sara.ziegler (Sara Ziegler, sports editor): Another week in the NFL, another upset by a double-digit underdog. Welcome to the club, Houston!
Upsets happen, of course, and perhaps Tennessee was just struggling to get up for a game against the lowly Texans after beating so many highly rated teams in a row. (And it didn’t help that the Titans lost A.J. Brown to injury in the third quarter.) But still, that game was just another that made me wonder which teams in this league are actually good. The group of contenders seems frustratingly small.
Going into the Monday night game, there’s one team in the NFL with nine wins, two with eight and five with seven. (And Tampa Bay can join them tonight.) On the other end of the spectrum, there’s one winless team and three teams each with two, three and four wins. Then there’s the gulf in the middle of good and bad: There are a whopping 14 teams with five or six wins. If the Giants manage to upset the Buccaneers, that would be the most middling teams of any season through Week 11 since 2008, which also had 14. And the only season to come close was 2016, which saw 13 teams amass five or six wins in the first 11 weeks.
It certainly seems like this is one of the most evenly matched seasons in recent memory. Is this parity? Good teams refusing to win? Bad teams playing up? What is going on?
Salfino (Michael Salfino, FiveThirtyEight contributor): We’re not getting elite quarterback play anywhere, really. Usually there are three or four QB candidates for MVP by now, and today there isn’t really a leader in the clubhouse playing well.
neil (Neil Paine, senior sportswriter): And there have also been plenty of QB injuries (or illnesses — COVID-19 and non-COVID-19, the latter of which Lamar Jackson seems to have every week).
joshua.hermsmeyer (Josh Hermsmeyer, NFL analyst): It certainly feels like a weird season, and with so many teams caught in the murky middle, it seems like there’s evidence to support that feeling. I sort of wonder if maybe we’re just getting a big dose of weirdness all at once these past three weeks, and the weirdness is actually sort of normal, but unevenly distributed.
Salfino: I can’t see any dominant teams emerging, Josh. The Bills lack toughness and showed Sunday they can’t play in weather, which they are almost certain to get if they get home-field (dis)advantage. The Chiefs have a dominant defense now, somehow, if we’re to believe that, but their offense just scored 19 points in 13 drives. Dallas has had two offensive stinkers since Dak Prescott came back from a calf injury. The Rams were a mess last Monday night. Tampa Bay just lost to Taylor Heinicke. The Packers lost to the Vikings, and I wasn’t even surprised. Who knows if and when Kyler Murray will be back to full health in Arizona. The Patriots have had a very easy schedule. It’s a mess.
sara.ziegler: It’s an interesting point about whether the weirdness is normal or not. Every NFL season has games that don’t make that much sense, but “any given Sunday,” etc. — and we expect even great teams to have down weeks. But the clustering of strange outcomes does really make it feel like something else is going on.
neil: Are teams pacing themselves midway through a longer schedule?
Salfino: I’m not sure how that pacing would work or how it would even be expressed. Purposely playing less than full capacity? What good would that do? It’s not like they’re doing load management, unless that’s what we’re calling what the Ravens are doing with Lamar.
neil: Another theory: Teams are able to gain more actionable information on opponents now than ever before, which naturally pulls strong/effective teams back down to earth when their schemes are more neutralized.
(I am purely spitballing here.)
Salfino: No defense can stop a well-executed offensive play, especially a passing play, even if it knows what’s coming. I firmly believe that. I don’t know why there is a lack of explosive scoring, seemingly.
joshua.hermsmeyer: Since 2018 through Week 11, of the five- and six-win teams mentioned by Sara, the three highest in expected points added per play on offense are from this season: the Bucs, the Chargers and the Colts. It seems like there are some teams better than we might expect in that bucket. So maybe there’s a little evidence that mediocrity is temporary for them.
sara.ziegler: I do find the idea of teams pacing themselves interesting. It is a LONG season. And maybe a midseason loss to the Texans just doesn’t really matter? I think that’s what’s been hard for me to wrap my head around this season: Which of these weird results actually matter, and which don’t? You can make a compelling case that the Bills’ loss to the Jaguars does matter, given the context of other losses by the Bills. Is that fair?
Salfino: I think the biggest concern for the Bills is getting blown out by the Colts. They were run out of their own building. I don’t see anything championship-level about the Bills.
neil: That loss was NOT a good look. However, they still have a +11.9 points-per-game margin on the season. So maybe we can pump the brakes a little on the “Bills are dead” narrative here.
Salfino: The fact that Josh Allen entered the week as the MVP favorite speaks to the lack of any other candidate stepping up. Though how we got to the point where Allen, who is now officially 2019 Josh Allen again, is the presumptive pick is a big mystery to me.
joshua.hermsmeyer: The Bills were not getting top-tier play from Allen this season but were being propped up a bit by a defense that was getting generational ratings by the various systems. But as we saw against Indy, when things go bad on D and you’re playing a tough team, the Bills can look pretty pedestrian.
Salfino: I’m not saying the Bills are dead. I’m saying the Bills were never a real Super Bowl favorite because they were never that good. They have no physical element to their game on either side of the ball, and Allen has predictably regressed but to a degree we couldn’t have predicted.
neil: I also warned all the Bills fans I know that Indy is better than maybe we think of it as.
Personally speaking, I know I have an extreme anti-Carson Wentz bias that I must consciously overcome.
We all have our biases. Some come in the form of former Eagles QBs.
joshua.hermsmeyer: I never trust a QB with a fake arm-sleeve tattoo. That’s my bias.
sara.ziegler: Very fair.
Salfino: Is that really fake? OMG.
joshua.hermsmeyer: It’s camo. So you can’t see his arm on the field, I guess.
neil: “Am I passing right now? You’ll never know.”
<throws a pick>
neil: (That was unfair to Carson. He only has three picks on 354 attempts this season, somehow.)
Salfino: I was going to say …
sara.ziegler: Speaking of Wentz’s current team … all of this mediocrity means there are a whole bunch of teams with a shot still at the playoffs, including the Colts. Our model gives 22 teams odds of at least 15 percent to get to the postseason. Let’s talk about some of these middle-of-the road clubs! Which five- or six-win team do you each like best to make a playoff run?
Salfino: The 49ers.
joshua.hermsmeyer: My picks are those teams with the highest EPA per play on offense: So Tampa Bay, Los Angeles, Indy and even the Bills, despite their recent funk.
neil: I’m with you, Josh. Super Bowl odds-wise, our model likes Tom Brady and the Bucs best of that group.
Salfino: It’s hard to take seriously a team whose defense could not get off the field against the Washington Football Team.
neil: Oh come on! That was just an all-time great drive (for a midseason game). Ten-plus minutes off the clock? Never let Tom Brady get the ball back? Bravo to Heinicke and friends.
As for the Bills — yes, despite their recent wayward play, they still are outscoring opponents by an elite margin this year. (Then again, so are the Patriots …)
joshua.hermsmeyer: There’s so much that can go wrong in New England. I just am not sold — but I concede that Bill Belichick is probably the best coach ever, so if anyone can take a rookie QB into a playoff run, it’s him.
Salfino: If the Patriots can play the Falcons or Jets in the playoffs, they’re legit.
sara.ziegler: The Pats beat the Browns by a lot! The Browns are … well, I don’t know what they are.
Salfino: Seriously, let’s see how the Patriots do in these next four games, against the Titans, Bills (twice) and Colts.
joshua.hermsmeyer: Agreed, Mike. These next few weeks will be very telling for the AFC East, and we’ll learn a ton about Allen and the Bills.
Salfino: Speaking of which, can we get Josh to admit that while running backs may not matter, Derrick Henry does? (But the Titans actually had over 400 yards on Sunday.)
joshua.hermsmeyer: Haha. I wrote an entire piece trying to bring myself to that level of confidence! The Titans offense has not been good though since he went down, and that’s just facts.
neil: Tannehill before the Henry injury: 90.2 QB rating, 10 TDs/seven INTs.
Tannehill since: 75.9, three TDs/five INTs.
Salfino: Yeah, the Titans lost on Sunday like how they’ve been winning.
Also, sorry, Sara, but I do think the Vikings can be dangerous if they make it.
sara.ziegler: Oh, no, we have to talk about the Vikings, don’t we?
Salfino: We do!
sara.ziegler: They’re suddenly in the wild-card race, and I don’t really understand how.
Salfino: They probably should be 7-3, minimum.
sara.ziegler: But they could also be 2-8!
neil: Kirk Cousins tried to pull a classic Cousins and give that game away late, but that INT was overturned on replay.
Salfino: That was so weird, Neil, because Cousins never takes chances, and there he is on first down in a tie game forcing one to Justin Jefferson. If it was fourth-and-15, he would have taken the checkdown.
joshua.hermsmeyer: We will file this big win away somewhere where we can safely ignore it and go back to thinking Cousins is incapable of beating good teams in two weeks (or less).
Salfino: I mean, Cousins did beat the Saints in the playoffs when they were good. I know playoff wins aren’t as important as beating the Bears on Monday night, though.
sara.ziegler: We can pencil that one in as a loss (in Week 15).
neil: All of our QB beliefs are what they are and can never change. (Well, at least about Cousins. And Wentz, LOL.)
sara.ziegler: Hey, don’t confirm my priors, and I won’t keep thinking them!
Salfino: The Vikings have a dangerous offense. I would not want to play them. That’s all I’m saying.
sara.ziegler: No, I get that, Mike. I just also don’t particularly want to watch them.
Salfino: They keep their fans on their toes, that’s for sure, Sara.
After all that mediocrity, I also want to talk about a game between a pair of teams with seven wins each now: the Cowboys and Chiefs. After being left for dead, Kansas City is suddenly back on top of the AFC West. Have the Chiefs righted the ship on defense?
Salfino: They have more than righted it. It’s one of the more stunning in-season turnarounds I can remember. This was a team setting records for yards allowed per play, and now since Week 6, we have this:
I think defense is so random that I don’t really believe it when it’s good or when it’s bad.
neil: It is kind of funny how the “yeah, buts” have gradually become weaker and weaker in terms of caveating the Chiefs’ defense during this run.
“Yeah, but it was Daniel Jones … yeah, but it was Jordan Love …”
“Yeah, but it was Derek Carr?”
“Yeah, OK, it was Dak. That’s actually pretty impressive. Good job.”
joshua.hermsmeyer: That’s a great frame for it, Neil.
Pretty much exactly my thought process.
Salfino: Dallas’s inability to protect Dak was shocking. We just assume they have a good offensive line because they have had one forever. But this line is not good. Dak had no chance.
If I’m a Chiefs fan, however, I’d feel better with a 40-34 win Sunday than the one I got, with my offense scoring 19 points in 13 drives.
neil: Right, Mike. The offense is still not really back yet.
Salfino: Basically, I think that offense is predictive and defense is mostly descriptive. I feel you can count on the former way more than the latter.
neil: Patrick Mahomes has now had a below-average QB Elo rating in four of his last five starts — after starting his career with an above-average performance almost every start for three-plus seasons.
Salfino: It’s shocking Mahomes is not even in the conversation for MVP in a year with no real favorite. He’s just mediocre now, somehow.
neil: He and Wentz have basically the same QBR.
But is that good or bad? I can’t keep it straight. (Also, Tua Tagovailoa is ahead of both of them — which, idk man. idk.)
joshua.hermsmeyer: Neil, that’s a wild run of bad performances for a player whose superpower was never having a bad game. All that awesomeness is still in there, though. That Travis Kelce drop for a pick on Sunday is just one example.
sara.ziegler: Yeah, that’s where I’m at, Josh. Don’t we believe that Mahomes can turn this around still?
Salfino: But Josh, even last week when he was “back,” he left a bunch of points on the field with throws he used to make in his sleep.
joshua.hermsmeyer: I’m not saying he’s not in a slump, Mike. Just that I think there’s evidence it will pass.
Salfino: I want it to pass, Josh. Really. But can you flip the switch? How does it pass? Guys just have bad years. I think Mahomes needs an offseason reset. This is too pronounced.
The NFL is really well-oiled and optimized when there are seven QBs playing great, and we’re about seven short now.
sara.ziegler: The weird season is weird!
neil: At least Justin Herbert looks back again.
joshua.hermsmeyer: Al Michaels talking about Herbert like he was Michaels’s favorite grandson was the best part of last night’s telecast.
neil: There was SO much Herbert love in that broadcast.
Salfino: The Steelers defense is so ordinary when T.J. Watt isn’t playing, and when Minkah Fitzpatrick is out too, well, Murder She Wrote.
sara.ziegler: And yet Pittsburgh staged that comeback. I thought for a second that the Ghost of Chargers Past was back.
neil: These Chargers are #BuiltDifferent.
Salfino: And then Mike Williams made a play for the first time it seemed since Dan Fouts was QB.
joshua.hermsmeyer: We almost had to cancel Brandon Staley. But he staved it off for another week, at least.
Salfino: Staley is getting so much sweetness for the fourth downs that it’s nauseating. We’re overcorrecting. The team is underachieving.
joshua.hermsmeyer: There it is.
sara.ziegler: So after all of this talk of mediocrity, I have to ask: Who do you guys like in the Super Bowl? Are you sticking with the favorites you had earlier in the year? Or is a middle-of-the-road team going to surprise us come February?
neil: (Who did I have earlier? I can’t even remember.)
Salfino: I wouldn’t bet a nickel on anyone for the Super Bowl now. How can anyone really believe in any team? You just have to pick someone. That’s where we’re at.
joshua.hermsmeyer: The betting markets are still locked on Tampa Bay, and we have the Cardinals as Super Bowl favorites at this moment. The Cardinals are winning without their two most important offensive players, and that’s very impressive. They don’t seem like a great team, but maybe they just are.
Salfino: I think the trendy pick is going to be New England. They’re the new Jaguars when that team was winning while playing the most boring brand of football — so boring that you rooted for anyone else to make the tournament. Having to watch this Patriots team with nothing else on is going to be a slog. They are so boring.
The Cardinals, Josh, have the defense we thought the Bills had — at least at this moment in time.
Neil, the Bills were 74 percent to win the AFC East last week. What are they now?
neil: Only 51 percent! But if they beat the Pats at home in Week 13, it goes back up to 75 percent.
Salfino: Yep. I felt like they should have been about 60 percent last week. This feels right.
neil: Mike is simultaneously down on BOTH the Bills and the Pats in that division. Go Dolphins, I guess?
Salfino: It’s true! The Patriots are built for winter football, though.
sara.ziegler: I’m loving the chaos of this season, but the Super Bowl could so easily still end up being Tampa Bay-Kansas City … just like we guessed at the beginning of the season.
neil: Yeah, I think I’ll stick with the Pats’ old (emphasis on old) QB, and the Bucs.
Salfino: Very true, Sara. I stipulate Mahomes could become Mahomes again, as Josh says. How could that be shocking?
joshua.hermsmeyer: It would not be shocking. Or at least much less shocking than Carr morphing into middle-aged Mel Gibson before our eyes:
It’s been a trying season, Josh.
Salfino: Carr is too old for this shit.
neil: ^^ there it is
Salfino: They’re remaking “Lethal Weapon.” Just sayin’.
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