How The Chiefs And Niners Became The Last NFL Teams Standing

sara.ziegler (Sara Ziegler, sports editor): And just like that, we’ve got ourselves a Super Bowl.

It would have been hard for the conference championship games to match the chaos of the first two rounds of playoff action — though about 10 minutes into the Kansas City-Tennessee game, I thought the Titans might actually take out the No. 2 seed (along with the Nos. 1 and 3 they had already dispatched). But Patrick Mahomes and the Chiefs rallied again. What stood out to you guys about that game?

Salfino (Michael Salfino, FiveThirtyEight contributor): That the Titans, stealing a line from “The Untouchables,” brought a knife to a gun fight.

joshua.hermsmeyer (Josh Hermsmeyer, NFL analyst): That Derrick Henry is basically just a guy, and that Mahomes is not just a guy.

neil (Neil Paine, senior sportswriter): Too much K.C. offense, too much Mahomes.

Salfino: Mahomes now has 11 TDs and 0 picks in the postseason. He has the highest QB rating in postseason history since the merger.8

joshua.hermsmeyer: Two moments stood out to me in particular:

One was the Titans’ last drive right before the half. They needed to run clock, and it was Henry time. They got predictable and had to give the ball back to Mahomes before the half (he scored), and then K.C. got the ball again after halftime.

The other was the third-and-1 where holding was called, and Henry still got stuffed.

neil: In general, the Chiefs were able to slow down the Titan running game like no team really has recently. Tennessee’s rushing expected points added in the game was -0.1 compared with average. That stopped a streak of nine straight games where they had been positive, and often significantly so.

Salfino: When it came to stopping Henry, the Chiefs, who allowed 4.9 yards per rush during the regular season, just threw numbers at the problem. Remember, a team with a top QB like the Chiefs should be built to stop the pass, not the run. They don’t care about stopping the run because they are generally playing ahead. But Sunday, the Chiefs did. They committed to it.

You can do that against the run and it works. You can’t really throw numbers at the problem of stopping the QB.

neil: Of course, K.C. did do some Andy Reid-ish things late in the game to try to let the Titans back into it…

sara.ziegler: Clock management just shouldn’t be so hard.

neil: Mahomes is so good that bad clock management can’t thwart his Super Bowl aspirations.

Salfino: Mahomes bailed Reid out of horrible clock management with 20 seconds to go in the half by running in that TD.

That was classic Reid.

neil: And then late in the game they just refused to either: a) force Tennessee to stay in bounds to run clock, or b) not stop the clock when they had the ball.

sara.ziegler: I get that teams built to pass sometimes keep passing in end-of-game situations just because it’s what they do best. But man, they really kept stopping the clock!

neil: Luckily they got that defensive pass interference call!

Salfino: I thought the game was over as soon as the Chiefs went up double digits. Everything after that was garbage time.

neil: Certainly that took the Titans away from their run-heavy focus and made Ryan Tannehill more than a caretaker.

sara.ziegler: What did you guys think of how Tannehill played?

joshua.hermsmeyer: I thought he played well. They went back to their strength, the play-action (0.41 EPA per play-action pass play), and he kept them in the game at the very least.

Salfino: Tannehill was OK. Not as good as his rating. He could not make a play to stop the Chiefs momentum.

neil: He did his best — and man did he take some licks at times.

sara.ziegler:

neil:

sara.ziegler: That was maybe my favorite moment of the game, tbh.

joshua.hermsmeyer: Momentum is a hard thing to stop, considering it’s impossible to measure or define.

I thought Tannehill’s QBR of 74 accurately reflected his play. And his QBR of 86 on play-action passes was very good.

Salfino: It’s interesting with Tannehill and the Titans. We reflexively say after a run like the Titans had, “They’ll be back.” No, they won’t.

Tannehill is a free agent — I’m fairly certain he’ll be back, but do you give him a long-term deal at franchise money or just franchise him for $30 million (or whatever) in 2020? I opt for the latter. That’s almost a guarantee you don’t have Tannehill in 2021 though.

sara.ziegler: So was this just lightning in a bottle for them, Mike?

Salfino: The Titans have two football freaks on offense in Henry and A.J. Brown who have really no other physical comparables. But the defense is bad. They don’t have a high draft pick. They have no long-term plan that I can see at QB unless you believe Tannehill is good. (I do not.) And their approach to football is antediluvian.

neil: “Antediluvian”!

LOL

joshua.hermsmeyer: The pre-flood games were lit.

neil: Noah was BIG on smash-mouth football.

Salfino: I learned that word from Josh.

When he’s flaming the “run to win” Twitter trolls.

neil: To be fair, there was one team that Ran to Win on Sunday … but I am sure we will get to the Niners soon enough.

Salfino: Do you guys think that Mahomes would have been great no matter where he landed, or that he landed in the perfect place (or both)?

joshua.hermsmeyer: I think he landed in a good spot, but there’s no denying that he’s a special talent.

But my take is that every QB, if he’s any good, is a system QB.

Salfino: I just have a hard time assessing true skill level in football as opposed to baseball, which is so pure in this regard. It’s more tools in football, I guess. Mahomes sure has them.

sara.ziegler: A little website I like to follow told me that Mahomes had a pretty ideal situation to start out in.

joshua.hermsmeyer: That guy Neil seems to know his stuff. Sharp fellow.

neil: LOL

I think it’s fair to say he has exceeded expectations, though, even given his coaching and supporting cast.

sara.ziegler: I’m pretty sure Mahomes’s path to greatness all started with his early experience around the Minnesota Twins clubhouse:

neil: Yesssss

Or his Little League World Series experience (hat-tip to designer Emily Scherer for this find):

Salfino: Um…

neil: This is how good Mahomes is. Not even the Mets’ curse can stop him.

sara.ziegler: LOL

So let’s move on to the NFC game … which was decidedly less exciting.

neil: Pretty exciting for San Francisco fans, at least.

sara.ziegler: Well, sure.

neil: And Aaron Rodgers haters.

sara.ziegler: And Packer haters.

😬

neil: LOL, jinx.

Salfino: The 1972 Dolphins are always so touchy about their place in history and about people remembering them. But this is really the postseason of the 1972 Dolphins. Or that era’s Dolphins teams. The Titans started it, and then the people who want that style of football just latched on to the Niners. San Francisco had the third-fewest passing attempts (eight) in a postseason game since the merger. Miami had the others. Note that all but one team with fewer than 15 attempts won their games. (Just don’t throw the ball, and you’ll win!)

sara.ziegler: Jimmy Garoppolo with just six completions was definitely my favorite stat of the day.

neil: And Raheem Mostert had the second-most rushing yards by anybody in a playoff game ever!

So much history (that Green Bay was on the receiving end of).

Salfino: You need to find a back who can run to the Super Bowl either at the top of the draft or on the punt coverage team after he’s been cut a half-dozen times. Take your pick.

neil: 😂

joshua.hermsmeyer: I had no dog in the fight, but the game was an object lesson in the old football saw that you have to stop the run to win. Mostert averaged 10 yards per carry on his first 19 attempts. That’s far too many long run plays. It looked like high school ball out there.

neil: The Packer run defense had zero answers for it.

Salfino: I don’t remember a team running that often and that easily ever. There was almost no resistance. I guess we have to credit the Niners’ scheme and blocking.

sara.ziegler: I’m a little confused about how that happened, though. The Packers were bad against the run during the regular season, but not the worst in the league, by any means. Football Outsiders had their run defense at 23rd in Defense-adjusted Value Over Average.

Salfino: Kyle Shanahan is a chip off the old block — Mike Shanahan was finding running backs in the recycling bin with the Broncos and turning them into All-Pros, even after Terrell Davis (a sixth-round pick who also made his bones on special teams).

Someone told me once that defense doesn’t matter. Offense controls outcomes.

joshua.hermsmeyer: The why is always hard without a lot of tape study. But it sure seemed like Shanahan saw a structural flaw in the Green Bay defense and exploited it again and again.

Salfino: How many times have the Packers faced a fullback and a tight end who can block like George Kittle? This is what is tricky about defensive stats, seriously.

neil: And it bears mentioning that the Packers are sort of built this way deliberately. No team spent a higher share of the cap on offense this year, and it’s not even close.

A lot of that is tied up in Rodgers’s massive contract as well. But Rodgers and the offense couldn’t really get rolling at all when the game was still in reach.

(The many turnovers didn’t help.)

sara.ziegler: That has to worry Packer fans long-term. We’ve talked about Rodgers’s “eliteness,” but is he kind of done?

Salfino: Rodgers gave hope to the people who still believe in the greatness — which has objectively faded since 2014 — with a bunch of garbage-time numbers.

neil: Well, he did statistically outplay Jimmy G in the raw numbers, LOL.

(Obviously those numbers are very misleading for the reason you said, Mike.)

joshua.hermsmeyer: Rodgers was average all season long. I think he’s a player you can win with, and might still have sparks of greatness left. Think late-career John Elway as the very top range of outcomes, if the entire team is reshaped around a different philosophy.

Like, imagine Rodgers in a system that asked him to make the throws Tannehill was asked to make this season.

Salfino: I will say it again: Rodgers has ironically turned into Alex Smith, his lifetime nemesis from back in the 2005 draft.

sara.ziegler: Can I just rant for a second about that dumb narrative about Rodgers seeking revenge on the Niners for not taking him No. 1? It’s not like every other team was lining up to take him as their first pick either. He fell to No. 24, for Pete’s sake!

neil: Also, it was 15 years ago. Get over it already.

sara.ziegler: ^^^ THIS

Salfino: The Niners always kick Rodgers’s ass in the postseason, too.

neil: By running the ball down the Packers’ throats, usually.

ESPN’s Stats & Information Group had a stat where San Francisco has averaged 258.3 rushing yards and three rushing TDs per game in three playoff wins vs. Rodgers.

Salfino: Well, there was that Colin Kaepernick game where he ran for about 1,000 and threw for 1,000.

neil: Right.

joshua.hermsmeyer: Coming back to more recent history, I have another thought on the Niners game: It was smart of the 49ers to hide Jimmy G. I think they should continue to do so in the Super Bowl, if they can.

Salfino: But they won’t be able to, Josh. I’m sure you agree.

Mahomes doesn’t let you run to win.

joshua.hermsmeyer: Yes, they won’t. And I think it’s why K.C. will win, and probably pretty easily.

neil: This is low-key one of the biggest QB mismatches in Super Bowl history.

Salfino: I think the spread should be 5. It was 2.5. Now it’s 1.5. All the retired head coach money coming in on the Niners.

neil: (We say K.C. -3.5, for what it’s worth.)

joshua.hermsmeyer: Richard Sherman is not going to be able to run with Tyreek Hill.

Salfino: Darrelle Revis doesn’t think so. Tyreek is going to have a huge game — 200 yards, I predict. He’s going to break the way the Niners prefer to play defense. Or Travis Kelce will have about 150. Pick your poison.

joshua.hermsmeyer: Right, if you go to a zone scheme with safety help for Sherman, then Kelce could be a big problem underneath.

sara.ziegler: Will the Niner pass rush affect Mahomes? He had all day long to throw on Sunday — I can’t imagine that will continue against Nick Bosa and Co.

Salfino: Mahomes’s sack rate is the most underrated thing about his game. It was 3.4 percent this year and down from 2018. It’s 2.8 percent for this postseason. Yes, the Niners have the best rush the Chiefs will have faced, but Mahomes won’t be getting sacked 10 percent of the time or so, which would swing this game to the Niners, IMO. I’d expect 5 percent — so two or three sacks.

joshua.hermsmeyer: The Niners get above-average pressure with just their front four, so I think Mahomes will not be too comfortable. But we saw at the end of the half vs. the Titans what he’s capable of if you let him loose running as well.

Salfino: Mahomes is such a decisive runner for someone who does not run a lot. He had 53 rushing yards in each of the past two games, and he has only exceeded that number twice in his career in the regular season.

sara.ziegler: What other matchups in the Super Bowl are you guys excited to see?

neil: I will say that K.C.’s run defense is suspect, even after they performed a lot better against Tennessee. That might play into San Francisco’s strengths some.

The Chiefs ranked 29th in rushing defense DVOA this season.

Salfino: The 49ers could hurt the Chiefs in the passing game if they cross them up by being more aggressive and designing their game plan to score 30 points, which I think is essential for them to win. If they think they are going to ride their defense and running game to victory, they are sadly mistaken. I’m assuming Shanahan is too smart to think that, though.

joshua.hermsmeyer: Early on, the Niners offensive line vs. the Chiefs run defense should be telling. San Francisco will need that to be another home run, much like the Green Bay game.

Salfino: But Neil, don’t you discount their season ranking given how they just shut down Henry, who was supposedly unstoppable? I just believe that if you want to stop the run badly enough, you can.

neil: So will the key to the Super Bowl be whether Garoppolo is better than Tannehill???

joshua.hermsmeyer: I think that’s the question!

neil: (Um … is he?)

(LOL)

Salfino: I think Garoppolo is better than Tannehill, but I have very low confidence in the accuracy of that opinion.

Deebo Samuel and George Kittle are very serious weapons, though. I think the Niners forgot Manny Sanders was on the team yesterday. But he’s fine.

sara.ziegler: When Kittle was on the stage at the end, holding the trophy, I was like, “Oh, yeah — him!”

LOL

Salfino: Kittle did have 17 targets in the loss to Atlanta. That seems impossible now. Both the targets and the losing to Atlanta.

sara.ziegler: 🤣

joshua.hermsmeyer:

sara.ziegler: Oh, no.

joshua.hermsmeyer: Kittle is all that’s good and wonderful about football.

sara.ziegler: So let’s wrap up our final Slack chat of the season (not including our live blog the night of the Super Bowl) with our predictions.

Are you three all taking the Chiefs???

joshua.hermsmeyer: Yes!

Salfino: Chiefs 34, Niners 17.

joshua.hermsmeyer: Wow, even a score.

sara.ziegler: You think the Niners are going to give up roughly the same number of points as the Titans, but score less?

Salfino: I’m 5-5 in the playoffs now! Feeling it!

neil: I’m gonna be a little more conservative than Mike. Chiefs 24, Niners 21.

joshua.hermsmeyer: 28-13

sara.ziegler: Neil stays true to the model, to the very end.

Salfino: Hahaha

neil: Ehhhh, my O/U of 45 now feels a bit low. Can I make it 27-24? LOL

sara.ziegler: Nope

neil: Awww 😔

sara.ziegler: OK, fine.

Salfino: 27.5-24.

neil: Ooooh

I like how somebody on the FOX pregame picked a half-point margin. I think it was Howie.

They were like, YOU CAN’T DO THAT!

Salfino: I think this game is going to be very tribal. There is a football philosophy on the line for the old-school types. So I bet that, as was the case with the Titans, ex-players and coaches will pick the Niners in the game.

sara.ziegler: All right, I can’t let us all have the same picks.

So I have to take the Niners.

neil: It helps that you also took them in our Hot Takedown Super Bowl Draft episode! (Many, many weeks ago!)

sara.ziegler: Very true — gotta stick with my teams to the bitter end.

joshua.hermsmeyer: Nice work!

sara.ziegler: 49ers 29, Chiefs 28.

Salfino: Niners win on a 2-point conversion in the final seconds.

neil: Running it in, naturally.

sara.ziegler: But really, I just want a good game. We deserve a good game for the Super Bowl.

I’m like Rob Lowe out here, just rooting for everyone:

neil: “Go League! Protect the Shield! Wooo!”

Check out our latest NFL predictions.

Sure, The NFL Playoffs Seem Chaotic … But They’re Actually Pretty Predictable

The Tennessee Titans’ run from the sixth seed to the AFC championship game is a Cinderella tale amid an NFL postseason full of great stories. Even after the Minnesota Vikings upset the New Orleans Saints in the Superdome, and the Houston Texans racked up (and then blew) a 24-0 lead over the Kansas City Chiefs, the Titans beating the New England Patriots and Baltimore Ravens on the road on consecutive weeks still stands out.

This isn’t supposed to be unusual in the league of parity, where the sixth-seed 2005 Pittsburgh Steelers kicked off an era of wild-card teams winning it all. The 2007 New York Giants, a five-seed, met the 18-0 New England Patriots in the Super Bowl and beat them. The 2010 Green Bay Packers won it all as a sixth seed, too. In 2011, the Giants won another Super Bowl ring after sneaking into the playoffs at 9-7 as the champion of a weak NFC East.

It’s no wonder fans and analysts frequently complain about the NFL’s playoff format, insisting that it’s too easy for weak teams to get in and too hard for the regular season’s best teams to capitalize on their seasonlong performance. Amid reports that the league is looking to add a playoff game on each side of the bracket and some in the players union are trying to change the seeding, it seems like a solution to this problem is coming.

The only problem? There’s no problem.

In fact, the NFL playoffs are a chalk factory. Since at least 2010, no other major U.S. professional sport has put its best teams in the semifinals more frequently than the NFL.1 The NFL and NBA averaged three top-two seeds in the conference finals per season, while MLB averaged two, and the NHL averaged 1.3.2

In eight of the past 10 NFL seasons, at least three of each year’s four conference finalists have had a first-round bye. In fact, no season has had fewer than two top-two seeds in the final four. Overall, 30 of the 40 title-game participants have been either No. 1 or No. 2 seeds. Since the 2013 season, every Super Bowl winner has been a top-two seed — and all but one have been their conference’s No. 1.

The NBA is just as good at putting its best teams in position to win a ring; over the same period, it has averaged 3 top-two seeds in its final fours. Of course, every round of the NBA playoffs is a best-of series instead of a single-elimination game — and, as Michael Mauboussin found, NBA basketball results are driven more by skill than any other major U.S. sport. Luck plays a much bigger role in baseball and hockey, so it’s no wonder that MLB and the NHL don’t put top seeds in the semifinals nearly as often.

But wait — we know NFL results are significantly luck-driven, too, and single-elimination games give underdogs a better chance to win than a multiple-trial series. How does the NFL put its regular-season champs in position to win conference and league titles as frequently as the NBA?

Credit the NFL playoff structure. When the season’s winningest teams have to win just one home game to make the conference finals, they’re going to do so more often than not. Of course, when luck is a significant factor in wins and losses, the winningest teams aren’t necessarily the best ones. FiveThirtyEight’s Elo rankings still regard the Ravens and Saints as the strongest and third-strongest teams. The Ravens, Saints and Patriots also finished first, third and fourth in Football Outsiders’ DVOA.

But the reason we have playoffs is to put the winners against the winners and see who wins — and the NFL’s format does that more effectively than anyone gives it credit for.

Check out our latest NFL predictions.

CORRECTION (Jan. 16, 2020, 5:28 p.m.): A previous version of this article incorrectly identified the league that averaged two top-two seeds in its conference finals from 2010 through 2019. It was MLB, not the NBA.

What To Make Of A Wild Wild-Card Weekend

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

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

neil (Neil Paine, senior sportswriter): LOL

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

sara.ziegler: I’ve changed my mind.

Salfino (Michael Salfino, FiveThirtyEight contributor): Hahaha

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

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

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

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

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

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

And they held New Orleans 11.9 EPA below their norm.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

sara.ziegler: LOL

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

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

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

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

sara.ziegler: It does not.

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

sara.ziegler: He made one great throw.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

joshua.hermsmeyer: Vikings fans, smh.

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

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

sara.ziegler: LOL

neil: So true!

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

neil: NO.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

sara.ziegler: LOL, fair

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

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

joshua.hermsmeyer: Yes, Neil.

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

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

neil: I have a guess.

Salfino: Um, not me?

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

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

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

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

neil: EPA hates rushing?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

sara.ziegler: So will Brady play again?

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

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

ELI??????

(Fingers crossed.)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Salfino: This was the JV team though.

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

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

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

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

joshua.hermsmeyer: Right?

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

Rodgers treats interception risk like it’s plutonium.

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

sara.ziegler: LOLOLOL

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

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

neil: Poor Buffalo. 😔

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

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

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

joshua.hermsmeyer: Peak Salfino.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I was getting frustrated on Houston’s behalf.

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

sara.ziegler: LOL

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

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

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

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

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

But they eventually flipped that script.

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

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

We did NOT do well last week, guys.

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

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

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

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

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

This is what I tell my bookie every week.

OK — on to Cincinnati.

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

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

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

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

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

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

joshua.hermsmeyer: Do eeet.

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

sara.ziegler: OK, OK — I’m doing it.

Baltimore, Kansas City, Minnesota, Seattle.

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

Check out our latest NFL predictions.

The Cowboys Collapsed, The Seahawks Stumbled, And The Playoff Landscape Shifted In Week 16

sara.ziegler (Sara Ziegler, sports editor): We’re two days before Christmas and one week (and one game) away from the end of the regular season. There are precious few playoff spots still up for grabs but plenty to talk about.

Let’s start with the game that could have secured Dallas a playoff spot, the game before which Dak Prescott learned to “defer.” How did the Cowboys lay such an egg?

neil (Neil Paine, senior sportswriter): Because they’re the Cowboys … ?

sara.ziegler: LOL

We can just end the chat here. 😬

Salfino (Michael Salfino, FiveThirtyEight contributor): The QB couldn’t practice all week because of injury and then threw 44 passes.

They did try to run on first down and got stuffed more than half the time. But if you’re trying to protect your injured QB, you need to throw more on first downs to get ahead of the down and distance — and then run. There were way too many third and longs for a guy with shoulder issues that seemed to really degrade his accuracy.

joshua.hermsmeyer (Josh Hermsmeyer, NFL analyst): Dak somehow had a worse QBR than Jameis Winston and his four picks, and the Cowboys ran just three rushing plays against a light box, leaving Ezekiel Elliott with 47 rushing yards. They had nothing working and no real plan.

sara.ziegler: Dak’s injury was pretty apparent, but the decision-making also, again, seemed suspect.

neil: Injury or not, Dak had his worst game of the season at the worst possible time.

Dak played his worst when it mattered most

2019 game log for Dak Prescott of the Dallas Cowboys, with FiveThirtyEight quarterback Elo ratings (relative to an average NFL starting QB)

Passing Stats
Game No. Opp. Won? Net Yds Per Att. TD Int QB Elo vs. Avg
1 NYG 405 12.7 4 0 +340
2 WSH 261 8.4 3 1 +265
3 MIA 241 7.3 2 1 +32
4 NO 212 6.2 0 1 -23
5 GB 441 9.4 2 3 +59
6 NYJ 270 6.6 0 0 +89
7 PHI 213 7.1 1 1 +44
8 NYG 257 7.3 3 1 +87
9 MIN 393 8.4 3 1 +168
10 DET 434 9.2 3 0 +224
11 NE 212 6.4 0 1 -2
12 BUF 323 6.1 2 1 +121
13 CHI 326 6.4 1 0 +29
14 LAR 212 9.2 2 0 +87
15 PHI 257 5.6 0 0 -47

Source: Pro-Football-Reference.com

Salfino: He did. But in fairness, there were three drops. I don’t want to defend Dak just for being hurt because he played and most guys are hurt now. But Amari Cooper did not show up. Elliott did not take over the game like you would expect a franchise RB to do. And the defense could not stop an injury-riddled Eagles offense.

I do give Carson Wentz a ton of credit though. The guy is making all his spares — even if there are no strikes in this passing game now.

joshua.hermsmeyer: I enjoyed that Cooper was “not benched” at the end of the game for Tavon Austin. It was also interesting to hear Cooper complain about not getting enough go routes to run.

Salfino: What’s even more incredible about that fourth-down play is that Randall Cobb was benched, too. That’s two of your top three receivers. Cooper has seen a drop-off in production starting around Week 6 or so — he’s just a guy out there. I can’t see how you can give him franchise-level money.

When your plan is, “We needed to get Tavon Austin on the field,” you have no plan.

neil: Meanwhile, Zeke was basically a nonfactor and has worn down in the second half of the season. (He has only one game over 90 rushing yards since Week 9). But at least they’re not paying him a ton of guaranteed money for many years going forward. Oh, wait.

Salfino: Whenever a running back takes a serious step backward in production, you can reasonably wonder if he’s never coming back to the prior level. The Rams’ Todd Gurley is the same deal now. But at least we know that Gurley is chronically injured. I have no idea what’s wrong with Elliott. (The biggest indictment of the Pro Bowl is the Cowboys offensive line getting three on the team. Are you kidding me? Is this a lifetime achievement award? The Cowboys line is just fine, it’s not great.)

sara.ziegler: Though our piece last week about the Cowboys’ paths to the Super Bowl is looking a little stale, Dallas still has a 25 percent chance to make the playoffs, according to the FiveThirtyEight forecast.

Salfino: Danny Dimes!

sara.ziegler: Exactly.

Can’t you see Philly losing to the Giants next week and giving the Cowboys the opening???

This has been such a weird season.

Salfino: I felt that the Eagles could lose to anyone last week, and I guess I have to still feel that way. They were life and death with Eli Manning and Dwayne Haskins, right?

joshua.hermsmeyer: The only legitimate way for this to happen is for Danny Dimes to get injured in the second quarter and then for Eli to come in and lead the Giants to victory, ending his career one game above .500.

sara.ziegler: Yesssssss

neil: That sounds eminently possible.

Salfino: Could Case Keenum beat the Cowboys? What if both teams lose? I’m sort of rooting for that, though I am a big Wentz fan and hate how Eagles fans drag him.

neil: Well, it’s important to note that even if the Cowboys tie, the Eagles make the playoffs.

So that would also be a fitting/hilarious way for all of this to end.

sara.ziegler: The more absurd, the better!

joshua.hermsmeyer: Rich Eisen won the evening with his Jets tweet:

neil: LOL

Salfino:

neil: There were so many potential jokes around that Cowboy game.

Salfino: Planes, Trains & Automobiles” was the hardest I ever laughed in a movie theater.

You can see Jerry Jones as Steve Martin and Chris Christie as Candy.

neil: I love that the NFC playoff field could have four 12-win teams, an 11-win team … and whoever wins the NFC East, at maybe 8-8.

Salfino: Where are you guys on changing the playoff structure? I am totally against it. I like the division system taking priority in seeding, and kind of enjoy the chaos of this type of divisional asymmetry. But maybe I’m just old fashioned.

sara.ziegler: I guess it depends on what the point of it all is, right?

neil: I think the league could probably stand to drop the rule that division winners host playoff games, at the very least.

Salfino: My feeling is that if you have teams playing six games in their division, then division has to rule.

joshua.hermsmeyer: I haven’t heard any firm proposals for a change, so unsure.

Salfino: Well, Josh, I guess you could just seed all the teams by record regardless of division. That would be the only viable alternative, I think. But then we’re a small step to having 12 playoff teams regardless of conference, too.

joshua.hermsmeyer: That sounds like most fantasy leagues. I bet there would be a lot of folks who would like that.

sara.ziegler: Do you want to find the best team? If you do, reseeding by record makes more sense to me.

Salfino: We can put analytics in charge of everything and just have Pythag determine the seeding. 🙂

sara.ziegler: Sold.

neil: Sorry, Seahawks.

Lol

sara.ziegler: That was the next game I wanted to talk about.

What … happened there?

Salfino: Seattle was a total fraud and was finally exposed when Russell Wilson had no magic in him for a day.

neil: Remember when Wilson was an MVP front-runner? He’s been running cold for about a month now.

Salfino: I think Wilson should still be an MVP front-runner, honestly. Seattle is a bad team with an inner-circle Hall of Fame QB and is winning, somehow. Put a slug QB on that team and it wins maybe four games.

(Not saying that Wilson, who has never even received an MVP vote, should win — just that he deserves being in the conversation.)

joshua.hermsmeyer: Perhaps the most notable event was a Hawks analytics staffer logging on to Twitter and defending Pete Carroll’s decision to punt inside the Arizona 40 early in the game (though the tweet has since been deleted). You hate to see it.

sara.ziegler: Arizona still won after losing Kyler Murray.

Brett Hundley shall lead them, apparently.

Salfino: I don’t get what is so complicated on the fourth and shorts. If we’re playing Madden or Strat-O-Matic or whatever, we’re going for those every time. If you just want to win, that’s the call. And every time, your opponent wants you to punt; they’re excited about you punting. Why give the opponent what they want so willingly? Teams have to quit playing to the press box and start playing to win, period.

sara.ziegler: There’s such a disconnect between playing the odds in a theoretical game and playing them in a real game. The age-old problem.

Salfino: But that’s only because deep down, you want to take the quiet loss. The loud loss gets you fired. So coaches will gladly pay a small price today in win probability for a better chance at maintaining employment tomorrow. This only changes when the announcers on the games start being hip to expected value and win probability.

neil: The good news for the Seahawks is that they still can win the division (and potentially even be the No. 1 NFC seed) with a head-to-head win over San Francisco, this time at home.

Salfino: I want to say I will eat a bug if the Niners lose, but their defense scares me for the opposite reasons as in the first half of the season. They can’t stop anyone now, it seems.

joshua.hermsmeyer: Wow, San Francisco just 55 percent to win the division by our Elo.

But if they win, 14 percent to win the Super Bowl.

neil: Elo has San Francisco favored by 1.5 on the road vs. Seattle in Week 17, which explains the 55 percent. Vegas has SF -3, FWIW, which translates to about a 59 percent chance.

Salfino: Josh has written about how defensive performance isn’t sustainable season-to-season, but the Niners have been two-faced on defense in the season.

sara.ziegler: How much were injuries to blame though, Mike?

Salfino: A lot. But that’s the thing on defense, IMO. You have to keep so many more people healthy. A top offense can lose practically anyone except the QB.

sara.ziegler: That’s fair.

Salfino: Speaking of injuries in that game, maybe the Seahawks will be helped by having no running backs except for maybe Shaun Alexander, I mean Marshawn Lynch, and thus be forced to pass.

neil: Shaun Alexander? What’s the statute of limitations on the Madden Curse?

joshua.hermsmeyer: I’m still weak that Marshawn coming back isn’t completely off the table.

sara.ziegler: OMG, yes.

joshua.hermsmeyer:

sara.ziegler: Come back to win them the Super Bowl!

Salfino: Lynch coming back and getting 25 carries with Wilson throwing 23 passes would be peak Schotty.

sara.ziegler: Meanwhile, in the AFC, the final wild card is still very much up for grabs. Tennessee and Pittsburgh refused to nail that spot down this weekend, and somehow, against all odds, Oakland still has a shot!

joshua.hermsmeyer: My head hurts.

neil: There was already a long list of things that needed to happen Week 16 to make it possible … and they ALL happened!

Salfino: So a Cowboys-Raiders Super Bowl is still alive!

joshua.hermsmeyer: The Raiders having the super long shot parlay for a playoff spot is on-brand considering their new home next season.

neil: Haha

sara.ziegler: It just makes sense.

Salfino: I think all those things could happen, except for the Ravens beating the Steelers with their 12 Pro Bowl players all benched. So do the Ravens sit everyone basically for two weeks — or play their starters, knowing they’ll have the next week off? Bill Belichick would play this one for real, I think.

neil: Somehow Pittsburgh can still make the playoffs even if it loses to Baltimore next week. (Which is incredible to me.)

So the Ravens wouldn’t necessarily get the satisfaction of personally ending the hated Steelers’ season, whether they play the starters or not.

joshua.hermsmeyer: I think beating the Browns was a pretty good substitute. The mismanagement at the end of the half by Cleveland was breathtaking, and, I think, much welcomed by the Ravens.

How do you not run out the clock and end up leaving Lamar enough time for a TD? Cleveland got the ball at the end of the half with 1:18 on the clock and punted with 1:02. It would have taken just one running play to keep the ball out of his hands.

Salfino: I’ll be shocked if we ever hear of Freddie Kitchens again after this year.

neil: “The mismanagement at the end of the half by Cleveland was breathtaking” — perma-analysis for the 2019 Browns.

joshua.hermsmeyer: Loool

sara.ziegler: Hahahaha

Salfino: The Browns are like the blockbuster movie with all the big stars that ends up winning only Razzies.

neil: Don’t say we didn’t warn them

Salfino: The Browns are like an old Irwin Allen disaster movie. Except those made money.

neil: I would LOVE to see Baker Mayfield accept his Razzie in person, a la Halle Berry.

Salfino: Baker’s commercial time is going to take a big hit in 2020.

sara.ziegler: I’ll miss the Baker’s House commercials when they’re gone.

joshua.hermsmeyer: It was an expensive season for Baker.

Salfino: He cashed out quick, like Brady Quinn. Quinn somehow had national commercials his rookie year.

joshua.hermsmeyer: !

neil: Is that, like, a thing for Browns QBs? Did DeShone Kizer hock some product that we didn’t know about?

sara.ziegler: Time for a deep dive on YouTube, Neil.

Salfino: Brandon Weeden did commercials for AARP.

neil: LMAO

sara.ziegler: Amazing

neil: Mike wins the chat.

Check out our latest NFL predictions.

The Seahawks Keep It Close. Is That Any Way To Win A Super Bowl?

The 11-3 Seattle Seahawks are either one of the luckiest teams in NFL history or one of the most clutch.

When asked about the team’s record in close games, head coach Pete Carroll chalked up Seattle’s apparent good fortune to the latter, citing team leadership and poise under pressure. What he’s implicitly telling us and his team is that he believes the 2019 Seahawks can continue prevailing in close games, which by definition tend to fall equally either way.

Seattle again tempted fate in Week 15 with a margin of victory of merely a touchdown against a Carolina Panthers team led by an interim coach and backup quarterback who is reportedly headed back to the bench after a three-pick performance. That marked the Seahawks’ record-tying ninth game won by 7 points or fewer through the season’s first 14 contests.

Seattle likes the close ones

NFL teams since 1970 with the most wins by 7 points or fewer through 14 team games

Year Team Wins
2019 Seattle Seahawks 9
1986 New York Giants 9
1978 Houston Oilers 9
2016 Detroit Lions 8
2016 New York Giants 8
2016 Oakland Raiders 8
2012 Indianapolis Colts 8
2005 Jacksonville Jaguars 8
2003 Carolina Panthers 8
2001 Chicago Bears 8
1993 Los Angeles Raiders 8
1980 Cleveland Browns 8
1976 St. Louis Cardinals 8

Source: Pro-Football-Reference.com

Of the two other teams since the 1970 AFL-NFL merger who won nine of their first 14 games by 7 points or fewer, one went on to win a Super Bowl: the 1986 New York Giants. The other team, the 1978 Houston Oilers, lost to eventual Super Bowl champion Pittsburgh in the AFC Championship game.

Those teams share some characteristics with the 2019 Seahawks — namely, a reliance on the running game relative to the league average. The Oilers ran the ball about 9 percent more often than the average 1978 team (60.7 percent of the team’s total offensive plays were runs, compared to the league-average 55.6 percent). The Giants ran 12 percent more than the 1986 league average (51.9 percent vs. 46.3 percent). The Seahawks, to the chagrin of those who want more passing from Russell Wilson, are even more extreme, running almost 14 percent more often than the league average (46.9 percent to 41.2 percent).

The narrative around the ground game is that it allows a team to batter its opponent and rest its defense. That may be helping Seattle’s offense late in games, but it doesn’t seem to matter for the defense.

We can measure this by looking at play success rate in tight games. When a game is within 7 points in the fourth quarter and overtime, the Seahawks’ offense is the sixth-best in the league by play success rate. However, in these situations, the defense is below average: It ranks 25th in the league in defensive play success, according to ESPN’s Stats & Information Group.

As a result, the Seahawks aren’t exactly blowing out opponents in their less competitive games. Despite their record, the Seahawks are just plus-26 in point differential, tied for 11th in football. (The divisional rival L.A. Rams, who are currently 8-6, also have a point differential of plus-26, while the 7-7 Dallas Cowboys are more than triple that, at plus-90). By comparison, the Super Bowl-winning 1986 Giants were plus-143 in point differential through 14 games despite the same number of “close” wins. And of all the 11-win teams through 14 games since the merger, Seattle’s point differential ranks 86th out of 87.

Although the Seahawks have already clinched a postseason berth, teams with lower point differentials don’t tend to win the Super Bowl. Between 1970 and 2018, 12 teams won 11 games with a point differential of less than 80 at this point in the season. Just one of those won the Super Bowl: the 2006 Indianapolis Colts.4 And at plus-65, Indianapolis that year was more dominant through 14 games than the Seahawks have been to date. The average point differential of all 87 11-win teams, including this year’s, is plus-112.

Yet the best measurable explanation for Seattle’s record is the turnovers, which are notoriously random — they describe wins and losses well but are unreliable predictors of them. The Seahawks’ net turnover margin is plus-13, third-best in the league. Opponents have also missed four more field goals than the Seahawks have. If you add net turnovers and net missed field goals, which former NFL general manager Mike Lombardi maintains should count as turnovers, the Seahawks are at plus-17, still the third-best differential in football behind the Patriots (+19) and Packers (+18).

Seattle’s impressive record may indeed be more fluke than fact. If the turnovers do prove less bountiful going forward, Carroll and co. will have to hope that the club’s veteran leadership and calmness under pressure can still somehow carry it to victory against the conference’s best teams.

Looking Ahead: Week 16

Best matchup:5 No. 2 New Orleans (-2) at No. 9 Tennessee, 1 p.m. ET Sunday

With Eagles-Cowboys, Vikings-Packers and Niners-Rams on tap, who would have guessed that the marquee game of Week 16 would feature the Titans going up against the Saints? Tennessee failed to capitalize on a golden opportunity to seize control of the AFC South over Houston last week, coming up just short in the end. But we still give Ryan Tannehill — who, astonishingly, remains the 13th-ranked QB in the league — and the Titans a 58 percent chance to make the playoffs after Pittsburgh, Indianapolis, Cleveland and Oakland all lost in Week 15. A win here would boost those odds to 66 percent, with a 27 percent chance to win the division heading into an epic Week 17 rematch with the Texans. As for New Orleans, it’s currently in good position (60 percent) for a first-round bye in the NFC playoffs, and QB Drew Brees is red-hot: Over the past two weeks, he has produced two of the six best quarterback games of the entire 2019 NFL season, according to our QB Elo metric. As the Saints tune up for the playoffs, we give them a 16 percent chance of winning the Super Bowl — tops in the NFC and second only to Baltimore (38 percent) across the league as a whole.

What to watch for in the NFL’s Week 16

NFL matchups for Week 16, ranked according to various factors

Matchup Rankings
Favorite Underdog Favorite’s Win prob Quality Evenness Importance QBs
2 Saints at 9 Titans 57.2% 1 5 3 1
15 Eagles vs 13 Cowboys 55.9 8 4 1 2
4 Vikings vs 8 Packers 65.0 2 8 5 3
14 Buccaneers vs 12 Texans 54.0 7 1 7 4
6 49ers vs 10 Rams 66.3 5 9 4 8
18 Steelers at 23 Jets 54.1 10 3 2 15
1 Ravens at 22 Browns 80.2 6 14 6 6
3 Chiefs at 16 Bears 63.0 4 7 9 5
5 Patriots vs 11 Bills 67.8 3 10 9 10
20 Chargers vs 25 Raiders 70.5 13 12 8 9
31 Redskins vs 28 Giants 54.0 15 2 9 13
29 Dolphins vs 30 Bengals 61.7 16 6 9 12
7 Seahawks vs 27 Cardinals 85.0 9 16 9 7
21 Colts vs 24 Panthers 68.0 11 11 9 14
17 Falcons vs 26 Jaguars 74.5 12 13 9 11
19 Broncos vs 32 Lions 83.1 14 15 9 16

Game Quality is based on the Elo Ratings of both teams. Evenness is based on how close the game is to 50-50 pregame odds. A game’s Importance is based on how much it swings the playoff odds of the teams involved. A game’s Quarterbacks are judged on the QB Elo ratings of the two starters.

Biggest playoff implications: No. 13 Dallas at No. 15 Philadelphia (-1.5), 4:25 p.m. ET Sunday

Potential shift in playoff odds: 76.0 total percentage points

This NFC East grudge match between the Cowboys and Eagles isn’t the prettiest on paper — both teams are barely above average, and each has had more than its share of ups and downs over the course of the season. But no game this season has arrived with more playoff probability on the line. For Dallas, it’s a win-and-you’re-in situation, as the Cowboys would clinch the division title with a victory here. Philly’s path is somewhat less straightforward; its division (and hence, playoff) odds would rise to 77 percent with a win over Dallas, but the Eagles would need either another win vs. the Giants or a Dallas loss (or tie) against Washington in Week 17 to realize their playoff aspirations. We think Philadelphia is a slim favorite — 56 percent to win — at home against Dallas in their must-win contest, but to do so they’ll need to shut down Cowboys QB Dak Prescott, who has posted an above-average QB Elo in 12 of his 14 starts so far this season.

Best QB duels: No. 2 Drew Brees (NO) vs. No. 13 Ryan Tannehill (TEN); No. 4 Dak Prescott (DAL) vs. No. 11 Carson Wentz (PHI); No. 6 Kirk Cousins (MIN) vs. No. 8 Aaron Rodgers (GB)

FiveThirtyEight vs. the Readers

As a weekly tradition here at FiveThirtyEight, we look at how our Elo model did against everybody who made picks in our forecasting game. (If you entered, you can find yourself on our leaderboard here.) These are the games in which Elo made its best — and worst — predictions against the field last week:

Elo’s dumbest (and smartest) picks of Week 15

Average difference between points won by readers and by Elo in Week 15 matchups in FiveThirtyEight’s NFL prediction game

OUR PREDICTION (ELO) READERS’ PREDICTION
PICK WIN PROB. PICK WIN PROB. Result READERS’ NET PTS
TEN 64% TEN 56% HOU 24, TEN 21 +7.3
PIT 54 BUF 54 BUF 17, PIT 10 +5.5
CLE 66 CLE 60 ARI 38, CLE 24 +5.2
SEA 66 SEA 73 SEA 30, CAR 24 +2.4
MIN 57 MIN 63 MIN 39, LAC 10 +2.3
OAK 68 OAK 65 JAX 20, OAK 16 +2.0
NE 82 NE 87 NE 34, CIN 13 -0.3
GB 63 GB 66 GB 21, CHI 13 -0.4
NO 79 NO 81 NO 34, IND 7 -0.9
BAL 90 BAL 91 BAL 42, NYJ 21 -1.3
NYG 52 NYG 52 NYG 36, MIA 20 -2.2
KC 78 KC 78 KC 23, DEN 3 -2.3
PHI 71 PHI 70 PHI 37, WSH 27 -2.8
SF 83 SF 85 ATL 29, SF 22 -4.5
LAR 54 LAR 58 DAL 44, LAR 21 -6.5
TB 73 TB 65 TB 38, DET 17 -6.9

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.

The readers had a good showing in Week 15, picking up points for downplaying favorites like the Titans and Browns and for correctly defying the model in Sunday night’s Bills-Steelers tilt. Elo struck back by hedging against the Lions, Rams and Niners, though, and ended up winning the week by an average of 3.4 points. It was Elo’s smallest margin against the field since losing outright in Week 4, but it does mark the algorithm’s 11th consecutive victory over the readers, bringing its record on the season to 13-2.

Congratulations are in order, though, to Jason Andrew Cunningham, who led all readers in Week 15 with 198.3 points, and to Aaron DiGenova, who reclaimed the full-season contest lead with 1,016.3 points. Thanks to everyone who played — and if you haven’t, be sure to get in on the action! You can make picks now and try your luck against Elo, even if you missed Week 15.

Check out our latest NFL predictions.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Salfino: Very good point.

joshua.hermsmeyer:

I had to get some Packers shade in there.

sara.ziegler: I approve.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

(No, I haven’t forgotten 2010.)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

sara.ziegler: 🤣

neil: Facts.

Although Carson Wentz has been better the past few weeks!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

sara.ziegler: Hahaha

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

joshua.hermsmeyer: The Bills … are legit?

neil: Playoff bound!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Salfino: Nope.

joshua.hermsmeyer: Nah.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

sara.ziegler: Ooooh, 🔥 prediction.

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

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

sara.ziegler: LOLOL

neil:

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

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

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

sara.ziegler: Ouch.

Salfino: The Brady passive-aggressive takes are fire.

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

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

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

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

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

Salfino:

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

Salfino: It was worth every dollar!

neil: The Kirk Cousins of consoles.

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

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

😬

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

Amazing.

joshua.hermsmeyer:

He gave Adam some side eye.

neil: SMH

Check out our latest NFL predictions.

Brady Looks Bad, The Niners Look Great, And The AFC South Is A Mess

sara.ziegler (Sara Ziegler, sports editor): Week 14 of the NFL season brought us a couple of marquee matchups between top contenders — along with a few head-scratchers. Let’s start with the thrilling game between New Orleans and San Francisco.

neil (Neil Paine, senior sportswriter): Amazing game.

Salfino (Michael Salfino, FiveThirtyEight contributor): It’s probably good for the Niners that the offense and Jimmy Garoppolo had to win the key game of the season on the road because, of course, offense wins championships. But I’m sure the Niners are very worried about their defense today — and especially their pass defense, since that was their signature strength.

joshua.hermsmeyer (Josh Hermsmeyer, NFL analyst): It was really interesting to watch the Saints march down the field and score on their first four drives of the game. It was even more remarkable that the Niners led at the half.

sara.ziegler: You know you’re having a good day when one of your wideouts catches a touchdown pass and throws one.

Salfino: Both teams were throwing haymakers right from the start of the game. But I agree that the Niners going into halftime with the lead was stunning. The one thing people questioned was whether San Francisco could win a game in which their defense failed, and this was the most extreme version of that in one of the toughest places in football to play.

neil: Brees had the best game of Week 14 according to our Elo QB metric (+406 Elo points above an average starter). That’s part of a trend where the Niners’ pass defense has looked a bit less dominant in recent weeks — they’ve allowed very good games to Kyler Murray (twice), Lamar Jackson and now Brees over the past six games.

joshua.hermsmeyer: Expected points added per play agrees:

sara.ziegler: Though those are pretty decent quarterbacks…

neil: True, Sara. And one thing that’s helped offset it is that Jimmy G is playing much better recently.

Salfino: I actually thought that the Niners defense figured it out against the Ravens in the second half of that game, but they never figured anything out on Sunday.

neil: I wonder whether we’re going to look back at this game as an NFC championship preview in about six weeks.

sara.ziegler: It does seem like that, doesn’t it?

neil: These feel like the two best NFC teams, and it’s not particularly close.

sara.ziegler: (I’m glad I took them both in the Hot Takedown Super Bowl draft.)

Salfino: Garoppolo still has only 23 career starts. He’s 19-4 with a yards per attempt over 8.0. The only other quarterbacks to have matched or tied both of those marks are Kurt Warner, Ben Roethlisberger and Dan Marino. And he’s seventh since the 1970 merger in YPA in his first 23 starts, minimum 500 attempts.

So I think we underrate Garoppolo. I’m not saying he’s a Hall of Famer in the making, but he’s a legit franchise quarterback.

sara.ziegler: I’m not sure it’s underrating as much as just not knowing what he can do. He had been wildly inconsistent this year before turning it on in his past four games.

Salfino: He was inconsistent, but in fairness, his receiving corps had yet to emerge. Deebo Samuel is a rookie and is a totally different player now than he was at the start of the season. They traded for Emmanuel Sanders. George Kittle is a great receiver, and he drives the running game with his blocking, but he’s been hurt.

Kittle made probably the signature play of the season so far:

(Ironically, the 49ers were once on the receiving end of a tight end making a play like this in December on the way to a Super Bowl.)

joshua.hermsmeyer: I think the question with Jimmy is: Is he capable of putting the team on his shoulders week in and week out, or is Kyle Shanahan protecting him? Shanny schemed the second-most outside-the-pocket play-action plays for him across the league this week, and he dialed up a couple of trick plays, as well.

Salfino: And remember, his signature achievement before yesterday was completely turning around a clearly bad 49ers team in 2017. So when you bookend these two things, I think it’s fair to say he’s very good.

joshua.hermsmeyer: Any QB is hugely dependent upon the system he’s asked to run, and how well it meshes with his skill set (look at Jackson), so it’s not a knock. But I still think that Shanahan is the big driver of the Niners’ success.

Salfino: I do think it’s fair to give Shanahan a lot of credit, but you could say that even about Drew Brees with Sean Payton. It’s very hard to separate the QB and the coach.

joshua.hermsmeyer: Agreed.

sara.ziegler: What about the Saints? Should they be worried that they couldn’t close out that game?

joshua.hermsmeyer: I think officiating didn’t help. They scored the same number of TDs and field goals as the Niners, and they closed out the game with back-to-back TD drives. I don’t think anything is wrong with NO.

Salfino: I thought the Saints defense was just another unit before Sunday. I was shocked by how explosive they were on offense even with Alvin Kamara again doing basically nothing. It’s funny that after Teddy Bridgewater started several games, the feeling was, “This is a real team now that doesn’t need Brees!” and now they still need Brees to bail them out. And Brees is the king of bailing them out late and losing anyway.

neil: And it felt like one of those ones where whoever got the ball last would win.

Tough to lose, but essentially a toss-up.

Salfino: Payton has got to stop talking about the officiating though. Don’t expect the refs to bail you out on a fake punt.

sara.ziegler: Also, the officiating is bad for everyone right now.

joshua.hermsmeyer: So true.

Salfino: The Patriots can’t catch a break from the officials!

sara.ziegler: LOL

joshua.hermsmeyer: You hate to see it.

neil: Yes, won’t someone please think of the Patriots.

(I do think they got screwed a few times in that game. Lol.)

sara.ziegler: The challenge system is so ridiculous. A call looks wrong so you challenge, but it isn’t overturned. Then you challenge another call, and it is overturned. Then, if there’s another bad call later, because you were unsuccessful with your first call, you don’t get to challenge it. You’re essentially counting on the refs to not make an even worse call later, which is just not a good situation to be in.

Salfino: Out of challenges? A scoring play is automatically reviewed but not a play that actually should have been a scoring play? Coaches get a second challenge after an unsuccessful one sometimes but not all the time? The entire replay system is a mess. Just. Kill. The. Beast.

neil: Bad calls or not, Brady looks very mortal right now.

sara.ziegler: But he can run!

LOL

neil: I do like a fired-up Brady after a run-n-slide.

joshua.hermsmeyer: He did a half-hearted first down arm thing, which was very on-brand.

Salfino: The officiating is good for the Patriots in a way because it takes the focus off of the only ways they can score now: blocked punts, gadget plays.

sara.ziegler: Are they leading the league in trick plays for touchdowns??

neil: Feels like they try that flea flicker about once a game. (And it usually works.)

Salfino: In his last seven games, Brady’s yards per attempt is 5.8. There have only been 31 QB seasons this century with a yards per attempt of 5.8 or worse. You don’t want to be on this list.

neil: Is this Brady’s 2015 Peyton Manning season?

This is the first time he’s had a below-average QB Elo rating since that infamous KC game in 2014, when Jimmy G came on in relief.

(Ironically, they are moving on to Cincinnati again this time.)

joshua.hermsmeyer: Brady has probably declined some, but would we notice if he still had Rob Gronkowski?

I think probably not so much.

neil: That’s the eternal question of this season — is it Brady’s age or lack of weapons?

But at this point it kinda doesn’t matter. The Pats have who they have.

Salfino: Brady the inner-circle Hall of Fame QB would have elevated this supporting cast. But he can’t do that anymore. The talk in Boston is that he’s going to leave via free agency. The question is, who would want him?

joshua.hermsmeyer: Yeah, go where? Chicago? Washington?

Salfino: Josh, Trubisky had 32 fantasy points on Thursday. Show some respect.

sara.ziegler: Go live on the beach and stop eating so much kale, Tom.

Salfino: Peter King said that Denver was reportedly interested.

neil: That would be hilarious.

sara.ziegler: That would be ridiculous.

neil: Denver is where QB careers go to die.

I am much more curious about the post-Brady Pats with Belichick.

Salfino: The team that is positioned to win that needs Brady the most is … the Patriots. I mean, on paper anyway.

neil: Also, I want to note that we are basically looking ahead to next season and beyond for a team that still has a 9 percent chance to win the Super Bowl (and is the defending champion, with the best passing defense in the league).

So there’s still a lot of time for them to right the ship.

sara.ziegler: Always good to remember with New England.

And also, they were playing a really good team! The Chiefs looked excellent for a lot of that game.

Salfino: The Patriots could definitely win the AFC. But Sunday’s game was influenced significantly by Patrick Mahomes’s hand injury — he could not throw a spiral.

joshua.hermsmeyer: Exactly, Mike. Analysts seem to be pretty bearish on the Chiefs when Mahomes doesn’t pass for 400 yards and look like the best QB we’ve ever seen take the field. It looked like his hand was bothering him, and he took some shots during the game.

Salfino: The thing we don’t talk about with the Patriots is how bad Belichick has drafted. He took Sony Michel and N’Keal Harry in the first round the last two years,1 and neither guy could get on the field (though Harry did get the carry for the touchdown that never was).

neil: Michel has definitely had a sophomore slump. He’s down to 3.5 yards per carry this season, after posting 4.5 as a rookie.

Salfino: Belichick took Harry 19 picks ahead of A.J. Brown! Imagine the Patriots with that jet-propelled tank of a WR. But maybe Brady would have frozen him out for running the wrong route one time.

sara.ziegler: The other most notable games of the weekend for me were those in the AFC South.

neil: Houston refuses to just take command of this thing when it gets the chance.

Salfino: I think we talk about teams that a trapped with QBs that are not good enough but still good enough to win with. QB purgatory. The Texans are in coaching purgatory. Deshaun Watson is going to ensure they win enough to keep Bill O’Brien, but O’Brien is still a bad coach — or at least not a good enough coach to win a Super Bowl.

sara.ziegler: But why the difference in how the Texans played against New England vs. how they played against Denver? Is that really about the coach?

neil: Defensively, they let Drew Lock post a 136.0 QB rating.

Salfino: Think of how bad Brady must be to get shut down by the Texans defense that was gutted by Drew Freakin’ Lock.

neil: Yep.

joshua.hermsmeyer: Yeah, I don’t buy that loss to Denver is on the coach. They were looking past the Broncos.

Salfino: OK, but looking past a team is a failure of coaching, Josh.

joshua.hermsmeyer: Perhaps, but the entire team took the week off. That’s a team loss, not O’Brien in particular.

neil: Houston has been a bad defensive team after they lost J.J. Watt to an injury at midseason. And overall, they’re 31st in the league in QB Elo rating allowed per game.

Salfino: If they were looking past the Texans, I chalk that up 100 percent to the coach.

joshua.hermsmeyer: Good teams lose weird games every year.

In 1994, Steve Young was benched against the Eagles. Just embarrassed.

joshua.hermsmeyer: The Texans are fifth in EPA/play on offense. I don’t see how you can call them bad.

Salfino: But O’Brien is so obsessed with running Carlos Hyde that he doesn’t open the offense up in anticipation of his defense being bad. He has to lean into more offensive explosion with Watson and not play conventionally in “establishing the run.” His mindset every week should be that he needs to score 35 points. He has the horses to do this, IMO.

joshua.hermsmeyer: As for the Titans, Ryan Tannehill is either much better than we ever gave him credit for, or Mariota was playing so badly that he effectively sunk a pretty good team.

Salfino: Tannehill has been great. The throw to Brown on the 91-yard TD was fantastic. But Brown — like Samuel — has really emerged of late. He’s averaging 21 yards per TARGET the past three games.

Now the Titans play the Texans twice? That’s crazy. In a matter of weeks, the Titans have somehow gone from a team you dread watching to a fun team with explosive skill players. How did this happen?

sara.ziegler: With all of the weirdness this weekend, the Texans and the Titans are still more likely than not to make the playoffs — both have the edge over Pittsburgh.

So it looks to be a wild finish there.

Salfino: You always have a puncher’s chance with Watson. But the Texans are not a good team. Maybe not a bad one either — but a team that the rest of the AFC should hope makes the playoffs. I bet every playoff team in the AFC is rooting for Houston over Tennessee.

neil: Idk — I’d still rather face Tannehill than Watson in a playoff game.

Salfino: Yeah, that’s fair. Ironically, they both share the same weakness — sack rate.

neil: I am also stunned Tannehill has been as good as he’s been.

Remember when the joke was that, OK, next year, the Dolphins will break out with him — every year? For, like, six straight years?

This is that breakout I guess.

Salfino: And Tannehill has Derrick Henry, who played through a hamstring injury that sapped his speed, but he just ran over people instead. He had that hamstring wrapped, and his hamstring along looked like it weighed 100 pounds. Henry and Brown are two of the most unique skill players in the league, given their size. There is no prototype to compare them to. And Brown combines rare speed with a defensive end’s body.

sara.ziegler: Another big game for playoff chances was the Rams-Seahawks game Sunday night. Don’t look now, but the Rams are up to a 36 percent chance in our model (from 14 percent two weeks ago).

Which means I give the Vikings a 100 percent chance of missing the playoffs.

Salfino: Who would have thought that Tyler Higbee would end up being the player who would turn the Rams offense around.

neil: They also clamped down on Russell Wilson defensively, which was impressive.

Salfino: Wilson had nothing last night. I was shocked. The bag of tricks was empty.

joshua.hermsmeyer: The Rams are 2-0 since losing to Baltimore, so I think that qualifies as momentum, and they now must be considered one of the better teams in the league. Them’s the rules.

It would be something if Dallas were able to right the ship and beat L.A. — and save Jason Garrett’s job for another season.

sara.ziegler: Someone has to win the NFC East!

Check out our latest NFL predictions.

The Bears Are Stumbling After a Playoff Run. Yes, Again.

Last season, the Chicago Bears were one of the NFL’s great success stories. Picked by our model to win just 6.6 games,1 with only a 19 percent chance of snapping the team’s seven-year playoff drought, Chicago instead flourished under second-year quarterback Mitchell Trubisky and first-year Head Coach Matt Nagy. The Bears went 12-4, won the NFC North and were mere inches away from beating the defending champions in the playoffs. Nagy won Coach of the Year honors, and going into 2019, Chicago seemed primed to build on its breakout — thanks to a staunch defense and further potential development from Trubisky.

But things haven’t really gone according to that plan … because, let’s face it, they almost never do in the Windy City. The Bears’ 2019 campaign has been beset by the usual maladies: kicking disasters, coaching miscues, poor quarterbacking, defensive regression, etc. After losing a potentially winnable slog against the Los Angeles Rams on Sunday night, Chicago’s playoff odds are down to 1-in-100.

We would ask how things got to this point, except that things always seem to get to this point for the Bears when seeking a return trip to the playoffs. Going back to the 1990s, Chicago has repeatedly tried — and failed — to build on its breakout seasons, most of the time leaving fans bitterly disappointed instead. And, barring a miracle, this season looks like it will be no different.

Let’s rewind a bit. The year was 1994, and the Bears were two seasons removed from a run of seven playoff appearances in eight years, including a legendary championship in 1985. But they had gone 12-20 in 1992 and ’93, during which time the team officially moved on from both its head coach — longtime boss Mike Ditka — and quarterback — Jim Harbaugh, who’d shown flashes of talent but played miserably in 1993. Led by second-year Head Coach Dave Wannstedt and a combination of Steve Walsh and Erik Kramer under center, Chicago turned things around with a 9-7 regular season in ’94 and added a road playoff win over the Minnesota Vikings before being dispatched by the eventual champion San Francisco 49ers.

Poised to make a postseason return the following year with Kramer — who actually had a tremendous 1995 season — starting full time, Chicago started 6-2. But the Bears ultimately missed the playoffs on a tiebreaker after going 3-5 in the second half of the season, undone by special teams and (of all things) defense. The franchise wouldn’t make it back for the rest of the decade.

That playoff drought was snapped in 2001, when a QB nobody thought much of — Jim Miller, who had thrown fewer passes for the 2000 Bears than the immortal Cade McNown or Shane Matthews — led a team nobody thought much of to a season nobody saw coming. That year’s Bears defense went from 20th in points allowed to first, a feat made even more incredible by the team’s middling rankings in more yardage-based metrics. The Cinderella story ended at home against the Eagles in the playoffs, but at least some observers saw another playoff trip in the cards for 2002.

Instead, the defense regressed back to 25th in points allowed, Miller didn’t last the season as starting QB, and Chicago crashed back to earth with a 4-12 record. The Bears would languish out of the playoffs for a couple more seasons after that, during which time the team burned through a succession of starting QBs that included Kordell Stewart, Craig Krenzel, Chris Chandler, Chad Hutchinson, Jonathan Quinn, Kyle Orton and Rex Grossman.

Those last two names are where the story takes a turn, though, as part of the exception to the overall rule.

The 2005 Bears were another one of those underdog Chicago teams with an untested QB (Orton, standing in for the injured Grossman) and a second-year head coach (Lovie Smith), about which little was expected aside from some hints of defensive promise. They started the year 1-3, as Orton played poorly — but then, out of nowhere, they rattled off an eight-game winning streak as part of a stretch with 10 wins in the season’s final 12 games. The team once again led the league in scoring defense — even coming by it more honestly than in 2001 — and it kept winning, even though Orton continued to struggle until Grossman’s return in Week 16. Despite going 10-5 as Chicago’s starter during the regular season, Orton was benched for the playoffs in favor of Grossman. But at home in the playoffs against the Carolina Panthers, Grossman didn’t fare much better than Orton had, and the Bears’ season ended in a 29-21 loss.

Looking ahead to 2006, it sure seemed like history repeating itself from a few years earlier.2 But the ’06 Bears actually did make it back to the playoffs — and even went as far as the Super Bowl before running into Peyton Manning and the Indianapolis Colts on a rainy Super Sunday in Miami. Though Grossman was a mediocre passer at best, the Brian Urlacher-led defense repeated its top-five performance in points allowed and helped the Bears make a rare postseason return before the wheels began to fall off in 2007.

That was the start of a new three-year playoff drought for the club, but in 2010 the Bears still had Smith as an experienced coach to go with QB Jay Cutler — who was acquired from Denver for Orton and picks, and who had something to prove after a terrible debut season in Chicago. Cutler’s own 2010 was up and down, but the Bears’ defense once again was terrific, allowing the fourth-fewest points in the NFL, and the team finished 11-5. In the playoffs, Chicago beat the Seattle Seahawks before losing at home to the Green Bay Packers in an NFC championship game that Cutler left early with a knee injury.

Would the Bears return to the playoffs in 2011? Of course they would not. Chicago started 7-3 before Cutler was injured again, and the team went 1-5 down the stretch with a combination of Caleb Hanie and Josh McCown replacing Cutler under center. The Bears rebounded to go 10-6 in 2012 but also became one of the rare NFL teams in history to win double-digit games and miss the postseason. After that, they’d never muster anything better than an 8-8 record for the rest of the Cutler era, eventually missing the playoffs in seven straight seasons from 2011 to 2017.

All of which brings us to 2019, when Chicago had its fifth chance since the mid-1990s to build on an unexpected playoff run with another postseason bid. And likely for the fourth time — 2006 being the sole exception — the team will fail to follow up on the breakthrough. The return rate for playoff teams since the NFL expanded to its current format in 1990 is 52 percent, and only 42 percent for teams coming from outside the postseason the year before. So naturally you would expect this phenomenon to happen multiple times to some team. But the Bears have done it so often, they’ve practically become the poster franchise for playoff teams dropping out of the field the next season.

The Bears can’t seem to shake playoff hangovers

In seasons when the Bears went from out of the playoffs to in, primary starting QB (with QB Elo rating) and scoring defense rank for that season and the following season, 1990-2019

Playoff Season Follow-Up Season
Years Starting QB ELO* Def. Rk Starting QB ELO* Def. Rk Playoffs?
’94-95 Steve Walsh -16 10th Erik Kramer +47 22nd
’01-02 Jim Miller -33 1st Jim Miller -28 25th
’05-06 Kyle Orton -99 1st Rex Grossman -46 3rd
’10-11 Jay Cutler -31 4th Jay Cutler -8 14th
’18-19 Mitch Trubisky +22 1st Mitch Trubisky -53 4th

*FiveThirtyEight rolling QB Elo rating, relative to an average starter, by season’s end. (Through Week 11 in 2019.)

Source: Pro-Football-Reference.com

The 2019 team happens to share some commonalities with Chicago’s previous stumbles. The defense, for instance, isn’t quite as dominant as it was last season — which seems to be a common flaw for these one-off Bears playoff bids. (Does the legacy of the ’85 Bears defense loom so large over the franchise that it must constantly try to rebuild in that team’s image?)3 There’s a lot of research showing that defensive quality, while extremely important for team success, is also extremely variable from season to season, even with talent like Khalil Mack on your side. So when your quantum leaps from obscurity into the playoffs are always reliant on dominating D, it’s no surprise to see a penchant for backsliding in subsequent seasons.

But an interesting difference this year, as compared with earlier failed playoff returns, is at quarterback. Most of the other seasons involved Chicago starting with a low-rated QB who won despite poor passing. Often, these QBs would improve (or be replaced by a better option) in the follow-up bid, but it wouldn’t be enough to overcome the defensive regression. Trubisky, however, entered the 2019 season with an above-average QB Elo rating, which could only be said about quarterbacks in 19 Bears seasons since 1950 — and only three QBs since 1998 (including Trubisky).

This appeared to be an argument in Chicago’s favor for returning to the postseason: that the 25-year-old’s ongoing development would provide insurance in case of a defensive slide. But instead, Trubisky’s underwhelming play (he ranks 27th in QB Elo out of the 34 current and/or primary starters in the league) has stalled the Bears’ rebuilding process and called into question his long-term future with the team.

We don’t know where the Bears go from here. But even if they make it back to the postseason, say, next season, they’ll need to prove it’s not a one-year wonder — unlike basically every other Bears playoff run in the past three decades.

Check out our latest NFL predictions.

The Draw Play Is Dying In The NFL — But It Shouldn’t Be

For decades, the draw play has been one of the NFL’s most reliable tricks to fool overeager defensive lineman. The play mimics a pass — in the action of both the quarterback and the offensive line — until the last second, when the ball is handed off to the running back. When it works, the runner can often slice through holes untouched because defenders are busy trying to evade offensive linemen for a sack of the quarterback.

The play may seem like the perfect countermeasure to keep a defense honest in the modern NFL. Yet for some reason, the draw play has been all but erased from teams’ playbooks.

As the story goes, the draw play was invented in the middle of a game to slow unblockable pass rushers. It quickly became a staple of the modern offense by the sport’s “master innovator” Paul Brown, after a desperate hand-off on a busted passing play ended up working. “You fool one guy with a trap block,” Brown said. “You fool a whole pass rush with a draw play.”

Offenses today are more pass-happy than ever before. And defenses have had to respond with more aggressive stunts and blitzes by rushers quicker and more desperate to pressure passers. So what better way to cross them up than by using a draw play? But during the 2018 season, teams ran the play just a little more than once every two games, down from well over two per game just 10 years ago.

This is despite the success rate of the play used on first or second down being better than that of all rushes by running backs on those downs.1 According to the ESPN Stats & Information Group, the success rate2 on first- and second-down draws this year is 41.8 percent, compared with 38 percent on all RB runs on those downs. And draws on any down result in longer gains on average (5.29 yards per attempt) than other running back runs (4.35).

The Los Angeles Rams called only one draw play all season. (It didn’t work.) The New Orleans Saints waited all the way until Week 10 to run their first draw play of the season — a successful one. That two of the league’s most innovative offensive coaches — Sean McVay and Sean Payton — basically ignore the play seems like a bad harbinger for its survival. But the maestro of the NFL’s best offense, Kansas City’s Andy Reid, is one of the league’s greatest proponents of the play. That makes perfect sense: He’s essentially a Brown disciple, given that his West Coast offense was originally conceived by Bill Walsh when Walsh coached on Brown’s staff with the Bengals.

The Chiefs, who will play Indianapolis in the divisional round this weekend, have run a draw 16 times this year and have had success 10 times. That success rate of 62.5 is by far the best of the 10 teams that have run more than 10 draw plays. The Chargers also have used the draw well, generating 64 rushing yards in 10 attempts, six of which graded as successful.

The draw is often thought of as a play of last resort: When teams are faced with virtually hopeless distance to convert a third down, they can use the draw to stop the bleeding before punting. But only 37 third-down draws this past season were in situations when the offense needed at least 7 yards to convert. The vast majority were used on first and second down (256 out of 307 draw plays) and out of the shotgun (253 total draw plays). Of course, the latter makes sense given that the main purpose of the play is to mimic a pass.

Reid primarily uses the draw when teams have virtually no defenders dedicated to the run, meaning no more than six defenders “in the box” at or near the line of scrimmage. That was the defense deployed 13 of the 16 times Reid called a draw this season, and the call was successful eight of those times. If defenses continue with this look, a draw could be the perfect call.

With the Chiefs offense setting records and NFL coaches looking at it for design and play-calling inspiration, there’s a good chance that teams will soon discover that one of the oldest forms of NFL deception may have even more relevance in the modern game.

Check out our latest NFL predictions.

With No Runaway Favorites, The NFL Playoffs Should Be Wild

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

rank 2018 Team 1990-17 Avg.
1 Saints 21%
30%
2 Chiefs 20
21
3 Patriots 14
14
4 Rams 13
10
5 Bears 7
7
6 Ravens 6
5
7 Chargers 4
4
8 Eagles 4
3
9 Seahawks 4
2
10 Cowboys 3
2
11 Texans 3
1
12 Colts 3
1

All numbers are as of the final regular-season game of a given year. 2018 probabilities may not add up exactly to 100 percent because of rounding.

Source: Pro-Football-Reference.com

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.

If Elo had to pick a favorite from that category, it would be the Chicago Bears, who are currently tied for third in the league in Elo and will host the defending Super Bowl champion Philadelphia Eagles (tied for No. 7) on Sunday at 4:40 p.m. ET. Chicago finished the regular season having allowed the league’s fewest points, so this is a classic Monsters-of-the-Midway Bears team in that sense. But quarterback Mitchell Trubisky is also playing much better than the typical Chicago QB from playoffs past — he’s no Jim Miller or Rex Grossman, for instance. According to ESPN’s Total Quarterback Rating,5 Trubisky was the NFL’s third most effective quarterback on a per-play basis this season. While he had some lows (such as a dreadful 29.5 QBR in an opening-week loss to the Packers) to go with the highs (like a 98.9 QBR vs. Tampa Bay in Week 4, one of the highest single-game marks on record), Trubisky’s strides as a second-year passer helped Chicago’s offense — which ranked a respectable 13th in expected points added — be more in line with its dominating defense.

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

Standard Elo QB-Adjusted Elo
Team Rating Win Prob. Base Rtg Starting QB QB Adj. Win Prob.
CHI 1640 61% 1644 Mitchell Trubisky +18 66%
PHI 1624 39 1606 Nick Foles +2 34
BAL 1627 60 1650 Lamar Jackson -42 61
LAC 1624 40 1580 Philip Rivers +12 39
DAL 1572 54 1569 Dak Prescott 0 55
SEA 1605 46 1572 Russell Wilson +26 45
HOU 1551 56 1537 Deshaun Watson +28 58
IND 1578 44 1533 Andrew Luck +38 42

Home teams are in bold.

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

Source: Pro-Football-Reference.com

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’ PREDICTION
PICK WIN PROB. PICK WIN PROB. Result READERS’ NET PTS
TEN 62% IND 55% IND 33, TEN 17 +15.1
NO 87 NO 77 CAR 33, NO 14 +13.3
MIN 56 MIN 50 CHI 24, MIN 10 +3.5
LAC 64 LAC 70 LAC 23, DEN 9 +1.8
PHI 65 PHI 71 PHI 24, WSH 0 +1.6
HOU 71 HOU 74 HOU 20, JAX 3 -0.1
ATL 54 ATL 56 ATL 34, TB 32 -0.4
PIT 83 PIT 83 PIT 16, CIN 13 -1.7
SEA 88 SEA 86 SEA 27, ARI 24 -2.0
KC 88 KC 86 KC 35, OAK 3 -2.3
LAR 85 LAR 83 LAR 48, SF 32 -2.6
NE 89 NE 86 NE 38, NYJ 3 -2.6
GB 65 GB 67 DET 31, GB 0 -4.4
BUF 59 BUF 55 BUF 42, MIA 17 -5.5
DAL 62 DAL 56 DAL 36, NYG 35 -8.2
BAL 81 BAL 68 BAL 26, CLE 24 -10.5

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.

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.

Check out our latest NFL predictions.