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Ravens and Chiefs Restore AFC Order

NFL Week 11 – Tyler Huntley not only saved the Baltimore Ravens season on Sunday, he also saved the Chicago Bears from themselves.

Huntley was pressed into service because Lamar Jackson is suffering from one of the non-COVID illnesses that are making the rounds and terrifying families whenever Junior develops a cough. (Ask me how October went). Huntley is more like the scout team version of Trace McSorley than a scout team version of Jackson. He was awful for three quarters, enduring six sacks and rarely delivering an accurate throw downfield. The Ravens clung to a 6-0 lead at halftime.

Then Justin Fields suffered a rib injury at the end of a scramble. Andy Dalton entered the game and tossed a screen pass to Darnell Mooney that turned into a 60-yard touchdown run. A few series and another Justin Tucker field goal later, Dalton saw Marquise Goodwin slip past Chris Westry on fourth-and-11 and delivered a 49-yard touchdown strike to the wide-open receiver to give the Bears a 14-9 lead.

Fate hung in the balance at that moment for the Chicago Bears. A Dalton victory would have repercussions across the space-time continuum. The Bears face the Lions on Thanksgiving Day. Back-to-back Dalton-led Bears victories would have the potential to validate Matt Nagy in a cataclysmic way. The Bears could reach the playoffs. Nagy could save his job. The malpractice against Fields could continue into next season.

Fortunately, Huntley found Devin Duvernay along the sideline for a 21-yard gain on the Ravens final drive, then Sammy Watkins for 29 yards on third-and-12. That set up a Devonta Freeman touchdown with 22 seconds left on the clock. Dalton had just enough time after that to get sacked twice on the final drive. Multiversal crisis averted.

It’s easier to imagine Nagy getting fired by the time you read Walkthrough than salvaging his Bears tenure at this point. After all, Sunday’s loss also featured a silly sideline sequence in which Nagy’s headset malfunctioned on fourth-and-1 and he panicked as though he was on a nuclear submarine and couldn’t hear the instructions from the president. When a team can’t seal a win against a glorified third-string quarterback, when half its points come from one screen pass, when its once-great defense buckles at the worst moment, and when the coach can’t even figure out how to call a play if the gizmo on his head cuts out, it’s beyond time for a change.

As for the Ravens: scratch wins by backup quarterbacks are turning into the story of the 2021 season for many teams. The Cardinals, for example, have gone 2-1 with a pair of divisional victories with Colt McCoy at quarterback; now they get their bye week and should have Kyler Murray and DeAndre Hopkins for the long stretch run. Similarly, the Ravens can now hope to have Jackson and Marquise Brown back for the Browns-Steelers-Browns gauntlet they face over the next three weeks.

The key to reaching this year’s Super Bowl will be securing the lone first-round playoff bye in each conference, making Week 18 meaningless if at all possible, and getting close to full strength and health in mid-January. That’s often the case, of course, but fewer playoff byes and a 17-game season only make the race for a chance to heal and regroup even more urgent.

The Ravens defense, special teams, playmakers, and Huntley did just enough on an afternoon when many of the other AFC frontrunners came up short. It’s a win that’s likely to matter at the end of the season. And it’s a reminder not to sleep on the Ravens, a perennial contender that knows a thing or two about manufacturing wins.

As for the Bears, let’s sleep on them until they finally do what must be done.

Walkthrough Presents: WTF Week 11

Another Sunday, another set of upsets and confusing results around the NFL. As always, Walkthrough is here to make as much sense as possible of all the mayhem.

WTF Happened to the Buffalo Bills?
They were dominated in the trenches on both offense and defense, couldn’t tackle, couldn’t hold onto Josh Allen’s passes, couldn’t get off the field on third-and-long due to penalties and other dumb mistakes, and couldn’t kick field goals in their 41-15 demolition at the hands of the Indianapolis Colts.

Other than that, the Bills totally looked like Super Bowl favorites, and Allen like an MVP frontrunner.

  • What it Means for the Bills: The fact that the Bills got beaten up at the line of scrimmage, particularly on offense, bodes ill for a team whose primary regular season task is preventing the hard-hitting New England Patriots from overtaking them in the AFC East. The Patriots now lead the Bills in the standings, which felt impossible about a month ago.
    Further, the Bills don’t have many wins over quality opponents on their resume, while losses to the Steelers, Titans. and now the Colts demonstrate how vulnerable they will be in the playoffs. IF they make the playoffs.
  • What it Means for the Colts: They’re the Patriots without the hosannas that the Patriots get every time they beat a bad team: formidable offensive line, solid overall defense, clever coaching, some creamy stretches of schedule, and a quarterback who won’t get you beat if you don’t ask much of him. The Patriots may be a little bit better than the Colts, but they are similar enough to make their Week 15 matchup in Indy intriguing.

WTF Happened to the Dallas Cowboys?
Amari Cooper was out with COVID. CeeDee Lamb and Ezekiel Elliott were knocked out with injuries. The resurgent Chiefs are not a team you want to face with a shortage of playmakers. Dak Prescott had a miserable afternoon throwing to Cedrick Wilson and Noah Brown while Chris Jones collapsed the pocket in front of him. The Chiefs offense did some fumble-bumble stuff, but they mixed in just enough brilliance to come away with a 19-9 win.

  • What it Means for the Cowboys: The good news for the Cowboys is that they face a Raiders team in freefall on Thanksgiving; the Cowboys should be able to manufacture a win without Cooper/Lamb/Zeke if necessary. The bad news for the Cowboys is that the rest of the NFC East refuses to roll over and play dead, so they cannot get too complacent.
    For now, chalk Sunday’s loss up to a tough opponent and the inevitable result of Prescott climbing to the front of the cursed MVP race. But keep an eye on the injuries, and on the Cowboys’ recent Bills-like habit of falling into a funk if they suffer some early setbacks.
  • What it Means for the Chiefs: They may not be all the way back to 2019 or 2020 form, but they are as back as they need to be right now.

WTF Happened to the Green Bay Packers?
The Packers have no one who can cover Justin Jefferson (8-169-2 on Sunday). Darnell Savage had one would-be interception negated by a roughing the passer and a second one late in the fourth quarter that might have handed the Packers the game overturned on review. Kirk Cousins also recovered his own fumble after a sack, while Dede Westbrook retrieved his own muffed punt. Throw in a missed Mason Crosby field goal and eight Packers penalties for 92 yards and you have the perfect formula for a 34-31 Vikings upset.

  • What it Means for the Packers: Eh, not much. They traditionally have a few games per year like this, including one in the playoffs.
  • What it Means for the Vikings: Losses by the Saints, Panthers, Seahawks, and Bears plant them firmly in the race for the final wild-card berth, which always has their name engraved on it anyway. The Vikings could also make some noise in the postseason so long as they keep having four would-be turnovers per game overturned.

WTF Happened to the Tennessee Titans?
All of the unsustainable, unrepeatable events which led to their victories over the Rams and Saints proved to be neither sustainable nor repeatable. The Titans have no offensive philosophy without Derrick Henry, just a loose association of plays aimed at a random assortment of unknown or over-the-hill rushers and receivers.

The Texans tried really hard to give this game away by going three-and-out on four consecutive drives in the second half, punting on fourth-and-inches from their own 34-yard line with a six-point lead on the last of them. The Titans just kept driving down the field until Ryan Tannehill threw another of his four interceptions. Sunday’s loss provided a neat contrast with the Patriots’ victory over the Texans in Week 5: both favorites fell behind early, both launched comebacks when the Texans began flailing, but the Patriots were able to finish the job while the Titans suffered their second dopey upset (Jets, Week 4) of the season.

  • What it Means for the Titans: Like the Bills, the Titans run the risk of getting steamrolled by the Runaway Mac Jones Narrative (and also the rugged, fundamentally airtight Patriots) when they visit Foxborough next week. Luckily for the Titans, their late-season schedule is such a cupcakery that a few losses won’t matter much. But come the playoffs, they’ll need Julio Jones back and/or a functional running game, and probably more.
  • What it Means for the Texans: Next Sunday’s Texans-Jets game is going to have some serious implications for the first overall pick in the 2022 draft!

WTF Happened to the Carolina Panthers?
Naming Cam Newton the starter 10 days after he returned to the team worked out exactly as well as anyone could hope for. The problem is that no one could really hope for much from Newton’s return, because handing him the job after about four practices was a desperately silly tactic.

Cam delivered some highlights with his arm and legs and (with the help of 119 scrimmage yards from Christian McCaffery) kept the Panthers offense semi-functional. But Panthers drives kept stalling because they had no downfield attack whatsoever, and Washington used the extra possessions to control the clock and win the field position battle, kicking a pair of fourth-quarter field goals for a 27-21 victory.

  • What it Means for the Panthers: Maybe Matt Rhule can throw some Tepper Bucks at Philip Rivers next! Maybe the Panthers can just build a bonfire of money and resources and see how many seasons they can sacrifice to the Wild Card Also-Ran Elder Gods!
  • What it Means for Washington: Back-to-back wins place Washington in the old Bears niche in the NFC wild-card ecosystem: the smoke-and-mirrors team that does just enough to sneak into the final playoff spot if some team (read: The Vikings) misses too many field goals in close games down the stretch.

WTF Happened to the New Orleans Saints?
Sunday’s 40-29 loss to the Philadelphia Eagles was a more extreme version of their Falcons and Titans losses: the Saints offense played like a sinking garbage scow for three quarters, then came alive when the opposing defense went into prevent mode too prematurely. The Saints dug themselves too deep a hole to make the final score look close this time, in part because of three turnovers, in part because their run defense is finally starting to buckle under the weight of carrying the whole team.

  • What it Means for the Saints: They have no way of sustaining offense in non-prevent situations. The Saints will likely sink to the bottom of the wild-card picture after their upcoming homestand against the Bills and Cowboys.
  • What it Means for the Eagles: It’s OK to not be impressed by the fact that the Eagles are now in the thick of the wild-card quagmire (complete with helpful tiebreaker advantages!). It’s OK to be pessimistic about Jalen Hurts becoming anything more than a low-rung NFL starter. It’s OK to keep worrying about Nick Sirianni’s ever-changing game plans and philosophies. But please, oh Philly Phaithful, can we please stop pretending that the Eagles are some putrid team assembled by idiots who should all be fired? Can we acknowledge that a lot of positives are coming out of this season? Please folks: just deprogram 94.1 from your car radio and enjoy the fact that the Eagles sometimes play very well and have a chance to get a whole lot better in a hurry next year.

WTF Happened in the Late Game?
Too much to contextualize! But the Steelers are coming off back-to-back “almost wins” and don’t have an easy opponent left on their schedule. They also played well enough to get hammered for all but about 13 minutes on Sunday night. And the Chargers survived Week 11. Not every wannabe Super Bowl contender can say that.

Week 11 Awards

No week is complete until Walkthrough hands out some hardware.

Defensive Player of the Week
Chris Jones, Chiefs: 3.5 sacks, one forced fumble, one tackle for a loss. Jones’ return to the interior defensive line after spending the first half of the season as an ersatz edge rusher may have been the turning point of the Chiefs season.

Honorable mention goes to Texans defensive back Desmond King for a pair of interceptions against the Titans.

Offensive Line of the Week
The Colts offensive line of Eric Fisher, Quenton Nelson, Ryan Kelly, Mark Glowinski, and Braden Smith absolutely manhandled the Bills defense, helping Jonathan Taylor to rush for 185 yards and four touchdowns and allowing Carson Wentz to enjoy a sack-free afternoon.

Special-Teamer of the Week
Bengals rookie kicker Evan McPherson booted 54-, 53-, 51-, and 47-yard field goals in a 32-13 victory over the Raiders.

Fun fact: no one ever says that a kicker “booted a field goal” out loud; the phrase only exists because writers don’t like following “kicker” with “kicked.” We could have solved that problem by just writing “Bengals rookie Evan McPherson kicked…” since his on-field position is obvious in context, but it’s far too late for that now that you have already read this.

Honorable mention goes to Miles Killebrew for his fourth-quarter blocked punt that helped the Steelers briefly claw back into the game in their loss to the Chargers.

Honorable mention also goes to Saints punter Blake Gillikan, who booted (arrrrrrgh!!!!) two punts that forced the Eagles to start a pair of drives at their own 4-yard line. A fumble after one of those punts set up the first Saints touchdown, and Eagles running back Miles Sanders nearly fumbled after the second one.

Best Supporting Actor in Someone Else’s Highlight
Titans running back Dontrell Hilliard earns this week’s award by chasing down Kamu Grugier-Hill at the end of what looked like it might have been a pick-six.

Ryan Tannehill earns honorable mention on the same highlight for nearly chasing Grugier-Hill down from behind. Did you know Tannehill started his college career as a wide receiver? It’s true, and also rarely mentioned! Heck, he might be the second-best wide receiver on the Titans right now!

Also, Hilliard was identified as “Dalton Hilliard” until the final draft of Walkthrough. That’s not because we’re old and sometimes mix up current running backs with Saints running backs of the late 1980s. It’s because we assumed the Titans are so desperate at running back that they would sign someone who played for the Saints in the 1980s.

Honorable mention also goes to all of Matt Nagy’s assistants in this sideline reenactment of Dr. Strangelove or: How I Stopped Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Punt.

Finally, this woman’s reaction to a Saints first down while the Eagles held a 14-point fourth-quarter lead is an accurate representation of the attitudes of 75% of the people I encounter in my daily life.

Burn This Play!
Not long after Mare of Easttown cussed into the camera in that last segment, the Saints reached the Eagles’ 13-yard line trailing by 14 points with 8:43 to play. Here is what Sean Payton called:

  • A handoff straight up the middle to Mark Ingram for 1 yard.
  • A pass on which no one got open, forcing Trevor Siemian to roll to his left and throw the ball away.
  • A slip screen to Deonte Harris on the left side of the formation, with four receivers (including motioning Lil’Jordan Humphrey) on the right side. Harris was swallowed by multiple defenders after a short gain.
  • A field goal to cut the Eagles lead to 11 points with 7:17 to play.

The second-down call was fine: sometimes receivers don’t get open, especially Saints receivers. The first-down handoff put the Saints behind the sticks while chewing up the clock; it was a vanilla play (under-center, single-back, slot left, no misdirection) that was unlikely to succeed. The screen pass was over-engineered and not really designed for third-and-9, when defenders are likely to be in off coverage, allowing them to fly to a receiver who has no one in good position to block for him. And the kick was just inexcusable.

Payton has now settled for short field goals while trailing by multiple scores in the fourth quarter in back-to-back weeks. Yes, he’s stuck coaching a team with no quarterback and no weapons, but his offense keeps playing well enough in fourth quarters to get back into games and into scoring position. Payton’s arch-conservative approach is erasing what little chance of victory the Saints have each week.

Monday Night Action: New York Giants +10.5 at Tampa Bay Buccaneers

Antonio Brown is out. Vita Vea is doubtful. Rob Gronkowski is likely to be a game-time decision. And Saquon Barkley might be making one of his bi-monthly triumphant returns from injury. It all adds up to a shaky double-digit play for the Buccaneers. Walkthrough plans to wait until kickoff and wager on a Giants “moral victory” (if not an actual victory) if Vea and Gronk are out and the line is still in the +10 range.

DraftKings is also offering a special for the “root for mayhem” crowd: Total Interceptions Over 2.5 at +300. It’s hardly a great percentage play, especially because Daniel Jones’ drug of choice is the strip-sack, not the interception. But Walkthrough scored a big win with the Patriots defense as anytime scorers at +425 on Thursday night and we’re feeling frisky. We’re gonna put some “house money” on the interceptions and root for a Jones meltdown and/or a continuation of Brady’s mini-slump.

Walkthrough Sportsbook: Early Thanksgiving Lines

We used to be squeamish about betting on Thanksgiving games. But sports gambling is now legal in much of the country, socially acceptable in most of it, and arguably a more prosocial use of your time and money than, say, rushing off to some doorbuster event that forces retail workers to eat their holiday dinners at 10 a.m. So we now apply a sliding scale to Thanksgiving wagers:

  • Early game: Are you sure there’s nothing more life-affirming you can do with your time than bet on a Lions game?
  • Afternoon game: The dishes are done and your cousins have whisked tipsy Aunt Ethel home by halftime: perfect timing for a second-half prop.
  • Evening game: What better way to give thanks for all of life’s bounty than to squander a little of it on a same-game parlay while working on your second kilogram of carbohydrates?

With that in mind, here are some notes on the look-ahead Thanksgiving lines:

Chicago Bears (-3.5) at Detroit Lions
The Lions have lost four straight Thanksgiving games and failed to cover three of the last four. Their last cover was the David Blough game against the Bears in 2019: the Bears laid 5.5 points against a third-string quarterback but only won 24-20. Thursday’s game feels like that game, especially if Tim Boyle gets another start, except that the spread is unlikely to drift too far past Bears -4.

Lions games have also gone over on three of the last four Thanksgivings, and the number dipped to 42. Taking the over and rooting for points off turnovers could be fun. Saving your money and heartburn for the late games will probably be more fun.

Las Vegas Raiders (+7) at Dallas Cowboys
The Cowboys are 1-9 ATS on Thanksgiving dating back to 2011. That’s the kind of “trend” you can go broke chasing, but this game has many of the earmarks of a cover by a road dog, especially with the Cowboys nursing multiple injuries at the offensive skill positions.

The Raiders backdoor covered in a 31-24 loss against an eight-point spread way back in 2013, and we can easily picture something similar happening on Thursday. At the very least, wait for news on CeeDee Lamb and Ezekiel Elliott before laying a touchdown with the Cowboys.

Buffalo Bills (-4.5) at New Orleans Saints
Take the Bills and enjoy watching them do to Trevor Siemian more or less what they did to Mike White when they were in a foul mood after the Jaguars upset two weeks ago. When same-game parlays unlock, we’re also going to have an eye on that Under of 47.5, perhaps with the Bills straight-up so we don’t have to worry about a 24-20 final score.

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