December is here, which means one thing- we’re getting to the stretch run of the NFL season! As the weather cools, the postseason races continue to heat up, with five of eight divisions still being hotly contested, and the wildcard standings completely up in the air. Who would’ve thought a Commanders-Giants game in Week 13 would have legitimate playoff implications for both teams? In a season full of unpredictability, we shouldn’t expect the final weeks to be any different.
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, only one Sunday game featured two teams with winning records. This week, that number is up to six when including Thursday Night Football, with only two games (Packers-Bears, Jaguars-Lions) likely presenting zero postseason implications. I mean, that’s as close to heaven as it gets. While games mainly went on script in Week 12, the high-leverage state of these games should lead to a higher quality of play, which, in turn, creates both more entertainment and less predictability. Isn’t that what we want?
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.
After being one of the top outliers in terms of having a worse third-down offense than on early downs, the Cowboys’ production now matches in both of these situations- having Dak Prescott under center truly makes a difference. Meanwhile, strong defenses such as the Bills, 49ers, and Jets continue to have strange struggles on third downs, with overachieving offenses such as the Lions and Bears relying on production in those situations. By this point of the year, the gaps in production based on down have mainly stabilized, but, as we’ve now seen with the Cowboys, things can change any week.
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:
How about those Raiders and Jaguars? Let’s not what these two teams have accomplished offensively be clouded by their subpar win-loss records, with the opposite being true with the Vikings. Ironically, the opposite is true for the Vikings defense, with the Chiefs, Dolphins, and Cardinals also providing more resistance than you’d expect due to struggles in the red zone. There are no scenarios in football that provide higher leverage, making this extremely significant.
Now, onto the previews!
Buffalo Bills (8-3) at New England Patriots (6-5)
Spread: NE (+3.5)
- Projected Spread: NE (+2.6)
- My Pick: BUF (-3.5)
- Projected Total: 43.81
- My Pick: Over
- BUF: 57.74%
- NE: 42.26%
Score Prediction: Bills 24 Patriots 20
- The Bills Offense Looking To Get Back To Form
- Mac Jones Coming Off Of His Best Game Of The Year
- Two Mysterious Defenses- Let’s Learn More!
A Thursday Night Football game featuring two teams on full rest? Thank goodness for Thanksgiving, which allowed the NFL to schedule this AFC East matchup in a way that should automatically have a higher chance of improved quality of play compared to the standard Thursday affair. Plus, there be may be no game with more on the line this week than this one, with Buffalo’s AFC East chances and New England’s wildcard push being impacted significantly by the outcome of this game. Not bad to start of the week!
Remember when the Bills were the write-in Super Bowl champion following a 72-17 run in the first two weeks of the season? Since their bye week, not only have they failed to cover the spread in each of those five games and lost ground in the AFC East race with multiple losses, but they rank just 26th in EPA/play during that span, while the offense (10th in EPA/play) hasn’t been as sharp either. On top of that, Josh Allen’s performance (72.7 PFF passing grade, 5.1% turnover-worthy play) has also taken a hit, with a downtick in accuracy (72.2% adjusted completion rate) coinciding with a UCL injury that he continues to play through. Putting recency bias aside, Buffalo’s inability to create yardage after the catch (tied for sixth-lowest) and offensive line woes (Allen has been under pressure on 38.7% of his dropbacks since the bye) put an extensive amount on his plate, and a lack of consistency from non-Stefon Diggs receivers – Gabriel Davis (1.57 yards/route run), Isaiah McKenzie (1.18 yards/route run), Dawson Knox (1.01 yards/route run) only increase the downside of the offense further. Fortunately, Allen is still Allen, and only two offenses (Bengals and Eagles) have a higher overall success rate during these “struggles” than Buffalo. The Patriots may lead the league in EPA/play allowed, yet they haven’t faced an offense ranked in the upper-half of the league in EPA/play since Week 6, and that showed with massive struggles defending the passing game (61% dropback success rate allowed) against a Vikings offense that hasn’t stood out there (17th dropback EPA/play) this year. Often times, a defense can be a product of who’ve they faced, and it’d be irresponsible to expect a strength vs strength matchup to favor anyone but the offense.
Thus, this sets up the main unknowns of this matchup to take over. Mac Jones is coming off his best game (85.9 PFF passing grade, 9.8 yards/attempt) of the year last week, yet, even, then ranks in the bottom-six in both PFF grade and adjusted EPA/play- he’s also taking sacks at the third-highest rate, which, combined a bottom-ten running game in EPA/rush, leads to an offense that ranks 26th in EPA/play. So, that should set up a bounce-back spot for Buffalo’s defense, right? For the season, only three defenses allow a lower EPA/play on early downs than them, while they’ve faced the most difficult schedule of opposing offenses, per Football Outsiders. In fact, when adjusting for strength of schedule, they surprisingly slot in third in defense-adjusted value over average (DVOA), and while the loss of edge rusher Von Miller hurts, more expected playing time for Tre’Davious White is critical for a pass defense that has hit tougher times. That being said, the combination of an inefficient offense on early downs (13th percentile) and productive defense in those same stable situations (90th percentile) creates quite a reliance for New England to be as efficient as possible on third downs, which is a very unsustainable formula for success. Should things not go in the Patriots’ favor there, this game could go south for them in a hurry.
Ultimately, in spite of their 6-5 record, it’s hard to not look at the fact that the Patriots haven’t beaten a team with a winning record not quarterbacked by Zach Wilson, or their reliance on superb defensive play, as clear red flags that they may be playing above their skis. On the other hand, the Bills, between turnovers, struggles in the red zone, and poor third-down defense, have likely played at a lower level than their true talent, which happens in smaller sample sizes. As time goes on, though, talent and coaching, especially on offense, wins out, and it’s hard to not see another late-season surge from the preseason Super Bowl favorites. Conversely, with the Bills twice, the Bengals, and the Dolphins all left on New England’s schedule, their path to a playoff berth remains razor thin. To boot, with the Cardinals the only offense not ranked in the top-ten in red-zone adjusted EPA/play, last week’s defensive struggles may only be the start of a rough end of the season for Bill Belichick’s unit; if that happens, it’ll take more offensive performances like last week for them to stand any chance. Expect the cream to rise to the top here.
Jacksonville Jaguars (4-7) at Detroit Lions (4-7)
Spread: DET (+1)
- Projected Spread: DET (-0.4)
- My Pick: JAX (+1)
- Projected Total: 46.78
- My Pick: Under
- JAX: 48.93%
- DET: 51.07%
Score Prediction: Jaguars 24 Lions 23
- Oh My, Trevor Lawrence
- The First Two Picks In The 2022 NFL Draft On Display
- What Does The Drastic Red-Zone Efficiency Gap Between These Two Teams Mean?
It’s not often that a matchup between two 4-7 teams possesses a lot of intrigue, but how could you not be fascinated by this game? Two offenses ranked in the top-11 in EPA/play, two young and theoretically ascending organizations that have been mightily competitive this year, as well as two of the more aggressive head coaches with fourth-down decision making? Yeah, this is shaping up to be a good one.
While these two teams share similarities in terms of the fact they’re rebuilding organizations making notable strides this year, there are still stark contrasts- the Lions have perhaps gone about the process the more optimal way with extra resources via the draft and financial flexibility, but the Jaguars know who their quarterback of the future is. Even better, said quarterback is truly starting to live up to his prospect pedigree. Over the past month, he’s been one of the best players at his position:
- PFF Passing Grade: 90.3 (2nd)
- Big-Time Throw Rate: 7.1% (1st)
- Success Rate: 53.4% (6th)
- EPA/Play + CPOE Composite: .186 (2nd)
In fact, after struggling with accuracy at times this year, it’s rather remarkable that no quarterback has a higher completion rate over expectation during this span than him. Furthermore, his ability to do this while also getting rid of the ball extremely quick (2.34-second time-to-throw) reduces the amount he’s under pressure (23.6% pressure rate), which is critical considering the gap between his play from a clean pocket (10th in PFF grade) and when not (third-worst in PFF grade). It’s remarkable to think about how this could come together with more supporting talent in the future (hello, Calvin Ridley), but that isn’t an issue against a Lions defense in the bottom-four in PFF pass rush grade and coverage grade, and last in EPA/play allowed. Now, one can look ahead and see the Titans (twice), Cowboys, and Jets remaining on Jacksonville’s schedule and shudder, but for one more week, we can keep those concerns on the backburner.
Meanwhile, another area where these teams differ greatly is the cap space they’re allocating to their defense. The Lions, with the third-least amount of cap space used on defensive players, were by no means expecting to be a top-notch defensive unit, but the Jaguars (7th in defensive cap space) are spending the seventh-most cap space on their defense to rank just 26th in defensive DVOA. On the bright side, they do rank in the 58th percentile in early down defense and are allowing just 4.2 yards/carry, though their pass defense (third-worst PFF coverage grade) has left a lot to be desired and the Lions (9th in EPA/dropback when excluding turnovers) can exploit that. Specifically, Detroit’s success after the catch (third-most yards after catch/reception/YAC/REC) fits well against a Jaguars team that has struggled mightily limiting that (fourth-worst in YAC/REC), though it is worth noting that they’ve had their fair share of issues (26th percentile) on early downs, which should be expected to continue into this game based on Jacksonville’s strengths.
That’s the general theme of this game; whereas the Jaguars have been proficient (4th) on early downs compared to the Lions (30th), who, in addition to converting many more third downs, also are scoring a touchdown on 18% more of their red-zone trips. Even this late into the season, it’s hard to see that gap as any bit sustainable, particularly if Lawrence has actually turned a corner- those are the high-leverage situations where you’d hope improved quarterback play shows up. In fact, Jacksonville not only has a positive point differential, but leads the AFC South in said metric, hey, with two games against the Titans left, who knows what could happen? Mainly, though, it’s about seeing where their franchise quarterback can take them, and all signs are trending upwards in that regard.
New York Jets (7-4) at Minnesota Vikings (9-2)
Spread: MIN (-3)
- Projected Spread: MIN (-4.4)
- My Pick: NYJ (+3)
- Projected Total: 41.05
- My Pick: Under
- NYJ: 36.61%
- MIN: 63.39%
Score Prediction: Jets 17 Vikings 20
- Is There A More Perplexing Team Than The Vikings?
- Hey, Mike White Played Well Last Week
- Jets Defensive Line Versus Suspect Vikings Pass Protection
A team ranked 25th in EPA/play starting Mike White at quarterback versus a team in the bottom-ten in total DVOA; is this what you would expect for two teams with a combined 16-6 record? Perhaps not, but, then again, what has made sense from this season at all? Should you assume the current pace of these two teams isn’t sustainable, something has to give.
To be fair to the Jets, White now leads the league in adjusted EPA/play (.580) if we limit our sample size to 30 plays! With accuracy (8.6 CPOE), only one sack taken on 30 dropbacks, and allowing for his receivers to make plays after the catch (7.8 YAC/REC), White operated the Jets offense in a way we hadn’t seen it be able to function with Zach Wilson under center, which makes sense- Wilson, after all, was PFF‘s lowest-graded quarterback for a reason. Now, I could remind you this came against a Bears defense allowing the second-most EPA/dropback and his previous body of work (51.4 PFF passing grade, 2.1% big-time throw, 6.1% turnover-worthy play) was not exactly impressive, though I’m sure that’s the last thing Jets fans want to here right now. Encouragingly, the only defense allowing more yards/pass attempt than the Bears is the Vikings, though considering their ability to limit production after the catch (8th in YAC/REC allowed), New York will need to perform in different fashion offensively. It’s easy to be excited about last week, but the Bears have allowed 34.6 points per game over the past five weeks for a season, and it’s naturally easier to perform well when playing from a very positive game script. Based on White’s previous body of work, what comes when asked to do more may not be as pretty.
Do you know what’s pretty, on the other hand? That’d be the Jets defense, who, since the first month of the season, have had the best pass defense in the NFL based on EPA/dropback. With a top-three graded pass rush and coverage unit from PFF, moving the ball through the air against them has been a near impossible task, and we still have no true idea whether the Vikings are up to the task. Anecdotally, the flashes of excellence have been there from a schematic standpoint, but it all has led to the 20th-best offense in DVOA, 36th percentile early-down success, and a bottom-ten passing attack in yards/attempt. Even worse, with tackle Christian Darrisaw out, Minnesota now will have to deal with one of the league’s best pass rushes with two of the worst-three guards in pressures allowed and with backup Blake Brandel filling in at left tackle, which doesn’t feel like a recipe for success. Does that sound like a lot of points being scored on their end? I wouldn’t bank on it.
Hence, how we get a scrappy, low-scoring game that ultimately is decided by a turnover here or a special teams play there. Playing in such closely-contested games generally been the model for both of these two teams, and while they’ve had success doing so, both teams can’t win. The Vikings at least can go into this game confident in the passing game advantage they possess, but does it really matter given how often Cousins could be under duress? At the very least, you wouldn’t expect anything close to a decisive victory. Hey, when you’re already 9-2 in the first year with a new head coach, a win is a win.
Pittsburgh Steelers (4-7) at Atlanta Falcons (5-7)
Spread: ATL (+1)
- Projected Spread: ATL (-10.6)
- My Pick: ATL (+1)
- Projected Total: 46.54
- My Pick: Over
- PIT: 17.77%
- ATL: 82.23%
Score Prediction: Steelers 21 Falcons 26
- Can Kenny Pickett Build Off Of The Positives From Last Week In An Easier Matchup?
- Strength vs Strength: Steelers Front Four Versus Falcons Run Blocking
- Can Drake London End His Rookie Year On a High Note?
Is it possible to bring back the “Killer B” Steelers and the 2016 Falcons just for this game? Pretty please? Alas, with the Falcons running more than any team in the league and the Steelers in a rebuilding phase with a first-round rookie quarterback, we’re in much different times. Also, would this be a good time to mention the 5-7 Falcons are only a half a game out of the division lead? That’s the NFC South for you!
Speaking of Atlanta, it’s very surprising to see them slot in third in PFF offensive grade for the entire season, which plays a major role in their consistently favorable projections. To be fair, they are a top-ten offense in success rate, but their EPA/play (14th), points per game (14th), and DVOA (13rd) all indicates them being a slightly above-average offense. To the dismay of many fantasy football players, that’s come with the lowest early-down pass rate in the NFL, a combination of head coach Arthur Smith’s play-calling tendencies, a successful rushing attack (fifth in EPA/rush), and limitations with Marcus Mariota under center (19th in EPA/dropback). In fact, on third downs, Davis Mills, Baker Mayfield, Zach Wilson, and Taylor Heinicke are the only quarterbacks wit a worse adjusted EPA/play, which makes sense; there is a drastic drop-off in production for Mariota on play-action concepts (78.7 PFF passing grade, 8.7 yards/attempt) versus true dropback scenarios (51.7 PFF passing grade, 6.4 yards/attempt). Alas, there is extensive pressure on them to stay on schedule on early downs, which they’ve been able to mainly do (84th percentile), but is also a more difficult task against a Steelers defense ranked in the top-ten in PFF run defense grade and yards/carry allowed.
Now, Pittsburgh is rather vulnerable through the air, letting up the second-most air yards/attempt, notable for a Falcons offense converting the fourth-most air yards per completion. In essence, Atlanta’s pathway to success relies upon passing efficiency on early down play-action concepts, which is something they’ve done at a high level – third in EPA/dropback on early downs – and is critical considering their lack of overall consistency as a passing attack. Hopefully, that means better days ahead for rookie receiver Drake London, whose underlying numbers (76.8 PFF receiving grade) but aren’t leading to much production- he hasn’t eclipsed 50 receiving yards in a game since Week 3. Even in a run-heavy offense, you’d hope for more signs of progress from the highest-drafted receiver, especially given the inconsistencies with second-year tight end Kyle Pitts prior to him landing on injured reserve, considering these players are perceived as the foundational weapons for the next quarterback in Atlanta.
Now, in theory, not only do the Steelers believe they have the same foundational weapons with Diontae Johnson and George Pickens on the outside, but they also clearly have faith that Kenny Pickett be their franchise quarterback. The 24-year-old is coming off of his best start of his career from a PFF grade (88.5) standpoint, but, even then, averaged just 6.2 yards/attempt, attempted just one pass of 20+ air yards. Right now, no quarterback has been less efficient per pass attempt, with only Baker Mayfield worse from a clean pocket, which speaks to a combination of the worst receiving corps in terms of yards after catch production and an unaggressive passing attack. Consequently, only the Cardinals average fewer yards per reception, which, when you also are just 17th in completion percentage, leads to an ineffective passing attack. So, what gives against a bottom-five defense in EPA/play allowed and success rate? Considering the offense’s ability to perform well even in favorable scenarios, it’s fair to have doubts about a softer opponent changing things drastically.
Hopefully, a new play-caller and more support around Pickett in his second year can allow the Steelers to get a better idea of who he is as a quarterback moving forward, though, ironically, finding a way to win games like these only hurts them in that regard. With the state of their offense, however, that may not be something they have to worry about.
Tennessee Titans (7-4) at Philadelphia Eagles (10-1)
Spread: PHI (-4.5)
- Projected Spread: PHI (-7.7)
- My Pick: PHI (-4.5)
- Projected Total: 45.3
- My Pick: Over
- TEN: 26.76%
- PHI: 73.24%
Score Prediction: Titans 20 Eagles 27
- The Best Run Defense In The NFL Against Arguably The Best Rushing Attack
- Can The Eagles Get Things Going Through The Air?
- The Breakout Of Treylon Burks Is On Display
If you like a good “revenge game” storyline, then you’ll definitely want to be tuned into this one! After all, the Titans opted to trade star receiver AJ Brown to the Eagles after deciding not to commit to a long-term extension with him, something Brown certainly may have taken exception to. With a $100 million contract and the eighth-most receiving yards in the NFL as part of the team that has lost just one time this year, though, he’s surely making out quite well from that decision. Still, that doesn’t mean this game won’t have an extra kick to it.
As the only team to rank top-five in EPA/play on both sides of the ball, it’s relatively easy to point to the Eagles’ well-roundedness and dictate them as the best team in the NFC, regardless of their schedule. Then again, they’re also the fourth-least efficient team on passing plays through the past three weeks, with Hurts averaging just 6.5 yards/pass attempt. Some of that may be due to the defenses they’ve faced – the Commanders, Colts, and Packers have all been above-average passing defenses based on EPA/dropback – but if you’re also a Super Bowl contender, facing quality defenses can’t be a setback. Rather, their inability to create any sort of yardage after the catch (3.73 YAC/REC) sticks out like a sore thumb, while Hurts has been less accurate overall (73.7% adjusted completion rate). As you’d expect, less explosive plays and less efficiency isn’t a winning formula, and it’ll be much more difficult for them to get by with elite rushing production against the #1 run defense in the NFL based on success rate. Where you can beat the Titans, however, is through the air (seventh-most air yards/allowed per attempt), which they clearly have the ability to do with Brown and Devonta Smith on the outside against corners Kristian Fulton and Roger McCreary. The loss of tight end Dallas Goedert remains notable, but this is a spot for them to win in the perimeter passing game.
Meanwhile, although the Eagles have also been atrocious in run defense (second-worst success rate allowed), face a Titans rushing offense that is incredibly inefficient (28th in EPA/rush, 27th in success rate) on the ground. That may surprise you for an offense with Derrick Henry in the backfield, but also not a surprise with them averaging the fourth-fewest yards before contact/carry; you’re not going to be an efficient ground game when that’s the case, regardless of your running back. On the contrary, Ryan Tannehill is having plenty of success through the air (8.1 yards/attempt), while first-round rookie receiver Treylon Burks, ironically selected with the pick they got for Brown, has been absolutely phenomenal (2.13 yards/route run) as well. For what it’s worth, Tennessee may be realizing this based on their increased early-down passing aggression (13th) over the past two weeks, despite facing two poor run defenses (Packers, Bengals) in that span. Given how inefficient they’ve been running the ball regardless of opponent and the mismatch between their offensive line (worst PFF pass-blocking grade) and the Eagles’ pass rush (2nd in PFF pass rush grade), avoiding third downs and creating chunk plays in the early-down passing game should be a priority. Will it actually be? That’s to be determined, and, even then, there are going to be enough obvious drop back scenarios where Tannehill’s massive splits (12.5 yards/attempt with play action, 6.1 without) may be exposed.
Thus, it’ll take a classic Tennessee game where they win via the margins based on red zone success and other minor factors. The problem? The Eagles are a well-coached team that have also found consistent effectiveness in the same exact manner, and they have the elite offensive talent to go along with that. Keep in mind, the Titans are outgained per drive at the sixth-highest rate in the NFL, and have not beaten a team with a positive point differential. Playing in the AFC South will do that for you, but, when push comes to shove against elite teams, it’s unclear if they have the talent to pose as a legitimate threat. Well, what better way to prove themselves than here? Stopping AJ Brown may be a good start.
Washington Commanders (7-5) at New York Giants (7-4)
Spread: NYG (+2)
- Projected Spread: NYG (+1.7)
- My Pick: NYG (+2)
- Projected Total: 41.5
- My Pick: Under
- WSH: 55.06%
- NYG: 44.94%
Score Prediction: Commanders 20 Giants 21
- Terry McLaurin Versus a Man-Heavy Giants Defense
- Are We Seeing The Giants’ Magic Finally Run Out?
- A Game With So Much Reliance On Third Downs
A Commanders-Giants game featuring two winning teams and legitimate playing implications? Imagine thinking this would be a remote possibility earlier in the year. Nevertheless, in spite of their negative point differentials, these two teams have overcome the odds to get to this point, and it’s practically a certainty that one of them will get into the postseason, if not both. With two games against each other in three weeks, we’ll find out very quickly which team that’ll be.
Where do we even start in this game? The luster of the Giants has definitely been hampered by them losing three of their last four games, though based on their roster construction and 6-1 record in one-score games at the time, what did you expect? Given their ability to limit negative plays while creating just enough explosiveness, they’re still the 11th-most efficient offense in the NFL, and 16th in DVOA should you want to take opponent into account. Even last against a vaunted Cowboys defense, they were still a top-ten offense in EPA/play on early downs, yet their woes on later downs did them in. Considering the lack of pass-catching production outside of Darius Slayton (2.16 yards/route run), that’s somewhat anticipated, though that hasn’t stopped them from performing just fine (68th percentile) in those situations previously. On a positive note, they’ll be healthier on the offensive line for this game, but the league’s second-most pressured quarterback now has to face a Commanders defense getting more pressure on opposing quarterbacks at the fourth-highest rate. I’d say it’s a rough matchup on paper, but, then again, in what world were the Giants supposed to have anything close to the offensive production they’ve had?
Speaking of Washington’s defense, they’ve been at the pinnacle of their 5-1 record with Taylor Heinicke under center, letting up just 16 points per game while ranking in the top-five in EPA/play and success rate allowed. Moving Bobby McCain to the slot has allowed Kamren Curl and Darrick Forrest, two young safeties each in the top-six in safety PFF coverage grade, to form one of the better backend tandems in the NFL, with cornerback Kendall Fuller (81.6 PFF coverage grade, 29.8 passer rating allowed) playing at an absurd level to complement their defensive line. One can start to get very excited by what this defense could look like once edge rusher Chase Young is officially cleared to play, notable considering they continue to have zero margin for error due to their subpar offensive production.
Even with Heinicke, he isn’t exactly leading the Commanders (21st in EPA/play) to offensive success. In fact, a large deal of the credit for any offensive success can go to the combination of their rushing offense (9th in success rate) and Terry McLaurin catching over 60% of the contested passes thrown his way, each of which aren’t generally sustainable models for success; Heinicke having by far the lowest PFF passing grade (25.2) on passes 20+ yards down the field and still averaging 12.3 yards on those attempts looks like the precise type of statistical inconsistency that should normalize over time. Generally, it’s very difficult to win games with a quarterback graded lower than everyone else at his position by PFF but Zach Wilson, especially with four times as many turnover-worthy plays (12) as big-time throws (3). Regardless of your belief in said grading, their general predictive power with team success does speak for itself (that’s the basis of my projections!), and it continues to feel like only a matter of time before Washington can’t find another different way to win. If there’s one thing defensive coordinator Wink Martindale is going to do, it’s to blitz Heinicke and play man coverage as he’s done – the Giants rank first in both blitz rate and amount of man coverage – which inhibits the type of variance that could lead to negative plays, especially on third downs, where Martindale’s defense (71st percentile) has shined. Compare that to New York’s lack of negative plays on offense, and you start to see the pathway for them getting back on track.
Ultimately, it’s easier to have faith in the Giants to provide more offensive reliability, though Washington’s defense is also the one clear strength for either side in this game. Then again, the concept of consistently winning with defense (see Broncos and Colts) is incredibly difficult to sustain, particularly should turnovers come into play- they’re very difficult to predict, but the gap in negative plays between these two teams is stark. You’d certainly bank on not many points being put on the board, but besides that? Really, what’s the point of assuming anything with these two teams will go as planned?
Denver Broncos (3-8) at Baltimore Ravens (7-4)
Spread: BAL (-9.5)
- Projected Spread: BAL (-6.9)
- My Pick: DEN (+9.5)
- Projected Total: 41.37
- My Pick: Under
- DEN: 28.96%
- BAL: 71.04%
Score Prediction: Broncos 16 Ravens 23
- Can The Ravens Adequately Support Lamar Jackson?
- Do The Broncos Have Anything Left In The Tank?
- What’s Going On With Patrick Surtain?
Rather than Commanders-Giants, wouldn’t you have thought this would be the hotly-contested battle between two postseason contenders? We can thank the Broncos for that no longer being the case, which remains incredibly unfortunate; based on preseason excitement, they’ve definitely put themselves in the running as one of the greatest disappointments in some time, though there’s also plenty of competition. At the very least, is Russell Wilson in the midst of being the centerpiece of thee worst quarterback contract and trade in the modern NFL? With every week that passes by, it needs to be considered.
Remember, the Broncos did not just trade two-first round picks, two-second round picks, and multiple players for Wilson; rather, the potentially-crippling decision came from signing him to a five-year, $242.5 million extension that they can’t get out until at least 2025. Of course, that’s a fair price for a franchise quarterback, but not a bottom-ten quarterback in PFF grade and adjusted EPA/play, in addition to leading the lowest-scoring offense in the NFL. When you’re taking sacks at the second-highest rate while also playing a “boom-or-bust” style of play leading to a 58.9% completion rate, you better be creating enough chunk plays, and that’s not happening- he’s also in the bottom-half of the league in big-time throw rate (3.9%). Oh, and Denver can’t run (30th in rush EPA/play) with any efficiency, and have been cycling through wide receivers and offensive linemen faster than a high-speed dryer. I don’t know about you, but expecting them to breakout against the 9th-best defense in DVOA doesn’t sound like a logical plan!
The mere fact the Broncos have lost just one game by more than a score speaks to the prowess of their defense, which has held up their end of the bargain- 3rd in EPA/play allowed. That being said, starting in Week 7, they’ve yet to eclipse a PFF team defense grade of 64.5, while star cornerback Patrick Surtain III has been anything but that (30.2 PFF coverage grade, 154.4 passer rating allowed) over the past two weeks. That’s quite the small sample size to be making conclusions from, though it also theoretically opens the door for the Ravens to find themselves offensively. That seems strange to say, but since the first month of the year, they’re a bottom-ten offense (23rd) on passing plays, and don’t have a pass catcher outside of tight end Mark Andrews who has even cracked 1.4 yards/route run, a very modest number, this year. While they’ve still been ridiculously effective on the ground (3rd in EPA/rush during this span), it all transpires to a good-not-great offense (13th in EPA/play) during this span, which, all together, leads to a playoff-caliber team, but perhaps not one ready to take on the Chiefs, Bills, and Dolphins. At the same time, they’ve also led by two possessions in every game this year, but the last time they faced a team with a winning record was the Giants in Week 6- you’d have to go one week earlier to the Bengals to find the last time they were truly tested. When push comes to shove, you’d anticipate them needing to have some sort of perimeter passing attack, and it’s just not there.
That leads right to a 2022 Broncos game, where they remain quite competitive due to their defensive play, but don’t stand a true chance given their offensive deficiencies. Would it be that hard to take Jerry Jeudy and Courtland Sutton and put them on the Ravens? Can you blow a ten-point lead to a team that may not score ten points? Oh, what this game should’ve been.
Cleveland Browns (4-7) at Houston Texans (1-9-1)
Spread: HOU (+8)
- Projected Spread: HOU (+8.2)
- My Pick: CLE (-8)
- Projected Total: 45.39
- My Pick: Under
- CLE: 74.74%
- HOU: 25.26%
Score Prediction: Browns 27 Texans 17
- The Return/Browns Debut For Deshaun Watson
- Is There Any Current Reason For Optimism In Houston Other Than The #1 Pick?
- Myles Garrett Versus Laremy Tunsil
With the NFL, every game is supposed to serve as a display of some of the best athletes in the world, and allow us to live in a utopian village of joy. Unfortunately, that cannot always be the case, and time has come for Deshaun Watson to make his return from an 11-game suspension; this will be his first game played since the 2020 season and his first since being traded to the Browns for three first-round picks. To even make matters more complicated, the game happens to be played in Houston, the place where Watson’s 26 sexual assault lawsuits were originated. This is a very touchy subject and we’ll stick to the football side of this game, but it’s completely understandable to try to forget this game is even happening.
For the Browns, Watson’s return is obviously notable; this is a quarterback who, the last time he played, led the league in yards/pass attempt (8.9) and was PFF‘s third-highest graded player at the position (92.5). Considering how well their offense (6th in EPA/play) has functioned as is, boosted by an elite offensive line, efficient rushing attack (3rd in EPA/rush), and an explosive receiver tandem in Amari Cooper and Donovan Peoples-Jones, it’s natural to see the clear upside they possess moving forward. Now, you’d expect Watson to be rusty given the dramatically-long layoff, but does it make a difference against a Texans defense ranked 27th in DVOA and with the third-worst PFF run defense grade in the NFL? It’s quite fortunate for Watson and the Browns’ sake that the schedule worked out like this, though he’ll be put to the test shortly with the Bengals and Ravens up next.
Meanwhile, the Texans’ move to Kyle Allen under center did not provide a spark last week, with them finishing with the lowest EPA/play (-.369) by a considerable margin against a suspect Dolphins defense. Let’s put in this way; their first eight drives resulted in six punts and two turnovers. Hey, maybe Dameon Pierce (third in missed tackles forced) can be a factor against the league’s worst run defense, but if they also are in a completely negative gamescript, there’s simply no hope for them moving the ball through the air- even Brandin Cooks is out for this game. With their rookie draft class struggling and no foundational pieces evident on the roster, Houston is now two years into their organizational teardown without anything to really show for it. Securing a franchise quarterback with the top pick in next year’s draft should help, but you also need to have the support in place for that quarterback to have some sort of chance, especially during his rookie contract. Compared to the rest of the NFL, they’re honestly an outlier in terms of their roster talent, and it’s going to be a tougher sledding ahead for their front office than they perhaps expected.
That’s of course made easier by the picks they got back from the Watson trade, but, then again, one of those picks has already been used; Kenyon Green has been one of the least-productive guards (second-most pressures allowed) in the NFL. There’s such a talent deficit present, and you worry about what that may due to the development of their new quarterback, presumably Bryce Young. For now, though, we’ll see if some excitement comes in any way, though it only gets worse from here- the Cowboys and Chiefs are up next.
Green Bay Packers (4-8) at Chicago Bears (3-9)
Spread: CHI (+4.5)
- Projected Spread: CHI (+5.6)
- My Pick: GB (-4.5)
- Projected Total: 46.28
- My Pick: Over
- GB: 66.95%
- CHI: 33.05%
Score Prediction: Packers 26 Bears 21
- Two Quarterbacks Playing Through Injuries
- On The Other Hand, A Game That Will Have An Abundance of Rushing Production
- The Packers Reaping The Benefit Of Their Investment In a Young Receiver; The Bears Are Hoping For The Same
Over the first three years of his NFL head coaching career, Matt LeFleur won 13 games in each of them. This season? He’s one loss away from a losing record. Talk about unfamiliar territory! Particularly with Aaron Rodgers suffering a rib injury last week that he’ll momentarily try to play through and added intrigue around Jordan Love, we’ve gone from expecting the Packers being an NFC favorite to wondering if they should start over as an organization. Is there a team in greater need for a bye week?
In many ways, the fall of the Packers is incredibly bizarre; it’s not as simple as them trading away Davante Adams, considering no non-quarterback is going to be worth that much of a gap in wins. In fact, the emergence of second-round rookie Christian Watson (2.45 yards/route run) to go along with Randall Cobb’s productiveness in the slot, Allen Lazard, one of the game’s most efficient rushing attacks, and the sixth-best offensive line in pass-blocking efficiency makes out to be a reasonable supporting cast. Heck, Rodgers’ peripheral numbers (75.5 PFF grade, 6.3% big-time throw, 2.4% turnover-worthy play) remain quite strong. Really, the issue lies more with how long it took for the supporting cast to get to this point with Watson playing a minimal role and Cobb injured, in addition to struggles on third down (36th percentile) and in the red zone (21st in red-zone touchdown rate). Nevertheless, they’ve actually been extremely productive (6th in EPA/play) during Watson’s three-week emergence, and if Rodgers is even reasonably healthy, a field day could be had against a Bears defense that, as mentioned earlier, is allowing 34.6 points per game and double the EPA/play of the next worse team since Week 8. Yeah, there’s a reason Rodgers doesn’t want to miss this game.
On the Bears side, both of their second-round defensive backs – Jaquan Brisker and Kyler Gordon – are injured, though Justin Fields will play in this game despite suffering a shoulder dislocation in Week 12. I’d be remiss to not remind you that since their mini bye ahead of their Week 7 game in New England, the Bears have been the seventh-best offense in EPA/play with Fields in the top-ten in adjusted EPA/play and success rate; we’ve even seen major strides with his accuracy (2.6 CPOE) as well. Now, the increased rushing frequency with Fields has come at a cost, such as the 21 combined rushing attempts and sacks he took in Week 12 that led to the shoulder injury. In a lost year for the Bears, wouldn’t you prefer to sacrifice short-term effectiveness for long-term health of your hopeful franchise quarterback, especially since you’ve now seen the ill-effects of being succumbed to so many hits? You’d hope that’d be the case, though with Darnell Mooney out for the year, Fields’ supporting cast isn’t exactly in great shape. Right now, the second-round pick they traded for Chase Claypool comes in at 33rd overall, a steep amount for a player with 83 receiving yards in the four games since the trade. Hey, well here’s his chance to step up! Or, Chicago will simply do everything they can to try to expose the defense with the worst rushing success rate allowed, something that is actually advisable considering they allow as many expected points added per rush attempt as they do per dropback. Hey, it’s understandable to build a defense through the secondary, but if you don’t want to allocate resources in the box, would it hurt to sign one run-stopping defensive tackle?
In fact, equally as disappointing as the Packers offense is Green Bay’s defense. Usually, when you spend the most amount of money on any defense in the NFL, you don’t expect them to slot in 24th in EPA/play allowed and 27th in success rate, which, once again, speaks to the risk with investing significantly in such a volatile facet of the game. There’s certainly been enough offensive improvement for them to head into their bye with a strong showing against a depleted Bears team, though is there anything that can happen the rest of the year that will dictate their direction moving forward? For once, it’s time to look ahead to the future in Green Bay.
Miami Dolphins (8-3) at San Francisco 49ers (7-4)
Spread: SF (-4.5)
- Projected Spread: SF (-4.5)
- My Pick: MIA (+4.5)
- Projected Total: 46.08
- My Pick: Over
- GB: 36.25%
- SF: 63.75%
Score Prediction: Dolphins 22 49ers 24
- Kyle Shanahan and Mike McDaniel Reunited
- A Battle Of The Middle Of The Field: Dolphins Offense vs 49ers Defense
- Can Miami Compensate For Its Offensive Line Injuries?
Wait, this game is really happening? Pinch me, I must me dreaming! From a pute football perspective, this is about as good as it gets. If watching Mike McDaniel and Kyle Shanahan not only be reunited, but simply provide entertaining offensive football wasn’t enough, may I interest you in the league’s best middle-of-the-field passing attack against the best middle-of-the-field coverage unit? Does a game featuring Tyreek Hill, Jaylen Waddle, Deebo Samuel, Brandon Aiyuk, George Kittle, and Christian McCaffrey do the trick for you?
As alluded to, while there are plenty of reasons for intrigue in such a star-studded affair, it all starts with the Dolphins offense taking on their toughest test yet, and vice versa. Since Tua Tagovailoa returned from his concussion in Week 7, he’s absolutely outpacing the rest of the pack in adjusted EPA/play (.463), en route to Miami scoring 135 points over their past four games. The thing is, that came against the Lions, Bears, Browns, and Texans, who aren’t exactly the models for strong defensive play. The 49ers defense, on the other hand, has been that, leading the league in EPA/play allowed when excluding turnovers. Yet, outside of the Chiefs in Week 7, they haven’t faced a single offense ranked 13th or better in offensive efficiency since Week 2, so they haven’t been tested yet either! So, why not have both worlds collide at once?
For those who have watched the Dolphins offense this year, it’s pretty easy to see how they want to win; a passing attack condensed around Tyreek Hill and Jaylen Waddle (each top-four in yards/route run) predicated on finding open holes over the middle of the field to create yardage before the catch (1st in NFL). With how quick of a processor Tagovailoa is (2.5-second time-to-throw) combined with his accuracy (5.6 CPOE), along with McDaniel’s heavy usage of play-action and exploitation of Hill and Waddle’s speed to cause linebackers chaos, it’s about as unstoppable as a passing attack can be at full force. Nevertheless, if there’s one defense built to handle this type of offense, it’d be the 49ers, who have two of the top-six graded coverage linebackers in the NFL (Fred Warner, Dre Greenlaw) by PFF. At the same time, there are leaks in their secondary with the struggles of cornerback Deommodore Lenoir (50.2 PFF coverage grade, 103.6 passer rating allowed) as well as Jimmie Ward (111.3 passer rating allowed) in the slot, matchups McDaniel certainly will look to exploit. Now, one could also point to the absence of starting tackles Terron Armstead and Austin Jackson, but Tagovailoa’s quick release already limits the amount of pressure he faces, and the 49ers, 9th in PFF pass rush grade, perhaps haven’t lived up to their hype as a defensive line- only pressuring Andy Dalton on 10 of his 34 dropbacks behind a decimated offensive line was disappointing. If we have questions about the elite nature of both units based on strength of schedule, it’s also wise to side with the offense, particularly one as well pull together on paper as Miami’s. Hence, the Chiefs’ 44-point showing in San Francisco earlier in the year.
That being said, what the 49ers can cling to is while they can support their defense with a top-ten offense in DVOA, the Dolphins (17th in DVOA) have been questionable defensively all season long. While a stout run defense, they’re a bottom-ten graded coverage unit by PFF, with players such as cornerbacks Xavien Howard and Keion Crossen, safety Eric Rowe, as well as linebackers Elandon Roberts and Jerome Baker all allowing passer ratings over 100. Those are a lot of potential liabilities for Shanahan to exploit, whether it be McCaffrey and Kittle against the linebackers or Samuel and Aiyuk taking advantage of their cornerbacks. For what it’s worth, too, Miami is still a defense in the top-ten in blitz rate and their percentage of man coverage run, two areas where Jimmy Garoppolo and San Francisco’s passing attack have shined. Really, where the strength of schedule argument for the Dolphins becomes more notable is defensively, where, even then, they’ve had their fair share of struggles. In other words, don’t be surprised if a 49ers win comes via a shootout.
Would it be crazy to say this is the most intriguing head-to-head battle of the season thus far from a pure football sense? Add in the massive postseason incentives for both teams, and this is an absolute doozy, one where the weather hopefully doesn’t play too much of a factor and allows for a lot of points to be scored. It’s time for these two teams to be put to the test, and what better way than against each other? Plus, can the student (McDaniel) defeat his teacher (Shanahan)? Let’s all be grateful for this game.
Seattle Seahawks (6-5) at Los Angeles Rams (3-8)
Spread: LAR (+7)
- Projected Spread: LAR (+5.3)
- My Pick: SEA (-7)
- Projected Total: 44.09
- My Pick: Over
- SEA: 65.96%
- LAR: 34.04%
Score Prediction: Seahawks 24 Rams 17
- A Spot For The Seahawks To Get Back On Track
- Without Aaron Donald, What Can We Expect From The Rams Defense?
- Is Kenneth Walker’s Boom-Or-Bust Rushing Style Coming Back To Bite Him?
Want to encapsulate the 2022 NFL season with one game? The defending Super Bowl champion Rams are a seven-point underdog at home to a Seahawks team that came into the year with a win total of just 5.5 after parting ways with the best quarterback in their franchise history and looked to be in clear rebuilding mode. That wasn’t likely what linebacker Bobby Wagner had in mind when he signed with Los Angeles after being cut by Seattle, and to put icing on the cake, it’s the Seahawks via the Broncos that are going to have a likely top-five pick in this draft. Talk about heading in completely different directions!
Fresh off consecutive losses, this is certainly a critical game for the Seahawks, who still have a 72% chance of making the postseason per Football Outsiders, and theoretically have three winnable games (Rams twice and Panthers) alongside home matchups against the 49ers and Jets- they’re in a strong position if they perform as anticipated. On one end, you could point to their offense ranking just 16th in EPA/play since Week 8 as a reason for concern, but that would be misleading; that numbers jumps all the way up to 9th when excluding turnovers, while they rank second in dropback success rate during that span. In this particularly game, we may see less downfield production from Geno Smith against a Rams defense allowing the lowest average depth of target in the NFL, but that conservative nature combined with a very poor pass rush have led to them ranking 27th in EPA/play allowed on passing plays. Now, Aaron Donald is injured, adding to a laundry list of Rams injuries that includes Matthew Stafford, Cooper Kupp, Allen Robinson, and multiple starting offensive linemen. At some point, it just isn’t fair.
It will be interesting to see rookie running back Kenneth Walker, who has the lowest rate of carries going from more yards than expected in the NFL, but still has a positive yards/carry over expectation in true boom-or-bust fashion. This week, that is especially true against the #1 rush defense in the NFL, though Seattle’s effectiveness through the air should more than make up for it. Meanwhile, their defense, which ranks 26th in EPA/play allowed but 9th in success rate remains an enigma, though you’d expect promising signs from them against the current version of the Rams; backup John Wolford (-.340 EPA/dropback) struggled mightily in his lone start this year against the Cardinals, and that was with Kupp and Robinson still healthy. At this point, we’re at the point where the lineup is starting to mirror what it’d look like in the preseason, and there’s very little to be learned or gained this year. Honestly, it’s simply about getting through at this point.
Once again, it remains bizzare that these two teams are where they’re at, and it’s a divide that may continue to be evident in the future. Right now, we can’t even be confident who won’t retire for the Rams, whereas the Seahawks likely stumbled into an above-average quarterback, had a tremendous rookie class, and can take solace in multiple picks in each of the first two rounds next year. I mean, this is an absolutely remarkable turnaround. Let this be a reminder to take joy in the present, while also maintaining hope for the future- things can get better sooner than you’d ever expect!
Kansas City Chiefs (9-2) at Cincinnati Bengals (7-4)
Spread: CIN (+2.5)
- Projected Spread: CIN (+1)
- My Pick: KC (-2.5)
- Projected Total: 49.06
- My Pick: Under
- KC: 53.05%
- CIN: 46.95%
Score Prediction: Chiefs 27 Bengals 23
- Welcome Back, Ja’Marr Chase!
- Do The Chiefs Exploit Cincinnati’s Concerns In The Secondary?
- Chris Jones Takeover Game (Again)?
Losing an AFC Championship Game at home is never easy, but that’s without blowing a 21-3 lead at home, in addition to throwing an interception in overtime. Even worse, the Chiefs, by virtue of losing to the Bengals in the regular season as well that year, didn’t have fond memories of Joe Burrow and co., setting up a fantastic game here. Forget those storylines, though; we get to watch Patrick Mahomes and Joe Burrow face each other in a matchup between two indisputably elite passing attacks! There’s a reason Jim Nantz and Tony Romo will be on the call for this one.
Just in the nick of time, the Bengals, who lead the league in EPA/play since the start of Week 6, correlating with notable schematic changes (#1 in early-down pass rate, dramatically increased shotgun rate), happen to get Ja’Marr Chase back healthy for this game. During that span, Burrow has been the highest-graded quarterback in the NFL by PFF, has 13 big-time throws compared to one turnover-worthy play, and is the third-least pressured quarterback due to decisive decision making (2.47-second time-to-throw). That being said, they’re still a bottom-ten graded pass-blocking offensive line from PFF with a particular hole at left guard with Cordell Volson, which isn’t ideal when facing Chris Jones, who is outpacing all interior defenders in total pressures (48), PFF pass rush grade (92), and sacks (10). Besides Carolina’s collection of quarterbacks, no quarterback sees a higher rate of his pressures converted to sacks more than Burrow, so if Jones takes over, life becomes much more difficult.
Normally, that wouldn’t be an issue, but you need to be practically flawless offensively when facing Patrick Mahomes and the league’s #1 offense in EPA/play. In addition to the obvious positives Mahomes brings to the table, him taking sacks at the lowest rate in the NFL and limiting negatives (2.2% turnover-worthy play rate) is a major reason why their offense is in the 100th percentile on both early and late downs, and let’s not take anything away from “only” scoring 26 points against the Rams; with an NFL average 58.3% red-zone touchdown rate, they’d have been on pace for 37. Juju Smith-Schuster playing more snaps in his second week back from a concussion also certainly helps, especially when looking to exploit the Bengals’ outside cornerback duo of Eli Apple and second-rookie Cam Taylor-Britt, each of whom have earned sub-60 PFF coverage grades, For everything the Bengals have accomplished offensively, Kansas City complements as many positives with even fewer negative plays, and have fewer easily-exploitable holes on the back-end of their defense; they’re road favorites here for a reason.
Ultimately, you can almost flip a coin here, as is true for any shootout between two franchise-altering quarterbacks. In the end you’d think the Chiefs as the one with fewer holes on the offensive line and secondary, though this is the precise type of game that is decided by which quarterback happens to be even better than the other in high-leverage situations. Would anyone complain if this wasn’t the last time these two teams faced off? Good quarterback play really does win the entertainment battle over anything else.
Los Angeles Chargers (6-5) at Las Vegas Raiders (4-7)
Spread: LV (-2.5)
- Projected Spread: LV (-7.6)
- My Pick: LV (-2.5)
- Projected Total: 46.91
- My Pick: Under
- LAC: 26.99%
- LV: 73.01%
Score Prediction: Chargers 22 Raiders 27
- Surely Justin Herbert Can Find Success Here, Right?
- That’s Harder To Do When Maxx Crosby Is Facing A Backup Right Tackle
- The Raiders Offense Is Set Up To Thrive Here
Let’s circle back to Week 1, the last time these two teams faced off. At the time, the Chargers were seemingly destined to be competing for a Super Bowl title, whereas the Raiders had plenty of intrigue following an aggressive offseason under a new regime. Instead, neither team currently has a positive point differential, with the Chargers getting to the point where they’re a justifiable underdog against a 4-7 team. After all, they’re the team with the worse point differential. As always, through all their faults, they’ll rely on one man to overcome the odds.
Right now, no team is averaging fewer air yards/reception than the Chargers. That should not be possible when Justin Herbert is your quarterback, and it was on display with him averaging just 3.7 air yards per target in Week 12’s win in Arizona. Even if you look at the time since their Week 8 bye, they’re only 19th in EPA/play and 18th in success rate, and that’s with three matchups against bottom-half defenses in DVOA. Oh, and they’ll also be without All-Pro center Corey Linsley and tackle Trey Pipkins, which means Foster Sarrell (44 PFF pass-block grade) will be tasked with defending PFF‘s third-highest graded edge rusher in Maxx Crosby. Now, Las Vegas’ defense (32nd in DVOA) has been anything but productive this year, but the Chargers have also failed to take advantage of softer defenses in the past. Really, it’s sad we’ve gotten to this point.
Meanwhile, a defense that was tremendously revamped with free-agent signings this past offseason ranks 27th in EPA/play allowed, is letting up the most yards/carry, in addition to the sixth-most air yards/attempt- they’re incredibly vulnerable on all levels. With the fifth-best red-zone adjusted EPA/play, the Raiders are a legitimate strong offense, with Derek Carr’s production (8.6 yards/attempt, 5.3% big-time throw, 1.8% turnover-worthy play) significantly better since their Week 6 bye week. Then again, how much does that matter when you have PFFs highest-graded running back in Josh Jacobs against such a poor run defense? Whether it’s chunk plays through the air or rushing efficiency, there are so many pathways to success for Las Vegas here, which should not be a case against a defense run by its head coach and with so high expectations coming into here.
Simply put, as things stand, the Raiders are the better team, with their offensive upside being significantly higher. Hey, with the Rams, Patriots, and Steelers up ahead, whereas the Chargers face the Dolphins and Titans, would it be a surprise if Las Vegas still managed to have the better record heading into Week 17? A loss here would be devastating for a Chargers team fighting for their playoff lives, but, either way, something needs to change. Not having your running back be your target leader would be a good start.
Indianapolis Colts (4-7-1) at Dallas Cowboys (8-3)
Spread: DAL (-10.5)
- Projected Spread: DAL (-7.4)
- My Pick: IND (+10.5)
- Projected Total: 37.43
- My Pick: Under
- IND: 27.69%
- DAL: 72.31%
Score Prediction: Colts 14 Cowboys 23
- Strength vs Strength: Cowboys’ Air-Yard Passing Attack vs Colts Defense That Limits Air Yards
- An Absolute Mismatch: Cowboys Pass Rush versus Colts Offensive Line
- Can We Show Some Appreciation For Colts CB Isaiah Rodgers?
Let’s cut right to the chase; to be honest, I’m not sure why this game didn’t get flexed out of this primetime slot. That’s the power of the Cowboys for you, and, at the very least, they’re a remarkably entertaining team. Hey. the Colts have only lost one game for more than a score, so don’t count them out to keep this competitive. Plus, Jeff Saturday once played for Mike McCarthy, so there’s that.
To give an update on the Cowboys offense since Dak Prescott’s return in Week 7, let’s just say it’s going well:
- EPA/Play: 4th
- Success Rate: 6th
- Dropback EPA/Play: 3rd
- Dropback Success Rate: 1st
Not too shabby! Whether it be the team’s increased usage of play-action passes (36.8%), an equally-efficient rushing attack, and the continued dominance of CeeDee Lamb (2.97 yards/route run since Prescott’s return), this is the top-functioning offense that Prescott has ever played in. Heck, they’re even slated to get star tackle Tyron Smith back soon. Now, this is an offense in the bottom-ten in the yards after catch they’re creating, and the Colts’ defense limits air yards per completion better than every defense than the Cardinals; combined with an elite rush defense, has led to them continuing to be a top-eight unit in EPA/play allowed. After all, there’s a reason they’ve been as competitive as they have, and the cornerback tandem of Stephon Gilmore and Isaiah Rodgers, who is in the midst of a dominant third season (87.5 PFF coverage grade) is going to cause plenty of problems.
At the same time, though, can they actually score enough points? They haven’t’ been functioning on all cylinders (25th in EPA/play, 21st in success rate) even since turning it over to Matt Ryan at the start of the Jeff Saturday era, and now faces the #1 defense in DVOA. If that wasn’t enough, an offensive line in the bottom-five in PFF pass-block grade is now without tackle Braden Smith, meaning Matt Pryor, who has been benched at multiple positions this year, as well as third-round rookie Bernhard Raimann, will be tasked with slowing down the league’s top pass rush based on practically every metric. As brutal as its been at times, this could reach a whole new level, barring a few explosive carries from Jonathan Taylor just to give them a true chance.
As such, we’re likely looking at a physical, low-scoring affair that perhaps is closer than it should be due to the Colts’ strong defensive alignment against Dallas’ strengths, but one never truly in doubt for the Cowboys. Remember when the Colts were the write-in pick to win the AFC South? There’s a reason this game was scheduled for primetime, though you’d be correct to be perplexed that a slate filled with so much excitement couldn’t result in a game between two winning teams here. Still, there’s nothing like football on Sunday night.
New Orleans Saints (4-8) at Tampa Bay Buccaneers (5-6)
Spread: TB (-3.5)
- Projected Spread: TB (-0.9)
- My Pick: NO (+3.5)
- Projected Total: 41.43
- My Pick: Under
- NO: 47.21%
- TB: 52.79%
Score Prediction: Saints 21 Bucs 20
- Will The Saints Defense’s Recent Ownage Continue Against Tom Brady?
- How Notable Are Each Team’s Offensive Line Holes?
- Chris Olave On The Perimeter Versus a Strong Tampa Bay Cornerback Duo
If you thought Commanders-Giants having postseason implications was crazy enough, how about this game having true significance? Now, based on preseason expectations, that would make sense, but when both teams have losing records and negative point differentials, they’re not supposed to be playing in a meaningful game in December. There’s the NFC South for you!
If there has been one staple of the Tom Brady era in Tampa Bay, it’s been their struggles against the Saints defense. Dennis Allen’s defense, which has run man coverage against them over 50% of the time dating back to the start of 2021, is still responsible for Brady’s three highest turnover-worthy play totals as a Buccaneer, and had their fair share of success (5.6 yards/attempt) against him back in Week 2. On one end, having all three of their starting cornerbacks (assuming Marshon Lattimore doesn’t play) currently possess PFF coverage grades under 50, in addition to a bottom-five pass rush in pressure rate, would be a hindrance for the same level of success. Then again, after failing to crack 20 points against a Browns defense ranked 31st in EPA/play, the Bucs now fail to slot in the top-20 in EPA/play, and have eclipsed 22 points in one game this year; you’d expect some of their red-zone and third-down woes to be legitimate given how porous (32nd in EPA/rush) their rushing attack has been, even in shorter yardage situation. Now, add in star tackle Tristan Wirfs being injured, and things get more complicated for an out-of-sync offense that seemingly has no solution whatsoever.
Here’s a fun fact; the Saints have been bit by the worst turnover margin in the NFL, but when excluding those plays, they’d rank 12th in EPA/play and 9th in EPA/play allowed. Right now, they continue to get strong quarterback play from Andy Dalton, rated 6th in our estimated EPA/play metric, who also had tormented (87.5 PFF grade, 9.1 yards/attempt) when blitzed this year; he’s been willing to read his matchups on the outside and trust them. That’s easier to do with Chris Olave (2.45 yards/route run) already establishing himself as one of the game’s premier receivers, and they’re also getting chunk plays (20.5 yards/reception, 2.13 yards/route run) from undrafted free agent rookie Rashid Shaheed, who has now earned a starting spot on the outside for New Orleans. Led by the cornerback tandem by Jamel Dean and Carlton Davis, Tampa Bay’s coverage unit, 4th in PFF coverage grade, continues to play at an exceptional level, but they’ve also been hampered by an uncharacteristically poor pass rush (third-worst PFF pass rush grade) and run defense (22nd in EPA/rush allowed). With Andrus Peat and backup center Josh Andrews on the interior, is this where we see Vita Vea make a notable impact on the interior? At some point, there’s enough explosiveness on the perimeter for the Saints for them to create just enough offense, and Dalton (1.9% turnover-worthy play) has displayed sound decision making. Thus, it’s not a certainty that Tampa Bay’s defense continues to keep them competitive on its own.
How have we gotten to the point that the Bucs, with Tom Brady still playing, are a 5-6 team and a liability of an offense? It’s astonishing how quick things have changed from last year, but when you lose significant players (Rob Gronkowski, Ali Marpet), have an aging roster, and questionable offensive play-calling (the lack of play-action passes combined with a recent insistence on more rushing volume is showing up), this is in the range of outcomes. At some point, it’s too hard to just assume things will click at the perfect time, and dare I say the Saints have actually played better than them this year? I mean, a 4-8 team has a chance to be half a game out of the division hunt with a win here. Meanwhile, the Bills, Dolphins, Bengals, Ravens, and Cowboys are all either likely to be wildcard teams, or is at risk of being one. For anyone who doesn’t like the divisional structure in football, this would be evidence for that, though who doesn’t want Brady back in the postseason? We’ll see if Dalton can become the fourth Saints quarterback to defeat Brady in three years. Sometimes, the best “fun facts” are the ones that simply demonstrate the absurd unpredictability that is the National Football League. Hey, maybe when Superman is struggling, kryptonite is just what the doctor ordered! Yes, we’ve gotten to the “reverse psychology” stage of the Bucs’ struggles.
BUF/NE: Pats Pulpit
JAX/DET: Bally Sports
NYJ/MIN: Sporting News
PIT/ATL: Behind The Steel Curtain
TEN/PHI: Bleeding Green Nation
WSH/NYG: Sharp Football Analysis
DEN/BAL: Mile High Report
GB/CHI: Sporting News
SEA/LAR: 12th Man Rising
KC/CIN: Chiefs Wire
LAC/LV: Silver and Black Pride
IND/DAL: Sportsbook Wire-USA Today
TB/NO: Bucs Wire