What To Make Of A Wild Wild-Card Weekend

sara.ziegler (Sara Ziegler, sports editor): The NFL’s wild-card weekend was magnificent chaos. It was the first year since 1991 that all four games finished within one score — and despite the many things that one-score games can mean, all of these games were legitimately close. And entertaining!

Let’s start with the upset that none of us saw coming: the Minnesota Vikings beating the New Orleans Saints in the Superdome. Can I just respond to all analysis in this chat with GIFs of Kirk Cousins yelling “You like that?”

neil (Neil Paine, senior sportswriter): LOL

Do you get to do that, though? You specifically didn’t Like That, for most of the season.

sara.ziegler: I’ve changed my mind.

Salfino (Michael Salfino, FiveThirtyEight contributor): Hahaha

To his credit, Cousins made a play — and Drew Brees could not really put anything together all game. You want to give credit to the Vikings defense, though, given how well Brees finished the season. Michael Thomas was barely a factor. The Vikings dared the Saints to beat them with Taysom Hill.

I think a story of this weekend is whether a quarterback in his 40s can be relied on in the postseason. Or maybe Brees randomly had a bad game. He seemed to miss a lot of open receivers, though.

sara.ziegler: Well, a quarterback in his 40s did win the Super Bowl last year

Salfino: Sort of. He certainly won the AFC Championship game.

joshua.hermsmeyer (Josh Hermsmeyer, NFL analyst): And Taysom Hill is 29, so…

neil: To be fair, the Vikings’ pass defense has been really coming on recently. Over their past six games, they’re holding opposing pass offenses to an average of 10.6 expected points added (EPA) below their usual output per game.

And they held New Orleans 11.9 EPA below their norm.

Salfino: But then you look and see that Brees completed 78.8 percent of his passes. But for just 8.0 yards per completion and no big plays. This was the one game where you wanted Sean Payton to use Hill more; usually I scream at the TV when he does it. And what does that tell you about Brees?

joshua.hermsmeyer: Nothing for me at least. He’s old, but he was his normal, excellent self all year.

neil: Btw Josh, that is so funny about Hill being almost 30. Commentators can’t stop talking about him like he’s this young, exciting new player, the next generation of Saints QBs after Brees.

He’s already at (or past) prime age for QBs.

joshua.hermsmeyer: Right, if his talent was so game-changing we would probably have seen more of it sooner. Or maybe the NFL is just really conservative and slow to change. I suppose both can be true.

Salfino: You would think that if Payton was going to turn to Hill post-Brees, like the announcers say, he would have done it this year when Brees was hurt.

sara.ziegler: Why use Hill when you have Teddy Bridgewater?!?

joshua.hermsmeyer: Teddy would have led the receiver better:

sara.ziegler: LOL

Salfino: The other thing about this game was that Alvin Kamara, who was maybe still hurt, could not make any of those big plays that had been a signature in prior years. He had zero 100-yard rushing games this year, just 21 yards on Sunday, and he’s averaged under 6.0 yards per catch in seven of his last eight games (just 4.3 vs. the Vikings).

sara.ziegler: What do we make of Cousins’s performance?

Salfino: Cousins erased a lifetime of narrative with one play. At least until next week.

neil: Does it, as Kyle Rudolph suggested after the game, put to rest the notion that Cousins can’t perform in big games?

sara.ziegler: It does not.

Salfino: No, it doesn’t. It’s not like he was aces from start to finish.

sara.ziegler: He made one great throw.

It was a beautiful throw, but it was one throw.

Salfino: It really was an amazing throw and catch. I was worried that the best of Adam Thielen was behind us, too, and he was vintage Sunday after really a nothing, injury-plagued year.

neil: Cousins played pretty well though! His 77.8 QBR was second only to Russell Wilson this weekend.

sara.ziegler: I mean, no QBs really played great this weekend, so that seems like faint praise, Neil.

joshua.hermsmeyer: I guess my frustration with Cousins bashers is that the complaint has always been that he can’t make that one throw, when his numbers say that he can and does all the time. So I think we have to just pack the whole “can’t win in the big games” narrative into a tight little ball and fire it into the sun.

Salfino: I think it’s fair to say that in the big games, Cousins plays too conservatively and doesn’t make the throw like he made to Thielen. The thing that is frustrating about Cousins is that he can make all the throws, the big-time, tight-window ones, but seems to hold back and check down too much. Plus, his coach acts like he doesn’t believe in him: Look at all the third-and-longs he was put into with early-down runs.

sara.ziegler: Look, I’m thrilled that he won this one, and I hate narratives, too. But he has not typically performed all that well when the big games were on the line. So I’m gonna need more than one success to change my mind.

Oh, wait, I already said I changed my mind.

joshua.hermsmeyer: Vikings fans, smh.

neil: You have to fight anecdotal, small-sample evidence with more anecdotal, small-sample evidence.

joshua.hermsmeyer: Only takes one time to prove never wrong.

sara.ziegler: LOL

neil: So true!

sara.ziegler: Anyone want to argue about the last play of the game? Should there have been offensive pass interference there?

neil: NO.

joshua.hermsmeyer: I’m fine with the no-call.

neil: It would have been ludicrous to do anything other than what they actually did.

Salfino: If they called it on the field, I could have lived with it. But to make it via replay would have been a joke. Now, it’s difficult for me to process why I think that. Maybe it’s just my anti-replay bias.

neil: That’s not bias; the (non-) call on the field specifically should take precedence!

sara.ziegler: They haven’t called that kind of contact all season, so it would have been ridiculous to call it there, in my unbiased opinion.

joshua.hermsmeyer: There was, I believe, a 6-inch height discrepancy between the receiver and defender, and P.J. Williams was giving away 70 pounds to Kyle Rudolph. The play wasn’t won or lost by the limited contact.

The real scandal was a fade route winning a game for anyone.

sara.ziegler: LOL, fair

neil: A generation of the fade route being broken in Madden has forever ruined the play. Bring back NFL 2K’s beautiful fade ball trajectories!

(Also, just like bring back 2K, period.)

joshua.hermsmeyer: Yes, Neil.

sara.ziegler: The other big upset of the weekend was Tennessee ending New England’s season — and maybe Tom Brady’s career there.

You know who the only member of this chat to correctly call that game was???

neil: I have a guess.

Salfino: Um, not me?

joshua.hermsmeyer: I shouldn’t have doubted Lord Tannehill, erm, Derrick Henry.

Salfino: I figured that Henry would run to nowhere, and Ryan Tannehill would spit the bit in the big spot, and that basically happened. What I did not see, but should have been obvious based on the entire season, was that Brady wouldn’t be able to generate points — even against a very inviting Tennessee defense. This game is over, IMO, if the Patriots score that touchdown in the second quarter after first-and-goal at the 1. That was the fatal error.

joshua.hermsmeyer: The Edelman drop at the end seemed to take the energy out of Brady and the team as well.

Salfino: Guys, how does EPA say that Tannehill contributed more to the Titans win than Henry?

neil: EPA hates rushing?

joshua.hermsmeyer: Well, not everyone doing analytics hates Henry.

Salfino: Where is the truth? Are those of us who watched the game and believe that the Titans could not have possibly won without Henry — that Henry was by far the MVP of the game — just wrong?

neil: IDK. Passing is inherently more valuable than rushing, so it kinda makes sense that a great rushing game would only be equal to an OK passing game. But Tannehill had a 38.8 QBR, so … not exactly OK.

The bigger takeaway might be that the Pats offense — and Brady’s performance, specifically — is broken.

joshua.hermsmeyer: I think that’s the conclusion we can all sort of agree on.

If you told Bill Belichick coming into the game that he’d give up 200 rushing yards but only 14 points, I think he’d take it.

neil: Including the wild-card game, the Pats’ passing offense was above average by EPA (adjusted for opponent) just once in their last nine games.

Salfino: Brady is not coming back from this. It’s been all year, basically. I know there are excuses, but Brady used to rise above excuses. He couldn’t really even manage that game.

neil: That’s the thing for me, Mike. A lot of Brady’s whole career mythos has been about rising above scattershot receiving groups. He has made due much better with worse in the past.

(He also had the King of Making QBs Look Good for a brief, magical spell, but that’s a different tale for a different time.)

sara.ziegler: So will Brady play again?

Salfino: I would hope that if he doesn’t come back to the Patriots, he just retires. Seeing him like this for the Chargers would be silly.

neil: Well, who would the Pats get who’s better than Brady at this point?

ELI??????

(Fingers crossed.)

Salfino: Would Eli be an upgrade over Brady? Nah.

joshua.hermsmeyer: I think Brady should retire, but I believe he will come back if the coaching staff stays intact and they add a stud receiver.

Salfino: Other than Los Angeles, where would he go? And Philip Rivers had 7.8 yards per attempt this year and is probably not finished at all. At least according to that stat, he has a lot more in the tank than Brady does.

sara.ziegler: Hard to picture Brady anywhere else, for sure.

neil: Could the Broncos bring in both Peyton Manning and Brady (and Flacco!) in the span of a few years? Maybe they can also someday get Nick Foles and Russell Wilson, to acquire every Super Bowl-winning QB from 2012-2018.

Salfino: The Broncos are seemingly very happy with Lock, as is football twitter.

sara.ziegler: The other upset of the weekend — according to Elo, at least — was Seattle over Philly, though that one wasn’t nearly as shocking as the other two.

Elo, of course, couldn’t have known that Carson Wentz would get knocked out of the game.

Salfino: I feel so bad for Wentz. That was a very dirty play, in real time.

You could tell something was wrong when he got up. All running QBs should be petrified by the refs saying after the game that the hit by Jadeveon Clowney was perfectly legit because Wentz was a runner.

neil: But it was good to see Seattle up to their usual tricks again, barely beating a team led by a 40-year-old literal high school football coach playing on one leg by game’s end.

“You don’t think we can keep it close with THESE guys? Then you don’t know us!”

joshua.hermsmeyer: A comfortable win? Seattle would never.

Salfino: Yeah, why were the Seahawks running so much? Fourteen first-down runs for 19 yards and only nine pass attempts from Wilson. They just refuse to use Wilson like they should. They should have tried to blow the Eagles out.

sara.ziegler: The Seahawks can’t help themselves — they just have to run.

Interesting that the score of Sunday’s game was exactly the same as the November matchup between these two two.

neil: 17-9 is exactly the kind of game these teams play.

Salfino: This was the JV team though.

neil: The Eagles also played a 17-9 game against the Cowboys between their 17-9 games against Seattle! The Seahawks or Eagles (or both) have been involved in each of the NFL’s last four 17-9 games. #FunFact

joshua.hermsmeyer: I’m glad Seattle won so we can see this rematch.

Salfino: The Packers are like the Seahawks. This is the Pythagorean Win Bowl. I mean, look at Green Bay’s differential: 63 points. They should have won nine to 10 games.

neil: Back in my day, playoff teams blew out weak opposition.

joshua.hermsmeyer: Right?

Salfino: I think the big reason for Green Bay’s point differential is that since 2014, Aaron Rodgers has slowly turned into Alex Smith.

Rodgers treats interception risk like it’s plutonium.

joshua.hermsmeyer: I think I’m rooting for Green Bay to implode so the McCarthy redemption is fully realized.

sara.ziegler: LOLOLOL

So let’s talk about the other playoff game, which might have been the most entertaining: Houston came back to beat Buffalo in a game that really set the tone for the whole wild weekend.

joshua.hermsmeyer: That game was nuts. Best game of the weekend, by far.

neil: Poor Buffalo. 😔

Salfino: This sums up my view on that game and Josh Allen:

sara.ziegler: Mike, I actually LOL’d when I saw that tweet.

I read it out loud to my husband and couldn’t stop laughing.

joshua.hermsmeyer: Peak Salfino.

Salfino: He seemed to go crazy at the end of that game. The lateral in that spot was maybe the most reckless play I’ve ever seen, adjusting for game situation.

And then he missed the easy throws in the second half, too, after playing flawlessly in the first half. Allen is all tools, no toolbox.

joshua.hermsmeyer: The opening drive was so creative and bold, and it showcased all the best parts of Allen’s game (like catching TDs instead of throwing them — hey-o). When he was forced to stand and throw, things got more dicey, and it was clear — to me at least — that Buffalo wasn’t heading deep into the playoffs with Allen playing at that level.

sara.ziegler: I’m still so confused about why Buffalo went away from that.

Salfino: You mean running Allen more, Sara? I agree. Also, way too much Frank Gore in that game for Buffalo.

The question for the Bills is whether you can learn accuracy. I can’t think of many (if any) examples, though. I think it’s like free-throw shooting, in that when you are bad early in your career, you usually don’t get much better.

joshua.hermsmeyer: Devin Singletary was a beast! So difficult to tackle.

I was getting frustrated on Houston’s behalf.

Salfino: The Bills have done a great job containing Singletary all year.

sara.ziegler: LOL

neil: Maybe the best Buffalo can hope for is that Allen becomes Andre Drummond, who had a 38 percent free-throw percentage in his first five NBA seasons and has improved to 60 percent since then.

But 60 percent still ain’t great. And Allen still ain’t accurate.

sara.ziegler: Were you at all impressed with Houston’s comeback? Or was this mostly about Buffalo’s collapse?

Salfino: Yeah, Allen’s collapse. But it wasn’t exactly shocking. Neither was Deshaun Watson eventually finding something.

neil: It seemed like a “here we go again” moment for Houston, harking back to their flop against Indy last season.

But they eventually flipped that script.

Salfino: Now Watson gets Will Fuller back, and he’s totally different with him, as is the entire Houston offense. So they could keep up with the Chiefs in Week 19, I think. I’m not predicting it, but it’s possible, despite how well the Chiefs D has played of late.

sara.ziegler: What a good segue into our predictions!

We did NOT do well last week, guys.

neil: In related news, home teams did NOT do well.

Home games are supposed to be a HUGE advantage in the NFL playoffs. Not so much last weekend.

sara.ziegler: Mike was 0-4, Neil was 1-3, and Josh and I were 2-2.

joshua.hermsmeyer: I enjoy this result. Ice up, Mike.

Salfino: OMG, 0-4? Sad. I was right on the Bills, but the game was wrong.

This is what I tell my bookie every week.

OK — on to Cincinnati.

sara.ziegler: So can we do better this week? Who y’all got?

joshua.hermsmeyer: BAL – KC – SF – SEA.

neil: Ugh, I gotta go chalk again. SF, BAL, KC, GB. Too many wide spreads because of all these damn upsets.

Salfino: BAL-KC-SF-GB (even though the weather forecast at Lambeau is not bad). Baltimore opened at minus-10, and that seems light. I thought 13.

And based on it dropping to 8.5 in one casino and maybe everywhere, it seems the early money is decidedly on the Titans.

sara.ziegler: You guys … can I take the Vikings? Can I pull that trigger???

joshua.hermsmeyer: Do eeet.

Salfino: Sara, you have to take the Vikings. You sort of came to their defense last week after Josh and I bailed. You don’t want to reverse jinx.

sara.ziegler: OK, OK — I’m doing it.

Baltimore, Kansas City, Minnesota, Seattle.

neil: Looks like you really do Like That after all.

Check out our latest NFL predictions.

What We Learned From A Very Confusing Week 15 In The NFL

sara.ziegler (Sara Ziegler, sports editor): Week 15 of the NFL season saw some teams clinch playoff berths while others watched their postseason hopes fall mere yards short. So let’s get into what we learned.

There’s a new No. 1 seed in the NFC, with the Seahawks jumping the Niners after San Francisco’s head-scratching loss to Atlanta. Is Seattle the team to beat in the NFC now?

joshua.hermsmeyer (Josh Hermsmeyer, NFL analyst): I continue to be worried about Seattle’s point differential. You’d like to see the Seahawks blow out a team or two, but they seem to be built to play exclusively close games.

Salfino (Michael Salfino, FiveThirtyEight contributor): Seattle seems more lucky than good. They’ve won nine games by 7 points or less, tied for the most ever after 14 games. And their point differential is more befitting an 8-6 team, historically, than an 11-3 one. The Niners, conversely, have to be one of the unluckiest teams ever, now having lost two games at the final gun and another in overtime.

neil (Neil Paine, senior sportswriter): That Week 17 Hawks-Niners game is gonna be good.

Salfino: The point differential difference between these teams would make the Seahawks winning the division over the Niners akin to the Pirates winning the 1960 World Series when the Yankees outscored them by about 247 runs in the Series.

sara.ziegler: I just don’t understand what happened to the Niners on Sunday.

Salfino: That game was totally on Kyle Shanahan. Maybe this is a function of coaching, and Pete Carroll deserves more credit for Seattle’s wins. Or maybe it’s pure dumb luck with a sprinkle of Russell Wilson magic.

joshua.hermsmeyer: I think it might not be totally on Shanahan. He was missing three key defensive backs, including Richard Sherman.

Salfino: But then why did he not go for it on fourth and 1 and instead leave the game up to his depleted pass defense vs. Julio Jones? A field goal that turns a one-score game into … a one-score game, with that much time remaining, has to be the dumbest kick in football.

joshua.hermsmeyer: I mean, you’ll never get an argument from me there. I just wanted to point out that the secondary is depleted.

Salfino: Yes — and that puts it even more squarely on Shanahan, who, to be clear, I generally think is a very-good-to-great coach.

sara.ziegler: So who is the best team in the NFC? One of these two? Maybe the Saints? The Packers?

neil: For what it’s worth, we still have New Orleans as the NFC team most likely to win the Super Bowl (13 percent), although we’ll see what they do at home against Indy tonight.

Salfino: I can’t see the Seahawks going to New Orleans in the playoffs and winning, though — but the Saints going to Seattle, which may be what happens, seems very iffy for the Saints, too.

sara.ziegler: Hey, the Saints already went to Seattle and won — and that was with Teddy Bridgewater.

Salfino: Very good point.

joshua.hermsmeyer:

I had to get some Packers shade in there.

sara.ziegler: I approve.

I still can’t figure out this Packer team at all. They keep winning … and keep looking kinda bad while doing so.

neil: Aaron Rodgers has kinda been not-so-great recently. For a while now, actually.

In his last six starts, five have been below average, per QB Elo.

joshua.hermsmeyer: Rodgers was fourth-worst in completion percentage over expected (CPOE) this week, ahead of only Tom Brady, Josh Allen and Drew Lock.

neil: “Ahead of only Tom Brady” is not the phrase you want to use to describe yourself these days.

Salfino: The Packers are another double-digit-win team that, like Seattle, could lose to any team in the field. We keep waiting for Rodgers to explode like in years past, but it’s just not there. It’s so weird to see this team being driven by running back scoring. With 17 TDs, Aaron Jones has scored the most of any running back with fewer than 250 total touches since the 1970 AFL-NFL merger.

sara.ziegler: I’m still not ready to count them out, though. Whenever they have a kind-of-mediocre season, they go ahead and win the Super Bowl.

(No, I haven’t forgotten 2010.)

neil: They’re being outgained this year (5,198 to 4,713) but are still 11-3. It reminds me somewhat of 2011, when they were outgained (6,585 to 6,482) and went 15-1. (And then promptly lost to the Eli Manning Giants in the playoffs.)

sara.ziegler: Elsewhere in the conference, the teams tied atop the NFC East both won on Sunday, but the Cowboys crushed the Rams, who are still (sort of) in contention for a wild-card slot, while Philly looked lackluster in beating Washington. Is this division now the Cowboys’ to lose?

neil: I can’t decide whether this is the universe conspiring to make a Cowboys’ loss to Philly be even more of a gut punch to Jerry Jones and friends …

Salfino: I assume our model expects the Cowboys to lose in Philly, right? The Cowboys put it all together on Sunday against a quality team, I guess (could debate that description of the Rams). They seem far more dangerous than the Eagles to me. Philly made Dwayne Haskins look like a polished vet for much of Sunday’s game.

neil: Our model does indeed have Philly favored at home.

Salfino: The Eagles being life and death against two teams battling for a top draft pick does not seem like a buy signal for their playoff prospects. I bet the money moves that line to Dallas -1 by Wednesday.

neil: Worth mentioning that it’s a division clincher for Dallas if they win, but they still have a 22 percent chance if they lose. (They’d need a win and Philly loss in Week 17.)

Salfino: The Eagles have proven they could lose to anyone, anywhere.

sara.ziegler: 🤣

neil: Facts.

Although Carson Wentz has been better the past few weeks!

Salfino: But I do think we have to give Wentz credit for MacGyvering this offense somehow with such poor receivers. Their wideouts have been worse than the Patriots’ the past two weeks, and he’s somehow scoring. OK, they do have two quality tight ends.

sara.ziegler: Was anyone else kind of astonished at how the Cowboys came out against the Rams?

neil: A little bit. Although we’ve been down on the Rams most of the season, too.

joshua.hermsmeyer: I wasn’t really. What has surprised me this season is their record, given how well they’ve played on offense. They’re second in EPA per play on offense. Games like Sunday should have happened more often this year.

Salfino: I’ve been sort of waiting all year for the Cowboys to have this game. But I figured there was no chance of it anymore, given that they reportedly had Dead Man Walking at head coach. Yet here we are: They played a pretty much perfect game and seem dangerous.

sara.ziegler: Right — I thought they had kind of given up on Jason Garrett. Maybe I buy into the NFL Narrative (TM) too much.

Salfino: Exactly. I hate when I buy narratives, but they are so seductive!

sara.ziegler: Hahaha

Over in the AFC, the Bills are legit, with a convincing win over the Steelers on Sunday night. Buffalo has New England in Week 16. Do the Bills need to beat the Pats to prove themselves as a contender?

joshua.hermsmeyer: The Bills … are legit?

neil: Playoff bound!

Big deal for a team that’s only made it one other time since 1999.

sara.ziegler: They’re playing well! They even looked good against the Ravens last week!

Salfino: I have thought for weeks that they are the poor man’s Ravens. But Lamar Jackson is just so much better than Josh Allen, whether it’s him or the coaching (very likely him).

joshua.hermsmeyer: If the Bills move Allen to wide receiver, I think they might make some noise in the playoffs.

Salfino: If Allen had just been a game manager in the Bills’ last meeting with the Patriots, the Bills would have won. But this is the problem with the Bills. When he’s not turning the ball over, Allen is failing to make basic NFL throws. He’s a high-variance QB and actually, I believe, a bad fit for a team like this. (In fairness, Allen was knocked out of that game early after being hit in the head, but not before he threw three picks.)

joshua.hermsmeyer: But a completion percentage 14 percentage points below expected in Week 15 is Not Great.

Salfino: Seriously, the Bills would be better off trying to have Allen run for 75 yards per game.

But Allen is more of a power runner like Cam Newton than a gifted runner like Jackson. So maybe his injury risk with this volume is too great.

sara.ziegler: So … will the Bills beat the Pats?

Salfino: Nope.

joshua.hermsmeyer: Nah.

Our model has the game at 68 percent for the Pats.

sara.ziegler: NO ONE wants to take a flier on the Bills? 😔

neil: I will say this: That’s the lowest win prob the Pats have had at home against the Bills since Matt Cassel was starting for New England.

The Pats look vulnerable at home … by Pats-Bills standards

Starting quarterbacks, Elo ratings and pregame win probabilities for the last 12 Patriots home games against the Bills, 2008-19

Patriots Bills
Date Starter QB Adj. Effective Elo Starter QB Adj. Effective Elo NE Win% NE Won?
12/21/2019 Brady -28 1645 Allen +11 1572 68% ???
12/23/2018 Brady +2 1626 Allen +49 1418 82
12/24/2017 Brady -8 1694 Taylor +10 1509 80
10/2/2016 Brissett -52 1593 Taylor +2 1505 70
11/23/2015 Brady +20 1733 Taylor -27 1523 80
12/28/2014 Brady +12 1739 Orton +13 1513 84
12/29/2013 Brady -4 1669 Lewis -59 1398 87
11/11/2012 Brady +17 1702 Fitzpatrick +6 1465 86
1/1/2012 Brady +20 1736 Fitzpatrick 0 1399 91
9/26/2010 Brady +8 1558 Fitzpatrick +5 1387 79
9/14/2009 Brady +22 1663 Edwards +3 1470 81
11/9/2008 Cassel -125 1555 Edwards +3 1483 68

Salfino: The Patriots are another team that’s probably going to have a first-seed-level record (13-3?) that also could lose to anyone. We don’t even note another bad game from Brady (by Brady standards) anymore. It’s expected. Even against the Bengals. The difference is that even the-circus-has-left-town Brady isn’t going to lose his team a game. Allen will.

sara.ziegler: The AFC South is clearer now after Houston beat Tennessee. Tennessee isn’t out of it, given that these teams play again in two weeks (seriously, schedulers?), but the Titans’ road is much harder. What are their chances of getting into the playoffs at all?

Salfino: Ryan Tannehill sort of regressed into being Ryan Tannehill at the worst possible time. I think the Jets beat the Steelers and both teams in the South make the playoffs.

sara.ziegler: Ooooh, 🔥 prediction.

Salfino: Is that even a hot take though? Duck Dodgers is TERRIBLE.

(I mean “Hodges,” but I can’t get the cartoon out of my head when I hear his name.)

sara.ziegler: LOLOL

neil:

Salfino: Seriously, what’s the Jets’ win probability, Neil?

neil: It’s 46 percent! Pretty good by Jets standards.

joshua.hermsmeyer: Duck’s QBR over the past three weeks is only slightly worse than Tom Brady’s. Terrible indeed.

sara.ziegler: Ouch.

Salfino: The Brady passive-aggressive takes are fire.

neil: Among the dregs of the AFC playoff picture — that is, the teams fighting for that sixth spot — Tennessee (1576 Elo) is the only one our ratings even thinks is above average.

It would kind of be tragic if a team as bad as Pitt or Indy (Cleveland? Oakland?? LOL) makes it over the Titans.

joshua.hermsmeyer: The Titans are a fun team to watch, and they have an entertaining coach. I hope they make the playoffs as well.

Salfino: A.J. Brown: 2020 Fantasy Football League Winner. Just got him at 4-1 in a mock draft. That dude looks like the cartoon receivers with superhero bodies in the old “NFL Blitz.”

joshua.hermsmeyer: Great comp. He’s good D.K. Metcalf.

Salfino:

neil: (Love that the Dreamcast makes an appearance in our chat, btw.)

Salfino: It was worth every dollar!

neil: The Kirk Cousins of consoles.

joshua.hermsmeyer: I saw a clip on Twitter where Derrius Guice didn’t think NFL 2K existed. SMH, millennials.

neil: Oh, no. He lives in a Madden-only reality?

😬

sara.ziegler: I look away for two minutes and this is where this chat went?

Amazing.

joshua.hermsmeyer:

He gave Adam some side eye.

neil: SMH

Check out our latest NFL predictions.

How Do You Find Good NFL Defenders? By Measuring What’s Not There.

The New England Patriots’ Stephon Gilmore is widely considered one of the best cornerbacks in the NFL. Through Week 11, he had given up a 47.1 passer rating when targeted this year — to put that into perspective, a 39.6 passer rating is awarded to a quarterback who spikes the ball on every play. (Through Week 11, no qualifying starting QB in 2019 had a passer rating lower than 70.) Because of his prowess, offensive coordinators and QBs don’t even look his way: Of the 326 passing attempts against the Patriots this year, only 64 (19.6 percent) came against Gilmore.

When it comes to measuring this aspect of defensive performance, we’re only beginning to scratch the surface. That’s because individual defense is inherently difficult to assess: A player’s defensive impact may be more significant in the absence of activity, but we can only count things that do happen. To measure a defensive player, we’re always chasing ghosts, trying to count things that don’t.

But thanks to the NFL’s Next Gen Stats tracking data — and the impressive work of researchers such as Baltimore Ravens personnel analyst Sarah Mallepalle2 — we can visualize that absence of activity.

A useful example involves where on the field opponents choose to attack a defense. Every week, coaches huddle around game film, analyzing defensive schemes and players, planning how to exploit what they see. The results of that game-planning show up in the tracking data. Here are charts that show where every team’s pass defense was the most and least vulnerable in the first eight weeks of the season:3

The charts shown are scaled from blue to white and white to red, with red representing the locations where offenses attempted the most passes against the defenses, blue representing the fewest pass attempts and white representing the average number of passes. In theory, the blue areas are places where the absence of activity reveals defensive strength.

In practice, it’s more complicated to solve the problem than simply plotting the distribution of all passing attempts or completions. Some offenses pass in unique ways because of their schemes and the skill sets of their quarterbacks and receivers. Take the Seattle Seahawks, for example:

Seattle QB Russell Wilson’s pass attempts are skewed to the left.4 Why? This is likely because of the inability of D.K. Metcalf, the Seahawks’ rookie wide receiver and 2019 second-round pick, to run a full tree of routes. During the season’s first two weeks, he was targeted only while lining up on the left side of the field. Through the first half of the season, Metcalf had been targeted 45 times, and only 10 were on the right side of the field.

Given that the Seattle passing attack is skewed, we don’t want to penalize any defense’s right side5 just because those defenders had to match up against Metcalf. So to normalize for an opposing offense’s usual tendencies, I compared an offense’s pass distribution against the defense in question with that offense’s distributions against the other defenses it has faced during the 2019 season. We can consider the difference to be the defense’s relative effect on a typical offense’s gameplan.

Let’s take a deeper look at the Buffalo Bills.

The Bills defense has been outstanding, giving up 304.1 total yards and 197.8 passing yards per game through Week 11 — third best in the league in both categories. But we can see a clear disparity in how opposing offenses are attacking starting cornerbacks Tre’Davious White and Levi Wallace. White’s reputation and production seem to have discouraged offenses from throwing in his direction. So far this season, White has given up a 58.9 passer rating on 66 targets, compared with a 101.2 passer rating on 79 targets for Wallace.

The beauty of the Bills’ defense is that their star cornerbacks don’t “shadow” or follow specific opposing WRs wherever they line up. Instead, they mainly stay on one side of the field, no matter who lines up there. Through Week 8, White had lined up on the left side of the field for 97 percent of his snaps, and Wallace lined up on the right side of the field for 96 percent of his snaps.

Our chart reflects that, as well as which cornerback scares off opposing QBs and where on the field that is. Opposing offenses target the left side of the field significantly more against Buffalo (to challenge Wallace, the weaker corner) than when they play against other defenses.

This approach to analyzing defense assumes that teams react rationally to defensive weaknesses they see on tape. That assumption may not always hold true, but taking note of changing tendencies is still one of the best ways to look for those hidden absences of activity that are key to identifying good individual defense.

We still don’t know if these splits have any predictive power. But this is the next logical step in understanding passing: analyzing the horizontal level. At a minimum, these new visualizations provide an interesting new insight into how offenses change in order to attack defenses.

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.