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!

Check out our latest NFL predictions.

What Did We Learn About The Contenders In The NFL’s Week 13?

sara.ziegler (Sara Ziegler, sports editor): Week 13 had a little bit of everything: matchups between division leaders, out-of-nowhere upsets and yet another Chargers heartbreaker. A kicker caught a touchdown … thrown by a punter! What more could we ask for?

Let’s start with the biggest surprise of the week for me: Philadelphia, which could have jumped back into a tie for the NFC East lead with a win, marched down to Miami and gave up 37 points to Ryan Fitzpatrick and Co.

joshua.hermsmeyer (Josh Hermsmeyer, NFL analyst): Philly was befuddled by the muddle huddle.

Salfino (Michael Salfino, FiveThirtyEight contributor): I always kick myself when I assume a team has completely transformed a unit in-season. I did buy the narrative that the Eagles had improved their pass defense immeasurably relative to their early-season woes. But this team was always weakest in the defensive backfield, so even getting guys back did not fix the problem, obviously, as Fitzpatrick — who has now played the Eagles seven times with seven different teams — just tore them apart.

gfoster (Geoff Foster, FiveThirtyEight contributor): Some smart NFL people predicted the Eagles to win the NFC this year based on the talent on their roster, which is one of the most expensive in the league. I think earlier this season it was easy to write off these losses because of their injuries at receiver and all over their defense. But now, is it time to admit that this team is just not that good?

joshua.hermsmeyer: I’m not sure what to make of the Eagles from top to bottom this season. They just gave a five-year, $21.8 million contract to Jake Elliott at the most replaceable position in football outside running back.

sara.ziegler: Sure, you laugh at a huge kicker contract, until you’re the Cowboys holding kicker tryouts on a December Sunday…

gfoster: Look at what Fitzpatrick did to this defense:

Salfino: They seemed to have the depth to be fortified against typical in-season problems. But I think we found out that even the starters were not that good. And nothing has really held up through in-season attrition. Even their coaching has not responded. Can you imagine being beaten by gadget plays now three straight games? It’s just embarrassing.

sara.ziegler: Fitzpatrick isn’t that bad! He’s almost league average in our QB ratings.

That makes what Miami is doing this year all the more confusing.

gfoster: This is the closing argument in the case that NFL tanking doesn’t exist. If the Dolphins really wanted Joe Burrow or Chase Young or whomever in the draft, they would simply play Josh Rosen at quarterback. But with Fitzmagic in there, they are going to get games like this from him, and they will win more.

joshua.hermsmeyer: I still contend that tanking did exist … but maybe the spotlight on their supposed tanking caused them to stop.

I think the pressure got to them!

sara.ziegler: There’s also the argument that Miami is just bad at tanking.

Salfino: It’s like “The Producers.” If you’re trying to be terrible, it’s actually not that easy.

sara.ziegler: Hahaha

gfoster: To clarify: I think you can tank in the NFL. But you can only do it by purposefully playing a lesser QB. Like, say, Ryan Finley over Andy Dalton.

Salfino: But what’s the carrot for tanking? It’s one starter out of 22, and we don’t even know if that guy ever is really the best player.

If it’s just about compiling draft capital, then it’s more binary — be bad, it doesn’t matter if you’re the worst or not.

joshua.hermsmeyer: So the Bengals have a one-game lead on the New York Giants for the first overall pick. You have to think Cincinnati takes Burrow if they lose out. But an interesting question is: If the Giants get the first overall, do they take Burrow or trade down?

Salfino: Geoff, they’re just trying to make us feel better about the Jets….

sara.ziegler: There’s no way to feel better about the Jets today.

gfoster: I think they would try to trade down, and if that didn’t work, then they would just take Chase Young at No. 1 and not feel too bad about it.

Salfino: I will eat 1,000 bugs if the Giants draft Burrow. Plus, Burrow is old for a prospect. I have low confidence with all QB prospects translating as expected but even lower with older prospects. Burrow should be dominating just based on his age.

joshua.hermsmeyer: I think it would be pretty funny if Giants GM Dave Gettleman didn’t trade back and take the profits, just to be stubborn.

Salfino: I would just take Young, period. No matter what team I was.

Will Burrow get more draft capital in return than Young? I’m uncertain about that. And there are going to be a lot of veteran QBs on the market that teams think they can rehab. It will be like musical chairs.

gfoster: Burrow can join a long line of LSU QBs to dominate the NFL, names like … JaMarcus Russell, Matt Flynn, Zach Mettenberger.

sara.ziegler: Hey, Flynn was a dominant backup.

Salfino: You can never take away Flynn’s six-TD game. He monetized that sucker.

gfoster: Here’s the thing about the Bengals win: It wasn’t that big of an upset. They were only 2.5-point dogs. No team in the NFL is that bad. Also, the Jets are deeply weird. I follow this team closely, and I still don’t understand them.

sara.ziegler: Please, yes, the “this loss was fine” take.

Salfino: Ha ha ha

joshua.hermsmeyer: Apparently, according to the Elias Sports Bureau, the Jets are the first team to lose to teams that were 0-7 or worse coming into a game. That’s a weird way to say you gave the Dolphins and Bengals their first wins, but there we are.

Salfino: The Jets did not have a red zone snap against one of the worst defenses in the NFL. Not a snap!

I’m not sure the Jets could beat the 1976 Buccaneers right now.

gfoster: The second I heard Dalton was starting, I knew the Jets had no chance. I knew he was going to come back motivated and looking to polish a resume. Also, he passed Ken Anderson for most TD passes in Cincy history. Which is funny, because does that mean that the Bengals were going to sit to him the rest of the year when he was one shy of that record?

Salfino: Benching Dalton was all an elaborate scheme to preserve the memory of Ken Anderson.

gfoster: Dalton is going to be really solid on the 2020 Bears.

sara.ziegler: OMG

joshua.hermsmeyer: Geoff has seen the future, and it’s bleak.

sara.ziegler: That’s the future I want.

Salfino: Dalton is one of those vets that teams are going to turn to this offseason: Dalton, Derek Carr, Marcus Mariota, Jameis Winston … (Though maybe he stays now?)

sara.ziegler: It’s always so weird when the up-and-comers become the has-beens.

gfoster: Ryan Tannehill is NOT making Mariota look good in Tennessee.

joshua.hermsmeyer: Winston’s highs are too high to let him go, I think.

Salfino: But Winston is what he is now though. That’s never going to be good enough. He’s not going to stop throwing picks and getting sacked.

joshua.hermsmeyer: But if all you do is try and avoid interceptions, you end up being discount Aaron Rodgers, post 2015.

Salfino: I agree that there’s an ideal INT rate, and it ain’t 0 percent. But Winston makes too many mistakes, period.

joshua.hermsmeyer: What happened to loving the gunslinger, Salfino?

Salfino: No gunslinging on first downs and in the red zone.

sara.ziegler: Words to live by.

joshua.hermsmeyer: This disrespect of the Joe Namath archetype is why the Jets lost, tbh.

Salfino: Namath’s INT rate in his AFL heyday was below average for his time, BTW.

Back to Tannehill: He’s been sacked 24 times in 200 pass plays, which is ABSURDLY bad. He is proof again that sacks are mostly a QB stat. Put him anywhere, and he’ll be dumped at a double-digit rate. Jameis has this flaw of holding the ball too long, too.

gfoster: Tannehill is leading the league in yards per attempt. And Derrick Henry is now Jim Brown, apparently.

What is happening?

sara.ziegler: The Titans have won their last three games and now have a very real chance to make the playoffs — up to 42 percent in our model.

joshua.hermsmeyer: Between Tannehill and Lamar Jackson, I think the league is figuring out the secret to success at QB is to play your WR there. (Tannehill was a WR in college, and some scouts thought Lamar would only be successful in the NFL as a WR.)

sara.ziegler: 🤣

Speaking of Lamar … the Baltimore-San Francisco game was wildly entertaining. These two teams are just really fun to watch right now.

joshua.hermsmeyer: It helps when you have way more offensive plays to watch because neither team is punting.

Salfino: Both teams were just running the ball up and down the field. It’s so weird that this is where we are with the two best teams in football now.

gfoster: There were only seven drives in the second half of that game. And they resulted in two field goals, two punts, two turnovers on downs and a fumble.

joshua.hermsmeyer: Killjoy

sara.ziegler: That game-ending drive by the Ravens was a thing of beauty, though. Six minutes and 30 seconds to win the game on a field goal? Love it.

gfoster: It feels like the Ravens’ break-in-case-of-emergency plan is to just give designed runs to Lamar. AKA, play like the 2018 Ravens.

Also, Josh, kicker may be the most replaceable position in the NFL. But Baltimore having Justin Tucker in the playoffs is a clear edge.

joshua.hermsmeyer: Bill Belichick said he’s the best to ever do it. So I won’t argue it.

Salfino: Oh, man. You just knew Tucker was making that, even in those conditions. That dude is just unreal.

Geoff, didn’t you lose a playoff game in fantasy when Tucker kicked 137 field goals? 🙂

gfoster: I may have.

Salfino: It was one of those 99 percent win probability losses.

sara.ziegler: I’ll take Tucker at the end of an important game … but maybe not in a press conference.

joshua.hermsmeyer: **leaves chat**

Salfino: Kickers can’t be the cool kids. They’re the rock critics of football.

sara.ziegler: LOL

The other great matchup of the weekend that I wanted to talk about was the Patriots-Texans game on Sunday Night Football.

Salfino: Tom Brady RIP.

sara.ziegler: I live for the “Tom Brady is done” takes.

Salfino: Brady is someone who occasionally evokes Tom Brady now. But Belichick has let him down with his supporting cast of receivers. How big a bust must N’Keal Harry be if he can’t even get on the field ahead of this motley crew?

Does this change our opinion on the Texans? It’s weird that no one seems to have done so, with what — on paper — is a signature win for them.

sara.ziegler: The Texans are hard for me to figure out. They were so thoroughly dismantled by the Ravens that I have a hard time understanding where they fit in the echelon of good-but-not-great teams.

gfoster: This news for the Texans is huge, if it’s true:

sara.ziegler: Whoa, hadn’t seen that about J.J. Watt.

Salfino: Deshaun Watson had a great game. If he plays within structure like that and sprinkles in the occasional Watson things, they can overcome Bill O’Brien’s coaching. I think. At least until they play the Ravens.

gfoster: The funniest thing about the NFL is how scared everyone is to write the “Patriots Are Done” stories. We have all experienced this too many times.

joshua.hermsmeyer: I’ve seen a take floating around that it was Gronk’s greatness that was keeping Brady afloat all these years, and perhaps there’s something to it.

Salfino: Well, Rob Gronkowski and Josh Gordon were intermediate/deep receivers, and now that guy for the Patriots is ?????

The Patriots can win still like the 2015 Broncos did with the Ghost of Peyton Manning.

sara.ziegler: The Patriots can still win like the 2003 Patriots did!

Salfino: 🙂

gfoster: I think the lack of weapons on the outside is real. The running game is also way, way worse this year. Brady’s whole game is about being in sync with his receivers and having them be in the right spot at the right time, and you can tell that they are not in sync at the moment. But give Josh McDaniels and them a bye in the playoffs to work on some stuff, and no one will be surprised to see them fix these problems.

sara.ziegler: Brady screaming at his receivers on the sidelines doesn’t fix everything?

joshua.hermsmeyer: It’s a toxic relationship right now.

Salfino: But I think it’s more than “outside,” though maybe that’s a proxy of having no one who can remotely stretch the field. Gronk stretched it from the slot in the seam. But yes, they are woefully deficient at a position that should not be hard to fill.

As to Sara’s point, a QB has to be loved or feared, and Brady has always been way more feared than loved. So it’s in character for him. It’s worked.

gfoster: I think that actually COULD help things, Sara. You are telling me Jakobi Meyers and Harry aren’t spending more time in the film room this week to avoid another Brady scolding on national TV? Everyone in that organization seems to buy in to the system or get discarded.

sara.ziegler: Fair — I felt bad for those guys, and they weren’t even on the screen!

Salfino: The Patriots for sure know that QBs are not really part of the team, they are above the team. Brady is just a coach proxy on the field. Probably ahead of most of the coaches, too.

sara.ziegler: I will believe the Patriots are out of it when both Belichick and Brady are sitting on a beach somewhere while NFL games are being played, and not a moment before.

Salfino: There’s a report that the Patriots players are lobbying to bring Antonio Brown back.

But then Brown seemed to destroy the possibility.

gfoster: “Patriots players are lobbying to bring Antonio Brown” — according to reports from Antonio Brown.

Salfino: Brown is a 7-Eleven PR nightmare. Open all night.

gfoster: There’s only one person who can save the Patriots offense now:

joshua.hermsmeyer: 👏

Check out our latest NFL predictions.

Is Aaron Rodgers Slipping? And WTF Is Happening With Carson Wentz?

sara.ziegler (Sara Ziegler, sports editor): Week 12 brought us a bunch of high-leverage games between playoff contenders: Green Bay at San Francisco, Dallas at New England and Seattle at Philadelphia. (And there’s another big game tonight between the Baltimore Ravens and the Los Angeles Rams.) So let’s talk through what we saw in those matchups and what changed in the playoff picture as a result.

Let’s start with San Francisco’s huge win over Green Bay. I’m a Niners fan this year — and I obviously root for a different team in the NFC North than the Packers — but I definitely did not see that one coming.

neil (Neil Paine, senior sportswriter): It’s getting harder and harder to doubt the Niners’ Super Bowl chances …

Salfino (Michael Salfino, FiveThirtyEight contributor): I did see it coming not because of intuition or any special insight but simply because of net yards per pass play gained minus net yards allowed. The Niners were huge there heading into Week 12 and continued putting up big numbers this week, when Aaron Rodgers generated 66 net passing yards on 38 pass plays (including sacks).

joshua.hermsmeyer (Josh Hermsmeyer, NFL analyst): It was a very impressive win by the Niners. What struck me was the job they did on Rodgers. On play-action, the most efficient play type in football, Rodgers dialed up 13 plays — good for fourth in the league so far in Week 12 — and averaged just 4 yards per dropback on those plays.

sara.ziegler: The Niners defense just looks so good.

Salfino: This was one of those games where halfway through the first quarter you knew it was over. The Packers wanted no part of the heat the 49ers were bringing.

neil: The Super Bowl will be Niners-Pats, won’t it? And the final score will be 13-3 or something.

Salfino: We often talk about explosive offensive teams, but the 49ers with that rush are an explosive defensive team.

I see the 49ers as a complete team. Great offensive mind and solid skill players on offense across the board. I know a lot of people are still skeptical of their QB, but Jimmy Garoppolo is at least average. And they just destroy their opponents’ passing games.

joshua.hermsmeyer: Weirdly, that was Rodgers’s worst game of his career by passing yardage when he’s had at least 30 pass attempts.

sara.ziegler: Wow

The Niners haven’t seemed scary offensively to me, so the 37 points they put up on Sunday took me by surprise.

They rank only 14th in total passing yards this season.

Salfino: But they’ve got George Kittle (if he’s healthy) and Deebo Samuel looking like the new Anquan Boldin plus a healthy Emmanuel Sanders. With that stable of backs plus the Kyle Shanahan system … I like their offense a lot.

joshua.hermsmeyer: They really got a lift from Emmanuel Sanders coming back. He’s a difference maker for Jimmy G.

And yes, Kittle of course.

neil: Jimmy G is almost up to average in our Elo QB ratings!

It’s taken him all season.

Salfino: I actually think Samuel is their most dangerous wide receiver now with that yards after catch number.

My defense of Jimmy G. is that he’s no worse than Matt Ryan, and Shanahan crushed it with Ryan. Plus QB wins are a real thing, I believe. He has to get some credit for his record, especially in 2017.

neil: I still think he’s a slightly-above-average QB whose defense has been killing it.

🔥

joshua.hermsmeyer: I cannot let the QB Winz comment pass! I agree that QBs are the most important piece to winning, but that stat is just terrible.

Salfino: You win a game usually by outpassing your opponent measured by net yards per attempt, and there are only two ways to do that — with your offense/QB or with your defense. So how can the QB not be the most important player to winning?

joshua.hermsmeyer: That doesn’t make QB Winz a stat!

Salfino: I’m saying that to be a good QB, you need to have a good yards per attempt or net yards per attempt, and if you do, your teams will win. So potato/tomato (as my daughter jokes).

neil: Jimmy G, for what it’s worth, is 11th in adjusted net yards per attempt, despite the Niners being second only to New England in the Simple Rating System.

To me, that indicates that the rest of the team has carried more of the load.

Salfino: I agree that the Niners’ pass defense is mostly responsible for winning this year. But I specifically mentioned 2017, and I can’t make the argument he’s much worse now.

joshua.hermsmeyer: Even last night, there were times when Jimmy couldn’t come off his first read fast enough and looked like a statue. He’s in a good scheme with the best possible support.

Salfino: I agree that he holds the ball too long. But we forget the guy has barely started any games even though it feels like he’s been around forever.

sara.ziegler: And that’s the whole problem with him! We don’t have enough of a sample size.

San Francisco has two tricky road games up next: at Baltimore this Sunday and at New Orleans the following week. How do the Niners match up against those opponents?

neil: Yes, San Francisco’s schedule gets much tougher. They played the second easiest schedule so far in terms of average opponent pregame Elo (adjusted for location); only Buffalo faced easier opponents. The Niners’ rest-of-season schedule is the toughest in the league by Elo.

Which NFL teams have the toughest remaining schedules?

Elo ranking of the hardest strength of schedule for 2019 NFL teams, for both completed and upcoming games

Elo SOS Rank Elo SOS Rank
Team record Completed upcoming Team record Completed upcoming
SF 10-1 31st 1st DEN 3-8 1st 17th
BUF 8-3 32nd 2nd CIN 0-11 18th 18th
TEN 6-5 26th 3rd MIN 8-3 21st 19th
CHI 5-6 30th 4th DET 3-7-1 9th 20th
LAR 6-4 14th 5th CAR 5-6 8th 21st
BAL 8-2 23rd 6th KC 7-4 2nd 22nd
ARI 3-7-1 15th 7th DAL 6-5 27th 23rd
NO 9-2 22nd 8th TB 4-7 7th 24th
PIT 6-5 24th 9th NYJ 4-7 25th 25th
SEA 9-2 19th 10th MIA 2-9 13th 26th
ATL 3-8 3rd 11th JAX 4-7 12th 27th
IND 6-5 11th 12th GB 8-3 4th 28th
LAC 4-7 28th 13th NE 10-1 29th 29th
OAK 6-5 16th 14th NYG 2-9 17th 30th
HOU 7-4 6th 15th CLE 5-6 10th 31st
WSH 2-9 20th 16th PHI 5-6 5th 32nd

Rankings are based on the average quality of opponent, adjusted for quarterback and location.

Salfino: No one matches up well with Baltimore. They are a unicorn team. Or if someone does match up, how would we even know until we see it? But the Niners don’t even need that game, IMO. They need to take care of business with the Saints, though. But the Saints don’t strike me as a legit Super Bowl team. They were crushed at home against the Falcons and then almost lost to Kyle Allen. And we all wrote Allen’s obit last week.

neil: I will admit I was surprised the Saints let Carolina hang around in that one.

Salfino: We have to give them a little slack with no Marcus Lattimore, I guess.

sara.ziegler: So what of the Niners’ opponent Sunday night? I don’t know what to think of Green Bay at all.

neil: Is Rodgers still ELITE??????

He hasn’t looked that way for a few games now.

joshua.hermsmeyer: The Packers have been exposed twice, and Rodgers is firmly out of the MVP conversation. Matt LeFleur said they were outcoached and outplayed. I’d be very worried.

sara.ziegler: Don’t look now, but the NFC North is basically a tossup.

neil: Heyyyyy look at that.

joshua.hermsmeyer: The Vikings are better. Sorry, Sara.

Salfino: You mean that you don’t want to look now, Sara. 🙂 I’ve been saying the Vikings are winning that division for weeks.

Kirk Cousins for MVP!

(half joking)

sara.ziegler: OMG

You need to be fully joking.

Salfino: Cousins does have numbers, Sara.

neil: Joking aside, that Packers-Vikings game in Week 16 could be huge.

And I love that matchup on Monday Night Football. So much nostalgia.

Salfino: This Packers team going into Minnesota, where that defense generally plays great, and beating the Vikings with the season on the line? No way. I don’t see it.

sara.ziegler: The Packers get the New York Giants, Washington and Chicago before the showdown with Minnesota, while the Vikings have Seattle, Detroit and the Los Angeles Chargers. So the edge has to be with the Packers to win the division, right?

Salfino: Danny Dimes, Sara.

sara.ziegler: 🙄🙄🙄

Salfino: Generational talent Saquon Barkley is averaging almost 4 yards per carry this season!

joshua.hermsmeyer: Oh yeah, generational talent, because you only get a 4.0 rushing average from a first-round pick once every 10 to 14 years, LOL.

neil: Detroit and San Diego are done.

(I don’t care that the Chargers are in L.A.)

sara.ziegler: LOL, San Diego is extremely done.

neil:

Salfino: Which Rivers child is that?

neil: LOLOLOL

sara.ziegler: Oh, wow.

neil: Gosh dang it, Salfie!

sara.ziegler: Sticking with the AFC, New England outlasted Dallas on Sunday in a game that was, for me, more about the Cowboys underperforming (and making terrible decisions at key moments) than the Patriots dominating. I just can’t get excited about this New England team, even if it’s 10-1. Which means the Patriots are certainly going to win the Super Bowl.

Salfino: The Patriots are flawed offensively but work like a hive on defense, passing off coverage from linebackers to defensive ends seamlessly, like on the third down in the red zone in the fourth quarter against the Cowboys.

neil: I know the weather was bad on Sunday, but Tom Brady has looked mediocre for a little while now.

joshua.hermsmeyer: The Pats are also one of the most man-coverage-heavy teams in the league. They used man against the Cowboys to great effect: 24 snaps in man coverage, with Dallas mustering just a 29 percent success rate and -0.42 expected points added per play. Meanwhile, they played 10 snaps of zone, and Dallas ate it up, with a 50 percent success rate and 0.26 EPA per play.

neil: This is the lowest Brady’s QB Elo rating has been (relative to average) since after the On To Cincinnati game in 2014.

And that year, they <<checks notes>> won the Super Bowl. Oh.

Salfino: The Patriots have had less than 350 yards from scrimmage in five straight games, which is their longest streak since 2003.

sara.ziegler: And yet … they keep winning!

(Except when they’re playing Baltimore.)

neil: This defense, particularly against the pass, remains incredible.

Lamar Jackson is still the only QB to play above average against their defense this season.

sara.ziegler: Jackson has a way of making good defenses look average — Seattle knows a little something about that. The Seahawks got a convincing win over the Eagles on Sunday. Seattle is in command of the first wild-card spot now, but does it have a chance for the division against the Niners?

joshua.hermsmeyer: Our model gives San Francisco a 58 percent chance to win the division and gives Seattle a 40 percent shot, so definitely a chance!

Salfino: Aren’t the Seahawks setting a record of sorts in the divergence between point differential and win-loss record?

Are they just super lucky?

neil: Yeah, Mike — the pythagorean expectation says they should only be 6-5 right now, not 9-2.

Salfino: Ross Tucker said on Twitter that Jadeveon Clowney could be out for the year? No idea if that’s true, but if it is, that’s really bad for Seattle.

joshua.hermsmeyer: If Pete Carroll is a tactical genius, it seems like his strategy is coaxing his opponents to play suboptimally, running a lot, and then relying on his elite QB to bail his team out on third and long while the other team has to punt more often in those situations.

neil: That’s the most concise, accurate description of the Seahawks I’ve ever heard.

sara.ziegler: What about the Eagles? Their goose is cooked in the wild-card race, but they still have a 37 percent chance to win the NFC East.

Salfino: Have the Eagles been beaten by flea flickers now two straight weeks? Has to be a record.

For all of Dallas’s problems, I just don’t see them losing this division to the Eagles. And Dallas’s remaining schedule isn’t exactly daunting.

sara.ziegler: Wait, Michael, you really believe in the Cowboys? Even with the play-calling choices in the game against New England?

Salfino: Well, the numbers are there for the Cowboys in the things that I think are most predictive of future wins: play success, passing success and net yards per attempt. But they have not beaten a quality team, which is very troubling. And we have to assume that the head coach is a big minus.

So I don’t know how to get my head around this team. If you believe in just the numbers, they should easily win the weak NFC East. But if you believe in coaching and intangibles, you have to expect them to struggle to beat anyone.

sara.ziegler: This was telling, I think:

Salfino: I think it’s fair to say that Jason Garrett hurt his team’s chances by not treating the third and 7 on that deep fourth-quarter drive as two-down territory. So it was not just the kick on fourth down that killed them but also the call on third down, where maybe they run if they have a four-down mentality. You can’t go from needing a touchdown to win to … needing a touchdown to win.

How Week 16′s Eagles-Cowboys game swings the playoff odds

Playoff odds if …
Team Eagles win Cowboys win
Eagles 66.4% 4.1%
Cowboys 36.0 96.4

Odds are conditional only on Week 16′s game.

neil: Here’s a fun set of contingencies for that Week 16 Eagles-Cowboys game — playoff odds according to Elo:

joshua.hermsmeyer: Wow. That would be a good time for the Cowboys to win their first big game.

neil: It’s basically a win-and-you’re-in for Dallas and do-or-die for Philly. But Philly isn’t quite in (and Dallas isn’t quite out) even if the Eagles do win.

Philly can’t feel good after these back-to-back home losses, especially with Carson Wentz playing so poorly.

joshua.hermsmeyer: The Eagles lack weapons in the passing game with all the injuries, but Wentz hasn’t exactly elevated the play of those around him. I’m still not really sure what he is. Is he a top-10 QB?

neil: Elo ranks him 17th — one spot ahead of … Jimmy G. LOL

joshua.hermsmeyer: LOL

Salfino: Wentz does not seem wired to take the positive play. He’s too much of a gunslinger when he’s on the most slow-footed offensive team I can remember. So how can he expect plays to be open downfield?

Great QBs — like we once thought Wentz was — can carry an average at best unit or at least make a poor one average. He’s not lifting the offense at all this year. He’s even holding it back.

neil: Only four QBs have been worse by yards per attempt than Wentz this year:

Ryan Fitzpatrick, Danny Dimes, Mason Rudolph and Mitchell Trubisky.

joshua.hermsmeyer: Whew

sara.ziegler: Ooof

Salfino: I just think the Eagles are mentally beaten already. The fans are booing the QB. The defense has given up 17 points in two straight weeks to the Patriots and Seahawks, and the team wasn’t really even in either game.

neil: I will say this, and we talk about it every week, but they have played a string of really tough games — six straight with an above-average Elo, going back to early November. They ought to look better against Miami, Washington and the Giants in the next few weeks. (Then again, they ought to have looked better against Seattle at home.)

joshua.hermsmeyer: Oh no, Carson:

neil: That seems right.

sara.ziegler: Yikes.

Salfino: The problem with this stat is that if guys are not open, you can’t throw a pass “on target” unless you want to risk a pick.

joshua.hermsmeyer: I agree, it doesn’t tell the whole story. But still.

Salfino: But Wentz missed an uncovered Miles Sanders on an easy flare near the goal line, and he threw the ball like crap most of the day.

neil: That was one of the worst overthrows on an easy pass I’ve ever seen, Mike.

Salfino: I do think Wentz’s problem is not taking shorter throws for positive yardage when they are there and, like Hank Stram used to say, matriculating the ball down the field. This is not a big-play offense without DeSean Jackson, and we know how vital Jackson could be to their passing success.

joshua.hermsmeyer: Dwayne Haskins had a couple pretty hideous misses yesterday as well. Then he was too busy taking selfies with fans to come out for the victory formation.

But I’m still rooting for him.

neil: Haskins’s new theme:

joshua.hermsmeyer: ded

Check out our latest NFL predictions.

Which Of The NFL’s Top Teams Are For Real?

sara.ziegler (Sara Ziegler, sports editor): Week 7 of the NFL season is just about wrapped up, and we’re starting to see some teams separate themselves from the rest of the league. So this week, I want to talk about the current crop of top squads.

We currently have nine teams with at least five wins: New England, Buffalo, Baltimore and Kansas City in the AFC, Green Bay, Minnesota, New Orleans, San Francisco and Seattle in the NFC. The Patriots and Niners are undefeated, with the Pats yet to play this week at the moment. Are those two the best of the best right now?

joshua.hermsmeyer (Josh Hermsmeyer, NFL analyst): Not if you believe, as I do, that the best way to forecast a team’s future performance is its early-down offense. The only problem is that the No. 1 team by that measure — the Chiefs — just lost their MVP quarterback.

neil (Neil Paine, senior sportswriter): We still list the Pats as our top Super Bowl contender — what else is new? — at 26 percent to win it all. Our model has been a little slower to accept San Francisco (8 percent) as a true top contender. Maybe it’s because the 49ers have still really only played one opponent considered to be a top team — the Rams.

The rest of the Niners’ victims are pretty unimpressive: Tampa Bay, Cincinnati, Pittsburgh, Cleveland and Washington.

Salfino (Michael Salfino, FiveThirtyEight contributor): For sure, the Patriots and Niners are the likely No. 1 seeds. Both are firmly in control of their divisions. If I were to pick two other teams that are good bets to win the Super Bowl, or are at least in the conversation, it would be two NFC teams, though — Minnesota and New Orleans. Whichever gets the first-round bye is going to have a big edge. This assumes a healthy Drew Brees, of course, because let’s face it: Teddy Bridgewater just happens to be winning these games.

sara.ziegler: The Saints have to be thrilled with how well they’ve played without Brees, though — and last week without Alvin Kamara.

neil: Yes, I believe we (and everyone else) said that if Bridgewater could just keep them from sinking too far, or just keep them around .500, they could survive. Instead, they’ve been undefeated with him at starter.

Salfino: The Saints are like those old Patriots Super Bowl winners, pre-2007: just solid in every area. The only question is whether Brees can play near-peak form if needed in the postseason. Maybe the time off helps him maintain his play through the finish line.

Kamara is a generational talent, Josh.

joshua.hermsmeyer: * Chase Edmonds

sara.ziegler: * Latavius Murray

Salfino: We have to get Sara to talk about the Vikings, who are, I swear, legit Super Bowl contenders.

sara.ziegler: Mike.

No.

joshua.hermsmeyer: Agreed!

neil: Every week we do this.

sara.ziegler: They’re not.

neil: Cousins was great for a third straight week.

sara.ziegler: You guys.

Salfino: Captain Kirk is the first QB ever with three straight 300-yard passing games with a completion percentage of 75 and a passer rating over 130.

joshua.hermsmeyer: The Vikings are No. 3 in early-down offensive expected points added per play among teams with at least five wins, and they’re extremely well-balanced overall. I think they’re legit. Kirk can win them games.

They have to hope Thielen is OK, though.

sara.ziegler: Sigh.

Salfino: Cousins has made Mike Zimmer believe again in the forward pass, so, progress.

sara.ziegler: I think it was opposing defenses that did that.

Salfino: I worry, though, that Thielen will be out a month with his hamstring injury.

neil: Yeah, that’s a problem.

sara.ziegler: Though Bisi Johnson came out of nowhere to be a decent No. 2 wide receiver, behind Stefon Diggs.

Salfino: What a soft sell on Cousins by Sara. We’re all going to chip in and buy you the Cousins jersey.

sara.ziegler: I will not wear that.

LOL

Salfino: Revenge game on Thursday for Case Keenum.

sara.ziegler: What about the actual leader in the NFC North, Green Bay?

neil: Aaron Rodgers is ELITE again!

(We actually do rank him third among current starters in QB Elo.)

joshua.hermsmeyer: A-aron will win the MVP on the strength of one game — you know this is true.

neil: I was surprised that he had the first perfect passer rating game in Packers history, given the QBs they’ve had over the years. (Now the Jaguars and Panthers are the only teams who have never had one.)

joshua.hermsmeyer: I will stan for Rodgers — you put up those performances against Oakland if you are elite. Also, the running game is third-worst in yards per rush on early downs among teams with five wins. (Patriots and Chiefs are lower.)

sara.ziegler: I’m a little confused about why our model rates the Vikings higher than the Packers.

Salfino: The Vikings are much better at winning the passing game.

neil: Part of it might be that the Packers were coming off such a down season last year, too. Easy to forget we’re not even halfway into the 2019 season yet, so there’s still some amount of 2018 baked into the ratings right now.

sara.ziegler: (The Vikings weren’t much better. 😞)

joshua.hermsmeyer: The Ravens look pretty amazing, and Lamar Jackson needs to be in the MVP conversation, I think.

sara.ziegler: I was super surprised by the second half of the Ravens-Seahawks game. Baltimore just ran away with it.

neil: Such an impressive win for Baltimore. Going into Seattle, slowing down Russell Wilson — who is having an MVP-type season himself.

Salfino: Lamar is definitely in the MVP conversation. His approach is not a sustainable model with all that running, but it’s working now. His passing since Week 1 — measured in pretty much every way — has been “meh.” But who cares when you’re rushing for close to 100 yards a game. It seems like we — meaning football Twitter — all hate the run game but LOVE when the QB runs.

neil: We all grew up playing Madden 2004 with Mike Vick.

Salfino: Pete Carroll hasn’t been able to stop a running QB since Vince Young in the National Championship Game.

joshua.hermsmeyer: The Seahawks deserved to lose a game that was close for long stretches just based on their decision-making. Carroll likes to talk about keeping games close, as if it builds character or calluses, but it’s more a function of their lack of aggression on fourth down and an inability to maximize win probability.

neil: The 2019 Seahawks are kind of the same story as it’s been the past few years: Wilson is amazing, but the supporting cast — including, against brand, the defense — is questionable.

Salfino: Nothing came easy for Wilson and the offense. That’s the way things used to be with him and Seattle, but this year, that seemed to have changed. They were getting easy plays in structure without Wilson having to play like his hair was on fire. I think Wilson has aged out of being able to succeed when playing in a generally chaotic state. He should only be sprinkling it in now.

sara.ziegler: The Ravens have had kind of a weird season — losing to the Browns and barely beating the Steelers and Bengals.

neil: That win over Arizona in Week 2 is looking better and better, though. 😉

sara.ziegler: Haha — true.

Salfino: I was shocked by how well Baltimore’s defense played. I thought they were just a name brand and had lost too many people. But Wink Martindale has coached this unit up and then some. They looked dominant on Sunday. I think that was the biggest story out of that game, not Lamar. They need to add an edge rusher at the trading deadline, though.

joshua.hermsmeyer: There are football narratives I don’t really buy, but having a QB who can punish a defense with deep passes really does open up an offense. When Lamar has his deep ball working, I think the Ravens are tough to beat. All that said, there were two fluky defensive scores Sunday, so we need to temper our expectations a bit for the Ravens’ offense.

neil: Marcus Peters wasn’t enough of an addition for you, Mike?

Salfino: That was good, but it’s not pass-rush. They seem to really struggle there. As for Lamar, what’s interesting to me is that the Chargers solved him in the playoffs by playing seven defensive backs on nearly all downs when they were forced to because of injuries, just a couple of weeks after getting gashed by the Ravens in the running game. I guess this is not repeatable for teams because they are not going to construct a roster with all those DBs just to beat the Ravens.

joshua.hermsmeyer: That same defense was exposed the very next week, though.

Salfino: It wasn’t exposed by the Ravens, though.

sara.ziegler: Wow, remember when the Chargers weren’t terrible?

neil: OMG the CHARGERS

How many ways can a team find to lose games?

joshua.hermsmeyer: It’s sad! The Chargers seem like they should be good, kind of like a slightly better version of the Falcons, and yet.

neil: The Chargers have been doing less with more for a long time, but my goodness that game Sunday.

Salfino: Bigger football crime: Chargers moving from San Diego or not using the Human Cheat Code Austin Ekeler on more snaps? Ekeler had 118 receiving yards on eight targets. At RB.

sara.ziegler: Back to teams that are not awful, the other five-win team in the AFC is Buffalo. What do you make of the Bills?

joshua.hermsmeyer: A fermenting dumpster waiting for a match. Of the teams with five wins, they’re the only one with negative offensive EPA per play. I’m absolutely convinced their success is a mirage.

neil: Their defense remains legit on the season (fifth in EPA), but it’s never great to give up 21 points — and a pretty good QB game — to Ryan Fitzpatrick and the Phins.

Salfino: Fitz gave that game away with a pick after a first and goal inside the 5-yard line. A touchdown there would have made it 21-9 and “Murder She Wrote” for the Bills. But then, Josh Allen took them 98 yards for the 14-point swing.

neil: Yeah, that was a huge drive for Allen.

Salfino: Remember, the Jets would have beaten the Bills in Week 1 if Sam Darnold hadn’t been half-dead.

sara.ziegler: Yeah, that’s the only reason the Jets didn’t beat the Bills.

Salfino: “Spleen Talk,” Episode Six.

sara.ziegler: Hahahaha

neil: Can’t we talk about other organs for a change???

joshua.hermsmeyer: 🤐

neil: I will say this, Tre’Davious White is amazing. He made one of the INTs of the year.

joshua.hermsmeyer: Mike, I saw you tweet something about Jimmy Garoppolo not being able to hold onto the ball in the rain. I haven’t watched the full game yet — what was going on?

Salfino: He simply could not throw a spiral. It was bizarre.

The thing is, January is the rainy season in San Francisco. At least, it used to be.

sara.ziegler: When the field looks like this, you’ll take anything you can get, right?

joshua.hermsmeyer: Was Keenum any better? My prior right now is that Jimmy G is average at best.

Salfino: I was only paying attention to that screen when the Niners had the ball.

neil: I’ll give Jimmy G a pass for the conditions yesterday. But I keep waiting for one of two things to happen:

  1. a) Niners stop winning
  2. b) Jimmy G puts up a great stat game

Neither has happened!

joshua.hermsmeyer: LOL

Salfino: Jimmy G is like Teddy B.

neil: In our Elo QB ratings, Garoppolo has had a below-average start (adjusted for opposing defense) five times in six games this year.

The only good one was against Cincy.

Salfino: The Niners and Garoppolo seriously remind me of those early 2000s Patriots teams. They also spread the ball around, lack fantasy significance, are very well-coached and crush the opposing passing games. And they have a QB who is not lighting up the stat sheet but manages the game (pre-2007 Brady).

joshua.hermsmeyer: Interesting comp. Is 49ers head coach Kyle Shanahan up to the Bill Belichick comparison though?

neil: I look forward to Jimmy G’s stats finally taking off when they trade a fourth-round pick for Randy Moss Jr.

Salfino: How about A.J. Green?

neil: Haha. Green certainly deserves better than the Bengals.

Lowkey, they — and NOT the Dolphins — are last in our Elo rankings!

sara.ziegler: Ooof, Neil.

neil: Reminds me of how we all assumed that the Orioles would be the worst team in baseball, and the Tigers were like, hold my beer.

sara.ziegler: So, you guys bring up an interesting point: Which players out there would make these top-tier teams better?

Salfino: Teams that should go all in are the ones we started with, IMO.

The NFC is so strong that one trade can tip the balance between the 49ers, Saints and Vikings. (Notice I did not say the Rams, who already made their trade.)

joshua.hermsmeyer: The Niners should trade for Broncos fullback Andy Janovich to save their season.

Salfino: In the AFC, the team that’s screaming out for a trade is the Ravens. I would add Vic Beasley from the Falcons. A pure edge rusher.

neil: Seems like there are a ton of WRs potentially on the trade block.

sara.ziegler: NOT DIGGS, THO

neil: Well, beyond just Green, also Emmanuel Sanders, Mohamed Sanu, etc.

Maybe even Robby Anderson?!

Salfino: Julio Jones can’t be traded because of his contract. Of course, the Patriots desperately need a WR. They can be in on Green, too. The Chargers can’t dump. Tampa Bay should trade Mike Evans, if the cap permits it. They don’t need two lead WRs, and they can get two first-round picks for him. I do think teams can do pretty much whatever they want with the cap, if they put the pain off until tomorrow.

neil: Would love to see the Patriots acquire yet another name-brand WR before season’s end. Just for their full list of receivers for the season to be even more bizarre.

Salfino: There just are not a lot of WRs out there on the bad teams. Allen Robinson? The Bears are going to keep lying to themselves that they’re fine.

joshua.hermsmeyer: I agree that Mitch Trubisky probably isn’t good, but he’s coming off an injury, so this week probably isn’t the best time to finally declare him a bust

Salfino: Marvin Jones to the Patriots for a first-round pick? Only the third player ever with two four-TD receiving games since 1950 (Rice and Sterling Sharpe).

sara.ziegler: The Vikings should trade away Kirk Cousins — like I did in fantasy football.

😉

neil: Hey wait, Sara! I got Cousins from you and was happy with him! LOL

(Also, my regular starter was on bye.)

Salfino: Wait a second! Sara traded Cousins to Neil? How am I just finding out about this?

sara.ziegler: It was a classic Cousins-for-Trubisky deal.

neil: I also got a Chipotle lunch out of it.

joshua.hermsmeyer: Jelly.

Salfino: Steal.

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Reports Of The Fullback’s Demise Have Been Greatly Exaggerated

There was a time when you couldn’t turn on an NFL game without hearing the announcers opine on fullbacks: goliaths of the gridiron who mowed down defenders. Backs like Bronko Nagurski and Larry Csonka played the position with such grit and ruggedness that they are remembered years after their final, bruising 3-yard runs.

Fullbacks are easy to root for. Their ability to both absorb and mete out punishment sometimes seems superhuman. When Csonka, the Miami Dolphins fullback, was inducted into the NFL Hall of Fame in 1987, his longtime head coach Don Shula gave perhaps the greatest and most apt description of a fullback ever uttered: “He was blood and guts. Dirt all over him. He had 12 broken noses.”

But despite enduring in the sport’s collective memory, the style of football that produced these bruisers was very much of a particular time and place. It’s no exaggeration to say that the modern NFL has all but abandoned the position. According to Over The Cap, a website that tracks player contracts, just 14 of the NFL’s 32 teams currently have a fullback signed to a multi-year deal, and the average yearly salary for the position is just $1.16 million. Philadelphia head coach Doug Pederson has admitted that the Eagles don’t invest resources in the position, and the data seems to suggest that much of the league agrees with their approach.

On the field, too, the second back has become an endangered species:

During the 2006 regular season, there were 13,157 total offensive snaps from formations with two running backs.1 By 2018, that number had plummeted to 3,714.

And fullbacks don’t have to look far for a villain to blame: pass-happy offenses. In a league increasingly focused on moving the ball through the air, it turned out that the fullback was the most obvious position to lose importance. Since every NFL offense has to include five linemen, who are ineligible receivers, and a quarterback, there are only so many ways you can mix and match the remaining five eligible players to meet your offensive goals. As NFL teams moved to formations with multiple receivers to support their passing attacks, it was inevitable that some position had to feel the pinch.

Yet, not everyone agrees that fullbacks are obsolete. In fact, some of the NFL’s best teams this season are featuring them. Through Week 6 of the 2019 season, there are six NFL teams who’ve run 100 or more offensive snaps with two backs on the field — and their combined record is an impressive 23-10-1. Even more interesting, the two teams that trot out fullbacks the most — the New England Patriots and San Francisco 49ers — are the only two undefeated teams left in the league.

New England and San Francisco play fullbacks the most

Teams by frequency of offensive snaps with two running backs

Rank Team Record Snaps Yds/ Play Yds/ Att. Yds/ Rush Success%*
1 New England 6-0 178 4.5 6.6 3.0 37.1%
2 San Francisco 5-0 139 7.4 11.8 5.7 54.0%
3 Minnesota 4-2 134 6.4 8.5 5.5 41.8%
4 Detroit 2-2-1 107 5.0 7.2 3.9 37.4%
5 Denver 2-4 106 5.6 7.7 4.2 44.3%
6 Baltimore 4-2 103 4.5 5.9 4.2 41.7%
7 New Orleans 5-1 87 5.7 7.8 4.4 41.4%
8 L.A. Chargers 2-4 79 4.9 8.0 3.0 40.5%
9 Oakland 3-2 74 5.4 9.4 4.2 50.0%
9 Green Bay 5-1 74 5.1 6.9 3.6 45.9%
11 Chicago 3-2 71 3.7 4.7 3.8 36.6%
12 Buffalo 4-1 70 4.2 6.1 3.2 44.3%
13 Carolina 4-2 62 5.5 7.8 4.5 35.5%
14 Atlanta 1-5 60 6.6 10.7 4.1 50.0%
15 N.Y. Giants 2-4 39 5.7 8.2 2.7 46.2%
16 N.Y. Jets 1-4 38 5.0 8.1 2.5 23.7%
17 Dallas 3-3 36 4.1 4.7 3.7 33.3%
18 Kansas City 4-2 29 4.0 8.1 2.2 44.8%
19 Miami 0-5 26 3.9 6.2 1.7 30.8%
20 Houston 4-2 24 2.9 5.0 2.1 37.5%
21 Seattle 5-1 17 1.8 20.0 1.3 35.3%
22 Arizona 2-3-1 16 10.6 15.4 6.0 62.5%
22 Tampa Bay 2-4 16 2.5 5.6 1.1 31.3%
24 Tennessee 2-4 12 1.8 1.6 3.3 41.7%
25 Cincinnati 0-6 9 1.6 5.2 2.0 44.4%
26 Indianapolis 3-2 8 3.0 7.0 0.6 37.5%
26 Washington 1-5 8 1.4 4.3 -0.4 37.5%
26 Philadelphia 3-3 8 2.8 11.5 1.4 37.5%
29 Pittsburgh 2-4 7 2.9 3.4 1.5 57.1%
30 Jacksonville 2-4 5 1.0 0.0 3.7 20.0%
31 Cleveland 2-4 2 10.5 0.0 21.0 50.0%
32 L.A. Rams 3-3 0 0.0 0.0

2019 totals through Week 6.

*Success rate is the share of plays with positive expected points added.

Source: ESPN Stats & Information Group

Before we get carried away, the Patriots probably can’t credit two-back sets with too much of their success. Their expected points added per play for the package is actually negative, and they’ve gained just 4.5 yards per play with a fullback on the field.

Still, four of the six teams to feature two-back formations extensively are generating positive EPA on those plays, and none more than Kyle Shanahan’s 49ers. The Niners have run plays with a fullback on 139 of 348 offensive snaps through five games in 2019, and they’re gaining about a quarter of a point per play.

Yet what’s surprising about the 49ers and the rest of the teams utilizing a fullback is that their offensive gains aren’t coming from the obvious play type: the run. Having an added blocker in the backfield hasn’t really made running the ball more effective. Instead, the most successful gains from the package have come from the pass plays when a fullback is present.

Even as the two-running-back personnel package has become more rare, passing from it has become increasingly effective. In all but three seasons2 from 2006-18 we can say with a high degree of confidence3 that passing with two backs was better than rushing with two backs, on average. All told, passing with a fullback on the field has been a winner.

The question is: Why?

The dominant narrative around two-running-back sets is that they benefit rushing, not passing. But there are at least a couple of reasonable explanations for passing’s surprising effectiveness, starting with former 49ers head coach Bill Walsh, who extolled the virtues of the fullback in the passing game nearly 40 years ago. He believed the fullback was the “critical part” of the 49ers passing attack because of the matchup difficulties the position presents. (A speedy, athletic fullback can be particularly hard for a middle linebacker to defend in space, but the defense has no choice but to send one out to counter the threat of the run he presents as an added blocker in the backfield.)

And while most teams still run more than they pass with a fullback in the game, there is some evidence that NFL coaches have taken Walsh’s ideas to heart. The gap between the frequency of rush and pass plays called in two-back groupings has narrowed slightly since 2006, and creative play-callers like Shanahan are lining up their top receiving weapons at the fullback with success. The play below from Week 6 shows 49ers tight end George Kittle lined up as the fullback in the offset I-formation. It ends with the Niners gaining 45 yards and setting up a first and goal.

Aside from the matchup difficulties a talented fullback presents, deception is another likely explanation for passing success out of two-back personnel. When teams bring out a fullback, the defense is strongly incentivized to stack the box and defend the run, leaving parts of the field vulnerable to attack with the pass. On the pass to Kittle, the play design called for him to sell to the middle linebacker that he was going to lead block. Kittle does a good job fooling No. 51 Troy Reeder, and then he breaks across the field — away from the linebacker — and is wide open for a big gain.

Still, if deception is so effective, why don’t more teams do it? One explanation is the negative perception it appears to have around the league. Recently, former Ravens linebacker Ray Lewis was asked for his thoughts on the decline of the fullback. Lewis lamented that defenses resort to trickery to win, and appeared to long for simpler times when the physicality of the game was paramount.

“The game is about men battling men … that’s what the game was. The game was not tricks. Now we tricky. Now everybody’s smart,” Lewis said.

Teams might prefer to win by lining up and punching the other guy in the mouth, but the data supports Walsh’s view of the world. Given the precedent set by Walsh in San Francisco, there’s a certain symmetry to Shanahan and the Niners leading a mini fullback-resurgence, but it’s not just vapid nostalgia. When you combine a consistent matchup advantage with deception, you probably have a recipe for success in the NFL. As a potent passing weapon, perhaps the fullback is back to stay.

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