In an NFL season, you’d assume all 17 weeks count the same, but when you have a slate of games with a lot on the line for both teams, the effects are much greater. In Week 13, we saw the Bills recapture the #1 seed, the NFC postseason picture likely condensed to two NFC East teams, the Bengals make a push to win the AFC North, as well as a Commanders-Giants tie that, well, let’s just say is going to matter a lot more than any of us would like. Oh, and Tom Brady casually had a 13-point comeback with less than five minutes left, because of course he did!
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.
For as exciting as last week was, there was one key element missing: upset wins. In fact, the only underdog to come out victorious was the Bengals as a 2-point home underdog against the Chiefs, and that doesn’t feel like that should qualify. This week, four of the 13 games feature spreads of a touchdown or greater, but I’d still consider it a slate of relatively tight matchups. That’s becoming commonplace in the current landscape of the NFL, leading to an incredibly entertaining product.
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.
It’s astonishing to see a team contrast each other on offense and defense like the Packers, with their early-down success on offense a sign of hope for the future with more receiving talent. Meanwhile, no team sees a greater drop-off in performance on both sides of the ball from early downs to third downs like the Jets, who happen to be facing a Bills defense suffering a similar fate this year. Furthermore, it’d be right to look at this chart as a reason to be worried about the 10-2 Vikings, and we may see two struggling offenses in the Patriots, Steelers, and Saints decline more before improving in the future. Ultimately, early-down production on offense can be a testament to the scheme and infrastructure in place, so it makes sense why those three teams rate out poorly there.
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:
Hey, look; another data point that supports the Packers offense being much better than their overall output would indicate! Meanwhile, is it too early to acknowledge how productive the Raiders have been offensively? Are the Chiefs on their way to being even more well-rounded than one could’ve thought, even more so than the Bills? What should we think about the Lions continuing to have the top red-zone offense in the NFL? There are so many questions that we’ll hopefully get answers to over the final month, though, sometimes, it takes until the next year for us to have more confidence in it showing up. Then again, it can also happen in any given game.
Now, onto the previews!
Las Vegas Raiders (5-7) at Los Angeles Rams (3-9)
Spread: LAR (+6.5)
- Projected Spread: LAR (+2.6)
- My Pick: LV (-6.5)
- Projected Total: 44.7
- My Pick: Over
- LV: 57.85%
- LAR: 42.15%
Score Prediction: Raiders 27 Rams 17
- Can The Raiders Offense Be Less Big-Play Reliant Against a Conservative Defense?
- Jalen Ramsey vs Davante Adams
- Are We Witnessing The Renaissance of Chandler Jones?
Well, this matchup perhaps looked a bit more enticing at the beginning of the year. Given both of these franchise’s presence in Los Angeles, this game certainly has an extra “jolt” to it, but I’m sure the NFL was fully anticipating a shootout between two west-coast playoff teams. Instead, we don’t know who the Rams quarterback will be, while the two teams are a combined 8-16- that’s less that ideal for the NFL and Amazon Prime! Don’t worry, folks; with any game, there are individual stories and reason for intrigue to be found. At the end of the day, nothing can replace a standalone football game, regardless of the teams playing. Let me put it this way; in a few months, we’d do anything to see these two teams face off on a Thursday night.
To be fair, pessimism about this game may be unfair to the Raiders, who’ve now won three games in a row and have a positive point differential outside of a 24-0 clunker in New Orleans. Need more? Adjusting for red zone success, they’d be in the top-five in EPA/play, and are now getting exactly what they paid for, both draft pick and contract wise, from Davante Adams; he leads the NFL in PFF receiving grade (93) and yards/route run (3.59) dating back to Week 9, while Derek Carr’s combination of chunk plays and limiting mistakes (5.9% big-time throw rate, 1.5% turnover-worthy play rate) is a notable boost as well. Add that with their success on the ground (fifth in rush defense-adjusted value over average/DVOA), and you get an offense with as much upside as anyone, though it’s not one predicated on efficiency. In fact, for the season, Las Vegas’ 44.3% dropback success rate is in the bottom-ten, lower than the Rams, and Carr is only completing 62.3% of his passes. Ideally, you’d hope for an offense able to sustain more drives when needed given the volatility of a boom-or-bust style of play, and we’ll see if that can happen against a Los Angeles defense allowing the second-lowest average depth of target in the NFL, with the top-graded run defense from PFF as well.
I will say this, though; only Tyreek Hill and Justin Jefferson average more yards/route run than Adams against cover-three, the Rams’ main-used coverage, and he commands nearly half of the team’s air yards in those situations. Jalen Ramsey or not, you’d expect to see a passing attack once again centered around him, especially after Tyler Lockett and DK Metcalf combined for 255 receiving yards against Los Angeles on Sunday. With no pass rush to be concerned about with Aaron Donald still injured, there’s also perhaps less of a reliance on performing well in volatile situations, especially with the Rams earning a PFF coverage grade of 52.5 or lower in three straight games. Then, contrast that to Los Angeles’ offense, where the quarterback options are John Wolford, owner of the worst EPA/play in the NFL outside of Kyle Allen, or Baker Mayfield, who was claimed off waivers on Tuesday, behind the third-lowest graded pass protection by PFF and a receiving corps without Cooper Kupp and Allen Robinson II. The Raiders defense – 31st in DVOA – may not exactly be a juggernaut, but with Chandler Jones accumulating 18 total pressures over his last two games, there are at least some signs of hope. Plus, unless you see the league’s worst rushing offense in success rate generating an outlier .240 EPA/play on the ground again, it’s nearly impossible to see where the path to consistent offensive production comes from. Was a deal with the devil made for the Rams’ Super Bowl victory last year?
Well, if you’re a believer in “flags fly forever”, then I guess the disappointing nature of the Rams season becomes less notable. In what could theoretically be a home game for the Raiders here as 6.5-point favorites, they’re on track to be 6-7 before facing the Patriots and Steelers, two teams they should be favored against, a 49ers team on their third quarterback, and a Chiefs team that may be resting starters in Week 18. Just two games out of a wildcard spot from the Jets, who still face the Bills, Seahawks, and Dolphins in addition to an upstart Lions team, and you can paint a picture in how the Raiders could even sneak into the postseason. At the very least, though, their record starting to line up with their competitiveness certainly makes this a much smoother start for Josh McDaniels and Dave Ziegler in Las Vegas. Then again, as the same team that has blown three 17-point leads, loss to the Colts in Jeff Saturday’s first game as head coach, and scored zero points against a Saints team who had allowed a combined 60 points in the two games prior, who knows what to expect? Hey, that on its own makes this game worth watching.
Philadelphia Eagles (11-1) at New York Giants (7-4-1)
Spread: NYG (+7)
- Projected Spread: NYG (+14.2)
- My Pick: PHI (-7)
- Projected Total: 46.17
- My Pick: Over
- PHI: 92.92%
- NYG: 7.08%
Score Prediction: Eagles 31 Giants 17
- Can The Eagles Show a Better Plan Against The Blitz?
- How Does The Giants Offensive Line, and Their Tackles, Hold Up Against a Stellar Pass Rush?
- Time To Be Worried About Saquon Barkley?
Generally, a matchup between two winning teams in division would be expected to be a close game. Yet, in a loaded division, the gap between the Eagles and Cowboys compared to the Giants and Commanders is substantial, which we saw on Thanksgiving; Dallas was a ten-point favorite against New York despite the two teams sharing the same record at the time. In fact, since their 6-1 start, the Giants’ only win has come against the Texans at home, making you wonder if the “Brian Daboll voodoo magic” may be starting to wear off. Well, unfortunately for them, there may not be a worse team to face when in need of a win.
Want to understand what makes the Eagles so dangerous. Consider this; in a span of two weeks, they scored 40 points orchestrated by 363 rushing yards against a weak Packers run defense, but, against the best run defense in the NFL, averaged an absurd .517 expected points per dropback en route to a 35-point showing against a fiesty Titans defense. In simpler terms, this is a team with an offensive line graded in the top-three in pass protection and run blocking by PFF, two high-end perimeter receivers in AJ Brown and Devonta Smith, the fifth-highest graded passer from PFF, and the league’s most efficient rushing attack by EPA/rush as well. I mean, pick your poison! If there’s one area Philadelphia could look for more success, though, it’s against the blitz. When blitzed, Jalen Hurts’ 6.6-yard depth of target and 1.6% big-time throw rate are amongst the worst in the NFL, and their woes (17th in EPA/play when blitzed) in those situations have shown up in some of their less stellar offensive performances against the Cardinals and Cowboys. Well, no defensive coordinator sends the house more than Wink Martindale, which has allowed the Giants to produce the third-highest pressure rate in the NFL; they’ll have their main weakness put to the test here.
Of course, the Giants are also allowing 5.1 yards per carry and have the second-lowest PFF coverage grade in the NFL, so this may just be a situation where talent wins out. After all, the league’s second-most efficient offense on early downs against the second-least efficient defense in those situations seems like quite the mismatch, and that’s before looking at the massive on-paper matchups that are even more evident with cornerback Adoree’ Jackson still injured. Compound that with an offense that, when excluding turnovers, was the fourth-least efficient the past two weeks while being put to the test against the Cowboys and Commanders, and there are more reasons to be concerned. At some point, when your quarterback has completed only seven passes of 20+ air yards the entire season with a 1.1% big-time throw rate, you’re in a tough bind, and their rushing efficiency has catered with a notable drop-off in running back Saquon Barkley’s production:
- Pre-Bye (Weeks 1-8): 4.8 yards/carry, 82.8 PFF rushing grade, 3.28 yards after contact/carry, 17.1% missed tackle rate, 11.66% explosive rush rate
- Post-Bye (Weeks 10-13): 3.5 yards/carry, 64.2 PFF rushing grade, 1.73 yards after contact/carry, 7.6% missed tackle rate, 8.9% explosive rush rate
Mind you, this is with matchups against subpar run defenses in the Texans, Lions, and Cowboys included. So, are we seeing him run out of gas in his first full season since 2019? So far, he’s already 282 total touches, an absurd amount 12 games in, and if this trend continues, his free agency case becomes even more complicated. For now, though, these struggles are not ideal for a top-ten offense in early-down rush rate, especially with how limited they are when it comes to generating any sort of explosiveness through the air. On top of that, their run of difficult defenses doesn’t stop with the Eagles, 6th in DVOA and 5th in EPA/play allowed; the league’s second-highest graded pass rush from PFF going up against the second-most pressured quarterback doesn’t sound like a fair head-to-head battle. Alas, it’s times like this where it’s important to remember the Giants remain in a rebuilding phase.
Ultimately, while I’m sure all Giants fans and the new regime would have to overcome all obstacles with a postseason berth, the mere fact New York is in this spot given their talent deficit and very modest preseason expectations is still remarkably encouraging. With only one game remaining against a team with a losing record, including two against Philadelphia, it’s going to be quite a difficult road for them ahead, and that starts with a lopsided game here. When you look at this game in terms of point differential (119-point difference), it starts to make much more sense; if anyone is slowing down the Eagles, it likely won’t be in this game. Now, we’ll just have to see which pathway to success they choose to partake in here.
New York Jets (7-5) at Buffalo Bills (9-3)
Spread: BUF (-10)
- Projected Spread: BUF (-6)
- My Pick: NYJ (+10)
- Projected Total: 41.56
- My Pick: Under
- NYJ: 31.68%
- BUF: 68.32%
Score Prediction: Jets 17 Bills 23
- Josh Allen vs Jets Defense Part II: Can New York Continue To Be His Kryptonite?
- With Von Miller Out For The Year, The Rest Of The Bills Pass Rush Needs To Step Up
- Potentially The Last Game Of The Year Where Mike White Needs To Produce In a Very Difficult Spot
Oftentimes, when a player establishes himself as one of the best as his craft, we come to expect consistent greatness to the point that any sign of mere mortality causes confusion and panic. Case in point, Josh Allen in Week 9. In a disappointing 20-17 loss to a Jets team still quarterbacked by Zach Wilson, Allen (-.210 EPA/dropback, 48.1 PFF passing grade, 6 yards/pass attempt) had by far his worst game of the year, a performance that is a complete outlier compared to every other week. So, was this an aberration, or is the Jets defense built in a specific way to cause continued problems for Allen? Due to the beauty of divisional matchups, these two teams are back at it again in Buffalo.
Interestingly, since the team’s Week 7 bye, we’ve seen a different version of Allen:
- Pre-Bye (Weeks 1-6): 8.3 yards/attempt, 83.5 PFF passing grade, 7.3% big-time throw, 3.6% turnover-worthy play, 78.1% adjusted completion rate, 2.64-second time-to-throw
- Post-Bye (Weeks 8-13): 7 yards/attempt, 75.3 PFF passing grade, 7.4% big-time throw, 5.5% turnover-worthy play, 73.3% adjusted completion rate, 3.04-second time-to-throw
With an average depth of target 1.8 yards higher in addition to the tendency to hold onto the ball much longer, you’d think we’re seeing Allen adopt a very risky “all or nothing” playstyle. Yet, it’s also worth noting that during the four games since facing New York, his data looks nearly the same as prior to the bye, making Weeks 8-9 starting to look like a notable blip in the road. At the same time, with a bottom-twelve graded pass-protection unit by PFF and no receiver outside of Stefon Diggs with a yards/route run over 1.50, there are vulnerabilities for a defense like the Jets to exploit. In that Week 9 matchup, New York blitzed Allen on just three of his 42 dropbacks while playing more man coverage than they generally do, a formula they can succeed with due to a top-three pass rush and coverage unit by PFF grade; Buffalo’s offensive line and lack of playmaking depth makes a “our strengths are beating your weaknesses” strategy quite effective. Then again, this is still the third-best offense in EPA/play, and stopping them twice in one season is quite the daunting task. There are enough cracks in the foundation for the Bills to struggle more than you’d want, but expecting them to be held to under 20 points again would be silly.
Thus, does that set up the Mike White revenge game? The last time White faced Buffalo, he threw four interceptions en route to being benched, and while he’s been effective (7th in projected EPA/play) in two starts since taking over for Wilson, he’s also had the luxury of facing two bottom-ten pass defenses in the Bears and Vikings. Notably, with how successful the Bills have been on early downs (third in EPA/play allowed), plenty of third down situations will be set up; while Buffalo has struggled there, so have the Jets, and you wouldn’t expect a team built with their pass defense the way the Bills are to continue to allow third-down conversions with ease. With Von Miller officially now out for the year with a torn ACL, we’ll see if the rest of the team’s defensive line, which earned its lowest PFF pass rush grade in their first game without Miller steps up, and the fact that rookie phenom receiver Garrett Wilson was able to total 92 yards and 3.29 yards/route run with subpar quarterback against them also doesn’t induce extra confidence. Then again, we’re still talking about the fourth-best defense in DVOA against an offense with more questions than answers given White’s very limited track record of success.
Ultimately, the cracks are showing in Buffalo, to the point where them being a ten-point favorite against a potential playoff-caliber team seems a bit far-fetched. That being said, with the Chiefs and Dolphins losing last week, they now control their destiny for the #1 seed, and, at the end of the day, still have the combination of Allen, Diggs, and plenty of defensive depth to still be considered a top-tier team in the Super Bowl picture. A strong offensive showing against a superb Jets defense would be very promising, though, and for as much as I’d like to bang the “good offense beats good defense” narrative, we also haven’t seen Buffalo operate at their expected powerhouse levels for over a month. Really, I’m not sure I’m more excited for a unit vs unit battle than this one; we’re going to learn a lot about these two teams regardless of the result.
Baltimore Ravens (8-4) at Pittsburgh Steelers (5-7)
Spread: PIT (-2)
- Projected Spread: PIT (+4.8)
- My Pick: BAL (+2)
- Projected Total: 42.94
- My Pick: Over
- BAL: 64.39%
- PIT: 35.61%
Score Prediction: Ravens 20 Steelers 17
- What Happens When An Offense Completely Reliant On One Player Loses That Player?
- Can Kenny Pickett Continue To Build Off His Recent Success?
- Can The Ravens Recreate Any Sort Of Running Back Rushing Production?
Here’s a fun stat; over the last 14 times the Ravens and Steelers have faced each other, 11 have been decided by one score, with three going to overtime. Really, a matchup between these two rivals coming down to the last possession as about as much of lock as there is in football, regardless of how competitive the game should be on paper. This week should feature more of the same.
Another strange fact? This will be the third time in the past four Ravens-Steelers matchups where Lamar Jackson, who is recovering from a knee injury, won’t be able to play. For an offense that had already regressed (15th in EPA/play, 25th in EPA/dropback) since the first month of the season, losing an elite quarterback (7th in PFF grade) is obviously a major blow, but moreso for Baltimore; the net effect Jackson has in terms of forcing defense to allow the most yards before contact/carry, in addition to what he provides (6.9 yards/carry, 765 rushing yards), provides Baltimore with such a high offensive floor that compensates for their deficiencies at the skill positions. Filling in for Jackson at the end of last year and last Sunday, Tyler Huntley’s 0.022 adjusted EPA/play puts him right in line with Matt Ryan and Taylor Heinicke (.019 adjusted EPA/play), and behind Carson Wentz (.049), Cooper Rush (.042), and well behind of Jackson (.107). With just four completions of 20+ air yards on 239 total pass attempts, in addition to just a 1.6% big-time throw rate, the explosiveness they were receiving from their passing attack is no longer there, though Huntley’s ability to at least play at a competent high-end backup level means that you wouldn’t expect things to dive down the way they may for some backups; Baltimore was 17th in EPA/play in Huntley’s starts last year, and that seems like a fine foundation of expectations this year.
After all, the Ravens’ pass protection (2nd in PFF pass block grade) is much improved from last year, and they already were in a rough spot from a playmaker standpoint. For a team that eclipsed five yards/carry from their running backs in 2019 and 2020, their two lead backs (Gus Edwards and Kenyan Drake) are averaging under 4.4 yards/carry, and their usage has varied drastically week-to-week. Huntley, while mobile, is paving the yards before contact the way Jackson was, so will that number be even worse this week? Certainly, you’d figure this is a scenario where they’ll have to get back through sound defensive play while they wait for Jackson to return, which is a very doable task. For starters, unlike last season and the beginning of this year, Baltimore has been a top-ten defense in EPA/play and DVOA since the first month, and have come into their own under new defensive coordinator Mike Macdonald in addition to the acquisition of linebacker Roquan Smith; moving rookie safety Kyle Hamilton was also a pivotal decision for them. Most importantly, though, it remains quite difficult to have any sort of fear with the Steelers offense.
Even in the midst of his best stretch of play of the season, rookie quarterback Kenny Pickett is averaging negative adjusted expected points added per play (-.005), lower than Russell Wilson and Heinicke, while he’s still averaging the second fewest passing yards per attempt (6.3) in a clean pocket. Whether this is a Pickett issue, a schematic problem (throwing over the middle of the field and using some sort of consistent play-action passing attack would help), or both, the matter of the fact is that the situation isn’t changing soon; they average the fewest yards after the catch per reception (4) but are also in the middle of the pack in terms of converted air yards/attempt (5.6), leading to this messy predicament with no explosive element to their passing attack (30th in yards/reception). While they’ve been able to get by through sheer efficiency and success on the ground (1st with 57.6% success rate), that’s a difficult formula to repeat in general, but particularly against Baltimore, who’ve also been very effective as a run defense (6th in rush DVOA). Plus, expecting them to compensate for early-down woes by converting on half of their third downs feels like a stretch. For a rookie quarterback, Pickett’s more individualized metrics (67.7 PFF grade, 3.2% big-time throw, 2.7% turnover-worthy throw) are adequate, but when the structure of the offense are lacking, adequate isn’t enough to cover up those cracks.
Add in the coaching advantage when it comes to fourth-down decisions, you’d figure Baltimore is better suited for the way this game will likely play out, though the Steelers just seem to find a way to exhibit voodoo magic when you least expect it. Then again, let’s be careful about overreacting to one-score wins against the Colts and Falcons. With the AFC North coming down to the wire, the Ravens don’t have the wiggle room to stumble at all with Hundley in the lineup, and with Pittsburgh twice, Cleveland, and Atlanta ahead of their Week 18 affair with the Bengals, they’re still in a strong spot. That being said, though, getting by with the health of your star quarterback in question is no easy task. It’s games like this where you’re quite glad to have Justin Tucker on your side.
Houston Texans (1-10-1) at Dallas Cowboys (9-3)
Spread: DAL (-17)
- Projected Spread: DAL (-15.8)
- My Pick: DAL (-17)
- Projected Total: 41.03
- My Pick: Under
- HOU: 2.03%
- DAL: 97.97%
Score Prediction: Texans 10 Cowboys 30
- The Largest Offense vs Defense Mismatch You’ll See
- Can Dak Prescott Start Making Fewer Mistakes?
- Laremy Tunsil’s Run As Arguably The Best Pass-Protecting Tackle Faces a Major Test
They say anything can happen in the NFL, but we’re definitely testing the limits here. After all, any time the team with worst point differential faces the team with the best point differential, you’re looking at quite the lopsided matchup, and that’s before considering the fact that the Cowboys were without their starting quarterback for five games. Or, that the Texans go into this game without either of their top two receivers and cornerback Derek Stingley Jr. Hey, I guess Houston fans don’t have to worry about relinquishing their hold on the #1 pick!
How dominant has the Cowboys offense been since Dak Prescott returned from injury in Week 7? Excluding turnovers, they’ve been the most efficient offense (.433 EPA/dropback) through the air and second-most efficient overall, while Prescott ranks second in EPA/play (.338) and success rate (55.7%). We’ve covered the changes Dallas has made fundamentally, such as their increased use of play-action concepts and heavier personnel, while CeeDee Lamb (2.9 yards/route run) and Dalton Schultz (1.93 yards/route run) have been among the most-efficient players at their respective positions since Prescott’s return. One minor critique, though, would be Prescott’s penchant for commiting just enough mistakes to prevent Dallas’ offense from being as productive as their consistent efficiency indicates they should. In fact, Prescott has been charted with multiple turnover-worthy plays by PFF in three of his past four games, and his 4.2% turnover-worthy play rate overall ranks top-ten amongst quarterbacks.
Then again, that’s unlikely to matter in this game, where the Cowboys can merely play from a positive game script against a Texans run defense allowing the fifth-most yards/carry and with the fourth-worst PFF rushing grade. Meanwhile, over their past three games, Houston’s EPA/play (-.387) is nearly twice as worse as the 31st-ranked offense, and going back to Davis Mills under center, whose -.145 adjusted EPA/play worse than Zach Wilson, likely doesn’t change things; being without both of their outside receivers in Brandin Cooks and Nico Collins brings this to miserable levels against the #1 defense in DVOA. Really, the question is: does Dallas’ defense outscore Houston’s offense on its own?
It’s not every day you see a three-score spread in an NFL game and not bat an eye. To be honest, I’m not sure which team that says more about, though it’s quite absurd how far the Texans are from any other team in terms of competitiveness. In some way, though, the fact that this game is supposed to be as one-sided as it is almost makes it more interesting; even if we believe the know the likely winner of this game, but have we gone too far in believing they’re likely to win by three+ scores? They do say everything is bigger in Texas!
Jacksonville Jaguars (4-8) at Tennessee Titans (7-5)
Spread: TEN (-3.5)
- Projected Spread: TEN (-6.8)
- My Pick: TEN (-3.5)
- Projected Total: 42.96
- My Pick: Over
- JAX: 29.47%
- TEN: 70.53%
Score Prediction: Jaguars 19 Titans 24
- Will The Titans’ Run-Heavy Offense and Rushing Inefficiency Continue To Hold Them Back?
- A Tough Bounce Back Spot For Trevor Lawrence and The Jaguars Offense (If He Plays)
- If Travon Walker Can’t Produce Here, Then Concerns Over Rookie Year Become Much Greater
Plenty of teams had rough times last week, but can we pour one out for the AFC South? Combined, the four teams lost by a combined score of 156-57, an average margin of defeat of 24.75 points, and these two may have been the most disappointing of the bunch. Heck, the Titans felt compelled to part ways with general manager Jon Robinson, while a blowout loss in Detroit put a major damper on what had been a promising stretch for the Jaguars. The good news? Theoretically, someone should bounce back here.
With a negative point differential and the third-worst ranking in net yards/drive, practically every data point has clear shown that the Titans, in spite of their winning ways, weren’t a legitimate threat in the AFC. That was evident in a 35-10 beatdown loss in Philadelphia last week, where plenty of their issues – poor offensive line, limited playmaking depth, inability to limit chunk plays through the air – came back to bite them in a major way. Generally, this is an offense that prides itself on their rushing attack, but would it surprise you to know that they rank 28th and 27th in EPA/rush and rushing success rate, respectively? Over the past month, Derrick Henry not only is averaging just 2.8 yards/carry, but only one of his 75 carries have gone for 10 or more yards. That is simply astonishing, and regardless of the root cause, continuing to be as committed to running the ball on early downs seems like a poor idea; keep in mind, this has come while facing modest run defenses in the Broncos, Packers, Bengals, and Eagles.
On a positive note, Ryan Tannehill is averaging eight yards/attempt and is thriving (18.2 yards/attempt) on passes of 20+ air yards. The problem? He’s only averaging 6.1 yards/pass attempt on traditional dropbacks, is “protected” behind the lowest-graded pass-blocking offensive line by PFF, and with Treylon Burks out with a concussion, won’t have a starting wide receiver in this game ranked in the top-70 in yards/route run; it’s hard to trust his efficient to remain intact with more volume, though they honestly don’t have a choice given their inefficiency on the ground. Well, it’s a good thing the Jaguars defense is coming to town! Since Week 6, Jacksonville has been the worst defense in the NFL concerning EPA/play allowed (.165) and EPA/dropback allowed (.315), and also rank in the top-seven in the amount of receiving yardage they’re allowing to running backs and tight ends- their linebacking corps, to put it nicely, is an absolute mess right now. That opens up possibilities for Tennessee to get ideal passing production in non-typical ways, such as heavier personnel sets and taking advantage of their tight end and running back depth, while the explosive element they’ve leaned on is also there against the defense allowing the fourth-most yards per completion. Really, they couldn’t have asked for a better defense to face.
An even more fascinating unit-vs-unit matchup is with Jacksonville’s offense, ranked 12th in EPA/play and 9th in success rate, and a fiesty Titans defense letting up successful plays at the sixth-fewest rate. Interestingly, these two units couldn’t be more different in terms of when they’re effective:
- Early Down EPA/Play: Jaguars Offense- 6th, Titans Defense- 25th
- Third Down EPA/Play: Jaguars Offense – 22nd, Titans Defense- 2nd
So, what gives here? Considering Tennessee’s early-down defensive woes have been completely driven off of allowing chunk plays – they’re actually 11th in early-down success rate allowed – and Jacksonville’s early-down offense has been predicated on efficiency in a more condensed passing attack (6.9 intended air yards/attempt), you’d imagine their “weakness” is less of a problem here than the net effect of Jacksonville’s bottom-ten graded receiving corps from PFF on their third-down woes. Plus, against an offense with such a condensed passing attack, the Titans’ success limiting yardage of the catch (fourth-best) and issues on the back-end matter much less, and that’s without accounting for Lawrence not even being a lock to play due to a foot injury. Jacksonville has been mightily impressive offensively given their modest expectations, yet this is a tough spot for them.
Death, taxes, and the Titans beating the Jaguars. I mean, they’ve beaten Jacksonville in 11 of their past 12 games, with most of them not even being close. While fundamentally they may not be a legitimate 7-5 team, these are the types of games they’re built to take care of; playing in the AFC South provides you with so much wiggle room. With the Jaguars on the upswing, the Texans about to have the #1 overall pick, and the Titans looking for a new general manager in addition to limited financial flexibility, a changing of the guard is coming, though perhaps not here. Also, could we give rookie tight end Chig Okonkwo more playing time? Please and thank you!
Minnesota Vikings (10-2) at Detroit Lions (5-7)
Spread: DET (-2)
- Projected Spread: DET (+3)
- My Pick: MIN (+2)
- Projected Total: 48.16
- My Pick: Under
- MIN: 59.01%
- DET: 40.99%
Score Prediction: Vikings 24 Lions 23
- Yes, The 5-7 Team Is Favored Against The 10-2 Team (And It Makes Complete Sense!)
- Has The Lions Defense Truly Turned A Corner? What Could That Mean For Next Year?
- Two Passing Attacks Centered Around One Receiver
In case you wondered if the betting markets cared about team records, let this be a clear example of the contrary. Believe it or not, but we’ve never seen a team with a 10-2 record or better be an underdog against a team with a losing record in a game not in the final week of the year. The best part? Given the underlying numbers, it is completely warranted.
Per Football Outsiders, the Lions not only enter this game as the better performing team (13th in DVOA vs 20th), but also have more estimated wins (7 vs 5.6) as well. Yet, since they’ve gone 2-5 in one-score games while the Vikings have yet to lose one, the perception of these teams becomes much more clouded; it’s actually reassuring to see this spread reflect the metrics that have proven to be significantly more stable in predicting future performance than previous win-loss record. For my fellow mathematically-minded individuals, this screams “regression to the mean” louder than a dog barking at the mailman.
Or, does our baseline knowledge of the quality of these teams change here? From a talent perspective, it still remains bizzare that the Vikings offense has been as middling (18th in EPA/play) as it’s been. Justin Jefferson (2.64 yards/route run) is still performing at an elite level, but the trio of Adam Thielen, KJ Osborn, and TJ Hockenson is averaging just over a yard per route run, making it as one-dimensional of an offense as it gets. Kirk Cousins, furthermore, is earning his worst PFF grade in his five-year Vikings career, and they’re generating the second-fewest yards after the catch per reception. All told, it’s a non-explosive offense whose efficiency can’t overcome it, with Jefferson doing enough to keep them in the middle of the pack. At the same time, the run of defenses (Commanders, Bills, Cowboys, Patriots, Jets) they’ve faced the past five weeks is as brutal as it gets, and while the Lions defense (23rd in EPA/play since Week 9) has improved as the season has gone on, they’re still allowing the most yards per drive in the NFL, and the most air yards per attempt as well. For an offense predicated on yards prior to the catch, that’s great news, especially with star tackle Christian Darrisaw back healthy. Maybe I’m holding out too much hope, but Cousins’ track record combined with quality weapons and a well-regarded offensive play-caller (Kevin O’Connell) is more than enough to produce better than this, right?
For as unsettling as Minnesota’s offense has been, it’s been the opposite story in Detroit, who, in spite of modest expectations, have fielded a top-ten offense based on EPA/play this year. Then again, Jared Goff is also a bottom-ten quarterback in PFF grade, while Minnesota grades similar or better in every other category. Outside of the Bills, Detroit’s past games have consisted of the Dolphins, Packers, Bears, Giants, and Jaguars, and they’ve been rather reliant on being the most-efficient offense in the red zone and a top-five unit on third downs. Without high-end quarterback play, how sustainable is that? That’s more of a question for next year as they figure out their plan under center, but it’s fair to worry about some of their current limitations in high-leverage scenarios.
In general, these two teams are essentially carbon copies of one another, which isn’t what you’d expect based on their records. Then again, there’s a lot more to the true talent of a team than win-loss record, and while I’d argue the Vikings are a better team than their underlying metrics would indicate, it’s certainly more of a projection than what we’ve seen thus far. With the NFC as thin as it is, though, there remains a clear opportunity for them to make a deep postseason run, particularly with a very favorable schedule to close out the season. So, can this be a bouncing-off spot for them? At some point, the patience runs out.
Cleveland Browns (5-7) at Cincinnati Bengals (8-4)
Spread: CIN (-5.5)
- Projected Spread: CIN (-5)
- My Pick: CIN (-5.5)
- Projected Total: 48.77
- My Pick: Over
- CLE: 34.84%
- CIN: 65.16%
Score Prediction: Browns 21 Bengals 27
- Can The Bengals Offense Get Revenge?
- Is a Rusty Deshaun Watson Going To Hold Cleveland’s Offense Back?
- How Do Cincinnati’s Cornerbacks Hold Up?
When we talk about a division-rival having “ownage” over another, the focus tends to be on the 49ers’ eight-game regular season winning streak against the Rams. Lost in the shuffle, though, is Browns head coach Kevin Stefanski’s 5-0 record against Bengals head coach Zac Taylor, which extended into this year with a 32-13 beatdown on Monday Night Football in Week 8. In that game, however, Ja’Marr Chase was injured, Jacoby Brissett was the Browns starting quarterback, and several key players were missing for both teams. Thus, even if this is a rematch, is it really?
Remember when the Bengals were 2-3 and looked prime for a Super Bowl hangover? Well, if anything, they’re a significantly-more optimized version of the team they were last year. Since their Week 5 loss in Baltimore, Cincinnati’s loss to Cleveland was their only loss, but, most importantly, they lead the league in EPA/play, success rate, and drop back success, while they’ve been the most-efficient offense on early downs as well. Meanwhile, Joe Burrow has been PFFs highest-graded quarterback during this span, commiting just one turnover-worthy play on 276 dropbacks (0.3%), and, most importantly, has taken a sack on only 5.8% of his dropbacks. If that wasn’t enough, they’ve also been the #2 offense in rushing success rate, and this all correlates with a shift to a more spread-out shotgun-heavy offense; Burrow has been in the shotgun on 96.8% of his dropbacks. Remember, when the Browns played Cincinnati, it was in Ja’Marr Chase’s first game out, and the Bengals’ overall success rate (47%) was adequate- turnovers and sacks came back to bite them, despite Burrow only being under pressure on 20% of his dropbacks. At the end of the day, a matchup between the currently top-performing offense against the 29th-ranked defense in EPA/play is likely going to end a certain way, regardless of how the teams have fared currently against each other.
Generally, this would have all the makings of a shootout, but to say the Browns likely shouldn’t have an extensive amount of faith in Deshaun Watson, who showed up his rust after a two-year layoff by struggling mightily (-.181 EPA/play, -13.5 CPOE, 48.3 PFF passing grade) against a very subpar Texans defense. Remember, Brissett had been a top-ten graded quarterback by PFF and led a top-ten offense in EPA/play, partially to his credit and also due to foundation of the offense. Thus, all that is really needed is competent quarterback play, and it’s unclear if Watson can provide that. Brissett thrived (12.6 yards/attempt) against Cincinnati’s secondary the first time these two teams faced off, and the cornerback duo of Eli Apple and Cam Taylor-Britt leaves a lot to be desired against the receiver duo of Amari Cooper and Donovan Peoples-Jones. That being said, it’s unclear if the quarterback play will be at a high enough level for that to matter.
We’ve pretty much seen the Bengals operates as arguably the best team for two months, and that’s without Chase for a great deal of it. Expecting Cleveland to hold their own on the defensive side of the ball against Joe Burrow and co. twice in one season seems like a silly task, and the Browns offense is a complete unknown right now. Watson’s warm-up game against the Texans didn’t go as he’d hope, and he now faces a daunting schedule starting here. Could the Bengals even run the table en route to the #1 seed? Everything is on the table with the way they’re playing right now.
Kansas City Chiefs (9-3) at Denver Broncos (3-9)
Spread: DEN (+9)
- Projected Spread: DEN (+8.2)
- My Pick: KC (-9)
- Projected Total: 41.02
- My Pick: Under
- KC: 74.82%
- DEN: 25.18%
Score Prediction: Chiefs 24 Broncos 14
- Hey, Russell Wilson Is Quietly Playing Better
- Finally, A True Test For The Broncos Defense
- Can The Chiefs Get More Consistency From Their Non-Travis Kelce Playmakers?
How disappointing have the Broncos been this year? Enough so that a game featuring Patrick Mahomes was flexed out of primetime. By this point of the year, one would’ve thought this game would be a heavyweight battle between two premier AFC division rivals, but, alas, that has not transpired. On a positive note, the Chiefs are still the Chiefs, which, as always, means they’re likely the best team in football, and in position to do what they always do- win.
How dominant has the Chiefs offense been? Their EPA/play (.198) is so strong that the difference between them and second place (.124) is the same as the difference between second place and eight place. In other words, they’re truly in a world of their own, and it’s nearly impossible to find a meaningful statistic where they’re not leading the league; they’re in the 100th percentile in efficiency on early downs AND third downs, which is utterly absurd. Perhaps you’d hope they’d get more consistency from their wide receivers, yet are we really going to be that picky? You’d think the Broncos defense, 4th in EPA/play allowed, would be able to combat them, but let’s take a look at the offenses Denver has faced:
- Week 1: Seahawks
- Week 2: Texans
- Week 3: 49ers
- Week 4: Raiders
- Week 5: Colts
- Week 6: Chargers
- Week 7: Jets
- Week 8: Jaguars
- Week10: Titans
- Week 11: Raiders
- Week 12: Panthers
- Week 13: Ravens without Lamar Jackson
Outside of the Seahawks and 49ers, it doesn’t get much easier than that. Thus, consider this finally a legitimate chance for them to prove themselves out, but this comes at a time where their pass rush has been much less effective since the trade of Bradley Chubb, leaving them more gullible (12th in EPA/play allowed) since that point. The last time we wondered how the Chiefs would fare against a high-end defense, they scored 44 points in San Francisco, which points to a general theme: a good offense naturally trumps a good defense. Heck, in a positive game script, there’s no reason why Kansas City (11th in EPA/rush) can’t continue to be efficient with a more conservative plan of attack againstaverage run defense (17th in rush DVOA). If you want to beat the Chiefs, you better score points.
Well, that isn’t great news for the offense that is averaging fewer than 14 points a game! Quietly, Russell Wilson, with an 81.4 PFF passing grade, seven big-time throws compared to zero turnover-worthy plays, and the best CPOE (9.6) since Week 11, has played quite well since the shift to Klint Kubiak as offensive play-caller. Yet, Denver still ranks 28th in EPA/play during this time, is a liability (-.203 EPA/rush) on the ground, and go into this game with Courtland Sutton injured and Jerry Jeudy not a lock to play at 100% health either. I’m intrigued to see if Wilson can continue to perform well outside of the circumstances around him, which would give definite promise for a potential turnaround with a new coaching staff and improved situation, but the fact that the offense still couldn’t function with that baseline level of play isn’t exactly encouraging.
Usually, when a team that scores a lot of points faces a team that doesn’t, the game goes a specific way. Last week’s loss to the Bengals means the Chiefs are now reliant on the Bills also dropping the ball to get back the #1 seed, which is massive in their Super Bowl chances. Either way, though, their offensive brilliance is more than enough for them to be considered the best team in the NFL, and one that continues to display remarkable consistency; the lack of week-to-week variance is honestly their most impressive feat. Hey, not bad for a team that was seemingly on the decline after trading Tyreek Hill! Who would’ve thought an offense led by the league’s best quarterback and an elite head coach could continue to be a force to be reckoned with? Sometimes, it’s best to not overthink things.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers (6-6) at San Francisco 49ers (8-4)
Spread: SF (-3.5)
- Projected Spread: SF (-6.3)
- My Pick: SF (-3.5)
- Projected Total: 39.88
- My Pick: Over
- TB: 30.84%
- SF: 69.16%
Score Prediction: Buccaneers 17 49ers 21
- Your Turn, Brock Purdy
- Is The Bucs Offense Going To Continue To Get In Their Own Way?
- How Does Kyle Shanahan Exploit Tampa Bay’s Defensive Weak Links
Want to know the uniqueness of this matchup? Tom Brady has been in the NFL longer than 49ers new starting quarterback Brock Purdy has been alive. For a rookie drafted with the last pick in the 2022 draft, having your first start come against the quarterback with the most Super Bowl championships in NFL history is quite the introduction! Yet, if this game can serve as a microcosm of anything, it’s how much a quarterback’s surroundings, particularly from a schematics standpoint, plays a role in quarterback performance.
Whether it’s PFF grade or our projected EPA/play metric, Brady’s performance has been that of a top-ten quarterback, but he currently has a lower adjusted EPA/play than Daniel Jones and Andy Dalton, and the same yards/attempt (6.4) as Baker Mayfield and Carson Wentz. So, what’s the issue? For starters, with both Antonio Brown and Rob Gronkowski out of the fold, Brady’s production on passes of 20+ air yards (9.6 yards/attempt) has cratered. All together, they’re a bottom-five offense in yards generated prior and after the catch, which isn’t exactly how you design an optimal passing game. Then, there’s their rushing attack. It’s bad enough to be as much as a liability (32nd in EPA/rush) as they are, but their insistence on leaning on it makes matters worse. Since Week 10, they’re running the ball on first down 6% more compared to league average. Well, perhaps it’s not a coincidence they have the worst success rate in the NFL on first downs during that span. When you’re essentially giving away a down, that’s going to leave you in a lot of third-down situations, where they’ve also struggled (36th percentile) as well; the inefficiency on the ground also is a major blow in higher-leverage situations in the red zone and in short yardage spots, another area they’ve had notable woes.
Those concerns are quite problematic when facing the #2 defense in the NFL in DVOA, one ranked in the top-seven in PFF grade in coverage, pass rush, and run defense. Running the ball on first and ten against the defense allowing the fewest yards/carry doesn’t sound like an ideal strategy to me, particularly when you’re trying to get by against a productive pass rush with backup tackle Josh Wells filling in for Tristan Wirfs. In other words, it’s hard to be hopeful about an offensive turnaround here. Defensively, it’s been mainly business as usual (8th in DVOA) for them, which is how they’ve managed to get to a .500 record. Thus, it won’t be an easy test for Purdy in his first start, though he isn’t your typical seventh-round pick; he earned a PFF grade of 78.9 in each of his four years starting at Iowa State, was tremendous in not allowing pressures to become sacks (12.9%), and was very promising (83.6 PFF passing grade) in the preseason. Keep in mind, while there will be a notable drop-off from Jimmy Garoppolo, who has consistently converted third downs over expectation at a high level, Nick Mullens (.120 adjusted EPA/play, 7.9 yards/attempt) was able to plenty efficient in Shanahan’s offense with a much worse supporting cast, and that seems like a reasonable expectation for Purdy. If so, they may not be a Super Bowl frontrunner, though still one that no team wants to face.
Really, the fact that this year’s Mr.Irrelevant in his first ever start is more than a field goal favorite against Tom Brady, and that may not be enough, tells you everything you need to know about the offensive infrastructures for both of these teams. Starting in Week 3, the Bucs have covered the spread just ONE time. Simply from a meeting expectations standpoint, that’s quite the symbol of what has been a frustrating season for a team so committed to one last Super Bowl push. At this point, though, even the allure of Brady isn’t enough to maintain faith; can they just pretend every series is a two-minute drill? Technically, Purdy didn’t get credit for a win last week, so what better way to get your first official win than arguably the greatest to ever do it? This is taking “to be the best, you have the beat the best” to another level!
Carolina Panthers (4-8) at Seattle Seahawks (7-5)
Spread: SEA (-3.5)
- Projected Spread: SEA (-9.6)
- My Pick: SEA (-3.5)
- Projected Total: 45.01
- My Pick: Under
- CAR: 20.84%
- SEA: 79.16%
Score Prediction: Panthers 17 Seahawks 26
- A Massive “Regression To The Mean” Game For Sam Darnold
- With Every Game Is Another Chapter In Geno Smith’s Incredible Season
- Can Jaycee Horn Hold Up In An Incredibly Difficult Matchup?
To say the Jets haven’t had a great track record of drafting quarterbacks as of late would be the understatement of the year. Certainly, Zach Wilson’s development has not gone as hoped, and this game certainly doesn’t make things any easier for Jets fans; both of these quarterbacks were supposed to be the franchise’s answer for a long-term quarterback, and as you may have assumed, that didn’t happen. Well, as things stand, one of these two has found greater pastures elsewhere.
That’d be Geno Smith, who in his first year as a starting quarterback since 2014, is a top-ten quarterback in PFF grade, adjusted EPA/play, and yards/attempt, while he’s been the most accurate quarterback in the NFL by CPOE. Meanwhile, no offense has a higher success rate on dropbacks; the combination of a quarterback with accuracy and big-play ability (third in big-time throw rate), the league’s third-highest graded receiving corps by PFF anchored by DK Metcalf and Tyler Lockett, and very stable pass protection with the development of their rookie tackles is enough to make them one of the most dynamic passing attacks in the NFL. That, on its own, is enough to make them capable of beating anyone in any given game. The Panthers, 11th in EPA/play allowed, remain a pesky defense to face, and second-year cornerback Jaycee Horn is allowing the lowest passer rating in the NFL. That being said, very few pass defenses are capable of completely slowing Seattle down.
So, can Sam Darnold benefit from a similar rejuvenation? Hey, he did have strong production (8.6 yards/attempt) in his first start of the year against a strong Broncos defense! Let’s just say we shouldn’t banking on it. Due to game script, Darnold threw out of play action on 50% of his dropbacks, averaging 14.7 yards/attempt during those dropbacks. When in a standard drop back, that number fell to 2.7 yards/attempt, as well as a 41 PFF grade; he only completed 57.3% of his passes, as his numbers were mightily skewed by two chunk plays to DJ Moore. The Seahawks defense remains difficult to figure out given the gap between their EPA/play allowed (23rd) and success rate allowed (9th), which is strange since they’re in the middle-of-the-pack in yards/reception allowed; it seems like poor sequencing more than anything else. Either way, they’re not exactly being tested here.
To be frank, the fact that Seattle is only favored by 3.5 points at home is quite perplexing. I mean, we may be looking at a matchup between one of the league’s best passing attacks and one of the worst, and the defensive gap is marginal. One year after Darnold finished with a lower PFF grade than every quarterback other than Ben Roethlisberger, we’ll need to see much more, and in significantly more stable fashion, before believing he’s able to lead anything but an inefficient offense. If you’re a Jets fan, do you want to watch this game for old time’s sake, or just fail to acknowledge its existence? It’s a fascinating dilemma.
Miami Dolphins (8-4) at Los Angeles Chargers (6-6)
Spread: LAC (+3.5)
- Projected Spread: LAC (+8.9)
- My Pick: MIA (-3.5)
- Projected Total: 46.54
- My Pick: Under
- MIA: 77.03%
- LAC: 22.97%
Score Prediction: Dolphins 27 Chargers 20
- An Exceptional Bounce Back Spot For Tua Tagovailoa and The Dolphins Offense
- Hey, The Chargers Receiving Corps Is Finally Healthy
- How Does Brandon Staley Counter Mike McDaniel’s Offense
In football, we have a tendency to create narratives as talking points, even if they don’t hold much actual meaning. Case in point, the 2020 rookie quarterback class. With Tua Tagovailoa and Justin Herbert drafted one pick apart, they were naturally going to be always compared, and the backwards trajectory in terms of their production has only made this more extreme. Well, flexing this game into primetime won’t do anything to quiet the noise.
Could two quarterbacks be in more opposite situations? Excluding turnovers, the Dolphins still were an above-average offense in EPA/play and success rate in last week’s rough performance in San Francisco, are 2nd in DVOA offensively, while Tagovailoa has the highest adjusted EPA/play in the NFL. Contrast that to Herbert, ranked just 21st in adjusted EPA/play, despite a projected EPA/play (.162) twice as high as his actual EPA/play. Here’s another fun fact; Miami is averaging nearly twice as many air yards per completion than the Chargers, and a full two yards more per pass attempt. Really, this two offenses are playing different games. On the bright side for the Chargers, the return for Mike Williams may lead to more aggressiveness, but there’s been very little sign of anything other than the most conservative passing attack in the NFL. Considering what we thought we knew about these quarterbacks from a downfield passing standpoint, that says a lot about the structure of the offenses they play in. We can debate how much of that falls on the quarterback, but for this game and season, we’re well aware of what to expect.
Meanwhile, is there a better bounce-back spot for the Dolphins that facing a Chargers defense allowing the fourth-most air yards/attempt, the most yards/carry, and is now without star safety Derwin James and cornerback Bryce Callahan. Surely, that’ll go well, particularly with the holes already present at linebacker and a barren pass rush (fifth in pressure rate) as well; Mike McDaniel has so many areas to exploit here. You’d expect head coach Brandon Staley to play far fewer man coverage and blitz at a much lower rate, similarly to his matchup against the 49ers, but the talent discrepancy is massive. On the other side, trying to get by with backup tackle Foster Sarrell against the edge rush trio of Melvin Ingram, Jaelan Phillips, and Bradley Chubb, all in the top-18 in PFF pass rush grade, seems not ideal for the Chargers, especially with Miami’s secondary improving with cornerback Xavien Howard (95.6 passer rating allowed from Week 6 on) playing much better as of late. Take the quarterbacks and preseason expectations out of this game entirely, and it becomes damning how far apart these two teams are from one another.
With Herbert, the Chargers have found a way to be consistently competitive, but it would not be a surprise to see the Dolphins win this game handedly, especially if tackle Terron Armstead can play. Fundamentally, Los Angeles, who have won their last three games (Browns, Broncos, Falcons) all against losing teams and by three or fewer points, is a bad football team, and Miami, despite last week’s loss in San Francisco, remain as dynamic as it gets. In many ways, perhaps this game serves as a “look yourself in the mirror” situation for the Chargers; it’s incredibly disappointing we’ve gotten to this point.
New England Patriots (6-6) at Arizona Cardinals (4-8)
Spread: ARI (+1.5)
- Projected Spread: ARI (+4.5)
- My Pick: NE (-1.5)
- Projected Total: 39.68
- My Pick: Under
- NE: 63.65%
- ARI: 36.35%
Score Prediction: Patriots 22 Cardinals 17
- Does A Healthier Cardinals Offense Have Any Sort Of Post-Bye Surge?
- How Does Mac Jones Far Against a Defense That Is A Very Poor Stylistic Fit For Him?
- Two 2020 Day-Two Draft Picks Breaking Out In Their Third Year: EDGE Josh Uche and OT Josh Jones
When you coach in the NFL long enough, you don’t just end up facing your disciples, but players you faced as well. For the second time in three weeks, Bill Belichick will face off against a former quarterback, and will do so in what is as much of a “must-win” game as it gets for New England. If you’re looking for quality offensive play-calling, this may not be the game for you, yet with so many various players and coaches facing pressure right now, there are a lot of fascinating elements to this game.
If anyone is facing the heat right now, it’s Cardinals head coach Kliff Kingsbury, who, one year into a brand-new contract extension, is rumored to potentially be on the hot seat in what has been a complete collapse for Arizona since the first half of last year. Dating back to Week 14 last year, the Cardinals possess a 5-13 record with a negative 134 point differential, equating to an average margin of defeat of just over a touchdown. To boot, they rank 30th in team DVOA, average the fewest yards/attempt in the NFL, and are the second-least efficient offense on early downs. You can point the finger in a variety of directions, such as offensive line injuries, an unstable receiving corps between DeAndre Hopkins’ suspension and Marquise Brown’s injury, or worse play from Kyler Murray, who is by far the least-efficient quarterback (6.9 yards/attempt, 48.7 PFF passing grade) on passes of 20+ air yards. Yet, with a negative pass rate over expectation, including negative-seven percent on first down, Murray’s inefficiency from a clean pocket (6.6 yards/attempt) despite being the 12th-highest graded quarterback by PFF in those situations, and the 11% decrease in the amount of play-action concepts Murray is receiving, and a lot of the dots point back to coaching. Hopefully, the bye week served as a reset period, especially with Hopkins and Brown both fully healthy (Brown was on a pitch count in Week 12) for the first time all year. Then again, would you expect an offense with such fundamental flaws to turn things around against a Patriots defense ranked 3rd in DVOA and 2nd in success rate allowed? I wouldn’t hold my breath on it.
Unfortunately for the Patriots, while they’ve mainly functioned as a typical high-end Belichick defense, their offense, 28th in drive success rate, has been completely anemic. With Belichick’s decision to turn the play-calling duties to Matt Patricia, a defensive coach with no offensive play-calling experience at the NFL level, it isn’t shocking to see them struggle (13th percentile) as much as they have on early downs; a negative pass rate over expectation, and the third-lowest play-action rate with Mac Jones is a poor combination. Jones, meanwhile, is by far the league’s least-efficient quarterback (-.580 EPA/play) when facing five or more rushers and has been very reliant on chunk plays. That’s not a great combination against the defense letting up the fewest yards per completion with the third-highest blitz rate. That being said, Arizona (24th in DVOA, 32nd in points per drive allowed) hasn’t exactly shown the ability to hold their own in spite of this, so perhaps not all hope is lost for New England?
Inefficient first-down runs, straight drop back concepts, and too many passes behind the line of scrimmage; isn’t that how you pictured an offensive masterclass? With where both of these quarterbacks were at a year ago, this is a substantial disappointment, and let’s just hope that both have different play-callers next season. To expect anything from either offense at this point is fruitless, but New England can at least hang their hat on strong defense and special teams play, as well as far fewer penalties as well- they’re a significantly-better coached team. In a low-scoring game like this, those edges matter; the Cardinals are the microcosm of the exact type of team Belichick has exploited his entire coaching career. Let’s just say the alarm bells may be sounding for Kingsbury just a little more after this game, particularly one in primetime.
NYJ/BUF: NBC Sports
BAL/PIT: Behind The Steel Curtain
HOU/DAL: Blogging The Boys
JAX/TEN: Big Cat County
MIN/DET: The Viking Age
TB/SF: Yahoo! Sports
CAR/SEA: Henry Harold
MIA/LAC: Sporting News