Tag Archives: Miami

Here We Go Again

You wouldn’t realize it now, but up until last year New Orleans’ Drew Brees had gone 15 consecutive years making at least 15 starts a season – 236 starts in those seasons, an average of 15.7 per.  Nearly an ironman.  Then, on September 15 last year, Drew damaged a ligament in his throwing thumb, and the Saints were suddenly without their franchise quarterback for who knew how long.

It’s getting to be like this in New Orleans.  Whether it’s heart-breaking playoff losses, mind-bogglingly bad officiating, or untimely injuries, the perils of the New Orleans Saints are beginning to take on overtones of a soap opera.  This year, star wide receiver Michael Thomas was injured in the first game of the season and missed seven games.  Now that he is back, the Saints will be without Brees again.  Five broken ribs and a collapsed lung will keep him on the shelf for a while.  (By the way, I know the 41-year old, smallish quarterback doesn’t look particularly tough, but he led New Orleans on two scoring drives after sustaining all that damage before he took himself out of the game).

So what happens now?

Well, last year when Brees was injured, their backup – Teddy Bridgewater – stepped in and led the Saints to five wins in his five starts.  This year (with Bridgewater moved on to be the starter in Carolina) former Buccaneer Jameis Winston will get the same opportunity that Teddy got last year – the chance to re-invent himself and regain some credibility.

Will the results be the same?  Well, that is the million dollar question.  Even though the Saints are leading their division, the race is quite tight.  Any slippage in Brees’ absence could easily cost New Orleans a playoff opportunity.

As with Bridgewater last year, Jameis has his doubters.  In the closing act of his five-year career in Tampa Bay, Winston completed only 60.7% of his passes, and even though he led the NFL in passing yards with an impressive 5109, his 33 touchdown passes were offset by his league-leading 30 interceptions.  A lot of people don’t see that style blending well with the Saints’ system.

But, of course, last year Winston was in Bruce Arians’ no-risk-it-no-biscuit system.  Last year, Jameis averaged 10.4 air yards per every pass attempted – the second highest average in the NFL, behind only Matthew Stafford at 10.6.  Last week I pointed out that not every quarterback can thrive in that system.

A better understanding of who Winston is might be clearer from his first four seasons with the Bucs.  In spite of the fact that Winston played for pretty bad teams (they were 21-33 in his starts over those years) Jameis still managed to complete 61.6% of his throws at an average of 12.4 yards per completion.  He threw 88 touchdown passes over those seasons (4.6%) while having just 58 passes intercepted (3.0%).  And remember, Winston was throwing from behind a lot.  Last year – playing for a better 7-9 team, Winston checked in with a 5.3 touchdown percentage (0.7 better than his previous career percentage) at a cost of a 4.8 interception percentage (1.8% higher than his earlier career).

Coming in in the second half last Sunday, Jameis did what Brees was doing.  Brees’ 8 completions covered a total of 9 air yards (an average of 1.1 air yards per pass) but led to 67 yards after the catch (an average of 8.4).  Winston completed 6 second half passes that totaled 14 air yards (just 2.3 yards up the field) that were followed by 49 yards after the catch (8.2 per).

It’s a small sample size, but there is no reason to believe that Winston can’t fit into the Saint system.  And if you can’t expect him to play with the anticipation and the precision that Brees might, there are parts of Jameis’ game that are stronger than Brees’ game.  Expect Sean Peyton to find ways to leverage Winston’s greater mobility and stronger arm.

Another reason for optimism is the stretch of the schedule that this has happened in.  New Orleans’ next four opponents are Atlanta, Denver, Atlanta again and Philadelphia.  There are no gimmies in the NFL, and any of these teams could administer a defeat to the Saints.  But all three of these teams are below .500.  If you had to go four or so games without your starting quarterback, these would be the four you would probably choose.

There’s no reason, yet, for Saint fans to toss their cookies.  You’ve all seen worse situations than this.

More Good Saint Defense

Given the condition of the San Francisco team in general (and the offense in particular) – and the 49ers are one NFL team that won’t shed any tears over New Orleans’ injuries – you have to be careful not to make too much of this.  But for the second consecutive week the heretofore nettlesome New Orleans defense turned in another excellent performance.  After decimating Tampa Bay the week before, San Francisco was held to just 281 total yards – only 49 on the ground.  The Saints carried the game, 27-13 (gamebook) (summary).

Over the last two games they have 5 quarterback sacks and 5 interceptions (after intercepting just 4 passes through the first 8 games).  The combined passer rating against them in those two games is just 53.8.  Meanwhile, the Bucs and 49ers combined to run for just 57 yards against them over the two games on 30 attempts – 1.9 yards a carry.

If this New Orleans defense is, in fact, coming together, it will ease a bigger worry than the absence of Drew Brees.

Three Side Notes

One – The 49ers made a fairly close contest of this in the first half as they stuck diligently to their game plan.  They ran the ball (21 times in the first half) even when they weren’t seeing a lot of yards from it (only 41).  But they controlled the clock (for an impressive 22 minutes even) and had Nick Mullens balance with the controlled passing game.  Nick was 13 for 18 for 134 yards and a touchdown in that half – a 111.8 rating.

Even though they came out of the half trailing just 17-10, they entirely ditched that approach in the second half.  They ran the ball just 4 times (for 8 yards) and had Mullens throwing the ball 20 times in the half (he completed just 11 for 113 yards and 2 interceptions – a 31.9 rating).

New Orleans controlled the second half clock for 19:06.

Two – After the big win the previous week over Tampa Bay, the Saints were seen celebrating in the locker room as though they had just won the Super Bowl.  Sometimes stuff like that wakes up the karma gods and bad things (like losing your starting quarterback) have been known to happen.  I think football players in general should be more humble and sporting than they are (yes, the self-worship bothers me).  It seems the karma gods agree.  Sometimes.

Three – the penalty on the hit was widely criticized – as it should be.  It was, in all respects, a perfectly clean hit.  I may have been the only one not surprised to see the flag fly.  Defensive players need to understand that even if the hit is legal, if you hurt the quarterback, you will get penalized.  The official really can’t help himself.  The entire world is watching the quarterback lying on the turf and he begins to feel self-conscious – as though he owes it to the team that’s just lost their quarterback some measure of compensation.  The higher profile the quarterback, the more likely this penalty becomes.

So here now is the defensive checklist when dealing with a quarterback in or near the pocket:

You can’t hit him anywhere near his head.  You can’t hit him anywhere near his knees.  You can’t drive him to the ground when you hit him.  You can’t land on him with your full body weight.

And, on top of all that, you can’t hurt him.  Other than that, you can do whatever you want to the quarterback.

As It Turns Out It Isn’t Actually Over Till It’s Over

The football world’s head turned over and over in response to the Kyler Murray game-winning, Hail-Mary touchdown toss to DeAndre Hopkins that trumped the Buffalo Bills 32-30 (gamebook) (summary).  And rightfully so.  The accuracy of the pass (while Kyler was running for his life) and Hopkins’ in-traffic catch should both have carried a “do not try this at home” warning.  These plays pay off so rarely that when the last second shot into the end zone does work, it will cause a ripple through the league – and much more so when the game Is of this significance.

But hidden underneath the big moment at the end are some troubling trends that concern me about the Bills.

The biggest number of the day, in my opinion, was 217.  Those were the rush yards given up by the Bills.  It was the second time this season that Buffalo has given up more than 200 rushing yards.  Murray was responsible for 61 of them, but his yardage was the tip of the iceberg.  Kenyan Drake ripped through them for 100 yards on just 16 carries, and Chase Edmonds added 56 more on 8 carries.

But this is the worst part.  Of the 156 yards gained by Arizona’s two running backs, 110 came after contact.  The NFL average is  just 1.91 yards gained after contact per rushing play.  Arizona’s running backs averaged 4.58.  Forty-five of Edmonds 56 yards (80%) came after contact.

The Buffalo defense just does not seem to be coming together.  This is the fifth time this season – including their last two games – that they have surrendered 30 points.  They are now eighteenth in scoring defense and twentieth in total defense – including twenty-eighth against the run, as they are allowing 135 yards a game and 4.8 yards a carry (the third-worst average in the league).

Unless their defense finally comes to the party, Buffalo will have no hope of hanging onto their division lead, and will go quickly and quietly from the playoffs.

The other notable observation regards quarterback Josh Allen.  Allen was blitzed in this game, perhaps, more than he’s ever been blitzed.  Arizona, which began the game as football’s fifth-most blitz happy team – came after Allen on a full 54% of his drop-backs.  With his line doing a middling job of picking up the blitzes, Allen’s accuracy and decision making were negatively impacted.  Josh – who had done a great job of protecting the football thus far – tossed two interceptions and limped home with a 77.3 rating.  It will be interesting to see if he gets heavier doses of the blitz going forward.

Could Miami Earn the Second Seed?

As I watch the seasons unfold, I try hard not to over-react to any one game or any one player.  Yet I do have to admit that the Miami Dolphins have gotten my attention.  They have won four in a row, and their victims have included the Rams and the Cardinals.

Rookie quarterback Tua Tagovailoa has been getting the Lion’s share of the attention.  Tua has been doing a reasonably good job.  The team is 3-0 in his starts, and he has yet to throw an NFL interception (through 77 passes).

But the Dolphins, with – I believe – the hardest part of their schedule behind them, are much more than Tua.  They have a bend-but-don’t break defense that allows the fifth fewest points in the league (in spite of the fact that they rank only nineteenth in yards allowed).  More than that, it is a big-play, opportunistic defense that currently ranks third in takeaways.

And don’t forget about their special teams.  Whether they are blocking punts or returning them for touchdowns, it seems the Miami special teams are making game-changing plays every week.

And, they won’t face another winning team until December 13.

If Buffalo fades – as I think they might – what would it take for the Dolphins to earn the second seed?  If they don’t succumb to the inconsistencies of youth and start to lose games that they should win, then their chance to wrest the second seed will probably come down to that December 13 home game against Kansas City.

Could the too-young Dolphins actually squeak past the defending champions?  Truthfully, if you watch their games, Kansas City seems to have come back to the pack – even if only slightly.  And their run defense has fallen to twenty-ninth in the league.

Of course, this was about how they looked at this point of last season, too.

For the moment, I am going to entertain the prospect of the Dolphins winning that very significant Week 14 home game, and I am going to pencil them in as my two-seed, sliding KC to third.  The Chiefs will also be playing the Raiders, the Bucs and the Saints before the season is quite over, so they will have ample opportunity to stub their toes coming down the stretch.

Still, if they go out there and slap the Raiders around (as I kind of suspect they will) then don’t be surprised if I quickly reverse field on this.

At any rate, the Dolphins have gotten my attention.

Sometimes it’s the Small Things

Inserted as the starting quarterback from day one, 2019’s first overall draft pick endured a trying year.  Taking 96% of the offensive snaps, Kyler Murray – the legendary Texas high school quarterback who never lost a game – oversaw a fairly dismal 5-10-1 season.

It wasn’t all his fault, of course.  But it wasn’t all not his fault, either.  None of his numbers jump out at you.  As a passer his touchdown-to-interception rate was 20-12 and his passer rating was below the league average at 87.4.  He led the league in one category – being sacked.  He went down 48 times.

As a runner, Kyler ran for 544 yards and averaged 5.8 yards per rush.  That – the running – is what I remember most from his rookie season.  There is almost a mesmerizing quality to Kyler Murray’s runs.  At 5-10, Kyler is shorter than I am, and he runs with very short strides – but those short, choppy strides come so fast that they almost blur into each other as he runs – almost the way a hummingbird’s wings blur together when the bird is in flight.

Funny looking?  In a sense, yes.  But undoubtedly effective as he consistently buzzed – hummingbird-like – around and around would-be tacklers.

Arizona began 2020 on a much more positive note, winning two of its first three – including a surprising opening game conquest of the San Francisco 49ers.  Encouraging, but the biggest difference in the offense only seemed to be Kyler shouldering more of the running game.  In 2019 he averaged 5.8 rushes a game for just 34 yards a game.  Three games into the season, he had carried the ball 26 times for 187 yards – including 91 in the win over the 49ers.  He had rushed for 4 touchdowns in those games, averaging 7.19 yards per rush.

But the passing didn’t seem notably improved.  Completing a modest 66.37% of his passes, Kyler was below the NFL average in both yards per pass (6.96) and passer rate (79.7).  His 4 touchdown passes being offset by 5 interceptions.

But then, in a very strange Week Four, Kyler kind of turned a corner, albeit in a 31-21 loss to Carolina.  He ran for 78 more yards, but was held out of the end zone (as a runner).  He also fumbled the ball away.  As a passer, he completed 24 passes, but for an inconsequential 133 yards.  But, his 24 completions came in just 31 attempts (a 77.42%).  And, while not being intercepted, Kyler threw 3 touchdown passes.  It all added up to a 116.7 rating.

And all of a sudden, Murray was reborn as an NFL passer.  He led them to three consecutive victories, with the Cardinals scoring 30 or more points in each of them.  While it would have been more impressive if these points had been scored against better defenses (the vanquished teams were the Jets, Dallas and Seattle), it was nonetheless apparent that Kyler was becoming as much a threat with his arm as he had always been with his legs.

Counting the Panther game, Murray averaged 265.3 passing yards per game, tossing 9 touchdown passes against just 2 interceptions.  He posted a 105.1 rating.  He also ran for another 250 yards in those games, scoring 3 more touchdowns with his legs.

This brings us to last Sunday.

The marquee game, of course, would be that evening when a couple of old guys would renew their assaults on the record books when New Orleans would travel to Tampa Bay.  But in a sense the Miami/Arizona game was something of an undercard as a pair of first round draft choices from the last two years would be crossing swords for the first of what is supposed to be many clashes.  With Kyler growing into his role as the franchise quarterback in Arizona, Miami was just starting to take the wrappings off of its future at the position – Tua Tagovailoa.

Tua Time had officially been inaugurated the week before when the Dolphins beat the Rams – mostly without much from Tagovailoa who threw for just 93 yards.

In this mini-showcase of burgeoning stars, Tua did very well – much better than in his first start.  Tagovailoa completed 20 of 28 for 248 yards and 2 touchdowns.  Tua did very, very well.

But Kyler went off.

Even in this era of double-threat quarterbacks, it is doubtful that any one player has so completely dominated a quality opponent the way that Murray flayed the Dolphin defense.

The Dolphins came into the game as the fourth-most blitzing team in football, sending that extra-rusher 40.3% of the time – and they ramped that figure up against Kyler, coming after him on 15 of his 32 dropbacks.  Murray never blinked, completing 21 of 26 passes (80.8%) for 283 yards (10.88 yards per attempted pass) and 3 touchdowns with no interceptions.  His final passer rating of 150.5 came very close to the maximum points the system will award.

As opposed to the Seahawks and some of the other teams he had lit up earlier, in Miami he faced one of football’s top defenses.  The Dolphins had yielded just 8 touchdown passes coming into the game, and the 3.0 % of the passes against them that went for touchdowns was the second lowest in the league.  The overall passer rating against them at the start of the game was a stingy 81.7 – the fourth best such rating in the league.  Kyler’s achievement was no mean feat.

Moreover, he didn’t dink and dunk his way to his big game.  Murray averaged 9.6 intended air yards on his throws (the league average is 7.89).  His completions were an average of 11.0 yards down field.  The league average is just 6.15.  America remembers his perfect, arching, 56-yard touchdown bomb to Christian Kirk, but that throw was just the tip of Murray’s proverbial iceberg.  He finished 9 of 10 for 203 yards and 2 touchdowns on passes more than 10 yards from scrimmage – including 3 of 4 for 112 yards and 2 touchdowns on throws over 20 yards from the line of scrimmage.

It was a dominating air show.  And that was only his arm.

Whether it was scrambling away from the blitz, scorching the defense on the read-option runs, or just slicing through them on those darting quarterback draws, Murray added to the Dolphin frustration with 106 rushing yards (and 1 touchdown) on 11 carries.  And there’s an inside the numbers story there as well.

While Kyler was slipping out of their grasp, Miami held Arizona’s actual running backs to 72 yards on 26 carries.  Against everyone but Murray, the Dolphin front seven was dominant.  Across the NFL, the average running play gains 2.44 yards before contact.  The Arizona running backs were just 1.2 yards from the line of scrimmage before they were hit.  In retrospect, this might have been one of the best performances ever by a defense who allowed 178 rushing yards.

Yes, things could hardly have gone any better for young Kyler last Sunday afternoon.  Except, of course for one thing.  The Cardinals outgained the Dolphins 442 yards to 312 and punted only once in the game.  But they lost, 34-31 (gamebook) (summary).

To put it in election terms, the yardage total is a lot like the popular vote.  Most of the time the team that gains the most yardage is the team that will win – especially if that difference is 100 or more yards.  But the points are like the electoral college votes.  They don’t always follow the popular vote.

Sometimes the difference is in the small things.  One play, one break, one mistake – any little thing can sometimes undermine an otherwise dominant effort.

When Murray slithered through the Miami defense for a 12-yard touchdown run with 2:33 left in the third quarter, it looked like the Cardinals were about to leave the Dolphins behind.  They led at that point 31-24.

But the gritty Dolphins answered with a 93-yard drive that included two third-down conversions and a darting 17-yard scramble from the Miami quarterback.

Then it was Kyler’s turn.  Starting at his own 27 with 11:14 left in the game, Murray drove Arizona all the way to the Miami 40.  There they faced a fourth-and-one with just 5:20 left.  Already 2-for-2 on fourth down, Arizona went to the well one more time.  This time, though, they didn’t leave the ball in Murray’s hands and let him find a crease.  This time running back Chase Edmonds got the carry – and was denied.

Miami quickly turned the turnover into a field goal, and now Kyler would have one final opportunity, starting on his own 25 with 3:30 left, down 34-31.

One minute and 32 seconds later, Zane Gonzalez lined up a 49-yard field goal.  Dolphin kicker Jason Sanders had already been an important cog in getting Miami the lead, drilling home field goals from 56 and 50 yards.  This effort from Gonzalez was a pretty good kick – very straight and right down the middle – that is, until it faded and dropped just short of the post.

Tua then iced the verdict with a one-yard quarterback sneak on third-and-one with 1:05 left.  The first-down drained Arizona of its last time out and allowed the Dolphins to run out the clock.

And that’s how it happens.  A big scramble from the rookie quarterback, a big play from the defense on a fourth-and-one (on a call that Arizona might wish to have back), a makeable field goal that falls just short, and for the second straight week, the Dolphins claim a game that they were outgained in – the Rams finished the previous Sunday’s game with a 471-145 yardage advantage.

Sometimes “just finding a way” is one of the greatest traits a team can develop.

Also Winning Though Outgained

For 30 minutes in the early time slot on Sunday, the Indianapolis Colts gave the Baltimore Ravens all they could handle.  The Colts entered the contest with football’s second-ranked defense – and more particularly football’s second-ranked run defense.  Colt opponents were averaging just 79.9 rushing yards per game and only 3.4 yards per attempt.  The Ravens – of course – are football’s most feared running attack, leading the league at the time in both yards per game (178.7) and yards per rush (5.5).

At the intermission, this was a one-sided contest – at least as far as the yardage was concerned.  Baltimore staggered into their dressing room with 4 first downs and 55 yards of total offense.  The vaunted running game had been stuffed to the tune of 18 yards on 10 carries.

Critical for the Colts, however, was their inability to take full advantage of that dominance.  Driving at the end of the first quarter for the touchdown that would have given them a 14-0 lead, safety Chuck Clark scooped up a Jonathan Taylor fumble and returned it 65 yards for a touchdown.  It was the only thing that went right for the Ravens, but its importance was incalculable.  Instead of trailing, perhaps, 17-0 at the half, Baltimore was only behind 10-7.

The second half saw a reversal.  Baltimore never caught up with Indy as far as the yardage goes.  The Colts ended the game with a 339-266 yardage advantage, including a 112-110 lead in rushing yards.  It has been a long, long time since anyone out-rushed the Ravens in a game.

But Baltimore did come all the way back to pull out the 24-10 win (gamebook) (summary).  Along the way, they may have discovered a little bit of what had been wrong with their offense.

First of all, they were predictably run-heavy in the second half, running 28 times to just 10 passes.  But the passing game was markedly different than it has been.

For whatever reason – perhaps to establish Lamar Jackson as a feared passer – the Baltimore passing game so far had been as up-the-field as almost any in football.  Lamar came into the game averaging 9.2 intended air yards per pass (again, the NFL average is 7.89).  This ranked him second in all of football.

The results of this approach would have been predictable.  Jackson came into the game in the lower tier of passers.  His 60.5% completion percentage ranked thirtieth, and his 9.1% sack rate was thirty-second.

The story of the second half, though, was short-and-quick.

As opposed to Murray’s game against Miami, Jackson hit Indianapolis with underneath stuff.  He averaged just 3.74 air yards for his 23 throws in the game.  He threw only 4 passes more than 10 yards upfield, and none of them went as far as 20 yards.

But what the attack lacked in pizzazz, it made up for in efficiency.  Lamar completed all 10 of his second half throws to lead the comeback.

Sometimes that small thing that decides contests like this is an officials’ call.  In this one, another Colt turnover set up the go-ahead touchdown, but under questionable circumstances.

On their first offensive play of the second half, Colt quarterback Philip Rivers went up the right sideline for Marcus Johnson.  Cornerback Marcus Peters inserted himself between Johnson and the ball and grasped it with his fingertips.  As Peters was falling backwards, Johnson dislodged the ball and it fell to the ground.  Initially ruled incomplete.

On replay, the officials saw enough to rule it an interception.  I’m not sure that I see that – but even granting Peters the catch, then you also have to charge him with a fumble – which the officiating crew did.  Mysteriously, though, they awarded Baltimore a clean recovery – even though the whistle had blown before any recovery had been made.

Coming into the game, I felt that we would learn a bit about the Colts – and we did.  In many respects, they played very well against one of football’s best teams.  But the offense disappeared in the second half, and a little adversity – a defensive score and a questionable call – undid them.

We’ll keep an eye on the Colts, who may not quite be up to facing the elite teams quite yet.

First Look at the Playoffs

With everyone having played at least 8 games, it’s time to get an idea who is in the driver’s seat as far as playoff berths go.

NFC

Three of the four division leaders in the NFC all hold 6-2 records.  The three-way tie will go to conference records to break, giving the New Orleans Saints the current lead.  Seattle currently holds the second seed, and Green Bay is third.

With a sterling 3-4-1 record, Philadelphia holds the fourth seed as the East Division leader.  The current wildcard teams are Tampa Bay (5), Arizona (6) and the Los Angeles Rams (7).

I’m inclined, at this point, to accept these as the NFC playoff teams, but I don’t think the order will hold.  With the NFL’s leakiest defense and the toughest conference to play in, I don’t believe Seattle can hang with the Saints and the Packers.  I predict they will fall to third.  Between New Orleans and Green Bay, the Packers have the head-to-head win.  So, at this point here is how I see the NFC seeding for the playoffs: Green Bay (1), New Orleans (2), Seattle (3), Philadelphia (4), Tampa Bay (5), Arizona (6) and the LA Rams (7).

AFC

The AFC currently boasts the NFL’s lone unbeaten – the 8-0 Pittsburgh Steelers, who currently hold the top seed.  Right behind them are the defending champions from Kansas City at 8-1.  The rising Buffalo Bills have gone to 7-2.  Tennessee and Baltimore are both currently 6-2, but the Titans are leading their division, so if the playoffs started this week, they would be the fourth seed, with Baltimore slotting in at fifth.

The scrum right now is for the last two spots, with four teams currently sitting at 5-3.  Conference win percentage separates the Las Vegas Raiders as the sixth seed, with the Dolphins claiming the final playoff spot due to strength of victory.  Cleveland and Indianapolis are the two 5-3 teams currently on the outside looking in.

Will it stay this way?  I wouldn’t think so.

The Steelers and Chiefs – who don’t meet during the regular season – look right now to be good bets to stay where they are.  But chaos will come from the East in the form of the Dolphins.  In addition to looking like a team that’s coming together, their schedule down the stretch is much more favorable than the Buffalo team that sits a game and a half in front of them.  The Dolphins next four opponents are: the Chargers (2-6), Denver (3-5), the Jets (0-9) and the Bengals (2-5-1).  After that, things get a little more competitive.  Miami finishes with Kansas City (at home) New England (also at home) and then at Las Vegas before they finish with the big showdown in Buffalo.

I don’t believe the Dolphins will run the table, but they won’t have to.  Buffalo’s schedule is notably more challenging – beginning with this week’s game in Arizona against Kyler Murray.  Before that final game against Miami, Buffalo will also face San Francisco, Pittsburgh and New England.  The inconsistent Bills will be hard pressed to hold off the Dolphins.

The other change I see happening before season’s end involves the Raiders, who I don’t believe will hang on to their spot.  The Raiders surprised some people early – most notably New Orleans and Kansas City, but have been much more pedestrian over their last three games (when they were punished by Tampa Bay, 45-20, and squeaked out wins against Cleveland and the Chargers).  Before all is said and done they will play Kansas City again, along with Indianapolis and Miami.

That Week 14 game against Indy may prove to be decisive.  I rather think it will be the Colts that will take the Raider’s playoff spot from them.  If not an elite team, I think that Indianapolis can play with the better teams and are certainly good enough to make the playoffs.

This, then, is how I predict the AFC will seed: Pittsburgh (1), Kansas City (2), Miami (3), Tennessee (4), Baltimore (5), Indianapolis (6) and Buffalo (7).

There’s a long way to go, and I don’t consider myself married to this order.  But if everyone wins the games they should win, this is how it will play out.

And yes, that is a big if.

Rising on their Defenses

After 16 mostly glorious years with the Chargers. Philip Rivers was on the move this offseason – one of several noteworthy quarterbacks who changed addresses since the 2019 season ended.  Rivers arrival in Indianapolis didn’t get the attention that that one guy who used to play in New England got when he moved to Tampa Bay.  In most circles, it wasn’t even as discussed as New England’s replacing that one guy with that other guy who used to play in Carolina.  But as it turns out, the quarterback position with the Colts was one of football’s most desirable.

Playing without franchise quarterback Andrew Luck in 2017, the Colts faded to a 4-12 record.  But 2018 brought the promise of better things.  Luck was back, and with him came new coach Frank Reich.  And one of Frank’s first objectives was to fix Andrew’s offensive line.  To that end, he invested a first and a second round pick on a couple of linemen (Quenton Nelson and Braden Smith) who plugged right into the lineup. 

The results were life-changing for Luck.  He was sacked only 18 times in all of 2018 – once going 5 straight games without a sack.

The team rebounded to go 10-6, win a wild card spot, and make it all the way to the divisional round before falling to the up-coming Kansas City Chiefs.  Yes, thing were definitely looking up in Indy.

And then, on the eve of the 2019 season, Andrew Luck retired.  And all of a sudden there was a void at the most important position on the team.  His backup – Jacoby Brissett – was elevated to the starters’ spot.  Jacoby played OK, but more-or-less re-cemented the idea that he was a fine backup, but not the guy who could lead this team to the promised land.

But an interesting thing occurred that season.  Without a franchise quarterback, Reich and his staff kind of re-purposed that offensive line and found that they could be as dominant a run-blocking unit as they had been a pass blocking unit.  Even without a feared passing game, the Colts finished seventh in the NFL, averaging 133.1 rushing yards per game.  With the addition, now, of a high-level quarterback (Rivers) this looked like an offense that would be potent in all aspects.

Funny how reality doesn’t always meet expectations.

The Philip Rivers experience hasn’t always been fabulous, but hasn’t been terrible.  He went into last Sunday’s game against Detroit with an OK passer rating of 93.0 (NFL average was 94.5), and the prized running game had bottomed out – coming into the game against the Lions ranked twenty-eighth (98.0 yards per game) with their 3.6 yards per carry ranking dead last.  Injuries had something to do with this, as last year’s feature back (Marlon Mack) lasted 4 rushes before landing on IR with a torn Achilles tendon.

About the only statistical evidence of the impressive offensive line that they built in Indy is Rivers’ sack numbers.  Six games into the season, Philip had only been sacked 5 times (the fewest of all qualifying quarterbacks) and on just 2.5% of his passing attempts – the lowest ratio of any qualifying QB.

Fortunately, Indy’s early schedule mostly matched them up against defenses with issues of their own.  They managed 20 points against Jacksonville, 28 against Minnesota, 36 against the Jets, 23 against Cleveland, and – the game before they would play Detroit – they added 31 points against Cincinnati.  The only noteworthy defense they have faced so far belongs to Chicago, and they did win that contest by a 19-11 score.

It was all just soft enough to raise questions about how proficient the offense really is.

More than that, though.  After finishing in the middle of the pack in most defensive measures in 2019, the Colts took the field Sunday against the Lions ranked second in the NFL in total defense and fourth in scoring defense.  The team that faced off against the Lions was ranked second against the pass – including leading the NFL in interceptions (10), interception percentage (5.2) and passer rating against (71.7) – and third against the run – allowing just 88.3 rushing yards per game on just 3.5 yards per carry (the NFL’s fourth best figure).

By all assessments, Indianapolis had fought its way to a 4-2 record on the unexpected rise of its defense.  But again, given the relative softness of their schedule, could those numbers be a mirage as well?

Almost as if to answer the questions, the Indianapolis Colts landed on the Lions with both units last Sunday.  The long dormant running game sprung to life, bludgeoning the Lions for 119 yards on 39 grinding carries.  Behind them, Rivers – on his way to a 123.5 rating – threw 3 first-half touchdown passes.  After tossing just 4 touchdowns over his first 5 games as a Colt, Philip rebounded with 6 over his next 6 quarters.

Defensively, the Colts played their best half of the season in that first half, holding Detroit to just 80 total yards, and only 5 rushing yards on 5 carries.  This perfectly complementary game paved the way for Indy to control the clock for a surprising 22:06 of the first half – on its way to 37:46 of ball control for the game and a mostly dominant 41-21 victory (gamebook) (summary).

Previously, one of the least blitzing teams in the NFL (they came into the game sending extra rushers just 13.8% of the time), the Colts surprised Matthew Stafford and Detroit by employing a blitz-heavy game plan (20 times in Matthew’s 42 drop backs).  They finished the game with 5 sacks after recording just 13 through their first 6 games.

The Same but Different

The quarterback fortunes of the Miami Dolphins also changed dramatically over the offseason – but this chronic issue wasn’t solved in free agency.  The Dolphins invested their first-round draft pick (the fifth overall) on their quarterback of the future – former Alabama signal caller Tua Tagovailoa.

Unlike Rivers in Indy, Tua didn’t step into the starters’ role immediately.  He watched from the sideline for the season’s first six games as the Dolphins (a 5-11 team the year before) fought their way to a 3-3 record behind veteran passer Ryan Fitzpatrick and a surprisingly effective defense of their own.

Ranked thirtieth in yards allowed and dead last in points allowed in 2019, the Miami Dolphins took the field last Sunday against the LA Rams (which happened to be Tua’s first NFL start) boasting football’s third-ranked scoring defense.

Tagovailoa, himself, was mostly underwhelming.  On his way to a pedestrian 12 for 22 passing game for 93 yards, Tua made some impressive throws, but mostly looked like a rookie making his first NFL start.

The defense, however, added significantly to its resume (and added a twist to the concept of top scoring defense).  While holding the Rams to just 17 points, they more than matched that by scoring 21 of their own (essentially).  Forcing 4 first-half turnovers, the Dolphins scored one touchdown outright (Andrew Van Ginkel ran 78 yards with a recovered fumble), and set the offense up with very short fields on two of the others (Miami’s touchdown drives covered 33 and 1 yards).  Add in a punt return touchdown (an 88-yard beauty from Jakeem Grant) and it was more than enough for a 28-17 win (gamebook) (summary).

Challenges Upcoming

Both of these early season surprise teams will get significant tests this Sunday.  The Dolphins draw the very intriguing Arizona Cardinals.  The Gridbirds (as we used to call them in St Louis) will bring football’s number one offence (by yardage) and number two running game (160.7yards per game) to the table.

Meanwhile, the Colts will get to prove their legitimacy against the Baltimore Ravens and their top tanked running game (178.7 yards per game and 5.5 yards per carry).  After Sunday, we will have a little better idea whether these teams – especially their defenses – are for real. Or just early season mirages.

Speaking of Defenses

Although beaten, the Rams have been playing high-level defense themselves.  They were, in fact, football’s second stingiest scoring defense – and virtually responsible for none of the points scored against the team on Sunday.  They were betrayed by an offense that surrendered all those turnovers while again losing sight of who they are.

In spite of the fact that they averaged 4.5 yards for every running play, they allowed themselves to be seduced away from that to the point that quarterback Jared Goff ended the game throwing the ball 61 times.  The Rams had entered the game with 222 rushing attempts (second most in football) and averaging 138.9 yards a game.

This is a recurring tendency of this Ram team.  All too frequently they allow themselves to get drawn into passing duels – duels that they usually lose.

One Game More to Decide Playoff Teams

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

AFC Eastern Division

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

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

Neither of those outcomes is unthinkable.

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

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

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

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

AFC North

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

AFC West

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

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

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

AFC South

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

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

NFC South

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

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

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

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

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

NFC East

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

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

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

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

NFC West

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

NFC North

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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