There’s Really Never Been An NFL Dynasty Like The Patriots

The New England Patriots are back in yet another Super Bowl — No. 9 since 2001, for those keeping track — and this time they’re the favorite to beat the Los Angeles Rams, according to both Las Vegas and our Elo model. Tom Brady, Bill Belichick and friends have been doing this kind of thing for so long that sometimes it’s easy to take their greatness for granted. But with another championship potentially looming, we thought we’d zoom out and take stock of just how incredible New England’s success has actually been. Because, love or hate the Patriots, we’ve never seen anything like what they’ve accomplished over the better part of the past two decades.

New England has enjoyed some of the most dominant seasons of all time.

Let’s start at the single-season level. To grade a team’s Elo dominance, we like to use a blend of its final end-of-season rating, its peak rating and its season-long average rating.1 According to that metric, the Patriots own a number of the greatest teams of the Super Bowl era (since 1966) — including both the greatest team to win a Super Bowl (in 2004) and the greatest team to not win a Super Bowl (in 2007).

The best single-season teams of the Super Bowl era

NFL teams ranked by a blend of their final, peak and season-long average Elo ratings, since 1966

Super Bowl winners Didn’t win Super Bowl
Team Year Elo Blend Team Year Elo Blend
1 New England 2004 1792 1 New England 2007 1824
2 Denver 1998 1771 2 Baltimore 1968 1766
3 San Francisco 1989 1770 3 Washington 1983 1762
4 Miami 1973 1767 4 Green Bay 1997 1758
5 Chicago 1985 1767 5 Seattle 2014 1749
6 Dallas 1993 1765 6 Green Bay 2011 1748
7 Pittsburgh 1975 1760 7 Indianapolis 2005 1742
8 San Francisco 1984 1759 8 San Francisco 1990 1742
9 Washington 1991 1756 9 Indianapolis 2007 1737
10 Miami 1972 1754 10 New England 2011 1734

Source: Pro-Football-Reference.com

Despite their loss to the New York Giants in one of the most thrilling Super Bowls ever, the 2007 Pats, who went 16-0 in the regular season, remain the highest-rated team in NFL history — in addition to being one of the most talented and influential teams ever assembled.2 And unlike that 2007 squad, the 2004 Patriots finished the job and capped off a 17-2 season with a Super Bowl crown, in a campaign that contained part of an NFL-record 21-game winning streak.

This year’s Pats are not in that conversation. But the 2016 version was the 16th-best team to win a Super Bowl, according to Elo, and the 2017 version that lost to the Eagles last February ranks as the 14th-best nonwinner of the Super Bowl era.

The Pats’ dynasty is the most impressive of the Super Bowl era (according to Elo).

Sometimes it’s difficult to pin down when a dynasty begins and ends, but one way to look at it is to find the stretch of seasons that would be the most difficult for a generic contender to replicate. (We also did this for the NBA last summer when looking at the Golden State Warriors’ place in history.)

To do that for any given franchise, we take the single-season blended ratings from above and calculate their harmonic mean over every possible span of seasons. (The harmonic mean is a special kind of average that rewards high marks across every value in a set — in this case, elevating teams that were consistently great.) Then we compare that number to what a team with an initial Elo rating of 16173 would be expected to have over the same number of seasons. Since it becomes progressively harder to maintain a high mean Elo as more seasons pass, this helps balance short bursts of greatness against longer, more sustained periods of dominance.

The most impressive dynasties are the ones that exceed expectations the most. And after filtering for teams that won at least two Super Bowls in a given span (plus tossing out duplicate overlapping stretches for the same franchise), the NFL’s best stretch of seasons belongs to the Patriots since 2003 — potentially including this year, if they beat the Rams. (And if not, then the stretch from 2003 through 2017.)

The Super Bowl era’s most impressive dynasties

Among franchises with at least two Super Bowl titles, the most impressive (nonoverlapping) spans of seasons, according to Elo ratings, since 1966

Team Span Seasons Titles Mean Elo vs. Expected
New England* 2003-18 16 5? 1711 +169.4
1 New England 2003-17 15 4 1714 +169.8
2 San Francisco 1984-95 12 4 1706 +155.1
3 Dallas 1992-95 4 3 1740 +150.7
4 Pittsburgh 1974-79 6 4 1712 +139.0
5 Miami 1972-74 3 2 1739 +138.5
6 Dallas 1968-83 16 2 1667 +125.7
7 Oakland/L.A. Raiders 1967-85 19 3 1654 +115.3
8 Denver 1996-98 3 2 1704 +103.9
9 Washington 1982-92 11 3 1653 +99.1
10 Pittsburgh 2004-11 8 2 1656 +93.9
11 Green Bay 1966-68 3 2 1688 +87.7
12 Green Bay 1995-15 21 2 1619 +81.7
13 Baltimore 2000-14 15 2 1599 +54.6
14 N.Y. Giants 1985-90 6 2 1627 +54.3

*The current Patriots’ run will be No. 1 if New England wins Super Bowl LIII.

Mean Elo is the harmonic mean of a team’s seasonal blended Elo ratings (which mixes the average, final and peak Elo during the season) over the span of the seasons in question.

Expected Elo is the mean Elo we’d expect for a generic Super Bowl contender (from a starting Elo of 1617) over the span of the seasons in question. Teams are ranked by how much they exceeded this expectation.

Source: Pro-Football-Reference.com

Among stretches of anywhere near the same length, the only other dynasty in the same neighborhood as the Patriots is the San Francisco 49ers’ run during the 1980s and ’90s. Built by Bill Walsh and quarterbacked by Hall of Famers Joe Montana and Steve Young, the Niners won their five Super Bowls in a span of 14 years (including four in the 12-year span listed as their most dominant above). That’s two fewer than it took the Patriots to get five of their own from 2001 to 2016. (Those 49ers also weren’t embroiled in various cheating scandals, but that’s a matter for another story.) But the 21st century Pats have also visited almost twice as many Super Bowls as did the Niners (who, granted, won all five they made it to in this stretch). With the chance to tack on a sixth championship in 18 years, the Patriots would solidify the most impressive stretch of football the game has ever known.

New England’s main dynasty also contains several GOAT-level mini-dynasties.

As incredible as the entirety of the Brady-Belichick era has been, you can also pick out just about any subset of it that you want, and there’s a good chance that the Patriots will be the best in NFL history over that length of seasons. For example, using the same mean-Elo approach as above, the best five-season span of the Super Bowl era4 is the Patriots’ run from 2003 through 2007. But they also own a separate, nonoverlapping five-season span from 2013 through 2017, which is the third-best such “mini-dynasty” since 1966. They also own both the best and third-best seven-year mini-dynasties, the best and fourth-best eight-year mini-dynasties, the best and fourth-best nine-year mini-dynasties, and so forth. (You get the picture.)

Pick a span of years; the Pats are one (or two) of the best

Best dynasties of N seasons during the Super Bowl era (since 1966) based on Elo ratings over that span

3-Year Dynasties 6-Year Dynasties
Team Seasons Titles Mean Elo Team Seasons Titles Mean Elo
DAL 1992-94 2 1748 SF 1989-94 2 1720
MIA 1972-74 2 1739 NE 2011-16 2 1720
NE 2014-16 2 1728 NE 2003-08 2 1720
SF 1988-90 2 1727 PIT 1974-79 4 1712
PIT 1974-76 2 1725 DAL 1991-96 3 1694
9-Year Dynasties 12-Year Dynasties
Team Seasons Titles Mean Elo Team Seasons Titles Mean Elo
NE 2010-18 3? 1714 NE 2006-17 2 1712
SF 1987-95 3 1711 SF 1984-95 4 1706
PIT 1972-80 4 1685 DAL 1971-82 2 1671
NE 2001-09 3 1683 PIT 1972-83 4 1659
DAL 1971-79 2 1676 OAK 1969-80 2 1653
15-Year Dynasties 18-Year Dynasties
Team Seasons Titles Mean Elo Team Seasons Titles Mean Elo
NE 2003-17 4 1714 NE 2001-18 6? 1699
SF 1984-98 4 1696 SF 1981-98 5 1681
DAL 1969-83 2 1668 DAL 1966-83 2 1658
OAK 1966-80 2 1653 OAK/LA 1967-84 3 1655
MIA 1971-85 2 1643 MIA 1970-87 2 1625

Teams needed at least two Super Bowl wins during the span of seasons to qualify.

Source: Pro-Football-Reference.com

Most great teams get only one truly historic period of dominance before they begin to break apart — particularly in the salary-cap era, when talent became tougher to hold on to and build around. The Troy Aikman/Emmitt Smith/Michael Irvin Dallas Cowboys, for instance, rank as our third-most impressive overall dynasty, but that run ultimately lasted only a few years: Aikman, Smith and Irvin stayed in Dallas for the rest of the 1990s, but as they got older, the rest of the roster wasn’t strong enough to compensate, in part because the cap forced the Cowboys to shed talent. The Patriots, though, have numerous nonoverlapping subsections of years that would each be the pinnacle of most franchises’ entire histories, and they’ve done it all in an era when the NFL is (theoretically) trying to promote parity.

And one of the most interesting things about the Patriots’ micro-dynasties is that many were accomplished with different styles of football, despite the constant tandem of Belichick and Brady. As my colleague Mike Salfino pointed out last week, the Pats’ playoff offenses this decade have run the gamut from some of the least dependent on running backs to some of the most. It’s a testament to the chameleon-like way Belichick and staff have been able build their teams that they’ve maintained New England’s run of dominance despite constantly shifting their strategic tendencies.

2018 might be Belichick’s most impressive coaching job yet.

Sure, we’re tired of the Patriots’ current “nobody believes in us” schtick. But it is true that this incarnation of the Patriots is comparatively underpowered, at least compared with previous versions of the team in the Brady-Belichick era. By whatever measure you want to use to account for New England’s talent level — star performances or team strength — this team looks less impressive on paper than usual.

Not only is this the worst Pats Super Bowl team since 2001, according to our blended Elo dominance metric from above, but New England also had its fewest Pro Bowlers (two) and players with double-digit Approximate Value5 (five) in any of its Super Bowl seasons over that span, and its second-fewest first-team All-Pros (one, Stephon Gilmore). In fact, there were numerous Patriot teams that fell short of the Super Bowl entirely that, according to all of the categories above, had more talent than the 2018 version. Suspensions (Julian Edelman) and off-field headaches (Josh Gordon) certainly played a role in New England’s reduced star power, but it was also a roster Belichick had to cajole more wins out of than usual.

Regardless, it worked — and it helped the Patriots extend their historic dynasty. The only thing left is to see whether Brady, Belichick and company can add yet another ring to their collection versus the Rams, the opponent it all started against.

Check out our latest NFL predictions.

Why The NFL Can’t Rely On Defense

In an NFL season marked by historic offensive production and a championship round that was conspicuously absent a top-10 defense,2 aficionados of low-scoring rock fights, filled with punts and field goals, have been left disappointed. The best defensive teams to make the playoffs were eliminated early in the tournament, with the Bears, Ravens and Texans all losing in the wild-card round. A week later, Joey Bosa and the emerging Chargers defense were dismantled by the Patriots, and the Cowboys — perhaps the best defensive team left in the divisional round based on their end-of-season play — lost to the Rams. Extracting the strong defensive teams with relatively weak offenses led to historically exciting playoff football, producing two overtime games in the championship round for the first time in NFL history. Now we have a Patriots and Rams Super Bowl pitting perhaps the greatest QB of all time in Tom Brady against the hottest young offensive mind in the league in Sean McVay.

We shouldn’t be surprised that great offensive teams have made it this far. Teams are more reliably good — and bad — from game to game and year to year on offense than on defense. Individual defenders often have wild swings in performance from season to season, and defensive units forecast to be dominant often end up being merely average. The Jacksonville Jaguars’ defense took them as far as the AFC championship a year ago, but that same defense led them to five wins this season. Meanwhile, performance on offense is generally easier to forecast, making investments on that side of the ball more reliable.

Even then, football is largely unpredictable. When an otherwise sure-handed Alshon Jeffery3 lets a well-thrown Nick Foles pass sail through his fingers for an interception to end the Eagles season, or when Cody Parkey double-doinks a partially blocked field goal to end the Bears’ playoff hopes, we are essentially cheering, or bemoaning, randomness. Most vexing for forecasters and league observers trying to make sense of things is that the plays that matter the most in football are often the most unpredictable. But again, this is particularly true on the defensive side of the ball.

Turnover margin is the canonical example. Teams that win the turnover battle go on to win their games at a very high rate. Home teams win about 73 percent of their games when they are plus-1 in turnover differential, according to data from ESPN’s Stats & Information Group, and the home team win rate climbs to more than 86 percent when it’s plus-2 or better.

Yet despite their clear importance, the number of turnovers a team creates in one season has no bearing on how many turnovers the team will create in the next. Both interceptions and fumbles are completely unpredictable from season to season at the team level. And this pattern holds true for defense in general. If we measure the stability of defensive stats from one year to the next,4 we find that compared with offensive performance, most defensive stats are highly variable from year to year.

Defensive performance is unpredictable

Share of performance across various team-level metrics predicted by the previous season’s performance in the regular season, 2009-2018

metric Share predicted
Total offensive DVOA 18.9%
Offensive passing DVOA 18.8
Defensive passing DVOA 10.0
Offensive rushing DVOA 9.7
Total defensive DVOA 9.7
Defensive rushing DVOA 8.3
Sacks 3.6
Interceptions 2.4
Fumbles 1.6

Source: Football Outsiders

High-impact plays on defense turn out to be the least predictable. And while we’re by no means great at identifying which teams will succeed on offense, offensive DVOA is about twice as good at forecasting future performance as defensive DVOA.5

For teams like the Chicago Bears, who won 12 games despite fielding the 20th best offense in the NFL, this has major ramifications. The Bears were third in the league in turnover margin and third in sacks — feats we shouldn’t expect to repeat based solely on this season’s results. (Just ask the Jags.) Casting even more doubt on their ability to field an elite defense in back-to-back years, Chicago also lost its defensive coordinator, Vic Fangio, who left to become the head coach in Denver, further destabilizing the strength of the team.

Still there is some hope for lovers of the three-and-out. While rare, there are plays a defense makes that do tend to carry over from year to year. One of the most stable defensive stats is hits on the quarterback, which has a relatively impressive year-to-year r-squared of 0.21 — better even than total offensive DVOA, which is the gold standard for stability in team metrics. Quarterback hits include sacks — 43.5 percent of QB hits end in a sack, and those by themselves tend to not be predictive — but also plays in which the passer is contacted after the pass is thrown, and that contact is incredibly disruptive to a passing offense.

When a quarterback is hit, his completion percentage is affected on a throw to any part of the field.6 Teams that can generate pressure that ends with contact on the opposing QB greatly improve their chances of causing incompletions and getting off the field. And best of all, teams that are good at generating hits on the quarterback tend to stay good at it.

Philadelphia led the league in QB hits but not sacks

Total quarterback hits, sacks and expected sacks for teams’ defensive lines in the regular season, 2018

Sources: NFL, Elias Sports Bureau

The Eagles, Jets and the Seahawks all appear to have better days ahead of them on defense. Each team racked up more than 100 QB hits in 2018. But they also experienced bad fortune, converting their hits into sacks at a rate below what we’d expect. If these teams generate similar pressure next season, we shouldn’t be surprised to see their sack totals rise just based on reversion to the mean. Meanwhile, Chicago, New Orleans and Kansas City experienced good fortune in 2018, converting their QB hits at a rate higher than we’d expect. Assuming the defensive lines return largely intact, we probably shouldn’t be surprised to see their sack totals dip next season.

Stats like QB hits are rare to find on defense. And because of the high variance in defensive performance, teams built with a defense-first mindset end up controlling their own destinies less than we might expect. When it comes to team-building, this suggests that investments on offense are better long-term bets for stability. The results this year are particularly encouraging. Lighting up scoreboards by focusing on scoring points instead of preventing them has proved to be both successful and incredibly entertaining to watch. For this season at least, defense isn’t winning anyone a championship.

Check out our latest NFL predictions.

The Rams And Patriots Have Reversed Roles Since Their First Super Bowl Meeting

One of the most wonderfully ironic moments in Super Bowl history happened just before kickoff in February 2002, when St. Louis Rams wide receiver Ricky Proehl turned to NFL Films’ cameras during warmups and declared: “Tonight, a dynasty is born!”

Proehl was right, of course. A dynasty was born that night — just not the one he was imagining. Tom Brady and the New England Patriots ended up toppling the heavily favored Rams in Super Bowl XXXVI, using it as a springboard for the greatest run of sustained success any NFL team has ever known.

The Patriots were the up-and-coming team back then, while the Rams were the established champions with the veteran, future Hall of Fame quarterback. This time around, though, the roles will be reversed for the two franchises — with the Patriots serving as the elder statesmen, while the Rams are the team on the rise. It’s a fitting turnabout, one featuring what the Elias Sports Bureau determined was the largest gap in age between both starting quarterbacks (Tom Brady is 17 years and 72 days older than Jared Goff) and head coaches (Bill Belichick is 33 years and 283 days older than Sean McVay) in Super Bowl history.

The Rams opened the betting Sunday night as slight favorites with some sportsbooks (so yes, you can say you were an underdog, Tom), though that didn’t last long. A flood of bets for the Patriots pushed the line to favor New England by 2½ points, according to the current consensus in Vegas. Here’s what our Elo ratings think about the matchup, using both the classic version from our interactive and one with the experimental quarterback adjustments we’ve been tinkering with:

OK, Elo — who ya got in the Super Bowl?

Win probabilities for Week 21 games according to two methods: standard Elo and adjusting for starting quarterbacks

Standard Elo QB-Adjusted Elo
Team Rating Win Prob. Base Rtg Starting QB QB Adj. Win Prob.
LAR 1667 47% 1656 Jared Goff +4 46%
NE 1686 53 1645 Tom Brady +42 54

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

Source: Pro-Football-Reference.com

The Patriots still somehow have two very important components from that original Super Bowl against the Rams: Brady and Belichick. At age 41, Brady had his worst passing numbers in several years, yet he also was still a top-10 QB (at worst), a Pro Bowler and — it bears emphasizing — impossibly productive for his age. All of that came despite throwing to a revolving-door cast of receivers and a less-dominant version of longtime security blanket Rob Gronkowski. All told, Brady led an offense that still ranked fourth in scoring and eighth in expected points added, albeit with a lower per-game EPA average than any Pats team with Brady as starter since 2013.

For Belichick’s part, this season saw his Patriots improve significantly on defense, jumping from 24th in EPA in 2017 to seventh in 2018. Although New England tied for the second-fewest sacks in the league, it generated the third-most pressure (according to ESPN’s Stats & Information Group), forced the second-lowest completion percentage and generally was the best Patriots pass defense in a while. And this team was also a celebration of Belichick the (de facto) general manager: In addition to shrewd veteran acquisitions such as CB Stephon Gilmore and LB Kyle Van Noy, a large share of the Pats’ production came from draft picks made over the past few years, including DLs Trey Flowers and Malcom Brown, OLs Shaq Mason and Joe Thuney, and rookie RB Sony Michel.1 All of those pickups helped fuel a Pats roster that still relied heavily on Brady to work his magic but also blocked well and played sound defense.

The Patriots’ run wasn’t always easy, of course. The 2018 edition had the second-worst points per game differential and lowest Elo rating of the franchise’s Super Bowl-bound squads since … you guessed it, the 2001 team. But maybe that’s just further proof that everything truly has come full circle in New England. They’re certainly hoping the story ends the same way this time around.

As for these current Rams, they are not too dissimilar from their Greatest Show on Turf forebears, either. Los Angeles outscored opponents by 143 total points in the regular season (third-best in football) and got high marks in every power ranking out there, including Elo (which ranks them No. 2), Football Outsiders’ Defense-adjusted Value Over Average (No. 2), ProFootballFocus’s rankings (No. 2), Jeff Sagarin’s ratings (No. 2), Andy Dolphin’s predictive rating (No. 3) and Pro-Football-Reference.com’s Simple Rating System (No. 3). Though they never actually ranked first in Elo at any point during the season, the Rams were consistently one of the game’s top contenders all year long.

And they got that way just about as quickly as those fabled 1999 Rams, who went 4-12 the year before Kurt Warner and Marshall Faulk changed the franchise’s fortunes forever. The 2018 season culminated a remarkable two-year turnaround arc under soon-to-be-33-year-old coach Sean McVay, who took L.A. from a 4-12 disaster in 2016 under former coach Jeff Fisher to an 11-5 record last year, and now a Super Bowl. Over that span, the Rams went from an Elo rating of 1346 to 1667, a gain of 321 Elo points. Only four other Super Bowl teams in history have gained more rating points from the end of two seasons prior to the start of the big game itself — the 1998 Atlanta Falcons (+368), 1981 San Francisco 49ers (+360), 1992 Dallas Cowboys (+357) and 1971 Miami Dolphins (+339). Even the ’99 Rams had “only” gained 246 points of Elo from the end of 1997, though they do own the largest single-season gain ever for a Super Bowl team.

How did L.A. do it? The cornerstones of the 2018 team — Goff, DT Aaron Donald and RB Todd Gurley2 — were all drafted by the club from 2014 to 2016. But general manager Les Snead did his best work over the 2017 and 2018 offseasons, snagging the majority of the current team’s other starters either via the draft or in a flurry of win-now moves that mostly look smart in hindsight. The other key ingredient was coaching, where (with a few weird exceptions on Sunday) McVay has shown a fantastic knack for incorporating analytical thinking into his play-calling, and he remains the master of keeping defenses off-balance by running almost all of his plays out of the same personnel package. While there are very legitimate questions as to whether Goff or Gurley could be as successful in a different system, the pair has powered a Super Bowl run under McVay’s scheme.

Each team needed luck to get here, too. The Rams likely wouldn’t be headed to Atlanta without a blown pass-interference call that kept New Orleans from running down most of the clock in regulation, instead giving L.A. the chance to force overtime and eventually win the game. The Patriots benefited from a phantom roughing-the-passer penalty and a (legitimate) offside call that negated what would have been a game-ending interception, then rattled off what felt like a million straight third-and-long conversions in overtime. But there isn’t a single Super Bowl team in history that didn’t have big moments when fortune smiled on it. You have to be lucky and good to win a championship, and these teams fit both criteria.

Now, they’ll get a chance to battle on the game’s biggest stage. Will a new dynasty be born? Or will an old one keep rolling? Will the new Greatest Show on Turf avenge the old one? Or will Belichick draw up another brilliant game plan to shut down this latest version? Either way, it should be a fitting way to end one of the most entertaining NFL seasons in a while.

FiveThirtyEight vs. the readers

As you prepare for the Super Bowl, be sure to check out FiveThirtyEight’s NFL predictions page, which uses our Elo ratings to simulate the game 100,000 times, tracking how likely each team is to win. You can also make your Super Bowl pick against the Elo algorithm in our prediction game and make one last bid to climb up our giant leaderboard.

According to data from the game, here’s how readers did against the computer last weekend:

Elo’s smartest conference championship picks

Average difference between points won by readers and by Elo in Week 20 matchups in FiveThirtyEight’s NFL prediction game

OUR PREDICTION (ELO) READERS’ PREDICTION
PICK WIN PROB. PICK WIN PROB. Result READERS’ NET PTS
NO 64% NO 62% LAR 26, NO 23 -4.6
KC 61 KC 59 NE 37, KC 31 -7.1

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.

After a divisional weekend in which all the home teams won, both home squads lost their conference championship games for just the fifth time in the Super Bowl era. Elo tends to love home teams, especially in the playoffs, so you might think that would be bad news for its picks. (Indeed, the average probability set by the reader was closer to picking the road team than Elo’s default probabilities.) However, Elo still came out ahead on net points because more individual readers made extreme picks in favor of the Saints and Chiefs, costing the field points on average. It’s an instructive example of something we discussed back in Week 9 — that, because of the nonlinear scoring system in our contest, overly confident picks can really wreak havoc on your point totals. When in doubt, set a conservative probability! (Unless, say, you are in 59th place going into the Super Bowl and need a Hail Mary to move up the rankings. Know anybody like that?)

Congratulations are in order to reader Deryl Mundell, who leapfrogged long-standing leaderboard-toppers Neil Mehta and Greg Chili Van Hollebeke to claim first place on the season, checking in with 1,202.5 points. Deryl is also our No. 1 (identified) player on the postseason, with 294.2 points since the playoffs started. Thanks to everyone who has been playing — and the game isn’t over yet! You now have one last chance to make your Super Bowl pick. Make it count!

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.

The Patriots Aren’t Quite Their Usual Dominant Selves This Year

Here’s a surprise: The New England Patriots are 8-3, leading the AFC East, with some of the best odds in the conference of winning the Super Bowl.

Oh, right. I’ve just described basically every Pats season in recent memory. This is the ninth consecutive season that New England has won at least eight of its first 11 games. The team’s current Elo rating of 1641, however, is the lowest it’s been through the same stage of the season since 2009 (and we don’t talk about that season).

So what are we to make of these Patriots, then? After overcoming the typical early season hiccups, is this year’s version ready to build championship momentum down the stretch like normal? Or is there still something a little bit off about a team that was showering its punter (of all players) with praise after an uncharacteristically modest win over the lowly New York Jets last week?

In advance of New England’s showdown Sunday against the Minnesota Vikings, let’s take a look at some of the Patriots’ calling-card metrics to see whether this season is business as usual in Foxboro.

Road warriors?

One of the Pats’ most eye-catching statistics during Bill Belichick’s time as head coach has been their near-invincibility at home, where they’ve won 87 percent of their games this decade. But their road record — winning more than 70 percent of the time away from Gillette Stadium — could be even more remarkable. From 2010 to 2017, the Pats’ winning percentage on the road was about 10.5 percentage points higher than what we’d expect from their home record — the third biggest gap in the NFL (behind the Cowboys and Eagles):

This year, though, New England is a perfect 5-0 at home but only 3-3 on the road — respectable but nowhere near the league’s best. (The Pats have also been outscored by 11 points in away games, against a road schedule that ranks just 28th in average opposing Elo.) And this might come up in the playoffs, unlike so many seasons in which the Pats had home-field advantage through the AFC title game.1 Right now, New England is in line for the AFC’s No. 2 seed behind the Kansas City Chiefs, but only a half-game separates them from the fourth-seeded Steelers.

Owning the turnover battle

Turnover margin is one of the most important factors in determining who wins or loses any football game. Conventional stathead wisdom, though, tells us that outlier turnover seasons — whether avoiding them on offense, forcing them on defense, or both — are unsustainable. While there are some ways a team can influence its tendency to have more takeaways than giveaways, a lot of it also comes down to luck.

Unless, of course, you’re the Patriots. New England perennially dominates this category, ranking first by a mile from 2010 through 2017 with a +116 turnover differential, almost double that of the next-best team. A lot of that is a function of having Tom Brady at QB; he’s tied for the second-lowest interception percentage of any passer in NFL history. But the Pats are also great at avoiding fumbles — only the Falcons had coughed it up fewer times since 2010, and no team had lost fewer fumbles than the Pats. And their defense had forced the second-most turnovers of any team this decade (behind the Giants), ranking second in interceptions and tied for third in fumbles recovered.

Such opportunism has historically paid big dividends for New England, but this year’s squad is still trying to recapture that formula. The Pats are currently +5 in turnovers, which ranks ninth in the league but is nothing special by their standards. Brady has his highest interception rate since 2013 (his seven picks already are only one off of his full-season total from last year), driving a big overall increase in giveaways per game, though the team is being more careful in recent weeks. And while the Pats have forced at least one turnover in all but one game this season, they are tied for eighth-to-last in the league in games with three or more takeaways, six behind the league-leading Bears.

Yards and points

In addition to — and correlated with — their dominant turnover differential, the Patriots have always had another trick up their sleeves in terms of winning extra games. It involves their yards per point (YPP): essentially, how efficiently they turn field position into scores on offense and how inefficiently they force opponents to do the same. By definition, when you have a lower YPP than the opponent, you will win more often because you’re trading field position for points at a more favorable rate than they are.

Like turnover margin, YPP is supposed to be pretty inconsistent from year to year, bouncing around with a team’s luck at picking up key first downs and converting red zone chances, along with the all-important knack for “bending but not breaking” on defense. Yet the Pats dominate this category so thoroughly and so consistently, it might be the single biggest factor in their ongoing success. Not only had they ranked first in both offensive and defensive YPP since 2010, but their net YPP differential of +5.6 was more than double the No. 2 Packers’ +2.5 mark over that span.

(This is one of the big reasons that worries about the Patriots’ defense always need to be tempered. Belichick’s team has traditionally punched above its weight in terms of points allowed, just because it always makes opponents work so hard to turn gains on the field into rewards on the scoreboard.)

This season, the Pats remain among the top net YPP teams, ranking fourth, but they are not quite dominating like usual. They rank just seventh in offensive YPP and sixth on defense, with a net YPP of +2.8, which trails the Bears, Saints and Chiefs. On top of the increase in turnovers per game from above, New England’s efficiency rankings on third down and in the red zone are worse, and the team has slipped in those same “situational” categories on defense. And if you want another cause for the Patriots’ YPP decline, their net starting field position is -2.6 yards per drive this season (meaning the opponent starts 2.6 yards closer to the end zone than the Pats), after a decade in which that number was a league-best +4.6.

In other words, many of the little things that usually add up to that massive YPP advantage for New England aren’t quite working as well so far this year. But the good news for the Pats is that their turnover margin and net YPP tend to improve radically from this point in the season onward, in no small part because Belichick specifically tries to build a tough, physical team that thrives in bad weather. So even in a relative down season by their key indicators, don’t be surprised if the Patriots build them up at least some before season’s end.

Gronk smash!

Tight end Rob Gronkowski has long been the Pats’ not-so-secret weapon on offense, helping the team transition seamlessly from the powerful Randy Moss-Wes Welker offense of a previous era to the version that’s been terrorizing the league for most of this decade.

But the famously fragile Gronk has appeared to show his age and mileage this season more than perhaps ever before. He’s missed three games with various ailments, and when he has played, he’s been limited to just 63.0 yards per game with a career-low 0.25 touchdown catches per contest. Gronkowski’s reduced mobility has hurt his trademark ability to rumble after the catch for spectacular gains, and it’s made him much less of a focal point in the offense than he’s accustomed to being. When on the field, Gronk has seen only 18.7 percent of the targets in the Pats’ passing game, his lowest number since getting 17.7 percent as a rookie.

But Gronk’s influence on the Patriots’ offense remains undeniable. In the eight games the star tight end has played in 2018, Brady’s passer rating is 98.2; in the three he missed, it dropped to 91.6 (league average is 94.9). Even with Gronkowski playing in a more limited physical condition than usual, producing less of a statistical footprint than before, this is confirmation that he’s still one of the biggest engines driving the Patriots’ success. The biggest question might simply be what kind of durability Gronkowski’s banged-up body will have over the rest of the season.

Brady stays ageless … sort of

Along with Belichick, the one constant in New England’s dynasty has been No. 12 under center. Brady has probably been the single most valuable player in the NFL this century, and he’s been crucial in engineering five Super Bowl titles for the Patriots with his consistency, leadership and ability to rally the team back from seemingly insurmountable deficits.

But at 41 — an age at which almost no other QB has ever been productive — there is a near-constant watch for any sign of slippage in Brady’s performance. And he has been a bit less sharp statistically than in years past. His adjusted net yards per attempt index at Pro-Football-Reference.com, which measures passing efficiency relative to the league (where 100 is average), is 111 this year, down from 117 last season and 138 the year before that. It hadn’t been so low since Brady was barely above average (102) in 2013.

Of course, there are reasons for Brady’s decline that go beyond his advanced age, from Gronk’s aforementioned absences to a four-game suspension for top target Julian Edelman at the start of the season and a WR corps in flux early on before adding Josh Gordon and shuffling roles for the likes of Phillip Dorsett and (WR-turned-RB) Cordarrelle Patterson. But Brady has managed to work around weird receiving situations before — and, in fact, his passer rating was better over the season’s first four games (94.0) than it’s been over the four most recent ones (90.8).

Combine that with a ProFootballFocus grade that’s down a bit from last season (though still sixth-best among QBs) and those ubiquitous stats about Brady’s off-target throws (at 22.1 percent, no qualified passer has thrown an errant pass more frequently this year), and it’s fair to ask whether Brady is playing at quite the same level as he did over the past few seasons. Whether because of Brady or the receivers, the Pats are currently tied for eighth in adjusted net yards per attempt — their worst showing since (again) 2013, a season that saw New England fall short in the AFC title game.2


Taken altogether, these numbers reveal a Patriots squad that is not fully playing at the level it’s used to at this stage of the season. And that shows up in big-picture indicators such as Elo or even point differential, where the Pats’ +58 margin is its weakest of the decade through 11 contests. But even so, a lessened version of the Patriots still ranks among the league’s top teams. And as we mentioned above, the Vikings will be a good opponent for Belichick to use as a measuring stick for his roster. According to our combination of matchup quality (i.e., the harmonic mean of the teams’ Elo ratings in each game) and game importance (how likely it is to swing either team’s odds of making the playoffs), this will be the fourth-best game of the week:

The best matchups of Week 13

Week 13 games by ranking of average Elo ratings (using the harmonic mean) plus ranking of 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
WSH 38.9% +/-19.5 PHI 23.7% +/-11.1 30.6 1525
BAL 46.1 18.0 ATL 4.2 3.1 21.0 1539
DAL 60.3 13.3 NO >99.9 0.1 13.3 1635
MIN 62.8 13.6 NE 99.1 1.0 14.6 1610
LAC 88.2 7.0 PIT 93.9 5.6 12.6 1619
CAR 30.9 14.9 TB 0.7 0.8 15.7 1492
IND 29.5 14.5 JAX 0.1 0.1 14.7 1468
DEN 13.0 10.7 CIN 6.4 5.3 16.0 1453
DET 1.3 1.6 LAR >99.9 <0.1 1.6 1550
SEA 74.9 10.5 SF <0.1 <0.1 10.5 1460
CHI 96.3 3.9 NYG <0.1 <0.1 3.9 1474
HOU 95.7 3.8 CLE 1.3 1.4 5.2 1462
KC 99.9 0.2 OAK <0.1 <0.1 0.2 1479
TEN 20.5 7.2 NYJ <0.1 <0.1 7.2 1417
MIA 5.1 3.9 BUF 1.3 1.3 5.2 1425
GB 6.1 3.0 ARI <0.1 <0.1 3.0 1412

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 Stats & Information Group

While the game has a lot more at stake for Minnesota, whose spot in the playoffs is still not fully locked in, there is still plenty for the Patriots to play for as well. Not only will this game affect seeding for the postseason (Elo says the Pats currently have a 60 percent chance of securing a first-round playoff bye), but it will also be another telling data point as to whether the Pats can get back to their mega-dominant form of the recent past, or if they’ll be merely good — but mortal — according to their signature metrics.

FiveThirtyEight vs. the readers

If you want to know where your team stands, FiveThirtyEight’s Elo ratings are a good indicator. You can check them out in our NFL prediction interactive, which simulates the rest of the season 100,000 times and tracks how often each team should make the playoffs and win the Super Bowl. Did you know you can also pick against the Elo algorithm in our prediction game? Try it out, and maybe you can climb up our giant leaderboard.

Here are the games in which Elo made its best — and worst — predictions against the reader picks last week:

Elo’s dumbest (and smartest) picks of Week 12

Average difference between points won by readers and by Elo in Week 12 matchups in FiveThirtyEight’s NFL prediction game

OUR PREDICTION (ELO) READERS’ PREDICTION
PICK WIN PROB. PICK WIN PROB. Result READERS’ NET PTS
CIN 75% CIN 63% CLE 35, CIN 20 +13.4
CAR 62 CAR 57 SEA 30, CAR 27 +4.1
CHI 53 CHI 59 CHI 23, DET 16 +2.9
HOU 58 HOU 63 HOU 34, TEN 17 +2.3
NE 77 NE 82 NE 27, NYJ 13 +0.4
PIT 70 PIT 69 DEN 24, PIT 17 +0.0
DAL 65 DAL 67 DAL 31, WSH 23 -0.5
IND 68 IND 70 IND 27, MIA 24 -0.6
NO 81 NO 83 NO 31, ATL 17 -0.9
LAC 84 LAC 85 LAC 45, ARI 10 -0.9
BAL 83 BAL 81 BAL 34, OAK 17 -2.3
TB 63 TB 58 TB 27, SF 9 -5.7
PHI 80 PHI 69 PHI 25, NYG 22 -8.1
MIN 71 MIN 60 MIN 24, GB 17 -10.0
BUF 56 JAX 55 BUF 24, JAX 21 -13.0

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.

On average, Elo beat our readers by 18.9 points in the game last week, bringing its record to 11 wins and one loss so far this season. Readers had the best pick of Week 12 — rightly pumping the brakes on Cincinnati’s chances of beating the Browns — but they were punished for picking against Elo in the Bills’ upset over the Jaguars, and they didn’t show enough faith in the victorious Vikings, Eagles and Bucs.

Among individual users who did better than average, congrats are in order to Ryan Gnizak, who led all users in Week 12 with 263.5 points, and to Greg Chili Van Hollebeke, who held on to a slim lead for the entire season with 934.5 points. Thanks to everyone who has been playing — and if you haven’t, be sure to get in on the action! 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.