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Rams Reach the Crossroads; 49ers Drive to Glory

NFL Week 12 – It’s theoretically possible for a football team to execute an infinite drive on which they score zero points and net zero yards.

This is the sort of thing you end up thinking about while watching the San Francisco 49ers.

Minnesota Vikings at San Francisco 49ers, Sunday, 4:25 p.m.

The Infinite Treadmill drive would start at midfield and consist of three plays netting a total of -5 yards, then a holding penalty on third down granting the team a first down right where they started. Ideally, the three plays would be two rushes between the tackles and a sack, allowing the clock to run as much as possible. The first quarter melts away, then the game, then the season, then all traces of human society, but the team neither surrenders the ball, nor scores, nor leaves the middle of the field.

If any team could execute the Infinite Treadmill Drive, it would be the 49ers under Kyle Shanahan and Jimmy Garoppolo.

The 49ers opened their victory over the Jacksonville Jaguars in Week 11 with a 20-play, 77-yard, 13-minute field goal drive. They opened the Rams upset with an 18-play, 88-yard, 11-minute opus for a touchdown. They grinded out a 16-play drive against the Eagles and a 13-play hike against the Packers. 49ers games are prog-rock double albums: you never know when the 12-minute, six-part anthem is coming, but it’s probably coming.

Umpteen-play drives are aesthetically pleasing to high school coaches and us old boomers with fond memories of late-1970s tactics. They’re ideal for nursing a fourth-quarter lead. But they aren’t really efficient, nor are they a sign that an offense is flawlessly dominating in the trenches. The 49ers needed two defensive penalties to sustain their 20-play marathon against the Jaguars. They nearly fumbled the ball away when they reached the red zone. And they settled for a field goal, of course. The 49ers average a respectable 5.9 yards per offensive play (eighth in the NFL), but they shouldn’t strive to gain exactly 5.9 yards on every play. Executing 15 snaps to generate points increases the probability of failure.

The exciting development for the 49ers in Week 11 wasn’t the 20-play drive, it was the fumble that the Jaguars lost on the first play of their next possession. Opponents fumbled 17 times against the 49ers entering that game but only lost three of them. The Seahawks fumbled twice in the first quarter of their Week 4 win over the 49ers but recovered both of them. The Cardinals fumbled twice in the first half of their 17-10 Week 5 win but recovered them both; at one point, punter Andy Lee fumbled a snap, recovered it, and drilled a 56-yarder to pin the 49ers deep. The Colts lost two fumbles but also retrieved two of their own in the Bomb Cyclone game. It’s safe to say the 49ers would be at least 6-4 given reasonable fumble luck, and central tendency may be starting to play its hand.

The Vikings may also be better than their record or reputation, though they needed a few fortuitous bounces and timely penalties to defeat the Packers. Perhaps the Vikings’ luck is also inching back toward even.

So who do you trust? Jimmy Garoppolo or Kirk Cousins? The slow-and-steady tortoise or the slower-and-steadier tortoise? The team built for endless drives or the team built for endless wild-card appearances? We’re going against our most primal instincts and leaning toward the Vikings: Justin Jefferson and Adam Thielen give them a way to gain yardage in longer-than-6-yard chunks, and winning games like this each year is precisely what they are designed to do. Vikings 26, 49ers 24.

Los Angeles Rams at Green Bay Packers, Sunday, 4:25 p.m.

It’s time now to explore all the Laziest Explanations for the Rams’ Pre-Bye Slump. CHOOSE YOUR FIGHTER!

  • The Rams were insta-distracted by Odell Beckham.
  • The Rams should not have gone all-in by signing Beckham and trading for Von Miller, because such tactics often backfire.
  • Matthew Stafford was not really much of an upgrade over Jared Goff.

Let’s take them on one-by-one:

The Beckham Theory: Yeah sure, whatever. Football players aren’t real; they’re just characters in a morality tale that’s playing on an endless loop in your mind.

The All-In Theory: I don’t know how to communicate with people who couch trying extra hard is bad because it might fail in pseudo-analytical trappings and pass it off as wisdom. Mathematics dictate that 96.875% of Super Bowl plans are doomed to failure each year. “Let’s add a former Pro Bowler and a future Hall of Famer when we are already 7-1” is almost certainly less doomed than most.

The Upgrade Theory: This one is probably true but not all that interesting. We may have overreacted to Stafford’s excellent early-season performances, and we may have then overreacted in the other direction to two bad games. But no one would seriously argue that Stafford is a downgrade from Goff, and the Rams went 42-27 with Goff as their starter. A modest upgrade is still an upgrade for what was already a perennial playoff team.

There’s a fourth option to consider: the Rams are simply a .700 winning percentage team in a league with several of them. The simplest explanation for all the Rams upsets, Packers upsets, Bills upsets, Cowboys upsets, Chiefs dramas, and everything else is that the NFL’s best teams this year are 12-5 teams, not 15-2 teams or whatever. We expected the Tom Brady Patriots to smoothly pass the torch to the Chiefs, one unbeatable prohibitive weekly favorite to the next. When it didn’t happen this season, we started bouncing around searching for a superteam which does not exist.

The Rams are much better on paper than the injury-riddled Packers and significantly better according to DVOA. Jalen Ramsey should neutralize Davante Adams; Aaron Donald and Miller should destroy the depleted Packers offensive line; and Stafford should pick the Green Bay secondary apart. If those things don’t happen, we may have to come up with some new explanations for what’s wrong with the Rams. But Walkthrough has a feeling we won’t need to. Rams 33, Packers 24.

Taysom Hill Intermezzo

In the NFL, it’s both easy and dangerous to lose track of time and money.

This is Taysom Hill’s fifth season with the New Orleans Saints. He has already been paid $22.6 million. He is now scheduled to make either $40 million or $95 million over the next four years, depending on whether or not he finds a magic lamp with a genie inside.

Hill began receiving regular preseason reps at quarterback in 2018. He was given four starts in 2020. He was given the chance to battle Jameis Winston for the starting job in 2021. He has been given many, many developmental opportunities. Yet he has been mostly used as a Wildcat specialist and (in Week 11) a healthy inactive while Trevor Siemian steered the Saints offense into a culvert over the last month. He has caught four passes and rushed 20 times this season for a team desperate for offensive firepower.

Hill is now 31 years old. His value as a slot gadget specialist is fading. His value as a backup quarterback—2020 illustrated that he has some value as a backup quarterback—is holding steady at “he can help you beat the Falcons” level. He just signed a deal that will pay him roughly Nelson Agholor money at worst and Ryan Tannehill money at best, with a team that was scheduled to be $56 million over the cap before signing starters at critical positions (such as quarterback) in 2022.

Sean Payton clearly plans to give Hill another crack at the starting quarterback job in 2022; if that fails, Hill slides back to his gadget role. It sure sounds like Payton has lost track of the time he has already spend twiddling with his favorite toy, not to mention the years Taysom lost to injury coming out of college. The organization has also already lost track of its sunk costs. They were already preemptively paying Taysom to develop into a starter in 2020 and 2021. He’s eating up more cap space than Winston and Siemian combined this year to sit on the bench and watch Siemian throw pick-sixes before halftime. Guaranteeing another $22.5 million on spec can only be described as utterly bananapants.

Payton must believe that age is just a number and a half-decade is a reasonable gestation time for a quarterback. He probably remembers Rich Gannon but forgets that’s a lone example from 20 years ago. Or maybe Payton remembers coaching the young Tony Romo and has become really foggy about the details. And Mickey Loomis has spent his way out of enough debts to convince himself that the salary cap isn’t real.

The cap is very real. The Saints just chose their third-string quarterback over some combination of 2022 free agents Terron Armstead, Marcus Williams, Deonte Harris, Tre’Quan Smith, and Kwon Alexander, to say nothing of Winston, Siemian, anyone they might covet in free agency, and any veterans (Malcolm Jenkins?) they may be forced to cut to become cap-compliant. And Drew Brees isn’t around to make everyone look like a genius anymore.

Enjoy the extended run of the Lovechild Experience, Saints fans. It may not be exciting, but it’s sure to be expensive.

Tampa Bay Buccaneers at Indianapolis Colts, Sunday, 1 p.m.

With no quarterback having an extraordinary season, it’s time for everyone, particularly the analytics community, to embrace the possibility that Jonathan Taylor deserves to be named the NFL’s Most Valuable PlaaRRRGHHH MMPH.

FOOTBALL OUTSIDERS EDITORIAL STAFF: Oh dear, it looks like Tanier is about to go rogue. Who had Week 12 in the office pool? Anyway, activate the Fake Tanier AI and fetch the tweezers so we can recalibrate him.

FAKE TANIER AI: Carson Wentz is a weenie, amiright? And gosh do I resent Tom Brady and his success. Dad Joke! Star Trek reference! Ostentatious first-person plural self-reference! Same-game parlay!

FOOTBALL OUTSIDERS EDITORIAL STAFF: OK, real Tanier has stopped whimpering. Send him back in.

So, Big Stats threatened to send us back to the SEO mines if I didn’t behave. But guess what? There. Are. FOUR. Lights. So allow us to submit a proposal:

  • If no thoroughly qualified quarterback distinguishes himself from the pack down the stretch; and
  • Jonathan Taylor leads the league in scrimmage yards and total touchdowns at the end of the season, as he currently does; and
  • The Colts reach the playoffs despite their weenie quarterback;

Then we should not oppose on analytics principle the idea that Taylor is worthy of the MVP award, based on the uniqueness of his contribution to his team and the circumstances of 2021.

All of this could be rendered moot if Tom Brady and the fourth-ranked run defense in the NFL drop the hammer on Taylor and the Colts on Sunday. But if Taylor rushes for 150 yards in an upset, I’m-a tear through anyone who suggests Kirk Cousins or Justin Herbert deserves the MVP award like Wolverine escaping the Weapon X compound. Buccaneers 27, Colts 17.

Los Angeles Chargers at Denver Broncos, Sunday, 4:05 p.m.

The Broncos spent their bye locking receivers Courtland Sutton and Tim Patrick into competitively priced contract extensions. The receiving corps of Sutton, Patrick, Jerry Jeudy, KJ Hamler, Noah Fant, and Albert Okwuegbunam will be together (when healthy) and affordable for the foreseeable future.

It sure looks like the Broncos are feathering the nest for a rookie quarterback in 2022. Malik Willis, Matt Corral, Desmond Ridder, and the rest don’t set Walkthrough’s heart a’flutter, but giving one of them the Broncos receiving corps and offensive line will soften the growing pains.

All the Broncos need now is a coaching staff that believes in 21st century offense. The 2022 Broncos could be a lot of fun if they ditch the Melvin Gordon tactics, empty the backfield a few times per drive, and see which defenses are deep enough in the secondary to cover everyone.

But that’s all in the future. The Broncos’ only hope on Sunday is to catch the Chargers on one of their penalty/missed tackle/special teams catastrophe jags. The Chargers overcame one of those on Sunday night and aren’t due for another anytime soon. The Broncos benefitted from one of those against the Cowboys and can’t expect them to keep happening. Chargers 28, Broncos 20.

Cleveland Browns at Baltimore Ravens, Sunday, 8:20 p.m.

The Browns offense right now: lots of 13 personnel, some 22 personnel, inside zone, outside zone, boot pass, tight end around, tight end screen, max protect on rare downfield shots, overthrows, underthrows, deflections, throws out of bounds, penalties.

The Browns are at more-or-less full strength, mind you: the offensive line is nearly intact, Nick Chubb is back, Baker Mayfield is as healthy as he’s going to get this season. They’re running a high school offense for the rest of the season by design, and it has resulted in 17 points or less in six of their last eight games. But once per month or so they drop 40 points on some fellow AFC welterweight that spots them turnovers or cannot stop the run to keep their overall numbers from falling off a cliff.

The Ravens stop the run well enough when they need to (15th in the NFL), and they’re unlikely to spot the Browns a bunch of turnovers if Lamar Jackson has been getting plenty of rest and herbal tea. The Ravens have won the last three meetings by a combined score of 116-63. It’s tempting to think that the gap between these division rivals has closed a bit, but there’s not a lot of evidence to support it. Ravens 34, Browns 17.

Pittsburgh Steelers at Cincinnati Bengals, Sunday, 1 p.m.

It’s hard to get excited about these weekly AFC wild-card mid-major bowl games anymore.

The Bengals knocked out the Raiders last week after being knocked out by the Browns. The Raiders were supposedly knocked out by the Chiefs the previous week, but now they are double-knocked out, though they still have a 12.9% chance of reaching the playoffs. The Browns, of course, were knocked out by the Patriots, who are too well-coached and brilliant to possibly be knocked out, because it’s not like they started the season 2-4 or anything.

The Steelers, who were knocked out by the Raiders and Bengals early in the season, were further knocked out by the Chargers in Week 11, except that they still somehow have a 30.1% chance of making the playoffs. Seriously, the whole AFC is made up of comic book supervillains: they never go away, they just lay low, beat the Jets or Texans a few times to pad their record, then bust out of Arkham to register one minor upset before losing by 30 the next week.

The Bengals weren’t as impressive in Week 11 as the 32-13 final score over the Raiders suggests. Joe Burrow spent most of the game getting sacked on third down, forcing the Bengals to settle for 50-plus-yard field goals. The Steelers, meanwhile, looked ready to succumb to the inevitable until the fourth quarter against the Chargers. Their offense may be better than expected, but their defense is strictly middle-of-the-pack, and they have gotten too much mileage from blocked punts and weird penalties to be taken seriously as anything other than another variation on the Raiders or Broncos.

The Bengals can really really really finally knock the Steelers out with a season sweep that cuts off most of their avenues to the AFC South title and suplexes their tiebreaker scenarios. The house sees it happening (the line was Bengals -4.5 at press time), and Walkthrough wants it to happen, because we can deal with salty Patriots fans or salty Steelers fans in our timelines, but not both. But we’re waiting on T.J. Watt’s health status before making any wagers. The Steelers may not be a legit playoff team with Watt, but they’re essentially hopeless without him. Bengals 24, Steelers 21.

Tennessee Titans at New England Patriots, Sunday, 1 p.m.

All Titans games are upsets, one way or the other. This is a Titans game. Therefore, it will be an upset, and the Titans will win.

Ah, but is an upset truly an upset when we can see it coming? Isn’t being predictable the most unpredictable thing a truly unpredictable team can do?

Philosophical questions aside, the Titans just don’t have enough dudes right now. We have entered the “Julio Jones has a nagging injury and will either be out or limited every week” portion of the season. Jeremy McNichols’ absence left the Titans with sub-replacement level running back play (yes, Adrian Peterson, you heard me) against the Texans. McNichols and tight end Geoff Swaim may be back on Sunday, but that still leaves much of the offense funneling through D’Onta Foreman, Nick Westbrook-Ikhine, and MyCole Pruitt. And their defense is running low on bodies as well.

(Ed. Note: Peterson was waived on Tuesday, so apparently the Titans heard Mike too.)

The Titans could really use Jonnu Smith right now. And maybe Kendrick Bourne, Rhamondre Stevenson, Matt Judon, and, heck, Jalen Mills too. But they’ll have to settle for an 8-3 record and a knack for getting opponents who appear unbeatable to play down to them. We get the feeling the topsy-turvy Titans season will return to normal at exactly the worst moment for them. Patriots 22, Titans 13.

Philadelphia Eagles at New York Giants, Sunday, 1 p.m.

The Giants hired Dave Gettleman to be their general manager on December 28, 2017. Since then the Eagles…

  • Won two playoff games and a Super Bowl with their backup quarterback;
  • Reached the playoffs in a pair of aftershock seasons;
  • Spectacularly collapsed;
  • Soft-rebooted as a feisty team whose young quarterback currently has higher passing DVOA than Baker Mayfield, Joe Burrow, Tua Tagovailoa, Carson Wentz, and Daniel Jones; and
  • Stockpiled a ransom in future draft picks.

The Giants have gone 19-39 in that span under Pat Shurmur and Joe Judge. And that’s counting the game they won three days after Gettleman was hired.

The Eagles are also 3-13 against the Giants since 2013, 1-5 during the Gettleman Epoch.

Jason Garrett was fired on Tuesday. He was a symptom, not the disease. Eagles 27, Giants 16.

New York Jets at Houston Texans, Sunday, 1 p.m.

Jets kicker Matt Amendola is 0-of-3 from 50-plus yards and 2-of-4 from 40-plus yards. He hasn’t hit a 40-plus-yard field goal since Week 5 against the Falcons. Teams with hapless offenses (and defenses) rely on long field goals to keep games close. The Jets don’t even have that going for them.

It’s hard to tell without watching a lot of bad games and sifting through a lot of discouraging statistics, but the Texans with Tyrod Taylor at quarterback are a significantly better overall team than the Jets with their Quarterback of the Week. (There’s no reason to think that Zach Wilson somehow developed during his month of watching Mike Johnson Flacco.) Walkthrough has a weird compulsion about wagering on the Texans, and we just may do so here, if only to ensure we have something to talk about for next week’s Tank Watch feature. Texans 20, Jets 14.

Atlanta Falcons at Jacksonville Jaguars, Sunday, 1 p.m.

Wait, haven’t the Falcons and Jaguars already played? We remember it vividly. It was a London game! Cordarrelle Patterson scored two touchdowns or something. The final score was 23-20, though we aren’t sure who won.

(Checks schedules) Oops, we had the Falcons’ victory over the Jets and the Jaguars’ victory over the Dolphins scrambled into one big omelette of unpalatable football. It’s hard to keep track of all of this season’s creampuff-versus-cupcake bakery bowls.

The Falcons have no offensive line or playmakers, the Jaguars no coaching staff, and both teams experimented with not playing offense at all in Week 11. The combined Jaguars and Falcons time of possession last week added up to 48 minutes and 55 seconds. Shortening this game’s quarters to 12 minutes would make the game far more enjoyable. Falcons 19, Jaguars 17.

Carolina Panthers at Miami Dolphins, Sunday, 1 p.m.

The most recent bout of internal Tua Tagovailoa negging by the Dolphins has subsided, and we have returned to Tua’s default setting: “impressive” weekly opening drives full of RPOs, at least one inexcusable interception, about 30 minutes of soggy potato chips, some offensive pass interference penalties (every Dolphins passing concept is an RPO and/or a rub route), and perhaps a big completion or two to a wide-open receiver. Brian Flores and his play-calling Wonder Twins still bust out the Myles Gaskin Wildcat runs and Albert Wilson option passes in the red zone, lest you think that Tua has gained his coaches’ trust in some meaningful way.

It’s unclear how much of the Panthers playbook Cam Newton has absorbed besides “Christian McCaffrey option route,” “DJ Moore option route,” and “keeper” as he prepares to enter his third full week on the job. It’s also not clear how much tread he has left on his tires: Cam’s touchdown run was a delightful highlight, but the more you watch, the more he looks like Andy Janovich or C.J. Ham than vintage Cam. Anyway, this is not the game to watch if you seek quarterback clarity for either franchise. Panthers 21, Dolphins 16.

Seattle Seahawks at Washington Football Team, Monday, 8:15 p.m.

Each week, the Seahawks situation grows a little more dire. Their offense lacks rhythm and reason. There’s no urgency to get the ball to Tyler Lockett or DK Metcalf (who are ranked 32nd and 33rd in the NFL in targets). The feeblest quarterbacks can dink-and-dunk their way to victory against the depleted Seahawks secondary and their overmatched underneath defenders. Basic execution errors such as kickoffs out of bounds and fumbled backfield pitches are mounting. The Seahawks look like the Falcons of 2018-2020 at times: a rebuilding team that either needs to move on from their veteran quarterback or get serious about making real changes everywhere else.

Each week, the Washington situation grows a little more encouraging. Their offense manufactures just enough points with Tyler Heinicke at the helm. Their defense has persevered despite injuries to its best players. This season may be a lost cause, and the long-term plan on offense remains cloudy, but Ron Rivera is now getting the most from his available talent, which has to count for something.

The Seahawks were one-point favorites at press time. That may be a sign that the house and public have not yet caught up to reality. Washington 24, Seahawks 19.

Chicago Bears at Detroit Lions, Thursday, 12:30 p.m.

One game, two bad teams, four depressing quarterback scenarios:

  • Andy Dalton versus Jared Goff: A cavalcade of “good decisions,” such as swing passes on third-and-15. Bears 22, Lions 17.
  • Justin Fields versus Jared Goff: A banged-up prospect playing on short rest in an offense tailored to suit his weaknesses against a quarterback who is somehow even harder to watch. Bears 20, Lions 17.
  • Andy Dalton versus Tim Boyle: A Bears rout built on turnovers and field goals. Hooray? Bears 26, Lions 10.
  • Justin Fields versus Tim Boyle: The third quarter of a preseason game, served like a microwave turkey dinner from the freezer for Thanksgiving. Bears 19, Lions 13.

This will reportedly be Matt Nagy’s last game as an NFL head coach. Let us all give thanks.

Buffalo Bills at New Orleans Saints, Thursday, 8:20 p.m.

When everything needs fixing but you don’t have the time to fix everything, it’s best to focus on one little problem, solve it, and hope that serves as a springboard for solving the next problem.

The Bills can easily beat the Saints if they solve any of the problems which sprung up in their losses to the Colts and Jaguars:

  • Physicality: Professional athletes don’t get tougher on three days’ rest , but maybe Sean McDermott can sprinkle some itching powder in the laundry to make the lads a little more aggro.
  • Penalties: Another problem unlikely to be solved during a short week. The Bills have committed 15 false starts and are bound to have trouble staying on-sides in the Superdome. They have also committed 16 offensive holds and could commit more against the rugged Saints defensive front. Perhaps they can eliminate the chunk penalties, however: there is no reason on earth to interfere with a Saints receiver or rough up Trevor Siemian.
  • Play Calling: The Eagles dared to run the ball against what is still the No. 1 ranked run defense per DVOA. It turned out that the middle of the Saints defense is starting to buckle from being on the field all the time and trying to pitch a weekly shutout. Perhaps the Bills should try giving the simple zone read a whirl with their dual-threat quarterback and trio of viable running backs. It’s not like they have any other offensive identity right now.
  • Special Teams Miscues: McDermott could try screaming at Tyler Bass to not miss field goals and at Isaiah McKenzie to not trip over his own feet and fumble kickoffs. Or, he can just hope that being in a dome solves those problems this week.

The Bills can also just rely on the self-improvement technique they used against the Jets: We’re Mad and You Stink. That should get them to their mini-bye, where the real soul-searching can begin. Bills 26, Saints 17.

Las Vegas Raiders at Dallas Cowboys, Thursday, 4:30 p.m.

My brother-in-law was a New Jersey Transit bus driver and a lifelong Raiders fan who was old enough to vividly remember the Ken Stabler era. My sister-in-law is the type of Cowboys fan common in my region and generation: someone who adopted the most hated local rival as a fashion statement in her youth. Both became very casual fans, as adults who don’t live and breathe sports often become; their allegiances to their teams were like fading tattoos.

We spent the Thanksgiving of 2009 with my in-laws. My sons were in first grade and toddlerdom, my niece and nephew a few years older, and the tiny house was full of chaos. The Raiders-Cowboys game droned unwatched in the living room as the children played and the adults climbed over each other to prepare dinner. Now and then, someone asked the score. “Cowboys up 7-0,” I might report, and my sister-in-law would cackle at her husband. “Tony Romo just got sacked,” my nephew later announced, and my brother-in-law taunted his wife. Neither watched the game. Neither could probably name anyone besides Romo. (The Raiders quarterback that day was the estimable Bruce Gradkowski). The game was just a reason for a silly, playful simulated spat. No wagers. No fantasy lineups. No deep analysis of a victory or heartbreak after a loss. Just something for very busy people to chat about around the table.

Hurricane Sandy ripped up my in-laws’ corner of New Jersey pretty hard, and they moved south soon after. My brother-in-law passed away a few years ago. My niece and nephew are grown. Thanksgiving is both the same and very different every year. I will watch this Cowboys-Raiders game after dinner in my home office while my teenaged sons play PS5 in the family room, and I will remember lost loved ones and times which now feel simpler. I will also remember that this sport that defines my self-identity and consumes so much of our lives is just a silly game suited to pleasant background television and good-natured teasing.

Check the Cowboys injury and COVID reports before wagering. And Happy Thanksgiving. No pick.

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