Packers Easily Clinch their Division

Green Bay’s Aaron Jones fumbled on the game’s third offensive play (with Minnesota recovering), and Mike Boone crashed off left guard for 5 yards on the Vikings first play from scrimmage.  Four plays into 2019’s final Monday Night game, and the start for Minnesota couldn’t have been better.  With the game barely started, they broke the huddle for their second offensive play with a second and goal from the Packer 5-yard line.

And then Za’Darius Smith took over the game.  Blowing through the Viking offensive line as though it was made of tissue paper, Smith would pressure Viking quarterback Kirk Cousins on each of the next two plays, forcing him to throw both passes away.  The Vikings’ golden opportunity ended in a field goal.

After the Packers were thrashed by San Francisco in Week 12 – a game where Jimmy Garoppolo threw for 253 yards on just 14 completions – I suggested that Green Bay’s two edge rushers (Za’Darious and Preston Smith) might need a little help.  The statistics generally support this sentiment.  In spite of the successes of the two Smith’s, the Packers came into that Monday night contest slightly below the league average in quarterback sacks (they had 35 against the league average of 35.1) and their 6.7% sack percentage was right at the league average.  The lack of pass-rush pressure contributed significantly to the 12.6 yards per catch that the secondary has allowed – the fifth worst figure in the league.

As the season plays out, the lack of additional pass rushers may, indeed, come back to haunt the Packers.  But for one Monday night in late December, Za’Darius Smith didn’t need any help.

For the game, Green Bay sacked Cousins 5 times (3.5 of them by Z Smith), hit him 7 times (5 by Z Smith), and pressured him 10 times (6 by Z Smith).  He also had 5 of their 7 tackles-for-a-loss as he was just as devastating to the running game as he was to the Viking passing attack.

It is uncommon to see a team dominated as thoroughly as Green Bay dominated the Vikings – much worse than indicated by the 23-10 final (gamebook) (summary).  Both of the Minnesota scores were set up by first-half turnovers, with the two scoring drives totaling all of 31 yards.  The Vikings finished the first half with just 2 first downs, and finished the game with just 7 on 139 yards of total offense.  They failed to earn a first down in 8 of their 13 possessions, and even finished three of those possessions with negative yardage (if penalty yards are included).  Counting sacks, Minnesota averaged fewer yards per passing play (2.2) than they averaged per running play (3.6).

The full price of the offense’s inability to stay on the field was born by the defense, who endured 75 Green Bay offensive snaps over a soul-crushing 37:32 of possession.  The Packers eventually rolled up 184 rushing yards against Minnesota – 118 of them in the game’s second half (almost as many second half rushing yards as the Vikings managed total yards for the whole game).

For most of the season, this was one of the NFL’s most anticipated games.  Looming before the second-seeded Packers was this trip into Minnesota and the raucous atmosphere of US Bank Stadium.  Over the second half of the season, the Viking offense had come to life, and this was expected to be a pitched battle for the division crown.

Za’Darius, apparently, never got the memo.

The aftermath gives Green Bay the NFC North division, again, and holds them very securely in the second spot in the NFC pecking order.  There is still work to be done.  If they beat Detroit in Week 17, they could finish as high as number one (if San Francisco loses) or they could still drop to third if they lose to the Lions and New Orleans beats Carolina.

As for the Vikings, their final game against Chicago has been rendered meaningless – they will finish as the NFC’s sixth seed.  They will head into this year’s playoffs with all the questions raised by this game hovering over them.

That first playoff game will come on the road against one of the teams (the 49ers, Packers or Saints) that currently sit at 12-3.  It will be a tall order for this Viking team.

Bills Fall Eight Yards Short

It was fitting that J.C. Jackson would be the one to make that last play.

With 5:06 left in the game, and trailing the Patriots 24-17, Buffalo began their last drive on their own 25 where they began to drive methodically downfield – holding two timeouts.

Members of the same division, the Bills line up against the vaunted New England defense twice a year, and are certainly more familiar with them than many of the teams that have faced them this year.  While they knew the Patriots would match cornerback supreme Stephon Gilmore on John Brown – their most dangerous receiver, they also knew which of the New England defenders they could take advantage of.

Their favorite matchup of the evening was Cole Beasley on Jackson.  All evening Jackson struggled accounting for Beasley’s quickness.  For the game, Cole would catch 7 passes for 108 yards – most of them against Jackson in man coverage.  He caught 5 for 85 yards in the second half alone, including 4 in this final drive for 57 yards.

The Bills picked up two early first downs on throws to Beasley of 13 and then 12 yards, bringing them to midfield.  An 11-yard scramble from Josh Allen brought them to the Patriot 39 with 3:39 left.  But here, the drive seemed to stall.  When a third-down run from Devin Singletary came up a yard short, Buffalo put the game in the hands of young quarterback, Allen.

As he had done on Thanksgiving against Dallas, Josh attempted to navigate the yard with a quarterback sneak, only to find his way initially hedged.  Not to be denied, Allen fought his way out of the chaos at the line and found enough of an opening to dive through to pick up the first down.

After an illegal formation penalty brought them back to the 33, Allen (in spite of heavy pressure) threw the pass that looked like it might send the game into overtime.

New England showed man coverage in the pre-snap, but dropped into cover-two.  Outside receiver Robert Foster’s deep corner route pulled safety Devin McCourty further and further from the middle of the field, opening a void 25-yards downfield that Beasley settled into for the catch that gave Buffalo a first-and-goal at the 8.

The Stakes

Usually in their Week 16 game, the Patriots are looking for that victory that will wrap up the number one seed in their conference.  This year, that opportunity was already lost.  Notwithstanding that they had yet to clinch their own division (a rarity in New England), the Patriots did come into the game holding the conference’s second seed – with its promise of a first-round bye if they could hang onto it.  Buffalo came into the game with a playoff berth already locked up and the fifth seed all but assured.  They did have a chance to actually take the division, but that would mean not only would they have to beat the Patriots in New England, but Miami would have to do the same next week – an unlikely combination.

So, from a seeding standpoint, this game was more important to the Patriots than the Bills.  The stakes for the Bills were less tangible, but just as high.  They were looking for that franchise moment – that one game when they would go into New England and knock the defending champions down in an important contest.  In that sense, these final 8 yards might have been the biggest yards of the Buffalo season.  They were literally all that separated them from the longtime kings of their division and their conference.

They had 2:21 left, including one timeout and the two-minute warning to re-write the franchise narrative.

The End Game

The first-down call was damaging – a designed off-tackle run by Allen that resulted in the loss of a yard and took the game to the two-minute warning.  Their moment would come on the next play.

Another of the matchups available to Buffalo all game – and one that they perhaps didn’t take advantage of as much as they should have – was tight end Dawson Knox on safety Patrick Chung, who had coverage on him all over the field.  On the shorter routes, Chung could adequately hang with Dawson, but was no match for his speed on deeper routes.

With 9:30 left in the first quarter, Knox ran a deep route from the NE 17 to the corner of the left end zone with Chung trailing him by about five yards.  But Allen couldn’t get enough loft on the ball and missed the touchdown as he threw a line drive over Dawson’s head.

With 16 seconds left in the first half, they came back to this matchup, with Knox running toward that same corner of the end zone.  This time, Josh laid the ball in perfectly for a 33-yard play that left the ball on the one-yard line, setting up the score that sent the game into the half tied at ten.

Now, with two minutes left, it was time for Knox vs Chung round three.  Again, Dawson was running in the left corner of the end zone, with Patrick in trail mode.  And once again, Josh couldn’t get any air under the ball.  As the players, coaches and fans of the Bills watched the pass soar over Knox’ head, they all knew what would happen next.  Now it was third-and-goal.

With Knox bracketed by Chung and Joejuan Williams, Allen had to go elsewhere.  Josh may have had a shot at Beasley in a smallish window in between Jackson and Duron Harmon, and may actually have been waiting for Brown to get some separation from Gilmore on a crossing route.  Whatever he was waiting for, Allen held the ball too long.  And with Kyle Van Noy streaming around the corner to his right, Josh just pulled the ball down and stepped up into the sack and a six-yard loss.

The fourth-and-goal play was doomed from the start.  After showing a seven-man blitz, three of those potential rushers dropped off.  But the deception did its job.  Of the four who actually rushed, three came through free – Van Noy and John Simon off the edges, and especially Jamie Collins up the middle.  The pressure caused Allen to retreat all the way to the 30-yard line before he flung his desperation pass into the corner of the right end zone.  There in the area was Beasley.  But underneath him, and watching the ball all the way, was Jackson.  They converged along the right sideline, where both leaped for the ball.  But J.C. had the superior position, and slapped Buffalo’s last-gasp pass away.

Aftermath

With the 24-17 victory (gamebook) (summary), New England wins its eleventh consecutive division title, but probably must still beat Miami next week to get their first round bye.  Back in the playoffs, Buffalo will be the fifth seed – almost certainly headed to Houston.

As to the eight yards, well it’s closer than Buffalo has been to the Patriots in many a year.  But there are no moral victories in the NFL.  This game was there for Buffalo to take.  The Bills will now take this “almost” with them into the playoffs, where questions about Allen and the offense will follow them.

For the Patriots, in addition to the division crown, this game may mark the point where the offense finally figured itself out.  Measured against an exceedingly tough Buffalo defense that ranked third overall, second in points allowed, third against the pass and second in passer rating against, the heretofore struggling Patriot offense created 414 yards of offense – 143 of them rush yards.  More than this, quarterback Tom Brady saddled that Buffalo pass defense with a 111.0 passer rating.  It was Brady’s best passer rating game since Week Three against Miami, and the highest allowed by Buffalo this season.  In the second half, Tom completed 10 of 11 passes (90.9%) for 137 yards.  After controlling the ball for 21:17 of the first half, the Patriots went on to dominate time of possession 38:52 to 21:08.  They held the ball longer in the first half than Buffalo did all game.

Finally, future opponents of New England will note Jackson’s difficulties with quicker receivers and Chung’s struggles with tight ends that can go deep.  As the season winds to its close and we learn more and more about them, the key to the Patriot defense is almost certainly its ability to rush the passer.

Unique to New England is the absence of a dominant pass rusher.  There is no Nick Bosa or Aaron Donald – no one for the offense to focus on.  It’s the Patriot linebackers that make the pass rush so difficult to slow down: Don’t’a Hightower, Jamie Collins and Kyle Van Noy.  They line up everywhere.  Sometimes they rush.  Sometimes they don’t.  Sometimes they time their delayed rushes perfectly.

It works out to being a sixty-minute guessing game.  If the offense guesses wrong, they will be plagued with free rushers into their backfield.  And if they guess right and manage to put blockers on all the Patriots that are coming, then there will be opportunities in the secondary for big plays.

Last Saturday, the Bills almost cashed in on enough of them.

Defensive Question Marks in the NFC

With 6:47 left in the first half last Saturday evening, Todd Gurley punched the ball over from the one yard line to give the Los Angeles Rams a 21-10 lead in a must-have game against their division rivals from San Francisco.  By game’s end, the Rams would roll up 395 yards of offense, score 4 touchdowns, and ring up 31 points against the NFL’s second-ranked defense.

With 4:50 left in the first quarter the next Sunday afternoon, Tennessee’s rookie receiver A.J. Brown took a pitch and cut it up field for a 49-yard touchdown run that gave the Titans a 14-0 lead in a fairly critical game against the New Orleans Saints.  By game’s end – with quarterback Ryan Tannehill ringing up a 133.6 passer rating – the Titans would finish with 397 yards, 4 touchdowns and 28 points against the Saints.

Neither lead would hold, as both the 49ers and Saints would rally to victories – 34-31 for San Francisco (gamebook) (summary), and 38-28 for New Orleans (gamebook) (summary).  But as the regular season is winding to its close, questions are starting to emerge about the defenses of nearly all of the top teams in the NFC.

Among the teams that have clinched playoff spots in the NFC, Minnesota ranks fourteenth in total defense, after allowing over 180 rushing yards for the second time in four weeks.  The Seahawks, who have served up at least 24 points in four straight games, and have allowed over 20 in all but two games this season, rank twenty-sixth in yardage and twenty-first in points allowed.  Green Bay’s defense seems to be on the best roll at the moment – the Packers haven’t allowed more than 15 points in any of their last 4 games – a span during which they have held opposing passers to a 61.0 rating while allowing just 92.3 rushing yards per game and only 3.8 yards per run.  The problem is that all of this domination has come against some of the most struggling offenses in football – the Giants, Redskins and Bears.

Last Monday, they did dominate Minnesota – in Minnesota, no less.  The Vikings, though, were minus both of their top running backs and gave up on the run very early.  So that game comes with a significant asterisk.  The last healthy and competent offense they faced was San Francisco in Week 12 – a game they were pushed around in to the tune of 37-8.  The Packers (who rank just eighteenth in the league) have also allowed 34 points to Philadelphia, 24 to Dallas, 22 to Detroit, 24 to Oakland, 24 to Kansas City and 26 to the Chargers.

And then there are the Saints and the 49ers.

The Saints opened the season outscoring Houston 30-28, and have been trying to stay one score ahead of its defense ever since.  They are currently football’s fifth highest scoring team (with 416 points on the season), while ranking fourteenth in scoring defense – having allowed 331 over 15 games this season.  Over the last five weeks they have allowed 31 points to Carolina, 48 points to San Francisco and now 28 points to Tennessee.  This is not a formula that bodes well for a deep playoff run.

In addition to the 272 passing yards and three touchdowns from Tannehill, the Saints also saw the Derrick Henry-less Titans pound them for 149 ground yards and a 5.7 average.  The shakiness of their defense will probably cost them a first-round playoff bye, and will most likely be their demise once the playoffs start.

The surprise addition to this list, of course, is San Francisco.  In their 7-0 start, defense was the 49ers calling card.  Through that point of the season, San Fran had surrendered just 7 touchdowns, while racking up 27 sacks.  Through their first 11 games, they dropped 44 opposing quarterbacks.  That total led the NFL at that point – as did their 11.8% sack ratio.  Through their first eleven games, they ranked first in overall defense and first against the pass while ranking second in points allowed with 163 and second in passer rating against at 72.7.

Since then, opposing game plans have sought to neutralize that pass rush – and with surprising success.  Over the last four games, the 49ers have allowed 20 points to Baltimore, 46 to New Orleans, 29 to Atlanta, and 31 to the Rams.  Over the last 152 pass attempts against them, the 49ers have just 3 sacks.  Not coincidentally, they have also intercepted just one pass in those last four games, while allowing 15 touchdowns – ten of them on passes.  The last four quarterbacks they’ve faced hold a 102.4 passer rating.

The Rams subverted the San Francisco rush by rolling Jared Goff out of the pocket – and usually out of trouble, and by slowing the 49ers with a bevy of screen passes.

The AFC side of the board has plenty of worrisome defenses – Buffalo, New England and especially Baltimore.  On the NFC side, the best defense may well be fielded by the team with the worst record In the tournament – Philadelphia.

Eagles in the Playoffs?

After Week Seven, a somber Doug Pederson stood before the room full of reporters and conceded that the 37-10 thrashing his team had just absorbed at the hands of the hated Dallas Cowboys was one of the low points of his career.  Week 16 would provide sweet, sweet revenge as the Eagles delivered a dagger to the Cowboy hearts with a 17-9 victory that left them in charge of the division.  While I can’t honestly say I’d be stunned if the Giants rose up in Week 17 to knock Philly back out of the playoffs, still, all that stands between the Eagles and the division title is a win against the 4-11 Giants.  Consistency has not been the strong point of this division.

As to the Eagle defense – yes, they have had their gaffs, too – even after their bye when they began to get mostly healthy.  In recent weeks the Dolphins (37) and the Redskins (27) – hardly offensive juggernauts – have both put a fair amount of points on the board against them.

Even so, the Eagles rank ninth this season in total defense, and have played some of their best football against some of the better opponents they’ve lined up against (Buffalo, New England, Seattle and Dallas).

As it looks right now, the AFC playoffs could easily produce a string of 17-13 games.  If you were to make a guess about the NFC side of the ticket, you would have to surmise that the contests there could get very, very wild, indeed.

Texans With a Step Forward

Two weeks ago the Houston Texans’ franchise had a watershed moment as they finally earned a victory against their nemesis (well, one of their nemeses) in New England.  It was one of those games that you look back on even years later as one of the significant turning points in franchise history.

And then in Week 14, at home against a downtrodden Denver team, they undid almost all of the good of the New England win.  They were simply slapped around at home by a 5-win Bronco team.  The 38-24 final doesn’t do justice to the domination, as Denver led at one point by the improbable score of 38-3.

That game, coming in a crucial part of the season, makes the Texans a hard team to trust.  Now, as they travelled to Nashville to play a Tennessee team that had won four in a row and looked like they were putting all their pieces together, it was easy to see the division slipping from their hands and falling to the Titans.

And, so, of course, last Sunday they reminded us again of how good they can be with a mostly crisp, 24-21 road victory over their nearest division rival (gamebook) (summary).  Make no mistake about it, this does give Houston a sizeable edge in the division – all the more important as it is unlikely that a wildcard team will come from the AFC South.

But nothing for this team is ever as simple as it seems.  Even in victory, there is a nagging sense that this team isn’t quite home free.

They had taken a 14-0 lead into the half, and seemed to rattle Ryan Tannehill with unexpected pressure.  Tannehill, who had led the Titan resurgence, came into the event with the NFL’s top passer rating (118.5) and leading the league in yards per attempted pass (9.82) and yards per completion (13.4).  He was also second in completion percentage (73.4) and touchdown percentage (7.4).  But he went frustrated into the locker room, having completed just 7 of 16 passes with one interception tossed on a first-and-goal play from the five (although in fairness to Ryan, that pass did ricochet off of intended receiver Anthony Firkser).  His first-half rating was just 45.6.

In the second half, while outscoring Houston 21-10, Ryan played as he had in his previous seven starts, completing 15 of 20 passes (75%), two of them for touchdowns and no interceptions.  In the third and fourth quarters, his rating was a more expected 129.6.  After a very nervous first half, the Titans of the second half looked like they were the better team.

The scenario that now allows Tennessee to win the division is fairly unlikely, and includes Houston losing in Tampa Bay while the Titans knock off New Orleans before they re-convene this rivalry in Houston in Week 17 (where the Titans must also prevail).  Even with their division title all but assured, though, this is a team that hasn’t yet earned my trust.

Bills Back in the Playoffs

Buffalo is another team that I have difficulty trusting.  Nothing about Josh Allen suggests to me yet that he can carry a team deep into the playoffs.  The Bills ride a surprising defense that I have finally bought into.  Through 15 weeks, they rank third in all of football (and second in points allowed), so the defense here is formidable.  But if they find themselves in a position where they have to come from behind late against a playoff caliber team, I still don’t believe they can do it.

In their 17-10 Sunday night conquest of Pittsburgh (gamebook) (summary), they were not put in that position.  A running game that ground out 130 tough yards and a defense that created 5 turnovers saw to that.  With his running game being inhaled by the Bill defense, Pittsburgh’s undrafted rookie quarterback Devlin Hodges was savaged by the cunning Buffalo defense to the tune of 4 interceptions – all on deep throws.  In winning his first three starts, Hodges had been exceptional at taking the short throws that defenses were giving him.  On Sunday night, he did hit on a couple of deep throws, but mostly got in trouble when trying to go up the field.

As to Pittsburgh’s running attack, the final numbers were bad (51 yards on 15 rushes – 3.4 per carry), but deceptive.  In actuality, the running game performed even worse than the numbers suggest.  The 15 rushes include two carries from James Conner that totaled 32 yards.  Remove those runs, and Pittsburgh’s other 13 carries netted just 19 yards.

The win not only put Buffalo into the playoffs, it guaranteed that they will finish as no worse than the fifth seed.  If the playoff standings hold where they are, then the Wildcard round will feature Buffalo going into Houston.

Speaking of Turnovers

In Week 14, the Los Angeles Chargers put everything together and played probably their second best game of the season as they thrashed Jacksonville 45-10.  (Their best game of the year was their Week Nine, 26-11 domination of Green Bay).

Against the Jags, LA rolled up 525 yards and committed no turnovers for the first time in four games.  On Sunday, against Minnesota, they reverted to form, coughing the ball up seven times.  It was the fifth time this season that the Chargers have given the ball away at least three times.  Needless to say, they have lost all five – most recently, now, to Minnesota by a 39-10 count (gamebook) (summary).  Twenty-three of the Vikings points came off the turnovers, and another field goal was set up by a blocked punt.  Self-inflicted wounds continue to be the theme in LA.

12-4 last year, with a win in the wildcard round, the Chargers are now 5-9.

For the Vikings, on the other hand, the game was a convincing warmup for their Monday Night contest against Green Bay.  Although the two teams go into the contest separated by just one game, the Packers currently hold a double-tie-breaker on the Vikings.  They currently hold a head-to-head advantage, having beaten Minnesota the first time these two teams met.  Even if the Vikings even the season series at home on Monday, they will still trail in the second tie-breaker – division record.  The Packers have yet to lose inside the division (4-0), while the Vikings are just 2-2 in the division (two wins over Detroit and losses to Green Bay and Chicago).

For the Vikings to switch playoff positions with the Packers, they will have to win both of their last two games (they finish at home against the Bears) while Green Bay loses both of their last two (they finish in Detroit).

Questionable Decisions, Worse Officiating, and One Great Penalty

I’m not sure what was more surprising.  That the Baltimore Ravens were actually flagged with an offensive holding call.  Or the play on which that call occurred.

Late in their Week Seven victory over Seattle, the Ravens were called for holding.  After five complete games and a little more than half-way through the second quarter of the sixth game – after more than 200 consecutive running plays – the Baltimore Ravens were finally flagged again for holding.  With first-and-ten at the Buffalo 49-yard line, fullback Patrick Ricard lifted the right shoulder pad of Lorenzo Alexander briefly while Gus Edwards scooted past.

Don’t get me wrong.  It was a penalty.  But over the previous five-and-a-half games the Ravens committed many infractions at least that severe without getting called for any of them.  Right guard Marshall Yanda begins almost every play by grabbing his opponent’s shoulder pads.

Faced with a very rare first-and-twenty, quarterback Lamar Jackson threw too high for his receiver and was intercepted on the next play.

But even though what must have been a record streak of runs with no holding calls has finally come to an end, Buffalo – Baltimore’s opponent last Sunday after noon – could still hope to have been better served by the officiating crew.

On the very last play of the third quarter – with the Bills still within 8 points – Buffalo quarterback Josh Allen heaved a pass up the right sideline to the Raven 33-yard line, where Robert Foster waited to pull it in.  And he might have, too.  But beaten defender Jimmy Smith came up behind Foster and went through his back trying to make a play on the ball – a process that is supposed to draw an interference penalty.  But the official standing right in front of them waved it off.

In the end, though, it probably wouldn’t have mattered.  So dominant was Baltimore’s defense that it is doubtful that Buffalo would have managed anything even with a first down deep into Raven territory.

In the game’s first half, the Raven defensive unit sacked Allen 4 times and held Buffalo to 74 total yards.  They also created one crushing turnover that set the offense up on the Bills’ 24-yards line, leading to the game’s first touchdown.  The second half featured two more sacks, while Josh completed just 9 of his last 22 passes.  The Bills last failed drive was helped along by three big defensive penalties from the Ravens that set Buffalo up with a first-and-ten from the 18-yard line.

But Buffalo never could handle the Raven blitzes, and the series ended with three consecutive incompletions to wrap up Baltimore’s 24-17 victory (gamebook) (summary).

Jackson continues to garner the lion’s share of the attention that Baltimore is getting.  I continue to maintain that the real heroes are the defenders that keep Jackson from having to play from behind.

The Patriots Feel Their Pain

Of course, when it came to adventures in officiating, no Week 14, playoff-implicating game was more excruciating than Kansas City’s 23-16 conquest of New England (gamebook) (summary).

With the rulebook allowing a coach a maximum of three challenges, there has always been the question of what happens when the same team gets screwed four or more times in the same game.  What then?

I’m not sure if that has ever happened before last Sunday, so Jerome Boger’s crew may have made history that afternoon.  The game in general was not well officiated at all – on both sides.  Several penalties were missed outright, and some that were called were mystifying.  Kansas City’s Travis Kelce was called for offensive pass interference on a play where nothing he did even approached being illegal.

But the brunt of the poor officiating was born by New England, who had three touchdowns taken away from them – two of them after they had run out of challenges.

Time to Revisit the System

Of course, the fact that it was the Patriots does make the outcome a little more palatable.  Without much doubt, New England is the NFL’s most hated team.  Moreover, over the years, there have been a great many teams that have felt that the Patriots received the benefit of a good many pivotal officiating calls.  So a little comeuppance here is not something that will be widely mourned across the NFL.

However, since something similar could happen to any team at a critical juncture of the season, I think it’s time for an overhaul of the replay system.

Recognizing the potential for disaster, here, the NFL over the years has taken significant measures to soften the three-challenge maximum.  All scoring plays are automatically reviewed, so no coach has to expend a challenge.  The same is true of all turnovers.  This, of course, applies to plays that are ruled on the field as either scores or turnovers.  If a player scores or turns the ball over and that is not how it is ruled on the field, the coach will still have to challenge.  Both of those events happened to New England on Sunday.

Moreover – and most significantly – all challenges are automatically handled by the officiating crew inside the last two minutes of either half and for all of any overtime periods.  Ponder, for a moment, the implications of this.  Inside the last two minutes and in overtime, the entire concept of a coach’s challenge is done away with.  The officiating gods who watch over the field of play simply stop play when a questionable moment occurs, and then they review it.  It is the simplest and most elegant aspect of the entire replay system.

But it is only employed for four minutes of every game.  If it were true that the only times a bad officiating call could determine the outcome of a game were in the last two minutes of the half or in overtime, that would be sufficient.  But every week the NFL demonstrates that bad calls do – or potentially could if not overturned – decide the outcome of a game at any time.  Why cannot the NFL simply do from the first minute of the game what it so easily and effectively does in its last minute?

Before some other team less hated than the Patriots gets its playoff hopes dashed by an antiquated replay system, it’s time the NFL abandon the challenge system entirely.  Just watch the game and fix what needs fixing.  Simple.

More Patriots-Chiefs

It does injustice to the game, though, to lay New England’s defeat squarely on the officials.  In spite of Boger’s crew’s best efforts to bury the Patriots, this is a game New England should at least have tied and could easily have won.  Their own decisions and execution in the kicking game doomed them every bit as much as the bad non-calls.

With 2:06 left in the first quarter and New England ahead 7-3, kicker Nick Folk had a makeable 41-yard field goal blocked.  By the time that the second quarter was half way through, Kansas City had pulled ahead 17-7.  Now the Patriots faced fourth-and-seven from the Chief 27-yard line.  But, instead of attempting a makeable 44-yard field goal, Tom Brady threw an incomplete pass.

Now, we are in the waning moments of the third quarter.  New England has just scored to pull to within ten points of KC, 23-13.  If they had gone for and made the 44-yard field goal, the score would have been 23-16, and New England would have kicked the point to make it a six-point game.  If they had made both previous field goals, the score would have been 23-19, and, again New England would have kicked.

But now, they went for a two-point conversion to make it a one-score game, with James White’s attempted run up the middle falling about a half yard short.

The game finally ended with the Patriots throwing incomplete on fourth-and-three from the KC five-yard line.  The score, at that point, favored the Chiefs 23-16.  If they had kicked the second field goal and the extra-point, it would have been a 23-20 game, and New England would have had a relatively routine 22-yard field goal to tie the game.  If they had made all of their kicking opportunities up to that point, the game would have been tied, and Folk’s potential short kick would have given them the win.

Aggression in a head coach can be a useful thing.  From time to time, though, those decisions can come back to haunt you.

And Another Thing

One more note on that fourth-down pass.  Brady was trying to throw to Julian Edelman in the end zone.  Edelman never was open.  But Jakobi Meyers was.  Edelman’s route carried him in between Meyers and Tyrann Mathieu, who had Jakobi in coverage.  A throw to Meyers would have produced – at the very least – a first down, and it is unlikely that Mathieu could have kept him out of the end zone.

One of the reasons that double-teams on Edelman and White work so well, is that Brady sometimes doesn’t trust his other receivers to make catches in critical moments of the game.

And One More Thing

At the end of the day, New England had three scoring drives – and needed help on all of them.  The initial touchdown was scored on a trick play after getting big first downs on a couple of KC defensive penalties.  The second touchdown came after a blocked kick, and the field goal followed an interception.  There have been a lot of days lately, where this offense seems incapable of putting together a scoring drive of any considerable length.

A lot of ink has been expended discussing what is wrong with the New England offense.  Most believe that the receiving corps is too thin.  While another play-making receiver wouldn’t hurt – especially if that receiver were a tight end – this is honestly not the Patriots’ biggest problem.

Always one of the NFL’s best, the New England offensive line is now among the worst in football.  They entered the week averaging just 94.5 rushing yards per game, and just 3.5 yards per carry – both figures among the worst in the league.  Additionally, they struggle against almost every blitz that opposing defenses throw at them.  Brady spends most of his afternoons running for his life and throwing the ball away.  If they cannot fix this, the receivers won’t matter.  Even if they do get Gronkowski back.

Saints Aggression Also Comes Back to Bite Them

San Francisco defensive back Ahkello Witherspoon committed, arguably, the best penalty of the season last Sunday in New Orleans.

With 4:58 left in the first quarter, Saint quarterback Drew Brees heaved a pass toward the end zone, where tight-end Jared Cook leaped to pull down.  As he returned to earth, Witherspoon rung his bell (as they say) with a shot to the head, drawing the foul.

That penalty achieved two things that eventually made all the difference in the 49ers’ 48-46 win (gamebook) (summary).  First, the head-shot knocked Cook out of the game.  In the early going, Cook was proving to be a huge match-up difficulty for San Fran.  On the field for 8 plays, Jared had caught two touchdown passes totaling 64 yards.  The 49ers now would not have to deal with him for the rest of the afternoon.

The second thing the penalty did was move the extra-point try to the one yard line.

Already up 13-7, New Orleans could have kicked the extra point and taken fifteen yards on the kickoff.  But, with the option to try the two-point conversion from the one, Saints’ coach Sean Payton couldn’t let the opportunity pass.  And when the conversion failed, the Saints spent the rest of the game chasing that point.

With one minute left in the game, Brees’ fifth touchdown pass of the game pushed New Orleans back in front 46-45.  Had they kicked the earlier point, it would have been a 47-45 lead, and New Orleans would have kicked the point here, too.  But realizing that a two-point lead at this point would still leave them vulnerable to a game-winning field goal, they were compelled to make a second two-point try.  This one also failed.

For the game, these two offenses matched each other almost perfectly.  Each team scored six touchdowns and added two field goals.  Each turned the ball over once.  While San Fran punted three times, New Orleans punted just once, but also turned the ball over on downs and possessed the ball when the first half ended.

But the 49ers kicked 6 extra points.  The Saints had only 4 with two missed two-point attempts.

If they had scored on that first attempt, the decision would have been hailed as brilliant.

How Can We Trust the Texans

One week after a galvanizing victory over their New England nemesis, Houston was pounded into submission by the 5-8 Denver Broncos.  The final was 38-24, though at one point the Denver lead was 38-3.

All along, I have been supposing that Houston would ultimately take control of the very competitive AFC South.  Over recent weeks, though, it has been clear that the Tennessee Titans have been the division’s best team, and now they have two games against Houston over the last three weeks – beginning this Sunday.

It is difficult not to see the Titans finishing on top here.

Houston’s Night to Remember

Even on the replay it wasn’t overly clear.  There was Will Fuller in the end zone, with the football in his hands, turning and about to make that final step that would legitimize the catch and the touchdown.

And then, there was Jonathan Jones with his hand knocking the ball free.  Was he too late?  Or was this another one of those Patriot plays that we’ve seen so often over the years?  How often have the Patriots been a finger-tip or a fraction of an inch away from disaster when someone makes a nick-of-time play to save the day?  (Remember the tackle that kept Jessie James out of the end zone in the Championship Game against Pittsburgh a few years ago, or the seeming touchdown pass that was batted away in last year’s Super Bowl?)

When the play originally happened – and it was called a touchdown on the field – the Houston crowd erupted.  After years of frustration – especially against New England – they had finally driven a dagger through the monster’s heart.  The touchdown had made it 20-3 with just 5:49 left in the third quarter, with the extra-point pending.

But, after a small eternity in the review booth, referee Tony Corrente came back with agonizing news for the 72,025 in attendance at NRG Stadium (and the millions of Houston fans and Patriot haters watching on Sunday Night Football).  Incomplete pass.  Third-and-ten from the New England 35.

Immediately, the Houston fan-base knew exactly what would happen next.  An incomplete pass followed by either a punt or a missed field goal.  They had had their foot on the throats of the once-beaten defending champions.  And now, New England would escape again and fashion another one of their inevitable comebacks.  At that point, the mood in Houston was glum, indeed.

If there was a moment last Sunday night when the trajectory of a franchise might have changed, this was it.

On the third-and-ten play, Houston lined up with DeAndre Hopkins wide right and Kenny Stills wide left.  The Patriots responded with man coverage, with safety Duron Harmon over the top.  Harmon, however, didn’t stay there long.  As Hopkins pressed his way up-field, Harmon drifted to his side to join Stephon Gilmore in a double-team.  That left Stills one-on-one with Jones, the hero from the previous play.

Knowing there was no inside help, Stills stemmed inside long enough to get sufficient separation from Jones, and then turned up-field running to almost the exact spot where the potential touchdown pass to Fuller had gone.

While quarterback Deshaun Watson had put together a magnificent game by getting the ball quickly out of his hands, this time Deshaun held the ball – dancing adroitly around the confines of the pocket until it was time for lightening to strike for the second time.

Unperturbed over the previous result, Deshaun Watson launched his second consecutive perfect 40-yard bomb – this time to Stills in that same left corner of the end zone.  This time Jones wasn’t close enough to come up with another miracle, and this time, when the official’s arms went up, there would be no reprieve.

The extra-point made it 21-3 Houston, on their way to a 28-22 conquest (gamebook) (summary).

Depending on how the rest of the season goes, this might be the moment the Texans will look back on.  However significant this game may or may not turn out to be for Houston, it is more than a little significant to the rest of the league.  Watson and his Houston cohorts became the first conventional offense to vanquish what has been a remarkable defensive season from the Patriots.

Pushed around a few weeks ago by the wildly unconventional Baltimore Ravens, the New England defense, nonetheless, came into the contest ranking second in total defense and having allowed the fewest points of any NFL team (117).

The lynch-pin of the defense is a pass defense that was on a historic pace.  Entering the game, they allowed only 53.9% of the passes thrown against them to be completed; had allowed just 4 touchdown passes against 20 interceptions; and were muffling opposing passers, holding them to a 50.5 rating (the NFL average is 91.0).

In addition, their run defense – ranked ninth in the league – was completely smothering Houston’s sixth-ranked running attack.  Houston finished the night with just 52 rushing yards and a 2.3 average per run, leaving the Texans’ offensive hopes squarely on Watson and the passing game.

Deshaun didn’t disappoint.  Completing 18 of 25 passes (72.0%) Watson threw for 234 yards and 3 touchdowns (he also caught a touchdown pass – so the Patriots were hit for as many touchdown passes in this game as they had allowed all season to that point).  Deshaun’s passer rating for the evening was a more than satisfying 140.7.

Although they played more zone against the Texans than they usually do, the Patriots are known for nearly air-tight man coverage, supported by one of football’s best pass rushes.  With 37 sacks already this year, New England is dropping their opposing passers on 9.1% of their drop-backs – both of those figures ranking fourth in the league.  Basically, your receivers never have time to shake free before the pass rush is burying your quarterback.

As Watson has a history of holding the ball (in an earlier game against Baltimore he held the ball for 10.31 seconds before finally taking a sack), he seemed an unlikely candidate to re-write the narrative.  But that’s just what Deshaun and the Texans did.

Whether against zone or man, Watson didn’t diddle around in the pocket.  He looked for the first open receiver and got the ball out of his hands.  In truth, the Patriots had their moments.  They sacked Deshaun three times and hurried him three other times.  For the most part, though, the ball was gone before New England knew what hit them.  A couple times, the Patriots had free blitzers in on Watson who still couldn’t reach him in time.

With 6:33 left in the third quarter, and Houston facing third-and-seven, Harmon came untouched on a blitz.  But before he could get to the Houston quarterback, Watson delivered a rocket throw down the middle to Stills for 20 yards and a first down.  Early in the fourth quarter, on a similar play, Watson completed a 27-yard pass over the middle to Hopkins, even though Kyle Van Noy came virtually untouched across the line.

Against zones, they ran a series of short turn arounds.  The game plan against the man coverages involved short crossing patterns that forced the Patriot defenders to work through traffic.  It was a simple, basic, patient approach that strained the New England defense like no one they have faced so far this season.

In just his third season, Watson has become very proficient at understanding defenses and quickly deciding where to go with the football.  For the first time in maybe forever, the future looks pretty bright for the Houston Texans franchise.

Ravens Almost Toppled

Just after Justin Tucker’s 30-yard field goal had given Baltimore a 17-14 second quarter lead, the San Francisco 49ers began their final possession of the half on their own 25 with 1:58 left and all three of their time outs.

A minute and a half later – after Raheem Mostert ran out of bounds on the Baltimore 42 yard line – the 49ers finally became serious about the drive.  But it was too late then.  After managing just four plays over the first 92 seconds of the possession, San Francisco would cram four more plays into the next 22 seconds, making a belated bid for at least a tying field goal going into the half.

The best they could manage was a 51-yard field goal attempt from Robbie Gould that sailed wide left.  Officially, Marlon Humphrey was credited with a block as he grazed the ball with a fingertip, encouraging the kick to sail wide.

The second half would belong to the defenses.  Not only would there be no more touchdowns scored, there would be no offensive plays longer than 18 yards.  The conditions were a factor, as the entire game was played in an incessant rain.  But the field absorbed the water well, and never turned muddy or sloppy.  The story of the second half was – quite simply – the story of two defensive lines and the offensive lines that tried to pound them into submission.

Baltimore came into the game having run the ball 407 times through their first 11 games – the most rushing attempts in the NFL.  San Francisco was second in rushing attempts at 371.  True to form, the Ravens ran the ball 19 times in the second half (throwing the ball just 9 times), and San Francisco dialed up 16 running plays against just 10 passes.  The game was decided in pure Neanderthal fashion, as Baltimore drained the last 6:28 off the clock with a 12-play drive (9 of them runs) that set up Tucker’s clinching 49-yard field goal that made the final 20-17 Ravens (gamebook) (summary).

The end has kept me wondering about that missed opportunity at the end of the first half.  Almost two minutes and all of their time outs is oodles of time.  The 49ers have been more than moderately aggressive all year.  In fact, their first touchdown of the game came when quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo threw deep on fourth-and-two.  But here, they chose discretion over valor – and lived to regret it.

Lamar Jackson’s day as a running back was superlative, again.  The elusive Jackson ran for 101 yards and a touchdown on only 16 carries.  Jackson the passer fared less well, completing 14 of 23 for just 105 yards.  His looping, 20-yard touchdown pass to Mark Andrews was Baltimore’s only play of the game to surpass 19 yards.  Jackson averaged just 4.57 yards per pass attempt, and just 7.5 yards per completion.  Factor in the one sack he suffered, and Baltimore’s average running play (4.7 yards) was greater than its average passing play (4.4 yards).

In the post-game, Lamar admitted that he struggled with the weather conditions.  Fair enough.  But playoff games in Baltimore in January aren’t likely to be any better.  Just saying.

Still No Holding Penalties

In spite of the fact that Baltimore ran the ball 38 times in a consistent ran, with a quarterback darting all over the backfield, the Ravens, once again, were not called for a single holding penalty.  They were actually flagged for holding twice in the Ram game, but one penalty was offset and the other was declined.

So, over the last five consecutive games, the Ravens have run the ball 187 times with no accepted holding calls, and only two holding flags thrown their way.  If this is not already a record, it has to be getting very, very close.

Just to be clear, the Ravens do hold sometimes.  They just never get flagged for it.

What’s Wrong With the Cowboys?

On their first play from scrimmage in the second half, Ezekiel Elliott darted off left tackle for 12 yards.  At that point in the game, Elliott had 68 yards on 11 carries.  Two plays later, Elliott ran for 3 yards up the middle.  There were still 9 minutes and 6 seconds left in the third quarter, but Elliott would never carry the ball again.

On the subject of what’s wrong with the Cowboys, there are no shortage of answers.  In their 26-15 Thanksgiving Day loss at home to Buffalo (gamebook) (summary) there were the usual litany of critical mistakes.

There was Dak Prescott’s sack-fumble late in the second quarter that set up Buffalo’s go-ahead touchdown; the blocked field goal at the end of the half (one of two missed field goals); the facemask penalty on Xavier Woods that helped set up a Buffalo field goal on the opening drive of the second half; and Michael Gallup’s inability to hold on to a would-be touchdown pass at the end of the third quarter (and Prescott’s subsequent bad pass on fourth down).

In all of their losses this year, there has been a similar laundry list of mostly mental errors that have kept Dallas hovering at 6-6.  Certainly, they have to make fewer mistakes.  But let me add a couple other issues that Dallas really should address.

In the first place, their best team isn’t the team they think they are.  This references the usage of Elliott that I pointed out earlier.

Earlier this season, Prescott and number one receiver Amari Cooper had a couple of brilliant games – and now, all of a sudden, the Cowboys define themselves as a passing team with a solid supporting run game.  In the best version of the Dallas Cowboys, the offense runs through Elliott.  Two caries for Ezekiel in the second half for 15 yards just isn’t enough.

The pass-first version of the Cowboys will usually rack up a lot of yards (and the Cowboys moved the ball for 426 yards last Thursday) but will frequently struggle to convert those yards into points.

The other point – that really must be obvious to everyone now – was clearly illustrated in what I consider to be the play of the game.

With 2:17 left in the first half, Buffalo faced a fourth-and-one on the Cowboy 30.  The score is still tied at 7.  Buffalo quarterback Josh Allen fumbles the snap.  In the chaos around the line of scrimmage, Allen manages to find the ball, pick it up, and plow his way through the Dallas defense for three yards and the first down.  On the next play, Buffalo employed a piece of trickery that ended with wide receiver John Brown lofting a touchdown pass to Devin Singletary.  Buffalo would never trail after that.

In the postgame, talking about that play, Allen said “I wanted it.  I wanted it really bad.”  This has been a recurring pattern in Dallas.  The Cowboys play pretty well, but never seem to want the game as badly as their opponents do.  Thus they are never able to overcome their mistakes.

How badly do the Cowboys want this?  This is a question that will dog coach Jason Garrett, but lands on general manager Jerry Jones’ plate as well.  Jerry, I think, believes that all he has to do is sign a bunch of name players and he will automatically have a great team.  For fantasy football, it’s a scheme that might work well enough.  Putting together a locker room is more of an art form.  One that Dallas hasn’t quite mastered yet.

The Win They Needed

With Philadelphia refusing to take advantage of the opportunities that the slumping Cowboys have presented them with, Dallas’ holding on to the NFC East Division title still seems more likely than not.  For Buffalo, though, this was a very significant victory.

Long assumed to be a wild card team, Buffalo still faces a very daunting closing schedule.  They follow Thanksgiving in Dallas with a game against the unbeatable Ravens, and then go on the road to Pittsburgh and to New England.  Buffalo’s only win this season was over Tennessee in Week Five when Marcus Mariota was still their quarterback.  It’s not resume enough to make me confident in their ability to win any of these upcoming games.

They needed to find at least one win amongst those four teams, and beat the Jets in Week 17 to make it to the 10 wins they will probably need to secure that playoff berth.

This win in Dallas does that for them.  Now even if they lose their next three, a win over the Jets likely puts them in.  That Week Four victory over Tennessee gives them the necessary tie breaker.

Falling from grace will likely be the Indianapolis Colts.  Two weeks ago, Indy was sitting in the catbird seat.  They were 6-4 and commanding the division.  But consecutive losses to Houston and Tennessee have damaged them significantly.  In an AFC where you will probably need ten wins, Indy is now 6-6.  Between them and winning out is a Week 15 date in New Orleans.  Colt fans will probably look back at this week’s home loss to the Titans and shake their heads.

With Indy’s potential demise, their division will likely fall to the Houston Texans – now 8-4 after getting the big win they needed against New England.  They play Tennessee twice in the last three weeks.  If they can manage a split, that would almost certainly be enough to give them the division.

And, of course, that Houston game has other repercussions, as the Patriot loss combined with the Baltimore win makes the Ravens the new first seed in the conference by virtue of their earlier win over New England.

The most impactful NFC game was Seattle’s Monday night win over Minnesota.  That Viking loss now looks like it will give Green Bay – who is still undefeated within its division – just enough advantage to slip past Minnesota to win the NFC North.  They would effectively switch playoff places with the Vikings, sending Minnesota in as the sixth seed.

Four games to go.  I expect a few more surprises before all is said and done.