sara.ziegler (Sara Ziegler, sports editor): It was a Sunday full of drama during Week 3 of the NFL season. We had the longest field goal ever kicked, a game-winning 66-yarder by Baltimore’s Justin Tucker. (Sorry, Detroit.) And we saw a play that tied the record for overall longest on a missed Arizona kick returned for a touchdown by Jacksonville. (In a game the Jags still lost by plenty.)
But let’s start with a different game that featured a dramatic kick: the Sunday night win by the Green Bay Packers over the San Francisco 49ers. We were treated to yet another example of a team leaving too much time on the clock for a great quarterback to pull off a comeback, and Aaron Rodgers delivered. I don’t know how you guys felt, but I was quite sure that 37 seconds was enough time for the Packers to drive the field and win the game.
Salfino (Michael Salfino, FiveThirtyEight contributor): This was a death of the Niners own making. You really have to question Kyle Shanahan’s ability to manage a game. After the first down, San Francisco snapped the ball with a running clock with 12 seconds left on the play clock. That’s the game. If they had scored with 25 seconds left instead of 37, not even Rodgers could have beaten them.
joshua.hermsmeyer (Josh Hermsmeyer, NFL analyst): I think 37 seconds is right on the edge of the minimum time required to lead a field goal drive for an elite QB, so really those 12 seconds they left on the clock were a big deal.
neil (Neil Paine, senior sportswriter): Rodgers is definitely not the guy you want to leave the door open for, either.
Salfino: Just a pure giveaway. But to his credit, Rodgers took it with one of the great throws I’ve ever seen, adjusting for the circumstances:
joshua.hermsmeyer: And he threw it to a receiver who came back in the game after absorbing one of the worst (in every sense) hits I’ve seen in the past few years.
Salfino: He had to make it then and he did. But Shanahan handed Rodgers the dagger.
Also, not forcing a return and the seconds it requires in these situations is a big pet peeve of mine and is NEVER mentioned on the telecast. Every second is critical. Why let the offense get 25 yards with no time spent?
sara.ziegler: But wait. We know, with the value of hindsight, that the Niners were going to score there. They didn’t know that, though! If you run the clock way down, aren’t you limiting what you can do to make sure you do, in fact, score?
Salfino: Sara, at that time, I think the clock was irrelevant. The Niners needed 20 seconds in an and-goal situation to run their four plays and either win or lose. They also had all three timeouts. They didn’t need to add another variable at that point by giving Rodgers enough time to get into field goal range.
neil: Yeah, the full complement of timeouts added an element of control to when and how they could score.
joshua.hermsmeyer: Taking the clock down to below 30 seconds would not impede play-calling and would do a lot to ensure Rodgers didn’t have time for a comeback. So I think you plan for success (a TD on the first play) and manage for failure (an incomplete pass).
Salfino: I would have called my first timeout with one second left on the play clock.
neil: This also comes down in some ways to San Francisco’s defense and the implicit trust that scoring early places in it. This was a great defensive team when they went to the Super Bowl a couple of years ago. I’m not sure that’s really true anymore. (And yes, Rodgers is also an assassin, no matter how good your D is.)
Adjusted for strength of competition, they haven’t had an above-average defensive EPA game all season yet. Last night didn’t change that.
Salfino: The second throw to Davante Adams was the kill shot. Just inexcusable there. I’ll give the Niners a pass on the first play given the quality of the throw. But this? How does this happen?
joshua.hermsmeyer: I also want to point out that while San Francisco’s last possession was a crucial series to get right, and was probably the reason why the Niners lost, Jimmy G also had two turnovers and Green Bay turned it over zero times.
Salfino: Not to defend Jimmy Garoppolo, but his interception was actually a good throw and a brilliant play by Jaire Alexander, I thought.
joshua.hermsmeyer: That’s fair, Mike — I just wanted to add some perspective to what we consider the game-defining play. Turnover differential is still massively important to winning football games.
Salfino: Do you guys think Shanahan is a good head coach or just a great offensive coordinator who happens to be a head coach? He’s 31-36. He’s won more than six games one time.
sara.ziegler: I think the injuries that hit San Francisco last year make it really hard to know for sure.
But how the team deals with its quarterback situation may answer that question? Garoppolo was … let’s say unimpressive. We did get a glimpse of Trey Lance, who came in just before halftime and scored a rushing touchdown. Is it Trey Time? Or given what we’ve seen from other rookie quarterbacks, should the Niners hold him back a little longer?
Salfino: The rookie QBs are all a house of horrors. Except for boring Mac Jones, who just doesn’t do anything, mostly.
sara.ziegler: The Davis Mills disrespect, Mike!
joshua.hermsmeyer: I think Shanahan probably knows which QB gives his team the best chance to win right now. So while I want to see Lance because he’s an exciting player, I still defer to coaches who are in the meeting rooms with these guys.
neil: SF’s offense is doing just fine overall, tbh, even if Jimmy G’s stats aren’t that impressive. That’s basically the story of the entire Shanahan/Garoppolo era with the Niners.
That Shanahan has found a way to construct an elite offense (they’re scoring about 6 points per game above league average in 2019 and 2021, i.e., when Jimmy G has been fully available) with his QB not having elite stats at all is probably a testament to that “great offensive coordinator” part Mike mentioned.
joshua.hermsmeyer: I think it’s safe to say Kyle wanted this win pretty badly and would have put in Lance more if he thought it would get them the win. This was not the look of a gracious loser last night:
Salfino: Belichick-Mangini vibes there.
sara.ziegler: I think that’s a great point, Josh. We have this tendency now to think we know more than the coaches because every fan is an analyst, right? But the coaches want to win!
The situation in Chicago is similar in some ways. Everyone wanted to see Justin Fields over Andy Dalton, then Dalton gets hurt and Fields starts, and it’s absolutely terrible. So did Matt Nagy have a point in not starting Fields to begin with?
neil: It wasn’t all Fields’s fault, but the fact that he had his jersey number in net passing yards (1) was something else.
joshua.hermsmeyer: Complicated! I think in Nagy’s case it’s fair to ask if he did enough to design an offensive game plan to take advantage of Fields’s unique strengths.
Salfino: The Bears fans on Twitter — at least in my feed — were pinning those nine sacks on Nagy. I think sacks are largely a QB stat. It’s sort of like stolen bases in baseball being as much on the pitcher as on the catcher, on average.
joshua.hermsmeyer: As you often like to say, Mike, a QB’s situation can determine his fate.
sara.ziegler: And if that situation involves Myles Garrett … well, have fun with that.
Salfino: Yep. This was not a good draw for Fields. The line is bad. The offensive design is meh. Probably a new coach, GM and system in Year 2.
It sure seemed, Sara, that Fields had no idea how fast Garrett was on a couple of plays.
sara.ziegler: That’s the kind of thing that seems like it will get better with experience, at least!
I want to leave the NFC North (forever, or at least for now) and talk about another game that ended with the possibility of a game-winning drive: Chiefs-Chargers.
Notably, Kansas City had about the same amount of time left in its game Sunday as Green Bay did, but Patrick Mahomes couldn’t engineer a game-winning drive against the Los Angeles Chargers. The Chiefs are now 1-2 — below .500 for the first time since 2015. Is this just a function of their schedule? Or is there reason for concern?
joshua.hermsmeyer: Gonna cape up for Mahomes here and note that needing a TD and needing a field goal are different things with that amount of time left. I think K.C. will be fine.
Salfino: The Chargers also had an unforced error in how they gave the ball back to Mahomes. Drives me crazy. I know it was windy, but scoring a TD there — instead of a last-second field goal — was literally the only way they could lose the game. Center the ball and kick a 22-yard field goal on the last play! What is so complicated? It’s like the coaches want the ratings and a snappier ending.
joshua.hermsmeyer: Disagree, Mike! Their silly kicker missed the XP, for God’s sake.
Salfino: OK, but that’s a 33-yarder or whatever, and this is the NFL.
joshua.hermsmeyer: Also, it sounds like Justin Herbert changed the play at the line on the touchdown. A fade route is almost never an interception, which is why teams call it so much in the end zone despite the low completion probability.
Salfino: Well, I’ll let the best QB in the AFC West get away with that. (Sorry, I don’t mean to insult Derek Carr.)
joshua.hermsmeyer: So I have no issue with being aggressive. If it’s an error to score a touchdown, it’s a small one. And I’m fine with errors in the direction of being aggressive.
neil: To your point, Sara, about scheduling, the Chiefs have played the eighth-toughest average Elo rating opponent (1531) of any team so far. It gets a little easier from here — their future strength of schedule is 1513, which ranks ninth — but not that much. We still give them the fourth-best Super Bowl odds of any team, but they’re down to 62 percent to make the playoffs.
Salfino: Like I said last week, the Mahomes Chiefs are the new Marino Dolphins. There’s nothing else I like about this team other than the passing game. Nothing.
And I’ll risk being the old man. In fact, I embrace it: Mahomes is an electric talent, but he needs to be told he’s not a Globetrottter.
neil: We always give K.C. the benefit of the doubt to pull out these close games and shootouts, but there are limits to what Mahomes can do if he has to do it every week.
Fun fact: The Chiefs haven’t won a regular-season game by more than one score since Nov. 1, 2020.
sara.ziegler: That is actually WILD.
neil: (Obviously they did beat the Bills by more than a score in the playoffs.)
Salfino: This is a 9-7 team or whatever the 17-game equivalent is today. They’ve been lucky to win all these games. They’re about as bad as a team can be with the best player at the most important position.
neil: Nine wins and a tie.
neil: Remember last week, when we were debating whether the Chiefs were a bad defense? They might, in fact, be bad. They’re not only dead last in EPA against the run (who cares, right?) but also 25th against the pass and 31st overall. That’s a big reason why Mahomes has had to be in a position to pull off magic tricks for them to win games.
joshua.hermsmeyer: Kansas City also had four turnovers. Chargers: zero.
Salfino: The Chiefs want a sack or a turnover and play that way on every play. It’s feast or famine, but mostly famine. I think with a QB like Mahomes and an offense like the Chiefs, you want to play boring Tony Dungy defense like he did to win all those games with Peyton Manning.
sara.ziegler: “Boring Tony Dungy defense” should be a thing.
Salfino: But they did uncharacteristically make the Chargers earn it more, and Herbert did by playing a very efficient brand of football. He’s growing by leaps and bounds every week.
I wonder if Mahomes believes in Herbert enough now to see it.
sara.ziegler: I think it’s interesting that teams have been very aggressive against the Chiefs two weeks in a row, and it’s paid off. Maybe all of K.C.’s one-score wins have trained other teams on how to play against them?
Salfino: Is this just close-game regression? IOW, you’re just lucky to win all of them in a row.
neil: Kind of amazing how the rest of that division is a combined 8-1 so far; K.C. stands out in the basement at 1-2.
(This is the part where I emphasize that there is a LOT of season — indeed, more than usual! — left to be played.)
sara.ziegler: I don’t want to underestimate the importance of those games, but we all know better than to learn TOO much from the first three weeks, right?
Salfino: The Raiders are the first team in the Super Bowl era to start 3-0 against three teams coming off seasons with at least 10 wins.
In starting 3-0, the Raiders have managed to flip their predicted record in our model from 7-10 in preseason to 10-7 now and improve their playoff odds from 24 percent to 63 percent. So these games do mean something in the big picture!
joshua.hermsmeyer: I think it was Mike Lopez that did a study showing that 2-0 is important to making the playoffs, but no more important than winning back-to-back games at any point in the season. I wonder if that’s the same case with 3-0?
Salfino: Derek Carr has now had five straight games with more than 335 passing yards. That’s one game shy of the record Kurt Warner set in 2000.
joshua.hermsmeyer: 335 is the cutoff, naturally.
Salfino: Hahaha! I mean, I had to do it.
Salfino: Josh is nerd-killing my Carr buzz.
One more thing from the Packers game: I thought this was wholesome, and I have a new favorite player.
neil: That’s great stuff.
Salfino: No Jet is thinking that!
neil: There are blessings, and there are curses.
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