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Will Wild-Card Weekend Give Us The Upsets We Crave?

maya (Maya Sweedler, editor):  After 18 weeks of football — of thrilling comebacks, electric plays, baffling coaching decisions and disappointing quarterbacking (and all this just from the Minnesota Vikings!) — the 2022 NFL regular season has come to an end, and we’re staring ahead at three days of wild-card play next weekend.

The playoff matchups are set, and we’re pretty excited about a lot of them. But let’s take a beat to talk about Week 18 and how we got here before we turn to the playoffs and the season as a whole.

There were three spots up for grabs entering Week 18, the AFC South title and the final wild-card spots in both conferences. So firstly, congrats to the Jacksonville Jaguars, Seattle Seahawks and Miami Dolphins for making it at least one more week into January. Jacksonville was 3-7 going into its bye, but finished the season 6-1. Other than Trevor Lawrence’s sophomore leap and, uh, ditching the guy from Ohio State, what explains this team’s jump?

joshua.hermsmeyer (Josh Hermsmeyer, NFL analyst): I think the Jags just played great team football this season. They ended the year with an underrated defense — above league average by expected points added. That and the steadying influence of first-year head coach Doug Pederson stand out to me.

neil (Neil Paine, acting sports editor): Yeah Josh, they improved from 28th in points allowed to 12th.

The offensive improvement under Lawrence in his second year (32nd to 10th) was more dramatic, but the defense should get credit for the turnaround, too.

dre.waters (Andres Waters, FiveThirtyEight contributor): Pederson’s impact on the team has been huge; like Maya said, they started slow but once they got into rhythm they really did look like the best team in their division.

neil: And it helped that the Titans slid into oblivion in the second half of the season.

dre.waters: I think it’s also really impressive that with the same core from last season, the Jags also look like a team that could get even better on offense going forward. The addition of Calvin Ridley around the trade deadline could really elevate the offense next season.

neil: And I know we always have to temper our enthusiasm about RBs, but Travis Etienne’s delayed debut in the NFL was exciting — he had over 1,400 yards from scrimmage. Loved seeing that Clemson connection with him and Lawrence carry over in the pros.

joshua.hermsmeyer: I will say I was disappointed in Lawrence’s play in his biggest game yet as a pro, though; 212 yards and a 43.5 Total QBR won’t get it done in the playoffs.

neil: That’s true. Just when hope was fading, the Jags offense was bailed out by Josh Allen on that not-an-incomplete-pass-at-all fumble return TD. But I’m not sure you can count on that kind of thing to save you again.

dre.waters: Don’t they say you need a little bit of luck as well?

joshua.hermsmeyer: That or a guy named Josh Allen.

neil: Any Josh Allen will do!

joshua.hermsmeyer: Anyone taking the Bolts over the Jags? DraftKings Sportsbook had the Los Angeles Chargers as 1.5-point favorites (they are now 1-point favorites). I think that’s preposterous.

neil: So Josh, I take it you think the Jags should be favored? FWIW, our model has that as the closest of the wild-card games, at 59-41 for Jax.

maya: I’m a big believer in momentum, and the Jags got it!

neil: They also have home field.

dre.waters: And they’re not cursed.

joshua.hermsmeyer: Yep, I don’t think the Chargers are ~3 points better than the Jags. Chargers coach Brandon Staley played his starters in a meaningless game and wide receiver Mike Williams injured his back so severely he needed to be helped onto the team bus after the 31-28 loss to the Denver Broncos yesterday. Seems like a bit of a clown show to me.

neil: (Anytime the phrase “loss to the Denver Broncos” is used in 2022, that qualifies as a clown show.)

maya: No, in all seriousness, I think this a pretty good matchup. I’m willing to throw out the Jags’ 28-point win earlier this season, as it came around the high point of the Chargers’ injury woes, but even so, I would take this Jacksonville offense against the admittedly impressive Los Angeles defense. I think Etienne is juuuuust enough of a threat on the ground to make the Jaguars unpredictable.

neil: In a world where both of the other AFC wild-card games will very possibly feature backup QBs, I’m also excited for the Lawrence-Herbert matchup. Herbert’s numbers were down a bit from a year ago, but it’s still a battle of two stellar young passers, each under age 25.

maya: Both have great potential! Only one can win! Neither can rent a car!

joshua.hermsmeyer: Lamar will start, Neil! (I hope.)

neil: I’ll believe it when I see it.

dre.waters: Ughhhhhhhhhhhhh. I don’t even want to begin to think about Lamar not starting this playoff game.

maya: Speaking of clown shows, let’s talk about the NFC North. With Seattle’s win, there were two notable teams left on the outside looking in. Despite their valiant efforts (the Lions to pull the season together, the Packers to maybe tank theirs), Detroit and Green Bay will not be in the playoffs. Is this the last we’ve seen of Aaron Rodgers in green and yellow?

neil: Sure seemed that way when Rodgers and Randall Cobb walked off the field together at Lambeau last night.

joshua.hermsmeyer: I’m not sure about him returning to Green Bay, but I think there’s almost no chance Rodgers retires. You’re telling me the quarterback with the lowest interception rate in NFL history‘s last NFL play was an interception? Skip me with that. Rodgers cares too much about his stats and his legacy.

maya: He’s tried to force a trade out of Green Bay before — what’s to stop him attempting it again?

I can think of a few down-on-their luck teams with quarterback drama who might want to trade for Rodgers to get fans in the seats. (Cough, Vegas, cough.)

joshua.hermsmeyer: Or Houston. Or Detroit.

neil: Detroit? Goff was the best QB on the field last night.

(Sort of kidding, sort of not … Who knows anymore with either of those guys.) 

dre.waters: Now Houston officially has the second overall pick to put on the table in any offer as well. 

maya: There were a couple of truly funny moments this season, but I gotta say, the Texans converting multiple fourth-and-10-plus plays to win a game they needed to lose in order to snag the first overall pick is up there for me.

Wish it didn’t cost Lovie Smith his job, but here’s hoping he lands on his feet with a less snakebitten franchise.

joshua.hermsmeyer: Houston fired the wrong guy, first of all. GM Nick Caserio deserves more of the blame here than Lovie. And second, God bless Smith for winning that last game on his way out the door. Absolute legend.

maya: Lovie Smith has been a legend since ’06. Anyone who takes Rex Grossman to the Super Bowl is an absolute champion in my book.

neil: There needs to be a better way than setting up a situation where a fan base gets (rightly?) outraged at the team — and the coach gets fired — for winning a game and therefore losing draft position. I know many have pondered the problem of tanking, with few (if any) solutions. But something like yesterday really makes the whole process stand out as absurd.

If it’s any consolation to the Texans — given how much of a crapshoot highly touted QBs are — it’s anybody’s guess whether Bryce Young will actually be worth that pick they lost anyway.

joshua.hermsmeyer: Agreed 100 percent about our inability to project QB play, Neil. And given the way they treated Smith, I kind of hope the Texans lose their QB bet this year.

dre.waters: Agreed, Josh. It really felt like when they hired Lovie there wasn’t much intention to keep him long term, given all the reports about their interest in Josh McCown.

maya: But to bring it back to Detroit — is this team one that can win with Jared Goff, or should they start looking for a new signal-caller?

Honestly, given how young this roster is and how solid Goff has looked, I’m inclined to give him another year or two. The problem with this team was its defense, but based on the play of its rookies, I think the Lions have some real talent in the pipeline.

joshua.hermsmeyer: The Lions’ future is so hard to forecast.  I think the answer comes down to the Lions defense. Detroit was second to last in defensive EPA this year, while its offense ranked third. It’s a good bet the offense takes a step back next season — it’s hard to maintain that level of play without an elite QB. And while Goff is underrated, he’s not in Mahomes-and-Allen territory, so the defense will have to make up the difference. That’s a tough ask. It’s hard to rely on defense in general, and from Week 10 on the Lions didn’t improve much (28th-ranked defense by EPA).

neil: But really, it wasn’t Goff’s fault they missed the playoffs. Their offense ranked fifth in scoring!

Goff was fifth in QBR!

Maybe he is actually an elite QB? 

maya: LOL OK Neil.

dre.waters: Elite is a stretch LOL.

neil: What even is an elite QB, after this season?

Goff, Geno Smith, Daniel Jones and Jacoby Brissett were all top 10 in QBR this season. 

maya: (I will note that at one point, when we looked at NFL quarterbacks with the same alma mater, Goff and Rodgers had Cal up there at No. 3 in terms of average of Total QBR, behind No. 1 Alabama’s Jalen Hurts and Tua Tagovailoa.)

neil: All I’m saying is that we always talk about teams not being able to win without elite QB play. But when you look at QBs who were elite this season, it’s not at all who we would have predicted before the season. So what do we really know about whether a team will or won’t have elite QB play?

It felt like a paradigm-shifting season in that regard. 

maya: What a great segue into the Seahawks!

We’ve been pretty pro-Geno here this season, so I’d be remiss if I didn’t offer this fun factoid:

neil: That’s pretty hilarious, even granting that a lot of these single-season records are getting broken due to the 17-game schedule.

maya: Shh, Neil, don’t ruin it.

neil: 🤐

joshua.hermsmeyer: Do Seattle fans even remember Russell Wilson?

maya: Geno finished the 2022 season as the most accurate qualified passer in the league! That’s not nothing. The Seahawks probably wish they had drawn anyone other than the division-rival 49ers — who beat them twice in the regular season — in the wild-card round, but who other than Geno (and maybe Jalen Hurts) can give this rangy Niners secondary a run for their money?

joshua.hermsmeyer: I really want to root for Geno, but there are some other factors at play here. First, while his rise from the ashes is a great story, it’s not better than Brock Purdy doing what he’s done as a rookie and entering the league as the last pick in the draft.

Second, always pay your gambling debts!

dre.waters: I think you’re right, Josh. Purdy has definitely been the biggest surprise of the season. Even with a third-string QB, the 49ers still have the second-best odds to make it to the NFC championship game and fourth-best odds to make it to the Super Bowl, according to our model.

That’s wild.

neil: It hasn’t been a drop-off from Jimmy G to Purdy at all. If anything, Purdy has the better numbers in many categories.

maya: Here goes nothing …*

* my attempt to trigger the “defend Jimmy G” portion of the chat

… but the Niners have proved they can advance to the NFC championship game with a second-rate quarterback. I’m not yet sure if Purdy is that (small sample size caveats!), but I wouldn’t be so surprised if they did it again.

neil: They’re averaging 33.6 points per game since Purdy became starter. Under Garoppolo, it was just 24.5.

joshua.hermsmeyer: Jimmy G remains handsome even when injured. That’s all I got.

neil: Handsomeness never slumps.

maya: To play devil’s advocate here, though, Purdy starting coincided with the integration of Christian McCaffrey into the offense. There’s a lot going in this team’s favor is all I’m sayin’!

neil: That’s fair, Maya. But when we’re talking about the Niners’ potential this year (as opposed to Purdy’s in the long term), it doesn’t really matter who’s driving the bus as long as that bus is going very fast.

(What a weird bus metaphor I made there at the end.)

maya: The Niners are a Tesla on autopilot. Clear 101.

joshua.hermsmeyer: I’m picturing Sanda Bullock and Keanu Reeves on an L.A. interstate right now.

maya: The Niners-Seahawks game is one of three intradivisional wild-card grudge matches we have on the docket next weekend. Are there any matchups you guys are particularly looking forward to?

joshua.hermsmeyer: Dallas at Tampa Bay looks to be a close game. For some reason I’m not actually very excited to watch either team, though. I feel like it’s a competition to see who will lose the following week.

neil: Same, Josh. And that’s the Monday night game!

maya: I will absolutely watch if it’s a ManningCast. If not …

But yeah, Josh, I feel similarly. I’m definitely looking forward more to the AFC 4-versus-5 matchup, which we’ve already discussed.

dre.waters: Fandom aside, I’m interested in Ravens-Bengals but not for the game, just to see if Lamar plays or not. If he doesn’t, I think the QB carousel in the offseason could get crazy 

joshua.hermsmeyer: Andres, as a fellow Ravens fan — it’s time for Greg Roman to go, right?

maya: Oh wow, Dre, are you saying you think Jackson is outie after this season, depending on whether he plays?

dre.waters: Roman has to go. No exceptions

And Maya, if he doesn’t play this weekend, I could definitely see Baltimore listening to offers. Because they clearly don’t want to pay the man

joshua.hermsmeyer: The worst thing for everyone is to limp along on franchise tags with Lamar. I hope they either commit or set him free.

neil: He’s such a fascinating case. I know there are better stats than QB Winz, but just for illustration purposes: Jackson is one of just three active QBs (along with Tom Brady and Patrick Mahomes) to win 70 percent of his career starts, including playoffs. Clearly, when he plays, he is a huge difference-maker. But availability has not been his greatest ability over the past few years.

maya: Yeah, and I think that becomes a self-defeating cycle. I think he’s very much a victim of the biases against running quarterbacks and fears around their longevity.

There are two more playoff games we’ve left unmentioned thus far — Giants at Vikings on the NFC side and Dolphins at Bills on the AFC. Anyone see a potential upset in either of those?

joshua.hermsmeyer: The Dolphins are such a massive underdog (-11) it can’t be them — even if Tua plays.

neil: Just so we’re clear — would it be an upset if the Vikings beat the Giants or if the Giants beat the Vikings?

I can’t tell which.

Kidding aside, this will be the fourth playoff game featuring two teams who had negative regular-season point differentials, joining Minnesota vs Atlanta in 1982, Pittsburgh-Houston in 1989 and Seattle vs St. Louis in 2004. Fun!

joshua.hermsmeyer: I’ll go with my preseason pick for “Guy who could turn out to be above average” and take Daniel Jones and the G-men for the upset. Why not? Both these teams are exceedingly mediocre.

maya: That piece was so prescient that I now go to Josh for stock tips.

Let’s wrap up this week with everyone’s favorite activity — writing down award predictions that will shortly be proved false! I’d like your votes for MVP, Offensive Player of the Year, Defensive Player of the Year and Coach of the Year as well as the last four teams standing. And prepare to defend any sus picks (I have a few).

dre.waters: MVP: Patrick Mahomes

Offensive Player of the Year: Geno Smith

Defensive Player of the Year: Micah Parsons

Coach of the Year: Pete Carroll

maya: MVP: Patrick Mahomes (but if he didn’t miss those games at the end of the season, I absolutely would’ve cast my vote for Jalen Hurts)

OPOY: Justin Jefferson

DPOY: Quinnen Williams (even though my gut says it’ll probably go to Nick Bosa)

COY: Brian Daboll (I etched this in stone after he went for two in Week 1 and can’t change it, sorry!)

joshua.hermsmeyer: MVP: Mahomes

OPOY: Mahomes

DPOY: Bosa

Comeback Player of the Year: Geno

COY: Doug Pederson

neil: MVP: Patrick Mahomes (💤 )

OPOY: Christian McCaffrey!

DPOY: Micah Parsons

Coach of the Year: Doug Pederson

maya: And now your final four teams, please!

dre.waters: NFC: Niners vs. Eagles

AFC: Chiefs vs. Bills

(I tried to go with a team that’s not a favorite, but I just don’t see it happening this year.)

joshua.hermsmeyer: NFC: Niners vs. Eagles

AFC: Chiefs vs. Bills in the Real Super Bowl

maya: NFC: Vikings vs. Niners (I’m leaning into whatever witchcraft is going on in U.S. Bank Stadium and no one, not even beloved former sports editor Sara Ziegler, can talk me out of this)

AFC: Chiefs vs. Bills (we deserve this)

neil: NFC: Niners vs. Eagles (💤), Niners win.

AFC: Chiefs vs. Bills (location, uh, TBD?), Bills finally get it.

I couldn’t pull the trigger on the Cowboys actually making the NFC title game.

dre.waters: Because they won’t LMAO.

neil: LOLOL

And I agree, Andres, about it being tough to find underdogs who feel like they have a shot this year. 

These conferences are really top-heavy.

joshua.hermsmeyer: Before we go, I also need a prediction on whether Sean McVay leaves the sunny shores of L.A. or not.

maya: I’m gonna say no, he returns for one more year and leaves with Matthew Stafford after a fairly ignominious season just under .500.

joshua.hermsmeyer: I like the cut of your jib, Maya.

neil: I kind of want to say yes? It’s the time-worn path of:

  • Win with a team that sells out its future
  • See how bleak things will be afterward
  • Go do TV for a year or two
  • Latch on with a different team who has a better future

joshua.hermsmeyer: How do you leave L.A., though? For what, Houston? Yuck.

dre.waters: I doubt he leaves after this season but I agree with Neil and Maya — definitely feels like he’ll be out of there soon.

maya: Maybe Vegas!

neil: Post-Belichick Patriots 👀

 (Honestly not sure that’s any better, LOL)

joshua.hermsmeyer: The one benefit of heading to New England is that you can pull up tapes of all your old practices before games against your previous team.

neil: Bahahahaha.

That’s the winner.

A programming note — we will be back with our wild-card coverage on Tuesday, Jan. 17.

Check out our latest NFL predictions.

Maya Sweedler is a senior editor at FiveThirtyEight.

Josh Hermsmeyer was a football writer and analyst.

Neil Paine was the acting sports editor at FiveThirtyEight.

Andres Waters is a freelance writer based in Connecticut. He is a data analyst at ESPN.


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