Scramble for the Ball: Achilles' Heel

Scramble for the Ball: Achilles' Heel
Scramble for the Ball: Achilles' Heel
Photo: USA Today Sports Images

by Bryan Knowles and Andrew Potter

Andrew: Hello, and welcome to Scramble for the Ball, where this week your humble Scramble team is very, very relieved that this is not our first playoff article.

Bryan: Is that because the long haul of the season is almost over, and we're counting down the days until we remember what sleep is, or do you have something more specific in mind?

Andrew: I'm looking very warily in the direction of Patrick Mahomes, after what just happened to the other three quarterbacks making their playoff debuts. Our trio of tenderfoots went 0-3 in the wild-card round, adding to an odd statistical quirk in what is a very intriguing pool of playoff passers. Mahomes is yet to play, but now that the dust has settled from last weekend we can confirm that nine of this season's other 11 playoff quarterbacks lost their first postseason game. Russell Wilson won his, but that is in part because his playoff debut was also his opponent's playoff debut, in the infamous Game that Ruined Robert Griffin's Knee. Only one of our quarterbacks beat a playoff veteran in his first playoff start. That was, of course, one Thomas Edward Patrick Brady, whose Patriots defeated Rich Gannon's Raiders in Gannon's fourth playoff start, all the way back in the early Cretaceous Period.

Bryan: First-time starters are 46-60 since 1990 in the playoffs, though it should be noted that some of those instances saw first-timers play each other. Perhaps interestingly, quarterbacks that lost their first start have a better ensuing record than quarterbacks who won their first start, though some of that is due to the fact that winning a game in the postseason just gives you the chance to lose one the next week. But plenty of successful quarterbacks have gotten their playoff careers off on the wrong foot -- both Mannings, Aaron Rodgers, Philip Rivers, and Drew Brees top among them. Matt Ryan, Matt Hasselbeck, Cam Newton, Drew Bledsoe, and Neil O'Donnell all turned first playoff losses into eventual Super Bowl appearances, and both Nick Foles and Brad Johnson eventually won one despite failing in their first attempt. There have been 32 one-and-done quarterbacks since 1990 -- players who had one chance, botched it, and never got another -- but don't feel TOO bad, Lamar Jackson, Deshaun Watson, or Mitchell Trubisky; one playoff loss does not a career make.

Andrew: The fact that these young quarterbacks got to the playoffs in the first place should provide plenty of optimism for the future, when they will hopefully benefit from the experience they gained in this first foray. If inexperience is a weakness, it is at least one that is relatively straightforward (though by no means easy) to overcome.

Bryan: If inexperience is a weakness, it means we're due for another inevitable march towards a Patriots Super Bowl title, doesn't it?

Andrew: Well, diminishing returns have to kick in at some point, surely. Does Tom Brady really gain that much by having a four-year head start on 14-year veteran Philip Rivers, or a single-season advantage on Drew Brees? Even Nick Foles, in his sixth season, is considered a guy who's "been here before," though most of that is based on last year's incredible run.

Bryan: If we're talking playoff experience, Brady has a five-year gap on Rivers and a three-year gap on Brees, but your point is more or less taken; it's unlikely that Brees' relative inexperience in the postseason (just one Super Bowl title? P'shaw) will end up being the Saints' fatal flaw.

Andrew: Instead, the Saints' fatal flaw, if there is to be one, will be when Brees mistakes an actual scarecrow in a Saints uniform for his No. 2 receiver, and throws an interception off the scarecrow's back shoulder pad. I know, I know, Ted Ginn is back, but he's still Ted Ginn. And speaking of experience, Ginn is very, very veteran nowadays by wide receiver standards: he was drafted more than a decade ago.

Bryan: See, I would have thought the Saints' fatal flaw, were there to be one, would be having the worst pass defense remaining in the playoffs, led by Marshon Lattimore failing to recapture the magic of his rookie season. A 67 percent completion rate allowed ain't exactly ideal. Probably won't come back to haunt them this week, as Nick Foles and the Eagles didn't get here behind a strong passing attack (for that matter, how did the Eagles get here?) but when you likely have Goff and either Mahomes or Brady waiting for you going forward, it's not hard to imagine a scorched secondary leading to the Saints going home early.

Andrew: They are, at least, No. 6 in weighted defense, and have the best run defense remaining, but that makes sense.

Bryan: If Brian Schottenheimer secretly knocks out Sean McVay and takes over there, maybe that run defense will mean something.

Andrew: Or if the Cowboys defy reason, logic, and your Lock of the Week pick ... it's not impossible.

Really, this divisional round roster is a good snapshot of this season. There are no flawless teams left, because there are no flawless teams. Every team has something you can point to and say "this is why they'll lose." There's an old adage in football circles that it's your strengths that get you into the playoffs, and your weaknesses that get you out of them. With that in mind, let's see if we can't find a reason to send every single team in the league packing, and vacate the Lombardi Trophy like it's a mid-2000s BCS national title.

Bryan: Let's stick with the NFC for a moment. Andrew, let's say you're the coach of the Los Angeles Rams. You have Aaron Donald, the NFL's sack leader and likely defensive player of the year. You have Ndamukong Suh lining up next to him. You have the second-highest pass pressure rate in the entire league, trailing just the Pittsburgh Steelers. Where, without looking, would you expect the Rams to rank in sack rate?

Andrew: Are you asking me as the guy who's written two chapters in two years which discussed the randomness of sack rate for the Almanac, or me masquerading as a guy who didn't do that? Let's play along and say, oh, second right behind the aforementioned Pittsburgh Steelers.

Bryan: This game is a lot less fun when you're playing it with smart people. You're right, of course; sack rate is very random, and the Rams actually fall all the way down to 12th despite Donald's dominance. There are a lot -- and I mean a lot -- of Rams plays this year where they break down an offensive line, find their way into the backfield ... and then the quarterback either steps up and scrambles for a big gain or finds an open receiver after scrambling outside the pocket. The Rams gave up 121 plays of 15 yards or more, in large part because that much-hyped up secondary has, well, not really lived up to preseason expectations. Think Patrick Mahomes has any trouble finding open receivers when on the move?

Andrew: The Rams also have, for all of their defensive line talent, a shockingly poor run defense. Only seven defenses in the league have a positive (i.e., bad) run defense DVOA, and the Rams rank 28th overall. You'd think that might be a problem if they were, say, about to play a team whose entire offense is based on a dominant run game and a back who led the league in rushing yards this season. Fortunately, this is the NFL in 2018, so rationally no teams like that exist anymore. Phew.

It's really odd to say, given how defensively dominant they were last year, but this Rams defense may well be their biggest weakness. (As well as yet another example of how variable pass defense is from year to year, so no reason for Bears fans to be concerned at all, and how run defense DVOA is usually a better predictor of overall defense DVOA the following year than pass defense DVOA is, so no reason for Browns and Cardinals fans to be concerned either.)

Bryan: Right, so neither of the top seeds in the NFC will win the Super Bowl. It'll be one of the NFC East teams, right?

Andrew: One of the what, now? I thought Washington forfeited due to a lack of players.

Bryan: Yeah, but you have Dallas, who would be really, really good if football fields were 80 yards long! But, oh, wait, you do have to traverse the red zone to score, and the Cowboys were second-to-last, ahead of only the 49ers, in red zone offensive DVOA. Even with Amari Cooper, they haven't increased that much. Scoring is still important in 2019, right? I'm sure their red zone woes won't come back to haunt them at a critical time in the playoffs; that never happens.

Andrew: In much the same way as a questionable regular-season kicker can be trusted to make all of his critical postseason kicks after those red zone failures, you mean? At least the Cowboys have a super-reliable kicker in Dan Bai-- oh. Oh dear. That's ... not Dan Bailey. That's Brett Maher, ranked No. 23 in field goal and extra point value. It's not quite Bears bad, and nothing is Buccaneers and Vikings bad, but oh dear.

So the Rams are fated to give up a million yards to Ezekiel Elliott, but the Cowboys will end up with no points to show for it. Meanwhile, the Rams offense will re-insert Todd Gurley ahead of C.J. Anderson, and Leighton Vander Esch and Jaylon Smith will promptly make Gurley-shaped papier-mâché. Should be fun!

Bryan: That just leaves the Eagles, the Most Average Team in DVOA History*.

Oh, that asterisk? That's the "the Eagles have been significantly better with Nick Foles than Carson Wentz this season" asterisk, which is both confusing and hilarious. I don't think the Achilles' heel of the Eagles is the offense, and how many of these playoff teams could you say that about if they were forced to go to their backup quarterback? Instead, I look at the fact that they do not cause turnovers, they're bleh against the pass, and they can not tackle in the open field whatsoever. That didn't matter against the Bears, because the Bears didn't really have a 2018-esque offense. There are some slightly better offenses yet to come.

Andrew: Perchance including an offense that metaphorically mounted the heads of the Eagles defensive backs on spikes around the bowl of the Superdome as a warning to their foes in November? I'm sure I saw somebody, somewhere make a comment on that game's relevance to this one:

Bryan: Hey! No spoilers for the NFC divisional round previews!

Alright, I think we've conclusively proven that no NFC team can possibly win the Super Bowl; they're too flawed. So we need to look at some of the flawless teams in the AFC, right? Like that flawless Chiefs defense. Wait, no, "flawless" isn't the word I'm looking for, what is it again...

Andrew: Flammable?

Bryan: Frightful, perhaps?

It doesn't really matter if you score every time you have the ball if the other team also scores every time they have the ball. See the Chiefs-Rams Game of the Year, which is pretty much the model of how I would expect the Chiefs to fall out of the playoffs.

Andrew: This is not exactly unprecedented postseason territory for these specific teams either. Not that January 2004, has any bearing whatsoever on January 2019, but it's a quirky historical note. This year's Colts just demolished the No. 1 run defense for 200 yards on the ground. Now they get to go against the No. 32 run defense. Yowsers.

Now I do find it interesting that both the Chiefs and Rams, who were generally considered the top two teams in the league for most of the regular season, have such bad run defense DVOA ratings. That makes me wonder if something else is going on that we aren't quite seeing in the efficiency numbers. Even so, though, this Chiefs defense is not good. Not good at all. That means they're likely relying on a first-year starter to go blow-for-blow in a shootout in his first playoff start, when as we've detailed above that hasn't gone well for others in that position lately. It's quite easy to see how the Chiefs lose this one, even at home, even as they are justifiably favorites.

Bryan: That being said, the Colts don't exactly have the world's greatest pass defense, either. Only Tampa Bay allowed a higher completion rate than the Colts have this season; one reason Darius Leonard is racking up so many tackles is because there are a lot of tackles to go around, because footballs do not hit the floor against them. Blake Bortles threw for 300 yards against these guys; what the heck is Mahomes going to do to them?

Oh, and for how touted (and justifiably so) the Colts offensive line has been this year, they had the second-most holding penalties in the league this season. That's a huge part of the reason why only three teams had more fouls called against them than the Colts. We're not talking about "good" penalties -- playing hard on defense and arriving there a bit early, drawing a few extra pass interference calls. We're talking 31 holding calls and 18 false starts, killing plays before they begin. Nope nope nope, the Colts are too flawed to beat the Chiefs, much less win the Super Bowl.

Andrew: That means we're relying on the Chargers to blow up the Death Star. What do you think? A team with the nous and innovation to play a quarters defense for 98 percent of their snaps in shutting down a run-first offense must be capable of playing a similar trick on Tom Brady and Josh McDaniels, somehow. The Chargers have the most efficient defense of the remaining teams: 10th against the pass, 10th against the run, and eighth overall. They also have an efficient, balanced offense: second in pass offense, sixth in run offense, and third overall. Even their special teams, which has long been their undoing in varied and hilarious ways, ranks merely a below-average 25th rather than the abominable 31st of yesteryear. Where, oh wise one, is the flaw?

Bryan: The fact that the entire franchise is built on a cursed burial ground, which may explain why Foxborough is expected to get potentially heavy snowfall in time for, and quite possibly during, the divisional playoff game? The fact that they're hoping Hunter Henry's torn ACL will hold together enough for a playoff run? Or perhaps that they're 26th in DVOA in third-and-long situations? Come on, it's the Chargers. This year's relative success is just setting us up for the ultimate center square in Chargers Loss Bingo.

Andrew: It may not help that they go from playing a college-style option-based running attack to one of the few true power rushing attacks in the league. The Patriots not only have a fullback, but they actually use him! With Jatavis Brown joining Denzel Perryman on injured reserve this week, L.A. currently has a linebacker depth chart that consists of a tin man, a dude in a lion suit, a girl from Tornado Alley, and Kyzir White. That may not be ideal. We've seen teams try to play a light base against the Patriots before; the Colts are still trying to get Jonas Gray's tread marks out of their AFC Runner-Up banner.

Bryan: Derwin James can play all those positions, but perhaps not at the same time. He's good, but not that good.

So that just leaves ... uh …. no. No, we can't be saying that, yet again … no. Please, please, no.

Andrew: Every. Single. Year. Somehow, a team that was blown out by three different non-playoff teams, including the fourth-place Lions and the fourth-place Jaguars, and lost in Miami to a ridiculous laterals play, and lost in Pittsburgh for the first time in a gazillion years, still managed to earn a bye in the AFC.

Bryan: There has been some suggestion that their Achilles' heel is their run defense, which is both a) overstated (19th in DVOA ain't that bad, The USA Today) and b) was expected to give them trouble against "Houston and Baltimore." Uh-huh. That's gone really well, it seems.

Andrew: It still could give them trouble against Melvin Gordon and Austin Ekeler, except Gordon could barely run against the Ravens because he has two sprained MCLs and Ekeler can't cut as effectively as usual because of a groin strain. The Patriots defense is a mediocrity by DVOA, but it seems like the Patriots defense is always a mediocrity by DVOA -- last year's abomination was very much an exception, not to be repeated. Mediocre kickoffs could be harmful, but the Chargers rank No. 26 in kick return value. In fact, special teams are more likely to favor New England: L.A. has the second-worst punt unit by our numbers, and playoff time means Julian Edelman punt return time: Edelman averages 12.6 yards per punt return in the postseason, on 29 total returns across 15 games.

Bryan: You could point to their third-worst adjusted sack rate, despite their high pressure rate, similar to what the Rams face. You could point to Tom Brady's worst season since ... let's be generous and say 2014, and say that age will wallop him in the face hard over the next 96 hours. I don't know, though -- maybe I'm just blinded by success, but it's hard to point to anything the Patriots do badly and go "yes, this will destroy them," because they've done all these things badly before and still have five rings to show for it.

Andrew: That does, at least, appear to be the game of the weekend: two teams that are not quite perfect, but sure seem to have the fewest flaws of the eight remaining. If it truly is the case that the team with the fewest or least significant flaws is the team most likely to win it all, it sure looks like one of these two will have the best case for being that team.

Bryan: In that case, I'd like to state that I've been a Los Angeles Chargers fan for years, YEARS, ever since they moved back to where they were founded. The long-lasting legacy and tradition of the Los Angeles Chargers will see them through. Please. Pretty please. With sugar on top.

Andrew: Careful, now. You don't want to jinx it any worse than our Lock of the Week picks already have.

Bryan: Well, I'm picking the Patriots to win this one, so by the theory of double-secret-reverse-jinxing…

OK, my head hurts now. I think, however, we've determined that no one is fit to win the Lombardi Trophy this year, so that should free up everybody's time this weekend. If, by some weird miracle, someone actually does win a football game this weekend, we'll be back.

Staff Playoff Fantasy Update

Bryan: The risk-reward of loading up on wild-card teams rears its ugly head once again. Picking players outside the top two seeds gets you an extra weekend of games, and gives you the chance to vault into a significant lead before other teams even get out of the starting blocks. On the other hand, it also means your season could be dead before everyone else's even begins.

Take Andrew, for instance. He's our leader after wild-card weekend, racking up 75 points behind the performances of Deshaun Watson and Allen Robinson. The problem, however, is that Watson and Robinson put up big numbers in losses. Andrew finds himself down five players before the divisional round even kicks off, so his 21-point lead, while a very, very good performance for one week, isn't likely to last too much longer. He does still have Zeke Elliott going after a huge day. His hopes for championship gold now probably revolve around a Cowboys Super Bowl trip, preferably against the Colts or Chargers, if we could swing that. He's not dead, but the first week of playoff games could have gone slightly better.

Helping Andrew -- and the Best of the Rest teams -- is the fact that none of us took any successful quarterbacks on wild-card weekend. Dave, Andrew, and I took Russell Wilson, Deshaun Watson, and Mitchell Trubisky, all of whom will be spending the rest of the playoffs at home. The other three took quarterbacks on a bye, so it's possible that none of us will have a quarterback make two starts going forward. If only one of Kansas City, New England, and New Orleans pulls out a win this weekend, pencil in Aaron, Vince, or Scott (respectively) as your winner here until proven otherwise.

Which one of us is doing the best? Well, Dave has only lost one player, which helps -- his entire team is intact except for Russell Wilson. That's a pretty big "except for," however, as quarterbacks routinely score double-digit points in this format. I'd probably tap Vince as having the best odds at the moment, as he has the only team with a quarterback and two running backs left available, having only lost a pair of Seahawks in the first round. Scott split his gamble on the Ravens and Chargers, but the performances of Marlon Mack and Amari Cooper give him a solid starting point for a playoff run. As for Aaron and I, we've barely started, with most of our hopes being pinned on the Chiefs, Patriots, and Saints. I will note that my two eliminated players got 19 points to Aaron's five, but I lost a quarterback and he still has Patrick Mahomes ready to go.

It's still anybody's race with seven games to go, however!

FO Playoff Fantasy Rosters

Aaron Dave Bryan Andrew Vince Scott
QB Patrick Mahomes 0 Russell Wilson 22 Mitch Trubisky 19 Deshaun Watson 20 Tom Brady 0 Drew Brees 0
RB Damien Williams 0 Melvin Gordon 10 Alvin Kamara 0 Ezekiel Elliott 22 Todd Gurley 0 Jordan Howard 3
RB Chris Carson 2 Sony Michel 0 Mark Ingram 0 Lamar Miller 7 James White 0 Marlon Mack 20
WR Brandin Cooks 0 Keenan Allen 3 Tyreek Hill 0 DeAndre Hopkins 3 Robert Woods 0 Michael Thomas 0
WR Doug Baldwin 3 Josh Reynolds 0 Ted Ginn 0 Julian Edelman 0 Tyler Lockett 12 T.Y. Hilton 8
WR Chris Conley 0 Alshon Jeffery 8 Sammy Watkins 0 Allen Robinson 20 Mike Williams 6 Amari Cooper 10
TE Rob Gronkowski 0 Benjamin Watson 0 Trey Burton 0 Travis Kelce 0 Zach Ertz 5 Eric Ebron 8
K Greg Zuerlein 0 Stephen Gostkowski 0 Wil Lutz 0 Harrison Butker 0 Sebastian Janikowski 7 Justin Tucker 5
D New England 0 L.A. Rams 0 New Orleans 0 Chicago 3 Kansas City 0 Baltimore 0
TOT 5 43 19 75 30 54

Best of the Rest

Bryan: With so many of us up top either picking wild-card losers or sticking away from this weekend altogether, there were a number of strong strategies to this point in the Best of the Rest competition. Most of the top finishers took Tarik Cohen, though he only got them two points. Instead, it was generally "have one of the wild-card quarterbacks, and you'll find big success!"

Our top entry at the moment belongs to Joe Pancake, who recorded 59 points thanks to Lamar Jackson's fourth quarter and Michael Badgley's leg. However, with Jackson (and Tarik Cohen) out of the tournament now, the best actual squad might belong to our second-place team, Andrew's 7th Wheel. He loaded up heavily on Eagles, including Nick Foles and Golden Tate, and benefitted from a strong day from Dontrelle Inman as well. As a result, he is the only Best of the Rest squad with a complete roster going forward, which is a massive boost in a situation like this. While everyone is still alive after only one weekend, it's hard to knock having a full roster ready to go.

Top 5:

1. Joe Pancake (59 points) (Still alive: Darren Sproles, Cole Beasley, Chris Hogan, Blake Jarwin, Michael Badgley, Chargers DEF)

2. 7th Wheel (57 points) (Still alive: Nick Foles, Josh Adams, Darren Sproles, Golden Tate, Nelson Agholor, Dontrelle Inman, Dallas Goedert, Jake Elliott, Eagles DEF)

3. Chi-Charge-O (55 points) (Still alive: Philip Rivers, Austin Ekeler, Tyrell Williams, Hunter Henry, Michael Badgley, Chargers DEF)

T4. Better Lucky Than Good (52 points) (Still Alive: Andrew Luck, Nyheim Hines, Dontrelle Inman, Adam Vinatieri, Colts DEF)

T4. Charging Bears (52 points) (Still Alive: Andrew Luck, Spencer Ware, Tyrell Williams, Antonio Gates, Chargers DEF)

T4. Over the Rivers and Through the Woods (52 points) (Still Alive: Philip Rivers, Austin Ekeler, Tyrell Williams, Cole Beasley, Hunter Henry, Michael Badgley, Chargers DEF)

Weekly Awards

Keep Choppin' Wood: Prior to Baltimore's wild-card game against the Los Angeles Chargers, editor-in-chief Aaron Schatz brought attention to Lamar Jackson's lower-than-expected rushing DVOA, highlighting two issues Jackson faced compared to regular quarterbacks:

Both points were clearly demonstrated in the game itself, but the former was the most glaringly obvious. Jackson fumbles a lot. An extraordinary amount, in fact, as noted in these tweets from First Down France.

Jackson fumbled 11 times in his seven regular-season starts, which included a three-fumble performance against the Falcons and two in a playoff-clinching victory against the Browns. Against the Chargers, the Ravens fumbled three times on three consecutive plays across their opening two drives -- two by Jackson himself, and a third by Kenneth Dixon immediately after taking an option handoff. Jackson had a playoff debut to forget as a passer, but it was his issues handling the ball that first dug the Ravens into a hole. Those same issues ultimately ended the game: Jackson's third fumble of the day was a game-sealing strip-sack by Uchenna Nwosu. Many quarterbacks have struggled in their first playoff game yet still gone on to be excellent players, but Jackson's fumble issues go way beyond this single game -- and need to be addressed urgently if he is to fulfill his undoubted potential as a player.

John Fox Award for Conservatism: Jackson's performance as a passer was not helped, however, by his coaching staff. Whether it be the notorious lack of schematic diversity from offensive coordinator Marty Mornhinweg (as detailed by The Athletic's Sam Fortier in this paywalled piece) or the frankly absurd decision to settle for a 50-yard field goal on fourth-and-2 while trailing 12-3, the Ravens coaching staff contributed to their own downfall with their extremely conservative approach against an opponent they had played only a few short weeks ago. In particular, it should never be possible for an opponent to tell whether you are running or passing based on something as simple as your left tackle's feet -- even in season, self-scouting is meant to address those tells. The Ravens did eventually adjust their play calls and switch out a run-blocking guard for a better pass-blocker on the interior line, but by then it was too late to save their season.

Herm Edwards Award for Playing to Win the Game: By contrast, the Chargers changed their approach drastically in light of the difficult December matchup. Whether by design or by accident -- the Chargers were down two starting linebackers, with Jatavis Brown joining Denzel Perryman on injured reserve -- Gus Bradley changed up his defense drastically to deal with the unique threat posed by the quarterback-driven Baltimore rushing attack. Out went heavy packages designed to control the line of scrimmage, and in came a seven-defensive-back set focused on pursuit, recovery speed, and containment. The Chargers alternated coverages, switched between different safety "spies" on Lamar Jackson, and based their entire defensive design around a personnel package they had used on only 50 total snaps during the entire regular season. The defense worked beautifully, confounding and disrupting the Ravens offense that had rushed for 159 yards in the regular-season matchup, and ultimately allowing Los Angeles to turn a 22-10 regular-season home loss into a 23-17 playoff road victory.

Hue Jackson Award for Confusing Coaching: The Andy Reid coaching tree is an impressive one. A full third of this year's playoff coaches either are Andy Reid or worked under him at one point or another, as he has mentored quite a few young minds into very good coaching candidates. He also, however, has spread his ... shall we say "interesting" time management skills to his assistants. Both Matt Nagy and Doug Pederson share this award for their interesting timeout management in the capper of wild-card weekend. On Philadelphia's last drive, Nagy could have taken a timeout after the Eagles had gotten the ball to the 2-yard line with 1:55 left in the game. Instead, 40 seconds ticked off the clock there. Yes, Nagy presumably wanted to keep one time out to set up a field-goal chance, but an extra 30 or 40 seconds at the end could have been enough to help the Bears move into something a little easier than 43-yard field goal for their embattled kicker.

Not to be outdone, Pederson used his first timeout on a stopped clock to set up the fourth-down touchdown. Yes, it was vital to get the right play call there, but that time out could have been incredibly valuable. Had they failed on fourth down, they still would have had the Bears backed up on the 2. With all three timeouts left, they would have had the possibility of forcing a three-and-out and getting the ball back with about 50 seconds with which to work. With just two, you're looking at the Bears punting with something like 10 or 15 seconds left at most, and the possibility of even less than that if you ran a bold "do a lot of holding before taking an intentional safety" sort of play. The timeout made that fourth-down play all-or-nothing; we would have crucified him had he failed, so it's fair to at least acknowledge the iffy process even though it worked.

'Dak Attack' Fantasy Player of the Week: None of us in the Playoff Staff Challenge took him. No one in the Best of the Rest took him. All Dak Prescott did was throw for 223 yards and a score, and rush for another touchdown himself. Last year, Nick Foles swept the Fantasy Player of the Week awards during the postseason after nobody took the eventual Super Bowl MVP. Will this be Prescott's year to do the same? I mean, probably not, but who knows? That's the greatest part about watching the postseason.

'Comfort in Sadness' Stat of the Week: The Houston Texans not only lost by the biggest margin of any team in last weekend's NFL playoffs, they did so at home to a division rival. Still, there is always reason for optimism for any playoff team. Marlon Mack may have run over, around, and through them in the playoffs, but the Texans finished the regular season with the No. 1 run defense by DVOA. Run defense is not as important now as it used to be, but it is still a more consistent indicator of the following year's defensive efficiency. If the Texans get Will Fuller back at close to 100 percent effectiveness, and if Keke Coutee's hamstring improves with the offseason rest period, the offense should also be better. Put the two together, and the Texans retain the potential to be a very dangerous opponent in 2019.

Game-Changing Play of the Week:

Cutting Cody Parkey will actually cost the Bears $1,125,000 more than it would be to keep him on the roster in 2019. I ... don't believe that is a large enough number to save him.

Money-Back Guarantee Lock of the Week

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

Records to Date
Bryan: 9-8-1
Andrew 7-10-1

Bryan: The Rams were my preseason pick to be the NFC champions. They aren't any more, mind you -- I dropped them out of that slot after Week 9's loss to the Saints -- but they remain one of just three teams, along with New Orleans and Kansas City, who I've had as a playoff team from wire to wire, through all the ups and downs of the 2018 season. While I think they may have peaked a little too early this year, this is still a battle of a legitimate Super Bowl contender against a team that, while they've been playing better of late, are still sort of there to fill up the numbers. I don't think this is necessarily the biggest mismatch of the week, but I still like the Rams (-7) to take care of business at home before heading out to take on the Saints next week.

Andrew: There's no such thing as a lock in the NFL playoffs. No, not even Nick Foles. The last time the Eagles were in New Orleans, they were annihilated 48-7. They've improved since then, but the Saints should also be healthier and hungrier. Of all the teams remaining, New Orleans has the fewest weaknesses -- they got their No. 2 receiver back at the end of the regular season, theoretically helping with their biggest weakness on offense -- and the most strengths. Every remaining player on that roster wants to make up for the way they went out last year. If the Saints lose at home in these playoffs, my guess would be it's a lifeless, anticlimactic defeat to the Cowboys in the championship game. This week -- there's no way Saint Nick can continue to live this charmed life, surely? New Orleans (-8) over Philadelphia.

Email us with fantasy questions, award suggestions, crazy videos, outlandish conspiracy theories, personal Achilles' heels, and other assorted flotsam and jetsam at Contact Us.


20 comments, Last at 13 Jan 2019, 10:07am

1 Re: Scramble for the Ball: Achilles' Heel

[Y]ou're looking at the Bears punting with something like 10 or 15 seconds left at most, and the possibility of even less than that if you ran a bold "do a lot of holding before taking an intentional safety" sort of play.

The "everybody holds to waste time" play was made moot by rules changes made before the 2017 season. The clock would be reset to the time before the play, plus there would be a 15-yard penalty against the holding team.

6 Re: Scramble for the Ball: Achilles' Heel

While I agree with the article in that I had concerns about how much time they would have left if they needed to get the ball back after taking that timeout, the Bears really couldn't do the intentional safety with only a 5 point lead - I don't think they would want to put the Eagles in a situation where a FG would tie it, especially with a kicker who made a 62 yarder to win a game last year.

17 Re: Scramble for the Ball: Achilles' Heel

Behind The Scenes Note here!

We write our awards separately. Andrew does KCW, Fox, Hermie and Comfort, while I do the Jackson, FPotW, Game Changing Play and either Loser League or Staff Playoffs. I think both of us kind of assumed the other would take Schotty's decision -- I know I had mentioned it as a possible Foxy award.

3 Re: Scramble for the Ball: Achilles' Heel

What hurts the most about the Bears losing is the feeling that the playoffs were so wide-open this year, and that they could credibly beat any team they could potentially face including the Super Bowl. What a missed opportunity.

The more time goes by, the less I blame Parkey for the loss (43-yard field goals are not sure things for anyone, and the Bears should have played better than to let the game come down to one) and the less I am sure that they have to cut him. The marginal cost of adding an undrafted free agent kicker or minimum-salary veteran isn't much (I've heard people suggesting they should draft one, but that's absurd), but there's no guarantee that said kicker would be any more dependable. If [rookie kicker] has a 4-miss game midseason, what do you do then? Pay a 3rd kicker and hope he's better, or do the same thing you did with Parkey this season except without the excuse that he's a veteran who's had some success and you think he'll bounce back?

15 Re: Scramble for the Ball: Achilles' Heel

Agreed. If Parkey stays, Pace had better have a running list of unemployed kickers he can bring in on a moment's notice.

I'm having trouble finding exact lengths for the field goals he made and missed this year, but in the regular season he missed 3 FGs between 30-39 and 3 extra points. Three of those kicks were in the infamous four goalpost game (the 4th miss that game was on a 40-49 yarder). Given his limitations distance-wise, you obviously want that to be more like only 1-2 misses all year from that distance, but it's not terrible. He got a decent amount of criticism for the Week 6 miss against Miami, but given that it was 53 yards I much more blame Nagy for settling for a 53-yard attempt to try to win the game.

And of course, while it's comical that he hit so many goalposts, it means that he actually wasn't that far off. If it's a mechanical thing, or a wind adjustment thing, or whatever, it's quite possible he can fix it and be very accurate next year.

16 Re: Scramble for the Ball: Achilles' Heel

It's one situation where I think the rest of the roster has significant influence over a coach's roster decisions. Football players fully exposed to the physical demands of the game, on a daily basis, just don't have much tolerance for guys who aren't, unless there are years of equity built up. Things just get too toxic when the latter guys go into prolonged slumps.

8 Re: Scramble for the Ball: Achilles' Heel

You aren't concerned about the Patriots' sudden tendency to lose games to cursed franchises with the Chargers rolling into town?

In the last 17 games, they've lost a SB to the Eagles, and regular season games to Detroit, Jacksonville, Miami, Tennessee, and the Steelers. (Although they did beat KC)

I mean, cripes, if they had Cleveland and Arizona on the schedule they would have been the 4 seed!

19 Re: Scramble for the Ball: Achilles' Heel

How can you talk about QB's in their 1st PO games and not mention Kurt Warner? No QB will ever match his, IMO. In his 1st game he had 5 TD's and only 1 INT, a Comp.% over 80%, 391 yds, a Rating of 143, and most importantly he led his O to 49 points.