We’re Still Processing Week 15’s Most Mind-Blowing Finishes
maya (Maya Sweedler, editor): Quick show of hands, who else is still picking themselves up off the floor from Sunday?
neil (Neil Paine, acting sports editor): ✋
maya: One day after the largest comeback in NFL history, Sunday’s games brought some of the wildest finishes, thrilling sequences and (sorry to New England) funniest game-losing plays I’ve ever seen. Week 15 saw THREE 17-point comebacks! The AFC playoff picture couldn’t be any messier than it is right now! Jalen Hurts is now one rushing touchdown away from tying the NFL record for quarterbacks, and there’s a nonzero chance we’re not going to get to it today!
Instead, we’re going to start with the four most, for lack of a better phrase, bonkers games of this week.
Each of us has picked one of this week’s win probability Hall of Fame entries — the Minnesota Vikings’ massive comeback against the Indianapolis Colts, the Cincinnati Bengals’ rally over the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, the Jacksonville Jaguars’ overtime victory over the Dallas Cowboys and the Las Vegas Raiders’ walk-off over the New England Patriots — and talk through one key trend or stat that led to the wild swings we saw.
Salfino (Michael Salfino, FiveThirtyEight contributor) The first game was Colts vs. Vikings, so I’ll start there. It’s the revenge of Frank Reich game, since he authored the biggest comeback in NFL playoff history and this is the first in regular-season history where a winning team had trailed by at least 30 points (it was 33-0 at halftime).
joshua.hermsmeyer (Josh Hermsmeyer, NFL analyst): Matt Ryan might be bad at holding leads. So weird!
neil: I feel bad for the guy at this point.
Also, I love weirdo coincidences like that, Mike — there was no reason for Frank Reich to be connected to both games, except the Football Gods wanted it.
Salfino: I can’t really get on Jeff Saturday here or even Matt Ryan. I know it’s very convenient to criticize both, given Ryan blowing that Super Bowl and now this game, and Saturday being a TV studio-to-sideline joke.
maya: I remember watching that Falcons-Patriots Super Bowl and feeling some sense of inevitability around seven minutes into the fourth quarter. I certainly was not feeling that on Saturday (perhaps the difference between having peak Tom Brady under center vs. Kirk Cousins), but given how the Vikings have been playing this season — always somehow finding a way to win — perhaps I should’ve.
neil: When it became clear the Vikings could make it a one-score outcome, you knew they were going to win.
(Because that’s just what they do.)
Salfino: So after the big comeback to get to one score, where the Vikings always win for some reason, the Colts fumble and stop the Vikings. They get the ball back and really the game comes down to a QB sneak. After all this. After all the win probability frittered away, the Colts have a fourth and a foot at the Vikings 36-yard line and Ryan, who was 9-for-11 on sneaks since 2020, does not convert. QBs are 82.4 percent getting a yard or less on third and fourth down since 2020. And 82.5 percent this year. But should a TE or someone take that snap? A real runner? Would that make it near 100 percent?
While those probabilities are on plays needing up to a yard, this was about a third of that.
Why not do the new play that should be outlawed where a real runner gets pushed by two guys behind him?
That Eagles play.
neil: We call that the “Reggie Bush.”
joshua.hermsmeyer: I just want to point out that as much grief as Cousins takes, he’s certainly above average. You always need luck to win in this league, and the Vikings are getting it.
maya: The wonderful thing about this Vikings team is that their expected win-loss total, based on point differential, is 7-7. They’re four wins over that. How many more until we can call them the luckiest team in the history of the NFL?
neil: There’s a very strong case for them as the LOAT (Luckiest Of All Time). Among all NFL or AFL teams with at least 10 games played, they have the largest gap between actual and expected winning percentage, beating out the <checks notes> 1929 Orange Tornadoes:
joshua.hermsmeyer: Why do the Tornadoes gotta be orange?
Salfino: Yeah, that’s weird.
neil: They played in Orange, New Jersey!
neil: Interestingly, the 2022 Eagles are also on that list …
maya: They’re just doing it without the drama.
We’ve been skeptical about how long this luck would last for quite some time, but so far, it hasn’t run out. I might just sit back, let myself believe and simply enjoy the Justin Jefferson show. Catch you all in the divisional round …
Salfino: Maybe the Eagles are the poor man’s Vikings when it comes to luck, yet everyone thinks the Eagles are a legit Super Bowl favorite and no one respects the Vikings (rightfully, IMO).
maya: Does anyone respect the Vikings more for this comeback?
joshua.hermsmeyer: I do, Maya! It was the greatest comeback ever. That it came against one of the worst head-coaching hires since, well, Urban Meyer, shouldn’t take away from that. Much.
maya: I do too. I’m just repeatedly impressed by this team’s discipline. Even when they’re down big, they don’t get frantic and/or sloppy. Not sure if that’s because Minnesota has some experienced players or because they’re well-coached, but I allow for both.
Salfino: Incredibly it was 36-7 late in the third quarter. But, no.
Are the Colts worse since hiring Saturday and firing Reich? I don’t see that, honestly.
neil: Well, I mean, they were 3-5-1 under Reich and are 1-4 under Saturday.
Reich probably could’ve gone 1-4 too.
Salfino: I just mean that the Colts with Saturday are performing like a random team with an interim coach. It seems to me.
maya: To be fair, they haven’t exactly played a cupcake schedule since firing Reich. Cowboys and Eagles in the first four games?
neil: That’s true. Maybe I am just measuring it against Jim Irsay’s justifications for the move.
He “sensed something with the team” (or whatever) and needed to change it.
But honestly, they were going nowhere before and they’re going less of anywhere now.
maya: I don’t feel at all bad about devoting this much space to a team that tied (TIED) the Houston Texans in Week 1.
Salfino: That was the tell, Maya.
neil: Hey, the Texans have given the Cowboys and Chiefs fits in recent weeks!
joshua.hermsmeyer: Back-to-back weeks, even.
maya: I was much more willing to write off last week’s tumble in Texas as a fluke until yesterday afternoon.
But speaking of! Let’s turn to some of those other games.
joshua.hermsmeyer: My pick for the stat that decided the Tampa Bay-Cincinnati game is turnovers. The Bucs had four second-half turnovers that directly led to 21 points. What’s interesting, though, is that the Tampa Bay defense gave up more points than we’d expect. The EPA on those turnovers was just under minus-15. So It wasn’t all Brady’s fault! Also, Joe Burrow might be good.
Salfino: Brady had four turnovers.
joshua.hermsmeyer: One was at the mesh point, hard to put it all on Tom Terrific.
Salfino: OK, he had “three-plus.” Everyone goes out of their way to ignore the obvious fact that Brady is toast. He’s averaging 6.3 yards per attempt this year.
joshua.hermsmeyer: If you grind the film fine enough, you’ll see that Brady’s arm is still good, Mike. You just need to watch the games correctly.
Salfino: I confess to not grinding.
joshua.hermsmeyer: It was interesting how the Bengals defense confused him on the first interception. They showed a full-on blitz with seven players on the line of scrimmage, then only rushed three!
Salfino: The Bucs score how many points per game? Even including that garbage-time TD yesterday?
neil: They’re averaging 17.6, Mike — or 4.4 worse than NFL average. That’s easily the worst offense that ever had Brady as its primary QB, relative to the league. (In fact, it’s the only time he’s ever led a below-average offense.)
And yet the Bucs will win their division and host a playoff game. (And they will scare approximately no one.)
Salfino: That ranks 28th, Neil. But I guess you’re right. We get the Ghost of Brady in the playoffs, and the Cowboys clearly can lose to anyone.
maya: Brady has been bad under pressure for years. The fact that three of his turnovers came under pressure yesterday was neither surprising nor evidence that he’s washed — it’s been a feature of his play for at least the last decade and a half.
Just google “Tom Brady Super Bowl XLII.”
joshua.hermsmeyer: Yeah, that second pick was when they brought pressure, Maya. Was an impressive interception that Jim Nantz was sure hit the turf.
maya: Brady was 1-for-6 against seven pressures in the second half with two picks and a fumble.
Salfino: What would prove Brady is washed if not this entire season?
Everyone else is in the “Where will Brady play next year?” camp. It’s just me saying: the broadcast booth, hopefully, for his sake and ours.
neil: It’s weird, Mike. Brady’s individual numbers are not horrible. His adjusted net yards per attempt is basically league average still. Yet the Bucs offense is horrible.
We’ve seen Brady have meh numbers on teams that won anyway. We’ve seen Brady have all-time numbers on all-time offenses. But I don’t think we’ve seen Brady have OK numbers on a team where it didn’t translate to points.
Salfino: I hate adding TDs and picks to YPA. Just use YPA where he’s GRUESOME. It’s not like the Bucs are scoring points, either. So who cares about that adjustment?
neil: I don’t really want to get into a YPA vs. ANYPA argument this morning, LOL.
Salfino: Plus 10 of his 20 TD passes have been in the fourth quarter. He has 10 — TEN — in the first three quarters.
neil: Yes, he has been the king of “do nothing for 45-plus minutes and then try to furiously come back at the end” this season.
Salfino: The circus leaves town for everyone eventually. Brady is low-key 2015 Peyton.
neil: Without the 2015 Broncos defense.
neil: (Not that the Bucs defense is bad or anything, but you need to be one of the best ever to overcome such an ineffective offense.)
maya: Let’s move onto the next game. I’m gonna take the Jaguars’ win over the Cowboys.
I thought about going with Dak Prescott’s interceptions. He’s had seven in the past four games, for a total of 11 on a season in which he’s played only nine games. But that feels a bit facile — Dak isn’t the reason the Cowboys lost Sunday.
The Jaguars put up 503 yards. FIVE HUNDRED AND THREE. In just 27 minutes and 42 seconds of possession.
So this one goes out to Trevor Lawrence, who has indeed arrived and is making a killing on short passes across the entire width of the field.
Salfino: The Jaguars are fun. It’s fun to see a franchise QB announce himself to the world.
Dallas’s defense is regressing before our eyes when we just assume that defense is not stable more year-to-year than week-to-week.
joshua.hermsmeyer: I am an absolute child.
neil: Good use of analytics, or bad use of analytics? LOL.
joshua.hermsmeyer: But yes, I am on Team Trevor.
maya: I’m particularly impressed with his outside-the-numbers passes. Through Week 15, he’s got a raw QBR of 77.3 on passes outside the numbers this season, the fifth-best in the league.
Yesterday, he put up 159 yards and threw two touchdowns on passes outside the numbers at any depth.
That’s like a whole-ass Zach Wilson gameline.
Salfino: Holding fire on Wilson being the Jets’ whipping boy. Pins and needles, needles and pins …
neil: We just compared Brady to Peyton at the back end of his career. So why not do another comparison? Feels like Lawrence is making that leap Peyton did after a rough first season-plus at the beginning of his career.
(Both led the league in picks as rookies but improved dramatically during Year 2.)
Salfino: Well, I am old enough to have been there, and no one (I mean NO ONE) didn’t think Peyton wasn’t going to be great as a rookie. Most of those picks came early. And picks weren’t as big a deal then.
neil: But no one didn’t think Lawrence would be great either.
Salfino: So Lawrence as a rookie was way different/worse than Peyton.
neil: Lawrence was probably the most hyped QB prospect since Peyton.
maya: Since Andrew Luck, I’d say.
Neil: OK, sure.
Salfino: But I’d bet a lot of money that Lawrence will continue to be great/a true franchise QB.
joshua.hermsmeyer: I like Luck as the anchor there, Maya. It leaves open the possibility that Lawrence is good, but not a Hall of Famer.
maya: I’ve also really come to appreciate how horrendous Urban Meyer was.
The difference between this year’s version of the Jags and last year’s is as clear to me as it is to Rayshawn Jenkins:
Salfino: Any thoughts on Dak? This is his worst QBR season. Is he in the average QB bucket?
neil: I was thinking about that too, Mike. The Cowboys offense is one of the best in the Dak era, yet Dak himself isn’t having one of his best statistical seasons.
Is that good or bad for the Cowboys? Who knows.
joshua.hermsmeyer: The Cowboys feel like a team at the end of their window, and their window wasn’t particularly large to begin with.
Salfino: The window for teams with four playoff wins since 1995.
ABC. Always. Be. Closing (the window).
Dak needs the Glengarry leads.
joshua.hermsmeyer: He already stole the money, hey-o.
Salfino: America’s team is the Lions.
maya: We will absolutely get to them, but before we do — Neil, bring it home with the last of Sunday’s crazy games!
Perhaps the craziest of them all …
neil: Uh, yes. My important stat was going to be the Pats’ defense and ball control in the second half against Vegas, when they clamped down on Derek Carr and ran roughshod with Rhamondre Stevenson. Instead, it became the fact that this was only the second go-ahead defensive TD with zero time on the clock in regulation in NFL history.
(And who could forget the previous, Chuck Shonta for the Boston Patriots — of all teams — versus the New York Titans in 1960?)
BTW, I liked this headline:
“Pats players say costly laterals were improvised”
Oh really? I thought maybe Belichick drew it up that way.
But seriously, that was maybe the dumbest way a team ever lost a game in NFL history. Growing up, one of my favorite VHS tapes was the NFL’s 100 Greatest Follies.
No. 1 on the list was Jim Marshall’s wrong-way run. I think this might have been dumber.
joshua.hermsmeyer: Jakobi Meyers threw the game to protect his boy Josh McDaniels’s job, prove me wrong.
Salfino: The Colts did get a break this weekend, in no longer having the most ill-advised play in NFL history.
maya: For a former high school quarterback, Meyers certainly threw one of the worst-looking passes I’ve ever seen …
maya: And poor Mac Jones! The last potential tackler before the end zone.
joshua.hermsmeyer: Jones got stiff-armed into oblivion.
neil: When it became clear Chandler Jones only had to truck Mac Jones to score a walk-off TD, I started laughing so hard. It was so ridiculous.
Salfino: They really picked the wrong-way run, Neil? I think this is in another category. But we will be talking about it in 60 years. Well, not me. But it will be talked about.
neil: Take it up with NFL Films in 1993, Mike.
BTW, what was Mac Jones going to do with it anyway? (Even if he had somehow caught it.) Nothing about it made any sense.
maya: That’s a great point. 😂
Salfino: The stiff arm was the coup de grâce. And right, Neil. Jones can’t throw it forward.
joshua.hermsmeyer: If the pass was to Justin Fields, it would have made some sense.
maya: It honestly might’ve made more sense if it were going to Bailey Zappe …
Salfino: Jones is lucky because we’re all too distracted by the play to talk about how horrible he was. Again.
neil: What’s crazy is that Kyle Dugger had an amazing pick-six earlier in the game on one of the best reads to jump a route I’ve ever seen. And it wasn’t even the best “pick-six” (yes, I know technically Jones’s was a fumble return) of the game.
joshua.hermsmeyer: That was an amazing jump Dugger got on the ball. Kind of collected it with one hand while moving at light speed.
joshua.hermsmeyer: Never forget that the Patriots signed Drew Bledsoe to the largest ever contract while Brady was already on the team, too.
maya: OK, so we’ve hit on all four of these games. Which one produced the biggest WTF moment, and which one will be most important come January?
I think my jaw hit the floor on the Pats’ woebegone lateral, but I see the Jaguars’ win actually mattering the most for the playoffs (for them, though — despite their loss, the Cowboys still locked up a playoff spot with the Washington Commanders’ loss on Sunday night).
Salfino: I think the games were most important for the Bengals, who to me are a true Super Bowl contender and right there with the Bills and Chiefs, if not better/more balanced. They pretty much win the division now.
joshua.hermsmeyer: I’m not sure I’m as sold on the Bengals, but I am also biased because of my Baltimore fandom. I am all-in on the Jags though. I noted last week the Jags and the Lions would make my top eight teams I don’t want to face in the playoffs, and both won this week.
Salfino: Neither team plays any defense though. That’s a problem in January. If they get there.
neil: The Pats/Raiders WTF moment didn’t really matter for Vegas much — their playoff odds went from 4 percent before the week to 5 percent now. But it did really destroy the Pats’ odds (39 percent to 19 percent) and opened the door for some other AFC bubble teams as a result.
maya: It feels like the entire AFC is on the bubble at this point.
Salfino: Again, the Lions are America’s team. But they got that game gift-wrapped. Special teams TD. Robert Saleh/Jets selling out on fourth-and-1 at midfield and giving up a TD with a four-point lead in the final two minutes (the play was essentially meaningless beforehand). And then the gross, just disgusting clock/timeout management by Saleh, who took a TO in the locker room, called his first of three with 19 seconds left and had to kick a 58-yard FG on first down.
joshua.hermsmeyer: The roar is restored though. They hit their preseason win total (6.5) over with weeks to spare.
neil: And hey, the Jets have better playoff odds than the Patriots at this point!
(Twenty percent to 19.)
Salfino: I think I can speak authoritatively that that Jets loss was a top-three most disgusting loss in their history. As far as just giving a game away.
Salfino: The only loss clearly ahead of it was the playoff loss in Pittsburgh when they missed a couple of field goals, which lead to them drafting a kicker in the second round the next year.
maya: Fourteen months ago, Neil — a wonderful colleague, as many of our faithful readers have likely surmised — made a “distracted boyfriend” meme about Zach Wilson and Mike White that I started using as my avatar on Slack. I’ve never regretted keeping it, and after Sunday, I don’t think I ever will change it.
joshua.hermsmeyer: Neil is a prophet, it is known. He speaks in meme to those who will listen.
Salfino: Maya, this loss is 100 percent on the head coach and not Zach Wilson. An enterprising beat reporter would have asked Saleh if he can look his team in the eye after that game and then trashed him when he, like Zach weeks ago, took ZERO accountability.
maya: Oh, I disagree! He doesn’t deserve all the blame, but that third-quarter interception was on Wilson.
Salfino: OK, he threw a pick. He also made enough plays to win. The coach lost the game, there is no question.
maya: But after the pick, he started missing open guys all over the field. Garrett Wilson basically disappeared.
Salfino: I’m not even defending Wilson. I don’t care about him. White is very overrated, though, to be fair. His QBR is barely better than Wilson’s. But whatever. This was a coaching error that could have been obviated by paying some low-level assistant $75,000 to just manage the clock and timeouts. Instead, the Jets are probably out of the playoffs now.
maya: It’s definitely not looking great for the Jets. But right now, the only team that’s joined last week’s eliminated teams is Arizona. Meaning the 4-9 Rams and 4-9-1 Colts are still mathematically in the hunt.
Salfino: Wilson is playing again Thursday versus the Jags, 100 percent. No way does White, who has a broken rib, get cleared to play.
joshua.hermsmeyer: I would feel safer if the Jets don’t make the playoffs, to be honest. I don’t need Saleh going full Liam Neeson on the people he has receipts on.
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