Tag Archives: Tennessee Titans

Tennessee’s Tumbling Playoff Chances

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

More Flux in the NFC East

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

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

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

Minnesota’s Blueprint?

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

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

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

Patriots Dominated in Tennessee

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

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

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

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

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

Cracks in the Foundation

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

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

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

Patriots Ambushed

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

That’s how the day was for New England.

Titans Trending Up

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

Other Shifting Playoff Situations

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

Saints Rolling On

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

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

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

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

Just a reminder: Pride goeth before a fall.

Patriots Advance — Again

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

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

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

Same Old Patriots?

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

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

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

New England scored touchdowns in all five red zone possessions.

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

Don’t Overlook the New England Defense

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

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

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

Brown and Flowers

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

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

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

Big Stops

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

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

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

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

Chung Strikes Again

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

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

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

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

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

Is Anyone Taking Notice?

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

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

Why Run Defense Matters

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

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

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

And ratchet up the pressure on the New England defense.

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.

Staggering Into (and Out of) the Playoffs

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tennessee Takes Jacksonville

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Jacksonville never did score an offensive touchdown.

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

Tampa Bay Wins in Strange Fashion

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

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

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

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

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

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

Adventures in Officiating

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

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

Kelvin Benjamin’s Touchdown that Wasn’t

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Merry Christmas to the Los Angeles Rams

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sometimes It’s Best to Just Play

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

Sometimes, it’s best to just play.

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

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

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

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

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

Gurley’s Big Day

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

Early Presents for the Saints

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Summary

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

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

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

One Game More to Decide Playoff Teams

With surprising victories by Miami and Jacksonville, much of the drama that might have hung over Week 17 has been resolved.  We go into the last week of the season with the playoff teams mostly decided – if not yet seeded.  Here – essentially – is what is still to be decided:

AFC Eastern Division

New England (13-2) has been sitting on top of this conference virtually the entire season – in spite of the fact that All-Everything Quarterback Tom Brady was forced to sit out the season’s first four games.  They are currently the top seed in the conference, but Oakland is only one game behind at 12-3.  Should both teams finish at 13-3, Oakland will get the seed.  In that event, Oakland will be 5-0 against teams that both Oakland and New England have played, while the Patriots will be 4-1 in those games.

Oakland has beaten Baltimore (28-27), Denver twice (30-20 and they will have to beat the Broncos on Sunday to finish at 13-3), Houston (27-20), and Buffalo (38-24).  New England has wins over Houston (27-0), Buffalo (41-25), Baltimore (30-23), and Denver (16-3).  But in Week Four – the last week of Brady’s exile – the Pats were shutout by Buffalo 16-0.  That lonely loss is the only possible lasting impact of the Brady suspension – and for that loss to drop New England into the second seed, Oakland will have to win in Denver without their starting quarterback and Miami will have to beat New England (also without their starting quarterback) on Sunday.

Neither of those outcomes is unthinkable.

The Denver-Oakland game we’ll deal with in a minute.

As for Miami, the Dolphins won a defining game (and punched their playoff ticket) last Sunday when they went into freezing Buffalo and won in overtime with their backup quarterback.  That victory establishes them as one of the wildcard teams (currently the sixth seed).  If they win their last game against the Patriots and Kansas City loses on the road in San Diego, the Dolphins could finish as the fifth seed, pushing KC into the sixth slot.

I don’t know that the difference in seeding is enough for the Dolphins to give maximum effort in their last game.  I do think the fact that they will be playing at home against the hated Patriots is reason enough.  There are other reasons, too.  Matt Moore – the man at the helm in Ryan Tannehill’s absence – needs all of the real-time reps he can get.  Plus, the Dolphins are not so established that they can turn things off and turn them back on.  I don’t think that they think they have the luxury of resting starters.

All of that being said, I don’t believe that they could handle New England’s best game.  I don’t know, though, that they will get New England’s best game.  There is little on the table for the Patriots.  The slide from first to second will only matter if both New England and Oakland win their divisional round matchups – and the Raiders won’t have their starting QB.  I don’t truly expect to see Brady on the field too long – maybe the first half, or maybe just the first drive.  Some other notables (like LeGarrette Blount) may also be done early.  The Patriots may surprise me, but I think that this game is there for the Dolphins to take, if they want it.

AFC North

The 10-5 Pittsburgh Steelers wrapped up their division title with a gritty victory over the game Baltimore Ravens.  They are locked in as the number three seed.  The AFC South champions in Houston could finish at 10-6 if they win in Tennessee on Sunday, but for Pittsburgh to also finish at 10-6, they would have to lose at home against the one-win Cleveland team.  Even if that happens, Pittsburgh’s strength-of-victory index will be better than Houston’s.

AFC West

Oakland (12-3) leads the division, holds the second seed, and has a chance at the number one seed.  But they haven’t locked up the division, yet.  Kansas City sits right behind them at 11-4, holding the tie breaker by virtue of winning both games against the Raiders this season.  They (KC) finishes the season on the road against a fading but dangerous San Diego team, while the Raiders and backup QB Matt McGloin journey into Denver to play last year’s champions.

The disappointed Broncos will certainly give Oakland its best game, but I legitimately wonder if Denver can take Oakland even if they are playing at home against the Raiders’ backup signal caller.  The Bronco offense has creaked to a halt during the season’s final weeks.  During their current three-game losing streak, Denver has failed to score more than ten points in any of them.  However, the Raiders Achilles Heel even before the loss of Derek Carr was its defense (ranked twenty-eighth overall and allowing 24 points per game).  Denver managed 20 points against them in Oakland earlier this season.  If they can manage that many at home on Sunday, they can put the game in McGloin’s hands – and Denver still has football’s best pass defense.

While Denver is flawed, Oakland – minus its QB – is, I think, more flawed.  I expect to see Oakland lose this game (giving New England the number one seed, regardless).  I’m less clear on what to expect from the Chargers and Chiefs.  While the Chargers are always dangerous, they have mostly found ways to lose games this year while KC has mostly found ways to win games this year.  In the final analysis, I just don’t see Kansas City – with so much at stake – losing it all to a 5-10 team, even if they are a division opponent playing at home.  My best guess at the way this plays out has KC pulling off the division title and the second seed on the last day of the season, sending Oakland to the fifth seed and sending them on the road to open the playoffs in:

AFC South

Houston.  The Texans (now 9-6) have yet to lose a division game all season (they are 5-0 so far).  When 3-12 Jacksonville rose up last Sunday to rend the now 8-7 Tennessee Titans, they dropped Tennessee to 1-4 in the division.  So even though Tennessee could tie Houston at 9-7 with a win at home against them Sunday, the Texans own the tie breaker.  They are locked into the fourth seed and likely to draw the Raiders in the wildcard round of the playoffs, while Pittsburgh will most likely match up with Miami.

None of the AFC participants can change.  The only thing Week 17 can alter is the seeding.

NFC South

The Atlanta Falcons (10-5) are two games up on their closest competitor (Tampa Bay is 8-7) with one game left.  They are the division champion.  They are currently sitting in the second seed with its corresponding first-round bye.  A final week victory over New Orleans (at home) will clinch that seeding.  New Orleans is 7-8 and kind of a more dangerous version of the Chargers.  The Saints have averaged 29.1 points a game this year (making them the NFL’s second-highest scoring team this year).  They are also number one in yardage and number one in passing yards. Furthermore, this offensive juggernaut will be working against the Falcons’ twenty-third ranked defense (number 26 against the pass) that is allowing 24.9 points a game (the twenty-fifth ranked scoring defense in the NFL).

On the other hand, Atlanta is scoring 33.5 points a game (making them the NFL’s number one scoring offense) and ranks second in yards (behind New Orleans) with the number 3 passing attack and the number 7 running attack.  New Orleans answers with the number 30 scoring defense (allowing 27.7 points a game) and the number 25 defense by yardage allowed (number 30 against the pass).

To put it lightly, America is expecting a shootout.  The Falcons won the first meeting of these teams in New Orleans 45-32.  This is, by no means, a lock – although you have to think that the home-standing Falcons should prevail.

Behind them are the young and inconsistent Buccaneers.  Tampa Bay finishes at home against the dethroned Carolina Panthers.  If Tampa prevails, they will finish at 9-7, putting them (theoretically) in the mix for that final playoff spot.  The loser of the Detroit-Green Bay tilt will also be 9-7.  Washington currently sits at 8-6-1, and could finish at 9-6-1 with a playoff berth if they finish up their season with a win.

So while Atlanta controls its own fate, Tampa Bay decidedly does not.  My strong expectation is that they will lose to the Panthers on Sunday anyway, obviating any tie-breaking scenarios.

NFC East

As the Dallas Cowboys sliced and diced the Detroit Lions last week, they locked up their division title and the first seed.  Their final game in Philadelphia is meaningless, although the statements coming from the Dallas camp suggest that they will keep the pedal down.

Also locked up is the first wildcard spot (the fifth seed).  That belongs to the 10-5 New York Giants.

Behind them are the 8-6-1 Washington Redskins.  They play at home Sunday afternoon with everything to play for against the Giants whose only real motivation could come from knocking the Redskins out of the playoffs.  And because of the tie on their record, Washington will either be in or out depending on the result.  At 9-6-1 their record would be better than any of the teams that could be 9-7.  At 8-7-1, they would finish behind any 9-7 teams (and there will be at least one of those).

My expectation here is that Washington will take care of business.  I am not all that impressed with the Giants (although their defense can certainly rise to the occasion), and I don’t expect to see them win this game on the road against a desperate (and pretty good) Washington team.  In the world of most-likely-outcomes, Washington should win and complete the playoff field.

NFC West

At 9-5-1, Seattle will be the only team from this division to finish over .500.  They have already won the title, but lost control of the number two seed with a surprising loss at home against Arizona last week.  Should Atlanta fall to New Orleans, then the second seed will be theirs if they can beat the two-win San Francisco team (in San Francisco).  Seattle would fall to the fourth seed should they lose, as the winner of the Packers-Lions game will be 10-6.  Don’t see that happening.  The Seahawks have been wildly inconsistent at the end of the season, but should still be better than the struggling 49ers.

NFC North

The season ends on Sunday night in Detroit where the 9-6 Lions will square off against the 9-6 Green Bay Packers.  At stake will be the division title in a winner-take-all showdown.

The loser will probably be home for the playoffs – assuming Washington takes care of the Giants.  Should New York rise up and knock Washington out of the playoffs then both these teams will go into the playoffs – the winner as the division champion and possible number two seed, and the loser as the number six seed.

If Detroit wins (and Atlanta and Seattle lose), the Lions and Falcons would both finish at 10-6.  The tie-breaker here would fall to Detroit on record against common opponents.  The Lions would have four wins (Philadelphia, Los Angeles, New Orleans, and Green Bay) against just one loss (Green Bay).  Atlanta would finish 3-2 against these same opponents, with wins against New Orleans, Green Bay and Los Angeles; and losses to Philadelphia and New Orleans (if they lose that last game).  A Falcons loss to New Orleans could push them down as far as fourth.

If it ends up Green Bay vs Tampa Bay for the last wildcard spot – with both teams at 9-7 – the Packers would get the nod based on strength of victory.

If the Sunday night game tilts the other way, with Green Bay winning the division, they would lose any tie-breaker to Atlanta (by virtue of a 32-33 loss to them in Week Eight).  So the highest the Packers could climb is the third seed (and it would take Seattle losing to San Francisco for that to happen).

If it comes to a tie-breaker between Detroit and Tampa Bay, Detroit would win on record against common opponents.  The Lions would be 3-2 (beating Los Angeles, New Orleans and Chicago; and losing to Chicago and Dallas).  Tampa Bay would be 2-3 against those same opponents (beating Chicago and New Orleans while losing to Los Angeles, Dallas and New Orleans).

So Tampa Bay isn’t really in the mix, regardless.

Under the most likely scenarios, the NFC seeding should end up Dallas, Atlanta, Seattle, NFC North Champion, NY Giants and Washington.

And who wins the NFC North showdown?  Green Bay.  And they’ll be a dangerous team to deal with in the playoffs.

At least that’s how I see it all playing out.

Getting to Know the Tennessee Titans

In a sense, it’s a bit ironic that the Tennessee Titans are playing their two most significant games in many years the same week that their former coach, Jeff Fisher, has paid for the sins of the Rams’ franchise with his job.

Fisher, of course, was the original coach of the Tennessee Titans (nee Oilers) after the franchise abandoned Houston following the 1996 season (twenty years ago, now).  He led them to the franchise’s only Super Bowl appearance following the 1999 season (losing, ironically, to the Rams – then located in St Louis).  Jeff was 142-120 over all or parts of 17 different regular seasons with the Oilers/Titans franchise, and 5-6 with them in the playoffs.

Neither the Titans nor Fisher had really done all that well since they split up.  Fisher was in the midst of what would have been his fifth consecutive losing season for the Rams (another team that moved while he coached them) – finishing with a 31-45 record for them.  Meanwhile, the Titans have had four consecutive losing seasons under three different head coaches (including going 5-27 over the last two years) before this season – their first full season under Mike Mularkey.

With losses in three of their first four games, there was little reason to think this season would be much different in Tennessee.  Even as they won four of the next six – evening their record to 5-5 – it was hard to generate too much excitement about them.  The victories came over the Miami Dolphins (another team that started off slowly), two tepid teams in Cleveland and Jacksonville, and a Green Bay team that seemed at the time (Week 10) to be falling apart.  When they lost the next week in Indianapolis, it dropped their record to 5-6, with two of the losses to the Colts.  They squared their record at 6-6 the next week with a win over another bad team in Chicago.

That victory, however, created a three-way tie at the top of the AFC South Division – Houston, Indianapolis and Tennessee all 6-6.  The bad news in all of this was that the Titans trailed in tie breakers to both of the other teams.  Making the playoffs for Tennessee will almost certainly mean finishing with a better record than both of the other teams.  With that as the mandate, they entered December with four make-or-break games, needing probably, to will all four.  And the schedule before them not at all easy.

It began last week with a home game against the defending world champions.  It continues this week in Kansas City, followed by a road game in Jacksonville and a home game against Houston the last game of the season.

Tennessee survived the first of those contests, holding off the Broncos 13-10.  In a sense, the game almost took the form of a “coming out” party for franchise quarterback Marcus Mariota.  He kept the ball on designed runs five times in the first half, accounting for 41 yards.   He lined up at wide receiver and sprinted up the field on a pass route (making a very good play to break up an underthrown pass).  He showed a great range of skills, not quite including passing – as he completed only 6 of 20 passes for just 88 yards.

Still, to understand Tennessee, you have to understand that Mariota and the passing game are not the focus.  Twelve games into the season, in a league where it is almost impossible to run more than you throw, the Titans have thrown 401 passes and run the ball 398 times.  Against all NFL teams, they currently rank twenty-fifth in passing yards, but third in rushing yards.  They are also third defending the run. Against Denver, the Titans rolled up 180 running yards and held the Broncos to 18.  Mariota will develop as he develops, but Mularkey has left little doubt that the foundation of their future success will be a pounding running game and a run defense that will force opposing offenses into being one dimensional.

With their playoff hopes essentially riding on this Sunday’s game in Kansas City, this formula could actually play very well.  The Chiefs don’t run the ball very well (they are twenty-fifth in the league) and they don’t stop the run very well (they are twenty-seventh in the league).  If Tennessee can reduce this game to a line of scrimmage game, they will have a real chance.  Up against them will be a Kansas City team that has a lot of big-game experience, playing in one of the toughest atmospheres for road teams to play in, in one of the coldest spots on the planet come Sunday, and against a quarterback in Alex Smith who is consistently underrated.  If they push their way past KC and into the playoffs, they will certainly have earned it.

Oh the Weather Outside is Frightful

With December comes the first set of games that are profoundly affected by winter.  Of these the most compelling was Pittsburgh’s 27-20 win over Buffalo played in a steady snow storm.

The Bills came into the game built for these kinds of conditions.  They were averaging 161.9 rushing yards a game and had scored 23 rushing touchdowns.  In the first half of that game, quarterback Tyrod Taylor threw only 8 passes while the Bills ran for 63 yards on 13 attempts.  The Steelers – who have become a predominant passing team over the last several seasons – also ran 13 times (for 77 yards) in the first half, while having Ben Roethlisberger throw the ball 26 times with minimal success (14 completions, 162 yards, no touchdowns and 2 interceptions).

In the second half, as the snow progressively encroached over the playing field, the two teams switched strategies.  The Bills completely abandoned their running game, running five times the entire second half, while putting the ball in Taylor’s hands for 17 passes.  Meanwhile, Roethlisberger threw only 5 times in the second half – tossing one more interception along the way.

He didn’t need to throw more than that, as the Steelers turned Le’Veon Bell loose in the winter wonderland that Heinz Field had become.  Bell carried the ball 25 times for 159 yards and a touchdown.  And that was just the second half.  For the game, Le’Veon finished with 38 carries, 236 rushing yards and three rushing touchdowns to go with four pass receptions for another 62 yards through the air.

Throughout the game, Buffalo – which plays its home games in one of the snowiest cities in America – seemed decidedly uncomfortable playing in the stuff.  And why they decided to stop running the ball remains a mystery to me.  Running the ball is not only the thing that Buffalo does best, it was also what the elements seemed to call for.  At the very least, it would have given the Bills’ defense (which was on the field for 38:41 of the games sixty minutes) a little bit of a breather.

Other Teams Uncomfortable in the Cold

Taking nothing away from tremendous defensive efforts by the New York Giants and the Green Bay Packers, but the two teams they beat last Sunday (the Dallas Cowboys and the Seattle Seahawks) were both getting their first real taste of cold weather this season and both teams looked unprepared for it.  This seemed especially true for the Seahawk receivers who let a bevy of passes slip through their fingers – several of which ended up as interceptions.

The elements are a great equalizer.  Teams that play in warm weather or in domes frequently find it difficult to execute in the cold and snow.  Something to keep an eye on going forward.

Did Anyone Else Notice the Tape on Derek Carr’s Finger?

The Oakland Raiders were another warm weather team playing in the cold (in Kansas City) last week.  They also played below their norm.  In the post-game interview, they asked Raider quarterback Derek Carr several times about the impact of the cold on the passing game. Carr dismissed the effect, all they while gesturing with his right hand (his passing hand) that featured his pinkie finger taped to the next finger for support.  During the game, they weren’t taped together, but that pinkie was heavily wrapped.  No one asked if that affected his play.

I will not pretend to be an expert on quarterback play or the mechanics of throwing a football.  But my rudimentary understanding of the process suggests that that pinkie finger is pretty important in helping the passer control the flight of the football.  And in Carr’s case, it was his accuracy that was the problem as he was consistently high and wide all night on his way to completing just 17 of his 41 passes (including just 7 of 23 in the second half).

I think it’s entirely possible that the Raiders had struggles with the weather.  It’s also possible that it’s really hard to play quarterback against one of the best pass defenses in the NFL with the pinkie finger on your throwing hand taped up.

Just saying.

How the Giants Playoff Chances Improved

For most of the season, the New York Giants have been sitting snugly in one of the NFC wildcard spots.  Until now, I have been hesitant to embrace them as a likely playoff contestant.  After an uninspiring 2-3 start, the Giants pushed themselves into contention with a 6-game winning streak that came at the expense of some fairly suspect opponents.  They squeaked past Baltimore at home (27-23) before Baltimore figured things out and started playing well.  They eased past a bad Rams team, 17-10.  They just got past a fading Philadelphia team, 28-23.  They finished the winning streak against three straight sub-.500 teams – Cincinnati (21-20), Chicago (22-16), and winless Cleveland (27-13).

Now 8-3, New York faced a quality opponent – the Pittsburgh Steelers – and fell quietly 24-14.  Still 8-4, the tie-breakers didn’t favor them at 9-7.  To earn their playoff berth, the Giants would have to go at least 2-2 down the stretch.  As the stretch drive included games against Dallas, Detroit and a road game in Washington, this under-performing team seemed unlikely to squeeze two wins out of this schedule.  Somewhere in this stretch, they would have to “find” a win against a better team.

They found that win Sunday night when they fought their way past the Dallas Cowboys 10-7.

Even in this moment of triumph, the Giants managed to be mostly unconvincing.  While scoring only ten points, they left two other touchdowns on the field when Odell Beckham Jr. dropped a sure touchdown pass and when the ball slipped out of Eli Manning’s had as he had a receiver breaking open behind the defense.  Eli also threw at least three other passes right into the hands of would-be interceptors (all dropped) – so the Giant offense continues to invite concern.

Defensively, the Giants dominated the Cowboys.  It’s hard to say that when Dallas’ Ezekiel Elliott ran for 107 yards, but make no mistake.  Dallas was dominated on offense.

After a dominating early season, the Cowboys finished their eleven-game winning streak with wins that were 3 parts grit and determination and 2 parts luck.  Since they went into their bye with a 5-1 record, the Cowboys’ defense has been frequently exposed.  Three times in the first five games after their bye, Dallas surrendered 23 points or more.  Even though they held Minnesota to 15 points in a Week 13 win, the Vikings still kept the Cowboy offense on the sideline as they ran 69 offensive plays and controlled the clock for 33:17.  Blessed with better red-zone execution (and, perhaps, a roughing-the-passer call on a two-point conversion attempt) the Vikings would have won that game.

The Giant’s lacked enough offense to take advantage of the Cowboy defense, but they did provide something of a blue-print for dousing the Cowboy offense – if there’s another defense out there that can do what they did.

First and most importantly, they competed with the Cowboy running game for the whole sixty minutes.  Elliott had his moments.  He had four rushes of at least 13 yards.  Those rushes accounted for 55 of Elliott’s yards.  His other 20 rushes accounted for just 52 yards.  In fairness, the Cowboys made it easy on the Giants in this regard.  After Elliott carried 15 times for 86 first-half yards, the Cowboys only gave him 9 second-half carries, only once giving him the ball on consecutive plays.  Thus Dallas never gave the Giants defense a chance to wear down, preferring instead to place their fortunes on the arm of quarterback Dak Prescott – who struggled to a 17-for-37, 165 yard game that featured three sacks and two interceptions.

Conventional wisdom might hold that defenses are adjusting to Dallas’ intriguing rookie quarterback.  That’s not what I saw Sunday night.  What I saw was a Giant defense that blitzed relentlessly – a risky strategy that worked because the New York defensive backs were spectacular in covering the Cowboy receivers.  Whether it was Dez Bryant, Cole Beasley or Jason Witten, none of the Cowboy receivers had any success in gaining any separation.  In the absence of the consistent running game, Prescott was faced with persistent heat in the pocket and covered receivers – conditions that would challenge the best and most experienced quarterbacks.

At 11-2, Dallas is still two games ahead in the chase for the top seed in its conference.  With three games left, it would take an impressive collapse for them to fall out of that position.  But Dallas has been scuffling lately, so it will be interesting to see how they do in the playoffs.

In the meantime, the Giants now need to win just one of their last three to pretty much assure their playoff berth.  This is a disappointing development for Tampa Bay, who had recently fought their way into serious playoff contention.  After surviving New Orleans last week, Tampa Bay is now 8-5.  But 9-7 will probably not be enough to get them in.  At 10-6 they would probably get a tie-breaker in conference record, but their closing schedule is daunting.  They have consecutive road games in Dallas and New Orleans followed by a home game against Carolina.  Finding two wins in those three games will prove a challenge.  They will now have to do what the Giants did – find a way to win a game they probably shouldn’t.

Houston or Tennessee?

Also last Sunday, the Tennessee Titans came up big against the Denver Broncos (a 13-10 win).  This leaves them tied for the lead in their division.  Unfortunately, in spite of the win, their playoff stock diminished as the Houston Texans came through with a surprising 22-17 road victory over Indianapolis.  Both Houston and Tennessee are 7-6.  Tennessee will host Houston on the last game of the season.  Before that game, Houston will have winnable home games against Jacksonville and Cincinnati.  If they win both of those games, they will head into that final showdown with a 9-6 record and a 5-0 division record.  The best the Titans can do in the division is 3-3 if they beat both Jacksonville and Houston.

This means that 9-7 will likely not be good enough.  Tennessee will pretty much need to win out to take the division title – their most realistic path to the playoffs.  That places Tennessee’s real playoff hopes squarely on this Sunday afternoon’s contest against the Chiefs.  In Kansas City.  If the Titans are going to make it, they will certainly earn it.