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Scramble for the Ball: Tradition!

33 min read
Scramble for the Ball: Tradition!

By Bryan Knowles and Andrew Potter

Andrew: Hello and welcome to Scramble for the Ball, where yet another week of contenders winning when they’re meant to was somewhat outshone, as many things were, by the brilliance of Lamar Jackson. We wrote about Jackson a few times as a prospect, mostly sneering at the numerous evaluators that suggested he swap positions ahead of the draft. Boy are we glad he paid no heed!

Bryan: Watching Baltimore’s offensive near-perfection (or, if you’re a Rams fan, near-offensive perfection) was spellbinding Monday night. It wasn’t a good game by any stretch of the imagination, but watching the MVP — yes, I think I’m calling it right now — work his magic in prime time was an incredible experience. I have no idea how the 49ers are going to shut Jackson down at all this week. Then again, I have no idea how the Ravens are going to stop San Francisco’s front four. Can it be Sunday yet? And can we move the dang game out of the early window, under the obscure “all Lamar Jackson games should be in prime time” rule?

Andrew: Soon enough, my young Padawan. Unusually, we have a whole heap of action — though looking at the schedule, “game time” may be the better descriptor — to get through first. Traditionally, this has been the spot in which Bryan and I bring you our vaunted and insightful “Thanksgiving Game Previews,” but this year we are taking a somewhat meta break from tradition in order to talk about tradition itself.

Bryan: After all, some traditions deserve to continue, and other traditions deserve to be quietly forgotten in a dusty corner, as they are currently only being propelled by a sense of obligation and familiarity. Like a holiday game of Monopoly…

Andrew: … or a Lions home game on Thanksgiving…

Bryan: … sometimes it’s worth stepping back and asking if anyone really enjoys this.

Andrew: Take Monday Night Football, for example. In its heyday, it was the premier football broadcast, your team’s one shot at prime-time television and the highlight of the NFL week. Now, it’s often the third-most interesting prime-time game in a given weekend, between two teams everybody expected to be better than they are, a Layla-esque coda to the football weekend that merely postpones your fantasy league’s waiver period.

Bryan: It has become a game that the NFL no longer prioritizes when scheduling. It sits well behind the Sunday night game and the national afternoon game, and is usually considered a couple rungs below that. I have no problem with the highlight game of the week being moved from Monday to Sunday; while there was something cool about the final game really standing out, I don’t feel that that is particularly necessary. I just would like the NFL to make a stronger push to giving it at least a top-four game every week. Things happen and some teams or matchups you expect to be good in June end up being terrible in December, but did we really need Dolphins-Steelers getting a prime-time game? Or Bengals-Steelers? Exercising a little bit of discretion would be much appreciated.

Andrew: We’ve seen the recent change to enable the league to flex Sunday games to the night slot instead of the afternoon. Though that would be considerably more awkward for, say, travelling fans on a Monday night, surely there are some steps the league could take to give us more meaningful Monday action. At present, it seems like it’s there because it has always been there. In an era of Sunday Ticket and Game Pass, we’re growing accustomed to picking the games we want to watch instead of letting somebody else choose for us. Sure, sometimes we get great games or great performances on Monday night — Brett Favre was notorious for that — but other times even hardcore fans now will shrug and find something else to do.

Bryan: The real culprit, however, isn’t Monday night, it’s Thursday night. The idea of a Thursday showcase game has always sounded better on paper than it is in reality. At least the Monday night scheduling theoretically goes out of its way to highlight star players and intriguing storylines, even if it comes at the expense of quality matchups. The short Thursday week is such a disadvantage that the NFL’s priority there is to make sure every team has to play one in order to balance out the pain. This is why we get Redskins-Jets as a prime-time game this season. Wheee.

There is a potential fix there, actually. There are rumors that in the next CBA, the NFL will be expanding to 17 games, adding an extra bye week into the equation, making scheduling unusual game times a little bit easier. If they do so, the rule for Thursday games should be that both teams playing in a Thursday game should be coming off of a bye — no more four-day turnarounds.

Andrew: As long as you restrict it to, say, Weeks 3 to 16 — which could still mean every team appears once if you want, because you get three Thanksgiving games for 16 total matchups — that means no team is stuck with a Week 1 or Week 17 bye.

Bryan: But there’s the point — if you give teams a bye week before the Thursday game, it’s no longer such a competitive disadvantage that you need to make sure everyone suffers through it. Thursday games could be the shadow version of what Monday Night Football used to be; a fantastic appetizer to the week ahead. I’m not saying to schedule the best game of the week on Thursdays, but removing some of the competitive disadvantages could mean that the NFL could focus more on the quality of Thursday games, not just the quantity.

Andrew: It’s certainly a far better option than the current arrangement, in which players are continually forced to rush through their post-game recovery in order to prepare for their next opponent. I have never been a fan of Thursday Night Football, for a broad variety of reasons, but that would remove one of my actual objections to it. The only times I don’t object to Thursday football under the current arrangements are opening night and Thanksgiving. I specifically enjoy the Thanksgiving tradition despite generally loathing the Thanksgiving broadcasts.

Bryan: As do I, and adding a third game to the Thanksgiving Day slate didn’t really overwhelm or diminish the tradition in any way. At this point, it’s hard to imagine a Thanksgiving Day without football, even if many of us — by which I mean me — often fall into a tryptophan-induced coma during the nightcap.

It sounds like you’re not necessarily a fan of all the teams playing on Thanksgiving, however.

Andrew: Oh, you misunderstand the cut of my jib. I’m firmly in the camp that is pro Lions and Cowboys hosting Thanksgiving games every year, and I like the late game rotating between teams. I wouldn’t mind a little more variety in the other teams — Dallas has played Washington in three of the last eight Thanksgiving games, and this is the second straight year of Saints-Falcons — but I respect that tradition a great deal.

Bryan: Hrm. This is something on which we’re going to have to slightly disagree. I’m fine with the Lions and Cowboys being the default option for Thanksgiving games. I’d be a little more fine with it if the NFL made more of an effort to schedule Detroit and Dallas’ best home games for Thanksgiving week in order to give us the best games in solo windows.

Andrew: That would be excellent, and I am 100% in favor of it.

Bryan: It’s easier said that done, however. Back in June, Detroit-Chicago looked like a pretty good game; the Bears’ ferocious defense and an improved Mitch Trubisky taking on Matthew Stafford and our sleeper NFC North champ Lions. Atlanta-New Orleans, for that matter, seemed like a great choice for the nightcap; two great offenses smashing into one another, with Atlanta’s defensive performance down the stretch in 2018 indicating solid improvement in 2019. I would have called those two of the top three games of the week if I had to pick them back when the schedule was being made, along with New England-Houston. Now, of course, both of those games seem much less appetizing, and only Cowboys-Bills, which I thought was a terrible game back in June, seems worth watching. It’s hard to predict which games will be good months and months out; I would have tabbed Chargers-Lions and Rams-Cowboys as the best home games for our Thanksgiving Twosome, and … no. No, that would have been wrong.

Andrew: At least the night game has the rivalry aspect, of which I’m also in favor. The one recent time we went outside the divisional format, in 2016, we got the worst late game of the bunch.

Bryan: Then again, we got 49ers-Ravens in a Harbaugh Bowl on Thanksgiving Day in 2011, so it’s not all bad if you slip outside the division.

Andrew: No, but that may as well have been a divisional game for the specific rivalry aspect between those two coaches. I’m not sure we’ll ever see that circumstance again. The Grudens pale in comparison.

Bryan: Anyway, my basic point is that the Cowboys and Lions are fine, I guess, but if there’s ever a season where one of them looks to be tanking as bad as the 2019 Dolphins are, I would be fine with the tradition being suspended for a season for a more competitive game to slide in its place.

Andrew: I guess I don’t disagree there, but that’s a fairly specific circumstance. It’s not like Cleveland’s, ahem, success with the tanking strategy has other teams lining up to try it. I think Miami’s season is as much about purging the Adam Gase years as it is specifically a long-term Sashi Brown strategy. The chances of seeing the Lions specifically embracing tanking seem low, considering how adept they are at being terrible while actually trying to win.

Plus, even noncompetitive Thanksgiving games have given us some great moments, such as the Buttfumble and … uh, well, such as the Buttfumble!

Bryan: I’m responsible for cooking the turkey on Thanksgiving and, as such, I missed the Buttfumble. As far as I’m concerned, that’s just one more reason to get rid of noncompetitive games entirely.

Andrew: Any other scheduling traditions you’d like to see changed? One for me was really brought into focus this weekend: the early/late window scheduling balance can be atrocious. When Jaguars-Titans finished on Sunday afternoon, Red Zone switched away from the last two minutes of Patriots-Cowboys, saying you could watch it on your local Fox broadcaster … except I couldn’t, because the game feed was blacked out on Game Pass and I got Game Pass specifically so I didn’t have to pay for Sky.

Bryan: That’s an issue with Red Zone and foreign broadcasting rights, and that’s definitely horrid, but secondary to the scheduling issue. I’m not a fan of two- or three-game late-game windows, but they’re never going away; that Cowboys-Patriots game was the most-watched FOX regular season game since 1996. Obviously, that’s a massive, massive success for the business side of the game. Oh well.

Other than allowing Sunday Night more flexes, more frequently, there is one other scheduling thing I’d change. Well, maybe it’s just scheduling-adjacent.

As it stands, there are always a handful of games in December between eliminated teams, where the primary incentive for everyone is to lose and get a better draft position. This year, we’ll likely have matchups like Bengals-Dolphins, Falcons-Buccaneers, and Lions-Broncos cluttering up the final couple weeks of the season. A “tradition,” if you would, is for fans to have the most aggravating arguments about whether they should root for their team to lose and thus be better positioned going forward, or if that is some kind of fan heresy, and that a December win is worth more than a position or two in the crapshoot that is the draft. A bold suggestion, then, to make those arguments moot and those games more exciting — flip the results for draft purposes. In any game between two eliminated teams, the winner should be credited with a loss for the purposes of draft order. A game like the Reggie Bush Bowl at the end of the 2005 season (3-12 San Francisco versus 2-13 Houston) would be a lot more interesting if the winner got the top overall pick, rather than the loser. Last year, Arizona would have still gotten the top overall pick, but Oakland would have slid up to No. 2 if this system had been in place. I’ve seen people suggest draft lotteries and penalties for tanking and all sorts of other things to try to prevent things like the FishTank from being worth it going forward, but you know me — I like an overly complicated and ultimately pointless system being put into place whenever possible

Andrew: It’ll never happen, of course, but if it did there would be a couple of other considerations there. One is that eliminated teams are more likely to shut down hurt players because the losses are no longer a problem for them, and put in younger guys for experience or live-action tryouts. Your proposal sounds like it would mean losing some of that — both the respite for guys who are ailing, and the experience for guys who otherwise wouldn’t get a shot. Second, I don’t think there are that many games where both teams are eliminated until Week 17 most years. Even this year, with the awful Dolphins and Skins and Giants, only the Bengals are eliminated so far. It seems like a complicated fix to a relatively innocuous problem.

Bryan: Complicated Fix to a Relatively Innocuous Problem is my middle name. It’s an old family tradition.

Andrew: I have wondered in the past about the way to keep competitive balance there, as tanking rears its ugly head once more, but most potential solutions have their flaws. If you give the No. 1 pick to the best team that didn’t make the playoffs, as I’ve seen suggested, you’re telling a team like this year’s Steelers that it’s better to be just outside the playoff picture than to be the No. 6 seed and get annihilated by the Chiefs. Lotteries should be shunned at every opportunity, and I’m not sure there’s a penalty for tanking that works. Maybe if you could only pick in the top five once in a given, say, three-year period, that would dissuade teams from going too all-out, but really how often has that been an issue?

Bryan: Frankly, this year’s Dolphins are the first team I can remember that has really gone all-in on a tanking philosophy, and I don’t think any massive overhauls are necessarily necessary to fix a problem that hasn’t really been a major issue compared to what we’ve seen in baseball or basketball. If there was a relegation system like there is in European soccer, then the problem would take care of itself. As it is, I think the NFL can afford to just kind of ignore it for now, which is what they’re best at, anyway.

Andrew: Speaking of both soccer and ignoring things, what about replay review? This is a long-time NFL tradition to which soccer fans are only just being introduced, and the wailing and gnashing of teeth from the other football public is a never-ending source of amusement this year.

Bryan: I am fine with the existence of replay review, as getting things right is better than not getting them right. I am fine with coaches having to challenge plays rather than having the game arbitrarily stopped from time to time. I think what coaches should be able to challenge should be expanded…

… but good lord, does the actual system of reviewing need a massive overhaul. Forget about the pass interference debacle this year, where it seems clear that, at least up until last week, there was a hush-hush, wink-wink system in place to essentially never overturn a call on the field. In general, there are just too many replay reviews where everything grinds to a halt for a minute, and then the referee shrugs and we continue on like nothing happened. A big part of the problem, I think, is that the call on the field standing and needing irrefutable evidence to overturn leads to a lot of borderline plays being just shrugs. I think that there should be a panel of officials/players who review challenged plays, and they shouldn’t necessarily be told what the call on the field was. Whatever the majority of them think is the ruling, regardless of what the ref on the field originally called in live action with one look at the play.

Also, referees should be full-time, but that’s a different argument.

Andrew: I have a couple of specific tweaks I’d make. Firstly, coaches can challenge whenever they want as long as they have a timeout available, and they do not lose the timeout on a successful challenge. That prevents a coach from being penalized later in the game because the officials screwed up too often earlier. Second, you can only use slow-motion and freeze-frame for point-of-fact challenges such as whether the player’s knee was down before the ball crossed the goal line. Anything else — catches, fumbles, heaven forbid defensive pass interference — is reviewed in real time. Also, the pool of things that can be reviewed needs to be cleaned up, but then so does the rulebook in general. There is no good reason why defensive holding or a facemask call is not reviewable but pass interference is.

Bryan: If we sit here and start rewriting the rulebook, we’ll be here until Thanksgiving Day. Of 2043. It’s long overdue for a good cleaning.

Andrew: True. And to your other point, yes, referees should definitely be full-time. Not because that will make the existing ones better, but because it will broaden the pool of people who can consider it a career choice. No longer will it have to be people who have enough sway to take the time the job demands away from their day job, and referees could then be working with teams all throughout the offseason rather than having to cram for the exam in preseason. I’ve never understood why people object to that.

One more thing: can we finally get some better system in place for measuring first downs? Some of the measurements for one of the most important decisions in the sport are laughable, and it gets even worse near the goal line, pylons, or sideline. We have several good options from other sports that could be adapted for football, if the will existed. The will ought to exist.

Bryan: Technological advancements here seem like they would be an obvious choice, yeah? In the 21st century, how come there’s a part-time employee sort of guessing where the ball will be put on the ground, and then two guys with a freaking chain coming out to measure if it was long enough? In the early ’70s, the NFL looked into a laser system that would have required permanent metal tracks to be installed on every sideline, which was wisely scrapped for being dangerous and also dumb, but with microchips and accelorometers in every player’s shoulderpads nowadays, surely we can find a way to figure out where the ball should go without excessive guesswork.

Then again, predictions on how technology will change the game are always in danger of looking really stupid.

We'll take the Tick Tocks +3

Andrew: Future predictions in general tend to look silly when that future arrives. Back to the Future and Blade Runner are some recent examples, but even Star Trek missed our rate of technological advancement by, at best, decades.

Bryan: You’re right. Blade Runner‘s projected future of sinister mega-corporations wielding massive amounts of power was just ridiculous. I’ll take the lack of a Star Trek-style nuclear war in the 1990s, though. The Eugenics Wars might have put a crimp in the ’90s Cowboys dynasty, or slowed Brett Favre down…

… OK, I’m sure there are some negative points, as well.

Andrew: We looked at scheduling the TV broadcasts already, but what about the schedule itself? Are we happy with the current division sizes and rotation system? That seems to have fallen into a relatively comfortable equilibrium.

Bryan: Thirty-two is a great number of teams; it makes things really easy to schedule. Long gone are the days of Charlotte and San Francisco being considered in the same geographic region, or the Cardinals and Giants being involved in a divisional rivalry. Sixteen games is just about perfect, too. So, of course the NFL is looking to change the latter, because we can’t have nice things.

The one thing I hope does not change is the number of playoff teams. I like two teams earning bye weeks; yes, it’s a significant advantage going forward in the playoffs, but being the best in the regular season is worth an advantage.

Andrew: One of the things that puzzled me at first, coming from a soccer background, is the lack of true schedule balance. In soccer, every team plays the same opponents both home and away, so there’s very little argument that a team doesn’t deserve its finishing position. In the NFL, one team can get the Dolphins and Bengals while another gets the Jaguars and Raiders, which is a significant disparity. Still, I think it’s tough to improve on the current situation without dramatically reshaping the league — going to four divisions of eight or something equally drastic — and losing a lot of the variety that makes the schedule interesting.

Bryan: And teams within the same division play roughly the same schedule, with only two games being decided by the previous’ year’s records. They could do a better job balancing home-and-away slates there, but at least the individual divisions are more or less free from quality-of-schedule shenanigans.

Andrew: That’s one of the reasons I reject the claim that a wild-card team with a superior record should not go on the road against a division winner in the wild-card round. Getting a 12-4 runner-up against an easy slate is not the same as winning a tough division at 11-5.

Bryan: Wow, see, I was leading in to the exact opposite! I do think that all division-winners should earn playoff spots; if we’re going to semi-randomly group teams together, we may as well laud the best team in that group. But there are years where extremely qualified teams end up in a terrible situation just because they’re up against an even more qualified team in their division. Take, hey, this year for instance. If the Seahawks win out, they will be 14-2. If the 49ers win out apart from the Seahawks game, they’ll be 14-2, and have to go on the road to Dallas or Philadelphia in the first round. That’s obviously an extreme example, but it’s hard to say that the 49ers/Seahawks loser is less deserving of a home game than the Cowboys/Eagles winner.

Andrew: It’s a very extreme example, and my team was a victim of something similar on the road against the 7-9 Seahawks, but in general I am strongly in favor of the notion that winning your division gets you at least one home playoff game.

Bryan: I’d be in favor of a division-winner being the first tiebreaker in these scenarios, so a 10-6 NFC East winner would finish ahead of a 10-6 wild-card team, even if they lost head-to-head or something, but no — if you wanna host a playoff game, win more games! We’ll give the 7-9 Seahawks their pity playoff berth for being the least terrible of a terrible foursome, but that’s all. The current system was put into place in 1975 to correct inequities in the previous system — did you know the 1972 Dolphins had to play the AFC Championship Game in Pittsburgh because the home teams were just based on a yearly rotation? Or that in 1971, the divisional round in both conferences saw the two teams with the best records playing one another on Christmas Day? — but that was a three-division setup with just one wild-card team. The NFL has grown and expanded since then, and it’s worth relooking at the playoff seeding rules to make things more fair for the more successful teams in the league.

Andrew: I think they’re fair enough as they are, and disagree that your change would make them fairer in general even if specific exceptions might apply.

Alright, one more tradition before we hit the turkey: uniforms. We’ve seen a lot of throwback uniforms this year as part of the NFL100 celebrations. Who needs to use their throwbacks full-time, who’s better with what they have, and who needs a complete revamp? We’ve already covered this in some depth in the past, and Dave and Vince did a whole offseason series on the topic, so just a swatch will suffice.

Bryan: You’re right in that this could be a complete article — and we’ve talked about doing it many times this season as we’ve tried to figure out what the hell to write about — but there are a number of teams that should either jump back a few steps or re-design themselves entirely. The Seahawks haven’t looked good since 2001, when they switched away from their classic blue uniforms to depressing Hasselbeck grey; their current set is a slightly improvement on that, but not by much. The Rams need to stick with blue and yellow rather than look like Colts-lite in white and blue, and certainly not like their all-yellow mustard jerseys from Monday night. The entire state of Ohio needs significant work. Tampa Bay is a fashion disaster; the Creamsicle look was cooler than every attempt they’ve made since then to look cool.

Andrew: The Buccaneers are always the first team that comes to my mind for this topic. There’s no reason for them to struggle this much with a uniform look; their color combination isn’t a nasty clash of shades, their logo is neither too bland nor too busy, and their mascot gives them an obvious and workable theme (unlike, say, the Browns).

Bryan: It’s probably a shorter list to talk about the teams wearing their best-ever uniforms right now, or at least a reasonable facsimile thereof: Baltimore, Carolina, Chicago, Green Bay, Houston, Indianapolis, Kansas City, New Orleans, Oakland, and San Francisco. Everyone else, get back into the design room.

Andrew: If you could pick one throwback to make a full-time comeback, what would it be?

Bryan: Oh man, just one? I guess technically the current Rams blue-and-yellow is a throwback jersey, but they’re wearing it as their primary until their new stadium opens, so that probably doesn’t count. I really dig the old Cardinals road jerseys, with the Arizona flag on the sleeves, but their home jersey was boring there so it’s not really a full set. Pat Patriot is a great mascot, but also pretty outdated at this point. The Standing Buffalo Bills are in a similar boat, design-wise. And we can’t bring the Titans back to their Oiler roots — I really wish the Texans would bust out a blue-and-white alternate, although maybe coming short of outright using the Oilers logo.

Honestly? The biggest upgrade from going back to a throwback fulltime right now might be if the Cleveland Browns went back to a version of the uniform they wore until 2014, basically unchanged. It was plain, it was boring — but it was leaps and bounds above the mess they have now. It’s that or go back to the Chargers helmets with the number on the side; I love helmets with the number on the side. Chargers helmets, the old Cowboys pants with the number bubbles on the side — just more things need to be numbered, like, in life.

Andrew: I agree on the Browns. I liked the red Patriots, but so many teams wear red that it feels regressive to send them back there. The Lions could do with going back a year or two, though I’m not sure to exactly which year.

Bryan: 2003 is when the Lions really started tampering with the layout and shades of their jersey, so before then would be good.

Andrew: That works for me. The Bengals need a full reset, and the Jaguars need to wind the clock back to the early- to mid-2000s. That applies to more than just the uniforms, right enough, but the recent uniforms have been uncannily bad. At least they ditched the two-tone helmets.

Bryan: Maybe everyone should go back to the original Bengals style, and just have their team names written on their helmets. There’s a tradition we can bring back, right?

Andrew: Or, for this season only, a finger and a thumb in the shape of an L on their foreheads. Smash Mouth football, indeed.

Bryan: This entire article was a setup for that punchline, wasn’t it?

Andrew: You are a man of complex formulae. I am a man of simple tastes.

Weekly Awards

Keep Choppin’ Wood

Something special is brewing in Wisconsin. No, we don’t mean Central Waters’ Bourbon Barrel Barleywine, though we wouldn’t decline the offer, nor one of New Glarus’ exotically flavored fruit beers. We certainly don’t mean anything to do with baseball. No, the slightly hoppy pungence we refer to is the Packers punt return team. Against San Francisco, returner Tramon Smith tallied two punt returns for -3 yards. That’s not great, but it’s only one game … except it isn’t only one game. Sunday night’s -3 brought the Packers to -11 yards on punt returns for the season, as Smith’s total adds to (subtracts from?) Darrius Shepherd’s -9 from earlier in the year, with only a solitary yard from Trevor Davis to offset those negatives. The current NFL record for fewest punt return yards in a season is 27, set by the 1965 St. Louis Cardinals. As things stand, the Packers have more chance of passing that mark backwards than forwards. Amusingly, a lack of fumbles means the Packers aren’t even in the bottom five in punt return value, so at least they have that going for them.

Herm Edwards Award for Playing to Win the Game

Playing to win isn’t always about playing with analytical fire or making brave fourth-down decisions. Sometimes, it’s as simple as realizing something you prepared all week is failing, and changing it. Kyle Shanahan made one such change this week, swapping his offensive tackles mid-game against the Packers, but that change is nothing compared to Mike Tomlin benching the struggling Mason Rudolph for rookie Devlin Hodges against Cincinnati. Tomlin was immediately rewarded, as Hodges’ first drive accumulated more yards and points than Rudolph’s first half, and despite Tomlin staying coy on the matter Hodges now appears set to start for the Steelers the rest of way.

John Fox Award for Conservatism

Just two short weeks ago, we commented in this spot on the questionable fourth-and-medium decision-making of one Jason Garrett. This week, he gave us an even more egregious example: in the middle of the fourth quarter, trailing by seven, the Cowboys drove deep into Patriots territory, where a 3-yard gain on first down set up second-and-7 from the 11-yard line. Everybody knew this had to be four-down territory, right? Apparently not: Garrett neglected to inform offensive coordinator Kellen Moore, ESPN’s Todd Archer reports, saying “I don’t think it’s a good idea to constantly interject on a guy calling a play. … You want to pick your spots in those situations.” Two incomplete passes brought up fourth-and-7, and the Cowboys kicked a field goal. Trailing by seven. Still, at least they didn’t drill all the wells. Or something.

Jeff Fisher Award for Confusing Coaching

It’s not one moment in particular, but we understood very little about what Matt LaFleur did on Sunday night. The Packers were slow and lethargic, even as the 49ers jumped out to an early lead. Their touchdown drive in the third quarter ate up eight and a half minutes of clock, which would have been great if they were up 23-0 rather than losing by that much. After halftime, LaFleur said they needed to “stick to their plan,” because if they went away from it, “it will get even uglier.” Said plan was just the normal stuff Green Bay has done for weeks; no new added wrinkles or strategies not yet put on film to challenge a historically great defense. They played a lot of 11 personnel, dropping back and taking time to throw rather than bringing in extra blockers and trying to run the ball and throw it quickly, strategies which worked well for Arizona and Seattle against the 49ers’ defense. They didn’t challenge a second-quarter drop by Jimmy Graham which, upon review, looked to be a catch, and a big one in what was then just a 10-0 game. It was, frankly, a McCarthyan game plan, which is inexcusable coming out of a bye week.

‘Human Golf Clap’ Fantasy Player of the Week

You know what? We usually try to avoid giving this award to quarterbacks, but no. If you’ve gone from too expendable to play quarterback for the Miami Dolphins to not being good enough to even be in a quarterback competition with Marcus Mariota to going 4-1 as a starter and keeping the Titans in playoff contention? Yeah, we’ll give you a shout-out, Ryan Tannehill. Until Lamar Jackson went off Monday night, Tannehill was the highest-scoring quarterback in most fantasy leagues last week, throwing for 259 yards and two touchdowns while rushing for another pair in Tennessee’s romp over the Jaguars. The 95th game of Tannehill’s career ended up the best fantasy day he’s ever had, topping his four-touchdown game against Minnesota back in 2014. We’re at the point where we’re seriously talking about the Titans using the franchise tag on the Human Golf Clap. That’s incredible. A round of polite, disinterested applause is coming your way.

Garbage-Time Performer of the Week

Doug Marrone said that Leonard Fournette’s 15 touches against Indianapolis were too few, and he vowed to get him more involved in the offense against Tennessee. Well, mission accomplished. Fournette carried the ball 24 times and caught nine more passes to set a career high with 33 touches. He was effective, too — 159 yards from scrimmage, two touchdowns (which doubled his season total, mind you) and target after target as the only receiver Nick Foles seemed to trust for much of the game. Arguably Fournette’s best game of the season, he helped lead the Jaguars … to a 42-20 loss that was basically over early in the third quarter. Nevertheless!

Comfort in Sadness Stat of the Week

Last week, the Bengals became the first team officially eliminated from playoff contention. They are still the only team eliminated, though others are likely to join them this week. This season has not brought good news for the Bengals franchise, Zac Taylor’s prospects as a coach, or Andy Dalton’s future as the team’s quarterback. The Bengals are balanced in their awfulness: they rank No. 29 in offensive DVOA and No. 31 on defense. However, at the time of this writing, Cincinnati somehow ranks No. 1 in Special Teams DVOA, thanks in large part to far and away the best kick return efficiency in the league. Assuming they do not collapse before the end of the season, this would mark the third straight year-on-year improvement for the Bengals special teams, and their sixth top-10 finish in nine years (subscription required). All they have to do now is fix … literally everything else.

Game-Changing Play of the Week

Coming into the game at 5-5, it would have perhaps been overly charitable to describe the Carolina Panthers as being in the thick of the playoff hunt, but you know what? Where there’s life, there’s hope. With two games left against the Saints, the Panthers at the very least could have a serious impact on their own divisional hopes, but they absolutely needed to beat the Saints in order to have any chance of keeping those hopes alive. Most people wrote that chance off early, but the Panthers were hanging in there. Two missed extra points from kicker Joey Slye meant that they were only tied 31-31 late in the fourth quarter, but that’s still not a terrible position to be in against a better team on the road. It just meant Slye had a chance to redeem himself with a chipshot 28-yard field goal…

There are a bunch of things about this miss that should never have happened. After a rare pass interference challenge success, the Panthers had a first-and-goal from the three with 2:21 left. If you can’t score from 3 yards out, you don’t deserve to go to the playoffs anyway. Secondly, the Saints only had two timeouts remaining. Running the ball three times with McCaffrey, making New Orleans at least use all it’s timeouts, and then kicking the go-ahead field goal should have been the absolute worst-case scenario in this situation; instead, they threw an incomplete pass and gifted New Orleans one timeout. With no timeouts, maybe New Orleans takes it to overtime after the miss. With no timeouts, maybe the Saints don’t have time to make it down the field for Wil Lutz’s own game-winning attempt. Maybe they do it anyway; Drew Brees has some experience at this sort of thing. But don’t make it easier for them!

The third Panthers loss caused by an inability to score in the red zone basically ends Carolina’s playoff hopes, as well as possibly Joey Slye’s Carolina career. As for the Saints, the win keeps them in a bye week position, one game above the Packers in the NFC — important, because Green Bay would have had the conference-record tiebreaker had the Saints lost. In a tight race for the top seed in the NFC, slipping up against Carolina could have cost the Saints dearly.

Weekly Predictions

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: 8-4
Andrew: 6-6

Bryan: After Monday night’s flop, the Los Angeles Rams basically are in a must-win game on the road in the desert, as a 6-6 team is not coming back to make any noise in the NFC. That’s a thing that’s not going to happen; the Cardinals are not only rested and ready to go, but have gotten downright good recently. Since Week 4, the Cardinals have the third-best offensive DVOA in the league. If they can give the 49ers trouble twice, they should be able to handle the wounded Rams. And I even get to take points! Arizona (+3).

Andrew: My midseason form has fallen way off here, from a comfortable lead to two games back, as my recent tendency to pick teams I wouldn’t usually touch with a bargepole has combined with some crazy random results. Time to get back to sanity, for both me and the NFC South. Three weeks ago, the Falcons pulled off probably the biggest shock of the year in blowing out the Saints at the Superdome. That lightning will not strike twice: Brees and the boys will be hungry for revenge on Thanksgiving. New Orleans (-7) at Atlanta.

Double Survival League

Bryan: Andrew, you might be the only person in the world upset that the Bengals couldn’t pull out a win against the Steelers. After all, Washington’s win means that Cincinnati has a two-game cushion for the top draft pick … which matches your two-game cushion over me here in Double Survival, as I claw back with a much-needed win.

Andrew: I’m more upset that they announced the switch back to Andy Dalton after the game, as that significantly improves their chances down the road, but really I’m quite happy with last week’s results: 1-1 is a very decent outcome from a Bengals-and-Buccaneers doubleheader.

Still, one of the reasons the Dalton throwback is frustrating is the future strategy. This week I had the New York Jets penciled in against Ryan Finley; Dalton is a much tougher out. Still, the Jets have found some form recently, and the Bengals have not, so give me Gase’s Gang Green for hopefully the only time ever.

My second pick is entirely predictable: I haven’t used Kansas City yet, and they play at home this week against a Raiders team that was systematically dismantled by those aforementioned Jets. There may be no such thing as a gimme, but gimme some of that action.

Bryan: As for this week, I’m taking Kansas City at home against Oakland, who is coming off of one of the most lethargic, terrible performances I’ve ever seen. This may be too basic of a pick — I’m making these picks before Andrew, and he still has Kansas City to use as well, and both of us winning doesn’t help me — but, I mean, you can overthink these things. A well-rested Chiefs team should shred the Raiders without too much difficulty. My attempt to actually gain ground on Andrew comes by taking Carolina at home against Washington. The Panthers could have — possibly even should have — beaten the Saints last week. Dwayne Haskins may have picked up his first win, but Washington was still anemic on offense and injury-riddled on defense. Carolina shouldn’t need 31 points again to come out on top in this one, though they may well still be able to get them. Even better, Andrew picked the Panthers back in Week 2, a loss to Tampa Bay for one of his preseason favorites. It’s a rare opportunity to claw back ground, and I need every bit of it.

Bryan takes the Panthers, Andrew takes the Jets, and both take the Chiefs


Bryan: Everyone knows that, barring an absolute disastrous collapse, the Patriots, Saints, and 49ers will all be playoff-bound this season. Even typing that sentence feels like I’m talking down to you; if you’re reading a scenarios section, you’re obviously somewhat aware of the state of the playoff race. The fun thing to watch, however, is not whether those three will make the playoffs, but when — there’s a full-on race to be the first team to mathematically clinch. All three can punch their playoff tickets this week, with varying levels of ease.

The 49ers are probably boned; having to win on the road in Baltimore isn’t anyone’s idea of an easy time. With their luck, they’ll manage to pull it off only for the Rams to recover their form against Arizona. They’re on pace to become the first ever 14-2 wild-card team, so, you know, that’s fun. The Patriots’ path seems much smoother, as all they need is a win plus a Raiders or Steelers loss. That seems simple enough, but there’s just one catch: they play on Sunday night, so nearly every other game happens before their necessary win. That’s not conducive to being the first team in the postseason!

That leaves the Saints, who can become not only a playoff team but the NFC South champions if they can take care of business against the Falcons on Thursday night. The game might not be anywhere near as tasty-looking as it was back in August, but New Orleans fans won’t care if they get the sweet dessert that is their third straight playoff appearance.

For the sake of brevity, we’re only listing the elimination scenarios for bye weeks, division titles, and the playoffs entirely this week. If we listed everything, I’m pretty sure Vince would kill us. Besides, if you’re not the Patriots, Ravens, 49ers, Saints, or Seahawks, you’re not earning home-field advantage anyway, and — spoiler alert — none of those teams have elimination scenarios of any kind this week. Only a really crazy person would need to know, say, the Panthers’ odds of earning home-field advantage in the NFC.

Really crazy people can click here. As for the rest of you…

Clinching Scenarios

  • New England can clinch a Top-Five Seed IF New England d. Houston AND Kansas City d. Oakland AND EITHER Cleveland d. Pittsburgh OR ALL OF San Francisco d. Baltimore AND Dallas d. Buffalo AND Tennessee d. Indianapolis
  • New England can clinch a playoff berth IF New England d. Houston AND EITHER Kansas City d. Oakland OR Cleveland d. Pittsburgh
  • New Orleans can clinch a Top-Three Seed IF New Orleans d. Atlanta AND Buffalo d. Dallas
  • New Orleans can clinch the NFC South IF New Orleans d. Atlanta
  • San Francisco can clinch a playoff berth IF San Francisco d. Baltimore AND Arizona d. L.A. Rams


Elimination Scenarios

  • Miami can be eliminated from the playoffs IF Philadelphia d. Miami OR Pittsburgh d. Cleveland OR ALL OF Oakland d. Kansas City AND Houston d. New England AND Tennessee d. Indianapolis
  • Pittsburgh can be eliminated from the AFC North IF Cleveland d. Pittsburgh AND Baltimore d. San Francisco
  • Cleveland can be eliminated from the AFC North IF Pittsburgh d. Cleveland AND Baltimore d. San Francisco
  • Indianapolis can be eliminated from a First-Round Bye IF Tennessee d. Indianapolis AND Baltimore d. San Francisco AND New England d. Houston
  • Jacksonville can be eliminated from a First-Round Bye IF Tampa Bay d. Jacksonville OR Baltimore d. San Francisco
  • Jacksonville can be eliminated from the AFC South IF Tampa Bay d. Jacksonville AND EITHER Tennessee d. Indianapolis OR Houston d. New England
  • L.A. Chargers can be eliminated from a First-Round Bye IF Denver d. L.A. Chargers OR Baltimore d. San Francisco OR BOTH Tennessee d. Indianapolis AND Houston d. New England
  • L.A. Chargers can be eliminated from the AFC West IF Denver d. L.A. Chargers AND Kansas City d. Oakland
  • Denver can be eliminated from the AFC West IF L.A. Chargers d. Denver AND Kansas City d. Oakland
  • Dallas can be eliminated from a First-Round Bye IF Buffalo d. Dallas AND New Orleans d. Atlanta AND EITHER Seattle d. Minnesota OR San Francisco d. Baltimore
  • Philadelphia can be eliminated from a First-Round Bye IF EITHER:
    • New Orleans d. Atlanta AND ONE OF Miami d. Philadelphia OR Detroit d. Chicago OR Carolina d. Washington OR Seattle d. Minnesota OR San Francisco d. Baltimore OR BOTH Green Bay d. N.Y. Giants AND Tampa Bay d. Jacksonville
    • Miami d. Philadelphia AND Minnesota d. Seattle AND Green Bay d. N.Y. Giants
  • N.Y. Giants can be eliminated from the playoffs IF Green Bay d. N.Y. Giants OR Dallas d. Buffalo
  • Washington can be eliminated from the playoffs IF Carolina d. Washington OR Dallas d. Buffalo
  • Chicago can be eliminated from a First-Round Bye IF EITHER:
    • New Orleans d. Atlanta AND ONE OF Detroit d. Chicago OR Seattle d. Minnesota OR San Francisco d. Baltimore
    • Detroit d. Chicago AND Minnesota d. Seattle AND Green Bay d. N.Y. Giants
  • Chicago can be eliminated from the NFC North IF Detroit d. Chicago AND Minnesota d. Seattle AND Green Bay d. N.Y. Giants
  • Detroit can be eliminated from the playoffs IF Chicago d. Detroit OR BOTH Minnesota d. Seattle AND Green Bay d. N.Y. Giants
  • Carolina can be eliminated from a First-Round Bye IF New Orleans d. Atlanta OR Washington d. Carolina AND EITHER Minnesota d. Seattle OR Green Bay d. N.Y. Giants
  • Carolina can be eliminated from the NFC South IF New Orleans d. Atlanta
  • Tampa Bay can be eliminated from the playoffs IF Jacksonville d. Tampa Bay AND Minnesota d. Seattle AND Green Bay d. N.Y. Giants
  • Atlanta can be eliminated from the playoffs IF New Orleans d. Atlanta OR BOTH Minnesota d. Seattle AND Green Bay d. N.Y. Giants
  • L.A. Rams can be eliminated from the NFC West IF Arizona d. L.A. Rams OR BOTH Seattle d. Minnesota AND San Francisco d. Baltimore
  • Arizona can be eliminated from the playoffs IF L.A. Rams d. Arizona OR BOTH Green Bay d. N.Y. Giants AND Minnesota d. Seattle

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