September 27, 2021

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Scramble for the Ball: The Old Gods and the New

26 min read
Scramble for the Ball: The Old Gods and the New

Andrew: Hello and welcome to this week’s edition of Scramble for the Ball, in which your humble deacons of the outsider can breathe a sigh of relief. The Packers won over the Rams, quite handily in the end, so we can fulfil the teaser from last week’s column. And perhaps even update another column from several years past.

Bryan: To be clear, most of what we’ll be talking about today would hold true, even if Jared Goff were standing atop the NFC. It just makes things so much easier when we don’t have to add an asterisk to every sentence — when the reality conforms to the narrative.

Andrew: For the same reason, we’re going to mostly make the assumption that Patrick Mahomes is Kansas City’s starter against Buffalo. We’re as worried as you are about his safe recovery from the concussion he suffered against the Browns, but it makes things so much easier for us to talk about Mahomes rather than Chad Henne. And I mean absolutely no disrespect to the only quarterback who has been on an active roster for each of the past three (soon to be four!) AFC Championship Games.

Bryan: Assuming Mahomes plays, the four quarterbacks in the championship games will be the top four quarterbacks of the year by DYAR. We know passing is more important now than ever before, but that’s a crazy convergence in and of itself.

Back in 2016, we looked at the top championship quartets of all-time. The leader, back then, was in 1992, when Steve Young’s 49ers battled Troy Aikman’s Cowboys and Dan Marino’s Dolphins clashed with Jim Kelly’s Bills. That’s four Hall of Famers, all in their primes, and a combined 5,508 DYAR. The quartet this year? 6,467 DYAR. It blows 1992, and every other year, out of the water. We have never had four quarterbacks as good as this being the final four standing.

Andrew: It’s crazy to me that, out of all the possible historically successful franchises and outstanding quarterbacks over the past 30 seasons, it’s the Buffalo Bills who have a quarterback make both quartets. Football is amazing.

Bryan: And, for the record, if Henne replaces Mahomes, the 1992 class does stay on top … but the 2020 group only drops to fifth since 1985. That’s how good Allen, Brady, and Rodgers have been — knock out the most valuable player (if not the Most Valuable Player), and you still have an all-time great group.

Andrew: It’s historically excellent, and also (as our teaser points out) historically imbalanced. The NFC divisional round gave us the last of the old guard: Tom Brady, Aaron Rodgers, and even the recently vanquished Drew Brees. The AFC had already kicked their veterans (Philip Rivers, Ben Roethlisberger, and the relatively spry 32-year-old Ryan Tannehill) to the curb in the wild-card games: their final four was the youngest combined group of players ever to start at quarterback in one conference’s divisional round, with the oldest of the four being 25-year-old Baker Mayfield.

Bryan: Just look at that group. In the NFC, Aaron Rodgers probably already has his bust for Canton waiting in a closet somewhere, and he’s the lesser of the two passers, at least in terms of career accomplishments. You could shutter the Hall of Fame, start over, and Tom Brady might still be a first-ballot selection. These are two legends, closer to the ends of their careers than the beginning, but still playing inspired football — both have either been replaced or seen their replacements drafted in the past 12 months, but they are still dealing.

In the AFC, neither Patrick Mahomes nor Josh Allen has started 50 games yet. They’re both still playing on their rookie contracts — yes, Mahomes signed a mega-uber-deal, but that doesn’t kick in until next season. These are kids out there, in NFL terms — in Days of Yore, they may well still be sitting behind veterans, waiting their turns as they carried clipboards. That strategy has gone the way of the single-bar facemask and the pro set, and so we have two of the youngest passers in the league dominating their conferences. The divergent paths the AFC and NFC have taken to get here is both fascinating and statistically unlikely, and that’s what we’re all about here at Scramble.

Let’s first just look at this week. In the NFC, we have a matchup of two quarterbacks age 35 or older. Brady and Rodgers will be the 35th and 36th greybeards to start a conference championship game, and it’ll be the fourth time two such aged quarterbacks clashed atop a conference. In 2013 and 2015, Peyton Manning (age 37 and 39, respectively) and his Broncos beat Tom Brady (age 36 and 38) and his Patriots. In 1998, John Elway (37) and the Broncos topped Vinny Testaverde (35) and the Jets. Who said you can’t teach old horses new tricks? Of course, at ages 43 and 37, the Brady-Rodgers combination is the oldest by far.

By the by, when I said that Brady and Rodgers will be the 35th and 36th old quarterbacks, that includes multiple appearances by a number of passers. This will be Tom Brady’s eighth appearance in a conference championship at age 35 or older. Every other quarterback in the century-old history of the league has combined for 28 appearances. Rodgers will be joining an exclusive club of two-timers — John Brodie, John Elway, Brett Favre, Rich Gannon, Peyton Manning, Tobin Rote, Roger Staubach, and Johnny Unitas (note here that we’re including the old NFL and AFL championships as conference title games, even in the pre-Super Bowl days). Brady blows them all out of the water.

On the flip side, in the AFC, we have a matchup of two quarterbacks age 25 or younger. That’s a little more common, historically speaking, but not by much; Mahomes and Allen will be the 39th and 40th younglings to start a championship game. There has only been one such matchup in NFL history — a thrilling 9-0 victory in the 1979 NFC Championship Game, when the Rams and Vince Ferragamo (25) outdueled the Buccaneers and Doug Williams (24). Please let us have more touchdowns than that this season, OK, thank you.

And, yes, while he doesn’t quite live up to the legacy of greatness that is Chad Henne, this will be Mahomes’ third conference title game in the last three years. If he starts this week, he’ll be the only quarterback in NFL history to have three conference title games under his belt before turning 26. Pat Haden, Bernie Kosar, Dan Marino, Ben Roethlisberger, and Mark Sanchez each have a pair — that’s a more motley crew than the elders, for sure.

And one more piece of trivia: only three quarterbacks are on both lists, starting conference championships at both the beginning and ends of their careers. Those three are Johnny Unitas, Joe Montana, and Tom Brady. If you were to pick the best three quarterbacks of all time, or at least the best one from each of the last three generations, you might well pick Unitas, Montana, and Brady. It turns out — and stay with me here — if you manage to lead very good teams a decade apart from one another, you might in turn also be very good.

Andrew: So we have an all-time great quartet of passers from this season, comprised of a legendary group of old quarterbacks in the NFC, and a record-setting group of young quarterbacks in the AFC. That’s great, and all, but it rather raises the question … where’s everybody in between?

Bryan: Normally, we could say that, oh, it’s a coincidence. When you select four passers from a pool, even if you’re looking specifically at the best passers in the league, there’s always a chance you’ll grab an uncharacteristic set of passers. That, uh, really isn’t the case this season. This isn’t just a case of a few good young and old players making their way to the finals. This is a league-wide problem, as we have hit a historic low in production from the middlemen of the league. If you’re between 26 and 34 years old, you’re probably not a valuable NFL quarterback!

Quarterbacks age 25 or younger produced 4,601 DYAR this season, the most in our database going back to 1985. That’s 31.1% of all quarterback DYAR this season — the average is usually about 9.2%. And that includes bad passers — young quarterbacks are often left in the starting lineup despite shocking statistics, in the name of getting “experience.” But even the worst young passers — Sam Darnold and Dwayne Haskins — stayed around -500 DYAR. Mahomes, Allen, and Deshaun Watson each were over 1,000, and you had significantly positive seasons from Justin Herbert, Kyler Murray, Baker Mayfield, and Lamar Jackson. There has never been a better time to be young and playing quarterback.

Seasons with the Most DYAR by Quarterbacks Age 25 and Under
Season DYAR % of DYAR Top Passers
2020 4601 31.1% P.Mahomes, J.Allen, D.Watson
1986 4317 37.1% D.Marino, B.Esiason, J.Schroeder
2012 4103 27.7% M.Stafford, R.Wilson, R.Griffin
1985 3659 32.5% D.Marino, B.Esiason, K.O’Brien
2018 3246 22.3% P.Mahomes, J.Goff, D.Watson
2000 3115 22.0% P.Manning, D.Culpepper, B.Griese
2017 2745 18.6% J.Goff, C.Wentz, J.Winston
2016 2643 17.9% D.Prescott, D.Carr, M.Mariota
2008 2463 18.9% J.Cutler, M.Ryan, A.Rodgers
2019 2267 15.4% L.Jackson, P.Mahomes, D.Watson
Avg 1248 9.2%

Bryan: Note that 1985 and 1986 are on that table, which can be summed up as “Dan Marino was really, really good, you guys.” Expect 1983 and 1984 to join them shortly, and we call that a cheap plug for this offseason’s content.

But then, it’s also a good time to be an older quarterback. Passers of age 35 or older produced 5,800 DYAR this season. That doesn’t quite hit the record, but it’s in the top five all-time. Usually, older passers produce about 18.6% of the league’s passing DYAR. This year, it was 39.3%. It’s not just Rodgers and Brady — Matt Ryan, Drew Brees, Philip Rivers, Ben Roethlisberger, and Ryan Fitzpatrick all put in triple-digit-DYAR years, while only Alex Smith hit triple-negative digits. There’s a bunch of Hall of Famers in that group, all still playing quite well.

Seasons with the Most DYAR by Quarterbacks Age 35 and Over
Season DYAR % of DYAR Top Passers
1998 8330 65.1% R.Cunningham, S.Young, V.Testaverde
2018 6476 44.5% D.Brees, B.Roethlisberger, P.Rivers
2017 6092 41.4% T.Brady, P.Rivers, D.Brees
2020 5800 39.3% A.Rodgers, T.Brady, M.Ryan
1997 4847 38.3% D.Marino, S.Young, J.Elway
1996 4608 35.6% J.Elway, S.Young, D.Marino
2019 4364 29.7% D.Brees, A.Rodgers, P.Rivers
2012 3895 26.3% T.Brady, P.Manning, M.Hasselbeck
2015 3587 23.6% C.Palmer, T.Brady, D.Brees
2016 3539 24.0% D.Brees, T.Brady, P.Rivers
Avg 2525 18.6%

Bryan: The best year for the olds, 1998, was a crazy year. You had Hall of Famers such as Steve Young, John Elway, and Dan Marino still looking sharp in the twilights of their careers. But Randall Cunningham out DYARed them all with the Vikings, and Vinny Testaverde had the best year of his career, and you got surprisingly good seasons out of the aging arms of Doug Flutie and Bubby Brister and even Frank Reich. I’d argue this year’s class of the elderly beats them on quality, but the numbers say what the numbers say!

So, of course, if it’s a historically great year for old quarterbacks, and a historically great year for young quarterbacks … which doesn’t leave a lot of room for the quarterbacks who should be in the primes of their careers. Just 29.6% of all passing DYAR this season went to passers between ages 26 and 34; it’s the first season in NFL history where quarterbacks outside that group topped 10,000 DYAR. To put that into context, those prime-aged passers averaged 72.2% of DYAR in most seasons; you just don’t get that void of production from players who should be the faces of the league. And it’s not new, and it’s not random — four of the five worst seasons for passers between 26 and 34 years old are 2017, 2018, 2019, and now 2020, with 1998 thrown in randomly for flavor. We’re missing a generation of passers.

Andrew: Those guys, between roughly age 28 and 34, are the guys who were drafted roughly five to 10 years ago. That takes us back to the 2010-2015 drafts. A cursory look through those drafts in 2020 is like a cursory glance over the Somme circa 1950. In 2010, your first-round quarterbacks were Sam Bradford and Tim Tebow, both of whom are out of the league for different reasons. 2011 gave us Cam Newton, Jake Locker, and Blaine Gabbert. 2012 was Andrew Luck, Robert Griffin, Ryan Tannehill, and the famously veteran Brandon Weeden — Weeden was so old then that he’d actually be in our 35-plus category now, despite how recently he was drafted. The only first-round quarterback in 2013 was EJ Manuel.

Those guys should all be in their early 30s, well into their primes. Four have already retired, two of those due to injuries. Robert Griffin’s career was never the same after injuries in his rookie year, and Cam Newton also hasn’t been healthy in probably four full seasons now. Most of the rest are journeyman backups such as Gabbert. Newton and Ryan Tannehill are the only first-rounders from the 2010-2013 drafts who are still starting, and only Tannehill is playing at a prime level. Going to 2014 adds Teddy Bridgewater to that list, but also Blake Bortles and Johnny Manziel to the list of busts. We then have Jared Goff (who is, frighteningly, probably the second-best quarterback taken in the first round between 2011 and 2016), Carson Wentz, and Paxton Lynch. Oof.

Bryan: The cupboard isn’t entirely bare, of course. Third-rounder Russell Wilson is the most accomplished prime-age passer in the league, and Tannehill, Derek Carr, Kirk Cousins, and Matthew Stafford all put up solid numbers this season. The injuries to Dak Prescott and Jimmy Garoppolo also suppress that group’s numbers more than the overall talent levels would indicate. But, man, there are only two first-round picks in that group. You can stretch down to the Jared Goffs and Teddy Bridgewaters of the world if you want, but you’re still looking at half a decade, maybe three-quarters of a decade, where first-round quarterbacks have been mostly busts, hurt, or busts who then got hurt. There were 19 first-round quarterbacks taken between 2010 and 2016. None of them appear to be Hall of Fame bound, unless you really like Cam Newton’s 2015, or Ryan Tannehill’s late career surge goes on for another decade.

It makes you thankful that this young group has come in to save the league, right? The last time we had this sort of middle-class gap was the late 1990s, and it looked like we were on the verge of a quarterback crisis. Then, between 1998 and 2001, we saw Peyton Manning, Donovan McNabb, Tom Brady, and Drew Brees enter the league, not to mention a tier of players such as Michael Vick, Daunte Culpepper, Matt Hasselbeck, and so on. I’m not sure why these quarterbacks seem to come in fits and jumps — remember, quarterbacks in 1998 were getting old because the 1983 quarterback draft was loaded — but it sure seems to be the way things go. Just when things look bleak, a golden generation of quarterbacks enters the league. Almost like clockwork.

Andrew: It’s also interesting how the makeup of each conference’s final four reflects the conference as a whole. The young guys at the top of the DYAR list are all in the AFC: Mahomes, Allen, Watson, and Herbert. The old guys are all in the NFC: Brady, Rodgers, Brees, even 35-year-old Matt Ryan. That doesn’t really begin to even out until you reach AFC veteran Philip Rivers down in 13th place, and NFC youngling Kyler Murray in 15th.

Bryan: And that there’s the final cherry on top of everything. Yes, we have had great years for old passers and great years for young passers before, and sometimes those coincide. But we have never, and I mean never, seen the two conferences so far apart in age and quality at quarterback.

This year’s NFC is the oldest group of passers we have ever seen. If you weight all the quarterbacks in the conference by DYAR, you get an average of 33.8 — that’s your median age for positive DYAR, with half of it coming from older players and half of it coming from younger players. 33.8! That’s a record, breaking the 1998 NFC’s average of 32.7. In fact, here, let’s do this one other way, as I have deliberately not shared this part of the spreadsheet with you, Andrew. There are a grand total of three passers in the NFC, age 25 or younger, who had positive DYAR this season. How many can you name?

Andrew: Kyler Murray, Kyle Allen, and … who’s the youngest 49ers backup? Nick Mullens?

Bryan: That’s correct! Your hope for the NFC’s future includes Nick Mullens and Kyle Allen. No knock on Murray, but that’s insane. It’s not just that the NFC’s passers are old, it’s the emptiness of the cupboard below them that’s shocking. The NFC in 1998 was dominated by Randall Cunningham and Steve Young, yes, but they had Charlie Batch and Jake Plummer. The 2012-2013 AFC was led by Peyton Manning and Tom Brady, but Andrew Luck, Andy Dalton, and Ryan Tannehill were playing well. The 2017 AFC had Brady and Philip Rivers, but also Deshaun Watson. You don’t see age gaps like this.

The AFC doesn’t quite set a record for youngest DYAR-weighted age, but it is one of six seasons to have an average age of under 28. Philip Rivers and Ben Roethlisberger keep this year’s AFC from breaking the record set by the 1986 AFC. (Or, for that matter, the 1985 or 1987 AFCs — did we mention Dan Marino was really good? I think we did, and Boomer Esiason was no slouch, either.) Half the teams in the conference are riding with a young quarterback who is at least solid. You have the six young passers with triple-digit DYARs in Mahomes, Allen, Watson, Herbert, Baker Mayfield, and Lamar Jackson, and then you have first-round picks Joe Burrow and Tua Tagovailoa with positive DYARs as well.

Andrew: Plus the AFC has the top two picks in this year’s draft, which look set to be two quarterbacks, as might the third if Miami trades out of it. (My favorite scenario involves the Dolphins trading Houston’s pick, that they got for Laremy Tunsil, back to Houston as part of a deal for the severely disgruntled Deshaun Watson. That would leave Houston also picking a quarterback. Sorry, Rivers.) That should mean another two young quarterbacks starting from Day 1 for the Jaguars and Jets.

Bryan: There’s a 6.0-year difference between the DYAR-weighted ages of the quarterbacks in the two conferences, breaking 2012’s record of 5.0 — 2012 being the Year of No Old Quarterbacks in the NFC. Those are the only two seasons above 3.5; this is rare, this is unusual, and it’s fascinating. As long as each conference gets to send one team to the Super Bowl, gaps like this are hugely significant for the future of the league!

Take the disgruntled Watson, for example — lord knows, he wishes someone would. If the Texans were to trade him to another AFC team, well, that team would still be competing with Mahomes and the Chiefs and Allen and the Bills and so on for the next decade, right? Trade him to an NFC team, and you find the competition mostly aging out of consideration. Someone will eventually rise — even if it’s just Russell Wilson finally being freed from the shackles of Seattle’s offensive philosophy — but there’s far less competition among top passers in an era where they are more important than ever. Tom Brady has to retire eventually. We think. I mean, statistically speaking.

Andrew: So not only do we have a fascinating and engrossing final three games to look forward to, we can see in them a snapshot of the state of the league at the most important position in the sport. Will the NFC triumph in one last stand for the old guard against their would-be usurpers? Or will the baton finally pass firmly into the hands of the youth movement, as seemed to be the case in the AFC wild-card round? Just how many Hall of Fame quarterbacks will we actually end up watching this weekend? (Not Chad Henne, presumably.) There’s a lot to look forward to.

Bryan: All we can say for certain, after crunching all this data, is that the Texans need to send Watson to the 49ers, OK, thanks in advance, bye. You know, just to balance the two conferences.

Andrew: If the Texans do trade Deshaun Watson, no matter who they send him to, that should probably result in a forced sale of the franchise for bringing the league into disrepute. But that, my friend, is a theme for another dream. There might be a couple of big games to play first!

Playoff Fantasy Update

Bryan: So, we said after the draft that loading up on one team was likely to produce either a first-place finish or a last-place finish. You can trust your Scramblers to back their words up with evidence.

2020 Staff Playoff Fantasy Challenge
  Scott Dave Aaron Andrew Vince Bryan
QB Patrick
24.15 Russell
19.7 Aaron
28.5 Josh
50.2 Tom
50.9 Drew
RB Clyde
0 J.K.
23 Ronald
6.2 Chris
9.2 Derrick
8.1 Alvin
RB Cam
44.2 Nick
33.8 Jonathan
16.4 Devin
14.1 Aaron
18.3 Latavius
WR Michael
18.3 DK
26.6 Tyreek
19.9 Stefon
49.4 A.J.
20.3 Davante
WR Marquise
32.5 Antonio
16.2 Mike
25.2 Chris
26.3 Tyler
6.3 Emmanuel
WR Diontae
22.7 T.Y.
5.2 Marquez
7.3 Cole
12.7 JuJu
34.7 Chase
TE Mark
14.9 Travis
24.9 Jared
13.8 Rob
2.4 Robert
10 Eric
K Justin
17 Mason
8 Harrison
13 Jason
14 Tyler
18 Wil
DEF Rams 9 Saints -3 Chiefs 3 Bills 9 Buccaneers 7 Steelers -5
TOT 182.75 154.4 133.3 187.3 173.6 153.35

Bryan: Andrew may only have a five-point lead on the scoreboard, but he is, by far, in the best shape of anyone remaining. By riding Josh Allen and the Bills, Andrew has motored into first place and ensured at least three games from seven of his starters, and he has the opportunity to run away with the entire competition before the Super Bowl begins. With Josh Allen and Stefon Diggs leading the way, Andrew’s a shoo-in to win the title if Buffalo knocks off Kansas City in the AFC Championship Game. Even if they don’t, Andrew might have Chris Godwin and Rob Gronkowski in the Super Bowl anyway, defending what is likely to be a significant lead. This is his contest to lose at this point.

If he does lose it, Aaron and Vince are the ones right on his tail. Both have a quarterback in the NFC Championship Game; whichever one gets to the Super Bowl will have the best shot at catching Andrew, all things considered. Yes, Aaron’s currently in last place on the scoreboard, but he’s tied with Andrew with seven players remaining. He’s guaranteed to have at least two players in the Super Bowl, no matter what happens in the Battle of the Bays, and he’ll have a trio of Chiefs there waiting for them if Kansas City pulls themselves together, which is pretty much a necessity for Andrew to lose. Vince is relying more on banked points — half his team will be out no matter what the outcomes on Sunday — but at least that means he’ll either have a quarterback or a top running back available in two weeks. There are worse positions to be in.

Scott and Dave would be your next tier down. Scott would be feeling a lot better if Patrick Mahomes and Clyde Edwards-Helaire were feeling a lot better; not knowing if either of your two remaining players will actually play is a major blow to one’s self-esteem. He may be in second place at the moment, and he may have the best quarterback in football on his side, but all of his eggs are in one basket now. That still has him sitting prettier than Dave, but Dave at least could still win in a weird Chiefs-Buccaneers showdown; if Mahomes is out and Travis Kelce becomes a safety blanket for Chad Henne, and the Packers offense stalls out and kicks a zillion field goals, he has a chance.

As for me? Well, uh. When you go all in on a team, and they lose, you don’t have much left. Remember the Week 12 Chiefs-Buccaneers game? Tyreek Hill going off in the first half, catching 13 passes for 269 yards and three touchdowns? Yeah, I’m going to need Davante Adams to do that this week. And then again, in the Super Bowl. Against the Chiefs, because I can’t spot Andrew any more points. Crazier things have not happened.

Best of the Rest

Bryan: All the quarterbacks are out now! In retrospect, Lamar Jackson ended up being the right pick, with 36.05 points, but Ben Roethlisberger had 35.05 and was far from shabby. As long as you avoided the Ryan Tannehill or Taysom Hill traps, you did fine at quarterback.

We now have a clear frontrunner. ARandom is sitting 6.5 points ahead of the rest of the field, with nearly a complete roster still at hand — he has lost Jackson, James Conner, and the Seahawks defense, but that means he still has a full receiving corps backing up the top-scoring running back in the entire competition so far, Leonard Fournette. But saying he’s up 6.5 points is selling him short, as he is guaranteed to beat the three teams directly behind him. Jeremy B, Bronco Jeff, and StMedard are in second, third, and fourth places, all with some combination of Fournette, John Brown, Mecole Hardman, and Ryan Succop — all of whom ARandom is rostering, so they can’t catch him. In reality, he’s a full 27.6 points clear of the next team with a chance, and I’m not sure JCypess’ Packers defense is going to make up that sort of gap.

No, if you want to find someone to knock off our leader, you’re probably looking at EdHoliday. He’s 35.7 points behind, but he has a mostly intact roster to work with. It’s basically ARandom’s 35.7 points + Leonard Fournette + Mecole Hardman versus EdHoliday’s AJ Dillion and Packers defense. With Green Bay running a three-headed monster, I don’t like his chances of getting a couple of big days out of the third-string back, but of the 12 rosters that are still alive, he’s got the best chance of making a comeback.

Your top five!

  1. ARandom: 181.95 (Leonard Fournette, Allen Lazard, John Brown, Mecole Hardman, Dawson Knox, and Ryan Succop remaining)
  2. Jeremy B: 175.45 (Ryan Succop remaining)
  3. Bronco Jeff: 173.05 (Leonard Fournette, John Brown, and Ryan Succop remaining)
  4. StMedard: 159.35 (Mecole Hardman and Ryan Succop remaining)
  5. JCypess: 154.35 (Dawson Knox, Ryan Succop, and Packers DEF remaining)

Weekly Awards

Keep Choppin’ Wood

With just under two minutes remaining in the first half against Kansas City, Baker Mayfield completed a pass to Rashard Higgins for a huge gain down to the goal line. Alas, when Higgins got there, this happened:

If Higgins goes down with possession instead of diving for the goal line, the Browns have the ball at roughly the 2-yard line with first-and-goal and two timeouts. Instead, he fumbled the ball on the (yes, illegal) hit from Daniel Sorensen and it bounced out of the end zone for a touchback and Chiefs ball. Yes, the rule is horrible. Yes, Higgins was desperately unlucky with both the bounce of the ball and the missed penalty. We feel for him, but this may well be the play that had the biggest impact on the Browns’ chances of a comeback victory. On what was otherwise a pretty well-played weekend, one critical mistake is all it takes.

Herm Edwards Award for Playing to Win the Game

There is only one possible choice for this week’s Hermie:

Just listen to Tony Romo on that call. All the way up to the snap, he was explaining what everybody knew for sure was the plan for the Chiefs: get to the line, run the clock down, try to draw the defense offside, and call timeout with one second left. Everybody knew that’s what they were doing. We had seen it work earlier in the postseason. We were resigned to watching the charade. Just look at the body language from the Chiefs. Anybody could see they weren’t going to snap the ball, especially not with the backup quarterback.

Only Andy Reid and the Chiefs players knew what was the real charade, and we got to witness possibly the boldest fourth-down call of the season.

John Fox Award for Conservatism

Andy Reid’s bold call was set up, however, by an extremely conservative drive by the trailing team that ended in a meek punt on fourth-and-9. Cleveland took possession with exactly eight minutes remaining, trailing 22-17, and ran a clock-killing drive that used eight plays, one timeout, and almost half the remaining game time to gain just one first down and just 12 total yards. Each of the first five plays of the drive — including a fourth-and-1 conversion — used almost the full 40-second play clock. By the end of the four-minute drive, they faced fourth-and-9 on their own 32-yard line with 4:19 remaining. Kevin Stefanski opted to punt, and his offense never took the field again. The entire eight-minute sequence, from both teams, exemplified the two different approaches to closing out a victory with the so-called four-minute offense. The problem, for Stefanski, is the Browns weren’t actually winning at the time.

Jeff Fisher Award for Confusing Coaching.

Hey, that Jameis Winston touchdown pass was pretty cool, right? Let’s watch it again.

Always fun to see Sean Payton dip into his bag of tricks in the postseason — even if this was just riffing on what the Bears had done the week before. It was a heck of a throw, too; 28 yards through the air to hit a wide-open receiver. Twenty-eight yards through the air. That’s not a huge number, but it’s telling that Payton felt he had to put in a backup to get a big play. Drew Brees’ passes were floating and fluttering, especially as the game went on. And yet, Brees kept coming back out there — even after throwing three interceptions, and showing an inability to push the ball downfield, facing a multi-score deficit. Payton has shown no qualms pulling Brees off the field for a backup quarterback during a game, and yet, when it looked like pulling a quarterback swap could have significantly improved their chances of winning, Payton left Winston on the bench. You have to believe that if Taysom Hill was active, he would have been leading those last Saints drives — so why not Winston?

‘It Takes Two’ Fantasy Player of the Week

Winston’s touchdown pass went to Tre’Quan Smith, who had himself a pretty nice day, considering he was only targeted four times. In addition to Winston’s touchdown, Smith caught what may well have been Drew Brees’ final career touchdown, making a great adjustment to haul in the pass for a go-ahead score — not bad for someone who hadn’t played since Week 15 with ankle issues. With the Saints likely saying goodbye to anyone with a contract of any value, Smith — still on his rookie deal — might get the chance to have a few more days like this in 2021.

Garbage Time Failed Comeback Performer of the Week

No garbage time to speak of in the divisional round, when most of the games were competitive. So we’ll instead give this award to Tyler Huntley, forced into action when Lamar Jackson suffered a concussion early in the fourth quarter. It’s difficult to imagine a harder situation to enter a game — fourth quarter of a playoff game, down multiple scores, but not so far behind that you’re just trying to get out without anyone else getting hurt; the game was still potentially there to be won. And on the road, with the wind whipping the ball around. No one would have said anything if Huntley had just gone out there and flopped — after all, he was Baltimore’s fourth-choice quarterback, with Jackson, Robert Griffin, and Trace McSorley all unavailable. Instead, Huntley flashed some athleticism, nearly hit Marquise Brown on a huge touchdown shot, suffered from a few drops. All in all? A decently impressive performance from someone who was not expecting to play at all.

Comfort in Sadness Stat of the Week

Though theirs was not the worst losing margin of the weekend, the New Orleans Saints were the only participants in this year’s divisional round to bow out of the playoffs at home. They lost to a team they had swept in the regular season, and to the only team in the league whose starting quarterback is older than their own. Drew Brees is widely expected to retire after the defeat, and the Saints are in a horrendous salary cap situation. This team will look very different next year. The comfort, however, is a defense that ranked No. 2 in DVOA, finishing in the top three against both run and pass. Much of the core of the defense is young, with key contributors such as Marshon Lattimore, Trey Hendrickson, Shy Tuttle, Chauncey Gardner-Johnson, and Marcus Williams still on their rookie deals. That youth, blended with the experience from the likes of Cameron Jordan, Malcolm Jenkins, and Demario Davis, looks like the key to any successful future for the Saints given the likely changes to come on the offense.

Game-Changing Play of the Week

With the Chiefs-Browns game more than covered in previous awards, we’ll turn to the Bills-Ravens game. Lamar Jackson and Baltimore were driving as the third quarter expired and were in the red zone. Best case scenario, they score a touchdown, we’re tied at 10, and we get a tense, tight fourth quarter. Even stalling out and kicking a field goal at least keeps things close. Even still, turning the ball over on downs or a turnover back by the goal line would give Baltimore’s defense a chance to win the game. No sir, there’s almost nothing bad that can happen on third-and-goal…

You know, all in all, it was probably the wrong decision for Taron Johnson to take that ball out of the end zone. Mark Andrews had a decent shot at taking him down right away, and both Patrick Mekari and Orlando Brown could have had chances if they were a step or two closer and/or faster. But they weren’t closer. They weren’t faster. And once Johnson got past them, with a convoy to ensure Lamar Jackson couldn’t catch him, he was gone — tying George Teague’s record for longest interception in postseason history.

Weekly Predictions

Bryan: Poor, poor Andrew. It looked, for a while, like he was finally going to get off the schneid. The Chiefs were rolling, the Browns were on life support, life was good. And then Patrick Mahomes went down to injury, the game got close, and once again the Chiefs failed to cover a spread. You’re jinxed, my friend.

Money-Back Guarantee Lock of the Week

All picks are made without reference to the FO+ picks, while all lines are courtesy of Bovada and were accurate as of time of writing.

Records to Date:
Bryan: 14-5
Andrew: 7-11-1

Andrew: Now that the Saints have once again let me down in an entirely predictable fashion, and there is no chance of me salvaging even .500 out of this accursed season, I can focus on losing imaginary money on the most entertaining potential outcomes for the postseason. More than any other of those results, I am amused by the idea of the Buffalo Bills reaching the Super Bowl, only to come face to face with the man who picked on them for so long as a divisional rival. To make that happen, first I need Tom Brady and the Buccaneers to win at Lambeau Field against a team they destroyed 38-10 in Tampa Bay during the regular season. Then, I need the Bills to win in Kansas City, which is a line in serious flux right now due to the Patrick Mahomes injury. The latter of those is more likely, but that line is pending Mahomes news. Rather than relying on anything involving the league concussion protocol, I’ll plump for the former here. Tampa Bay (+4) at Green Bay.

Bryan: If Patrick Mahomes doesn’t play, I fully expect the Bills to handle business in the AFC Championship Game and return to the Super Bowl. If he does play … well, that’s much harder to tell, isn’t it? The Chiefs’ big weakness is their run defense, but the Bills do not run when they can at all avoid it — even a heavy windstorm wasn’t enough to get them to hand the ball off more than one time in the entire first half in the divisional round. Still, given the chance that Mahomes doesn’t play, and considering the fact that the Bills have been the better team over the course of the entire season, I’m tempted to take Buffalo anyway — especially when I’m being given points. Plus, I have to help Andrew’s dream come true — so I’m taking Buffalo (+3) and we’ll see you in the Super Bowl.