Scramble for the Ball: A Land of Both Shadow and Substance
Andrew: Hello, and welcome to Scramble for the Ball, where this week your humble Scramblenauts feel a little like we've stepped into a parallel dimension.
Bryan: A dimension not only of sight and sound, but of Tom Brady wearing pewter and red.
Andrew: Of the Patriots being blown out by four touchdowns at home, and the 49ers being the team blowing them out. Of the Bears being the top seed in the NFC, even if it was only until they actually, ya know, played.
Bryan: Of the sound of roaring fans coming from empty bleachers across the nation.
Andrew: And of ... no, actually, I better not. Especially not this week.
Bryan: This week, we're entering the land of What-Ifs, because it feels like we're entering an entirely new era in the NFL, with the Patriots dynasty finally having collapsed. This offseason, we ranked the top dynasties in NFL history, with the Belichick-Brady regime coming out on top. As I put it then…
If it's over (and we won't know for sure until we see a couple seasons of Jarrett Stidham turning into a pumpkin -- horror movie icons tend to pop back up even if you've seen the body) then it's worth mourning.
Well, call me a camp counselor, because I am confidently stating that the monster is dead, and turning my back on the ominous-sounding music behind me.
Andrew: The worst home defeat of Bill Belichick's Patriots tenure is the closest thing we'll have to the body of this particular monster, although we should caution that this does not mean he can't build a whole new monster for another assault on humanity over the next season or two. However, absent a legend on a par with Tom Brady, we may be about to enter an era where even AFC East teams can once again play without fear, without all of their decisions being made under the shadow of the Patriots Death Star.
Bryan: Assuming they get over their own horrible nightmare creations -- Adam Gase still has to hit Buffalo to complete his AFC East Trifecta.
Andrew: So in something of an homage to the greatest dynasty in the modern history of the sport, we're crossing into the Twilight Zone for a look at what the NFL might have looked like if Mo Lewis had whiffed on Drew Bledsoe, if Tom Brady had never taken the field as an unheralded sixth-round pick, and if the Patriots had just been a run-of-the-mill, somewhat above-average NFL franchise instead of a 20-year monster. With a little luck, we might catch a glimpse of what the future holds, if in fact the beast has been truly slain.
THE EARLY YEARS (2001-2007)
Bryan: I think question one is: does Bill Belichick survive? In his first season, in 2000, the Patriots were 5-11. Now we're taking away Tom Brady from a guy who still has a reputation as a solid defensive coordinator, but only a middling tenure in Cleveland under his belt as head coach. I think, given time, Belichick puts together a solid team behind Bledsoe and company, but remember -- the first time the Patriots offense rose above 10.0% DVOA even with Brady was 2004. I don't think Belichick gets a pass for four years of subpar offensive performance from Bledsoe, whose 3.9% DVOA in 2000 was the high point for the rest of his career.
Andrew: I guess, for our purposes, it might be easier if he doesn't, but I do think they had enough invested in Belichick to let him at least see the project through, and he has enough about him to make a reasonable success of it. Bledsoe's effectiveness dipped after 2000, but he was never The Guy again, and the offense was quickly built more around Brady's skill set -- Troy Brown, Kevin Faulk -- than Bledsoe's.
Bryan: Even defensively, I'm not sure Belichick survives without the Super Bowl ring. His defensive DVOAs in his first three seasons in New England were 5.9%, -1.0% and -0.8%. That's not terrible or anything, but it's worse than Pete Carroll's Patriots were putting up, and they had just gotten rid of him. I think Belichick gets let go after three mediocre seasons, and the Patriots bring in a new defensive mastermind to try to turn their franchise around -- Washington defensive coordinator Marvin Lewis.
Andrew: I'm intrigued. Do you really think Brady was that big of a difference-maker in their 2001 championship, versus Bledsoe? I thought the consensus was that Belichick and the defense won that championship, albeit Brady showed poise in end-game situations and did, at least, protect the ball better.
Bryan: Well, remember: Bledsoe was 0-2 as a starter before Brady came in. Brady wasn't legendary or anything, but he put up a better DVOA than Bledsoe had since 1998. I don't think a Bledsoe-led Patriots end up 4-12 or anything crazy like that; they would have been a competitive team either way. I do think, however, that Brady was measurably better, even in his first steps, than Bledsoe was, and putting Bledsoe back in the lineup could cost them a few matchups. It took overtime to beat the Chargers and Bills, and they had close, one-score wins over the Jets and Dolphins down the stretch as they fought their way to the division title. Flip two of those four games -- which I think is somewhat fair -- and the Pats finish 9-7, lose the third wild-card berth in the AFC to the Seattle Seahawks (there's a flashback), and end up staying at home. You can't win the Super Bowl unless you make the playoffs to begin with, and the Patriots were dancing on the edge of a pin throughout 2001.
Take away the playoff berth, and you have Belichick going 5-11, 9-7 and let's say 7-9 the year after, with no playoff appearances. I don't think you survive that! I think it's probably a little unfair to fire Belichick after those three seasons -- after all, he doesn't have a quarterback -- but that's the NFL for you. It's OK, though -- he'll land on his feet. After all, Bill Parcells takes over as head coach of the Cowboys in 2003. Rather than keeping Mike Zimmer and his 4-3 defense, he can bring back Belichick as his defensive coordinator and run his preferred 3-4. That's something to stick a pin in.
Andrew: Fair enough. I'll defer to your greater knowledge of early-2000s football. For me, the biggest difference this hypothetical makes -- other than the Patriots themselves, obviously -- is the perception of the St. Louis Rams. Two championships in three years would cement Mike Martz's status as an offensive genius and put him in the Hall of Fame, potentially give Kurt Warner a second Super Bowl MVP to go with his one from 1999, and perhaps spare Rams fans the period of utter futility that followed Martz's departure in 2005. Avoiding that futility might even be enough to keep the franchise out of the hands of Stan Kroenke, and therefore keep it in the city of St. Louis.
Bryan: Now, that is interesting, because that probably means it's the Raiders who move to Los Angeles -- remember, the Rams, Chargers, and Raiders were all fighting over which two teams got to make that move. And if the NFL doesn't put a team in Las Vegas, are they as comfortable sidling up to daily fantasy and other gambling aspects of the sport? I think probably yes, but putting a team in Sin City is a major step in accepting that yes, some people like to put money on the outcomes of professional football games.
Andrew: You'd never catch me doing that, I tell you. Making predictions about game outcomes, especially not against some kind of projected points margin. That's a fool's game.
Bryan: Moving forward, I think the other obvious conclusion is that the Peyton Manning, Playoff Choker narrative never gets established. I think the Colts roll to Super Bowl XXXVIII victory over the Panthers in 2003, giving Manning a ring in Year 5.
Andrew: That makes sense, as absent the Patriots, the AFC Championship Game pits the Colts against a Titans team they had already beaten twice in the regular season.
Bryan: This is where I would normally say that the Trent Green Chiefs would find more success, but they found themselves regularly beat down by the Colts in the rock-paper-scissors paradigm between Kansas City, Indianapolis, and New England in the first part of the 2000s; nerf rock, and paper just becomes useless.
There's another interesting possibility here, though. We gave Bill Parcells a Belichick-coached defense, and their Cowboys made the playoffs for real in 2003, losing to the eventual NFC champ Panthers in the first round. Do they make more noise now? I think the answer is probably no -- those Parcells Cowboys teams struggled on offense, not defense -- but they probably end up doing a little better than reality; maybe another win or two and a loss as the fifth seed rather than the sixth.
Andrew: I am also greatly entertained by the prospect of a reunion between Belichick and Drew Bledsoe, especially if we have Belichick taking over for Parcells again at the end of his Cowboys tenure. That then gets Belichick his star quarterback, but this time it's Tony Romo instead of Tom Brady. I certainly think Belichick has more success than Wade Philips, and that might be enough for him to still be Cowboys coach to this day.
Bryan: Stick a pin in that; we'll chase that one back down in a few seasons.
The question is whether the Patriots would recover to make one of Marvin Lewis' patented wild-card exits at this point in time. In Cincinnati, he had the benefit of working with Carson Palmer, but I don't think that's the case for his Patriots run; Palmer was the first pick in 2003, and even the Brady-less Patriots wouldn't have been that bad. I think you're talking about new Patriots starting quarterback and top-ten pick Byron Leftwich. That's not going to work out super-well.
Andrew: I liked Leftwich, but a dream pairing with Marvin Lewis he is not. 2004 is a very, very interesting season though. The AFC Championship Game saw the Patriots visit the 15-1 Pittsburgh Steelers, and was the beginning of Brady's annual evisceration of the Steelers' zone-blitz.
Bryan: Yeah, I think you have to give the 2004 Super Bowl to the 15-1 Steelers; they looked unstoppable for vast portions of that year. A Keystone State Super Bowl against the Eagles would have been particularly interesting too.
Andrew: Which makes Ben Roethlisberger the only rookie quarterback ever to start a Super Bowl, never mind win one.
Bryan: And likely gives them back-to-back titles the next year; I don't think the Patriots beating the Jags in 2005 is a world-altering crisis.
Andrew: Bill Cowher still rides off into the sunset and gets an ugly yellow jacket, and the Steelers still appoint Mike Tomlin as his successor. Not much changes for the rest of their careers, except that Ben is the most surefire Hall of Fame lock there ever was.
Bryan: 2006 gets interesting. First of all, the Marvin Lewis experiment runs its course in New England, so they'll need a new head coach. This time, they go for an offensive mind, taking Mike McCarthy from the San Francisco 49ers. That will work well with their 2005 first-round draft pick, Aaron Rodgers, who slid to them in the top ten of the first round. The Packers? Well, they're going to just have to cling on to Brett Favre a little bit longer.
But back to actual football. The top team in DVOA that year in real life was the San Diego Chargers, but the Patriots dispatched them in the divisional round. That was league MVP LaDainian Tomlinson, young quarterback Philip Rivers, and eternal runner-up head coach Marty Schottenheimer, but the Pats forced four turnovers, giving them the upset win. That directly led to Schottenheimer's firing (after a 14-win season!) and started the legacy of the snakebit Chargers franchise. In our Patriots-less world, they probably get the Jets instead (although Eric Mangini's team is probably led by someone else without the Belichick Bump), and the Chargers should steamroll them. Do the Chargers, at home, stop Peyton and the Colts? And if so, do they go on and beat Rex Grossman and the Bears in the Super Bowl? Does Martyball finally win a title?!
Andrew: I'm going to say no, because I think with Bob Sanders back the Colts beat them just as handily as the Patriots do, but it's always possible that Mike Scifres could have other ideas. I'd still give that title to Indianapolis. It's the next year, and the final year of this Patriots era, that I find more interesting. That is, of course, the 18-1 Patriots, they of Randy Moss, Wes Welker, and (the hugely underrated) Donte Stallworth.
Bryan: And, at quarterback, the aforementioned Aaron Rodgers. Well, now we have an interesting team. Of course, I don't think Moss comes to a New England team that has been struggling for years, even with an exciting young quarterback on the roster. Still, there's a lot of pieces there to build around, and I think they finally win the AFC East here.
Andrew: They are not 16-0 or anything close to it; however, they don't have to be. This is the year that Mike Scifres takes care of the Colts in the divisional round, but Philip Rivers tears his ACL during that game and the Chargers don't score a touchdown in an AFC Championship Game loss. This was the year that McCarthy's Packers made their first NFC Championship Game. It's not unreasonable to suggest, then, that your AFC champions are still, somehow, the New England Patriots. They still lose to the Giants, though.
Bryan: Marty Schottenheimer, still the Chargers' coach in this universe, just can not catch a break. NOW he gets fired, and remains the best coach to never win a title -- some things are just universal constants.
THE WILDERNESS YEARS (2008-2013)
Andrew: This may be the period that is least interesting for fans outside the AFC East. Tom Brady tore his ACL on opening day, 2008, and the Patriots somehow missed the playoffs at 11-5. 2009 and 2010 brought first-round exits to the Ravens and, somehow, the Jets. The Patriots did make one Super Bowl, in 2011, where they again lost to the Giants, but they were otherwise a run-of-the-mill good-to-very-good team rather than an all-conquering monster.
Bryan: Here's the question -- are the McCarthy/Rodgers Patriots of this era… better than the Brady/Belichick Patriots? This era included the Packers' Super Bowl title in 2010 and their 15-1 season in 2011; Rodgers was MVP that year. Do we start a Patriots dynasty here rather than in 2001?
Andrew: That looks like a fair guess, with New England's trajectory of ascent followed by decline roughly mirroring Green Bay's. We'll probably see a stronger AFC East at this point, given they haven't spent a decade looking up at the Patriots, and that also mirrors the NFC North that had Lovie Smith's Bears mirroring the Dolphins, a fiercely competitive if undisciplined Lions team aping the Jets, and the Vikings being adequately impersonated by the Bills.
Bryan: It's also worth whipping around the league to see what else has changed. Bill Belichick takes over for Bill Parcells in Dallas; he's now paired with Tony Romo and probably has a couple of NFC East titles to his name. Without Rodgers and McCarthy, the Packers don't get that early 2010s success. They cling on to Brett Favre for a while, but end up drafting strong-armed Joe Flacco in 2008, pairing him with Eagles special teams coach John Harbaugh as they replace one gunslinger with an equally powerful arm. It's the Patriots, not the Packers, who win the Super Bowl in 2010, overcoming Jay Cutler's Chicago Bears -- they lost to the Packers in the NFC Championship Game that year, but Rodgers is now in the other conference.
Andrew: That was the year Cutler sprained his knee ligaments in the title game, meaning he isn't fully healthy for the Super Bowl.
Bryan: That means Todd Collins would get the start, and would also be the drink you'd have to use to get through that Super Bowl matchup.
Andrew: So the Patriots are better for this spell, and end up with one title, but like the Packers they settle into a routine of being a regular in the playoffs without ever making another Super Bowl.
Bryan: Now, 2012 is interesting -- we've given Flacco and Harbaugh to the Packers. Do they pull off Flacco's crazy postseason run? I think the answer is no; that was the year the Vikings and Bears both finished 10-6, as did the Harbaugh/Flacco Ravens. They may not make the playoffs, and if they do, they probably won't win the division and get home games. That clears the way for Colin Kaepernick and the 49ers to take on ... let me check here -- Peyton Manning and the Denver Broncos in the Super Bowl. As much as I'd love to re-write history there, I think Manning picks up his third ring in a world where they don't lose in double-overtime to the Ravens in the divisional round.
They still get ground into a fine powder by the Seahawks the following year.
Andrew: The 2013 Patriots still beat the Andrew Luck Colts in the wild-card round, avoiding the fate of McCarthy's Packers, who lost to the 49ers. They still lose to the Broncos in the AFC Championship Game. They finish the period with a single title, 2010, which is somehow still more than they got in the real timeline. Not a huge amount changes elsewhere. 2008 and 2009 are just the same. Denver now wins in 2012, but the Giants still win in 2011 and Seattle in 2013. As I suspected, our hypothetical is doing wonders for Peyton Manning's legacy.
THE JUGGERNAUT (2014-2018)
Bryan: The re-rise of the Patriots roughly corresponds with the late-career gradual decline for Aaron Rodgers -- yes, he appears to be back now, but I'm comfortable giving a McCarthy/Rodgers duo the same sort of general shape in New England as they had in Green Bay, with maybe an extra win or two a year thanks to the general buffoonery that is the AFC East. Bill Belichick hasn't been using mind voodoo to make the Bills, Dolphins, and Jets make poor decisions; he has just taken full advantage thereof. That means now we're back into interesting territory…
... well, after 2014, at least. That was Rodgers' second MVP season, and I don't see a big reason to change the Patriots-Seahawks actual Super Bowl. The result, however ... I mean, the Legion of Boom did beat Rodgers in the NFC Championship Game. But they'd have to get past ... Bill Belichick's Cowboys in our new NFC Championship Game!
Andrew: However, Bill Belichick's Cowboys are still quarterbacked by Tony Romo, who for all his undoubted talent, is no Tom Brady. Romo is just erratic enough that the Seahawks can take advantage, and they still advance to the title game. There, they defeat the Patriots to seal back-to-back titles, and their legacy as the greatest defense of the first quarter of the 21st Century. The fall-out from the Immaculate Interception is avoided, and the Seahawks keep the Legion of Boom happy and together for several more seasons as their young quarterback matures into the team leader.
Bryan: They also, presumably, keep Darrell Bevel instead of hiring Brian Schottenheimer, and perhaps don't get so pass-phobic, with their goal-line disaster no longer in existence. Thanks, I hate it.
What do we do with 2015? That's a weird year, with Denver's defense dragging a limping Peyton Manning to another Super Bowl. In real life, they beat Tom Brady and the Pats in the AFC Championship Game -- do we keep that up? It was a hell of a defense.
Andrew: Remember, that was the year of the insanely terrible pass blocking down Patriot Way following the retirement of Dante Scarnecchia. The Broncos are well placed to take advantage of Aaron Rodgers, perhaps even more so than Brady, in this title game. They still dispose of the Patriots, still get the Panthers in the Super Bowl, and still get what is now Peyton Manning's fourth title.
Bryan: The 2016 Patriots went 14-2, but this was the year Rodgers had a gimpy hamstring and had a down year. They probably still win the AFC East, but they're clearly not as good as we're entering Brady's late-year renaissance. That leaves interesting arguments on both sides.
In the AFC, you'd have the No. 1 seed Kansas City Chiefs, with Andy Reid still without a title and Alex Smith leading a conservative offense -- a balanced team, not particularly excelling at anything in particular. They'd be challenged by the Big Ben and the Pittsburgh Steelers, now searching for their third ring. In real life, the Steelers beat the Chiefs in the divisional round, so maybe we just slide that up to the AFC Championship Game and send the Steelers to the Super Bowl.
In the NFC, the real-life No. 1 seed was the Dallas Cowboys, and we've given them Belichick in this scenario. They were upset by a Packers team which no longer exists as constituted, so they presumably get to go to the NFC Championship Game, battling against the Atlanta Falcons -- still Matt Ryan, still Dan Quinn, still Kyle Shanahan. What do we do with this?
Andrew: Those two teams were neck-and-neck, too, with only 0.1% of a difference in DVOA. Dallas had a slightly better defense, Atlanta a slightly better offense. They didn't play in the regular season, so we can't even use that as a tiebreaker. I say we give it to the home team, which in this instance means the Cowboys. That puts Belichick against Ben for the title game, and that very rarely goes in Ben's favor. We've seen the Patriots get their ring in 2010; this is where Belichick finally gets his ring.
Bryan: Something feels right about adding new Steelers-Cowboys Super Bowls, too. We get them every other decade -- twice in the 1970s, once in the 1990s, and now in our fictional 2010s. The universe is healing.
And hey, Tony Romo might finally get some freaking respect! And without a Super Bowl appearance, Kyle Shanahan doesn't get the 49ers' coaching job, which instead goes to … let's say Sean McVay.
Andrew: I think Shanahan still gets a head coaching job, and he still gets it in Santa Clara. That was an incredible offense, and the Super Bowl collapse didn't exactly enhance Shanahan's reputation. He has the right name, the right background, and the right CV.
Bryan: Maybe you're right. I'll take it, at the very least!
Andrew: However, in this world, he doesn't get Jimmy Garoppolo, because with Belichick at the helm the Cowboys drafted him in 2014 to replace Tony Romo, whose injuries have finally caught up to him. Jimmy G does get the heir apparent gig in 2016, and is the Cowboys quarterback to this day.
Bryan: Which means the inevitable happens, and the 49ers get the long-rumoured Kirk Cousins signing in free agency. That's ... that's not an upgrade. We'll get back to that in 2019.
... can I just have the 49ers draft Patrick Mahomes instead?
Andrew: It's meant to be hypothetical, not pure wish fulfilment. My Saints don't get to draft Earl Thomas either.
Bryan: Sassafrassa rules of parallel spooky dimensions. Fine.
Andrew: Where are we now, then? 2017? That's the year the Patriots lost to the Eagles in the worst defensive/most exciting Super Bowl of all time (YMMV). In Packerland, Mike McCarthy's tenure was officially fading into dreariness.
Bryan: The broken collarbone Rodgers suffered is more immediately impactful in the AFC standings, which gives Ben Roethlisberger and the Steelers the top seed in the AFC instead, and #Sacksonville a first-round bye. Are we really getting a Blake Bortles-Nick Foles Super Bowl?
Andrew: You know what? We absolutely are. Andy Reid's Chiefs team can't get over its hump, losing another heartbreaking playoff game thanks in large part to critical injury (see Travis Kelce) and terrible luck (see Marcus Mariota's touchdown catch). The Steelers easily dispose of the Titans, then lose to the Jaguars just as they did in the real game. Blake Bortles starts the Super Bowl.
Bryan: For the readers at home, we sat on this one for a good five or 10 minutes, trying to come up with some kind of scenario that avoided Bortles in a championship game, and we could not. Bortles and Collins, Super Bowl starters -- this is what you get for not having Tom Terriffic around.
Andrew: The good news is the Eagles easily dispatch the Jaguars. The bad news is the Jaguars immediately sign Blake Bortles to a five-year deal. That means the Jaguars ... uh ... huh. They suck the exact same as they do right now, only with Bortles instead of Nick Foles. Cute.
Bryan: Well, it wouldn't put them in worse shape than they actually are. That also means Nick Foles goes elsewhere -- I'd guess probably the Dolphins, and Ryan Fitzpatrick continues his Journeyman ways with ... let's say the Chargers.
This changes nothing in the big picture, though it's probably not great for Fitzmagic's lungs.
Andrew: No, no. Foles stressed the importance of team fit when choosing where to go that year. Miami isn't it. I think, absent the very, very silly offer from Jacksonville, he stays in Philadelphia.
Bryan: Either way, I don't think it alters either 2018 or 2019, except in the sense that we're staring at the 2018 AFC East. In real life, the Patriots won it at 11-5, with the other three teams finishing at 7-9 or worse. Rodgers, McCarthy, and the Pack finished 6-9-1 in McCarthy's final year in Green Bay. I think it's fair to bump them to 8-8 against the low level of competition, and maybe that's enough for McCarthy to keep his job in this timeline. Don't worry, Packers fans, you still get Matt LaFleur, and quite possibly Kyler Murray to go with him.
But the 8-8 Patriots aren't making the Super Bowl to beat Sean McVay's Rams. I think Patrick Mahomes and the Chiefs get there a year early.
Andrew: Which means we have Mahomes now on back-to-back titles, and a lock for the Hall of Fame after what, two seasons as a starter? That's ridiculous.
Bryan: Now, wait a second, are we just assuming he wins in 2019? Because…
... OK, yeah, fair enough. That's enough to bump his contract to maybe $0.6 billion. I don't think they play the Garoppolo-and-probably-Bosa-less 49ers in the Super Bowl, though; things get shuffled enough that it's probably the more passing-heavy Seahawks who make it to the Super Bowl again, only to get Mahomes'd. Again, I hate it.
Andrew: As expected, a scenario like this is very, very good news for Peyton Manning and Ben Roethlisberger, who each get at least one more ring. Manning, in this timeline, is pretty much universally considered the greatest quarterback of all time, right? Four rings, two different franchises, multiple MVPs, and various all-time records. Drew Brees might still chase him for counting stats, but Brees probably retires last offseason after reaching No. 1 in most of those.
Bryan: The best quarterback of the most quarterback-heavy era? Yeah -- you'll still have people stumping for Joe Montana or Johnny Unitas, but that's a resume you can't really top. In a Bradyless world, no one was able to consistently stop Peyton; Manning picks up an extra MVP in 2007 and has an argument in 2010 (though I think Rodgers might pick that one up). Drew Brees probably becomes an MVP himself in 2017, but that's not enough to push him past Peyton.
Andrew: In the NFC, Russell Wilson and the Seahawks are the biggest recent beneficiaries, but the legacy of Mike Martz is also much shinier. However, leaguewide there is already the concern that Patrick Mahomes will be simply untoppleable as the best quarterback in the game, with two rings in his first two seasons as a starter.
It's not all doom and gloom for Patriots fans, either. Mike McCarthy outstayed his welcome, but he won a ring for a franchise that was generally maligned until he came along. Belichick, too, grabbed one in Dallas, where he is largely considered a very successful, smart coach continuing the tradition of Tom Landry, though not a threat to overshadow the greats of history.
Bryan: Yeah, he's part of a legacy; probably third on the Cowboys' Mount Rushmore behind Landry and Jimmy Johnson. He's grouped with defensive minds such as Wade Phillips or Steve Owen, not as an all-around legend in his own right. Tony Romo gets some more respect, though, with a shiny Super Bowl ring of his own -- that seems more than fair, considering how much negative stuff he had to claw through in real life.
Andrew: That, plus being on the Cowboys, possibly even vaults Romo into Hall of Fame contention, though as a relative long-shot from an era of great passers.
Bryan: The real losers may well be us, the fans. Jaguars and Bears Super Bowl appearances. Terrible AFC East division winners.
Andrew: Is that really so much worse, though, than the feeling of dread that accompanied yet another Patriots juggernaut in the playoffs?
Bryan: I'm going to say yes, and I'm going to wrap us back around here.
Every horror movie needs its villain. Halloween only went away from Mike Meyers once, to terrible results. People still remember Freddy Kreuger but can't name the various protagonists of any Nightmare on Elm Street film. What's Psycho without Norman Bates, Silence of the Lambs without Hannibal Lector, Alien without the Xenomorph? Every era of the NFL has had a monster to slay; a team that always seems there to wreck feel-good stories and hog the titles to themselves. Well, that just makes the times they do overcome the monster all the more satisfying.
Would the story of Eli Manning be anywhere near as interesting if the Giants hadn't managed to puncture the Patriots' unstoppable juggernaut twice? Would Philly be quite so Special if they had beaten Jacksonville, and not Tom Terrific? You need that villain at the end, the black hat to knock off. And for 20 years, that has been the New England Patriots. We'll miss them…
... if they're truly gone.
Andrew: Cue an unholy shambling roar in the distance, and fade to black...
Keep Choppin' Wood
We thought for sure that Giants quarterback Daniel Jones had this award sewn up this week for his bumblin' stumblin' self-tackle against the Eagles on Thursday night, but we forgot to account for one factor: no other team blows games quite like the Atlanta Falcons. Late in the fourth quarter against the Lions, Atlanta converted third-and-1 to reach first-and-goal from the 10-yard line, trailing 16-14. Detroit used their final timeout on that play, meaning that all the Falcons had to do to win was run two plays, keep the ball for the last 72 seconds, and kick a chip-shot field goal with roughly 98% odds of success. Surely even the FALCONS couldn't screw this up.
Jamie Collins of the #Lions putting his hands up to signal a Falcons touchdown on the Gurley run. It's not everyday the defense tries to convince the ref the offensive player crosses the line pic.twitter.com/sQfdrXzTXf
— Jonathan Deutsch (@JonathanD_TV) October 25, 2020
Of course they could. Matt Ryan handed off to Todd Gurley and, with the Lions giving only token effort, Gurley stumbled toward the goal line and tried to stop, but fell into the end zone to put the Falcons up 22-16 (following the successful two-point conversion). That gave Detroit just enough time to mount a comeback drive of their own, and Matthew Stafford found T.J. Hockenson as time expired to set up the game-winning extra point. We've heard of NFL teams winning after deliberately conceding points in the form of a safety before, but never by deliberately conceding a touchdown. Only the 2020 Falcons could possibly lose in such a circumstance. Again.
Herm Edwards Award for Playing to Win the Game
The reasons to pick Ron Rivera this week in particular go well beyond events on the field. Rivera emerged healthy from his final round of cancer treatment on Monday, one day after his Washington team trounced division-rival Dallas 25-3. He was also reportedly heavily involved in the franchise's decision to finally ditch their racial epithet nickname this past offseason. Rivera's team may not yet have a winning record, but that fact alone could be enough to argue that this has already been a successful appointment. Even on the field, however, he is already having an impact, and one decision in particular this Sunday demonstrated the smart aggression that once granted him the moniker "Riverboat Ron." Facing fourth-and-inches deep in Cowboys territory, Rivera's team went for the fourth down ... and failed. However, given a difficult starting position on the ensuing drive, the Cowboys fumbled and recovered in their own end zone for a Washington safety. One of the key benefits of aggression deep in the red zone is the likelihood that your team will still be the next to score, even if you fail. Rivera's squad provided a clear demonstration of that against the Cowboys.
John Fox Award for Conservatism
The Las Vegas Raiders hosted one of the best teams in the league in Week 7, and they were already trailing 24-17 when they reached fourth-and-1 at Tampa Bay's 17-yard line early in the fourth quarter. The Raiders have built a powerful offensive line and bruising rushing attack precisely for this type of opportunity, so it was a massive disappointment to see them wheel out kicker Daniel Carlson for the 36-yard field goal. That field goal would be their final score of the game, and they didn't even cross midfield again for the rest of the fourth quarter. Jon Gruden has built a competitive Raiders team for the franchise's first season in their new home, but he would benefit from being bolder if he hopes to compete with the very best in their shiny new surroundings.
Jeff Fisher Award for Confusing Coaching
During the first half of the 2019 season, Kliff Kingsbury was a regular feature in the confusing and conservative award sections, thanks to his curious decisions with both clock management and kicking. Well, both came back in a big way against the Seahawks. In overtime, Arizona had a first down on the Seattle 18, which would have set up a 36-yard field goal for the win. In recent years, that equates to an 87.8% chance for success, which is certainly good, but I'd never be fully comfortable with an 87% or 88% chance when the alternative is so much drastically worse.
Kingsbury was apparently happy to take his chances, however, and called for Kyler Murray to move the ball to the center to make the field goal that much easier. Unfortunately, Darrell Daniels whiffed a block, Murray got slammed for a 5-yard loss, and the field goal got pushed back to a 41-yarder -- field goals from that far out have been made 83.3% of the time over the last decade, so a notable but not necessarily disastrous dropoff. Plus, it was still second down -- the Cardinals could have run the ball once more, trying to pick up some of the yards Murray had lost or possibly break one to further drain clock and/or just score the winning touchdown. The Seahawks' defense was firmly back on its heels, and while calling more plays would have increased the risk of a turnover, the risk of a missed field goal does seem higher.
Instead, confusion reigned -- the Cardinals decided to stick with Plan A and rush their field goal team onto the field, but the delay caused by the loss forced Arizona to burn a timeout, icing their own kicker in the process. Zane Gonzalez made his first attempt, nullified by the timeout, but then whiffed on his second try. 80% chances aren't sure things!
To make matters worse, Kingsbury's last offensive play call of the game was a deep shot to the end zone with the Cardinals in range for a 48-yard game-winning field goal. Field goals from 46 to 50 yards over the past decade are only a 71.7% proposition, and we just saw that 40-yard field goals aren't gimmes. The Cardinals had 25 seconds left on the clock; more than enough time to complete a 10- or 15-yard pass, run down, and spike the ball. Instead, Kingsbury gambled on the deep shot, forcing the lower-percentage field goal try when that proved unsuccessful. Coaches should be reminded that field goal range isn't a binary state, where you cross a magic TV-superimposed line and everything's gravy. Every yard helps your kicker!
'Ready to Burst' Fantasy Player of the Week
Andrew pushed for Jeff Wilson, but Wilson has been in this section multiple times over the years; we even wrote an entire article based on his touchdown-thieving antics. So instead, we'll take a trip down to Cleveland, where your TE1 for the entire week was Harrison Bryant, fourth-round pick out of Florida Atlantic. With Austin Hooper out with a nasty case of appendicitis, Bryant and David Njoku both found the end zone on National Tight End Day, but Bryant was clearly the preferred option -- he was targeted twice as often and led the Browns in red zone targets, resulting in four receptions for 56 yards and a pair of scores. Rookie tight ends are often ghosts on the fantasy sheet -- this was only the 31st game in NFL history where a rookie had at least 50 receiving yards and two scores; the only other two to do it this decade were O.J. Howard in 2017 and Zach Ertz in 2013. To pull that off while higher-drafted players such as Cole Kmet and Devin Asiasi have yet to make a splash is all the more impressive.
— NFL (@NFL) October 25, 2020
Garbage-Time Performer of the Week
There are not a ton of great picks this week -- Deshaun Watson would be the winner, except the Texans actually made their loss a two-score game, with possession of the ball, with 10 minutes left in the fourth quarter. We're calling that a failed comeback attempt more than garbage accumulation. Instead, we'll go to some very rarified ground, grabbing a New England Patriots player for a Garbage-Time award. Since 2001, teams have run 63,979 offensive snaps with a three-score deficit or worse. The Patriots have just 860 of them, by far the fewest in the league. They've only faced those deficits in 37 games, again by far the fewest in the league. And of course, not all those snaps were in garbage time -- New England came back to win five of those games. Sunday was not one of those times.
We're giving the nod to Jakobi Meyers, who had precisely one reception entering the game against the 49ers. A head injury to N'Keal Harry forced Meyers into heavier action, however, and he responded with four receptions for 60 yards, and at least one more called back by penalty. For the Patriots, that counts as an offensive explosion, with no other receiver topping 16 yards. At this point, what do the Patriots have to lose by getting Meyers more action going forward? Their passing game is anemic, ranked 30th with a -30.0% DVOA. Something, clearly, has to change somewhere.
Comfort in Sadness Stat of the Week
The worst home defeat in Bill Belichick's time as Patriots coach may have been the clearest signal yet that the dynasty is over, and there is not much comfort to be found in a 33-6 defeat. The Patriots passing game was terrible, posting four interceptions and no touchdowns between Cam Newton and Jarrett Stidham, and the rushing game was quickly rendered irrelevant by the size of San Francisco's lead. The crumb of comfort may have been the performance on special teams: Gunner Olszewski averaged over 25 yards per kickoff return, Nick Folk made both of his field goals, the coverage team held the 49ers inside the 25-yard line on both kickoff returns, and both of Jake Bailey's punts pinned the 49ers inside their own 20 with not a single punt return yard allowed. It's not much for a team that is used to far greater success, but it is, at least, a start.
Game-Changing Play of the Week
How can we pick just one? We're taking the entire Cardinals/Seahawks overtime, which had more twists and turns then any 10-minute period should really be allowed to have. We had Chase Edmonds, backup running back, plowing 32 yards to set up a potential game-winning field goal. We had Kyler Murray losing 5 yards while attempting to center the ball, turning a 36-yard shot into a 41-yarder. We had the Cardinals deciding to kick a field goal on second down, and the delay in making that decision forcing Arizona to ice their own kicker. We saw Zane Gonzalez hook that potential game-winner wide left after making the iced field goal. We saw DK Metcalf score what looked like a game-winning touchdown, only for it to be called back by an obvious David Moore hold. We saw Russell Wilson throw his third pick of the game to little-used first-round pick Isaiah Simmons, who only played five defensive snaps Sunday night. When Zane Gonzalez got redemption, 69 minutes and 45 seconds into the game, it was the first lead for Arizona in the contest, and we all needed a drink.
— NFL (@NFL) October 26, 2020
Seattle' loss knocked them out of first place in the NFC -- more meaningful than ever this season, because of the lack of a second bye week. Arizona, meanwhile, vaulted from eighth to sixth, now just a half-game back of the Seahawks in the division, with wins against both Seattle and San Francisco already in hand. The NFC West is a buzzsaw, but the Cardinals are setting themselves up for the best tiebreakers in the division, should it come down to that.
Bryan: Another week, another 6-0 record. I'm especially proud of us both getting Jets +13 right, which will hopefully finally cure me of my "must win a Jets bet" compulsion. So far this season, both of us are on our best paces in our Scramble history, but special notice has to go to Andrew. He's now 13-1 in the Double Survival League, and the "1" was picking Philadelphia the week that they tied -- he has yet to pick a loser. We're approaching impressive territory here -- that "1" will stay on his record because we are picking winners, not just not-losers, but a near-blemishless record this late in the season is worth noting.
There, now that I've thoroughly jinxed him, on with this week's picks!
Money-Back Guarantee Lock of the Week
Records to Date:
Bryan: Are you ready for Sunday Night Football! The Eagles, finally getting off the slide by just barely managing to beat the Giants! The Cowboys, quite possibly down to their third-string quarterback, a seventh-rounder from James Madison named Ben DiNucci! Two once-proud and major-market franchises, bumbling their way through the season, live and in prime time!
At press time, we don't know if Andy Dalton will be cleared to play or not. If he is, I think I'd still favor the Eagles -- the Cowboys' defense is more theoretical than anything else, and Carson Wentz had a minor bounceback game last week. If DiNucci's under center, however, this could be an ugly, ugly, ugly affair. Give me Philadelphia (-3.5), and then tell me who won, 'cause I probably won't be watching.
Andrew: That would have been my first choice, too. Alas. Way back in Week 1, I picked the Packers as an underdog to win outright over the Minnesota Vikings on the road. This week, I'm picking lightning to strike twice despite the large point spread in favor of the home team. The Vikings had picked up a little over the end of September and the early part of October, playing the Titans, Texans, and Seahawks close, but they were back to their early-season woes last time out against Atlanta, whereas the Packers blew the Texans out by 15 in Houston in Week 7. The week off won't help Minnesota: the Vikings may be rested, but the Packers are better at almost every position. You have the points, and I'll have the Packers. Green Bay (-7) vs. Minnesota.
Double Survival League
Andrew: ARI, BAL. BUF, IND, LAC, LAR, MIA, NE, NO, NYG,
PHI, SEA, TB, TEN
Bryan: BAL, BUF,
CHI, CIN, CLE, DAL, JAX, MIA, NE, NO, NYG, PHI, TEN, WAS
Bryan: Once again, I think Andrew and I will end up in the same place here when all is said and done -- this one might end up coming down to some very tight decisions at the end of the season, rather than a broad difference in overall strategy.
Kansas City over the Jets is not just the easiest pick of the week; it's the easiest pick of the remainder of the season. We're getting to the point where we can start safely assuming some games would require herculean upsets to go wrong -- the Jets versus the Rams, the Jets versus the Seahawks, the Ravens hosting the NFC East, et cetera -- but there is not a bigger mismatch remaining this season than the New York Jets, they of the 4 yards of second-half offense, dragging themselves across the country to try to take on the defending Super Bowl champions. The 2020 Chiefs may not quite be the 2019 Chiefs, but you don't have to be to run up a huge score against Adam Gase's men. I still think the Jets will throw an upset somewhere to avoid the 0-16 season. It won't be this week.
The other pick is tougher. I've already used Buffalo and Philadelphia, both of whom have tempting matchups this week against the Patriots and Cowboys, respectively, and I'd rather not use the Buccaneers on the road when there are so many better home game choices for them. So I'm going to go ahead and get my Carolina pick out of the way. Teddy Bridgewater's men are in top form, despite their two-game losing streak, while Atlanta's cursed monkey paw has kicked into a higher gear for 2020. Things will get better for Atlanta sooner rather than later -- but not this week. I debated keeping the Panthers on the shelf until their Broncos matchup in December, but that's Week 14, otherwise known as the NFC West's Quasi-Bye -- Arizona gets the Giants, San Francisco gets the Football Team, Seattle gets the Jets, and Los Angeles gets the Patriots. That'll be two picks for me, easy, so I'll take the Carolina consolation this week.
Andrew: I am, indeed, mirroring your picks exactly. I do wish I'd saved the Eagles for this week instead of blowing them on Cincinnati, because I'm left with one comfortable choice and one less so. Anybody against the Jets has been an effective strategy since opening day, and when anybody is the reigning champs, at home, it's a no-brainer. One of the keys to this is getting your big teams in easy matchups, and they don't come much easier than this. So yes, I'm taking Kansas City.
I'm a little less sure of Carolina, somewhat oddly because they beat the Falcons in Atlanta. I, too, considered saving them for Denver, but the Broncos have a much better defense than the Falcons and that's a worry against a team whose strength is offense. Bridgewater and his deep receiving group should find plenty of success against the Falcons' vague outline of a defense, and Brian Burns and Co. can make an impact against a struggling Falcons offense. It's the least comfortable I've been with any pick so far, but I do feel this is my best shot at the Panthers.