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.

Hubris in the Air

Earlier this week, America was treated to the highest scoring Monday Night Football game of all time – an entertaining affair in which the Los Angeles Rams outlasted the Kansas City Chiefs by a 54-51 score (gamebook) (box score).  The game featured 1001 yards of offense (539 of them in the second half) and 14 touchdowns – 1 rushing, 10 passing, and 3 defensive scores.

In the aftermath, I have been wondering if we really learned anything from the game.  As the game began, it was assumed that both of the average defenses on the field would be hard pressed to keep up with the elite offenses they would be facing.

The Chiefs came into the game as the league’s second highest scoring team – averaging 35.3 points a game.  They were number three in total offense, and fourth in passing yards behind quarterback Patrick Mahomes – who came into the week with a league-leading 31 touchdown passes.  They would line up against a Ram defense that was allowing 23.1 points per game and was notably vulnerable to the run.  They ranked twenty-fourth, allowing 122.1 yards per game on the ground, and 5.2 yards per rush.

For their part, the Rams offense came into the tilt ranked second in yards per game and second in running the football, averaging 144.8 ground yards a game.  They were also football’s third highest scoring team – at 33.5 points per game – with their young quarterback Jared Goff directing the league’s fifth most prolific passing attack.  Kansas City’s answer was a defense that ranked only twenty-third at stopping the run (121.7 yards per game, and 5.1 per rush), twenty-eighth at stopping the pass, and twenty-ninth overall.  They were allowing 24 points a game.

Perhaps the extent of the scoring would be unexpected, but the general anticipation was of a game somewhere in the neighborhood of 42-37 or thereabouts.

So, I thought that I would look through the numbers from the game and see what surprised me.  First I saw the three interceptions from Mahomes – Patrick had thrown only 7 all year, so that was unexpected.  Of course, he hasn’t been behind in the last two minutes of too many games.

Then I noted the rushing numbers.  For the Chiefs, just 98 yards, while the Rams were held to just 76.  How, you would wonder, would two teams who had pronounced difficulty stopping the run hold two of the NFL’s most prolific running attacks to less than 100 yards?

The answer is that they didn’t.  Essentially, Los Angeles and Kansas City shut down their own running attacks.  The Chiefs ran just 20 times and the Rams just 21 (including two kneel downs).

This, then, becomes my most valuable take-away from this game.  In a contest in which either team could have taken charge by turning to their running attack, neither chose to.  Understanding that the evening would probably be a showcase for two nearly unstoppable passing attacks, both teams bought into the challenge and answered throw for throw.  For as balanced as both of these teams have been all year, when push comes to shove, they turn first to their passing attack.  With just under ten minutes left in the third quarter, Kareem Hunt carried the ball on consecutive plays.  They gained 14 yards.  It was the only time in the entire game that either team ran the ball on consecutive downs.

This is especially insightful as it regards Kansas City.  As the game wore on and the Rams defensive line began to completely disregard the running game, they notably increased the pressure on Mahomes.  Four of the five KC turnovers (all connected to the passing game) occurred in the games second half.

At any point, Kansas City could have re-centered themselves and taken over the game with Hunt – exploiting the Rams most noted weakness (explained more in depth here).  But they didn’t.  Somewhere along the line they decided that they would conquer or perish on Mahomes strong right arm.  The Rams, I am convinced, would have made a similar decision.

It is – if you think about it – a kind of hubris.  It’s almost as though running the ball was an act of cowardice.  What the evening evolved into was a game of aerial chicken, with neither team willing to disgrace itself by turning to the running game – even though that likely would have been the most direct path to victory.

So, if I’m a future opponent of either of these teams, I would understand that this is their psychology.  Both of these teams feel best about themselves when they are throwing the ball, and neither really has the patience to beat you by consistently running the ball.

Beating the Rams or the Chiefs will be a challenge for anyone, but here is how my game plan would set up:

Most important is to shorten the game.  Keep the possessions to a minimum.  Running the ball against these teams is a must.  You will have to commit to running the ball – even if you fall behind by a little bit early.  Keep running.  Both of these defenses are vulnerable to a disciplined running attack.  Work the clock.  Let these quarterbacks cool their jets on the sidelines.

Defensively, I don’t think I would play much zone at all against either team.  That would be too easy for them.  I would play mostly man defenses, with a feature on pressure.  About the only time either of these passing attacks were stopped Monday night was when they had pressure.  As you do this, you are accepting the fact that you will give up the occasional big play.  Playing man against either of these teams is fraught with peril.  But the virtue of a pressure-based defense is that whatever happens on the possession, it will happen quickly.  You’ll get burned for the quick touchdown, you’ll get the interception, you’ll get the quick three-and-out, but you won’t be getting those 11-play, 87-yard, 6:30 drives against you.

The overriding concept is long, clock-consuming drives by your offense, briefly interrupted by very quick possessions by the Rams or Chiefs.  As game plans go, I admit it’s less than perfect, but I think it gives the best chance.

What you don’t want to do – unless you are New Orleans – is engage these teams in aerial warfare.  That just doesn’t work out.

Tennessee’s Tumbling Playoff Chances

One week ago we were lauding the Tennessee Titans after their decisive conquest of the Patriots.  One week later, those same Titans were eaten alive by the Indianapolis Colts, 38-10 (gamebook) (box score).

The list of distressing elements of this one – if you are Tennessee – is long and hard to prioritize.  But let’s begin with the defense.  The game started with Tennessee as the league’s top scoring defense, having allowed just 151 points.  Further, they had allowed the fewest touchdown passes – just 11 through the first 9 games.  They came in ranked sixth overall in yardage, and sixth against the pass, as they held opposing passers to just an 89.5 rating.  Additionally, they were tenth against the run – allowing just 99.8 yards a game and 3.9 yards a carry.

But, quietly rebuilding after a 1-5 start, the Indianapolis Colts have undergone a kind of re-birth, and the centerpiece has been the offense.  Even when they were losing games early, they still scored points.  They had scored 260 (nearly 30 per game) as the game began.  And in the middle was Andrew Luck.

Andrew Luck burst on the scene back in 2012 as the heir to Peyton Manning.  He led the Colts to three consecutive 11-5 seasons and three consecutive playoff berths his first three seasons in the league.

His rising start was interrupted by an injury plagued 2015, and he then missed all of 2017 with arm miseries.  The promising career that was Andrew Luck – and the resurgence in Indianapolis – both seemed to have ended before they had truly begun.  With the 1-5 start – even with Luck back and starting to look healthy again – 2018 looked like it would be yet another lost year in Indianapolis.

Quietly, the Colts started figuring things out, but it was easy to dismiss the early stages of the turnaround.  Victories over the Bills and Raiders (teams that are a combined 5-15) didn’t generate tremendous attention.  A tight 29-26 win over Jacksonville made it seem more real – but last years’ division champs have been fading as well.  Now 4-5, Indy needed a statement win before they could really be taken seriously.  Their dismantling of this Tennessee team more or less qualifies for that.

During the route, Luck completed 11 of 12 second half passes (91.7%) and tossed 2 of the 3 touchdowns passes he had for the game.  He finished 23 of 29 for 297 yards and with 143.8 passer rating.  He was 9-for-9 throwing to T.Y. Hilton for 155 yards and 2 of the touchdowns.

As I start to sour on the Titans playoff chances, it’s not so much because they lost this game.  Even with this loss, their soft remaining schedule still gives them a strong chance.  It was a couple of other elements arising from this loss that makes me wonder about the Titans going forward.

One of the elements is the team they lost to.  It’s hard not to be convinced by the Colts the way they’ve played their last four games.  Their ending schedule is also manageable.  The Colts, though, if they earn that final playoff spot will have to do so on the road (they are 2-3 on the road, so far).  Their final three road games will be against the division.  Before all is said and done, they will go into Jacksonville, into Houston and into Tennessee (for the season’s last game).  They will have to earn it.

For that reason, I might still lean toward Tennessee.  But here’s the other thing.  On a fairly routine sack at the end of the first half, quarterback Marcus Mariota’s day ended.  It was a mild re-occurrence of the elbow issue he had earlier in the year and seemed to be over.  He is officially listed as questionable for Monday night in Houston.

The injury is sobering, because it means that this is a shadow that will hang over the Titans and their quarterback at least all the rest of this season.  Even if Mariota comes back, any random hit – and Marcus is one of those QBs that run an awful lot – could send him to the sidelines and bring in Blaine Gabbert.

As I look at the Titans now, I am not convinced that they will have Mariota on the field enough to make this happen for them.

More Flux in the NFC East

Every week in the NFC East a new front-runner emerges.  Two weeks ago, when I first projected the division, I backed the defending champion Eagles to eventually emerge.  They have lost two straight games since then, and seem to be in considerable disarray.  So last week, I conceded that Washington was probably the team that would enter the playoffs from this division.  They not only lost their last game, but their starting quarterback for the rest of the season.

Who’s left?  Could it be Dallas?  The Cowboy team that was left for dead all those weeks ago?

Don’t look now, but the Cowboys have pulled off back-to-back, must win games against the Eagles and the Falcons.  Now, tomorrow the Redskins limp into Irving with first place on the line.  Suddenly, everything is before the Cowboys.

Minnesota’s Blueprint?

Down 14-0 at the half and 22-6 with about half the fourth quarter left, the Minnesota Viking made a spirited comeback against the Chicago Bears.  They fell short, but made a game of it, 25-20 (gamebook) (box score).  The Vikings found success in their hurry-up offense, throwing underneath the Chicago coverage.  When they tried to get greedy, they suffered (Eddie Jackson’s crushing 27-yard interception return coming on one of Kirk Cousins’ last attempted long passes).

After passing for just 57 yards in the first half, Cousins completed 23 of 33 in the second half (69.7%), but for just 205 yards.  But he kept moving the chains.  Receiver Stefon Diggs was targeted 15 times in the second half alone.  He caught 11 of the passes for 93 yards and one of the two second half touchdown passes.  Adam Thielen was targeted 7 times in that half, catching 5 for 48 yards.

Whether it’s a blueprint remains to be seen.  But for 30 minutes last Monday night, the Bears’ defense seemed to be on its heels a lot.

Big Ben’s Perfectish Game

It is Thursday evening, November 8 (ten days ago)

On their first play from scrimmage, the Pittsburgh Steelers lined up with receivers JuJu Smith-Schuster and James Washington spread wide to the left of quarterback Ben Roethlisberger.  Carolina cornerback Captain Munnerlyn initially lined up over Smith-Schuster as if in man coverage.  But as the play developed and Washington curled into the flat along the sideline, Munnerlyn dropped Smith-Schuster and moved to his zone assignment where Washington was.

One little problem.  The Panthers were not in zone.  They were in man coverage – and Juju Smith-Schuster was his man.

In the very same fraction of a second that Munnerlyn turned his attention to Washington, Roethlisberger released his perfectly thrown deep pass, hitting Juju in stride just before the Carolina 45-yard line, on his way to a game opening 75-yard touchdown.

That would set the tone.

The Carolina Panthers came into the contest 6-2 and looking like one of the NFL’s elite teams.  But they walked into a buzz-saw in Pittsburgh leaving the Steel City on the bad end of a 51-14 score (gamebook) (box score).

The Steelers had it all working.  The defense limited Carolina to 242 yards, while sacking Cam Newton 5 times and forcing 2 turnovers.  The running attack rang up 138 yards and a touchdown.

But for all that, the day belonged to Ben Roethlisberger and his indomitable (at least it was a week ago Thursday) passing attack.

Primarily a zone defense team, Carolina realized that they couldn’t sit in their zones in this game or Ben would eat them alive.  So they opened their defensive playbook.  They showed man, but then played zone.  They showed zone but then played man.  On the touchdown pass to Vance McDonald (and Ben would throw 5 touchdowns on the night) Vance came in motion across the formation and no one followed him – a clear indication of zone.  Yet once the play began, McDonald was man covered by star Panther linebacker Luke Kuechly with safety help over the top.  Even that wasn’t enough, as McDonald got behind both in the back of the end zone.

Throughout the game, Carolina would line up six or more potential pass rushers across the line of scrimmage, dropping most of them into coverage once the play began.  Perhaps the most amazing aspect of Roethlisberger’s performance was how quickly he deciphered the defensive scheme and how rapidly he delivered the football.

With 3:50 left in the first half, Pittsburgh faced a third-and-six on their own 29-yard line.  Six Panthers crowded the line of scrimmage, but three droped off after the snap.  One of those dropping out – DE/LB Julius Peppers hadn’t taken three steps into his coverage before the football whistled past his ear to receiver Ryan Switzer who had beaten the entire Panther defense to the soft spot in the zone just behind Peppers.

And so it went.

With just under five minutes left in the third quarter, Pittsburgh faced a third-and-eight from its own 37-yard line.  The Steelers lined up with three receivers bunched to the right, and Carolina showed man coverage.  As Roethlisberger prepared to receive the ball, Kuechly and Munnerlyn crept up to the line – again showing six potential blitzers.  When Ben dropped his hands, Kuechly and Munnerlyn fell back to their previous positions.  Luke then took another step in, but backed off again – prompting Roethlisberger to change the play.

After spending most of the game bluffing the blitz, Carolina actually came this time.  Both Kuechly and Munnerlyn rushed, with end Mario Addison dropping back into coverage.  Instead of man, the Panthers played zone (with just six defenders) behind the blitz.  Still, Ben and the Steelers had the answer.  Running back Jaylen Samuels scooted across the formation to pick up Munnerlyn – who was running free to the quarterback.  With the blitz answered, Roethlisberger waited for the zones to expand, at which point he dumped the ball off to McDonald in the short middle of the field.  Vance gathered the pass in and turned up field to complete a 19-yard gain and another first down.

Pittsburgh was 8-of-11 converting third downs that night.

Ben’s dominance reflected in his passing line for the game.  He finished completing 22 of 25 passes for 328 yards and the 5 touchdowns.  His efforts earned him the maximum passer rating of 158.3.

Maximum but Not Perfect

Over and over you will hear announcers refer to this magic number (158.3) as a perfect rating.  That, of course, is clearly not true.  Whatever else you might want from a perfect night, you would at least want all of the passes completed.  That 158.3 number does not in any sense reflect perfection.  Through the bizarre intricacies of the formula itself, that score happens to be the highest that it will award – the maximum score, if you will.

This is a discussion I’ve been intending to have for some time.

The passer rating system as we know it today was created prior to the 1973 season.  Previously, passers had been rated either by total passing yards or completion percentage.  And no previous system took into account interceptions thrown

The 1973 system, then, attempted to achieve an equal balance between four averages.  It takes completion percentage, average yards per pass, touchdown percentage and interception percentage into consideration.  The guts of the calculation are as follows:

5*(Completion Percentage + (5*avg yards per pass) + 2.5 + (4*touchdown percentage) – (5*interception percentage))/6. 

This is certainly complex enough.  But then each of the individual categories is randomly capped. (perhaps to prevent any one area from overweighing the others?) The completion percentage category is capped at 77.5%.  In the prior Thursday’s game, Ben completed 88%, so the last 10.5% of his completion percentage didn’t help his rating.  The cap in average per attempted pass is 12.5.  Ben averaged 13.12 in this game – essentially the system disregarded his last 15.5 passing yards. The touchdown maximum is 11.9%. With Roethlisberger throwing an even 20% of his passes for touchdowns that meant that his last two touchdowns helped his rating not at all.  Zero, of course, is the maximum best score for interception percentage.  This category is also capped on the high end, as anything more than 9.5% won’t hurt you any further.  According to the system, throwing a third of your passes for interceptions is no worse than throwing a tenth of your passes to the wrong side.

Why the caps were put into place is a mystery.  Without the artificially placed maximums, Ben would have scored a 196.8 against Carolina.  Without the imposed maximums, the highest possible score would be 831.3 (a scenario where every pass thrown results in a 99-yard touchdown), and the lowest possible score would be -414.6 (a scenario where every pass thrown is intercepted).

For any normal use, the accepted range between 0 and 158.3 is sufficient.  But the only people who call the 158.3 figure “perfect” are those that do not understand it.

Ben was really good that Thursday night.  He was pretty close to perfect.  But not perfect.

Halting the Run an Issue for the Rams

The problem is not just against the Seahawks, although it has been most pronounced in their two games against Seattle.  In their 35-23 win over the LA Chargers, the Rams allowed 141 rushing yards.  The New Orleans Saints also rang up 141 rushing yards against the Rams when they beat them in Week Nine, 45-35.

But stopping the run against Seattle has been a particular challenge for a Rams team that has shown few imperfections so far in 2018.  They beat Seattle in Week Five by a 33-31 score in spite of the fact that they surrendered 190 rushing yards.  In the NFL, teams that run for 190 yards rarely lose. 

That theme was built upon last Sunday.

When quarterback Russell Wilson’s fourth-down desperation heave soared over the head of receiver Tyler Lockett with 18 seconds left in the contest, the Rams had secured another nail-biting victory over the Hawks – this one by a 36-31 score (gamebook) (box score).

This win came in spite of the fact that Seattle earned 273 rushing yards on 34 attempts – an average of 8.0 yards per rush.

How does a team lose a game in which it runs for 273 yards, gets a 123.2 passer rating from its quarterback, and turns the ball over only once?  Well, that was the interesting dichotomy of this game.  While the Seattle offensive line generally had their way with the Ram defensive front seven when they went to run the ball, it was the Rams’ defensive front that dominated in passing situations.

Of the 34 times that Wilson dropped to pass, he was forced to throw the ball away twice, forced to scramble 4 other times, and sacked 4 other times. So 10 of his 34 drop backs were significantly disrupted by the pass rush.  This also turned the big plays that might have come through the passing game to a series of much shorter completions.  Wilson only had two pass completions over twenty yards in the entire contest, and totaled just 176 yards on his 17 completions.

This and the one critical turnover is about the only way you lose a game in which you’ve run for 273 yards – and, by the way, about the only way that you lose two games in which you total 463 rushing yards.

Much of this ground success is the product of a new philosophy in Seattle and an offensive line now much more proficient in run blocking than pass blocking.  With 173 more rushing yards in their Thursday night win against the Packers, Seattle now has seven straight games with at least 154 rushing yards.  That’s the kind of statistic you see associated with the old Oklahoma teams.  You rarely see that kind of run consistency in the NFL.

But this is who the Seahawks have re-branded themselves to be.  Thursday night, their 35 running plays stood opposite their 34 passing plays.  For the season, now, they have 323 running plays against 310 passing plays.  The running play total does include scrambles that might have been passes under better circumstances, so the actual Seahawk play-calling isn’t truly 51% run.  But this does make the point.

Seattle’s identity is to run through you until you show that you can stop it.  I’m going to call this Neanderthal football – a style hearkening back to the pre-1970s.

Thus, Seattle did some things last Sunday to the Rams that other teams might not be able to do.  Particularly impressive – during the running plays, anyway – was the middle of the Seattle offensive line.  Center Justin Britt and guards J.R. Sweezy and Jordan Simmons more than held their own against the Rams’ dominant interior linemen Aaron Donald and Ndamukong Suh.  Suh was frequently double-teamed, but that had more to do with his position in the center of the defense than any particular fear that Seattle had of him.  Throughout the game, they showed no particular hesitancy to leave any of their interior linemen one-on-one with any of the Ram defensive front seven.

Not a lot of teams can get away with that.

But even if much of the Seahawk success is a result of personnel and organizational philosophy, a good chunk of the LA struggle is endemic to the Rams themselves, and as such are things that other teams can exploit.

For one thing, the Rams are very quick on defense, but surprisingly small.  Even as it became apparent that the run game would be a primary focus, the Rams were decidedly unwilling to move out of their base 3-4 defense.  And who were those linebackers?

In their base defense, the Rams played almost every snap with some combination of Cory Littleton (6-3, 228), Mark Barron (6-2, 230), Dante Fowler (6-3, 255), Samson Ebukam (6-3, 245) and Matt Longacre (6-3, 265).  Frankly, when you look at the Rams lining up on defense, it almost looks like they have 8 defensive backs, as the linebackers are notably smaller than the linemen – a clearly advantageous alignment to stop the pass, but a potential liability against the run.

In the usual alignment, this would have the smaller backers (Littleton, Barron and Ebukam) off the line as pure linebackers, and either Fowler or Longacre on the line as an undersized defensive end.

Other teams do this as well.  The small-but-quick linebacker concept isn’t unique to the Rams.  Unlike other teams that employ this concept, though, the defensive line of the Rams makes almost no effort at all to shield its linebackers.  While many teams will ask their down linemen to occupy blockers, giving their linebackers free range to chase down the running backs, the Rams basically leave their undersized defenders to fend for themselves.  Repeatedly, the Hawks’ large offensive linemen sprinted cleanly into the second level of the defense to gash open the LA run defense.  Perhaps when your defensive line includes stars like Suh and Donald, their focus is more an individual concept than a team one.  Perhaps.

On Seattle’s very first offensive play of the day – a 12-yard up the middle run from Mike Davis – Sweezy was on top of Littleton before he could blink and Simmons had unobstructed access to Barron.  Nobody impeded tight end Nick Vannett as he pushed away free safety Lamarcus Joyner, nor was fullback Tre Madden slowed as he hunted up Ebukam.

That would be the pattern all day.

On Seattle’s longest running play of the day, a 38-yard sprint on the first carry from Rashaad Penny, the Hawks employed a sixth offensive lineman as George Fant, playing the tight end position, lined up tight to the right of the formation.  The Rams responded by over-shifting their defensive linemen to that side.  The Hawks adjusted by running the ball back the other way.  Left tackle Duane Brown easily kicked out Fowler.  Meanwhile, the double-team block by Britt and Sweezy was so effective that they drove Suh all the way back into linebacker Barron opening a gaping highway through two levels of the defense.  Penny sliced through the gap and sprinted up the sideline until Joyner eventually ran him down.

Consistently throughout the afternoon, Seattle battered the Rams with an endless series of 5, 6, and 7 yard runs that featured offensive linemen having clean shots at the smaller Ram linebackers.

Even more damaging was the Rams’ loss of discipline against the Seattle running game.  Of the 273 rushing yards allowed, I count 93 surrendered by the Rams for simply not being where they were supposed to be.

Of these, the two most damaging plays were Penny’s 18-yard touchdown run in the first quarter that opened up when Ebukam completely neglected his containment responsibility and charged headlong into the backfield – allowing Rashaad to sprint untouched into the end zone; and a third-quarter, 24-yard run by Penny again around Ebukam who wasn’t quick enough to fulfill his containment responsibility.

Wilson – who added his 92 rushing yards to the 108 racked up by Penny – frequently hurt the Rams with his zone-read runs.

Just before the 24-yard run by Penny, Fowler bit hard on Wilson’s faked handoff, opening the sideline for an 11-yard run.  Barron also bit hard on the fake, so the run was wide open.  On a couple other zone-read runs from Wilson, linebacker Longacre didn’t over-commit to the run – keeping his eye on Wilson the whole time.  But even this nod to discipline wasn’t enough, as Matt was still too close to the formation.  Even though Wilson saw him trying to contain, he twice out-raced Longacre to the sideline – once for 12 yards with 2:48 left in the first half, and again for 11 yards early in the fourth quarter.

These were opportunities that were consistently open to the Seahawks the entire game.

Let’s be honest.  It will be difficult for most teams to beat the Rams by running at them.  When the opposing offense is running up 30-40 points a game against you at some point most teams will have to fold up the running game and try to match them air-strike-for-air-strike.

Interestingly, though, one of the teams that this weakness might come into play against will be the Rams’ next opponent.  Monday night at home, LA will match up with Kansas City.  Like the Rams, the Chiefs are 9-1 and boast an explosive offense.  With a dynamic passing attack of their own, Kansas City would seem to be able to keep up with LA’s air power.

But a significant feature of the Kansas City offense is an elite running game, centering on the cutback talents of Kareem Hunt.  Moreover, the Chiefs are among those teams that most challenge a defense’s discipline.  If any team employs the jet-sweep concept more than the Rams, it might be the Chiefs with speedsters like Tyreek Hill, who can threaten the edges like few players in the game.

The Ram-Chief game will be one of the season’s most anticipated – and is expected to be a shootout.  In a battle between two very even teams just a little lack of discipline might spell the difference.

Patriots Dominated in Tennessee

The formula for stopping Tom Brady has actually been known for a long time.  Pressure up the middle.  Break up the pass attack before anything can develop.  Easy to say – much harder to execute.

Over the years of the Patriot domination, one of the unspoken foundation pieces has been an elite offensive line and protection schemes focused on keeping Brady upright.  In fact, perhaps the most iconic image of the New England offense might be of Brady standing in his clean pocket for six or seven seconds while he thoroughly scans the field for open receivers.  The Patriots also know the formula.

Adding to the level of difficulty is the fact that the Patriot receiving corps is usually plentifully populated with very quick, very intelligent receivers who make very quick adjustments and almost always give Brady somewhere to go quickly with his throws in those infrequent occasions when he has to unload in a hurry.

And, of course, there is almost always a quality running attack that New England could turn to should they ever need to.  The running game gets little notice, being overshadowed by the passing attack, but it has made significant contributions to the Patriot cause. 

Last week – in their game against Green Bay (discussed here) – the Packers were actually able to sustain more pressure than usual against Brady.  This game could have been much more difficult for New England, had the running game not supplied 123 yards and 3 touchdowns on 31 rushes.

Cracks in the Foundation

Quietly, though, there has been some erosion among the foundation pieces of the Patriot dynasty.  Nate Solder – underappreciated, perhaps at left tackle for the previous seven seasons – is now in New York.  Shaq Mason – the highly acclaimed right guard – is out with an injury.  Dion Lewis, Brandin Cooks, and Danny Amendola are all elsewhere.  This – along with some reshuffling of the defense – has made the Patriots look fairly mortal from time-to-time this season.  With their most dynamic receiver – TE Rob Gronkowski – on the shelf with back and ankle injuries for a couple of games – the Patriots would appear to be as vulnerable now as they have ever recently been.

Still, the Packers didn’t have enough pieces to stop them, and the Patriots rolled into Tennessee with a 7-2 record and just a step behind Kansas City for the top seed in the division.  If this upset was to take place, few would have believed it would happen last week against the Titans.  Yes, Tennessee’s defense – statistically, anyway, seemed like it might present problems.  At 141 points, the Titans had surrendered the fewest points in the league, while ranking eighth in both total defense and pass defense.

But as impressive as they have been on defense, they have been that woeful on offense.  Their 134 points scored were twenty-ninth in the league, and they ranked thirtieth in both passing and total offense.  Yes, the Patriots might not score their customary 30 points.  But it was assumed that they would score some, and that punch-less Tennessee would have to mount some kind of substantial offense to have a chance in this game.

Patriots Ambushed

Two hours and 59 minutes later, the Patriots walked off the field, victims of a stunning 34-10 beating by the lightly-regarded Titans. (gamebook) (box score).

The stunning offensive display was, perhaps, less surprising than it should have been.  Yes, their numbers were bad to this point of the season.  But they have also played the entire year to this point with a compromised quarterback.  Over the last couple of weeks – and especially last Sunday – Marcus Mariota has shown himself mostly recovered.  This notably changes the narrative, both for this game and for the playoff picture.  Making throws that he couldn’t have imagined making earlier in the year, Mariota sliced the Patriot defense to the tune of 16 of 24 for 228 yards and 2 touchdowns.  His recovery combines with the continued emergence of wide receiver Corey Davis to give the Titans reason to hope that their offense could be considerably more explosive coming down the stretch.  Davis finished with 7 catches for 125 yards and a touchdown.

Still – even with the emergence of the passing attack – the offensive foundation in Tennessee remains the running game.  Controlling the line of scrimmage from start to finish, Tennessee pounded the Patriots to the tune of 150 rushing yards on 36 rushes.  Both feature back Derrick Henry and ex-Patriot Lewis finished with over 50 yards for the contest.

As stunning as the offensive performance was, it couldn’t overshadow the buzz generated by the defense as they dismantled the Patriots point-by-point. 

First, they inhaled the Patriot running game.  With no run gaining more than 9 yards, the Pats finished with just 40 yards on 19 carries (2.1 per).

Additionally, the Titans were able to fully exploit the absence of Gronkowski.  With young cornerback Adoree’ Jackson contesting every pass thrown to Josh Gordon, Tennessee was able to double-team running back James White

Then, with the relentless pressure forcing Brady to play fast the entire game – and with few available open receivers – Tom Brady finished with one of the worst games of his career.  Tom finished with just 21 completions in 41 attempts (51.2%) and finished with just a 70.6 passer rating.

It was the third straight game that Brady finished with a rating under 100 and the fifth time this season – including his 65.1 rating against Detroit earlier this season.  The Patriots are still 7-3 and in good shape.  But not looking as invincible as in season’s past.  Not yet anyway.

Two plays in particular underscored the disarray that the Titans caused in the New England offense.  With 10:34 left in the third, and trailing 24-10, the Patriots faced a second and ten from their own 30.  With a rare clean pocket, Brady tossed a strike 14 yards over the middle for a certain first down.  Receiver Julian Edelman never looked for it.  The ball hit Edelman flush in the helmet and bounced harmlessly away. 

Later in the fourth, down 27-10, the Pats faced third and seven.  New England had a little razzle-dazzle up its sleeve.  A handoff to White running to his left became a toss back to Edelman, coming back around to the right.  With linebacker Harold Landry bearing down on him, Julian jump-tossed to Brady, who had circled out of the backfield.  In the sense that the defense was totally fooled, the play worked as well as could be imagined.  As Brady pulled the pass in, there were no defenders within fifteen yards of him.  However, as he turned up field to run, Brady’s feet tangled.  He stumbled and finally went down – one yard short of the first down.  Going for it on fourth-and-one, a false start moved them back, and Brady’s fourth-and-six toss to Edelman over the middle was perfectly defended by Logan Ryan.

That’s how the day was for New England.

Titans Trending Up

On the other hand, this victory brightens things considerably in Nashville.  Last week when we discussed playoff situations, we noted that with a fairly soft closing schedule Tennessee needed to find a way to win one of their next three.  Mission more than accomplished.  Now – even should they drop their next two games (division road contests in Indianapolis and Houston), Tennessee still has a reasonable shot at a 10-6 record, which should earn them at least a wildcard spot.  Remember, Baltimore still holds the tie-breaker here, so the Titans will still have to finish with a better record.

Other Shifting Playoff Situations

The NFC East continues to be a division without direction.  In last week’s discussion, I championed the still underachieving Eagles as the team I expected to see hold forth.  Even with a vulnerable Dallas team playing in Philadelphia on Sunday night, the Eagles still managed to lose another game in the standings.  They now trail by two games.  With their disappointing loss to the Cowboys, coupled with Washington’s impressive victory in Tampa Bay, I am forced to admit that Washington is looking more and more like they are the class of that division.  With Carolina and Seattle in the same conference, it is unlikely that there will be a wildcard spot for the NFC East, so only the champion here is liable to go.

Saints Rolling On

While the Patriots, Falcons and Eagles all lost important games during Week Ten, the New Orleans Saints kept rolling on.  Showing no let-down after their huge conquest of the Rams, the Saints steam-rolled the Cincinnati Bengals, 51-14 (gamebook) (box score).

Much more perfect than this, an offense cannot hope to get.  They converted all of their first seven third-down opportunities.  They scored touchdowns the first five times they touched the ball, including going 4-4 in the red zone.  They had 10 possession for the game, scoring on the first 9 (6 touchdowns and 3 field goals).  Well ahead on their final possession, they settled for running off the final 4:42 of the game.

The final tally showed 244 rushing yards on 47 rushes (5.2 per), while QB Drew Brees recorded a 150.4 rating on 22 of 25 passing for 265 yards and 3 touchdowns.  New Orleans is making it look very easy right now.

Watching them, though, it seems that they are starting to get a little full of themselves – especially the defense.  This is curious, because the defense is the underachieving aspect of this team.  While the explosive offense continues to go about its business in a professional manner, the Saints defense (23rd in scoring defense, 23rd in total defense, and 31st in passing defense) celebrate all of their interceptions (they have only 6 on the season) by posing for pictures in the end zone.

Just a reminder: Pride goeth before a fall.