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Deshaun Watson And Lamar Jackson Were College Rivals. Now They’re Taking It To The Pros.

These days, Lamar Jackson and Deshaun Watson are widely known as two of the NFL’s best quarterbacks. But back in college, they were linked through the 2016 Heisman Trophy race — in which the pair finished 1-2 in the voting results. Jackson took home the hardware, though Watson expressed his disagreement with that result at the time.

“I’m the best player in the country,” Watson said a week after the Heisman ceremony. “That’s how I think. That’s how I feel.”

Watson backed up his talk in his college finale by leading Clemson to a historic championship-game upset of an Alabama team that was one of the best ever, while Jackson lost his final two bowl appearances. But plenty also has gone down in the years since — including each QB going in the first round of the NFL Draft, Watson’s injury comeback with the Texans and Jackson’s rapid development with the Ravens in this, his second pro campaign.

This week, the rivals will meet again on the field, with each mounting his own MVP campaign. So who has the better case this time around … and why?

There’s no doubt that both QBs are near the top of the NFL’s pecking order right now. According to our QB Elo ratings, which judge signal-callers based on a rolling average of their (schedule-adjusted) passing and rushing performances, Watson is the second-best quarterback in the league behind only Kansas City’s Patrick Mahomes, while Jackson slides in at fourth behind Dallas’s Dak Prescott:

Watson vs. Jackson is an elite showdown

Current NFL quarterback rankings according to FiveThirtyEight’s QB Elo ratings, through Nov. 11, 2019

2019 Season
Rank Quarterback Team Starts Avg Start* Elo Rating (vs. Avg)
1 Patrick Mahomes KC 8 +144 +101
2 Deshaun Watson HOU 9 +99 +78
3 Dak Prescott DAL 9 +118 +73
4 Lamar Jackson BAL 9 +135 +70
5 Russell Wilson SEA 10 +101 +67
6 Matt Ryan ATL 8 +58 +56
7 Aaron Rodgers GB 10 +55 +47
8 Tom Brady NE 9 +51 +45
9 Drew Brees NO 4 +20 +45
10 Kirk Cousins MIN 10 +41 +41

*Average game-by-game QB Elo performance, relative to the NFL average for starting quarterbacks.

Source: ESPN

Watson’s higher rating is due in large part to his play in the first half of the year — but also because he went into the season with one of the top QB Elo ratings. (He was mashed between Tom Brady and Carson Wentz in last year’s final rankings, which mostly carry over to the following season.) Watson has been doing this for a while, ever since he exploded onto the scene as a rookie in 2017 with the fifth-best stretch of six starts to begin a career by any QB since 1950.1

As for Jackson, his average per-start Elo performance actually has been better than Watson’s (or anyone not named “Mahomes”) so far this season, even though he is slightly behind Watson rating-wise. That’s because Jackson started the season with an extremely low rating — 40 Elo points below average — which ranked 29th out of 32 opening-day starting QBs. Jackson has thoroughly exceeded those expectations, though. His 2019 ranks as one of the most improved first halves to a season by any QB since 1950, according to Elo:

Lamar Jackson is one of the most improved QBs ever

Biggest improvement in QB Elo (vs. league average) by starting quarterbacks in the first nine games of a season, 1950-2019

QB Elo vs. Avg.
Season Quarterback Team Preseason Thru 9 Starts Change
1999 Kurt Warner STL -87 +54 +142
2018 Patrick Mahomes KC -49 +82 +131
1962 Len Dawson KC -76 +54 +130
2007 Tom Brady NE +40 +167 +127
1971 Roger Staubach DAL -43 +76 +120
2016 Dak Prescott DAL -96 +22 +118
2007 Derek Anderson CLE -94 +23 +117
2017 Jared Goff LAR -124 -10 +115
1993 Boomer Esiason NYJ -70 +43 +113
2019 Lamar Jackson BAL -40 +70 +111

Sources: ESPN,

Because of Watson’s ongoing greatness and Jackson’s rapid improvement, the two QBs are essentially playing at the same high level — just in time to face off in the best QB showdown of the week, if not the entire season.2

When we broke down the original Watson-vs.-Jackson Heisman debate, we concluded that the difference between the two largely came down to a matter of preference: Do you want the more consistent passer (Watson), or the more threatening runner (Jackson)? Perhaps unsurprisingly, the same has held true in this year’s comparison.

According to ESPN’s Total Quarterback Rating data, Watson ranks second behind Seattle’s Russell Wilson in pure passing expected points added (EPA) this season, while Jackson ranks a more modest 15th out of 32 qualified QBs. Watson has the superior completion percentage relative to expectation (per NFL Next Gen Stats), the better completion percentage into “tight windows” of coverage, the lower rate of off-target throws and a slightly lower rate of interceptions as well. While Jackson is averaging slightly more air yards per throw, the metrics generally suggest that Watson remains the more sophisticated passer at this stage.

The tale of the elite quarterback tape

2019 NFL ranks in various quarterback categories for Deshaun Watson and Lamar Jackson

NFL Ranks
Player Pass EPA Air Yds/Pass On Target% Comp% vs Exp. Tight Comp% Sack% Rush EPA
Watson 2nd 10th 9th 8th 4th 20th 2nd
Jackson 15th 8th 19th 13th 20th 18th 1st

Ranks are among qualified passers — those with at least 14 pass attempts per team game.

Source: ESPN Stats & Information Group

But at the same time, Jackson has essentially made up the difference with his rushing ability, leading all QBs in EPA on the ground with 60 percent more value added than Watson, the next-highest ranked rushing QB. That’s why Jackson has a slightly better Total QBR than Watson so far this season, despite the latter’s edge in passing production.

But the razor-thin margin between the two — whether in QBR or Elo — basically brings us back to where we started with these two back in 2016, when they were college rivals in a dead heat. Back then, Jackson won the Heisman but Watson won the only head-to-head battle between the two as starters. Now they’ll get to face off again in the pros, in another clash of quarterbacking styles — and another chance to settle who is truly the best.

Looking Ahead: Week 11

Best matchup:3 No. 1 New England (-2) at No. 10 Philadelphia, 4:25 p.m. ET Sunday

In terms of pure matchup quality, Sunday afternoon’s PatriotsEagles tilt — a rematch of Super Bowl LII — is the best of the week. The Patriots are coming off a humbling 37-20 loss to Jackson and the Ravens before last week’s bye; it was the first time an opposing QB and offense had really exposed the Pats’ defense all season. It also opens up questions about how much of New England’s early-season dominance was the product of a weak schedule that gets much tougher over the next four weeks.4 Still, the Pats have the most efficient (schedule-adjusted) defense in the league, and they still have Tom Brady to face an up-and-down Eagles squad that hasn’t impressed when tasked with shutting down good QBs this season. Philly pulled out of its October crisis with back-to-back wins and has a prime opportunity to pounce on Dallas’s loss to Minnesota and solidify its NFC East odds with a win here. Still, despite the game being played at The Linc — where the Philly Special is immortalized in statue form outside the stadium — we give the Eagles only a 43 percent chance of replicating that Super Bowl win and knocking off the Pats here.

What to watch for in the NFL’s Week 11

NFL matchups for Week 11, ranked according to various factors

Matchup Rankings
Favorite Underdog Favorite’s Win prob Quality Evenness Importance QBs
17 Colts vs 14 Jaguars 52.7% 6 3 1 6
4 Chiefs at 18 Chargers 67.9 3 9 3 2
13 Steelers at 22 Browns 50.3 7 1 2 9
1 Patriots at 10 Eagles 57.4 1 4 8 3
2 Ravens vs 7 Texans 62.4 2 6 7 1
19 Bills at 28 Dolphins 60.6 12 5 4 7
12 Rams vs 15 Bears 65.3 4 8 5 8
5 Saints at 24 Buccaneers 68.8 5 10 10 4
20 Panthers vs 23 Falcons 63.2 10 7 9 12
11 Cowboys at 30 Lions 76.3 11 11 6 13
25 Jets at 31 Redskins 51.2 14 2 14 10
6 49ers vs 26 Cardinals 84.9 9 13 13 5
3 Vikings vs 27 Broncos 84.6 8 12 12 14
21 Raiders vs 32 Bengals 85.7 13 14 11 11

Game Quality is based on the Elo Ratings of both teams. Evenness is based on how close the game is to 50-50 pregame odds. A game’s importance is based on how much it swings the playoff odds of the teams involved. A game’s Quarterbacks are judged on the QB Elo ratings of the two starters.

Biggest playoff implications: No. 17 Indianapolis (-1) vs. No. 14 Jacksonville, 1 p.m. ET Sunday

Potential shift in playoff odds: 30.9 total percentage points

The AFC South has basically owned this section of the column this year, and Week 11 is no exception. This time, the crucial battle sees the Jaguars traveling to Indy to face the Colts in a game that could break the loser’s entire season. Indianapolis went from sitting pretty with a 5-2 record three weeks ago to a team whose playoff chances are in serious peril — and whose starting QB (Jacoby Brissett) has an unclear status for Week 11. Meanwhile, the Jags are potentially dangerous — despite sitting a game behind the Colts in the standings — with No. 1 QB Nick Foles returning from a collarbone injury that kept him sidelined since Week 1. We all loved the mustachioed magic of Minshew Mania, but QB Elo thinks Foles will make Jacksonville more competitive from now on, provided there aren’t too many residual effects from his injury. In terms of the stakes in this game, neither team can boost its playoff chances to any higher than 48 percent with a win, but whoever loses will see its odds become quite remote: If Indy falls, it will have only a 15 percent playoff probability, while Jacksonville’s number would dip to 7 percent with a loss.

Best QB duels: No. 2 Deshaun Watson (HOU) vs. No. 4 Lamar Jackson (BAL); No. 1 Patrick Mahomes (KC) vs. No. 17 Philip Rivers (LAC); No. 8 Tom Brady (NE) vs. No. 13 Carson Wentz (PHI)

FiveThirtyEight vs. the Readers

As a weekly tradition here at FiveThirtyEight, we look at how our Elo model did against everybody who made picks in our forecasting game. (If you entered, you can find yourself on our leaderboard here. I am currently in 407th place!) These are the games in which Elo made its best — and worst — predictions against the field last week:

Elo’s dumbest (and smartest) picks of Week 10

Average difference between points won by readers and by Elo in Week 10 matchups in FiveThirtyEight’s NFL prediction game

SF 68% SF 59% SEA 27, SF 24 +8.6
DAL 54 DAL 51 MIN 28, DAL 24 +0.9
BAL 86 BAL 89 BAL 49, CIN 13 -0.8
NO 88 NO 89 ATL 26, NO 9 -3.3
OAK 51 LAC 51 OAK 26, LAC 24 -3.4
GB 71 GB 69 GB 24, CAR 16 -3.6
LAR 60 LAR 62 PIT 17, LAR 12 -4.3
IND 80 IND 82 MIA 16, IND 12 -4.9
KC 64 KC 68 TEN 35, KC 32 -6.9
TB 64 TB 57 TB 30, ARI 27 -7.6
CLE 50 BUF 56 CLE 19, BUF 16 -8.0
NYJ 63 NYG 53 NYJ 34, NYG 27 -16.5
CHI 81 CHI 53 CHI 20, DET 13 -21.6

Home teams are in bold.

The scoring system is nonlinear, so readers’ average points don’t necessarily match the number of points that would be given to the average reader prediction.

In picking against our Elo algorithm, it was kind of a rough week for the readers. The only big win against the computer was a smart hedge against the 49ers, who lost to Seattle in a classic battle Monday night. Otherwise, there were a lot more games like Jets-Giants and Browns-Bills, in which the readers paid for disagreeing with the model. And there was a bit of bad luck involved, too — Elo was able to crush the field by knowing Sunday morning that Matthew Stafford would miss Detroit’s game against the Bears. (Presumably, many readers failed to circle back and change their picks.) Overall, Elo won by an average margin of 71.4 points — a season high that was good for the model’s sixth-straight winning week.

Congratulations are in order, though, to Benjamin Thornton, who led all readers in Week 10 with 51.5 points — it was a notably low-scoring week, thanks to so many bizarre results — and to Aaron DiGenova, who once again leads the full-season contest with 674.7 points. Thanks to everyone who played — and if you haven’t, be sure to get in on the action! You can make picks now and try your luck against Elo, even if you missed Week 10.

Check out our latest NFL predictions.


  1. Before he got hurt, Watson averaged an Elo performance 114 points above average in his first six starts, which ranks behind only Kurt Warner (+171), Elvis Grbac (+149), Robert Griffin III (+147) and Mahomes (+124).

  2. According to the harmonic mean of both quarterbacks’ Elo values, only Week 6’s duel between Watson and Mahomes — which Watson’s Texans won, 31-24 — looked better on paper going in.

  3. Based on matchup quality, in terms of the harmonic mean of both teams’ QB-adjusted Elo ratings.

  4. Jackson was the first QB with an above-average pregame Elo rating that New England had faced since Ben Roethlisberger in Week 1.

Neil Paine was the acting sports editor at FiveThirtyEight.