Scramble for the Ball: Demanding Expanding

Chicago Bears QB Nick Foles
Chicago Bears QB Nick Foles
Photo: USA Today Sports Images

Andrew: Hello and welcome to Scramble for the Ball, where this week finds your humble Scramblenauts a little dazed and disoriented. Well, a little more dazed and disoriented. What are these things that have appeared during TV breaks where the politics used to be? Where did all the pink go? Was that Jets-Patriots game actually kinda fun, almost in spite of itself?

Bryan: The answer to that last question is "no." It was interesting and competitive, but to call it fun would be to stretch the logical and semantic resources of the English language further than they can reasonably be expected to withstand.

Andrew: I had a feeling your answer to the question would be no, monsieur le grouch. For fans of the teams involved, however, it provided at least a spot of welcome relief. Patriots fans got a little of that winning feeling back, not that they're exactly strangers to it this century. Cam Newton got only the second 14-point fourth-quarter comeback of his career. Jets fans got some optimism and still got their grubby paws closer to that No. 1 pick.

Bryan: I'm fairly sure that if you are feeling relief after beating the Jets, you've got serious issues to deal with. The Patriots may still have a puncher's chance this season as the NFL sets out to sail the seven seeds, but this is one of those games that should have been quietly buried in the early window on Sundays -- or possibly shipped off to London at god-awful hours of the morning, were that still an option.

Andrew: That line about sailing the seven seeds is clever, and I like it, but it's possible that the playoff field may be even wider than that. As we were beginning to write, news broke that NFL owners have approved a plan that if a meaningful game is cancelled -- not just postponed -- later in the year due to an outbreak, and that means teams in playoff contention have an unequal number of games played, then the playoff field would expand to eight from each conference, four division champions and four wild cards. The initial suggestion was also that the rounds would be bracketed purely by record rather than the usual divisional champion vs. wild card pairings, but that part was rejected, so division winners still get their home games.

Bryan: Obviously, everyone hopes that doesn't happen. It's bad enough that the league expanded to seven seeds, breaking the nice symmetry they had going on before. A 16-team playoff is an acknowledgement that the regular season was fundamentally broken; a "we didn't have enough games to definitively determine who belongs in the postseason" sort of thing. It was used during the 1982 lockout season, when teams only played nine games, but not during the 1987 strike, when teams played 15 games with anywhere from zero to three of them being composed of at least some scab players. That's more or less the dividing line between "we need to do something to fix the postseason" and "we'll just grin and bear it."

A 16-team playoff will bring in teams that, frankly, do not deserve to be in the postseason. As it stands now, the Chicago Bears would be the eighth seed in the NFC, and does anyone want to see that happen? I'm not even 100% sure Bears fans want to see that happen, as that would give their embattled coaching staff more wriggle room to ride out their overarching organizational philosophy, which is not paying dividends at the moment. It's a little less bad in the AFC at the moment -- the eighth seed would be either the Dolphins or Colts -- but adding an extra seed would keep teams such as the Broncos and Texans in the running for the postseason; definitely teams that would add to your January football watching experience. No, this is a terrible idea that only exists because it might make up for an even more terrible set of circumstances. I'm crossing fingers, toes, and any other parts of my body I can wrangle to hope that this doesn't happen.

Andrew: You know, with our prediction record, that only means it's guaranteed to come about.

Bryan: We're doing quite well at our predictions this year, honestly -- apparently, a massive pandemic adds enough league-wide uncertainty to cancel out our own incompetence.

Andrew: Sure, but it's also 2020. This is the year that the words "it could be worse" finally met their match. Let's just say, hypothetically, that the league does add an eighth seed. Let's say they put you in charge of choosing it. Are you trying to justify somebody other than the Bears, or are you going for the plain old win-loss record that puts them in the postseason?

Bryan: Well, yes. I would. The AFC has enough interesting teams down there to make an argument, but the teams that are out of playoff position right now in the NFC are, frankly, a depressing bunch. Let's see who we have besides the Bears...

There's the 49ers, or the 24.5ers, as nearly their entire roster is mangled beyond belief. Their starting lineup on Thursday against the Packers resembled Year 10 or 12 of a Madden Franchise; a bunch of randomly generated players just there to fill out the numbers. There's the Lions, who can't even reliably field 11 players on defense -- not due to injury, mind you, but due to massive unpreparedness and organizational incompetence. The Falcons couldn't defend the pass if you had one player run a pattern, let Atlanta cover that guy with all 11 players and informed them of the play beforehand. Then there's the NFC East, which is on pace to being the worst division in NFL history -- and let me tell you, the one positive benefit of this 16-team plan, as originally stated, is that it would have stripped the division of its automatic home game, but they got rid of that provision in the final plan.

I suppose one could make an argument for the Panthers, who at least have a fun offense, but they just lost Christian McCaffrey. Again. That just leaves the Vikings, and I will be honest with you, I'm having a hard time getting excited over the concept of Kirk Cousins returning to the playoffs.

Yeah, no, the pickings for the eighth seed are slim and none.

Andrew: That's just one side of the bracket, though. The AFC is much more enticing. The Indianapolis Colts are currently the sixth seed, they of Philip Rivers and T.Y. Hilton, and the No. 3 DVOA defense. The Colts are currently sixth in DVOA, just gave the Ravens a heck of a game until a crazy officiating call turned it around, and look like a worthy addition to the field. They're narrowly ahead of the Dolphins, Browns, and Raiders on tiebreakers, which is about as unlikely a set of quite good teams as we could have conjured at the beginning of the season. Brian Flores is in the Coach of the Year conversation, the Browns look like a professional football team, and I have no idea what the Raiders are but they aren't, in fact, boring.

Bryan: The problem in the AFC isn't the postseason -- that's for sure. You're right in that the Raiders, Browns, Dolphins and Colts -- the four 5-3 teams -- make for an interesting and exciting race. All four teams are flawed in one way or another, but you expect that out of wild-card teams, and the race to pick two of the four for the postseason is an interesting one that I'm sure we'll cover in more detail in a few weeks when we get a little closer.

The problem is that once you add an eighth seed, you're expanding the teams that could conceivably make runs, forcing us to pay attention to teams in December who, in past seasons, we'd have rightly written off as waiting till next year. This is a feature, not a bug, in the eyes of the NFL, I'm sure, but I don't need to devote my mental energy to trying to think of ways for the Houston Texans to make the postseason. It's depressing enough that the shambling hulk of the Patriots remains relevant because of the seventh seed; dragging the Jacksonville Jaguars back into conversation for the eighth should be against several international codes of justice.

Andrew: They could add a 12th seed in the AFC and I'm not sure I'd have the Jaguars in contention for it.

Bryan: Right now, the 12th seed in the AFC would be the Bengals at 2-5-1. The Jaguars are just a game and a half out with half the season to go. Hell, the Jets are just two and a half games out. You'd have to consider them both in contention for it, and therein lies the rub.

Playoff ratios have to be carefully balanced. Major League Baseball this season added a bunch of extra teams due to COVID shortening the schedule, and it served in some small part to devalue the regular season; why should we care about 60 games when anyone who is even halfway qualified to make the playoffs did? The NBA and NHL often have similar problems, with half the league making the postseason every year. Yes, it means no-one worthy of the postseason gets left out, but it also lets in a motley crew of eight seeds, which generally get wiped out in a long, dragged-out first-round nightmare. This isn't like the NCAA tournament, where the appeal of the 16- versus 1-seed is in part due to the massive organizational differences; where Southwestern Northern Directional College and their five guys who look like they walked out of the local Denny's just before tipoff gets a chance to knock out a team with a multimillion-dollar head coach and a recruiting machine honed to a science. Seeing one professional team beat down another, worse professional team just … isn't interesting. That's one reason why 12 teams worked so well for the NFL each year; you almost never got someone hanging around in the postseason who was clearly just happy to be there. I do say almost; the "division winner gets an automatic entry" sometimes does give extra power to a set of four teams that are terrible, and you do occasionally get an 8-8 team sliding in where they shouldn't really belong, but in general, it's a more exclusive grouping.

And the playoffs, in my mind, should be exclusive. Especially in the NFL, with one-game series. You want an occasional upset or two to make things interesting -- the Giants taking out the 16-0 Patriots remains one of the highlights of recent NFL history. But you also generally want the best teams to keep advancing and playing more football because -- and this is a controversial point, I'm sure -- watching good teams play football is better than watching bad teams play football. If the NCAA tournament constantly had double-digit seeds reaching the finals, it'd be a joke. You want the best teams, more often than not, to come to the top; otherwise, it's not really a playoff so much as it is a lottery. There's enough luck and random chance in a 16-game NFL season -- not enough games to definitively answer who's best, but more than enough for an injury or 17 to end a season before it really begins. A 14-team playoff field is already a move in the wrong direction; a 16-team playoff would be a nightmare.

A nightmare possibly justified by circumstances, mind you, but a nightmare notwithstanding.

Andrew: I largely agree with you that the ideal size for the NFL playoffs remains 12 teams. It's a third of the league, which is selective enough that it avoids having too much cannon fodder playing in January. The old format was enough to make winning the division meaningful, but it gave enough leeway to make up for being a good team in a tough division. I guess, for me, part of the problem with 16 teams is just how crowded that makes the first playoff weekend. Are we having playoff games overlap? Playing on Friday and/or Monday night? Even the six-game weekend is beginning to push my ability to dedicate the time. An eight-game weekend means I'm choosing to skip games. Not just missing them, but actively choosing not to watch. And I never do that during the playoffs.

Bryan: Back in 1982, they solved the issue by just having regional coverage, multiple games at the same time -- you had to choose, for example, if you wanted to watch the Dolphins and Patriots or Raiders and Browns, as both were on NBC at 4 p.m. on Saturday. Well, I say "you had to choose"; this was the 1980s, and you got whichever game your local NBC affiliate decided was best for you, and an "illegal stream" was a river on Old Man McGillicutty's property.

There really isn't a fair way to have eight game windows in one weekend. They're already doing three on Saturday and three on Sunday with the 14-game system. Having teams play on Monday gives them a significant disadvantage with their next playoff game -- there's already a notable trend in teams going from Sunday to Saturday having a harder time in the next round. Can you imagine if, in the playoffs, the NFL decided that playing on Monday and then Saturday was kosher? Perish the thought. And Friday's a difficult enough turnaround after a Week 17 game; you don't know which teams will be involved so no one can really do the prep work for losing two days of planning. Making them do that before an elimination game is simply not fair -- and when the point of going to 16 teams is to ensure fairness after an unfair schedule, to undo some of that with unfair scheduling is just not right.

Andrew: Is there a way around that by perhaps adding another round? So the wild-card teams play off, then they play the 3- and 4-seeds, then...

Bryan: They're already having trouble squeezing things in, and if COVID starts cancelling games, we're possibly talking about bubbles and new protocols and whatnot. Adding extra weeks with extra games to the schedule is counterproductive.

Andrew: It seems almost like the smarter idea would have been to reduce the number of teams in the playoffs when it became clear that we weren't escaping the clutches of the pandemic, but I guess that requires a much greater amount of foresight than we've seen from the leadership of the game -- who, I should say, have done reasonably well to get us this far.

Bryan: Reducing the number of teams, however, also breaks that careful balance of importance of the regular season to importance of the postseason. In a year where any individual game might see a starting quarterback suddenly pulled due to COVID, putting more pressure on the regular season seems designed to letting one of those incidents radically alter who gets to play for the trophy.

Andrew: Well I meant going back to the old 12-team playoff, thus giving scope to expand to 14, rather than shrinking the field any further, but we've already seen that with the Patriots and, to a lesser but still disruptive extent, the Lions.

Bryan: And, of course, now the Steelers have an outbreak. And the Titans had an outbreak moving games around…

I think the answer we're coming to here is that the NFL shouldn't have played a season this year.

Andrew: Honestly, I'm legitimately impressed that we've made it this far. I really didn't think we would. I thought, when the preseason went, that was just the first domino. I can't believe we don't already have a hole in one team's record, though maybe we should have had one this past Thursday. I'm still not convinced we'll get the full 256 games, but we're more than halfway there now.

Bryan: The passed contingency plan does allow for an 18th week, cancelling the bye between conference championships and Super Bowl if need be. That's something that should have in place from the beginning, and the one saving grace out of the depressing nature of the proposal to begin with. Hopefully, that will be enough to preserve the integrity of the season -- and the "last chance week," with only meaningful games, is an exciting concept in and of itself. That would be an interesting addition in future years, honestly -- instead of tiebreakers, perhaps you could have (some) teams with identical records play each other in Week 18 to determine seeding. For example, last season you might have had Chiefs/Patriots and Packers/Saints matchups to determine which teams get bye weeks. I'd watch!

Andrew: Hmm. I'm not so keen on that to determine seeding from teams that are already in the postseason, such as those Chiefs and Patriots, but it sounds an awful lot like the full wild-card round I mentioned above for teams in tiebreak positions. I'm also not sure what you do in multiple tiebreak scenarios, such as when the 11-5 Patriots missed out in 2008.

Bryan: You're right in that it would be better to do that just for in/out scenarios, but the last time that happened was 2017, when the Titans, Bills, Ravens, and Chargers all tied at 9-7. I assume what you would do then is seed them, so have the Titans host the Chargers and the Bills host the Ravens to try to earn the fifth and sixth seeds, respectively. As for 2008, you would probably decide in advance if divisional or wild-card seeds were "better," and then have the 6-seed Ravens host the Patriots to try to earn that last wild-card slot.

Andrew: Congratulations, you just invented playoffs!

Bryan: Variable-sized playoffs, which are better than full-on expansion. The problem with having eight, or 12, or 14, or 16 teams in the postseason is that some years have more viable contenders than others; you're setting a cutoff in advance based on historical trends, not knowing precisely how a given season would play out. Having an extra week for play-in games would let you have more playoff teams in years where there's a lot of teams closely packed, and fewer teams in years where there are clear favorites.

Andrew: And it means your existing field has an extra week to get healthy, so everybody (sort of) wins. I guess I could get on board with that.

Bryan: You're right in that it's just a different way to do wild cards. I'd argue it's a better way to do wild cards, but your mileage may vary.

Andrew: For now, I guess we're firmly geared up for "making the best of it" if we do end up with cancellations. It may not be a perfect plan, but at least it's a plan!

Bryan: We're well beyond that. We're just fortunate that the NFL's procedures have avoided the disasters we're seeing in college football -- news came down as we were writing this that LSU-Alabama has been cancelled, which is kind of a big deal.

Andrew: Ah, see, in the current environment college football is a whole other issue. The NFL can, at least, still hold out hope that we'll see the full schedule played, and that this contingency can remain an unneeded contingency. Given what we've just discussed, I'm not sure whether I'd prefer that the teams who earn those seventh seeds be competitive to justify their inclusion, or get blown out so badly that the NFL decides to just go back to the old system.

Bryan: Oh, the NFL isn't going to back. More games is more money, and that's the underlying thing behind this entire discussion, isn't it? That's the reason for expanding the postseason; that's the reason for playing at all during a pandemic. We can talk all we want about the competitive balance required here or the value of lesser teams still having a shot at historic upsets, but the bottom line is always, well, the bottom line. And, if we're stuck with 14 teams for the foreseeable future, then I'd at least like the games to be well played. That might just be me, however -- I mean, you started this whole thing by talking about how fun it was to watch the Jets Monday night. Different strokes, I suppose.

Andrew: In my defense, I said the game was kinda fun, in spite of itself. It's still football, and in a year like 2020, it sure as heck beats the alternative. If that means watching the Bears or the 49ers in the postseason, then I guess you'll have to sign me right up.

Bryan: I suppose watching Nick Foles throw eight interceptions against the Saints would be a fitting 2020 sort of game.

Andrew: ... and watching the Saints somehow still lose would be a fitting New Orleans Saints in-the-playoffs kind of game. Have you seen how they've lost the past few years?

Bryan: And that gets back to my point! That would suck! That would be terrible! Top teams losing in the first round to teams that are just going to get blown out in an uncompetitive nightmare in a week or two is bad for the playoffs, bad for the league.

Andrew: But at least the NFC East champion still gets a home game!

Bryan: Man, 2020 just gets more depressing all the time. Bah.

Weekly Awards

Keep Choppin' Wood

In what world is this an interception?

Al Riveron's justification of this appalling call was almost as silly as the call itself. We've argued over controversial definitions of a catch for years, and there will always be some debate on the marginal ones. That said, most of us know with some degree of certainty what a catch isn't. This ain't a catch, Al. Let's not pretend that it is.

Herm Edwards Award for Playing to Win the Game

It was always going to be very tough for an overmatched Panthers side to win in Kansas City, but my goodness did they make a game of it early. On their first two drives alone, the Panthers scored a touchdown on fourth-and-3 from the 9-yard line and converted a fourth-and-7 from their own 45 with a fake punt -- punter Joseph Charlton's first pass attempt of any kind in a formal game, high school, college, or professional. That drive also led to a touchdown, and a shocking 14-3 lead. Unfortunately, Carolina did back away from that aggressiveness for the rest of the game -- punting on fourth-and-4 from their own 44, then kicking a field goal on fourth-and-7 -- but for an exciting 15 minutes, Matt Rhule's men gave the AFC favorites all they could handle.

John Fox Award for Conservatism

In an otherwise exciting game, neither Miami's Brian Flores nor Arizona's Kliff Kingsbury covered themselves in glory with their late-game strategic decisions. First, the Dolphins settled for a 50-yard field goal on fourth-and-1 with the score tied. Fortunately for Flores, kicker Jason Sanders drilled the attempt through. Then, on the following drive, the Cardinals also reached fourth-and-1, from almost exactly the same range. Less fortunately for Kingsbury, Zane Gonzalez missed short. One first down later, Miami kneeled the game out. Kingsbury did, admittedly, have his team go for a fourth-and-1 on the previous Cardinals drive, but that was from the 40-yard line, where the alternative is a punt rather than a field goal. Faced with a chance to be truly aggressive, Kliff Kingsbury chose instead to kick. The miss means he narrowly outdoes his counterpart on the day for this award.

Jeff Fisher Award for Confusing Coaching

There are few plays we like less than the goal-line fade. As we pointed out in our annual DVOA by routes piece, nearly three-quarters of all fades fell incomplete last season; it is a low-percentage play that is inexplicably becoming more common. It's also exceptionally limiting to your offense -- a goal-line fade basically means everyone other than the quarterback and that one specific target becomes irrelevant to the play, boiling things down to one of your players needing to beat one defender for it to succeed, rather than giving you multiple options to work with. The Chargers have one of the best route-runners in the game in Keenan Allen. They have a history of running backs who have been successful in the passing game, although both Austin Ekeler and Justin Jackson were out at that point in time. They have an exciting young quarterback who has already shown he can make things happen in close situations. So why, exactly, did Anthony Lynn call not one, but two goal-line fades to try to win the game?

And, while we're at it, let's call Lynn out on his lackadaisical play calling on the Chargers' final drive, as he made sure to run out every second of the 4:37 left on the clock when they got possession back, seemingly determined to be the last one to touch the ball. There is some merit to that strategy, of course -- it doesn't matter who's leading on the scoreboard until all the game has been played, and never giving your opponent the ball back is a great way to make sure they don't pull off a come-from-behind victory. This makes a lot of sense if you get the ball with two minutes and change remaining, or if you just need to set up a chip-shot field goal for the win. But getting the ball into the end zone is difficult -- especially if you're committed to running goal-line fades. Four and a half minutes may not be an eternity, but there's plenty of time to get the ball back if your first attempt ends up not working out. We've had 36 games this season where there have been at least three drives in the final five minutes of the fourth quarter; there was no reason for the Chargers to put all their eggs in one basket and play like this had to be the last drive of the game.

'I'm Rich James, B*tch' Fantasy Player of the Week

With five of their six wide receivers out due either to injury or COVID protocol, the 49ers had to call up basically their entire practice squad just to field a full lineup against the Packers -- the return of former first-round bust Kevin White! A River Cracraft sighting! Rare gems not seen outside of preseason action. It perhaps comes as no surprise that the one remaining healthy receiver -- the one who was actually supposed to be on the roster -- saw the offense run through him. Richie James had zero catches on the season entering Thursday's game, as he himself had been on injured reserve for most of the year -- it has been that kind of season for San Francisco. James took advantage of the similarly injured Green Bay secondary to haul in nine receptions for 184 yards and a touchdown in what is likely to be his one relevant moment of the season. Thursday Night Football is a hell of a drug.

Garbage-Time Performer of the Week

It's Richie James again, because five of those receptions, 112 of those yards, and the touchdown all came in the second half with the 49ers down multiple scores. It was over early, is what I'm saying.

Comfort in Sadness Stat of the Week

On Sunday night, the playoff-chasing Buccaneers not only recorded the worst loss of the season so far -- yes, worse than anything the Jets, Jaguars, or NFC East have suffered -- but equaled the margin of their worst home defeat in franchise history, a 44-9 defeat to the 1985 Chicago Bears. The Buccaneers gained their lowest total of offensive yardage since 2014, and even including Blaine Gabbert's game-ending kneeldown, their five carries set an all-time league record for fewest carries in a single game. (All statistics courtesy of The Athletic's Greg Auman.) So what's the good news? 2019 first-round pick Devin White racked up 14 tackles, seven of which were solo. This moves him into the top five on both leaderboards, with fellow linebacker Lavonte David joining him among the top ten solo tacklers. In White and David, the Buccaneers have one of the very best linebacker tandems in the sport. Though Todd Bowles' defense had another difficult night against Drew Brees, the quality of the defense in particular has the Buccaneers at the heart of the NFC playoff race.

Game-Changing Play of the Week

The Steelers-Cowboys game had no right being as close as it did, even knowing the Mike Tomlin-era team's tendency to fall asleep on the road against undermatched opponents. And yet, here we were, with the Cowboys clinging to a one-point lead with just over three minutes left in the game. The Steelers were facing second-and-1 from the wrong side of midfield, well outside of field goal range -- force a stop here, and at the very least Dallas could drain all of Pittsburgh's timeouts, maybe drain the clock and pull off the upset. Heck, even allowing a field goal means that the Cowboys would only need a field goal to respond. What was crucial was just not allowing Pittsburgh to rip off a big play and change the situation of the game entirely...

That was some monster YAC by Diontae Johnson, although you would have hoped Saivion Smith would have made the tackle and at least kept Pittsburgh out of chip-shot field goal range. The play made a go-ahead kick essentially a gimme and set up the back-breaking touchdown two plays later. While that wasn't quite game over, the touchdown really hurt -- the Cowboys' final drive got into field goal range, but couldn't get into the end zone.

A loss would have knocked the Steelers out of the top seed in the AFC -- crucially important this year, because there's only one bye week (barring a 16-team playoff field). Instead, they remain a half-game ahead of the Chiefs and remain undefeated, at least for now.

Weekly Predictions

Bryan: Oh, I came so close to pulling a Jets win out of nowhere in the Double Survival league; it would have been beautiful. New York gave the Patriots more than they could handle for most of the game, but just couldn't pull it out in the end -- great for their odds of getting Trevor Lawrence, not so great for my survival picks. Ah well; I had to take the shot some time.

All in all, this was a pretty terrible week for our picks. I blame my 49ers miss on making the pick before it was revealed that huge chunks of the offense would miss the game due to COVID concerns; I'll blame Andrew's Pittsburgh miss on forgetting that Mike Tomlin's teams always play down to double-digit underdogs. The biggest bit, however, was Andrew missing on Washington in Double Survival -- the Giants completed the season sweep, as Daniel Jones seems incapable of losing to Washington. This is doubly interesting, because it's the first banked advantage either of us has -- I correctly picked Washington over Dallas in Week 7, the game where Andy Dalton suffered a concussion. Andrew will have to pick up an advantage elsewhere if he wants to keep his lead at the end.

Money-Back Guarantee Lock of the Week

All picks are made without reference to the FO+ picks, while all lines are courtesy of Bovada and were accurate as of time of writing.

Records to Date
Bryan: 6-3
Andrew: 5-4

Andrew: The New England Patriots must still be living off their past reputation. That's the only reason I can think of for why they are only touchdown underdogs against a vastly superior Ravens team. No, Lamar Jackson isn't playing anywhere close to the standards of his MVP campaign, but he's a heck of a lot closer to his peak than opposite number Cam Newton is to his. The Patriots had trouble with Joe Flacco and the Jets on Monday night, and this week's DVOA ratings give New England the second-worst defense in the league. The Ravens, meanwhile, have a top-five defense, and are better than the Patriots in every phase of the game. If both teams were at their September peaks, this could have been a glorious festival of professional college-style offense. The way the Patriots are right now, it could be a bloodbath. Baltimore (-7.5) at New England.

Bryan: I'm taking the Giants (+3.5) at home against the Eagles, even though Philadelphia is coming off of the bye and should, conceivably, be healthier. I suppose the big question here is how much of the Eagles' struggles came due to their significant injury concerns, and how much because the Eagles are just ... not a very good football team. The Giants kept it close against the Eagles a few weeks ago, losing by one point on the road in a game that required a furious Philadelphia comeback in the final five minutes. I think these teams are closer in talent than generally accepted -- and that means I'm taking the home team and the points.

Double Survival League

Current Standings:
Andrew: 15-3
Bryan: 13-5

Remaining Teams:

Andrew: CAR, PHI, WAS

Andrew: This week, I'm heading north with my picks. The biggest line of the week is usually the safest Double Survival bet, and I have faith in the Green Bay Packers to see off the challenge of the Jaguars and their latest shiny new sixth-round rookie quarterback. Detroit is a trickier out, as I have very little faith in the Lions to do anything of note, but a Washington team down yet another starting quarterback should be no match for a Lions that hasn't quite lost theirs yet despite the pandemic's best efforts. As an unwise man once said, "when you're all the way north, there's only one direction to go." Hopefully it's not my picks that go south this time around.

Bryan: I'm a little nervous about taking Detroit as we await news on the Matthew Stafford injury -- he left the Minnesota game with a concussion, so this may be a Chase Daniel-versus-Alex Smith matchup. That being said, it's rarely a great week to pick the Lions, so I'll jump in at the same time as you and dodge that bullet for both of us -- we win together or we lose together. Plus, I mean, it's an NFC East team -- picking anyone against the NFC East is a wise strategy, most of the time.

My other pick is a little more left-field. I agree with you that the Packers are probably the easiest pick this week, especially with the Steelers' COVID concerns, but I'm taking the Las Vegas Raiders instead. I do try to avoid taking divisional matchups, but we're beginning to run into time issues here. There are lots of games left where I'd favor the Packers; for the Raiders, it really comes down to this week against the Broncos, Week 15 hosting the Chargers, or Week 13 at the Jets. I think the Raiders comfortably handle New York, but there's always the chance someone could get hurt between now and then -- and when you're running low on potential alternatives, sometimes it's best just to grab a team and run with them.


26 comments, Last at 13 Nov 2020, 8:29am

1 "On Sunday night, the…

"On Sunday night, the playoff-chasing Buccaneers not only recorded the worst loss of the season so far -- yes, worse than anything the Jets, Jaguars, or NFC East have suffered -- but equaled the margin of their worst home defeat in franchise history, a 44-9 defeat to the 1985 Chicago Bears."

It wasn't the 1985 Bears who beat Tampa Bay 44-9, it was the 1984 version.  The 1985 Buccaneers, despite finishing 2-14, actually gave the Bears a lot of trouble, taking two-score leads in both their matchups.

2 Good call on the KCW. It was…

Good call on the KCW. It was about time Riveron earned one of those. To be fair, he's been pretty much invisible this year, but I'm still angry at all the crap he pulled in the past.

4 As it stands now, the…

As it stands now, the Chicago Bears would be the eighth seed in the NFC, and does anyone want to see that happen?

Certainly not the NFC's best DVOA teams, and presumptive #1 seeds, New Orleans and Tampa, who split razor-edge games against Chicago.

Chicago has a clown-shoes offense, but their defense is legitimately scary. 

5 Bryan: And that gets back to…

Bryan: And that gets back to my point! That would suck! That would be terrible! Top teams losing in the first round to teams that are just going to get blown out in an uncompetitive nightmare in a week or two is bad for the playoffs, bad for the league.

Andrew: But at least the NFC East champion still gets a home game!

We laugh, and you mentioned the 2011 Giants as one of those 10-seed teams, but that team went through a 10-6, a 15-1, a 13-3, and a 16-0 to win their title.

Their playoff opponents were 54-10!  Sometimes those shitty divisional winners aren't as shitty as they look.

Hell, I look back at Detroit's last title. A shitty 8-4 team that was probably 3rd-best in their division (the 1957 Colts had the best point differential and pythagorean record) won their tiebreaker game after trailing 27-7 in the 3rd quarter, and then ripped the Browns a new asshole in the championship game. (At the point they were trailing, their point differential on the season was 0. Detroit outscored their opponents 83-14 from that point on and finished the year with the highest point differential in the league -- all built on less than 6 quarters of game time.)

These things are hard to predict. 

6 So why, exactly, did Anthony…

So why, exactly, did Anthony Lynn call not one, but two goal-line fades to try to win the game?

Tampa also ran two fades -- both against NO's best cover corner, on their first failed goal-to-go series of the year. Even worse, this was a drive that featured 1st-goal from the 1!

11 Goal line fades

I wondered why they didn't mention this too. At least the Chargers were out of time outs, and basically out of time. The Bucs had no such concerns; the first one wasn't even close, it was well over the WR's head. [At least their 2nd and 3rd down plays were good calls that were stopped by an All-Pro LB.]

22 For the Chargers, going for…

In reply to by Joseph

For the Chargers, going for a fade to Mike Williams first was a decent call because it left them with 1 second on the clock to run another play. But why call another fade to your 3rd string tight end? Ugh.

I actually agree with Lynn's call to milk the clock on that drive. The Chargers defense has been horrible in the second half and horrible at getting stops with the game on the line. The problem was that they should have at least hurried to get the ball closer to the end zone so that they could have had more opportunities to actually score. By not hurrying, they ended up having to spike the ball on 1st and goal and then they only had enough time to run two plays. So even if they had called the exact same plays but with more urgency, they at least would have had two more chances to punch it in.

7 I have very little faith in…

I have very little faith in the Lions to do anything of note, but a Washington team down yet another starting quarterback should be no match for a Lions that hasn't quite lost theirs yet despite the pandemic's best efforts. 

1. Nothing said before the word "but" is meaningful.
2. The definition of faith is belief without evidence.

19 Let me agree with Andrew…

Let me agree with Andrew Potter that that is a terrible definition of faith.  Here is a better one.

Faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.


Please note that there is nothing about a lack of evidence in that definition.

21 Not Really!

I have faith that the Cowboys will finish the season with a losing record. 

It is still possible for them to win six games and avoid a losing record.  Thus, a losing record for the Cowboys is a "thing not seen". 

However, this website (and others) presents a great deal of evidence to support my faith.

8 "or possibly shipped off to…

"or possibly shipped off to London at god-awful hours of the morning"

Them's fighin'words! We've got Kronke & Khan making clown shows out of our our native football teams. Can't you at least sent us some good games?

10 A Radical Playoff Proposal

College football teams have to win a certain number of games to be "playoff eligible."  Why not import the same idea to the NFL?

The NFL wants to go to 17 games?  Okay.  We can make that work for us.  Teams play one game each against teams from their conference, and two games against the opposing conference, based on seeding.  The #1 and #2 teams in the AFC play the #1 and #2 teams in the NFC.  Same for #3 and #4, etc. all the way down the list.  The NFL would love this.  You get a Super Bowl rematch every year!  Teams with the top picks in the draft get to face each other every year!  The division structure goes away entirely.

At the end of every season teams qualify for the playoffs if they have 10 wins.  (With a cap of 8 teams in a conference.)  Then, you seed them as normal and the AFC and NFC have three weekends of playoffs, with the Super Bowl as the culminating event.

13 College football teams have…

College football teams have to win a certain number of games to be "playoff eligible."  Why not import the same idea to the NFL?

Because college doesn't actually have a playoff. It has two bowl games whose winners play a third bowl game.

By comparison, college basketball takes every conference champ regardless of record and then a field of at-larges. College hockey uses conference champs and then RPI to seed the rest of the field. But both take conference champs regardless of record.

14 I think the brutal awfulness…

I think the brutal awfulness of the NFC East this years skews things. Yes, a divisional system sucks when one division is so clearly terrible, but that's usually not the case. Additionally, it makes the regular season games so much more exciting between division rivals. It's different if those teams aren't fighting for a division championship, and a lot more boring.

23 The college football …

The college football "playoff" system is even worse than the NFL system, because it is determined mostly by a poll system that is biased toward big schools and big conferences, and only secondarily by head to head matchups. "Polls" determine the starting positions, not performance, and also the general outcome.

I've always said that a 12 or 16 game system for 32 NFL or 100 Div I teams is far too small to determine an outcome that approximates 'truth'. MLB, NBA, and NHL are far better at determing true champions because there are far more data points to work with. Football championships are doomed to eternal argument, analytics notwithstanding.

15 Hey does anyone know what…

Hey does anyone know what the best and worst cumulative DVOA records would be for a division? I think the NFC West is no longer in contention for the top of that list, and would probably bet on, ironically, the NFC East teams from some time in the early 90's, and many other division-years.

But the NFC East has got to be in the conversation for worst division of all time. All four teams are between -12.3 and -20.5 right now, giving them a combined score of -69.5%. I'd like to see what the lowest DVOA is for the best team in a division, which would be the weak WFT at -12.3%. I'd probably bet on one of the NFC West division-years from 2000-2010.

EDIT: Briefly eyeballed it. The 2008 NFC West, "lead," by the Rams at -44%, ended with a cumulative score of -88.8%. The Cards were the least terrible team at -4.0% DVOA. Wow.

24 Shoutout to Sir Humph!!

Bryan - that is some top quality channelling of Sir Humphrey Appleby. Kudos!!! :)

25 Week 18 one-game playoffs

" could have (some) teams with identical records play each other in Week 18 to determine seeding. For example, last season you might have had Chiefs/Patriots and Packers/Saints matchups to determine which teams get bye weeks." 

Hmmm...playing an extra game to determine which team doesn't have play an extra game...the only way I could imagine this happening is in a Joseph Heller novel about the NFL.