The Super Bowl’s Best Matchup Is Gladys Knight vs. The Clock

Super Bowl LIII is not only about two of the league’s best offenses squaring off against one another — New England and Los Angeles — it’s also about America’s other favorite pastime: gambling. The total amount bet on the Super Bowl1 has risen from $40 million in 1991 to more than $158 million in 2018, and much of that growth has come from “props” or proposition bets.

For readers who aren’t degenerate gamblers, prop bets are wagers you can place on events during a game that don’t directly involve the final outcome. This year there are the standard prop bets, like if the Patriots will score a touchdown in the first quarter (they never have in a Super Bowl), or if the Rams will rush for more than 127.5 yards (they averaged 143.3 yards per game in the regular season and the playoffs). But there are also more exotic prop bets on things like whether Donald Trump will tweet more than six times during the game. (The implied probability on one offshore book is 58 percent that he will hit the over.)

Another interesting wager is on the length of Gladys Knight’s rendition of “The Star-Spangled Banner.” Several offshore books have set the total for the anthem at 1 minute 47 seconds, and the implied odds for both the under and the over were set at one book at -115 — a 53.5 percent implied probability — on both sides.2 The implied probabilities being equal indicates that the book has no real opinion on the length of Gladys’s performance — they just want to take a percentage from each side of the wager and hope bettors will place their bets evenly on both.

But is Knight performing the anthem in over/under 107 seconds really close to a 50 percent proposition? Or is there evidence that might convince us that the oddsmakers got the probabilities wrong?

To find out, I went to Youtube and watched 40 Super Bowl national anthems from 1979 to 2018. I eliminated any anthems with trumpeters (there were two) and then started timing the anthem from the moment the singer first started to sing and ended the timer after the completion of the first utterance of “brave.”3 Using this methodology, the 40-year average of all national anthem singers4 is 106.1 seconds, roughly in line with the total set by the books. So the total is correct so far as the average goes, but it also seems lazy. Surely there are other factors that might help us better predict how long Gladys might sing.

For starters, the performance time of the anthem has changed as the Super Bowl has grown to become the unparalleled cultural phenomenon we now enjoy each year. As the pomp, circumstance and viewership have increased, the time anthem performers spend on the stage has also risen.

So while anthems have gotten longer over time, the 40-year average is not fully accounting for that trend. When you do account for it5 the best forecast for the 2019 anthem is actually 119 seconds, 13 seconds over the 40-year average.

Gender of the anthem singer is also significant. Men tend to sing the anthem more quickly than women — though not many men have sung the anthem in recent years, when the anthems have been getting longer overall. Still, the all-time shortest anthem performance was by a man — the incomparable Neil Diamond — who got in and out like a boss in a cool 61 seconds. And the longest anthem ever performed at a Super Bowl was by the unforgettable Natalie Cole in 1994, which clocked in at a diva-esque 148 seconds.

Finally, Knight herself appears to be a singer who knows how to stretch a note. Using whosampled, I identified 31 covers performed by Knight and timed the cover performance of each using similar criteria to the anthem timing. Knight’s covers were 7 percent longer than the originals on average, good for a bonus 12.7 seconds of soothing soul per track. In perhaps the best comp to the national anthem — “Ave Maria,” a soaring, vocal-heavy standard covered by hundreds of artists — Gladys’ performance was 37 percent longer than the standard version.

Gladys Knight takes her time with interpretations

Difference in song length between Knight’s covers and the original songs

Song Original Artist Difference
Feel Like Makin’ Love Roberta Flack +129 sec.
The Look of Love Dusty Springfield +85
Yesterday The Beatles +70
Help Me Make It Through the Night Kris Krisofferson +66
Ave Maria Anna Moffo +65
For Once in My Life Barbara McNair +50
Midnight Train to Georgia Cissy Houston +42
The Way We Were Barbara Streisand +36
Fire and Rain James Taylor +33
I’m Gonna Make You Love Me Dee Dee Warwick +30
Groovin’ The Young Rascals +27
The Need to Be Jim Weatherly +13
Average +13
Everybody Needs Love The Temptations +8
You’re the Best Thing That Ever Happened to Me Ray Price +8
Goin’ Out of My Head Little Anthony and the Imperials +7
All I Could Do Is Cry Etta James +2
Baby I Need Your Loving The Four Tops +1
Tracks of My Tears Smokey Robinson & The Miracles 0
Yes, I’m ready Barbara Mason -1
Baby Don’t Change Your Mind The Stylistics -1
I Wish It Would Rain The Temptations -4
Cloud Nine The Temptations -9
Keep an Eye Diana Ross & The Supremes -9
You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feelin’ The Righteous Brothers -14
I Feel a Song (in My Heart) Sandra Richardson -19
Let It Be The Beatles -21
Is There a Place? The Supremes -34
Wind Beneath My Wings Roger Whittaker -34
Heard It Through the Grapevine Marvin Gaye -39
Thank You Sly & the Family Stone -45
Every Beat of My Heart The Royals -49

Sources: YouTube, Whosampled

Taking a larger view, only two anthems in the past 15 years have been performed faster than the 40-year average of 1 minute 47 seconds. And when I looked at the age of the anthem singers, I found no significant correlation between age and performance time.6 On the other hand, we can look at one of Knight’s previous performances of “The Star-Spangled Banner” itself, which is solid piece of evidence against the over, running for 92 seconds. It was, however, performed 28 years ago. All things considered, the bookmakers appear to have this line wrong on Gladys, and her upcoming anthem performance is probably going to go over 107 seconds.

Researching a single prop was a lot of work, and it’s understandable why books might not want to put this level of effort into each and every bet they publish. But it does imply that there are profitable edges for some Super Bowl props. Using the Twitter machine, I threw up a bat signal for a gambling expert to help me confirm my priors. Rufus Peabody, a professional sports bettor and former ESPN contributor who is well-known in gambling circles for the scale and volume of his Super Bowl prop wagers, agreed to help.

“The time and effort to accurately value props is pretty high,” Peabody said. “Some books put more effort into their props than others, and for some props there’s almost no data. Books will move the lines aggressively when sharp bets are made though, which helps them adjust.”

I’ve been keeping an eye on the Gladys anthem line, and it hasn’t moved all week. I was tempted to bet the over, but when I was confronted with the prospect of having to convert real money into Bitcoin in order to place a bet on an offshore site, I decided to abort. When I looked around for somewhere to place the bet in Las Vegas — where they accept actual money — I struck out. Peabody explained that prop bets like anthem length are illegal in Las Vegas because of restrictions on the types of sources casinos can use to “grade” or determine the outcome of a bet.

Even if it won’t net me any cash, I’ll be pulling for Knight to go over regardless. I want her to belt out that last note in “home of the brave” for an egregiously long time. After all, my Twitter credibility is on the line, and that’s serious business.

There’s Really Never Been An NFL Dynasty Like The Patriots

The New England Patriots are back in yet another Super Bowl — No. 9 since 2001, for those keeping track — and this time they’re the favorite to beat the Los Angeles Rams, according to both Las Vegas and our Elo model. Tom Brady, Bill Belichick and friends have been doing this kind of thing for so long that sometimes it’s easy to take their greatness for granted. But with another championship potentially looming, we thought we’d zoom out and take stock of just how incredible New England’s success has actually been. Because, love or hate the Patriots, we’ve never seen anything like what they’ve accomplished over the better part of the past two decades.

New England has enjoyed some of the most dominant seasons of all time.

Let’s start at the single-season level. To grade a team’s Elo dominance, we like to use a blend of its final end-of-season rating, its peak rating and its season-long average rating.1 According to that metric, the Patriots own a number of the greatest teams of the Super Bowl era (since 1966) — including both the greatest team to win a Super Bowl (in 2004) and the greatest team to not win a Super Bowl (in 2007).

The best single-season teams of the Super Bowl era

NFL teams ranked by a blend of their final, peak and season-long average Elo ratings, since 1966

Super Bowl winners Didn’t win Super Bowl
Team Year Elo Blend Team Year Elo Blend
1 New England 2004 1792 1 New England 2007 1824
2 Denver 1998 1771 2 Baltimore 1968 1766
3 San Francisco 1989 1770 3 Washington 1983 1762
4 Miami 1973 1767 4 Green Bay 1997 1758
5 Chicago 1985 1767 5 Seattle 2014 1749
6 Dallas 1993 1765 6 Green Bay 2011 1748
7 Pittsburgh 1975 1760 7 Indianapolis 2005 1742
8 San Francisco 1984 1759 8 San Francisco 1990 1742
9 Washington 1991 1756 9 Indianapolis 2007 1737
10 Miami 1972 1754 10 New England 2011 1734

Source: Pro-Football-Reference.com

Despite their loss to the New York Giants in one of the most thrilling Super Bowls ever, the 2007 Pats, who went 16-0 in the regular season, remain the highest-rated team in NFL history — in addition to being one of the most talented and influential teams ever assembled.2 And unlike that 2007 squad, the 2004 Patriots finished the job and capped off a 17-2 season with a Super Bowl crown, in a campaign that contained part of an NFL-record 21-game winning streak.

This year’s Pats are not in that conversation. But the 2016 version was the 16th-best team to win a Super Bowl, according to Elo, and the 2017 version that lost to the Eagles last February ranks as the 14th-best nonwinner of the Super Bowl era.

The Pats’ dynasty is the most impressive of the Super Bowl era (according to Elo).

Sometimes it’s difficult to pin down when a dynasty begins and ends, but one way to look at it is to find the stretch of seasons that would be the most difficult for a generic contender to replicate. (We also did this for the NBA last summer when looking at the Golden State Warriors’ place in history.)

To do that for any given franchise, we take the single-season blended ratings from above and calculate their harmonic mean over every possible span of seasons. (The harmonic mean is a special kind of average that rewards high marks across every value in a set — in this case, elevating teams that were consistently great.) Then we compare that number to what a team with an initial Elo rating of 16173 would be expected to have over the same number of seasons. Since it becomes progressively harder to maintain a high mean Elo as more seasons pass, this helps balance short bursts of greatness against longer, more sustained periods of dominance.

The most impressive dynasties are the ones that exceed expectations the most. And after filtering for teams that won at least two Super Bowls in a given span (plus tossing out duplicate overlapping stretches for the same franchise), the NFL’s best stretch of seasons belongs to the Patriots since 2003 — potentially including this year, if they beat the Rams. (And if not, then the stretch from 2003 through 2017.)

The Super Bowl era’s most impressive dynasties

Among franchises with at least two Super Bowl titles, the most impressive (nonoverlapping) spans of seasons, according to Elo ratings, since 1966

Team Span Seasons Titles Mean Elo vs. Expected
New England* 2003-18 16 5? 1711 +169.4
1 New England 2003-17 15 4 1714 +169.8
2 San Francisco 1984-95 12 4 1706 +155.1
3 Dallas 1992-95 4 3 1740 +150.7
4 Pittsburgh 1974-79 6 4 1712 +139.0
5 Miami 1972-74 3 2 1739 +138.5
6 Dallas 1968-83 16 2 1667 +125.7
7 Oakland/L.A. Raiders 1967-85 19 3 1654 +115.3
8 Denver 1996-98 3 2 1704 +103.9
9 Washington 1982-92 11 3 1653 +99.1
10 Pittsburgh 2004-11 8 2 1656 +93.9
11 Green Bay 1966-68 3 2 1688 +87.7
12 Green Bay 1995-15 21 2 1619 +81.7
13 Baltimore 2000-14 15 2 1599 +54.6
14 N.Y. Giants 1985-90 6 2 1627 +54.3

*The current Patriots’ run will be No. 1 if New England wins Super Bowl LIII.

Mean Elo is the harmonic mean of a team’s seasonal blended Elo ratings (which mixes the average, final and peak Elo during the season) over the span of the seasons in question.

Expected Elo is the mean Elo we’d expect for a generic Super Bowl contender (from a starting Elo of 1617) over the span of the seasons in question. Teams are ranked by how much they exceeded this expectation.

Source: Pro-Football-Reference.com

Among stretches of anywhere near the same length, the only other dynasty in the same neighborhood as the Patriots is the San Francisco 49ers’ run during the 1980s and ’90s. Built by Bill Walsh and quarterbacked by Hall of Famers Joe Montana and Steve Young, the Niners won their five Super Bowls in a span of 14 years (including four in the 12-year span listed as their most dominant above). That’s two fewer than it took the Patriots to get five of their own from 2001 to 2016. (Those 49ers also weren’t embroiled in various cheating scandals, but that’s a matter for another story.) But the 21st century Pats have also visited almost twice as many Super Bowls as did the Niners (who, granted, won all five they made it to in this stretch). With the chance to tack on a sixth championship in 18 years, the Patriots would solidify the most impressive stretch of football the game has ever known.

New England’s main dynasty also contains several GOAT-level mini-dynasties.

As incredible as the entirety of the Brady-Belichick era has been, you can also pick out just about any subset of it that you want, and there’s a good chance that the Patriots will be the best in NFL history over that length of seasons. For example, using the same mean-Elo approach as above, the best five-season span of the Super Bowl era4 is the Patriots’ run from 2003 through 2007. But they also own a separate, nonoverlapping five-season span from 2013 through 2017, which is the third-best such “mini-dynasty” since 1966. They also own both the best and third-best seven-year mini-dynasties, the best and fourth-best eight-year mini-dynasties, the best and fourth-best nine-year mini-dynasties, and so forth. (You get the picture.)

Pick a span of years; the Pats are one (or two) of the best

Best dynasties of N seasons during the Super Bowl era (since 1966) based on Elo ratings over that span

3-Year Dynasties 6-Year Dynasties
Team Seasons Titles Mean Elo Team Seasons Titles Mean Elo
DAL 1992-94 2 1748 SF 1989-94 2 1720
MIA 1972-74 2 1739 NE 2011-16 2 1720
NE 2014-16 2 1728 NE 2003-08 2 1720
SF 1988-90 2 1727 PIT 1974-79 4 1712
PIT 1974-76 2 1725 DAL 1991-96 3 1694
9-Year Dynasties 12-Year Dynasties
Team Seasons Titles Mean Elo Team Seasons Titles Mean Elo
NE 2010-18 3? 1714 NE 2006-17 2 1712
SF 1987-95 3 1711 SF 1984-95 4 1706
PIT 1972-80 4 1685 DAL 1971-82 2 1671
NE 2001-09 3 1683 PIT 1972-83 4 1659
DAL 1971-79 2 1676 OAK 1969-80 2 1653
15-Year Dynasties 18-Year Dynasties
Team Seasons Titles Mean Elo Team Seasons Titles Mean Elo
NE 2003-17 4 1714 NE 2001-18 6? 1699
SF 1984-98 4 1696 SF 1981-98 5 1681
DAL 1969-83 2 1668 DAL 1966-83 2 1658
OAK 1966-80 2 1653 OAK/LA 1967-84 3 1655
MIA 1971-85 2 1643 MIA 1970-87 2 1625

Teams needed at least two Super Bowl wins during the span of seasons to qualify.

Source: Pro-Football-Reference.com

Most great teams get only one truly historic period of dominance before they begin to break apart — particularly in the salary-cap era, when talent became tougher to hold on to and build around. The Troy Aikman/Emmitt Smith/Michael Irvin Dallas Cowboys, for instance, rank as our third-most impressive overall dynasty, but that run ultimately lasted only a few years: Aikman, Smith and Irvin stayed in Dallas for the rest of the 1990s, but as they got older, the rest of the roster wasn’t strong enough to compensate, in part because the cap forced the Cowboys to shed talent. The Patriots, though, have numerous nonoverlapping subsections of years that would each be the pinnacle of most franchises’ entire histories, and they’ve done it all in an era when the NFL is (theoretically) trying to promote parity.

And one of the most interesting things about the Patriots’ micro-dynasties is that many were accomplished with different styles of football, despite the constant tandem of Belichick and Brady. As my colleague Mike Salfino pointed out last week, the Pats’ playoff offenses this decade have run the gamut from some of the least dependent on running backs to some of the most. It’s a testament to the chameleon-like way Belichick and staff have been able build their teams that they’ve maintained New England’s run of dominance despite constantly shifting their strategic tendencies.

2018 might be Belichick’s most impressive coaching job yet.

Sure, we’re tired of the Patriots’ current “nobody believes in us” schtick. But it is true that this incarnation of the Patriots is comparatively underpowered, at least compared with previous versions of the team in the Brady-Belichick era. By whatever measure you want to use to account for New England’s talent level — star performances or team strength — this team looks less impressive on paper than usual.

Not only is this the worst Pats Super Bowl team since 2001, according to our blended Elo dominance metric from above, but New England also had its fewest Pro Bowlers (two) and players with double-digit Approximate Value5 (five) in any of its Super Bowl seasons over that span, and its second-fewest first-team All-Pros (one, Stephon Gilmore). In fact, there were numerous Patriot teams that fell short of the Super Bowl entirely that, according to all of the categories above, had more talent than the 2018 version. Suspensions (Julian Edelman) and off-field headaches (Josh Gordon) certainly played a role in New England’s reduced star power, but it was also a roster Belichick had to cajole more wins out of than usual.

Regardless, it worked — and it helped the Patriots extend their historic dynasty. The only thing left is to see whether Brady, Belichick and company can add yet another ring to their collection versus the Rams, the opponent it all started against.

Check out our latest NFL predictions.

Why The NFL Can’t Rely On Defense

In an NFL season marked by historic offensive production and a championship round that was conspicuously absent a top-10 defense,2 aficionados of low-scoring rock fights, filled with punts and field goals, have been left disappointed. The best defensive teams to make the playoffs were eliminated early in the tournament, with the Bears, Ravens and Texans all losing in the wild-card round. A week later, Joey Bosa and the emerging Chargers defense were dismantled by the Patriots, and the Cowboys — perhaps the best defensive team left in the divisional round based on their end-of-season play — lost to the Rams. Extracting the strong defensive teams with relatively weak offenses led to historically exciting playoff football, producing two overtime games in the championship round for the first time in NFL history. Now we have a Patriots and Rams Super Bowl pitting perhaps the greatest QB of all time in Tom Brady against the hottest young offensive mind in the league in Sean McVay.

We shouldn’t be surprised that great offensive teams have made it this far. Teams are more reliably good — and bad — from game to game and year to year on offense than on defense. Individual defenders often have wild swings in performance from season to season, and defensive units forecast to be dominant often end up being merely average. The Jacksonville Jaguars’ defense took them as far as the AFC championship a year ago, but that same defense led them to five wins this season. Meanwhile, performance on offense is generally easier to forecast, making investments on that side of the ball more reliable.

Even then, football is largely unpredictable. When an otherwise sure-handed Alshon Jeffery3 lets a well-thrown Nick Foles pass sail through his fingers for an interception to end the Eagles season, or when Cody Parkey double-doinks a partially blocked field goal to end the Bears’ playoff hopes, we are essentially cheering, or bemoaning, randomness. Most vexing for forecasters and league observers trying to make sense of things is that the plays that matter the most in football are often the most unpredictable. But again, this is particularly true on the defensive side of the ball.

Turnover margin is the canonical example. Teams that win the turnover battle go on to win their games at a very high rate. Home teams win about 73 percent of their games when they are plus-1 in turnover differential, according to data from ESPN’s Stats & Information Group, and the home team win rate climbs to more than 86 percent when it’s plus-2 or better.

Yet despite their clear importance, the number of turnovers a team creates in one season has no bearing on how many turnovers the team will create in the next. Both interceptions and fumbles are completely unpredictable from season to season at the team level. And this pattern holds true for defense in general. If we measure the stability of defensive stats from one year to the next,4 we find that compared with offensive performance, most defensive stats are highly variable from year to year.

Defensive performance is unpredictable

Share of performance across various team-level metrics predicted by the previous season’s performance in the regular season, 2009-2018

metric Share predicted
Total offensive DVOA 18.9%
Offensive passing DVOA 18.8
Defensive passing DVOA 10.0
Offensive rushing DVOA 9.7
Total defensive DVOA 9.7
Defensive rushing DVOA 8.3
Sacks 3.6
Interceptions 2.4
Fumbles 1.6

Source: Football Outsiders

High-impact plays on defense turn out to be the least predictable. And while we’re by no means great at identifying which teams will succeed on offense, offensive DVOA is about twice as good at forecasting future performance as defensive DVOA.5

For teams like the Chicago Bears, who won 12 games despite fielding the 20th best offense in the NFL, this has major ramifications. The Bears were third in the league in turnover margin and third in sacks — feats we shouldn’t expect to repeat based solely on this season’s results. (Just ask the Jags.) Casting even more doubt on their ability to field an elite defense in back-to-back years, Chicago also lost its defensive coordinator, Vic Fangio, who left to become the head coach in Denver, further destabilizing the strength of the team.

Still there is some hope for lovers of the three-and-out. While rare, there are plays a defense makes that do tend to carry over from year to year. One of the most stable defensive stats is hits on the quarterback, which has a relatively impressive year-to-year r-squared of 0.21 — better even than total offensive DVOA, which is the gold standard for stability in team metrics. Quarterback hits include sacks — 43.5 percent of QB hits end in a sack, and those by themselves tend to not be predictive — but also plays in which the passer is contacted after the pass is thrown, and that contact is incredibly disruptive to a passing offense.

When a quarterback is hit, his completion percentage is affected on a throw to any part of the field.6 Teams that can generate pressure that ends with contact on the opposing QB greatly improve their chances of causing incompletions and getting off the field. And best of all, teams that are good at generating hits on the quarterback tend to stay good at it.

Philadelphia led the league in QB hits but not sacks

Total quarterback hits, sacks and expected sacks for teams’ defensive lines in the regular season, 2018

Sources: NFL, Elias Sports Bureau

The Eagles, Jets and the Seahawks all appear to have better days ahead of them on defense. Each team racked up more than 100 QB hits in 2018. But they also experienced bad fortune, converting their hits into sacks at a rate below what we’d expect. If these teams generate similar pressure next season, we shouldn’t be surprised to see their sack totals rise just based on reversion to the mean. Meanwhile, Chicago, New Orleans and Kansas City experienced good fortune in 2018, converting their QB hits at a rate higher than we’d expect. Assuming the defensive lines return largely intact, we probably shouldn’t be surprised to see their sack totals dip next season.

Stats like QB hits are rare to find on defense. And because of the high variance in defensive performance, teams built with a defense-first mindset end up controlling their own destinies less than we might expect. When it comes to team-building, this suggests that investments on offense are better long-term bets for stability. The results this year are particularly encouraging. Lighting up scoreboards by focusing on scoring points instead of preventing them has proved to be both successful and incredibly entertaining to watch. For this season at least, defense isn’t winning anyone a championship.

Check out our latest NFL predictions.

The Rams And Patriots Have Reversed Roles Since Their First Super Bowl Meeting

One of the most wonderfully ironic moments in Super Bowl history happened just before kickoff in February 2002, when St. Louis Rams wide receiver Ricky Proehl turned to NFL Films’ cameras during warmups and declared: “Tonight, a dynasty is born!”

Proehl was right, of course. A dynasty was born that night — just not the one he was imagining. Tom Brady and the New England Patriots ended up toppling the heavily favored Rams in Super Bowl XXXVI, using it as a springboard for the greatest run of sustained success any NFL team has ever known.

The Patriots were the up-and-coming team back then, while the Rams were the established champions with the veteran, future Hall of Fame quarterback. This time around, though, the roles will be reversed for the two franchises — with the Patriots serving as the elder statesmen, while the Rams are the team on the rise. It’s a fitting turnabout, one featuring what the Elias Sports Bureau determined was the largest gap in age between both starting quarterbacks (Tom Brady is 17 years and 72 days older than Jared Goff) and head coaches (Bill Belichick is 33 years and 283 days older than Sean McVay) in Super Bowl history.

The Rams opened the betting Sunday night as slight favorites with some sportsbooks (so yes, you can say you were an underdog, Tom), though that didn’t last long. A flood of bets for the Patriots pushed the line to favor New England by 2½ points, according to the current consensus in Vegas. Here’s what our Elo ratings think about the matchup, using both the classic version from our interactive and one with the experimental quarterback adjustments we’ve been tinkering with:

OK, Elo — who ya got in the Super Bowl?

Win probabilities for Week 21 games according to two methods: standard Elo and adjusting for starting quarterbacks

Standard Elo QB-Adjusted Elo
Team Rating Win Prob. Base Rtg Starting QB QB Adj. Win Prob.
LAR 1667 47% 1656 Jared Goff +4 46%
NE 1686 53 1645 Tom Brady +42 54

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

Source: Pro-Football-Reference.com

The Patriots still somehow have two very important components from that original Super Bowl against the Rams: Brady and Belichick. At age 41, Brady had his worst passing numbers in several years, yet he also was still a top-10 QB (at worst), a Pro Bowler and — it bears emphasizing — impossibly productive for his age. All of that came despite throwing to a revolving-door cast of receivers and a less-dominant version of longtime security blanket Rob Gronkowski. All told, Brady led an offense that still ranked fourth in scoring and eighth in expected points added, albeit with a lower per-game EPA average than any Pats team with Brady as starter since 2013.

For Belichick’s part, this season saw his Patriots improve significantly on defense, jumping from 24th in EPA in 2017 to seventh in 2018. Although New England tied for the second-fewest sacks in the league, it generated the third-most pressure (according to ESPN’s Stats & Information Group), forced the second-lowest completion percentage and generally was the best Patriots pass defense in a while. And this team was also a celebration of Belichick the (de facto) general manager: In addition to shrewd veteran acquisitions such as CB Stephon Gilmore and LB Kyle Van Noy, a large share of the Pats’ production came from draft picks made over the past few years, including DLs Trey Flowers and Malcom Brown, OLs Shaq Mason and Joe Thuney, and rookie RB Sony Michel.1 All of those pickups helped fuel a Pats roster that still relied heavily on Brady to work his magic but also blocked well and played sound defense.

The Patriots’ run wasn’t always easy, of course. The 2018 edition had the second-worst points per game differential and lowest Elo rating of the franchise’s Super Bowl-bound squads since … you guessed it, the 2001 team. But maybe that’s just further proof that everything truly has come full circle in New England. They’re certainly hoping the story ends the same way this time around.

As for these current Rams, they are not too dissimilar from their Greatest Show on Turf forebears, either. Los Angeles outscored opponents by 143 total points in the regular season (third-best in football) and got high marks in every power ranking out there, including Elo (which ranks them No. 2), Football Outsiders’ Defense-adjusted Value Over Average (No. 2), ProFootballFocus’s rankings (No. 2), Jeff Sagarin’s ratings (No. 2), Andy Dolphin’s predictive rating (No. 3) and Pro-Football-Reference.com’s Simple Rating System (No. 3). Though they never actually ranked first in Elo at any point during the season, the Rams were consistently one of the game’s top contenders all year long.

And they got that way just about as quickly as those fabled 1999 Rams, who went 4-12 the year before Kurt Warner and Marshall Faulk changed the franchise’s fortunes forever. The 2018 season culminated a remarkable two-year turnaround arc under soon-to-be-33-year-old coach Sean McVay, who took L.A. from a 4-12 disaster in 2016 under former coach Jeff Fisher to an 11-5 record last year, and now a Super Bowl. Over that span, the Rams went from an Elo rating of 1346 to 1667, a gain of 321 Elo points. Only four other Super Bowl teams in history have gained more rating points from the end of two seasons prior to the start of the big game itself — the 1998 Atlanta Falcons (+368), 1981 San Francisco 49ers (+360), 1992 Dallas Cowboys (+357) and 1971 Miami Dolphins (+339). Even the ’99 Rams had “only” gained 246 points of Elo from the end of 1997, though they do own the largest single-season gain ever for a Super Bowl team.

How did L.A. do it? The cornerstones of the 2018 team — Goff, DT Aaron Donald and RB Todd Gurley2 — were all drafted by the club from 2014 to 2016. But general manager Les Snead did his best work over the 2017 and 2018 offseasons, snagging the majority of the current team’s other starters either via the draft or in a flurry of win-now moves that mostly look smart in hindsight. The other key ingredient was coaching, where (with a few weird exceptions on Sunday) McVay has shown a fantastic knack for incorporating analytical thinking into his play-calling, and he remains the master of keeping defenses off-balance by running almost all of his plays out of the same personnel package. While there are very legitimate questions as to whether Goff or Gurley could be as successful in a different system, the pair has powered a Super Bowl run under McVay’s scheme.

Each team needed luck to get here, too. The Rams likely wouldn’t be headed to Atlanta without a blown pass-interference call that kept New Orleans from running down most of the clock in regulation, instead giving L.A. the chance to force overtime and eventually win the game. The Patriots benefited from a phantom roughing-the-passer penalty and a (legitimate) offside call that negated what would have been a game-ending interception, then rattled off what felt like a million straight third-and-long conversions in overtime. But there isn’t a single Super Bowl team in history that didn’t have big moments when fortune smiled on it. You have to be lucky and good to win a championship, and these teams fit both criteria.

Now, they’ll get a chance to battle on the game’s biggest stage. Will a new dynasty be born? Or will an old one keep rolling? Will the new Greatest Show on Turf avenge the old one? Or will Belichick draw up another brilliant game plan to shut down this latest version? Either way, it should be a fitting way to end one of the most entertaining NFL seasons in a while.

FiveThirtyEight vs. the readers

As you prepare for the Super Bowl, be sure to check out FiveThirtyEight’s NFL predictions page, which uses our Elo ratings to simulate the game 100,000 times, tracking how likely each team is to win. You can also make your Super Bowl pick against the Elo algorithm in our prediction game and make one last bid to climb up our giant leaderboard.

According to data from the game, here’s how readers did against the computer last weekend:

Elo’s smartest conference championship picks

Average difference between points won by readers and by Elo in Week 20 matchups in FiveThirtyEight’s NFL prediction game

OUR PREDICTION (ELO) READERS’ PREDICTION
PICK WIN PROB. PICK WIN PROB. Result READERS’ NET PTS
NO 64% NO 62% LAR 26, NO 23 -4.6
KC 61 KC 59 NE 37, KC 31 -7.1

Home teams are in bold.

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

After a divisional weekend in which all the home teams won, both home squads lost their conference championship games for just the fifth time in the Super Bowl era. Elo tends to love home teams, especially in the playoffs, so you might think that would be bad news for its picks. (Indeed, the average probability set by the reader was closer to picking the road team than Elo’s default probabilities.) However, Elo still came out ahead on net points because more individual readers made extreme picks in favor of the Saints and Chiefs, costing the field points on average. It’s an instructive example of something we discussed back in Week 9 — that, because of the nonlinear scoring system in our contest, overly confident picks can really wreak havoc on your point totals. When in doubt, set a conservative probability! (Unless, say, you are in 59th place going into the Super Bowl and need a Hail Mary to move up the rankings. Know anybody like that?)

Congratulations are in order to reader Deryl Mundell, who leapfrogged long-standing leaderboard-toppers Neil Mehta and Greg Chili Van Hollebeke to claim first place on the season, checking in with 1,202.5 points. Deryl is also our No. 1 (identified) player on the postseason, with 294.2 points since the playoffs started. Thanks to everyone who has been playing — and the game isn’t over yet! You now have one last chance to make your Super Bowl pick. Make it count!

Check out our latest NFL predictions.

You Called A Run On First Down. You’re Already Screwed.

Throughout the 2018 regular season, the Seattle Seahawks made a conscious effort to establish the threat of the running game in the minds of their opponents. In the face of record offensive production across the NFL — driven in large part by prolific passing offenses — head coach Pete Carroll doggedly maintained that sticking with running the ball gave the Seahawks the best chance to win. Though they attempted the fewest passes in the NFL, the Seahawks went 10-6 and earned a playoff berth.

But that reliance on the run may have been Seattle’s undoing in its 24-22 loss to the Dallas Cowboys in the NFC wild-card game. In the first half the Seahawks’ running backs rushed nine times for an anemic 2.1 yards per carry. Most of those runs came in a particular sequence: rush-rush-pass. All but three of Seattle’s first-half rushing attempts originated from the rush-rush-pass play sequence. And despite the lack of success using that pattern of plays against the Dallas defensive front, Seattle opened its first possession of the second half by calling it again. The result was a punt.

The notion of establishing the run is deeply ingrained in NFL culture. Coaches and play-callers laud the approach for its ability to keep a team “on schedule” and “ahead of the chains,” both of which are football shorthand for picking up enough yards on first and second down that you stand a good chance to extend a drive. True believers think that if you abandon the run too early, you make your team one-dimensional and forfeit an important edge in toughness. You’re no longer imposing your will on a defense, and this will manifest itself in worse results overall. But is this true? Does running help a team convert more first downs and extend drives? And does the order in which you call pass and run plays matter?

To answer these questions, I looked at every play called in the NFL regular season from 2009 to 20181 and compared the result of each of the possible permutations of run and pass play sequencing2 using expected points added and success rate.3 I calculated EPA and success rate for every first-down play; then I looked at every sequence that did not absorb into a first down and extended to second down and then third down, calculating the EPA and success rate for each call. Only sequences of three plays are included in the final analysis.

Leaguewide, rushing is the preferred play call on first down, after which passing takes over as the dominant play type, especially on third down.

Over the course of the 2018 season, there was no three-play sequence that Seattle favored more than rush-rush-pass. The Seahawks called rush-rush-pass 26 percent of the time, a rate 10 percentage points higher than league average. Yet despite the high frequency with which Carroll and offensive coordinator Brian Schottenheimer used the pattern, they were not successful with it. Just 41.2 percent of their rush-rush-pass sequences ended in success. Meanwhile, on three-play sequences where the Seahawks started with a pass and mixed in a run afterward, they were successful 88.9 percent of the time (pass-rush-rush), 71.4 percent of the time (pass-pass-rush) and 50 percent (pass-rush-pass) of the time.

Rush-rush-pass wasn’t effective for Seattle

The Seattle Seahawks’ three-play sequences in 2018 by frequency, expected points added and success rate

sequence epa success frequency
Pass-rush-rush +0.56 88.9% 5%
Pass-pass-rush +0.50 71.4 4
Rush-rush-rush +0.31 52.0 13
Pass-rush-pass +0.34 50.0 12
Rush-rush-pass +0.17 41.2 26
Rush-pass-rush -0.15 38.5 7
Rush-pass-pass -0.08 34.0 25
Pass-pass-pass -0.39 21.1 10

Frequencies do not add up to 100 percent because of rounding.

Sources: NFL, Elias Sports Bureau

These results hold generally across the league as well. Pass-rush-rush is the most successful three-play sequence, followed by pass-pass-rush and rush-pass-rush.

On first down, passing will net you at least 5 yards (enough to make the play a success) 47 percent of the time, while running the ball will get you the same result just 32.8 percent of the time, 14.2 percentage points less often. On second down, the gap closes to about a 7 percentage-point advantage for passing.

Play-calling patterns that end in a pass on third down have a negative expected value across the board. If we look at each sequence in terms of EPA per play, we see that the only positive EPA values on third down are on running plays. This makes sense: If you are passing on third down, it strongly implies that the first two plays in the sequence did not end well, and you likely have a third-and-long situation.

Meanwhile, the opposite outcome is true on first and second down. There are no positive EPA rushing nodes, and all passing plays return positive expected value.

This result is the exact opposite of what we would expect to find if establishing the run via play sequences like rush-rush-pass were winning strategies. Instead of making a team less predictable, establishing the run on first and second down creates a game state that is often quite predictable for the defense. The opposing team is expecting a pass on third down because the first two plays were unsuccessful.

Surprisingly, two of the top three teams in net yards per passing attempt in 2018, the Rams and the Chiefs, actually do have success with the rush-rush-pass play sequence.

How each team uses rush-rush-pass

The frequency — and effectiveness — with which every NFL team called rush-rush-pass in a three-play sequence

team epa success frequency
Seattle +0.17 41.2% 26%
Tennessee -0.23 41.3 24
Buffalo -0.26 43.9 21
L.A. Chargers -0.13 41.2 20
San Francisco -0.37 33.3 20
Houston -0.32 38.9 18
Miami -0.50 22.6 18
Denver -0.47 32.4 17
L.A. Rams +0.28 60.0 16
N.Y. Giants +0.23 51.5 16
Indianapolis -0.03 45.5 16
Minnesota -0.28 41.9 16
Jacksonville +0.05 40.0 16
Oakland -0.72 33.3 16
Cleveland +0.37 46.7 15
Chicago -0.09 41.4 15
Pittsburgh +0.70 61.5 14
Atlanta +0.37 51.7 14
Detroit +0.00 50.0 14
Tampa Bay +0.44 47.8 14
New Orleans +0.04 41.7 14
Arizona -0.71 33.3 14
N.Y. Jets +0.19 50.0 13
Dallas +0.15 46.4 13
Baltimore +0.32 44.4 12
Carolina -0.14 40.9 12
New England +0.03 39.1 12
Washington -0.32 34.8 12
Cincinnati -0.26 47.4 10
Green Bay -0.10 40.0 10
Kansas City +1.19 53.3 9
Philadelphia +0.66 50.0 9

Sources: NFL, Elias Sports Bureau

Kansas City, the most dominant passing team in the league, was successful 53.3 percent of the time with rush-rush-pass. But the Chiefs ran the sequence just 15 times all season for a total share of 9 percent of all plays — 7 percentage points below league average — and they were mostly unsuccessful with the first two plays in the chain. When the Chiefs called back-to-back runs on first and second down, the second run was successful just 47.7 percent of the time. This suggests that the success of their third-down passes owes itself more to the strength of the Chiefs passing game and quarterback Patrick Mahomes than to the running plays that led up to them.

The story is similar in Los Angeles. Sixty percent of rush-rush-pass play sequences ended in success, and the Rams used the pattern at exactly the league-average frequency. Again, however, when the Rams called back-to-back runs to begin a sequence, the second run was successful just 46.1 percent of the time, leaving them 5.8 yards left to gain for a first-down conversion on average. The success the Rams enjoyed on third-down passing attempts appears to be independent of the rushing plays that preceded them.

While the precise order in which passes and runs are called may not matter so much — several combinations are roughly equivalent to one another according to success rate — some trends are clear. Passes are more effective when called on early downs, and runs are more effective on third down. Running on first down, while often a mistake, can be salvaged with a pass on second down. And if you’re going to rush on back-to-back plays to open a series, you should do so sparingly because it will leave your team in an obvious passing situation more often than not. Your passing attack — and QB especially — will need to be well above average to consistently convert in those high-leverage spots where all deception is gone and defenders can be confident that they know what’s coming.



Check out our latest NFL predictions.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Check out our latest NFL predictions.

Can NFL Coaches Overuse Play-Action? They Haven’t Yet.

The play-action pass is one of the most effective calls in all of football. The three teams that use the play-action the most — the Rams, the Patriots and the Chiefs, according to data from Sports Info Solutions — each locked down a first-round bye in the playoffs. Across the league in 2018, quarterbacks with at least 100 pass attempts average 1.39 yards per attempt more out of play-action than they do on all other plays.1 This pattern of play-action success holds true for every year that we have data.2 Yet despite this success, the league average share of plays that are play-action passes is just barely above 20 percent.

Why is play-action so effective? When defenders bite on a play-action fake, they move out of position for defending the pass and create clear lanes for the QB to throw to the intermediate and deep parts of the field.

But NFL coaches tend to run them only a handful of times per game because they appear to believe that overuse of play-action will cause linebackers to stop biting on the fake. Diminishing returns will set in, defenders will stop respecting the run, and the superiority of play-action will vanish. But is this actually the case? Do linebackers start to ignore the fake handoff if they see it many times in a single game?

Until very recently, we had a hard time answering this question with the data that was available. But in the past couple of weeks, the NFL released a tranche of Next Gen tracking data for 91 games from 2017 via its inaugural Big Data Bowl. Michael Lopez, the NFL’s director of analytics, spearheaded the effort to allow analysts to dig into the tracking data and mine it for insights. I was able to use this data to quantify the effect of play-action on the movement of middle linebackers — and to see if a high number of play-action plays had any effect on the outcome of the plays.

I took each of the 1,235 play-action plays in the sample and isolated just the middle linebacker’s movement from snap to throw.3 I measured the distance traveled by the defender while moving forward toward the line of scrimmage at any angle, and I stopped counting the distance as soon as he turned and retreated into coverage. If two linebackers were playing on the inside, I included only the player who moved the most toward the line of scrimmage during the play. Below are three animations that help illustrate the process.4

The first shows the entire play with all players involved:

The second shows the entire play with the middle linebacker and quarterback isolated:

The third shows when I stopped counting the linebacker’s movement as “wasted” for the purposes of the study:

Distance traveled by a defender while biting on a play-action fake is a fairly precise way to quantify just how fooled a defender was on a play. Continuing to move toward the line of scrimmage when the offense is passing is a problem; defenders want to “get depth” as soon as they can if they identify pass. Any movement toward the line of scrimmage is usually wasted.

After summing up the total distance traveled for each of the plays, I calculated that on the average play-action pass play, the middle linebacker covers 7.5 yards of wasted ground. In seven instances in our sample, teams ran 15 or more play-action plays in a single game. Those games would have offered the middle linebacker the most opportunities to figure out the play-action, but the average distance traveled was 8.2 yards — even higher than the overall average.

I broke out the average wasted distance traveled by linebackers by the number of times a play-action pass was called in a game to see how teams reacted. It turns out that the wasted distance traveled was remarkably stable.

More play-action passes do not mean fewer wasted yards

Average yards wasted by the middle linebacker on each play-action pass in a game

PA Pass LB Wasted yards
1st 7.1
2nd 7.7
3rd 7.8
4th 7.1
5th 7.5
6th 7.3
7th 7.2
8th 7.2
9th 8.4
10th 7.9
11th 7.2
12th* 8.5
13th* 10.5
14th* 6.4
15th* 11.1
16th* 4.7

* Fewer than 20 observations

Source: NFL Next Gen Stats

Linebackers bite just about the same amount the 11th time a play-action pass is called in a game as the first time it’s called. It’s only after we get to 12 play-action passes in one game that things start to get wonky — but that may be because of the small sample sizes of those instances.

Across the entire sample of 91 games and 1,235 plays, I found no correlation at all between the number of times a team ran the play-action and total yards of wasted ground by middle linebackers.5 We’d love more data to examine, to look closer at what happens when more play-actions are run. But given what we know about the effectiveness of the play, the self-imposed threshold set by play-callers of roughly six to nine play-action fakes per game is likely too low.

Stopping the run is a major focus at every level of football, and the NFL especially makes it a high priority to effectively defend the run. Teams do this by coaching their linebackers and box safeties to play the run first in nonobvious passing situations. This emphasis on run stopping comes at a cost, however. Defenders must read their “run keys” — movements by the offense that indicate a run is coming — and react quickly to fill their gaps and prepare to make a physical play. It could be the case that defenders simply don’t think about how often the team is faking the run but instead just read and react to their run keys.

To play fast in the NFL, it’s often said, you can’t think but instead must react based on instinct and training. Perhaps that instinctual reaction explains why play-action continues to be effective no matter how often it’s used. It’s also probably the case that certain teams and players are more susceptible to play-action than others, and smart NFL teams will identify and exploit their opponents’ tendencies.

Those smart NFL teams should also pay attention to exactly how they use the play-action. According to the Sports Info Solutions data, passes thrown 7 yards deep or less are caught less frequently on play-action than on other passes. This could be because defenders have moved toward the line of scrimmage and are in better position to make a play on the ball. Play-action is only more effective than other passes when the ball travels at least 8 yards in the air — over the head of the linebackers who’ve been fooled.

There is a lot of good research showing that teams don’t run enough play-action. Most of the arguments for limiting its use are unsupported by the evidence. Now, thanks to the NFL’s Next Gen data, we can add evidence that middle linebackers won’t stop biting on the play-action, even if it’s used more than NFL coaches have been comfortable running it.

Check out our latest NFL predictions.

Kirk Cousins Is Not Better Than Joe Montana. So Let’s Fix Passer Rating.

According to the NFL’s official passer rating system, the most efficient quarterback in NFL history is Green Bay’s Aaron Rodgers, with a lifetime mark of 103.1.6 That makes sense: Rodgers is generally regarded as one of the greatest QBs to ever play the game. But if you scroll further down the list, the results become much harder to explain. In the world of passer rating, Kirk Cousins is better than Joe Montana; Derek Carr and Matt Schaub top Dan Marino; and, after one season, Broadway Sam Darnold is running circles around Broadway Joe Namath.

Passer rating is often criticized as Byzantine (have you seen that formula?), incomplete (it does not include data on rushing plays or sacks) and arbitrary (again, have you looked at the formula?). Yet its biggest shortcoming might be the way it is unmoored from changes in the game itself. Passing has never been more efficient than it was this season, in which the league’s average QB posted a rating of 92.9. That is remarkably high considering that a quarterback who posted a rating of 92.9 would have led all qualified passers in 15 separate seasons from 1950 through 1986. Clearly, the scale needs recalibrating.

In the original conception of passer rating, an average rating was about 67. In 2018, only one qualified passer (Arizona Cardinals rookie Josh Rosen) fell below that threshold, and even then just barely (his rating was 66.7). But what if the standards for what makes a good or bad performance had evolved as leaguewide numbers changed? Pro-Football-Reference.com does a great job of adjusting for era with its Advanced Passing indices, which are centered on an average of 100 with 15 points representing 1 standard deviation in either direction. But I wanted to rescale the building blocks of passer rating itself to see how today’s passing numbers would translate to a rating if the NFL had simply allowed its rating system to change with the times.

To do that, I looked at the distribution of stats in each category that goes into passer rating — completion percentage, yards per attempt, touchdown percentage and interception rate — from the sample originally used to craft the formula back in the early 1970s (qualified passers from 1960 to 1970). Specifically, I figured out the spread of values (relative to the league) that, in a given category, led to the minimum number of points (0), the average number of points (1) and the maximum (2.375). Under the hood, passer rating is built around these ranges; it hands out points on that 0-to-2.375 scale in each category, then sums up the four values, divides by 6 and multiplies by 100. (Hence, 67 is supposed to be average — a 1.0 in four categories, divided by 6, times 100.)

For any era, we can rescale what performance “should” lead to a given value in each category to keep the relative leaguewide distribution the same as it was when passer rating was first conceived.7 So while, say, Alex Smith’s 62.5 percent completion rate in 2018 was worth 1.0 point, so was Don Meredith’s 49.5 percent mark from 1962. Do this for every category in every season, and you have a stabilized version of passer rating that no longer spirals uncontrollably upward with each innovation in the passing game.

Some ultra-high ratings change less than you might expect under this new method. Rodgers’s single-season record of 122.5 from 2011 tumbles all the way down to … 121.1. (He was very good that year.) But other seemingly immortal ratings, such as Kirk Cousins’s 99.7 mark this season, get knocked down quite a bit — in Cousins’s case, he falls to a much more reasonable 81.5 rating. (Anyone who watched a Vikings game this year would surely argue that this is more appropriate.) Similarly, Ryan Fitzpatrick’s 100.4 mark this season — yes, that is real, look it up — gets heavily penalized in the interception category (his 4.9 percent INT rate was more than double the league average), taking him down to an adjusted rating of 77.4.

Moving further down the list, Joe Flacco’s decent-sounding 84.2 classic rating properly falls to a mediocre 62.8 after our adjustment, while the 30.7 rating of WOAT candidate Nathan Peterman becomes an 11.6 — perilously close to the minimum possible rating of 0.0. (If Peterman had thrown enough passes to qualify, that 11.6 rating would have “surpassed” Ryan Leaf’s 19.1 from 1998 as the lowest-rated season since 1950.)

All told, the new ratings are once again grounded in a world where an average quarterback scores about 70 — not exactly 67 because the rolling distribution includes multiple seasons for comparison8 — and as a result, the numbers make far more intuitive sense at a glance than the ludicrously inflated official ratings of 2018:

Deflating the rating

Classic and adjusted passer ratings for qualified* 2018 NFL quarterbacks

Ratings
Player Team Old New
1 D. Brees NO 115.7 103.3
2 P. Mahomes KC 113.8 98.5
3 R. Wilson SEA 110.9 96.5
4 M. Ryan ATL 108.1 93.4
5 P. Rivers LAC 105.5 87.3
6 D. Watson HOU 103.1 85.3
7 C. Wentz PHI 102.2 85.1
8 J. Goff LAR 101.1 83.3
9 A. Rodgers GB 97.6 83.0
10 K. Cousins MIN 99.7 81.5
11 A. Luck IND 98.7 79.1
12 D. Prescott DAL 96.9 79.0
13 T. Brady NE 97.7 78.8
14 R. Fitzpatrick TB 100.4 77.4
15 B. R’lisberger PIT 96.5 75.7
16 D. Carr OAK 93.9 74.0
17 M. Trubisky CHI 95.4 73.2
18 E. Manning NYG 92.4 72.3
19 C. Newton CAR 94.2 71.7
20 B. Mayfield CLE 93.7 71.7
21 M. Mariota TEN 92.3 70.6
22 R. Tannehill MIA 92.7 68.8
23 M. Stafford DET 89.9 68.6
24 N. Mullens SF 90.8 66.3
25 A. Dalton CIN 89.6 66.1
26 J. Winston TB 90.2 64.9
27 A. Smith WSH 85.7 64.5
28 J. Flacco BAL 84.2 62.8
29 C. Keenum DEN 81.2 56.2
30 B. Bortles JAX 79.8 54.5
31 S. Darnold NYJ 77.6 49.7
32 J. Allen BUF 67.9 37.1
33 J. Rosen ARI 66.7 35.9

* Minimum 14 pass attempts per team game

Source: Pro-Football-Reference.com

According to the NFL’s official system, there have been 93 qualified quarterback seasons since 1950 with a passer rating of at least 100.0, and nine of those happened in 2018 alone. After our adjustment, though, there have been only 46 such seasons since 1950,9 and only one of those happened this year — the 103.3 mark Drew Brees put up with the Saints. It’s still a golden age for passing, as nearly half of those 46 seasons have happened since 2000, but we’ve also filtered out 51 “false 100s” — seasons that cracked 100.0 on the old scale but not the new one — of which 47 have happened since 2000.

The result of our passer rating adjustment is a much more reasonable career leaderboard that features qualified quarterbacks from a variety of different eras:

A new all-time passer rating hierarchy

Career classic and adjusted passer ratings for qualified* NFL and AFL quarterbacks, 1950-2018

Ratings Ratings
Player Last Year Old New Player Last Year Old New
1 S. Young 1999 96.7 94.2 16 F. Tarkenton 1978 80.4 80.7
2 A. Rodgers 2018 103.1 92.5 17 B. Starr 1971 80.5 80.7
3 J. Montana 1994 92.3 90.0 18 P. Rivers 2018 95.6 80.5
4 T. Brady 2018 97.6 87.2 19 C. Pennington 2010 90.1 79.9
5 P. Manning 2015 96.5 87.1 20 M. Ryan 2018 94.9 79.8
6 R. Staubach 1979 83.4 86.7 21 J. Garcia 2008 87.5 79.6
7 R. Wilson 2018 100.4 85.4 22 B. R’lisberger 2018 94.3 79.0
8 D. Brees 2018 97.7 85.4 23 J. Unitas 1973 78.3 78.9
9 T. Romo 2016 97.1 85.0 24 D. Fouts 1987 80.2 78.4
10 O. Graham 1955 78.2 84.7 25 R. Gannon 2004 84.7 78.4
11 K. Warner 2009 93.7 83.7 26 B. Griese 1980 77.1 78.3
12 S. Jurgensen 1974 82.7 82.9 27 N. Lomax 1988 82.7 78.1
13 L. Dawson 1975 82.9 82.7 28 F. Ryan 1970 78.0 78.0
14 D. Marino 1999 86.4 81.4 29 B. Jones 1982 78.5 78.0
15 K. Anderson 1986 81.9 81.2 30 J. Kelly 1996 84.4 78.0

* Minimum 1,500 career pass attempts

Source: Pro-Football-Reference.com

The biggest beneficiaries of our changes are 1950s-era passers like Otto Graham, who originally rated in the 70s (discarding his eye-popping pre-1950 numbers, which were compiled in the upstart All-America Football Conference) but leaps up into the mid-80s after judging him in comparison with his peers. San Francisco 49ers legend Steve Young also gets a boost relative to other great QBs from history, reclaiming the No. 1 slot that he’d held in real life before Rodgers and friends came along.

At the other end of the spectrum, nobody loses more points of career rating than Blake Bortles, who somehow has an 80.6 mark under the classic system but falls to 55.2 with our adjustments. Here are the biggest losers between the old and new QB ratings:

Who’s been overrated in traditional passer ratings?

For qualified* NFL and AFL passers since 1950, the biggest shortfalls between adjusted and classic passer rating

Ratings
Player Years Played Attempts Old New Diff.
Blake Bortles 2014-18 2,632 80.6 55.2 -25.4
Jameis Winston 2015-18 1,922 87.8 64.0 -23.8
Case Keenum 2013-18 1,844 84.5 61.8 -22.6
Marcus Mariota 2015-18 1,605 89.4 67.5 -21.9
Ryan Fitzpatrick 2005-18 4,285 81.1 60.2 -20.9
Mark Sanchez 2009-18 2,320 73.3 52.5 -20.8
Derek Carr 2014-18 2,800 88.8 68.4 -20.4
Cam Newton 2011-18 3,891 86.4 66.1 -20.3
Chad Henne 2008-18 1,959 75.5 55.3 -20.3
Ryan Tannehill 2012-18 2,911 87.0 67.2 -19.8

* Minimum 1,500 career pass attempts

Source: Pro-Football-Reference.com

A change like this wouldn’t fix the rest of passer rating’s deficiencies, and it wouldn’t include all the fancy bells and whistles you’ll find in a metric like ESPN’s Total Quarterback Rating. But passer rating itself has always been a surprisingly decent metric within any self-contained era; the team with the higher passer rating (by any margin) in a game wins about 80 percent of the time. It’s the comparisons across eras that have become distorted as the game has changed over time. But a simple fix tethering modern stats to the standards contained in passer rating’s formula would go a long way toward restoring sanity to the metric you still see in every NFL box score and broadcast. The Blake Bortleses of the world might not like seeing their shiny 80-something ratings get dumped into the 50s, but it’s a change whose time has come.

Check out our latest NFL predictions.



With No Runaway Favorites, The NFL Playoffs Should Be Wild

With the NFL’s playoff bracket finally set, it’s time to survey the field and handicap the race for the Super Bowl. What’s interesting about this season is that there are plenty of very good teams but few that could be classified as truly dominant. Nine teams have an Elo rating4 of at least 1600, but none of them has cracked 1700 on the eve of the playoffs. In only one other season since 1990 — when the NFL expanded its postseason to the current format — have this many teams been squeezed into the 1600-to-1700 range on the Elo scale, and even that season (2015) had one team above 1700:

Because of this logjam of good-not-great teams, nobody heads into the playoffs with better odds than the New Orleans Saints’ 21 percent chance to win it all, according to Elo. That’s the third-lowest pre-playoff championship probability for a Super Bowl favorite since 1990, trailing only the 2015 Carolina Panthers and 2009 San Diego Chargers at 20 percent apiece. It’s also much lower than the 30 percent average for the typical pre-playoff favorite before this year.

Overall, this year’s favorites are less likely to win the Super Bowl than usual — meaning the Saints and Kansas City Chiefs have a lower probability than the typical top two going into the playoffs — while most of the lesser teams have a better chance than you’d expect to see in an average year.

This year’s playoffs are more wide-open than usual

Probability of winning the Super Bowl by rank (among playoff field) for the 2018 season and the average of the 1990-2017 seasons, according to FiveThirtyEight Elo ratings

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

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

Source: Pro-Football-Reference.com

Given all of this, the wild-card round could take on more significance than usual, since it’s not a stretch to imagine one of the teams playing this weekend taking home the Lombardi Trophy when all is said and done.

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

In fact, according to our experimental quarterback-adjusted Elo ratings, Trubisky enters Sunday’s game with the best QB adjustment of any Bears postseason signal-caller since the 1986 Super Bowl, when Jim McMahon was worth approximately 36 more points of Elo than an average quarterback (and promptly shredded the New England Patriots defense for 256 yards and a 104.2 passer rating in a 46-10 rout). Trubisky himself is worth an estimated 18 points of Elo, which is why Chicago stands out if we map out the QB adjustment and base (QB-neutral) Elo rating for each of this year’s wild-card-round combatants:

The remainder of the wild-card field lines up roughly in inverse order between quarterback quality and that of the rest of the team. Some teams — such as Andrew Luck’s Colts and Deshaun Watson’s Texans — have gotten to where they are largely because of their standout quarterback play. Others, like the Ravens, are doing a lot better recently than we’d expect from their QBs’ performance alone. Baltimore has won six times in the seven games since Lamar Jackson replaced Joe Flacco as the starter in Week 11, though Jackson himself ranked third-worst among qualified quarterbacks in QBR this season, and that includes his stellar rushing statistics.6 (Beyond his own stats, Jackson’s effect on the team’s overall running game shows up under the team’s QB-neutral Elo rating.)

Everyone else is somewhere in between, including the resurgent Eagles with backup Nick Foles, whose QB adjustment is back roughly where it was after Philly beat the Patriots in the Super Bowl, but took many twists and turns to get there; the Chargers with 37-year-old Philip Rivers, whose own adjustment has fallen by 38 Elo points since Week 13 with a string of mediocre outings down the stretch; the Dak Prescott-led Cowboys, whose team QB adjustment has hovered around average all season; and Russell Wilson’s Seahawks, whose own run-heavy attack masked another season of highly efficient passing.

How Elo sees the wild-card round playing out

Win probabilities for Week 18 games according to two methods — standard Elo and a version that contains an adjustment for starting quarterbacks

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

Home teams are in bold.

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

Source: Pro-Football-Reference.com

Of those, Elo gives the best chance of advancing to the Bears, followed by the Ravens. And upset-wise, the best odds belong to the Seahawks against the Cowboys, regardless of whether we adjust for recent QB performance. Whichever teams win, they’ll have to contend with road games in the divisional round — but given the overall state of the league, they’ll still have a better chance than usual to knock somebody off and forge their own path to the Super Bowl.

FiveThirtyEight vs. the readers

To keep tabs on each team’s classic Elo as the weekend plays out, be sure to check out FiveThirtyEight’s NFL prediction interactive, which simulates the rest of the season 100,000 times and tracks how likely every team is to advance through the playoffs and win the Super Bowl. And even though the regular season is over, you can still pick against the Elo algorithm in our prediction game and keep climbing up our giant leaderboard.

According to data from the game last week, here are the matchups in which Elo made its best — and worst — predictions against the reader picks for Week 17:

Elo’s dumbest (and smartest) picks of Week 17

Average difference between points won by readers and by Elo in Week 17 matchups in FiveThirtyEight’s NFL prediction game

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

Home teams are in bold.

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

Even though the readers knew about various Week 17 roster shenanigans (such as resting starters) and Elo didn’t, the algorithm did what it’s been doing most of the season, beating the field by an average of 5 points per reader. (Elo beat the average reader 16 times in 17 weeks during the regular season.) Readers picked up points for trusting Luck and Indy against the Blaine Gabbert-led Titans in Sunday night’s do-or-die regular-season finale, and they also got credit for fading the Saints, who were resting starters against the Panthers in a meaningless contest. But at times that knowledge came back to haunt them, such as when they dropped the odds of the Ezekiel Elliott-less Cowboys against the Giants, only to see Dallas storm back and win. (And it was odd to see Elo underestimate the Browns, which it’s been doing all season, only to have that work out at season’s end.)

Either way, congrats to Jake Horowitz, who led all identified users in Week 17 with 294.2 points, and to good ol’ Greg Chili Van Hollebeke, who hung on to his No. 1 ranking for the season with 1,168.1 points. Thanks to everyone who has been playing — and the game isn’t over yet! You should keep making picks and trying your luck against Elo throughout the playoffs.

Check out our latest NFL predictions.

Can The Eagles Beat The Bears? Can Houston Stop Andrew Luck?

sara.ziegler (Sara Ziegler, assistant sports editor): The NFL’s 2018 regular season is finally in the books. Before the playoffs get rolling, let’s look back on an interesting Week 17 and preview next weekend’s wild-card round. We’ll end with giving our Super Bowl predictions again, just to keep us honest.

Salfino (Michael Salfino, contributor): I will have to revise my Saints-Steelers Super Bowl pick.

sara.ziegler: LOL

The AFC had all the drama yesterday, so let’s start with the Ravens/Steelers/Colts/Titans business.

neil (Neil Paine, senior sportswriter): I was very much hoping for that Colts-Titans tie. But alas.

sara.ziegler: If the NFL were scripted, we would have ended the regular season on a tie.

neil: Particularly this of all regular seasons.

Salfino: What’s interesting to me about the Ravens is that teams are not punishing Lamar Jackson for running.

joshua.hermsmeyer (Josh Hermsmeyer, NFL analyst): I’m unclear on why teams don’t force Jackson to beat them with his arm as well. It’s worked in the past against other highly mobile QBs, and there seems to be no great reason why it won’t work again.

neil: That’s part of what makes the Ravens so interesting, that their second-half playoff push basically coincided with the QB change and this rush-heavy identity that seems so different in a league that set new records for passing in 2018.

Salfino: Yes, the Ravens and the Chiefs are the offenses you really can’t prepare for in a week, IMO. I have no idea how a team can prepare for Jackson in one week. But LAC at least just faced him. Is that advantage Chargers? To me this is the most interesting game of the wild-card round.

sara.ziegler: The Ravens nearly let Sunday’s game slip away, though.

Salfino: The problem is that it’s so hard to stay disciplined and not chase him. Defenses are taught to be aggressive.

Jackson allows the offense to play 11 on 11, and all of defense is predicated on the defense playing 11 on 10.

joshua.hermsmeyer: Also strange is that we can make legit comps between Jackson and Josh Allen. Bill Belichick kept Allen in the pocket during Week 16 knowing the main danger he poses is from his legs. And New England won.

Salfino: Yes, the Patriots are just taught to be super disciplined so they can counter that probably better than most teams.

sara.ziegler: Did the Browns figure that out a little bit too against Jackson? The Ravens rushed for 8.5 yards per carry in the first half and just 4.5 in the second.

Salfino: Maybe as the game wore on, but by then the damage was done. The Browns were just getting gashed. The Ravens were running on 3rd-and-long and converting. It was like a college game — old-school college before the passing explosion.

joshua.hermsmeyer: Credit as well to the play-calling, I think. It’s a very creative scheme the Ravens are rolling out.

Salfino: Is the Ravens defense overrated? Where are the blue chip players? They are just coached so well. Wink Martindale should get interviews.

neil: And Jackson’s own speed is really something to behold. On that first TD Jackson scored, it looked like he was shot out of a cannon.

Salfino: Jackson also looked like he was playing at video game speed even on the shorter second TD run. He just darted into the end zone like everyone was standing still.

I think the Ravens offense is underrated and their defense is overrated.

sara.ziegler: In the other afternoon AFC game of note, the Steelers came out incredibly flat before rallying for the win, which wasn’t quite enough.

neil: Pittsburgh’s season will go down as one of the all-time collapses, I think?

Salfino: The Steelers have to be the most disappointing team in recent memory. They were top 10 in all the key defensive stats except interception percentage — which is fluky, but man that killed them. They have Ben Roethlisberger throwing for 5,000 yards, two All-Pro WRs, and the running game was fine. Yet they just blew one game after the other.

joshua.hermsmeyer: Antonio Brown has been inefficient this year, but he was missed.

Salfino: The Steelers were sixth in yards per play and sixth in yards allowed per play and didn’t make the playoffs. This is almost impossible. I thought it was impossible.

neil: After Week 11, we gave them a 97 percent chance of making the playoffs.

sara.ziegler: I was surprised all season that they were as high in Elo as they were.

Salfino: Being third in sack rate and 28th in interception rate defies conventional wisdom that pressure creates turnovers. Maybe PIT was super unlucky, too.

sara.ziegler: They reeled off six wins in a row, but they never looked dominant.

neil: Some of that was probably residual, Sara, from last year, when they had Le’Veon Bell, etc. But the narrative all first half was how they didn’t need Bell.

sara.ziegler: Yeah, and James Conner filled in well for them!

Salfino: Is MIN more disappointing than PIT? This is going to be a brutal offseason for Kirk Cousins. No player in memory is going to be under more pressure than he will be next year.

neil: This is a fraught question for Sara ….

sara.ziegler: I can’t even talk about it.

neil: Yep.

sara.ziegler: Well, Mike, we all know how well Cousins does with pressure.

neil: 😬

Salfino: I really thought Cousins was a franchise QB. He did pretty well with just garbage offensive talent in 2017 in WAS, and this year he just never really could get it going. He played so tight.

neil: Sunday was sort of symbolic of the whole 2018 Vikings.

They controlled their destiny at home (granted against the Bears).

Cousins goes 4-for-11 for 2.1 yards per attempt and two sacks on third and fourth down.

Terrible overall performance.

Salfino: It seemed like Cousins averaged about a yard per attempt. If I were the coach of the Vikings, I’d tell him to take chances and not care about INTs. They’re overrated.

neil: The Minnesota defense was uncharacteristically bad on third down, too. Allowed 57 percent conversions after giving up only 28 percent all season before Sunday.

sara.ziegler:

This will be the defining image of the season for me.

Salfino: Cousins showing Thielen how to run routes was both hilarious and sad.

joshua.hermsmeyer: One silver lining for the Vikings is that the situational football we typically use to judge Cousins as a disappointment is among the least predictive of future performance in all of football: throws under pressure, third-down conversions. Kirk deserves his share of the blame, but the entire offense looked out of sync yesterday and for a lot of the second half of the season.

sara.ziegler: Cousins has his redemption narrative all set for next season, LOL.

Salfino: The Eagles benefit from the Vikings’ struggles. I can’t believe that the Bears are only 6-point favorites.

neil: Particularly with Nick Foles not necessarily 100 percent.

sara.ziegler: The Eagles don’t even need Foles, Neil!

neil: Carson Wentz? Nick Foles? Nate Sudfeld? No problem.

sara.ziegler: Well … Wentz? Some problems.

Everyone else? Fine.

neil: Philly was always a backup QB’s dream city during the McNabb era. Some of that has carried over, I guess.

Salfino: Foles has got to be the most volatile QB in NFL history. We should quantify that. He’s below average for his career and is treated like a franchise QB based on about 16 games, if we include all of 2013.

neil: Yeah, the gap between his best 16 and worst 16 starts has to be one of the biggest ever.

Salfino: I can’t even imagine the Bears losing to the Eagles. They are just going to chew Philly up. The Eagles’ best playmaker is still 100-year-old Darren Sproles, who is amazing, but come on.

joshua.hermsmeyer: I can’t think of Foles without wincing that he lost $1 million because of four snaps.

This is just brutal.

sara.ziegler: Ooof.

Salfino: Foles is going to get $100 million in about three months, so I will not feel sorry for him.

joshua.hermsmeyer: hah

sara.ziegler: LOL

The one other meaningful game yesterday — aside from the games that cost coaches their jobs — was Colts-Titans. Anyone surprised that the Colts dominated that one?

neil: I mean, Blaine Gabbert was starting for Tennessee, Sara

sara.ziegler: Fair

Salfino: Titans-Colts is QB wins to me. Luck vs. Gabbert. Come on. Murder. She. Wrote.

joshua.hermsmeyer: Oh gawd not QB Winz

Salfino: YES!!!

Give me the better QB, and I’ll take my chances.

joshua.hermsmeyer: smh

Marlon Mack outrushed Derrick Henry, so why not RB winz?

Salfino: No RB winz because winning yards per carry gets you nothing in win probability.

Josh, you and I agree broadly but just quibble about how much credit quarterbacks get in the passing game.

joshua.hermsmeyer: This is true.

neil: Either way, it’s been great to see Andrew Luck bounce back from the injury and lost season to play well and lead a playoff push.

sara.ziegler: I’m still amazed by the Colts’ turnaround.

They were at 4 percent to make the playoffs on Oct. 15.

Salfino: Luck should be in the MVP conversation. I understand it’s Patrick Mahomes. But Luck has done a lot with a lot less than Mahomes. Luck does seemingly have great coaching now though. Frank Reich, who the Colts backed into, was the hire of the offseason. I think better than Matt Nagy even.

joshua.hermsmeyer: Luck truly played himself back into game shape. Early on, his throws were routinely Derek Carr short, and by the end of the season he was mostly back to the old Luck.

sara.ziegler: So let’s turn to this weekend’s games.

Colts-Texans and Seahawks-Cowboys on Saturday, Chargers-Ravens and Eagles-Bears on Sunday.

Which underdog has the best chance?

neil: Three of the 4 underdogs are +2.5 per Vegas.

Salfino: Colts-Texans is the game of the week to me in terms of having no idea who will win. The Texans are a strange team with great strengths (QB, pass rush) and crippling weaknesses (offensive line, pass coverage).

On paper, the Colts are a terrible matchup for the Texans because Luck led the league in lowest sack rate as he completely transformed his game to protect his health. So smart.

neil: Indy also also beat Houston in Houston less than a month ago.

Salfino: I am going to fade the Seahawks: 25th in yards allowed per play and 31st in sack rate allowed. That’s so bad. I can’t believe they even made the playoffs.

neil: Ironically, our Elo gives Seattle the best chance of any wild card weekend team. 😉

Elo has a tendency to react strongly to recent hot streaks, for better or worse.

Seattle has won six of its past seven, including a win over Kansas City.

Salfino: If you have Russell Wilson, anything is possible. I will stipulate.

joshua.hermsmeyer: I like Seattle for my part. Turnovers are wildly unpredictable, and that drove their defensive Defense-adjusted Value Over Average for much of the season, but they are built to win close games like this one where both teams appear to want to “establish the run.”

Salfino: The football story of the week when it comes to the chess aspect of the game and coaching is whether the Chargers having experienced the Ravens offense can now shut it down. But they don’t really do much on defense except play that Seattle, straight-up style. So do they even have a bag of tricks?

sara.ziegler: Seems strange to me that the Ravens are favorites over the Chargers.

Baltimore is hot right now, but L.A. has been solid all season.

Salfino: Well, Baltimore has had the best home-field advantage in football when you factor in road vs. home record. So LAC are up against it.

neil: Never underestimate the extra value of home-field advantage in the NFL playoffs, too.

sara.ziegler: Yeah, that all makes sense.

I still like the Chargers. I’m being obstinate, LOL.

neil: Well, this is a little bit of a counter to the QB Winz debate from above. L.A. clearly has the better QB.

joshua.hermsmeyer: I like Philip Rivers and the Chargers as well. Particularly if the Chargers keep Jackson in the pocket.

Salfino: No Super Bowl team has won a road game since the 2012 season. But I’ll say that the most likely road winners this week in order are the Colts (they win), Chargers (I can see it but don’t think they adjust defensively), Seattle (Wilson gives them a chance) and Eagles (no chance unless Mitch Trubisky craps the bed).

sara.ziegler: 🔥

joshua.hermsmeyer: The Baltimore defense prevents completions, that’s their best skill. But Rivers has completed passes at 1.8 percent over expected this season.

Salfino: New England really gets tested if the Colts win. (They would have to play the winner of Baltimore-LAC.) If the Texans win, Houston is just made for an easy Patriots victory in the divisional round.

Little worried about how Rivers has looked of late. But probably just random variance. There’s not much data on QBs this old late in the season and into the postseason other than Brady.

sara.ziegler: I’m worried about how Rivers looks, too — at least in this Mina Kimes drawing:

joshua.hermsmeyer: loool

neil: That’s still accurate.

I loved that segment on NFL Countdown Sunday, where they talked about Rivers’ trash talk. Which somehow never includes swearing.

sara.ziegler: I’ve always really liked him. A perfect fantasy football QB.

Salfino: Philip Rivers is great. A Hall-of-Famer IMO. But unbelievably he has as many career playoff wins as Mark Sanchez. He needs more pelts on the wall.

sara.ziegler: Very fair.

Is anyone taking the Eagles over the Bears?

neil: I recuse myself.

LOL

sara.ziegler: Wait, we can’t make predictions about our favorite teams?

I’ve literally been picking the Vikings to lose all season.

neil: I gotta hand it to you, those were accurate predictions.

sara.ziegler: LOL

neil: As opposed to this one:

sara.ziegler: 🤣

Salfino: I think the Bears just crush the Eagles. This spread is all Foles-narrative-driven, and I don’t believe in fairy tales.

sara.ziegler: Wow, Mike.

LOL

neil: Anybody picking the Eagles probably does have visions of this being yet another Bears team that got into the playoffs on defense with a weak QB performance

And promptly lost. But that’s not really this team. Trubisky has been progressing.

(The defense is still amazing, of course)

joshua.hermsmeyer: You can dink and dunk on Chicago.

Salfino: Remember, Foles was LUCKY to beat the Falcons last year. He had a ball go off a Falcon’s knee, or they probably lose that game. Then he turned into Cinderella, and I have no idea how or why.

sara.ziegler: He did get to face the Vikings last year — that undoubtedly helped.

joshua.hermsmeyer: If Foles can be efficient and healthy, and the Eagles are patient, I can totally imagine a game where Biscuit implodes and the Eagles move on. I think the spread has some of that in it.

Salfino: I do not believe in the Eagles defense at all. But I also don’t like how Nagy hasn’t given Tarik Cohen consistently more touches than Jordan Howard. And the Bears are all banged up now at WR.

I agree with Josh on Trubisky, but the Bears and Nagy can’t put him in a position to lose that game. The Eagles have no playmakers. Dare them to score.

sara.ziegler: Yeah, it could be closer than it seems. Of course, if Foles can’t play, then the Eagles will REALLY need a fairy tale.

All right, let’s wrap this up with our Super Bowl predictions, so we can continue to look ridiculous when our picks all lose.

Salfino: I’m going Saints-Chiefs, but that’s predicated on the Colts beating the Texans and giving the Patriots a nightmare matchup in the divisional round. It’s so public to fade the Chiefs that I’m fading the public. Offense!

Mahomes wins MVP and Brees wins Super Bowl MVP. Seems fair.

neil: I’ve been saying New Orleans over K.C. for these past few chats, and that’s still possible, so I’m sticking with it. (Despite the defensive concerns!)

sara.ziegler: I took the Bears last time, and now having watched them flatten my own team, I probably need to keep them. Bears-Chiefs, Chiefs take it down.

joshua.hermsmeyer: Chiefs-Rams rematch, Chiefs win. Because that would be the best ending to the best offensive season in the NFL probably ever.

neil: What’s the score on that one, Josh? Is it the first Super Bowl whose score will be mistaken for an Arena Bowl?

joshua.hermsmeyer: 36-35 with the game decided on a 2-point conversion.

neil: Ooh, going low. I like it.

Check out our latest NFL predictions.