Buffalo Bills vs. Chumpzilla
NFL Week 14 - The Buffalo Bills don't just face the Tampa Bay Buccaneers or Tom Brady this week. They face their toughest foe of all: Chumpzilla.
Buffalo Bills at Tampa Bay Buccaneers, Sunday, 4:25 p.m.
Chumpzilla, like any memorable kaiju, is no mere mindless monster. She rises from the depths of the ocean (Lake Erie will do in a pinch) to punish football teams for their pride and arrogance. She stomps upon quarterbacks who cleared room on their mantle for an MVP award before the season began, sets fire to offensive coordinators who were already mentally spending Mark Davis' money, and topples the dreams of coaches and general managers who declared "mission accomplished" after a 13-3 season and some Texans-Jets blowouts.
Chumpzilla is also a Lovecraftian horror, capable of causing madness and paralyzing fear. She convinces coaches to stubbornly refuse to adjust to anything, from an opponent's obvious tactics to the elements themselves. She causes missed field goals, dropped passes, and red zone false starts in home games. She saps the strength of reputedly mighty blockers and tacklers. The higher the stakes, the more powerful Chumpzilla becomes: she loves to lurk beneath the surface while a team gains a false sense of security by thumping on a terrible opponent, then rise at the most dramatic moment to throw that team into a panic.
Chumpzilla takes many guises. The New England Patriots are her second favorite. Tom Brady is her favorite.
This is Football Outsiders, so I feel obligated to take a moment to discuss the shame-spiraling Bills quantitatively. They rank second to last in the NFL with 4.2 yards after catch per completion per Pro Football Reference. (The Miami RPO Machine ranks last by a few hundredths of a yard). Their defense leads the league in pressure rate per Pro Football Reference but has registered just 21 sacks. Their overall statistical profile is healthy. All they need is a broken tackle here, an edge rusher getting home there…
Forget it. Sean McDermott deactivated kick returner and potential YAC playmaker Isaiah McKenzie on Monday night because McKenzie's fumbled kickoff against the Colts was on his mind. That fearful logic robbed the Bills of an end around or screen threat. Why didn't the Bills install a zone-read package when the forecast started calling for a bad-weather game in the middle of last week? Why didn't they shift to a heavier defensive package, and why did they wait so long to move safety Jordan Poyer up to the line against an opponent that spent most of the night in a six-lineman and/or fullback personnel package? And while the Patriots beat lots of teams physically, why did the Bills get manhandled like a D-III program facing Michigan in the trenches?
The answer is Chumpzilla. She made the Bills look foolish against the Colts and broke their hearts against the Titans and Steelers. She's punishing the Bills for their lack of creativity, precision, and ferocity. If there's any such thing as an "it factor," some combination of intangibles that converts into an extra dozen yards or so in a close game, the Bills lack it. That deficiency keeps roaring to life and making the Bills' DVOA and reputation look like a cardboard skyscraper.
This is a close game on paper. On the field, it looks like the third act of a disaster movie. Maybe the Bills do pull themselves together and make a Super Bowl run. But they're more likely to end up gazing across the smoldering ruins of their season and pondering important lessons about their own hubris as the credits roll. Buccaneers 28, Bills 20.
Baltimore Ravens at Cleveland Browns, Sunday, 1 p.m.
We discussed the Browns at length in Thursday's Walkthrough. We averted our eyes from the ugliness of the Ravens' 16-10 victory over the Browns in turnover volleyball in Week 12. Both of these teams need their offenses to turn around, and both Baker Mayfield and Lamar Jackson could really use a late-season rebound.
The Ravens hinted on Wednesday that they may use more up-tempo tactics after marching straight down the field in their last-minute drive against the Steelers. "It's definitely an option," John Harbaugh said. "It's definitely something that we have done before. Among other things, it's something that is on the table, for sure."
Walkthrough Hot Tip: when a coach turns into Rain Man and says "definitely" twice in consecutive sentences, he's definitely NOT planning to do what he's talking about.
Mayfield, meanwhile, said midweek that he is healthier than ever (that was the story entering Week 12 as well) and hopes to improve the Browns offense through the sheer power of platitudes. "I feel confident with where I am, where we are, and where we are headed," Mayfield said. "Now, it's crunch time. We need to have that singular focus, block out everything else, and realize that we need to take care of business one day and one week at a time."
That's the way a quarterback talks when he's sick of providing midday talk shows with soundbite kibble.
Jackson is pressing and making some unfathomable decisions, the Ravens offensive line is in shambles, and their secondary is too depleted to keep bailing them out with 16-10 wins. The Browns are just aggressively ordinary. Walkthrough would love to predict a 44-42 final that at least answers some questions for Mayfield and Jackson while providing a smidge of AFC North clarity. Something tells us that's not going to happen. Browns 19, Ravens 16.
Las Vegas Raiders at Kansas City Chiefs, Sunday, 1 p.m.
Imagine that the Greatest Show on Turf Rams suddenly morphed in midseason into the Super Bowl Shuffle Bears. That's essentially what has happened to the Chiefs, who have allowed just 56 points in their last five games, recording negative DVOA percentages (negative DVOA means better defense) every week and forcing 10 turnovers, including two turnovers in a 42-14 win over the Raiders in Week 10.
I cannot recall a team's personality changing so thoroughly in midseason, except when a quarterback injury or coaching change was involved. The Broncos went from Peyton Manning's team to Manning's geriatric-care facility between 2014 and 2015, but they already possessed a formidable defense, and that transformation occurred across seasons. It's not like Manning woke up old one October morning or Von Miller lined up two steps to his left and instantly turned back into the Hulk the way Chris Jones has.
It's all rather strange, and most of us who stare deeply into the tape and numbers assume the Chiefs defense will drift back towards average. We also assume that the Chiefs offense will drift back up toward its established level, though the going has been slow on that front. But Week 10 illustrated that the Raiders, with their innovative Hope for Pass Interference offense and Maxx Crosby's One-Man Jug Band defense, have a way of making the Chiefs look like their old selves. Chiefs 31, Raiders 22.
San Francisco 49ers at Cincinnati Bengals, Sunday, 4:25 p.m.
Joe Burrow dislocated his right pinkie against the Chargers and did not practice early in the week. Burrow expects to play, but it's hard to have much faith in the NFL's young interception leader when he's facing a tough defense while dealing with a throwing-hand injury.
Not all of Burrow's interceptions have been his fault (that's always true, of course): Ja'Marr Chase ladled a deep pass that landed in his arms directly to defender Michael Davis last week. Chase ranks third in the NFL with nine drops, per Pro Football Reference. Meanwhile, Deebo Samuel (questionable for Sunday at press time) is tied for the league lead with Travis Kelce for 10 drops. It would feel strangely fitting if this battle of head-scratching playoff hopefuls hinged on dropped passes by their best playmakers.
This is a great game for Football Outsiders readers/subscribers/employees. Superficially, the Bengals look like they might be the better team, and it's easy to rationalize that they could have one of their mood swings and win by 24. DVOA says the 49ers are superior in most categories, and our FO+ picks (subscribe!) have a high degree of confidence in the 49ers, especially with almost-even odds.
So trust the numbers. Or at the very least, distrust the young quarterback with the dislocated finger. 49ers 26, Bengals 17.
Dallas Cowboys at Washington Football Team, Sunday, 1 p.m.
Walkthrough discussed Washington and the Fire High Heinicke phenomenon on Wednesday. Washington is likely to go 1-3 during their NFC East club sandwich (Cowboys-Eagles-Cowboys-Eagles) because, well, they are the weakest of the three teams, they're missing some critical pieces (Taylor Heinicke's top underneath target Leaping Logan Thomas is lost again; Montez Sweat tested positive for COVID just as he was set to return from injury), they're catching the Cowboys off a mini-bye and the Eagles off a bye, and their little run of 17-15 victories over fading bantamweights isn't sustainable.
Ah, but the FedEx Field gravel pit can be a great equalizer, and rain on Saturday could turn it into Agincourt on Sunday. Walkthrough doesn't expect an upset, because we aren't writing Washington (Eagles, Giants, etc.) fanfic, but watch out for the Cowboys as 4.5-point favorites, and check the cleat report before going anywhere near the over of 48. Cowboys 24, Washington 20.
Atlanta Falcons at Carolina Panthers, Sunday, 1 p.m.
There's a stealthy science to becoming a "hot" head coaching or coordinator candidate. It starts with networking. Some engaging media interviews as a positional assistant or college coach can go a long way. A few minutes of friendly chit chat at an Indianapolis bar can go even further. More tactically, a little targeted outreach by an agent on a coach's behalf can get his name into the ear of a tastemaker and onto the social networks. From there, the hiveminds of #DraftTwitter and #FilmTwitter take over, because everyone wants to be "in the know" about the up-and-coming new mastermind, especially if they once shook his hand.
I have worked in this particular sausage factory for years, tasted plenty of bratwursts, and even cooked up a kielbasa or two. It's mostly harmless: we're helping football coaches advance, not positioning people for Supreme Court nominations or anything. Occasionally, however, the gears of the process aren't concealed cleverly enough and it becomes obvious to those who know what they are looking for which coaches/coordinators/GM assertively self-promoted their way past their capability level.
What this has to do with current Panthers coach Matt Rhule and recently fired offensive coordinator Joe Brady is left to the class as an exercise. Let's just say that Walkthrough isn't all that surprised that the Panthers braintrust is turning on one another and flaming out. Falcons 22, Panthers 16.
Seattle Seahawks at Houston Texans, Sunday, 1 p.m.
Jamal Adams is out for the year, robbing the Seahawks of whatever services Adams ostensibly provides. Adams blitzed just 43 times this season, per Sports Info Solutions: a high total for a safety but a low one for a tiny edge rusher who drops into deep coverage a lot. You could almost taste Pete Carroll's Sean Payton/Taysom Hill-level obstinance when Adams lined up deep 20 times per game. They say we wasted two first-round picks on a gadgety role player, do they? Well. I will show them!
The Seahawks lack depth on defense, so Adams' absence will indeed hurt. They should be fine against a Texans team that acts more and more like a separatist cult every week, but the Rams will soon deliver a knockout blow to the Seahawks' feeble playoff hopes.
Note: Walkthrough is taking a long look at the first-quarter Under at 7.5: the Seahawks and Texans rank 23rd and 28th in first-quarter offense but 13th and 15th in first-quarter defense. Early-game Texans props are turning into a creepy fetish, but we hope you still accept us for who we are. Seahawks 22, Texans 10.
New Orleans Saints at New York Jets, Sunday, 1 p.m.
Taysom Hill's middle finger was wrapped in a splint and he could not hold a water bottle during his midweek media availability, yet he is expected to start for the Saints.
We have blown past the point where Sean Payton is doing things for Taysom that Walkthrough would not do for our own sons. We have reached the point where Payton is doing things for Taysom that Vito Corleone would not do for his own sons.
The Jets will be a useful gauge to determine how far the Saints have fallen. They were downright sprightly on offense and special teams against the Eagles, but their defense is too talent-destitute to stop any but the most feeble or self-destructive opponents. With Alvin Kamara likely to return, the Saints should be able to score at least 20 points with Taysom Hill playing with a pirate's hook on his hand and their starting offensive line playing canasta on the inactive list. If they cannot find a way to beat the Jets, they should consider donating the entire organization to Kars 4 Kids. Saints 23, Jets 14.
Jacksonville Jaguars at Tennessee Titans, Sunday, 1 p.m.
The Titans have been on bye since mid-October. At least it feels that way. Julio Jones is on his way back, but all is quiet on the "maybe Derrick Henry will return for the playoffs" front, and most of the world has penciled the Titans in to lose to whatever wild-card team is hot in the first round of the playoffs.
Walkthrough discussed the Jaguars thoroughly in Thursday's TankWatch. There's not much else to say about them except "Urban Meyer is a ninny." Titans 22, Jaguars 17.
Detroit Lions at Denver Broncos, Sunday, 4:05 p.m.
Lost in the giddy excitement of the Lions' first victory of the year was the fact that Jared Goff threw an interception over the middle to kill a fourth-quarter drive, fumbled on fourth-and-1 deep in his own territory to help the Vikings take a late-fourth quarter lead, and suffered a delay-of-game penalty (his second of the game) that jeopardized the Lions' game-winning touchdown drive. Goff remains frustrating and disappointing in unique and unexpected ways.
Both the Broncos and Lions will try to melt the clock and ask as little of their quarterbacks as possible. The Broncos' -8.5 midweek line suggests that the public hadn't adjusted to how bad Denver looked on Sunday night and still has little faith in the Lions as cover monsters. Keep taking the Lions and the points against middleweights until it stops paying off. Broncos 23, Lions 22.
New York Giants at Los Angeles Chargers, Sunday, 4:05 p.m.
Here's my Jake Fromm 2020 draft scouting report, as published at Bleacher Report:
Bleacher Report's Pinpoint-Accurate Quarterback Comparison: Brock Osweiler. Sorry, but it's Brock Osweiler.
You have probably seen Fromm play more than any other prospect in this year's class. He was a three-year starter for a program that's on national television every Saturday afternoon. You have seen him throw enough touchdowns to the likes of Mecole Hardman, Riley Ridley, and George Pickens against the best defenses in the nation over the years that you might think, "Hey, that Jake Fromm is probably a Kirk Cousins-type pocket passer who can be a midline NFL starter."
Fromm, unfortunately, is not that type of prospect.
Fromm is tall, experienced, and has an NFL-caliber arm, but he's the stereotypical quarterback prospect whose scouting report begins "tall, experienced, with an NFL-caliber arm." He's barely mobile, deliberate in his delivery, and mechanically inconsistent. Downfield passes outside the numbers sail high and wide on him, and his ball placement is spotty, two big problems for someone hoping to become a Matthew Stafford-like pocket sniper.
Fromm is like a career Triple-A baseball pitcher, good enough to eat some midsummer innings in the big leagues for a team that can live with a 4.95 ERA over a few starts. He'll probably stick to benches for years because of his big-program pedigree and the fact that he looks like a quarterback.
As I mentioned in my New York Times feature on Joe Judge's fourth-down conservatism: the Giants are likely to become so punt-heavy with Fromm at quarterback that they will give up on what few drives he manages to generate. That's a great way to turn a 5% to 10% chance at an upset into a 0.5 to 1.0% chance at an upset. Chargers 27, Giants 9.
Chicago Bears at Green Bay Packers, Sunday, 8:20 p.m.
Justin Fields returns to mop up a lost season for a lame-duck coach against a series of divisional opponents (Packers, Vikings twice) who are hoping to use the Bears as a stepping stone to the playoffs. Hooray?
Cornerback Jaire Alexander has returned to practice for the Packers. Risking further injury by rushing him back for this game feels almost unnecessary, but Allen Robinson also returned to practice on Wednesday. Robinson missed three games with a hamstring injury. Did you notice? Did you even have to reset a fantasy lineup to account for Robinson's absence? That's how irrelevant the Bears have become.
Alexander's return is a bigger deal for the Packers as they face off against the Ravens, Browns, and Vikings in the weeks to come, but his possible return should extinguish any hope you may have that Fields will help the Bears make things respectable. Packers 27, Bears 13.
Los Angeles Rams at Arizona Cardinals, Monday, 8:15 p.m.
The Rams frequently deployed six offensive linemen and two tight ends against the Jaguars last week, even early in the game. It was an interesting wrinkle, as were Cooper Kupp's occasional sojourns into the backfield. The Rams may have just been trying to melt the clock against a pushover, but some heavier packages might also be beneficial this week against a defense that ranks third against the pass but 15th against the run. At the very least, unusual personnel groupings should puncture any "Sean McVay has gotten predictable" theories making the rounds.
Overall, the Rams looked surprisingly unimpressive against the Jaguars until the game got silly: Matthew Stafford was pressured too often (he left the game briefly after getting walloped) and their special teams gave the Jaguars good field position by kicking off out of bounds and interfering with a punt return. Had the Jaguars put up any sort of fight, the Rams could once again have blundered their way into trouble.
The Cardinals beat the Rams 37-20 in their first meeting and will essentially clinch the NFC West with a sweep. There is no reason to believe they won't do it. Cardinals 30, Rams 24.