Are Raiders and Saints Playoff-Worthy?
Los Angeles Chargers at Las Vegas Raiders, Sunday, 8:20 p.m.
NFL Week 18 - It's hard to determine how to feel about the Las Vegas Raiders.
Are they gritty, determined, and inspiring for remaining in the playoff chase despite incredible adversity? Or are they unworthy beneficiaries of an expanded playoff field and some fluky victories abetted by the pandemic and (on Thanksgiving) the referees?
Are the Raiders difficult to root for because of Henry Ruggs and Jon Gruden? Or are they fun to root for because those individuals are long gone and the Raiders who remained persevered instead of giving up?
Are the Raiders interesting because they have found ways to remain in contention despite being a third-quartile team in nearly every category? Or are they boring because Derek Carr-to-Hunter-Renfrow on a shallow cross, yawn, snooze.
And do they really have a shot against the Chargers, who beat them 28-14 in Week 4 and are far superior according to DVOA?
The answer to the final question is: every NFL team always has a shot, but the Chargers are indeed better, their injury report is encouraging (Austin Ekeler and Derwin James returned last week), and the Chargers' weaknesses (15th in goal-line offense, for example) should be counterbalanced by the Raiders' greater weaknesses (28th in goal-line defense).
The rest of the questions are a matter of taste. I'm impressed with Rick Bisaccia's keep-the-ship-from-sinking efforts and enjoy watching Carr, Renfrow, Maxx Crosby, and Darren Waller (who may return on Sunday) more than watching, say, the Saints. I'm glad Gruden and Ruggs were dealt with swiftly weeks ago but wonder what it will take for guys like Nate Hobbs to get the message about DUI. For this old sportswriter, the Raiders are poster children for the problem with the 17-game, 14-playoff team format: they aren't very interesting, and they are only relevant because the playoff field has grown too accommodating and they limped to the end of the marathon with less-damaging injuries/outbreaks than other teams that probably don't really belong in the playoffs either.
Perhaps the Raiders will prove that perception wrong with a win on Sunday night. Don't wager money on it. Chargers 27, Raiders 17.
New Orleans Saints at Atlanta Falcons, Sunday, 4:25 p.m.
The Saints, like the Raiders, aren't what Walkthrough thinks of as a worthy playoff team: it's gonna take a few years to mentally adjust to the 14-team format, and we're probably gonna be fogeys about it for a while. But at least the Saints have real playoff-team attributes: the first-ranked run defense (despite the fact that it appeared to be buckling against opponents such as the Eagles), the top ranking in adjusted line yards, a sixth-place ranking in adjusted sack rate. Lots of teams have made the playoffs over the years with an outstanding defensive front and little else. Washington did so last year, and that describes most Bears playoff teams.
If Taysom Hill has one skill, besides making Sean Payton's French press coffee just the way he likes it, it's beating the Falcons. Hill has a 75% completion rate, averages 8.1 yards per pass attempt, averages 7.0 yards per rush, and has run for three touchdowns against the Falcons, leading the Saints to three victories as a starter. The Saints should be able to take care of their playoff business Sunday; what happens to the 49ers is out of their control, of course.
Kyle Pitts needs 59 receiving yards to break Mike Ditka's rookie record for tight ends of 1,076 receiving yards. Pitts has surpassed that figure in each of his last four games. No props for Pitts were posted at press time (alliteration!), but Walkthrough will keep an eye on the board: Arthur Smith probably isn't above feeding Pitts some opportunities to help the Falcons season end on a relatively high note, and rooting for Pitts will make this matchup more entertaining.
Also, Pitts has only scored one touchdown this season. He's not the next Ditka, who caught 12 touchdown passes as a rookie. He's the next Julio Jones. Saints 23, Falcons 17.
San Francisco 49ers at Los Angeles Rams, Sunday, 4:25 p.m.
Some notes on this game:
- The Rams now rank 29th in deep zone offense, thanks mostly to Matthew Stafford's generosity when doling out interceptions in the shadow of his own goal posts. For what it's worth, the 49ers rank 30th in deep zone defense. The deep zone is the area behind your own 20. Deep zone defensive splits are probably much more random and impacted by sample size/opponent tendencies than offensive splits.
- There is ample evidence, including the week-by-week DVOA splits, that the Rams offense was better with Robert Woods at wide receiver than Odell Beckham. That makes sense: Woods has been more productive for most of his career and is a more versatile short-range target and blocker. But at the risk of becoming an OBJ apologist: the proper comparison here is not Woods-versus-OBJ, but Woods-versus-where the Rams would be if Woods were injured and they did not have OBJ. Walkthrough is pretty certain that the team's late-season offensive metrics would be much worse, and they may have picked up an extra loss in one of their recent close games.
- Cooper Kupp is 135 yards away from Calvin Johnson's single-season receiving record of 1,964 yards and 171 yards away from 2,000 yards. But Kupp does not deserve Offensive Player of the Year, because he is a jerk and a bum. Walkthrough is NOT just saying this because of our +2000 Jonathan Taylor OPOY bet, nor are we trying to instigate an Aaron Rodgers-style beef that brings us lots of that sweet, delicious engagement in exchange our reputation and dignity.
- And sure, Walkthrough's gonna stick an asterisk next to any of Kupp's records for the 17-game season, because we believe that the real all-time single-season receiving record belongs to Crazylegs Hirsch, with 1,495 yards for the Rams in the manly 12-game 1951 season. Walkthrough is too real for the early AFL, too.
- Kyle Shanahan is being coy about whether Trey Lance or Jimmy Garoppolo will start, but Lance: A) got the majority of reps in Wednesday's practice; and B) is better than Garoppolo. The point spread has drifted down from Rams -6 to Rams -4.5 as of Thursday, so the house appears comfortable with the 49ers quarterback situation, one way or the other.
Walkthrough would feel better about the Rams snapping their five-game losing streak against the 49ers if both teams had not looked so much like themselves in the 49ers' 31-10 November victory. Stafford served up two early-game turnovers like he so often does (one from his 24-yard line). The 49ers embarked on a few of the thousand-play, million-yard, geological-epoch drives that they are famous for. Even if the Rams manage to flip both scripts to a degree, it should not be enough to make up for a 21-point differential. Or, for wagerers, a 25.5-point differential. 49ers 26, Rams 24.
Indianapolis Colts at Jacksonville Jaguars, Sunday, 1 p.m.
Another week, another compelling installment of the Carson Wentz Victimization Index!
- Jaguars fans will be dressing up as clowns? They MUST be making fun of me! (10 Victimization Points)
- Oh, they are making fun of the Jaguars. That's better. (-10 VP)
- (Mutters under breath) I'll bet some of them are also secretly making fun of me. (5 VP)
- Those lamestream media meanies at the IndyStar criticized me, just because I wouldn't admit feeling "sluggish" and missing a week of practice due to COVID impacted my performance in a loss that could have clinched a playoff berth. Science will NEVER prove any link between any external factor and my poor performances! (20 VP).
- I MEANT TO DO THIS. (-5 VP)
- Oh, you haters don't think I can lead my team to a season-ending win against a miserable opponent to clinch a wild-card berth. Let me refresh your memory. Week 17, 2019 season. Eagles 34, Giants 17. All because of me. And a Jake Elliott 50-yard field goal. And a fourth-quarter Giants fumble that gave us the ball on the 2-yard line. But somewhat because of me! (-10 VP).
Total: 15 Victimization Points
Stay tuned for installments of the CWVI in the playoffs. We know you can hardly wait. And if the Jaguars pull off one of their patented home upsets against the Colts, Monday's Walkthrough may be cancelled because I died laughing. Colts 30, Jaguars 13.
Pittsburgh Steelers at Baltimore Ravens, Sunday, 1 p.m.
Per the Elias Bureau via ESPN's Jameson Hensley, the 2021 Ravens were one of four teams in NFL history to lose four games by two points or less. None of those four teams reached the playoffs. Of course, the Ravens also won four games by three points or less, including their Week 3 win over the Lions on a 66-yard Justin Tucker field goal. They were a play here and a play there from keeping pace with the top contenders but also a play here and there from fading, even before they began threatening the all-time adjusted games lost record.
The Ravens still have a slim chance of reaching the playoffs with a win and lots of tiebreaker Plinko. Walkthrough discussed Mike Tomlin and the Steelers on Thursday. Neither team looks worthy of a playoff berth or winning record, but the Ravens may not even have the manpower at this point to make a run at it. Steelers 23, Ravens 20.
Dallas Cowboys at Philadelphia Eagles, Saturday, 8:15 p.m.
I discussed this game a bit in this week's New York Times column, which also touches on this week's theme of a too-long season with too many playoff teams. The Cowboys are jockeying for a perishingly slim chance at a marginal playoff seeding advantage—they need the Seahawks and 49ers to win to move up to the No. 3 seed and the Panthers to beat the Buccaneers to move up to No. 2—while Eagles coach Nick Sirianni sounded ambivalent about playing his starters before the team's almost suspiciously well-timed COVID outbreak. (If a bunch of Patriots starters popped positive just before a nigh-meaningless game, we would also assume that Bill Belichick sent Brian Hoyer to East Antivaxxington for their Stuffy Indoor New Year's Eve Bash, then ordered him to hug everyone.)
The Cowboys were seven-point favorites midweek, and you should feel taking them anywhere below double-digits before kickoff. Even a slight chance to host a future Buccaneers or Rams playoff game or catch the Saints in the playoff opener is worth the risk for the Cowboys, and the Eagles are unlikely to rush Jason Kelce or Fletcher Cox onto the field if they do not have to. Cowboys 34, Eagles 21.
Seattle Seahawks at Arizona Cardinals, Sunday, 4:25 p.m.
Meet the new Arizona Cardinals playmakers:
- Antoine "Crusher" Wesley: A 6-foot-4 standout for Kliff Kingsbury at Texas Tech, Wesley spent 2019 on the Ravens practice squad and 2020 on their IR due to a shoulder injury. He looked overmatched in his first action as DeAndre Hopkins' replacement but appears to be growing into his role. "Whenever Hop is down, obviously I'm his backup and his life support," Wesley said, per the team website. Kingsbury and Kyler Murray appear to have a little too much confidence in Wesley on 50-50 balls, but with Hopkins' playoff availability iffy, the Cardinals need a viable go-up-and-get-it type.
- Greg Dortch: A 5-foot-7 nifty/shifty return specialist from Wake Forest, Dortch has toured the Jets, Panthers, Rams, and Falcons extended rosters since 2019. He stepped up for Rondale Moore (ankle) over the last two weeks and opened the Cowboys game with a 24-yard jet sweep. Moore should be back this week if not next; if he's unavailable, Dortch provides an acceptable alternative in a critical role in Kingsbury's system.
- Jonathan Ward: He's the fella who made the David Tyree catch on the fake punt against the Cowboys. Ward rushed for over 1,000 yards twice for Central Michigan, made the Cardinals as an undrafted free agent in 2020, and has spent two seasons bouncing up and down from their practice squad. James Conner, like Moore, should be back soon, relegating Ward to a special teams role or the inactive list.
Kudos to Steve Keim for loading the Cardinals bench with skill position players capable of contributing in a big game, and to Kingsbury for saying "the heck with it, let's feature some of these dudes" against the Cowboys. The Cardinals are at their best when playing sandlot football. So long as they don't expect Wesley to be Nuk, they should be almost as dangerous in the playoffs as they were in the first half of the season.
Walkthrough isn't putting much stock in last week's dead-cat bounce by the Seahawks and recommends that you don't, either. Cardinals 27, Seahawks 14.
New England Patriots at Miami Dolphins, Sunday, 4:25 p.m.
We'll mostly be taking a break from talking about clinched teams for the rest of these previews so we can save our brilliant insights for the playoffs. Instead, we'll be bidding farewell to some of their already-eliminated opponents.
Final Thoughts on the Dolphins: They need to fire the George Godsey-Eric Studesville offensive coordinator tag team 30 seconds after the final gun of this game. Whatever Tua Tagovailoa's limitations as a passer and decision-maker, he never looked so inept that he needed to be propped up by the RPO Slopwagon offense and all the Wildcat goofiness that Mutt 'n' Jeff stuffed into every game plan. A better coordinator might not fix Tua, but the RPO Twins aren't going to help anyone.
The spread at press time was hovering around Patriots -6.5, and we could not hit it hard enough. Patriots 28, Dolphins 16.
New York Jets at Buffalo Bills, Sunday, 4:25 p.m.
Final Thoughts on the Jets: Devin Gordon summed things up nicely for the New York Times on Monday: "For a Jets team that just dropped its 12th game of the season, the vibes are paradoxically positive. They're playing hard. They're getting better. Their rookie quarterback isn't actively sabotaging things." Also, they got to watch Antonio Brown do his thing and think, Hey, at least we don't have to deal with THAT guy.
Three straight competitive games have quieted a little of the Zach Wilson and Robert Saleh criticism. A fourth would help erase memories of the 45-17 Mike White Reality Check in Week 10 and throw a scare into a Bills team with a habit of playing down to weaker opponents before (usually) pulling away in the second half. Walkthrough is steering clear of the Bills -16, but we don't anticipate a Bills catastrophe, either. Bills 29, Jets 16.
Cincinnati Bengals at Cleveland Browns, Sunday, 1 p.m.
Final Thoughts on the Browns: DVOA tells us that Taylor Heinicke, among many others, was a better quarterback in 2021 than Baker Mayfield. There's no reason to doubt the metrics in this case, as Heinicke suffered about as many supporting-cast setbacks as Mayfield. Meanwhile, Joe Burrow and Justin Herbert keep showing us what a developing franchise quarterback is supposed to look like, and it looks nothing at all like Mayfield's first four years. Mayfield will now undergo shoulder surgery after weeks of "he's healthier than ever" signaling from the organization.
If Walkthrough ran the Browns, we would cut bait on Mayfield and see if we can unearth an affordable alternative like Heinicke. And we don't even like Heinicke.
Joe Burrow will rest on Sunday. Other Bengals are on the COVID list. Browns -6 appears to be a safe play. But do you really want to invest financially or emotionally in this game in any way? Browns 23, Bengals 14.
Green Bay Packers at Detroit Lions, Sunday, 1 p.m.
Final Thoughts on the Lions: Amon-Ra St. Brown's emergence as a potential No. 1 receiver has been one of the silver linings of a snakebit season. St. Brown went 35-340-3 in December and added 6-111-1 plus a rushing touchdown and two-point conversion against the Seahawks on Sunday, with much of his production coming with Tim Boyle at quarterback. He works the middle of the field well, has some YAC capability, and lines up in the backfield at times. He's not Deebo Samuel or Cordarrelle Patterson, but any team that hopes to someday develop a young quarterback needs a designer knockoff Deebo type.
Matt LaFleur suggested that Packers starters would be active for this game because
he's afraid Aaron Rodgers will become Alex Jones given three weeks of downtime he's wary of the team getting rusty during a three-week layoff. A few first-quarter series probably won't make much difference in the grand scheme, but it could impact the Packers -3.5 spread. Packers 24, Lions 21.
Tennessee Titans at Houston Texans, Sunday, 1 p.m.
Final Thoughts on the Texans: Jack Easterby quote-tweeted the following on New Year's Day
— Jack Easterby (@JackEasterby) January 1, 2022
I cannot speak for the validity of that pyramid; it looks like some of the "hierarchies of learning" I studied in educational psychology, but that was over 30 years ago and I was rarely sober. Easterby's endorsement of the pyramid is what's so fascinating. Is he reading it upside-down? Does he believe the bottom categories are the goal? Or, more likely, does Easterby's tweet illustrate that cult leaders rarely consider themselves cult leaders, merely free-thinking "visionaries" who have achieved an enlightenment they are eager to share with anyone who swears them complete and mindless fealty?
Derrick Henry returned to practice for the Titans. We'll catch up with him (and them) in the postseason. Titans 30, Texans 17.
Chicago Bears at Minnesota Vikings, Sunday, 1 p.m.
Final Thoughts on the Vikings: DVOA considers the Vikings the NFL's most consistent team according to our variance metric. I'm reminded of the old Zapp Branigan Futurama joke: "What makes a man turn neutral? Lust for gold? Power? Or were you just born with a heart full of neutrality?" Rick Spielman and Mike Zimmer were born with hearts full of neutrality, which attracted them like moths to Kirk Cousins' flame and trapped the franchise for years between a high floor and a low ceiling. To paraphrase Jack Nicholson's Joker, this team needs an enema. And the deeper the cleanse, the better.
Justin Fields was slated to start for the Bears but has since entered COVID protocols, taking away the last reason to watch this game. Vikings 23, Bears 16.
Washington Football Team at New York Giants, Sunday, 1 p.m.
Final Thoughts on Washington: Set the Buccaneers upset aside and Washington's victories this season came by a combined 15 points against opponents with a combined 31-49 record. Washington backslid from their modest 2020 success, and injuries were only part of the issue. Ron Rivera is a great gameday coach and a trustworthy leader in an organization that desperately needs one, but Rivera and Martin Mayhew need to address their roster with some real urgency this offseason. Winning with a defensive line and a dink-and-YAC offense will only work if Washington gets much better in the secondary and stops settling for "pretty good but injury-prone" at the skill positions.
Walkthrough covered the Giants in TankWatch on Wednesday and desperately hopes Joe Judge keeps his job because he's a free content factory. Washington 24, Giants 6.
Carolina Panthers at Tampa Bay Buccaneers, Sunday, 4:25 p.m.
Final Thoughts on the Panthers: Sam Darnold is still only 24 years old, but he has been sacked 131 times in 48 starts. Darnold's "sack age" is more important than his biological age at this point, and the concept that the Panthers can somehow "evaluate" his "development" behind their candy glass offensive line is ludicrous. Darnold is done cooking, because the oven caught fire when he was inside it with the Jets, then Matt Rhule finished him off with a blow torch like a crème brûlée. The Panthers need to find a quarterback in 2022, but they had better fix their offensive line and scheme first; otherwise, the next quarterback will just get the Justin Fields treatment.
The Buccaneers were involved in some drama this week. Whatever. Buccaneers 33, Panthers 13.
Kansas City Chiefs at Denver Broncos, Saturday, 4:30 p.m.
Final Thoughts on the Broncos: Vic Fangio, a likely Black Monday casualty, retreated to every beleaguered head coach's final hill: we're this close to turning the corner.
"We played three teams that are probably going to be in the playoffs (or are contending for it this week), and fought them tooth-and-nail and had some tight games," Fangio said, per Kyle Newman of the Denver Post. "A four-point game, a five-point game. To me, that shows that we're close, we're close to being there ."
Coach, those teams, particularly the Raiders, are playoff teams in large part because they beat you. "Give me a little more time and I will get us past that team that has been run by a special teams coach since October" isn't the compelling job-preservation argument Fangio must think it is. But never mind, Fangio's statement epitomized the problem which has plagued the Broncos since Peyton Manning retired: their goal every year appears to be to be just good enough to win some close games and earn a wild-card berth.
The Chiefs need a win (or tie) and a Titans loss (or tie) to clinch a first-round bye. They should be able to beat the Broncos, just as they did in Week 13. But they should not expect the Broncos to roll over for them. Chiefs 27, Broncos 20.