Tag Archives: Tampa Bay Buccaneers

Green Bay’s Imperfrect Storm

According to the various game reports, the Green Bay Packers were cruising early last Sunday, as they pulled out to a 10-0 lead over the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.  This lasted right up to the 12:50 mark of the second quarter, when a Tampa Bay cornerback named Jamel Dean stepped in front of Packer receiver Davante Adams and intercepted Aaron Rodgers’ pass – returning it 32 yards for the touchdown.  With that play flipping the momentum, the Bucs came roaring back for the victory.

There is, of course, a strong element of truth there.  Tampa Bay did go on to score the final 38 points on the evening in a convincing 38-10 victory (gamebook) (summary).  The truth, as usual, is more nuanced than that.  Even before this particular tipping point, there were signs that all was not right with the Packers.  Rodgers – beyond the interception – endured what must surely be one of the worst games of his storied career, but the fault extends well beyond Aaron’s struggles as he was widely let down by his teammates – and, for that matter, even the design of the offense contributed to the lopsided loss.

If that wasn’t bad enough, the Packers ran into a Tampa Bay team playing its most complete game of the season.  The offense was near flawless as they committed no turnovers, committed no penalties, suffered no sacks, and went 4-for-4 in the red zone.  Defensively, they played much tighter in their zone coverages than they have previously, and, from about the mid-point of the third quarter on, they switched to stifling man coverages that I didn’t know they had in them.

For Green Bay, it all amounted to an imperfect storm.

Starting With Aaron

From the very beginning of the game, Rodgers was playing fast and a little on the frenetic side.  With 11:27 left in a still scoreless first quarter, the Packers dialed up a quick wide receiver screen to Equanimeous St. Brown along the left sideline.  But the moment the ball reached Rodgers hands, he spun and immediately fired the ball, well before St. Brown could possibly turn around and catch it.

Arguably, his most frazzled moment came with 5:24 left in the first – with the Packers up 3-0, facing a first-and-10 on the Buccaneer 41.  His first target on the play was Adams on a quick out.  The window would have been a little tight, but Rodgers has made tighter throws than that.  For whatever reason, though, he decided against it and pulled the ball down.  Just in front of him, he had Aaron Jones wide open underneath the zone.  But Aaron couldn’t pull the trigger.

At this point, although the pocket was still fairly secure, Rodgers bolted, spinning out to his left.  He pumped to throw, but pulled the ball down, and spun again back to his right – all but running right into William Gholston – a Tampa Bay defensive lineman.  Escaping his grasp, Aaron scrambled back to his right where he fired the ball out of bounds in the general direction of Adams.

In spite of this shakiness, Aron recovered enough to finish off the touchdown drive, and finished the first quarter 8 for 12.

His first play of the second quarter found Aaron escaping the pocket again at the first hint of pressure.  After more scrambling, he threw high to Jones in the flat.  On second down, Rodgers rolled right on a naked boot.  No one had blocked Jason Pierre-Paul, who seemed more interested in containing Rodgers than forcing the issue.  As Aaron meandered toward the right sideline, with JPP keeping a watchful eye on him, he had some opportunities.  He had TE Robert Tonyan underneath and he had Malik Taylor at the sticks.  But Rodgers didn’t throw the ball until he threw it away the moment before he went out of bounds.

On the next play, he threw the first of his two game-changing interceptions.

Unsettled by the Blitz

It wouldn’t be accurate to say that Rodgers was relentlessly blitzed, but DC Todd Bowles did make that extra rusher a substantial part of his game plan.  Of the 41 times that Aaron dropped back, he saw an extra rusher 18 times (43.9%).  In spite of the fact that 3 of the 4 sacks that Tampa Bay recorded against Aaron came on the blitz, they weren’t generally effective in getting pressure on the Green Bay quarterback.  What it did do, though, was to speed up his clock.  Almost always, as soon as he saw the blitz coming, Rodgers would immediately unload the ball.

This is what happened on both of his interceptions.  On the first one, Sean Murphy-Bunting was coming unblocked from the secondary.  But he was still more than five yards away from Rodgers when Aaron quickly snapped the ball to a covered Adams.  On third down of the subsequent possession, Tampa Bay sent 6 rushers.  In spite of the fact that the blitz was pretty much completely picked up, Aaron rushed the throw to Adams, who hadn’t achieved any kind of separation from CB Carlton Davis.  The ball was batted by Davis (or Adams) and may have been tipped at the line by JPP.  It eventually ended up in the arms of safety Mike Edwards, who returned the pick to the two-yard line.  One play after that, Tampa Bay had a 14-10 lead.

The day didn’t get any worse than that for Rodgers, but it never got much better.  He made other rushed decisions and passes.  Other times, he had open receivers that he just threw poorly to.  It was a day that Aaron could certainly have used some help from his teammates.  He wouldn’t get it.

Little Help from His Friends

For their part, the rest of the offense had a correspondingly bad day.  The offensive line was spotty in protection – especially against the blitz – and running back Jamaal Williams (one of the Packers’ most improved players) was repeatedly unable to pick up blitzing linebackers and defensive backs.

As for the receivers, they were officially charged with 6 dropped passes – although a few of those were a little unfair.  Marcedes Lewis was charged with a drop on a throw that was well beyond him.  His dive for it brought him close enough to have the ball brush off his fingertip.  Nonetheless, there were enough legitimate drops to add to Aaron’s frustrations.

Even the usually reliable Davante Adams contributed to the offensive malaise.  He was charged with two drops of his own, and, with Green Bay facing a third-and-8 with 5:40 left in the third, he uncovered on a deep throw up the right sideline and hauled in one of Aaron’s best and most confident throws of the game.  But the pass was ruled incomplete, as Adams – who caught the ball with his back to the sideline – failed to negotiate the sideline and stepped out of bounds.

At least a half-dozen other times, Rodgers stared into the teeth of Tampa Bay’s zone defenses only to find he had no outlet or underneath route to dump the ball off to.  I’m not sure I’ve ever seen a game plan that routinely didn’t provide for check-down routes against the zone defenses they knew they would see.

The futility was general – and seemed to effect the entire team.

If I were to speculate on a reason – other than it was just one of those days – I might point to the lack of the running game.

Running the ball against the Bucs has become almost legendarily difficult.  Last year, they allowed an average of just 73.8 rushing yards per game, and only 3.3 yards per carry – both figures were the best in the NFL.  This year so far they have been even better.  They came into the Packer game surrendering just 58.4 rushing yards per game, and only 2.7 yards per carry – again, both numbers were the NFL’s best.

In spite of the fact that the Packers were among football’s best running teams (averaging 150.8 yards per game and 5.1 yards per attempt), Green Bay’s response was to give up on the run before they even took the field.  They ran the ball just 10 times in the first half, and only 21 times on the day – many of those late in the fourth after the contest was decided.

Over the last few seasons, the Packers have become more reliant on the balance their running game provides than, perhaps, even they are aware.  I wouldn’t be at all surprised if the abandonment of this foundation of their offense wasn’t a contributing factor in the general disorientation that the offense experienced.  I wrote a couple days ago about identity.  Green Bay surrendered an important chunk of its identity before the game even kicked off.

Recognizing the Defense

In caviling the various elements of the Packer offense, I’m afraid some readers might understand this as minimizing the contributions of the Buccaneer defense.  That couldn’t be farther from my intentions.

If anything, last Sunday’s game served as a coming out party for one of the NFL’s most compelling defensive units.  Through their first 5 games, their patented zone defenses were distressingly squishy.  Only four teams in football started Week Six allowing a higher completion percentage than the Bucs –a problematic 70.9%.

There was none of that on Sunday (helped, of course, by the fact that Green Bay frequently didn’t provide for a check down).  Rodgers came in completing 70.5% on the season.  He left town having completed just 16 of 35 – 45.7%.

But as tight as the zone coverages were, the revelation to me from the game was the Tamp Bay Buccaneers in man coverage – especially Carlton Davis, who was generally Adams’ escort for the evening.

Davis didn’t shut out Green Bay’s most dangerous receiver, but he pretty much played him to a draw.  Adams finished with 6 catches, but for just 61 yards, no touchdowns and no plays longer than 18 yards.  And without explosive plays from Davante, the rest of the receiving corps was fairly easily silenced.  Number two receiver – Marquez Valdes-Scantling covered mostly by Murphy-Bunting – found precious little space.  He finished with 3 catches for 32 yards.  Taylor has become Green Bay’s the third receiver – he had no receptions and only one target.

Green Bay’s Persistent Concern

Once again, the question comes down to receiving depth in Green Bay.  It was a worry last year.  It was part of the angst of the recent draft.  And on Sunday, it came back to bite them again.  One of the reasons – I believe – that Tampa Bay was so comfortable in calling man coverages was because after Adams, the Packers didn’t have anyone that would strike fear into them.

In a Week Three win over New Orleans, Allen Lazard erupted with a 146-yard receiving game – and immediately went on IR.  His return might have a sizeable impact on this offense.

But for right now, no one knows when that return will be.  And no one seems to have any other immediate answers.

A Closer Look at Cincinnati’s Loss to Baltimore

At first glance, you wouldn’t give it a second thought.  Scanning down the final scores from Week Five of the 2020 season, you wouldn’t even necessarily pause at Baltimore 27 – Cincinnati 3 (gamebook) (summary).  The Ravens, of course, were 3-1 and coming off of a spectacular 14-2 season in 2019.  Cincinnati, meanwhile, was scuffling along at 1-2-1 after a trying 2-14 season in 2019 that awarded them the league’s first-round draft pick – a quarterback named Joe Burrow, who would be starting (yes, a rookie QB going against Don Martindale’s blitz happy defense).  Twenty-seven to three?  Nothing to see here.

But, behind the score were all kinds of interesting numbers – two of which turn out to be mirages, but tell an interesting story anyway.  In no particular order, the intriguing numbers are:

  • Baltimore quarterback Lamar Jackson threw 37 passes while the Ravens – a notorious run-first offense – ran only 24 times. And this in a game where they mostly cruised to victory.
  • The Ravens – nonetheless – ran for 101 yards in the first half alone.
  • They did this without any real ground contribution from Jackson, who finished the first half with 1 run for negative four yards. Lamar would finish the game with just 2 rushes for 3 yards.
  • And, finally, Cincinnati, despite the loss, controlled the clock for 20:08 of the second half.

Here are the story lines behind the numbers.

First, Jackson and the Raven passing attack.  There is little question that Baltimore came into the game intending to feature its passing attack.  Lamar threw on his first offensive play, and threw 3 times in the 5 plays of the first series.  In the second series, he threw on three straight downs at one point, and later in the drive threw on 4 of 5 plays – the only interruption in the sequence being his -4 yard run.

Baltimore ran 42 first-half plays, and called passes on 29 of them.  The Ravens came to pass.  The question is, why?

Thirty passes from the Ravens, who, in 2019, ran the ball on 596 occasions, while throwing it only 289 times, is usually a distress signal.  Jackson’s passing has been a fallback in case the running game isn’t working or if the Ravens should fall behind.  This was only the seventh time in Lamar’s career (including playoff games) in which he has thrown as many as thirty passes in a game.  The Ravens are now 4-3 in those contests.

Exactly what was on Coach John Harbaugh’s mind, I cannot – of course – know.   But I will weigh in with my opinion.  I believe that one of Baltimore’s 2020 objectives is to prove (to the world, if not to themselves) that Jackson can run a passing game at an elite level.  They are, I think, looking for a showcase opportunity – one that will make their opponents think twice about game plans that will dare Lamar to beat them with his arm.  And, in the lowly Bengals, Harbaugh thought he had that perfect opponent.

The results worked out less well than Harbaugh and Jackson might have hoped.  Yes, Lamar threw a lot, and Baltimore won, but the passing game wound up less than elite.  Jackson finished 19 of 37 (51.4%) for only 180 yards – 4.86 yards per pass attempt and 9.47 yards per completion.  He did throw 2 touchdown passes, but was also intercepted – leading to a disappointing 71.9 passer rating.  Worse, still, he was lucky that two other interceptions – thrown right into the hands of Cleveland defenders – were dropped.

Two important takeaways.

Cincinnati is now seeing Lamar for the fourth time, and is starting to make some adjustments.  Throughout most of his career, Jackson has made a living booting out of the pocket and threatening the perimeter.  As he would do so, the defense would drop their pass coverages and rush up to meet Jackson – leaving, in their wake, any number of short receiving options (usually a tight end) with no coverage in sight.

Last Sunday, Cincinnati, for the most part, kept Lamar in the pocket.  They were mostly successful in getting pressure off both ends keeping him from booting out – with the result that downfield coverage wasn’t dropped, and Jackson was forced to read, make good decisions and make accurate throws.  He struggled somewhat in all of those challenges.

Takeaway number two.  Cincy’s focus was on the underneath receivers, with the result that Lamar had a few up-the-field options.  Jackson, in fact, threw 6 passes at targets more than 15 yards from the line of scrimmage.  He missed on all 6 – badly, in most cases.

To date, efforts to establish Jackson as a potentially dominate passer have been less than successful.

Moving on to the 101 rushing yards that Baltimore achieved in the first half alone, that, I’m afraid was mostly a mirage.  The Ravens popped two very long runs – a 42-yard dash around the edge by Devin Duvernay, and a similar 34-yard burst from J.K. Dobbins.  The rest of the team managed 26 yards on 11 attempts – far below expectations.

This number ties into the next surprising number.  Jackson with 1 run for the half for -4 yards.

Even though the Ravens were emphasizing the pass, I don’t believe they put Lamar under orders not to run.  Even after his disappointing outing, Lamar is still the team’s leading rusher (238 yards and 5.8 yards a carry).  Jackson’s incomparable ability as a broken field runner is the element that transforms the Ravens’ offense into one of the NFL’s scariest.  There is no reason to believe that Baltimore would willingly shelve the most frightening part of their offense.

I believe that Cincinnati took it away from them.

The foundation of the Raven running attack is the read-option.  The quarterback takes the football and sticks it into the stomach of the running back.  As he does so, he reads the backside defensive end.  If the end crashes down on the runner, the quarterback pulls the ball back and spins into the void the defensive end left.  If the end stays wide, playing the quarterback, the QB releases the ball to the back for the quick hitter up the middle (that the end will now be unable to help contain).  When the defense cooperates, this can be run to devastating effect – especially when the play involves the skill sets of players like Jackson and Mark Ingram.

But, what if the defense doesn’t cooperate?  What if the defense realizes that the “option” in the read option belongs to them?  As the play unfolds, isn’t it actually the end that decides which option will be employed?  And if the end decides that having Ingram (or Gus Edwards, or some other running back) plow up the middle is preferable to seeing Jackson on the edge, then he has merely to stay wide to keep the ball out of Lamar’s hands.

Cincinnati did this over and over and over again – consistently inviting Jackson to leave the ball with the back.  Baltimore’s final rushing tally was a very healthy 161 yards, but 96 of those yards came on 3 long runs (Ingram did break one of those line bucks for 20 yards in the second half).  Baltimore’s other 65 yards were earned at the cost of 21 carries (3.1 yards per carry) – and only 3 of the yards came from Jackson.  Of all of the things that the Bengals achieved in this game, this is the one that I wonder if other teams will pick up on.

Serving up 27 points never looks like a terrific job by the defense.  In this case, though, I believe that Cincinnati’s defense should almost take a bow.  They largely muffled the passing attack that Baltimore tried to unleash on them, and they withstood the Raven running attack far better than the numbers indicate – even to the eliminating Lamar Jackson from the running attack.

The Ravens’ final total of 332 yards is modest, and their offensive achievements show just one touchdown drive of over 50 yards.  Baltimore’s other two touchdowns were a function of the defense.

Wink Martindale’s unit scored one touchdown outright (a 53-yard fumble return from Patrick Queen) and set the offense up on the Bengal 16 yard line after a Marcus Peters interception.  In and of themselves, the offense had very little reason to beat its chest.

Which brings us to the final interesting number – the 20:08 of possession time that Cincinnati maintained in the second half.  Yes, that is a mirage, too.  But not entirely.

Trailing 17-0 at the half, Cincy coach Zac Taylor decided on a ball control game plan.  This is counter-intuitive, but was the right decision to make.  He realized that having his rookie quarterback wind up and throw the ball 30 times in the second half would only lead to disaster.  But, if he could settle the game down, hold the ball, keep Jackson on the sideline, and maybe put together a long scoring drive or two, Cincinnati might just hang around long enough in this game to catch a lucky break at the end.

So, the Bengals came out running the ball and throwing short passes.  The running worked very little, but they kept at it.  They ran the ball 19 times in the second half, even though they were never closer than 17 points, and even though the 19 rushes only netted 48 yards (2.5 per).

The short passing worked out a bit better.  Burrow completed 10 of 11 second half passes (90.9%), but for just 96 yards.  But the 20:08 of second half possession wasn’t quite as dominating as it sounds.

With 11:23 left in the game, and trailing 20-0, Cincy began its penultimate drive on its own 23-yard line.  Four plays – and not quite three minutes later – the Bengals had a first-and-ten on its own 47.  Burrow, at this point, found receiver Mike Thomas on a short curl for 9 yards down the left sideline.  There, cornerback Marlon Humphrey punched the ball free.  It bounced right to Queen who scooped it up and ran down the sideline for the score.

Thereafter, the Bengals took the ensuing kick and ran off a 14-play, 55-yard, 7 minute 49 second drive that resulted in a field goal for the game’s final points, leaving just 37 seconds on the clock.  Cincinnati’s large time of possession advantage in this half was a product of having the two back-to-back drives (which totaled 10 minutes and 51 seconds) with no Baltimore offensive possession in between.

The Bengals were, however, outscored 7-3 during their almost 11 consecutive minutes of possession.  Additionally, as the game wound down, it was obvious that Baltimore was more than content to let Cincinnati run out the clock.

Even so, it was a plan that came close to succeeding.  They fell short because of the fourth quarter fumble and the fact that they never did find a way to halt the pressure – even when they were only throwing short passes.  Joe Burrow was sacked 4 times in the second half and 7 times in the game.  Every time they would seem to pick up a little offensive momentum, an untimely sack would disrupt the drive.

This half of the contest is still a clear mismatch.  But Cincinnati looks like a team that has more than a little clue of what it needs to do to become relevant in this division again.

Crazy Second Halves

In the second half of the Tuesday night contest between Buffalo and Tennessee, the Bills were a perfect 8-for-8 on third down.  They scored all of 6 points in the half and lost to the Titans 42-16 (gamebook) (summary).  Since that is enormously difficult to do, let’s look at their second half possessions and figure out how this happened.

Coming out of the half trailing 21-10, Buffalo opened the second half on defense, where they forced Tennessee’s only punt of the half.  The result could have been better, as the Titans downed the punt on Buffalo’s three.

Converting a third-and-two, a third-and-one, and a third-and-ten, the Bills found themselves in a second-and-four on the Titan 33.  But, on the fourteenth play of the 6 minute, 45-second drive, quarterback Josh Allen underthrew Gabriel Davis, and Malcom Butler intercepted.

Butler’s 68-yard return set Tennessee up for another short touchdown.  An earlier interception had given the Titans a first down on the Buffalo 16 yard line (this became a 16-yard touchdown pass to A.J. Brown.  Later on, a 40-yard punt return by Kalif Raymond set the Titans up on the Buffalo 30.  Tennessee punched that one home, too, on an eventual touchdown run by Derrick Henry.  Now they were on the 12 yard line.  It took just 3 plays for quarterback Ryan Tannehill to get them into the end zone on a 4-yard toss to Jonnu Smith.

Now down 28-10, Buffalo would begin the next drive on their own 10 (after a holding call on the kickoff).  Again, they would work their way onto Tennessee territory, converting a third-and-three, a third-and-one, and a third-and-seven, leading eventually to a second-and-ten on the Titan 22.  Here, Allen fired a touchdown pass to T.J. Yeldon in the end zone.  With the failed two-point conversion – and ten minutes even left in the game – Buffalo now trailed 28-16.

When they got the ball back – with just 3:49 left in the contest – they trailed 35-16, courtesy of an 11-play, 75-yard Tennessee drive.  At least that was when they were supposed to get the ball back.  But Andre Roberts fumbled the ensuing kickoff, and it was Tennessee with yet another short field.  This time they had the ball on Buffalo’s 18.  Six plays later, Tannehill tossed another short TD pass to Smith.  There was 1:59 left, and the Titans lead had swelled to 42-16.

For the game, Tennessee was 6-for-6 in the red zone.  To their credit – and in spite of the fact that they hadn’t played in more than two weeks – they converted every single short field that Buffalo gave them.

At this point, Buffalo let backup QB Matt Barkley finish the game.  He also converted two third downs – a third-and-six, and fittingly a third-and-eight on the last play of the game.  The final ticks of the game saw Buffalo – out of time outs – rushing to the Tennessee nine-yard line to attempt one final play.

Buffalo finished the game an impressive 13-17 on third down.  But they turned the ball over three times, and Tennessee made them pay each and every time.

Meanwhile, in Cleveland, the Browns and the Indianapolis Colts combined for 25 second-half points – in spite of the fact that neither team managed an offensive touchdown in that half.

The second half of that game belonged almost entirely to the pass defenses, fueled by furious pass rushes.  Colt quarterback Philip Rivers – whose relative immobility prevented him from escaping the pocket – continued his career-long pattern of rushing decisions under pressure.  While completing 13 of 22 second half passes, Rivers was not sacked.  But he threw for only 123 yards and was intercepted twice.  Baker Mayfield – the much more mobile passer for the Browns – had an even worse second half.  He was just 2 for 9 for 19 yards with 2 interceptions of his own.

The second half scoring consisted of a 47-yard interception return from Cleveland’s Ronnie Harrison, an ensuing 101-yard kickoff return by Indianapolis’ Isaiah Rodgers, a safety called when Rivers was called for intentional grounding in the end zone, and 3 field goals – two from Indy and one from Cleveland – all adding up to a 32-23 victory for the Browns (gamebook) (summary).

Who Yells at Tom?

With three minutes left in the third quarter of Tampa Bay’s Thursday Night game in Chicago, new Buccaneer quarterback Tom Brady was seen shouting at his center on the way off the field after a failed third-down play.  His coach, Bruce Arians, defended Brady to the media afterward.  The general message is that this is what leaders do.  And, certainly, if anyone has the credibility to call out another teammate, it is Brady – the most decorated quarterback of his generation.

I don’t know, though.  It has always seemed to me that yelling at (or correcting) another player is a coaching function.  You leave yourself open, you see.  What happens then, when you have a mental lapse during the game – and all players are human.  Even the great Tom Brady has lapses.

And sure enough, in the critical moment of his team’s 20-19 loss to the Bears (gamebook) (summary), Tom made the mental mistake that sealed the defeat.

He forgot that it was fourth down.  Afterwards Brady danced around the question, and Coach Arians stated emphatically that it didn’t happen.  But it did.

With 38 seconds left in the game, and Tampa Bay on their own 41 yard line trailing by one, the Bucs faced a fourth-and-six.  Eschewing a shorter route that would have picked up the first down and kept the drive going, Brady threw deep over the middle – incomplete.  Afterwards, as the teams were changing, Brady looked confused and held up four fingers in the attitude of asking what happened to fourth down.

Again, everybody blanks from time to time.  But the whole scenario got me wondering who yells at Brady?  If he had done that in New England, he would certainly have heard about it.  In New England nobody’s ego is sacrosanct.  Not even the (arguably) greatest quarterback of all time.

But in Tampa Bay, who yells at Brady?  All I feel from the Tampa Bay contingent – from the head coach all the way down – is a sense of deference to Brady.  It’s OK when he shouts at his teammates.  And, apparently, it’s OK when he forgets its fourth down.

This could be more imagined than real, but Brady just seems more mistake prone in Tampa Bay than I remember him being in New England.  He has already been intercepted 4 times – half as many as he was all last season in New England – and he has lost a fumble (so he is averaging a turnover a game).  Two of the interceptions have been returned for touchdowns.

None of this is anything to panic over.  Tampa Bay is still 3-2 and just getting to know each other.

But I still wonder.  Will anyone in Tampa Bay push Brady if he needs to be pushed?  Or is his persona considered too sacred.  Remember, they did woo Tom to Tampa Bay with the promise of a gentler corporate culture (along with a boatload of money). 

I wonder, though, if that won’t cost them in the long run.

A New Quarterback in Kansas City

There was a surreal moment at the end of first quarter in Heinz Field last Sunday.  With 54 seconds left, the Steelers – trying desperately to get their bearings – faced third-and-ten on their own 19.  As quarterback Ben Roethlisberger dropped back, Kansas City linebacker Justin Houston got his right hand under right tackle Marcus Gilbert and drove him back into Roethlisberger.

Ben, wedged into the pocket, tried to lift the ball to get rid of it, but the play resulted in disaster.  As Houston pushed Gilbert into Roethlisberger, the ball popped loose.  Chief defensive end Chris Jones scooped up the ball at about the five-yard line and stepped it into the end zone.

And suddenly the Pittsburgh Steelers, with 40 seconds still left in the first quarter, playing at home, trailed the Chiefs 27-0.

In the moments that followed that disaster, the game pivoted 180 degrees.  A holding penalty on Orlando Scandrick nullified the sack and the score, setting the Steelers back up with a first-down on their own 24.

Four plays later, Ben pitched a 26-yard touchdown pass to Jesse James.  The Kansas City lead was reduced to 21-7, and the teams would go into the locker room at the half tied at 21.

It was an impressive comeback from a proud Pittsburgh team.  In the end, though, it would prove fruitless.  While the Steeler defense was able to muffle the Kansas City offense long enough to get them back in the game, by the end of the day it was clear they were overmatched.

On a day when the Steeler running game (minus holdout Le’Veon Bell) could manage just 33 yards, Ben Roethlisberger went to the air 60 times, completing 39 of those passes for 452 yards and 3 touchdowns – leading Pittsburgh to a usually sufficient 37 points.

But the day belonged to the first-year quarterback standing on the other sideline.

How much the football universe knew about Patrick Mahomes before this year is uncertain.  After his first two games under center in KC, they can no longer afford to ignore him.

He opened up with a four touchdown pass performance against the Chargers in Week One.  It was impressive, but the offensive plan against Los Angeles was more cute that dominating.  There were a lot of dinky flip passes to wide receivers running in front of Mahomes while still behind the line of scrimmage.

The beast that slayed the Steelers was a very different animal.  Whatever misgivings one might have had after the Charger game, Mahomes’ dissection of the Steelers was all any observer could desire.  He read every defense that Pittsburgh threw at him.  He stood tall in the pocket when he could and escaped easily from trouble when he needed to.  He threw terrific touch passes and fired laser shots down field – all with impressive accuracy.  Watching him run the offense was even more impressive than reading his numbers – and that is saying quite a bit as the numbers themselves are more than a little eye-popping.

Pat finished his game against Pittsburgh throwing 28 passes – of which he completed 23 for 326 yards.  And 6 touchdowns (giving him 10 for the first two games of the season).  As he threw no interceptions, his passer rating for the day was an acceptable 154.8.

I have long admired Kanas City coach Andy Reid.  I have always been under the impression, though, that he would probably never win a title.  There are some coaches that can just never find that quarterback that can get them there.

It is a long, long way from Week Two to the playoffs, and young Mr Mahomes still has a lot to prove.  I do think it’s a little early to start casting his bust for Canton.

But, to this point, it looks like Andy just might have found his quarterback.

And in Jacksonville, Too

The backbreaking play – when it came – came with more of a whimper than a bang.  It wasn’t a rifle shot down the field or a snazzy trick play like the one Philadelphia used in the Super Bowl.  The dagger came on a simple shallow cross, assisted greatly by a grinding kind of effort from a player who is usually a little more visible.

The reigning AFC Champs spent last Sunday afternoon in sunny (it was 97 degrees) Jacksonville Florida.  Last January, these New England Patriots staged one of their patented comebacks to keep the Jaguars out of the Super Bowl.

On this Sunday in September, however, the Patriots ran into the same kind of buzz saw that the Steelers did. The Jaguars scored touchdowns on three of their first four possessions, and then added a field goal on their fifth.  That field goal capped a 15-play, 71-yard drive that consumed the first 7:10 of the second half.  As the kick sailed through the uprights, the Patriots found themselves behind (again) by a 24-3 score with just a quarter and a half remaining.

Of course, it would not end like that.

A touchdown pass from Tom Brady to Chris Hogan in the waning moments of the third quarter made the score 24-10.  Early in the fourth quarter, a field goal inched the Patriots closer.  When Kyle Van Noy intercepted a pass in Jacksonville territory with still 13:30 left in the game, the crushing blow from the defending conference champs seemed imminent.

But the Jags came up with a turnover of their own, and managed to stop New England on their next series – using a challenge to overturn what would have been a Patriot first down.

Now there was 7:48 left in the game.  Jacksonville had first-down on their own 39 yard line.  Quarterback Blake Bortles found Dede Westbrook open on a shallow crossing pattern.  Westbrook, running from the offensive right to the left found the sideline and turned up field. 

Already a substantial gain, the play turned into the game-breaker as receiver Keelan Cole cleared the sidelines with a critical block.

In the first quarter, Cole made a remarkable one-handed catch up that same sideline (relatively speaking) on a pass that was considerably behind him.  That reception set up his own 24-yard touchdown grab.  These were the highlight catches of Keelan’s impactful first half – which saw him collect 4 passes for 77 yards.

Now, however, he was Keelan Cole – the blocker.  He was Keelan Cole – the football player.

Had he not thrown the key block, it’s anyone’s guess how the game might have turned out.  Given a reprieve, the Patriots might very well have held the Jags to a field goal – or perhaps forced another turnover.  Keelan’s block may have been the most critical play of the game.

It did open the way for the touchdown that New England never recovered from.

Who is BlakeBorltes?

The quarterback in the spotlight that afternoon was Bortles.  The Patriots challenged him to beat them through the air and up the sidelines, and Blake kept doing that all afternoon.  He finished his day’s work shredding New England for 377 yards on 29 of 45 passing.  Along with his 1 interception, Blake tossed 4 touchdowns.  His passer rating ending up as an excellent 111.1.

In its own way Blake’s day was as impressive as Mahomes.  In that he humbled the sometimes invincible Patriots.  That he always kept his cool whether secure in the pocket or on the run.  That he unerringly diagnosed everything New England’s defense tried to do to him.  That he threw the ball with great accuracy and never made that critical mistake that quarterbacks so often make against New England – in all these areas, Blake’s day was as laudable as any quarterback in Week Two – even if his game was more contained and less aggressively athletic than Mahomes’.

In an earlier title, I hinted at a new quarterback in Jacksonville.  It is, of course, still Blake Bortles.  But maybe a new Blake Bortles.  Certainly different than the Blake Bortles that threw only one pass in the second half of his Week Five game last year in Pittsburgh.

Just watching him play and looking at his history it is easy to overlook Blake Bortles.  Maybe it’s time we stop doing that.

And in Tampa Bay

With Jameis Winston missing the first three games of the season due to suspension, the Buccaneers had a need for a stop-gap quarterback.  Veteran Ryan Fitzpatrick seemed a perfect fit.  Now, all of a sudden, there is a potential quarterback controversy in Tampa Bay.

Fitzpatrick – the stopgap – has led Tampa Bay to two compelling victories against teams (New Orleans and Philadelphia) that were in the playoffs a year ago.  And he has done so in about as perfect a fashion as one could hope.

His combined line against the Saints and Eagles reads 46 of 61 (78.7%) for 819 yards, 8 touchdowns and 1 interception.  This adds up to a not-too-shabby 151.5 passer rating.  Fitz will get the Monday night game this week against Pittsburgh, and then Winston will be eligible to return.  Whether he returns to hold the clipboard or not remains to be seen.

Ready for Week Three

As Week Three is beginning to kick off around the football universe, the season is already beginning to suggest the surprise stories that might play out for the rest of the season.

There is, of course, a long way to go.

Staggering Into (and Out of) the Playoffs

Week 17 is always the most unpredictable week in the NFL season (Week One is the second most unpredictable).  The week is a composite of varying energies and passions, and it’s nearly impossible to tell, sometimes, which games mean more to which teams.

For the Baltimore Ravens, it was all there to be had.  At 9-6, the playoff berth was theirs for the taking if they could win at home against a disappointing, 6-9 Cincinnati team.  They lost.

The Chargers did everything they could to complete a stunning turnaround from an 0-4 start to almost claim a playoff spot.  They beat Oakland 30-10 (finishing with a 9-7 record), but were edged from contention when both Buffalo and Tennessee won – both claiming wildcard spots.

In a season that seems to be something of a changing of the guards, Buffalo, Jacksonville, the Rams (St Louis and Los Angeles) and Tennessee all broke long playoff droughts.  How long any of them will last in the playoffs is another question.  All of them have question marks.

Of the playoff neophytes, the Rams have had the best season (and sit with the best record).  But they will enter the playoffs without place-kicker extraordinaire Greg Zuerlein.  The quickest way to lose playoff games is to miss points in the kicking game.

The other three are harder to take seriously.  Buffalo’s 9-7 record includes only two wins against over .500 teams.  They have wins against Atlanta when the Falcons were slumping early and Kansas City while the Chiefs were going through a mid-season slump.  In between, they have losses to Carolina, New Orleans (47-10), the Chargers (54-24) and New England twice (23-3 and 37-16).  At one point during the season, their starting quarterback was benched.

Tennessee Takes Jacksonville

As to the Titans and Jaguars, they finished the season against each other in a game in which neither managed to impress.

When the dust had settled, it was Tennessee who walked off the field with the victory, 15-10 (gamebook), but it was hardly a showcase effort.

The Titans began four drives on Jacksonville’s side of the field – including two inside the Jaguar’s 30-yard line.  The results were two field goals, a punt and a fumble.  They controlled the clock for 19:40 of the second half, but managed only 3 points.  Eric Decker dropped three passes in the second half, and the Titan running game (minus quarterback Marcus Mariota) managed just 56 yards in 29 carried (1.93 yards per carry).

The only consistent offense the Titans had all evening came on keepers by Mariota.  Up until his kneel-down ended the game, Marcus had sprinted for 61 yards on 9 carries – most of them designed runs.  Tennessee ran for 5 first downs in the second half – and Mariota accounted for 4 of them.

But as beatable as Tennessee looked last Sunday, Jacksonville – already in the playoffs –  seemed even more mortal.  Even granting that they had less to play for than the Titans, their performance was just as concerning – especially as the game wore on.

They finished with just 74 total yards in the second half, averaging just 2.8 yards per offensive play.

With their running game throttled (Jacksonville managed just 83 rushing yards on 24 carries – with none of them longer than 9 yards), the Jaguars put the ball in the hands of quarterback Blake Bortles, who finished the game with 2 interceptions and a sobering 33.7 passer rating.  He was especially cold in the second half, when he connected on just 4 of 15 passes for just 47 yards and both interceptions.  His passer rating for the second half was an almost impossible 0.6.

Jacksonville never did score an offensive touchdown.

Jacksonville’s defense ranks among the best in the league – second in both yardage and points allowed.  Tennessee finished the season ranked thirteenth in total defense and seventeenth in points allowed – not gaudy rankings, but they are fourth against the run, and they proved once again that the Jaguar passing attack is unlikely to win a game without significant contributions from its running attack.

Tampa Bay Wins in Strange Fashion

The New Orleans Saints – with their division crown on the line – ended the regular season in Tampa Bay.  Were they to lose and Carolina to win, the Panthers would win the division and send the Saints to the tournament as a wild card.  The Buccaneers (already eliminated from the playoffs) were only playing for pride.

But for the game’s first thirty minutes, that pride looked like it might be more than enough.  Tampa Bay held the ball for 20:02 of the half, converting 10 of 11 third downs.  They went into the locker room with a 233-125 lead in yardage and a 17-7 advantage in first downs.  In just the first two quarters, Tampa Bay had rolled up 101 rushing yards and 24 carries – numbers many teams would be pleased to see at the end of a game, much less at halftime.

Yet – courtesy of two interceptions, a blocked extra-point, and a 106-yard kickoff return against them – the Bucs trailed 14-13 at the half.

New Orleans mostly reversed the domination in the second half.  Quarterback Drew Brees completed 15 of 17 passes (88.2%) and rolled up a 125.2 passer rating for the half.  He finished the game completing 22 of 30 passes (73.3%).  Meanwhile, the run defense that was dominated in the first two quarters surrendered only 9 rushing yards on 4 attempts over the last two quarters. They controlled the ball for 18:29 of the last half.

Yet a fumbled punt that Tampa Bay returned for a touchdown, and a 39-yard touchdown heave from Tampa Bay quarterback Jameis Winston to Chris Godwin with 9 seconds left pushed the Bucs past the Saints 31-24 (gamebook).

One of the NFL’s dominant teams through October and the first half of November, the Saints look very much like a team that peaked too soon.  They finished the season splitting their last six games.  After being untouchable throughout most of their 8-game winning streak, New Orleans looks decidedly vulnerable as they begin the playoffs.

Throw-Back Saints Keep Throwing

Last week, I talked about the new vertical NFL.  This week, though, is throw-back week as we will spend a few minutes with the New Orleans Saints during their convincing 30-10 triumph over the Tampa Bay Buccaneers (gamebook).

Nine weeks into the NFL season, Drew Brees sits (statistically) among the elite quarterbacks of the league.  He currently ranks first in completion percentage (71.6), third in passes completed (197) and passer rating (105.0), and fifth in passing yards (2214) and yards per pass attempt (8.05).  Yet, he is doing all of this without an “elite” receiver.  In Ted Ginn, Drew does have a receiver who can provide a vertical threat – but not in the way that the elite guys like Julio Jones and Antonio Brown can provide it.  Michael Thomas is probably underrated in the NFL world at large.  He has caught 50 passes already this season.  But nobody speaks of either of these receivers in reverential tones.

In an increasingly vertical NFL, Brees and the Saints are still among the very best at the horizontal passing game.

Tough Days in Tampa Bay

Opposing them last Sunday – perhaps better said – offered up to the Saints last Sunday were the tilting Buccaneers.  Their 2-1 start now just a distant memory, the Bucs walked the plank for the fifth consecutive time Sunday.  Injuries, youth and the frustration of their season slipping away from them have all taken their toll.  In addition to being outgained 217-88 in the first half, allowing the Saints to control the clock for 17:08 of the second half, watching their three top pass catchers (Mike Evans, Cameron Brate and DeSean Jackson) held without a catch in the second half, and seeing top running back Doug Martin held to 7 yards on 8 carries for the game; Tampa Bay also saw their starting quarterback Jameis Winston leave at the half with a re-injury to his shoulder, saw a blocked punt turn into a touchdown, and watched Evans ignite and altercation when he came off the sideline to blindside Marshon Lattimore.

In short, the wheels are starting to come off just a little in Tampa Bay.

In their current condition, these Bucs were no match for the peaking Saints.  In the vertical NFL discussion, I pointed out that the driver for all of this was the shutdown corner.  Tampa Bay is still looking for that guy.  Now minus veteran cornerback Brent Grimes, they opposed New Orleans Sunday with four rookies or first-year players and one second year player seeing significant playing time in the Tampa Bay back seven. With so much youth, the Bucs were limited to simple coverages – two deep zones and safe man coverages, with cornerbacks lining up eight yards off of the receivers and back-peddling at the snap.

Saints Taking Advantage

With volumes of underneath room, Brees and the Saints took everything the Bucs gave them.  And took and took and took.  Drew threw the ball over 20 yards only three times all day – completing just one.  He also threw (and completed) one 19 yard route and one 11-yard route.  Everything else was thrown within ten yards of the line of scrimmage.

Twenty-two times Brees threw short routes – including 6 screen passes.  He completed 19 of these throws for a total of 190 yards – 148 of those yards coming after the catch.  These include 14 passes thrown within five yards of the line of scrimmage.  Thirteen of the fourteen were completed for 111 yards – 113 of the 111 yards coming after the catch.  For the game, 155 of Brees’ 263 passing yards came after the catch.

Drew mostly picked on Grimes’ replacement.  First year player Ryan Smith, making his third career start at right corner, gave plenty of room and got plenty of attention.  Of Drew’s 29 passes, 16 went to the offensive left side.  Brees was 12 of 16 for 145 yards throwing to his left – even though Robert McClain, on the other side, was giving just as much room.

The struggling secondary was further exposed by a mostly non-existent pass rush.  Brees was sacked once and hit – I think – only one other time on a blitz.  Tampa Bay sits last in the NFL with only 8 quarterback sacks this season.

Defining Moments

Perhaps the day on defense could be summed up by the afternoon of rookie safety Justin Evans.  Making just his fourth career start, Justin was at the focal point of the two worst moments of Tampa Bay’s day.

There was only 1:06 left in the second quarter.  New Orleans, ahead only 9-3 at this point, faced first-and-10 at Tampa Bay’s 33-yard line.  Brees dumped a screen pass into the hands of Alvin Kamara – one of the NFL’s impact rookies – and the screen pass broke big.

Catching up to him at about the 15-yard line, Evans tried to wrap his arms around the shifty Kamara, only to be spun about like last week’s laundry and left sitting on the turf while Kamara finished a weaving 33-yard touchdown run.

Now there is 9:46 left in the third quarter – the Saints leading 23-6.  They have the ball on the Buc 36-yard line, first-and-10.  It is perhaps understandable – given that the Saint passing game had consisted almost entirely of short tosses – that Evans might have expected more intermediate passing.  Even so, he was standing flatfooted looking into the backfield as Ginn sped past him.  Seconds later, Ted pulled in Brees’ perfectly thrown strike for the 36-yard touchdown that iced the contest – New Orleans’ only completed long pass of the game.

Next For the Saints

While Tampa Bay seems headed for a “growth” year, New Orleans increasingly looks like a team to be contended with.  After Brees threw for 185 yards in the first half, the Saints opened up their running game for 112 yards in 20 rushing attempts in the second half alone.  They now rank fourth in passing yards and seventh in rushing yards in the NFL.  Defensively, they still rank fifteenth, but that’s a little deceptive.  After allowing 470 yards in their first game and 555 in their second, New Orleans hasn’t allowed more than 347 in any game since.  They are averaging 264.7 yards allowed per game over their last six.  It’s a team that can beat you in a lot of ways.

Their winning streak – now at six games – has already included three road wins (in Carolina, Miami and Green Bay).  Now they will journey to Buffalo – a different sort of team with a unique offensive and defensive style.  In the week-to-week NFL, it will be interesting to see how they adjust.

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.