Did The Packers Squander Aaron Rodgers?

The dismissal of Green Bay coach Mike McCarthy — who was let go after the Packers’ stunning home loss to the Arizona Cardinals on Sunday — wasn’t exactly a shock. Perennially tabbed as a Super Bowl contender out of the NFC, McCarthy’s team had gone just 11-16-1 over the past two seasons, including a disappointing 8-9-1 in games that featured future Hall of Fame quarterback Aaron Rodgers as Green Bay’s primary passer.1 It was time for a change along the sidelines that Vince Lombardi once roamed.

Things weren’t always so bleak on the frozen tundra. The McCarthy era had its high points, particularly early on — when he and Rodgers appeared to have Green Bay positioned on the cusp of a potential dynasty. But between postseason near-misses, roster changes, injuries and coaching miscues, McCarthy’s Packers never fulfilled that promise. Instead, it’s fair to wonder whether Green Bay squandered the prime of one of the most talented QBs in NFL history.

The Packers team that McCarthy inherited in 2006 from Mike Sherman2 was one in transition — and that meant navigating some heavy-duty Brett Favre melodrama in his first two seasons at Green Bay’s helm. However, McCarthy quickly found that he had an all-time great on his hands in Rodgers, who, when he took over the starting job at age 25, was just entering his best years as a passer. The McCarthy-Rodgers marriage sputtered to a 6-10 finish in its first season but yielded great results shortly thereafter: an 11-5 playoff campaign in Year 2, then a Super Bowl crown in Year 3 and a 15-1 regular season (with Rodgers winning MVP) in Year 4. The sky seemed to be the limit for McCarthy and his star QB.

Since the end of the 2011 regular season, however, the Packers have gone just 5-6 in the playoffs; by comparison, Tom Brady and the postseason Patriots are 13-5 over the same span. Green Bay’s record includes a crushing home defeat against the New York Giants two weeks after that 15-1 season ended and another loss in which they watched helplessly as ex-49er Colin Kaepernick destroyed their defense in 2012 — still one of the greatest individual QB games in playoff history. The Packers’ postseason circumstances have not always been ideal: For instance, that Giants game was actually the only time since 2011 that Green Bay lost in the playoffs while favored — meaning the rest of the losses were as underdogs. But at the same time, the Pack have also had clear chances to return to the Super Bowl, and they came up short in each of them.

All told, it remains mystifying that a quarterback of Rodgers’s stature hasn’t won more frequently. If we run a simple logit regression between a QB’s Yards Above Backup in a season and whether his team made the Super Bowl,3 we’d expect Rodgers to have made 1.86 Super Bowls in his career through 2017 — roughly twice as many as he’s actually been to. (Meanwhile, other contemporary QBs — such as Ben Roethlisberger, Eli Manning and even Brady — have gone to more than twice as many Super Bowls as we’d expect from their individual stats.)

Rodgers hasn’t won as much as he should have

Top 10 NFL starting quarterbacks by Yards Above Backup QB, 1990-2017, with their actual and expected Super Bowl appearances

Super Bowls Made
Quarterback Years Starting YARDS Above Backup Actual Expected Diff.
1 Peyton Manning 17 21,585 4 4.15 -0.15
2 Tom Brady 16 19,735 8 3.63 +4.37
3 Drew Brees 16 17,250 1 2.89 -1.89
4 Brett Favre 19 13,047 2 1.86 +0.14
5 Aaron Rodgers 10 10,988 1 1.86 -0.86
6 Ben Roethlisberger 14 10,945 3 1.35 +1.65
7 Philip Rivers 12 10,721 0 1.54 -1.54
8 Steve Young 8 10,022 1 1.65 -0.65
9 Matt Ryan 10 8,251 1 1.14 -0.14
10 Tony Romo 9 8,192 0 1.11 -1.11

1990 was the first season of the NFL’s current playoff format. Expected Super Bowls are based on a season-by-season logit regression between a QB’s Yards Above Backup and whether his team made the Super Bowl.

Source: Pro-Football-Reference.com

Over time, it became more and more difficult for the Packers to come within striking distance of the Super Bowl. In 2015, Rodgers slumped to career-worst numbers without top wideout Jordy Nelson, though the team as a whole was still good enough to get to the divisional playoffs before losing. In 2016, it was more of the same when Rodgers mused that Green Bay could still “run the table” — sparking an eight-game winning streak that saw the QB return to vintage form and left the Packers a win away from the Super Bowl.4 By then Rodgers was 34 years old, so a sense of urgency was setting in when 2017 came and went without a playoff berth — even though that could be written off as the byproduct of Rodgers missing nine starts.

The 2018 season was always going to be the real crossroads for McCarthy. With a healthy Rodgers leading the way, the Pack could always count on contending in the past, so this year’s expectations were no different. But Rodgers’s numbers have been merely good, not great. Brett Hundley isn’t around anymore to take any blame. And unlike in 2015, when Green Bay was talented enough to survive despite a downturn in its QB’s individual stats, there has been no answer from the team’s supporting cast this time around. It all came crashing down around McCarthy in the loss to Arizona as 13½-point favorites, Green Bay’s single most disappointing defeat since the merger according to Pro-Football-Reference’s point-spread data.

We can visualize the Packers’ decline over McCarthy’s final few years at the helm using FiveThirtyEight’s Elo ratings. Specifically, I’ve been tinkering with an experimental version of Elo that keeps a separate adjustment for the primary QB in each game, similar to how we treat starting pitchers in our MLB ratings.5 Using this, we can trace how a team’s performance rises and falls independent of its QB — which is useful in cases like 2017, when Rodgers was hurt and Hundley started nine games. (For instance, by season’s end, the Packers would have projected to be a 1529 Elo team with Rodgers starting — compared to a 1427 team with Hundley. And remember, 1500 is average.)

At the beginning of 2015, the Packers had an effective Elo of 1622, which included a 73-point boost from having Rodgers at QB and a 49-point boost from his teammates. By the end of the year, Green Bay’s effective Elo was still in the same neighborhood (1597), despite Rodgers’s adjustment actually dropping to negative 11, because the rest of the team carried a larger share of the weight (+108). Meanwhile, at the peak of the Packers’ run-the-table surge in 2016, the team’s 1657 effective Elo arose out of a 61-point boost from Rodgers and 97 additional points (relative to league average) from the rest of the team.

But fast-forward to now, and it’s clear how much the Packers have crumbled around Rodgers. His own adjustment is 16 points of Elo above an average QB, the lowest it’s been since Week 10 of the 2016 season. But he’s still expected to be above average; his supporting cast, by contrast, has fallen to a negative-67 score relative to the average team. That’s the worst they have been in Rodgers’s entire NFL career, and it isn’t especially close. Keeping QB play constant, the Packers’ Elo has dropped by a total of 139 points since the end of the 2016 season, which is essentially the difference in current Elo ratings of the 11-1 Los Angeles Rams and the 6-6 Carolina Panthers.

The reasons for the slide are varied, but many can be traced back to a series of poor drafts under former general manager Ted Thompson, who was replaced by current front-office chief Brian Gutekunst in January. As Sports Illustrated’s Kalyn Kahler pointed out last week, only three of Green Bay’s 17 draftees from 2014 and 2015 remain on the current roster. While no team can avoid dry spells in the NFL draft if given enough time, the Packers also — largely by design — did little in the way of enlisting outside help as a backup plan.6 Combine those infrastructural problems with criticisms of McCarthy’s offensive scheme (criticisms of a perceived lack of innovation that Rodgers apparently shared), plus legitimate complaints about Rodgers’s own decline in performance, and a season like this was bound to happen to Green Bay sooner or later.

Even so, it came contrary to preseason predictions. Going into the schedule, you might have penciled in this week’s matchup against the Atlanta Falcons as a marquee game with playoff implications. Instead, it will be the third-worst game of the week, 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 every team’s odds of making the playoffs):7

The best matchups of Week 14

Week 14 games by the highest average Elo rating (using the harmonic mean) plus the total potential swing for all NFL teams’ playoff chances based on the result, according to FiveThirtyEight’s NFL predictions

Playoff % Playoff %
Team A Current Avg. Chg* Team B Current Avg. Chg* Total Change Game Quality
BAL 65.0% +/-15.1 KC 100.0% +/-0.0 31.8 1628
PHI 28.3 24.2 DAL 81.1 19.4 51.0 1578
MIN 59.7 19.9 SEA 87.7 11.8 41.4 1572
CHI 94.4 4.3 LAR 100.0 0.0 10.8 1615
IND 9.8 10.1 HOU 98.2 2.4 23.6 1515
MIA 6.6 7.4 NE 99.7 0.5 16.2 1537
WSH 26.4 11.7 NYG 0.1 0.1 24.9 1435
TB 1.7 2.0 NO 100.0 0.0 6.9 1570
TEN 18.9 10.6 JAX 0.1 0.1 21.9 1478
PIT 83.8 11.0 OAK 0.0 0.0 23.7 1453
CAR 17.8 9.9 CLE 0.3 0.4 22.0 1454
DEN 20.9 11.1 SF 0.0 0.0 24.7 1427
LAC 96.0 3.6 CIN 0.9 1.3 9.1 1504
GB 1.4 1.3 ATL 1.1 1.2 5.5 1469
DET 0.3 0.3 ARI 0.0 0.0 4.2 1412
BUF 0.0 0.0 NYJ 0.0 0.0 2.4 1377

Game quality is the harmonic mean of the Elo ratings for the two teams in a given matchup. Total Change adds up the potential swing in playoff odds for every team in the league (not just the two teams listed).

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

Source: ESPN.com

Although the Packers hadn’t replaced a coach at midseason since 1953, Sunday’s loss forced their hand. Now they’ll need to figure out who’s next, from a candidate list that includes big names among both pro coordinators (Josh McDaniels) and up-and-coming college coaches (Lincoln Riley). They’ll also need to hope Rodgers’s issues were more related to McCarthy’s offense and less to his getting older and less productive — basically, that the next Packer coach will be more Mike Shanahan to Rodgers’s John Elway than Jimmy Johnson to his Dan Marino. So while the Packers may not have much on the line over the rest of their games, this promises to be the most interesting offseason Green Bay has had since Favre was retiring and unretiring more than a decade ago.

FiveThirtyEight vs. the readers

Make sure to check out FiveThirtyEight’s Elo ratings using 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. And did you know you can also pick against the Elo algorithm in our prediction game? Maybe you can also climb up our giant leaderboard (or, if you’re like me, fall down it with each passing week).

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 13

Average difference between points won by readers and by Elo in Week 13 matchups in FiveThirtyEight’s NFL prediction game

OUR PREDICTION (ELO) READERS’ PREDICTION
PICK WIN PROB. PICK WIN PROB. Result READERS’ NET PTS
CIN 52% DEN 59% DEN 24, CIN 10 +8.5
PIT 62 PIT 54 LAC 33, PIT 30 +6.7
LAR 68 LAR 79 LAR 30, DET 16 +4.1
ATL 53 ATL 50 BAL 26, ATL 16 +1.5
KC 83 KC 89 KC 40, OAK 33 +0.4
SEA 83 SEA 83 SEA 43, SF 16 -1.5
MIA 58 MIA 57 MIA 21, BUF 17 -2.3
NE 67 NE 65 NE 24, MIN 10 -3.8
PHI 69 PHI 66 PHI 28, WSH 13 -4.1
TEN 78 TEN 72 TEN 26, NYJ 22 -4.4
CHI 69 CHI 72 NYG 30, CHI 27 -6.1
HOU 77 HOU 69 HOU 29, CLE 13 -6.6
CAR 59 CAR 64 TB 24, CAR 17 -7.8
GB 73 GB 79 ARI 20, GB 17 -10.5
IND 51 IND 62 JAX 6, IND 0 -14.0
NO 64 NO 74 DAL 13, NO 10 -15.3

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 series of narrow wins at midseason, the algorithm handed the readers their worst loss (-55.2 points on average) since Week 3. Some of the blame can go to the subject of this column — the Green Bay Packers, whose loss not only cost Mike McCarthy his job but also cost users 10.5 points on average. But readers were also burned by the Jaguars’ win over the Colts and the Cowboys’ upset victory over the Saints. Add it up, and Elo has beaten the average reader 12 times in 13 weeks this season.

But congrats to Mike Edelstein, who led all users in Week 13 with 137.0 points, and to one of my favorite leaderboard names, Greg Chili Van Hollebeke, who maintained his No. 1 ranking on the season with 1,002.1 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.

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.

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.

NFL Parity Is Creating Excitement — And, Um, Ties

When Dak Prescott’s improbable pocket escape and 44-yard heave set up a field goal to tie Sunday night’s Cowboys-Texans game late in regulation, viewers were left with a familiar feeling: This game, like so many others this season, seemed destined for overtime. (Indeed, it did require OT — the Texans kicked a field goal in the extra frame to win 19-16.) It was the eighth overtime game of the 2018 season already — the most in the first five weeks of any NFL season since 2002, which also saw eight OT games. Along the way we’ve also gotten two ties, ensuring only the league’s fourth multi-tie campaign since it first introduced regular-season OT in 1974, and we narrowly missed three others thanks to game-ending scores in the waning seconds of the extra period.14 While the NFL still faces plenty of big-picture problems — and some fans are even lamenting the renewed prevalence of those dreaded ties — this wave of close finishes has mainly made last year’s complaints about boring football seem like a distant memory.

The spike in overtime contests is just one element of this year’s extra drama. According to ESPN’s Stats & Information Group, 52 of the league’s 78 games this season have seen the trailing team sit within one score of the leader with five minutes left in the game — the second-most in any season through five weeks since 2001.15 Furthermore, 47 games this season have been within a score with two minutes left to play in regulation. It’s a perfect recipe for wild endings like Sunday’s Panthers-Giants duel — which saw two lead changes in the final 68 seconds of play — or last week’s Raiders-Browns thriller, with its four separate game-tying or go-ahead scores in the fourth quarter and OT alone.

Speaking of overtime: It took a season to produce an effect, but in combination with so many close games, the league’s recent tweaks to the OT format have finally started to generate more of those aforementioned ties. Back in May 2017, my colleague Ty Schalter predicted that the NFL’s switch from 15- to 10-minute overtime periods (on top of its earlier decision to modify the sudden-death rule, giving the coin-flip loser a chance to answer if the winner kicked a FG on its opening drive) would dramatically hike the rate of tied games once OT was reached. Although we went an entire season without a tie in 2017 — only 14 games went into overtime at all, below the seasonal average of 16 since 200116 — this year has made up for lost time, with a quarter of OT games ending in a stalemate. And you thought draws were too common in the “other” version of football

Anyway, all of this mainly speaks to the rise in parity across the league as a whole this year. Through five weeks, the Kansas City Chiefs rank No. 1 in FiveThirtyEight’s Elo ratings (our pet way of gauging how well a team is playing at any given moment in time), though their 1657 Elo isn’t especially high for an NFL leader at this stage of the season.17 At the other end of the rankings, the No. 32 Cleveland Browns (1344 Elo) are a lot better than the typical last-place team. You might say the Browns deserve better than 32nd place (I happen to agree), but choose an alternative — the Bills? Cardinals? Giants?? — and each has at least shown some signs of basic competency at various times this season. All of which is to say: The gap between the best and worst teams is not as wide as we’ve gotten used to it being.

And that shows up in the overall distribution of team performances this season. Since 1970, the standard deviation of teams’ Elo ratings through a season’s first five weeks has never been lower than it is right now:

Unlike college football, which is currently as imbalanced as ever, the pros have generally tended toward more competitive balance since the 1970s. That trend, though, largely leveled off once free agency and the introduction of a salary cap equalized each team’s spending, creating a parity machine that apparently only the New England Patriots — and conversely, until this year at least, the Browns — could resist. But even against that backdrop, this year’s Super Bowl race looks particularly wide open, with K.C. sitting nervously as tentative favorites.

In that department, we might gain some additional insight after Sunday night’s Patriots-Chiefs matchup, which rates as the best of the week in terms of matchup quality (as determined by the harmonic mean of the two teams’ Elo ratings in each game):

The best matchups of Week 6

Week 6 games with 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
KC 97.2% +/-1.9 NE 70.0% +/-11.7 13.6 1637
CIN 68.4 15.3 PIT 42.5 16.4 31.6 1554
BAL 51.5 16.1 TEN 56.9 14.0 30.1 1539
DAL 30.7 10.5 JAX 59.8 11.8 22.3 1530
CAR 59.7 13.2 WSH 29.8 12.1 25.3 1521
DEN 7.2 4.5 LAR 93.4 3.8 8.3 1513
ATL 22.7 9.8 TB 29.0 12.5 22.3 1509
ARI 3.6 2.9 MIN 51.0 10.3 13.2 1495
CHI 54.9 12.2 MIA 35.9 11.8 24.0 1490
NYG 4.6 4.1 PHI 61.4 11.4 15.5 1488
OAK 2.3 1.7 SEA 33.4 9.5 11.2 1468
GB 22.0 8.3 SF 6.5 4.5 12.8 1445
BUF 22.9 9.5 HOU 11.9 6.7 16.2 1439
CLE 3.2 2.7 LAC 51.7 12.3 15.0 1438
IND 5.5 3.4 NYJ 13.1 5.4 8.8 1419

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

Of course, the Chiefs have tempted us to overreact after beating the Patriots before, so maybe we won’t actually learn as much as we might hope on Sunday. But Week 6 also offers a number of matchups that could move the playoff-odds needle by at least 20 combined percentage points — including Cincinnati vs. Pittsburgh, Baltimore vs. Tennessee and Carolina vs. Washington.

Out of all these tightly contested games, surely some will flirt with overtime (or maybe even a tie!) again. But more than just giving us yet another chance to jokingly compare stalemates on the gridiron with those on the soccer pitch, it’s a real sign of how evenly balanced the league has become so far this season.

FiveThirtyEight vs. the readers

Want another way to keep up with the league? Be sure to check out our constantly updating NFL prediction interactive, which uses Elo ratings to forecast the rest of the season. And if you think you’re smarter than Elo, now you can prove it: In our prediction game, you can pick against our model (and your fellow readers) for bragging rights and a place on our giant leaderboard.

Using your picks from last week, here’s our regular look at where Elo made its best — and worst — predictions against the field:

Elo’s dumbest (and smartest) picks of Week 5

Average difference between points won by readers and by Elo in Week 5 matchups in FiveThirtyEight’s NFL prediction game

OUR PREDICTION (ELO) READERS’ PREDICTION
PICK WIN PROB. PICK WIN PROB. Result READERS’ NET PTS
SEA 50% LAR 70% LAR 33, SEA 31 +13.5
PHI 70 PHI 58 MIN 23, PHI 21 +12.8
BAL 76 BAL 66 CLE 12, BAL 9 +11.3
DAL 61 HOU 50 HOU 19, DAL 16 +9.6
SF 66 SF 59 ARI 28, SF 18 +7.2
CIN 63 CIN 64 CIN 27, MIA 17 -1.2
NE 83 NE 83 NE 38, IND 24 -2.0
NO 73 NO 71 NO 43, WSH 19 -3.1
CAR 80 CAR 76 CAR 33, NYG 31 -3.4
LAC 73 LAC 69 LAC 26, OAK 10 -3.9
KC 68 KC 61 KC 30, JAX 14 -7.7
PIT 57 PIT 51 PIT 41, ATL 17 -7.9
NYJ 56 DEN 56 NYJ 34, DEN 16 -14.3
DET 60 GB 56 DET 31, GB 23 -17.4
BUF 52 TEN 62 BUF 13, TEN 12 -17.8

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.

Elo eked out another victorious week over the readers, winning by 24.3 net points on average. It’s been an unusually impressive start to the season for Elo, whose built-in lack of knowledge over the NFL’s offseason comings and goings hasn’t seemed to hamper it one bit. (Maybe this is a nice reminder that preseason NFL predictions are mostly useless.) In Week 5, Elo was too high on the Seahawks, Eagles and Ravens, all of whom fell short. But it made up for those bad picks by calling Buffalo’s win over Tennessee and Detroit’s victory over Green Bay, among other games.

But Elo didn’t make all of our readers look silly. Congrats to reader Paul Diaz, who led all users in points for Week 5, and to Jevon Mallett, who leads all users on the season in total. 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 missed the first quarter of the season.

Check out our latest NFL predictions.