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What The Final Week Of The NFL Season Tells Us About The Playoffs

sara.ziegler (Sara Ziegler, sports editor): The NFL’s regular season finally came to a close on Sunday, with the playoff spots filled and the on-their-way-out coaches ready to be fired. But before we jump fully into the postseason, let’s talk about the games that mattered in Week 17.

The AFC had more drama for its last playoff spot, but in the end, the best team (by FiveThirtyEight’s Elo ratings) made it. The Tennessee Titans beat the Deshaun Watson-less Texans and grabbed that No. 6 seed. Were you guys surprised by how that all played out?

neil (Neil Paine, senior sportswriter): I was SO hoping the Raider parlay would work out.

It was in decent shape for a while, thanks to the Ravens’ backups.

Salfino (Michael Salfino, FiveThirtyEight contributor): The Raiders making the playoffs was like the old gambling tickets when you had to go 10-for-10 to win $100.

joshua.hermsmeyer (Josh Hermsmeyer, NFL analyst): Ryan Tannehill led the league in a metric near and dear to my heart, completion percentage over expected (CPOE), so I’m thrilled and also unsurprised. There’s also no way he continues this performance much longer. Such an outlier year for him.

neil: Josh, who are you taking right now: Tannehill or Tom Brady? The battle of track record vs. recency!

joshua.hermsmeyer: WHEW, give me Brady.

Salfino: The Texans weren’t competing, so I would have been shocked if Tennessee had lost. The Titans are suddenly a very fun team with two of the most explosive offensive players in football: rushing champ Derrick Henry and, in my mind, the best offensive rookie in football, A.J. Brown, who had the most catches of 50-plus yards for a rookie WR since Randy Moss.

sara.ziegler: Can the Titans beat New England, though?

neil: Certainly the more pertinent real-world question, haha.

The Pats had the best QB Elo defense in the league this year; Tennessee was 22nd. But this has to be one of the few playoff games ever where Brady went in with an inferior QB rating beforehand.

(Especially since the opposing QB is Tannehill — not, like, Peyton Manning.)

Salfino: The danger lurking for Tannehill is that sack rate: 9.8 percent after Sunday (over 10 percent prior). That’s tied for the 30th worst this century, adjusting for league rate.

neil: And the New England D had the sixth-best sack rate of any team this season.

joshua.hermsmeyer: I do think that Tennessee is not a great team for New England to have to play after just losing to the Dolphins and dropping out of a first-round bye for the first time since 2009. The Titans have had the second-best offense in the league since Week 7, when Tannehill took over starting duties.

sara.ziegler: Seems less than ideal.

And that Miami game wasn’t just some fluke result — the Dolphins were the better team.

neil: It’s particularly disturbing for Patriots fans that they lost at home, in a Week 17 game where they weren’t resting starters. Vegas had that game at Pats -17, and it ended up being the biggest upset of the season.

Salfino: Miami could not get its offense going until the fourth quarter, and then Ryan Fitzpatrick somehow beat the Patriots’ defense with a touchdown drive that actually seemed kind of easy. Not going for a score at the end of the first half says a lot about how the team views its offense now.

neil: And getting quick end-of-half scores has always kinda been the Pats’ thing.

(Well, one of their things.)

Salfino: Dolphins receiver Devante Parker just slaughtered putative Defensive Player of the Year Stephon Gilmore. That was the story of the game, defensively, for New England.

I wonder how much of this was Fitz just not caring about throwing at Gilmore, as most QBs are seemingly afraid to. I don’t really believe in the shutdown corner — they’re a very rare breed. There have only been two in the last 25 years, IMO: Deion Sanders and Darrelle Revis.

sara.ziegler: I enjoyed the shots of Chiefs fans hearing the final score from the New England game — when they knew they would get the No. 2 slot. And that game was touch-and-go for a while, too!

joshua.hermsmeyer: Kevin Harlan called two games at once!

sara.ziegler: LOLOL

Salfino: The Chiefs are peaking at the right time, if that’s a thing. For New England, Bill Belichick historically has ramped things up in December as a way to build postseason momentum. If that’s a model for playoff success, the Chiefs are right there with the Ravens. Their defense has suddenly emerged as a real force. But maybe it’s just a function of facing worse offenses. It seems weird that a team could transform itself so much — within a season — on one side of the ball.

neil: To that point about peaking, we have them as the second-most-likely Super Bowl winner now, at 14 percent.

(Of course, Baltimore at 46 percent remains just a massive favorite, probably more than anyone is giving them credit for.)

joshua.hermsmeyer: What were the Patriots’ chances to win the SB prior to losing to Miami, Neil?

neil: 10 percent. Now just 3 percent.

joshua.hermsmeyer: Amazing.

Salfino: Baltimore has 12 Pro Bowlers and just took out the Steelers with their backups. So I buy that 46 percent. I would not want to see the Chiefs, though, if I were the Ravens.

joshua.hermsmeyer: I think Elo has it right. Kansas City is going to be a lot to handle. And the Chiefs beat the mighty Ravens back in Week 3.

sara.ziegler: I’m so excited for that matchup. (If it happens.)

neil: K.C. also played a pretty difficult schedule this year. Second-hardest in terms of average opposing Elo (adjusted for location). Only team whose slate was tougher? Houston.

Salfino: Does Elo think the Chiefs’ defense is legit?

neil: Yeah, they also had the third-best pass defense in terms of limiting opposing QBs below their usual Elo. Pats and Steelers were 1-2.

Salfino: What a turnaround for them. So this is saying the Chiefs defense has a bigger impact on QB performance than the Ravens D. I’m shocked by that.

neil: The Ravens were sixth, so they’re elite as well, but their number dropped a bit in the last few weeks as Sam Darnold and Baker Mayfield had solid games. (Obviously Duck Hodges is a different story.)

sara.ziegler: What about the rest of the AFC? Can the Bills or Texans make any noise?

joshua.hermsmeyer: Elo has it spot on, in my view. Basically no shot for the Bills or the Texans to make the Super Bowl.

neil: I’m probably higher mentally on the Texans than I should be because of Watson. But they really weren’t anything special for most of this year — 13th in SRS, according to Pro-Football-Reference.com, and 11th in Elo.

Salfino: I do think the Bills could beat the Texans. What chance do we give Buffalo in that game?

neil: We have Houston at 65 percent, obviously in large part because they’re at home.

And it’s not like they’ve ever come out totally flat at home in a playoff game where they were favored.

Salfino: Watson has six games over 9.0 yards per attempt and five games under 6.0. I don’t think many QBs ever have been that volatile. And that doesn’t even factor in his on-again, off-again sack woes.

neil: You nailed it on Watson, Mike.

The NFL’s most inconsistent QBs of 2019

Highest standard deviation of game-to-game QB Elo performance among 2019 quarterbacks with at least five starts during the regular season

Quarterback Starts QB Elo (vs. Avg)/Game Std. Dev.
Deshaun Watson 15 +48.0 179.4
Drew Brees 11 +110.1 175.0
Marcus Mariota 6 -87.5 170.9
Russell Wilson 16 +43.2 166.6
Jameis Winston 16 -27.5 161.6
Sam Darnold 13 -43.1 148.6
Daniel Jones 12 -3.2 147.8
Ryan Fitzpatrick 13 -13.3 146.9
Matt Ryan 15 +20.6 144.6
Mason Rudolph 8 -92.6 138.3

He had the highest game-to-game standard deviation of Elo performance of any QB with at least five starts this year.

sara.ziegler: Let’s move on to the NFC, where there was less drama this weekend (looking at you, Vikings) but still some jockeying for position. Philly had its fans on pins and needles before pulling out the game against the Giants and securing a playoff spot.

And the Cowboys go home…

Salfino: I think Carson Wentz is a Russell Wilson-level magician this year. Throwing for 4,000 yards without any wide receiver getting 500 is unreal.

joshua.hermsmeyer: The Eagles are fun to root for. So many injuries all over the team.

Salfino: I joked that there was a waiting list for their blue tent yesterday, and then there actually was, according to Fox.

neil: And for the Cowboys, you had to love seeing them pile up 47 meaningless points against Washington a week after they couldn’t even muster a TD in a potential playoff clincher.

It was the most Cowboys way this Cowboys season (slash-Jason Garrett Era?) could have ended.

Salfino: I love that Wentz and Wilson, who are completely carrying their teams, are matching up in Week 18.

joshua.hermsmeyer: In a sane world with rational coaching, Seattle would be favored in that game. Perhaps heavily.

Instead we get Philly favored by 5.5.

Salfino: But Seattle is hardly impressive when you look at the more predictive stats, beyond their win-loss record. Their defense is garbage, I don’t trust their line, and they refuse to unleash Wilson right from the start of games.

joshua.hermsmeyer: All true! But I put most of that on the coaches. Did you see some of the throws Russ made last night?

sara.ziegler: And yet Wilson had only 233 yards passing on Sunday.

joshua.hermsmeyer: Criminally underutilized.

sara.ziegler: Jimmy Garoppolo had 285!

Salfino: Imagine having Wilson and giving Marshawn Lynch 12 carries off the couch.

sara.ziegler: 🤣

neil: Hey, at least Marshawn got the goal-line TD he should have been allowed to score five seasons ago.

sara.ziegler: Oooooh

🔥

neil: (He also got bottled up on a big fourth down at the end of the first half, and he averaged 2.8 yards per carry. As you might expect from a guy who hasn’t played in forever.)

joshua.hermsmeyer: Was he the proximate cause for that delay of game at the end? Trying to get a play called for him?

neil: Oh, man.

Salfino: I think he was. But the weird thing about the delay is that the Seahawks were still in the huddle. They were not close to getting a play off. That is just horrible coaching.

sara.ziegler: It was really the perfect ending to that game, LOL.

Salfino: I wonder what the win probability was on first and goal from the 1 with 25 seconds left vs. second and goal from the 7. I bet a team has never bled that much win probability away without running a legitimate play (they had the spike).

Even on the spike, they should have just sneaked. Everyone was right at the line.

joshua.hermsmeyer: They lost almost 15 points of win probability on the penalty, right after gaining 56 points on the fourth-down conversion.

Salfino: The sneak is about 85 to 90 percent successful. So two sneaks beats a spike and three passes.

sara.ziegler: Ooof

Salfino: Kyle Shanahan was really let off the hook. He should have gone for it on fourth and 1 from his own 29. That defense was not stopping Wilson. And then he burns a timeout in getting a look at their formation? Like the Seahawks have plays — they just have Wilson do stuff. He needed that timeout to counter for the winning or tying field goal.

But then, enter Pete Carroll.

sara.ziegler: LOL

Salfino: Would you guys have gone on fourth and 1 inside your own 30? Seattle did not want that to happen, I guarantee it. They just wanted the ball.

joshua.hermsmeyer: I think the additional win probability was small, but it makes sense to try to keep Wilson off the field AND leave time on the clock for your own late drive if you do fail and the Seahawks score.

Salfino: You win the game on offense. You hope the other team doesn’t win the game on defense.

neil: OK, OK, enough about the Seahawks. Sara, I know you’re avoiding it, but we at least have to acknowledge the upcoming Vikings-Saints game. So much recent history between those two teams…

joshua.hermsmeyer: lol

Salfino: Are we still counting the bounty game?

neil: I am!

I know for a fact Sara still does.

Salfino: I don’t want to sound like Sara here, but the Vikings do not seem to have a chance.

neil: LOL

sara.ziegler: How quickly your tune changes, Mike.

joshua.hermsmeyer: I have also come around to Sara’s way of thinking.

Salfino: I know. I’m ashamed of my prior pro-Vikings stance.

sara.ziegler: Hahahahaha

Salfino: I hate narratives, but Kirk Cousins really does not seem to like the spotlight.

I think playing on the road actually helps Cousins.

sara.ziegler: This is actually the kind of game that the Vikings might end up winning, since no one is giving them a chance.

(And no one should be giving them a chance, to be clear.)

neil: They should change their name to the Minnesota Contrarians.

Salfino: Look at Sara going contrarian here with a Pro-Vikings take. Love it!

sara.ziegler: That’s just how I roll.

Also, I want acknowledgement that I called the Vikings losing their last two games! (Though I did not foresee them benching everyone against the Bears, LOL.)

Salfino: While the focus is on Cousins, the big story of this game I predict is just how suspect the Minnesota secondary is. Drew Brees should eat them alive.

sara.ziegler: Yeah, it’s gonna be ugly.

We need to talk for just a second about the Packers, though. This isn’t just my pro-Vikings perspective, but they have no chance, right?

joshua.hermsmeyer: They have a chance, but only because they somehow secured that bye.

neil: Only if New Orleans wins. 😉

sara.ziegler: Wow, Neil.

neil: Lol.

sara.ziegler: Rude.

joshua.hermsmeyer: I’m not even gonna trot out a stat. Aaron Rodgers just looks horrible.

So my eye test says close-to-no chance for the Pack.

neil: I’ll do it because I can’t help myself: He’s been below average in QB Elo in four straight games and seven of his last eight. No QB fell off more down the stretch of the season than Rodgers:

Rodgers fizzled down the stretch

Biggest dropoffs in per-game QB Elo vs. average between the first and second halves of the 2019 regular season among quarterbacks with at least four starts in each half

1st Half of Season 2nd Half of Season
Quarterback Starts QB Elo (vs. Avg)/G Starts QB Elo (vs. Avg)/G Diff
Aaron Rodgers 8 +82.9 8 -33.9 -116.9
Tom Brady 8 57.9 8 -45.2 -103.2
Russell Wilson 8 93.1 8 -6.7 -99.7
Matt Ryan 7 72.2 8 -24.5 -96.6
Deshaun Watson 8 92.7 7 -3.1 -95.7
Jacoby Brissett 8 20.1 7 -68.1 -88.1
Philip Rivers 8 33.3 8 -37.4 -70.7
Gardner Minshew 7 10.4 5 -47.1 -57.5
Derek Carr 8 55.6 8 15.4 -40.2
Patrick Mahomes 7 125.8 7 93.7 -32.1

Salfino: The Packers were life and death against David Blough. Think about that.

Look at Rodgers’s yards per attempt by season since 2014. He’s been right around average or below (below this year) for five straight seasons. He’s gone from being inner-circle Hall of Fame Rodgers through 2014 to being … Alex Smith since.

sara.ziegler: So, to wrap things up, I want to get you guys on the record with your predictions — so we can rip each other later when our predictions all look terrible.

Who do you all like this weekend?

Salfino: Buffalo (my one upset if we get the bad Watson), New England, New Orleans, Philadelphia.

joshua.hermsmeyer: Houston, New England, New Orleans, Seattle for me.

neil: Houston, New England, New Orleans, Philly.

Salfino: Neil going chalk. Smart!

neil: Chalk!

sara.ziegler: And I’m taking Buffalo, Tennessee, New Orleans and Seattle.

joshua.hermsmeyer: And my hot fire take is the Philly-Seattle game will be close.

Because Seattle.

neil: That’s why Seattle will win, I guess?

sara.ziegler: No one took the Vikings. 😔

Salfino: Not even you!

If they had Case Keenum, maybe…

sara.ziegler: LOL

Hey, I’m a fan, but I’m realistic.

Salfino: Fatalistic.

Check out our latest NFL predictions.

Sara Ziegler is the sports editor at FiveThirtyEight.

Neil Paine is a senior sportswriter 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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