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It’s Almost Over, But There’s Still So Much Left

sara.ziegler (Sara Ziegler, sports editor): There’s only one week left in the NFL’s regular season, but so much is still up for grabs. Week 16 clarified a few things: The Chiefs nailed down the AFC’s first-round bye, the Buccaneers ended their postseason drought, and the Jaguars claimed the first pick in next year’s draft. But that’s about it. Remarkably, only seven of the 14 playoff spots have been claimed so far.

Five teams are battling for the remaining four spots in the AFC, three teams are duking it out for the last two NFC wild cards, and three of the four terrible NFC East teams are still alive, guaranteeing we’ll have one below-.500 team — no less than what we deserve this year.

So let’s take a spin through the games that got us to where we are right now. There were many dramatic finishes over the weekend, but we’ll start with Saturday’s wild Miami-Las Vegas matchup. I loved ESPN’s win probability chart for the end of that game:

Four lead changes in the final four minutes!

neil (Neil Paine, senior sportswriter): Who would have guessed that Dolphins-Raiders would redeem our day-after-Christmas football viewing? (Which kicked off with the Lions delivering one of the most listless performances we’ve seen in years and continued with the Cardinals not looking much more playoff-worthy on a “channel” nobody over 50 knew how to watch on.)

Salfino (Michael Salfino, FiveThirtyEight contributor): The last five minutes of the Dolphins-Raiders were pretty unbelievable. Has a team ever purposely not scored when the defense was letting them and then lost?

neil: The Falcons were looking at that and saying, “YOU SEE? It doesn’t ALWAYS work!”

joshua.hermsmeyer (Josh Hermsmeyer, NFL analyst): Last week, we talked a little about not coddling QBs and making them compete. Dolphins head coach Brian Flores has taken that to another level by tapping into FitzMagic and benching Tua Tagovailoa whenever the mood strikes him. I love it.

Salfino: I think this is really a bad harbinger for Tua. But what Ryan Fitzpatrick did after Tua was floundering, with less than 100 passing yards, was incredible. And it was historic when you consider that Fitz put up those yards in less than a quarter and factoring in what the starter did.

joshua.hermsmeyer: Whenever you can be historic like Sage Rosenfels, you just have to do it.

neil: (I mean, he was the Tom Brady of the preseason…)

sara.ziegler: There will be no Sage defamation in this chat.


neil: We’ve talked all season about the tug-of-war between Miami winning now — where Fitz gives them the best chance — and setting Tua up to succeed later (but maybe at the expense of this year). Flores is now taking that have-our-cake-and-eat-it-too mentality to the absolute extreme.

sara.ziegler: I kinda love the starter-closer setup! It’s an interesting way to change looks on a defense, and if the quarterbacks are OK with it, why not?

Salfino: If you have a starter/closer, you don’t have a “starter.”

neil: Maybe Tua is the “opener.”

joshua.hermsmeyer: Mike trotting out the “if you have two QBs you don’t have one” line on this, my Monday.

Salfino: A variation, yes. No less true than the original.

neil: It is kind of funny because that’s how Tua made his first big splash: As the “closer” for Jalen Hurts in the national title game with Alabama.

Now he knows how Hurts felt!

Salfino: However it’s happening, the Dolphins are not good, but they keep winning.

neil: They are good on defense! They’re second in defensive SRS and seventh in schedule-adjusted expected points added (EPA) per game.

Salfino: The Dolphins defense is bad at net yards per attempt (ninth worst) but great at opposing yards per point. I ignore that stat, but I wonder if it’s part of the ratings Neil cited.

neil: Yeah, they don’t allow many TDs and get a lot of turnovers, Mike.

joshua.hermsmeyer: The Dolphins can lose to the Bills this week and still make the playoffs. If they lose and the Colts lose again, for instance, we can still see some playoff FinsMagic.

Salfino: But maybe not FitzMagic. Wouldn’t you guys start Fitz now? What are we playing around for now after Christmas?

neil: With a team built on defensive strength, maybe it does make sense to “open” with a game manager type at QB and try to ride it out w/ the D … but have Fitzy around in case you really need to make a comeback late.

sara.ziegler: IDK, I keep thinking of times when a starter has gotten hurt and a backup has come in and confused a defense. Isn’t this just putting that into action? If a team doesn’t plan to face Fitzpatrick, he could hurt them at the end of a game, right?

joshua.hermsmeyer: I think so, Sara. Plus, a rookie QB is probably the perfect situation to try this QB by committee approach. However, the Mikes of the world will have their knives out pretty quickly when they lose using the approach.

Salfino: Is it that Fitzpatrick is different or just better? Is being better the thing that’s making him different?

neil: A charitable comparison (for Tua) would say he is much lower variance. Fitzy is higher risk, higher reward — higher touchdown percentage, higher yards per attempt, much higher interception percentage. So they do offer different profiles.

Salfino: I actually can see the wisdom of playing Tua to find out more about him because the Dolphins are not good enough to win anything. I just think that this is a bad message to send to the team, or at least one you have to worry about selling to the team.

sara.ziegler: So let’s move on to the Colts-Steelers game, which started with the Steelers continuing their very bad look of the past few games and ended in a Pittsburgh rally and Indianapolis collapse. What can we make out of that one?

Salfino: Man, I was writing Ben Roethlisberger’s NFL obit, and he made me look really dumb. He had been terrible for most of the season and certainly the past six weeks. Where did that come from?

I mean, look at these Roethlisberger game logs and then realize he was on his way to another day with a sub-6.0 yards per attempt before he somehow flipped a switch back to 2018.

joshua.hermsmeyer: I credit the Steelers defense with completely shifting the momentum. Prove me wrong.

Salfino: I thought the Steelers defense would be huge in the game given that the Colts were so depleted on the offensive line with COVID-19/injuries. But I really thought a 24-7 deficit for THIS version of Roethlisberger and Pittsburgh’s heretofore pop-gun passing game was too big a hill to climb.

neil: The Colts’ last five drives of that game: punt, punt, punt, INT, turnover on downs. Pretty good defensive response.

sara.ziegler: A Philip Rivers pick seemed preordained, tbh.

joshua.hermsmeyer: I’m shocked the Steelers pulled off a win with just 20 yards rushing, but sometimes you have to go against the winning formula.

neil: LOL

Salfino: It was the first 17-point (or more) second-half comeback win in Roethlisberger’s career.

sara.ziegler: That’s pretty surprising!

joshua.hermsmeyer: It was Mike Tomlin’s first second-half comeback of 17 points or more as well. Nice way to clinch the division for a great coach.

sara.ziegler: The team the Steelers could have lost the division to had an interesting day as well.

neil: “interesting”

sara.ziegler: The Browns followed in the Rams’ footsteps and could not overcome the mighty Jets!

Salfino: Oh, the Jets. Well, the Browns were in a weird spot with no receiving corps due to COVID-19. The Jets were without their best player on defense. Still I expected the Browns to have trouble running against the Jets, and they did. That was the story of this game.

What a weird ending for the Jets — the first team with multiple wins in a season against teams with at least nine more wins than they had.

neil: In related news, neither the Rams nor the Browns are sure things to make the playoffs anymore.

sara.ziegler: That’s what happens when you lose to the Jets…

Salfino: Are the Browns in with a win, Neil? The Rams need help though, right?

neil: Both teams are in with wins.

Salfino: So in a sense, their losses to the Jets don’t hurt them … but they really hurt the Jets.

joshua.hermsmeyer: Considering the Steelers — the Browns’ next opponent — will probably sit their starters, that sounds about right, Mike.

neil: Will they? They could still teeter between the No. 2 and No. 3 seed depending on how Week 17 goes. (It kind of depends on what happens with Buffalo.)

Salfino: I don’t see 2/3 seed as a big enough deal. Sitting the starters is the right football move for the Steelers irrespective of injury risk because the team is feeling good about itself now. Why risk undoing that?

sara.ziegler: That’s an interesting take — let the good Week 16 vibes just carry over.

By that approach, maybe Patrick Mahomes needs another start for the Chiefs to feel better about his Week 16 line.

joshua.hermsmeyer: Mahomes finally had a bad game!

neil: Ugh, and just as we were writing about how consistently he doesn’t do that!

That was the latest into the first half it took for Kansas City to score under Mahomes in the regular season, according to ESPN’s Stats & Information Group. And even after they picked things up some, it ended up being the second-fewest points the Chiefs have ever scored in a Mahomes start.

Salfino: Mahomes has sort of been floundering all month. He has not had an explosive game since November. And of course the Chiefs extended their streak we mentioned last week with their seventh-straight win by 6 points or less. Some of the others were deceptive in that the win was much stronger than the point differential. This one was not.

neil: And yet, for all their close wins, K.C. still has the second best pythagorean winning percentage in the league. (Trailing … Baltimore!)

joshua.hermsmeyer: We still give the Chiefs a 34 percent shot to win the Super Bowl, and Elo gives them a pretty sizable lead over the second place Saints (1766-1719). I think betting against the most talented QB the NFL has ever seen isn’t a great process.

sara.ziegler: It’s hard to get too worried about games that didn’t mean very much, but I think it would be a little troubling for Chiefs fans.

Salfino: You want to be playing your best or near your best football now, generally. There have been exceptions. The Giants were not strong in December during their Super Bowl years. But the Chiefs are going to have to find their offensive identity in January that’s been missing in December. How likely that is, I have no idea.

joshua.hermsmeyer: Will K.C. rest Mahomes this week? He got his first career start in a meaningless Week 17 game in 2017.

neil: Seems likely, Josh. Btw, we should also note that the Falcons are probably much better than their 4-11 record indicates. They’ve been outscored by exactly 1 POINT this year.

Salfino: That was the perfect outcome for the Falcons: Play strong and lose and get that third-overall draft slot.

That point differential stat is amazing for Atlanta. Has to be a record for a four-win team.

neil: Yeah, Mike, since 1970, no team has finished a season with so low a winning percentage and a better points-per-game differential than Atlanta (-0.1) has this year.

sara.ziegler: So let’s look at the rest of the NFC. The games with playoff implications weren’t quite as dramatic, but the Week 16 outcomes set up interesting scenarios for the final week. The Packers, Saints and Seahawks all took care of business rather handily, and each of them could still win the first-round bye — though all the Packers need to do is beat the Bears. Did Aaron Rodgers lock up the MVP title with Green Bay’s win Sunday night over Tennessee?

Salfino: Rodgers is now the favorite. I can’t fight it with how Mahomes has finished.

neil: What’s the biggest gap in years between MVPs? Rodgers would have a six-year gap, having won last in 2014.

Salfino: I think Brady for biggest MVP gap? 2010 to 2017.

neil: Brady will always foil everyone on those longevity-based records.

Salfino: Jim Brown, also: 1958 to 1965. Excellent MVP trivia!

sara.ziegler: Maybe Alvin Kamara should jump into the MVP race now, after his record-tying six-touchdown game.

If you were starting Kamara in a fantasy football matchup, don’t forget to thank the Vikings defense. ЁЯЩД

Salfino: You’re going to trigger Josh, Sara. (I’m a hard no on RB MVPs.)

neil: He is the first player to crack 20 TDs from scrimmage this year!

Salfino: Kamara had six TDs all of last year!

Sean Payton really wanted to punish Mike Zimmer, who had had his number. So he did.

sara.ziegler: It’s sort of wild to me that the Seahawks still have a shot at that first-round bye. What a strange season Seattle has had.

Salfino: Speaking for football fans, I hate the way Seattle is playing now, turning Russell Wilson into a game manager. But it’s working, and we’re going to have to live with it. I think the Seahawks believe it’s making their defense better, and while that can’t be right, it’s hard to argue against.

neil: Pete Carroll was saying after the game that Seattle’s defense has turned a corner. We’ll see. They still rank 17th in defensive SRS and 21st in EPA (including 30th vs. the pass ЁЯШм). But this was easily their best game of the year, I’ll give them that.

joshua.hermsmeyer: Winning with defense and 69 very nice rushing yards from Chris Carson is the Sneaky Pete formula for playoff success. We’re stuck with it, I think.

sara.ziegler: They did look better. I was very confused at how the Rams offense looked.

Salfino: The Rams offense has also turned the corner, into the bad part of town.

sara.ziegler: And now Jared Goff has a broken thumb!

Salfino: This is the Golden Era for Goff haters.

neil: Goff has been straight-up bad for a while now, with a below-average QB Elo in four of his last five starts — including three very very below-average games. It’s a big part of why the Rams have sputtered down the stretch of the season.

Salfino: Goff being out might be addition by subtraction.

neil: Except that nobody — including maybe Sean McVay — has heard of their backup.

Salfino: Goff is a half-field read guy, and if those designs don’t work, he can’t do anything out of structure. Hard to remember Goff making even one out-of-structure play. Instead he does things like that pick that was thrown right to the defender — who was open, in fairness.

sara.ziegler: So the Rams, Cardinals and Bears are fighting for the final two wild-card spots. Which two get in?

joshua.hermsmeyer: I’d like the Bears to make it, just to watch the world burn and Chicago to re-sign Mitch Trubisky. My other preference would be Arizona because I enjoy watching Kyler Murray play.

neil: The Rams are still probably a better bet than Arizona because Murray is banged up, that game is in L.A., and the Rams’ defense is great enough to win even with John Wolford at QB.

Salfino: How much worse can Wolford be? I’ll take the Rams — I hated how the Cardinals looked against the Niners. Kliff Kingsbury looks like a bust as a head coach, quite frankly. But he’s not going anywhere.

neil: Plus, the Rams can also lose and still make the playoffs if the Packers beat the Bears.

sara.ziegler: So the last contested spot in the playoffs is for the dreadful NFC East. The Eagles are the only team that’s been eliminated! Who do you all like there?

“Like” being a strong word.

Salfino: The Eagles were the only team I was interested in seeing in January from the East. So it has to be the Cowboys. Andy Dalton cannot be stopped.

The Giants have been in the tank since we apologized to GM Dave Gettleman. (Or was that just me?)

joshua.hermsmeyer: Joe Judge deserves the playoffs for how he rallied his team late against Baltimore to narrow the Ravens’ margin of victory. I think they ride that gritty momentum all the way to a first-round loss.

sara.ziegler: ЁЯдг

neil: I guess I’m taking Washington, just because they fully control their destiny. The others need help. And maybe Alex Smith will start!

Sounded like he was close to playing Sunday, for whatever that was worth.

sara.ziegler: Darn, I was really hoping for more Taylor Heinicke.

neil: LOL

Hey, he was better than Dwayne Haskins! (Not a tough feat.)

joshua.hermsmeyer: Haskins has been unmasked. He’s not a very good QB.

sara.ziegler: And now Haskins is no longer Football Team’s QB — Washington just waived him.

neil: They’ve seen enough.

Salfino: Smith is going to win two Comeback Player of the Year awards this year if he leads Washington to the playoffs. I root for him, of course, but it’s hard to see him excelling (though the Eagles defense is so banged up). Plus, Jalen Hurts’ style of play might neutralize Washington’s strength in stopping the passing game.

So, I’m sticking with the Cowboys.

sara.ziegler: Give me the Giants.

I want a 6-10 team in there.

neil: Records are meant to be broken!

And 6-10 for a playoff team is one broke-ass record.

Salfino: Gettleman: Lifetime contract.

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.