The Saints And Steelers Lost Their Franchise QBs. Can They Still Make The Playoffs?

On Sunday, injuries at the NFL’s most valuable position — to two of history’s most prolific passers — radically altered the landscape of the season.

Sean Payton is about to coach only the second game of his NFL career without a healthy Drew Brees, who is out six-to-eight weeks with an injury to his right (throwing) thumb that will require surgery. With Brees at the helm, Payton’s record is 119-72, and the pair has the second-most wins of any QB-coach combo in NFL history. Now, Payton’s quarterback is expected to be Teddy Bridgewater, who last started an NFL game that mattered in the 2015 season.1

In Pittsburgh, the situation is even worse: Ben Roethlisberger will undergo season-ending surgery on his throwing elbow. Steelers coach Mike Tomlin is 115-60-1 with Roethlisberger starting, the fourth-most wins of any QB-coach combo. Tomlin has had to guide his team through Big Ben’s missed time before, going 10-8 in games without Roethlisberger. But those previous fill-ins included veterans Charlie Batch, Byron Leftwich and an over-the-hill Michael Vick. Current backup Mason Rudolph, a third-round pick in the 2018 NFL draft, has never started an NFL game.

What can we expect from each team with their current backup QBs? The Saints still have a coin-flip’s chance to make the playoffs, according to FiveThirtyEight’s NFL prediction model. But the Steelers’ playoff chances are now practically nil — down to just 8 percent.

Even with Roethlisberger, the Steelers had started the season so poorly that, had he not gotten hurt, they still would have been projected for just 7.54 wins, or a record of roughly 8-8 — likely falling short of the postseason again. With Rudolph under center, the Steelers’ outlook drops by 2.47 expected wins. Because Rudolph has not yet started a game, the model projects his performance based purely on where he was drafted (the 3rd round) — which could be too bearish an estimate. But as things sit, Rudolph is expected to perform at only 36.6 percent of Roethlisberger’s Elo level, a rolling average of recent performances that incorporates both passing and running.

On paper, the Saints are in much better shape with their backup in Bridgewater, who is expected to perform at 56.5 percent of Brees’s level.2 With Brees starting every remaining game, the Saints would have been the seventh-strongest team in the league by Elo, with an expected win total of 9.62. With Bridgewater in, the Saints drop to 21st overall — and he lowers their projected win total to 8.93 for the full season.

But Bridgewater’s performance is almost impossible to project, given that he’s not the same player after recovering from the “horribly grotesque” injury that he sustained in 2016. Though the sample size is small — only 53 passes to date — Bridgewater’s returns as a Saint have been poor: He has notched nearly 2 yards fewer per pass attempt than as a Viking and has performed worse both by passer rating and ESPN’s QBR.

The Saints could turn to a Sean Payton favorite, quarterback and Swiss Army knife Taysom Hill, who receives zero Elo points because of his lack of NFL starts and his undrafted status. Payton, though, sees the next Steve Young. Hill is already 29 and in his third season of being groomed by Payton, but Young didn’t begin his Hall of Fame-caliber play as the 49ers’ primary starting QB until age 30. So if it’s ever going to happen for Hill, why not now?

For the Steelers, although Roethlisberger says he’s returning from this injury to finish out his contract, there are no guarantees. Eerily, the playing career of the last great Steelers quarterback, Terry Bradshaw, ended with an almost identical injury in the last game of the 1983 season. And Bradshaw also said he’d come back after his surgery, but he never did. He was 35. Roethlisberger is 37.

But what if the Steelers were able to get a veteran quarterback for next-to-nothing in a trade? And what if that player is a two-time Super Bowl champion, like Roethlisberger? The Giants are finally turning the page on the Eli Manning era, and it would be far less awkward for them to hand the team to rookie Daniel Jones with Manning gone than with him holding a clipboard. Elo projects Manning at nearly twice the value going forward this year as Rudolph, and he would be the AFC North’s third-best quarterback today in terms of Elo, ahead of Andy Dalton.

It appears, though, the Steelers lack the cap room to trade for Manning or even a modestly paid veteran QB. Pittsburgh sent a first-round pick to Miami on Monday for cornerback Minkah Fitzpatrick, so it doesn’t appear that the Steelers are intent on tanking. They’re probably just stuck with the uncertainty of a QB prospect who has yet to start a game.

Neil Paine contributed research.

QB Injuries And Absurd Replay Reviews Dominated The NFL’s Week 2

sara.ziegler (Sara Ziegler, sports editor): Aside from a Jets-Browns matchup that I know we’re all excited about, Week 2 is in the books. And boy, did it have it all. Inexplicable replay decisions! Calls blown dead that should not have been! Fires on the sidelines!

So let’s get into it. How about the replay situation? Who could have possibly foreseen this being a huge mess?

joshua.hermsmeyer (Josh Hermsmeyer, NFL analyst): It’s funny — I was watching Tony Dungy on the Sunday Night Football halftime show going over plays that he deemed clear and convincing evidence of pass interference, and I disagreed with every one of them.

neil (Neil Paine, senior sportswriter): 😬

Salfino (Michael Salfino, FiveThirtyEight contributor): The cost of replay is being able to live the game you’re watching in the moment. And since replay is far from perfect and can never be perfect, why do we tolerate it?

neil: Because the alternative is missed calls! Except now you can inject questionable calls where there originally were none.

Take Sunday’s Seahawks-Steelers game. Trailing in the fourth quarter, Pete Carroll was able to successfully challenge this no-call, and it set up a go-ahead score. In real time, that didn’t look like pass interference. But in slow motion it did, and that is one of the big gray areas for this rule: How much contact is allowed before it becomes a “clear and obvious” hindrance to the receiver? In slow motion, things tend to look more “clear and obvious” than perhaps they were at game speed.

sara.ziegler: I’m reminded yet again that football is so arbitrary in so many ways.

Salfino: If you’re a coach, how do you know when to challenge? There is some kind of contact on most contested catches, if we’re going to Zapruder things.

neil: Yeah, so do you basically save it for any crucial incompletion in traffic late in a game, and just challenge no matter what on the off chance it works?

Salfino: Think of how bizarre things are in the NFL now, when the most game-changing events in games often involve replay rather than the live action on the field.

joshua.hermsmeyer: The live action has its own set of flaws, though. I think there’s a fundamental principle of fairness that people also enjoy and want in a sporting event.

The refs, as we saw Thursday night, aren’t even all that great at spotting the damn ball.

Salfino: I guess it depends on whether you view refereeing a game as something that should be almost automated and perfect, or whether it’s just an organic part of the game with its variation in performance, just like the players. I totally get wanting 100 percent justice on the field, but it seems like it’s just never going to happen, for structural reasons. It’s not like the system can really be improved. It’s all one step forward and at least one step back.

joshua.hermsmeyer: The replay system and refs in general certainly aren’t helping Sean Payton and the Saints.

neil: That much is for sure, haha.

sara.ziegler: I don’t want to hear about it from the Saints, ever.

neil: To err is Favre-ian. Or referee-ian.

sara.ziegler: 🤣

Salfino: It’s incredible that the Saints again got screwed by a rule that made it impossible to fix the injustice we just witnessed on the field.

joshua.hermsmeyer: Al Riveron now posts an instant home office analysis on Twitter. They cut out the part where Cam Jordan runs it all the way back for a TD.

😂

neil: Can’t they just, as a rule, err on the side of waiting to blow the whistle?

Let it play out, and if you have to bring it back, bring it back.

sara.ziegler: That was incredible. I thought that’s what they’re told to do?

Salfino: If you wait for the whistle, you’re going to have guys getting blasted on many plays that should be dead.

joshua.hermsmeyer: If it’s close, they are told to let it play out on the field, but in practice it seems that rarely happens.

sara.ziegler: So on replay, what are our options? What can — or should — the league do?

joshua.hermsmeyer: I think the smartest thing to do — given the mountain of evidence that what’s driving a lot of the issues is the faulty original ruling on the field, and the deference given to those calls by the rule book — is to not privilege any evidence before review.

Salfino: I really want to go back to watching live action. I’d just scrap the entire thing. It was done before. Replay just can never be perfect, and perfection is its reason for existing.

neil: One of things coaches and commentators always beg for is consistency. Especially with regard to the PI challenges, which coaches are still trying to figure out, make what is “clear and obvious” consistent from week to week. Maybe this is just based on a few plays, but on Sunday it seemed like it was easier to overturn a PI non-call than it had been in Week 1.

Salfino: Short of scrapping it, I’d make the booth responsible for all reviews. There should be no limit on things. No strategic component to it.

sara.ziegler: The limit is frustrating, for sure, given how arbitrary it all seems now.

I guess it comes down to what the goal is. Is it to get the call perfectly right, every time? If it is, then the booth needs to be a lot more involved.

I don’t think that is the goal, FWIW, but I’m not sure exactly what the goal is.

neil: The goal is to avoid media and fan criticism. And it always fails.

sara.ziegler: LOL

joshua.hermsmeyer: Yeah by that measure, just delete the account.

Salfino: I thought overturning the Stefon Diggs touchdown was absurd. And there was an outbreak of questionable calls on Sunday besides that, most for very ticky-tack reasons.

sara.ziegler: Don’t even get me started on the Diggs TD.

Salfino: By the way, what the heck is wrong with Kirk Cousins? That game-losing interception was such a horrible decision. It was first down. Cousins is conservative when the situation calls to be desperate and desperate when conservatism is warranted. Sorry, Sara.

Also, Diggs doesn’t take off his helmet on what should have been the second TD if he doesn’t get robbed of the first TD, I would bet. That’s bad by Diggs, but it sure didn’t feel like justice was carried out on replay.

sara.ziegler: Yeah, that was just a whole mess.

neil: The Vikings really just did Vikings things to lose that one.

sara.ziegler: All right…..

neil: (Sorry.)

sara.ziegler: LOL

joshua.hermsmeyer: The Vikings running back is leading the league in rushing yards, so clearly these kinds of losses are just variance.

Run to win!

sara.ziegler: Dalvin Cook is a GENERATIONAL TALENT, Josh.

joshua.hermsmeyer: Glorious.

neil: 75-yard runs will really pad the totals.

sara.ziegler: ANYWAY.

Let’s move on to the other big issue of the weekend: injuries. We had two big injuries to older star quarterbacks — Drew Brees and Ben Roethlisberger. Roethlisberger is out for the season with an elbow injury; Brees will have thumb surgery and miss at least six weeks.

Salfino: Yeah, there was video on the sideline of Brees trying to pick up the ball. Imagine trying to do that without a thumb, and that’s how that went.

sara.ziegler: Ooof

joshua.hermsmeyer: There was something deeply sad about that footage. He tried to play it all off, and just walked away with his head down looking at his hand.

neil: One of the cool new features in our quarterback-adjusted NFL Elo prediction model is that we can quantify the effect of losing a star QB. And these are very damaging injuries. Roethlisberger and Brees are currently the fifth- and sixth-best starting QBs in our model, trailing only Patrick Mahomes, Dak Prescott, Tom Brady and Matt Ryan.

Our model instantly had the Steelers’ playoff odds dropping from 31 percent to 8 percent with the news about Roethlisberger:

The effect of Brees’ injury was a little bit less, because he could potentially come back for most of the second half of the season. New Orleans’s playoff odds dropped from 58 percent to about 51 percent, with Tampa Bay being the primary beneficiary of that dip. But in both cases, we’re talking about drop-offs that cause these teams’ chances of winning their next game to fall by 10 to 15 percentage points with the backup having to start.

sara.ziegler: Are injuries what will finally do these guys in?

neil: Injuries do seem to be what spells the end for old, productive QBs.

Salfino: It seems like Roethlisberger’s injury was likely wear and tear, while Brees’s was a fluke and not age-related. But playing through the injury, if that’s what Brees opts to do, is likely going to be much tougher at his age than it would have been at his peak.

joshua.hermsmeyer: Brees looked like he lost his fastball — or what was left of it — last year. There was a phantom/unreported injury in November where he took a big hit and stopped throwing deep. He didn’t appear to have much zip on it this year either. He attempted just one pass over 20 yards in Week 1. So I guess my money would be on Brees being the most impacted by this accumulation of injuries. He’s also older than Roethlisberger.

neil: People like our friend Bill Barnwell were already speculating before the season about Brees’s performance potentially collapsing this season after his struggles late last year.

Salfino: Do you go to the unknown with Taysom Hill or the known with Teddy Bridgewater? I would do the former: Try to inject athleticism and explosiveness into the position and worry less about floor.

joshua.hermsmeyer:

The drop off from Brees to Bridgewater was steep.

I think trying Hill — if Payton really believes he has some “Steve Young” in him — is the right move.

neil: Here’s a little bit more on the drop-offs between Brees/Roethlisberger and their backups. According to our model, replacing Brees with Bridgewater (who is roughly as good as Indy’s Jacoby Brissett, so the 29th-best starting QB in football) knocks the Saints’ Elo rating down from seventh in the league to 20th.

It gets worse for Pittsburgh. Replacing Roethlisberger with Mason Rudolph, who rates significantly lower than Ryan Fitzpatrick (the 32nd-best starter in the league), drops the Steelers from 17th in Elo to 31st, ahead of only the Dolphins.

joshua.hermsmeyer: Wow.

Salfino: I actually thought Rudolph looked good against Seattle. But it’s always tricky to judge the backups in the game when they are called upon because they play, I think, more free and easy since they had no idea they would be playing. The defense also doesn’t really know who they are. The test for Rudolph will be next week. He has draft pedigree to some extent.

sara.ziegler: Once again, BAN INJURIES.

Let’s wrap things up with a new game I’m calling Good Team/Bad Team. There’s a bunch of teams at 2-0 right now and a bunch at 0-2. But are they actually good/bad?

Starting with the 2-0 teams, I’ll name a team, and you tell me if that team is actually any good. Ready?

Salfino: I like this.

neil: Let’s go!

sara.ziegler: Let’s start with Buffalo! Did you know the Bills are 2-0?

joshua.hermsmeyer: The Bills are an eight-win team until Josh Allen gets injured on a scramble.

Salfino: The Bills are a bad team. They got lucky in Week 1: They played a QB with mono and then had the QB of the opposing defense (C.J. Mosley) go down, before which they hadn’t scored.

neil: Yeah, I agree with y’all. They may have swept the State of New Jersey in Weeks 1-2, but I’m not sure they’re actually any good.

Salfino: (OK, the Bills are not good but maybe not bad either; also, are the Giants tanking?)

sara.ziegler: The eternal question: Are the Giants tanking?

neil: Giants: Bad team.

joshua.hermsmeyer: Are people actually asking this question?

Salfino: Eli is 2-16 now in the first half of seasons from 2017 to 2019.

joshua.hermsmeyer: GM Dave Gettleman cannot abide a tank. They are just bad.

sara.ziegler: I think we know the Giants are bad, so we don’t really even need to discuss them.

What about San Francisco?

Salfino: San Francisco is good. I like their offensive coaching and play calling. They have very good offensive players — Matt Breida and Raheem Mostert are super-talented backs, especially Breida, who has some Barry Sanders in him. They look like they got it right with Deebo Samuel. The defense looks OK. I say 10-6.

neil: Good team…? The Niners currently rank third in EPA per game — granted, they beat a couple of mediocre teams (Tampa and Cincy) to get there. But Cincy held its own in Week 1 at Seattle! And Tampa won in Week 2 against Cam Newton and the Panthers!

joshua.hermsmeyer: The Niners were impressive in Week 2, but I’m not sold. It seemed like all the scheme stuff worked to perfection, and they didn’t need to really lean on Jimmy Garoppolo. In the first half of Week 1, they looked like the Niners we’ve seen the past two years, which is closer to my prior. So I’m gonna be the pessimist and say third in EPA/game is a bit of a mirage and that they aren’t a playoff team.

neil: San Francisco’s situation would also be rosier in a different division. The Rams and Seahawks are tough competition — our model thinks all three teams win double-digit games.

sara.ziegler: One more 2-0 team: Dallas!

joshua.hermsmeyer: Good.

neil: Good team! I wrote last week about how much it would help Dallas if Prescott became more consistent as a passer, and after two straight strong performances to start 2019 (on the heels of even more to close out 2018), it appears he may have turned a corner.

After that first interception, it seemed like “here we go again…” But he has been great since then.

Salfino: They’re good. For all the joking at Jerry Jones’s expense about how he takes over the team and doesn’t let the football people rule, they draft great every year. However they are doing it is working. Where is the weakness on Dallas? I don’t see one.

neil: With Philly being kinda all over the place so far, Dallas seems like clear NFC East favorites right now.

(Philly has actually been all over the place for like two years now…)

joshua.hermsmeyer: I think perhaps the biggest danger is that Kellen Moore runs out of plays three-fourths of the way through the year, and the league catches up. He’s never done a full season of this, and it seems to have happened to Sean McVay last year.

Salfino: Philly had such a spell of injuries on Sunday and still could have won if Nelson Agholor hadn’t dropped that touchdown pass down the sideline in the final two minutes. Carson Wentz often lacks pocket awareness and takes shots like Michael Vick used to take. If they can stay relatively healthy, I think the Eagles are at the Cowboys’ level.

sara.ziegler: OK, let’s move on to a few 0-2 teams to ask whether they’re actually as bad as they seem.

Washington!

Salfino: Bad.

joshua.hermsmeyer: Not as bad as they seem. They’ve been surprisingly good in the passing game, and that will earn them a few unexpected wins down the road.

neil: Not sure. Case Keenum has actually been OK-to-good so far. And their losses were against two teams we just said we considered good: Dallas and Philly.

(Anybody else VERY confused to see Keenum as No. 8 for Washington, and think it’s Cousins?)

joshua.hermsmeyer: Hah, yes!

Salfino: I agree that Washington has been decent on offense, but Keenum is going to be benched when the losses pile up. Dwayne Haskins reportedly is not remotely ready, but the fans and owner will demand him. So I guess I’m building seven-plus Haskins starts into the “bad” call.

Keenum is better than Cousins. (ducks)

neil: LOL

sara.ziegler: Hahaha

joshua.hermsmeyer: What a lukewarm take after Cousins’s performance this week, Mike. Shame.

neil: Our QB model agrees! (Barely.)

Salfino: Cousins is actually losing games now.

sara.ziegler: OMG, we can’t talk about the Vikings anymore, I’m sorry — I just can’t take it.

How about 0-2 Carolina?

joshua.hermsmeyer: What’s wrong with Cam Newton?

neil: I wish I could defend him and them. But he’s getting outplayed by Jameis Winston at this point. At home!

Salfino: I worry that Cam is broken down and forever Clark Kent now. He’s taken such a beating. We love the running QBs, but there is a price to be paid, and Cam may not be functional in his 30s because he can’t execute at an NFL level in structure in the pocket — he’s not a good enough passer.

joshua.hermsmeyer: If you’re right, then 0-2 is very, very real.

sara.ziegler: LOL

One more 0-2 team: Pittsburgh

neil: With Big Ben out, they’re in huge trouble. I mean, they were probably already in huge trouble anyway.

Salfino: It was ridiculous to think an offense could withstand the losses of Le’Veon Bell and Antonio Brown in consecutive years. JuJu Smith-Schuster is not a true No. 1 and is being thrust into that role without even a competent No. 2 receiver.

Pittsburgh is bad.

joshua.hermsmeyer: Agree with all of you. JuJu has been a hobby horse of mine as well. His efficiency last year was buoyed by the presence of AB and being asked to run routes near the seams and in the middle of the field — the best places to pass the ball. Without their starting QB, they are bad.

Salfino: And the thing about Ben aging — you don’t get the sense he’s focusing on diet and yoga. There is no BR7 program, I suspect.

neil: 🤣

Check out our latest NFL predictions.

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

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

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

sara.ziegler: LOL

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

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

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

neil: Particularly this of all regular seasons.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

neil: This is a fraught question for Sara ….

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

neil: Yep.

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

neil: 😬

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

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

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

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

Terrible overall performance.

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

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

sara.ziegler:

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

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

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

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

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

neil: Particularly with Nick Foles not necessarily 100 percent.

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

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

sara.ziegler: Well … Wentz? Some problems.

Everyone else? Fine.

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

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

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

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

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

This is just brutal.

sara.ziegler: Ooof.

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

joshua.hermsmeyer: hah

sara.ziegler: LOL

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

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

sara.ziegler: Fair

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

joshua.hermsmeyer: Oh gawd not QB Winz

Salfino: YES!!!

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

joshua.hermsmeyer: smh

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

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

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

joshua.hermsmeyer: This is true.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Which underdog has the best chance?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

sara.ziegler: Yeah, that all makes sense.

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

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

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

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

sara.ziegler: 🔥

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

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

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

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

joshua.hermsmeyer: loool

neil: That’s still accurate.

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

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

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

sara.ziegler: Very fair.

Is anyone taking the Eagles over the Bears?

neil: I recuse myself.

LOL

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

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

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

sara.ziegler: LOL

neil: As opposed to this one:

sara.ziegler: 🤣

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

sara.ziegler: Wow, Mike.

LOL

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

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

(The defense is still amazing, of course)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

neil: Ooh, going low. I like it.

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