Scramble: Reasons to be Cheerful, Part 3
by Bryan Knowles and Andrew Potter
Andrew: Welcome to Scramble for the Ball, the column where we miss on picks more often than a Steelers defensive back, and the home of the only fantasy league where Blaine Gabbert's benching is no cause for celebration.
Bryan: Speak for yourself, on both counts.
Andrew: And at least he now gets a four-week audition ahead of Loser League, Part Deux.
Bryan: Maybe we'll see a sideline controversy, with the two quarterbacks fighting to see just who can make the most boneheaded plays. After all, that Loser League MVP trophy is probably the only hardware they'll be seeing this year.
Andrew: Does a wooden spoon count as hardware? Though even that will probably have to be wrestled from Mike Tannenbaum's death grip. Still, at least they're not playing for the Chargers. Or is it better to have hoped and lost, than never to have hoped in the first place?
Bryan: The Chargers should have known better to steal from that witch's house on top of the old Indian burial ground by ducking under a ladder after having their path crossed by a black cat. I really have no other explanation for the terrible luck they've had this year.
Andrew: Now, now. A.J. Smith may be many things, but a black cat he is not.
Bryan: Are we really sure about that? The Chargers have put someone on injured reserve after every game this year. Four torn ACLs.
Andrew: I suppose it's possible he might be a witch.
Bryan: 'Tis the season, after all.
Bryan: I'd avoid San Diego's Halloween party this year, though. Tensions seem to be riding high on the sidelines, and it looks like they're about to crack.
Andrew: Ah yes, reports out of San Diego today allege that kicker Josh Lambo was spotted smiling and laughing maniacally* with Raiders counterpart Sebastian Janikowski after the game, and his teammates are decidedly unhappy with him. Clearly, Janikowski is the source of the hex.
* Maniacally may be an exaggeration.
Bryan: See, I'd argue that the only healthy way to respond to the Chargers season so far is with laughter. It beats crying on the sidelines. The Chargers are exploring the full depth of different ways to blow games at the last minute, and if you can't keep a sense of humor about that, it's going to be a long, long season.
Bryan: Well, there's a fine line between optimism and self-delusion. It's OK to see positive things and spin them forward, but saying 1-4 is the perfect position for your team to be in strikes me as a little too 4D-hyperchess for my liking. There's no secret playoff tiebreaker for "most surprising comeback" or "best recovery after a terrible start."
Andrew: There should be. That would be awesome. Can you imagine if wild cards truly were wild, instead of just being the boring old "best record that didn't win a division" scenario?
Bryan: Imagine the NFL renting an auditorium after Week 17, with the contenders all standing around nervously. Announcing that this year, the wild card will go to the team with the most hilarious on-field blooper, or for the team that switched quarterbacks the most times.
Andrew: You know what this means, right? It's time to state your case. Eight teams currently lead their divisions. Can you make a purely entertainment-based case for including each of the other 24 in the playoffs without considering their actual ability?
Bryan: I'll save you the homer pick and go with the New Orleans Saints, because I do love me my track meets. The Saints have the sixth-most yards per game, and they allow the second-most yards per game. That's the formula I'm looking for to break scoring records.
Andrew: We've already discussed the San Diego Chargers. You can say they're not good. You can even justifiably say they're bad. You cannot possibly say they're not fantastically good entertainment, and if there's one thing the Chargers know how to do it's blow a playoff game in a memorable way.
Bryan: If you're looking for improbable finishes, we need to put the Indianapolis Colts in there as well. While Andrew Luck's Contract is apparently not pulling its weight on the defensive side of the ball, I'm not sure there's a team in the league I'd expect to pull off the amazing, out-of-nowhere comeback. Remember their playoff game against Kansas City in January 2014? That's the sort of jaw-dropping game that could save the NFL's flagging ratings there.
Andrew: If the Chargers played the Colts again in the playoffs, we might end up with the most improbable finish to any game, in any sport, ever. Like, 1972 Olympic basketball-level epic. Manchester United in the 1999 Champions League Final-level epic. Or any other Andrew Luck comeback/Chargers collapse-level epic.
Bryan: Exactly my thinking -- their Week 3 matchup, with the last-minute bomb to T.Y. Hilton and the Hunter Henry fumble, is exactly the kind of game that's entertaining, regardless of how good the teams actually are. If you want a truly wild card team, that's the sort of thing you should be looking for.
Andrew: Which means we're going back to the NFC then, for Eli Manning and the Giants. They're not really custom-built for regular season excitement, but their playoff games are another matter entirely.
Bryan: My working theory for the Giants is that they'll always perform in the exact opposite manner you're expecting. Predict them to do well, and they'll collapse. Write them off, and they'll be lifting the Lombardi Trophy at the end of the year.
Andrew: Expect them to play a 52-49 shootout with the Saints, the game will finish 16-13. And their only touchdown will be a blocked field goal return.
Bryan: Perfect. Who needs the Broncos, Ravens, Packers, or Eagles? Winning is so overrated as a method of determining good football teams!
Andrew: So we have our preferred four wild cards to go with our eight division winners, but there are still 20 other teams in the league and the word count looms large. Division by division: make a one-line case for the teams we haven't mentioned yet. Reasons to be Cheerful, if you will. AFC North. Go.
Bryan: Cleveland: Terrelle Pryor at quarterback, full stop. Cincinnati: The joy of seeing prime time Andy Dalton implode in new and interesting ways, plus A.J. Green doing A.J. Green things down the sidelines. Baltimore: May actually be a good football team, results against Washington notwithstanding.
AFC South, Andrew, let's hear it.
Andrew: Houston leads the division and we've already discussed Indianapolis. For Jacksonville, Allen Robinson is awesome and I would love to see him get national recognition for more than fantasy football stats. Tennessee … Exotic (Quixotic) Smashmouth! Though the thought of Mike Mularkey leading his team to the playoffs is probably more entertaining than the Titans would actually be once they got there.
Bryan: Oakland's actually leading the AFC West on tiebreakers at the moment, and we've gone over San Diego. Denver's the defending Super Bowl champions, and if you like defense, they're one of the more thrilling teams to watch. Kansas City gives you the chance to see Marcus Peters matching up against the best receivers in the biz, something you shouldn't pass up.
Andrew: The AFC East is usually a foregone conclusion by Week 5, but there are actually two teams with winning records in there just now. Tyrod Taylor is an entertaining dual-threat quarterback, and Buffalo's offense with him and LeSean McCoy can be a lot of fun to watch when it's working. They have a legitimate shot at a real life wild card too, despite starting 0-2. The Jets have the best run defense in the AFC, so watching a bunch of run-first playoff opponents like Denver and Houston try to get past that could be fascinating if not necessarily exciting. Miami … Miami … has nice weather in January? Wild card though, so they'd be on the road. If Miami can sort out their pass rush, we could get to see two quarterbacks be chased around the field for 60 minutes instead of just one.
Bryan: Over in the NFC North, the Packers are one of those boring, conventional wild card teams--one that makes it in due to top-10 offenses and defenses, which is fine if you want to watch, I dunno, good football teams for some reason. The Lions fit into that general mold of "good offense, terrible defense" that brings you those high-scoring, back-and-forth shootouts, and there's something great about watching a gunslinger like Matthew Stafford hurl the ball downfield 50 times a game. As for the Bears, I'm told their press box food is excellent.
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Andrew: You've already stolen the Saints from the NFC South, which leaves the Panthers and the Buccaneers. This is the division that defense forgot, so you're looking at the potential for more playoff shootouts as long as it isn't Derek Anderson versus Jacquizz Rodgers. Carolina has one of the best quarterbacks in the league, and certainly one of the most entertaining, while Tampa Bay has some very exciting but erratic skill position players -- particularly Mike Evans and Jameis Winston -- who could win them, or lose them, any game. Well, if Dirk Koetter lets them, they could. Oh, and Roberto Aguayo's adventures in kicking, in the playoffs!
In fact, here's a philosophical question for a hypothetical Super Bowl: if Roberto Aguayo lines up for a last-second game-tying kick against the Chargers, who loses? I'm thinking Aguayo slices the kick high and short into the hands of a Chargers player, who knees the ball out of his own hands trying to down it and the Buccaneers scoop-and-score for a touchdown. I'd pay to watch that.
Bryan: Aguayo did successfully kick a game-winning field goal Monday night, which, according to talk radio, means he was a perfect draft pick forever no takebacks. Therefore, advantage: Aguayo.
Andrew: I just checked the schedule. I know what game I'm watching on December 4!
Bryan: As for the NFC West, the Los Angeles Rams would allow us to see what crazy, unadvised coaching moves Jeff Fisher can think of next; plus, we could match them up against Seattle for what is apparently a near-guaranteed upset. Even if Carson Palmer really has fallen off of a cliff, Arizona still has Larry Fitzgerald and David Johnson who, shh, might be the best running back in football, plus an exciting, playmaking defense that's capable of filling up the highlight reel. As for San Francisco, they lead the league in strange rumors leaked to the media to discredit their own players and coaches, so they're filled with intrigue and mystery. If there was ever a team that could star in an Agatha Christie novel, it would be these 49ers.
Andrew: The NFC East, meanwhile, is a consistent narrative of four reasonably good football teams who could each either win the division or finish last depending on luck and injuries. The Cowboys lead the division by virtue of one more game played than the Eagles, but every team is within two games of first or last and has a tied record in divisional play (Eagles 0-0, everybody else 1-1). The Eagles could be exciting because they have possibly the second- or third-best defense in the NFL, depending how you order them with the Vikings and Seahawks. The Giants, we've already mentioned, and the Redskins have one of the best trios or quartets of receivers in the league in DeSean Jackson, Jamison Crowder, Pierre Garcon, and Josh Doctson, who would hopefully be back by that point.
Bryan: Of course, the true wild card team would be to put together a ragtag group of players from all the teams that didn't make the playoffs and tell them to go out there and show all those other, "winning" teams just what they could do.
Andrew: What do you think this is, an Adam Sandler movie?
Bryan: Dear GOD, no. Suggestion withdrawn.
Andrew: Yeah, maybe we should just let the standings decide.
Loser League Update
Quarterback: You know you've had a good week when your coach has to come out and reiterate the fact that you're the starter going forward. That's the sort of inspirational talk Ryan Tannehill has sparked after his poor start to the season. Against Tennessee, Tannehill threw two interceptions and ended up with less than 200 yards, with more than 30 percent of his total coming on a dumpoff that turned into a 58-yard gain. The fact that his offensive line was shuffled at the last moment may have had something to do with that, but still, not a performance that exactly inspires confidence going forward. But one that earned his Loser League managers 5 points.
Running Back: It's hard for a running back to put up big points when hit team is being blown out, doubly so if he hasn't been that good to begin with. Lamar Miller ended up with just 20 yards rushing on eight carries, with 4 receiving yards on one reception, as the Vikings jumped out all over the Texans from the opening whistle. That's good for a score of 2 points.
Wide Receiver: Six players earned 0 points this week, with Arizona pulling off the surprising feat of having two such players in a game they won: Jaron Brown and Michael Floyd. They were joined by Kamar Aiken, Will Fuller, Malcolm Mitchell, and Dontrelle Inman.
Kicker: When Dustin Hopkins left a 56-yard field goal short at the end of the first half, you couldn't blame him too much; that's a difficult kick to make, and many kickers wouldn't have the leg to knock it through the uprights. His missed extra point, however, is less excusable, though strong winds may have had something to do with it. Either way, he ends up with a score of -3.
The Loser League page is now updated for 2016, and you can check out your team's score here.
Keep Choppin' Wood: It's an unfortunate fact of life for NFL specialists that they usually only get mentioned when they screw up. That applies most of all to long snappers, but is also true for punters and kickers (hi, Roberto!). Step forward, Chargers rookie punter Drew Kaser. Not counting extra points, Kaser was on the field for two plays during the second half of Sunday's visit to Oakland. The first was his 16-yard punt from San Diego's 16, which set Oakland up at the Chargers 32-yard line and led to Jamize Olawale's 1-yard touchdown plunge. The second was a potential game-tying field goal try from 35 yards out in which Kaser mishandled a perfect snap and let the ball squirt away downfield. The fumble was recovered by teammate Sean McGrath at Oakland's 35-yard line, but the damage was already done. The Chargers did get the ball back at their own 21-yard line with 11 seconds left, but no miracle ensued.
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Herm Edwards Award for Playing to Win the Game: On the road against the Super Bowl Champions, the basic instinct for most head coaches would be to play a conservative, mistake-free game and hope the breaks fall your way. However, it is one of the oldest clichés in sports that winners make their own breaks, and Atlanta Falcons head coach Dan Quinn certainly took a bold approach to gain his team an excellent victory in Denver. On the Falcons' very first drive, they advanced the ball to first-and-goal at the 1-yard line but failed to gain that single yard over three plays. In that situation, even on fourth-and-goal from the 1, many coaches would opt to kick the field goal, but instead Devonta Freeman plowed over left guard for the 1-yard touchdown, and the Falcons took a lead they would never relinquish. Quinn had his Falcons go for another two short fourth downs in long field goal range -- one made, one failed -- but it was the first that set the tone for his team's most impressive victory so far.
John Fox Award for Conservatism: Punting on your opponent's side of the field, with only 2 yards to go for a first down, midway through the fourth quarter while trailing by 11 points is inexcusable, Todd Bowles. That it came on a drive the Jets had been gifted by a Ben Roethlisberger fumble only makes the decision that much more egregious. It took the Steelers three plays after the punt to advance beyond where they would have gained the ball on a failed fourth-down attempt, and Pittsburgh's drive ended in a touchdown to put the game completely out of reach for the Jets.
Mike Martz Award for Confusing Coaching: Jeff Fisher sure seems to show up here a lot. For the second week in a row, Fisher's bringing the Martz award back to the team Mike Martz used to coach, this time for his questionable fourth down strategy. A fake punt is unlikely to work when everyone, including the announcers, is looking for it. Sure enough, when the Rams lined up for a punt on their own 23, down by four with less than four minutes to go, they attempted a direct snap to the gunner to get the first down. Buffalo easily sniffed it out. Fisher claimed afterwards that he liked the look. It must have looked better than the end zone did, because a few minutes earlier, Fisher had opted to kick a field goal, down seven, on fourth-and-goal from Buffalo's 4-yard line. The Rams never saw the Buffalo side of the field again.
"Minnesota Needs No Stars" Fantasy Player of the Week: Perhaps the most surprising thing about Minnesota's already surprising 5-0 start is the fact that they're doing it with backups and second-options. Everyone knows about Sam Bradford replacing Teddy Bridgewater. They're winning without Adrian Peterson, on the shelf with a torn meniscus. And they're winning without Stefon Diggs, allowing former undrafted receiver Adam Thielen to get more and more work. Thielen has already doubled his career receptions and touchdown totals this season, and his seven-reception, 127-yard performance against Houston -- with a touchdown thrown in, to boot -- showcased some impressive moves and athleticism. Through five weeks, it seems that Minnesota can plug anyone in on offense and have success.
Jon Snow (We Know Nothing) Lock of the Week
Bryan: Andrew, I'm not sure you're aware of this, but the Lock of the Week has traditionally been used to select bets that actually win.
Andrew: I'm so bad at this that I've decided to embrace it, go full gambling sadist, and start picking teams I don't want to win, so if they win it improves my record and if they lose I didn't want them to win anyway. With that in mind, I'm rooting for an AFC South winner with a losing record so I'll take Houston -3 against Indianapolis. Indianapolis are, as we've seen, just the right level of bad to dig Andrew Luck into holes he at least has a chance to drag them out of. Against Chicago, he managed it. Against Jacksonville, he fell just short. Houston is more like the latter than the former.
Bryan: I know we've ragged on the Chargers plenty this column, but I'm going to take San Diego +3.5 against Denver on Thursday night. There's nothing funny about Gary Kubiak's status; he's missing Thursday's game due to a complex migraine condition. You may remember the very scary moment when he was carted off the field in 2013, and we're all hoping that this latest health scare is nowhere near as serious. Get well soon, Gary.
Records so far:
Not all 1-4 teams are created equal. I still believe the San Diego Chargers are an above-average team. They have been competitive into the last two minutes of every single one of their games so far; they're a few bad bounces away from being undefeated this year. Sometimes, though, you have to step back and acknowledge that your team is simply cursed.
San Diego has placed someone on injured reserve after every game this season, including stars like Keenan Allen, Danny Woodhead, and Jason Verrett. They were snakebitten in preseason, too, with Jeff Cumberland, Stevie Johnson, and Branden Oliver lost for the year before the first game even started. The players who have been healthy have found every way to lose in the books -- shanked punts, muffed field-goal snaps, and fumble after fumble after fumble. They have enough talent to turn things around, but in a division with two 4-1 teams, their playoff dreams are over.
The Chicago Bears are not an above-average team. John Fox doesn't exactly inspire confidence when he admits the team does not have a plan at the quarterback position going forward, and taking a shot at the "hot-dog"-eating media isn't the best look as a follow-up.
The Bears will likely have plenty of time to chomp down on Chicago-style hot dogs and develop plans this January, watching the playoffs from their couches. The competitive portion of their season is essentially over, and nothing short of warping back to the beginning of the season can undo the damage already done.
And now, a simulation of Philip Rivers behind San Diego's offensive line:
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