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Pennsylvania Is A Battleground State … In Football

Pennsylvanians went into the 2018 season believing that it might be a banner year for the state’s NFL teams. The Philadelphia Eagles were league champs the season before, and the Pittsburgh Steelers had harbored their own championship aspirations before an upset playoff loss against Jacksonville. Although we’ve never seen a Steelers-Eagles Super Bowl, we’ve come close a few times this century — both teams made the conference championship in 2008-09 (Eagles lost), 2004-05 (Steelers lost) and 2001-02 (both lost). There was reason to think 2018 might bring another chance for a clash between Eastern and Western PA on the game’s biggest stage.

Fourteen weeks later, that’s not looking so hot. The Steelers started strong despite a contract impasse with star running back Le’Veon Bell, but they’ve faltered recently in a three-game losing streak and now are in danger of missing the playoffs. And Pittsburgh is this year’s Pennsylvania success story. The defending-champion Eagles continue to suffer from one of history’s worst Super Bowl hangovers and are down to an 18 percent playoff probability after Sunday’s crushing loss to the Dallas Cowboys.

In the midst of all of that turmoil, though, Pennsylvania will be at the center of the football universe for Week 15 of the NFL season. According to our combination of matchup quality (i.e., the harmonic mean of the teams’ Elo ratings in each game) and game importance (how likely it is to swing every team’s odds of making the playoffs),1 the Steelers’ game against the New England Patriots on Sunday afternoon is the best of the week, while Philly’s Sunday-night clash against the Rams is tied for second-best:

The best matchups of Week 15

Week 15 games by the highest average Elo rating (using the harmonic mean) plus the total potential swing for all NFL teams’ playoff chances based on the result, according to FiveThirtyEight’s NFL predictions

Playoff % Playoff %
Team A Current Avg. Chg* Team B Current Avg. Chg* Total Change Game Quality
PIT 62.3% +/-23.1 NE 99.3% +/-0.7 47.1 1617
PHI 17.6 14.7 LAR 100.0 0.0 30.8 1604
MIN 56.8 17.9 MIA 20.2 11.3 58.4 1491
CAR 8.9 9.4 NO 100.0 0.0 20.3 1605
IND 27.2 12.3 DAL 99.2 0.9 26.5 1546
BAL 54.6 15.1 TB 0.8 1.1 32.8 1508
TEN 34.5 19.1 NYG 0.5 0.5 40.8 1485
LAC 99.7 0.2 KC 100.0 0.0 4.0 1656
GB 3.2 4.2 CHI 99.9 0.2 10.0 1527
HOU 96.1 4.9 NYJ 0.0 0.0 12.7 1440
WSH 10.5 8.6 JAX 0.0 0.0 19.8 1429
DEN 5.1 3.2 CLE 0.5 0.7 9.0 1445
DET 3.5 3.3 BUF 0.0 0.0 10.1 1431
SEA 99.3 1.1 SF 0.0 0.0 3.3 1481
ATL 0.1 0.0 ARI 0.0 0.0 1.5 1409
CIN 0.4 0.3 OAK 0.0 0.0 2.4 1370

Game quality is the harmonic mean of the Elo ratings for the two teams in a given matchup. Total Change adds up the potential swing in playoff odds for every team in the league (not just the two teams listed).

*Average change is weighted by the likelihood of a win or loss. (Ties are excluded.)

Source: ESPN.com

Despite their mind-blowing last-second loss to the Miami Dolphins — and their generally less-impressive-than-usual season — the Patriots don’t have a huge amount riding on their matchup with Pittsburgh. (Win or lose, our model gives them at least a 99 percent chance to make the playoffs.) But the game does have major implications for the Steelers’ postseason future. Right now, Pittsburgh is one of five AFC teams with between a 20 percent and 65 percent playoff probability, according to our model. If the Steelers win, their number goes from 62 percent to 85 percent; if they lose, it drops to 38 percent.

Gone are the questions about whether the Steelers could maintain their offensive output without Bell. With James Conner carrying the load at RB instead, Pittsburgh’s offense ranks roughly the same in expected points added per game (fifth) as it did a year ago (third) and has improved from 21st to 11th in EPA on the ground. Even without Conner against the Raiders — and with backups Jaylen Samuels and Stevan Ridley combining for just 32 yards on 16 carries — Pittsburgh’s offense exceeded its usual weekly EPA average (although most teams do that against the Raiders). The real issue has been on defense, where the team ranks fourth-to-last in EPA over the past three weeks, including dead last against the pass. When Derek Carr is shredding your D for a 122.4 passer rating, there are some problems that must be addressed by Mike Tomlin and staff.

And Steelers-Patriots has ripple effects that stretch far beyond just Pittsburgh’s chances. The Baltimore Ravens’ odds will go up or down by 13 percentage points depending on who wins in Pittsburgh; Tennessee and Indianapolis will also see their odds shift by multiple percentage points based on the outcome. Three other teams — Miami, Denver and Houston — will get changes of about 1 percentage point apiece. All told, about 47 points of playoff probability will move around on the basis of New England and Pittsburgh’s contest.

For the Eagles, their playoff chances all but evaporated after falling to Dallas. While they were able to beat Washington (which is now also sitting at 6-7, two games back of the Cowboys, and now auditioning quarterbacks who walk in off the street) two weeks ago in the most important game of Week 13, Philly was unable to replicate that feat in overtime Sunday, losing the most crucial matchup of Week 14. There are still scenarios left whereby the Eagles can make the playoffs, most of which involve them winning out — while facing winning teams in the Rams and Texans over their three remaining games — and the Minnesota Vikings and Carolina Panthers losing games down the stretch. But Philadelphia has dug a deep hole for itself with three weeks to go.

As we noted in late October, Carson Wentz and the Eagles’ offense were above average throwing the ball, but that wasn’t enough to offset a suspect running game and a disappointing defense. Since then, Wentz has basically held steady, but the rushing attack has gotten even worse, and the defense has done nothing to turn its season around. After weeks of waiting for the real Eagles to show up and play like champions, it’s probably time to admit that these are the real Eagles — and their hopes of repeating are slim.

A win over L.A. would drag Philadelphia’s playoff chances up to 42 percent, so there is plenty on the line for at least one of the two teams involved Sunday. But with the Rams having locked up their division earlier this month, the game’s second-biggest stakes belong to the Vikings, who would lose 14 points of playoff probability with an Eagles win and gain 6 points if Philly loses. In addition, Washington, Seattle, Detroit, Dallas, Green Bay and Carolina will see at least 1 point of movement to their postseason odds depending on whether the Eagles win or lose.

But most of all, it should be a good game. For all their mediocrity this year, the Eagles are still probably better than their 6-7 record, while the Rams are locked in a fight for the No. 1 seed in the NFC and have something to prove offensively after a weak Sunday-night showing against the Bears in Chicago. The Steelers and Patriots are in similar positions — both teams rank among the best in the AFC yet have a lot of questions to answer. Add it up, and the state of Pennsylvania figures to be a key battleground in the playoff ace, even if its teams aren’t exactly as intimidating as they seemed three months ago.

FiveThirtyEight vs. the readers

Want more playoff probabilities? Check out FiveThirtyEight’s Elo ratings in our NFL prediction interactive, which simulates the rest of the season 100,000 times and tracks every team’s odds. You can also pick against the Elo algorithm in our prediction game. Try your hand and attempt to climb up our giant leaderboard.

Based on data from the prediction contest, here are the matchups in which Elo made its best — and worst — picks against the field of readers last week:

Elo’s dumbest (and smartest) picks of Week 14

Average difference between points won by readers and by Elo in Week 14 matchups in FiveThirtyEight’s NFL prediction game

OUR PREDICTION (ELO) READERS’ PREDICTION
PICK WIN PROB. PICK WIN PROB. Result READERS’ NET PTS
WSH 69% NYG 51% NYG 40, WSH 16 +21.1
BUF 70 BUF 63 NYJ 27, BUF 23 +7.6
CAR 62 CAR 56 CLE 26, CAR 20 +4.8
ARI 51 DET 55 DET 17, ARI 3 +4.6
NO 74 NO 79 NO 28, TB 14 +1.0
GB 53 GB 55 GB 34, ATL 20 -0.1
HOU 68 HOU 67 IND 24, HOU 21 -0.4
LAC 84 LAC 85 LAC 26, CIN 21 -1.0
KC 71 KC 72 KC 27, BAL 24 -1.1
DAL 59 DAL 58 DAL 29, PHI 23 -3.3
TEN 66 TEN 63 TEN 30, JAX 9 -4.0
SEA 62 SEA 60 SEA 21, MIN 7 -4.2
PIT 78 PIT 81 OAK 24, PIT 21 -6.9
NE 72 NE 75 MIA 34, NE 33 -7.0
LAR 56 LAR 62 CHI 15, LAR 6 -8.9
DEN 63 DEN 68 SF 20, DEN 14 -9.0

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.

Elo beat the typical reader again in Week 14, but it was very close: On average, our predictions won the week by only 6.8 points. Relative to readers, Elo was rightly bearish on the Rams and Broncos, but the readers did get a huge victory over the model in the Giants’ 40-16 blowout of Washington. Knowing that the ‘Skins were down to Mark Sanchez at QB (who was later replaced by Josh “No, not that Josh Johnson” Johnson), readers preyed on Elo’s ignorance and picked Eli Manning and company to win. Although it wasn’t enough to win the week, it was the most lopsided single-game victory of the season by either readers over the computer or vice-versa.

Anyway, congrats to Vyascheslav Tolbert (Mike Tolbert’s Russian cousin?), who led all users in Week 14 with 129.5 points, and to Greg Chili Van Hollebeke, who maintained his No. 1 ranking for the season with 963.4 points. Thanks to everyone who has been playing — and if you haven’t, get in on the action before it’s too late! You can make picks now and still try your luck against Elo, even if you haven’t played yet.

Check out our latest NFL predictions.

Footnotes

  1. Which adds up a game’s potential swing in playoff odds for every team in the league — including those not participating in the game itself.

Neil Paine is a senior sportswriter for FiveThirtyEight.

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