Can The Eagles Beat The Bears? Can Houston Stop Andrew Luck?

sara.ziegler (Sara Ziegler, assistant sports editor): The NFL’s 2018 regular season is finally in the books. Before the playoffs get rolling, let’s look back on an interesting Week 17 and preview next weekend’s wild-card round. We’ll end with giving our Super Bowl predictions again, just to keep us honest.

Salfino (Michael Salfino, contributor): I will have to revise my Saints-Steelers Super Bowl pick.

sara.ziegler: LOL

The AFC had all the drama yesterday, so let’s start with the Ravens/Steelers/Colts/Titans business.

neil (Neil Paine, senior sportswriter): I was very much hoping for that Colts-Titans tie. But alas.

sara.ziegler: If the NFL were scripted, we would have ended the regular season on a tie.

neil: Particularly this of all regular seasons.

Salfino: What’s interesting to me about the Ravens is that teams are not punishing Lamar Jackson for running.

joshua.hermsmeyer (Josh Hermsmeyer, NFL analyst): I’m unclear on why teams don’t force Jackson to beat them with his arm as well. It’s worked in the past against other highly mobile QBs, and there seems to be no great reason why it won’t work again.

neil: That’s part of what makes the Ravens so interesting, that their second-half playoff push basically coincided with the QB change and this rush-heavy identity that seems so different in a league that set new records for passing in 2018.

Salfino: Yes, the Ravens and the Chiefs are the offenses you really can’t prepare for in a week, IMO. I have no idea how a team can prepare for Jackson in one week. But LAC at least just faced him. Is that advantage Chargers? To me this is the most interesting game of the wild-card round.

sara.ziegler: The Ravens nearly let Sunday’s game slip away, though.

Salfino: The problem is that it’s so hard to stay disciplined and not chase him. Defenses are taught to be aggressive.

Jackson allows the offense to play 11 on 11, and all of defense is predicated on the defense playing 11 on 10.

joshua.hermsmeyer: Also strange is that we can make legit comps between Jackson and Josh Allen. Bill Belichick kept Allen in the pocket during Week 16 knowing the main danger he poses is from his legs. And New England won.

Salfino: Yes, the Patriots are just taught to be super disciplined so they can counter that probably better than most teams.

sara.ziegler: Did the Browns figure that out a little bit too against Jackson? The Ravens rushed for 8.5 yards per carry in the first half and just 4.5 in the second.

Salfino: Maybe as the game wore on, but by then the damage was done. The Browns were just getting gashed. The Ravens were running on 3rd-and-long and converting. It was like a college game — old-school college before the passing explosion.

joshua.hermsmeyer: Credit as well to the play-calling, I think. It’s a very creative scheme the Ravens are rolling out.

Salfino: Is the Ravens defense overrated? Where are the blue chip players? They are just coached so well. Wink Martindale should get interviews.

neil: And Jackson’s own speed is really something to behold. On that first TD Jackson scored, it looked like he was shot out of a cannon.

Salfino: Jackson also looked like he was playing at video game speed even on the shorter second TD run. He just darted into the end zone like everyone was standing still.

I think the Ravens offense is underrated and their defense is overrated.

sara.ziegler: In the other afternoon AFC game of note, the Steelers came out incredibly flat before rallying for the win, which wasn’t quite enough.

neil: Pittsburgh’s season will go down as one of the all-time collapses, I think?

Salfino: The Steelers have to be the most disappointing team in recent memory. They were top 10 in all the key defensive stats except interception percentage — which is fluky, but man that killed them. They have Ben Roethlisberger throwing for 5,000 yards, two All-Pro WRs, and the running game was fine. Yet they just blew one game after the other.

joshua.hermsmeyer: Antonio Brown has been inefficient this year, but he was missed.

Salfino: The Steelers were sixth in yards per play and sixth in yards allowed per play and didn’t make the playoffs. This is almost impossible. I thought it was impossible.

neil: After Week 11, we gave them a 97 percent chance of making the playoffs.

sara.ziegler: I was surprised all season that they were as high in Elo as they were.

Salfino: Being third in sack rate and 28th in interception rate defies conventional wisdom that pressure creates turnovers. Maybe PIT was super unlucky, too.

sara.ziegler: They reeled off six wins in a row, but they never looked dominant.

neil: Some of that was probably residual, Sara, from last year, when they had Le’Veon Bell, etc. But the narrative all first half was how they didn’t need Bell.

sara.ziegler: Yeah, and James Conner filled in well for them!

Salfino: Is MIN more disappointing than PIT? This is going to be a brutal offseason for Kirk Cousins. No player in memory is going to be under more pressure than he will be next year.

neil: This is a fraught question for Sara ….

sara.ziegler: I can’t even talk about it.

neil: Yep.

sara.ziegler: Well, Mike, we all know how well Cousins does with pressure.

neil: 😬

Salfino: I really thought Cousins was a franchise QB. He did pretty well with just garbage offensive talent in 2017 in WAS, and this year he just never really could get it going. He played so tight.

neil: Sunday was sort of symbolic of the whole 2018 Vikings.

They controlled their destiny at home (granted against the Bears).

Cousins goes 4-for-11 for 2.1 yards per attempt and two sacks on third and fourth down.

Terrible overall performance.

Salfino: It seemed like Cousins averaged about a yard per attempt. If I were the coach of the Vikings, I’d tell him to take chances and not care about INTs. They’re overrated.

neil: The Minnesota defense was uncharacteristically bad on third down, too. Allowed 57 percent conversions after giving up only 28 percent all season before Sunday.

sara.ziegler:

This will be the defining image of the season for me.

Salfino: Cousins showing Thielen how to run routes was both hilarious and sad.

joshua.hermsmeyer: One silver lining for the Vikings is that the situational football we typically use to judge Cousins as a disappointment is among the least predictive of future performance in all of football: throws under pressure, third-down conversions. Kirk deserves his share of the blame, but the entire offense looked out of sync yesterday and for a lot of the second half of the season.

sara.ziegler: Cousins has his redemption narrative all set for next season, LOL.

Salfino: The Eagles benefit from the Vikings’ struggles. I can’t believe that the Bears are only 6-point favorites.

neil: Particularly with Nick Foles not necessarily 100 percent.

sara.ziegler: The Eagles don’t even need Foles, Neil!

neil: Carson Wentz? Nick Foles? Nate Sudfeld? No problem.

sara.ziegler: Well … Wentz? Some problems.

Everyone else? Fine.

neil: Philly was always a backup QB’s dream city during the McNabb era. Some of that has carried over, I guess.

Salfino: Foles has got to be the most volatile QB in NFL history. We should quantify that. He’s below average for his career and is treated like a franchise QB based on about 16 games, if we include all of 2013.

neil: Yeah, the gap between his best 16 and worst 16 starts has to be one of the biggest ever.

Salfino: I can’t even imagine the Bears losing to the Eagles. They are just going to chew Philly up. The Eagles’ best playmaker is still 100-year-old Darren Sproles, who is amazing, but come on.

joshua.hermsmeyer: I can’t think of Foles without wincing that he lost $1 million because of four snaps.

This is just brutal.

sara.ziegler: Ooof.

Salfino: Foles is going to get $100 million in about three months, so I will not feel sorry for him.

joshua.hermsmeyer: hah

sara.ziegler: LOL

The one other meaningful game yesterday — aside from the games that cost coaches their jobs — was Colts-Titans. Anyone surprised that the Colts dominated that one?

neil: I mean, Blaine Gabbert was starting for Tennessee, Sara

sara.ziegler: Fair

Salfino: Titans-Colts is QB wins to me. Luck vs. Gabbert. Come on. Murder. She. Wrote.

joshua.hermsmeyer: Oh gawd not QB Winz

Salfino: YES!!!

Give me the better QB, and I’ll take my chances.

joshua.hermsmeyer: smh

Marlon Mack outrushed Derrick Henry, so why not RB winz?

Salfino: No RB winz because winning yards per carry gets you nothing in win probability.

Josh, you and I agree broadly but just quibble about how much credit quarterbacks get in the passing game.

joshua.hermsmeyer: This is true.

neil: Either way, it’s been great to see Andrew Luck bounce back from the injury and lost season to play well and lead a playoff push.

sara.ziegler: I’m still amazed by the Colts’ turnaround.

They were at 4 percent to make the playoffs on Oct. 15.

Salfino: Luck should be in the MVP conversation. I understand it’s Patrick Mahomes. But Luck has done a lot with a lot less than Mahomes. Luck does seemingly have great coaching now though. Frank Reich, who the Colts backed into, was the hire of the offseason. I think better than Matt Nagy even.

joshua.hermsmeyer: Luck truly played himself back into game shape. Early on, his throws were routinely Derek Carr short, and by the end of the season he was mostly back to the old Luck.

sara.ziegler: So let’s turn to this weekend’s games.

Colts-Texans and Seahawks-Cowboys on Saturday, Chargers-Ravens and Eagles-Bears on Sunday.

Which underdog has the best chance?

neil: Three of the 4 underdogs are +2.5 per Vegas.

Salfino: Colts-Texans is the game of the week to me in terms of having no idea who will win. The Texans are a strange team with great strengths (QB, pass rush) and crippling weaknesses (offensive line, pass coverage).

On paper, the Colts are a terrible matchup for the Texans because Luck led the league in lowest sack rate as he completely transformed his game to protect his health. So smart.

neil: Indy also also beat Houston in Houston less than a month ago.

Salfino: I am going to fade the Seahawks: 25th in yards allowed per play and 31st in sack rate allowed. That’s so bad. I can’t believe they even made the playoffs.

neil: Ironically, our Elo gives Seattle the best chance of any wild card weekend team. 😉

Elo has a tendency to react strongly to recent hot streaks, for better or worse.

Seattle has won six of its past seven, including a win over Kansas City.

Salfino: If you have Russell Wilson, anything is possible. I will stipulate.

joshua.hermsmeyer: I like Seattle for my part. Turnovers are wildly unpredictable, and that drove their defensive Defense-adjusted Value Over Average for much of the season, but they are built to win close games like this one where both teams appear to want to “establish the run.”

Salfino: The football story of the week when it comes to the chess aspect of the game and coaching is whether the Chargers having experienced the Ravens offense can now shut it down. But they don’t really do much on defense except play that Seattle, straight-up style. So do they even have a bag of tricks?

sara.ziegler: Seems strange to me that the Ravens are favorites over the Chargers.

Baltimore is hot right now, but L.A. has been solid all season.

Salfino: Well, Baltimore has had the best home-field advantage in football when you factor in road vs. home record. So LAC are up against it.

neil: Never underestimate the extra value of home-field advantage in the NFL playoffs, too.

sara.ziegler: Yeah, that all makes sense.

I still like the Chargers. I’m being obstinate, LOL.

neil: Well, this is a little bit of a counter to the QB Winz debate from above. L.A. clearly has the better QB.

joshua.hermsmeyer: I like Philip Rivers and the Chargers as well. Particularly if the Chargers keep Jackson in the pocket.

Salfino: No Super Bowl team has won a road game since the 2012 season. But I’ll say that the most likely road winners this week in order are the Colts (they win), Chargers (I can see it but don’t think they adjust defensively), Seattle (Wilson gives them a chance) and Eagles (no chance unless Mitch Trubisky craps the bed).

sara.ziegler: 🔥

joshua.hermsmeyer: The Baltimore defense prevents completions, that’s their best skill. But Rivers has completed passes at 1.8 percent over expected this season.

Salfino: New England really gets tested if the Colts win. (They would have to play the winner of Baltimore-LAC.) If the Texans win, Houston is just made for an easy Patriots victory in the divisional round.

Little worried about how Rivers has looked of late. But probably just random variance. There’s not much data on QBs this old late in the season and into the postseason other than Brady.

sara.ziegler: I’m worried about how Rivers looks, too — at least in this Mina Kimes drawing:

joshua.hermsmeyer: loool

neil: That’s still accurate.

I loved that segment on NFL Countdown Sunday, where they talked about Rivers’ trash talk. Which somehow never includes swearing.

sara.ziegler: I’ve always really liked him. A perfect fantasy football QB.

Salfino: Philip Rivers is great. A Hall-of-Famer IMO. But unbelievably he has as many career playoff wins as Mark Sanchez. He needs more pelts on the wall.

sara.ziegler: Very fair.

Is anyone taking the Eagles over the Bears?

neil: I recuse myself.

LOL

sara.ziegler: Wait, we can’t make predictions about our favorite teams?

I’ve literally been picking the Vikings to lose all season.

neil: I gotta hand it to you, those were accurate predictions.

sara.ziegler: LOL

neil: As opposed to this one:

sara.ziegler: 🤣

Salfino: I think the Bears just crush the Eagles. This spread is all Foles-narrative-driven, and I don’t believe in fairy tales.

sara.ziegler: Wow, Mike.

LOL

neil: Anybody picking the Eagles probably does have visions of this being yet another Bears team that got into the playoffs on defense with a weak QB performance

And promptly lost. But that’s not really this team. Trubisky has been progressing.

(The defense is still amazing, of course)

joshua.hermsmeyer: You can dink and dunk on Chicago.

Salfino: Remember, Foles was LUCKY to beat the Falcons last year. He had a ball go off a Falcon’s knee, or they probably lose that game. Then he turned into Cinderella, and I have no idea how or why.

sara.ziegler: He did get to face the Vikings last year — that undoubtedly helped.

joshua.hermsmeyer: If Foles can be efficient and healthy, and the Eagles are patient, I can totally imagine a game where Biscuit implodes and the Eagles move on. I think the spread has some of that in it.

Salfino: I do not believe in the Eagles defense at all. But I also don’t like how Nagy hasn’t given Tarik Cohen consistently more touches than Jordan Howard. And the Bears are all banged up now at WR.

I agree with Josh on Trubisky, but the Bears and Nagy can’t put him in a position to lose that game. The Eagles have no playmakers. Dare them to score.

sara.ziegler: Yeah, it could be closer than it seems. Of course, if Foles can’t play, then the Eagles will REALLY need a fairy tale.

All right, let’s wrap this up with our Super Bowl predictions, so we can continue to look ridiculous when our picks all lose.

Salfino: I’m going Saints-Chiefs, but that’s predicated on the Colts beating the Texans and giving the Patriots a nightmare matchup in the divisional round. It’s so public to fade the Chiefs that I’m fading the public. Offense!

Mahomes wins MVP and Brees wins Super Bowl MVP. Seems fair.

neil: I’ve been saying New Orleans over K.C. for these past few chats, and that’s still possible, so I’m sticking with it. (Despite the defensive concerns!)

sara.ziegler: I took the Bears last time, and now having watched them flatten my own team, I probably need to keep them. Bears-Chiefs, Chiefs take it down.

joshua.hermsmeyer: Chiefs-Rams rematch, Chiefs win. Because that would be the best ending to the best offensive season in the NFL probably ever.

neil: What’s the score on that one, Josh? Is it the first Super Bowl whose score will be mistaken for an Arena Bowl?

joshua.hermsmeyer: 36-35 with the game decided on a 2-point conversion.

neil: Ooh, going low. I like it.

Check out our latest NFL predictions.

Can Oklahoma Survive The Opening Half To Compete With Alabama?

One year ago, the Oklahoma Sooners fielded the worst defense to ever qualify for the College Football Playoff. Under first-year head coach Lincoln Riley, and behind Heisman Trophy-winning quarterback Baker Mayfield, Oklahoma took a 17-point lead on Georgia, the eventual national runner-up, before losing in the Rose Bowl semifinal. Twelve months later, Riley has another Heisman-winning quarterback in Kyler Murray and has piloted another one-dimensional Sooners team to a playoff berth.

The reward — a date with Alabama, college football’s lead power broker — seems more like a punishment. The Tide, long a defensive force under coach Nick Saban, now boast what’s likely the best offense in program history. Las Vegas oddsmakers cared not for Oklahoma’s three-game winning streak against the Tide and opened with Alabama as two-touchdown favorites. According to FiveThirtyEight’s college football prediction model, Alabama has a 41 percent probability of winning the national title. Oklahoma faces much taller odds, with an 11 percent probability of winning it all.

Here’s what to look for the when the two programs meet in the Orange Bowl semifinal Saturday at 8 p.m. Eastern.

Will Tua Tagovailoa or Kyler Murray win the QB showdown?

Seldom do a Heisman winner and his runner-up meet after the winner is crowned. Even given that rarity, this may be the best postseason clash of college quarterbacks we’ve ever seen. Both are coming off of historic regular seasons, with each in line to trump the record for Total Quarterback Rating, which ESPN has tracked since 2004 and is measured on a scale of 0 to 100.

But it’s not just the quarterbacks. In terms of offensive efficiency, this is the best matchup since the playoff began in 2014. Oddsmakers have taken notice, setting a points over/under total that’s unprecedented in the playoff era.

It seemed logical that the departure of Mayfield, the No. 1 pick in the 2018 NFL draft, would abate Oklahoma’s offensive horsepower. That 2017 team had the most efficient offense ever tracked, according to the ESPN Stats & Information Group.1 But in Murray’s first full season as a starting college quarterback, the Sooners’ offense has actually improved. “Kyler Murray has accomplished more in one season and had more impact on the Sooners’ tradition in one season than any other player in our history,” former Oklahoma coach Barry Switzer told The Athletic. “He’s broke all the damn records.”

The Sooners have gotten better under Murray

Oklahoma’s offensive production in 2018, with Kyler Murray at quarterback, vs. 2017, with Baker Mayfield at quarterback

Metric 2018 2017
Offensive points per game 47.0 43.6
Yards per play 8.8 8.3
Percentage of first downs or TDs per play 41.0% 37.6
Percentage of first downs or TDs per pass attempt 51.1% 49.4
Percentage of plays for zero or negative yards 25.6% 26.6

Source: ESPN Stats & Information Group

As if spring-loaded, Murray’s legs have minced opposing defenses. On a 75-yard touchdown run against Kansas, a broadcaster declared, “You’re not going to catch him,” before Murray had passed the 40-yard line. The junior is the country’s pre-eminent dual-threat wizard, whose 892 rushing yards place him seventh among all Football Bowl Subdivision quarterbacks this year.

At the same time, Tagovailoa has been the figurehead of the Tide’s offensive ascension since replacing Jalen Hurts in last season’s national championship game. Saban has been in Tuscaloosa since 2007, and this year’s offense has been his best in terms of, well, everything.

This is Saban’s most dominant Alabama offense

Alabama’s offense by season under head coach Nick Saban

Per play Per Game
Season Yards Yards Passing
Yards
1st Downs Offensive Points
2018 7.92 527.6 325.5 24.6 43.9
2017 6.59 444.1 193.4 22.2 36.1
2016 6.47 455.3 210.3 21.0 31.9
2015 5.89 427.1 227.1 21.9 30.1
2014 6.66 484.5 277.9 24.3 36.3
2013 7.15 454.1 248.5 23.2 34.2
2012 6.95 445.5 218.0 21.6 37.2
2011 6.46 429.6 215.2 21.6 32.1
2010 6.96 444.1 261.2 22.1 33.4
2009 5.96 403.0 187.9 20.6 30.1
2008 5.52 355.8 171.1 18.8 25.6
2007 5.05 373.8 224.5 22.6 26.4

Source: ESPN Stats & Information Group

Both Murray and Tagovailoa are having little difficulty stretching the field. If they keep up this pace during the playoffs, each would rank in the top three among all QBs since 2004 in single-season passing yards per attempt, with Murray’s current 11.92 mark in line to set the all-time record.

They won’t, however, be competing against equally proficient defensive units. Murray will be staring down a top-flight fortress that spent the past few months razing offensive lines and leveling quarterbacks. The Crimson Tide rank second in defensive efficiency, behind Clemson, and they lead the country in adjusted defensive quarterback rating, which accounts for the strength of the opposing quarterback. The Tide ranks among the 15 best teams in opponent completion percentage (51.8 percent) and yards allowed per pass attempt (5.86).

Tagovailoa will have the luxury of playing against a defense that might seem as though it’s providing Alabama an escort to the end zone. Oklahoma ranks 92nd in defensive efficiency, unseating last year’s squad as the new worst defense to make it to the playoff; the Sooners have allowed 56 touchdowns this year, 13 more than Alabama has allowed since the beginning of the 2017 season. Uninspired performances led to the midseason firing of defensive coordinator Mike Stoops. But the unit’s play hasn’t improved. After giving up 39 first downs to Oklahoma State, the most allowed by any FBS team this season, interim defensive coordinator Ruffin McNeill found room to praise his team for making “critical stops.”

Pass defense, in particular, has been ghastly for the Sooners. No FBS team allows more passing yards per game (291.4), and only five allow more completions (22.3). The Sooners love to give up the long play, having allowed 56 passing plays of 20-plus yards, the fourth-most by any team.

It’s unlikely that the turnover margin will favor the Sooners — even though Tagovailoa threw as many interceptions in his last outing as he did the rest of the season total. Oklahoma has generated 11 takeaways all season, the fewest of any qualifying team in the playoff era. Alabama has forced 11 since the beginning of October — and 21 in total.

On the opening drive of the SEC championship game, Tagovailoa suffered a high ankle injury, which required surgery the following day. The sophomore has said that he’ll be unencumbered come game time, and given how little he rushes — generating just the 89th-most rushing yards among QBs — he won’t need much mobility. Even a pocket-locked Tagovailoa can still shred an opposing defense.

Can Oklahoma survive Alabama’s first-half avalanche to win the second half?

Players come and go, and each season carries idiosyncrasies, but the narrative arcs of the Sooners’ two previous playoff appearances were seemingly penned by the same author. In both, a lead evaporated and a dominant first half gave way to a second-half dud.

In those appearances — in the 2015-16 Orange Bowl and the 2017-18 Rose Bowl — the Sooners outscored opponents 48 to 33 in the first half and were pummeled 49 to 14 in the second.2 Those losses, Riley said,3 could be traced to physical opponents and conservative play-calling.

Rewriting the script, then, will be paramount this time around for Oklahoma.

Offensively, the Sooners seem to have the first half covered. No team puts up more first-half yardage than Oklahoma, which averages 313.4 yards a game. The team racks up 9.5 yards per first-half play — nearly a first down on each play. Riley’s offense is outscoring opponents by an average of 11.3 points in first halves this season, the eighth-best mark in the country.

Of course, what separates Alabama from Oklahoma is its defense. The Tide allow 7.9 points per game in first halves, 12th-fewest in the nation and 7.9 fewer points than the Sooners. Alabama doesn’t just shut the door on its opponents in the opening 30 minutes — it packs their bags, shuttles them to the airport and ushers them through TSA. Remember when the Tide turned Tiger Stadium into a morgue by the third quarter of November’s top-five showdown with LSU? Or when the Tide took a trip to Oxford, watched Ole Miss score on its opening play and then blitzed the Rebels with 62 unanswered points, including 49 in the first half?4

LSU and Ole Miss aren’t alone. Saban’s squad is outscoring opponents 388 to 103 in first halves this season. On average, the Crimson Tide enter the locker room at halftime with a 21.9-point lead, the second-biggest margin by any team since at least 2004, the first year for which data is available.5 Ninety-three teams have scored fewer total touchdowns than Alabama has scored in first halves. Only four teams in the past 15 seasons have scored more first-half touchdowns than the Tide’s 53.

These lopsided first halves mean that the Tide hardly ever fall behind on the scoreboard. The average college football team this season played 178.6 first-half offensive snaps when trailing. Alabama played 18 — 32 fewer than the next-closest team.

Bama rarely plays from behind

Total first-half snaps when trailing for this year’s playoff participants

Team Offensive Snaps Defensive Snaps
Alabama 18 12
Clemson 63 24
Notre Dame 69 40
Oklahoma 128 54
National average 177 129

Source: ESPN Stats & Information Group

Coming into the SEC title game, teams had run a combined 388 first-half plays against the Tide defense. They didn’t have the lead on any of them. Georgia finally broke through in the SEC championship; the Bulldogs ran 43 first-half offensive plays against the Tide and led for 12 of them.

The nightmare doesn’t end for Alabama opponents in second halves: Then they’re outscored by a touchdown and a half, on average. In second halves, teams score 0.92 touchdowns per game against the Tide, tied for the sixth-fewest.

Conversely, Oklahoma’s dominance tapers off considerably in the final two quarters, when it outscores opponents by only 5.2 points, which ranks 24th nationally.

Little if any of that decline is attributable to the offense, which roars from start to finish. But defensively, the bottom seems to fall out for the Sooners after halftime, as they allow an average of 2.23 touchdowns per game in second halves, the most by any team in the Big 12 and tied for the 20th-most nationally. Riley’s defense has allowed 29 second-half touchdowns, the most by an Oklahoma defense since at least 2004.

However, should Oklahoma keep the game close down the stretch, it has a peerless crunch-time quarterback in Murray. The Sooners have played seven games decided by 14 or fewer points, while Alabama has played only one. In the fourth quarter, when the scoring margin is within 14 points, Murray has a nation-leading quarterback rating of 99 — that’s on a 1-to-100 scale, mind you.

There’s an argument to be made that Oklahoma is better equipped — certainly more experienced — to handle high-leverage situations.6 But Alabama has been so dominant that it simply hasn’t mattered.

The 45 Best — And Weirdest — Charts We Made In 2018

Another year, another few hundred charts and maps on FiveThirtyEight. (Not to mention our interactive graphics and updating dashboards.) To celebrate the end of the year, our team of visual journalists got together and looked back at some of their favorite graphics. Here are 45, in no particular order. If one really whets your appetite, click on the chart and you’ll be brought to the story from which it sprang.

Sports



















Culture








Science





Politics













Why Fights Over Immigration Keep Shutting Down The Government

We’re facing the third government shutdown in less than a year this Friday thanks, in part, to a fight over immigration policy. President Trump wants $5 billion for a border wall — an amount that is unlikely to make it through the Senate. Back in January, a disagreement over the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program caused a partial government shutdown.1 So it’s worth taking a step back and asking: Why is immigration such a stumbling block?

After all, it wasn’t always like this. Conservatives once backed more liberal immigration policies, and liberals have at times backed more restrictionist ones. In 1986, for example, Ronald Reagan signed a law that granted amnesty to nearly 3 million undocumented immigrants. Reagan and George H.W. Bush both used their executive powers to declare that children of undocumented immigrants affected by the Reagan-era law could not be deported. In 2006, Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton, who were both then senators, voted for 700 miles of additional fencing on the U.S.-Mexico border as part of a provision to satisfy conservatives concerned about a rise in illegal immigration.2

But over the past couple of decades — as the number of unauthorized immigrants in the U.S. rose steeply and then began to decline — immigration policy has come to symbolize the two parties’ broader values and electoral coalitions. The battle over immigration policy is about way more than just immigration, in other words, in the same way that the tensions between the two parties on health policy reflect deeper fault lines. The politics of immigration today are notably more divided and partisan than they were 10 or 20 years ago, and there are a few reasons why.

First, there are the party coalitions. Compared to the mid-2000s, the Democratic Party of today includes fewer non-Hispanic white voters: 67 percent people who are or lean toward being Democrats were non-Hispanic whites in 2007, but that number had dropped to 59 percent in 2017, according to the Pew Research Center. Forty percent of self-identified Democrats are now nonwhite. Republicans too have grown more racially diverse, but only barely, and they are still overwhelmingly white: 88 percent in 2007, compared to 83 percent in 2017. About 12 percent of Democrats are Hispanic, roughly double the percentage of Republicans who are of Hispanic descent.

So the Democrats have a huge bloc of people in their party who have racial, ethnic and cultural ties to America’s most recent immigrants, who are largely Asian- and Latino-American. And while “minorities” and “people of color” are fraught terms that often ignore differences both between and within racial and ethnic groups, the Democrats are essentially now the home party for Americans who might feel that U.S. society treats them as “other.”

Secondly, while both parties have undergone ideological shifts, Democrats have shifted more dramatically. Pollsters ask a variety of questions to measure public opinion on immigration, but they all show the same thing: Democrats have become far more pro-immigration in recent years.

According to Pew, in 2006, 37 percent of Democrats3 said that legal immigration to the U.S. should be decreased, compared to 20 percent who said it should increase.4 Pew found a huge reversal in those numbers earlier this year: 40 percent of Democrats back higher immigration levels, compared to 16 percent who want them lowered. According to Gallup, 85 percent of Democrats now feel immigration is a “good thing” for America, compared to 69 percent who said the same in 2006. Republicans haven’t actually become more anti-immigration, according to Pew and Gallup. But, per Pew, there are more Republicans5 who want immigration decreased (33 percent) than who want it increased (22 percent).

As a result, the gap between the parties on questions about immigration has become a chasm:

And immigration is indicative of a broader shift: Democratic voters have grown more liberal on issues of race, gender and identity generally. That includes white Democrats.

The voters are not alone. Elites in each party have moved toward the ideological poles on immigration policy. Liberal-leaning activists and Democratic politicians argue that policies like the wall aren’t just bad or ineffective, they are immoral and racist. Trump and other conservatives have suggested that more immigration could both hurt the U.S. economy and lead to more crime.

Let me avoid making this a both-sides story: For the most part, Democrats are more aligned with overall public opinion on immigration. The majority of voters want undocumented young people who were brought to the U.S. as children to be protected from deportation, and Democrats’ demand for that provision that led to last winter’s shutdown. Likewise, most voters don’t support a border wall, but Trump is driving toward a shutdown in pursuit of a wall, an idea that many congressional Republicans are fairly lukewarm about.

That said, America did elect a president (in 2016) and a Senate majority (in 2016 and 2018) who belong to the party that is generally less supportive of immigration, so either there is some appetite for a middle ground or immigration is not a deal-breaker issue for many Americans. Either way, it would be logical for the two sides to find a compromise. But the shifts the parties have undergone in the last 10 or so years make such a compromise hard to execute. Democratic leaders can’t easily sign on to any funding for a wall that their base thinks is a physical monument to racism, particularly since the top Democratic leaders are white but much of the party base is not. Trump can’t easily give up on the wall, since he basically campaigned on the idea that America needs a wall to remain a great nation.

So we’re already at two shutdowns involving immigration policy in the Trump era — and I would not rule out a few more.

Santa Needs Some Help With Math

Welcome to The Riddler. Every week, I offer up problems related to the things we hold dear around here: math, logic and probability. There are two types: Riddler Express for those of you who want something bite-size and Riddler Classic for those of you in the slow-puzzle movement. Submit a correct answer for either,7 and you may get a shoutout in next week’s column. If you need a hint or have a favorite puzzle collecting dust in your attic, find me on Twitter.

Programming note: The Riddler will be taking next week off for the holidays. If you’re jonesing for more puzzles as you snuggle around the fire roasting chestnuts and stuff, might I humbly suggest “The Riddler” book? It makes a great gift, too. Also good kindling for that fire, in a pinch, I imagine. (The publisher only cares that you buy it, not what you do with it.)

Riddler Express

From Taylor Firman, dash away, dash away, dash away all:

Santa Claus is getting up there in age, and his memory has begun to falter. (After all, why do you think he keeps a list?) It’s gotten so bad that this year Santa forgot what order to put the reindeer in. Obviously, he remembers that Rudolph goes first because of the red organic light bulb in the middle of his face, but big guy just can’t remember what to do with the other eight.

If he doesn’t get the right order, the aerodynamics of his sleigh will be all wrong and he won’t be able to get all of his deliveries done in time. Yes, Santa has Moneyballed Christmas Eve. Luckily, the reindeer know where they should each be, but since they’re just animals they can only grunt in approval if they are put in the right spot.

Determined to get it right, Santa first creates a list of the reindeer in some random order. He then goes to the first position and harnesses each reindeer one by one, starting at the top of his list. When a reindeer grunts, Santa leaves it in that correct position, moves onto the next position, and works down that same list once again.

If harnessing a reindeer into any spot takes one minute, how long on average would it take Santa to get the correct reindeer placement?

Extra credit: Is there a strategy that Santa could use that does better?

Submit your answer

Riddler Classic

From Steven Pratt, the best way to spread Christmas cheer is singing loud for all to hear:

In Santa’s workshop, elves make toys during a shift each day. On the overhead radio, Christmas music plays, with a program randomly selecting songs from a large playlist.

During any given shift, the elves hear 100 songs. A cranky elf named Cranky has taken to throwing snowballs at everyone if he hears the same song twice. This has happened during about half of the shifts. One day, a mathematically inclined elf named Mathy tires of Cranky’s sodden outbursts. So Mathy decides to use what he knows to figure out how large Santa’s playlist actually is.

Help Mathy out: How large is Santa’s playlist?

Submit your answer

Solution to the previous Riddler Express

Congratulations to 👏 David Kravitz 👏 of Santa Monica, California, winner of last week’s Riddler Express!

Last week we returned to that timeless classic, tic-tac-toe. The Express challenge was straightforward, but far from trivial: Chess buffs, for example, like to point out that there are more possible chess games than there are atoms in the universe. Big whoop. How many possible games of tic-tac-toe are there?

There are 255,168 — it may not be the number of atoms in the universe, but it’s more than enough to keep you occupied with your families over the holidays. Warning (mostly to my editor): Lots of very specific counting ahead.

How do we get there? Let’s start with a deep breath. And then let’s establish an upper bound on the number we’re looking for. There are nine squares from which the first player can choose, then eight for the second player, then seven for the first, then six for the second and so on. Multiplying those possible moves means that there are at most 9!, or 362,880, possible games. It’s a decent approximation, but it’s overcounting. Some of those “games,” for example, would have ended with a win for one player before all nine moves were made. So let’s begin a more careful accounting by looking at how many possibilities there are for a game to end after each move.

The soonest a game could end is after the fifth move — three moves for one player and two for the other. There are eight places in which the first player could win: the three rows, the three columns and the two diagonals. There are six places and then five places where the second player could play — those places not in the winning locations. So there are 8*3!*6*5 = 1,440 ways the game could end this quickly.

What about after the sixth move? The second player wins in this case, and there are again eight places to do that — and six, five and four places the first player could go that wouldn’t interrupt that win. So that’s 8*3!*6*5*4 = 5,760 possibilities. However, we need to subtract off a few of those in which the first player would have won before the second player could. That is, we need to exclude the cases where there are three Os and three Xs in a row. That can only happen horizontally or vertically (i.e., not diagonally). So the first player could take one of six “winning” locations, leaving one of two “winning” locations for the second player. That’s 6*3!*2*3! = 432 possibilities we need to omit, leaving 5,760 – 432 = 5,328 games that end after the sixth move.

And the seventh? The first player wins in this case, of course. Again, there are eight winning locations, but there’s a wrinkle here: The first player can’t win too soon. That is, one of his plays must not be on the winning line. It must go in one of the six non-winning locations during one of three turns in the game. The second player, meanwhile, has five then four then three spots in which to play fruitlessly. That gives 8*3!*3*6*5*4*3 = 51,840 possibilities. But, again, we have to subtract off those in which both players would have already lined up three in a row by the seventh move. (Accounting is hard!) Just as before, this can’t happen in a diagonal, leaving six winning lines for the first player. The first player’s “wasted” move, which happens at one of three points in the game and in one of six squares, will take out another of those, leaving just one winning line for the second player. So there are 6*3!*1*3!*3*6 = 3,888 ways that might happen, leaving 51,840 – 3,888 = 47,952 games ending on this turn.

And the eighth? (We’re nearly there, I promise.) Here, the second player wins and, once again, there are possible eight winning lines. Similar to before, the first (losing) player can go in five then four then three then two spots, while the second (winning) player fills in his winning line in some order, and “wastes” a move in one of six squares at one of three points. That’s 5*4*3*2*8*3!*6*3 = 103,680 possibilities. But — you guessed it — we have to toss out some of those wherein both players would have lined up their three marks. That can’t happen in a diagonal, so there are six places for one player and two left over for the other, one of which will be taken by that first players “wasted” move, which he can “waste” at one of four points in the game. That’s 3!*2*4*6*3!*6*3 = 31,104 games to toss out, leaving 103,680 – 31,104 = 72,576 games that end on Move 8.

And the ninth? Well, we don’t really need to do this one in full — phew! Rather, because we already calculated the total number of ways to fill in all the boxes over nine moves at the very top of this solution, we can subtract off all the games we just calculated, which end before that. Say the game ended after the fifth move. Then there would be 4! ways to fill in the rest of the boxes for no reason after that. If it ended after six moves, there’d be 3! Ways, and so on, so we have to account for those too. That gives us 362,880 – 4!*(1,440) – 3!*(5,328) – 2!*(47,952) – 1!*(72,576) = 127,872 games that end only after the ninth and last possible move.

Aaaaaand: 1,440 + 5,328 + 47,952 + 72,576 + 127,872 = 255,168. I’ll spare you the details, but, despite real-world experience, only about 18 percent of the possible tic-tac-toe games are draws.

Our winner David wrote: “I wrote a brute force program to find all of them, ran in less than a second.” Damn it, David. That was a really good idea.

And if you’re bored with boring old vanilla tic-tac-toe but have also read this far, might I suggest the fantastically interesting (I’m serious) Ultimate Tic-Tac-Toe, instead? Just bring a paper and a pen and you’re sure to be the hit of your office party.

Solution to the previous Riddler Classic

Congratulations to 👏 Josh Degler 👏 of Lighthouse Point, Florida, winner of last week’s Riddler Classic!

Last week’s Classic tic-tac-toe challenge was less accounting and more strategy. You were playing a game of tic-tac-toe with one advantage (you went first) and one disadvantage (you were blindfolded). The squares on the board were numbered 1 to 9, and you made your move by calling out a number, unaware of what moves your opponent had chosen to make. (If a numbered square you chose was taken, you were told so and could then pick a different number.) Could you develop a strategy that would guarantee you’d never lose a game, despite the blindfold?

Yes, indeed you could! And there was more than one strategy that did the trick.

As a reminder, the game squares were labeled like so:\(\)

\begin{matrix}\nonumber 1&2&3\\4& 5 &6\\7 &8& 9\end{matrix}

Solver Justin submitted the following diagrammatic solution where you start with 5 (the center square) and keep trying to move down the left-most branch. If you can’t move down that branch because that square is already taken, you try the square on the next branch to the right, and so on. Green circles mean you won, and blue circles mean you tied. (Cat’s game, we used to call it.) You never lose!

Solver Barry King submitted another solution, in which you start with a corner square. Same rules (go down the left branch whenever possible) apply:

Finally, solver Kenny Long submitted a solution where you start with a non-corner, non-center square. Start with 2 and then move right, if you can, or else move down.

Another cool party trick. Boy, you’re really gonna win friends and influence people with these tic-tac-toe skills!

Have a great holiday — see you in 2019.

Want more riddles?

Well, aren’t you lucky? There’s a whole book full of the best puzzles from this column and some never-before-seen head-scratchers. It’s called “The Riddler,” and it’s in stores now! Consider your holiday shopping done.

Want to submit a riddle?

Email me at [email protected]

Biden’s Leading The Iowa Polls, But That Doesn’t Mean Much Yet

Welcome to Pollapalooza, our weekly polling roundup.

Poll(s) of the week

With the 2018 midterms (mostly) behind us, focus has shifted to the 2020 presidential election. The Iowa caucuses are usually the start of the presidential nomination process, and as of right now, they’re scheduled for Feb. 3, 2020 — just over 400 days from now. While we’re still more than a year out, two new polls found former Vice President Joe Biden in the lead in the race for the Democratic nomination. At least 30 percent of likely Democratic caucusgoers in Iowa listed him as their top choice for president.

The Des Moines Register/CNN/Mediacom Iowa Poll from Selzer & Co.14 found Biden at 32 percent while a survey from David Binder Research on behalf of Focus on Rural America found Biden at 30 percent.15 In both polls, no other candidate cracked 20 percent. In an even earlier poll Biden led the field with 37 percent listing him as their No. 1 pick.16

Even though we’re still a ways from the caucus, these numbers could be read as a good sign for Biden. In the last four presidential elections where there was no Democratic incumbent running, the Iowa caucus winner went on to become the party’s nominee: Al Gore in 2000, John Kerry in 2004, Barack Obama in 2008 and Hillary Clinton in 2016. Moreover, Biden has never polled this well in Iowa. In both his 1988 and 2008 presidential bids, Biden failed to hit the double-digits, and even when it seemed possible that Biden might run in 2016, his best Iowa marks were in the low 20s against Clinton and Sanders.

A good poll in Iowa doesn’t mean much … yet

Presidential aspirants that polled 30 percent or more at least one year prior to the Iowa caucuses

Year Party Candidate No. of Polls ≥30% Best poll result Iowa result Nom.?
1984 D Walter Mondale 1 58% 1st Yes
1988 D Gary Hart 2 59 7th No
1988 R Bob Dole 1 33 1st No
2004 D Al Gore 1 39 Didn’t run
2008 D Hillary Clinton 1 31 3rd No
2008 D John Edwards 2 36 2nd No
2008 R Rudy Giuliani 1 30 6th No
2016 D Hillary Clinton 1 48 1st Yes
2020 D Joe Biden 3 37 ? ?

Sources: Dave Leip, DES MOINES REGISTER