maya (Maya Sweedler, editor): Well, my friends, Week 10 is almost in the books and although we still have Monday Night Football, I think I’m gonna need to take tonight off after yesterday’s Bills-Vikings game reduced me to a shaking, quivering mess. The instant classic had everything: incredible catches, multiple red-zone turnovers, consecutive failed quarterback sneaks and so (SO) many sideline shots of brooding quarterbacks.
There are other games we’re going to get to, but we must start with Buffalo’s overtime loss to Minnesota. What play or moment shocked each of you the most, and what did you take away about either of the teams involved?
neil (Neil Paine, acting sports editor): The swing in emotions — and win probability — between Minnesota failing on fourth-and-goal from the 1-inch line and then Josh Allen fumbling and the Vikings recovering for the go-ahead TD was just about as wild as any two back-to-back plays in NFL history.
Ty Schalter (Ty Schalter, FiveThirtyEight contributor):
- That Justin Jefferson catch
- That Justin Jefferson catch
- That Justin Jefferson catch
- That Justin Jefferson catch
joshua.hermsmeyer (Josh Hermsmeyer, NFL analyst): The Jefferson catch made me cheer the loudest, but Allen’s interception at the end was more surprising. He seemed like Thanos during that drive, doing it all himself, and just marching down the field toward what felt like an inevitable win.
maya: Not to crap all over our forecast’s preseason Super Bowl favorite, but that overtime interception — and, more significantly, the end zone interception with under 11 minutes left in regulation — was a real yellow flag for me.
neil: That was one of multiple extremely important late-game cases where Allen really wasn’t mindful of the situation. For another, take the play from the end zone — basically the only job is not to fumble. Up 27-23, you can even live with a safety! (Granted, it wouldn’t be ideal.) And then in OT, you are in FG range. Do not throw a pick!
Ty Schalter: To briefly make a hipster argument for Jefferson’s performance (as opposed to all the heart-stopping roller-coaster moments in the final minutes of regulation and beyond), NFL Next Gen Stats credited Jefferson with nine receptions that had a sub-50 percent completion probability. No other receiver in the NGS era has ever had more than six.
maya: That’s incredible, and an argument that Minnesota won that game as much as Buffalo lost it.
But to bring it back to the Bills’ miscues, in the past two weeks in particular, Allen has really struggled in the red zone. He entered Week 9 ranked 13th in the league on EPA per dropback in the red zone. Against the Jets and Vikings, his EPA per dropback fell from 0.10 to -0.47. (That second figure ranks 29th in the league.) And credit where credit is due, Allen has faced decent (or in the Jets’ case, more than decent) defenses. But Allen’s NGS completion percentage in the red zone these past two weeks is -22.9%. He’s throwing into tight windows, forcing throws, extending plays with his legs but looking downfield the entire time. That’s not a recipe for success; that’s a recipe for reversion.
neil: And usually, it’s Kirk Cousins who is the king of losing games in the red zone.
Ty Schalter: He tried!
maya: Guys, on the season, the Bills are 21st in the league with a red zone touchdown rate of 52.9 percent. And it’s not because they’re scoring before they get into the red zone. This year, they have the fourth-most red zone drives in the league with 34. They’re converting only half of them! That’s not good!
Ty Schalter: My question is, does Allen’s football decision-making nerve run through his ulnar collateral ligament? Because his status was up in the air until game time, but it didn’t look like anything physical was wrong with him.
joshua.hermsmeyer: It helps to have a great running game in the red zone when the field gets compressed. It’s tough to ask a QB to do it all, everywhere.
maya: Sure. The Bills are running on just 43.6 percent of plays in the red zone (22nd in the league). But guess who’s 31st, with 33.3 percent?
joshua.hermsmeyer: Incredible. Dalvin Cook is pretty good, too!
Speaking of running, Matt Ryan’s run for a career-long 39 yards was the most surprising moment of Week 10 for me. Raiders defenders barely acknowledged he had passed the line of scrimmage, it was such a shock. Ryan looked lonely out there amid all that green grass.
neil: Jeff Saturday — undefeated coach! And we all SCOFFED at that hire. LOL.
joshua.hermsmeyer: All Jim Irsay does is hire winning coaches, apparently.
neil: He had to be feeling so self-satisfied after that. Although pump the brakes, Jim; it’s the Raiders.
maya: Yeah, and who’s on deck for the Colts next week?
neil: If they beat the Eagles, officially nothing about this season will make sense.
Ty Schalter: To be clear, I’m still scoffing at the hire — but it’s a good sign that Saturday at least pressed the right buttons during the week.
neil: (We are all still scoffing, obviously.)
maya: Replacing Sam Ehlinger with Matt Ryan seems like a pretty obvious button to press, to be fair.
joshua.hermsmeyer: The Colts-Raiders game was tied for the least important game of the week with the Detroit vs. Chicago game, according to our Elo model. The most interesting question to come out of it was if Mark Davis will blow up the team like Irsay blew up his coaching staff.
neil: The Raiders are just a catastrophe. I keep coming back to them totally misreading last season as being that of an improving 10-7 team on the cusp, rather than a deep-down 7-10 team (by Pythagorean record) that got really lucky to make the playoffs.
But I also wonder if Rich Bisaccia could have done better than Josh McDaniels. (Probably yes?)
maya: To quote Jeff Saturday himself:
joshua.hermsmeyer: It was the sixth one-score loss for the Raiders this season, tied for third-most since 2000. Last year, they were 7-2 in one-score games. Hard way to earn a living in the NFL, Neil.
neil: Maybe all along, they were a true-talent 8.5-8.5 team that just has a LOT of variance in their results.
Ty Schalter: I spent all offseason saying that the latest run of whiz-kid hires was obscuring the value of experience, and McDaniels having done well initially and then failed would make him the ideal second-time-around candidate. Instead, it’s possible he’s even worse at this than it appeared in Denver.
joshua.hermsmeyer: Perhaps we can finally put an end to the notion that stealing personnel away from One Patriot Way is a good idea.
maya: Which facet of this Raiders team is costing them games, a la Green Bay’s special teams last year or the Lions’ defense the year before? How are they finding so many ways to lose?
Ty Schalter: When your team is built around your offense, and your offense is built around a consistently inconsistent quarterback, you’re going to be an inconsistent team. The Raiders have the fourth-most offensive DVOA variance in the league, 11.1 percent — and all the swings average out to a middling (18th) offense that’s not good enough to win consistently in a stacked division and conference.
neil: And I would argue their defense has been awful. They’re third-to-last in defensive EPA per game, and dead last in EPA pass defense.
maya: In other news, the Dallas Cowboys blew a two-score lead to a Green Bay Packers team that seemed resurgent as soon as Aaron Rodgers realized he had chemistry with a wide receiver. What did you guys think of Christian Watson’s performance yesterday?
joshua.hermsmeyer: Watson was a revelation. I’m sure Aaron will claim that the rookie needed to get his mental game in shape, but I ask: Why not elevate him, Rodgers? He clearly has the talent.
Maybe bend a little.
neil: It’s probably too little, too late for the Packers, but I like that you can still always count on the Cowboys to blow a winnable game when they’re in a position to get some momentum and prove they belong among the elite teams.
(Maybe they were looking ahead to those scary Vikings next week.)
maya: I’m not mad at Matt LaFleur’s game plan, to be honest — I felt like I was watching a different Green Bay team. Sixty-two percent of offensive plays were designed rushes, the most in Rodgers’s career, and it was just different enough that I wasn’t sure the Cowboys were fully prepared for it.
Ty Schalter: I hate to say “Rodgers just made the throws,” but his plus-11.0 percent completion rate over expected was easily his single-game best for the year, and his only positive CPOE performance since Week 3.
joshua.hermsmeyer: LaFleur managed Rodgers like Sneaky Pete managed Russ all those years. What a time to be alive.
maya: Aaron Jones wasn’t the only running back to get a serious workout yesterday. There have been a few teams who — either due to injury, trade or just bolstering their run game — have seen some new running backs put up some good stats recently.
I want to talk about Carolina, Seattle and Miami, in particular. Of those three teams, whose new running back has shown himself to be most important to the offense?
joshua.hermsmeyer: It is telling that CMC is not on this list!
Of that group, I think Kenneth Walker has the most talent, Jeff Wilson has the best understanding of the scheme he’s asked to operate in, and Carolina is merely benefiting from teams just completely looking past them now.
Ty Schalter: Puts on Very Smart Analyst Hat.
I agree with Josh.
neil: D’Onta Foreman has been doing more with less than those other guys. Per ESPN’s Stats & Information Group, 47 percent of his rushing yards have been after contact. For Walker, that number is 39 percent; Wilson is down at 34 percent.
maya: Yeah, but if the season ended today, Walker would be my pick for Offensive Rookie of the Year. I thought when Rashaad Penny went down, this Seahawks offense would be mired in NFC West midtierdom, but I’ve been so wrong about so many things with this Seattle team.
joshua.hermsmeyer: I’m still very bullish on Geno Smith, which is still wild to type. Seattle could easily win a playoff game.
Ty Schalter: Speaking of Sneaky Pete, he and GM John Schneider should probably receive their long–overdue Coach/Executive of the Year awards. Signing extensions for themselves under new ownership rather than moving on or retiring, trading Russ away, letting Geno battle Drew Lock for the starting job and drafting Walker high were all wildly unpopular decisions.
neil: We certainly didn’t know the offense would be the strength of this team after all those choices. The thing that gives me concern for the Seahawks, though, is their defense. They’re ninth-worst in EPA per game and actually allowed multiple TDs to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, which is a real cry for help.
maya: The Buccaneers entered that game favored over the Seahawks, which I found baffling. But hey, I guess Vegas was right?
neil: It was the ultimate in Preseason Prior versus Observed Performance.
Score one for the prior.
joshua.hermsmeyer: Look out though! The Hawks are slowly creeping into the next tier.
The Bengals are still a sham team IMO. What is that all about?
neil: I’ll have you know the Bengals’ points-per-game differential is almost a full point better than the 8-1 Vikings!
(What a friggin’ weird-ass season, SMH.)
maya: As wild as it is to say, the Hawks still have just a half-game lead in the division — and with the NFC East being what it is, there’s a real chance that two of the three wild-card spots will go to a team from that division (sorry, Washington, you’re probably going to be the only team left out). How important is it that the Hawks win their division in order to make the playoffs?
joshua.hermsmeyer: Great question. I think Neil can answer this quantitatively using our model, but it seems quite important to me.
(And it also helps that there are exactly seven winning teams in the NFC right now.)
Ty Schalter: According to Pro-Football-Reference.com’s Simple Rating System, the NFC’s seven strongest teams are all currently in playoff position. But the Seahawks and Bucs rank sixth and seventh in the conference in the predictive SRS metric, so they both have very little margin for error going forward.
|San Francisco 49ers†||5-4-0||.556||+35||1.1|
|New York Giants†||7-2-0||.778||+14||0.7|
|Tampa Bay Buccaneers*||5-5-0||.500||+3||-0.5|
|Green Bay Packers||4-6-0||.400||-31||-0.6|
|New Orleans Saints||3-7-0||.300||-25||-3.2|
|Los Angeles Rams||3-6-0||.333||-52||-6|
maya: Interestingly, that’s NOT the case in the AFC.
|Kansas City Chiefs*||7-2-0||.778||+64||6.2|
|New York Jets†||6-3-0||.667||+20||4.9|
|New England Patriots†||5-4-0||.556||+37||4.5|
|Los Angeles Chargers||5-4-0||.556||-28||-4.6|
|Las Vegas Raiders||2-7-0||.222||-23||-5.0|
The New England Patriots are actually ranked higher than the division-leading Dolphins by SRS, and the 3-7 Jaguars are out of playoff position while their division-leading Tennessee Titans sit behind them by this metric.
And all four AFC East teams are in the AFC’s top seven by SRS. What are the chances we see, for the first time ever, an entire division go to the playoffs?
joshua.hermsmeyer: That seems so improbable, Maya, but the way this year is going, you can’t rule anything out. Especially with all the close games. So far this year, 67 games have been decided by six points or fewer. That’s the most all time through the first 10 weeks. Anything is on the table.
Ty Schalter: This really captures the disparity in conference strength: The AFC has seven teams with an SRS above 4.0, with the plus-5.5 Cincinnati Bengals on the outside looking in. Meanwhile, the NFC has only three teams above 4.0 — and the Vikings’ 5.5 makes them the second-strongest.
SRS is supposed to be predictive of who’d win head-to-head right now, which means your non-playoff Bengals should be a pick ’em against your No. 2-seed Vikings.
neil: In 50,000 simulations from our model, four AFC East teams made the playoffs 4,851 times, or 9.7 percent of the time.
maya: This is my ideal outcome. It is decided.
joshua.hermsmeyer: That’s … nonzero.
But can the model tell us which Viking will be half-naked and iced-up after their next game?
A housekeeping note — there will be no Slack chat next week. We will be back after Thanksgiving to recap all the Week 12 action.
Check out our latest NFL predictions.