Todd Gurley Is In The Right System At The Right Time

Todd Gurley is off to one of the hottest starts in NFL history. After rushing for a league-leading 623 yards and nine touchdowns — plus 247 receiving yards and two more TDs through the air — Gurley has accumulated the fifth-most adjusted yards14 from scrimmage through six games since the 1970 AFL-NFL merger, joining former Rams greats Marshall Faulk and Eric Dickerson near the top of the list. The Rams are 6-0 on the young season, and Gurley’s breakneck performance is often cited as a catalyst for the team’s success. He has even been in the early discussion for league MVP.

But is that really warranted? Does the Rams offense truly run through Gurley, or should we be giving head coach Sean McVay more of the credit?

One approach to answering that question is to look at how McVay’s scheme affects Gurley’s performance. So far this year, the Rams have run nearly every offensive play from what is called the “11” personnel: one running back, one tight end and three wide receivers. According to charting from Sports Info Solutions, the Rams have run 95 percent of their offensive plays from this package — 32 percentage points more than the league average of 63 percent. And while heavy utilization of three wide receiver looks isn’t new to McVay — the Rams ran 81 percent of their plays out of “11” in 2017 — 2018 is a massive outlier. McVay appears to have concluded that the deception afforded the offense by lining up with the same personnel package each play is greater than the constraints it places on his play calling.

The Rams rarely stray from their favorite look

NFL teams by the share of their plays run in each of the three most popular personnel packages, 2018

Personnel package
Team 11: ONE RB, ONE TE, three WRs 12: ONE RB, TWO TEs, TWO WRs 21: Two RBs, one TE, two WRs
L.A. Rams 95% 2% 0%
Green Bay 77 14 1
Miami 77 8 1
Seattle 77 9 5
Indianapolis 72 18 3
Cleveland 70 16 1
Jacksonville 70 10 6
Cincinnati 69 20 2
Washington 69 17 0
Oakland 68 13 7
N.Y. Giants 67 23 4
Tampa Bay 67 14 7
Arizona 66 19 4
Denver 66 13 11
Buffalo 64 20 10
Chicago 64 20 10
Houston 62 34 0
Minnesota 62 23 9
Detroit 61 10 5
Pittsburgh 61 15 7
New Orleans 60 13 12
Carolina 59 14 8
Kansas City 59 22 9
Dallas 57 18 6
Atlanta 56 14 13
L.A. Chargers 56 17 10
Philadelphia 54 36 0
Tennessee 53 35 2
N.Y. Jets 52 24 0
New England 49 9 28
Baltimore 48 26 1
San Francisco 40 8 41
Average 63 17 7

Source: Sports Info Solutions

There are other benefits from repeatedly giving the opponent the same look, however, and they affect Gurley’s performance in important ways. When a team can spread a defense out laterally across the field, it opens up the middle and makes running the ball easier. Running backs with at least 20 carries averaged 4.75 yards per carry against six men in the box from 2016 to 2018.15 That’s well over half a yard higher than the average of 4.09 yards per carry when that same group of runners faced seven defenders near the line of scrimmage. Against eight-man fronts, the average gain falls to 3.59. Facing a loaded box makes running much more difficult.

McVay is no rube. He likely realizes that if you are going to run in the NFL, you should do so against a light box. Even better, this is something he can control. An offense exerts quite a bit of influence over how many box defenders it faces by how many wide receivers it chooses to deploy. When offenses play three wideouts, NFL defensive coordinators will typically match body type with body type and send a nickel defensive back in to cover the third receiver, leaving six defenders in the box.

As a consequence, Gurley has faced more six-man fronts on his carries than any other running back in football since McVay took over as head coach of the Rams. It has paid serious dividends. So far this season, Gurley is crushing it against those fronts, averaging 5.5 yards per carry. But against a neutral seven-man front, he’s been below league average at just 3.7 yards per attempt.

Gurley thrives when there are fewer defenders

Number of carries and yards per carry against a standard defense of six men in the box, 2017-18

Player No. of carries yards per carry
Todd Gurley 202 5.12
Kareem Hunt 113 4.91
Lamar Miller 112 4.42
LeVeon Bell 103 4.45
Melvin Gordon 101 4.73

Source: Sports Info Solutions

Gurley is basically the same back he has always been since he came into the league. If you use broken and missed tackles as a proxy for talent,16 you can see that Gurley makes defenders miss when running against six-man fronts far less than expected. He thrives, like most running backs, when he’s allowed to hit open holes and get to the second level relatively unscathed.

So Gurley is the beneficiary, not the proximate cause, of the Rams’ offensive resurgence under McVay. Gurley has been put in a position to succeed and has taken full advantage. Crucially, while the Rams have benefited from being smart in their offensive schemes and decision-making, it’s likely that many teams could emulate them and achieve similar success on the ground. Spreading a defense out and running against a light front is not a particularly novel idea. The commitment shown by running 95 percent of your plays out of a formation that encourages that result, however, is quite innovative. McVay pushes winning edges better than any coach in the NFL — and he, not his running back, is the principal reason that the Rams are currently the toast of the league.

Check out our latest NFL predictions.

Philip Rivers Has The Supporting Cast He Deserves Again

Conventional NFL wisdom says teams should do whatever it takes to snag a Franchise Quarterback™ — that from there, the winning just takes care of itself. But for most of Philip Rivers’s career, his Los Angeles (née San Diego) Chargers have been the exception to that rule. Taken fourth overall in the 2004 draft, Rivers has been the elite passer that teams dream about building around. And yet, his team has just four total playoff wins to show for it, including only one this decade.

This year, though, Los Angeles looks poised to reverse that trend and actually capitalize on having a future Hall of Fame QB in its midst, while there’s still time left in Rivers’s career to do it. The Chargers walloped the Browns 38-14 in Cleveland last Sunday, bringing their record to 4-2 on the season — and giving them a 61 percent probability of making their first playoff appearance since 2013. Although L.A.’s postseason bid is far from assured, right now the Chargers have set themselves up with their most promising start to a season in a long time.

This Charger renaissance has been building for a few years, since the team finally began surrounding Rivers again with better playmakers on both sides of the ball. On defense, that goes back to 2012, when former general manager A.J. Smith drafted pass-rusher Melvin Ingram 18th overall. After a slow start to his career, Ingram has blossomed into a Pro Bowler and an annual double-digit sack candidate. Under Smith’s successor, Tom Telesco, the Chargers have also grabbed several defensive contributors through the draft, including sack-machine DE Joey Bosa,17 solid LB Denzel Perryman, up-and-coming CB Desmond King II and rookie S Derwin James (who, in his first season, already ranks as the NFL’s fifth-best safety according to ProFootballFocus’s player grades). Toss in outside pickups such as DT Brandon Mebane and CB Casey Hayward — another Pro Bowler from last season — plus the guidance of proven coordinator Gus Bradley, and the Chargers’ defensive talent base has undeniably made strides over the past handful of seasons.

On offense, Telesco also made key acquisitions that helped pave the way for this year’s hot start when he took WR Keenan Allen in the third round of the 2013 draft and RB Melvin Gordon 15th overall in 2015. Picking first-round running backs is always tricky business, but Gordon has been a good one so far in his career, with a couple of 1,400-yards-from-scrimmage seasons under his belt (in 2016 and 2017) and an excellent start to 2018 as well. Meanwhile, Allen has taken the lead from top San Diego-era targets Malcom Floyd and Antonio Gates and forged his own chemistry with Rivers — only four receivers leaguewide have more yards through the air since 2017 than Allen does. (It also helps that Allen has stayed healthy these past two seasons after missing 23 combined games in 2015-16.) Allen and Gordon aren’t the only teammates making Rivers’s life easier: The offensive line has been much better with free-agent C Mike Pouncey anchoring the middle, while change-of-pace RB Austin Ekeler has proven himself exceptionally tough to bring down — he leads all RBs in yards after first contact per rush. More broadly, in its second year under head coach Anthony Lynn, Los Angeles now has the offensive pieces to beat teams in multiple ways.

Add it all up and it’s clear that Rivers, who turns 37 in December, has a much better group of talent around him to work with than in years past. Here’s a look at the changes in Rivers’s own production over time — as measured by his Yards Above Backup Quarterback (YABQ) — along with how his top skill-position teammates and defense have also evolved:

Philip Rivers is great again — and he has help

Los Angeles Chargers’ production from quarterback Philip Rivers and his supporting cast, 2006-2018

Season Rivers YABQ/G Top RB YdSc/G Top Rec. YdSC/G Team Def. efficiency
2018 99.2 M. Gordon 124.2 K. Allen 80.0 54.9
2017 75.1 M. Gordon 98.8 K. Allen 87.6 63.0
2016 31.8 M. Gordon 88.5 T. Williams 66.2 51.1
2015 48.3 D. Woodhead 68.2 K. Allen 45.3 38.6
2014 45.7 B. Oliver 53.3 M. Floyd 53.5 42.8
2013 79.6 R. Mathews 90.3 K. Allen 65.4 32.2
2012 -3.9 R. Mathews 59.9 M. Floyd 50.9 55.4
2011 48.0 R. Mathews 96.6 V. Jackson 72.3 33.2
2010 77.1 M. Tolbert 59.4 A. Gates 48.9 64.3
2009 97.0 L. Tomlinson 55.3 V. Jackson 73.6 46.4
2008 86.5 L. Tomlinson 96.0 V. Jackson 72.9 38.7
2007 26.4 L. Tomlinson 121.8 A. Gates 61.5 62.6
2006 58.5 L. Tomlinson 145.2 A. Gates 57.8 61.1

Per-game measures are relative to team schedule lengths, not individual games played.

YABQ: Yards Above Backup Quarterback, a measure of QB performance that gives credit for passing and rushing, and adjusts for strength of schedule.

YDSC: yards from scrimmage, or rushing yards plus receiving yards.

Defensive efficiency: ESPN’s measure of a defense’s per-play effectiveness on a 0-100 scale.

Source: ESPN Stats & Information Group, pro-Football-Reference.com

It probably isn’t a coincidence that Rivers is currently enjoying his best statistical performance in years, with Gordon and Allen also contributing more than any Charger rusher and receiver since the days of LaDainian Tomlinson and Vincent Jackson. It’s a little circular, in that sense: Is Rivers making them better, or are they helping Rivers rediscover his form? (Gordon’s ability to run against stacked defenses, for instance, has opened up space for Rivers to throw downfield.) Either way, the ingredients have been in place for a late-career QB rejuvenation. Right now, Rivers is on pace to tie for the ninth-most-efficient post-merger performance for a passer age 35 or older, according to Pro-Football-Reference.com’s advanced passing index. As far as old-man QB seasons go, this is one of the best in history.

Of course, with the Chargers, it’s about more than just improved talent. It’s also about execution, something this team has often been found sorely lacking over the years. As Mike Tanier wrote in his L.A. chapter for Football Outsiders’ 2018 Almanac, you could make a pretty convincing case that the 2017 Chargers missed the playoffs because of two very fundamental football activities: tackling and kicking. Last year, Los Angeles let opponents break tackles at an incredible rate and missed numerous field goals and extra points, helping to turn a team with 10-and-a-half-win point differential into a sad-sack nine-game-winner.

This year’s place-kicking game hasn’t been great (Caleb Sturgis made just 71 percent of his total field goals and extra points before he was sidelined by an injury), but it’s no longer dead-last in football, which I suppose is an accomplishment. Plus, the Chargers rank among the best in the league in terms of kickoffs, a big reason for their fourth-ranked net starting field position. And as for the tackling woes, they appear to be a thing of the past. According to Football Outsiders’ charting data, only 3.9 percent of plays by Charger opponents have seen a broken tackle, good for 10th best in the league this year. Relatedly, the Chargers are also allowing the league’s sixth-lowest rate of yards after first contact per rush this season, another major sign of defensive progress as compared with last season.

The Chargers must have practiced their tackling

Los Angeles Chargers’ defensive performance and league ranking in preventing opponents from breaking tackles or gaining yards after contact

Year Broken tackles/play NFL Rank Opponents’ yards after 1st contact/rush NFL Rank
2018 3.9% 10 1.56 6
2017 13.3 31 2.31 32

Source: Football Outsiders, ESPN Stats & Information Group

Los Angeles will put its improved talent and newfound execution on display in London on Sunday, for a game against the Tennessee Titans that ranks among the best of Week 7 in terms of both matchup quality (i.e., the harmonic mean of the two teams’ Elo ratings in each game) and how much it figures to swing either team’s odds of making the playoffs:

The best matchups of Week 7

Week 7 games by the highest average Elo rating (using the harmonic mean) plus the total potential swing for the two teams’ playoff chances, according to FiveThirtyEight’s NFL predictions

Playoff % Playoff %
Team A Current Avg. Chg* Team B Current Avg. Chg* Total Change Game Quality
CAR 43.4% ±12.8 PHI 64.2% ±12.2 25.0 1586
LAC 60.6 14.6 TEN 41.3 12.6 27.2 1524
WSH 38.8 16.3 DAL 40.2 16.2 32.6 1517
BAL 68.7 11.5 NO 72.2 9.7 21.1 1605
CHI 43.0 12.2 NE 78.4 9.0 21.3 1560
CIN 49.6 11.2 KC 95.8 3.6 14.8 1575
JAX 46.7 13.8 HOU 23.6 12.9 26.7 1470
MIA 42.8 12.6 DET 24.3 9.8 22.4 1496
MIN 57.0 13.4 NYJ 14.7 7.1 20.5 1513
LAR 95.8 3.3 SF 3.1 2.8 6.1 1512
ATL 27.7 6.5 NYG 1.2 1.0 7.5 1454
BUF 10.2 5.7 IND 4.1 2.3 8.0 1417
DEN 3.8 2.6 ARI 1.4 0.8 3.4 1418
TB 20.7 5.6 CLE 1.1 1.0 6.6 1394

Game quality is the harmonic mean of the Elo ratings for the two teams in a given matchup.

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

Source: ESPN.com

For the Chargers, it’s part of a long road trip that will keep them away from Southern California until Nov. 18. The StubHub Center doesn’t exactly offer an intimidating advantage even when they are at home, but it does bear watching how L.A. manages all that travel. Even so, the Chargers’ season will still probably hinge on the final few matchups of the season — their last five games are either against division rivals or the biggest threats to their wild-card chances. If Rivers and his improved supporting cast can continue to thrive up to and including the month of December, we’ll know the Chargers have stamped their ticket back to the postseason and given their star QB at least one more chance to shine on the game’s brightest stage.

FiveThirtyEight vs. the readers

Attention football fans! Be sure to check out our constantly updating NFL prediction interactive, which uses FiveThirtyEight’s Elo ratings to forecast the rest of the season. And if you think you can outsmart Elo, step right up to our prediction game, which lets you pick against our model (and your fellow readers) for bragging rights and a place on our giant leaderboard.

Here are the games where Elo made its best — and worst — predictions against the field of prognosticators last week:

Elo’s dumbest (and smartest) picks of Week 6

Average difference between points won by readers and by Elo in Week 6 matchups in FiveThirtyEight’s NFL prediction game

OUR PREDICTION (ELO) READERS’ PREDICTION
PICK WIN PROB. PICK WIN PROB. Result READERS’ NET PTS
BUF 52% HOU 60% HOU 20, BUF 13 +9.4
TEN 53 BAL 54 BAL 21, TEN 0 +4.8
GB 66 GB 75 GB 33, SF 30 +3.3
LAR 69 LAR 75 LAR 23, DEN 20 +1.2
CIN 54 CIN 51 PIT 28, CIN 21 +1.2
MIN 74 MIN 79 MIN 27, ARI 17 +0.9
ATL 67 ATL 64 ATL 34, TB 29 -3.9
SEA 67 SEA 63 SEA 27, OAK 3 -4.4
CAR 55 CAR 58 WSH 23, CAR 17 -5.3
PHI 71 PHI 66 PHI 34, NYG 13 -5.4
NE 54 NE 50 NE 43, KC 40 -6.2
LAC 69 LAC 60 LAC 38, CLE 14 -9.1
NYJ 67 NYJ 57 NYJ 42, IND 34 -9.9
MIA 54 CHI 59 MIA 31, CHI 28 -15.4
DAL 53 JAX 60 DAL 40, JAX 7 -16.2

Home teams are in bold.

The scoring system is nonlinear, so readers’ average points don’t necessarily match the number of points that would be given to the average reader prediction.

What’s been a great season for Elo kept getting better in Week 6 as the algorithm beat the average reader by 55 points, its second-best showing of the entire year so far. Human predictors really only had one major feather in their cap — Houston’s Nathan Peterman-fueled win over Buffalo (a very bad team whose badness Elo refuses to acknowledge) — but otherwise they saw Elo run roughshod over their picks. Elo correctly called wins for Dallas and Miami when readers picked otherwise, and it had a lot more confidence than readers in the Jets’ and Chargers’ victories as well. All told, the average reader is now down 233 points to Elo for the season to date.

Among the readers who weren’t destroyed by Elo, congrats to John D. Harden, who led all users with 275 points in Week 6, and to Jevon Mallett, who continues to lead all users for the season with 453 points. Thanks to everyone who played last week — and if you didn’t play, get in on the game already! You can make picks now and still try your luck against Elo, even if you haven’t played yet.

Check out our latest NFL predictions.

The Bears Don’t Need Blitzes To Destroy Your Quarterback

When Vic Fangio was named defensive coordinator of the Chicago Bears in 2015, he took the helm of a ship that was essentially already at the bottom of the ocean. Not only were the Bears mired in a four-season playoff drought, but Chicago was also coming off consecutive seasons in which it fielded arguably the worst defense in franchise history.

“We obviously aren’t a good team,” defensive end Jared Allen succinctly put it in 2014 after the Bears allowed consecutive opponents to pile up 50-plus points, a feat that had no precedent in modern professional football.

Now, Chicago is under the direction of head coach Matt Nagy, atop the NFC North and in the midst of a three-game winning streak for the first time since the beginning of the 2013 season. But seemingly all anyone can talk about is Fangio’s defense.

In its most recent victory, Chicago dismantled Tampa Bay’s then-league-best offense in a 48-10 bloodletting. Chicago’s front seven had Ryan Fitzpatrick and Jameis Winston, who made his season debut, running toward the nearest airport.

Fitzpatrick and Winston haven’t been Chicago’s only victims, though.

When it comes to getting at the quarterback, the Bears are off to the third-best start in franchise history. Even though the team had a bye in Week 5, its 18 sacks rank second in the league, one shy of the Pittsburgh Steelers’ 19. One-fourth of Chicago’s 16 best single-game sack performances since 2015 came in the first four weeks of this season. At 4.5 sacks per contest so far, Chicago is on pace to tie the NFL single-season sack record of 72, a record the Bears set in 1984.

Chicago’s 11.6 percent sack rate1 is 1.5 percentage points ahead of the next-best team. If the Bears can maintain that pace, they would set the the fifth-best mark since 1980, according to Pro-Football-Reference.com. Chicago’s defense is collapsing the pocket better than perhaps any team.

But here’s the remarkable thing about the Bears: They are racking up the sacks despite hardly blitzing.

The Bears rank last in the league in blitzing, defined as sending five or more pass rushers at a quarterback who’s dropping back to throw, with 5.0 per contest, according to data from ESPN Stats & Information Group. If Chicago maintained its blitz average for the rest of the season, it would be the sixth-lowest rate since 2006, the first year for which data is available.

This is in no small part a function of the Bears’ new $141 million linebacker. Khalil Mack, who became the highest paid defensive player in NFL history after the Bears traded for him last month, is tied for fifth in the NFL in sacks (five) and tied for first in forced fumbles (four). In terms of pressure applied, Mack is ahead of the pace he set in 2016 when he was named defensive player of the year. In Week 3 of this season, during the Bears’ 16-14 win over Arizona, the Cardinals went as far as tasking three men with containing Mack. Late in the second quarter, after Mack beat every last one of those Cardinals, his teammate Akiem Hicks swooped in for the sack.

Mack is not only a transcendent talent capable of getting to the quarterback on seemingly every snap; his play has also raised the performance of his teammates. Mack, Hicks, Danny Trevathan, Aaron Lynch and Roy Robertson-Harris have accounted for at least 1.5 sacks apiece this season. “Those boys inside can raise so much hell, it’s outrageous,” said hell-raiser Richard Dent, a Hall of Fame defensive end and a member of the vaunted 1985-86 Bears defense, in an interview with The Athletic.

Blitzing requires a defensive player to eschew coverage in favor of pressure. Like so many other aspects of football, the blitz is a risk-reward proposition. Get to the quarterback quickly enough, and the play is over — and you may have even created a takeaway. Get to the quarterback a step late, and he will likely find a target in the hole you’ve left.

Leaguewide, blitzing is trending down, largely because the game has gotten faster and offensive efficiency continues to skyrocket. It seems that defensive coordinators are content to send fewer pass rushers at the quarterback and instead rely on their secondary in coverage. In four consecutive seasons, the number of blitzes faced by quarterbacks has dropped, according to data from ESPN Stats & Information. Opposing quarterbacks saw a 17 percent decrease from 2013 to 2017 in total five-man blitzes.

Long a proponent of blitz-scarce schemes, Fangio oversees an optimal situation in Chicago, where the Bears largely abstain from blitzing — yet they still manage to get to the quarterback.

“I think the ideal thing is you’d like to pressure when you want to and not feel like you have to,” Fangio told The Athletic. “If you can get to that point, then you feel pretty good.”

Fangio was well ahead of the trend of blitz-less defenses. He has held an NFL defensive coordinator role each season since 2011, when he took that job with the San Francisco 49ers, and over that stretch, his defenses have always been among the league’s most blitz-reluctant outfits.

Other teams have used this formula before. Most notably, Jacksonville last season was able to get to the AFC championship game and field one of the best defenses in football while ranking second in sacks and last in blitzes. Chicago’s defense is 7.6 points better than average this season, according to Pro-Football-Reference’s Defensive Simple Rating System. That’s the franchise’s best mark since the 1985 and 1986 campaigns, when the Bears went a combined 29-3 and won a Super Bowl.

Blitz-less defenses aren’t always dominant; the 2006 Indianapolis Colts blitzed the least of any team for which data is available and were the fourth-worst defense in the AFC. But Chicago’s defense is dominating, leading the league in Football Outsiders’ Defense-adjusted Value Over Average,2 while ranking no lower than third in pass and rush defense.

This weekend, Chicago travels to Miami to take on a Dolphins outfit missing several offensive linemen, setting the stage for more defensive highlights from the Bears. A franchise long synonymous with hard-nosed defense and strong play from the linebacker corps has re-established its identity under Fangio.

Check out our latest NFL predictions.

NFL Parity Is Creating Excitement — And, Um, Ties

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The best matchups of Week 6

Week 6 games with the highest average Elo rating using the harmonic mean plus the total potential swing for the two teams’ playoff chances, according to FiveThirtyEight’s NFL predictions

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

Game quality is the harmonic mean of the Elo ratings for the two teams in a given matchup.

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

Source: ESPN.com

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

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

FiveThirtyEight vs. the readers

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

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

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

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

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

Home teams are in bold.

The scoring system is nonlinear, so readers’ average points don’t necessarily match the number of points that would be given to the average reader prediction.

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

But Elo didn’t make all of our readers look silly. Congrats to reader Paul Diaz, who led all users in points for Week 5, and to Jevon Mallett, who leads all users on the season in total. Thanks to everyone who played last week — and if you didn’t play, get in on the game already! You can make picks now and still try your luck against Elo, even if you missed the first quarter of the season.

Check out our latest NFL predictions.