If Sunday’s game between the Packers and the Patriots was actually a preview of the Super Bowl, we’ve got a very exciting game on tap in February. Green Bay’s 26-21 victory over New England was a rare bird, a game in which the Packers were favored to win from start to finish and yet never really enjoyed a moment when it felt like they had knocked the Patriots out until the final third-down conversion, when Aaron Rodgers found Randall Cobb just before the two-minute warning. Green Bay’s win didn’t reveal any fatal flaw in Bill Belichick & Co., but the Packers executed a logical, sound game plan and showed how they might again choose to attack New England if this does turn out to be the first in a series of two games.
Belichick’s reputation, going back most famously to his hit–Marshall Faulk game plan against the Rams in Super Bowl XXXVI, is that he tries to build his defensive scheme to take away the opposing offense’s most important weapon. His affinity for that sort of plan is overstated — everybody tries to take away the offense’s top player — but it still happens frequently enough that it’s worth mentioning. Two weeks ago, for example, Belichick built his game plan against the Colts around doubling T.Y. Hilton and hoping that the rest of his defense could hold up one-on-one, which they did comfortably.
This time around, perhaps anticipating that the Packers would suspect a similar sort of approach, Belichick went in a different direction. Facing a Colts-like offense — West Coast scheme, hurry-up possibilities, terrifying quarterback, several devastating receivers, decent running game, questionable offensive line — Belichick stuck his best guy on the most important target. Darrelle Revis began the game on Randall Cobb, but he spent most of the afternoon matched up against Jordy Nelson.
Revis was good enough to force Rodgers to look in a different direction for most of the day, holding Nelson to just two catches on six targets, but one of those catches was a 45-yard touchdown just before halftime, when Nelson created separation on his slant route and then accelerated past safety Devin McCourty for a touchdown. Revis claimed afterward that Nelson pushed off, which seems like an odd complaint from a Belichick defensive back, even in 2014. People will say that Nelson “burned” Revis because Revis’s rep leads him to take the blame for these sorts of things, but really, the bigger mistake came from McCourty, who didn’t do enough to cut off Nelson’s post-catch angle and allowed him to get to the pylon. A slant and a tackle, and the Packers probably kick a field goal.
With Nelson mostly subdued, the Packers made hay on offense by attacking the weaker points of New England’s coverage. The unlikely focal point was rookie wideout Davante Adams, who had the best game of his young career. Adams caught six passes for 121 yards, absolutely laying waste to overmatched Patriots cornerback Logan Ryan. Ryan was replaced during the game by Kyle Arrington and then by Alfonzo Dennard, but he somehow kept sneaking back in, only for Rodgers to find the second-year corner for yet another completion. It could have been worse, but Adams dropped what would have likely been a game-clinching touchdown on a slant after obliterating Ryan in the fourth quarter.
Ryan was the primary culprit, but other players had issues, including at a problem spot for what is otherwise an excellent New England pass defense. The Patriots were 30th in DVOA on throws to tight ends heading into the game, allowing a league-high 73.5 passing yards per game. The Packers don’t have a tight end who strikes fear into opposing defenses, but rookie Richard Rodgers came up with a 32-yard touchdown catch on a perfectly thrown ball over Patrick Chung. Chung has been a pleasant surprise in his return to New England, but the Patriots don’t have an obvious candidate to deal with tight ends, something that looms as an issue with the likes of Antonio Gates and Julius Thomas waiting in the January wings.
Poor Rob Ninkovich didn’t have the best day of his career, either. Ninkovich is a criminally underrated player, a versatile front-seven piece who does a wider variety of things than just about any defensive end in football while playing just about every snap. He played every defensive snap Sunday, but the Patriots asked too much of him. It showed most notably when the Packers went with a trips bunch to ensure a man-to-man look and lined up Randall Cobb in the backfield, only to run Cobb out on a wheel route against the overmatched Ninkovich for 33 yards. It was an interesting wrinkle, one the Packers pulled out more frequently earlier in Cobb’s career.
The Patriots also used Ninkovich as a spy on Aaron Rodgers at times, a move I was surprised to not see more frequently. This was a first viewing and so the possibility exists that the Patriots did more to limit or spy on Rodgers than I saw at first glance, but Rodgers had a lot of freedom, especially in the first half, to move around and out of the pocket before making plays.
By the end of the game, Ninkovich and the Patriots pass rush both appeared to be gassed. Rodgers was left with stunning amounts of time to throw on a pair of key late passes, first on a second-and-5 in the red zone when the coverage held up forever and Rodgers had 11.5 seconds in the pocket before throwing the ball away (just before the Adams drop). Then, on the final meaningful play of the game, Rodgers had 4.5 seconds to find Cobb, who beat Ryan and then Dont’a Hightower, continuing his route to give Rodgers just enough of a window to win the game:
Per ESPN Stats & Information, opposing passers take 2.68 seconds per pass before throwing against the Patriots, the second-highest figure in the league.1 Some of that has to do with New England’s ability to cover in the secondary, but the Patriots are pressuring opposing passers on only 23.4 percent of dropbacks, which is 24th in the league. Both figures have gotten slightly worse for the Patriots since Chandler Jones went down with a hip injury in Week 7, and while New England has found unlikely pass-rushing contributions from Akeem Ayers and Deontae Skinner, the team badly misses Jones. Even an average amount of pressure on that last third-down play and Rodgers has to force a throw without the time for Cobb to get open.
The Giants are no. 1, at 2.74 seconds. The shortest time allotted opposing quarterbacks belongs to the Rams, at 2.31 seconds.
For all of those faults, the Patriots managed to stay in the game by stopping the Packers in the red zone. Green Bay took four trips inside the 20 and came away with four field goals. That’s a trick Belichick’s defenses have come up with at times in the past, but evidence suggests it’s not a repeatable skill, and even this year, the Patriots haven’t been an especially good red zone defense. New England ranked 20th in points per red zone trip (5.03) heading into this week, even while delivering one of the better defenses in football outside of the red zone.
I was also surprised with New England’s game plan on offense. I was expecting to see the Patriots go after Green Bay’s 22nd-ranked run defense, perhaps employing some of the six-lineman sets they used with great success against Indianapolis two weeks ago to move the ball effectively while keeping Rodgers off the field.
The Patriots stayed away from the six-lineman sets2 and didn’t run the ball very frequently, which might have hurt them. They were very successful when they did choose to hand the ball off, with their four running backs combining for 85 yards on 17 carries, averaging an even five yards per attempt. The foursome — which included Brandon Bolden this week, almost surely to irritate fantasy owners who spent their life savings on Jonas Gray two weeks ago — never broke a big run, but they did run for four yards or more on eight of their 17 carries.
Per the NFL’s official play-by-play, sixth lineman Marcus Cannon did report in for five plays, but he played only one snap after picking up a false start near the goal line in the second quarter.
Instead, this was a more typical Patriots approach to winning a football game: daring the opposing team to stop Rob Gronkowski and Julian Edelman. Twenty-nine of Tom Brady’s 35 pass attempts were thrown toward Gronk, Edelman, or Brandon LaFell, with those throws producing 19 completions for 184 yards. The Patriots got some help when Sam Shields went down with a first-half concussion and was replaced by Davon House, which is the name you say to a Packers fan if you want them to cower in fear. House did his best, but LaFell took advantage of House’s inability to turn around to the football on LaFell’s second touchdown catch.
The Packers did just enough to hold on for the victory. They were maybe one Gronk roll away from trailing, as Brady managed to get Gronkowski isolated versus rookie first-rounder Ha Ha Clinton-Dix on New England’s final drive, only for Gronkowski to lose the ball as he was rolling in the end zone. That would have given the Patriots a 27-26 lead, pending an obvious two-point conversion try, with 3:31 left. Instead, Brady took a killer sack on third down when Mike Neal got around left tackle Nate Solder and forced Brady to step up into lineman Mike Daniels, at which point Stephen Gostkowski missed a field goal that would have brought the Patriots within two.
Belichick will look back on missed opportunities. He may rue punting twice around midfield on fourth-and-short in the first half. Perhaps he (and Josh McDaniels) should have run the ball more. Maybe they needed to spy on Rodgers on a more regular basis. At the same time, this wasn’t the sort of game where one fix could have dramatically affected the contest. Both teams made adjustments throughout and played at a high level. Somebody had to lose. Belichick will surely hope his opportunity to implement changes and get another shot at Rodgers and Mike McCarthy comes sooner rather than later. February would be soon enough.
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It’s Grim Up North
Nobody had a more compelling day than the AFC North, a division with four credible playoff contenders who each headed in unlikely directions. One quarterback was benched, two games came down to last-minute finishes, three teams lost, and, somehow, all four teams are still projected to finish with winning records and make claims for a wild-card spot.
The Bengals have had a topsy-turvy season, so Sunday’s 14-13 win over the Buccaneers fit right in. By all accounts, the Bengals probably should have won this game by 20 points. The Buccaneers are not good to begin with, and when they go 2-of-11 on third down, commit 13 penalties for 94 yards, and have two aborted snaps (and four penalties) from debuting center Garrett Gilkey, it should not be especially difficult to beat them.
Andy Dalton is capable of all things, though, and among all things is nearly throwing his team out of an easy victory. Dalton threw three picks on the day, including one on the opening play from scrimmage. A later interception that CBS’s Will Brinson described as an arm punt serves as maybe the quintessential example of how panicked Dalton can get under pressure:
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Playing the league’s 27th-ranked pass defense in a game when it was without All-Pro linebacker Lavonte David, Dalton went 19-of-27 for 176 yards with a touchdown and three interceptions.
Sadly, Tampa Bay couldn’t do anything about it. With their top three tight ends inactive, the Buccaneers turned to Oniel Cousins as a sixth offensive lineman in its base offense, but the Bengals still did enough to stop them, with the Bucs running the ball 25 times for just 75 yards. The best thing Tampa Bay really did, besides the interceptions, was force Adam Jones into a fair catch, breaking his impossible streak of 96 punt returns without a fair catch that dates back to November 2006. And even that came only after the Buccaneers twice blew up Jones on punt returns.
With the Bengals unable to kill time in the fourth quarter, producing three drives that lasted between 2:00 and 2:03, the game came down to Tampa Bay’s final push. Josh McCown drove the Buccaneers to the Cincinnati 31-yard line down one point with 43 seconds left, at which point the Buccaneers — who had a 66 percent chance of winning — imploded. Gilkey committed his fourth penalty to push the team back 10 yards. Two plays later, McCown hit Louis Murphy for 21 yards to put the Bucs well into field goal range …
… and then Marvin Lewis threw his challenge flag and changed the world forever. While the announcers suggested Lewis wanted to challenge the fact that there were 12 men on the field, you can’t challenge plays inside the two-minute warning, and I surmised that Lewis had thrown his flag out of frustration and desperation without thinking. I was very wrong. As Peter King reported after the game, Lewis — our Marvin Lewis — was downright cunning! Lewis knew he would win the replay on review, but he couldn’t get hold of an official to call timeout while the chains were being moved.
Desperately wanting the play to be reviewed, Lewis threw his flag to stop the game and induce a penalty. You’ll remember this as the Jim Schwartz rule, which came into play in 2012 when Schwartz tried to challenge a Justin Forsett touchdown that clearly should have been called back for being down by contact. As all scoring plays are automatically reviewed, Schwartz’s challenge was ruled a delay of game. The punishment at the time was severe: Not only was Schwartz stopped from challenging the play, but his challenge attempt also caused the booth to skip the automatic review, gifting the Texans seven points.
In the controversy after that Schwartz call, the league’s competition committee decided to change the penalty to ensure that the proper ruling was made. If a coach throws his flag to challenge an unchallengeable play, the punishment now is only one timeout, essentially turning an illegal toss of the challenge flag into a way to stop the clock. Among the members of that committee? You’ll never guess: one Marvin Lewis.
Lewis’s ploy worked as planned. He was charged for a timeout, but it gave the booth just enough time to buzz down and insist upon a review,3 at which point they found that the Buccaneers did actually have 12 men on the field. That moved the ball back to the Cincinnati 46-yard line, at which point McCown threw two incompletions before checking down well short of the sticks on fourth-and-20 to end the game. Lewis won a game for his team by making an illegal and totally harmless move.
I’m not sure it was necessary. I’m pretty sure the booth would have buzzed down to review the play, anyway, but in either case, Lewis didn’t need the timeout.
Rob Carr/Getty Images
Baltimore, meanwhile, suffered heartache in a crushing 34-33 home loss to the Chargers, who led for only the final 38 seconds. The Ravens had a 96 percent win probability with 2:47 left only to fail to score a red zone touchdown for the fourth time, giving the ball to Philip Rivers for what ended up as the game-winning drive.
As Keith Goldner noted after the game, John Harbaugh was likely wrong to kick a field goal on fourth-and-4 and put his team up six with 2:26 to go, both because of the game-winning position the Ravens would be in with a conversion and the likelihood the Chargers would only try to kick a field goal if they got the ball back down three. Harbaugh was conservative all day, which is odd given San Diego’s relatively dismal defense. He kicked on fourth-and-1 from the 10-yard line4 and on fourth-and-goal from the 3-yard line, costing his team about three-quarters of a point with those calls. Going for it in the red zone on the final drive would have been the unconventional decision, but history suggests it would also have been the correct choice.
Actually, he took a delay of game when the Ravens couldn’t get settled in time while lining up to possibly go for it. That he took the delay of game and didn’t use a timeout suggests the Ravens were only trying to draw the Chargers offside, but that one is murkier than the rest.
The Chargers held on for most of the game until Rivers was able to narrowly push them ahead at the very end. Rivers rebounded from an ugly first-quarter interception to Daryl Smith to deliver his best game in weeks, going 34-of-45 for 383 yards and three touchdowns despite the pressure of a steady Baltimore pass rush all game.
He did his best work on third down, the rock upon which San Diego launched its playoff hopes a year ago, with the Chargers converting nine of 11 third downs. That’s been the biggest difference between the team that got off to a 5-1 start and the one that went 2-3 while scuffling on offense before Sunday’s game:
If Rivers can get back on track on third down, it would be the exact sort of bump this offense has needed in recent weeks.
San Diego was aided Sunday by a Baltimore defense that’s simply lacking bodies at cornerback. The Ravens gave regular snaps to the likes of converted safety Anthony Levine and practice-squad journeyman Danny Gorrer, and they weren’t able to hold up. Levine committed the (admittedly debatable) pass interference penalty that set up the game-winning touchdown, while Gorrer was burned for a long completion to Malcom Floyd. Safety Matt Elam continues to be a liability in coverage, and while the Ravens seemed to find a viable coverage safety once Will Hill returned from his suspension, they ended up with linebacker Courtney Upshaw on Antonio Gates at times. That’s not ideal.
The Ravens will see this as a game they threw away. They’ve breathed life into San Diego’s playoff hopes, as the Chargers have now won three in a row and moved ahead of the Chiefs in the AFC West after a pair of Kansas City defeats. Instead of being a half-game out of first place with four games to play, the Ravens are now 1.5 games out and in a three-way tie for second place in the AFC North.
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The only good news for Baltimore is that those two other teams in the division failed to pass them. The Steelers, surely the most maddening team in football, continued their attempt to collect an entire set of embarrassing losses by falling to New Orleans by a 35-32 margin that grossly distorts the reality of the game. The host Steelers scored twice in the final 2:34 and picked up two-point conversions both times, including a touchdown and two-pointer with literally no time left on the clock.5
This from Mike “Stats Are for Losers” Tomlin, who had Ben Roethlisberger, Antonio Brown, and Le’Veon Bell all playing key roles in the offense down 11 points with less than a minute to go.
Remember what I said about other teams taking away the opposing team’s top option like Belichick does in New England? That’s what the Steelers tried here. They went over the top trying to stop Jimmy Graham and succeeded to the extent that Drew Brees didn’t target Graham on a single pass. Safeties Troy Polamalu and Will Allen were aggressive in undercutting Graham’s routes, taking away the safer throws for Brees, who threw a pick-six to the aforementioned Will Hill when he was in tight coverage on Graham last Monday night.
The steady dose of attention to Graham left the Steelers in conservative and vulnerable coverage elsewhere, which is how Kenny Stills ended up with five catches for 162 yards and a touchdown. The biggest play was a 69-yard touchdown on a double move where the returning Ike Taylor ate turf. The lone incompletion thrown toward Stills also should have been a long score after he burned William Gay, but Brees missed the throw on what would have been a 76-yard touchdown. Brees made up for it elsewhere, picking the Steelers apart for 257 yards and five touchdowns.
Pittsburgh was nice enough to help out with some dismal tackling on the touchdown from Wisconsin product Nick Toon. It’s not the rookies who are failing to tackle, either; this is supposed to be a well-coached defense with veterans who don’t make sloppy mistakes, but the four guys who don’t wrap up Toon on this play are a combined 131 years old:
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While the Saints scored touchdowns on each of their four trips to the red zone, the Steelers were a mess on offense for most of the day. Roethlisberger suffered a throwing-hand injury in the first half that led him to give the ball to Bell with his left hand afterward. Roethlisberger played through the injury, but he went 8-of-22 for 115 yards and an interception during a dismal first half, including a play when he didn’t see an open Brown on a deep post for what could have been a touchdown. His second pick, just after halftime, set the Saints up with a short field for the Toon score that put them up 21-6. Roethlisberger finished with 435 yards and two touchdowns, but 196 of those yards and both scores came with Pittsburgh down double digits in the fourth.
If the Steelers don’t make the playoffs, they’ll look back at this season and wonder what could have been. They’ve played one of the easiest schedules in football and lost to the Buccaneers, Jets, and now the Saints, who were supposed to be putty on the road. The Steelers can still go a long way toward salvaging things by sweeping the Bengals in their upcoming home-and-home series, but if the Steelers couldn’t stop Kenny Stills from getting open downfield, what makes you think they’re going to be able to stop A.J. Green?
Tom Szczerbowski/Getty Images
And yet, the weirdest day in the AFC North belonged to the Browns, who went down 20-3 in Buffalo before benching Brian Hoyer and turning things over to Johnny Manziel. You’ve surely seen the highlights, oh, 40 or 50 times by now, but Manziel went 5-of-8 for 63 yards with a 10-yard touchdown scramble and an ugly fumble amid pass pressure that the Bills returned for a touchdown — a play overturned to an incomplete pass.
Is it the right idea? Well, that depends. In terms of what was going on for the Browns on Sunday, I don’t think there was anything wrong with getting Manziel some meaningful reps. Hoyer hadn’t exactly been impressive, going 18-of-30 for 192 yards with two picks, and the Browns were basically out of the game, down 17 in the fourth quarter. That’s the perfect sort of low-leverage situation when it makes sense to give Manziel a series or two to help him adjust to the speed of the NFL game.
But I don’t think Hoyer deserves to lose the job, nor do I think the Browns are best served by giving Manziel a long-term look. Hoyer threw three ugly picks in last week’s game against the Falcons, but he also led the Browns back to victory with an excellent two-minute drill. This week, he got no help from the offense around him: Billy Cundiff missed a 37-yard field goal, while Terrance West fumbled away a carry that the Bills returned for a backbreaking touchdown.
Manziel, meanwhile, gave anyone little reason to think he was ready for the challenge. He was fun to watch and made an athletic play in running for his first touchdown, but even his best throw of the day, a 24-yard catch from Jim Dray, was telegraphed and probably should have been picked off. Manziel wasn’t going through his progressions in preseason and often ran if his first look wasn’t free, so it wouldn’t be a surprise to see that reoccur during his first few times getting meaningful reps as a pro passer.
If the Browns were out of the playoff hunt, I’d absolutely recommend starting Manziel from here on out. Given that they’re part of a massive group of teams tied at 7-5, they have a very viable shot at a wild-card spot.
I’m still waiting on the result of Monday’s Dolphins-Jets game to get a clear view of the playoff picture in the AFC. Given what happened in the AFC North this weekend, though, I ran a Monte Carlo simulation of all remaining games involving an AFC team to see what the divisional odds look like. If you think the wild-card team in the AFC will end up with 10 or more wins (and more on that in a moment), I’ve put together an estimate of how many times they’ll win 10-plus games, too. Cleveland’s odds leave it in last place, but it still might have too much to play to turn things over to Manziel:
The Nightmare Wild-Card Scenario
Oh, one thing I do know? There is a feasible scenario where this happens:
You’re reading that right. Eight AFC teams finish 9-7 and have to run through umpteen tiebreakers for two wild-card spots. The playoff machine says the Texans and Steelers would qualify for the playoffs in that scenario. That’s putting a lot of faith in the playoff machine. If that happens, the NFL should push everything back and play an eight-team mini tournament for the two spots. There’s no other way.