If you watched Sunday night’s 49ers-Seahawks game, you know football can come down to impossibly thin margins. If Jacob Hollister were an inch taller, the Seahawks have a first-round bye in the NFL playoffs. If they weren’t down to Marshawn Lynch and Travis Homer as their running backs, they probably don’t have trouble substituting on the 1-yard line and don’t take a brutal delay of game penalty. If Pete Carroll doesn’t decide to use his final two timeouts with the clock stopped on the prior series, Seattle can just call timeout and make all the subs it wants. It’s a thin line.
Of course, we can see the direct impact of those slight changes over the course of a game like Sunday’s NFC West decider. When narrow games or important decisions go a different way, everything we know about what happened in an NFL season can change. An injury happening to a different player or at a different time can drastically impact how we perceive a player, his team and their respective futures.
With the regular season over and the playoffs set to begin, I’m writing about the NFL equivalent of the butterfly effect. I’ve pieced together an alternative timeline for the 2019 season, incorporating as many things as possible that are either true or nearly became true, just with slightly different changes. I’ve assigned players and coaches to some of the places they were attached to before heading elsewhere. I’ve incorporated how a marginally different set of injuries might have fundamentally changed the season.
Rewriting a whole season is too much, so in the cases I haven’t mentioned below, assume that the players and teams in question essentially played their 2019 seasons out identically to how they performed in real life. And while we haven’t yet played out the postseason in the real world, I couldn’t help but try to figure out how the postseason in this alternate universe might go. Let’s start by going all the way back to January.
HOW THE AFC GETS WEIRD
The Jets hire Matt Rhule as coach
After firing Todd Bowles and flirting with trendy offensive coaches to try to follow the Sean McVay model, the Jets make an attempt to rebuild their program by hiring away Rhule from Baylor.
The hiring nearly falls apart when the Jets insist on naming Rhule’s offensive coordinator, but when he threatens to walk away from negotiations, the team gives in and lets Rhule make his own hire. He attempts to lure away Ravens offensive line coach Greg Roman, who opts for a promotion in Baltimore, before hiring former Browns coach Rob Chudzinski.
Looking to add a No. 1 receiver for second-year quarterback Josh Allen, the Bills make overtures to acquire Pittsburgh’s star wideout. While Brown initially balks at the move, all parties involved eventually come to terms on a trade. The Steelers get third- and fourth-round picks in the deal, with Pittsburgh using the third-rounder on tight end Dawson Knox and the fourth-rounder as part of the package to move up to grab linebacker Devin Bush.
The Bills agree to sign Brown to a three-year, $48 million contract extension as part of the deal and install the mercurial wideout as their top receiving threat. The Bills add Cole Beasley, Frank Gore and a whole new offensive line in free agency, but they plan to build their offense around Brown.
Things go south when Brown freezes his foot in a cryotherapy clinic, publicly battles the NFL while attempting to use his previous helmet and then gets into a shouting match with general manager Brandon Beane at practice. The Bills cut Brown before the season begins, and after an aborted stay with the Patriots amid allegations of sexual assault, Brown spends the rest of the season out of football.
With the Giants deciding to move on from Beckham at any cost and Oakland narrowly missing out on Brown, the Raiders make their own move at wide receiver and use some of their draft pick bounty from the Khalil Mack trade to acquire a superstar wideout. The Raiders swap the fourth overall pick for the sixth overall one and send the 27th overall pick along with cornerback Gareon Conley to the Giants, who get themselves in better position to draft desired quarterback Daniel Jones.
In need of a splashy addition in advance of their move to Las Vegas, the Raiders get their franchise player in Beckham, with Jon Gruden publicly predicting that he’ll lead the league in receiving yards in his debut season. Beckham doesn’t quite get there, but his season does take an interesting turn.
The Browns sign Breshad Perriman to a one-year, $4 million deal
After flashing as a downfield threat in Cleveland during the second half of 2018, Perriman decides to stay put and sign a one-year, $4 million pact. Perriman breaks out during the second half alongside Jarvis Landry, finishing the year with three consecutive 100-yard games in advance of free agency.
The Steelers sign John Brown to a three-year, $27 million deal
Brown proceeds to post a career season for the injury-riddled Steelers, while Pittsburgh never consummates what turned out to be a disastrous two-year deal with Donte Moncrief.
Anthony Barr doesn’t back out of his deal with the Jets
The Jets make a big splash in free agency by signing Le’Veon Bell and C.J. Mosley, but they still need an edge rusher to supplement their defense. Barr agrees to a five-year, $75 million deal with the Jets and then seems to back out the following morning, only for a call from Rhule to put Barr’s fears at ease.
He moves into the Jets’ defense as a full-time pass-rusher and surprises, posting double-digit sacks for the first time since his days at UCLA.
While Bridgewater became a folk hero in New Orleans for his postgame celebrations, the former Vikings standout simply wanted an opportunity to start. Presented with the option of backing up a quarterback in Drew Brees who had missed just one game via injury over the prior decade, Bridgewater instead elects to sign a two-year, $22 million deal with the Dolphins to take over as their starting quarterback.
Bridgewater struggles behind a dismal offensive line in Miami and is eventually benched for Josh Rosen, with whom he trades the starting job over the remainder of the season. With both the Dolphins and Bengals at 1-14, Bridgewater takes the helm in what becomes popularly known as The Burrow Bowl. The Bengals pull off a 38-35 victory in overtime, and even when the Dolphins upset a Patriots team playing backups in Week 17, Miami finishes with the first overall pick.
With no need for Tannehill, the Dolphins find a market for their former starting quarterback. After the Panthers fail to come away with a quarterback in the 2019 draft, they decide to pursue some security for Cam Newton and trade a fourth-round pick to the Dolphins for Tannehill, with Miami eating $4 million of a restructured contract for their deposed starter. I’ll get more into what Tannehill did in the NFC section.
While the journeyman quarterback has a number of offers to serve in backup roles after an up-and-down 2018 season with the Bucs, Fitzpatrick chooses to wait out his options and wait for an opening to try to win a Super Bowl ring. When second-year quarterback Mason Rudolph goes down with a shoulder injury in training camp, the Steelers sign the former Harvard standout to a one-year deal, seemingly to back up Ben Roethlisberger.
When Roethlisberger goes down with a season-ending elbow injury during the Week 2 loss to the Seahawks, however, Pittsburgh is forced to turn to its new quarterback. Fitzpatrick struggles early in the year, but after Pittsburgh’s Week 7 bye, he rounds into form. From Week 8 on, Fitzpatrick throws 17 touchdown passes against just eight picks, ranks as one of Pittsburgh’s leading rushers and posts a Total QBR of 67.9, the fourth-best mark in football.
The Steelers run off wins in eight of their next nine games, including a pair of crucial victories on a Fitzpatrick Revenge Game tour, as he beats the Bills and Jets in December. The latter win clinches a playoff berth for the Steelers with one game to go, and Fitzpatrick jerseys — both Minkah‘s and Ryan’s — are hot sellers in Pittsburgh.
After the Bills blow a 16-0 second-half lead against the Jets while losing star inside linebacker Tremaine Edmunds to a groin injury, it feels like things can’t get worse. They do. Just days after cutting Brown, coach Sean McDermott comes back to the lectern to announce that his starting quarterback is suffering from mono. Allen misses the next four weeks, with Matt Barkley going just 1-3 against the Giants, Bengals, Patriots and Titans.
Allen returns after the bye and the Bills beat the Dolphins, but the second-year quarterback is clearly weakened and struggles with a series of bizarre injuries. Allen loses a toenail, then sprains his thumb, and while a three-game winning streak peaks with an upset victory over the Cowboys on Thanksgiving, Allen completes a league-low 48.4% of his passes and posts a passer rating of 73.9 over the final four weeks of the season. The Bills finish out of playoff contention, and 2020 becomes a make-or-break year for Allen’s time in Buffalo.
With the Rams making a move for Jalen Ramsey and no longer requiring the services of their struggling cornerback, the Raiders try to spring their defense by taking a flier on a former All-Pro cornerback. They beat out Baltimore’s offer by sending a fourth-round pick to the Rams for Peters, who was born and raised in Oakland.
Peters only has the remainder of 2019 to spend with the Raiders, but he quickly turns around a struggling secondary. A Peters pick-six helps spur a 31-27 upset victory over the Texans in Week 8 and a four-game winning streak for Gruden’s Raiders.
The Ravens get an MVP season from Lamar Jackson, but the defense struggles
Baltimore’s defense gets off to a slow start, with Earl Thomas and Brandon Williams having a “heated talk” after the 40-25 loss to the Browns. The Ravens allowed the league’s 19th-best QBR before trading for Peters and its third-best mark after trading for the former Chiefs standout, but with Peters going to the Raiders in this scenario, the Ravens don’t get that veteran boost. Baltimore loses at home to the 49ers and gets swept by the Browns in the December rematch, setting up a Week 17 home game against the Steelers for the division.
Needing a win to seal up his MVP candidacy, Jackson finally gets some help from his defense. The Steelers sack Jackson four times, but the blitz-happy Ravens force Fitzpatrick to throw three interceptions, with a late pick-six from Jimmy Smith sealing a 20-10 win. The Ravens take the AFC North at 11-5, with the Steelers locked into a wild-card spot at 10-6.
The Texans take the AFC South by default
While the Texans sell off future draft picks to add veterans like Laremy Tunsil and Duke Johnson, they end up winning the South through sheer survival. The Jaguars lose Nick Foles during the opening quarter and bench him shortly after he returns in November. Andrew Luck unexpectedly retires in August, and while the Colts get off to a 5-2 start, they fade badly during the second half without the likes of T.Y. Hilton in the lineup.
That leaves the Titans, who don’t have Tannehill to fall back on. After starting 2-4, the Titans grow sick of Marcus Mariota and turn things over to their backup, rookie third-round pick Will Grier, who goes to Tennessee in this scenario. Grier’s desire to try to make a big play galvanizes the Titans, who upset the Chargers on a goal-line stand the following week, but his inexperience quickly shows.
The Titans lose squeakers to the Buccaneers, and while they narrowly beat the Chiefs, they’re only 4-6 before their Week 11 bye. Mariota is inserted back into the lineup, but after the Titans get blown out by the Texans twice and Saints to end their season, a 6-10 campaign leads Tennessee to fire Mike Vrabel and start over.
Patrick Mahomes‘ knee injury costs him most of 2019
The AFC West race flipped the moment Mahomes grabbed his knee against the Broncos in October. He dislocated his kneecap and damaged the articular cartilage in his knee early in the 30-6 victory, and while there was some hope later in the evening that he might be able to avoid surgery, the Chiefs had no choice but to send him under the knife for season-ending surgery.
While Matt Moore was able to lead the Chiefs to a win over the Broncos and a narrow victory over the Vikings two weeks later, a concussion suffered late in the loss to the Titans forced the Chiefs to turn things over to third-stringer Chad Henne. The Chiefs then lose three straight to the Chargers, Raiders and Patriots, and while the defense carries Henne to wins over the Broncos and Bears, a 9-6 Chiefs team needs a win over the Chargers or a Raiders loss to win the AFC West.
No luck. In his likely final game for the Chargers, Philip Rivers throws for 284 yards and two touchdown passes in a 24-21 victory. Amid an uneven debut season with the Raiders, meanwhile, Beckham catches a 20-yard touchdown pass from Derek Carr in the fourth quarter to top 1,000 receiving yards and propel Oakland to a 16-15 victory over the Broncos. On the final day of the season, the Raiders flip-flop with the Chiefs and win the West on a tiebreaker at 9-7. The Raiders get one final home game in the playoffs.
The Patriots get back Rob Gronkowski in November … sort of
With the Pats’ offense struggling and Tom Brady‘s weaponry looking meager, coach Bill Belichick puts out the call for a future Hall of Fame tight end. Gronk picks up the phone, but as a lapsed football player, the 30-year-old isn’t realistically in game shape.
The Patriots compromise by initially using Gronkowski solely within the red zone, and after losses to the Cowboys and Texans, a pair of Gronkowski touchdown catches give the Patriots a 23-16 victory over the Chiefs. The Pats clinch a first-round bye with victories over the Bengals and Bills, and while they lose while resting Gronk in the Week 17 game against the Dolphins, they come away with yet another top seed in the AFC.
The Jets finish with the other wild-card spot in the AFC
Rhule’s Jets appear to be struggling by midseason, with one prominent New York paper calling for the Jets to pursue a coach with more NFL experience after a four-game losing streak drops them to 2-4. Once the schedule eases up, the Jets begin to thrive.
Sam Darnold & Co. win six of their next seven against some of the worst teams in football, and while they get blown out by the Ravens on Thursday night in Week 15, the Jets hold steady. After winning their final two games over the Steelers and Bills, they finish 10-6 and claim the 5-seed in the conference.
Neither the Jets nor Raiders seemed like viable playoff contenders before the season, but they’ll be facing each other in the wild-card round.
What happens in the AFC playoffs in this alternate universe
The Raiders hold serve at home, winning their final game in Oakland in a 30-7 blowout. The Jets’ second-ranked rush defense bottles up Josh Jacobs for 47 yards on 19 carries, but Beckham takes a slant 74 yards to the house against his former cross-town rivals, and sixth overall pick Clelin Ferrell strip-sacks Darnold twice. The Texans similarly pick apart their former quarterback, as Fitzpatrick’s revenge tour comes to a screeching halt with three interceptions in a 27-7 loss for the Steelers.
The home wins serve up a juicy rematch nearly two decades in the making, as the 4-seed Raiders travel to New England for their first playoff game against the Patriots since the Tuck Rule game during the 2001 postseason. That was Tom Brady’s first playoff game, and amid an uneven season, there’s speculation that a loss at home could be his last playoff game in a Patriots uniform. Alas, it’s not to be; the Patriots hold the Raiders to 202 yards from scrimmage and run for 179 combined yards in a 16-3 victory for Bill Belichick’s team, with Gronkowski taking a jet sweep for a two-yard score.
The other divisional round game delivers a classic, as the Texans go up 21-3 at halftime on the Ravens after a returning J.J. Watt takes a tipped Jackson pass 66 yards to the house. After the break, the MVP-elect takes over. With Houston’s pass rush tiring, Jackson runs for 102 yards and a rushing touchdown before a trick play sees Willie Snead throw Jackson a touchdown pass to tie the game up at 24 with six minutes to go. Deshaun Watson gets the Texans into field goal range, but facing a fourth-and-1 from the Baltimore 35-yard line with 2:37 to go, Houston coach Bill O’Brien sends out Ka’imi Fairbairn, who misses a 53-yard field goal. Jackson quickly hits Mark Andrews for a pair of first downs, and after a Hollywood Brown jet sweep gets the Ravens comfortably in field goal range, a 39-yard kick by Justin Tucker sends the Ravens to Foxborough.
There, Tucker is the difference. With both offenses struggling amid frosty conditions in New England, the Ravens have a huge advantage with Tucker versus Nick Folk. The former Jets kicker misses an extra point and a 37-yard field goal in the first half, while three Tucker field goals give the Ravens a 9-6 lead. The Patriots answer with a Brady touchdown pass to N’Keal Harry, but the Ravens respond with a taste of New England’s own medicine.
They repeatedly use an unbalanced line on a second-half drive, and Jackson hits backup tackle James Hurst as an eligible receiver for a nine-yard touchdown pass to put the Ravens up 16-13. With left tackle Isaiah Wynn sidelined by a foot injury, star Ravens edge rusher Matt Judon forces a fourth-quarter strip sack of Brady and sets up a Tucker field goal to make it 19-13.
The Patriots drive to midfield with 40 seconds to go, but with Gronkowski sidelined by a hamstring injury, there’s nobody left who can beat tight coverage. The Ravens double Julian Edelman and second-year corner Anthony Averett knocks away a fourth-down pass to Harry to send Baltimore to the Super Bowl.
MEANWHILE, IN THE NFC …
The Cardinals hire Adam Gase
Looking for an offensive mastermind to spur their offense forward, the Cardinals hire Gase after he’s fired by the Dolphins. Gase initially suggests that he wants to stick with second-year quarterback Josh Rosen, only to draft Kyler Murray and then ship Rosen off to his former employers for a second-round pick.
Gase’s debut season in the desert is a disaster. He feuds with general manager Steve Keim and wins a power struggle, with Keim fired shortly after the draft. Gase hypes up big seasons for running back David Johnson and wideout Christian Kirk, but Kirk struggles to stay healthy, while Johnson is eventually benched after the Cardinals trade for former Dolphins back Kenyan Drake.
With the Cardinals floundering at 3-9-1 in December, Gase is fired before the end of his first season in charge, with offensive coordinator Kliff Kingsbury promoted to take over as interim coach.
It seemed like the Eagles were going to lose Graham heading into last offseason, but while he signed a three-year, $40 million deal to stay with Philly in the real universe, he heads to join the Colts on a three-year, $45 million pact here. The Eagles still re-sign Vinny Curry and add Malik Jackson, but they’re down an edge rusher after losing both Graham and Chris Long.
In August, the Eagles find their solution by trading for Clowney. With the Texans deciding to move on from the former first overall pick, general manager Howie Roseman beats out the Seahawks’ bid by offering the Texans a second-round pick and swing tackle Halapoulivaati Vaitai for Clowney and $7 million. Nobody loves a daring trade more than Roseman.
Sean Payton once signed Luke McCown to serve as his team’s backup quarterback, and he completes the McCown set by signing Josh to replace Teddy Bridgewater. Payton can’t anticipate it at the time, but when Brees goes down with a thumb injury during a September loss to the Rams, McCown steps in as the new starting quarterback for the Saints.
Unlike Bridgewater in the real universe, though, the 40-year-old McCown struggles, going 2-3 in his five starts. Brees inherits a team treading water in the NFC South at 3-4.
Cam Newton undergoes immediate surgery after suffering a Lisfranc injury in August
With observers already paying close attention to Newton’s health as he recovers from a shoulder injury, the Panthers face an unexpected hurdle when he suffers a Lisfranc injury in a preseason game against the Patriots on August 22.
A reeling Panthers team immediately sends Newton to injured reserve and announces that they hope to reactivate him after about three months. Newton posts an image of the Panthers schedule with the Nov. 24 game against the Saints circled. The Panthers turn their offense over to Tannehill, who takes over as the Week 1 starter.
The Cowboys reacquire Dan Bailey after he’s cut by the Vikings
With Bailey struggling in training camp, the Vikings trade a fifth-round pick to the Ravens for specialist Kaare Vedvik. When Vedvik makes 43- and 54-yard field goals in the preseason dress rehearsal against the Cardinals, the Vikings cut Bailey. Vedvik proceeds to lose Minnesota’s faith within weeks, as the Norwegian misses an extra point and a field goal in the opening week win over the Falcons, then misses two more field goals in a 21-16 loss to the Packers. The Vikings cut him and turn things over to former kicker Kai Forbath for the remainder of the campaign.
The Cowboys are looking for an upgrade on Brett Maher after the second-year kicker struggles in training camp, and during the cuts at the end of camp, Dallas cuts Maher and brings back Bailey into the fold. Bailey misses a field goal and an extra point during the Week 2 win over Washington, but he quickly settles in and hits 93% of his field goals for the Cowboys, earning Pro Bowl consideration.
Bailey’s kicks help spur a run of close victories for the Cowboys, who were expected to decline before the season. Instead, the combination of Bailey and a leap forward from Dak Prescott propel the Cowboys to a hot start. A last-second Bailey field goal gives the Cowboys a 13-12 win over McCown and the Saints, and two weeks later, a 40-yard field goal in the fourth quarter helps launch a Cowboys comeback, which ends with a Prescott touchdown pass with 47 seconds left, sealing a win over the Jets. After a blowout win over the Eagles in Week 7, the Cowboys hit their bye at 6-1.
Dan Quinn hands over defensive playcalling duties after Week 3
Something isn’t right with the Falcons. A last-gasp win over the Eagles gets them to 1-1, but when they allow Jacoby Brissett to throw for 310 yards and two touchdowns, Quinn finally recognizes that the Falcons need to change their defensive plans. He decides after the game to handover defensive playcalling duties to the combination of Jeff Ullrich and Raheem Morris, with Morris eventually earning a promotion to defensive coordinator during Atlanta’s Week 9 bye.
The move doesn’t totally fix Atlanta’s defense, but it’s enough to swing a few close games. The Falcons torment poor Marcus Mariota, whom they sack six times in a 24-10 victory. Takkarist McKinley strips David Johnson as the Cardinals try to start a game-winning drive with the game tied at 34 in Week 6, setting up a game-winning field goal from Matt Bryant.
The Falcons give up 37 points the following week to the Rams, though, and it’s clear that they’re struggling to take away big plays. It leads to a trade for safety help …
With the Lions inexplicably growing sick of their starting free safety and deciding to move on, the 3-4 Falcons send fifth- and sixth-round picks to the Lions to acquire a replacement for Keanu Neal.
Diggs has an immediate impact, as he intercepts white-hot Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson in his debut with the team. The Falcons get out to a 24-0 halftime lead, and while Wilson brings the Seahawks back in the second half, a Chris Carson fumble in the fourth quarter ruins a goal-to-go opportunity. The Falcons win 27-20 and then allow 12 points in two games after the bye against the Saints and Panthers, lifting their record to 7-4 and leaving them in first place amid a crowded NFC.
The Rams trade for Jalen Ramsey and nothing really changes
Looking to make a splash and fix their secondary, the Rams ship out Marcus Peters and send two first-round picks to the Jaguars for Ramsey. They’re nominally better with Ramsey in the lineup, but the difference isn’t worth the enormous amount of draft capital.
Wade Phillips’ defense allows opposing quarterbacks a passer rating of 82.9 and a QBR of 44.0 with Ramsey on the field, marks that fall to 91.0 and 48.1 with Ramsey sidelined. His most notable play of the season comes on a third-and-16 against the 49ers in Week 16, when Ramsey combines with Taylor Rapp to badly blow a coverage against Emmanuel Sanders and set up a game-winning field goal for the 49ers.
The Seahawks are the most exciting mediocre team in the league
While Russell Wilson delivers an MVP-caliber season on the offensive side of the ball, the Seahawks never make the sort of acquisitions needed to rebuild their defense after losing the likes of Michael Bennett, Kam Chancellor and Earl Thomas in back-to-back offseasons. After trading pass-rusher Frank Clark, the Seahawks elect to move forward with a starting defensive end duo of Ezekiel Ansah and L.J. Collier. Neither end is healthy or particularly effective, and the missing pass rush hurts the Seahawks during an October losing streak.
After starting 3-1, the Seahawks go 1-5 over their next six games despite only being outscored by a total of seven points. Last-second losses to the Rams, Browns and 49ers seem to suggest that this just isn’t Seattle’s year. When Wilson eventually cools off during the second half, the Seahawks limp to a 7-9 record, raising questions about 68-year-old Pete Carroll’s future with the franchise.
DeSean Jackson gets healthy and propels the Eagles into the playoffs in the second half
Thirty-two-year-olds aren’t supposed to be devastating downfield receivers, but Jackson proceeds to turn back the clock after joining the Eagles and hooking up with Carson Wentz. After catching eight passes for 154 yards and two touchdowns in the season-opening win over Washington, he goes down with an abdomen injury during the Week 2 loss to the Falcons and lands on injured reserve. The Eagles held Jackson out through their Week 10 bye, with inconsistent secondary play and an injury-hit offense leaving Philly behind the first-place Cowboys at 5-4.
Jackson returns for the Week 11 game against the Patriots and proceeded to push the Eagles back into the playoff race. With virtually every other weapon sidelined by injuries, Jackson became the difference-maker in the second half. He caught a 67-yard touchdown pass from Wentz to tie the Patriots game up at 17-17 in the third quarter, although a late miss from Jake Elliott eventually set the Pats up for a game-winning field goal from Folk.
Back-to-back 100-yard games from Jackson against the hapless Seahawks and Dolphins secondaries got the Eagles to 7-5. He followed that by catching game-winning touchdown passes against two NFC East foes in the Giants and Washington. Frustratingly, in the battle for first place in the division, Jackson goes down with a recurrence of his abdominal injury, but the Eagles still manage to pick up a 17-9 victory before sealing the division up with a win over the Giants in Week 17.
The Cowboys seemed set to challenge for the top seed in the conference alongside the 49ers and Packers after beating the Patriots on five Bailey field goals and starting 9-2, but they collapsed in dramatic fashion. Losses to the Bills and Bears dropped Jason Garrett’s team to 9-4, and after beating the Rams, the Cowboys merely needed to beat the Eagles to clinch the East. Instead, an injury-hit Cowboys offense fell apart in a 17-9 loss, while a win over Washington in Week 17 meant nothing. Dallas finished 11-5 and made the playoffs, but it was only as a wild card in the top-heavy NFC.
Sean McVay isn’t an idiot, but Todd Gurley gets injured
With the Rams struggling to find solutions for opposing defenses copying the Patriots from Super Bowl LIII and stacking the line of scrimmage with 6-1 fronts, McVay makes an early switch to his usual game plan. After Gurley plays just under 71% of the snaps during Los Angeles’s 2-2 start to the regular season, the Rams hand him 93% of the snaps during a crucial prime-time game against the Seahawks.
Gurley responds with two touchdowns and a long catch-and-run on the final drive, setting up a game-winning field goal from Greg Zuerlein to give the Rams a 32-30 win. Gurley does little in the loss against the 49ers, but McVay moves to more 12 personnel in victories over the Falcons and Bengals, propelling the Rams to a 5-3 record before their bye.
After the bye, Gurley isn’t the same. After playing more than 90% of the snaps in four consecutive games, he suffers a calf injury during the 17-12 loss to the Steelers and misses the next two games, during which the Rams score a total of 23 points. Gurley returns with a solid performance against the Cardinals, but over the final four weeks of the season, he carries the ball 69 times for just 215 yards, an average of just 3.1 yards per carry. The Rams seem set to make a wild-card run at 8-5, but consecutive losses to the Cowboys and 49ers drop them out of the playoff picture.
The Saints get hot and the Panthers collapse
The Panthers rode an unexpectedly brilliant half-season from Tannehill to a 5-3 start, as the former Dolphins standout torched opposing defenses off play-action with throws to DJ Moore and Curtis Samuel. Consecutive losses to the Packers and Falcons dropped the Panthers to 5-5, and with Newton recovered from surgery, the Panthers followed their starter’s vision and inserted Newton back into the lineup for the crucial game against the Saints.
While Brees had righted the ship after the Saints’ 3-4 start, a loss to the Falcons also left the Saints at 5-5. Newton didn’t have all of his mobility back in his return, but the former first overall pick went 23-of-36 for 256 yards with three touchdowns in trading blows with Brees. After a fourth-and-1 stuff by the Panthers’ defense, Carolina drove the ball to the 3-yard line for a first-and-goal opportunity in a tie game with 2:21 to go. The worst-case scenario seemed to be that the Panthers would come away with a field goal, but instead, Carolina lost nine yards before Joey Slye missed a 28-yard field goal.
The Panthers allowed the Saints to immediately march down the field for the game-winning field goal, which broke their backs. Newton was in charge for the following week’s game against Washington, but he went 27-of-46 for just 278 yards while turning the ball over twice against one of the league’s worst defenses. After the game, Newton admitted that his foot was continuing to bother him and went back on injured reserve. Tannehill returned, but the defensive collapse kept the Panthers from making a late-season run, and they finished 6-10, ending both Newton and Ron Rivera’s tenures in Carolina.
The Saints, meanwhile, used their comeback win to reestablish themselves as a team nobody wanted to play. They won four of their last five games to finish the season at 10-6, including a 26-18 win in their rematch against the Falcons in Atlanta. That was enough to make it into the playoffs, but it wasn’t enough to win the NFC South.
The Falcons win the NFC South
The Saints lost a 48-46 classic to the 49ers in the Game of the Year, and when the Falcons subsequently beat the 49ers 29-22 in San Francisco the following week, it was enough to give the 9-5 Falcons a one-game lead in the South with two games to go.
The Saints had a shot at winning the division if Atlanta slipped, but a pick-six by Deion Jones in overtime clinched the South for Quinn’s Falcons at 11-5.
The Packers eliminate the Vikings from the playoff picture in Week 16
The NFC North mostly comes down to a two-team race, with the Bears struggling to build a coherent offense and the Lions brought down by Matthew Stafford‘s season-ending injury. While the Vikings still have top-level talent, inconsistent kicking and cornerback play costs Minnesota in an unlikely midseason loss to the Broncos, with the Vikings coming all the way back from a 20-0 deficit before giving up a game-winning touchdown pass from Brandon Allen to Tim Patrick on the final play of the game. The Vikings hit Week 16 at 9-5 and in need of a victory to keep their chances of winning the North alive.
Instead, Kirk Cousins and the offense crater in prime time. A 23-10 Packers win clinches the North for the 11-4 Packers and knocks the Vikings to the outskirts of the playoff race. When the Cowboys and Saints both win in Week 17, the Vikings miss the playoffs for the second consecutive season. Green Bay comes away with the 2-seed and a first-round bye. The 49ers seal the top seed with a goal-line stand in their win over the Seahawks in Week 17.
What happens in the NFC playoffs in this alternate universe
The wild-card round delivers a pair of divisional rubber matches. On Saturday, the Cowboys travel to Philadelphia for their rubber match with the Eagles and prove that their Week 17 explosion on offense against Washington wasn’t a fluke. With Prescott two weeks healthier, the Cowboys hit the deep throws to the likes of Tavon Austin and Michael Gallup that Prescott missed in the prior game. Dak goes over 300 yards when he hits Elliott on a screen for a 67-yard score. With no Jackson, Zach Ertz or Miles Sanders, the Cowboys force three fumbles between Wentz and Boston Scott and hold on for a 28-24 victory over their divisional rivals.
Likewise, the Falcons aren’t able to ride home-field advantage. For the second time in six weeks, the Saints travel to Atlanta and come away with a road win over their arch-rivals. While the Falcons were able to limit Michael Thomas to 48 receiving yards in the second game between these two teams, Thomas went off for 152 yards in the first tilt and catches 13 passes for 164 yards and two scores in the playoff game. The Falcons score just one touchdown in four red zone tries and eventually fall, 30-19.
The divisional round then delivers a 49ers-Saints rematch, evoking memories of both the 48-46 classic they played in Week 14 and their back-and-forth 36-32 battle from the 2011 playoffs. With this game in San Francisco and the 49ers healed up on defense, though, it doesn’t deliver the same sort of scoring. The 49ers run all over a depleted Saints defensive line, with Raheem Mostert and Kyle Juszczyk each scoring early touchdowns. Matt Breida seals things with a 74-yard touchdown run early in the fourth quarter, and while Brees makes it interesting with a touchdown pass to Thomas, an instant-classic George Kittle block on third-and-short allows the 49ers to run the clock out in a 24-17 victory.
A Packers team that seemed vulnerable during the regular season while simultaneously finishing 12-4 then shows why they never seemed to gel during a postseason loss. The league’s 22nd-ranked rush defense by DVOA can’t keep up with Elliott, who carries the ball 24 times for 147 yards and two touchdowns. The Cowboys hold the ball for 39 minutes and upset the Packers by using Robert Quinn and Michael Bennett as interior pass-rushers, forcing Aaron Rodgers into rushed throws. The drive Packers fans are expecting never comes, and after getting out to a 7-0 lead on the opening possession, the Packers allow 17 consecutive points before a late touchdown makes things close. With the Cowboys facing a third-and-2 and the prospect of handing the ball back to Rodgers down three with 1:41 to go, coordinator Kellen Moore dares to call for a play-action pass, and Prescott finds Jason Witten to seal an upset for the Cowboys.
Sadly for Cowboys fans, the dream ends there. Defensive coordinator Rod Marinelli has no answer for San Francisco’s play-action game, and the 49ers batter a Cowboys offensive line missing Smith. The 49ers control the line of scrimmage and go up 17-3 halfway through the second quarter. With Urban Meyer making his way into the owner’s box for the second half, the Niners punch their ticket to the Super Bowl with a 27-10 victory.
Super Bowl LIV: The 49ers vs. Ravens rematch
When these two teams last met in the Super Bowl, the Ravens got out to a 28-6 lead before the 49ers clawed their way back into the game. This time around, it was the 49ers who got out to a hot start. Jimmy Garoppolo has struggled against the blitz this season, but with two weeks to prepare, Kyle Shanahan took advantage of the league’s most blitz-happy team by hitting both Coleman and Breida for huge gains on screens on each of San Francisco’s opening two drives. The 49ers had to settle for a field goal on the first drive, but a touchdown pass to Kittle gave the 49ers an early 10-0 lead.
Meanwhile, a buzzing 49ers defense seemed to have the answers for Jackson. The Ravens ran the ball 12 times for just 28 yards in the first half, and with the 49ers holding onto the ball for long, methodical drives, the two teams traded field goals to leave the Niners up 13-3 at halftime.
As the game wore on, though, the 49ers’ front four began to slow down, opening up opportunities for Jackson. An injury to influential Niners linebacker Fred Warner left the 49ers down their top two linebackers, and the newly-elected MVP took advantage. He juked Dre Greenlaw out of his boots for a 35-yard gain, then threw over Azeez Al-Shaair to hit Nick Boyle for a touchdown. After a 49ers three-and-out, Jackson took advantage of a defense desperate to make a play and hit Marquise Brown up the seam on a go route for a 74-yard touchdown. The Ravens suddenly had a 17-13 lead with 18 minutes to go.
Garoppolo answered. Expecting the Ravens to blitz and sell out against a possible screen, Shanahan changed a hot route and called for a middle screen to Kittle, who romped for 58 yards. The 49ers appeared to stall out in the red zone and settle for a field goal, only for a Ravens defender to jump offside and give the Niners a new set of downs. Blessed with new life, Garoppolo hit Kendrick Bourne for a 14-yard touchdown to give the 49ers a 20-17 lead in the fourth.
When the 49ers came up with a stop and took the ball back with six minutes to go, Shanahan had to face the one criticism of his playcalling going back to the Super Bowl loss against the Patriots: He couldn’t ice a lead. He was let down by penalties then, the same thing happened again here. The 49ers picked up one first down, and then a second, but after backup center Ben Garland committed a holding penalty that wiped away a Kittle catch, the Niners had to settle for a 47-yard field goal from Gould to go up 23-17.
Jackson took over with 2:33 to go needing a touchdown to cap off his dream season. You know where this is going. With tired legs against the best athlete on the field, the 49ers were chasing shadows. With defensive coordinator Robert Saleh trying desperately to spy Jackson with Jimmie Ward and backup linebackers, Jackson was too much to handle. A pair of runs before the two-minute warning pushed the ball into San Francisco territory. Two more checkdowns to Mark Ingram got the Ravens inside the 20 with 1:04 to go. This was supposed to be the moment when the 49ers stiffened on defense, but it wasn’t going to happen. Jackson scrambled for another first down, and with 34 seconds to go, the MVP hit Andrews for the game-winning touchdown. After a Tucker extra point and a stop on San Francisco’s last-gasp drive, the Ravens were champs.