Writers of Pro Football Prospectus 2008

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» 2017 Defensive Personnel Analysis

Defenses have taken a wide variety of responses to the rise of 11 personnel. Is any one system better than another? And how has the rise of the "moneybacker" changed defensive philosophy?

23 Nov 2016

Scramble for the Ball: A Veritable Feast

by Bryan Knowles and Andrew Potter

Andrew: The Starks are always right eventually: winter is coming. Thanksgiving Week is usually, for me at least, the week I associate with its arrival.

Bryan: Temperatures plunged here in Chicago -- it was shorts weather when I was writing this last week, and now it's below freezing outside. It's time to dust off the old frozen tundra, it seems.

Andrew: A pity the Packers are in their Thanksgiving off year. That night game against the Bears last year would have been perfect for a good frozen tundra reference.

Bryan: Unlike last year, though, we actually have a fantastic set of games this year. All three matchups last season featured at least one team in the bottom half of DVOA, and very few playoff implications. This year, however, could be an all-time classic set of matchups.

Andrew: Two out of three look great, certainly. At the time of writing, however, it looks like we might be out of Luck on the third.

Bryan: Yeah, Andrew Luck being in the concussion protocol puts a bit of a damper on the nightcap, but it's still a matchup of 5-5 teams who each need a win to stay in the midst of the playoff race. When that's your weak game of the day, you're doing pretty good.

Andrew: Absolutely. Which means if things go according to the script, we may well have three great slates of football in a row! The first of those, we talked about after it happened. This one, it seems appropriate to look forward.

Bryan: Can we call it a Thanksgiving tradition to preview the Turkey Day slate of games, even if we have never done it before?

Andrew: All traditions had to start somewhere.

Bryan: Then it's official! A tradition like many others: The First Annual Scramble Thanksgiving Day Game Previews are go!


Andrew: The Thanksgiving slate begins with a home game for the Detroit Lions, as it has in every non-war year since 1934. The Lions, as a result, have both the most wins (36) and losses (38) on Thanksgiving in addition to two ties, good for a barely sub-.500 record. This year's visitors are the Minnesota Vikings, who make only their seventh Thanksgiving appearance -- their first since the 2000 season -- and come in with a 5-1 Turkey Day record.

Bryan: Detroit is leading the NFC North at the moment, ahead of Minnesota on tiebreakers, but that's very tenuous -- the Lions have trailed in the fourth quarter in each and every one of their games. They have been riding a very wild ride this year, clinging on to the division for dear life. Minnesota, on the other hand, has been streaky. The Vikings won their first five games and were the talk of the NFL, then lost four straight games to plummet back to the pack. A win against Arizona last week may have righted the ship, though. Both teams come in with a 6-4 record, so this one really matters.

Who's Playing (And Who's Not)

Andrew: As you mentioned, the Vikings were the last unbeaten team in the league -- but they might as well have been waging a land war in Asia for all the losses they suffered as they went. Starting quarterback Teddy Bridgewater, star running back Adrian Peterson, starting offensive tackles Matt Kalil and Andre Smith, and 16-game-starter-at-left-guard-last-year Michael Harris are all on injured reserve, along with recently-signed injury replacement Jake Long, who lasted all of three games. Other starting players on both offense and defense have been in and out of the lineup with various ailments, while kicker Blair Walsh never recovered from last year's devastating miss against the Seahawks that knocked the Vikings out of the playoffs, and was released last week after a series of high-profile misses this year. Offensive coordinator Norv Turner resigned two weeks ago, leaving tight ends coach Pat Shurmur as his de facto replacement. That leaves newly-acquired quarterback Sam Bradford, once more running Shurmur's offense after the pair were together in St. Louis, handing off to Matt Asiata and Jerick McKinnon behind a line that could generously be described as duct-tape-and-baling-wire, which is not how the Vikings imagined their offense in the offseason. Just as well they have one of the best defenses in the league, the league's best punt return unit by our numbers, and an explosive kick returner in Cordarrelle Patterson. They had both defensive and special teams touchdowns last week in their win over the Cardinals, so as long as that continues they're in good shape! The offense, on the other hand, is responsible for little more than protecting the ball and trying not to get anybody else hurt, with the occasional touchdown to Adam Thielen, Kyle Rudolph, or Stefon Diggs if Bradford can stay upright long enough to throw it.

The Lions, meanwhile, took the opposite path to the division lead, starting out 1-3 before winning five of their last six games. They have trailed in the fourth quarter of every game they have played, including the reverse of this fixture in Minnesota -- in which Detroit fell behind by three with 23 seconds left, but gained 35 yards in 21 of those seconds to set up a game-tying 58-yarder by former Broncos kicker Matt Prater. Golden Tate then won the game with a 28-yard catch-and-run touchdown from Matthew Stafford in overtime. The offseason retirement of star wide receiver Calvin Johnson has been overcome thanks to the free agency acquisitions of Marvin Jones from the Cincinnati Bengals and Anquan Boldin from the San Francisco 49ers, as well as the performances of receiving back Theo Riddick. That trio has combined for 14 receiving touchdowns in 10 games, also helping to overcome the generally underwhelming season for the aforementioned Golden Tate. Their defense has had injury and performance issues of its own, however, so this is a matchup of strength-versus-strength on one side and weakness-versus-weakness on the other.

What's at Stake

Bryan: The NFC North crown, in all likelihood. While the Packers still have an outside shot at taking the division if they go on a hot streak, it has really become a two-horse race between these two clubs.

The Vikings lost to the Lions in Minnesota back in Week 9. A loss here means they would not only be a game back of Detroit in the division, but also means that they would lose the tiebreaker. They'd have to win two more games than Detroit would in the final five weeks of the season in order to take the division, and that's a tough task -- they still have to play Dallas, for example, and both Indianapolis and Green Bay are still alive and fighting.

If the Vikings win, things get a little more tricky. Minnesota would have a lead in terms of divisional record, standing at 2-2 as opposed to the Lions' 1-3, but Detroit's two remaining divisional games are both at home, while Minnesota needs to travel to Lambeau Field in Week 16. If you're rooting for the most competitive races down the stretch, a Vikings win would likely leave the door open wider than a Lions win would.

Whichever team wins controls its own fate for the division. The loser will need help to make the playoffs at any seed.

What to Watch Out For

Andrew: Quarterbacks getting hit. Minnesota is great at hitting opposing quarterbacks, but terrible at preventing hits on their own. Detroit is league-average by both offensive and defensive adjusted sack rate, so they're likely to get hits on Bradford and concede hits on Stafford. How each of those quarterbacks responds to the pressure is likely to go a long way toward settling the outcome of the game.

Bryan: This game will be played at two very different levels, depending on who has the ball. Both Detroit's offense and Minnesota's defense are above-average in DVOA. On the other hand, Detroit's defense ranks dead last, and Minnesota's offense isn't exactly setting any new records itself. I'm looking forward to watching Matthew Stafford challenging the likes of Xavier Rhodes and Harrison Smith. The Vikings have had some trouble getting separation downfield at times, and if they can't find a way to get open, the Lions are in for a long day. Coverage leads to those Minnesota linemen plowing through quarterbacks. Jim Bob Cooter is going to be tasked with making sure the ball gets out quickly, with creative route planning to get open against this tough, tough defense.

Winner Winner, Chicken Turkey Dinner

Andrew: By our numbers, Minnesota has clearly been the better of these two teams. That didn't prevent Detroit from winning in Minnesota earlier in the year, however, and doesn't guarantee they won't win this week either. Detroit has a more reliable field goal kicker, which could easily be the difference in what I expect to be a close game. So with my prediction record this year, look for the Lions to lose after a shanked Matt Prater field goal, as Kai Forbath drills a 50-yard game-winner for Minnesota two plays later.

Bryan: You're right -- according to our numbers, Detroit is lucky to be where it is now. Minnesota also gets to play Eric Kendricks this week; he missed the first matchup between these two teams. The Vikings can't score a defensive touchdown every week, but by the same token, Detroit can't keep pulling fourth-quarter victories out of its hat every week. I'll take Minnesota's luck to hold up, as Detroit finally loses a close one.


Andrew: The second game this Thursday is also a traditional one, as the Dallas Cowboys host a Thanksgiving game for the 38th consecutive year and the 48th time in the past half-century. Their opponents are the division rival Washington Redskins, making their ninth Thanksgiving appearance. The Cowboys have a 29-18-1 all-time Thanksgiving record, while Washington's record is 2-6. The last Thanksgiving match between these two, however, was Washington's lone win against the Cowboys: 38-31 in 2012.

Bryan: Is Dallas the best team in the league? The Cowboys certainly have a very good argument for it, especially in this season without a clear runaway answer to that question. They haven't lost since Week 1, and that one was a one-point loss that came down to the very last play of the game. Since then, they have been unstoppable, outscoring their opponents by nearly 100 points. They have been consistent from week to week, as well -- impressive for a team relying on rookies at quarterback and running back. Washington has had a harder time of things this season, but the Redskins have come out of their bye strong, winning their last two games and firmly establishing themselves in the upper crust of the wild-card race. They begin a three-game road trip with this clash, so they'll have to hope some of that momentum carries forward if they want to remain in playoff contention.

Who's Playing

Andrew: Washington is as Washington has been for most of the past two years, at least on offense. Quarterback Kirk Cousins, running back Matt Jones, receivers DeSean Jackson, Pierre Garcon, and Jamison Crowder, and tight end Jordan Reed were all on the team last year, though last year's top running back Alfred Morris crossed the divide to the Cowboys (well, their bench) in free agency. On defense, playmaking defensive backs Josh Norman and Su'a Cravens were added in the offseason and have more than compensated for the loss of erratic cornerback-turned-safety DeAngelo Hall to a torn ACL. This is an improving team under third-year head coach Jay Gruden and famed general manager Scot McCloughan, and may have the best receiving corps in the NFL to make life as easy as possible for their opinion-splitting franchise(-tagged!) quarterback.

For the Cowboys, on the other hand, it's all change from last year due to the ascendance of the league's most exciting rookie quarterback-running back tandem since … well, actually since Washington had Robert Griffin and Alfred Morris in 2012. It's easy to forget how hyped those two were a mere four short years ago. Despite only getting to start because of a preseason injury to decade-long starter Tony Romo, fourth-round rookie Dak Prescott has compiled a 9-1 record as a starter and supplanted the now-healthy Romo as the first-choice Cowboys quarterback. Ezekiel Elliott, meanwhile, has been everything he was meant to be and more behind the league's best offensive line, already being touted as a dark horse candidate for the league MVP award and as close as it gets to a certainty for Offensive Rookie of the Year. Though the Cowboys defense has its issues -- injury and suspension have deprived them of a number of starters over the course of the year, including most of their pass rushers in September and top cornerback Morris Claiborne since October -- coordinator Rod Marinelli continues to get just enough out of them to allow the exciting offense to stay on schedule, resulting in a league-best 9-1 record and the inside track on the NFC's top playoff seed. The kids are, indeed, alright.

What's at Stake

Bryan: This is the single most impactful game of the NFL season to this point, affecting the NFC East, the NFC wild-card race, and home-field advantage, all in one go.

The Cowboys are essentially in the playoffs already. As long as they don't completely collapse down the stretch, they should return to the postseason after sitting out last year. No, what they care about now is seeding.

The NFC East is a very exciting race this year. While the Cowboys hold a two-game lead on the other three teams, all four are above .500, and both Washington and New York have outside shots of dethroning the 'Boys. A win for Dallas on Thursday doesn't put the division in the bag -- not with two more divisional games to go -- but it does get the bag ready and shake out any old cobwebs from the bag and I have taken this bag metaphor too far now.

No, even with a loss, the Cowboys would remain the favorites to win the NFC East and claim a bye week, but their shot at winning that all-important top seed really would be damaged. They have a 1.5-game lead over Seattle at the moment -- thanks, Week 7 tie! -- but Seattle might not lose again this season. The Seahawks are the top team in DVOA, and have home games against Carolina, Los Angeles, and Arizona still on their schedule, as well as a relatively simple road trip to San Francisco. Dallas has a much rougher remaining slate, with all of its opponents still very much alive in the playoff race.

The difference between playing at AT&T Stadium and CenturyLink Field in January is huge, thanks to that fabled Seattle 12th Man advantage. Going 5-1 from here on out would guarantee the Cowboys get that home game, so they can afford one loss -- but you don't want to waste that on a home game on Thanksgiving.

For Washington, the importance of this game is clear: lose, and kiss the division goodbye. The Redskins are not coming back from a 3.5-game deficit while also losing the tiebreaker. To be honest, they're probably not coming back to win the division even if they do pull out this win, but at least hope would still be alive. Lose this game, and they'd need a miracle to win the division.

It wouldn't do wonders for their wild-card position, either. Washington doesn't particularly care about tiebreakers -- the Week 8 tie against Cincinnati makes it highly unlikely that Washington be thrown into a tiebreaking situation this season, knock on wood. A loss, though, would keep the Redskins just a half-game ahead of the Detroit/Minnesota loser, and both the Buccaneers and Eagles could be right on their tail, as well. They'd still be in playoff position, even with a loss, but their airspace would get significantly more crowded.

The New York Giants have the Gentleman's Bye this week, by which I mean they play the Cleveland Browns. They have sort of a tough call for rooting interest in this matchup. A win by Dallas improves their overall playoff position, as it would knock Washington down a peg -- the more their wild-card foes fall, the easier it is to win one of those slots. On the other hand, a win by Washington means that the Giants would control their own fate for the NFC East and a possible bye week, with their Week 14 home game against Dallas looming very large; remember, the Giants handed the Cowboys their only loss of the season all the way back in Week 1. That's a heck of a possibility to dangle in front of them. Most Giants fans I know are glass-half-empty types, so they're sure to have something to grouse about on Black Friday regardless of what happens.

What to Watch Out For

Bryan: What, you need more than watching the continued brilliance of Dak Prescott and Ezekiel Elliott, or the big-play Washington offense? Fine. Pay attention when Dallas has the ball in the red zone. Dallas has a 55.9% DVOA on red zone rushes this year, tops in the league. Washington has a 38.7% DVOA on defending red zone rushes this year, worst in the league. On the other hand, Washington has allowed 100 yards rushing in just one of its last five games, and it was the last team to hold Elliott under 90 yards rushing, all the way back in Week 2. Still, this is a defensive line that ranks 28th in the league in Adjusted Line Yards and 27th in the league in Power Success. If there's a difference here, it could be Zeke Elliott plowing through the line to paydirt.

Winner Winner, Chicken Turkey Dinner

Andrew: The team with the league's best record, at home, against an inferior opponent already complaining about the league's scheduling giving them a whopping six hours less to prepare? Who could possibly pick against them?

Bryan: I'm with you. As a long-time 49ers fan, this Cowboys unit is giving me awful, awful flashbacks to the '90s. Don't I get enough of those having to look at Seattle's day-glo highlights? I'm taking the Cowboys.


Andrew: Since 2006, when the NFL introduced a third game on Thanksgiving, the night game has moved around to a completely different location every year: only the New York Jets and the Baltimore Ravens have hosted the game more than once. The late game is, however, responsible for the single most famous Thanksgiving moment of the past ten years: Mark Sanchez's Buttfumble in 2012.

This year's late kickoff sees a second game between teams with identical records, as the 5-5 Pittsburgh Steelers visit the 5-5 Indianapolis Colts. The Colts, interestingly, have never lost on Thanksgiving: in fact, they seldom play, having last appeared in 2007 and owning a 2-0-1 all-time record. Pittsburgh has a 1-6 all-time Thanksgiving record, and last appeared in 2013 where it lost 22-20 to the reigning champion Baltimore Ravens.

Bryan: The Steelers picked up a much-needed win against Cleveland last week; before that, they hadn't won since October 9. To be fair, however, that stretch included games against New England and Dallas, and road trips to Baltimore and Miami -- and also a missed game by Ben Roethlisberger. They remain tied atop the division thanks to the struggles Baltimore and Cincinnati have been having, but need to get things in gear if they wish to remain relevant. Indianapolis had gotten into an odd rhythm before its bye week, alternating wins and losses with metronomic regularity from Weeks 3 to 9. The Colts picked up their first winning streak of the season with a win over Tennessee last week, and remain just one game out in the awful, awful AFC South, where no team makes the top 20 in DVOA.

Who's Playing

Bryan: Let me introduce you to Scott Tolzien, a man with 91 career NFL passing attempts, and your likely starter for the Indianapolis Colts. And that's all I have to say about that.

Tolzien was an undrafted quarterback out of Wisconsin in 2011, and spent three years on the 49ers roster before moving to Green Bay in 2013. When Aaron Rodgers suffered a clavicle injury and Seneca Wallace injured his groin, the Pack turned to Tolzien. He put up a DVOA of -9.1%, 13 DYAR and a QBR of 24.3 in his three games, being pulled for Matt Flynn in his third and final appearance. Not a lot to write home about there, though he was 10-for-17 on his deep balls that year. Tolzien was outplayed by Brett Hundley in the preseason in Green Bay, but Indianapolis preferred him to either Josh Freeman or Ryan Lindley, so they signed him as a free agent this offseason. "Better than Ryan Lindley but not quite as good as Brett Hundley" may not be the most stirring recommendation I have ever heard, but it's what Indianapolis will be counting on this Thursday.

The Steelers aren't quite the same on defense as they have been the last few years; they have a number of rookies making an impact. Cornerback Artie Burns, safety Sean Davis, and tackle Javon Hargrave all started together against Cleveland, and all played fairly well -- a much needed injection of youth into Pittsburgh's defense, which just two years ago was one of the oldest in the league. Young players like Ryan Shazier and Stephon Tuitt have stepped into the lineup, however, and old hands like James Harrison are still playing at a solid level. The calling card of the modern Steelers team, however, remains the offensive trio of Ben Roethlisberger, Le'veon Bell, and Antonio Brown. They're aided by a very strong offensive line, especially on the right side where David DeCastro and Marcus Gilbert ply their trade. The Steelers' line ranks third in pass protection with an adjusted sack rate of just 3.9 percent, letting those offensive skill position players operate.

What's at Stake

Bryan: For the Colts, this game matters most in terms of just trying to stay alive. A loss doesn't kill their chances, even if it comes coupled with a Houston win over San Diego, but the Colts are a game back of the Texans and already lost their first matchup with them back in Week 6. They can't afford to fall too far behind if they want to take the division, and they still have road trips to Minnesota and Oakland to navigate later in the season. They should be thanking their lucky stars Oakland pulled off the comeback in Mexico City on Monday; Houston's DVOA isn't great but they just... keep... winning.

The Steelers and Ravens are tied atop the AFC North at the moment, which puts Baltimore in a familiar position: rooting for the Colts. Bust out those old Johnny Unitas high-tops and dust off the Baltimore Colts Marching Band; it's a homecoming for Thanksgiving.

A Steelers loss means they don't actually control their own fate for the division. It would drop them to 5-6, and they lost to the Ravens back in Week 9 to damage their tiebreaker situation. Even winning out at that point wouldn't guarantee them of a playoff spot of any variety; a 10-6 Steelers team would lose to a 10-6 Ravens team, as losses to Miami, New England, and Philadelphia earlier in the year would kill their common games tiebreaker, and three AFC West teams could all finish at 11-5 or greater. I'd even go so far to say that a win means the Steelers are more likely than not to make the playoffs, while a loss means they're more likely than not to miss the playoffs. Nothing set in stone, of course, but this is a very important game for Pittsburgh's playoff hopes.

What to Watch Out For

Andrew: The injury report, and any hope whatsoever of Andrew Luck being able to play. Whatever your opinion about Pittsburgh's underperformance as favorites, that's the best hope for a reason to stay up late on Thanksgiving night. If Luck can't play, this may be the game to miss so you can spend the obligatory family time. It's very, very unlikely for any player to clear a Sunday entry into the concussion protocol in time to play a Thursday night game, so you're probably safe to make those family plans. For those still watching, this game is likely to feature a lot of Le'Veon Bell for the Steelers and Frank Gore for the Colts: probably the league's best current running back against one of the greats of the past ten years. As a bonus, you could always do as Mike Tomlin does and play two-point conversion bingo!

Bryan: With no Luck in all likelihood, the Colts are going to need a spark somewhere. They're the fifth-best rushing team in the league by DVOA; Gore simply does not get stuffed at the line of scrimmage. Look right up the middle -- the young Colts trio of interior linemen in Jack Mewhort, Ryan Kelly, and Denzelle Good needs to win the battle against the Pittsburgh defensive line of Ricardo Mathews, Javon Hargrave, and Stephon Tuitt. The Colts are averaging 4.73 adjusted line yards on runs up the middle or off their guards, while Pittsburgh allows just 3.71 ALY. If the Colts can win that battle, they have got a chance.

Winner Winner, Chicken Turkey Dinner

Andrew: If Andrew Luck can't play, I expect the Steelers to win handily. If Andrew Luck can play, I expect the Steelers to win handily. That doesn't necessarily mean a curb-stomping, but the Steelers are better on both offense and defense and not even Adam Vinatieri is likely to be enough to make up for that.

Bryan: I wouldn't say the Steelers would win "handily" if Luck plays, but I'd agree that I'd probably side with Pittsburgh no matter who was behind center for Indianapolis. We're in agreement yet again.

Just because we agree on all three outcomes doesn't mean we're looking forward to it any less, though, right?

Andrew: Not at all! I'm excited to see what new and completely unforeseeable ways Detroit, Washington, and Indianapolis manage to upset my predictive applecart.

Bryan: Thanksgiving will never quite be the same without John Madden and Pat Summerall, but with games this good, it'd be a fantastic day even if Joe Theismann and Dennis Miller were covering the games.

Loser League Update

Quarterback: Welcome to the NFL, Jared Goff, we hope you enjoy your stay. In a year when rookies like Carson Wentz and Dak Prescott have enjoyed success, Goff's career got off to a more ignoble start. No turnovers is a good way to begin, but Goff's 31 passes ended up netting him just 134 yards through the air in a Fisheresque dink-and-dunk attack. Goff finished the day with 7 points.

Running Back: Detroit had a terrible day on the ground against Jacksonville, and Dwayne Washington led the way. He had 13 rushing attempts, and managed a grand total of six yards. A couple catches for 15 yards keeps him from the goose egg, but 1 point isn't exactly something to brag about, either.

Wide Receiver: Nine zeroes this week! Nelson Agholor, John Brown, Jeremy Kurley, and Corey Brown caught no passes. J.J. Nelson, Paul Richardson, Michael Crabtree,Seth Roberts did not gain enough yards. Golden Tate did gain enough yards, but fumbled on an end-around in the second half.

Kicker: The missed extra point extravaganza in Week 11 did a number on kickers' scores, and we had four players end up with negative points. Full honorable mentions to Robbie Gould, Connor Barth, and Cody Parkey for their attempts at kicking infamy, but it was Mike Nugent, who missed two extra points and had nothing else positive on the day, who ends up leading the pack with a whopping minus-10.

The Loser League page is now updated for 2016, and you can check out your team's score here.


Keep Choppin' Wood: Titans special teamer Valentino Blake (formerly known as Antwon) made headlines last week for pointing the wrong way when trying to influence the referees' call on a fumble recovery against the Packers. This week, however, he made an even more bizarre error that could have cost his team a lot more than just field position. With a punt bouncing high at his own 2-yard line, Blake leapt in the air to field it amid a crowd of Colts players:

Fortunately, the former Steelers cornerback was able to hold on in the crowd, but that doesn't excuse the terrible decision -- not that Blake recognizes it as such. Hopefully, his coaches will have set him straight.

John Fox Award for Conservatism: Fourth-and-5 near midfield, down 7, with just over three minutes left and one time-out is generally a losing proposition even for the best teams and coaches. For the Houston Texans and Bill O'Brien, it's close to desperation time: the time to go to your best play, look for DeAndre Hopkins, and hope he can -- wait… wait what? Is that…? No, that cannot possibly be Shane Lechler. I refuse to believe Bill O'Brien is going to punt here. Not even John Fox is this conservative. Does he honestly believe he is more likely to get a defensive stop against the Oakland offense, get the ball back, and drive the length of the field for a touchdown than he is to get 5 yards on one play? This must be a fake. No, he punted. He actually punted. Well, at least the awards section will be easy this week.

Herm Edwards Award for Playing to Win the Game: Of course, O'Brien's conservatism might have worked out slightly less terribly were it not for the completely contrasting approach of his opposite number. Jack Del Rio has developed a reputation for aggressive, calculated gambles this season, and we saw another one late in this game. Faced with fourth-and-1 on the opposing 39-yard line, the temptation for many coaches would be to punt and look to pin Houston as deep as possible. With no time-outs left for Houston, however, a first down would end the game. Recognizing this, as well as possibly the superiority of his offense over his defense, Del Rio sent his offense back onto the field. Latavius Murray gained 6 yards when all he needed was 1, and the Raiders took sole possession of first place in the AFC West.

Mike Martz Award for Confusing Coaching: At Scramble, we highly endorse trickeration in all its forms. A trick play within another trick play, however, might be a step too far.

Early in the third quarter, the Titans faced a fourth-and-2 at their own 43-yard line. "Aha!" thought Mike Mularkey. "We were so successful with trick plays last week, we should try that again!" This is what they came up with.

On fourth-and-2, if you want to run a fake punt, just do a direct snap and run two yards. The unbalanced line, the flip, the reverse, the pre-snap motion: all of it just ended up being a lot of running around for no positive effect whatsoever. Don't give it to a ballcarrier 7 yards behind the line of scrimmage, with his momentum taking him away from the first down marker. Burn this play.

"Breakout Performance" Fantasy Player of the Week: Coming into this week, fourth-round pick Malcom Mitchell had been having something of a quiet season for the New England Patriots -- seven receptions, 95 yards as he sat behind Chris Hogan on the depth chart. With Hogan out against San Francisco, however, Mitchell took full opportunity of a career-high snap count and a questionable 49ers secondary. Mitchell hauled in four catches for 98 yards and a touchdown, including a 56-yard backbreaker in the fourth quarter. The Patriots have had no luck drafting receivers, but if this is more than a one-week fluke, they might have something in Mitchell.

Jon Snow (We Know Nothing) Lock of the Week

Once again this year, all picks are made without reference to FO's Premium picks, while all lines are courtesy of Bovada and were accurate as of time of writing.

Andrew: Jacksonville (+7.5) isn't going to win in Buffalo. Well actually, this is exactly the type of game I'd expect a Rex Ryan team to lose, before crushing the Raiders in Oakland next weekend. Jacksonville isn't the team to win it though. Instead, my expectation is that Buffalo goes up big, Blake Bortles does what Blake Bortles does, and the game finishes something like 34-27 after being 34-13 at the start of the fourth quarter. Just enough to cover, not nearly enough to win: the story of the 2016 Jacksonville Jaguars.

Bryan: We're 6,000 words in, and you want more analysis? It's a three-day work week for me, you're killing me here. I'll take Minnesota (+3) for the second week in a row, for all the reasons outlined in that big old game preview post we have got right up there.

Records so far:
Bryan: 7-3
Andrew: 2-7-1


We're beginning to get to the serious parts of the playoff race -- the Cleveland Browns became the first team to be mathematically eliminated from contention on Sunday with their loss to Pittsburgh -- so it's time to throw a few more teams onto the "maybe next year" scrap heap. Unlike the teams whose season essentially ended in October, however, teams who drop out at this point usually have at least something positive they can point to, to build on for next season.

Tennessee has a legitimately good offense! DeMarco Murray looks more like the back he was in Dallas than the one he was in Philadelphia, and while Marcus Mariota still has some developing to do, he is looking more and more like the real deal. Taylor Lewan and Jack Conklin are the best young tackle duo in football at the moment. If the team adds a wide receiver threat, it could make some noise next season.

Of course, the Titans also have a legitimately terrible defense and a 1-3 record in their division. Until they can figure out ways to beat the Colts and Texans, they're not going anywhere. Being a one-dimensional team is certainly better than the zero-dimensional team they have been for the past couple seasons, but there's still some work to be done.

Arizona was my preseason Super Bowl pick, and it's time to put that hope to bed. The Cardinals' defense is still great, and their running game ends up being about league average, but they have gotten just about all they can possibly get out of Carson Palmer. It doesn't help that, outside of the ageless and impeccable Larry Fitzgerald, there are no solid targets for Palmer to throw to, but the 36-year-old Palmer is looking every second of that age. He's probably a serviceable veteran leader at this point, but it looks like it may be time for the Cardinals to go back to the early-round quarterback draft well for the first time since selecting Matt Leinart in 2006.

4-5-1 might be enough to keep you in contention some years, but the Cardinals have a very tough schedule remaining, including road trips to Atlanta and Seattle and a home game against Washington. With so many teams ahead of them in the wild-card race, it's time to give up hope for 2016.

We might as well throw in Los Angeles as well, implicitly handing the NFC West to Seattle. Los Angeles' defense is still ticking along at acceptable levels, and the Rams have finally made the move to their rookie prospect at quarterback. The fact that it took until Week 11 to make that move does not say great things about their head coach.

Jeff Fisher's reputation for 7-9 bullsh*t does hide his successful runs in Tennessee -- he still has a career winning record -- but for the last six seasons, he has finished with one game of that Fisherian ideal record. It has been just good enough to keep him employed, but just bad enough to keep him rocketing up the all-time loss charts. He tied Tom Landry from the second-most losses in NFL history last week, and is three losses away from catching Dan Reeves for top all time. Those gentlemen coached 82 and 21 more games than Fisher. Fourteen coaches have coached more than 300 games in the NFL. Fisher has the worst winning percentage of that group.

All three teams showed signs of life at some point in this season, but they're clearly a cut below the real competitive class this year. While they can point to the likes of Cleveland or San Francisco and claim superiority, their 2016 season is essentially over.

As for those lesser teams, San Francisco is officially eliminated from the playoffs if it loses to Miami, or if the Redskins and Giants both win. I think it's fairly safe to say that this will be the last week San Francisco has even a mathematical shot.

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Posted by: Bryan Knowles and Andrew Potter on 23 Nov 2016

15 comments, Last at 25 Nov 2016, 2:50am by Jerry


by Bryan Knowles :: Wed, 11/23/2016 - 3:32pm

A shout-out to Vince for editing this massive thing, and making sure all our periods and commas were in the right places.

by Bryan Knowles :: Wed, 11/23/2016 - 3:32pm

A shout-out to Vince for editing this massive thing, and making sure all our periods and commas were in the right places.

by DrP :: Wed, 11/23/2016 - 4:59pm

ahem fabled 12th Man advantage. Even the Seahawks note ON THEIR OWN WEBSITE

® The term 12th MAN is a trademark of Texas A & M University and its use is pursuant to a license agreement with the university.

by tictoc :: Wed, 11/23/2016 - 6:18pm

Yeah, we're the "12's" now. As in, "the twelves were loud today" or "send me a twelfie of you and that hottie".

by Andrew Potter :: Wed, 11/23/2016 - 6:34pm

Meh. The term "twelfth man" has been used to talk about the supporters of football teams for over 100 years.

by Jerry :: Wed, 11/23/2016 - 6:45pm

On the Loser League page, shouldn't the season standings just be second-half standings?

by Andrew Potter :: Wed, 11/23/2016 - 7:43pm

They should be, and hopefully now they are. If it isn't fixed, please let us know.

by Jerry :: Wed, 11/23/2016 - 9:35pm

Looks good now. Thanks.

by xydux :: Thu, 11/24/2016 - 1:31am

So what's the video from? I don't think I recognize the cartoon.

by nickd46 :: Thu, 11/24/2016 - 6:42am

I just wanted to share... I am far more pleased at my top five Loser League placing than I should be.

by BearDown103 :: Thu, 11/24/2016 - 11:19am

The Redskins could conceivably tie the Cardinals or Seahawks for a wild card spot, in which case tiebreakers would matter.

by Sixknots :: Thu, 11/24/2016 - 12:02pm

And the Squirrels would win based on conference record.

by BearDown103 :: Thu, 11/24/2016 - 10:20pm

Who are the squirrels? The Redskins have a head-to-head game with the Cards next week that would decide the tiebreaker.

by TGT :: Thu, 11/24/2016 - 12:40pm

No need to dust off the Baltimore Colts marching ban; they never went on the shelf. The longest continuously existing band in the league, they were ready when the Ravens came to town.

Also, that Indianapolis team are the damn Irsays. We root that a meteor strikes this game.

by Jerry :: Fri, 11/25/2016 - 2:50am

Didn't the band still call itself the Colts band until the new stadium opened? While there was no team in Baltimore, the Colts band would play halftime shows at Three Rivers on occasion.