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Did The Saints And Bills Show The Bucs And Seahawks Who The Real Contenders Are?

sara.ziegler (Sara Ziegler, sports editor): After tonight’s scintillating Jets-Patriots matchup, we will officially be halfway through the season, with every team having played at least eight games. And boy, did a few of those Week 9 games deliver some interesting twists to the season.

In last week’s chat, we talked about the four teams leading our model, noting “the weakness of that group.” That weakness was exposed this week, as Tampa Bay and Seattle lost big while Pittsburgh and Kansas City needed second-half comebacks to win. Let’s start with the most lopsided loss: Tampa Bay’s 38-3 dismantling at the hands of New Orleans. The Saints swept the season series; do they just have the Bucs’ number?

joshua.hermsmeyer (Josh Hermsmeyer, NFL analyst): I can imagine a world where Sean Payton and Bill Belichick get together and chat casually. Perhaps those talks occurred right before games against Tampa Bay this year — who can really say?

neil (Neil Paine, senior sportswriter): Hah!

Salfino (Michael Salfino, FiveThirtyEight contributor): It’s always weird to talk about bad Tom Brady things in the context of his amazing history. But this is the first time Brady has ever been swept by a division opponent in the regular season. (The 2010 Jets did beat him twice, but one of those games was in the postseason.) But he was horrible. And things were supposed to get better for him in light of his recent solid play with the addition of Antonio Brown, who is living with him.

Maybe Brady isn’t sleeping. Maybe this is a “Planes, Trains and Automobiles” situation.

neil: According to our QB Elo metric, this was the second-worst game of Brady’s entire career — the only one worse was the infamous “Lawyer Milloy Game” in 2003:

joshua.hermsmeyer: That seems more in line with what I watched. Brady’s performance was the fourth-worst by a QB this season by ESPN’s Total QBR metric (209 yards passing, zero touchdowns, three interceptions, three sacks and 5.5 yards per attempt). The Bucs fell behind early and completely abandoned the run — breaking a league record by rushing just five times. But they also abandoned play-action, which was a mistake. They ran action on 7.3 percent of their plays, which was second-worst/fewest on the week, ahead of only the Steelers.

Salfino: But Josh, isn’t it hard to run play-action when you’re down 28-0 before the beer is cold?

joshua.hermsmeyer: Mike, I’ve seen no evidence to support that beyond hand-waving platitudes and nods to “common football knowledge.”

Salfino: Isn’t this like play-action on third-and-21? I’m not even being snarky. Teams do run that, occasionally.

joshua.hermsmeyer: Play-action is bad on third-and-long, that is true. But Brady had lots of passing attempts on first-and-10 as well.

Salfino: Remember, too, that play-action might increase the chances of getting hit (and I assume even more so when you’re trailing badly), and Brady does not like that. I mean, no one likes that. But he REALLY doesn’t like it.

joshua.hermsmeyer: You also probably want your QB throwing better balls than this:

Salfino: They called the Four Seasons pass and got the Four Seasons Landscaping pass by mistake, I’m fairly certain.

neil: That play was basically the game in a nutshell for Brady. He did not handle the Saints’ pressure well at ALL.

Salfino: Brady is the first former Super Bowl MVP QB to lose by 35+ at home since Joe Namath with the Lou Holtz-coached Jets in 1976.

neil: I’m not sure what to take away from the Saints routing the Bucs aside from the obvious. Brady was terrible and — maybe more importantly — it was a strength-on-strength matchup on the other side of the ball, New Orleans’s offense vs. Tampa’s defense. And the Saints won that matchup decisively.

sara.ziegler: That was maybe what surprised me most, Neil — how good the Saints offense looked against what we considered to be a stellar defense.

neil: I have been guilty of focusing on Drew Brees’ lack of deep passing as much as anybody this season. But on passes thrown more than 10 yards downfield, he went 7 for 8 with 130 yards and two touchdowns on Sunday. And that was against what had been maybe the best pass defense in football this year going into the game.

joshua.hermsmeyer: All I know is that according to Cris Collinsworth, it takes a man to bring down Taysom Hill, so perhaps that explains everything!

Salfino: I hate to say this, but we have to give Hill some credit for the Saints offense. I mean, I really, really hate to say this.

neil: LOL

sara.ziegler: Wowwwww

neil: It was another one of those Taysom Hill stat lines: at least 20 yards passing, rushing AND receiving.

sara.ziegler: So, this is a question I had: Was last night’s game the right way to use Hill?

Or … is there no right way to use Hill?

Salfino: Maybe this is Sean Payton being really creative with his roster. I may just have to get over the Hill hate.

Hill used to be like “The Cooler.” He was William H. Macy. Now, though, he’s actually adding value, fairly consistently.

More vanity projects in football!

joshua.hermsmeyer: Hill attempted two passes last night, and we got to see him operate as a pocket QB on one of them, which is rare. He completed the pass but threw it behind Jared Cook. I think Hill is just a box of chocolates every time they trot him out there.

neil: He’s a luxury item, but the Saints are looking like an upscale team, so they have that luxury.

sara.ziegler: So let’s move on to the other big upset of the weekend: The Bills rather handily took down Russell Wilson and the Seahawks.

Salfino: Seattle’s defense looked like it propped up Josh Allen for MVP.

neil: We knew that defense was bad. But it is BAD.

joshua.hermsmeyer: What I took away was that Pete Carroll planned to stop the run, and the Bills planned to pass. One team was right, the other was wrong, and nary an adjustment was made.

sara.ziegler: That was AMAZING.

I love it when a plan does not at all come together.

neil: According to ESPN’s Stats & Information Group, the Bills passed on each of their first 21 first-down plays of the game.

That is your kind of play-calling, Josh!

joshua.hermsmeyer: It was glorious.

neil: They ended up passing 23 times and running 10 times on first down despite leading for all but 1:25 of the game. Basically the opposite of the “establish the run” playbook.

Salfino: The Seahawks are just sickening on defense. What was the point of acquiring Jamal Adams? They could have finished last in defense without him, no?

sara.ziegler: What happened to Russ in that game? He still had 390 yards passing, but he had four turnovers.

neil: He faced quite a bit of pressure — on 45 percent of his dropbacks. (He at least handled it better than Brady!)

But it was impressive to see the Bills slow him down some. Buffalo’s defense was one of their biggest contender-question-marks.

Salfino: One of his picks was on fourth down — it shouldn’t even count. I think Wilson played at his usual level, but he was Marino-ed in the sense that he just could not keep up with his defense.

sara.ziegler: Hold on — that pick was on fourth down, yes, but it was in the end zone, on a play from the Buffalo 5-yard line. That’s an interception you expect Kirk Cousins to throw … not Russ.

neil: We need a COUSINS stat for red-zone picks.

sara.ziegler: 🤣

Salfino: But even in the end zone, a fourth-down pick on a desperation heave has no negative expected value, correct?

joshua.hermsmeyer: I guess we expect Chef Russ to be above expectation most of the time.

Salfino: My point is that no one was open, and he was running for his life. Derek Carr would have thrown it in the stands to be safe, we know.

I will defend Russ!

joshua.hermsmeyer: Just as an aside, Carr had a deep completion on a similar rollout to his right on Sunday. (It was a third-and-4 situation, however, not fourth down).

sara.ziegler: So what did we learn from the Seahawks game? Is there anything they can do to fix their defense? And are the Bills just … pretty good?

Salfino: The last team to score that many points on a Pete Carroll defense was Stanford. I’m serious.

neil: Apparently the fix is to just have other teams do what Carroll gameplans for. As you said, Sara, it’s always annoying as a coach when they don’t do that.

Salfino: I think Seattle is a fun team that can’t win the Super Bowl despite having an MVP-level QB because their pass defense is historically bad. They give up nearly 300 yards a game just to wide receivers.

neil: And the Bills are just a fascinating team. They’re 7-2 but have outscored opponents by just 9 points (which would generally earn you only 4.7 wins in nine games). Yet they will have games like this!

Salfino: Allen completed passes of at least 20 yards to seven different receivers. I think the question for the Bills is whether Josh Allen is too dependent on matchups.

Ironically, the Bills are the AFC’s Seahawks. The offense, I’m shocked to say, is WAY better than its defense, and the defense, though not as bad as Seattle’s, is still pretty bad. And bad in the worst way — against the pass.

Also Seattle is just plus-31 in point differential. Miami is nearly TWICE as good.

joshua.hermsmeyer: Defense is like the weather. If you don’t like it, just wait awhile.

sara.ziegler: What a weird season this is shaping up to be.

Salfino: But Sara, isn’t every season weird in the sense that we couldn’t have seen what has happened happening? To me that’s the beauty of sports. Every season is weird in its own way.

sara.ziegler: LOL. I mean, sure. But it definitely felt last year like you had a decent sense of who the best teams were.

Salfino: I think many this year would have said the Saints were the best NFC team and the Chiefs the best AFC team. Is that where we are right now?

sara.ziegler: My point is that this year, a Garrett Gilbert-led Cowboys team can almost beat an undefeated Steelers team!

joshua.hermsmeyer: Cowboys QB had a decent game, with a roughly 62 QBR, and it wasn’t like Ezekiel Elliott was helping much. Kept it interesting to the very end.

neil: “Cowboys QB” is Garrett Gilbert’s name in Tecmo Super Bowl, pretty sure.

joshua.hermsmeyer: 100 percent.

Salfino: The question is whether we believe in the Steelers. This is the first Pittsburgh team to go 8-0, and the other years when they were the last unbeaten, they went to the Super Bowl. (OK, it has only happened twice, but still.)

But I don’t believe in Ben Roethlisberger any more. Even against the horrible Cowboys, his efficiency was meh, and Pittsburgh had one TD going into the fourth quarter.

joshua.hermsmeyer: I very much would like Neil to write the definitive piece on why the Steelers are the worst 8-0 team ever.

neil: RIP my mentions.

joshua.hermsmeyer: Yes, I am a coward and am avoiding that heat.

sara.ziegler: Hahahaha

Which one of you should I assign this story to??

neil: Triple-byline!

Salfino: The Chiefs would slaughter Pittsburgh, I’m sorry.

Patrick Mahomes, man. He’s quietly having one of the greatest seasons in league history.

neil: 25-to-1 TD-INT ratio ain’t too shabby!

sara.ziegler: So that was the other weird game Sunday. The Chiefs didn’t look all that convincing to me. But it sounds like none of you is worried about them?

joshua.hermsmeyer: I just have no reason to doubt Mahomes’s greatness any more. His prime is going to last for years, and the Chiefs’ Super Bowl window will always be open so long as he’s healthy.

Salfino: Co-sign.

neil: I don’t disagree. Although we should mention that K.C.’s defense didn’t look overly great against Carolina. And they would have lost if Tom Dempsey had been the Panthers’ kicker.

Salfino: That 67-yard field goal attempt was hilarious.

neil: I was SO hoping he would make it. Just to see it happen.

Salfino: Only mules can make that kick, Neil.

neil: And Tony Danza.

joshua.hermsmeyer: So the Chiefs’ defense has not been bad against the pass. They’ve allowed 6.3 net yards per pass attempt (that factors in sacks). Does this mean anything for their performance going forward? Probably not, but I’m not convinced the defense is a real liability.

Salfino: I agree with Josh. No worries about the K.C. defense for me. None.

neil: Yeah, they’ve actually improved some on defense since last year according to expected points added (EPA), from 13th to 10th.

sara.ziegler: That surprises me! Not that I remembered their defense as being amazing last year, but I didn’t realize it had gotten better.

neil: And they still have the league’s No. 1 passing offense. Pretty good recipe for a repeat! (Having said that, Baltimore actually surpassed Kansas City for No. 1 overall this week in both EPA and Simple Rating System ranking.)

Salfino: The Chiefs have 7.6 net yards per passing attempt on offense and are giving up 5.9 on defense. Plus 1.7 in this stat puts them in solid “Super Bowl contender” territory, in my opinion.

sara.ziegler: It was interesting that Allen, Wilson and Mahomes were the top three in passing yards this week, with weirdly different outcomes.

(We don’t need to mention the top rusher, who had 206 yards on the day. 😉)

Salfino: I feel like we have to get Josh to say something good about his opponent, Dalvin Cook. (Since all RBs are his mortal enemy.)


Salfino: Love that!

Seriously, that dude is the fastest RB in uniform I’ve ever seen.

joshua.hermsmeyer: I HAVE A STAT.

Salfino: The MVP stuff is coming for Cook, which is ridiculous but which will drive Josh crazy. Comedy will ensue.

joshua.hermsmeyer: The Vikings led the league in rushing EPA per play last week: 0.30. Their pass EPA per play in the game where Cook inserted himself into the MVP conversation? 0.58.

sara.ziegler: And yet no one is saying “Let Kirk cook.”

Literally no one.

joshua.hermsmeyer: SMH

Salfino: Maybe opposing defenses?

sara.ziegler: LOL

Check out our latest NFL predictions.

Sara Ziegler is the former sports editor at FiveThirtyEight.

Neil Paine was the acting sports editor at FiveThirtyEight.

Josh Hermsmeyer was 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.