Tag Archives: Kansas City Chiefs

Patriots Advance on a Head and a Hand

Heads is the call.

After 60 minutes, 128 combined plays, 739 combined yards, 8 combined touchdowns and 62 combined points, it came to this.  A historic night of football – one that had begun in controversy in New Orleans and continued in the bracing 19-degree chill of Kansas City (that, at least, was the temperature at the beginning of the game) – came finally to New England’s Matt Slater standing next to referee Clete Blakeman calling the overtime coin toss.

Heads.

It was a head, and that set in motion the series of events that would decide the NFL’s second overtime Championship Game of the day. 

The NFL’s requirement for getting both teams at least one overtime possession is pretty soft.  All the Chiefs needed to do to put the ball back in the hands of Patrick Mahomes was keep New England out of the end zone.  Keeping offenses out of the end zone, however, had become a lost art in this game.  The Patriots had taken each of their last two possessions 60 yards for touchdowns.  The Chiefs had scored on all of their last three drives – two touchdowns and a field goal.  Even that is deceptive, though.  Kansas City was only held to a field goal on its last possession because they began that drive on their own 31-yard line with just 39 seconds left and needing the field goal to tie.

As the coin went up in the air, there was a strong suspicion that a trip to Super Bowl LIII hung suspended with it.  The coin landed in New England’s favor, and the Patriots did not waste the opportunity.  Thirteen plays and 4:52 later, on the Chiefs’ 2-yard line, tight end Rob Gronkowski – lined tight to the left of the formation – pushed KC linebacker Breeland Speaks further out to the left and back towards the end zone.  At the same time, tackle Trent Brown (lined up next to Gronkowski) drove defensive tackle Justin Hamilton the other way – back into the line of scrimmage.  Through the opening produced by those two blocks came Patriot fullback James Develin.  He collided with – and pushed back – linebacker Reggie Ragland.

All this set the stage for Rex Burkhead, who plowed into the void, bowling through the attempted arm tackles of Ragland and Speaks to end the 37-31 Patriot victory (gamebook) (summary), and send New England back to the big stage for the third consecutive season.

The Running Patriots

The yards were the final two of an impressive 176 rushing yards the New England hung on the KC defense on the last of 48 soul-crushing runs – most of them into the middle of that over-extended defense.  The Patriots finished with touchdowns on 3 of their last 6 rushing attempts, and have now rushed for four touchdowns in each of their playoff games so far – this after rushing for 18 touchdowns through 16 regular season games.

It is somewhat characteristic of Bill Belichick that it would be Burkhead at the end.  On an evening when running back Sony Michel set the tone early and often – on his way 113 rushing yards of his own and two touchdowns – Belichick and offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels switched to Burkhead with about six minutes left in regulation.  Rex isn’t quite the battering ram that LeGarrette Blount had been in seasons past – but he is stylistically similar. Rex is a no-nonsense, here-I-come kind of runner.  Perhaps, the Patriot brain trust wanted to employ a slightly more physical runner against the tiring KC defense.

Whatever the cogitations, it was Burkhead carrying the ball on 8 of New England’s last 9 rushing plays, including the dive that sent New England on and sent Kansas City home.

Mahomes Rises to the Moment

While the final taste is bitter for the Chiefs, it is nonetheless impressive that they pushed the game that far.  Mahomes and Kansas City ended the first quarter with minus 11 offensive yards, as Pat was 0-for-2 passing with a sack.  The Chiefs would be held to no points and just 32 offensive yards throughout the first half – a half in which Mahomes would throw just 8 passes while being sacked 3 times.

Had you watched only the first half, you would have left with the impression that this young Chiefs team was badly outclassed by the superior Patriots.  Even through three quarters, with New England holding a comfortable 17-7 lead, you might have considered the contest decided.

But back came the Chiefs, scoring 24 fourth-quarter points to force a tie game, with Patrick Mahomes throwing for 110 yards and 2 touchdowns in the fourth quarter alone.  After his unexceptional first half, the Chiefs’ first year starter at quarterback completed 12 of his 23 second half passes for 230 yards and 3 touchdowns.  Nine of those 12 completions went for first downs, and his passer rating for the half was a satisfying 126.81.

With his primary targets (Tyreek Hill and Travis Kelce) getting heightened attention from the New England defense, Mahomes found success throwing the ball to a couple of less attended receivers.  “Other” receiver Sammy Watkins caught 3 passes in the second half for 102 yards, and running back Damien Williams caught 5 for 66 more yards and 2 touchdowns.

Along the way, though, this offensive performance by Kansas City was stylistically very different than most of their regular season games.

The Chiefs Try to Adjust

First of all, Kansas City abandoned their running game very early.  The ground attack whose 180 yards was very instrumental in dismissing Indianapolis the week before was a non-factor.  KC ran the ball only 12 times (and one of those was a scramble from Mahomes) for just 41 yards.  It is not at all clear that they ever intended to run the ball, and certainly after New England showed some early offensive success, the Chiefs were more than willing to put the running game away.

In the aftermath of that very entertaining 54-51 shootout that Kansas City had earlier this year against the Rams, I questioned both teams’ will to run the ball.  I think that came into play here.  The Chiefs were at home, playing against the twenty-second ranked pass defense (by yards) with a trip to the Super Bowl on the line.  They didn’t want to get there running the ball.  They intended all along to pass.

In the end, KC threw the ball on 25 of their 29 first-down plays.

That suited New England just fine.  They would rather not have to concern themselves with the run.  Defending Kansas City’s passing attack was challenge enough.  Throughout the season, Mahomes had led a high-percentage passing attack.  With most teams backing off Hill – and sending a lot of defenders deep to watch him – and with Kelce usually dominant over the middle against both zone and man coverages – Patrick finished his regular season completing 66% of his passing attempts.  He was very near that in his first-ever playoff game against Indy (65.9% on 27-of-41 passing).

But now, New England will change the dynamic.  They tightened up the coverage and emphasized pressure.  They diligently double-covered Hill, and pressed Kelce off the line.  Tight press coverage has its advantages.  It gives the defending team an opportunity to challenge every pass – making it more difficult for the offense to sustain drives.  It is also a precarious decision, as press man coverage also opens the door to potential big plays down the field.

That is precisely what the second half of this game evolved into.  In a sense Belichick and McDaniels engaged in a high-stakes game of Russian roulette with Mahomes and the KC passing attack.

Patrick’s 12 completions in 23 throws is only 52.2%.  But half of those completions gained more than 20 yards (those 6 completions, in fact, totaled 196 yards) – including all of his last 4 completions of the season (which totaled 109 yards).  Of Mahomes’ 31 pass attempts, 9 were up the field at least 20 yards from the line of scrimmage.  He completed 4 of the 9 for 144 yards.

As the Chiefs advanced the ball out of their own territory, the downfield game became even more dangerous.  Between the 50-yard line and the red zone, Mahomes was only 4-for-8.  But all four completions covered at least 23 yards – totaling 121 yards.  In total, when starting on the New England side of the field, Mahomes was 6-for-11 for 134 yards, with all 6 completions going for first downs – including 3 touchdowns.  His passer rating in Patriot territory was an outstanding 137.88.

Defending Patrick

Man? Or Zone?

That’s always the question as a defense prepares a plan for an opposing passing game.  While there are no absolutes, a zone defense will provide more of a mental challenge to a quarterback, while man defenses will tend to challenge his physical abilities.  For that reason, I expected to see New England challenge Kansas City’s first year starter with mostly zone coverages.  They didn’t – although perhaps they should.

Mahomes saw no zone coverages at all in the first half of the game, and only 8 zone coverages in the entire game (22.9% of his drop-backs).  It’s a small sample size, but Pat didn’t respond very well to them, completing just 2 of 7 passes for 6 yards (and being sacked once).  Beyond just the numbers, he seemed hesitant.  Two of the throws he just heaved out of bounds.  Three of the others were just dump offs.  Only two of the attempted passes went beyond ten yards (one toward Kelce and one towards Williams) and both fell incomplete.

Hard to say how it would have played out if New England had kept mixing in zone coverages.

But the game plan against Mahomes and KC was more basic.  Deny Tyreek Hill.  To that end, Hill (and Kelce and Mahomes) saw a steady diet of man coverage.  In Hill’s case, it was an almost constant double-team, with Jonathan Jones pressing Tyreek at the line, and safety Devin McCourty staying over the top on any deep route.  With no safety help, Kelce was mostly given over to the care of a young defensive back named J.C. Jackson.

That part of the plan went pretty well.  Hill only beat the double-coverage once – his 42-yard reception being his only catch of the night, and Kelce finished the game with just 3 catches for 23 yards, although Jackson did commit a fairly critical pass interference penalty against him.

For the game, Mahomes saw some form of man coverage on 26 of his 35 drop-backs (and this doesn’t even count one play of prevent-man that New England ran against him late in the fourth quarter).  Mahomes met the challenge admirably – even without much participation from his two leading receivers.  Against the man schemes of the Patriots, Pat completed 13 of 23 passes (again, just 56.52%), but for 268 yards and all 3 of his touchdowns.  Ten of those 13 completions gained first downs, and his passer rating against these man coverages was a superior 137.32.

If the Patriots were intent on taking away Hill and Kelce, Mahomes made them pay with Watkins and Williams.  Sammy Watkins was 0-for-1 working against zone defenses, but he damaged the Patriots’ compromised man coverages to the tune of 4 receptions for 114 yards.  Williams results were similar – he was 1-2 for 4 yards against zone, but 4-for-6 for 62 yards against man concepts – but here a different weakness was exploited.

Super Check-Down.

The challenge against Watson was defending the vertical without safety help.  With Williams the problem was all the room allowed underneath.  All 4 of the passes completed to him were less than five-yards from the line of scrimmage, but he broke two of them for long gains (33 yards and a 23-yard touchdown on a screen pass).  His day might have been even more electric, as he was open up field on all three of the other throws sent his way.  In what was an otherwise sterling effort, those three passes (all overthrows) might be the only ones Patrick might wish to have back.

Pressing Pat

In as much as blitzing Mahomes goes, the Patriots were cautious.  Blitzing is one of those elements that will sometimes play to the strength of athletic quarterbacks.  They blitzed him only 10 times – but were very effective when they did.  Three of the 10 blitzes resulted in sacks, and Mahomes managed completions on only 2 of the 7 passes that he managed to get off against the Patriot blitzes (granted, both completions were chunk plays, totaling 69 yards).

Even without directly blitzing, the Patriots were still able to apply substantial pressure.  They were not always close enough to hit him as he threw – although they did manage that level of pressure on 13 of his drop-backs – but they were almost always able to provide enough pressure to keep him uncomfortable.  On 60% of Mahomes’ pass attempts (21 of his 35) there was at the very least an onrushing defender or a hand grasping for him, or some presence near enough to force the pass to come out sooner – or at a different angle – than intended.  For the most part, this pressure also achieved its secondary objective of keeping Patrick in the pocket.

The Patriots are not a team with a dominant pass rusher.  They, in fact, finished the regular season ranked thirtieth in sacks (with just 30) and thirty-first in percentage of times sacking the quarterback (Patriot opponents only went down on 4.7% of their pass attempts against New England).

The Patriots have picked up this area of their game now that the playoffs are upon us.  Against the Chargers, they sacked Philip Rivers only twice, but showed consistent pressure.  They sacked Mahomes 4 times in this game, with the pressure coming from several different defenders through a variety of line stunts – that Kansas City had repeated difficulty picking up – and disguised rushes from the secondary.  In this mix, defenders like Don’t’a Hightower, Adrian Clayborn and Trey Flowers were consistently in Mahomes’ face.

Most visible of all, though, was linebacker Kyle Van Noy.  Van Noy accounted for 2 of the 4 sacks and several other pressures.  In addition, he made 4 other tackles against the passing game, and 2 of the 11 tackles made against the KC running game.

Beyond the numbers, though, Van Noy seemed to be a constant presence on the field.  There were times during the game that you might have thought there were three guys out there wearing Kyle’s jersey.

More Mahomes

Through all of this, young Patrick kept bouncing back.  

At various times, New England threatened to turn the contest into a rout.  They lead by 14 at the half, and spent a good chunk of the game ahead by at least ten points.

At these moments, Mahomes played some of his best football as he kept bringing the Chiefs back.  Taking the field to begin three different drives with deficits of at least 10 points, Mahomes led his team to touchdowns on two of them.  The only time he failed was at the very end of the first half – down 14-0 – KC began with the ball on its own 42 with 27 seconds left.  That one-play drive resulted in a sack and a 15-yard loss, after which the Chiefs quietly retired to their locker room.

Through those other two critical drives, Patrick was 7 for 9 for 119 yards and 2 touchdowns.

Also, while one of the Patriot focuses was keeping Mahomes in the pocket, that kind of thing is easier said than done.  While they were mostly successful – and they did hold him in the pocket on 26 of his 35 attempts despite nearly constant pressure – they couldn’t always contain him.  And when Mahomes got outside of the pocket, he continued to demonstrate why he is one of the most dangerous quarterbacks on the perimeter.

I do, first, want to draw a distinction between Mahomes outside the pocket and under control, and Mahomes running for his life and just flinging the ball away.  The later dynamic did happen a couple of times.

But on the 7 plays where Patrick rolled out under his own control, he completed 6 of the 7 passes for 149 yards and 2 touchdowns.  It was on these plays that Watkins was at his most dangerous as well.  Three of the 4 completions and 104 of the 114 yards that Watkins totaled during the game came with Mahomes wandering from the pocket.

It was a dangerous, dangerous quarterback that watched from the sidelines as New England ended the game.  Sometimes, in this crazy game, it’s possible to be too dangerous.  It could, perhaps, be argued that on this evening Kansas City may have been too explosive.

Too Explosive?

If it’s true that New England’s use of man coverage provided opportunities for big plays, it is also true that those big plays minimized the time that Kansas City’s offense had on the field.  Kansas City hurt New England with 4 touchdown drives on their way to their 31 points.  But – because they were big-play dependent – those 4 touchdown drives consumed a total of 7 minutes and 54 seconds.  The Patriots opened the game with a touchdown drive that – by itself – was longer (8:05) than all of KC’s touchdown drives added together.

By the time Burkhead’s plunge ended the affair, the KC defense had been on the field – absorbing the relentless pounding of the Patriot running game – for an almost incomprehensible 94 plays and 43 minutes and 59 seconds.

This, too, was part of the Patriot game plan.  The most secure way to keep Mahomes from beating you is by keeping him on the sidelines.

This part of the game plan fed off the victory the week before, and begins to form a trend that the Rams should at least be concerned about.

Fast Starting Patriots

Against the Chargers, New England began the game with a withering 14-play, 83-yard touchdown drive that consumed the first 7:11 of that contest.  They bettered that drive with their opener against the Chiefs with a 15-play, 80-yard, 8:05 drive.  So, combined, their opening drives in their two playoff games have consumed 15 minutes and 16 seconds of playing time, while covering 163 yards on 28 plays.

In addition, the Patriots closed out the first half against LA with a 35-7 lead, 20:11 of ball control and a 347-128 yardage advantage.  The halftime numbers against KC were very similar.  Even though the lead was only 14-0, the time of possession sat at 21:07 and the yardage differential favored New England 245-32.  Combining the first halves of the Patriots two playoff games, New England has out-scored their two opponents 49-7.  They have outgained them 592 yards to 160, and have held the ball for 41 minutes and 18 seconds.

New England has opened both of these games on fire, and have put their opponents on their heels from the very beginning.  In this game, the Kansas City offense trailed on every single snap they took.

Tony Romo – calling both of these games for CBS – referenced New England’s supposed under-dog status as a driving force.  I suspect some of that is true.  After last year’s Super Bowl, I made note of the fact that the Patriots had made a habit of digging themselves early holes in their playoff games.  I think the realization that they have been less than emotional in these contests in recent years – amplified by the sting of last year’s bitter Super Bowl loss has fueled this Patriot resurgence.

If you asked them, I would bet that every single one of them remembers clearly the feeling walking off the field after last year’s big game.

Patriot Imperatives

Nobody understands or plays the game of complimentary football better than New England.  Much of their emphasis on the running game had as its underlying purpose the controlling of the clock and keeping Mahomes a spectator.  On their 43 first down plays, the Patriots ran 28 times.  Eleven of those 43 first down plays earned the necessary 10 yards to gain another first down – 5 of those coming from the running game and 6 from passes.

On their way to 36 first downs, New England failed to manage at least one first down only twice in their 12 drives.  One of those was a damaging fourth quarter drive when a pass bounced off the fingers of Julian Edelman for an interception.  The other was the kneeldown by Brady that ended regulation.

Inside Brady’s Day

All of this provides context for what appears, on one level, to be one of Tom Brady’s least productive playoff outings.  He did throw for 348 yards, but that was after 30 completions on 46 attempts.  With his one touchdown pass off-set by two interceptions thrown, his passer rating was a modest 77.08 (just 67.30 in the second half).  Challenged repeatedly with man coverage – and Brady saw man coverage on 76.1% of his attempts (35 of 46), he was consistently unable to convert those opportunities into big plays – his 22 completions in those opportunities accounting for just 235 yards (10.68 per).

Noticeably absent in these moments was tight end Rob Gronkowski.  Covered almost always by safeties Daniel Sorensen or Eric Berry, Rob was only targeted 7 times in man coverage, catching just 2 of the throws (note, this is against man coverage when KC was not blitzing.  Brady completed two huge passes to Rob when they caught the Chiefs in blitzes).

Most of this had little to do with any diminishment on the part of Brady – or even with him having a bad game.  In this particular matchup, one of the Patriot imperatives was no sacks – a point I’ll enlarge upon later.  While Kansas City’s defense has statistically underperformed in most categories this season, their one great strength was their pass rush.  Their 52 quarterback sacks led the league, and their 7.6% ratio of dropping opposing passers was football’s eighth-best figure.

Playing on the Chiefs home field, in front of their raucous crowd, the Patriots came to the determination that the one sure way that they could lose control of the game was to put themselves in long-yardage situations and let the Chiefs’ destructive pass rush pin back its ears and come after them.

There were at least a half dozen moments in the game where Brady would have had an up-the-field opportunity had he held onto the ball for just another second or two.  But that second or two – in this particular game against this particular opponent in this particular venue – proved to be an unacceptable risk.

Repeatedly in this game, Brady dumped off to the first open receiver to consistently keep himself and his team out of deeper trouble.  But don’t for one moment misunderstand.  When the play was there to be made, Brady made it.  And most of the time on the receiving end was one of football’s most underappreciated receivers. 

Indomitable Julian

There is 1:57 left in the season.  The Patriots, on their own 35-yard line, now trail 28-24.  About 15 yards downfield, Julian Edelman breaks over the middle – Kyle Fuller, closing fast, narrowing the window.  The throw leads Julian away from Fuller, and is just a tad high – high enough to make sure that only Edelman can catch it.  With Jordan Lucas descending from his safety position to make the play, Edelman stretches for the ball.  He pulls it in safely, and turns up field for about five more yards before absorbing the hit.

Another play in the life of Julian Edelman.

Edelman doesn’t make many lists of the top ten receivers.  He is not among the biggest or the fastest.  But I submit that Julian Edelman is among the toughest receivers in the NFL, with his mental toughness the equal of his physical toughness.  In fact, a great deal of the success that New England has had over the years, I believe, traces back to the mental toughness of role players like Edelman.  It is at the root, if you will, of the Belichick mantra “Do your job.”

Here with the season on the line Edelman runs a very precise route, and makes a very tough catch in a high-pressure situation.  That is his job.

And his arena is what I call the intermediate middle.  This is that area of the field between the numbers at least ten yards from scrimmage but less than twenty yards up field.  It’s a high-traffic area, where receivers are subject to the ministrations of a wide variety of safeties and other defensive backs.

It’s an area of the field where only the tough survive, and where Edelman dominates.  In this contest, in this intermediate middle section of the field, Brady and Edelman were 5-for-5 for 88 yards.  A zone can sometimes interfere with these routes, but the very quick Edelman is usually tough to deal with on a man-to-man basis.  In this game, Julian answered man coverage by catching 5 of 6 for 63 yards.

Patriot Imperatives, Revisited

In the avalanche of numbers, plays and observations that float in the wake of a game like this, there is one play and one meaning that keeps resurfacing.  The play is as innocuous as can be imagined, but what underpins that play is as revealing as any other moment in this game.

There are six seconds left in regulation.  Kansas City has just tied the game at 31.  Brady has the ball at his own 19-yard line.  He takes the snap and kneels.  And the game goes to overtime.

This is, of course, no big deal.  Most games end with a kneel down by one side or another.  Until you realize this.  New England ran 94 offensive plays in that long and historic evening.  This was the only one that lost yardage.

The Patriots ran the ball 47 other times.  Each and every time the runner made it at least back to the line of scrimmage.  (This might be one reason they switched to Burkhead in the fourth.)  Brady dropped to pass 46 times.  He wasn’t sacked in any of them – sometimes getting rid of the ball early before any hint of pressure could arrive.

With about 5:30 left in the third, wide receiver Phillip Dorsett is called for an offensive pass interference penalty.  It changes what would have been a third-and-four to a second-and-19.  Brady drops a screen pass off to Chris Hogan for 2 yards and then hands the ball of to James White for a couple more before they kick the field goal.

On this long and rewarding night, these were the only two plays the Patriots faced on any down the entire game that they needed more than ten yards for the first down.

One of the ramifications of this played out on third down.  New England converted 13 of 19 third downs.  Brady was 9 of 11 on third down (81.82%), for 119 yards, with all 9 completions going for first downs.  These were not all necessarily short-yardage third downs, either.  In fact, Tom was 6-6 for 84 yards (and 6 first downs) when faced with third-and-seven or longer.  But this was made possible by the fact that – with the exception of one drive – the Patriots never put themselves in a position where the KC pass rush could have at them.

(A footnote here.  On the game-winning, overtime drive, Brady faced and converted three third-and-ten’s.  Two of them went to Edelman in that intermediate middle.  The other was to Gronkowski, also in the middle but more underneath.)

Often I think we get caught up in game plans and designs.  While these are no doubt important, with the great teams I believe it frequently comes down to executing simple imperatives – with an imperative being an over-arching objective that may be of more importance than the actual game plan.

I actually think this is a constant of the Patriot approach.  They identify a few critical, necessary objectives, and then doggedly and consistently execute them.

Here, one of the Patriot imperatives was no negative plays.  At all costs, they wanted to keep themselves out of trouble by the Kansas City pass rush.  No negative plays is an easy thing to say. It’s the execution that’s the key.

A Final Moment to Ponder

And yet, for as well conceived and executed as the Patriot game-plan (and imperatives) were, they barely escaped to play another day.

For fans of the Chiefs, the long off-season might be filled with nightmares of a coin showing its head.  As damaging as that toss of the coin was, Chief fans might also have nightmares of a hand.

Dee Ford’s hand.

With 1:01 left in regulation, and with the Chiefs still ahead 28-24, Brady faced a third-and-ten from the KC 34 yard line.  But this time, his third down pass was intercepted by Charvarius Ward, and suddenly Kansas City had the ball and the lead, just 54 seconds away from Super Bowl LIII.

The euphoria was extremely short-lived.  There was a penalty.  Offsides – Dee Ford.  And there on the replay, plain as day, Dee’s hand completely across the line of scrimmage.

With the interception wiped out, it was only a matter of when.  Two plays later Burkhead scored the first of his two touchdowns, and the back-and-forth would continue.  Many Chief fans, I believe, knew then that this one was over

Kansas City committed only four penalties in the game for just 28 yards – and none in the first half.  That one will burn in the memory for a long time.

Up Next, Super Bowl LIII

With that, the stage is set for Super Bowl LIII (53, for those not into Roman numerals).  I’m afraid that I haven’t followed all the story lines, or any of the media madness which is attendant on this event, but mention must certainly have been made of Super Bowl XXXVI (36).  That was the first Super Bowl matchup between the Rams (then living in St Louis) and the Patriots – not yet a legendary franchise. 

Back then, St Louis was the established team – having won Super Bowl XXXIV (34).  They featured, arguably, the most renowned quarterback of that time – Kurt Warner, who led what was called the greatest show on turf.  The Patriots were the upstarts.  They had been 5-11 the year before, but were suddenly rising under a young first-year starter at quarterback named Brady.

The Patriots even advanced in the playoffs that year, like the Rams did this year, with help from a controversial game – you must remember the tuck rule game.  That was a Divisional Round game, and not a Championship Game – but the parallels are certainly there.  It would give a sense of coming full circle is the Rams and Jared Goff can do to New England what the Patriots did to them 17 years ago (has it really been 17 years)?

That will not be an impossible achievement.  The now-Los Angeles Rams present a significant challenge.  Again, their offense finished second in the league both in yards and in scoring.  If they are not quite as explosive as the Kansas City team New England just vanquished (KC finished first in both those categories), they are close (and certainly more balanced than the Chiefs).

I am also starting to believe in the LA defense.  I suspect that New England will have difficulty establishing that running game that has been so much a part of their first two playoff wins (they ran for 155 yards in their Divisional win against the Chargers).  In all honesty, I wasn’t overly impressed with the offensive line in this win – the 176 rushing yards notwithstanding.  It was more of a grinding effort than a dominant one, as NE averaged just 3.7 yards on their 48 rushes.

Of those 48 running plays, only 6 gained at least 10 yards.  Four of those came in the fourth quarter or overtime as exhaustion began to set in – and two of those took advantage of defensive lines that were over shifted, inviting New England to run to the under shifted side. 

On New England’s longest run of the day (a 14-yarder by Burkhead with 6:05 left in the fourth) the Chiefs only had two defensive linemen on the field. Xavier Williams lined up over the left shoulder of center David Andrews, and Allen Bailey played the three-technique tackle position in between right guard Shaq Mason and right tackle Marcus Cannon.  On the offensive left side, there was almost no one.  From Williams to the sideline, Kansas City defended with only rush-linebacker Ford – split quite wide to the outside – and safety Sorensen standing five yards off the line.

As Brady audibled to the weak-side run, Andrews held up Williams and left tackle Trent Brown pushed Ford further wide.  Left guard Joe Thuney had responsibility for Sorensen – who he did take care of, but had to run almost five yards downfield to get to him.  The Chiefs did this several times – creating a natural bubble that New England took advantage of.

The way Aaron Donald and Ndamukong Suh are playing, I believe New England will be hard pressed to establish a running game.

The passing situation is different.

For one thing, over their last two games, the Ram defense hasn’t had to deal with a tight end who is a threat.  Dallas was without their top receiving tight end (Geoff Swaim) and ended up throwing to Blake Jarwin and Dalton SchultzBen Watson – New Orleans’ best tight end – missed the Championship Game, and number two receiving threat from that position – Josh Hill – left after just nine plays with a concussion.  So the Rams will go from defending Blake Jarwin and Garrett Griffin to contending with Gronkowski.  Should be a stiffer test.

Secondly, while Aqib Talib played an outstanding game against Michael Thomas, I was still not all that impressed with the other corner, Marcus Peters.  He is still a weak link I expect Belichick to expose.

Even beyond the matchups, though, I think the Rams’ toughest challenge will be the endurance test.  Two Super Bowls ago, the Patriots wore down the Atlanta Falcons.  Two Sundays ago they wore down the Kansas City Chiefs (albeit it took them almost 65 minutes of football to do so).

While Donald and Suh are forces on that defensive line, it is also true that they rarely come off the field.  Will they in particular, and the Rams in general, have the stamina to stay with the Patriots for the full four (or perhaps five) quarters?

This New England outfit will be tough to deal with.  They have fought a long, hard year to get back here and the bitterness of the loss to Philadelphia is palpable around the organization.

My council to the Rams is, if you win the toss, take the ball.  Give yourselves the chance to hit the ground running.

Final Notes

First, to all those Cowboy fans who kept swearing to me that Tony Romo would make it to the Super Bowl, Sunday afternoon will prove you finally correct.  He will be there – in the broadcast booth sitting next to Jim Nance and predicting – with uncanny accuracy – what the offenses will do next.

Finally, Super Bowls past have sometimes been anti-climactic, with the game frequently falling short of the hype.  This matchup could produce one of the more exciting games.  But, for this game to top the Championship Games that have led up to this moment, well, it’s going to have to be some game.

Some game, indeed.

The Return of the Rushing Touchdown

A few weeks ago, we talked about the recent rise of teams that were beginning to run the ball more often than they threw it – I named them Neanderthal teams.

Those teams are all home now, but in the discussion I gave a timeline of passing vs running, both as far as plays called and touchdowns scored.  Once the number of touchdown passes eclipsed the number of rushing touchdowns, the trend has never reversed.  This year, the average NFL team threw 26.5 touchdown passes, while scoring just 13.7 times on the ground.

All of which makes last weekend’s results – the Divisional Round in this year’s playoffs – that much more unusual.

In Kansas City, young quarterback Patrick Mahomes has been the face of the passing revolution.  During the regular season, he led all passers, tossing an almost unheard of 50 touchdown passes.  Last Saturday, against Indianapolis, he threw none.  The Chiefs still hammered the Colts, though, as they bullied them with 4 rushing touchdowns.

A few hours after that game, the Los Angeles Rams took the field, hosting the Dallas Cowboys.  They are kind of the NFC face of the passing revolution, behind their young quarterback, Jared Goff.  Jared had thrown 32 touchdown passes during the season.  He also threw none in the Saturday playoff game.  The Rams, though, were also victorious – and looking almost Neanderthalish – as they bullied Dallas with 273 rushing yards and 3 rushing touchdowns.

In the early game Sunday, the New England Patriots also won behind their running game.  They hammered the Chargers to the tune of 155 rushing yards and 4 rushing touchdowns.  Along the way, they did manage one passing touchdown.

So, the first three winning teams in the Divisional Round combined to throw for 1 touchdown, while piling up a combined 11 on the ground.

In Sunday’s late game, Drew Breese broke the spell with 2 touchdown passes thrown against none scored on the ground.  That game deviated from the general theme of the playoffs second round – early domination.

In the first three games, the eventual winning teams averaged 26.3 points scored in the first half, averaged 304 yards of offense (again, just the first half), and controlled the clock for an average of 20:37 (with all of them at least at 20:11 of ball control in the first half).  Their average halftime lead was 19.3 points, and they had outgained their opponents by an average of 112.7 yards.  The combined difference in first downs at the half was 62-18.

All of these offenses were slowed a bit in the second half, with the Chiefs and Patriots cruising to victories.  The Cowboys did manage to creep back into their contest and made a game of it, but in the end, it was just too steep a hole to dig themselves out of.

By way of profiling the league, it’s worth noting that the NFL’s final four contain all four of the top scoring teams in football, but only one of the top ten scoring defenses (New England finished seventh).  By yards gained, all of the offenses finished in the top ten, with three of them being in the top 5.  There are no top ten defenses left standing.

Two of the top 5 passing offenses (by yards gained) are still playing, as are three of the top 8 quarterbacks ranked by passer rating.  This total includes the NFL’s top two rated passers – Breese (115.7) and Mahomes (113.8), with Goff (101.1) ranking eighth.  There are no top ten passing defenses (by yards) left, and by passer rating against, only New England – number 7 in the league at 85.4 – will be playing this weekend.

Of note, three of the top six rushing offenses are still playing.  Of the top ten run defenses, only New Orleans – second, allowing 80.2 yards per game – is left.

There was a moment when a handful of upstart defensive teams – Baltimore, Chicago, Dallas, Tennessee – looked like they might disrupt the league’s offensive meme.  Those guys are all home now.  These days, if you want to hang with the elite’s in the NFL, you better pack a head-spinning offense.

The AFC is setting up to re-match New England and Kansas City.  They met in the Week Six Sunday night game – a 43-40 Patriot win that reflected the story of the season.  These teams combined for 946 yards the first time they met.  They are also coming off the two most dominant games in the Divisional Round.

Taming the Colts

The Colts had been, perhaps, the best story in the NFL in 2018.  They famously began the year 1-5 and then won 10 of their next 11, bringing them into Kansas City for the second round of the playoffs.

Eight minutes and 32 seconds into the contest – after Tyreek Hill had weaved his way 36 yards through the entire Colts defense for a touchdown (yes, a rushing touchdown) – it was pretty apparent that the Colt’s dream run had come to an end.  At that point, they were already down 14-0.  During that eight-and-a-half minute span, they had watched the Chiefs march the length of the field twice (140 yards in 13 plays) for 2 touchdowns.  In their first two drives, the Colts had managed all of 7 yards in 6 plays.

Their first four possessions were all three-and-out’s, totaling 21 yards of offense.  By the time they managed their first first-down (with 1:18 left in the first half), they had already seen Kansas City rack up 18 first downs and 274 yards.  The only reason they were only down 24-7 was because they had blocked Kansas City’s only punt of the first half – recovering it in the end zone.  It was the only blemish on a surprisingly effective KC defensive effort.

The potency of the Chiefs’ offense being what it is, the two scoring drives were not that surprising.  The expectation, though, was that the Colts would be putting up some points of their own.  While the Chiefs have been one of the elite offenses all season, their defense has rarely come to the party.  They, in fact, showed up at the dance with the NFL’s thirty-first ranked defense – number 27 against the run and number 31 against the pass (remember, there are only 32 teams in the league). They had given up 421 points through their 16 games (26.3 per), and were allowing 5.0 yards per attempted run.

Coming off their game in Houston where they ran for 200 yards Indianapolis must have felt they could run on the Chiefs.  And, perhaps, if they could have kept themselves in the game, they eventually might have.

As it was – even though they only rushed 14 times on the day – they were beginning to break through.  Their last 9 rushes of the game netted 66 yards.  But by then, they were out of time and Kansas City was well on its way to a 31-13 victory (gamebook) (summary).

Playing in the Snow

Arrowhead greeted Indianapolis with 30 degree temperatures and a light blowing snow.  One of the NFL’s enduring truisms is that dome teams or warm weather teams always look out of place in bad weather.  Taking nothing away from the Chiefs’ defense – which was dominant for most of the game – Indy never looked comfortable in that environment.  One week after converting 9 of 14 third downs against the Texans, Indy finished Saturday 0-for-9.  Along the way, they went 0-2 in the red zone and committed 10 penalties for 70 yards.

The Chiefs seemed to waver a bit late in the season – losing three of five at one point.  The week off seems to have done them good.  They appeared fresher and more energized than I had seen them recently.

And they will have to be at their readiest for next week.

Patriots Advance

With 15 seconds left in the first half, and already in field goal range, the Patriots decided to run one more quick play to better their field goal opportunity, even though they had expended their time outs. 

They faced a third-and-six on the Charger 36-yard line.  Quarterback Tom Brady flipped a quick pass out to wide receiver Philip Dorsett.  Although the Patriots believed that Dorsett had made it out of bounds at about the first-down marker, the official ruled that Michael Davis had managed to pull him down in bounds.  Caught by surprise, the Patriots were unable to line up and spike the ball before the half ended.  The field goal attempt never happened.

That was the first thing to go right all day for the beleaguered Los Angeles Chargers, who couldn’t wait to see the clock run out on that first half.  Of all the dominating early performances, this one by the Patriots was the most dominant.  They exited to the cheers of the crowd with a 35-7 lead that had featured 24 first downs, 5-6 conversions on third down, and a 5-5 performance in the red zone.  They had 347 yards of total offense, and already had a 100-yard rusher (Sony Michel with 105) and a 100-yard receiver (Julian Edelman with 107).  The Patriots finished the half with more first downs than the Chargers had offensive plays (23) and almost as many touchdowns (5) as the Chargers had first downs (6).

In the second half, the Patriots would take their foot off the gas a bit.  They would run the ball on 16 of their 31 second half plays.  They would score no more touchdowns, but would add two more field goals.  After controlling the clock for 20:11 of the first half, they would run it for 18:09 more in the second.

Charger quarterback Philip Rivers kept throwing the ball, and Los Angeles did a little late, cosmetic scoring, but this game – an eventual 41-28 New England win (gamebook) (summary) was over early.

Rattling Rivers

Even before the first half completely imploded, you could see Rivers seething on the sidelines and on the field.  He seethed at the officials, his own players, and probably his coaches, too – although the cameras didn’t catch that.

Composure has always been an issue for Rivers – even in his advanced years.  As a young player, he seemed to be more concerned about trash talking his opponent than focusing on playing quarterback.  In the past few years, that tendency has lessened, but he still has trouble letting go of things.  Yes, there were some calls that could have been made that weren’t.  Yes his teammates didn’t play very well – in particular his offensive line and running backs were frequently lacking at picking up the Patriot blitzes. But if you want to be that quarterback – the one that finally leads the Chargers to the promised land – then you really have to let go of things.

With the Patriots being so dominant, I don’t truly think there was anything that Rivers – composed or not – could have done to prevent them from advancing.  But his frustrations clearly impacted his focus and performance.  Philip just turned 37 in December.  He still has all the passion and competitiveness that he had when he was 17 – which is good.  Mostly.  With the few opportunities he has left, though, he will have to be mentally and emotionally stronger if he hopes to have his finger measured for that ring.

Meanwhile the Patriots

After last year’s Super Bowl I noted that the Patriots were finding it increasingly difficult to prepare for the start of playoff games.  After a decade plus of general domination, it seemed that playoff games didn’t matter to the organization as much anymore.  This was apparent in the recent playoff deficits this team has had to overcome.

Perhaps with the sting of the last Super Bowl still burning in their minds, this New England team was all business – all urgency – from the start.  They put together touchdown drives on all of their first four possessions, each consuming at least 63 yards.  Almost as if to add insult to injury, the one time in the entire half that New England punted, Desmond King muffed the punt, handing the thing back to New England on the Charger 35.  It took them four plays from there to punch in their fifth touchdown of the half.

A Lesson From the Masters

Analyzing the game on TV, Tony Romo kept making two recurring points, but never tied them together.  Let me do that for him.

Even before the opening kickoff, Romo warned that if the Chargers stayed in their normal zone defenses that Brady and the Patriots would pick them apart.  At various times before the game got completely out of hand, Romo implored them to change things up – especially in regard to pressuring Brady.  But they never really did.

At the same time, Tony marveled at the ability of the Patriots to morph into a completely different team almost at a whim.  In this case, he applauded the defense for their impersonation of the Baltimore Ravens.  This was a point he returned to often – how Bill Belichick and the Patriots can seamlessly adjust to any opponent or game situation.

Somewhere in the conjunction of these two concepts is a lesson for Chargers’ coach Anthony Lynn – and in fact for all coaches in the National Football League.

As much as anything else, Lynn’s Chargers were done in by the fact that they were inflexible.  Especially on defense, they did what they do.  Yes, most offenses cannot patiently and flawlessly work their way down the field against a disciplined zone defense.  At some point most offenses will make the drive-ending mistake.  Last Sunday, coach Lynn learned the hard way that the Patriots are not most offenses.

Meanwhile, those of us who have watched them for lo these many years understand that their adaptability is the main thing that has kept New England at the top.  The Patriots are not married to any particular offensive philosophy.  Nor are the constrained by any particular defensive approach.  Except for Tom Brady at quarterback, they are not committed to any set lineup.  And, except for a pronounced vulnerability when Brady gets pressure up the middle, there is no sure formula for beating the Patriots.

This is an extremely difficult pinnacle to reach.  There is a reason why New England’s success is unmatched.  But it might be the most important realization for any franchise that hopes to see itself someday appearing in their eighth straight Championship Game.

Tears for the Chargers?

In some of my discussions in 2016, I sounded a sympathetic note for the Chargers and their long-suffering fans.  In recent years, they have found all sorts of ways to let potential opportunities slip through their fingertips.

While I still feel some sympathy for some of the long-time players, I am finding it difficult these days to feel any heartbreak for the franchise.  As with a great many football fans, the thought of the Chargers selling out San Diego for the lucre of Los Angeles as left something of a bitter taste in my mouth.  This isn’t a harshness that I feel for the Rams – who originally moved from LA to St Louis.  (The Rams were actually in Cleveland until 1946.)  But the Chargers belong to San Diego.  Playing now before a mostly apathetic home crowd, it may well be many years before this franchise works its way through its bad karma.

The Championship Round

So, the NFL now has its final four.  It will be number one against number two in both conferences.  In a sense, though, it will be more than that.  Both conferences have something of a past-vs-future meme going on.

In New England and New Orleans we have two legendary coach-quarterback combinations.  Kansas City and Los Angeles (the Rams) bring a glimpse of tomorrow in rising stars Patrick Mahomes and Jared Goff.  In the case of the Rams, the youth meme even extends to coach Sean McVay.

It is premature to suppose that either Brady or Breese is ready to pass the torch just yet, but it will be interesting to see how these two games will be remembered ten years from now.

Hubris in the Air

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

What is Wrong With the Chiefs?

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

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

And then the ball was free.

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

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

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

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

That, too, was a mirage.

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

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

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

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

Tennessee kicked a field goal on the next play.

The Titans’ first touchdown was even stranger.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Clarity at the Top of the AFC Playoff Race

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But not so fast.

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

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

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

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

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

Just ask the Atlanta Falcons and Seattle Seahawks.

Deciding Things in the West

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

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

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

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

In the second half alone.

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

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

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

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

At least that’s how it looks now.

How the Cowboys Can Win Without Zeke

Last Sunday’s marquee matchup brought the Kansas City Chiefs into Dallas to play the Cowboys in what will probably be star running back Ezekiel Elliott’s last football game for a while.

With two prolific offenses going against two spotty defenses, this was expected to be something of a shootout – and, for an 11 minute 44 second window that bridged the second and third quarters – it was.  Beginning with 13 seconds left in the first half, the two teams scored touchdowns on four consecutive possessions.  The most dramatic of these coming on the very last play of the first half.

With two seconds left and Kansas City on their own 44-yard line, Dallas dropped almost its entire defense into the end zone – expecting the Hail Mary.  What they got instead was a short toss over the middle to Tyreek Hill.  Tight ends Travis Kelce and Demetrius Harris had already released into the pattern and were there to provide a convoy as Hill zig-zagged the final few yards for the touchdown.

But, beyond this localized offensive explosion, the rest of the game belonged to the defenses – especially the Dallas defense – as they controlled the Chiefs throughout their 28-17 victory (gamebook).

The Big D is for Defense

Kansas City entered the game ranked sixth in the NFL in passing yards.  They went home with a modest 255.  They entered the game ranked third in total offense, but gained just 323 yards.  Through eight games, the Chiefs had averaged 4.9 yards per rushing play – the third best average in the league.  Against Dallas, they averaged just 3.6.  With 236 points scored already, KC was the league’s third-highest scoring team.  The Cowboys held them to 17 points.

Kansas City’s only two touchdowns came on the last play of the first half and the first drive of the second half.  Of their 323 yards, 125 came on the 11 plays of those two possessions (just a tick under 40%).  Their other 44 offensive plays contributed just 198 total yards (only 4.5 per play).

With Elliott’s suspension about to kick in, there is concern about whether Dallas will be able to hold on to that last playoff spot.  Clearly, no team can lose a player like Zeke and not sag at least a little bit.  But there are a lot of other pieces on this Cowboy team.  They still have one of the best offensive lines in the game, and they have talented running backs to run behind that line.  In 24 carries so far this season, Alfred Morris and Rod Smith have combined for 185 rushing yards.  They still have Dak Prescott.  And they have a defense that is turning the corner.

Dallas entered the bye week having allowed 30 or more points in 3 of their last 4 games.  Through the season’s first five games, they were allowing 26.4 points and 339.8 yards per game – 118 of them rushing yards.  In the three games since their bye, the Cowboys are surrendering just 15.3 points on 299.3 total yards per game – 73.3 of them rushing yards.

It’s not at all inconceivable that the other pieces of the Cowboy’s operation will keep the team in contention until Elliott makes his way back – which would be for the final two games of the regular season against Seattle and Philadelphia.

Things Not Too OK in KC

It is, in fact, possible that Kansas City – though not threatened with the loss of their star running back – should be more concerned than Dallas.  With a 6-3 record, a two-game lead in the division, and a softening schedule ahead, the Chiefs will have only themselves to blame if they don’t make the playoffs.  But the recent trend is concerning. Their 5-0 start did include victories over New England and Philadelphia in the season’s first two weeks, before the Patriots and Eagles started figuring things out.  Their recent steak of three losses in four games includes losses to contending teams in Pittsburgh and now Dallas.  After rushing for at least 112 yards in each of their first five games, KC has managed no more than 94 in any of the last four.  Running back Kareem Hunt still leads the NFL with 800 rushing yards, but most of that yardage was amassed during the 5-0 start.  He gained just 37 yards against Dallas, and over the last four games has totaled 191 yards on 58 carries (3.3 per).

As the season churns through its middle weeks, it’s becoming increasingly clear that what made Kansas City special early in the year was the dynamic running game.  Their defense never has been elite, and while the passing game has still been effective it hasn’t been able to atone for the missing running game.

If the Chiefs want to entertain thoughts of playing deep into January, they will need to re-discover that running attack.

Jacksonville Provides the Model

Some 994 miles to the east of Dallas, the rising Jacksonville Jaguars provided something of a model for how the Cowboys might go about things for the next few weeks.

Faced with playing without their dynamic running back Leonard Fournette (also suspended), the Jags got 110 rushing yards from Leonard’s two backups Chris Ivory and T.J. Yeldon on their way to 148 rushing yards on the day.  They also notably expanded the role of quarterback Blake Bortles.

Blake, who had never thrown more than 31 passes this season in a Jacksonville win, threw 27 times in the first half alone – on his way to a season-high 38 pass attempts.  It was still a very safe passing attack.  Blake made very sure the throw was there before delivering the ball.  He wasn’t dazzling by any means.  But with 24 completions for 259 yards and a touchdown, he was effective as he commanded an offense that converted on 12 of 18 third downs, and ran the clock for 40:14.

And then there was the defense.

Moving up to number 3 overall and staying the league’s top rated defense against the run, the Jaguar defense dominated in a 23-7 victory (gamebook).  Having allowed, now, just 117 points, they also remain the league’s toughest team to score against.

They were especially dominant in the second half.

During the Bengals first series of the third quarter, running back Joe Mixon squeezed through the middle for a six-yard gain.  On the last play of that quarter, Mixon would gain six more yards up the middle.  Cincinnati’s other 5 running plays in the half lost a total of 7 yards.

The Bengals finished the last 30 minutes with 31 yards and just 3 first downs.  They averaged 1.6 yards per offensive play.

The more they do this, the more this Jacksonville team begins to believe in itself.  They remain one of the more compelling teams at the mid-way point of the season.

Incidentally, the last time that Jacksonville and Cincinnati played was Week Nine of the 2014 season.  The Jags were beaten that day 33-23 as Jeremy Hill ran for 154 yards and 2 touchdowns.  Jacksonville was on its way to a 3-13 season, while the Bengals (who have fallen to 3-5 this season) were then on their way to a 10-5-1 record and a playoff berth.  Life in the NFL can certainly change quickly.

Here’s to the Defense

On the Monday night before (October 23) The Eagles and the Redskins combined to put up 58 points in a sort of coming-of-age party for Philadelphia’s rising star, Carson Wentz.  Last Monday (October 30) was a day for the defense.

With their backs against the wall, and in desperate need of a victory, the Denver Broncos (then 3-3) took the field at Arrowhead to face the 5-2 Kansas City Chiefs.  Kansas City boasted the second-highest scoring offense in the league (having scored 207 points through their first 7 games), the third-ranked offense in the league based on yards, and ranked fifth-ranked in both rushing (129 yards per game) and passing (behind quarterback Alex Smith’s impressive 120.5 passer rating).

Denver opposed them with the number one overall defense in football.  They also ranked second against the run (allowing just 71.8 rushing yards per game), sixth against the pass (although with a higher than expected 91.7 rating), and ninth in keeping opponents off the scoreboard (they had allowed just 118 points through their first 6 games).

When the dust had settled, the Chiefs walked off the field with a 29-19 victory (gamebook) that would seem to indicate that the #3 offense had taken care of business against the #1 defense.  In actuality, the story was much different.  The victorious Chiefs finished the night with just 276 yards, going 2-for-12 on third down, 0-for-3 scoring touchdowns in the red zone, and 0-for-2 in goal-to-go situations.  Of their 29 points, 13 were scored off of Denver turnovers and 3 others resulted after the Broncos failed on a fourth-down play at mid-field.  Of Kansas City’s 14 offensive drives, only one gained more than 50 yards.

The second half domination was even more complete.  After halftime, the Chiefs managed just 77 yards and 3 first downs.  Superstar rookie running back Kareem Hunt carried the ball 12 times in the second half for just 8 yards.

None Shall Run

Stopping the run was the first plank of Denver’s defensive game plan.  Hunt regained his league leadership in rushing yards, in spite of the fact that he was held to just 46 yards.  The team that allowed less than 72 rushing yards a game and had not allowed a rushing touchdown all season, left the field having given up just 79 rushing yards – and still no rushing touchdowns.

With the running game stuck in neutral, the KC offense would rest on the arm and head of Alex Smith.

The Game Plan

The discussion about Smith continues.  Is he a franchise quarterback?  Is he a game managing, system quarterback?  Can he put a team on his back (like Russell Wilson did on Sunday) and win a game when his running game was struggling to produce?  For the first seven games, the 2017 season had been Smith’s breakout season.  In 6 of the first 7 games, he produced a passer rating of at least 104.9 – on his way to the best rating in the league at the start of the night.

But as with Pittsburgh a couple of weeks ago, the Denver defense proved too tough a nut to crack.  The Bronco game plan relied on its five principle secondary players – cornerbacks Aqib Talib, Chris Harris, Bradley Roby and Will Parks; along with safety Darian Stewart – to stick tightly in man coverage to the KC receiving corps.  They would challenge Smith all night to make precision throws into tight windows – a challenge he was mostly not up to.

As the evening wore on, and Alex’ frustration mounted, he began to play fast.  Even though the actual heat in his kitchen was only moderate (right tackle Mitchell Schwartz was extremely effective keeping Von Miller at bay), Smith began rushing his decisions and giving up on plays early.  The play-action and misdirection plays that had provided some offensive spark in the first quarter were mostly abandoned by the third.  And once Denver could get Alex on the run he was 0-for-4 throwing the ball.

Alex finished the night just 14 of 31 for 202 yards, on his way to a season-worst 77.6 rating.  He was just 5 of 14 for 55 yards in the second half.  Yes, the coverage was tight, but not at all perfect.  There were plays there to be made.  Alex just didn’t make them.

On the Other Hand

Luckily for Smith and KC, they didn’t have to be miracle workers that night.  If they had their hands full with the Denver defense, the Broncos’ offense was having an even worse time.  Already an area of concern, Trevor Siemian and his unit turned the ball over four times on the evening (with the special teams contributing a fifth turnover).  And, again, it was the same concern.  Once Denver falls behind, they knew they were in trouble.  They are an offense built to play from ahead.  Or, at least, they were.  In the aftermath of his disappointing afternoon (Trevor scored a 43.5 passer rating on 19 of 36 throwing for 198 yards and three interceptions) coach Vance Joseph has given Denver’s next start (in Philadelphia this week) to backup Brock Osweiler.

It’s an unfair thing to blame Denver’s 3-4 start on one player.  It is, nonetheless, true that most of the other aspects of this football team do seem to be functioning at a fairly high level.  Their defense has been among the best in football, while the running game ranks tenth in the league, averaging 123.4 yards per game.  The receiving corps that includes Demaryius Thomas, Emmanuel Sanders (when healthy) and Virgil Green is sufficiently talented.  The perception all along has been that Denver has been held back by the limitations of its quarterback.

Despite flashes of excellence, Osweiler has mostly disappointed in his opportunities to prove himself as a starting quarterback in the NFL.  There is no way – at this point – of telling how short his leash will be.  But this Sunday will begin his next opportunity.

The Protest – Again

As I noted in Wednesday’s post, since the National Anthem protests are still in the news, for the next little while I will be including a link back to my position on all of this.  It is here, and, if I do say so myself, worth a read.

Raiders Save Season with Wild Finish

Week Seven began with one of the season’s wildest and most enjoyable games as the Raiders – trailing by 10 in the fourth quarter – salvaged their season (for the moment, anyway) by rallying for a 31-30 victory over Kansas City (gamebook).  The win improves them to 3-4 and keeps them two games behind the Chiefs in the division (a loss would have spilled them four game behind).

As the score suggests, this was an offensive fireworks display.  The two quarterbacks (Alex Smith and Derek Carr) combined for 422 passing yards.  And that was just the first half.  By game’s end, the two teams had combined for 930 total yards (748 of them passing yards) and 7 touchdowns.  They also combined to go 14 for 28 on third down, and 1-for-1 on fourth down.

The teams combined for 8 plays over 30 yards, including a 38-yard touchdown pass to from Carr to Amari Cooper (Cooper finished with 11 catches for 210 yards and 2 touchdowns) off a “flea-flicker,” and a deflected almost-interception that landed right in the arms of the Chiefs’ Albert Wilson for a 63-yard touchdown.  It also featured one of the wildest finishes that I’ve seen lately – so the enjoyment factor of this game was pretty substantial.

Derek Carr has now started 53 NFL games, and led his team to fourth-quarter, come-from-behind victories in 13 of them.  Slightly more than half of his 25 career wins have been in this kind of game.

Kudos for the Raiders’ Defense?

By game’s end, Kansas City had put up 30 points, scored 3 touchdowns, racked up 425 yards, and averaged 7.1 yards per play.  Not necessarily a defensive performance that you would be inclined to celebrate.  Yet the Raider defense did prevent the Chiefs offense from controlling the game on the ground.

Boasting the fourth ranked running offense in the NFL (at 134.8 yards per game), and facing a Raider defense that was struggling to stop the run (they entered ranked twenty-first allowing 117.2 yards per game), the Chiefs wanted very much to run some clock and keep Carr’s explosive offense on the sidelines.

They opened the game with four straight running plays (gaining only 10 yards) and ran five times (for 12 yards in their opening drive), but never were able to establish their ground game. Rookie running back Kareem Hunt broke off one run of 34 yards, but managed just 54 yards on his other 17 carries.  The talented running back – who has already picked up more than 100 yards in the second half alone of a couple games this season – carried 11 times in the second half of this game for just 39 yards (3.5 per carry).  KC finished the game with just 94 rushing yards, and only controlled the clock for 30:36.  They scored points, but kept leaving Oakland time to answer.

The Longest Eight Seconds

But all of that was just prologue.

The game had 23 seconds left, and Oakland was still down 30-24.  They faced a third-and-10 on the Kansas City 29.  Carr slid slightly to his left in the pocket and launched a pass toward the pylon at the left corner of the end zone.  For the second straight play, the Raiders had two receivers in the area of the pass.  But his time the deeper receiver (Jared Cook) was far enough behind the other receiver (Seth Roberts) that the two didn’t collide.  Cook elevated, made the catch, and tumbled into the end zone.  Touchdown.  The game – for the moment – was tied, and there was much rejoicing in the stadium as everyone awaited the extra-point.

As it turned out, the celebrating was a might premature.  There was actually a lot of football left on this night.

As they kept watching the replay, it became apparent that Cook’s rear end had plopped to the turf while the football was still on the half-yard line.  There were eight seconds left, and Oakland had first-and-goal.

Michael Crabtree would get the first opportunity.  Lined up wide right, Crabtree raced into the end zone where he was met by KC defensive back Marcus Peters.  Carr delivered the ball, and Crabtree gave Peters a gentle push that sent Peters’ legs out from under him.  Crabtree caught the pass, but flags flew immediately.  Offensive pass interference.  Now there were three seconds left, and Oakland had first-and-goal from the 10.

Was it a penalty?  Well, it was a push.  Crabtree did extended his arms to gain separation.  In honesty, you frequently see worse than that get ignored.  But there was a push, so the call was mostly legit.

Before Carr even delivered the next pass (which was high and off the fingertips of Cook in the end zone) there was already a flag in the end zone.  Ron Parker had been called for holding Cook.  There were all zeros on the scoreboard clock, but the Raiders would get one un-timed down (since a game can’t end on a defensive penalty).  First and goal from the five.

Was it a penalty?  Well, Parker didn’t truly impede Cook, but he did latch on and go for a bit of a ride.  Frankly, he was more staggering and holding on for balance than trying to keep Cook out of the end zone.  Not the worst hold I’ve ever seen, but yes.  A penalty.

Now it would be Cordarrelle Patterson – lined up in the slot to the left – working against Eric Murray.  As Patterson streaked past, Murray latched on to him and hung with him to the back of the end zone, where he pushed Patterson over the line as the ball was arriving.  Some of the Chiefs were starting to celebrate, but most saw the flag on the ground.

That holding call brought the ball back to about the two yard line – almost exactly where it was ten minutes ago after Cook’s first catch – where Oakland would have yet another untimed down.

Now they would go back to Crabtree – lined wide left this time.  Derek rolled to his left and delivered a strike to Crabtree just a step beyond the same pylon that Cook had fallen in front of.  He collected the pass, and the game (finally) was over.

The win broke a four-game Raider losing streak, during which they had not scored more than 17 points.  It was the first time since Week Two that the Raiders had looked like the Raiders.  They have put themselves a bit behind in the playoff chase, but there is still a lot of football to be played.

Rematch in the Fog

Last February, the New England Patriots and the Atlanta Falcons got together in Houston for that Super Bowl thing.  In a game for the ages (discussed here), the Patriots trailed 21-3 at the half, and 28-9 through three quarters before rallying to a 34-28 overtime win.

Last Sunday night, they re-convened in Foxborough for a regular season re-match.  The story-lines this time, though, were slightly different.  The defending champion Patriots began the season with their re-built defense not really ready for prime time.  In a 2-2 start, the Patriots allowed 32 points and 456.8 yards per game (132.8 of them rushing yards).  In their previous two previous games, they had held Tampa Bay and the Jets to 14 and 17 points respectively.  Progress, yes, but against two fairly middling offenses.

The Atlanta narrative was more concerning.  After a 3-0 start, the Falcon’s had lost their two previous games at home against Buffalo and Miami, scoring just 17 points in each.  So they hit the turf as a team searching – a little bit, anyway – for answers.  They wouldn’t find any that night.  At least not early.

Fixing the Falcons

Thirty minutes into the game, the teams headed for the locker rooms with the Patriots holding a 17-0 lead.  The once dominant Falcon offense had managed just 130 yards and 7 first downs.  Quarterback Matt Ryan had completed just 9 of his first 16 passes – only 2 of them to All-World receiver Julio Jones for 30 yards.

This offensive brown out had many people scratching their heads.  The answer proved to be fairly fundamental.  The Falcons’ difficulties traced to a struggling running game.

People may not remember that during the Super Bowl, the Falcon’s set the tone with their running game.  Five of their first nine offensive plays were runs – gaining 56 yards.  They hit the halfway mark of that game with 86 rushing yards.  They were especially effective getting around the corner.  Nine times they tested the edge of New England’s run defense in Super Bowl LI, averaging 7.6 yards per.

Anyone who remembers the Falcon offense from the end of last season, will remember the great energy that surrounded it.  That energy came from the very aggressive, explosive running game.  As good as Ryan and Jones are – and they are both plenty good – the key to the Atlanta offense is their running game.  When it misfires, the whole Falcon offense looks out of sync.  That was the story of the first half.

Even though Atlanta finished the game scoring just 7 points in a 23-7 loss (gamebook), the second half proved much, much better – and it began with the running game.

After their initial first down of the third quarter, the Falcons ran on four consecutive plays for 34 yards.  Atlanta pushed on for 90 rushing yards in the second half – 56 by Devonta Freeman – and the passing game responded with Ryan hitting 14 of his last 17 passes.  Even though only 7 points came from them, all three of Atlanta’s second half drives lasted at least 10 plays, all gained at least 55 yards, and all ended in the red zone.  They missed a 36-yard field goal when Matt Bryant hit the left upright.  Another drive fizzled when the Falcons failed on fourth-and-goal from the one – so things could have been much better.  Now 3-3, the Falcons trail 4-2 New Orleans by one game in their division. They are still very much in the discussion.

Coming Together in New England

As for the Patriots, they are now suddenly 5-2 and a half-game ahead of Buffalo in their division.  Their victory depended on two significant achievements.

First, the new-look defense was surprisingly successful in eliminating the big play from the Atlanta offense.  Even in the second half the Falcons managed only two plays of more than 20 yards – and they were just barely over 20 yards.  One of Freeman’s runs gained 21 yards in the third, and one of Ryan’s fourth-quarter completions went for 22 yards to Justin Hardy.  Ryan’s 14 second half completions totaled just 123 yards.  Jones finished the game with 9 catches, but none of them for more than 16 yards.

The other important thing they did was run the ball.  Thirty six times they probed the Falcon run defense, racking up 162 rushing yards.  This is becoming a growing concern for the Falcons.  After holding the Packers to just 59 rushing yards in Week Two, their rushing yards allowed has risen every game since.

New England finished with 34 minutes and 5 seconds of ball control.  For all of their early season vulnerability, the Patriots seem to have figured some things out.

And the Fog

What ended up being a very well-played, informative game was played against the strange backdrop of an intense fog that rolled in from the bay.  It was thick enough to make punts and arching passes something of an adventure.  The players were mostly unaffected, but the fog took its toll on the spectators.  TV audiences – thanks to the crawling spidercams – were treated to what was undoubtedly the first broadcast in NFL history that showed almost the entire game from the quarterback’s perspective.

An interesting view for anyone who ever wanted to read coverage.