Not the Same Team

There is 1:42 left in the third quarter of a 20-20 game. New Orleans faces a third-and-four on their own 31-yard line. The Saints flank three wide receivers out to the left. Widest to that side was Emmanuel Sanders, with Jared Cook about four yards inside of him. The narrowest split belonged to Michael Thomas, the innermost receiver, who was just a step on the outside of the hash-marks.

In spite of the fact that New Orleans saw relentless man coverage from Tampa Bay, they didn’t run a whole lot of man beating routes. This would be one. The outer receivers (Sanders and Cook) would run curls inside, with Thomas looping around them up the sideline. The congestion of the receivers with their defenders was supposed to divide Buc cornerback Ross Cockrell from Thomas – the man he was assigned to cover.

The design worked, with Thomas briefly springing open up the sideline, and Mike Edwards – the safety to that side – closing fast. Quarterback Drew Brees delivered the ball on time, but over Thomas’ outside shoulder – to keep him away from Edwards. But Michael had turned to the inside, and had to execute an awkward reverse spin to position himself to attempt the catch, losing a step while he was turning.

Even though this left him far enough from the ball that he had to lunge for it, Michael Thomas – one of football’s elite receivers – still had the ball momentarily in both hands before it slipped through his fingers just before Cockrell and Edwards converged on him.

Not the Same Team

From the moment that Tampa Bay had qualified for the Divisional Round, they began anticipating their third confrontation with the New Orleans Saints – a team that had beaten them handily twice already. Like a mantra, from head coach Bruce Arians on down, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers chanted in near unison, “We’re not the same team.”

There was ample evidence of the veracity of that pronouncement in their 30-20 conquest of their former nemesis (gamebook) (summary). But while the Bucs have, indeed, made significant growth, the mantra more exactly fits the team they beat. In many critical ways, the Saints were not the same team at all.

Drew is Probably Done

The performance from future Hall-of-Fame Quarterback Drew Brees has rarely been worse. Drew finished a sobering 19-for-34 for but 134 yards, his lone touchdown pass offset by three crucial interceptions. In the post-game interview, Drew was less than chatty – consistently refusing to talk in any detail about his upcoming decision. But he had the look of someone who had played his last football game.

Just Thursday, his wife tweeted for the world to know the litany of damage that Drew had persevered through. We already knew about the 11 broken ribs and cartilage issues. We didn’t know that he was also playing through a torn rotator cuff and a torn fascia in his foot.

If he comes back, now, he is looking at some significant re-hab – a lot to ask of a 42-year-old who has missed significant time to injuries in each of the last two years. In fact, the question of whether he had any business playing last Sunday is a good one to ask. Do you put you playoff fate in the hands of a compromised quarterback?

With Drew as the headliner, the health of the team in general faded greatly since the last time they beat Tampa Bay. Out for this game were middle linebacker Kwon Alexander, and two significant pieces of the offense – Latavius Murray and Taysom Hill – with electrifying receiver/punt returner Deonte Harris following them after playing just five snaps. Additionally, sack leader Trey Hendrickson was just back after missing the Chicago game due to a neck injury, running back Alvin Kamara was just back from the COVID list, and Thomas missed nine games (including the last three of the regular season) to a lingering ankle problem.

So the team was nicked up a bit. The big question, though, revolved around the quarterback. Over the two playoff games the Saints played this year, Brees threw 73 passes. Only one of them was to a receiver more than twenty yards downfield. That pass occurred in the Chicago game. None of his 34 passes against Tampa Bay was directed more than 19 yards away, and he had no completions on a pass deeper than 17 yards.

In the broadcast booth, Troy Aikman voiced the question that was on everyone’s mind. Could Drew Brees, in fact, still throw a ball twenty yards in the air?

For their part, the Buccaneers played him like he couldn’t. Adopting the game plan that I predicted last week, Tampa Bay blitzed Drew heavily (52.9% of his drop-backs) and played smothering, press man coverage in an attempt to take away his short passes. The game plan met with exceptional success. After rolling up 1315 yards over the previous 3 games (an average of 438.3 per), the Saints left the field with only 294 yards to show for their efforts against Tampa Bay.

Not an Accurate Representation

All of this paints a picture of an offense that was hamstrung by the limitations of its quarterback. Even though that was probably true, it’s not an accurate representation of what happened on the field Sunday evening. Drew Brees never threw the ball down the field, not because he couldn’t (although he probably couldn’t). He didn’t throw the ball down the field because none of his receivers could get open down the field. For that matter, they couldn’t get open for short passes, either.

The Tampa Bay Buccaneers have come under criticism – including by me – for their weakness in pass coverage. And when they are in zone coverage – and for some reason they always revert back to their zone coverages – this is still true. I believe that every time they went to zone against New Orleans there was a significant gain to be had. But this team could always play man defense – and last Sunday they inhaled the New Orleans receivers.

The foundation was cornerback Carlton Davis. His ability to remove Michael Thomas from the equation (and Davis was a major factor in holding Thomas to no catches), combined with the Saints’ early loss of Harris, left New Orleans without a major weapon to challenge the man coverage they would get from the rest of Tampa’s defensive backs. So Brees’ afternoon was a frustrating exercise in running from the Buccaneer blitz in the mostly futile hope of finding an open receiver. Drew’s first interception was representative of the way his day went.

With Jordan Whitehead as the single high safety, the Bucs brought Devin White on the blitz. Devin sprang into the “A” gap between center Erik McCoy and right guard Cesar Ruiz. With down-lineman Rakeem Nunez-Roches occupying Ruiz, McCoy was obliged to pick up White’s blitz, turning to his outside shoulder for the block. At the same time, Jason Pierre-Paul looped from his defensive end position around McCoy’s other shoulder. Caught in a bind, Erik effectively blocked neither, and both White and Pierre-Paul invaded the backfield and flushed Drew from the pocket.

Scrambling away from trouble, Drew had no place to go with the ball. According to Next Gen Stats, at the time Brees actually unloaded the ball, scanning from his left to his right, Jared Cook had a half-yard of separation from Antoine Winfield Jr., Emmanuel Sanders had a yard on Jamel Dean, Sean Murphy-Bunting was 0.8 yards away from Michael Thomas, and, up the right sideline, Tre’Quan Smith and Carlton Davis were separated by a scant 1.6 yards.

In retrospect, I’m sure Drew would say that he should have thrown this one away and tried something else on third down. In the post-game, Brees owned to the fact that he tried to force a couple of passes. This would be one. Trying to loft the ball over Murphy-Bunting’s head to Thomas, Drew didn’t get quite enough air underneath the ball. Sean’s subsequent interception and 36-yard return set up the first touchdown of the day.

As I mentioned before, this was not a singular event. Repeatedly throughout the game the Buccaneer defenders presented Brees with smothering coverage. And more than once, the pass rush came to the rescue when the secondary did occasionally let a receiver escape. On this play, Sanders was actually pulling away from Dean. If Brees had had time to wait another half-second, this could have been a game-changing play the other way.

Assuming, of course, that Drew could have thrown it that far.

Uncharacteristically Ragged

On top of all of this, when there were the occasional opportunities to make a play, Drew was frequently let down by his receivers, who played an uncharacteristically ragged game. Attention here is specifically drawn to Cook, whose fumble led to another Tampa Bay touchdown and whose failure to catch – or at least knock down – Brees’ final pass led to the final interception. But Jared wasn’t the only one who has had better games.

With 1:04 left in the third quarter, Sanders found himself inside of Dean on a crossing pattern. But instead of continuing across and maintaining his separation, Emmanuel turned his route up-field, allowing Jamel to get underneath him and deflect the pass.

With 4:07 left in the first half, New Orleans set up a nice little screen pass. Seeing linebacker Shaquil Barrett lined up to blitz off the offensive right side, Brees called tight end Josh Hill over from the other side of the formation to set him directly in front of Barrett – presumably to block him. Hill failed, as Barrett blew easily past him – only to find that he had been had, as Brees tossed the ball over Barrett’s head to Hill, who had a couple of blockers in front of him.

New Orleans had caught the Bucs in another zone defense, and tight end Adam Trautman’s vertical route to that side had pulled both the corner and the safety deep and securely out of the play. The only defender on that sideline who could have prevented this from being about a 15-yard gain was underneath corner Murphy-Bunting.

But Hill ran away from his blocking. Instead of tucking in behind them, he veered out to the sideline, the only place he could go where Sean could make a play on him. Tackle Ryan Ramczyk made a valiant effort to get over there quick enough to lay a block on Murphy-Bunting, but all the attempt earned him was a close up view of Sean dropping Hill for a three-yard loss. So went the day.

And Then, There Was Thomas

Of all of the bizarre transpirings of this very strange day, none was more bizarre than Michael Thomas’ no-catch game. I began this post with the details of one catch that got away. There was a potentially game-changing one much earlier in the contest.

After Tampa Bay went three-and-out on their first possession, Deonte Harris set New Orleans up on the Bucco 21-yard line with an electric 54-yard punt return (did I mention what an important loss Harris was to this team?) Five plays later, the Saints faced a third-and-goal from the five. Here Tampa Bay sent six rushers, leaving Davis on Thomas – split wide right with no safety help. After taking him straight up-field for a couple of yards, Thomas broke toward the sideline and Brees threw him the ball.

But Michael didn’t go all the way to the sideline. He stayed about two steps to the inside. If Brees had thrown the ball just over Davis’ head where he was standing next to Thomas, Michael could have out-leapt him for the touchdown. If Thomas had actually gone to the sideline, he would have been in perfect position to pull the ball in and tap his toes along the sideline for the touchdown.

But after years of uncanny chemistry between them, on this day Brees and Thomas were on different pages. Michael still caught the ball, but having to lunge to do it, he had no chance to keep in bounds while making the catch. This is, in fact, the strangest factoid of the game in my mind. Thrown to five times, Thomas had his hands on the ball almost every single time. The only one he didn’t have both his hands on was the Murphy-Bunting interception we looked at earlier.

None of them would have been necessarily easy catches, as every ball thrown to him was heavily contested. But these are the catches that we’ve seen him make almost routinely throughout his career. So much so, that it’s the kind of thing we take for granted. But now, Brees misses a few weeks, Thomas is out of the line-up for a while to heal his ankle – perhaps doesn’t go through all of the reps in practice that he otherwise might, and all of a sudden things that before were all but automatic are just off enough.

And when that happens to you in the playoffs, you almost always end up watching the rest of the games on television.

As For the Bucs

Yesterday, in writing about Green Bay, I suggested that the Packers hadn’t been really tested and that I wasn’t entirely sure who they are. In a lot of ways, I feel the same thing about Tampa Bay. Until Sunday, the only other team with a winning record that this Buccaneer team had a victory over was, ironically, the Green Bay Packers – the conference’s top seed and their opponent tomorrow. On the heels of a regular season that saw them finish 1-3 against winning teams, 1-1 against teams that finished at .500, and 9-1 against losing teams, Tampa Bay has qualified for the Championship Game after nearly losing to a 7-9 Washington team that was starting a third-string quarterback, and, now beating a New Orleans team whose quarterback was probably not healthy enough to be on the field.

What to make of this team?

After watching them all year – and I may well have written more about Tampa Bay than any other team this year – here are the things that I believe ( and don’t believe) about this team.

First, their pass protection has gotten much better. In back-to-back playoff games, they have faced two of the better pass rushes (in Washington and New Orleans) and have kept their quarterback almost untouched. They have committed more people to pass protection from time to time. Rob Gronkowski has one catch in two post-season games because he has been asked to do more pass blocking than usual.

This may cost the Bucs a few receivers out on the route, but the benefit to the passing game has been measurable. I maintain that about 75% of this team’s early offensive struggles stemmed from the fact that Tom Brady was getting driven to the ground about a dozen times a game. Having cleaned that up, most everything else has fallen into place.

Second, I believe that coach Bruce Arians has made peace with the running game. During the regular season, Tampa Bay ran the ball fewer times than any other winning football team. As recently as Week 15 they ran only 18 times against Atlanta. In their four games since then – the last two in the playoffs – Tampa Bay has run the ball 26, 22, 29 and 35 times. I actually think Coach Arians has grown fond of seeing the ball in Leonard Fournette’s hands. This also has benefited the offense. A healthy and productive running game keeps defenses in base personnel and out of exotic schemes.

In fact, one of the principle ways this is “not the same team” is that the offense has started to do many of the things that Brady’s New England offenses did – running the football and throwing the ball underneath. Against the Saints, in addition to the 35 running plays, Brady threw 18 of his 33 passes less than 10 yards from scrimmage. He completed 13 of them for 110 yards and both of his touchdowns. He was only 5 of 15 for 89 yards on throws of ten yards or more.

Which brings me to my third belief. I believe that Tampa Bay – for all of its growth in other aspects of play – is still overly dependent on the big play. In their conquest of New Orleans, they put together 3 drives of 10 plays or more. All of those ended up in field goals. Their only touchdowns came on short fields after turnovers. All three of their touchdown drives added together totaled 63 yards – less than two of their three field goal drives.

I believe that if Green Bay can keep Brady and his receivers from striking for the big play, and they don’t turn the ball over to make things easy for them, that the Buccaneers will struggle to sustain offense and put points on the board.

One thing I don’t believe is that their defense – picked on by the better passing attacks all year – is miraculously fixed. Their zone defenses are still a bit of a mess, with someone almost always wandering away from their coverage responsibility for some reason or another, and I still believe that their pass rush is a hit-and-miss affair unless they bring the blitz. I expect that Tampa Bay will approach Green Bay with the same basic approach that they played against New Orleans – not because there is a strategic advantage to blitzing and playing man defense, but because if they do anything else, Aaron Rodgers will skin them alive.

This time, though, they won’t be facing a wounded quarterback whose effective range is about 15 yards. In Rodgers, they will be up against a guy who – with a flick of his wrist – can send precisely guided football missiles forty-plus yards downfield. Aaron, by the way, has seen a blitz or two in his time and won’t necessarily be undone by them.

Man coverage is what Tampa Bay does – and, yes, they do it very well. Whether they can do it well enough to keep the Packers at bay for a full 60 minutes is the question that will largely determine which of these teams will play in the season’s final game.

Come playoff time, Green Bay is an uncomfortable road game – especially if you are a warm weather team from, say, Florida. Sprinkle moderately with snow, and the Buccaneers level of discomfort rises accordingly.

I don’t honestly know how good Green Bay is, but I strongly suspect that they are better rounded than Tampa Bay. Tomorrow, we’ll find out.

What Happens When He’s Not There? (LA Rams Edition)

Were I to have told you before the Divisional Round games were played that one team would rush for 188 yards that weekend, I suspect it would have probably taken you at least three (and possibly four) guesses to name that team.

You first guess would almost certainly be the Baltimore Ravens.  Their season average, after all, was 191.9 yards.  They didn’t quite come to that level, topping out at 150 yards in their loss to Buffalo.  The next guess would have probably been Cleveland – the number 3 running team in football running against a suspect KC run defense.  The Browns certainly might have gotten there if they hadn’t ignored their running game through the first 30 minutes.  Even so, Cleveland managed 112.

Failing the first two guesses, you might still have thought of the Rams next.  They ran for 164 yards in their win over Seattle the previous week, and, with their quarterback about two weeks removed from surgery on his throwing thumb – and with the Rams playing without their leading receiver – you would think that Los Angeles would be a strong candidate for a run-centric game.  But the Rams would fall well short as well – they finished with 96.

So, who could it be?  Buffalo and Tampa Bay don’t run the ball.  Kansas City sometimes does, but with Patrick Mahomes working against that suspect Cleveland pass defense, why would they?  New Orleans has a strong running attack, but they were also going up against the top run defense in the league, so 188 rushing yards would be a lot to ask.

That would leave only the Green Bay Packers, but they were also lining up against a top run defense (the Rams ranked third against the run, allowing but 91.3 rushing yards a game).

Nonetheless, when the two minute warning hit, there were the Green Bay Packers with 192 rushing yards rolled up against that Ram defense.  They gave back four of those yards on three Aaron Rodgers kneel-downs that killed off the last of the clock and left them with 188 rushing yards for the day.  The Green Bay Packers were your rushing leaders for Divisional Round Weekend.

In the hoopla surrounding Rodgers and Davante Adams, people often forget that the Packers are about as balanced an offense as there is in the NFL.  Along with their ninth-ranked passing game (ranking by yards), Green Bay can deploy an eighth-ranked running game.  During the season, in fact, they had six different games where they ran for more than 140 yards, surpassing 200 rushing yards twice.  From Weeks 12 through 16, Green Bay averaged 176 rushing yards a game at a clip of 5.5 yards per carry.

By season’s end, primary ball-carrier Aaron Jones finished with 1104 yards (the fourth most in football) and a 5.5 yard average (the fifth best average in the game).

So, yes, the Green Bay Packers.  Last year’s club finished fifteenth in the league in rushing – and, not coincidentally, fifteenth in scoring – and subsequently lost to San Francisco in the Conference Championship Game – a game they were out-rushed in by a 285-62 margin.  In 2019 Rodgers’ numbers were very good (he threw for 26 touchdowns and had a 95.4 passer rating), but he was also sacked 36 times.

This year, the elevation of the running game has raised the level of the entire offense.  With 509 points scored, Green Bay led all of the NFL.  Rodgers’ numbers in the passing game also soared – he threw 48 touchdowns this year with a 121.5 passer rating – both of those league leading numbers (two of an easy half-dozen categories that Rodgers led the league in).  He was also sacked just 20 times.  In what is increasingly a pass-happy league, a good dose of balance can make all the difference.

The difference has come as a result of just a few changes.

Commitment

First of all, the 2020 edition is characterized by a stronger commitment to balance and a renewed interest in the running game.  Seeing first-hand how devastating a dominant running game can be, the Packers have upped their focus.

Last year’s team ran the ball 25.7 times a game.  This year that number is marginally up to 27.7 rushes a game.  But even as they are running slightly more, they are spreading the carries around, keeping their backs fresher.  Jones carried the ball 236 times in 2019.  He handled just 201 carries this year.  Jamaal Williams’ workload has picked up, from 107 rushes last year to 119 in 2020, and rookie AJ Dillon has been added to the mix – he carried the ball 46 times (averaging 5.3 yards a carry).

The run commitment here hasn’t just been about running more.  It’s been about running better.

The Emergence of Jenkins

In 2019, left guard Elgton Jenkins was just a rookie.  He was an impressive rookie (being named to the NFL all-rookie team), but he was just a rookie offensive lineman.  Now a “seasoned veteran” in his second year, Jenkins is beginning to impact games at a high level.

Saturday against the Rams, when All-World defensive lineman Aaron Donald lined up to his side, Jenkins handled him one-on-one – and dominated the matchup.  The ceiling is very high for this young man.

The Emergence of Patrick

Over the offseason, right tackle Bryan Bulaga took his nine years and 111 career starts to the Chargers.  Green Bay’s adjustment was to slide guard Billy Turner over to Bulaga’s tackle spot, and to promote fourth-year player Lucas Patrick to the right guard spot.  At that point, Patrick had started 6 games over the previous three years.

Unknown though he might be, Lucas has brought an energy to that line, and has improved as the season has gone on.  He was notably impressive against the Rams.

On an eight-yard run by Williams in the first quarter, Patrick just muscled Sebastian Joseph-Day off the line and shoved him 6 yards up field.  Toward the end of the first half, on an eight-yard run by Jones, it was Patrick overpowering Donald – pushing him to the far side of the formation.

The entire Green Bay offensive line performed spectacularly on Saturday afternoon.  None were more eye-opening than Lucas Patrick.

Not Himself At All

Taking nothing at all away from the Packer offensive line, but I can’t sit here and write about these guys pushing Aaron Donald all over the field without expressing a fact that was obvious to everyone who watched the game.  This was not the Aaron Donald that we’re used to seeing.  I don’t believe the extent of his rib injury was ever completely disclosed, but there is no question that Aaron was a shadow of his usual self out there.  Without any special attention at all, Green Bay made one of this generation’s most impactful defensive players mostly disappear – and that just does not happen if Aaron is at even 75% effectiveness.

The strongest hint of the severity of Donald’s injury is found in the snap count chart.  Aaron was on the sidelines for 47% of Green Bay’s offensive plays.  During the regular season, he missed only 15% of the opponent’s offensive plays.

I think it’s hard to over-estimate the impact of this loss.

What Happens When He’s Not There?

Look, football is a tough man’s game, and people get hurt.  Winning teams cobble together enough quality depth to be able to survive if a starter goes down – even if that starter is a star.  On Sunday, Kansas City milked enough plays out of Chad Henne to help them beat Cleveland even after they lost Patrick Mahomes.  The Packers themselves are heading to the Championship Game without David Bakhtiari – one of football’s elite offensive linemen.  Ricky Wagner has plugged into his spot, and is giving Green Bay enough to keep going.  On Saturday against the Rams, he looked a lot like Bakhtiari.

But some losses boarder on the irreplaceable.  When you have a unique talent, it’s almost second nature to construct your scheme (offensive or defensive) around that talent.

I wrote about this after Arizona quarterback Kyler Murray went down in a playoff-deciding game against the Rams.  The Cardinal’s entire offensive scheme is intertwined with Murray’s unique dual-threat skills.  When he was knocked out of the game, Arizona’s offense crumbled.  We’ve seen the same thing happen in Baltimore when they’ve had to play without Lamar Jackson.  Even players who have “similar” abilities can’t revive an offense that draws its life from the singular talent that sits at its heart.

Aaron Donald is that kind of talent for the Ram defense.  When you have an Aaron Donald leading your defensive line, you can take all kinds of liberties with the layers of defense behind him.

On Green Bay’s very first possession, ball at their own 42, facing a first and ten, the Packers came out with two receivers split out to the left, and two running backs (Jones and Dillon) in the backfield with Rodgers.  When Jones went in motion to flank out left – making the left side the three-receiver side – middle linebacker Troy Reeder followed him out to the perimeter – presumably in man coverage.

With two other defensive backs aligned over the other receivers, and a safety sitting deep to that side, the Rams had a four defenders-to-three receivers advantage on that side.  But there were now no linebackers in the middle of the field.  The Rams had three linebackers on the field, but two were on the edges in pass rush mode, and Reeder was outside the numbers in coverage.  From tackle-to-tackle, the closest defender was safety Nick Scott, about ten yards up the field.

This is a liberty you can take when you have Aaron Donald in the middle of your line.  Suppose the Packers try to run?  Fine.  Donald will push the guard into the backfield and drop the runner for a 2-yard loss.

But what happens when Donald isn’t there?  Or, as in this case, when he’s physically there, but not able to be Aaron Donald.  What then?

In this instance, center Corey Linsley turned nose-tackle Joseph-Day out to the right, Jenkins stopped Donald in his tracks, and Dillon popped the middle for nine yards.  This exact scenario worked out multiple times during the game – Reeder confidently abandoning the middle of the field to cover a receiver motioning to the three-receiver side – almost always with the ensuing run popping for six to nine yards.  This was even the setting – with one small adjustment – that opened up the game’s longest run.

First play from scrimmage in the second half.  Adams goes in motion to the left, and Reeder follows him out of the middle – even though this time Donald is on the sideline.  This time safety John Johnson is the only defender in the middle of the field – nine yards back.  Jenkins this time blocks Morgan Fox, with Linsley again down-blocking on Joseph-Day.  This time, though, he doesn’t stay with Sebastian.  This time he passes him off to Patrick and leads through the hole to take out Johnson.

Now it looked like practice, with Aaron Jones running through a completely vacant middle of the field.  Safety Jordan Fuller eventually caught up with him and escorted him out of bounds, but not until Aaron had covered 60 yards – putting the ball on the LA 15.  Five plays later, Aaron scored from the one, and the Packer lead (after a failed two-point conversion) was 25-10.

I believe that this was the last time in the contest that the Rams did this, but even while playing more conventional defenses, LA still struggled to stop the run.  When you have a guy like Donald absorbing two and sometimes three blockers, you have the luxury of running smaller linebackers behind them.  But without the protection that Aaron afforded them, Reeder and Kenny Young – the other undersized linebacker who usually found himself in the middle – were continually subjected to the not-so-gentle attentions of that Packer offensive line. 

Beyond his physical presence, the lack of Donald’s emotional energy seemed to drain the rest of the Ram defense.  Even the other members of an top defensive line – guys like Leonard Floyd and Morgan Fox (who I praised in the thread linked to above) were just punching bags for the Packer line – and the running backs.  Green Bay running backs averaged 2.97 yards AFTER contact (the NFL average was 1.91) and the Rams missed 8 tackles (according to the summary).

The final score of 32-18 (gamebook) (summary) doesn’t do justice to the Rams’ defensive struggles.

Constructing an entire philosophy – whether offensive or defensive – around a singular talent comes with uncommon advantages.  Until, of course, they’re not there.

What to Make of the Packers

For the entire season, I’ve been waiting to get a clear read on who this Green Bay team is – and for the entire season, that clarity has eluded me.  They have great statistics, and are about to host the Championship Game after securing their conference’s top seed.  And yet, I can’t shake the feeling that their path to this position was cushioned.  They were the only team in their division to finish above .500, and, during their 13-3 regular season only played 4 winning teams – going 2-2 in those games.

They lost in overtime to a good, but not great, Indianapolis team, and had their lunches handed to them in their previous matchup with the Buccaneers – their opponent this Sunday.  Even their two victories against winning opponents come with caveats.  They beat a very good New Orleans team – but that was in Week Three while the Saints defense was still figuring itself out.  They also beat a dangerous Tennessee team – but that was Week 16 after their defense had already collapsed (not to mention the fact that the Titans were clearly thrown by playing in the snow).

Now they have a playoff win against a defensively compromised team that was also missing its top wide receiver on offense.

I still don’t feel that this team has been truly challenged – certainly an unusual observation to make about a team about to host its conference’s Championship Game.  Since I also have some lingering questions about Tampa Bay, it should make for an interesting matchup.

Running Teams BeGone

The longer the Raven defense held Buffalo close, the more imminent their victory seemed. 

Throughout the first half, Baltimore’s top-ranked running attack seemed one fingernail away from cracking the big run that would break the game open.  They finished the half with 77 rushing yards, averaging 4.3 per running attempt.  But no touchdowns, as the first half ended in a 3-3 tie.

Now, in the second half, Baltimore seemed poised to break through.  Beginning at their own 25-yard line, Baltimore would drive to the Buffalo 9-yard line in 14 grinding plays – 7 runs (for 31 yards) and 7 passes (5 of 6 completed for 39 yards and a 4-yard sack).

Now there were only 58 seconds left in the quarter.  Baltimore, facing third-and-goal, was one play away from tying this game up.  Quarterback Lamar Jackson followed tight end Mark Andrews with his eyes as Mark settled into a void in Buffalo’s zone defense about three-yards deep into the end zone.  Jackson’s subsequent throw would result in his only touchdown pass of the game.

Unfortunately for him, it wouldn’t be to Andrews – or any other Raven player.

Running Teams Begone

The Divisional Round in the AFC found two of football’s top three running games still in the hunt for the title.  The Ravens – playing in Buffalo on Saturday night – had averaged an astonishing 191.9 rushing yards a game through the regular season.  Their 555 rushing attempts, and their 5.5 yards per rush were also easily the best marks in football.  Their 24 rushing touchdowns ranked third.

Sunday would see the defending champs in Kansas City host the surprising Cleveland Browns.  Now 12-5 after holding off Pittsburgh in the WildCard Round, Cleveland carried the third most potent running attack – averaging 148.4 yards per game.  They ranked fourth in attempts (495) and fifth in both yards per rush (4.8) and rushing touchdowns (21).  Both played their final games of the season over the weekend, with both teams scoring fewer than 20 points.  Baltimore fell to Buffalo, 17-3 (gamebook) (summary), while the Chiefs took down the Browns 22-17 (gamebook) (summary).  Each journey to that result, though, was quite different.

Ravens Done In By an Old Weakness

As I speculated about this game last week, I pointed out that Baltimore wasn’t a long drive team.  They were a big-play running team, every bit as dependent on the big play as Tampa Bay.  Against Buffalo, Baltimore racked up 150 rushing yards – but none of their individual runs struck for more than 19 yards.

As this team still struggles to throw the ball with much effectiveness against the better teams, the more Buffalo forced them to put drives together, the more opportunity it presented for them to take advantage of the inefficiencies in the Baltimore passing attack – an incompletion, a holding penalty, a sack – an interception.

In the pivotal moment of this game, it was that interception that told the tale.

Aware that Jackson had locked onto Andrews, cornerback Taron Johnson dropped his zone a little deeper and edged toward the middle.  His interception and subsequent 101-yard return broke the Ravens’ back, sending them home for the offseason, and sending the Bills into Kansas City with a trip to the Super Bowl on the line.

Lamar’s final passing line of 14 for 24 for 162 yards and the interception pans out to a 61.5 passer rating.  The rating system isn’t perfect, but that number fairly accurately describes Lamar’s afternoon.  Jackson also found himself sacked three times, as Buffalo decided to pressure him.  As opposed to Tennessee in the WildCard round – who sent extra rushers after Jackson just 4 times in the game – Buffalo blitzed him 13 times (a full 43.3% of his drop-backs).

This is still an effective approach as it forces Jackson to recognize protections and hot routes and forces him to speed up his process.  Last Saturday, it was one final lapse in the passing that ended Baltimore’s season.

Valiant in Defeat

The loss is all the more bitter in light of another marvelous performance by Wink Martindale’s defense.  One week after muffling Derrick Henry and Tennessee’s running attack (the Titans were second in the NFL, by the way, at 168.1 rushing yards per game), the Raven defense – with a bit of an assist from the gusting winds – mostly dismantled Josh Allen and his third-ranked passing game.

Josh threw only one touchdown pass of his own, was limited to 206 yards and an 86.1 rating.  During the season, Allen ranked fourth in passer rating at 107.2.  He averaged just 8.96 yards per completion Saturday night, as Baltimore mostly inhaled his deep passing game.  Josh completed just 1 of his 6 passes of more than 20 yards.

Football’s finest receiver (as far as yards and catches go) was still unstoppable.  Stefon Diggs finished with 106 yards on 8 catches.  But Baltimore shut out two of Buffalo’s more important secondary receivers.  Cole Beasley and Gabriel Davis had no catches on a combined 6 targets – Davis drawing especially close coverage.  On the average throw in his direction, Gabriel had a defender 0.8 yards away.

The second-ranked offense by yards, Buffalo managed just 220 yards against Baltimore, scoring just ten points on offense (remember, the other 7 came courtesy of the Bills’ defense).  It was a superior performance, more than worthy of sending the Ravens into the Conference Championship Game.

That will have to be comfort enough for Raven fans between now and next September.

Not the Same Old Browns, But Still . . .

The story in Arrowhead was quite different.  Armed with a potent running attack against a team that has shown some weakness in stopping the run, Cleveland decided not to deploy it.  Straggling into the locker room at the half, the Browns had run the ball just 6 times for 18 yards.  Not coincidentally, Kansas City (which had run the ball 12 times for 60 yards) held a 17:43-12:17 time of possession advantage and a 19-3 lead.  Former Chief Kareem Hunt, who had rushed for 841 yards and caught 38 passes for Cleveland this year, had no touches in the half.

The Browns forged their way back into the contest in the second half, on the strength mostly, of that running game.

Neglected for thirty minutes, Cleveland punched through the KC defense to the tune of 94 second-half rushing yards at a clip of 5.9 yards per carry.  Had they started the game that way, the story might have been different.  As it was, Cleveland began the second half in catch-up mode, and the passing game wasn’t up to the challenge.

Against the 94 rushing yards, Baker Mayfield threw for only 70 yards in the second half – averaging just 3.5 yards per attempted pass and 5.83 yards per completed pass – some of that influenced by a KC game-plan that blitzed Baker on 52.6% of his drop-backs.

As Cleveland’s season ends, and as KC prepares to meet Buffalo, it’s fair to remember how far the Browns have come this year.  Just 6-10 last year, Cleveland is only three years removed from the team that was 0-16 in 2017.  Whether or not they have actually turned a corner is a question that will have to wait for next year.  They still lost both games to Baltimore this year, and the first game to Pittsburgh.  That they beat the Steelers in the season’s final game is more attributable to Pittsburgh resting its starters.  Their conquest of the Steelers in the WildCard round still feels more like a Pittsburgh meltdown than anything that Cleveland did – remember, that game began with the snap sailing over Ben Roethlisberger’s head and things went south from there.

Still, this Cleveland team nearly came all the way back against Kansas City after trailing by 16 points.  But for a heart-breaking fumble through the end zone that eliminated a golden first half scoring opportunity, Cleveland might well be preparing for Buffalo.  This Cleveland franchise will be one to keep an eye on next year.

Of Huntley and Henne

Adding to the intrigue of the Divisional Round games – and possibly to the Championship Game – both Baltimore and Kansas City finished the game (and not by choice) with their backup quarterbacks on the field as both of the league’s last two MVP quarterbacks went out of the game with concussions.

In Buffalo, on the drive that followed the pick six, Jackson had a second-down snap sail over his head.  Lamar chased it down and managed to heave it out of bounds before he was tumbled by Tremaine Edmunds and Trent Murphy.  He landed on his back in the end zone – bouncing his head off the turf.  It was his last play of the season.

Into the breach came Tyler Huntley – a rookie out of Utah who had thrown 5 passes during the regular season.  Tyler was Baltimore’s third back-up quarterback of the year after various difficulties befell Robert Griffin III and Trace McSorley

Tyler wasn’t terrible.  He completed 6 of 13 for 60 yards and ran for another 32.  On Baltimore’s last possession of the season, Tyler drove the team to the Buffalo ten-yard line, where his fourth-down-pass was deflected away by Edmunds.

Honestly, at that point, the absence of Jackson wasn’t much of an issue.  Lamar has never brought a team back from a 14-point deficit, and it’s most unlikely that this would have been the night.  In this game, Jackson’s absence was mostly a footnote.  That wasn’t the case in Kansas City.

Henne-thing’s Possible

About half-way through the third quarter, KC quarterback Patrick Mahomes tried to skirt right end to convert a third-and-one.  He couldn’t get around Mack Wilson, and then struggled to get up after the hit.

And suddenly, the season rested on the shoulders of back-up Chad Henne.

From the hoopla that surrounded the event, one would think that no back-up quarterback in NFL history had ever made a play in a game.  In truth, Chad’s situation wasn’t nearly as dire as the 35-3 deficit that Frank Reich inherited against Houston all those years ago.  Still, there were plays that needed to be made, and Chad made them.

He entered a 19-10 game (KC in front), facing a fourth-and-one.  He would finish this drive and have two more of his own in the fourth quarter.  In this drive, he was on his 48-yard line, still needing quite a few yards to get into field goal range.  This is a drive I will get back to.

On his subsequent possession, Chad threw an interception into the end zone to open the door a crack.  The Chief defense quieted the uprising, forcing a punt that gave the ball back to Henne with 4:09 left in someone’s season – Kansas City clinging to a 22-17 lead.

Here, Chad’s job was to run out the clock.  More than anything else, KC didn’t want to give the ball back to the Browns.  It was during this drive that the legend of Chad Henne was born.

On third-and-four with 3:21 left, Chad completed a five-yard pass to Darrel Williams (whose contributions to this game would equal those of Henne).  Then, on the final play before the two-minute warning, Chad suffered a sack at the hands of Myles Garrett.

Now, it was third-and-fourteen with KC still pretty deep in their own territory (their own 35).  Without a huge play here, Cleveland would be getting the ball back with around a minute left to do something with.  With his receivers covered and the pocket collapsing, Chad Henne pulled the ball down and darted up the left sideline.  As he approached the first-down marker – and with M.J. Stewart closing in – Chad hurled himself, head-first, toward that precious first-down line.

As he slid across that line, the KC sideline (and the fans in the stadium) erupted.  The moment was so galvanizing that it didn’t even matter that the officials marked the ball just short – bringing up fourth-and-inches.  At that point, it only served to add one more memory for Chad – a five-yard, fourth-down completion to Tyreek Hill in the right flat that put a bow on things.

That Final Field Goal

The Chad Henne moment was – without a doubt – the most romantic moment of this round.  He could be even more important in the Championship Game, depending on how things develop with Mahomes – who is in concussion protocol.

But, I keep coming back to that moment when Chad first came into the game – with a fairly critical first down to get.

Talking to the press after the game, coach Andy Reid made a point of the fact that the loss of Mahomes didn’t weaken the knees of his football team at all.  That was evidenced on the fourth-and-one play, when Williams burst around left end for 12 yards to earn the first down with authority.  He shot around the right end for 16 more on the next play (dragging Browns as he went), to pull the ball down to the Cleveland 24.

Four plays later, Harrison Butker kicked the 33-yard field goal that gave them an important buffer.

Williams – who finished with 78 rushing yards and 16 more on pass receptions – spent much of the season – like Henne – deep on the depth chart.  His opportunity in this game came because of the injury to number-one back Clyde Edwards-Helaire.  During the season, he had only 39 carries.

Sung and Unsung

Kansas City has now won 23 of Patrick Mahomes’ last 24 starts.  So much of the attention during this run has gone to the marquee names – Mahomes, Tyreek Hill, Travis Kelce, Chris Jones, etc.  And justifiably so.  These are franchise talents that have combined to vault this team into the elite circles of the NFL.

But just as critical are the contributions of many other players you don’t hear much about.  Demarcus Robinson, Daniel Sorensen, Tanoh Kpassagnon – and now Darrel Williams and Chad Henne.  These guys aren’t the most awe-inspiring talents to dot an NFL roster.  But what they are is play-makers.  I don’t think it’s unfair to say that Kansas City’s roster is deeper in guts than it is in raw talent, but the fact is that the deeper you grind into the playoffs the more important the guts of a team becomes.

There are now four teams left in the tournament.  With most of them, I’m not at all sure how they will respond to the critical moments that will decide these last three games.  But I know how Kansas City will respond.  Someone on this roster will make a play.  It might be a small play to keep a drive going, or pulling a receiver down a yard short of the first-down marker.  It might be a play that the media won’t remember after the game.

But when the money is on the table, you can be sure that someone on this roster – starter or reserve – will make a play.  Buffalo’s challenge is actually greater than It appears on paper.

But, if Patrick can’t go . . .

The NFL Profiles as a Touchdown Pass League

Four teams are left standing – in many ways, very disparate in their approaches to winning.  It’s an interesting blend of strengths and weaknesses that will make, no doubt, for a lively finish.

These four teams do, though, have one commonality that binds them together.  Their quarterbacks get the ball into the end zone.

Looking at the last four quarterbacks standing, we have Aaron Rodgers In Green Bay.  His 48 touchdown passes led the league.  He will be matched this weekend against Tampa Bay’s Tom Brady, who’s 40 touchdown passes ranked him second (tied with Seattle’s Russell Wilson).  The AFC Championship Game will pit Number 4 (KC’s Pat Mahomes – assuming he’s available) against Number 5 (Josh Allen of Buffalo).  Mahomes threw 38 in the regular season, and Allen tossed 37.

Whatever else you do in the NFL – whether you run and stop the run, throw high-percentage, low interception passes, or spend your games dialing up shot plays – the indispensable accessory your team must have if it’s going to make a deep playoff run is that quarterback who gets you into the end zone.

It’s the NFL’s gold standard in the early years of the new decade.

What Baltimore’s Learned About Derrick Henry

No one blocked Pernell McPhee.  I think that no one thought that they needed to.

There was 8:26 left in a scoreless first quarter between the Baltimore Ravens and the Tennessee Titans.  It was the first Sunday game of Super WildCard Weekend.  The Titans, with a first-and-ten on the Raven 22, handed the ball off to battering ram running back Derrick Henry (who, as I’m sure you’re aware, rolled up 2027 rushing yards this year).

There’s a thing that almost always happens when the ball is placed into Henry’s hands.  The entire defense converges on the Titans’ titan-sized back (who is still charitably listed as the 247 pounds he weighed when he came out of college).  “Rally to the ball,” is the common theme that you hear when defenses talk about stopping Derrick Henry.  Apparently it takes a village.  (This actually turns out to be true, but not quite in the way that most teams practice it.)

So now, here was quarterback Ryan Tannehill handing the ball to Henry, and here was McPhee standing just off right tackle, not rallying to the ball.  Not doing anything, really.  He was just waiting.

The middle of the defensive line is one of the great strengths of this Baltimore team.  Moving guys like Calais Campbell, Derek Wolfe and/or Brandon Williams very far off the line is rare occurrence.

In this instance, it was Nate Davis – one of the really good guards in the NFL – trying to wedge Wolfe off his spot.  Not only did he not succeed, but Wolfe even started pushing him backward into the on-rushing Henry.  Seeing that nothing was developing in front of him, Derrick bounced the play outside to his right – right into the waiting arms of McPhee – who had done an uncommon thing (at least as far as Tennessee opponents are concerned).  He held his contain.

Several weeks ago, I made a point of highlighting Henry’s ability to rapidly cut into the void of a defense.  Those voids exist because most teams don’t have the discipline to stay in their contain when Derrick has the ball.  At that point, they are all about rallying to the ball.  But not the Ravens last Sunday afternoon.

In a display that must surely have caught the attention of the other defensive coordinators in the league, the Baltimore front seven played gap control defense.  As a team, they just never over-reacted to the ball in Henry’s hands.

Tennessee holding a 10-3 lead with 9:59 left in the first half.  The Titans are first-and-ten on their own 25.  Tennessee lines two tight ends to the end of the line on the left, executing a “stretch run” to that side, with Henry the ball carrier.  Linebacker Tyus Bowser gave some ground to the double-team block of those tight ends (Geoff Swaim and Jonnu Smith) but didn’t yield the edge.  On the interior, left tackle David Quessenberry and left guard Rodger Saffold were equally incapable of pushing through Wolfe and Williams, respectively.  Rookie linebacker Patrick Queen met the attempted block of center Ben Jones without budging, and another impressive rookie – Justin Madubuike, who we will talk a little more about later – had full control of Davis.

As Henry looked up, there wasn’t the slightest sliver of daylight for him to exploit at the point of attack – and there was McPhee holding contain on the cutback.

One quarter later, Baltimore now ahead 17-10 with 8:55 left in the third. Henry again looking for any crack in the Raven line.  Tight end MyCole Pruitt had the task of pushing McPhee off the edge.  Didn’t happen.  Saffold was equally unable to remove Madubuike.  Williams occupied both Jones and Davis, leaving Queen a completely clean gap – with Campbell holding his contain waiting for the cutback attempt.  Again, frustration for Henry.

This is a snapshot of what the whole game was like for Derrick, who finished with a season-low 40 rushing yards on 18 carries (for a season-low 2.2 yards per rush).  He had scored 8 touchdowns over his previous 6 games, but there was no end zone for him tonight.

Watching all of this play out, I was left with a couple of impressions – the first about gap defense in general and the second an understanding of how this specifically relates to Henry and the Titans – something, in short, that Baltimore has learned from the last two games against Derrick and Tennessee.

Two Gap Principles

First, gap control only works when your front seven trusts each other.  The reason, after all, that a player abandons his gap is because he believes that some other defender in some other gap isn’t capable of making a play by themselves.  One of the reasons that Baltimore’s defense is so good – and this is an elite defense – is because they all trust each other to make their plays.  Gap control is the ultimate “do your job” defensive approach.

It’s understandable that gap control could waver a bit when Derrick Henry is on the other side.  Who, after all, is capable of tackling King Henry one-on-one.  And yet, the Ravens did all night.  Here’s the thing that they understand.

Derrick Henry is a momentum runner.  In that sense, he’s different than, say, Baltimore’s J.K. Dobbins, who is at top speed the instant the ball is put into his hands.  At more than 250 pounds, Derrick needs a few steps to build up some momentum.  Once that happens, your defense is in deep trouble, but this almost always obliges the offensive line to at least get him past the line of scrimmage.  Up until that point, frankly, Henry is no harder to bring down than most other backs.

Usually this isn’t a problem, as Derrick runs behind one of football’s better run-blocking lines.  But on Sunday afternoon all of those good run blockers had their lunches handed to them.  Derrick averaged only 1.3 yards from scrimmage before being contacted (his season average of 2.5 yards before contact was about average).  Consequently, Derrick gained only 0.9 yards per run after contact (during the season his 2.8 yards after contact were among the league’s best).

Among the most culpable for this difficulty is tight end Swaim.  Usually trusted to give Derrick the edge, Geoff was pushed around the entire afternoon – never more so than on the three-yard loss that Henry sustained on a first-and-goal play from the Baltimore seven-yard line with 6:25 left in the first.  On that play, linebacker/end Matt Judon shot through Swaim as though he was made of toilet paper and dropped Henry as soon as the ball hit his hands.

Madubuike

Before I move too far away from this, just a bit of recognition for Justin Madubuike.  Justin is a rookie third-round draft choice out of Texas A&M who I hadn’t noticed before.  But every time I looked up on Sunday, there he was making another play.  In particular, for a big guy (and he’s listed at 293) he seems to have the technique down for slipping between double-teams.  He did this twice to make big plays on Sunday.  With 2:30 left in the first, he slipped between Saffold and Quessenberry, forcing Derrick to bounce the run back into traffic.  On that play, Justin was even quick enough to catch him from behind and pull him down.

Later, with 6:07 left in the third quarter (and with Henry on the sideline putting his shoe back on), a back named Darrynton Evans was sent off left tackle.  But Judon was there to deny him the corner – he was pushing Swaim into the backfield.  There was no opening next to him, either, as Quessenberry was having no luck moving Wolfe.  As Evans was starting to turn the run back to the right, Madubuike split the guard and tackle on the other side (Nate Davis and Dennis Kelly) and made the tackle.

Justin, apparently, got his opportunity during the COVID outbreak that the Ravens suffered through earlier this season – and given that chance, he seems to be making the most of it.  In a lot of ways Madubuike fits the mold of many of the great defensive linemen that have played in Baltimore.  He’s big enough to hold the line, but athletic, good with his hands, and difficult to lay a block on.  The Ravens may have a find in Justin.

Can Other Teams Do This Against Derrick?

In theory, other teams might employ this same approach when playing against Henry, but there are a couple of caveats that apply.  First and foremost, your team would need a defensive line capable of repelling that very good offensive line.  Baltimore was good enough to do this (at least for one game).  I’m not sure there are many other teams in the league that could.

There’s another piece to Derrick’s struggles in this game, though, that can’t simply be attributed to outstanding defense.  For some reason, although presented with several opportunities, Derrick Henry never took off down the sideline.  This is a stunning development for those of us who have watched him all year.  Almost all of his signature runs have found him outside of the defense, rolling full-steam down the sideline – usually the right sideline behind blocks from Kelly and Davis.  Some of that was the Ravens closing off cutback lanes.  Even with that, though, Derrick had several chances for the big run, and either didn’t see them, or passed them up for some other reason.

Third quarter, Baltimore ahead 17-10, Titans with 2:50 left in the quarter with a first-and-ten at the Raven 25.  The Titans line up with two tight ends to the left, causing the Baltimore defense to shift in that direction.  Now, the only Raven defender to the right of tackle is cornerback Marcus Peters, who disappeared from the play when the receiver he was covering – Nick Westbrook-Ikhine – ran a vertical up the right side.  Now the entire sideline is vacant.

Linebacker Jihad Ward tries to set the edge, as Henry starts rolling toward that vacant sideline, but Kelly has him under control.  Jihad’s chances of keeping Henry from the sideline are exceedingly poor.  But just before turning the corner, Derrick changes his mind and darts back toward the middle – where he is held to a three-yard gain.

Now there’s 12:11 left in the Tennessee season, first-and-ten on their own 42, trailing 17-13.  Westbrook-Ikhine again runs Peters downfield, opening the sideline.  This time, Judon – on the right edge – is pushing Swain into the backfield, but Henry has the angle and a still mostly clear path to the corner.  For some reason, he decides that he can’t get around Judon, and tries to turn back inside.  This time he actually trips over Swain’s feet and can only make it back to the line of scrimmage.

It’s futile to speculate why Derrick didn’t try – at least once – to get around the edge.  But he didn’t.  Sufffice it to say there were about four or five of these opportunities – enough to change the outcome of the event.

Not Much Without Henry

For the game’s first fifteen minutes, Tennessee looked like they could make short work of the Raven defense, even without much contribution from Henry.  Tennessee controlled the clock for 10:23 of that quarter, running 20 plays and rolling up 126 yards and 10 points.

For the entire rest of the game, Tennessee added just 3 more points, gaining just 83 yards on 31 plays.  Over the last three quarters Baltimore owned the time of possession battle, 29:01 to 15:59.  With their early lead not enough to force Baltimore out of its running attack, the Titan defense was faced with the necessity of defending football’s most dangerous ground attack for the full sixty minutes.  Needless to say, it did not end well for them.  The sometimes unstoppable Ravens sliced and diced their way through Tennessee to the tune of 236 rushing yards, on their way to a 20-13 victory (gamebook) (summary).

Leading the assault was quarterback Lamar Jackson, who piled up 136 of those ground yards.  Lamar piled up another 1005 rushing yards during the season, and his 6.3 yards per attempt led all of football.  Lamar was the centerpiece of a rushing game that averaged 191.9 yards per contest and 5.5 per attempt – both numbers easily the best in the NFL.

It’s hard to imagine that the NFL has ever seen a more dangerous ball-carrier than Jackson.  His ability to change direction almost at the speed of thought, makes tackling Lamar about as easy as tackling a feral cat.

But as natural and instinctive as Jackson is a s a runner, he is still that unnatural and forced as a passer.  Some have made claims that Lamar’s passing has continued to improve substantially.  In all honesty, I don’t see it.  Even in victory, Lamar isn’t truly throwing the ball any better or more consistently than he did in last year’s playoff loss.

Lamar’s Continuing Struggles

Several things continue to leap off the tape when you watch Jackson play.  First and most obvious is his minus arm strength.  The farther downfield you ask him to throw, the more erratic his performance becomes.  The Ravens, of course, understand this about Lamar.  At the same time, they understood that Tennessee was distinctly vulnerable to the downfield passing game.  With no pass rush to speak of, the Titans couldn’t play zone, and neither of their cornerbacks was a match for top receivers Marquise Brown or Miles Boykin.

On this particular afternoon, Baltimore had no difficulty getting receivers behind the Tennessee defense.  Getting the ball to them, though, was a different matter.  Look no farther than Jackson’s first quarter interception.

Boykin lined up in a tight split to the right with cornerback Malcolm Butler playing over him.  Malcolm played over Boykin’s outside shoulder, with the intent to keep him away from the sideline and direct him back toward his help in the middle of the field.  Butler’s outside leverage notwithstanding, Boykin extended his vertical stem until he was on top of Butler – at which point he broke sharply outside and started streaking up the sideline, gaining separation from Malcolm with every step.

Some 38 yards downfield, though, was too far.  Lamar’s throw was not only short but well to the inside.  It actually looked like Butler was the intended receiver.

I’m not really sure that there is anything you can do about arm strength.  If there were some exercises or drills that could add length to your throws, then everyone would be throwing 60-yard lasers like Josh Allen.  At some point, I think you have to accept that his arm is what it is and plan accordingly.

There are other issues, though – mental things – that Baltimore should well expect Lamar to have improved on by now.  These are also issues.

For one thing, Lamar still hasn’t developed that feel for when he can continue to wait on the deep routes to come open, and when he needs to check the ball down.  The Titans finished last in football in quarterback sack percentage.  They recorded only 19 for the season (Pittsburgh’s T.J. Watt recorded 15 all by himself), and only managed to drag the opposing passer to the ground on 2.9% of his drop-backs.

Sunday they took Lamar down 5 times.  In looking at that number, no one need assume that Tennessee suddenly became the Steelers.  On every one of those sacks, Jackson had ample time and opportunity to either check the ball down, throw it away, or pull it down and run with it.  In almost all of those cases, Lamar kept waiting for deep routes to come open until he’d run out of time.

With 4:18 left in the first half, the Ravens, still down 10-3, faced first-and-ten on the Tennessee 49-yard line.  The Titans blitzed rarely throughout the afternoon, but they brought one here, playing a very soft and very deep zone defense behind it.  As Jackson stood in the pocket, both Boykin and Willie Snead broke wide open underneath the coverage – Snead deep enough downfield to get a first down.  But Jackson didn’t throw it.  He was waiting on Hollywood’s deep route.  Down the right sideline, Marquise “Hollywood” Brown was running a deep route that did, eventually split the zone.  But by the time Hollywood broke through, Jackson was on the turf.

Lamar did better (statistically) in the second half – completing 10 of his 13 throws.  But at that point the Ravens had given up on the deep throws and had Jackson dumping the ball off short to the first open receiver he saw.  As often as not, that turned out to be TE/Fullback Patrick Ricard, who the Titans struggling pass defense frequently forgot to cover.  It was a comforting second half, but it doesn’t negate the aspects of throwing the football that are still foreign to Jackson.

One play in particular encapsulates where Lamar is as a passer in season three of the Jackson Experiment.

Still trailing 10-0, the Ravens have the ball on Tennessee’s ten-yard line.  There’s 10:41 left in the first half and Baltimore is faced with a third-and-six.  Running back Dobbins was flanked wide to the left, and Tennessee trotted linebacker David Long out to the perimeter to cover him.  Conscious of Dobbins speed, Long allowed him a substantial cushion.  Next to Dobbins, Dez Bryant was in the slot, with Malcolm Butler directly over him in bump-and-run coverage.  At the snap, Dez headed for the corner of the end zone, bringing Butler with him.  Their path cut off Long’s path to Dobbins, who was running a shallow cross back across the middle.  J.K., at this point, was as wide open as any receiver was all day.  He was a short toss away from Jackson, would have easily picked up the first down, and well might have scored.

Jackson never threw him the ball.  Dobbins, you see, was not his first read.  You can see Lamar’s head turn and follow his first read – Dez Bryant headed for the corner of the end zone – for several seconds.

Dobbins was wide open just below Bryant.  It’s almost inconceivable that Lamar didn’t see him.  But his second read was Andrews over the middle.  So, after watching Dez for a while (too long, really), he turned his attention to Mark.  He even raised his arm to throw him the ball. But by then it was too late.  The pocket collapsed and Lamar pulled the ball back into his body just before Brooks Reed drove him to the ground.

This is where Jackson is as a passer.  After 37 regular season starts and three more in the playoffs, passing is still a paint-by-numbers exercise.  I guarantee you that any of the “passing” quarterbacks in this league, understanding the route combination would realize pre-snap that Long couldn’t possibly cover Dobbins’ route from a five-yard cushion.  Aaron Rodgers, Patrick Mahomes, Josh Allen, Tom Brady, Russell Wilson, Drew Brees – pick your favorite – all these guys would have the ball in J.K.’s hands about a half second after the snap.

This evening, Jackson and his Ravens will travel to frigid (and possibly snowy) Orchard Park, New York, to face a very good Buffalo team.  One team’s playoff journey will continue.  Football is always a wildly unpredictable event.  If anyone claims that they predicted that Cleveland would jump out to a 28-0 lead on Pittsburgh if the first quarter of last week’s game, I would certainly ask to see the proof.

But within our understanding of the liklihoods of this game, the story lines seem crystal clear.

If the Baltimore defense can find a way to slow the Buffalo offense to the point where Lamar can keep running the ball, then the Ravens will probably win.  About the only notable weakness in this Buffalo team is its run defense.  Even in beating Indianapolis last week, they still surrendered 163 rushing yards to the Colts.

Those of you who watched that game might be quick to point out that more than half of those yards (82 to be exact) came on just three plays.  Other than that, the Colt run game was little heard from.  It wasn’t like they pounded the ball down the Bills’ throat all day.

This is true.  But understand that this is who the Ravens are as well.  They are not a grinding, 12-play, nine-minute, three-yards-and-a-cloud-of-dust team.  They are a big play running team – a one-missed-tackle-costs-you-a-48-yard-touchdown kind of team.  In their own way, they are just as dependent on the big play as the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.  And if they are allowed to keep running the ball for the whole sixty minutes, that big run will almost assuredly come to pass (no pun intended).

On the other hand, if Buffalo solves the Baltimore blitz scheme (and a blitz-based pass defense always comes with some element of risk) and puts Baltimore in a position where they have to start throwing the ball, then the Ravens will be in trouble.

And that’s even if it doesn’t snow.

Just Not Meant To Be

I promise you that there is no truth to the rumors that Frank Reich and the Indianapolis Colts are petitioning the Supreme Court to overturn the results of their WildCard playoff game against the Buffalo Bills.  I wouldn’t be a bit surprised, though, to find out that there are many members of that team and organization who are still having a hard time believing that they didn’t win that game.  By a lot.

Significant underdogs entering the contest (the final Vegas line had them as 7 point dogs), the Colts played as near-perfect a first half as humanly imaginable.  Controlling the clock for 19:41 of the half, Indy ran a beautifully balanced attack (19 runs, 19 passes).  They allowed no sacks, committed no turnovers, and held football’s best third-down offense to 0-for-4 on that down.  Now, with two minutes left in the half, holding a 10-7 lead, the Colts sat on Buffalo’s one-yard line facing a third and goal.

To that point in the game, Indy had out first-downed Buffalo 13-5, and outgained them 226-to-108.  The next two minutes would arguably be the most excruciating of the Indianapolis season.

It began with allowing the goal-to-go situation to slip through their fingers.  Jonathan Taylor lost three yards on a pitch to the left.  Now, it was fourth-and-four.  In retrospect, the field goal here would have made all the difference.  But, understanding that kicking field goals would probably not be sufficient to beat a team as explosive as Buffalo – and not knowing how many more chances they might get to put their collective foot on Buffalo’s neck – they went for it – with Philip Rivers’ pass for Michael Pittman falling incomplete.

There was still 1:46 left in the half, and the Colts had all of their time outs – so they had every expectation of getting the ball back with good field position before half-time.  But the nightmare wasn’t over yet.

Instead of going conservative – backed up as they were against their own goal line – Buffalo’s offense came out going deep.  After quarterback Josh Allen missed on a deep pass over the middle on first down, he came back and fired a second deep ball on second down.  Thirty-seven yards downfield, receiver Gabriel Davis caught the ball along the right sideline as he went out of bounds.

Ruled a catch on the field, the play went to a booth review.  Clearly Gabriel dragged the left toe.  The question was the right.  Did it come down on the line?  After a long review, they couldn’t tell for sure, so the play stood.  Honestly, I thought I might have seen the narrowest band of green in between his toe and the line, but it wasn’t at all clear.  Davis was given the catch, and now – with still 1:33 left in the half – Buffalo was almost to mid-field.

And then, two plays later, it all happened again.  The identical situation, with just two minor changes.  The pass was shorter this time (only 19 yards) and it went to the left sideline.  But, again, it was Davis grabbing the pass as he stepped out of bound.  Again, the officials called it a catch.  Again, by the thinnest of margins, there wasn’t enough evidence to overturn.

If either of those calls had been ruled incomplete, they couldn’t have been reversed.  If either of those calls had been reversed, it’s probable that Indy would have won.

Nonetheless, the Buffalo drive continued.  The Bills sat on the Colts’ 33 with still 59 seconds left.

Twenty-two seconds later, it was fourth-and-three.  A stop here would have forced a field goal that still could have won the game for Indy.  But, on a hard count at the line, defensive lineman Kemoko Turay jumped, and Buffalo was gifted a first-down on the Colt 21.

On the very next play, Allen took a shot for John Brown up the right sideline where he was working against a back-up cornerback named Isaiah Rodgers.  Isaiah – going full horizontal in the end zone – intercepted the pass, ending the Buffalo drive and sending the Colts into the locker room at the half with their 10-7 lead still intact.

Except that Isaiah didn’t quite intercept it.  With his hands still trying to settle around the football, Rodgers hit the ground in the end zone.  As he did, the ball bounced ever so briefly off the ground and out of his control.  On review, the interception was overturned.

Two Josh Allen runs later, and Buffalo was in the end zone, taking back the lead that they wouldn’t relinquish again – on their way, now, to the 27-24 victory (gamebook) (summary) that sent Indianapolis home for the offseason and sets the Bills up for a Divisional Round matchup against Baltimore.

For the afternoon, Indianapolis ended all 9 of their possessions in Buffalo territory – ending up with 472 yards of total offense.  But all they had to show for those drives were three touchdowns, 1 field goal, two punts, two failed fourth downs, and one makeable 33-yard field goal attempt that bounced off of both posts before falling, unsuccessfully, to the turf.  Meanwhile, Buffalo’s final points on the night came on a 54-yard field goal off the toe of Tyler Bass.

If any one of those incidents had gone the other way, it might very well be Buffalo waiting until next year.  You get the feeling sometimes that some things are just not meant to be.

Finding Out About the Bills

Like many other fans, I expected this victory to be much easier for Buffalo.  That this game was a down-to-the-wire struggle (and the game ended with Rivers throwing a Hail Mary into the end zone from the Buffalo 47) showed me the things I’ve been waiting to find out about this Buffalo team.  The Bills rode into the playoffs on the strength of a six-game winning streak cobbled together largely against poor teams.  The two winning teams that were a part of that streak (Pittsburgh and Miami) were fading at the time Buffalo played them.  Regardless of the opposition, none of their final six games ended closer than ten points.

What would happen – I wondered – when they ran into that opponent that would force them to fight through the whole sixty minutes.  That opponent was the Colts.  While it was important to see this team answer every challenge handed to them by this very good Indianapolis team, it was more important for me to see how they did that.

The Josh Allen Experience Rolls On

You may have noticed that I don’t jump quickly on the bandwagon of every promising young quarterback who has a good couple of games.  The playoffs are my litmus test.  Can he stand in the pocket and deliver against a top opponent with the season on the line.  Saturday afternoon, Josh checked all of the boxes – and not just with his arm.

Josh Allen – the runner – had been dialed back in recent weeks.  He ran 11 times against the Jets in Week Seven, and then 10 more times the next week against New England.  In the first game after the bye against the Chargers, Josh toted the ball 9 more times.  But over the last five games of the season, his legs became more and more an afterthought.  In their Week 17 win over Miami, Josh ran just twice for 3 yards.

But Josh, the runner, was on full display against the Colts.  He ran 11 times (8 intentionally).  The rest of the team carried the ball just 10 times.  He gained 54 yards on those rushes – with the rest of the team running for just 42 yards.  Not numbers that would necessarily impress Lamar Jackson, but an added element that I think caught the Colts by surprise, and could provide more worries for defensive coordinators down the line.

But mostly Josh threw the ball.  Thirty-five times he hurled it – sometimes under pressure, sometimes not.  He finished with 26 completions for 324 yards and 2 touchdowns.  He was particularly effective in the important second half of the game, when he completed 78.9% of his passes (15 for 19) for 186 yards.  And he delivered the deep ball, looking even better throwing deep in the playoffs than he looked during the season.  He was 10 of 16 for 223 yards and a touchdown on throws more than ten yards from scrimmage (a 127.1 rating), including going 4 for 5 for 129 yards and a touchdown on his throws of more than twenty yards.

Throughout the game, Josh threw the ball like a quarterback who expected to have success – who expected to win.  To those of us whose resident image of the Josh Allen Bills was their melt-down in last year’s playoffs and their loss earlier this season to Arizona, this was an important re-set.

Done In By Their Own Mistakes

For the second consecutive week, the Chicago Bears lost a game that was closer than the score indicated.  Their Week 17 contest against the Packers (that ended up 35-16) was a 21-16 game until less than four minutes remained.  As participants in Super Wildcard Weekend, the Bears went into the half trailing just 7-3 against 11-point favorite New Orleans.  Again, the game got away from them, the Saints eventually claiming a 21-9 victory (gamebook) (summary).

Regardless of the final score, Chicago had its window of opportunity.  While New Orleans finally had all of their major players (Drew Brees, Alvin Kamara and Michael Thomas) healthy and on the same field at the same time, their practice time together had been limited – and it showed throughout the entire first half.  While the offense sputtered through that first thirty minutes, the Saints’ defense also began the game just slightly back on its heels.

For thirty minutes on Sunday afternoon, this was a very vulnerable team.

But, when you are an underdog team playing one of the NFL’s elite teams, there are plays you just have to make.  When the opportunities present themselves, you have to take advantage.  Over a 9:35 span of that first half, the Bears had three opportunities slip through their fingers – golden invitations to re-write the narrative of the game that they and their fans will be lamenting over the long offseason ahead of them.

With 3:58 left in the first quarter, quarterback Mitchell Trubisky rifled a 28-yard pass to receiver Javon Wims.  The Bears were now set up on the New Orleans’ forty.  At this point, with 3:42 left, coach Matt Nagy dialed up the flea flicker.  Mitch shifted out of his quarterback position to line up as the outside receiver on the right side, with running back David Montgomery assuming his position behind center and taking the direct snap.  Montgomery handed the ball to Cordarrelle Patterson, who looked like he was going to run a sweep to the right.  But before he reached the corner, he lateralled the ball back to Trubisky.

Dazzled by the eye-candy, New Orleans had dropped coverage.  Wide open in the end zone was Wims, and Trubisky’s pass was deadly accurate, dropping right down into – and completely through – Wims’ hands.

Like a punch to the stomach, you could feel the air come out of the Chicago sideline.

Three plays later, the Bears came up short on a fourth-down scramble by Trubisky, and the Saints took over on their own 32.

As the second quarter opened, New Orleans had progressed up to the Chicago 41.  But here cornerback Duke Shelley made a huge interception of a deflected pass.  Almost.  As with the interception that wasn’t for Indianapolis, before Shelley could secure the pass, the tip brushed off the turf.  On review, the play was changed to incomplete.

With 11:38 left in the half, the Bears recovered a New Orleans fumble on the Saint 24.  It was 7-0 New Orleans at the time.  Presented with a final golden opportunity in the half, Chicago moved to a second-and-six at the 10-yard line.  But, after a one-yard pass to tight end Cole Kmet, Saint defensive back Malcolm Jenkins left Kmet with a quick opinion, before turning and heading back to the huddle.

If Kmet had just let him walk away, the Bears would have had third-and-five at the nine-yard line.  But Cole, with the ball still in his hands, followed after Jenkins, offering a few opinions of his own – a move which drew the attention of line judge Greg Bradley and field judge Nathan Jones, who tried to push them apart – with Kmet vocalizing all this time.  With his piece finally said, Cole flipped the ball – somewhat disdainfully to Jones who was standing behind Bradley.  No angle of the play shows who actually threw the flag, but it almost must have been Bradley – who couldn’t have seen that the flip was to Jones and who must have assumed he was flipping it in the direction of Jenkins – an assumption made all the easier by the manner in which Kmet flipped the ball.

The flag came out, and now Chicago had a third-and-20.  They settled for a field goal on the drive.  On the first Chicago possession on the third quarter, another squabble ended with receiver Anthony Miller punching defensive back Chauncey Gardner-Johnson.  He was summarily ejected, thus depriving Chicago of yet another weapon.

Don’t get me wrong.  The penalty against Kmet was bad officiating.  The officials should have conferred and picked up the flag – and in this situation, it was inexcusable of them that they didn’t.  But still if Cole hadn’t escalated the situation by following after Jenkins and jawing at him, the entire thing could have been avoided.  The same could be said for Miller’s disqualification.

To take advantage of a team like the Saints at their vulnerable moments, teams like the Bears need to keep their composure.

Is Trubisky a Franchise Quarterback?

Throughout all of this meltdown, there was Trubisky.  His only contribution to this fiasco was to throw a perfect pass into Wims’ arms.  Throughout this game – as he did in the Green Bay game – Mitch played pretty well.  He didn’t turn the ball over and completed 65.5% of his passes against one of football’s best pass defenses.  In watching both games, it’s hard to say that the problem was the quarterback.  At the very least, I would say that Trubisky – the Mitch Trubisky that we saw coming down the stretch – isn’t a quarterback who will hold your team back.

That, of course, isn’t the question that Chicago needs to have answered.  They need to know if Mitch is THAT guy – the one who can put the team on his shoulders and carry them into the promised land.

There is still a thing I need to see from Mitch – something that’s almost a little unfair to ask of him.  The elite guys have an ability to raise the level of play of everyone on the field with them.  There’s a confidence and a command that exudes from a Tom Brady or a Drew Brees that I haven’t yet seen from Mitch.  I’m not necessarily suggesting that if Brady had thrown the same pass that Wims would have caught it for him – and yet, that’s exactly the kind of thing that happens for Tom and Drew and all of the other top quarterbacks.  Unfair?  Yes, it is a little.  But it’s real.

At the same time, I don’t know that even Tom Brady could pull out a win when the other team controls the ball for 21 and a half minutes of the second half.

On the broadcast, Tony Romo suggested that you change quarterbacks when you have someone better.  At this point, Chicago doesn’t have anyone better.  My suggestion to the Bears’ organization (and fans) would be to build up the team around Mitch, and then see what he looks like.

Getting Back in Sync

Coming off a shaky first half, the Saints advanced in the playoffs and re-discovered their rhythm by turning back to the run game to augment their horizontal passing attack.  Twenty-two of their final 38 plays were runs, with Kamara getting 15 of them.  Alvin finished the day with 99 rushing yards (and a touchdown) on 23 carries.  Brees, meanwhile, completed 14 of 16 second-half passes (87.5%) for 145 yards and a second touchdown.

For the game, 28 of Drew’s 36 actual passes (minus 3 throw-aways) were at targets less than ten yards from scrimmage.  He completed 25 of those (89.3%) for 193 yards and 2 touchdowns (a 119.2 rating on those throws).  This included 6 of 7 screen passes for 31 yards and a touchdown, as New Orleans remains one of the most dangerous screen teams remaining in the playoffs.

None of this was terribly splashy.  Drew completed just one downfield pass the whole game (a 38-yard strike to Thomas up the left sideline).  But an effective running game setting up a proficient short passing attack can have a devastating effect.

The Saints only had three second half possessions – each running at least 11 plays, each driving at least 64 yards, and each draining at least 5:11 off the clock.  The Saints converted 6 of 8 third downs during the half, and sustained one of those drives by getting Chicago to jump off-sides on fourth-and-three (another damaging lack of discipline from the Bears).

The first two possessions ended in touchdowns, and the last ended with Brees trying to leap over the goal line from the one-yard line on fourth down.  Originally credited with a touchdown, the call was reversed and the Bears were given the football on about their one-inch line, down 21-3 with 2:19 remaining in their season.

At that point – for the game – Chicago had run just 38 plays, gained 140 total yards, earned a total of 6 first downs, and had 19 minutes and 43 seconds of possession.  The Bears finished up the game salvaging a little pride.  They used the last 139 seconds of their season to drive those 99 yards on 11 plays, the last 19 of those yards on a final touchdown pass to former Saint Jimmy Graham – who sprinted off the field and up the tunnel immediately after the catch.

For the Bears, that drive will be the starting point of an important offseason.  The Saints will use that dominating second half as a springboard into the Divisional Round, where they will renew acquaintances with an old friend from their division.

Careful What You Ask For

As he sprinted off the field on the heels of his team’s division clinching win over Philadelphia, Washington’s loquacious rookie defensive end Chase Young was heard to chant “I want Tom, I want Tom.”  The reference, of course, was to Tampa Bay quarterback Tom Brady – Washington’s opponent in the WildCard Round.  The old saying is “be careful what you ask for, you just might get it.”

After Tom and his Buccaneer teammates opened up on Young and his young Washington defense to the tune of 507 yards and 31 points, you would think Chase has seen enough of the legendary Mr. Brady – at least for a while.  As for Chase himself, he finally did get to Tom.  But it was only to chat him up after the game.  Coming off an encouraging rookie season that saw him finish second on the team in sacks and tackles-for-loss, and third in quarterback hits, Chase rarely put himself in shouting distance of the Tampa Bay quarterback during the actual game.

Except for their opponent’s continued dominance in the red zone – Washington ranked fourth in red zone defense this year, and limited the Bucs to just 1 touchdown in 5 red zone visits – the Tampa Bay offense and its veteran quarterback was generally unhindered by Washington’s second-ranked defensive unit.

As for Tom, he looked as proficient as ever.  Running the extreme downfield passing attack that coach Bruce Arians loves, Tom completed only 22 of his 40 passes (just 55%), but for 381 yards and 2 touchdowns – a stunning 17.32 yards per completion (the NFL average is just 11.1 yards).  During the regular season, Tom’s average target was 9.3 yards from the line-of-scrimmage – the highest average of any passer with at least 150 attempts.  Against Washington, he upped that to an average of 11.3 yards downfield (these numbers, by the way, are taken from the Next Gen Stats page), as 23 of Brady’s 38 actual passes (again, discounting throw-aways) went more than 10 yards from scrimmage – an uncommonly high 60.5%.  He completed 13 of those throws for 280 yards and 2 touchdowns (a 128.9 rating on those throws).  This number includes 4 for 7 on throws of more than 20 yards, for 118 yards and both of his touchdowns (these numbers are also from Next Gen).

What Changed?

One of the running narratives of the 2020 season was the sometimes uneasy marriage of Brady and Arians.  Bruce had more than one uncomplimentary thing to say to the media about his quarterbacks’ early struggles.  But now, Brady heads into New Orleans on his best roll of the season.  His 104.3 passer rating against Washington marks his fifth consecutive game over 100 in that category.  This is the only time he’s done that this season, and not un-coincidentally Tampa Bay has put together its only five-game winning streak of the season.

It all begs the question, what changed?  Was football’s most decorated quarterback holding this team back because of his repeated screw-ups?  Has Tom finally figured out what he was doing wrong?

The truth is it was never really about Tom.  He had a minor learning curve as he transitioned into a new philosophy without benefit of a training camp, but as I pointed out after their last loss to New Orleans, the major issues were the issues endemic to the system itself.  What has changed is that Bruce has shored up the two major areas I identified after Week Nine.

Pass Protection

In the last New Orleans game (a 38-3 loss in which Brady threw for 209 yards and 3 interceptions with no touchdowns), Tom was hit constantly.  This was fairly common in the early going.  Tom was under near-constant pressure.  The old man (yes, he’s 43) still moves around in the pocket pretty well, but he doesn’t have the escapability of some of the younger dual-threat quarterbacks.  If you want Brady to throw downfield, then he has to be protected.

Washington sacked him three times Saturday night, but pressured him very little otherwise.  Even though Washington ramped up their blitzing as the game went on (sending extra rushers Tom’s way on 41.9% of his drop-backs) the protection schemes were more than up to the challenge.

But this came after an adjustment.  Bruce kept lots of would-be receivers in the backfield, frequently running six- and seven-man protections – leaving just two or three receivers running routes.  Rob Gronkowski – for example – coming off a 45 catch season, had only one pass thrown in his direction as his function on Saturday was primarily as a blocker (very often on Chase Young).

Whether or not this irked Bruce – losing receivers downfield – I can’t say.  But that extra time was a major difference in the efficiency of the offense.  As was the second major adjustment.

Oh Look, It’s the Tampa Bay Running Game

After the first half ended, I made the following entry in my notebook, “Surprising run commitment.”  Tampa Bay had run the ball 14 times.  Before the half.  In their last game against the Saints, Tampa Bay ran the ball only 5 times the entire game (an all-time low).  That was one of four separate games in which the Bucs failed to make it to 20 rushes, and they finished twenty-ninth in rush attempts for the season with 369.  The only NFL teams to run less frequently were Detroit, Texas and Jacksonville – teams that spent almost the entire season trailing.

The running game was another factor that I pointed to after the last New Orleans game.  On Saturday, out of nowhere, the Bucs started handing the ball off.  Leonard Fournette was awarded a season-high 19 carries (which he turned into 93 yards and a touchdown) as the foundation of a 29-carry, 142-yard ground attack that exploited a slight weakness in the Football Team’s defense (they were thirteenth against the run this year) and further slowed the Washington pass rush.  Additionally, the healthy running attack kept Washington out of any exotic formations and coverages. 

When a team is running the ball against you, you have to stay fairly basic in your personnel and schemes. Few things open up a passing game as effectively as a strong running attack.

In all, it was the biggest rushing game from Tampa Bay since they trampled Carolina in Week Ten.  In that game, the Bucs hit season highs in rushes (37) and rushing yards (210).  That was the game that Ronald Jones ripped off a 98-yard touchdown run.

This is the thing about Tampa.  Every so often, they embrace their running game – almost always to good effect.  But the commitment is fleeting.  The very next week, they ran only 18 times (for 42 yards) in a 27-24 loss to the Rams.  As much as any team in the league, the Buccaneers stand ready to abandon their running game on any pretext.  Even in this game, as soon as Washington closed to 18-16 late in the third, Bruce went straight to the air.  Brady threw (or attempted to throw) on 7 of the 8 plays the next drive lasted.  The drive – which answered the Washington touchdown with a field goal – removed only 1:28 off the game clock before the ball was back in the hands of the Washington offense.

Like Mike

In a lot of ways, Arians reminds me of Mike Martz.  Mike – as some of you older St Louisans will recall – was Dick Vermeil’s offensive coordinator when he led the Ram franchise to its only Super Bowl win following the 1999 season.  Martz was then elevated to head coach after Vermeil retired.  This was the era when the Rams were known as The Greatest Show on Turf.

These teams had Marshall Faulk and a top offensive line.  They could easily have been a dominant running team in the mold of the Cowboys of the 1990s.  But Martz was overly fond of his passing attack, and would go for long stretches of a game absolutely forgetting that he had a running game.  Toward the end of his five-year run, the Rams would see all kinds of bizarre defenses, linebackers lining up everywhere and blitzing from all angles, safeties littering all levels of the defense – the Ram wide receivers got to the point where they would hit the ground as soon as they caught the pass because there was always a safety behind them ready to run through their backs.

Though this was as deep and as diverse a collection of offensive talent as you are ever likely to find on one team, the offense began to struggle to put points on the board because they made themselves one-dimensional.  Arians does this from time to time to his team.

The Tampa Bay offense that ran through the Washington team is a formidable group whose threat is magnified when they stay balanced and when they protect their passer.

Looking Forward to the Saints

This approach won’t be so easy to pull off against the Saints.  New Orleans features the fourth-ranked run defense, and could very well encourage Bruce to abandon the run early.  The Saints also feature a fine pass rush, but their secondary is much better than Washington’s and their defensive backs are much more comfortable in man coverage – which could make three-man routes problematical if the Bucs continue to keep six or seven in to pass protect.

Still, the Bucs look like they have figured some things out and now present as a much more potent foe than the last time they faced the Saints.

On offense, anyway.  Defensively, the Bucs are still trying to solve their season-long issues with the passing game.

Taylor Who?

The sensation of WildCard Weekend was a previously unheard of backup quarterback named Taylor Heinicke.  With Washington’s starting quarterback – Alex Smith – unable to go, Taylor would make the second start of his career, and his first since 2018.  He had thrown 77 passes in his entire career prior to lacing it up against Tampa Bay.  His career passer rating was a modest 71.7.

And yet, for 60 minutes Saturday night, Taylor gave the Tampa Bay defense all they could handle.  Running for 46 yards and a touchdown, Taylor also threw for 306 yards and another touchdown.  His success in throwing the ball down the field was almost Brady-like.

On throws to targets more than ten yards away, Heinicke was 12 of 19 for 224 yards and a touchdown – a 121.4 passer rating.  These included 3-of-5 on passes over twenty yards from scrimmage, good for 88 yards.

Taylor – who carried Washington to the Tampa Bay 49-yard-line with 2:22 left in the game before suffering the sack that ended the comeback – well deserved all the attention that surrounded him in the aftermath of his team’s narrow 31-23 loss (gamebook) (summary).

For the Bucs defense, though, it was the same conundrum that the better passing attacks have been taking advantage of all year.  Tampa can’t get a pass rush unless they blitz, but blitzing compromises their coverage.  They have also struggled in zone coverage all year, whether they run it behind a blitz or not.

The Saints will present a handful of difficult man-to-man matchups – Kamara, Thomas, Cook, Emmanuel Sanders – but I expect that this is how Tampa Bay will approach this contest.  They will come after Brees and hope the coverage can hold up.  Blitzing Drew is always a dangerous proposition, but this much is assured.  If they sit back in their leaky zone coverages, they will get picked apart.

In both of the previous two matchups, New Orleans ran the ball a lot.  They ran even though they didn’t have much success on the ground – and nobody runs with much success against Tampa Bay, possessors of the league’s top run defense.  But New Orleans persisted.  Thirty-four rushes (for just 82 yards) in the first game and 37 more (for 138 yards) in the re-match.  This is something that they’ve understood all along.  The running game allows the offensive line to do their share of the hitting.  It lets them work over the defensive line, removing a great deal of spring from the pass rush.

My expectation is that this will continue.  New Orleans will force Tampa Bay to defend the running game for the whole sixty minutes and take their chances with a lot of third-and-manageable situations.

I’m still of the opinion that New Orleans is the better team.  But Tampa Bay has improved since the last meeting.  And it’s always difficult to beat the same team three times in one season.

Difficult, but not impossible.

A Step Too Late

Right tackle Billy Turner was engaged with his pass block on Chicago’s Bilal Nichols, and probably wasn’t even aware of the corner rush.  Aaron Rodgers – Green Bay’s legendary quarterback – stood alone in an empty backfield.  There was no back hanging with him.  So when Duke Shelley came off the corner, there was no one to pick him up.  He came as a free rusher on the Packer quarterback.

It didn’t matter.

One step before Shelly reached Rodgers, Aaron lofted the football up the field.

Green Bay lined up with three receivers to Aaron’s right and two to his left – the side that Shelley would come from.  The Bears were in cover four, with the two non-rushing cornerbacks and the two safeties each taking a deep fourth of the field.

Davante Adams (who was to the left of Rodgers) and Allen Lazard (to the right) went about ten yards up field and turned around.  As they did, the two defenders responsible for the deep middle of the field stopped with them – Tashaun Gipson hovering over Adams, and Eddie Jackson ready to deny any pass in Lazard’s direction.

This was all well and good, except for one thing.  The most inside receiver on the three-receiver side – Marquez Valdes-Scantling – didn’t stop.  He exploded into the gaping void that the deep middle had now become.  Of course, that was where Aaron had directed the football, and Valdes-Scantling – with linebacker Danny Trevathan in futile chase – gathered the ball in and sprinted the final 42 yards into the end zone.

That touchdown, coming with 8:31 left in the first half, gave the Packers their first lead of the game (14-10), and as such served as a kind of turning point in the contest – an eventual 35-16 Green Bay victory (gamebook) (summary).  It was also a singular occurrence – an aberration, if you will, weighed against the rest of the game – even as it revealed two recurring issues that did much to define the outcome.

First the singularity.

That 72-yard touchdown was the only play of 20 yards or more that Green Bay executed the entire game. (One small caveat here.  Early in the third quarter, Valdes-Scantling found himself behind the defense again – in almost the same area of the field – for what would have been a 53-yard touchdown, but he dropped Rodgers perfectly thrown pass.)

This speaks directly to the defensive game-plan developed by coach Matt Nagy and defensive coordinator Chuck Pagano.

Playing the Packers twice a year, Chicago is very familiar with Aaron Rodgers.  Over the course of his 16-year career, Rodgers is now 20-5 against the Bears with a 107.2 passer rating against them.  The 4 touchdown passes he tossed against them on Sunday bring him to 55 in 25 career games against Chicago – his most against any team.  Clearly, in this case, familiarity breeds more contempt than success for Chicago.  In his two victories against them this year, Aaron completed 40 of 53 passes (75.5%) for 451 yards and 8 touchdowns with no interceptions.

Defending Rodgers

This time around, the Chicago brain-trust devised a complimentary-football approach that came closer to working than the score indicates.  With the offense controlling the clock and keeping Rodgers on the sidelines, the defense set up with their two deep safeties (Gipson and Jackson).  Chicago rarely blitzes anyway – at 29.5% they have football’s fourth-lowest blitz percentage.  In this game, they blitzed even less – coming after Rodgers just 4 times.

They did a lot of faux-blitzing where a linebacker (like Khalil Mack) would join the rush with a lineman dropping out in coverage.  The corner rush on the touchdown pass was such a ploy, as Akiem Hicks dropped out of the rush into a short middle zone.

It was almost always four rushers, but not necessarily the four down linemen rushing.

The intent of the whole plan was to steal a few possessions of game time and prevent the big play at all cost.  If the Packers were going to score, they were going to have to do it with a series of long drives.

The concept was more successful than not.  The Packers had only 7 possessions for the game.  Apart from the long touchdown pass, Green Bay was only able to put together two touchdown “drives,” one of 80 yards and the other of 76 yards.  In the end, the Pack was held to just 44 offensive plays and 316 total yards.  The difference in what would have been a razor-close 21-16 game and the 35-16 decisive loss was two short field touchdowns Green Bay scored after turnovers by the Chicago offense.  Green Bay recovered a fumble on the Bear 22 about midway through the second quarter, and returned an interception to the Chicago 26 late in the fourth.

Almost always in Chicago these days, it comes back to the offense.

The Offense Giveth and the Offense Taketh Away

As damaging as the turnovers were, it would be a disservice to present them as the offense’s only impact on the game.  The Bears ran the ball with more commitment than most would have expected.  Thirty-one running plays took their toll on a Green Bay defense that endured 74 plays and 35 minutes and 29 seconds of ball possession.  Against that, quarterback Mitchell Trubisky completed 78.6 percent of his passes (33 of 42) – albeit for only 252 yards (7.64 per completion) as the Bears picked at Green Bay’s underneath coverages.

Only 7 of Mitch’s 42 passes were more than 10 yards from scrimmage.  Not very cinematic, but it kept the chains moving.  Chicago backed a solid 6-for-15 showing on third down with a surprising 5-for-6 on fourth down.  They put 356 yards and 21 first downs on the Green Bay defense.

But, the one fourth down they missed came at a critical junction of the game, they finished just 1-for-5 in the Red Zone – and there were the two turnovers.

The main takeaway here is that the gap between the 8-8 Bears (who will go into the playoffs as the seventh seed) and the 13-3 Packers (who will enjoy a bye and the conference’s top seed) lies – for the most part – in Chicago’s inability to limit their mistakes.  That being said, there were two other recurring issues that inform the playoff trajectories of both of these teams.

Secondary Issues

The Valdes-Scantling touchdown was one of several examples of soft play from the Chicago secondary. Here, both safeties dropped coverage on Marquez’ vertical.  In other instances, it was a mental error or a simple failure to adjust the defensive design to the demands of the coverage.

With 4:37 left in a still close (21-16) game, and Green Bay facing a second-and-nine from the Chicago 18-yard line, the Bears deployed in man coverage (after playing mostly zone early, they went more-and-more to man defenses as the game progressed).  Well, everyone was in man except for slot corner Shelley.  As Allen Lazard ran a shallow cross, Shelley – who should have had him in coverage – dropped into a zone, curling away from the receiver that was his responsibility.  Seeing Lazard uncovered, linebacker Josh Woods tried to run with him, and was able to catch him from behind – but not until Allen gained 14 yards on the catch-and-run.  Green Bay scored a touchdown on the next play.

With 5:40 left in the first half, Green Bay faced third-and-four on the Chicago 16.  With Adams in the slot to the right, he was the responsibility of slot-corner Shelley, who played with outside leverage on Davante, knowing he had safety help inside.  But that safety (Gipson) was 15 yards off the line (remember, this was third-and-four), so all Adams had to do was curl to the inside of Shelley and he was sufficiently open to catch the pass for the first down.

Green Bay would go on to score the touchdown that would give them the 21-13 halftime lead.  Every time that the Bears’ secondary mistakes let Green Bay off the hook, the Packers put the ball in the end zone.  Every.  Single.  Time.

Three plays earlier, Chicago came with one of their rare blitzes, bringing Jackson from Aaron’s left and playing man behind it.  Problem was that Green Bay lined up two tight ends (Marcedes Lewis and Dominique Dafney) to the right, where there was only one defender (Shelley, again) to cover both.

At the snap, Dafney ran an inside route and Shelley went with him.  After chipping on end Robert Quinn. Lewis rolled out into the flat where he was all alone.  That would have been an 11-yard pickup, but the gain was nullified when Adams pushed Shelley in the back.

These were the most glaring errors. But the secondary play in general was soft and more than a little tentative.  They successfully limited the big play.  Davante Adams never had a completion over 9 yards, but he caught 6 passes for 46 yards – with four of the six going for first downs (including a touchdown).

For his part, Rodgers had only 4 completions on passes more than 10 yards downfield, but he completed 15 of 16 short passes.  He also worked over the middle of the field – mostly exploiting the safeties.  In passes to the middle of the field, Aaron was 8-for-9 for 148 yards and 2 touchdowns.

This is a potentially critical issue for Chicago.  Against New Orleans (their WildCard opponent) soft play in the secondary will almost certainly prove fatal.  So too, by the way, will turnovers and red zone failures.

A Step Too Late

Referring a final time to the touchdown pass that we began with, the final element to consider is Shelley’s pass rush – just one step too slow.

For a quarterback who was only sacked once, and only blitzed four times, Aaron Rodgers found himself under a substantial amount of pressure.  For all that he only threw 24 passes, there were a good handful of rushers who came free or nearly free.  In nearly all cases, they were a step too late.  With his veteran’s understanding of defenses and his absolute command of all of the pieces of his offense, Aaron’s ability to diagnose where the ball should go and the quickness he displayed in getting it out of his hands was as determining a factor in the victory as any of the other items listed here.

Aaron converted a third-and-eight in the first quarter on a check-down to Aaron Jones just as Robert Quinn was bringing him to the ground.  On the pass to Lewis referred to earlier, Jackson came free on the blitz, but he couldn’t get there in time.  In similar fashion, Hicks came free on a stunt on the third-down throw to Adams noted above.  He converted a second-and-six to Robert Tonyan in the third quarter with Quinn rushing up on him from behind.  Again, not in time.  The 14-yard pass to Lazard with 4:37 left in the game also came with Quinn (who was unblocked on the play) in his face.

For the afternoon, Rodgers was 9 for 10 for 154 yards and 2 touchdowns when the ball was out of his hands in less than 2.5 seconds.

This is the bind that a defense finds itself in against the elite quarterbacks – and right now Mr. Rodgers is playing at as high a level as anyone in the business – a circumstance that bodes well for the Packers in the upcoming tournament.

What Happens When He’s Not There?

In the second game of the 2019 season, Pittsburgh quarterback Ben Roethlisberger felt a twinge in his throwing arm as he delivered a pass. And that was it for him. His 2019 season was over that quickly.

Unfortunately for Pittsburgh – as with most teams – the loss of their starting quarterback was pretty much the death-knell for their season. A probable playoff team, last year’s Steelers struggled to an 8-8 finish. This year, both San Francisco and Dallas saw their seasons eviscerated by the loss of their starting quarterbacks. The 49ers went to the Super Bowl last year. This year, they floundered to a 6-10 record (of course, quarterback was not their only significant injury in 2020). The Cowboys just missed last year’s playoffs (they were 8-8). They also finished 2020 with a 6-10 record. They were down to their third-string quarterback for a stretch of the season.

If you follow a team for any number of years, then your team has almost certainly – from time to time – had to deal with the loss of your starting quarterback.

So there are many in the NFL family who can fully commiserate with the situation that unfolded in SoFi Stadium, last Sunday. With a playoff berth on the line in the final game of the regular season, the Arizona Cardinals faced off against the Los Angeles Rams and their backup quarterback John Wolford – who had never thrown a pass in the NFL.

One series into the game, and Arizona was down to their second string quarterback as well – a chap named Chris Streveler, who – like Wolford – had never thrown an NFL pass.

Of the two challenging situations, the Rams suddenly had the advantage. They at least knew during the week that they would be going with their backup, and had the opportunity to adjust the game plan around him. For Arizona, they found out slightly more than three minutes into the game that everything was going to have to change.

Neither backup dazzled – although both had their moments. Neither was terrible – although both threw interceptions that cost their teams touchdowns. For Arizona, though, that touchdown would be their only scoring on the day. The Rams fared better – if only moderately so.

Yes, the Rams were 0-for-4 in the Red Zone – but at least they got there. Using a controlled passing game and – surprisingly – the legs of Wolford, LA managed four drives that lasted at least ten plays – three of which consumed more than six and a half minutes of clock time. They ended up with three field goals, with the other drive ending with a fumble on the Arizona goal line. The Cardinals recovered that fumble – temporarily avoiding disaster – only to give back two points on a safety two plays later.

All of that, and a Troy Hill touchdown on an interception return, was enough for the Rams to claim the sixth seed in the playoffs and send Arizona home by an 18-7 score (gamebook) (summary).

For the afternoon, John Wolford became the closest thing either team had to a Kyler Murray (Arizona’s starting quarterback). John picked up 56 rushing yards on six runs – four of them designed runs, and 2 scrambles. He picked up 4 first downs with his legs – more than the rest of the runners on his team combined (Cam Akers and Malcom Brown combined for just 3) and as many running first downs as the entire Arizona team (they managed 4 as well).

Which brings me to my afternoon’s rumination. Setting aside the added preparation time that Wolford had and just looking at these two backup quarterbacks, their skill sets and the systems they operate in, which would you say would have an easier time stepping in for the starter? John Wolford taking over for Jared Goff? Or Chris Steveler replacing for Kyler Murray? I believe a convincing argument could be made here for Wolford. This wouldn’t be because John is necessarily any more talented than Chris. It would have to do more with the offenses they were sliding into.

The rage over the last several years has been the dual-threat quarterback. Murray, Lamar Jackson, Deshaun Watson – there are several others. These are young quarterbacks who are raising the bar of athleticism for the position across the NFL – quarterbacks who run by design, not just when the pass play breaks down. The threat of these guys pulling the ball back and darting through the line for chunk running plays keeps defensive coordinators up at night.

But what happens when you design your offense around a particular talent and then you lose that talent? What happens when he’s not there? In earlier interviews, Baltimore coach John Harbaugh discussed how every personnel decision that the entire organization made revolved around the singular talent of Lamar Jackson. Harbaugh is a brilliant coach, and he has constructed a wondrous football chrysalis around Jackson designed in every particular to enhance his skill set and minimize his weaknesses.

But what happens when the irreplaceable talent needs to be replaced? In a critical game against Pittsburgh this season, Jackson wasn’t available due to that COVID thing. In his place, the substantial talent of Robert Griffin III – whose skill set is similar to Jackson’s – tried to run the same offense with no real success. The Ravens managed just 219 total yards and lost 19-14.

In fairness to RGIII, Baltimore’s practice time was almost non-existent – again due to the COVID outbreak that they were trying to manage. But even given adequate amounts of practice time, there is only one Lamar Jackson – and if his singular talent is the epicenter of your football organization, then when that light blinks out – whether for a game or a season – your football universe finds itself in a very dark place.

This is why I suspect that the dual-threat quarterback will end up being more fad than revolution.

When the Rams realized that Jared Goff would be unable to start, they didn’t have to abandon their offense. If Wolford wasn’t able to operate the full complexity of the system, he was nonetheless able to run some of Goff’s offense, and the Rams were able to match the parts that he was comfortable with.

In fact, since John is noticeably more mobile than Jared, the Rams were able to add into the offense the kind of designed runs that worked so well for them last Sunday. Conversely, no amount of preparation could make Streveler comfortable in Murray’s offense because Chris doesn’t add the critical piece to this offense that Kyler does.

Arizona’s offensive identity is as one of football’s best running teams. They entered the game averaging 4.7 yards per rush, their 145.9 rushing yards per game ranked third in the league, and their 22 rushing touchdowns were the second most. The problem here is that Arizona’s elite running attack is fitted tightly around Kyler Murray’s legs. Going into the game, he was responsible for half of their rushing touchdowns and more than a third of their rushing yards. Remove his 54.5 rushing yards per game from the team total, and Arizona immediately falls into the lower half of the league’s running attacks.

Kyler’s edge speed might have been Arizona’s equalizer against the stout defensive line of Los Angeles’ third-ranked run defense (allowing 94.1 yards per game, and 3.8 per rush). Without that outside aspect to worry about, the Rams inhaled Arizona’s formerly elite running attack.

Donald and Fox

Discussion of the Los Angeles defense always begins – as it should – with tackle Aaron Donald. As usual, Aaron was a force against the Cardinals. Also catching my eye, though, was fourth-year defender Morgan Fox. As the season has gone on, and his opportunities have increased, Fox has been developing into an impact player on the Ram defensive line.

Morgan, of course, got the sack that knocked Murray out for most of the game. His work against the Cardinal running game was equally impressive, as his improving technique allows his natural strength to impact games.

Barely a minute into the game, with Murray still under center, the Cards faced a second-and-three on their own 43. The run design would send Kenyan Drake off right tackle, with left tackle D.J. Humphries pulling to lead through the hole. But Fox slipped under the pads of right tackle Kelvin Beachum and drove him into the backfield – into the pulling lineman that had come to open the hole, creating something of a train wreck in the Arizona backfield. Morgan then sifted through the bodies until he found the running back and pulled him to the ground.

He made a similar play on the left side with 2:32 left in the first half – the Cards facing second-and-six on their own 24. This time he drove Humphries into the backfield and tossed him to one side before corralling Drake. Game by game, Morgan is developing into a worthy line-mate of the great Aaron Donald.

At only 6-1, Aaron isn’t the tallest of defensive linemen – a characteristic that actually helps him gain leverage – but one look suggests that he is one of the strongest players in the NFL. That would be an accurate assessment.

With 12:50 left in the first quarter, Arizona was sending Drake off right tackle again. Donald lined up on the left side over guard Justin Pugh. With the play going away from Aaron, Arizona apparently thought they would be okay pulling Pugh to the right side and asking center Mason Cole to cross-block on Donald.

After getting underneath Cole’s attempted block, Donald drove him all the way across the formation, eventually pushing Cole out of the way and tackling Drake two yards deep in the backfield.

But for as strong as Aaron is, it’s his quickness and intelligence that sets him apart.

There’s 5:46 left in the game, and Arizona faces a first-and-fifteen from the Ram 45. Donald lines up over the right shoulder of right guard Justin Murray. One second before the snap, Aaron jumps to the other side of Murray so that he is in what they call the “A” gap – that space between the center and guard. Almost immediately after he arrived at that new position, the ball was snapped, and Aaron flew past Murray in one fluid motion. The moment that Kyler (who was then back in the game) handed the ball to Chase Edmonds, Aaron was there to harvest him for a three-yard loss.

About five minutes earlier, Kyler called the read-option. At the snap, Aaron immediately took away the inside run, executing a swim move on Pugh that you almost have to run the tape in slow motion to see.

Clearly unable to hand the ball off, Kyler pulled it back and tried to make it to the edge. His problem now was Fox – the unblocked end that he was supposed to “read.” Seeing that Donald had taken away the inside run, Morgan realized that he didn’t have to crash inside, and stayed wide to play the quarterback keeper.

Out of other options, Kyler tried to outrace Morgan to the edge – and on another day, he just might have. But Murray’s ankle injury cost him just enough speed that he couldn’t quite get past Fox. Morgan grabbed his shoulder as he was passing and pulled him down for a four-yard loss.

By game’s end, Arizona had rushed for nearly 100 yards below their season average. They finished with 48 yards and a 2.7 average (2 yards below their season average). In the second half, they gained 7 yards on 7 carries. This is not a formula for victory for the Cards.

Rams Next Get the Seahawks

Onward and upward for the Rams will lead them back into Seattle for the second time in three weeks for another inter-division rematch. The teams split their first two meeting this year, with the Rams winning 23-16 in Week Ten, and the Hawks getting their revenge, 20-9, in Week 16 (the win that clinched the division for them).

Of all of the WildCard games, this is the hardest to call – made none the easier by the uncertainty of Goff’s injury. Will he play? How well will he play if he does?

Even beyond those questions, we have two teams that know each other inside and out. Add to the fact that Seattle’s offense hasn’t looked in sync against a winning team since they lost a 44-34 contest to Buffalo in Week Nine.

This one reads like a coin flip going in. I’m going to lean to the Seahawks, only because they are the most comfortable in these kinds of tight, one-score games

On some level, it feels only fitting that one of these rivals should be the one to end the other’s season.

Waiting til Next Year

With 6:19 left in the football game, Dante Fowler produced an enormous sack of Tampa Bay quarterback Tom Brady.

Ever since falling behind 23-10 at the half, the Atlanta Falcons had been fighting their way back into their season-ending contest against the Buccaneers.  As the fourth quarter began, the Falcons had narrowed the gap to 23-20, and the two teams traded touchdowns in their first possession of the final quarter.

But now, trailing just 30-27, Atlanta had the Bucs backed up at third-and-12, with still five-and-a-half minutes left in the game.  They needed one stop.

The game wouldn’t get Atlanta into the playoffs – at 4-11 they had long been eliminated.  The game couldn’t knock Tampa Bay out of the playoffs.  At 10-5, they had already punched their ticket.  But after a season of maddening defeats, Atlanta stood one stop away from giving their offense a last chance at a kind of redemption.

They needed one stop.

Unfortunately for the Falcons, on this Sunday afternoon, they never did stop the Buccaneers.  With the Falcons pass rush non-existent (they only rushed three on this play), Brady rolled slightly to his right and once again exploited the vulnerable right sideline.  On the afternoon, Brady completed 10 of 15 passes to the offensive right side of the field for 182 yards and 2 touchdowns.  He would get 47 of those yards here, as Chris Godwin settled in behind the cornerback and in front of the safety at the Falcon 7-yard line, where he hauled in a perfect strike from Tom.

Three plays later, Godwin caught a shorter pass from Brady – 4 yards for the touchdown that pushed the lead back up to ten (37-27) with 3:54 left.  Forty-three football seconds later, a Calvin Ridley fumble returned possession to the Buccaneers, and 9 seconds after that, Brady probed that right sideline again – with Antonio Brown on the receiving end of a 30-yard, catch-and-run touchdown that closed the book on this one, 44-27 (gamebook) (summary).

Tampa Bay Rolls On

With the victory, Tampa Bay cemented the fifth seed in the upcoming WildCard Weekend – they will head into Washington to play the “Football Team.”  The Tampa Bay team that struggled for any kind of consistency during a 7-5 start, finished the season winning their final four games – averaging 37 points a game in those contests.  What changed?

Mostly, it was things I pointed out earlier in the year.  A little more consistency in the running game, and the pass protection shored itself up considerably.  After Brady went down 17 times in the first 12 games, he has been dropped 5 times in the last four (3 of those in the first game against Atlanta).  Against the Falcons last Sunday, in fact, his protection was so good that he was provided with more than 2.5 seconds in the pocket on 27 of his 41 pass attempts (66%). 

Given lots of time for his receivers to work their way downfield, Tom went on to make short work of the Falcon secondary.  He completed 18 of those 27 passes for 342 yards (12.67 yards per attempted pass and 19 yards per completion).  After spending the early part of the season missing on his downfield tosses, Tom was 3-for-8 on passes more than 20 yards from scrimmage.  Those completions accounted for 101 yards and 2 touchdowns.

For the afternoon, Tom threw for 399 yards and 4 touchdowns.  He averaged 15.35 yards on his 26 completions.

It has also helped that the four teams that Tampa Bay subdued – a list which includes Atlanta twice – are among the league’s worst defensive teams – especially when it comes to pass defense.  The Falcons finished twenty-seventh in passer rating against.  Minnesota finished twenty-third, and Detroit finished dead last, allowing opposing passers a 112.4 rating.  None of those teams was ever able to generate any kind of consistent pass rush, either (the two situations often go hand in hand).  The Falcons were twenty-sixth in sack rate, while the Viking and Lions tied for twenty-eighth, each managing to put the opposing passer on the turf on only 4.1% of his drop-backs.

Tampa Bay has been on an impressive run – led by their quarterback.  Since falling behind Atlanta 17-0 in the first half three weeks ago, Brady has completed 69 of his last 97 passes (71.1%) for 1067 yards (11.00 yards per attempt, and 15.5 per completion), with a 10-1 touchdown-to-interception ratio – good for a satisfactory 137.3 passer rating.

It’s enough to make Tampa Bay fans giddy, but the shadow of their previous struggles still hangs over this team.  Until this offense shows that it can handle a team that can pressure the quarterback – and the Washington team they are about to face is such a team – these questions will continue to follow them.

The Falcons Wait til Next Year – Again

For the Falcons, it’s another season of waiting for next year – this final loss like so many others this year (except that they never held a lead to spit up).  The two plays mentioned earlier were just two of several that could have turned this one around.

Rolling out a surprising short-passing game designed to control the clock and keep Brady off the field, Atlanta forged four long drives that consumed more than six minutes each.  They scored touchdowns on two of them, but the other two both petered out on the Tampa Bay 3-yard line.  Those two drives combined for 28 plays and 149 yards while eating 14:16 off the clock – but resulted in only 6 points combined.

(By the way, running an offense that may be very similar to the attack that Tampa Bay may see against Alex Smith and the Football Team, Falcon quarterback Matt Ryan threw no passes more than 20 yards from scrimmage, but completed 23 of 30 (76.7%) short passes into Tampa’s very vulnerable underneath zone defenses.  Throw in a bit of bad weather in Washington, and Tampa Bay could be in for a lot more trouble than they might anticipate.)

As for the Falcon defense, they never showed up.  Tampa Bay never went three-and-out.  In their nine possessions before the final one (in which they ran out the clock), Tampa Bay scored on 8 of them (five of them touchdowns).  Each drive ended in Atlanta territory, and the only time they didn’t score, they lost the ball on a fluky interception.  Receiver Scott Miller, attempting a diving catch, had the ball ricochet off his shoulder as he hit the ground.  The ball popped into the air, where defensive back Ricardo Allen gathered it in.

Other than that, it was another dismal defensive performance.

This Falcon franchise has never recovered from blowing that 28-3 lead in Super Bowl LI.  Now, after three consecutive losing seasons, the remnants of that team have started to go – and more may follow.  Coach Dan Quinn was let go after an 0-5 start.  Thirty-five-year-old Ryan and 31-year-old receiver Julio Jones (who missed the last few games of the season with a hamstring injury) may follow as the Falcons may very well embark on a rebuilding program.

That will depend – in large part – on the decision of the still-to-be-hired general manager.  So this team could look very different by kickoff 20201.

For the record, Matt Ryan doesn’t believe that they need to tear everything down and start over.  Neither does interim coach Raheem Morris.  They both believe this team is very close.

For that matter, so does everyone who has played the Falcons this year.  This might, in fact, be one of the most highly-regarded 4-12 teams in NFL history.

But, at least until next year, they are just a 4-12 team.

Dolphins Also Waiting Til Next Year

The Tua Tagovailoa era in Miami began in Week Eight with a 28-17 victory over the Los Angeles Rams.  In that game, Miami’s defense and special teams both scored touchdowns in support of the rookie quarterback.  Miami would go on to win Tua’s first three starts, and five of his first six.  The team that was 5-11 and in last place in its division last year was now 8-4 and had suddenly thrust itself into the playoff conversation.

Tua Season One came to an abrupt end last Sunday afternoon, as the young Dolphin squad was shredded by the Buffalo Bills, 56-26 (gamebook) (summary).  That game formed an uncommon symmetry with Tua’s first game in that the Bills got touchdowns from both their defense and special teams.

In one sense, the Dolphins – who would have earned a playoff berth with a win – fell short because they are still developmentally behind the Bills.  In a larger sense, though, they simply failed to overcome their 1-3 start.  In winning nine of their final twelve, Miami would have fought its way into the dance if they had managed just one more early win.  In Week Two they lost to this same Buffalo team, 31-28.  Two weeks later, they lost a one-score game to Seattle (31-23).  One more play in either of those games, and who knows.

This last game was fairly decided by halftime – as Buffalo carried a 28-6 lead into the locker room.  Even in what has been a very nice turn-around season, you might forgive Dolphin fans if they were a little antsy about Tua and the future of this program at that point.  Tagovailoa went into the locker at the half having completed 12 passes, but for only 89 yards.  His 4.68 yards per pass attempt and 7.42 yards per completion played into some lingering, season-long concerns.  Tua entered the contest averaging just 9.6 yards per completion.  Of 36 qualifying quarterbacks, that average ranked thirty-fourth.

Let’s just say that the early sampling of Tagovailoa wasn’t terribly evocative of what Tom Brady was doing in Tampa Bay.

The second half of that game, though, would throw a bit of a twist on the Tagovailoa narrative.  Previously, a short tossing, safety-first signal caller (he had thrown just 2 interceptions all season), Tua morphed into an up-the-field, high-risk, high-reward gunslinger.  With “relief pitcher” Ryan Fitzpatrick unavailable (due to a positive COVID test), Miami had little choice but to saddle up Tua and try to engineer a comeback.  That didn’t come close to happening, but the proceedings proved to be more interesting than anticipated.

In 8 second half possessions, the Dolphins racked up 332 yards (yes, in one half) and 21 first downs.  Tua threw for 272 yards in that half (more than in all but two of his previous complete games).  In those 8 drives, the Dolphins scored 3 touchdowns (one on a pass from Tagovailoa), turned the ball over 4 times (3 on interceptions from Tagovailoa), and had the other drive end on downs after their only 10-play drive of the game had taken them to the Buffalo 48.

After scoring a combined 48 points through the first three quarters, Buffalo and Miami combined to put up 34 in the fourth quarter alone – making for an entertaining, if not frightfully close, contest.

As for Tua, he finished the game 4-for-8 on passes of more than twenty yards for 104 of his 361 passing yards.

I’m not saying that this one half will turn Tua into a born-again gunslinger.  But it should, I think, allay some concerns about his deep-ball abilities.

Moving On

As for the Bills, they are division winners for the first time since 1995, and have qualified for the playoffs in consecutive seasons for the first time since 1998-1999.  That’s quite a few years.

And they roll into the playoffs as hot as anyone.  They have won 6 in a row and 9 of their last 10.

That being said, I do have concerns about the Bills.  Of primary concern is a run defense ranked seventeenth in the league only because the high-scoring offense has mostly protected it.  They are still serving up 4.6 yards per rush attempt (which ranks twenty-sixth), and have yielded ground yards to every team that has tried to run against them.  There really isn’t a ground attack that they’ve faced that I would say they have actually stopped.

My other concern is how this team will respond in an alley fight.  Almost all of their recent victories have been by sizable margins – and have been especially characterized by quarterback Josh Allen standing in comfortably clean pockets throwing to wide open receivers.  What will happen when this team runs into a team that will pressure them – that will force them to win the game by making contested plays in critical moments?  Will they be able to win the ugly games that you frequently have to win in the playoffs?  That’s what I’m waiting for this Bills team to show me.

None of this, though, should come into play on Saturday.  I expect their victory over Indianapolis to be similar to some of their other recent wins.

My take on the Colts is that they are a team that does everything well, but nothing exceptionally well.  They are a very solid, but unspectacular club.  In that regard, I think that they are dangerous team – but they don’t have enough playmakers to answer Buffalo’s high-level passing attack.

The Bills will be tried – but probably not this week.

Week 17 Playoff Scenarios Simplified (as much as is possible)

So, we are now one week from the playoffs, and, as usual, the season’s final games are rife with what ifs and endless playoff permutations. As much as possible, I’ll try to cut through the murkiness and present a reasonable idea of how things will shake out and what you can look for as the weekend develops.

Almost always, come the last day of the season, there are teams that will take the game as an opportunity to rest some people heading into the playoffs. The Chiefs will be doing this. The reigning world champs will give quarterback Patrick Mahomes and, probably, several other key contributors the day off. That decision matters little, as KC has clinched the top seed in the conference, and their opponent (the LA Chargers) are not in contention for a playoff spot.

Pittsburgh, also, has chosen rest over the possibility of securing the number two seed – they will rest Ben Roethlisberger in favor of Mason Rudolph. This is quite a significant decision, not only because it lessens Pittsburgh’s opportunity to achieve the second seed, but because it breathes new life into the playoff chances of the Cleveland Browns – a team whose loss to the Jets last week should have doomed it to another year of watching the playoffs on TV.

Since the AFC is less muddy than the NFC, let’s start there.

AFC Likelihoods

First of all, let’s make the following assumptions. Baltimore (playing 4-10-1 Cincinnati) and Indianapolis (playing 1-14 Jacksonville) will both win. That will make both of those teams 11-5, putting Baltimore in and leaving Indianapolis on the cusp of making it in.

Other teams likely to finish 11-5 are Tennessee (who will have to beat 4-11 Houston) and, now, Cleveland with Pittsburgh in rest mode. This scenario gives the Titans the division title (they will have lost only once in their division), and make Indy the second place team in that division. Baltimore also slots in ahead of Cleveland because they swept them in the season series.

So all of this leaves us with Kansas City, Buffalo, Pittsburgh, Tennessee, Indianapolis, Baltimore and Cleveland as teams with at least 11 wins. That’s seven – the number of playoff teams.

That all makes the Miami-Buffalo contest on Sunday the AFC’s most compelling game this week. The most likely occurrence is that Buffalo (currently 12-3 and playing their best ball of the season) will close out Miami (currently 10-5 playing in a cold weather locale and now without Ryan Fitzpatrick available to come off the bench in case starting quarterback Tua Tagovailoa struggles – FitzMagic went on the COVID list yesterday).

Assuming that this is the scenario, here is how the AFC will seed out for the playoffs: 1 – Kansas City (already clinched); 2 – Buffalo (probably 13-3); 3 – Pittsburgh (12-4 in this scenario); 4 – Tennessee (11-5). Then, we come to the three 11-5 second and third place teams. As the third-place team, the Browns will take a back seat to the Ravens. With a head-to-head victory over the Colts, the Baltimore will claim the fifth seed. Cleveland also has a head-to-head win against Indy, so they will slot in at six, leaving the Colts as the seventh seed.

This is the most likely resolution, leaving Miami (10-6 in this scenario) out in the cold – literally and figuratively. In this scenario, the Wildcard Round would shape up like this: Buffalo hosting Indianapolis, Pittsburgh playing Cleveland for a second straight week – but this time in Pittsburgh; and another edition of Tennessee vs Baltimore – this time in Tennessee.

Possible variation #1 – Miami Wins

Miami isn’t without a chance against Buffalo. They do have a top defense (one that has produced more than their share of touchdowns) and their special teams have made big plays in several games. Tua hasn’t been a revelation, yet, at quarterback, but he has mostly played mistake free (he’s thrown just 2 interceptions). If Miami manages the upset, that probably won’t affect Buffalo – assuming Pittsburgh still loses, but it will add a fifth 11-5 team into the wild-card mix.

Now, we would have three second-place teams at 11-5. The win against Buffalo would vault the Dolphins into the fifth seed, as it would make their conference record 8-4 (both the Ravens and the Colts would finish at 7-5). Then we would have the Ravens at six and the Browns at seven (remember, both have beaten Indy this season) with the Colts being left out.

Now your WildCard Round would look like this: Buffalo hosts Cleveland, Pittsburgh gets another game against the Ravens, and Tennessee hosts Miami.

Possible Variation #2 – Pittsburgh Wins

Resting a lot of their key people will certainly play to Cleveland’s favor, but it doesn’t guarantee that Pittsburgh will lose. It’s within the realm of the somewhat plausible that Pittsburgh could win this game, anyway.

Should that happen, the top four are still KC, Buffalo, Pittsburgh and Tennessee. Now, though, we only have two 11-5 second place teams: Baltimore and Indy. Here, as before the Ravens are number 5, with Indy getting the sixth seed. If both Miami and Cleveland lose, Miami’s conference record will still be better than Cleveland’s, so the Dolphins claim the last spot, leaving the Browns to wait for next year.

Now the Wildcard Round is: Buffalo hosting Miami for the second straight week, Indianapolis at Pittsburgh, and Baltimore at Tennessee.

Possible Variation #3 – Miami and Pittsburgh Both Win

Since neither of these teams is likely to win its game, wins by both of them make this the least likely AFC scenario. Note that this is the only combination that drops Buffalo from the second seed. In this permutation, the Steelers would finish 13-3 and the Bills would be 12-4. Now, you would have three 11-5 second-place teams that would be the Wild Card invitees. Miami, with the conference record, would claim the fifth seed, with Baltimore sixth and Indy seventh. Here, again, the Browns would be out. There are no favorable playoff scenarios for Cleveland that do not begin with them beating Pittsburgh.

Under this final scenario, WildCard Weekend would be Pittsburgh hosting Indy, Buffalo would get Baltimore (what a fascinating matchup that would be), and Miami would go to Tennessee.

NFC Possibilities

By comparison, the NFC is somewhat less straightforward..

Let’s start with the East Division. This is a small universe unto itself. With Washington’s loss to Carolina, there is now no chance for any of these teams to finish at .500. They will send their champion to the dance, and that team will go in as the fourth seed. There will be no wildcard team from this division. Three of the four teams still are in play, with only the Eagles being eliminated. Conveniently, they all play each other on the season’s last day.

The Cowboys/Giants will be the undercard – they will play the early Sunday game, with the Eagles and the Football Team playing on Sunday night. The winner of the first game will inherit the title if Washington should lose. If Dallas and Washington both win, both will finish 7-9. In that event Washington get the crown. They swept the two games against the Cowboys this year. If the Giants and Eagles win, then Washington, Dallas and New York all end up 6-10. That would give the Giants the division, based on division record – they would be 4-2 against their brethren, with Washington 3-3 and Dallas 2-4.

So, to keep it simple, Washington wins and they’re in. If they lose, the winner of the other game takes the crown. I believe it is more likely than not that Washington wins – but only if Alex Smith (who was taking snaps with the first team yesterday) is healthy enough to start. Dallas is playing the best ball in this division right now, so if the Football Team falters, Dallas is the better bet to represent the mighty NFC East in the playoffs.

The other three division titles have already been claimed. Green Bay (12-3) is the North champion, New Orleans (11-4) has won the South, and Seattle (11-4) is your NFC West champion.

A Packer win in Week 17 gives them the number one seed and the accompanying bye. That is also true if they lose and the Saints and Seahawks lose as well. If the Pack and the Saints lose and Seattle wins, then the Seahawks and Packers end with identical 12-4 records and Seattle claims the first seed by virtue of their record against common opponents – the Seahawks would finish 5-0 against those teams, while Green Bay – with an earlier loss to Minnesota – would only be 4-1.

If the tie is between Green Bay and New Orleans, the Packers hold that tie-breaker due to a head-to-head victory over the Saints. But the Saints gain the top seed if all three teams tie at 12-4, because they will finish 10-2 in the conference, while the other two will end 9-3.

All three teams end the season against tough but beatable division opponents. Seattle’s might be the toughest, as they play San Francisco. The 49ers (6-9) are a wounded but still dangerous club – and one that has had success against the Seahawks. New Orleans’ path may be the softest – they face Carolina. Very hard to see the Saints losing this one.

The most interesting of these matchups is Green Bay’s. The Packers end their season against Chicago – a team that is also still in contention. After a six-game losing streak brought them to the brink of elimination, the Bears – behind a revived Mitchell Trubisky – have won three straight – and they have scored at least 30 points in four straight games. This has put Chicago in a position to claim a spot with a win.

The reservations I have with the Bears are two-fold. First, their resurgence – as impressive as it has been – has all come at the expense of struggling teams (Houston, Minnesota and Jacksonville). Beating these guys is a far cry from beating the Packers.

Secondly, for Chicago, they will be getting the Packers’ best effort on Sunday. Unlike the Steelers and the Chiefs, there will be no “rest” mode for Green Bay. The Pack desperately wants that top seed. They want the bye week that comes with it, and they want just as much to have the rest of the NFC come through Lambeau to get to the Super Bowl.

So, as I contemplate this contest, I ask myself, can the Bears handle Green Bay’s best game? Until they prove me wrong, that answer is no. It should be noted here that a loss won’t necessarily knock Chicago (who will finish 8-8 if that happens) out of the playoffs.

For all the scenarios involved, the most likely outcomes will keep the top four teams the same and in the same order: Green Bay (13-3); New Orleans (12-4); Seattle (12-4) and Washington (7-9 *if Alex Smith starts, otherwise this could be Dallas). The conference record that would put the Saints ahead if all three first-place teams finished tied is the factor that keeps them ahead of Seattle if both teams either win or lose.

Tampa Bay currently sits in the fifth slot with a 10-5 record. They finish up against Atlanta. I have this unshakable feeling that Atlanta will rise up and upset the Buccaneers. I wrote a little about this yesterday, how this game means more to the Falcon franchise than it does to the Bucs.

Atlanta won’t be able to knock Tampa Bay out of the playoffs, but they can knock them down a peg, depending on what happens elsewhere.

If I’m wrong, here, and Tampa Bay wins, then their result is simple. They finish as the five seed regardless of anything that happens anywhere else, and will journey into Washington or Dallas. Because this hunch is strong, I’m going to proceed with the rest of this assuming that Tampa will fall to 10-6 leaving their final seeding – along with the fate of the Bears – to ride on the Ram-Cardinal game.

Arizona at Los Angeles (Rams) becomes the watershed game of the bottom four NFC playoff hopefuls. The Rams are 9-6 with a previous victory over the Cardinals. Arizona is 8-7.

A Los Angeles victory will vault them into the fifth seed (they have an earlier victory against Tampa Bay), and drop Tampa Bay to sixth. It will also drop Arizona (now at 8-8) into a tie with Chicago for that final spot.

In this scenario, the Bears get the tie-breaker by virtue of a better record against common opponents. They will finish 3-2 in those games (wins against Detroit, the Giants and Carolina with losses to the Rams and Detroit), while Arizona will finish 1-4 against those opponents (their win over the Giants offset by losses to Detroit, Carolina and the Rams twice).

In this scenario, the WildCard round will give us Chicago at New Orleans, Tampa Bay at Seattle, and the Rams at Washington/Dallas.

If Arizona wins this pivotal game, then both they and the Rams finish 9-7, and both make the playoffs. Tampa Bay retains its fifth seed, and Chicago is out. Arizona (with the better division record) would slip ahead of the Rams into the sixth seed, and LA would finish seventh.

Under this scenario, WildCard Weekend would give us the Rams at New Orleans, Arizona at Seattle, and Tampa Bay at Washington/Dallas.

Which of these scenarios is the most likely is a difficult question to answer, as both starting quarterbacks are faced with health issues. The Rams Jared Goff – who broke his thumb last week against Seattle – has already been ruled out of the game, and Arizona’s Kyler Murray has a lower leg injury that had him questionable earlier in the week. The latest I understand about the situation is that Kyler has been upgraded to probable, but the seriousness of the situation cannot be overstated.

So much of Murray’s game is his ability to move. If he is at all limited in his ability to scoot outside of the pocket, then Kyler will be a liability against an elite Ram defense.

As LA has more injury/COVID issues than just their quarterback (they will also be down their top two running backs and their top receiver and some key defensive people) – along with the fact that they will be starting, in John Wolford, a man who has never thrown an NFL pass – I am going to lean toward Arizona in this one.

The only major re-write of this script that is reasonably likely would be for the Bears to find a way to get past Green Bay. If that should happen – and if Arizona should win – that would leave the Bears and the Cardinals with identical 9-7 records. (The Rams wouldn’t enter into the initial tie-breakers because they would be the third-place club.) Now it would be the Bears as the sixth seed (Tampa Bay would still be fifth), dropping Arizona to seventh, and now it’s the Rams who are waiting for next year

WildCard Weekend under this scenario is New Orleans with the bye, Arizona at Seattle, Chicago back in Green Bay for the second week in a row, and Tampa Bay at Washington/Dallas.

If we get the Bears and the Rams winning their final games, the final NFC seeding would be: 1 – New Orleans; 2 – Seattle; 3 – Green Bay; 4 – Washington/Dallas; 5 – Los Angeles; 6 – Tampa Bay; and 7 – Chicago. Arizona is the odd man out, here. The Wildcard schedule here would be Chicago at Seattle, Tampa Bay at Green Bay, and the Rams at Washington/Dallas.

Note please that for all of the whinging about the inclusion of an NFC East team in the playoffs, the presence of either Washington or Dallas won’t deny a spot to any really worthy competitor. The most likely loser in these scenarios would be an 8-8 team (either Chicago or Arizona) who would only have a marginally better claim over either East competitor (which will likely bring a 7-9 record into the playoffs).

The greatest injustice that the playoff structure is capable of would be the awarding of a playoff spot to a 6-10 NY Giants team, while denying one to a 9-7 Rams squad – and this would be the least likely scenario.

My “simplified” version of the playoff picture (which still runs to nearly 2800 words) doesn’t take into account the major upsets that could take place (Cincinnati beating Baltimore, for instance), so there is a remote possibility that these scenarios I’ve painted will be totally upended. But these are the most likely ways that all of this plays out over the season’s last week, with a look at the most likely first round pairings.

And once the playoffs start, the chaos begins in earnest.

A Time to Refrain from Sliding

There were 57 seconds left in the first half – a 6-6 tie between the Los Angeles Rams and the Seattle Seahawks.  The Rams, out of time outs, faced a third-and-eight on their own 27-yard line.

Abandoning the pocket, Ram quarterback Jared Goff was scrambling towards the first-down that would keep the drive going.  But as he approached the sticks, and linebacker Bobby Wagner closed in, Jared slid to a stop one yard before the marker, setting up a Ram punt.

In the broadcast booth, ex-Dallas quarterback Troy Aikman reviewed the play, and watching Jared slide short, he pointed out that “there’s a time to slide and a time to go for it.”

For some time, now, I have been trying to put my finger on exactly what it was about Jared that was preventing me from truly believing in him.  That play – and the comment by Aikman – helped clarify the thing for me.

The particular play, of course, mattered little.  Even if he had ducked his head and plowed through for the first down, the Rams were still in their own territory with 40-some seconds and no time outs – an unlikely scenario for more scoring.  But of great significance is the revelation that emerged from the moment.

Put into the language of the Proverbs, there is a time to slide, and a time to refrain from sliding.  Jared didn’t slide due to any lack of toughness.  Later in the game, Goff would break his thumb against a helmet, would pop the thumb “back in,” and continue playing.  He slid because he didn’t realize that it was a time to refrain from sliding.

Coach Sean McVay’s system is called “quarterback friendly.”  What that means is that the system defines things very clearly for the quarterback in most situations.  The system features a lot of boots and roll-outs that give Jared a lot of one-key options (if the safety comes in, throw it over his head; if he stays back, throw underneath him).  Usually the game plan features a lot of play action (on average, the Rams run play action about 50% more often than the average offense).  This pulls linebackers in toward the line, widening the gap between the levels of the defense.

(On Sunday afternoon, for some reason, LA got away from its play-action identity, calling it only 9 times.)

When Goff can roll out of his break and see what he is looking for in the secondary, he can be very decisive and very effective.

It also helps that the Rams’ concept is heavy on short passes to receivers with room to add yardage after the catch.  At the beginning of the week, Jared was running football’s fourth shortest passing game – his average completion was to a receiver just 4.8 yards from scrimmage.  But that receiver would then add an average of 6 more yards after the catch (the second highest after-the-catch average in the league).

Jared’s problems come when things don’t go quite according to plan – as happened on this particular scramble.  Jared was caught in-between at the decisive moment.  Go for it? Slide?

When the moment comes too quickly for him, Jared goes with a reaction – a reflex really.  There’s the defender – time to slide.

It was the exact process behind Goff’s worst moment in Los Angeles’ 20-9 loss to Seattle (gamebook) (summary).

The possession before, leading 6-3, the Rams began on their own 14 with 8:37 left before the half.  Ten plays later, LA had moved the ball 47 yards to the Seattle 29, while nursing 5:06 off the clock.

On first-and-ten, the Rams ran play-action.  But Goff was flushed from the pocket and came scrambling out to his right.  As he approached the line of scrimmage and the sideline at about the same time, it was decision time.  Run the ball?  Throw it away?  Try to find a receiver?

There was no time for him to ponder, so Jared reacted.  Downfield he caught a flash of receiver Robert Wood somewhere up the sideline.  He came to a nearly full stop just as he was about to reach the line, thought it over for the briefest of moments before trying to flip the ball up-field to Woods.

The ball fluttered away from the line, where Quandre Diggs closed on it and made the interception.

Defending the Rams

Throughout the game, Seattle was able – in a lot of ways – to speed things up for Jared, putting him in that in-between zone for much of the afternoon.

As their defense has been coming together coming down the stretch, Seattle has been able to generate a significant pass rush with just their down linemen.  Even though the Seahawks sent an extra rusher only 11 times, the pressure on Jared was steady throughout the game.  Goff ended up being sacked 3 times (all in the second half) and hit a total of 9 times – part of 18 pressures that kept pushing him into that in-between zone.

Additionally, they sat on Jared’s short routes, forcing him to look farther up the field.  His average completion in this game was to a receiver 6.75 yards from scrimmage (who then added only 3.00 additional yards after the catch).  It was not an offensive style that the Rams are comfortable in.

Seattle also took away the right sideline – the side that Jared rolls to when he’s in trouble.  Jared was just 5 of 13 (38.5%) when throwing to the right side of the field for 70 yards and that one interception.

It was a nuanced game-plan from an opponent that understands Jared’s strengths and weaknesses very well.

Is this fixable?  I’m not sure.  None of his issues have anything to do with what Jared knows or what he has or hasn’t been coached to do.  It’s that moment when his instincts take over that he gets into trouble.  And I’m not sure what to do about a quarterback’s instincts.

Missed Opportunities

The interception caused at least a three-point swing – if not a ten-point swing – as Seattle turned the mistake into a field goal (remember that the Rams were within field goal range at the time).  It was one of three Ram drives that lasted at least 5 minutes.  They scored a total of 3 points off of those drives.

On their first possession of the second half, LA drove 69 yards on 12 plays in a drive that lasted 7:17.  It brought them to first-and-goal from the 2.

From there they ran on four straight plays, being turned away each time.  Would one of those downs have been a good opportunity for a play-action pass?  Possibly.  But I find I can’t argue with a coach who wants to run the ball right at them in that situation.  It is axiomatic in football that if you can’t get one yard when you really need it (especially when you take four shots at it), that you don’t really deserve to win.

In the Rams’ case last Sunday afternoon, they couldn’t, and they didn’t.

Not How You Start

One of the game’s most instinctual quarterbacks played for the other team.  That would be Russell Wilson.  Long regarded as one of the better deep throwers in the game, Wilson missed that deep shot several times in the first half.  Harassed himself by the Ram front four, Wilson went into the locker at the half with that 6-6 tie, and little production to show for the first 30 minutes.  Wilson was 10-of-19 (52.6%) for only 84 yards.

On the first third-down of the second half, Russell rolled out and lofted a 45-yard beauty up the right sideline to David Moore.  It led to the game’s first touchdown, and sparked a second half in which Wilson completed 10 of 13 (76.9%) for 141 yards (10.85 yards per attempted pass).

The Seahawks look a lot better as they head into the playoffs than they did last year (and this win clinched the division title for them).  This year, their defense looks to be a strength (you couldn’t say that last year) and they have healthy running backs (remember last year that all of their running backs were injured).

And, of course, they have Russell Wilson.  Seattle looks like they will be a tough out.

A Time to Throw Long

In Week 11, the Pittsburgh Steelers went to 10-0 with a relatively easy 27-3 conquest of Jacksonville.  At that point, it looked like the AFC would be coming down to Pittsburgh and Kansas City.

Ten games into the season, the Steelers were scoring 29.8 points a game, never scoring fewer than 24 in any one game.  Defensively, they were allowing just 17.4 points per game.  Offensively, they were football’s fourth highest-scoring team, while the defense led all of football in fewest points allowed.  They also ranked fourth in total yardage given up (third against the pass).  The 71.8 passer rating against them was the lowest in football.  They also led all defenses in sacks (38) and sack rate (9.9%).

Utilizing a new quick-pass offensive style, 38-year-old quarterback Ben Roethlisberger was sustaining a 101.4 passer rating, while being sacked just 10 times (only 2.6% of his drop-backs).  Things couldn’t have gone much better for the Steelers to that point.

All of that changed with their Week 12 game against the Baltimore Ravens – this was the game that was postponed about three times and finally played with about half of the Ravens on the COVID list.  Pittsburgh squeaked to a 19-14 win, but things wouldn’t be the same thereafter.  The Steelers lost the next three games, scoring 17 points against Washington, 15 against Buffalo, and – shockingly – just 17 against Cincinnati.  (The defense served up a total of 76 points during that stretch, as well – over the four games just preceding, Pittsburgh had surrendered a total of 46 points).

During this offensive brown-out, Pittsburgh converted just 11 of 41 third downs, and their running game – never among the league’s best – completely disappeared.  Through ten games, they were averaging 102.2 rushing yards a game and 3.9 yards per carry (both figures below the league averages).  During the losing streak, they managed just 51.3 rushing yards a game and just 2.9 per carry.

As for Ben and the short passing game, teams had begun to sink their coverages securely around all the quick-opening underneath routes.  His completion percentage dropped from 67.1% to 57.8%, his per-pass average fell from 6.67 yards to 5.17 yards, his yards per completion went from 9.9 to 8.9, and his touchdown percentage fell from 6.3 to 3.9.  Meanwhile his interception percentage rose from 1.3 to 3.1.  During the losing streak, Roethlisberger’s touchdown-to-interception ratio was a struggling 5-4, and his passer rating sat at 71.8 – exactly what Pittsburgh’s defense had held opposing passers to over those first ten games.  Add in a case of the drops that his receivers suffered through (and during one three-game stretch Ben had 14 of his passes dropped) and you have a picture of an offense in a bit of a crisis.

Clearly, it was time to change things up.  Defenses would now have to be loosened up, or they would smother the life out of the Steelers.

With the division title there for the taking, Pittsburgh welcomed the 10-4 Indianapolis Colts into Heinz Field for a critical Week 16 matchup rife with playoff implications.  Certainly, the message of the past few weeks had registered.  It was time to throw the ball long.

But for thirty horrific minutes against the Colts, things just snowballed.  Roethlisberger completed only 11 of 20 through that first half for but 98 yards.  The rushing attack accounted for just 4 yards on seven rushes – none of them gaining more than 2 yards.

Indianapolis trotted off the field at the half having outgained the Steelers 217-93, and their 21-7 halftime lead was only marred by a short-field touchdown allowed.  Pittsburgh’s defense had briefly risen to the moment, striping the ball away from Indianapolis quarterback Philip Rivers in the early moments of the second quarter.  The recovery was advanced to the Indy 3-yard line – about as far as the Steeler offense could sustain a drive.

In the aftermath of Pittsburgh’s surprising 28-24 comeback victory (gamebook) (summary), the questions posed to Ben and to head coach Mike Tomlin wondered why they waited till the second half to throw the ball up the field.  The answer, of course, was that they didn’t.  The deep strike had been a part of the game plan from the beginning, but throughout the first two quarters they just couldn’t connect with the big play.

One, in particular, worth remembering came with 14 seconds left in the half.  Diontae Johnson flew up the right sideline, and Ben let it go for him.  But Johnson veered his route back toward the middle, while Roethlisberger’s throw continued up the sideline.  In the locker room at the half, the two got together and compared notes on the play.

Say this for the Steelers and Tomlin their coach.  Through all of this, there was no panic.  They knew that they just needed to hit on one of those plays to dispel the dark clouds and get a little momentum going.

And so it was, with 3:23 left in the third quarter and the Steelers now down 24-7, that Johnson flew up that same right sideline and Roethlisberger lofted that same pass.  This time, however, Johnson’s route hugged that sideline.  He finally caught up with the pass at about the point he was crossing the goal line.  In the signature moment of the comeback, Diontae laid out for the throw.  Responsible for 13 drops this season, this time Johnson reeled in the big one, and the rally was on.

During the rousing second half, Ben completed 23 of his last 29 passes (79.3%) for 244 yards and 3 touchdowns.  He completed 3 passes of more than 20 yards up-field.  In addition to the 39-yard strike to Johnson, Ben completed a 34-yarder to Chase Claypool and the rally capping 25-yard touchdown toss to JuJu Smith-Schuster.  That throw – with 7:38 left in the contest – gave Pittsburgh it’s only lead of the afternoon – the only one they would need.  The one that produced the 28-24 final.

Ben entered the contest running the NFL’s third-shortest passing game.  His average completion was only 4.5 yards from the line of scrimmage.  On Sunday, his average completion was 6.09 yards from scrimmage – which is about the league average.  The quick pass was still very much a part of the offense – in fact, 84% of Ben’s throws (including all three touchdown passes) were out of his hand in less than 2.5 seconds.  Coming into the game, only 75% of his throws were out of his hand that quickly.

The difference on Sunday was how well the passing game did when Ben did hold the ball for more than 2.5 seconds.  Through the first 14 games of the season, Ben’s passer rating when he held the ball was a disappointing 63.5.  Last Sunday, he was 6-for-7 for 88 yards when taking more than 2.5 seconds.

Going Forward

It was certainly a relief for the Steeler organization to break through a little bit like this.  It’s probably premature, though, to assume that their struggles are over.  The pass offense in general will profit from this slight change in emphasis.  There is nothing like hitting a few deep throws to get the defense to back off and open up some underneath routes.  The running game, though, is still a mess.  Pittsburgh came out of the Colt contest with all of 20 rushing yards and a 1.4 yard average per carry.  Colt running back Jonathan Taylor had almost that many on one carry (he broke off an 18-yard run in their first possession of the second half).

Until they fix their running game, I don’t believe in the Steelers’ ability to run the table in the playoffs.  As opposed to last year, very few of the teams likely to make the playoffs are run-dependent teams.  But almost all of them – especially the ones that are most likely to bring home the hardware – have a legitimate running game that they can turn to whenever they need to.  Pittsburgh does not.  At some point during the playoffs that is almost certainly going to bring them down.

The Disappearance of the Colt Running Game

After running the ball 20 times in the first half, Indianapolis ran just 8 times in the second.  After controlling the clock for 18:17 of the first half, they held the ball for just 14:11 thereafter, adding fuel to the Pittsburgh comeback.

In the post-game, questions were asked about the disappearance of the running attack.  Coach Frank Reich informed the press that they had more runs called, but they checked out of them when the Steelers showed certain pressures.  Elaborating on the situation, Rivers offered that the Colts had called running plays from formations with three wide-receivers on the field.  The intent was that Pittsburgh would remove a linebacker in favor of a defensive back and open up some running space.  But according to Philip, Pittsburgh stayed with their base personnel, and Indy chose not to run against that front seven without significant numbers of big people on the field to block them.

They weren’t asked why they didn’t run more large-package formations (two or three tight ends, for example) and try to keep the running game going.

A Time to Refrain from Throwing Long

Matt Ryan’s season has been opposite – in many ways – from Ben Roethlisberger’s season.  Record, of course, is an obvious point of comparison.  Pittsburgh took the field against Indy carrying an 11-3 record.  As Ryan’s Atlanta Falcons took the field in Kansas City to play the reigning world champions, they sported a 4-10 record.

But more than record separates these two veteran quarterbacks – the very styles of their passing attacks are strikingly different.  Where Roethlisberger has spent almost the entire season throwing short, quick passes, Ryan’s attack has been one of football’s most up-field attacks.  Going into last Sunday’s contest against the Chiefs, Matt was second in the league in air yards per pass thrown.  His average target was 8.8 yards from scrimmage.  He led the entire NFL in air yards per completed pass, with his average completion occurring 7.5 yards from scrimmage.

Some of this is certainly game-situation related.  The Falcons have been behind a lot this year.  But mostly this is an organization that believes that if you have a quarterback with a strong arm and top-shelf receivers like Julio Jones (who missed this game), Calvin Ridley and Russell Gage, then your offense should be doing more than dumping screen passes to running backs.

And so Ryan has taken his shots up the field.  Targeted 68 times, Jones has been an average of 11.2 yards from scrimmage for every pass thrown in his direction.  Ridley’s average is 15.1 yards away for each of his 131 targets.  Another receiver (who also didn’t play last Sunday) Olamide Zaccheaus has been targeted 32 times this year at an average distance of 13.8 yards upfield.

Against Kansas City, you could make the argument that this mind-set should continue, the assumption being that with the Chief scoring machine on the other sideline, your own offense should be all about the points – as many as possible as quickly as possible.

The problem was that the game’s biggest statistical mismatch was Patrick Mahomes and the Kansas City passing attack (ranked first in the NFL) against the Falcon passing defense (ranked second to last).  The Chiefs ranked above average to well above average in every significant passing statistic – including passer rating, where Mahomes ranked third at 110.6.  The Falcon defense ranked below average to well below average in every significant passing statistic – including passer rating, where their 103.2 ranked fifth-worst.  These numbers suggest that for the Falcons – or anyone, really – to try to bomb it out with the Chiefs – trying to match them touchdown pass for touchdown pass – is mostly like bringing a butter knife to a gun fight.

So, Atlanta tried a different approach.  While coaches Raheem Morris and Jeff Ulbrich fashioned a daring defensive game plan that worked better than it had any right to, offensive coordinator Dirk Koetter played complimentary football.  The offensive objective was to control the clock, keep Mahomes and his receivers on the sideline – hopefully at the end of the day denying them a possession on two.  So Atlanta ran the ball as much as they legitimately could (which turned out to be 23 rushes).

And they went to the short passing game.

In contrast to the offense run most of the season, Matt and the Falcons went all Ben Roethlisberger on the Chiefs.  Of Matt’s 35 passes, only 3 were at targets more than 20 yards from scrimmage.  With two of his top wide-receivers on the shelf, Matt dropped the ball off liberally to his tight ends and running backs.  Eighteen of his passes went to that grouping.  Ridley still provided the occasional long threat (he was an average of 15.0 yards downfield on his 9 targets), but Gage became another check-down option.  Targeted 5 times, Russell finished with 4 catches for 23 yards – his average depth of target being just 1.4 yards.

For the game, Matt’s average target was 6.51 yards from scrimmage – still higher than average, but more than two yards shorter than normal.  To this point of the season, the Falcons were averaging only 4.0 yards after the catch.  Against KC they averaged 5.56.  In fact, in the final analysis, Ryan’s 300-yard passing game broke exactly evenly between yards in the air (150) and yards after the catch (also 150).

The results were as much as Atlanta could have hoped for.  Matt completed 10 of 12 (83.3%) in the first half for 129 yards (10.75 per attempted pass).  For the game, he completed 77.1% of his passes (27 of 35), tossed a couple of touchdowns, and finished with a 121.1 passer rating against a very good pass defense.

This in spite of the fact that he was blitzed almost half of the time (19 of his 39 drop-backs), was sacked 4 times and hit 12 times on the day.  The Falcons finished with only 14 points, but did so while controlling the clock (33:12) and limiting KC’s possessions (they had 10 instead of the normal 12 or 13).

It was a very gritty offensive performance that gave this team a legitimate shot at the upset.

A Time to Blitz

Two, of course, can play at the blitzing game, and Atlanta returned the favor by coming after Mahomes.  They came after him with an extra rusher 39.1% of the time (18 blitzes in 46 drop-backs) and played aggressive man-coverage behind.  Much of the success of the plan – and it did succeed – came, I think, from the surprise factor.  It was probably the last thing that KC expected.

Few teams challenge the athleticism of the KC receivers.  And few teams come after Mahomes.  Over the course of the season coming into that game, Patrick was seeing blitzes only 20.2% of the time – mostly because he is one of football’s best at picking apart teams that blitz him.

In the postgame, Patrick owned that he missed checking into some protections and didn’t find the hot routes that he usually does.  As much as anything else, I believe that had to do with the surprise of the Atlanta game plan.  Patrick was rarely hit or hurried as the line did its usual excellent job of picking up the blitz.  Mahomes wasn’t sacked.  But his timing was visibly effected.

Patrick ended his afternoon with a pedestrian 79.5 passer rating – his lowest of the season.  His final line showed him below the NFL average in all of the passing categories, except yards per completion.  As you might expect against a defense that featured a heavy dose of blitz, there were some big plays hit, and Patrick did pick up 278 yards on his 24 completions (11.58 per).

All things considered, though, on both sides of the ball the Falcons delivered a surprising effort against arguably football’s best team.  It was almost enough to secure them the victory.

In Their Grasp

The game deciding sequence began with just 2:07 left in the contest.  Trailing 14-10, the Chiefs faced first-and-ten on the Atlanta 25.  Mahomes went for it all, lofting a pass for Tyreek Hill in the middle of the end zone down the right sideline.

Just in front of him, a leaping AJ Terrell, in a breath-taking show of athleticism, soared above Hill’s head and latched onto the ball at its highest point, pulling down the interception that would almost certainly end Kansas City’s long winning streak.  Except that as he landed in the end zone, the impact jarred the ball out of his grasp.

You knew what would happen then.

On the very next play, Damarcus Robinson shook free of Kendall Sheffield (who had no safety help) to gather in the 25-yard pass that put the Chiefs back in front 17-14.

Atlanta still had 1:55 of clock left and two time outs.  And true to their plucky nature, back came the Falcons.  Ryan completed three quick passes to bring Atlanta to the KC 28 yard line with a minute left.  Later, an offsides penalty put the Falcons on the Chief 21-yard line, first-and-five, 27 seconds left – Atlanta still with two timeouts.

Three incomplete passes later, now with 14 seconds left, Atlanta brought out Pro-Bowl kicker Younghoe Koo – riding a streak of 27 consecutive field goals – to give them a tie and send the game into overtime.

And, of course, he missed – the kick fluttering wide to the right.  And with that, Kansas City’s amazing streak continues (gamebook) (summary).  The Chiefs have now won 10 in a row, 14 of 15 for the season, and 23 of their last 24.

For all of that, though, there is a strong sense that this is a Kansas City team that’s winning on guile, guts and a fair amount of luck.  Of their ten straight wins, the last seven have all been one-score games (and four of those have been decided by a field goal).  This list includes excellent teams like New Orleans and Tampa Bay, but also includes several that you would think should be more easily subdued – Carolina, Denver and, of course, Atlanta.  They are now winning games that they probably should lose.

That’s all well and good, but I have this unshakeable feeling that a tough-luck loss is coming for them.  I absolutely concur that this is football’s best team, but even the best team loses from time to time.  At this point, that loss could well interrupt their playoff run.  If that loss comes.

Once More Into the Breach

Meanwhile, the nightmare season for the Falcons now has only one more game to go.  After yet another galling loss to a team on its way to the playoffs, Atlanta now gets a second helping of Tom Brady and the Buccaneers.  I am not even going to attempt to recap all the woulda-shoulda-couldas of the Falcons’ season – the number of late leads lost, the number of near victories – at this point its water under the bridge.

I will say this, though.  This last game against Tampa Bay, I believe, has become very important for this franchise – perhaps even more than it is to the Bucs.  After everything they’ve been through, getting one more shot at Brady, one more chance to prove themselves against a playoff team – one last chance before the season ends to close out a team – all of these things will be enormous for this franchise.

The Proverb says that to everything there is a season.  For the Falcons, though, that season will have to be next season.