sara.ziegler (Sara Ziegler, sports editor): We’re two days before Christmas and one week (and one game) away from the end of the regular season. There are precious few playoff spots still up for grabs but plenty to talk about.
Let’s start with the game that could have secured Dallas a playoff spot, the game before which Dak Prescott learned to “defer.” How did the Cowboys lay such an egg?
neil (Neil Paine, senior sportswriter): Because they’re the Cowboys … ?
We can just end the chat here. 😬
Salfino (Michael Salfino, FiveThirtyEight contributor): The QB couldn’t practice all week because of injury and then threw 44 passes.
They did try to run on first down and got stuffed more than half the time. But if you’re trying to protect your injured QB, you need to throw more on first downs to get ahead of the down and distance — and then run. There were way too many third and longs for a guy with shoulder issues that seemed to really degrade his accuracy.
joshua.hermsmeyer (Josh Hermsmeyer, NFL analyst): Dak somehow had a worse QBR than Jameis Winston and his four picks, and the Cowboys ran just three rushing plays against a light box, leaving Ezekiel Elliott with 47 rushing yards. They had nothing working and no real plan.
sara.ziegler: Dak’s injury was pretty apparent, but the decision-making also, again, seemed suspect.
neil: Injury or not, Dak had his worst game of the season at the worst possible time.
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Salfino: He did. But in fairness, there were three drops. I don’t want to defend Dak just for being hurt because he played and most guys are hurt now. But Amari Cooper did not show up. Elliott did not take over the game like you would expect a franchise RB to do. And the defense could not stop an injury-riddled Eagles offense.
I do give Carson Wentz a ton of credit though. The guy is making all his spares — even if there are no strikes in this passing game now.
Salfino: What’s even more incredible about that fourth-down play is that Randall Cobb was benched, too. That’s two of your top three receivers. Cooper has seen a drop-off in production starting around Week 6 or so — he’s just a guy out there. I can’t see how you can give him franchise-level money.
When your plan is, “We needed to get Tavon Austin on the field,” you have no plan.
neil: Meanwhile, Zeke was basically a nonfactor and has worn down in the second half of the season. (He has only one game over 90 rushing yards since Week 9). But at least they’re not paying him a ton of guaranteed money for many years going forward. Oh, wait.
Salfino: Whenever a running back takes a serious step backward in production, you can reasonably wonder if he’s never coming back to the prior level. The Rams’ Todd Gurley is the same deal now. But at least we know that Gurley is chronically injured. I have no idea what’s wrong with Elliott. (The biggest indictment of the Pro Bowl is the Cowboys offensive line getting three on the team. Are you kidding me? Is this a lifetime achievement award? The Cowboys line is just fine, it’s not great.)
sara.ziegler: Though our piece last week about the Cowboys’ paths to the Super Bowl is looking a little stale, Dallas still has a 25 percent chance to make the playoffs, according to the FiveThirtyEight forecast.
Salfino: Danny Dimes!
Can’t you see Philly losing to the Giants next week and giving the Cowboys the opening???
This has been such a weird season.
Salfino: I felt that the Eagles could lose to anyone last week, and I guess I have to still feel that way. They were life and death with Eli Manning and Dwayne Haskins, right?
joshua.hermsmeyer: The only legitimate way for this to happen is for Danny Dimes to get injured in the second quarter and then for Eli to come in and lead the Giants to victory, ending his career one game above .500.
neil: That sounds eminently possible.
Salfino: Could Case Keenum beat the Cowboys? What if both teams lose? I’m sort of rooting for that, though I am a big Wentz fan and hate how Eagles fans drag him.
neil: Well, it’s important to note that even if the Cowboys tie, the Eagles make the playoffs.
So that would also be a fitting/hilarious way for all of this to end.
sara.ziegler: The more absurd, the better!
joshua.hermsmeyer: Rich Eisen won the evening with his Jets tweet:
neil: There were so many potential jokes around that Cowboy game.
Salfino: “Planes, Trains & Automobiles” was the hardest I ever laughed in a movie theater.
neil: I love that the NFC playoff field could have four 12-win teams, an 11-win team … and whoever wins the NFC East, at maybe 8-8.
Salfino: Where are you guys on changing the playoff structure? I am totally against it. I like the division system taking priority in seeding, and kind of enjoy the chaos of this type of divisional asymmetry. But maybe I’m just old fashioned.
sara.ziegler: I guess it depends on what the point of it all is, right?
neil: I think the league could probably stand to drop the rule that division winners host playoff games, at the very least.
Salfino: My feeling is that if you have teams playing six games in their division, then division has to rule.
joshua.hermsmeyer: I haven’t heard any firm proposals for a change, so unsure.
Salfino: Well, Josh, I guess you could just seed all the teams by record regardless of division. That would be the only viable alternative, I think. But then we’re a small step to having 12 playoff teams regardless of conference, too.
joshua.hermsmeyer: That sounds like most fantasy leagues. I bet there would be a lot of folks who would like that.
sara.ziegler: Do you want to find the best team? If you do, reseeding by record makes more sense to me.
Salfino: We can put analytics in charge of everything and just have Pythag determine the seeding. 🙂
neil: Sorry, Seahawks.
sara.ziegler: That was the next game I wanted to talk about.
What … happened there?
Salfino: Seattle was a total fraud and was finally exposed when Russell Wilson had no magic in him for a day.
neil: Remember when Wilson was an MVP front-runner? He’s been running cold for about a month now.
Salfino: I think Wilson should still be an MVP front-runner, honestly. Seattle is a bad team with an inner-circle Hall of Fame QB and is winning, somehow. Put a slug QB on that team and it wins maybe four games.
(Not saying that Wilson, who has never even received an MVP vote, should win — just that he deserves being in the conversation.)
joshua.hermsmeyer: Perhaps the most notable event was a Hawks analytics staffer logging on to Twitter and defending Pete Carroll’s decision to punt inside the Arizona 40 early in the game (though the tweet has since been deleted). You hate to see it.
sara.ziegler: Arizona still won after losing Kyler Murray.
Brett Hundley shall lead them, apparently.
Salfino: I don’t get what is so complicated on the fourth and shorts. If we’re playing Madden or Strat-O-Matic or whatever, we’re going for those every time. If you just want to win, that’s the call. And every time, your opponent wants you to punt; they’re excited about you punting. Why give the opponent what they want so willingly? Teams have to quit playing to the press box and start playing to win, period.
sara.ziegler: There’s such a disconnect between playing the odds in a theoretical game and playing them in a real game. The age-old problem.
Salfino: But that’s only because deep down, you want to take the quiet loss. The loud loss gets you fired. So coaches will gladly pay a small price today in win probability for a better chance at maintaining employment tomorrow. This only changes when the announcers on the games start being hip to expected value and win probability.
neil: The good news for the Seahawks is that they still can win the division (and potentially even be the No. 1 NFC seed) with a head-to-head win over San Francisco, this time at home.
Salfino: I want to say I will eat a bug if the Niners lose, but their defense scares me for the opposite reasons as in the first half of the season. They can’t stop anyone now, it seems.
joshua.hermsmeyer: Wow, San Francisco just 55 percent to win the division by our Elo.
But if they win, 14 percent to win the Super Bowl.
Salfino: Josh has written about how defensive performance isn’t sustainable season-to-season, but the Niners have been two-faced on defense in the season.
sara.ziegler: How much were injuries to blame though, Mike?
Salfino: A lot. But that’s the thing on defense, IMO. You have to keep so many more people healthy. A top offense can lose practically anyone except the QB.
sara.ziegler: That’s fair.
Salfino: Speaking of injuries in that game, maybe the Seahawks will be helped by having no running backs except for maybe Shaun Alexander, I mean Marshawn Lynch, and thus be forced to pass.
neil: Shaun Alexander? What’s the statute of limitations on the Madden Curse?
joshua.hermsmeyer: I’m still weak that Marshawn coming back isn’t completely off the table.
sara.ziegler: OMG, yes.
sara.ziegler: Come back to win them the Super Bowl!
Salfino: Lynch coming back and getting 25 carries with Wilson throwing 23 passes would be peak Schotty.
sara.ziegler: Meanwhile, in the AFC, the final wild card is still very much up for grabs. Tennessee and Pittsburgh refused to nail that spot down this weekend, and somehow, against all odds, Oakland still has a shot!
joshua.hermsmeyer: My head hurts.
neil: There was already a long list of things that needed to happen Week 16 to make it possible … and they ALL happened!
Salfino: So a Cowboys-Raiders Super Bowl is still alive!
joshua.hermsmeyer: The Raiders having the super long shot parlay for a playoff spot is on-brand considering their new home next season.
sara.ziegler: It just makes sense.
Salfino: I think all those things could happen, except for the Ravens beating the Steelers with their 12 Pro Bowl players all benched. So do the Ravens sit everyone basically for two weeks — or play their starters, knowing they’ll have the next week off? Bill Belichick would play this one for real, I think.
neil: Somehow Pittsburgh can still make the playoffs even if it loses to Baltimore next week. (Which is incredible to me.)
So the Ravens wouldn’t necessarily get the satisfaction of personally ending the hated Steelers’ season, whether they play the starters or not.
joshua.hermsmeyer: I think beating the Browns was a pretty good substitute. The mismanagement at the end of the half by Cleveland was breathtaking, and, I think, much welcomed by the Ravens.
How do you not run out the clock and end up leaving Lamar enough time for a TD? Cleveland got the ball at the end of the half with 1:18 on the clock and punted with 1:02. It would have taken just one running play to keep the ball out of his hands.
Salfino: I’ll be shocked if we ever hear of Freddie Kitchens again after this year.
neil: “The mismanagement at the end of the half by Cleveland was breathtaking” — perma-analysis for the 2019 Browns.
Salfino: The Browns are like the blockbuster movie with all the big stars that ends up winning only Razzies.
neil: Don’t say we didn’t warn them…
Salfino: The Browns are like an old Irwin Allen disaster movie. Except those made money.
neil: I would LOVE to see Baker Mayfield accept his Razzie in person, a la Halle Berry.
Salfino: Baker’s commercial time is going to take a big hit in 2020.
sara.ziegler: I’ll miss the Baker’s House commercials when they’re gone.
joshua.hermsmeyer: It was an expensive season for Baker.
Salfino: He cashed out quick, like Brady Quinn. Quinn somehow had national commercials his rookie year.
neil: Is that, like, a thing for Browns QBs? Did DeShone Kizer hock some product that we didn’t know about?
sara.ziegler: Time for a deep dive on YouTube, Neil.
Salfino: Brandon Weeden did commercials for AARP.
neil: Mike wins the chat.
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