sara.ziegler (Sara Ziegler, sports editor): Week 12 brought us a bunch of high-leverage games between playoff contenders: Green Bay at San Francisco, Dallas at New England and Seattle at Philadelphia. (And there’s another big game tonight between the Baltimore Ravens and the Los Angeles Rams.) So let’s talk through what we saw in those matchups and what changed in the playoff picture as a result.
Let’s start with San Francisco’s huge win over Green Bay. I’m a Niners fan this year — and I obviously root for a different team in the NFC North than the Packers — but I definitely did not see that one coming.
neil (Neil Paine, senior sportswriter): It’s getting harder and harder to doubt the Niners’ Super Bowl chances …
Salfino (Michael Salfino, FiveThirtyEight contributor): I did see it coming not because of intuition or any special insight but simply because of net yards per pass play gained minus net yards allowed. The Niners were huge there heading into Week 12 and continued putting up big numbers this week, when Aaron Rodgers generated 66 net passing yards on 38 pass plays (including sacks).
joshua.hermsmeyer (Josh Hermsmeyer, NFL analyst): It was a very impressive win by the Niners. What struck me was the job they did on Rodgers. On play-action, the most efficient play type in football, Rodgers dialed up 13 plays — good for fourth in the league so far in Week 12 — and averaged just 4 yards per dropback on those plays.
sara.ziegler: The Niners defense just looks so good.
Salfino: This was one of those games where halfway through the first quarter you knew it was over. The Packers wanted no part of the heat the 49ers were bringing.
neil: The Super Bowl will be Niners-Pats, won’t it? And the final score will be 13-3 or something.
Salfino: We often talk about explosive offensive teams, but the 49ers with that rush are an explosive defensive team.
I see the 49ers as a complete team. Great offensive mind and solid skill players on offense across the board. I know a lot of people are still skeptical of their QB, but Jimmy Garoppolo is at least average. And they just destroy their opponents’ passing games.
joshua.hermsmeyer: Weirdly, that was Rodgers’s worst game of his career by passing yardage when he’s had at least 30 pass attempts.
The Niners haven’t seemed scary offensively to me, so the 37 points they put up on Sunday took me by surprise.
They rank only 14th in total passing yards this season.
Salfino: But they’ve got George Kittle (if he’s healthy) and Deebo Samuel looking like the new Anquan Boldin plus a healthy Emmanuel Sanders. With that stable of backs plus the Kyle Shanahan system … I like their offense a lot.
joshua.hermsmeyer: They really got a lift from Emmanuel Sanders coming back. He’s a difference maker for Jimmy G.
And yes, Kittle of course.
neil: Jimmy G is almost up to average in our Elo QB ratings!
It’s taken him all season.
Salfino: I actually think Samuel is their most dangerous wide receiver now with that yards after catch number.
My defense of Jimmy G. is that he’s no worse than Matt Ryan, and Shanahan crushed it with Ryan. Plus QB wins are a real thing, I believe. He has to get some credit for his record, especially in 2017.
neil: I still think he’s a slightly-above-average QB whose defense has been killing it.
joshua.hermsmeyer: I cannot let the QB Winz comment pass! I agree that QBs are the most important piece to winning, but that stat is just terrible.
Salfino: You win a game usually by outpassing your opponent measured by net yards per attempt, and there are only two ways to do that — with your offense/QB or with your defense. So how can the QB not be the most important player to winning?
joshua.hermsmeyer: That doesn’t make QB Winz a stat!
Salfino: I’m saying that to be a good QB, you need to have a good yards per attempt or net yards per attempt, and if you do, your teams will win. So potato/tomato (as my daughter jokes).
To me, that indicates that the rest of the team has carried more of the load.
Salfino: I agree that the Niners’ pass defense is mostly responsible for winning this year. But I specifically mentioned 2017, and I can’t make the argument he’s much worse now.
joshua.hermsmeyer: Even last night, there were times when Jimmy couldn’t come off his first read fast enough and looked like a statue. He’s in a good scheme with the best possible support.
Salfino: I agree that he holds the ball too long. But we forget the guy has barely started any games even though it feels like he’s been around forever.
sara.ziegler: And that’s the whole problem with him! We don’t have enough of a sample size.
San Francisco has two tricky road games up next: at Baltimore this Sunday and at New Orleans the following week. How do the Niners match up against those opponents?
neil: Yes, San Francisco’s schedule gets much tougher. They played the second easiest schedule so far in terms of average opponent pregame Elo (adjusted for location); only Buffalo faced easier opponents. The Niners’ rest-of-season schedule is the toughest in the league by Elo.
|Elo SOS Rank||Elo SOS Rank|
Salfino: No one matches up well with Baltimore. They are a unicorn team. Or if someone does match up, how would we even know until we see it? But the Niners don’t even need that game, IMO. They need to take care of business with the Saints, though. But the Saints don’t strike me as a legit Super Bowl team. They were crushed at home against the Falcons and then almost lost to Kyle Allen. And we all wrote Allen’s obit last week.
neil: I will admit I was surprised the Saints let Carolina hang around in that one.
Salfino: We have to give them a little slack with no Marcus Lattimore, I guess.
sara.ziegler: So what of the Niners’ opponent Sunday night? I don’t know what to think of Green Bay at all.
neil: Is Rodgers still ELITE??????
He hasn’t looked that way for a few games now.
joshua.hermsmeyer: The Packers have been exposed twice, and Rodgers is firmly out of the MVP conversation. Matt LeFleur said they were outcoached and outplayed. I’d be very worried.
sara.ziegler: Don’t look now, but the NFC North is basically a tossup.
neil: Heyyyyy look at that.
joshua.hermsmeyer: The Vikings are better. Sorry, Sara.
Salfino: You mean that you don’t want to look now, Sara. 🙂 I’ve been saying the Vikings are winning that division for weeks.
Kirk Cousins for MVP!
You need to be fully joking.
Salfino: Cousins does have numbers, Sara.
neil: Joking aside, that Packers-Vikings game in Week 16 could be huge.
And I love that matchup on Monday Night Football. So much nostalgia.
Salfino: This Packers team going into Minnesota, where that defense generally plays great, and beating the Vikings with the season on the line? No way. I don’t see it.
sara.ziegler: The Packers get the New York Giants, Washington and Chicago before the showdown with Minnesota, while the Vikings have Seattle, Detroit and the Los Angeles Chargers. So the edge has to be with the Packers to win the division, right?
Salfino: Danny Dimes, Sara.
Salfino: Generational talent Saquon Barkley is averaging almost 4 yards per carry this season!
joshua.hermsmeyer: Oh yeah, generational talent, because you only get a 4.0 rushing average from a first-round pick once every 10 to 14 years, LOL.
neil: Detroit and San Diego are done.
(I don’t care that the Chargers are in L.A.)
sara.ziegler: LOL, San Diego is extremely done.
Salfino: Which Rivers child is that?
sara.ziegler: Oh, wow.
neil: Gosh dang it, Salfie!
sara.ziegler: Sticking with the AFC, New England outlasted Dallas on Sunday in a game that was, for me, more about the Cowboys underperforming (and making terrible decisions at key moments) than the Patriots dominating. I just can’t get excited about this New England team, even if it’s 10-1. Which means the Patriots are certainly going to win the Super Bowl.
Salfino: The Patriots are flawed offensively but work like a hive on defense, passing off coverage from linebackers to defensive ends seamlessly, like on the third down in the red zone in the fourth quarter against the Cowboys.
neil: I know the weather was bad on Sunday, but Tom Brady has looked mediocre for a little while now.
joshua.hermsmeyer: The Pats are also one of the most man-coverage-heavy teams in the league. They used man against the Cowboys to great effect: 24 snaps in man coverage, with Dallas mustering just a 29 percent success rate and -0.42 expected points added per play. Meanwhile, they played 10 snaps of zone, and Dallas ate it up, with a 50 percent success rate and 0.26 EPA per play.
neil: This is the lowest Brady’s QB Elo rating has been (relative to average) since after the On To Cincinnati game in 2014.
And that year, they <<checks notes>> won the Super Bowl. Oh.
Salfino: The Patriots have had less than 350 yards from scrimmage in five straight games, which is their longest streak since 2003.
sara.ziegler: And yet … they keep winning!
(Except when they’re playing Baltimore.)
neil: This defense, particularly against the pass, remains incredible.
Lamar Jackson is still the only QB to play above average against their defense this season.
sara.ziegler: Jackson has a way of making good defenses look average — Seattle knows a little something about that. The Seahawks got a convincing win over the Eagles on Sunday. Seattle is in command of the first wild-card spot now, but does it have a chance for the division against the Niners?
joshua.hermsmeyer: Our model gives San Francisco a 58 percent chance to win the division and gives Seattle a 40 percent shot, so definitely a chance!
Salfino: Aren’t the Seahawks setting a record of sorts in the divergence between point differential and win-loss record?
Are they just super lucky?
Salfino: Ross Tucker said on Twitter that Jadeveon Clowney could be out for the year? No idea if that’s true, but if it is, that’s really bad for Seattle.
joshua.hermsmeyer: If Pete Carroll is a tactical genius, it seems like his strategy is coaxing his opponents to play suboptimally, running a lot, and then relying on his elite QB to bail his team out on third and long while the other team has to punt more often in those situations.
neil: That’s the most concise, accurate description of the Seahawks I’ve ever heard.
sara.ziegler: What about the Eagles? Their goose is cooked in the wild-card race, but they still have a 37 percent chance to win the NFC East.
Salfino: Have the Eagles been beaten by flea flickers now two straight weeks? Has to be a record.
For all of Dallas’s problems, I just don’t see them losing this division to the Eagles. And Dallas’s remaining schedule isn’t exactly daunting.
sara.ziegler: Wait, Michael, you really believe in the Cowboys? Even with the play-calling choices in the game against New England?
Salfino: Well, the numbers are there for the Cowboys in the things that I think are most predictive of future wins: play success, passing success and net yards per attempt. But they have not beaten a quality team, which is very troubling. And we have to assume that the head coach is a big minus.
So I don’t know how to get my head around this team. If you believe in just the numbers, they should easily win the weak NFC East. But if you believe in coaching and intangibles, you have to expect them to struggle to beat anyone.
sara.ziegler: This was telling, I think:
Salfino: I think it’s fair to say that Jason Garrett hurt his team’s chances by not treating the third and 7 on that deep fourth-quarter drive as two-down territory. So it was not just the kick on fourth down that killed them but also the call on third down, where maybe they run if they have a four-down mentality. You can’t go from needing a touchdown to win to … needing a touchdown to win.
|Playoff odds if …|
|Team||Eagles win||Cowboys win|
neil: Here’s a fun set of contingencies for that Week 16 Eagles-Cowboys game — playoff odds according to Elo:
joshua.hermsmeyer: Wow. That would be a good time for the Cowboys to win their first big game.
neil: It’s basically a win-and-you’re-in for Dallas and do-or-die for Philly. But Philly isn’t quite in (and Dallas isn’t quite out) even if the Eagles do win.
Philly can’t feel good after these back-to-back home losses, especially with Carson Wentz playing so poorly.
joshua.hermsmeyer: The Eagles lack weapons in the passing game with all the injuries, but Wentz hasn’t exactly elevated the play of those around him. I’m still not really sure what he is. Is he a top-10 QB?
neil: Elo ranks him 17th — one spot ahead of … Jimmy G. LOL
Salfino: Wentz does not seem wired to take the positive play. He’s too much of a gunslinger when he’s on the most slow-footed offensive team I can remember. So how can he expect plays to be open downfield?
Great QBs — like we once thought Wentz was — can carry an average at best unit or at least make a poor one average. He’s not lifting the offense at all this year. He’s even holding it back.
neil: Only four QBs have been worse by yards per attempt than Wentz this year:
Ryan Fitzpatrick, Danny Dimes, Mason Rudolph and Mitchell Trubisky.
Salfino: I just think the Eagles are mentally beaten already. The fans are booing the QB. The defense has given up 17 points in two straight weeks to the Patriots and Seahawks, and the team wasn’t really even in either game.
neil: I will say this, and we talk about it every week, but they have played a string of really tough games — six straight with an above-average Elo, going back to early November. They ought to look better against Miami, Washington and the Giants in the next few weeks. (Then again, they ought to have looked better against Seattle at home.)
joshua.hermsmeyer: Oh no, Carson:
neil: That seems right.
Salfino: The problem with this stat is that if guys are not open, you can’t throw a pass “on target” unless you want to risk a pick.
joshua.hermsmeyer: I agree, it doesn’t tell the whole story. But still.
Salfino: But Wentz missed an uncovered Miles Sanders on an easy flare near the goal line, and he threw the ball like crap most of the day.
neil: That was one of the worst overthrows on an easy pass I’ve ever seen, Mike.
Salfino: I do think Wentz’s problem is not taking shorter throws for positive yardage when they are there and, like Hank Stram used to say, matriculating the ball down the field. This is not a big-play offense without DeSean Jackson, and we know how vital Jackson could be to their passing success.
joshua.hermsmeyer: Dwayne Haskins had a couple pretty hideous misses yesterday as well. Then he was too busy taking selfies with fans to come out for the victory formation.
But I’m still rooting for him.
neil: Haskins’s new theme:
Check out our latest NFL predictions.