Chiefs, Cowboys Dominate Staff Playoff Fantasy Draft
NFL Wild Card - Andrew: Hello and welcome to Scramble for the Ball, where we finally have our playoff field! In our favorite New Year tradition, we completely botched our final guess at who that would be, as the first-ever 17-game regular season produced plenty of late drama and an all-time win-and-in pratfall in Jacksonville. Out go the Indianapolis Colts and Los Angeles Chargers, and in come the Pittsburgh Steelers and Las Vegas Raiders. Or rather, for our purposes, out go Jonathan Taylor and Justin Herbert, and in come Najee Harris and Hunter Renfrow. I guess rules are rules, but I'm not sure that's a trade most commissioners would accept.
Bryan: The fact that the Colts lost to the Jaguars—one of the two or three most embarrassing last-week losses in NFL history, and I'm not sure it's No. 3 or No. 2—is shocking. The fact that it isn't the headline game of the week, considering everything that went on in Game 272, is even more stunning. We may still have our doubts about whether Week 18 is really necessary or even a good thing in the long run, but man, it was a hell of a lot of fun.
Andrew: Of course, the real fun starts here, as we whittle down the field to the cream of the crop, and do battle to find the ultimate champion, the best of the best, the winningest winner of them all! That's right, it's time for our annual staff fantasy draft! Oh, and I guess there are, like, real playoff games too, but they pale in comparison; they are but the theater in which the true fantasy duels are played out.
2021 Staff Playoff Fantasy Draft
Bryan: The Football Outsiders Staff Playoffs Fantasy League is back for another run! But just as the NFL expanded their playoffs a year ago, we're expanding our own little game—now seven people, not six, are putting themselves up for embarrassment on a weekly basis.
As a reminder, we went to PPR scoring last year, and are otherwise using our traditional rules:
- Six points for rushing or receiving touchdowns, four points for passing touchdowns.
- One point for every 10 yards rushing or receiving, and for every 20 yards passing.
- One point per reception.
- A loss of two points for a lost fumble or interception.
- Two points for a two-point conversion of any kind.
- Kickers: three points for a field goal under 40 yards, four points for one between 40 and 49 yards, and six points for kicks of 50 yards or longer. Plus, one point for every extra point.
- Defense: Two points for an interception or fumble recovery, six points for a touchdown, four points for a safety, one point for a sack, and a loss of one point for every seven points the defense actually allows (and a bonus five points for a shutout).
Teams are comprised of one quarterback, two running backs, three wideouts, one tight end, one kicker, and one defense. There are no substitutions, so if a player is injured or his team is eliminated, he ceases to produce points for his team. Your managers, in the order in which they drafted:
- Bryan Knowles, Scrambler (U.S. edition)
- Rivers McCown, Exasperated with Easterby
- Scott Spratt, Fantasy Force
- Vince Verhei, Editor Extraordinaire
- Andrew Potter, Scrambler (U.K. edition)
- Aaron Schatz, Head Honcho
- Dave Bernreuther, Mailbag Maestro
Yes, after two straight years of picking last, I now am picking first. One day, I'll be comfortably in the middle of one of these things.
This is a snake draft with a two-pick eighth round. The results were as follows:
Bryan: Patrick Mahomes, QB, KC
Rivers: Josh Allen, QB, BUF
Scott: Tom Brady, QB, TB
Vince: Travis Kelce, TE, KC
Andrew: Rob Gronkowski, TE, TB
Aaron: Aaron Rodgers, QB, GB
Dave: Davante Adams, WR, GB
Dave: Tyreek Hill, WR, KC
Aaron: Mike Evans, WR, TB
Andrew: Leonard Fournette, RB, TB
Vince: Cooper Kupp, WR, LAR
Scott: Aaron Jones, RB, GB
Rivers: Stefon Diggs, WR, BUF
Bryan: Derrick Henry, RB, TEN
Bryan: Darrel Williams, RB, KC
Rivers: Ja'Marr Chase, WR, CIN
Scott: A.J. Brown, WR, TEN
Vince: Joe Mixon, RB, CIN
Andrew: Ezekiel Elliott, RB, DAL
Aaron: AJ Dillon, RB, GB
Dave: Damien Harris, RB, NE
Dave: CeeDee Lamb, WR, DAL
Aaron: Devin Singletary, RB, BUF
Andrew: Tee Higgins, WR, CIN
Vince: Odell Beckham, WR, LAR
Scott: George Kittle, TE, SF
Rivers: Deebo Samuel, WR, SF
Bryan: Amari Cooper, WR, DAL
Bryan: Dalton Schultz, TE, DAL
Rivers: Elijah Mitchell, RB, SF
Scott: Julio Jones, WR, TEN
Vince: Tyler Boyd, WR, CIN
Andrew: Cedrick Wilson, WR, DAL
Aaron: Allen Lazard, WR, GB
Dave: Kyler Murray, QB, ARI
Dave: Zach Ertz, TE, ARI
Aaron: Byron Pringle, WR, KC
Andrew: Mecole Hardman, WR, KC
Vince: Sony Michel, RB, LAR
Scott: Breshad Perriman, WR, TB
Rivers: Dawson Knox, TE, BUF
Bryan: Harrison Butker, K, KC
Bryan: Chiefs D/ST
Rivers: James Conner, RB, ARI
Scott: Ryan Succop, K, TB
Vince: Matthew Stafford, QB, LAR
Andrew: Dak Prescott, QB, DAL
Aaron: Packers D/ST
Dave: Buccaneers D/ST
Dave: Matt Prater, K, ARI and Tony Pollard, RB, DAL
Aaron: Tyler Higbee, TE, LAR and Mason Crosby, K, GB
Andrew: Cowboys D/ST and Greg Zuerlein, K, DAL
Vince: Matt Gay, K, LAR and Rams D/ST
Scott: Titans D/ST and Josh Jacobs, RB, LV
Rivers: Bills D/ST and Evan McPhereson, K, CIN
Bryan: Van Jefferson, WR, LAR and Jakobi Meyers, WR, NE
|2021 Staff Playoff Fantasy Draft|
|QB||Patrick Mahomes||Josh Allen||Tom Brady||Matthew Stafford||Dak Prescott||Aaron Rodgers||Kyler Murray|
|RB||Derrick Henry||Elijah Mitchell||Aaron Jones||Joe Mixon||Leonard Fournette||AJ Dillon||Damien Harris|
|RB||Darrel Williams||James Conner||Josh Jacobs||Sony Michel||Ezekiel Elliott||Devin Singletary||Tony Pollard|
|WR||Amari Cooper||Stefon Diggs||A.J. Brown||Cooper Kupp||Tee Higgins||Mike Evans||Davante Adams|
|WR||Van Jefferson||Ja'Marr Chase||Julio Jones||Odell Beckham||Cedrick Wilson||Allen Lazard||Tyreek Hill|
|WR||Jakobi Meyers||Deebo Samuel||Breshad Perriman||Tyler Boyd||Mecole Hardman||Byron Pringle||CeeDee Lamb|
|TE||Dalton Schultz||Dawson Knox||George Kittle||Travis Kelce||Rob Gronkowski||Tyler Higbee||Zach Ertz|
|K||Harrison Butker||Evan McPherson||Ryan Succop||Matt Gay||Greg Zuerlein||Mason Crosby||Matt Prater|
|DEF||Kansas City||Buffalo||Tennessee||L.A. Rams||Dallas||Green Bay||Tampa Bay|
As always, assemble your Best of the Rest team in the comments from players we did not pick, and we'll track which commenter ends up with the highest total.
Andrew: One of the problems I personally faced coming into this draft, which I think was shared by the staff and reflected in some of the picks, is I really have very little idea how this postseason is going to go. Every single team has significant weaknesses that could easily prove their undoing if the matchups break just right. In general, I think we generally made the sound decision to target the teams with the most proven quarterbacks, but hoo-boy does this feel like a year in which something ridiculous and unexpected happens and we all end up getting trounced by a delighted commenter who snags, say, Joe Burrow and the Bengals D/ST and watches magic happen against the Raiders, Titans, and Chiefs.
Bryan: There are certainly degrees here—the Chiefs seem, to me, to be the fairly obvious choice as to who's going to play the most games in the AFC, as while anything can happen in a playoff game, I'll be very surprised if the Steelers upset Kansas City this weekend. The NFC, however, is a total mess; I guess the Buccaneers are most likely to get three-plus games, and thus be the most valuable team to target? It's a tough call!
Andrew: That was my logic in targeting Leonard Fournette and Rob Gronkowski early. Gronk is a wild card for a range of reasons, but his stats since Chris Godwin went down are otherworldly, and I wasn't going to let us repeat last year's Fournette oversight. The problem, though, is that everybody went after Buccaneers. I have those two; Scott has Tom Brady, Breshad Perriman, and Ryan Succop; Aaron has Mike Evans; and Dave has the D/ST. If the Buccaneers win, none of us clearly wins.
Bryan: It's tough to have the Bucs all split up, for sure, but I still think you came out of this with a very strong draft. Your running back duo of Fournette and Ezekiel Elliott is probably the best "safe" set; Fournette was my RB1 and I would have been happy with Elliott as my top runner as well. Gronk in the first round makes a lot of sense considering the sharp falloff at the position. Dallas was my second-choice defense as well. I suppose I could knock your receiving corps of Tee Higgins, Mecole Hardman, and Cedrick Wilson, but I'm not really in any place to talk about anybody's receivers.
Andrew: The theory with my guys was they're all No. 2 receivers who are likely to play multiple games, and once the very top guys are gone, that's the next-best thing. I had zero plan for stacking any team, but I played the draft as it fell and that resulted in a heavy Cowboys stack. If a certain Highly Successful Football Coach has a Highly Successful Football Postseason, I will have had a Highly Successful Football Fantasy Draft.
Bryan: As for me, it was fun having the first pick after two consecutive years of having the last one. I considered going crazy off-board with a Travis Kelce or even a Tyreek Hill pick, but sometimes Obvious Picks are Obvious. If I think the Chiefs are going to play the most games on average, I had to take Patrick Mahomes; there's just no other choice that makes any sort of logical sense there.
And if Derrick Henry comes back and is anything like, well, Derrick Henry, then I am very happy with the top of my roster. Your running backs are safer, but if Henry is Henry and Clyde Edwards-Helaire is still out and makes Darrel Williams RB1 in Kansas City, I really like that.
Andrew: Getting the two-fer at the start and end of each round in a snake draft is a poisoned chalice. You can set the tone to an extent, but you have absolutely no room to react to how the rest of the draft goes. You can't see a run on receivers and grab one; you have to choose between starting the run or snacking on leftovers.
Bryan: And you can see a prime example of that at the fourth-/fifth-round turn. I'm sitting there with no receivers, and frowning as the top ones go, but I'm looking at the draft board, and I see Amari Cooper and Deebo Samuel both still sitting there. "Great!" I think. "I'll take both and be guaranteed one survives the wild-card round. And if Deebo goes, I can fall back on George Kittle and be satisfied." And then Scott and Rivers take Kittle and Samuel just before I'm on the clock, and I'm crushed. I'll live with Cooper and Dalton Schultz, but my guys! Blargle.
Andrew: Ah, see, that happened to me with the team I had intended to sneakily stack: I was all poised to grab whichever of Ja'Marr Chase and Joe Mixon fell to me in Round 3, and both went in the three picks before mine. At least I know that if Rivers hadn't taken Chase, Vince would have, and Elliott is a very decent consolation prize for missing Mixon. Had I been able to snag Chase or Mixon, I would then have gone all in on Joe Burrow and the Bengals D/ST … and promptly guaranteed a last-place finish after the first game of the postseason when the Raiders upset them in Ohio on Saturday afternoon.
Bryan: Elsewhere, I think Vince's team looks very strong, and not just because it gives me the excuse to post this music video for the third time in our history doing these drafts:
Vince has six Rams, so if they do … well, anything of note, he's in great shape. That explains why he took Matthew Stafford over Dak Prescott at the end of the draft; Stafford, Cooper Kupp, and Odell Beckham gives him pretty much complete control over the Rams' scoring potential.
Andrew: Cos otherwise, that quarterback choice sure would need explaining.
Bryan: Oh, obviously; I'm shocked Prescott lasted to the last quarterback of the draft, though that may in part be my certainty that Kyler Murray and the Cardinals are toast.
Vince's strategy wasn't planned—he was grousing about missing out on Bengals receivers early, as Ja'Marr Chase and Tee Higgins went just before he went, but his consolation of control of the Rams works for me. Maybe they won't get to the Super Bowl, but they look fairly safe for two or three games, for certain degrees of safety.
Andrew: I would say almost all of us have a clear path to a win: me with the Cowboys, Rivers with the Bills, Vince with the Rams, Aaron with the Packers, and Scott with the, uh, Titans for some reason. I guess you, too, with the Chiefs, but I absolutely hate your receiver picks. Pair that with the fact that almost every Mahomes pass will generate points for other people...
Bryan: I, too, hate my receivers, but then I look over at Scott and I feel better. Every year, there's one team I absolutely hate, and then they always end up crushing me into a fine paste. So, congratulations, Scott Spratt: I hate your team!
Loading up on the Titans passing attack seems very strange to me, especially with Derrick Henry coming back. Julio Jones has one (1) touchdown with the Titans, and as good as A.J. Brown is, I expect lots of running. Breshad Perriman is probably up for an increased role considering the massive amount of injuries the Buccaneers have had, but I think we'll see more out of the tight ends and whatnot in Tampa. I think I would have rather had guys like Kendrick Bourne, Hunter Renfrow, or DeAndre Hopkins, all of whom are still available for your Best of the Rest team. (Over Perriman and Jones, I should say; not Brown; I'm not that nuts).
Andrew: Well, to me it sure seems like the Titans spent the second half of the season specifically nursing Brown and Jones for the playoffs, with the goal of having both ready for January. It's the bye that puts me off: I don't think the Titans have the roster to win the conference, and that means the bye is a downside rather than a positive.
Bryan: Scott (and me, for my Henry pick) will be in a lot better shape if the Bills knock off the Patriots, or if the Steelers shock the Chiefs. Tennessee could really use a nice second-round matchup to get going, and the Patriots are a much harder draw than the Steelers, Raiders, or even the Bengals.
Andrew: The team I can't fathom at all is Dave's. Sure, I suppose, if the Cardinals forget it's the second half of the year and play like the team that led the conference at midseason, then he has a shot, but yuck to those backs.
Bryan: Dave does, at least, have the best receiver corps by far, with Tyreek Hill, Davante Adams, and CeeDee Lamb. That gives his team a strength, so that's, uh, one!
Andrew: Which is cool, but every one of those players is generating points for somebody else with each reception, or each game they advance. That's the problem here: you're not just looking for the best players, but a unique edge over the competition. I don't see how he finishes last, but I don't think he has any chance of finishing first either.
Bryan: Dave hates his backs, too, but I think I'm happier with Damien Harris and Tony Pollard than most, as I think they're going to get more games than, say, Rivers' better-on-paper duo of Elijah Mitchell and James Conner, both of whom could easily go out in the first round. But riding the Cardinals just makes no sense to me with how they have performed over the last half of the year—stay tuned for River McCown's preview of Rams-Cardinals later this week to see Arizona's DVOA graph, and prepare to weep.
Andrew: Overall, it seems like every year Aaron is the justified favorite. That doesn't mean he'll win—we liked his team last year too, I recall, and both of the teams he loaded up on made the Super Bowl, but it still wasn't enough—but he's right to point out that the Packers are the favorites in our odds, and that's as good a reason as any to stack them.
Bryan: I'd be happier with Aaron's Packers stack if it included Davante Adams, I will admit. Stacking a team without a wild-card game is a bold strategy as you lose one game's worth of potential; the Packers could absolutely be a one-and-done team if, say, the Rams or 49ers come at them as the best versions of themselves. Safer to stack Packers than it is to stack Titans, and like you said, controlling one team is good, but I think I'd trade all his non-Rodgers Packers for Adams and be happier with it. Dave took that bullet, so thank you, Dave.
Andrew: The Bills worked out for me last year, so Rivers at least has history on his side. The Rams have a recent Super Bowl appearance with a far worse quarterback than Matthew Stafford; it would be no surprise to see Stafford get them over the hump. The Chiefs are an obvious favorite. That said, I'm very pleasantly surprised to see I got a heavy stack on the No. 1 team in DVOA at the end of the year, and that plus the potential extra game makes me more optimistic than I was when I made the picks. So really, I could see any of five teams winning it, with Scott and Dave being more surprising.
Bryan: So, congratulations Scott and Dave, you will be our finalists come Super Bowl week!
Andrew: I see you're familiar with my prediction record this season.
Bryan: Turning to the Best of the Rest, is there a reason not to make your quarterback Joe Burrow, other than gamesmanship of "if everyone zigs, I must zag"? The Bengals are up-and-down, hot-and-cold, for sure, but Burrow has put up 978 yards and eight touchdowns over the last two weeks and has averaged 355 yards a game over the last five. I'm shocked Murray went over him.
Andrew: As I mentioned above, Burrow was my first choice to target if I had been able to snag the other Bengals I wanted. He's definitely the guy I'd be going for. The other possibility could be Jimmy Garoppolo, if the 49ers can get a run going with their excellent rushing offense and defense, but I'd sure favor Burrow against the Raiders over Jimmy G against the Cowboys.
Bryan: I don't think I'd trust Garoppolo, both because he's capable of putting up first-half numbers like he did against the Rams, and because there's always the chance Shanahan will limit him to eight passing attempts once again if the 49ers really get going. Ryan Tannehill might be a safer pick, with a better shot to get two games, or you could take Jalen Hurts' rushing value and hope for a, er, significant upset over a battered and bruised Bucs.
Andrew: Running back is little weirder. If the Rams get Cam Akers back up to speed or Darrell Henderson back on the field, Sony Michel could lose out, but I'm not sure enough workload would go to either player to make them worth the pickup.
Bryan: There's also the "Bryan, you can't parse injuries" potential of both Clyde Edwards-Helaire and D'Onta Foreman, in case Derrick Henry comes back slow.
Andrew: Sure, gambling on Foreman would make a ton of sense, but based on what I have read, I don't see how anything short of an actual aggravation keeps Henry out of the lineup after the bye week.
Bryan: Out, probably not, but maybe Henry will be on a bit of a pitch count in his first week back, especially if the Titans get up big early. It's a gamble, for sure, but not an unreasonable one.
What do you think about Najee Harris in a "I'll take one game's worth of heavy workload and check out"? Normally, I would think that the Steelers are likely to get blown out too much for Harris to matter, but Harris is actually your season leader in fantasy points on plays where his team is down at least 17 points; the Steelers never turn away from Harris.
Andrew: I think I'd rather take a chance on getting multiple games from a gimpy Edwards-Helaire and upsets giving time to Rhamondre Stevenson or Miles Sanders, just because I think those scenarios are so much more likely than a Steelers win in Kansas City. Unlike last year, there's no clear second-tier back though; pretty much all of the guys on the teams we expect to progress are taken, unless you really like the chances of Ronald Jones recovering better than Fournette.
At receiver, I guess you have Brandon Aiyuk if you like San Francisco's chances of an upset, the likes of Christian Kirk on the Cardinals even if DeAndre Hopkins doesn't make it back...
Bryan: There is a nice Patriots stack you could do here, with Mac Jones, Kendrick Bourne, and Hunter Henry, plus Nick Folk and the Patriots defense.
Andrew: ... ugh, and yes, we should never count out the Patriots.
I guess I'm largely reconsidering what I said before about Best of the Rest teams, but the problem is we're all so dependent on who advances. It's possible that the Patriots could out-slog the Bills on a wintry day, bruise Ryan Tannehill in the divisional round, and make us all look silly on their way to the conference championship. I wouldn't be betting on it, but it's at least more plausible than getting three games out of Derek Carr or Jalen Hurts. This just isn't the year for great teams, or any kind of certainty about the postseason. That's exciting! But also alarming for those of us who stand to look silly when it all goes awry.
Bryan: And with that note, I should say that the weather report for Buffalo is a balmy 5 degrees with a 30% chance of snow, and my Buffalo-living brother is currently freezing his butt off in single-degree weather. So, uh, just food for thought.
Andrew: I have picked the Bills for my lock of the week, too, so that guarantees it. The New England Patriots will play in the AFC Championship Game. You heard it here first.
Bryan: And hopefully also here last.
Andrew: As we already noted, don't forget to post your Best of the Rest teams in the comments, and we'll see who looks silliest this time next week.
Keep Choppin' Wood
You had one job, Indianapolis Colts. All you needed to do was win one game against the worst team in the league, a team that lost 50-10 the previous week, and you were in the playoffs. Instead, we witnessed an all-time terrible performance by a playoff contender against a team with nothing to play for. The Colts not only lost, they were pretty much blown out by a franchise that was about to earn its second consecutive No. 1 draft pick. The lowlight of the performance was probably this terrible interception by Carson Wentz:
Carson Wentz is going to cost the #Colts the playoffs and their 1st round pick—INT thrown on the road again.
— Dov Kleiman (@NFL_DovKleiman) January 9, 2022
But make no mistake, this spectacular choke job was a full team effort.
However, at least that was only one game. The award for the full regular season belongs to their opponents, the Jacksonville Jaguars, who became only the fourth franchise in the history of the league to earn the No. 1 overall pick in consecutive seasons, and only the third since the Second World War. (The Cleveland Browns, being the Cleveland Browns, are the only franchise to have done so twice, though the first of those came as an expansion team in the 1999 and 2000 drafts.) Four years ago, the Jaguars were headed for the AFC Championship Game with an exciting young roster that appeared destined for long term success. Now, they are about to hire their third different head coach in as many seasons, and they have the strongest possible case to be the worst team in the sport.
John Fox Award for Conservatism
The New York Giants began their fourth drive against the Washington Football Team in a difficult spot, backed up on their own 3-yard line down 3-0 in the first quarter. On first down, the Giants called a play-action pass, but Jake Fromm failed to connect with an open Elijhaa Penny. Penny then committed a false start, pushing the Giants back to their own 2-yard line on second-and-11. From there, Giants coach Joe Judge called two straight quarterback sneaks, completely giving up on the series to gain a tiny bit of yardage for the punt. That's the sort of coaching call that belongs to a completely different era of football, when passes were more likely to end in disaster than success and teams would regularly punt on third down. It's absolutely astonishing to see a team turtle like that in the 21st century, Jake Fromm or no Jake Fromm.
Herm Edwards Award for Playing to Win the Game
During his team's season-ending victory over the Green Bay Packers, Lions head coach Dan Campbell set a new league record for the most fourth-down attempts in a single season. We have praised Campbell all season for his aggressive approach as head coach of one of the biggest underdogs in the league. Where other head coaches play it safe and try to reduce the margin of defeat, Campbell calls fake punts and surprise onside kicks to try to earn his squad the victory. We leave the reader to decide whether this is out of desire or necessity, but either way a deserved record now bears his name.
Jeff Fisher Award for Confusing Coaching
It's not the timeout at the end of the game, Brandon Staley. The story that the Raiders were content in playing for the tie before you called timeout to set up your defense doesn't really hold water. Nor was it going for it on fourth down back in your own territory early in the third quarter; the numbers back that one up, even if we don't agree with running a halfback dive. No, we want to talk play calling in overtime, specifically after Mike Williams caught the pass that brought the ball to the Raiders 27 with 5:21 left, as the Chargers trailed by three. Remember, either a win or a tie would have made the Chargers the sixth seed; they didn't have any of the Raiders' seeding dilemma here. A tying field goal as the clock hit zero would be exactly as good as a game-winning touchdown.
I don't blame the Chargers for passing when the ball was on their own half of the field; it was Justin Herbert's arm what got 'em there, and they needed the field goal to tie; they couldn't just drain all seven minutes left in the game. But once they got the ball over midfield, they needed to slow down and chew time. Remember, the Raiders didn't care much about calling timeouts to save clock; they would have been alright settling for a tie if that's what came up. Instead, L.A. ran once with Austin Ekeler. They then snapped the ball again while time remained on the play clock and threw two incomplete passes to stop the clock before Dustin Hopkins kicked the 41-yard field goal to tie things up. The Chargers could have drained another 1:20, giving the ball back to the Raiders with about three minutes left in the game rather than 4:30. Considering the Raiders only kicked the game-winning field goal as time expired, those extra 90 seconds or so may have been the difference between the tie and the loss.
'Long May You Run' Fantasy Player of the Week
Danny Amendola hadn't gone over 100 yards receiving since December 15, 2019. Heck, he hadn't gone over 50 yards since December 13, 2020; it has been quite some time since he was a regular contributor to anyone at any level. He hadn't played at all in any of Houston's last five games leading up to the season finale, and there was essentially no reason to even roster the 36-year-old slot specialist, much less start him. But on a day when Houston gave a scare into a Tennessee team fighting for a bye week, Amendola shone like it was the good old days in New England all over again: seven receptions, 113 yards, and two fourth-quarter scores, each of which drew Houston within a field goal of the upset. They couldn't pull it off, but it was a great sendoff for Amendola, if this is indeed his last year.
The Week 18 Danny Amendola deep catch we have all been waiting for. pic.twitter.com/nYA9sK9tdU
— Rivers McCown (@riversmccown) January 9, 2022
Garbage Time Performer of the Week
Oh, we should probably pick Russell Gage for his 71 yards of offense and a touchdown on Atlanta's last drive of the season, but we enjoy the Colts-Jaguars game too much to pass up on Michael Pittman, who caught Indianapolis' last touchdown of the year. Pittman led all Colts with six receptions for 64 yards and a touchdown, and the fact that every one of those receptions came with Indianapolis down at least three scores amuses me to no end. A touchdown, at the end of the fourth quarter, to cut the deficit to 15 points, against the worst team in the NFL, in a game that would have gotten you into the playoffs had you won? That has to be the single most depressing touchdown of the season, and that's worth commemorating. Just look at his face!
The @Colts score with 4:26 left. It's a 15-point game.
— NFL (@NFL) January 9, 2022
As for your Garbage Time Performers of the Year, your most productive quarterback when down three scores was Trevor Lawrence—906 yards passing and five touchdowns, both of which led the league (as did his seven interceptions, to be fair). He also had 158 attempts, 30 more than any other passer, which tells you all you need to know about Jacksonville's season. The top receiver was Amon-Ra St. Brown, with 21 receptions for 235 yards and a score when down at least 17 points, or basically a full Tavon Austin season. Your top rusher was Najee Harris, with 224 yards on 42 carries and a pair of touchdowns, to add on to 100 yards receiving. These men shone brightest when the lights were lowest, and we salute them.
Comfort in Sadness Stat of the Week
The beauty of covering the last few teams eliminated from the playoffs is that they are generally good teams, so positives are relatively easy to find. Take Colts halfback Jonathan Taylor, for example, whose 2,171 yards from scrimmage led the league and may yet be enough to crown him as the Offensive Player of the Year in the NFL awards. Over in Baltimore, Mark Andrews' 1,361 receiving yards marked the third-highest total for a tight end in NFL history. Chargers quarterback Justin Herbert passed for over 5,000 yards, only the third time ever that a quarterback has done so in his first or second season in the league. (The other two, Dan Marino and Patrick Mahomes, are a Hall of Famer and a surefire future Hall of Famer. And yes, yes, 17-game caveats, we know.) That leaves the New Orleans Saints, the final team eliminated in the NFC, who had the best run defense in the league by our numbers ... narrowly ahead of the team who made the playoffs in their stead, the San Francisco 49ers.
Game-Changing Play of the Week
For the sake of variety, we'll hold off on the Chargers-Raiders and 49ers-Rams games for the moment—we'll get back to 'em soon enough. Instead, go back to Saturday. The already-eliminated Broncos were holding on to a 21-20 lead with 8:02 left in the game, and were driving for more inside the 10-yard line. Even a field goal would be a significant help here in their hopes to ruin the Chiefs' day, while a touchdown would put them in commanding position. Always conservative, Vic Fangio's men kept running forward, calling a Melvin Gordon carry…
— NFL (@NFL) January 9, 2022
The Chiefs never trailed again, helped out by the fact that Fangio called a field goal down seven points with 4:41 left in the game.
Now, it's fair to say this play wasn't as big as it would have been before the playoffs expanded to 14 teams. If that were the case, this would be the difference between a week off and having to host the Patriots; a significant shift. As it stands, however, it's still the difference between the Chiefs having to face the Patriots, second-best in weighted DVOA, and the Steelers, ranked 21st. Any given Sunday and all that, but it's hard to imagine Kansas City getting a much easier matchup, and that scoop-and-score was key to making it happen.
Game-Changing Plays of the Year
Five teams ended up one game out of the playoffs when it was all said and done—five teams that, if you flipped just one result, would have found themselves in the postseason. These are their stories.
Flip any Los Angeles Chargers loss to a win, and they're a 10-7 wild-card team, likely about to face the Bills this weekend. And while yes, there are a number of one-score moments you could flip here, the fact remains that the Chargers were in playoff position until the last play of the last game of the last week of the season, with the last seconds ticking off of the last possible quarter. If Daniel Carlson's kick hooks, or falls short, or is tipped—or if the Raiders just don't call a timeout and let the game end in a tie—the Chargers are a playoff team. The very last ones eliminated this season.
DANIEL CARLSON GETS THE KEY TO PITTSBURGH pic.twitter.com/sQpo4kYe8T
— PFF PIT Steelers (@PFF_Steelers) January 10, 2022
Flip any Indianapolis Colts loss to a win, and they're also a 10-7 wild-card team. Like the Chargers, they have a painful Week 18 loss you could flip, but that wasn't really a one-play situation; they got fully clobbered by the Jags. Instead, let's go back to Halloween against the Titans, where, well, take your pick. Carson Wentz threw two backbreaking interceptions. The first came with the game tied with just 1:33 left in the fourth quarter, which meant Indianapolis then needed a furious drive just to tie the game and take it into overtime. The second came in overtime itself, deep enough in their own territory that the Titans were already in game-winning field goal range. Flip either, and the Colts likely win and are getting ready for the Bills this weekend.
MADNESS IN INDY!
Elijah Molden with the pick-six to take the lead!
— SportsCenter (@SportsCenter) October 31, 2021
Flip any Miami Dolphins loss to a win, and they're 10-7 and in the playoffs. If you flip one of the two Bills losses, they even win the AFC East, but neither of those were particularly close. Instead, we go back to the Week 3 overtime loss against the Raiders, which featured not one, but two comebacks for the Dolphins—one from a 25-14 deficit, and the other requiring a conversion on fourth-and-20 to re-tie the game in overtime. That left just three minutes left in the extra frame, but the Dolphins could still win if they could get a stop … which they just couldn't, as Bryan Edwards and Peyton Barber marched down the field so the Raiders could kick a field goal as time expired. They were good at that this year.
Peyton Barber breaks free for 27 yards! #RaiderNation
— NFL (@NFL) September 26, 2021
Over in the NFC, flip any New Orleans Saints loss to a win and they're your 10-7 sixth seed. They made their case in Week 18 with a win over the Falcons, which would have been enough had they made their case in Week 9 against the Falcons. Instead, after a furious fourth-quarter comeback that saw them turn a 24-6 deficit into a 25-24 lead with 1:01 remaining, Cordarrelle Patterson burned Paulson Adebo down the sideline for a tip-toe 64-yard catch-and-run, setting up the eventual Atlanta game-winning field goal as time expired.
— NFL (@NFL) November 9, 2021
The Minnesota Vikings are a little tougher. While they finished with plenty of one-score games to choose from, most of them are not actually enough to spring them into the playoffs; they lose the strength of victory tiebreaker to the 9-8 Saints. You specifically have to change the Week 12 loss against the 49ers to a win to squeeze them in, and there's not really one moment that flipped things—no overtime heroics or last-second fails. If I had to pick one play—and I do—I would take the one near the end of the third quarter, with the 49ers up 31-26. Dalvin Cook fumbled, giving the ball back to the 49ers for a short field goal, but more to the point, this was the play Cook dislocated his shoulder, costing him the rest of that game and the loss to the Lions which followed. Not exactly your traditional game-changing play, but bad enough that it's worth noting.
— Pro Football Network (@PFN365) November 28, 2021
Records to Date:
Andrew: For their victory over the New England Patriots in the race for the AFC East, the Buffalo Bills were rewarded with, uh, a home game against the very same New England Patriots in the AFC playoffs. Absent near-hurricane conditions, the Bills have largely demonstrated over the season that they are better than the Patriots, with a higher peak on both offense and defense. The Patriots may be back in the postseason, but they're not back to their previous level just yet. The Bills are better at almost every key spot, and while this won't be a blowout, that will be enough to give them a fairly comfortable victory. Buffalo (-4) over New England.
Bryan: I'm going with the Los Angeles Rams (-4) against Arizona in a belated NFC West title match. Arizona has lost four of their last five games, including one to these very Rams on a Monday night in December. Now, in the first Monday playoff game in NFL history, I'm expecting a repeat. The Rams are better coached and have more players who I could see taking over the game—Cooper Kupp running through the secondary, Aaron Donald and Von Miller eating the Cardinals' offensive line for breakfast, etc. Don't get me wrong, the Rams have a bit of chaos of their own to deal with. Their late winning streak hid some questionable play from time to time. But when they're up, the Rams are better than the Cardinals have been in two months, and I don't expect the September birds to come walking back through that door.