December 9, 2021

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AFC Midseason Tourney: Browns at Patriots, Chiefs…

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AFC Midseason Tourney: Browns at Patriots, Chiefs...

NFL Week 10 – With the New England Patriots hosting the Cleveland Browns in the early afternoon and the Las Vegas Raiders hosting the Kansas City Chiefs on Sunday night, we may finally get some clarity about the AFC playoff picture this weekend. With that in mind, Walkthrough proudly presents the AFC Midseason Playoff Tournament Cavalcade of Hot Takes!

Kansas City Chiefs at Las Vegas Raiders, Sunday, 8:20 p.m.

So what’s wrong with Patrick Mahomes and the Chiefs offense?
They let all of their fundamentals slip in the offseason. For all of his merits, Andy Reid loses sight of the details after his teams peak. It happened in Philly, and it’s happening in Kansas City.

We could cite a hundred little stat splits or measure Mahomes’ footwork with a micrometer. We could explain away all of Mahomes’ flaws by blaming them on his receivers, the game plans, the protection, two-high safety looks (LOL) or by claiming that he has become so talented that he has transcended the need to complete passes or score touchdowns. (There are some wacky theories circulating on the Interwebs). But the bottom line is that the whole organization bought into the “just fix the offensive line and everything will be perfect” offseason storyline, and they are paying for it.

What about their defense?
About one-third of the starters should not be starters. Daniel Sorensen is just the flagbearer.

Can these problems be fixed in the second half of the season?
No. There’s not enough practice time to correct the offensive errors and no one on the practice squad or waiver wire who can fix the defense. The best the Chiefs can do is keep everything duct-taped together while the car is barreling down the freeway.

How are the losses of Henry Ruggs and Jon Gruden impacting the Raiders?
Derek Carr tried to throw a bomb to Zay Jones against the Giants. It was picked off by Xavier McKinney, who probably would not have been in the television frame if Ruggs had been on the far side of the field. (Or would have been a step too late if Ruggs had been the intended target.)

The Raiders are now 26th in red zone offense and settled for a bunch of field goals against the Giants. They are also 26th on third and fourth downs on offense. Gruden’s absence is likely to keep showing up in high-leverage situational splits.

Based on all of the off-field awfulness in Las Vegas, it doesn’t take a believer in “distraction” narratives to think, yeah, that Giants loss was the beginning of the end.

Will Desean Jackson help?
A little. You know that teams don’t practice at full speed very much at this point in the season, right? It’s unlikely that Carr and Jackson will suddenly develop excellent downfield timing. Jackson at least won’t be much of a factor this week.

So what’s the pick?
The Giants handed the Chiefs a victory, and the Chiefs took it. The Giants tried to hand the Raiders a victory, and the Raiders kept handing it right back. We also know that the Chiefs’ ceiling is far higher than anything we have seen this season, while the Raiders were likely playing at a ceiling in September that is no longer available to them. We’re taking the Chiefs to win and remain in the playoff hunt while the Raiders begin their traditional fade. Chiefs 27, Raiders 23.

Cleveland Browns at New England Patriots, Sunday, 1 p.m.

Are the Patriots legit?
Yes. They can legitimately go 10-7 playing the way they have been playing and beating the Falcons-Jaguars-Dolphins on their upcoming schedule as well as teams such as the Colts who will be looking for ways to lose to decent opponents.

The Patriots’ schedule gets harder in the second half of the season, but their defense is playing better than it did early in the year, so it all balances out.

Are the Browns better off without Odell Beckham?
Slightly, because they were giving 40 snaps and six to nine targets per game to a receiver whose skills had deteriorated to the point where that playing time and attention should have been spent elsewhere.

Nick Chubb and Demetric Fenton may be unavailable due to COVID. Does D’Ernest Johnson go Super Saiyan like he did against the Broncos?
Probably not. Johnson had an excellent game a few weeks ago on Thursday night, but he also had two runs for 30 yards on the opening drive and benefitted from the Only Game On phenomenon: all of social media dogpiled on with their extra-thirsty “I knew about D’Ernest before you did” and “Running Backs Don’t Matter” takes immediately. He’s a fine player, and also fourth-string for a reason.

The Patriots defense ranks 17th in rushing DVOA, so they should be vulnerable to the Browns rushing attack. But they probably won’t allow anyone to rush for 146 yards.

Damien Harris and Rhamondre Stevenson (concussion) missed practice midweek for the Patriots, so there are a lot of running back variables in play in what promises to be a ground-and-pound game.

What do you think of the contract extensions for Wyatt Teller and Joel Bitonio?
They’re delicious.

Something something something Baker Mayfield something something?
Overreacting to Mayfield’s encouraging-but-not-overwhelming games and his disappointing-but-not damning games makes a great content model but bad analysis.

The offensive line extensions will serve as an insurance policy or extended service warranty for the eventual Mayfield extension. We’ll need to see all the numbers (including Mayfield’s eventual deal) to decide if the Browns just bought collision and comprehensive for a Ford Fiesta.

Is Walkthrough still doing the “Mac Jones is poised” routine?
Jones is enjoying the kid gloves treatment from everyone: his coaches, many of my colleagues, the referees when he decides to treat Brian Burns’ leg like a turkey wing. The NFL kid gloves treatment is a self-fulfilling prophecy: quarterbacks who keep getting the benefit of the doubt develop into Kirk Cousins. The Patriots are probably comfortable with the idea of Jones developing into Cousins, especially if he does so on his rookie contract.

So … pick?
Our FO+ picks like the Browns, who are well built (running game, pass rush) to take away what the Patriots like to do (interceptions, protect Lil’ Mac). Using a slightly different algorithm, EdjSports prefers the Patriots. Walkthrough thinks that the Patriots are better at managing a rushing-and-field-position game, and we’re worried that Jones will take a circular saw to Myles Garrett’s leg and the refs will flag Garrett for taunting when he bleeds toward the Patriots bench. But the Browns have a chance of dominating in the trenches, with is something the Patriots aren’t used to.

It’s so close that (gasp!) the running backs might matter. Browns 24, Patriots 22 if the Browns are healthier at running back, Patriots 23, Browns 20 if the Patriots are healthier. If there’s no advantage either way, I dunno, let’s go with Patriots 22, Browns 21.

New Orleans Saints at Tennessee Titans, Sunday, 1 p.m.

Magic Items, Lore, and Arcana: an excerpt from Elminster’s Guide to the Forgotten NFL Realms, Edition 5E.

Cleats of Beastmodia: Vorpal footwear, provides wearer with +5 bludgeoning and stiff-arming damage. Also grants advantage against (but not immunity from) Curse of 370 checks. Previously worn by Derrick Henry. Now worn by Titans defensive tackle Jeffery Simmons. Adrian Peterson would make a deal with Baphomet to get his feet in them.

Wand of Wentzification: Opposing quarterbacks must make a Wisdom saving throw (DC 20) or else fall under a Confusion spell which causes them to throw passes from their own end zone directly to Titans defenders. Wand can only be used once per game.

Amulet of Charm Payton: Wearer has the ability to charm Sean Payton. Payton gets to roll a saving throw with disadvantage after a pick-six or when Drew Brees is within 50 feet. Legend has it that Trevor Siemian stole this charm from Taysom Hill’s locker.

Staff of Greater Sucking: A legendary artifact forged by Bill Beli-lich to keep the AFC East hordes at bay but lost during the Brady Apostasy. The user need merely strike the staff upon the ground, and all sub-.500 NFL teams get disadvantage on all attacks, ability checks, and saving throws for an entire Sunday. Sean Payton currently possesses the staff and uses it to make sure the 49ers, Vikings, and Bears don’t get any ideas. Mike Vrabel hopes to steal the staff and use it to open up a chasm that swallows the rest of the AFC South once and for all.

Shroud of Unpredictability: The Titans have upset some of the NFL’s best teams but lost to the Jets. The Saints have beaten the Buccaneers and Packers but lost to the Giants and Falcons. Any gold pieces wagered on the outcome of this game must make a saving throw against uncertainty (DC 15) or be lost forever. Titans 22, Saints 16.

Atlanta Falcons at Dallas Cowboys, Sunday, 1 p.m.

How this game will go:

  • Cowboys arrive wearing the “We Feel We Have Nothing Left to Prove” tee-shirts Jerry Jones printed up for them. (Mike McCarthy forgot to get his washed).
  • Cowboys fail on their first two fourth-down conversions: a slow-developing off-tackle run and a slower-developing mesh route.
  • Cordarrelle Patterson says f*ck it and just starts taking direct snaps and lofting passes to himself. Falcons take a 14-0 lead.
  • McCarthy panics and orders a punt on fourth-and-inches near midfield. Matt Ryan returns to throw a touchdown pass that bounces off Kyle Pitts’ hands and into the arms of Olamide Zaccheaus.
  • Fourth quarter of a Falcons game arrives. Brown acid kicks in.
  • Cowboys score 24 unanswered points. Falcons defense commits penalties on nine consecutive plays at one point. Their offense tries to munch the clock by setting up screens to Patterson, even though even Pop Warner defenders have figured out that they cannot afford to lose track of Patterson on screen passes.
  • Game ends when the Cowboys block a Falcons punt, a Cowboys defender bats the ball to a Falcons player, that player rolls it back, and the two teams continue trying to lose until the ball rolls out of bounds. The Cowboys are awarded possession. Mike McCarthy tries to order a 56-yard field goal but cannot pronounce “Lirim Hajrullahu”, so Dak Prescott drives for a game-winning touchdown.
  • Falcons congratulate themselves for staying in the playoff race until November and not embarrassing themselves on an onside kick. Cowboys 36, Falcons 31.

Philadelphia Eagles at Denver Broncos, Sunday, 4:25 p.m.

The Broncos are better off without Von Miller. My column:

The Denver Broncos needed a clean break from their storied past. They needed young leaders to feel empowered to step up. In short, they needed to escape the long shadow cast by Von Miller.

The Broncos team that trounced the Cowboys 34-16 last week was released from the vice-like grip of the 2015 champions. No longer did they turn to their elders to set the tone. The Broncos played like a group of young men who understood that a new era has dawned, and that it is an era that belongs to Jonathon Cooper, Caleb Sterns, Jerry Jeudy, and Javonte Williams.

No one believes any of this bullsnot. And only a fool would write such a column about a beloved superstar like Miller. Yet why is it so unbelievable when talking about Miller but taken as rote when talking about Odell Beckham? Yes, Beckham is indeed flighty, and was playing poorly this season. But Miller has been playing through injuries at a cap-unfriendly salary for years. Miller also had John Elway’s ear, and he was one of the veterans who was always lobbying for a veteran starting quarterback such as Case Keenum or Joe Flacco. And Miller’s Broncos tenure ended after an odd kerfuffle about paying for a Halloween party: perhaps a locker room disconnect between Miller and some of the youngsters really was growing.

Wait … maybe the Broncos really are better off without Miller in 2021!

Probably not. It’s more likely that they benefited from a Cowboys mini-meltdown after they stuffed a few fourth-down conversion attempts in the first half and a blocked-punt fiasco early in the third quarter. Either way, rumors of the Broncos’ pending surrender, while not exaggerated, are at least premature.

Nick Sirianni’s Karma Chameleons might find a guise (Bombing team! Screen team! Option team! Power-running team!) that surprises the Broncos, but it’s more likely that they will just be a tough out for another week. Broncos 26, Eagles 21.

Carolina Panthers at Arizona Cardinals, Sunday, 4:05 p.m.

The Cardinals, whom we discussed in some detail in Wednesday’s Walkthrough, should serve as inspiration for the Panthers. Last year, Kliff Kingsbury looked like an overmatched second-year college wunderkind whose offense had grown stale after peaking with a few fun early-season victories. Matt Rhule looks that way right now. A little better health here, a free-agent acquisition there, and improved game-planning and player development everywhere, and whammo! The Panthers can be the NFL’s best team by the midpoint of 2022.

Of course, the Cardinals had Kyler Murray, while the Panthers have a big expensive sack of bad ideas at quarterback. (We’ll cover Cam Newton’s return when it’s likely that he will play). But Rhule doesn’t sweat the details much, so why should we? Cardinals 28, Panthers 19.

Minnesota Vikings at Los Angeles Chargers, Sunday, 4:05 p.m.

If you truly love the Vikings, then you want them to suffer tough loss after tough loss to opponents like the Cowboys, Ravens, and Chargers every week. The Vikings need to bottom out so they can recognize the folly of scraping their heads against the roof of the salary cap while aiming for the sixth seed in the playoffs each year.

If you find the Vikings irrationally irritating the way Walkthrough does, you want them to suffer a tough loss every week because it’s amusing.

The Chargers are the perfect team to lose a heartbreaker to: Brandon Staley’s excellence as a fourth-down decision-maker will give the Chargers an edge when the game is inevitably close in the fourth quarter, and while the Chargers kicking game may a problem, opposing kickers have an unsustainable but hilarious habit of turning into Justin Tucker against the Vikings.

Walkthrough doesn’t have a strong feeling about this game, mind you. We may not know what will happen on Sunday, but we know what’s best for the teams themselves. Chargers 27, Vikings 26.

Buffalo Bills at New York Jets, Sunday, 1 p.m.

How this game will go:

  • Bills taunting penalty.
  • Bills roughness penalty.
  • Bills pass interference penalty.
  • Bills offensive line miscommunication on a routine stunt: four lineman block Quinnen Williams while Shaq Lawson chases Josh Allen around the field with a machete.
  • With Mike White and Josh Johnson all knocked out of the game, Fireman Ed takes over as the Jets quarterback while Joe Flacco stands on the sideline holding a helmet. Jets take a 6-0 lead as two missed field goals are negated by Bills roughing-the-kicker penalties.
  • The Bills attempt a triple option on fourth-and-inches. Allen fumbles. The illegal motion penalty is declined.
  • A Jets opportunity to ice the upset vanishes when Braxton Berrios’ Philly Special at the goal line to Fireman Ed is intercepted. Flacco is seen eating vegetable soup on the sideline.
  • With their backs to the wall, the Bills remember that they were preseason Super Bowl frontrunners and possess one of the strongest overall rosters in the NFL, and that they are facing a team from the America East Conference. The Bills manufacture a few fitful fourth-quarter scoring drives.
  • Josh Allen’s MVP odds somehow improve to +150. Bills 27, Jets 13.

Detroit Lions at Pittsburgh Steelers, Sunday, 1 p.m.

The Steelers are now enjoying a meme season. Ben Roethlisberger has “still got it!” And he’s winning with grit and determination! And the team is better without that reprehensible Instagram model JuJu Smith-Schuster (a surrogate for Antonio Brown and Le’Veon Bell among a vocal segment of the team’s fanbase)! T.J. Watt is the spiritual successor to Jack Lambert! And anyone who complains that the officiating is a smidge lopsided is just a hater who is jealous of the trophy case! There’s even a fan-favorite tight end who catches shovel passes!

The Patriots are also having a meme season, but this is the Steelers capsule, and the Steelers are the 5-4 legacy contender that doesn’t face a serious challenge this week. Steelers 26, Lions 21.

Jacksonville Jaguars at Indianapolis Colts, Sunday, 1 p.m.

Look, we’re all a little edgy after last week’s upsets. But the Jaguars are still putrid. All their offense did in Week 9 was wait around for the Bills to commit penalties. Their defense played well, but they’re still ranked 27th in the NFL in DVOA.

Also, we went through all of this last week, when the Colts faced the Jets, who were coming off the Bengals upset. Other teams keep tripping the wire and springing the trap just before the Colts show up. The Colts will win this week. They’ll probably cover. Once that’s over with, we can all just repress our memories of Week 9 and carry on as if nothing ever happened. Colts 28, Jaguars 16.

Tampa Bay Buccaneers at Washington Football Team, Sunday, 1 p.m.

The Buccaneers’ 2020 Super Bowl journey truly kicked off when they visited an overmatched Washington team with nth-string quarterback Taylor Heinicke under center in the wild-card round of the playoffs. Washington’s journey to their current specific state of haplessness also began on that Saturday: their narrow 31-23 victory may have given Washington a false read on the quality of their defense and on Heinicke’s long-range potential.

It’s tempting to think things will come full circle on Sunday: the Buccaneers, likely without Antonio Brown, Chris Godwin, and Rob Gronkowski, might continue the plummet back to mortality that began with their Week 8 loss to the Saints, while Washington may have regrouped over their bye and are now ready to be more than jobbers.

Again, it’s tempting. But it’s not particularly likely. Buccaneers 26, Washington 20. (Add a few points to the Bucs total if any of the three playmakers are available.)

Los Angeles Rams at San Francisco 49ers, Monday, 8:15 p.m.

Some stat splits and notes:.

  • The 49ers have recovered just three of 17 opponents’ fumbles. That’s a trend that should succumb to central tendency and start tilting slightly in the 49ers’ favor, though it may not happen this week.
  • The 49ers rank 26th against stopping deep passes, which is suboptimal when facing the Rams. The Rams rank eighth at stopping short passes, which is fine news when facing the 49ers.
  • The 49ers rank 29th at stopping No. 1 wide receivers, which is bad news when facing Cooper Kupp. They rank second at stopping running backs in the passing game, which is of little use against the Rams.
  • The Rams rank 15th in first-half offensive DVOA, while the 49ers rank seventh in first-half defensive DVOA and eighth in first-half offensive DVOA.

The 49ers are getting +3.5 for the game but +3 for just the first half, so you better believe we’re taking them in a first-half prop. Walkthrough anticipates that the 49ers will keep things close until the Rams pull away late. We also think the 49ers will get their act together in the second half of the season with the help of fumble luck, beatable opponents, some reinforcements in the secondary, and maybe Trey Lance. But that’s a topic for another capsule. Rams 34, 49ers 24.

Seattle Seahawks at Green Bay Packers, Sunday, 4:25 p.m.

In many ways, modern America is a nation built by advertisers and run by insurance companies. When an insurance company is someone’s primary advertiser, his silly little anti-vax tirades will inevitably earn him the Ned Beatty speech from Network.

Aaron Rodgers may be mad as hell, but he IS going to take it anymore. He’s also likely back this week, though we probably won’t know for certain until the weekend.

Russell Wilson is also expected back, and we covered the Seahawks as the possible Team No One Wants to Face in the Playoffs in Thursday’s Walkthrough. So the world is getting the Rodgers-Wilson matchup we deserve after weeks of pretending to find Geno Smith and Pat McAfee interesting.

There’s about a 33.3% Angry Aaron goes ham; a 33.3% chance he’s either so rusty or so thirsty that he spends the whole game overthrowing Davante Adams and making pouty faces at the sideline; and a 33.3% chance this game comes down to Wilson or Rodgers either completing or failing to complete a Hail Mary on the final play, probably with an officiating controversy mixed in. That leaves a 0.1% chance that Walkthrough will risk any actual money on the outcome of this game. Packers 32, Seahawks 31.