maya (Maya Sweedler, editor): Happy Thanksgiving, everyone! Before everyone clambers up to their roofs to start stringing up Christmas lights, let’s put Turkey Day to rest and briefly run through all the NFL action of the past two weeks.
Week 11 had some fun outcomes (well, fun for everyone except perhaps the New York Jets’ special teams unit): A Kansas City Chiefs fourth-quarter comeback on the road against an AFC West rival; a dominant Dallas Cowboys performance over the then 8-1 Minnesota Vikings; a Philadelphia Eagles double-digit comeback against the Jeff Saturday-led Indianapolis Colts. And Thanksgiving had some excitement as well, from Dallas’s CeeDee Lamb coming in clutch against the New York Giants to a fantastic debut from Detroit Lions linebacker James Houston IV to Minnesota’s Justin Jefferson passing legendary wide receiver Randy Moss for most receiving yards in a player’s first three seasons (with six games to go!).
Which leads us into the rest of Week 12. We’ll talk about the two overtime games, the Washington Commanders’ mini-win streak, where depth (or lack thereof) is most important, but before we get into all of that, let’s look at the past few weeks of play as a whole. Which teams have stood out in the season’s doldrums? Any teams on the upswing or displaying flashing red lights you’re starting to worry about?
Salfino (Michael Salfino, FiveThirtyEight contributor): The San Francisco 49ers right now are the best team in the NFC. I think that’s the biggest story in the NFC. The Cincinnati Bengals are probably the biggest story in the AFC. Are they better than the Buffalo Bills? Their game against the Chiefs in Cincy is the game I’m most looking forward to in Week 13, especially with Ja’Marr Chase due back.
But of course the biggest story the last two weeks, not just in the NFL but in the entire world, is The White Lotus, Mike White. 🙂
joshua.hermsmeyer (Josh Hermsmeyer, NFL analyst): While I’ve been firmly on team #abhortheroar all season, it’s been exciting to see the Lions take advantage of the soft part of their schedule and rack up a few wins and take Buffalo, my pick for the first- or second-best team in football, to the limit. They’re in second place in the NFC North and we give them around a 9 percent shot at making the playoffs. They’re in the hunt!
Salfino: I want the Lions and Seahawks in the NFC playoffs replacing the Giants and Commanders. But it’s not going to happen for Detroit.
neil (Neil Paine, acting sports editor): I have one vindication and two non-vindications: The top three teams in Elo rating points gained over the past 14 days are the Cowboys (who I warned you guys were good) and the Bengals and Raiders (whom I wrote off to varying degrees). Although it’s probably too little, too late for Las Vegas anyway — we still only give them 5 percent playoff odds — the Bengals are alive and well, and maybe playing out a repeat of last year.
maya: Let’s talk about the Raiders, who beat the Seattle Seahawks (an early season darling of ours) in overtime Sunday. We were all over this team for being awful in every facet earlier this month. But even though a playoff berth is unlikely, this is a much better looking team than just a few weeks ago. What’s changed?
neil: I must admit their crappy luck in one-possession contests has turned the other way for a few games.
Salfino: I feel good for Derek Carr, who like in “Almost Famous” is a midlevel quarterback struggling with his own limitations in the harsh face of stardom. It’s not his fault he’s not great. He really cares. I respect it. And he’s made the plays he had to, especially against Denver, and QBR loved him vs. Seattle. The story there of course was 300 scrimmage yards for Josh Jacobs. Just crazy.
neil: Jacobs had one of those performances we all used to put up against a low-difficulty CPU opponent in Madden.
Salfino: Bo Jackson in Tecmo “Bo”.
joshua.hermsmeyer: Neil I think puts his finger on it. You’re going to get one-score games to go in your favor once in a while. I don’t think this team has fundamentally changed … unless you play games with numbers, like NFL Research did with this stat: “Josh Jacobs is the only player since at least 1950 with 225+ rush yards & 70+ receiving yards in a single game.”
neil: What are you talking about? Those are totally natural cutoffs, Josh! LOL.
maya: I have no problem with that. When you have the fourth-longest overtime touchdown from scrimmage, you can massage all the stats you want to get that “first.”
Salfino: I remember Garrison Hearst beating the Jets in OT with a 96-yard TD in 1998.
joshua.hermsmeyer: I was in Cancun watching that at one of those beach bars. I nearly fell off my stool screaming.
Salfino: I was screaming for different reasons.
maya: Mike, how all-in are you on the White-led Jets?
Salfino: I think the 2010 team was quite good. But perhaps with White, the true NFL MVP right now. Three hundred-plus yards and multiple TD passes? He’s the 12th ever to do that in at least two of his first four starts. The other active QBs who matched White: Patrick Mahomes and Joe Burrow. The only QB ever with three such games in his first four starts? Kurt Warner.
joshua.hermsmeyer: Wait, is White the best Jets QB since Chad Pennington?
maya: I mean, Brett Favre did technically spend a season in New York somewhere in there …
joshua.hermsmeyer: Favre was on the low cycle by then …
Salfino: Look, seriously with White, he has a very good arm — he was a pitching prospect. But the big difference is vision and guts, which Zach Wilson lacks. White will stand in the pocket and take a hit to make a play. Wilson I can’t remember ever doing that wittingly. But White has been good-to-great in three of his first four career starts (he was playing hurt the other game vs. Buffalo, I believe).
neil: The Jets’ season is fascinating because they have really been straddling the line between trying to capitalize on a better-than-expected start and letting Wilson develop.
Salfino: I agree, Neil. Robert Saleh had to choose between the quarterback and the team and chose the team, as he needed to. The needs of the many outweigh the needs of the one.
neil: Let’s just hope Wilson didn’t imprint his Katra into Chris Streveler.
(That’s a “Wrath of Khan” reference, folks. I’ll show myself out.)
Salfino: Very good, Neil!
joshua.hermsmeyer: Saleh deserves consideration for coach of the year. He won’t get it, but he deserves a mention.
Salfino: I think Saleh is a good bet to get it if you think the Jets can finish 11-6, probably a 20 percent chance.
maya: Let’s turn to the other overtime game of the week: the Browns’ 23-17 win over the Buccaneers, which saw Cleveland tie the game on a two-minute drive and win on a Nick Chubb up-the-middle run in overtime. I don’t think the Browns’ 2022 season got a lot of preseason attention for its football potential, but other than losses to the entire AFC East (LOL), this team under Jacoby Brissett has looked pretty complete. With Deshaun Watson set to return from an 11-game suspension due to allegations of sexual misconduct, should Cleveland consider sticking with Brissett?
joshua.hermsmeyer: The David Njoku one-handed catch on fourth down to send that Cleveland game to overtime was one of the best I’ve ever seen. And I watch Justin Jefferson every week.
neil: Yes! What a gutsy win for Cleveland, even if the Bucs aren’t what they used to be.
Let me make the case very simply for the Browns sticking with Brissett: Brissett’s current QBR (61.2) isn’t that different from Watson’s during his last season in 2020 (63.7). Tack on the rust of missing two whole seasons, and would we even expect Watson to be better? And that’s without even getting into how Brissett’s teammates seem to really respect him as a leader. Not sure what kind of respect Watson could still command after everything.
Salfino: Every metric overrates someone. I have a hard time reconciling Brissett’s eyeball test with his QBR. Maybe it’s me.
joshua.hermsmeyer: I am no fan of Watson, I will be booing his every snap. But there’s no way you pay what the Browns paid for him and don’t start him. Brissett could have played like vintage Joe Montana and Watson would be starting this week.
Salfino: I suspect Brissett’s QBR is lifted by really timely running, even though he’s not really a runner. He seems to be hyperefficient there. I think it’s a very fair question, but there is 0 percent chance that Watson doesn’t start in Houston, ironically.
neil: Oh, I totally know that they will start Watson. It’s just not clear to me that they should. (From a football perspective, not even from an ethical one.)
Salfino: I think if they were 6-5, it would be more of an open question. I respect the stats always, but would anyone rank Brissett this year where he ranks in QBR?
neil: The QBR rankings in general this season show that our ideas about the good and bad QBs are more wrong than we think. (Hello, Geno Smith, etc., etc.)
maya: Hold on, is that fair?
I think QBR rewards a very specific type of quarterback performance — efficient passing, minimal turnovers. It’s not necessarily going to reward the most innovative offenses, as even context-dependent football stats still fail to take the gravity of a running QB into account, but for what it is, I think QBR captures something of value.
Salfino: I have no issue with Geno, even though QBR hated him for some reason vs. the Raiders.
joshua.hermsmeyer: I think the Browns need a more dynamic QB. The defense especially. I’ve been seeing some talk that “analytics” are to blame for the team’s defense being unable to stop the run. Over-investment in stopping the pass or some such. I don’t accept that premise, but assuming it’s true, the way they are built with Brissett (control the clock with the run game and win close games) encourages your opponent to run on you. A more dynamic passing attack will encourage more opposing offenses to attack through the air, and that will play to the defense’s strength.
neil: OK, but I thought we were all about encouraging the offense to run … ? (Particularly to pointlessly “establish” the run.)
Have teams neglected run D to the point that now we want them to pass?
maya: I feel like I can predict what Josh is going to say here …
No, gap-sound defense is and has always been important! No defense coordinator worth his salt would completely neglect the run.
joshua.hermsmeyer: Yes Maya! Also, I think you’re fine with people running against you when you have a two-score lead. Less fine with getting gashed when you’re also trying to grind out drives.
Salfino: I think you want teams to run but if you can’t stop the run, you just can’t win. It’s just too easy for the opponent to keep pounding you into submission. But few run defenses are that bad generally. You can be Peyton Colts bad. Not this bad.
neil: FWIW, running still generates WAY fewer (i.e., negative) EPA per play this season than passing.
So call me skeptical that a team should want opponents to pass on them instead of running.
joshua.hermsmeyer: I think where we will agree, Neil, is that building a team to win close games is not building a team to win consistently.
maya: Well, let’s run through the five worst run defenses in the league by EPA. From worst to fifth-worst, they are the Cleveland Browns, Green Bay Packers, Detroit Lions, Philadelphia Eagles and Los Angeles Chargers.
There’s still a pretty good amount of winning happening there.
Salfino: All disappointing teams except the Eagles, who still outrush their opponents, generally. Plus the Eagles snapped into action to try to fix that problem, so I believe their analytics considered that deficiency to be grave.
joshua.hermsmeyer: Ehhhh. I’m not sure about that. They always wanted Hurts to rush as much as he felt like it. I think he may be running too much now, though. Or at least, when he does run he needs to slide!
maya: The Eagles make for such an interesting contrast with the post-Week 6 Chicago Bears. The way Hurts is used as an option runner versus the called runs for Justin Fields seem to offer pretty different paths forward for the future of running quarterbacks.
Salfino: Totally agree the Eagles are running too much. My problem with the running QBs is the volume. If you push 200 attempts, there is no way these guys are going to be at the top of their games in December and January, when they must be for their teams to win. Running backs spend all their time building their bodies to withstand the toll of running that much. Quarterbacks can’t do this. They’re not lifting weights and building core strength and leg strength. They’re doing QB things.
joshua.hermsmeyer: I seem to remember a running QB against the Packers defense in the playoffs doing pretty well …
joshua.hermsmeyer: Maybe it’s just the Packers.
neil: I think each of us could run for 100 against the Packers in the playoffs. (Or this year, in the regular season.)
Salfino: Kaepernick had 63 regular-season attempts that year, Josh. This Hurts/Lamar/Fields volume is not a sustainable business model.
You have to save it for the biggest games like Mahomes does.
maya: LOL. I would very much like to opt out of running against the Packers.
But Mike, that question of volume is key. We’ve already seen backfields get reshaped by injuries, which has produced some pretty unexpected outcomes (the Broncos’ “running back by committee” collapsing, the Chiefs rolling out a three-man system). Whose depth or rotation appears best suited for December/January games?
Salfino: Everything about the Broncos offense has collapsed with Russell Wilson having six straight games with a QBR under 34, which has to be close to a record. The Chiefs just run for show (and pass for dough), but even though Isiah Pacheco got 51 percent of snaps, he got 23 of 31 RB touches (74 percent). I don’t think you have to worry much about RBs being worn out in January if they are reasonably managed. Josh Jacobs maybe is a problem. Again, they’re whole lives are building their bodies to take that punishment.
joshua.hermsmeyer: I’ll be predictable and say the teams with the best passing attacks and innovative schemes will stand the best shot at postseason rushing success. K.C. is one, as Maya mentioned. The Dolphins will trot out anybody who can run a 4.5 and find success. And the Niners have a bevy of talent in the backfield they can call upon when Jimmy G. gets scared and confused.
Salfino: Jimmy G. slander! Sorry, I do think wins largely are a QB stat:
joshua.hermsmeyer: I saw this! I fell off the couch!
maya: If I were Fred Warner or Nick Bosa (or even Deebo!) and I saw that, I would be seething.
Salfino: Maybe he’s an exception to the rule, but Occam’s razor says you have to sort of stipulate, based on that alone, that Garoppolo is at least good.
My sense, Maya, is that Jimmy G.’s teammates love him.
maya: We have again reached the “defend Jimmy G.” portion of the chat. 😂
Salfino: He’s going to be retired for five years and we’ll still be debating if he was even good.
joshua.hermsmeyer: There’s no doubt that the defense carried the Niners on Sunday. I don’t think it will continue, because it never does, but it was one of the more impressive performances of the season. Even Fred Warner was good! 😛
maya: Let’s use the Niners as a jumping-off point for a quick step back to look at the playoff picture. If we axed the last month and a half of the season, here’s who would be in the playoffs:
- NFC: The entire (!) NFC East, with the division-leading Eagles joined by wild-card teams Cowboys, Giants and Commanders. The other three division leaders are the Vikings, 49ers and Buccaneers (the latter of whom are the only NFC playoff team with a losing record).
- AFC: Division leaders Chiefs, Miami Dolphins, Tennessee Titans and Baltimore Ravens, plus wild-card teams in the Bills, Cincinnati Bengals and Jets.
Of these 14 teams, whom do you least want to match up against? No boring answers, like Kansas City or Philadelphia, allowed!
neil: Buffalo … ?
maya: Mm definitely a boring answer, too. Sorry, Neil!
neil: Haha. You didn’t prohibit them! But they are the best team in football by SRS, so I should have known better.
Salfino: If healthy, the Niners.
joshua.hermsmeyer: Unless I’m Buffalo or K.C., I would not want to face Miami. Just too much scoring potential.
Salfino: Josh, if Miami is so good, why are they seventh in the conference in point differential? Is this all the Tua missed games? He lost the game against the Bengals, who were going to thump Miami that night regardless.
joshua.hermsmeyer: Mike, Miami is firmly in the second tier of teams. I think they’re legit!
Salfino: Right now, the Jets could definitely beat Miami in the first round. I would not be remotely shocked. They can cover those guys.
joshua.hermsmeyer: I had Sauce Sauce on my wings this weekend. It was good.
maya: Tasted like victory?
Salfino: Sauce is very good but a little overrated. He’s not Revis remotely, not yet.
joshua.hermsmeyer: He’s a rookie!
Salfino: Right, but even compared to Rookie Revis. Too much contact and not enough turning back to the ball.
neil: I think I would not like to face Baltimore. They are fourth in SRS and above-average in every single schedule-adjusted EPA category.
Salfino: Baltimore’s pass defense is craptastic. Come on.
maya: Personally, I can’t wait for Baltimore’s luck in one-score games to flip. It’s rough out there.
joshua.hermsmeyer: I will second the defense of the Ravens. However there is one part of their defense that is troubling, and it’s exemplified by this stat: They’ve lost three games when leading by multiple scores in the fourth quarter, tied for the most in a season in NFL history.
neil: Yeah, it feels like that is becoming sort of a reputation for them. But before 2022, they had a 31-3 record with Lamar Jackson at QB when leading by two scores at any point in a game. It’s possible this is all noise.
Salfino: But that’s pass defense. It’s bad. They also have little pass rush. The Bengals are winning the North.
maya: I always look forward to Tennessee doing some January bracket busting, so that’s who I’m going with (unless Derrick Henry gets hurt, and until Ryan Tannehill is asked to do just a little too much).
Salfino: The Chiefs and Eagles seem set for No. 1 seeds. The Niners have seized control of the NFC West and I think they’re the best team in the conference when healthy. But the Vikings will hold on to the No. 2 seed because after the Jets in Week 13 their schedule is so easy. The Giants will be the odd man out in the NFC playoff picture due to their schedule and loss to Seattle. The Chargers could replace the Jets but I think the Jets will get to 10 wins and maybe 11. L.A. must win two of their next three at Raiders, Dolphins and Titans. I don’t think they do it.
maya: All I want is an entire division to make the playoffs for the first time ever. The only thing that can improve Wild Card Weekend is a series of interdivisional grudge matches.
joshua.hermsmeyer: I’m starting to get excited for the playoffs, Maya, and you’re helping.
Salfino: Do we really want the Giants and Commanders in the tournament? I’m a hard no on that.
neil: LOL, Mike, I was gonna say. I think I’d rather see all four AFC East teams.
maya: As long as one of them meets Dallas at some point, I’m into it.
Salfino: The Cowboys have won four playoff games since the 1995 season. FOUR. Look it up. I ain’t lyin’.
neil: That sounds high.
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