Jefferson, WRs Highlight Joe Thomas Draft

Minnesota Vikings WR Justin Jefferson
Minnesota Vikings WR Justin Jefferson
Photo: USA Today Sports Images

NFL Week 18 -  

Andrew: Hello and welcome to the first Scramble for the Ball of 2022! We're in uncharted waters this week, entering Week 18 of the regular season for the first time ever. Normally, with the regular season completed, we would have spent Sunday night and Monday drafting players for the staff playoff fantasy league. Instead, with one week remaining, we're spending Tuesday ... uhhh, drafting players for a completely different imaginary circumstance. That's right, it's time for our annual Joe Thomas Memorial Draft.

Bryan: I mean, technically it's the second ever Week 18; there was that two-bye week experiment in 1993, but, uh, that's neither here nor there.

Andrew: Since we get asked this every year, yes, we're aware that Joe Thomas is not dead. However, the former Browns All-Pro left tackle did retire as, in our shared opinion, as the greatest player of at least the 21st Century to have played a full career without ever appearing in a playoff game. To avoid any other player being so great, for so long, without a postseason appearance, we imagine what it would look like if playoff franchises could draft at least one player from each non-playoff team. It doesn't matter whether that player has ever played in the postseason before; just that they aren't playing there this year. That gives us (in our opinion) a fun way to look at both the potential weaknesses of the playoff field and the great players who'll be watching from home from next weekend.

But first, we have our annual challenge of figuring out who those playoff teams will be. For that, I hand over to my esteemed colleague.

Bryan: This is, by a wide margin, my favorite article to write each year. I love celebrating the best of players who we won't get to see in two weeks, and trying to sift through the wreckage of teams such as Houston and Jacksonville and come out with a few pieces of gold. I love getting to point out the flaws in the playoff teams—and, boy howdy, are they a more flawed bunch this year than usual. It's great. It's wonderful. It's a fantastic time.

It also means, because of other standing Scramble arrangements, that we have to predict the playoff field a week ahead of time, and inevitably look like idiots when we get it wrong. Fortunately, Week 17 provided a lot of much-needed clarity; gone are the chances of a 10-way tie for second place in the AFC which, let me tell you, was not fun to try to solve. With things standing the way they are going into the final 16 games, this is our thought process.

In the NFC, the Packers clinched the No. 1 seed with their victory over the Vikings on Sunday Night; Week 18 is meaningless for them. The Cowboys' spot is close to clinched—they would need to beat the Eagles and have both the Seahawks and 49ers beat their NFC West counterparts to get out of the No. 4 seed. Our odds give them a 90.2% chance of sticking there, and we'll pencil them in solidly.

The second, third, and fifth seeds will go to the Buccaneers and the two NFC West contenders, the Rams and Cardinals, in some order. That could go a number of different ways, but the most common is the Rams ending up at No. 2, the Buccaneers at No. 3, and the Cardinals at No. 5. That happens in nine of the 16 possible permutations of matchups that matter here. Other results are certainly plausible, but that's the combination you get if the Rams beat the 49ers or if you get upsets aplenty; each team's at 65% or higher in our odds to win those specific seeds. Good enough for our purposes.

That leaves the sixth and seventh seeds. The Eagles are definitely in, with the 49ers and Saints battling it out for the final slot. San Francisco makes the postseason if they beat the Rams or the Falcons beat the Saints; New Orleans needs both results to go their way to get in.

Andrew: If those games were being played normally, I'd be inclined to pick New Orleans, but the facts that the Rams can no longer earn a bye and the game is in Santa Clara have me leaning toward San Francisco even before we consider what the Saints quarterback situation could look like.

Bryan: Or, for that matter, the 49ers quarterback situation, as it's still unclear whether a banged-up Jimmy Garoppolo or an inexperienced Trey Lance will be under center on Sunday. I know that the 49ers have dominated their matchups with the Rams in recent years, under the rock-paper-scissors motif that is the NFC West, but I'd still pick both the Rams and Saints head-up in their matchups this week. The problem is, the Saints need both results, and I could see either flipping.

Andrew: That's exactly it. In isolation, each outcome the Saints need is more likely. However, any other outcome puts the 49ers in the postseason. As our Lock of the Week proves, we are not exactly masters of prognostication, so we need to go with the playoff odds. That leans very slightly toward San Francisco, which would in turn put the 49ers ahead of the Eagles for the sixth seed. We're consistently wrong about the final playoff field, never mind the actual seeds, but this will have to do.

Bryan: The AFC looks like a much bigger mess on paper, but some of that is because we have to at least pretend that massive upsets (say, Jacksonville over Indianapolis) are still in play. In practical terms, the Titans will almost assuredly earn the No. 1 seed; they lock that up just by beating the Texans (or by seeing the Chiefs, Bengals, and either Patriots or Jets lose). That's not Cowboys-level certain, but it's still at 64.0% in our odds, which we will take for now. We'll also pencil the Chiefs in for the second seed; all they need to do is beat the Broncos for that to happen (or watch the Bengals, Bills, and Patriots all lose); they have a 75.4% chance to earn one of the top two seeds, and if we're saying the Titans are No. 1, well…

We'll also give the AFC East to the Bills without too much of a fight; they clinch it by beating the Jets or having the Dolphins pull off their contractually obligated late-season win over the Patriots (which has happened four years in a row now, and six of the last eight). We'll also pencil the Patriots into the fifth seed, which just requires actually beating the Dolphins or watching the Colts and Raiders both lose. Again, good enough for our purposes, especially considering they're already guaranteed to make the playoffs; we're not going to drive ourselves crazy by overthinking seeding situations.

That leaves us with two arguments to settle in the AFC before we can get a-pickin'. The least important is how to order the Bills and Bengals in the No. 3 and No. 4 seeds—and, with reports that the Bengals may rest starters this week, we'll take the Bills there—while the more serious is what to do with the sixth and seventh seeds, with the Colts, Raiders, Chargers, Steelers, and Ravens all in play, for varying definitions of "play."

Andrew: The first thing we need to do is forget about the Colts losing to the Jaguars. Indianapolis had better win that game—otherwise they need a reboot almost as badly as the Jaguars do. It would be an all-time choke against a horrible, horrible team. Fortunately, our playoff odds give a greater than 90% chance of the Colts making the playoffs.

Bryan: If we assume that—and I think it's more than fair to do so, because we'll be writing about the historic nature of the upset if it fails—that eliminates the Ravens and Steelers from the equation and means the winner of Game 272 will earn the final AFC playoff slot. The Chargers don't have a history of coming up short in huge moments, do they?

Andrew: Only ones that involve offense, defense, or special teams.

Bryan: Indianapolis taking care of business would also take away one of my favorite possibilities: the chance that a tie would get both the Raiders and Chargers in, in a Disgrace of Gijon-type moment. I'm not saying I want to watch a Sunday Night game consisting of 45 kneeldowns for each team, but I'm also not not saying it.

Andrew: The Chargers, we must remember, recently lost to the Houston Texans in a meaningful game. They'd find a way to make a gaffe on the second-half kickoff, the wind carrying it through the wrong end zone to concede a safety that gave the Raiders a 2-0 win.

Yet for all that, I'd rather watch Justin Herbert in the postseason than Derek Carr, so I'm picking the Chargers instead of the Raiders. Sorry, Raiders fans.

Bryan: Yeah. I imagine it will be a very close game, because how could it not? But—and I still don't feel comfortable saying this—I trust the Chargers more than the Raiders when the chips are down. That gives us our 14 teams, and we're good to go!

And one final reminder of the rules before we get started:

  • We have 14 playoff teams and 18 non-playoff teams.
  • Every playoff team may pick, in reverse order of seed, one player from any eliminated team.
  • Picks alternate by conference. The AFC picks first, as we expect the NFC's top team to have the best record.
  • Only one player may be selected from any eliminated team. If Joel Bitonio goes off the board, Myles Garrett goes with him.
  • Andrew selected for the AFC; Bryan for the NFC—send your ire accordingly.

Without any further ado, welcome to the...

Fifth Annual Joe Thomas Memorial Draft!

1. Los Angeles Chargers: Ryan Ramczyk, RT, Saints

Andrew: The Chargers as currently constructed have two potentially fatal flaws for the postseason: their No. 32 run defense and their legitimately cursed special teams. The special teams issues go beyond personnel to the core of the franchise's identity as one big joke at the expense of the kicking game. And we're not about to blow the No. 1 draft pick on a run defender; that can wait until later.

Instead, let's lean into the team's strength by shoring up the weaker side of the Chargers offensive line with the best right tackle available: Ryan Ramczyk of the Saints. While rookie Rashawn Slater has shored up the left side of the line, Bryan Bulaga's placement on injured reserve has left the right side again folding like an accordion under pressure. Ramczyk is one of the few tackles who might be an upgrade over even a healthy Bulaga; over Storm Norton, it's no contest.

2. Philadelphia Eagles: Justin Jefferson, WR, Vikings

Bryan: Excited to see Jalen Reagor in the playoffs? No? I can't imagine why. Reagor ranks 81st in both DVOA and DYAR, and it's not like the Eagles have a pair of studs ahead of him. DeVonta Smith has been good and getting better as the year has gone along, but Quez Watkins is, at best, OK, just cracking the top 60. So, why not give the 15th-ranked passing offense in the league arguably the best wide receiver in football? Jefferson plays into the Eagles' passing strengths, specifically "chuck the ball up and have your young superstar make a play"—Jalen Hurts' average depth of target of 9.0 yards is fourth-highest in the league. Jefferson and Smith will stretch defenses along the boundaries, allowing plenty of room for Dallas Goedert and 10 zillion running back screens to work underneath.

There were a lot of different ways I could have gone here. An edge rusher such as Myles Garrett or T.J. Watt would boost Philadelphia's middle-of-the-pack pressure rate, as would sticking someone like Cam Heyward in the center of the line to wreak havoc. A cornerback trio of A.J. Terrell, Avonte Maddox, and Darius Slay would be one of the top units in the league. Slapping Joel Bitonio into any offensive line in the world is an upgrade. But no, improving the passing attack is too much to pass up.

3. Indianapolis Colts: T.J. Watt, ER, Steelers

Andrew: Last year, the Colts had a solid defense that was lacking a little in top-end talent, so we went with a stud edge rusher from the AFC North. Sound familiar? T.J. Watt is not just a stud edge rusher, he is a legitimate Defensive Player of the Year candidate who has a chance to break the sack record despite missing two games because of injury. He might be the best front seven defender in football right now, with the usual "other than Aaron Donald" not required. He could turn an ascending Colts defense (No. 4 in weighted DVOA) into the very best in the league, making a good-but-not-great team into a legitimate Super Bowl contender.

4. San Francisco 49ers: A.J. Terrell, CB, Falcons

Bryan: The 49ers have committed 19 pass interference penalties, most in the league—and that's not including three that have been dismissed. They rank 30th in DVOA against top receivers, 18th against No. 2s, and 26th against others. What I'm saying is, this pick was always going to be a cornerback, and I'll take a second one if I get the opportunity at the end of the draft. Terrell is, by a significant margin, the best cornerback not on a playoff team; he's second on SIS' points saved metric, fourth in the league with 16 pass breakups, has allowed just 3.1 yard per target and a 34% completion rate, and so on and so forth. He'll be CB1 over either Ambry Thomas or Josh Norman—take your pick—and a Terrell-Emmanuel Moseley top duo isn't the worst thing in the world.

Imagining Joel Bitonio in a Shanahan system is enough to make your mouth water, but that's a pure luxury pick. Myles Garrett pairing up with Nick Bosa is also exceptionally tempting, but hard to justify when the 49ers cannot cover anyone downfield.

5. New England Patriots: DK Metcalf, WR, Seahawks

Andrew: I was tempted, oh so tempted, to pick Russell Wilson instead of DK Metcalf here and post the article on a Mac Jones fan page for giggles, but since getting injured, Wilson hasn't been up to his usual standard this year. That changed against the Lions, but on the same day the Patriots blew out the Jaguars wit—and I may be mistaken here—a halftime lottery winner catching two touchdowns, so we'll consider the Week 17 outcomes a wash.

Instead, we'll look to a teammate of Wilson: wide receiver DK Metcalf, an athletic sensation who is better than any wideout the Patriots have rostered since Randy Moss. With Metcalf as the No. 1, everybody else takes on a much more suited role, and the Patriots passing game looks significantly more dynamic around their solid rookie passer.

6. Arizona Cardinals: Joel Bitonio, G, Browns

Bryan: The Cardinals have started nine different offensive line combinations this season as players have gone on and off injury and COVID lists. This is a big reason why they have so many aborted plays and failed snaps. It's a big reason why they're 27th in adjusted line yards; it's a big reason why they lead the league in false starts and are in the top 10 in offensive holding. We are just going to end that right now by taking Joel Bitonio and replacing the Max Garcia/Sean Harlow problems inside. Bitonio, the returning Rodney Hudson, Justin Pugh, D.J. Humphries, and Kelvin Beachum is not a world-beating line, but it's not a line that's going to constantly shoot themselves in the foot either. Plus, you know, taking the best player left on the board regardless of position is never a terrible strategy.

This was always going to be a Browns player, but I did consider Myles Garrett as a not-position-for-position replacement for J.J. Watt. Having Garrett, Chandler Jones, Markus Golden, and Devon Kennard on the same roster may be overkill, however.

7. Cincinnati Bengals: Brandon Scherff, G, Football Team

Andrew: Bryan beat me to the punch on Joel Bitonio, as a top-quality guard would be the biggest single upgrade I can find on the Bengals roster. The next-best option is probably Brandon Scherff of the Washington Football Team, though there are other good guards dotted around the remainder of the playoff absentees. Unfortunately for me, though fortunately for the Bengals, their roster lacks other major holes.

Joe Burrow has taken more sacks than any other quarterback this season, and the Bengals rank No. 31 ahead of only the Bears in adjusted sack rate. Keeping Burrow upright is a very high priority, so even with the significant dropoff from Bitonio, Scherff is a solid consolation pick.

8. Dallas Cowboys: Jevon Holland, FS, Dolphins

Bryan: I'd call Damontae Kazee something of a disappointment for Dallas this season—he hasn't been a complete disaster or anything, but he has cooled off dramatically since September, taking bad angles in pursuit and getting burned on deep shots. He seems to have a near superhuman ability to be in the wrong place at the wrong time, defensively. So, even though the Cowboys have the best pass defense DVOA in the league, I think there's room for improvement, specifically at the free safety position. Jevon Holland hasn't just been the best rookie free safety in football; he may well be the best free safety this season, period. In a conference where you have to slow down Aaron Rodgers and Tom Brady, you could do worse than Trevon Diggs, Anthony Brown, Jayron Kearse, and Holland in your secondary.

Despite Dallas' defense ranking higher than their offense, I really only considered defenders here; there are no Nick Chubb-types to bolster the running game, no great center to upgrade Tyler Biadasz. Christian Wilkins was an intriguing option as the Cowboys are middle of the pack in adjusted line yards up front, but I think Holland would provide more of a splash for Dallas specifically.

9. Buffalo Bills: Brandon Williams, NT, Ravens

Andrew: The Buffalo Bills are infamous in some quarters for their seeming refusal to run the football this year, but their No. 6 rank in rushing DVOA suggests that is a choice rather than a performance issue. Instead, according to the latest DVOA figures, the one significant efficiency flaw in the Buffalo Bills is their run defense. Brandon Williams is the anchor of the second-best run defense outside the playoffs and the best interior lineman available. He would help prevent that issue from becoming a problem in an AFC postseason that features an intriguing lineup of run-heavy offenses.

10. Tampa Bay Buccaneers: Maxx Crosby, ER, Raiders

Bryan: Sometimes, you just say "to hell with it" and take the best player available.

The trouble with making this pick for the Buccaneers is knowing just who's going to be available; they have a lot of players working their way back from injury. Javonte Williams as Leonard Fournette insurance? Shaq Thompson in case Lavonte David remains banged up? Tavierre Thomas to stop the revolving door in the secondary? Leonard Williams? If you have a crystal ball and can tell me who will be healthy in two weeks, I can make this pick better.

We know that the Buccaneers will be without Chris Godwin and we're told they'll be without Antonio Brown too (though that has yet to be made official). That makes Hunter Renfrow an appealing option, but honestly, a starting trio of Mike Evans, Tyler Johnson, and Scotty Miller is still pretty darn solid. That leads me to turn to pass-rusher, where Shaq Barrett is still sidelined with a knee injur, and Jason Pierre-Paul has been trying to fight through a bum shoulder all season long. We'll let Tom Brady solve the receiver corps issues with general skill and add Maxx Crosby as insurance in case the health issues continue to impact Tampa Bay's pass rush.

11. Kansas City Chiefs: Stephon Gilmore, CB, Panthers

Andrew: Sunday's matchup showed us that for all the Chiefs defense improved in the second half of the season, they still aren't at the level they need to be to cover the very top receivers in the AFC. The top cornerback remaining, Stephon Gilmore, missed Week 17's defeat to the Saints with a groin injury, but that should be healed well in time for the postseason. Adding Gilmore could do something similar for the Chiefs backfield to what Melvin Ingram did for the defensive front, helping bump everybody else into roles that are better suited to their abilities and turning a potential weakness against No. 1 receivers into a strength.

12. Los Angeles Rams: Amon-Ra St. Brown, WR, Lions

Bryan: With the Panthers off the board, the last linebacker I was looking at goes with him. Goodbye, Shaq Thompson; there are a lot of teams out there that could use you, especially teams that have shown a vulnerability to short passes over the middle. Instead, we'll let Sean McVay have Rookie Robert Woods to replace the actual Robert Woods, out with a torn ACL. Amon-Ra St. Brown has been going crazy over the past five weeks, averaging 8.6 receptions a game for 90.2 yards. He won't get that kind of volume in Los Angeles, but he'll do a better job than Van Jefferson does in that role. We never got to see Woods, Cooper Kupp, and Odell Beckham together, as was the Rams' original plan. St. Brown isn't as good as Woods yet, but he's a better type-for-type fit, and we can actually see what McVay had in mind when they took the big swing for OBJ.

The Rams have had issues with their running game all year long, but the return of Sony Michel means taking, say, Javonte Williams is less of an issue. I'd also love to shore up the inside of their line, but the run on guards earlier means there's not much here; James Daniels might or might not be an upgrade, but it's hard to justify using the pick on him. I also considered an upgrade in the secondary, a Tavierre Thomas or a Justin Simmons, but I think Jefferson is pretty clearly the weak link in the Rams' starting lineup at the moment, and I really, really like St. Brown.

13. Tennessee Titans: Tavierre Thomas, NB, Texans

Andrew: One of the unsung heroes of a disappointing Texans season is nickelback Tavierre Thomas, a 2018 undrafted free agent who joined from the Browns last offseason, then earned his way onto the field when the Texans moved usual slot cornerback Desmond King outside early in the year. Thomas enjoyed a star moment when his pick-six sealed the team's upset victory over the Chargers in Week 15, but he has been one of the best slot cornerbacks in the league since breaking into the lineup, allowing just 2.6 yards per target and a 33.3% completion rate.

The Titans defense is much better than we projected, but they could still stand to find upgrades away from their top two or three players. Thomas would give them that as a player who could impact both the pass defense and run support from his slot position.

14. Green Bay Packers: Justin Simmons, FS, Broncos

Bryan: Darnell Savage is arguably the weak link on the Packers' defense; he's slow to respond to what he sees and often finds himself out of position. He's the guy on the Packers defense you target; he leads Green Bay with five touchdowns allowed, putting him in an admittedly huge tie for seventh-most in the league. You know who hasn't allowed a touchdown in coverage all season? Justin Simmons. Simmons also only allows 5.2 yards per target, compared to 8.9 for Savage, and has nine pass breakups to Savage's seven. He has also made more tackles and has a lower missed tackle percentage. It's a strict upgrade.

Other contenders for "weak link on the Packers defense" include Dean Lowry, Krys Barnes, and Chandon Sullivan. I don't love Adoree' Jackson or Leonard Williams over Sullivan or Lowry, however, and there just are no more good inside linebackers left on the Giants, Jaguars, Bears, or Jets. Braxton Berrios is an interesting option, because the Packers special teams play has been horrific, and I considered Andrew Thomas to help with the Packers' injury issues on the offensive line, but I think Simmons over Savage is fairly clearly the best upgrade left available.

15. Los Angeles Chargers: Leonard Williams, DT, Giants

Andrew: Now that we're in the bottom end of the draft, it's time to address that league-worst run defense. The most immediate option is a strong defensive tackle, and Leonard Williams certainly fits the bill: the former first-round pick has 14 defeats this season and a stop rate of 85%, and has also contributed 57 quarterback hits as a pass-rusher for the Giants over the past two seasons. Williams isn't quite the force he was at his peak, but he's more than good enough to improve the Chargers defensive front and help reduce the impact of their biggest weakness.

16. Philadelphia Eagles: Josh Allen, ER, Jaguars

Bryan: Well, I passed on T.J. Watt and Myles Garrett with the first pick, but I can help bolster the pass rush with pick No. 2. Josh Allen has been fighting through a shoulder injury in recent weeks, but there was a six-game stretch in the middle of the season where Allen had 3.5 sacks, seven TFLs, nine quarterback hits, a forced fumble, a fumble recovery, and 40 tackles. Allen needs to get healthier again to be able to contribute like that once more, but if he could return to full strength in practice, he'd probably replace Josh Sweat as the Eagles' top pass-rusher.

If I hadn't already grabbed a receiver, Braxton Berrios would have been an interesting name to consider here, while James Daniels could help shore up the interior of Philly's line over either Landon Dickerson or Nate Herbig, take your pick. Akeim Hicks was another shout, but I'll take Allen, when healthy, over him. Plus, what other Jaguars player were we going to pick, Laviska Shenault? Please.

17. Indianapolis Colts: Robert Quinn, ER, Bears

Andrew: We already picked one edge rusher for the Colts, but we're down among the realms of teams who don't have a huge amount to offer. Either Robert Quinn or Akiem Hicks would add power and production to a Colts front that would then be in danger of becoming the best in the league. I have gone with Quinn because he has been the more productive player as a pure pass-rusher this season, setting the Bears franchise record with 18 sacks. Adding his 18 sacks to T.J. Watt's 21.5 would give the Colts a ridiculous boost, potentially providing enough firepower to get Frank Reich's men to the top of the AFC.

18. San Francisco 49ers: Braxton Berrios, WR, Jets

Bryan: That just leaves the Jets. It means I won't get my second cornerback for the 49ers after all—sorry, Bryce Hall, but I'm not 100% convinced you'd be an upgrade over the returning Emmanuel Moseley, and I'm not taking Michael Carter II in the slot. And so we must look elsewhere.

There have been four Jets good enough to be picked here, I think. I can rule out Michael Carter, because while he has had a very solid season, the last thing the 49ers need is another running back. Morgan Moses is an interesting option, but I think I'm fine with Tom Compton at right tackle. That leaves me deciding between John Franklin-Myers as a second or third pass-rusher, or Braxton Berrios as a third receiver—Elijah Moore is hurt and may not be available in the wild-card round. Franklin-Myers has experience with the 49ers' scheme and is probably the better player between the two, but I don't feel the 49ers are really lacking in pass rush. Berrios seems very much Kyle Shanahan's type of receiver, and is also our second-highest rated kickoff returner and fourth-highest rated punt returner, and thus an upgrade over Deebo Samuel and Travis Benjamin on special teams. Lock it in.

In Conclusion

Bryan: Wow, was this different than last year. Last season, we took quarterbacks with the first three picks, and four overall.

Andrew: Last year was such a unique circumstance for injured and/or bad quarterbacks on playoff rosters that, for the sake of postseason enjoyment as much as anything else, I'm glad this year was very different. In fact, I only considered one quarterback, and that was Russell Wilson over Mac Jones, a trade I'd have made without a second thought in just about any other year of Wilson's career.

Bryan: Similarly, I only looked at one team for a new quarterback, and I felt cornerback was a more pressing issue for the 49ers during the first pick, and wasn't going to take Zach Wilson with the last. For once, we have arguably the best set of passers available.

Andrew: Writing in your stead, I might have been tempted by Kirk Cousins for reasons we covered last year, but that's the only pick on your side where I would have considered a quarterback too.

Bryan: Also, in what I believe is a first in Joe Thomas draft history, there are no repeat picks from last year. Some of that is the shifting playoff picture, and there were some close calls—Myles Garrett could have gone over T.J. Watt or Joel Bitonio—but we have 18 new players this season.

Andrew: I did indeed consider Garrett instead of T.J. Watt, but Watt is simply playing at a much higher level than Garrett right now. There's a reason he's within touching distance of the league sack record despite missing two games. Some things don't change, however: you went edge rusher with the top Colts pick last year, and I did the same this year. We also both went defense with our Titans picks, though different parts of the defense, and defensive line for the Bills. So among the teams that made the postseason, some similar gaps are evident from last year to this.

Bryan: Lots of receivers this year, perhaps because the quarterback situations are significantly more settled than last year. Young receivers, too, in Jefferson, Metcalf, and St. Brown. In fact, I think this may be the youngest group of players we have ever picked in a Joe Thomas; not nearly as many aging veterans looking for one more shot at a ring. That means a lot of optimism for teams well out of the playoff hunt—you may only have two good players, Detroit, but they're both rookies, so they count as building blocks.

Andrew: It also gives me optimism for the playoffs themselves. We have mentioned that a lot of teams are flawed this year, but when we get into it, most of the teams also have pronounced strengths, and many of the flaws are able to be mitigated. While I don't expect the results to settle exactly as we have drawn it up, we are pretty close to what I would say is the "correct" playoff field based on this season's level of play: the best coaches and the best quarterbacks going head-to-head to determine a champion.

Bryan: Looking forward to that massive Jaguars upset this weekend, then!

Andrew: Saints vs. Raiders in the big dance, you heard it here first!

Weekly Awards

Keep Choppin' Wood
What is there left to say about Antonio Brown? The latest craziness doesn't even make the top five crazy moments from an insane career, but Brown's public implosion on Sunday brought an ignominious close to both another troubled season and his Tampa Bay Buccaneers career. By all accounts, Brown refused to enter the game when his number was called, claiming that he didn't feel healthy due to a lingering ankle injury. Buccaneers coaches then told him to leave the sideline if he wasn't going to play, which he did, in spectacular public fashion, removing his jersey and pads, throwing clothing into the crowd, bouncing through the end zone and waving to the crowd while the teams were on the field, then running shirtless off of the field.

John Fox Award for Conservatism
Look, we get it, the Giants had nothing to play for and the Bears were literally setting franchise sack records, but still ... calling 39 runs and 16 passes in a 29-3 blowout loss? Punting on fourth-and-3 in opposition territory, down 14-0? On fourth-and-5 near midfield, down 29-3? And then deciding to go for it on fourth-and-10 a couple of drives later, as though trying to prove that yes, we are in fact still trying to win the game? No, you're not. You gave up that pretense long ago, Joe Judge.

Herm Edwards Award for Playing to Win the Game
There's calculated aggression, then there's just pure cojones. When the Bengals faced fourth-and-goal from the Chiefs 1-yard line with 58 seconds remaining in a tied game, everybody knew they were supposed to kick. Conventional wisdom said to kick. Analytics said to kick. The Bengals went for it ... and failed to convert, but they were bailed out by offsetting penalties. Given a reprieve, Zac Taylor went for it again, and converted on a hands-to-the-face penalty against L'Jarius Sneed. That came with an automatic first down, allowing the Bengals to burn away the rest of the clock and kick the game-winning field goal as time expired. While this was a clear tactical error on Kansas City's part—let them score to preserve time for the comeback, for goodness' sake!—it was extremely daring from Taylor. The result is that the worst-to-first Bengals are playoff-bound as AFC North champions for the first time since 2015.

Jeff Fisher Award for Confusing Coaching
We could pick on Joe Judge again, for his incoherent 2,700-word rant after the Giants' faceplant against the Bears. We're the ones who do incoherent 2,700-word rants around here, thank you very much. That's not confusing, though; it's highly explicable—Joe Judge is in over his head and is floundering around in any direction he can punch.

Instead, we're going with someone who generally is competent in Mike Zimmer. Kirk Cousins was ruled out of a must-win game against Green Bay due to COVID (and his vaccination status), and we figured the strategy would be fairly clear: plenty of Dalvin Cook and relying as little as possible on retread Sean Mannion. Instead, Cook got just nine carries, not even seeing much of a workload while the score was close before the Packers kicked things into high gear.

And while we're at it … why was it Sean Mannion? The Vikings used the 66th pick in the draft on Kellen Mond out of Texas A&M. That's one pick before Davis Mills, who has started more than half of Houston's season, and nearly two rounds before Ian Book, who had an emergency fill-in start in New Orleans; a third-round quarterback should theoretically at least be ready for a spot start. Not to put too fine a point on it, but Sean Mannion is not a good quarterback. Surely, your third-round pick seeing some playing time would be a good thing? Don't you want to see your rookie quarterback in action, Mike?

Ouch. We felt that one from here, coach.

'OROY' Fantasy Player of the Week

In a normal week, we'd probably be talking about Tim Boyle's big empty stats against Seattle, or Braxton Berrios' multiple-touchdown day, or something named a "Kristian Wilkerson," whatever that is.

In a normal week, the rookie wide receiver record for DYAR doesn't fall. In a normal week, we don't see the sixth-best fantasy day of all time for a wide receiver. And a normal week isn't fantasy championship week. Ja'Marr Chase earned a bunch of people a bunch of money.

Chase had 11 receptions for 266 yards and three scores. In PPR leagues, that's good for 55.6 fantasy points, and it got you somewhere between 44 and 59 points as long as you play by any of the standard settings out there—ESPN, Yahoo!, DraftKings, FanDuel, you name it. PPR-wise, there have only been five greater fantasy days in NFL history: Tyreek Hill last year against Tampa Bay; Jimmy Smith's 291-yard day against the Ravens in 2000; Steve Largent's 261-yard, three-touchdown day against replacement players in 1987; and two separate 200-yard days from Jerry Rice. That's some nice company to be in.

Garbage-Time Performer of the Week

To say the Lions got blown out this week is a wee bit of an understatement. But we do want to highlight some of the players they have who are working hard, and Amon-Ra St. Brown is near the top of that list. From Loser League staple at the beginning of the season to fantasy stud during the playoffs, St. Brown has taken significant steps forward this year. St. Brown had eight receptions for 111 yards and a score against the Seahawks, plus another touchdown on a handoff. About, oh, 80% of that came with Seattle nursing a three-score lead, so take it with appropriate salt, but St. Brown has been a top-10 fantasy wideout for the past month and change, and he's doing it with Tim Boyle as his quarterback. Imagine what he'll be like with an actual passer one day.

Comfort in Sadness Stat of the Week
Six teams were mathematically eliminated from postseason contention this week, far too many to cover in a throwaway spot like this. We'll focus our attention on the Dolphins and Falcons as teams who could still impact the playoff race despite being out of it themselves. Comfort for Miami is straightforward: the Dolphins have a top-10 defense in DVOA, and the sixth-best pass defense. They're No. 30 in variance, so if they can just add some consistency to their talent, they'll have a reasonable chance to return to relevance next year. As for the Falcons, their DVOA stinks, but they're at least no longer No. 32! Kyle Pitts is just 58 yards from Mike Ditka's all-time record for receiving yards by a rookie tight end, a figure he has exceeded in nine of his 16 games played thus far, including each of the past four weeks.

Game-Changing Play of the Week
Third-and-27, Ja'Marr Chase, are you kidding me.

Any third-and-a-mile would be a significant game-altering play in anything but an utter blowout. There have only been 22 conversions of 27 yards or longer (excluding penalties) in the 21st century, only 14 on third or fourth down. Only six of those came in the fourth quarter, and only two of those came in a one-score game. The only other conversion like this in the 21st century came from Ray Rice converting fourth-and-29 on a little checkdown against the Chargers in 2012. And that was over a 4-6 Chargers team, not the defending AFC Champions.

Fail this, and Cincinnati punts the ball back to the Chiefs in a tie game with three minutes left, which sounds like a death sentence. Instead, the Bengals ran the clock out and kicked the game-winner. Astounding.

Flip the results, and the Chiefs are sitting in the catbird seat atop the AFC with the chance to clinch the bye week if they beat the Broncos this Saturday. The Bengals would be sitting in fourth, with the AFC North and a playoff berth not yet clinched. Cincinnati probably would have been fine either way, but this absolutely cost the Chiefs a bye week. What a catch, and what a day.

Weekly Predictions

Money-Back Guarantee Lock of the Week
All picks are made without reference to the FO+ picks, while all lines are courtesy of Bovada and were accurate as of time of writing.

Records to Date:
Andrew: 6-11
Bryan: 5-12

Andrew: What's that, you say? A late-season faceplant by playoff-bound New England in Florida against an already-eliminated Dolphins team? That would never happen! Especially not against a Dolphins squad that could have been custom-built to take advantage of the flaws in the Patriots passing game. Miami (+7) over New England.

Bryan: Call it detente. After two years of making jokes at the expense of my esteemed colleague, Mr. Rivers McCown, I am burying the hatchet. After all, fans of teams that have drafted two of the top three rookie quarterbacks in terms of DVOA (minimum 75 attempts) have much more in common than they have differences, yes? So I'll say Davis Mills keeps things more interesting than expected in the Texans' final game of the year; I'm taking Houston (+10.5) against the Tennessee Titans. I'm not going so far as to predict them to win, mind you, but far enough to say they'll keep the AFC seeding scenarios interesting for at least a little longer than expected.

Double Survival League
Final Standings:
Andrew: 23-9
Bryan: 23-9

Bryan: And it's … a tie! With both Andrew's Saints and Seahawks coming through, and my Bears and Bills doing the same, both of us finish with 23 correct picks on the season. That means we go to the tiebreaker, looking for the player who found wins for the worst teams.

My unique wins belong to the Ravens (over Indianapolis in Week 5), Bills (over Atlanta in Week 17), and Chargers (over Pittsburgh in Week 11). Andrew's are the Panthers (over Atlanta in Week 8), Patriots (over N.Y. Jets in Week 7), and Saints (over the Panthers in Week 17). My unique teams have a win-loss record of 27-21, while Andrew's are at 23-25. Thus, by the thinnest of margins—and mostly a frighteningly accurate knowledge of the NFC South—Andrew wins 2021's Double Survival!

It should be noted that the Falcons killed me, as I saw them beat the Saints, Panthers, Jaguars, and Giants when I picked against them. I still have no idea how they're 7-9. They are doing this with magic. Andrew's problems were more spread out, though the Texans did knock off both the Jaguars and Chargers in back-to-back weeks to make things interesting.


17 comments, Last at 06 Jan 2022, 11:00pm

#1 by DGL // Jan 05, 2022 - 11:12am

As a lifelong Steelers fan, I would gladly see my team miss the playoffs in exchange for seeing the Raiders and Chargers trade kneeldowns for 70 minutes.

Even better would be them trading kneeldowns for 69 minutes and 55 seconds, and then the team with the ball at the end of overtime faking the kneeldown and tossing a pass to an uncovered receiver for a last-minute victory, which would forever be known as the Allegiant Backstab.  (Most likely to be done by the Raiders, because a win would most likely give them the 6 seed instead of the 7 seed, while the Chargers most likely get the 6 seed regardless of whether they tie or win (though there are scenarios where a win would move them from 6 to 5, like the Jets upsetting the Bills while the Pats win).

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#5 by [Very] Special Teams // Jan 05, 2022 - 1:19pm

The Pledge of Allegiant???

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#7 by El Muneco // Jan 05, 2022 - 3:59pm

Pretty much everybody in the media has said that teams would never make an agreement to tie in order for both to make the playoffs...

Well, in the first round of the1982 World Cup, (West) Germany and Austria were in a situation where a 1-0 or 2-0 win for Germany would see both teams advance to the second round on tiebreakers at the expense of Algeria. By an amazing coincidence, (West) Germany scored in the first ten minutes, and both teams spent the rest of the game listlessly passing the ball around midfield, neither significantly threatening to score at any point. FIFA, being one of the few organizations more corrupt than the NCAA, saw nothing wrong - but the crowd practically booed the teams off the field.

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#9 by Vincent Verhei // Jan 05, 2022 - 5:18pm

Yup. See the Disgrace of Gijon link in the article. (Though it sounds like you already know it awfully well, better than I do for sure.)

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#14 by jheidelberg // Jan 06, 2022 - 4:18pm

Going back years to the CBS Sports Spectacular Show a high school football coach was given the "coach of the week award" for the following play.

It is the last game of the season.  His team needs to win by 4 points to make the playoffs due to a point differential tiebreaker.  His team is leading by two points with 5 seconds left and has the ball on the opponents 40 yard line.  His FG kicker is a high school kicker, not Justin Tucker, so a 58 yard FG is not the call here.

What play did he call?

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#17 by jheidelberg // Jan 06, 2022 - 11:00pm

Not only correct, but first with the correct answer.  Thank you for playing my game, sorry no prizes, just the pride of victory.

The high school coach was so detail oriented and was playing the team that was going to make the playoffs unless his team won by at least 4 points.

Thus, he direct long snapped the ball to his fastest player who ran 50 yards in the wrong direction for the safety.  Not only did he need the safety, but he needed to make sure that his player was not caught from behind and tackled on this long run.

Of course his team did score a TD in OT and win. Since we were so results oriented back in the day and not so much interested in the process, I assume that this play would never have made CBS Sports Spectacular without completing the victory.

Here is another brilliant way of advancing in soccer:

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#2 by BigRichie // Jan 05, 2022 - 11:55am

Dude. 4th and 26 in a playoff game.

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#3 by BlueStarDude // Jan 05, 2022 - 12:14pm

I haven't watched enough of the Dolphins to comment on Jevon Holland, but you definitely nailed the positional need. 

If there were a second round here, I think you go all-in on defense and upgrade LB (to replace Vander Esch), unless a great interior OL (LG or C) were available.


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#4 by IlluminatusUIUC // Jan 05, 2022 - 1:03pm

I disagree with the Bills take. The rush defense has been a weakness, but the cornerback situation is pretty extreme. We have three boundary cornerbacks on the active roster period, and the best of them is Levi Wallace. We've played only one top passing offense since Tre White went down (Tampa) and gave up 33 points. In the playoffs, we'll likely have to face some combo of Cincy, KC, or LA and then the NFC Champ. Boundary corner is a significant weakness that we haven't truly had tested yet.

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#8 by justanothersteve // Jan 05, 2022 - 5:03pm

While Savage hasn't had a great year, he's been decent. His TD passes allowed still don't recall the ineptness of Damarious Randall. That's more than I can say for the DL. Leonard Williams, Josh Allen, or Robert Quinn would all do more to improve the Packers defense than Justin Simmons ever could. Sadly, Justin Jefferson was off the board as Rodgers with Jefferson along with Adams, Jones, and Dillon would give opposing defensive coordinators heart attacks. 

I will defend Zimmer for playing Mannion over Mond. The Vikings still had a chance at a playoff spot. While the Vikings' game strategy left a lot to be desired (at least from Minnesota fans), the idea wasn't wrong. They can still play Mond this week, though I see Zimmer is stupidly letting Cousins start for reasons only known to Zimmer. 

I personally try to forget 4th-and-26. 

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#11 by bfd1212 // Jan 06, 2022 - 1:46am

If I was a Chargers fan, I would want Justin Tucker just to have confidence in a kicker for once.

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#12 by Chuckc // Jan 06, 2022 - 8:25am

As a 49ers fan, my first thought was Derek Carr.

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#13 by Bobman // Jan 06, 2022 - 1:40pm

That's insane! No way would they ever do something like that... checks out last April's draft, sees they picked DEs #1 and #2, hides head in shame.

I think Indy is pretty happy with Kwity Paye as their first rounder (I think Rousseau may have also been in play at that spot and he's done well in BUF), and the needle is pointing up on 2nd rounder Dayo (whose last name I will not mangle here.. Odoyengbo?) Due to an achilles injury, he only got action in the last 6-7 games.  Maybe in a few years, these guys will be Watt and Quinn.

Ah, naive dreams....

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