Scramble for the Ball: A Deep Breath

Jason Myers hits the winning field goal in San Francisco
Jason Myers hits the winning field goal in San Francisco
Photo: USA Today Sports Images

Andrew: Hello and welcome to Scramble for the Ball, where this week's early-window results have led your humble Scrambletipodeans to conclude that down is up and up is down.

Bryan: And where we have to figure out which is worse -- your Super Bowl-contending team losing a heartbreaking game in overtime to another contender, or your Super Bowl-contending team being unable to stop one of the dregs of the league. Reader, Week 10 was not an exceptionally enjoyable time for your humble authors.

Andrew: There's an air of the existential about those results though. Is it worse to be in the Saints' position, blown out in your own building by one of the worst teams in the league, or in the Falcons', having to content yourself with playing spoiler because your season is yet again over by mid-November?

Bryan: At least for Saints fans -- and Chiefs fans, for that matter, don't think we forgot about you! -- your painful losses are somewhat mollified by the knowledge that Stuff Happens. The Ravens lost to the Browns. The Packers lost to the Chargers. Even really good teams occasionally just have brainfart games where everything goes wrong. Those teams know they're good, and that they'll bounce back, even if the losses may have brought weaknesses into sharp relief.

But 49ers fans are in a different place -- Monday Night's game against Seattle was their biggest since at least 2014, and they blew it! They don't have an "oh, well, you know, we beat Houston and Seattle and Dallas, we'll be fine" on their resume. They don't have the big wins to fall back on in the Shanahan era! And now they look up at a schedule with Green Bay, Baltimore, and New Orleans all in a row and ... eep. Plus a Week 17 rematch against Russell Wilson, who is now an astonishing 13-3 against the 49ers all-time. Public Enemy No. 1 in San Francisco, replacing Brett Favre and his 12-2 record (yes, I know Jerry Rice fumbled, the refs didn't call it, it didn't count.)

Andrew: The demise of the last winless team, however, and the confirmation of the first team to be eliminated from their division race (again, shockingly, not the Dolphins) makes this a good time for us to take stock. Where are we at this point in the season? Who are the big surprises, both positive and negative? Who really isn't living up to the hype, and who never had any hype but should have?

Bryan: Plus, a nice big-picture overview might help soothe the nerves of fans of contenders on losing streaks. Patriots, Bills, Chiefs, 49ers, and Saints fans: this week's for you.

... maybe not Bills fans.

Andrew: Put a pin in the page for those teams though; we'll get to them in a minute. Let's start at the bottom and work our way up.


Bryan: No team is mathematically eliminated yet -- though the Bengals can break the seal there this week! Good luck! -- but let's face it, about half the league knows at this point that the season is over and they're just fishing for draft position. By my count, 11 teams are basically in hopeless positions at the moment: the Broncos, Dolphins, Jets, Bengals, Bears, Lions, Cardinals, Buccaneers, Falcons, Giants, and Redskins. I feel like I want to put the Chargers here too, though I might get some pushback on that. That general list feel about right to you, Andrew? Anyone I'm forgetting, or writing off too early?

Andrew: The one other debatable team, in much the same way the Chargers are, is the Browns. I know, I know, the schedule gets much easier in the second half, but not that much easier. They still have to play Pittsburgh twice, at Arizona, and against a Baltimore side that will be looking to avenge what happened last time.

Bryan: Yeah, if they fall to the Steelers on Thursday Night, I think you can place them in this group. I'd give them the benefit of the doubt for now, because they do have the easiest remaining schedule by DVOA, but at some point you have to turn an easy schedule into actual wins. If you, reader, are checking this on Friday, they may already be dead.

Andrew: Most of that easy schedule is really two games against Cincinnati.

Bryan: Two games against Cincinnati is a heck of an advantage to have! A lot of teams would love to have two games against Cincinnati left at this point of the year!

Andrew: Sure, but you can smack the Bengals out of Ohio by whatever score you want both times, it's still only two wins. They're going to need at least six to get a wild-card spot.

Bryan: Mathematically, they just need four, but that requires the kind of crazy permutations that I stay up until 5 a.m. to figure out. Six wins is probably their break-even point, yeah -- and with that Ravens game on the schedule, that probably means they need to win everything else, and I do mean everything. I don't think they're going to do that, but I'll at least give them until Thursday Night to change my mind.

You know what team I'm surprised to see here? The Bears. I know we tootled the Regression Horn long and hard this offseason, but I wasn't expecting the offense to crater like this. I don't think the Bears can afford to go into 2020 with Mitchell Trubisky as their only option under center, and that's not something you like to say out of the second overall pick in his third season.

Andrew: I'm not surprised to see the Bears here. They have exactly as many wins as I thought they would at this point in the season, and are bang on track for the 7-9/6-10ish record that I thought was most likely. If they can give themselves a pick-me-up with a win against the surprisingly poor Rams this weekend, they'll appear to fade back into contention, but an 0-4 December would not surprise me one bit. I pegged them as last year's Jaguars with a new paint job, except I thought Trubisky wouldn't collapse as badly as Blake Bortles did. Whoops.

Bryan: I wasn't expecting the Bears to be as good as their press -- fourth-most likely to win the Super Bowl, per Vegas odds! Trubisky was the single most popular bet for MVP in July! -- but I didn't think their offense would be outright bad. And Trubisky's passing has been the better part of that offense, whether you're looking at raw DVOA or by rank! I think 6-10 might be too optimistic for the Bears the rest of the way, and THEN where are they? It's one thing to struggle in your Franchise Quarterback's rookie season. If you crater in Year 3...

Andrew: At least they didn't pay him Blake Bortles money ... yet.

Bryan: Or Jared Goff money, for that matter! The Rams aren't in the DOOOOOOMED category at the moment; I'd place them in a secondary category just above that -- a "hey, wild cards are good, right?" category. They'd join the Browns and/or Chargers, Jaguars, and Bills there, with maybe the Titans on the high end -- none of these guys are winning their division at this point, but they're just dangerous enough to possibly make a run at a first-round playoff loss. That's not exactly what the Rams were hoping for when they backed the Brinks truck up to Jared Goff, of course.

Andrew: We'll get to the Rams in a minute, because as you say they're in the interesting and arguable pile of teams. There are two other teams in this pile I wanted to look at first. One is the Cardinals, because they might actually be good in around 10 months' time -- they appear to have found a franchise quarterback, and now just need to put the remainder of a team around him. They might even be able to do that, because they didn't mortgage the farm to draft him (Trubisky) or to try to put a team around him (Goff) or pay him top dollar (also Goff).

Bryan: I'm a little peeved that "draft a top-10 quarterback two years in a row" might end up being a good strategy, but you know, fair play. It looks more and more like Josh Rosen was not the answer to anything (though I'd like to see him get a chance behind an offensive line at some point), so credit to the Cardinals for figuring that out and grabbing another guy. If you don't have a quarterback, you don't have a team, and while the Cardinals aren't going anywhere this year, they do seem to be set up nicely going forward. Seem to be, at any rate.

Andrew: The challenge, as ever, will be the division. That looks like being a very rough place to ply your trade over the start of the 2020s.

Another tough division right now is the NFC North, which might at least provide the Lions with some kind of excuse: they're 0-3 inside the division, having lost once to each of their three rivals, and 3-2-1 against the rest of their schedule, with one of those losses coming against the Chiefs. They were our computer's favorites in the preseason, but really haven't played up to their talent level to this point. We already mentioned Jim Caldwell just last week: he was fired for failing to win a playoff game, but Matt Patricia doesn't exactly look likely to do that in his second season either.

Bryan: Fun fact about the Lions: they're one of only three teams to have had a lead in every game this season, along with the 49ers and Chiefs. The talent our model was pointing to does seem to be there, they just haven't been able to put it all together. Yeah, I think you can blame some of that on Patricia; a more dynamic coach might be able to get more out of this unit. I imagine they'll be model darlings again next year, for much the same reasons, and eliciting much the same response from the world at large (a massive "zwuh?").

Andrew: They'll probably need to win out to get back into contention, which isn't happening, but they are frustratingly close. They really seem like a team for whom coaching would make the difference -- or for whom it already is, but not in the way they want it to. They look like they'll land at either 7-8-1 or 8-7-1, just solid enough to keep the coach but not good enough for the fans to be optimistic about doing so.


Andrew: Can we just call this the AFC South and be done with it? That's the only division you didn't mention above, and the only division I don't think we'll mention among the true contenders. It's just a giant ball of mediocrity.

Bryan: The AFC South is probably the only division where nobody is dead just yet. I don't think the Jaguars will be winning the division, and whether the Titans have a puncher's chance or not of catching the Colts and Texans is a subject for some debate, but they are, at least, both alive. That maybe makes this the most interesting division down the stretch? With the caveat that "interesting" doesn't necessarily mean "good."

Andrew: You might be stretching the definition of "interesting." I'd settle for "murky." Every one of these teams has obvious strengths and glaring flaws. That means they do cool stuff like beat the Chiefs (only the Jaguars failed in that endeavor) and terrible stuff like lose at home to the Raiders and Dolphins (hi, Indy!).

Bryan: We gotta figure out the Titans here. If they hadn't beaten the Chiefs, I'd have grouped them with that bunch above, cold and dead and hopeless at 4-6. But, uh, they did beat Kansas City, and now they're a game and a half out of the division lead? And just half a game behind the Colts? Is the Ryan Tannehill resurgence an Actual Thing?

Andrew: The Titans are the perfect embodiment of the AFC South. They have been 9-7 in each of the past three years, but they have not won the division over that period and have finished behind each other team at least once. They're 1-1 in the playoffs, beating the Chiefs (AGAIN) and being smelted by the Patriots. They're 5-5 and have a tough back half of the schedule, putting them perfectly on course for 8-8. They opened the season with the most boring starting quarterback in the league, and benched him for a man you previously called, accurately, a human golf clap. It's not so much that the Ryan Tannehill resurgence is an Actual Thing, as that the Marcus Mariota experience is Not A Thing. I wouldn't be surprised to learn that nobody who watched Mariota play this year remembers it. That's pretty much my experience of the last three years of Titans football. I feel very strongly that there's nothing here to feel strongly about.

Bryan: I think, at the end of the day, you're right -- which means the Titans aren't really division contenders. 8-8 might be enough to snag a wild-card berth, theoretically, but I think if the Titans are going to play January football, that human golf clap will have to become a full-fledged Tiger Roar. They're going to have to at least split with Deshaun Watson and the Texans, and maybe even pull off an upset over the Saints at home in order to punch their playoff card. But hey, if they can beat the Chiefs (behind Derrick Henry, it should be pointed out, much more so than Tannehill), they can do anything, right? Well, maybe, at least.

Andrew: Or they can make you forget that they didn't do it, which is almost as valuable. Kind of.

Bryan: They fit right in with that group of "uh, maybes" up above. And maybe, just maybe, you'd rather have the Titans' Tannehill than Jared Goff or Josh Allen?

I kid ... I think.

Andrew: I would, I guess, because at least there's less cash (Goff) or false hope (Allen) involved, but Dolphins fans who care enough to remember Tannehill might disagree with at least the latter of those statements. Some of these teams are in danger of permanent purgatory: the Colts are too well-coached now to draft and destroy another Andrew Luck or Peyton Manning, so they'll have to find a franchise quarterback some other way (which, it should be said, could be by developing Jacoby Brissett). The Texans appear to be going the Luck Colts route of stellar quarterback play overcoming myriad other deficiencies, but ultimately leading to the quarterback's early demise. The Rams have thrown cash at Goff and draft picks at Ultimate Team, and are likewise probably too well-coached for their own good. That is also possibly true of the Panthers, assuming they move on from the Ghost of Newtons Past, and the Steelers if Big Ben decides he's had enough.

The Bills are next year's this year's Bears, who we've already noted are this year's last year's Jaguars. Nobody really knows what Jacksonville currently is, because their starting quarterback has been both one of the worst starters in the league and a Super Bowl MVP. Cleveland has a proven ability to bottom out, so I would never count them out of doing so again, and OakVegas could be literally anything without surprising me. Well, except stable, I suppose.

Bryan: The Bills are still likely to pick up a wild-card slot because of that clear sailing schedule. Even if they only beat the Dolphins, Broncos, and Jets, they get to 9-7 with a real good shot. They'd probably want to win one more (Pittsburgh?) to be on the safe side, but they could easily be a playoff team with their best win coming over the Marcus Mariota Titans. Oof.

Oakland's success this year surprises me. Couple that with the Chiefs recent struggles -- 2-4 over their last six games, both with and without Mahomes! -- and the AFC West is all of a sudden just a little bit interesting.

Andrew: Only a very little bit, though the Raiders do also benefit from a soft schedule. Funny how that keeps coming up in the AFC, isn't it? Almost like all of these teams are playing the Bengals, Jets, and Dolphins or something.

Bryan: Impossible! It must just be a major coincidence. Terrible teams can't have that much of an impact on the playoff race, can they? It'd be terrible!

... The AFC is terrible.

Andrew: Let's finish, then, by taking a peek at exactly why that is.


Bryan: Now that we've cleared the riffraff, I think we have the real division races lined up.

The close races!

NFC West: San Francisco v. Seattle
NFC East: Dallas v. Philadelphia
AFC West: Kansas City v. Oakland

The clear favorite with a longshot races!

NFC South: New Orleans v. longshot Carolina
NFC North: Green Bay v. longshot Minnesota
AFC South: Houston v. longshot Indianapolis
AFC North: Baltimore v. longest shot Pittsburgh

The Usual!

AFC East: New England v. An Ongoing Sense of Ennui

Andrew: I was all set to argue with the Raiders versus the Chiefs as a close race, only to realize that it is pretty much a dead heat right now. The Raiders really snuck up on me, but the only reason the Chiefs lead the division is simply that they've played an extra game.

Bryan: You'd still think the Chiefs will win the division, even if the Raiders pull off the upset in Week 13; I like Kansas City to win all their remaining games outside the Patriots clash. But then, I liked them to beat the Titans, and look where we are.

I described the Raiders in Football Outsiders 2019 as a Kerbal Space Program launch, where they strapped ten thousand rockets to the capsule, launched, and hoped they could figure out some way of controlling it in midair. Well, they've sloughed off some of the chaff (see Brown, Antonio) and gotten real solid performances from Derek Carr and potential rookie of the year Josh Jacobs, and the defense also exists in physical space and occasionally stands in the way where an opposing player can trip over them. They probably need to go 5-2 with a win over the Chiefs to take the division. That'd be the Jets on the road, plus the Bengals, Titans, and Jaguars at home. That's not crazy talk! That's one upset away from Jon Gruden, Division Winner in the 2010s. I will be the first to admit I did not see that coming.

Andrew: Gruden has already outperformed my expectations for his return, just by having a competitive Raiders team. Whatever happens in the division race, I don't see them as an actual contender, but talking about them as a contender for the playoffs rather than the No. 1 pick is long overdue. Even if five wins doesn't snag the division, it should net them a very unexpected wild-card spot.

Bryan: The Raiders' one problem about a wild-card berth is their specific tiebreakers. I'm presuming that a 9-7 Raiders team would be competing with a 9-7 Bills team, which makes their common games the Jets, Bengals, Titans, and Broncos. The Raiders still have to play the Broncos on the road in Week 17, and that's the kind of divisional rivalry game where you can throw some of the records out the window. Still, to even be relevant in Week 17 is a welcome change for fans in Oakland, who can look forward to many years of the Raiders bringing championship football to...

... oh. Well, you win some, you lose some.

You can blame some of the Chiefs' faltering on Patrick Mahomes' injury, and while I don't think it's enough to cost them the division, it's enough to cost them probably a bye week. That puts them on similar footing with the NFC East, where the winner gets a home game against one of the 49ers, Seahawks, or Vikings, all of whom will be pissed they failed to take their division and looking to take out some aggression on the worst division winner in the conference.

Andrew: ... which still won't be the Chiefs in the AFC, to be clear, for the southerly reasons we specified above.

Bryan: Yeah, the Chiefs probably ease into third and get the Bills or Raiders (or Steelers? Or Colts?) in that first round, which is an easier draw than the Cowboys or Eagles will get. Still, you'd rather be in the playoffs than out, one would assume.

Andrew: Those NFC East teams really defy our categorization here, because they're both capable of being good enough to get on a roll and tear through the playoffs, but neither of them looks anywhere close to doing so. Either could waltz through the second half of the schedule, or utterly collapse behind injuries and weird coaching decisions.

Bryan: Both teams play the Patriots, so we can call that a wash. By DVOA, you'd expect both teams to be favorites in all their other games remaining, with the exception of the Week 16 head-to-head clash, where Dallas is ranked better but the game's in Philly. If we assume that both teams win their non-Patriot games, then the winner of that Week 16 matchup takes the division -- but that assumes both teams keep their heads above water the rest of the way. It feels like one or the other is bound to slip up at some point, right?

Andrew: Normally I'd say Dallas will, due to ultra-conservative coaching (see below) and ownership interference, but they appear to have the less imposing set of remaining games. Their toughest opponent, other than New England, is either in Chicago, in Detroit, or the Rams at home. They'll fancy winning all of those. Philadelphia still has to play the Seahawks at home, which their secondary woes make them unlikely to enjoy. Still, Philly's two tough games are both at home following their bye, whereas Dallas plays in New England and has two other potential banana skins on the road.

Bryan: If I had to pick a winner in every game down the stretch, I would put Dallas over Philly for the division. But that also involves giving several coin flips to Dallas and taking away several coin flips from Philadelphia. The Cowboys feel like they'll finish somewhere between nine and 11 wins, the Eagles somewhere between 10 and 12. If Philly can pull off the upset against the Patriots this week -- and I'm not predicting that, but it's not exactly crazy -- then they are in the driver's seat. This is the closest divisional race down the stretch, I feel, if not the most important.

The most important is the NFC West, as those Seahawks continue to dance all over the 49ers' hopes and dreams. I still think the 49ers win if they had their regular kicker or either of their only two players on the team with, you know, hands, but if wishes were horses and all that. I still think the 49ers will win the division, but that the Seahawks will beat them in Week 17 to clinch that fifth seed AND force the 49ers to play in the wild-card round. Because it's not John York who owns the 49ers, it's Russell Wilson.

Andrew: The wild-card round? So you have both the Saints and, presumably, the Packers overtaking the 49ers over the back half? That is a remarkable lack of confidence coming from one overtime loss.

Bryan: Like I said, 49ers fans don't have a backlog of impressive wins to fall back on, so the sky is currently falling.

Let's say, for argument's sake, that the Seahawks do beat the 49ers in Week 17. And that the 49ers go 0-2 on their really, really tough back-to-back road trip with the Ravens and Saints. That puts them at 12-4. I favor the Saints in every other game they play this year, and even slipping up twice would keep THEM at 12-4, with the head-to-head win over the 49ers, so they take one bye. The 49ers would beat out a Packers team at 12-4, assuming they can hold THEM off in Week 12, but beating the Packers might be enough to slide the Vikings into the NFC North lead at 12-4, and the Vikings are going to have a much better strength of victory than the 49ers would. So yeah, I could see, in an unlikely but certainly not implausible scenario, a 12-4 49ers team having to face an angry Packers team, out for revenge, in the first round of the playoffs.

Andrew: Your reasoned pessimism knows no bounds.

Bryan: That's what I was alluding to way back at the start of this whole thing. Saints fans can say they're a perennial playoff team, so one bad day against the Falcons is bad, but you know, everyone has off days. The 49ers haven't been in the playoffs since 2013, and haven't had a winning season in that long either. Monday Night might have been the first relevant game they've played since then, and they bobbled it.

The best thing about the NFC race, of course, is that it's going to be decided on the field. The 49ers play the Packers, Saints, and Seahawks. If they win out, they get the top seed. If they lose one, that team probably gets the top seed. That's good! That's better than just scoreboard-watching! And then the Vikings play the Seahawks and Packers to see which non-49ers/Saints team will be one of the top three teams in the conference. Good scheduling down the stretch!

Andrew: That's certainly good, but arguably the better "best thing" about the NFC race is that it's actually interesting. The AFC has exactly two competitive division races, but one of those is the AFC South and the other involves the Raiders. The two byes are all but sealed, unless you think both New England and Baltimore are having uncommonly poor winters and the Chiefs are running the table. There were two teams in contention for this conference in preseason, and all that has happened is one has fallen away to be replaced by another.

Bryan: I actually think, at this point, the Texans are more likely to earn a bye week than the Chiefs. That's how much Kansas City's recent slump has hurt them. I don't think either team will, mind you, nor do I think it will be even close, but that's where we are.

Andrew: So it's Baltimore and New England, in whichever order, one and two, then probably Kansas City and the Texans, then two wild-card teams from a smattering of teams with major flaws, who exist solely to enrage Chiefs fans against Andy Reid then get blown out at one of the aforementioned top seeds.

Bryan: That's exactly how I see it, with five teams in that eight- to nine-win range battling out for the wild-card slots. I have them going to the Steelers and Bills, for the record, but your mileage may vary.

The Ravens' win over the Patriots is the only thing that is keeping that race interesting. The Ravens need to win one more game than the Patriots do over the rest of the year to take it., and they have the tougher schedule, but it's not impossible ... yet. The Patriots aren't going to lose after Week 14 (they close with Bengals-Bills-Dolphins; maybe they'll lose if they rest starters. Maybe).

Andrew: Tougher is arguable, given the exact lists of opponents, but yes the order of those two on December 9 will probably still be the order on December 30.

Bryan: I'm not even sure I'd say that, considering the Ravens travel to the Browns in Week 16 -- they'll be looking for revenge for what might be the most inexplicable loss of the entire season to date. But even little things like the Patriots getting the Bills at home while the Ravens get them on the road count against Baltimore, not to mention having to play one-loss San Francisco. I'd give the Ravens about a one-in-nine chance of running the table; the Patriots about a one-in-five chance. Not impossible that something flips there, but you have to like your position if you're the Patriots. Again.

Andrew: Which puts us on yet another familiar collision course: a team that has struggled its way through the NFC playoff race and two or three grueling contests against top-tier opponents ... versus, in all likelihood, the Patriots. At least we can rest safe that both of our teams will have found agonizing ways to lose before that fateful day. Maybe we'll finally get that Patriots-Packers game we've all been predicting in the Staff Predictions article for most of the past decade.

Bryan: Or Lamar Jackson can bring us roaring into a bold new 2020s, where teams across the land can live without fear of the Monsters at the End of the AFC for the first time since Rex Ryan and Mark Sanchez slew the beast back in 2010. One can only hope.

Andrew: And ultimately, hope is what keeps us coming back, even after weekends like the last one.

Bryan: Sassafrassa Russell Wilson.

Weekly Awards

Keep Choppin' Wood

We love fourth-down aggression, and boy did Kickin' Kliff Kingsbury gives us that against the Buccaneers. Not only did his team, notorious for kicking field goals on short fourth downs, actually go for it, but they schemed an aggressive play-action shot play down the right sideline. Unfortunately, the target for that play was Maxx Williams, and the result was this:

We don't have nearly enough xxxx's to do justice to Williams' gaffe, but don't be surprised if it puts the K back in play for the Kardinals next time out.

Herm Edwards Award for Playing to Win the Game

We recently featured Mike Zimmer bemoaning what he considered a terrible fourth-down decision late in the team's win against Washington. That was actually a good decision, poorly executed. Faced with another fourth-down decision against the Cowboys in Dallas, Zimmer again made a good decision, and this time his team executed perfectly: Dalvin Cook scored on a 2-yard run on fourth-and-goal, and those four points turned out to be the exact margin of victory at the end of the game. Good process is good process regardless, but it is a whole lot easier to endorse when it leads to good outcomes.

John Fox Award for Conservatism

By contrast, Cowboys head coach Jason Garrett called an absurdly conservative game, especially in the first quarter before the Vikings gained a 14-point lead. Each of the team's first five first-down plays was a handoff to Ezekiel Elliott, and though all five at least gained positive yards, not one was successful by DVOA standards. Despite this, each of the team's first three drives made it to Vikings territory, between the 39- and 48-yard lines, and all faced fourth-and-medium with 4 to 6 yards to go. This is prime go-for-it territory: the gain from a punt is unlikely to be substantial, and the odds of making a 55-plus-yard field goal are barely superior to the odds of converting. Garrett tried one 57-yard field goal, which missed left, then punted on each of the other two plays, most egregiously fourth-and-4 from the Minnesota 40, trailing 14-0. The Cowboys did claw their way back into the game, but still ended up needing exactly that type of conversion: fourth-and-5 in Minnesota territory, trailing by four. Many teams are finally wising up to going for those opportunities in long range early, but Garrett's performance against Minnesota showed that we number-crunchers still have a lot of ground to make up.

Jeff Fisher Award for Confusing Coaching

The coach's challenge situation can be quite confusing, but one thing is pretty clear: you get two. Two challenges. If you nail them both, sure, you get a third, but apart from that, two is the number of challenges you have, and the number of challenges you have shall be two. Three is right out. Bruce Arians decided, however, that he was so annoyed by the refs in the Tampa Bay-Arizona game that he'd throw a third challenge flag just to prove a point. The refs ruled that Kyler Murray had thrown an incomplete pass before getting sacked, a difference of about 10 yards. The problem is, Arians had already tried a hopeless pass interference challenge about a minute and a half earlier. Had he not blown that challenge earlier, he could have actually used his challenge flag to, uh, challenge, rather than to "make a statement." As long as the NFL is going to limit the number of challenges available, you have to use them wisely!

'If You Can Make It Here...' Fantasy Player of the Week

Was the Battle of New York a breakout game for Darius Slayton? Technically, he'd had a two-touchdown game against Detroit a few weeks ago, but that was nothing compared to his day against the Jets. Slayton's 10 receptions, 121 yards, and two touchdowns Sunday are basically a third of his full season's totals, as the rookie from Auburn developed a good rapport with Daniel Jones early and often. The Giants are on bye this week, but with Sterling Shepard and Evan Engram hurt and the Giants in full-on tank mode, why not give Slayton a whirl going forward?

Garbage-Time Performer of the Week

One of the advantages of getting blown out of the water? Plenty of time to accumulate worthless statistics. If you can explain to me the logic of rushing Joe Mixon 30 times in a game you lose by 36 points without using the phrase "they weren't trying to win," well, you're a wiser man than I. To be fair to the Bengals, five of those runs did come in the competitive portion of the game, by which I mean the first two Bengals drives. But with my eerie doppelgänger under center, the Bengals just kept feeding Mixon 114 yards, plus an extra 37 through the air? That'll do nicely for your fantasy team, even if they're inefficient and pointless yards. They all count the same!

'Comfort in Sadness' Stat of the Week

We don't get many opportunities to offer comfort in sadness to Saints fans nowadays, at least not until the inevitable playoff loss. Sunday's atrocious home defeat against a bad Falcons team may have improved the chances of that playoff loss occurring, as a win coupled with the 49ers loss would have put the Saints in prime position for the No. 1 seed in the NFC. Instead, they remain a game behind, albeit with a home game against the 49ers still to come. The one crumb of comfort from Week 10 was the continued excellence of Michael Thomas, who yet again had an absurdly efficient day as the team's top target: Thomas was 13-of-14 receiving for 152 yards, with the only incompletion a late pass breakup at the goal line. Now if only the team could find a respectable No. 2 receiver to pair with him...

Game-Changing Play of the Week

Boy, which top team falling do you highlight? We could talk about the rookie kicker missing for San Francisco, but the 49ers do still remain atop the NFC. We could talk about the Saints sackapalooza, but that wasn't really just one play, was it? Instead, we'll turn to Tennessee. Down five after the two-minute warning, the Titans were forced to run a fourth-and-17 play and failed. That should have wrapped things up for the Chiefs, but a bizarre aborted snap on the field goal attempt gave the Titans extra life! And then it was time for the legend of Ryan Tannehill to really get going.

It nearly beggars belief that this was Adam Humphries' first target of the game, but that's what a run-heavy game will do for you. And at least he made the target count! That touchdown gave the Titans a lead which they managed to hold for the final furious 17 seconds to pull off the massive upset over Kansas City.

In the short term, this means that Tennessee remains just a half-game out of the sixth seed in the AFC; it was pretty much a must-win game if they wanted to continue to say they were contenders. I honestly didn't think they had it in them, so fair play to the Titans! I still think they'll end up falling short of the playoffs, but they still have a pulse. That's more than a lot of teams can say.

In the long term, though, this is probably a bigger loss for Kansas City. The defeat means that the Chiefs are in the fourth seed rather than the third at the moment -- not the world's biggest deal, but notable. Perhaps more significantly, they're now a full game and a half behind Baltimore for the second bye week in the AFC. The Chiefs might need to run the table now if they want to get that first-round bye; they still have the tiebreaker over Baltimore thanks to their Week 3 win, but Baltimore has a relatively smooth path to at least 12-4. The idea that the Chiefs will have to roll into New England and pick up a win not for home-field advantage, but just to get an extra week's worth of rest, is very concerning. They have excuses for sure, but Kansas City is 2-4 in their last six games. That's the same as the Jets and Dolphins. Not exactly company you'd like to keep.

Weekly Predictions

Money-Back Guarantee Lock of the Week

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.

Records to Date
Andrew: 6-4
Bryan: 6-4

Andrew: You got the Raiders last week. They're mine this week. Cincinnati is truly putrid, now clearly the worst team in a league that even contains a team that started out deliberately trying to lose. Their fifth-round rookie quarterback, shockingly, looks like a fifth-round rookie. Their offensive line is indeed offensive. Before the season, I could never have imagined taking Oakland as double-digit favorites over anybody. Now, I don't see the Bengals keeping this that close. Oakland (-10.5) over Cincinnati.

Bryan: I've caught up to you here, so I'm going to have to go elsewhere in an attempt to pass you. So, for the second week in a row, I'm picking against the Chargers and taking Kansas City (-4) on Monday Night en México. The Chiefs got slapped against the Titans last week, yes, but it was very, very close. In the last two minutes alone, the Titans required an aborted snap on a field goal, two long passes from Ryan Tannehill of all people, and a blocked field goal. That's a lot to go wrong for a loss! The Chargers, as I said last week, are still Not Back, so I like the Chiefs to win this one by a couple of scores.

Double Survival League

Bryan: We shall not speak of last week. Suffice it to say that our high-level competition from last season has developed into a bit of a farce.

Andrew: The show must go on, however. We've started, so we will finish. That means back to picking against Cincinnati, even if it means picking for Oakland, as I double down on my Lock of the Week pick for the second week running. It's not like that went poorly just last week or anything, right?

For my second pick, I'm picking against another inexperienced quarterback in a difficult road environment, as Brandon Allen appears set to make his second start for the Broncos. Mike Zimmer's defense is tough on veterans; it should be more than enough to overcome a poor Denver offense. I'll therefore take Minnesota, in hopes that this week's confidence is more justified than last week's.

Bryan: After a week like last week, we need to end this competition and join together in a spirit of unity. So I shall double down on your Oakland and Minnesota picks. It's not the best strategy for me to claw back into contention here, but it is the correct strategy. Together, we can place the nightmare of Week 10 behind us, and build a better, brighter Scramble. Besides, I learned on Monday night what can happen when you eschew the tie and go for the win.

Bryan and Andrew both take Oakland and Minnesota


Elimination Scenarios

Bryan: With so many upset victories this week, the dregs of the league mostly managed to avoid getting knocked about. Yes, the Giants got eliminated from home field advantage, but someone had to lose that Jets-Giants game. And yes, the Bengals were knocked out of the AFC North race -- first team to be eliminated from a division! -- but, I mean, the Dolphins and Falcons both stayed alive! That's got to count for something.

This week, however, the gloves are off. We have a whole passel of elimination scenarios, headlined by our first team facing total elimination. With a loss and a little bit of help, the Bengals can be the first team to mathematically be kicked out of playoff contention -- no wacky seven-way ties or improbable upsets to save them. Will they be the first team knocked out, or will they pull a rabbit out of their hat? Dramatic stuff this Sunday -- though it's always possible the Dolphins could help bail out their former fellow winless team.

  • Miami can be eliminated from the AFC East IF Buffalo d. Miami OR New England d. Philadelphia
  • N.Y. Jets can be eliminated from the AFC East IF Washington d. N.Y. Jets OR New England d. Philadelphia
  • Cincinnati can be eliminated from a Top-Five Seed IF Oakland d. Cincinnati
  • Cincinnati can be eliminated from the playoffs IF Oakland d. Cincinnati AND EITHER Pittsburgh d. Cleveland OR Buffalo d. Miami
  • N.Y. Giants can be eliminated from a First-Round Bye IF Minnesota d. Denver
  • Washington can be eliminated from a First-Round Bye IF N.Y. Jets d. Washington OR Minnesota d. Denver
  • Washington can be eliminated from a Top-Three Seed IF N.Y. Jets d. Washington AND EITHER Carolina d. Atlanta OR New Orleans d. Tampa Bay
  • Tampa Bay can be eliminated from Home Field Advantage IF New Orleans d. Tampa Bay AND EITHER San Francisco d. Arizona OR Minnesota d. Denver
  • Atlanta can be eliminated from Home Field Advantage IF Carolina d. Atlanta OR BOTH Minnesota d. Denver AND San Francisco d. Arizona
  • Atlanta can be eliminated from a First-Round Bye IF Carolina d. Atlanta AND Minnesota d. Denver
  • Arizona can be eliminated from the NFC West IF San Francisco d. Arizona


24 comments, Last at 15 Nov 2019, 1:25pm

#1 by Perfundle // Nov 13, 2019 - 1:16pm

"NFC North: Green Bay v. longshot Minnesota"

Not sure why Minnesota's a longshot while Seattle isn't, considering the playoff odds give Minnesota a better chance of winning their division than Seattle.

"I still think the 49ers win if they had their regular kicker"

I've seen this argument elsewhere, and I think people have forgotten how badly Gould has been kicking this year. McLaughlin went 3-4 from the 39 to 47-yard range, and Gould this year has gone 2-5 from that range. Expand it to 35-50 and he's still only 4-7, and 0-3 from 50-plus.

Points: 0

#3 by Bryan Knowles // Nov 13, 2019 - 1:43pm

I debated where to put Minnesota, honestly.  In my personal projections, I do actually have them not only beating the Packers, but earning a bye week (as I alluded to in my DOOM FOR SAN FRANCISCO section).  They're kinda right on the border for me -- if they win a couple more games here, I'm sure we'll issue a mea culpa!


And yeah, Gould hasn't been great, but man, that McLaughlin kick was terrible, and it was all kick - not hold or snap.  Worse than any kick Gould had made to this point/  McLaughlin had never even attempted a kick in overtime before, so I'm willing to suggest nerves and adrenaline got to him in a way that it wouldn't for a more experienced player.

Points: 0

#7 by Joe Pancake // Nov 13, 2019 - 4:32pm

"I think people have forgotten how badly Gould has been kicking this year..."

Furthermore, if KJ Wright just secures a dead-to-rights INT on the 49ers final drive in regulation, McLaughlin ends with a perfect day.

Same thing (probably) if Russ checks down to Carson in OT instead of underthrowing Hollister on a wheel route.

And don't forget that DK Metcalf had the ball stripped right before half because he was so powerful he didn't go down right away.

There were a ton of "that's the way the ball bounces" plays in this game for both sides.  McLaughlin's missed kick was just one of them, and given that his high-leverage, game-tying field goal split the uprights almost perfectly, it seems strange to single him out as a deciding factor in the loss.

Points: 0

#13 by Bryan Knowles // Nov 13, 2019 - 6:08pm

Oh, it's less "he's the reason why they lost" as in there were so many small things that went on, that any one change might have flipped the outcome.  The shanked field goal was the biggest play of the game, but the 49ers also dropped six passes -- they had nine drops all season coming into the game, worst in the league.  That's what missing Kittle and Sanders does to San Fran's offense; there's no one there you can trust when the chips are down in the passing game.

For Seattle, you have the three dropped interceptions.  For the 49ers, you have the game-saving tackle on the Greenlaw interception, or the spot on Mostert's carry, and so on and so forth.  It was close enough that any little tiny thing might have swung it, up to and including a more experienced kicker in crunch time.


If I had to put the blame for the loss on anyone, mind you, it's Kyle Shanahan not running the ball on third-and-10 after Seattle's punt in overtime.  They got the ball with 1:50 left in OT and Seattle with no timeouts; they could have kneeled out and earned the tie if they had wanted to.  They shouldn't have done that mind, you, but they took only 14 seconds off the clock.  Call a run, and Seattle gets the ball back with about 45 seconds left rather than 1:25, and maybe they don't have time to get into field goal range.

Points: 0

#2 by Geronimo // Nov 13, 2019 - 1:33pm

With apologies to Titans fans, I still cannot believe an owner thought it was a good idea to abandon the Houston market, and completely scrap the Oilers' brand recognition and history to create whatever it is that the Titans are, a team and a brand that always feels like a perpetual expansion team.

Points: 0

#4 by Bryan Knowles // Nov 13, 2019 - 1:45pm

And if they were going to do that, they should have left the Oilers name and history behind, like what happened when the Browns became the Ravens.  Because the Oilers' history is kinda floundering now; Tennessee doesn't have a huge impetus to celebrate it, and the Texans don't technically have the rights to, say, wear the throwback uniforms.


We may cover this next week -- we're debating between talking about commercials or uniforms in our once-a-year "non football" sort of article.

Points: 0

#21 by NRG // Nov 14, 2019 - 10:22pm

Rational people avoid commercials like they do an aggressive panhandler, or a salesman who comes to your house.  Uniforms, well, you're as well suited as anyone to being polyester fashion setters.

Points: 0

#5 by Aaron Brooks G… // Nov 13, 2019 - 1:55pm

Fun fact about the Lions: they're one of only three teams to have had a lead in every game this season, along with the 49ers and Chiefs. The talent our model was pointing to does seem to be there, they just haven't been able to put it all together.

The irony is this was exactly Caldwell's strength. The Lions were the lowest variance team in the NFL. The beat the teams they should, and lost to the teams they should. Patricia can't do that.

Points: 0

#9 by Joe Pancake // Nov 13, 2019 - 4:37pm

Whenever I see "Fun fact about the Lions" I am absolutely compelled to state my favorite fun fact about the Lions: They've won one playoff game in the Super Bowl Era.

Points: 0

#14 by Aaron Brooks G… // Nov 13, 2019 - 9:30pm

The Detroit Lions have lost one home playoff game in their franchise history.

Points: 0

#6 by Will Allen // Nov 13, 2019 - 2:45pm

My prediction is that there will be important players injured which will significantly affect who gets into the tournament, and who gets games at home.

I'm just a ray of sunshine today.

Points: 0

#8 by jheidelberg // Nov 13, 2019 - 4:35pm

For the Herm Edwards award I have to go with Kyle Shanahan. He played to win the game, and his QB throws 3 incompletes and then loses. Pete Carroll needs the win, he punts on 4th and short under two minutes to go in OT. What was that?

San Francisco can run the ball on first down and if not successful simply run out the clock in overtime and get a tie. When you have a two game lead a tie is excellent especially since it eliminates any seeding tiebreakers (no pun intended). Seattle would need to beat SF and pick up another game if it was a tie. Now they simply need to beat SF to take a lead in the division due to the tiebreaker. SF also had a 2 game lead on NO and GB. Now the Packers and Saints can do the same thing as Seattle, beat SF and take the lead due to a tiebreaker. A tie would leave SF with a 1 1/2 game lead over the Saints and Pack.

I agree with your SF doom, but if they tied, I would not. Anyway, how long a drive did they think they needed to get a game winning field goal?

Points: 0

#10 by Perfundle // Nov 13, 2019 - 4:57pm

"Pete Carroll needs the win, he punts on 4th and short under two minutes to go in OT. What was that?"

First, I don't see why they need this win. A tie would certainly make winning the division much harder, but they'd still be in a good position to get a wild-card spot. Second, Seattle's short-yardage success was awful on Monday. They were only 5-12 with 1 or 2 yards to go, including a failure on the previous play. A failed fourth-down attempt would put SF on at least Seattle's 46, if not nearer, and they would only need about 15 yards to be in FG position again.

Points: 0

#11 by Joe Pancake // Nov 13, 2019 - 4:57pm

I would normally agree with you.  As a Seahawks fan, Carroll's conservatism and clock/challenge/timeout management has been rankling me for the past decade.  In this game, though, I was completely fine with his decision to punt there.  The defenses had mostly been dominating (both teams had under 5-yards-per-play and there were 7 total turnovers), and failing to convert would have been disastrous.  Punting and daring Shanahan into being aggressive (which he's known to do) or taking a tie didn't seem like a terrible tactic at that point.

In general I think NFL coaches (especially Carroll) should be more aggressive.  But there are certain games in which "game flow" favors a more D-heavy, conservative approach -- a few examples that come to mind are the Broncos-Panthers Super Bowl in which Kubiak seemingly wanted to go three-and-out and get his D back on the field the entire second half, and the Steelers-Rams game this week, when the Steelers (wisely) ran the ball three times and forced the Rams to use their timeouts at the end and gave Goff the ball back.

This Seahawks-49ers game *felt* like one of those games were being too aggressive was the wrong move. 

Points: 0

#12 by Perfundle // Nov 13, 2019 - 5:30pm

Speaking of fun facts, I checked if any other team has had 7 one-possession wins in their first ten games as Seattle has. Turns out there have been four such teams since the merger:

The 1987 Chargers, with a 8-2 record after 10 games. They promptly lost the last five games of the season.

The 2016 Giants (7-3). They weren't a very good team, finished 11-5, and got blasted by GB in the playoffs.

The 2003 Panthers (8-2). They weren't a very good team either, also finished 11-5, but made it to the Super Bowl.

Finally, the team with the most similar stats as Seattle... the 2006 Colts (9-1). After 10 games their DVOA ratings were 16.8% overall, 28.4% offense, 8.5% defense and -3.0% ST, almost identical to Seattle's 14.3% overall, 19.1% offense, 2.5% defense and -2.3% ST. The Colts also had a defensive juggernaut in their division, but fortunately for them, the Jaguars massively underperformed in the standings.

Points: 0

#16 by Pat // Nov 14, 2019 - 10:55am

Both teams play the Patriots, so we can call that a wash. By DVOA, you'd expect both teams to be favorites in all their other games remaining, with the exception of the Week 16 head-to-head clash, where Dallas is ranked better but the game's in Philly.

Did you misread the Eagles schedule? Call the Patriots game a wash, but then the Eagles face the Seahawks. And then the remaining games the Cowboys/Eagles all have at least a ~20% DVOA advantage over their opponents.

In the end though it doesn't change the result: going into Week 16 you'd probably guess the Eagles would be *down* a game to the Cowboys - however, if Philly wins that game, they both end up 10-6 but the Eagles would have the common-games tiebreaker and take the division.

Points: 0

#18 by Pen // Nov 14, 2019 - 1:17pm

the Seahawks are out Dissly.

Points: 0

#22 by Pen // Nov 15, 2019 - 1:10pm

I think you have no idea how important Dissly was to the Seattle offense.  Dissly was injured on the first pass thrown to him week six.  It took Kittle time to pass him in DYAR after that.  Dissly was averaging 52.4 yds/game and .8TD.  He was a major red zone threat.  Wilson's #1 red zone threat.

Kittle has only 2 TD after 8 games and his 67.6 yds/game is only slightly better than Dissly's.  Dissly had 4 TD's in 5 games.

There's a reason Dissly was the #2 TE after week 5 and Kittle has only recently passed him.  Kittle has been nowhere near as important to the Niners as Dissly was to Seattle.

Points: 0

#24 by Pen // Nov 15, 2019 - 1:25pm

Hollister can't block.  He's mostly a receiving TE.  Dissly could do both and do both better.  Since Dissly has been out, Carson has one 100 yd game.  Carson had 3 with Dissly blocking.

Points: 0

#20 by LionInAZ // Nov 14, 2019 - 7:01pm

While it's nice to hear positive talk about the Lions, it's also hard not to look at this as another lost season. This week's loss to the Bears without Stafford was just another lost opportunity. With only 3 wins at midseason and not many likely wins the rest of the way (WAS probably, maybe the Bears rematch), it looks to me like another 6 win season to me. The defense is a huge disappointment. They can't close out games.

Points: 0

#23 by Steve in WI // Nov 15, 2019 - 1:25pm

And after falling for the last three coaching hires they've made, which have all turned out to be disasters, I am done having any shred of optimism for this team unless and until they are sold.

I agree completely that Trubisky is a bust, but I have zero faith that Ryan Pace is capable of identifying a better QB. And two pieces of news out of Chicago this week (that Pace was not interested in interviewing Deshaun Watson prior to the 2017 draft, and that the Bears will not be attending the Kaepernick workout this weekend) indicate to me that he is filled with such unwarranted confidence in himself that he's not even going to try.

While I agree that the Goff contract is going to be disastrous for the Rams, at least they have a coach who has demonstrated that he can get the most out of Goff. Meanwhile, the Bears have a coach who has gotten less out of Trubisky than lame-duck John Fox and Dowell Loggains were able to.

It's really unfortunate that Stafford couldn't play last week, because there is no way the Bears would have won that game if he'd played. I doubt a 3-13 season would have been enough of a shock to the McCaskeys to force real change in the organization, but an eventual 6-10 or 7-9 finish thanks to catching some breaks against injured teams - plus the injuries to their own defense that provide some cover for the regression - is just going to give the "but Pace and Nagy are the reigning executive and coach of the year" crowd ammunition for why the Bears should go into 2020 with the same losers at the helm.

Points: 0

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