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.

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.

What The Final Week Of The NFL Season Tells Us About The Playoffs

sara.ziegler (Sara Ziegler, sports editor): The NFL’s regular season finally came to a close on Sunday, with the playoff spots filled and the on-their-way-out coaches ready to be fired. But before we jump fully into the postseason, let’s talk about the games that mattered in Week 17.

The AFC had more drama for its last playoff spot, but in the end, the best team (by FiveThirtyEight’s Elo ratings) made it. The Tennessee Titans beat the Deshaun Watson-less Texans and grabbed that No. 6 seed. Were you guys surprised by how that all played out?

neil (Neil Paine, senior sportswriter): I was SO hoping the Raider parlay would work out.

It was in decent shape for a while, thanks to the Ravens’ backups.

Salfino (Michael Salfino, FiveThirtyEight contributor): The Raiders making the playoffs was like the old gambling tickets when you had to go 10-for-10 to win $100.

joshua.hermsmeyer (Josh Hermsmeyer, NFL analyst): Ryan Tannehill led the league in a metric near and dear to my heart, completion percentage over expected (CPOE), so I’m thrilled and also unsurprised. There’s also no way he continues this performance much longer. Such an outlier year for him.

neil: Josh, who are you taking right now: Tannehill or Tom Brady? The battle of track record vs. recency!

joshua.hermsmeyer: WHEW, give me Brady.

Salfino: The Texans weren’t competing, so I would have been shocked if Tennessee had lost. The Titans are suddenly a very fun team with two of the most explosive offensive players in football: rushing champ Derrick Henry and, in my mind, the best offensive rookie in football, A.J. Brown, who had the most catches of 50-plus yards for a rookie WR since Randy Moss.

sara.ziegler: Can the Titans beat New England, though?

neil: Certainly the more pertinent real-world question, haha.

The Pats had the best QB Elo defense in the league this year; Tennessee was 22nd. But this has to be one of the few playoff games ever where Brady went in with an inferior QB rating beforehand.

(Especially since the opposing QB is Tannehill — not, like, Peyton Manning.)

Salfino: The danger lurking for Tannehill is that sack rate: 9.8 percent after Sunday (over 10 percent prior). That’s tied for the 30th worst this century, adjusting for league rate.

neil: And the New England D had the sixth-best sack rate of any team this season.

joshua.hermsmeyer: I do think that Tennessee is not a great team for New England to have to play after just losing to the Dolphins and dropping out of a first-round bye for the first time since 2009. The Titans have had the second-best offense in the league since Week 7, when Tannehill took over starting duties.

sara.ziegler: Seems less than ideal.

And that Miami game wasn’t just some fluke result — the Dolphins were the better team.

neil: It’s particularly disturbing for Patriots fans that they lost at home, in a Week 17 game where they weren’t resting starters. Vegas had that game at Pats -17, and it ended up being the biggest upset of the season.

Salfino: Miami could not get its offense going until the fourth quarter, and then Ryan Fitzpatrick somehow beat the Patriots’ defense with a touchdown drive that actually seemed kind of easy. Not going for a score at the end of the first half says a lot about how the team views its offense now.

neil: And getting quick end-of-half scores has always kinda been the Pats’ thing.

(Well, one of their things.)

Salfino: Dolphins receiver Devante Parker just slaughtered putative Defensive Player of the Year Stephon Gilmore. That was the story of the game, defensively, for New England.

I wonder how much of this was Fitz just not caring about throwing at Gilmore, as most QBs are seemingly afraid to. I don’t really believe in the shutdown corner — they’re a very rare breed. There have only been two in the last 25 years, IMO: Deion Sanders and Darrelle Revis.

sara.ziegler: I enjoyed the shots of Chiefs fans hearing the final score from the New England game — when they knew they would get the No. 2 slot. And that game was touch-and-go for a while, too!

joshua.hermsmeyer: Kevin Harlan called two games at once!

sara.ziegler: LOLOL

Salfino: The Chiefs are peaking at the right time, if that’s a thing. For New England, Bill Belichick historically has ramped things up in December as a way to build postseason momentum. If that’s a model for playoff success, the Chiefs are right there with the Ravens. Their defense has suddenly emerged as a real force. But maybe it’s just a function of facing worse offenses. It seems weird that a team could transform itself so much — within a season — on one side of the ball.

neil: To that point about peaking, we have them as the second-most-likely Super Bowl winner now, at 14 percent.

(Of course, Baltimore at 46 percent remains just a massive favorite, probably more than anyone is giving them credit for.)

joshua.hermsmeyer: What were the Patriots’ chances to win the SB prior to losing to Miami, Neil?

neil: 10 percent. Now just 3 percent.

joshua.hermsmeyer: Amazing.

Salfino: Baltimore has 12 Pro Bowlers and just took out the Steelers with their backups. So I buy that 46 percent. I would not want to see the Chiefs, though, if I were the Ravens.

joshua.hermsmeyer: I think Elo has it right. Kansas City is going to be a lot to handle. And the Chiefs beat the mighty Ravens back in Week 3.

sara.ziegler: I’m so excited for that matchup. (If it happens.)

neil: K.C. also played a pretty difficult schedule this year. Second-hardest in terms of average opposing Elo (adjusted for location). Only team whose slate was tougher? Houston.

Salfino: Does Elo think the Chiefs’ defense is legit?

neil: Yeah, they also had the third-best pass defense in terms of limiting opposing QBs below their usual Elo. Pats and Steelers were 1-2.

Salfino: What a turnaround for them. So this is saying the Chiefs defense has a bigger impact on QB performance than the Ravens D. I’m shocked by that.

neil: The Ravens were sixth, so they’re elite as well, but their number dropped a bit in the last few weeks as Sam Darnold and Baker Mayfield had solid games. (Obviously Duck Hodges is a different story.)

sara.ziegler: What about the rest of the AFC? Can the Bills or Texans make any noise?

joshua.hermsmeyer: Elo has it spot on, in my view. Basically no shot for the Bills or the Texans to make the Super Bowl.

neil: I’m probably higher mentally on the Texans than I should be because of Watson. But they really weren’t anything special for most of this year — 13th in SRS, according to Pro-Football-Reference.com, and 11th in Elo.

Salfino: I do think the Bills could beat the Texans. What chance do we give Buffalo in that game?

neil: We have Houston at 65 percent, obviously in large part because they’re at home.

And it’s not like they’ve ever come out totally flat at home in a playoff game where they were favored.

Salfino: Watson has six games over 9.0 yards per attempt and five games under 6.0. I don’t think many QBs ever have been that volatile. And that doesn’t even factor in his on-again, off-again sack woes.

neil: You nailed it on Watson, Mike.

The NFL’s most inconsistent QBs of 2019

Highest standard deviation of game-to-game QB Elo performance among 2019 quarterbacks with at least five starts during the regular season

Quarterback Starts QB Elo (vs. Avg)/Game Std. Dev.
Deshaun Watson 15 +48.0 179.4
Drew Brees 11 +110.1 175.0
Marcus Mariota 6 -87.5 170.9
Russell Wilson 16 +43.2 166.6
Jameis Winston 16 -27.5 161.6
Sam Darnold 13 -43.1 148.6
Daniel Jones 12 -3.2 147.8
Ryan Fitzpatrick 13 -13.3 146.9
Matt Ryan 15 +20.6 144.6
Mason Rudolph 8 -92.6 138.3

He had the highest game-to-game standard deviation of Elo performance of any QB with at least five starts this year.

sara.ziegler: Let’s move on to the NFC, where there was less drama this weekend (looking at you, Vikings) but still some jockeying for position. Philly had its fans on pins and needles before pulling out the game against the Giants and securing a playoff spot.

And the Cowboys go home…

Salfino: I think Carson Wentz is a Russell Wilson-level magician this year. Throwing for 4,000 yards without any wide receiver getting 500 is unreal.

joshua.hermsmeyer: The Eagles are fun to root for. So many injuries all over the team.

Salfino: I joked that there was a waiting list for their blue tent yesterday, and then there actually was, according to Fox.

neil: And for the Cowboys, you had to love seeing them pile up 47 meaningless points against Washington a week after they couldn’t even muster a TD in a potential playoff clincher.

It was the most Cowboys way this Cowboys season (slash-Jason Garrett Era?) could have ended.

Salfino: I love that Wentz and Wilson, who are completely carrying their teams, are matching up in Week 18.

joshua.hermsmeyer: In a sane world with rational coaching, Seattle would be favored in that game. Perhaps heavily.

Instead we get Philly favored by 5.5.

Salfino: But Seattle is hardly impressive when you look at the more predictive stats, beyond their win-loss record. Their defense is garbage, I don’t trust their line, and they refuse to unleash Wilson right from the start of games.

joshua.hermsmeyer: All true! But I put most of that on the coaches. Did you see some of the throws Russ made last night?

sara.ziegler: And yet Wilson had only 233 yards passing on Sunday.

joshua.hermsmeyer: Criminally underutilized.

sara.ziegler: Jimmy Garoppolo had 285!

Salfino: Imagine having Wilson and giving Marshawn Lynch 12 carries off the couch.

sara.ziegler: 🤣

neil: Hey, at least Marshawn got the goal-line TD he should have been allowed to score five seasons ago.

sara.ziegler: Oooooh

🔥

neil: (He also got bottled up on a big fourth down at the end of the first half, and he averaged 2.8 yards per carry. As you might expect from a guy who hasn’t played in forever.)

joshua.hermsmeyer: Was he the proximate cause for that delay of game at the end? Trying to get a play called for him?

neil: Oh, man.

Salfino: I think he was. But the weird thing about the delay is that the Seahawks were still in the huddle. They were not close to getting a play off. That is just horrible coaching.

sara.ziegler: It was really the perfect ending to that game, LOL.

Salfino: I wonder what the win probability was on first and goal from the 1 with 25 seconds left vs. second and goal from the 7. I bet a team has never bled that much win probability away without running a legitimate play (they had the spike).

Even on the spike, they should have just sneaked. Everyone was right at the line.

joshua.hermsmeyer: They lost almost 15 points of win probability on the penalty, right after gaining 56 points on the fourth-down conversion.

Salfino: The sneak is about 85 to 90 percent successful. So two sneaks beats a spike and three passes.

sara.ziegler: Ooof

Salfino: Kyle Shanahan was really let off the hook. He should have gone for it on fourth and 1 from his own 29. That defense was not stopping Wilson. And then he burns a timeout in getting a look at their formation? Like the Seahawks have plays — they just have Wilson do stuff. He needed that timeout to counter for the winning or tying field goal.

But then, enter Pete Carroll.

sara.ziegler: LOL

Salfino: Would you guys have gone on fourth and 1 inside your own 30? Seattle did not want that to happen, I guarantee it. They just wanted the ball.

joshua.hermsmeyer: I think the additional win probability was small, but it makes sense to try to keep Wilson off the field AND leave time on the clock for your own late drive if you do fail and the Seahawks score.

Salfino: You win the game on offense. You hope the other team doesn’t win the game on defense.

neil: OK, OK, enough about the Seahawks. Sara, I know you’re avoiding it, but we at least have to acknowledge the upcoming Vikings-Saints game. So much recent history between those two teams…

joshua.hermsmeyer: lol

Salfino: Are we still counting the bounty game?

neil: I am!

I know for a fact Sara still does.

Salfino: I don’t want to sound like Sara here, but the Vikings do not seem to have a chance.

neil: LOL

sara.ziegler: How quickly your tune changes, Mike.

joshua.hermsmeyer: I have also come around to Sara’s way of thinking.

Salfino: I know. I’m ashamed of my prior pro-Vikings stance.

sara.ziegler: Hahahahaha

Salfino: I hate narratives, but Kirk Cousins really does not seem to like the spotlight.

I think playing on the road actually helps Cousins.

sara.ziegler: This is actually the kind of game that the Vikings might end up winning, since no one is giving them a chance.

(And no one should be giving them a chance, to be clear.)

neil: They should change their name to the Minnesota Contrarians.

Salfino: Look at Sara going contrarian here with a Pro-Vikings take. Love it!

sara.ziegler: That’s just how I roll.

Also, I want acknowledgement that I called the Vikings losing their last two games! (Though I did not foresee them benching everyone against the Bears, LOL.)

Salfino: While the focus is on Cousins, the big story of this game I predict is just how suspect the Minnesota secondary is. Drew Brees should eat them alive.

sara.ziegler: Yeah, it’s gonna be ugly.

We need to talk for just a second about the Packers, though. This isn’t just my pro-Vikings perspective, but they have no chance, right?

joshua.hermsmeyer: They have a chance, but only because they somehow secured that bye.

neil: Only if New Orleans wins. 😉

sara.ziegler: Wow, Neil.

neil: Lol.

sara.ziegler: Rude.

joshua.hermsmeyer: I’m not even gonna trot out a stat. Aaron Rodgers just looks horrible.

So my eye test says close-to-no chance for the Pack.

neil: I’ll do it because I can’t help myself: He’s been below average in QB Elo in four straight games and seven of his last eight. No QB fell off more down the stretch of the season than Rodgers:

Rodgers fizzled down the stretch

Biggest dropoffs in per-game QB Elo vs. average between the first and second halves of the 2019 regular season among quarterbacks with at least four starts in each half

1st Half of Season 2nd Half of Season
Quarterback Starts QB Elo (vs. Avg)/G Starts QB Elo (vs. Avg)/G Diff
Aaron Rodgers 8 +82.9 8 -33.9 -116.9
Tom Brady 8 57.9 8 -45.2 -103.2
Russell Wilson 8 93.1 8 -6.7 -99.7
Matt Ryan 7 72.2 8 -24.5 -96.6
Deshaun Watson 8 92.7 7 -3.1 -95.7
Jacoby Brissett 8 20.1 7 -68.1 -88.1
Philip Rivers 8 33.3 8 -37.4 -70.7
Gardner Minshew 7 10.4 5 -47.1 -57.5
Derek Carr 8 55.6 8 15.4 -40.2
Patrick Mahomes 7 125.8 7 93.7 -32.1

Salfino: The Packers were life and death against David Blough. Think about that.

Look at Rodgers’s yards per attempt by season since 2014. He’s been right around average or below (below this year) for five straight seasons. He’s gone from being inner-circle Hall of Fame Rodgers through 2014 to being … Alex Smith since.

sara.ziegler: So, to wrap things up, I want to get you guys on the record with your predictions — so we can rip each other later when our predictions all look terrible.

Who do you all like this weekend?

Salfino: Buffalo (my one upset if we get the bad Watson), New England, New Orleans, Philadelphia.

joshua.hermsmeyer: Houston, New England, New Orleans, Seattle for me.

neil: Houston, New England, New Orleans, Philly.

Salfino: Neil going chalk. Smart!

neil: Chalk!

sara.ziegler: And I’m taking Buffalo, Tennessee, New Orleans and Seattle.

joshua.hermsmeyer: And my hot fire take is the Philly-Seattle game will be close.

Because Seattle.

neil: That’s why Seattle will win, I guess?

sara.ziegler: No one took the Vikings. 😔

Salfino: Not even you!

If they had Case Keenum, maybe…

sara.ziegler: LOL

Hey, I’m a fan, but I’m realistic.

Salfino: Fatalistic.

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.

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.

What Did We Learn About The Contenders In The NFL’s Week 13?

sara.ziegler (Sara Ziegler, sports editor): Week 13 had a little bit of everything: matchups between division leaders, out-of-nowhere upsets and yet another Chargers heartbreaker. A kicker caught a touchdown … thrown by a punter! What more could we ask for?

Let’s start with the biggest surprise of the week for me: Philadelphia, which could have jumped back into a tie for the NFC East lead with a win, marched down to Miami and gave up 37 points to Ryan Fitzpatrick and Co.

joshua.hermsmeyer (Josh Hermsmeyer, NFL analyst): Philly was befuddled by the muddle huddle.

Salfino (Michael Salfino, FiveThirtyEight contributor): I always kick myself when I assume a team has completely transformed a unit in-season. I did buy the narrative that the Eagles had improved their pass defense immeasurably relative to their early-season woes. But this team was always weakest in the defensive backfield, so even getting guys back did not fix the problem, obviously, as Fitzpatrick — who has now played the Eagles seven times with seven different teams — just tore them apart.

gfoster (Geoff Foster, FiveThirtyEight contributor): Some smart NFL people predicted the Eagles to win the NFC this year based on the talent on their roster, which is one of the most expensive in the league. I think earlier this season it was easy to write off these losses because of their injuries at receiver and all over their defense. But now, is it time to admit that this team is just not that good?

joshua.hermsmeyer: I’m not sure what to make of the Eagles from top to bottom this season. They just gave a five-year, $21.8 million contract to Jake Elliott at the most replaceable position in football outside running back.

sara.ziegler: Sure, you laugh at a huge kicker contract, until you’re the Cowboys holding kicker tryouts on a December Sunday…

gfoster: Look at what Fitzpatrick did to this defense:

Salfino: They seemed to have the depth to be fortified against typical in-season problems. But I think we found out that even the starters were not that good. And nothing has really held up through in-season attrition. Even their coaching has not responded. Can you imagine being beaten by gadget plays now three straight games? It’s just embarrassing.

sara.ziegler: Fitzpatrick isn’t that bad! He’s almost league average in our QB ratings.

That makes what Miami is doing this year all the more confusing.

gfoster: This is the closing argument in the case that NFL tanking doesn’t exist. If the Dolphins really wanted Joe Burrow or Chase Young or whomever in the draft, they would simply play Josh Rosen at quarterback. But with Fitzmagic in there, they are going to get games like this from him, and they will win more.

joshua.hermsmeyer: I still contend that tanking did exist … but maybe the spotlight on their supposed tanking caused them to stop.

I think the pressure got to them!

sara.ziegler: There’s also the argument that Miami is just bad at tanking.

Salfino: It’s like “The Producers.” If you’re trying to be terrible, it’s actually not that easy.

sara.ziegler: Hahaha

gfoster: To clarify: I think you can tank in the NFL. But you can only do it by purposefully playing a lesser QB. Like, say, Ryan Finley over Andy Dalton.

Salfino: But what’s the carrot for tanking? It’s one starter out of 22, and we don’t even know if that guy ever is really the best player.

If it’s just about compiling draft capital, then it’s more binary — be bad, it doesn’t matter if you’re the worst or not.

joshua.hermsmeyer: So the Bengals have a one-game lead on the New York Giants for the first overall pick. You have to think Cincinnati takes Burrow if they lose out. But an interesting question is: If the Giants get the first overall, do they take Burrow or trade down?

Salfino: Geoff, they’re just trying to make us feel better about the Jets….

sara.ziegler: There’s no way to feel better about the Jets today.

gfoster: I think they would try to trade down, and if that didn’t work, then they would just take Chase Young at No. 1 and not feel too bad about it.

Salfino: I will eat 1,000 bugs if the Giants draft Burrow. Plus, Burrow is old for a prospect. I have low confidence with all QB prospects translating as expected but even lower with older prospects. Burrow should be dominating just based on his age.

joshua.hermsmeyer: I think it would be pretty funny if Giants GM Dave Gettleman didn’t trade back and take the profits, just to be stubborn.

Salfino: I would just take Young, period. No matter what team I was.

Will Burrow get more draft capital in return than Young? I’m uncertain about that. And there are going to be a lot of veteran QBs on the market that teams think they can rehab. It will be like musical chairs.

gfoster: Burrow can join a long line of LSU QBs to dominate the NFL, names like … JaMarcus Russell, Matt Flynn, Zach Mettenberger.

sara.ziegler: Hey, Flynn was a dominant backup.

Salfino: You can never take away Flynn’s six-TD game. He monetized that sucker.

gfoster: Here’s the thing about the Bengals win: It wasn’t that big of an upset. They were only 2.5-point dogs. No team in the NFL is that bad. Also, the Jets are deeply weird. I follow this team closely, and I still don’t understand them.

sara.ziegler: Please, yes, the “this loss was fine” take.

Salfino: Ha ha ha

joshua.hermsmeyer: Apparently, according to the Elias Sports Bureau, the Jets are the first team to lose to teams that were 0-7 or worse coming into a game. That’s a weird way to say you gave the Dolphins and Bengals their first wins, but there we are.

Salfino: The Jets did not have a red zone snap against one of the worst defenses in the NFL. Not a snap!

I’m not sure the Jets could beat the 1976 Buccaneers right now.

gfoster: The second I heard Dalton was starting, I knew the Jets had no chance. I knew he was going to come back motivated and looking to polish a resume. Also, he passed Ken Anderson for most TD passes in Cincy history. Which is funny, because does that mean that the Bengals were going to sit to him the rest of the year when he was one shy of that record?

Salfino: Benching Dalton was all an elaborate scheme to preserve the memory of Ken Anderson.

gfoster: Dalton is going to be really solid on the 2020 Bears.

sara.ziegler: OMG

joshua.hermsmeyer: Geoff has seen the future, and it’s bleak.

sara.ziegler: That’s the future I want.

Salfino: Dalton is one of those vets that teams are going to turn to this offseason: Dalton, Derek Carr, Marcus Mariota, Jameis Winston … (Though maybe he stays now?)

sara.ziegler: It’s always so weird when the up-and-comers become the has-beens.

gfoster: Ryan Tannehill is NOT making Mariota look good in Tennessee.

joshua.hermsmeyer: Winston’s highs are too high to let him go, I think.

Salfino: But Winston is what he is now though. That’s never going to be good enough. He’s not going to stop throwing picks and getting sacked.

joshua.hermsmeyer: But if all you do is try and avoid interceptions, you end up being discount Aaron Rodgers, post 2015.

Salfino: I agree that there’s an ideal INT rate, and it ain’t 0 percent. But Winston makes too many mistakes, period.

joshua.hermsmeyer: What happened to loving the gunslinger, Salfino?

Salfino: No gunslinging on first downs and in the red zone.

sara.ziegler: Words to live by.

joshua.hermsmeyer: This disrespect of the Joe Namath archetype is why the Jets lost, tbh.

Salfino: Namath’s INT rate in his AFL heyday was below average for his time, BTW.

Back to Tannehill: He’s been sacked 24 times in 200 pass plays, which is ABSURDLY bad. He is proof again that sacks are mostly a QB stat. Put him anywhere, and he’ll be dumped at a double-digit rate. Jameis has this flaw of holding the ball too long, too.

gfoster: Tannehill is leading the league in yards per attempt. And Derrick Henry is now Jim Brown, apparently.

What is happening?

sara.ziegler: The Titans have won their last three games and now have a very real chance to make the playoffs — up to 42 percent in our model.

joshua.hermsmeyer: Between Tannehill and Lamar Jackson, I think the league is figuring out the secret to success at QB is to play your WR there. (Tannehill was a WR in college, and some scouts thought Lamar would only be successful in the NFL as a WR.)

sara.ziegler: 🤣

Speaking of Lamar … the Baltimore-San Francisco game was wildly entertaining. These two teams are just really fun to watch right now.

joshua.hermsmeyer: It helps when you have way more offensive plays to watch because neither team is punting.

Salfino: Both teams were just running the ball up and down the field. It’s so weird that this is where we are with the two best teams in football now.

gfoster: There were only seven drives in the second half of that game. And they resulted in two field goals, two punts, two turnovers on downs and a fumble.

joshua.hermsmeyer: Killjoy

sara.ziegler: That game-ending drive by the Ravens was a thing of beauty, though. Six minutes and 30 seconds to win the game on a field goal? Love it.

gfoster: It feels like the Ravens’ break-in-case-of-emergency plan is to just give designed runs to Lamar. AKA, play like the 2018 Ravens.

Also, Josh, kicker may be the most replaceable position in the NFL. But Baltimore having Justin Tucker in the playoffs is a clear edge.

joshua.hermsmeyer: Bill Belichick said he’s the best to ever do it. So I won’t argue it.

Salfino: Oh, man. You just knew Tucker was making that, even in those conditions. That dude is just unreal.

Geoff, didn’t you lose a playoff game in fantasy when Tucker kicked 137 field goals? 🙂

gfoster: I may have.

Salfino: It was one of those 99 percent win probability losses.

sara.ziegler: I’ll take Tucker at the end of an important game … but maybe not in a press conference.

joshua.hermsmeyer: **leaves chat**

Salfino: Kickers can’t be the cool kids. They’re the rock critics of football.

sara.ziegler: LOL

The other great matchup of the weekend that I wanted to talk about was the Patriots-Texans game on Sunday Night Football.

Salfino: Tom Brady RIP.

sara.ziegler: I live for the “Tom Brady is done” takes.

Salfino: Brady is someone who occasionally evokes Tom Brady now. But Belichick has let him down with his supporting cast of receivers. How big a bust must N’Keal Harry be if he can’t even get on the field ahead of this motley crew?

Does this change our opinion on the Texans? It’s weird that no one seems to have done so, with what — on paper — is a signature win for them.

sara.ziegler: The Texans are hard for me to figure out. They were so thoroughly dismantled by the Ravens that I have a hard time understanding where they fit in the echelon of good-but-not-great teams.

gfoster: This news for the Texans is huge, if it’s true:

sara.ziegler: Whoa, hadn’t seen that about J.J. Watt.

Salfino: Deshaun Watson had a great game. If he plays within structure like that and sprinkles in the occasional Watson things, they can overcome Bill O’Brien’s coaching. I think. At least until they play the Ravens.

gfoster: The funniest thing about the NFL is how scared everyone is to write the “Patriots Are Done” stories. We have all experienced this too many times.

joshua.hermsmeyer: I’ve seen a take floating around that it was Gronk’s greatness that was keeping Brady afloat all these years, and perhaps there’s something to it.

Salfino: Well, Rob Gronkowski and Josh Gordon were intermediate/deep receivers, and now that guy for the Patriots is ?????

The Patriots can win still like the 2015 Broncos did with the Ghost of Peyton Manning.

sara.ziegler: The Patriots can still win like the 2003 Patriots did!

Salfino: 🙂

gfoster: I think the lack of weapons on the outside is real. The running game is also way, way worse this year. Brady’s whole game is about being in sync with his receivers and having them be in the right spot at the right time, and you can tell that they are not in sync at the moment. But give Josh McDaniels and them a bye in the playoffs to work on some stuff, and no one will be surprised to see them fix these problems.

sara.ziegler: Brady screaming at his receivers on the sidelines doesn’t fix everything?

joshua.hermsmeyer: It’s a toxic relationship right now.

Salfino: But I think it’s more than “outside,” though maybe that’s a proxy of having no one who can remotely stretch the field. Gronk stretched it from the slot in the seam. But yes, they are woefully deficient at a position that should not be hard to fill.

As to Sara’s point, a QB has to be loved or feared, and Brady has always been way more feared than loved. So it’s in character for him. It’s worked.

gfoster: I think that actually COULD help things, Sara. You are telling me Jakobi Meyers and Harry aren’t spending more time in the film room this week to avoid another Brady scolding on national TV? Everyone in that organization seems to buy in to the system or get discarded.

sara.ziegler: Fair — I felt bad for those guys, and they weren’t even on the screen!

Salfino: The Patriots for sure know that QBs are not really part of the team, they are above the team. Brady is just a coach proxy on the field. Probably ahead of most of the coaches, too.

sara.ziegler: I will believe the Patriots are out of it when both Belichick and Brady are sitting on a beach somewhere while NFL games are being played, and not a moment before.

Salfino: There’s a report that the Patriots players are lobbying to bring Antonio Brown back.

But then Brown seemed to destroy the possibility.

gfoster: “Patriots players are lobbying to bring Antonio Brown” — according to reports from Antonio Brown.

Salfino: Brown is a 7-Eleven PR nightmare. Open all night.

gfoster: There’s only one person who can save the Patriots offense now:

joshua.hermsmeyer: 👏

Check out our latest NFL predictions.

Is Aaron Rodgers Slipping? And WTF Is Happening With Carson Wentz?

sara.ziegler (Sara Ziegler, sports editor): Week 12 brought us a bunch of high-leverage games between playoff contenders: Green Bay at San Francisco, Dallas at New England and Seattle at Philadelphia. (And there’s another big game tonight between the Baltimore Ravens and the Los Angeles Rams.) So let’s talk through what we saw in those matchups and what changed in the playoff picture as a result.

Let’s start with San Francisco’s huge win over Green Bay. I’m a Niners fan this year — and I obviously root for a different team in the NFC North than the Packers — but I definitely did not see that one coming.

neil (Neil Paine, senior sportswriter): It’s getting harder and harder to doubt the Niners’ Super Bowl chances …

Salfino (Michael Salfino, FiveThirtyEight contributor): I did see it coming not because of intuition or any special insight but simply because of net yards per pass play gained minus net yards allowed. The Niners were huge there heading into Week 12 and continued putting up big numbers this week, when Aaron Rodgers generated 66 net passing yards on 38 pass plays (including sacks).

joshua.hermsmeyer (Josh Hermsmeyer, NFL analyst): It was a very impressive win by the Niners. What struck me was the job they did on Rodgers. On play-action, the most efficient play type in football, Rodgers dialed up 13 plays — good for fourth in the league so far in Week 12 — and averaged just 4 yards per dropback on those plays.

sara.ziegler: The Niners defense just looks so good.

Salfino: This was one of those games where halfway through the first quarter you knew it was over. The Packers wanted no part of the heat the 49ers were bringing.

neil: The Super Bowl will be Niners-Pats, won’t it? And the final score will be 13-3 or something.

Salfino: We often talk about explosive offensive teams, but the 49ers with that rush are an explosive defensive team.

I see the 49ers as a complete team. Great offensive mind and solid skill players on offense across the board. I know a lot of people are still skeptical of their QB, but Jimmy Garoppolo is at least average. And they just destroy their opponents’ passing games.

joshua.hermsmeyer: Weirdly, that was Rodgers’s worst game of his career by passing yardage when he’s had at least 30 pass attempts.

sara.ziegler: Wow

The Niners haven’t seemed scary offensively to me, so the 37 points they put up on Sunday took me by surprise.

They rank only 14th in total passing yards this season.

Salfino: But they’ve got George Kittle (if he’s healthy) and Deebo Samuel looking like the new Anquan Boldin plus a healthy Emmanuel Sanders. With that stable of backs plus the Kyle Shanahan system … I like their offense a lot.

joshua.hermsmeyer: They really got a lift from Emmanuel Sanders coming back. He’s a difference maker for Jimmy G.

And yes, Kittle of course.

neil: Jimmy G is almost up to average in our Elo QB ratings!

It’s taken him all season.

Salfino: I actually think Samuel is their most dangerous wide receiver now with that yards after catch number.

My defense of Jimmy G. is that he’s no worse than Matt Ryan, and Shanahan crushed it with Ryan. Plus QB wins are a real thing, I believe. He has to get some credit for his record, especially in 2017.

neil: I still think he’s a slightly-above-average QB whose defense has been killing it.

🔥

joshua.hermsmeyer: I cannot let the QB Winz comment pass! I agree that QBs are the most important piece to winning, but that stat is just terrible.

Salfino: You win a game usually by outpassing your opponent measured by net yards per attempt, and there are only two ways to do that — with your offense/QB or with your defense. So how can the QB not be the most important player to winning?

joshua.hermsmeyer: That doesn’t make QB Winz a stat!

Salfino: I’m saying that to be a good QB, you need to have a good yards per attempt or net yards per attempt, and if you do, your teams will win. So potato/tomato (as my daughter jokes).

neil: Jimmy G, for what it’s worth, is 11th in adjusted net yards per attempt, despite the Niners being second only to New England in the Simple Rating System.

To me, that indicates that the rest of the team has carried more of the load.

Salfino: I agree that the Niners’ pass defense is mostly responsible for winning this year. But I specifically mentioned 2017, and I can’t make the argument he’s much worse now.

joshua.hermsmeyer: Even last night, there were times when Jimmy couldn’t come off his first read fast enough and looked like a statue. He’s in a good scheme with the best possible support.

Salfino: I agree that he holds the ball too long. But we forget the guy has barely started any games even though it feels like he’s been around forever.

sara.ziegler: And that’s the whole problem with him! We don’t have enough of a sample size.

San Francisco has two tricky road games up next: at Baltimore this Sunday and at New Orleans the following week. How do the Niners match up against those opponents?

neil: Yes, San Francisco’s schedule gets much tougher. They played the second easiest schedule so far in terms of average opponent pregame Elo (adjusted for location); only Buffalo faced easier opponents. The Niners’ rest-of-season schedule is the toughest in the league by Elo.

Which NFL teams have the toughest remaining schedules?

Elo ranking of the hardest strength of schedule for 2019 NFL teams, for both completed and upcoming games

Elo SOS Rank Elo SOS Rank
Team record Completed upcoming Team record Completed upcoming
SF 10-1 31st 1st DEN 3-8 1st 17th
BUF 8-3 32nd 2nd CIN 0-11 18th 18th
TEN 6-5 26th 3rd MIN 8-3 21st 19th
CHI 5-6 30th 4th DET 3-7-1 9th 20th
LAR 6-4 14th 5th CAR 5-6 8th 21st
BAL 8-2 23rd 6th KC 7-4 2nd 22nd
ARI 3-7-1 15th 7th DAL 6-5 27th 23rd
NO 9-2 22nd 8th TB 4-7 7th 24th
PIT 6-5 24th 9th NYJ 4-7 25th 25th
SEA 9-2 19th 10th MIA 2-9 13th 26th
ATL 3-8 3rd 11th JAX 4-7 12th 27th
IND 6-5 11th 12th GB 8-3 4th 28th
LAC 4-7 28th 13th NE 10-1 29th 29th
OAK 6-5 16th 14th NYG 2-9 17th 30th
HOU 7-4 6th 15th CLE 5-6 10th 31st
WSH 2-9 20th 16th PHI 5-6 5th 32nd

Rankings are based on the average quality of opponent, adjusted for quarterback and location.

Salfino: No one matches up well with Baltimore. They are a unicorn team. Or if someone does match up, how would we even know until we see it? But the Niners don’t even need that game, IMO. They need to take care of business with the Saints, though. But the Saints don’t strike me as a legit Super Bowl team. They were crushed at home against the Falcons and then almost lost to Kyle Allen. And we all wrote Allen’s obit last week.

neil: I will admit I was surprised the Saints let Carolina hang around in that one.

Salfino: We have to give them a little slack with no Marcus Lattimore, I guess.

sara.ziegler: So what of the Niners’ opponent Sunday night? I don’t know what to think of Green Bay at all.

neil: Is Rodgers still ELITE??????

He hasn’t looked that way for a few games now.

joshua.hermsmeyer: The Packers have been exposed twice, and Rodgers is firmly out of the MVP conversation. Matt LeFleur said they were outcoached and outplayed. I’d be very worried.

sara.ziegler: Don’t look now, but the NFC North is basically a tossup.

neil: Heyyyyy look at that.

joshua.hermsmeyer: The Vikings are better. Sorry, Sara.

Salfino: You mean that you don’t want to look now, Sara. 🙂 I’ve been saying the Vikings are winning that division for weeks.

Kirk Cousins for MVP!

(half joking)

sara.ziegler: OMG

You need to be fully joking.

Salfino: Cousins does have numbers, Sara.

neil: Joking aside, that Packers-Vikings game in Week 16 could be huge.

And I love that matchup on Monday Night Football. So much nostalgia.

Salfino: This Packers team going into Minnesota, where that defense generally plays great, and beating the Vikings with the season on the line? No way. I don’t see it.

sara.ziegler: The Packers get the New York Giants, Washington and Chicago before the showdown with Minnesota, while the Vikings have Seattle, Detroit and the Los Angeles Chargers. So the edge has to be with the Packers to win the division, right?

Salfino: Danny Dimes, Sara.

sara.ziegler: 🙄🙄🙄

Salfino: Generational talent Saquon Barkley is averaging almost 4 yards per carry this season!

joshua.hermsmeyer: Oh yeah, generational talent, because you only get a 4.0 rushing average from a first-round pick once every 10 to 14 years, LOL.

neil: Detroit and San Diego are done.

(I don’t care that the Chargers are in L.A.)

sara.ziegler: LOL, San Diego is extremely done.

neil:

Salfino: Which Rivers child is that?

neil: LOLOLOL

sara.ziegler: Oh, wow.

neil: Gosh dang it, Salfie!

sara.ziegler: Sticking with the AFC, New England outlasted Dallas on Sunday in a game that was, for me, more about the Cowboys underperforming (and making terrible decisions at key moments) than the Patriots dominating. I just can’t get excited about this New England team, even if it’s 10-1. Which means the Patriots are certainly going to win the Super Bowl.

Salfino: The Patriots are flawed offensively but work like a hive on defense, passing off coverage from linebackers to defensive ends seamlessly, like on the third down in the red zone in the fourth quarter against the Cowboys.

neil: I know the weather was bad on Sunday, but Tom Brady has looked mediocre for a little while now.

joshua.hermsmeyer: The Pats are also one of the most man-coverage-heavy teams in the league. They used man against the Cowboys to great effect: 24 snaps in man coverage, with Dallas mustering just a 29 percent success rate and -0.42 expected points added per play. Meanwhile, they played 10 snaps of zone, and Dallas ate it up, with a 50 percent success rate and 0.26 EPA per play.

neil: This is the lowest Brady’s QB Elo rating has been (relative to average) since after the On To Cincinnati game in 2014.

And that year, they <<checks notes>> won the Super Bowl. Oh.

Salfino: The Patriots have had less than 350 yards from scrimmage in five straight games, which is their longest streak since 2003.

sara.ziegler: And yet … they keep winning!

(Except when they’re playing Baltimore.)

neil: This defense, particularly against the pass, remains incredible.

Lamar Jackson is still the only QB to play above average against their defense this season.

sara.ziegler: Jackson has a way of making good defenses look average — Seattle knows a little something about that. The Seahawks got a convincing win over the Eagles on Sunday. Seattle is in command of the first wild-card spot now, but does it have a chance for the division against the Niners?

joshua.hermsmeyer: Our model gives San Francisco a 58 percent chance to win the division and gives Seattle a 40 percent shot, so definitely a chance!

Salfino: Aren’t the Seahawks setting a record of sorts in the divergence between point differential and win-loss record?

Are they just super lucky?

neil: Yeah, Mike — the pythagorean expectation says they should only be 6-5 right now, not 9-2.

Salfino: Ross Tucker said on Twitter that Jadeveon Clowney could be out for the year? No idea if that’s true, but if it is, that’s really bad for Seattle.

joshua.hermsmeyer: If Pete Carroll is a tactical genius, it seems like his strategy is coaxing his opponents to play suboptimally, running a lot, and then relying on his elite QB to bail his team out on third and long while the other team has to punt more often in those situations.

neil: That’s the most concise, accurate description of the Seahawks I’ve ever heard.

sara.ziegler: What about the Eagles? Their goose is cooked in the wild-card race, but they still have a 37 percent chance to win the NFC East.

Salfino: Have the Eagles been beaten by flea flickers now two straight weeks? Has to be a record.

For all of Dallas’s problems, I just don’t see them losing this division to the Eagles. And Dallas’s remaining schedule isn’t exactly daunting.

sara.ziegler: Wait, Michael, you really believe in the Cowboys? Even with the play-calling choices in the game against New England?

Salfino: Well, the numbers are there for the Cowboys in the things that I think are most predictive of future wins: play success, passing success and net yards per attempt. But they have not beaten a quality team, which is very troubling. And we have to assume that the head coach is a big minus.

So I don’t know how to get my head around this team. If you believe in just the numbers, they should easily win the weak NFC East. But if you believe in coaching and intangibles, you have to expect them to struggle to beat anyone.

sara.ziegler: This was telling, I think:

Salfino: I think it’s fair to say that Jason Garrett hurt his team’s chances by not treating the third and 7 on that deep fourth-quarter drive as two-down territory. So it was not just the kick on fourth down that killed them but also the call on third down, where maybe they run if they have a four-down mentality. You can’t go from needing a touchdown to win to … needing a touchdown to win.

How Week 16′s Eagles-Cowboys game swings the playoff odds

Playoff odds if …
Team Eagles win Cowboys win
Eagles 66.4% 4.1%
Cowboys 36.0 96.4

Odds are conditional only on Week 16′s game.

neil: Here’s a fun set of contingencies for that Week 16 Eagles-Cowboys game — playoff odds according to Elo:

joshua.hermsmeyer: Wow. That would be a good time for the Cowboys to win their first big game.

neil: It’s basically a win-and-you’re-in for Dallas and do-or-die for Philly. But Philly isn’t quite in (and Dallas isn’t quite out) even if the Eagles do win.

Philly can’t feel good after these back-to-back home losses, especially with Carson Wentz playing so poorly.

joshua.hermsmeyer: The Eagles lack weapons in the passing game with all the injuries, but Wentz hasn’t exactly elevated the play of those around him. I’m still not really sure what he is. Is he a top-10 QB?

neil: Elo ranks him 17th — one spot ahead of … Jimmy G. LOL

joshua.hermsmeyer: LOL

Salfino: Wentz does not seem wired to take the positive play. He’s too much of a gunslinger when he’s on the most slow-footed offensive team I can remember. So how can he expect plays to be open downfield?

Great QBs — like we once thought Wentz was — can carry an average at best unit or at least make a poor one average. He’s not lifting the offense at all this year. He’s even holding it back.

neil: Only four QBs have been worse by yards per attempt than Wentz this year:

Ryan Fitzpatrick, Danny Dimes, Mason Rudolph and Mitchell Trubisky.

joshua.hermsmeyer: Whew

sara.ziegler: Ooof

Salfino: I just think the Eagles are mentally beaten already. The fans are booing the QB. The defense has given up 17 points in two straight weeks to the Patriots and Seahawks, and the team wasn’t really even in either game.

neil: I will say this, and we talk about it every week, but they have played a string of really tough games — six straight with an above-average Elo, going back to early November. They ought to look better against Miami, Washington and the Giants in the next few weeks. (Then again, they ought to have looked better against Seattle at home.)

joshua.hermsmeyer: Oh no, Carson:

neil: That seems right.

sara.ziegler: Yikes.

Salfino: The problem with this stat is that if guys are not open, you can’t throw a pass “on target” unless you want to risk a pick.

joshua.hermsmeyer: I agree, it doesn’t tell the whole story. But still.

Salfino: But Wentz missed an uncovered Miles Sanders on an easy flare near the goal line, and he threw the ball like crap most of the day.

neil: That was one of the worst overthrows on an easy pass I’ve ever seen, Mike.

Salfino: I do think Wentz’s problem is not taking shorter throws for positive yardage when they are there and, like Hank Stram used to say, matriculating the ball down the field. This is not a big-play offense without DeSean Jackson, and we know how vital Jackson could be to their passing success.

joshua.hermsmeyer: Dwayne Haskins had a couple pretty hideous misses yesterday as well. Then he was too busy taking selfies with fans to come out for the victory formation.

But I’m still rooting for him.

neil: Haskins’s new theme:

joshua.hermsmeyer: ded

Check out our latest NFL predictions.

Happy Week 9 To The Ravens, The Chargers … And Maybe The Dolphins?

sara.ziegler (Sara Ziegler, sports editor): It was another wild week in the NFL. The nearly completed Week 9 saw a win for the Dolphins, a loss for the Patriots and FOUR losses for the NFC North.

Let’s dive right in: Anyone surprised that Baltimore took down New England?

neil (Neil Paine, senior sportswriter): A little bit. There was a stat floating around that Bill Belichick had won 21 straight games against QBs in their rookie or second NFL seasons.

And yet, Lamar Jackson had the best game of the week according to our QB Elo! His development this season continues to be incredible.

Salfino (Michael Salfino, FiveThirtyEight contributor): I was not surprised. The Ravens are a unicorn team that’s tough to prepare for and impossible to tailor a roster to stop. Most teams can’t replicate the Chargers’ plan during the playoffs last year, borne out of injury desperation, to play seven defensive backs on base downs. Plus you have a very vanilla Patriots offense in terms of skill talent with a QB who is playing well for a 42 year old, but, let’s be real, is having quantifiably his worst season since at least 2006 (in terms of QBR).

joshua.hermsmeyer (Josh Hermsmeyer, NFL analyst): I don’t think the Ravens feared the Patriots offense, and as Mike said, they have a scheme and roster that can give a defense fits — even a defense as outrageously good as New England’s has been. They also executed their plan perfectly. One play sticks out to me: the Marquise “Hollywood” Brown jet motion pitch play:

It had all the components of the offensive strategy: Make New England account for Lamar, use misdirection and really lean on some great blocking

Salfino: Lamar — with two rushing TDs and 61 yards rushing on Sunday — continues after Week 1 to score more fantasy points with his legs than with his arm, which is extremely unusual. He did it last year, too. Only Bobby Douglass of the Bears (1972, 1973) has repeated this feat since the AFL-NFL merger was completed in 1970, according to Pro-Football-Reference.com.

I do think that it’s a bad break for the Ravens that they had to face the Patriots in the regular season. You wanted this to be the playoff game.

sara.ziegler: The Ravens got off to such a strong start that it seemed to shell-shock the Pats a little. I was still surprised New England didn’t make it all the way back.

neil: Especially once the Ravens gifted the Pats the ball on that muffed punt — that felt like a here we go moment, where the Pats would start their climb back. And NE got within 4 points, but the Ravens kept answering in the second half.

joshua.hermsmeyer: Fumble luck regression really helped.

Salfino: That kind of stuff never happens to New England. The Patriots have committed only 13 turnovers that resulted in the opposing defense returning the ball for a TD since 2010.

sara.ziegler: It was also interesting to me that Belichick was faced with a fourth down on the opponent’s side of the field and chose to punt, and he had a fourth-and-goal from the one and kicked a field goal.

The Ravens went for it on fourth down in the fourth quarter, got the first down and then a touchdown on that drive, and that put it away.

Salfino: Well, Belichick doesn’t believe in analytics, Sara.

sara.ziegler: LOL

joshua.hermsmeyer: Less than zero

sara.ziegler: Just more evidence we can add to the pile!

Salfino: Belichick uses Bret Easton Ellis’s analytics. Or Elvis Costello’s, if you prefer.

neil: And his aim is usually so true!

sara.ziegler: 🤣🤣🤣

Salfino: Awesome, Neil.

sara.ziegler: From one analytics move to another, what did you all think about the Chargers **taking points off the board** against the Packers?? Green Bay stopped Los Angeles on the 2-yard line but jumped offsides on the field goal attempt, giving the Chargers another fourth down. L.A. coach Anthony Lynn pulled the field goal unit off the field, sent his offense back out and Melvin Gordon ran it in for a TD.

Salfino: The game was over, so I like the macho move to make a point.

Lynn can build a whole narrative around that now, and it was not going to cost him anything. So, worth it.

sara.ziegler: But … giving Aaron Rodgers an opening?!?!?!?

Salfino: Rodgers was hopeless before the “home crowd” in Los Angeles.

joshua.hermsmeyer: It’s not always “correct” to be aggressive, but you’ll be right far more often than wrong if it’s your default mentality. For that reason alone, I liked the call.

Salfino: But wasn’t that free money, Josh?

joshua.hermsmeyer: I haven’t looked it up, but my intuition is yes, it was a no-brainer.

sara.ziegler: I liked the call too, though up just two touchdowns with 10 minutes to go against Rodgers doesn’t seem like a situation where the game is put away.

neil: Maybe given the Chargers’ difficulty actually closing out opponents, though, you’d think they’d be skittish about giving somebody like Rodgers a potential opening.

Salfino: Yes, but Neil, you are forgetting the Chargers rules. They shock us by falling out of the playoff race and then shock us again by charging back into it (almost). This is part two of their annual metamorphosis. I refuse to be played again.

joshua.hermsmeyer: I am fairly sure based on discussions with analytics people around the league that the Chargers are not a team that has a chart and uses it. So I think the touchdown call was all gut, and on those terms I agree with it.

Salfino: It’s good that the Chargers reject analytics, otherwise they would be mentally crushed by all the win probability they have frittered away.

sara.ziegler: If the Chargers don’t get the TD there, and the Packers answer with a touchdown, you can see things falling apart fast!

This is why these questions are interesting, right?

joshua.hermsmeyer: I’d look at it as if it had been a great punt instead and just get after Rodgers at his own 1 yard line.

neil: Maybe you can trick him into pulling a Ryan Fitzpatrick and kneeling down in his own end zone.

joshua.hermsmeyer: LOL

Salfino: Rodgers was already on the slab, IMO. Toe tag in place for Week 9. He will rise again, I guess, but the Packers are not a good team.

sara.ziegler: You know who else in the NFC North isn’t a good team?

Trick question.

NO ONE in the NFC North is a good team.

Salfino: The Vikings are good, Sara. Sorry to get your hopes up. They just ran into Matt Moore!

Seriously, the Adam Thielen injury was crippling. Without him, they are pretty easy for even the Chiefs to defend.

sara.ziegler: I’m sorry.

You can’t say “They just ran into Matt Moore” about a good team.

Them’s the rules.

neil: “They just ran into Matt Moore” 🤣

Salfino: Moore is showing that playing QB in KC is very good for your stats. Also, seriously, the Vikings lost on a fluke 91-yard TD run by a guy who usually takes 45 runs to string together 90 yards.

joshua.hermsmeyer: I mean, if the QB drives the bus in terms of what makes a good team, then Sara is right. By total QBR, the Packers are 12th and the Vikings are 14th.

sara.ziegler: (BRB, pinning “Sara is right” to this conversation.)

I always think Kirk Cousins will do something amazing at the end of a game, and he never, ever, ever does.

Salfino: I agree on Cousins at the end of games. He’s like Matt Ryan in that regard: He can be relied on to not get it done. I know Ryan has a lot of fourth-quarter comebacks, but we need the batting average, not just the hits. And it turns out he’s lost 81 games by a TD or less in the period.

neil: Sheesh, you lose ONE Super Bowl after leading 28-3 …

sara.ziegler: Hahaha

Salfino: As for the other NFC North QBRs, the Lions — and Matthew Stafford — are sixth. We won’t talk about Mitch Trubisky.

neil: Sara probably has a lot to say about ol’ Mitchie!

But can we print it?

sara.ziegler: Trubisky, ugh. Can’t believe I had to start him in my fantasy football matchup against Neil. Let this be a lesson not to let jokes interfere with good fantasy football decisions.

Salfino: Just burn money in the street if you’re starting Trubisky in fantasy, Sara.

joshua.hermsmeyer: Or Allen Robinson, it turns out.

Salfino: Well, I believe in a QB-centric WR-ranking system. (And air yards :))

joshua.hermsmeyer: My man.

neil: And I started Cousins! (Because we traded them for each other.)

He may have lost the game, but he had a pretty good fantasy performance. Which, as you know, is all that matters.

sara.ziegler: Neil

joshua.hermsmeyer: oh noes

sara.ziegler: Shut up

neil: Lol.

Salfino: Sara gets the Price Is Wrong sounder.

sara.ziegler: Hahahaha

ANYWAY

One more game we must discuss, and that’s the incredible, amazing, UNBELIEVABLE first win of the season for the Miami Dolphins.

Mike … can you speak for Jets Nation and express your feelings at this one?

joshua.hermsmeyer: Yes, please.

I have a feeling this will be a treatise

sara.ziegler: “Salfino is typing”

Salfino: The most alarming thing for the Jets right now is Sam Darnold. But this is the product of so many losing drafts. The Jets have not had a hit in the first round of the draft, never mind the other rounds, since Darrelle Revis in 2007. And we’re talking a lot of draft capital. Another top-10 overall pick has just walked out the door in Leonard Williams.

joshua.hermsmeyer: Sixth overall selection for a third- and fifth-round pick. Yikes.

Salfino: The sad thing is that was a good trade for the Jets.

I mean, the Giants were insane to offer it. Now we have the Jets vs. Giants on Sunday in East Rutherford, which should temporarily be declared a toxic dump.

neil: Is it time to wonder whether Darnold is going to be any good? He had his moments but was mostly bad as a rookie and has been much worse this year. Maybe it’s still too early, but we’re 18 starts in and only five have been above average, according to our QB Elo.

joshua.hermsmeyer: I thought the game was really really interesting. There was another pretty glaring example (or two?) of Miami perhaps attempting to tank in-game, and yet Adam Gase and the Jets foiled them at every turn. The announcers even commented on it!

Salfino: It’s reasonable to wonder if Darnold is going to be any good, for certain. But if football is environment, and I think much of it is, he’s got a lot to overcome. Plus, who knows how long mono really lasts.

sara.ziegler: It’s really too bad when you can’t do the thing you’re trying to do … especially when that thing appears to be “losing.”

joshua.hermsmeyer: So frustrating!

neil: Well, idk why Miami continues to insist on starting Fitzy. They have a tank-ready QB right there in Josh Rosen.

sara.ziegler: Really not following the Tanking Playbook.

neil: TankBook?

sara.ziegler: Haha

neil: Either way, Fitzy has turned in above-average Elo games in two of his past three starts since being reinstated as starter. Rosen never came within 150 Elo points of being average in any of his starts.

And you know that Fitzpatrick runs hot and cold — so he has upside potential that really hurts your tankability when he plays well.

sara.ziegler: Need a new QB rating that ranks them by tankability. Just as a helpful service for tanking teams.

joshua.hermsmeyer: I’d like to go on the record that having a team or two tanking each season adds a bunch of entertainment value. Situations like this with the unexpected win, the team drama — all of it is good for the game IMO.

neil: Josh coming in with the pro-tanking take!

sara.ziegler: “Tanking = Good” was not the take I was expecting today.

joshua.hermsmeyer: The haughty anti-tankers reek of the folks that offer takes about amateurism in college football.

This is my fire for the week.

Salfino: I don’t think tanking can be leveraged in football because we don’t know if the QBs are going to be good or even what order to take them in.

neil: Right. First you Suck For Sam, then you just Suck Because Of Sam.

Salfino: My joke about the Jets, Sara, is the Jets lost to Glass Joe.

sara.ziegler: LOLOL

Check out our latest NFL predictions.

Which Of The NFL’s Top Teams Are For Real?

sara.ziegler (Sara Ziegler, sports editor): Week 7 of the NFL season is just about wrapped up, and we’re starting to see some teams separate themselves from the rest of the league. So this week, I want to talk about the current crop of top squads.

We currently have nine teams with at least five wins: New England, Buffalo, Baltimore and Kansas City in the AFC, Green Bay, Minnesota, New Orleans, San Francisco and Seattle in the NFC. The Patriots and Niners are undefeated, with the Pats yet to play this week at the moment. Are those two the best of the best right now?

joshua.hermsmeyer (Josh Hermsmeyer, NFL analyst): Not if you believe, as I do, that the best way to forecast a team’s future performance is its early-down offense. The only problem is that the No. 1 team by that measure — the Chiefs — just lost their MVP quarterback.

neil (Neil Paine, senior sportswriter): We still list the Pats as our top Super Bowl contender — what else is new? — at 26 percent to win it all. Our model has been a little slower to accept San Francisco (8 percent) as a true top contender. Maybe it’s because the 49ers have still really only played one opponent considered to be a top team — the Rams.

The rest of the Niners’ victims are pretty unimpressive: Tampa Bay, Cincinnati, Pittsburgh, Cleveland and Washington.

Salfino (Michael Salfino, FiveThirtyEight contributor): For sure, the Patriots and Niners are the likely No. 1 seeds. Both are firmly in control of their divisions. If I were to pick two other teams that are good bets to win the Super Bowl, or are at least in the conversation, it would be two NFC teams, though — Minnesota and New Orleans. Whichever gets the first-round bye is going to have a big edge. This assumes a healthy Drew Brees, of course, because let’s face it: Teddy Bridgewater just happens to be winning these games.

sara.ziegler: The Saints have to be thrilled with how well they’ve played without Brees, though — and last week without Alvin Kamara.

neil: Yes, I believe we (and everyone else) said that if Bridgewater could just keep them from sinking too far, or just keep them around .500, they could survive. Instead, they’ve been undefeated with him at starter.

Salfino: The Saints are like those old Patriots Super Bowl winners, pre-2007: just solid in every area. The only question is whether Brees can play near-peak form if needed in the postseason. Maybe the time off helps him maintain his play through the finish line.

Kamara is a generational talent, Josh.

joshua.hermsmeyer: * Chase Edmonds

sara.ziegler: * Latavius Murray

Salfino: We have to get Sara to talk about the Vikings, who are, I swear, legit Super Bowl contenders.

sara.ziegler: Mike.

No.

joshua.hermsmeyer: Agreed!

neil: Every week we do this.

sara.ziegler: They’re not.

neil: Cousins was great for a third straight week.

sara.ziegler: You guys.

Salfino: Captain Kirk is the first QB ever with three straight 300-yard passing games with a completion percentage of 75 and a passer rating over 130.

joshua.hermsmeyer: The Vikings are No. 3 in early-down offensive expected points added per play among teams with at least five wins, and they’re extremely well-balanced overall. I think they’re legit. Kirk can win them games.

They have to hope Thielen is OK, though.

sara.ziegler: Sigh.

Salfino: Cousins has made Mike Zimmer believe again in the forward pass, so, progress.

sara.ziegler: I think it was opposing defenses that did that.

Salfino: I worry, though, that Thielen will be out a month with his hamstring injury.

neil: Yeah, that’s a problem.

sara.ziegler: Though Bisi Johnson came out of nowhere to be a decent No. 2 wide receiver, behind Stefon Diggs.

Salfino: What a soft sell on Cousins by Sara. We’re all going to chip in and buy you the Cousins jersey.

sara.ziegler: I will not wear that.

LOL

Salfino: Revenge game on Thursday for Case Keenum.

sara.ziegler: What about the actual leader in the NFC North, Green Bay?

neil: Aaron Rodgers is ELITE again!

(We actually do rank him third among current starters in QB Elo.)

joshua.hermsmeyer: A-aron will win the MVP on the strength of one game — you know this is true.

neil: I was surprised that he had the first perfect passer rating game in Packers history, given the QBs they’ve had over the years. (Now the Jaguars and Panthers are the only teams who have never had one.)

joshua.hermsmeyer: I will stan for Rodgers — you put up those performances against Oakland if you are elite. Also, the running game is third-worst in yards per rush on early downs among teams with five wins. (Patriots and Chiefs are lower.)

sara.ziegler: I’m a little confused about why our model rates the Vikings higher than the Packers.

Salfino: The Vikings are much better at winning the passing game.

neil: Part of it might be that the Packers were coming off such a down season last year, too. Easy to forget we’re not even halfway into the 2019 season yet, so there’s still some amount of 2018 baked into the ratings right now.

sara.ziegler: (The Vikings weren’t much better. 😞)

joshua.hermsmeyer: The Ravens look pretty amazing, and Lamar Jackson needs to be in the MVP conversation, I think.

sara.ziegler: I was super surprised by the second half of the Ravens-Seahawks game. Baltimore just ran away with it.

neil: Such an impressive win for Baltimore. Going into Seattle, slowing down Russell Wilson — who is having an MVP-type season himself.

Salfino: Lamar is definitely in the MVP conversation. His approach is not a sustainable model with all that running, but it’s working now. His passing since Week 1 — measured in pretty much every way — has been “meh.” But who cares when you’re rushing for close to 100 yards a game. It seems like we — meaning football Twitter — all hate the run game but LOVE when the QB runs.

neil: We all grew up playing Madden 2004 with Mike Vick.

Salfino: Pete Carroll hasn’t been able to stop a running QB since Vince Young in the National Championship Game.

joshua.hermsmeyer: The Seahawks deserved to lose a game that was close for long stretches just based on their decision-making. Carroll likes to talk about keeping games close, as if it builds character or calluses, but it’s more a function of their lack of aggression on fourth down and an inability to maximize win probability.

neil: The 2019 Seahawks are kind of the same story as it’s been the past few years: Wilson is amazing, but the supporting cast — including, against brand, the defense — is questionable.

Salfino: Nothing came easy for Wilson and the offense. That’s the way things used to be with him and Seattle, but this year, that seemed to have changed. They were getting easy plays in structure without Wilson having to play like his hair was on fire. I think Wilson has aged out of being able to succeed when playing in a generally chaotic state. He should only be sprinkling it in now.

sara.ziegler: The Ravens have had kind of a weird season — losing to the Browns and barely beating the Steelers and Bengals.

neil: That win over Arizona in Week 2 is looking better and better, though. 😉

sara.ziegler: Haha — true.

Salfino: I was shocked by how well Baltimore’s defense played. I thought they were just a name brand and had lost too many people. But Wink Martindale has coached this unit up and then some. They looked dominant on Sunday. I think that was the biggest story out of that game, not Lamar. They need to add an edge rusher at the trading deadline, though.

joshua.hermsmeyer: There are football narratives I don’t really buy, but having a QB who can punish a defense with deep passes really does open up an offense. When Lamar has his deep ball working, I think the Ravens are tough to beat. All that said, there were two fluky defensive scores Sunday, so we need to temper our expectations a bit for the Ravens’ offense.

neil: Marcus Peters wasn’t enough of an addition for you, Mike?

Salfino: That was good, but it’s not pass-rush. They seem to really struggle there. As for Lamar, what’s interesting to me is that the Chargers solved him in the playoffs by playing seven defensive backs on nearly all downs when they were forced to because of injuries, just a couple of weeks after getting gashed by the Ravens in the running game. I guess this is not repeatable for teams because they are not going to construct a roster with all those DBs just to beat the Ravens.

joshua.hermsmeyer: That same defense was exposed the very next week, though.

Salfino: It wasn’t exposed by the Ravens, though.

sara.ziegler: Wow, remember when the Chargers weren’t terrible?

neil: OMG the CHARGERS

How many ways can a team find to lose games?

joshua.hermsmeyer: It’s sad! The Chargers seem like they should be good, kind of like a slightly better version of the Falcons, and yet.

neil: The Chargers have been doing less with more for a long time, but my goodness that game Sunday.

Salfino: Bigger football crime: Chargers moving from San Diego or not using the Human Cheat Code Austin Ekeler on more snaps? Ekeler had 118 receiving yards on eight targets. At RB.

sara.ziegler: Back to teams that are not awful, the other five-win team in the AFC is Buffalo. What do you make of the Bills?

joshua.hermsmeyer: A fermenting dumpster waiting for a match. Of the teams with five wins, they’re the only one with negative offensive EPA per play. I’m absolutely convinced their success is a mirage.

neil: Their defense remains legit on the season (fifth in EPA), but it’s never great to give up 21 points — and a pretty good QB game — to Ryan Fitzpatrick and the Phins.

Salfino: Fitz gave that game away with a pick after a first and goal inside the 5-yard line. A touchdown there would have made it 21-9 and “Murder She Wrote” for the Bills. But then, Josh Allen took them 98 yards for the 14-point swing.

neil: Yeah, that was a huge drive for Allen.

Salfino: Remember, the Jets would have beaten the Bills in Week 1 if Sam Darnold hadn’t been half-dead.

sara.ziegler: Yeah, that’s the only reason the Jets didn’t beat the Bills.

Salfino: “Spleen Talk,” Episode Six.

sara.ziegler: Hahahaha

neil: Can’t we talk about other organs for a change???

joshua.hermsmeyer: 🤐

neil: I will say this, Tre’Davious White is amazing. He made one of the INTs of the year.

joshua.hermsmeyer: Mike, I saw you tweet something about Jimmy Garoppolo not being able to hold onto the ball in the rain. I haven’t watched the full game yet — what was going on?

Salfino: He simply could not throw a spiral. It was bizarre.

The thing is, January is the rainy season in San Francisco. At least, it used to be.

sara.ziegler: When the field looks like this, you’ll take anything you can get, right?

joshua.hermsmeyer: Was Keenum any better? My prior right now is that Jimmy G is average at best.

Salfino: I was only paying attention to that screen when the Niners had the ball.

neil: I’ll give Jimmy G a pass for the conditions yesterday. But I keep waiting for one of two things to happen:

  1. a) Niners stop winning
  2. b) Jimmy G puts up a great stat game

Neither has happened!

joshua.hermsmeyer: LOL

Salfino: Jimmy G is like Teddy B.

neil: In our Elo QB ratings, Garoppolo has had a below-average start (adjusted for opposing defense) five times in six games this year.

The only good one was against Cincy.

Salfino: The Niners and Garoppolo seriously remind me of those early 2000s Patriots teams. They also spread the ball around, lack fantasy significance, are very well-coached and crush the opposing passing games. And they have a QB who is not lighting up the stat sheet but manages the game (pre-2007 Brady).

joshua.hermsmeyer: Interesting comp. Is 49ers head coach Kyle Shanahan up to the Bill Belichick comparison though?

neil: I look forward to Jimmy G’s stats finally taking off when they trade a fourth-round pick for Randy Moss Jr.

Salfino: How about A.J. Green?

neil: Haha. Green certainly deserves better than the Bengals.

Lowkey, they — and NOT the Dolphins — are last in our Elo rankings!

sara.ziegler: Ooof, Neil.

neil: Reminds me of how we all assumed that the Orioles would be the worst team in baseball, and the Tigers were like, hold my beer.

sara.ziegler: So, you guys bring up an interesting point: Which players out there would make these top-tier teams better?

Salfino: Teams that should go all in are the ones we started with, IMO.

The NFC is so strong that one trade can tip the balance between the 49ers, Saints and Vikings. (Notice I did not say the Rams, who already made their trade.)

joshua.hermsmeyer: The Niners should trade for Broncos fullback Andy Janovich to save their season.

Salfino: In the AFC, the team that’s screaming out for a trade is the Ravens. I would add Vic Beasley from the Falcons. A pure edge rusher.

neil: Seems like there are a ton of WRs potentially on the trade block.

sara.ziegler: NOT DIGGS, THO

neil: Well, beyond just Green, also Emmanuel Sanders, Mohamed Sanu, etc.

Maybe even Robby Anderson?!

Salfino: Julio Jones can’t be traded because of his contract. Of course, the Patriots desperately need a WR. They can be in on Green, too. The Chargers can’t dump. Tampa Bay should trade Mike Evans, if the cap permits it. They don’t need two lead WRs, and they can get two first-round picks for him. I do think teams can do pretty much whatever they want with the cap, if they put the pain off until tomorrow.

neil: Would love to see the Patriots acquire yet another name-brand WR before season’s end. Just for their full list of receivers for the season to be even more bizarre.

Salfino: There just are not a lot of WRs out there on the bad teams. Allen Robinson? The Bears are going to keep lying to themselves that they’re fine.

joshua.hermsmeyer: I agree that Mitch Trubisky probably isn’t good, but he’s coming off an injury, so this week probably isn’t the best time to finally declare him a bust

Salfino: Marvin Jones to the Patriots for a first-round pick? Only the third player ever with two four-TD receiving games since 1950 (Rice and Sterling Sharpe).

sara.ziegler: The Vikings should trade away Kirk Cousins — like I did in fantasy football.

😉

neil: Hey wait, Sara! I got Cousins from you and was happy with him! LOL

(Also, my regular starter was on bye.)

Salfino: Wait a second! Sara traded Cousins to Neil? How am I just finding out about this?

sara.ziegler: It was a classic Cousins-for-Trubisky deal.

neil: I also got a Chipotle lunch out of it.

joshua.hermsmeyer: Jelly.

Salfino: Steal.

Check out our latest NFL predictions.