The Dolphins Take Another L, The Lions Grab Another W, And The NFL Playoff Picture Gets Clearer
maya (Maya Sweedler, editor): With four weeks remaining in the regular season, the NFL playoff picture is beginning to shape up quite nicely. But there’s still a fair amount of uncertainty remaining, with a couple of yesterday’s outcomes — the L.A. Chargers hanging on to defeat the Miami Dolphins, the Detroit Lions (who have won five of their last six games) taking a look at the Vegas line and going “yeah, OK” against the Minnesota Vikings, the Jacksonville Jaguars solidly beating the division-leading Tennessee Titans to remain within two games — adding to that.
We’re going to hit on the team that clinched a berth, the eliminated teams and the teams that found success with new quarterbacks (I can’t guarantee we won’t get to the obligatory “defend Jimmy G.” part of the chat), but let’s first talk about those three games.
A week after the San Francisco 49ers defense executed their game plan to perfection against Tua Tagovailoa and the Dolphins’ receiving threats, the Chargers defense got right up on the line of scrimmage and held Tyreek Hill and Jaylen Waddle to a combined 112 yards. Why was that so effective? Have teams learned how to stop this insanely talented Miami offense?
neil (Neil Paine, acting sports editor): One big thing for L.A. was taking away the deep passing. Tua came into the game ranked third in QBR on passes of 15-plus air yards, but he was the second-worst QB of Week 14 on deep throws, with a 9.9 QBR (ahead of only Geno Smith). Those deep numbers are UGLY: 1-for-9 with a -26.6 completion percentage over expected.
joshua.hermsmeyer (Josh Hermsmeyer, NFL analyst): I think the Chargers did three things well:
1. They were physical with the speedy receivers at and even behind the line of scrimmage. And not just the corners playing press — Kyle Van Noy got some shots in on Waddle and Hill.
2. They handled motion really well. Heading into Week 14, Tua led the NFL in dropbacks with motion at the snap, and he had a raw QBR of 63.5 on those plays. Against the Chargers, he had a QBR of just 29.9 on 12 dropbacks with motion at the snap.
3. They played press on all but five snaps. I’m not sure how much this is something other teams can emulate, though. Hill’s long touchdown came against press-man coverage. I think that’s going to be the likely outcome in a game more often than not for DBs on teams that try and copy L.A., but the Chargers were up to the task on the rest of their snaps.
Salfino (Michael Salfino, FiveThirtyEight contributor): Things aren’t perfect for Tua now. Waddle has been banged up. Hill hurt his ankle at the end of the second half (when the Dolphins were already dead offensively, to be fair). The Dolphins offensive line has some injuries. The test of a QB isn’t how they play when things are perfect and against terrible defenses. It’s how they perform when circumstances are far from ideal, and Tua has failed over the past two weeks. I did see this film analysis on why Tua was so clearly confused:
maya: Is press coverage against the Dolphins this year’s version of cover-2 defense against the 2021 Chiefs? How does this compare to the game plan the Niners rolled out last week, which seemed to rely less on removing the deep ball and more on Fred Warner and the rangy Niners secondary forcing Tua to throw to the sideline?
joshua.hermsmeyer: It was different from the Niners, to answer that part. The 49ers used quarters coverage about one-third of the time against Tua, while the Chargers only played cover-4 once.
Chargers coach Brandon Staley spoke about this when he was asked after the game about the similarities between the two team’s approaches. He said “They didn’t play press stuff like we did tonight. They played quarters off most of the time or two-deep, so their game plan was completely different from ours.”
neil: Staley trying to get out ahead of the “Niners did it first!” comments.
“We didn’t just copy them!!!”
Salfino: I think the Dolphins made the classic mistake of playing to your perceived strength vs. attacking the opponent. The Chargers are among the league’s worst run defenses, and nine of the Dolphins’ 12 plays were pass plays — and they punted three times. If teams are playing cover-2, you have to run them out of that.
neil: That’s an interesting question, Mike — where is that line between taking what the defense wants to give you versus doing what you want to do? Clearly the Dolphins didn’t figure it out.
maya: To be fair, there are pretty fundamental differences between the Niners and Chargers defenses — the base (Niners play 4-3, Chargers play 3-4), the (sorry!) level of talent.
Salfino: Also, the Niners defense is great and the Chargers defense is bad. 🙂
joshua.hermsmeyer: Yeah, Maya, I think the key was how physical they were and taking away the Dolphins’ favorite concepts, like jet motion. Here’s an example where they do both, with Van Noy blowing up Waddle in the backfield.
I just think the Dolphins weren’t ready for this defense.
Salfino: This is a great plan against the Dolphins, Josh, because Tua wants to get the ball out quickly so if you disrupt the route initially, the entire play has already gone sideways.
neil: Right. One other interesting aspect of that was that Tua did have time to throw. He was pressured only 6.1 percent of the time, one of his lowest rates of the season.
Yet he did nothing with the extra time.
joshua.hermsmeyer: Absolutely. Tua has one of the lowest average times to throw in the league.
maya: Is that on Mike McDaniel, the Dolphins more broadly or Tua?
I’m not trying to call down TuaNon — I think Tagovailoa has acquitted himself quite well this season — but the fact of the matter is he’s a gifted but young quarterback who remains somewhat skittish in the pocket.
Salfino: Well in fairness, Tua obviously has an A game (especially against the bad defenses, i.e., most of the NFL). But does he have a B game? This may just be Tua’s limitation, not McDaniel’s lack of planning/making adjustments.
neil: And it’s a bad time for him to have a few games that seemingly “expose” him the way his critics have been hoping to see all year.
joshua.hermsmeyer: I think the Dolphins could have won this game if Waddle and Tua had been on the same page — or if Waddle had won his one-on-ones.
Salfino: The Buffalo Bills are on deck. Murder, She Wrote.
The Dolphins might not make the playoffs.
neil: If they lose to the Bills, their playoff odds somehow drop below 70 percent, Mike. (That hadn’t been true since Week 7.)
Salfino: They’re probably behind the Jets after next week.
maya: And what about the Chargers?
It’s been pretty clear for weeks that this AFC West division wasn’t going to be the juggernaut that a lot of folks predicted preseason. But even if the division title is out of reach (literally or spiritually), could the Chargers — who today have a 59 percent chance of making the playoffs, according to our model — do some damage?
Salfino: Herbert was fantastic and had his starting receivers for the first time since Week 1. Not a coincidence.
neil: Also, the Dolphins thought they had a plan against Herbert — bring pressure with the blitz, where he had been ranked 21st in QBR (59.8) going into the game. He proceeded to have an 89.7 QBR against the blitz Sunday night.
Here are some numbers from ESPN’s Stats & Information Group:
“The Dolphins tried to hurry Herbert all night, blitzing on 26 of his 56 dropbacks (46%), the most blitzes he has faced in a game in his career. He was unfazed by the extra rushers however, completing 15-of-24 passes against the blitz for 133 yards and 8 first downs.”
Salfino: My problem with the Chargers is they have a very slow, unexplosive offense and can’t stop the run, which is a bad combination against good teams.
joshua.hermsmeyer: I’m not sure how deep L.A. goes into the playoffs, if it makes it. It’s such a slog watching the offense sometimes. Maybe that’s why people get really excited when Herbert makes a great throw. You’re so annoyed at that point, it is cathartic.
neil: That’s what makes Herbert and Tua such an interesting juxtaposition. When Herbert has a great throw in a sea of checkdowns, people go wild; when Tua has a bad game or two after a season of amazing deep passing, people see it as pure doom and gloom.
Salfino: Who has the amazing deep passing been against, Neil?
neil: I mean, they haven’t played the toughest schedule, but also not THE easiest.
Salfino: I’m sorry. Tua is not an amazing deep passer. You just have to look at him throwing to see that. I don’t care about the stats.
joshua.hermsmeyer: Tyreek Hill disagrees.
neil: “I don’t care about the stats.” — you heard it here on FiveThirtyEight, folks!
Salfino: Well, I just mean you don’t have to statify EVERYTHING. His receivers are great at getting very open against most defenses. But Bills, Patriots, Niners … we’ll see how Tua does against the Jets. Is any defense afraid of him? They’re afraid of Tyreek, but good defenses can limit his damage.
maya: Speaking of different standards, let’s move on to the Lions, whose offense and defense are in totally separate classes.
The Lions came in as 2.5-point favorites over a 10-2 Vikings team we’ve been skeptical of all year (though perhaps not as skeptical as Vikings fans themselves — we see you, self-hating Minnesotans) and … beat them by 11. How does this no-defense, high-flying offense do it?!?
neil: Jared Goff is having a great year, and I kinda love to see it.
Last year was such a pile-on. He gets dumped by the Rams, and then they win a Super Bowl?
Salfino: The Lions are well positioned with that Rams pick and their pick to rebuild their defense. I’m interested in whether Josh thinks they should replace their QB, who may not be championship caliber but seems good enough.
maya: Yeah, Mike, that’s true. But I will point out this is a team with really good bones on both sides of the ball — the fifth-ranked offense by points scored, two fantastic rookie defensive players in defensive lineman Aidan Hutchinson (who leads all rookies in sacks and first pressures) and linebacker James Houston (who is second among rookies in sacks) and a very likable new talent in wide receiver Jameson Williams. How could you not cheer when his first career catch was that beautiful 41-yard touchdown? All this, plus a likely 2022 top-five pick, suggests that this is a team that could really find its rhythm in a year or two.
neil: Goff making the playoffs — we see you, Lions, at 20 percent — while the Rams don’t would be pretty poetic.
joshua.hermsmeyer: Some would say Goff should get limited credit for his production this year; that he’s a play-action passer who gets manufactured looks. I don’t know. I saw some nice third-down throws yesterday from Goff. He may not be as good as his numbers, but as Neil said, everyone roasted him for his poor numbers last year. Seems unfair not to give credit now.
neil: He gets the double-standard treatment like Tua.
Salfino: Any No. 1 overall pick can make throws. Goff has a very loaded offense and is playing in a QB-friendly scheme. The issue is whether he can get just a good — not great — team over the hump.
joshua.hermsmeyer: You mean can he make a Super Bowl? 😝
maya: LOL Josh.
Salfino: Yes, could they be a Super Bowl team with Goff in that three-year window?
I mean, we’re probably getting ahead of ourselves. The Vikings defense is straight trash, and the Lions and Goff next have to go into MetLife to face the Jets defense. I think we’d all agree that’s not going to be pretty.
neil: I do think that’s right, Mike — that Lions game probably said a lot more about the Vikings than anything else.
Salfino: (Goff has already made the Super Bowl.)
neil: (We know …)
maya: (We don’t need to talk about how the Rams offense looked in that Super Bowl.)
Salfino: (Yet they still almost won.) But here’s the thing, Neil, most defenses are garbage. If the Lions hit on some defensive studs in April, can they win 12 games with Goff? One-hundred percent.
neil: “Most defenses are garbage,” LOL.
Certainly we can’t reliably predict they won’t be!
Salfino: Bill Walsh said you really only have to worry about eight teams, and that’s still true today.
joshua.hermsmeyer: In college you only have to worry about 2.5.
maya: OK, so who are those eight teams?
joshua.hermsmeyer: That’s a great question!
maya: I think we’re all on the same page about the Bills, Chiefs and Eagles.
Probably the Cowboys. Niners. Maybe the Bengals?
joshua.hermsmeyer: Not the Bucs …
maya: Yeah I would scratch out both the AFC and NFC South.
neil: The Titans have gone from “looking solid” to “total mess” in under a month.
Maybe the Ravens if Lamar is healthy?
But yeah, that might be it.
joshua.hermsmeyer: Gosh, I think if the Lions or Jags make it to the playoffs, they’d make my list of top eight I’d be worried about.
Salfino: The teams no one wants to play … You need at least one dominant side of the football or no weaknesses. The Niners, for sure. The Bengals have no obvious weakness. The Dolphins, if the conditions are right and those receivers are healthy. I don’t think any playoff team would want to play the Jets and that defense. That’s about it.
maya: Mike, I so admire how hard you ride for this Jets team.
neil: I’m with you on the Jets! They’ve shown at least the potential to make life uncomfortable for a better team.
(The Bills did not have an easy time with them this week, either.)
maya: Neither did Mike White, though — once George Fant briefly went out, it felt like he was under pressure every play. This patchwork offensive line isn’t enough to keep a pocket clean for Tua, let alone White.
Salfino: If you asked the Bills if they want the Jets in the playoffs, they would unanimously say, “No.”
As for the Titans and New York Giants, show me a team that has to win with coaching, and I’ll show you a team with cleat marks on their foreheads. You can’t make chicken salad out of chicken shit. (If we’re allowed to say that.)
joshua.hermsmeyer: I’m still trying to get my wind back after watching White take all those shots to the ribs. What a painful day.
And this was without Von Miller!
maya: Rookie Greg Rousseau, with two sacks yesterday and seven pressures the last two games, is a pretty impressive replacement.
Salfino: Mike White showed me something and showed the Bills something, too:
He left the locker room in an ambulance, Rocky II stuff. No way does Zach Wilson play again. The Jets are winning out with White, regardless of whether Miami needs the game (they will).
maya: Does Wilson start another game this season?
… Does Wilson start another game for the Jets?
neil: Does Wilson ever start in the NFL again?
joshua.hermsmeyer: If he doesn’t, I have nothing but respect for New York’s ability to move on from failed top draft picks at the QB position. And I mean that sincerely.
neil: Although Sam Darnold was a winner this week …
(Against Geno Smith. An all-ex-Jets matchup.)
joshua.hermsmeyer: Speaking of Geno, regression is real.
Salfino: Geno still made some big throws, but the turnovers were a problem. I think Geno is legit good.
joshua.hermsmeyer: This is from Kevin Cole, and I thought it was surprising: “The first four weeks of the season, Smith was a top-five efficiency quarterback, but ranks 18th from Week 5 on. In fact, Smith’s total EPA was higher the first four weeks (30.9) than the following nine (29.7).”
neil: It’s interesting that Geno is still top-five on the QBR board for the season as a whole.
Even yesterday, he ranked 11th among all qualified QBs.
maya: To be fair, the offense has seen some pretty major injuries that have required rejiggering the run game multiple times.
neil: Right, no Kenneth Walker or DeeJay Dallas this week.
Salfino: The Seahawks also lost their running game after Week 5. From that point on, they’ve had a rushing success rate of 36 percent. The league average over that period is 46 percent. So that has hurt Seattle’s passing efficiency, I think. I mean, Geno is not Mahomes. He needs some help.
joshua.hermsmeyer: Geno is still making some great throws. He’s just also making more big mistakes.
Salfino: He’s playing in a lot of pitcher’s counts now.
neil: It’s sad because that was another feel-good surprise story that is sort of evaporating. The Seahawks are now only 55 percent to make the playoffs, down from 84 percent after Week 9.
maya: I blame the NFC East.
Speaking of … Is the best team in that division the one that’s currently leading it?
Salfino: The Eagles took care of business against an inferior opponent, while the Cowboys were slow dancing with the Texans for some reason.
neil: It’s hard to be an Eagles skeptic after that beatdown they laid on the Giants.
And right, Mike, the Cowboys were not exactly blowing the doors off the worst team in the league.
Salfino: The Eagles are a complete team with explosive receiving weapons. Jalen Hurts is playing at an MVP level (when he doesn’t get too run-happy).
neil: But I do get your overall point, Maya, that by the advanced metrics the Cowboys are basically the co-best team in the NFC East with Philly.
The metrics always love the Cowboys more than us skeptical football-watchers, I think.
joshua.hermsmeyer: I respect Elo, but I am all-in on the Eagles. I’m not sure how much to weigh the nearly averted catastrophe against Houston, but I much prefer Philly to the Cowboys.
neil: I’m with you, I don’t quite buy it.
It’s not even just Elo, it’s EPA, DVOA, SRS, all of them basically have those teams tied.
But statistically, the Eagles have the better offense, while the Cowboys have the better defense and special teams. That Christmas Eve game should still have stakes because the Eagles can’t clinch a first-round bye next week. I’m here for this rivalry again.
Salfino: I don’t think Dak Prescott is playing anywhere near Hurts’s level. They’re not in the same universe this year to me. Hurts is averaging almost 1 more yard gained per pass attempt, which is massive.
The Eagles are also built to beat the Cowboys with that running game, though I’ll add that Hurts and Co. were very disappointing in their last matchup.
neil: To be fair, that was a Cooper Rush game.
(Then again, Rush might be good.)
Salfino: (Rush isn’t good.)
Salfino: (Josh is with me here, I can feel it.)
joshua.hermsmeyer: Rush is fine.
Salfino: Purdy >> Rush.
And Maya wants to call him replacement level!!
joshua.hermsmeyer: All hail our new QBR King.
maya: He’s a very accurate passer, yes! And he maybe brings a type of deep ball that Jimmy G. seems unwilling or unable to uncork (small sample size caveats please). But I need like four more weeks.
Salfino: Todd Bowles sleepwalked through that game, it’s true.
maya: I could put 35 points up on the Bucs at this point.
No I couldn’t, I’m 5-foot-3. But I remain skeptical that Purdy isn’t simply inheriting a great game plan and gifted skill players.
neil: Isn’t that most successful QBs, Maya?
maya: Sure! But when your team rushes for over 200 yards, you’re getting an extra little boost there.
Salfino: Are the Niners QB-proof? Josh? If so, why so many resources on QB?
I say “Josh” because Josh wants to draft a QB every year until you find Mahomes.
joshua.hermsmeyer: I do not think they are QB-proof. Just look at their record when Jimmy G. is not on the field! But they are like those watches that are water resistant down to 25 feet.
neil: Haha, I love that analogy.
That also implies Purdy is not in the depths of the Mullenses or Beathards (or Lances? 😬).
Salfino: What is the line adjustment in Vegas now with Purdy vs. Jimmy G.? 1.5 points, tops? Less? I can’t believe the disrespect I’m giving to Jimmy G.
I’m saying the Niners’ Super Bowl odds from two weeks ago should be … unchanged?
maya: The Niners’ last four games are Seattle, Washington, Las Vegas and Arizona. With the possible exception of the Washington game (though I think the Niners defense is more than capable of handling their three-headed monster of a receiving corp), you could do that with a snorkel.
Salfino: The Commanders are the NFC’s Jets. That game will not be easy.
joshua.hermsmeyer: I thought this explained QBs under Shanahan pretty well:
Salfino: I don’t think Shanahan is QB-proof without Christian McCaffrey, though. He was the best player on the field BY FAR.
neil: And you guys say RBs don’t matter …
Salfino: (I know, a RB. I hate myself for saying this.)
joshua.hermsmeyer: I agree, CMC’s catch for a touchdown was very good.
maya: If the Niners beat the Hawks next week, San Francisco will clinch the division, joining Philadelphia (currently the only team with a guaranteed playoff berth).
Salfino: So the Niners will clinch the division.
joshua.hermsmeyer: It’s been almost a decade since I called myself a Niners fan, but I may end up rooting for them this year.
Salfino: I am a secret Niners fan. I’ve always loved that team. I started because I hated the Cowboys and loved passing.
neil: I had a Trey Lance dynasty in Madden last year. But we don’t need to talk about that. 😞
joshua.hermsmeyer: This explains so much …
Salfino: Purdy or Lance next year?
(I couldn’t resist. I get it’s ridiculous. It might become a low-key White vs. Wilson, though.)
maya: I still would love to see Lance run the triple option with Deebo Samuel in San Francisco 😭
Just for the pure chaos.
Let’s end with a brief requiem for the three teams that have been eliminated from the playoffs: the Houston Texans, Chicago Bears and Denver Broncos. What went wrong for each of these teams, and what should be their biggest offseason priority?
Texans: Davis Mills and Lovie Smith weren’t who we thought they were 😞
Bears: Remember when Chicago was known for its fearsome D?
Broncos: Russ is cooked.
joshua.hermsmeyer: I still don’t know what exactly happened to Russell Wilson, but I think I know what needs to change. The head coach and the offensive coordinator are both in over their heads. Nothing they called this week worked. They can’t even execute screens for positive yards when the defense is playing deep and off. Everyone seems to know what’s coming. It’s terrible. Burn it all down.
Salfino: There is no Wilson solution. They take a $107 million hit if they cut him after this year. If they cut him after June 1, 2024, they take a $35 million hit in 2024 and an $18 million hit in 2025.
Wilson is getting sacked a sickening 9.8 percent. He’s not escaping much anymore and he still has a hard time seeing over the lineman from the pocket. Sacks are mini-turnovers.
maya: The Bears need to fix their defense, but I’m looking forward to seeing Justin Fields next season. The Broncos need a new offense and the Texans a full rebuild.
joshua.hermsmeyer: The Texans also need to get a new GM. I think their head coach is fine. The opposite will happen though, probably, and it will lead to more failure.
Salfino: The Texans are getting the QB reset at least. I hope they choose wisely.
The GM has to bring in his own coach though, Josh.
maya: RIP to these three teams’ seasons. I’m excited to not have to talk about Russell Wilson for the next few months.
Check out our latest NFL predictions.