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.
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.
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!
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!
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.
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.