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What We Learned From A Very Confusing Week 15 In The NFL

sara.ziegler (Sara Ziegler, sports editor): Week 15 of the NFL season saw some teams clinch playoff berths while others watched their postseason hopes fall mere yards short. So let’s get into what we learned.

There’s a new No. 1 seed in the NFC, with the Seahawks jumping the Niners after San Francisco’s head-scratching loss to Atlanta. Is Seattle the team to beat in the NFC now?

joshua.hermsmeyer (Josh Hermsmeyer, NFL analyst): I continue to be worried about Seattle’s point differential. You’d like to see the Seahawks blow out a team or two, but they seem to be built to play exclusively close games.

Salfino (Michael Salfino, FiveThirtyEight contributor): Seattle seems more lucky than good. They’ve won nine games by 7 points or less, tied for the most ever after 14 games. And their point differential is more befitting an 8-6 team, historically, than an 11-3 one. The Niners, conversely, have to be one of the unluckiest teams ever, now having lost two games at the final gun and another in overtime.

neil (Neil Paine, senior sportswriter): That Week 17 Hawks-Niners game is gonna be good.

Salfino: The point differential difference between these teams would make the Seahawks winning the division over the Niners akin to the Pirates winning the 1960 World Series when the Yankees outscored them by about 247 runs in the Series.

sara.ziegler: I just don’t understand what happened to the Niners on Sunday.

Salfino: That game was totally on Kyle Shanahan. Maybe this is a function of coaching, and Pete Carroll deserves more credit for Seattle’s wins. Or maybe it’s pure dumb luck with a sprinkle of Russell Wilson magic.

joshua.hermsmeyer: I think it might not be totally on Shanahan. He was missing three key defensive backs, including Richard Sherman.

Salfino: But then why did he not go for it on fourth and 1 and instead leave the game up to his depleted pass defense vs. Julio Jones? A field goal that turns a one-score game into … a one-score game, with that much time remaining, has to be the dumbest kick in football.

joshua.hermsmeyer: I mean, you’ll never get an argument from me there. I just wanted to point out that the secondary is depleted.

Salfino: Yes — and that puts it even more squarely on Shanahan, who, to be clear, I generally think is a very-good-to-great coach.

sara.ziegler: So who is the best team in the NFC? One of these two? Maybe the Saints? The Packers?

neil: For what it’s worth, we still have New Orleans as the NFC team most likely to win the Super Bowl (13 percent), although we’ll see what they do at home against Indy tonight.

Salfino: I can’t see the Seahawks going to New Orleans in the playoffs and winning, though — but the Saints going to Seattle, which may be what happens, seems very iffy for the Saints, too.

sara.ziegler: Hey, the Saints already went to Seattle and won — and that was with Teddy Bridgewater.

Salfino: Very good point.

joshua.hermsmeyer:

I had to get some Packers shade in there.

sara.ziegler: I approve.

I still can’t figure out this Packer team at all. They keep winning … and keep looking kinda bad while doing so.

neil: Aaron Rodgers has kinda been not-so-great recently. For a while now, actually.

In his last six starts, five have been below average, per QB Elo.

joshua.hermsmeyer: Rodgers was fourth-worst in completion percentage over expected (CPOE) this week, ahead of only Tom Brady, Josh Allen and Drew Lock.

neil: “Ahead of only Tom Brady” is not the phrase you want to use to describe yourself these days.

Salfino: The Packers are another double-digit-win team that, like Seattle, could lose to any team in the field. We keep waiting for Rodgers to explode like in years past, but it’s just not there. It’s so weird to see this team being driven by running back scoring. With 17 TDs, Aaron Jones has scored the most of any running back with fewer than 250 total touches since the 1970 AFL-NFL merger.

sara.ziegler: I’m still not ready to count them out, though. Whenever they have a kind-of-mediocre season, they go ahead and win the Super Bowl.

(No, I haven’t forgotten 2010.)

neil: They’re being outgained this year (5,198 to 4,713) but are still 11-3. It reminds me somewhat of 2011, when they were outgained (6,585 to 6,482) and went 15-1. (And then promptly lost to the Eli Manning Giants in the playoffs.)

sara.ziegler: Elsewhere in the conference, the teams tied atop the NFC East both won on Sunday, but the Cowboys crushed the Rams, who are still (sort of) in contention for a wild-card slot, while Philly looked lackluster in beating Washington. Is this division now the Cowboys’ to lose?

neil: I can’t decide whether this is the universe conspiring to make a Cowboys’ loss to Philly be even more of a gut punch to Jerry Jones and friends …

Salfino: I assume our model expects the Cowboys to lose in Philly, right? The Cowboys put it all together on Sunday against a quality team, I guess (could debate that description of the Rams). They seem far more dangerous than the Eagles to me. Philly made Dwayne Haskins look like a polished vet for much of Sunday’s game.

neil: Our model does indeed have Philly favored at home.

Salfino: The Eagles being life and death against two teams battling for a top draft pick does not seem like a buy signal for their playoff prospects. I bet the money moves that line to Dallas -1 by Wednesday.

neil: Worth mentioning that it’s a division clincher for Dallas if they win, but they still have a 22 percent chance if they lose. (They’d need a win and Philly loss in Week 17.)

Salfino: The Eagles have proven they could lose to anyone, anywhere.

sara.ziegler: 🤣

neil: Facts.

Although Carson Wentz has been better the past few weeks!

Salfino: But I do think we have to give Wentz credit for MacGyvering this offense somehow with such poor receivers. Their wideouts have been worse than the Patriots’ the past two weeks, and he’s somehow scoring. OK, they do have two quality tight ends.

sara.ziegler: Was anyone else kind of astonished at how the Cowboys came out against the Rams?

neil: A little bit. Although we’ve been down on the Rams most of the season, too.

joshua.hermsmeyer: I wasn’t really. What has surprised me this season is their record, given how well they’ve played on offense. They’re second in EPA per play on offense. Games like Sunday should have happened more often this year.

Salfino: I’ve been sort of waiting all year for the Cowboys to have this game. But I figured there was no chance of it anymore, given that they reportedly had Dead Man Walking at head coach. Yet here we are: They played a pretty much perfect game and seem dangerous.

sara.ziegler: Right — I thought they had kind of given up on Jason Garrett. Maybe I buy into the NFL Narrative (TM) too much.

Salfino: Exactly. I hate when I buy narratives, but they are so seductive!

sara.ziegler: Hahaha

Over in the AFC, the Bills are legit, with a convincing win over the Steelers on Sunday night. Buffalo has New England in Week 16. Do the Bills need to beat the Pats to prove themselves as a contender?

joshua.hermsmeyer: The Bills … are legit?

neil: Playoff bound!

Big deal for a team that’s only made it one other time since 1999.

sara.ziegler: They’re playing well! They even looked good against the Ravens last week!

Salfino: I have thought for weeks that they are the poor man’s Ravens. But Lamar Jackson is just so much better than Josh Allen, whether it’s him or the coaching (very likely him).

joshua.hermsmeyer: If the Bills move Allen to wide receiver, I think they might make some noise in the playoffs.

Salfino: If Allen had just been a game manager in the Bills’ last meeting with the Patriots, the Bills would have won. But this is the problem with the Bills. When he’s not turning the ball over, Allen is failing to make basic NFL throws. He’s a high-variance QB and actually, I believe, a bad fit for a team like this. (In fairness, Allen was knocked out of that game early after being hit in the head, but not before he threw three picks.)

joshua.hermsmeyer: But a completion percentage 14 percentage points below expected in Week 15 is Not Great.

Salfino: Seriously, the Bills would be better off trying to have Allen run for 75 yards per game.

But Allen is more of a power runner like Cam Newton than a gifted runner like Jackson. So maybe his injury risk with this volume is too great.

sara.ziegler: So … will the Bills beat the Pats?

Salfino: Nope.

joshua.hermsmeyer: Nah.

Our model has the game at 68 percent for the Pats.

sara.ziegler: NO ONE wants to take a flier on the Bills? 😔

neil: I will say this: That’s the lowest win prob the Pats have had at home against the Bills since Matt Cassel was starting for New England.

The Pats look vulnerable at home … by Pats-Bills standards

Starting quarterbacks, Elo ratings and pregame win probabilities for the last 12 Patriots home games against the Bills, 2008-19

Patriots Bills
Date Starter QB Adj. Effective Elo Starter QB Adj. Effective Elo NE Win% NE Won?
12/21/2019 Brady -28 1645 Allen +11 1572 68% ???
12/23/2018 Brady +2 1626 Allen +49 1418 82
12/24/2017 Brady -8 1694 Taylor +10 1509 80
10/2/2016 Brissett -52 1593 Taylor +2 1505 70
11/23/2015 Brady +20 1733 Taylor -27 1523 80
12/28/2014 Brady +12 1739 Orton +13 1513 84
12/29/2013 Brady -4 1669 Lewis -59 1398 87
11/11/2012 Brady +17 1702 Fitzpatrick +6 1465 86
1/1/2012 Brady +20 1736 Fitzpatrick 0 1399 91
9/26/2010 Brady +8 1558 Fitzpatrick +5 1387 79
9/14/2009 Brady +22 1663 Edwards +3 1470 81
11/9/2008 Cassel -125 1555 Edwards +3 1483 68

Salfino: The Patriots are another team that’s probably going to have a first-seed-level record (13-3?) that also could lose to anyone. We don’t even note another bad game from Brady (by Brady standards) anymore. It’s expected. Even against the Bengals. The difference is that even the-circus-has-left-town Brady isn’t going to lose his team a game. Allen will.

sara.ziegler: The AFC South is clearer now after Houston beat Tennessee. Tennessee isn’t out of it, given that these teams play again in two weeks (seriously, schedulers?), but the Titans’ road is much harder. What are their chances of getting into the playoffs at all?

Salfino: Ryan Tannehill sort of regressed into being Ryan Tannehill at the worst possible time. I think the Jets beat the Steelers and both teams in the South make the playoffs.

sara.ziegler: Ooooh, 🔥 prediction.

Salfino: Is that even a hot take though? Duck Dodgers is TERRIBLE.

(I mean “Hodges,” but I can’t get the cartoon out of my head when I hear his name.)

sara.ziegler: LOLOL

neil:

Salfino: Seriously, what’s the Jets’ win probability, Neil?

neil: It’s 46 percent! Pretty good by Jets standards.

joshua.hermsmeyer: Duck’s QBR over the past three weeks is only slightly worse than Tom Brady’s. Terrible indeed.

sara.ziegler: Ouch.

Salfino: The Brady passive-aggressive takes are fire.

neil: Among the dregs of the AFC playoff picture — that is, the teams fighting for that sixth spot — Tennessee (1576 Elo) is the only one our ratings even thinks is above average.

It would kind of be tragic if a team as bad as Pitt or Indy (Cleveland? Oakland?? LOL) makes it over the Titans.

joshua.hermsmeyer: The Titans are a fun team to watch, and they have an entertaining coach. I hope they make the playoffs as well.

Salfino: A.J. Brown: 2020 Fantasy Football League Winner. Just got him at 4-1 in a mock draft. That dude looks like the cartoon receivers with superhero bodies in the old “NFL Blitz.”

joshua.hermsmeyer: Great comp. He’s good D.K. Metcalf.

Salfino:

neil: (Love that the Dreamcast makes an appearance in our chat, btw.)

Salfino: It was worth every dollar!

neil: The Kirk Cousins of consoles.

joshua.hermsmeyer: I saw a clip on Twitter where Derrius Guice didn’t think NFL 2K existed. SMH, millennials.

neil: Oh, no. He lives in a Madden-only reality?

😬

sara.ziegler: I look away for two minutes and this is where this chat went?

Amazing.

joshua.hermsmeyer:

He gave Adam some side eye.

neil: SMH

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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