Scramble for the Ball
Fantasy football, the Loser League, and general goofiness

Scramble for the Ball: Shivering With Anticipation

by Bryan Knowles and Andrew Potter

Bryan: Welcome back to Scramble for the Ball, where we've already forgotten the sort-of-bland divisional round -- a necessary evil to strip us of the good-to-mediocre teams remaining, leaving us with just white-hot examples of the best of the best. There are often gatecrashers when you get to this point in the year -- heck, you could argue the Wentz-less Eagles were gatecrashers last year, and they got their hands on the Lombardi Trophy! -- but the four teams remaining include three teams that went wire-to-wire as the best in the league, as well as the still reigning Team of the '00s (and '10s, to be quite frank).

Andrew: [Intones.] What is dead may never die.

Really, the biggest surprise of the divisional round is that there were no surprises. I know that teams in that round have an incredible record over the past few seasons but, as we discussed last week, every remaining team had, at least in theory, glaring weaknesses that the other team could exploit. Instead, those weaknesses -- Kansas City's run defense, New Orleans' pass defense, Los Angeles' defense in general, and New England's, I don't know, lack of transcendence? -- were actually pretty darn strong last weekend. Though I did feel pretty darn good/terrible/perceptive/disgusted with myself about mocking the Saints' No. 2 receiver when Drew Brees threw an interception targeting him on the opening play of the game.

Not only do we have probably the four best teams of the season remaining, we have also lined up at least two rematches of the best games of the regular season. Chiefs-Patriots in Week 6 was a 43-40 thriller, and the Rams-Saints game in Week 9 was barely a shade worse at 45-35. We'll take a replay of those two, thank you very much.

Bryan: Those were, subjectively, two of the most entertaining games I've watched this season. But we're a respected statistical outlet, so we can't leave it at that.

There were four games this season in which both teams had a DVOA of 20.0% or higher -- in theory, the best-played games of the year. Two of them were those aforementioned Chief-Pats and Rams-Saints games. A third is the potential Super Bowl rematch of the Chiefs and Rams. These games were the absolute highlights of the season; the best teams playing each other at the highest levels and showing off the pinnacle of football in 2018. Not all playoff rematches are like this -- we remember how bad the Eagles-Saints game was earlier this year -- so it's really impressive that not only are the best four teams here, but they have already played each other at extraordinarily high levels. These three games were, essentially, coin flips; no one did anything particularly dumb or stupid, there weren't any bad game plans or anything coming in, and a few plays going one way or the other could have flipped them. They were tremendous, and the thoughts of getting to see rematches should make any football fan worth their salt salivate.

Of course, now that we've said that, there's almost no way this week's set of games could live up to their regular season pedigree, right?

Andrew: Absolutely. We have just guaranteed two snoozers that will have me in bed by 1:30 a.m. (which should, in theory, be just after halftime of the second game). Just in case we didn't irrevocably jinx an entire playoff round, however, should we take a glance at the four games of which you speak, and see what footballing marvels we might yet have in store?

Bryan: Of the three rematches (or potential rematches), I think I'd place the Rams-Saints game last. Not because it ended up as a 10-point game -- in high-scoring, fast-paced games like this, ten points are nothing -- but because it wasn't as back-and-forth as the other games in question. After a first quarter which seemed destined to break all sorts of yardage records (we hadn't seen anything yet, so we thought this was about as good as offenses could play in 2018), the Rams sputtered a little bit in the second quarter, allowing the Saints to pull out to a 35-17 lead. It was the second-half comeback by Los Angeles that really solidified this game as a classic -- Malcolm Brown's leap over Marcus Williams and subsequent tippy-toe down the sideline that everyone not named "Joe Buck" saw was amazing; a beautiful little pick-and-go for a Cooper Kupp touchdown; actual defensive stops forcing punts. All things considered, I prefer games that go back and forth rather than "team A takes a huge lead, team B fights back," but this was an absolute masterclass of that type of game.

And we had the Joe Horn retro celebration! The most impressive part of this game was Michael Thomas' ability to find a flip phone in the year of our lord 2018. Yes, yes, 211 yards receiving, whatever. A flip phone!

Andrew: Aren't flip phones making a comeback? If not, they must be due one surely. We're supposed to be using them as scanning devices in the 24th century, so they'll come back around one of these decades.

That was, I think, the Rams at pretty darn close to the peak of their offensive powers, and it's no surprise that all four of their best games by DVOA -- this game ranking fourth of the four -- came with a healthy Cooper Kupp in the lineup. They aren't quite the same offense without him, and it was a major blow when they lost him for the year a week later.

Bryan: They've had a day or two without Kupp in the lineup, but you're right -- they haven't been quite the same without him. The Rams are in danger of peaking too early; one of those teams that looked unbeatable in September and October (literally!) only to fall back to Earth a little too soon.

Not that the Saints have been clicking quite as well on offense since then, either, with plenty of actual negative-DVOA games since then. I would argue that, of the three potential rematches, this has the lowest chance of living up to its predecessor. That being said, New Orleans actually having a defense adds an interesting twist to the rematch, so I'm hyped for it.

Andrew: New Orleans has had a run defense for most of the year, but just lost its best interior run defender ... and now faces a team that has just found an extra gear for its running game in how-was-he-out-of-work? late-season free agent C.J. Anderson. We've discussed Anderson among ourselves more than once -- I probably owe a fantasy championship to him -- and can't figure out how he wasn't signed by somebody (the Raiders don't really count) by the time the Rams came calling. Now, the Saints do have a good run defense, but boy will they feel the loss of Sheldon Rankins there.

Bryan: If the Rams' offense sputtered because of a loss of Cooper Kupp and is revitalized by the addition of C.J. Anderson, I think it's official -- football no longer makes sense in 2018.

The other championship rematch was also a tale of two halves. Going back and re-reading our Audibles at the time, most of us were rather bored with a first half which saw the Patriots take a 24-9 lead. We had all seen this before; a hot young team rolls into Foxborough and gets shown where they really belong in the pecking order, yadda yadda. And then the third quarter happened, with the Chiefs kicking it into high gear to make it a game; and then the fourth quarter happened, making the third seem like slogging through War and Peace or something.

Tyreek Hill had three touchdowns in the second half alone as the Chiefs put everything they had into a firey comeback; Sony Michel made us think that maybe picking a running back in the first round isn't such a bad idea after all; Patrick Mahomes did, like, 12 Patrick Mahomes things; Tom Brady matched him bomb-for-bomb … the Chiefs didn't lose this one; they just ran out of time.

Andrew: What sells the upcoming game to me is that those two teams have had more than one absolute stoater of a contest recently, whether the Week 6 matchup; or Opening Night, 2017; the 2016 playoffs "Andy Reid stopwatch special"; or even the "we're on to Cincinnati" game. More broadly, we've seen some amazing young quarterbacks be put firmly in their place by Bill Belichick, and seen some amazing young quarterbacks light the Patriots up like Leicester at Diwali. This game could have literally any result and I wouldn't be shocked: close, tense slugfest in bad weather; amazing blow-for-blow shootout; massive comeback from either side; or blowout in either direction.

Bryan: I think this loss, along with the losses to the Chargers and Rams, gave the casual fan an impression that while the Chiefs were good, they didn't have whatever special sauce it takes to beat a really good team when it mattered most. I saw a lot, and I mean a lot of people calling Indianapolis the most likely upset of the divisional round, thinking that the Chiefs defense would just wilt against good teams. The thing is, all of those games were a play or two away from going in the other direction. It was basically "guy loses three coin flips, is doomed to never win a coin flip ever for sure."

Andrew: When even a team that was utterly mauled in the previous matchup can keep a playoff contest close ([sob]), two teams that battled out a tense game earlier in the year should have every chance of serving up a classic. We have seen some incredible games this season, so it's a true delight that we get to relive two of them here. And perhaps even a third, if the Rams and Chiefs advance!

Bryan: The Rams-Chiefs game was to 2018 football what 2018 football is to the rest of the NFL's timeline. We have seen a couple of higher-scoring games in the long history of the league -- a 72-41 Washington win over the Giants back in 1966 which must have blown people's minds, and a 58-48 Bengals win over the Browns back in 2004. Maybe that '66 game was tremendously well-played; I've never seen it in its entirety, but old highlight reels and the final margin lead me to believe it was not exactly the pinnacle of '60s football. The '04 game was definitely not well-played; the Browns ended up with a -19.5% DVOA overall, and both teams had defensive DVOAs above 35.0%.

The Rams-Chiefs game, the third-highest scoring game in NFL history, was much, much, much better. It wasn't an example of bad defenses -- the Chiefs ended the game with a 1.1% defensive DVOA, the Rams with a -6.0% -- it was just two of the most explosive offenses we had ever seen playing at their highest level, trading shots back and forth all night long. We have never seen high-scoring football played so well.

Andrew: I remember, back when I was really just beginning to get back into the sport more closely, watching Peyton Manning's Colts play Brett Favre's Packers (Week 3 of 2004) and being in awe as the two seemingly traded bomb for bomb throughout the first half (no fewer than six touchdown passes of 27 yards or longer, and they were not YAC touchdowns either) before the Colts pulled away in the second. This season's Rams-Chiefs was that turned up to 11, with Patrick Mahomes in the Brett Favre role of repeatedly doing absolutely ridiculous things with the ball, and Sean McVay in the Peyton Manning role of simply running the almost-perfect offensive game from wire to wire for the victory.

Bryan: After the game, as all the highlights were playing and the record-setting stats were being collected and ogled, there was a bit of backlash to this one. Ron Rivera, for one, wasn't a fan of this style of game, saying he'd prefer a good old-fashioned 7-6 ballgame. First of all, no, I'm calling BS on that one. Secondly, this wasn't a case of two offenses waltzing their way through a pair of overmatched, incompetent defenses. The game was filled with huge defensive plays! Three interceptions! Four lost fumbles! Eight sacks, many of them in critical situations!

This is just what defense kind of is in the modern era. It's not about stuffing the run on first and second down and setting up third-and-long; most play-callers not named Brian Schottenheimer have moved on to more advanced ways of calling offenses. No, it's about making the big splash plays, getting the sudden changes in possession and field position -- you're not going to be able to force a team like the Chiefs to have a ton of three-and-outs. It's alright to let them move the ball as long as you make one of those splash, highlight-reel plays at some point. I wouldn't hold up this game as an example of the best defensive play of the year or anything like that, but to dismiss it like Rivera did as a defenseless exhibition, a glorified track meet, is actually doing both defenses something of a disservice in this one!

Andrew: I guess, what we're really saying here, is that we'll take a rematch of that game for the Super Bowl, thank you very much.

Bryan: Not that any of the other potential Super Bowl matches look bad, mind you! While I highly, highly doubt we'll get three games living up to their regular-season counterparts, I'd be willing to put money on all of the three games remaining being better than anything we've seen in the postseason to date.

Andrew: Which may not be an especially high bar after a multi-blowout divisional round, but it certainly whets the appetite for a Sunday feast. Here's hoping both games live up to the hype, setting us up nicely for another classic Super Bowl in what has largely been a decade full of them.

Bryan: As an aside, we mentioned earlier that the three potential rematches are three of the four games where both teams had a DVOA of over 20.0%. That leaves one other game, if my math is correct. In fact, that one other game is the only one this season where both teams had a DVOA of over 30.0%. And I highly doubt you'll guess which one it was, because let me tell you, it doesn't really live up to the memory of these last three.

Andrew: My guess would be something out of the NFC South.

Bryan: There were plenty of other NFC South games near the top of a DVOA leaderboard -- Saints-Giants, Saints-Ravens, Saints-Vikings -- but no. It's a different divisional matchup that takes home those honors.

It was in fact the Week 11 Bears win over the Vikings, 25-20. According to DVOA, that was the best-played game of the year. And, if I may say so: no. No, it was not. Don't get me wrong, it wasn't a bad game or anything, and Chicago played a really good defensive game for three quarters, before going into a softer prevent concept for the last bit. That ended up turning a 22-6 game into the final 25-20 score; the Vikings scored two touchdowns in the last five minutes to make the final score closer than the game probably actually was. DVOA only slightly accounts for garbage time, because every time we have tried to make the adjustments stronger, it made the stat less predictive overall; good plays are good plays, no matter when they happen. I would personally knock this game down a little bit because it wasn't really close or competitive for 55 minutes, and even if the Vikings had come back and pulled off the upset, recovering that last onside kick and firing another Hail Mary into the end zone, it would not have lived up to the level of the other three games. Sometimes numbers aren't the be-all and end-all! Context matters!

Andrew: At any rate, we are excited for the Conference Championship Games, even more than we have been for the other playoff weekends. And not only because it gets us one step closer to discovering this year's staff fantasy champion -- which is, after all, why we're all really interested in the postseason.

Staff Playoff Fantasy Update

Bryan: With three games remaining, this is still anyone's contest, though some people have a firmer grasp on the lead than others. Let's go down the table, shall we?

Scott's down to just two players, but what a duo they are. Drew Brees and Michael Thomas put up a combined 44 points against the Eagles; if they can perform like that again against the Rams and then a theoretical Super Bowl appearance, I'm not sure he's beatable. Remember, Thomas had 12 catches for 211 yards and a touchdown when the Saints and Rams matched up back in Week 9. All of Scott's eggs are in one basket, but it's a hell of a basket.

Andrew's in second place, but he probably has the lowest ceiling of any of the remaining squads. All three of his remaining players are in the AFC Championship Game, meaning he will either have Julian Edelman or both Travis Kelce and Harrison Butker in the Super Bowl. If he gets Edelman, that means he has to worry about Vince, just 19 points behind with Brady and White on his roster. If he gets the Chiefs, then he has to worry about Aaron's combination of Mahomes and Williams, though at least he has a 51-point lead there. He hasn't lost yet, but I wonder if even his best-case scenario could catch Scott's worst-case. His best scenario is the Rams shutting the Saints down and then the Chiefs knocking off the Patriots. That would dampen Scott's output, and the Patriots' loss would go some way to making up for any Gurley/Woods points that Vince could get by eliminating Brady. It's not a great path to victory, but I wouldn't call it dead just yet.

Dave's sitting pretty nicely in third place, 20 points back of Scott, thanks to a huge performance by Sony Michel -- 30 points in one game! Tremendous. Another day or two like that from the rookie could lead to Dave taking the trophy home with him. Dave also has a nice combination of points in the bank and players still alive, with five potential scorers still on the table. A path to victory for him is probably Patriots-centric, with Michel and Gostkowski putting up big numbers, preferably against the Rams in the Super Bowl.

Vince also is rooting for a Patriots-Rams Super Bowl, what with Tom Brady and Todd Gurley sitting on his roster (not to mention James White and Robert Woods). That would also mean he would have the only remaining quarterback in play, as none of us took Jared Goff -- if Scott loses Brees and Aaron loses Mahomes this weekend, Vince will almost certainly get the most points during the Super Bowl proper. Would it be enough to make up a 32-point deficit? It would be close, at least.

The two teams in fifth and sixth place have the most players remaining, giving them each a shot. I'm 54 points off the leaders, which is far from ideal. I need a Saints-Chiefs Super Bowl to have a chance -- with both Saints running backs, the top two wideouts for Kansas City and the second wideout for New Orleans, I have a lot of equity in that situation. I was counting, however, on Brees spreading the ball around a bit more than he did; I still need to catch up to Scott, and he's got one of my quarterbacks. If the Rams and Chiefs would like to quadruple-cover Michael Thomas, I'd be very happy, thank you.

Aaron is in last place, 64 points off the leaders. If, however, we get a Chiefs-Rams Super Bowl, he's probably your favorite to win it all, thanks to Patrick Mahomes, Damian Williams, and Greg Zuerlein. Aaron is tied with me for the most players remaining; unlike me, he'll be forced to lose a couple in the Chiefs-Patriots showdown. Still, he has a quarterback and I don't, so things are far, far from over.

FO Playoff Fantasy Rosters

Aaron Dave Bryan Andrew Vince Scott
QB Patrick Mahomes 19 Russell Wilson 22 Mitch Trubisky 19 Deshaun Watson 20 Tom Brady 21 Drew Brees 21
RB Damien Williams 20 Melvin Gordon 18 Alvin Kamara 10 Ezekiel Elliott 33 Todd Gurley 17 Jordan Howard 3
RB Chris Carson 2 Sony Michel 30 Mark Ingram 5 Lamar Miller 7 James White 9 Marlon Mack 24
WR Brandin Cooks 6 Keenan Allen 16 Tyreek Hill 16 DeAndre Hopkins 3 Robert Woods 6 Michael Thomas 23
WR Doug Baldwin 3 Josh Reynolds 1 Ted Ginn 4 Julian Edelman 15 Tyler Lockett 12 T.Y. Hilton 20
WR Chris Conley 0 Alshon Jeffery 14 Sammy Watkins 6 Allen Robinson 20 Mike Williams 12 Amari Cooper 22
TE Rob Gronkowski 2 Benjamin Watson 1 Trey Burton 0 Travis Kelce 10 Zach Ertz 10 Eric Ebron 13
K Greg Zuerlein 13 Stephen Gostkowski 11 Wil Lutz 9 Harrison Butker 7 Sebastian Janikowski 7 Justin Tucker 5
D New England 2 L.A. Rams -2 New Orleans 2 Chicago 3 Kansas City 5 Baltimore 0
TOT 67 111 71 118 99 131

Best of the Rest: We have an interesting situation developing here. The top four finishers at the moment are all out of players. Andrew Luck, Philip Rivers, and Nick Foles put up big scores, pushing ARandom's Chi-Charge-O and the rest of the top four into good positioning, but they're absolutely done now. Loading up on the Chargers and Colts was a great way to take a share of the top of the leaderboard, but they may have run out of gas too quickly.

The advantage ARandom and the rest of the top four have is the gap they have managed to pull out ahead of everyone else. Fifth place KBuckie's Charging Bears are only seven points down, but they only have Spencer Ware remaining; Ware has yet to play this postseason with a gimpy hamstring. AlecB's As Luck Would Have It is in sixth, 15 points down, but has just Rex Burkhead, Tre'Quan Smith, and Josh Hill left; they have picked up a combined total of seven points this postseason so far, so that's far from a guarantee that they'll manage to catch the leaders. Seventh-place RickD has just James Develin and Cordarelle Patterson remaining (total so far: 0 points) and a 24-point deficit to overcome. There's a tie at eighth place, but only MGilson86 still has players remaining -- Burkhead, Smith, Chris Hogan, and Dan Arnold left to make up a 25-point gap. You get the point -- nobody within even the hint of striking distance is exactly loaded with enough juice to catch the leaders.

There is one team I think still has a shot to come all the way back, however. RfT's Backup All-Stars only have two players remaining, but they are Jared Goff and C.J. Anderson. RfT is one of only five teams to have a quarterback left, and he has more points than any of the other quarterback-havers. He has a 28-point gap to climb, but Goff and Anderson combined for 34 points in the win over Dallas. RfT probably needs either a Rams win in New Orleans or another crazy-good Anderson day to take this one. Otherwise, it will take an unexpected day from a second- or third-tier player to catch the mark set by Chi-Charg-O.

Top 5:

1. Chi-Charg-0 (88 points) (Out of Players)

T2. 7th Wheel (86 points) (Out of Players)

T2. Over the Rivers and Through the Woods (86 points) (Out of Players)

4. Better Lucky Than Good (82 points) (Out of Players)

5. Charging Bears (81 points) (Still Alive: Spencer Ware)

Weekly Awards

Keep Choppin' Wood: It takes something truly "special" to pick up a flag for excessive celebration while being blown out in the divisional round of the playoffs.

The Colts had just stopped Kansas City on fourth-and-5 to take possession at their own 38-yard line, trailing 24-7, when Denico Autry got a bit too jiggy for a referee's liking and picked up a 15-yard unsportsmanlike conduct penalty. That set the Colts back to their own 23, and after gaining one first down they punted from almost the exact yard line that they would have started at without Autry's ill-chosen intervention.

John Fox Award for Conservatism: One week after we praised him in this segment for his unconventional approach to the Ravens' option-based rushing attack, this week Gus Bradley is the villain after his Chargers defense was mercilessly crushed under the treads of the Patriots' Immortal Engine. Despite facing an offense that, as we warned in this very column last week, is one of the few true power-running attacks in the league -- a real blocking fullback and everything! -- Bradley simply had no answer to either the running or the passing game of the Patriots. Whether out of necessity or design, Bradley stuck to a quarters defense with no blitzes or creativity, seemingly devoid of ideas as the Patriots rang up four rushing touchdowns in five drives en route to a 35-7 halftime lead. Sure, they allowed only six further points in the second half, but by then the damage was long since done. We can't be too harsh on Bradley, given the annihilation of the Chargers' linebacker depth chart, but every coach has to deal with injuries at some point. Most will do slightly better than that.

Herm Edwards Award for Playing to Win the Game: After the Saints got off to a slow start while the Eagles raced to a two-touchdown first-quarter lead, Saints head coach Sean Payton faced fourth-and-1 at his own 30-yard line. Payton has, in small part, built his team for this situation: versatile quarterback/receiver/gunner Taysom Hill is a key part of the team's standard punt formation, so Hill's presence on special teams does not herald a fake the same way, say, Nate Sudfeld's would. On this occasion, the call was a fake, and Hill plunged through the line for a 4-yard gain that kept the drive alive. Later in the drive, the Saints again faced fourth-and-short, again went for it, and again converted -- this time on a 2-yard touchdown pass to Keith Kirkwood for the team's first points of the contest.

Hue Jackson Award for Confusing Coaching: After their game-losing interception, the Eagles still technically had a chance to get the ball back. There were two minutes left on the clock, but they still had one timeout with which to work. If they had forced a three-and-out, they could have gotten the ball back with about 10 seconds left to try a desperation Hail Mary or some lateral shenanigans. It's a moot point as the Saints picked up a first down to end the game, but the Eagles could have been playing for a situation where they had 50 seconds left for a game-winning drive.

The Eagles wasted a timeout on the second play of the second half, attempting to avoid a delay of game penalty. The penalty would have set up second-and-12 -- not ideal, but far from a disaster situation. Instead, by calling the timeout, the Eagles set up a more manageable second-and-7 ... and punted two plays later. The Saints scored on the ensuing possession, and the Eagles never had the lead again. In a close game, a timeout is almost always more valuable than 5 yards, especially when you're backed up on your own side of the field. It's the second week in a row we called out an iffy Doug Pederson timeout, and this week, it cost them.

'Dad Bod' Fantasy Player of the Week: C.J. Anderson wasn't even supposed to be here. Cut by the Broncos, Panthers, and Raiders this season, he was an emergency pickup for the Rams on December 19 as Todd Gurley rested an injured knee. All he has done is rush for more than 120 yards in all three of his games on the roster, including two scores in the win over Dallas. Only one other player in football this year had a streak of three 120-yard rushing games -- Ezekiel Elliott in November. And now, a guy literally on the street gets picked up and has the best string of games all season long, leading his team into the NFC Championship game? Man, you can find good running backs anywhere, can't you?

Blake Bortles Garbage-Time Player of the Week: This pretty much had to go to a Charger, considering their garbage time started roughly halfway through the second quarter. In fact, the Chargers outscored the Patriots 21-6 in the second half, which would have meant a whole lot if they hadn't been blown out of the water in the first 20 minutes of the game. Philip Rivers threw a couple of touchdown passes in the final ten minutes of the game, well after most of the audience had tuned out (and the spectators had left, not bothering to care about yet another championship game trip for their Pats). All in all, Rivers threw for 246 yards with the two scores when the Chargers were down by at least 17 points, and was a major boon for people in the Best of the Rest fantasy league. Empty-calorie points, but points notwithstanding.

'Comfort in Sadness' Stat of the Week: The Los Angeles Chargers may have been systematically dismantled by the New England Patriots in the first half of their playoff contest, but they can at least point to the fact that they tied the best record (12-4) for any wild-card playoff team since the NFL moved to a four-division format in 2002. (The all-time best record still belongs to the 13-3 1999 Tennessee Titans, but they were a No. 4 seed wild card in a three-division format.) The Chargers also became the first team in the current playoff format to go on the road in the divisional round despite having a better record than their No. 2 seed host. As well has having an excellent win-loss record, the Chargers finished the season ranked third in total DVOA, third in offense, and eighth in defense; in most seasons their record and performance would have been enough to win their division at the least, if not to earn a playoff bye. In the likely event that the Chiefs offense slows down somewhat next year, the Chargers appear very well placed to take advantage. Now if they could just do something about those accursed special teams...

Game-Changing Play of the Week: With only one really competitive game this week, the choice was somewhat obvious:

Alshon Jeffery took full blame for the loss this week, and to be fair, he probably should have come up with that ball, as it hit him in the hands. It's fair, however, to question the Eagles' decision to even run the play -- they could have waited for the two-minute warning and regrouped and regathered themselves. It was a legitimately tough decision whether to hurry up or not, however -- they needed to get into the end zone and were low on timeouts, but they didn't want to leave any time for a potential Saints comeback. Under those circumstances, I wouldn't assign to much blame for trying to get one more play off before the two-minute warning; I'd rather score and then have to play defense than run out of time before reaching the end zone.

The question I have is the actual play design itself, hurrying up and running a quick little 4-yard route to set up third-and-6. It's more excusable considering it was four-down territory, but third-and-6 isn't exactly an ideal situation to be in. All in all, this is picking nits, though -- Jeffery should have had the ball, and the Eagles should have had at least one more shot. Instead, Jeffery had just his third drop of the season, and the defending champs are going home.

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: 10-8-1
Andrew 7-11-1

Bryan: With two weeks to go, that's about all she wrote -- I've clinched the victory in the Lock of the Week. My goal now is to, uh, stay above .500 -- this hasn't been a great year for me against the spread in general. I'm a solid 65.5 percent picking outright winners, but just at 50.6 percent picking against the spread. Vegas would have taken my money this year; I'm only ever-so-slightly better than a coinflip. This is probably why I shouldn't bet equally on every game!

Anyway, I'm taking the Chiefs (-3) this week against the Patriots. I've got two reasons for this. First of all, I think the gap between the Chiefs and the Patriots is ever-so-slightly bigger than that between the Saints and the Rams. I'm less sure of that than I was, say, two weeks ago -- the Saints' offense has been trending down while the Patriots are coming off of an absolute demolition of the Chargers -- but the Chiefs have been the cream of the league for pretty much the entire season, so I have to stick with them. I also suspect the Chiefs-Pats game will be higher scoring than the Saints-Rams matchup, and that can often make for wider results in the spread -- a back-and-forth, up-and-down-the-field sort of game can easily produce 10- or 14-point winners, even in competitive ballgames, because scoring just happens so frequently. So it's Mahomes and the Chiefs for me, and may I not get punished for not believing in the Pats.

Andrew: I've had a bad year overall, and now can't even claw my way back to .500 in Lock of the Week after being undone by my own team in the divisional round. Still, at least they won to keep the dream alive. These games are a coinflip, as the spreads imply. There's no such thing as a lock in this situation. That means I'm picking the Rams, so I can at least have some consolation when the Saints inevitably blow it at home in the NFC Championship Game. Hey, sometimes you just have to hedge, okay? L.A. Rams (-3.5) at New Orleans Saints.

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Comments

21 comments, Last at 18 Jan 2019, 8:58am

1 Re: Scramble for the Ball: Shivering With Anticipation

Man, from having all my players left last week to none this week (7th Wheel). If only Philly could have pulled it off I would have had this thing hands down.... alas, started celebrating a bit too early on the fo discord. still was hoping I could have eked it out (heck even if they lost if Jeffreys catches that pass that's no ding for the pick and the catch).....

ah, well coulda woulda shoulda, next year. Taking all the available Eagles was a gamble that still seems worthwhile. Hope I can at least get tied for 2nd. What's that good for anyway, a picture of a colts helmet obscuring a random page from the 2009 prospectus?

2 Re: Scramble for the Ball: Shivering With Anticipation

Awesome! My team has been bad so far but I'm still alive because I took a flyer on CJ Anderson! I figured the best chance was if Gurley was still hurt/got reinjured, but the fact that he's healthy makes this even more surprising.

3 Re: Scramble for the Ball: Shivering With Anticipation

These games were the absolute highlights of the season; the best teams playing each other at the highest levels and showing off the pinnacle of football in 2018.

Pinnacles of offense, anyway. Arena league teams took more pride in defense than any of the teams in those three games did.

5 Re: Scramble for the Ball: Shivering With Anticipation

I would strenuously disagree.

The average defensive DVOA in those games was 4.2% -- slightly below average, but only just. If you just look at the two Chiefs games (as the Rams/Saints game was, in fact, more offensively focused), the defensive DVOA goes to -2.7%, slightly ~above~ average. We've already talked about all the big ~defensive~ plays in the Rams/Chiefs showdown, but the Chiefs-Pats game had three turnovers and quite a few huge hits as well.

If you honestly think that Arena League teams played better defense, I'd highly urge you to re-watch those two games. Heck, I urge you to rewatch those two games anyway 'cause they're really really good, but calling them badly played on defense is an insult to those defenses, those ~offenses~, and the concept of football in 2018 in general.

Defensive effort isn't bad just because they can't shutdown a great offense.

8 Re: Scramble for the Ball: Shivering With Anticipation

I'll cite your precedent of the Bears-Vikings game that DVOA can't identify high performance on a single sample.

There was some crappy line play and offensive sloppiness in the Chiefs-Rams game. But whenever Goff and Mahomes had more than 2 seconds to throw the ball, did you ever once doubt it was going to result in a first down? Did you ever feel like one of the defenses was going to get a stop?

Good defensive performance is the Bears-Rams game. Or one of the Giants-49ers games from the 1980s. Or one of the 49ers-Cowboys games of the 1990s. Where you knew both offenses and defenses were talented, and it was a question of which unit would prevail over the other by more. Not whether one defense could generate one more fluky turnover than the other, like in the Super Bowl.

10 Re: Scramble for the Ball: Shivering With Anticipation

That's a pretty lousy way to evaluate execution quality in a game. VOA as a metric is designed to cumulatively zero as offensive efficiency for one team is defensive inefficiency for the other (the same inverse-reciprocal relationship exists in special teams). Any game where the aggregate opponent adjustment is positive will have a cumulative DVOA greater than zero (unless there is a blocked punt or one of the other highly unusual events debited to one teams efficiency and not credited to the other.

What all this does say is that the two teams defenses weren't lousy all year, but it doesn't necessarily mean that aggregate play quality in this specific game was high - DVOA doesn't measure that (apart from a small number of highly unusually events noted above that typically correlate to bad football). e.g. Successful kick return TD are almost always a result of bad football, but have no effect on the games aggregate DVOA.

12 Re: Scramble for the Ball: Shivering With Anticipation

I have to side with Aaron Brooks Good Twin, here. To me, it felt like I was watching a Big 12 football game on ESPN.

I admit, I am not well versed in DVOA, and all that goes into it's calculations. However, I do look at the Defensive Drive Statistics pretty regularly each week. To me, Chiefs-Rams featured VERY bad defenses for both teams.

You have the Chiefs ranked dead LAST in yards allowed per drive, 28th in points allowed per drive, and dead last in overall opponent Drive Success. They don't force teams to punt often (31st), let alone force 3-and-outs (dead LAST), and are 29th in TD's allowed per drive. They gave up the most passing yards during the regular season, 30 passing TD's (5 less than league-worst 49ers), and were 4th-worst in WR yards allowed. I'm not going to even include the redzone stats here, because you already know they are equally bad.

Orlando Scandrick, one of the Chiefs DB's, allowed 2 TD's in that game per PFF. He's so bad, he's been benched for ROOKIE Charvarius Ward- who's played the last 3 weeks.

Let's look at the Rams' defense. It was mentioned before that Aaron Donald accounts for majority of the DLine's pressures and sacks. But outside of that, they struggle generating pressure, and definitely struggle vs the Run.

Aqib Talib did not play that game. Marcus Peters. The entire world knows by now just how bad he's played in coverage this year. And guess what, that Rams-Saints game you mentioned, Peters was one of the primary defenders habitually allowing Michael Thomas to rack up all those yards, including the flip-phone bomb TD.

Who was the other Rams corner in that game? Oh yeah, washed up Sam Shields. He hasn't played many snaps since that game, and per PFF he, like Marcus Peters, was charged with giving up 6 TD's himself this season- including the 2 to Tyreek Hill in that game. One of those Tyreek TD's was a blown assignment for 71 yards. I'd LOVE to see closest defender stats for the receptions in this game, because I do not remember seeing many contested catches. Aside from a few pressures when both teams decided to send extra guys, and Aaron Donald of course, both QB's seemed to have plenty of time for easy pitch and catches with YAC. Again citing PFF, Mahomes had 34 dropbacks with NO pressure- 25 of 32 for 386 yards, 5 TD's, 1 INT. Goff had 40 dropbacks with NO pressure- 27 of 39 for 357 yards, 4 TD's. The best defensive backfields in the NFL will have challenges with this; Shields and Peters had ZERO chance.

There were turnovers in this game, sure. But weren't a couple of those rather flukey based on where they occurred? Rams had a fumble scoop and score that they only had to return 10 yards, another pick 6 on a short pass returned 20 yards. How about the Chiefs fumble recovery from Goff and TD return? The dude (Allen Bailey) literally WALKED in to score from 3 yards away. The other 2 Mahomes INT's were late game situations, where he tried forcing the ball deep into coverage.

It was mentioned above that context is needed. Can somebody please explain to me what I'm missing???

6 Re: Scramble for the Ball: Shivering With Anticipation

Some other pieces of data which didn't make the final cut of the article:

There were 32 games this year where both teams had a DVOA above 0% -- in other words, where both teams played above-average football. The Chiefs were involved in a league-high seven of them (SF, DEN, NE, LAR, OAK, LAC and SEA), making them probably the most exciting team to watch this year.

The Saints, Chargers, Bears and Rams would round out a top five of the teams that were best to watch (from a neutral fan's perspective), being involved in plenty of close games where both teams played well, but the Chiefs have a significant gap on the field.

The worst team to watch this year was probably the Arizona Cardinals. There were 21 games where both teams had a DVOA below 0% -- in other words, where both teams played below-average football. The Cardinals were involved in a league-high seven of them (WAS, CHI, SEA, SF, OAK, GB and DET) and a lot of other blowouts, besides.

The Dolphins, Raiders, Jets and Bills would round out the worst teams to watch list (AFC East fever! Catch it!), but Washington made a hard late push to join that list once they ran out of quarterbacks.

The game with the highest combined DVOA was Week 15's Chargers-Chiefs game, with a combined 64.8% DVOA. It doesn't join the four games we mentioned because the Chargers only had a 12.1% DVOA, but I'd still call it one of the great games of the year.

The game with the lowest combined DVOA was ALSO in Week 15, the Falcons 40-14 win over the Cardinals. The Falcons weren't bad, with a 28.4% DVOA, but the Cardinals hit -101%. Not good.

The Cardinals' performance wasn't the worst of the year, however. For that, you'd have to go all the way back to Week 1's Monday Night doubleheader. Remember Sam Darnold's debut game, where he threw a Pick-6 on his very first play? Yeah, well, it all went downhill from there for the Lions. They lost the game 48-17 and ended up with a DVOA of -143.2%. The terrible play by the Lions, as well as the utter lack of competitiveness of the game, probably made it the worst game of the year...though Week 1's "Ravens 47, Bills 3" and Week 9's "49ers 34, Raiders 3" would be serious contenders.

Week 2 was probably the worst week of the season; poor games like Rams-Cardinals, Jets-Dolphins and Cowboys-Giants without much in the way of high-quality games to make up for it (though Seahawks-Bears wasn't bad).

Week 11 was probably the ~best~ week of the season. It was capped off by Rams-Chiefs, yes, but it also had Jaguars-Steelers, the aforementioned Bears-Vikings, Ravens-Bengals, Cowboys-Falcons, Chargers-Broncos...a lot of good performances, especially by some teams which didn't consistently do good games. Yes, it had ARI-OAK, PHI-NO and TEN-IND at the bottom, but in all windows, some crap must fall.

7 Re: Scramble for the Ball: Shivering With Anticipation

DVOA is an interesting proxy to use for watchability. I'm not quite sure I agree with using it though.

What do fans care about when rooting interest isn't involved? I think, generally, two things: competitiveness of the game and quality of play.

For competitiveness, I'd argue you should use the difference between unadjusted VOA or something like how close WPA was to 50% over the course of the game. To use an extreme example, if the far-and-away #1 team by DVOA played the far-and-away worst team by DVOA, fans would generally find a close, competitive game watchable. And yet, DVOA for that game would probably consider the #1 team to be far below zero (after all, the #32 team played them equally).

That said, quality of play matters, too. If, in a close game, both teams kept dropping passes, fumbling the ball, and committing penalties, that's less fun to watch.

A challenge with VOA is it's zero-sum... ish. If two completely average teams play a competitive game, where the offenses execute really well, with minimal penalties and special teams impact, their game is gonna come out to about 0% for both teams, because good plays by offense A help their offensive VOA while hurting defense B's defensive VOA roughly the same. So then you wind up with a situation where the quality of the teams outside of the game have probably too big an impact on that single game's DVOAs.

9 Re: Scramble for the Ball: Shivering With Anticipation

From distant memory, I'd say that 72-41 game was not particularly well-played, at least not by both teams. (I was very much a Giants fan back then, though the mid-late '60s strained that fandom.) It was mainly a Washington blowout. They were up 34-14 at the half and I don't know if it ever got any closer, more like both teams exchanging garbage time scores. NY was terrible in 1966, and resorted to gadgets, like opening that record-breaker with an onsides kick. Also recall that Wash went into their 2-minute drill late, so they could set a new regular season scoring record with a FG.

11 Re: Scramble for the Ball: Shivering With Anticipation

If you'd like to watch a good, fun, old, high-scoring NFL game, check out the Wash@GB game on MNF in 1983. Final score was GB 48-47, won on a last second FG by Jan Stenerud. Washington would go on to play in the Super Bowl. Green Bay had a great offense and bad defense. I missed it live because I was in the Navy at the time. But I've watched a rebroadcast of it. Both defenses played pretty good, but both Dickey and Theismann were playing lights out.

15 Re: Scramble for the Ball: Shivering With Anticipation

That was a fun game, watched it live on the southern command network..... Green Bay was playing well out of their minds the entire night to keep pace with a great Redskins team (they went 14-2, and their only two losses were by 1 pt each on Monday night, this game and the season opener 31-30 to Dallas in a game they once lead 23-3).

For a game known for offense, the first two touchdowns of the night were defensive scores, one by each team.

It did not end on a Jan Stenerud FG, he kicked the last FG but Washington still had time to set up one last FG attempt by reigning NFL MVP Mark Mosely... and he missed.

Prior to the Rams-Chiefs this year, Washington's 47 points were the most by a losing team in NFL history.

20 Re: Scramble for the Ball: Shivering With Anticipation

Thanks for the link. I don't remember watching that particular game, but I certainly remember those two star-studded teams.

Speaking of stars in that game, I guess it's an odd thing to say about a HOFer, but I always thought Thurman Thomas was a bit underrated. He put up great stats (as the article mentioned, that was his fourth straight year leading the league in scrimmage yards), and of course the Bills were always in the postseason mix, but for some reason, he always seemed to get overshadowed by the other two superstar RBs of that era (Sanders and Smith).