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Who’s Best In The NFC West? ¯\_(ツ)_/¯

sara.ziegler (Sara Ziegler, sports editor): Week 10 of the NFL season wasn’t short on drama, starting with big injury news. ESPN’s Ed Werder reports that Drew Brees of the New Orleans Saints suffered “multiple rib fractures on both sides of his chest and a collapsed lung on the right side.” No word yet on how long the quarterback might be out.

In less upsetting developments, we also got frightful weather in Cleveland and New England, and a Hail Mary to end all Hail Marys.

How did DeAndre Hopkins catch that ball?

neil (Neil Paine, senior sportswriter): Well if you look at this alternate angle, you can see he jumped slightly earlier than the defenders:

sara.ziegler: 🤣

joshua.hermsmeyer (Josh Hermsmeyer, NFL analyst): It was an impossible catch, one of those rare beasts that will keep the Hail Mary play alive in coaches’ and players’ hearts for another dozen seasons.

Salfino (Michael Salfino, FiveThirtyEight contributor): The receiver has the edge when it’s just a jump ball. That’s why some teams put a receiver back there on defense in these kinds of plays (though no one stands out like that for the Buffalo Bills). I was shocked to see that 9.7 percent of Hail Marys are completed — that struck me as a lot.

neil: “Pass every play” is tired. “Hail Mary every play” is wired.

sara.ziegler: I’ve seen a few offenses where that strategy wouldn’t hurt tbh.

neil: Stop subtweeting the Jets — they didn’t even play this week …

sara.ziegler: That was not the team that hasn’t played (yet) this week that I was subtweeting, Neil.

joshua.hermsmeyer: It should be a big week for Justin Jefferson and/or Adam Theilen, according to my wide receiver model. Hail Marys could help. Fantasy players, take note.

sara.ziegler: Haha

That win for the Arizona Cardinals, coupled with the Los Angeles Rams’ win over the Seahawks, gave us a very messy and very interesting NFC West, with three teams tied at 6-3 and the San Francisco 49ers just 2.5 games back. Who is going to walk away with this division?

neil: Our model currently projects three teams winning a double-digit number of games in that division! And none of them is the defending NFC champion.

Salfino: When in doubt, I rank by the net yards per pass play gained minus those allowed. The NY/A model LOVES the Rams (No. 1 in football at plus 1.8 yards per attempt, and the Kansas City Chiefs are No. 2), likes the Cardinals (fourth-best at plus 1.0) and HATES the Seahawks (tied for 20th at minus 0.3). That’s how I see them. Seattle is a fraud now that Russell Wilson is not playing like a man possessed. The Rams are a true Super Bowl contender.

neil: The Rams and Seahawks are kind of mirror images of each other: Los Angeles has a bad offense (21st in Simple Rating System) but a great defense (second); Seattle has a great offense (first) but an awful defense (30th). Arizona is just balanced (eighth/13th).

joshua.hermsmeyer: The rankings by offensive expected points added (EPA) per play go Seahawks, Cardinals, Niners, Rams, with the Hawks and Cardinals very close at roughly 0.16 EPA per play. I think the Cardinals have a real shot now.

So, pick which tea leaves you want to read, I guess.

Salfino: I’m surprised by that Rams ranking since they are piling up yards.

neil: They’re only tied for 18th in points per game.

sara.ziegler: And aside from this win against Seattle, the Rams have really not beaten anyone. Their wins are against the Dallas Cowboys, Philadelphia Eagles, New York Giants, Washington Football Team and Chicago Bears.

neil: The NFC East quadruple!

sara.ziegler: And they still have the Jets on their schedule!

Salfino: Their win over the Cowboys has currency, IMO — Dak Prescott was still playing then. All the teams in the division are playing the same schedule, basically.

joshua.hermsmeyer: The Jets, who almost beat the New England Patriots who just beat the Baltimore Ravens. SMH, SMH.

sara.ziegler: It’s a league of parity, I’m told.

Salfino: The Jets did just give the Patriots a better game than the Ravens did, tbh.

joshua.hermsmeyer: Well, if Bill Belichick would stop cheating with the rain machine, things might have been different.

sara.ziegler: Would anyone even be a little surprised if Belichick could control the weather?

Salfino: I think last night says more about the Ravens than the Patriots.

joshua.hermsmeyer: The Ravens are still the fourth-best team by Elo. (The Jets are still the worst.)

Salfino: The Ravens are not winning the Super Bowl this year. Lock it up.

neil: There’s a 96 percent chance you’re right, Mike!

sara.ziegler: And definitely not if it’s raining.

neil: Ooof. Rough night for Matt Skura snapping the ball.

Salfino: Also, 96 percent doesn’t seem to mean what it used to.

neil: That’s only when the Atlanta Falcons and Los Angeles Chargers are involved.

sara.ziegler: The Patriots’ win keeps them in the conversation, but the AFC East is another fascinating division. Don’t look now, but the Miami Dolphins are just a game out of first place. Neil, you’ve been saying not to sleep on the Dolphins.

neil: I feel vindicated!

joshua.hermsmeyer: I felt bad to see Ryan Fitzpatrick go to the bench, but the decision to move on to Tua Tagovailoa was also vindicated.

neil: He outplayed Justin Herbert! Pretty impressive.

joshua.hermsmeyer: They’re 3-0 since he took over, and he’s ranked 12th in the league in QBR over that span, just ahead of Josh Allen.

Salfino: The Dolphins did such a good job on the rebuild, and wasn’t even driven by the quarterback — or even the offense, really. They did it though the defense. They are very much like the Patriots. I think they’re in the scrum of teams in the AFC below the Chiefs. And I think they are clearly better than the Bills right now — the best team in the AFC East.

neil: The Bills’ close-game tendencies finally caught up with them.

That said, we still give Buffalo a 75 percent chance to win the division (to Miami’s 19 percent) because of the one-game cushion and tiebreakers.

Salfino: The Dolphins are showing everyone in the NFL how fast you can rebuild and exposing some myths about five-year plans and how everything focuses on the QB position. I like this conversation they’re forcing.

neil: Brian Flores is also a good coach. They’re playing strong defense, have the best special teams EPA in the league, and doing a lot of things we might attribute to a well-prepared team.

joshua.hermsmeyer: I’m not sure where this Dolphins defensive love is coming from. They’re ranked 17th in yards per play allowed and they spent a high first on a QB. Seems like the standard NFL formula for wins.

neil: Well, they do have the No. 1 EPA pass defense per game in the league after adjusting for strength of schedule.

Salfino: I’d disagree that they’re using the standard formula for wins because their wins have little to do with their QB now. Tua is a game manager, which is fine (and smart).

And they just totally shut down Herbert, which no one has been able to do. They were in control against the Chargers, who haven’t lost a game this year by more than 8 points.

neil: Right. This was the rare Charger loss that couldn’t be chalked up to the universe hating the Chargers.

sara.ziegler: LOL

joshua.hermsmeyer: I mean, Tua has a higher QBR than Herbert and Joe Burrow over the past three weeks. I give him more credit than being just a game manager, I guess.

neil: He’s certainly improving very quickly.

Salfino: Tua feels like the early version of Tom Brady. One day, he might be able to do more. The Dolphins may end up being a little like the 2001 Patriots, too. Not saying they’re going to win the Super Bowl, but they are getting noticeably better every week.

sara.ziegler: It’s fun to see!

neil: The Pats have a down year, and suddenly the floodgates are open in the AFC East.

sara.ziegler: The floodgates were open last night, anyway.

joshua.hermsmeyer: Those were just Ravens fans’ tears.

neil: LOL

Salfino: Should we be taking the Pittsburgh Steelers more seriously? No one seems to consider them a favorite, even though they’re unbeaten. Wins are descriptive and not predictive, of course, but still.

Maybe it’s because the AFC has so many good teams?

neil: They, um, improved their Pythagorean winning percentage against Cincinnati.

joshua.hermsmeyer: Yeah, they have the second-highest point margin in the league at 100 points, just behind Kansas City. (The Jets are last at -147).

neil: And yet still have the biggest gap between actual wins and expected in the league. No team is truly of 9-0 quality, I suppose.

(Thanks for that Jets update, LOL.)

Salfino: BREAKING NEWS: The Jets are bad.

joshua.hermsmeyer: The people need context, Mike!

Salfino: Josh doesn’t seem to understand how little I care right now about the Jets’ record, though I wear my fandom on my sleeve proudly. We all had to get into this great game in some way.

neil: The scary thing about the Steelers is that Ben Roethlisberger is starting to play better these past few weeks.

joshua.hermsmeyer: Roethlisberger was making a play to never practice again with that performance.

Salfino: I guess Roethlisberger has been better? He’s just so fundamentally different now. It used to be that the play didn’t start until someone bumped him in the pocket. Now he gets rid of the ball quicker than anyone.

sara.ziegler: How quarterbacks change as they age is so interesting. We’ve seen that this year with Brees, too, though who knows how long his ribs have been broken.

Salfino: Roethlisberger has beaten up on bad defenses and is still pretty mediocre in efficiency (as measured by yards per attempt), which had been his defining trait in the past.

neil: It may have been against the Cowboys and the Cincinnati Bengals, but this is a pretty good pair of games:

Getting the ball out quick helps you take zero sacks on 88 pass plays.

joshua.hermsmeyer: Can’t argue with that. I wish they pressed their edges more on offense (play-action, motion, etc.), but Ben can still spin it.

Salfino: And sacks can be considered mini-turnovers, so this is important.

sara.ziegler: Could the Steelers run the table? They still have a rematch against the Ravens and games against the Bills and Indianapolis Colts left.

Salfino: Just eyeballing it, it seems like their odds of going 16-0 are about 10 percent at best. If they did and got the Chiefs at home, I bet they’d be underdogs, which would be hilarious.

(Note that the 1972 Dolphins were 1-point favorites in the Super Bowl against Washington, which was just OK.)

neil: We give it a 14.9 percent chance in our simulations. It helps that Pittsburgh has one of the easiest remaining schedules of any team: The average Elo rating of their opponents down the stretch (1474) ranks sixth-lowest in the league.

joshua.hermsmeyer: Last week, one book had it at 19/1, which is 5 percent.

Salfino: The big-brain books are still giving Trump better odds than that.

neil: Big Brain Roethlisberger.

Salfino: Like it. I also want Kyler Murray to be nicknamed “Scooter.”

sara.ziegler: And we officially renamed the Hail Mary to the Hail Murray, right?

Salfino: That’s awesome. It’s like the “Fail Mary” in that Seahawks game years ago:

Check out our latest NFL predictions.

Sara Ziegler is the sports editor at FiveThirtyEight.

Neil Paine is a senior writer 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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