Things are starting to get real in the NFL. For the first time all season, teams can start clinching playoff berths. This week, it’s the Patriots, 49ers, and Saints. If they don’t lock down a spot this week, then it’s likely they will soon.
Other teams don’t have that kind of margin for error. A loss in any of the next four weeks could be the difference between making the postseason and getting an early vacation.
Even the best teams have something to worry about, though. The Patriots are 10-1, but they still haven’t figured out how to solve their offensive woes. The Texans, who are in the driver’s seat in the AFC South, have to play the Patriots — a team they’ve beaten just once in franchise history. The Saints needed a last-minute miracle to avoid another upset home loss to a lesser NFC South rival.
The Packers just got whupped by the 49ers. The 49ers have to face Lamar Jackson this week, and in turn, Jackson has to face that ferocious 49ers pass rush that just made Aaron Rodgers look like Mitchell Trubisky.
So yeah, there’s a lot of panic to go around the league. Here’s who we’re focusing on this week:
Derek Carr can’t handle cold weather (and December is coming)
The Raiders put their rebuild ahead of schedule with a surprising 6-4 start that had Jon Gruden staring at a playoff berth in just his second year in Oakland. And then, facing off against a Jets team that was 1-6 against opponents with more than two wins this season, that momentum collapsed in on itself like a dying star.
New York staged a three-ring circus atop the Raiders’ playoff aspirations in Week 12, notching its biggest blowout of the year in a 34-3 pantsing that saw Gruden effectively surrender late in the third quarter and leave the last 19 minutes of the game in the hands of sentient scarecrow Mike Glennon. That knocked Oakland off its perch as a playoff team and stuck it in the middle of a four-way tie for the AFC’s sixth and final postseason berth.
Getting back to the top of that heap won’t be easy. The Raiders’ remaining schedule features two teams with winning records (the Chiefs and Titans), and two more erstwhile contenders (the Jaguars and Chargers) who’ll be tough to dispatch. Just as importantly, two of Oakland’s final five games will take place in cold weather scenarios similar to the one it dealt with in north New Jersey in Week 12 — an environment where starting quarterback Derek Carr typically struggles.
So @coachdelrio knows what he speaks of. Said Derek Carr does’t like cold weather games. In games where temp is under 40 at kickoff.. here are his numbers:
152 Pass YPG
51% Comp pct
9 Total QBR
Temps at Arrowhead will be in the 30’s Sunday
— trey wingo (@wingoz) November 26, 2019
He’s going to have to shake off that ignominious history to both upset the Chiefs and return to the playoffs. He’s also got plenty to prove before anyone takes the Raiders’ AFC West title hopes seriously. Oakland only has one win this season over a team with a winning record (the Colts) and ranks outside the top 20 in both points scored and points allowed this fall. The franchise hasn’t won a playoff game since the 2002 postseason, and those numbers — and the loss to the Jets — suggest that drought won’t end in 2020.
Panic index: Oakland has restored Carr’s value as a reliable starter quarterback (weather be damned), revitalized 2018’s league-worst pass rush, and has already matched its preseason over/under line for wins. Gruden’s second season will be viewed as a step forward even if Sunday’s loss to the Jets was the beginning of a collapse.
Lamar Jackson is going to be insanely tough for the 49ers to contain
The 49ers are rolling right along, handling almost everything thrown at them this season. Their lone loss came in a near-tie against the Seahawks. Defensive coordinator Robert Saleh is getting a lot of attention, as he should, for coaching up a relatively young defense into being one of the most feared units in the NFL.
The 49ers should also feel good about besting Aaron Rodgers and the Packers, the first game in their historically difficult three-week stretch. Unfortunately for San Francisco, next up is a challenge that no defense wants to be tasked with right now: figure out a way to stop Lamar Jackson.
Even when the Ravens lost two games this season — falling to the Chiefs and Browns in September — it didn’t feel like the opposing defense had “solved” Jackson by any means. The best way to beat these Ravens is to meet them on an off day, and that’s not something you can plan for.
The games most relevant to the 49ers’ Week 13 matchup are their two wins over Kyler Murray and the Cardinals. The Cardinals also have a quarterback who can run, but they have a lot less talent around Murray, who isn’t on Jackson’s level yet, either.
Still, Murray played pretty well against the 49ers. In those two games, the rookie threw for 391 yards and four touchdowns while rushing for 101 yards and another touchdown. He had the 49ers on the ropes, with the 3-7-1 Cardinals coming up just short both times.
For a glimpse of Jackson-like plays that can beat the 49ers:
Panic index: There will probably never be a moment where something “clicks” and we all suddenly know to beat Lamar Jackson. Eventually, teams will adapt to some degree, but for now, he’s an unstoppable whirlwind of big plays. He takes great defensive players and makes them look like absolute trash. Most recently, Aaron Donald and the Rams’ stout defensive front stood no chance of containing him on Monday Night Football this past week.
The 49ers are sitting at 10 wins, and don’t have too much to panic about overall, especially on defense. However, Jackson’s abilities are entirely aligned to beat aggressive defenses, and the 49ers may be the most aggressive in the league.
While the 49ers are giving up the second-fewest rushing yards in the league, they’re also middle of the pack when it comes to yard per carry allowed (4.7). The Cardinals’ average rushing offense was able to take advantage of it. That means the Ravens’ top-ranked (in every category) rushing offense definitely can.
Jared Goff went the entire month without throwing a TD pass
It has been a difficult last few weeks for the Los Angeles Rams’ fourth-year quarterback. In the last three games, he’s thrown zero touchdowns and five interceptions. He’s the only starting quarterback in the league to not score any touchdowns this month, and he ranks near the bottom of the NFL in completion percentage, interceptions, passer rating, and yards per attempt in November:
It’s been a particularly rough November (Weeks 10-12) for Goff. With a minimum of 15 pass attempts in that span (33 qualifying QB’s), he ranks:
* Comp% – 61.46% (19th)
* INT – 5 (30th)
* Rating – 58.9 (29th)
* AY/A – 4.20 (29th)
He’s the only QB with 0 touchdowns.
— Bate™ (@NoPlanB_) November 26, 2019
Take a look at Goff’s numbers month-to-month this season — November was easily his worst.
- September (3-1 record): 64.2 completion percentage, 1,254 yards, 6 TD, 6 INT, 82.9 passer rating, 7.3 yards per attempt, 4 fumbles (3 lost)
- October (2-2 record): 57.5 completion percentage, 1,113 yards, 5 TD, 1 INT, 91.7 passer rating, 7.9 yards per attempt, 2 fumbles (1 lost)
- November (1-2 record): 61.5 completion percentage, 628 yards, 0 TD 5 INT, 58.9 passer rating, 6.5 yards per attempt, 4 fumbles (1 lost)
The Rams are 1-2 in the last three games while Goff has struggled most and are just coming off their worst loss yet: a 45-6 beating from the Ravens. The Rams are now 6-5 and play in the toughest division in the loaded NFC. With upcoming games against the Seahawks, Cowboys, and 49ers, the playoffs look like a long shot at this point. But even more worrisome is what’s happening to their franchise quarterback.
Panic index: It’s been three years since the Rams drafted Goff at No. 1 overall, and he’s improved each season — until now. While the QB did lead Los Angeles to a Super Bowl just last year, his regression this season is still concerning, even if not all Goff’s fault (cough, his OL, cough).
That said, Sean McVay did wonders when he took over as head coach of the Rams. Goff threw just 5.3 yards per attempt and had five touchdowns to seven interceptions as a rookie under Jeff Fisher. Goff’s numbers skyrocketed the next two years under McVay. It’s possible that Goff’s problems won’t get fixed in December, but that doesn’t mean he’s permanently broken either. There’s still time to get him back on track, whether it’s this year or next.
The Cowboys refuse to use analytics
There’s nothing wrong with leaning on your football instincts as an NFL head coach. Even if the odds are stacked against you, sometimes it’s good to channel Han Solo and tell your assistant coach equivalent of C-3PO to pipe down with his talk of the odds.
Still, it doesn’t hurt to have all the information at your disposal when trying to make a decision. The Cowboys would rather fly blind.
During his weekly radio show appearance on 105.3 The Fan, head coach Jason Garrett said he doesn’t use in-game win probability stats to help him make decisions. That’s wild, considering Garrett is the NFL coach who most resembles a robot.
“You’re dealing with averages, you’re dealing with almost theory,” Jones said. “And you’re certainly dealing with a result but it doesn’t take into account really the kinds of times when you’ve gone against every odds and made it work. I’ve had my biggest success when I’m sure analytics would have said make the other decision the other way.”
That’s fine, but the Cowboys may have had a better chance to win in Week 12 if Garrett had some analytics on his side. With just over six minutes left in the game, the Patriots had a 13-6 lead over the Cowboys, but Garrett opted for a 29-yard field goal instead of trying to convert a fourth-and-7 situation inside the red zone.
Would Garrett have made the same decision if he knew the field goal actually dropped the Cowboys probability of winning, even though it was successful? You’d certainly hope so.
Panic index: The Ravens have embraced analytics as much as any team in the NFL, and it’s working out really well for them. Statistics favor aggressiveness and no team has converted more fourth downs than Baltimore in 2019. Meanwhile, the Cowboys have been successful on just one fourth down all year and have lost four games by four points or fewer.
Garrett’s been the subject of plenty of criticism in recent years and his refusal to join the 21st century is another reason Dallas hasn’t been able to turn its ample talent into a trip to the Super Bowl.