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Which Mid-Tier NFL Teams Are Still In The Playoff Hunt?

sara.ziegler (Sara Ziegler, sports editor): Last week, we talked about the teams we thought were the best in the league — the ones with at least five wins. This week, let’s focus on the teams just below that tier — those that had four wins last week and those that got to four wins this weekend. That’s the entire AFC South, the Cowboys, the Eagles, the Panthers and the Rams.

Which of those teams do you all think can still make the playoffs? (Obviously someone out of the AFC South.)

joshua.hermsmeyer (Josh Hermsmeyer, NFL analyst): I like the Texans and the Cowboys out of that bunch. They have the highest offensive expected points added per play on early downs.

neil (Neil Paine, senior sportswriter): I don’t know if Indy will hang onto the South — I’m with you, Josh, in thinking the Texans are better — but the way the Colts have played after everyone (us included) wrote them off when Andrew Luck retired has been impressive. The supporting cast around Jacoby Brissett has done well (ironic, given the knock on Indy was that Luck was doing everything by himself), and Brissett has done an admirable job as a stand-in.

Brissett has done a solid job replacing a star QB

Best QB Elo ratings after the first half of the season* for quarterbacks who replaced a starter who was at least 50 Elo points above average in the season prior

Previous QB New QB
Season Team Name QB Elo Name QB Elo
1991 SF Joe Montana +75 Steve Young +96
2018 KC Alex Smith +73 Patrick Mahomes +71
1980 DAL Roger Staubach +87 Danny White +44
2008 GB Brett Favre +61 Aaron Rodgers +39
1972 DAL Roger Staubach +77 Craig Morton +17
2003 NYJ Chad Pennington +56 Vinny Testaverde +11
1999 DEN John Elway +70 Brian Griese +7
2009 DEN Jay Cutler +68 Kyle Orton -4
1962 CLE Milt Plum +53 Jim Ninowski -6
2001 KC Elvis Grbac +59 Trent Green -6
2019 IND Andrew Luck +66 Jacoby Brissett -7
1971 WSH Sonny Jurgensen +73 Billy Kilmer -7
2004 SF Jeff Garcia +64 Tim Rattay -9
1967 OAK Tom Flores +56 Daryle Lamonica -9
2001 BUF Doug Flutie +63 Rob Johnson -9

*After 6, 7 or 8 games; the latest game in a season available within that range

Sources: Pro-Football-Reference, ESPN

neil: He’s no Steve Young replacing Joe Montana, but he’s not terrible.

joshua.hermsmeyer: Yeah, I should take the L publicly for saying they were a near lock to be 8-8 with Brissett.

Salfino (Michael Salfino, FiveThirtyEight contributor): Brissett is generating far more touchdowns per pass than we might expect from his yards per attempt. He has a 6.1 percent touchdown rate, which ranks fourth in the league, but only 6.9 yards per attempt, which ranks 22nd, so I think the Colts offense is due for serious negative regression (unless Brissett’s overall efficiency improves).

While the Colts are really well coached and get the most out of what they have, I think the Texans — given the talent and production at QB — are the team to beat in the South and a team I would not want to have to defend. But is their defense suspect now without J.J. Watt, who is out for the year?

Of all these team, for me, it’s still the Texas teams, Houston and Dallas.

sara.ziegler: The team I’m most confused about is Philadelphia. The Eagles seem so up and down from week to week.

neil: Maybe Orlando Scandrick was the problem after all!

Salfino: The Eagles have to feel much better about themselves off the game in Buffalo, even if we believe that the Bills (like Josh said last week) are a paper tiger.

joshua.hermsmeyer: The Eagles are just Not Very Good on offense this season. They’re basically average on early downs, and their record reflects it.

neil: But they probably still have the talent to be better than that. And for Philly against Buffalo, I think a lot of people had that game circled for upset potential. The Bills had been playing above their heads as much as the Eagles were underachieving.

Salfino: My problem with the Eagles is that they have zero explosiveness on offense other than Miles Sanders (running and receiving), who they don’t seem to want to play (and who now has a shoulder injury).

neil: True. And even against Buffalo, it was a very run-heavy focus.

joshua.hermsmeyer: Agreed. And I think the weather played to their defensive strengths. The Eagles like to play a “gap sound” defense — where every run gap is accounted for on most plays — that makes it hard to run on them.

sara.ziegler: So what can we expect from the Eagles for the rest of the season? They have an incomprehensible Bears team next, then the Patriots, then the Seahawks — but then in the final five games of the season they get Miami and Washington, plus they get the Giants twice.

Salfino: The Eagles must win two of their next three, which are all at home.

neil: Our Elo model thinks Philly is favored in seven of its final eight games.

sara.ziegler: Against everyone but New England?

neil: Right.

The Eagles have a lot of winnable games left

Elo ratings and win probabilities for the remaining opponents on Philadelphia’s 2019 schedule

Date Team QB Effective Elo Win Prob.
Nov. 3 vs. CHI Mitchell Trubisky 1525 63.7%
Nov. 17 vs. NE Tom Brady 1723 35.7
Nov. 24 vs. SEA Russell Wilson 1555 57.1
Dec. 1 at MIA Ryan Fitzpatrick 1326 73.8
Dec. 9 vs. NYG Daniel Jones 1343 83.1
Dec. 15 at WSH Case Keenum 1324 74.4
Dec. 22 vs. DAL Dak Prescott 1570 57.8
Dec. 29 at NYG Daniel Jones 1343 72.3

Source: ESPN

sara.ziegler: Even against Dallas! That’s so interesting.

neil: Well, it’s at home, and Elo thinks the two teams are basically equivalent, even after the beatdown Dallas laid on Philly a few weeks back.

That’s a big reason why the two teams are essentially 50-50 to win the NFC East right now.

sara.ziegler: I can’t figure out Dallas, either. Was that loss to the Jets just a blip?

Salfino: I do think it was a blip. What is Dallas’s weakness on the field? You can say it’s coaching off the field, I will stipulate to that. But the players are generally good. It comes down to whether you believe Dak Prescott is good or great.

joshua.hermsmeyer: When the Cowboys have won, they’ve looked like a team that can go deep into the playoffs: great QB play, a good line and rushing attack, and creative play-calling. All of that is coupled with a strong pass rush on defense to take advantage of leads late by applying pressure. I think that’s the version of the team that’s closest to its true identity. I think they need to get out of their own way to a large extent — especially head coach Jason Garrett.

sara.ziegler: The other Texas team you mentioned, Josh, was Houston, which needed some Deshaun Watson heroics to beat Oakland on Sunday. How much does Watt’s injury matter to the Texans’ playoff hopes?

joshua.hermsmeyer: Gosh, I think it’s a big deal. He was 12th in the league in Pass Rush Win Rate, and the team has a bunch of other injuries to deal with as well.

Salfino: Watson made a forever highlight play Sunday on the game-winning TD when he escaped a certain sack and threw the game-winning TD while being kicked in the face. That reminded me of this:

joshua.hermsmeyer: And with Texans head coach Bill O’Brien selling picks in hopes of winning something this season, I think maybe their window closes if they can’t get to the playoffs. So desperate times in Houston, in my view.

Salfino: Raiders coach Jon Gruden said Watson is like Michael Jordan. If he’s right, the Texans can, of course, beat anyone. Their defense wasn’t good, though, even with Watt. So the pressure is on Watson to score pretty much on every drive.

neil: According to Elo, Watson is the second-highest-rated starting QB in the league, behind Pat Mahomes and tied with Aaron Rodgers. So we are definitely talking about that kind of star QB.

Salfino: To Josh’s point, I don’t think the window ever closes for a team with a franchise QB. A franchise QB turns second-round picks into first-round picks — he makes everyone better. Like Peyton Manning did.

sara.ziegler: What about the two 4-4 teams in the AFC South — the Jaguars and Titans?

neil: Titans won the battle of what might be the two worst uniforms in the league this week, against the Bucs.

joshua.hermsmeyer: Yes, Neil!

As for the Jags, I don’t think you can bench the Constant Gardner.

neil: LOL

neil: Maybe they can send Nick Foles back to the Eagles, if so many players in Philly want him back.

Salfino: I can’t see any January relevance for either of those teams. What happens to Gardner Minshew is going to be very interesting. Foles has not done anything to lose his job, obviously. It’s hard to find games that you think he wouldn’t have won that Minshew did. And the money is a very big deal — the Jaguars are stuck with Foles. They probably also wooed him with promises that they now may have to break, which is awkward.

neil: Yeah, although Minshew played well against the Jets, our model still doesn’t think he’s anything more than a very low-tier starter.

Salfino: To me, the play is give the ball to Foles when he returns from injury but keep him on a short leash. That way if he doesn’t live up to expectations, you can go back to Minshew. If you stick with Minshew, how do you ever go back to Foles? You’re saying Minshew is your QB.

joshua.hermsmeyer: Foles was never better than average — except for the very memorable Super Bowl run with the Eagles — and so I think availability bias colors everything. I also question if Foles makes the plays under pressure and out of structure that Minshew has made.

Salfino: Plus Minshew is a major trade chip. He will definitely get a mid-first-round pick in exchange. The Cowboys once got Tony Dorsett, basically, because of what Clint Longley did in one half of a Thanksgiving game. Desperate teams will always buy the hope at QB, and Minshew provides reasonable hope. Plus, of course, he’s super cheap for the acquiring team. Of course, Longley sucker punched Roger Staubach, so he sort of had to go — but still the Cowboys got major draft capital.

neil: Clint Longley!

What about Browning Nagle though?

joshua.hermsmeyer: I cannot in good conscience support this idea of trading a talented cheap young QB and riding with Nick Foles. Mike, it’s too early for that kind of gamble.

neil: Poor Foles. How many times can this happen to him?

Salfino: I’m not saying I would do that in a vacuum, but Foles has a $34 million salary cap charge next year. They’ll be saddled with an expensive QB no matter what they do with Minshew, so they may as well get the draft capital.

neil: Meanwhile, you’ve got the Titans winning with Ryan Tannehill after benching Marcus Mariota. That’s another not-so-cheap QB riding the pine.

sara.ziegler: Speaking of talented, cheap QBs … how about Kyle Allen!

joshua.hermsmeyer: He finally got intercepted.

sara.ziegler: The Niners will do that to you.

neil: That performance felt like it was coming for a while.

Salfino: Those interception stats are more fluke than fact.

joshua.hermsmeyer: Sherm agrees.

neil: Yes, and prior to this game, the Panthers were winning, but not really because of Kyle Allen.

Salfino: Exactly. Like Minshew, really. Cam Newton would have won all those games if healthy, let’s be real. Like Foles would have.

neil: Carolina is probably glad they got it out of the way so there isn’t a whiff of “Should Allen start even when Cam is healthy?”

Salfino: There will still be a whiff.

sara.ziegler: That seems absurd, but you’re probably right.

neil: How about the 49ers, though? What a performance. After people like me were wondering if they were legit in last week’s chat.

Salfino: I think they’re winning the Super Bowl. Can they continue to generate explosive running plays? It’s a weird recipe for offensive success. George Kittle, to the chagrin of fantasy football, can’t find the end zone. He has six TDs on his last 1,839 receiving yards, dating back to the start of last season.

joshua.hermsmeyer: Imagine how good they would be with a QB.

sara.ziegler: LOL

neil: Who needs a QB when you have Nick Bosa?

That was the first game in PFR’s database where a player had three or more sacks and an interception in the same game.

Salfino: My eyes tell me that Bosa is the most impactful rookie defender since Lawrence Taylor. But the stats? They’re not that great. They’re merely good.

Sherman says Bosa should be in the defensive MVP talk. Since we’re citing Sherman (as we should because he’s very citable).

neil: A generational citational talent!

joshua.hermsmeyer: I think that’s a great compliment and an incredible example of football bridging seemingly intractable cultural divides. What SF has done this season is kind of a marvel of management.

Salfino: I think once you put on the uniform, that’s your tribe. It’s one of the charming things about sports. I bet Sherman does not care at all about Bosa’s politics.

sara.ziegler: The one last middle-tier team that’s left is the team looking up at the Niners (and the Seahawks): the Los Angeles Rams. Are they getting their problems worked out?

joshua.hermsmeyer: I have no real evidence for this take, but my sense is no, they are not very good and will not make the playoffs. I think it has to do with the fact that they really are a run-first team, and head coach Sean McVay hasn’t been able to run his wide zone stuff like he used to. Now teams are forcing Jared Goff to beat them without the play-action plays that McVay called off those no-longer-successful run plays. It’s like he’s reinventing his offense on the fly.

Salfino: What can you take from that game against the 0-8 Bengals? I heard that with a loss, Andy Dalton would be the first QB since 1950 to start one season 8-0 (2015) and another 0-8. He lost.

I agree with Josh. Remember that, on average, nearly half of all playoff teams do not repeat as playoff teams the following season, so the Rams being out this year would not be that big a deal.

sara.ziegler: I was much happier with Goff’s fantasy performance this week, so that’s all that matters to me

Salfino: Goff got his yards per attempt cleaned up, for sure, since the Bengals apparently decided not to cover Cooper Kupp. It was a strategy.

neil: 220 receiving yards for Kupp! Look out, Flipper Anderson.

joshua.hermsmeyer: Sneaky 220 yards from Cooper. Lot of grit shown.

Salfino: Cooper has deceptive speed. 🙂

neil: But basically, circle Dec. 8 on the calendar for the Seahawks and Rams.

joshua.hermsmeyer: Agreed!

neil: For what it’s worth, Los Angeles has a much easier remaining schedule; our model has the Rams favored six times in the last eight games, with an average win probability of 61 percent. Seattle is favored only twice, with an average win probability of 49 percent.

sara.ziegler: But they’re both just chasing the Niners — what an interesting season! Could it be San Francisco-New England in the Super Bowl?

Salfino: We had to get this photo with Odell Beckham Jr., Tom Brady and Baker Mayfield into the chat.

Never leave a meme on the table.

Check out our latest NFL predictions.

CORRECTION (Oct. 29, 2019, 2:55 p.m.): A previous version of this story incorrectly described the San Francisco 49ers as having finished last in their division in the 2018 season. They finished second to last.

Sara Ziegler is the former sports editor at FiveThirtyEight.

Neil Paine was the acting sports editor at FiveThirtyEight.

Josh Hermsmeyer was 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.