Patriots Advance — Again

With Jacksonville’s victory last Sunday, the NFL’s final four this year include three Cinderella teams.  The Jaguars were 3-13 last year – their sixth consecutive losing season.  This team hadn’t made the playoffs since 2007 and has never played in a Super Bowl.

The two teams that will battle it out for the NFC crown have also never won Super Bowls, although both the Minnesota Vikings and the Philadelphia Eagles have at least made it that far (the Vikings are 0-4 in the big game, the Eagles 0-2).  Those two teams have made it to the verge of the Super Bowl behind backup quarterbacks who have been lightly regarded and largely given up on.

The fourth team is the shark in the tank.  While this season of upheaval has seen most of the old guard falling by the wayside, even this monumental shift in the balance of power can’t unseat the New England Patriots.  Sunday, they will play in their seventh consecutive conference championship game.

Same Old Patriots?

The 2017-18 version of the Patriots are an intriguing blend of the expected and the mostly un-suspected.

On the expected side is quarterback Tom Brady, tight end Rob Gronkowski and a prolific offense.  In last Saturday’s 35-14 elimination of Tennessee (gamebook), the Titans thought to take the big play out of the Patriot arsenal and force them to drive the length of the field five yards at a time.  To a degree, they succeeded.  Of New England’s 80 offensive plays, only four gained 20 or more yards – and only one of those gained more than thirty.

The fly in the ointment, of course, is that the Patriots exhibited no trouble at all grinding up and down the field.  New England put together two drives that lasted more than five minutes – both consisting of 15 or more plays. Four times they scored touchdowns on drives that exceeded 50 yards (two of those traveling 90 yards or more).  They converted 6 of 9 third downs in the first half, and followed that by converting 5 of 8 in the second half.  That first half featured Brady throwing 7 times to the exceedingly quick Danny Amendola.  Danny caught all 7 passes for 62 yards – none of them longer than 15 yards.

New England scored touchdowns in all five red zone possessions.

Relentless, precise, methodical – everyone who faces the Patriots understands that they will have to find some way of coping with this elite offense.

Don’t Overlook the New England Defense

Less recognized are the week-in, week-out contributions of the Patriot defensive unit.  As opposed to the offense, there are no splash players here.  No one from the Patriot defense was named to the Pro Bowl – even as replacements for injured players (by comparison, three members of the offense and one from the Patriot special teams were named).  But as the 2017 season reaches its critical juncture, the Patriot defense is playing as well as any unit still playing – especially against the run.

In one of the most impressive displays of Wildcard weekend, The Tennessee Titans brutalized the Kansas City Chiefs with their running game (that game is discussed in some detail here).  With battering ram running back Derrick Henry pounding the center of the KC defense and quarterback Marcus Mariota sprinting around the ends, Tennessee amassed 202 rushing yards – 156 of them from Henry.

This ground dominance ended abruptly in New England.  Henry finished the game with 28 yards on 12 carries (a 2.3 average) with no run exceeding four yards.  Tennessee finished with just 65 rushing yards for the evening.

Brown and Flowers

At the center of the impenetrable defense was nose tackle Malcom Brown.  Listed at 6-2 and 319 pounds (modest measurements by NFL standards), Brown isn’t an imposing figure in the Vince Wilfork mold.  But the Patriots’ first-round pick in the 2015 draft has developed into an excellent technician in the middle.  All evening, he repeatedly got under the pads of Tennessee center Ben Jones (who was one of the heroes against KC).  Henry never had the middle of the field open for him as Jones was constantly being pushed back in his face.  Similarly, Trey Flowers – a rangy presence at defensive tackle/end – kept the Tennessee linemen that he faced in place, collapsing all of the running lanes.

Neither Brown nor Flowers are marquee names.  Flowers led the team with a modest total of 6.5 sacks.  But as the pieces have come together for the Patriots as they come down the stretch, Brown, Flowers and the rest of the role players in Bill Belichik’s (and Matt Patricia’s) defense commit to the inglorious work of taking on blocks, closing running lanes, and making sure tackles.

They were great.  But if I were to pick two running plays to illustrate what has made this New England run defense so tough, it would be the two times that Henry tried to get around the end.

Big Stops

There is 4:31 left in the first quarter, with the game still scoreless.  Tennessee faces first-and-ten on New England’s 45-yard line.  Mariota tosses to Henry, trying to race around left end.

Charged with sealing the edge is tight end Delanie Walker, but Flowers is having none of it.  He rides Walker right down the line, stringing out the sweep.  Wide receivers Eric Decker and Corey Davis were charged with clearing out defensive backs Devin McCourty and Malcolm Butler. Both failed, leaving both defensive backs free to meet Henry as he tried to turn the corner.  But most impressive on this play was safety/linebacker Patrick Chung.

The play called for much decorated tackle Taylor Lewan to peel away from the formation and head downfield to throw a key block against a smaller defensive back.  Chung never gave him the chance.

Listed at just 5-11 and 207 pounds, Chung would seem to be the kind of smaller back that Lewan would gobble up.  But Chung diagnosed the intent of the play immediately and flew into Lewan at top speed before he could get untracked, further stripping away Henry’s blocking on the play.   Derrick managed to pick-up three yards before McCourty and Butler halted his progress.

Chung Strikes Again

Now there is only 25 seconds left in the first half.  By this time the Patriots had opened up a 21-7 lead. The Titans sat on the Patriot 46-yard line, but faced a fourth-and-one.  Their decision to go for it would prove to be one of the turning points of the game.

Again Derrick Henry would test the left edge.  This time Decker lined up across from defensive end Kyle Van Noy, but lost that confrontation immediately.  At the snap, Van Noy pushed through Decker deep into the Titans’ backfield, allowing first Butler and finally Stephon Gilmore un-abated access to the ball carrier.  Tight end Jonnu Smith lined up just behind the tackle on that side, positioned where they thought he could double-team Van Noy.  But Kyle was through Decker before Jonnu could arrive.

But the compelling thing about this play was that it wasn’t designed to go around the end.

Supposing that Decker and Smith could push Van Noy wide, and that tight end Luke Stocker could seal Flowers inside, the Titans thought they could open a crease just off tackle.  Figuring that a defensive back would flow down to fill the gap, Tennessee pulled guard Josh Kline and sent him through the hole first to clean it out.  But Kline met with the same fate that Lewan had a quarter earlier.

Flying in at top speed, Patrick Chung met Kline in the hole and closed it immediately, leaving Henry with no escape route.  Derrick and the Titans lost five yards on the play.

Is Anyone Taking Notice?

Taking 300-pound linemen head on isn’t usually in the job description of 200-pound defensive backs.  Rare is the defensive back who will even try to take on a lineman.  Mostly, when they find themselves isolated against a lineman, you will see the defensive back try to find some way to slip around them.  Chung is a rare article.  He’s a defensive back who takes on linemen – and wins.

From a statistical standpoint, Chung probably ranks in the lowest tier of defensive backs.  He intercepted just one pass during the season, and never recorded a sack.  But Chung, I think, has quietly become the soul of this defense.  To a not-inconsiderable degree, the rest of the Patriot defense feeds off his fearlessness.  Chung, Brown and Flowers are the leaders of a workman-like defense – a defense that adheres to Belichick’s motto of “do your job” even when the job is less than glamourous.  Running the ball consistently against this defense will be a challenge.

Why Run Defense Matters

And this is a more significant development than many fans realize.  All of the other teams left standing are heavily run-dependent on offense.  In Blake Bortles, Nick Foles and Case Keenum, none of the other teams has a quarterback they can send out there with the mandate to win the game.  If Jacksonville finishes with 65 rushing yards on Sunday, they will lose the game.  The emergence of the Patriot run defense is a huge deal, indeed.

The other pressure weighing on opposing running games is the New England offense.  Trailing 21-7 at the half, the Titans closed down their running game.  Henry took one handoff (a 4-yard dive up the middle) after halftime.  Toss in a scramble from Mariota, and the Tennessee running game accounted for 10 second half yards on two attempts.  There is a significant onus on Jacksonville’s defense to keep the score close enough Sunday for the Jaguars to keep running the ball.

That matchup – for the right to represent the AFC in the Super Bowl – has suddenly gained several new layers of intrigue as injuries to Tom Brady’s wrist and thumb have been in all the headlines.  If the Patriots are forced to compete without Brady – or perhaps with a compromised Brady – it will significantly improve Jacksonville’s chances.

And ratchet up the pressure on the New England defense.

Miracle in Minnesota

Up until there were ten seconds left in the fourth and final playoff game last weekend, the New Orleans Saints were fashioning the greatest come-from-behind story in their history.

The first half couldn’t have been worse.  After allowing a touchdown to the Vikings on their opening drive, New Orleans cornerback Ken Crawley was flagged for two questionable pass interference penalties against the Vikings Stefon Diggs.  These penalties were part of a 6 penalty first half that cost the Saints 92 yards and handed Minnesota 4 first downs.  They led to a second-drive field goal and a 10-0 Viking lead.  Before the half would end, Minnesota would turn an interception into another short-field touchdown to give them 17 points.

Offensively, the first half had been just as disastrous.  The first quarter saw New Orleans run 12 plays for 33 yards.  They earned as many first downs (1) as they threw interceptions (also 1).  But the second quarter was even more frustrating.  Finally finding a little rhythm, the Saints put together to long drives.  In the two drives, the Saints combined to run 20 plays for 117 yards and 8 first downs.  And no points.  The drives ended with a red zone interception (off a deflection) and a missed field goal (the miss – it should be pointed out – was from 58-yards, so it was hardly automatic).

So, New Orleans went into the locker room at the half, trailing the best defense in football on their home field, 17-0.  Not terribly encouraging.

And then, in the second half, New Orleans erased the entire deficit.

Second Half Heroics

Star quarterback Drew Brees – who completed 72% of his passes this season and fashioned a 103.9 passer rating in 2017 – was dominated by the Viking defense through the first two quarters.  He was just 8 for 18 with 2 interceptions.  His passer rating for the half was a stunning 26.6.  In the second half, Drew was Drew again.  He completed 17 of his last 22 passes (77.3%) for 177 yards.  Against a Viking defense that had surrendered only 13 touchdown passes through 16 regular season games, Brees tossed three in his spectacular second half – leading to a passer rating of 139.6.

When Will Lutz drilled a 43-yard field goal with 25 seconds left in the game – putting New Orleans ahead 24-23 – it looked like the remarkable comeback was complete.  Fifteen second later, when Minnesota broke the huddle for the game’s last play, they faced third-and-ten, still about 25-yards away from field goal range.  At this point, a Viking win seemed remote.

Ten seconds later, Diggs was standing in the end zone holding the football.  There was no time left on the clock.  The Vikings had won the game 29-24 (gamebook).

Diggs spent the next five minutes or so striking his go-to pose – standing with his arms crossed in front of him with a god-like, worship-me look on his face – while thousands of cameras flashed in his direction.  Stefon had caught the desperation pass from Case Keenum and transported it over the goal line.  But the story of the last play belongs to New Orleans’ rookie defensive back Marcus Williams.  Coming off an impressive rookie season that included an interception of Keenum earlier in the game that provided a crucial turning point, Williams had the play in front of him.  He missed the tackle.  And that was it.  It handed Minnesota its only second-half touchdown – but it was enough to send the Vikings on and send the Saints home.

What Happed to New Orleans?

At their height, New Orleans was a dominant running team.  From Week Six through Week 13 (an eight-week span), the Saints averaged 166.9 yards on the ground.  Not co-incidentally, they averaged 32.5 points per game and won seven of the eight games.

Over their last six games – including their two playoff games this year – the running game struggled noticeably.  Over those games, they averaged just 80 rushing yards a game, and scored just 25 points per game.  They lost three of those six. As the season progressed, it became fairly evident that the dominant running game was the element that transformed New Orleans into one of the elite teams in football.  When the running game fell off, the Saints became merely a good team.

Atlanta Goes Down, Too

This dynamic was also generally true for Atlanta.  When they ran the ball effectively, they very much resembled the Atlanta team that marched to last year’s Super Bowl.  But when the running game stuck in neutral, the entire offense was beset with inconsistency.

Against Philadelphia, the Falcon running game was nearly thrown into reverse.  Running back Devonta Freeman – who scorched New England for 75 yards on only 11 carries in last year’s Super Bowl – was held to 7 yards on 10 carries.  His 4 second half carries netted a loss of one yard.

The Falcons finished with only 86 rushing yards in a game in which they were mostly dominated on offense.  Winners of 7 of their previous 9 games, Atlanta never did drive the field against Philadelphia.  Their lone touchdown came after an 18-yard drive set up by a muffed punt mid-way through the second quarter.  They finished with just 281-yards of total offense.  They had been held under 300 yards only twice through their first 17 games.

While Foles Leads the Offense

Meanwhile, Nick Foles – playing in the very large shadow of the injured Carson Wentz – kept on keeping on.  Nick threw the ball only 30 times in the victory – with only 3 of those passes travelling 15-or-more yards in the air.  He missed on all 3 of those passes.  But when throwing the shorter passes, Foles completed 23 of 27.  Throughout the second half, Foles completed 12 of 15 passes against the Falcons (a cool 80%).  It all added up to just enough to push Philly past the Falcons, 15-10 (gamebook).

All year (here for instance) I have been reminding you that Philadelphia was more than just Wentz.  I’ve documented the strong running game and top-shelf defense.  Both of those other aspects were very much in evidence in the win.  Even though the running game wasn’t remotely prolific (the Eagles averaged only 3.0 yards per rush), it was relentless.  Thirty-two times the Eagles ran the ball against the Falcons.  In the second half, their 16 rushes managed only 19 yards (1.2 yards per rush).  None of those second-half running plays gained more than 7 yards.  But they kept at it.

Still, it was hard to shake the feeling that Philadelphia was trying to – if not hide their quarterback, at least make sure they didn’t depend on Foles to win the game for them.

Minnesota in Philadelphia

So the NFC Championship is set for Sunday afternoon, as the Cinderella rides of Keenum and Foles continue on.  Midnight will strike for one of them in a few days, but one of these two unheralded and much-given-up-on quarterbacks will lead his team into the Super Bowl while fabled quarterbacks Brees and Matt Ryan will be home planning for next year.

Some years the NFL is an easy read.  Some years it seems that anything can happen.  This year is one of the latter.

What is Wrong With the Chiefs?

There were two minutes left on the game clock when the miracle happened.

After trailing 21-3 at the half, Tennessee had finally pulled in front of the Chiefs, 22-21.  They had a first-and-10 on Kansas City’s 44-yard line, and just needed to find some way to run off the last two minutes to advance to the Divisional Round.  Quarterback Marcus Mariota handed the ball to Derrick Henry running to the left side where they had been dominating Kansas City all night.

And then the ball was free.

Marcus Peters had bolted through the line, hitting Henry while still in the backfield.  And there was the football.  Before anyone could truly grasp the enormity of what had just occurred, Derrick Johnson – ball in hands – was racing toward the end zone, as Arrowhead Stadium rose in unison to cheer him on.

With Sean McDonough’s voice cracking in the background, Johnson scored the touchdown, and the streak was over.  After having lost five consecutive home playoff games, an act of God had delivered the Chiefs from another bitter disappointment.  For about five minutes, delirium reined in Kansas City.

It was, of course, a mirage – and maybe something more.  It was a microcosm of the Chiefs’ season.  At the very first glance at the replay, it was evident that Henry was down.  Peters pried the ball out of his hands after he was already clearly down.

The Kansas City Chiefs were the early story of the NFL – bolting out of the gate 5-0 (a spell during which they scored 164 points).  Football was very easy for them, then.

That, too, was a mirage.

Two plays after the fumble that wasn’t, Tennessee was running left again with Henry the ball carrier.  It was third-and-10, so a stop here would get the Chiefs the ball with about 1:45 to go.  As Titan tight end Delanie Walker declined to block Kansas City end Frank Zombo, Frank found himself in the perfect position to drop Henry for a loss.  Noting the situation, Mariotta threw the block himself.  It wasn’t bone-jarring, but it was enough the get Henry around the edge for a clinching 22-yard run.

The rest was all kneel-downs in the Titans’ 22-21 victory (gamebook).

Were the Titans lucky?  They were.  Quite lucky.  The first ten points they scored were gifts.

With 2:41 left in the first half.  Mariotta was sacked by Johnson, losing the ball in the process.  The football rolled to the feet of Justin Houston, who clearly recovered.  Mystifyingly, though, the fumble was waived off and Mariotta was said to have had his forward progress stopped – the single most bizarre application of that concept that I have ever seen in an NFL game.

Tennessee kicked a field goal on the next play.

The Titans’ first touchdown was even stranger.

Starting on their own 9-yard line, Tennessee took the opening kickoff of the second have 85 yards in 14 plays.  Now, they had third-and-goal from the Kansas City six-yard line.  Mariotta dropped back to pass, but was flushed from the pocket.  Scrambling to his left, I believe he decided to run with the ball, but at the very last second decided to throw it into the end zone.

As he was in the act of crossing the line of scrimmage, he flung the ball.  Chief defensive back Darrelle Revis, closing on the play, leaped and batted the ball out of the air – seemingly forcing a fourth-down.  But the ricocheting football deflected perfectly back to Mariotta, who plucked it out of the air, and, under a full head of steam, dove into the end zone for a touchdown.  It is believed to be only the second time in the history of the NFL that anyone has thrown a touchdown pass to himself.

So Kansas City had some adversity to overcome.  I believe that has been a constant through almost all of what has now become a six-game home playoff losing streak.  A bad bounce, a bad call, a tough injury, and down go the Chiefs.  And this, I think, speaks to one of the prime concerns in Kansas City.  This is a team that suffers from a comparative lack of toughness.

Even after the conclusion of this game, it’s entirely debatable whether Tennessee is, in fact, the better team.  But what is beyond dispute – the one truth that was re-emphasized with every thundering run from Derrick Henry – is that Tennessee is clearly the tougher team, both emotionally and physically.

While the adversity that Tennessee endured was almost entirely self-inflicted, they were the team that was resilient enough to fight back.  As soon as the tide of the game turned against the Chiefs, they were unable to halt the slide.  As Kansas City looks to improve this offseason, they would be advised to assess the toughness factor.

As to the particulars of this game, Tennessee’s game plan spelled out where the Chiefs are most vulnerable.  Of Henry’s 23 rushes in the game, 12 were up the middle and 10 were to the left of the formation.  He ran to the right just once.

They ran repeatedly at Frank Zombo who was dominated by left tackle Taylor Lewan.  Even more impressive was left guard Quinton Spain who became something of a personal nightmare to linebacker Reggie Ragland.  Henry had 14 runs of 4-yards or more.  During those 14 runs, Spain threw critical blocks against linebackers in 7 of them – 6 of those against Ragland.

Last Saturday, the Titans did a thorough job of exposing the Chiefs’ weaknesses.  It will be interesting to see how they respond.

No One Beats the South But the South

Five of the eight teams that took the field for Wildcard Weekend represented the southern divisions of their respective conferences.  The AFC South sent Jacksonville and Tennessee and the NFC South was represented by New Orleans, Carolina and Atlanta.  Of the five, only Carolina will not be advancing to the Divisional round as they were the only Southern team to play another Southern team.  Their 31-26 loss in New Orleans marking the third time they had lost to the Saints this season.

But – from an array of compelling numbers coming out of these games, the most compelling just might be 88.  That was the number of rushing yards that Jacksonville quarterback Blake Bortles amassed.  Those 88 yards were the most by any player in the game.  In fact, the quarterbacks combined for 119 rushing yards on 18 attempts (6.6 yards per).  All of the running backs in the game combined for 166 yards on 48 carries (3.4 yards per carry).

But what makes that number 88 so compelling is that it is one yard more than his total passing yards for the game.  Blake finished the passing portion of his evening with 87 passing yards on 12 completions in 23 attempts.  He averaged just 3.78 yards per attempted pass, and just 7.25 per completion.

And won the game 10-3 (gamebook).

The Jaguars have been a team I have been reluctant to buy into all year – primarily because I wondered if they could muster a sufficient passing attack to win a game against a quality opponent on a day when their running game stalled and their defense gave up some points.  Sunday against Buffalo, Jacksonville held the ball for only 9:49 of the first half.  Their three leading receivers on the season (Keelan Cole, Marqise Lee and Allen Hurns) had no pass receptions among them, and each had only one pass tossed in his direction.  In the game’s second half, Blake threw only 8 passes while running 7 times.

Of all the winners from the Wildcard Round, Jacksonville is clearly the least impressive.

They won because the defense smothered Tyrod Taylor’s passing attack.  Taylor finished with a 44.2 rating.  Of the 37 passes he threw, only 17 were completed – and that for just 134 yards with no touchdowns and one interception.  His yards per pass attempted (3.62) and per completion (7.88) were very similar to Bortles.

Maybe we’ll just say it was excellent defense.  Sure, we’ll stick with that.

The Jaguars live to fight another round, but the looming challenge in Pittsburgh is much tougher than the one they’ve left behind.

More Defense in the Coliseum

The 2016 edition of the Atlanta Falcons was an offensive juggernaut.  In seemingly effortless fashion, they blazed their way to 504 regular season points (an impressive 31.5 points a game) and then added 108 more in three playoff games.  Along with their point total, they led the entire NFL in highest average per pass (8.2 yards).  They were second in total yards and touchdown passes.  They were third in both passing yards and rushing yards.

Quarterback Matt Ryan finished with a frightening 117.1 passer rating; top receiver Julio Jones missed two games, but still finished with 1409 receiving yards; and running back Devonta Freeman piled up 1079 rushing yards and 11 rushing touchdowns while averaging 4.8 yards a carry.

Very deep, very balanced, and very scary were the 2016 Falcons.  On offense.

The defense, however, lagged.  Their rankings were a much more modest twenty-seventh in points allowed and twenty-fifth in yards allowed.  They ranked seventeenth against the run and twenty-eighth against the pass.  Opposing passers threw almost as many touchdown passes against them (31) as Ryan tossed for them (38), contributing to an opponent’s passer rating of 92.5 – much higher than you would expect to see against a contending team.

At various points this season, we’ve discussed some of the Falcons’ offensive struggles.  Although with much the same personnel, nothing has come quite so easily for them this year.  They checked in with 151 fewer points this year (353) and Ryan’s passer rating sank to 91.4 – still excellent, but much more mortal than 2016.  In their first playoff game this year they scored 26 points on 322 yards – both fairly pedestrian totals – in their 26-13 victory (gamebook).

But, while the offense has been up-and-down, over the last two weeks a surprising development has taken place.  As the end of the regular season has bridged into the playoffs, the Falcon defense – especially their pass defense – has become Atlanta’s most noteworthy unit.

Two weeks ago, they smothered Cam Newton and the Carolina passing game.  They allowed just 14 of his 34 passes to be completed, while harvesting three interceptions.  Newton’s passer rating was a humbling 31.5.  Then last week against a high-flying Rams team (on the Rams’ home field no less) they shackled Jared Goff with a 77.9 rating as Goff completed only 24 of 45 passes for 259 yards.

Over the last two weeks, two very dangerous passing attacks have combined for 38 completions in 79 attempts (48.1%) for 439 yards (5.56 yards per attempt).  Newton and Goff combined to throw 2 touchdown passes against 3 interceptions for a combined passer rating of 57.9.

Against the Rams, they were everywhere – blanketing LA’s receivers like few teams have been able to all year.  If this is who the Falcons are now, they presents a strong challenge to their remaining opponents.  The offense has been sporadic, but that explosive team from 2016 is still in there somewhere.  If they can play elite pass defense, it significantly raises their stock.

Of all the teams playing on Wild Card Weekend, the Falcons looked most like the team that could force its way into the Championship Round or beyond.

I still think, though, that this is a team that could be handled by the team that is willing to keep running the ball against them.  A defense that values speed and quickness might struggle to hold up for four quarters against a team that keeps running at them.  The Rams finished with 115 rushing yards in a game where they only ran the ball 16 times.

With a backup quarterback running the offense, Philadelphia may not have a balanced enough offense to hurt Atlanta with their running game.  Should the Falcons make it past the Eagles, it will be interesting to see what challenge awaits them in the Championship Game.

More Misfires from Newton

Counting playoff games, last Sunday’s game was the 115th career start for Cam Newton – and, with the division title there for the taking – it was (statistically) his worst game.  The passer rating system is not perfect, but it does a reasonably good job of translating performance into an easily understood number.  It balances the value of high completion percentage (even though many of the completed passes may be very short) with the value of longer completions (although these may be offset by incompletions and interceptions).  It rewards touchdown passes and penalizes interceptions.  Whether the measurement is for a game or a season, if your score is over 100 your performance is usually superior.  Over 90 is also an excellent day (or year). At 80, you’ve average to good.  A score in the 70s is unremarkable, and lower than that is disappointing.

Until last Sunday, Newton’s poorest single game passer rating had come in a game against New Orleans in 2014.  After completing only 10 of his 28 passes for just 151 yards with no touchdowns and an interception, Cam walked off the field that day with a passer rating of 39.4.  Last Sunday, he left with an even more dismal 31.5 rating – courtesy of a 14 of 34 performance that saw him throw for 180 yards, his one touchdown pass offset by three interceptions.

A look inside the numbers is even more alarming.  At the end of the half, Newton led Carolina on its only touchdown drive of the day.  He completed all 7 passes during that drive for 66 yards and – of course – his only touchdown pass.  During the entire rest of the game, Cam struggled to complete just 7 of his other 27 passes (25.9%) for 114 yards (just 4.22 yards per attempted pass – although a healthy 16.29 average per completion). These yards came, however, with no touchdowns and 3 interceptions.

His passer rating for the entire rest of the game (other than the touchdown drive) was an amazing 5.1.

Beyond the statistics, the viewers of the game were also left with the impression that this was at least one of the worst games – if not the worst – of his career.  The tale of the tape points to all of the things he has struggled with for most of his career.

Receiver’s Getting Open

A fair portion of the blame can be laid at the feet of his receivers.  Atlanta’s defensive approach in this game was telling.  They blitzed rarely and seldom played man coverages against Newton’s receivers.  They stayed mostly in basic zone coverages and challenged the Panther receivers to get open and challenged Newton to read the coverage and throw the ball into very small windows.  The coverage wasn’t flawless at all as Atlanta is still better at man coverage than zone.  But several of Newton’s misses were throw-aways because there were no open receivers.  Newton’s rough night also included a drop of a screen pass by Christian McCaffrey.

Deciding Too Quickly

But most of Cam’s issues last Sunday were his own.  This includes his inclination to decide too early where he is going with the ball.  I am convinced that at least half of the time, he makes his mind up in the pre-snap who is going to be open and who will get the ball.  Of his 19 true incompletions (one was a spike to stop the clock) I counted six in which he made the wrong decision.  Let me mention two.

With 4:15 left in the first quarter, Newton noticed the Falcons were in a rare man coverage.  Wide left, he had Devin Funchess with Robert Alford aligned over him.  From the snap of the ball, Alford ran Funchess’ route with him step for step.  But Newton never looked anywhere else and threw the ball to Funchess anyway.  Alford reached back and deflected the pass.  Had Brian Poole been a step closer, Cam would have endured a 4-interception game.

Now there is 10:42 left in the game.  The Panthers trail 16-7, and have third-and-6 on the Falcon 24-yard line.  Atlanta is in man again (Newton is most susceptible to making his mind up before the snap when he sees man coverage).  This time he has Greg Olsen wide right, with Poole in coverage.

Close to the left side of the formation was fourth receiver Kaelin Clay (playing for his second team this season and the third in his three-year career).  After the snap, Clay broke open over the deep middle – deep enough to have given Carolina a first-and-goal.  But Newton never saw him – he never even looked in his direction.  Cam watched Olsen all the way off the line of scrimmage as he ran his go route up the sideline, with Poole in coverage step for step.

Anticipating that Olsen would break his route to the sidelines, Newton fired the ball where he thought Greg would be.  But Olsen kept motoring up the sidelines and the ball sailed harmlessly out of bounds.

Carolina kicked the field goal that would be their last points of the night.

Inaccuracy

But the thing that everyone who watched this game remembers are the high throws.  Newton’s mechanics have never been consistent, and he is given to frequent inaccuracy.  In this game he threw a bevy of high passes.  I counted 5 of them – throws that were completely over the receiver’s head or so high that he couldn’t pull the ball in.  I also counted 3 other inaccurate throws to open receivers.  Fully 40% of his incomplete passes were simply the result of poor throws to open receivers.  Again a couple of examples.

There is 6:37 left in the game, Panthers trailing 19-10.  They are first-and-10 on their own 25 yards line.  Olsen (lined up to the right) and Brenton Bersin (lined up to the left) ran shallow crosses (again against man coverage).  As they crossed each other’s path, their respective defenders got tangled up with the linebacker who was spying Newton.  Bersin broke into clear, running wide open toward the sideline as fast as he could – but not fast enough to catch Newton’s throw that led him much too far.

Two minutes later, Carolina is back in almost that same situation.  It is first-and-10 on their own 25.  They still trail 19-10.  Now there is 4:20 left.

This time the Falcons are in zone, and Cam throws over the middle for Olsen, defended by linebacker Deion Jones.  But the throw is high.  Olsen leaps for it, but can only get the tips of his fingers on it – deflecting it perfectly in the air for Keanu Neal to make the interception.

The Falcons, who themselves were only 1-for-5 in the red zone and scored just one touchdown on the game, kicked the field goal that provided the final points in their 22-10 victory (gamebook).

A few weeks ago – I think it was after their Week 14 victory over Minnesota – Cam Newton informed the writers in the post-game press conference that he had broken all of the “rules” of quarterback play (like throwing back across his body).  He finished the statement by smugly noting that “sometimes you have to overcome coaching.”

The sobering fact is that even after games like this, I’m sure Newton still feels that way.

Vikings Look Ready

Discussions of the Minnesota Vikings in the upcoming playoffs keep drifting back to quarterback Case Keenum – only playing because the top two quarterbacks on the depth chart have been injured for most of the year.

On the heels of their 23-10 conquest of Chicago (gamebook) – a win that gave them a 13-3 record and the second seed in the NFC playoffs – we have to concede (to some extent) that the strengths of the Vikings substantially outweigh the perceived weakness at quarterback.  Remember, guys like Trent Dilfer have won Super Bowls before.  The Vikings consistently run the ball well and boast an elite defense.

It was this defense (and the 147 rushing yards on 36 carries) that was the difference – again – in the Viking win.

One of the important things to keep in mind when discussing this game is that the Bears are not a bad running team at all.  They entered play Sunday afternoon averaging a healthy 117.2 rush yards per game – averaging 4.3 yards per carry.  The centerpiece of the attack – the surprising Jordan Howard – finished the season with 1122 rushing yards and 9 rushing touchdowns.  But – running behind a makeshift offensive line – Howard and the Bears’ running game were no match at all for the aroused Viking defense.

Especially in the decisive first half.

While possessing the ball for only 9:42 of the game’s first half, the Bears managed just 1 first down, and averaged just 2.9 yards per offensive play.  Most telling, Chicago went into the locker room at the half having run just 6 running plays for a net loss of one yard.  Chicago ended the game going 1 for 12 on third down and scoring no offensive touchdowns.  Howard ended his breakout season with just 9 yards on 9 carries – none of them longer than 4 yards.  The Bears finished with just 30 rushing yards on 15 carries.

If you have watched Minnesota play defense – especially run defense – you might have noticed a definite “old school” style.

For one thing, their defensive ends – especially Everson Griffen – don’t over-commit to the pass.  Almost everywhere else in football, the defensive ends (who are really just pass-rushing linebackers) head immediately up field on almost every snap.  Against many teams, run-blocking against these ends is excruciatingly easy.  You let them bolt into the backfield and then give them a strong push in the direction they were already headed, while the running back cuts easily into the void he’d left behind.

The Viking ends – in contrast – leave very little daylight around the ends.  In fact, the run discipline of their ends combined with the excellent speed of their fast-flow linebackers makes turning the corner against Minnesota one of the most consistently difficult tasks in the game.

Additionally, as the league in general moves to smaller, quicker, pass rushing defensive linemen, the ancient concept of nose-tackle is alive and well in Minnesota.  Unsung in this contest, but one of the true heroes of the game, was Linval Joseph.  Joseph repeatedly repelled the double-team blocks of Chicago’s center (Hroniss Grasu) and guards Cody Whitehair and Tom Compton).  This action not only turned the line of scrimmage into an impassible scrum, but allowed the speedy linebackers to roam at will.

And, as important as any of the others, this game belonged to Andrew Sendejo.  With the predominance of the three-wide-receiver offense, almost every defense in football has adopted the hybrid-linebacker.  This is a defensive back that plays more like a linebacker than a safety.  Sendejo is Minnesota’s version of this semi-linebacker, and his quickness into the backfield was one of the elements Chicago was least able to cope with.  Center Grasu endured a painfully long day, spending half his time fruitlessly trying to push Joseph off the line of scrimmage, and the other half trying in vain to cut off Sendejo before he could cross the line of scrimmage.

It was an impressive show by the Vikings – and something for their future opponents to think about.

I still can’t embrace Minnesota as a Super Bowl contender.  I keep thinking that at some point someone will force Keenum to win the game for them.

But putting the Vikings in that situation will quite the challenge.

Staggering Into (and Out of) the Playoffs

Week 17 is always the most unpredictable week in the NFL season (Week One is the second most unpredictable).  The week is a composite of varying energies and passions, and it’s nearly impossible to tell, sometimes, which games mean more to which teams.

For the Baltimore Ravens, it was all there to be had.  At 9-6, the playoff berth was theirs for the taking if they could win at home against a disappointing, 6-9 Cincinnati team.  They lost.

The Chargers did everything they could to complete a stunning turnaround from an 0-4 start to almost claim a playoff spot.  They beat Oakland 30-10 (finishing with a 9-7 record), but were edged from contention when both Buffalo and Tennessee won – both claiming wildcard spots.

In a season that seems to be something of a changing of the guards, Buffalo, Jacksonville, the Rams (St Louis and Los Angeles) and Tennessee all broke long playoff droughts.  How long any of them will last in the playoffs is another question.  All of them have question marks.

Of the playoff neophytes, the Rams have had the best season (and sit with the best record).  But they will enter the playoffs without place-kicker extraordinaire Greg Zuerlein.  The quickest way to lose playoff games is to miss points in the kicking game.

The other three are harder to take seriously.  Buffalo’s 9-7 record includes only two wins against over .500 teams.  They have wins against Atlanta when the Falcons were slumping early and Kansas City while the Chiefs were going through a mid-season slump.  In between, they have losses to Carolina, New Orleans (47-10), the Chargers (54-24) and New England twice (23-3 and 37-16).  At one point during the season, their starting quarterback was benched.

Tennessee Takes Jacksonville

As to the Titans and Jaguars, they finished the season against each other in a game in which neither managed to impress.

When the dust had settled, it was Tennessee who walked off the field with the victory, 15-10 (gamebook), but it was hardly a showcase effort.

The Titans began four drives on Jacksonville’s side of the field – including two inside the Jaguar’s 30-yard line.  The results were two field goals, a punt and a fumble.  They controlled the clock for 19:40 of the second half, but managed only 3 points.  Eric Decker dropped three passes in the second half, and the Titan running game (minus quarterback Marcus Mariota) managed just 56 yards in 29 carried (1.93 yards per carry).

The only consistent offense the Titans had all evening came on keepers by Mariota.  Up until his kneel-down ended the game, Marcus had sprinted for 61 yards on 9 carries – most of them designed runs.  Tennessee ran for 5 first downs in the second half – and Mariota accounted for 4 of them.

But as beatable as Tennessee looked last Sunday, Jacksonville – already in the playoffs –  seemed even more mortal.  Even granting that they had less to play for than the Titans, their performance was just as concerning – especially as the game wore on.

They finished with just 74 total yards in the second half, averaging just 2.8 yards per offensive play.

With their running game throttled (Jacksonville managed just 83 rushing yards on 24 carries – with none of them longer than 9 yards), the Jaguars put the ball in the hands of quarterback Blake Bortles, who finished the game with 2 interceptions and a sobering 33.7 passer rating.  He was especially cold in the second half, when he connected on just 4 of 15 passes for just 47 yards and both interceptions.  His passer rating for the second half was an almost impossible 0.6.

Jacksonville never did score an offensive touchdown.

Jacksonville’s defense ranks among the best in the league – second in both yardage and points allowed.  Tennessee finished the season ranked thirteenth in total defense and seventeenth in points allowed – not gaudy rankings, but they are fourth against the run, and they proved once again that the Jaguar passing attack is unlikely to win a game without significant contributions from its running attack.

Tampa Bay Wins in Strange Fashion

The New Orleans Saints – with their division crown on the line – ended the regular season in Tampa Bay.  Were they to lose and Carolina to win, the Panthers would win the division and send the Saints to the tournament as a wild card.  The Buccaneers (already eliminated from the playoffs) were only playing for pride.

But for the game’s first thirty minutes, that pride looked like it might be more than enough.  Tampa Bay held the ball for 20:02 of the half, converting 10 of 11 third downs.  They went into the locker room with a 233-125 lead in yardage and a 17-7 advantage in first downs.  In just the first two quarters, Tampa Bay had rolled up 101 rushing yards and 24 carries – numbers many teams would be pleased to see at the end of a game, much less at halftime.

Yet – courtesy of two interceptions, a blocked extra-point, and a 106-yard kickoff return against them – the Bucs trailed 14-13 at the half.

New Orleans mostly reversed the domination in the second half.  Quarterback Drew Brees completed 15 of 17 passes (88.2%) and rolled up a 125.2 passer rating for the half.  He finished the game completing 22 of 30 passes (73.3%).  Meanwhile, the run defense that was dominated in the first two quarters surrendered only 9 rushing yards on 4 attempts over the last two quarters. They controlled the ball for 18:29 of the last half.

Yet a fumbled punt that Tampa Bay returned for a touchdown, and a 39-yard touchdown heave from Tampa Bay quarterback Jameis Winston to Chris Godwin with 9 seconds left pushed the Bucs past the Saints 31-24 (gamebook).

One of the NFL’s dominant teams through October and the first half of November, the Saints look very much like a team that peaked too soon.  They finished the season splitting their last six games.  After being untouchable throughout most of their 8-game winning streak, New Orleans looks decidedly vulnerable as they begin the playoffs.

Adventures in Officiating

Officials – as you may have heard – are human, too.  Even the good ones make mistakes.  In the replay era, many of those mistakes can be caught, but not all.  When an officiating crew has a rough afternoon it’s bad enough.  When their bad day seems to tilt in favor of one of the teams, it can lead to significant frustration.

Unfortunately, three of Week Sixteen’s most important games were marred – to a greater or lesser degree – by curious officiating.

Kelvin Benjamin’s Touchdown that Wasn’t

Apparently the weekend’s most controversial call was the replay that overturned a touchdown that Buffalo’s Kelvin Benjamin seemed to score against New England.  Buffalo, here, is fighting for its playoff life and the Patriots are trying to tighten their grip on the number one seed in the AFC.

There are 6 seconds left in the first half, and New England is clinging to a 13-10 lead.  But the Bills have third-and-goal from the Patriot 4 yard line.

The Bills line up with three receivers bunched to quarterback Tyrod Taylor’s left, and Benjamin split out all by himself to the right, where he would be singled up against Patriot corner Stephon Gilmore.  Just before the snap, Gilmore backed up into the end zone in a position to hem Benjamin against the sideline.  Taylor lofted the ball to the very back right corner of the end zone, where Benjamin looked for all the world like he caught the pass that would give Buffalo the lead at the half.  Field Judge Steven Zimmer – with the play in front of him – was convinced enough to raise his arms for the touchdown.

Moments later – when the touchdown was reversed – there was consternation on the Buffalo sideline.  Yet, watching the replay, Kelvin didn’t catch the ball cleanly.  He reached with his right hand and batted the ball back toward him.  He did drag the left foot along the turf. But only while the ball was fluttering back toward his chest.  Once he secured the ball, Benjamin tried again to drag the toe.  But it hit against the heel of his right foot instead.

A lot of people in the NFL fandom get quite exercised when calls like this go New England’s way – and I get that.  Hating New England is a trendy position to take.  And this touchdown certainly could have stood.  It was exceedingly close.

But there was sufficient evidence for an overturn – and Buffalo settled for the field goal and the halftime tie.

Patriot quarterback Tom Brady threw only 9 passes in the second half – completing all of them for 105 yards and another touchdown.  He finished the game completing 21 of 28 passes (75%).  Meanwhile, the Patriot running attack ground away at the Bills.  Running back Dion Lewis rolled up 83 yards in the second half on his way to a 129-yard afternoon, and the Patriots finished with 193 rushing yards and 2 touchdowns to finish off Buffalo 37-16 (gamebook).  The Bills finished 0-for-4 in the red zone, and scored no offensive touchdowns on the day.  Even if the replay had upheld the Benjamin touchdown, it’s exceedingly hard to beat the Patriots scoring just one offensive touchdown.

Merry Christmas to the Los Angeles Rams

In Tennessee the fading Titans spent Christmas Eve struggling for their playoff lives matched against a Rams team that is right in the thick of the NFC playoff picture.  In fact, a victory in this contest would punch the Rams’ playoff ticket for the first time since 2004.  The officials (it was Walt Anderson’s crew) didn’t do the home team any favors.

At the center of the controversy was a handful of penalties that should have been called, but weren’t.  Two of them came on Titan punts.  Twice in the second half, Rams special team players pummeled Tennessee punter Brett Kern.  Both times Anderson claimed the kicks were partially blocked.  It is unlikely the first one was.  It is clear the second one was not.

That second missed roughing-the-kicker penalty was probably the more costly of the two.  There was 7:31 left in the game and Tennessee trailed by four.  They had fourth-and-ten at midfield.  The call there gives them a first down on the Ram 35-yard line.

If there was a call more galling to the Titan faithful than either of the missed roughing-the-kicker penalties, it could well have been the missed false start.

There is 7:13 left in the third quarter, with the game tied at 13.  The Rams are on the Tennessee 13-yard line, and have decided to go for it on fourth-and-one.  As they lined up to run the play, tight-end Tyler Higbee – lined up to the left side – flinched.  All of the Titan defenders on that side of the field started pointing and leaping desperately – trying to will the officials to throw a flag.

But they missed it.  False starts are almost never missed.  I don’t actually remember the last time I saw an offensive lineman get away with a false start.  But this one they missed.

Adding injury to insult, instead of being fourth-and-six (forcing a field goal try), the Rams ran the ball right into the area where the Tennessee defenders were flipping somersaults to draw the flag.  Ram running back Todd Gurley burst through the distracted defenders for a ten-yard gain.  On the next play, Jared Goff tossed the touchdown pass that gave Los Angeles the lead.

Sometimes It’s Best to Just Play

So.  Yes, it was an egregious error by the officials.  They should have stopped the play and assessed the penalty.  But increasingly the players are trying to officiate their games as well as playing them.  They spend endless energy reaching for their imaginary flags, as though they had some secret power over the officiating crew.  Usually it’s just harmless posing.  On this occasion, the Tennessee Titans would have been better served if they had just focused on stopping the play.  Had they stopped the Rams there, not only would Los Angeles not have scored the touchdown, but (since it was fourth down) they would not even have had the opportunity to kick the field goal.  That one stop – had Tennessee focused on it – may well have won them the game in spite of the officiating.

Sometimes, it’s best to just play.

There is one noteworthy exception to this rule, and that is the case of pass interference.  I like to believe this isn’t true, but I swear there are times when the official waits to see if the receiver complains before he throws the flag.

Of course, we can’t let this game pass without mention of the onside kick that wasn’t.

Immediately after Tennessee had tied the score at 20, they ran a hurry-up onside kick.  As soon as the official made it to the sideline after marking the ball for play – and while the Rams were still congregating on their sideline – the Titans rushed to the field and bounced an undefended on-side kick that they recovered around the fifty.

Unfortunately, they caught not only the Rams, but the officiating crew off-guard.  A flag was thrown.  A conference was held, and Walt and his crew decided that the play didn’t count because the Rams had called a time out.  Of course, they hadn’t – and after some further discussion the time out was restored to Los Angeles, but the play still never happened.  And this is probably just as well for the Titans, as one member of the kickoff team was certainly off-sides, at least half never set, and a couple were running forward with the kicker.

Still in all of this, Anderson and his crew seemed to be several ticks behind.  To some degree, they seemed that way the entire game.

Gurley’s Big Day

Of course, Tennessee might have won anyway if they had found an answer for running back Todd Gurley.  His 22 rushes for 118 yards added to his 10 catches for 158 yards.  He scored two touchdowns, one of them an 80-yard scoring play off of a screen pass.  It works out to 276 yards from scrimmage on 32 catches.  He was the driving force in Los Angeles’ 27-23 victory (gamebook).

Early Presents for the Saints

But of all the teams saddled with a lump of coal on Christmas Eve, the most frustrated may have been the Atlanta Falcons.  They spent the afternoon in New Orleans.

As the game began, Atlanta found itself trailing the Saints for the division lead by one game, and – since they had beaten the Saints two weeks earlier – a win here would give them the tie-breaker.  So they were playing Sunday afternoon for no less stakes than the division title.

This game came with an extra-helping of irony.  The Falcon win two weeks earlier came with the Saints being flagged 11 times for 87 yards (against only 4 penalties called against Atlanta), and ended with a frustrated coach Sean Payton rushing onto the field to try to get a time out called.  The Falcons had been given 9 first downs off Saint penalties that day.

From the very beginning, it was evident that things would be much different in this game.  The Falcons drew three penalties in their first two offensive series – including a phantom unnecessary roughness penalty against Devonta Freeman.  They were subsequently penalized 3 more times in their next offensive series.  Over those first three series, Atlanta pushed for 89 yards of offense, but gave back 59 of them in penalties.

For the game, Atlanta ended up with 10 penalties for 91 yards, while the Saints were only flagged 3 times for 30 yards.  But this wasn’t to say that the Saints played a clean game.  Notable among the plays the Saints got away with were two fairly obvious pass interferences against Julio Jones.  Julio was also involved in the most head-shaking play of the day.

On the very last snap of the third quarter, Atlanta – trailing 20-3 at the time – had third and goal on the New Orleans 6-yard line. Quarterback Matt Ryan tolled to his right and rifled the ball to Jones, standing a yard deep in the end zone.  Just behind Jones was Saint cornerback Marshon Lattimore.  As the pass arrived in Jones’ hands, Lattimore pushed him out of the end zone.  Jones made the catch, but Down Judge Steve Stelljes called him down at the half-yard line.

A myriad of replays from all angles seemed to show that Julio had caught the ball with at least half of the ball over the line.  But it wasn’t convincing enough for the replay official to overturn.

As with many other opportunities presented to Atlanta that afternoon, the damage could have been mitigated if they could have pressed their advantage.  Facing fourth-and-inches for the touchdown that would put them back in the game, Freeman was buried in the backfield and the ball went over on downs.  Devonta Freeman was in the eye of the storm the entire game.  He had fumbled away an earlier chance at the one-yard line (in addition to getting called for the phantom penalty).

For the game, Atlanta scored just one red-zone touchdown in four such opportunities.  In half of their trips to the red zone – and both of their goal-to-go opportunities – Atlanta came away with no points at all.  Additionally, the aroused New Orleans defense sacked Ryan 5 times and held Atlanta to just 2 of 13 on third down.  That – in combination with the inconsistent performance of Peter Morelli’s crew – pushed the Saints to a 23-13 victory (gamebook).

Summary

My belief going into the weekend was that the teams that ended up winning these games were the teams that I thought were the better teams, so part of me wants to suppose that the Patriots, Rams and Saints would have found ways to win anyway.  It’s easy to say that about New England, as they dominated the second half of their game.  But the other two contests were quite a bit closer – ten points in the case of the Atlanta game, and Tennessee fell just four points short of their upset.  Close enough that a reversal of any of those calls would certainly have profoundly affected the game.

With one game left in the season, Buffalo, Tennessee and Atlanta all still have playoff chances.  Tennessee and Atlanta both face significant challenges (Jacksonville and Carolina, respectively).  The Bills immediate task (beat Miami) is easier, but they will be playing on the road and will need substantial help (beginning with Cincinnati beating Baltimore).

In all cases, these teams will be hoping for more consistency from the officiating crew.

Clarity at the Top of the AFC Playoff Race

There were two minutes and six seconds left in what was arguably the most significant game in the AFC this season.  After finishing second to the Patriots so many times, the Pittsburgh Steelers were one defensive stop away from claiming this victory.  New England broke the huddle, first down with the ball on their own 23, holding two time outs, but trailing 19-24.

On the first play of the drive, quarterback Tom Brady stepped up into the pocket and tossed the ball toward tight end Rob Gronkowski, running a shallow cross from the offensive right toward the left.  But the ball was tipped.  Cameron Heyward grazed the ball with his fingertips – enough to throw it off course.

For a small eternity the game – like the football itself – hovered over the turf of Heinz Field.  And standing beneath it was Steeler defensive back Sean Davis well positioned to make the game-sealing interception.

But the ball was fluttering unevenly – and it was quite wet from the continuous rain – and it glanced off Sean’s left hand, falling harmlessly to the ground.

And, in that moment, you knew how things would turn out.  The exact details of this one couldn’t possibly have been foreseen, but as Davis lay on cold-wet turf mourning the interception that got away, you knew that that was the mistake that would cost Pittsburgh the top seed in the conference.

Consecutive 26-yard passes from Brady to Gronkowski positioned New England at the Steeler 25-yard line.  From here, Rob made the play that Davis couldn’t.  Brady’s next pass was short and looked like it would land at Gronkowski’s feet.  But Rob managed to turn his body back toward the ball and was able to pluck it cleanly before it hit the ground.

New England scored the touchdown on the next play, that – after the two-point conversion (that also went to Gronkowski) – gave New England its 27-24 lead.

At that point, there were 56 seconds left.  Just enough time for another fantastic finish.

On the first play of the succeeding Pittsburgh drive, rookie receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster took a short pass over the middle and flanked the New England defense.  Sixty-nine yards later he was pulled down on the Patriot ten-yard line.  There were 34 seconds left as Pittsburgh called its final time out.  Quarterback Ben Roethlisberger then found tight end Jesse James just in front of the end zone.  James’ knees touched down short of the goal line, but as no Patriot had touched him he was free to fall the rest of the way into the end zone for the game-winning touchdown.

But not so fast.

As the officials kept reviewing the play and as the announcers in the booth kept cycling through the replay, it began to dawn on everyone that James hadn’t held the ball all the way to the ground.  As he was landing in the end zone, he came down ball-first.  The impact jarred it enough that it popped loose – just for an instant before Jesse gathered it back in.  But that instant was enough.  The call on the field was reversed – and Pittsburgh never would score that touchdown.

Even more shocking would be that the Pittsburgh offense wouldn’t even walk off the field with the game-tying field goal.  Two plays later – on a play that looked like Ben was going to spike the ball to set up the field goal – Roethlisberger’s end-zone pass was deflected and intercepted.  The Patriots had escaped again with a 27-24 victory (game book), and that it came with a twist of controversy made it seem all the more familiar.

Up until those devastating last two minutes, Pittsburgh achieved everything it needed to.  Roethlisberger started 15 of 19 with 2 touchdown passes, and the Steelers went 7 for 9 on third downs and held the ball for 19:53 of the first 30 minutes of play.  The Patriots went to the locker at the half trailing 17-10 with only 20 yards rushing.

Pittsburgh finished the game out-rushing New England 143-77, with featured back Le’Veon Bell chalking up 117 yards on 24 carries (4.9 yards per).  Meanwhile, after superstar wide receiver Antonio Brown left the game with an ankle injury, rookie Smith-Schuster rose to the occasion.  His 69-yard catch and run finished his evening with 6 catches (in 6 targets) for 114 yards.  Pittsburgh ended the afternoon 10 of 16 on third down while holding New England to just 3 of 9 on that down.  The Steelers ended with 35:07 of possession time.

If this were a fantasy league matchup and statistics were the driving force, this would have been a victory for the Pittsburgh Steelers.  But this is the lesson that the Patriots repeatedly teach the rest of the NFL.  Both Davis and James had the chance to end the game, but neither could finish.  When you play New England, you pay dearly for all your mistakes.  No matter how well you play through the rest of the game, even slight errors in the fourth quarter will cost you almost every time.

Just ask the Atlanta Falcons and Seattle Seahawks.

Deciding Things in the West

Four weeks into this NFL season, when the Kansas City Chiefs sat at 4-0 and the Los Angeles Chargers had fallen to 0-4, few would have predicted that their December 16 matchup would have been for control of the AFC West.  Yet, with LA winning seven of nine after an 0-4 start, and the Chiefs dropping six of eight after winning their first five, both teams brought 7-6 records into last Saturday’s matchup in Arrowhead.

For the Chiefs, the year-long indicator has been the running game.  In their 5-0 start, they ran for at least 112 yards in every game, averaging 156.2 yards on the ground.  They averaged 33 points a game through the first five.  Over the next six games, the running attack slowed to a crawl.  They averaged just 76.3 rushing yards in those games.  Kansas City lost 5 of the 6, averaging just 18 points a contest.

But the KC tailspin ended just in time – and it was the running game that led out.  Even though they lost their Week 13 contest against the Jets, the running attack started to resurface (they finished that game with 112 rushing yards).  They ran for 165 in Week 14 while beating Oakland 26-15.

Now hosting LA in Week 15 they carried a tight 10-6 lead into halftime.  From there – looking like the early season Chiefs – they rolled to a 30-13 win (game book). While the defense took the ball away four times, the second half belonged to rookie running back Kareem Hunt and his offensive line.  Hunt motored for 115 yards on 16 carries, and the team finished with 126 rushing yards on 21 carries.

In the second half alone.

For the game – while quarterback Alex Smith kept the Charger pass defense honest completing 23 of 30 passes (76.7%) – Hunt finished the afternoon with 155 yards rushing, another 51 receiving, and 2 total touchdowns.  The Chiefs hung 174 rushing yards onto the Charger defense.

Even with the loss, though, Los Angeles’ playoff chances weren’t damaged all that much.  With games remaining in New York against the 5-9 Jets and at home against the 6-8 Oakland Raiders, the Chargers have a legitimate shot at a 9-7 record.  They trail three other teams (all currently 8-6) for one of the two wild-card positions.  One of those teams (Baltimore) also has a fairly soft closing schedule (they finish at home against 3-11 Indianapolis and at 5-9 Cincinnati).  But the other two teams in front of the Chargers face significant challenges.

Buffalo closes its season on the road against the Patriots and Dolphins.  Since the Chargers beat Buffalo back in Week 11, if the Bills lose either game they will lose a tie-breaker to Los Angeles based on head-to-head record (assuming LA can win its last two).  Meanwhile Tennessee finishes with the 10-4 Rams and the 10-4 Jaguars – a daunting challenge for a team that has lost three of its last five, including back-to-back losses to Arizona (6-8) and San Francisco (4-10).

As expected, New England’s win brings clarity to the top of the AFC playoff picture.  The Patriots, the Steelers, the Jaguars and the Chiefs.

At least that’s how it looks now.

Marquee Games Entertain, But Resolve Little

Two of the most anticipated games of Week 14 turned out to be two of the most entertaining games of the season.  Ultimately, though, neither may have added any clarity to the playoff picture.

Sunday night saw the suddenly hot Baltimore Ravens invade Pittsburgh.  Baltimore may not have been getting the attention that they – perhaps – merit this season.  In their Week Four game at home against these same Steelers, Baltimore trailed 19-0 at the half, staggering to an uninspiring 26-9 loss.  (Curious in that game is that other-worldly wide receiver Antonio Brown caught only one second half pass for just 8 yards, on his way to a 4-catch, 34-yards game.)

They entered their bye at just 4-5, and as late as the beginning of Week 13 they still ranked last in passing yards and next to last in total offense.

Through all the low moments of the season, John Harbaugh’s troops never flinched.  Believers in their locker room and trusting that over the course of the 16-game schedule the cream would eventually rise, the Ravens kept putting the pieces together.

In their Week 13 game, they overhauled the Detroit Lions 44-20.  They churned out a season-high 370 yards that day.  They also held the Lions to 78 rushing yards.  From Week Three to Week Seven, they surrendered at least 100 rushing yards in every game – and were pounded for at least 160 rushing yards in four of the five games.  In the five games since Week Seven, they have not allowed more than 78 yards in any of them.

Now it was the Sunday night of Week 14, and the Ravens found themselves with a 7-5 record and facing their 10-2 nemesis in Pittsburgh.  Offensively, the Ravens showed themselves every bit the equal of the Steeler defense that entered the game ranked second against the pass, fourth overall, fifth in points allowed, and eighth against the run (although it is worth noting that Pittsburgh was playing its first game without injured linebacker Ryan Shazier).  The Ravens put together six different drives of at least 50 yards, pounded Pittsburgh for 152 yards on the ground (led by Alex Collins and his 120 yards on 18 carries), scored touchdowns on all four of their red zone possessions (and all three of their goal-to-go possessions), and after falling behind 14-0 early in the second quarter, raced to a 31-20 lead by the end of the third quarter and a 38-29 lead midway through the fourth quarter.

But it was the Raven’s defense – the defense that had kept Baltimore alive all through the team’s offensive struggles – that was not up to the task at hand.  The Ravens’ defense entered the contest ranked first in interception percentage (5.1%), second in lowest passer rating against them (68.2), third in total pass defense and points allowed (207), fourth in sacks (33) and seventh in total defense.

But Ben Roethlisberger and the Pittsburgh offense had their way with them.  They converted 6 of 7 third downs in the first half – on their way to converting 12 of 18 for the night. Roethlisberger ended up throwing the ball 66 times for 506 yards – much of the damage coming on passes to Antonio Brown.

Held to just 34 yards in the first game against the Ravens, Brown scorched the Baltimore defense for 139 yards on 7 catches.  And that was just the second half.  For the game, Antonio checked in with 11 catches for 213 yards as the Steelers scored 10 points in the last 3:30 of the game to pull out a gutsy 39-38 victory (gamebook).

The win does – I suppose – demonstrate that Pittsburgh is still the better team.  But of course, their comparative records already hinted at that.  Very little else changed with the verdict.  The victory doesn’t change Pittsburgh’s trajectory that much.  Winners again of their division, all of their chips are on the table for this week’s game against the defending champion Patriots.  That game will likely determine the AFC’s top playoff spot.

For Baltimore, the loss isn’t devastating – although certainly disappointing.  Even with a win, Baltimore was unlikely to overtake the Steelers for the division title.  Meanwhile, their remaining schedule is less than frightening.  This week they travel to Cleveland to face the 0-13 Browns.  They end with home games against Indianapolis (3-11) and Cincinnati (5-8).  No victories are assured in the NFL, but this is a very manageable closing schedule.  A 10-6 record and a probable fifth-seed are all before them – if they take care of business.  Depending on who else does what to whom, a loss in one of those games may not sink them, but it will certainly open the door for a myriad of other teams.

The Changing AFC Playoff Picture

Also rising in the AFC race are the Los Angeles Chargers.  After their 0-4 start, I have been hesitant to jump on their bandwagon.  With last week’s conquest of Washington, the Chargers now sit in a tie for the division lead with the Kansas City team that was – at one point – 5-0.  Those two teams meet tonight (I am typing this it is about 2:30 Central Time), with the winner probably taking the division crown and the loser probably making the playoffs as a wild card team.

Both Baltimore and Los Angeles have profited from the demise of the Tennessee Titans.  After stubbing their toes in Arizona, the Titans are still 8-5 and are still clinging to the first wildcard spot.  Buffalo (7-6) currently has the other, with the Ravens and Chargers (who are both also 7-6) currently out of the picture – separated by the NFL’s intricate tie-breaking system.

But Tennessee still has the re-invigorated San Francisco 49ers, followed by the Rams and Jaguars (both 9-4 teams) left on their schedule.  Tennessee really needed the Arizona game.  Seeing them finish at better than 8-8 now is a stretch.  For their part, the Bills host the Miami Dolphins this week (the Dolphins hot off their surprise conquest of New England), but then finish the season on the road in New England and in Miami.

Like Baltimore, the Chargers are finally coming to the soft spot of their schedule.  After tonight’s big game, they finish with the Jets and Raiders.  Given the remaining schedules, it is not at all difficult to see Baltimore and LA pushing Tennessee and Buffalo out of the last two playoff spots.

The Dolphins’ victory did not materially damage the Patriot’s playoff chances.  With the conference’s second best record, it would be hard to imagine them not getting a playoff invite.  Nonetheless, the loss was not insignificant.  If they now lose to Pittsburgh in Pittsburgh Sunday afternoon, New England’s chances of finishing with the third seed and being relegated to the wild card round increases significantly.  A loss on Sunday would be their fourth.  If Jacksonville wins out (and their remaining schedule is Houston, San Francisco and Tennessee) they will also finish the season with just four losses, and a conference-record tie breaker over the Patriots.  (Under this scenario, the Jags would finish 10-2 in conference play with the Patriots finishing 9-3).

Of course, if New England beats Pittsburgh, they will probably go in as the number one seed.  That is how much is riding on this particular game.

Meanwhile, in the NFC Showdown

A few hours before Baltimore and Pittsburgh squared off, the big NFC showdown between Philadelphia and the LA Rams took place. With the Eagles starting play at 10-2 and the Rams at 9-3 (and playing at home) it was easy to see home field throughout the playoffs riding on this game.

Coming off a disappointing loss to Seattle the previous week, the Eagles were ready for the Rams from the opening kick.  They scored 3 touchdowns in the game’s first 20 minutes, and took a 24-14 lead into halftime.  The Eagles rolled up 304 yards of offense and 17 first downs in the first half alone.

But the Rams would not go away quietly.  In a furious second half that featured two touchdown drives of 70 or more yards (each of which took less than three-and-a-half minutes) and a blocked punt returned for a touchdown, the Rams pushed their way to a 35-31 lead early in the fourth quarter.  But the Eagles scored the last 12 points of the day to finish with a 43-35 victory (game book).

Now at 11-2, the Eagles sit on top of the conference – and with the win over Los Angeles (and the tie-breaker that comes with that) – a clear path to the top seed in the division.

Except for the fact that they lost their quarterback along the way.

With about four minutes left in the third quarter, quarterback phenom Carson Wentz squirted into the end zone for an apparent touchdown.  The play wouldn’t count due to a penalty, but the hit he endured certainly would.  Sandwiched between two defenders as he dove over the line, the anterior cruciate ligament (ACL) in Carson’s left knee gave way.

Wentz actually finished the drive – even throwing an eventual touchdown pass to Alshon Jeffrey – before retiring to the sideline for good.  His spectacular 2017 season has come to a close.

Into the breach now is Philadelphia’s once-and-future starter, Nick Foles.

Foles led Philadelphia to a playoff berth in 2013, and was so impressive that the Rams traded Sam Bradford to Philadelphia for Nick.  But Foles was a disappointment in his one season for the then-St-Louis Rams, going 4-7 in his 11 starts for them in 2015.

So now Nick is back in Philly.  As I have pointed out numerous times this season (here for example), the Eagles have been more than just Wentz.  They have been bolstered by an excellent defense and a running game that has – at times – bordered on the phenomenal.  It is not inconceivable that Foles can bring them home with the top seed in the conference.  With the Giants, Raiders and Cowboys left (those last two games at home) the Eagles chances at home field throughout the playoffs are better than OK.

The question will be, what happens once the playoffs start.

The NFC Playoff Picture – as it Now Stands

Last week, the Seahawks took a leg up on the last NFC playoff spot with their upset win over Philadelphia.  This week, they gave it back through the combination of their own loss in Jacksonville and Atlanta’s upset of the New Orleans Saints.

Behind the 11-2 Eagles sit the 10-3 Minnesota Vikings (who are also coming off a loss).  The Rams and Saints – both 9-4 – come next, with the Rams holding the tie-breaker with their earlier win over New Orleans.

Carolina – after their big victory over Minnesota – has tied New Orleans at 9-4, but the Saints won both games against the Panthers, so they hold the tie-breaker.  The Panthers are solidly entrenched as the fifth seed, while Atlanta (by virtue of their win over New Orleans) has currently passed Seattle (after their loss to Jacksonville) for the last playoff spot.  Both of those teams are 8-5, with the Falcons holding the tie-breaker due to an earlier victory over the Seahawks.

While I think we’ll still see some shifting in the AFC, the NFC is starting to look pretty settled to me.

Congratulations to the Fans of the Miami Marlins

In a quick baseball note, it was announced earlier this week that the baseball team in Miami had traded All-Star outfielder Marcell Ozuna to the Cardinals.  In exchange, Miami received arguably the most electric arm in all of the minors and three more prospects.

The 2018 season will obviously be another re-building year in Miami, but for the years 2019 and beyond Marlin fans should be giddy about the trade.  Sandy Alcantara – the key figure in the trade – lights up the radar gun, routinely hitting 101 and sometimes 102 with an almost nonchalant delivery.  He also has devastating breaking pitches.  Sandy is just 22, and his command isn’t major league ready just yet.  But he has all the ability to be a dominant pitcher in this league for years to come.

If it were me, I would have never traded Alcantara for Ozuna even straight up.  Miami would have had to give me another solid major league player and one or two top prospects for Sandy.  To think that the Marlins not only didn’t have to give anything else to the Cardinals, but actually received three other excellent prospects – including a very exciting outfielder in Magneuris Sierra makes this trade nothing short of highway robbery.

My congratulations to the Marlin organization.  They read the smell of desperation coming from the Cardinal front office and took full advantage.  You may need to wait a year or two to see the fruits of this effort, but they will come.