Folks, are you not entertained? In Week 10, we witnessed arguably one of the best games in the 21st century, a Packers 14-point overtime comeback victory against the Cowboys, the largest underdog of the week (Commanders) defeat the previously lone remaining undefeated team (Eagles), and Justin Fields casually rushed for 147 yards and two touchdowns, because why not. It’s an exciting time in the NFL; you never know what you’re going to see in any given week.
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.
Looking for unpredictability? Only one game this week features a spread in the double digits, while the matchups as a whole feature teams in very similar spots. Thus, from an analysis standpoint, this is definitely a week where the dust may start to settle overall, with nearly every team possessing a legitimate chance of victory. Given the parity of the NFL this year, that’s becoming a common theme, though I’d argue this week is even stronger in that direction.
Stats via Pro Football Focus, 33rd Team, Football Outsiders, 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:
EPA/Play: Expected Points Added Per Play
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 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 their overall success on early downs.
For weeks, the Buccaneers had stuck out like a sore thumb in terms of their poor third-down production, yet that completely changed in Week 10; they led the league in third-down success rate on both sides of the ball. It’s easy to be discouraged in the midst of struggles, but, sometimes, patience is the ultimate virtue. Next up, the Bills and Jets on the defensive side of the ball, whose third-down woes seem particularly puzzling for two defenses that have invested significantly both in terms of pass rush and coverage. On the contrary, the Lions and Patriots are walking on a very thin tightrope offensively, while the Giants, Packers, and Titans continue to be able to dial it up defensively when it matters most. Given the personnel and coaching staffs with those three defenses, this isn’t particularly surprising.
Finally, there’s one other notable measure of variance that we’d be remiss not to mention. Since 2018, the percentage of touchdowns scored in the red zone by team is as unstable (r^2= .026) as it gets, meaning that, in theory, the teams that score the most red-zone touchdowns should be the ones who get to the red zone all together. Thus, if we adjust each offense and defense’s performance for red-zone variance, we can better grasp their true level of performance:
For however productive you’d assume the Vikings have been defensively this year, those assumptions are likely still too short. Other defenses, such as the Cardinals and Chiefs, also likely will see positive red-zone regression in the future, but it’s fallen quite under the radar how well Minnesota has carved out a very strong defensive unit. Also, can someone explain to me how the Titans continue to be the one team in the NFL capable of winning in every unsustainable way imaginable? It’s truly astonishing at this point!
Now, onto the previews!
Tennessee Titans (6-3) at Green Bay Packers (4-6)
Spread: GB (-3)
- Projected Spread: GB (-5.6)
- My Pick: GB (-3)
- Projected Total: 42.79
- My Pick: Under
- TEN: 32.98%
- GB: 67.02%
Score Prediction: Titans 17 Packers 22
- Which Team Can Overcome The Odds On Third Down?
- Can Christian Watson Continue To Be a Pivotal Part of Green Bay’s Offense?
- Strength vs Strength: Titans Pass Rush vs Packers Offensive Line
Last week’s Thursday Night Football game may have not garnered the most excitement, but, this week, we have a matchup between last year’s #1 seeds! Now, perhaps we shouldn’t tell anyone that neither team has a positive point differential and rank in the bottom-eight in points per game. That being said, between two teams that parallel each other in some ways while also sharing stark differences, have a lot to play for, and have almost exclusively participated in one-score games this year, you couldn’t ask for much more to start off the week. So for two one-dimensional teams, which demonstrates the needed flexibility here? I’d say the answer to that will determine who comes out on top, but I’ve learned by now to expect anything but a logical outcome to any football game.
Have you ever expected something to occur in any aspect of your life, only to need stubbornness to maintain faith, just for you to finally move on when it’s about to happen? Well, could that be the case with the Packers offense? In the midst off a five-game losing streak in which they were averaging 15.8 points per game, a matchup against a vaunted Cowboys defense fresh off a bye would have appeared to exactly what the doctor did not order. Nevertheless, they managed to be the third-most efficient offense of the week in terms of EPA/play, doing so in very fascinating fashion: running the ball over 70% of the time on early downs, converting 50% of their third downs, and with over 50% of Aaron Rodgers’ passing yards coming on passes of 20+ air yards. Remember, third-down struggles and a lack of big-play ability have been a staple of Green Bay’s offense this year, and to lean so run-heavy, albeit almost certainly due to game plan against a poor Dallas run defense, is a risky strategy. Notably, that’ll be difficult against the league’s #1 defense in rush success rate allowed, as well as the #1 third-down defense in the NFL. Now, we can debate the merits of the stability of third-down success, but considering this is the second straight season in which Tennessee has dominated on third downs defensively (3rd in EPA/play allowed in 2021), I’d be inclined to believe there’s some real merit there.
If there is a way to attack the Titans defense, however, it’s over the top- they’re allowing the sixth-most air yards/pass attempt. That’s where the potential emergence of second-round rookie receiver Christian Watson comes into play. As a division-two prospect who was seen as lacking refinement coming out of North Dakota State, Watson was expected to have a slower transition to the NFL, but the upside was attached to his athleticism; his 4.36 40-yard dash at 6’4″, 208 pounds put him in the 98th percentile, per Player Profilier. Now with Romeo Doubs also out with injury, Watson played an every-down role for the first time this year, and while he’s unlikely to score three touchdowns again, the extra element he provides over the top is particularly critical for a limited passing attack lacking speed and throwing a pass behind the line of scrimmage more than every team but the Panthers. For all of their warts, this is still the 11th-best offense in success rate this year. Thus, it really comes down to their ability to not be a “nickel and dime offense”, and last week was an encouraging sign.
Outside of their receiving corps, if there’s been one constant source of frustration with the Packers, it’s been their run defense, which has been gashed for the third-highest success rate allowed this year. Theoretically, against the second-most run heavy offense in the NFL, that should be a problem, but we do need to be careful to not mistake intentions with results. See, in spite of their efforts to win games on the ground, the Titans (25th in EPA/rush, 23rd in rush success rate) haven’t translated that into legitimate production, which may explain why they’re averaging the fewest amount of yards per drive in the NFL. Add in Ryan Tannehill’s massive struggles in true dropback situations (5.7 yards/attempt, 57.6 PFF passing grade), likely to continue playing behind the lowest graded pass-blocking offensive line by PFF and throwing to a makeshift receiving corps, and the number of apparent red flags with them being able to consistently score points is quite noticeable. In fact, of any team in the playoff hunt at all, none come with such a low ceiling offensively, which essentially forces them to play the perfect defensive game. That may be enough to win the AFC South, but when does the bar get raised higher?
You can write a script where the Titans are able to win between the margins enough to continue to defy the odds, but we’re also ten weeks into the year, and they’ve had more yards than the other team in just one game. We can cite coaching as a major reason why, but some of this simply is subject to variance, something Green Bay has been on the wrong side of so far. Thus, could we being seeing a course correction here? It’s Thursday Night Football, which could mean anything, though Rodgers and co. may be able to at least put themselves in the periphery of the NFC postseason picture. Considering how porous it looked two weeks ago, that would be a tremendous change of narrative.
Carolina Panthers (3-7) at Baltimore Ravens (6-3)
Spread: BAL (-13)
- Projected Spread: BAL (-9.6)
- My Pick: BAL (-13)
- Projected Total: 45.41
- My Pick: Over
- CAR: 20.8%
- BAL: 79.2%
Score Prediction: Panthers 17 Ravens 30
- With Mark Andrews Back, Do The Ravens Completely Ditch 11 Personnel To Let Isaiah Likely Compensate For Receiver Issues?
- Can The Panthers Offensive Line Continue To Perform At a High Level Against a Strong Pass Rush?
- The Last Stand For Baker Mayfield
To say this season has been a gauntlet for the Ravens would be a dramatic understatement; only two of their nine opponents this season have negative point differentials, and those two (Browns and Saints) aren’t your typical bottom dwellers. Combine that with plenty of injuries, and it’s remarkable they’re in the position they find themselves in at this point. The best part? Fresh off of their bye week, the road ahead includes only one team with a winning record, setting them up perfectly for a deep postseason run. That is, of course, assuming they do their part.
Following the trade of Marquise Brown, who accounted for 34.4% of the team’s air yards last year, it was quite evident coming into the season that the Ravens would be quite reliant on two key players in the passing game: tight end Mark Andrews and second-year receiver Rashod Bateman. Alas, Bateman only played four full games before being limited in Week 7 and 8, leading to him eventually going on injured reserve with an ankle injury, while Andrews left Week 8 early due to injury and missed the subsequent week. Thus, that left Lamar Jackson throwing to the likes Devin Duvernay, fourth-round rookie tight end Isaiah Likely, and Demarcus Robinson, which, as you’d expect, left them inefficient (21st in EPA/dropback) during this span. With Andrews back, though, the league’s #1 tight end in yards/route (among players with 20+ targets) not only has a direct contribution with his production, but a less direct one as well; with the emergence of Likely, they’ll be able to hide their receiver woes with even more heavy personnel sets, while also allowing Duvernay to have a target depth closer to where it was pre-Andrews injury (13.6 yards prior, 1.8 yards without him). Jackson, with just 7 yards/attempt when attempting passes of 20+ air yards, is desperately in need of any help creating an explosive passing element for this offense, and that ultimately lies on Duvernay- 60% of the team’s completions of 20+ air yards have gone to him. That’s a lot harder to do when defenses don’t have to honor the middle of the field, but that should now.
On the bright side, the added value of having an exceptional rushing threat is the floor that provides you on the ground. In fact, at the moment, Baltimore has taken over as the most efficient rushing attack in the league in EPA/rush, generating more expected points added per play there than all but five offenses in total. Add that up, and that’s how they’ve managed to remain the ninth-best offense in EPA/play since Bateman’s original injury, and that’s in spite of massive struggles (23rd in EPA/dropback) through the air. For the year, this is still the third-best offense in defense-adjusted value over average (DVOA), and I’d reckon they have plenty of success against a Panthers defense that has had their fair share of struggles (25th in DVOA) this year. Speaking of rebound spots, is there a better way to come out of your bye than to go from facing the fourth-hardest schedule of opposing offenses (per Football Outsiders) to the one with the lowest success rate in the NFL. Hey, with Baker Mayfield filling in for the injured PJ Walker, could we see him finally get back to taking some chances down the field, thus playing a high-variance game? In spite of the team’s strong pass protection (6th in PFF pass block grade), I wouldn’t be banking on that, though it creates a much more interesting storyline to follow.
Really, there isn’t much analysis needed here; the Ravens have a very productive offense and the Panthers do not, while the former is now healthy and fresh off of their bye week. It is interesting to see them as a 13-point favorite given the nature of the NFL, but when you consider how well they’ve performed in the midst of adversity both in terms of injuries and schedule, it’s much easier to justify. 6-3 with the easiest remaining schedule in the NFL, per PFF? Yeah, that’s a great place to be in; are we completely sure we should rule them out in the hunt for the AFC’s #1 seed?
Chicago Bears (3-7) at Atlanta Falcons (4-6)
Spread: ATL (-3)
- Projected Spread: ATL (-10.9)
- My Pick: ATL (-3)
- Projected Total: 48.32
- My Pick: Under
- CHI: 16.99%
- ATL: 83.01%
Score Prediction: Bears 20 Falcons 28
- Can Justin Fields Start To Develop More Consistency Through The Air?
- It’s Time For The Falcons Offense To Get Back On Track
- Should 400 Combined Rushing Yards Be The Expectation Here?
Are you tired of the continued focus in passing attacks in the modern NFL? Deep down inside, would you prefer if games were won in the trenches, turning back the clock to the 20th century? Well, do I have the perfect game for you! No two teams in the NFL average fewer pass attempts per game than the Bears (20.3) and Falcons (23.1), who, when combined together barely eclipse what the Chargers (43.1) and Bucs (42.8) average by themselves! Meanwhile, both are passing at a considerably lower amount than last year’s lowest-ranked team in pass attempts (29.1), making them two true outliers compared to the rest of the league. Hey, different can be fun!
As is becoming a weekly tradition at this point, where else to start than with Justin Fields? Since making critical offensive changes during their mini-bye between Weeks 6 and 7, Fields ranks 8th in adjusted EPA/play (.252), 6th in success rate (55.2%), 8th in PFF grade (78.7), and, perhaps most encouragingly, has made major strides in terms of his accuracy (1.9 CPOE). Furthermore, his sack rate (10.7%) is down, and more should soon come through the air as his production down the field (6.1 yards/attempt during this span) starts to regress back to normal. Of course, a majority of that has come via his production on the ground – just a 60.5 PFF passing grade during this span with a 5.2% turnover-worthy play rate – and while production is production, you’d certainly hope for a more well-rounded skill set in the future for a player whose main strengths coming out of college were with his abilities as a passer. Now, is that simply on him, or the league’s second-lowest graded receiving corps from PFF? That’s the chicken and the egg dilemma that we may not know until next year (having Chase Claypool run more than seven routes would help), though this is the perfect spot for him to take advantage of an evened talent gap.
Who else would I be referring to than the Falcons defense, allowing the second-most yards/attempt in the NFL, in addition to the highest success rate? There’s a chance cornerback AJ Terrell is able to play in this game, but even he was struggling mightily (130.2 passer rating allowed) previously. Long term, the idea of him pairing with trade acquisition Rashad Fenton, a shrewd acquisition with three previous seasons with a PFF coverage grade over 74, sounds quite appealing, but between Fenton adjusting to a new defense and Terrell not even a certainty to play, it’s unclear if that translates to immediate defensive improvements. What they can do, though, is continue to try to manufacture offensive production in a rather obscure fashion. For the season, no team passes on a lower rate on early downs than them, but with the production they’re able to create in terms of chunk plays through the air with the highest average depth of target, especially via the play-action game (highest play-action rate), their efficiency on early downs (6th in EPA/play) is tremendous. Where things go south is in obvious dropback situations with Marcus Mariota on third down (25th in third-down EPA/dropback), but against the league’s third-lowest graded run defense by PFF and worst pass defense in EPA/dropback on non-turnovers, this restrictions become less problematic. Of course, when you’ve invested multiple top-ten picks in pass catchers Drake London and Kyle Pitts, you’d prefer to not be so constrained, but head coach Arthur Smith is doing his best to play with the cards he’s been dealt with. With what they have, I would completely endorse an aggressive push at a quarterback this offseason, whether via the draft or free agency/trade.
While both of these teams share similar styles of play in terms of the amount they run the ball, there is a massive gap in terms of when they produce- the Bears (26th in EPA/play on early downs, 5th on third downs) have relied on late-down conversions through Fields’ scrambling ability, whereas the Falcons have leaned on a specific structure of a play that they can’t go away from. Ultimately, the foundation in Atlanta has led to a longer period of offensive success less predicated solely on 60-yard runs from Fields, which is hard to consistently replicate, though I wouldn’t be surprised by any outcome here. All we’ve gotten in games involving these two teams is consistent entertainment, and I’m personally going to enjoy every second of the chaos along the way. After all, that’s what rebuilding teams trying to get by in opaque ways leaves you with. After all, who wants to keep up with the Joneses nowadays?
Washington Commanders (5-5) at Houston Texans (1-7-1)
Spread: HOU (+3)
- Projected Spread: HOU (-2)
- My Pick: HOU (+3)
- Projected Total: 40.35
- My Pick: Under
- WSH: 43.81%
- HOU: 56.19%
Score Prediction: Commanders 18 Texans 20
- How Long Can Taylor Heinicke Continue To Play With Fire?
- Can Nico Collins Continue To Develop Into an Impact Complementary Receiver?
- The Commanders May Have Stumbled Into A Terrific Safety Tandem For The Future
Wait, the Commanders are 5-5 and technically in the playoff hunt? Wait, the same Commanders who were 1-4, needed their head coach to push back against reports he didn’t want Carson Wentz as his quarterback, and continues to undergo massive organizational dysfunction? Well, I guess that’s what Heinicke magic can do for you! Washington has won three of their past four games, all coinciding with Taylor Heinicke being inserted under center for the injured Wentz, including a shocking victory on Monday Night Football against the previously undefeated Eagles. So, there’s no way they drop the ball against the team with the worst record in the NFL, right? Right?
While it’s exciting to theorize that Heinicke was the answer all along at quarterback, let’s not conflate wins and losses with reality, as damning as it is in this case. Let’s take a look at where the Old Dominion product ranks in a variety of notable metrics:
- PFF Grade: 51 (39th of 39 qualified quarterbacks)
- Turnover-Worthy Play Rate: 6.9% (39th)
- Big-Time Throw Rate: 2.4% (30th)
- PFF Grade on Throws Of 20+ Air Yards: 33.2 (39th)
First off, let me preface this by saying that, even with the quarterback change, the Commanders (23rd in EPA/play) still have struggled offensively. The problem? That’s quite alarming when you realize the fire Heinicke continues to play with. For starters, the fact that only four of his nine passes charted as being “turnover-worthy” by PFF have been intercepted is a natural small-sample statistical inconsistency that sticks out like a sore thumb, further limiting the team’s margin for error. Then, there are the contested catches. See, the reason that a contested catch is seen as a “50/50 ball” is, that in many ways, that’s exactly what it is. Even Terry McLaurin, for how superb he has been in the midst of poor quarterback play, has only caught 55% of contested targets thrown to him in his career. Thus, when we see that he’s come down with six of nine contested catches from Heinicke, five of which have come 20+ yard downs the field and 39.1 yards/reception, that’s a red flag. All of a sudden, those start to become incomplete, and we see a massive swing between “30 to 40 yard completion” and not converting the drive altogether, or, worse, a turnover. Now, this high-variance style of play likely is still preferable to Wentz targeting McLaurin on just 16% of his pass attempts, and the Commanders may still be better off sticking with Heinicke to play into that variance. However, in spite of the defense they go up against (the Texans, for what it’s worth, rank 10th in sack rate and possess a very respectable cornerback trio of Derek Stingley Jr., Steven Nelson, and Desmond King II), the floor is below ground level. In fact, it’s the exact range of outcomes that can lead to a win against the Eagles, in which you convert over 50% of your third downs with four turnovers, but then bottoms out against a team you’re favored to beat.
In the end, the main driving force of Washington’s recent success has been their defense, who is allowing a play worth positive expected points added at the fourth-lowest amount this year. With the Texans (30th in EPA/play) up next, you would expect that trend to continue, though they’re still a very vulnerable offense over the top (highest air yards/completion allowed), and Davis Mills (87.8 PFF grade, 16.5 yards/attempt) has actually been very efficient on deep passes this season. Certainly, the continued emergence of second-year receiver Nico Collins (1.88 yards/route run) to go along with Brandin Cooks being back in the lineup helps tremendously, and gives them a legitimate chance of mustering enough offense to have a decent chance of winning a classic low-scoring affair. If that’s the case, the quarterback producing a turnover-worthy play three times fewer may also be in a better spot, which definitely is not a position the Texans find themselves often. Or, the allure of Bryce Young can continue to be the main source of optimism for the fanbase, which, to be fair, is quite a strong start with another top-ten pick from the Browns likely on the way as well. That being said, don’t be surprised if the Commanders experience a 180 degree change here. After all, life comes at you fast in the NFL!
Cleveland Browns (3-6) at Buffalo Bills (6-3)
Spread: BUF (-8)
- Projected Spread: BUF (-7.2)
- My Pick: CLE (+7.5)
- Projected Total: 48.74
- My Pick: Over
- CLE: 28.33%
- BUF: 71.67%
Score Prediction: Browns 23 Bills 30
- Is Buffalo’s Run Defense Going To Continue To Be a Notable Problem Against Arguably The Best Rushing Attack?
- Can Josh Allen Reel In Some Of The Negative Plays?
- Denzel Ward Looking To Finish Strong After His Best Game Of The Year
Has any team dealt with more turbulence over the past few weeks than the Bills? Losing as a 13-point underdog to the Jets in Week 9 was not ideal, but what followed certainly tops that; Josh Allen’s UCL injury was expected to sideline him for at least Week 10, but, ultimately, he ended up playing, only for Buffalo to blow a 17-point lead in an overtime loss to the Vikings. All of a sudden, and Buffalo finds themselves not only losing ground in the chase for the #1 seed in the AFC, but are currently in third place in their own division. As such, they’ll need to get back on track, and they’ll need to do so in the midst of even more chaos.
Rather than this game being played in Buffalo, a blizzard featuring over five feet of snow has led to this game being relocated to Detroit, but that’s not where things get smoother. In fact, the Bills couldn’t even practice on Friday due to these conditions, and, now, are still trying to find out a way to fly to Detroit. To go from that to playing a game against a top-ten scoring offense figures to not be an easy task, though it ultimately comes down to Allen. Whether it’s the explosiveness the star quarterback creates through the air (highest big-time throw rate, most passing yards of 20+ air yards) or on the ground (highest PFF rushing grade among all positions), the high-end that Allen provides is precisely why the Bills lead the league in EPA/play when excluding turnovers. The blemish, though, is the negatives that come from it. No quarterback has produced more turnover-worthy plays, as charted by PFF, than Allen, and that trend (7% turnover-worthy play) has only become more alarming as of late. Responsible for 82%(!) of Buffalo’s total yardage this year, no quarterback is a more integral part of his offense, but while the trade-off is worth it, the amount of volatility present with him and the helm is something offenses like the Chiefs, Dolphins, and Eagles don’t have to worry about. As simple as it sounds, that’s almost certainly the key for Buffalo to live up to their insane potential down the stretch in hopes of a Super Bowl run.
Of course, especially now that this game is being at a neutral site, Allen and the Bills may also be heading into the perfect situation to completely turn things around. Entering the season, it was unclear what to expect from the Browns offensively with Jacoby Brissett under center, but a defense they had invested significant resources appeared to have all the makings of a top-ten unit. Instead, only the Lions are allowing more EPA/play than them, while they’re allowing more EPA/rush than any running game averages on their own! Run defense was expected to be an issue for Cleveland with little resources on the interior defensive line, but not to this extent, and they aren’t making up for it with sound play defending the pass (26th in EPA/dropback). On the bright side, top cornerback Denzel Ward is coming one of his best game of the season (78.4 PFF coverage grade, 90.8 passer rating allowed against a vaunted Dolphins offense), but second-year cornerback Greg Newsome II is out with a concussion, and linebacker Deion Jones is allowing nearly a perfect passer rating since being acquired from the Falcons. Given the preseason optimism surrounding this unit, you’d expect sweeping changes in terms of coaching, but with how much they’ve already tried to solidify this group, how else can they improve other than hoping for a lot of bounce backs? The final weeks of the season will be pivotal for that assessment.
Nevertheless, the Browns are decent one-score luck (1-4) away from being a .500 team or better, and that’s thanks to what they’ve been able to accomplish on the offensive side of the ball. With the second-most efficient rushing attack in the NFL and a middle-tier passing attack buoyed by better-than-expected production by Jacoby Brissett (10th in adjusted EPA/play), they quietly rank 7th in EPA/play, and that’s in spite of the 10th-most difficult schedule of opposing defenses, per Football Outsiders. That demonstrates quite the infrastructure they’ll ultimately be placing Deshaun Watson into, and is why their path to turning things around is much simpler than you’d expect. In this game, trying to exploit a Bills run defense allowing 5.7 yards/carry over their past three games should be expected, and while the effectiveness of their passing game has taken a hit against zone coverage this year, the potential return of tight end David Njoku would help a lot. At the moment, Buffalo remains without cornerback Tre’Davious White, and also are without linebacker Tremaine Edmonds and edge rusher Gregory Rousseau; these are notable losses diminishing their defensive depth, and the cracks (21st in EPA/play allowed past three weeks) are starting to show. Thus, more falls on the plate of Allen.
Considering the defense he’s tasked with facing, this is definitely not a spot where you’d expect Allen to struggle. Yet, would we see this turn into a quasi-shootout where the combination of Buffalo’s diminishing defensive depth and the Browns’ pesky offense is on full display? Absolutely. The quirkiness of the Bills’ travel and practice schedule, for what it’s worth, only adds an extra layer of unknown for this game, which, in turn, can make this game closer than they’re comfortable with. At the end of the day, though, Allen’s not going to throw two interceptions or fumble in his end zone every week, and it’s only a matter of time before the high-end of Buffalo’s offense starts to show out more. With the Browns and Lions up ahead, you’d hope that time is now.
Detroit Lions (3-6) at New York Giants (7-2)
Spread: NYG (-3)
- Projected Spread: NYG (-1.9)
- My Pick: DET (+3)
- Projected Total: 46.67
- My Pick: Over
- DET: 44.37%
- NYG: 55.63%
Score Prediction: Lions 23 Giants 24
- Can The Giants Take Advantage Of a Very Favorable Matchup?
- Aidan Hutchinson vs Kayvon Thibodeaux: Arguably The Two Top Rookie Edge Rushers On The Same Field
- Another Game Primed For Absurd Production From Amon-Ra St.Brown
If you take away the records of these two teams, the similarities start to become evidently clear. After all, both of them are currently in the “building” phase with relatively new regimes taking over, ranking in the bottom-seven in free-agent spending this past offseason. Consequently, without notable talent on the roster, both were expected to be picking near the top of next year’s draft, searching for a new quarterback while building a foundation through the development of their young players. Nevertheless despite scoring 32 more points than the Giants, it’s the Lions who still find themselves in position near the top of the draft order, though back-to-back wins and a favorable upcoming schedule may complicate that. On the other hand, the Giants have already exceeded their preseason win total, and completely control their own destiny en route to an incredibly surprising postseason berth. Still, as always for a team playing well above their estimated talent level, they’ll have to watch their back.
It’d be one thing if the Giants were solely winning with any data points to back it up, yet while ranking 23rd in PFF team offense grade, they somehow rank 8th (!) in EPA/play, and are in the top-ten in efficiency both on dropbacks and designed running plays. It helps when you face the schedule they have, but give credit to the coaching staff, led by head coach Brian Daboll and offensive coordinator Mike Kafka, for finding ways to work around their talent deficiencies; they utilize two-running back sets a very high 30% of the time, make life ridiculously easier for Daniel Jones with the third-highest play-action rate, and have taken advantage of what Jones can bring as a runner (4th most QB rushing yards). It’s unlikely this is sustainable, but, hey, when you’re facing a defense allowing more EPA/play (.141) than any offense outside of the Chiefs is averaging, that also helps. I would contend that Detroit has done a strong job limiting production after the catch, and it’s unclear that Jones, with the lowest rate of 20+ air yard passes, will be able to take advantage of their issues in the back-end (most air yards allowed/attempt). That being said, we also saw them allow 258 rushing yards against Justin Fields and the Bears, and a similar path to success is available for the Giants here. At the very least, consider this a chance for us to get an idea of the ceiling of an offense with so many built-in limitations.
Really, when you take strength of schedule (6th into account), it’s the Lions who come into this game with the better-performing offense, which explains why they’ve been able to remain competitive in spite of historically-poor defensive play. Since their bye week, four-fifths of their offensive line has earned a PFF grade over 77, and they’re creating yardage after the catch at the third-highest rate in the NFL. That’s quite a friendly situation for a quarterback to be in, and Jared Goff (13th in adjusted EPA/play) has taken advantage of it. Now, can you imagine what that looks like with an upgrade at quarterback rather than PFF’s ninth-lowest graded quarterback? They’ll be under siege against a Giants defense that blitzes at the highest rate in the NFL and has been dominant (2nd in EPA/play allowed) on third downs under defensive coordinator Wink Martindale, but you also have to love the matchup between Amon-Ra St.Brown and a the second-most man-heavy defense with the second-worst PFF coverage grade. St.Brown, per perspective, has not only been a top-eight receiver in PFF receiving grade and yards/route run, completely replicating his incredible end to his rookie season; him paired with first-round rookie Jameson Williams further adds to an exceptional infrastructure for a young quarterback. For now, though, they’re averaging the ninth-most points per game, and should continue to find success here.
If you can’t tell by now, I’m incredibly fascinated by the outlook of these two organizations moving forward, especially if an upgrade at the quarterback position is on the horizon. Outside of the defensive gap, there’s really no difference between these two teams whatsoever, making it close to a coin-flip that is decided by the natural unpredictability of the NFL (a turnover here, a big-play here). You’d expect plenty of points to be scored, aggressive decision-making, and a lot of yards on the ground, making this the ultimate fantasy football hotspot, as well as a very entertaining game. Now, let’s see if the one-score fortune of each starts to shift here.
Los Angeles Rams (3-6) at New Orleans Saints (3-7)
Spread: NO (-2.5)
- Projected Spread: NO (-2.5)
- My Pick: NO (-2.5)
- Projected Total: 39.86
- My Pick: Under
- LAR: 36.25%
- NO: 63.75%
Score Prediction: Rams 16 Saints 20
- Who Do The Rams Throw The Ball To?
- Aaron Donald vs Multiple Backup Interior Offensive Linemen
- What Happens First: Andy Dalton’s Fortune Changes or His Play Regresses?
How could this game not give you deja vu? After all, the 2018 NFC Championship Game had such severe ramifications for both of these franchises, as well as the NFL, which will happen when one of the most egregious “no calls” in NFL history comes at the worst possible time. From there, these two teams were the staples of the top of the NFC between 2017 and 2021, but, eventually, times change. Don’t tell that to either of these general managers, who have already traded away their first-round pick for next year (each of which could be a top-ten selection) and are already over the cap for 2023, and are now starting to experience the consequences of a short-sighted approach. Thus, in many ways, it’s perfect they happen to be facing each other here.
If there’s one main disappointment from this duo, though, it has to be the Rams. Last year’s Super Bowl champions chose to “run it back” with a very similar core that appeared to be in position to maximize on their condensed window. Naturally, they’ve been the least-efficient offense in the NFL, and, to be frank, appear to broken; Matthew Stafford’s average depth of target (6.7 yards) is down two yards, they have the third-worst PFF pass-blocking grade and have only had one offensive lineman play every game, while lucrative free-agent signing Allen Robinson II is averaging less than a yard per route run (0.88). Oh, and if that wasn’t enough, Cooper Kupp, who leads the NFL in receptions per game and has accounted for 38% of their receiving yards, may miss the rest of the season with an ankle injury. Add in the league’s worst rushing attack in terms of success rate, and there are legitimately zero solutions available offensively, which is utterly remarkable compared to where we were a season ago. Really, what matters more at this point is how they attempt to fix this for next year.
Then, you have the Saints, who, by trading away a future first-round pick to acquire an extra selection in this year’s draft while signing players such as Tyrann Mathieu, Marcus Maye, and Jarvis Landry, were dead set on trying to capitalize on a thinner-than-normal NFC. After all, with a healthier offense and nearly every piece of the #2 defense in EPA/play allowed last season returning, what could go wrong? Do we need to answer that? It’s not just that New Orleans ranks exactly dead-average in EPA/play allowed and have been a bottom-ten defense, but it’s how it’s happening; they’ve suddenly cratered as a run defense (25th in success rate) over the past four weeks, have the fifth-lowest pressure rate despite expecting much more from a well-regarded defensive line, and don’t have a single cornerback healthy with a PFF grade of 60 or higher. Now, in addition to cornerback Marshon Lattimore being out, pass rushers Marcus Davenport and Cameron Jordan won’t play, and the same goes for second-year linebacker Pete Werner. It truly is a saving grace for them that they get to face the Rams offense, especially if you expect their offense to improve with improved luck; they’d rank 11th in EPA/play if you excluded turnovers, and Andy Dalton has more interceptions (7) than turnover-worthy throws (5). Now, it’s also possible that Dalton, who is grading out from PFF (80.3) at a much higher level than previous baselines, also sees his performance go down, which makes them even more peculiar.
If that wasn’t enough, you also have the Rams defense here, who have also regressed to a middle-of-the-pack unit (14th in EPA/play), have the second-lowest pressure rate despite still having Aaron Donald on the interior of their defensive line, and, consequently, ranks just 21st in pass DVOA allowed. Donald facing a Saints offensive line without multiple interior offensive lineman and starting left tackle James Hurst would appear to be quite the lopsided matchup, but, even then, the offensive difference here is quite lopsided. Folks, this is a consistently evolving league, and if you don’t keep one eye to the future, the present can become much less pleasant in a hurry. Appreciate the good times while they’re still there; you never really know what you have until it’s gone.
Philadelphia Eagles (8-1) at Indianapolis Colts (4-5-1)
Spread: IND (+6.5)
- Projected Spread: IND (+11.5)
- My Pick: PHI (-6.5)
- Projected Total: 41.06
- My Pick: Under
- PHI: 84.83%
- IND: 15.17%
Score Prediction: Eagles 27 Colts 17
- Can The Colts Build On Last Week’s Surprising Offensive Performance?
- How Do The Eagles Compensate For The Loss Of Dallas Goedert?
- Does Indianapolis’ Defense Frustrate The Eagles In Similar Fashion To The Commanders?
Let these two teams be the ultimate microcosm of how much perception can be altered in a week. Between the Eagles losing their first game of the year in primetime against the Commanders and the Colts, under Jeff Saturday, coming away with a victory in Las Vegas, the spread for this game has shifted four points from where it opened. Yet, what has actually changed between these two teams? Most likely, not much at all.
Now, that may not be fair to the Colts, who not only benefitted from the re-insertion of Matt Ryan into the lineup, but also saw their offensive line earn their highest PFF grade of the year. With Ryan playing a conservative but efficient (8.2 yards/attempt) game and them having exceptional success on the ground (7.1 yards/carry) with strong contributions from the offensive line, what Indianapolis demonstrated on Sunday was strikingly similar to our expectations coming into the season, which seems tremendous before one clear caveat- they just happened to be facing a Raiders defense that not only is dead-last in DVOA, but also is pressuring the quarterback at the fourth-lowest rate in the NFL and is allowing the highest completion rate as well. In other words, this is the same defense that has allowed 20+ points to every team they’ve faced, and that includes the Broncos and Texans. You’d assume another run-heavy approach could keep them afloat the worst defense in rushing success rate, but what does the offensive line look like against the third-highest graded PFF pass rush in the NFL? If that goes as anticipated, where does that leave Ryan, whose performance under pressure (29.8 PFF grade, 8% turnover-worthy play) has been absolutely disastrous? Remember, this is still the 31st-ranked offense in EPA/play against the third-best defensive unit in the same statistic- it’s a mismatch that ought to be treated as such.
From there, the load ought to be minimal enough for the league’s second-ranked offense in success rate, even though the Colts (7th in EPA/play allowed, 2nd in EPA/rush) aren’t a pleasant unit to go up against. Excluding their four turnovers, which consisted of an interception off a drop and three fumbles, they were the sixth-best offense in EPA/play last week; there hasn’t been a “magical formula” to stop them other than simply recovering fumbles. Now, losing tight end Dallas Goedert due to a shoulder injury is a massive blow, and forces them into many more three receiver sets in the interim. That being said, the matchup between league’s fourth-best offense after the catch against the league’s third worst defense in the same facet of play is something they can exploit, as well as the difference between Indianapolis’ pass rush (fifth-worst PFF grade) and Philadelphia’s pass protection (fifth-best PFF grade). When you have massive advantages on both sides of the trenches AND in the perimeter, you’re well set up for success.
It’s quite remarkable that the Colts are 4-5-1 given the turbulence multiple quarterback changes and a head coach firing that led to public mockery, yet there is still a net-13.4 difference between these two teams based on average scoring margin, and it’s hard to find any area outside of potentially running the ball where Indianapolis sets up well. For the Eagles, the schedule is still extremely favorable for them to still earn the #1 seed, in the NFC, although their margin for error has decreased significantly, and that’s due to plenty of games left on their schedule like this. Let’s not waste our time overthinking this based off of one week. Haven’t we seen the chaos the NFL has provided us with on a game-by-game basis?
New York Jets (6-3) at New England Patriots (5-4)
Spread: NE (-3.5)
- Projected Spread: NE (-3.5)
- My Pick: NE (-3.5)
- Projected Total: 37.27
- My Pick: Under
- NYJ: 39.49%
- NE: 60.51%
Score Prediction: Jets 13 Patriots 17
- Two Second-Year Quarterbacks Running Out Of Time
- How Is Any Sort Of Offense Generated Here?
- A Massive Pivot Point For Both Organizations
Just when you thought the days of winning games solely based on defensive play was over, these two teams emerge. The mere fact that two offenses ranked in the bottom-ten in EPA/play can have a combined record of 11-7 and both be in the playoff picture is remarkable, though also the classic “this probably isn’t sustainable” situation. Now, with Zach Wilson and Mac Jones each in their second season, this wasn’t supposed to be the case, but in spite of their relative success, you can’t help but wonder if these organizations have actually progressed; the quarterback situation remains more unsolved than ever. Then, you have the “little brother, big brother” dynamic with the Jets and Patriots again, including New England once again defeating them in Week 8, and this game becomes remarkably fascinating.
When we think of quarterback development, we tend to see it similar to a positive linear scatterplot, where they continue to improve with more experience. Very rarely, though, does a quarterback go from ranking 10th in adjusted EPA/play as a rookie to 27th, while also dropping 28.5 points in his PFF grade (80.5 to 51.5). Alas, that’s where we’re at with Mac Jones, whose drop-off has been rather shocking. Yet, it’s also easy to read the tea leaves here. Under offensive coordinator Matt Patricia (yes, this actually is true), Jones is passing out of a play-action concept 10% less, which is puzzling considering that’s where he was at his best (8.8 yards/attempt) in 2021. On top of that, he’s been an outlier in terms of his struggles in the intermediate areas of the field (27.1 PFF grade, 23.3% turnover-worthy play), and is rarely targeting passes (15.5%) of that depth in lieu of more passes of 20+ air yards and behind the line of scrimmage. In essence, he’s definitely bowling without the bumpers on, and his continued woes (23.7 PFF passing grade) under pressure are a remarkable concern. Now, bring in a Jets defense ranked in the top-five in PFF grade in coverage, pass rush, and run defense, and we can start to get an idea of how this might go. Ultimately, any faith in Jones and this offense moving forward comes from what took place last season, which, without Josh McDaniels in the picture, may be a current pipe dream.
In this particular game, though, Jones’ woes may be completely overshadowed by Zach Wilson, owner of the worst adjusted EPA/play and completion rate over expectation in the NFL going back to 2021, while combining very little big-play ability (1.7% big-time throw) with a plethora of mistakes (5.6% turnover-worthy play). This only gets magnified under pressure (21.7% turnover-worthy play), not ideal against the #1 defense in pressure rate, as well as one that had its way with him (-.057 adjusted EPA/play, three interceptions) in Week 8, surprisingly playing zone coverage on 32 of the 38 snaps against him. As a response to that, we saw the Jets do whatever they could to take the game out of Wilson’s hands with quick decisions (2.39 time-to-throw) and a very shallow target depth (six yards) in a run-heavy attack against the Bills, but that’s harder to do with two running backs (Michael Carter, James Robinson) averaging less than four yards a carry; at some point, Wilson is going to have to step up, and do you really feel confident in that happening against a Bill Belichick-coached defense? Consider that a scary thought for all Jets fans.
At some point, you’d expect the Jets to defeat big brother based on how the non-quarterback aspects of both organizations are trending, but, right now, there may simply be too many limitations at the quarterback position to overcome. For Jones’ faults, he can at least point to the productiveness he demonstrated last year, while the Patriots offer more both on the ground and with their offensive line. That’s probably enough to swing this game in their favor, but, really, which quarterback gives away the ball the least would seem to be the likely difference in this game. That’s not where either franchise wanted to find themselves at right now, and, hopefully, a bye week for each gave them a time to have some sort of needed offensive reset. With the amount of punting that should be present in this game, don’t expect to see it on the Red Zone channel.
Las Vegas Raiders (2-7) at Denver Broncos (3-6)
Spread: DEN (-2.5)
- Projected Spread: DEN (+0.7)
- My Pick: LV (+2.5)
- Projected Total: 40.37
- My Pick: Under
- LV: 52.01%
- DEN: 47.99%
Score Prediction: Raiders 21 Broncos 20
- Liability vs Liability: Raiders Defense vs Broncos Offense
- Davante Adams vs Patrick Surtain Part II
- Two Quarterbacks In The Midst of Career-Worst Years
Remember when the AFC West was supposed to be historic? In fact, based on preseason win totals, the expectation was that the division would be the first ever to have four teams with a winning record, so, naturally, only one has a positive point differential this year. In fact, at least in the AFC, are we looking at the two most disappointing franchises? For two teams that hired new head coaches and traded away significant draft capital for star players at premium positions, this was far from the desired result, and that leaves us with a game where any last semblance of dignity is all that’s on the line.
I could point out the fact that the Raiders are 0-6 in one-score games, have had likely unsustainable struggles in the red zone on both sides of the ball, and, thus, are much better than their 2-7 record would indicate. At the end of the day, though, these aren’t exactly facts to hold your head up with optimism when you’ve lost three straight to the Saints, Jaguars, and Colts. With Derek Carr (63.5 PFF passing grade) in the midst of his worst season since his rookie year, you have to wonder if he and the franchise are on a crash collusion to a divorce here, with a lack of down-field efficiency (9.6 yards/attempt on passes of 20+ air yards) standing out. A clear issue? A lack of any sort of vertical speed. Statistically, both Nelson Agholor and Henry Ruggs III were able to serve as vertical playmakers for Carr to thrive in a more aggressive style of play, but since Ruggs III left the picture last year, that hasn’t been there- Carr has the lowest completion rate on passes of 20+ air yards in the NFL, and that includes a lack of success with Davante Adams (22.2% completion rate). The Broncos, meanwhile, have allowed the fewest air yards per pass attempt in the NFL. Yikes!
Then, there are the Broncos, who have taken any sort of woes the Raiders are experience to another level, ranking 31st in success rate and last in points per game. Let me put in this way; had they simply scored just 18 points in every game this year, they’d only have two losses. No quarterback is completing a lower percentage of his passes than Russell Wilson, and, as a result, the offense has been completely predicated on any sort of chunk plays down the field. The issue? That doesn’t jive at a time where defensive philosophies have shifted to lead to the lowest yards/completion ever, and is a much bigger problem with both Jerry Jeudy and KJ Hamler, the team’s only source of vertical speed, out for this game due to injury. I’d like to say facing the league’s-worst defense in DVOA could change things, but the Raiders’ struggles defensively have come via allowing consistent completions (highest completion rate allowed), rather than air yards per completion (11th-lowest). Under a $245 million contract, Wilson isn’t going anywhere, but can there be any signs of progress to provide the Broncos fanbase with any sort of hope? Wouldn’t we all wish that could be the case.
In terms of this game, the Raiders have demonstrated significantly more offensive competence than the Broncos, which may move the needle in their favor enough, without accomplishing much for them moving forward. At the very least, they’ve been an offense that has had flashes of high-end play (over 30 points per game between Weeks 4-7), and there are at least some statistical indicators that point to some sort of positive regression. That being said, are we sure any team actually will win here? At this point, a tie would be appropriate.
Cincinnati Bengals (5-4) at Pittsburgh Steelers (3-6)
Spread: PIT (+3.5)
- Projected Spread: PIT (+7.6)
- My Pick: CIN (-3.5)
- Projected Total: 43
- My Pick: Over
- CIN: 73.1%
- PIT: 26.9%
Score Prediction: Bengals 24 Steelers 19
- How Do The Bengals Continue To Try To Get By With Ja’Marr Chase
- A Finally Healthy Steelers Defense
- Two Offensive Lines Trying To Build Off of Strong Performances
Doesn’t Week 1 feel like an eternity ago? Yet, it was just over two months ago where the Bengals, as a touchdown favorite, were expected to build off of last year’s Super Bowl run with a victory against a Steelers team in clear transition. Five turnovers and a missed extra point later, they were stunned with an overtime defeat, which truly set the table for what has been a chaotic season. Ja’Marr Chase may still be out, but was a bye week enough time for them to try to steady the ship? Consider this an important test for them.
If you wanted to know the effect of Chase being out of the lineup, Burrow’s diminished target depth (6.5 and 6.9 yards) in the two games without him is a clear indication of that. Consequently, that’s led to a significantly more condensed passing game not able to create explosive plays through the air, and unless they’re going to run for 241 yards and five touchdowns every game, you’d expect that limited margin for error to show. Keep in mind that this is an offense that has relied on the second-best EPA/play on third downs for an extensive amount of their success, and when you take Chase out and add in continued questions about their offensive line (eighth-worst PFF pass-blocking grade), that starts to wither away. Oh, if that wasn’t enough, a depleted Steelers defense now has both edge rusher TJ Watt and safety Minkah Fitzpatrick back healthy, and it probably isn’t a coincidence their two highest-graded games as a defense by PFF happen to come in Watt’s two healthy games. At the end of the day, we’re still talking about the league’s sixth-highest graded quarterback still supported with sufficient talent in Tee Higgins and Tyler Boyd against a defense that has had issues (third-most air yards/attempt allowed) in the secondary. That being said, it’s likely not going to be easy footing for them.
Fortunately, it’s also unclear how many points they’ll have to score here. First off, getting interior defender DJ Reader back into the lineup is critical, allowing them to dedicate less resources in the box, and lets a top-ten defense in EPA/play have a better chance of performing up to capabilities against a Steelers offense that averages the fourth-fewest yards per drive. Meanwhile, rookie quarterback Kenny Pickett is still averaging the fewest yards per attempt (6.2) in a clean pocket, an indictment of the scheme and the worst receiving corps in the NFL when it comes to yards after the catch per reception, which has led to an abysmal 8.9 yards/completion by Pickett that forces the offense to win with a thousand paper cuts. When you also are taking six sacks in a game, haven’t limited turnovers, and your lead running back has been very inefficient on the ground (3.6 yards/carry), that isn’t possible. Hence, why they’ve scored the second-fewest points this year.
For as much concern as one could have about the Bengals, they’re also facing the worst team in the NFL based on point differential, and while some of that is schedule related, it’s not hard to see the clear cracks in foundation here. Sometimes, the quarterback mismatch is enough to shift the game on its own, and, right now, the lack of functionality in Pittsburgh is remarkably troubling when trying to develop a young quarterback. Never count out the Bengals to lay an egg when you least expect it, yet it’s be quite disappointing if they couldn’t find a way to come out of Pittsburgh with a victory here.
Dallas Cowboys (6-3) at Minnesota Vikings (8-1)
Spread: MIN (+1.5)
- Projected Spread: MIN (-1.3)
- My Pick: DAL (-1.5)
- Projected Total: 44.23
- My Pick: Under
- DAL: 46.08%
- MIN: 53.92%
Score Prediction: Cowboys 23 Vikings 21
- Do The Vikings Have Any Answer For CeeDee Lamb Out Of The Slot?
- Does Dallas’ Pass Rush Take Over Here? Micah Parsons vs Christian Darrisaw Is a Terrific Matchup
- Which Scrutinized Quarterback Creates Enough Chunk Plays In High Leverage Situations?
If you’ve noticed, this week isn’t one that features many teams each competing for the postseason; both teams have a winning record only three of the 14 games. With that in mind, this matchup couldn’t come at a better time. Two teams trying to prove themselves as Super Bowl contenders in the NFC, two generally scrutinized quarterbacks with a chance to silence the noise (for whatever that’s worth), with Jim Nantz and Tony Romo on the call? How couldn’t you be excited?
At the end of the day, win-loss record is how standings are ultimately determined, and, to their credit, the Vikings have essentially sealed a division title due to their ability to win close games. At the same time, record in one-score games has been proven to be rather unstable, so the odds of them building on their 7-0 record in said games is a near statistical improbability. In fact, it’s the Cowboys who come into this game with a better point differential despite playing with a backup quarterback for half the season, and there are signs of progress since Dak Prescott’s return:
- PFF Grade: 81.2 (5th)
- Play-Action Rate: 40.4% (4th)
- Team EPA/Play: .138 (5th)
- Team Success Rate: 51.3% (3rd)
The play-action rate, which would be up 15% compared to last year, is an extremely notable development. Prescott is averaging 2.1 yards/attempt more out of play-action, and for whatever concerns there are with the depth of their receiving corps, making everyone’s life easier in that regard; receivers have historically had much more success gaining separation off of play-action. Meanwhile, CeeDee Lamb is averaging a lofty three yards/route run (would put him 2nd in a full season) with a majority of his damage coming out of the slot (61.6% of total yardage), and he’ll now be lined up against Vikings slot corner Chandon Sullivan, who has allowed the most passing yards out of the slot this season. That’s a mismatch you’d expect Prescott and co. to consistently exploit, and unless Minnesota demonstrates a willingness to move Patrick Peterson inside, something he hasn’t done at all, trouble could ensue.
Meanwhile, for a Vikings offense that has been extremely inefficient creating yardage after the catch (fifth-worst), facing a Cowboys defense allowing the third-fewest air yards per attempt is a poor fit. Even with star tackle Christian Darrisaw back healthy, Kirk Cousins is the six-most pressured quarterback this season, which would seemingly spark concern against the top-graded pass rush by PFF in the NFL; Demarcus Lawrence moving inside against Minnesota’s guard duo of Ezra Cleveland and Ed Ingram, each of whom are among the worst-three guards in pressures allowed, is a scary proposition for Vikings fans. At the end of the day, in spite of their record, the Vikings’ offensive production (19th in DVOA, 15th in yards/drive) do not stand out, and they now face a defense that is both talented and healthy in a way that mirrors their matchup with the Eagles in Week 2- we know how that went. This is a major test for them, and it’s unclear if they’re truly ready for it.
Here’s a fun nugget regarding this game: the Cowboys, despite starting Cooper Rush this season, rank 8th in offensive EPA/play on early downs. The Vikings? 20th. The abundance of red flags regarding Minnesota’s start to the season is remarkable, and kudos to them for building the cushion they find themselves in. That being said, there’s a reason Dallas is a road favorite here; at the moment, in spite of each team’s win-loss record, it’s clear who the better team is.
Kansas City Chiefs (7-2) at Los Angeles Chargers (5-4)
Spread: LAC (+5.5)
- Projected Spread: LAC (+9.7)
- My Pick: KC (-5.5)
- Projected Total: 46.92
- My Pick: Under
- KC: 79.97%
- LAC: 20.03%
Score Prediction: Chiefs 28 Chargers 20
- The Chargers Receiving Corps Is Back; The Chiefs Receiving Corps Is Not
- Does Chris Jones Take Over This Game Similarly To Week 2?
- What’s Brandon Staley’s Next Wrinkle For Combatting The Chiefs?
Is this week supposed to represent the “what could have been” disappointment of the AFC West? Circle back to Week 2, and the Chargers and Chiefs playing in primetime was seen as an unparalleled matchup between two impact Super Bowl contenders, and, for what it’s worth, that game was extremely competitive. Now, though, while Kansas City has continued to solidify themselves arguably the best team in the NFL, the Chargers currently own a negative point differential, and are at clear risk of missing the postseason all together. With Mike Williams and Keenan Allen returning and Juju Smith-Schuster and Mecole Hardman out for the Chiefs, is that enough to allow them to pull off a needed upset? It’s now or never.
With a bottom-ten rank in DVOA, it’s rather evident the Chargers have not performed up to expectations offensively, and I’m not sure there’s a better statistic than this: over the past two weeks, Justin Herbert ranks fourth in PFF passing grade, fifth in big-time throw rate, and has not committed a turnover-worthy play. Despite this, PJ Walker is the only quarterback to have played in both weeks and average fewer yards/attempt (5.7) than him. When you’re averaging 8.64 yards/completion while your receivers are dropping 10.5% of the passes thrown their way, that disconnect is created. With Mike Williams and Keenan Allen healthy for the first week since Week 1, however, do things change? Herbert’s average depth of target was a full yard higher last season, while all the pieces are intact for an offense that ranked 8th in EPA/play last year. Of course, if Chris Jones obliterates the interior offensive line as he did in Week 2 (25% pass-rush win rate), that is less likely, though the excuses are no longer there for offensive coordinator Joe Lombardi.
On the other side, it’s the Chiefs who find themselves without multiple starting wide receivers (Juju Smith-Schuster, Mecole Hardman), though that can be mitigated by a continued increased role for KaDarius Toney. For what it’s worth, Patrick Mahomes’ worst performance in terms of PFF grade did come against the Chargers in Week 2 (61.2), when he averaged just 5.6 yards/attempt from a clean pocket with a very low 4.9 average depth of target in those situations. Yet, after playing man coverage on over half of the snaps in that game, do they have the same confidence in a secondary that has since been gashed (9th-highest air yards/attempt allowed)? Meanwhile, if Kansas City can supplement their passing efficiency with success on the ground against the league’s worst rush defense in success rate allowed, then the odds of limiting them whatsoever decrease drastically. Then again, even if they don’t have efficiency there, it hasn’t stopped them from leading the league in EPA/play for a reason- that’s what dominant success through the air (.311 EPA/dropback) does for you, and an injured Chargers defense isn’t the unit to combat that.
With how much optimism we had regarding these two teams heading into the year, it would be fantastic to see the Chargers finally play up to expectations and go toe-to-toe here, but, alas, things have changed. Allen and Williams being back is a major boost, but is it enough to compensate for the massive gap in each of these team’s performances. You wouldn’t figure that to be the case, but, hey, one can dream!
San Francisco 49ers (5-4) at Arizona Cardinals (4-6)
Spread: ARI (+8)
- Projected Spread: ARI (+12)
- My Pick: SF (-8)
- Projected Total: 42.12
- My Pick: Under
- SF: 86.24%
- ARI: 13.76%
Score Prediction: 49ers 27 Cardinals 14
- 49ers Offense vs Cardinals Defense: All Factors Favoring San Francisco
- Colt McCoy Starting Again For The Cardinals; Is There Any Chance At Moving The Ball Effectively?
- 49ers Defensive Line vs a Cardinals Offensive Line Missing Four(!) Starters
We’ve already had games in London and Germany this year, so why not continue to expand our horizons to Mexico City? Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, a Monday Night Football game in Mexico right before Thanksgiving was a staple of the NFL schedule, and it’s tremendous to see it return this season. Now, will the fans have a tightly-contested game to be entertained by? That’s in question.
Coming off a win against the Rams with Colt McCoy filling in for Kyler Murray, perhaps there should be some optimism for the Cardinals, especially after he performed quite well (76.6 PFF passing grade). At the same time, with just a 6.1- yard average depth of target and a paltry 9.1 yards/completion, Arizona continued to try to get by with pure efficiency, which somehow was actually higher than their season average (8.2). With such little explosiveness, you cannot have any mistakes, yet they’re the second-most penalized team in the NFL, and, all together, rank just 28th in DVOA; an offensive system utilizing play-action passes and pre-snap motion at bottom-three rates, in addition to such a condensed target depth, needs to be under examination. In this game, they’ll have to face the #3 defense in the NFL in yards and points allowed per drive, while dealing with a pass rush with the fifth-highest pressure rate while missing four starters on their offensive line. Somehow, that doesn’t scream “offensive success incoming” to me.
On the other hand, last week was our first look at a fully healthy 49ers offense, and, to be fair, they’re already the eighth-best offense in EPA/play when excluding turnovers. Notably, they once again lead the league in yards after catch per completion (6.9), as expected given their personnel, while Arizona’s defense is the worst defense in terms of allowing yards after the catch. Isn’t that the definition of something that can be exploited? Even without that, the Cardinals are letting up the second-highest success rate in the NFL, and also happen to struggle mightily (most yards given up per game) to tight ends- hello, George Kittle! Oh, and should Kyle Shanahan insist on a run-heavy approach, they’re also the fifth-lowest graded run defense by PFF. As such, their path to generating offense via explosive plays is so extensive, whereas the Cardinals would have zero margin for error even if Murray was playing in this game. Heck, they don’t even have home-field advantage here!
It’s very rare that a team has so many clear advantages over the team they’re facing, but this is where the 49ers find themselves. It’s a shame that the Cardinals, who just last year were the NFL’s last-remaining undefeated team, have fallen to this point, especially for the oldest roster in the NFL. The 49ers, on the other hand, find themselves in rare company as a team that can boast a top-ten offense and defense, and expected improved turnover luck (-3 vs +5 for the Cardinals) only helps them as well. Ultimately, for a matchup that had so much promise at the beginning of the year, this is quite lopsided on paper. Then again, after what happened in Philadelphia last Monday night, can we count on anything going as planned in the NFL?
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