NFL Week 14 Predictions: The Old Familiar Sting Edition

Week 13 was an unlucky one for many of the NFL’s most notable quarterbacks. Some of them have a matchup in Week 14 against an opponent that has been a nuisance throughout their careers, with most of those coming as a surprise since these teams generally aren’t quality opponents. I imagine we’ll see at least one upset there.

Upset Alert: Steelers at Raiders (+10)

You can say I’m forcing the narrative on this one, but it’s a fact that underachieving Steelers seasons always involve a loss to the Raiders no matter how bad Oakland is. It’s happened all four times the Steelers have missed the playoffs in the Ben Roethlisberger era (2006, 2009, 2012, and 2013). This Oakland team is hardly any worse than those teams were either. Roethlisberger had two of his best performances in a loss ever in the 2009 and 2012 games, but he’s still just 2-4 against Oakland for his career.

This is almost a must-win for the Steelers (7-4-1), because they have the Patriots and Saints coming up. A five-game losing streak could knock them out of the playoffs altogether, so they have to get this one, but it won’t be easy. Oakland did just only lose by 7 points to the Chiefs last week. As much as I criticize Derek Carr, he’s been very functional in three of the losses this year (DEN, IND, KC). They can move the ball and score in this one, and the Steelers are playing anything but stellar defense right now.

I think the spread is too high, and that’s even after coming down from 11 earlier this week. The Steelers have played 14 road games since last year. They’ve won only two of those games by more than 7 points. They just make too many mistakes on the road to trust them to win big. With James Conner out, Roethlisberger might think he’s going to throw 45+ times just because he’s the least-pressured QB in the NFL and the Raiders have the worst pass rush. That’s why they should win this game, but it’s also easily why they could lose it if he starts forcing passes to Antonio Brown and JuJu Smith-Schuster. By DVOA, the Raiders are actually good (top 4) against #1 and #2 WRs. They suck everywhere else, and again, they just don’t generate pressures and sacks. So Roethlisberger needs to use his tight ends and use Jaylen Samuels as a receiver in this one and just be careful with the ball.

My biggest pet peeve about this season would be people blaming Le’Veon Bell’s absence on any lack of success for the Steelers. Clearly, they haven’t missed him and still remain a great offense, albeit more one-dimensional. However, it’s a different story when his replacement is out too. The Steelers aren’t well equipped to handle a RB injury since they put so much into a workhorse back, and Samuels has never been that type of player going back to college. So it’ll be interesting to see how this plays out, but if they’re just going to follow the script of past Pittsburgh disappointments, then bet on an Oakland win here.

Falcons at Packers (-4.5)

Yes, I picked both of these teams to finish 12-4, so them coming in with 4 wins (4.5 for Green Bay, technically) is very depressing. Aaron Rodgers is 3-5 against the Matt Ryan-led Falcons, including a playoff split. I think the Packers play well after the Mike McCarthy firing and get this win over an Atlanta team that has gone off the rails offensively the last month. Cue “dome team in Green Bay in December” too, though these teams did play a 43-37 game on a Monday night in 2014 (12/8) that was pretty entertaining. 2014 was also the last time the Packers looked like a well-oiled machine.

Patriots at Dolphins (+8)

Believe it or not, but Tom Brady is 7-9 as a starter in Miami, including 1-4 since 2013. He’s lost to some QBs much worse than Ryan Tannehill there, including Joey Harrington, A.J. Feeley, and Chad Henne. I’d feel better about Miami’s chances if Xavien Howard was active, because the Dolphins have a lot of takeaways this year and he has 7 INT alone. But he’ll miss a game for the first time since 2016 (figures). I’d also feel better about Miami scoring enough points to win if they had some of its YAC players still active, but Albert Wilson and Jakeem Grant have been lost for the season. So I don’t think Miami has much to hang its hat on right now, but Adam Gase has at least beaten the Patriots before so it could be worth a watch. The first matchup in Foxboro sure as hell wasn’t.

Saints at Buccaneers (+10)

Tampa Bay had one of the stunners of 2018 with that 48-40 win in New Orleans in Week 1. Ryan Fitzpatrick had a monster day, but it’s Jameis Winston now. He can still move the ball at a high level, but he’ll obviously have to avoid the turnovers in this one. The Saints had a mini-bye after that Dallas stinker and will be looking for a bounce-back performance, especially from Drew Brees. Tampa Bay has done better against the pass since firing Mike Smith, but the problem is the run defense is still atrocious too, and the Saints still have Mark Ingram and Alvin Kamara.

So I think the Saints get a series split, but I still like Tampa Bay to keep it within 10. Maybe that’s fool’s gold, but in 12 career starts in Tampa Bay, Brees is 7-5 with only three wins by more than 7 points (all in 2006-2010 era). He’s not immune to throwing up a stinker in that building. Of course, he’ll probably throw for 500 yards and 6 TD after I questioned if the cliff is coming sooner than expected since he is about to turn 40.

SNF: Rams at Bears (+3)

Finally, I wanted to briefly cover SNF’s flexed game in Chicago. It could be a good one, and picking the Rams could be my regret of the week. I just think the Rams are more than capable of winning out to finish 15-1 and get the No. 1 seed. I also know that teams rarely finish 15-1, and a road game against a potential No. 3 seed that ranks top 5 in points scored and allowed is a juicy spot for an upset. I’m still going to trust the Rams in that they don’t let Khalil Mack blow this game up, because that’s Chicago’s most likely path to victory. Mack disrupting Jared Goff and forcing turnovers. But even when the Rams look off, like they did last week in Detroit, they still found a way to score 30 points on the road and won by 14. Whether it’s Goff, Gurley on the ground, or Aaron Donald doing incredible things on defense, I trust this team to find a way in this one.

It’ll be good to see Mitchell Trubisky back in the lineup in a big game, arguably the biggest of his young career. It’s not huge for playoff seeds since Bears are unlikely to catch anyone for a bye after losing to the Giants last week, but it could be big just to see if the Bears match up well with a top team. Show us that the NFC playoffs could be more than just an inevitable rematch between the Rams and Saints. Alas, the Bears are the only team this season with multiple losses despite 3+ takeaways. They’re also the only team to have 7 such games, but the point is even with takeaways they can still be outscored, especially by a potent team like the Rams.

Final: Rams 27, Bears 23

NFL Week 14 Predictions

I didn’t realize Jacksonville would quit after that shocking 6-0 win over the Colts. They really wanted no part of tackling Derrick Henry on TNF, so I’m 0-1 ATS, which has been kicking my ass for weeks now.

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Browns and Cardinals are two underdogs I like to win outright at home. I also will put something on Oakland winning straight up against Pittsburgh, but likely stick with the spread on that one.

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NFL Week 13 Predictions: Peak Browns Edition?

I’m going to do something very rare and focus on the Cleveland Browns. NBC made the right move by flexing Chargers-Steelers into prime time, but I think the most interesting game of Week 13 with a wide range of outcomes just might be Cleveland at Houston. The Texans have won eight in a row while the Browns are on a rare two-game winning streak behind some stellar play from rookie Baker Mayfield. This first meeting between Deshaun Watson and Mayfield could be a glimpse of the future of the AFC, or it could be a 13-10 slog, but that’s why they play the games. J.J. Watt and Myles Garrett make for nice star talent on the defenses too.

The Browns are 4-6-1 and the No. 12 seed in the AFC going into Week 13. For all intents and purposes, they’re going to be 2019’s trendy playoff pick, but there is still an outside shot of doing something this year too. The 4-6-1 record is the team’s fifth best through 11 games since returning in 1999, and the best since the Browns were 7-4 in 2014 before finishing on a typical five-game losing streak.

That shouldn’t happen this time around with the team having some real talent now, and that albatross known as Hue Jackson is gone.

The AFC has been so badly in need of new blood. The AFC East still has The Three Stooges, the Jaguars basically died last Sunday in Buffalo, and the Titans just aren’t cutting it with Marcus Mariota. It’s good to see Andrew Luck back and on a hot streak in Indy, though I don’t think that team has the defensive talent to go up against the top-tier teams yet. It’s been great to see that Patrick Mahomes is having a historic season under Andy Reid in Kansas City, but the Texans and Browns could be built for long-term success too as they grow under their young quarterbacks. So I am actually looking forward to this one, which is something I normally would never say about a game between the Browns and a Bill O’Brien Texans team.

NFL Week 13 Predictions

On TNF, I had the Cowboys covering in a 7-point loss, but I certainly did not expect a 13-10 win. That was quite the defensive game against New Orleans.

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I feel unusually confident about a lot of teams winning this week (IND, LAR, GB, KC, NE, SEA, PIT, PHI). I threw PIT in there despite the tough matchup just because I think the offense will be much sharper at home. Chargers are 1-3 this year when allowing more than 20 points, and Philip Rivers is 3-13 in his last 16 road starts against playoff teams (3-14 once Rams clinch). I think the Steelers are undoubtedly a playoff team again this year, and this is usually a spot where they play well and where the Chargers fold.

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NFL Week 12 Predictions: Spoiled Leftovers Edition

Last week was the best week of this NFL season so far. I don’t have really anything to say about Week 12. Thanksgiving was nothing special, and the 1 p.m. slate looks pretty weak tomorrow (SEA-CAR a highlight).¬† I think the late afternoon could be interesting in the AFC (PIT-DEN and MIA-IND), and SNF (GB-MIN) looks solid in a game where both teams really need the win. Note I said win. We have three ties already between the Packers and Vikings. We don’t ever need another.

NFL Week 12 Predictions

After some rough red zone performances, I went 0-3 ATS on Thanksgiving. Those Matthew Stafford interceptions killed Detroit in what should have likely been a 3-point difference. I think the refs were in on Dallas -7 in not wanting to throw a flag on Dallas after Jordan Reed was blatantly hit in the face. The touchdown there would have covered the spread for Washington. Then the Falcons somehow fumbled three times in the red zone on Thursday night in New Orleans. Just a rough day for the dogs, but great for teasers.

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Feels like a ML week for big favorites to me (BAL, NE, IND, LAC). That’s not going to win much, so maybe hedge with Steelers and Bills. I hate to pick Josh Allen to survive the Jacksonville defense, but what about Blake Bortles on the road against the Buffalo defense? Maybe the under is the smartest play in that game. It was 10-3 in the playoffs when these teams met in January.

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NFL Week 11 Predictions: Shootout of the Year Edition

I really like the Week 11 schedule. The Steelers should always be on an upset alert against Jacksonville. They’ve only beaten the Jaguars by more than five points one time in the last 11 meetings. CIN-BAL could be interesting with Joe Flacco likely out. Houston at Washington means a team most people don’t view as good is going to be 7-3, barring a tie. Tennessee at Indianapolis is arguably the biggest Colts game since the 2014 AFC Championship Game. In a first-place division battle, I picked the Vikings to upset the Bears on the road Sunday night in this week’s Upset Watch, which I filled in for at ESPN Insider.

I also want to focus on two other games I’ll be watching closely, including Monday night’s shootout in LA.

Eagles at Saints (-9)

The Eagles are underdogs — biggest since 2009 for a defending champion in fact — for the first time since the playoffs, a role that suited them quite well. In continuing this week’s analysis in Clutch Encounters on the Eagles, this team looks like the team you would have expected to come in between 2016’s inexperience and 2017’s championship triumph. The Eagles have struggled to turn fancier stats into points this year with drives stalling out at the worst times as Carson Wentz’s play in the red zone and on third down has slipped to mediocrity after being No. 1 last year. Wentz also has five of the Eagles’ nine lost fumbles. The 2017 Eagles were a great front-running team last season, but they haven’t been dominant enough this year to ever jump out to big leads early.

Check this split for the 2016 and 2018 Eagles: 11-0 when allowing fewer than 20 points, 0-14 when allowing 21+ points.

For his career, Wentz is 1-11 when the Eagles allow 25+ points. The only win came in Los Angeles last year (43-35) in a game that Nick Foles had to finish in the fourth quarter after Wentz tore his ACL. Foles also won starts for the Eagles last year with final scores of 34-29 (Giants) and 41-33 (Super Bowl LII). Teams are averaging 24.1 PPG this season, yet the Eagles have surpassed 24 points just one time. Even Buffalo has done it twice.

This is bad news when you have to go to New Orleans, a red-hot team that’s won eight in a row and has scored 40+ in three home games this season. They also scored a season-low 21 points against Cleveland at home, so there’s some hope to slowing them down. It just makes it harder when you have such an injured secondary like Philadelphia right now. The good news is that the Saints aren’t deep at WR, but Michael Thomas just catches (90% of) everything. If they can focus on Thomas and limit Alvin Kamara’s YAC, then maybe the Eagles can keep this offense under 35 points, but it’s going to take quite the effort.

It also means the offense has to be on point, using long drives to minimize Brees’ chances and make him play perfect to keep up. If Doug Pederson wants credit for leading the fourth down revolution, maybe this is the game he takes a lot of chances there to pull off an upset. Settling for field goals just won’t work here.

I also wanted to post a chart here I wanted to include in Tuesday’s article. I talked about the hollow stat lines Wentz has had in his four losses this year:

“While the stat lines for Wentz in his four losses this year look good, they have only led to 17 to 23 points in those games, which usually isn’t enough to win in the NFL. In each 2018 loss, Wentz has passed for over 300 yards with multiple touchdowns, no more than one interception, and completed at least 65 percent of his passes. Let’s call that stat line a 2018 Wentz. When you express it that way, it sounds really good and that he has been unlucky, but that’s the problem with using the bare minimums he’s usually close to. Quarterbacks who have posted a 2018 Wentz have averaged 32.8 points in the 403 games that qualify since 2010. Only 56 of the games (13.9 percent) saw that quarterback’s team score fewer than 24 points, including all four of Wentz’s games.”

Here is a graph of all 403 games considered a 2018 Wentz since 2010. I plotted the points the quarterback’s team scored against his QBR that day. You can see Wentz’s four 2018 losses are clustered together in low-scoring territory.

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As you can see, when a quarterback hits those minimum qualifiers, he usually leads his team to more points and a better QBR than what Wentz has done this year. He’ll probably need to have his best game of the season to get this win, which I’m not going to go as far as to give them. I will however pick them to cover the spread since I think they can pressure Drew Brees enough and score enough points to do that. But this is absolutely an underdog situation and I’m curious to see if they embrace that again or fall to 4-6.

Final: Saints 34, Eagles 28

Chiefs at Rams (-3.5)

I’m going through this quickly since Windows Update sucks and my PC is back to running out of memory all the time when using Chrome.

I like the Chiefs straight up in this one. I think this game is another like Super Bowl LII or KC-NE (43-40) or LAR-NO (45-35) this year where both offenses go crazy and you want to have the ball last or get the last defensive stop. I don’t think either defense will have a good night and the game should hit the record over of 64. I don’t think playing it in LA as opposed to Mexico City is that big of a home-field advantage for the Rams yet. Maybe in a few years, but not in 2018. I also think injuries favor the Chiefs with slot machine Cooper Kupp out for the year. The Chiefs have more flexibility at attacking with different weapons than the Rams, who will need a huge night from Todd Gurley I think to shrink possessions for Patrick Mahomes, who you just hope forces a pick or two. In the end, I just like Mahomes more than Jared Goff, and I think Andy Reid has a lot of big-game experience while Sean McVay is learning quickly.

My only big concern with the Chiefs is the way they gave up 5 sacks last week to Arizona, but that seemed to be mostly edge pressure whereas the Rams are dominant up the middle with Aaron Donald. Again, I’m not concerned about the road. The Chiefs have already scored 38 in LA (Chargers), 42 in Pittsburgh and 40 in Kansas City. The defense will just have to make a couple of timely stops on the night, but the same can be said for the Rams, who have already allowed 27+ in close calls to teams with Russell Wilson (twice), Kirk Cousins and Aaron Rodgers at QB. Mahomes is playing better than all of them, so give me the Chiefs here.

A neutral field would have been nice for this one, since it is like a midseason Super Bowl between two great teams from different conferences going at it on a national stage. The NFL had the right idea here, but should have been keeping a better eye on the field conditions. At least we won’t see an injury on a horrible field come out of this matchup, but I am looking forward to watching the scoring here.

Final: Chiefs 38, Rams 34

NFL Week 11 Predictions

A push on Thursday night, but I liked Seattle all the way to beat Green Bay. I’m hoping to rebound from a brutal 3-10-1 ATS week, but with this lineup and my love for underdogs this week, it could be another bloodbath.

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Again, I would be very cautious of trusting the Steelers this week if you’re doing a parlay. I think an underdog-heavy teaser makes a lot of sense this week. With Detroit (+4.5), consider that this is the first time Matthew Stafford has ever lost three games in a row by double digits. Would you bet on a fourth from a Carolina team that got killed in Pittsburgh and had to beat the lowly Giants 31-30 with a 63-yard FG? I’m not saying to pick Detroit straight up, but I’d be surprised if they aren’t closer this week.

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NFL Week 10 Predictions: MVP Talk Edition

My posture is so bad this weekend (sore back) I should be qualified to write about the Detroit Lions, but I really don’t want to. The only thing worse than my back pain is the Week 10 schedule, which features 10 games (out of 14) with a team favored by 6 or more points.

I thought Carolina-Pittsburgh was clearly the game of the week, but even that was a blowout on Thursday night. So I’m sure we’ll be in store for some crazy upsets tomorrow or else this is going to be a brutal week.

That’s why I just wanted to briefly touch on the MVP race since we’re past the halfway point of the season. I’ve seen people bring up Todd Gurley and that James Conner (!) should be in the discussion now.

First of all, no, Conner shouldn’t. Only Ben Roethlisberger could be on pace for a 5,000-yard passing season and have the RB (or WR) get the credit, but that’s possibly a topic for another day.

The 2018 NFL MVP is Patrick Mahomes’ award to lose. He’s nine games through a season that should go down as one of the best sophomore efforts in NFL history. After 1984 Dan Marino and 1999 Kurt Warner, they’ll talk about 2018 Patrick Mahomes. Warner’s season is even worthy of an asterisk in that he was 28 years old and had prior experience in professional football. Mahomes is a first-year starter and has just been incredible. He’s made 300-yard passing games with multiple touchdowns look routine. They have been at times in 2018, but try watching Bills-Jets tomorrow and see just how hard those teams make it look. Mahomes’ era-adjusted numbers should still come out looking great as long as he doesn’t totally falter down the stretch. Remember, the Chiefs hit a snag last year after Alex Smith had a great start, but Mahomes has been even better with 29 touchdown passes in nine games.

It’s cute that people want to bring up other MVP contenders (Gurley/Goff, Philip Rivers, Matt Ryan, etc.), but this is truly a historic season from Mahomes. He’s No. 1 in DYAR, DVOA and QBR with numbers that could rival some of the best seasons from someone like Peyton Manning.

The best person to replace Mahomes should he falter is Drew Brees, who is tied for the league lead with four game-winning drives this season. He’s completing 76.3 percent of his passes, looking to reset that NFL record once again. He’s thrown 18 touchdowns to one interception. Like Mahomes, he put up 40 points in his team’s only loss of the season. Where I think Mahomes distanced himself from Brees is in Week 8 when Brees had one of his least impactful games as a Saint in an easy win in Minnesota. He only threw for 120 yards that night. He only threw for 217 yards and no touchdowns in a win over the Giants. He struggled a little with Cleveland too in Week 2. Mahomes has been more consistently great so far, and the Chiefs have scored at least 27 points in every game.

I know some people are determined to see Brees win an MVP award since he’s surprisingly never done so, but I don’t think age is a good argument. We shouldn’t hold it against Mahomes that he’s young, or reward Brees for being 39 here. The better season deserves the honor, and so far that’s been Mahomes. It’s just Brees’ bad luck that his peak years have been peak years for some of the game’s other greats. It happened in 2009 when Peyton Manning carried an Indianapolis team with Jim Caldwell at coach to 14-0 with seven comeback wins. Brees might have won that one if we didn’t see him falter in prime time in a comeback opportunity against Dallas when 14-0 was possible. It happened in 2011 when Aaron Rodgers got the head-to-head win over Brees’ Saints in Week 1 and that gave way to a 13-0 start in his best season. Voters may have gone with Brees (especially after Matt Flynn’s 480/6 game in Week 17) if he didn’t have bad games against weak teams like the Rams and Buccaneers in losses.

Now it could be an epic season from Mahomes that pushes Brees aside, but we’ll see. There’s still plenty of marquee games coming up for both. It’s just incredible to look at this list of most MVP votes since 1986 and see that Brees only has .5 more than J.J. Watt.

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NFL Week 10 Predictions

I thought Pittsburgh would win by a FG on Thursday, so 0-1 ATS, but 1-0 SU for me so far.

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A lot of big favorites this week. I think I’d stay away from BUF-NYJ since turnovers could decide that one. Maybe I was a week early on Cleveland playing it close under Gregg Williams, but I still cautiously picked Atlanta to cover. I also think GB and CHI are shaky teams, but at least they’re both at home. I actually like the Eagles to cover even though they’ve only won by more than 6 points in one out of eight games this year. I wouldn’t rule out Mike Vrabel having his Josh McDaniels moment in beating Belichick in overtime, just because the Titans seem to suck everyone into a close game.

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NFL Week 9 Predictions: Brady vs. Rodgers vs. GOAT Edition

The Week 9 schedule looks as good as any week this season, and the game of the week should be Rams at Saints. However, I am using this space (and the weekend’s extra hour) to clear up some things from late in the 2016 season that I wanted to write about, but never got around to doing. After all, this very well may be the second and last time there’s a game between Aaron Rodgers and Tom Brady.

The GOAT Discussion: Part I (Statistical Regret)

Naturally, the discussion has been who is the GOAT? Brady or Rodgers? More accomplished or more talented? I tend to avoid this particular debate, because I’d easily take Peyton Manning over both of them as no one played the position at as high of a level as consistently long as he did.

But that’s not the main focus today. I want to express some rare regret over posting a stat from January 2017. It’s hard to regret citing a fact, because I don’t feel responsible for how people choose to interpret them. However, if I knew what Patriots fans would do with this one, I never would have brought it up.

Leading into the 2016 NFC Championship Game (Green Bay at Atlanta), I was doing research on the Packers that showed this team was not good as an underdog, not good against high-scoring offenses, and as I’ve written about since 2011, not good at winning after falling behind. That led me to post the stat that said:

Packers are 0-35 with Aaron Rodgers at QB when trailing by more than one point in the fourth quarter against a team with a winning record.

I wanted to make it clear how getting off to a good start was paramount for the Packers in Atlanta (Narrator: they didn’t.). I tweeted the stat of course, and in the months & years since, it randomly gets retweeted and liked at all hours of the day, typically by Patriots fans who use it as the ultimate dig against Rodgers and a sign of his anti-clutchness in comparison to Brady.

Beyond my own mentions, I see it often cited on Twitter from people who probably have never seen my work, and many who would be pissed if they did since I always choose to push fact over narrative for their King of Kings. Here’s a small sampling of tweet results for “Rodgers 0-35” from just the last day, and notice how none of them actually get all the details of the stat correct (like more than 1 point):

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Basically, by arming NE fans with this stat, I feel like the US giving chemical weapons to Saddam, and I regret it more and more by the day.

The fact that people don’t even choose to update it just shows some of the damage I caused by getting this out there. For the record, it’s now 1-38 for Rodgers when trailing by more than 1 point in the fourth quarter against teams with a winning record thru 2017.

And that’s teams who finish the season with a winning record, so it’s thru 2017 only. Maybe the Bears game this year will be his second win, but the first was Dallas last year. Oddly enough, the Cowboys only finished 9-7 instead of 8-8 because the Eagles rested starters in Week 17. That’s one of the ways this stat can be totally unfair to the QB, just like citing their playoff W-L record often would be. These guys aren’t playing Andy Dalton postseason bad and earning winless records in a small number of games. It’s much more nuanced than that, but I’ve unfairly helped label Rodgers as the 0-35 guy.

So why post it in the first place? You have to remember that of Rodgers’ 10 4QC at the time, the first was a 1-point deficit against the 0-16 Lions (a game Detroit lost by 23). Then he had a pair of them against the otherwise 7-7 Bears of 2009, a bad debut year by Jay Cutler. His 6th was the first against an 8-8 team (2013 Bears) where the argument is valid that the Bears would have been 9-7 division winner had Rodgers not come back to beat them in Week 17. That’s fair, but someone like Peyton Manning had nine 4QC against teams that finished 8-8, but he still managed at least 17 of these comeback wins against winning teams. Then I noticed Rodgers had two comebacks from a 1-point deficit early in the quarter against 2014 Dallas and 2015 Seattle. Teams down 1 point early in 4Q often have a win probability > 50%, especially if they were at home and favored. So it was an interesting mix of comebacks from typically small margins against pretty average teams.

It’s a wild stat, and while it is a difficult situation, the average QB is going to win 10 percent of the time, and it’s more like 25 percent for the best. Even the aforementioned Dalton is 7-25-1 in that situation in his career thru 2017. So there is still some doubt to associate with Green Bay and comebacks, but Rodgers rarely is the main problem there.

The GOAT Discussion: Part II (Those Damn Super Bowl Collapses)

I also have to blame the 2016 Falcons and 2014 Seahawks for not running the ball in the fourth quarter of their Super Bowls and ruining the GOAT discussion on a national level. People think it ends with those games, both won by New England to give them a fourth and fifth title in the Brady-Belichick era.

I think they only add to the overwhelming evidence that Brady, who had shaky performances throughout both games, gets to win games other quarterbacks would lose based on factors out of their control. Did Brady will Malcolm Butler to intercept a pass at the 1-yard line for the costliest interception in NFL history? Did he will Robert Alford to drop an interception that turned into a 23-yard catch by Julian Edelman? Did he will the Patriots to win the coin toss in overtime and get the ball first? That came only after a stop in the last minute against Matt Ryan (something Russell Wilson couldn’t get the benefit of with 31 seconds left in 2012).

Some people are such simpleton ring counters that I think they’d still call Brady the GOAT even if the Seahawks and Falcons finished off the Patriots on the ground. But I do believe a lot of national perception would be different if the Patriots were riding a 5-game Super Bowl losing streak with no titles since the 2004 season. However, Butler made the play, so good for him. Dont’a Hightower had the crucial strip-sack on third-and-short to change the Atlanta game, and the Patriots sacked Matt Ryan again to knock the Falcons out of field goal range when they could have put it away by going up 11. So good for them too. They made the plays to get the win.

The problem is when people act like these comebacks were all Brady, or worse: that no other quarterback could do what he did. They act like he has some special sauce or gene that will elevate him in these spots over the likes of Rodgers, Manning and any other QB you want to name.

It’s really just a bunch of narrative-driven BS, so let’s look at the facts. Two weeks before SB LI, Rodgers faced this same Atlanta team and its lousy defense on the road in the NFC Championship Game. He was down 31-0 in the third quarter after Julio Jones embarrassed his defense with a long touchdown (wow, feels like he hasn’t scored since). Never mind the fact that Rodgers wasn’t as bad as Brady (pick-six in 2Q) to this point in the game against Atlanta. Never mind that Atlanta went up 10-0 after Green Bay started with a missed 41-yard field goal and fumble by the fullback deep in scoring territory. The fact is it was 31-0 and Rodgers was going to have to be amazing the rest of the way.

What did Rodgers do? He led three straight 75-yard touchdown drives against Atlanta. It may have been four in a row, but he sat out the last drive. Why? The Falcons were up 44-21. Despite Rodgers’ best efforts on those touchdown drives, his defense continued to give up two more touchdowns to Atlanta. You can’t come back without stopping them too, and that’s not on the quarterback. Brady’s defense stopped the Falcons on four straight drives, including the huge stops with sacks in the fourth quarter. Rodgers didn’t get that benefit, so no comeback.

Go back two years earlier to 2014: Rodgers was at Seattle for the NFC Championship Game. Again, tougher to play on the road than neutral field, but I digress. Rodgers didn’t have a good game, but that’s likely a win if GB just recovers an onside kick late. They didn’t and Wilson put the Seahawks ahead. Down 22-19, Rodgers still put the Packers in range for a game-tying field goal to go to overtime. He just never touched the ball again after the Seahawks scored a touchdown on the only drive of overtime.

Now imagine if the Falcons did that to Brady in the Super Bowl: a TD in overtime with him not getting the ball. We’d probably have a rule change by now because the outcry would be so massive. No one cares that it happened to Atlanta though. The GOAT won his fifth (after escaping a game-ending interception, mind you).

I’m also just realizing how close we were to Rodgers/Brady II in SB 49, which may have changed a lot of perception years ago, but alas, things happened. The Packers beat NE that year, by the way.

Let’s also use these ATL/SEA games and compare this to Manning, who faced the tougher version of the Seahawks in 2013. That defense didn’t feature the Legion of Boom with all the serious injuries that Brady saw them with in SB 49. They also didn’t lose Cliff Avril and Jeremy Lane to injuries after interceptions like with Brady. But again, I digress. Manning threw a pick-six in the first half of that game and was down 22-0. Not much unlike Brady, who threw a worse pick-six (wasn’t hit in motion like Manning) being down 21-0 to Atlanta. However, the Patriots settled for a field goal before halftime to make it 21-3. They knew Atlanta’s D was bad at holding leads and could be scored on. Down 22-0, Denver felt the need to score a touchdown now, especially with Seattle getting the ball to start the third. So they went for a fourth-and-short over the field goal, but Manning’s pass was knocked down. 22-0 was going to be a hell of a comeback effort against one of the best defenses this century, but Seattle made it a moot point after Percy Harvin returned the opening kickoff for a TD to make it 29-0.

Now Manning would need the 2nd-largest comeback in NFL history, so good luck with that one. Manning actually had his best quarter that night in the third quarter, but they ran the ball on a third-and-10 before punting, Demaryius Thomas lost a fumble at the SEA 21, the Seahawks added another touchdown, and it was 36-0 before Manning finally got Denver on the board to end the quarter at 36-8. A 28-point 4QC has never been done in NFL history, but Manning never even got the chance after Seattle added yet another touchdown for a 43-8 final. Again, Rodgers and Manning didn’t get any stops when they needed them like Brady continued to get against what was actually the strongest offense in this little study (2016 Falcons with MVP QB Matt Ryan).

So while Brady gets praise and MVP honors for the 10-point 4QC against Seattle that only held up after Butler’s incredible pick, no one remembers that Manning played the 2014 Seahawks (without torn MCLs and labrums in the secondary) in Seattle that year. He was down 17-5 in the 4Q and threw two touchdown passes to force OT. He was down 20-12 in the final minute with 80 yards to go before leading a touchdown drive with a game-tying two-point conversion pass. That type of comeback drive (down 8 in final minute) had never been pulled off before in NFL history.

But no one remembers this drive because the Seahawks got the ball first in OT and they handed the ball off to Marshawn Lynch in the red zone for a 6-yard TD to end it. We just covered four games for Manning and Rodgers where they never got the ball in overtime after tying late, or they didn’t get the stops on defense to make a huge comeback possible. But for Brady? He always gets that help, which is why the Patriots have this long-running dynasty.

We have seen playoff comebacks of this nature from several of the game’s recent greats, but the difference in winning or losing is rarely ever about the QB himself.

Peyton Manning led an 18-point comeback win against Brady’s Patriots in 2006 AFC Championship Game, which was the biggest comeback in a championship game until SB LI. Manning also came up a field goal short (missed terribly by Mike Vanderjagt) of overtime against the Steelers in 2005 after trailing 21-3 in the fourth quarter.

Ben Roethlisberger erased a 28-10 4Q deficit against the 2007 Jaguars to take a late 29-28 lead, but his defense allowed a game-winning field goal in the final minute after David Garrard converted a 4th-down scramble (holding penalty missed).

Drew Brees has twice erased 17-0 deficits on the road in the playoffs against the 49ers (2011) and Vikings (2017). He put his team ahead in the final 100 seconds in both games, but watched his defense give up touchdown drives to Alex Smith and Case Keenum.

Don’t forget Atlanta has a history of blown leads. In 2012, the aforementioned¬†Russell Wilson led a 20-point 4QC in Atlanta to take a late 28-27 lead with 31 seconds left, but his defense still blew it in that small amount of time. A week later, Colin Kaepernick helped the 49ers erase a 17-point deficit to beat Atlanta in the NFC Championship Game.

In his first playoff game, Aaron Rodgers led three 4Q touchdown drives in Arizona in 2009 to force overtime. Granted, he did miss an open Greg Jennings in overtime and gave up a game-ending fumble-six, but he still at least got the game to overtime on a day where Kurt Warner shredded the defense for 45 points.

Andrew Luck has already led a 28-point comeback win in the playoffs, beating the 2013 Chiefs 45-44.

I just stuck to Brady’s peers here, but Joe Montana also once led a 21-point comeback in the fourth quarter of the 1983 NFC Championship Game by throwing three touchdown passes to tie the game. It’s just unfortunate that the Redskins hogged the ball and got away with a shaky pass interference call to set up their game-winning field goal to advance to the Super Bowl.

If I see QBs in need of a late-game drive to win, I expect Brady will get the win more often than anyone. However, my expectations of that are due to the overall machine that NE has under the Faustian Belichick rather than the quarterback himself. If it’s a Manning or Rodgers team, I’m expecting how one of their teammates is going to screw the latest game up. That difference in help is the main difference between these quarterbacks, because individual QB skill is certainly not driving these results.

The GOAT Discussion: Part III (Help)

We know ring counters ruin most sports talk, but it’s always amazed me when people bring up the eye test to label Brady as the GOAT. I claim to have bad eyes, but I’m pretty sure my football vision has been good enough to see that there are more talented quarterbacks in this era. Let’s add Drew Brees, the NFL’s all-time passing king, to this discussion.

Brady doesn’t have the accuracy of his peers, especially Brees. Brady doesn’t command the offense from the line, practically serving as the coordinator like Manning did in his career. Brady doesn’t have the mobility and improv skills of Rodgers. He’s got a hell of a QB sneak though.

It’s 2018, yet people still seem to define a QB’s help as his receivers. The fact is a great QB will elevate his receivers by producing better stats for them and help them make Pro Bowls and get paid if they hit free agency. He’ll keep pressures and sacks down since those stats are more reflective of QB play than offensive line play. He’ll get his offensive coordinators hired to more important jobs. He’ll make the whole operation run smoother, and while Brady does those things, it’s hard to say with any actual evidence that he does them better than Manning, Rodgers or Brees.

I can write a whole book about this part, but let’s keep it simple for today. The real #1 advantage in New England has never been at quarterback, but at head coach. Brady simply gets more help from always having Bill Belichick, a defensive genius who has also kept the team ahead of the curve on the other sides of the ball.

Peyton Manning went to four Super Bowls with four different head coaches, a feat likely to never be repeated. Without him, those coaches have often been fired from their jobs with subpar records. But he could win 12+ games with just about anyone as he was the ultimate coach on the field. Despite mostly having defensive-minded coaches, Manning rarely had a good defense. That’s the edge for Brady. He actually has a defensive-minded coach who keeps the points down on that side of the ball.

Brees succeeded in San Diego first with Marty Schottenheimer as his head coach. Sean Payton has been a godsend to him offensively, but Brees proved in 2012 when Payton was suspended the whole year that the offense could still run through him just as well. Payton’s problem is that he’s Don Coryell with a ring in the way he has struggled to put together a defense to help Brees.

Mike McCarthy has been the head coach of every NFL start by Rodgers, but many have noticed his tactics have grown stale over the last four years as the Packers lost their league-best wide receiver depth. He hasn’t been an innovator on the level of recent hires like Sean McVay and Doug Pederson, nor has he taken the game to another level to keep up with the times a la Andy Reid and Belichick. When Rodgers went down last year, the offense looked terrible for the most part. We know that’s not the case when Brady is out in New England. Rodgers is saving McCarthy his job, and if they miss the playoffs this year, it might be time up for Mike.

It’s not as sexy as Rodgers 0-35, but let’s state some more facts that people should know about these quarterbacks.

Brady (11) has had more top 10 scoring defenses than Manning (four), Rodgers (three), and Brees (one) combined.

QB-DEF

While not as important as defense, the help on special teams is even more advantageous for Brady.

QBST

Brady has had 12 top eight finishes in special teams DVOA compared to one for Rodgers, Brees and Manning combined. We’ll see if the 2018 Saints can finish that high, but don’t be surprised if New England finishes high again for DEF and ST this year. Remember, they have more AFC East games coming.

I got through 3500 words of this before even mentioning that Brady’s had the biggest divisional advantage over any quarterback in the 32-team era (2002-2018). Yeah, that helps too when the best quarterback you have to compete with in 17 years is Chad Pennington, or when the best coach is Rex Ryan. But I’m not even getting into that today as I want to wrap this up now.

The GOAT Discussion: Conclusion (Some Guys Have All the Luck)

While I regret my Rodgers 0-35 stat, it has to pain Green Bay fans who are in my corner when it comes to the lack of help for him to hear what Rodgers said about the GOAT this week. In talking about Brady, Rodgers said “He’s got five championships, so that ends most discussions, I think.”

Except it shouldn’t end them, Aaron. I don’t know why, but the football gods always seem to grace a lesser quarterback with the most help, which leads to the most championships. We saw it with Bart Starr over Johnny Unitas, Terry Bradshaw over Roger Staubach, Joe Montana over Dan Marino, and I think you can argue Brady over all three of Manning/Rodgers/Brees in this era. The only one there who I think still had a good argument as the better quarterback was Montana over Marino given Montana’s continued statistical greatness and success after Bill Walsh retired. Marino’s big stat years peaked early and he had a lot of playoff losses that were routs.

But when so many quarterbacks are doing great things statistically year after year, we’re doing them a great disservice to let a series of coin flips in the playoffs tell us who is the best. Plays where the quarterback wasn’t even on the field are writing these legacies, but that’s why I’ll continue to do what I’ve been doing for 15 years: analyzing the impact of the team around the quarterback via statistical evidence to explain why games are won and lost. The other side will continue to do what they’ve done for 15 years: poorly explain why the quarterback who doesn’t have any statistical edge over his peers deserves the most credit for why his team wins the most.

All Rodgers can do this week is play his best to try getting a rare road win over the Patriots and make their path to a top seed harder. This defense has some holes he should be able to exploit, so it wouldn’t surprise me to see the game come down to a final drive. At the very least, Ty Montgomery won’t be there to defy his coaches and fumble a kickoff to deny Rodgers a chance again like in Los Angeles last week. Can you imagine that happening to Brady’s team? No, and therein lies the real difference.

Now excuse me while I crank up some of the GOAT.

NFL Week 9 Predictions

I had one of my best weeks ever last week (10-4 ATS, 13-1 SU). Having faith in the Giants cost me from a perfect 14-0 week, but not again this season on the Giants. I already started 0-1 this week after having bad expectations for Nick Mullens, but underestimating just how little Oakland cares right now.

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Still reeling from my lock last week (Bengals -4) blowing that late lead to the Bucs and only winning by 3. This week, I like an underdog teaser with PIT +9, ATL +8, NO+8 and GB +12. I also feel like the Browns could give the Chiefs a real scare in Cleveland with Gregg Williams replacing Hue Jackson.

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NFL Week 8 Predictions: Roller Coaster Edition

Warning: the following contains more personal feelings than any sports talk. Read at your own risk, but remember I’ll always write anything I want here.

When life hands you lemons, make lemonade. That’s what I did on Friday, and it turned out to be a great decision. I went to bed late last night with an overwhelming sense of peace. But life also can be a roller coaster you have no control over. The problem with feeling so high is that things can come crashing down quickly. I think my own roller coaster has a lot of up-and-down dips (pretty normal, right?). But in the last few years there have been some unbelievable high points that were met almost immediately with a huge drop. As if the universe didn’t want me to enjoy my position in life for even a day or two before something terrible came up.

On Saturday, I wasn’t expecting to wake up to the news that the latest mass shooting was only a few miles away. Anyone that’s been a student at a Pittsburgh campus has likely been to Squirrel Hill before. It’s one of the most diverse areas around. My favorite restaurant as a youth (Gullifty’s) was located there before it was shut down in the last decade. I wasn’t there to witness it because of school, but Gullifty’s was the place that served my grandma a hamburger without a beef patty after she had cataract surgery, and she didn’t even notice until several bites in. “Mmm, this burger is good,” she allegedly said. Silly little stories like that are the things you remember about local areas. It sickens me to know that Squirrel Hill will now forever be synonymous with mass shootings.

When despicable acts like this happen, just getting out of bed is hard. Talking about football feels pointless. I’m interested in several of the games this weekend, but I currently lack the motivation to write about them.

I’m sure Sunday will be a better day than Saturday as we start the ascending process all over again. I just know the next time things feel really great, I’m going to dread the inevitable descent back to reality.

The great thing about actual roller coasters is we have a choice not to ride them. I’ve never liked them. Unfortunately, we’re strapped in for life’s roller coaster, and people who have some control over where things head do not have our best interests in mind. I screwed up by not voting in 2016. I won’t do that again next week. Other than that, I’m not sure what else I can do right now but try to enjoy the ride whenever possible.

And how the fvck is it already Week 8?

NFL Week 8 Predictions

I had Houston winning on TNF, but Miami (+7.5) covering. That was silly, because Adam Gase’s Dolphins tend to only win close games or lose big. Duh, Scott.

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We have a major Disappointment Bowl to start Sunday in London with the Eagles vs. Jaguars. Both teams are 3-4. Since 1990, the only 3-4 teams to still reach the Super Bowl were the 1995 Steelers and 2001 Patriots, so it’s not looking too hot for these teams. The Jaguars apparently had a few players arrested in London already. I think Blake Bortles will play better to keep the leash longer on his job, but I have the Eagles pulling this one out 24-20 after getting enough mistakes from Bortles.

My favorite bet this week is Cincinnati -4. It’s a 1 p.m. home game, coming off a big loss, against a bad defense with a turnover-prone QB. This is Marvin Lewis in his element: a game called by Chris Myers and Daryl Johnson that no one is watching. I also like a teaser on the side of this week’s big favorites (PIT, KC, NE, LAR). Finally, I think the Giants steal one at home against the Redskins, though it’s not like Washington is an easy team to figure out this year.

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