Scramble for the Ball: The View from 20,000 Feet
Andrew: Hello and welcome to this week's Scramble for the Ball, as we approach a critical juncture in this NFL season. As of 4:05 p.m. Eastern time on Sunday, every team in the NFL will technically be mathematically alive for a playoff spot. As of 7:30 p.m. Eastern time, there is a very strong possibility that will no longer be the case.
Bryan: We have to use the conditional case here because it is, theoretically, possible for everyone to still be kicking as we enter Thanksgiving weekend. Seeing as that would require either the Jets somehow learning how to win a football game --
Andrew: I'm going to interrupt for a second to point out that the Jets are playing the Chargers. The Jets do not need to learn how to win in order to beat the Chargers. The Chargers are perfectly capable of beating themselves, as evidenced by the entire past decade of Chargers football. All the Jets have to do is get out of the way ... which is admittedly not guaranteed, as evidenced by the entire past decade of Jets football.
Bryan: What happens when the stoppable force meets the movable object? Hey, gotta have something to sell the game on.
Even if the Chargers do Charger it up, the Jets could still be alive if there are collapses by New England, Miami, Indianapolis, Baltimore, and Cleveland, so, you know, theoretically we could still have all 32 teams diving into their turkey without their goose being cooked. At least, mathematically speaking.
Of course, the goose doesn't have to be out of the oven for you to know it won't exactly be taking to the air anytime soon. As the weather gets colder and people's attention begins to get drawn to the Trevor Lawrence sweepstakes, it's a good point to step back, take a look at the state of the league, and figure out which teams are spreading their wings, and which teams are just dead ducks.
Andrew: Broadly speaking, we have a handful of carefully defined categories into which we can lump your favorite team. These are determined using an exacting process known as subjective opinionating, and denoted as follows:
- True Contenders
- Dark Horses
- Playoff Fodder
Bryan: … with maybe a special quarantine zone for the NFC East, who deserve their own little section of pointing and gawking, away from all the actual healthy football teams.
Bryan: Starting at the top, I think there are three teams, and only three teams, which can confidently start printing their playoff tickets today -- and then put those tickets away, because there's still a massive pandemic going on, but you get what I'm saying. Those are the undefeated Steelers and the 8-1 Chiefs, and I'm going to go ahead and throw in the Saints into that group, despite Drew Brees fracturing basically all of his ribs. Our playoff odds give all three teams greater than a 95% chance of making the postseason, even after adjusting for the fact that Jameis Winston will be slinging the ball for a while in Nyawlins.
Andrew: I'm intrigued by the presence of the Saints, who have seven wins, on that list, and not the Buccaneers, who have the same number of wins in the same division and a healthy quarterback. Is schedule the only reason for the difference?
Bryan: Yeah, the schedule is the big thing there. The Saints have 26th-hardest schedule remaining, per our DVOA odds, with the Chiefs being their only opponent left with a winning record. The Buccaneers have the eighth-hardest future schedule, including games against the Chiefs and Rams. I wouldn't find it crazy if someone penciled the Bucs in already, but I think that's enough of a difference to slip a knife between them and the other three teams. Jameis Winston is a starting-caliber quarterback, if obviously a step down from Brees. He should be able to beat the five three-win teams on the Saints' remaining schedule without too much drama, one would imagine. That gets them to 12-4, and that would clinch a playoff berth no matter what happens elsewhere in the league. Realistically, they only have to go 3-4 to make it in, so they have some buffer room, too.
Andrew: The other team I'd personally include is the Green Bay Packers, they of the 92.2% odds, who just saw their closest division rivals lose haplessly to another division foe on Monday night. Green Bay isn't assured of anything just yet, and the Vikings have an absurdly easy time of it between now and early December, but it's tough to see the Packers dropping four of their last seven too.
Bryan: Also, remember the Vikings beat the Packers back in Week 8, so it's no sure thing that Green Bay would come on top of Minnesota in a tiebreaker situation. Don't get me wrong, I will be very surprised to see the Packers sitting at home in January, but it's more conceivable than, say, a Steelers collapse? The Colts and Titans are no pushovers, after all. Getting to 3-4 is significantly tougher, but if the Jags can put a scare in 'em…
It's conceivable, that's all I'm saying. Surprising -- shocking even -- but conceivable.
Andrew: The other thing, here, is that we're differentiating between true contenders and dark horses. Aaron Rodgers will always give the Packers a chance, but that run defense in particular is deplorable, they have one semi-consistent receiver, and the special teams were a nightmare this past weekend. They're significantly below the aforementioned top trio.
Bryan: But there are no flawless NFC teams this season, which I think helps the Packers case -- and they're the only team that is in control of their scenario for the top seed and the all-important bye week. I'd still call them true contenders, even if I can imagine them missing the playoffs easier than New Orleans. I'd group them with the Buccaneers and the Seahawks in the "probably in, but watch out for that Achilles heel" sort of grouping, along with the Bills in the AFC. These are teams that are well on their way to postseason berths, and whose worries are more about whether or not they can keep things together in the postseason rather than getting there in the first place.
The Packers' run defense and the Seahawks' pass defense can get together and argue about which is worse, an argument that no one wins.
Andrew: Alternatively, they can club together and form their own bespoke abyss.
Bryan: That argument will, at least, drown out the Bills fans trying to decide just to what level Josh Allen has turned the corner (verdict: mostly, though September Josh Allen was a bit too much to hope for over an entire season), or Buccaneers fans ... do the Bucs have obvious flaws, other than Tom Brady turning into a pumpkin like he did against the Saints?
Andrew: The pass coverage has not been up to its September standard over the past few games, forcing them to rely a bit more on the front seven getting pressure. Some of that is probably opponents: the Panthers have their flaws, but the offense is dynamic, and Drew Brees has had the number of Todd Bowles even more than most other defensive coordinators over his career. The game against the Giants was the more worrying one, but they also still have their bye to come. I suspect they'll be OK for a run-in that looks very enticing right now. The hype from the addition of Brady prevents them from being a dark horse, but I'd be comfortable placing them among the contenders. They've comfortably outperformed my expectations, at least so far.
Bryan: I kind of slipped the Bills into this grouping, and that's the one pick that doesn't quite line up with our playoff odds. There are seven teams we currently give at least a 5% chance of winning the Super Bowl -- the six we've talked about, plus the Indianapolis Colts. The Bills, on the other hand, are down at 2.2%; they're behind the Ravens, Rams, and Cardinals. I don't know. I do kind of feel like they're subjectively in a higher class than that, but the hard data doesn't necessarily agree with me. At the very least, they're more of a borderline team.
Andrew: I'd say that the lack of pedigree is part of what keeps the Bills out of that top tier. They're in a group of teams that it would be no surprise to see make the tournament, and you make the case for how they could win it, but them actually doing so would be a significant surprise. They have the defense, they have the weapons, but you're right about Josh Allen. He's better than he was last year, which was better than the year before, but he's still not in the upper echelon of starting quarterbacks.
Bryan: It's consistency that's keeping him out of that top tier at this point. He's in the top 10 in DYAR and DVOA, and the top five in QBR. He has developed into the best possible version he could be, which is both surprising and wonderful. Very good quarterbacks capable of putting up very bad games are some of the most interesting to watch, and I think that's where Allen has slotted himself. I have no idea how I'm going to address that in next year's Almanac, but I'll smash through that table when I get there.
Andrew: The most surprising team, for me, among the dark horses rather than the favorites is the Baltimore Ravens. I didn't expect a repeat of Lamar Jackson's MVP campaign -- by its nature, an MVP campaign is usually an outlier -- but I also didn't expect this much team-wide regression. I still believe the Ravens are capable, on their day, of beating anybody, with the possible exception of the Chiefs, but they're not having enough of those days right now. It wouldn't shock me if they won the AFC or even the Super Bowl, but I wouldn't expect it of them at this stage either.
Bryan: A good way of thinking about the difference between the contenders and the dark horses might be that the dark horses need to at least have a winning record from here on out to expect to make the postseason; the contenders can mostly cruise into place. And the Ravens definitely fall into that first category.
I'm mostly with you on that surprise, though I've been through the Greg Roman experience before. Remember, Colin Kaepernick and the read-option were going to be the dominant offensive force for years to come, and then they ... weren't. I thought that Roman had worked out the kinks in that with Jackson, the 49ers being sort of the beta version of the Ravens' final product. Maybe not, though! To be fair, we're writing this at the worst possible time for Baltimore, just after they lost in a monsoon. Still, it's not like it has just been a one-game difference between the 2019 and 2020 editions of the Ravens; the sequel just … isn't as good.
Andrew: Baltimore also has two tough games coming up against wild-card rivals as they host Tennessee, then division rivals in Pittsburgh. It should be plain sailing from there to, at worst, 11-5, but they aren't the same team they were a year ago.
Bryan: Agreed. In fact, I'd go as far as to say that the AFC North is the one division that has been decided -- the Steelers will win; the Ravens are battling for a wild-card position. The Bucs might still pass the Saints, and the Chiefs aren't immune to a challenge from Las Vegas, but the Ravens can't catch the Steelers at this point.
I guess we should fill out the Dark Horse category mostly with teams currently in playoff position, but who aren't guaranteed the postseason just yet. That would include the Colts, Raiders, Ravens, and Dolphins in the AFC, and the Cardinals and Rams in the NFC, as I specifically quarantine the NFC East. That feels ... mostly right? Not 100% there, but close enough for a starting point?
Andrew: I'm going to insist on the Titans being included among the AFC Dark Horse teams, based largely on the fact that they made the AFC Championship Game last year.
Bryan: I'd agree, and I'd throw the 6-3 Browns in there, too. The Browns, Colts, Titans, Ravens, Dolphins, and Raiders are all in a big mash at 6-3 at the moment, with tons of tiebreakers being required to sort 'em all out -- specifically, the Colts beat the Titans, the Raiders have the best conference record at 4-2, the Dolphins have the next best conference record at 3-2, the Ravens beat the Browns, and the Browns top the Titans in common games, 4-1 to 1-3.
Andrew: That's a surprisingly large amount of decent teams for a conference that was generally considered extremely shallow last season.
Bryan: I think we can maybe split them up, however -- not all 6-3 teams are made equal. The Dolphins seem like the least likely team to make the playoffs out of this bunch, though I think they're still very much in the fight for the division crown. Bills versus Dolphins in the AFC East; that's ... very weird to type.
Andrew: I'm also confident that, while the Dolphins are trending in the right direction, they are still at least a year away. If they make the playoffs, I'd fully expect them to be fodder for the more established teams around them.
Bryan: Here's a question, then -- a two-parter. Would the Dolphins be better off this year if they were still starting Ryan Fitzpatrick? And should they have prioritized that over getting Tua Tagovailoa (first time I've spelled it right!) reps for a contending season in 2021?
Andrew: Two-part answer: maybe, and no. Ryan Fitzpatrick was not leading this team to a Super Bowl. You have to hope that Tua Tagovailoa, eventually, might. One-and-done with Tagovailoa, or even narrowly missing out, is much better in the long run than one-and-done, or even a win-and-done, with Fitzpatrick. I understand that there's a huge amount of emotion involved in that coveted playoff appearance, but unless you believe you're an actual contender, which I don't think even the Dolphins believe they are, the decision is not that difficult.
Bryan: At the very least, Brian Flores and company are making anyone who claims they need three years to turn everything around, and to give time for the plan to start working, look particularly foolish; especially teams coached by former colleagues of Flores, who already had a franchise-type quarterback in place. Not to name any names. I'd agree that the Dolphins are more of a Playoff Fodder team than a Dark Horse, but last year they were a disaster, so this is a great sense of progress for them.
As for your Titans declaration ... I mean, I'm not going to, like, overrule you or something, but the universe does seem very insistent on making them a 9-7 team for the fifth year in a row. It's a fundamental constant of the universe, right there next to the length of the meter or the speed of light. And if they do go 9-7, they are in some trouble with their tiebreakers. They can, at least, fix much of that themselves by beating the Browns and Colts down the back stretch, but they have not done themselves favors over the past month.
Andrew: To finish 9-7, the Titans will probably have to lose all three road games in Indianapolis, Baltimore, and Green Bay, and one from Cleveland at home, at Jacksonville, Detroit at home, or at Houston. I think they should be safe as a 10-win team, which will get them in -- but they are, like the Ravens, more flawed than last year's edition.
Bryan: I fully expect them to enter the final week 9-6, with DeShaun Watson and the Texans pulling off a significant upset to keep Tennessee at home in January. Such is the power of the universal constant.
If I had to rank those 6-3 teams, I'd stick with DVOA and go Colts, Dolphins, Raiders, Titans, Browns, and place the gap between Dark Horse and Playoff Fodder after Las Vegas.
Andrew: The Browns are not a dark horse. If they make the playoffs, which they should, they're fodder. It would take an incredible confluence of circumstances for them to be competitive in the AFC postseason. They and the Dolphins are the two I would say are merely along for the ride if they make the playoffs. The Colts and the Titans have the potential to upset the top teams, each in different ways. The Raiders are a bit weird, but they do have one of the best offensive lines in the game, a lot of big-play potential, and a recent win against the Chiefs on their resume. Yeah, I'm probably being clouded a bit too much by previous years, but Tagovailoa is a rookie and Mayfield is not very good, whereas Carr is at least a clear professional-caliber starter and the South teams both have quarterbacks with a solid track record.
Bryan: I mentioned that the Steelers are the only team that I think has basically won their division, which I suppose means I need to make the case for the Raiders topping the Chiefs. I don't think it will happen, of course, but at worst splitting the season series is a great position to be in. If the Chiefs beat the Raiders on Sunday night, we can throw that scenario out the window, but give Las Vegas the upset and they're just one game back with the tiebreaker in hand. I'm surprised and impressed they are where they are; we smashed Jon Gruden and the franchise's plans before the season started, but they're very much in contention at the moment, if not a top-tier contender.
We were right about the NFC West, though. What a slaughterhouse that is.
Andrew: Yeah, on the subject of Dark Horses, that entire division is a Dark Horse. Whoever comes out of there is probably going to have a worse record than they merit, purely because of playing that division. The Rams and Seahawks have recent Super Bowl appearances, albeit firmly in the rear-view mirror at this point, and the Cardinals have put together a very decent, if inconsistent team. I can see a case for any of those three teams making the conference championship game. Every one has an offense ranked in the top 12 by DVOA, and only Seattle hasn't paired that with a top-10 defense.
Bryan: I still think all four teams will avoid losing records, though the chances of them filling up all three wild-card slots are long gone. There's just such a divisional imbalance at the moment, and we'll get to that sooner rather than later.
DVOA still has the Rams over the Cardinals, but doesn't it feel like the Cardinals are the better team at the moment? Maybe that's just because they're succeeding with highlight-reel plays; the sort they wouldn't necessarily need if they were just a bit sharper.
Andrew: It's also because they have the better quarterback, which is not only the most important position in the game, but also the most likely to generate hype and those highlight reel plays. The Rams, however, have the better head coach.
Bryan: All three teams, including the Seahawks, still control their own fate for the division, with everyone playing everyone else down the stretch. I think it's safe to say this is the most exciting divisional race this season, although I would put all three teams in the playoffs if push came to shove.
Andrew: It's the only three-way race that isn't three different shades of putrescence, at least.
Bryan: I suppose that means it's time for…
Bryan: I can't believe we have to talk about the Cowboys like they have an actual playoff path left, but that's the 2020 NFC East for you! All four NFC East teams are still very much in the divisional race at the moment -- first to, what, five wins?
Andrew: I commented in an earlier column this season that it could realistically be Week 11 before we see another out-of-division win for the NFC East. Uh, it's Week 11, and yea verily it hath come to pass. Even this week, it's no sure thing, as the most winnable game pits the Football Team against the improving* Cincinnati Bengals.
* not against Pittsburgh.
Bryan: The Ringer has been gleefully hoping for a four-win divisional champ. I don't think that will come to pass, but if I go week-by-week, I've got Dallas stuck at four wins (beating Washington and Philly), Washington stuck at four wins (beating Cincinnati and Carolina), Philadelphia stuck at four wins (Washington) and the Giants, of all teams, getting to five (Cleveland and Dallas). And I have a hard time arguing any of them should get to six. We've seen poor divisions before, but this really does take the cake. One of these sorry outfits not only will make the playoffs, but will get to host a playoff game.
I guess the big question is ... are we OK with that? Is this just one of those weird things that happen when you take subgroups of subgroups, and it's occasionally OK for a terrible team to slip through? Should there be a "you must win half your games" clause for playoff berths? Should divisions be guaranteed a playoff spot, but reseed it based on record?
Andrew: Generally speaking, the schedule imbalance among NFL teams, particularly those from different divisions, means I'm OK with saying every division winner gets not only a playoff game, but a home playoff game. This division finally has me reconsidering. The 7-9 Beastquake Seahawks, who keep coming up in this column for some reason, were not that bad. These teams insult even the very notion of the playoffs being a reward for regular-season performance. I'm now happy to listen to the argument that even a division-winner should have to be above .500 to qualify for the playoffs.
Bryan: Well, first, here's a counter-argument. If you remove the NFC East winner from the playoffs, the current replacement would be ... the Bears. Is it really that much more interesting to watch Chicago than it would be for Crazy Daniel Jones Shenanigans, or to see Alex Smith continue his comeback? I don't think so.
I do, however, think that it's fair to re-seed the teams. The fifth seed should not have an easier opponent than the sixth or seventh seeds, but that's what the Buccaneers would get against the Eagles in the current standings. Bump the NFC East down to the seventh seed, and that would end up being the Saints' opponent as things currently stand -- not quite a bye week, but a more fitting prize for the second team in the conference than a matchup against Seattle.
Andrew: That would be the Saints who, as we already noted last week, would then promptly lose to them, just like they did to the 7-9 Beastquake Seahawks. It's more interesting to watch the Bears defense and special teams than to watch anything in the NFC East. I could accept the argument that a below-.500 division winner should be automatically the bottom seed too, bumping every wild card up a spot, but not for generally reseeding the entire field.
Bryan: It's not like a wild-card team hosting a playoff game is crazy, either -- that was the standard in the three-division, 12-team format we had from 1990 to 2001.
Anyway, speaking of the Bears, they probably are still here despite losing their last four games. They're joined by the Vikings, who I had written off for dead at 1-5, but have rattled off three straight wins to at least make things interesting in the North. I don't think any AFC team qualifies -- they're either in that batch we talked about above, or are mostly dead and hanging on for dear life.
Andrew: As noted above, I have the Dolphins and Browns around here. I suspect the Vikings will miss the postseason at 8-8 or 9-7, but they'd be roughly here too alongside the Bears. The strength of the West and weakness of the East limits the pool of playoff fodder in the NFC. Teams are either Dark Horses or out of the running altogether.
Bryan: I agree. The NFC West blocks the Bears and Vikings from getting in in most cases, but it's not quite all-she-wrote yet. The Vikings probably have to go 5-2 to get in the postseason, and they do get the Cowboys, Panthers, and Jaguars on their schedule, so don't write them off just yet. The Bears only need to go 4-2 -- they haven't had their bye yet -- but they have no more easy NFC opposition, and they may be out of time. Still, crazier things have happened.
Bryan: So, now we're just looking for signs of life -- teams that are just mostly dead.
Andrew: You know what's really incongruous, almost unnervingly so? We're all the way down to our second-bottom category, and we haven't mentioned the Patriots yet.
Bryan: I think we're going to mention them right now. The Dynasty may be over (… probably …), but Bill Belichick and company aren't going down without a fight, at the very least.
Andrew: They just beat the preseason second-favorite in the conference. They have also already beaten the Dolphins and the Raiders. They've had some bad losses, but they're the only AFC team with a losing record that I'm not willing to stick a fork in just yet.
Bryan: The problem is just the size of the hole they've dug themselves with those losses. They might, and I stress might, be able to afford one more loss, and they still have the Cardinals, Rams, Dolphins, and Bills on the schedule. They're two games back of that mass of teams in the 6-3 tie. I agree that they're not dead yet, but if they make the playoffs, they'll certainly have earned it.
Andrew: By the same logic though, if they miss the playoffs, they'll have earned it with home losses against the Broncos and 49ers, two teams who are no great shakes themselves.
Bryan: … OK, bear with me for a second, because you've brought up one of the two NFC teams I would include as an also-ran, but not quite dead. Let me just put on my fan-colored glasses…
The 49ers are 4-6, which is, how to put it, not good. They are 2.5 games out of the playoffs at the moment. In any previous year, with 12-team formats, I would agree, 100%, that the 49ers were dead. But the seventh seed does exist this year. The 49ers still get their shots at the Cardinals, Seahawks, and Rams. If they win out -- and only if they win out -- they would have a real shot at that postseason. They'd have the sweep over Los Angeles and would have the divisional tiebreaker over Seattle. Any loss from here on out kills them, and they may well end up expiring if the rest of the West keeps rolling without hiccups, but I don't think they're quite dead yet.
Andrew: Let me wash that rose-and-gold tint off your glasses. The 49ers are 4-6, in a conference where they almost certainly need to finish 10-6 to make the playoffs. The Rams, Bills, Cardinals, and Seahawks are all in the top 12 of DVOA, and two of those games are on the road. They're down their starting quarterback, and rumor has it they've been phoning around struggling actors' guilds asking people to try out for a role as a wide receiver. They're not quite looking up who'll be available with their top-10 pick yet -- they still get to play two NFC East teams, for pity's sake -- but they're keeping tabs on guys who might drop out of those spots.
Bryan: I'll have you know they'd be drafting 12th if the season ended today, thank you very much.
Other than that, you're absolutely right; it's a massive long shot, and San Francisco is too injured to likely take advantage of it. I'm just saying -- if the 49ers win out, they do go to 10-6, and probably make the playoffs, what, 95% of the time? Compare that to, say, the Panthers, who would be 9-7 if they ran the table, without tiebreakers over any of the wild-card teams, and would basically be a coin-toss to make it. I'm not saying the 49ers should be considered a contender. I'm not saying that they are going to make the playoffs. I'm just saying that, unlike truly dead teams, there is a path that doesn't require massive chaos throughout the league, and so I can't quite call them dead yet. They get the chance to at least prove, on the field, that they can't stand with the NFC playoff contenders. I fully expect them to prove that, mind you, but I'm willing to give them until their next loss before writing their eulogy.
I would also group the Lions in that category, though the very fact that I'm putting the 49ers and Lions in the same grouping should tell you exactly what I think of their chances of making the postseason.
Andrew: The Broncos, Falcons, and Panthers go here, too. They're not going to lose out. They're not going to pick in the top five. They're not going to make the playoffs. They're playing out the string. The very definition of an Also-Ran.
Bryan: Oh, no, I'd call all three of those teams stone-dead, watching the clock already.
Andrew: I don't think we disagree on that point. We may have a slight disconnect on what an Also-Ran is.
Bryan: For me, the Also-Rans are teams that could, if they suddenly turned things around, still find themselves in the postseason. On The Clock teams are teams that have no chance in 2020.
Andrew: Ah. I'd define an Also-Ran as a team that also competed, but didn't achieve anything noteworthy for better or worse.
Bryan: Are you saying, then, that the Patriots are definitely out? You're going on the record right now saying that Bill Belchick's team isn't doing anything this year? I mean, you put them in the Also-Ran category.
Andrew: I don't see how they recover from 4-5 to make the postseason against this schedule.
Bryan: By winning football games. I mean, that's the idea, right? I don't think they will manage to go anywhere near 6-1 against their remaining schedule, but it's not crazy that they could beat the dead Texans, the inconsistent Cardinals, the forever-cursed Chargers, the never-were Jets...
Andrew: ... well yes, that's the idea, but they haven't exactly excelled at that thus far.
Bryan: They just beat the Ravens! Like, it was on TV and everything!
Andrew: One swallow does not a summer make.
Bryan: But the journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step!
Andrew: I'd be much less surprised to see the Patriots outside the playoffs than inside.
Bryan: On that, at least, we agree.
There are eight teams -- a quarter of the league -- that I'm saying would miss the playoffs even if they were to enter Hyperdrive and win the rest of their games: the Broncos, Bengals, Chargers, Texans, Jaguars, Jets, Falcons, and Panthers. Those are my eight dead teams; even a massive internal turnaround would not be enough to see them in January.
Andrew: I agree. But there is a fine line between being Also-Rans and being ...
Andrew: The clear and obvious top team in this category is the Jets. Their fans have been attending Clemson games. Their beat reporters have been on media calls with Dabo Swinney. They haven't won a game, and it might be the best thing that's ever happened to them.
Bryan: They are the overwhelming favorites to earn the top draft pick -- 65.8% by our odds. It is inconceivable for them to fall out of the top four, and I'm giving them a lot of credit by even adding the fourth pick to that list. They're toast, have been for a while, and aren't particularly appetizing.
Andrew: Trevor Lawrence is obvious, too. It's a match made in somewhere that doesn't involve Adam Gase.
Bryan: Even the Jets can't screw that up, right? I mean, I guess the Jaguars could theoretically pip them to the line, but that's about it.
Andrew: If you're a Jaguars fan, you have to assume that your coaching staff is done, that MinshewMania is done with them, that you don't have the answer on your roster, and that Lawrence is going to the Jets. Oh, and you also have one of the worst defenses in the league.
Bryan: In that case, you either content yourselves with Justin Fields, who I have as the second-best quarterback in the draft, or you grab Penei Sewell to anchor your line for whomever you eventually find under center. There are worse situations to be in, but man, it has been a long time since there has been anyone as clear a favorite as the top pick as Lawrence is.
Andrew: I can't really see past those two for the top two picks. Sure, Jacksonville could screw it up like they nearly did against the Packers, but their entire run-in is teams that are either firmly in the playoff hunt or scrabbling to get back into it.
Bryan: The last-place finisher in the NFC East -- Dallas or Washington, most likely -- can also be really bad, and will have the worst strength of schedule for tiebreaker purposes. They could pass the Jags for the second pick. And never count out the Chargers for snatching defeat from the jaws of victory. The Cowboys or Chargers getting the second pick would be really interesting, as they don't necessarily need quarterbacks. The Jets wouldn't trade away from Lawrence, so you might get a Justin Fields sweepstakes.
Andrew: Right, but the Jaguars would have to win a game for that to happen. Look at that schedule. Where do you get a win from? Chicago, at home, maybe?
Bryan: Or Cleveland, perhaps -- that's in Jacksonville as well. I've got the Jaguars picking second, sure, but I think it's at least somewhat in play.
Andrew: Man, they really screwed up by beating the Colts in Week 1.
The third pick is interesting, as you say, because the teams in play for it either shouldn't need a quarterback (Dallas,
San Diego Los Angeles, Houston Miami, Cincinnati) or might not believe they do (Giants).
Bryan: If you're looking for draft shenanigans, though, you probably want one of them to pick second. If Lawrence and Fields go one-two, I'm not sure there's as much demand to try to sort between Trey Lance and Zach Wilson. If Fields is still in play, however, I think there's at least something of a bidding war. Lance and Wilson probably are gone before the first half of the draft is over, but I'm not sure how much, say, a New England would have to move up to grab one of them.
Andrew: This is the one thing that is interesting about the NFC East, here. The same teams are potentially in play at both the top and bottom of the standings. Dallas could conceivably, if everything goes horribly for fans of the sport, make the playoffs. Or they could conceivably, if everything goes horribly for fans of the sport, pick third overall. Though Washington is the more interesting team in that respect, because I believe that Washington very much is in the market for a quarterback. Would it be worth winning the division at 5-11, depriving yourself of a top-10 pick, just so you could get demolished in the postseason?
Bryan: No. No it would not. Winning the division would be a terrible thing for any of those four teams; they all need significant help, and the difference between drafting, say, seventh instead of 19th is huge.
Andrew: And speaking of teams that need significant help, and should be drafting in the top five, we find the Houston ... wait, what's that? Oh. Oh my. Well, at least they got Laremy Tunsil. Not like you could find a franchise tackle with a top-five pick. And there's no way they would have make the playoffs this season without ... oh. Oh my.
Bryan: Have the Texans replaced the Jets (and before them, the Browns) as the most dysfunctional franchise in the NFL? Without DeShaun Watson, they'd be an utter disaster, instead of just a massive disaster.
Andrew: I guess right now I'd rather say that they've replaced the Bengals as the most nonfunctional franchise, if that distinction makes sense? The Jets ownership is actively terrible and got here by consciously making terrible decisions. The Texans ownership is passively awful and got here by leaving the wrong people in place for far too long. Though that may be changing for the worse, judging by recent events. I'm not sure there's a more futile franchise in the league this year. At least the Jets have something to look forward to.
Bryan: We'll cover them more in depth when we cover coaching hot seats in a few weeks, I'm sure, but this is just a depressing franchise.
Andrew: Maybe? They've already expressed through their "unnamed sources" that they're considering keeping Romeo Crennel on for next year, reportedly because of the difficulty of organizing a coaching search during the pandemic. No first-round OR second-round pick, when they would have picked in the top five, and keeping a septuagenarian head coach because it's easier? At least they can't somehow lose the two wins they already have, and somehow give Miami the No. 1 overall pick, right? Right?
There's absolutely nothing less inspiring than the Texans right now. No, not even the NFC East.
Bryan: Sorry, Rivers.
Keep Choppin' Wood
Special teams around the league struggled on the wintriest day of the season so far, but the Packers punt team merits special honors. Leading 7-3 during an awkward first half against the second-worst team in the league, Green Bay's punt team came up with this:
KEELAN COLE 90-YARD PUNT RETURN TD
Jaguars lead the Packers 10-7pic.twitter.com/lOkAsoiAtI
— NFL News (@UpToDateNFL_) November 15, 2020
First, punter JK Scott outkicked his coverage by 20 yards. Second, his coverage team mostly condensed itself into a 10-yard ball in the middle of the field, which Keelan Cole easily avoided. Third, Cole made Scott look silly while making his way, untouched, to the end zone for the longest, and probably the easiest, punt return touchdown in Jaguars history. Cole later caught a touchdown, becoming the first Jaguars player or Packers opponent ever with a punt return touchdown and a receiving touchdown in the same game. The Packers did go on to win the game, but they didn't have to make it so hard for themselves.
Herm Edwards Award for Playing to Win the Game
Earlier this season, we highlighted the massive error by Falcons running back Todd Gurley, who could have virtually guaranteed his team victory against the Lions rather incongruously by not scoring a touchdown while trailing in the fourth quarter. Nick Chubb's decision in a similar situation was made easier by the fact that the Browns had the lead at the time, but Chubb was still smart to deliberately not score when he could have with a minute remaining and the Texans out of timeouts. Chubb instead stepped out of bounds at the 1-yard line, allowing the Browns to kneel out the clock on their 3-point victory. Victory isn't always exciting, but it is a whole lot better than spectacular defeat.
John Fox Award for Conservatism
The Seahawks front office has a reputation for considering analytics, which makes it all the more baffling that head coach Pete Carroll is so painfully conservative in high-leverage situations. One the first possession of the second half against the Rams, the Seahawks faced fourth-and-less-than-1 at their own 42-yard line, trailing 17-13. For more and more head coaches, this is becoming a situation in which to strongly consider going for it.The analytics case is clearly in favor of that, especially for a team whose offense is significantly better than its defense. Carroll, perhaps inevitably, chose for his team to pretend they were going for it, take the delay of game penalty, and punt the ball -- about the most conservative play imaginable in that situation. (At least he didn't blow a timeout to avoid the 5-yard penalty.) The Rams drove for a touchdown anyway, the Seahawks didn't face a fourth down in such friendly circumstances again, and the loss dropped Seattle back to the pack in a fiercely competitive NFC West. For his part, Carroll said during his postgame press conference that, given a mulligan, he would ... uh, make the exact same decision again. So at least Seahawks fans have that to look forward to.
Jeff Fisher Award for Confusing Coaching
We get that the Panthers run fake punts more than the average team -- they proudly declared themselves to be the "best fake punt team in the NFL" two weeks ago. We also recognized that they thus need a deeper bag of tricks; you can't run the same play over and over again and expect to get results. However, we're not sure there is a bag deep enough to get to "punter draw."
Even the TV guys could predict the fake punt.
This was seriously the angle on the broadcast view pic.twitter.com/Hd6lzTPfTD
— Edgar Salmingo, Jr. (@PanthersAnalyst) November 15, 2020
To be fair to Matt Rhule and special teams coordinator Chase Blackburn, the play was apparently designed to go to rookie linebacker/safety Jeremy Chinn (21, near the top of that video), but he was legally "flattened," forcing punter Joseph Charlton to improvise. Chinn is the defending Rookie of the Month and had converted one of the three earlier fake punts against Atlanta, so I can understand wanting to take advantage of his skill set more, but Chinn was questionable coming into the game with a knee injury and wasn't exactly having a great performance either before or after the fake. We love the guts, but it's OK to actually let your offensive players pick up fourth down on occasion, coach.
'Feed Him More!' Fantasy Player of the Week
Most casual fans could name Marquise Brown as the Ravens' top target, and Mark Andrews might not be far from the top of your mind, either. But no, it has been Willie Snead who's been the most efficient pass-catcher for the Ravens this season, leading Baltimore in both yards per target and yards per catch. Snead has caught 25 of his 33 targets this season for 356 yards and three touchdowns, and he leads all Ravens receivers with a 20.8% DVOA. And yet his usage runs hot and cold, sometimes going half a game without Lamar Jackson looking in his direction. Against New England, at any rate, Snead was just about the only thing the Ravens could get going in the passing game, hauling in five catches for 64 yards and a pair of scores. While we don't think a revival of the 2015-2016 Snead is in the cards if he gets more work, Snead deserves a larger role in the offense than he has been getting
Lamar delivers in the rain. #RavensFlock
— NFL (@NFL) November 16, 2020
Garbage-Time Performer of the Week
Bet you didn't have DaeSean Hamilton in your fantasy lineups this week. Hamilton had just 152 yards of offense coming into the game, with 82 of them coming against the Chargers a couple weeks ago. But late in the Broncos-Raiders game, with the outcome already well in hand, wide receiver Tim Patrick was ejected, leaving Hamilton as the next man up. All four of Hamilton's receptions came with less than 11 minutes left in the fourth quarter, including the Broncos' only touchdown of the game. Mind you, he also had a fumble, so it wasn't all sunshine and roses, but it was a weak week for garbage-time performers. Hamilton's touchdown was one of just two scored by a team trailing by three scores or more, and J.D. McKissic's score in Washington was part of a comeback effort. Hamilton wins by default!
Lock finds a wide open Hamilton for six and the Broncos convert their first 4th down of 2020. pic.twitter.com/dbmAQn2y6b
— Joe Rowles (@JoRo_NFL) November 16, 2020
Comfort in Sadness Stat of the Week
Not only did the Cincinnati Bengals have the worst loss of Week 10 against the division-rival Steelers, they also extended their losing streak in that matchup to 11 games, stretching back six seasons. Despite the lopsided score and the dire record, second-round rookie Tee Higgins put on a very strong performance against one of the league's best defenses. Higgins hauled in seven of his nine targets for 115 yards and a touchdown, and that total took him over 600 yards in the first nine games of his rookie season. That has Higgins on pace for a 1,000-yard debut campaign, and he also leads the team with four receiving touchdowns. With Joe Burrow at the helm and Higgins and Tyler Boyd as the top targets, the Bengals appear well set up for the future -- even if the present is still heavily overshadowed by the rest of the AFC North.
Game-Changing Play of the Week
We're just going to be quiet for a moment.
Don't ever say it's impossible... pic.twitter.com/lqe2UkxsCT
— Deandre Hopkins (@DeAndreHopkins) November 16, 2020
DEANDRE HOPKINS EVERYONE. pic.twitter.com/uDMfbV9IFN
— MySportsbook (@MySportsbooklv) November 16, 2020
It's hard to imagine that not being the play of the year. It won't be the most important play when all things are said and done -- those happen in the Super Bowl or, in case of blowout, in the conference championship games. But when you consider the game situation and the records of the teams involved and the state of the divisional races in both the NFC West and AFC East? This one's not only the most important play of the year to date, but one that will likely keep its crown well into December and, frankly, quite possibly into January.
For the record -- the pass was amazing. Kyler Murray's ability to roll out, dodge pressure, and fire an accurate pass on the move is astounding, and nothing should be taken away from him. But as to whether the pass or the catch was more impressive? You literally can not see DeAndre Hopkins on the dots of the play:
Hail Mary dots! pic.twitter.com/zn1TWbqM5x
— Seth Walder (@SethWalder) November 16, 2020
Flipping the result of the game would bump the Cardinals from third in the NFC to seventh, squeaking into the playoffs at the moment thanks to the Bears' flop on Monday night. It leaves them in great position going into their Thursday matchup against Seattle; that's almost a must-win for the Seahawks if they want to win the division.
Bryan: Only one miss between us this week. Andrew figured the Patriots were going to get wiped out by the Ravens, but he failed to take into account Bill Belichick's weather god powers, as confirmed post-game by Cam Newton.
Cam: "I'm pretty sure Bill called the football gods... turn that rain from medium to tsunami-like when the Baltimore Ravens got that ball last.
— Chris Mason (@ByChrisMason) November 16, 2020
At least he has his Double Survival lead on which to hang his hat.
Money-Back Guarantee Lock of the Week
Records to Date
Andrew: One of the most incredible stats of this season is that only three teams in the entire league have yet to lose a game by more than eight points: the 9-0 Pittsburgh Steelers, the 8-1 Kansas City Chiefs ... and the 2-7 Los Angeles Chargers. The Chargers have already taken the best team in each conference -- Kansas City and New Orleans -- to overtime, only to lose each game by a field goal. This week, that better-than-its-record Chargers team hosts the worst team in the league, who will reportedly once again have Joe Flacco at quarterback while Sam Darnold rehabilitates his shoulder injury. I recognize that I'm just begging for my recent terrible run to continue by betting on the Chargers, but they have the better quarterback, the better receivers, the better defense, and dare I say it, for perhaps the only time this season also the better coach. I'm not a fan of picking teams to win by double digits, and if any team can lose at home as 9-point favorites it's these guys, but the Chargers should win this one by more than the 10-point margin by which they defeated the Jaguars. L.A. Chargers (-9) vs. N.Y. Jets.
Bryan: New England's back, baby! At least, that's what a lot of the bettors seem to think, with New England going from 2.5-point underdogs to 2-point favorites after their win against Baltimore. Color me somewhat skeptical, however, that Bill Belichick can bring his arcane weather powers to NRG Stadium. I think people are getting too swept away by bad-weather games in both New England and Cleveland last week, and are thus shuttling money towards the Patriots and away from the Texans at rates which don't really match up with their on-field play. Give me the Houston Texans (+2), unless you see Mark Mardon added to the Patriots' waiver wire claims over the next week.
Double Survival League
Andrew: CHI, CIN, CLE, DAL, DEN, HOU, JAX, LV, MIN, NYJ, PIT, SF
Bryan: ARI, DEN, GB, HOU, IND, LAC, LAR, MIN, PIT, SEA, SF, TB
Andrew: CAR, PHI, WAS
Bryan: CAR, CHI, JAX, NYJ, PHI
Andrew: For all that I've been picking heavy favorites whenever I could this year, somehow I still have both of this week's heaviest favorites available. I did lose out on the Pittsburgh Steelers in Lock of the Week against Dallas, thanks to their tendency to play down to inferior opponents in the Mike Tomlin era, however we've also previously noted that they do, at least, tend to win those games straight up. That's what I'm banking on this weekend, as we get to the business end of the season and I, at least, start sacrificing perfect matchups for the dreaded Greater Good. The Jaguars have the second-worst record in the league, which is probably a smidge harsh -- they'd be a middle-of-the-pack NFC East team, which admittedly probably damns the NFC East more than it blesses the Jaguars. The unbeaten Steelers should have far too much for them, even if they do end up making a meal of things.
My second pick is a team with a losing record but a winning streak: the Minnesota Vikings have beaten all three of their division rivals in the past three games, and now host the worst team in that aforementioned NFC East. Dallas, sans Dak Prescott, might surpass the Jets for the worst team in the sport. A trip north to Minnesota is not likely to be the tonic for their many ailments. I'd be tempted to lay the Vikings against the spread in this one. Getting to pick them straight up is almost too easy. And yes, I'm aware that I've probably doomed them with those words.
Bryan: Well, if you haven't doomed them, I certainly will, as I'm taking the Minnesota Vikings as well. I worry about those Cowboys receivers running wild against a Vikings secondary which is more theoretical than physical, and Andy Dalton is a step up over Garrett Gilbert ... we think. I also don't like picking against teams coming off of their bye, as if there was ever a chance they'd put something together, this would be it. All that being said, though ... yes, the Cowboys are terrible, close loss to the Steelers or not. This should be the easiest game left on Minnesota's schedule, and the most likely win of the week for any of my remaining teams.
But just duplicating your picks won't get me anywhere. I've got to try to match some of your wins from earlier in the season, so I'm taking this opportunity to take the Tampa Bay Buccaneers at home against the Rams. Obviously, we all saw what happened against the Saints, so I'm a little gun-shy on this one, but you have to think about Tom Brady at home with all those weapons, and then Jared Goff travelling across the country, and you get a clear picture of this one. I don't think it's Tampa Bay's easiest qualified game left -- that's probably against the Vikings in a couple weeks. I don't think it's the most likely win for any of the teams I have remaining -- the Chargers do get to play the Jets, after all. But down two with six weeks to play, I need to at least make a few different moves to try to catch Andrew, and this is where they start.