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Who’s In And Who’s Out Of The NFL Wild-Card Chase?

sara.ziegler (Sara Ziegler, sports editor): Week 11 of the NFL season brought us many fun moments, none more wonderful than Mark Ingram’s audition as Lamar Jackson’s hype man:

With only six weeks left in the season, the playoff picture is coming into focus. So let’s talk about the wild-card race. We’ll start in the NFC: The Sunday Night Football matchup featured two teams that needed a win to bolster their playoff chances — and yet neither seemed to want the W.

neil (Neil Paine, senior sportswriter):

There were no winners here.

sara.ziegler: LOL

The Bears are all but done now. Do the Rams still have a chance?

Salfino (Michael Salfino, FiveThirtyEight contributor): During the game, I was wondering how many plays it would take the Bears to score a TD if we all agreed that they would not leave the field until they did. I said 33, but that’s probably light.

joshua.hermsmeyer (Josh Hermsmeyer, NFL analyst): I’m still sort of in shock that Mitch Trubisky had a higher QBR than Jared Goff. If that continues, I don’t see how the Rams are in playoff contention.

sara.ziegler: He also had more fantasy points in our league than Goff did. (Says the idiot who owns them both.)

Salfino: That’s only because you traded Kirk Cousins, Sara.

neil: (And I didn’t even start Cousins this week.)

Even after that win, it’s looking tough for L.A. Here’s a list of the QBs the Rams will face from here on:

Lamar Jackson

Kyler Murray

Russell Wilson

Dak Prescott

Jimmy Garoppolo

Kyler Murray

All of those guys are on hot streaks right now.

Salfino: It feels like those are all the good QBs in the league, Neil. The carnage at the position this year is insane. Can’t remember anything like it — not just the guys who are injured but guys like Goff and Trubisky and even Carson Wentz taking big steps back.

joshua.hermsmeyer: To be fair, Biscuit and Goff taking steps back isn’t entirely surprising. There were real questions about both coming into the season. Wentz is more of a mystery.

Another mystery: Did Wentz get a full sleeve tattoo?

sara.ziegler: Hahaha

neil: OMG, I thought the same exact thing!

Salfino: Can you do that in one week though?

neil: Well, two weeks. They had a Week 10 bye.

sara.ziegler:

Salfino: The Eagles and Patriots were so tough to watch just a couple of years off their electric Super Bowl. Neither team has any explosion. They’re like bantamweights with no knockout punch, just jabbing away and trying to score points with the judges. Incapable of throwing a haymaker unless, for New England, it’s a trick play.

And you can say the same thing about the Bears and Rams, too.

joshua.hermsmeyer: Trubisky also had a higher QBR than Tom Brady. And Trubisky may have been benched.

sara.ziegler: Oof

Salfino: Brady is looking every bit of 42 years old this year: 6.8 yards per attempt. 3.5 percent touchdown rate.

neil: It remains very odd to see the Pats be a defense-first team with a middling offense.

Salfino: You could see in the postgame presser how defeated Brady was. He knows the circus is leaving town.

neil: If we do get a Pats-Ravens playoff matchup, the Pats will be the defensive juggernaut and the Ravens will be the offensive machine. Talk about a role reversal from the past decade or so.

(But that’s looking way too far ahead down the road, I know.)

Salfino: This is like the 2003 Patriots. Their defense seems to know the plays the offense is running better than the offense.

sara.ziegler: If it wins them a Super Bowl, like it did then, I doubt Brady will mind.

But what about the Eagles? What’s their prognosis for the playoffs?

neil: They’re still in it, at least according to our odds. We give them a 47 percent chance to make the playoffs.

But almost all of that is tied up in winning the division. They’ll get one more crack at Dallas, and we still think they’re favored in each remaining game.

The Eagles will get plenty more chances to win

Opposing Elo ratings and win probabilities for the Philadelphia Eagles’ remaining 2019 schedule

Opponent
Date Team Starting QB Elo Rating Eagles’ Win Prob.
Nov. 24 vs. SEA Russell Wilson 1589 51.3%
Dec. 1 at MIA Ryan Fitzpatrick 1338 71.6
Dec. 9 vs. NYG Daniel Jones 1320 84.4
Dec. 15 at WSH Dwayne Haskins 1265 79.7
Dec. 22 vs. DAL Dak Prescott 1587 54.5
Dec. 29 at NYG Daniel Jones 1320 74.1

Salfino: I can’t believe how we just can’t quit the Eagles — how they stay around somehow. It’s just that division is still in play. The two wild-card teams seem set, so it’s weird that they’re trying to get in through the front door.

Plus, Dallas has to go to New England in Week 12.

neil: The wild cards are usually harder to win than the weakest division, though, right? Elo thinks the East is weakest, in terms of the conference’s top teams.

The NFC East usually feels like this, I think. Last year, it only took 10 wins to take the title. (Or maybe I am just also thinking back to the year Washington won it at 9-7.)

Salfino: I actually think the Cowboys are much better than the Eagles. There is no weakness that I can identify with them, yet they almost lost to Jeff Driskel, who looked like Doug Flutie out there. Maybe it was the jersey number.

joshua.hermsmeyer: The Eagles secondary was held up as a huge problem for a large part of the year, but it seems they might have found a plan that works. They have played mostly man coverage the past three games, holding opponents to just 3.4 passing yards per attempt out of those looks.

Salfino: That’s shocking because I thought the Eagles secondary was hopeless. Unfortunately, their offense hasn’t averaged much more per pass in this period, either.

neil: They’re just a deeply average team. After adjusting for strength of schedule, their worst area in expected points added vs. average per game is special teams at -0.4, and their best is penalties at +1.6. Everything else is in between.

Where each NFL team picks up (or loses) its value

Expected points added (EPA) per game vs. league average by category for 2019 NFL teams

Offense Defense Other
Team Pass Rush Pass Rush Sp Tms Pen Total
1 NE +0.5 -1.2 +14.0 +0.9 +0.1 +0.8 +15.3
2 BAL +5.8 +5.8 +3.7 -1.8 -0.1 -0.3 +13.0
3 SF +0.8 -1.5 +10.4 +0.5 -0.3 +0.8 +11.0
4 KC +8.6 -1.1 +3.0 -2.3 -1.4 +0.2 +7.1
5 MIN +4.1 +2.0 +1.3 +1.8 -1.0 -1.8 +6.9
6 GB +5.1 +0.3 +2.4 -2.6 -0.1 +1.4 +6.2
7 DAL +7.0 +2.7 -0.8 -1.4 -1.7 -1.0 +5.2
8 LAR +1.7 -1.7 +0.9 +1.9 +1.6 +0.0 +4.1
9 NO +1.7 +1.0 +2.7 +1.5 -1.1 -2.2 +3.8
10 SEA +4.6 -1.3 -0.1 -0.6 +0.9 -1.0 +2.8
11 HOU +4.0 +1.1 -1.6 +0.6 -1.6 +0.2 +2.6
12 PIT -3.5 -4.2 +2.8 +4.3 +1.3 +1.4 +2.4
13 PHI +0.5 -0.1 +0.1 +0.3 -0.4 +1.6 +2.0
14 CLE +0.0 +0.3 +2.4 -1.6 +1.4 -1.4 +1.1
15 IND -2.4 +2.4 +1.1 -0.6 -2.4 +1.4 +0.0
16 TEN -0.6 -1.6 +0.3 +3.2 -1.5 +0.1 -0.2
17 CHI -4.7 -2.7 +4.4 +2.2 +0.4 +0.2 -0.3
18 LAC +0.9 -1.1 -2.7 -1.1 +2.3 +1.7 -0.4
19 DEN -4.9 +0.8 +2.5 +0.4 -0.6 +0.8 -1.6
20 DET +3.4 -2.4 -1.8 -1.6 +2.7 -2.3 -2.0
21 BUF -2.9 +1.9 -0.3 -2.3 +2.1 -0.2 -2.2
22 OAK +4.2 +0.3 -4.0 -1.1 -0.3 -1.5 -2.5
23 CAR -6.5 +0.5 +5.2 -3.4 +0.8 +0.7 -2.8
24 TB -0.3 +1.2 -4.0 +2.5 -1.8 -0.9 -3.0
25 ATL +3.9 +0.4 -6.5 +0.8 -2.2 +0.9 -3.1
26 JAC -2.0 -1.0 +0.1 -2.0 +0.5 -0.9 -5.2
27 ARI +0.1 +2.6 -7.7 -0.1 -0.3 -0.4 -5.6
28 NYG -6.1 +0.9 -3.5 +1.6 -0.4 -0.9 -8.1
29 NYJ -6.5 -2.0 -3.5 +3.2 +0.0 -1.0 -9.7
30 CIN -6.3 +0.1 -6.0 -1.5 +2.2 +1.8 -9.8
31 WSH -4.4 -1.4 -6.3 -0.3 +0.0 +0.2 -12.2
32 MIA -6.5 -1.7 -7.9 -1.6 +1.2 +1.7 -15.0

Source: ESPN Stats & Information Group

sara.ziegler: So aside from Philadelphia’s chance to win the East, the other wild-card hopefuls need either Seattle or Minnesota to falter … and though the Vikings really seemed to want to lose on Sunday, they pulled it out.

neil: Gosh, did they ever wanna lose. They had Mike tweeting about it and everything!

sara.ziegler: That tweet was something else.

Salfino: Sara has to be totally on board now after that show of guts and resiliency, when they became the first team in 100 games to come back from a 20-plus-point halftime deficit.

joshua.hermsmeyer: As bad a first half as Cousins had, his second half was just lights-out amazing.

Salfino: I did feel really bad for mocking Sara’s sense of jinxing only to see it bloom so fantastically and unexpectedly in the first half against a Broncos team that most weeks can’t score 20 points in an entire game.

sara.ziegler: You should always feel bad for mocking me!!!

Salfino: Cousins went from Captain Checkdown in the first half to gunslinger. It’s like he said, “Screw it.”

sara.ziegler: But WHY can he not just always play like that?

And why does this team always seem to play to the level of competition it’s facing?

joshua.hermsmeyer: It’s mysterious.

sara.ziegler: It kills me.

neil: He’s kinda always playing like that now! Cousins has had seven straight above-average starts, according to QB Elo.

Salfino: My sense of narrative is that he went into the game thinking, “Just don’t lose this with stupid plays.” And then he found himself in a position where he had to win it.

joshua.hermsmeyer: I think that’s as good an explanation as any, Mike.

Salfino: Cousins can find tight windows with the best of them when he just lets it rip. And he’s generally been doing that.

sara.ziegler: Well, despite that first half, they seem to be in good shape now, with a 91 percent chance of making the playoffs, according to our model.

neil: Have you finally accepted that they are a contender?

sara.ziegler: Of course, the moment I believe in them, they will completely fall apart.

neil: Oh LOL.

sara.ziegler: No

joshua.hermsmeyer: Amazing

sara.ziegler: Well, sort of.

Salfino: Careful, Sara.

sara.ziegler: Contender for the playoffs? Sure.

Contender to win it all? LOL, of course not.

neil: Seven percent, Sara!

sara.ziegler: Stop it.

neil: There’s a chance!

That’s only 2 percentage points behind the 49ers.

joshua.hermsmeyer: 👀

neil: 🤯

Salfino: What is Minnesota’s chance to win the division, Neil, as I predict it will?

neil: 37 percent.

Packers still favored there. Which makes the fact that Green Bay and Minnesota have the same Super Bowl odds even more impressive.

sara.ziegler: The Vikings won’t win the division. Don’t forget that they’ll lose inexplicably to the Bears to end the regular season, as they do.

The other NFC team that was in playoff contention going into the weekend was the Carolina Panthers. And now … they’re not.

neil: Oooof

Salfino: So much for Cam Newton not being needed in Carolina.

neil: Kyle Allen is bad, and we’ve been saying that for a while.

joshua.hermsmeyer: I’ve seldom seen a QB turn into a pumpkin quite as quickly as Kyle Allen.

I recall that early in the season (first four games), there were comparisons to Cam that looked good for him.

Salfino: Maybe to the Cam who’s been hurt since about last October.

neil: Sad thing is, the Panthers have the seventh-best QB-neutral Elo (Elo if the starter is replaced with an average one), and their defense is fifth-best at holding opposing QBs below expectations.

The supporting cast can only do so much, though.

Salfino: At least we won’t have to hear “a running back should be MVP” talk.

neil: Haha

joshua.hermsmeyer: I really want to see what Will Grier can do. He was an analytics darling coming into the draft.

Of course, it’s not great that he couldn’t beat out Kyle Allen, so.

sara.ziegler: LOL

joshua.hermsmeyer: My God, Allen had a 4.5 QBR.

Salfino: The Falcons defense has been a revelation since Dan Quinn let go of some of the play-calling, and it raises questions about the power of coaching, generally. Fine, Sunday’s game was against Kyle Allen — but they crushed Drew Brees, too.

neil: The Falcons have had one of the all-time head-scratching seasons. Their Elo rating (1499) is now basically that of an average team.

And Matt Ryan is the fifth-best QB in the league.

sara.ziegler: The Vikings’ season-opening win over Atlanta looks better and better! 🤣

Let’s move on to the AFC, where there’s a lot less clarity. Five teams are within two wins for the wild-card spots.

Who do we like to make the playoffs there?

Salfino: Well, look at where Neil’s EPA table has the Raiders.

neil: And yet, Elo gives them a 41 percent chance to make the playoffs! It also gives Pittsburgh and Cleveland above 20 percent apiece.

Salfino: And Oakland is the team that everyone is sort of excited about now, even giving them a chance to win the division. (I can’t remotely see that, but the records are what they are.)

neil: Jon Gruden even gave Da Raidah fans the Gruden seal of approval. (“They’re nuts. They’re the closest thing to me that I’ve ever seen.”)

Salfino: I noticed that the Raiders are No. 2 in pass success rate. This shocks me: Oakland is that good in a stat so important, but so bad everywhere else that Elo hates them, basically.

sara.ziegler: Fascinating that Oakland’s Elo is only 1484 — worse than Atlanta!

neil: Derek Carr is secretly not bad.

Salfino: Now they go into East Rutherford for another 1 p.m. local time game against a Jets defense that’s somehow third in defensive play success, including 10th against the pass.

This is obviously a must-win for the Raiders, but I don’t think they get it.

sara.ziegler: You’re taking the Jets??

neil: Elo is on board too: 51 percent for the Jets.

Salfino: Yes. I just don’t believe in the Raiders defense at all.

sara.ziegler: But you do believe in Sam Darnold, obviously.

Salfino: I need to see a lot more out of Darnold, who keeps making frustrating mistakes. Maybe he was sick longer than we thought and still is feeling a little out of it. But as a Jets fan, when he extends plays, I don’t want to hold my breath that he’s going to make a mistake. The great QBs in those spots only throw the ball in the field of play when a guy is open. Otherwise, they’ll loft it out of bounds, since that’s legal.

So Sunday will be a nice test for him.

sara.ziegler: Who else in the AFC do we like?

neil: The Bills continue to look … *squints eyes* … goooood??

Great game by Josh Allen this week.

joshua.hermsmeyer: Josh Allen beat up on a bad defense. You like to see that.

Salfino: I can’t take the Titans seriously at all. The Steelers crashed back to earth and Mason Rudolph is bad and they are punished by him not being suspended. I can believe in the Bills, honestly. They are feisty.

The Bills are the poor man’s Ravens.

joshua.hermsmeyer: I think that’s actually a really good comp, Mike.

neil: That … actually kind of makes sense.

LOL, yeah.

sara.ziegler: Not the worst place to be!

neil: And hey, shoutout to Jacoby Brissett for stabilizing the Colts’ season with a win. We now have Indy at 54 percent playoff odds.

I was wrong when I speculated that they were toast without Andrew Luck. Go, Jacoby.

Salfino: We have to say something about the absurd unsuccessful challenge for defensive pass interference in the Ravens-Texans game. That was an absolutely conclusive mugging in the end zone on fourth down that would have probably resulted in a 7-0 Texans lead. Replay, I keep saying, is a false promise of justice and should be ended.

neil: Yeah, that no-call was ridiculous.

sara.ziegler: But regardless of that call, the Texans were a big disappointment on Sunday.

neil: Oh, man. So much for the Deshaun Watson vs. Lamar Jackson hype. Lamar flat-out owned that game.

I did some research, and this was one of the most one-sided elite QB duels of all time.

The most one-sided premium QB duels since 1950

The widest margins in game performance for quarterback matchups where both starting QBs had pregame QB Elo ratings of at least 70 points above average, 1950-2019

Better QB Worse QB
Date Name Team Elo* Name Team Elo* Margin
12/5/2004 D. McNabb PHI +335 B. Favre GB -214 +549
11/17/2019 L. Jackson BAL +245 D. Watson HOU -245 +490
1/14/1990 J. Montana SF +275 J. Everett LAR -202 +477
11/24/1986 D. Marino MIA +350 K. O’Brien NYJ -94 +444
1/20/1985 J. Montana SF +423 D. Marino MIA +7 +416
11/29/2007 T. Romo DAL +225 B. Favre GB -191 +416
12/18/2006 P. Manning IND +302 C. Palmer CIN -108 +410
1/1/2012 D. Brees NO +354 C. Newton CAR -55 +410
11/30/2009 D. Brees NO +353 T. Brady NE -50 +403
1/9/2005 D. Culpepper MIN +221 B. Favre GB -162 +383
1/4/2003 C. Pennington NYJ +144 P. Manning IND -190 +334
9/27/2009 P. Manning IND +261 K. Warner ARI -57 +319
1/17/2010 B. Favre MIN +129 T. Romo DAL -189 +318
1/8/1984 J. Montana SF +297 J. Theismann WSH -2 +299
12/21/2014 M. Ryan ATL +180 D. Brees NO -116 +296

*Game Elo is the QB’s Elo performance (relative to an average starter) in the game.

Source: Pro-Football-Reference.com

The only one more brutal was Donovan McNabb owning Brett Favre.

Salfino: That was one of the more embarrassing head coaching displays I can ever remember. Watson reverted to all of his bad habits, holding the ball too long and getting hit on a ton of plays, in addition to the repeated sacks. Bill O’Brien really holds this team back — and especially this offense.

I’d way rather play the Texans coached by O’Brien in the playoffs than the Bills.

joshua.hermsmeyer: I remember that Joe Montana vs. Jim Everett game in 1990. This didn’t quite feel like that for some reason.

neil: That was a playoff game — the NFC championship. Watson had better hope he shows up more if the Texans and Ravens end up facing off again in the playoffs!

Salfino: I was at that Chad Pennington-Peyton Manning game. Pennington would probably be on his way to the Hall of Fame if he hadn’t ripped up his shoulder. He was great, but then it ended, savagely.

joshua.hermsmeyer: I’m reeling from the Pennington HOF talk.

Salfino: Deal with it!

neil: I agree, Mike.

Haha

joshua.hermsmeyer: Incredible.

neil: He had a 40.6 percent Defense-adjusted Value Over Average rating in 2002!

Salfino: The only guy to win a division from Brady (before and after his shoulder was destroyed) — and he did it twice, with different teams.

sara.ziegler: Wow, I was not expecting to talk about Chad Pennington at all today, much less make a case for the Hall of Fame for him.

Salfino: It’s a hypothetical, noninjury, multiverse case, to be clear.

neil: LOL

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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