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.

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.

Philip Rivers Has The Supporting Cast He Deserves Again

Conventional NFL wisdom says teams should do whatever it takes to snag a Franchise Quarterback™ — that from there, the winning just takes care of itself. But for most of Philip Rivers’s career, his Los Angeles (née San Diego) Chargers have been the exception to that rule. Taken fourth overall in the 2004 draft, Rivers has been the elite passer that teams dream about building around. And yet, his team has just four total playoff wins to show for it, including only one this decade.

This year, though, Los Angeles looks poised to reverse that trend and actually capitalize on having a future Hall of Fame QB in its midst, while there’s still time left in Rivers’s career to do it. The Chargers walloped the Browns 38-14 in Cleveland last Sunday, bringing their record to 4-2 on the season — and giving them a 61 percent probability of making their first playoff appearance since 2013. Although L.A.’s postseason bid is far from assured, right now the Chargers have set themselves up with their most promising start to a season in a long time.

This Charger renaissance has been building for a few years, since the team finally began surrounding Rivers again with better playmakers on both sides of the ball. On defense, that goes back to 2012, when former general manager A.J. Smith drafted pass-rusher Melvin Ingram 18th overall. After a slow start to his career, Ingram has blossomed into a Pro Bowler and an annual double-digit sack candidate. Under Smith’s successor, Tom Telesco, the Chargers have also grabbed several defensive contributors through the draft, including sack-machine DE Joey Bosa,17 solid LB Denzel Perryman, up-and-coming CB Desmond King II and rookie S Derwin James (who, in his first season, already ranks as the NFL’s fifth-best safety according to ProFootballFocus’s player grades). Toss in outside pickups such as DT Brandon Mebane and CB Casey Hayward — another Pro Bowler from last season — plus the guidance of proven coordinator Gus Bradley, and the Chargers’ defensive talent base has undeniably made strides over the past handful of seasons.

On offense, Telesco also made key acquisitions that helped pave the way for this year’s hot start when he took WR Keenan Allen in the third round of the 2013 draft and RB Melvin Gordon 15th overall in 2015. Picking first-round running backs is always tricky business, but Gordon has been a good one so far in his career, with a couple of 1,400-yards-from-scrimmage seasons under his belt (in 2016 and 2017) and an excellent start to 2018 as well. Meanwhile, Allen has taken the lead from top San Diego-era targets Malcom Floyd and Antonio Gates and forged his own chemistry with Rivers — only four receivers leaguewide have more yards through the air since 2017 than Allen does. (It also helps that Allen has stayed healthy these past two seasons after missing 23 combined games in 2015-16.) Allen and Gordon aren’t the only teammates making Rivers’s life easier: The offensive line has been much better with free-agent C Mike Pouncey anchoring the middle, while change-of-pace RB Austin Ekeler has proven himself exceptionally tough to bring down — he leads all RBs in yards after first contact per rush. More broadly, in its second year under head coach Anthony Lynn, Los Angeles now has the offensive pieces to beat teams in multiple ways.

Add it all up and it’s clear that Rivers, who turns 37 in December, has a much better group of talent around him to work with than in years past. Here’s a look at the changes in Rivers’s own production over time — as measured by his Yards Above Backup Quarterback (YABQ) — along with how his top skill-position teammates and defense have also evolved:

Philip Rivers is great again — and he has help

Los Angeles Chargers’ production from quarterback Philip Rivers and his supporting cast, 2006-2018

Season Rivers YABQ/G Top RB YdSc/G Top Rec. YdSC/G Team Def. efficiency
2018 99.2 M. Gordon 124.2 K. Allen 80.0 54.9
2017 75.1 M. Gordon 98.8 K. Allen 87.6 63.0
2016 31.8 M. Gordon 88.5 T. Williams 66.2 51.1
2015 48.3 D. Woodhead 68.2 K. Allen 45.3 38.6
2014 45.7 B. Oliver 53.3 M. Floyd 53.5 42.8
2013 79.6 R. Mathews 90.3 K. Allen 65.4 32.2
2012 -3.9 R. Mathews 59.9 M. Floyd 50.9 55.4
2011 48.0 R. Mathews 96.6 V. Jackson 72.3 33.2
2010 77.1 M. Tolbert 59.4 A. Gates 48.9 64.3
2009 97.0 L. Tomlinson 55.3 V. Jackson 73.6 46.4
2008 86.5 L. Tomlinson 96.0 V. Jackson 72.9 38.7
2007 26.4 L. Tomlinson 121.8 A. Gates 61.5 62.6
2006 58.5 L. Tomlinson 145.2 A. Gates 57.8 61.1

Per-game measures are relative to team schedule lengths, not individual games played.

YABQ: Yards Above Backup Quarterback, a measure of QB performance that gives credit for passing and rushing, and adjusts for strength of schedule.

YDSC: yards from scrimmage, or rushing yards plus receiving yards.

Defensive efficiency: ESPN’s measure of a defense’s per-play effectiveness on a 0-100 scale.

Source: ESPN Stats & Information Group, pro-Football-Reference.com

It probably isn’t a coincidence that Rivers is currently enjoying his best statistical performance in years, with Gordon and Allen also contributing more than any Charger rusher and receiver since the days of LaDainian Tomlinson and Vincent Jackson. It’s a little circular, in that sense: Is Rivers making them better, or are they helping Rivers rediscover his form? (Gordon’s ability to run against stacked defenses, for instance, has opened up space for Rivers to throw downfield.) Either way, the ingredients have been in place for a late-career QB rejuvenation. Right now, Rivers is on pace to tie for the ninth-most-efficient post-merger performance for a passer age 35 or older, according to Pro-Football-Reference.com’s advanced passing index. As far as old-man QB seasons go, this is one of the best in history.

Of course, with the Chargers, it’s about more than just improved talent. It’s also about execution, something this team has often been found sorely lacking over the years. As Mike Tanier wrote in his L.A. chapter for Football Outsiders’ 2018 Almanac, you could make a pretty convincing case that the 2017 Chargers missed the playoffs because of two very fundamental football activities: tackling and kicking. Last year, Los Angeles let opponents break tackles at an incredible rate and missed numerous field goals and extra points, helping to turn a team with 10-and-a-half-win point differential into a sad-sack nine-game-winner.

This year’s place-kicking game hasn’t been great (Caleb Sturgis made just 71 percent of his total field goals and extra points before he was sidelined by an injury), but it’s no longer dead-last in football, which I suppose is an accomplishment. Plus, the Chargers rank among the best in the league in terms of kickoffs, a big reason for their fourth-ranked net starting field position. And as for the tackling woes, they appear to be a thing of the past. According to Football Outsiders’ charting data, only 3.9 percent of plays by Charger opponents have seen a broken tackle, good for 10th best in the league this year. Relatedly, the Chargers are also allowing the league’s sixth-lowest rate of yards after first contact per rush this season, another major sign of defensive progress as compared with last season.

The Chargers must have practiced their tackling

Los Angeles Chargers’ defensive performance and league ranking in preventing opponents from breaking tackles or gaining yards after contact

Year Broken tackles/play NFL Rank Opponents’ yards after 1st contact/rush NFL Rank
2018 3.9% 10 1.56 6
2017 13.3 31 2.31 32

Source: Football Outsiders, ESPN Stats & Information Group

Los Angeles will put its improved talent and newfound execution on display in London on Sunday, for a game against the Tennessee Titans that ranks among the best of Week 7 in terms of both matchup quality (i.e., the harmonic mean of the two teams’ Elo ratings in each game) and how much it figures to swing either team’s odds of making the playoffs:

The best matchups of Week 7

Week 7 games by the highest average Elo rating (using the harmonic mean) plus the total potential swing for the two teams’ playoff chances, according to FiveThirtyEight’s NFL predictions

Playoff % Playoff %
Team A Current Avg. Chg* Team B Current Avg. Chg* Total Change Game Quality
CAR 43.4% ±12.8 PHI 64.2% ±12.2 25.0 1586
LAC 60.6 14.6 TEN 41.3 12.6 27.2 1524
WSH 38.8 16.3 DAL 40.2 16.2 32.6 1517
BAL 68.7 11.5 NO 72.2 9.7 21.1 1605
CHI 43.0 12.2 NE 78.4 9.0 21.3 1560
CIN 49.6 11.2 KC 95.8 3.6 14.8 1575
JAX 46.7 13.8 HOU 23.6 12.9 26.7 1470
MIA 42.8 12.6 DET 24.3 9.8 22.4 1496
MIN 57.0 13.4 NYJ 14.7 7.1 20.5 1513
LAR 95.8 3.3 SF 3.1 2.8 6.1 1512
ATL 27.7 6.5 NYG 1.2 1.0 7.5 1454
BUF 10.2 5.7 IND 4.1 2.3 8.0 1417
DEN 3.8 2.6 ARI 1.4 0.8 3.4 1418
TB 20.7 5.6 CLE 1.1 1.0 6.6 1394

Game quality is the harmonic mean of the Elo ratings for the two teams in a given matchup.

*Average change is weighted by the likelihood of a win or loss. (Ties are excluded.)

Source: ESPN.com

For the Chargers, it’s part of a long road trip that will keep them away from Southern California until Nov. 18. The StubHub Center doesn’t exactly offer an intimidating advantage even when they are at home, but it does bear watching how L.A. manages all that travel. Even so, the Chargers’ season will still probably hinge on the final few matchups of the season — their last five games are either against division rivals or the biggest threats to their wild-card chances. If Rivers and his improved supporting cast can continue to thrive up to and including the month of December, we’ll know the Chargers have stamped their ticket back to the postseason and given their star QB at least one more chance to shine on the game’s brightest stage.

FiveThirtyEight vs. the readers

Attention football fans! Be sure to check out our constantly updating NFL prediction interactive, which uses FiveThirtyEight’s Elo ratings to forecast the rest of the season. And if you think you can outsmart Elo, step right up to our prediction game, which lets you pick against our model (and your fellow readers) for bragging rights and a place on our giant leaderboard.

Here are the games where Elo made its best — and worst — predictions against the field of prognosticators last week:

Elo’s dumbest (and smartest) picks of Week 6

Average difference between points won by readers and by Elo in Week 6 matchups in FiveThirtyEight’s NFL prediction game

OUR PREDICTION (ELO) READERS’ PREDICTION
PICK WIN PROB. PICK WIN PROB. Result READERS’ NET PTS
BUF 52% HOU 60% HOU 20, BUF 13 +9.4
TEN 53 BAL 54 BAL 21, TEN 0 +4.8
GB 66 GB 75 GB 33, SF 30 +3.3
LAR 69 LAR 75 LAR 23, DEN 20 +1.2
CIN 54 CIN 51 PIT 28, CIN 21 +1.2
MIN 74 MIN 79 MIN 27, ARI 17 +0.9
ATL 67 ATL 64 ATL 34, TB 29 -3.9
SEA 67 SEA 63 SEA 27, OAK 3 -4.4
CAR 55 CAR 58 WSH 23, CAR 17 -5.3
PHI 71 PHI 66 PHI 34, NYG 13 -5.4
NE 54 NE 50 NE 43, KC 40 -6.2
LAC 69 LAC 60 LAC 38, CLE 14 -9.1
NYJ 67 NYJ 57 NYJ 42, IND 34 -9.9
MIA 54 CHI 59 MIA 31, CHI 28 -15.4
DAL 53 JAX 60 DAL 40, JAX 7 -16.2

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.

What’s been a great season for Elo kept getting better in Week 6 as the algorithm beat the average reader by 55 points, its second-best showing of the entire year so far. Human predictors really only had one major feather in their cap — Houston’s Nathan Peterman-fueled win over Buffalo (a very bad team whose badness Elo refuses to acknowledge) — but otherwise they saw Elo run roughshod over their picks. Elo correctly called wins for Dallas and Miami when readers picked otherwise, and it had a lot more confidence than readers in the Jets’ and Chargers’ victories as well. All told, the average reader is now down 233 points to Elo for the season to date.

Among the readers who weren’t destroyed by Elo, congrats to John D. Harden, who led all users with 275 points in Week 6, and to Jevon Mallett, who continues to lead all users for the season with 453 points. Thanks to everyone who played last week — and if you didn’t play, get in on the game already! You can make picks now and still try your luck against Elo, even if you haven’t played yet.

Check out our latest NFL predictions.