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Rejoice, Nerds: Math Won The NFL (In Week 2, At Least)

sara.ziegler (Sara Ziegler, sports editor): After the first week of the 2021 NFL season delivered pure chaos, Week 2 didn’t let us down. We had furious comebacks, worrisome injuries and a field goal attempt that I think we all knew was going to miss. 

Let’s kick things off with the fantastically entertaining Chiefs-Ravens game on Sunday Night Football, which started with a Baltimore tribute to actor Michael K. Williams and ended with a play that the math types loved: the Ravens refusing to punt.

joshua.hermsmeyer (Josh Hermsmeyer, NFL analyst): “I’m like, ‘Hell, yeah!’” was Lamar Jackson’s response.

Salfino (Michael Salfino, FiveThirtyEight contributor): Like Lamar was gonna say, “Nah.”

This puts Patrick Mahomes in the same category of opposing quarterbacks as Peyton Manning, where you don’t give the ball back to them — like when Bill Belichick similarly went for it on fourth-and-2 on his side of the field in a 2009 Pats-Colts game. The category of “even NFL coaches understand this math.”

joshua.hermsmeyer: Lamar was never going to say no, and the Ravens were never not going for it. Because math.

neil (Neil Paine, senior sportswriter): The Ravens of all teams were never not going. Since 2018, when Lamar took over as QB, they have more successful fourth-down conversions (44) than any other team. They know the math arguably as much as any team, and they have the perfect QB and offense to pick that yard up.

Salfino: The Ravens had no business winning that game, though. Mahomes threw a terrible interception, and Clyde Edwards-Helaire is continuing the recent trend of all first-round RB draft picks (except Christian McCaffrey) being TERRIBLE picks with that fumble when their win probability was about sealed.


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joshua.hermsmeyer: Each team had two turnovers though, Mike. I mean, Lamar spotted the Chiefs a TD when Sammy Watkins fell down on a pass attempt out of an empty set1 on his third attempt of the night.

Salfino: Fair!

joshua.hermsmeyer: I think it is very fair to say that the Chiefs were the favorite, but the lucky break stuff doesn’t really fly IMO. 

Salfino: But there was not much game left when Edwards-Helaire lost the ball, so it seems more decisive. 

Jackson was the best player on the field by far after that first quarter, which is really saying something when Mahomes is also on the field.

sara.ziegler: The Ravens had more yards, more first downs, more time of possession. That’s not necessarily what it felt like while watching.

neil: Aside from forcing the various turnovers, neither defense played well. The Ravens got just enough out of their D in the final few sequences — between picking off Mahomes late in the third, forcing a punt and then getting that fumble — to win.

joshua.hermsmeyer: I thought the Ravens’ defense did a very good job shutting down Reek (3-4 for 14 yards).

sara.ziegler: Ooh, yes.

neil: Yeah, but at the expense of everything else. You could tell they were extremely determined to not let him beat them.

Salfino: Excellent point, Neil. That’s what makes their passing game so “pick your poison.”

joshua.hermsmeyer: Mahomes averaged over 11 yards per attempt, which is bananas. There’s no shutting him down, and that was obviously a big part of why going for it at the end of the game up one point was so sharp.

Salfino: Not loving the team around Mahomes one bit. It’s amazing that the Chiefs simply have not been able to manufacture any running game to gain some time of possession and keep that defense at least more rested. Not that that would matter.

sara.ziegler: I guess I’m not sure that the Chiefs’ problem was that they didn’t run it more, Mike. They’re facing a defense that’s strong against the run, and they have Mahomes. One might argue that handing it to Edwards-Helaire at the end there was the biggest mistake they made!

Salfino: Oh, I agree that the handoff was a bad play. But they can’t run it against anyone. It’s just amazing to me that they can’t because RBs fall onto the street like leaves off a tree, and the defense will concede the running game — like when the Patriots’ committee of ham-and-egg RBs would run for 250 when the defense over-committed.

joshua.hermsmeyer: One interesting thing I was looking at was Lamar’s raw vs. defense-adjusted QBR. The raw QBR is 67 (Mahomes’s was 73), but the adjusted Total QBR was 59. Do we think the Chiefs defense is that bad? 

neil: I think they are bad against the run, but that shouldn’t really show up in QBR adjustments. They were 10th in schedule-adjusted EPA per game against the pass last year (including playoffs).

Salfino: (Whispers: The Broncos are winning the West.)

sara.ziegler: 🤣

neil: Don’t you DARE sleep on the Raiders, Mike.

joshua.hermsmeyer: How good are the Raiders??

neil: This is their year!

(As many have said in what feels like every first half of a season in the Carr Era.)

Salfino: Derek Carr deserves apologies from the world and certainly from me. The dude is good. And he came in with a leg injury and salted that game away with a rainbow to Henry Ruggs that had to have Al Davis smiling in his grave.

Both Wests have great overall records, but I like the AFC more.

joshua.hermsmeyer: Before we move on from the Chiefs-Ravens, I wanted to get a sense of what the crew thinks about this claim: The way to beat Kansas City is a strong running game.

neil: The Ravens have one of those and just beat K.C. Case closed! LOL.

Salfino: Well, you do want to limit their possessions, right? Basically a four-corners concept.

joshua.hermsmeyer: I think the running may help at the margins with time of possession, but getting first downs helps even more!

sara.ziegler: Maybe the way to beat them is to have the strongest running game in the league.

Salfino: If you can give Mahomes one or two fewer possessions than he averages, it’s easy plus-expected points for your D, right?

Problem is he could be up 21-0 after three possessions. So on second thought, just score.

neil: To be honest, the real way to beat K.C. is to have a balanced team with a strong defense and a passing game that can keep reasonable pace with them. Essentially, be the 2020 Tampa Bay Buccaneers.

Funny as it is to say when they had 145 yards on the ground, but Tampa’s run game was kind of irrelevant in that Super Bowl — they had negative expected points added in the game.

It was the early passing, the turnovers and generally ferocious defense that won them the title.

joshua.hermsmeyer: I’m always shocked when Mahomes loses. It’s almost unnatural.

Salfino: Dying to see a Broncos-Chiefs matchup when the Broncos have healthy corners, hopefully. I think they have a Mahomes-beating build, at least theoretically.

sara.ziegler: I love me some Teddy Bridgewater, but that seems a little far. But we’ll find out! (Not until December though, sheesh.)


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One other note about the Baltimore running game: The Ravens have gone through what seems like an entire team of injured running backs, yet through two weeks, they lead the league in rushing. It obviously helps to have Lamar, but if that’s not the perfect example of running backs being interchangeable, I don’t know what is.

joshua.hermsmeyer: Agreed, Sara! But even I was questioning that position when they got to their fourth-string back, LOL.

neil: I’m just glad Latavius Murray found another destination — and is contributing! — after the Saints did him so dirty.

Salfino: One hundred percent, Sara. Peyton Manning said it on the Manning Cast (which is the best thing to happen to televised football since the first-down yellow line, I’m serious).

joshua.hermsmeyer: Wait, what did Manning say?

Salfino: That any RB would be good on the Ravens because of Lamar.

joshua.hermsmeyer: Ah, I thought he said they were interchangeable and I almost fell over.

Salfino: That’s what I understood him to mean.

But maybe only for the Ravens.

sara.ziegler: LOL

joshua.hermsmeyer: I think that it’s hard to overstate how much this win means for Lamar. He did a couple things people say he simply can’t do: rebound from a really rough start, come from behind, and beat the Chiefs. He gave the Steve Young quote about getting the monkey off his back after the game, and I think that’s apt. I’m very happy for Lamar. 

neil: Yes, and they needed that win, too. Their playoff odds would have dipped below 50 percent if they had lost and fallen to 0-2.

Still, I’m not sure it tells us much about the two teams relative to each other. I actually think the Chiefs even plotted out the endgame pretty well: They managed the clock specifically to set up a game-winning field goal with no time left, and expected a run game that has fumbled once every 68 carries over the past three years to take care of the ball. If that happens, they probably win. It didn’t. Truly a toss-up kind of game.

sara.ziegler: Not to get overly sappy about one game, but this was the kind of matchup that keeps me coming back to the NFL. Two young, incredibly talented quarterbacks playing all-out in a “anyone can win” kind of game. I really want to see this again in the playoffs!

Let’s take a quick spin around a few other interesting games. The Saints looked very good in Week 1, and then they just completely laid an egg Sunday against the Panthers. What was that about?

neil: Sam Darnold >>> Aaron Rodgers?

(Kidding.)

joshua.hermsmeyer: I know that seven members of the Saints coaching staff were in COVID-19 quarantine, but I don’t know how much that explains the game.

Salfino: The Panthers right now look like a co-favorite in the NFC South, given how the Bucs are struggling defending the pass (sans Sunday’s pick-sixes).

neil: OK, let’s not get too carried away, Mike. I said I was kidding.

Salfino: The Panthers have no obvious weakness if we stipulate that Darnold is at least average (and maybe he’s better than that). The Saints defense is good, though Darnold caught them at the right time. The Panthers are very tough to defend with McCaffrey and those WRs.

neil: I will say the Panthers’ defense has been good so far. They rank second in defensive EPA through two games, trailing only the Buffalo Bills.

sara.ziegler: And Darnold ranks sixth in QBR. Darnold for MVP!

LOL

Salfino: You can’t hurt me, Sara.

joshua.hermsmeyer: I’m just gonna let Mike have this Darnold moment.

Salfino: I’m numb.

I don’t know what to make of Darnold. Maybe you can take the player out of the Jets and the Jets out of the player?

neil: Does this just mean Zach Wilson will be a breakout for, IDK, the Falcons in like three years?

sara.ziegler: Oooof.

joshua.hermsmeyer: The Falcons would be such a good match, too!

Salfino: You are all horrible people.

neil: Hahaha

sara.ziegler: Moving on, the Titans-Seahawks game gave us something we don’t see very often: Seattle losing a game at home that it led after three quarters. Sunday was only the 25th time that had happened in the 46 seasons the franchise has been around. And it was only the sixth time that the Seahawks had led by at least 8 points after three quarters and then lost. How did that one get away from them?

Salfino: Derrick Henry ate Seattle’s soul is what happened. He flicked the switch. I’ve never seen a guy as fast as Henry after he gets 10 yards down the field. He just runs away from everyone. That the Titans came back down like that with a running game is IN-SANE.

And they did it despite the NFL making one of the worst calls in history by reversing a clear Julio Jones TD (or at least a clear “inconclusive”) that cost the Titans 4 points. 

joshua.hermsmeyer: I fear Pete Carroll will take all the wrong lessons from this game. Russ threw for 11 yards per attempt and they only ran 18 times (including three rushes from Russ) and got beat by a team that ran it 40 times. All his priors were confirmed.

Salfino: Oh, 100 percent.

sara.ziegler: Yeah, that sounds right.

neil: Henry and the Titans might be one of only two teams (the other being the Ravens) who could run their way back from being down big.

In fact, since 2000, that was the second-most rushing yards gained by a team in the 4th quarter of a game while they were trailing (but would ultimately win):

Tennessee ran its way back versus Seattle

Most rushing yards in the fourth quarter for a trailing team in games those teams eventually won, since 2000

Date Team Opponent Result Rushes Yards TDs
9/8/2002 Chiefs Browns W 40 – 39 9 124 3
9/19/2021 Titans Seahawks W 33 – 30 11 110 2
11/22/2020 Cowboys Vikings W 31 – 28 11 106 1
10/18/2020 Titans Texans W 42 – 36 2 104 1
12/8/2013 Eagles Lions W 34 – 20 3 103 2
12/24/2006 Titans Bills W 30 – 29 17 99 0
9/11/2016 Raiders Saints W 35 – 34 7 99 2
10/18/2009 Jaguars Rams W 23 – 20 14 96 2
12/19/2010 Eagles Giants W 38 – 31 4 94 1
1/18/2015* Seahawks Packers W 28 – 22 10 93 2

*Playoff game.

Source: ESPN Stats & Information Group

sara.ziegler: Dang.

Also impressive that they came back in a game when A.J. Brown caught only a third of his targets.

Salfino: Brown seems hurt. Two offseason knee surgeries and knee issues this summer in camp.

I have a question about the Cowboys that has broader NFL implications. Ezekiel Elliott is the second-best RB on his team, behind Tony Pollard, so how does that work with his monster contract? Why do teams give RBs big contracts (except Henry)? 

sara.ziegler: I guess, to that first question, the takeaway is to pay Pollard more?

joshua.hermsmeyer: 🤑

Salfino: Is Elliott too big to fail with Jerry Jones as involved as he is?

joshua.hermsmeyer: Jerruh will never forget when Emmitt Smith held out and the Cowboy started the season 0-2.

Salfino: That is so true. 

sara.ziegler: I’m gonna need Zeke to pick it up for the good of my fantasy team. That would be helpful, thanks.

Salfino: And Micah Parsons moves from inside linebacker to defensive end and plays like an All-Pro. How does this happen? Did the Cowboys stumble into one of the best values in the NFL draft? And what do they do with him now? Are there other great, big off-ball linebackers who could be moved to DE?

neil: Probably a lesson in playing your best athletes at the most impactful positions …

Salfino: But if you can find these guys at other college positions, that can revolutionize the draft and scouting.

sara.ziegler: Lots of interesting storylines so far this season! You love to see it.

Salfino: Here’s my prediction after two weeks of play: Broncos-Panthers Super Bowl.

Ex-Jets QB Bowl.

sara.ziegler: You heard it here first, folks.

Check out our latest NFL predictions.


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Footnotes

  1. Five wide receivers and no running back lined up in the backfield.

Sara Ziegler is the sports editor at FiveThirtyEight.

Neil Paine is a senior writer for FiveThirtyEight.

Josh Hermsmeyer is 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.

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