May 29, 2022

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Solving the Seventh-Seed Steelers Situation

28 min read
Solving the Seventh-Seed Steelers Situation

NFL Divisional –  

Andrew: Hello and welcome to another edition of Scramble for the Ball, where the postseason got underway with a decent game before quickly devolving into a series of blowouts and calamitous performances. Who would have thought that the Raiders would make the most dignified exit of any of our wild-card losers?

Bryan: And calling the Raiders’ exit “dignified” when they kept forcing themselves into worse and worse situations at the end of the game is a bit of a stretch in itself! In the land of the blind, the one-eyed man is king, and in the land of Super Wild Card Weekend, the only slightly incompetent is lauded.

Andrew: Are we contractually obligated to call it that? ‘Cause “super” is not the adjective I would use to describe what we witnessed on Saturday and Sunday, and I’m pretty sure the weekend is over well before Monday night.

Bryan: I mean, it could have been worse. We got to see some historic performances—the Buffalo blowout was fascinating and one of the better routs you’ll ever see. We got tight finishes in a pair of games, and two close finishes on wild-card weekend is in the neighborhood of par, if only for the fact that they historically had anywhere from two to four games and not six. And hey, we got to see the Dallas Cowboys lose to their biggest rivals, the Dallas Cowboys. The 1990s kid in me really enjoyed that!

Andrew: I will admit, seeing the Patriots and Cowboys lose badly (in varying definitions of badly) and Ben Roethlisberger go out in a blowout defeat did help offset the complete lack of competition in most of the games. Even the Cowboys contest didn’t really feel that competitive until the very last drive (though I suspect your view of that was quite different from mine), and the Raiders kept making bad decisions at inopportune moments to stymie their comeback aspirations. Not one game was decided by fewer than six points, and not one team that trailed entering the fourth quarter came back to win. That’s a disappointing return from around 20 hours of football.

Bryan: I don’t know, I’m slightly less than disappointed, though again, my view of the outcomes this weekend was quite different from yours.

But your general point certainly stands, in that all things considered, close football games are better than not-close football games, and we had too many of the latter. It has been suggested, by some, that the inclusion of the seventh seed is to blame—that adding two teams from the bottom of the playoff race leads to uncompetitive and uninteresting matchups on what should be a super weekend. Allow us to be the first to talk about that.

… Wait, what? OK.

Allow us to be the 17,248th to talk about that.

Andrew: Certainly, this year’s representatives from Pennsylvania didn’t help the cause. I’d like to say that they aren’t typical of the prospective seventh seeds from most years, but I’m not sure that would be accurate. This year’s Eagles don’t strike me as all that different from last year’s Bears, who also exited at this stage as a seventh seed playing on the road against a team from the NFC South. This year’s Steelers had no business making the playoffs in the first place, but that’s easy for me to say as a man who is highly in favor of calling a tie a tie. Well, we call them draws, but that’s by the by. One more tie instead of overtime to finish out the season and we get Justin Herbert instead of Ben Roethlisberger, and we really might be looking at a super weekend.

Bryan: As usual, you have hit the nail on the head. In Audibles, commenter Pat noted that it was odd that we talked about the seventh seed conundrum during the Eagles-Buccaneers game rather than the Steelers-Chiefs game, but that’s because our abilities to comment are sadly limited by the flow of linear time, and the Eagles game happened to occur first. But you’re right—the Eagles were an OK team who ended up being outmatched by a very good team, and that’s not the end of the world in a postseason situation. The Steelers were a terrible team that had no business in any kind of championship discussion, and only got into the playoffs because their terrible result was a tie (against Detroit), as opposed to losses by the Chargers and Colts.

The larger point, though, is that we have now had four of these seventh-seed games. Three of them have been noncompetitive, at best, and the fourth (Colts-Bills a year ago) wasn’t as close as the final score indicated, all things considered. The argument, then, is why do we have these seventh seeds if they’re just going to get washed out in the first round anyway?

Andrew: Well, the answer to that is easy, and measured in bills, but even that will surely produce diminishing returns at some point. We’re already close to saturation point for both teams and slots, and this is two years in a row that I have felt there were simply too many games.

Even before they started, we had guys who are such big fans of this sport that they write about it for this website deciding how to divide their time so that they didn’t spend the entire weekend in front of the TV, but every game was covered for Audibles. Sure, if the games were better, that might help, but as the guy who compiles and edits Audibles, I was pretty darn washed out by Monday night. Regrettably, some of that is probably coming through in this article introduction. I really thought we had the right balance with six teams. I don’t really see what adding another team that scraped a barely above-average record does to enhance the tournament.

Bryan: I’m glad we have some disagreement here, as I didn’t feel there was too much football at all this past weekend. The quality left something to be desired, though I think that generally falls more into the category of “sometimes the football is bad” rather than “sometimes, teams don’t deserve to be in the postseason.” No one’s arguing we should get rid of fifth seeds because Arizona laid an egg on Monday. I mean, during the regular season, plenty of people watch an NFL game on Thursday, a full slate of NCAA games on Saturday, a full slate of NFL games on Sunday, and then an NFL game on Monday. This just replaces those NCAA games with a superior product. Sure, if you only watch one or the other, then having games on both weekend days is a bit of a culture shock, but it happens.

Andrew: Eh, I guess. It also probably helps that you’re not staying up until 5 a.m. to watch the games. (Yes, I know, you stay up until 5 a.m. for other reasons entirely.)

Bryan: I will during the Winter Olympics, so if I’m delirious during Super Bowl weekend, you’ll understand why.

But, OK, let’s step back for a moment. You said that you feel adding teams that scraped barely above-average records doesn’t add anything. I suppose the big question we have to tackle before we talk about seventh seeds is—what’s the point of the playoffs? Why do we have them, and not just declare the team with the best record in the regular season the champion, like we did before 1932?

Andrew: *Casts a glance over the national leagues of pretty much every major European sport.* Beats me.

Or more seriously, because of schedule inequality. You can’t take a team that gets a 13-4 record in a division with the Lions, Matt Nagy Bears, and what remains of Mike Zimmer’s Vikings and definitively crown them champions over a team with a 12-5 record that played the Cardinals, 49ers, and Seahawks. (Admittedly, that’s not the best example this year, given that the Packers swept the NFC West.) And that’s before you get into the lack of parity between conferences. We can’t have teams playing 62 games in a calendar year to play every opponent home-and-away. At least, not without 200-player rosters.

Bryan: You’re right, of course, but the point stands a little more generally, I think. If the goal of the playoffs was to crown the best team as champion, the NFL is going about it all wrong. They should take the top four teams—this year, the Packers, Buccaneers, Titans, and Chiefs—and have them play a three-week round-robin tournament. And then maybe you can have a final Super Bowl to determine the grand champion or something if you really need an outlet for your halftime show.

But of course, that’s not the point of the playoffs, nor should it be. It’s good for the sport to occasionally have a year when the 2011 Giants, at 9-7 with a negative point differential, shock the world by beating the Patriots in the Super Bowl. Or for Jerome Bettis’ sixth-seed Steelers to go on a tear late on their way to Detroit (where Bettis is from, in case you hadn’t heard). Underdogs winning occasionally is exciting, and letting in teams that were good, but not great, and seeing if they can’t prove themselves against teams with stronger resumes is a good thing, in my book.

And, if we’re going to do that, it’s OK if we occasionally get teams like the Eagles or last year’s Colts sneaking in. Yes, they ended up not doing a great job, as you would expect—if lower seeds won all the time, then the playoffs would feel entirely random. You want to get a nice ratio where the best teams win most of the time. The problem is when you get teams like the Steelers or last year’s Bears—and yes, I’d group 2020 Chicago in more with the Pittsburgh contingent than the Philadelphia contingent—who flopped into the postseason on the back of a mediocre record against an easy schedule when other, better teams slipped up late, and then showed up only to get properly pulverized against a more professional side. That’s not good for anyone.

Andrew: Sounds like you’re saying we should have some kind of quality control for the playoffs, where it takes more than just finishing inside an arbitrary cutoff to get you in.

Bryan: The issue the NFL has here is that there aren’t always seven good teams in a conference, yeah. Some years there are only five or six. Some years, there would be seven or eight. If the goal of the NFL was simply to make sure that every qualified team, and only qualified teams, made the playoffs in a given year, they would have to go to some kind of variable-sized postseason. That would be awkward, and controversial, and potentially unbalanced, and it would be the kind of thing I’d love.

Andrew: You sure do love things that are awkward and controversial. Nobody would dare dispute that.

Alright, then let’s take a look at how that could work. What are some basic requirements we could place on playoff teams? First up, teams should have a positive point differential. That seems like a very basic, fundamental requirement. Score more points than you allow.

Bryan: We’ll need more requirements than that, however. Ignoring division-winning teams (we’re just going to assume division-winners get in no matter what we do here), there are 386 teams since 1990 (when the NFL expanded to 12 playoff teams) with positive point differentials, or an average of 12 wild-card teams per year. That may be too large.

Andrew: Oh, yes, I’m on record with my belief that division-winners should always make the postseason, and I’m still in favor of them hosting games. See that schedule inequality thing again. So yes, winning your division trumps all, even at 7-9 with a negative point differential.

Alright, so we need to whittle that down some more. Wild-card teams should have a winning record, not just scrape .500.

Bryan: That would whittle us down to 297 teams since 1990, or a little over nine wild-card teams per year. You’re making strong arguments for the playoffs being too small!

Andrew: Alright, then let’s use the Rivers (McCown) Reckoning. In Audibles, Rivers suggested that teams should make the playoffs if they are at least two games above .500, so at least 10-6-1 in the current standings.

Bryan: Ah, now we’re being selective. There have only been 13 teams since 1990 to fit that criteria and miss the postseason, most recently the 2020 Dolphins. Here, have a convenient table!

For the most part, these are teams that probably deserved to play some playoff games. Last year’s Dolphins aren’t a great example because they were lucky to get to 10-6, and my life has not been lessened by the Derek Anderson Browns or the Josh Freeman Buccaneers not getting to play extra football, but in general, that’s a good list of joes there.

Andrew: It’s also good to see that no individual conference would have had more than eight playoff teams in a single season. That suggests it’s a functional measure of who the top teams are: it may let in one or two fluke sides, but it’s not just letting in everybody like the previous requirements.

Bryan: Ah, but there is a catch. You see, those seeds in that table are listed as they would be if the six (or seven) teams that actually did make the playoffs still got there. But if we’re creating a 10-6 requirement to make the postseason, there are a lot of teams that qualified that shouldn’t have—50, to be precise, since 1990. That includes some teams that probably shouldn’t have made it, like the Eagles and Steelers this year or the Bears the year before. But it would also eliminate teams such as the 2008 Eagles, who had a DVOA of 30.6% and made it all the way to the conference championship game, despite only having a 9-6-1 record in the regular season. The 1995 Colts, the 1996 Jaguars, the 2009 Jets, the 2019 Titans—all made championship games despite not hitting the magical 10-6 mark, and 14 other teams at least won their wild-card game. I really think the 10-6 mark is too restrictive; you’d end up with some years (like 2006) where you’d have no wild-card teams at all in a conference.

Andrew: The 1996 Jaguars are already eliminated by the positive point differential criteria, and the 1995 Colts were one of the weakest playoff teams ever. I don’t think we should let their performance in the postseason trump how bad they were in the regular season. If we want the 2008 Eagles, 2009 Jets, and 2019 Titans, then we can let in 9-7 teams who have at least a +70 point differential, or upping that to +100 keeps just the Jets and Eagles. So either two games above .500 or a point differential of +100.

However, you seem to be suggesting that we should let in teams who fall outside our wins and point differential cutoffs, as long as they meet some other mystical criteria. Or is there something else we can find that the 2008 Eagles and 2019 Titans all have in common? (I really would not have missed the 2009 Jets.)

Bryan: Part of the problem we’re having here is that point differential is a really bad way of determining a team’s quality. It’s better than straight up wins and losses, but this isn’t 1972 anymore. If only we had some kind of, I don’t know, system that allowed us to determine how good a team was on any given play, perhaps even adjusting it to take into account the quality of opposing defenses.

They say that football isn’t played on paper, but maybe we can change that with the power of DVOA!

Obviously, the NFL is never going to turn to DVOA over on-field results to determine their playoff teams, but frankly, that’s a lack of vision on their part. Here in mystical Scramble land, we could create the twin criteria of needing to finish above .500 AND having a DVOA above 0.0%, so a team would have to be officially certified as above average in two different ways if they wanted one of those wild-card berths. When Aaron Schatz becomes commissioner of the league, I’m sure this will happen.

If we applied those twin criteria, we would have added 63 wild-card teams since 1990 and removed 28. That’s an average of 1.09 extra playoff teams per season, meeting the NFL’s desire for more playoff games to market and meeting our desire of not having to watch Ben Roethlisberger shambling through one final game.

This year would have been one of the more expansive years, actually. The Steelers would have been out, but three teams would have slid into the playoffs instead. Instead of Pittsburgh-Kansas City, we would have seen the Colts take on the Chiefs. Justin Herbert’s Chargers would have gotten a first-round game against Ryan Tannehill and the Titans. And in the NFC, the Packers would have tried to avenge their Week 1 debacle by taking on the Saints. Maybe upsets there are unlikely, but I think all three would have been better games than PIT-KC, and those are the sorts of games I’m fine with seeing on wild-card weekend. A Trevor Simeian postseason start is less than ideal, but the storyline there would be worth watching, and more Justin Herbert in prime time is a good thing for the NFL’s growth (plus, he’s fun to watch, which helps). Because that’s the problem, especially with the AFC this year—it’s not that seven teams were too many, it was that the wrong seventh team got in. People wouldn’t be complaining about the seventh seed if we got to see more Jonathan Taylor or Justin Herbert. It’s just that in a sample size of four, we have gotten unlucky twice. It happens! It will be fine. We will survive.

Andrew: I’m certainly in favor of any system that places Justin Herbert in the postseason ahead of Ben Roethlisberger in the year 2022. Frankly, in light of the TV revenues, it’s a wonder we haven’t just gone to a selection committee in the first place. If the college game has shown us anything, it’s that letting a computer and a committee pick your playoff teams removes almost all of the controversy, guaranteeing the strongest possible playoff field.

Bryan: Honestly, my biggest problem right now with the playoff field? Seven is such a stupid, unwieldy number, and having one team earn a bye just feels wrong to me.

Andrew: Yeah, we’re back to that seven-team playoff in a 17-game season thing. All those odd numbers, and prime numbers especially, give the full season the feel of a stepping stone on the path to something else.

Bryan: The NFL has had some awkward formats before, but I think this one takes the cake. There was a period of time in the 1970s where they had three division-winners and two wild card teams for five playoff teams per conference, but at least then you could make an argument that the non-division-winners having to play a play-in game to “earn” a playoff spot made a certain degree of sense, even if created a weird runt week—it’s basically what MLB does right now with the play-in game. And then you had six playoff teams out of three divisions, which meant only one division-winner didn’t get a bye, which was a little head-scratching, but we have all seen division-winners which, uh, aren’t of the same quality as their colleagues, so OK. Maybe we just got so used to the 2002-2019 system that any change would feel weird, but it really felt like they had nailed it in terms of fairness, if not necessarily letting all the best teams in.

Andrew: As we have seen, the previous system also had its fair share of bad teams get in and good teams miss out. I’m just yet to be convinced that adding a seventh team in each conference enhances the tournament. Maybe next season, that seventh seed will be a Saints team that got unlucky with injuries, but with everybody healthy, they’ll go on a postseason tear and make me very happy the seventh spot was added. I guess. At least it keeps more teams interested later in the year.

Bryan: Of course, we could extend that to its maximum possibility, and go to all 32 teams in the playoffs! Imagine SUPER DUPER CRAZY WILD CARD WEEKEND. Chiefs-Texans! Rams-Bears! Buccaneers-Giants! 49ers … Seahawks.

OK, it’s vitally important that we keep the postseason as small as possible, OK, thank you, goodbye.

Andrew: Yeah, let’s not completely invalidate the regular season. Not even to see the look of panic on your face whenever Russell Wilson takes a snap in the fourth quarter.

And with all that said, we don’t need to think about those seventh seeds again for the entire postseason. We have some pretty tasty matchups next weekend, all featuring teams we can be absolutely certain deserve to be here. Let’s hope the games live up to the potential! We leave you with our usual awards, and absolutely no reference whatsoever to the staff fantasy … drat.

Playoff Fantasy Update

Bryan: For the first time, we had seven players playing in the staff league. But is the seventh seed really necessary after all? Sorry, Dave.

2021 Staff Playoff Fantasy Challenge
  Bryan Rivers Scott Vince Andrew Aaron Dave
QB Patrick
41.1 Josh Allen 42 Tom Brady 21.55 Matthew Stafford 26.3 Dak Prescott 23.4 Aaron Rodgers 0 Kyler Murray 3.45
RB Derrick Henry 0 Elijah Mitchell 15.5 Aaron Jones 0 Joe Mixon 11.6 Leonard Fournette 0 A.J. Dillon 0 Damien Harris 4.7
RB Darrel Williams -1.6 James Conner 9.4 Josh Jacobs 16.7 Sony Michel 5.8 Ezekiel Elliott 4.1 Devin Singletary 24 Tony Pollard 4.6
WR Amari Cooper 18.4 Stefon Diggs 9 A.J. Brown 0 Cooper Kupp 17.1 Tee Higgins 2 Mike Evans 26.7 Davante Adams 0
WR Van Jefferson 5.1 Ja’Marr Chase 22.9 Julio Jones 0 Odell Beckham 17.4 Cedrick Wilsom 11.2 Allen Lazard 0 Tyreek Hill 16.7
WR Jakobi Meyers 10 Deebo Samuel 20 Breshad Perriman 1.5 Tyler Boyd 12.9 Mecole Hardman 8.9 Byron Pringle 20.7 CeeDee Lamb 3.6
TE Dalton Schultz 15.9 Dawson Knox 25.9 George Kittle 2.8 Travis Kelce 25.9 Rob Gronkowski 14.1 Tyler Higbee 7.6 Zach Ertz 5.1
K Harrison Butker 6 Evan McPherson 15 Ryan Succop 7 Matt Gay 11 Greg Zuerlein 8 Mason Crosby 0 Matt Prater 6
DEF Chiefs 2 Bills 5 Titans 0 Rams 5 Cowboys -1 Packers 0 Buccaneers 6
TOT 96.9 164.7 49.55 133 70.7 79 50.15

So, Rivers’ strategy of loading up on Bills seems to be working out well so far—a historic offensive performance will tend to do that for you. Back-to-back touchdowns from Josh Allen to Dawson Knox to open the Bills ledger had him practically glowing and jumping out to a massive early lead. Having a pair of double-digit-scoring 49ers in Deebo Samuel and Elijah Mitchell is icing on the cake, especially as they earned a second outing.

Vince is at least giving him a charge, however, with his near-all-Rams select making short work of Arizona on Monday night. His ringers performed well, too, with Travis Kelce and Joe Mixon adding double digits of their own. And unlike Rivers, Vince still has his whole team remaining. Is Rivers losing James Conner worse than the 31.7-point deficit Vince faces? Your mileage may vary there; I’d expect Rivers to be in better position with Bills rather than Rams, but at least it’s decently tight at the top.

I’d call Aaron in the next best spot, even if he is only in fourth place at the moment. 79 points without a quarterback is a damn nice score; 79 points with only four players going is fantastic, and he didn’t lose a single slot. Aaron traditionally leans heavy on bye-week teams, a strategy that has paid off well for him in the past. As long as the Packers don’t get upset this week, he’s in good form, if a bit off the pace of people who had great wild-card days.

They may be nearly 50 points apart on the scoreboard, but Scott and Bryan are in very similar situations, as they both lost all their non-quarterback double-digit scorers. Three-quarters of Bryan’s receiving corps ducked out early, but at least Amari Cooper, Jakobi Meyers, and Dalton Schultz had the courtesy of putting up some numbers before they left. He’s basically down to Patrick Mahomes and the hope that Derrick Henry exists (he picked the wrong Chiefs running back!), while Scott wants the Buccaneers’ passing attack to pick it up a little and for his bye week stars to do as well as Bryan’s wild-card dropouts.

Andrew is still alive! Sure, the Cowboys losing is a massive blow, but at least he still has the Leonard Fournette-Rob Gronkowski combination, and Scott does not have a Buccaneers stack to go with Tom Brady. Andrew basically needs a strict set of results this weekend—49ers over Packers, Buccaneers over Rams, Bengals over Titans, and Chiefs over Bills—but at least you can sketch out a path to competitiveness there, if a shaky one.

And then there’s Dave. Dave is on record now saying his goal is to get the lowest score in staff playoff history and, I must say, he’s off to a very good start. It’s safe to say he’s doomed, breathing his last when the Kyler Murray-to-Zach Ertz connection did not result in six touchdowns on Monday night.

Best of the Rest
Bryan: The best teams to this point are often not the best going forward, and such is the case this year.

Our leader in the clubhouse is JW124164, with a Raiders- and Patriots-heavy lineup that pushed him to 111.3 points. He had big numbers out of Derek Carr (17.5), Hunter Renfrow (13.8), Brandon Aiyuk (11.6), Kendrick Bourne (28.1), Darren Waller (14.6), and Daniel Carlson (14.0) on his way to the early lead; it was difficult (though not impossible) to pick a better first-week lineup than that even with perfect clairvoyance.

Of course, the problem is that Carr, Renfrow, Bourne, Waller, and Carlson are now out, as is Brandon Bolden. The trio of Aiyuk, Jeff Wilson, and the 49ers defense isn’t terrible, but isn’t overly likely to keep him in first place going forwards. Our second-place player, Vrao81, is in a similar boat, though at least he still has Joe Burrow available.

I’d argue that third-place Alec B is doing the best right now. He’s at a very credible 101.9 points, running with Joe Burrow (20.0), Ke’Shaun Vaughn (14.2), Brandon Aiyuk (11.6), Diontae Johnson (14.4), C.J. Uzomah (18.4), and Robbie Gould (18.0). More importantly, only Johnson is out in that group, and with no one having a full nine-man roster left, that’s as good as anyone at the moment. Gambling on the Bengals seemed to be the wisest strategy—after our leader, our next five highest-scorers all ran with Burrow, and Cincinnati gets to play another day. And with two of those Burrow-havers in the top five (JGov joined Alec B), and several more lurking within 40 points of the overall lead so far (notably Fizz and Friends, StMedard, and JCYPess, to name just three), I’d expect one of those Cincinnati-lovers to have the best path going forward.

We had 27 entries this year. Twenty-six still have players available (one entry went basically all Steelers, which was a brave choice), but only 19 still have a chance to win; the other seven are “covered” by a team ahead of them in the standings who has all their players remaining. Sure, sometimes those chances are “this is the year Josiah Deguara takes over as the best player in the league”, but a chance is a chance!

Your top 5, through one week

  1. JW124164: 111.3 points (Jeff Wilson, Brandon Aiyuk and 49ers DEF remaining)
  2. Vrao81: 106.1 points (Joe Burrow, Clyde Edwards-Helaire, Robbie Gould and Bengals DEF remaining)
  3. Alec B: 101.9 points (Joe Burrow, Derrick Gore, Ke’Shaun Vaughn, Brandon Aiyuk, Marquez Valdes-Scantling, CJ Uzomah, Robbie Gould and Bengals DEF remaining)
  4. ARandom: 98.0 points (Joe Burrow, Cam Akers and Brandon Aiyuk remaining)
  5. JGov: 96.8 points (Joe Burrow, Clyde Edwards-Helaire, Cam Akers, Gabriel Davis, Brandon Aiyuk, Tyler Johnson, Robbie Gould and 49ers DEF remaining)

Weekly Awards (Brought to You by Michael J. McCarthy)

Keep Choppin’ Wood
The wild-card games brought us an alarming number of candidates for this week’s KCW. In the very first game, we saw Raiders backup Peyton Barber attempt to establish himself out of bounds to gain a free trip to the 40-yard line on a mishit kickoff , but mistakenly field the ball before he stepped out, forcing his team to start at the 2 instead.

We saw the league assign Jerome Boger to a playoff game, and the inevitable disaster ensue. Boger’s crew whistled a play dead early while Joe Burrow’s pass attempt was in midair traveling toward Tyler Boyd. Boger then ignored the rulebook and awarded the touchdown, much to the consternation of Terry McAulay on the NBC broadcast. Senior VP of officiating Walt Anderson didn’t help matters, passing on a version of events after the game that defied the reality we had all clearly witnessed.

We saw four separate teams put up almost no resistance, losing by at least 16 points in games that were largely over by halftime.

However, whether players or officials, backroom staff or on-field crew, nobody was more united in their pursuit of not just defeat, but painful, comical, and unsporting defeat than the Dallas Cowboys. Consider:

  • The Cowboys committed no fewer than 14 accepted penalties, tying the record for accepted penalties in a playoff game.
  • They built a shiny new football stadium that actively hinders teams from playing football in it. Sunlight streaming through the giant window in JerryWorld, as it is affectionately/mockingly known, blinded their own players as they attempted to catch passes. One of their punts hit the scoreboard, forcing the down to be replayed.
  • The entire fake punt/next play kerfuffle, helpfully expounded below.
  • With 14 seconds remaining and no timeouts, the Cowboys ran a quarterback draw, then failed to get lined up quickly enough to spike the ball with time remaining. The final play was a spike as time expired, the first time we can ever remember that happening in a playoff game.
  • Quarterback Dak Prescott then praised fans for throwing garbage at the officials after the game, which might be the starkest example of a sore loser in recent playoff memory.
  • They kept playing star running back Ezekiel Elliott even though he had a partial tear (i.e., grade II sprain) in his posterior cruciate ligament. The injury occurred against the Panthers in Week 4; had they allowed him to recover, he would likely have been fully healthy for the postseason.

The sole home team to lose on wild-card weekend did so in the most haphazard, poorly coached, poorly prepared performance of the weekend. Which is mighty impressive in its own way, considering the aforementioned blowouts.

John Fox Award for Conservatism
We implicitly praised Mike McCarthy above for the fake punt that the Cowboys ran on fourth-and-5 near midfield in the fourth quarter, trailing 23-7. However, what made the fake so believable is McCarthy’s awful conservatism on fourth downs in general, including the previous occasion in that very game. Late in the third quarter, again with the score 23-7, the Cowboys faced fourth-and-2 from their own 33. They punted, virtually guaranteeing that they would enter the fourth quarter still down by at least two touchdowns against a team who had outplayed them all game. Then, when they did score next, it was a 51-yard field goal on fourth-and-7, turning a two-touchdown deficit into … er, a slightly smaller two-touchdown deficit.

Herm Edwards Award for Playing to Win the Game
Zac Taylor made plenty of conservative calls against the Raiders, including a very, very conservative late field goal on fourth-and-1 with a chance to take a two-touchdown lead, but we loved his call on fourth-and-1 in makeable field goal range with a seven-point lead and 3:33 remaining in the second quarter. Rather than attempt the 48-yard field goal, Taylor got the ball in the hands of his best playmaker: a Ja’Marr Chase sweep gained 15 yards and got the Bengals a first down in the red zone. Three plays later, the Bengals led by 14, and the Raiders didn’t get the ball again in a position to tie until the very last drive of the game.

Jeff Fisher Award for Confusing Coaching
The Dallas Cowboys ran a fake punt in the fourth quarter against the 49ers to near-perfection. One could quibble about running a play with your special teams unit instead of your offense in a comeback try, but we’re not here to knock what worked. We’re here to knock what happened afterwards.

The Cowboys left their punt unit on the field, lining them up as if they were going to run another play against the 49ers’ punt return unit. They were attempting to catch the 49ers subbing their regular defense back onto the field, snapping the ball with San Francisco having 12 men (and maybe getting a free shot at a deep pass or something). But it didn’t work—partially because San Francisco switched quickly, and partially because they didn’t take into account the actual mechanics of refereeing. See, the refs had to switch out the kicking K-ball for the regular football used on standard plays, which gave the 49ers time to swap players. And then the umpire stood over the ball, which is where Dallas fans have some beef—if the Cowboys didn’t substitute (which they didn’t), the umpire should have gotten out of the way after the ball had been switched. But because that exchange took a moment longer than anticipated, the Cowboys panicked and rushed their regular offense back on the field. That means the refs had to delay the snap again, to see if San Francisco wanted to substitute anyone of their own. And by the time all that was done, the play clock had expired and the Cowboys took a delay of game.

An intriguing trick play that resulted in a positive outcome, only to end up hurting the Cowboys because they didn’t take into account the mechanics of refereeing? Well, at least that’s the type of thing that could only hurt Mike McCarthy and company once a game. And I will say, calling a series of plays that require a quick-snap when the refs need to change the physical football out is … shall we say an optimistic endeavor, as referees are not, in fact, automatons, and are usually pretty old men. Hence why it’s a Confusing award, and not a KCW award, but man, that was bad.

‘Bourne to Run’ Fantasy Player of the Week

Per Scramble tradition, we give this award to the highest-scoring fantasy player who was not selected in the staff draft. That means it’s Kendrick Bourne, arguably the best skill position player the Patriots signed in their free-agent spending spree last offseason. Bourne brought his San Francisco skillset of YAC and tough blocking to New England all year long and ended up leading all receivers (min. 50 targets) in DVOA. He was one of the few Patriots to come out of this weekend with his reputation unscathed. Bourne had seven receptions for 77 yards and a pair of touchdowns and added in a carry for another 14 yards. He’ll have a key role on whatever iteration of the Patriots we see next season.

Garbage-Time Performer of the Week

With a number of blowouts this week, we have a wide selection to choose from, but the proper answer is Kendrick Bourne again. Once the game got out of hand somewhere in the second quarter, Bourne kept producing—six receptions for 68 yards from that point on, including both of New England’s touchdowns. Ben Roethlisberger, Mac Jones, Jalen Hurts, and Kenneth Gainwell all have arguments (again, there were quite a few blowouts to deal with!) but we’d be picking them just for the sake of variety, not because they actually won the award.

Comfort in Sadness Stat of the Week
It sure didn’t count for much in the largest defeat of wild-card weekend, but Patriots rookie Mac Jones had the highest DVOA of any rookie quarterback this season, and the fifth highest of any passer in the AFC. If he can improve on that performance by making the sophomore quarterback jump, the Patriots appear set for the long term at quarterback for the first time since before we all learned that Tom Brady is a cyborg.

Game-Changing Play of the Week
There are a couple plays we could go with here, but we are forced to follow the Official Scramble Guidelines: when a play in the closing seconds of the game gives a franchise their first playoff win in over three decades, it has to win.

Derek Carr had to force that pass because the Raiders spiked the ball on first down—they only had three shots at the end zone rather than four, so this was “force the ball and hope for a miracle” time, with the Bengals covering everything. They also had to force that pass on a fourth-and-9 because they had opted to kick a field goal on fourth-and-3 just a few moments earlier. The Raiders put themselves in a more difficult position because of play-calling errors.

Not that the Bengals will mind. It’s hard to say a wild-card play will go down in franchise history or anything (or, at least, it would be depressing if a wild-card play went down in franchise history), but a lot of demons were exorcised on this play right here.

Also, Las Vegas, um, maybe have your best receivers (Darren Waller, 83, and Hunter Renfrow, 13) go into the end zone on your fourth-and-season play next time? Just a thought.

Weekly Predictions

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:
Andrew: 8-11
Bryan: 7-12

Andrew: Of all this weekend’s playoff games, I find the specific matchups between the Rams and the Buccaneers the most intriguing. Jalen Ramsey versus Mike Evans. Aaron Donald, Leonard Floyd, and Von Miller versus a line that might be missing Ryan Jensen and Tristan Wirfs. Rob Gronkowski versus the Rams linebackers and/or Taylor Rapp. The Rams run offense versus the Buccaneers pass defense. Cooper Kupp versus the Buccaneers secondary. While I think the Buccaneers are the stronger overall team, I really like how the Rams match up to those strengths. Tom Brady is the X-factor, so bet against him at your peril. My bets have been in peril all season. L.A. Rams (+3) at Tampa Bay.

Bryan: The 49ers and the Packers played to a very tight finish back in Week 3, despite Green Bay putting up a significantly higher single-game DVOA than San Francisco did. “Well,” you might say, “the 49ers were lucky to be in that game, so the rematch should see the Packers winning by a wider margin.” Or “well,” you could say, “the 49ers very nearly beat the Packers despite not playing their A game, so the rematch should see the 49ers come out on top.” I’ll split the difference there and say things will end up about the same, which means I’m taking San Francisco (+6). I really believe the 49ers, when they’re playing as good as they can, are better than the Packers. The problem is, the Packers usually play somewhere near “as good as they can,” while the 49ers have moments like the fourth quarter against the Cowboys frequently enough that it’s hard to pick them for the upset. But hey, that’s why they play the games and all that.