Can Christian Pulisic Possibly Live Up To The Hype?

Christian Pulisic made U.S. soccer history last week when he reached an agreement to join Chelsea in the coming summer transfer window. Borussia Dortmund, where Pulisic has played since 2015, will pocket $73 million for the rights to him — by far the largest fee ever for an American. But this transfer raises a number of questions: Is Pulisic worth the money? What can Chelsea expect from a young player out of the Bundesliga, and how well does the American fit his new club’s needs? How will Pulisic slot into manager Maurizio Sarri’s system, and what can fans expect to see from him in the coming years?

The first question is how to adjust for a transfer from the Bundesliga, the top tier of German soccer. Do we expect Pulisic’s production to drop off significantly from Germany to England? Given the players who have moved between the two leagues before, the answer is no.

Since 2010-11, 103 midfielders or attackers have transferred between the Bundesliga and the Premier League. Normalized for minutes, these players created about 371 expected goals and assists in the Bundesliga and 364 in the Premier League, based on data from analytics firm Opta Sports. That’s a difference of about 2 percent.

While there is variation, on average a player who creates attacking chances in the Bundesliga can be counted on to do the same in the Premier League.

With more than 6,000 minutes played before his 21st birthday, Pulisic is in rarefied air already. Since the 2010-11 season, only 47 players have more than 6,000 minutes played among one of the top five European leagues6 and the Champions League.

And even among that group, Pulisic’s production stands out. Here are players since 2010 with at least 2,500 minutes played before their age-21 season, sorted by expected goals and expected assists per 90 minutes, with strikers excluded.

Pulisic is one of Europe’s elite youngsters

European soccer leaders (excluding strikers) in expected goals plus expected assists per 90 minutes prior to turning 21 and nonpenalty goals plus assists for up to three seasons* afterwards

Through age-20 ages 21-23
Player seasons exp. goals + assists/90 minutes Seasons nonpenalty goals + assists/90 min
Ousmane Dembele 2015-17 0.60 2018 0.92
Mario Gotze 2010-12 0.57 2013-15 0.67
Dele Alli 2015-16 0.55 2017-18 0.61
Leroy Sane 2013-16 0.55 2017-18 0.90
Erik Lamela 2011-12 0.54 2013-15 0.43
Marco Asensio 2015-16 0.54 2017-18 0.41
Raheem Sterling 2011-15 0.54 2016-18 0.78
Keita Balde 2013-15 0.52 2016-18 0.76
Kingsley Coman 2012-16 0.49 2017-18 0.54
Yann Karamoh 2016-18 0.49
Philippe Coutinho 2010-12 0.47 2013-15 0.43
Richarlison 2017 0.46 2018 0.61
Goncalo Guedes 2015-17 0.46 2018 0.10
Xherdan Shaqiri 2010-12 0.45 2013-15 0.52
Julian Draxler 2010-13 0.44 2014-16 0.44
Christian Pulisic 2015-18 0.44
Eden Hazard 2010-11 0.43 2012-14 0.52
Malcom 2015-17 0.43 2018 0.70
Thomas Lemar 2014-16 0.42 2017-18 0.34
Roberto Firmino 2010-12 0.42 2013-15 0.69
Domenico Berardi 2013-14 0.42 2015-17 0.38
Lucas Ocampos 2013-14 0.42 2015-17 0.36
Florian Thauvin 2012-13 0.41 2014-16 0.43
Maxwell Cornet 2015-16 0.41 2017-18 0.74
Koke 2010-12 0.40 2013-15 0.48
Aaron Ramsey 2010-11 0.40 2012-14 0.52
Federico Chiesa 2016-18 0.40
Julian Brandt 2013-16 0.40 2017-18 0.41
Antoine Griezmann 2010-11 0.39 2012-14 0.57

* Season listed is the year in which the season started

Minimum 2,500 minutes played in the big five European leagues

Source: Opta Sports

Not every young star hits: Lucas Ocampos remains a capable but unspectacular Ligue 1 attacker for Marseille, Erik Lamela has struggled at Tottenham and faced major injury problems, and Xherdan Shaqiri stagnated for years before becoming a key cog in Jurgen Klopp’s Liverpool squad this season. But on average, results are strong. In up to three seasons after their age-20 seasons, these players averaged 0.54 nonpenalty goals and assists per 90 minutes. That’s an improvement for their expected goals and assists numbers — players who are this good at 20 tend to get even better in their early 20s.

And as befitting that production, players like this tend to find their way to big clubs. Excluding the players currently in their age-20 seasons, 18 of 27 are regulars at teams in the Soccer Power Index top 20. Further, when players this young and this productive make their moves to big clubs, it’s expensive. Ousmane Dembele, Pulisic’s teammate at the time at Dortmund, cost Barcelona well over $100 million. Pulisic’s teammate-to-be Eden Hazard cost Chelsea only about $40 million in a less inflated market after his age-21 season. A few others came more cheaply — Inter Milan selling Philippe Coutinho for less than $15 million after the numbers he put up as a 20-year-old looks like a historically poor decision, while the less impressive futures of Ocampos and Domenico Berardi suggest the roughly $10 million fees paid for their services were more in line with their values. On average, the players on this chart who transferred within two years of their age-20 season cost about $44 million.

Pulisic’s future looks bright, and Chelsea’s fee is not out of line with what players of his pedigree tend to command. But one concern that arises here is that Pulisic’s best production came in his age-17 to -19 seasons. Now at 20, when he should be coming into his own, his production has declined from his usual 0.4 to 0.5 expected goals and assists per 90 minutes to less than 0.3. He has even lost starting minutes in the Bundesliga to Jadon Sancho.

The decline represents fewer than 1,000 minutes, and Pulisic’s total production including these minutes remains strong. But the drop is still concerning. The problem appears to be Pulisic’s role in the system of new Dortmund manager Lucien Favre. Favre prefers a more defensive and counterattacking system than the high-pressing, high-possession style of Thomas Tuchel, under whom Pulisic broke in. This year, Pulisic is playing much deeper on the pitch than he ever used to. Only about 8 percent of his open-play pass receptions have been in the penalty area or on the flanks near the penalty area, compared with about 13 percent in previous seasons with Dortmund. Instead, Pulisic has done much more buildup work, with 13 percent of his passes received in the central area of the defensive half, compared with 6 percent previously.

Pulisic is currently expected to contribute to a slower buildup style or help run counterattacks through the center, rather than making himself available as a passing outlet near the goal or near the endline. But it’s that latter skill where he has stood out.

Pulisic has averaged just fewer than 1.5 open-play passes received into the penalty area in his career so far. The most comparable players at such a young age are strikers — a few being among the best forwards in the world.

Pulisic is great at finding space

European soccer leaders in rate of receiving passes inside the penalty area per 90 minutes, among players prior to turning 21

Name From To Received passes inside penalty box per 90 minutes
Kylian Mbappe 2015 2018 2.15
Mauro Icardi 2012 2013 1.51
Christian Pulisic 2015 2018 1.41
Marcus Rashford 2015 2018 1.31
Mattia Destro 2010 2011 1.29
Maxwell Cornet 2015 2016 1.28
Leroy Sane 2013 2016 1.28
Raheem Sterling 2011 2015 1.26
Julian Brandt 2013 2016 1.24
Manolo Gabbiadini 2011 2012 1.24
Paulo Dybala 2012 2014 1.18
Gabriel Jesus 2016 2017 1.16
Timo Werner 2013 2016 1.12
Romelu Lukaku 2011 2013 1.09
Erik Lamela 2011 2012 1.09

Season listed is the year in which the season started

Minimum 2,500 minutes played in the big five European leagues

Source: Opta Sports

Pulisic does not look like a better prospect than Leroy Sane or Raheem Sterling in shot production. And he certainly falls behind strikers like Kylian Mbappe, Mauro Icardi, Gabriel Jesus, Timo Werner and Romelu Lukaku in goal-scoring prowess. But what you get in Pulisic is good shot production and an elite ability to make himself available for passes in dangerous areas. In Favre’s system, where deep possession sequences around the penalty area are less common, his best skills are wasted.

Sarri’s high-possession Chelsea attack, however, might just be the perfect place for Pulisic’s game. At the same time, Pulisic may be just the attacker that Chelsea needs to get Sarri’s attack flowing. At Napoli, Sarri’s team completed elite numbers of open-play passes within or into the penalty area, 11.7 per match in his final season in 2017-18. But Chelsea this year has completed just 9.8 open-play passes in the penalty area per match despite a higher share of possession (61.9 percent) than Napoli had last year (60.3 percent). Favre’s Dortmund, with its less possession-heavy style, has only 9.1 of those passes per match. Pulisic may find the right fit for his skills at Chelsea, and the Blues appear to need a player with Pulisic’s ability to find space in the penalty area to execute their manager’s tactics.

While other Americans have found steady work in the English Premier League — Tim Howard, Clint Dempsey, Brian McBride — none has commanded even close to the money that Pulisic has. All eyes will be him from day one. But Pulisic’s combination of production at a young age and skills that fit the needs of his new club make him a good bet to succeed even under international scrutiny.

Check out our latest soccer predictions.

During Slow Offseasons, The Brewers Keep Finding Deals

The Milwaukee Brewers took advantage of an ice-cold hot-stove season last winter to become the rare team to win in the offseason and in the regular season. By agreeing Wednesday night with free-agent catcher Yasmani Grandal on a one-year, $18.25 million deal, the Brewers again took advantage of an opportunity to find tremendous value. As most teams zig in another slow offseason, the Brewers, again, zag.

While Grandal didn’t have a great postseason with the Dodgers last fall, he was one of the best players available on the free-agent market. According to the Baseball Prospectus version of wins above replacement, which includes a catcher’s pitch-framing ability, Grandal was the 14th most valuable position player in baseball last season (5.0 WAR) and the eighth most valuable player per plate appearance (5.8 WAR per 600 plate appearances) among qualified hitters.

That was not a fluke.

In terms of total value, Grandal was the No. 1 position player by WAR per plate appearance in 2016 (8.7 WAR per 600 plate appearances), and he ranked seventh in 2017. Over the past four seasons, he was worth 21.2 total WAR. That’s star-level production. He turned 30 in November, so he’s not ancient in baseball terms. But despite all this going for him, Grandal settled for a one-year deal.

The switch-hitter offers rare power and patience at the catcher position. Over the past four seasons, his walk rate of 12.8 percent ranks 19th among all MLB batters. His .453 slugging mark ranks third among all qualified catchers, and his 116 weighted runs created plus, a measure of offensive ability that adjusts for park and run-scoring environments,1 trails only Gary Sanchez and Buster Posey.

Not only is Grandal’s offense rare at his position, but his ability to frame pitches — to get more borderline pitches called favorably — gives him tremendous value at the plate and behind it.

Grandal led all catchers in framing runs last season (15.7 runs saved above average). He ranked fourth in 2017 and second in 2016. Even as catchers as a group have improved their ability to receive or frame pitches, raising the floor of the skill, Grandal has maintained his edge. By runs saved, framing is more valuable than blocking balls in the dirt, an area in which Grandal is not as adept.

Consider the following visual evidence of Grandal’s magic behind the plate last season. As a Clayton Kershaw slider darted slightly outside the strike zone, Grandal’s glove moved it back to within the confines of the zone. A pitch that should have been called a ball then appeared to be a strike.

Grandal managed to softly absorb this high-and-away Kershaw fastball and make it appear to finish as a strike. It’s a subtle but valuable skill.

Grandal was attached to a qualifying offer, meaning that the team signing him would have to surrender draft-pick compensation. As a revenue-sharing recipient, the Brewers will surrender their third-highest pick in the draft. The qualifying offer slightly diminished Grandal’s value, but qualifying offers are far from the only — and far from the greatest — issue conspiring against free agents. Even after last winter’s lack of free-agent activity, Grandal likely expected that he would be able to do much better than the deal he got. He not only turned down the Los Angeles Dodgers’ qualifying offer earlier in the offseason, but he also reportedly rejected a four-year, $60 million offer from the New York Mets.

Instead, Grandal becomes the latest free agent to receive far fewer dollars and years than he had initially sought.

The average salary in baseball declined last year for just the fourth time in the past 50 years and the first time since 2004, according to the Associated Press.

Through Wednesday, the 73rd day of this offseason, 10.2 percent of available free agents2 had signed for a total of $856.2 million, according to a FiveThirtyEight analysis of data from The Baseball Cube. While that’s an improvement over the same point of last offseason, when only 6.5 percent of free agents had signed for $550.5 million, the total dollars spent to date are still down from 2016-17 ($1.017 billion through Day 73), 2015-16 ($1.697 billion), 2014-15 ($1.308 billion) and 2013-14 ($1.452 billion).

And the share of free agents signed is trending above the past two offseasons, but it’s still trailing the previous three:

As the free agency landscape changes, some teams seem to be looking for openings to give them an edge. Grandal has been the Brewers’ only guaranteed free-agent signing so far,3 but it’s a significant addition in their quest to repeat as National League Central champs.

Sara Ziegler contributed research.

How Will The Shutdown End?

Welcome to FiveThirtyEight’s weekly politics chat. The transcript below has been lightly edited.


sarahf (Sarah Frostenson, politics editor): In his first prime-time address to the nation, President Trump told Americans on Tuesday night that the flow of illegal immigrants and drugs across the U.S.-Mexico border was a crisis. He did not declare a national emergency to secure funding for his proposed border wall, but he did suggest that he wouldn’t end the partial government shutdown until funding for the wall was approved.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer made it clear in their rebuttal that congressional Democrats were not prepared to give Trump what he’s asking for. Congressional leaders from both parties are scheduled to meet with Trump today, but at this stage, it doesn’t seem as though the government will reopen anytime soon.

So, I’m curious, where do we go from here? We seem to be at an impasse. And the stakes are such that neither party can back down. Is that accurate? What would happen if one party compromised? And Is there a way out of the shutdown that doesn’t require either party to compromise?

clare.malone (Clare Malone, senior political writer): Can we start by talking about the television theater of the absurd on Tuesday night?

I thought it was a wildly useless exercise by both the president and the congressional leaders.

It was like a public declaration of impasse.

nrakich (Nathaniel Rakich, elections analyst): I agree, Clare. In general, research has shown that Oval Office speeches and the like don’t really change minds. Reportedly, even Trump was skeptical that the speech would make a difference!

sarahf: It certainly was a departure from how previous presidents have used an address from the Oval Office. But it wasn’t clear to me who exactly Trump was trying to reach?

clare.malone: The public nature of it did, as you say, up the stakes for backing down. And maybe that was the point from Trump’s/the White House’s end?

It almost felt like he was just trying to remind everyone in America that there’s a shutdown and that the White House and Congress are having a slap fight.

perry (Perry Bacon Jr., senior writer): It felt like Trump was making a kind of Hail Mary. A majority of the public (51 percent) think the president deserves most of the blame for the partial shutdown, according to a Reuters-Ipsos poll that was released Tuesday. But some Republican senators are balking at Trump’s strategy. That said, an address from the Oval Office is a card he can play that no one else can. But, yes, it was unlikely to work — presidential addresses don’t generally change minds, as Nathaniel noted. Plus, opinions on immigration are pretty entrenched, and Trump is fairly unpopular.

clare.malone: One thing that struck me was how much Trump’s speech echoed both his inaugural address (“American carnage”) and his campaign announcement back in 2015.

He talked about rapists and murderers, but from the Oval Office. It was fascinating from a historical perspective, I guess. The usurpation of a formula, that formula being the dignified, seemingly apolitical Oval Office address.

perry: This take from Vox’s Dara Lind hits on that theme, too. The headline of her piece is: “‘Immigrants are coming over the border to kill you’ is the only speech Trump knows how to give.”

sarahf: There’s this idea floating around that one purpose of last night’s address was to convince Americans that there is a crisis at its southern border. How could we measure if Trump succeeded in convincing Americans that was true?

perry: I tend to be skeptical of the kind of insider, access-based reporting through which we learned that Trump didn’t want to give the speech. Yes, I’m sure Trump said this, but it’s not like someone made him give the address. He is the president.

clare.malone: It was definitely meant to bring the crisis to Americans’ living rooms. But it seems like a move that doesn’t come from a position of strength. It feels more like a last ditch move of negotiation — a high-profile attempt to shift blame.

Not sure that will work …

nrakich: Yeah, the calm demeanor (unusual for Trump) plus the inflammatory words was a weird juxtaposition.

perry: My guess is that Trump will increase the number of Republicans who say we have an immigration crisis at the U.S.-Mexico border. That number is 72 percent, according to the latest Morning Consult poll. I could see that becoming 80 percent or 90 percent. But I doubt that he moved anyone else.

sarahf: So there was talk ahead of the address that Trump would use it to declare a national emergency to go around Congress and move ahead on building the wall. But that didn’t happen. Why?

Do we think it might still happen?

clare.malone: That’s an interesting question. It feels like a Rubicon to cross.

nrakich: White House press secretary Sarah Sanders says it’s still on the table:

perry: I really think that’s still on the table. The move is legally questionable. There would be lawsuits. It would be seen as another violation of norms by Trump — inflating an emergency to get done what he can’t get done through Congress. But it’s also the easiest way out of this mess for Trump. Democratic lawmakers are very opposed to the wall, and some Republicans in Congress are not that excited about it either. Trump needs a way out of the shutdown without losing the fight, and declaring an emergency might be the cleanest approach. Yet, it’s also not clean at all, of course.

nrakich: Yeah, Jim Acosta of CNN tweeted that Trump has been seeking advice on it but is hearing that it would be on shaky legal ground.

clare.malone: Once again, the Trump era is a great era for lawyers’ billable hours.

nrakich: Question for you, Perry: Is there any way that this ends with Congress overriding a Trump veto on a funding bill?

It feels like there would be enough Republicans who don’t care about the wall to get to two-thirds of each chamber. We’re already seeing members who are up for re-election in 2020, like Republican Sen. Thom Tillis of North Carolina, backing away from the wall and calling for an end to the shutdown.

sarahf: GOP Sens. Susan Collins of Maine, Lisa Murkowski of Alaska and Cory Gardner of Colorado have called for an end to the shutdown, too.

perry: I really don’t see that. I don’t think we are in a place yet where Republican senators or House members will buck Trump like that. It’s more likely that Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell passes a bill that has, say, $4 billion in border security funding, including $750 million or so for the wall. Maybe that can pass the House and Trump can sign it.

I think McConnell is a potentially big player here. A bipartisan bill passed in the Senate (and it must have 60 votes to pass the Senate, so it would have to be bipartisan) complicates the strategy for both Pelosi and Trump I think.

nrakich: Yeah, it’s almost always the president who “wins” in a government shutdown. Or at least this has been the case in previous shutdowns, but most of those times, presidents won only by making some sort of concession to their congressional agitators.

sarahf: We’ve also written that government shutdowns don’t typically have lasting negative repercussions for the party considered “responsible.” I do wonder, though, whether that could change in this situation, because the fight is over immigration, which is an issue that has become deeply symbolic for both parties — build the wall, don’t build the wall.

To some extent, doesn’t what’s happening now force Democrats to talk about immigration in 2020?

perry: I don’t think anyone will remember this shutdown by the time people are voting next, which is in almost two years, so I’m skeptical that this has much real electoral impact.

nrakich: I’m open to arguments that the political fallout from a record-long shutdown will also last a record-long amount of time, but, yeah, I agree with Perry — not two years.

clare.malone: I think it’s certainly a gauntlet being laid at the beginning of divided government in Washington, as they say.

It’s tone-setting, from both sides.

sarahf: Tell me more, Clare.

clare.malone: I think that neither side wants to lose face right now with their base. Trump obviously reverts to wall talk, but Schumer and Pelosi would be pilloried if they immediately conceded. So they are demonstrating that they now have a foothold of power in government.

It marks an obvious change in tone from the past couple of years. They’re on the offensive a bit more.

perry: Yeah, one unique aspect of this shutdown is that the Democrats now have a “don’t compromise wing,” too. In previous shutdowns, it was the GOP that had to deal with talk radio and Fox News telling them to fight. But now Democrats have groups like Indivisible that will attack Pelosi and Schumer pretty aggressively if they offer wall funding to Trump.

clare.malone: Everyone’s feisty right now.

sarahf: That’s what’s so interesting about this — to some extent, both parties want border security. Democrats were willing to pass $1.3 billion in funding, but because of Trump’s focus on the wall, it has taken on a life of its own that doesn’t leave much room for compromise.

I don’t see how this ends without one of the parties getting egg on their face.

perry: Yeah, if the wall is a monument to Trump or racism or both, as it’s becoming defined on the left, it’s difficult to see a situation where there’s support to give even $1 for it.

sarahf: What are some ways the shutdown impasse could end? Because it has to end relatively soon, right?

perry: I’m not sure it has to end quickly.

I do think that’s one advantage for Trump, in fact. It seems like he thrives on disruption. He doesn’t want to lose, and he views compromise as a sign of weakness. He also thinks federal workers are basically all Democrats, which is wrong. But the fact that he has said that gives you some sense of how Trump views those affected by the shutdown.

But Democrats are the party that tends to be more pro-government, and while I can’t prove this, I suspect that congressional Democrats are uncomfortable with shutdowns in general. So I don’t know how long they can sustain this shutdown posture.

clare.malone: If this shutdown continues, I’m curious about whether the plight of low-wage federal workers will become a real headline and perhaps a motivating facet of public opinion.

That might not happen, but for some people who have low-paying government jobs, this is a devastating few weeks.

nrakich: Apparently there has been a spike in TSA workers (who are about to miss a paycheck) calling in sick.

If there’s a perception that airport security is compromised, or if we start to see serious delays at airports because of understaffing, that could end this thing quick.

clare.malone: Blue flu

perry: How the shutdown could end: 1) Trump folds, and a bill passes with more border security money but no wall funding. 2) Trump declares a national emergency, which he uses for wall funding, and a government funding bill passes without any wall funding. 3) McConnell figures out some kind of compromise bill, it passes the Senate and both Pelosi and Trump accept. I’m assuming Nos. 2 and 3 are more likely than No. 1, but who knows?

clare.malone: Can I make some facile analysis?

I think Trump would want to declare a national emergency more than he’d want McConnell to figure out a compromise. It’s the option with more “boom” to it.

perry: That seems right to me and not facile at all.

clare.malone: Boom. Boom. (Shout-out to Nate Silver’s college band.)

perry: Liberal groups will say an emergency declaration is a breach of power. Trump keeps losing in court — and I think he might lose here, too, although courts do often give deference to a president citing national security as a rationale for his actions. Remember, the Supreme Court upheld the administration’s travel ban.

clare.malone: Yeaahhhh.

Conservative judges do seem aware of preserving executive powers in real ways.

But I have no legal expertise to say whether an emergency declaration would be a bridge too far, even for the executive power people.

sarahf: To Perry’s point on how this government shutdown might end — I’m not sure how something like option No. 3, in which the parties reach a compromise, pans out. I don’t see a clear path for either party to negotiate, and I’m not sure how this will play out in the court of public opinion.

Up until this point, the American public has largely blamed Trump for the government shutdown, but I do wonder as it drags on how public opinion will shift.

nrakich: More Americans are coming to see the shutdown as a “very serious” problem, according to HuffPost polling.

But I still agree with what was said above: that the shutdown’s effect on public opinion will wear off eventually, as has happened with past shutdowns.

perry: I don’t think public opinion will shift at all. Most people will blame Trump, but that will be Democrats and independents. Republican voters overall will remain committed to the wall. I think the questions are: How long will Republicans in Congress sustain the strategy of shutting down the government over a border wall? And what strategies will they develop to end the shutdown that Trump will accept?

That’s the interesting thing here: Republicans in Congress don’t really care about the wall — if they did, I think they would have pushed really hard to pass it when they had control of Congress in 2017 and 2018. But I think they do care about preserving their relationship with Trump.

sarahf: It’ll be interesting to see how it plays out, as I don’t think the issue of immigration is going anywhere anytime soon.

The Draw Play Is Dying In The NFL — But It Shouldn’t Be

For decades, the draw play has been one of the NFL’s most reliable tricks to fool overeager defensive lineman. The play mimics a pass — in the action of both the quarterback and the offensive line — until the last second, when the ball is handed off to the running back. When it works, the runner can often slice through holes untouched because defenders are busy trying to evade offensive linemen for a sack of the quarterback.

The play may seem like the perfect countermeasure to keep a defense honest in the modern NFL. Yet for some reason, the draw play has been all but erased from teams’ playbooks.

As the story goes, the draw play was invented in the middle of a game to slow unblockable pass rushers. It quickly became a staple of the modern offense by the sport’s “master innovator” Paul Brown, after a desperate hand-off on a busted passing play ended up working. “You fool one guy with a trap block,” Brown said. “You fool a whole pass rush with a draw play.”

Offenses today are more pass-happy than ever before. And defenses have had to respond with more aggressive stunts and blitzes by rushers quicker and more desperate to pressure passers. So what better way to cross them up than by using a draw play? But during the 2018 season, teams ran the play just a little more than once every two games, down from well over two per game just 10 years ago.

This is despite the success rate of the play used on first or second down being better than that of all rushes by running backs on those downs.1 According to the ESPN Stats & Information Group, the success rate2 on first- and second-down draws this year is 41.8 percent, compared with 38 percent on all RB runs on those downs. And draws on any down result in longer gains on average (5.29 yards per attempt) than other running back runs (4.35).

The Los Angeles Rams called only one draw play all season. (It didn’t work.) The New Orleans Saints waited all the way until Week 10 to run their first draw play of the season — a successful one. That two of the league’s most innovative offensive coaches — Sean McVay and Sean Payton — basically ignore the play seems like a bad harbinger for its survival. But the maestro of the NFL’s best offense, Kansas City’s Andy Reid, is one of the league’s greatest proponents of the play. That makes perfect sense: He’s essentially a Brown disciple, given that his West Coast offense was originally conceived by Bill Walsh when Walsh coached on Brown’s staff with the Bengals.

The Chiefs, who will play Indianapolis in the divisional round this weekend, have run a draw 16 times this year and have had success 10 times. That success rate of 62.5 is by far the best of the 10 teams that have run more than 10 draw plays. The Chargers also have used the draw well, generating 64 rushing yards in 10 attempts, six of which graded as successful.

The draw is often thought of as a play of last resort: When teams are faced with virtually hopeless distance to convert a third down, they can use the draw to stop the bleeding before punting. But only 37 third-down draws this past season were in situations when the offense needed at least 7 yards to convert. The vast majority were used on first and second down (256 out of 307 draw plays) and out of the shotgun (253 total draw plays). Of course, the latter makes sense given that the main purpose of the play is to mimic a pass.

Reid primarily uses the draw when teams have virtually no defenders dedicated to the run, meaning no more than six defenders “in the box” at or near the line of scrimmage. That was the defense deployed 13 of the 16 times Reid called a draw this season, and the call was successful eight of those times. If defenses continue with this look, a draw could be the perfect call.

With the Chiefs offense setting records and NFL coaches looking at it for design and play-calling inspiration, there’s a good chance that teams will soon discover that one of the oldest forms of NFL deception may have even more relevance in the modern game.

Check out our latest NFL predictions.

Can NFL Coaches Overuse Play-Action? They Haven’t Yet.

The play-action pass is one of the most effective calls in all of football. The three teams that use the play-action the most — the Rams, the Patriots and the Chiefs, according to data from Sports Info Solutions — each locked down a first-round bye in the playoffs. Across the league in 2018, quarterbacks with at least 100 pass attempts average 1.39 yards per attempt more out of play-action than they do on all other plays.1 This pattern of play-action success holds true for every year that we have data.2 Yet despite this success, the league average share of plays that are play-action passes is just barely above 20 percent.

Why is play-action so effective? When defenders bite on a play-action fake, they move out of position for defending the pass and create clear lanes for the QB to throw to the intermediate and deep parts of the field.

But NFL coaches tend to run them only a handful of times per game because they appear to believe that overuse of play-action will cause linebackers to stop biting on the fake. Diminishing returns will set in, defenders will stop respecting the run, and the superiority of play-action will vanish. But is this actually the case? Do linebackers start to ignore the fake handoff if they see it many times in a single game?

Until very recently, we had a hard time answering this question with the data that was available. But in the past couple of weeks, the NFL released a tranche of Next Gen tracking data for 91 games from 2017 via its inaugural Big Data Bowl. Michael Lopez, the NFL’s director of analytics, spearheaded the effort to allow analysts to dig into the tracking data and mine it for insights. I was able to use this data to quantify the effect of play-action on the movement of middle linebackers — and to see if a high number of play-action plays had any effect on the outcome of the plays.

I took each of the 1,235 play-action plays in the sample and isolated just the middle linebacker’s movement from snap to throw.3 I measured the distance traveled by the defender while moving forward toward the line of scrimmage at any angle, and I stopped counting the distance as soon as he turned and retreated into coverage. If two linebackers were playing on the inside, I included only the player who moved the most toward the line of scrimmage during the play. Below are three animations that help illustrate the process.4

The first shows the entire play with all players involved:

The second shows the entire play with the middle linebacker and quarterback isolated:

The third shows when I stopped counting the linebacker’s movement as “wasted” for the purposes of the study:

Distance traveled by a defender while biting on a play-action fake is a fairly precise way to quantify just how fooled a defender was on a play. Continuing to move toward the line of scrimmage when the offense is passing is a problem; defenders want to “get depth” as soon as they can if they identify pass. Any movement toward the line of scrimmage is usually wasted.

After summing up the total distance traveled for each of the plays, I calculated that on the average play-action pass play, the middle linebacker covers 7.5 yards of wasted ground. In seven instances in our sample, teams ran 15 or more play-action plays in a single game. Those games would have offered the middle linebacker the most opportunities to figure out the play-action, but the average distance traveled was 8.2 yards — even higher than the overall average.

I broke out the average wasted distance traveled by linebackers by the number of times a play-action pass was called in a game to see how teams reacted. It turns out that the wasted distance traveled was remarkably stable.

More play-action passes do not mean fewer wasted yards

Average yards wasted by the middle linebacker on each play-action pass in a game

PA Pass LB Wasted yards
1st 7.1
2nd 7.7
3rd 7.8
4th 7.1
5th 7.5
6th 7.3
7th 7.2
8th 7.2
9th 8.4
10th 7.9
11th 7.2
12th* 8.5
13th* 10.5
14th* 6.4
15th* 11.1
16th* 4.7

* Fewer than 20 observations

Source: NFL Next Gen Stats

Linebackers bite just about the same amount the 11th time a play-action pass is called in a game as the first time it’s called. It’s only after we get to 12 play-action passes in one game that things start to get wonky — but that may be because of the small sample sizes of those instances.

Across the entire sample of 91 games and 1,235 plays, I found no correlation at all between the number of times a team ran the play-action and total yards of wasted ground by middle linebackers.5 We’d love more data to examine, to look closer at what happens when more play-actions are run. But given what we know about the effectiveness of the play, the self-imposed threshold set by play-callers of roughly six to nine play-action fakes per game is likely too low.

Stopping the run is a major focus at every level of football, and the NFL especially makes it a high priority to effectively defend the run. Teams do this by coaching their linebackers and box safeties to play the run first in nonobvious passing situations. This emphasis on run stopping comes at a cost, however. Defenders must read their “run keys” — movements by the offense that indicate a run is coming — and react quickly to fill their gaps and prepare to make a physical play. It could be the case that defenders simply don’t think about how often the team is faking the run but instead just read and react to their run keys.

To play fast in the NFL, it’s often said, you can’t think but instead must react based on instinct and training. Perhaps that instinctual reaction explains why play-action continues to be effective no matter how often it’s used. It’s also probably the case that certain teams and players are more susceptible to play-action than others, and smart NFL teams will identify and exploit their opponents’ tendencies.

Those smart NFL teams should also pay attention to exactly how they use the play-action. According to the Sports Info Solutions data, passes thrown 7 yards deep or less are caught less frequently on play-action than on other passes. This could be because defenders have moved toward the line of scrimmage and are in better position to make a play on the ball. Play-action is only more effective than other passes when the ball travels at least 8 yards in the air — over the head of the linebackers who’ve been fooled.

There is a lot of good research showing that teams don’t run enough play-action. Most of the arguments for limiting its use are unsupported by the evidence. Now, thanks to the NFL’s Next Gen data, we can add evidence that middle linebackers won’t stop biting on the play-action, even if it’s used more than NFL coaches have been comfortable running it.

Check out our latest NFL predictions.

Kirk Cousins Is Not Better Than Joe Montana. So Let’s Fix Passer Rating.

According to the NFL’s official passer rating system, the most efficient quarterback in NFL history is Green Bay’s Aaron Rodgers, with a lifetime mark of 103.1.6 That makes sense: Rodgers is generally regarded as one of the greatest QBs to ever play the game. But if you scroll further down the list, the results become much harder to explain. In the world of passer rating, Kirk Cousins is better than Joe Montana; Derek Carr and Matt Schaub top Dan Marino; and, after one season, Broadway Sam Darnold is running circles around Broadway Joe Namath.

Passer rating is often criticized as Byzantine (have you seen that formula?), incomplete (it does not include data on rushing plays or sacks) and arbitrary (again, have you looked at the formula?). Yet its biggest shortcoming might be the way it is unmoored from changes in the game itself. Passing has never been more efficient than it was this season, in which the league’s average QB posted a rating of 92.9. That is remarkably high considering that a quarterback who posted a rating of 92.9 would have led all qualified passers in 15 separate seasons from 1950 through 1986. Clearly, the scale needs recalibrating.

In the original conception of passer rating, an average rating was about 67. In 2018, only one qualified passer (Arizona Cardinals rookie Josh Rosen) fell below that threshold, and even then just barely (his rating was 66.7). But what if the standards for what makes a good or bad performance had evolved as leaguewide numbers changed? Pro-Football-Reference.com does a great job of adjusting for era with its Advanced Passing indices, which are centered on an average of 100 with 15 points representing 1 standard deviation in either direction. But I wanted to rescale the building blocks of passer rating itself to see how today’s passing numbers would translate to a rating if the NFL had simply allowed its rating system to change with the times.

To do that, I looked at the distribution of stats in each category that goes into passer rating — completion percentage, yards per attempt, touchdown percentage and interception rate — from the sample originally used to craft the formula back in the early 1970s (qualified passers from 1960 to 1970). Specifically, I figured out the spread of values (relative to the league) that, in a given category, led to the minimum number of points (0), the average number of points (1) and the maximum (2.375). Under the hood, passer rating is built around these ranges; it hands out points on that 0-to-2.375 scale in each category, then sums up the four values, divides by 6 and multiplies by 100. (Hence, 67 is supposed to be average — a 1.0 in four categories, divided by 6, times 100.)

For any era, we can rescale what performance “should” lead to a given value in each category to keep the relative leaguewide distribution the same as it was when passer rating was first conceived.7 So while, say, Alex Smith’s 62.5 percent completion rate in 2018 was worth 1.0 point, so was Don Meredith’s 49.5 percent mark from 1962. Do this for every category in every season, and you have a stabilized version of passer rating that no longer spirals uncontrollably upward with each innovation in the passing game.

Some ultra-high ratings change less than you might expect under this new method. Rodgers’s single-season record of 122.5 from 2011 tumbles all the way down to … 121.1. (He was very good that year.) But other seemingly immortal ratings, such as Kirk Cousins’s 99.7 mark this season, get knocked down quite a bit — in Cousins’s case, he falls to a much more reasonable 81.5 rating. (Anyone who watched a Vikings game this year would surely argue that this is more appropriate.) Similarly, Ryan Fitzpatrick’s 100.4 mark this season — yes, that is real, look it up — gets heavily penalized in the interception category (his 4.9 percent INT rate was more than double the league average), taking him down to an adjusted rating of 77.4.

Moving further down the list, Joe Flacco’s decent-sounding 84.2 classic rating properly falls to a mediocre 62.8 after our adjustment, while the 30.7 rating of WOAT candidate Nathan Peterman becomes an 11.6 — perilously close to the minimum possible rating of 0.0. (If Peterman had thrown enough passes to qualify, that 11.6 rating would have “surpassed” Ryan Leaf’s 19.1 from 1998 as the lowest-rated season since 1950.)

All told, the new ratings are once again grounded in a world where an average quarterback scores about 70 — not exactly 67 because the rolling distribution includes multiple seasons for comparison8 — and as a result, the numbers make far more intuitive sense at a glance than the ludicrously inflated official ratings of 2018:

Deflating the rating

Classic and adjusted passer ratings for qualified* 2018 NFL quarterbacks

Ratings
Player Team Old New
1 D. Brees NO 115.7 103.3
2 P. Mahomes KC 113.8 98.5
3 R. Wilson SEA 110.9 96.5
4 M. Ryan ATL 108.1 93.4
5 P. Rivers LAC 105.5 87.3
6 D. Watson HOU 103.1 85.3
7 C. Wentz PHI 102.2 85.1
8 J. Goff LAR 101.1 83.3
9 A. Rodgers GB 97.6 83.0
10 K. Cousins MIN 99.7 81.5
11 A. Luck IND 98.7 79.1
12 D. Prescott DAL 96.9 79.0
13 T. Brady NE 97.7 78.8
14 R. Fitzpatrick TB 100.4 77.4
15 B. R’lisberger PIT 96.5 75.7
16 D. Carr OAK 93.9 74.0
17 M. Trubisky CHI 95.4 73.2
18 E. Manning NYG 92.4 72.3
19 C. Newton CAR 94.2 71.7
20 B. Mayfield CLE 93.7 71.7
21 M. Mariota TEN 92.3 70.6
22 R. Tannehill MIA 92.7 68.8
23 M. Stafford DET 89.9 68.6
24 N. Mullens SF 90.8 66.3
25 A. Dalton CIN 89.6 66.1
26 J. Winston TB 90.2 64.9
27 A. Smith WSH 85.7 64.5
28 J. Flacco BAL 84.2 62.8
29 C. Keenum DEN 81.2 56.2
30 B. Bortles JAX 79.8 54.5
31 S. Darnold NYJ 77.6 49.7
32 J. Allen BUF 67.9 37.1
33 J. Rosen ARI 66.7 35.9

* Minimum 14 pass attempts per team game

Source: Pro-Football-Reference.com

According to the NFL’s official system, there have been 93 qualified quarterback seasons since 1950 with a passer rating of at least 100.0, and nine of those happened in 2018 alone. After our adjustment, though, there have been only 46 such seasons since 1950,9 and only one of those happened this year — the 103.3 mark Drew Brees put up with the Saints. It’s still a golden age for passing, as nearly half of those 46 seasons have happened since 2000, but we’ve also filtered out 51 “false 100s” — seasons that cracked 100.0 on the old scale but not the new one — of which 47 have happened since 2000.

The result of our passer rating adjustment is a much more reasonable career leaderboard that features qualified quarterbacks from a variety of different eras:

A new all-time passer rating hierarchy

Career classic and adjusted passer ratings for qualified* NFL and AFL quarterbacks, 1950-2018

Ratings Ratings
Player Last Year Old New Player Last Year Old New
1 S. Young 1999 96.7 94.2 16 F. Tarkenton 1978 80.4 80.7
2 A. Rodgers 2018 103.1 92.5 17 B. Starr 1971 80.5 80.7
3 J. Montana 1994 92.3 90.0 18 P. Rivers 2018 95.6 80.5
4 T. Brady 2018 97.6 87.2 19 C. Pennington 2010 90.1 79.9
5 P. Manning 2015 96.5 87.1 20 M. Ryan 2018 94.9 79.8
6 R. Staubach 1979 83.4 86.7 21 J. Garcia 2008 87.5 79.6
7 R. Wilson 2018 100.4 85.4 22 B. R’lisberger 2018 94.3 79.0
8 D. Brees 2018 97.7 85.4 23 J. Unitas 1973 78.3 78.9
9 T. Romo 2016 97.1 85.0 24 D. Fouts 1987 80.2 78.4
10 O. Graham 1955 78.2 84.7 25 R. Gannon 2004 84.7 78.4
11 K. Warner 2009 93.7 83.7 26 B. Griese 1980 77.1 78.3
12 S. Jurgensen 1974 82.7 82.9 27 N. Lomax 1988 82.7 78.1
13 L. Dawson 1975 82.9 82.7 28 F. Ryan 1970 78.0 78.0
14 D. Marino 1999 86.4 81.4 29 B. Jones 1982 78.5 78.0
15 K. Anderson 1986 81.9 81.2 30 J. Kelly 1996 84.4 78.0

* Minimum 1,500 career pass attempts

Source: Pro-Football-Reference.com

The biggest beneficiaries of our changes are 1950s-era passers like Otto Graham, who originally rated in the 70s (discarding his eye-popping pre-1950 numbers, which were compiled in the upstart All-America Football Conference) but leaps up into the mid-80s after judging him in comparison with his peers. San Francisco 49ers legend Steve Young also gets a boost relative to other great QBs from history, reclaiming the No. 1 slot that he’d held in real life before Rodgers and friends came along.

At the other end of the spectrum, nobody loses more points of career rating than Blake Bortles, who somehow has an 80.6 mark under the classic system but falls to 55.2 with our adjustments. Here are the biggest losers between the old and new QB ratings:

Who’s been overrated in traditional passer ratings?

For qualified* NFL and AFL passers since 1950, the biggest shortfalls between adjusted and classic passer rating

Ratings
Player Years Played Attempts Old New Diff.
Blake Bortles 2014-18 2,632 80.6 55.2 -25.4
Jameis Winston 2015-18 1,922 87.8 64.0 -23.8
Case Keenum 2013-18 1,844 84.5 61.8 -22.6
Marcus Mariota 2015-18 1,605 89.4 67.5 -21.9
Ryan Fitzpatrick 2005-18 4,285 81.1 60.2 -20.9
Mark Sanchez 2009-18 2,320 73.3 52.5 -20.8
Derek Carr 2014-18 2,800 88.8 68.4 -20.4
Cam Newton 2011-18 3,891 86.4 66.1 -20.3
Chad Henne 2008-18 1,959 75.5 55.3 -20.3
Ryan Tannehill 2012-18 2,911 87.0 67.2 -19.8

* Minimum 1,500 career pass attempts

Source: Pro-Football-Reference.com

A change like this wouldn’t fix the rest of passer rating’s deficiencies, and it wouldn’t include all the fancy bells and whistles you’ll find in a metric like ESPN’s Total Quarterback Rating. But passer rating itself has always been a surprisingly decent metric within any self-contained era; the team with the higher passer rating (by any margin) in a game wins about 80 percent of the time. It’s the comparisons across eras that have become distorted as the game has changed over time. But a simple fix tethering modern stats to the standards contained in passer rating’s formula would go a long way toward restoring sanity to the metric you still see in every NFL box score and broadcast. The Blake Bortleses of the world might not like seeing their shiny 80-something ratings get dumped into the 50s, but it’s a change whose time has come.

Check out our latest NFL predictions.



What The Heck Are These Dang Bits?

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,10 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.

Riddler Express

From James Anderson, in which you unwrap your presents and they are promptly eaten:

For Christmas, you received a 20-volume encyclopedia (thanks, Mom) that now sits on your shelf in numerical order. Each volume is 2 centimeters thick and bound with a 2-millimeter thick hardcover. If an ambitious bookworm wriggles into Volume 1 and eats straight from Page 1 of that book to the last page of Volume 20, how far has it traveled?

Submit your answer

Riddler Classic

From Jordan Ellenberg, an author and mathematician at the University of Wisconsin, so simple yet so hard:

What are these bits?

Jordan shared this puzzle previously with some folks, and has this preliminary report for Riddler Nation: “To my amazement, three people figured it out — all mathematicians, but that partially reflects who’s on my feed, and the solution is actually in some sense elementary.”

I’ve got a hunch Riddler Nation will add significantly to that total.

Submit your answer

Solution to the previous Riddler Express

Congratulations to 👏 Tracy Hall 👏 of Provo, Utah, winner of the previous Riddler Express!

Two weeks ago, we learned that Santa Claus’ memory was faltering. It was faltering so much, in fact, that he’d forgotten the order in which his eight reindeer were meant to be harnessed to his sleigh. The reindeers themselves remembered where they were supposed to go, but, being animals, could only give out a grunt of approval if they were harnessed in the right position. Santa decided on the following strategy to get everybody hooked up correctly: He created a list of all eight reindeer in random order. He then went to the first location, harnessing the reindeer one by one off his list until one grunted, then moving on to the next location and starting over at the top of his list. Each harnessing took one minute. How long on average would we expect it to take before all the reindeer are correctly harnessed and Santa can get to work delivering presents?

It would take 22 minutes on average.

Because the initial list of reindeer is random, it is equally likely that any of Santa’s attempts to harness the reindeer in the first location is correct. Therefore, to harness the first animal would take an average of (1 + 2 + 3 + 4 + 5 + 6 + 7 + 8) / 8 = 4.5 minutes. Similarly, to harness the second would take an average of (1 + 2 + 3 + 4 + 5 + 6 + 7) / 7 = 4 minutes, and so on. That’s a total of 4.5 + 4 + 3.5 + 3 + 2.5 + 2 + 1.5 + 1 = 22 minutes.

Santa could, of course, get really lucky with his random list, and get each one right on the first try for a total of eight minutes of harnessing. Or he could get really unlucky, taking the maximum amount of time with each reindeer for a total of 36 minutes of harnessing. More likely, it would be somewhere in between. This puzzle’s submitter, Taylor Firman, provided the following chart of the distribution of possible reindeer-harnessing times that Santa could face:

Good luck with your draw from that probability distribution, big jolly guy. We’re counting on you.

Solution to the previous Riddler Classic

Congratulations to 👏 David Mattingly 👏 of Old Forge, Pennsylvania, winner of the previous Riddler Classic!

Two weeks ago, we also traveled to Santa’s workshop in which elves worked shifts building toys. During these shifts, Christmas music played on an overhead speaker, with songs chosen by a program at random from a large playlist. Every time he heard a song twice, a cranky elf named Cranky started throwing snowballs at everyone. This happened during about half of all shifts. During a shift, the elves hear 100 total songs. How large is Santa’s playlist?

It contains 7,175 songs.

This puzzle is quite similar to the birthday problem — which is concerned with the chances that some two people in a group share a birthday — with an unknown number of days in a year, or songs on the playlist, in our case. So instead of 365 days and a 50 percent chance of a birthday match in a group of 23 people, we have an unknown number of songs and a 50 percent chance of a match in a group of 100 songs.

Let’s say there are X songs on the playlist. The chance of there not being a repeated song during a 100-song shift, a familiar equation from the birthday problem, is:\(\)

\begin{equation*}\frac{X!}{X^{100}(X-100)!}\end{equation*}

So the chance of there being a match is 1 minus that. That expression equals 0.5 right around when X = 7,175. Solver Hernando Cortina created the chart below using many elf shift simulations, and it shows how the probability of hearing a repeat song decreases as the playlist becomes larger. The probability hits our 50 percent mark very near 7,175 songs.

One of the founders of the music service Pandora, Joe Kennedy, wrote in to say the “situation the problem highlights is actually very real.” [Editor’s note: Ah yes, The Riddler, that staunch bastion of realism!] “For the many people whose favorite Christmas song is ‘All I Want for Christmas Is You,’ there just aren’t 7,174 other Christmas songs like it. And 100 Christmas songs typically only represent five to six hours of listening — less than a day’s effort in Santa’s workshop!”

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!

Want to submit a riddle?

Email me at [email protected]

With No Runaway Favorites, The NFL Playoffs Should Be Wild

With the NFL’s playoff bracket finally set, it’s time to survey the field and handicap the race for the Super Bowl. What’s interesting about this season is that there are plenty of very good teams but few that could be classified as truly dominant. Nine teams have an Elo rating4 of at least 1600, but none of them has cracked 1700 on the eve of the playoffs. In only one other season since 1990 — when the NFL expanded its postseason to the current format — have this many teams been squeezed into the 1600-to-1700 range on the Elo scale, and even that season (2015) had one team above 1700:

Because of this logjam of good-not-great teams, nobody heads into the playoffs with better odds than the New Orleans Saints’ 21 percent chance to win it all, according to Elo. That’s the third-lowest pre-playoff championship probability for a Super Bowl favorite since 1990, trailing only the 2015 Carolina Panthers and 2009 San Diego Chargers at 20 percent apiece. It’s also much lower than the 30 percent average for the typical pre-playoff favorite before this year.

Overall, this year’s favorites are less likely to win the Super Bowl than usual — meaning the Saints and Kansas City Chiefs have a lower probability than the typical top two going into the playoffs — while most of the lesser teams have a better chance than you’d expect to see in an average year.

This year’s playoffs are more wide-open than usual

Probability of winning the Super Bowl by rank (among playoff field) for the 2018 season and the average of the 1990-2017 seasons, according to FiveThirtyEight Elo ratings

rank 2018 Team 1990-17 Avg.
1 Saints 21%
30%
2 Chiefs 20
21
3 Patriots 14
14
4 Rams 13
10
5 Bears 7
7
6 Ravens 6
5
7 Chargers 4
4
8 Eagles 4
3
9 Seahawks 4
2
10 Cowboys 3
2
11 Texans 3
1
12 Colts 3
1

All numbers are as of the final regular-season game of a given year. 2018 probabilities may not add up exactly to 100 percent because of rounding.

Source: Pro-Football-Reference.com

Given all of this, the wild-card round could take on more significance than usual, since it’s not a stretch to imagine one of the teams playing this weekend taking home the Lombardi Trophy when all is said and done.

If Elo had to pick a favorite from that category, it would be the Chicago Bears, who are currently tied for third in the league in Elo and will host the defending Super Bowl champion Philadelphia Eagles (tied for No. 7) on Sunday at 4:40 p.m. ET. Chicago finished the regular season having allowed the league’s fewest points, so this is a classic Monsters-of-the-Midway Bears team in that sense. But quarterback Mitchell Trubisky is also playing much better than the typical Chicago QB from playoffs past — he’s no Jim Miller or Rex Grossman, for instance. According to ESPN’s Total Quarterback Rating,5 Trubisky was the NFL’s third most effective quarterback on a per-play basis this season. While he had some lows (such as a dreadful 29.5 QBR in an opening-week loss to the Packers) to go with the highs (like a 98.9 QBR vs. Tampa Bay in Week 4, one of the highest single-game marks on record), Trubisky’s strides as a second-year passer helped Chicago’s offense — which ranked a respectable 13th in expected points added — be more in line with its dominating defense.

In fact, according to our experimental quarterback-adjusted Elo ratings, Trubisky enters Sunday’s game with the best QB adjustment of any Bears postseason signal-caller since the 1986 Super Bowl, when Jim McMahon was worth approximately 36 more points of Elo than an average quarterback (and promptly shredded the New England Patriots defense for 256 yards and a 104.2 passer rating in a 46-10 rout). Trubisky himself is worth an estimated 18 points of Elo, which is why Chicago stands out if we map out the QB adjustment and base (QB-neutral) Elo rating for each of this year’s wild-card-round combatants:

The remainder of the wild-card field lines up roughly in inverse order between quarterback quality and that of the rest of the team. Some teams — such as Andrew Luck’s Colts and Deshaun Watson’s Texans — have gotten to where they are largely because of their standout quarterback play. Others, like the Ravens, are doing a lot better recently than we’d expect from their QBs’ performance alone. Baltimore has won six times in the seven games since Lamar Jackson replaced Joe Flacco as the starter in Week 11, though Jackson himself ranked third-worst among qualified quarterbacks in QBR this season, and that includes his stellar rushing statistics.6 (Beyond his own stats, Jackson’s effect on the team’s overall running game shows up under the team’s QB-neutral Elo rating.)

Everyone else is somewhere in between, including the resurgent Eagles with backup Nick Foles, whose QB adjustment is back roughly where it was after Philly beat the Patriots in the Super Bowl, but took many twists and turns to get there; the Chargers with 37-year-old Philip Rivers, whose own adjustment has fallen by 38 Elo points since Week 13 with a string of mediocre outings down the stretch; the Dak Prescott-led Cowboys, whose team QB adjustment has hovered around average all season; and Russell Wilson’s Seahawks, whose own run-heavy attack masked another season of highly efficient passing.

How Elo sees the wild-card round playing out

Win probabilities for Week 18 games according to two methods — standard Elo and a version that contains an adjustment for starting quarterbacks

Standard Elo QB-Adjusted Elo
Team Rating Win Prob. Base Rtg Starting QB QB Adj. Win Prob.
CHI 1640 61% 1644 Mitchell Trubisky +18 66%
PHI 1624 39 1606 Nick Foles +2 34
BAL 1627 60 1650 Lamar Jackson -42 61
LAC 1624 40 1580 Philip Rivers +12 39
DAL 1572 54 1569 Dak Prescott 0 55
SEA 1605 46 1572 Russell Wilson +26 45
HOU 1551 56 1537 Deshaun Watson +28 58
IND 1578 44 1533 Andrew Luck +38 42

Home teams are in bold.

Elo quarterback adjustments are relative to average, based on a rolling average of defense-adjusted QB stats (including rushing).

Source: Pro-Football-Reference.com

Of those, Elo gives the best chance of advancing to the Bears, followed by the Ravens. And upset-wise, the best odds belong to the Seahawks against the Cowboys, regardless of whether we adjust for recent QB performance. Whichever teams win, they’ll have to contend with road games in the divisional round — but given the overall state of the league, they’ll still have a better chance than usual to knock somebody off and forge their own path to the Super Bowl.

FiveThirtyEight vs. the readers

To keep tabs on each team’s classic Elo as the weekend plays out, be sure to check out FiveThirtyEight’s NFL prediction interactive, which simulates the rest of the season 100,000 times and tracks how likely every team is to advance through the playoffs and win the Super Bowl. And even though the regular season is over, you can still pick against the Elo algorithm in our prediction game and keep climbing up our giant leaderboard.

According to data from the game last week, here are the matchups in which Elo made its best — and worst — predictions against the reader picks for Week 17:

Elo’s dumbest (and smartest) picks of Week 17

Average difference between points won by readers and by Elo in Week 17 matchups in FiveThirtyEight’s NFL prediction game

OUR PREDICTION (ELO) READERS’ PREDICTION
PICK WIN PROB. PICK WIN PROB. Result READERS’ NET PTS
TEN 62% IND 55% IND 33, TEN 17 +15.1
NO 87 NO 77 CAR 33, NO 14 +13.3
MIN 56 MIN 50 CHI 24, MIN 10 +3.5
LAC 64 LAC 70 LAC 23, DEN 9 +1.8
PHI 65 PHI 71 PHI 24, WSH 0 +1.6
HOU 71 HOU 74 HOU 20, JAX 3 -0.1
ATL 54 ATL 56 ATL 34, TB 32 -0.4
PIT 83 PIT 83 PIT 16, CIN 13 -1.7
SEA 88 SEA 86 SEA 27, ARI 24 -2.0
KC 88 KC 86 KC 35, OAK 3 -2.3
LAR 85 LAR 83 LAR 48, SF 32 -2.6
NE 89 NE 86 NE 38, NYJ 3 -2.6
GB 65 GB 67 DET 31, GB 0 -4.4
BUF 59 BUF 55 BUF 42, MIA 17 -5.5
DAL 62 DAL 56 DAL 36, NYG 35 -8.2
BAL 81 BAL 68 BAL 26, CLE 24 -10.5

Home teams are in bold.

The scoring system is nonlinear, so readers’ average points don’t necessarily match the number of points that would be given to the average reader prediction.

Even though the readers knew about various Week 17 roster shenanigans (such as resting starters) and Elo didn’t, the algorithm did what it’s been doing most of the season, beating the field by an average of 5 points per reader. (Elo beat the average reader 16 times in 17 weeks during the regular season.) Readers picked up points for trusting Luck and Indy against the Blaine Gabbert-led Titans in Sunday night’s do-or-die regular-season finale, and they also got credit for fading the Saints, who were resting starters against the Panthers in a meaningless contest. But at times that knowledge came back to haunt them, such as when they dropped the odds of the Ezekiel Elliott-less Cowboys against the Giants, only to see Dallas storm back and win. (And it was odd to see Elo underestimate the Browns, which it’s been doing all season, only to have that work out at season’s end.)

Either way, congrats to Jake Horowitz, who led all identified users in Week 17 with 294.2 points, and to good ol’ Greg Chili Van Hollebeke, who hung on to his No. 1 ranking for the season with 1,168.1 points. Thanks to everyone who has been playing — and the game isn’t over yet! You should keep making picks and trying your luck against Elo throughout the playoffs.

Check out our latest NFL predictions.

Sorry, Man City — The Premier League Title Is Liverpool’s To Lose

The Premier League season is barely halfway over, but the title basically could be decided this week. Right now, Liverpool has a 7-point lead over Manchester City at the top of the table.1 The two teams face off Thursday at Etihad Stadium in Manchester, and a Liverpool victory would result in a likely insurmountable 10-point gap.

Only two weeks ago, Liverpool’s lead was just 1 point, 45 to 44. And at the beginning of December, it was Manchester City in front, with a 2-point cushion. But the holidays were a nightmare for City. Manager Pep Guardiola saw his team lose easily winnable matches at home to Crystal Palace and away to Leicester City, while Liverpool swept its holiday fixtures. If you had watched these events from the perch of FiveThirtyEight’s Soccer Power Index projections, you would have experienced severe whiplash. Not only did Liverpool open up a lead out of nowhere, but the projections remained extremely bullish on City’s chances right until the bottom fell out.

Before City went into a slump, what made the team such a dominant title contender? And what happened to drop its chances so dramatically?

Through October and into November, Manchester City’s underlying statistics were otherworldly good — they had analysts wondering whether this might be the best team in Premier League history. The Soccer Power Index projections are based on precisely these underlying numbers, and they reacted proportionately. The expected goals differential — the difference between expected goals for and against — shows Manchester City more than plus-2.5 per match in October and solidly more than plus-2.0 right until mid-December, based on data from analytics firm Opta Sports.

This slowdown appears to be driven by two related factors: a decline in performance by the team’s aging midfield stars and injuries to key players.

During Manchester City’s record-breaking title season in 2017-18, the team’s preferred midfield used Fernandinho as the defensive midfielder at the base and David Silva and Kevin De Bruyne as “free eights,” more advanced midfielders with the freedom to make runs in and around the penalty area but who are ready to lead the press should possession be turned over. The trio played together for more than 50 percent of City’s minutes in the league, and at least two were featured in more than 90 percent of the team’s minutes.

De Bruyne has been unavailable most of the year because of two successive knee injuries. He has not fully recovered, missing the Southampton match this weekend. With the Belgian playmaker out, Man City has been able to play its first-choice midfield for only 35 total minutes this season, compared with more than 1,800 last season. And Silva and Fernandinho, as important as they are to City’s chances, are 32 and 33 years old respectively. Both have needed rest, and both suffered muscle injuries in late December. In Man City’s losses against Crystal Palace and Leicester City, neither Silva nor Fernandinho made the starting lineup.

Man City’s biggest problems, then, seem to boil down to personnel. The heavy workload already had strained Fernandinho in his difficult role as the lone defensive midfielder, and then injuries left Guardiola with almost none of his preferred midfielders. Ilkay Gundogan and Bernardo Silva are good players, but they have not been able to properly replace Fernandinho and David Silva.

This is good news for City fans: Fernandinho and David Silva are back, and they dominated Southampton en route to a 3-1 win. De Bruyne may even be ready to join them Thursday. We should expect a Manchester City with a fit midfield to be more than good enough to win a home match against Liverpool and keep the title race going.

At the same time, Man City fans still have cause for concern. Given the ages of David Silva and Fernandinho, another slowdown or injury is hardly unlikely. And with City looking at a deep run in the Champions League,2 the team’s performance level cannot be expected, on average, to remain in its early season stratosphere. Expected goals differential still shows City as the best team in the league, but the margin of its advantage over Liverpool from October is unlikely to return.

This gives Liverpool every chance at its first league title in decades. And the Reds are here because they have become the smartest-run team in England. Liverpool lost a key creative midfielder, Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, to a serious knee injury at the end of last season. But high-level replacements were already lined up. The club had reached an agreement with RB Leipzig the previous summer for the transfer of creative dynamo Naby Keita, and over the summer Liverpool added another creator in Xherdan Shaqiri as well as Fabinho for defensive midfield depth. Keita has struggled with his fitness; for a player who was clearly the best dribbler in Germany, his 0.2 progressive runs per 90 minutes show that Liverpool still hasn’t seen his best. But the Reds’ clever business strategy means they could weather a slow start. Shaqiri has been revelatory — with six goals, two assists and a team-leading 4.1 progressive passes per 90 minutes — and Fabinho has settled in solidly at defensive midfielder.

Liverpool has made steady improvements as the season has gone on. The Reds continued a trend I noticed last year, in which the team has gradually pulled back on its high press while improving defensively. This year, while the team’s mere eight goals conceded reflects some good fortune, its average of 0.81 expected goals conceded per match (about 16 expected goals allowed total) is the best of manager Jurgen Klopp’s tenure. And Liverpool has done it with its least aggressive midfield press of the last four seasons, breaking up less than 49 percent of new opposition open-play possessions within three passes.

Klopp has acknowledged this somewhat more pragmatic style as a tactical choice to get the most out of his team over a full season. Against Manchester City away, coming off a full slate of holiday fixtures, Liverpool will need to draw on this newfound defensive pragmatism. City should look to dominate possession, but Klopp’s tactical developments at Liverpool have helped build a team that can control matches without the ball. And if City’s aging midfield makes a misstep or if Fernandinho finds himself isolated or out of position, Liverpool’s devastating forward three of Sadio Mane, Roberto Firmino and Mohamed Salah will make him pay. The quality of Liverpool’s attack, especially in the open field on the counter, is such that even a fully recovered Manchester City could be caught out and defeated.

City is favored on Thursday for good reason. But over the full season, City looks more fragile than Liverpool, which has been built into a deep and tactically variable unit with smart analytics and coaching. If Man City can maintain the fitness of its 30-something midfield stars, it has the advantage, but that’s a big “if.” With just more than four months remaining in the season, another dip in form or fitness from City’s midfield is likely, and that plus a lead of at least 4 points would probably be enough for the Reds. Klopp’s side could put the title to bed Thursday, but even if City gets the win, Liverpool should still be favorites to lift the trophy.

Check out our latest soccer predictions.

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.