by Bryan Knowles and Andrew Potter
Andrew: Hello and welcome to Scramble for the Ball, where your humble writers remain glued to the spot, gaping in awe at the carnage that was the AFC playoff race in Week 14. As fans of NFC teams, we always relish the opportunity to point and giggle and collapse in cacophonous cachinnation at the calamities of the lesser conference.
Bryan: I take full credit for all of the NFC success in recent years, despite my team of choice failing to have a winning record since 2013. That sound you hear is definitely guffawing, and not desperate sobbing. Definitely.
Andrew: Admittedly, I was ill most of this weekend, so it was more a cacophony of coughing than anything else, but still ... a remarkable sequence of events, leading to a compelling race for playoff seeds, even if most of the actual participants are basically decided.
Bryan: More or less, at least. We basically know five of the playoff teams in the NFC, with the Vikings fighting off fading Carolina, Philadelphia and Washington, for the last seed that is remotely up for grabs. The AFC still sees tight races for the AFC North and the last wild-card seed, with half a dozen teams scrambling for one of those two slots. Admittedly, scrambling for an 8-8 season and one of those last two slots, but still! It's something.
Andrew: It's astonishing that the Vikings are still in pole position for the final NFC wild card, really. A team that have played badly enough that they just fired their offensive coordinator, no less.
Bryan: We thought the NFC would be so good this year, but plenty of teams we thought would be great have, well, cratered somewhat this season. Players we thought would be stars after scintillating 2017s have failed to provide stellar follow-up campaigns.
But where some stars fall, other stars rise. That's an astronomy fact for you.
Andrew: I quickly checked with several astronomers, and they appear to have a different idea of "astronomy fact" than Bryan.
Bryan: Pfft, astronomers. Like landing a rover on Mars is anywhere near as hard as picking the best players at NFL-mandated positions over three-quarters of the regular season. You know, the thing the Pro Bowl honors!
Andrew: The Pro Bowl honors many things. I'm not completely convinced that "the best players ... over three-quarters of the regular season" has consistently been one of those things for quite some time now. Still, it's something the league does to (ostensibly) honor its players, and there's precious little enough of that about, so let's discuss it!
Bryan: Pro Bowl voting ends on December 13, so just in time, we present to you the one, true, correct ballot. Saves you some thinking time, at least.
Andrew: The casual reader will be shocked, no doubt, to discover some of the big names who do not feature in this year's selection. No Josh Allen, for example, despite his superior rushing exploits that bring to mind a less accurate, more mobile, allegedly right-handed Michael Vick.
Bryan: If Allen was secretly left-handed, that would explain a lot about his play. The time for a Princess Bride-esque reveal has passed for 2018, however, with the Bills mathematically eliminated this week.
The NFC has some arguments here after Brees -- Aaron Rodgers is having a down season, but he's still Aaron Rodgers, and has had to overcome knee injuries, a shoddy supporting cast, and a fired head coach to get where he is, which is still in the top 10 in both DYAR and DVOA.
Andrew: Rodgers remains an excellent player in a less-than-ideal situation, but he is also having a poor season by his lofty standards. I'm not a sports psychologist, so I'm ill-equipped to judge any of the motivation stuff, but Rodgers has been considerably less efficient and consistent this season than we're used to. He not only falls behind Matt Ryan in DYAR and DVOA, but he barely scrapes ahead of Russell Wilson in DYAR only because of he has more attempts. He's still an excellent player, but to me he would be a reputation pick more than a pick for who has played the best this year. This year, the third guy is Russell Wilson, now that he has an actual offensive line in front of him.
Bryan: It turns out, when you fire Tom Cable and give Wilson an actual offensive line to work behind, he's still a good quarterback! Who knew?
The last slot in the AFC ends up as a two-way shootout between Roethlisberger and Tom Brady, with all due respect to the return of Andrew Luck. Both players have nearly identical efficiency metrics -- within just a few points of one another in both DVOA and QBR. Big Ben has kept that rate up even though he has thrown 70 more passes than Brady has, which is worth mentioning, but he has also done it with a more talented supporting cast.
Andrew: A lot of the statistical stuff cuts both ways here; it's very tough to separate receiving numbers from quarterback numbers. While Brady is still very efficient overall, we have seen a noticeable decline in his accuracy and an obvious shift in philosophy from the Patriots to match it.
Bryan: I'd be tempted to give the final slot to the winner of the New England-Pittsburgh game, but that comes after the deadline for picks. Tom Brady is not having a Tom Brady-esque season. Oh, he has been very good, don't get me wrong; he's only 0.9% behind Roethlisberger for sixth in DVOA and 0.1 points behind him in QBR. He has set all kinds of historical milestones and vaulted up the all-time leaderboards in touchdowns and whatnot, so for most quarterbacks, this has been a very good year. A career year, even. Brady's standards are a little higher than that, however.
Of course, with the rate at which quarterbacks duck out of the Pro Bowl, we'll actually see Matthew Stafford and Derek Carr take the field in Orlando, but we're here to honor Pro Bowlers, not actually watch the game. Good lord, no.
Running Backs (and Fullbacks!)
Bryan: We're really hurt here by our insistence on selecting three running backs from each conference, rather than the six best overall. Part of the problem is that the proportion of teams sticking to one back to those that use a deeper rotation isn't evenly spread out among the two conferences. There have been 12 running backs with at least 500 snaps this season; eight of them are in the NFC. Joining James Conner from the AFC are Lamar Miller, Dion Lewis and James White, which just isn't an impressive set of names. We're stuck picking players who have been highly efficient, but less overall productive, from the AFC, while letting some superstars from the NFC miss out entirely.
Andrew: Exactly. If conferences were not in play Saquon Barkley, Alvin Kamara, Ezekiel Elliott, and Christian McCaffrey would all get on my ballot before anybody other than Conner from the AFC, but the Perfect Ballot must be written such that it is possible to actually see it in action on the night. Philip Lindsay's efficiency numbers speak for themselves, so he's in, and our final pick came down to Melvin Gordon, who is now hurt; Kareem Hunt, who has been removed from the ballot; Houston's Lamar Miller or Cincinnati's Joe Mixon; and Derrick Henry, who we were as surprised as anybody to learn now ranks No. 1 in DVOA and No. 3 in DYAR despite spending much of the season looking like anything but a Pro Bowl-caliber football player.
Bryan: Gurley's quasi-MVP campaign and Barkley's weekly show were our no-brainer picks in the NFC, but that left us with the impossible task of picking between Elliott, Kamara, and McCaffrey for the last NFC running back slot. McCaffrey is the engine that makes Carolina's offense go, while Kamara leads Elliott in rushing DVOA, rushing DYAR, receiving DVOA, and receiving DYAR. At the end of the day, however, Elliott still leads the league in yards from scrimmage, and we can't justify the leading rusher missing the Pro Bowl, no matter what we can point to with advanced statistics. When you're the focal point of an offense and teams are stacking the box to stop you, of course your individual efficiency stats will drop some. Elliott gets the last pick.
The NFL still mandates that we include two fullbacks on the Pro Bowl roster, because it's apparently still 1975 and we need big burly men in the backfield with bell bottoms and afros and disco music. Only five fullbacks have even 150 snaps this season; only two have over 250, so they both make the Pro Bowl by default. C'mon, NFL. Group these guys in with the running backs next year.
Bryan: There was a fair share of no-brainers here -- Thomas leads the league in DYAR, Jones is first in receiving yards. Hill and Allen were also easy picks, as they're the top wideout options on the top two passing offenses in the league. Thielen had that streak of eight-straight 100-yard receiving games and so forth.
Andrew: ... despite a significant downgrade at quarterback. (Ignites the blue touchpaper and backs away cackling.)
Our final NFC spot came down to Davante Adams versus Odell Beckham.
Bryan: On the one hand, Adams has more raw stats, leading OBJ by significant margins in receptions, yards, and touchdowns. He's also ahead in both DVOA and DYAR. On the other hand, he's doing that with Aaron Rodgers -- even a down-year Aaron Rodgers. Beckham continues to impress with the shambling corpse of Eli Manning under center, and that's a much larger hurdle to clear.
Andrew: I don't know that you'd find many people who would claim that Adams is either a better receiver or performing better than Beckham, and if you can then you should check that you haven't inadvertently wandered onto the set of Skip & Shannon: Undisputed while looking for a bathroom. Adams has improved massively from where he was even a couple of seasons ago, but Beckham is still one of the top handful of receivers in the league. I'd take him over anybody else in the league who hasn't already been named on our ballot.
Bryan: That moves us along to the AFC. Both Antonio Brown and JuJu Smith-Schuster are more than deserving, as is DeAndre Hopkins down in Houston. Hopkins is in the top 10 in both receiving yards and touchdowns, a feat neither Brown nor Smith-Schuster can claim. Arguably, however, that's because the two Steelers receivers are taking chances away from one another, while Hopkins is definitely the top dog down in Houston. I don't see any way we can leave Hopkins off of our list, meaning we only have one slot for a Steelers wideout. Are we Team Brown or Team JuJu?
Andrew: I don't see how we can possibly have an AFC Pro Bowl ballot without including arguably the best wide receiver in the league. Both are playing very well, but it seems fair to conclude that JuJu is benefitting from Brown more than Brown is benefitting from JuJu. That's not to say that JuJu isn't a very good player in his own right, but given the choice of either of the two with all else being equal, I'd guess that basically everybody would pick Brown.
Tight Ends (4)
Andrew: The top two here were also simple. Travis Kelce is the top tight end in the league in DYAR, DVOA, and yards, and second in touchdowns. The other ... well, I'll step aside to let you be all homerific and gushy.
Bryan: That's right, boys and girls, the San Francisco 49ers have two starting offensive Pro Bowlers. Fear them. I've been beating the drum for George Kittle since before the season started, as I was expecting a full-on breakout year. I wasn't expecting him to top 1,000 yards receiving, though, and especially not with C.J. Beathard and Nick Mullens throwing him the ball. He's second in the league to only Saquon Barkley in yards after the catch. So, you know. That's fun.
Andrew: Beyond that, one of the weird features of the league in recent years, it seems to me, is the decline in the number of teams with fantasy-viable receiving tight ends. Last year, we had 18 tight ends reach at least 500 receiving yards. The year before, we had 20. This year, the league is currently on pace to have only 14 total -- barely enough to fill out the average fantasy league.
Bryan: For years, one of those teams with a good receiving tight end has been the New England Patriots, and while Rob Gronkowski is having a good season, he's not the force of nature he has been in recent years. He's clearly hurting, and one has to wonder how much longer he'll play in the league at all. In fact, with only two tight ends in the AFC, he misses our ballot entirely, with Jared Cook of all people jumping him. Cook is having a career year, going over 800 yards for the first time in his career and setting a personal high-water mark with six touchdowns with three weeks to go. Voting for Gronk isn't terrible, but he's clearly only at about 69 percent of his peak performance now.
Andrew: Which is ... not so nice.
Finally, Zach Ertz leads the Eagles in receiving with almost twice as many yards as his nearest challenger (1,016 to Nelson Agholor's 572) and is one of only three tight ends, along with Kelce and Kittle, to surpass 1,000 receiving yards this season. Ertz ranks fifth in DYAR and 12th in DVOA, all of which makes him the obvious second tight end for the NFC's Pro Bowl squad.
Offensive Line (6 tackles, 6 guards, 4 centers)
AFC: T Mitchell Schwartz (KC), T Ronnie Stanley (BAL), T Alejandro Villanueva (PIT), G Marshal Yanda (BAL), G Quenton Nelson (IND), G Shaq Mason (NE), C Rodney Hudson (OAK), C Ryan Kelly (IND)
NFC: T Ryan Ramczyk (NO), T David Bakhtiari (GB), T Andrew Whitworth (LAR), G Zack Martin (DAL), G Brandon Brooks (PHI), G Austin Blythe (LAR), C Jason Kelce (PHI), C Corey Linsley (GB)
Bryan: You'd probably expect two members of the Rams' offensive line to be here -- they're first in adjusted line yards (at a record pace!) and eighth in pass protection so far this year, so they deserve plenty of praise and honorifics. We could have even had three with Rob Havenstein; it came down to him, Whitworth, and Joe Staley for the last tackle slot in the NFC. You might be more surprised to pick a pair of Packers, considering their struggles as a unit in pass protection, but they're still a top run-blocking line.
Even 80 percent of Zack Martin is still one of the top guards in the game, while Brandin Brooks has yet to allow a sack all year long (and you can probably count his pass pressures allowed without running out of fingers). Ali Marpet could have slipped into the last guard slot, as well; he has been better than Blythe over the past month, but Blythe's early-season success still leads him to holding onto a slot. Brooks' teammate Jason Kelce deserves a nod, too, for his run-blocking tenacity, though Alex Mack also got serious consideration.
There is no requirement that we slip a right tackle onto these teams, but we did so anyway. In the NFC, we've got Ryan Ramczyk, who hasn't missed a step in his sophomore season, and is a big reason why New Orleans' offense hums.
Andrew: In the AFC, Chiefs right tackle Mitchell Schwartz has been quietly playing well for years. At left tackle, we're giving another nod to Baltimore's third-year professional Ronnie Stanley, who is a big reason for the Ravens' excellent adjusted sack rate. Pittsburgh's offensive line ranks first by ASR, which is more about a cohesive unit than individual stars, but left tackle Alejandro Villanueva has grown to be a key component of what is once again one of the league's best lines.
The only time in recent history that Marshal Yanda has not been the best guard in the AFC is when he was injured and out of the lineup in 2017. Otherwise, he has started 120 of 125 games for the Ravens since 2010 and played well in almost every one. He was the easiest pick of this entire segment.
The obvious pick from the Colts unit that has protected Andrew Luck historically well this year is rookie guard Quenton Nelson. Nelson has stepped into the Colts lineup and dominated; he sets the tone for his entire line, and at 22 years old is already one of the best guards in the game. Finally, the Patriots' shift in focus to more of a power-running offense is built on large part on the skill-set of right guard Shaq Mason, an overwhelming run-blocker who has quickly become one of the key players on the Patriots offense.
Competition at center was somewhat diminished this year by the loss of Jacksonville's Brandon Linder and Denver's Matt Paradis to injury, but this remains one of the deepest roster spots in the AFC. Our returning starter, Rodney Hudson, may not win maN.Y. Games in Oakland, but he certainly wins plaudits as one of the best and most consistent pass-blocking centers in the game. Our second offensive line pick from the Colts, Ryan Kelly, was our all-rookie pick in 2016, and has continued to improve despite some nagging injuries over his first three years in the league. He staves off competition from the likes of Maurkice Pouncey -- a perennial Pro Bowler himself -- to make our Pro Bowl roster for the first time.
Defensive Front Seven
AFC: DE J.J. Watt (HOU), DE Myles Garrett (CLE), DE Calais Campbell (JAX), DT Jurrell Casey (TEN), DT Kyle Williams (BUF), DT Larry Ogunjobi (CLE), ILB Myles Jack (JAX), ILB Vince Williams (PIT), OLB Von Miller (DEN), OLB Bradley Chubb (DEN), OLB T.J. Watt (PIT)
NFC: DE Demarcus Lawrence (DAL), DE Cameron Jordan (NO), DE Danielle Hunter (MIN), DT Aaron Donald (LAR), DT Fletcher Cox (PHI), DT Akiem Hicks (CHI), ILB Bobby Wagner (SEA), ILB Luke Kuechly (CAR), OLB Khalil Mack (CHI), OLB Preston Smith (WAS), OLB Demario Davis (NO)
Bryan: We say it every year, but it remains true: the NFL's defensive balloting is a disaster. Rather than splitting players up into roles as they currently exist in the NFL, everyone's mixed together. You have 3-4 standup edge rushers competing with 4-3 coverbackers at a catch-all "outside linebacker" position. 3-4 defensive ends are spread across the defensive end and defensive tackle positions with no obvious rhyme or reason. The hardest part of making picks, then, is trying to figure out who is on which part of the ballot!
Andrew: This issue shows up all over the roster. Colts rookie Darius Leonard deserves genuine Pro Bowl consideration along with his Defensive Rookie of the Year candidacy, but he is an off-the-ball linebacker lumped in at "outside linebacker" with 11-sack Von Miller, 10-sack T.J. Watt, and sensational rookie edge rusher Bradley Chubb -- three players who are ahead of him before we even get to the competition for his actual role on the Colts. Meanwhile, Myles Jack makes the squad from Jacksonville's underperforming defense because the only real competition in the AFC comes from Houston pair Zach Cunningham and Bernardrick McKinney and Tennessee's Wesley Woodyard. Leonard is much closer in role to Jack than Chubb, but archaic positional listings put him in Chubb's bucket on the ballot.
Bryan: There are more logical ways to sort through 11 front seven players per squad. We don't need what ends up being five or six slots for edge rushers between the defensive end and outside linebacker spots; we can really make do with just four edge rushers. That would allow 4-3 linebackers to actually have a chance of making the roster, even if their name isn't Bobby Wagner or Luke Kuechly. We ended up putting Demario Davis as the third outside linebacker for the NFC just to allow someone who isn't tasked with pinning their ears back and rocking quarterbacks to have some recognition. The Pro Bowl game itself is a farce defensively, with limits on what sorts of coverages you can run and how many players can rush the quarterback at all times; we don't need to make it even goofier by asking Khalil Mack to cover Travis Kelce down the field -- bring back the coverage linebacker!
Andrew: What we're saying is if your favorite player isn't on our front seven ballot, don't blame us -- blame our working conditions! The ballot cannot possibly be wrong, therefore it must be the fault of the league.
Bryan: Ipso facto, QED.
AFC: Stephon Gilmore (NE), Kareem Jackson (HOU), Chris Harris (DEN), Xavien Howard (MIA), SS Jamal Adams (NYJ), FS Derwin James (LAC)
NFC: Kyle Fuller (CHI), Byron Jones (DAL), Patrick Peterson (ARI), Marshon Lattimore (NO), SS Bradley McDougald (SEA), FS Eddie Jackson (CHI)
Bryan: Another case of messed up NFL priorities -- strong safeties and free safeties are separate categories? They're more distinct than 3-4 and 4-3 linebackers, are they? Alright, sure. We need ten thousand edge rushers, but just one safety apiece. Sure. Why not.
You could make an argument for three Bears here, with Adrian Amos in contention at strong safety, but we'll go for their two leading ballhawks instead in Fuller and Jackson. Patrick Peterson ranks first in success rate among qualified cornerbacks, with Stephon Gilmore third -- no-brainer picks for the top corners on each team.
The hardest spot to pick might have been the fourth AFC cornerback. Xavien Howard is tied for the lead league in interceptions, while Denzel Ward is sixth in success rate and is allowing just 5.9 yards per pass. In the end, we're taking the big plays, and it's not like Howard is that far behind in success rate. AFC corner is just deeper this year.
Andrew: If his rookie year is any indication, Ward will be a perennial Pro Bowler very soon. He is just edged out by some very tough competition.
One AFC rookie defensive back who does make it is Losandiego's Derwin James, who has immediately become not only the best safety on his team, but arguably one of the top handful of safeties in the league. Jamal Adams followed up an all-rookie selection with a better sophomore season, and was one of the few bright spots for the 2018 Jets. Bradley McDougald has developed into a free-agency steal for the Seahawks: a tough, hard-hitting safety whose departure was keenly felt by the Buccaneers secondary in 2017 and beyond.
Andrew: This season has not been good for football in New York, but it has been good for kicking. Jason Myers and Justin Tucker are basically tied atop the AFC kicker rankings, but Myers just edges the competition with more made field goals from over 50 yards and fewer misses from under 50. In the NFC, Aldrick Rosas has recovered from a difficult rookie campaign to lead the league by making 97 percent of his field goals (minimum 10 attempts).
Bryan: I'll be honest, I was expecting Michael Dickson to be the most entertaining part of the Seahawks' season. Frankly, he might still be the most entertaining part of the Seahawks' season, with a clear lead in net punt yardage and crazy spin that allows him to make, well, perfect punts. Dickson will break Sanchez's rookie record for best net yardage by a punter, but Sanchez continues to perform at an excellent level.
Andrew: Miami's Jakeem Grant is the only player to score on a kick return and a punt return this season, and he has the longest average punt return of any player with more than a single return attempt. He beats out some tough competition to win our AFC returner slot. The NFC field is much less competitive: nobody has scored a special teams return touchdown. Only two players average more than 10 yards on punt returns, and the player with the most returns of 20-plus yards (Tarik Cohen, six) also has the most fumbles (three). That tilts the table in favor of Rams returner JoJo Natson, who may be the weakest selection in the history of this particular role.
Bryan: Naming special teams contributors to the teams is great, but really hard for the casual fan (or even, uh, professional fan) to notice; it really should be a special teams coach-only honor. That being said, Zeke Turner leads all players with 14 special teams tackles, while Joe Jones has a ton of tackles of his own and a blocked punt this year. They're our choices.
Bryan: Remember, this isn't our ballot or a suggested ballot. This is the empirically correct ballot, the One True Ballot, and all other selections will be considered null and void.
Andrew: You are, of course, entirely free to disagree in the comments, but the judges' decision is final, and we fully expect to see these exact teams on the field in ... uh, when do they play the game again?
Bryan: As far as my television is concerned? Never. They never play this game. It's a bigger honor to make the game than to actually play in it. And it's the biggest honor of all to be named in this article, naturally.
Loser League Update
Quarterback: The real winner here was Mark Sanchez, but he wasn't eligible to be picked -- heck, we didn't know Washington would be desperate enough to pick him up when we set the rosters at the midway point of the season. The lowest-scoring quarterback you could have actually chosen was Jared Goff, who threw it back to his rookie season against the Bears. Goff threw four interceptions on Sunday night -- one of them was a Hail Mary, which really isn't his fault, but it still counts against him for fantasy purposes. With only 180 yards passing and no touchdowns to work with, that limits his score to just 1.
Running Back: Adrian Peterson's resurgence has been one of the stories of the year -- albeit not, perhaps, the most notable story involving Peterson this season. With Washington falling 40-0 early, there wasn't exactly a ton of opportunities for Peterson to get the ground game going. He finished with 10 carries for just 16 yards, keeping him stuck at 1 point.
Wide Receiver: Forget the Goose Eggers -- we have a rare negative-point day from a wideout! Rashard HIggins caught two passes for 19 yards. The two passes were unusually high for him; the 19 yards unusually low, as he's not exactly Baker Mayfield's top target. One of his two receptions, however, resulted in a fumble. There are no fractional points in Loser League, so he falls one yard short of the Goose Egg, and picks up -1 points instead.
Kicker: Chris Boswell and Dan Bailey had bad days in and of themselves this week, each finishing in the red after missing a field goal or two. But they're pipped to the line by Matt Bryant, who missed both a field goal and an extra point, earning him the top slot with -5 points.
Check your team's score and the Part II leaderboard here!
Keep Choppin' Wood: There can be only one winner for this award, this week:
— Bleacher Report (@BleacherReport) December 9, 2018
Opinions differ on who to blame for this play. Given the field position and the greater likelihood of a multi-lateral play than a true Hail Mary, should Bill Belichick have pulled Rob Gronkowski in favor of Devin McCourty? Did the Patriots defenders take the threat of the lateral play seriously enough? Were they too slow to react to the threat as it developed? Was this only an issue because Tom Brady took a terrible sack at the end of the first half, depriving the team of an ultimately critical three points? Whatever the answer, whoever is to blame, we can definitively say, and not for the first time, that the New England Patriots absolutely blew it against the Dolphins.
John Fox Award for Conservatism: NFL Network reporter Aditi Kinkhabwala reports this afternoon that after being removed to have his ribs checked by medics during Sunday's game, Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger told head coach Mike Tomlin that he was ready to play upon returning to the sideline. Tomlin's response was, in Roethlisberger's words, "let's see how this plays out." How did it play out? Backup Joshua Dobbs completed 4-of-9 passes for only 24 yards, including one interception and a turnover on downs. Oakland took the lead with only 5:20 remaining on a Derek Carr pass to Lee Smith, forcing Tomlin to put Roethlisberger back into the game. By then, the damage was done: though Roethlisberger immediately led a touchdown drive to put the Steelers back on top, Oakland soon replied with another score of their own against a beleaguered Steelers defense that had been on the field for a significant majority of the second half. Pittsburgh's final drive got them into field goal range on a hook-and-lateral pass to JuJu Smith-Schuster, but Chris Boswell's slip caused the resultant field-goal attempt to be blocked, and the Steelers left Oakland on the wrong end of a potentially season-defining defeat. Tomlin's Steelers have a reputation for taking things easy against lesser opponents, and his own decision to keep Roethlisberger out when the quarterback was quite capable of returning to the game may well prove the costliest example yet.
Herm Edwards Award for Playing to Win the Game: We have joined the chorus of criticism surrounding Jason Garrett's conservative tendencies several times during the earlier portion of this season, so it is only fair that we also credit him for aggressive decisions when credit is due. In overtime against the Eagles, Garrett's Cowboys faced fourth-and-1 from the 19-yard line after Ezekiel Elliott was stuffed on third-and-1. We have pointed out repeatedly that for a team with heavy investment in both a run-blocking offensive line and a star running back, fourth-and-1 in opposition territory should be a default "go for it" situation. This time, despite knowing that a tie against the Eagles would be almost as good as a win in the race for the NFC East, Garrett did elect to go for it. Elliott picked up the first down, and the Cowboys scored a walk-off touchdown three plays later. We can only hope that Garrett will keep this in mind the next time he is tempted to bring out Brett Maher on a down-and-distance more suited to his purpose-built power-running game.
Hue Jackson Award for Confusing Coaching: Welcome back to the head coaching ranks, Joe Philbin! And congratulations on picking up a big win in your first game as coach of the Green Bay Packers. Whenever I start a new job, I know I get antsy -- and that seemed to be the case for you, as well. How else can you explain throwing not one but two challenge flags in the first 90 seconds of action? You lost both of them, as well -- they weren't the most terrible challenge flags I've ever seen thrown, but both were on borderline Julio Jones catches that seemed pretty likely to stand upon review. Some coaches seem to have trouble finding their flags when it comes time to make a big challenge -- maybe get a few tips from them, so you're not quite so trigger-happy next week.
'San Diego Fleet' Fantasy Player of the Week:: Fans of the AAF's San Diego Fleet got a special treat this week. Josh Johnson was their first overall pick, and he says that he plans to continue to play for them after this season is over. Before that, though, he got to throw his first NFL pass in over 421 days, coming in to spell the awful Mark Sanchez in Washington's collapse against the Giants. Despite such a long time off of football, and despite being the sort of scrambling quarterback that you'd apparently need an entire offseason to design your team around, Johnson managed to throw for one touchdown and run for another in just over a quarter and a half at work -- enough for Jay Gruden to announce that he'll be getting the start this week, his first start since 2011 with the Buccaneers. My guess is he didn't help anyone in their fantasy playoff matchups, right? OK.
— Take Your Base Sports (@takeyourbasepod) December 9, 2018
Blake Bortles Garbage-Time Performer of the Week: All that aforementioned Josh Johnson success came after Washington was well, well, well out of contention against the Giants, against soft prevent defenses. It's really a shame that Josh Johnson was the best out-of-work quarterback available, isn't it? After all, Washington's still in the playoff picture. If only they could find a quarterback with a track record of success -- maybe a Super Bowl appearance or a phenomenal touchdown-to-interception ratio. Maybe someone who was two slots ahead of Johnson on the depth chart a few years ago. Sadly, Washington's ownership is too busy scouring the waiver wire for players with domestic abuse allegations to bother searching for someone who can help them win football games.
That's not Johnson's fault, though, so have more Josh Johnson highlights! In 2018! Whodathunkit.
— Chad Ryan (@ChadwikoRCC) December 9, 2018
'Comfort in Sadness' Stat of the Week: Back in the aftermath of their 40-7 loss in Dallas in Week 6, we looked at the Jaguars' young receiving corps, in particular Dede Westbrook and Keelan Cole. The season since has not been kind to Cole. Not kind at all: Cole went catchless from Weeks 10 to 12, and Week 14 was his first with over 21 receiving yards since we highlighted him here following that Dallas game. Westbrook, however, has become Jacksonville's top receiver: he leads the team in yards from scrimmage (641) and touchdowns (five, tied with T.J. Yeldon and Leonard Fournette), and is the only Jaguars receiver with a catch rate above even 57.0 percent on more than a half-dozen targets (for reference, Westbrook is at 65.4 percent). Westbrook has led the Jaguars in receiving in two of the past three games, and he caught Cody Kessler's first touchdown as Jacksonville's starting quarterback late in the third quarter against Tennessee. The season is well and truly lost, but at least Westbrook is one player who has emerged from this disastrous year with his reputation enhanced.
Game-Changing Play of the Week:
Miami put up a great fight, but losing today pretty much removes any reasonable path they had to being relevant in December. Not mathematically eliminated, but the Dolphins are toast.
— Bryan Knowles (@BryKno) December 9, 2018
The 8-bit Tecmo version of the "Miami Miracle" pic.twitter.com/RnzvKOu6dO
— Benstonium (@Benstonium) December 10, 2018
— Andrew Potter (@bighairyandy) December 9, 2018
Ahem. Yes, that's the ol' commentators jinx, there. Can you blame me, though? There has not been a successful game-winning offensive lateral play in this millennium -- and that's just how far back I checked. I can't recall a single case of a game-winning offensive lateral play in NFL history. The Music City Miracle was on special teams. The River City Relay ended with a missed extra point. The Miami Miracle (and come on, it's a 69-yard touchdown with Rob Gronkowski on the field, we're not calling it Miami Nice?) worked. Even if this game meant nearly nothing, we'd have to put it under Game Changing Play of the Week. And this game didn't mean nothing; it was the second or third most important game of the entire week. Holy cow.
Because of the win, the Dolphins are in eighth place in the AFC, tied in the middle of the 7-6 pack that currently sits in wild-card contention. A loss would have bumped them below Tennessee, a full game back of three teams for the postseason. While they don't control their own fate, winning out would most likely see Miami take that sixth seed, and even the fifth seed wouldn't be entirely out of the question. The loss would have essentially ended their season; now, they get a couple more weeks of being in contention.
The Patriots, on the other hand, may have just lost their bye week. They're tied with the Texans for the second seed in the AFC, and they do own the tiebreaker thanks to their win back in Week 1. However, the Texans have a very easy schedule to ride out the season -- the Jets, Eagles, and Jaguars have a combined 15 wins. The Patriots also get the Jets, but then they have a road game in Pittsburgh and the Bills to tangle with. If they slip up against Pittsburgh on the road -- not something that has happened in recent seasons, but not an entirely crazy scenario -- they could end up stuck as the third or even fourth seed. They didn't lose their playoff spot or anything, despite failing to clinch last week, but they may have just made their road in the playoffs much, much more difficult. At the very least, any margin for error is now gone. All because Gronk couldn't make a tackle.
Money-Back Guarantee Lock of the Week
Records to Date
Andrew: Whaddaya know? Turns out the playoff-chasing Broncos spent roughly 30 minutes forgetting George Kittle existed, which was great for my fantasy team but terrible for my Lock of the Week prospects. This week, I'm back to picking an underdog to cover rather than a favorite. Jacksonville doesn't deserve to be a touchdown favorite against anybody: in order to justify being a touchdown favorite, I really feel that a team ought to prove capable of first scoring a touchdown in competitive play. Cody Kessler's only touchdown drives as a Jaguars player have come late in the third quarter against the Texans, trailing 20-0, and late in the third quarter against the Titans, trailing 30-2. Late in the third quarter trailing by anything against Washington would be a(nother) disaster; absent some defensive scoring or ridiculously short fields, this looks primed more for a 9-6 defensive slugfest than any kind of comfortable win in either direction. Give me Washington (+7) at Jacksonville.
Bryan: Your faith in Josh Johnson is disturbing. I instead have faith in a much more reliable quarterback: Eli Manning.
I do think that DVOA is too much in love with the Giants -- 12th in Weighted DVOA? Seriously? -- but I also think that DVOA is correct in that they are significantly better than the betting public seem to believe. So N.Y. Giants (-2.5) at home against the Titans? I like that a lot. Tennessee is coming off of a two-game winning streak, but a streak against the Jets and Jags is hardly a streak at all. While I doubt everything will work as smoothly as it did against Washington, I like the Giants to keep up their momentum and win this one by multiple scores.
Double Survival League
Bryan: Still just one game between us! The bold (and not at all cheating) strategy of taking both sides of the Lions-Cardinals game did in fact get me one win, while the Raiders' upset in Pittsburgh kept Andrew from gaining aN.Y. Ground! As it stands, both of us have exactly one winning team remaining -- the Patriots for me and the Rams for Andrew -- so this is heading towards an exciting finish.
Andrew: We're down to the wire here, and looking at Week 15's schedule, I get the impression that this is less about which teams I'm comfortable with this week and more about which teams I'm especially unhappy with next. Looking at the four teams I have left, I'm marginally happier with the Lions at home against the Vikings in Week 16 than I am with the Jaguars at the Dolphins or the Falcons in Carolina. That means this week's teams are Jacksonville at home against the charred, smoldering, post-apocalyptic remnants of what was once a football team from Washington, and Atlanta at home against the Arizona Cardinals, who may somehow still be worse than the charred, smoldering, post-apocalyptic remnants of what was once a football team from Washington.
Bryan: Careful planning has gotten me to this stage -- four teams left, each with exactly one game remaining that I am anywhere close to confident they'll win. That's called thinking ahead, there. You can argue about whether the Patriots should be favored on the road in Pittsburgh this week, but I think everyone will agree they'll be significantly more favored at home against the Bills next week. Similarly, I expect the Titans to have trouble with the suddenly hot Giants this week, and then to have success against the charred, smoldering, post-apocalyptic remnants of what was once a football team from Washington next week. Therefore, my choices are simple: I need Cincinnati to avoid the fate of their divisional rivals and not get upset by the Raiders, and Buffalo to finally pay me back with a win against Detroit. The Bills cost me a win back in Week 3 against the Vikings, so I very much need them to come through for me here.
With the Saints and Chiefs clinching last week, and the Jaguars, Jets and Bills all seeing their playoff hopes go bust, we're now down to 24 teams fighting for nine spots. In reality, a number of other slots are essentially clinched, but the only spot that seems nearly set in stone are the Seattle Seahawks, your fifth seed in the NFC.
Seattle can wrap that up that fifth seed this week with a win and a Minnesota loss. The Rams have already clinched the division, and because the rest of the NFC is floundering below .500, a 9-5 record would be more than enough to put everyone else out of their misery. I can't remember the last time a team had clinched a wild-card seed this early in the year. In fact, it's possible that next week's Chiefs-Seahawks game could be entirely meaningless if the Chiefs beat the Chargers and the Steelers upset the Patriots; that would clinch home-field advantage for the Chiefs. Exciting times.
Week 15 is the first week the dreaded strength of victory tiebreaker really comes into play, and we have three elimination scenarios that involve it. Denver faces the possibility of Tennessee clinching the SoV tiebreaker over them; the Titans currently have a .484 SoV to the Broncos' .468. Cincinnati could lose the SoV tiebreaker to either Tennessee or Miami; the Dolphins are sitting at .440, while the Bengals are up at .462. Finally, the Lions, with their .469 strength of victory, could lose their SoV tiebreaker to numerous teams in the quagmire that is the NFC wild-card race. The scenarios listed here are, to the best of my ability, compact and correct, though there may be some very obscure edge cases that could sneak in here or there.
For space reasons -- strength of victory takes up a lot, guys! -- the elimination scenarios only include divisional and playoff elimination paths. For a full look at elimination (including unedited awful Boolean logic scenarios for the Dolphins and a first-round bye), you can go here.
- Kansas City can clinch home field advantage IF Kansas City d. L.A. Chargers AND Pittsburgh d. New England
- Kansas City can clinch a first-round bye IF Kansas City d. L.A. Chargers
- L.A. Chargers can clinch a top-five seed IF L.A. Chargers d. Kansas City OR Dallas d. Indianapolis AND Minnesota d. Miami AND N.Y. Giants d. Tennessee AND EITHER New England d. Pittsburgh OR Tampa Bay d. Baltimore
- L.A. Chargers can clinch a playoff berth IF ONE OF:
- L.A. Chargers d. Kansas City
- Minnesota d. Miami AND EITHER New England d. Pittsburgh OR Tampa Bay d. Baltimore
- Dallas d. Indianapolis AND N.Y. Giants d. Tennessee AND EITHER Tampa Bay d. Baltimore OR Minnesota d. Miami
- New England can clinch a top-three seed IF New England d. Pittsburgh AND Minnesota d. Miami AND Tampa Bay d. Baltimore
- New England can clinch the AFC East IF New England d. Pittsburgh AND Minnesota d. Miami
- New England can clinch a playoff berth IF New England d. Pittsburgh AND EITHER Minnesota d. Miami OR N.Y. Giants d. Tennessee
- Houston can clinch a top-three seed IF Houston d. N.Y. Jets AND New England d. Pittsburgh AND Dallas d. Indianapolis AND Tampa Bay d. Baltimore AND N.Y. Giants d. Tennessee
- Houston can clinch the AFC South IF Houston d. N.Y. Jets AND Dallas d. Indianapolis AND N.Y. Giants d. Tennessee
- Houston can clinch a playoff berth IF Houston d. N.Y. Jets AND ONE OF
- Dallas d. Indianapolis AND N.Y. Giants d. Tennessee
- Minnesota d. Miami AND EITHER New England d. Pittsburgh OR Tampa Bay d. Baltimore
- L.A. Rams can clinch a first-round bye IF L.A. Rams d. Philadelphia AND Green Bay d. Chicago
- L.A. Rams can clinch a top-three seed IF L.A. Rams d. Philadelphia OR Indianapolis d. Dallas
- Seattle can clinch the No. 5 Seed IF Seattle d. San Francisco AND Miami d. Minnesota
- Seattle can clinch a playoff berth IF Seattle d. San Francisco
- Dallas can clinch the NFC East IF Dallas d. Indianapolis OR L.A. Rams d. Philadelphia AND Jacksonville d. Washington
- New Orleans can clinch a first-round bye IF New Orleans d. Carolina AND Green Bay d. Chicago
- New Orleans can clinch a top-three seed IF New Orleans d. Carolina OR Indianapolis d. Dallas
- Chicago can clinch the NFC North IF Chicago d. Green Bay OR Miami d. Minnesota
- Chicago can clinch a playoff berth IF Chicago d. Green Bay OR Miami d. Minnesota OR Jacksonville d. Washington
- L.A. Chargers can be eliminated from the AFC West IF Kansas City d. L.A. Chargers
- Denver can be eliminated from the playoffs IF Cleveland d. Denver AND EITHER Tennessee d. N.Y. Giants OR ALL OF New England d. Pittsburgh AND Kansas City d. L.A. Chargers AND Jacksonville d. Washington AND Dallas d. Indianapolis AND FOUR OF:
- Cincinnati d. Oakland
- Philadelphia d. L.A. Rams
- San Francisco d. Seattle
- Atlanta d. Arizona
- Miami d. Minnesota
- Miami can be eliminated from the AFC East IF Minnesota d. Miami AND New England d. Pittsburgh
- Indianapolis can be eliminated from the AFC South IF Dallas d. Indianapolis AND Houston d. N.Y. Jets
- Tennessee can be eliminated from the AFC South IF N.Y. Giants d. Tennessee AND Houston d. N.Y. Jets
- Cleveland can be eliminated from the AFC North IF Denver d. Cleveland OR Pittsburgh d. New England
- Cleveland can be eliminated from the playoffs IF Denver d. Cleveland
- Cincinnati can be eliminated from the AFC North IF Oakland d. Cincinnati OR Pittsburgh d. New England
- Cincinnati can be eliminated from the playoffs IF Oakland d. Cincinnati OR Pittsburgh d. New England AND Indianapolis d. Dallas AND EITHER Tennessee d. N.Y. Giants OR Miami d. Minnesota AND THREE OF:
- Jacksonville d. Washington (counts twice)
- Denver d. Cleveland
- Philadelphia d. L.A. Rams
- Baltimore d. Tampa Bay
- Arizona d. Atlanta
- Philadelphia can be eliminated from the NFC East IF L.A. Rams d. Philadelphia OR Dallas d. Indianapolis
- Washington can be eliminated from the NFC East IF Jacksonville d. Washington OR Dallas d. Indianapolis
- N.Y. Giants can be eliminated from the playoffs IF Tennessee d. N.Y. Giants AND ONE OF Minnesota d. Miami OR Washington d. Jacksonville OR Philadelphia d. L.A. Rams OR Detroit d. Buffalo AND EITHER Green Bay d. Chicago OR ALL OF Chicago d. Green Bay AND Carolina d. New Orleans AND Baltimore d. Tampa Bay
- Tampa Bay can be eliminated from the playoffs IF Baltimore d. Tampa Bay AND EITHER Minnesota d. Miami OR BOTH Washington d. Jacksonville AND Philadelphia d. L.A. Rams
- Atlanta can be eliminated from the playoffs IF Arizona d. Atlanta OR Minnesota d. Miami OR Washington d. Jacksonville AND Philadelphia d. L.A. Rams
- Minnesota can be eliminated from the NFC North IF Miami d. Minnesota OR Chicago d. Green Bay
- Green Bay can be eliminated from the playoffs IF Chicago d. Green Bay AND EITHER Minnesota d. Miami OR BOTH Philadelphia d. L.A. Rams AND Washington d. Jacksonville
- Detroit can be eliminated from the playoffs IF Buffalo d. Detroit AND ONE OF:
- Minnesota d. Miami
- Philadelphia d. L.A. Rams AND Washington d. Jacksonville
- Carolina d. New Orleans AND SIX OF
- Cincinnati d. Oakland
- Baltimore d. Tampa Bay
- Dallas d. Indianapolis
- Philadelphia d. L.A. Rams
- Atlanta d. Arizona
- N.Y. Giants d. Tennessee
- Chicago d. Green Bay
- Pittsburgh d. New England
- Washington d. Jacksonville
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