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The Saints And Steelers Hit A Rut At The Worst Time

sara.ziegler (Sara Ziegler, sports editor): Week 14 of the NFL season is just about in the books, with only one game outstanding, for a change. This week, we saw a one-handed interception that doubled as one of the best catches of the year, a kicker for a certain NFC North team miss four (4!) kicks, and maybe the worst game management in the history of the NFL (in a game the offending Chargers actually won).

But let’s focus on two teams that, just two weeks ago, were in the driver’s seats for first-round byes but now are on the outside looking in: the New Orleans Saints and the Pittsburgh Steelers.

Let’s start with the Saints. They should get Drew Brees back soon, but did they go to the well one too many times with Taysom Hill?

neil (Neil Paine, senior sportswriter): I wasn’t surprised this happened eventually … although maybe I was a little surprised it happened against the Eagles, with Jalen Hurts making his first career start.

joshua.hermsmeyer (Josh Hermsmeyer, NFL analyst): It was appropriate that Hill lose to another QB who ended up winning with his legs more than his arm. For the symmetry of the thing. And Taysom flipped the script and ended up passing for 291 yards and two touchdowns!

Salfino (Michael Salfino, FiveThirtyEight contributor): I know they were shut out in the first half, but I thought Hill was fine — not good but not bad. His Total Quarterback Rating was actually good. I thought the real problem for the Saints was that their red-hot defense suddenly had no answers for the running of Hurts.

neil: Taysom outdueled Matt Ryan twice but was outplayed by Hurts (according to our QB Elo metric, at least). Go figure.

Salfino: Hill’s fumble was his worst play.

sara.ziegler: I thought the Eagles would falter at the end of that game, with the pressure on, but they held it together nicely.

neil: I had flashbacks to another blown 17-0 lead by Philly this year — aka the last time they looked truly promising.

sara.ziegler: What do we think of Hurts? Is he the answer for Philly?

Salfino: Hurts was great. I thought the Saints were going to shut down the run and force him to play quarterback from inside the pocket. But instead, he ran wild. It’s interesting that the Eagles have a record five QBs now in the Super Bowl era to rush for at least 100 yards in a game. They are the kings of running QBs.

Also note that Hurts wasn’t sacked at all, and look at all the sacks for Carson Wentz this year — 50 in 12 games! That’s with the Eagles ranked 10th on the season in Pass Block Win Rate.

joshua.hermsmeyer: Yes, I think Hurts is an upgrade over Wentz. According to one of those ridiculously overspecified filters on Pro-Football-Reference.com, among players with at least 60 rushing yards and one passing TD in their first career start, Hurts had the most yards rushing!

Salfino: Josh, what does the front office do now with Wentz? Is Wentz too big to fail?

joshua.hermsmeyer: Mike, I think you hold on to both QBs for now. With Wentz’s contract, you probably can’t get enough in a trade to make it worthwhile, and having a capable backup behind a running QB is smart.

neil: I thought this spin was funny on Sunday morning. “We still believe in him! This Adam Schefter report isn’t at all intended to salvage whatever trade value he has left!”

Salfino: It’s either keep him or eat $60 million in dead cap, I thought.

neil: There are ways they could trade him and make the cap penalty less painful, but it’s still a big hit.

joshua.hermsmeyer: Also, I would simply point to Nick Foles and say, “Trust in fate.” Now go get ’em, Carson!

neil: The Hollywood ending to this is that the Eagles win the NFC East, Wentz has to come in for Hurts at some point, and he proves the doubters wrong on a Super Bowl run.

(Note: This has no chance of happening.)

sara.ziegler: 🤣

Salfino: What are the NFC East playoff odds now, Neil?

neil: The Eagles have an 11 percent chance, according to our model. The Washington Football Team is at 73 percent; the New York Giants are at 15 percent.

Not a great day for the Giants on Sunday, btw.

Salfino: The model doesn’t know that Dwayne Haskins is starting again for Washington, though.

neil: It actually does!

Salfino: Washington needs a game manager, IMO. Haskins is decidedly not that.

joshua.hermsmeyer: Haskins could be that. I believe his strength is as a field processor, reading the defense. He just has not shown that well in the NFL so far.

neil: Washington is in the driver’s seat now, although they do need to finish a game clear of the Giants to avoid a tiebreaker (their two head-to-head losses vs. Da G Men).

Salfino: My favorite stat is that Daniel Jones is 2-17 in his last 19 starts against non-WFT.

sara.ziegler: I like that Hurts’s QB Elo rating is already higher than that of Jones … and Haskins … and Wentz.

neil: The model loved his game Sunday. The Saints D had been very good against opposing QBs all season, but Hurts was reasonably efficient passing against them — and he added 106 rushing yards.

sara.ziegler: So the Eagles have a little more life now, but what about what that game did to the Saints’ playoff situation? They’ll have a much tougher time getting the first-round bye now.

joshua.hermsmeyer: This is where we need Steve Kornacki.

neil: WE HAVE KORNACKI AT HOME.

joshua.hermsmeyer: lol

Salfino: I have a hard time valuing the No. 1 seed this year relative to prior years. And going without it has certainly been overcome before. I think the Saints are clearly a better team than the Packers, no matter where they play. I think the Rams are better than the Packers, too.

joshua.hermsmeyer: I believe the consensus is the bye is even more valuable this season.

neil: Oh, absolutely. One fewer playoff opponent to face? Yes, please.

Salfino: Because only one team gets it?

neil: Right, everyone else has to play that round.

The model does give the Packers the edge for the NFC bye, 59 percent to 33 percent (the Rams and Seahawks also still have slim odds), and it comes down to the remaining schedule. The Saints still have to face scary Kansas City and half-decent Minnesota, along with a Carolina game on the road. Green Bay gets Carolina at home and faces Tennessee (good team, but at home) and the mediocre Bears.

joshua.hermsmeyer: The Saints-Chiefs game Sunday will be a great one. If New Orleans wins, we give them both about the same odds to win the Super Bowl.

neil: And Brees might play? But we don’t know.

sara.ziegler: Yeah, we need Brees for that game.

Salfino: The old Brees. Not the Brees who is old.

sara.ziegler: LOL

neil: Brees has still soundly outplayed Hill this year, for what it’s worth.

sara.ziegler: So the first-round bye situation also changed quite a bit in the AFC: Going into the week, the Steelers had a 40 percent chance at it; after Pittsburgh lost to Buffalo on Sunday, that’s down to 5 percent, with the Chiefs at 95 percent.

Were any of you surprised at how the Steelers played Sunday?

joshua.hermsmeyer: Honestly, I was a little surprised. I knew they were not as good as their record, but in the postgame comments, Ben Roethlisberger was saying things like “we’re not very good” and bringing up retirement.

neil: The Steelers seem totally out of gas after this bizarre chaotic stretch they’ve had. (And to Josh’s point, they also were probably never as good as 11-0 made them seem.)

Salfino: The Steelers are not good. Their defense also lost an impact pass rusher for the year in Bud Dupree. I think we have to at least address the narrative that COVID-19 has beaten the Steelers (three games in 12 days) — even though I reject that narrative.

neil: It couldn’t have helped. Rest days matter — we even have that effect baked into our prediction model.

Salfino: Pittsburgh’s offense is a mess. Roethlisberger is a shadow of his former self — and has been all year, really.

And they are putting more on Roethlisberger’s old shoulders because they have no running game whatsoever.

neil: This has kind of reverted into the Steelers we were expecting going into the season: strong defense, meh passing attack, meh offense.

joshua.hermsmeyer: They even brought up on the broadcast that the Steelers refuse to run play-action, which is a massive easy button for most other teams. Why Ben is so against it, I have no idea, but the Steelers remain last in the league in play-action percentage.

Salfino: We thought they had great receivers, but maybe not. Diontae Johnson has had all kinds of problems with dropping the ball.

As for play-action, I think it’s because they don’t like to do it in the shotgun, and Ben doesn’t like turning his back to the pass rush under center.

neil: Btw, we should also give credit to the Bills for that win! Yes, it was at home, but traditionally it’s not often you see Buffalo come out and get a relatively decisive win over a top AFC team in prime time.

(In fact, the last time they had a marquee game matching that description, the Titans cleaned their clock.)

Salfino: Josh Allen may not be the MVP, but he’s playing at a legit Pro Bowl level. He’s the argument for drafting traits and coaching them up.

sara.ziegler: And Stefon Diggs, man. What a game he had.

neil: He’s been amazing. Already at 100 catches and 1,167 yards.

sara.ziegler: A game like that is not easy for a Vikings fan to watch …

Salfino: Diggs has to be one of the best offseason acquisitions in NFL history.

joshua.hermsmeyer: I really enjoy that both teams involved in that trade are thriving. The Vikings can’t be unhappy with Justin Jefferson, and Diggs unlocked this Bills passing offense.

neil: Yeah, Jefferson’s yardage numbers (1,078) are pretty similar to Diggs’s.

Salfino: Sara will disagree that the Vikings are thriving.

joshua.hermsmeyer: Yeah, I meant in regards to the trade, haha.

sara.ziegler: 😬

I love Jefferson, though — and his touchdown dances.

Salfino: Just a quick, weird note about the Vikings and how Zimmer-ball is not working:

neil: Wait, more ball control doesn’t automatically guarantee victory?

joshua.hermsmeyer: I’m not sure what to do with this information, so I will ignore it.

sara.ziegler: LOL

Back to the Steelers, I never thought they would go undefeated given their schedule — facing the Bills, Colts and Browns in three of their final four games. But what do we make of their chances once the playoffs roll around?

joshua.hermsmeyer: One and done?

Salfino: Stick a fork in the Steelers.

neil: Now watch them win it all.

joshua.hermsmeyer: They don’t look like a team that will make noise in the playoffs. I’m not sure they ever scared anyone, except for their defensive line.

neil: Yeah, in all seriousness, their title odds are suddenly not so special.

The Buffalo loss alone cut their Super Bowl probability in half. (Between its implications for the bye and the fact that they are kind of exposed as not as good as maybe we thought.)

Salfino: I will eat a bug if the Steelers make it to the Super Bowl.

joshua.hermsmeyer: Mike, your bold predictions have not gone so well lately. I am now rooting for the Steelers!

Salfino: There have been no bug bets lost, Josh.

neil: They can’t ratio a Slack chat! (Or can they?)

sara.ziegler: I was told my eyes would bleed during the Eagles game, and yet…

Salfino: I did my mea culpa on Hurts.

joshua.hermsmeyer: I saw it. It was solid.

sara.ziegler: We have to give you a LITTLE grief.

Salfino: I honestly had no idea that the Eagles pass blocking was graded as good. That’s on me. I assumed their line was a mess with all those sacks.

joshua.hermsmeyer: Sacks are a QB stat!

neil: ^^^ this

Salfino: Yes! I said that. Like 60-40 though.

“Sacks are a QB stat” could be on my tombstone, and yet I don’t listen to myself. How can I expect anyone else to?

sara.ziegler: Hahaha

OK, so, with only three games left, we have a pretty good idea of the playoff picture, save for a little jostling over the last spots. Depending on the outcome of the Ravens-Browns game tonight, the Miami Dolphins are in position for the No. 7 seed in the AFC, while the Arizona Cardinals are currently holding the NFC’s No. 7. Which teams currently out of the playoff picture do you think have the best chance to make it?

Salfino: It seems like the NFC is pretty much locked save for the seeding. Right, Neil?

neil: Kind of … but we still give the Vikings and Bears 20 percent each to make it, and of course the Giants and Eagles are outside the cut line now but could make it via winning the dreadful NFC East. The Cardinals are only a little better than a coin flip (54 percent) to make it.

Overall, I think the Ravens are the best pick to leapfrog their way into the playoffs.

joshua.hermsmeyer: The Ravens are favored to make the playoffs over Miami in our model, 63-33 percent. And if Baltimore beats Cleveland tonight, it jumps to 88-26 percent. So I agree with Neil.

Salfino: It has to be the Ravens. They’re the favorites once we count the absentee ballots.

sara.ziegler: A lot hinges on tonight’s game, though! The Ravens’ chances fall to 37 percent if they lose.

joshua.hermsmeyer: Massive game for the Ravens, Sara.

Salfino: I see this game as a tossup. I don’t like the way Lamar Jackson is playing at all.

neil: We’ll learn a lot about both teams, frankly.

The Ravens have a vastly better point differential than the Browns. They’ve outscored opponents by 85 points, while the Browns have a -15 differential. Yet Cleveland is 9-3 and Baltimore is 7-5.

Salfino: The Browns finally had their head above water in point differential and then let the Titans pile it on in garbage time in Week 13.

sara.ziegler: I did see a new Progressive commercial for Baker Mayfield this weekend (maybe just new to me, LOL), so maybe that’s the good-luck charm he needed.

neil: It’s time for him to move aside and let a fresher Oklahoma QB take over as pitchman. Hello, Jalen Hurts!

sara.ziegler: That’s Kyler Murray erasure, Neil.

neil: Lol

Salfino: Murray is Tebowing now in commercials.

Check out our latest NFL predictions.

Sara Ziegler is the sports editor at FiveThirtyEight.

Neil Paine is a senior writer for FiveThirtyEight.

Josh Hermsmeyer is 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.

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