sara.ziegler (Sara Ziegler, sports editor): Week 13 had a little bit of everything: matchups between division leaders, out-of-nowhere upsets and yet another Chargers heartbreaker. A kicker caught a touchdown … thrown by a punter! What more could we ask for?
Let’s start with the biggest surprise of the week for me: Philadelphia, which could have jumped back into a tie for the NFC East lead with a win, marched down to Miami and gave up 37 points to Ryan Fitzpatrick and Co.
Salfino (Michael Salfino, FiveThirtyEight contributor): I always kick myself when I assume a team has completely transformed a unit in-season. I did buy the narrative that the Eagles had improved their pass defense immeasurably relative to their early-season woes. But this team was always weakest in the defensive backfield, so even getting guys back did not fix the problem, obviously, as Fitzpatrick — who has now played the Eagles seven times with seven different teams — just tore them apart.
gfoster (Geoff Foster, FiveThirtyEight contributor): Some smart NFL people predicted the Eagles to win the NFC this year based on the talent on their roster, which is one of the most expensive in the league. I think earlier this season it was easy to write off these losses because of their injuries at receiver and all over their defense. But now, is it time to admit that this team is just not that good?
joshua.hermsmeyer: I’m not sure what to make of the Eagles from top to bottom this season. They just gave a five-year, $21.8 million contract to Jake Elliott at the most replaceable position in football outside running back.
sara.ziegler: Sure, you laugh at a huge kicker contract, until you’re the Cowboys holding kicker tryouts on a December Sunday…
gfoster: Look at what Fitzpatrick did to this defense:
Salfino: They seemed to have the depth to be fortified against typical in-season problems. But I think we found out that even the starters were not that good. And nothing has really held up through in-season attrition. Even their coaching has not responded. Can you imagine being beaten by gadget plays now three straight games? It’s just embarrassing.
sara.ziegler: Fitzpatrick isn’t that bad! He’s almost league average in our QB ratings.
That makes what Miami is doing this year all the more confusing.
gfoster: This is the closing argument in the case that NFL tanking doesn’t exist. If the Dolphins really wanted Joe Burrow or Chase Young or whomever in the draft, they would simply play Josh Rosen at quarterback. But with Fitzmagic in there, they are going to get games like this from him, and they will win more.
joshua.hermsmeyer: I still contend that tanking did exist … but maybe the spotlight on their supposed tanking caused them to stop.
I think the pressure got to them!
sara.ziegler: There’s also the argument that Miami is just bad at tanking.
Salfino: It’s like “The Producers.” If you’re trying to be terrible, it’s actually not that easy.
gfoster: To clarify: I think you can tank in the NFL. But you can only do it by purposefully playing a lesser QB. Like, say, Ryan Finley over Andy Dalton.
Salfino: But what’s the carrot for tanking? It’s one starter out of 22, and we don’t even know if that guy ever is really the best player.
If it’s just about compiling draft capital, then it’s more binary — be bad, it doesn’t matter if you’re the worst or not.
joshua.hermsmeyer: So the Bengals have a one-game lead on the New York Giants for the first overall pick. You have to think Cincinnati takes Burrow if they lose out. But an interesting question is: If the Giants get the first overall, do they take Burrow or trade down?
Salfino: Geoff, they’re just trying to make us feel better about the Jets….
sara.ziegler: There’s no way to feel better about the Jets today.
gfoster: I think they would try to trade down, and if that didn’t work, then they would just take Chase Young at No. 1 and not feel too bad about it.
Salfino: I will eat 1,000 bugs if the Giants draft Burrow. Plus, Burrow is old for a prospect. I have low confidence with all QB prospects translating as expected but even lower with older prospects. Burrow should be dominating just based on his age.
joshua.hermsmeyer: I think it would be pretty funny if Giants GM Dave Gettleman didn’t trade back and take the profits, just to be stubborn.
Salfino: I would just take Young, period. No matter what team I was.
Will Burrow get more draft capital in return than Young? I’m uncertain about that. And there are going to be a lot of veteran QBs on the market that teams think they can rehab. It will be like musical chairs.
gfoster: Burrow can join a long line of LSU QBs to dominate the NFL, names like … JaMarcus Russell, Matt Flynn, Zach Mettenberger.
sara.ziegler: Hey, Flynn was a dominant backup.
Salfino: You can never take away Flynn’s six-TD game. He monetized that sucker.
gfoster: Here’s the thing about the Bengals win: It wasn’t that big of an upset. They were only 2.5-point dogs. No team in the NFL is that bad. Also, the Jets are deeply weird. I follow this team closely, and I still don’t understand them.
sara.ziegler: Please, yes, the “this loss was fine” take.
Salfino: Ha ha ha
joshua.hermsmeyer: Apparently, according to the Elias Sports Bureau, the Jets are the first team to lose to teams that were 0-7 or worse coming into a game. That’s a weird way to say you gave the Dolphins and Bengals their first wins, but there we are.
Salfino: The Jets did not have a red zone snap against one of the worst defenses in the NFL. Not a snap!
I’m not sure the Jets could beat the 1976 Buccaneers right now.
gfoster: The second I heard Dalton was starting, I knew the Jets had no chance. I knew he was going to come back motivated and looking to polish a resume. Also, he passed Ken Anderson for most TD passes in Cincy history. Which is funny, because does that mean that the Bengals were going to sit to him the rest of the year when he was one shy of that record?
Salfino: Benching Dalton was all an elaborate scheme to preserve the memory of Ken Anderson.
gfoster: Dalton is going to be really solid on the 2020 Bears.
joshua.hermsmeyer: Geoff has seen the future, and it’s bleak.
sara.ziegler: That’s the future I want.
Salfino: Dalton is one of those vets that teams are going to turn to this offseason: Dalton, Derek Carr, Marcus Mariota, Jameis Winston … (Though maybe he stays now?)
sara.ziegler: It’s always so weird when the up-and-comers become the has-beens.
gfoster: Ryan Tannehill is NOT making Mariota look good in Tennessee.
joshua.hermsmeyer: Winston’s highs are too high to let him go, I think.
Salfino: But Winston is what he is now though. That’s never going to be good enough. He’s not going to stop throwing picks and getting sacked.
joshua.hermsmeyer: But if all you do is try and avoid interceptions, you end up being discount Aaron Rodgers, post 2015.
Salfino: I agree that there’s an ideal INT rate, and it ain’t 0 percent. But Winston makes too many mistakes, period.
joshua.hermsmeyer: What happened to loving the gunslinger, Salfino?
Salfino: No gunslinging on first downs and in the red zone.
sara.ziegler: Words to live by.
joshua.hermsmeyer: This disrespect of the Joe Namath archetype is why the Jets lost, tbh.
Salfino: Namath’s INT rate in his AFL heyday was below average for his time, BTW.
Back to Tannehill: He’s been sacked 24 times in 200 pass plays, which is ABSURDLY bad. He is proof again that sacks are mostly a QB stat. Put him anywhere, and he’ll be dumped at a double-digit rate. Jameis has this flaw of holding the ball too long, too.
gfoster: Tannehill is leading the league in yards per attempt. And Derrick Henry is now Jim Brown, apparently.
What is happening?
joshua.hermsmeyer: Between Tannehill and Lamar Jackson, I think the league is figuring out the secret to success at QB is to play your WR there. (Tannehill was a WR in college, and some scouts thought Lamar would only be successful in the NFL as a WR.)
Speaking of Lamar … the Baltimore-San Francisco game was wildly entertaining. These two teams are just really fun to watch right now.
joshua.hermsmeyer: It helps when you have way more offensive plays to watch because neither team is punting.
Salfino: Both teams were just running the ball up and down the field. It’s so weird that this is where we are with the two best teams in football now.
gfoster: There were only seven drives in the second half of that game. And they resulted in two field goals, two punts, two turnovers on downs and a fumble.
sara.ziegler: That game-ending drive by the Ravens was a thing of beauty, though. Six minutes and 30 seconds to win the game on a field goal? Love it.
gfoster: It feels like the Ravens’ break-in-case-of-emergency plan is to just give designed runs to Lamar. AKA, play like the 2018 Ravens.
Also, Josh, kicker may be the most replaceable position in the NFL. But Baltimore having Justin Tucker in the playoffs is a clear edge.
joshua.hermsmeyer: Bill Belichick said he’s the best to ever do it. So I won’t argue it.
Salfino: Oh, man. You just knew Tucker was making that, even in those conditions. That dude is just unreal.
Geoff, didn’t you lose a playoff game in fantasy when Tucker kicked 137 field goals? 🙂
gfoster: I may have.
Salfino: It was one of those 99 percent win probability losses.
sara.ziegler: I’ll take Tucker at the end of an important game … but maybe not in a press conference.
joshua.hermsmeyer: **leaves chat**
Salfino: Kickers can’t be the cool kids. They’re the rock critics of football.
The other great matchup of the weekend that I wanted to talk about was the Patriots-Texans game on Sunday Night Football.
Salfino: Tom Brady RIP.
sara.ziegler: I live for the “Tom Brady is done” takes.
Salfino: Brady is someone who occasionally evokes Tom Brady now. But Belichick has let him down with his supporting cast of receivers. How big a bust must N’Keal Harry be if he can’t even get on the field ahead of this motley crew?
Does this change our opinion on the Texans? It’s weird that no one seems to have done so, with what — on paper — is a signature win for them.
sara.ziegler: The Texans are hard for me to figure out. They were so thoroughly dismantled by the Ravens that I have a hard time understanding where they fit in the echelon of good-but-not-great teams.
gfoster: This news for the Texans is huge, if it’s true:
sara.ziegler: Whoa, hadn’t seen that about J.J. Watt.
Salfino: Deshaun Watson had a great game. If he plays within structure like that and sprinkles in the occasional Watson things, they can overcome Bill O’Brien’s coaching. I think. At least until they play the Ravens.
gfoster: The funniest thing about the NFL is how scared everyone is to write the “Patriots Are Done” stories. We have all experienced this too many times.
joshua.hermsmeyer: I’ve seen a take floating around that it was Gronk’s greatness that was keeping Brady afloat all these years, and perhaps there’s something to it.
Salfino: Well, Rob Gronkowski and Josh Gordon were intermediate/deep receivers, and now that guy for the Patriots is ?????
The Patriots can win still like the 2015 Broncos did with the Ghost of Peyton Manning.
sara.ziegler: The Patriots can still win like the 2003 Patriots did!
gfoster: I think the lack of weapons on the outside is real. The running game is also way, way worse this year. Brady’s whole game is about being in sync with his receivers and having them be in the right spot at the right time, and you can tell that they are not in sync at the moment. But give Josh McDaniels and them a bye in the playoffs to work on some stuff, and no one will be surprised to see them fix these problems.
sara.ziegler: Brady screaming at his receivers on the sidelines doesn’t fix everything?
joshua.hermsmeyer: It’s a toxic relationship right now.
Salfino: But I think it’s more than “outside,” though maybe that’s a proxy of having no one who can remotely stretch the field. Gronk stretched it from the slot in the seam. But yes, they are woefully deficient at a position that should not be hard to fill.
As to Sara’s point, a QB has to be loved or feared, and Brady has always been way more feared than loved. So it’s in character for him. It’s worked.
gfoster: I think that actually COULD help things, Sara. You are telling me Jakobi Meyers and Harry aren’t spending more time in the film room this week to avoid another Brady scolding on national TV? Everyone in that organization seems to buy in to the system or get discarded.
sara.ziegler: Fair — I felt bad for those guys, and they weren’t even on the screen!
Salfino: The Patriots for sure know that QBs are not really part of the team, they are above the team. Brady is just a coach proxy on the field. Probably ahead of most of the coaches, too.
sara.ziegler: I will believe the Patriots are out of it when both Belichick and Brady are sitting on a beach somewhere while NFL games are being played, and not a moment before.
Salfino: There’s a report that the Patriots players are lobbying to bring Antonio Brown back.
But then Brown seemed to destroy the possibility.
gfoster: “Patriots players are lobbying to bring Antonio Brown” — according to reports from Antonio Brown.
Salfino: Brown is a 7-Eleven PR nightmare. Open all night.
gfoster: There’s only one person who can save the Patriots offense now:
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