Category Archives: Football

The Will to Keep Running the Ball

Although they went into the half trailing 14-6, the Baltimore Ravens had sent their rivals in Pittsburgh a clear message.  Repeatedly during that first half, Baltimore’s featured back, Alex Collins slashed the Steeler defense right up the middle.  That the Ravens couldn’t cash in on this production came from the fact that Baltimore had no answer for the Steeler blitz schemes.  Joe Flacco wasn’t sacked, but he finished the first half just 9 of 16, with Baltimore converting just 2 of 7 third downs.

But, with Collins providing the spark, Baltimore had gained 57 yards in 14 rushes – and average of 4.1 yards per.  It would certainly seem to be an advantage to build on.

Baltimore ran the ball exactly twice in the second half.

I could probably write about this every week.  In an NFL that is increasingly passing-centric, the will to keep running the ball is becoming increasingly rare.

In Baltimore’s case – even though they went into the half down by just 8, the Steelers opened the second half with an impressive 15-play, 75-yard touchdown drive that ate up the first 8:14 of the second half.  Six of the plays on the drive were runs (three times as many runs in that drive than Baltimore would attempt for the rest of the game).

Emotionally, that drive was damaging, but the reality of the situation was that the Ravens trailed just 20-6 with still 6:46 left in the third and the entire fourth quarter left.  More than enough time to run their offense.  But the will to keep running the ball failed them.  So, even though they struggled protecting Flacco – and even though their running attack was the most effective aspect of their offense in the first half – the Ravens folded up their running game. 

Flacco threw the ball 21 times in the second half, getting sacked on two other drop backs.  With little time to look downfield, Joe’s tosses became mostly a series of short dump offs.  He completed 14 of those passes, but for just 97 yards.  The Ravens finished the second half with just 99 yards of total offense, on its way to a 23-16 loss (gamebook) (box score).

Playing with the lead, Pittsburgh wasn’t shy about pounding the Baltimore defense.  Although they never gained more than 5 yards on any single second half run, Pittsburgh nonetheless ran 17 times in the second half – earning just 40 yards with those attempts (2.4 per).  Nonetheless, the Steelers converted 6 of 9 third downs and controlled the ball for 20:14 of the second half.

Seattle is Willing

In stark contrast is the game the Seattle Seahawks played at home against the Los Angeles Chargers.  Seattle has re-committed to the run, and even with primary hammer-back Chris Carson nursing hip and thigh injuries – and even though they spent the entire second half trailing by as much as 15 points, the Hawks never stopped running the ball.  Of their 32 running attempts on the day, 15 came in the second half.  They finished with 154 rushing yards, and 35:41 of possession. 

Seattle did lose this game, 25-17 (gamebook) (box score), but were throwing into the end zone from the Charger 6-yard line as the game ended.  As with the Ravens, the Seattle passing game couldn’t take advantage of the production from the running game.  The Chargers denied Seattle’s receivers any down-the-field opportunities, forcing Russell Wilson into an endless string of dump-off passes.  Tyler Lockett finished the game with 3 catches for 22 yards – none longer than 9 yards.

The Chargers – who racked up 160 rushing yards of their own – had just enough to hold them off.  Both of these teams will be in contention down the stretch, and one of the reasons will be their commitment to balance.

Both play defense pretty well, too.  The Chargers and Seahawks combined to go 1-for-13 on third down in the second half. 

A final thought about this game:

Seattle is now 1-2 at home this year.  Every game in Seattle they show the noise decibel graphic (the highest I think I remember seeing was 106 – which is good and loud).  You also get plenty of shots of the crowd cupping their lips with their hands in a desperate attempt to affect the game with sheer volume.  In the first place, of course, just screaming is an artistic achievement of dubious merit.  More than that, though, the effect seems to be negligible.  Some years ago, it was much more effective than it has been recently, as the league seems to have mostly adjusted.  The Chargers didn’t seem overly disturbed by it.  Seattle has also lost at home to the Rams – a division opponent that comes into Seattle every year and seemed not to notice the noise.  But you Seattle fans, you keep on screaming at the top of your lungs – you’re so cute when you’re just senselessly yelling.

Rodgers v Brady

Already this season, there have been several marquee quarterback matchups – many of which have absolutely lived up to the hype. 

Back on September 16, the Kansas City Chiefs and the Pittsburgh Steelers engaged in an entertaining 42-37 contest (won by KC).  In that game, Ben Roethlisberger threw for 452 yards and 3 touchdowns, but was out-done by rising star Patrick Mahomes, who threw for 326 yards of his own.  And 6 touchdowns.

Then on September 23, the New Orleans Saints finally subdued the Atlanta Falcons 43-37.  In that matchup, Matt Ryan gave the Saints all they could handle, throwing 5 touchdown passes among his 374 yards.  Not quite enough, as it turns out, as Drew Brees threw 3 touchdowns of his own among 396 passing yards.

The New England Patriots have already been involved in two such free-for-alls.  They had their own encounter with Kansas City, winning 43-40 behind Tom Brady and his 340 passing yards – just barely overcoming 4 more touchdown passes from Mahomes and his 352 passing yards.

They followed that game the next week with an exciting 38-31 conquest of Mitchell Trubisky and the Bears.  Trubisky threw for 333 yards in the defeat.

My favorite so far this year has been the September 27 contest between Jared Goff and the LA Rams and Kirk Cousins and Minnesota.  In this back-and-forth game, both quarterbacks executed at a remarkably high level.  Cousins completed 36 of 50 passes for 422 yards and 3 touchdowns (without an interception).  His passer rating for the evening was an impressive 117.2.  His team lost.

Goff completed 26 of 33 for 465 yards and 5 touchdowns (also without interception), leading the Rams to a 38-31 conquest.  His passer rating that game was a maximum 158.3. 

(You will hear many commentators refer to 158.3 as a “perfect” score.  It is, of course, not perfect.  Jared did miss on 7 passes.  It is more accurate to refer to that number as the maximum rating, as the system will not permit a higher rating.  If Goff’s night had been perfect – if he had completed all 33 of his passes for 619 yards and 7 touchdowns, the passer rating system would not – indeed could not – reward him with a higher rating.)

Brees and Goff also met up in Week 9 in another game that lived up to the hype – that game will be looked at in a bit.

And so, last Sunday night – as two legendary quarterbacks squared off – much of America was hoping for a similar shootout.  Again, the Patriots and Brady would be involved – this time opposite Aaron Rodgers and the Green Bay Packers.

This time, though, the expected shootout never developed.

Both of the legendary throwers did well.  Rodgers finished the night 24 of 43 (55.8%) for 259 yards and 2 touchdowns.  Brady threw for 294 yards on 22 of 35 throwing (62.9%) and 1 touchdown.  Rodgers’ receivers – who seem to be a rather ordinary collection this year- repeatedly had difficulty beating their man coverage assignments.  Rodgers spent much of the evening scrambling around in the backfield waiting for a receiver to come open before checking the ball down.

As for the Patriots, they spent the evening re-discovering their running game.  Even with top running threat Sony Michel on the sidelines, New England still ran the ball 31 times for 123 yards and 3 touchdowns.  James White got a few more carries than usual (12), and the Patriots continued the re-purposing of receiver/kick returner Cordarrelle Patterson as a running back.  Patterson finished the day with 11 rushes for 61 yards and a touchdown.

Patterson may have been as impressive as anyone on the field.  Now in his sixth season, the talented Mr. Patterson – who has never quite found his niche as a regular in the offense – may have finally discovered himself at running back.  Cordarrelle is a violent, take-no-prisoners, downhill runner.  In fact, if you kind of squinted as you watched him running with the ball, you might swear you were watching LeGarrette Blount.  He even has a similar weakness.  When the defense could get him going sideways, his impact was much less.  If the Patterson at running back experiment continues, this could have very interesting long-term repercussions.

In the end – as usually happens when the Patriots take the field – New England walked off the victor, 31-17 (gamebook) (box score).  One way or another they almost always figure out a way to beat you.

Deferring a Mistake?

Let me begin by saying that I am a big fan of deferring after winning the coin toss.  Often you will hear coaches and commentators chat about the opportunity to end the first half with a score, and then open the second half with another.  Sound philosophy, but I maintain that even if you don’t end the first half with that score, you still want to begin the second half with the ball in your hands aware of what has to happen in the second half for you to win the game.

Therefore, it came as no real surprise that – after the Los Angeles Rams won the toss against New Orleans – they deferred.  Five minutes and 35 seconds later, the Rams watched as running back Alvin Kamara completed a 10-play, 75-yard drive by skirting left end for an 11-yard touchdown run.

Nothing the Saints could have done could have worked better to engage the home crowd.  From time-to-time throughout the rest of the game, the Rams would momentarily silence the crowd.  But the rest would only be momentary.  The Saints continually re-sparked them.  Perhaps, when you’re on the road against one of the most dynamic offenses in the league, deferring may not be the best option.

As opposed to the Seattle crowd, the fans in the Superdome had just come to watch and enjoy a football game.  Their contribution was less outright noise, and more a contagious energy that the home team clearly feeds off of.

Three minutes and 17 seconds into the game, New Orleans coach Sean Payton upped the anti.  After a third-and-two run came up short, Payton kept his offense on the field.  In fact, he kept backup quarterback Taysom Hill in the shotgun, trusting him to throw the pass in this critical situation.  It looks like he wanted to throw to starting quarterback Drew Brees – who had lined up at receiver.  But when Hill wasn’t completely sure, he pulled the ball down and sprinted 9 yards for the first down, punctuating the run by lowering his shoulder and driving Ram defensive back Lamarcus Joyner backward for the last couple of yards.

In no uncertain terms, the Saints, the Rams, the crowd at the Superdome and all the fans watching on TV understood that Sean Payton was coaching this like a playoff game.  He had no intention of trading field goals for Ram touchdowns.

The Saints went on to score touchdowns on 5 of their 6 first half drives (the other ending with a turnover), going 5-5 in the red zone.  This was all part of a first half, offensive orgy, the likes of which the fans tuned in hoping to see.  Neither team punted, and the first half saw 52 points scored and 557 yards of offense.

To this point, most of the offense favored the Saints, who carried a 35-17 lead into the locker room.  To the Rams’ credit they didn’t let the game end like that.  Rarely behind at all this season, the heretofore undefeated Rams came roaring back.  Trailing 35-14 at one point, Los Angeles evened the game at 35-all with still almost ten minutes left in the game.

After turning around the organization last year, the Rams are back this year intent on proving that they are as good as anyone in the game.  They left that lingering impression, even as New Orleans pulled away late for the 45-35 win (gamebook) (box score).  The game’s clinching play came with about 4 minutes left when Michael Thomas slipped in behind Ram corner Marcus Peters.  Brees (who finished the game with 346 passing yards and 4 touchdowns) lobbed the ball over Peters’ head, and Thomas did the rest on a 72-yard catch-and-run touchdown.

Prominent in this game is an officiating trend that I find quite disappointing.

The game is tied at 14 in the second quarter, with 13:14 left before halftime.  The Rams, facing fourth-and-four, are setting up for a field goal (they are on the Saint 16-yard-line).  But it’s a fake.  Holder Johnny Hekker took off with the snap and raced around right end, stretching the ball toward the first-down marker.  The spot was not generous, and the ball was marked short.  The Rams challenged the call.

Looking at the replay, it looked for all the world that Hekker had extended the ball past the marker, but after review, the call stood. 

Later, the tables seemed to balance a bit.  As Ram running back Malcom Brown weaved down the sideline for an 18-yard touchdown, it appeared – on replay – that he had clearly stepped out at about the eight-yard line.  Again, the call on the field (touchdown) was upheld.

The NFL has made no secret that this year they are making a sustained effort to back the call on the field.  I confess myself perplexed by this.  There are certainly problems with the replay system as it’s now run, but one of the problems is not the replay replacing the official’s correct call with an incorrect one.  The one constant in the system is that the replay (most of the time) gives a clearer view of what actually happened on the play.  Wherever possible, replay gets it right.  The most fallible element in the equation continues to be the human referees.  Why we are now treating them as mostly infallible makes little sense to me.

Looking at the Playoff Picture

With the NFL season creaking past the half-way mark, the playoff picture is beginning to come into focus – a little bit, anyway.  With a lot of football left to play, here is an early look at how things might play out.    We’ll consider by conference and division.

AFC

Western Division

The Kansas City Chiefs, from the opening game, have been one of the most compelling stories of 2018.  With first-year starter Patrick Mahomes sparking the offense, the Chiefs have won eight of their first nine.  As of today, Kansas City holds the top seed in the conference.

Their one loss, of course, has been to the New England Patriots, leading many to think that perhaps that may come back to bite them – and it might.  But for now they still have a one-game lead over New England, and unless someone else can topple them, I still give them the advantage.

The Chiefs opened the season by rolling over the Los Angeles Chargers 38-28.  The Chargers would start the season with losses in 2 of their first 3 games.  With slow starts being a long-standing tradition for the Chargers, it was easy to sort of dismiss them.  But, of course, the Chargers’ losses have been to the Chiefs and Rams, two teams that have only been beaten once each all season.  As to the Chargers, they haven’t lost since, and, at 6-2 hold the first wildcard spot.

Nothing suggests that they will give up that position.  It has been a long time since Philip Rivers and company have been in the playoffs, but it looks for all the world like that drought is about to end.

Eastern Division

Even with their victory over Kansas City, the New England Patriots are still a game behind the Chiefs for first over-all in the conference.  As has been their recent pattern, the Patriots stumbled a bit out of the gate – losing 2 of their first 3 games.  They have won their last six in a row.  That the Patriots will win their tenth consecutive division title is pretty much a foregone conclusion.  The great question will be, can they catch KC.

The date to circle here is December 16.  New England’s Week 15 matchup is against the Steelers in Pittsburgh.  If the Patriots continue to run the table to that point, then this game will likely determine the top seed in the conference.  If New England pulls it out, they will probably earn that seed.  If not, that loss will probably give KC just the breathing room it needs.

Rising in the division are the Miami Dolphins.  After squeaking out a 13-6 win against the Jets, the Dolphins sit at 5-4 just a tick behind the 5-3 Bengals for that last playoff spot.  While I think Miami may stay in the hunt through the end of the season, the Dolphins don’t really do anything terribly well, and their closing schedule is quite rugged.

In addition to another game against the Patriots, the fish have road games in Green Bay and Minnesota.  Right now, the tell-all matchup could be their Week 12 contest.  They play Indianapolis in Indianapolis.  After a brutal start, the Colts have begun to play better.  If Miami is good enough to win this game on the road, they could be a significant part of the free-for-all for that final wildcard spot.  Right now, I don’t believe that they will, so – as of this writing – I don’t see Miami in the playoff pool.

North Division

The AFC North is a bit of a scrum so far this season.  As of this writing, the Pittsburgh Steelers (another team that started sluggishly) has fought its way back into first with a 5-2-1 record, just better than Cincinnati’s 5-3 mark.  Baltimore lurks at third.  They have fallen to 4-5 after last week’s loss to the Steelers, their third straight loss.

As the weeks roll on, the Steelers look more-and-more like they are still the class of this division.  After a 1-2-1 start, Pittsburgh has consecutive wins against Atlanta, Cincinnati (on the road), Cleveland, and Baltimore (also on the road).  They currently hold the third seed, and the present expectation is that they will hold on to that.

Less convincing – in my opinion – are the Bengals.  Currently holding that last wildcard spot, the Bengals are thirtieth in scoring defense and thirty-second in yards allowed.  Their closing schedule is notably tough.  They still have road games in Baltimore, Los Angeles (against the Chargers), and Pittsburgh.  Their home schedule includes New Orleans and Denver.  Unless Cincinnati fixes their defense real fast, it’s hard to imagine them surviving their second-half schedule.

Baltimore, on the other hand, is mostly through with the difficult part of its schedule.  Their road games are fairly challenging.  They will play Atlanta, Kansas City and Los Angeles (also the Chargers).  But four of their last seven are fairly soft home games against Cincinnati, Oakland, Tampa Bay and Cleveland.  If they take care of business at home and win one of those road games, then the Ravens will be looking at a 9-7 record.  Considering that one of those wins was a 21-0 shutout of Tennessee in Week 6, that record could very well earn them that last spot.

Certainly that game against Cincinnati two weeks from now will weigh heavily.  If the Bengals want the playoff opportunity, they will probably have to go into Baltimore to get it.

Southern Division

Continuing the trend of turnarounds are the Houston Texans.  Left for dead after an 0-3 start, Houston has won 6 straight and have claimed the lead in this division.  And, while none of the teams they’ve beaten have been upper-echelon teams, it has been convincing enough to establish the Texans as the probable class of the division and probable number 4 seed.  The streak includes division road wins in Indianapolis and Jacksonville.  Closing out the season, Houston plays 4 of its final 7 at home – and those are all winnable games (Tennessee, Cleveland, Indianapolis and Jacksonville).  Their road games are tougher, but not really terrifying.  They have games in Washington, New York (Jets), and Philadelphia.

Houston ranks ninth in total defense, seventh in scoring defense, and second in run defense.  Their position is currently quite good.

Behind them are the 4-4 Titans of Tenessee and the Indianapolis Colts, who are lurking at 3-5. 

As for the Colts, their slow start included losing 5 of their first 6.  But the Colts are now coming off two decisive victories and have 5 of their next 7 at home.  Those five home games are all winnable.  They have the Jaguars, Titans, Dolphins, Cowboys and Giants coming in.  One of their road games is against the fading Jacksonville team.  Even though they also have probable road losses in Houston and Tennessee, a 9-7 finish is not out of reason for Indianapolis.

Unfortunately for them, a home-and-home split with Tennessee – if they can get it – will probably not be enough.

After Monday night’s conquest of the Cowboys, the Tennessee Titans become the real unknown of the division.  They have been scuffling through the first part of their season playing behind a compromised quarterback.  Last night, Marcus Mariota looked considerably better.  If this is true – and the NFL is such a week-to-week league that one game isn’t enough to convince – then the Titans could easily re-write the playoff lineup.

But it will have to happen immediately.  Basically, the critical part of the Titan’s schedule is the next three weeks.  They play at home against the Patriots, on the road in Indianapolis, and on the road in Houston.  If they can steal one of those games, their prospects brighten considerably.

They end the season at home against the Jets, at home against the Jaguars, on the road against the Giants, then at home against the Redskins and the Colts.

Remember, though, that the Ravens hold the tie-breaker against them, so Tennessee’s closing run will probably have to be at least 6-2.  Doable, but a stiff challenge.

NFC

Southern Division

There is a strong feeling that the conference’s top seed was decided last Sunday during New Orleans’ dazzling 45-35 conquest of the LA Rams.  The game leaves the Saints at 7-1 with the tie-breaker over the now 8-1 Rams.  Again, there is a long way to go, but the Saints have had that air about them all season.

They may cough up that top seed, but they will have to be caught from behind – difficult to do.

Also in this division is the top wild-card team.  The Carolina Panthers have looked as legit as the Saints, and are an equally solid bet to hold on to their place.

Western Division

With the loss, the Los Angeles Rams – for the moment, anyway – surrender the top seed.  They, along with the Chiefs and the Saints, have been one of the top stories in the league.  Another team that mostly seems unstoppable at times, the Rams are clearly headed for the playoffs.

At the moment, the Seattle Seahawks don’t seem to be too relevant.  After a disappointing 25-17 loss at home to the Chargers (I’m telling you, that team is worth keeping an eye on), the Seahawks sit at an uninspiring 4-4.  Things will probably get worse before they get better.  Their next two road games will be in LA against the Rams and in Carolina.  Assuming they win the home game in between against Green Bay, they could face their last 5 games with a 5-6 record.

However, from that point on, the schedule mostly becomes their friend.  Their final five games include two against San Francisco and a home game against Arizona.  They also have Minnesota, but at home.  Even assuming they can’t keep up with Kansas City (even though that, too, is a home game), with the soft end of schedule, a 9-7 record is not out of reason.

And that would probably be enough to get them a playoff ticket.

Northern Division

In one of the most competitive divisions, the Chicago Bears have eked in front of the Minnesota Vikings with a 5-3 record to the Vikes 5-3-1 mark.  Close now, my expectation is that as the season wears on the Bears will pull away.

Gaining confidence with each week, Chicago’s remaining road schedule is less than daunting.  They will yet play in Detroit, New York (against the Giants), and San Francisco before ending the season in Minnesota – by which point the division should be decided.  Their remaining home games are stiffer, and will give a sense of how good this young Chicago team is.  Three of the games are division matches against the Lions, Vikings and Packers.  They will also host the Rams.  So there is opportunity for them to slide back in the pack. But, with their easy road schedule, if they can represent at home, this division is theirs for the taking.

As for the Vikings, in addition to both games against the Bears, Minnesota will also face road challenges in New England and Seattle – games that I don’t expect them to win.  The game in Seattle in Week 14 will probably be the most decisive.  The winner here probably gains that final playoff spot.  With the tie on their record, Minnesota will almost certainly not be involved in any tie-breakers.  They will probably either end the season 9-6-1 or 8-7-1, meaning they will go into the playoffs before any 9-7 team (if they finish 9-6-1), but after any 10-6 team.

Eastern Division

The Eastern Division of the NFC is limping through the season as the parity division.  Washington currently holds the division lead, at just 5-3, one game better than the 4-4 Eagles.  With the season at the half-way mark, Washington is the only current division leader that I expect to relinquish its lead and – in fact – miss the playoffs entirely.

While the Eagles have yet to remotely resemble the team that soared to last year’s title, my feeling is that they are still intrinsically the better team, and will rise to the top before the season is quite completed.  These two teams still have both of their games against each other before them.  If Washington is the better team, they will have their opportunities to demonstrate that.

Fading Hopes

As the early playoff picture takes shape, two of last year’s premium combatants will be challenged to return.  Two years ago, the Atlanta Falcons played in the Super Bowl.  Last year they played as deep as the Divisional Round before yielding to the eventual champs.  Last year’s Jacksonville Jaguars weren’t ousted until the Patriots took them in the AFC title game.

This year’s Falcons sit third in their division at just 4-4.  There is still plenty of time for them to rebound, but it hurts that they are in the same division as New Orleans and Carolina – two teams that seem to be among the NFL’s best.  At best, the Falcons seem to be battling for that last wildcard berth.

Adding to the stress is a very challenging closing stretch.  Their last six games take them into New Orleans, at home against Baltimore, on the road in Green Bay (this will be December 9, and the tundra is likely to be frozen), home again against Arizona, on the road in Carolina (both of their remaining games against the top two teams in their division will be on the road), and then a final road game in Tampa Bay.

It’s a tall order.  If the Falcons fight their way back into the playoffs, they will have definitely earned it.

Jacksonville’s situation is a little more desperate.  After a 3-1 start that included a convincing 31-20 conquest of New England, the Jaguars have lost 4 straight.  They are now tied for last in their division, and trail Houston by two games.

The record, though, isn’t the greatest concern here.  That would be – as it has been through most of his career – Blake Bortles.  The four losses have followed a similar formula: stop the run, get a lead, and force Blake to beat us with his arm.  In the 4 losses, Bortles is 78 for 140 (55.7%) for 926 yards with 3 touchdowns and 5 interceptions.  His 68.3 passer rating in these games highlights the concern.  Jacksonville has scored 46 point in the 4 games.

Does Jacksonville have enough season left to climb back in?  No question.  Do they have the quarterback to get them there?  To be determined.

Last Sunday’s Rams/Saints clash had a decided playoff atmosphere to it.  That intensity will become more and more common as we head down the stretch and seasons will start to be defined by the outcomes.

It’s my favorite time of the year.

Passes, Passes Everywhere

The Broncos trailed by only a touchdown (14-7) with nearly half of the second quarter left (7:01 to be exact) when they officially gave up on the run.  Case Keenum would drop back on 17 of the next 18 snaps, and 44 of their last 49 offensive plays for the afternoon.  Keenum finished with 51 pass attempts while being sacked 4 other times.  Denver finished with just 16 points in a 34-16 loss to the Jets.

The Packers never made it that far.  Never really intending to run the ball against Detroit, the shallow commitment that Green Bay made to the run ended at the 11:45 mark of the second quarter, after the last of four straight carries from Aaron Jones.  Detroit was ahead 17-0 at the time.  Aaron Rodgers was in passing mode for 48 of Green Bay’s last 57 plays.  He ended the game having thrown 52 passes while suffering 4 sacks.  The Packers also lost 31-23.

Knowing that any chance they had of victory depended on them running the ball, the San Francisco 49ers stayed somewhat committed to the run until 8:22 remained in the game.  At that point they trailed Arizona by only 8 points (14-6) on a day when they would end up rushing for 147 yards.  But even they couldn’t keep with it.  Backup quarterback C.J. Beathard dropped to pass on 20 of his final 23 snaps.  For the game, Beathard threw 54 passes and was also sacked 4 times.  San Francisco scored just 18 points in their loss.

Over almost 5 complete quarters of football, Baltimore’s Joe Flacco threw the ball 56 times.  The Ravens never scored a touchdown, and lost 12-9 in Cleveland.

After the Colts fell behind the New England Patriots 24-3 at the half, it was pretty clear that Andrew Luck would be throwing a lot for the rest of the evening.  Luck put the ball in the air 38 times in the second half alone – finishing with 59 passes for the game in a 38-24 loss.

With 5:27 left in the third quarter, Jacksonville’s T.J. Yeldon earned a hard yard around right end.  Trailing Kansas City 23-0 at that point, the Jaguars would not hand off to a running back again.  Jacksonville’s last 42 offensive plays resulted in 36 Blake Bortles passes, three sacks of Blake Bortles, two quarterback sneaks by Blake Bortles to pick up first downs.  And one 21-yard touchdown scramble by Blake Bortles.

Blake ended up with a 61-pass afternoon, with the expected result – a 30-14 loss.

Now, of course it’s understood that once a team falls significantly behind in a game, they don’t have the liberty to be as patient with the running game as they might like to be.  And, furthermore, if you have an Aaron Rodgers or an Andrew Luck behind center, a heavy emphasis on the pass might well be your best option.

But if your quarterback is Case Keenum or C.J. Beathard – or even, perhaps, Blake Bortles – then abandoning the running game (regardless of the score) is tantamount to surrender.  Even beyond this, I’m not sure very many coaches appreciate how quickly a game can turn around, once your offense regains control of the line of scrimmage.  Once you commit to running the ball.

Let’s take the worst of these situations.  Let’s say that you are Jacksonville and down 23 points with five and a half minutes left in the third quarter.  Suppose they had stayed committed to the run just a little longer?  What if they had drained the last 5:27 of the third quarter on a nice 75-yard, 12-play run-dominated touchdown drive – and remember that when Jacksonville did choose to run the ball, they did average 5.9 yards per attempt.  It is entirely possible that if they had continued to work their running game, that the Chief defense might have given into fatigue – leading to an even more productive running game in the fourth quarter.

At this point – with about 15 minutes left – they would have pulled to within 23-7.  The Kansas City offense would have been off the field for quite a while.  With KC’s offensive rhythm interrupted, perhaps the Jags defense could have managed a quick three-and-out, giving the Jacksonville offense another chance to continue pounding a tiring KC defense.

In such situations, momentum in a game can chance quickly – a sudden turnover, perhaps a big play from special teams.  Now, we have a ballgame again.  Something that just will not happen with Bortles throwing the ball 61 times.

Last year, all quarterbacks averaged 34.2 passes per game.  So far this year, that number has increased to 36.6.  In Week Five, in addition to the six quarterbacks I listed who threw the ball at least 50 times, there were three others who threw the ball more than 40 times.  All Week Five quarterbacks averaged 37.6 passes per game.

Lots of teams are just too eager to give up on the run

Sticking With the Run

One team that has re-committed to the run is the Seattle Seahawks – even though in Russell Wilson they have the kind of electric quarterback that could consistently throw the ball 40 times and do pretty well.

But, for the first time since the height of the Marshawn Lynch era, the Seahawks have become a tough running team.  Against the Rams last Sunday, Chris Carson ran for 116 yards, and Mike Davis added 68 more.  In all, Seattle rushed for 190 yards.  Of those, 114 came right up the middle.

After totaling 138 rush yards through their first two games, Seattle has earned at least 113 rush yards in each of their last three games – totaling 474 yards in those games.  Seattle has re-discovered its identity.

Wilson finished the game throwing just 21 times – with a 132.5 passer rating.  Seattle put up 31 points, going 7 for 12 on third down.  Alas, it was not enough as the still undefeated Rams managed a come-from-behind, 33-31 victory (gamebook) (summary).

Five games into the season, and the 5-0 Rams still look unstoppable on offense.  The Rams have already put up 173 points on the season (scoring at least 33 in each game), and rank first in total offense, second in passing and seventh in rushing.  They are a relentless and scary group.

Chiefs Win Too

Also undefeated – and seemingly unstoppable on offense – are the Kansas City Chiefs after their 30-14 conquest of Jacksonville (gamebook) (summary).

This was the game in which Bortles threw 61 passes.  Some of the throws were terrific.  Many weren’t.  Some of his decisions were questionable.  He ended the day chucking 4 interceptions and made several other dangerous throws.

These are the kinds of games that make me wonder about Blake.  When everything else is functioning as planned – when the defense is throttling the opposing offense and the running game is keeping the offense on schedule – when his pass protection is solid and his speed receivers can stretch out the underneath zones – when all of this is clicking, Blake Bortles can be (and has been) devastatingly good.

But when he has to put the team on his shoulders – like we’ve seen the other franchise quarterbacks do – this kind of thing happens.

Discipline Concerns in KC?

While the victory was surprisingly easy for the Chiefs, before the game ended they collected four incomprehensible after-the-whistle fouls that led to the ejections of two players. 

The shenanigans began with 44 seconds left in the first half and the Chiefs up 20-0.  Bortles went up the right sideline with a long throw broken up by Orlando Scandrick.  It should have been second-and-ten from the KC 20.  But, inexplicably, after the play KC defensive end Dee Ford turned and shoved Jacksonville guard Josh Walker right in front of the referee.  That gave the Jags a first and goal.

Nothing came of this as Bortles tossed an end-zone interception two plays later.

About midway through the third quarter – with KC still up 20-0 and driving – running back Kareem Hunt bolted up the sideline for 24 yards.  As soon as linebacker Telvin Smith forced him out of bounds, Hunt raced back up to Smith to deliver an abrupt head-butt.  This was the most egregious of the fouls, and KC ended up settling for a field goal.

Chris Jones became the first Chief to get tossed from the game.  When Jacksonville finally trimmed the lead to 23-7 with 3:10 left in the third, Jones – on the ground after the extra-point was kicked – inexplicably punched the Jacksonville lineman that he was on top of in the leg.

Dee Ford got himself tossed from the contest and contributed to Jacksonville’s final scoring drive of the game.  Facing third-and-15 with about half the last quarter gone, Bortles was flushed from the pocket and scrambled toward the right sideline.  Before he could get there, a shove from Allen Bailey sent him over the line and tumbling into the bench area.

What should have been a fourth-and-20 became a first-and-10 as Ford made it a point to stand over the fallen Jacksonville quarterback long enough to draw the flag and get himself ejected (this is a taunting penalty).  With the extra chance, the Jags pushed their way to the game’s final touchdown.

Kansas City has been a scary-good team.  But there is still a lot of season left.  Composure will be important as the games get more important down the stretch.  It’s hard to say if some slight loss of discipline will be the mistake that costs the Chiefs their season.

Turning the Corner?

One of the shocks of opening weekend was Cleveland forcing a 21-21 tie with divisional heavyweight Pittsburgh.  The Browns, of course, had been winless the season before, and 1-15 in 2016.  They had lost 44 out of 48 games over the previous three seasons.

Following the tie with the Steelers, the Browns have picked up victories against the Jets, and last week they outlasted the Baltimore Ravens, 12-9 in overtime (gamebook) (summary).  Five weeks into the 2018 season, Cleveland holds the NFL’s second-ranked running game, grinding out 144.6 rushing yards a game, and averaging 4.6 yards per rush. 

Meanwhile the defense has been notably better.  Through five games, the Browns have allowed more than 21 points only once, rank twelfth in defensive points allowed, and have held opposing passers to a 74.2 passer rating.  Flacco’s rating was only 60.0 after his 56-pass afternoon on Sunday.

For many futile years in the American League, baseball’s Cleveland Indians were called the “mistake by the lake.”  In recent years, Cleveland’s baseball team has turned its program around.  Perhaps – just perhaps – the NFL’s version of the mistake by the lake might finally be competitive for the first time in a while.

A Rough Start

The last time Frank Reich (new head coach in Indianapolis) saw the New England Patriots, he was roaming the Philadelphia sidelines as the offensive coordinator during last year’s Super Bowl.  How compelling to imagine what that experience must have been like, as two career backup quarterbacks (Reich and Eagle head coach Doug Pederson) constructed a game plan for their backup quarterback (Nick Foles) to conquer the seemingly unconquerable Patriots.

It took them until the last play of the game, but Frank’s Eagles prevailed.

His experience last Thursday was much different.

As of Tuesday morning, Reich’s Indianapolis Colts are carrying an injured-reserve list of 10 different players.  There were nine additional players who were unavailable for the game against the Patriots.  This group included go-to wide receiver T.Y. Hilton.  Significantly, that group also included starting cornerbacks Nate Hairston and Kenny Moore, as well as useful third-corner Quincy Wilson.  During the game, they lost starting safety Clayton Geathers and backup Matthias Farley.

The Patriots would have presented a significant challenge even if the very-young Colts were completely healthy.  With significant injuries, their hands were tied even more.

Offensively, the re-built Colts showed a little spunk.  Rookie running back Nyheim Hines showed a little spark, although Indy failed to really establish anything on the ground.  Meanwhile, quarterback Andrew Luck’s surgically re-invented right shoulder continues to rebound.  Trailing 24-3 at the half, the Colts closed to within 24-17 with almost 13 minutes left.

But the thinning of the secondary left them all too vulnerable in pass defense.  Afraid that they couldn’t match up with the Patriot receivers, the Colts went to very soft zones.  With no appreciable pass rush, Tom Brady and his cohorts repeatedly exploited the underneath areas of the coverage.

With 8:49 left in the first half, Brady overthrew running back James White on a go route up the right sideline.  It was his first legitimate miss of the game.  Prior to that toss, Tom had completed 14 of his first 15 pass – his only incompletion being a drop by Julian Edelman.

Brady wrapped up that first half 23 of 27 (85.2%) but for just 203 yards (just 8.82 yds per completion).  His two first-half touchdown passes – along with his one 1-yard touchdown dive – were instrumental in building that 24-3 first half lead.  For the evening, Brady only completed one down-field pass.

It resulted in the five hundredth touchdown pass of Tom’s career.  After standing comfortably in the pocket for a small eternity, Brady launched a deep strike to Josh Gordon, curling into the right flat of the end zone.  Josh wasn’t alone – there were two Indianapolis defenders waiting for the throw, but he made a very athletic adjustment to the ball, positioning himself to make a leaping grab of the pass.

Welcome to New England, Mr. Gordon.

For Indianapolis, the 38-24 defeat dropped them to 1-4 in the early going (gamebook) (summary).  It will be a process in Indy.  Five weeks into his inaugural season, Reich’s Colts rank twenty-second in total offense, twenty-ninth in rushing yards, twenty-seventh in points allowed, twenty-third in total defense and twenty-eighth in pass defense.  But it does look like they have an idea of how to eventually get where they want to go.

A few healthy bodies would help them turn that corner a bit faster.

A New Quarterback in Kansas City

There was a surreal moment at the end of first quarter in Heinz Field last Sunday.  With 54 seconds left, the Steelers – trying desperately to get their bearings – faced third-and-ten on their own 19.  As quarterback Ben Roethlisberger dropped back, Kansas City linebacker Justin Houston got his right hand under right tackle Marcus Gilbert and drove him back into Roethlisberger.

Ben, wedged into the pocket, tried to lift the ball to get rid of it, but the play resulted in disaster.  As Houston pushed Gilbert into Roethlisberger, the ball popped loose.  Chief defensive end Chris Jones scooped up the ball at about the five-yard line and stepped it into the end zone.

And suddenly the Pittsburgh Steelers, with 40 seconds still left in the first quarter, playing at home, trailed the Chiefs 27-0.

In the moments that followed that disaster, the game pivoted 180 degrees.  A holding penalty on Orlando Scandrick nullified the sack and the score, setting the Steelers back up with a first-down on their own 24.

Four plays later, Ben pitched a 26-yard touchdown pass to Jesse James.  The Kansas City lead was reduced to 21-7, and the teams would go into the locker room at the half tied at 21.

It was an impressive comeback from a proud Pittsburgh team.  In the end, though, it would prove fruitless.  While the Steeler defense was able to muffle the Kansas City offense long enough to get them back in the game, by the end of the day it was clear they were overmatched.

On a day when the Steeler running game (minus holdout Le’Veon Bell) could manage just 33 yards, Ben Roethlisberger went to the air 60 times, completing 39 of those passes for 452 yards and 3 touchdowns – leading Pittsburgh to a usually sufficient 37 points.

But the day belonged to the first-year quarterback standing on the other sideline.

How much the football universe knew about Patrick Mahomes before this year is uncertain.  After his first two games under center in KC, they can no longer afford to ignore him.

He opened up with a four touchdown pass performance against the Chargers in Week One.  It was impressive, but the offensive plan against Los Angeles was more cute that dominating.  There were a lot of dinky flip passes to wide receivers running in front of Mahomes while still behind the line of scrimmage.

The beast that slayed the Steelers was a very different animal.  Whatever misgivings one might have had after the Charger game, Mahomes’ dissection of the Steelers was all any observer could desire.  He read every defense that Pittsburgh threw at him.  He stood tall in the pocket when he could and escaped easily from trouble when he needed to.  He threw terrific touch passes and fired laser shots down field – all with impressive accuracy.  Watching him run the offense was even more impressive than reading his numbers – and that is saying quite a bit as the numbers themselves are more than a little eye-popping.

Pat finished his game against Pittsburgh throwing 28 passes – of which he completed 23 for 326 yards.  And 6 touchdowns (giving him 10 for the first two games of the season).  As he threw no interceptions, his passer rating for the day was an acceptable 154.8.

I have long admired Kanas City coach Andy Reid.  I have always been under the impression, though, that he would probably never win a title.  There are some coaches that can just never find that quarterback that can get them there.

It is a long, long way from Week Two to the playoffs, and young Mr Mahomes still has a lot to prove.  I do think it’s a little early to start casting his bust for Canton.

But, to this point, it looks like Andy just might have found his quarterback.

And in Jacksonville, Too

The backbreaking play – when it came – came with more of a whimper than a bang.  It wasn’t a rifle shot down the field or a snazzy trick play like the one Philadelphia used in the Super Bowl.  The dagger came on a simple shallow cross, assisted greatly by a grinding kind of effort from a player who is usually a little more visible.

The reigning AFC Champs spent last Sunday afternoon in sunny (it was 97 degrees) Jacksonville Florida.  Last January, these New England Patriots staged one of their patented comebacks to keep the Jaguars out of the Super Bowl.

On this Sunday in September, however, the Patriots ran into the same kind of buzz saw that the Steelers did. The Jaguars scored touchdowns on three of their first four possessions, and then added a field goal on their fifth.  That field goal capped a 15-play, 71-yard drive that consumed the first 7:10 of the second half.  As the kick sailed through the uprights, the Patriots found themselves behind (again) by a 24-3 score with just a quarter and a half remaining.

Of course, it would not end like that.

A touchdown pass from Tom Brady to Chris Hogan in the waning moments of the third quarter made the score 24-10.  Early in the fourth quarter, a field goal inched the Patriots closer.  When Kyle Van Noy intercepted a pass in Jacksonville territory with still 13:30 left in the game, the crushing blow from the defending conference champs seemed imminent.

But the Jags came up with a turnover of their own, and managed to stop New England on their next series – using a challenge to overturn what would have been a Patriot first down.

Now there was 7:48 left in the game.  Jacksonville had first-down on their own 39 yard line.  Quarterback Blake Bortles found Dede Westbrook open on a shallow crossing pattern.  Westbrook, running from the offensive right to the left found the sideline and turned up field. 

Already a substantial gain, the play turned into the game-breaker as receiver Keelan Cole cleared the sidelines with a critical block.

In the first quarter, Cole made a remarkable one-handed catch up that same sideline (relatively speaking) on a pass that was considerably behind him.  That reception set up his own 24-yard touchdown grab.  These were the highlight catches of Keelan’s impactful first half – which saw him collect 4 passes for 77 yards.

Now, however, he was Keelan Cole – the blocker.  He was Keelan Cole – the football player.

Had he not thrown the key block, it’s anyone’s guess how the game might have turned out.  Given a reprieve, the Patriots might very well have held the Jags to a field goal – or perhaps forced another turnover.  Keelan’s block may have been the most critical play of the game.

It did open the way for the touchdown that New England never recovered from.

Who is BlakeBorltes?

The quarterback in the spotlight that afternoon was Bortles.  The Patriots challenged him to beat them through the air and up the sidelines, and Blake kept doing that all afternoon.  He finished his day’s work shredding New England for 377 yards on 29 of 45 passing.  Along with his 1 interception, Blake tossed 4 touchdowns.  His passer rating ending up as an excellent 111.1.

In its own way Blake’s day was as impressive as Mahomes.  In that he humbled the sometimes invincible Patriots.  That he always kept his cool whether secure in the pocket or on the run.  That he unerringly diagnosed everything New England’s defense tried to do to him.  That he threw the ball with great accuracy and never made that critical mistake that quarterbacks so often make against New England – in all these areas, Blake’s day was as laudable as any quarterback in Week Two – even if his game was more contained and less aggressively athletic than Mahomes’.

In an earlier title, I hinted at a new quarterback in Jacksonville.  It is, of course, still Blake Bortles.  But maybe a new Blake Bortles.  Certainly different than the Blake Bortles that threw only one pass in the second half of his Week Five game last year in Pittsburgh.

Just watching him play and looking at his history it is easy to overlook Blake Bortles.  Maybe it’s time we stop doing that.

And in Tampa Bay

With Jameis Winston missing the first three games of the season due to suspension, the Buccaneers had a need for a stop-gap quarterback.  Veteran Ryan Fitzpatrick seemed a perfect fit.  Now, all of a sudden, there is a potential quarterback controversy in Tampa Bay.

Fitzpatrick – the stopgap – has led Tampa Bay to two compelling victories against teams (New Orleans and Philadelphia) that were in the playoffs a year ago.  And he has done so in about as perfect a fashion as one could hope.

His combined line against the Saints and Eagles reads 46 of 61 (78.7%) for 819 yards, 8 touchdowns and 1 interception.  This adds up to a not-too-shabby 151.5 passer rating.  Fitz will get the Monday night game this week against Pittsburgh, and then Winston will be eligible to return.  Whether he returns to hold the clipboard or not remains to be seen.

Ready for Week Three

As Week Three is beginning to kick off around the football universe, the season is already beginning to suggest the surprise stories that might play out for the rest of the season.

There is, of course, a long way to go.

When Weaver Can Pitch Ahead

Gordon may have been looking for the four-seamer.

Batting with one out in the second inning, Alex Gordon would have seen young Cardinal right-hander Luke Weaver start three of the four batters who faced him in the first inning with that four-seam fastball.

Whether he was, in fact, expecting it, Alex jumped Luke’s first-pitch four-seamer and lofted it into the grass over the center field wall.  That tied the game at one, and spurred Kansas City on to their 5-1 decision over St Louis (box score) last night.

It was about the only time all night that Weaver fell into a somewhat discernable pattern.  For the game, he threw about the same number of changes, fastballs and cutters – and threw them confidently in all counts.  Of the 28 batters he faced, 10 of them saw first-pitch fastballs, 7 each saw change-ups and cutters as the first pitch.  The other four saw first-pitch curves – still a growing pitch for Luke.

In all, Weaver threw first-pitch strikes to 23 of the 28 he faced in a game where he pitched better than the record showed.  As Luke settles into his first full season in the rotation, the numbers suggest how important it is for him to pitch ahead in the count.

Luke finished his evening ahead in the count to 16 of the 28 batters he faced.  Those batters managed just 3 singles (.188) and struck out 6 times.  It is these batters – the ones backed up in the count – that are most susceptible to his excellent change.

In fact, in a game where Weaver struck out 8 in 7 innings, his best inning may well have been his third-inning – an inning where he threw only 6 pitches (no fastballs) and registered no strikeouts.  That inning began with Jon Jay taking a curve for a strike and then grounding out on that change.  It continued with Ryan Goins also taking a curve for a strike and then lining out on another curve.  The inning ended with another first-pitch curve to Mike Moustakas, who fouled it off before flying out on a change-up. Three very short, mostly uncomfortable at bats by the top of the line-up.

The problems for Luke come when he can’t get consistently get ahead of batters.  In 4 mostly good starts this month (and Luke holds a 3.13 ERA in 23 innings in May) batters are just 5 for 29 (.172 – all singles) when batting behind in the count.  When batting ahead in the count, they are hitting .353/.476/.647.

Luke’s reaching his potential as a top-of-the-rotation starter will hinge on his developing ability to consistently throw first-pitch strikes with his secondary pitches.

Greg Holland

The disintegration of Greg Holland continued last night.  Brought into the ninth-inning, trailing just 3-1, Greg faced four batters. He fell behind all four, and ended his night allowing 2 runs on 3 singles and a walk.  Holland has given multiple runs in 3 straight games. Eleven of the last 14 batters he has faced have reached, and he has walked at least one batter in 5 straight appearances.  Only 46 of his last 86 pitches have gone for strikes.  The 29 batters that Greg has been behind this season are slashing .538/.786/.846 against him.  Last night they were sitting on that once-dominant slider that has lost almost all of its bite.

The Cardinals remain convinced that Holland (whose season ERA is now back up to 8.76) will yet be a positive force in the Cardinal bullpen – even though this is precisely how he ended last season with Colorado.  Greg, of course, has flatly rejected the idea of working through his problems in the minors.  This is a hard thing for a decorated veteran to accept.  It is unfortunate, in that Holland needs to pitch, and Mike Matheny can no longer afford to bring him into important situations.

A footnote – through 19 games in May, the Cardinal rotation has a 2.53 ERA.  The bullpen – which has served up more home runs (10) in 67.2 innings than the starters have surrendered (7) in 110.1 innings – carries a 4.92 ERA this month.

Dexter Fowler

Things still not getting any better for Dexter Fowler.  Hitless in 4 at bats yesterday, he is down to .155 through 148 at bats this year.  In May, Dex is down to .130 (7 for 54) – although with 10 walks.

Matt Carpenter

In the Cardinal’s unusual 11-hit 0-RBI game (all 11 hits were singles, and the team was 0-6 with runners in scoring position), one of the casualties was Matt Carpenter’s very loud six-game hitting streak.  Struggling at-bat for at-bat with Fowler for most of the season, Carpenter has erupted recently.

In the six games prior to last night’s 0-4, Carpenter amassed 13 hits in 24 at bats (.542 average).  His streak included 3 three-hit games, and another two-hit game.  Eight of the 13 hits were for extra-bases (one of them a home run) leading to a .958 slugging percentage for the streak.

Going Forward

The recent buzz around town is the return of Alex Reyes (and to the rotation, no less).  This latest wave of young talent is a hint of the team that this will be in just a few years – if management can resist the urge to give all of them away.  It is already hard to find room in the Cardinal’s crowded rotation.  While Carlos Martinez is still out, it would seem that Reyes will take his spot (currently held by John Gant), but after Carlos comes back some very talented starter will either be back in Memphis or bolstering the sagging bullpen.

A similar thing is happening in the lineup, where Matheny is working hard to find enough at bats for all of his outfielders and Jedd Gyorko.

And there is more talent out there on the way.  If one of them can be a late-inning asset in the bullpen, this team could be very hard to head.

NoteBook

Last night’s crowd of 39,545 was a little disappointing by St Louis standards under any circumstance – much less with the cross-state Royals visiting.  It, nonetheless, pushed St Louis’ home attendance to 1,023,464 in 25 home dates – an average of 40,938.6.  This would put them on pace to draw 3,356,962 for the season.  If that happens, it will be their fifteenth straight three-million season and the twentieth in the last twenty-one years.  However, it will also be the lowest attendance figure since the 2012 team drew in 3,262,109.  Much of the early season was atypically cold, and may have held down attendance figures.  We will see what the heat of summer brings.

Of the 16 series they have played so far, the Cards have won the first game 8 times.  Even after last night’s loss, they are 18-5 in the games of those series.  They have won 5 of the first 7 series, splitting the other 2.

And An Off-Season Football Note

Earlier today the NFL announced its National Anthem policy.  Already the aftermath is brewing.  Since this is still mostly two sides shouting at each other, I will link again to the piece I wrote about this last year.

Super Bowl LII: The Last Word

For more than three hours on the evening of February second, all of America (or at least the football-watching portion of that population) tuned into Super Bowl LII looking for the precise moment that the Philadelphia’s Eagles’ Cinderella ride would turn back into a pumpkin.

Even after the Eagles – history’s most dis-respected number one seed – had opened up a 15-3 lead on the New England Patriots just 21 minutes into the contest, the haters remained unconvinced.  We had all seen this film before.

With 5:15 left before the end of the half, Nick Foles’ long toss up the right sideline deflected into the hands of New England’s Duron Harmon for the game’s first turnover.  Surely that would change the momentum of the game.  But after New England went 90 yards for a touchdown following the interception, Philadelphia answered with a touchdown of their own before the half and went into the locker room with a ten-point lead.

Like the monster in all of the slasher films, the defending champions from New England refused to die.  They opened the second half with touchdowns on three consecutive drives, and finally – with 9:22 left in the game – pushed ahead 33-32.  Surely this would finally be the end of the under-dog Eagles.

This was, after all, the same Patriot team that overcame a 28-3 deficit in the Super Bowl just the year before, and just two weeks earlier had overturned an 11-point deficit against Jacksonville to qualify for this year’s big game.  It seemed almost expected that Philly’s 12-point lead would at some point evaporate.

But on this evening the under-appreciated Eagles slew the dragon from Boston by doing the one thing that the Falcons (in Super Bowl LI) and the Jaguars (in this year’s AFC Championship Game) were unable to do.

They kept scoring.

In last year’s Super Bowl, the Falcons were done scoring at the 8:31 mark of the third quarter.  After having three earlier touchdown drives of at least 62 yards, the Falcons totaled just 44 yards (and 3 first downs) on their last 4 possessions.  Jacksonville scored its last touchdown of the game at 7:06 of the second quarter.  They had moved for 158 yards and 11 first downs in their back-to-back touchdown drives.  Over their final 9 possessions of the game, the Jaguars managed just two field goals, 193 yards and 9 first downs.

Doug Pederson’s offense never relented.  Every time the Patriots surged back into the game, the Eagles responded.  They ended the Super Bowl by scoring on all of their last 5 possessions following the interception to carry off a 41-33 victory (gamebook).

Reversing the Trend

There was an era not too long ago when the Super Bowl was traditionally one of the dullest contests of the season.  Beginning with the Raiders 38-9 thumping of the Redskins back in Super Bowl XVIII (18), all of the next 5 Super Bowls would be decided by at least 19 points, with four of the five being decided by 22 points or more.  The average margin of victory in those five Super Bowls was 27.6 points.  Two Super Bowls after the last of those (Washington’s 42-10 pummeling of Denver), the San Francisco 49ers authored the most lopsided victory in Super Bowl history – a 55-10 rout also at the expense of the Broncos.  It was an era where advertisers pushed to get their commercials aired in the first quarter as a large percentage of the viewing population had moved on to something else long before halftime.  From Dallas’ 24-3 victory over Miami in Super Bowl VI (6), through Tampa Bay’s 48-21 conquest of Oakland in Super Bowl XXXVII (37), only 9 of 32 contests were decided by one score or less, and the average margin of victory was a disappointing 16.5 points.

But, beginning with New England’s tense 32-29 victory over Carolina that next season, the dynamic has decidedly changed.  Ten of the last fifteen have been one score games – including this one, which ended with Tom Brady throwing into the end zone as time expired.

And while the recent decade has brought us more competitive contests, the last three have been nothing short of transcendent.  Three seasons ago, the Super Bowl brought us Peyton Manning’s farewell.  One of the great presence’s in recent football history, Peyton went out a champion, leading Denver to a 24-10 decision over Carolina.  Last season, of course, Brady and the Patriots authored one of the great comebacks of all-time.

And two weeks ago the no-chance Eagles fashioned a stunning upset in a game that set a hatful of Super Bowl offensive records. League-wide all teams averaged 334.1 yards per game.  The Eagles racked up 323 yards and the Patriots managed 350 yards.

At the half.

Offense Galore

During the entertaining first half, the two teams combined for 673 yards on 72 plays – a breath-taking 9.3 yards per play.  By about the mid-point of the third quarter the two teams had set the Super Bowl record for combined yardage.  They would finish the affair with 1151 total yards and 9 combined touchdowns.  Nine different players ended with a run or a catch of at least 20 yards.  Four of them had pass catches of over 40 yards.

Together, the Eagles and Patriots were 15 for 26 on third down (.577), including 8 of 12 (.667) in the second half.  They were also 3-for-4 on fourth down.  The 33 points scored by New England were the most ever by a losing team in a Super Bowl (supplanting the 49ers, who scored 31 points in losing Super Bowl XLVII [48]) and the combined total of 74 points came within 1 point of the Super Bowl record (in Super Bowl XXIX [29] the 49ers outscored the San Diego Chargers 49-26).  Considering that this game saw two missed extra-points, a missed field goal, and two failed two-point conversions, that record held by the slimmest combination of circumstances imaginable.

The Defining Moment of Super Bowl LII

The contest will forever be remembered for the touchdown that the Eagles scored on fourth-and-goal with 38 seconds left in the first half.  Leading by just three points, and with New England set to receive the second-half kickoff, Philadelphia simply could not afford to come away from this opportunity without points.  So, even the decision to go for the touchdown here was risky.  And for Pederson to reach deep into his bag of tricks for the tight-end option pass to the quarterback ranks as one of the gutsiest calls in the now-long history of the Super Bowl.  The potential for disaster here was huge.  With an inexperienced passer throwing to the flat on the goal line, any of the numerous ways that play could have backfired would almost certainly have cost Philly the game.

But the play didn’t backfire.  Trey Burton threw an accurate pass, and Foles made the catch in the end zone.

It will be remembered by many as the critical play of the game.  But here’s the thing.  Even in spite of this highlight-reel play, the Eagles still found themselves trailing with nine minutes left in the season.  The actual play of the game – not so much highlight reel stuff – might well have been Philadelphia’s other fourth-down play.

That the Eagles trailed by one with 9:22 to go was the least of their concerns.  The raspberry seed in their collective wisdom tooth was the Patriot offense that they had not yet managed to stop.  In nine possessions to that point of the game, New England had managed at least 1 first down in all of them, and 2 or more in 7 of the 9.  Six of the nine had covered at least 74 yards, and eight of them accounted for at least 48 yards.  The nine had resulted in 4 touchdowns, 2 field goals, 1 missed field goal, 1 missed fourth-down play, and the end of the first half.  Every drive but one to this point had ended in Philadelphia territory – and the one that didn’t made it to the 50-yard line.  Philadelphia needed to find some way to keep this offense off the scoreboard for the rest of the game.

So, as the Eagles lined up along their own 25-yard line with those 9:22 to go, more than just the score to put them back in front, Philadelphia needed to kill the clock.  And when a third-and-one screen pass to Torrey Smith ended shy of first-down yardage, the Eagles’ season hung in the balance.

There was still 5:39 left in the game.  With the fourth-and-one, Philadelphia sat on their own 45-yard line.  A punt here was an open invitation for New England to put an exclamation point on their comeback.  But a failed fourth-down play would give the Patriots a short field and a golden opportunity for the game-clinching score.  In spite of the fact that Philadelphia ran for 164 yards this day, they opted for a pass, risking everything on the arm and the judgement of the much maligned Nick Foles.

Nicky Who?

As recently as 2015, Nick was a sometimes starter for the St Louis Rams, fashioning a 4-7 record as a starter with an exceedingly modest 69.0 passer rating.  He spent 2016 sitting on the bench in Kansas City, and had much the same function in Philadelphia for most of this year.

And now, everything depended on him.

In a 3-tight-end set, Foles had Zach Ertz tight to the right side, and Brent Celek and Burton lined up tight to the left.  Ertz and Celek ran a simple shallow cross against New England’s man coverage.  Devin McCourty – in coverage on Ertz – ran headlong into Celek and Patrick Chung – who had coverage on Celek.  And now there was just Ertz roaming completely free underneath.  The pressure on Foles was quick.  Trey Flowers slipped immediately inside tackle Halapoulivaati Vaitai to flush Foles to his left, and Kyle Van Noy stunted around Vaitai’s back to hit Nicky just after he released the ball.  The throw was a little high, but Zach pulled it down.  And the Eagle drive continued.

That play was the lynch-pin of a devastating 14-play, 75-yard drive that consumed 7:01 from the remaining game-clock.  Foles connected twice more with Ertz for third-down conversions – including the 11-yard touchdown pass (on third-and-7) that concluded the drive.  McCourty had Zach in man coverage on that play as well, but Devin stumbled just slightly as Zach made his break to the inside, creating the opening that led to the game-clinching touchdown.

Coming off the game of his life against Minnesota, Nick Foles was very good again against New England.  He finished 28-of-43 (65.12%) for 373 yards, 3 touchdowns and the interception.  His rating against the Patriots overall was a strong 106.06.  But once again, he was at his very best on third down.

Against the Vikings, he completed 10-of-11 on third down for 159 yards and 9 first downs (including 2 touchdowns).  On third-down against the Patriots, Nicky completed 11 of 14 for 169 yards – again for 9 first downs and 2 touchdowns. Thus Nick Foles finished the last two games of the season completing 21 of 25 passes (84%) for 328 yards, 18 first downs and 4 touchdowns on third down – a combined 158.33 rating.

Of all the remarkable numbers amassed by Foles in his surprising Super Bowl run, his dominance on third down are both the most amazing and the most vital.

He also finished the game on a hot streak comparable to the way he finished up the Vikings.  Beginning with his 22-yard touchdown toss to Corey Clement about midway through the third, Nicky finished 13 for his last 16 (81.25%) – albeit for just 127 yards (9.77 per completion) – and 2 touchdowns.  His passer rating reached 139.32 as he finished the game.

Coming down the stretch, Nick began to look more and more for Nelson Agholor – who was matched mostly against Chung.  Patrick – one of the defensive heroes for the Patriots during the playoff run – had a tough Super Bowl that included being knocked out of the game twice.

Five of Foles’ last 16 passes went in Agholor’s direction, with Nelson catching all five for 54 yards and 4 first downs.

Defensive Measures

As did Minnesota, New England decided to play man coverage against the Eagle receivers and brought frequent pressure.  Nick got man coverage on 79% of his drop-backs, including being blitzed 37% of the time.  Foles chewed up the Patriot blitz to the tune of 11 of 16 (68.75%) for 126 yards and 1 touchdown (a 113.02 passer rating).  The Patriots did a little better when they played man and didn’t blitz (a 109.49 rating on 11 of 18 passing for 184 yards, 2 touchdowns and the interception).

Best of all against Foles may have been the zone defenses the Patriots threw at him, though they went to zone too infrequently to make much of a judgement.  Foles was 6 of 9 against the New England zones, but for just 63 yards and 2 first downs.

When they could pressure Foles, they did very well against him. Credit to the Eagle offensive line that Nick only threw 11 passes under duress (about a fourth of his attempts).  He completed only 3 of those passes for just 9 yards.  All three of those completions came in that pivotal fourth-quarter touchdown drive.  Foles was also just 4 for 11 when they could flush him out of the pocket. Again, this was something New England couldn’t do enough of.

Does Foles Have an Encore In Him?

The great post-season mystery now becomes what happens with Nick Foles?  With emerging superstar Carson Wentz set to return, this playoff run was essentially an audition for Foles.  Have these last three games convinced anyone that Nicky is their quarterback of the future?  Or is it more likely – given his recent performance in St Louis – that this playoff run had more to do with the team around him?

Let me say this for Foles.  During the playoff run, he made excellent decisions and threw a very catchable ball.  He especially has a nice touch on deep passes.  In all this, though, I don’t think I’m completely convinced Nicky is the answer as anyone’s starter.   And even after all this, I’m not sure that everyone understands what was truly remarkable about Foles, the Eagles, and their 2017 playoff run.

Put the tape back in and watch the first possession of the game.  Watch Foles coolly and confidently run the Eagle offense.  In the eyes of the rest of the world, Nick Foles had everything to prove.  But that’s not what you saw two weeks ago.  You saw a backup quarterback playing in the Super Bowl with absolutely nothing to prove – to himself or anyone else.  That is because his entire team, from owner down to ball boy, had already placed their entire confidence in him.  Nick Foles was their quarterback.  The defense didn’t put extra pressure on themselves. Neither did the offensive line.  The coaches made no effort to hide their quarterback.  He threw 11 times in the 16 plays of Philadelphia’s first two drives (a field goal and a touchdown) and threw on 10 of the 14 plays of the game-winning drive in the fourth quarter.

Without exception, everyone in the Eagle locker room firmly believed that Foles would deliver a starting quarterback effort that evening – and with 373 passing yards, 3 touchdown passes tossed – and one caught, Nicky Foles did just that.

Imagine for a moment how difficult that is.  Imagine All-Pro defensive lineman Fletcher Cox standing on the sideline watching Wentz not get up after scoring that touchdown against the Rams.  Imagine what must have been going through his head.  And Jason Kelce’s.  And Zach Ertz’.  And coach Pederson’s.  In the pit of your stomach, how can you not feel that your season had just ended?  Remember, Carson Wentz was not just their starting quarterback.  He was the soul of the team.  He was the piece that made the whole machine go.  If you had been watching the NFL season up to that point, you would have tabbed Carson Wentz as one of the handful of irreplaceable players.  Every other member of the Eagle team must have felt his loss as a debilitating punch to the gut.

And then somewhere in between that devastating moment and the time the Eagles took the field for their first playoff game that most under-appreciated element of professional sports took over.  The Eagle locker room healed itself.  They embraced Nicky Foles, and endowed him with their complete trust and confidence.  This wasn’t a pretend “oh, sure, we’re all behind you” confidence.  Nicky Foles became – for a few dynamic weeks – the sum of the faith of his team.

Even should the Eagles and Wentz go on to experience success on the level of the Patriots, this first Super Bowl win (and the under-dog status that they carried into it) will always be memorable to them.  I’m not sure, though, history will forever remember this aspect of this remarkable achievement.

Oh, Yes . . .

Speaking of history, the quarterback on the other end of this entertaining contest has been involved in a bit of it himself.

The Eagles managed to hold Tom Brady and the Patriot offense to field goal attempts in three of their first four possessions by bringing fairly consistent pressure.  But as New England’s offensive line got their feet set under them, Brady became Brady again.

Beginning with a 25-yard completion to Rob Gronkowski on the second play of the third quarter, and continuing until Brady threw the touchdown pass to Gronkowski that put New England ahead in the fourth, Brady completed 12 out of 14 passes for 181 yards and all three touchdowns.  He worked with great frequency and effectiveness to the left side, where Ronald Darby was a frequent target.  Tom completed 12 of 14 passes (85.71%) to the offensive left side of the formation for 215 yards (15.36 yards per attempt) and 1 touchdown – a 142.56 rating.  In fact, subtract two spikes to stop the clock and his last 7 passes against rather extreme zone defenses, and Brady was 25 of 39 (64.1%) for 465 yards (18.6 yards per completion) with the 3 touchdowns – a 130.82 passer rating.

Not much that Philly tried against Tom succeeded. The Eagles went to predominantly man coverages – doing so on 70% of Brady’s pass attempts (other than the spikes or the prevents).  They blitzed less often than New England (only 20% of the time), but with no better results.  Tom went 6 for 8 for 111 yards against the Eagle blitzes.  But when they played man without the blitz, things went even worse.  Brady completed only 11 of 20 passes against those man coverages (55%), but for 215 yards (19.55 yards per completion) and 2 of his touchdowns – a 126.04 rating.  The Eagles didn’t play much zone – and just as well.  Tom was 8 of 11 (72.73%) when they did, for 139 yards (12.64 per attempted pass) and the other touchdown – a 145.08 passer rating.

Frankly, when Brady and the offense got the ball back, trailing by 5 with 2:21 left and holding one time out, I thought – and I’m sure I wasn’t alone – that the Patriots would add one more improbable comeback to their swelling playoff lore.

Not What You Might Have Expected

But then the unusual happened.  Instead of the Patriots making that clutch fourth-quarter, game-deciding play, it was the Eagles making it against them.  In a game that featured just one punt and one sack, it was the latter that finally decided matters.  With New England facing a second-and-2 on their own 33, Brandon Graham surged underneath Patriot guard Shaq Mason and closed quickly enough on Brady that he hit the ball as Tom was raising it for a pass.

For a small eternity the football – and the season – bounced freely on the turf, to be gathered in in the next heartbeat by Eagle defensive end Derek Barnett.  The Eagles had the ball on the Patriot 31 with just 2:09 left.

This would be the only time of the game that the Eagles would go conservative – and it almost cost them.  Three running plays gained 4 yards.  Jake Elliot finished the one minute-four second drive with the field goal that gave us the final score, and when New England finally got the ball back for their desperation drive, there was only 58 seconds left in the season – and the Patriots had 91 yards to cover.

And even at that, they were still throwing into the end zone as time expired.

A Warning Note

Among the more glamourous offensive records set in Super Bowl LII was the passing yardage record.  Brady became the first quarterback in the Super Bowl to throw for 500 yards in a game (505 to be exact).  Whose record did he break?  Why his own, of course.  The year before in Super Bowl LI Brady had thrown for 466 yards.  Across all of football this year, the average quarterback threw for about 3800 yards for the 16-game season.  In the last two Super Bowls, Brady has thrown for 971.

Impressive? Of course.  But the reason behind the record is even more instructive.  In Super Bowl LII, the Patriots ran 72 offensive plays.  They trailed in every one of them.  They didn’t have so much as one offensive snap where they were at least tied in the game.  They trailed by 10 points or more in 24 of those plays.

Two weeks earlier against Jacksonville, New England held the ball for 61 offensive plays.  They trailed in 42 of those – finding themselves down by ten points or more in 22 of them.  In last year’s Super Bowl, they trailed in 67 of 93 plays, finding themselves at least ten points behind in 53 of them.

So, during their last two Super Bowl games and their last AFC Championship game, New England has run a total of 226 plays.  They have been behind 80% of the time (181 plays) and trailed by at least 10 points almost half of the time (99 plays – 43.8%).  Brady – of necessity – has thrown 110 passes in his last two Super Bowls.

Taking nothing away from the Falcons, Jaguars or Eagles, the Patriots have been having an increasingly difficult time matching their opponent’s emotion in these big games.  Brady reported to Al Michales that he didn’t even feel nervous at the start of this – his eighth Super Bowl.  In particular, during the start of the Atlanta game, the Patriots looked almost like they were standing still.

There are already a sizeable number of mysteries that the 2018 season will answer.  The 2017 season saw a lot of upheaval.  Long-time doormats in Jacksonville, Tennessee, Buffalo, Los Angeles (and, yes, Philadelphia) all earned playoff bids.  Are these teams on the rise? Or one year wonders?  Meanwhile playoff mainstays in Green Bay, Dallas and Seattle watched from home.  Are they franchises in decline?  Or were they mostly unlucky?  What does the future hold for marquee quarterbacks like Eli Manning, Aaron Rodgers, Deshaun Watson, Jimmy Garoppolo, Kirk Cousins, and Alex Smith – not to mention backups turned into heroes Nick Foles and Case Keenum?

As compelling as any of these mysteries is what we will see from the 2018 version of the New England Patriots.  How they respond to this surprising loss will be one of the stories to follow – and one of the keys to the direction the franchise is heading.

As for the Eagles – who jumped from 7-9 in 2016 to world champions this year – they will now be challenged with handling success.  Staying on top is always harder than getting there.

It all sets up for a fascinating 2018.

Yes, Actually, That Will Be Nick Foles in the Super Bowl

There was 1:25 left in the first half.  The Eagles held a modest 14-7 lead, but had second-and-ten on their own 47-yard line.  With a pass rush coming from his right, quarterback Nick Foles took a couple of steps to his left.  But there was more trouble coming from there as Everson Griffen came roaring unabated toward him.  Before he was hit, Foles flung the ball up the left sideline in the general direction of Mack Hollins.  And then Griffen buried him.

The blow looked worse than it was.  Foles bounced right back up.  That pass was not to be his last pass of the game.

But it would be his last incompletion.

To that point in the contest, Nicky’s numbers were modest.  He was now 11 for 18 (61.11%), but for just 95 yards (just 8.64 yards per completed pass).  Only 7 of those 11 completions had earned first downs, and he carried a 75.00 passer rating as he went to the turf.  In short, he was Nick Foles.

But when he got back up off the turf, he was Joe Montana.

Foles in a Frenzy

On the next play, receiver Alshon Jeffery put a double-move on cornerback Terence Newman.  Alshon veered slightly towards the middle of the field.  Newman followed along, only to be surprised when Jeffery cut back underneath him and broke free down the right side-line.  Foles was undergoing another very close call in the pocket as Griffen and Emmanuel Lamur almost got their hands on him.  But Nick was slick enough to elude their grasp.  He lofted an arching rainbow toward the goal line that Jeffery ran under, and suddenly Philly was up 21-7.

For Foles, it was the first of what would grow to be 15 consecutive pass completions – a streak that would take him through the rest of the game.  Four of those final 15 completions went for 36 yards or more, and all fifteen together totaled 257 yards (an average of 17.13 yards per).  Twelve of his final 15 completions went for first downs, including 3 for touchdowns.

Philadelphia cruised past the Vikings 38-7 (gamebook) to earn a berth in Sunday’s Super Bowl opposite Tom Brady and the Patriots.  Foles’ impressive evening included going 10 of 11 on third down for 159 yards and 2 touchdowns (with 9 of his 10 completions gaining first downs), on his way to a 352-yard, 141.41 passer rating performance.

There is little I can say – even after studying the film – that can explain the greatest game of Nick Foles’ career.  It was, essentially, four huge passes (totaling 172 yards) and a whole bunch of shorter passes (totaling 180 yards).  He was 19 for 20 on passes that were less than ten yards from the line of scrimmage.  He took what the Viking defense gave him, and took advantage of his deep opportunities when they arose.

Vikings Fading

Hearkening back to their Divisional Round game against New Orleans, perhaps this melt-down is more revealing of the state of the Viking defense at the close of the season than it is the skills of the Philadelphia offense.  In the second halves of their last two games, the Vikings allowed Drew Brees and Nick Foles to complete 28 of 33 passes (84.85%) for 321 yards (9.73 yards per attempted pass).  They allowed the two QBs to throw for 20 first downs, including 5 touchdowns.  Minnesota failed to record a sack in either second half.  The Saints (as you recall) almost came back from a 17-0 halftime deficit against the Vikings.

In retrospect, perhaps they should have played more basic man coverage.  It was the most effective defense they threw at Foles the whole game.  They rarely played zone against Nick (only 6 times) and they paid for that decision almost every time.  Nick stung them for 5 completions in those six throws for 80 yards and 2 touchdowns.  Blitzing Nicky was just as catastrophic.  He completed 11 of the 12 passes he threw against the Viking blitzes (91.67%) for 157 yards (13.08 per attempted pass).  Eight of the 11 completions went for first downs, including one for a touchdown – yielding a passer rating of 146.53 against the blitz.

But 16 different times, they simply challenged Jeffery, Nelson Agholor and the other Eagle receivers to win against man coverage, with no blitz to dilute the coverage.  Nick was a good, but not remarkable 10 of 15 (66.67%) for 115 yards (7.67 per) with the only sack he endured on the evening.  He threw no touchdown passes against this straight man coverage, and finished with an 89.58 passer rating against this defense.

But even had Minnesota played more man coverages – and even if they had continued successful – winning this game would have been difficult with only 7 points put on the board.

Keenum Fading as Well

If the performance by the one Cinderella quarterback (Foles) was astonishing, the performance of the other (Case Keenum) was less than surprising.  A career backup, Keenum was tossed into the spotlight this season after Minnesota lost their first two quarterbacks to injuries.  Behind a strong running game, an elite defense, and the emergence of rookie receiver Adam Thielen, Keenum had the year of his life.

But the question always lingered.  What would happen if Minnesota ran into an opponent that would force Case to throw them to victory.  That opponent was almost New Orleans in the Divisional Round.  On his way to what would have been an uninspiring second half, Minnesota won the game on a last-second miracle pass from Keenum to Stefan Diggs (made possible by a missed tackle).  He was last seen standing on the sidelines leading his home crowd in the “Skoal” chant.  He was dressed in his pointy-hooded warm-up jacket, looking for all the world like a purple garden gnome.

Sunday in Philadelphia, the miracles ran out.  Forced to throw 48 times, Case finished with 28 completions (58.33%) for just 271 yards (only 9.68 per completion).  He did manage a touchdown pass, but also threw 2 interceptions.  His passer rating on the evening was an exceedingly modest 63.80.

While Foles excelled on third down, Keenum was just 6 for 10 for 57 yards and an interception.  Throw in his 0-for-2 on fourth down, and Keenum’s passer rating on third and fourth down was a miniscule 28.82.

Even worse – if such a thing were possible – was his adventures in the red zone, where Case completed only 2 of 10 passes for 15 yards with one interception – an uncommon 0.00 rating.  He also fumbled away another red zone opportunity on a sack.

Well, there was only one glass slipper, after all.  So it would have to strike midnight for one of them.  It is perhaps unfair, but the truth is that the best season of Case Keenum’s career failed to truly answer the questions about him.

Turning Toward Sunday

As to Foles going forward, the same perception of Keenum applies to him.  If someone (New England) can make Nick win the game with his arm, it would seem to diminish Philadelphia’s chances.

It is extremely hard to pick Philadelphia in the upcoming Super Bowl.  Foles vs Brady seems – on the surface of it – an unconscionable mismatch.  But understand this.  Philadelphia was always more than just their quarterback.  There are a lot of championship pieces on this Philadelphia team.  Not the least of these is the coach.  Philadelphia doesn’t get a lot of press for this, but they are an exceedingly well-coached team.

In New England – perhaps the best-coached team in recent memory – Philadelphia faces an enormous challenge.  But Sunday evening, they will get their chance.  In spite of the odds-makers, in spite of the Patriots’ mystique and overwhelming playoff experience – in spite of the disbelieving press – the Philadelphia Eagles will get their moment on the big stage with a chance to write their own ending to what has been something of a fairy-tale season.

And that, after all, is all that anyone could ask for.

The Patriots are Hard to Kill

It’s always difficult to say how things might have turned out.

As Tom Brady and the Patriots broke the huddle with just 10:49 left in the game – and possibly their season – they faced a third-and-18 back on their own 25-yard line.  They were trailing by ten points.  It’s not fair to say that the entire game rode on this play, but if Jacksonville could stop this one third-and-18 play and run any kind of time off the clock on their next possession, the noose would certainly tighten around the necks of the defending champions.

But, comfortable in the pocket, Brady fired a strike 21-yards down the middle of the field where Danny Amendola gathered it in for the first down.  A few moments later, Brady would throw the touchdown pass to Amendola that would set the come-back in motion.  To no one’s profound surprise, the Patriots would go on to claim a 24-20 victory (gamebook) and propel themselves into Super Bowl LII.

In one sense, it was classic New England.  With them it always seems that when someone needs to make a play, someone does.  The grit level on this team is uncommonly high.  But there is another aspect of this play (and this game) that will (or at least should) haunt the players, coaches and fans of the Jacksonville Jaguars for the rest of the off-season.  On perhaps the game’s pivotal play, Brady looked up to see the Jacksonville defense in cover-4.

The Zone of Woe

In last week’s Divisional Round, Jacksonville had barely survived Pittsburgh.  In spite of a seemingly insurmountable early lead, the Steelers kept crawling back into the game, and they did it by the grace of the Jaguar zone defenses (my review of the proceedings is here).  Repeatedly, linebackers didn’t drop deep enough or wide enough.  Frequently defensive backs abandoned their zone responsibilities to follow a receiver.  And time after time they were burned by it.

In the game’s very first series, analyst Tony Romo pointed out that – while the Jaguars had played zone on the first two snaps – the expectation was that they would play the New England receivers almost exclusively with man coverage throughout the game.

There was every reason for him to have this expectation.  Tony saw the same thing I did.  While they tend to play undisciplined in zone coverage, Jacksonville is among the very best in football at man coverage.  In fact, when Brady faced man coverage last Sunday, he was held to just a 45.45% completion percentage, while averaging 5.36 yards per attempted pass.  His passer rating against the Jacksonville man-coverage schemes was a pitiable 62.31.  When permitted to challenge the Patriots man-on-man, the Jaguar defenders backed up all of their bragging leading up to the game.  For all the chatter from and concerning second-year cornerback Jalen Ramsey, the surprising star of the defense was Aaron Colvin who matched the quickness of Amendola almost every chance he had to cover him.

Mystifyingly, he infrequently got that opportunity.

Of his 42 dropbacks, Brady faced man coverage only 12 times – less than 29% of the time.  All the rest of the game he saw zone coverages – and relished them.  He completed 21 of his 27 passes against the zones he saw (77.78%) for 231 yards – an average of 8.56 yards per attempted pass – with both of his touchdown passes thrown against the Jacksonville zone.  His passer rating of 127.01 was more than double his rating against man coverages.  And for some un-obvious reason, Brady saw zone coverages over 70% of the time.

I’m not sure if Jacksonville believed that zone coverages could limit New England’s big-play opportunities, but nothing could be farther from the truth.  After giving up a bushel-full of big-plays to the Steelers, Jacksonville saw New England complete 5 passes of at least 20 yards, including 2 passes of at least 30 yards against those leaky zones.  On the third-and-18 play mentioned above, neither linebacker (Telvin Smith nor Myles Jack) really dropped at all into their zones.  They mostly stood still, creating at least a ten-yard gap between them and the secondary – more than enough room for Brady and Amendola to maneuver.

While all of the defensive flaws previously mentioned were in evidence, Jacksonville’s most exploited weak link last Sunday was probably cornerback A.J. Bouye.  Excellent in man coverage all year, AJ plays zone as though the concept were to allow the receiver to catch the ball and then make the tackle.  Cognizant of not getting beaten deep, Bouye gives ground, and continues to give ground.  Of Brady’s 21 completions against zone coverages, no fewer than 5 were passes of at least 10 yards to receivers (mostly Brandon Cooks) who simply ran up the left sideline and turned around to catch the pass.  These 5 pass played totaled 69 yards.

Numbers From the Patriot Come Back

Zone or no zone, the game featured the usual Brady heroics.  He was 11 for 16 (68.75%) when trailing in the game by at least 10 points – his completions going for 167 yards – an average of 10.44 yards per attempted pass.  He also threw the first of his touchdown passes in this circumstance for a passer rating of 123.70.  In the fourth quarter alone he was 9 of 14 for 138 yards and both touchdowns.  Eight of his 9 fourth-quarter completions achieved first downs.  His fourth quarter rating was 136.31.  In case you are wondering, that is really good.

Fewer Heroics from Bortles

While Brady’s heroics have come to be expected, the curiosity in this game was the quarterback on the other sideline.  The much-maligned Blake Bortles had led his team into the Championship Game with a strong performance against Pittsburgh.  His passing line in this game would be good, but deceptively so.

His first appearance in a Championship Game finished with Blake completing 23 of 36 passes for 293 yards and a touchdown – good for a 98.5 rating.  But this number comes with a couple of caveats.

First of all, Blake’s great day was pretty much a function of short passes off of play action.  Because the Jaguar running game is so proficient, Bortles repeatedly threw off play action.  He was 10 of 13 (76.92%) throwing off play action for 158 yards (12.15 per attempted pass) and his only touchdown pass – good for a 142.47 rating.  Nine of the ten completions gained first downs.

Additionally, when throwing to receivers who were less than ten yards from the line of scrimmage, Blake completed 18 of 23 (78.26%) for 180 yards and the touchdown – a rating of 113.77%.  When throwing to receivers at or beyond ten yards from the line of scrimmage, Blake was only 5 of 13 (38.46%) for 113 yards.

Additionally, Blake faded as the game went along.  He began his afternoon hitting 15 of his first 17 passes (88.24%!) for 184 yards and a touchdown.  Thereafter, Blake was only 8 for his last 19 (42.11%) for 109 yards.  Blake had some late-game opportunities.  But he either didn’t notice the receiver, or made a poor pass.

Missed Opportunities

It’s half-way through the third, with the Jags leading 17-10.  Bortles is backed up on his own 10-yard line, but rolls to his right and sees Marqise Lee open on a crossing route at the 25 or so, but he heaves the throw into the sideline.

In the waning moments of the third quarter, still 17-10, Jacksonville is first-and-ten on the New England 27.  This time it was Allen Hurns wide open up the right sideline, but Blake didn’t see him and dumped the ball off to Ben Koyack in the flat (who dropped the pass).

An early fourth-quarter pass to Marcedes Lewis might have done some damage, but Bortles couldn’t elevate the pass to give the taller Lewis a chance to out-jump the smaller Patrick Chung.

About half-way through the fourth quarter, still clinging to a 20-17 lead, another pass to Lewis was broken up by Chung.  Had he not made up his mind so soon, he would have seen Keelan Cole wide open over the middle for a damaging first down.  Instead, Jacksonville punted back to New England.

On their next possession he threw just behind Hurns, losing a first down and bringing up third-and-nine.

On their last desperation drive – trailing now 24-20 with 2:12 left – Bortles miss-connected with Fournette up the left sideline.  Even while Lee was uncovering on the right.

Of course, no quarterback – even Brady – hits every pass or notices every open receiver.  This is only to point out that while Brady was orchestrating his come-back, Bortles had opportunities as well.  There were plays there to be made.

Assessing Blake

What does all this mean in regards to Bortles?  There have been questions surrounding him all season (and I am one the ones who have asked them).  How do the Jags evaluate their future at this position?  In short, is Blake a quarterback to build around?

I don’t think we can say yet.  Certainly this game highlighted the gulf between Bortles and Brady.  But, honestly there is a gulf between Brady and everybody.  This was also Blake’s first playoff run.  I don’t yet know what his ceiling is.  But I am left with the distinct impression that the more he played – and especially the more he played in big games – the better and more confident he got. The verdict on Blake is “wait and see.”

Running Against the Patriots

The final great expediency before the Patriots was to stop the Jacksonville running game.  In their surprising run that brought them to within about ten minutes of the Super Bowl, the Jaguars unveiled the most prolific running game in the NFL.  They averaged 141.4 yards per game on the ground, and scored 18 rushing touchdowns – second most in football.  Seven different times during the regular season they rushed for more than 150 yards, including rolling up 231 yards on the Steelers the first time they faced them.  In their two playoff victories they stung Buffalo with 155 yards and Pittsburgh with 164.  Running the ball was clearly their offensive bedrock and their best chance to upset the invincible Patriots.

But, although they only finished twentieth in the NFL in defending the run, the Patriots run defense – as I have noted – has come together at the season’s most critical juncture.  They allowed just 124 rushing yards combined over their last two regular season games and then held Tennessee (coming off a 202-yard rushing performance in their first playoff game) to just 65 yards.

With the early success of the passing attack, Jacksonville opened an early 14-3 lead.  That, with an under-rated defensive effort that kept New England in check, allowed the Jaguars to keep attempting to run against New England.  Thirty-two times (30 times not counting a couple of kneel-downs by Bortles at the end of the first half) Jacksonville challenged the Patriot run defense.  They ran the ball on 19 of their 32 first down plays.

Those 30 legitimate rush attempts netted just 103 yards (3.4 yards per carry).  In the second half – when Jacksonville desperately needed to sustain a little offense – it was even worse.  Fifteen times they ran in the second half for just 41 yards (2.7 per).  After compiling 5 rushing first downs in the first half, they managed just 1 in the second half.  Four rushing plays in the fourth quarter – all by Leonard Fournette – totaled just 3 yards. (Note: one of the keys to this success was keeping Bortles in the pocket.  After Blake had rushed for 88 yards against Buffalo, he had only the two kneel-downs in this one.)

A significant portion of this success was defensive design. During 18 of those 30 running plays, New England stacked 8 or 9 defenders close to the line of scrimmage.  Those running plays earned just 43 yards (2.4 per).  The 12 times Jacksonville ran the ball with 7 defenders or less “in the box” they produced 60 yards (5.0 per).

But as in recent weeks, the bulk of this success was the disciplined play of an unheralded collection of defenders who have made a habit of imposing their will on some of the game’s better running games.  Again, Malcolm Brown, Trey Flowers and Patrick Chung provided outstanding run defense.  Ricky Jean-Francois made more plays than one might suspect.

But standing out to me in this game was a lightly-regarded six-year pro and former seventh-round draft pick playing his first season in New England and his first as a starter.  As the game went on, Lawrence Guy began to own it.

Only credited with 3 official tackles against the run, Guy repeatedly held his ground against double-team blocks to stack up the line of scrimmage.  Once in the second quarter he pushed the double-team formed against him back into the backfield to disrupt the play.  On one third quarter run, he tossed center Brandon Linder aside like so much laundry to make the tackle.  As near as I could tell, Lawrence had himself the game of his life in the most important game of his career (so far).

The significance of this development cannot be overstated.  With Carson Wentz unavailable for Philadelphia, the Eagles will be faced with the same expediency of running the ball that both the Titans and Jaguars had.  Unless they can manage this suddenly elite defensive front any better that Tennessee or Jacksonville, they will almost certainly suffer their same fate.

Jacksonville Somehow Survives the Steelers

At the end of Wildcard Weekend, four teams advanced to the Divisional Round.  Of the four, the Jacksonville Jaguars were clearly the least impressive, squeaking by a marginal Buffalo team by a 10-3 score.  One week later, with the dust settled from the Divisional Round, there is only one of the four Wildcard winners that will be advancing to the Championship Game – those same Jacksonville Jaguars on the heels of an improbable 45-42 victory over the Pittsburgh Steelers (gamebook).

The game evolved into a surprising shootout – given that these were two of the better defensive teams in the league.  The Jaguars finished the regular season ranked second in total defense, while the Steelers were seventh.  The teams combined to go 15 for 30 on third down (including 10 of 18 in the second half) and 5 for 7 on fourth down – including 4 fourth-down touchdowns.  They combined to score touchdowns on all 8 trips into the red zone and all five combined goal-to-go situations.

But the combined points and numbers fail to give a sense of the shape of the game, which saw Pittsburgh fall behind 21-0 early in the second period, and found them still trailing 28-7 until there were only 25 seconds left in the first half.  Like New Orleans later on Sunday afternoon, the Steelers almost authored an epic comeback against the usually elite Jacksonville defense.

Pittsburgh’s Downfall

Ultimately, the Steelers couldn’t overcome their own mistakes and bad decisions.  Nor could they contend with Jacksonville’s running game.  Regarding the latter, Jacksonville finished the first half with 116 rushing yards.  By game’s end, the Jaguars had dialed up 35 running plays that accounted for 164 yards (a 4.7 average) and 4 rushing touchdowns.  The Steeler defense had only allowed 14 rushing touchdowns through the entire regular season.

But even in the face of the almost always fatal inability to stop the run, the Steelers will spend the offseason haunted by a few mistakes and curious decisions.

Jacksonville scored one touchdown on a recovered fumble, and scored another after an interception left them on the Steeler 18.  They had another short field with 2:18 left in the fourth quarter, when Pittsburgh inexplicably opted to try an onside kick, in spite of the fact that they still held two timeouts and the two-minute warning.  The failed attempt set Jacksonville up on the Steeler 36, where 33 seconds later they kicked the field goal that provided the final margin of victory.

Fourth-Down Decisions

There were also a couple of fourth-down decisions that stung.  It’s hard to criticize this aspect of the game, since the Steelers were 4 of 6 on fourth down, including three touchdown passes.  But all of their fourth-down conversions were from four yards or more – including conversions of fourth-and-10 and fourth-and-11.  Their only failures on fourth down were their two fourth-and-1 opportunities.

There is 1:12 left in the first quarter, and Pittsburgh is already down 14-0.  They are in field goal range at the Jacksonville 21 (and I here remind you that they eventually lost by just three points).  It is, as I said, fourth-and-about a half-yard.  Quarterback Ben Roethlisberger tossed the ball to running back Le’Veon Bell, trying to get around the corner.  Half the Jacksonville defense met him in the backfield and dropped him for a 4-yard loss.

Then came what was – in retrospect – the turning point of the game.

It’s the beginning of the fourth quarter, Jacksonville is punting and clinging to a 28-21 lead.  But the punt is partially blocked by Robert Golden, and Pittsburgh sets up just 48 yards away from a tie ballgame.

Three running plays to Bell leave the Steelers a half-yard short.  The Steelers dial up a play-action pass that grazes off the fingertips of JuJu Smith-Schuster.  Five plays later, Jacksonville back Leonard Fournette (who finished the game with 109 rushing yards) pounded in his third rushing touchdown of the game, and the Steeler deficit was back to 14 points.

In both of the fourth-and-short instances, a quarterback sneak might have been a better call.  If Ben had managed that half-yard in just one of those two moments, Pittsburgh is likely to have at least tied the score and taken the game to overtime – if not won the game outright.

Concerns in Jacksonville

Jacksonville won, but not without a disturbing scare.  Remembering that Jacksonville finished the season number one against the pass, second (to Pittsburgh) in quarterback sacks, and first in passer rating (all quarterbacks this season averaged just a 68.5 rating against the Jaguar defense), it has to be at least a little concerning to the Jacksonville coaches and fans that – even knowing Pittsburgh would be forced to rely on the pass to get back into the game – they were still unable to slow them down.

Ben threw for 311 yards and three touchdowns after the intermission.  After sustaining a 104.9 passer rating in the first half, Roethlisberger upped that to 113.7 over the last two quarters.  For the game, Ben threw for 469 yards, establishing a 110.5 passer rating along the way.  A Jaguar pass defense that had only allowed 17 touchdown passes during the regular season, saw Roethlisberger toss 5 against them last Sunday (a fitting companion piece to the regular season game between these two teams when Roethlisberger was intercepted 5 times).

Not Quite in the Zone

Even more concerning, many of those yards were much too easy.  During the course of the game, Jacksonville played more than twice as much zone coverage as they did man coverage.  They didn’t play it well.  In particular, linebackers Myles Jack and Telvin Smith (who provided the two turnovers in the first half) are decidedly stationary in zone coverage.  They don’t really drop deep, and they are hesitant to cover receivers in the flat.  I counted no fewer than five passes from Roethlisberger to undefended receivers in the flat that gained at least 9 yards.  These five plays together accounted for 72 easy yards.

But this wasn’t all the trouble.  As the Jaguars pushed their lead to 21 points, they turned to the zone defenses as a way to inhibit the big passing play – thinking they could keep Pittsburgh from getting back in the game that way.  What they got was exactly what they were trying to prevent.  All three of Pittsburgh’s longest passing plays, and four of the six passing plays of 20-or-more yards came against the Jacksonville zones.  The two long passes to Martavis Bryant are illustrative.

There are 32 seconds left in the half.  Pittsburgh has fourth-and-11 at the Jacksonville 36.  The Jaguars are in quarters coverage.  The play call was designed to put safety Barry Church in a bind.  Barry had responsibility for the deep-middle slice of the field between Jalen Ramsey (who had the deep sideline to the offensive right) and Tashaun Gipson (who had deep-middle responsibility to the offensive left).

The Steelers sent two vertical routes into Church’s zone – with Antonio Brown lining up right and running the skinny post, and Bryant lining up left and running a deep cross into that same general area.  Whichever receiver that Church would choose, Roethlisberger would throw to the other.

Church made it easy on Ben.  He defended neither.  Church was another of the Jacksonville defenders that seemed notably uncomfortable in zone coverage.  For whatever reason, Barry allowed both receivers to streak past him, with Roethlisberger putting the ball perfectly in Bryant’s hands.

Now there are 58 seconds left in the game.  Bryant and Smith-Schuster are lined up wide right.  Jacksonville is still in quarters coverage, holding a ten-point lead as Pittsburgh faces a first-and-10 on the Jacksonville 47.  Bryant and Smith-Schuster both head up the field, but neither Myles Jack nor Aaron Colvin deepen their drop.  Both are distracted by Vance McDonald’s short turn-around route.  Juju’s deep route occupied Jarrod Wilson (playing the same coverage that Church played in the first half) and lifted him out of the play, opening the middle for Bryant – who caught the ball with plenty of room to run.  Martavis took the ball to the five-yard line for a 42-yard gain.

Analysis

A couple of important take-aways.

First, of course, is that Jacksonville isn’t nearly as secure in zone defense as they are when playing man.  The answer here isn’t as simple as deciding to play exclusively man coverages, as Jacksonville had some leaks there as well.  The defensive backs mostly did very well in man.  Ramsey was more than solid against Brown (most of Antonio’s 132 yards and both of his touchdowns came against zone coverages).

As this translates specifically to the upcoming Championship Game, Jalen has publicly challenged Patriot tight end Rob Gronkowski, and the other corner A.J. Bouye is quick enough to at least contend with Danny Amendola.  Both of these are talented defenders.  I expect they will both compete well with, but not dominate those New England receivers.

But the weapons in New England run very deep.  I don’t necessarily see any of the Jaguar linebackers who can defend Patriot running backs Dion Lewis or James White – both superior receivers.  In one of the few instances where Jacksonville was in man coverage, Le’Veon Bell toasted Telvin Smith for a 19-yard touchdown.  Expect to see more of that if Jacksonville plays more man coverage against New England.

The other take-away from this is more telling.  Both of the long passes to Bryant were plays that took some time to develop – time opposing quarterbacks don’t usually get against Jacksonville.  The Jaguar secondary has some good players, but also has a few that can be exploited.  Usually they are protected behind an overwhelming pass rush.

Last Sunday, that pass rush mostly disappeared, leaving the secondary fairly exposed – against both man and zone.  A defense that sacks the quarterback on 9.8% of his drop-backs saw Roethlisberger drop back 60 times last week while suffering just 2 sacks.  The week before, they managed only 2 sacks against Buffalo in 42 drop-backs.  New England’s offensive line is expert at pass blocking, so it can’t be automatically assumed that the rush will suddenly re-appear tomorrow.

Jaguars To-Do List

Now, they get New England.  As the report out of Patriot practice is that Tom Brady’s thumb is responding well, this game shapes up as a matter of two imperatives for the Jaguars.

First, the pass rush has to re-emerge.  The only defense against Brady is pressure – specifically pressure up the middle.  With no more pressure than they brought last Sunday, expect their pass defense to be sliced and diced again.

Second, they must run the ball.  The difference between the 10-point effort against Buffalo and the 45-point output against Pittsburgh was mostly the ability of Jacksonville to run the ball (with someone other than their quarterback).  The Jaguar’s running game is one of the best in football (actually ranking first), but as I pointed out yesterday, running the ball against New England is no simple task.

Presuming that Brady will be Brady tomorrow, the challenge facing Jacksonville is sizeable.

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.