Raiders, Steelers, and the Playoff Balance of Power

Pittsburgh Steelers ER T.J. Watt
Pittsburgh Steelers ER T.J. Watt
Photo: USA Today Sports Images

NFL Week 18 - J.J. Watt may return for the playoffs for the Arizona Cardinals. And he won't be alone.

The Cardinals designated Watt to return from injured reserve this week, and's Ian Rapoport reported that it was no mere token gesture. Watt has recovered so quickly—"heroically" and "miraculously" are the preferred words when contributing to Watt's hagiography, but let's table the hyperbole for now—from the upper-body injuries which shelved him in Week 7 that he may play against the Rams next week. And based on how the Cardinals have played lately, they're gonna need him.

Titans running back Derrick Henry may also be back for the playoffs. The Titans chose not to activate him this week, but Rapoport said late in the week that Henry is "at full strength" and "in good shape." The Titans also managed to secure a first-round bye without Henry with their 28-25 win over the Texans.

The Buccaneers also got some good news, overshadowed though it was by Antonio Brown's latest bid to turn modern civilization into a Bravo reality series with himself as the star. Lavonte David, Leonard Fournette, and Shaq Barrett (who was on the COVID list this week) are expected to be back for the start of the playoffs. The Buccaneers will still be depleted at wide receiver, but at least they won't be depleted everywhere.

As for the Packers, David Bakhtiari played for some reason on Sunday, Jaire Alexander practiced this week, and Za'Darius Smith tweeted this on Saturday:

Walkthrough was going to lead with an Avengers: Endgame "on your left" gag about all the re-materializing heroes, then realized how obvious and corny it would be. What matters is that the news coming off the injury wire this week may have been just as significant as the results on the field. The best playoff teams are often the healthiest playoff teams, and several contenders are getting reinforcements back just when they need them the most.

So hooray for the Steelers for reaching the playoffs, thanks in part to a vintage Carson Wentz meltdown. Nice work, San Francisco 49ers: all hope appeared to be lost around the two-minute warning, but you somehow clawed your way to victory. And three cheers for the Las Vegas Raiders, who played to win in overtime when a tie would still have netted a playoff berth after a wild back-and-forth battle with the Chargers. Week 18 was deliriously loopy.

But that was Sunday. Next week, and the rest of January, will likely belong to the teams that didn't need to go to the wall in overtime to reach the playoffs in Week 18.

And with that, let's take an early look at all six of next week's matchups. Stats listed below are based on data through Week 17 only.

Las Vegas Raiders at Cincinnati Bengals, Saturday, 4:30 p.m.

Early Line: Bengals -6.5.

How the Raiders Got Here: The Raiders overcame an unprecedented string of off-field issues, won some close games against COVID/injury-addled opponents, and lingered in the playoff picture until Sunday night … or, more accurately, early Monday morning on the East Coast, when they beat the Chargers 35-32 in overtime in one of the most improbable, inexplicable season finales any sport has ever witnessed.

What They're Best At: Derek Carr entered Week 18 ranked 10th in DVOA and eighth in DYAR despite losing his head coach and top deep threat in October and missing favorite target Darren Waller for all of the December stretch run. His veteran savvy is at least partially responsible for some of the pass interference penalties the Raiders have benefitted from.

Maxx Crosby entered the final week of the season ranked fourth with 69 pass pressures and leading the league with 17 quarterback knockdowns, per Sports Info Solutions.

What They're Worst At: The Raiders are objectively not a very good overall team: 19th in offensive DVOA, 23rd on defense, 24th on special teams. Perhaps their greatest weakness entering the playoffs is that they ranked 27th in redzone offense and 31st in red zone defense entering the weekend. They won't go far in the playoffs by trading touchdowns for field goals.

Key Against the Bengals: The Raiders were incapable of moving the ball in the first half of their 32-13 loss to the Bengals early in the season. They need to remain balanced and get mileage out of their running game. The good news from that matchup: the Raiders held Ja'Marr Chase to 3-32-1 and forced the Bengals to settle for three long field goals.

Raiders Playoff Prognosis: Sunday night's win was a lot like the Raiders' Thanksgiving victory over the Cowboys: so fueled by penalties and a bunch of unforced Chargers errors that it doesn't seem repeatable, at least not again. The Steelers may be the weakest team in the playoffs, but the Raiders are the most likely team to slip away without much of a fight.

How the Bengals Got Here: Many teams had a higher performance variance than the Bengals according to our metrics. But most of those teams could point to injuries or gradual improvement/decline to explain their performance swings. In terms of inexplicable week-to-week ups and downs, only the Bills could compete with the Bengals. But the Bengals' highs were really high, allowing Joe Burrow and the Chase Group to clinch the AFC North with a three-game late-season winning streak.

What They're Best At: Joe Burrow-to-Ja'Marr Chase.

What They're Worst At: The Bengals ranked 31st in adjusted sack rate entering Week 18. Their offensive line remains shaky, but Zac Taylor's wide-open passing concepts also offer the line little support. Hence the boom-or-bust, touchdown-or-sack/turnover nature of the Bengals offense for much of the season.

Key Against the Raiders: Don't get lulled into penalty ball. Don't let Maxx Crosby go ham. The Bengals should win easily if they play mostly mistake-free football.

Playoff Prognosis: You may have heard that the Bengals have not won a playoff game since the 1990 season, when Boomer Esiason, Ickey Woods, and company led them to a 41-14 win over the Houston Oilers. That history has no impact on the 2021 Bengals. They're pass protection and the overall youth and inexperience of the players and coaches, on the other hand, will likely have a major impact, though probably not in the first round against an opponent they handled easily in the regular season.

New England Patriots at Buffalo Bills, Saturday, 8:15 p.m.

Early Line: Bills -4.5.

How the Patriots Got Here: Everyone scoffed when Bill Belichick grabbed the likes of Hunter Henry, Matt Judon, Nelson Agholor, and Kendrick Bourne in a free-agent spending spree. Well, I scoffed, anyway. But it turned out that Belichick knows a thing or two about football. The Patriots combined the newcomers with some returnees from injuries/opt-outs, sat Mac Jones atop some old phone books behind the wheel, and cruised to a seven-game midseason winning streak, looking for a few weeks like the best team in the NFL.

What They're Best At: Other teams rank higher in pass defense DVOA, but the Patriots may have the best coverage units in the NFL, led by cornerback J.C. Jackson and a deep corps of versatile defensive backs. The Patriots ranked third at stopping opponents' No. 1 receivers and first at stopping tight ends entering Week 18.

The Patriots also excel at "complementary" football, leveraging field position to their advantage, managing leads, and so forth. The Patriots enjoyed a 4.63-yard net field position differential entering the final weekend, for example, the second-best (behind the Colts) in the NFL. Complementary football can be illusory and perhaps imaginary in many cases, but this is Bill Belichick we are talking about.

What They're Worst At: Pick your sacrilege, Patriots fans: either Belichick has grown foolishly conservative on fourth downs (26th in the Edj Sports CCI rankings) or he's protecting Jones, who is not as preternaturally poised as advertised. Whatever the reason, the Patriots are at risk of fighting touchdowns with field goals when they face quality opponents.

The Patriots also aren't dominating opponents in the trenches the way they did a month ago.

Key Against the Bills: The Patriots can beat the Bills if they win convincingly in the trenches and play mistake-free football.

Patriots Playoff Prognosis: The Patriots are similar to the 2019/2020 Titans: they can beat any team if they take an early lead and get to dictate the terms of engagement, but they're much less impressive against opponents that are solid in the trenches, can stay balanced on offense, and can force Jones to throw downfield on defense. In a typical season, the Patriots would look like a one-and-done playoff team. But with so many flawed AFC teams staggering into the playoffs this year, Belichick's slow-and-steady tortoise are sure to be popular Super Bowl "sleepers."

How the Bills Got Here: As of mid-October, the Buffalo Bills were the prohibitive favorites to win the Super Bowl, according to DVOA, much of the media, and the Buffalo Bills. Yep, it sure looked like they spent a little too much time polishing their trophy case in November and early December, but a Week 16 victory over the Patriots (and a bunch of blowouts against cupcakes) proved that the Bills really can play up to their potential in a must-win game.

What They're Best At: The "hot" version of the Bills does just about everything right: pass coverage (even without Tre'Davious White at cornerback): all-angles pressure, run defense, deep passing, short passing, and (when Josh Allen is being deployed creatively as a rushing threat) even running the ball.

The Bills excel at stomping on weak opponents, a trait which probably won't be much use in the playoffs.

What They're Worst At: The "cold" version of the Bills can get dominated on both lines of scrimmage and string together long daisy chains of situational mistakes: penalties, fourth-down stops, special teams gaffes, game-planning blunders. It's impossible to tell when the Bills will suddenly leap from the microwave into the freezer.

Key Against the Patriots: Win (or at least tie) the field position on both sides of the ball and make the Patriots play a real game, not a "we're only gonna throw three passes" game.

Bills Playoff Prognosis: The Bills are the most likely home team to lose in the first round. Even if they prevail, it's hard to picture them playing three straight solid games against quality competition without suffering one of their three-phases brownouts.

Philadelphia Eagles at Tampa Bay Buccaneers, Sunday, 1 p.m.

Early Line: Cowboys -8.

How the Eagles Got Here: I told a version of the tale in the New York Times a few weeks ago.

From a lifelong fan's perspective: I cannot remember the last time I was more pleasantly surprised and delighted by an Eagles team with so few offseason/preseason expectations. Throughout the summer, Eagles veterans signaled that they no longer bore the burden trying to repeat 2017 and dealing with some of the lingering personality conflicts within the locker room. That positive attitude rubbed off among the fanbase. Change can be a good thing, especially when it's risky.

What They're Best At: The Eagles ranked third in rushing DVOA entering Week 18 thanks to the Jalen Hurts-triggered option game and an offensive line led by Jason Kelce and Lane Johnson.

What They're Worst At: Nick Sirianni sometimes forgets that the Eagles are a great rushing team. The Eagles ranked 26th in goal-to-go offense entering Week 18, in part because they often force the ball to terrible wide receivers (read: Jalen Raegor) at the worst possible times. Opponents also frequently mount first-quarter leads while Sirianni tinkers with his passing offense early in the game.

Key Against the Buccaneers: The Buccaneers rolled out to a 28-7 lead in their 28-22 victory over the Eagles in Week 6, when Sirianni had not yet established the Eagles' run-early-and-often personality. If the Eagles avoid one of their signature slow starts, they have a chance.

Eagles Playoff Prognosis: The Eagles have all the earmarks of a happy-to-be-here, one-and-done playoff team. If that turns out to be true, fans should at least hope for an encouraging game as a passer, rusher, and decision-maker from Hurts. If he is truly developing into a franchise-caliber quarterback, then the final score of Sunday's game won't matter much in the long run.

How the Buccaneers Got Here: General manager Jason Licht moved accounting heaven and ego-management earth to keep last year's Super Bowl starting lineup almost entirely intact. And it worked! Except that the Buccaneers' injury luck ran out as the year wore on. And Antonio Brown's fuse burned down in Week 17.

The Buccaneers aren't exactly trending in a positive direction entering the playoffs, but if you want to wager against Tom Brady and the rest, that's your money.

What They're Best At: The Buccaneers offensive line (with a little help from Mr. Brady) ranked first in adjusted sack rate entering Week 18 and fifth in adjusted line yards. Their defensive front ranked 10th in adjusted sack rate and fourth in adjusted line yards. Brady and the other big names do their part, but the Buccaneers are really a team that wins in the trenches.

What They're Worst At: The Buccaneers defense ranks 22nd on all third and fourth downs and 22nd on third-/fourth-and-long. In other words, their injury-riddled secondary can be picked upon if the pass rush does not get home.

Key Against the Eagles: The Buccaneers' strengths match up well against the Eagles' strengths: they stop the run well and have little to fear from the Eagles' receiving corps beyond Devonta Smith. This appears to be a "don't look past them" situation, and the Buccaneers veterans aren't going to look past anyone.

Buccaneers Playoff Prognosis: It's easy to cite Brady and hand-wave the Buccaneers' injuries away; we just did so a few paragraphs ago. It's much harder to gauge how good the Bucs offense can be without Chris Godwin and Brown now that the team's Panthers-Jets-Panthers vacation has ended. The best news for the Buccaneers entering the weekend is the news we led Walkthrough with: Lavonte David, Leonard Fournette, and Shaq Barrett could return in time for this game. The Buccaneers may be capable of reaching the Super Bowl despite big-name absences on offense OR defense, but they will not be able to overcome both.

Pittsburgh Steelers at Kansas City Chiefs, Sunday 8:15 p.m.

Early Line: Chiefs -13.

How the Steelers Got Here: The Steelers won three grimy, slimy, defensive duels in the final four weeks, including a turnover-filled 16-13 overtime slopfest against the Ravens on Sunday. They also benefited from a Colts collapse over the final two weeks that no one saw coming over except anyone who has watched Carson Wentz play football for the last 3.75 years.

What They Are Best At: "Getting opponents to play down to your level" is hard to quantify, but that's what the Steelers do. T.J. Watt and a pass rush that can still take over games plays a part in that. Terrible Towels also play a part: the Steelers finished 6-2-1 at home. Throw in Mike Tomlin's coaching and Ben Roethlisberger's ability to throw basketball-style chest passes for overtime first downs (while limiting the destruction caused by his senior moments) and you get a team that excels at bare-knuckles boxing behind the dive bar under the railroad tracks.

What They Are Worst At: Offense. Run defense. Winning games that don't look like unearthed 1930s archival footage.

Key Against the Chiefs: The Steelers got whupped in a 36-10 loss that wasn't really that close in Week 16, so they face a whole piano's worth of "keys" in this game. Their top priority should be to prevent the Chiefs from grinding out long drives against them. The Steelers have a chance if they can lull the Chiefs into a punt-and-turnover battle.

Steelers Playoff Prognosis: The Steelers do not belong in the postseason. But neither did the 2007 or 2011 Giants, teams that won the Super Bowl with their pass rush, flickers of quarterback competence, square-jawed coaching, and little else. The Steelers shouldn't get past the Chiefs. But if they do, then anything is possible.

How the Chiefs Got Here: Saturday's narrow win over the Broncos was a microcosm for the 2021 Chiefs season. They could barely take five steps before slipping and falling on their faces in the first half, but they pulled themselves together in the second half thanks to some huge defensive plays and the sheer talent of Patrick Mahomes and friends on offense.

What They're Best At: The Chiefs offense entered Week 18 leading the NFL with 2,728 yards after the catch. The second-place Buccaneers were 282 yards behind them. With defenses playing on their heels to stop Mahomes-to-Tyreek Hill bombs for most of the year, Andy Reid and coordinator Eric Bienemy downshifted and focused upon spreading the ball around to playmakers underneath instead.

What They're Worst At: The Chiefs defense ranked 29th in DVOA entering Week 18 when tied or winning by eight points or less. Coordinator Steve Spagnuolo's tactics work better when protecting a big lead than when trying to stop an opponent that can remain balanced and in front of the sticks.

Key Against the Steelers: Don't do anything stupid. Actually, the gap between these teams is so great that "don't do multiple stupid things" may be the real key.

Chiefs Playoff Prognosis: No AFC team has a higher ceiling or greater self-destructive tendencies. The Chiefs are supposed to be capable of stomping on the accelerator in the playoffs, even though they couldn't quite do so over the last two weeks. But if any team is a potential springboard toward the Super Bowl for the Chiefs, it's the Steelers.

San Francisco 49ers at Dallas Cowboys, Sunday 4:30 p.m.

Early Line: Cowboys -3.

How the 49ers Got Here: Like the Chiefs, the 49ers wrapped up the season with a microcosm of how their year played out. Their 17-0 early deficit to the Rams mirrored their 2-4 start. Their long, grinding, mid-game drives and Deebo Samuel/Brandon Aiyuk heroics mimicked their mid-season rebound. Finally, their last-minute fourth-quarter drive to tie the game and overtime field goal/defensive stop to clinch a playoff berth mirrored their, umm, last-minute fourth-quarter drive to tie the game and overtime field goal/defensive stop to clinch a playoff berth.

What They're Best At: No team is better at staying ahead of the sticks: the 49ers offense ranked first in first-down DVOA and second in second-down DVOA (say that three times fast) entering Sunday.

What They're Worst At: You were expecting a Jimmy Garoppolo joke? Sorry: we're so giddy that we won't be watching Taysom Hill in the playoffs that we cannot muster one. (Also. Garoppolo has been adequate-to-good most of the year.) No, the 49ers defense ranked dead last in the league at stopping deep passes entering Sunday night. That's the weakness to worry about.

Key Against the Cowboys: Protect Garoppolo. Force Dak Prescott to dink-and-dunk. Win the turnover battle. Win the penalty differential.

49ers Playoff Prognosis: The 49ers will reach the limits of what their YAC-dependent offense and depleted secondary can handle at some point in the postseason. Next week could be that point, but 49ers-Cowboys is a classic playoff matchup, and there's a chance that the 49ers will deliver a classic game.

How the Cowboys Got Here: Dak Prescott stayed (mostly) healthy. Micah Parsons proved to be all the Cowboys could ask for from a first-round pick and then some. Trevon Diggs developed into the league's most dangerous (though inconsistent) cornerbacks. And defensive coordinator Dan Quinn got a defense that played like it held a tequila tasting before kickoff in 2020 to play to their potential this season.

What They're Best At: The Cowboys finished first in the NFL with 34 takeaways, thanks in large part to Diggs' interceptions and Parsons' forced fumbles. Not all of that production came against opponents like the Giants and Washington, either. The Cowboys forced four turnovers against the Buccaneers in the season-opener and two each against the Patriots and Chiefs, so they should be able to generate some takeaways in the postseason.

What They're Worst At: The Cowboys finished the season 1-3 against AFC West opponents; not exactly a weakness, but perhaps a sign that they're game-planning against unfamiliar foes may be lacking. Each of the losses was unique, however—Raiders penalty-fest, Chiefs offensive hiccup, Broncos early-mistakes-and-fluke-plays fiasco—so the Cowboys may have simply bunched all of their weak performances into the middle of the schedule.

Key Against the 49ers: The Cowboys grumbled a little too loudly about penalties after their Week 17 Cardinals loss. They cannot allow setbacks to get in their heads if they fall behind.

Cowboys Playoff Prognosis: The Sunday morning headline at called Saturday night's 56-21 victory over the Eagles' scout team roster a "statement win." The headline was a silly illustration of how hard it can be to separate the real Cowboys from both our perceptions and my industry's need to either cater to or needle their huge fanbase for engagement. Are the Cowboys a supremely talented team that has underperformed this season or one that has overcome lots of injuries and pitfalls to meet their highest expectations? It depends on how you or your headline-writer feels about them, how we interpret their many high-penalty games this season, and so forth. But DVOA considered the Cowboys the best team in the NFL entering Week 18, so don't expect any early-playoff stumbles simply because it's what Tony Romo would have done 10 years ago.

Arizona Cardinals at Los Angeles Rams, Monday, 8:15 p.m.

Early Line: Rams -4.

How the Cardinals Got Here: The Cardinals raced out to a 7-0 start early in the season, beat the 49ers and Seahawks without Kyler Murray, and looked ready to run away with the NFC. Then came the annual Kliff Kingsbury swoon, and the Cardinals suddenly became predictable on offense and mistake-plagued on defense. They are now backing into a wild-card berth after a 38-30 loss to the Seahawks.

What They're Best At: Kingsbury's offense is at its best when throwing the kitchen sink, garbage disposal, and dishwasher at opponents. The Cardinals entered Week 18 as the second-most prolific RPO team in the NFL behind the Eagles, as well as one of the league's most prolific play-action teams.

What They're Worst At: The Cardinals committed 16 aborted snaps entering Sunday, the highest total in at least the last 12 years. Keep in mind that for every aborted snap that reaches the stat sheet, there are two or three other off-target snaps that disrupt the rhythm of the play and throw off the offense.

Key Against the Rams: The Cardinals held Cooper Kupp to 5-64-0 on 13 targets when they beat the Rams but were torched for 13-123-1 in the rematch.

Cardinals Playoff Prognosis: The Cardinals beat the Rams, Titans, and Cowboys but got blown out by the Panthers and Lions, so good luck making sense of them. But let's face it: a team that can get hammered by the Lions and lost a must-win Week 18 game to an opponent with nothing to play for isn't ready to survive the NFC gauntlet.

How the Rams Got Here: The Narrative Gremlins nibbled away at the Rams all season:

Matthew Stafford isn't much of an upgrade over Jared Goff.

Odell Beckham is a downgrade from Robert Woods.

Going "all-in" is a bad idea with dangerous long-term consequences.

The Narrative Gremlins had a point, as they so often do. The Rams did not run away with the NFC like they threatened to do in September. Yet they survived an overtime loss to the 49ers on Sunday and emerged as the winners of the fiercely competitive NFC West.

What They're Best At: Cooper Kupp finishes the season as the NFL leader with 1,947 receiving yards. Aaron Donald (12.5 sacks) had another Defensive Player of the Year-worthy season. The Rams entered Week 18 ranked first in the NFL at stopping passes to the offensive left, thanks in large part to Jalen Ramsey, who delivered a clutch interception against the 49ers on Sunday. While the Rams don't really have a stars-and-scrubs roster relative to other contenders, no team is better at leveraging the performances of its top players into victories.

What They're Worst At: The Rams ranked29th in offense in the deep zone (inside their own 20), mostly because of Stafford's knack for throwing interceptions from the shadow of his own goal posts. Stafford threw yet another deep zone interception in Sunday's loss.

Key Against the Cardinals: Don't. Commit. Turnovers.

Rams Playoff Prognosis: The Rams possess the best front-line talent in the NFC and a coach and lots of veterans with Super Bowl experience, plus an early-season victory over the Buccaneers in their portfolio. Their midseason three-game losing streak and some shaky end-of-year performances, however, illustrate how quickly things could fall apart for them if they make a few early-game mistakes.

Week 18 Awards

Per a season finale tradition dating back to our Monday morning columns at other outlets, the Week 18 awards are given almost exclusively to players from teams who played in the early games. Because, you know: deadlines, sleep, etc.

Defender of the Week
T.J. Watt recorded a sack to tie Michael Strahan's all-time single-season record of 22.5, stripped Tyler Huntley on an early-game fumble-bumble play, and was all over the field in the Steelers' 16-13 overtime victory which helped launch them into the playoffs.

Special Teamer of the Week
One award from the late games: Travis Homer pressures Andy Lee off the edge, forces Lee to flub the kick, then swings around from the back of the end zone and forces Lee to fumble after retrieving the loose ball. Teammate Cody Thompson retrieves the fumble, setting up Russell Wilson's go-ahead touchdown a few plays later.

Honorable mention goes to 49ers kicker Robbie Gould for doubling as a punter when Mitch Wishnowsky got injured and booting 47 and 43-yard punts.

Offensive Line of the Week
The game may have been meaningless for them, but the Browns offensive line of Jed Wills, Joel Bitonio, J.C. Tretter, Wyatt Teller, and James Hudson helped D'Ernest Johnson, Nick Chubb, and others combine for 205 rushing yards, while Case Keenum's only sack came when he rolled out without protection and held onto the ball for about 45 minutes.

Don't worry, Wyatt Bunch: you'll get a better quarterback in the 2022 season. Or 2023 season. Or someday.

Frame This Play!
This Lions Tom Kennedy-to-Kalif Raymond trick play: A) is the reason that even dreary 1 p.m. season finale games are beautiful in their own way; and B) is why playing with pride down the stretch is worth more than the draft position the Lions surrendered to the Jaguars by upsetting the Packers.

Burn This Play!
Let's say you are a belligerent, incompetent rage goblin coming off a week of unhinged bus terminal rants in your press conferences. You know, like Joe Judge. It's third-and-9 deep in your own territory, and you want to give your punter room because Real Leaders of Men know that punting is the most important part of 21st century football. Do you spread the field to give your offense a slim chance of picking up the first down? No! That would reduce the likelihood of a manly, old-school, glorious punt. So instead you do this:

I have been watching tiny-district suburban high school conference football regularly for the last 20 years or so as a teacher and marching band parent yet have never seen a play call that cowardly and pathetic. But please, oh please, don't fire Judge, dear Giants: Walkthrough needs the source of lazy content!

Best Supporting Actor in Someone Else's Highlight
I am not sure whose highlight this is, but it's the perfect encapsulation of the Ravens-Steelers rivalry.

And with that, Walkthrough (like Watt) trudges triumphantly toward the playoffs.

But Not Yet

Time for the final installment of the Carson Wentz Victimization Index. Take it away, Carson!

  • "I'm kind of in disbelief. Hard to fully reflect on everything right now it happened so fast. It hurts right now, a lot of reflection to come." 20 VP
  • That last bit was an actual postgame quote. That's really how I talk after throwing an ugly interception, fumbling because I tried to throw a shovel pass with a defender draped over me, and enduring six sacks against the NFL's worst team. If a 12-year-old explained their F in gym by saying "It's hard to reflect on this right now," he would get grounded for three years. 20 VP
  • OK, I reflected. Jonathan Taylor got stuffed on several short-yardage runs. It's his fault! I need a better supporting cast! 20 VP.
  • Look, stuff happened this year like my training camp quarantine and the pandemic which were 100% out of my control. There was nothing I could do about either of those circumstances which limited me start and late in the season. Nothing! NO-THING. 20 VP.
  • My cap number is $28 million next year and I cost the Colts a first-round pick. So buckle up, Colts fans: this was my GOOD season, and there's nowhere to go but down. 20 VP.

Total Victimization: 100 VP. Ding ding ding!

But now Walkthrough doesn't have Wentz to roast in the first round of the playoffs. We built our content model around the CWVI! What shall we do?

Oh well, there's always next year.


62 comments, Last at 12 Jan 2022, 8:03pm

#1 by HitchikersPie // Jan 10, 2022 - 4:20am

Hard to remember a playoffs which seem quite so wide open, the Titans feel like the worst one seed since... the 2008 Kerry Collins/CJ2K lead Titans, meanwhile the Packers have been unimpressive by DVOA throughout even if a few key returners give them a better outlook.


Looking forward to a crazy set of super duper wildcard weekend games and hopefully not a bunch of damp squibs like last year...

Points: 0

#7 by Pat // Jan 10, 2022 - 9:47am

Really? I feel like, almost the exact opposite. The Steelers, Eagles, and Raiders are really, really likely to get squashed like bugs. Those teams are 0-3 against their opponents, outscored 2:1. And even that's not a fair comparison because the Bucs/Eagles game was only "close" because the Bucs kneeled the game out in goal-to-go.

That's half the games in the weekend that are likely to be snooze-fests.

Points: 0

#19 by serutan // Jan 10, 2022 - 12:14pm

I think you are correct that some teams are pretty much guaranteed to be one and done.  But I wouldn't call any team a clear favorite either so who gets to and wins the Super Bowl is pretty much wide open once next week's games are out of the way.

Points: 0

#25 by Pat // Jan 10, 2022 - 12:48pm

The NFC's definitely the more interesting side. The issue is that I don't think Tennessee's a strong #1 seed, and if Buffalo wins next week (which, OK, I think is more likely - along with my 'gimmes' of LV/PIT losing), you're left with what, BUF vs KC (cool), and TEN vs CIN (gag). Then an AFCCG of BUF/KC vs TEN/CIN just looks awful. Yes, I know literally all of those combinations were interesting during the regular season, but that just looks like a revenge murder game. Meaning in the end you get a grand total of two decent games on the AFC side (BUF/NE and BUF/KC).

On the NFC side, I agree it's much more interesting. 

Points: 0

#23 by Wifan6562 // Jan 10, 2022 - 12:36pm

I bet one of those teams advances - but I dare not predict which one. I have no logical explanation except that some combination of Covid absences, randomly bouncing fumbles, tipped balls, and head-scratching underperformance will lead to surprises. 

Points: 0

#26 by Pat // Jan 10, 2022 - 1:01pm

Yeah, that's actually worse in my mind. Then you get some dopey thing like the Rams sneaking into the playoffs in 2004 basically because they were handed it (they got gifted a win by the Eagles), somehow fluking into a win and then getting curbed the next week.

Worst part is that if it's the Steelers or the Raiders that win, now they're facing the Titans, and depending on how Derrick Henry's doing I could see them winning that game, too, turning the AFCCG into a massacre.

Then even worse (at least in my opinion) is that if I want to see "good teams," you end up wanting New England over Buffalo in round 1 (to avoid Tennessee being handed Cincy) and then New England over Tennessee and Kansas City over Cincy, giving you... NE/KC in the CCG, which I would not look forward to.

The NFC has way more interesting possibilities. 

Points: 0

#36 by JMM // Jan 10, 2022 - 2:21pm

Isn't the definition of a "good team" is one that wins?

Keep in mind not only did Pitt lose to KC in the regular season, they beat both Tenn and Buff. All of that means little.


Points: 0

#46 by asleep06 // Jan 10, 2022 - 5:39pm

Not on an analytics site. 

The definition of a good team on FO is a team with a relatively high DVOA.  A team that wins is just lucky, unless they also have a relatively high DVOA.

So for example, if a team is 12-5 but with a meh DVOA, then we say it is a meh team that has the illusion of being good. 

Points: 0

#57 by Pat // Jan 11, 2022 - 12:33pm

You don't really even have to bring up a stat - there are plenty of ways that you can think of a good team without "good teams win." Because obviously someone has to win. We wish a meteor would just strike and blow both teams up when Houston and Jacksonville play, but one team has to win.

I mean, when you watch the Patriots, Bills, Packers, Chiefs, Cowboys, Rams, Cardinals, and Bucs play, more often than not, those teams are in control in games. They're not lucking into wins, and that happened a lot this year with those other teams.

The point differentials of the 7 AFC playoff teams this year are 194, 159, 116, 84, 65, -55, -65, and we lose one of the top 2 teams in the first freaking week. I'm probably more down on the Bengals and Titans because I think Burrow'll struggle in his first postseason and I doubt Henry's going to be back at full strength. That being said I totally could be wrong about the Titans, which would improve things a little.

Points: 0

#59 by JMM // Jan 11, 2022 - 2:28pm

I have always viewed the purpose of analytics is to forecast who will win. If teams win that analytics say are bad, I look at that as a problem with the analytics not with the teams.

"Good,"  "best," and "lucky" are overly broad terms, even on analytics sites.

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#61 by Pat // Jan 11, 2022 - 4:16pm

I have always viewed the purpose of analytics is to forecast who will win

That's impossible. It's a game. ~50% of the game is fundamentally unpredictable. That's just math. If the game was fully predictable, the resulting win distribution would be much flatter (edit: and the season much longer).

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#2 by Raiderfan // Jan 10, 2022 - 6:21am

Philadelphia Eagles at Tampa Bay Buccaneers, Sunday, 1 p.m.

Early Line: Cowboys -8.”

I think you meant Buccaneers, not Cowboys, unless they are playing two games.

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#6 by kramerthefirst // Jan 10, 2022 - 9:02am

In reply to by Raiderfan

It was a joke about how bad the Cowboys crushed the Eagles in week 18?

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#28 by Lost Ti-Cats Fan // Jan 10, 2022 - 1:39pm

In reply to by Raiderfan

I wasn't sure how the numbers worked, but I liked the sentiment that the Cowboys were 8 point favorites to win the Bucs-Eagles game. 

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#3 by Anon Ymous // Jan 10, 2022 - 7:03am

I think we can safely write the script for the NE/Buff game.

A punt and an interception, coupled with general defensive malaise, allowed the Bills to race out to a 17-0 lead.  NE took back a measure of control with a second quarter touchdown and it was a one score game when Damien Harris punched it in with 5:53 remaining in the 4th.  Josh Allen then engineered an impressive 11-play 68-yard drive that included a few 3rd down conversions to bleed the remaining clock.  

The only part I'm unsure of is whether Buffalo will have too much time to run out the clock at the end and scores a TD instead.  

Points: 0

#10 by Anon Ymous // Jan 10, 2022 - 10:33am

Oops, forgot the addendum.

On the Bills' final 3rd down conversion, Matt Judon was literally decapitated as he was about to take down Allen.  Despite it happening to a guy with bright red sleeves at the most watched location on the entire field, no flag was thrown by the back judge.

(This is not a criticism of the Bills or their OL, more a question of what has to happen for Judon to earn a holding call at this point.)

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#30 by Mike B. In Va // Jan 10, 2022 - 2:03pm

They'd clearly already thrown their quota of flags earlier, as there were some absolute muggings by both teams going on at the end of that game, and nary a flag in site. At least if it's a replay of the last game, where "sticky" coverage by both teams would have brought 15 flags by last year's standard in every game before the AFCCG and SB.

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#31 by Tutenkharnage // Jan 10, 2022 - 2:04pm

... when your coach demands that you sit in one place to contain the other quarterback. It's even less likely when you spend most of the game failing in that task.

Oh, and speaking of Judon and missed calls ... we're talking about this guy, right? In the red sleeves? :)

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#32 by Mike B. In Va // Jan 10, 2022 - 2:05pm

I misinterpreted, too - he's talking about the outcome of the upcoming game, not the last one.

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#44 by Anon Ymous // Jan 10, 2022 - 3:52pm

Blame the script writers for recent Patriots games, not me!  They keep trotting out the same tired beats and cliches, so there's no reason to stop now!

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#4 by ImNewAroundThe… // Jan 10, 2022 - 8:34am

Avengers: Endgame "on your left"

Winter Soldier 

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#9 by Mike B. In Va // Jan 10, 2022 - 10:22am

In reply to by ImNewAroundThe…

Sam says it when he comes back after The Snap, I believe.

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#37 by Vincent Verhei // Jan 10, 2022 - 2:25pm

In reply to by ImNewAroundThe…


(I watch this video at least once a month.)


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#60 by Vincent Verhei // Jan 11, 2022 - 2:56pm

Yes. The setup is in Winter Soldier, the payoff is in Endgame. The Endgame reference is more relevant here since it's about returning heroes.

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#5 by andrew // Jan 10, 2022 - 8:54am

The video is linked in audibles, watch for Andy Dalton during Patrick Peterson's run back of his pick six....  he's facing away from the play.   Not sure if he's trying to walk in that direction or what exactly...

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#8 by Tutenkharnage // Jan 10, 2022 - 9:55am

The Bills excel at stomping on weak opponents, a trait which probably won't be much use in the playoffs.

It's almost like you've never read the research at the site you work for. Here, I'll help you out!

Last section on that page. You can thank me later!

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#13 by RickD // Jan 10, 2022 - 11:08am

Stomps are a good predictor of playoff success.  But it's a correlation, not a skill that is itself relevant.  

It's not "much use" to be able to stomp on "weak opponents" in the playoffs because there are no weak opponents in the playoffs.

Happy to "help you out."


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#21 by Tutenkharnage // Jan 10, 2022 - 12:30pm

The Bills excel at snuffing below-average quarterbacks. Looks like they're in luck on Saturday!

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#39 by RickD // Jan 10, 2022 - 2:55pm

Do you know what that word means?  
You just escalated a hundred-fold, just because I took issue with your poorly motivated attempt to "correct" Mike.

But since you started this thread by chastising Mike for not reading the data on this site, I think it's worth pointing out that Mac Jones is not a " below-average quarterback."  

Always fun to see FO devolve into Twitter.


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#11 by sharky19 // Jan 10, 2022 - 10:39am

I think this game will be close

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#12 by Tutenkharnage // Jan 10, 2022 - 11:06am

Cincy's biggest weakness--protecting Burrow--plays directly into one of Vegas's biggest strengths. Also, sacks and pressure-associated turnovers can have an outsized effect on the outcome.

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#14 by RickD // Jan 10, 2022 - 11:09am

You're just excluding the middle.  Given the volatile nature of both teams, I could see either winning in a blowout.

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#15 by AFCNFCBowl // Jan 10, 2022 - 11:10am

I see either a close LV win or a CIN blowout.

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#16 by sharky19 // Jan 10, 2022 - 11:17am

Same here. I will say the first matchup was closer than the final score indicates, but it’ll be tough. Curious what the weather will be like, apparently it might snow and who knows what that’ll do

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#17 by sharky19 // Jan 10, 2022 - 11:17am

Same here. I will say the first matchup was closer than the final score indicates, but it’ll be tough. Curious what the weather will be like, apparently it might snow and who knows what that’ll do

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#20 by BigBen07 // Jan 10, 2022 - 12:29pm

I still enjoy Tanier's wit but really the continued shade he continues to throw the Steelers and Big Ben is tiresome, especially as Ben on his last legs made a bunch of clutch throws to beat his hated rivals yet again and get the Steelers into the playoffs.

That's why I'm going to be extremely overjoyed when Tanier's shitty Eagles team gets annihilated next weekend by the LOAT.

Points: 0

#34 by AFCNFCBowl // Jan 10, 2022 - 2:13pm

Scott Kacsmar, is that you?

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#40 by RickD // Jan 10, 2022 - 2:56pm

What's with the comments today?  

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#22 by young curmudgeon // Jan 10, 2022 - 12:32pm

From a Steelers fan perspective, it's too bad Houston couldn't pull off the upset --if I understand correctly, that would have given KC the top seed and moved Tennessee to second.  There is at least a chance that the Steelers could have dragged the Titans into another one of their characteristic ugly games and defeated them (despite D. Henry's 288 yards rushing!).  Unless the Chiefs have an off day (a VERY off day), I don't see that happening in Kansas City.  OTOH, if a concatenation of improbable events, dubious outcomes, and miracles takes place, it would be fun (in a twisted, enjoying everyone else's discomfiture, perhaps even schadenfreude way) to have a Turnpike Super Bowl between the Steelers and the Eagles! 

Points: 0

#35 by AFCNFCBowl // Jan 10, 2022 - 2:13pm

If TEN didn't get the bye, Henry wouldn't be playing in the wild card round.

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#41 by RickD // Jan 10, 2022 - 2:58pm

The game plan should be simple: use the pass rush to hit Mahomes early and often. Remember the Super Bowl from last year and use that as the model.  TJ Watt and friends can do it.

It's a long shot, I know.  But the Steelers have been refusing to just die already for months now.

Points: 0

#24 by young curmudgeon // Jan 10, 2022 - 12:40pm

A popup featuring Skip Bayless appears on my screen when I open this page to read comments.  (Thank all that is holy that it is at least muted, and my speakers are off anyway.)  Any reminder that Skip Bayless exists is a significant diminishment of my quality of life.  I come here to enjoy interesting commentary and discussion.  Mr. Bayless does not provide that.Couldn't we get some higher quality pop up adds, like something for ED, or the Rodgers Rate, or that woman in the red outfit touting some cell phone provider?  (Oh, for the days of Catholic Match Girl...)

Points: 0

#38 by BlueStarDude // Jan 10, 2022 - 2:36pm

"for the days of Catholic Match Girl" — when you were actually a young curmudgeon!  :)

I kid, I kid

Points: 0

#45 by young curmudgeon // Jan 10, 2022 - 3:56pm

I guess I wasn't all that young when I adopted that name (although in my own mind....), and I'm certainly not young anymore.  I guess I should be pining for Catholic Match Middle-Aged Woman. 


Points: 0

#27 by IlluminatusUIUC // Jan 10, 2022 - 1:34pm

Chiefs Playoff Prognosis: No AFC team has a higher ceiling or greater self-destructive tendencies.

That's clearly Buffalo you're talking about, you just went over it like ten paragraphs earlier. 

The Chiefs are the team that would kill everyone if they could just settle for the easy stuff, but they struggle when they start chasing the dragon and looking to make crazy YouTube highlights. Buffalo will suddenly forget how to field punts or execute simple handoffs. 

Points: 0

#29 by Lost Ti-Cats Fan // Jan 10, 2022 - 1:57pm

This year's AFC's playoff lineup is just bonkers. 

BUF, KC and CIN are almost the same team - liable to steamroll you if they play well, but perfectly capable of bumbling away the game no matter who they're playing. 

TEN and NE are also almost the same team - capable of grinding you into the dirt if you spot them a 3-point lead, totally off their game plan if they fall behind by more than one score. 

Then there's PIT, whose entire season has played out like their week 1 game against BUF - a solid D paired with an O based on smoke and mirrors that sometimes does just enough to win.

And LV.  And even after watching all of last night's (captivating) game against LAC, I still don't know what to say about LV other than they are definitely a football team who are good at, well, ummm ... they're definitely a football team with a good-ish veteran QB who are on their way to the playoffs (and possibly the Super Bowl, given the rest of the AFC playoff lineup).

Points: 0

#33 by Mike B. In Va // Jan 10, 2022 - 2:09pm

Rushing the passer. LV is good at rushing the passer and...throwing a zillion passes to Renfrow, who somehow is open despite being the obvious target.

That's all I got. I'm more confused than ever after watching that game.

Points: 0

#62 by sharky19 // Jan 12, 2022 - 8:03pm

This is honestly one of the dumbest narratives out there, and proof you guys don't watch the games. to say the f***cking RAIDERS (literally the most penalized team every year) are winning games solely due to the refs is comically ignorant

Points: 0

#42 by Boots Day // Jan 10, 2022 - 3:08pm

Patrick Mahomes has faced the Steelers twice in his career. In those games, he's 46-for-58 for 584 yards and NINE touchdowns. 

Points: 0

#51 by Mash Wilson // Jan 10, 2022 - 9:16pm

Yeah. I'd say Chiefs -13 is the safest bet on the board next weekend, if Andy Reid weren't involved. Friends don't let friends bet money on any aspect of any playoff game involving Andy Reid.

Points: 0

#52 by IlluminatusUIUC // Jan 10, 2022 - 9:52pm

Mahomes giving points in the playoffs is a riskier play than you'd think. He's started 8 playoff games and been down two scores in 6 of them. Wildly, he's 4-2 in those games and would be 5-1 if Dee Ford lined up onside. 

Points: 0

#58 by mrh // Jan 11, 2022 - 12:38pm

Per p-f-r, since 1999 when Reid became a HC, teams are 240-240-6 in the playoffs vs. the spread.  Obviously, they have to be .500 since every cover is matched by a not covered.

Reid is 17-15, so actually he is fractionally better than average.  He was 11-8 w/the Eagles and 6-7 with the Chiefs.

Points: 0

#48 by mehnsrea // Jan 10, 2022 - 7:15pm

Is our fearless leader in such shock from the result that all he could bring us is a throw away victimization index? Last week he promised we’d hear the laughter from thousands of miles away, or something to that effect. I waited all night for Mike’s Wentz write up and I feel a bit let down unfortunately.

Points: 0

#50 by Mash Wilson // Jan 10, 2022 - 9:00pm

Am I allowed to expect an early playoff stumble because Mike McCarthy is coaching them now?

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#54 by Romodini // Jan 10, 2022 - 10:01pm

Mike usually doesn't stumble until after the divisional round, so that would be an improvement for the Cowboys.

I expect an early stumble because the Dak/Kellen Moore offense has this weird quirk that sometimes prevents it from working until they're down multiple scores. 


Points: 0

#55 by crazynetjunkie // Jan 11, 2022 - 9:58am

Any Given Sunday!!

Points: 0

#56 by CHIP72 // Jan 11, 2022 - 10:27am

...who based on previous comments by Mike Tanier is about the same age as Tanier (I might have a year or two on him either age-wise or Eagles fan-wise), I will say there are a couple of Eagles teams in my time as an Eagles fan (going back to 1981) that resemble the 2021 Eagles:

*1995: Coming off a season-ending 7 game losing streak the previous year under Rich Kotite that gave the Eagles (7-9 in 1994) their first losing season since 1987 (if you include the replacement player games) or 1986 (if you don't), the Eagles hire 49ers defensive coordinator Ray Rhodes.  Rhodes modifies the roster, dropping or demoting various older veterans, and early in the season names Rodney Peete as the starting quarterback over Randall Cunningham.  The Eagles' big free agent signing is 49ers running back Ricky Watters; they also signed various low profile players.

After a forgettable season opening loss to Tampa Bay (Watters uttered his famous "For Who? For What?" line after that game after alligator-arming an over-the-middle pass catch attempt when the Eagles were behind by multiple scores late in the game), the Eagles eventually rallied after a 1-3 start under Rhodes' fire and brimstone approach (I believe he equated road teams coming into Philadelphia and beating the Eagles with criminals coming into your house and messing with your wife and children...using stronger language of course) and took advantage of a weak schedule (hmm, when have I seen that recently?) to finish 10-6, despite being outscored by 20 points for the season (318 to 338).

The regular season highlight was a late season win over the eventual Super Bowl champion Cowboys when Barry Switzer, in the pre-analytics days, went for it twice on 4th and 2 feet at his own 29 yard line at around the 2 minute mark of the 4th quarter in defense-dominated, cold and windy, 17-17 game.  (Technically the Cowboys went for it once, but the first play was negated by the 2 minute warning, even though it looked like the ball was snapped before the 2 minute warning.  As a bonus, Ed Hochuli provided some succinct by his standards explanations about what happened.  Finally, analytics or not, based on the flow of that game I strongly feel punting was the smart move in that spot, both then and now.)  Amazingly, the Cowboys ran the exact same play twice (a left side run by Emmitt Smith, who gained 108 yards rushing in the game but only about 10 of those yards in the 2nd half) and the result, the Eagles defense stuffing the play for no gain, was exactly the same both times.  John Madden was incredulous that the Cowboys went for it, that the first play didn't count, and that the Cowboys ran the same play twice.

In the playoffs, the Eagles crushed the Lions as a home underdog in the wild-card 58-37 (they led 51-7 in the middle of the 3rd quarter) before losing to the Cowboys in the divisional round.

*2013: After the 14 season long Andy Reid era came to an unceremonious end after a terrible 2012 season (4-12 record), the Eagles hired Oregon head coach Chip Kelly (good name BTW) to bring his unconventional methods to Philadelphia.  Nobody knew whether Kelly's methods would translate to the NFL.

After winning their season opener at defending NFC East champion Washington, the Eagles lost their next three games and stood at 3-5 at mid-season.  Starting quarterback Michael Vick suffered injuries early in the season and replaced by unheralded 2nd year quarterback Nick Foles, a 3rd round pick in 2012 who was mediocre in a partial season of play late in his rookie season.

After an up and down start, Foles found his elixir and went on a tear, finishing the season with 27 touchdowns and only 2 interceptions as the Eagles went 7-1 the second half of the season.  Foles' game highlight was his 22 for 28, 406 yards, 7 touchdowns, 0 interceptions game against the Raiders in Oakland; he was pulled with about 5 minutes to go in the 3rd quarter.  (IMO, the Raiders played the worst pass defense I've ever seen in a game by an NFL team in my 41 seasons following the NFL.  Foles probably would have had 10 touchdown passes for the game had the Eagles kept him in the game and kept on playing the same way.)  Another team highlight was a come from behind win in a much larger than expected snowstorm in early December at home against Detroit in which LeSean McCoy ran for 217 yards and 2 touchdowns and the Eagles ran for 299 yards as a team against a Lions team that had been very good against the run coming into the game.  The Eagles narrowly beat the Cowboys in their season finale to win the NFC East.

In the playoffs, the Eagles lost 26-24 in Philadelphia against the Saints in the first round.

Points: 0

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