the equity of this situation could be argued, it is what it is – and playoff opportunities sometimes hinge on what division you are in.  As I said, though – pretty rare.

In fact, in the entire history of the NFL it has only happened twice in full seasons.  In 2010, a 7-9 Seattle team advanced to the playoffs under similar circumstances.  They were the best of a bad division, while the New York Giants and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers – both 10-6 – stayed home. (The footnote here excludes the strike-interrupted season of 1982, in which two 4-5 teams made the playoffs.)

So what may happen this season – again, in the NFC – would be unique in the long and storied history of the NFL.  Rather than inviting the best of a poor division, the NFC may send a losing team to the playoffs because this year, the NFC may not manage to field six teams that can at least play .500 ball.

There is no such issue in the AFC, which will probably end up with three 9-7 teams (two of which will miss the playoffs) and two other 8-8 teams. But – in a football sense, anyway – the middle class is starting to disappear (temporarily at least) from the NFC.

With three weeks left in the regular season, the NFC has five teams with winning records.  All five are guaranteed to finish at least at .500.  The Saints and the Rams are both 11-2 and have clinched their divisions.  Chicago leads the North with a 9-4 record, and Dallas – at 8-5 – is the likely winner in the East.  After them, the Seattle Seahawks (8-5), will likely earn the top wildcard spot.

And after them?

The last playoff spot is currently in the arms of the Minnesota Vikings.  They are right at .500 (6-6-1), but the tie means that they cannot finish exactly at .500 (unless they play to another tie somewhere along the line).  They can, of course, still finish over .500, but to do that they would need to win at least two of their last three.  They are the first of several NFC teams that could finish .500 or better, but all will have to win at least two of their final three – and none of them seem to be very likely candidates to do that.

Let’s begin with the Vikings.  Their stretch drive begins this Sunday at home against Miami.  Not a given by any means – just ask the Patriots – but since the game is at home, you would lean toward the Viking here.  But after that? Detroit on the road and Chicago at home.  Nothing about Minnesota suggests to me that they are enough better than the Lions to be favored to beat them in Detroit.  Nor should they be a match for the Bears – even if they are at home.  It’s not unimaginable that Minnesota could win one of those games.  But it truly isn’t likely.  Minnesota is probably on track to finish 7-8-1.

Behind them are the fading Carolina Panthers, now 6-7 after losing five games in a row.  Bad enough.  Two of their final three games are against the high-flying New Orleans Saints – not necessarily a team you want to try to break a long losing streak against.  If they could manage to win one of those, their other remaining game is a winnable contest against Atlanta at home.  But it’s hard to see this Carolina team beat this Saints team anywhere.  If New Orleans has home field advantage all wrapped up by Week 17, then that could play to the Panthers’ advantage.  In that scenario, the Saints might be playing under wraps with an eye towards being healthy for the playoffs.  But the battle between New Orleans and Los Angeles for that top spot will most likely run through to the end of the season, so a going-through-the-motions final game from New Orleans is improbable.  Carolina is likely looking at 7-9.

After them are the defending champions from Philadelphia – also 6-7.  They get to play Sunday night in Los Angeles against a Ram team that will be smarting after their loss to the Bears last Sunday night.  Doesn’t bode well for the Eagles.  After that, they get the Houston Texans – a 9-4 team that has also played better than the Eagles all season.  They close against Washington – but in Washington.  The Redskins are hurting at quarterback, and may not be able to put up much of a struggle – even at home – but unless this limping Eagle team can find a way to get a win against either the Rams or Texans, even a season ending win in Washington won’t leave them any better than 7-9.

Those Redskins are next on the list – also 6-7.  They close at Jacksonville, at Tennessee and home against the Eagles.  The Titans are beginning to surge again, and shouldn’t lose at home to this Washington team.  The Jags and Eagles might be considered beatable, but with your third-string quarterback?  It’s truly hard to see them finishing better than 7-9.

That brings us to four teams for whom the bar is even higher.  The Green Bay Packers (5-7-1), the Tampa Bay Buccaneers (5-8), the New York Giants (5-8), and the Detroit Lions (5-8) all must win out to avoid finishing with a losing record.  For these teams, winning consecutive games has proved challenging, much less putting together a season-ending three-game winning streak.

The Packers could come close.  Their final two games are against the Jets in New York and at home against Detroit.  It will be their next game that will tell the tale.  Can they go into Chicago this Sunday and beat the Bears?  If not, then the best they could manage would be 7-8-1.

Tampa Bay’s closing schedule is fairly brutal for a 5-8 team.  Their next two are both road games in Baltimore (the Ravens are 7-6) and Dallas.  Had to seeing them winning one of those – much less both.

All of the Giants’ last three games are against teams right in the thick of the playoff hunt.  Two of them are home games, but against the Titans and the Cowboys.  Tough sledding there.  Their road game is just as challenging.  They go into Indianapolis to play the Colts.  New York has played better of late, but it’s truly difficult to imagine them winning all of those games.

Which brings us, finally, to the Lions.  Frankly, honestly, the Lions have a shot – a shocking thing to contemplate in what has been a frustrating year for them.  It’s not hard to see them beating Buffalo – even if that game is on the road.  After that, they draw the Vikings at home – another winnable contest.  But they will then have to go into Green Bay on the last Sunday of the season and beat the Packers.  That might be too great a challenge for this re-tooling Detroit team.

With all of these teams in play, I do believe it is more likely than not that at least one of them will win a game they are not supposed to and give the NFC at least an 8-8 record for its final playoff team.  But this exercise shows – I think – the depth of the upheaval going on in the NFC.  That it is this late in the season and there is still even a reasonable chance that the NFC will be unable to field six teams with at least 8 wins is sobering.

In the NFL, gaps between the haves and the have-nots close very quickly.  Just last year, the Colts and Texans were jostling for last place in their division, looking up at the Jaguars; while the Bears were skidding to 5-11, finishing 8 games behind the Vikings.  Just two years ago, the Chargers, then in San Diego, were 5-11 (they are 10-3 now), the Eagles were 7-9 (they won the Super Bowl the next year), the Saints were 7-9 and the Rams were 4-12.  So it’s premature to suggest that this is the beginning of any kind of long-term trend.

But this level of separation, if it holds – even if only for one year – is unprecedented.  It will be interesting to see how it plays out.

Colts ambushed in Jacksonville

Say this about the NFL.  It’s always full of surprises.

After twelve weeks, we are always under the impression that we know who these clubs are.  But, as Week 13 dramatically displayed, in the NFL anything can – and usually does – happen.

On Thursday night, the Dallas Cowboys hosted the high-flying New Orleans Saints.  The Saints boasted the highest scoring offense in football.  On their way to a 10-1 record, the Saints had scored at least 21 points in every game, had scored 30 or more in 9 of the 11, had scored at least 40 six times, with a high of 51 points scored against Cincinnati in Week 10.  They were averaging 37.2 points per game.

On Sunday, the Jacksonville Jaguars – riding a seven game losing streak – would host the suddenly hot Indianapolis Colts.  The Colts were riding a five-game winning streak of their own, and were scoring 33.1 points per game over their last eight.

Just going off of averages, you might expect the Saints and the Colts to combine for around 70 points in their two games.  They totaled 10, as New Orleans was toppled 13-10 and Indy was shut out 6-0.  The story was much the same in both games, as inspired defenses playing desperate football dominated the lines of scrimmage.

That, by the way, is always where you stop unstoppable offenses.  At the line of scrimmage.

The upset of New Orleans doesn’t have a dramatic effect on the NFC playoff race.  Dallas was the NFC East favorite before the game, and has solidified that impression.  The Saints are still 4 games ahead of Carolina and cruising in their division.

But the upset in Jacksonville did quite a lot to shake up the AFC playoff picture, where the quest for the final playoff spot is wide, wide open.

The week began with Indy sporting a 6-5 record and seeming to be in the driver’s seat for that final playoff invite.  Three of their last five games were on the road, but only the game in Houston seemed to be an unlikely win.  Their other two road opponents – Jacksonville and Tennessee – have both been fading.  They would have to play Dallas in Week Fifteen, but that game would be at home where the Colts are getting to be pretty hard to beat.  They also have the Giants at home.

So, as they kicked off in Jacksonville, one could easily imagine this Indianapolis team finishing at 10-6 – better, probably, than any of the other AFC contenders for that spot.

This damaging loss pushes them back into the mess of 9-7 and opens the Pandora’s Box of tie-breakers.

The other teams hovering in the neighborhood are Miami in the East (6-6), Baltimore (7-5) in the North, Tennessee in the South (6-6), and Denver in the West (6-6).  It is certainly a crowded playoff field, but from 6-6 to 9-7 is a steep climb – I climb I think a couple of these teams will be unable to make.

Tennessee is one of those teams that I think will have difficulty reaching 9 wins.  Sloughing through an injury dominated season, quarterback Marcus Mariota’s availability for any particular game will always be in question.  The Titans could very well be in the hunt, but my suspicion is that Mariota will end up missing too much time for that to happen.

I also see the Dolphins fading toward the end.  Their remaining schedule is fairly rugged.  They have New England this week and Minnesota (in Minnesota) next week.  They also end the season in Buffalo  Not that the Bills are the NFL’s scariest teams, but warm weather teams – like the Dolphins – playing in what will probably be bitter conditions in Buffalo at the end of December is not a promising situation.

Left standing should be the Colts, Ravens and Broncos.  Baltimore currently has a one-game lead – they are the 7-5 team in the mix – but have two very difficult road contests looming.  They are in Kansas City this week and make a Week 16 trip into Los Angeles to play the Chargers.  They would have to win at least one of those and take both of their home games (against Tampa Bay and Cleveland) to reach the ten-win plateau.

Denver’s remaining schedule is enticingly soft.  Two of their next three are on the road, but in San Francisco and Oakland – two teams having difficult times this season.  In between they have a home game against Cleveland.  They also finish at home, but against the high-flying Chargers.  If they win out, they probably win the spot – but I don’t think they will win out.

So that brings us – possibly – to the end of the season with Indianapolis, Baltimore and Denver all at 9-7.  If so, who gets the playoff spot?

Head-to-head sweep is the first tie breaking category.  For this to determine the Wild-Card team, one team would have had to have beaten both of the others, or lost to both of the others.  Baltimore and Denver met earlier this year – with Baltimore winning 27-14, but neither of those teams have or will play Indianapolis.

That sends us to the second tie-breaker.  Conference record.

Currently, Baltimore sits at 6-3 in the conference with three games to play, while Indy is 5-5 against the AFC with two to play, and Denver is 4-5 in conference with three to go.

So, for Denver to take the wildcard in this scenario, they would have to win all of their remaining conference games, while Baltimore loses all of their last three and Indy does no better than a split.

But Baltimore’s last game is an AFC contest against Cleveland at home.  Hard to see them losing that game with a playoff berth at stake.  I also don’t think I believe in Denver enough yet to predict them beating the Chargers in Week 17.

So, assuming Baltimore finishes at 7-5 in the conference, that would mean Indy would have to win both of their AFC games to force another round of tie-breakers.  That would mean the Colts would have to win this Sunday in Houston.  Again, my belief level in the Colts is not quite that high.

If it all plays out like this, that will slip the Ravens into that last wildcard spot.  If that happens, then the Colts will have reason to remember last Sunday’s loss in Jacksonville for quite a while.

Concerns in Chicago

The game had come to this.

The Chicago Bears – playing without their franchise quarterback Mitchell Trubisky – were clinging to a 23-16 lead.  There was one minute left in the game.

The Bears faced a third-and-9 on their own 21, with Detroit holding one final time out.  A stop here, a quick time out, and a punt would give Detroit about 50 seconds and relatively good field position for one last shot.

After Bears’ running back Tarik Cohen started up the middle, he broke sharply to his right and (with the help of a sealing block by tight end Ben Braunecker) turned the corner on Detroit. Also downfield blocking on the play was left guard James Daniels.  He was trying to clear defensive back Darius Slay out of the way.  His block wasn’t so successful.  (This, by the way, had been a recurring theme during the game).

As Cohen approached the 27-yard line, he cut sharply inside, avoiding Slay, but running straight into his blocker Daniels.  Still 3 yards short of the first down, the running back pushed his offensive lineman backwards.  For his part, Daniels wrapped his arms around Cohen and half shielded/half drug Cohen to the first down marker, and just a yard beyond.  First down, Chicago.  And that was the game (gamebook) (box score).

That run – officially marked as 10 yards – was also Chicago’s only running play of the afternoon to reach double digits.

As the season started and the Chicago Bears began their rise from obscurity, one of the most impressive aspects of the team was its balance.  Trubisky, in just his second year, was growing up rapidly and was blessed with an impressive running attack in a game plan that emphasized balance.

Culminating with their Week Eight victory over the Jets (in which they ran for 179 yards) Chicago was averaging 137.6 rushing yards per game.  At that point, they were the NFL’s third-ranked rushing offense, averaging 4.67 yards per running attempt.

Abruptly, though, the Chicago running game regressed.

It began innocuously enough in their next game against Buffalo.  The Bears won in blowout fashion, 41-9, and Chicago was up 28-0 at the half.  The game featured two touchdowns contributed by the Bear defense and 292 total yards in accepted penalties.  The Bears were flagged 14 times for 129 yards.  The Bills only drew 10 penalties, but for 163 yards.

So, very little about that game resembled a normal contest.  At the end of the day, when Chicago’s 25 running plays had only accounted for 64 yards, it was easy to shrug off.  With the big early lead, both teams knew that Chicago would spend most of the rest of the game running the ball and working the clock.

The next week against Detroit, however, things didn’t get appreciably better.  As with the Thanksgiving Day game, the Lions had answers for everything that Chicago tried to do on the ground.  The Bears finished with just 54 yards to show for their 22 running plays.  They managed no run longer than 9 yards in that one, so Cohen’s game-sealing run – at a modest ten yards – was the longest running play the Bears managed in two games against Detroit.  Chicago still won that game 34-22 on the arm of Trubisky, who threw for 355 yards and 3 touchdowns.

Concerns about the running game seemed to evaporate the next week.  Chicago outlasted Minnesota 25-20 in a game that saw them run for 148 yards.  This set up the re-match last Thursday in Detroit – this time without Trubisky.

So, if you’re like me, you’re thinking that with a backup quarterback – Chase Daniel – on a short week where he hasn’t had opportunity to work with any of the receivers – and with a running game that is getting back on track – you would think that the run game would be an important part of the game plan.  Especially against a defense ranked twenty-fourth against the run, allowing 125 rushing yards a game and 4.8 yards a rush.

So the first surprise here is that Chicago never even tried to run the ball against the Lions.  In 11 of their first 12 plays, they put the ball in Daniel’s hands.  Early in the third quarter, Cohen and Jordan Howard carried the ball on consecutive plays.  Thirty plays into the game, and this was the first time Chicago would call consecutive running plays.  Then 17 of the next 18 were passes.  It wasn’t until they got the ball back with 1:07 left in the game that they ran on consecutive downs again. Cohen’s icing run came on the third straight running play.

Not counting Chase’s final kneel down, Chicago called passes on 43 of 56 plays.

That was surprise number one.

Surprise number two was that when they did try to run the ball, they did so poorly.  Taking away the final kneel-down and one 2-yard scramble, Chicago’s 13 called run plays generated 37 yards – less than three per rush.

On Chicago’s very first running play, Detroit lineman Romeo Okwara drove Bears’ left tackle Charles Leno right back into the running back’s lap.  During Chicago’s attempt to run out that last minute, Leno had an opportunity to push open a cutback lane for Howard, but couldn’t get any movement on A’Shawn Robinson.  The very next run showed some promise, but needed Leno to get quickly off his double-team block and pick up the linebacker.  He couldn’t, and Quandre Diggs zipped through the middle to stop the play for no gain.

Leno wasn’t alone.  Even though the Bears ran only 13 times, it provided ample opportunity for all of the offensive linemen to come up short.  Left guard Daniels – who was holding onto Cohen at the end of the game – was beaten back by Ezekiel Ansah during one failed second-quarter run.  Two plays later, he was supposed to lead Cohen on a sweep around right end.  Linebacker Devon Kennard met him at the edge and stopped him dead, stripping the sweep of all of the blocking and resulting in a 3-yard loss.

On one late second quarter run, right guard Bryan Witzmann was supposed to trap Robinson and right tackle Bobby Massie was supposed to pop off his double-team to get the linebacker.  Neither block happened as another running play was muffled for just a yard.

The evening’s futility extended especially to tight end Trey Burton.  With 9:03 left in the second quarter, Burton came peeling back toward the left of the formation to kick out Ansah and give Howard the corner.  He missed completely.  Less than three minutes later, Burton was unable to put any kind of block on cornerback DeShawn Shead.  That contributed materially to the 3-yard loss by Cohen spoken of earlier.  With 5:17 left in the third, Chase Daniel ran a well-executed read-option run toward the left end.  Burton just needed to get a block on Diggs.  Not only did he miss the block, Trey even was flagged for holding.

It was that kind of day all around.

This is now three times in the last four games that Chicago has been held under 70 rushing yards.  When you remember that a large portion of their success running the football was the direct result of the improvised scrambles of Trubisky, you start to wonder if this offensive line is truly good enough to measure up to the defensive lines they will see once the playoffs start.

Most of the concern in Chicago these days is over the health of their quarterback – who is listed as doubtful for today’s game.  Perhaps there should be some concern over the state of the running game.

On the other side of the coin is Detroit.  While their opponents in Chicago are looking forward to the playoffs, the Lions, with the loss, fall to 4-7.  Detroit limps into December with little to play for in what has been a disappointing first season under Matt Patricia.  The former defensive coordinator of the New England Patriots, Patricia has been unable to establish much defensive traction with the Lions so far.  Thanksgiving was the ninth time in eleven games that a Lions opponent has scored at least 21 points, and they currently rank twenty-fourth in points allowed with 286.  Their struggles begin with stopping the run.

They allowed at least 169 rushing yards in three of their first four games, and allowed 107 or more six times in their first eight games.  At that point, Detroit ranked thirtieth among thirty-two teams in stopping the run.  They were allowing 142.5 rushing yards per game, and 5.14 per rushing attempt – the second highest total in the league.

In what may be one of the first encouraging signs of the Matt Patricia era, the Lions might be starting to turn things around – at least in regards to stopping the run.  Last Thursday was the third straight game that Detroit has allowed less than 60 yards on the ground.  In fact, their total for the last three games (148) is only slightly higher than their average for the first 8.

Granted, two of those games were against a Chicago team that has been searching for its running game lately.  But in between those two efforts was a 20-19 conquest of the Carolina Panthers – currently the third most prolific running attack in football.  In that game, the Panthers staggered to just 56 rushing yards – again with no carry greater than 10 yards.  It has, in fact, been since Minnesota’s Dalvin Cook popped a 70-yard run against them with 4:45 left in the second quarter of their Week Nine game that anyone has broken off a run of more than ten yards against the Detroit run defense – 67 rushing attempts ago.

Standing out as much as anyone can when the opposition only runs the ball 13 times was linebacker Christian Jones, who made the primary tackle on 4 of those 13 plays.  Cut by the team in early September, Jones has been playing with increasing confidence and better anticipation.  Playing more on the inside than earlier this year, Jones was too quick for the linemen trying to pick him up off their double-teams, and largely un-blockable – especially by Cody Whitehair, the Bears’ center.

On a couple of Chicago’s unsuccessful runs, their blocking scheme didn’t even seem to include Jones.  Making the play is much easier when you are unblocked.

It is only three games, and the Lions do have other things to fix.  The pass defense – for example – rarely pressured Daniel, who, in just his third career start, racked up a very efficient 106.8 passer rating against Patricia’s pass defense.  There is still work to do in Detroit.

But if the Lions have found a way to stop – or at least slow – the bleeding against opposing running games, that will be a significant first step.

Panthers Plummeting

The field goal attempt was 52 yards – hardly a gimme – but the kick wouldn’t have been good from any distance.

It started wide right, and, as kicker Graham Gano and all of Carolina held their collective breath, it just refused to hook back to the left.  At least not enough.

The miss didn’t officially lose the game – the Panthers and the Seattle Seahawks were still tied at 27 – but at that point, everyone pretty much knew what was coming next.  Three plays later, Seattle had moved from its own 42 to the Panther 10-yard line.  From there, a couple of kneel downs and a spike set up Seahawk kicker Sebastian Janikowski for the game-winning field goal – which he provided as time expired (gamebook) (box score).

In the game’s first half, Panther quarterback Cam Newton had completed all 14 passes thrown.  Carolina committed no penalties, allowed no sacks, and outgained Seattle 236 to 154.  Seventy-seven of those yards had come on 15 rushing plays (5.1 yards per rush), as Carolina would set the early tone in this contest between two run-first teams.

And yet, the Panthers trotted off to the locker room ahead just 13-10.  The culprits were an 0-4 mark on third down, and a 1-4 conversion rate inside the red zone.  On their first drive of the game, the Panthers moved to fourth-and-2 at the Seattle 5-yard line.  Calling a quarterback draw, Newton waited – perhaps too long – for the blocking to develop and was then pulled down inches short (or so said the official) of the first down.

Two other times, Carolina would have to settle for field goals.  It was enough to keep Seattle in the game, and would cost the Panthers in the end.

Carolina would add another 143 rushing yards in the second half – finishing with 220 on the game – but it wouldn’t be enough.  Seattle quarterback Russell Wilson would work his own special brand of second half magic.  Russell would complete 15 of his last 19 passes (78.9%) for 218 yards and 2 touchdowns to lead the comeback.  Much of this came courtesy of two critical deep passes.

Moments after a Bradley McDougald interception in the end zone had denied Carolina yet again in the red zone – and still trailing 13-10 about midway through the third quarter – Wilson found David Moore all alone up the right sideline for 54 yards.  Cornerback James Bradberry had slipped in coverage, providing the opportunity.  Moments later a touchdown pass to Tyler Lockett gave the Seahawks their first lead of the game.

Now it’s immediately after the Gano miss.  Coverage confusion between backup defensive back Corn Elder and Captain Munnerlyn allowed Lockett to uncover deep down the right sideline.  That 43-yard completion set up the game-winning field goal.

With the win the Seahawks stay on pace.  At 6-5, they now have the tie-breaker over Carolina.  If it should come to that.  For Carolina, the story is more concerning.

Three weeks ago – after they had pushed around Tampa Bay, 42-28, Carolina held a 6-2 record and looked like a playoff lock.  They have now lost three in a row.  The streak began with a spanking at the hands of the Steelers (52-21), and proceeded with a loss to an uninspiring Detroit team (20-19).  Now, in a kind of must-win game against Seattle at home, the Panthers came up short again.

At 6-5 their playoff position isn’t critical yet.  But the trend this team is on is a concern.  They still have two games remaining against New Orleans.  I have a hard time seeing this team winning either of those – which would bring them to 7 losses.  That would mean that they would probably have to win all of their other games.  Problem is that two of those other three are on the road – where the Panthers are just 1-4 this season. 

The first of those will be this Sunday in Tampa Bay.  The Bucs are not in playoff contention this year, but they do play notably better at home, where they are 3-2 this year.  Then the Panthers move on to Cleveland.  The Browns also are not playoff candidates this year, but they have won two in a row – over Atlanta and Cincinnati – and have played considerably better of late.

An 8-8 record probably won’t get you into the playoffs this year, so Carolina’s path in is to either win both of their next two road games, or win at least one of those two and find a way to win one of the two against New Orleans.

If they should fail – and I think they will have quite a lot of difficulty achieving either of those objectives – then the Minnesota Vikings (6-4-1) are lurking to claim the NFC’s last playoff spot.  Minnesota faces a challenging finish as well.  They go into New England this week and into Seattle next week.  They finish the season at home, but against the rising Chicago Bears.  However, they also have a home game against Miami.  The game that decides the final NFC playoff berth may well be the road game that the Vikings will play in Detroit in Week 16.  The Vikings beat the Lions in Minnesota 24-9 in Week 9.

Denver Halts Pittsburgh’s Win Streak

On the AFC side of the ledger, not much materially changes in the playoff picture.  Pittsburgh’s surprising 24-17 loss in Denver (gamebook) (box score) could potentially drop the Steelers to the fourth seed from the third.

In terms of annoying losses, this one might score an eleven on a ten scale.  For the afternoon, the Steelers rolled up 527 yards against the Denver defense – ranked twenty-second in the league as the game began.  They also committed four turnovers and had a field goal blocked.  They also missed three wide open receivers running behind the Denver defense.  There are at least a half-dozen scenarios that have Pittsburgh winning this game handily.  It was – to say the least – frustrating.

While all of the turnovers hurt, two were particularly damaging.

Trailing 3-0, Pittsburgh took possession on their own 25 with 6:26 left in the first quarter.  Eleven plays later, the Steelers had run away all of the remaining time in the quarter, while moving to a third-and-1 at the Denver 24.  They began the second quarter with a perfectly executed screen pass to Xavier Grimble, who broke clear up the left sideline.  As he approached the goal line with the touchdown that would have given Pittsburgh the lead, Grimble was suddenly met at the one by Will Parks, whose tackle dislodged the ball from Grimble’s grasp.  Xavier could only watch as the ball trickled over the goal line and into foul territory – ending the long drive with no points scored, and giving Denver the ball at the 20.

For all of their issues, Pittsburgh nonetheless took possession on their own 44-yard line, trailing by one touchdown, with still 4:26 left in the contest.

Methodically they moved the ball inside the Bronco 5-yard line.  With still 1:07 left in the contest, Pittsburgh faced a third-and-goal at the 2-yard line.  But the snap to Ben Roethlisberger was wide enough to throw off the timing of the play.  Panicked just a bit, Ben heaved the ball into the end zone in the general direction of Antonio Brown.  Before it could get there, a defensive lineman named Shelby Harris – who looked for all the world like he was rushing the passer – dropped one step into coverage and found the ball heading right toward him.  His goal-line interception provided Pittsburgh with its the final indignity of the night.

Denver has now won consecutive games against teams that have come in riding impressive winning streaks.  Their closing schedule is softer than their beginning, encouraging some hope among Bronco fans.  I still hesitate to call their playoff chances “good.” In the AFC, both the Chargers and the Colts are likely to win ten games each – meaning the Broncos would have to win out to join that conversation.

On Sunday, they seemed more lucky than good.  They will need more than luck to fight their way into the dance.

Falcons Can’t Finish

Sunday, February 5, 2017.  Super Bowl LI (51).  I can’t think of the Atlanta Falcons anymore without recalling that evening.

About halfway through the third quarter, a six-yard touchdown pass from Matt Ryan to Tevin Coleman pushed Atlanta’s lead to 28-3.  Taking nothing away from New England’s remarkable comeback, the fact remains that Atlanta – with the championship within their grasp – couldn’t finish.

In last year’s Divisional Round game, Atlanta failed to score in the second half, becoming a footnote in Philadelphia’s remarkable run to the championship.

Last Sunday, Atlanta fell to New Orleans, 31-17 (gamebook) (box score).  The loss – their third straight – leaves their record at 4-7 and their playoff hopes on life support.

All throughout this mystifying season, the Falcons have been close.  As they were close to winning it all a couple of years ago.  But finishing remains elusive.  They were within one score of the defending champions in the season opening game, but lost 18-12.  They have also lost by one score to New Orleans (43-37 in overtime in Week Three), Cincinnati (37-36 in Week Four), and Dallas (22-19 in Week Eleven). The losses to New Orleans (the first one), Cincinnati and Dallas were all at home.

This, of course, was not a one-score loss.  Still, it falls into the familiar pattern.  Eleven-and-a-half point underdogs coming into the game, the 4-6 Falcons gave the once-beaten Saints all they could handle, outgaining them 366 yards to 312, while controlling the clock for 30:59.

In the end, though, they couldn’t finish.

Driving all the way to the Saint 3-yard lineon their first possession, they coughed the ball up on a sack-fumble – the first of six sacks and four turnovers on the day.  That pretty much told story.  After a rare interception of Drew Brees, Atlanta had the ball on the New Orleans 39, still trailing 7-0.  Moments later they had a second-and-6 on the Saints’ 7-yard line.  Another sack forced them to settle for a field goal.  By the time the first half ended, Atlanta was down 17-3 and playing catchup.

The loss not only casts a shadow over the Falcon playoff hopes, but also diminished several good things that the Falcons did accomplish during the contest.  After his first-half difficulties, Matt Ryan did throw 2 second half touchdown passes, on his way to 377 passing yards.  Moreover, both Julio Jones and Calvin Ridley had 80+ receiving yards in the second half – part of a second half that saw Atlanta control the clock for 18:30 and outgain the Saints 221 yards to 109.

At 4-7, the Falcons are pretty much under the necessity to win all of their remaining games.  It’s a tall order, as those games include road games in Green Bay, Carolina and Tampa Bay.  Next week’s home game against Baltimore won’t come easily either – although they will have the luxury of playing against a backup quarterback.

Worth noting – I thought – in the loss was the improvement in the Atlanta defense.  Yes, I know that the numbers weren’t all that amazing.  Before the game was over, they had allowed 4 touchdowns, 31 points, and 312 yards – 150 of them on the ground.

But remember, please, that this was the New Orleans offense.  They came in not only as the highest scoring offense in the league, but having scored 144 points over their last three games while racking up 1542 total yards.

In spite of their inability to cope with New Orleans’ running game, the Falcons were able – to a great extent – to make the Saints passing game crawl.  Brees had only two completions more than 20 yards downfield, and only 3 for greater than 15 yards.  This – along with the first interception tossed by the league leader in passer rating since Week 8, and the first sack against him since Week 7 – made this victory more difficult than most – and certainly more difficult than you would have expected against Atlanta – who came into the game with the twenty-ninth ranked pass defense.

In trying to take away the deep pass, Atlanta played some zone defense – still not their strength.  Most of Drew’s short completions came against Atlanta’s soft zones.  But, more and more, Atlanta started playing man coverage against this high-octane passing attack.  They did all this well enough to hold top receiver Michael Thomas to 4 catches for 38 yards, and Alvin Kamara to one catch for 9 yards.

Conceptually, they covered Kamara with a defensive back, and double covered Thomas.  This is an approach tried with some frequency against New Orleans, but few opponents can make it work.  At times, the Falcon defense vaguely resembled the Super Bowl defense of a few years ago.  Some of the coverage schemes were quite inventive.  On one third quarter pass, Atlanta ran what looked like a defensive read-option double team of Thomas.

Still up 17-3, New Orleans faced third-and-5 from the Falcon 43.  There were 11 minutes and 19 seconds left in the quarter.  The Saints lined up with three wide receivers to the right side (Tommylee Lewis, Thomas and Keith Kirkwood).  Tight end Josh Hill was tight to the left of the formation, with Kamara in the backfield to Brees’ left.

The Falcons answered with a man-look with Brian Poole lining up opposite Lewis, Desmond Trufant in position to bump Thomas off the line, and Robert Alford across from Kirkwood.  On the other side, De’Vondre Campbell had Hill and cornerback Isaiah Oliver had Kamara.  In the middle of the field stood safety Sharrod Neasman – perhaps keeping an eye on Brees should he try to run for the first down, or potentially a double cover for Hill.

At the snap, though, when Thomas initially broke to the outside, Alford went with him, forming a double-team with Trufant on Thomas.  Meanwhile, Neasman took Kirkwood’s in-breaking route.  Presumably, had Thomas broken to the inside, Neasman would have been a part of that double-team, while Alford would have gone with Kirkwood.

True to the way this game played out, after his initial outside step, Thomas broke back inside, causing a moment of indecision on Alford’s part.  That was enough for Thomas to lead Trufant on a collision course with Alford, leaving Thomas wide open down the left side.

Brees overthrew him, forcing a rare New Orleans punt.  It would be one of the few breaks the Falcons would get on this day.

A Note on TaysomHill

Every New Orleans broadcast includes some kind of feature on third-string quarterback Taysom Hill.  Listed as 6-2 and 221 pounds (although he looks much bigger) Hill has become quite a story.  He returns kickoffs, plays on all the coverage teams, and lines up all over the field – including tight end and wide receiver.

Hill is said to be the fastest player on the team.  Coach Sean Payton – who is something of a subject matter expert – claims that Hill will be a starting quarterback in this league.  As a receiver, Hill displays down-the-field speed, but none of the nuances (yet) of the position – double-moves, etc.  The same is true of his kick returning and other running.  Hill is a downhill runner, with none of the shiftiness that makes receivers like Tyreek Hill so feared.

So, what Taysom Hill may or may not develop into on the field remains purely speculative.  Here is what we know for sure about him.

Taysom Hill is a football player.

At the very end of the third quarter, Hill took a kickoff at his own 5 yard line.  Finding a crease up the left sideline, Hill exploded through it.  At the end of the corridor stood kicker Matthew Bosher.  Hill lowered his shoulder and blew through him and straight into the three defenders that were moving quickly into the area.  Later in the fourth quarter, now playing quarterback, Taysom kept the ball on a read-option run.  He punctuated his 8-yard run first by running through Foyesade Oluokun’s attempt to stop him in the backfield, and then by lowering that shoulder again and driving linebacker Campbell straight back into Damontae Kazee’s lap.  He then drove both of them a couple yards up the field before plowing into the midsection of Poole, who, with the help of the other two, finally brought Hill down.

There is, seemingly, no aspect of this game that Taysom Hill does not relish – whether it’s blocking from the tight end position or even the special teams roles that aren’t regarded as football’s most glamorous opportunities.  He certainly doesn’t shy away from contact.  In fact, judging from the face-wide grin he wears after hitting someone (or being hit), the contact might be the thing he likes best.

In all of this, everything about him is refreshing.  Whatever his eventual future is in this game, it’s hard not to root for this kid with a rare combination of size and speed.