The Lies NFL Playoff Contenders Tell Themselves

Joe Amon/Denver Post

As we head into the homestretch of the regular season, the biggest weaknesses of fringe playoff contenders come into stark relief. Maybe you’ve been able to put a Band-Aid on that depleted secondary or paper over the gigantic crack that is your starting quarterback, but it’s hard to do so for 16 games in a row, and it’s near-impossible to keep it up once the playoffs roll around and the level of competition ratchets up. But this far into the season, most teams are what they are, and it’s too late to make any real wholesale changes. So what do you do when you’re confronted by your deepest inadequacy? Easy: You tell yourself a lie.

The Browns’ Real Problem on Offense

mike-petting-arms-crossedTom Szczerbowski/Getty Images

“We’re going to get the guys around him playing better and we’re going to get Brian [Hoyer] playing better. … I think he’s shown the ability to bounce back from things that have happened negatively in the past.” —Mike Pettine (Pat McManamon,

In Cleveland, the general idea seems to be that the play under center is what’s holding back the Browns. It’s been a rough three-game stretch for Hoyer, who has barely cracked 50 percent accuracy and has thrown six interceptions since Week 11, but Cleveland’s tumble from the ranks of the league’s best offenses started way before Hoyer’s drop-off.

A Kyle Shanahan offense revolves around the run. Through Sunday, the Browns had the third-highest rush percentage in football, behind only the Cowboys and Texans. Early in the year, all of those runs were working. Through six weeks, the Browns averaged 4.44 yards per carry, which ranked 12th in the league, and 25.5 percent of their runs went for first downs — the sixth-best mark in football.

The six-week cutoff marks the point that Pro Bowl center Alex Mack was lost for the season with a broken leg. Since Mack went out of the lineup, Cleveland has managed just 3.0 yards per carry — the second-worst figure in the league over that span.

In Shanahan’s offense, the running game is where everything — even a good chunk of the passing game — begins. Only the Eagles have run more play-action than the Browns, and when Cleveland’s ground game has been dangerous, its play-action game has followed suit. In the first six games, the Browns had a league-best 139.3 passer rating on play-action passes and ranked second in QBR. In the seven games since, Cleveland’s QBR has dropped to 18th, and its 76.0 passer rating ranks 24th.

Better quarterback play may help, sure, but right now the problems with the Browns offense are way more fundamental. They can’t be the team they want to be, and it’s not just because they can’t throw the ball.

Kansas City’s Downfield Deficiencies

“We’re not worried about who scores, just that we do score. We’ve got a lot of different guys that can do it a lot of different ways.” —Alex Smith (Adam Teicher,

Smith is referring to the number of touchdowns he’s thrown to Kansas City wide receivers this year — which is still zero. For the most part, the Chiefs’ offensive recipe of handing Jamaal Charles the ball, throwing Jamaal Charles the ball, and occasionally completing short passes to tight ends has worked out fine. Kansas City’s offense ranks 11th in DVOA and has spent much of the season in the top 10.

Still, the lack of any downfield threat whatsoever is starting to rear its head. Even if the Chiefs had a guy who could stretch opposing defenses, it probably wouldn’t have mattered against the Broncos — who were already dumping Smith on his back on dink-and-dunk plays — but it might have helped two weeks ago in their loss to the Raiders. Through 12 games, Oakland is allowing the second-highest passer rating and fifth-highest QBR on passes that travel at least 20 yards in the air. In that 24-20 loss, Kansas City took one shot downfield — one — and it fell incomplete. On the season, Kansas City has thrown just 16 passes of 20 or more air yards. That’s comfortably last in the league; next on the list is Seattle with 30.

In games in which the Chiefs have been able to dictate their plan offensively — control the ground and control the clock — they’ve been able to both move the ball and score at a decent rate. If they do somehow manage to sneak into the playoffs, it’s going to be harder to do that against a team like the Broncos. The Chiefs have survived offensively thanks to a lot of creativity, both in play calling and with formations, but flexibility eventually becomes more important than creativity. When defenses put them off-balance, the Chiefs struggle, and the defenses they’d play in January would do just that.

The Way-Too-Heavy Burden on Drew Stanton

It’s not hard to figure out why guys play well for Bruce Arians. This man doesn’t waver from standing behind his players. After a 9-1 start, presumably where Arians and the Cardinals want to go is the Super Bowl. With his team still in first place, Arians can’t say anything else at this point, but it’s hard to see Stanton or any other quarterback taking them there.

In his three starts since Carson Palmer went down for the year, Stanton has thrown three touchdowns and five interceptions. His QBR in that stretch is 22nd in the league. But Arizona’s offensive struggles haven’t been all about Stanton.

The Cardinals simply can’t run the ball, even against a Falcons defense ranked 31st in run-defense DVOA. There isn’t enough help on the Cardinals offense, either in the backfield or on the offensive line, to protect a backup quarterback. A mere 23.2 percent of Arizona’s yardage has come from running plays, last in the league. Stanton has played fine — the Cardinals are 17th in passing DVOA — but with what Arizona needs him to do, “fine” isn’t enough.

The Ravens’ Revolving Door of Cornerbacks

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“Those quarterbacks in this league are going to be tough to defend. We have the players to win. We have good enough players to win, and we have to go do it.” —John Harbaugh (Jamison Hensley,

This came after the 380-yard shredding Philip Rivers applied to Harbaugh’s defense last week, but Baltimore’s inability to stop the pass has been creeping up for a few weeks now. Pittsburgh hung 43 points on them, thanks to 340 yards and six touchdowns from Ben Roethlisberger, and it’s not like Drew Brees had a quiet day (35-of-45 for 420 yards) two weeks ago.

A few weeks back, Bill Barnwell and I debuted “Ravens Cornerback or Actor from The Wire” on the Grantland NFL Podcast as a way to convey just how anonymous Baltimore’s defensive backs have been. A banged-up version of Lardarius Webb is still back there, but against the Chargers, opposite him was Anthony Levine, an undrafted free agent from 2010 who’d never played more than four snaps in a game before taking over as the starter in Week 10. The Ravens’ third corner right now is Danny Gorrer, who was a Lion three weeks ago.

The cornerback problem started in Week 9, the first game without Jimmy Smith. A 2011 first-round pick, Smith was arguably playing as well as any corner in football before going down for the season with a Lisfranc injury. Through eight weeks, the Ravens were allowing the 11th-lowest QBR in the league. From Week 9 through this Sunday, that’s dropped to 27th, while quarterbacks have completed 71.4 percent of their passes over that stretch, the highest figure in football.

Baltimore is getting absolutely destroyed by the deep ball. Teams have a perfect QBR against them on passes 20 yards or more downfield. The pass rush can still be dangerous, but any play that involves a quarterback having time to push the ball downfield is going to end horribly for the Ravens defense.

Tony Romo and the Cowboys’ Third-Down Reliance

“If you convert one, two or three more of those, all of a sudden you’re back to where you’ve been most of the year. That’s the nature of this game. We got to find a way to make those plays.” —Jason Garrett, (Todd Archer,

Playing the Bears is a great remedy for any ailing offense. Dallas got back on track last night with 41 points against a Chicago defense that doesn’t seem like they want to stop anybody. Garrett’s quote, which came earlier in the week, was about the Cowboys’ recent third-down woes on offense.

Garrett’s prediction was actually pretty good. Dallas went 7-for-14 on third down against the Bears, but again, that came against one of the league’s worst defenses. The difference between the Cowboys offense in their past few games before last night and the road-grading machine we saw early in the season is the absurd rate at which the Cowboys stayed on the field. As Archer wrote last week, the Cowboys were converting 57.4 percent of their third-down attempts through seven games. In the six games since, that number’s dropped to 37.5 percent.

Part of that, I’d expect, has to do with Tony Romo. Over that initial seven-game stretch, Romo had a stupid 97.5 QBR on third down and was completing 70.6 percent of his passes — both best in the league for full-time starters. Getting into manageable third-down situations — thanks to a great running game — was part of the Cowboys’ success, but Romo’s magic was part of it, too. Few quarterbacks are better at extending plays and creating something from nothing than Romo. In the couple of games after his back injury, it’s obvious his ability to make those plays has been limited.

He says his back is nearly healed, but with reports yesterday saying he also has a broken rib, we might not even see if a healthy Romo can get Dallas back near what it was on third down early in the season. The Cowboys’ ability to keep its defense off the field by extending drives is what made them a dangerous team over the first half of the season, and — if Romo’s rib isn’t too much of an impediment — it’s what teams would be afraid of if Dallas manages to sneak into the playoffs.

Filed Under: Alex Smith, Arizona Cardinals, Baltimore Ravens, Cleveland Browns, Kansas City Chiefs, NFL, Mike Pettine, John Harbaugh, Brian Hoyer, Drew Stanton, Bruce Arians

Robert Mays is a staff writer at Grantland.

Archive @ robertmays