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Are We Sold On The Steelers, Seahawks And Other Would-Be Super Bowl Contenders?

sara.ziegler (Sara Ziegler, sports editor): The FiveThirtyEight model is in overdrive. Will the red team win it all again? Can a blue team recapture glory? There were strong results Sunday in Pennsylvania and Florida but more troubling indicators in Wisconsin and Michigan. And Arizona just took the week off.

Oh, right — this is football, not politics. Week 8 may prove to be a tipping point for the NFL’s Super Bowl hopefuls, but we won’t know for sure until long after the presidential votes are counted. (Uh, we hope.)

Two of those hopefuls — the Pittsburgh Steelers and Seattle Seahawks — got big wins Sunday in divisional matchups, and they now find themselves in the top four of our Super Bowl odds. Let’s start with the Steelers: Are any of you more convinced of their strength after their win over Baltimore?

joshua.hermsmeyer (Josh Hermsmeyer, NFL analyst): The Steelers are the Pennsylvania of NFL teams. They could go either way, depending on the ground game. They barely beat the Ravens despite Lamar Jackson finishing the week ranked dead last in QBR, and the Ravens still had a chance on the final play of the game.

Salfino (Michael Salfino, FiveThirtyEight contributor): If you could put those teams together, you’d have a legitimate Super Bowl favorite. Despite blitzing Jimmy Garoppolo into oblivion (and into the medical tent), the Seahawks have massive pass-defense problems. And the Steelers have a defense that can pass for a Steel Curtain in today’s defensive-starved game, but they are saddled with a pop-gun passing game and a QB who no longer hangs in for the big play.

neil (Neil Paine, senior sportswriter): Yeah, I still don’t think Pittsburgh is especially dominant by 7-0 team standards. Since 1970, 39 teams have started 7-0. By Elo, the 2020 Steelers are 35th best through seven games.

Among 7-0 teams, the Steelers are just ‘meh’

Highest Elo ratings through the first seven games for teams that started an NFL season 7-0, 1970-2020

Year Team Elo Year Team Elo
1 2007 IND 1757 21 1975 MIN 1676
2 2007 NE 1756 22 1983 DAL 1674
3 2015 NE 1750 23 1985 CHI 1673
4 1990 SF 1747 24 2012 ATL 1666
5 1998 DEN 1736 25 2015 CIN 1666
6 2011 GB 1735 26 1990 NYG 1659
7 2019 NE 1720 27 1998 MIN 1659
8 1984 MIA 1711 28 1973 MIN 1657
9 2005 IND 1707 29 1985 LAR 1651
10 2006 IND 1705 30 2008 TEN 1650
11 2009 IND 1703 31 1991 NO 1647
12 1978 LAR 1699 32 2018 LAR 1647
13 2015 DEN 1698 33 2003 KC 1645
14 1978 PIT 1691 34 2006 CHI 1640
15 1991 WSH 1690 35 2020 PIT 1635
16 1972 MIA 1689 36 2015 CAR 1632
17 2004 PHI 1688 37 2019 SF 1611
18 1977 DAL 1682 38 1974 ARI 1587
19 2009 NO 1681 39 2013 KC 1516
20 2000 MIN 1681

Source: ESPN Stats & Information Group

Salfino: I can see a little of the 1990 Giants in the 2020 Steelers.

neil: The Steelers beat the Ravens mainly because of turnovers. They were +3 there, but they lost the yardage battle by 236 — and like Josh said, they still only barely won.

Salfino: They seem to have Lamar Jackson’s number.

joshua.hermsmeyer: Russell Wilson and the ’Hawks have a much sturdier claim to being a contender. Since he’s been the starter, the Seahawks are 52-16 at home. Home-field advantage, even in the COVID-19 era, may end up being important for them if they do make a deep playoff run.

sara.ziegler: Right, and though the Niners showed some signs of life late, that game was never really in doubt — and now Russ & Co. have a game on everyone else in the stacked NFC West (with Jared Goff and the Rams also losing). Did Sunday’s game change any of your minds about Seattle?

neil: idk if my mind changed here — we knew this already — but Russ continues to be amazing. He has 26 TD passes already!

Russell Wilson is enjoying a historic first half

Most touchdown passes by a quarterback in their team’s first seven games of a season, 1950-2020

Player Season Team Att. Cmp% Yds TD Int QB Rtg
Tom Brady 2007 NE 229 73.8% 2,125 27 2 137.9
Russell Wilson 2020 SEA 256 71.5 2,151 26 6 120.8
Peyton Manning 2013 DEN 289 71.6 2,565 25 3 123.3
Patrick Mahomes 2018 KC 251 64.9 2,223 22 5 114.0
Peyton Manning 2004 IND 240 65.0 2,161 22 4 117.4
Peyton Manning 2014 DEN 252 69.1 2,134 22 3 119.0
Brett Favre 1996 GB 240 57.9 1,787 21 5 101.9
Kurt Warner 1999 STL 208 70.7 1,859 21 3 125.9
Tom Brady 2015 NE 289 68.9 2,410 20 1 115.8
Drew Brees 2012 NO 315 59.7 2,310 20 8 93.0
D. Culpepper 2004 MIN 258 70.9 2,180 20 5 114.2
Daryle Lamonica 1969 OAK 238 52.1 1,662 20 12 81.6
Andrew Luck 2018 IND 311 65.3 1,948 20 8 93.3
Dan Marino 1984 MIA 211 67.3 2,074 20 4 122.8
Aaron Rodgers 2011 GB 239 71.6 2,372 20 3 125.7
Aaron Rodgers 2020 GB 249 65.9 1,948 20 2 113.0
Steve Young 1998 SF 270 61.1 2,249 20 5 104.7

Source: Pro-Football-Reference.com

That’s the second most by any QB through a team’s first seven games of a season since at least 1950.

Salfino: More Russ:

When you’re mentioned in the same sentence as Dave Krieg, you must be doing something right. 🙂

neil: LOL

I love Dave Krieg. One of my favorite VHS tapes growing up, “The NFL’s 100 Greatest Football Follies,” had a whole segment devoted to him being history’s most prolific fumbler.

Salfino: Krieg was the Fitz of his time.

joshua.hermsmeyer: I remember that tape!

Salfino: Do you think the blitzing can be something that carries over? Maybe mask a bad secondary with a pass rush, even if you have to cheat to get one? Analytics says this is the opposite of how you should defend the pass though, right?

joshua.hermsmeyer: Mike, I think if you decide the path to victory is pressure on the QB, you create that pressure however you can. Ideally you do it while also not putting your cornerbacks on islands and one-on-ones, but it can still work. I just think it’s not something you want to make a habit of.

neil: And that’s an interesting stat, Mike, because Garoppolo wasn’t especially bad against the blitz last season. He ranked 13th in QBR vs. the blitz in 2019.

But 2020 Jimmy G. seems to be … off. And hobbled.

Salfino: Maybe many things can work against Jimmy G. right now.

joshua.hermsmeyer: The Nick Mullens Question continues to linger. He looks … as good as Jimmy when Jimmy is healthy a lot of the time.

Salfino: I guess the theory would be that Jimmy G. can’t deal with pressure because he’s immobile due to the high ankle sprain, and he can’t beat you deep because he can’t push off his back leg. He’s one of those guys who has to be 100 percent to be viable — 75 percent of Garoppolo is a backup at best.

neil: The Niners are on track for one of those classic Super Bowl Loser’s Hangover/Curse seasons.

Lowest playoff odds of any team in that division!

Salfino: In fairness, they have been demolished by injuries, which is probably a big part of Super Bowl hangovers.

sara.ziegler: Their injuries certainly don’t help. It’s been kind of impressive to me that they’ve stayed competitive, given all the pieces they’re missing.

joshua.hermsmeyer: Agreed, Sara. It’s a credit to Kyle Shanahan and his offensive creativity. But I saw someone say recently that the league should be glad that two of the top young offensive minds in the league are saddled with QBs named Goff and Garoppolo.

Salfino: And now George Kittle is back in MRI land.

sara.ziegler: So then, there are four teams in our model with title odds of at least 12 percent: the Chiefs (24 percent), Steelers (14 percent), Buccaneers (12 percent) and Seahawks (12 percent). Do those odds seem right to you all? Would anyone take a team not in the top four at this moment?

Salfino: I think given the weakness of that group and the lack of a team that’s clearly solid on both sides of the ball (or at least doesn’t have a 43-year-old QB), I’d have to take the field. But one team? No idea.

neil: Yeah, the teams not in that group all have some pretty big flaws, too.

Maybe the Ravens if they can get Lamar back on track?

Salfino: I hate saying that the Bucs are the most balanced team because I cannot take another Tom Brady narrative. But it’s true.

joshua.hermsmeyer: I would not count out the Packers, given how Aaron Rodgers has played to date. And while I would like to say Baltimore is still a contender, the loss of Ronnie Stanley for the year, the news today about Marlon Humphrey testing positive for COVID-19 and the recent play of Jackson makes me think it’s a long shot.

neil: Awful news for Stanley. Right after signing that big extension, too.

Salfino: That Stanley injury is so bad. He was their second-most valuable player.

sara.ziegler: Those kinds of injuries don’t get as much press, but man, they can really hurt a team.

I also think the Packers are going to contend, though I’m less sure of that after Sunday’s game. (Though the conditions were bad and Dalvin Cook was good.)

Salfino: Look at Sara soft-selling the Vikings, the most shocking performance of Week 8 (in a good way).

neil: The Vikings may have exposed some big issues with the Packers’ defense. They were really not good Sunday. (No offense to Cook and the Vikes.)

sara.ziegler: The Vikings and Packers combined for five total possessions in the first half, and the fifth one was with just 25 seconds left before halftime. That was a weird-ass game.

Salfino: No one who played Cook in fantasy on Sunday will forget that game.

neil: Cook reminded me of the NFC championship game last year, with Raheem Mostert and the Niners just running all over the Packers D.

joshua.hermsmeyer: Time to write the “Don’t Tell Dalvin Cook RBs Don’t Matter” piece.

sara.ziegler: LOLOL

neil: Hey, I love a good excuse to extol the virtues of RBs.

sara.ziegler: The Packers defense had been pretty inconsistent against the run before that game, but the Vikings’ 173 total rushing yards were by far the most they’ve allowed. Maybe generational talents just take over sometimes.

Salfino: I know pass defense is more important, but it’s humiliating for a defense to get trucked like that by a back.

joshua.hermsmeyer: What’s odd is that games like this against the Vikings are ones where you’d still bet on a QB like Rodgers to bring the losing team back.

Salfino: Cook and Alvin Kamara are the only backs in the game today that seem to move the needle.

neil: Hey, it wasn’t Derrick Henry’s fault the Titans lost.

Salfino: Yeah, Henry. He’s so old school though. One dimensional.

neil: I thought Rodgers was going to do his traditional game-winning Hail Mary. But he got karate-chopped before he could get the pass off.

sara.ziegler: I’m not gonna lie: I took a screenshot of that moment.

joshua.hermsmeyer: Sara the Meme Lord.

neil: New desktop background.

And phone wallpaper.

And zoom background.

sara.ziegler: Zoom background!!!!!!!!!

neil: LOL

sara.ziegler: So we have mixed feelings about the Packers. What about … the Bears?

joshua.hermsmeyer: Come on.

neil: What about them? LOL.

sara.ziegler: Hahahaha

I’m sorry — I just wanted an excuse to bring up the amazing fight in the third quarter of that game.

neil: Never EVER touch a man’s mouthguard.

joshua.hermsmeyer: Apparently Aqib Talib’s move of poking the offensive player in the eye is still in use across the league. I think that’s what started the helmet punching extravaganza on the play prior to the fracas.

Salfino: Oh, that fight was awesome. I know we’re not supposed to say it. But no one is going to get hurt with a helmet on. It’s playground stuff.

sara.ziegler: Well, the guy punching a helmet might get hurt.

neil: Right, probably hurt his hand as much as anything.

Salfino: Exactly.

neil: The whole thing was an ugly mess in Chicago. And also there was a fight.

sara.ziegler: 🤣

Salfino: The Bears probably had their best game for actually looking like a quasi-playoff team, and they lost. I think they have really good receivers, and if they junked the running game, they could be a tough out given that their defense is stout.

Maybe I’m the last believer in Nick Foles. Not that he’s good, but that he can be good enough, sometimes.

neil: I, too, have been a Foles stan. But it’s getting harder to believe he is part of the solution for them. Not that Mitch Trubisky is, either.

joshua.hermsmeyer: I believe in Foles very much. I believe he’s below average. Strongly.

neil: We’ve said it before, but this is a Classic Bears team. The only shock Sunday was that their kicker made a kick (to force OT).

sara.ziegler: All right, I wanted to talk a little about some of the newest quarterbacks in the league, two of whom became starters on Sunday. Tua Tagovailoa made his starting debut for the Dolphins and walked away with a win; Joe Burrow led his Cincinnati Bengals to their second win of the season and their first over a team with a winning record in 15 games; Ben DiNucci started in relief of the many injured Cowboys QBs; and though the Los Angeles Chargers blew yet another double-digit lead, Justin Herbert has emerged as a potential star, throwing for 1,820 yards in six starts, with 15 touchdowns against five interceptions.

Which of the starting rookie quarterbacks has impressed you the most?

neil: It’s gotta be Herbert, although the Chargers continue to be Classic Chargers as well.

joshua.hermsmeyer: Herbert is the easy answer, but Burrow has quietly played high-level football.

neil: He was certainly very impressive Sunday!

Salfino: I’ve been saying since the first week in October that Herbert is the Dan Marino of this draft class. Nothing in Week 8 dissuaded me from that. But Burrow looks like he’s going to be a hit, too. His game is more limited though. So so is his upside.

Herbert is doing all of his history-making despite this:

neil: It’s cute how you included Ben DiNucci in there, btw, Sara.

sara.ziegler: 😉

joshua.hermsmeyer:

People forget the NFL is actually hard, sometimes.

sara.ziegler: I mean, he’s not wrong.

neil: Playing QB for the Cowboys is All-Madden difficulty.

Salfino: Were you guys surprised that Tua just could not get anything going? It was a tough opponent.

neil: Not really; rookies tend to struggle in their first start.

sara.ziegler: He also didn’t really need to do much, given Miami’s defensive scoring.

neil: But Miami is good! I’ve been telling y’all this. Its defense is legit.

joshua.hermsmeyer: I thought it might have just been FitzMagic.

neil: Brian Flores is already Bill Belichick’s most successful disciple.

Salfino: Flores has McVay’s number. Did you see that McVay apparently changed his plays to help Goff succeed against Flores where he failed so badly in the Super Bowl? It didn’t work.

neil: The turnovers helped. But their defense played 25.9 expected points added better than expected based on the Rams’ other games.

joshua.hermsmeyer: I will say I appreciate that the Dolphins are 29th in yards per rush allowed but 13th in net yards per pass attempt. They have the right priorities!

Salfino: So true, Josh. Such an obvious way to build a defense.

neil: All I know is that the Phins have the fifth-best Simple Rating in the league so far, per Pro-Football-Reference.com:

The Dolphins have played surprisingly well so far

Best NFL teams of 2020, according to Pro-Football-Reference.com’s Simple Rating System

Simple Rating
Team W L Tie Win% Off. Def. Overall
1 Tampa Bay Buccaneers 5 2 0 .714 +7.1 +5.7 +12.8
2 Kansas City Chiefs 7 1 0 .875 6.4 4.7 11.1
3 Baltimore Ravens 5 2 0 .714 3.6 6.4 10.0
4 Pittsburgh Steelers 7 0 0 .000 4.0 4.4 8.3
5 Miami Dolphins 4 3 0 .571 0.9 5.1 6.0
6 Seattle Seahawks 6 1 0 .857 9.0 -3.9 5.2
7 Green Bay Packers 5 2 0 .714 4.7 0.2 4.9
8 Arizona Cardinals 5 2 0 .714 1.8 2.5 4.3
9 New Orleans Saints 5 2 0 .714 5.4 -1.6 3.7
10 Indianapolis Colts 5 2 0 .714 0.9 2.8 3.7

The Simple Rating System adjusts each team’s points-per-game margin for the strength of its opponents.

Source: Pro-Football-Reference.com

sara.ziegler: So can they thread the needle of contending while breaking in a rookie quarterback?

Salfino: Well, if we’re expecting Tua to be a typical rookie QB, no. I don’t see the Dolphins being as strong everywhere else like, say, the 2009 Jets were with a typical rookie QB. And the Jets needed the Colts and Peyton Manning to lay down to even get into the playoffs.

joshua.hermsmeyer: Tua has 49ers great Jesse Sapolu in his corner, though:

neil: The Dolphins’ remaining schedule should at least be slightly easier than it has been so far. The bigger problem is that the Bills seem to be in command of that division now, with an 84 percent chance of winning. And the AFC wild-card battle is a tough numbers game.

Salfino: The Patriots, though, are clearly the third-best team in the division, and if the Jets weren’t in their division, they’d be fourth. They are officially in the Trevor Lawrence sweepstakes (though they won’t make it) and are a legit 2-5 team right now. Slow on defense. Slow on offense. No star power anywhere.

sara.ziegler: I was encouraged to see the Patriots show a little life against the Bills, though. Cam Newton looked better, at least.

neil: Yeah. They had a tying FG attempt all set up. And then … not.

Salfino: Maybe Cam is in fumble jail now. Belichick seemed pissed.

joshua.hermsmeyer: That win over New England snapped a seven-game losing streak to Belichick for the Bills. And it’s the first time since 2002 that the Patriots have lost four in a row.

Salfino: The Patriots’ dominance was historic: They were the only team since 2003 without a four-game losing streak.

sara.ziegler: Wow. The wonders of 2020 will never cease.

Check out our latest NFL predictions.

Sara Ziegler is the sports editor at FiveThirtyEight.

Neil Paine is a senior writer for FiveThirtyEight.

Josh Hermsmeyer is a football writer and analyst.

Michael Salfino is a freelance writer in New Jersey. His work can be found on The Athletic and the Wall Street Journal.

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