FiveThirtyEight

sara.ziegler (Sara Ziegler, sports editor): When the NFL took the field in September, we weren’t sure what to expect. How would teams navigate a pandemic? What would a largely fanless season look like? Would the NFC East proceed to be the worst division of all time? Seventeen weeks later, the NFL’s 2020 regular season is in the books, and we know the answer to all of those questions.

Let’s start our look at Week 17 with the last game of the weekend, maybe the most ridiculous game of the season, in one of the worst divisions in history: Washington Football Team’s win over the Philadelphia Eagles.

I think New York Giants retiree Eli Manning said it best:

Putting aside for a moment that the Giants have no one to blame but themselves and their 6-10 record for not getting to the playoffs, was basically every New York player on social media correct? Did the Eagles throw that game?

joshua.hermsmeyer (Josh Hermsmeyer, NFL analyst): I’m not convinced this was a tank from the outset — why start Jalen Hurts if that was the case? But if it was a tank at the end, I think it’s fine. More than fine — it’s sharp. What culture have you built this year going 4-11-1 that is worth protecting? I’ve heard some say the league is about respect. I’ve heard some say this is a league about winning. But what this league is really about is money. That’s what’s driving this weeping and gnashing of teeth. The critics of tanking fear that fans will lose interest if the NFL becomes a league where tanking is normalized. But fans are smart, and gaining three spots in draft capital is worth more than the near-term pain of a meaningless loss.

neil (Neil Paine, senior sportswriter): And look, Nate Sudfeld, the *checks notes* sixth-round draft pick out of Indiana with 25 career attempts in four seasons before last night, deserved a chance to show what he had!

Salfino (Michael Salfino, FiveThirtyEight contributor): I just don’t believe that coaches tank in a game. Hurts played badly, but he should have been allowed to finish. I think this is evidence that there is no buy-in on Hurts from Doug Pederson.

joshua.hermsmeyer: Hurts was 20th in QBR Week 17 and completed just 35 percent of his passes for 72 yards. If you’re going to lead a fourth-quarter comeback, you probably need to do it with a QB who can push the ball downfield successfully.

So I get the change of direction.

neil: So they had seen enough from Hurts to know what they had with him? That’s the part that makes me go HMMMM.

That they supposedly wanted more tape on Sudfeld. You need more tape on HURTS!

Salfino: Pederson said they were trying to win. I take the “more tape on Sudfeld” as a knock against Hurts, actually.

neil: Although a guy named Sudfeld comically wreaking havoc on a New York team on NBC is meme-able.

“What’s the DEAL with Doug Pederson? Does he WANT to be fired?”

sara.ziegler: I will say that the people using Pederson going for it on fourth-and-goal as evidence of a tank have maybe never watched the Eagles.

neil: Yeah, Pederson is known to be aggressive there.

joshua.hermsmeyer: Sara, I was literally typing that out. It’s crazy to call this a tank from the outset. The Eagles and the Giants split the season series this year, but from my perspective the Eagles are the clear winners.

Salfino: I find it curious that an Eagles team that loses so naturally is now being accused of losing deliberately.

neil: Was it just another case of Pederson being too cute for his own good?

You call one Philly Special in a Super Bowl, and all of a sudden you think you can bring Nate Sudfeld in to win a game …

Salfino: My take on the fourth down is that it was bad situational football emblematic of Pederson’s problems this year. At the time, three quarters through the game, a field goal is worth 10 percent of all points scored up to that point, and it ties the game. This was not a shootout. Points were more valuable. Any points. Not all fourth downs are the same.

joshua.hermsmeyer: Nah, I think you go for it. What do you have to lose?

Salfino: The game.

sara.ziegler: Draft position?

joshua.hermsmeyer: These splitting of the finest of hummingbird hairs over fourth-down decisions are silly when you’re the Eagles. You just line up and do the damn thing.

Salfino: I was not surprised. But if you’re a Giants fan, you hated it, which is why you know it’s a bad call. When you’re doing the thing the enemy wants you to do, it’s a mistake.

sara.ziegler: I guess it depends on which enemy you’re talking about.

neil: The enemy was the enemy of the friend in this case.

Or something.

Salfino: Haha

joshua.hermsmeyer: Not all enemies are the same, Mike. These are the GIANTS.

If the Giants think something is a winning move, the sharp move is to do the opposite.

sara.ziegler: Words to live by.

The Eagles were hardly the only team to look bad on Sunday. Going into the weekend, seven playoff spots were still up for grabs, with several teams controlling their own destiny. Two of those teams in particular did not seem to want that awesome power: the Miami Dolphins and Arizona Cardinals.

I think we all liked the Dolphins at various points in the season. But my goodness did they look flat on Sunday in a 30-point loss to the Buffalo Bills. Guys, what happened there?

Salfino: They came into the game with the league’s best scoring defense and gave up a fiddy.

neil: Yeah, they needed to rely especially hard on the defense for this one, given Ryan Fitzpatrick’s absence.

Instead, it had a disastrous performance.

Salfino: All their BS efficiency on defense (opposing yards per point) caught up with them at once.

joshua.hermsmeyer: The Bills started Josh Allen and left him in, passing 38 times against just 25 rushing attempts in a complete blowout. They have turned into bullies via the pass. I kind of love it.

Salfino: The Bills are super hot going into the postseason. We’ll see if that translates.

Allen is so good. This is an argument for player attributes over college stats and also for team-building around a QB. Or maybe the Bills got super lucky. But I don’t think Allen is just randomly good at the moment. I think he’s really good, period.

neil: The Bills really wanted that No. 2 seed, which only goes poorly for them if Cleveland upsets Pittsburgh and Baltimore wins, which would mean they’d face the Ravens (another hot team) in Round 2.

Salfino: If the Ravens beats their nemesis Tennessee, which they should.

joshua.hermsmeyer: Allen has been playing great. He’s attempting and making ridiculous throws — the type we expect from Patrick Mahomes. It’s fantastic to watch. Whether it will continue into next year is going to be a fiery debate over the offseason. But I love watching him.

neil: Allen has answered just about every question people had about him going back to his rookie year.

The improvement he’s shown over both of his two NFL offseasons is incredible. He improved his passer rating by 17 points in Year 2 and another 22 points in Year 3!

Salfino: Plus, let’s not forget Stefon Diggs, the best veteran acquisition in history (or at least damn close).

joshua.hermsmeyer: I mean, they could have simply selected Justin Jefferson.

sara.ziegler: LOL

neil: What a win-win trade.

sara.ziegler: Maybe some other Viking fans feel differently, but I’ve really enjoyed watching Diggs find a home in Buffalo.

Back to Miami for a second, the knives are out for Tua Tagovailoa right now. What do you all make of the call for the Dolphins to draft another quarterback?

joshua.hermsmeyer: I love it. Draft QBs until your nose bleeds.

Salfino: Tua to me seems to have a really light toolbox. I’d go back in. It’s a free roll.

(But no way do the Dolphins do it, so we’re just pretending.)

joshua.hermsmeyer: Daniel Kahneman talks about the value of taking the “outside view” on important decisions — that knowing the general shape of a problem is often more important than the specific “inside view” details. This is exactly one of those situations. Experts in the NFL refuse to see the value in having multiple QBs and spending the draft capital to acquire them.

And the reasons for that refusal seem to always come down to “you don’t understand the problems it creates.”

Salfino: One argument against it is that there are not enough practice snaps to develop two QBs.

joshua.hermsmeyer: Yeah, suck it up. Be a coach, be a teacher. Be creative.

neil: The bar for what a QB needs to do as a rookie is so high now. In the past, we’d look at Tua’s rookie season — with some positives and some clear negatives — and be like, OK, let’s see where he can go. But the clock is ticking on these entry-level QB contracts so quickly now.

sara.ziegler: Miami can look to Arizona as the example of drafting a top QB until one sticks. And yet, the Cardinals also came crashing down on Sunday to end what seemed to be a promising season.

Kyler Murray missed most of the first half of the Cards’ loss to the Rams with an ankle injury. How much did that hurt them, really?

Salfino: The Cardinals are such a disappointment. Kliff Kingsbury was a bad hire. The offense has no juice. There’s nothing innovative about it, which is the opposite of what we were told was going to happen.

neil: Kyler’s shoulder injury back in Week 11 was definitely the turning point of the season, though. Aside from torching the Eagles — which, OK — he wasn’t the same from that point on.

Salfino: I have a hard time with that because he wasn’t even on the injury report the next week, by kickoff.

neil: Yeah, but it was clear he was playing through it at the time.

joshua.hermsmeyer: Agree, Neil. Murray isn’t the same player without his mobility, and his shoulder probably impacted it. The ankle injury certainly did. When Arizona had a chance to score and draw closer on Sunday, Kliff called a speed option, and Murray kept it and was tackled for a loss. I put that on Kliff, to Mike’s point. He has not been a great play-caller. If I were him, I’d pass off those duties and try to remake myself as a CEO coach.

Salfino: It did seem that he stopped running proactively.

Every coach should be a CEO coach, IMO. I know Andy Reid is the counterexample. But coach the whole team.

neil: It was funny to see those “Get Ready for the NFL Playoffs!” ads during Sunday Night Football featuring both the Cardinals and Dolphins. You could tell they made those, oh, idk, about six weeks ago.

Salfino: Hahaha

No Bears in there.

neil: GLARING absence. LOL

sara.ziegler: Ugh, the Bears. I still can’t believe Mitch Trubisky made the playoffs.

neil: As only the Bears can. Backing in after a 35-16 home loss to the Packers.

joshua.hermsmeyer: Does this mean they keep Mr. Biscuit?

It’s all so delicious.

sara.ziegler: This Minnesota fan certainly hopes so!

Salfino: I think everyone is back in Chicago. That’s Bad News for the Bears.

sara.ziegler: 🤣

neil: Trubisky is no Kelly Leak.

Salfino: I love this guy:

joshua.hermsmeyer: I love that he rattles off all the reasons why they’re bad and ends with “we’re gonna win a playoff game.”

neil: And just the commitment to have the pro-Trubisky/anti-Foles shirt.

sara.ziegler: Classic.

Salfino: But that’s being a fan. The hope always overwhelms reason.

sara.ziegler: Speaking of hope, you gotta be happy for fans of the Cleveland Browns, who made the playoffs for the first time since 2002.

joshua.hermsmeyer: I think having a second “prove it” game against the Steelers is perfect.

neil: I thought they were going to blow it on that onside kick! But it’s great to see.

(One of the two “guy sits on the ball to recover a potentially disastrous fumble” calls on Sunday.)

Salfino: Also against the Steelers. Reminds me of this matchup against the Steelers. Kelly Holcomb. That game was a 9 out of 10, too.

neil: Cleveland lost despite leading 33-21 with under four minutes left, ooof.

Btw, does Chris Fuamatu-Ma’afala still have the longest name in NFL history?

Salfino: You’re bringing up misspelling PTSD, Neil.

neil: Nobody has ever spelled that without looking it up.

But yes, a lot of history and revenge riding on that Browns-Steelers wild-card rematch.

Salfino: I think we got lucky with that matchup because neither of those teams is beating anyone else.

sara.ziegler: It should be a hell of a game, and it leads me to my last question: In the wild-card matchups this weekend, which underdogs — by seeding, not by the betting line — do you guys think might have the best chance to advance?

Salfino: I think the Rams. The Seahawks are playing minus-EV football on purpose.

joshua.hermsmeyer: For me it’s the Bucs and Ravens, both at the fifth seed.

neil: I agree with you, Josh. Both Tampa and Baltimore are far more dangerous than their seeds suggest.

Tampa against Washington is such a mismatch. And the Bucs knew it too. They wanted that 5-seed so badly.

“Guaranteed matchup with the NFC East winner? Yes, please.”

joshua.hermsmeyer: The 5-seed in the NFC is a BYE.

So unfair to the AFC,,,

sara.ziegler: LOL

neil: Now, we should point out that these joke division-winners with .500 (or worse) records do have a history of pulling upsets

Salfino: I can see the Bucs struggling against Washington against that pass rush and presumably without Mike Evans (hyperextended knee). If we’re going to see a Seahawks-like upset by a losing playoff team, it will be there.

sara.ziegler: Anything’s possible this year!

Salfino: Baltimore is No. 1 in point differential. The issue with them is that they play bully ball, and I don’t think they can bully the Titans. You should pass against the Titans.

Baltimore gives up 4.6 yards per carry. That’s a problem in this matchup. Henry has had the most sustained dominance in NFL history.

joshua.hermsmeyer: I think you let them run him.

neil: I am just stunned that we saw the best 20-game stretch by a RB ever … in 2019 and 2020!!

Running backs like this were supposed to be dinosaurs.

sara.ziegler: It’s the age of the running back, clearly.

Salfino: And then Ty Montgomery goes for 100-plus for the Saints to show how fungible they really are.

sara.ziegler: So obviously we have to wait a little bit to see the Chiefs and Packers play. Which of the Nos. 2-7 seeds has the best chance to take out one of the No. 1 seeds?

neil: I think the Saints are every bit as good as the Packers in the NFC. They had the better SRS this season despite missing Drew Brees for a huge chunk of the year.

(In fact, New Orleans had the No. 1 SRS in the league this year.)

Salfino: Baltimore is very dangerous if they get by Tennessee. Playing on the road is no big deal now.

And the Packers have beaten whom, exactly? The Jets have more wins against winning teams than the Packers. The top five seeds can all beat the Packers.

joshua.hermsmeyer: The Bills are terrifying if you’re the Chiefs, imo. In some ways, you could view the Bills’ last couple of games as tuneups for the boat race they hope to have vs. the Chiefs. And that’s a matchup that, if Mahomes isn’t playing his absolute best, I can certainly see K.C. losing.

Salfino: And Mahomes has to find it because he’s clearly struggling relative to his normal self.

neil: This Bills team has been unapologetically dominant and I love it.

sara.ziegler: They’re so much fun.

Salfino: The Chiefs are like the basketball team with two great scorers. Do they need a third option?

neil: Mahomes = Steph Curry

Travis Kelce = Kevin Durant

Tyreek Hill = Klay Thompson?

Salfino: I mean weapons outside of QB. After Kelce and Hill, everyone else is a backup singer for the Chiefs.

joshua.hermsmeyer: I was told Sammy Watkins was the reason they won the Super Bowl.

neil: Well I know we hate RBs, but Clyde Edwards-Helaire had 1,100 yards from scrimmage this season, to go with Kelce and Hill each cracking 1,399.

Salfino: I agree with Josh. CEH is MEH.

joshua.hermsmeyer: Mike, all is forgiven.

sara.ziegler: All right, let’s wrap this up by getting your predictions on the record as we head into the playoffs. Gut reaction, don’t think about it too much: Who’s your Super Bowl winner?

joshua.hermsmeyer: K.C.

neil: I like the Chiefs. No deficit is too insurmountable.

Salfino:Just to be different I’ll say … NO.

joshua.hermsmeyer: No?

😛

sara.ziegler: NO way … do the Saints beat the Chiefs. 😉

Salfino: Josh liked me for 30 seconds.

sara.ziegler: That’s all you get.

Salfino: We can’t all say the Chiefs, who are not even playing near their peak.

Baltimore and Buffalo can definitely beat the Chiefs. More likely than NO, actually.

sara.ziegler: I’ll take the Bills, just to be different.

Salfino: Like it! Why TF not?

sara.ziegler: The Salfino stamp of approval!

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