sara.ziegler (Sara Ziegler, sports editor): The chaos that is the 2021 NFL season continued in Week 12, with consistency as elusive as ever. Six teams that won their most recent game lost this week, while eight teams that lost their prior game turned things around with a win.
But two-thirds of the way through the season (aside from tonight’s Seattle-Washington affair), we’re at least closer to knowing who will make the playoffs, even if we’re still not sure who the good teams actually are. A few Week 12 matchups were real clunkers (Jets-Texans, anyone?), but other games were pitting actual playoff contenders against each other. Let’s talk about what we learned from those.
The matchup I was most excited for going into the weekend was Tampa Bay at Indianapolis. The Colts were on a three-game win streak that had been capped off with a 41-15 beatdown of Buffalo; the Buccaneers had lost two of their past three and looked a little out of sorts. Tampa Bay battled back a couple of times in this one and ended up winning it with 20 seconds left on one of Leonard Fournette’s three rushing touchdowns. Are the Bucs back?
neil (Neil Paine, senior sportswriter): I’m not totally sure. They were down big in that game, as you said, Sara, and had to stage a second-half comeback. It worked, but things still came down to the final drive. Tom Brady didn’t have his best game statistically, which has been true each of the past few games. And their defense gave up 31 (granted, to a team that just dropped 41 on Buffalo), dragging their points allowed per game to exactly league-average this year after it had been 3.1 points per game better than average during last year’s Super Bowl run.
Tampa’s strength last season was being the most well-rounded team in a field of contenders who were mostly one-dimensional. I don’t know if they’re quite as well-balanced this time.
Salfino (Michael Salfino, FiveThirtyEight contributor): I think the result of this game depends on what you think of the Colts. Turnovers are random; Indy was minus-3, and that was the ballgame. The Colts actually had a slight edge in yards per pass play and overall yards per play. It was at worst an even game. But if you think the Colts are a legit contender, it’s OK to play them even on the road.
joshua.hermsmeyer (Josh Hermsmeyer, NFL analyst): The Colts are an explosive team — they lead the league with 17 plays of 3 expected points added or more — so the Bucs beating them was impressive. I think Tampa Bay has the look of a Super Bowl champion.
Salfino: I’m shocked, Josh, that for all the criticism we hear and read about Tampa Bay’s pass defense (guilty), the Bucs are sixth in net yards allowed per pass play. Their pass defense has been basically just as good as their pass offense (which is seventh in offensive net yards per attempt). That is the Super Bowl formula.
joshua.hermsmeyer: Agreed, Mike. Best offense and seventh-best defense by expected points is the not-so-secret sauce.
Salfino: Plus they get a rousing halftime speech from … Leonard Four(TDs)nette?
sara.ziegler: I like the idea that a team of professional football players needs a rousing halftime speech to play like they care about winning the game.
neil: “Win one for Vita Vea’s lost tooth!”
sara.ziegler: Ew, yes.
joshua.hermsmeyer: Uncle Lenny apologized to fantasy players who had him on their team last week. He’s an elite leader who backs up his apologies with action. I’d run through a wall for him.
sara.ziegler: Five rushing touchdowns in that game! Running the ball is clearly back.
neil: But only one by Jonathan Taylor, who somehow carried just 16 times in a game where Indy led by 10 at halftime.
sara.ziegler: Carson Wentz or bust, baby.
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Salfino: It’s hard to run against the Bucs when Vea is in there. I think scoring 31 despite five turnovers validates the Colts’ strategy in this game, though through October, Taylor was criminally underused by Indianapolis.
neil: I always root for the RB who is on a tear, though, so it was sad to see Taylor not get more of a chance to rack up 100+ yards for the fourth straight game.
Salfino: I actually think that if the Colts can make the playoffs, they have a puncher’s chance to win the conference. That’s how unsteady the top of the AFC is.
sara.ziegler: The Colts could easily be the best AFC team to miss the playoffs — our model gives them just a 53 percent chance to make it, yet we have them as the fifth best team in the conference by Elo rating. That’s why I was impressed by this Tampa Bay win: Indianapolis seems unlucky but legit.
joshua.hermsmeyer: This was one of the Bucs’ only real tests left on the schedule. They play the Bills in a couple of weeks, but the rest is full of cupcakes. The Bucs have the Falcons, the Jets and Carolina (twice). They are a lock to lead the league in wins, IMO.
neil: IDK, the Cards and Packers might have something to say about that. (Both are sitting on nine wins and have low-ranked schedules left as well.)
joshua.hermsmeyer: Seems like the Packers and Cards have much stiffer tests ahead, Neil, but you could be right.
neil: According to home-field adjusted Elo, Green Bay has the second-easiest remaining average opponent, and Arizona has the eighth-easiest. The only game left where the Packers have less than a 75 percent chance of winning, for instance, is against Baltimore on Dec. 19.
sara.ziegler: And Green Bay is hitting the bye week at a perfect time, giving Aaron Rodgers’s toe — which we have all unfortunately seen now — a chance to heal.
Los Angeles, on the other hand, seems to be in real trouble. Matthew Stafford has thrown a pick-6 in three straight regular-season games — the first quarterback with that dubious distinction since Matt Schaub in 2013. What is going on there?
Salfino: Do we elevate the Packers or trash the Rams? It’s funny that since Josh surrendered on the Jared Goff/Stafford joke, Stafford has turned into Goff. It’s the reverse jinx — analytics!
joshua.hermsmeyer: Yeah, if the critique was that Stafford is an inconsistent star with high highs and low lows over his career, I took the L on him too quickly. But his stats were SO good!
Salfino: My three stats for the Rams: Starting with their Oct. 31 game against Houston, they have converted 30.6 percent of third downs and they’re 25th in offensive EPA (after ranking second in Weeks 1 through 7), and they’re 1-4 for the year against winning teams. Also, they’re 0-3 since this:
joshua.hermsmeyer: Les Snead must have been a terror, chewing on the coach and firing off angry texts threatening Sean McVay’s job to reporters that entire game.
Salfino: Do you guys think McVay is a fake sharp? He did go for it on fourth down in minus-territory, disastrously. I bet he doesn’t go on fourth down now the rest of the year.
joshua.hermsmeyer: I think McVay believes in the primacy of the play call above all else. Get to the right play at all costs, game management be damned. So when the play calls aren’t working, things really fall off the rails.
Salfino: When the Rams have to throw reactively instead of proactively, they can’t do it.
neil: They’re also another team whose defense isn’t as dominant as it was a year ago. After allowing 5.4 fewer points per game than the average team last season, they’re allowing 0.9 more than average this season, including this recent three-game stretch (which, granted, included a game against Rodgers) of allowing 32 points per game.
And again, that’s all after their splashy moves to go “all in.”
Salfino: But we should have expected defensive regression of this type, no? It’s the offense that’s culpable, for me.
neil: That’s Josh’s lesson that keeps recurring: Don’t count on dominant defense to stay that way!
sara.ziegler: For real.
I found this note from ESPN’s Stats & Information Group really interesting:
The way defenses have adjusted to some of the top quarterbacks this season is fascinating.
Salfino: I like that stat.
neil: It makes sense. Great QBs tend to feast on blitzes, right?
joshua.hermsmeyer: A former analytics staffer for the Eagles tweeted that when they scouted the Rams, they found that they became predictable in the second half of seasons. McVay didn’t adapt his offense as much as you might expect. I think that’s a pretty big indictment, if true.
neil: Particularly in a 17-game schedule.
sara.ziegler: More time to not adapt!
Salfino: That also puts McVay into the fake sharp category, for me. He’s the de facto offensive coordinator! He was given everything he wanted with the offense.
sara.ziegler: Let’s turn back to the AFC: The picture there has been murky all season, though it feels a little clearer now. The AFC North in particular has felt all over the place, and we had two intradivision matchups on Sunday. The Bengals beat the Steelers handily; the Ravens beat the Browns a little less handily. The two winning teams are in great shape for the postseason now. Are we buying Baltimore and Cincinnati?
joshua.hermsmeyer: Baltimore is not really a Super Bowl contender. They’re lucky to have as many wins as they do given their injuries and performance. Winning when your QB throws four (!) picks is incredibly fortunate. That said, I buy them much more than the Bengals.
neil: I kind of agree. I can’t feel very good about Baltimore after they were complicit in that awful, unwatchable Sunday night game.
sara.ziegler: It was so ugly.
neil: Did the teams agree before the game to turn the ball over every snap, or what?
joshua.hermsmeyer: It really was terrible.
Salfino: The Ravens won the type of game no team has ever won.
sara.ziegler: So that’s something!
neil: That’s the cherry on the top of this “Ravens really shouldn’t be winning this way” season for Baltimore.
Salfino: I’d favor Cincy over Baltimore on a neutral field tomorrow.
neil: I can’t argue much with that. Cincy has a +7.5 points-per-game differential, and Baltimore is only +2.1 despite having one extra win. The Ravens have vastly outperformed their expected winning percentage, and the only way you might favor them is if you give a lot of weight to preseason priors.
Salfino: And it’s Week 12.
sara.ziegler: With the caveat that the Chiefs were on a bye, the best team in the AFC on Sunday looked like … New England. We talked about the Patriots a couple of weeks ago, but I have to ask the question again: Do we believe in them?
Salfino: I hate asking, “Who have they beaten?” but the Titans skill players on Sunday were unknown to even the most degenerate fantasy players in September: RB — D’Onta Foreman, Dontrell Hilliard; WR — Nick Westbrook-Ikhine, Dez Fitzpatrick, Chester Rogers; TE — Anthony Firkser, Geoff Swaim.
joshua.hermsmeyer: I still do not buy the Patriots — at least not as a legit contender. They continue to get fortunate with fumble luck and are second in the league in turnover differential. The Titans ran the ball all over them — they had two 100-yard rushers! — and were missing both their starting receivers. And the Titans still kept it close at the half.
Salfino: The thing is though, Josh, there is no legit contender in the AFC, so doesn’t that make every playoff team legit?
joshua.hermsmeyer: I think there are a handful of AFC teams where, if they win the Super Bowl, you would shrug and say, “sure.” If the Patriots won, I think it would be downright shocking.
neil: I can’t believe I have to be the one every week banging the drum for the team with the +12.2 point-per-game differential to be a legit Super Bowl contender, smh.
Salfino: Yeah. Yards-per-play differential also says the Bills are legit, to be fair.
Losing Tre’Davious White is big for the Bills, though.
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neil: Even so, I am genuinely hyped up for Bills-Patriots next Monday. Mike thinks both teams are frauds, but I think we’ll learn a lot in that game!
Salfino: I like the Patriots if there is any inclement weather in that game. The Bills are a dome team.
joshua.hermsmeyer: LOL, Bills fans are gonna have a seizure when they read that.
Salfino: It’s true!
There are so many question marks with each of the AFC teams. I can’t decide if that’s frustrating or fun. We really don’t know how all of this is going to turn out!
Salfino: And the Raiders and the Broncos have life now in the West. I thought they were both nearly dead if not quite really most sincerely dead.
neil: Now every team in that division has a WINNING record.
sara.ziegler: Wild. Even the Jets got a win this weekend! Will wonders never cease?
(Not me baiting Mike at the end of the chat.)
neil: Zach Wilson rallied them from down double digits. We will look back on Sunday as the day everything changed.
joshua.hermsmeyer: Now there is a hot take from Neil.
neil: How do I signify sarcasm in slack again? LOL.
Salfino: Zach Wilson may be a bust already. Jets yards per game that Wilson started: 271; Jets yards per game started by other QBs: 436.
Even yesterday, one of those other QBs (Josh Johnson) ran into the end zone just as many times as Wilson did. (Yes, it was a 2-pointer, lol.)
joshua.hermsmeyer: I still fondly remember that one deep throw at the combine, though. He’ll always have Indianapolis in his underwear.
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