Monday Morning Digest: Breaking Down the NFL Wild-Card Chase
In this week's action-packed edition of Monday Morning Digest:
• The Steelers and Patriots prove who the two best teams in the AFC really are (hint: not the Patriots or Steelers)
• Hall of Famer Rod Woodson drops by to explain what's wrong with NFL defenses this year and how to fix them
• Aaron Schatz of Football Outsiders also drops by to take us inside the analytics on Lamar Jackson
• Khalil Mack pioneers the "Butt Sack"
• The Colts and Titans shut out the Cowboys and Giants, and we pinky-swear not to focus completely on the Cowboys and Giants just because they are more popular teams from big markets and negatively sells (mostly pinky-swear, anyway)
...and much more, including all of the information you need to make sense of the AFC playoff picture!
Everything You Need to Know About the Wild-Card Races (and Then Some)
You have playoff-related questions after Sunday's action. Digest, as always, has answers.
Who helped themselves the most Sunday?
The Colts, Ravens, Vikings, Titans and Steelers all drastically improved their playoff chances, and each team will get detailed coverage in later segments of this week's Digest (so keep reading).
Did we learn anything from the Vikings' win or the Seahawks' loss?
We learned more from the Bears clinching the NFC North (they are no longer cowed by the Packers the way they were in Week 1) and the Cowboys' loss (the Dak Prescott-Jason Garrett combination remains a calamity waiting to happen) than we did from watching the Vikings beat the lucky-to-still-be-here Dolphins or getting more evidence of how excitingly average the Seahawks really are.
What about the Eagles' upset of the Rams on Sunday night?
The Eagles have a poor tiebreaker portfolio because of losses to the Vikings, Panthers and others. Even if they win out, they need a lot of help to reach the playoffs. As good as the Eagles looked, and as enticing as the "Nick Foles runs the table again" scenario sounds, the Redskins still have a better chance of reaching the playoffs with Josh Johnson at quarterback than the Eagles.
Sunday night's game was more interesting for the ever-increasing Rams vulnerabilities it revealed—they still can't defend the deep ball, and opponents are beginning to figure out their offense—than for any wild-card scenarios.
What about the Panthers?
Their tiebreaker portfolio stinks. Even if they win their next three games, sweeping the Saints, they are still at a disadvantage to Washington (to say nothing of the Seahawks and Vikings) if they win out. And unlike the Eagles, they aren't even playing remotely well.
Of the Colts, Ravens and Titans, does any team have a schedule advantage over the final two weeks?
The Titans face the Josh Johnson Experience at home next week and then host the Colts in the season finale. The Colts also get NFC East cannon fodder next week, but despite getting shut out by the Titans, the Giants are a tougher out than Washington right now.
The Ravens have a schedule disadvantage: They face the Chargers in Los Angeles next week and then the pesky Browns in the season finale. That said, the Ravens hold tiebreaker advantages over the Colts and Titans.
Is there any reason to pay attention to the Browns or Dolphins?
The Dolphins face the beatable Jaguars and Bills down the stretch and have a better tiebreaker portfolio than the Titans and Colts. They can still make things interesting.
The Browns' only playoff scenario requires a tie in the Titans-Colts Week 17 game after two Browns wins and Titans and Colts losses next week to leave all three teams at 8-7-1. The Browns' post-Hue Jackson surge was fun, but let's keep it real.
Who is playing the best football right now among the wild cards?
The Colts are coming off a pair of impressive wins and probably hold the title of "playoff hopeful no division winner wants to face," since the Chargers have clinched and are therefore not "hopefuls."
The top AFC contenders would probably love to see the deeply flawed Dolphins earn the sixth seed by virtue of Miami Miracles and early-season wins involving monsoons.
Assuming the Ravens reach the playoffs, is Lamar Jackson good enough to lead them to a win or two?
After five starts, Jackson still mixes Michael Vick-caliber highlights with throws that bounce off defenders' backs, botched option exchanges and intentional grounding penalties at the end of squirrel-in-the-freeway scrambles.
We'll have much more on Jackson later in Digest. For now, keep in mind that the Ravens have a long history of improbable playoff runs involving unconventional quarterback situations. They don't have to be great to generate postseason upsets. They just have to be Ravens.
What are the most important things to keep in mind over the final two weeks?
Several divisions are still in play, most notably the AFC North, where the Ravens are just a half-game behind the Steelers. Throwing the Steelers—and their tie—into the wild-card picture complicates everything. The same can be said for the Texans, the Cowboys or—implausibly but still possibly—the Patriots.
Unless some team like Washington backs Bills-style into a wild-card spot, all of the wild-card hopefuls have at least a chance of doing some damage if they get in, whether they are playing great right now (Colts), have a knack for upsets (Titans, Dolphins), are better on paper than they have been on the field (Vikings), are doing something unexpected at quarterback (Ravens) or just play everyone close and have lots of postseason experience (Seahawks).
There are no unbeatable teams at the top this season. And as the next few segments explore, that's great news for many of the teams huddled around the middle.
Why Do Analytics Hate Lamar Jackson?
Football Outsiders, whose DVOA and DYAR metrics provide the most accurate NFL player ratings available without hacking into Bill Belichick's laptop, ranked Lamar Jackson far below average as a passer and (surprise) dead last among quarterbacks in rushing through his first four starts.
Digest decided to get to the bottom of this by contacting our old friend Aaron Schatz, founder and editor-in-chief of Football Outsiders, to talk about Jackson's low ratings. (Note: The conversation took place late last week, so it didn't take into account Jackson's stats in Sunday's 20-12 win over the Bucs, in which he threw for 131 yards and a touchdown on 14-of-23 passing and added another 95 yards rushing on 18 carries.)
Digest: Let's start with Jackson's rushing. How on earth can Jackson rank dead last in rushing DYAR, below guys like Philip Rivers and Eli Manning?
Schatz: Well, DYAR is a total stat, so if you have more carries, you're probably going to be either more positive or more negative than guys like Rivers and Manning who barely ever carry the ball.
After that, Jackson's fumbles are a big reason why he comes out below replacement level. Through Week 14, we've got Jackson with six fumbles on runs—that doesn't count two others he has on sacks—while Dak Prescott has four and nobody else has more than two.
Four of those six fumbles are blown handoffs. The league attributes those to the quarterback rather than trying to determine the fault for every specific aborted play. If you remove the four blown handoffs, Jackson is now around replacement level. That's still lower than anyone would expect but higher than "dead last."
The next element is opponent adjustment. Each of the four teams that Jackson has faced ranks 27th or worse in run defense DVOA.
The final problem is all of the shorter runs. Only 52 percent of his runs on first down have gained at least 40 percent of needed yards. For the top running quarterbacks, that number is going to be 70 or 75 percent, although Cam Newton is also only at 54 percent.
Digest: Jackson's passing DVOA would rank him with fellow rookies Josh Allen, Sam Darnold and Josh Rosen at the bottom of the QB rankings (well below Baker Mayfield). Jackson appears to be having more success than the others. So why is he so low?
Schatz: Well, Jackson and Darnold are around -25 percent, and Allen and Rosen around -45 percent, so that's a pretty big gap even if they're all at the bottom of the QB rankings.
But again, I think "Jackson appears to be having more success than the others" is a bit of a mirage caused by two things. First, that the Ravens are winning games (or, in the Kansas City case, keeping games close) with defense and special teams. Second, that the Ravens have faced bad defenses in Jackson's first four starts.
Digest: Does that mean Joe Flacco was out-performing Jackson as a passer?
Schatz: Our metrics show that the Ravens' offensive DVOA through the first nine games was 3.4 percent. It dropped to -8.1 percent in Jackson's first four starts. But the Ravens improved on defense and special teams.
Digest: Did Jackson show improvement across his first four starts as a passer or rusher?
Schatz: Yeah, I think so. No interceptions in the last two games, for one thing. (Digest interruption: It's now three). And then even after removing turnovers, it matters that he kept his efficiency basically the same against the Chiefs in Week 14, because the Chiefs were the best pass defense he's started against so far [although the worst run defense].
Digest: Is Jackson's analytical profile unique, or is it something similar to what we see all the time from young scramblers?
Schatz: Well, he's not a young scrambler. These are almost all designed runs. In those four starts, the NFL only listed seven of his runs as scrambles. That's something very different from, say, Josh Allen. Just
in three games, Weeks 12-14, Allen had 19 scrambles.
Digest: Low DVOA and DYAR after a few starts mean Jackson will soon fall apart and be terrible forever, so we should all write him off. Right?
Schatz: I have Jared Goff on the phone and he says "hello."
Minnesota Vikings Wild Card Spectacular
The Vikings replaced pass-happy hotshot offensive coordinator John DeFilippo with Kevin Stefanski, who "established the run," according to head coach Mike Zimmer's oft-repeated wishes. Dalvin Cook and Latavius Murray combined for 204 yards and three touchdowns in a 41-17 victory over the Dolphins—proving that Zimmer was right: "establishing the run" is the best way to win NFL games, and now all of the Vikings problems are solved forever!
Or, alternatively, the Vikings changed coordinators just in time to face a team that came in allowing 139.5 rushing yards per game and 4.8 yards per attempt and is only in the playoff picture because Rob Gronkowski is a terrible free safety. Cook and Murray gashed the Dolphins easily to take a 21-0 lead and then held off a Dolphins comeback (spurred in part by a brutal Kirk Cousins pick-six) with the help of a nine-sack afternoon by their defense.
However you slice it, the Vikings emphatically proved that they are far less disappointing than the Dolphins. In the NFC, that all but guarantees them the sixth playoff spot.
What it means
Whether you credit Stefanski, the defense or the weakness of the opposition, the Vikings looked far better on offense than they did late in the DeFilippo era, when Stefon Diggs and Adam Thielen suddenly became easy to neutralize and the Vikings got away from the run too quickly when trailing.
Playing with the lead for most of the afternoon also made things easier on the Vikings defense, which has not been as dominant as advertised this season but completely took over Sunday's game by midway through the third quarter after playing well for three quarters in their previous game, Monday night's embarrassing offensive effort against the Seahawks.
Overall, it was an impressive win in all three phases and a real script-flipper. The Vikings could make noise in the first round if they catch the Bears or Cowboys on a bad day. That scenario seemed implausible as of Tuesday morning.
A visit to the Lions, who will probably spend the week practicing in an alligator-infested swamp or something.
Indianapolis Colts Wild Card Spectacular
The Colts did to the Cowboys what the Jaguars did to them a few weeks ago, serving up an unexpected shutout against a team that had been trending upward. They did it with the help of Cowboys drives that ended with:
• A goal-line fourth-down stuff of Ezekiel Elliott after a dropped touchdown pass by someone named Jamize Olawale
• A blocked field goal
• A fourth-down conversion negated by a holding penalty
• An incomplete pass on fourth down
And the all-time favorite:
• A wide receiver screen for nine yards on 4th-and-14.
The Cowboys self-inflicted a few of their fourth-down mistakes. But one or two fourth-down stops are a coincidence, while five are the result of solid defensive (and special teams) play.
Meanwhile, Marlon Mack slashed and skittered for 139 rushing yards and two touchdowns, compensating for the fact that the Colts still drop far too many passes and have a knack for getting themselves in 2nd-and-30 situations.
What it means
The Colts are now 7-1 in their past eight games and—with head coach Frank Reich calling RPOs, Mack looking like Jay Ajayi at his best and the young defense playing into form—bear a striking resemblance at times to last year's Eagles.
That doesn't mean the Colts are ready to win the Super Bowl. But back-to-back wins over the Texans and Cowboys illustrate just what they will be capable of if they face a vulnerable opponent in the first round. The Colts have multiple ways to beat you if they don't beat themselves with inexperience or the dropsies.
That assumes the Colts can make the playoffs. The Ravens own the common-opponent tiebreaker thanks to (of all things) their 1-1 record against the Bengals, who beat the Colts in a season opener that feels like it took place six years ago.
The Colts host the Giants next week in a game with minimal tiebreaker implications and then visit the Titans in a game with massive tiebreaker implications.
Tennessee Titans Wild Card Spectacular
The Titans faced a Giants team that talked itself into thinking it had turned the corner (and that Eli Manning remained a viable 2019 option at quarterback) by beating teams helmed by Nick Mullens, Chase Daniel and Mark Sanchez in recent weeks.
Manning threw a red-zone interception to Kevin Byard and coughed up a blooper-reel fumble that was scooped up by Jurrell Casey, allowing the Titans to nurse a 7-0 lead until Derrick Henry's battering-ram tactics forced the Giants defense to buckle.
Henry rushed 33 times for 170 yards and two touchdowns in a steady rain. The Titans controlled the clock for over 35 minutes. The Titans played tough, mistake-free football, but their 17-0 victory told us less about them than it did about the Giants' wishful thinking when it comes to their quarterback and their future.
What it means
The streaky Titans are the NFL's most inscrutable wild cards. They've won their last two games by a combined 47-9 score, and their defense is one of the fastest, surest-tackling units in the league, but lapses in coverage can lead to blowout losses against teams with functional passing games (see: the Colts and Texans in November).
Henry can look like Bo Jackson for two weeks and Trent Richardson for a month. Marcus Mariota often looks like a 1970s journeyman scrambling around and heaving wobblers between the numbers but then delivers deep passes to Corey Davis when it matters.
Head-to-head losses to the Colts and Ravens make the Titans wild-card long shots. That may be fitting, because they are the weakest of the three teams. But don't count them out just yet, because...
A visit from Josh Johnson's Washington AAF franchise will give the Titans a chance for an easy win that leaves them 9-6 at home against the Colts in what could be one of the most important games on the Week 17 schedule.
Rivalry That Ain't What It Used to Be Spotlight: Steelers 17, Patriots 10
The two best teams in the AFC squared off in a possible preview of the conference championship game that came down to the thrilling final seconds...
But that happened on Thursday night, when the Chargers beat the Chiefs.
This game was more like an amateur re-enactment of the great Steelers-Patriots games of yesteryear than a matchup of the two perennial powerhouses.
The Steelers took a 14-7 lead in the second quarter and then hung on for dear life as Ben Roethlisberger threw interceptions straight to wide-open defenders, Chris Boswell missed yet another critical field goal and their defenders collided and wiped each other out in coverage.
The Patriots, meanwhile, continued their month-plus trend of getting one great deep throw from Tom Brady (a 64-yard touchdown strike to Chris Hogan) and trying to milk it until their opponent is awed by the Patriots mystique and starts committing unforced errors.
But 14 Patriots penalties for 106 yards marred their own drives and set up Steelers scoring opportunities, and Brady's final two fourth-quarter drives ended in a Joe Haden interception of an ugly underthrow and several back-of-the-end-zone overthrows.
What it means
If you weren't paying careful attention or focused solely on the highlights, this looked like a typical Steelers-Patriots game: big throws from Brady and Roethlisberger, some great defensive stops, a photo finish.
But the low final score is the first cue that something was amiss this season. The Patriots offense was forced to punt at the end of five straight short possessions at one point in the game. Despite the fact that the Steelers still have no idea how to cover anyone who lines up on the inside of a three-receiver set, Brady could not consistently find his top targets for more than dinks and dunks until the final two drives.
The Patriots now have five losses in one season for the first time since 2009, the year the Ravens hammered them 33-14 in the opening round of the playoffs. Only a head-to-head win against the Texans and the usual bumbling of their AFC East serfs keep their hope for a first-round bye relatively safe.
In other words, the Patriots are now clinging to the advantage that comes from dominating a division for two decades—rather than their own excellence—to keep them from sliding down the playoff seedings.
The Steelers remain a half-game above the Ravens in the AFC North and the unwashed masses in the wild-card race.
They belong in that middleweight territory with the Ravens, Colts and Titans, even after this win, because beating the Patriots just isn't as impressive as it used to be.
Send forth the AFC East knaves, for their liege demands a feast! The Patriots wrap up their season with home games against the Jets and Bills. And yet some people think the commissioner's office holds a grudge against them...
The Steelers travel to New Orleans next week, so don't crown them the AFC North champs just yet.
Defender of the week: Anthony Barr and Danielle Hunter share this week's award for combining to record four of the Vikings' nine sacks.
Offensive line of the week: Remember two weeks ago—and on Monday night—when the Vikings offensive line was supposed to be terrible? That line helped the Vikings rush for 220 rushing yards and held the Dolphins to just two sacks. So let's hear it for the much-maligned unit of Riley Reiff, Tom Compton, Pat Elflein, Mike Remmers and Brian O'Neill. And, oh yeah, there may be something to the whole change-coordinators-and-run-the-darn-ball thing.
Special teamer of the week: Richie James' early 97-yard kickoff return touchdown against the Seahawks proved that the 49ers came to play in what turned out to be a 26-23 Niners upset. Unfortunately, James was overshadowed in his own highlight by the comic stylings of 40-year-old Seahawks kicker Sebastian Janikowski, who looked like a mascot who wandered onto the field during the play and put as much effort into chasing James as a slow-pitch softball player puts into running out a pop-up.
Anti-Janikowski of the week: Speaking of upstaging a return man during his own highlight, Leonte Carroo chased Vikings punt returner Marcus Sherels down the field on a long return, fought off a block from Ameer Abdullah and dragged Sherels down to save a touchdown. Carroo put more effort into that play than the entire Dolphins run defense displayed all afternoon.
Self-tackle of the week: The Steelers' strategy for covering slot receivers over the last month has been to stick a linebacker on them and cross their fingers that the quarterback doesn't notice the wide-open slot receiver streaking down the field. But even that tactic was better than having Morgan Burnett crash right into teammate Cameron Sutton, allowing Julian Edelman to slip past them for a 25-yard gain. Leave it to the Steelers to combine man and zone coverage into something completely ridiculous.
Mystery touches of the week: The Bears got a little too cute in one third-quarter sequence against the Packers, first handing off to little-used third running back Taquan Mizzell on 3rd-and-3 and then direct-snapping to Benny Cunningham on a fake punt that the Packers saw coming. Of course, if either play worked, we'd be hailing Matt Nagy for his outside-the-box play-calling instead of tsk-tsking him for letting the Packers keep things close.
Butt sack of the week: Only someone with a childish sense of humor would suggest that Khalil Mack sacked Aaron Rodgers with his butt. Here's what really happened: Mack tried an inside move on right tackle Jason Spriggs, who wrenched him backward toward Rodgers (which is bad for several reasons), while Rodgers went into duck-and-cover mode as the pocket collapsed (which is bad for separate reasons) and waited for someone to land on him. ... Come to think of it, let's spare the Packers the embarrassment of all the ugly details and just call it The Butt Sack, which also makes for a great middle school insult.
Endless delay of the week: Giants special teamer Ukeme Eligwe downed a punt at the 9-yard line but then bobbled the ball into the end zone. The refs called it a touchback, because referees these days are just the worst, and the Giants challenged, because the Giants have nothing better to do than to challenge the spots of punts. The replay review took an estimated six hours and 53 minutes. OK, it was actually only a few minutes, but it was raining, and it was over a punt spot, for heaven's sake.
Photobomber of the week: Colts backup quarterback Jacoby Brissett joined the defense on the field late in the game for one of those group poses after a late-game interception. The defenders welcomed the baseball cap-wearing backup into their midst instead of tossing him into a table full of Gatorade, undeniable proof that Frank Reich has the team unified and playing like one big happy family.
Fantasy jerks of the week: Did you give up on the Falcons? Did you pull most of them from your fantasy playoff rosters? Hahahahaha! Tevin Coleman ran for 145 yards and a touchdown. Matt Ryan had two passing touchdowns and a running one. Even Julio Jones, who you probably faced this week after trading him in early October, went 6-82-1. The Falcons are disappointment savants who know that the best way to disappoint you is to not disappoint you when you really expect or want them to. What a bunch of butt sacks.
Triple torching of the week: At least Steelers defenders have the excuse of crashing into one another. Rams defensive backs Aqib Talib, Marcus Peters and Lamarcus Joyner all got caught peeking into the backfield, allowing both Alshon Jeffery and Nelson Agholor to streak past them on the same play. In fact, the only "defender" close to Jeffery was Agholor, who nearly broke the play up inadvertently after Nick Foles heaved it deep. Jeffery ended up with a 50-yard catch to set up an Eagles touchdown, leaving the Rams to wonder what will happen if their secondary suffers a three-way brain cramp in the playoffs.
Hall of Famer Rod Woodson on How to Improve 'Hard to Watch' Defenses
Rod Woodson, Hall of Fame defensive back for the Steelers, Ravens, 49ers and Raiders, stopped by Digest this week to promote the Pro Football Hall of Fame World Bowl Presented by Xenith, an international high school All-Star Game and player-and-coach development program—and to offer his thoughts on the shoddy state of NFL defenses.
Digest: What the heck is wrong with defenses this year?
Woodson: One thing is that the rules have changed. Quarterbacks are overly protected in the pocket and out of the pocket. Receivers are protected everywhere: You can't hit them unless they see your eyes and you almost shake hands first.
But at the end of it, these defenses still need to play solid fundamental football. Sometimes, that bothers me more than anything: the lack of tackling in space, the lack of understanding the assignments inside of a defense, base coverage concepts. It seems like that's missing across the board in 2018.
That's why I don't get overly excited about all of these quarterbacks throwing for 35 to 45 touchdowns, 4,000 yards every year. It's a lot easier. And that's the way the league wanted it.
Digest: If you were hired as a defensive coordinator, how would you improve things?
Woodson: You have to give offenses something they think they see, but they don't really see it.
Nowadays, everyone wants to do "coverage ID." Everybody sends a running back or tight end outside the receiver, and they know it's zone if the cornerback is out there. If a linebacker or safety's out there, it's man. It's easy.
You gotta mess with their heads. I would call it a match defense: You still put the linebacker out there, but you play Cover 2. Because outside of your big defensive lineman, every position has to be flexible on the back end.
A lot of defensive coordinators are sticking to the same old, same old. But you gotta start playing with them, because they are playing with you.
Digest: What defensive coaches do you think are doing an outstanding job right now?
Woodson: Wink [Ravens coordinator Don Martindale] does a good job, and they've been doing it for years—since I played there.
Vic Fangio in Chicago has done a tremendous job. The back end is playing well. Getting Khalil Mack was worth it, because that defense is a monster up front, so they don't have to blitz a lot.
Look at Seattle. We thought the Legion of Boom was over, and it's not the same individuals, but they are playing solid football for the most part.
The rules have changed, but the bar that you set for your defense still has to be high. And the guys still have to understand the base rules of tackling and covering. It's still the same thing; it's all done in space now.
Hopefully, players become better in space sooner than later, because it's hard to watch defensive play in the NFL when they just can't make plays on a consistent basis.
Digest: What's the toughest offense to face in the NFL right now?
Woodson: The toughest offense to defend is Kansas City. They have an athletic quarterback and the fastest player in the league. Andy Reid does a great job of play-calling, keeping the defense guessing.
Digest: Now that you have spent time with high school all-stars, do you think young players now are different than they were in your day?
Woodson: Young kids in general are different! They grew up with social media, with devices in their hands, so their minds work just a little different than the older generations. We have to adapt a little bit to understand their viewpoints.
We used to fight through each minor injury. Sometimes you still get players who do that, but most players want to play at 100 percent. I don't blame them, especially with so much money that's on the line compared to when we played. Even at the college level, you see guys taking care of their bodies, taking themselves out of the bowl games to get ready for the combine. It's all self-preservation nowadays, more than giving their all for their teammates.
You can't be mad at them. It's a different world.
But there are some great athletes in the game, and it will be fun to watch these competitors. That's the one thing that hasn't really changed. If you're a competitor at any level, you're gonna compete. And we're adding Mexican players, we're adding Europeans, and they all have a chance to come on board. When they play against the best, their competitive nature comes out.
Digest: The players were chosen for both their ability and what's called "Hall of Fame" character. What does that mean?
Woodson: We want to see that they have the commitment, the integrity, the courage, the respect for the game. They have to have those things along with the great athletic ability. And all the guys we picked do.
It's good to see that people still respect the game and the guys that came before them. A lot of the young kids we picked know their history about the game, and that's a good thing.
Digest: Does that mean that these teenagers remembered who you were?
Woodson: They acted like they did! But I don't know if some coach told them: "Hey, you gotta go Google that guy."
The Pro Football Hall of Fame Bowl Presented by Xenith will be held at Azul in Mexico City on December 27 and broadcast by CBS Sports Network.
Weekly Digest disaster update
The Buccaneers +9 against the Ravens in the rain sounded like a license to photocopy currency, especially considering the Ravens' propensity for playing down to opponents. But Digest was seduced by a +290 moneyline and took the Buccaneers straight up instead of playing the spread.
Sure enough, the Ravens led by eight in the final moments, drove into Buccaneers territory and then killed the clock in the final two minutes to preserve a win and a Buccaneers cover.
Moneyline, you are a wicked temptress.
The Raiders-Bengals over opened at 46.5 but slid down to 45.5 at most books by kickoff. What a difference one point makes! The Bengals got a late-game touchdown on a long punt return and a Joe Mixon run to take a 30-16 lead that paid off for just about everyone who played the over. And for folks who played the under in a Raiders-Bengals game a week early, but what kind of weirdo does that?
Undertale, Part I
The over at 39.5 felt safe in Lions at Bills. After all, Josh Allen is a rushing touchdown machine and Matt Patricia had his team playing in the snow for weeks to prepare for this game (as opposed to all the dome games they were playing for weeks).
Sadly, the Allen-as-Michael Vick offense mysteriously ceased to function (Allen scored one touchdown but was stuffed on downs in the red zone), Matt Prater missed a late field goal and Patricia punted while down by one point with 2:56 to play and never got the ball back in a 14-13 Bills win that never sniffed the over.
Incidentally, temperatures in Buffalo were in the mid-30s and damp. Maybe Patricia should spend less time on tough-guy snow practices and more time on not punting when trailing late in the fourth quarter.
Undertale, Part II
The Washington-at-Jaguars 36.5 number looked ripe for an over based on pick-sixes and other acts of offensive hilarity. But there were only two turnovers in the game, because Josh Johnson executed an offense based on quarterback mobility that Jay Gruden claimed could not be implemented back when it was politically expedient to lie about such things, and the Jaguars don't trust their quarterbacks to do anything whatsoever.
Washington won 16-13, but the only real winners were those who chose to neither watch nor wager.
Monday Night Action: Saints -6 at Panthers
The Saints are 11-6 against the spread in division games since 2016 (via TeamRankings.com), the Panthers 5-11. Also, the Saints are great and the Panthers are a reeling team with a banged-up quarterback and near-Powerball-level playoff hopes.
Those of us who spent the weekend getting drenched on the East Coast (and heard about recent winter weather in Carolina) will note that the forecast calls for clear skies and mild temperatures on Monday night. So don't worry about the conditions: Just enjoy the opportunity to lay fewer than seven points with the Saints.
Betting lines via OddsShark unless otherwise noted.
We have a lot to cover this week, so let's get to it.
The NFL draft will be held in Vegas in 2020.
Point: A scathing column about how hypocritical the NFL has been about gambling for decades shall be written just as soon as we are done booking our flights and determining what the company expense-account policy is for $10,000 worth of NBA props.
Counterpoint: There will be a Super Bowl in Las Vegas sometime in the 2020s. And the halftime show has already been announced: The Seventh Seal, Thunder and Earthquakes, and something called Vials of Wrath. Sounds like a heavy metal show; nothing to worry about at all.
NFL salary cap is expected to increase to the $187 million-to-$191.1 million range, up from $177.2 million this season.
Point: Expect at least six teams to react by immediately offering the extra $10 million to $14 million to Sam Bradford.
Counterpoint: If anyone has seen or heard from the NFL is dying because of protests crowd, tell them that we hope they are safe and we miss them very much. Don't worry about sounding sincere.
The Raiders are unlikely to play in Oakland next year after the city filed a lawsuit against them.
Point: No problem. They'll do what they always do when their feelings are hurt: trade the city of Oakland for a first-round pick.
Counterpoint: The Raiders are one false move from opening up for a Queen cover band on the county fair circuit.
Tiki Barber will join the cast of Kinky Boots on Broadway.
Point: It's Barber's first stage gig since he flubbed his audition for The Vagina Monologues.
Counterpoint: Don't forget to also check out Eli Manning as Willy Loman in Death of a Salesman, appearing eight Sundays per season at MetLife stadium in East Rutherford, New Jersey.
Brett Favre tells TMZ that he would be "intrigued" by a coaching offer from the Packers.
Point: The most intriguing part would be watching Aaron Rodgers walk through the parking lot in slow motion as team headquarters explodes behind him.
Counterpoint: Favre admitted that he's not right for the job, suggesting instead his old backup quarterback Doug Pederson. (Getting Pederson a job offer might seem generous to someone who has no idea what is going on in the world because he spends most of his time noodling for catfish these days.)
Bonus counter-counterpoint: Speaking of catfish...maybe Favre should just lay off the video appearances for a bit.
The Steelers claim that Ben Roethlisberger's return to last Sunday's Raiders game was delayed because of an out-of-date X-ray machine.
Point: According to reports, the Raiders' jar of leeches was also well past its expiration date and the concussion protocol sheet on the wall still read "three parts Scotch, one part vermouth, dash of bitters, tell Snake that the one in the middle is the real Dave Casper."
Counterpoint: Don't worry, folks. The Raiders will have nothing but state-of-the-art equipment next year as they travel by train to play their home games in Ottumwa, Iowa, and Sioux Falls, South Dakota.