sara.ziegler (Sara Ziegler, sports editor): It seems like each week of this NFL season has ended with more questions than answers, and Week 10 fit that bill. Tampa Bay looked like a shadow of its former self against a pretty uninspiring Washington Football Team; a Kansas City offense that had struggled against everyone suddenly couldn’t miss against Las Vegas; and no one wanted to win at all between Detroit and Pittsburgh.
But I want to start today with a team that I have largely ignored (aside from the early season struggles of its rookie quarterback), a team often overshadowed by the players who don’t play for it anymore. We need to talk about the New England Patriots.
The Patriots thoroughly dismantled the banged-up Cleveland Browns on Sunday and are riding a four-game win streak into a Thursday night matchup with Atlanta. New England has climbed to ninth in our Elo ratings, with a 74 percent chance of making the playoffs and a 4 percent chance of winning it all. Guys, are you buying this team?
Since losing that Tom Brady Reunion Bowl, New England is 5-1 with a points-per-game margin of +16.2.
joshua.hermsmeyer (Josh Hermsmeyer, NFL analyst): I am not buying Super Bowl contenders (4 percent seems right) and think 74 percent to make the playoffs might be a bit high. Mac Jones is the 18th-ranked quarterback by QBR among passer-rating-qualified QBs, and they are fourth in the league in third-down conversion rate, which tends to regress. They’re playing better than I expected going into the year with Jones though, so I don’t want to ruin the entire parade. New England fans have some hope AB (After Brady).
Salfino (Michael Salfino, FiveThirtyEight contributor): The Patriots seem random to me. The league-average yards per point is around 15, but New England’s is 11.3 over the past six weeks. Defensively the average is the same 15 and change, but the Pats are allowing a point every 19.2 yards. This kind of efficiency on both sides of the ball is unsustainable. And it’s rooted in third-down success: During their four-game winning streak, they’ve made 53.7 percent (league best) of their third-down tries and have allowed just 31.9 percent.
If you’re going to make me say fact or fluke, I have to say fluke.
neil: But Mike, to push back a little — isn’t an excellent yards-per-point margin a Bill Belichick/Pats hallmark?
Salfino: Absolutely, Neil. It was crazy how they consistently excelled in a stat that is supposed to be random. But they rarely put up numbers like this on both sides of the ball.
neil: True. But some of it does have to do with what they have always been great at and have gotten back to. They have the best average starting field position in the league (own 32.6 yard line), for instance, and they’re tied for fifth in turnover margin during the past six games. That feeds into the yards-per-point stuff.
Salfino: Well, the offensive and defensive efficiency stats (yards per point for and against) do put all the random things into one bucket and at least ask the question of whether they are collectively less random. So I agree that directionally the Patriots are probably going to remain good here. But this good? No way.
joshua.hermsmeyer: It’s interesting that because the Bills exist, the Patriots have just a 26 percent chance to win the division. My my, how the turntables.
Salfino: The Bills have some real questions and should not be basically 3-to-1 to beat the Patriots in the East.
neil: We should get a good sense for where the Pats are at in two weeks, when they host the Titans, who just can’t stop winning.
sara.ziegler: It’s still surprising to me how much the Pats are scoring, given how they started the season. I expected Jones to struggle out of the gate, but I didn’t expect him to now be leading the offense down the field this easily.
joshua.hermsmeyer: Yeah, Sara, he looked extremely comfy in the pocket on Sunday, and he looks like the best QB drafted in the first round just over halfway through the season.
Salfino: I thought Jones was fantastic in the first half of the Browns game and especially on this throw, which got my attention:
sara.ziegler: Given the bona fides of the other QBs, I don’t think any of us would have predicted this halfway through the season.
Salfino: My sense, Sara, is that in the preseason, the market was expecting Jones to be good but not for the others to be so bad. Jones has been much better in Year 1 than Justin Herbert in Year 2, if we’re being fair. And I had Herbert in the Hall of Fame!
Jones is the best rookie QB by miles but also has the best coaching by miles — and I do not think that’s a coincidence.
joshua.hermsmeyer: That’s a very fair point, Mike. I would certainly take Belichick over Urban Meyer, Matt Nagy or even Robert Saleh (since he’s shackled to the Jets front office).
neil: I agree with you, Mike, that the coaching really matters. One theme we keep coming back to on rookie QBs is that their situation matters a lot, and paradoxically that means higher drafted QBs are set up to struggle more than ones with less theoretical talent who were drafted lower, onto better teams.
Jones has less talent than Trevor Lawrence but is in a far better situation than Lawrence in every way. Hence, he does better as a rookie starter.
sara.ziegler: Do we think that will affect the development of each of those QBs? Will Lawrence’s talent catch up to his situation? (And, vice versa, will Jones just stay where he’s at?)
Salfino: It will absolutely impact the development of the other QBs. Bill Parcells told me four years ago that almost all draft busts are coaching and organizational failures, not player failures. This has stuck in my head.
joshua.hermsmeyer: The worst quarterback by QBR currently is Jared Goff, who is another shining example of coaching affecting QB play, so I think a lot will depend on if Jacksonville can run Meyer out of town after the season, Sara.
neil: Maybe you need to show these rookies what bad coaching looks like before giving them good coaching later. Makes them appreciate it more.
I like that.
Salfino: Meyer seems to want to run out of town. He’s like the dog where if you want to lose him, you just let him out of the house without a leash.
Let’s talk about another team that suddenly looks a lot better than it did a few weeks ago. The Kansas City offense played very well Sunday night in Las Vegas. Guys … are the Chiefs back?
neil: They certainly silenced the doubters some with that performance.
Salfino: I think the people who believe the Chiefs are back were just waiting for the Chiefs to flip the switch like they often have during the Patrick Mahomes era. But flipping the switch in a game that you came into playing great is a lot different than flipping it in the middle of a season when your offense has been mediocre-to-bad for so long.
The Chiefs defense has sort of flipped the script for weeks now. Perhaps the real headline out of that game is whether their defense has turned it around, not their offense (too soon to know).
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neil: And the Raiders were 5-3, though probably not as good as that record would indicate, so I don’t know their value as an elite measuring stick. But K.C. played great on both offense and — maybe even more refreshingly — defense in that game.
Salfino: And we have to address whether the Raiders are just an emotionally exhausted team that collapsed in a way we’ve been expecting since Jon Gruden was forced out. Never mind the other stuff that’s happened on top of that.
joshua.hermsmeyer: I’m sure there will be some who will point out that the Raiders are a single-high-safety team, and that if they did run a bunch of two-deep safeties — like the teams who have given K.C. trouble have — it would put Johnathan Abram in coverage, which is usually a bad idea.
sara.ziegler: Even when there’s a coverage blueprint, that doesn’t mean you can follow it!
neil: It’s funny, because Las Vegas was a matchup that did give K.C. trouble last year. They beat them in the first game, 40-32, and then played tight with them again in the second, losing only 35-31.
joshua.hermsmeyer: Ultimately, though, I think deep down everyone expected K.C. to be good, and that the slump wouldn’t last. And the Raiders were a great team to help bust out of it, for all the reasons mentioned.
neil: And most importantly, Travis Kelce has his swagger back:
joshua.hermsmeyer: Swag and facial hair go hand in hand. I blame Kelce shaving in the preseason for this midseason slump.
We give the Chiefs a 7 percent shot to win the Super Bowl, and the Titans over double that at 15 percent without Derrick Henry. I think over the coming weeks that SB probability will inch up and up.
Salfino: The Titans are very Patriots-like now. They’re also getting lucky, like with the BRUTAL pass interference that took a pick off the board and led to a TD:
That call was infuriating. If you miss a call, fine. But to see something that didn’t happen? No. Unacceptable.
The roughing call was the play of the game. Never mind the missed extra points.
neil: That’s an interesting comp, Mike. The Titans and Patriots are both teams that are doing better on offense than we’d expect from their relatively middling QB performances:
Salfino: Mike Vrabel is a great coach, but this Tennessee team isn't good. They're pulling game after game out of their you-know-what.
sara.ziegler: But isn't that what you do right now? You play the team in front of you, and you need the bounces to go your way. In a season like this, when there isn't a clear-cut best team, you'd rather win however you can, wouldn't you?
Salfino: Sure, Sara: Just win, baby. But is this predictive of future wins?
sara.ziegler: I guess my point is that with this crop of contenders, I'm not sure anything is all that predictive of future wins right now.
joshua.hermsmeyer: Sara, I think that's right. The Titans just keep winning, and Rex Ryan and others who pronounced their season dead are eating crow. No one has a high likelihood of winning the Super Bowl, so you take the good bounces when you get them after losing your starting running back.
Salfino: To me, that's the story right now. No team seems solidly set on a championship course. Look at the Bucs.
Forget the Super Bowl. Who is even the favorite in each conference? All these teams have major flaws.
neil: Predictive measures like Pro-Football-Reference.com’s Simple Rating System favor the Bills ... and the Cowboys. They’re the only two teams in double figures, and they’re by far the best in their respective conferences.
(Both teams also responded after laying major eggs last week.)
sara.ziegler: And do we like either of those teams, really? I'm honestly not sure.
Salfino: You can't lose to the Jaguars and be an overwhelming favorite for success. I can't get past it.
sara.ziegler: Yeah — that's for real, Mike.
Salfino: I buy the Cowboys more, but Mike McCarthy is actually the head coach, which we all want to forget.
And this week, Sara, the Ravens and then the Bucs were those teams that failed us. Every damn week there's another one.
neil: The great thing about the 17-game schedule is an even larger sample for parity to creep in over and make us question contenders.
joshua.hermsmeyer: Mike, someone said to me over the weekend that the Cowboys have to let McCarthy go if they want to keep Kellen Moore, and that there was precedent with Jason Garrett for such a move, and I had to agree.
Salfino: I think I said here weeks ago that if the Cowboys win the Super Bowl, McCarthy is definitely getting fired or moved out somehow.
neil: Wouldn't be the first time Dallas forced out a coach after winning a Super Bowl.
Salfino: For different reasons, but yes.
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sara.ziegler: Let's talk about McCarthy's old team for a second. Aaron Rodgers was back in action for the Packers after he received a fine for breaking COVID-19 protocols that was less than what Cowboys receiver CeeDee Lamb received for having an untucked jersey. Rodgers was perfectly fine in his return, but the real winner in that Packers-Seahawks game, to me anyway, was the Green Bay defense, which throttled Russell Wilson and the Seattle offense. A Rodgers-led offense with a high-quality defense seems … good?
neil: Despite what Pete Carroll says, I'm not totally convinced Russ was ready for that game.
Salfino: The Packers were sitting on 3 points for too much of that game for me to take their offense seriously. I don't think you can win a Super Bowl with one weapon in your passing game. But we'll see.
joshua.hermsmeyer: I think Wilson did Seattle a disservice by pushing to play. No one was gonna say no, and he was clearly not able to make intermediate throws with any real accuracy. He was being selfish in a way, despite all his good qualities. His personal drive cost the team.
neil: Totally agree.
(Although I'm not sure they could have won in Green Bay with Geno Smith, either. But maybe they don't get shut out — they averaged 20.3 points in Smith's three starts.)
Salfino: Agree. Wilson foreshadowed this with that ridiculous exhibition the first game he missed when, presumably for the Sunday Night cameras, he mimed a two-minute drill in the pregame. I'm sure his teammates rolled their eyes over that.
sara.ziegler: So you guys are not buying my belief in the Packer defense???
Salfino: I'm shocked they're doing this without Jaire Alexander, who's a great corner and their best defensive player. I guess I just don't believe in defense, period.
joshua.hermsmeyer: I think I believe more in the Vikings offense after they beat the Chargers, Sara!
Salfino: Yes! The Chargers are the new Chiefs.
neil: Remember the Chargers, guys?
Salfino: We hardly knew ye!
sara.ziegler: Remember when Mike said the Broncos would win the AFC West?
joshua.hermsmeyer: I ’member.
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Salfino: That looked OK last week! But yes, I got carried away.
sara.ziegler: If you can't overreact to the first few weeks of the season, what can you do?
Salfino: The point is, the AFC West stinks and someone can steal it. That has held up.
sara.ziegler: And if the thieves are the Chiefs ... that's pretty hilarious.
neil: Hey, every team in that division is still .500 or better. (How is that possible?)
The Broncos and Raiders are the most "how are they .500" teams in the league.
joshua.hermsmeyer: The NFC North leers at Mike from the corner.
Salfino: I mean that there is no strong team, IMO. The North has the Packers.
sara.ziegler: I can't wait to find out which weird game undermines all of our assumptions this week!
joshua.hermsmeyer: I'm hoping the 49ers beat the Rams tonight so we can burn everything right to the ground.
sara.ziegler: Feels like that one's a lock.
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