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At Least The Lions Tried

sara.ziegler (Sara Ziegler, sports editor): The Sunday of NFL Week 7 was dominated by blowouts. Sure, the soggy affair between the Colts and Niners was close until late, and the Falcons and Dolphins played a game that came down to the wire … but that was still a game between the Falcons and Dolphins.

To me, the most entertaining game among the Sunday slate was one in which the favored team still came out on top, and by a comfortable margin in the end, but the losing team made it plenty interesting by throwing every trick in the book at it. In their game against the Los Angeles Rams, the Detroit Lions followed up their opening touchdown drive with an onside kick that they recovered, then when that drive seemed to stop on a fourth-and-7 at midfield, they faked a punt and grabbed the first down. And that was just the first four minutes of the game! Detroit wasn’t done, using another fake punt successfully in the third quarter.

The Lions ultimately lost the game, but what did you guys think of coach Dan Campbell’s moves?

neil (Neil Paine, senior sportswriter): I wonder if he was channeling Jared Goff’s quest for vindication directly into the entire game plan.

joshua.hermsmeyer (Josh Hermsmeyer, NFL analyst): I thought Campbell’s moves were great — most of the time. He seemed to make the correct decisions until the Lions got a small lead, and then he passed on an opportunity to go for it on fourth-and-short. But the second fake punt on fourth-and-long later in the third that you referenced, Sara, kind of made up for it.

Salfino (Michael Salfino, FiveThirtyEight contributor): Campbell’s out there trying. His team is a dumpster fire. They may end up not winning a single game, but they are coming way closer to winning games against some quality opposition than they have any right to.

joshua.hermsmeyer: I thought Goff’s quote summed things up pretty well when asked about seeing his old teammates. “[It] was good. It was healthy. And then once the game started, it was very as usual. It really felt like any other game.” And for the Lions and Goff, it pretty much was — in terms of outcomes and turnovers. 

neil: Yeah, that part was sort of more of a media storyline than anything else. But it did feel like they really wanted to win just to prove something.

I can’t fully describe why, but this Lions team has become one of my favorite rooting interests to see on NFL RedZone each week. They have tried so incredibly hard, and, like you said, Mike, they’ve come closer to winning a lot of these games than a normal bad team would have.

sara.ziegler: I can’t get over the feeling that more teams should be doing what the Lions did. Why don’t we see more onside kicks? More fake punts!

joshua.hermsmeyer: I think the success rate on expected onside kicks is really, really low. But unexpected fake punts and onside kicks are a different animal. Timing is everything.

Salfino: What’s the threshold for doing that? They were such overwhelming underdogs — FiveThirtyEight gave them only an 8 percent chance to win — and there’s probably enough upside at that point. Is it worth playing that way when you have a 30 percent chance to win? Maybe it is. There’s obviously an extremely high variance on how those things turn out.

neil: You have to not worry about being run out of the stadium if they don’t work out.

Salfino: Plus the more you do it, the less likely it is to be successful. Team will just play safety on all kickoffs.

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neil: There is something to be said for making the opponent not take anything for granted against you, though.

The Lions are the “watch out, they’re a little crazy” team of the NFL this year.

sara.ziegler: LOL, I love that.

I think you made a key point there, Neil — you have to be playing to win, not just playing to be respectable.

neil: Weirdly, I think that approach has earned Campbell a lot more respect than you’d think for coaching an 0-7 team.

sara.ziegler: He’s a great role model for coaches on bad teams!

neil: Who knew that actually playing hard to win would earn you respect?

sara.ziegler: (Perhaps with the exception of calling out his quarterback last week.)

Salfino: I think calling out his QB won him even more locker room respect. There has to be accountability.

neil: Yeah. Although I felt bad for Goff because he has taken the L so much on the Matthew Stafford comparisons this whole year. If they had managed to hold that lead over the Rams, it would have made him far less of a punching bag. But that was always unlikely.

Salfino: Meanwhile, it was another game of 8.0+ yards per pass attempt for Stafford. And the Rams defense has given up yards but IMO has gotten unlucky on third downs. I don’t know what happened against Arizona, but the team seems elite to me. Cooper Kupp is just unreal right now. It’s like he’s The Invisible Man out there: Opposing defenses can’t seem to see him.

joshua.hermsmeyer: Stafford leads the NFL in Total QBR, and it’s not particularly close. He’s been outstanding. I think it’s time for me to take the L on him. The Rams will go as far as he’ll take them, and right now we think that’s a 10 percent shot at winning the Super Bowl.

sara.ziegler: Wowwww, Josh.

joshua.hermsmeyer: And he’s not even a runner, Sara!

Salfino: Stafford has only been sacked seven times. The Rams are +13 in sacks. Fans don’t talk about sacks enough — they’re really mini-turnovers — and the Rams are almost 3-to-1.

joshua.hermsmeyer: I’d honestly like the Rams to go back to some of their old tricks from when Goff was around with Stafford. I don’t think having a better QB means you have to stop smashing easy buttons. But you also can’t argue with their success.

sara.ziegler: So even though most of the other games were blowouts, there were still some very interesting outcomes. Let’s talk about the Tennessee Titans’ dismantling of the Kansas City Chiefs. We know this isn’t the same Chiefs team of the past couple of seasons, but still … I was not expecting that.

neil: According to Elo, that was the second-worst game of Patrick Mahomes’s career. No. 1 was last year’s Super Bowl against the Bucs.

Patrick Mahomes’s not-so-greatest hits

Worst starts of Patrick Mahomes’s NFL career according to FiveThirtyEight’s QB Elo values (relative to an average starter)

Date Opponent Game Result QB Elo vs. Avg.
2/7/2021 vs. Buccaneers* L, 9-31 -185.1
10/24/2021 at Titans L, 3-27 -176.8
10/25/2020 at Broncos W, 43-16 -107.1
12/31/2017 at Broncos W, 27-24 -37.1
12/27/2020 vs. Falcons W, 17-14 -32.4
12/29/2019 vs. Chargers W, 31-21 -27.4
12/13/2020 at Dolphins W, 33-27 -26.3
10/6/2019 vs. Colts L, 13-19 -22.2
10/11/2020 vs. Raiders L, 32-40 -11.5
12/1/2019 vs. Raiders W, 40-9 -4.6

*In Super Bowl.

joshua.hermsmeyer: And this was not the Bucs’ Super Bowl defense that played on Sunday. 

neil: LOL, nope.

joshua.hermsmeyer: The Titans are ranked 18th in ESPN’s Defensive Efficiency metric. 

Salfino: I’ve been comparing the Chiefs to Dan Marino’s Dolphins pretty much all year here, and now feel like I owe an apology to the Marino Dolphins. You know the Chiefs’ over/under for wins last week was still 11.5? The Chiefs could not win 12 games in the entire multiverse. They are a bad football team. They’re last or next to last in so many categories

Also, by the time the Chiefs were down 24-0, you know how many offensive plays they had run? Twelve!

sara.ziegler: Yikes.

neil: None of this stuff happens in a vacuum, but Mahomes’s QBR is also down 14 points from last year. Mahomes playing at vintage Mahomes level probably wouldn’t even be able to carry this defense to a title. But Mahomes not playing at that level has next to no chance.

joshua.hermsmeyer: They are playing like a bad football team. But they still have a 43 percent shot to make the playoffs, and I don’t think many teams would want to play them.

Salfino: I think they have a 0 percent chance to make the playoffs. The computer must still be working off of its preseason priors.

To Josh’s point, the opponents are not only not scared of the Chiefs now, they troll them! 

neil: Now, to play some devil’s advocate, the computer is working off of priors to keep us from overreacting. Are we overreacting to K.C.’s struggles right now?

Salfino: We’re underreacting.

neil: I’m honestly not sure.

sara.ziegler: LOL, why would we need something to keep us from overreacting????

neil: LOL. Overreacting never hurt nobody, never.

sara.ziegler: 🤣

I think it matters which teams the Chiefs have played and which teams they will still play.

neil: That’s a great point too, Sara. Their past Elo strength of schedule ranks seventh-hardest; their future SOS ranks 17th.

sara.ziegler: They have lost four games, all to very good teams. Or do you not believe in the Titans?

joshua.hermsmeyer: I’m buying the Titans being good more than the Chiefs being bad.

Salfino: What’s the slam dunk win on their remaining schedule? Giants at home. And …? 

neil: They’re still favored in seven of their remaining 10 games (per Elo). 

They’re 76 percent vs. the New York Giants; 76 percent at home vs. Denver; 70 percent at home vs. Pittsburgh; 65 percent at home vs. the Las Vegas Raiders, whom our model is not fully buying still.

Salfino: OK, I’m buying Denver as a slam dunk. And I can’t bang the table for the Steelers. Fine. But the Chiefs will finish with eight or nine wins, tops.

joshua.hermsmeyer: We have them projected to win nine games!

LOL

sara.ziegler: And that might still be enough for the playoffs!

The AFC is weird, man.

neil: ^^^ this

joshua.hermsmeyer: What’s wild is the top spot in the AFC is currently held by … the Cincinnati Bengals.

neil: Josh, that tells us all we need to know about how weird the AFC is.

sara.ziegler: Yeah, that was the other AFC shocker on Sunday. I’ve enjoyed the pluckiness of the Bengals, but they looked excellent against the Baltimore Ravens. What do you all make of that game?

neil: That was one I, uh, did not see coming.


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joshua.hermsmeyer: The Baltimore secondary looked lost too many times. I think defensive coordinator Wink Martindale needs to do a better job with what he’s got, and the Ravens need to tackle much, much better. 

Salfino: That betting line was a joke — it should have been Ravens -3, not -6.5. 

The Bengals hit on the QB and the WR two drafts in a row. But their defense is the real revelation. They generate pressure without blitzing. 

neil: Yes, the Bengals’ defense is looking quite legit — allowing the fifth-fewest points per game and fifth-fewest adjusted net yards per pass attempt

Salfino: Cincy has been good/great in point differential and net yards per attempt heading into the last two weeks and now are crushing those stats. 

joshua.hermsmeyer: On the other hand, maybe Joe Burrow to Ja’Marr Chase is going to be the next Montana to Rice?

Or maybe Burrow is the next Tom Brady?? 

sara.ziegler: 👀

neil: Burrow is 13th in QBR, and Cincy’s passing offense is 12th in SOS-adjusted EPA, so maybe we can cool it with the Brady stuff a little for now. Burrow has been good and the offense is above-average, on a team whose defense has been top-five.

sara.ziegler: If I can’t hyperbolically compare quarterbacks, then what am I even doing here?

neil: Then again, maybe Rex is onto something. At age 25, Burrow’s ANY/A+ index is 116.

Brady’s at 25 was 105.

Salfino: The Bengals are 31st in red-zone scoring attempts per game, but they haven’t needed more because of all those 30-plus-yard TDs from Chase. You can’t penalize them for long-distance TDs. I don’t think that’s a fluke — Chase owns that skill. 

neil: BTW, Chase is proof positive we should forever-retire the “he had a lot of drops in camp and preseason” narratives.

joshua.hermsmeyer: Drops takes are the WOAT.

Salfino: Yes. I thought he had the yips, being honest.

sara.ziegler: Ugh, how many fantasy owners didn’t pick him up because of that? Stupid preseason.

Salfino: Entering the 2021 NFL draft, he was rated by Pro Football Focus as the first consensus WR1 since Calvin Johnson. So score one for the scouts.

sara.ziegler: Just another wild day in the NFL!

Salfino: All I know is the Jets are going to be doormats for as long as they just accept an opponent cheap-shotting their QB right in front of their bench. Hands needed to be laid on No. 93.

joshua.hermsmeyer: Mike, advocating violence. Here we are, another moment in Jets fandom.

Salfino: This is football for 100 years, Josh. It’s a violent game. 

neil: Hahaha. Look, I get it. They thought the days of the Pats dropping 54 on them were over in the post-Brady era.

sara.ziegler: On Sunday, I learned that the Jets don’t have a real backup QB. Seems … less than ideal.

neil: They’re going to have to live with it for a bit.

Salfino: Not having a backup QB is like problem No. 64 with the Jets team, IMO, Sara.

sara.ziegler: LOL. The song remains the same.

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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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