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We Remain Baffled By The NFL’s So-Called Contenders

sara.ziegler (Sara Ziegler, sports editor): Fortunes swung wildly during Week 14 of the NFL season, with a few games making a big dent in some teams’ playoff hopes while boosting others. Three games gave us combined swings in playoff probability for the two teams involved — according to the FiveThirtyEight model, naturally — of more than 20 percent: 49ers-Bengals, Cowboys-Football Team and Ravens-Browns. All of those games also featured furious comeback attempts, making the outcome all the more exciting.

Let’s start with the biggest mover of those three, San Francisco and Cincinnati. With their win, the 49ers climbed 14 percentage points in our playoff odds to 76 percent, while the Bengals fell 15 points to 29 percent. These two teams have to be among the most difficult to figure out all year. What do you all make of Sunday’s game — and of either team’s chances?

neil (Neil Paine, senior sportswriter): Good for the Niners to stay in the fight and keep punching even when things looked dire in a rough division. They went from 2-4 early to winning five of their past seven. After that rough start, I don’t think anyone thought they would have a 76 percent playoff chance at this point of the season.

joshua.hermsmeyer (Josh Hermsmeyer, NFL analyst): The Bengals still have a shot at this point in the AFC North. They still have to play Baltimore and the Browns in the next four weeks, so if they win those games, they have a 64 percent chance to win the division, and 79 percent chance to make the playoffs.

Salfino (Michael Salfino, FiveThirtyEight contributor): I feel better about the Bengals after the loss than I felt before the game, especially given the developments in Baltimore and with Cleveland’s continued inability to manufacture a passing offense. So I would argue with their playoff odds. 

I figured the Niners were in and very dangerous before the game. Now I guess that’s more cemented. It’s great to see George Kittle just explode this way with his stats the past two games — 22 catches, 332 receiving yards and three touchdowns — as opposed to the more nuanced evaluation of his blocking value. Kittle may be the best player at his position in football.

joshua.hermsmeyer: Kittle is everything good about football. Love to see him thrive. His Niners will probably earn a wild card berth even if they go .500 the rest of the way, losing to Tennessee and the Rams. We give them a 75 percent shot in that scenario — and they could beat the Titans.

neil: And the Bengals and Niners play exciting games against each other, that’s just a rule.

sara.ziegler: Billy Joel and Christie Brinkley! God bless the 1980s.

Salfino: There’s also this, Neil. 

The Bengals were also a dropped pick six from winning, but Jimmy Garoppolo got a second life and used it to kill Cincy. On the Niners’ last drive, he hit five straight passes — and there were a couple of big throws in there. 

sara.ziegler: I’m still not sure how to feel about Jimmy G. Good enough? A liability? Somewhere in the middle?

Salfino: Through the first 44 starts of a player’s career, Jimmy G is fourth all-time in yards per attempt, between Patrick Mahomes and Deshaun Watson. 

neil: And to think, somewhere in an alternate universe, Jimmy G could be throwing three passes in a Pats win. Smh.

joshua.hermsmeyer: He made some good throws in some tough third-down spots. He reminds me of a very handsome version of Kirk Cousins, Sara. 

sara.ziegler: LOL

neil: Kirk Cousins is also handsome. In a marionette puppet kind of way.

joshua.hermsmeyer: omg ded

sara.ziegler: That’s extremely upsetting.

neil: LOL

Anyway, I think offensively the Niners have rediscovered much of their formula from their Super Bowl season two years ago. That year they were eighth in schedule-adjusted expected points added per game in passing and sixth in rushing. This year they are 10th and sixth.

The defense just isn’t anywhere near as good.

Salfino: The Niners are undermanned in the secondary and have to figure something out. Nick Bosa may be the best defensive player in football though. He’s in the conversation.

joshua.hermsmeyer: I think my money is on Myles Garrett. His strip sack/fumble recovery/touchdown single-handedly kept the Browns’ season alive.

neil: And Micah Parsons also had himself a day! Great Sunday for dominant defenders.

joshua.hermsmeyer: Parsons has been a revelation. Using an off-ball linebacker like an edge defender made the pick well worth it.

Salfino: You have to wonder why Parsons ever was an off-ball linebacker.

sara.ziegler: Well, let’s talk about the game Parsons was in! The Dallas-Washington matchup had all the pettiness we’ve come to expect from the NFC East, along with tough defense and a third-string quarterback. But the movement here was really all Washington’s: With its loss, Football Team’s playoffs odds dropped 24 percentage points to just 27 percent, while the Cowboys moved only 2 points to a virtual lock at over 99 percent.

Is Washington’s goose cooked? Does Dallas have what it takes to get to the Super Bowl?

neil: I was on the Cowboys hype train early in the season, but that was not a convincing win by any means. It looked like it would be early, but Washington fought back.

joshua.hermsmeyer: I mean, early it looked pretty bad too! After exchanging turnovers, the Cowboys finally got going, and then they turned into a bit of a pumpkin there again at the end.

neil: Yes, they were up 24-0, and then ended up being in a position to potentially give up a tying TD on Washington’s final drive.

Salfino: It was like the clock struck midnight on Taylor Heinicke. Not exactly shocking. I thought WFT had a good chance to win the game, but the game was not as close as the score and ending indicated, IMO.

Dallas’ offense isn’t dangerous now. Dak Prescott doesn’t look right since his calf injury — he’s not sharp at all. That pick six was disgusting. 

neil: I agree, Mike. Dak has been ALL over the place recently. Sunday, he was not good.

joshua.hermsmeyer: As for Washington, they are just another football team that’s (probably) not in the playoffs this year. They are done.

Salfino: Change their name to Just Another Football Team. I like it.

sara.ziegler: Hahaha

neil: The bottom of the NFC playoff picture is so mediocre that somehow they’re not totally out of it, though. WFT has the same record as the Eagles, Vikings, Saints and Falcons.

One of those crappy teams basically has to make it as the seventh NFC team in.

sara.ziegler: So much mediocrity.

Salfino: I actually think the Vikings are dangerous, and I’m not saying this for Sara’s benefit. They make no sense though. Mike Zimmer is not a good coach for these times and with this team.

Minnesota may have the best two skill players in football. And Cousins is fine.

joshua.hermsmeyer: If Washington loses one of its Eagles games and loses again to Dallas in Week 16 — both of which seem likely — we give them a 5 percent shot to make the playoffs.

neil: These Eagles cannot be counted on to win, we know this. They can, however, be counted on to lay an egg in any game they need to win.

Salfino: Nice!

sara.ziegler: An important skill!

neil: As a bird, I guess so! As a football team, not so much.

sara.ziegler: 🤣

joshua.hermsmeyer: They have two shots and sharp beaks! They will be themselves, and Washington will suffer.

neil: Sharp beaks, LOL.

sara.ziegler: Excited to watch the team that comes out of that group lose by 30 to whoever of Tampa Bay/Green Bay/Arizona is in the No. 2 seed.

neil: Definitely.

Salfino: Something crazy like point differential is going to decide the No. 1 seed in the NFC. Or a coin flip.

neil: Hot take, more things should be decided on point differential:

And miss me with “Ohhh they’ll run up the score” … I like that!

joshua.hermsmeyer: Agreed, Neil!

sara.ziegler: The final game that shook up playoff odds was Baltimore-Cleveland. The Ravens showed heart by coming almost all the way back without an injured Lamar Jackson, but the Browns hung on in the end, and as a result, they were the biggest climbers of the week. Their playoff odds still aren’t great — at ​​39 percent, up from 21 percent a week ago — but that positive movement is certainly better than the alternative. The Ravens, meanwhile, lost only 7 percentage points and sit at a still-strong 76 percent.

Baltimore still holds the edge in the AFC North, but can it hold on? Or could Cleveland grab that top spot?

joshua.hermsmeyer: The Browns’ best shot to win their division is for Baltimore to win one of their next three games. They will be rooting for the Ravens to beat the Bengals in Week 16.

Salfino: Have to give the Ravens credit for finding a backup QB who plays just like their starter. They didn’t have to change anything with Tyler Huntley, who was very good against a good defense. Shockingly good.

Reportedly, the injury to Jackson is not expected to keep him out long.  

neil: The Ravens are doomed because “analytics” told John Harbaugh to go for 2 down 9. Or something.

joshua.hermsmeyer: The Ravens showed heart and moxie and grit AND were smart about going for 2, they are the all-everything football team. I don’t know why analysts on postgame shows need to hate. 

neil: Yeah, going for 2 is probably slightly better when down 9 after a TD. But it’s sort of, pick whatever you want.

Mainly it was another case of people seeing the final margin was 2, looking back in hindsight on the unconverted 2-point attempt and criticizing.

joshua.hermsmeyer: Right, but I think there is an edge not captured in the data from getting more information.

Salfino: I agree with Josh. I want to know ASAP.

joshua.hermsmeyer: It’s similar to teams that use third down in a way that anticipates going for it on fourth — it’s an edge not completely captured in the fourth-down stats because it’s still so rare.

neil: And the Ravens were going to have to do what they ended up doing anyway, just in a different order.

sara.ziegler: I saw a tweet that compared that decision to the idea that you have two tests left in a class you’re taking, and you can decide whether to learn how you did on the first one or just wait to find out when it comes time to take the second one. I found that really interesting.

Salfino: I don’t see what the difference is. You’re either getting it or not, no matter when you go for it. Get it out of the way early and give yourself another path to victory. Procrastinating gets you nothing except the illusion that you’re in a “one-score game” when it’s always a two-score game down 8. People do not respect how hard it is to convert those 2-pointers.

neil: Either way, we’ve now gotten to the point where anything mildly unconventional Harbaugh does that backfires or doesn’t work perfectly is blamed on “analytics.”

Illustration of an American football.

Related: Our 2021 NFL Predictions Read more. »

joshua.hermsmeyer: It’s exhausting. But it also feels like the death throes I recall from old skool baseball people a decade ago.

sara.ziegler: Yeah, at least there’s pretty consistent pushback to the “Why is he doing that???” narrative. And it gives us something to talk about every week!

neil: We can’t lose sight of what’s really important here.

sara.ziegler: Haha

Salfino: Football is really about owning the analytics libs.

joshua.hermsmeyer: LOL

Back to the Browns though. Are any of you actually convinced they are any good?

neil: No, they are really mediocre. Although I guess you could have also said that about the 2020 Browns, who then won a playoff game and almost beat the Chiefs.

Salfino: The Cleveland offense is painful to watch because nothing is easy and their receivers are all just guys. So is the QB.

sara.ziegler: I like Baker Mayfield and am kind of rooting for him, but I don’t know if they’re really going to do anything special ever.

Salfino: Fading Browns optimism every summer is like my second job.

neil: Yeah, Cleveland’s stats are uninspiring. EPA-wise, they are 18th on offense and 21st on defense. They have a -0.8 PPG differential this year. Mayfield has seldom looked good (although he did play well enough Sunday). 

Salfino: Even when Baker plays well, he’s more like a game manager and not really producing points. And in fairness, he has no weapons.

joshua.hermsmeyer: I expected more from Baker against an utterly depleted Ravens secondary. I’m not sure what is going on with him, possibly the accumulation of injuries. But some of those throws were just yikes.

And to be fair, you could say the same thing about other good QBs, but I just don’t see the highs to go with the yikes.

sara.ziegler: “The Highs and the Yikes” — this season in the NFL.

Salfino: I agree with Josh. But I was not surprised that Cleveland didn’t open up the passing given the circumstances with the Baltimore secondary. I figured they’d try to run for 200 yards. But that’s not really a reasonable plan.

sara.ziegler: I wanted to talk about one other game, though it didn’t have the kind of playoff odds swing as our first three. The Bills-Bucs game did feature a furious comeback, and there were still some playoff implications, since a win would have given Buffalo a stronger claim on a playoff spot. The Bills making a game of it and forcing overtime was a surprise to me after that first half. Did Tampa Bay just take its foot off the gas there? Or did Buffalo figure something out?

joshua.hermsmeyer: Buffalo is 7-6. This is not a drill.

Salfino: Exactly. And losing the tiebreaker to the Colts.

neil: 

Make of that what you will.

sara.ziegler: The Bills are the anti-Vikings (but much better).

neil: The Vikings exclusively play one-score games, but at least they sometimes win them.

Salfino: I think the Bucs were playing beat-the-clock once they went up 27-10 in the fourth quarter. It made sense to do that. 

sara.ziegler: So there was nothing to be worried about in the Bucs’ quasi-collapse?

joshua.hermsmeyer: Tom Brady didn’t collapse, the defense did.

Salfino: I liked what I saw from the Bucs’ pressure, which was their recipe last year on their Super Bowl run. They have to make things easier for that secondary. Their offense is just unreal right now. Leonard Fournette, Mike Evans, Chris Godwin, Rob Gronkowski, Brady — everyone is rolling.

neil: I agree with you both. Brady is playing like an MVP (which he will likely win again, at age 44), but this defense isn’t really at the same level it was last year.

Salfino: Tampa’s defense is fundamentally flawed because they are inviting teams to pass. When you have an explosive offense, your weakness should be defending the run so you invite teams to do that — which can’t beat you. This is how Peyton Manning’s Colts won all those games.

sara.ziegler: That makes sense.


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Salfino: On Sunday, Josh Allen was a one-man team who just carried the Bills almost to victory, against all odds.

And remember that the Bills had a fourth-and-3 midfield punt in there during that run, too.

neil: Yeah, I hated that punt.

sara.ziegler: That was ridiculous.

Salfino: And it was sort of validated, they’ll think. Sadly.

I think the reasonable criticism of the Bills is that they don’t have a physical component to their game on either side of the ball, and there are times, like in the bad weather last Monday night, when you need that. 

sara.ziegler: Their defense is also badly missing Tre’Davious White (though it wasn’t great before he went out, either).

Salfino: The Bills can try to run more: Devin Singletary had 52 yards on only four carries. A RB didn’t have a run in that game until the stupid fake punt where they should have just left Allen and the offense on the field.

joshua.hermsmeyer: Allen ran and passed them into contention in that game. And it’s weird to me that some were pointing to the Bills’ reliance on passing as some fatal flaw, in that it makes them predictable and they need a running game. He IS their running game, and it’s a cheat code. It’s just that their defense can’t be relied on, but no defense really can be relied upon.

neil: That last part is the kind of nihilism that feels right when talking about these Bills.

sara.ziegler: Hahaha

joshua.hermsmeyer: They were generational, Neil!

Generational!

Check out our latest NFL predictions.

Sara Ziegler is the former sports editor at FiveThirtyEight.

Neil Paine is the acting sports editor at 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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