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

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

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

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

The only problem? There’s no problem.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Check out our latest NFL predictions.

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

The Rooney Rule Isn’t Working Anymore

Although the 2019 NFL season isn’t quite over yet, all of the head coaching slots for next year have now been filled. The final piece of the 2020 coaching puzzle slid into place on Sunday when it was reported that the Cleveland Browns planned to hire Vikings offensive coordinator Kevin Stefanski for their top job. Stefanski became the fifth coach to fill a vacancy this month, joining Matt Rhule (Carolina), Mike McCarthy (Dallas), Joe Judge (N.Y. Giants) and Ron Rivera (Washington).

Only one of those coaches, however, is not a white man. And while Rivera is Latino, he was fired from Carolina’s job in early December — so his hiring doesn’t represent a net increase in NFL coaching diversity year-over-year. In the NFL, 59 percent of players are black and 70 percent are nonwhite, according to The Institute For Diversity And Ethics In Sport (TIDES). But only 12.5 percent of regular-season NFL games this past season were coached by people of color, a share that will hold steady to start the 2020 season.1

It’s a discouraging trend and a major decrease from the 25 percent level seen in 2017, which at the time was hailed as a sign of the progress made by minority coaches in their decades-long struggle for recognition and influence on the sidelines. (The all-time high-water mark for coaches of color was 27.1 percent of games, set during the 2011 season.)

Last year’s hiring cycle was marked by a suspicious demographic commonality among new coaches, often linked to teams’ seeming fixation on finding their own version of Los Angeles Rams coach Sean McVay. And from the data, it was hard not to come to that conclusion. Eight new coaches were hired; among those, four were replacing black coaches (five if you count Hue Jackson, who had started the season as Cleveland’s coach), and only one of the incoming group (Miami’s Brian Flores) wasn’t white. Like McVay, six came from offensive backgrounds — where there is a notable dearth of minority coaches among the top assistant ranks.

So when it came to hiring new head coaches, there didn’t seem to be much room for those who didn’t fit that particular mold. “There are so many qualified minority coaches,” former Steelers wide receivers coach Darryl Drake told NFL.com’s Jim Trotter last summer.2 “A lot of guys felt slighted in this last hiring cycle. A lot of guys do not know which road to take to get their names in a position to where they can have those opportunities. A lot of guys felt like certain individuals that should have had opportunities to get a job did not get a job.”

This time around, there wasn’t as much of an overarching trend across the new hires, except that minority coaches weren’t able to make any progress. A number of the incoming coaches had less experience and/or were coming from a lower place in the coaching ranks than Kansas City Chiefs offensive coordinator Eric Bieniemy, for instance, who should have been considered one of the best head coaching candidates on the market. (Judge, by contrast, was previously just the wide receivers coach for the Patriots; Rhule is a college coach with only a single season of NFL experience. Stefanski holds the same position as Bieniemy, but his team scored just 10 points en route to a playoff elimination, while Bieniemy’s put up 51 in a come-from-behind win.)

Increasingly, black coaches are going into interviews feeling like they have no shot at getting the job.

If NFL coaching diversity seems to have hit a wall in recent years, it’s oddly reminiscent of the way early progress stagnated before the league originally adopted the Rooney Rule — which requires that teams interview at least one minority candidate for any head coaching job vacancy — back in 2003. Research by the late economist CC DuBois showed that the Rooney Rule did actually have a positive effect on coaching diversity, compared with NCAA coaches and NFL coordinators, who did not have similar interview requirements. You can trace an almost continuously rising line from 2002, when only 6.3 percent of games were coached by people of color, to that 27.1 percent number from 2011, and surely the Rooney Rule played a major role in the increase.

But the effect of the Rooney Rule appears to be wearing off over time — and it might be time to rethink the entire process. Increasingly, the perception is that owners have made up their minds about head-coaching hires before even speaking with minority candidates. As ESPN’s Mina Kimes wrote a few years ago, white assistant coaches are 114 percent more likely to be promoted to the coordinator level than black coaches managing the same position, so the pool of potential candidates is falling behind as well. And in college, black coaches are continuously given fewer chances to overcome disappointing seasons. What good is an interview quota at the top if every other rung on the ladder is broken?

There are no quick solutions, but after a third straight hiring cycle where the NFL’s minority head coaching ranks failed to grow to better resemble the demographic makeup of its player base, it seems like the league is due for another significant change in the way it approaches coaching diversity.

Mike McCarthy Is Not Just Another Jason Garrett

On Sunday night, the Dallas Cowboys fired head coach Jason Garrett after years of failing to win in the postseason despite having a quality quarterback, offensive line and skill-position talent for most of his tenure.

On Tuesday, the Cowboys hired Mike McCarthy.

The former Green Bay Packers head coach has an impressive resume: Nine playoff appearances in 13 seasons, a Super Bowl championship and a career 61.8 winning percentage (tied with Andy Reid for fourth-best among active coaches). A successful skipper whose “message had become stale,” according to Packers CEO Mark Murphy, McCarthy seems like the perfect candidate to learn from his own mistakes and serve as an upgrade over his Dallas predecessor.

One problem: McCarthy’s mistakes were the same ones Garrett kept making.

Garrett’s perceived lack of aggressiveness on fourth-down go-for-it calls was a major talking point during his last season in Dallas — just as it was for McCarthy in his final year in Green Bay. In fact, McCarthy’s decision-making in the 2014 NFC championship game may have squandered his team’s best shot to win a second Super Bowl in his tenure.

When it comes to launching successful challenges of officials’ calls, McCarthy has been slightly worse than Garrett. McCarthy is 47-of-93 over his career (.505), per Pro-Football-Reference.com, compared with Garrett’s 24-of-45 (.533). McCarthy didn’t seem to figure out that he wasn’t great at it, either; he challenged over twice as many plays as Garrett in just 52 more games (34 percent more).

Coaches are often evaluated by whether they squeeze the most out of their talent (for example, Bill Belichick has won AP Coach of the Year only three times during the most dominant 20-year run in the history of professional football). On that front, Garrett and McCarthy both get notoriously low marks. In December, former Cowboys All-Pro receiver Dez Bryant went viral by pointedly agreeing with a tweet about Garrett wasting Bryant’s career (and that of many other star Cowboys, like quarterback Tony Romo). A little over a year earlier, FiveThirtyEight’s Neil Paine looked into whether McCarthy had wasted All-Pro quarterback Aaron Rodgers, too. The answer is not “no”!

But we can look even deeper at how well the two coaches’ teams have stacked up. Both coaches had MVP-level quarterbacks at their disposal — Garrett with Dak Prescott and McCarthy with Rodgers — as well as well-regarded offensive lines and Pro Bowl-level skill-position players. Furthermore, they’re both offensive coaches who have led only one team; moreover, they coached at the same time. All of this suggests that direct statistical comparisons have some relevance here.

McCarthy’s teams typically ranked higher than Garrett’s

Average league ranking by category for the 2011-19 Dallas Cowboys and 2006-18 Green Bay Packers

OVERALL Garrett McCarthy
Win-loss % 12 10
Takeaway/giveaway 16 10
Point differential 13 10
Yardage differential 12 12
OFFENSE Garrett McCarthy
Yards 12 10
Points 13 9
Giveaways 14 8
PASSING OFF. Garrett McCarthy
Attempts 19 12
Yards 16 9
Touchdowns 12 8
Interceptions 13 9
Net yards per att. 11 13

Source: Pro-Football-Reference.com

McCarthy’s Packers averaged better NFL ranks in win-loss percentage, turnover margin and point differential than Garrett’s Cowboys did. Offensively, the Packers averaged a top-10 (and better-than-the-Cowboys) finish in yardage gained, points scored and giveaways under McCarthy. It’s a similar story with passing offense: better, almost across the board. In theory, if McCarthy can get better offensive production out of the Cowboys’ talent, it won’t be as crucial for him to improve on Garrett’s game-management shortcomings.

One problem with that theory: The 2019 Cowboys had the most productive offense in the NFL.

Under first-time offensive coordinator Kellen Moore, the Cowboys led the NFL in offensive yardage and finished sixth in points scored. Moreover, at the time of this writing, ESPN was reporting that Moore was expected to accept McCarthy’s offer to stay on as offensive coordinator, maintaining continuity.

So if there’s continuity on an already-excellent offense, how can McCarthy improve? That’s a question McCarthy has reportedly been asking himself since he got fired during the 2018 season. In fact, McCarthy seems to have put himself through an analytics boot camp, using his season away from the game to get familiar with the kind of arm’s-length analysis that powers smarter on-field decisions.

“Analytics was growing the last few years I was in Green Bay, that is something that can go to another level,” McCarthy recently told NBC Sports’s Peter King. “Analytics is how I got into the league as a quality control coach. It’s all about the application of the data from statistics. The third-party analytics in our business are better than ever.”

Pro Football Focus founder and COO Neil Hornsby vouched for McCarthy’s efforts to familiarize himself, tweeting that McCarthy and his “team” spent a day in September at the PFF offices, getting familiar with the state-of-the-art in statistics.

Yes, his team. McCarthy told King that he and a group of fellow out-of-work NFL coaches set up shop in a “huge refurbished barn” where they crammed film and dissected the latest schematic trends. The experience helped McCarthy envision a “14-person Football Technology Department,” including an eight-person analytics team. There’s no word yet on whether Cowboys owner Jerry Jones is willing to underwrite this vision, but it’s an ambitious idea nonetheless.

However, many NFL observers are skeptical — including former Packers beat writer Greg Bedard, now with the Las Vegas Review-Journal. “McCarthy said that? LOL,” Bedard tweeted in response to the report of McCarthy’s analytics-department concept. “Now ask if he’s actually going to listen to anyone. That answer would be no.”

So how can Cowboys fans trust that an old dog like McCarthy can learn new tricks? Turns out, he already has — in his old, oft-maligned position as the Packers’ head coach.

I reached out to Football Outsiders founder Aaron Schatz to see how McCarthy stacked up in the site’s Aggressiveness Index — a statistic comparing coaches’ fourth-down decision-making.

“He tended to be very conservative when it came to running out [the] clock too early in games,” Schatz told me, “but aggressive on fourth downs.” In fact, over McCarthy’s last five seasons in Green Bay, he was consistently one of the most aggressive play-callers in the NFL — and significantly moreso than Garrett.

And what about challenges? It turns out that McCarthy’s 13-season average hid a dramatic change in his approach to challenging officials’ calls. Late in the 2017 season, The Comeback’s Brad Gagnon noted that McCarthy had the second-best challenge success rate of any head coach from 2015 to 2017. Including his sole challenge in 2018, he went 12-of-18 (.667), a significant improvement from 35-of-75 (.467) from 2006 to 2014.

How did McCarthy get so much better at situational awareness? It might be because he “got away from” focusing on midweek X-and-O gameplanning, as he told King, and instead focused on “staff development.” This is supposed to be the job of head coach: Don’t micromanage every aspect of the game plan, but coach the coaches. It may be that his stale offensive game plans were a direct result of trying to level up as an overall strategist.

Whether McCarthy decides to offload the situational decision-making to a lab full of football scientists or the offensive game planning to Moore so he can make optimal calls, he’s set himself up to perform much better in his — and Garrett’s — weakest areas.

Check out our latest NFL predictions.

What To Make Of A Wild Wild-Card Weekend

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

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

neil (Neil Paine, senior sportswriter): LOL

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

sara.ziegler: I’ve changed my mind.

Salfino (Michael Salfino, FiveThirtyEight contributor): Hahaha

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

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

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

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

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

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

And they held New Orleans 11.9 EPA below their norm.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

sara.ziegler: LOL

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

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

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

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

sara.ziegler: It does not.

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

sara.ziegler: He made one great throw.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

joshua.hermsmeyer: Vikings fans, smh.

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

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

sara.ziegler: LOL

neil: So true!

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

neil: NO.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

sara.ziegler: LOL, fair

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

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

joshua.hermsmeyer: Yes, Neil.

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

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

neil: I have a guess.

Salfino: Um, not me?

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

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

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

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

neil: EPA hates rushing?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

sara.ziegler: So will Brady play again?

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

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

ELI??????

(Fingers crossed.)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Salfino: This was the JV team though.

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

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

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

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

joshua.hermsmeyer: Right?

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

Rodgers treats interception risk like it’s plutonium.

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

sara.ziegler: LOLOLOL

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

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

neil: Poor Buffalo. 😔

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

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

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

joshua.hermsmeyer: Peak Salfino.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I was getting frustrated on Houston’s behalf.

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

sara.ziegler: LOL

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

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

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

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

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

But they eventually flipped that script.

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

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

We did NOT do well last week, guys.

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

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

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

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

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

This is what I tell my bookie every week.

OK — on to Cincinnati.

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

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

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

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

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

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

joshua.hermsmeyer: Do eeet.

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

sara.ziegler: OK, OK — I’m doing it.

Baltimore, Kansas City, Minnesota, Seattle.

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

Check out our latest NFL predictions.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

joshua.hermsmeyer: WHEW, give me Brady.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

sara.ziegler: Seems less than ideal.

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

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

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

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

(Well, one of their things.)

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

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

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

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

sara.ziegler: LOLOL

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

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

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

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

neil: 10 percent. Now just 3 percent.

joshua.hermsmeyer: Amazing.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

neil: You nailed it on Watson, Mike.

The NFL’s most inconsistent QBs of 2019

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

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

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

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

And the Cowboys go home…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Instead we get Philly favored by 5.5.

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

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

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

joshua.hermsmeyer: Criminally underutilized.

sara.ziegler: Jimmy Garoppolo had 285!

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

sara.ziegler: 🤣

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

sara.ziegler: Oooooh

🔥

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

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

neil: Oh, man.

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

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

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

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

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

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

sara.ziegler: Ooof

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

But then, enter Pete Carroll.

sara.ziegler: LOL

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

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

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

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

joshua.hermsmeyer: lol

Salfino: Are we still counting the bounty game?

neil: I am!

I know for a fact Sara still does.

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

neil: LOL

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

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

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

sara.ziegler: Hahahahaha

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

I think playing on the road actually helps Cousins.

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

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

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

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

sara.ziegler: That’s just how I roll.

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

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

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

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

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

neil: Only if New Orleans wins. 😉

sara.ziegler: Wow, Neil.

neil: Lol.

sara.ziegler: Rude.

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

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

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

Rodgers fizzled down the stretch

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

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

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

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

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

Who do you all like this weekend?

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

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

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

Salfino: Neil going chalk. Smart!

neil: Chalk!

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

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

Because Seattle.

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

sara.ziegler: No one took the Vikings. 😔

Salfino: Not even you!

If they had Case Keenum, maybe…

sara.ziegler: LOL

Hey, I’m a fan, but I’m realistic.

Salfino: Fatalistic.

Check out our latest NFL predictions.

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

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

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

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

sara.ziegler: LOL

We can just end the chat here. 😬

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

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

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

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

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

Dak played his worst when it mattered most

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

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

Source: Pro-Football-Reference.com

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Salfino: Danny Dimes!

sara.ziegler: Exactly.

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

This has been such a weird season.

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

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

sara.ziegler: Yesssssss

neil: That sounds eminently possible.

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

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

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

sara.ziegler: The more absurd, the better!

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

neil: LOL

Salfino:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

sara.ziegler: Sold.

neil: Sorry, Seahawks.

Lol

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

What … happened there?

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

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

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

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

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

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

Brett Hundley shall lead them, apparently.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

sara.ziegler: That’s fair.

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

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

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

sara.ziegler: OMG, yes.

joshua.hermsmeyer:

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

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

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

joshua.hermsmeyer: My head hurts.

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

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

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

neil: Haha

sara.ziegler: It just makes sense.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

joshua.hermsmeyer: Loool

sara.ziegler: Hahahaha

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

neil: Don’t say we didn’t warn them

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

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

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

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

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

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

joshua.hermsmeyer: !

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

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

Salfino: Brandon Weeden did commercials for AARP.

neil: LMAO

sara.ziegler: Amazing

neil: Mike wins the chat.

Check out our latest NFL predictions.

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

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

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

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

Seattle likes the close ones

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

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

Source: Pro-Football-Reference.com

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Looking Ahead: Week 16

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

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

What to watch for in the NFL’s Week 16

NFL matchups for Week 16, ranked according to various factors

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

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

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

Potential shift in playoff odds: 76.0 total percentage points

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

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

FiveThirtyEight vs. the Readers

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

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

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

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

Home teams are in bold.

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

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

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

Check out our latest NFL predictions.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Salfino: Very good point.

joshua.hermsmeyer:

I had to get some Packers shade in there.

sara.ziegler: I approve.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

(No, I haven’t forgotten 2010.)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

sara.ziegler: 🤣

neil: Facts.

Although Carson Wentz has been better the past few weeks!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

sara.ziegler: Hahaha

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

joshua.hermsmeyer: The Bills … are legit?

neil: Playoff bound!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Salfino: Nope.

joshua.hermsmeyer: Nah.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

sara.ziegler: Ooooh, 🔥 prediction.

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

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

sara.ziegler: LOLOL

neil:

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

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

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

sara.ziegler: Ouch.

Salfino: The Brady passive-aggressive takes are fire.

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

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

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

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

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

Salfino:

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

Salfino: It was worth every dollar!

neil: The Kirk Cousins of consoles.

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

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

😬

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

Amazing.

joshua.hermsmeyer:

He gave Adam some side eye.

neil: SMH

Check out our latest NFL predictions.

The NFL Is Obsessed With Passing, But Teams Could Make Runs More Efficient

Football is a struggle for leverage — a battle for favorable positioning between offensive and defensive players relative to the ball. Each play begins at the line of scrimmage with the possibility of a pass or run. While the NFL has gradually become a passing league due to rule changes and schematic innovations, the primacy of passing is largely because teams have become so good at defending against the ground game.

Offensive coordinators have developed different blocking schemes through the years in an attempt to wring more efficiency out of the run game, while defensive coordinators fiddle with different ways of aligning their fronts and second level players to defend it. If the goal is increasing offensive efficiency on the ground, however, the story has mostly been one of failure for the offense. The difference in passing yards per attempt vs. rushing yards per attempt across the league is at its highest point in the past four years and the third-highest since 2001.

There are still teams built around a successful rushing attack: The 12-win Ravens and 11-win 49ers are running more than they pass. But Baltimore’s ground game revolves around quarterback Lamar Jackson, who broke the NFL single-season rushing record for a QB on Thursday night and is the leading candidate for league MVP. San Francisco, meanwhile, is second in the league in rushing plays with a fullback on the field, but the Niners are averaging nearly twice as many yards through the air with a fullback on the field as they are on the ground, a trend that is common across the league.

All that said, hope isn’t completely lost for aficionados of efficient running. The numbers suggest that there is a way teams can gain an advantage over the defense in the run game, and it doesn’t require an exotic scheme or rare talent. It turns out that moving an extra blocker from one part of the field to the point of attack — the area a team hopes to run into — can help a rushing play be more effective. Called a pull, the tactic is common at every level of football.

The diagram below shows a pull in action. It highlights a guard on the left side of the formation who leaves his spot on the line and travels down the line of scrimmage, into the gap the running back (in green) is heading toward.

Pulls have been quite effective across the NFL in recent years. Since 2016, the first year for which we have Next Gen Stats tracking data, rushing plays in which a lineman1 pulled and then blocked three gaps or more away from where he initially lined up have averaged 0.01 EPA per play. While that might sound meager, compared to plays where no blocker pulled (-0.05 EPA), it’s a striking level of efficiency. And in the low red zone, conventionally defined as from the 10-yard line to the opponent’s goal, pulling generates 0.03 more EPA per play than plays with no puller.

What’s curious is that despite the greater success, NFL teams run nonpull plays five and a half times more often than plays with a pull in the low red zone.2 I reached out to Sam Schwartzstein, a former center for the Stanford Cardinal and the current director of football operations for the XFL to ask why that might be.

“I don’t know why NFL teams don’t pull more [near the goal line]. We had two calls for goal-line ‘power’ concepts at Stanford. We wanted to create angles and momentum with a puller at the goal line,” Schwartzstein said.

Schwartzstein showed me a short-yardage and goal-line package for a Stanford game against Oklahoma State with multiple plays calling for a pulling guard. When I mentioned that athletic freaks like defensive tackle Aaron Donald might affect a coach’s decision making on whether to pull, Schwartzstein disagreed. He said pulling can work even better against a matchup like Donald.

“Blocking back on the world-beater 3-techs like Donald is a problem, but I don’t buy the argument because you can leave a lot of backside unblocked in goal line and get a true double team. It might actually be easier to pull on goal line.”

If more effective running is the goal, NFL teams would likely benefit from tweaking their scheme to include more pulls than by trying to emulate the success of a team like Baltimore, which has actually done better this season on nonpull plays than on pulls. But no other team has Jackson. Even if the league suddenly found the courage to draft him, another Lamar Jackson isn’t likely to come around anytime soon.

Check out our latest NFL predictions.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

joshua.hermsmeyer: Expected points added per play agrees:

sara.ziegler: Though those are pretty decent quarterbacks…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

joshua.hermsmeyer: Agreed.

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

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

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

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

Tough to lose, but essentially a toss-up.

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

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

joshua.hermsmeyer: So true.

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

sara.ziegler: LOL

joshua.hermsmeyer: You hate to see it.

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

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

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

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

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

sara.ziegler: But he can run!

LOL

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I think probably not so much.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Salfino: Peter King said that Denver was reportedly interested.

neil: That would be hilarious.

sara.ziegler: That would be ridiculous.

neil: Denver is where QB careers go to die.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

neil: Yep.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

So it looks to be a wild finish there.

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

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

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

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

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

This is that breakout I guess.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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