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The Eagles Played To Not Lose … Or Win

sara.ziegler (Sara Ziegler, sports editor): In Week 3 of the NFL season, we saw many exciting finishes from evenly matched teams — with the best game of the week and maybe even the season (on paper, anyway) yet to come. But let’s start with my favorite outcome: the tie! We got our first tie of the season on Sunday, and it was truly a head-scratcher (as all the best ties are).

Salfino (Michael Salfino, FiveThirtyEight contributor): Philadelphia sacked Cincinnati quarterback Joe Burrow eight times and allowed just 3-of-13 third-down attempts to be converted.

neil (Neil Paine, senior sportswriter): And yet …

sara.ziegler: What was that play call at the end for Philly? Playing for … a tie?

neil: Oh, definitely.

joshua.hermsmeyer (Josh Hermsmeyer, NFL analyst): The Bengals and Eagles combined for six punts in one overtime. That usually leads to a tie — LOL — but those last two series to end that game were the work of teams that had surrendered.

neil: I mean, you can’t give Cincy a chance at their own 46 with 19 seconds left. That’s just crazy talk.

Might as well tie at that point.

Salfino: It was fourth-and-12. I guess that was the play from a win probability or loss-avoidance perspective, wasn’t it?

neil: Certainly from a loss-avoidance perspective. And it’s true that they avoided a loss.

joshua.hermsmeyer: They took a penalty to back it up for more room. So the final play looks better on paper.

sara.ziegler: From Doug Pederson, I found that especially frustrating. What does not-a-loss get you if it’s a tie? NOT A DAMN THING.

joshua.hermsmeyer: I’ll forever be amused by what coaches say versus what they do when it comes to “we play to win.”

Salfino: Going into this game, teams were 35-330-6 when they were sacked at least eight times. So it’s a win for Cincy? Sort of?

sara.ziegler: I think a tie there IS a win for the Bengals. They’re a young team still learning. Philly … is not.

Salfino: The NFC East is now 2-9-1, by the way.

neil: I will say the penalties absolutely killed Philly in that overtime. They had it down to the Bengals’ 43 on their second-to-last drive, and a couple of penalties ruined that. Then another penalty basically caused Pederson to say, “Fuck it, I give up,” and not kick the FG.

joshua.hermsmeyer: Yeah, Neil, they had four OT penalties. That’s a lot! It’s tied for sixth most in an overtime period since 2001.

One cost them 13.8 percent win probability alone.

Salfino: I was hoping the Bengals would ice the kicker on a 59-yard field goal attempt before the penalty. There was just no way Jake Elliott was making that.

neil: Yeah, he is no Harrison Butker.

Salfino: Carson Wentz leads the NFL in picks, BTW (tied with Kirk Cousins). I like him, but this is ridiculous.

neil: It is funny that this adds to the Bengals as being the tying-est team of the 2000s. And the Eagles are tied for second. Call it the curse of Donovan McNabb Not Remembering Ties Exist.

It was a terrible day for Philly sports all around. The Eagles choose to punt for a tie instead of going for a win, and the Phillies had a chance to make the playoffs if the following happened:

  1. They won.
  2. The Cardinals beat the Brewers.
  3. The Padres beat the Giants.

Well, the Cards beat Milwaukee

and the Padres beat SF

… and the Phillies lost 5-0 to Tampa, ending their season.

sara.ziegler: Ooof

joshua.hermsmeyer: Philly fans are shook.

Salfino: I’m sure they’re taking it well on sports radio today.

neil: Oh, I’m sure.

Salfino: Last week, they piped in booing for the broadcast.

neil: Pederson is lucky there were no fans, or piped-in booing would be the least of his problems.

Salfino: There may have been just pipes.

sara.ziegler: Let’s move on to another wild ending. The Buffalo Bills withstood a big comeback from the Los Angeles Rams and, aided by a questionable call, took their record to 3-0. Does Josh Allen look any better to you now, Josh?

joshua.hermsmeyer: The thing about Josh Allen’s performance is that no matter what you think about him, you were proved right on Sunday.

Salfino: So true.

The facemask penalty against him was classic.

sara.ziegler: I did not realize quarterbacks could get facemask penalties, LOL.

joshua.hermsmeyer: He made some truly nice throws — I recall one touch pass along the sideline I thought was especially good — and then threw the controversial interception which was wildly ill-advised. And I know Bills fans were upset about it, but there was also offensive pass interference on the play. It was a mess all around.

Salfino: I guess the Bills are hot, but I found the circumstances of their win revolting as a fan. This is a legendary bad call, though I’m sure the NFL will justify it.

sara.ziegler: The reffing on Sunday was certainly something. I’m still mad about the phantom horse-collar tackle call that went against the Saints on a Packer drive.

(And the missed offensive pass interference.)

(And the terrible spot on fourth down for the Packers that was eventually overturned.)

Salfino: Josh had the line of the night on the Saints.

joshua.hermsmeyer: Sean Payton dying on Taysom Hill?

Salfino: Yeah. Hilarious and also cosmic justice.

sara.ziegler: I actually guffawed when I saw that tweet, Josh.

joshua.hermsmeyer: Hill is such a strange player to invest so much hope in at this late stage of his career.

Salfino: In four or five years, they may have something.

joshua.hermsmeyer: If you want a switch up from Drew Brees, Let Jameis Cook. Bring Winston in at the end of games where you need to pass to catch up. Now that would be fun.

Salfino: Exactly. I was just going to ask whether the Saints would be better now with Winston. The anti-Brees.

And Brees got bailed out by Alvin Kamara on that slow-motion 52-yard TD jaunt.

sara.ziegler: How worried should the Saints be about Brees’s arm right now?

Salfino: I love how they ask Brees how he feels. Name the last old athlete who said, “Yeah, I’ve lost it.” Probably Mickey Mantle. (Ironically, modern stats say that Mantle did NOT lose it.)

joshua.hermsmeyer: Sara, he looked better to me as the game went on. His second TD pass had some zip on it. But he certainly didn’t look confident in either what he was seeing or in his ability to get the ball where it needed to be, based on all the double clutching he did in the first half.

Salfino: He had an 18-yarder to a wide-open Emmanuel Sanders that barely got there. It was embarrassing.

sara.ziegler: And yet … the Saints nearly won that game, against a Green Bay team that seems legit.

joshua.hermsmeyer: The Packers won with play-action. It was the difference in the game, like it usually is.

Salfino: They’ve scored the sixth-most points ever for a 3-0 team. I did not think they were going to be a juggernaut offensively, with their apparent desire to run more.

They beat it to death on the telecasts, but Aaron Rodgers is the all-time master of the free play.

sara.ziegler: And the damn hard count.

joshua.hermsmeyer: Truth. It was a vivid example of the loss of one aspect of home field advantage.

Salfino: That is such a good point. That could not have happened without COVID-19.

Does playing games in empty stadiums make the Packers a win better? Neil?

neil: IDK how much effect the home field has had with no fans. Home teams have won 54.3 percent of games so far, which is below the usual norm … but above what last year had WITH fans (52.0 percent).

FWIW, baseball’s home winning percentage was higher this season without fans than in 2019 as well.

Salfino: But could some QBs like Rodgers, who use that kind of hard-count/free-play gamesmanship, have a bigger edge?

neil: Certainly if crowd noise (or the lack thereof) factors more into your techniques, you will benefit more.

sara.ziegler: It will be fascinating to look at that over the course of the season.

joshua.hermsmeyer: Yeah, it seems like the advantage from not having a home-field crowd isn’t evenly distributed across all teams. One thing that does seem to be real is the elevated pace of play. Bettors seem to be making some money on it.

Preston Johnson reports that pace is up in 2020, 1.3 seconds faster than last year, which leads to more scoring overall.

Salfino: Maybe teams can communicate more easily and get players on and off the field faster with no noise, as well.

neil: Total points per game are up over 50 so far this season!

That is wild.

sara.ziegler: Wow

Well, let’s move to another game that saw a) more than 50 points scored; b) a quarterback controversy; and c) yet another full-scale collapse.


neil: Oh, God, the Falcons.

joshua.hermsmeyer: The Falcons need to be a feature in every win probability model going forward.

Salfino: They’re the first team ever with two losses in a season when they had 15-plus-point fourth-quarter leads, and they did it IN BACK-TO-BACK WEEKS. Ouch.

I’m shocked the Chargers never did it.

joshua.hermsmeyer: I can’t imagine how it must feel to be a Falcons fan, or how it must feel to face the locker room as Dan Quinn.

neil: They’re on another level of win probability lost per game in the fourth quarter.

The Falcons just keep giving away games

Worst win probability added (WPA) per game by each team unit in the fourth quarter, 2020 NFL season

4th Qtr WPA PER Game
Team Record Offense Defense Sp. Tms Total
Falcons 0-3 -0.06 -0.34 -0.23 -0.63
Bengals 0-2-1 +0.05 -0.22 -0.15 -0.32
Texans 0-3 -0.03 -0.20 +0.00 -0.23
49ers 2-1 +0.07 -0.26 -0.01 -0.20
Broncos 0-3 +0.00 -0.20 +0.00 -0.20
Colts 2-1 -0.06 -0.13 -0.01 -0.20
Eagles 0-2-1 +0.01 -0.18 -0.01 -0.18
Dolphins 1-2 +0.12 -0.27 -0.01 -0.16
Vikings 0-3 +0.01 +0.00 -0.17 -0.16
Saints 1-2 -0.07 -0.03 -0.01 -0.11
Lions 1-2 +0.04 -0.17 +0.04 -0.09
Giants 0-3 -0.06 -0.07 +0.04 -0.09

Source: ESPN Stats & Information Group

sara.ziegler: Damn.

Salfino: And of course the Bears have two wins like this, which must be similarly rare. Nick Foles is the QB now, right?

sara.ziegler: It doesn’t seem possible that Mitch Trubisky could hold on to his starting job now. But it didn’t seem possible that he would win the starting job in the first place!

Salfino: Well, like we said, I get that the Bears got two outs by trying Trubisky first. But I don’t think he can bounce back from this. Maybe it’s possible without fans? Either way, he has no business starting again.

neil: Matt Nagy lucked out. He got to give Trubisky a look AND still get out of it 3-0.

Salfino: That’s just amazing.

sara.ziegler: It’s really incredible.

joshua.hermsmeyer: The most fraudulent 3-0 team? I guess the Titans have won three close games as well.

Salfino: Don’t go there, Josh.

joshua.hermsmeyer: I have my Pythagorean formulas all ready to go, Mike.

Salfino: I was thinking of Sara.

sara.ziegler: Hey, I took the Titans in the Hot Takedown Survivor Pool.

neil: The Titans only have a +2.0 point differential per game; Bears are +4.0.

Salfino: Hey, at least the Vikings have found a receiver.

sara.ziegler: That will be great in all the games they lose 41-40.

joshua.hermsmeyer: The fruits of the Stefon Diggs trade.

Salfino: Stephen Gostkowski has made three game-winning field goals in a row, and he isn’t even good anymore. Sums up the Titans.

(I miss the 1998 Vikings.)

sara.ziegler: LOL, so do I!

Salfino: And the 1998 Jets.

sara.ziegler: Before we wrap up here, I wanted to talk for a second about the Lions-Cardinals game, which did not go at all how I expected it to.

Did Matt Patricia buy himself more time this season with that win?

Salfino: Kyler Murray blew it. Love the kid, but that was bad. Three picks is like minus-12 points. He just gave the game away.

neil: I thought we’d get ANOTHER tie in that one.

Detroit and Arizona tied last year, too.

joshua.hermsmeyer: Both teams had similar expected points added per play, so yeah, I think you can hang this on Kyler’s turnovers. The Cardinals actually had a higher success rate and a higher third-down conversion percentage. Not sure how much credit I’d give Patricia.

Salfino: Do you feel ripped off that the Cowboys should be 0-3?

joshua.hermsmeyer: Better 1-2 team: Cowboys or Dolphins? (It’s actually close by EPA per play!)

Salfino: The NFC East should have just one win, by Washington over another NFC East team.

neil: Speaking of, nice to see the Browns get one over the Football Team. Second-most generically named team beats the most generically named team

Salfino: Well, Cleveland was named after Paul Brown. Not that generic. Seems it now, though.

neil: Yes, most people now probably think they are just named after the color Brown.

joshua.hermsmeyer: I did, for a long time.

neil: (The generic helmets don’t help.)

joshua.hermsmeyer: I also have no idea what the Dog Pound has to do with anything.

neil: The Browns are above .500 for the first time since … when again? 2014!

Salfino: But don’t they seem fraudulent? They have no passing game whatsoever. Baker Mayfield is a game manager.

Free Baker!

neil: LOL, yes, they do seem fraudulent: -13 point differential despite being 2-1.

Salfino: That was another game the QB gave away. Dwayne Haskins was gaffe-prone, as usual.

joshua.hermsmeyer: The curse of Sashi Brown is that the Browns would finally get good at the same time that Baltimore has Lamar Jackson.

neil: Baltimore has been cursing the Browns for YEARS.

(I will take any excuse to post a Jon Bois video.)

sara.ziegler: If Baker just drops his Progressive commercials, maybe this can be his year.

Salfino: It wasn’t me this time!

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.