What is going on in the NFL right now? Both New York teams have winning records, Geno Smith is performing like a true MVP candidate, Cooper Rush is 4-0 as a starter, and the Rams rank in the bottom-five in scoring; of course, just as we all would have predicted. Certainly, there was zero controversy created by questionable penalties, right? Right?
Welcome, everybody! Every week for the NFL season, we’ll be going over every matchup, analyzing storylines, key matchups, and, most importantly, making predictions. To help with this, having a strong foundation is paramount. Thus, using previous research on what facets of play, as measured by Pro Football Focus, leads to NFL wins, as well the effect of each offensive/defensive play-caller, I was able to create a statistical projection model that has been a feature on this site before. By factoring in each team’s projected PFF grades in each significant area based on their personnel, and than using a multi-variable formula to project a unit’s expected points added per play, and, thus, their points per game/points allowed per game, we can then project their expected point differential. Essentially, all of this can be leveraged to predict the winner of every NFL game, the margin of victory, what the actual betting line (spread+total) for each game should be, and much more!
As helpful as the model can be, though, something I’ve come to learn is the significance of added context upon it. In 2020, for instance, we perhaps leaned too much on the statistical projections at the expense on how each teams matched up against each other, losing significant predictive power. At the end of the day, it’s up to us to use all information at hand to make the most calculated decision, so cutting out any source of information puts us at a disadvantage. How else would you know that nobody came to a quarterback’s birthday party.
Kidding, of course- consider that part from Draft Day one that has always puzzled me. Regardless, whether you have a vetted interest in the game as fan of a specific team, are a sports better, or just a fan of football, there is nothing more fun than going through every game to find any sort of edge in terms of predictive power. Having betting lines give us a strong foundation for an expectation of the game, but nobody’s perfect, and you never know when the upset of the world (see Jets over Rams 2020) is going to happen.
Last week, we saw 11 of the 16 games decided by one score or less, with underdogs covering the spread in 10 of those games. That’s a great sign for the overall parity in the NFL, and another clear illustration of the lack of “elite teams” in the NFL this season. Outside of a very select few teams, it’s anyone’s guess as to how things ultimately shape out, which, of course, just adds to the fun of this.
Stats via Pro Football Focus, 33rd Team, and rbsdm.com
Before we start, let’s go over a few key points of data that can help us shine a light on prior weeks in other to forecast future events. Let’s start with the most important position in all of sports- the quarterback. We recently delved into a method to project quarterback production, measured by adjusted expected points added per play (adjusted EPA/play), using several key peripheral metrics, and although this is more meant to project a full season output, there is great benefit of monitoring the performance of the players that almost entirely dictate the outcome of an individual game:
CPOE: Completion Percentage Over Expectation
BTT%: Big-Time Throw Rate
TWP: Turnover-Worthy Play Rate
Think of these as quarterback composite ratings for how they’ve performed, rather than an actual ranking of how they’ll do moving forward. Regardless, knowing which quarterbacks may have over/underperformed based on the overall data is significantly important for analysis sake, and allows us to paint a better picture.
So does knowing which team’s success is the most sustainable. Turnover luck is an easy way to measure this, but there is another underrated facet. See, third-down performance has been found to be much more unstable compared to production on early downs, yet success on third downs make a major difference in an individual game’s production. Alas, when projecting for the future, we want to focusing on how teams are performing in more stable areas of play:
Performance in specific situations is measured by EPA/play, and then converted to a percentile ranking. A positive difference on offense or defense means the team was better on early downs than third downs, and, thus, could be in line for positive regression, while the opposite is true vice versa. From there, the offensive and defensive ratings are combined for an aggregate ranking; the chart is sorted by the overall amount of positive regression a team can expect based on their production on early downs compared to that on third downs.
At this point of the season, production on early downs versus late downs are starting to stabilize. At the same time, offenses such as the Bengals, Rams, and 49ers all have been far too inefficient on early downs, and the same goes on the defensive side of the ball for the Titans, Giants, Packers, and Colts. On the other hand, the Packers’ lack of success on third downs is very interesting considering their issues in terms of playmakers, and I’d bank on the defenses of the Rams, Jets, Eagles, and Jaguars performing better as the season goes on. We’ve already seen some teams (Commanders) face the consequences of relying too much on third-down variance so far, so we’ll see where the pendulum swings in the upcoming weeks.
Now, onto the previews!
Washington Commanders (1-4) at Chicago Bears (2-3)
Spread: CHI (-1)
- Projected Spread: CHI (+4.5)
- My Pick: WSH (+3.5)
- Projected Total: 41.39
- My Pick: Over
- WSH: 63.61%
- CHI: 36.39%
Projected Margin of Victory: Commanders by 4.93
Score Prediction: Commanders 24 Bears 19
- Can Justin Fields Build Off Of An Impressive Performance?
- Has Washington’s Defense Turned a Corner?
- When Will Terry McLaurin Reach His Peak Potential In Terms of Production?
Since last week’s Thursday Night Football game between the Colts and Broncos was filled with an extensive amount of entertainment that beguiled the football world, isn’t it fitting that we witness a preview of the NFC Championship? Kidding, of course, but there is still plenty to be interested about in this game if you look hard enough. Hey, the Bears are wearing alternate jerseys, so there’s that!
Really, it’s astonishing that these two teams have performed as comparably as they have, considering a much different approach coming into this year. In fact, it’s remarkable that the Bears, who came into this offseason ready to undergo a notable rebuild with a new regime in place and are spending the least amount of money on their roster, have managed to win two games up to this point and remain competitive. Meanwhile, the Commanders traded multiple day-two picks for Carson Wentz, rank 7th in offensive spending, and, yet, while even the Giants have mustered a strong 4-1 start this far, they’re currently three games back of third place in the NFC East as one of the five 1-4 teams. All told, we’re talking about a team with the second-worst point differential (they’re losing by 7.6 points per game), and should they falter here, this current coaching staff and regime is going to be under an even greater microscope.
It’s easy to see the cracks in Washington’s offense. Prior to this season, Carson Wentz had ranked in the bottom-ten in a variety of metrics, including PFF grade, for two straight seasons, and, based on both adjusted EPA/play and our projected EPA/play, that’s where he finds himself this year. This is a quarterback who is going to make his fair share of mistakes (9th in turnover-worthy play rate) and take his fair share of sacks (8th-highest sack rate), but, theoretically, that’s supposed to be made up by high-end plays. Last week’s performance against the Titans, where he was willing to open it up more and delivered (11.9% big-time throw) was a positive sign, though it should also be mentioned that Tennessee is allowing the second-most air yards/attempt this season for a reason- they have vulnerabilities in the secondary. Thus, was this simply a mirage? Wentz has been quite effective throwing 20+ yards down the field (4th-highest PFF grade) this year, yet he’s also attempting the fewest amount of intermediate passes, making Washington essentially an “all or nothing” offense. So far, there’s been too much “nothing” for the seventh-worst offense in EPA/play on dropbacks.
Facing the Bears, a defense that blitzes (13%) less than any team in the league and has allowed the third-lowest average depth of target this season, will be an interesting matchup for Wentz and this offense. You could argue that some of this has to do with the quarterbacks they have faced (Aaron Rodgers, Davis Mills, Daniel Jones), though Kirk Cousins had averaged a depth of target of 8.5 yards before falling down to 4.7 yards against the Bears in Week 5, and it’s clear that head coach Matt Eberflus’ plan of attack stems around making up for the lack of talent by playing as conservatively as possible. For what it’s worth, though, Washington has specific matchup advantages here, whether it be Curtis Samuel against rookie Kyler Gordon (131.1 passer rating allowed, 43.5 PFF coverage grade) in the slot, or Terry McLaurin against Chicago’s outside corners. Meanwhile, for as much as there has been some turmoil with the Commander’s offensive line, the Bears have the lowest-graded pass rush in the NFL by PFF. You would assume that talent wins out here, but would it be a surprise if Eberflus frustrates Wentz enough to coerce a few mistakes that swing the pendulum? Not in the slightest.
The main attraction of this game, however, comes with the development of one man. After starting off the season on about as poor of a note as one could, we’ve now seen Justin Fields (75 PFF grade) suddenly perform at a very quality level in back-to-back games, notably only turning 13 pressured dropbacks into two sacks in Week 5, while also simply being much more efficient (85.8% adjusted completion rate) then we have come to expect. If that wasn’t enough, a lot of those evaded sacks also turned into opportunities to shine as a runner, and the Bears (20th in early-down pass rate between Weeks 4 and 5) have suddenly transformed into a non-arhaic offense. All odds continue to be stacked against Fields without any sort of investments around him, yet if he’s going to take the next step forward, it’s going to come via improved pocket presence, processing, and efficiency. All of those have been on display recently, and here’s a chance to build onto that.
Still, the Commanders are a tougher test that you may imagine. They’ve surprisingly only generated one takeaway over the first five weeks of the year, but when you take turnovers out of the equation, they rank 15th in EPA/play allowed, with the fourth-lowest rushing success rate allowed. Meanwhile, they’re continuing to pressure the quarterback (5th in pressure rate) via a strong interior defensive line, are getting elite-level production from third-year safety Kamren Curl (90.1 PFF coverage grade), whose return from injury correlates with an increase in effectiveness. Now, even when excluding turnovers, they’re still a bottom-seven defense on opposing dropbacks, and are allowing the highest air yards/attempt despite not facing a very daunting (Jaguars, Lions, Cowboys, Titans) schedule of opposing passing offenses outside of the Eagles. Thus, opportunities could be there for Chicago to produce enough chunk plays to try to win in similar fashion to how they have tried to this season, though it ultimately comes down to a combination of two main factors- Fields’ pocket presence and a continued increased pass frequency. If either folds, things become much more complicated.
Once again, it’s remarkable that it’s been the Bears who have performed as the better team in this matchup, though for a dysfunctional Commanders team, perhaps merely having the talent advantage is enough to end this very demoralizing four-game skid. Even beyond that, it’s not exactly clear where the organization comes from here, whereas the Bears continue to have nothing to lose, and there’s something fun about that- the mood regarding these two organizations are completely different. Most likely, Washington finally benefits from some sort of positive turnover regression and take advantage of specific matchups, but it’s still very feasible that Fields’ progression continues, and the Commanders hit ultimate rock bottom. Maybe I’m biased after writing this, but this seems like a much more interesting game than you’d think!
Cincinnati Bengals (2-3) at New Orleans Saints (2-3)
Spread: NO (+2)
- Projected Spread: NO (-4.4)
- My Pick: CIN (-2)
- Projected Total: 44.25
- My Pick: Under
- CIN: 36.56%
- NO: 63.44%
Projected Margin of Victory: Saints by 4.83
Score Prediction: Bengals 20 Saints 17
- Can The Bengals Find Any Sort of Explosive Element To Their Passing Game?
- How Do The Saints Sustain Offense With Notable Injuries?
- New Orleans’ Issues In The Secondary With Marshon Lattimore Now Injured
The 2019-2020 NCAA National Champions are back where it all went down. To say that Joe Burrow and Ja’Marr Chase have ingrained themselves as icons at LSU would be an understatement, and, now, they’re likely to receive a tremendous homecoming in their first game back in Louisiana. So, can a return the “good ol’ days” get the Bengals back on track?
So far, it’s been very bleak for Cincinnati’s offense, who, after an elite stretch run en route to a Super Bowl appearance last season, faced lofty expectations heading into this year. Instead, they rank just 20th in EPA/play and dead last on EPA/play on early downs, while Joe Burrow’s production from last season certainly has not sustained:
These are not small drop-offs, and would seemingly correlate strongly with opposing defenses utilizing more two-high coverage shells against the Bengals. Yet, should the struggles be this noticeable? A major issue for this may come more from the fact that a lot of Cincinnati’s explosive plays last year were with Burrow identifying matchups to exploit as they presented themselves on the outside, but with teams dedicating more safety help to prevent that, they’re still struggling to adjust. Then, there’s the fact that the negatives – mainly sacks (8.1%, 10th) are still an issue, which is a combination of a still-struggling offensive line (10th-worst PFF pass-block grade) and Burrow still naturally being a quarterback who is going to be willing to take sacks (2nd-highest pressure-to-sack rate). On the bright side, they’ve continued to vary their looks in terms of running more out of shotgun and passing under center, which could help them out, yet, when it’s all said and done, it’s going to come down to them finding a new way to create explosive plays through the air.
Can that happen here? The Saints, who are running the most man coverage in the NFL (per 33rd Team), are allowing the third-most air yards/attempt, and now may not have cornerback Marshon Lattimore healthy for this game. Of course, on the other hand, Cincinnati could be without receiver Tee Higgins and left tackle Jonah Williams, which would make more of an impact here, though New Orleans has generated the fifth-least amount of pressure this year, and none of their cornerbacks currently have a PFF coverage grade of 56 or higher. Without Higgins specifically, things are much more complicated, but if the Bengals come out of this game in a similar spot, it would certainly be disappointing.
Speaking of injuries, the Saints will once again turn to Andy Dalton under center with Jameis Winston still out with a back injury, and will also try to get by once again without receivers Michael Thomas and Jarvis Landry. While they it would appear they were able to overcome that in a 39-32 victory against the Seahawks last week, they actually averaged negative EPA/play on non-Taysom Hill runs, and that was facing the 31st-ranked defense in EPA/play allowed. Now, they face a Cincinnati defense that has been quite productive (5th in success rate) this season, and it’s likely they try to get by with a similar gameplan to last week; Dalton did not attempt one pass 20+ yards down the field, while they had the lowest early-down pass rate. That strategy works a lot less effectively when Taysom Hill isn’t contributing with four total touchdowns and 112 rushing yards on 9 carries, and with so many limitations in terms of offensive talent, it’s hard to see what the ceiling is here.
That certainly turns the tides in favor of the Bengals. Plus, at the end of the day, they still have Joe Burrow and Ja’Marr Chase, which can get you far on its own given the value of star players at those positions, but the bar also is set much lower given New Orleans’ offensive troubles. If Higgins manages to play, then this is a perfect get-right spot for them against a defense they match up well against, though, regardless, it’s hard to not see them doing just enough to take advantage of a depleted team. At some point, though, simply getting by isn’t sufficient.
Jacksonville Jaguars (2-3) at Indianapolis Colts (2-2-1)
Spread: IND (-2)
- Projected Spread: IND (+1.9)
- My Pick: JAX (+2)
- Projected Total: 41.19
- My Pick: Under
- JAX: 55.73%
- IND: 44.27%
Projected Margin of Victory: Jaguars by 0.27
Score Prediction: Jaguars 21 Colts 20
- Was Week 2 a Mirage or a Foreshadowing?
- A Clear Bounce-Back Spot For Trevor Lawrence and The Jaguars Offense
- Is Matt Ryan Simply Going To Be Under Pressure Every Dropback?
There’s something that is always very fascinating about two teams facing off against each other for a second time, especially when the first one was extremely lopsided. In a game with notable division ramifications featuring two teams that couldn’t be more different from one another, that’s only even more the case. The last time we saw this rodeo take place in Week 2, the Jaguars pitched the only shutout of the season, while the stage was set for what has been a troubling start to the Matt Ryan era in Indianapolis. Now, with these two teams in similar spots with regards to this season, this is the type of pivotal game that could honestly define each of their seasons.
Once upon a time, Trevor Lawrence was at the top of the league in EPA/play, and seemingly was on his way to becoming the quarterback he was billed to be as the #1 overall pick in the 2021 draft. Since then, Baker Mayfield is the only quarterback to play in both Week 4 and 5 and have a lower adjusted EPA/play (-.193), which has correlated with him being the second-lowest graded quarterback from PFF (47.2) during that span. On the bright side, he’s succeeded (.160 EPA/play) against cover-three shells this year, and was better than his baseline against that coverage last year, which is notable facing a Colts defense coached by Gus Bradley, who has historically been very static in terms of rushing four and playing cover-three. Well, maybe it’s not a surprise the Jaguars dominated so much (.562 EPA/play, 62.5% success rate) passing the ball in that Week 2 game. Now with edge rusher Kwity Paye out, an already struggling pass rush is in even worse shape, allowing Lawrence to play in a similar manner to Week 2; get the ball out quickly (2.31 time-to-throw), operate in clean pockets, and take advantage of matchup advantages over the middle of the field with linebacker Shaquille Leonard still out due to injury. The blueprint is out there, so it comes down to which side is willing to adapt.
While the Colts have had success from a points allowed standpoint (playing the Texans, Titans, and Broncos help with that), there are clear weaknesses currently present with the struggles of nickel corner Kenny Moore II (39.6 PFF coverage grade) and linebacker Zaire Franklin (38.2 PFF coverage grade), which isn’t great against an offense whose passing game is generally condensed between the numbers in the short passing game, specifically taking advantage of Christian Kirk (1.85 yards/route run) in the slot. Notably, they’re allowing the fourth-most yards after the catch per reception and have had issues rushing the passer (fifth-worst PFF pass-rush grade) even with Paye. Really, what reason is there to believe that Jacksonville can’t find success offensively here? Plus, there’s also the matter of the Colts’ offense, which, let’s just say, hasn’t been efficient this season.
In fact, only the Panthers have a lower EPA/play over the first five weeks of the year. If that wasn’t enough, Matt Ryan is the second-lowest graded quarterback from PFF, has been charted with one big-time throw compared to 12(!) turnover-worthy plays, and is attempting the fewest amount of passes 20+ yards down the field. Meanwhile, he’s been sacked at the third-highest rate, which, when you add to the other negative plays, is a major problem with no positive plays being a part of this offense. Heck, they’ve been the third-worst offense when running the ball as well, despite that being seen as a clear strength. So, essentially, we have a quarterback who is showing clear signs of decline playing a struggling offensive line without much in the way of playmakers. Wait, how does this work out favorably?
Now, they’ll simply have to do battle against a Jaguars defense that has the third-best success rate allowed, is pressuring quarterbacks at a top-ten rate, and harrassed Ryan (40% pressure rate) the last time they met. Since then, really nothing has changed outside of the fact that Jacksonville has had more time to gel to a new coaching staff, nor should it; there’s simply too much in the way of athletic talent favoring the Jaguars here. At some point, rather than just assuming things will go better for the Colts, perhaps we need to actually see it.
It’s funny that an organization that has consistently prided themselves on stability and gone through team construction in a very calculated matter could be usurped by arguably the most dysfunctional organization in recent years, but that’s what athletic freaks of nature will do for you! At this point, there are likely too many holes for Matt Ryan to overcome at 37-years-old, and the same is said with the way the defense currently stands. That allows the Jaguars to simply “out talent” them in similar fashion to Week 2, which makes me surprised to see the Colts as a favorite here; what have we seen to suggest they’re the better team? I guess we’ll see if what we saw before was merely a mirage, or a true sign of two teams starting to head in different directions. Hey, Colts fans, at least this game isn’t in Jacksonville!
Minnesota Vikings (4-1) at Miami Dolphins (3-2)
Spread: MIA (+3)
- Projected Spread: MIA (+4.4)
- My Pick: MIN (-3)
- Projected Total: 49.33
- My Pick: Under
- MIN: 63.29%
- MIA: 36.71%
Projected Margin of Victory: Vikings by 4.74
Score Prediction: Vikings 24 Dolphins 20
- How Do The Dolphins “Get By” Offensively This Week?
- Kirk Cousins Has Struggled Against Every Aspect of Miami’s Defensive Scheme
- Will The Vikings’ Pass Rush Wake Up?
Want to know how quickly things can change in the NFL? Three weeks ago, the Dolphins were one of two undefeated teams, coming off of extremely impressive victories against the Ravens and Bills. Now, they’ll go into this game losers of two straight, including a 40-17 loss to the Jets, and will be forced to turn to seventh-round rookie Skylar Thompson here. The good news for Dolphins fans? Tua Tagovailoa has been cleared from concussion protocol and will make his return next week, which gives them more than enough time to turn the boat around. Of course, “stealing” a game with Thompson under center would help.
To be fair to the rookie quarterback, in place of Teddy Bridgewater last game, he at least held his own (58.2 PFF grade), which isn’t something all seventh rounders during their first week on the active roster can say. In fact, if you take turnovers out of the equation, Miami was reasonably capable (19th in EPA/play, 6th in success rate), while he also performed well (80.6 PFF passing grade) from a clean pocket. The issue? He was under pressure on 60% of his dropbacks, thanks, in large part, to the loss of star tackle Terron Armstead; with him out, the team essentially has three clear blind spots on the offensive line between Liam Eichenberg (29.9 PFF PBLK grade) and tackles Greg Little (31.7 PFF PBLK grade) and Brandon Shell (15.2 PFF PBLK grade). On the bright side, their upcoming schedule is actually quite favorable in terms of not facing vaunted pass rushes, and the Vikings (last in quarterback knockdown rate) haven’t pressure the quarterback as they expected to. Seemingly, with two very well-regarded edge rushers in Danielle Hunter and Za’Darius Smith, as well as the contributions they are getting from interior defender Dalvin Tomlinson (84.8 PFF pass rush grade), that shouldn’t be the case, so we could see this be a clear “get right” spot for them.
Meanwhile, the Vikings, as a predominantly conservative, zone-heavy defense (6th-highest rate), are a family sight for a Dolphins offense that has seen the most amount of zone coverage in the NFL. If last week is any indication, head coach Mike McDaniel is going to continue to try to exploit Tyreek Hill and Jaylen Waddle’s production after the catch after both had average depth of targets under five yards last game, and will almost certainly adopt a run-heavy script here; they ran the ball on first down 18% below expectation last week. I’m skeptical of that working against a defense whose main issues against the run have come via playing light boxes and being “overpowered”, especially with a depleted offensive line, though it’s also hard not to say that McDaniel deserves the benefit of the doubt given how well he’s been able to overcome those deficines- second in rush success rate. Still, trying to win in that fashion requires an extensive amount of precision, which is difficult for a quarterback whose main weakness coming out of college was limiting turnover-worthy plays.
If there’s one concern that the Dolphins can have regarding their outlook for the rest of the season, it’s on the defensive side of the ball- they are allowing the fourth-highest EPA/play this season, ranking third-worst in PFF coverage. As per usual, this is a defense that, at its core, likes to be unconventional; they are playing man coverage more than half of the time since Week 1, are dead-last in the amount of time they rush four players, and are in nickel less than all but one team. At their core, though, they want to win via heavy man coverage and blitzing at will, which is interesting considering the Vikings have struggled in those areas this season. I mean, thse splits are very notable:
- vs Man Coverage: -.16 EPA/play (23rd)
- vs Zone Coverage: .15 EPA/play (4th)
- vs Blitz: -.370 EPA/play (28th)
Now, Kirk Cousins has performed well against the blitz previously, so I’d consider this just a small sample quirk. Yet, the inability to succeed against man coverage may be more legitimate, especially when a large part of that sample comes against a man-heavy Lions defense with the worst EPA/play allowed in the league. Notably, Adam Thielen is averaging less than a yard per route run against man coverage, and, at 32-years-old currently in the midst of his least-productive season (1.20 yards/route run), is it time to be concerned about Minnesota’s lack of secondary options outside of Justin Jefferson? So far, a great majority of the team’s offensive success seemingly has come through schemed success rather than talent winning out, and, at some point, that needs to change. They should know what’s coming their way here, and we’ll get a very strong idea as to whether this is a fundamental flaw, or was simply an example of small sample size noise.
Either way, it’s hard to expect the Dolphins to be able to overcome the odds and come out victorious against a very strong team with Thompson at quarterback, though let’s just say the Vikings (1-4 against the spread) haven’t exactly played up to expectations recently despite their 4-1 record. If Armstead can’t play, it’s going to take some sort of voodoo magic from McDaniel to pull this off, which I would never rule out, though it’s likely we see another typical Vikings game here- a game that perhaps is closer than it should be, yet just enough plays are made to take advantage of a weaker opponent. Hey, if that means a 5-1 record heading into their bye week, I’m sure Minnesota fans will certainly take it.
Baltimore Ravens (3-2) at New York Giants (4-1)
Spread: NYG (+5.5)
- Projected Spread: NYG (+4.8)
- My Pick: BAL (-5.5)
- Projected Total: 46.28
- My Pick: Over
- BAL: 64.55%
- NYG: 35.45%
Projected Margin of Victory: Ravens by 5.48
Score Prediction: Ravens 27 Giants 21
- The Wink Martindale Revenge Game!
- A Fun Matchup Between an Overperforming Offense and Underachieving Defense
- Devin Duvernay, You Have My Attention
Said by Bill Parcells, the saying “you are what your record are” is a common one in sports, and for good reason; standings are decided off of wins and losses, not morale points. That being said, when it comes to projecting future outcomes, how a team wins is very significant, which is where these two teams differ greatly. Whereas the Ravens have lost two games in which they were leading or tied with ten seconds to go, the Giants have yet to play a non-one possession game in spite of a schedule one may infer has been favorable. That being said, they’re riding high off of a London win against the Packers, so can they do the unthinkable and advance to 5-1 (I’m not joking) here? That is going to be a daunting task.
We’re used to the Ravens as a franchise that has won with strong defense, but times are changing. Baltimore -currently ranks 7th in EPA/play, is still passing at an above-league average rate, and after a concerning start on. the ground, are the most efficient rushing attack over the past three weeks. Need better news? Star left tackle Ronnie Stanley is back healthy, Mark Andrews has continued last year’s torrid pace by leading all tight ends in yards/route run, and, in third-year receiver Devin Duvernay (78.9 PFF receiving grade, 2.04 yards/route run), they may have stumbled into the exact type of vertical playmaker they needed to replace Marquise Brown. Especially once Rashod Bateman is able to return from injury, many of the potential concerns regarding this offense are starting to dissipate, and that’s with them already ranking fourth in scoring this year. Lamar Jackson is looking to bounce-back after two rough games (26th in adjusted EPA/play over past two weeks), yet I’d still clearly say the arrow is pointing up for them.
There’s an interesting conundrum with Jackson and the Ravens offense coming into this game, though, and it delves around their production against the blitz. Last season, Jackson ranked 31st among 37 qualified quarterbacks in EPA/play against the blitz (-.22), earning the fourth-worst PFF passing grade (50.5) during that span. This year, he leads the league in terms of production against the blitz (.370 EPA/play) with the third-best PFF passing grade as well. So, what gives? Likely, the answer lies somewhere in the middle, and the Bengals did have a lot of success (4.3 yards/attempt) while blitzing Jackson on over half of his dropbacks. Now, that’s a bit skewed by multiple mis-throws that would change the narrative completely. For an offense as predicated on explosive plays, there’s reason to believe that they’d generally fare well against the blitz, and, in turn, against man coverage (7th-best EPA/play) as well.
Why is this notable? Well, in what could be considered the revenge game for former Ravens defensive coordinator Wink Martindale, he’s surely going to stick to his guns here; the Giants led the league in blitz rate and are playing the second-highest amount of man coverage. Now, that’s matched up well with a lot of the opposing offenses (Titans, Panthers, Cowboys, Bears, Packers) they have faced so far, but it’s still worth noting this is a defense lacking impact players in the secondary (6th-worst PFF COV grade), while they’re the third-least efficient defense on early downs. It’s hard to see them being able to rely completely on scheme and outlier third-down success against tougher opponents moving forward, and this could be a clear example why. Also, who exactly plans to line up with Mark Andrews?
Thus, can the Giants offense step up to the task? You’d be surprised to know that, in spite of a wide receiver corps consisting of Richie James, David Sills, and Darius Slayton, the second-highest pressure rate allowed, and a quarterback (Daniel Jones) with the third-lowest big-time throw rate (1.4%), New York somehow is 12th in EPA/play thus far. Wait, what? Brian Daboll and Matt Kafka, ladies and gentlemen! Only the Falcons are utilizing more play-action concepts than the Giants, while they’re tied for second in the NFL in yards/rush attempt; not only is Saquon Barkley playing at an elite level, but Jones has been heavily utilized on the ground, leading to the 7th-most efficient rushing attack that has been able to be just efficient enough in the air. Is this sustainable? I find it very hard to believe, though it’s an example of what could be a very prolific team with more talent in the future.
On the other side, it’s been a rough go for the Ravens defense. I mean, in what world would you expect the Ravens, of all teams, to rank 30th in EPA/play allowed? That certainly is concerning, though it is worth noting that they’ve faced three offenses in the top-ten in EPA/play thus far, and, overall, they’re still the 11th-highest graded defense from PFF. That almost certainly speaks to future defensive regression as they adjust to a new defensive coordinator, particularly with the production they are getting from well-regarded players on that side of the ball. Plus, if there’s an offense to help get them back on track, it’s one much more limited in terms of playmakers that has allowed substantial pressure against every team. Sometimes, it just comes down to sustainability.
Under Brian Daboll, the Giants are certainly solidifying themselves as one of the best-coached teams in the NFL, but when you face another very well-coached team that simply has significantly more talent, that calculus changes. I’m willing to cautiously buy into Baltimore’s success against both man coverage and the blitz based on how their offense is built, and, eventually, it’s likely that New York’s reliance on third-down variance is going to come back to bite them. Don’t be surprised if more points are scored here than expected, but, in the end, the win-loss records may have lied to us.
New York Jets (3-2) at Green Bay Packers (3-2)
Spread: GB (-7.5)
- Projected Spread: GB (-11.3)
- My Pick: GB (-7.5)
- Projected Total: 45.35
- My Pick: Under
- NYJ: 15.73%
- GB: 84.27%
Projected Margin of Victory: Packers by 17.15
Score Prediction: Jets 14 Packers 26
- Is Zach Wilson Ready To Make a Second-Year Leap?
- Are The Packers’ Third-Down Offensive Struggles Legitimate?
- Is Robert Saleh Willing To Change Things Up Defensively?
From one overachieving New York team to another, who had the Giants and Jets each having winning records over the first five weeks of the year. Now, could you imagine if both are able to defeat the Packers in back-to-back weeks? Hey, who doesn’t like a little bit of chaos?
On one end, the Jets three wins have come via multiple double-digit fourth-quarter comebacks and a victory against the Skylar Thompson-led Dolphins. At the same time, though, it’s the progression of the team’s stable of young players that is most significant, and, right now, it’s all centered around Zach Wilson. Well, since returning from a knee injury, Wilson ranks 10th in PFF passing grade (72.2) and 2nd in overall grade from a clean pocket (92.5), so that’s notable! In fact, last week’s showing against the Dolphins was his highest-graded game (81.9) of his young career and his best from an EPA/play (.22) standpoint, and he played a much different brand of football- zero turnover-worthy plays and quicker decisions (2.73 time-to-throw) despite a still-lofty average depth of target (9.6 yards). Of course, there’s also the fact that he’s slotted in at just 27th in our projected EPA/play metric due to poor accuracy (-4.7 completion rate over expectation) and a lot of mistakes that were made in his first game (overall 5.8% turnover-worthy play rate), though last week was certainly a step in the right direction. Now, we just need more data points.
On paper, this does not appear to be a good matchup for Wilson. Since the start of 2021, no quarterback has a worse EPA/play (-.38) against the blitz, while only Baker Mayfield has been worse against man coverage (-.35 EPA/play). Even just looking at this year, most of Wilson’s struggles have come via man coverage (-.13 EPA/play) or the blitz or when blitzed (-.43 EPA/play), and his issues when pressure (32.9 PFF grade) have persisted. The Packers, meanwhile, blitz at the fifth-highest rate and play man coverage the eighth-most, ranking as a top-11 defense in both PFF pass rush and coverage grade. If Wilson truly has taken the next step as a quarterback, succeeding here would be a great way to showcase that, though things could go south in a hurry here.
Of course, it doesn’t help that Corey Davis, arguably the receiver Wilson has leaned on the most, has had his fair share of struggles against man coverage in the past. One avenue I’m sure they’ll explore is trying to take advantage of the league’s worst rushing defense in terms of success rate, though they’ve also struggle (27th in success rate) on their end as well. It’s a tough game to have trust in Wilson, and, if so, it sets up exactly with how the Packers have designed their team to win.
Green Bay’s offensive deficiencies are very clear; they’re seeing the second-most amount of man coverage, rank 25th in EPA/play on those looks, and are a bottom-ten offense on third downs. On the other hand, they’re the fourth-most efficient offenses on early downs, and, when they face zone coverage, have thrived (5th in EPA/play). At some point, you wouldn’t expect an Aaron Rodgers-led offense to be so poor on third downs, yet given the state of their receiving corps, it’s not entirely surprising. Fortunately for them, the Jets, under Robert Saleh, play almost exclusively zone coverage (2nd), and are the worst defense in the league when playing man. So, does Saleh trust his personnel to adapt and succeed in man coverage, or does he stick to his roots? If it’s the latter, it’s hard to not see Rodgers picking them apart as he’s done against zone coverage all season, though, if it’s the former, you’re putting your defense in a very tough situation as well. Ultimately, you’d think it’s worth taking the risk, but we can’t be certain what Saleh decided to do.
That’s why, ultimately, it’s likely that concerns about the Packers are put on the back-burner for another week, with Rodgers simply being able to distribute in a condensed passing game that stays very efficient. That’s much tougher when your defense is challenged, but it’s also not looking ideal for Zach Wilson and the Jets here, which, in turns, may leave Green Bay unchallenged here. There are clear issues here that need to be sorted out, but, in “softer” matchups like this, relying on the quarterback and coaching may be all you need. Now, that’s also very similar to what I would have said before last week’s loss to the Giants, so who knows what will happen? Still, I fail to accept that the NFL is going to have that much unpredictability in a short span.
San Francisco 49ers (3-2) at Atlanta Falcons (2-3)
Spread: ATL (+4.5)
- Projected Spread: ATL (+2.1)
- My Pick: ATL (+4.5)
- Projected Total: 47.01
- My Pick: Under
- SF: 56.23%
- ATL: 43.77%
Projected Margin of Victory: 49ers by 0.57
Score Prediction: 49ers 23 Falcons 20
- Can The Falcons Continue To Function Offensively Against The League’s Best Defense?
- Speaking Of Which, Said Defense Is Dealing With Some Key Injuries
- Can The 49ers Offense Find Their Footing On Early Downs?
Do you ever wish football could get back to the days with only two wide receivers on the field, the run established at will, and slow-paced offenses? Well, do I have a treat for you! While in different stages of their organizational plans, there are a lot of similarities to where the Falcons are and where the 49ers were once at the beginning of Kyle Shanahan’s tenure, with an offense playing well beyond their talent level thanks to exceptional schematics providing a glimmer of hope for what the future could look like with more talent on the roster. Yet, how far can that get you?
Coming into this season, expectations certainly weren’t high for the Falcons offensively, but, so far, they’re not only a top-ten scoring offense, but currently stand 11th in EPA/play and success rate. This has come while facing three top-12 defenses (Saints, Rams, Bucs), and, really, all on early downs (3rd-highest EPA/play). The magic sauce? None other than head coach Arthur Smith. Right now, Atlanta is on track to break the record for the highest play-action rate since PFF starting charting it, has the fewest amount of third downs per game, and ranks in the top-five in yards before contact/attempt. All of these are a testament to the scheme put in place, mirroring the 2019 Titans- an offense that is extremely efficient on the ground that creates big plays via the play-action passing game (11.6 average depth of target on those concepts) with two very physical receivers in Drake London and Kyle Pitts that aims for as much efficiency as possible on early downs. Would they love to be in a spot where they aren’t so reliant on scheme? Sure; Marcus Mariota’s production on straight dropbacks (48.9 PFF passing grade) leaves a lot to be desired, leading to one of the least-efficient third-down offenses (7th-worst EPA/play). Is it also true that they’ve been battle-tested and have passed pretty much every test? Absolutely.
Still, this is going to be quite the challenge for them. Whether it’s EPA/play allowed, dropback EPA/play allowed, rushing success rate allowed, yards/rush attempt allowed, pressure rate, or PFF defense grade, it’s hard to find a statistic where the 49ers don’t rank #1 or #2 in, which you’d expect for a defense that is making an exceptional impact at every level. Specifically, the Falcons, who utilize the most zone-rushing concepts in the NFL, need to be able to exploit the opposing defense’s linebackers to create explosive carries, but that’s harder to do when it’s Fred Warner and Dre Greenlaw that you’re going up against. Heck, even the fact that Atlanta is going to naturally lean a lot on two-receiver sets, allowing San Francisco to hide their lack of cornerback depth, plays in the 49ers’ favor. Now, with cornerback Emmanuel Moseley out for the year and the team very thin on the defensive line, this isn’t a group at full strength, and they’ve only faced one offense (Seahawks) in the top-20 in EPA/play. In many ways, then, this is a test for them as well, especially with games against the Chiefs and Chargers on the horizon.
Really, though, what’s holding the 49ers back is their lack of offensive consistency. It’s unexpected for a Kyle Shanahan-coached offense to have the 8th-worst EPA/play on early downs, but with a struggling offensive line (bottom-ten in PFF RBLK grade), they’re wasting a lot of early-down plays on struggles on the ground (24th in EPA/rush on early downs), and are once again relying on the most yardage after the catch to find some sort of offensive success via explosive plays. That said, the Falcons not only have allowed the third-fewest yards after catch/reception this year, but allowed the eight-fewest in 2021; their defensive vulnerability has come through the downfield passing game. Yet, that’s not how the 49ers have ever tried to win under Jimmy Garoppolo, and, to be honest, the fact that we can’t have confidence in them scoring an abundance of points against the Falcons, of all defenses, is really concerning. Once again, something to keep in mind given the schedule they’re about to face.
Over the past two weeks, the 49ers have been on a great run against the Rams and Panthers, but lost in that. is continued struggles on early downs, offensive line troubles, and, overall, a very limited offense. Now, you factor in the loss of Moseley and a depleted defensive line, and there’s a strong scenario where the Falcons exploit that just enough to at least make this game extremely close, if not win outright. Don’t be fooled, Atlanta (-4 point differential) is not some sort of pushover whatsoever, and there are more cracks in the foundation than normal in San Francisco. Parity is at an all-time high right now, and the team with the better offense may be the underdog here. It may not seem like it, but we are going to learn a lot about these two teams from this game.
New England Patriots (2-3) at Cleveland Browns (2-3)
Spread: CLE (-2.5)
- Projected Spread: CLE (+1.9)
- My Pick: NE (+2.5)
- Projected Total: 52.36
- My Pick: Over
- NE: 55.85%
- CLE: 44.15%
Projected Margin of Victory: Patriots by 0.34
Score Prediction: Patriots 24 Browns 23
- A Whole Lot of Rushing Yards Are On The Way
- What Is Going On With Cleveland’s Defense?
- Which Team Can Move The Ball Enough Through The Air?
Was 49ers/Falcons not enough “old school fotball” for you? Don’t worry, there’s more where that came from. The two most-efficient rushing offenses against two bottom-six rushing defenses? Wait, is passing the ball going to be optional in this game? To be honest, both of these teams have certainly outperformed their record, yet find themselves in a situation where another loss here would be very costly. Now, they’ll try to get back to .500 in similar fashion.
It would have been easy to write the Patriots completely off after losing two of their first three games, especially after an offseason with dysfunction in terms of the offensive playcaller and the injury to Mac Jones. Since then, though, they’ve taken the Packers to overtime and handedly beat a Lions team that entered Week 5 with a neutral point differential, and that’s with them down to their third-string quarterback. When given a clean pocket, Bailey Zappe (87.2 PFF Grade, 8.8 yards/attempt) has been productive, mainly serving as an accurate “game managing” distributor. Fortunately, New England’s offensive line (5th in PFF PBLK grade) has been quite strong, while the Browns have struggled to generate pressure (23rd), and, overall, have performed at a very suboptimal level (30th in EPA/play allowed) despite an opening schedule than included the Panthers, Jets, and Steelers. In a pinch, there aren’t many better opponents to get by with a fourth-round rookie quarterback.
Plus, we’ll also see how much the Patriots feel the need to rely on Zappe. Currently the #2 rushing attack in the NFL based on EPA/rush, which would expect with the sixth-highest graded offensive line from PFF, as well as a running back in Rhamondre Stevenson who ranks in the top-four in PFF rushing grade (89) and yards after contact/attempt (4.24). Most importantly, though, the Browns haven’t just been a typically poor run defense. Rather, they’re on another planet. Cleveland is allowing more expected points added per rush attempt than all but four passing defenses, has the worst PFF rushing grade, and just let the Chargers, the sixth-worst rushing offense coming into Week 5, run for 238 yards on 31 carries against them. This is a fundamental problem for a team that rightfully recognized the lack of value of run defense from a positional value standpoint, yet when it’s this much of a liability, it becomes a major problem. Then, you factor in cornerback Denzel Ward and edge rusher Jadeveon Clowney being out for this game, and it’s very feasible the Patriots continue to get by offensively. I mean, who wouldn’t against Cleveland right now?
Now, the Patriots (27th in EPA/rush) have had their issues in run defense as well, and the Browns are averaging THREE times more EPA/rush than the next team. Then again, many of these concerns were expressed before holding the Lions to the sixth-lowest EPA/rush of the week, and, to be honest, would it really matter? Rather, What really may be turning the tide in New England’s favor is their pass defense (9th in EPA/dropback, 13th in PFF COV grade), especially with Jacoby Brissett (5.9 yards/attempt) having his fair share of struggles against man coverage this season. Not having cornerback Jonathan Jones will hurt, but the emergence of rookie cornerback Jack Jones (92 PFF COV grade) helps, and, to be honest, if there is one defense to have faith in, it’s one that has consistently shown the ability to adapt, and just shut out on offense in the Lions that matched up to them similarly.
Really, there are so many ways this game could go, with the one certainty being a lot of rushing yards. Right now, there are far too many worries with Cleveland on the defensive side of the ball, leading to Bailey Zappe potentially remaining undefeated as a starter. Let me just say that 43 points is far too low of a total here, and it’s hard to see this not coming down to the wire. From there, let the late-game chaos commence!
Tampa Bay Buccaneers (3-2) at Pittsburgh Steelers (1-4)
Spread: PIT (+10)
- Projected Spread: PIT (+6.3)
- My Pick: TB (-10)
- Projected Total: 44.71
- My Pick: Under
- TB: 69.18%
- PIT: 30.82%
Projected Margin of Victory: Buccaneers by 8.23
Score Prediction: Buccaneers 24 Steelers 13
- It Isn’t Getting Easier For Kenny Pickett
- What Is It Going To “Click” For The Bucs?
- Diontae Johnson + George Pickens vs Jamel Dean and Carlton Davis = Fun
Want to know the beauty of football? The difference in age between the two starting quarterbacks in this game is larger than the age needed to consume alcohol. To say that Tom Brady has gotten the best of the Steelers throughout his career would be an unstatement, but, this time, it won’t be against Ben Roethlisberger. Rather, it’ll be rookie Kenny Pickett hoping to lead the way for the next phase of Pittsburgh’s organizational direction, though it could get quite ugly here.
Before we start, let’s take a look at the players that will be sidelined due to injury for the Steelers:
- Safety Minkah Fitzpatrick
- Cornerback Cameron Sutton
- Cornerback Levi Wallace
- Cornerback Akhello Witherspoon
- Tight End Pat Freiermuth
That’s to go along with star edge rusher TJ Watt, and not exactly ideal when you’re about to face a Bucs offense that, outside of Julio Jones, is fully healthy and getting back to their roots- they’re passing at the highest-rate on early downs over the past two weeks (aligned with their receivers returning to action) and have the highest offensive success rate during that span. The Steelers, meanwhile, are already the seventh-least efficient passing defense when excluding turnovers, and, now, they’re without four of their five starting defensive backs. Especially if Chris Godwin is healthy enough to run a full slate of routes after being limited last year, Tom Brady has to be licking his chops here.
If that wasn’t enough, Tampa Bay also has an elite pass defense, ranking 2nd in dropback success rate allowed this year with the third-best PFF coverage grade. As long as the Steelers continue to avoid passing over the middle of the field, it’s going to be awfully tough to succeed on the perimeter against the cornerback duo of Jamel Dean (5th in PFF COV grade, 6th in passer rating allowed) and Carlton Davis, and that’s before the loss. of Pat Freiermuth. When,it comes to target per route run against zone coverage, Freiermuth (32.9%) is well on top even when looking at the last two games, creating an even tougher dynamic against a defense that has consistently been amongst the league’s best in limiting the yards an offense can create per reception. Surely, being in a negative gamescript only hurts matters, and, in the end, it’s unclear what changes; when you rank near the bottom of the league in under center rate, motion rate, play-action rate, and percentage of throws over the middle of the field, this is the result.
At some point, here’s hoping a change is made that leads to a higher-percentage offense to give Pickett a chance, but there’s no sign of that happening, and being without Freiermuth, the team’s #1 option against zone coverage, is an issue. Then, there’s the simple fact that the Bucs remain as stout of a passing defense as it gets, and it’s unlikely on the other side a secondary filled with backups contains a finally healthy Bucs passing attack. It’s crazy to think we’ve gotten to the point where the Steelers, of all teams, are a justifiable double-digit underdog at home, but as we saw in last week’s 38-3 loss in Buffalo, it’s a sign of an organization that clearly needs to take a step back. From here, it’s all about the development of Pickett, but, man, things are not getting easier for him. Hey, win or lose, playing against Tom Brady is still a pretty exciting event!
Carolina Panthers (1-4) at Los Angeles Rams (2-3)
Spread: LAR (-10)
- Projected Spread: LAR (-7.2)
- My Pick: LAR (-10)
- Projected Total: 39.93
- My Pick: Under
- CAR: 28.25%
- LAR: 71.75%
Projected Margin of Victory: Rams by 9.75
Score Prediction: Panthers 10 Rams 21
- How Irreparable Are The Rams’ Offensive Woes?
- What Changes In Carolina?
- How Much Pressure Can The Panthers’ Defensive Line Get On Matthew Stafford?
Just when you think you’re at the top of the world, reality can set in quickly. As the reigning Super Bowl champions, the Rams certainly believed they had the star power to come for that title once again, leaning on an explosive passing game that had added Allen Robinson II to the fold. Instead, through five weeks, they have the league’s second worst point differential, are averaging the fewest yards/play (4.8), and are scoring the fifth-fewest points per game. After back-to-back embarrassing losses to the 49ers and Cowboys in which they scored one total touchdown, they find themselves in desperation territory, which makes this matchup just what the doctor ordered.
It’s pretty clear to see what the fundamental problems are for the Rams. For starters, after finishing as the league’s top-graded pass-blocking unit from PFF, they now rank second-worst in that metric, due, in large part, to the loss of tackle Andrew Whitworth and a reconfiguration of the interior offensive line. As a result, Matthew Stafford has been sacked at the second-highest rate in the NFL, and has been under pressure for around 10% more of his dropbacks. Combine that with the negative plays (4.5% turnover-worthy play rate), and you get an offense that can’t get out of their way. They perhaps could get away with it if there were enough positive plays to offset it, but that hasn’t happened at all; they have the third-fewest converted air yards/completion, and consequently, have the third-lowest yards/reception as well. To boot, Robinson II, ranked second-worst in PFF receiving grade (52.1) and yards/route run (0.52), has not fit in well whatsoever, and it’s evident that being without Odell Beckham Jr. and Van Jefferson has taken away any sort of vertical element to their passing game. Hence, why they find themselves where they are.
To their credit, the Panthers, 13th in EPA/play allowed, have continued to be a productive defense this season. With cornerback Jaycee Horn injured, though, Carolina doesn’t have one player with a PFF coverage grade of 64 or higher, they rank in the bottom-ten in pressure rate, and it’s unclear if they can sustain their level of production after cutting ties with defensive coordinator Phil Snow. Plus, given what we know about the track record of Stafford as a quarterback, you’d imagine him not to continue to be a bottom-five graded quarterback from a clean pocket, and the time is now for that to show up.
Either way, though, there aren’t many points that’ll need to be scored in this game. When it comes to passing the ball, the Panthers (-.208 EPA/play, 34.7% success rate) are on another stratosphere in a similar way to Cleveland’s run defense, and with offensive coordinator Ben McAdoo being retained, it’s unclear what changes. With Baker Mayfield out with an ankle injury, it’ll be PJ Walker under center, yet this is a quarterback that hasn’t impressed (career 54.5 PFF grade, 6.2 yards/attempt, 63.9% adjusted completion rate) in small samples in the past. At this point, the quarterback play couldn’t get worse, yet it’s hard to see it improving much, and, if it did, does that actually make a difference? Eighth in success rate allowed, the Rams are still a very productive defense, and Carolina is simply the opposite of that as an offense. Sometimes, it’s as simple as that.
I’m surprised to see the Rams as a ten-point favorite given the recent turmoil, but perhaps that says as much about the Panthers as anything else. With the 49ers and Bucs ahead after their bye week, this is a key game for Los Angeles to figure things out, yet, even then, the opposing team’s ineffectiveness is enough for them to get by as is. Still, though, at some point, things need to change, and in a hurry.
Arizona Cardinals (2-3) at Seattle Seahawks (2-3)
Spread: SEA (+2.5)
- Projected Spread: SEA (-3.6)
- My Pick: SEA (+2.5)
- Projected Total: 49.78
- My Pick: Over
- ARI: 39.01%
- SEA: 60.99%
Projected Margin of Victory: Seahawks by 3.38
Score Prediction: Cardinals 24 Seahawks 27
- How Much More Do We Need To See From Geno Smith?
- It’s Time For Some Sort of Offensive Adjustment In Arizona
- Is Tariq Woolen Becoming An Impact Player?
At the beginning of the year, when you wondered which game would have the second-highest total of the week, I’m sure Cardinals/Seahawks didn’t come to mind. Yet, that was before the legend of Geno Smith was born, and, most importantly, these two defenses haven’t exactly been performing at a high level. As such, we could see an abundance of points here, which is a nice touch in a likely low-scoring week.
It’s easy to look at Geno Smith’s limited track record and be pessimistic about him continuing to perform at such a high level, but he’s doing everything in his power to convince us. After all, just take a look at where he ranks in several key metrics:
- PFF Grade (90.2): 1st
- Big-Time Throw Rate (6.4%): 1st
- Completion Rate Above Expectation (10.5): 1st
Essentially, he’s been accurate AND has been effective down the field, leading an explosive and efficient offense. I mean, it’s hard to fake accuracy, and a great majority of his production is coming in clean pockets- more stable situations. Add in the highest graded receiving unit from PFF and a dynamic rushing attack, and you get the league’s fourth-most efficient offense so far, who now gets to face a Cardinals defense ranked dead-last in PFF coverage grade and second-worst in success rate allowed.
We’re well aware of the Cardinals’ propensity to blitz (2nd-most), and while they haven’t been bit down the field based on the types of passing attacks they’ve been facing, having a thin cornerback unit on an island against DK Metcalf and Tyler Lockett seems suboptimal, especially since they’re only getting pressure at a league-average rate. Thus, I’d be surprised to not see Smith and co. not continue to thrive here, putting a lot of pressure on Arizona to perform offensively. Now, that hasn’t been a common occurrence (18th in EPA/play) this season, and a large part of it has to do with Kyler Murray averaging the fewest yards/completion (8.3). As such, no current starting quarterback has passed for fewer yards per attempt (5.8), leading to an offense creating explosive plays less than any team in the league. Getting DeAndre Hopkins back next week from suspension will help, but it’s inexcusable for a quarterback of Murray’s caliber to not only be this limited as a passer, but have 100 fewer rushing yards than Daniel Jones as well. When you’re getting into as many third-down situations (third-most) as they are, this is happens, and it’s a clear schematic problem.
Fortunately, if there was a time to fix things, it would be here; when excluding turnovers, the Seahawks (.286 EPA/play allowed) are allowing more expected points added per play than every offense but the Bills is averaging with the same qualifier, and the same goes on dropbacks (.406 EPA/dropback). Essentially, teams facing the Seahawks have been the second-best offense in all of football, and opposing quarterbacks are averaging more yards/attempt (8.6) against them than every quarterback but Tua Tagovailoa. Yikes! Fifth-round rookie cornerback Tariq Woolen (4th in passer rating allowed) has been a revelation, but, outside of that, every Seahawks game has been a shootout for a reason.
With defense being clearly optional here, all focus is with which offense can take advantage of that, and, pretty clearly, that’s the Seahawks. Frankly, I’m astonished that the Cardinals are a 2.5-point road favorite here; the Seahawks appear to be simply the better team. Maybe this is the week Geno Smith comes back to earth, but, at the same time, why is anything going to change in Arizona if they remain as condensed of a passing attack as it gets? This is essentially a “do-or-die” game for a team that went all-in, and the fact they find themselves in a worse position than a team in clear rebuild mode is damning. Regardless, this is going to be an incredibly fun game to watch.
Buffalo Bills (4-1) at Kansas City Chiefs (4-1)
Spread: KC (+2.5)
- Projected Spread: KC (+2.9)
- My Pick: BUF (-2.5)
- Projected Total: 49.42
- My Pick: Under
- BUF: 58.74%
- KC: 41.26%
Projected Margin of Victory: Bills by 2.05
Score Prediction: Bills 27 Chiefs 22
- It’s Not Every Day The NFL’s Two Best Teams Square Off Against Each Other
- Buffalo’s Defense is In a Good Spot To Limit Kansas City As Much As One Can
- Chris Jones Against a Weak Bills Interior Offensive Line
The last time these two teams faced off in the divisional round last January, 78 points were scored, 974 yards were gained, and the world got to witness what may have been the most exciting game of all time. Now, the Bills and Chiefs find themselves once again considered to be NFL’s top-two teams, and it’d be surprising to see them not face off again down the road. Really, there’s not going to be a single game to be more excited about for the rest of the year.
Remember some of the concerns about the Bills not pushing the ball down the field enough? Well, that was for naught. Technically, Kansas City is averaging more EPA/play due to turnovers, but when excluding it, Buffalo reigns supreme in said metric, with Josh Allen leading the league in adjusted EPA/play. No quarterback has been more productive on passes 20+ yards down the field (94.6 PFF passing grade), but there’s also a quicker element to the offense with his time-to-throw (2.62 seconds) down, allowing him to have the seventh-lowest sack rate in spite of an offensive line with more weaknesses in the past. Notably, receiver Gabriel Davis (5.18 yards/route run, 81.6 PFF receiving grade) looked significantly healthier after nursing an ankle injury, providing the team with the vertical threat they need to go along with a return Isaiah McKenzie in the slot and, of course, Stefon Diggs. You’re not going to find an offense that can balance efficiency and explosiveness like them.
From an overall offensive standpoint, the Chiefs are right there with them, leading the league in EPA/play with turnovers included, and ranking right behind Buffalo in success rate and dropback EPA/play. However, they’ve gone about offensive production in a different way. Patrick Mahomes currently has half the “deep” (20+ air yards) passing yards that Allen has, yet he’s also limiting turnover-worthy plays (2.2%) better, while Kansas City can offer more on the ground (9th in EPA/rush vs 28th). It’s a very diverse passing attack with only Travis Kelce with a target share over 20%, and the recent production of Marquez Valdes-Scantling perhaps helps provide them with the speed they’ve lacked in the absence of Tyreek Hill. In short terms, these offenses are similar enough to where it comes down to how they line up against the opposing defenses, which is where the tide shifts in Buffalo’s favor.
The book on the Bills defense is rather obvious- no defense plays more zone coverages or rushes with four than them. Meanwhile, no team allows fewer yards after catch/reception than them, and even in the divisional round matchup, they limited Patrick Mahomes to 6.9 yards/attempt in a clean pocket and just a 5.2 average depth of target despite holding onto the ball very long (3.23-second time-to-throw). Now, add a revamped pass rush led by Von Miller (77.4 PFF pass-rush grade) and second-year edge rusher Gregory Rousseau (86 PFF pass-rush grade) against two tackles with sub-60 PFF grades, and things get more complicated for Kansas City’s offense. To boot, safety Jordan Poyer is back healthy, and with Matt Milano currently performing as the league’s highest-graded linebacker in coverage (per PFF), they’re about as well-equipped to handle Kelce as any defense in football; for context, they limited Mark Andrews to 0.39 yards/route run in Week 4. We could nitpick and say that the team’s cornerback depth isn’t super strong, but the same can also be said about the Chiefs’ perimeter receivers, and with so much of the passing game going to tight ends and running backs, it plays right into Buffalo’s strong suits as a defense. Hence, a potential struggle for Kansas City that they aren’t used to.
On the other end, the Chiefs have been a middle-of-the-pack defense against the pass (19th in EPA allowed/dropback) and overall (17th in EPA/play allowed), and are even further decimated with the loss of cornerback Rashad Fenton. That’s troublesome considering the explosive passing attack they’re about to face, nor do they have the pass-rush talent (16th in PFF pass rush grade) to expose Buffalo’s offensive line troubles as may be the case on the other side. That resembles the difference between these two teams; while the offenses are similar, Buffalo just has much more roster depth, particularly on the defensive side of the ball, and have yet to show struggles when fully healthy in a way that hasn’t been true for the Chiefs. At the end of the day, though, any game involving arguably the league’s two best quarterbacks is going to be as close as it gets, and it really may come down to which way the ball bounces, or the coin flips. Hopefully, this isn’t the last we see of these two teams.
Dallas Cowboys (4-1) at Philadelphia Eagles (5-0)
Spread: PHI (-6.5)
- Projected Spread: PHI (-8)
- My Pick: PHI (-6.5)
- Projected Total: 44.72
- My Pick: Under
- DAL: 25.87%
- PHI: 74.13%
Projected Margin of Victory: Eagles by 11.15
Score Prediction: Cowboys 17 Eagles 24
- The League’s Best Pass Rush Against The League’s Best Offensive Line
- Are The Eagles Going To Gash The Cowboys On The Ground?
- Can Dallas’ Offensive Line Hold Up?
Could you imagine telling a Cowboys after a 16-point loss in Week 1 in which Dak Prescott got injured that, in four weeks, they’d be 4-1 and considered one of the top teams in football? Man, this has been a very strange year, and Cooper Rush currently being 4-0 has to be new the type of unexpected outcomes. Hey, this is a matchup between the only two remaining undefeated quarterbacks! Kidding aside this is a significant divisional game.
How have the Cowboys gotten to where they are? Well, allowing 13.25 points per game during this winning streak certainly helps. We’re well aware of Dallas’ elite pass rush, which leads the league in pressure rate and is suddenly loaded with depth, but can we also give some share of the credit to the secondary? After all, they rank fourth in PFF coverage grade, are allowing the fourth fewest yards/pass attempt, and the second-fewest air yards/attempt, which, of course, is impacted by quarterbacks being under duress, but also a testament to a back-seven getting strong contributions from players such as Malik Hooker, Donovan Wilson, Leighton Vander Esch, Trevon Diggs, and Anthony Brown. Of course, that hasn’t come against the most elite competition (Bengals, Giants, Commanders, Rams), but, so far, they’re picking up right where they left off last year.
That said, the Eagles may be about as rough of an offensive matchup as they could have. For starters, Philadelphia currently has the league’s top-graded pass-blocking offensive line from Pro Football Focus and the top pass-blocking efficiency rating, and now get star tackle Jordan Mailata back into the lineup. If that wasn’t enough, if there’s one area where Dallas has issues, it’s in run defense (4.7 yards/rush attempt allowed, eighth-worst PFF run defense grade). Of course, when you’re facing the #1 rushing offense in success rate, that isn’t ideal, and there’s a clear scenario where Philadelphia is able to simply gash them. Mind, they’re also the third-most efficient passing offense as well; assuming the Cowboys aren’t able to generate pressure at such an absurd rate, this could turn into a “pick your poison” scenario that favors Philadelphia tremendously.
If so, it’s unlikely that Dallas’ offense, while still led by Rush, will be able to overcome it. From a clean pocket, only Baker Mayfield and Jared Goff have a worse PFF passing grade than the backup quarterback. Why is this significant? With how volatile performance under pressure is, it’s unlikely he continues to average more yards/attempt in those situations (7.7) than when kept clean, which is significant against a defense creating pressure at the sixth-best rate and allowing the fewest yards/attempt in the NFL. With Rush under center, the Cowboys are producing a successful play at eighth-lowest rate, and that’s in spite of being on the right side of variance under pressure. In a likely negative game script, things could get out of hand.
I’m still not completely convinced that there is much of a gap between these two defenses, but, man, the differences between these two offenses is substantial. Perhaps this game would go much differently with Prescott back healthy, and the Cowboys are still in a strong spot, but, right now, there isn’t any spot where the Eagles don’t have an advantage. This is certainly a statement game for both of these teams, but, in the end, Philadelphia should continue to ride the wave the Phillies set ashore after their exciting run to the NLCS. There’s not much more the city of Brotherly Love could ask for right now.
Denver Broncos (2-3) at Los Angeles Chargers (3-2)
Spread: LAC (-4.5)
- Projected Spread: LAC (-2.5)
- My Pick: DEN (+4.5)
- Projected Total: 44.11
- My Pick: Under
- DEN: 42.47%
- LAC: 74.13%
Projected Margin of Victory: Chargers by 1.33
Score Prediction: Broncos 20 Chargers 21
- Any Day Now, Broncos Offense……
- A Very Rough Matchup For The Chargers Offense
- What’s Going On With JC Jackson?
This season, the Broncos have played three primetime games, in which they have scored two total touchdowns, and haven’t exactly elicited the optimism from the football world. Now, they make their fourth primetime appearance in six weeks in a very notable AFC West matchup. After last week’s Raiders-Chiefs matchup, can the AFC West start to live up to expectations? This would be a great place to start.
To be frank, there isn’t anything for Denver’s offense to hang their hat on. Even when excluding turnovers, they’re a bottom-seven offense in both EPA/play and success rate, while Russell Wilson currently has a lower PFF grade (61.9) than Carson Wentz, Marcus Mariota, Justin Fields, and Cooper Rush. That’s not what you expect when you trade two first-round picks, two second-round picks, and multiple players for a quarterback before signing him to a $245 million extension, and it’s made only worse with these struggles being on the national spotlight. Ultimately, the issue stems with a lack of success on early downs; they’re getting into the third-most third downs per game, and are the league’s third-worst offense on early downs in success rate. Now, they’re also without star left tackle Garrett Bolles for the rest of the season, and even the loss of Javonte Williams takes away any sort of explosiveness in the rushing game. Wilson’s track record would still indicate improvement in the future in an offense that looks discombobulated right now, though, if it doesn’t happen off a longer lay-off in between games, when will it?
On the bright side for them, the Chargers defense has been equally as disappointing. After spending big on that side of the ball to try to build an elite unit, they’ve ended up in a similar place to last year (22nd in EPA/play allowed), ranking in the bottom-ten in PFF run defense grade and coverage grade. Notably, free-agent signing JC Jackson currently has a worse PFF coverage grade than all but two cornerbacks, they continue to have struggles at both free safety and linebacker, and the loss of edge rusher Joey Bosa has been significant as well. As one of the league’s most man-heavy teams, they’re also a great matchup for Denver’s receiving duo of Courtland Sutton (2.44 yards/route run vs man) and Jerry Jeudy (4.61 yards/route run vs man), which, ultimately is where the Broncos are going to be at their best- a condensed passing attack surrounded around their two high-end playmakers, as opposed to a more diverse passing attack that involves a limited tight end corps more than they should. I’m not saying the Broncos are going to suddenly be the offense many hoped they’d be, yet there are going to be some explosive plays on the table.
Ironically, the Chargers are the opposite; Justin Herbert has the league’s fifth-lowest average depth of target, but also is in the bottom-ten in turnover-worthy play rate and is taking the fewest amount of sacks. Especially with receiver Keenan Allen out, they perhaps haven’t functioned (15th in success rate) up to par, and now face a Denver defense ranked in the top-three in PFF pass rush grade and coverage grade. That’s a concern with a bottom-ten graded pass-blocking unit, and if Patrick Surtain II shadows Mike Williams, what complementary option steps up? An offense consistently under pressure not able to create separation or explosive plays doesn’t seem ideal on paper, but that’s a very likely scenario in this game.
Still, at this point, what Los Angeles is able to accomplish on offense provides them with a significantly higher floor that the Broncos, who, at this point, are impossible to maintain faith in. Most likely, we’re looking at a lower-scoring game, making it closer than the current 4.5-point spread would indicate, with the likely difference being quarterback play and coaching. There is nothing I would like more than to be proven wrong with a 41-38 shootout, but, at this point, it’s probably wise to brace ourselves for a defensive battle. Nevertheless, Justin Herbert in primetime equals happiness, so what’s there not to be excited about?
All Games Will Be Updated With Previews Prior To Kickoff
WSH/CHI: Action Network
CIN/NO: San Diego Union Tribune
JAX/IND: Stampede Blue
MIN/MIA: CBS Sports
BAL/NYG: Northern Star
SF/ATL: Mercury News
NE/CLE: Pats Pulpit
CAR/LAR: LA Times
ARI/SEA: Seattle Sports- mynorthwest.com
BUF/KC: Buffalo News
DAL/PHI: Eagles Wire
DEN/LAC: Sporting News