Andrew: We made it! We actually made it! Hello, and welcome to the first Scramble for the Ball of 2021, which shall forever be known as the Year of the Thank God That's Over. Assuming this thing does actually end at some point. We've had postponements and rescheduling. We've had games played without running backs, without wide receivers, and even one without quarterbacks. Despite all that, somehow, some way, no NFL games were cancelled in 2020.
Bryan: That's a remarkable feat in and of itself. Was it always pretty? Was it always fair? Heck, was it always necessarily the right thing to do? No, probably not. But considering the circumstances in which they found themselves, running a full 16-game schedule with a minimal amount of league-wide disruption, in a sport which does not lend itself well to bubbling, is a remarkable achievement
Sadly, we can't leave COVID entirely behind as we enter the postseason, as much as we'd like to. 2020 is getting its last licks in as the postseason begins, with news that the Cleveland Browns, playing in their first postseason game since the 2002 season, will be without head coach Kevin Stefanski, left guard Joel Bitonio, and a half-dozen other players and coaches due to a COVID outbreak
Andrew: It really is the most Factory of Sadness thing imaginable, isn't it? To finally make the postseason after almost two decades away, then lose your head coach and a big chunk of your roster to a global pandemic the week of the game against your biggest rivals.
Bryan: Then again, think of the story if special teams coach Mike Priefer leads the Browns to an upset playoff win. That's what the playoffs can give us -- unlikely heroes rising to the occasion and etching themselves forever into franchise history.
Possible stories like Ron Rivera, cancer fighter, and Alex Smith, coming back from a gruesome leg injury, leading a Washington franchise finally free of the baggage surrounding its name to the postseason. Or Josh Allen, relentlessly written off by scouts and analysts, having one of the greatest single-year improvements of all time and finally giving a title to the four-time bridesmaids in Buffalo. Drew Brees or Tom Brady winning a championship and walking into the sunset. Aaron Rodgers' return to MVP-quality play after four years in the (relative) wilderness. An AAF star leading the Rams to victory.
Andrew: Then there's the Bears going back to their much-maligned former No. 2 overall pick after a Super Bowl MVP flopped in the Windy City, and looking much the better for it. The Colts resurrecting a quarterback who would be a Hall of Fame candidate if he had played on a less accursed franchise for the majority of his career, and still might be if he can somehow grab a title in Blue and White. The Ravens and their young former league MVP, trying to get back to their previous form after winning a bout with the pandemic.
Bryan: Of course, the Chiefs'll probably just win again, but even that has some silver linings. A repeat champ would help counter accusations that 2020 is some kind of weird outlier year; if the defending champs, uh, defend, you can't call that a fluke championship. And, of course, an extended Chiefs run would be a breath of fresh air after two decades of Patriots domination, with the New England delegation now being led by the aptly named Sir Not Appearing In This Column.
Andrew: What we're saying is, we're excited. Excited for the new calendar year. Excited for an unpredictable postseason. Excited to pit the veterans against the young guns once more. Excited that we might soon be able to leave this entire mess behind. And more than all that, excited for the return of one of our favorite staff traditions!
2020 Staff Playoff Fantasy Draft
Bryan: The Football Outsiders Staff Playoffs Fantasy League is back for another run. But this year, we're making a slight tweak to the scoring rules! We are being dragged, kicking and screaming, into the PPR era, so we now receive one point per reception. Maybe this time, getting the No. 1 overall pick and drafting Patrick Mahomes is no longer an automatic win.
Other than that, we're using our traditional scoring rules
- Six points for rushing or receiving touchdowns, four points for passing touchdowns.
- One point for every 10 yards rushing or receiving, and for every 20 yards passing.
- One point per reception.
- A loss of two points for a lost fumble or interception.
- Two points for a two-point conversion of any kind.
- Kickers: three points for a field goal under 40 yards, four points for one between 40 and 49 yards, and six points for kicks of 50 yards or longer. Plus, one point for every extra point.
- Defense: Two points for an interception or fumble recovery, six points for a touchdown, four points for a safety, one point for a sack, and a loss of one point for every seven points the defense actually allows (and a bonus five points for a shutout).
Teams are comprised of one quarterback, two running backs, three wideouts, one tight end, one kicker, and one defense. There are no substitutions, so if a player is injured or his team is eliminated, he ceases to produce points for his team. Your managers, in the order in which they drafted:
- Scott Spratt, Fantasy Force
- Dave Bernreuther, Mailbox Maestro
- Aaron Schatz, Head Honcho
- Andrew Potter, Scrambler (U.K. edition)
- Vince Verhei, Editor Extraordinaire
- Bryan Knowles, Scrambler (U.S. edition)
... wait, I'm last again? Who came up with this lousy draft order, sassafrassa.
This is a snake draft with a two-pick eighth round. The results were as follows:
Scott: Patrick Mahones, QB, KC
Dave: Travis Kelce, TE, KC
Aaron: Aaron Rodgers, QB, GB
Andrew: Josh Allen, QB, BUF
Vince: Derrick Henry, RB, TEN
Bryan: Alvin Kamara, RB, NO
Bryan: Davante Adams, WR, GB
Vince: Aaron Jones, RB, GB
Andrew: Stefon Diggs, WR, BUF
Aaron: Tyreek Hill, WR, KC
Dave: DK Metcalf, WR, SEA
Scott: Michael Thomas, WR, NO
Scott: Clyde Edwards-Helaire, RB, KC
Dave: Russell Wilson, QB, SEA
Aaron: Mike Evans, WR, TB
Andrew: Rob Gronkowski, TE, TB
Vince: Robert Tonyan, TE, GB
Bryan: Drew Brees, QB, NO
Bryan: Emmanuel Sanders, WR, NO
Vince: A.J. Brown, WR, TEN
Andrew: Chris Godwin, WR, TB
Aaron: Ronald Jones, RB, TB
Dave: J.K. Dobbins, RB, BAL
Scott: Mark Andrews, TE, BAL
Scott: Marquise Brown, WR, BAL
Dave: Nick Chubb, RB, CLE
Aaron: Harrison Butker, K, KC
Andrew: Cole Beasley, WR, BUF
Vince: Tyler Lockett, WR, SEA
Bryan: Latavius Murray, RB, NO
Bryan: Will Lutz, K, NO
Vince: JuJu Smith-Schuster, WR, PIT
Andrew: Chris Carson, RB, SEA
Aaron: Marquez Valdes-Scantling, WR, GB
Dave: Antonio Brown, WR, TB
Scott: Diontae Johnson, WR, PIT
Scott: Justin Tucker, K, BAL
Dave: Saints D/ST
Aaron: Jared Cook, TE, NO
Andrew: Bills D/ST
Vince: Buccaneers D/ST
Bryan: Chase Claypool, WR, PIT
Bryan: Eric Ebron, TE, PIT; Steelers D/ST
Vince: Tyler Bass, K, BUF; Tom Brady, QB, TB
Andrew: Devin Singletary, RB, BUF; Jason Myers, K, SEA
Aaron: Chiefs D/ST; Jonathan Taylor, RB, IND
Dave: T.Y. Hilton, WR, IND; Mason Crosby, K, GB
Scott: Cam Akers, RB, LAR; Rams D/ST
|2020 Staff Playoff Fantasy Draft|
|QB||Patrick Mahomes||Russell Wilson||Aaron Rodgers||Josh Allen||Tom Brady||Drew Brees|
|RB||Clyde Edwards-Helaire||J.K. Dobbins||Ronald Jones||Chris Carson||Derrick Henry||Alvin Kamara|
|RB||Cam Akers||Nick Chubb||Jonathan Taylor||Devin Singletary||Aaron Jones||Latavius Murray|
|WR||Michael Thomas||DK Metcalf||Tyreek Hill||Stefon Diggs||A.J. Brown||Davante Adams|
|WR||Marquise Brown||Antonio Brown||Mike Evans||Chris Godwin||Tyler Lockett||Emmanuel Sanders|
|WR||Diontae Johnson||T.Y. Hilton||Marquez Valdes-Scantling||Cole Beasley||JuJu Smith-Schuster||Chase Claypool|
|TE||Mark Andrews||Travis Kelce||Jared Cook||Rob Gronkowski||Robert Tonyan||Eric Ebron|
|K||Justin Tucker||Mason Crosby||Harrison Butker||Jason Myers||Tyler Bass||Will Lutz|
|DEF||Los Angeles||New Orleans||Kansas City||Buffalo||Tampa Bay||Pittsburgh|
As always, assemble your Best of the Rest team in the comments from players we did not pick, and we'll track which commenter ends up with the highest total.
Bryan: Um. Geaux Saints, I suppose. One of these years, putting all my chips on one team is going to pay off. Just like it did when I picked so many Patriots last year! Or a nearly all-Rams team in 2017! Or, hell, like 2018, where our post-draft analysis started with me saying "Uh, geaux Saints, I suppose." Some of us learn lessons here. Others of us go kicking and screaming in the other direction.
Andrew: I'm trying to decide whether that is a better or worse strategy than my accidental one of picking the entire Bills roster, with the frustrating exception of the kicker. I'm assuming your tactic was planned. Mine was more, oops, I have Josh Allen and Stefon Diggs, and Cole Beasley is my favorite remaining receiver option, so I may as well lean into that.
Bryan: It wasn't planned going in, at least. I took Alvin Kamara first overall because we're moving to PPR this year, and any format where you get points for receptions is a great one for Kamara. But when Vince passed up on the chance to take Drew Brees in the third round, leaving him sitting there for me, it was time to go all-in.
Andrew: Vince never takes a quarterback early. It's one of his tics. One of the keys to drafting well in a league that always has the same participants is knowing how they think. I'm not saying I drafted well, because I'm relying on the Buffalo Bills just a little more than I'd like, but Vince has been plain about that in the past.
Bryan: Well, if you're not going to say it, I am going to say you drafted well. I like my team the best, because if I didn't, I wouldn't have picked those players, but if I had to swap teams with someone, I'd swap with you.
Part of this is opportunity. With the second seeds no longer receiving the bye week, they're the teams most likely to play the most games -- the extra wild-card game matters a lot, and then they have the home game in the divisional round before heading into the conference titles. On average, I would expect the Saints and Bills, in that order, to play the most games this postseason, with the Chiefs, Packers, and Steelers rounding out the top five. Loading up on extra games matters!
Andrew: I admit, that was part of the logic of my selections. I like the Saints to beat the Bears and then either the Seahawks or Buccaneers, although the most Saints thing imaginable would be to lose to the Bucs in the playoffs after blowing them out in both regular-season games. I like the Bills to beat a Colts team with no offensive tackles and a Steelers team they've already beaten. At that point, it doesn't matter what happens in the conference title game -- the Bills (or Saints) are playing as many games as the Chiefs or Packers.
Bryan: But even when you get past the raw numbers, I think your team is actually quite good. I had two quarterbacks in my top tier: Josh Allen and Patrick Mahomes. And, had I picked the first quarterback in this year's draft, I really think I would have gone with Allen. That's partially because of the free wild-card game, but also his ability to make plays happen with his legs is great for fantasy. It feels really really weird to say that, but I think Allen's the better pick.
Andrew: That's exactly my justification. But also, the Bills have been really, really good this year outside one weird swoon. If you take out weird postponements and scheduling stuff, they're beating pretty much everybody you put in front of them. They only lost to the Titans on a rearranged Tuesday game that nobody knew when would eventually be played, then to the Chiefs on a short week the Monday after that, and finally to the Cardinals on the road in the last game before their bye.
Bryan: I don't think anyone can top your receiver trio of Stefon Diggs, Cole Beasley, and Chris Godwin, though part of me thinks you should have just gone with John Brown and really gone all-in there. And taking Gronk when Tonyan was still on the board is an odd choice, though a defensible one. But just, top to bottom, you're the team I'm most worried about.
My worst pick is Wil Lutz in the sixth round. I panicked when I saw Aaron open the casket of kickers. "Oh no!" I thought. "I must rush to get all the Saints on one roster; I must take Lutz now before someone else grabs him!" Like anyone was going to rush to get a kicker who is 23-for-28 this season. I also somewhat regret going with Latavius Murray over Chris Carson as my second running back, but I think a COVID-emergency handcuff for Kamara is a defensible position. But, like I said, when Brees was left, I had to go in. After Allen and Mahomes, I had Aaron Rodgers and Drew Brees as my second quarterback tier, and I didn't want to drop from Brees to Tom Brady or Ben Roethlisberger or the Tannehill/Jackson decision. I also didn't want to play chicken with Vince for Brees in the seventh round. So, well, here we are.
Andrew: So you and I have obvious paths to success, and in the unlikely event the Saints face the Bills in the Super Bowl there's a good chance that will mean you versus me to win this thing.
Bryan: It's a shame that I'm picking a chalk Chiefs-Packers game, then. Saints-Bills is the fourth-most likely matchup per our playoff odds, so it's certainly not out of the question, but you know a thing or two about the Saints falling short of expectations.
Andrew: Nobody else has quite such a clear-cut path to victory. Dave paired Russell Wilson with DK Metcalf, so he's in good shape if the Seahawks advance, but that also gives points to me for Carson and Jason Myers, and Vince for Tyler Lockett. Seattle is also the D/ST I would have picked if Aaron had gazumped me on the Bills in Round 7, so I'm a little surprised to see them pass undrafted given their recent performance and tasty opening matchup. If the Titans go deep again, Vince has Derrick Henry and A.J. Brown, but he's otherwise spread pretty thin. He's probably relying on some unexpected outcomes.
Bryan: Vince has the kind of roster to finish second or third, as opposed to our rosters which are set to finish first or stone cold dead last. It's a matter of differing philosophies, I suppose.
Andrew: Exactly. You and I can either go big or go home. Vince will probably have one player active in just about every round, no matter what happens (assuming Washington, Chicago, the Colts, and the Browns don't go on a playoff tear). Aaron's good if the Buccaneers and Chiefs make the big dance, with Ronald Jones, Mike Evans, Tyreek Hill, Harrison Butker, and the Chiefs defense. He would still cede points to me for Godwin and Gronk, and Scott for Patrick Mahomes, but it would take a lot for either of us to outscore him in that event. Scott ... seems to be relying on the Rams and Ravens. That's not a position I'd prefer to be in.
Bryan: Every year, there's one team I single out as the team I hate. And every year, like clockwork, that team finishes above me. It may be the single most reliable indicator of success in this game there is.
So, with that in mind, congratulations, Scott! I hate your team!
Andrew: The biggest issue I see is his top running back, Clyde Edwards-Helaire, is likely to be useless until at least the AFC Championship Game due to his high-ankle injury, and quite possibly not to play at all.
Bryan: And his top receiver, Michael Thomas, is coming off of IR as well, though I think it's fair to expect more from him than from Edwards-Helaire. The Titans-Ravens game is the hardest for me to predict in the wild-card round, so loading up on either team is a dangerous strategy in my book; I don't like backing the Rams with John Wolford likely to start against Seattle, and I would have taken Josh Allen over Patrick Mahomes as my top quarterback.
Andrew: John Wolford is the reason I would have picked the Seahawks defense. I can't fathom picking the Rams defense in that matchup. Allen over Mahomes would have tempted me, but I do think I'd probably have played that one safer given his position. I was delighted to get Allen where I did though.
Bryan: At the very least, no one's going to mock you for taking Mahomes over Allen. Flip it around, and you have every chance to look like an idiot.
I hated Dave's team the last time he played and, after a long delay, he's back and ... well, I'm still not in love with it. J.K. Dobbins and T.Y. Hilton were not on my initial picks sheet, he said, cueing Fozzie-esque derision. Again, though, I bashed Dave's choices two years ago, and he ended up just barely losing in the title game while I finished 8 miles behind the pack, so what do I know.
Andrew: Kelce is the clear top tight end, at least. Wilson has a chance to put up some big points against the Rams if his defense shuts down Wolford, but the Rams defense is solid enough to make that a long day and the Saints in the Superdome could be a buzzsaw. The Seahawks have a rough path through the NFC.
Bryan: You also have to remember that Russ Cooking has been more Russ Reheating Slightly Questionable Leftovers over the past month. If Wilson and the Seahawks offense get back to their September form, Dave's got a much better chance.
Andrew: He's the only person who stands to benefit from a highly improbable Browns playoff run. In any other scenario, I think he gives up too many points to other people.
Bryan: In a non-PPR league, Vince's running back duo of Derrick Henry and Aaron Jones would be unstoppable, and I still like them quite a bit under the new rules. Brady isn't a bad guy to be left with in the final round in the draft, he has my best non-Kelce tight end in Robert Tonyan … it's just a strong overall team that doesn't have a lot of weaknesses, but also not a clear "team X and Y wins and I win" scenario. I'm torn between him and Aaron as the best non-Scrambler teams here
Andrew: I like Aaron's team the best, assuming no Bills or Saints title party, because Chiefs-Buccaneers is a very obvious yet not improbable route to a win. In all likelihood, the Bucs demolish Washington, play the very vulnerable Packers in the divisional round, then either head to New Orleans or Seattle for the NFC Championship Game. At that point, they've played three games, and anything else is a bonus. Meanwhile, the Chiefs are the clear AFC favorites and he has their top receiver, kicker, and defense.
Bryan: If Vince gets multiple games out of Henry and Brown, I think he's got the better of the two teams, but that's very much an open question. It's a tough call! And since I like both of them, they're both doomed; sorry, guys.
That just leaves the matter of the Best of the Rest teams. You have every member of the Chicago Bears and Washington Football Team to choose from, you guys!
Andrew: This is kind of incredible, because Lamar Jackson went from being last year's top pick to undrafted this year. If you grab Jackson and the Ravens defense, you're in very good shape if they can make a run. I'd still take the Seahawks, but that pair is tempting.
Bryan: The way I see it, you have four real options at quarterback for the Best of the Rest teams. The first two involve trying to solve the Ravens/Titans game by taking either Jackson or Ryan Tannehill. If you pick the right quarterback and get two games out of either, you probably have the best possible quarterback remaining on the board. The more risk-averse option would be to take Ben Roethlisberger. He hasn't looked his best over the last month, for sure, but with the Browns both already being the worst team in the field by DVOA and having all sorts of COVID problems, he's a safe bet to get at least two games.
Andrew: Yeah, a team comprised of Big Ben, the Steelers defense, Chris Boswell, and James Conner could be very beefy indeed. Then you augment that with, say, Corey Davis and Willie Snead, giving you one player for sure out of that Ravens-Titans clash, grab Leonard Fournette, Scotty Miller, and Cameron Brate on the Bucs, and you have a clear path to a big win if things break your way.
Bryan: Your FOURTH option, and the "let's get nuts!" choice, would be to take Taysom Hill, who is eligible at the quarterback position. The comments section last year laughed about that possibility, but this year, would you rather have Hill, Alex Smith, or Mitchell Trubisky? If you believe the Saints are going to get four games, Hill might not actually be a terrible choice!
Andrew: Especially because his coach is an actual nutjob about trying to prove he works as an every-position option, so he'll get rushing stats and receiving stats even when he isn't throwing passes. You're basically relying on the receiving PPR to make up for the lack of passing production. I've seen crazier ideas.
There's also the all-Colts route. If you think Philip Rivers is making the difference despite the lack of tackles, you can stack Rivers, Nyheim Hines, Zach Pascal, Michael Pittman, Trey Burton or Jack Doyle, Rodrigo Blankenship, and the Colts defense. I strongly favor the Bills in that matchup, but all it takes is the AFC's second-best DVOA defense to step up and you're suddenly in great shape.
Bryan: There are some names I thought would be gone that are still out there for the taking -- Jamaal Williams, Zack Moss, and Antonio Gibson are all available at running back; John Brown and Allen Lazard are out there at receiver. With two extra playoff teams this year, the Best of the Rest pool is deeper than ever before.
So take the All-Bears select and show these guys Ditka Power!
Andrew: Not the route I would go, but it would be just like the Saints to lose that game in hilarious fashion. My money's on a partially blocked field goal in overtime that doinks in off the crossbar.
Bryan: My money is on Sean Payton putting Taysom Hill under center to try to run out the clock, Hill fumbling the center-quarterback exchange, and Khalil Mack running it back for the game-winning score.
Andrew: See, that's the difference between us. I'm going for comedic irony, whereas you're going straight for the depressingly realistic. Either way, it should be fun, albeit the type of fun that has me crying into my glass of Bosteels. Once again, we made it! We actually made it! No matter what the outcome, we're all winners just for being able to have this conversation. Anything that we get to celebrate from here out is just a bonus. We look forward to seeing you all in the next round.
Keep Choppin' Wood
This ain't it, Jourdan Lewis:
— NFL Update (@MySportsUpdate) January 3, 2021
In a game the Cowboys had to win to have any chance at the postseason, they just could not stop committing fouls. This was the most egregious, though at least it did not result in points -- on two of New York's three touchdown drives, the Cowboys gave up first downs via penalty. Lewis' hit was the kind of foul this writer can't believe doesn't result in an automatic ejection: a blatant head shot, long after the play is over, against an opponent who has no warning it's coming.
Herm Edwards Award for Playing to Win the Game
The Buffalo Bills had very little to play for in Week 17. Their division title was already assured, but they could not catch the Chiefs for the AFC bye week. The Steelers were resting many of their starters, virtually guaranteeing Buffalo the No. 2 seed. Their eventual wild-card opponent would largely be decided by factors outwith their control. They could be forgiven by most for treating the game as a mini-bye, and in fact many observers expected them to do just that. Instead, Sean McDermott played his starters, blew the Dolphins out by 30 points, and allowed the Colts into the playoffs as the beneficiaries of Miami's loss. Ironically, that Colts side is now Buffalo's opponent this weekend. Hopefully, that won't come back to bite them on Saturday afternoon.
John Fox Award for Conservatism
Following his team's defeat against the division-rival Packers, Bears head coach Matt Nagy lamented his team's red zone performance, stating that "You can't play the Green Bay Packers and Aaron Rodgers and kick field goals. ... We have to get touchdowns. There's no other way." Earlier that same day, facing fourth-and-2 on the 12-yard line, tied at 7 in the second quarter, Nagy had Cairo Santos kick a field goal. On second-and-goal from the 9-yard line, trailing 21-10 with only seconds left in the first half, Nagy had Cairo Santos kick a field goal. Facing fourth-and-goal from the 2-yard line, trailing 21-13 in the second half, Nagy ... had Cairo Santos kick a field goal. This is just a suggestion, coach, but if you can't beat a division rival because you keep settling for field goals instead of scoring touchdowns, shouldn't you maybe try going for touchdowns instead of settling for field goals on fourth-and-2?
Jeff Fisher Award for Confusing Coaching.
We're not going after Doug Pederson for putting Nate Sudfeld into the game. This was a meaningless affair for the Eagles, and as much as it annoyed Giants fans across the country, emptying the benches in Week 17 isn't exactly unheard of. We're not attacking the Bills for giving Matt Barkley a runout after all. And Pederson even told us before the game that he wanted to get Sudfeld some action, especially if the game was out of hand. And so what if the game wasn't out of hand, and the Eagles still had a chance of winning? The game was meaningless for Philadelphia, and things like talent evaluation and draft position arguably mean more than winning a prime-time game on your way out the door.
No, we're bashing him for his explanation after the game. When asked about the motivation for switching to Sudfeld, and whether or not the Eagles were tanking, Peterson said, explicitly:
Yes, I was coaching to win. … If there is anyone out there that thinks I was not trying to win the game, I mean, (Zach) Ertz is out there, Brandon Graham is out there, Darius Slay is out there, all our top guys are still on the field at the end so we were going to win the game.
Erm. A few follow-up questions, coach. If putting Sudfeld in was "coaching to win," why wait until the fourth quarter? What does it say about Jalen Hurts if moving to Sudfeld was the choice that helped the Eagles win? What does it say about the coaching staff if part of "coaching to win" involves playing someone who had not played at all this season?
No, in actuality, switching to Sudfeld was not the move that gave the Eagles the best chance to win, and Pederson knows this. It was always his plan to give Sudfeld some work, and he said as much both before and after the game. And you know what? That's fine. Lead with that. Getting Sudfeld work was more important to Pederson than the result of Week 17 -- not that they were intentionally trying to lose or anything, but the loss was less important than the work, a preseason-type atmosphere. Just say that, and while that will piss off people who insist you should play every second of every game in a lost season like it was the Super Bowl, and we're not talking about this today.
Also, while we're on the subject, I'd argue it's more important to get more work for your rookie, future-of-the franchise quarterback than it is to see a player who hadn't taken a snap since 2018. And, if you were giving young players the "opportunity to get some snaps," maybe you could have given some playing time to rookies such as Prince Tega Wanogho in the fourth quarter, rather than prioritizing five-year veterans who have been on the roster for four seasons. That's just me, however.
'(Don't You) Forget About Me' Fantasy Player of the Week
Isaiah McKenzie fell from Buffalo's third receiver to their fourth target this year after the Stefon Diggs acquisition. With Cole Beasley out in Week 17, however, McKenzie got the most offensive snaps of his career. He responded by scoring the Bills' first touchdown, making the score 7-3. And their second touchdown, making it 14-3. And their third touchdown, this time on a punt return, making it 21-3. It was a really good six and a half minutes of game time, OK?
Today belongs to Isaiah McKenzie.
— Buffalo Bills (@BuffaloBills) January 3, 2021
Garbage-Time Performer of the Week
The Dolphins weren't hoping to be in this section this week, but it's one more chance to celebrate Salvon Ahmed, the undrafted rookie who finished second on the team with 319 rushing yards and a trio of touchdowns, finishing ahead of names such as Matt Breida. Ahmed got most of the work in the second half of the Bills game, scoring a touchdown on a draw to briefly cut Buffalo's lead to a manageable, er, 49-19 midway through the fourth quarter. Ahmed has done enough in his limited action this season to get a job next year -- perhaps not with Miami specifically, but the former University of Washington star had made the most of his opportunities in this strange season.
As for the Garbage-Time Performers of the Year? While both Ryan Tannehill and Gardner Minshew had more yards, Kirk Cousins is your quarterback, with a league-leading seven touchdown passes when down three or more scores; 661 passing yards ain't too shabby, either. Amari Cooper led the league with 21 receptions, resulting in 222 yards, 15 first downs, and a pair of touchdowns in nigh-hopeless situations; the yardage advantages of Terry McLaurin, Corey Davis, and Justin Jefferson aren't enough to tip them over Cooper's more "valuable" receptions. James Robinson had 90 rushing yards, 99 receiving yards and three scores during Jacksonville's many, many blowout losses; Zeke Elliott had a few more yards but only found the end zone once. Finally, T.J. Hockensen had a 10-83-2 line during three-score deficits to lead all tight ends. These gentlemen came up largest when the lights were dimmest; their fantasy managers thank them for their service.
Comfort in Sadness Stat of the Week
The last four teams eliminated in the regular season were the Miami Dolphins, Arizona Cardinals, Dallas Cowboys, and New York Giants. Optimism for the Cardinals is easy: Kyler Murray appears well on his way to becoming a bona fide superstar. He's not quite the finished article yet, but his efficiency and production improved both rushing and passing in his second year, and Murray was a clear No. 1 in rushing DYAR with a tremendous 11 rushing touchdowns. The story in Miami is the much-improved defense, led by 10-interception cornerback Xavien Howard. At 27, Howard should reach the peak of his career just as the Dolphins come back into contention in the AFC East. Optimism in the NFC East is tougher to find, but we'll point to a pair of young receivers: CeeDee Lamb was an all-rookie contender in a deep and talented receiver class and made an explosive start to his career in a tough situation in Dallas. Over in New York, Darius Slayton built on a strong rookie year with a 750-yard contribution for a Giants team that also got far too much play from a remedial cast of quarterbacks. Neither club is set at the game's most important position, but whomever is under center will benefit from these talented young targets.
Game-Changing Play of the Week
With only one win-and-in, lose-and-out game this week, we're focusing on the Washington-Philadelphia game to find our game-changer. The Eagles -- and, by the transitive property, the Giants -- were still in a solid position, even after Nate Sudfeld came into the game in the fourth quarter. Even Sudfeld's first drive, which ended in an interception, ended up OK -- it was a deep shot, essentially an arm punt, and the Eagles got an interception themselves a few plays later. It was Sudfeld's second drive where things finally fell apart.
Chase Young picks up the loose ball! @WashingtonNFL takes it back.
— NFL (@NFL) January 4, 2021
Was it Sudfeld's fault? The snap was certainly low, but not uncatchable, and at the very least, he needed to dive on the loose ball once it hit the ground. Full credit should go to Montez Sweat and Chase Young, who spent so much time in the Philadelphia backfield you'd think they were auditioning for Miles Sanders' job. But really, when you have a quarterback in the game who hasn't practiced with the center very much, should it come as a surprise the snap connection wasn't perfect?
Washington would go nowhere with the ball, but was still in range for a field goal to extend their lead to 20-14, and Philadelphia never crossed midfield the rest of the way. Ron Rivera becomes the first head coach to lead two teams with a losing record into the postseason.
Game-Changing Plays of the Year
Five teams ended up one game out of the playoffs when all was said and done -- five teams that, if you flipped just one result, would have found themselves in this year's expanded postseason. These are their stories.
Flip any Arizona Cardinals game to a win, and they'd be sitting a 9-7 in the seventh seed over the Chicago Bears. There's plenty of blame to go around, but you can just make it easy and blame Zane Gonzalez. He missed a potential game-winning field goal against New England and a potential game-tying field goal against Miami, both of under 50 yards. A slightly more reliable kicker, and the Cardinals would be traveling to New Orleans this weekend.
— Chris Gobeille (@WBZPhotog) November 30, 2020
Flip any New York Giants game to a win, and they'd have won the NFC East, being 7-9 and reigning over Washington based on their head-to-head sweep. It's understandable that they want to blame the Eagles for putting in their third-string quarterback in Week 17. What they should blame the Eagles for is their Week 7 loss, as Carson Wentz hit Boston Scott with 40 seconds left for the game-winning touchdown. Stop the Eagles there, and the Giants would get yet another opportunity to ruin a Tom Brady postseason.
BOSTON SCOTT COMES THROUGH.
The @Eagles take the lead with 40 seconds left!
— NFL (@NFL) October 23, 2020
Flip any Miami Dolphins game to a win, and they'd be either the fifth or sixth seed -- an extra AFC win would have them at 11-5 with an 8-4 conference record, firmly atop the wild-card heap. They don't really have a single last-second loss on their resume to the same extent as the Giants or Cardinals, but they were driving late against the Broncos for a game-tying score until Ryan Fitzpatrick threw an interception to Justin Simmons in the end zone. FitzMagic giveth, and FitzMagic taketh away, and so Miami's sitting at home rather than getting ready to play Tennessee.
Justin Simmons' fourth INT of the season is a CLUTCH one. #BroncosCountry
— NFL (@NFL) November 23, 2020
For the Minnesota Vikings, you need to specifically flip one of their seven NFC losses to get them into the postseason; that would put them at 8-8 with a better divisional record than the Bears and a better record in common games than the Cardinals, and so they'd be the seventh seed. Of all these five teams, the Vikings had the best chance of pulling off a victory. They had Russell Wilson and the Seahawks facing a fourth down with 20 seconds to go, needing a touchdown -- one stop, and the Vikings would be getting ready for another Saints playoff game today. DK Metcalf had other plans.
4TH AND GOAL. RUSS TO DK. GO-AHEAD TD. #Seahawks
— NFL (@NFL) October 12, 2020
Finally, there's the Dallas Cowboys. To get into the playoffs, you'd need to flip either Washington game to a win, giving Dallas the NFC East title at 7-9. The problem is, Dallas lost those games 25-3 and 41-16; they weren't exactly close games. Still, at least they had a chance on the field, which is more than 13 other teams can say.
Jonathan Allen has been playing a lot more at the NT spot this year, typically Payne's spot. Watch him shed the C to make a play on Zeke, then recover the fumble. pic.twitter.com/RDeQl8lVfo
— Mark Bullock (@MarkBullockNFL) November 26, 2020
Bryan: With the race for the title over, there's one piece of interest remaining: whether or not Andrew can get back over .500 to finish the season. He'd need to run the table to have a winning record; going 3-1 will get him at least to break-even. It's possible! I mean, mathematically, that is!
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Andrew: The thing about repeated playoff failure is that it tends to leave a lasting impression, whether in the minds of commentators, fans, or even players. The mindset among the small subset of Saints fans I interact with is not one of joy that the team won the division again, or even mild annoyance that a dumb home defeat in September by a notoriously slow-starting squad ultimately cost the team the NFC bye. It's car-crash rubbernecking curiosity about just how the Saints are going to blow it again this postseason. Starting out at home against the lowly Bears, they should be guaranteed at least one win, right? I guess so, but -9.5 is a high line against a Bears team that, Week 17 aside, has been considerably better with Mitchell Trubisky than Nick Foles. Admittedly, Chicago's only win of note came at home against Tampa Bay in October, but then I don't need them to win. They haven't made a habit of being blown out either, and that includes an overtime loss to the Saints earlier in the year. Do I think the Bears go to the Superdome and win? I wouldn't go that far. Do I think they keep it closer than 9.5 points? Yes, I do. The great thing about picking against my own team is I'll be delighted if I'm wrong. It's a win either way, and this year I'm taking whatever small wins I can get. Chicago (+9.5) at New Orleans.
Bryan: A rematch of last year's divisional-round upset? A repeat of Week 11's slobberknocker of a game? Yes, I'm very much looking forward to Ravens-Titans, which I think is the hardest game to pick outright this week. As fun as the Ravens offense is when it's going full steam, the matchup I'm most interested in seeing is how the Ravens are going to slow down A.J. Brown and Derrick Henry -- while both have had larger days this season, they also both smashed through Ravens' tacklers like they were made of tissue paper on their way to scores back in November. I have a sneaking suspicion that if either team gets out to a multi-score lead that they'll be able to hang on. For all of Lamar Jackson's heroics, Baltimore's run-based offense isn't as good at catching up as it is just smashing a team already into the ground; we saw what happened when the Titans jumped out to a 14-point lead against Baltimore last year. On the flip side, the Titans have yet to win this season after going two scores down; they want to take a lead and ride Henry throughout the fourth quarter.
Baltimore's recent win streak has come against non-playoff teams and also the Cleveland Browns. That's enough for me to be slightly more skeptical of them than the general betting public. And, when in doubt, take the points. Tennessee (+3.5) over Baltimore.