Road Teams Advance in NFC

About five and a half minutes.

The Philadelphia Eagles seemed to be playoff longshots through Week 13.  Coming off their Week 10 bye, the Eagles lost three in a row – the last to the Miami Dolphins.  At that point they sat at 5-7 for the season, but still only one game behind their division rivals from Dallas.  Since one of Dallas’ six wins was a 37-10 clobbering of Philadelphia in Week Seven, Dallas’ lead was really two games with four games left.

To that point, the Cowboys were also 4-0 in the division, and held that tie-breaker as well (the Eagles were 1-1).

Philadelphia’s one ace in the hole was that their Week 16 re-match would be in Philadelphia, but in reality they knew that they would have to win out – including the Dallas game – and the Cowboys would have to drop a winnable game somewhere in these last four contests.

Other than Dallas (and perhaps including the Cowboys), the Eagles’ closing schedule wasn’t all that formidable – two games against the Giants and one against the Redskins.  But Dallas’ remaining schedule was also a little soft.  In addition to the Eagles, Dallas had the Bears, Rams and Redskins.

But a Week 14 loss to Chicago completed Dallas’ own three-game losing streak, and put the division clearly on the line in Philadelphia three days before Christmas.  The game wasn’t necessarily an artistic success, but the defense rose to the occasion, closing down Dallas’ running game and sending the Eagles on to the playoffs with a 17-9 victory (a curiously recurring score for the Eagles this year).

And so, three days into the new year, the improbable Eagles were hosting a playoff game.  After all the sound and fury of the chase, their opportunity to advance more-or-less evaporated about five and a half minutes into the game.

The Injury

Beginning their second series on their own 25 with 9:41 left in the first quarter, quarterback Carson Wentz play-faked to running back Miles Sanders and dropped back into the pocket.  But none of his receivers managed any early separation, and as the pocket began to crumble, Carson rolled to his right.  Seeing the movement, cornerback Bradley McDougald came crashing down on Wentz.

Realizing he wouldn’t have time to throw this pass, Carson pulled the ball back down and tried to duck inside of McDougald (taking a step back toward the rush).  Bradley didn’t miss the tackle, tripping Carson up while he was trying to get by him.  As Wentz began to go down, Jadeveon Clowney – in pursuit – was leaving his feet (also trying to bring Wentz down).  Clowney would tumble over Wentz in what appeared to be a harmless contact.  Chris and Al – calling the game on NBC – cut away to show a replay of the field goal attempt that Philadelphia had just blocked.  Meanwhile Wentz finished out the series, gaining a first down and moving Philly as far as their own 36-yard line before they were compelled to punt the ball away.

The Eagles have been in the playoffs, now, for three consecutive seasons – winning it all two seasons ago.  In both of the previous two years, Wentz could only watch from the sidelines.  Finally, Carson (Philly’s franchise quarterback) was making his playoff debut.  And after two series, it was over.  On the play in question, Clowney’s helmet collided with the back of Wentz’ helmet, driving his head forward into the turf.

And just like that, the Eagles were playing playoff football again with their backup quarterback.  This time, though, it wasn’t Nick Foles (who had gone 4-1 in the previous two playoff runs).  Nick had moved on to Jacksonville.  The season now belonged to 40-year-old Josh McCown (who was also making his playoff debut).  In his seventeenth season – mostly as a backup – Josh brought a 23-53 record as a starter, along with a 79.7 career passer rating into the contest.

The Attrition Bowl

If you were going to predict that an injury would play a critical part in any of the wildcard games, you might have expected it would be this one.  Seattle came into the contest missing – among others – all of their top three running backs, two starting offensive linemen, and a starting linebacker.

The Eagles also were missing two starting offensive linemen, and all of their playmaking wide receivers (DeSean Jackson, Alshon Jeffery and Nelson Agholor).  Starting running back Jordan Howard dressed for the game, but never saw the field.

Whoever would walk away from this one, would go limping into the division round.  And, although they were mostly outplayed by Philadelphia, that team – thanks mostly to Wentz’ injury – will be Seattle.

McCown

It’s difficult to pin this defeat on Josh, who came off the bench and did better than anyone could have expected.  McCown was 12 for 15 in the second half, throwing for 147 yards.  He looked as good throwing the ball as the numbers suggest, and brought the home crowd to its feet with an 11-yard first-down scramble in the first half.  His passer rating for that second half was 109.6 – arguably as much as they might have expected from Wentz.

Behind Josh in the second half, the Eagles chewed up 195 yards of offense and 13 first downs.  They controlled the ball for 19:13.

At the same time, though, they were 1-5 on third down, 0-2 on fourth down, and 0-3 in the red zone.  They also turned the ball over on downs just outside of the red zone on their next to last possession.  McCown played admirably.  It is, however, reasonable to expect that Carson would have coped better on third and fourth downs and in the red zone.  On Philly’s last offensive play of the season, McCown saw a clear rushing lane to the end zone (by the way, he has 13 career rushing touchdowns).  But at 40 years old, McCown couldn’t navigate those last 10 yards.

In a one-score game, all Philly would have needed was one play from Carson.

That score – by the way – was 17-9, the same score they beat Dallas by, and the same score they lost to Seattle by the first time these two teams met (gamebook) (summary).

For the Eagles, it was a frustrating end to a difficult season.  It seems they have spent the last two seasons paying for the good fortune of 2017.  They will take some positives into the offseason – particularly their defense.  After finishing the season tenth overall and third against the run, the Eagles mostly dominated the Seattle offense – especially the running game.

Seattle came into the game just behind the Ravens, 49ers and Titans in rushing yards.  The final numbers (64 yards on 26 rushes) don’t begin to tell the story.  Forty of those yards came on two long scrambles from quarterback Russell Wilson.  Subtract those, and Seattle’s other 24 running plays totaled 24 yards.

Seahawk Issues

It’s difficult to say that the missing running backs were much of an issue, as Travis Homer and recently re-signed Marshawn Lynch were barely able to take the hand-off before they encountered Eagle defenders.  The yards-before-contact for each tell a decisive story.  Homer managed -3 yards for the night before contact.  Lynch had it even worse at -5.

Defensive lineman supreme Fletcher Cox was the most un-blockable of the Eagle front seven, but all of them had a hand in abusing Seattle’s offensive line.  This might have been the worst performance ever by an offensive line for a team that won a playoff game.  This battered line will now travel into Green Bay where they might expect similar treatment at the hands of the Packers’ Za’Darious Smith, who has been nearly untouchable over the season’s last few weeks.

If that isn’t enough of a concern, the Hawks also fly to Green Bay saddled with the leakiest defense of any team left in the playoffs after having given up 398 points during the season.  They have allowed more points this season than Houston has scored.  Ranked twenty-second against the run, they gave another 120 to the Eagles. From time to time, the Packers have been a running team, so that will interest them.  And when Aaron Rodgers wants to throw the ball, he will undoubtedly target Tre Flowers – like everyone else has.

On Sunday evening, Seattle was flagged for 11 penalties, costing them 114 yards.  Mostly these were two pass interference penalties against Flowers and multiple holding penalties by various offensive linemen trying to keep Cox out of their backfield.

As much as any team out there, the Seahawks are a team that finds a way – usually getting just enough magic out of Russell Wilson to squeak by.  But they will be going into Green Bay with significant concerns.

Defense Undoes Saints

Statistically, the Saints finished the 2019 regular season in about the middle of the pack defensively – they were eleventh over-all and thirteenth in points allowed.  They profited significantly from playing in a division of mostly offensively challenged teams.  When matched against quality offenses, they didn’t perform nearly as well.

They allowed more than 20 points 9 times, including giving 31 to Carolina in Week 12, and 48 to San Francisco in Week 14.  They also allowed six passer ratings of over 100, and allowed more than 140 rushing yards on four other occasions – two of them in the last 4 weeks of the season.  This includes a game where Tennessee piled up 149 yards without Derrick Henry in the lineup.

The Minnesota Vikings were a fairly average offense in 2019 – they ranked sixteenth.  They were eighth in scoring – principally thanks to a defense that provided them 31 takeaways.  And they ranked sixth rushing the football – averaging 133.3 yards per game.

Against New Orleans, the Vikings put up 106 rushing yards by halftime, and quarterback Kirk Cousins averaged 12.74 yards per completed pass against them.  He put the dagger in the Saints’ season with a 43-yard chuck to Adam Thielen in overtime that set Minnesota up at the two-yard line.  In a situation where they just needed to keep the Vikings from reaching the end zone, Minnesota moved 75 yards in 9 plays to end New Orleans 26-20 (gamebook) (summary).

The Vikings have shown some vulnerability against the run this year.  They have allowed 140 or more yards five time – including three games allowing more than 150 – all of those over their last five games of the season.

But New Orleans could never get a running game going and had difficulty keeping ends Danielle Hunter and Everson Griffen off of Drew Brees’ back.  For all of this, though, the Saints had every opportunity to win this game.  They made a few mistakes, but made them at the worst possible times.

Mistakes, Big and Small

The Vikings had just closed to 10-6 on a field goal with 2:54 left in the first half.  Starting on their own 24, the Saints faced a third-and-six from their twenty-eight, with still 2:18 left in the half.  They also had all of their time outs.

So patient all year, Brees suddenly got impatient and floated up a deep pass to a double-covered Ted Ginn.  With help over the top, Anthony Harris undercut the route and picked the pass, bringing it all the way back to the Saint 45.

One minute and forty seconds later, Dalvin Cook sliced through the middle of the Saint line for the touchdown that gave Minnesota the lead.

But the Saints would get a golden opportunity to tie the game before the half when electric kick returner Deonte Harris brought the ensuing kickoff back 54 yards to the Viking 45 with still 12 seconds (and two timeouts) left.

A 20-yard shot to Michael Thomas gave the almost automatic Wil Lutz a shot at a 43-yarder.  But Lutz punched the ball wide right, and New Orleans went into the locker room with a 13-10 deficit.

Fast forward to the third quarter, Vikings now ahead 20-10.  With 2:08 left in the quarter, the Saints faced a fourth-and-three from their own 35 and sent the punting unit out to the field.

But it was a fake.  The irrepressible Taysom Hill took the direct snap and plowed forward for the first down.  All for naught, though.  The play was stopped for a false start called on Josh Hill.

Moving forward to the fourth quarter.  The Saints have pulled to within 20-17.  There are four and a half minutes left in the game.  Again the momentum maker is Taysom Hill, whose 28-yard burst up the sideline brought the Superdome crowd to its feet and left New Orleans with a first-and-ten from the Viking 20-yard line.

On the very next play, Hunter stripped the ball away from Brees and the drive abruptly ended.  It was Drew’s only fumble of the entire season.

The Vikings played one of their best games of the season, and will advance to San Francisco on Saturday.  The Saints will start to look toward next season.  For the third straight season they have been ousted from the playoffs under agonizing circumstances.

The Vikings will be underdogs again against the 49ers.  San Francisco, of course, has precious little playoff experience among their young roster, and have seen their defense slip a bit over the last few weeks of the season.  So you never know.

About This Hill Guy

Here were New Orleans four longest plays of the game:

1 – A fifty yard pass from Taysom Hill to Deonte Harris that set up the Saint’s first touchdown of the day.

2 – Taysom Hill runs 28 yards around left end – an electrifying run during which Hill shook off would-be tacklers like so many rag dolls.

3 – Drew Brees throws 20 yards to Thomas to set up the missed field goal at the half.

4 – Drew Brees throws a 20-yard touchdown pass to Taysom Hill, cutting the Viking lead to 20-17 in the fourth.

To this point, Taysom has been an appendage to the Saint offense – a kind of change of pace, brought in mostly to run for a first down on third and short – which he does very well, by the way.  He was on the field for only 41% of the New Orleans offensive plays.

The Saints in 2020 may look fairly different than they did this season.  I will make one bold prediction for them.  Mr. Hill – on the heels of his dynamic performance in this game – will begin to be a regular feature of the offense.  This can only be good news for those of us who watch the Saints on a regular basis.

Fear the Titans – Fear Them

The game had already been – essentially – decided.  With slightly more than three minutes left, the Tennessee Titans held a 28-14 lead in Houston over their division rivals.  But they still had a little bit of unfinished business.

Entering the game 165 yards behind Cleveland’s Nick Chubb, Tennessee’s Derrick Henry – after a huge game on the ground – now stood just 7 yards behind Chubb for the league rushing title.  And so, as Henry cruised down the sideline on his final carry of the day for the 53-yard touchdown that would push him past Nick, his sideline erupted with, perhaps, the most emotion they had shown all game.

What began as a must win for Tennessee to even extend its season into the playoffs, ended as a rout, and a coronation – of sorts – as the Titans rode Henry’s 211 rushing yards – and 3 rushing touchdowns (along with another excellent effort from quarterback Ryan Tannehill) to a 35-14 wildcard clinching victory (gamebook) (summary).

One of the tipoffs to Henry’s success came just after the touchdown as he stood along the sidelines embracing his offensive linemen.  If you didn’t know which one was Henry, it would be a little difficult to tell which was the running back and which was the offensive lineman.

Even as the running game has regained importance over the last few years – and even with the rise of a new generation of hammer backs – it is still unusual to see that running back standing eyeball to eyeball with his offensive line.

Listed heights and weights for NFL players are notoriously imprecise, but – as a point of comparison – Derrick Henry is listed at 6-3 and 247 pounds.  Of the other running backs that finished in the top ten in rushing, the next tallest was Cincinnati’s Joe Mixon, listed at 6-1.  Toiling in relative obscurity in Cincy, Mixon rolled up his second consecutive thousand yard season (1137) this year.  Taller than most, Mixon is still (officially) 27 pounds lighter than Henry at 220.

By listed weight, the next heaviest to Derrick are the bowling-ball backs – Dallas’ Ezekiel Elliott and Jacksonville’s Leonard Fournette.  Both are listed as 6-0 and 228 pounds – again almost 20 pounds lighter than Henry.

So Derrick’s sheer size is a factor – and the primary reason that his production rises notably in the second half of games.  On Sunday, Henry went into the locker room with just 47 rushing yards.  In the second half, he rolled up 164 – almost as many in those two quarters alone as he needed to catch Chubb.  For the season, Derrick earned 543 yards in the first halves of his games, averaging 4.1 yards per carry.  In the second halves he added 997 yards at 5.8 per carry.  In his combined third quarters alone, Derrick ran for more yardage (669 yards) than in the first two quarters of his games.

But Henry’s size is well-known.  What, perhaps, doesn’t get as much play is his speed and overall nimbleness.  Two plays before his 53-yard touchdown, Derrick popped for a 23-yard run.  Both plays were very similar.  The first run was a pitch to Derrick going down the left sideline.  He basically took the ball and outran Texan linebacker Brennan Scarlett around the corner.

The touchdown run was slightly more complex.  It began as a zone run left that Derrick cut back up the middle.  There was a lot of green in front of him, and only linebacker Peter Kalambayi waiting for him in the hole.  Peter was probably waiting for Henry to lower his shoulder and plow through him, but – channeling his inner scat-back – Henry pivoted adroitly off his left leg and cut sharply to the right.  With Kalambayi diving after him in vain, Derrick burst through the thinnest of openings between linebacker Barkevious Mingo and cornerback Keion Crossen and outran the rest of the defense for the last 40 yards down the right sideline.  I’m not sure Lamar Jackson could have done it better himself.

It is this unique combination of size, power, speed and quickness that makes Henry such a devastating weapon.  Derrick has now spent four complete seasons in Tennessee.  He has only one previous 1000 yard season, and has made just one previous trip to the playoffs.  After the 2017 season, the Titans went into Kansas City and won a wildcard game 22-21 fueled by 156 yards from Henry.  The next week – in the Divisional Round – they were dumped in New England (the site of today’s playoff game) 35-14, with Henry piling up just 28 yards.  He only carried 12 times.

Derrick has always been this kind of weapon.  His enduring problem in Tennessee is that the Titans could never muster a consistent enough passing game to allow them to keep handing the ball off to Henry for the whole game.  In fact, 2019 began the same as all of those other seasons.

Six weeks into the season, Tennessee was 2-4, with Henry averaging 18.8 carries a game for a modest 69.3 yards – averaging 3.7 yards per.  At that point, the team was handed over to Tannehill, and as the passing game picked up, so did Henry’s effectiveness.

Since the change in quarterbacks, Henry is averaging 21.1 carries and 124.9 yards per game – 5.9 yards per carry.  Over his last 6 games, he has been almost otherworldly, carrying 23.2 times a game for 149.3 yards per contest – almost 6.5 yards per carry.

The life brought to this offense by Tannehill almost can’t be overstated.  All Henry really needed was a solid passing attack.  To everyone’s surprise, what he got was arguably the most effective passing attack in the league.

Out of the mediocrity of his seasons in Miami, Ryan Tannehill has exploded onto the NFL scene like the second coming of Tom Brady.  His numbers are stunning.  His 117.5 passer rating leads the NFL – as does his average yards per pass (9.59) and his yards per completion (13.6).  His 7.7 touchdown percentage is second in the league, and his 70.3% completion percentage ranks third.

He passes the eye test, too.  If you watched him against Houston, you saw him following up his excellent decision-making with laser-precise throws into very tight windows.

You would not have expected this at the beginning of the season, but by every measure available to us, Ryan Tannehill looks to be the real thing.

All of this makes Tennessee one of the most intriguing darkhorses in the playoffs.  Two years later, they will be getting a second shot in New England – this time against a Patriot team that doesn’t seem to be a match for them.  Whether this Tennessee team could hold up against the Baltimore Ravens is a discussion we’ll have if that ever becomes relevant, but today I fully expect to see them end New England’s season.

As to the Texans, yes, they played this game under wraps.  Deshaun Watson, DeAndre Hopkins, Will Fuller, Kenny Stills, Laremy Tunsil, D.J. Reader, Benardrick McKinney and Bradley Roby never saw the field, while their star running back – Carlos Hyde – didn’t play after the first series.

The defensive players who made cameos that day included Zach Cunningham (20 snaps), Angelo Blackson (20 snaps), Mike Adams (13), A.J. Moore (11), Johnathan Joseph (7) and Whitney Mercilus (7).

While we have to take Sunday’s final with a grain of salt as far as Houston goes, it is nonetheless true that this has been a mostly disappointing team all season – never more so than when they followed a transformational victory over New England with a head-scratching loss to Denver in weeks 13 and 14.  In Week 15 of this season, they traveled into Tennessee to win the game that essentially gave them the division title and left them with little to play for last Sunday.

But even in that game, one came away believing that Tennessee was the better team.  After a shaky first half that saw them fall behind 14-0, the Titans came roaring back after the intermission to narrow the final to 24-21 – a performance that makes me doubt whether Houston could have won this game even if they had tried.

While Tennessee enters their playoff game this afternoon as a team on the rise, I can’t feel the same for the Texans – who also play this afternoon.

I don’t trust them.  Even playing at home, I don’t trust this team to rise to the occasion.  Their opponents today from Buffalo have consistency issues with their offense, but they are a legit defense.  Truthfully, the Bills have precious few victories over quality teams on their resume, so it’s hard to favor them going into Houston and winning.  But I do expect them to give the Texans all they can handle.

And I can no longer feel any surprise when Houston loses a game that most feel they could have won.

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.

The Smiths May Need a Little Help

After a disastrous first half, the second half couldn’t have possibly started out better for Matt LaFleur and his Green Bay Packers.  A second-and-16 statement sack of San Francisco’s Jimmy Garoppolo (split by Za’Darius and Preston Smith) highlighted a three-and-out from the defense.  Then, the offense that was dominated by the 49er defense for the entire first half showed its first signs of life.

A 13-play, 65-yard 8:34 drive that included a conversion on fourth-and-four and two helpful San Francisco penalties resulted in a touchdown pass from Aaron Rodgers to Davante Adams on a wide receiver screen.  After the two-point conversion, the Packers had closed the San Francisco lead to 23-8 with still almost four minutes left in the third quarter.

And then – almost as quickly as hope was re-kindled – it was snuffed out again.

Less than a minute later, San Francisco was lining up with a first-and-ten on their own 39-yard line.  They came out in a three tight end set, with George Kittle and Garrett Celek tight to the formation on the left, and Ross Dwelley tight to the right.  Richie James – the lone wide receiver – was split to the right. Green Bay answered with a cover-3.  Hurt through most of the first half when they tried to play man against the 49ers, Green Bay had switched to zone defenses with the intention of limiting big plays in the passing game.

The play began as a zone run right, as all eight 49ers close to the line began blocking the nearest Packer to their right, while Garoppolo turned to hand the ball to running back Raheem Mostert, also heading to the right.  At the same time, though, wide receiver James came running, right to left, back behind the line of scrimmage, headed up the left sideline.  Unblocked on the offensive left end of the line was Packer pass-rush specialist Preston Smith.  He was hanging back, ready to play a possible cutback by Mostert.

The play, of course, was not a run.  At about the same time that P Smith noticed James racing toward the left flank, he also noticed that Garoppolo did not hand the ball off, but was booting back around to his left – presumably to lob a short pass to the undefended James, who would be racing up the left sideline.

At this point Smith realized that he could not reach Smith in time to prevent the pass, so Preston transitioned into pass defender and began a hopeless pursuit of the fleet James as he turned the corner and headed up-field.

Elsewhere, all three tight ends were headed into the pattern.  Kittle would run the deep post up the left sideline, while Celek would sustain the run action the longest before drifting over the short middle.  But the most problematic route for Green Bay was Dwelley’s.  Running from the right, Ross went about ten yards up-field before breaking back across the middle on a medium crossing route.

That route drew attention from safety Darnell Savage – who had responsibility for one of the intermediate zones.  Critically, though, it also drew the attention of safety Adrian Amos, who saw Savage trailing the route and decided to jump it.

The problem here was that Amos had the deep middle in the cover-3 defense, and as he abandoned that responsibility, he left a gaping void in the middle of the defense.

Cornerback Kevin King, who had endured a frustrating first half in man coverage, was now in a dilly of a pickle.  He was responsible for the deep left in the cover-3.  But he also noticed that Amos was no longer in his deep third.  As Kittle threatened his third of the field, King retreated to stay on top of George’s route.  When he got within three yards of King, George took a step toward the sideline before he stemmed back to the middle – a step that turned King around.  As Kevin was turning, he noticed James also racing up his sideline with Smith trailing well behind him.  King decided to keep defending the left sideline against James, hoping someone else would be over the middle to pick up Kittle.

No one was.

In a play more reminiscent of the practice field than an actual game, Jimmy Garoppolo, standing all alone in the pocket without a pass rusher in the same area code, lobbed a pass to George Kittle, equally isolated, 35 yards downfield.  King and corner Jaire Alexander made desperate attempts to catch him from behind.  To no avail.

The 61-yard touchdown pass completed a two-play drive.  After Green Bay had labored for almost nine minutes to regain the momentum and creep back into the game, San Francisco needed just 57 seconds to silence them.

Another six-minute Green Bay drive ended with a sack on fourth-and-eight, and San Francisco responded with a 10-play, 69-yard touchdown drive of their own that ate 6:31 of the clock and put a bow on their 37-8 victory (gamebook) (summary).

It was a day of answering critics for Garoppolo, who finished with 14 completions in 20 passes for 253 yards and two touchdowns – good for a 145.8 passer rating.

But the night really belonged to the 49er defense, which made life uncommonly miserable for one of the great passers of this generation.  Aaron Rodgers finished his night 20 of 33 for just 104 passing yards – an average of 3.15 yards per attempt and 5.2 yards per completion.  Mix in the five sacks, and Green Bay finished averaging 1.9 yards per passing play.

In fact, of Aaron’s 20 completions, 12 of them were to receivers at or behind the line of scrimmage.  The total yards that all of his completions traveled in the air (relative to the line of scrimmage) was an astonishing negative 5.  I believe the furthest downfield he completed a pass was seven yards.

The 49ers, of course, already believe in themselves.  But this was an important win for the rest of us who were a little uncertain about a defense that had given up some yards and some points over the last three weeks.  This game helps me believe in them as a legitimate number one.

As to the Packers, the loss, of course, drops them into a tie in their division with Minnesota – with the remaining game between these teams to be played in Minnesota.

But, beyond that, it may be time to face some legitimate concerns about the Green Bay pass defense.

The Packers opened the season with victories over the Bears, Vikings and Broncos during which the pass defense was outstanding.  Their first three opponents combined to complete 60 of 106 passes (56.6%) for just 671 yards, the one touchdown pass they allowed being offset by 4 interceptions.  Green Bay also picked up 12 quarterback sacks in those games.  Through three games, the passer rating against them was a minuscule 63.1.

Over the last nine games, the narrative has been much different.  In these games, opposing passers have completed 172 of 261 passes (65.9%) for 2338 yards (a concerning 13.59 yards per completion).  They have just 16 sacks over the last 9 games, while serving up 13 touchdown passes and recording just 5 interceptions – a passer rating against of 102.9.

For the season, Green Bay now allows 13.0 yards per completion – the third highest average in the NFL.  After allowing 5 pass plays of more than 20 yards on Sunday night, Green Bay has now given up 43 such plays this year – 18.5% of all the completions they’ve allowed have gone for at least 20.  That is the sixth highest percentage in the league.  Worse than that, the two touchdown passes they allowed were both over 40 yards – the twelfth and thirteenth such passes they’ve given up, tying them with the New York Giants for most 40-yard pass plays allowed.  They are the worst in the NFL as far as percentage of completed passes gaining at least 40 yards at 5.6%.

Against San Francisco they were taken advantage of in both man and zone coverages.  And the one constant in all of the big plays struck against them was Jimmy Garoppolo with all the time in the world in the pocket.

Over the off season, Green Bay bolstered its pass rush with the addition of Preston (signed away from the Washington Redskins) and Za’Darius Smith (no relation, formerly with the Ravens).  Their impact on the defense has been notable.  The Smiths have combined for 10.5 sacks, 19 hurries, and 61 pressures.

Increasingly, though, the problem in Green Bay is that no one else is contributing much to the rush.

The entire rest of the defense has 7.5 sacks, 16 hurries and 43 pressures.  Third on the sack list is Blake Martinez, who recorded his second of the season on Sunday night.  After 34 pressures from Z Smith and 27 more from P Smith, the next closest Packers are Kenny Clark and Kyler Fackrell with 10 each.

With the reminder that to win the division, Green Bay must still go into Minnesota and beat a Viking team that has been shredding opposing pass defenses recently, this is not an encouraging development.

If the Packers are going to reclaim their division, the Smiths are going to need some help.