With seven teams competing for six playoff spots, the AFC is down to two serious battles. Sunday’s results all but locked Baltimore into the top seed in the AFC, with the victorious Ravens taking a one-game lead over the Patriots with both the head-to-head tiebreaker and three games left to play. Lamar Jackson & Co. have a 95.6% chance of finishing atop the conference and staying home in Baltimore throughout the postseason, according to the ESPN Football Power Index (FPI). As I’ll get to later on, that’s going to be a scary reality for the rest of the AFC to face.
Let’s start on the other end of the playoff divide. The race for the final wild-card spot is down to two teams that have combined to start five different quarterbacks this season. Did anybody count on a playoff race coming down to whether Ryan Tannehill or Devlin Hodges would be able to sustain their level of play? The No. 6 seed in the AFC might be a battle of which unexpected starting quarterback blinks first.
The battle for the 6-seed
Chance to make the playoffs: 0.1%
Chance to make the playoffs: 1.2%
Chance to make the playoffs: 2.6%
Chance to make the playoffs: 3.6%
I’m really just including these teams for posterity’s sake, given that each has an extremely slim chance of making it to the postseason. The Browns have the best odds of the bunch, relatively, and for them to make it to the playoffs, they would need to win out and get help. They’d need the Jets to beat the Steelers and Bills, and the Steelers would need to beat the Bills, who also would lose to the Patriots. Finally, the Saints would need to beat the Titans in Week 16. If the Browns piece together that eight-game parlay, Cleveland should open up the free beer fridges again.
Chance to make the playoffs: 50.6%
Projected playoff matchup: Out of playoffs
Tannehill’s incredible run as Titans starter continues. I wrote about the former Dolphins first-round pick in my all-underrated team column two weeks ago, but the pending free agent continues to make his case to lock up a long-term deal with the Titans. Since taking over as the starter in Week 7, he is averaging a league-best 10.5 adjusted yards per attempt (AY/A). The only quarterback with a better passer rating or record than Tannehill over that time frame is Lamar Jackson.
Sunday’s 42-21 win both knocked the Raiders out of meaningful playoff contention and furthered the Tannehill legend. In a game in which his average drive started 16 yards short of the opposing Raiders’ drives, he was nearly perfect short a tipped interception on the opening drive. Watch the highlight reel from Sunday’s win and you see a quarterback who looks to be in absolute command of the offense.
It helped that the Raiders didn’t appear to realize they were allowed to use their arms and hands while tackling, but Tannehill’s 91-yard touchdown pass to A.J. Brown is a thing of beauty. To get that sort of throw off in the shadow of your own end zone under duress from two rushers is every bit the sort of pass we would more commonly associate with a Patrick Mahomes or Deshaun Watson.
Many of those big plays from Sunday, the 91-yarder included, came from play-action. As I mentioned a couple of weeks ago, outside of the Ravens’ rushing attack, there’s no more devastating weapon in football right now than the Titans’ play-action game. Tannehill is completing nearly 80% of his throws off play-action and averaging 14.3 yards per attempt, good for a league-best passer rating of 143.8 over the past eight weeks. This isn’t strictly a few big plays, either; his 53.3% first-down rate on those play-action throws is also tops in football. The Titans don’t exactly have stud weapons at receiver outside of the impressive rookie Brown, but Tannehill was finding backup tight ends such as MyCole Pruitt and Anthony Firkser for big plays Sunday.
At this point, he has been one of the best quarterbacks in football for nearly half a season. I would understand if you want to discount his numbers, but writing him off altogether as the guy who was just good enough to push the Dolphins to 8-8 seems naive. This model is working, and it has propelled the Titans back into the playoff picture.
One reasonable criticism might be that the Titans haven’t really faced many difficult defenses. I wouldn’t be too hard on a team whose reputation for years revolved around unexpectedly winning games against elite teams before subsequently losing to teams far below their station, but the Titans have faced just one top-10 defense by DVOA during this seven-game stretch with Tannehill as starter, the ninth-placed Buccaneers.
While their remaining schedule is difficult, the Titans have far more to be worried about on the defensive side of the ball with their remaining three games. They have a home-and-home with the Texans and their defense, which ranked 25th in DVOA before being sliced up by Drew Lock and the Broncos on Sunday. Their other game comes at home against the Saints, who will drop from seventh in DVOA after their instant classic against the 49ers Sunday. The Titans will undoubtedly take heart from what the 49ers and their play-action heavy scheme did against Dennis Allen’s defense, with Jimmy Garoppolo going 11-of-14 for 191 yards with two touchdowns and a perfect passer rating on play-action Sunday afternoon in New Orleans.
The one thing that would concern me is that the Titans have been conjuring up moments of sheer magic during this winning streak to win close games. Some of the scorelines have ended up going past the traditional seven-point margin, but these are all things that have happened in Tennessee games over the past two months:
With the Chiefs up 32-27 with 1:27 to go, Kansas City whiffed on a field-goal snap and even committed intentional grounding while trying to make a desperate throw. The Titans scored a touchdown and a 2-pointer, and while the Chiefs again got into field goal range, the Titans blocked the 52-yard game-tying try from Harrison Butker to win.
With the Colts about to kick a field goal in a 17-17 tie with 5:12 to go, the Titans instead blocked what might be Adam Vinatieri‘s last professional field goal attempt and returned it for a 63-yard touchdown to swing the game by 10 points in the blink of an eye.
On Sunday, the Titans took a 14-point lead early in the fourth quarter, then put the game out of reach when they returned a Darren Waller fumble at midfield for a touchdown to go up three scores. Later in the quarter, Derek Carr inexplicably decided to throw away a fourth-and-goal pass from the 1-yard line.
Every team needs an opportunistic fourth-down stop or big special-teams play here or there, but the Titans have been thriving by the skin of their teeth during this winning run. With Tannehill playing about as well as any quarterback in the league and not having much more room to get better, the defense needs to come up with stops before the last possible moment, especially given the offenses to come.
Chance to make the playoffs: 59.7%
Projected playoff matchup: at Chiefs
The Steelers sit narrowly ahead of the Titans by virtue of their conference record; Pittsburgh is 6-3 within the AFC, while the Titans are at 6-4. While Tennessee’s schedule includes three surefire playoff teams, Pittsburgh’s should be easier. Mike Tomlin’s team gets a tough matchup in its home finale against the Bills next week, but they’ll have a quick road trip to face the Jets after that.
Their final game of the year comes against the Ravens in Week 17, but there’s a decent chance that Baltimore will have clinched home-field advantage, which would likely mean limited snaps from MVP favorite Lamar Jackson. The last time John Harbaugh had a chance to sit his stars in Week 17 was in 2012, when he left the likes of Ray Lewis, Marshal Yanda and Anquan Boldin inactive and sat down Joe Flacco and Ed Reed by the end of the first quarter. That season ended with a Super Bowl victory, so I would expect Harbaugh to be similarly conservative if he has the chance in 2019, even if it pushes the Ravens’ archrivals into the postseason.
Of course, the Steelers are favorites to make it into the postseason for more than some well-timed largesse. When I suggested that they were the most likely 0-2 team to make it to the postseason, my argument was that the defense was too talented to perform as poorly as it had against the Patriots and Seahawks, and that James Conner could make up for a likely below-average Mason Rudolph.
That turned out to be mostly right. The defense, obviously, continues to play at a high level, although its turnovers are unsurprisingly down. After averaging more than 3.4 takeaways per game over a seven-contest stretch before midseason, the Steelers are down to 1.8 takeaways per game over their past four. That includes three interceptions of Kyler Murray in Sunday’s win over the Cardinals, including one in the end zone on a truly puzzling decision from the talented rookie. The Steelers also haven’t scored on a fumble or interception return after producing three scores over that seven-game span, each in wins decided by seven points or fewer.
The defense has improved greatly beyond the takeaways. After allowing 33, 28 and 24 points in the first three games of the season, the only team to top 24 points on offense over the ensuing nine games against the Steelers is the Ravens, who got to 26 in an overtime victory. Since that ugly start, Pittsburgh ranks second in the NFL in points allowed per drive (1.26) and percentage of drives ending in touchdowns (13.8%).
Of course, Rudolph is no longer in the lineup, with the Steelers benching him for Devlin Hodges one week after Rudolph’s fateful fight with Myles Garrett. Hodges has simply been the more productive quarterback. His QBR (52.2) and passer rating (103.2) are way ahead of Rudolph’s. While Rudolph completed just 30.2% of his deep passes and posted a 58.5 passer rating on throws traveling 16 or more yards in the air, Hodges is 9-for-14 on those same passes, with his 107.7 rating nearly double that of the 2018 third-round pick.
What makes this even more impressive is when you consider who Hodges is working with. Consider the top of the Steelers’ offensive depth chart in Week 1. JuJu Smith-Schuster has missed each of the past three games with a knee injury and a concussion. Donte Moncrief was benched and cut weeks ago. Conner has played just 13 snaps since the start of November while battling a shoulder injury. Vance McDonald left Sunday’s dream matchup against the Cardinals with a concussion.
The only starter left in the bunch is James Washington, who drew more pass interference yards (35) than actual receiving yards (33) against Arizona. Hodges’ top target Sunday was rookie third-rounder Diontae Johnson, who starred. He returned a punt for an 85-yard touchdown and brought in six catches for 60 yards and a touchdown, including a screen in which he ran for nearly 60 real-time yards to gain 14 (animation courtesy of NFL Next Gen Stats):
With Conner out, Pittsburgh’s leading ball carrier was rookie fourth-rounder Benny Snell. Bears practice-squad addition Kerrith Whyte mixed in with six touches. Hodges’ longest completion of the day went to Deon Cain, who was signed off the Colts’ practice squad. Smart teams typically help their young quarterbacks develop by loading up on free-agent talent and adding weapons. The Steelers didn’t know they would be relying on an inexperienced quarterback this year, but they’ve gotten by with Hodges throwing to rookies and practice-squad guys.
What the Steelers have accomplished with their third-string quarterback and a bunch of last-ditch weapons is a testament to their offensive line, coaching staff and defense. None of those strengths are going away, and with Conner and Smith-Schuster likely coming back sometime in December, it’s not crazy to imagine the offense getting better as Hodges gets more top-level experience. I wouldn’t be thrilled about Hodges in the divisional round against the Ravens or Patriots defenses, but for the Steelers to be favorites to make it to the postseason after being left for dead at 0-3 is remarkable.
Chance to make the playoffs: 95.9%
Projected playoff matchup: at Texans
While FPI projects the Bills to wind up as the 5-seed nearly 69% of the time in its simulations, the Bills could still move up, down or out of the playoff picture. They still have a 1.3% chance of winning the AFC East, although it would take a victory over the Patriots in Foxborough, two more wins over the Steelers and Jets, and an upset by either the Bengals or Dolphins over the Patriots. If Ryan Fitzpatrick pulls out a victory over the Pats and nets the Bills their first postseason home game since 1996, the Bills should build a statue of their former starting quarterback.
Sunday was a reminder that it’s time to hold off on building statues of Buffalo’s current starter. While Josh Allen was excellent during the Thanksgiving Day victory over the Cowboys and had turned the ball over just three times over his prior eight games, Sunday’s loss to the Ravens felt more like the Week 4 loss to the Patriots. He turned the ball over only once, but the second-year passer was 17-of-39 for just 146 yards, adding two carries for 9 yards as a runner. He was sacked six times, and while he was victimized by three drops, the Ravens were able to both contain Allen as a runner and flummox him as a passer:
Josh Allen was:
– 1-of-11 passing 15+ yards downfield
– 0-of-11 from outside the pocket (all under duress)
– 1-of-16 when under duress
– Blitzed 30 times & completed 29% of his attempts against it (7-of-24)
And the game *still* came down to the final minute
— Marcel Louis-Jacques (@Marcel_LJ) December 8, 2019
Allen’s one deep completion was a beautiful throw into the hands of Dawson Knox, but he also missed a number of downfield opportunities. While he has improved as an intermediate thrower this season and still has the huge arm that attracted scouts at Wyoming, those skills haven’t resulted in big plays. He ranks 31st in the league in passer rating on throws traveling 20 or more yards in the air at 52.2, ahead of only Jared Goff and Kyle Allen. His 23.2 QBR on those passes is comfortably last in the NFL.
Likewise, it was telling to see the Ravens follow the Patriots’ formula and send big blitzes after Allen, while using a second wave of defenders to chase him down as he scrambled. The final play of the game for the Buffalo offense was another Cover Zero blitz, with the Ravens trusting Marcus Peters to hold up in coverage one-on-one against John Brown. Allen made a good throw, but Peters was right there in coverage and able to knock the pass away.
QBR incorporates running and accounts for Allen making plays with his legs against blitzes, but when teams do send extra pressure, he ranks 28th in QBR at 38.4, ahead of only Daniel Jones, Rudolph and Mitchell Trubisky. The Bills starter has the league’s worst completion percentage — 27.2% — when pressured. When you give Allen time to throw in a clean pocket, he has improved his footwork and decision-making to the point where he can make an accurate pass and take advantage of his athleticism to create throwing windows. Pressure him and some of the bad habits come back.
That’s not uncommon for a young quarterback. It’s too easy to make the obvious comparison to Allen and the quarterback who was across the field from him on Sunday, and while Jackson is at a more advanced level now than Allen, that’s not a realistic standard for most quarterbacks to hit in Year 2. What happens with Jackson is academic in terms of Allen’s on-field performance. Allen was one of the worst passers in league history as a rookie, and he has improved significantly in his second season.
All that improvement, unfortunately, still currently has him as a below-average starter in the NFL. You can win with a below-average starter and a great defense in the NFL, but it’s tougher to do it against the league’s best teams. Sean McDermott’s defense did as well as anybody in football has this season to slow down Jackson and the Baltimore running game, which ran the ball 33 times for just 118 yards and six first downs Sunday.
The Bills are typically willing to cede yards on the ground to stop the pass and rank 22nd in rush defense DVOA, but it was awesome to see them work in lockstep and communicate as they dealt with the many challenges Jackson presents an opposing defense. Coordinator Leslie Frazier & Co. don’t often use veterans like Star Lotulelei and Lorenzo Alexander for the majority of snaps, so it was fun to see those guys stand out in larger roles against a run-heavy attack.
At the same time, the Bills couldn’t hold out forever. They faced 12 meaningful drives Sunday. Three came on short fields and produced 17 points. The Bills, who inhibit long plays as well as any team, made one mental lapse against a bunch set and allowed a 61-yard touchdown pass from Jackson to Hayden Hurst. Allen battled back with a touchdown drive, was bailed out on a fourth-and-16 prayer by a pass interference call on Marlon Humphrey, and got the Bills into the red zone, but Peters was able to knock away the fourth-down throw for a Ravens win.
Allen won’t have much time to get back on track. He just lost to the Ravens, who have the league’s best pressure rate. Over the next two weeks, he goes up against the Steelers and Patriots, who each rank in the top seven in pressure rate, before finishing up with the Jets. If the Bills continue on their present track and then upset the Texans or Chiefs in the wild-card round, they’ll have a likely rematch with the Patriots or Ravens looming in the divisional round. Allen has grown, but to make a deep playoff run, the Bills need him to take another step forward and thrive against pass pressure.
The battle for byes
Chance to make the playoffs: 86.3%
Projected playoff matchup: vs. Bills
It took about 20 minutes of game action Sunday for the Texans to forget about everything they had accomplished when manhandling the Patriots last weekend. By the 10-minute mark of the second quarter, Houston was down 21-0 at home to a Broncos team led by rookie Drew Lock, who was barely a functional passer during the preseason. The Texans trailed 38-3 after the first drive of the third quarter and needed some garbage-time scoring from Deshaun Watson to make the final score look closer than the game really was at 38-24.
I realize that this is going to be a weird thing to say, so just hear me out: The Texans’ defensive showing against the Patriots was an aberration against one of the league’s most ineffective offenses, and it took Lock and the Broncos’ offense to bring them back to reality. This just isn’t a good defense. Houston ranked 25th in both defensive DVOA and pass defense DVOA heading into the Broncos game and will likely fall after allowing Lock to average an even 12.0 AY/A.
Romeo Crennel’s defense badly misses J.J. Watt. Since Watt went down against the Raiders in Week 8, the Texans rank 28th in the league in sack rate (4.6%) and 29th in pressure rate (25.1%). Houston fans’ hopes were buoyed by Whitney Mercilus‘ resurgent year after moving back into the starting lineup for Jadeveon Clowney, but after racking up 5.5 sacks, eight knockdowns and four forced fumbles through the first six games, he has no sacks, no forced fumbles and four knockdowns over the ensuing seven contests. Jacob Martin flashed against the Patriots and had a sack of Lock on Sunday, but the Texans rank last in the league with a 21.5% pass rush win rate since the Watt injury.
After shuffling through cornerbacks thanks to injuries and subpar play throughout the season, the Texans simply don’t have the defensive backs to hold up in coverage when their pass rush disappears. On Sunday, none of their cornerbacks played even 80% of the defensive snaps, which is rare in a league where most teams will keep their corners on the field for every single defensive snap. Bradley Roby has been impressive when healthy, but he’s still not all the way back from a hamstring injury. The 35-year-old Johnathan Joseph has shown his age, while the moves the Texans made to acquire Gareon Conley and Vernon Hargreaves haven’t paid off with above-average play.
The Broncos picked on just about everyone Sunday. They hit a big play to Andrew Beck early when he ran past linebacker Benardrick McKinney. A pass to Noah Fant went for 48 yards when Joseph tried to jump the throw for an interception and missed. Fant would later slip a Roby tackle and turn upfield for a 23-yard gain before leaving with a foot injury. Lock lofted a pass over Hargreaves to Tim Patrick for 37 yards on a third-and-9 to start the second quarter, then took advantage of a totally busted coverage to hit Devontae Booker for 25 yards later in the drive.
The Texans are only going to go as far as Watson can take them, and while there are far worse plans than relying on a guy who should be a down-ballot MVP candidate, Sunday was a reminder that Watson struggles for consistency. He finished with a passer rating of 63.1 against the Broncos, and while I wouldn’t put a ton of stock in this statistic, he has yet to piece together a stint of three consecutive games with a passer rating over 100 since returning from his torn ACL. Watson’s ceiling is astronomical, and he’s a quarterback nobody is going to want to face during the postseason, but his history also suggests that asking him to take over four straight games is asking a ton.
In part, his inconsistency has owed to the availability of Will Fuller, who missed Sunday’s game with a hamstring injury. Since arriving in the league in 2017, Watson has posted a passer rating of 109.6 and a Total QBR of 79.7 with Fuller on the field. With Fuller taking a breather or unavailable, those marks fall to 95.7 and 62.6, respectively. Watson loses about 1.4 yards per pass attempt when Fuller is sidelined, and while the Texans traded for Kenny Stills to provide a deep threat if and when Fuller got injured, the Dolphins import hasn’t been able to make the same sort of impact.
The Texans don’t yet have the AFC South locked up, in part because they still have two games to go against the Titans. Bill O’Brien’s team will win the South if they sweep the Titans and lose it if they get swept. If they split, The Upshot’s model gives the Texans a 77% chance of winning the division. They would either need to beat the Buccaneers or have the Saints beat the Titans. The Colts also could win the division if their two rivals split the home-and-home, both the Buccaneers and Saints prevail in Week 16, and the Colts win out against the Saints, Panthers and Jaguars.
The Texans would likely be in line for a wild-card spot if they miss out on the division. They have virtually no hope of earning a first-round bye, with FPI pegging their chances at 0.2%. They could move up from the 4-seed to the 3-seed if they win out and the Chiefs slip up, but FPI thinks there’s a 61% chance they finish as the No. 4 seed.
Chance to make the playoffs: Clinched
Projected playoff matchup: vs. Steelers
The Chiefs should be both encouraged and discouraged by Sunday’s victory over the Patriots. The win pushed them into the third spot in the AFC, where they’ll control their destiny by staying ahead of the 8-5 Texans. The win also would give Kansas City a potential tiebreaker if the Pats slip, with FPI giving Andy Reid’s team a 17.5% chance of finishing with a first-round bye in the AFC playoffs.
Kansas City made major changes to its defense this offseason to try to beat teams like the Patriots and Steelers after years of falling short in the postseason. Sunday was the most promising sign that those moves will pay off. Defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo had a great game, dialing up pressures that seemed to stretch a disintegrating Patriots line and repeatedly push Tom Brady off his spot. The Patriots finished the day with a pass block win rate of just 43.3%, the sixth-worst mark of the week.
While Spagnuolo’s famous game plan in the Super Bowl against Brady 12 years ago was to rush four and drop seven into coverage, the Chiefs went with a totally different game plan for stretches on Sunday. They blitzed on 43.9% of pass dropbacks and got pressure on Brady 41.5% of the time, which was comfortably the highest pressure rate for any team in a game against Brady and the Patriots this season. No other team had topped 30.8%.
The new additions the Chiefs made popped up around the field. Frank Clark came up with a sack and two tackles for loss. He created three pressures and two incompletions with his rushes, with Alex Okafor also creating two pressures. Chris Jones, one of the few holdovers and the star of the game for the Chiefs on defense, posted the league’s third-best pass rush win rate (35.0%) and was responsible for six pressures.
On the last meaningful play of the game, it’s telling that the Chiefs did exactly what the Patriots and their defense would do in the same situation against a struggling quarterback. Facing a fourth-and-3 from the 5-yard line, the Chiefs sent the house and fired an eight-man blitz at Brady, leaving three men in coverage. In years past, Brady was able to fire a throw to Rob Gronkowski against an overmatched backup linebacker or safety in coverage for a big play in this exact situation. This time, import corner Bashaud Breeland fought through a bunch set and knocked away an out to Julian Edelman to seal the game.
This isn’t one fateful week from the Chiefs’ defense, either. Quietly, they’re emerging as a good pass defense. While they ranked 15th in defensive DVOA, that mark is weighed down by a truly awful run defense. The Chiefs are 30th against the run and were sixth against the pass before the Patriots game, a mark that will likely improve after Brady’s 39 dropbacks produced 169 yards, a touchdown, an interception and three sacks. About the only thing the Chiefs didn’t deal well with were trick plays; the Pats were 2-of-2 for 72 yards and a touchdown on a flea flicker and a halfback pass and otherwise averaged 3.8 yards per pass attempt.
The concerning thing for the Chiefs, though, is how little their offense was able to do in this game. The Patriots’ defense deserves a lot of credit for how they performed. The Chiefs went 5-of-16 on third down and the two touchdowns they scored came off a blocked field goal and an interception. Those two short fields didn’t add up to 100 yards combined. In the second half, with the defense essentially needing to pitch a shutout to keep the offense in the game, the Pats held the Chiefs to three points and blocked a punt to set up a short touchdown drive.
Even given the presence of the Patriots’ defense on the other side, though, Patrick Mahomes did not look good. Tony Romo was calling the game and even pointed out a hand injury for Mahomes based on how the ball was coming out. “It doesn’t feel great right now,” Mahomes said after the game. During the first half, he also took a hit to the abdomen and got up in clear pain, although he didn’t miss any time.
The various injuries had the effect of removing any threat of big plays from the Chiefs’ offense. Mahomes started out looking for shots downfield without finding anything, and while he was able to create one for a Mecole Hardman touchdown in the second quarter, that was the exception. His average pass traveled just 5.5 yards in the air Sunday, the lowest mark Mahomes has posted in any start as a pro.
In a vacuum, there’s nothing inherently wrong with completing short passes if that model is working. As the second quarter rolled on, it was. Mahomes was able to use passes in and around the line of scrimmage to hit his playmakers, who plowed forward for yards after catch and first downs. At halftime, I mentioned that the Patriots were going to adjust to take away the shorter throws and that the Chiefs would have to challenge them downfield.
The adjustment never came, or Mahomes wasn’t able to make the throws that would have come with any adjustment. In the second half, he attempted only two passes that traveled more than 10 yards in the air. He was 12-of-15, but those completions generated a total of only 57 yards and three first downs. He was pressured on a league-low 11.8% of those second-half dropbacks, so pressure wasn’t the issue either.
Even though he returned from his knee injury and posted a 442-yard, 50-attempt game against the Titans, I’m still a little skeptical he’s 100% healthy. Mahomes followed the Titans game with three middling performances against the Chargers, Raiders and Patriots, and while he’s still 10th in the league over that four-game stretch with a passer rating of 92.8, a healthy Mahomes has consistently been the best quarterback in football or close to it. Even before the knee injury, he was basically unstoppable until teams would tweak his ankle, at which point he would decline.
Week 14 of the NFL saw the an epic showdown between the 49ers and Saints, the Chiefs defeating the Patriots and Lamar Jackson taking care of business in Buffalo.
You can see the difference in terms of the magic Mahomes had been able to create while scrambling and extending plays. Before the knee injury and when he wasn’t being impacted by the ankle injury, he would routinely look downfield as he took a lengthy drop backward, then spin or run around before firing a dart to an open receiver. Now, he’s typically taking that lengthy drop backward and lofting a pass up off of his back foot.
When Mahomes takes four or more seconds with the ball in his hands before throwing since missing time with his knee injury, he has gone 5-of-18 for 83 yards with a passer rating of 46.3. Before the injury, in that same scenario, Mahomes was 17-of-26 for 331 yards with three touchdowns and a passer rating of 147.1. In 2018, Mahomes was 47-of-95 for 1,101 yards, 10 touchdowns, four picks and a passer rating of 109.1 on those delayed pass attempts. It’s a small sample, but it’s also borne out by watching Mahomes over the past few weeks.
Even an injured Mahomes is still better than the vast majority of quarterbacks in the AFC pool, of course, and he’s still talented enough to win the Chiefs games. We also know Mahomes’ ceiling is as the best player in football, and since returning from his injury, he hasn’t been hitting that ceiling. Defenses are going to ask questions of him in the weeks to come, and the AFC is full of excellent pass rushes and pass defenses. Thankfully for the Chiefs, they may be one of them.
Chance to make the playoffs: 99.9%
Projected playoff matchup: First-round bye
Even given that the Patriots have lost to the three other division leaders in the AFC, they’re still in good shape to come away with a first-round bye, though not the top overall seed. They control their destiny and have a relatively easy schedule to come, as two of their three remaining games are against the Bengals and Dolphins. The Bills arguably outplayed the Patriots when the two teams played in Week 4, but this game will be in Foxborough, where the Pats had won 21 straight games before Sunday’s loss to Kansas City.
I wrote about the Patriots’ offense at length in my Tom Brady article last Monday, so I don’t feel the need to rehash my thoughts here. We did see the Patriots try to mix things up early in the game Sunday, going with two tight ends on 20 of their first 23 snaps. The 20th play in that grouping was the Brady interception, though, and afterward, they went with two tight ends just seven times.
It must have been disheartening for Patriots fans to see the running game fail to do much against a perennially dismal Chiefs run defense; Pats halfbacks finished the game with 19 carries for just 66 yards, although Brady had a sneak for a first down and a 17-yard run to convert a fourth-and-6 on the final drive. I thought Brady generally played fine, with the fourth-down throw he missed to Julian Edelman in the second quarter as a notable misstep. We continued to see the players around him make mental mistakes.
My concern with the Patriots as a Super Bowl contender is that they need something on offense to win. Even if this defense rates out as something close to the 2000 Ravens or 2002 Buccaneers, the Ravens had a viable running game and didn’t turn the ball over much during the playoffs, while the Bucs had a competent passing attack.
Tim Hasselbeck and Ryan Clark weigh in on another loss for Tom Brady, something new for the Patriots quarterback.
The Patriots have Edelman right now, and when the Chiefs doubled him throughout this game, Brady didn’t have a Plan B. On his non-Edelman targets, Brady was 11-of-24 for 74 yards. You can throw in 63 yards of pass interference penalties on three incompletions, but even that’s still a shade over 5.0 yards per pass attempt. That’s barely functional. (I will refer all penalty discussion from Sunday’s game to last year’s article on Patriots myths.)
The Patriots have a month to figure this out if you include the likely bye week during the wild-card round. They get two games against two of the worst defenses in football to build up some confidence. History tells us they’ll figure out this offense by then. Two and a half months of mounting evidence suggests there are reasons to be concerned.
Chance to make the playoffs: Clinched
Projected playoff matchup: First-round bye
The Ravens are all but in as the top seed in the AFC. They’re one game ahead of the Patriots and hold the head-to-head tiebreaker. If the Bills wrangle control of the AFC East, the Ravens also hold the head-to-head tiebreaker over Sean McDermott’s team after Sunday’s victory. The Ravens can clinch the top seed in the AFC with two wins in their final three games, which include home games against the Jets and Steelers and a road trip to face the Browns.
Here’s why that’s scary for opposing teams. Regular-season data suggests that the Ravens enjoy an enormous home-field advantage. Since John Harbaugh took over in 2008, the Ravens have outscored their opponents by an average of 7.9 points per game at home. Only the Patriots and Packers have outscored opposing teams by a larger average margin on their home field.
The Ravens have been good on the road too, but they outscore their opponents by only 0.4 points per game there. The resulting estimate is that home-field advantage has been worth about 3.7 points per game to the Ravens during the Harbaugh era, which is the third-largest advantage in football over that time frame behind the Packers and Seahawks.
At the same time, the Ravens admittedly have not done all that well at home in the postseason. They are just 3-3 at home in the playoffs, including a 23-17 loss to the Chargers last season in which they were down for virtually the entire contest. They’ve actually done better on the road, going 10-6, although I chalk most of this up to a small sample. Harbaugh has been on the road for 12 of his 15 AFC playoff games as a coach. There’s a decent chance he’ll get two more to add to his résumé come winter.
As much as we’ve talked about Lamar Jackson this season, Sunday was really more about the defensive showing for Harbaugh’s team. I wrote about Sunday’s performance in the Bills section, but Don Martindale’s unit has made drastic strides since the start of the season. Over the first five weeks, the Ravens were 25th in QBR allowed and 29th in yards per attempt. They were allowing opposing offenses to average 2.3 points per possession, which was 26th in the NFL. It looked like the Ravens were going to have to rely on Jackson to win them games week after week.
Since then, they have solved their problems. They’re allowing just 1.4 points per trip, the fourth-best mark in football. They rank fourth in yards per attempt allowed and QBR allowed, and the Patriots are the only team allowing a lower passer rating since Week 6. After allowing opposing offenses to top 20 points in three consecutive games, including a 40-point outburst from the Browns, the Ravens haven’t let a team top 20 points since.
The change roughly coincides with the arrival of Marcus Peters, and while I don’t think he is the lone reason for the improvement, it’s hard to overstate just how much things have changed for the former All-Pro since he left Los Angeles. He arrived in Baltimore and immediately stepped in as an every-down cornerback. Over that time frame, he has allowed a passer rating of just 61.4 as the closest defender in coverage, the fifth-best mark in the league for corners with 200 coverage snaps or more. Before leaving L.A., Peters’ passer rating as the nearest defender in 2019 was 118.0.
The Ravens will have a difficult decision to make with Peters next offseason as he hits free agency. They already paid the injured Tavon Young this spring before the slot corner went down with a season-ending neck injury. Marlon Humphrey is in line for a big extension as early as this offseason. The Ravens already have an expensive pair of safeties in Earl Thomas and Tony Jefferson, although Jefferson could be cut after suffering a serious knee injury. Peters has been an absolute star, but would the Ravens match what he’ll get on the open market? Would he take less money to stay in a situation where he has excelled?
Before all that, though, the Ravens will have to worry about the postseason to come. As I mentioned in the Steelers section, there’s a good chance Baltimore will be able to rest Jackson and many of its stars in Week 17, although it might run the risk of impacting Jackson’s MVP chances if the race is close. Injuries have torn the Ravens apart in years past, but they’re actually healthy right now. They’ve lost four starters, but Young was ably replaced by Peters. Beyond Jefferson, the Ravens are down outside linebacker Pernell McPhee and center Matt Skura. The Ravens were certainly healthier in 2018, and Harbaugh doesn’t want to see anybody injured, but they have many of their core pieces still around for the stretch run and what comes next.
John Harbaugh says he tried to make a big deal out of his team clinching a playoff berth, but they only gave him “a smattering of applause.”
One thing to monitor is seeing how teams do when they face the Ravens a second time. The only team to face this version of Jackson under Greg Roman’s offense is the Bengals, who are barely an NFL defense most weeks. Jackson gashed them for 152 yards and a touchdown on the ground in the first game, then went 15-of-17 for 223 yards and three scores as a passer in the sequel.
Over the next three weeks, we’ll get to see the Browns and Steelers take a second crack at the Ravens’ offense, with possible playoff rematches against teams such as the Chiefs, Patriots and Texans looming afterward. I don’t think any of these defenses are going to stumble onto some solution that shuts down the Ravens’ offense, but it’s also fair to suggest that part of what makes this Ravens attack so special is how unique it is in context with the rest of the NFL. If opposing defenses do a better job of dealing with the running game in their rematches with the Ravens, Baltimore will need to have a Plan B on hand. Given that Jackson posted a perfect passer rating in that second go-around with the Bengals, it might not be much of a concern for the best team in the AFC.