sara.ziegler (Sara Ziegler, sports editor): What a weekend in the NFL. Week 15 gave us an epic Saints-Chiefs matchup that could just be a Super Bowl preview, an entertaining tilt between former Oklahoma Sooners Jalen Hurts and Kyler Murray, and an AFC East title won by the Buffalo Bills for the first time since 1995.
Am I missing anything?
Oh, right. The New York Jets won a game … and likely cost themselves the first pick in the draft. Mike … how ya feeling about that?
Salfino (Michael Salfino, FiveThirtyEight contributor): I knew we were in trouble after Clemson’s Trevor Lawrence threw an interception against Notre Dame, and I got a call from a fellow Jets fan asking whether Lawrence was even worth it. Then Lawrence immediately went on to look like the best QB ever. It was then I knew something weird was going to happen.
I did not think that “something weird” would be the Jets beating the Rams, who came into the game ranked ninth since 2001 in yardage differential through 13 games.
joshua.hermsmeyer (Josh Hermsmeyer, NFL analyst): The Wikipedia entry for “Pyrrhic victory” now has a photo of the Jets-Rams score.
(This is a lie.)
neil (Neil Paine, senior sportswriter): LOL
Salfino: The really weird thing is that the Jets basically kicked the Rams’ ass. It was not a fluke. It was probably the most shocking win by a winless team this late in a season in history. And it was tied for the second-biggest upset in franchise history behind only Super Bowl III.
The big question after the 23-year-old QB with obvious traits just had an 88.5 Total Quarterback Rating against the best defense in football: Should you just rebuild around Sam Darnold? He’s been dealt one of the worst hands of any prospect in history, I think we can all agree.
sara.ziegler: The Darnold roller coaster has really been something.
neil: Would we expect him to be better or worse than Ohio State’s Justin Fields going forward?
Salfino: Neil, I don’t think Fields is the No. 2 pick anymore. The BYU kid (Zach Wilson) seems to have supplanted Fields after the Northwestern hiccup.
neil: If we’re unsure who the No. 2 QB is in this draft this late, that doesn’t seem to bode well for Fields or The BYU Kid.
Salfino: I think the Jets should draft Oregon tackle Penei Sewell at No. 2. Mekhi Becton, who just got the better of Aaron Donald, is already maybe the best tackle in football. Give Darnold bookends.
joshua.hermsmeyer: Darnold has one of the worst QBRs in the NFL this year, his third in the league. I think that would be the correct sample to start to make decisions from.
Not a sample of a single game.
Salfino: I hear you, Josh, but how do you separate the player from the environment in the NFL? I don’t believe in true skill level being reflected in NFL stats. I believe in traits, which Darnold does have.
joshua.hermsmeyer: I think it’s time to move on.
Salfino: I’m not disagreeing. I wouldn’t bang the table for Darnold. It depends on what the new coach thinks.
sara.ziegler: There is an interesting question here of when to let go of the promise you thought you saw in a player. We’re seeing that play out some in Philadelphia right now, with the Carson Wentz vs. Jalen Hurts situation. It’s hard to argue with Hurts so far, even though he’s only had two games as the starter.
neil: The Eagles will trade Wentz to some team where he will probably play better. Because Mike is right — so much is situational in addition to talent. (But there is no way he’d be better than Hurts going forward in Philly right now.)
joshua.hermsmeyer: Darnold would make a fine backup in New York. As would Wentz in Philly.
Salfino: Wentz is also about to turn 28, which should really inform his future projection, IMO.
The trouble for Wentz is that another QB came in and lit a fire. That’s never happened to Darnold. The Eagles seem to be in cap hell if they move on from Wentz, but it also seems to me that cap hell turns out to be something teams easily escape.
joshua.hermsmeyer: I think the cap is mostly fungible, but there are real constraints. The constraints don’t, however, need to really impact your decision-making at the most important position. Just do what’s best for the team at QB.
neil: One important note is they’ll have to sink cap space into Wentz (or the Wentz dead-cap money pit) either way next season.
joshua.hermsmeyer: The complaint you will hear is a lack of comity. Boo hoo.
Salfino: The Eagles are still paying only X dollars at QB, right? Does it make a difference? What they waste on Wentz they save on Hurts.
neil: Right, you use that cap space whether Wentz is there or not. I guess the only benefit is having Wentz as a backup in case of emergency (hi, Nick Foles) vs. what Josh alludes to, the locker-room issue he could create.
joshua.hermsmeyer: Why exactly is it that we expect every other player at every other position to compete and — if it helps the team — to sit, but not the QB?
neil: Because no other position gets a “W-L-T” column on his Pro-Football-Reference.com stat table.
joshua.hermsmeyer: All the more reason to have more than one.
sara.ziegler: For the Jets, I think it would have been obvious what to do with Darnold if they could have drafted Lawrence. Now, without that “generational” quarterback, it does seem like it will be a much messier situation.
Which non-Jets fans can all enjoy.
Salfino: Agree, Sara.
neil: Going back to how the Jets are in this situation: Yes, they won. But they’re tied now with Jacksonville for the worst record — and there’s something funny about the tiebreaker being whoever has the worst strength of schedule.
“Yes, you’re 1-15, but you did it against a harder schedule, dammit!”
Salfino: I believe it’s virtually impossible for the Jets to catch the Jaguars in SOS.
neil: They’re victims of a scheduling process that was set in motion a year (or more!) ago.
Then again, they can’t complain too much. They controlled their own destiny.
Whatever it is for tanking.
Salfino: Doug Pederson says he’ll have a decision soon on the Eagles QB for Week 16. 🙂
neil: “Decision.” Sure.
The Eagles can still make the playoffs (for no good reason). I’m pretty sure Hurts is the decision.
Salfino: Who’s the favorite in the NFC Least, Neil?
neil: It’s still Football Team, at 75 percent. But they didn’t help their case Sunday. The Giants helped them out later, though the head-to-head tiebreaker still held by New York looms large.
joshua.hermsmeyer: Sad to see the Joe Judge coach of the year talk wane. Regrettable.
sara.ziegler: LOL, who could have seen that coming.
neil: And the Dave Gettleman GM of the Year talk as well!
Salfino: The coaches are running gassers at the Meadowlands right now.
neil: The formerly last-place Cowboys were the only NFC East team to win this week, which was pretty much par for the course in this division.
sara.ziegler: So, speaking of the playoff picture, it is now substantially clearer. In the NFC, the Packers have a 79 percent chance, according to our model, to grab the all-important first-round bye; the Cardinals are in command of the seventh seed, though the Bears still have a little hope; and the only real drama is that mess in the NFC East. In the AFC, the Chiefs have all but locked up the first-round bye, while the battle for the No. 7 spot is likely coming down to the wire between the Dolphins and Ravens. How do you guys see this all shaking out? Who’s getting in?
Salfino: The Dolphins control their destiny? Is this correct?
neil: Yes, they’re in if they win out.
joshua.hermsmeyer: They will have to beat the Bills in Week 17.
Salfino: Will the Bills care?
joshua.hermsmeyer: It’s a similar question with the Steelers and Browns in Week 17. I’m not sure.
sara.ziegler: The Dolphins have to beat the Raiders this week, too, and I have no idea how that game will go. The Ravens have only the Giants and Bengals.
Salfino: The Dolphins are underwater in net yards per pass play (gained minus allowed). They’re living off randomness that has boosted their yards per point for and against. But this is the Patriots model: Don’t beat yourself. Brian Flores is a chip off the old block.
joshua.hermsmeyer: The Ravens should win out. If they do, and Miami wins out, and the Browns win out, the Ravens have a 68 percent chance of making the playoffs, while the Browns and the Dolphins are in, according to our model.
Salfino: What is the quote by Belichick? Eighty percent of games are not won, they are lost?
neil: And 90 percent of the game is half mental.
Salfino: That can be true! Yogi was ahead of us all.
joshua.hermsmeyer: If only the Jets knew their Belichick.
neil: They only spent a few hours with him as head coach, Josh. Not enough time to really learn.
So … are the Ravens getting in? Or the Dolphins? (Or both … and the Colts are out?) Who do you have?
neil: I want to say the Ravens are too good to not make it. They’re second in the entire league in SRS!
On paper, this is a potential Super Bowl team.
Salfino: The Colts are good. They’re in. It depends if the Bills rest, IMO.
joshua.hermsmeyer: I give a slight edge to the Ravens, I guess, due to the easier schedule. But it’s close.
sara.ziegler: And in the NFC? Are the Cardinals a lock for the seventh seed? Or do the Bears have a rally in them?
neil: The Bears have shown new life under Mitchie T.
joshua.hermsmeyer: If the Bears make the playoffs, jobs will be saved, but a franchise’s future will be destroyed.
Salfino: Mitch Trubisky has been fine. Not great, but way better than Foles.
sara.ziegler: How you play against the Vikings is not indicative of how good you actually are, FWIW.
Salfino: The Bears are in no-man’s land at QB, so you just try to win, IMO.
David Montgomery is having one of the most shocking finishing kicks in NFL history. Guy was a slug for his first two seasons, and now he looks like an All-Pro.
sara.ziegler: It’s his fine Iowa State education.
neil: These last two games for them are quite winnable, too. The Jags — ’nuff said — and a Packer team that might have the No. 1 seed locked up by Week 17, at home.
joshua.hermsmeyer: So many Week 17 games where one team potentially has no skin in the game. What a nightmare for the NFL.
Salfino: It would be hilarious if the Jaguars beat the Bears.
neil: Wishful thinking by Mike.
Salfino: I’m on to 2021. Not even thinking about Lawrence now.
Although also, let’s point out that Jax’s Week 17 opponent is Indy — a team they have actually beaten already this year!
(The only team they can say that about.)
sara.ziegler: Remember Week 1? We were so innocent then.
joshua.hermsmeyer: And the Colts have the Steelers this week. I expect that to be a real game.
Salfino: Though Indy may pack it in Week 17.
joshua.hermsmeyer: I believe the Colts losing to the Steelers is one of the best shots for Baltimore to make the tournament. If they win out and the Colts go 1-1, the Ravens are in.
sara.ziegler: So there’s still a lot riding on these games! And with the single bye this year, even the top teams have something to play for (at least in Week 16).
neil: I think the idea of Week 17 starters resting becomes more interesting this year, with only one bye to be had.
Salfino: It’s a short week somehow for the Steelers.
sara.ziegler: Did the Steelers have any regular-length weeks this season?
neil: That’s a great question. Most irregular weeks by a team in NFL history?
It would be fitting for the first NFL season ever where there was a game on literally every day of the week at some point.
(Well, that will be true after Friday. Merry Christmas!)
sara.ziegler: Friday football in the NFL — and this is a game that was planned that way! No COVID-19 to blame.
I want to wrap up this week’s chat with a check-in on the league awards. We’ve talked, of course, about Russell Wilson’s up-and-down MVP journey. Will he at least get votes this year? Who should it be: Aaron Rodgers or Patrick Mahomes? Or, Josh, is your vote for Dalvin Cook?
joshua.hermsmeyer: Cook isn’t even on the board!
neil: Josh Allen deserves some love, too. But it will be Mahomes, I think?
Salfino: Josh loves RBs so much, I know. Wilson has been turned back into game manager so he’s out.
joshua.hermsmeyer: The site I’m looking at has the following odds for MVP:
Mahomes, 73.3 percent
Rodgers, 30.8 percent
Allen, 11.8 percent
Henry, 3.9 percent
Love it. Did y’all see him just destroy that Lions guy with the stiff-arm??
sara.ziegler: That was beautiful.
“Get OFF of me.”
Salfino: I’m surprised Mahomes is such a favorite. I do think he’s deserving — he’s the best player. He’s running for his life most weeks, while Rodgers probably has the best pass protection in football. It’s not like the Chiefs are a juggernaut, either. They’re the first team ever to win six straight by 6 points or fewer.
sara.ziegler: Does where Rodgers and Mahomes are in their careers matter at all to the vote? Like Rodgers might get it as recognition of his career?
Salfino: Well, Rodgers has already won the MVP twice. It’s not like he’s Cary Grant never winning best actor.
joshua.hermsmeyer: I don’t think it should … but maybe it will.
neil: I don’t think the NFL MVP has quite as much voter fatigue (“I’m tired of giving it to LeBron”) or “Let’s give it to this guy for his career” as the NBA award does at least.
Salfino: Mahomes at 12 years younger can pretty much match Rodgers’s trophy case if he wins MVP this year. And beat it if he wins the Super Bowl again.
And Mahomes is beating his 2018 MVP season in most key stats. But the betting markets are never wrong, I’m told, so I guess it’s Mahomes. 🙂
joshua.hermsmeyer: The election betting markets have no place in a discussion of rational marketplaces.
Salfino: What do you guys think of the best player being MVP, case closed? Make Mike Trout the MVP every year. Mickey Mantle should have been for about eight straight years. So Mahomes just is the MVP for the foreseeable future.
joshua.hermsmeyer: I’m here for it.
neil: I like some wiggle room for storytelling, or being the best player on a contending team. But that’s not really much of an issue in football. If your QB has a great season, your team will almost certainly also have one, too.
Salfino: We’re not smart enough for wiggle room, Neil.
neil: Hah. Well, Mike Trout’s curse is that an all-time great baseball player can only move the needle so much.
Mahomes having a Trout season will never not lead to the Chiefs being good.
joshua.hermsmeyer: Almost makes you want to write an article about Mahomes’s greatness.
Check out our latest NFL predictions.