NFL Musings, Week 9: Raiders Show they are Contenders in a Loss, Dan Quinn's Massive Blunder

By Jason Lisk

Week 9 in the NFL featured a Sunday full of close games, drama, and exhaustion. Of the 11 games played yesterday, only 3 were decided by more than 8 points. One of those (Giants over Tampa Bay) involved a final play defensive touchdown in what was also a one-score game. Of the others, three went to overtime, another had a winning field goal at the end, and the others were in question with key plays in the last three minutes.

Steelers Win But Lose Big Ben Again; Raiders Continue to Impress Even in Defeat

Pittsburgh can’t win even when they win. The Raiders, meanwhile, continue to solidify their status as a playoff contender even with a loss, after rallying on the road from a 14-point deficit to tie it late in the 4th quarter.

First, on Big Ben. He has what is described as a “mid-foot sprain” and is expected to be out for a couple of weeks. The Steelers seem destined not to be able to get their offense together for a sustained period of time. Roethlisberger returned, and Antonio Brown had a huge game, ending up with 284 receiving yards (9th-most since 1960), and 306 total yards from scrimmage (8th-most). Brown had only 235 receiving yards in the four games that Roethlisberger missed. DeAngelo Williams filled in again with a huge game, now that Le’Veon Bell is out for the year. But now, the Steelers (5-4), must again survive a stretch with Landry Jones at quarterback. All he does, at least, is throw passes that result in huge gains in the final two minutes (this week, to Brown to set up the winning field goal, against the Cardinals to Martavis Bryant to seal it).

Oakland fell behind Pittsburgh in the standings, but continues to show that this team is going to be in the mix for the rest of the year. Since the bye week, Oakland has now scored 34 or more points in all three games. David Carr is averaging 8.3 yards per attempt over the last three weeks, and has 11 touchdown passes to 1 interception. I’d say the additions of star rookie Amari Cooper along with Michael Crabtree (who scored 2 touchdowns yesterday) are working out. Oh, and Carr has been sacked 8 times. If the defense can put up timely performances, this is a team that will have a chance to return to the postseason for the first time since 2002.

Dan Quinn Kicks Away the Game at the Goal Line

Dan Quinn made a massive error in the game at San Francisco, at the 2 yard line, with 3 minutes left. Atlanta trailed by 4 points, where a touchdown would give the lead, but a field goal would still leave them trailing. He opted to guarantee that his team trailed San Francisco. As it turned out, his team never got the ball back.

And while it’s easy to second guess based on results of one game, this was a huge mistake based on what has happened in other NFL games. Going back to 1994, I found 12 other occasions where a team opted to kick with 4 minutes or less remaining, in a situation where a touchdown could have given them a lead, but a field goal still left them trailing. Those teams went 0-12 (and now, 0-13).

Using the pro-football-reference win probability calculator (which takes a variety of historical situations and tries to create estimates), Quinn’s decision is no better. He was basically facing a 2-point conversion play, something teams should be practicing frequently, and which are converting near 50% of the time (21 of 46 so far in 2015).

Here are the win probabilities from the various scenarios (and considering that SF was a large underdog before the game).

  • If Atlanta scores a TD there, against a team like San Francisco (Atlanta was a 9 point favorite), they are 81% to win the game.
  • If they take the field goal, make it, and kickoff, they are only 35% to win, trailing by 1.
  • If they go for it, fail, and leave the ball pinned against San Francisco’s end zone, they are still 27% to win, only a small drop-off from taking the guaranteed 1-point deficit.

Most of those late field goals that left teams trailing were in much worse situations, 4th and long, where a conversion also was no guarantee to score. None were as short as Atlanta’s yesterday, or as close to the end zone and taking the lead.

Put it all together–the chance of converting from the 2-yard line, the relative benefit of leading by 3 versus still trailing–and Quinn’s decision cost Atlanta about 17% win probability. They were a (slight) favorite to win before the decision, and become almost a 2:1 underdog, even against a poor opponent, after it. To put that in perspective, that’s about as costly as if Quinn had just walked out and agreed to spot San Francisco 7 points before the kickoff.

Atlanta looked like a playoff contender a few weeks ago. They’ve now lost consecutive games to Tampa Bay, at home, and at San Francisco starting Blaine Gabbert.

Carolina takes control of the NFC at the halfway mark

For the second week in a row, the Packers went on the road as a favorite against an undefeated team  with a very good pass defense. And for the second week in a row, they lost, now dropping to 6-2 and a tie with Minnesota atop the division. Just as importantly, Carolina now has a two-game lead over both Arizona and Green Bay at the halfway point in the NFC, with a head-to-head win over the Packers.

If you want an encouraging sign as a Packers fan, this week became a contest after early troubles, unlike last week in Denver. Rodgers had only 117 yards passing at the half, 40 of which came on the final play of the half. He threw for 252 yards and 3 touchdowns in the second half, and had the ball at the Carolina 4-yard line before a 4th down interception that ended the game with the Packers trailing by 8.

Chris Ivory Evokes Visions of (Old) Emmitt Smith

Chris Ivory made a bit of history yesterday, breaking Emmitt Smith’s record. Yeah, you may not realize it, but Smith held the record for the lowest yards per carry in a game with at least 20 rush attempts (1.18 ypc on 22 for 26 yards in this 1999 game). Yesterday, though, Ivory scored 2 touchdowns while rushing for 23 yards on 21 carries.

Of course, that was an arbitrary cutoff. Michael Bennett had 19 carries for 16 yards in a 2005 game.

Meanwhile, the NY Jets’ pass defense has become a mild concern after two straight weeks of giving up big chunks of yards to a second-year quarterback. Through 7 weeks, the Jets were one of the best pass defenses in the league, allowing 5.1 net yards per pass. The defense that looked so dominant early has now been cracked a few times. Four turnovers in their favor offset the Jaguars’ massive yardage advantage. The Jets still sit at 5-3, and in the first wildcard position at the halfway point–a place few would have thought before the season.

The Colts Get Back on Track and End Denver’s Undefeated Season

Peyton Manning returned to Indianapolis. Denver now returns home with a loss for the first time in the season. The Colts finally got the big win they needed heading into the bye, with a chance for Andrew Luck to rest up. The most impressive part was how it happened at the end, after a season where the Colts were the team in turmoil and Denver had repeatedly won close contests.

Indianapolis had a 17-0 lead that took an improbable hit with a long punt return on the final play of the first half. The Colts had just retaken the lead 27-24 when Peyton Manning threw his second interception with 6 minutes remaining. And Denver never had the ball on offense again. The Colts ran out the clock, with the help of an Aqib Talib personal foul right before the two-minute warning, and Manning was left to stare in disbelief for the final 6 minutes in his old home.


No-Huddle Attack

New England 27, Washington 10: A game between these two teams was largely unnotable, other than Dion Lewis potentially suffering a big injury. I didn’t think Washington would actually follow Dan Steinberg’s advice, but here we are.

Buffalo 33, Miami 17: Truly amazing stat: Sammy Watkins had 8 catches, for 168 yards. The Bills threw 12 passes, and thanks to sacks, had 154 net passing yards.

Minnesota 21, St. Louis 18: A testy game after the Teddy Bridgewater injury. These teams were a combined 5 for 29 on third down. It was a game that probably makes Jeff Fisher excited.

Tennessee 34, New Orleans 28: The Saints lost at home to the Titans, and again have the 32nd ranked pass defense by net yards per attempt. How do you end up there? Plays like this.  

NY Giants 32, Tampa Bay 18: This isn’t ideal. Also, I’m surprised to learn that Brandon Jacobs had 5 passes thrown to him in a game once upon a time.

Philadelphia 33, Dallas 27: If that Matt Cassel to Cole Beasley connection mattered in your fantasy league, please seek professional help.