The Biggest Surprises From Week 1 Of The NFL Season

sara.ziegler (Sara Ziegler, sports editor): It‘s been quite an opening week in the NFL — and that’s just on the field. We started with an old-fashioned defensive slugfest on Thursday and ended Sunday night with the Patriots still looking like the Patriots. And we still have two games left tonight! Throw in a tie for good measure, and the season is off and running.

There was a lot to unpack in Week 1. What were your biggest surprises of the week?

Salfino (Michael Salfino, FiveThirtyEight contributor): I think the Browns are the biggest surprise of Week 1. Not just Baker Mayfield and the offense — because maybe the Titans have a good defense. Who knows at this stage of the season? But the Cleveland defense, which seemed like it was perfectly designed to dominate in the trenches and on the perimeter with the corners, was just shredded. Marcus Mariota had 10.3 yards per attempt, admittedly inflated by a screen pass to Derrick Henry. And the Titans ran the ball well. So it was just a total team collapse by the Browns.

sara.ziegler: I do feel like Cleveland was classically set up for this disappointment. Our model didn’t think the Browns would be nearly as good as everyone else seemed to think they would be.

neil (Neil Paine, senior sportswriter): Yes, we had warned Cleveland fans to kind of pump the brakes before the season. This was a good-looking team by Browns standards, but that’s different from being a good-looking team, period.

Salfino: I know this is a little Narrative Street, but the Browns really set themselves up to be the hunted and not the hunters with all the offseason talk. I don’t know if there’s ever been a team coming off a losing season that had every opponent circling their game on the schedule. Maybe now they will just shut up and play because obviously there is a lot of talent there. Maybe the humiliation on Sunday in Cleveland will actually be good for them, since they needed humbling.

neil: For me, the biggest surprise was Lamar Jackson. He was one of the worst QBs in the league as a rookie last season, and the Ravens adapted their offense to be incredibly run-heavy (particularly by 2018 standards) because he was such a better runner than passer. So to see him come out and throw for 324 yards on 17-for-20 passing, 5 TDs, 0 picks and a perfect 158.3 passer rating was nothing short of astonishing.

You could have told me a QB would do that Week 1, and I would have guessed 25 QBs before Jackson.

Salfino: The tricky thing with this game is whether the Dolphins are the 1962 Mets — or did the Ravens make them look that way? Let’s put it this way: If the Dolphins are trying to lose, they couldn’t have done it any better.

neil: That’s a great point to keep in mind. The Dolphins have been accused of tanking all offseason, and they played like it Sunday.

Incidentally, what’s the opening line on Pats-Dolphins next week? I shudder to think.

Salfino: New England minus-14.5 at Miami, up to 17 now. That would put them among the biggest home underdogs since 1970.

sara.ziegler: And now Miami players are reportedly asking their agents to get them off the team! Not great.

neil: What was your biggest surprise, Sara?

sara.ziegler: Arizona! Loved to see the fight from Kyler Murray and Co.

neil: Fighting back for a TIE, no less.

sara.ziegler: So great.

neil: That’s just fighting back for the love of the game, not the glory. Lol.

Salfino: Murray was Tebowing on Sunday: horrible for most of the game and then turned it on in the fourth quarter. I guess the slow start was opening day jitters. Maybe it was a mistake to not use the regular offense in the preseason.

sara.ziegler: That’s a great point, Mike.

So many of these offenses have looked SOOOOO bad. Maybe a few more reps in the preseason could help?

neil: Maybe this is the year the “rest the starters all preseason” trend jumps the shark.

Salfino: Start with Mitch Trubisky and the Bears.

sara.ziegler: And Aaron Rodgers and the Packers!

neil: That game was SO ugly.

sara.ziegler: It kinda hurt to watch.

neil: Although if they were going for symbolism with the NFL of 100 years ago, they kinda got what they were asking for.

Salfino: Bears-Packers set back offensive football 100 years, so….

sara.ziegler: So true.

Salfino: I just am skeptical about changing the offensive system of an inner-circle Hall of Fame player — especially someone as generally grumpy as Rodgers — with that young of a coach who has not proven anything. How does this work? I would have given Rodgers Mike Shanahan — someone he had to respect — if you want to switch to a Mike Shanahan offense.

sara.ziegler: Our colleague Josh Hermsmeyer wrote about the Packer play-calling that might have been holding Rodgers back last year … but I’m skeptical, too, about changing that on a dime.

Salfino: And it’s kind of like, “Mike Shanahan is standing right here.” But the league is all about young coaches now. Does this work with a 35-year-old QB though? Will the QB, especially this QB, buy in?

sara.ziegler: Hahaha

neil: But at least there, you can use the coaching change as an excuse. Maybe they’ll find more of a rhythm as the season goes on. There were no such excuses for Trubisky’s poor performance.

Salfino: For Trubisky, we kind of know what he is, right? His ability to execute plays that work as designed is definitely below the line. He sort of has to play with his hair on fire, out of structure, so he’s a tough player to design an offense for.

Based on one game, I’d set the Browns over/under at nine wins, the Ravens at 10 and the Cardinals at six. (I mean, it was Matt Patricia blowing a game, right?)

sara.ziegler: Haha

What’s the over/under at Patricia still being the coach in January?

neil: That’s the REAL over/under to worry about.

Salfino: I think Patricia has to be a favorite to be fired in-season. The Dolphins aren’t going to fire a coach. It has to be a team that thinks they’re good with a “franchise” QB, I assume.

neil: The funny thing is, Matt Stafford actually played well overall, with a 110.0 passer rating. But the defense badly collapsed down the stretch.

sara.ziegler: Who else stood out? Philadelphia? Kansas City?

Salfino: I wrote about the impact a downfield weapon has on the entire offense, regarding DeSean Jackson. That certainly was a factor in Sunday’s Eagles win, though Jackson did most of the damage himself. But now the best of these players for Kansas City, Tyreek Hill, is probably out a significant amount of time with a shoulder injury, and I wonder if this will slow down the Chiefs offense. Sammy Watkins was unreal on Sunday, but he did a lot of that damage with Hill in the game. Does the Chiefs offense seem more mortal now?

neil: Not to mention that Pat Mahomes was hobbling around on a bum ankle.

Salfino: And he no-looked away a TD to a wide-open Travis Kelce like he was Meadowlark Lemon.

neil: If Mahomes shakes off any effects of that ankle — and it’s not supposed to be serious — they still have a lot of weapons even without Hill. But they were a team everyone was already wondering about perhaps regressing offensively, just because the highest-scoring offenses usually tend to fall off some in the following season.

sara.ziegler: LeSean McCoy looked decent as one of those weapons.

Salfino: They do seem to have an endless supply of super-athletic players, but Hill really dictates coverage and makes defenses more easy to dissect. The McCoy thing is interesting — Damien Williams still had 65 percent of snaps, compared to just 30 percent for McCoy. But how does Andy Reid tell a guy like McCoy — with over 14,000 scrimmage yards who just outplayed Williams — that he’s sitting behind Williams? I have to think McCoy is the primary back near term for the Chiefs — and he may be washed up, I know.

Speaking of running backs, not a good day for Melvin Gordon.

sara.ziegler: 🤣

Salfino: You want to say that RBs are fungible, but Austin Ekeler is not just an ordinary backup. He’s electric. I think him leading a committee is perfect, and the Chargers are now 5-0 since 2018 without Gordon in the regular season.

sara.ziegler: Not gonna lie: I forgot for a second about the Gordon holdout. The Antonio Brown drama just eclipsed everything.

neil: Austin Ekeler:Melvin Gordon::James Conner:Le’Veon Bell ?

(I think I got my SAT analogy format right there?)

sara.ziegler: Very nice, LOL

Salfino: Well, the Steelers looked like they missed Bell and Brown on Sunday night.

neil: Steelers looked like they missed a lot of things Sunday night.

Salfino: I think the story with the Steelers is that Juju Smith-Schuster is not a downfield wide receiver, and they have no one who can threaten defenses deep like Brown could (even though he was used all over the field). So the Steelers offense looked suffocated on Sunday. There was just no room to breathe.

Ironically, the team on the field that really needs Brown was the Steelers.

sara.ziegler: It was hard to watch that game and not think, “Oh, the Patriots are unstoppable again.”

Salfino: But why even add Brown? I guess it makes sense if you are worried about Josh Gordon’s status, given that he has not completed an NFL season since 2013. But if you know you have Gordon — which of course you can never know — Brown is another mouth to feed and obviously a volatile personality on a team that does not remotely need his talent. Put it this way, if the Patriots had not signed Brown, the story off that game would be, “Of course they shouldn’t have signed Brown because they are a finely tuned machine right now, so why mess with that?”

neil: That’s true. It sort of adds diminishing returns on the field and the potential for chaos off the field. But maybe they wanted extra insurance for Tom Brady at receiver with Gronk retired.

Salfino: Brady is 42. He threw the ball very well, especially deep. But the expectation with an older player is that he will fade as the season progresses. It’s really the Patriots and Brady vs. Father Time. That’s the Battle of the Ages, not New England vs. the NFL.

sara.ziegler: I just assume it’s part of the overall Evil Plan that Patriots always execute to perfection.

neil: I will say this. I have compared Brady’s downfall (whenever it happens) to Peyton Manning’s in 2015, in the sense that when it does happen, it will probably happen very quickly. But for whatever one game is worth, Manning already showed signs of what was to come with a terrible opener that year against Baltimore. Brady, on the other hand, was perfectly fine. So if you’re mentally tracking the odds of a Brady collapse in 2019, those odds had to go down quite a bit just after a game.

Salfino: But what about Peyton in 2014? Isn’t that the example that the Patriots (and Saints) have to fear? That did come all at once. And we ignored it heading into 2015, mostly, attributing it to nagging injuries, which probably was the point. Peyton started 2014 with 22 TDs and three picks in seven games.

neil: True, while Brady was not great in the Super Bowl and had a mediocre game or two down the stretch, he wasn’t consistently struggling late in 2018 as much as Peyton did in 2014. So maybe that does mean the writing was more on the wall for him than Brady, anyway.

Whatever happens, I love Week 1 because we’re all so eager to overreact to every little thing that happens once real football starts. So I wonder which things that seem clear right now will end up looking foolish in a couple months.

sara.ziegler: Can’t wait to find out!

Check out our latest NFL 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.

A Weird NFL Weekend Leaves Us Even More Confused

gfoster: (Geoff Foster, sports editor): NFL Week 14 was very odd in many respects (and the week isn’t over) with the Raiders, Niners and Giants winning and the Rams, Texans, Steelers and Patriots all losing. It all went a long way to making the playoff picture even murkier. What was your biggest takeaway from the week?

Salfino (Michael Salfino, contributor): How much should we be worried about the Rams? Is every offense entitled to one hiccup like this, or is it part of a pattern that began with the Lions, who did not care about play-action at all and just covered the receivers. The Bears also did not bite. Does Los Angeles have a Plan B?

neil (Neil Paine, senior sports writer): It was definitely startling to see the Rams’ offense be held in check so thoroughly. Jared Goff was terrible. Todd Gurley did next to nothing. The Rams’ offensive expected points added in the game was -23.5. That was 29.6 points worse than their second-worst offensive game of the season … which was Week 13 vs. Detroit. And it was 33.8 points of EPA worse than their low before the Detroit game.

sara.ziegler (Sara Ziegler, assistant sports editor): I know people talk a lot about playing in the cold as a problem, and I usually roll my eyes. But was that a factor here?

neil: The Rams have only played four games where temp was under 50 degrees in the Sean McVay era.

Salfino: I know, that temperature stuff. I just can’t believe these guys from all different parts of the country are suddenly able to only play in warm weather. But that’s going to be the theory of the case now almost certainly.

gfoster: The Rams game at Detroit was definitely curious. They came out of the bye completely flat, Goff played poorly, and most people kinda wrote it off to rust. But now I’m starting to wonder if teams, as Mike alluded to, are starting to figure out this McVay offense.

Salfino: This kind of thing has happened before. The 1994 49ers team that won the Super Bowl and was electrifying on offense laid an egg against the Eagles that year, losing 40-8. They had 189 yards that game.

And on defense, the 1985 Bears famously flubbed a primetime game against the Dolphins late in the year for their only loss that season.

gfoster: That Detroit game was in a dome, Sara.

Salfino: This can’t be Cooper Kupp, can it? My theory of playing the Rams was to just ignore the running game. I figured a team that gave them fits would basically concede Gurley. What really surprised me about the Chicago performance was that Gurley didn’t even get going. They had nothing. The Bears didn’t even accept the slow death of Gurley running.

sara.ziegler: But why didn’t the Rams even try to run Gurley? Only 11 carries?

neil: Good question, Sara. They had been almost exactly balanced (49.7 percent pass/50.3 percent run) on first down, but last night they passed on 73 percent of first downs. Despite averaging 4.6 yards per carry on the first downs where they did run.

Salfino: My feeling watching the game with Gurley is that the Rams wanted to get wide open passes by faking to Gurley like they usually do, and then when that didn’t work, they were behind the down and distance and had to straight-up pass, with typically disastrous results.

neil: Right — Goff had a 23.0 passer rating on 1st down.

Salfino: What happens to a play-action offense when no one buys into the deception? When the defense just ignores it?

sara.ziegler: I guess I would argue that you should just run the ball.

Especially with a guy like Gurley.

Salfino: Exactly right. That’s when they should run. This is probably why McVay was so hard on himself in the post-game.

sara.ziegler: And for good reason! LOL

gfoster: Let’s talk about the ending of the Dolphins-Patriots game, which was probably the highlight of the year. Although, I may be partial to the Chris Carson front flip a couple weeks ago.

neil: Incredible. Just look at the diagram:

Longest game-winning scoring play in NFL history, I believe.

Salfino: Kenyan Drake made the best nonlateral decision ever on a lateral play. Or maybe the worst since anyone other than Gronk easily tackles him.

gfoster: The funniest sequence of that was when Drake was looking to lateral more and then you could see him to say to himself, “Oh wait, I can just run this in from here.”

sara.ziegler: Gronk definitely failing his defensive audition.

Salfino: Why was Gronk even on the field? It was not a Hail Mary situation 69 yards from pay dirt.

neil: Right, clearly Ryan Tannehill doesn’t have the arm for that throw in the air. He’s not Patrick Mahomes.

gfoster: Tannehill can throw 80 yards. You didn’t know that?

sara.ziegler:

Salfino: Did Drake just laugh at the idea of Gronk tackling him?

Gronk looked like I imagine Brady would trying to make that tackle. And ironically, he finally looked like Gronk on offense.

neil: And Bill Belichick left Devin McCourty off the field for that play in favor of Gronkowski. Shades of Malcolm Butler in the Super Bowl. Too cute for his own good.

gfoster:

sara.ziegler: I just need to take a second to thank Drake for giving me 12.2 fantasy points on that play.

🙌

Salfino: Fantasy scoring on that play is hilarious. It goes as a Tannehill touchdown pass. There were no screams about that because who’s playing Tannehill?

sara.ziegler: LOL, good point.

Salfino: How dumb are the Dolphins though for not getting a guy as electric as Drake the ball more on offense? But they’re 7-6. Have to be one of the worst winning teams at this juncture of the season in memory, but they do own wins against the Bears and Patriots.

gfoster: Salfino is not a Frank Gore fan.

Salfino: OMG, Frank Gore. The dude is a survivor, I’ll give him that. He’s going to end up in the Hall of Fame, too. But he’s been just a guy for so long now.

gfoster: Neil wrote about this recently. Is this Patriots team just not intimidating?

Gronk’s “defense” is getting the headlines, but he had a big game offensively Sunday. There’s no doubt the offense is world’s different when he’s healthy — and it’s hard to remember a playoffs when he was remotely healthy.

Salfino: The Patriots’ problem is that they lacked offensive upside. But then Tom Brady really looked like the Brady of old vs. Old Brady. Gronk got rolling. Gordon was hyper-efficient. The running game was trash, but that’s sort of old-school Patriots too. Even the defense struggling seemed normal. But losing that game was not normal at all. If you told me New England was going to lose, I’d figure it was their offense flagging the game.

neil: Although it’s worth noting they forced zero turnovers against a Tannehill Phins offense.

sara.ziegler: That’s sort of the beauty of those lateral plays actually working: It’s a fluke, not a systemic problem for them.

neil: But this is definitely the type of toss-up game they usually find a way to win, not lose.

sara.ziegler: For sure. Which is what made it so fun!

neil: At least for 31 fanbases searching for Patriots schadenfreude.

Salfino: I really thought one of the Patriots and Steelers would emerge in the AFC, and now maybe both of those teams are going to be playing wild-card weekend.

gfoster: There are four AFC teams at 7-6: Ravens, Colts, Dolphins, Titans. Which one of those is going to make the playoffs in your eyes? Or will it be the Browns, Neil?

neil: They’re “in the hunt”!

For the first time in approximately 30 years.

Salfino: I think the sixth team in the AFC will be the Colts. Andrew Luck is totally out of his shoulder issue and throwing the ball downfield. T.Y. Hilton has nearly 600 receiving yards in the past four games. Luck-to-Hilton is maybe the most lethal combination in football right now.

gfoster: Not Luck-to-Ebron?

neil: For what it’s worth, our model thinks the Ravens still have the best chance at 55 percent.

sara.ziegler: I like the Ravens. They were super unlucky to lose to the Chiefs.

I mean, come on.

Salfino: The Ravens did everything right on defense. Tyreek Hill takes standing eight counts with three different injuries. And you look up at the end of the game and Mahomes has nearly four bills and the Hill has 139 receiving yards. Spencer Ware looked very dangerous. How can anyone stop the Chiefs?

neil: The diagram on that one is amazing, too:

(In case you can’t tell, I am addicted to these things.)

Salfino: Only one player could make that throw, and only one receiver could race to make that catch. The probability for Mahomes-to-Hill should have been, like, 50 percent 🙂

neil: Maybe Aaron Rodgers could. But certainly only one QB on a playoff-bound team.

Salfino: Yes, maybe Rodgers.

sara.ziegler: (And he probably doesn’t have a receiver this year who could catch it.)

neil: That might not have even been Mahomes’ most jaw dropping pass of the day!

Salfino: The Ravens blitzed the hell out of Mahomes, and it really seemed to give him fits, but then again you look at the stat sheet and are like, “??????”

gfoster: I would normally say here that the Chargers could hang with the Chiefs and look like the AFC’s Super Bowl-bound team. But that was a somewhat lifeless effort by them Sunday. Against Jeff Driskel and probably the worst defense in the NFL.

sara.ziegler: I guess we’ll find that out on Thursday, when the Chiefs and Chargers play.

Salfino: I thought it was going to be typical Chargers. But maybe typical Chargers is having easily the second-best team in the conference and somehow being the fifth seed. As for the Bengals performance, it fits the “letdown game” theory between Pittsburgh and Kansas City.

gfoster: Although, it should be noted that Mike Badgley hit four of four field goals, including a 59 yarder. That actually ties the total of made Chargers field goals for the last two seasons.

sara.ziegler: LOL

Salfino: How is Hill going to play that game on Thursday? He was like Rocky on the stool at the end of that Ravens game.

The thing about the Chargers that’s weird is their pace of play. They were 29th in plays before last week and then put up another relatively low play count.

Could Mike Tomlin get fired if the Steelers miss the playoffs? Should he?

sara.ziegler: Not in light of the Le’Veon Bell mess, I’m guessing.

The Steelers’ running game was nonexistent, with no James Conner even.

Salfino: Has Bell’s absence even hurt the team? Sunday was the first game you could say they lost because of it, arguably. But the defense could not stop Derek Carr. Think about that sentence in the context of this year.

gfoster: I don’t think this Steelers team is very good. They now have the Patriots and then AT the Saints. They could easily be 7-7-1 going into final week.

sara.ziegler: I’ve been amazed all season at how high the Steelers’ Elo was. But they just kept winning — until the past three games.

neil: Looking at our Elo, though, the Steelers usually pick up steam late in seasons. They haven’t had a swoon like this since 2012.

And that year they could pin it on Charlie Batch starting some games.

Salfino: Explain to me how Roethlisberger goes 25-for-29, the Steelers defense is still near the top of the league in yards allowed per play, and they lose to the Raiders. Tomlin totally blows the end of the game by not calling a timeout, he gets his own lateral play to work, and then the kicker falls down.

sara.ziegler: Field goal kicking has been about average this year, at 84.2 percent made. But this week was a bad one for kickers, who made only 42 field goals out of 56 attempts.

Salfino: Steelers vs. Patriots is the game of the week, but not for the reasons we thought going into the season. These are two desperate teams now. The Steelers are teetering on elimination, and New England can’t win the conference without a bye, IMO.

Do you know how hard it is to pass like Roethlisberger has this year and have a top defense in yards per play and still struggle to win?

gfoster: They haven’t beaten a truly good team this season. Especially now that we can safely call the Panthers a bad team.

And the Jags.

And the Falcons.

The Steelers’ best win was arguably over the Browns!

Salfino: They really should have beaten the Chargers, though. But you’re right.

sara.ziegler: And they would have beaten Oakland, if not for their kicker falling down.

neil: … another really bad team.

Salfino: Are we worried about the Saints? They did not really bounce back at all offensively from last week’s loss to the Cowboys. You have had the feeling all year that Sean Payton was worried about the depth of his receiving corps, and they had nothing other than Michael Thomas on Sunday — and Thomas really had to grind it out. Nothing in that game against a terrible Tampa defense was easy, which is shocking.

gfoster: But on Thanksgiving, we were singing the praises of Brees’s ability to throw TD passes to four different guys who walked in off the street and put on Saints jerseys.

Salfino: I think the Saints defense is underrated now and the Saints offense is overrated.

gfoster: Where are Austin Carr, Keith Kirkwood, Tommylee Lewis and Dan Arnold?

Salfino: Arnold was inactive on Sunday. Crippling loss.

That quartet sounds like a country rock band lineup.

neil: Are we rattling off Saints WRs or members of the 1973-74 Cavaliers?

Salfino: Nice pull, Neil!

gfoster: Brees and the Saints are always bad in Tampa, it seems. Kinda like how Brady always seems to struggle in Miami. What is it about Florida?

(Brady was good Sunday, though.)

Salfino: The Saints really pulled that game out of the fire and it was huge. Could give them the No. 1 seed, and I think they really need it.

gfoster: Here’s a question: If we could switch the results of one of the narrow losses in the first eight weeks, are we talking about the Giants as a sleeper playoff team?

neil: People are talking about the Giants as a sleeper playoff team NOW.

(At least on WFAN.)

gfoster: They have two wins more impressive than Pittsburgh: at Texans, Bears.

Salfino: Eli Manning is going to resign the Giants into giving him a lifetime contract. He is sucking all hope out of their prospective QB search.

Eli is the Frank Gore of QBs.

neil: Sara and I theorized that Eli paid Kyle Lauletta to keep screwing up.

“Here’s $50, go commit a traffic violation in New Jersey.”

Salfino: Eli’s last four wins were against opposing QBs Mullen, Fitzpatrick, Daniel, Sanchez.

sara.ziegler: My favorite thing in football this season is how bad the Giants are at tanking.

Salfino: Exactly! It’s not that hard.

sara.ziegler: Remember when the Giants basically didn’t play Saquon Barkley in the second half against Philly?

And handed the Eagles that game?

Salfino: Although the Jets would have the No. 1 pick right now if Sam Darnold didn’t mess it all up by winning.

neil: Broadway Sam can’t help himself.

gfoster: A lot of teams are struggling to tank. These guys need to watch more NBA. The Niners won’t quit.

Salfino: What about Josh Allen’s insane running. This is not a sustainable QB model, or am I wrong?

neil: Did I read that Allen broke a Mike Vick rushing record Sunday?

😳

Salfino: No QB ever had two consecutive games of 99+ yards rushing (in the modern era anyway), and now he has three.

neil:

gfoster: He seems like he’s looking to run. You watch a QB like Watson, Rodgers, Mahomes — they are so reluctant to do it. Always have eyes down the field until they physically cross the line of scrimmage.

Salfino: My theory with Allen is that his running is so effective and reliable that it’s hurting his development as a passer.

gfoster: He also has the worst supporting cast of possibly any QB ever.

Salfino: Darnold escapes to throw and not run, too. Especially on his touchdown pass Sunday, which was an incredible play.

sara.ziegler: Allen is like Bizarro Mahomes.

Salfino: Sara mentioned the Eagles. Is their window closing? They’re going to have to rebuild their defense, which is bereft of impact players. Their skill players are mediocre. Alshon Jeffery is not a No. 1 receiver, remotely. Suddenly their team-building seems suspect.

sara.ziegler: They had seemed to be playing better since that walloping by the Saints. But maybe not so much.

neil: Will we look back at 2017 as a weird, one-off year in general?

Eagles take advantage of a strange hiccup in the general arc of the game?

Salfino: Especially winning with Foles.

gfoster: One more NFC East thought: The Amari Cooper trade was probably the most derided front office move of the year. I myself openly laughed at it. Now…

sara.ziegler:

Salfino: The Cooper trade is going to go down in history as the best in-season deal. He was the missing piece. Everyone else is now in the role that they are suited to be in. Dak Prescott was explosive Sunday. I can’t believe I’m saying it.

The bug for the Cowboys was supposed to be their decision-making by Jerry Jones and his family, and that’s turned out to be their strength. Seriously, name the team that’s drafted better recently than the Cowboys. Now add Cooper to this. God, I hate myself for saying this.

gfoster: The issue with that trade was more relative to the wide receiver market. Golden Tate, Josh Gordon and Demaryius Thomas were all traded for a far smaller return. The difference is that prior to the deal, I would have lumped Cooper in with that tier of receiver, but it’s possible that his problem was even more Derek Carr than I thought.

Salfino: My view is that Cooper is an explosive player who can take the top off the defense. Those other guys, including Gordon now, cannot.

gfoster: OK, before we go, I want to get in one college football question off the big news of the weekend: Did Heisman voters get this one right?

Salfino: Oklahoma somehow pulled a Favre to Rodgers in college football.

sara.ziegler: I’m still kinda shocked that Kyler Murray won.

It really came down to performances in the conference championships.

neil: It’s funny because the Tua-is-unstoppable narrative had been in place for like two months (or more). Yet the signs were there that Kyler was a legitimate threat to him. He had a better NCAA passing efficiency, better QBR. Betting odds even favored Kyler on Saturday AM.

Salfino: My take is that Alabama would be great/No. 1 in the country with pretty much a typical college QB, but Oklahoma absolutely must have Murray to rank where they are. So Murray is the MVP of college football for sure.

gfoster: Here’s the flip side of that: Tagovailoa barely played in the fourth quarter most of the season, while Murray was needing to score 40 to 50 points every week to beat any team.

Salfino: I’ve heard the draft people concede the Murray would be a first-round pick. Now the question I guess is how high? There are no rules anymore after Baker.

sara.ziegler: Unless he’s an Oakland A by that point…

gfoster: And, likewise, Mahomes coming out of the same Big 12 nonsense football that looks like two 11-year-olds playing Madden.

Salfino: If Murray is a top-five pick, the financial calculus changes dramatically. He may never get another MLB contract. Look at ninth-overall picks in history, for example.

neil: Yes it does change the formula we looked at here.

gfoster: All right, last question:

Quickly give me the Week 14 Super Bowl prediction and No. 1 overall pick prediction, since we have a legitimate race this year.

neil: I guess I shouldn’t stick with my October pick of the Vikings…

sara.ziegler: LOL

They’re not out of it…

neil: Although who knows! We’ll see tonight.

sara.ziegler: I still think it will be the Chiefs out of the AFC, but who knows from the NFC.

Even after last night, I just can’t get behind the Bears.

gfoster: Sara, just pick the Vikings, it’s fine. We will forget about it.

sara.ziegler: I can’t. The moment I do, it’s over for them.

Salfino: I think the Raiders are the favorite for the No. 1 pick because San Francisco is going to face backups against the Rams in Week 17. I picked Saints-Steelers in the preseason. I will stick with the Saints — figuring that Payton figures it out. AFC has to be the Chiefs now. They do have a pass rush. They absolutely cannot lose Hill or Kelce though. (And obviously Mahomes.)

Betting on Andy Reid in January though and the Chiefs in January at home, yikes.

sara.ziegler: I’ll take a long shot for the No. 1 pick with the Jaguars. That’s a team that looks like it does not care.

neil: I will speak for the model and pick the Saints coming out of the NFC. We have them at 26 percent to win it all. AFC favorite is Chiefs, though I share Mike’s concerns there, despite my crush on Mahomes.

And I’ll go with the Cardinals at No. 1, our model’s pick for the worst record.

Forecasting the race to the bottom

Fewest projected 2018 wins according to FiveThirtyEight’s NFL Elo model

Wins
Team Current Projected remaining Total
32 Cardinals 3 0.6 3.6
31 49ers 3 0.7 3.7
30 Raiders 3 0.8 3.8
29 Jets 4 0.9 4.9
28 Bills 4 1.2 5.2

Simulated ties included as half-wins.

gfoster: I’m saying Saints over Chargers. Cardinals with the first pick (they have at Seattle and Rams still).

And if the Chargers get drilled by the Chiefs on Thursday, I will sneak into WordPress and delete all of this.

Check out our latest NFL predictions.