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.

Which Picks Did NFL Mock Drafts Get Most Wrong?

With the first round of the NFL draft complete, it appears that the wisdom of the crowds wasn’t particularly wise. The first three picks went relatively as expected, but the draft went off script with the Oakland Raiders’ pick at No. 4 overall: defensive end Clelin Ferrell of Clemson — a player who mock drafters believed would go somewhere in the middle of the first round. The Raiders’ pick was the first of many that defied expectations and left amateur GMs scratching their heads.

In the case of the New York Giants, some fans were banging their heads against the wall and collapsing in tears. New York, which passed on many quarterbacks a year ago to take running back Saquon Barkley, took Duke QB Daniel Jones at No. 6. Jones averaged a 20.4 pick in mock drafts taken in the last 30 days before the draft but came off the board an eyebrow-raising 14.4 picks earlier. The Giants seemed to be trying to get ahead of a quarterback run that didn’t exist: Ohio State’s Dwayne Haskins lasted until Washington took him at No. 15 (6.2 picks later than expected), and no subsequent QBs were taken on Thursday night.

But the New York football Giants, armed with three picks in the first round alone, weren’t finished reaching. Using the 17th overall pick they acquired when they dealt Odell Beckham Jr. to the Browns, the Giants selected DT Dexter Lawrence of Clemson, 10.5 picks earlier than expected. The Giants were able to capture some surplus value with their third and final pick of the first round, however: Georgia CB Deandre Baker lasted 3.2 picks longer than expected and should help fill the void in the Giants secondary that was left when Eli Apple was traded to New Orleans last October for picks in the fourth and seventh rounds.

The NFL draft has been full of surprises

The first round of the 2019 NFL draft by each player’s pick and his average draft position (ADP) in mock drafts since March 26, 2019

team player Position pick ADP diff
Arizona Kyler Murray QB 1 1.8 -0.8
San Francisco Nick Bosa DE 2 2.1 -0.1
N.Y. Jets Quinnen Williams DT 3 3.7 -0.7
Oakland Clelin Ferrell DE 4 19.0 -15.0
Tampa Bay Devin White LB 5 7.0 -2.0
N.Y. Giants Daniel Jones QB 6 20.4 -14.4
Jacksonville Josh Allen LB 7 3.7 +3.3
Detroit TJ Hockenson TE 8 13.0 -5.0
Buffalo Ed Oliver DT 9 9.3 -0.3
Pittsburgh Devin Bush LB 10 15.5 -5.5
Cincinnati Jonah Williams OT 11 13.3 -2.3
Green Bay Rashan Gary DE 12 11.2 +0.8
Miami Christian Wilkins DT 13 19.0 -6.0
Atlanta Chris Lindstrom G 14 29.3 -15.3
Washington Dwayne Haskins QB 15 8.8 +6.2
Carolina Brian Burns LB 16 16.0 +0.0
N.Y. Giants Dexter Lawrence DT 17 27.5 -10.5
Minnesota Garrett Bradbury C 18 25.7 -7.7
Tennessee Jeffery Simmons DT 19 29.5 -10.5
Denver Noah Fant TE 20 22.9 -2.9
Green Bay Darnell Savage S 21 54.7 -33.7
Philadelphia Andre Dillard OT 22 17.6 +4.4
Houston Tytus Howard OT 23 60.7 -37.7
Oakland Josh Jacobs RB 24 27.2 -3.2
Baltimore Marquise Brown WR 25 25.4 -0.4
Washington Montez Sweat DE 26 10.6 +15.4
Oakland Johnathan Abram S 27 33.6 -6.6
L.A. Chargers Jerry Tillery DT 28 31.6 -3.6
Seattle L.J. Collier DE 29 62.9 -33.9
N.Y. Giants Deandre Baker CB 30 26.8 +3.2
Atlanta Kaleb McGary OT 31 43.3 -12.3
New England N’Keal Harry WR 32 29.3 +2.7

Sources: NFL, Ben Robinson

The selections of Lawrence and Ferrell were part of a larger trend: NFL GMs appear to have been particularly enamored with Clemson players. Three Tiger defensive standouts from the national championship team were selected in the first round, and they went 10.5 slots earlier on average than mock drafts predicted.

A dominant theme of the night, as expected, was NFL teams trying to find the next star pass rusher. But it was a pass rusher who had the biggest slide down the board among the first-round selections. Washington appears to have gotten a substantial value when it selected Mississippi State DE Montez Sweat 26th overall. In a draft class stacked with edge rushing talent, Sweat came off the board 15.4 picks later than expected.3

When we look at all 32 first-round picks, the correlation between what mock drafters expected and what actually occurred was about the same in 2019 as it was in 2018. In 2019, the average draft position in mock drafts explained 48 percent of variance, down slightly from 49 percent of variance explained in 2018. This year’s first round skewed toward reaches, with six teams trading up on draft day to get their guys. Overall, players came off the board six picks earlier than expected; last year, that difference was five spots.

As a result, Day 2 of the draft should be one in which savvy teams can find more value than they may have initially anticipated. That could even drive more pick swapping, as teams look to swoop in and grab coveted players like mock draft darling D.K. Metcalf on the cheap.


From ABC News:
Biggest picks from the 1st round of NFL Draft