Deshaun Watson And Lamar Jackson Were College Rivals. Now They’re Taking It To The Pros.

These days, Lamar Jackson and Deshaun Watson are widely known as two of the NFL’s best quarterbacks. But back in college, they were linked through the 2016 Heisman Trophy race — in which the pair finished 1-2 in the voting results. Jackson took home the hardware, though Watson expressed his disagreement with that result at the time.

“I’m the best player in the country,” Watson said a week after the Heisman ceremony. “That’s how I think. That’s how I feel.”

Watson backed up his talk in his college finale by leading Clemson to a historic championship-game upset of an Alabama team that was one of the best ever, while Jackson lost his final two bowl appearances. But plenty also has gone down in the years since — including each QB going in the first round of the NFL Draft, Watson’s injury comeback with the Texans and Jackson’s rapid development with the Ravens in this, his second pro campaign.

This week, the rivals will meet again on the field, with each mounting his own MVP campaign. So who has the better case this time around … and why?

There’s no doubt that both QBs are near the top of the NFL’s pecking order right now. According to our QB Elo ratings, which judge signal-callers based on a rolling average of their (schedule-adjusted) passing and rushing performances, Watson is the second-best quarterback in the league behind only Kansas City’s Patrick Mahomes, while Jackson slides in at fourth behind Dallas’s Dak Prescott:

Watson vs. Jackson is an elite showdown

Current NFL quarterback rankings according to FiveThirtyEight’s QB Elo ratings, through Nov. 11, 2019

2019 Season
Rank Quarterback Team Starts Avg Start* Elo Rating (vs. Avg)
1 Patrick Mahomes KC 8 +144 +101
2 Deshaun Watson HOU 9 +99 +78
3 Dak Prescott DAL 9 +118 +73
4 Lamar Jackson BAL 9 +135 +70
5 Russell Wilson SEA 10 +101 +67
6 Matt Ryan ATL 8 +58 +56
7 Aaron Rodgers GB 10 +55 +47
8 Tom Brady NE 9 +51 +45
9 Drew Brees NO 4 +20 +45
10 Kirk Cousins MIN 10 +41 +41

*Average game-by-game QB Elo performance, relative to the NFL average for starting quarterbacks.

Source: ESPN

Watson’s higher rating is due in large part to his play in the first half of the year — but also because he went into the season with one of the top QB Elo ratings. (He was mashed between Tom Brady and Carson Wentz in last year’s final rankings, which mostly carry over to the following season.) Watson has been doing this for a while, ever since he exploded onto the scene as a rookie in 2017 with the fifth-best stretch of six starts to begin a career by any QB since 1950.1

As for Jackson, his average per-start Elo performance actually has been better than Watson’s (or anyone not named “Mahomes”) so far this season, even though he is slightly behind Watson rating-wise. That’s because Jackson started the season with an extremely low rating — 40 Elo points below average — which ranked 29th out of 32 opening-day starting QBs. Jackson has thoroughly exceeded those expectations, though. His 2019 ranks as one of the most improved first halves to a season by any QB since 1950, according to Elo:

Lamar Jackson is one of the most improved QBs ever

Biggest improvement in QB Elo (vs. league average) by starting quarterbacks in the first nine games of a season, 1950-2019

QB Elo vs. Avg.
Season Quarterback Team Preseason Thru 9 Starts Change
1999 Kurt Warner STL -87 +54 +142
2018 Patrick Mahomes KC -49 +82 +131
1962 Len Dawson KC -76 +54 +130
2007 Tom Brady NE +40 +167 +127
1971 Roger Staubach DAL -43 +76 +120
2016 Dak Prescott DAL -96 +22 +118
2007 Derek Anderson CLE -94 +23 +117
2017 Jared Goff LAR -124 -10 +115
1993 Boomer Esiason NYJ -70 +43 +113
2019 Lamar Jackson BAL -40 +70 +111

Sources: ESPN, Pro-Football-Reference.com

Because of Watson’s ongoing greatness and Jackson’s rapid improvement, the two QBs are essentially playing at the same high level — just in time to face off in the best QB showdown of the week, if not the entire season.2

When we broke down the original Watson-vs.-Jackson Heisman debate, we concluded that the difference between the two largely came down to a matter of preference: Do you want the more consistent passer (Watson), or the more threatening runner (Jackson)? Perhaps unsurprisingly, the same has held true in this year’s comparison.

According to ESPN’s Total Quarterback Rating data, Watson ranks second behind Seattle’s Russell Wilson in pure passing expected points added (EPA) this season, while Jackson ranks a more modest 15th out of 32 qualified QBs. Watson has the superior completion percentage relative to expectation (per NFL Next Gen Stats), the better completion percentage into “tight windows” of coverage, the lower rate of off-target throws and a slightly lower rate of interceptions as well. While Jackson is averaging slightly more air yards per throw, the metrics generally suggest that Watson remains the more sophisticated passer at this stage.

The tale of the elite quarterback tape

2019 NFL ranks in various quarterback categories for Deshaun Watson and Lamar Jackson

NFL Ranks
Player Pass EPA Air Yds/Pass On Target% Comp% vs Exp. Tight Comp% Sack% Rush EPA
Watson 2nd 10th 9th 8th 4th 20th 2nd
Jackson 15th 8th 19th 13th 20th 18th 1st

Ranks are among qualified passers — those with at least 14 pass attempts per team game.

Source: ESPN Stats & Information Group

But at the same time, Jackson has essentially made up the difference with his rushing ability, leading all QBs in EPA on the ground with 60 percent more value added than Watson, the next-highest ranked rushing QB. That’s why Jackson has a slightly better Total QBR than Watson so far this season, despite the latter’s edge in passing production.

But the razor-thin margin between the two — whether in QBR or Elo — basically brings us back to where we started with these two back in 2016, when they were college rivals in a dead heat. Back then, Jackson won the Heisman but Watson won the only head-to-head battle between the two as starters. Now they’ll get to face off again in the pros, in another clash of quarterbacking styles — and another chance to settle who is truly the best.

Looking Ahead: Week 11

Best matchup:3 No. 1 New England (-2) at No. 10 Philadelphia, 4:25 p.m. ET Sunday

In terms of pure matchup quality, Sunday afternoon’s PatriotsEagles tilt — a rematch of Super Bowl LII — is the best of the week. The Patriots are coming off a humbling 37-20 loss to Jackson and the Ravens before last week’s bye; it was the first time an opposing QB and offense had really exposed the Pats’ defense all season. It also opens up questions about how much of New England’s early-season dominance was the product of a weak schedule that gets much tougher over the next four weeks.4 Still, the Pats have the most efficient (schedule-adjusted) defense in the league, and they still have Tom Brady to face an up-and-down Eagles squad that hasn’t impressed when tasked with shutting down good QBs this season. Philly pulled out of its October crisis with back-to-back wins and has a prime opportunity to pounce on Dallas’s loss to Minnesota and solidify its NFC East odds with a win here. Still, despite the game being played at The Linc — where the Philly Special is immortalized in statue form outside the stadium — we give the Eagles only a 43 percent chance of replicating that Super Bowl win and knocking off the Pats here.

What to watch for in the NFL’s Week 11

NFL matchups for Week 11, ranked according to various factors

Matchup Rankings
Favorite Underdog Favorite’s Win prob Quality Evenness Importance QBs
17 Colts vs 14 Jaguars 52.7% 6 3 1 6
4 Chiefs at 18 Chargers 67.9 3 9 3 2
13 Steelers at 22 Browns 50.3 7 1 2 9
1 Patriots at 10 Eagles 57.4 1 4 8 3
2 Ravens vs 7 Texans 62.4 2 6 7 1
19 Bills at 28 Dolphins 60.6 12 5 4 7
12 Rams vs 15 Bears 65.3 4 8 5 8
5 Saints at 24 Buccaneers 68.8 5 10 10 4
20 Panthers vs 23 Falcons 63.2 10 7 9 12
11 Cowboys at 30 Lions 76.3 11 11 6 13
25 Jets at 31 Redskins 51.2 14 2 14 10
6 49ers vs 26 Cardinals 84.9 9 13 13 5
3 Vikings vs 27 Broncos 84.6 8 12 12 14
21 Raiders vs 32 Bengals 85.7 13 14 11 11

Game Quality is based on the Elo Ratings of both teams. Evenness is based on how close the game is to 50-50 pregame odds. A game’s importance is based on how much it swings the playoff odds of the teams involved. A game’s Quarterbacks are judged on the QB Elo ratings of the two starters.

Biggest playoff implications: No. 17 Indianapolis (-1) vs. No. 14 Jacksonville, 1 p.m. ET Sunday

Potential shift in playoff odds: 30.9 total percentage points

The AFC South has basically owned this section of the column this year, and Week 11 is no exception. This time, the crucial battle sees the Jaguars traveling to Indy to face the Colts in a game that could break the loser’s entire season. Indianapolis went from sitting pretty with a 5-2 record three weeks ago to a team whose playoff chances are in serious peril — and whose starting QB (Jacoby Brissett) has an unclear status for Week 11. Meanwhile, the Jags are potentially dangerous — despite sitting a game behind the Colts in the standings — with No. 1 QB Nick Foles returning from a collarbone injury that kept him sidelined since Week 1. We all loved the mustachioed magic of Minshew Mania, but QB Elo thinks Foles will make Jacksonville more competitive from now on, provided there aren’t too many residual effects from his injury. In terms of the stakes in this game, neither team can boost its playoff chances to any higher than 48 percent with a win, but whoever loses will see its odds become quite remote: If Indy falls, it will have only a 15 percent playoff probability, while Jacksonville’s number would dip to 7 percent with a loss.

Best QB duels: No. 2 Deshaun Watson (HOU) vs. No. 4 Lamar Jackson (BAL); No. 1 Patrick Mahomes (KC) vs. No. 17 Philip Rivers (LAC); No. 8 Tom Brady (NE) vs. No. 13 Carson Wentz (PHI)

FiveThirtyEight vs. the Readers

As a weekly tradition here at FiveThirtyEight, we look at how our Elo model did against everybody who made picks in our forecasting game. (If you entered, you can find yourself on our leaderboard here. I am currently in 407th place!) These are the games in which Elo made its best — and worst — predictions against the field last week:

Elo’s dumbest (and smartest) picks of Week 10

Average difference between points won by readers and by Elo in Week 10 matchups in FiveThirtyEight’s NFL prediction game

OUR PREDICTION (ELO) READERS’ PREDICTION
PICK WIN PROB. PICK WIN PROB. Result READERS’ NET PTS
SF 68% SF 59% SEA 27, SF 24 +8.6
DAL 54 DAL 51 MIN 28, DAL 24 +0.9
BAL 86 BAL 89 BAL 49, CIN 13 -0.8
NO 88 NO 89 ATL 26, NO 9 -3.3
OAK 51 LAC 51 OAK 26, LAC 24 -3.4
GB 71 GB 69 GB 24, CAR 16 -3.6
LAR 60 LAR 62 PIT 17, LAR 12 -4.3
IND 80 IND 82 MIA 16, IND 12 -4.9
KC 64 KC 68 TEN 35, KC 32 -6.9
TB 64 TB 57 TB 30, ARI 27 -7.6
CLE 50 BUF 56 CLE 19, BUF 16 -8.0
NYJ 63 NYG 53 NYJ 34, NYG 27 -16.5
CHI 81 CHI 53 CHI 20, DET 13 -21.6

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.

In picking against our Elo algorithm, it was kind of a rough week for the readers. The only big win against the computer was a smart hedge against the 49ers, who lost to Seattle in a classic battle Monday night. Otherwise, there were a lot more games like Jets-Giants and Browns-Bills, in which the readers paid for disagreeing with the model. And there was a bit of bad luck involved, too — Elo was able to crush the field by knowing Sunday morning that Matthew Stafford would miss Detroit’s game against the Bears. (Presumably, many readers failed to circle back and change their picks.) Overall, Elo won by an average margin of 71.4 points — a season high that was good for the model’s sixth-straight winning week.

Congratulations are in order, though, to Benjamin Thornton, who led all readers in Week 10 with 51.5 points — it was a notably low-scoring week, thanks to so many bizarre results — and to Aaron DiGenova, who once again leads the full-season contest with 674.7 points. Thanks to everyone who played — and if you haven’t, be sure to get in on the action! You can make picks now and try your luck against Elo, even if you missed Week 10.

Check out our latest NFL predictions.

The Good, The Bad And The Weird Of NFL Week 10

sara.ziegler (Sara Ziegler, sports editor): Week 10 is just about in the books, with one very good matchup coming still tonight. It was a week of surprise wins, including a Vikings victory that I 100 percent did not think was going to happen. In East Rutherford, someone had to win — and the Jets did!

neil (Neil Paine, senior sportswriter): I like how the Jets wore the black unis a week after that black cat ran on the field.

New mascot!

joshua.hermsmeyer (Josh Hermsmeyer, NFL analyst): Transparent pandering to the football gods.

The Giants are dead last in yards per play and EPA per play against zone defense this season. The Jets gave them a heavy dose, and Week 10 they were again at the bottom of the league in yards per play.

neil: Every year, I’m like, “Hmm, I’d better write that story about how long it’s been since both the Jets and Giants were this bad at once.”

And it somehow is never too late.

Salfino (Michael Salfino, FiveThirtyEight contributor): I’m trying to mentally block out this entire Jets season. But 13 Saquon Barkley carries for 1 yard is one of the weirdest stats ever.

neil: One yard!

Amazing.

joshua.hermsmeyer: Inches per carry is my new advanced metric.

neil: That’s 2.8 inches per carry.

LOL

Salfino: Is that really the math? Hilarious.

The Jets are great at stuff that doesn’t matter, like run defense.

sara.ziegler: I was all ready for that game to be unwatchable, but the thing about two bad teams playing each other is that it can be pretty entertaining.

Salfino: Daniel Jones’s passing was top-shelf, but you have to think his inexperience is causing issues with Barkley’s running, as it relates to just getting into good looks and out of bad ones, pre-snap. But I’m speculating.

neil: Just to close the loop on Saquon: In 1974, Benny Malone lost 3 rushing yards on 14 carries. That’s the fewest ever by somebody with at least 13 carries in a game.

But Barkley’s performance is up (down?) there too.

joshua.hermsmeyer: If I were also speculating, I’d say that there’s a real lack of creativity in the running game. Saquon is clearly #good, and if he was in a system that wasn’t so “2019 vanilla,” I think they’d have more success in the run game, especially against defenses missing all their linebackers like the Jets.

neil: Yeah. Gotta stop running those “1974 Benny Malone” plays.

Salfino: That’s funny because Malone had arguably the greatest run in postseason history.

neil: Wow. Some shades of Marshawn Lynch, who had the other GOAT playoff run, in there.

sara.ziegler: That’s an interesting point, Josh, and I think it brings up something people don’t understand about running backs.

It’s not that the running game doesn’t matter. It does!

joshua.hermsmeyer: The running game matters very much, Sara.

sara.ziegler: I think people miss that when we talk about individual running backs being less important to the game overall.

neil: Although sometimes that is difficult to reconcile with the fact that the average run creates negative expected points added.

Salfino: Does the running game matter, though? Look at San Francisco, with their defense giving up almost 5 yards per carry. I mean, everything matters and everything at the extreme matters more, but if I were building a team, Job 1 is passing and Job 2 is stopping the pass. I don’t care about Job 3.

joshua.hermsmeyer: Yeah, the points can get conflated. The other misunderstanding I see regarding the argument for RB replaceability is that it’s not a negative assessment of talent. It’s really about overall excellence and talent evaluation at the position. Finding good backs is a solved problem at the NFL level.

Salfino: Yet we must endure Kalen Ballage.

joshua.hermsmeyer: LOL

neil: And even Ballage averaged 5.3 yards per carry last season, his rookie year. Running backs, smh.

sara.ziegler: Speaking of Ballage, how about those tanking Dolphins!

Salfino: The only RB in the post-merger NFL with fewer yards per carry than Ballage through nine games, with a minimum 50 carries, is Ron Johnson of the 1974 Giants. See, 1974 is a theme today. Like it!

sara.ziegler: LOLOL

Did the Dolphins forget that losing is a key component to tanking?

neil: The Dolphins really blew their shot at the No. 1 pick. Now they have to leapfrog three other teams! According to ESPN’s model, Miami has only a 17 percent chance of picking first next year.

Salfino: Brian Hoyer thought he was tanking.

sara.ziegler: Easy mistake to make when you’ve played for as many teams as Hoyer has.

Salfino: Maybe Jacoby Brissett isn’t bad.

joshua.hermsmeyer: He’s slightly above average!

I think the issue with the Colts heading into the season was that they risked the 8-8 prison of mediocrity. It seemed like perhaps they would escape it with Brissett, but Hoyer may drag them back down.

neil: The past few weeks have been really rough for Indy’s playoff odds.

The Colts were 67 percent to make it and 47 percent to win the division two weeks ago. Now those numbers are 32 percent and 20 percent, respectively.

joshua.hermsmeyer: Whew.

Salfino: What are the Steelers’ playoff odds? What an amazing turnaround. I never saw that coming without Ben Roethlisberger. I really have no idea how they’re doing it.

neil: Yeah, somehow they are now more likely to make it than not! We have the Steelers at 56 percent.

sara.ziegler: And then there’s Pittsburgh’s opponent on Sunday, the Rams. Eek.

Salfino: Jared Goff has a lower QBR than Sam Darnold, and Jets fans are checking the return policy on Darnold. But Goff’s offensive line is banged up and has been bad all year. No catches for Cooper Kupp on Sunday? That’s almost as shocking as Barkley’s day. What is the problem here? Are the Rams just dead now?

neil: But I thought Sean McVay was a generational talent! Shouldn’t he be able to scheme out of this?

Salfino: I would think so, if he were worthy of his hype, yes.

joshua.hermsmeyer: I think that when the scheme experts break down the Rams’ season the conclusion will be that Bill Belichick (and Matt Patricia’s scheme) broke McVay.

And while analytics types like me sometimes say the league is inefficient, this is clearly an example of it being wildly so.

Salfino: Is there an RBs-are-not-fungible thing going on with Todd Gurley? They can’t find anyone to replace what he’s lost.

neil: So it turns out CJ Anderson’s playoff success didn’t prove that Gurley was just a cog in the machine after all?

joshua.hermsmeyer: Aren’t they running OK?

neil: Ehhhhh … they’re 23rd in rushing EPA per game, 22nd in yards per carry.

joshua.hermsmeyer: Yeah, bottom third. But ahead of the Patriots.

Salfino: Plus zero explosion in the running game.

neil: Somehow they are actually tied for 13th in net yards per passing attempt.

Salfino: But Goff’s QBR is trash.

neil: His TD-to-INT ratio sucks.

sara.ziegler: He looks lost out there.

joshua.hermsmeyer: Ah, I found the stat showing the Rams aren’t horrible at running: eighth in success rate, which relates to plays that generate a positive EPA.

That said, without the explosive plays, as Mike mentioned, that’s not a really fearsome part of their offense.

Salfino: Bigger disappointment: the Rams or the Cowboys?

sara.ziegler: Well, the Rams are down to just 25 percent to make the playoffs, and the Cowboys still have a 50 percent shot.

Salfino: Dak Prescott looked so unstoppable that I’m shocked the Cowboys lost. Jerry Jones has put up with a lot, but this might be a new standard. Dallas is just 5-4 with all this talent on both sides of the ball: They lead the NFL in yards per play and overall offense, they’re seventh in overall defense and they’re third in net yards per pass play gained minus those allowed (the two teams above them in that measure have combined for one loss). Has any coach ever won less with more than Jason Garrett this year?

Would you fire Garrett?

joshua.hermsmeyer: No, I don’t think you can. But I would certainly tell him to not meddle in offensive play calling.

Salfino: Cowboys are plus-81 in points. Yet 5-4. Do we give the coaching credit for all the stats or crush it for the meh record?

sara.ziegler: I think that as long as they make the playoffs, it won’t matter.

Salfino: Getting to Josh’s point, Dallas should abandon the run more because Ezekiel Elliott seems to have lost a little, and Dak and the passing game has passed him by. This should be Dak’s team now.

neil: For the record, Dak continues to have an amazing season. He ranks third in our Elo QB metric, behind only Patrick Mahomes and Deshaun Watson.

(Then again, both Mahomes and Dak played great and lost this week. Go figure.)

Also, the Cowboys lost to a GOOD TEAM.

aka Sara’s VIKINGS.

Salfino: Sara won’t admit it, but correct.

joshua.hermsmeyer: With a QB in the MVP discussion!

sara.ziegler: They’re FINE.

neil: Hahaha

Sara has an adjusted scale for the Vikings.

“Bad” = Average

“OK” = Pretty good!

“FINE” = Great

joshua.hermsmeyer: That scale is uniquely Minnesota.

Salfino: I think the Vikings have problems in the defensive backfield, but they somehow get away with it. Not just yesterday but more generally, too.

sara.ziegler: This game went a long way toward me getting my hopes up way too high before they are eventually dashed. So that’s fun.

neil: The thing I worry about for them is that they’re still not favored to win the division. We only give them a 34 percent shot.

So that means a wild card date and … probably some kind of season-ending kicking mishap.

😬

sara.ziegler: LOL, sigh.

neil: Trouble is, those darned Packers keep winning.

sara.ziegler: Green Bay impressed me on Sunday with one of those classic, snow-in-Lambeau wins.

neil: I love the snow at Lambeau. Is there anything more “football” than that?

joshua.hermsmeyer: Nope. There’s something very backyard football about it. It’s awesome.

Salfino: The Vikings are better than the Packers, but that may not matter in winning the division.

sara.ziegler: The Vikes get another shot at the Packers — and another shot at losing inexplicably to the Bears.

neil: Yeah, I think we said at the time that earlier Bears loss could haunt them.

sara.ziegler: ^^^ evergreen

Salfino: Can’t get excited by the Packers notching a home win against Kyle Allen.

neil: At least you can get excited about them stopping Christian McCaffrey in a game-deciding situation!

Salfino: Well, you want to put the ball in his hands with the game on the line.

neil: The Panthers certainly were determined to do that.

sara.ziegler: The game that confused me the most on Sunday was Saints-Falcons. Atlanta’s defense looked … good? How?

neil: That was basically the Falcons team that has been MIA all year. Or, like, two years.

Salfino: Drew Brees was sacked a Saints-high six times for the third time in his career, and they’re 0-3 in those games. He’s been sacked five or more times seven times, and they’re 1-6 in those. We all know sacks are bad, but few understand how truly terrible they are. They are like mini-turnovers.

neil: That was also the biggest upset of the entire season per Elo. It gave ATL only a 12 percent chance to win. (And that was knowing Matt Ryan would play.)

In fact, two of 2019’s five biggest upsets happened yesterday: The Falcons over the Saints (12 percent), and the Dolphins over the Colts (20 percent).

joshua.hermsmeyer: Well, it’s become increasingly hard to accuse Miami of in-game tanking.

neil: The funniest thing in the Falcons’ win was that Ryan didn’t even play very well. He only had a 78.5 passer rating.

joshua.hermsmeyer: Boo passer rating!

neil: I mean, it’s shorthand.

His adjusted yards per attempt was 5.06. Still subpar by his standards.

joshua.hermsmeyer: Yeah, that’s not great.

Salfino: Yes, Atlanta’s offense was generally underwhelming. They won the game on defense. Alvin Kamara did not look like himself off the leg injuries, and while Michael Thomas is super efficient, he does not produce a lot of points with big plays/touchdowns. The longest of his 13 catches was 18 yards.

neil: The Falcons have lost games where Ryan had passer ratings (I know, I know) of 145, 121 and 103 this year.

They win the one where he has a 79.

Salfino: Passer rating generally correlates pretty well to winning, FWIW.

joshua.hermsmeyer: Gase said recently that the Jets were sacrificing stats to try and win. Perhaps Matty Ice sacrificed his for the Falcons.

neil: Certainly he was having one of the all-time “great stats, no wins” seasons up to this point. Maybe he took on a Costanza Strategy?

Salfino: The 2019 Cowboys are one of the all-time stats teams without the winning.

neil: Nothing will ever top the 2010 Chargers, but we’ll see how close they can get.

sara.ziegler: To Josh’s point about the Dolphins and their lack of tanking, why are they starting Ryan Fitzpatrick over Josh Rosen? It’s bad on every level: You’re not giving Rosen the chance to develop, and you’re not actually losing games to get the top pick to replace Rosen next year.

Salfino: But who even is the top pick? I think that’s the problem with tanking in the NFL. I know Josh says it’s about draft capital throughout the draft, but then why does it matter that much if you pick first or fourth overall? Unless you want to trade the QB pick, then you clean up.

neil: Yeah, is Tua Tagovailoa really the clear-cut home run guy you tank for?

Salfino: And Joe Burrow is very old for a QB prospect. He’s older than Darnold, for example.

joshua.hermsmeyer: I’ve seen arguments that the Dolphins could still trade up, and perhaps that explains why they are less concerned with a smattering of wins this season. But I think there’s a simpler explanation: It sucks to be on a team that’s losing. I was talking to a guy with a team over the weekend and he said, “Man I get the tanking argument, but do you know how terrible it is to spend a year losing?” So living through that hell in the hyper-competitive NFL can take its toll. These two wins might be beneficial despite the loss of draft capital.

Salfino: Plus the coaches want to win. You tank and your career is probably over. The fans will demand it.

neil: I could see that. Baseball and basketball offer up more total losses for tankers, but the physical and emotional toll of playing football — destroying your body and losing — is on another level from those other sports.

Salfino: The Bengals are probably unintentionally executing the perfect tank. They snuck up on us.

Benching Andy Dalton was a master stroke. The Bengals are bageling for Burrow?

neil: Dalton currently has a higher QB Elo than Mitch Trubisky. LOL

sara.ziegler: Oooh, that Bengals game. At least it gave us a Lamar Jackson spin move for the ages.

neil: I loved this moment in the postgame presser:

Salfino: Ironically, the people who said Jackson is a great running back were right. He just also happens to be a quarterback.

joshua.hermsmeyer: * WR

Salfino: Oh, that makes zero sense.

neil: The lines between QB and RB are blurring in Baltimore. They used RGIII at RB yesterday.

Salfino: That’s going to mess up game logs forever, Neil.

joshua.hermsmeyer: I mean they said he was everything other than what he is: a great QB. Since we talked about passer rating, Lamar is the first QB since 2007 to have two perfect passer rating games in one season on his resume.

neil: At one point, they had three Heisman winners — Jackson, Griffin and Mark Ingram — in the backfield at once.

That has to be a record.

Salfino: Love that stat.

joshua.hermsmeyer: My only comment — and the only comment needed, really.

sara.ziegler: 😎

Check out our latest NFL predictions.

Happy Week 9 To The Ravens, The Chargers … And Maybe The Dolphins?

sara.ziegler (Sara Ziegler, sports editor): It was another wild week in the NFL. The nearly completed Week 9 saw a win for the Dolphins, a loss for the Patriots and FOUR losses for the NFC North.

Let’s dive right in: Anyone surprised that Baltimore took down New England?

neil (Neil Paine, senior sportswriter): A little bit. There was a stat floating around that Bill Belichick had won 21 straight games against QBs in their rookie or second NFL seasons.

And yet, Lamar Jackson had the best game of the week according to our QB Elo! His development this season continues to be incredible.

Salfino (Michael Salfino, FiveThirtyEight contributor): I was not surprised. The Ravens are a unicorn team that’s tough to prepare for and impossible to tailor a roster to stop. Most teams can’t replicate the Chargers’ plan during the playoffs last year, borne out of injury desperation, to play seven defensive backs on base downs. Plus you have a very vanilla Patriots offense in terms of skill talent with a QB who is playing well for a 42 year old, but, let’s be real, is having quantifiably his worst season since at least 2006 (in terms of QBR).

joshua.hermsmeyer (Josh Hermsmeyer, NFL analyst): I don’t think the Ravens feared the Patriots offense, and as Mike said, they have a scheme and roster that can give a defense fits — even a defense as outrageously good as New England’s has been. They also executed their plan perfectly. One play sticks out to me: the Marquise “Hollywood” Brown jet motion pitch play:

It had all the components of the offensive strategy: Make New England account for Lamar, use misdirection and really lean on some great blocking

Salfino: Lamar — with two rushing TDs and 61 yards rushing on Sunday — continues after Week 1 to score more fantasy points with his legs than with his arm, which is extremely unusual. He did it last year, too. Only Bobby Douglass of the Bears (1972, 1973) has repeated this feat since the AFL-NFL merger was completed in 1970, according to Pro-Football-Reference.com.

I do think that it’s a bad break for the Ravens that they had to face the Patriots in the regular season. You wanted this to be the playoff game.

sara.ziegler: The Ravens got off to such a strong start that it seemed to shell-shock the Pats a little. I was still surprised New England didn’t make it all the way back.

neil: Especially once the Ravens gifted the Pats the ball on that muffed punt — that felt like a here we go moment, where the Pats would start their climb back. And NE got within 4 points, but the Ravens kept answering in the second half.

joshua.hermsmeyer: Fumble luck regression really helped.

Salfino: That kind of stuff never happens to New England. The Patriots have committed only 13 turnovers that resulted in the opposing defense returning the ball for a TD since 2010.

sara.ziegler: It was also interesting to me that Belichick was faced with a fourth down on the opponent’s side of the field and chose to punt, and he had a fourth-and-goal from the one and kicked a field goal.

The Ravens went for it on fourth down in the fourth quarter, got the first down and then a touchdown on that drive, and that put it away.

Salfino: Well, Belichick doesn’t believe in analytics, Sara.

sara.ziegler: LOL

joshua.hermsmeyer: Less than zero

sara.ziegler: Just more evidence we can add to the pile!

Salfino: Belichick uses Bret Easton Ellis’s analytics. Or Elvis Costello’s, if you prefer.

neil: And his aim is usually so true!

sara.ziegler: 🤣🤣🤣

Salfino: Awesome, Neil.

sara.ziegler: From one analytics move to another, what did you all think about the Chargers **taking points off the board** against the Packers?? Green Bay stopped Los Angeles on the 2-yard line but jumped offsides on the field goal attempt, giving the Chargers another fourth down. L.A. coach Anthony Lynn pulled the field goal unit off the field, sent his offense back out and Melvin Gordon ran it in for a TD.

Salfino: The game was over, so I like the macho move to make a point.

Lynn can build a whole narrative around that now, and it was not going to cost him anything. So, worth it.

sara.ziegler: But … giving Aaron Rodgers an opening?!?!?!?

Salfino: Rodgers was hopeless before the “home crowd” in Los Angeles.

joshua.hermsmeyer: It’s not always “correct” to be aggressive, but you’ll be right far more often than wrong if it’s your default mentality. For that reason alone, I liked the call.

Salfino: But wasn’t that free money, Josh?

joshua.hermsmeyer: I haven’t looked it up, but my intuition is yes, it was a no-brainer.

sara.ziegler: I liked the call too, though up just two touchdowns with 10 minutes to go against Rodgers doesn’t seem like a situation where the game is put away.

neil: Maybe given the Chargers’ difficulty actually closing out opponents, though, you’d think they’d be skittish about giving somebody like Rodgers a potential opening.

Salfino: Yes, but Neil, you are forgetting the Chargers rules. They shock us by falling out of the playoff race and then shock us again by charging back into it (almost). This is part two of their annual metamorphosis. I refuse to be played again.

joshua.hermsmeyer: I am fairly sure based on discussions with analytics people around the league that the Chargers are not a team that has a chart and uses it. So I think the touchdown call was all gut, and on those terms I agree with it.

Salfino: It’s good that the Chargers reject analytics, otherwise they would be mentally crushed by all the win probability they have frittered away.

sara.ziegler: If the Chargers don’t get the TD there, and the Packers answer with a touchdown, you can see things falling apart fast!

This is why these questions are interesting, right?

joshua.hermsmeyer: I’d look at it as if it had been a great punt instead and just get after Rodgers at his own 1 yard line.

neil: Maybe you can trick him into pulling a Ryan Fitzpatrick and kneeling down in his own end zone.

joshua.hermsmeyer: LOL

Salfino: Rodgers was already on the slab, IMO. Toe tag in place for Week 9. He will rise again, I guess, but the Packers are not a good team.

sara.ziegler: You know who else in the NFC North isn’t a good team?

Trick question.

NO ONE in the NFC North is a good team.

Salfino: The Vikings are good, Sara. Sorry to get your hopes up. They just ran into Matt Moore!

Seriously, the Adam Thielen injury was crippling. Without him, they are pretty easy for even the Chiefs to defend.

sara.ziegler: I’m sorry.

You can’t say “They just ran into Matt Moore” about a good team.

Them’s the rules.

neil: “They just ran into Matt Moore” 🤣

Salfino: Moore is showing that playing QB in KC is very good for your stats. Also, seriously, the Vikings lost on a fluke 91-yard TD run by a guy who usually takes 45 runs to string together 90 yards.

joshua.hermsmeyer: I mean, if the QB drives the bus in terms of what makes a good team, then Sara is right. By total QBR, the Packers are 12th and the Vikings are 14th.

sara.ziegler: (BRB, pinning “Sara is right” to this conversation.)

I always think Kirk Cousins will do something amazing at the end of a game, and he never, ever, ever does.

Salfino: I agree on Cousins at the end of games. He’s like Matt Ryan in that regard: He can be relied on to not get it done. I know Ryan has a lot of fourth-quarter comebacks, but we need the batting average, not just the hits. And it turns out he’s lost 81 games by a TD or less in the period.

neil: Sheesh, you lose ONE Super Bowl after leading 28-3 …

sara.ziegler: Hahaha

Salfino: As for the other NFC North QBRs, the Lions — and Matthew Stafford — are sixth. We won’t talk about Mitch Trubisky.

neil: Sara probably has a lot to say about ol’ Mitchie!

But can we print it?

sara.ziegler: Trubisky, ugh. Can’t believe I had to start him in my fantasy football matchup against Neil. Let this be a lesson not to let jokes interfere with good fantasy football decisions.

Salfino: Just burn money in the street if you’re starting Trubisky in fantasy, Sara.

joshua.hermsmeyer: Or Allen Robinson, it turns out.

Salfino: Well, I believe in a QB-centric WR-ranking system. (And air yards :))

joshua.hermsmeyer: My man.

neil: And I started Cousins! (Because we traded them for each other.)

He may have lost the game, but he had a pretty good fantasy performance. Which, as you know, is all that matters.

sara.ziegler: Neil

joshua.hermsmeyer: oh noes

sara.ziegler: Shut up

neil: Lol.

Salfino: Sara gets the Price Is Wrong sounder.

sara.ziegler: Hahahaha

ANYWAY

One more game we must discuss, and that’s the incredible, amazing, UNBELIEVABLE first win of the season for the Miami Dolphins.

Mike … can you speak for Jets Nation and express your feelings at this one?

joshua.hermsmeyer: Yes, please.

I have a feeling this will be a treatise

sara.ziegler: “Salfino is typing”

Salfino: The most alarming thing for the Jets right now is Sam Darnold. But this is the product of so many losing drafts. The Jets have not had a hit in the first round of the draft, never mind the other rounds, since Darrelle Revis in 2007. And we’re talking a lot of draft capital. Another top-10 overall pick has just walked out the door in Leonard Williams.

joshua.hermsmeyer: Sixth overall selection for a third- and fifth-round pick. Yikes.

Salfino: The sad thing is that was a good trade for the Jets.

I mean, the Giants were insane to offer it. Now we have the Jets vs. Giants on Sunday in East Rutherford, which should temporarily be declared a toxic dump.

neil: Is it time to wonder whether Darnold is going to be any good? He had his moments but was mostly bad as a rookie and has been much worse this year. Maybe it’s still too early, but we’re 18 starts in and only five have been above average, according to our QB Elo.

joshua.hermsmeyer: I thought the game was really really interesting. There was another pretty glaring example (or two?) of Miami perhaps attempting to tank in-game, and yet Adam Gase and the Jets foiled them at every turn. The announcers even commented on it!

Salfino: It’s reasonable to wonder if Darnold is going to be any good, for certain. But if football is environment, and I think much of it is, he’s got a lot to overcome. Plus, who knows how long mono really lasts.

sara.ziegler: It’s really too bad when you can’t do the thing you’re trying to do … especially when that thing appears to be “losing.”

joshua.hermsmeyer: So frustrating!

neil: Well, idk why Miami continues to insist on starting Fitzy. They have a tank-ready QB right there in Josh Rosen.

sara.ziegler: Really not following the Tanking Playbook.

neil: TankBook?

sara.ziegler: Haha

neil: Either way, Fitzy has turned in above-average Elo games in two of his past three starts since being reinstated as starter. Rosen never came within 150 Elo points of being average in any of his starts.

And you know that Fitzpatrick runs hot and cold — so he has upside potential that really hurts your tankability when he plays well.

sara.ziegler: Need a new QB rating that ranks them by tankability. Just as a helpful service for tanking teams.

joshua.hermsmeyer: I’d like to go on the record that having a team or two tanking each season adds a bunch of entertainment value. Situations like this with the unexpected win, the team drama — all of it is good for the game IMO.

neil: Josh coming in with the pro-tanking take!

sara.ziegler: “Tanking = Good” was not the take I was expecting today.

joshua.hermsmeyer: The haughty anti-tankers reek of the folks that offer takes about amateurism in college football.

This is my fire for the week.

Salfino: I don’t think tanking can be leveraged in football because we don’t know if the QBs are going to be good or even what order to take them in.

neil: Right. First you Suck For Sam, then you just Suck Because Of Sam.

Salfino: My joke about the Jets, Sara, is the Jets lost to Glass Joe.

sara.ziegler: LOLOL

Check out our latest NFL predictions.

Which Of The NFL’s Top Teams Are For Real?

sara.ziegler (Sara Ziegler, sports editor): Week 7 of the NFL season is just about wrapped up, and we’re starting to see some teams separate themselves from the rest of the league. So this week, I want to talk about the current crop of top squads.

We currently have nine teams with at least five wins: New England, Buffalo, Baltimore and Kansas City in the AFC, Green Bay, Minnesota, New Orleans, San Francisco and Seattle in the NFC. The Patriots and Niners are undefeated, with the Pats yet to play this week at the moment. Are those two the best of the best right now?

joshua.hermsmeyer (Josh Hermsmeyer, NFL analyst): Not if you believe, as I do, that the best way to forecast a team’s future performance is its early-down offense. The only problem is that the No. 1 team by that measure — the Chiefs — just lost their MVP quarterback.

neil (Neil Paine, senior sportswriter): We still list the Pats as our top Super Bowl contender — what else is new? — at 26 percent to win it all. Our model has been a little slower to accept San Francisco (8 percent) as a true top contender. Maybe it’s because the 49ers have still really only played one opponent considered to be a top team — the Rams.

The rest of the Niners’ victims are pretty unimpressive: Tampa Bay, Cincinnati, Pittsburgh, Cleveland and Washington.

Salfino (Michael Salfino, FiveThirtyEight contributor): For sure, the Patriots and Niners are the likely No. 1 seeds. Both are firmly in control of their divisions. If I were to pick two other teams that are good bets to win the Super Bowl, or are at least in the conversation, it would be two NFC teams, though — Minnesota and New Orleans. Whichever gets the first-round bye is going to have a big edge. This assumes a healthy Drew Brees, of course, because let’s face it: Teddy Bridgewater just happens to be winning these games.

sara.ziegler: The Saints have to be thrilled with how well they’ve played without Brees, though — and last week without Alvin Kamara.

neil: Yes, I believe we (and everyone else) said that if Bridgewater could just keep them from sinking too far, or just keep them around .500, they could survive. Instead, they’ve been undefeated with him at starter.

Salfino: The Saints are like those old Patriots Super Bowl winners, pre-2007: just solid in every area. The only question is whether Brees can play near-peak form if needed in the postseason. Maybe the time off helps him maintain his play through the finish line.

Kamara is a generational talent, Josh.

joshua.hermsmeyer: * Chase Edmonds

sara.ziegler: * Latavius Murray

Salfino: We have to get Sara to talk about the Vikings, who are, I swear, legit Super Bowl contenders.

sara.ziegler: Mike.

No.

joshua.hermsmeyer: Agreed!

neil: Every week we do this.

sara.ziegler: They’re not.

neil: Cousins was great for a third straight week.

sara.ziegler: You guys.

Salfino: Captain Kirk is the first QB ever with three straight 300-yard passing games with a completion percentage of 75 and a passer rating over 130.

joshua.hermsmeyer: The Vikings are No. 3 in early-down offensive expected points added per play among teams with at least five wins, and they’re extremely well-balanced overall. I think they’re legit. Kirk can win them games.

They have to hope Thielen is OK, though.

sara.ziegler: Sigh.

Salfino: Cousins has made Mike Zimmer believe again in the forward pass, so, progress.

sara.ziegler: I think it was opposing defenses that did that.

Salfino: I worry, though, that Thielen will be out a month with his hamstring injury.

neil: Yeah, that’s a problem.

sara.ziegler: Though Bisi Johnson came out of nowhere to be a decent No. 2 wide receiver, behind Stefon Diggs.

Salfino: What a soft sell on Cousins by Sara. We’re all going to chip in and buy you the Cousins jersey.

sara.ziegler: I will not wear that.

LOL

Salfino: Revenge game on Thursday for Case Keenum.

sara.ziegler: What about the actual leader in the NFC North, Green Bay?

neil: Aaron Rodgers is ELITE again!

(We actually do rank him third among current starters in QB Elo.)

joshua.hermsmeyer: A-aron will win the MVP on the strength of one game — you know this is true.

neil: I was surprised that he had the first perfect passer rating game in Packers history, given the QBs they’ve had over the years. (Now the Jaguars and Panthers are the only teams who have never had one.)

joshua.hermsmeyer: I will stan for Rodgers — you put up those performances against Oakland if you are elite. Also, the running game is third-worst in yards per rush on early downs among teams with five wins. (Patriots and Chiefs are lower.)

sara.ziegler: I’m a little confused about why our model rates the Vikings higher than the Packers.

Salfino: The Vikings are much better at winning the passing game.

neil: Part of it might be that the Packers were coming off such a down season last year, too. Easy to forget we’re not even halfway into the 2019 season yet, so there’s still some amount of 2018 baked into the ratings right now.

sara.ziegler: (The Vikings weren’t much better. 😞)

joshua.hermsmeyer: The Ravens look pretty amazing, and Lamar Jackson needs to be in the MVP conversation, I think.

sara.ziegler: I was super surprised by the second half of the Ravens-Seahawks game. Baltimore just ran away with it.

neil: Such an impressive win for Baltimore. Going into Seattle, slowing down Russell Wilson — who is having an MVP-type season himself.

Salfino: Lamar is definitely in the MVP conversation. His approach is not a sustainable model with all that running, but it’s working now. His passing since Week 1 — measured in pretty much every way — has been “meh.” But who cares when you’re rushing for close to 100 yards a game. It seems like we — meaning football Twitter — all hate the run game but LOVE when the QB runs.

neil: We all grew up playing Madden 2004 with Mike Vick.

Salfino: Pete Carroll hasn’t been able to stop a running QB since Vince Young in the National Championship Game.

joshua.hermsmeyer: The Seahawks deserved to lose a game that was close for long stretches just based on their decision-making. Carroll likes to talk about keeping games close, as if it builds character or calluses, but it’s more a function of their lack of aggression on fourth down and an inability to maximize win probability.

neil: The 2019 Seahawks are kind of the same story as it’s been the past few years: Wilson is amazing, but the supporting cast — including, against brand, the defense — is questionable.

Salfino: Nothing came easy for Wilson and the offense. That’s the way things used to be with him and Seattle, but this year, that seemed to have changed. They were getting easy plays in structure without Wilson having to play like his hair was on fire. I think Wilson has aged out of being able to succeed when playing in a generally chaotic state. He should only be sprinkling it in now.

sara.ziegler: The Ravens have had kind of a weird season — losing to the Browns and barely beating the Steelers and Bengals.

neil: That win over Arizona in Week 2 is looking better and better, though. 😉

sara.ziegler: Haha — true.

Salfino: I was shocked by how well Baltimore’s defense played. I thought they were just a name brand and had lost too many people. But Wink Martindale has coached this unit up and then some. They looked dominant on Sunday. I think that was the biggest story out of that game, not Lamar. They need to add an edge rusher at the trading deadline, though.

joshua.hermsmeyer: There are football narratives I don’t really buy, but having a QB who can punish a defense with deep passes really does open up an offense. When Lamar has his deep ball working, I think the Ravens are tough to beat. All that said, there were two fluky defensive scores Sunday, so we need to temper our expectations a bit for the Ravens’ offense.

neil: Marcus Peters wasn’t enough of an addition for you, Mike?

Salfino: That was good, but it’s not pass-rush. They seem to really struggle there. As for Lamar, what’s interesting to me is that the Chargers solved him in the playoffs by playing seven defensive backs on nearly all downs when they were forced to because of injuries, just a couple of weeks after getting gashed by the Ravens in the running game. I guess this is not repeatable for teams because they are not going to construct a roster with all those DBs just to beat the Ravens.

joshua.hermsmeyer: That same defense was exposed the very next week, though.

Salfino: It wasn’t exposed by the Ravens, though.

sara.ziegler: Wow, remember when the Chargers weren’t terrible?

neil: OMG the CHARGERS

How many ways can a team find to lose games?

joshua.hermsmeyer: It’s sad! The Chargers seem like they should be good, kind of like a slightly better version of the Falcons, and yet.

neil: The Chargers have been doing less with more for a long time, but my goodness that game Sunday.

Salfino: Bigger football crime: Chargers moving from San Diego or not using the Human Cheat Code Austin Ekeler on more snaps? Ekeler had 118 receiving yards on eight targets. At RB.

sara.ziegler: Back to teams that are not awful, the other five-win team in the AFC is Buffalo. What do you make of the Bills?

joshua.hermsmeyer: A fermenting dumpster waiting for a match. Of the teams with five wins, they’re the only one with negative offensive EPA per play. I’m absolutely convinced their success is a mirage.

neil: Their defense remains legit on the season (fifth in EPA), but it’s never great to give up 21 points — and a pretty good QB game — to Ryan Fitzpatrick and the Phins.

Salfino: Fitz gave that game away with a pick after a first and goal inside the 5-yard line. A touchdown there would have made it 21-9 and “Murder She Wrote” for the Bills. But then, Josh Allen took them 98 yards for the 14-point swing.

neil: Yeah, that was a huge drive for Allen.

Salfino: Remember, the Jets would have beaten the Bills in Week 1 if Sam Darnold hadn’t been half-dead.

sara.ziegler: Yeah, that’s the only reason the Jets didn’t beat the Bills.

Salfino: “Spleen Talk,” Episode Six.

sara.ziegler: Hahahaha

neil: Can’t we talk about other organs for a change???

joshua.hermsmeyer: 🤐

neil: I will say this, Tre’Davious White is amazing. He made one of the INTs of the year.

joshua.hermsmeyer: Mike, I saw you tweet something about Jimmy Garoppolo not being able to hold onto the ball in the rain. I haven’t watched the full game yet — what was going on?

Salfino: He simply could not throw a spiral. It was bizarre.

The thing is, January is the rainy season in San Francisco. At least, it used to be.

sara.ziegler: When the field looks like this, you’ll take anything you can get, right?

joshua.hermsmeyer: Was Keenum any better? My prior right now is that Jimmy G is average at best.

Salfino: I was only paying attention to that screen when the Niners had the ball.

neil: I’ll give Jimmy G a pass for the conditions yesterday. But I keep waiting for one of two things to happen:

  1. a) Niners stop winning
  2. b) Jimmy G puts up a great stat game

Neither has happened!

joshua.hermsmeyer: LOL

Salfino: Jimmy G is like Teddy B.

neil: In our Elo QB ratings, Garoppolo has had a below-average start (adjusted for opposing defense) five times in six games this year.

The only good one was against Cincy.

Salfino: The Niners and Garoppolo seriously remind me of those early 2000s Patriots teams. They also spread the ball around, lack fantasy significance, are very well-coached and crush the opposing passing games. And they have a QB who is not lighting up the stat sheet but manages the game (pre-2007 Brady).

joshua.hermsmeyer: Interesting comp. Is 49ers head coach Kyle Shanahan up to the Bill Belichick comparison though?

neil: I look forward to Jimmy G’s stats finally taking off when they trade a fourth-round pick for Randy Moss Jr.

Salfino: How about A.J. Green?

neil: Haha. Green certainly deserves better than the Bengals.

Lowkey, they — and NOT the Dolphins — are last in our Elo rankings!

sara.ziegler: Ooof, Neil.

neil: Reminds me of how we all assumed that the Orioles would be the worst team in baseball, and the Tigers were like, hold my beer.

sara.ziegler: So, you guys bring up an interesting point: Which players out there would make these top-tier teams better?

Salfino: Teams that should go all in are the ones we started with, IMO.

The NFC is so strong that one trade can tip the balance between the 49ers, Saints and Vikings. (Notice I did not say the Rams, who already made their trade.)

joshua.hermsmeyer: The Niners should trade for Broncos fullback Andy Janovich to save their season.

Salfino: In the AFC, the team that’s screaming out for a trade is the Ravens. I would add Vic Beasley from the Falcons. A pure edge rusher.

neil: Seems like there are a ton of WRs potentially on the trade block.

sara.ziegler: NOT DIGGS, THO

neil: Well, beyond just Green, also Emmanuel Sanders, Mohamed Sanu, etc.

Maybe even Robby Anderson?!

Salfino: Julio Jones can’t be traded because of his contract. Of course, the Patriots desperately need a WR. They can be in on Green, too. The Chargers can’t dump. Tampa Bay should trade Mike Evans, if the cap permits it. They don’t need two lead WRs, and they can get two first-round picks for him. I do think teams can do pretty much whatever they want with the cap, if they put the pain off until tomorrow.

neil: Would love to see the Patriots acquire yet another name-brand WR before season’s end. Just for their full list of receivers for the season to be even more bizarre.

Salfino: There just are not a lot of WRs out there on the bad teams. Allen Robinson? The Bears are going to keep lying to themselves that they’re fine.

joshua.hermsmeyer: I agree that Mitch Trubisky probably isn’t good, but he’s coming off an injury, so this week probably isn’t the best time to finally declare him a bust

Salfino: Marvin Jones to the Patriots for a first-round pick? Only the third player ever with two four-TD receiving games since 1950 (Rice and Sterling Sharpe).

sara.ziegler: The Vikings should trade away Kirk Cousins — like I did in fantasy football.

😉

neil: Hey wait, Sara! I got Cousins from you and was happy with him! LOL

(Also, my regular starter was on bye.)

Salfino: Wait a second! Sara traded Cousins to Neil? How am I just finding out about this?

sara.ziegler: It was a classic Cousins-for-Trubisky deal.

neil: I also got a Chipotle lunch out of it.

joshua.hermsmeyer: Jelly.

Salfino: Steal.

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.