Just Not Meant To Be

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Finding Out About the Bills

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

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

The Josh Allen Experience Rolls On

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

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

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

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

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

Done In By Their Own Mistakes

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Is Trubisky a Franchise Quarterback?

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

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

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

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

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

Getting Back in Sync

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Careful What You Ask For

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

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

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

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

What Changed?

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

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

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

Pass Protection

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

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

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

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

Oh Look, It’s the Tampa Bay Running Game

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

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

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

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

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

Like Mike

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

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

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

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

Looking Forward to the Saints

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

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

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

Taylor Who?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Difficult, but not impossible.

A Step Too Late

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

It didn’t matter.

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

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

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

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

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

First the singularity.

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

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

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

Defending Rodgers

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Offense Giveth and the Offense Taketh Away

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

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

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

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

Secondary Issues

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A Step Too Late

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

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

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

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

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

What Happens When He’s Not There?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Donald and Fox

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Rams Next Get the Seahawks

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

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

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

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

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

Waiting til Next Year

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

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

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

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

They needed one stop.

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

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

Tampa Bay Rolls On

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Falcons Wait til Next Year – Again

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

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

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

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

Other than that, it was another dismal defensive performance.

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

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

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

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

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

Dolphins Also Waiting Til Next Year

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Moving On

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

AFC Likelihoods

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

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

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

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

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

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

Possible variation #1 – Miami Wins

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

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

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

Possible Variation #2 – Pittsburgh Wins

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

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

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

Possible Variation #3 – Miami and Pittsburgh Both Win

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

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

NFC Possibilities

By comparison, the NFC is somewhat less straightforward..

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A Time to Refrain from Sliding

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Defending the Rams

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

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

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

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

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

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

Missed Opportunities

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

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

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

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

Not How You Start

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

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

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

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

A Time to Throw Long

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Going Forward

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

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

The Disappearance of the Colt Running Game

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

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

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

A Time to Refrain from Throwing Long

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And they went to the short passing game.

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

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

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

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

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

A Time to Blitz

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

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

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

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

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

In Their Grasp

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

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

You knew what would happen then.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Once More Into the Breach

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

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

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

Dolphins Run Patriots Out of Playoffs

There were several different scenarios of how this game might play out.  Before the New England Patriots took the field last Sunday in Miami, there were several probable courses this game could take, the most probable of them – despite the disparity of the records and the fact that Miami was playing at home – were scenarios that favored the Patriots.

It was well within probability that the Patriot defense would shut-down Miami’s struggling running attack (which began the day averaging just 95.2 yards per game, and their 3.6 yards per carry was dead last in the NFL).  Once that had happened, the veteran Patriot defense – employing all of their wiles – would surely take advantage of rookie quarterback Tua Tagovailoa, who was not only facing a Bill Belichick defense for the first time in his career, but would be doing so without any of his top five receivers available to him.

Another plausible scenario, amplifying a bit on the first one, had the Patriots’ fifth-ranked running attack controlling the game and keeping Tua and his offense on the sidelines.  Another considered that the Patriots – playing for their playoff lives against a young team that was possibly not yet ready for that kind of intensity – would make some crucial defensive play (or something) to turn a tight game into their favor.

The most plausible scenario that ended with a Miami victory featured the Dolphins’ second-ranked scoring defense keeping New England off the scoreboard long enough for a defensive score or a game-changing play from the special teams to bring them victory.

Far, far down the line and deep into the “very improbable” section of the list was the scenario that had the Dolphins – saddled with one of football’s worst running games – blowing through the Patriot defense to the tune of 250 rushing yards and 3 touchdowns behind a back (Salvon Ahmed) that no one had ever heard of before, while controlling the clock for 37:26.

And yet, exactly that was the story of Miami’s surprising 22-12 vanquishing of the New England Patriots (gamebook) (summary).  In spite of the scenarios, the surprise wasn’t that Miami won (they are 9-5 now, after all).  It was how they did it – their 250 yards being more than the combined total of any two games the Dolphins had previously played this season.

In contemplating the question, “where has this been all season,” I suggest the following possibilities.

The Unknown Backs

In addition to missing all of his top five receivers, Tua was also down his leading rusher.  Myles Gaskin – currently on the COVID list – missed his sixth game of the season.  But they did activate Matt Breida off the COVID list for this game, and paired him with Ahmed – an undrafted rookie out of Washington, making just his third career start.  Salvon finished with a game-high 122 rushing yards, and Breida – who was part of the crowded backfield in San Francisco last year – added an impressive 86 more – averaging 7.2 yards per carry.

Exactly how Ahmed escaped the attention of the rest of the NFL is uncertain.  What is certain is that he can run.  On a 31-yard streak down the right sideline, Salvon reached a top speed of 21.03 mph – making him Week 15’s fastest ball carrier.

For his part, Breida showed unexpected quickness to the outside.  This ability to cut and accelerate was a deciding factor in Matt’s two longest runs.  When Lawrence Guy plugged up the center of the field with 7:24 left in the game, Breida shot to the right and found a seam for a 24-yard gain.

Earlier in the game, with 12:26 left in the third quarter, the Dolphins faced a second-and-one from the Patriot 29.  As the hole opened right up the middle, linebacker Terez Hall poured through to seal it.  It seemed at that point that Hall had Breida dead-to-rights for a loss on the play, but before Terez could make the play, Matt was gone, veering toward – and eventually up – the left sideline.

On the play (which gained 14 yards) no one blocked safety Devin McCourty who had lined up fairly close to that sideline.  Devin saw Matt coming all the way, but Breida still beat him to the sideline and ran past him.

Nothing in this suggests any deficiency on the part of Gaskin, who has played reasonably well when available.  But these lesser known backs – perhaps because they are less known, or because they have fresh legs here in Week 15 – brought a spark to the Dolphin running game that has been mostly missing this season.

An Offensive Line Comes Together

During the broadcast, color commentator Charles Davis – as he watched these events unfold – credited a young offensive line starting to jell.  Dolphin rushers came into the contest getting just 2.14 yards per rush before contact – a figure that reflects heavily on the offensive line, and that was the seventh worst in the NFL.  The team that played against the Patriots didn’t look like that at all.

Miami runners averaged 4.86 yards per carry before contact (the NFL average is 2.45), with Matt Breida leading the way.  On average, over his first 12 carries Matt was 6.3 yards up-field before the first defender could lay a glove on him.

And this wasn’t the case of a couple of big runs skewing the stat-line.  Time after time the Dolphin line pushed the Patriots off the ball and into the secondary.  Of their 42 running plays, 27 earned at least 4 yards (a decisive 63%).  Coming together?  Well, last Sunday they certainly looked like it.

Among those young linemen, the one that I enjoyed watching most was rookie right tackle Robert Hunt, Miami’s first second round pick out of Louisiana, making his ninth career start.  On the 31-yard run by Ahmed mentioned earlier, Hunt was the only blocker – lineman or otherwise – to that side to give Salvon the edge.  No problem.  Robert threw blocks on both the outside defenders (pushing Chase Winovich and Jonathan Jones out of the play) to present Ahmed with a clean sideline.

My favorite play came at the very end of the third quarter.  The Dolphins faced third-and-8 from the Patriot 34.  Miami ran a draw play with Patrick Laird.  Hunt grabbed defensive end Deatrich Wise and not only flung him out of the way, but used him as a kind of human broom to clear out two other defenders (Myles Bryant from the secondary and Winovich trying to pursue from the edge).  Laird ran through the pathway that Hunt cleared for 12 yards and a first down.

How good Hunt will or won’t become, time will tell.  But I like that he plays with an edge – a kind of “get off my lawn” meanness that can be infectious along that offensive line.  I think Dolphin fans are going to enjoy watching young Robert anchor that line for a good many years to come.

Those that pay attention to line play, anyway.

Patriots’ Defensive Erosion

There was 9:03 left in the game. The Dolphins, clinging to a 15-12 lead, had a first-and-ten on their own 25-yard line.  Tua opened to hand the ball to Ahmed, who headed up the middle, only to find the middle well clogged.  Guard Michael Deiter got no movement on Guy, and Ted Karras couldn’t get off his double-team block on Adam Butler in time to clear linebacker Anfernee Jennings out of the middle.  But Salvon gained 13 yards on the play anyway.

From the edge to Ahmed’s right, linebacker Shilique Calhoun crashed in to involve himself on the run up the middle.  As he did, tight end Durham Smythe, pulling left-to-right roll blocked him out of the play, creating a gaping alley around the right end – essentially through the exact area that Calhoun had surrendered.

Among the trunk-full of challenges that New England has dealt with this season is finding healthy defenders.  They lost Patrick Chung and Don’t’a Hightower at the beginning of the season, as they opted out due to COVID concerns, and the Patriots have been steadily losing defensive players ever since.  They lost two more in this game, as top cornerback Stephon Gilmore and linebacker Ja’Whaun Bentley both went down.  Calhoun is a fifth-year linebacker, playing his second season in New England who has made just one career start.  Normally on the field for about 25% of the snaps, Silique found himself playing more than half of the defensive snaps due to Bentley’s injuries.

As the injuries mount, the Patriots have been forced to draw ever deeper into their depth chart, with predictable results – including the erosion of the defensive discipline they were so regarded for last year.  This is especially evident, now, in the run defense.

Two weeks ago, New England ranked eighteenth in the league in run defense.  They have now fallen to twenty-seventh after serving up 436 rushing yards to the Rams and the Dolphins in their last two outings.  They are losing more at the line of scrimmage this year, but the gashing plays are happening as their not-ready-for-prime-time defenders lose track of their containment assignments.  With the loss, New England is officially eliminated from the playoffs – their trying season will run only two more weekends.  In a sense, that’s a mercy.

Dolphins Not Eliminated, But . . .

Even with the win, Miami’s playoff hopes aren’t a whole lot better than New England’s.  In a jostled AFC picture, the Dolphins are clinging to the final spot, leading Baltimore only because of a better conference record.  Baltimore will almost certainly win their final two games (against the Giants and Bengals), so Miami will have to do the same (against Las Vegas and Buffalo – both on the road) to hold their spot.  It will be a tough ask.

But even if the 2020 Dolphins don’t break their three-year playoff drought this year, it’s clear that Brian Flores has this team pointed, again, in the right direction.

 

These Old Guys Don’t Go Down Easy

Tom Brady and Drew Brees have been doing this for a long time.

They are a combined 84 years old, with Brees turning 42 during the playoffs.  They have combined for 41 seasons (counting this one) and 581 starts at the most critical position in their sport.  They have thrown a combined 21,023 passes, completing 13,831 of them (65.8%) for 158,303 yards and 1,141 touchdowns.

They went back and forth for a while this season for the all-time lead in touchdown passes.  With Brees missing the last four weeks with some broken ribs, Tom has earned himself a little separation from Drew.  Brady’s lead in all-time touchdown passes currently sites at 573-568.

These, by the way, are just regular season numbers.  The playoffs are worthy of a chapter of their own.

And then, last Sunday, both of these all-time greats trailed at one point in their games by a combined 31-0.  The games, of course, didn’t end that way.

Brees and His Near Comback

The decision to activate and then start Brees was made rather late in the week.  Up until Wednesday, or so, everyone was expecting another Taysom Hill start.  After missing four weeks, Drew was going to be a little rusty, anyway (and, perhaps, limited reps in practice might have amplified that).  Under the best of circumstances, Kansas City is a difficult team to line up against.

While the offense gets all the ink, Kansas City’s defense has been much more than on-lookers – especially the pass defense.  They might, in fact, be the best defense in the NFL that nobody talks about.  The Chiefs entered the game allowing completions on only 62.4% of the passes thrown against them – football’s third-best figure.  Moreover, they came into the game having made 15 interceptions, and restricting opposing passers to just an 84.2 rating.  This was the fourth best defensive rating in the NFL.

It would be unfair to attribute New Orleans’ slow start completely to rust on Brees’ part.  The Chief defense played very well.  But whatever the balance between rust and tight defense, the game couldn’t have started much worse for Drew and the Saints.  He started off missing on his first 6 passes (including an interception), and New Orleans went three-and-out on its first four possessions (if you include the possession that ended with the interception – which was thrown on third down).

The interception led to a short field (setting up one touchdown), and KC put together an 11-play, 80-yard, 5 minute and 1 second drive for a second touchdown.  In the early moments of the second quarter the Chiefs were ahead 14-0 and looking like they would leave New Orleans in the dust.

Even when Brees did begin to complete some passes, what evolved was a very different New Orleans game plan than we are used to seeing.  Instead of the precision, sideline-to-sideline short passing game, Drew’s attack was decidedly vertical.  Six of his 33 passes (one of his 34 passes was a throw-away) travelled more than 20 air-yards from scrimmage, and 4 others were more than ten yards.  Of his 15 completions, 4 were more than 15 yards upfield.

Accounting for the Change

Drew began the week running the second shortest passing game in the NFL – his average target being just 5.4 yards from the line.  On Sunday, his average target was 8 yards beyond the line of scrimmage (the NFL average is 7.81).  Why the difference?  It could be a combination of several factors.

In his post-game press conference, Drew blamed himself for not taking check-downs, so some of it was due – perhaps – to rusty decision making.  I believe, though, that there was more to it.  Psychologically, when you fall behind 14-0 to a team as dangerous as Kansas City, there must be some anxiety to score quickly to get back into the game .  I also think – especially with Michael Thomas out of the lineup in order to heal for the playoffs – that there was some focus by Kansas City on the short routes, almost as though the Chiefs might dare Brees to beat them over the top.

Whatever the underlying causes, the results were quite uncharacteristic.  Drew finished with an uncharacteristically low completion percentage (44.1 on 15 of 34) and an uncharacteristically low passer rating (84.7).  On the other hand, he also finished with an uncharacteristically high 15.6 yards per completion.  He finished with a very characteristic 3 touchdown passes.

He needed, perhaps, one more possession to bring New Orleans all the way back.  As it was, they fell in a thriller to the Chiefs, 32-29 (gamebook) (summary).

Saints’ Defense Better than the Score Indicates

Kansas City’s final offensive tallies included the 32 points, 411 yards of offense and 34 first downs.  Not the kind of numbers to suggest that the defense played all that well.  In this case, the numbers are less than descriptive of how the game played out.  The New Orleans defense came into the game with significant credentials as well.  At the start of the week, they ranked second in overall defense, second against the run and fourth against the pass.

Cognizant that even they couldn’t deny everything to the KC offense, New Orleans chose to allow the run in an effort to mitigate the aerial light show that quarterback Patrick Mahomes usually conducts with his quiver of speedy receivers.  So Kansas City’s running numbers were gaudy – 179 yards on 41 attempts.  But the elite passing attack was controlled (to a great degree).

As you might expect, Mahomes entered the game ranked in the top five in almost every passing category – including passer rating, where his 112.3 ranked second in all of football.  In that context, Patrick’s 26 for 47, 254 yard performance seemed pedestrian, indeed.  He competed just 55.3% of his passes (13.1% lower than his season average), averaged just 5.4 yards per pass attempt (3.07 below his season average) and 9.77 yards per completion (2.63 below his average).  He recorded no completions of longer than 23 yards, which he managed just twice, for his only passing plays of twenty-or-more yards.

His 92.0 passer rating was 20.3 points below his season average, and he only managed that because – being Patrick Mahomes – he still managed to toss three touchdown passes without having one intercepted.

The prescriptions for containing both of these skilled passing attacks were virtually identical: Heavy pass rush pressure from the front four, and tight coverage in the secondary.  Neither team blitzed much at all.  Mahomes saw an extra rusher just 7 times, and the Chiefs sent extra men at Brees only 5 times.  But the pressure from the down linemen and the coverage were impressive by both sides. 

Patrick was sacked 4 times as part of being hit 11 times while having 8 passes batted away by a defender.  Drew took only one sack, but was also hit 7 times while having 9 passes defended.  Brees’ wide receivers and tight ends managed an average of just 1.99 yards of separation (according to Next Gen stats) – a number which speaks to the impact that losing Thomas has on the rest of the team.

In fact, if there was one number that most expressed the difference between these two teams last Sunday, it might be the third-down tallies.

With their running game keeping them in manageable third downs, Kansas City finished 9-for-18 in those opportunities.  With their running game mostly abandoned (and New Orleans ran the ball only 17 times) and Drew’s passes falling incomplete much of the time, the Saints spent the afternoon in a lot of third and longs.  They finished 1-for-11 on that down.

This led to Kansas City running 92 plays and controlling the ball for 41:14 of the game.  The Saints just couldn’t stay on the field.  Their longest possession of the afternoon lasted just 2:40, and they finished with 7 three-and-outs (again, including the interception possession).

Encouragement in Defeat

Of all the teams that have lost to Kansas City this year (and that has been almost all of them), I believe that New Orleans can be most encouraged by their near miss.  They were playing with a quarterback rusty from the IR, playing without their best pass receiver, falling behind early by two touchdowns, and playing all of the fourth quarter without their best defensive lineman (Cameron Jordan got himself ejected).  And, for all of that, fell just one possession short.

Given the chance for a re-match (which could only happen in the Super Bowl), New Orleans must be convinced that they can play with this team.  Whether they can overcome the Mahomes magic, though, is another question.

That is the question that ultimately bedevils the entire league.

Brady’s Day

Tom Brady’s afternoon in Atlanta could have hardly started worse.  The downtrodden Atlanta Falcons hit them with a perfect half.  They converted 6 of 10 third downs, committed no penalties, no turnovers and suffered no sacks.  They rolled up a 261-60 advantage in total yards, a 16-5 advantage in first downs and took a 17-0 lead into the locker room at the half.

As opposed to the defenses in the Saint-Chief game, the word of the day for both defenses in this game was blitz and blitz some more.  Both teams blitzed at almost exactly the same rate.  Atlanta came after Brady 43.8% of the time (21 of 48 drop-backs), and Tampa Bay responded by sending extra rushers after Matt Ryan 43.4% of the time (23 blitzes in 53 drop backs).

In the first half, the story was Brady under siege and Atlanta keeping the rush away from Ryan.  In the second half, some protection adjustments gave Tom more time in the pocket, and allowed him to fully exploit the coverage difficulties that the Falcons have suffered with the entire season.

In the second half alone, Brady completed 21 of 29 passes (72.4%) for 320 yards.  Think for a moment about throwing for 320 yards in one half.

Brady average 11.03 yards per pass attempt in that half, and 15.24 per pass completion.  He also tossed a couple of touchdown passes as he conjured a few memories (bitter for the Falcon fans, to be sure) of the Falcons’ Super Bowl loss to New England.  The Patriots (er, I mean Buccaneers) came all the way back for a 31-27 victory (gamebook) (summary).

Playoff Consequences

Two surprising Week 15 upsets juggled the playoff situations a bit.  The Rams’ loss to the Jets caused some minor movement in the NFC.  That loss by LA, gives Tampa Bay an open opportunity to claim the fifth seed, dropping the Rams to sixth.  The two teams currently hold identical 9-5 records, with the Rams holding the head-to-head tie breaker.

But Tampa Bay’s closing schedule is Detroit and Atlanta again (very winnable games), the Rams finish with Seattle and Arizona.  If the Bucs win out and LA stubs its toe just once, the two teams will switch positions.

More Upheaval in the AFC

The other big upset was Cincinnati eclipsing Pittsburgh.  In absorbing their third loss in a row, the onetime presumptive first seed In the conference will now likely fall to third.  Pittsburgh and Buffalo now hold identical 11-3 records, with the Bills holding the tie breaker by virtue of their win over the Steelers last week.

And, finally, the Cleveland Browns got that one win that they needed to put themselves in the playoff driver’s seat when they beat the Giants on Sunday night.  Cleveland is now 10-4, Baltimore is 9-5 and Miami is also 9-5.  The Ravens hold the tie-breaker with the Browns (season sweep), and close with an easy schedule (they finish with the Giants and Bengals.)  Cleveland would have to win both of their games to stay ahead of the Ravens.  This week they have the Jets (who will come in enthused off their victory) and they finish with Pittsburgh, so I still think it likely that Baltimore will finish ahead of Cleveland (they will get the fifth seed).

So the Cleveland win now makes the Dolphins vulnerable. The Dolphins are a game behind the Browns and finish on the road in Las Vegas and Buffalo.  Miami’s playoff fate may depend on whether Buffalo needs to win that final game or not – and from the looks of things right now, I will guess that they will need that game.

If Cleveland does, in fact, get in, they will probably claim the sixth seed.  They have an earlier victory over Indianapolis, so the Colts could very well finish 11-5 this season and be relegated to the seventh seed.

Concerns in Pittsburgh

In case you were wondering, the Pittsburgh Steelers haven’t always looked like this.  For the first five games of the season, their re-imagined offense couldn’t have worked better.  They averaged 31.2 points per game – never scoring fewer than 26 in any game – and their offense was spectacularly balanced.  While quarterback Ben Roethlisberger was completing 69.1% of his passes with an 11-to-1 touchdown-to-interception ratio and a 109.1 passer rating, the running game was adding an average of 136.8 yards a game (4.3 per carry) and 7 touchdowns of its own.

Since then – by degrees – the offensive performances have regressed to a place that Pittsburgh hopes is subnormal.

Beginning with their Week Seven victory over Tennessee, the Steeler running game dried up.  Over their last eight games, the Steelers have abruptly dropped to 59.3 yards a game and just 3.0 yards per rush.  But even then the passing game kept Pittsburgh afloat.  Pittsburgh continued to win and to score – 28.4 points a game even without the running attack – as their record climbed to 10-0.  They still hadn’t been held under 24 points in a game.

Since then, the offense has taken another deep step backward, scoring a total of 51 points over its last three games – the last two of them losses.

In the first two of those games, Pittsburgh was matched against two of the premier defenses in the league (Baltimore and Washington).  During their first loss of the season against Washington, the Pittsburgh running game hit rock bottom – 21 yards on 14 carries.

The disappointment against the Football Team would be followed by a prime time game – a Sunday night affair against the Buffalo Bills.  For all of the fact that Buffalo carried a 9-3 record into the contest, this game looked to be just what the doctor ordered for the ailing Pittsburgh offense.  Buffalo was allowing 25.5 points a game, and the weakest part of the their defense was the run defense, which was allowing 126 rushing yards a game, and the 4.7 yards per carry they were allowing was the fifth highest in football.

Buffalo had become one of football’s better offensive teams (scoring 27.75 points a game and ranking third in passing yardage), but defensively, they seemed like a team that Pittsburgh could re-set itself against.

None of this, of course, came about.

In the aftermath of Buffalo’s 26-15 conquest (gamebook) (summary) all there was for the Steelers was more frustration and more than a few questions, as an embattled Buffalo defense made a few statements of its own.

Plan of Attack

While the numbers don’t suggest it, Pittsburgh truly did try to run the ball against the Bills.  That they finished with only 17 attempts was due to two factors.

First, of course, was that the running attack never bore fruit.  Pittsburgh managed just 47 yards on those rushes (2.8 per attempt) with no attempt exceeding 7 yards.

Even then, I believe the Steelers would have kept trying were it not for their spectacular failures on third down.  If you are going to keep trying to run the ball, then you have to convert your third downs – and Pittsburgh could not.  Entering the day ranked seventh in the league in third-down conversions (45.5%) – and facing a Buffalo defense ranked twenty-fourth in allowing third-down conversions (44.0%), Pittsburgh converted on just 1 of their 10 opportunities – almost all of them very manageable.  The Steelers faced third-and-nine twice and third-and-seven once.  All the others were six yards or less.  Pittsburgh finished the contest with 7 three-and-outs in 12 possessions (if you don’t count the end of the first half).  Roethlisberger was 1 for 9 for 13 yards and a sack on this down.

This speaks directly to Buffalo’s approach to Pittsburgh’s lightning-fast short passing game.

Here, I looked at the new-look approach in Pittsburgh that tries to get the ball out of Ben’s hands in under two seconds.  This was the focus of Buffalo’s game plan – to take away all of the quick-opening routes that make this approach possible.

The Bills mixed a lot of coverages, always with a focus on the easy, underneath routes.  On the first third-down of the game, the Bills played man but dropped the defensive ends into the short middle zones.  With 10:06 left in the third quarter, and Pittsburgh facing third-and-nine, the Bills played zone, but had middle-linebacker Tremaine Edmunds chase JuJu Smith-Schuster’s shallow cross.  When they played zone, they did so with laudable discipline.  But in third down, they mostly played tight, suffocating man coverage.

No one defensive back followed any particular receiver.  Cornerback Tre’Davious White played a lot of what I call Deion coverage.  The rest of the defense would play whatever they were going to play.  White would play man against one receiver. (Deion coverage is so named for the great Deion Sanders who played this coverage during his time in San Francisco.)  Whenever the Steelers would line up in four receiver sets, with three receivers to one side, White would take the receiver on the single receiver side and play man against him.  This was even true when Pittsburgh put tight end Eric Ebron on the single receiver side and had all of the receivers on the other side.

The pressure piece of the defensive plan came principally from two sources – whoever was lined up over Alejandro Villanueva, and Matt Milano.

Villanueva struggled notably keeping the ends – mostly Mario Addison – from going around him.  Milano showed surprising passion when he joined the rush.  Buffalo didn’t send him that often, but every time they did he seemed to impact the play.

It all added up to Pittsburgh’s worst offensive game of the season by points scored, and second worst by yardage.  (Their 224 yards of total offense being only 3 yards better than their Week Eight win in Baltimore.)  In addition to an engulfed running attack, Roethlisberger threw for just 187 yards while completing a season-low 56.8% of his passes (21 of 37).  He threw multiple interceptions for only the second time this season.  He was sacked for the first time in six games, averaged just 5.05 per pass attempt (his lowest figure of the season) and finished with his worst passer rating of 2020 (65.9).

Buffalo couldn’t have asked for any more from its defense.

The Bills’ Offense Adjusts

For the first thirty minutes, the Pittsburgh defense returned the favor in kind against the Buffalo offense.  If the Steeler running attack was moribund, the Buffalo ground game was even more non-existent.  The Bills ran just 7 times in the first half for just 34 yards.  If Ben Roethlisberger’s passing attack was stuck in neutral, Josh Allen’s passing attack was all but stopped (if not quite in reverse).

The Steeler plan for Allen and the Bills’ passing attack was pressure and lots of it.  Already the third-most blitz-happy team in football (they came into the game blitzing 40.2% of the time), Pittsburgh upped the ante against Buffalo, bringing at least one extra rusher on 58.7% of Josh’s drop-backs.  The first-half results were devastating.  Allen went into the locker room having completed 10 of 23 passes (43.5%) for a miniscule 76 yards (3.30 yards per attempt).  Stir in no touchdown passes and 1 interception, and that adds up to a 34.0 rating.

The dominant Buffalo defense held Pittsburgh to an anemic 143 yards of total offense through two quarters.  The equally dominant Pittsburgh defense reduced the Bills to an anorexic 102 yards of total offense.  That Buffalo led at the half 9-7 was due only to the fact that Buffalo cornerback Taron Johnson returned one of Roethlisberger’s interceptions 51 yards for a touchdown.

But while Pittsburgh never could solve Buffalo’s defensive scheme, the Bills were able to make the necessary adjustments at halftime, refocusing on the running game and providing Allen with more protection (including double-teams on disruptive defensive lineman Cameron Heyward).  The difference was enormous.

Buffalo ran the ball 20 times in the second half and, consequently controlled the ball for 21:40 of the final 30 minutes.  With the blitz slowed enough for Allen stand in the pocket and find a receiver, Josh completed 14 of his final 20 passes for 162 yards.  He also threw the two decisive touchdown passes.  Buffalo outgained the Steelers 232 to 81 over the final two quarters.

On To the Playoffs

Earlier this evening, Buffalo claimed the AFC Eastern Division title as they routed the Denver Broncos 48-19.  I had thought that once they reached this part of their season, the Bills would begin to struggle.  Up until they beat San Francisco a couple of weeks ago, their defining moment was the Hail Mary pass that cost them a seemingly sure victory over Arizona.  I didn’t expect them to beat either the 49ers or the Steelers.

Regardless, Buffalo has exceeded my expectations and has punched its ticket to the dance.  The Miami Dolphins will now have to right their ship quickly to fend off the Browns for the last AFC playoff spot.

As for the Bills themselves, even after this win and the beating they’ve just given the Broncos, I don’t really believe in them just yet.  Especially that defense.  There are only three other teams this season that Buffalo has held below 20 points – the Jets twice, the Chargers and tonight the Broncos.  My gut feeling is that last Sunday night’s victory had more to do with Pittsburgh’s struggles than Buffalo’s prowess.

I want to see the Bills’ defense hold up against one of the better running teams in the league – a matchup that may not come until the playoffs.

Other AFC Playoff Ramifications

With the loss, the Steelers are now in trail position behind the Chiefs for the top seed in the conference.  Waiting for someone to beat the Chiefs isn’t the most encouraging of situations.

Shifting NFC Playoff Picture

For the third time in two weeks an upset authored by a team from the NFC East has scrambled the playoff picture.  In Week Thirteen the New York Giants upset the Seattle Seahawks to threaten their hold on the NFC West.  Later that week, Washington handed Pittsburgh its first loss – beginning the process that has knocked them out of the top seed in the AFC (for the moment, anyway).

Then, in Week Fourteen the Philadelphia Eagles shuffled the NFC picture by knocking off top-seeded New Orleans.  Green Bay now holds the inside track to the top seed in that conference, and the bye that goes with it.

Meanwhile, Washington won again, and is starting to look like they are the class of the NFC East.  Moreover, the Football Team, now 6-7, closes its season with winnable games against the Panthers and the Eagles – meaning they have a legitimate shot at taking an 8-8 record into the playoffs.  Until recently, I think everyone was resigned to the likelihood that the NFC East Champ would go to the playoffs with a sub-.500 record.

Finally, I’ve been re-thinking the NFC West recently – especially the Seahawks.  Even though they are only 3-2 over their last five, there are signs that things are starting to come together in the Emerald City in two very important areas.

First, the running attack seems to be back – helped enormously by the return to health of feature back Chris Carson.  Over the last five games, Seattle has averaged 127.8 rushing yards a game.  They are gaining 4.5 yards per carry in those games.  Carson hasn’t resumed a full workload yet – he hasn’t carried more than 13 times in any of the three games since his return.  But he was over 60 rushing yards in each of the last two, and is averaging 5.5 yards a carry since his return.

The other improving area is the defense.

A liability for most of the season, the Seahawk defense looks like they are starting to figure things out.  They have allowed a total of 37 points over their last three games, holding all of those opponents to less than 300 yards.  Now, none of those teams boast much of an offense (they were the Eagles, Giants and Jets), so that gives me a little pause.  But I never felt that the Seattle defense was really as bad as they’ve played for most of the year – and I always expected that their running game would be more impactful than it’s been.

In short, even though the competition has been a bit weak, this is the Seattle team I thought we’d see all season.  They have the pivotal Week 16 matchup against the Rams at home, and for the moment that is enough for me to shift them back to being the favorites in their division and claiming the third seed (behind Green Bay and New Orleans) – with the Rams probably sliding to the fifth seed.

Still No Closer to Solving Lamar

The words had barely escaped Brian Griese’s lips.

In the Monday night booth this year, the former quarterback was suggesting possible adjustments that Cleveland might make in the second half of their contest against Baltimore.  As the third quarter began, the Browns were facing a 21-14 deficit after having been shredded for 134 rushing yards in the first half.  The bulk of those yards (78 of them) belonged to Raven quarterback Lamar Jackson.

And so now, as the Ravens faced a third-and-three from their own 37 on their first possession of the second half, Griese offered his final piece of advice to the Browns.  Find a way to “contain” Lamar Jackson.

And right on cue, they didn’t contain him.

Running their signature read-option play, with running back J.K. Dobbins aligned to his right, Jackson placed the ball in Dobbins hands while reading the unblocked defensive end to his left – on this play, Browns’ All-Pro Myles Garrett.

Garrett was caught in no-man’s land.  In fact, the entire Cleveland team was caught in no man’s land.  As Jackson lifted his eyes, he noted that only three Cleveland defenders remained on the left side of the hash marks.  There were two defensive backs (M.J. Stewart and Terrance Mitchell) both lined up wide to the left and out of the play, and Garrett who was all alone to defend both options of the read-option, as well as the left sideline.

Jackson kept the ball.  As Dobbins went racing past, Garrett took one false step in his direction, and Lamar darted inside of him, streaking, uncontained, through the gaping void off of left tackle.  Linebacker Malcolm Smith did eventually get an angle on Jackson and brought him to the ground but after a 44 yard gain.  Gus Edwards scored a touchdown on the next play.

Coming out of their bye at 5-3, the Cleveland Browns strung together a four-game winning streak that thrust them into the middle of the playoff conversation, and even – after the Steelers finally lost a couple of games – had them thinking about a possible division title.  The first three of those victories came against lightly regarded foes (Houston, Philadelphia and Jacksonville), but the last of them was the signature victory they had been waiting for – a 41-35 conquest of the Tennessee Titans.

And so – as they took the field last Monday evening – the Cleveland Browns were feeling really good about themselves.  Until the Ravens took the field and number 8 came out of the tunnel.  He (Jackson) continues to be Cleveland’s kryptonite.

No team has played Baltimore’s third year quarterback more than the Browns, and no team has less success against him.  Of the eight teams that have faced Jackson more than once, no team allows him more rushing yards per game (73) or a higher rushing average (6.74) than the Browns.  And when Lamar throws the ball, only Houston has spotted him a higher passer rating than the 112.0 he carries against Cleveland.  (In two games against the Texans, Jackson holds a 134.5 passer rating.)

The league in general has concluded that there is a certain discipline needed on defense if you are going to successfully “contain” the dynamic Mr. Jackson.  Your pass rushes can’t leave any open gaps for him to exploit.  Some teams have started to blitz Jackson a little more, not only to shorten his processing time, but also to keep all of the pass-rush lanes occupied.

Cleveland blitzed just 4 times and frequently opened a running lane for Lamar.  Of his game-high 124 rushing yards, 49 came on 5 scrambles when the pass rush provided him an escape.

The Browns are also still inclined to drop their pass coverages every time Jackson threatens to pull the ball down and run with it.  This happened on both of Lamar’s big throws – the 39-yarder to Mark Andrews that led to the go-ahead touchdown before the end of the first half, and the 44-yard touchdown pass to Marquise Brown that fueled the fourth-quarter comeback.

And when they weren’t doing all of that, Brown defenders were abandoning their containment assignments.  That’s what happened on the 44-yard run at the beginning of the third quarter.

Lined up in the gap that Jackson would eventually exploit was linebacker B.J. Goodson.  But as the play began, both offensive tackle Orlando Brown Jr. and guard Bradley Bozeman pulled to the right – an influential enough occurrence to convince Goodson that he wasn’t needed on the left side and draw him across the formation.

In fairness, the pulling linemen are a concern.

You may not have noticed, but Baltimore does almost no “zone-blocking.” Their running attack is a precision instrument – almost like the attack that the Don Shula Dolphins might have executed back in the 70’s.  It’s a targeted affair, replete with double-teams, pulling lineman and multiple blockers at the point of attack.  I would estimate that Bozeman spent nearly half of his evening pulling to open up that right sideline for Jackson and the running backs.  Of the 231 rushing yards they eventually laid on the Browns, 112 of them came up that inviting right sideline.  So, the pulling Raven linemen wasn’t something to be taken lightly.

Nonetheless, defenders with contain responsibility need to keep contain.

“Do Your Job” is, of course, the famed Bill Belichick mantra that serves to simplify the complexity of winning football.  If your job is to contain or rush or cover, do that and don’t try to do someone else’s job as well.  This is the recurring difficulty that Cleveland has whenever they play Lamar and the Ravens.

As it turns out, “doing your job” requires trust.  Right now, when playing against Jackson, the Cleveland defenders do not trust each other.  Until they do, expect their struggles against the Ravens to continue.

Cleveland as a Playoff Contender?

Jackson has now made five starts against Cleveland.  Their best efforts against him were their first two (Baltimore winning the first 26-24 in December of 2018, and Cleveland answering with a 40-25 win the next year).  Jackson eclipsed neither the 100 yards rushing nor the 100 passer rating plateaus in either game.  But the more they play him, the worse Cleveland gets.

In their Week 15 matchup last year, Lamar torched them for 103 yards rushing and a 120.1 passer rating.  In the opening game this year, Jackson ran only 7 times for 45 yards (remember, there were no exhibition games for him to warm up in), but he made up for that with a 152.1 passer rating.  Last Monday, his 124 rushing yards were complimented by his 115.6 passer rating.  The Brown offense battled back gamely, but in the end, it was another loss to their bitter division rival, 47-42 (gamebook) (summary).

Cleveland’s regular season will close with a showdown against the other principle team in the division – the Pittsburgh Steelers, who also thrashed the Browns in an earlier contest (38-7 in Week Six).

Until they can show that they can beat (not just play with) the division heavyweights, Cleveland’s playoff hopes will be nebulous at best.  With the Dolphins hanging just one game behind the Browns and with a somewhat easier closing schedule, this week’s contest against the Giants (a team significantly tougher than its 5-8 record indicates) becomes a must win for Cleveland.

If they lose that game, it will almost certainly force them to beat Pittsburgh on the last day of the season to get in.  It’s a situation, I’m sure, they would rather not be forced into.