Sean Payton is about to coach only the second game of his NFL career without a healthy Drew Brees, who is out six-to-eight weeks with an injury to his right (throwing) thumb that will require surgery. With Brees at the helm, Payton’s record is 119-72, and the pair has the second-most wins of any QB-coach combo in NFL history. Now, Payton’s quarterback is expected to be Teddy Bridgewater, who last started an NFL game that mattered in the 2015 season.1
In Pittsburgh, the situation is even worse: Ben Roethlisberger will undergo season-ending surgery on his throwing elbow. Steelers coach Mike Tomlin is 115-60-1 with Roethlisberger starting, the fourth-most wins of any QB-coach combo. Tomlin has had to guide his team through Big Ben’s missed time before, going 10-8 in games without Roethlisberger. But those previous fill-ins included veterans Charlie Batch, Byron Leftwich and an over-the-hill Michael Vick. Current backup Mason Rudolph, a third-round pick in the 2018 NFL draft, has never started an NFL game.
What can we expect from each team with their current backup QBs? The Saints still have a coin-flip’s chance to make the playoffs, according to FiveThirtyEight’s NFL prediction model. But the Steelers’ playoff chances are now practically nil — down to just 8 percent.
Even with Roethlisberger, the Steelers had started the season so poorly that, had he not gotten hurt, they still would have been projected for just 7.54 wins, or a record of roughly 8-8 — likely falling short of the postseason again. With Rudolph under center, the Steelers’ outlook drops by 2.47 expected wins. Because Rudolph has not yet started a game, the model projects his performance based purely on where he was drafted (the 3rd round) — which could be too bearish an estimate. But as things sit, Rudolph is expected to perform at only 36.6 percent of Roethlisberger’s Elo level, a rolling average of recent performances that incorporates both passing and running.
On paper, the Saints are in much better shape with their backup in Bridgewater, who is expected to perform at 56.5 percent of Brees’s level.2 With Brees starting every remaining game, the Saints would have been the seventh-strongest team in the league by Elo, with an expected win total of 9.62. With Bridgewater in, the Saints drop to 21st overall — and he lowers their projected win total to 8.93 for the full season.
But Bridgewater’s performance is almost impossible to project, given that he’s not the same player after recovering from the “horribly grotesque” injury that he sustained in 2016. Though the sample size is small — only 53 passes to date — Bridgewater’s returns as a Saint have been poor: He has notched nearly 2 yards fewer per pass attempt than as a Viking and has performed worse both by passer rating and ESPN’s QBR.
The Saints could turn to a Sean Payton favorite, quarterback and Swiss Army knife Taysom Hill, who receives zero Elo points because of his lack of NFL starts and his undrafted status. Payton, though, sees the next Steve Young. Hill is already 29 and in his third season of being groomed by Payton, but Young didn’t begin his Hall of Fame-caliber play as the 49ers’ primary starting QB until age 30. So if it’s ever going to happen for Hill, why not now?
But what if the Steelers were able to get a veteran quarterback for next-to-nothing in a trade? And what if that player is a two-time Super Bowl champion, like Roethlisberger? The Giants are finally turning the page on the Eli Manning era, and it would be far less awkward for them to hand the team to rookie Daniel Jones with Manning gone than with him holding a clipboard. Elo projects Manning at nearly twice the value going forward this year as Rudolph, and he would be the AFC North’s third-best quarterback today in terms of Elo, ahead of Andy Dalton.
It appears, though, the Steelers lack the cap room to trade for Manning or even a modestly paid veteran QB. Pittsburgh sent a first-round pick to Miami on Monday for cornerback Minkah Fitzpatrick, so it doesn’t appear that the Steelers are intent on tanking. They’re probably just stuck with the uncertainty of a QB prospect who has yet to start a game.
With the NFL’s playoff bracket finally set, it’s time to survey the field and handicap the race for the Super Bowl. What’s interesting about this season is that there are plenty of very good teams but few that could be classified as truly dominant. Nine teams have an Elo rating4 of at least 1600, but none of them has cracked 1700 on the eve of the playoffs. In only one other season since 1990 — when the NFL expanded its postseason to the current format — have this many teams been squeezed into the 1600-to-1700 range on the Elo scale, and even that season (2015) had one team above 1700:
Because of this logjam of good-not-great teams, nobody heads into the playoffs with better odds than the New Orleans Saints’ 21 percent chance to win it all, according to Elo. That’s the third-lowest pre-playoff championship probability for a Super Bowl favorite since 1990, trailing only the 2015 Carolina Panthers and 2009 San Diego Chargers at 20 percent apiece. It’s also much lower than the 30 percent average for the typical pre-playoff favorite before this year.
Overall, this year’s favorites are less likely to win the Super Bowl than usual — meaning the Saints and Kansas City Chiefs have a lower probability than the typical top two going into the playoffs — while most of the lesser teams have a better chance than you’d expect to see in an average year.
This year’s playoffs are more wide-open than usual
Probability of winning the Super Bowl by rank (among playoff field) for the 2018 season and the average of the 1990-2017 seasons, according to FiveThirtyEight Elo ratings
Given all of this, the wild-card round could take on more significance than usual, since it’s not a stretch to imagine one of the teams playing this weekend taking home the Lombardi Trophy when all is said and done.
In fact, according to our experimental quarterback-adjusted Elo ratings, Trubisky enters Sunday’s game with the best QB adjustment of any Bears postseason signal-caller since the 1986 Super Bowl, when Jim McMahon was worth approximately 36 more points of Elo than an average quarterback (and promptly shredded the New England Patriots defense for 256 yards and a 104.2 passer rating in a 46-10 rout). Trubisky himself is worth an estimated 18 points of Elo, which is why Chicago stands out if we map out the QB adjustment and base (QB-neutral) Elo rating for each of this year’s wild-card-round combatants:
The remainder of the wild-card field lines up roughly in inverse order between quarterback quality and that of the rest of the team. Some teams — such as Andrew Luck’s Colts and Deshaun Watson’s Texans — have gotten to where they are largely because of their standout quarterback play. Others, like the Ravens, are doing a lot better recently than we’d expect from their QBs’ performance alone. Baltimore has won six times in the seven games since Lamar Jackson replaced Joe Flacco as the starter in Week 11, though Jackson himself ranked third-worst among qualified quarterbacks in QBR this season, and that includes his stellar rushing statistics.6 (Beyond his own stats, Jackson’s effect on the team’s overall running game shows up under the team’s QB-neutral Elo rating.)
Everyone else is somewhere in between, including the resurgent Eagles with backup Nick Foles, whose QB adjustment is back roughly where it was after Philly beat the Patriots in the Super Bowl, but took many twists and turns to get there; the Chargers with 37-year-old Philip Rivers, whose own adjustment has fallen by 38 Elo points since Week 13 with a string of mediocre outings down the stretch; the Dak Prescott-led Cowboys, whose team QB adjustment has hovered around average all season; and Russell Wilson’s Seahawks, whose own run-heavy attack masked another season of highly efficient passing.
How Elo sees the wild-card round playing out
Win probabilities for Week 18 games according to two methods — standard Elo and a version that contains an adjustment for starting quarterbacks
Of those, Elo gives the best chance of advancing to the Bears, followed by the Ravens. And upset-wise, the best odds belong to the Seahawks against the Cowboys, regardless of whether we adjust for recent QB performance. Whichever teams win, they’ll have to contend with road games in the divisional round — but given the overall state of the league, they’ll still have a better chance than usual to knock somebody off and forge their own path to the Super Bowl.
FiveThirtyEight vs. the readers
To keep tabs on each team’s classic Elo as the weekend plays out, be sure to check out FiveThirtyEight’s NFL prediction interactive, which simulates the rest of the season 100,000 times and tracks how likely every team is to advance through the playoffs and win the Super Bowl. And even though the regular season is over, you can still pick against the Elo algorithm in our prediction game and keep climbing up our giant leaderboard.
According to data from the game last week, here are the matchups in which Elo made its best — and worst — predictions against the reader picks for Week 17:
Elo’s dumbest (and smartest) picks of Week 17
Average difference between points won by readers and by Elo in Week 17 matchups in FiveThirtyEight’s NFL prediction game
OUR PREDICTION (ELO)
READERS’ NET PTS
IND 33, TEN 17
CAR 33, NO 14
CHI 24, MIN 10
LAC 23, DEN 9
PHI 24, WSH 0
HOU 20, JAX 3
ATL 34, TB 32
PIT 16, CIN 13
SEA 27, ARI 24
KC 35, OAK 3
LAR 48, SF 32
NE 38, NYJ 3
DET 31, GB 0
BUF 42, MIA 17
DAL 36, NYG 35
BAL 26, CLE 24
Even though the readers knew about various Week 17 roster shenanigans (such as resting starters) and Elo didn’t, the algorithm did what it’s been doing most of the season, beating the field by an average of 5 points per reader. (Elo beat the average reader 16 times in 17 weeks during the regular season.) Readers picked up points for trusting Luck and Indy against the Blaine Gabbert-led Titans in Sunday night’s do-or-die regular-season finale, and they also got credit for fading the Saints, who were resting starters against the Panthers in a meaningless contest. But at times that knowledge came back to haunt them, such as when they dropped the odds of the Ezekiel Elliott-less Cowboys against the Giants, only to see Dallas storm back and win. (And it was odd to see Elo underestimate the Browns, which it’s been doing all season, only to have that work out at season’s end.)
Either way, congrats to Jake Horowitz, who led all identified users in Week 17 with 294.2 points, and to good ol’ Greg Chili Van Hollebeke, who hung on to his No. 1 ranking for the season with 1,168.1 points. Thanks to everyone who has been playing — and the game isn’t over yet! You should keep making picks and trying your luck against Elo throughout the playoffs.
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: 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.
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:
Patrick Mahomes' fourth down completion to Tyreek Hill on the @Chiefs game-tying drive had just a 15.8% Completion Probability based on the following factors:
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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…
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
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.