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Which Of The NFL’s Top Teams Are For Real?

sara.ziegler (Sara Ziegler, sports editor): Week 7 of the NFL season is just about wrapped up, and we’re starting to see some teams separate themselves from the rest of the league. So this week, I want to talk about the current crop of top squads.

We currently have nine teams with at least five wins: New England, Buffalo, Baltimore and Kansas City in the AFC, Green Bay, Minnesota, New Orleans, San Francisco and Seattle in the NFC. The Patriots and Niners are undefeated, with the Pats yet to play this week at the moment. Are those two the best of the best right now?

joshua.hermsmeyer (Josh Hermsmeyer, NFL analyst): Not if you believe, as I do, that the best way to forecast a team’s future performance is its early-down offense. The only problem is that the No. 1 team by that measure — the Chiefs — just lost their MVP quarterback.

neil (Neil Paine, senior sportswriter): We still list the Pats as our top Super Bowl contender — what else is new? — at 26 percent to win it all. Our model has been a little slower to accept San Francisco (8 percent) as a true top contender. Maybe it’s because the 49ers have still really only played one opponent considered to be a top team — the Rams.

The rest of the Niners’ victims are pretty unimpressive: Tampa Bay, Cincinnati, Pittsburgh, Cleveland and Washington.

Salfino (Michael Salfino, FiveThirtyEight contributor): For sure, the Patriots and Niners are the likely No. 1 seeds. Both are firmly in control of their divisions. If I were to pick two other teams that are good bets to win the Super Bowl, or are at least in the conversation, it would be two NFC teams, though — Minnesota and New Orleans. Whichever gets the first-round bye is going to have a big edge. This assumes a healthy Drew Brees, of course, because let’s face it: Teddy Bridgewater just happens to be winning these games.

sara.ziegler: The Saints have to be thrilled with how well they’ve played without Brees, though — and last week without Alvin Kamara.

neil: Yes, I believe we (and everyone else) said that if Bridgewater could just keep them from sinking too far, or just keep them around .500, they could survive. Instead, they’ve been undefeated with him at starter.

Salfino: The Saints are like those old Patriots Super Bowl winners, pre-2007: just solid in every area. The only question is whether Brees can play near-peak form if needed in the postseason. Maybe the time off helps him maintain his play through the finish line.

Kamara is a generational talent, Josh.

joshua.hermsmeyer: * Chase Edmonds

sara.ziegler: * Latavius Murray

Salfino: We have to get Sara to talk about the Vikings, who are, I swear, legit Super Bowl contenders.

sara.ziegler: Mike.

No.

joshua.hermsmeyer: Agreed!

neil: Every week we do this.

sara.ziegler: They’re not.

neil: Cousins was great for a third straight week.

sara.ziegler: You guys.

Salfino: Captain Kirk is the first QB ever with three straight 300-yard passing games with a completion percentage of 75 and a passer rating over 130.

joshua.hermsmeyer: The Vikings are No. 3 in early-down offensive expected points added per play among teams with at least five wins, and they’re extremely well-balanced overall. I think they’re legit. Kirk can win them games.

They have to hope Thielen is OK, though.

sara.ziegler: Sigh.

Salfino: Cousins has made Mike Zimmer believe again in the forward pass, so, progress.

sara.ziegler: I think it was opposing defenses that did that.

Salfino: I worry, though, that Thielen will be out a month with his hamstring injury.

neil: Yeah, that’s a problem.

sara.ziegler: Though Bisi Johnson came out of nowhere to be a decent No. 2 wide receiver, behind Stefon Diggs.

Salfino: What a soft sell on Cousins by Sara. We’re all going to chip in and buy you the Cousins jersey.

sara.ziegler: I will not wear that.

LOL

Salfino: Revenge game on Thursday for Case Keenum.

sara.ziegler: What about the actual leader in the NFC North, Green Bay?

neil: Aaron Rodgers is ELITE again!

(We actually do rank him third among current starters in QB Elo.)

joshua.hermsmeyer: A-aron will win the MVP on the strength of one game — you know this is true.

neil: I was surprised that he had the first perfect passer rating game in Packers history, given the QBs they’ve had over the years. (Now the Jaguars and Panthers are the only teams who have never had one.)

joshua.hermsmeyer: I will stan for Rodgers — you put up those performances against Oakland if you are elite. Also, the running game is third-worst in yards per rush on early downs among teams with five wins. (Patriots and Chiefs are lower.)

sara.ziegler: I’m a little confused about why our model rates the Vikings higher than the Packers.

Salfino: The Vikings are much better at winning the passing game.

neil: Part of it might be that the Packers were coming off such a down season last year, too. Easy to forget we’re not even halfway into the 2019 season yet, so there’s still some amount of 2018 baked into the ratings right now.

sara.ziegler: (The Vikings weren’t much better. 😞)

joshua.hermsmeyer: The Ravens look pretty amazing, and Lamar Jackson needs to be in the MVP conversation, I think.

sara.ziegler: I was super surprised by the second half of the Ravens-Seahawks game. Baltimore just ran away with it.

neil: Such an impressive win for Baltimore. Going into Seattle, slowing down Russell Wilson — who is having an MVP-type season himself.

Salfino: Lamar is definitely in the MVP conversation. His approach is not a sustainable model with all that running, but it’s working now. His passing since Week 1 — measured in pretty much every way — has been “meh.” But who cares when you’re rushing for close to 100 yards a game. It seems like we — meaning football Twitter — all hate the run game but LOVE when the QB runs.

neil: We all grew up playing Madden 2004 with Mike Vick.

Salfino: Pete Carroll hasn’t been able to stop a running QB since Vince Young in the National Championship Game.

joshua.hermsmeyer: The Seahawks deserved to lose a game that was close for long stretches just based on their decision-making. Carroll likes to talk about keeping games close, as if it builds character or calluses, but it’s more a function of their lack of aggression on fourth down and an inability to maximize win probability.

neil: The 2019 Seahawks are kind of the same story as it’s been the past few years: Wilson is amazing, but the supporting cast — including, against brand, the defense — is questionable.

Salfino: Nothing came easy for Wilson and the offense. That’s the way things used to be with him and Seattle, but this year, that seemed to have changed. They were getting easy plays in structure without Wilson having to play like his hair was on fire. I think Wilson has aged out of being able to succeed when playing in a generally chaotic state. He should only be sprinkling it in now.

sara.ziegler: The Ravens have had kind of a weird season — losing to the Browns and barely beating the Steelers and Bengals.

neil: That win over Arizona in Week 2 is looking better and better, though. 😉

sara.ziegler: Haha — true.

Salfino: I was shocked by how well Baltimore’s defense played. I thought they were just a name brand and had lost too many people. But Wink Martindale has coached this unit up and then some. They looked dominant on Sunday. I think that was the biggest story out of that game, not Lamar. They need to add an edge rusher at the trading deadline, though.

joshua.hermsmeyer: There are football narratives I don’t really buy, but having a QB who can punish a defense with deep passes really does open up an offense. When Lamar has his deep ball working, I think the Ravens are tough to beat. All that said, there were two fluky defensive scores Sunday, so we need to temper our expectations a bit for the Ravens’ offense.

neil: Marcus Peters wasn’t enough of an addition for you, Mike?

Salfino: That was good, but it’s not pass-rush. They seem to really struggle there. As for Lamar, what’s interesting to me is that the Chargers solved him in the playoffs by playing seven defensive backs on nearly all downs when they were forced to because of injuries, just a couple of weeks after getting gashed by the Ravens in the running game. I guess this is not repeatable for teams because they are not going to construct a roster with all those DBs just to beat the Ravens.

joshua.hermsmeyer: That same defense was exposed the very next week, though.

Salfino: It wasn’t exposed by the Ravens, though.

sara.ziegler: Wow, remember when the Chargers weren’t terrible?

neil: OMG the CHARGERS

How many ways can a team find to lose games?

joshua.hermsmeyer: It’s sad! The Chargers seem like they should be good, kind of like a slightly better version of the Falcons, and yet.

neil: The Chargers have been doing less with more for a long time, but my goodness that game Sunday.

Salfino: Bigger football crime: Chargers moving from San Diego or not using the Human Cheat Code Austin Ekeler on more snaps? Ekeler had 118 receiving yards on eight targets. At RB.

sara.ziegler: Back to teams that are not awful, the other five-win team in the AFC is Buffalo. What do you make of the Bills?

joshua.hermsmeyer: A fermenting dumpster waiting for a match. Of the teams with five wins, they’re the only one with negative offensive EPA per play. I’m absolutely convinced their success is a mirage.

neil: Their defense remains legit on the season (fifth in EPA), but it’s never great to give up 21 points — and a pretty good QB game — to Ryan Fitzpatrick and the Phins.

Salfino: Fitz gave that game away with a pick after a first and goal inside the 5-yard line. A touchdown there would have made it 21-9 and “Murder She Wrote” for the Bills. But then, Josh Allen took them 98 yards for the 14-point swing.

neil: Yeah, that was a huge drive for Allen.

Salfino: Remember, the Jets would have beaten the Bills in Week 1 if Sam Darnold hadn’t been half-dead.

sara.ziegler: Yeah, that’s the only reason the Jets didn’t beat the Bills.

Salfino: “Spleen Talk,” Episode Six.

sara.ziegler: Hahahaha

neil: Can’t we talk about other organs for a change???

joshua.hermsmeyer: 🤐

neil: I will say this, Tre’Davious White is amazing. He made one of the INTs of the year.

joshua.hermsmeyer: Mike, I saw you tweet something about Jimmy Garoppolo not being able to hold onto the ball in the rain. I haven’t watched the full game yet — what was going on?

Salfino: He simply could not throw a spiral. It was bizarre.

The thing is, January is the rainy season in San Francisco. At least, it used to be.

sara.ziegler: When the field looks like this, you’ll take anything you can get, right?

joshua.hermsmeyer: Was Keenum any better? My prior right now is that Jimmy G is average at best.

Salfino: I was only paying attention to that screen when the Niners had the ball.

neil: I’ll give Jimmy G a pass for the conditions yesterday. But I keep waiting for one of two things to happen:

  1. Niners stop winning
  2. Jimmy G puts up a great stat game

Neither has happened!

joshua.hermsmeyer: LOL

Salfino: Jimmy G is like Teddy B.

neil: In our Elo QB ratings, Garoppolo has had a below-average start (adjusted for opposing defense) five times in six games this year.

The only good one was against Cincy.

Salfino: The Niners and Garoppolo seriously also remind me of those early 2000s Patriots teams. They also spread the ball around, lack fantasy significance, are very well-coached and crush the opposing passing games. And they have a QB who is not lighting up the stat sheet but manages the game (pre-2007 Brady).

joshua.hermsmeyer: Interesting comp. Is 49ers head coach Kyle Shanahan up to the Bill Belichick comparison though?

neil: I look forward to Jimmy G’s stats finally taking off when they trade a fourth-round pick for Randy Moss Jr.

Salfino: How about A.J. Green?

neil: Haha. Green certainly deserves better than the Bengals.

Lowkey, they — and NOT the Dolphins — are last in our Elo rankings!

sara.ziegler: Ooof, Neil.

neil: Reminds me of how we all assumed that the Orioles would be the worst team in baseball, and the Tigers were like, hold my beer.

sara.ziegler: So, you guys bring up an interesting point: Which players out there would make these top-tier teams better?

Salfino: Teams that should go all in are the ones we started with, IMO.

The NFC is so strong that one trade can tip the balance between the 49ers, Saints and Vikings. (Notice I did not say the Rams, who already made their trade.)

joshua.hermsmeyer: The Niners should trade for Broncos fullback Andy Janovich to save their season.

Salfino: In the AFC, the team that’s screaming out for a trade is the Ravens. I would add Vic Beasley from the Falcons. A pure edge rusher.

neil: Seems like there are a ton of WRs potentially on the trade block.

sara.ziegler: NOT DIGGS, THO

neil: Well, beyond just Green, also Emmanuel Sanders, Mohamed Sanu, etc.

Maybe even Robby Anderson?!

Salfino: Julio Jones can’t be traded because of his contract. Of course, the Patriots desperately need a WR. They can be in on Green, too. The Chargers can’t dump. Tampa Bay should trade Mike Evans, if the cap permits it. They don’t need two lead WRs, and they can get two first-round picks for him. I do think teams can do pretty much whatever they want with the cap, if they put the pain off until tomorrow.

neil: Would love to see the Patriots acquire yet another name-brand WR before season’s end. Just for their full list of receivers for the season to be even more bizarre.

Salfino: There just are not a lot of WRs out there on the bad teams. Allen Robinson? The Bears are going to keep lying to themselves that they’re fine.

joshua.hermsmeyer: I agree that Mitch Trubisky probably isn’t good, but he’s coming off an injury, so this week probably isn’t the best time to finally declare him a bust

Salfino: Marvin Jones to the Patriots for a first-round pick? Only the third player ever with two four-TD receiving games since 1950 (Rice and Sterling Sharpe).

sara.ziegler: The Vikings should trade away Kirk Cousins — like I did in fantasy football.

😉

neil: Hey wait, Sara! I got Cousins from you and was happy with him! LOL

(Also, my regular starter was on bye.)

Salfino: Wait a second! Sara traded Cousins to Neil? How am I just finding out about this?

sara.ziegler: It was a classic Cousins-for-Trubisky deal.

neil: I also got a Chipotle lunch out of it.

joshua.hermsmeyer: Jelly.

Salfino: Steal.

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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