At some point, can we sit back and acknowledge the absurdity that has been the 2022-2023 NFL season? Think about this; in a week where the Broncos were eliminated from the postseason and the Rams needed a comeback by Baker Mayfield to win their fourth game, we’re talking about the Lions, Seahawks, Giants, and Commanders as postseason contenders. Plus, Tom Brady lost by four touchdowns to this year’s Mr.Irrelevant, the Ravens and Panthers won despite barely eclipsing 200 passing yards combined, the Vikings are 10-3 with a losing record, and Jalen Hurts is now the betting favorite for MVP. Hey, Justin Jefferson and Tyreek Hill were dominant and the Eagles won another convincing game, so perhaps not everything is in flux!
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.
We were so close to seeing the largest upset since that Jets-Rams 2020 matchup, but the Cowboys were able to pull off a late comeback victory against the Texans. Underdogs did still cover the spread in 8 of the 13 games, indicating a week with plenty of parity, and we’re back to a full-16 game slate this week. Speaking of which, only three games feature a spread of over a touchdown; if you want unpredictability, you’ll be quite satisfied.
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.
The main reason behind the Bengals’ surge in performance starting in Week 6? A dramatic improvement on early downs. Meanwhile, the Cowboys experienced a reverse transformation upon the return of Dak Prescott, and we did just see the Jaguars perform exceptionally on third downs despite facing a defense (Titans) that had been elite in those situations previously. This week’s critical matchup between the Dolphins and Bills may come down to which defense can hold their own in later downs, while defenses such as the Jets and Saints may be even better than they’ve shown. Offensively, lost in the shuffle has been the Packers’ continuous production on early downs, a hopeful sign of improvement down the stretc, while offenses such as the Chargers and Bears are relying a lot on their quarterbacks to convert on third down. The Chargers, specifically, are in desperate need of this changing as they aim for a playoff berth.
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:
On a positive note for the Chargers, some of their offensive struggles should improve with better success in the red zone, as is the case for the Packers; on the higher end, the Seahawks and Ravens also have had less production in these high leverage situations than you’d hope for. Defensively, that optimism extends to the Chiefs, with the Bills and Bengals perhaps playing above their skis. Or, is there a magic to their madness? We’ll all get to see it play out, which is the beauty of this sport.
Now, onto the previews!
San Francisco 49ers (9-4) at Seattle Seahawks (7-6)
Spread: SEA (+3)
- Projected Spread: SEA (+1)
- My Pick: SEA (+3)
- Projected Total: 46.81
- My Pick: Over
- SF: 53.04%
- SEA: 46.96%
Score Prediction: 49ers 22 Seahawks 24
- How Long Does “Purdy Magic” Last?
- A Tough Spot For Geno Smith; Can He Limit Mistakes?
- Can Seattle’s Rookie Tackles Continue To Hold Up?
Back in 2019, we saw these two teams face off during the last game off the regular season for a division title. Since that point, neither team held up their end of the bargain (49ers 2020, Seahawks 2021) to keep this the classic competitive rivalry it has been, but here we are again! Unfortunately, with Seattle losing three of their past four games and the 49ers winners of six straight, the stakes of this game aren’t as high as they may have once been. Nevertheless, with the Seahawks fighting for their playoff lives and San Francisco vying for the #2 seed and a chance to clinch an NFC West title, there is still a lot to play for here. Compared to some Thursday Night Football games, this is quite a step up.
Can we sit back and appreciate the difficulty to be a 9-4 team while starting three different quarterbacks? Even better is the success they’ve had with Brock Purdy; this year’s Mr.Irrelevant has been a top-ten quarterback in EPA/play in his first two weeks of meaningful NFL action, including an absurd performance (.436 EPA/play, 8.8 yards/attempt) in his first ever start against a strong Bucs pass defense. That being said, this performance came with some notable splits:
- When Kept Clean: 50.1 PFF Grade, 5.8 Yards/Attempt
- When Pressured: 83.7 PFF Grade, 13.6 Yards/Attempt
Production in a clean pocket has historically been much more stable than when pressured, making Purdy’s reliance on coming through in those unstable concerning. Plus, I’d bet against him completing 100% of his passes of 10+ air yards again- that’d be quite the achievement. It’s fair to look at Purdy’s production thus far, in addition to his college track record at Iowa State, and see his baseline level of play as higher than the team’s previous backup quarterbacks (Nick Mullens, CJ Beathard). Regardless, expecting that there will be no fall-off with this offense over time without Jimmy Garoppolo would be a lofty ask for Purdy.
On the bright side for the 49ers, even without Deebo Samuel, they face a Seahawks defense allowing the third-most yards after the catch per reception, while also ranking in the top-ten in yardage allowed through the air to running backs and tight ends; hello, Christian McCaffrey and George Kittle. Still, we’ll see how Purdy, now also dealing with a groin injury, holds up over time; it’s not a given that he won’t, and his pedigree (four seasons in college with a PFF grade above 78) than the standard seventh-round quarterback. That said, there’s a reason we wait more than 1.5 games to come to a conclusion about a quarterback’s capabilities.
By now, we’ve come to know what to expect from Geno Smith, whose level of play has been that of a top-ten quarterback by adjusted EPA/play and PFF grade. Overall, no offense has a higher success rate on passing plays than the Seahawks, while Smith leads the league in completion rate over expectation. The issue? Five interceptions and 12 turnover-worthy plays over his past five games, as opposed to three interceptions and 10 turnover-worthy plays in the previous eight games; outside of that, there has been zero drop-off in the overall efficiency of their passing attack. If there’s one area of worry with an elite 49ers defense (2nd in DVOA), it’s their depth in the secondary between Deommodore Lenoir (51.4 PFF coverage grade, 47.5 yards allowed/game) and Jimmie Ward (330 passing yards allowed on 250 coverage snaps) in the slot; that’ll be put to the test against two top-15 wide receivers in yards/route run (Tyler Lockett, DK Metcalf), specifically with Lockett (four yards/route run) having plenty of success against them in the slot back in Week 2.
Barring turnovers once again biting Seattle and working in favor for San Francisco, there’s quietly a notable advantage for the Seahawks in the passing game, particularly with the quarterback position. In spite of their supposed “struggles”, Seattle has been a top-five offense in EPA/play on non-turnovers since coming back from their Week 11 bye, and have been the most efficient offense passing the ball on those situations. In small samples, turnovers can skew our perceptions of team performance, but this is still a high-end offense that perhaps has been lost in the wind a bit. With a very difficult final four games to end the year, this is a game they have to win, and, as has been the case this year, a lot will be placed on Smith’s plate. What better chance for a statement game from him than here?
Indianapolis Colts (4-8-1) at Minnesota Vikings (10-3)
Spread: MIN (-4)
- Projected Spread: MIN (-9.7)
- My Pick: MIN (-4)
- Projected Total: 41.32
- My Pick: Under
- IND: 20.49%
- MIN: 79.51%
Score Prediction: Colts 17 Vikings 22
- The Colts Present The Vikings Offense With An Interesting Air Yards Dilemma
- Can Indianapolis’ Offensive Tackles Hold Up Against Minnesota’s Edge Rush?
- Any Time Justin Jefferson Is Lined Up With Stephon Gilmore = Entertainment
This season, the Colts and Vikings have each participated in nine one-score games. The difference? Whereas the Colts have a 4-4-1 record in those games, Minnesota is undefeated in the same game script, which explains how they can be 10-3 with a negative point differential. So, do we see that magic put to the test again, or perhaps they can finally beat an inferior team in convincing fashion? With the Vikings, anything is on the table.
Speaking of the Vikings, we analyzed their strange mediocrity offensively heading into last week:
“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.”
On the bright side, Cousins had by far his best performance (.410 EPA/play, 10.4 yards/attempt, 91.4 PFF grade) in last week’s loss to the Lions, with Jefferson accumulating 223 receiving yards in the process. At the same time, their production after the catch (4.5 YAC/REC) remained minimal and they were the second-least efficient team on the ground, both of which have become common themes for them. It’s easy to attribute some of the offense’s inconsistencies to the run of defenses (Commanders, Bills, Cowboys, Patriots, Jets) faced in the five games prior to last week, but they’ll once again be put to the test against a Colts defense that ranks ninth in EPA/play allowed and is letting up the fewest air yards/completion. Considering how reliant Minnesota has been in recent weeks – only 3.83 YAC/REC versus 7.18 air yards/completion from Week 9 on – how can they sustain offensive production? At some point, the gap between their baseline level of talent (6th in PFF grade) and results need to shrink; this is a notable game for head coach Kevin O’Connell to prove himself as a quality play-caller moving forward.
Minnesota would perhaps be in better position to work things out offensively if they also weren’t allowing the sixth-most yards per drive in the NFL. Starting in Week 10, they’ve allowed over 30 points per game, let up over 400 yards of offense to both the Patriots and Jets, and are extremely subpar (16th percentile) on early downs; it’s been far too easy to move the ball against them. Well, if there was a way to find just how easy it is, then the Colts offense will put that up to the test. Still ranked last in offensive defense-adjusted value over average (DVOA) for the year, they’ve been better (20th in success rate, 18th in EPA/play) since making the inseason coaching change to Jeff Saturday, but that’s also skewed by a strong performance against a Raiders defense rated second-worst in DVOA. Take that game out, and their 40% success rate in the three other games is good for just 27th during that span, and they’re not in position to exploit Minnesota’s woes with explosive pass plays; no quarterback attempts a fewer percentage of his passes (4%) 20+ yards down the field than Matt Ryan. Even worse, the league’s sixth-lowest graded pass-blocking offensive line by PFF is tasked with taking on the edge rush duo of Za’Darius Smith and Danielle Hunter, each in the top-ten in total pressures, all while without arguably their most reliable offensive lineman in tackle Braden Smith. Heck, we haven’t even focused on the fact that one of the league’s most run-heavy offenses (sixth-highest early-down run rate) is facing the league’s second-best graded run defense by PFF as well. Sometimes, your best defense is the offense you’re upa against.
Doesn’t this have the makings of another “closer than it should be for a playoff team” victory for the Vikings? Frankly, I’m shocked the betting markets expect there to be as much scoring as they do, with any one game the Colts have played in since Week 6 going over that total. Then again, Vikings games have exceeded 48.5 points in four of the last five times, so maybe their presence here is enough to up the excitement. Most likely, though, we’ll see this game serve as a continual representation of who’ve they’ve been; the Colts coming up just short in a defensive battle while the Vikings find another way to win while continuing to confuse the football world as to how they have double-digit wins. Hey, they all count the same!
Baltimore Ravens (9-4) at Cleveland Browns (5-8)
Spread: CLE (-3)
- Projected Spread: CLE (+0.8)
- My Pick: BAL (+3)
- Projected Total: 46.63
- My Pick: Over
- BAL: 52.5%
- CLE: 47.5%
Score Prediction: Ravens 21 Browns 20
- Can The Ravens Manufacture Enough Offense?
- How Long Does The Rust Last For Deshaun Watson?
- Amari Cooper + Donovan Peoples-Jones Against Marlon Humphrey + Marcus Peters
To say the Ravens have had their fair share of success against the Browns, the organization they used to be, would be a dramatic understatement; Baltimore leads the series with a dominant 35-12 record, which includes winning five of the past six games against them. Given the history behind the relocation of the original Browns to Baltimore, this lopsided rivalry is something that certainly is distasteful in the city of Cleveland. Could you imagine the sentiment if a Ravens team with a backup quarterback that just cleared concussion protocol was able to win on the road against the quarterback the Browns gave a $230 million contract to and traded three first-round picks for? Really, I’m not sure there’s a result more fitting than that.
With Lamar Jackson still sidelined with a knee injury, it’s all about “getting by” for the Ravens. It’s unclear if Jackson would be ready for next week, but they have three straight games against teams with losing records prior to a Week 18 matchup with the Bengals that may decide the division race, one they still have the inside track for after defeating them earlier in the year. Fortunately, Tyler Huntley was able to cleared from concussion protocol to start this game, and you’d figure they once again lean into another very run-heavy game script (-7% pass rate over expectation last two weeks), something easier to do against the defense allowing the most expected points added per rush attempt. So far, we’ve seen Huntley play at a more than competent level (.083 adjusted EPA/play), combining accuracy (12.1 CPOE) with a low sack rate (5%). Chunk plays through the air (7.86 yards/completion) shouldn’t be expected, yet in a given game, limiting negatives while being efficient enough to go along with taking advantage of Cleveland’s porous run defense can do the trick. I wouldn’t call that a sustainable formula, but, sometimes, it’s about playing the right team at the right time.
Normally, you’d need to expected to do more than that to keep up with a Browns offense that, through Week 12, was ranked 6th in EPA/play. That, however, was before the switch to Deshaun Watson under center; in his first live action since January 2020, the previously-suspended quarterback hasn’t exactly been clicking on all cylinders:
- PFF Passing Grade: 49.8 (Last Among QBs w/Two Games Played)
- Adjusted EPA/Play: -.038
- CPOE: -4.1
- Big-Time Throw Rate: 1.6%
- Turnover-Worthy Play Rate: 4.1%
- Offense EPA/Play: -.197 (29th)
No matter how you slice it, he’s been as inefficient as it gets, which isn’t exactly what the Browns invested in; taking out the massive off the field implications, the draft capital and contract they gave Watson makes them more embedded to their quarterback than any other franchise. Now, he and a struggling Cleveland offense faces a Ravens defense ranked 8th in DVOA, is allowing just 3.8 yards per carry, and are one of the few defenses that have the cornerback tandem (Marlon Humphrey, Marcus Peters) to combat the explosive receiver duo of Amari Cooper and Donovan Peoples-Jones on the perimeter. Rust or not, there is incredible irony in the fact that Jacoby Brissett was a top-ten graded quarterback by PFF and was leading a highly-functional offense; in many ways, their odds of winning this game are likely much higher with him under center right now, though the 5-8 Browns are definitely looking to the future at this point.
After weeks of being the poster child of losing games they shouldn’t – they had a two-score lead in their first 11 games with just a 7-4 record to show for it – the Ravens have managed to win back-to-back games without Jackson, even if they were arguably the inferior team in both. If we’re shaping up for another low-scoring affair here, the chances of them limiting mistakes as opposed to a clearly rusty Watson is very high, whereas the defensive gap is strong. We’ve seen the type of offense the Browns are able to have with functional quarterback play. Right now, though, an additional cost of the trade was taking these lumps, and there’s no way to know how long they’ll last. As such, Baltimore has to feel quite fortunate for catching them at the right time.
Miami Dolphins (8-5) at Buffalo Bills (10-3)
Spread: BUF (-7)
- Projected Spread: BUF (-1.9)
- My Pick: MIA (+7)
- Projected Total: 47.8
- My Pick: Over
- MIA: 44.14%
- BUF: 55.86%
Score Prediction: Dolphins 20 Bills 24
- What’s Going On With Tua Tagovailoa and The Dolphins Offense?
- Similarly, Can The Bills Offense Get Back To Elite Levels?
- Which Defense Can Survive On Third Downs?
Want to know how much things can change in the NFL? Compare how this matchup now versus what it looked like a month ago. Following Week 10, the Bills were coming off of multiple losses and were dealing with Josh Allen’s UCL injury, while the Dolphins were fresh off a 39-17 beatdown of the Browns and hadn’t lost a game with Tua Tagovailoa under center. At that point, the odds of Miami surprising us all and winning the AFC East became a much greater possibility, but nothing has been the same since. While the Bills have still perhaps not looked like the same team, they’ve mustered together four straight victories, whereas the Dolphins have struggled mightily in back-to-back defeats by the 49ers and Chargers. Now, a Buffalo victory would essentially wrap up the division, and send the Dolphins suddenly fighting for their playoff lives altogether. They don’t say “it’s a long season” for nothing!
Over the first 12 weeks of the season, no quarterback in the NFL had been more efficient than Tagovailoa, whether looking at EPA/play, yards/attempt, or PFF grade. The past two weeks, though, have been quite the journey. Only the Broncos have a lower success rate than Miami during that span, while Tagovailoa has completed just 28 of 61 pass attempts, has the lowest CPOE, and the third-lowest EPA/play overall. Remember, this was a quarterback orchestrating an offense that had reached 30 points in four straight games prior, in addition to setting the bar from an efficiency standpoint. A lot has been made about the Chargers’ defensive game plan, featuring press-man coverage with spot zones (going to a spot rather than matching with the receiver), the latter of which limited Miami’s middle-of-the-field production. Regardless of the reason, though, it simply ties back to Tagovailoa struggling to adjust to a less-crisp structure; eventually, some sort of adapting from him and head coach Mike McDaniel was going to be needed, right? If he wants to prove himself as a quarterback worthy of a lofty contract extension, the type his draftmates Joe Burrow and Justin Herbert are in line to receive, this is a pivotal game for him.
At the beginning of the season, one may have assumed the Bills would feature the premier defense in the NFL, but since coming back from their Week 8 bye, they’ve been a bottom-ten defense in success rate allowed and in pass defense. What’s interesting, though, is how stark of a difference there has been in their performance depending on the situation; they rank 10th in EPA/play allowed on early downs, but descend to 27th on third downs. For the season, no defense has underachieved more on third downs based on their production on early down than them, which doesn’t make sense given the resources they’ve invested into their pass defense. With cornerback Tre’Davious White healthy, in addition to a now-healthy linebacking corps, their hope would be this would become much less of an issue over time, and the Dolphins’ woes have mainly come on third downs (16.7% success rate ranks dead last). So, what gives?
The mystery for the Bills continues on to their offense, where, over the past month, they have a negative pass rate over expectation, and haven’t produced (11th in EPA/play when excluding turnovers) at the same level overall. Really, what’s becoming clear is some of the limitations around Josh Allen; they’re averaging a paltry 3.58 yards after the catch per reception during this span with an absurdly high 14.9% drop rate, have no wide receiver in the top-58 in yards/route run other than Stefon Diggs, and rank just 20th in PFF pass-block grade. During this span, Allen’s performance (81.7 PFF grade, 7.2% big-time throw, 3% turnover-worthy play) has been terrific, but the combination of conservative play-calling and not much help around him is preventing this offense from being able to reach its peak potential. The Dolphins defense has done a terrific job limiting air yards (ninth-lowest), have the ability to rush the passer at the high level (fifth in PFF grade), and gave Allen plenty of fits (6.3 yards/attempt, 47 PFF passing grade) back in Week 3. They’ve had issues on third downs (16th percentile), yet, if anything, that raises the upside of what they can accomplish defensively. At a time where their stock has fallen, they’ve at least been able to hang their hat on defensive improvements (8th in EPA/play allowed over past four games); they’re a more well-rounded team now, but also need their offense to get back to scoring points.
Here’s an interesting nugget; since their Week 7 bye, the Bills have covered the spread in only one of their past seven games. That speaks to them perhaps underwhelming as of late compared to expectations, which aligns with them becoming more conservative with more struggles on both sides of the ball. At the same time, the Dolphins have had about as poor of a past two games as one could have imagined, and heading to Buffalo to play a game in the snow isn’t ideal. Ultimately, this is not only a significant game for postseason purposes, but one where we’ll learn a lot about both teams. In Week 15, that’s a rare occurrence. There isn’t much more you can ask for on a Saturday night!
Philadelphia Eagles (12-1) at Chicago Bears (3-10)
Spread: CHI (+9)
- Projected Spread: CHI (+15.1)
- My Pick: PHI (-9)
- Projected Total: 47.48
- My Pick: Under
- PHI: 95.61%
- CHI: 4.39%
Score Prediction: Eagles 31 Bears 17
- Just How Many Points Are The Eagles Going To Score Here?
- A Brutal Matchup For Justin Fields and The Bears Offense
- Can Chase Claypool Have a Larger Role Coming Out Of The Bye?
This season, two quarterbacks rank in the top-ten in rushing touchdowns, making them the fantasy football manager’s dream, in addition to providing pure entertainment. Well, both of them happening to play in this game, albeit with much different teams around them. The last time these two teams faced off at Soldier Field, we witnessed the double doink heard around the world, a moment that has come quite symbolic with the struggles in Chicago, though the quick turnaround of the Eagles can offer hope of how quickly things can change in a hurry. For now, though, the growing pains will continue to show.
Remember when the Eagles offense was supposedly in trouble? Since escaping Week 11 with a 17-16 victory in Indianapolis, Philadelphia has put together the following three performances:
- vs Packers: 40 points, 363 rushing yards, .201 EPA/play (3rd), .313 EPA/rush (easily 1st)
- vs Titans: 35 points, .317 EPA/play (1st), .517 dropback EPA/play (1st)
- at Giants: 48 points, .413 EPA/play, .649 EPA/rush (each more than twice as much as 2nd)
Not too shabby! The fact that, in a three game span, Philadelphia can be dominant offensively solely through rushing efficiency, solely through chunk plays through the air, and then while also putting it all together shows the absurdness of how well-rounded they are. After all, how many teams can claim to have the most efficient rushing attack, the highest graded offensive line by PFF, an exceptional perimeter receiver duo in AJ Brown and Devonta Smith, and the third-highest graded quarterback by PFF as well? Heck, this has all happened without tight end Dallas Goedert, who may be ready to come back from his shoulder injury? If that wasn’t enough, they now get to face a Bears defense letting up the most EPA/play, including through the air, while also being PFF‘s lowest-graded run defense. Really, the possibilities are endless for how the Eagles can produce offensively in this game, putting themselves in as enviable of a position as it gets- the fact that it’s about “how” they’ll succeed, rather than “if” demonstrates how lopsided of a offense-defense matchup this is. Philadelphia may have signed punter Brett Kern to replace the injured Arryn Siposs, but his services likely aren’t going to be needed here.
Thus, if there’s one mysterious point of intrigue from this game, it’s how Justin Fields deals with an Eagles defense that leads the league in PFF pass rush grade, is allowing the fewest yards/pass attempt, now has shored up its main weakness with the return of slot corner Avonte Maddox. Since undergoing major schematic changes prior to Week 7, Fields has not only been the league’s eighth-most productive quarterback in terms of EPA/play and has surprisingly been the fourth-most accurate quarterback based on CPOE; this includes games against the Patriots and Cowboys. One game isn’t going to change Chicago’s evaluation of him, but this matchup certainly provides use in evaluating their pass protection improvements, mainly rookie tackle Braxton Jones and second-year linemen Teven Jenkins and Larry Borum. Plus, particularly with Darnell Mooney out for the year, if Chase Claypool (1.32 yards/route run, 22.2 receiving yards per game with the Bears) continues to play a minimal role for their offense, then that’s not an ideal sign for a player they gave up currently the 34th overall pick in next year’s draft for. In many ways, these final four games can serve as a fun time for Chicago fans; every loss actually sets them up to be in the driver’s seat with the #2 overall pick, but, most importantly, every game is another chance for them to feel more confident in their franchise quarterback without the expectations of immediate success. In many ways, it’s actually been a productive year for them.
Ironically, a Bears win here could actually mean a better draft pick for the Eagles, who currently hold the Saints’ first-round pick. Given the exceptional talent gap between these two teams, though, I wouldn’t bank on that having to be a concern at all. Let’s just get Fields, already dealing with a shoulder injury, through this season in one piece, shall we? Well, if Philadelphia simply has the ball the entire game, there’s a solution to that potential problem! Things are certainly going well in the City of Brotherly Love.
Atlanta Falcons (5-8) at New Orleans Saints (4-9)
Spread: NO (-4)
- Projected Spread: NO (+2.1)
- My Pick: ATL (+4)
- Projected Total: 47.54
- My Pick: Over
- ATL: 56.5%
- NO: 43.5%
Score Prediction: Falcons 24 Saints 23
- The Debut of Desmond Ridder
- Two Rookie Wide Receivers Lining Up Against Talented Cornerbacks
- Is Andy Dalton Really Going To Keep This Up All Year?
Remember the days of Matt Ryan and Drew Brees? I’m sure Falcons and Saints fans do! Instead, rather than the 2015 draft showcase between Jameis Winston and Marcus Mariota, we’ll be getting a game full of Cincinnati ties; University of Cincinnati product Desmond Ridder will make his first ever NFL start against longtime Bengals quarterback Andy Dalton. Well, I guess we know who else may be tuning into this game outside of these two fanbases!
It’s strange to say that the Falcons have disappointed as of late, considering they’ve already exceeded their preseason win total (4.5). That being said, after Week 8, they were a .500 team functioning at a high level offensively, only to lose four of their next five while scoring over 17 points just once. Technically, due to the struggles of the Bucs, they’re not eliminated from the postseason, but they’re well aware of where they are- the move to Desmond Ridder to replace Marcus Mariota under center coming out of their bye reflects that. Clearly, by selecting Ridder in the third round, Atlanta saw enough in him to believe he could be a viable starter, and this is his chance to make any sort of case for getting a full year in 2023; given the non first-round draft capital, he can’t afford any sort of struggles in these four games.
At Cincinnati, Ridder’s accuracy (72% adjusted completion rate) left a lot to be desired, as did his pocket presence (24.3% pressure to sack). At the same time, he got rid of the ball in under 2.5 seconds during his final year, with the ability to create chunk plays (6.1% big-time throw) while limiting mistakes (2.8% turnover-worthy play); all of this aligns with general scouting reports on him. Accuracy woes are nothing new for the Falcons – Mariota had the lowest adjusted completion rate in the entire NFL – but if Ridder can limit negatives better than Mariota, the bar isn’t very high for an offense that has still functioned (12th in DVOA) at a high level; this is still the eighth-most efficient offense on early downs. Whether he exceeds expectations enough to get a longer leash is to be determined, though it’s hard to see much changing with the infrastructure of the offense for this year.
For what it’s worth, the Saints, 8th in EPA/play allowed when excluding turnovers, aren’t the easiest first matchup for Ridder, especially with cornerback Marshon Lattimore returning to the lineup. According to The 33rd Team, no defense utilizes man coverage more than them, and Falcons rookie receiver Drake London has thrived (2.08 yards/route run, 54.2% air yards share) against said looks; the matchup between him and Lattimore is pivotal in determining the outcome of this game. So is the ability for Andy Dalton, rated third (!) in PFF passing grade and averaging 7.5 yards per pass attempt, to continue to put together an unexpected resurgent season. In spite of this, though, New Orleans’ offensive production (17th in EPA/play) with him under center leaves a lot to be desired, and the offensive system is not helping. With Dalton, the Saints have the third-lowest early-down pass rate, yet are bottom-ten in rushing efficiency in those situations. Add that to the third-fewest yards after catch per reception and an interior offensive line featuring multiple players with a PFF pass-block grade under 40.5, and the fourth-lowest play-action pass rate, and it’s much more clear as to how they’ve failed to capitalize on a surprise run by Dalton. The Falcons defense, 30th in DVOA, don’t possess much of a challenge, but New Orleans has also already faced a bottom-ten strength of schedule of opposing defenses, per Football Outsiders. Sometimes, as clear with these two offenses, the infrastructure is more important than you may think.
What better way for Ridder to make an impression on the Falcons fan base than to win in New Orleans in his first ever start? Once again, the odds he proves to be the team’s solution at the quarterback position aren’t high, yet there isn’t much he has to do to at least keep the offense functioning as is, based on what they’ve gotten from Mariota this year. Really, this game features one team making life as easy on the quarterback as possible, with the other diminishing the production of theirs. In fact, based on the completely different levels of commitment they made to compete this year, that it’s the Falcons coming into this game with the better record is a clear indication of why they’re set up well to take over the NFC South in the future. This, though, serves as their first chance to see what Arthur Smith and co. are capable of when it comes to trying to develop a young quarterback.
Detroit Lions (6-7) at New York Jets (7-6)
Spread: NYJ (+1.5)
- Projected Spread: NYJ (-1.5)
- My Pick: DET (+1.5)
- Projected Total: 42.3
- My Pick: Under
- DET: 45.42%
- NYJ: 54.58%
Score Prediction: Lions 23 Jets 20
- The Last Stand For Zach Wilson
- Can The Lions Offense Keep It Up Against a Vaunted Jets Defense?
- Will The Lions’ Two Recent Top-Three Picks Fully Put It Together Down The Stretch?
Could you imagine telling someone at the begging of the year that, in a week where the Rams and Packers, Bengals and Bucs, as well as the Patriots and Raiders all play each other, it’d be a matchup between the Lions and Jets that may hold the largest postseason ramifications. Nevertheless, albeit in completely different ways, both of these teams have overcome difficult schedules to be playoff-worthy teams, though both also find themselves in the midst of a very competitive wildcard picture in their respective conferences- neither can afford to lose here. On top of that, with Mike White fracturing his ribs, it’ll be up to Zach Wilson, the same quarterback benched in the middle of a postseason push just 1.5 years after being drafted with the #2 overall pick, to come through for them. Could you write this script any better?
Wilson adds a fun wrinkle to this game, but how can you not be excited to watch the “strength vs strength” battle between the Lions offense (7th in weighted DVOA) against the Jets defense (3rd in weighted DVOA)? Remember, Detroit dealt with plenty of injuries in their offensive line and receiving corps earlier in the year, but since the return of Amon-Ra St.Brown in Week 8, they’ve scored 25 or more points in six of their past seven games, ranking 4th in success rate during that span. Heck, they’ve been the most efficient offense through the air during this time as well, with St.Brown leading the league in first downs converted; I guess it shouldn’t be a surprise they’ve been so productive (90th percentile) on early downs. Now, with St.Brown, multiple vertical playmakers in DJ Chark Jr., first-round rookie Jameson Williams, and Josh Reynolds to go along with a well-performing (6th in pass-blocking efficiency during this span) offensive line, and there’s no reason why they shouldn’t continue to lead offensive coordinator Ben Johnson right into a head coaching job. Consider that the bittersweet dilemma that comes with overachieving offensive expectations.
Then, there are the Jets, the only defense in the NFL to rank in the top-three in PFF pass rush and coverage grade. What the outside cornerback duo of Sauce Gardner and DJ Reed Jr., each in the top-20 in passer rating allowed and PFF coverage grade, bring to the table is undeniable. However, since neither travels into the slot, it’ll be up to second-year nickel corner Michael Carter II to do his part with St.Brown lined up inside. Among slot cornerbacks with at least 150 coverage snaps inside, only three are allowing a lower passer rating than Carter II, who also has allowed a grand total of eight(!) passing yards over his past two games. That being said, though, that matchup may make or break this game.
That’s assuming the Jets are in position for their defense to make a difference, something not a given due to Wilson’s performance this year. In addition to being PFF‘s lowest-graded quarterback, Wilson has the highest turnover-worthy play rate (5.7%) in the NFL, the third-lowest big-time throw rate (1.5%), and the second-least accurate (-5.8 CPOE) as well. To boot, he’s the lowest-graded quarterback by a wide margin from PFF when blitzed or pressured, and now faces a Lions defense that has generated a pressure rate over 30% in six straight games. For all of their early deficiencies, Detroit is up to 20th in weighted DVOA as a defense, and have had three of their top-five graded performances from PFF in the past three weeks. Even if they weren’t progressing, though, can the Jets be trusted to move the ball through the air against any defense with Wilson?
When two one-sided teams face off against each other, the one with the offensive advantage usually holds a significant edge. If White was able to play in this game, the Jets had shown enough of an offensive baseline for that to change, but the drop-off to Wilson is extreme; there’s a reason the spread has shifted 2.5 points in Detroit’s favor. All of a sudden, could we see the Lions at 7-7 and in position to make the postseason? The Hard Knocks blessing truly is real!
Kansas City Chiefs (10-3) at Houston Texans (1-11-1)
Spread: HOU (+14)
- Projected Spread: HOU (+15.5)
- My Pick: KC (-14)
- Projected Total: 46.35
- My Pick: Under
- KC: 96.95%
- HOU: 3.05%
Score Prediction: Chiefs 30 Texans 14
- The Texans’ Two-Quarterback Experiment
- A Much Different Style of Defense Than The Chiefs Are Used To Facing
- Chris Jones Against Two Of The Least-Productive Interior Offensive Linemen
One week ago, the Texans, as 17-point underdogs, came within one fourth down and goal conversion from upsetting the Cowboys on the road. In fact, this week marks fifth time Houston has been a double-digit underdog, something they’ve done well (3-1 against the spread) at this year. So, can they keep that up this week? Facing Patrick Mahomes is a much different test.
Let’s take a look at the players that have been ruled out for the Texans in tis game:
- Wide Receivers Brandin Cooks and Nico Collins
- Cornerbacks Steven Nelson and Derek Stingley Jr.
- Edge Rusher Jonathan Greenard
- Running Back Dameon Pierce
Yikes! For a team that already has the worst point differential in the NFL, that’s quite a bind for the coaching staff to sort through. The Texans’ pass defense (16th in EPA/dropback allowed, 17th in pass DVOA) has exceeded expectations this year, and more than held their own (-.092 EPA/play) against Dallas last week. To now face the league’s most efficient passing attack without your two top cornerbacks, however, is an unenviable task. Interestingly, no defense plays more zone coverage than them, a contrast for a Chiefs offense facing the third-most man coverage, though it doesn’t make much of a difference; Mahomes is in the top-three in passing efficiency against both coverages. Plus, they’re also fourth in rushing success rate since switching to rookie Isiah Pacheco as their lead back, and now face PFF‘s second-lowest graded run defense. They may pull off the pedal here, but the amount of points they could easily score in this game is remarkable.
For Kansas City, the last test is to see what their defense, ranked 25th in DVOA but 10th in PFF grade, is able to accomplish down the stretch. To be fair, since their Week 8 bye, they’ve been more than productive (8th in success rate), which aligns with the return of rookie cornerback Trent McDuffie (17 yards allowed/game) into the starting lineup. There’s not to learn in this game as the Texans try to manufacture offense with a two-quarterback system, but, hey, how much can Chris Jones increase his lead in total pressures by an interior defender against two of PFF‘s four lowest-graded interior pass protectors? Can we please start mentioning him in the defensive player of the year race?
If all goes as expected, we’ll likely see plenty of Chad Henne in this game. Kansas City no longer controls their own destiny for the #1 seed in the AFC, though they’ll likely be double-digit favorites in every game they play the rest of the year, while the Bills and Bengals play each other. For now, all they can do is to not be on the wrong end of the upset of the year.
Dallas Cowboys (10-3) at Jacksonville Jaguars (5-8)
Spread: JAX (+4)
- Projected Spread: JAX (+6.5)
- My Pick: DAL (-4)
- Projected Total: 43.72
- My Pick: Under
- DAL: 69.8%
- JAX: 32.2%
Score Prediction: Cowboys 24 Jaguars 19
- Can Trevor Lawrence Continue To Shine Against Arguably The League’s Best Defense?
- Tyron Smith and an Altered Cowboys Offensive Line Against a Strong Pass Rush
- Will DaRon Bland Prove To Be The Team’s Best Nickel Corner Lined Up With Christian Kirk?
Speaking of the Cowboys, what a sigh of relief it has to be to come into this week not fresh off losing to the Texans? Technically, just two games out of first place in the NFC East and with a game against the Eagles still remaining, there’s still something for Dallas to play for, though they aren’t the only ones; the Jaguars, fresh off an impressive victory in Tennessee, have a legitimate chance to win the AFC South. Beyond that, though, with Dallas trying to steady themselves ahead of the postseason and Jacksonville looking to build on their recent success, there is much more to this game than the effects it’ll have on the standings.
Are we witnessing the complete blossoming of Trevor Lawrence? At this point, what he’s been able to accomplish since the team’s Week 8 game in London is undeniable:
- PFF Grade: 91.6 (2nd)
- Adjusted Completion Rate and CPOE: 84.3% and 6.9% (2nd)
- Adjusted EPA/Play: .235 (7th)
- Success Rate: 55.3% (3rd)
- Big-Time Throw Rate: 6.3% (T-4th)
- Yards/Attempt on Passes 10-19 Yards: 14.2 (1st)
That’s quite the stretch, though only one of the defenses he’s faced (Ravens) rank in the top-20 in pass DVOA. Now, enter the Cowboys defense, who leads the league in pass DVOA, and will put Lawrence’s previous struggles under pressure (sixth-lowest PFF grade when pressured) to the test. Even during this stretch, Jacksonville’s performance on third down (17th in EPA/play) has left a lot to be desired, and no defense has been more dominant on said down than the Cowboys. If nickel corner DaRon Bland can prove to be able to hold his own against Christian Kirk in the slot, and Jacksonville’s rushing deficiencies (31st in rush success rate Weeks 9-14) continue, this could go much worse for Lawrence and co.
Meanwhile, in spite of any recent inconsistencies, the Cowboys still rank in the top-five in EPA/play, success rate, dropback EPA/play, and EPA/rush since Dak Prescott’s return from injury in Week 7. The loss of right tackle Terrance Steele does open up a hole needed to be filled by veteran Jason Peters, who has never played right tackle, or second-year tackle Josh Ball, though they’ll also be getting Tyron Smith back to protect Prescott’s blindside. Plus, with how deficient Jacksonville has been in pass defenses against running backs (fourth-most passing yards allowed) and tight ends (third-most passing yards allowed), it’s easy to see Tony Pollard and Dalton Schultz being quite effective in the passing game, critical for an offense still thin on perimeter receiving talent. Now, can Prescott get through a game without a costly interception or two? Really, that’s been the only factor holding them back, and based on his history, it’s reasonable to assume that won’t continue.
It’s been a fun run for the Jaguars, but they may be overmanned here; the matchup specifically favors Dallas, in addition to them having the talent advantage. If Lawrence comes out of this game still playing at a very high level, though, then that’s the real win for Jaguars fans. For the Cowboys, can we see one game where their on-paper talent and efficiency leads to a true dominant win? The intrigue here is immense!
Pittsburgh Steelers (5-8) at Carolina Panthers (5-8)
Spread: CAR (-3)
- Projected Spread: CAR (-1.3)
- My Pick: PIT (+3)
- Projected Total: 40.87
- My Pick: Over
- PIT: 46.01%
- CAR: 53.99%
Score Prediction: Steelers 21 Panthers 19
- Jaycee Horn’s Blossoming Into One Of The League’s Best Cornerbacks
- It’s Time For The Receiver Duo of Diontae Johnson and George Pickens To Start Performing
- Will The Old TJ Watt Return?
How do I even lead into this game? Hey, these two teams are 4-1 over the past three weeks, so at least there’s that! To be blunt, as two organizations that came into the season making a half-hearted attempt. to win right away, but also won’t be picking very high in the draft, both share a lot of similarities, and neither will likely come out of this year knowing what to think. Yet, with the Panthers somehow still alive for an NFC South title and the Steelers a lock to be way more competitive than they should be, don’t expect this to feel like a game between two 5-8 teams.
Once upon a time, the Panthers, fresh off firing head coach Matt Rhule and trading star running back Christian McCaffrey, looked primed to be in position to have the top pick in next year’s draft. By winning three of their last four games, though, including both involving Sam Darnold, that narrative has seemingly changed. Let’s start with the good news; they’re 8th in EPA/play allowed since the departure of Rhule and defensive coordinator Phil Snow, second-year cornerback Jaycee Horn leads the NFL in passer rating allowed, third-year interior defender Derrick Brown is a top-ten graded player at his position by PFF, first-round tackle Ikem Ekwonu has allowed just ten pressures in his last ten games, and their offensive line as a whole leads the league in pass-blocking efficiency. In other words, their past three first-round picks are all developing tremendously, and there’s a foundation developing for the future. Now, for the bad news; in the short term, their winning ways would appear to be far from sustainable.
In the two games with Darnold under center, Carolina has passed for just 284 yards, with 80 rush attempts compared to just 43 pass attempts. Furthermore, Darnold has passed out of a play-action concept on 65.5% of his dropbacks, an other wordly amount propped by game script, which is notable considering his numbers on straight dropbacks (48.2 PFF grade, 4 yards/attempt) have left a lot to be desired. We’re a year removed from Darnold being the third-least efficient quarterback in the NFL by EPA/play in arguably a better situation, and, eventually, the Panthers won’t be able to hide him; if their offense is going to do enough, it’ll need to come from him doing his part in less favorable situations. While the Steelers’ defensive numbers are hurt by a) the hardest schedule of opposing offenses in the NFL (Football Outsiders) and b) not having star edge rusher TJ Watt for half the year, they’re 13th in DVOA, are allowing the sixth-fewest yards/carry, and have held their opponents to 18 or fewer points in six of their past eight games. Watt, with nearly half the pressure rate as last season, isn’t quite back to his usual self, but you’d expect that to change, adding another boost for a defense coming into form.
Unfortunately, as has been the case for Pittsburgh far too often, whether or not they’ll score enough points remains a question. Kenny Pickett won’t play in this game due to suffering his second concussion, and it’s unclear at the moment whether it’ll be Mitch Trubisky or Mason Rudolph under center. For what it’s worth, they’ve been adequate (20th in EPA/play, 18th in success rate) in spite of the most difficult schedule of opposing defenses (per Football Outsiders), and you can argue that Pickett’s baseline level of play (65.2 PFF passing grade, -.013 adjusted EPA/play) isn’t high enough for the quarterback change to be of significance. Whoever starts, though, hopefully can help garner more production from the receiver duo of Diontae Johnson and George Pickens, who surprisingly each rank outside the top-70 in yards/route run- that’s not ideal for the receiving corps you’re hoping to build around. For what it’s worth, in the four games not involving Pickett (Weeks 1-3 and last week), Johnson boasts a strong 81.6 PFF receiving grade with 1.9 yards/route run, in addition to an extremely high 31.3% target share. That’s an interesting food for thought ahead of this game.
Per Football Outsiders, the Steelers have been a better team than the Panthers based on value over average (VOA), and that’s before adjusting for schedule- Pittsburgh jumps to 19th in DVOA, whereas Carolina falls to 28th. It’s a bit remarkable to see the Panthers as a field goal favorite considering that, but, hey, who can doubt a team whose undefeated with their current starting quarterback? This may not result in a typical 21st century football game, but we’ll take any down-to-the-wire game we can get. Mike Tomlin has never had a losing record as the head coach of the Steelers, and I’m sure he’d like for that not to end here.
Arizona Cardinals (4-9) at Denver Broncos (3-10)
Spread: DEN (-1.5)
- Projected Spread: DEN (-3.2)
- My Pick: DEN (-1.5)
- Projected Total: 35.44
- My Pick: Under
- ARI: 40.44%
- DEN: 59.56%
Score Prediction: Cardinals 16 Broncos 19
- Patrick Surtain II vs. DeAndre Hopkins
- Backup Quarterback Battle!
- What’s Going On With Broncos Second-Year EDGE Baron Browning?
Well, this game looks a lot different than you’d expect it to be; rather than the “sub-six foot” quarterback battle between Kyler Murray and Russell Wilson in a west-coast shootout featuring two passers who just signed massive contract extensions, we’ll be seeing a backup quarterback battle between two of the worst-performing teams in the NFL. Compared to the other games in the late slate, you may not be seeing this one on the red zone channel once.
With the oldest roster in the NFL and a 4-9 record to show for it, the Cardinals were already in a brutal position heading into this offseason. Now, with Murray tearing his ACL, the situation goes from “brutal” to “unthinkable”. If the organization decided to move on from head coach Kliff Kingsbury, what qualified candidate is running to take that job; being attached with a highly-paid quarterback out for at least half of next season and a thin, aging roster isn’t exactly appealing. For the rest of this year, only Baker Mayfield has been less efficient, based on adjusted EPA/play, than Colt McCoy, and the Cardinals already ranked 29th in EPA/play when excluding turnovers. Now, they have to take on a Broncos defense in the top-five in EPA/play allowed, success rate allowed, and DVOA. That seems a bit one-sided no?
Speaking of the Broncos, they’re certainly hoping for a strong end of the season from second-year edge rusher Baron Browning, who has struggled mightily (52.8 PFF pass rush grade) since returning from injury. Really, growth from their young players and Russell Wilson is all they’re looking for, though Wilson will be sidelined from this game due to a concussion. Thus, we’ll see Brett Rypien, a 2019 undrafted free agent who’s as much of a gunslinger (10.6 average depth of target, 7.3% turnover-worthy play rate) as it gets. That’s an odd fit against a blitz-happy Cardinals defense allowing the fewest yards per completion, though in a sloppy, low-scoring game, the gap between Arizona’s defense (26th in EPA/play allowed) and Denver’s probably makes the difference. Really, though, what is to be learned from this game?
On the bright side for the Cardinals, they’re the only team in this matchup to possess their first-round pick, though Denver did compensate for that by securing a first-round pick from the Dolphins in the Bradley Chubb trade. There is so much unknown with these franchises moving forward, as is the case when things go completely south, and there is a lot of self-reflection that will have to be done. At this point, though, some sort of moral boost would likely be much appreciated by either team; it’s been a much longer season than they imagined it’d be.
New England Patriots (7-6) at Las Vegas Raiders (5-8)
Spread: LV (-1.5)
- My Pick: LV (-1.5)
- Projected Spread: LV (-3.6)
- Projected Total: 44.81
- My Pick: Under
- NE: 39.11%
- LV: 60.89%
Score Prediction: Patriots 20 Raiders 23
- Josh McDaniels vs Bill Belichick
- The Movable Object Faces The Stoppable Force
- Is Davante Adams The Latest Player To Dispel The “Belichick Takes Away Your Best Player” Myth?
For as accomplished of a head coach as he is, Bill Belichick’s coaching tree certainly hasn’t had the amount of success you’d expect. At the moment, Josh McDaniels, now in his second stint as a head coach with an overall losing record, is the only current head coach that coached under Belichick, and I’m not sure there’s an influx of Belichick-disciple head coaches coming. Ironically, based on where both of these organizations find themselves, McDaniels moving on from being the offensive coordinator in New England to the head coach in Las Vegas hasn’t benefited either side, to the point the NFL moved it out of the Sunday Night Football slot. That being said, though, between two competitive teams and one of the most advertised head-to-head coaching matchups of the year, there is still a lot to be fascinated by with this game.
To be fair to McDaniels, it hasn’t been all bad in Las Vegas; they’re averaging the seventh most yards/drive and eighth-most points/drive. After a slower-than-expected start, Davante Adams has been the league’s most productive receiver based on yards/route run (3.52) and PFF receiving grade (93), while Derek Carr (6.3% big-time throw rate) has settled in as a high-upside gunslinger. More efficiency from Carr, who’s completing just 62% of his passes this year, will be needed, though the explosiveness in the passing game coupled with Josh Jacobs averaging over five yards per carry gives them a high offensive baseline. On the surface, the Patriots defense (first in EPA/play allowed) has been exceptional, but let’s take a look at the offenses they’ve faced over the second half of the year:
- Week 7: Bears
- Week 8: Jets
- Week 9: Colts with Sam Ehlinger
- Week 11: Jets
- Week 12: Vikings (.066 EPA/play allowed, 20th)
- Week 13: Bills (.176 EPA/play allowed, 22nd)
- Week 14: Cardinals
To summarize, the Bills are the only offense the Patriots have faced starting in Week 7 to rank in the upper-half of the league in DVOA, and the only two non bottom-ten passing DVOA offenses proceeded to obliterate them (.318 EPA/dropback, 56.3% success rate) through the air. Meanwhile, the notion that Belichick excels at taking away an offense’s #1 threat doesn’t look as strong given the team’s last three games:
- Week 12: Justin Jefferson (9 REC, 139 Yards)
- Week 13: Stefon Diggs (7 REC, 92 Yards)
- Week 14: DeAndre Hopkins (7 REC, 79 Yards)
We’ve seen the Patriots play a lot more zone coverage this season, which speaks to a change in personnel, and, thus, Belichick perhaps not committing as many resources to accomplish what they’ve once done. Really, it’s been their pass rush (2nd in pressure rate), led by the edge rush trio of Josh Uche, Matthew Judon, and Deatrich Wise that has been key for them, but their secondary can be vulnerable down the field (10th in air yards/completion allowed). That plays right into how Carr and Las Vegas’ passing game has functioned, and their struggles against gap blocking schemes (23rd in EPA/rush) may show up against a predominantly gap-blocking Raiders rushing attack. In other words, this may be a much more difficult test than the run of backup quarterbacks and inefficient passing games provided them with.
Meanwhile, if McDaniels really wanted to stake his claim as a play-caller, highlighting the struggles of the Patriots offense would be a tremendous start. Since Mac Jones’ return as the full-time starter in Week 8, they have the worst EPA/play and success rate in the NFL when excluding turnovers, ranking in the bottom-two in efficiency passing and running the ball. Here’s my favorite stat: during this span, Jones is attempting more passes behind the line of scrimmage (26.2%) than he is 10+ yards down the field (23.8%). Certainly, that wouldn’t appear to be a formula for success, especially with an incredibly inefficient rushing attack and an offensive line dealing with a lot of reshuffling. Speaking of which, their issues at right tackle seem poorly timed when facing Maxx Crosby, tied for third in edge rush pressures, and the recent man-heavy nature of the Raiders defense isn’t ideal considering Jones’ massive issues against man coverage (-.180 EPA/play) this year. Now, Las Vegas’ defense (31st in DVOA) isn’t particularly strong, but, the, again, neither are the Cardinals (26th in DVOA), who New England struggled (22nd of 26 teams in success rate) against. When an offense is this inefficient, does the defense they’re facing truly matter? With both starting running backs and top receiver Jakobi Meyers unlikely to play, those issues only become worse.
It’s ironic that the Patriots enter this game with legitimate postseason hopes, as it’s the Raiders who would appear to be the fundamentally-better team. While this game will ultimately lie around the “McDaniels vs Belichick” storyline, it’s the other side of the ball that may matter just as much; right now, the Patriots cannot be trusted to move the ball against any team. Especially if it seems as though their defensive success may be propped up by their favorable run of inefficient passing offenses, there’s too much of an offensive gap for them to clear here, though what can we trust with the Raiders at this point? I mean, this is a team that would be 9-4 if they simply won the four games they were up by 13+ points! Heck, maybe the goal in this game should be to not be leading by multiple touchdowns. Or, perhaps simply holding the lead would work too.
Tennessee Titans (7-6) at Los Angeles Chargers (7-6)
Spread: LAC (-3)
- Projected Spread: LAC (+1)
- My Pick: TEN (+3)
- Projected Total: 42.5
- My Pick: Under
- TEN: 53.02%
- LAC: 46.98%
Score Prediction: Titans 21 Chargers 20
- Will The Chargers Actually Air It Out?
- Can An Inefficient Titans Rushing Attack Exploit The Chargers’ Porous Run Defense?
- How Do The Titans Compensate For Their Numerous Injuries?
In terms of playoff implications, this game has a lot on the line; per Timo Riske of PFF, the Chargers would have a 70% of making the postseason, but drop to 27% with a loss. The Titans, meanwhile, still need to wrap up the AFC South with the Jaguars breathing down their neck, and will be looking to break a three-game losing streak. That’s a much different feel than the Chargers coming off a primetime win against the Dolphins, though, as evidenced by their negative point differentials, it hasn’t been a smooth road for either team. Those roads collide here.
Is there any team in football that plays with our emotions more than the Chargers? The talent they possess was enough for them to be considered a Super Bowl favorite, but between injuries and puzzling struggles, they haven’t quite lived up to that billing. Whether it was their 4-2 start, going head-to-head with the Chiefs, or last week’s win, there have been teases of that potential, but is this the time is all comes together? With Keenan Allen and Mike Williams back healthy, this is the most well-rounded their offense has been, but, even last week, Herbert only averaged 5.8 intended air yards per target; they had the second-lowest success rate (32.1%) on early downs of the week as well. Theoretically, facing a Titans defense allowing the fifth-most air yards/attempt should would to lead to a dramatic change in passing depth, but was being without Mike Williams enough to explain the being in the bottom-ten in EPA/play between Weeks 12 and 13 against two bottom-seven DVOA defenses in the Cardinals and Raiders? There’s only so much that can be attributed to personnel and some that has to be pointed at schematics, and it remains to be seen if the Chargers will actually be able to take advantage of Tennessee’s defensive weaknesses. After all, per Football Outsiders, they’ve already faced the easiest schedule of opposing defenses in the NFL.
The Titans, furthermore, possess a much thinner distribution of possible outcomes offensively, though a generally run-heavy philosophy becomes even more the case with the league’s worst run defense in yards/carry. Now, while this may surprise you, Tennessee’s rushing attack isn’t particularly a strength; they rank 26th in EPA/rush, and have just a 31.2% rushing success rate starting in Week 10. In fact, Derrick Henry’s splits since then are rather telling:
- Weeks 1-9: 90.1 PFF rushing grade, 4.8 yards/carry, 12.6% explosive rush rate (carries of 10+ yards), 3.96 yards after contact/attempt
- Weeks 10-14: 63.3 PFF rushing grade, 3.5 yards/carry, 4.3% explosive rush rate, 3.16 yards after contact/attempt
Those are pretty notable splits, especially with games against the Broncos, Packers, Bengals, and Eagles, all bottom-half rushing defenses based on EPA/rush, included in the latter sample. So, is this Henry slowing down? It’s hard to compensate for an offensive line generating the fourth-fewest yards before contact per attempt, but that’s been the case all season. On the bright side, the Chargers have let up over five yards/carry in each of their past four games, despite facing two bottom-half rushing offenses in the Cardinals and Dolphins during that span, so their deficiencies also may simply outweigh Tennessee’s; unless Henry has truly fallen off a cliff, it’s hard to imagine their rushing efficiency isn’t better. Plus, if they can compensate for the loss of Treylon Burks with more two tight end sets, including fourth-round rookie Chig Okonkwo, who actually leads all tight ends in yards/route run (2.58), there’s still room for passing efficiency as well. While not a high volume passing attack, they do average the eighth-most air yards/completion, a specific weakness for a Chargers defense (fourth-most air yards allowed/attempt) that also doesn’t have star safety Derwin James. Remember, Burks has already not played for half the year, and they’ve been in the middle-of-the-pack in passing efficiency in spite of that.
This is the exact type of game the Chargers should win, which may, in some ways, makes it even more scary for them. We like to attribute a cause to any struggles, but was Mike Williams enough to explain not being able to move the ball consistently against some of the league’s worst defenses in recent weeks? At some point, the preseason excitement and dreamed “potential” starts to wear off, especially since this is a very similar conversation to what was being had just a few weeks ago; they seemed to have turn a corner offensively. As such an inefficient team on early downs on the wrong side of explosive plays on both sides of the ball, there is a lot continuing to prevent them from putting it all together. That being said, this is a great opportunity for them to change that narrative; with the season potentially on the line, can they do what’s necessary – airing the ball out – to take advantage of a favorable matchup and rectify the season? We’re about to find out.
Cincinnati Bengals (9-4) at Tampa Bay Buccaneers (6-7)
Spread: TB (+3.5)
- Projected Spread: TB (+6.4)
- My Pick: CIN (-3.5)
- Projected Total: 43
- My Pick: Under
- CIN: 69.28%
- TB: 30.72%
Score Prediction: Bengals 23 Buccaneers 17
- An Injured Bucs Secondary Has To Deal With The Bengals Passing Attack
- Is a Tom Brady-Led Offense Going To Be This Much of a Liability?
- The Bengals Defense Will Have To Compensate For Key Injuries
Doesn’t September feel like a decade ago? After two weeks of this season, the Bucs were riding high as NFC favorites after allowing just six points in their first two games, while the Bengals were seen as being in the midst of a Super Bowl hangover after two straight losses to start the year to Mitch Trubisky and Cooper Rush. Since then, Tampa Bay has been outscored by an average of five points per game, whereas Cincinnati is outscoring their opponents by around a touchdown per game. Ultimately, this is why first impressions shouldn’t be the only ones we get to make; things don’t always seem as they appear initially! Really, in many ways, the Bengals are who the Bucs wish they could be.
We’ve highlighted the recent surge of Cincinnati’s offense numerous times, but why not continue to do so? Starting in Week 6, when they made some key shifts (gap running scheme, more shotgun looks, more diverse target depths), they lead the league in EPA/play, success rate, and dropback success rate, while also ranking second in rushing success rate. Furthermore, their EPA/play on early downs (.214) is nearly double that of the next closest team (.120), a combination of the highest early-down pass rate and increased rushing efficiency. Need more? Joe Burrow is not only PFF‘s highest graded quarterback during this span, but has 13 big-time throws compared to just one turnover-worthy play, is being sacked on just 5% of his dropbacks (8% Weeks 1-5), and is averaging an absurd 14.2 yards/attempt on passes of 10+ air yards. Oh, and a majority of this sample came without Ja’Marr Chase!
Normally, the Bucs would be able to try to counter this with a high-end pass defense, but they’ve been anything but reliable (24th in EPA/dropback) over their past four games, and enter this game without cornerback Jamel Dean or safety Antoine Winfield Jr. Add that to a bottom-ten graded run defense and pass rush from PFF, and they’re not able to rely on the superb defensive play they became accustomed to getting. With how their offense continues to play, that’s a major problem; they’ve eclipsed 22 points just one time this year, and rank in the bottom-half of the league in nearly every statistical metric. To make matters worse, after shifting to a much more run-heavy mindset (-2% pass rate over expectation on first down) in Week 10 despite having the league’s least efficient rushing attack, they rank 30th in EPA/play on first down, essentially putting themselves in an immediate hole that they can’t get out of. On top of that, they’re in the bottom-four in air yards/completion and yards after catch/completion, meaning that every drive has to be won through sheer efficiency, something nearly impossible to do with no semblance of a running game, poor first-down play-calling, and the seventh-lowest graded receiving corps by PFF. At this point, if a solution hasn’t been found in spite of clear talent on the roster, who’s to say it’s coming for Tom Brady and co.?
The Bengals will have to get by in this game without edge rusher Trey Hendrickson or nickel corner Mike Hilton, though their baseline (10th in DVOA) is more than enough for them not to be concerned here; having those two healthy for their final two-game stretch against the Bills and Ravens is the key. For two teams who entered the season with similar expectations on the offensive side of the ball, the contrast between them is telling, and speaks to a) massive coaching differences and b) the value of continuity and youth. Right now, there isn’t a team in the NFL playing better than Cincinnati to the point where it may be time to consider their position as the potential true “top dog” in the AFC. For the Bucs, let’s just treat every game like a two-minute scenario; it’s much more fun when a Tom Brady-led offense isn’t averaging fewer points per drive than the Panthers, Commanders, and Steelers.
New York Giants (7-5-1) at Washington Commanders (7-5-1)
Spread: WSH (-4.5)
- Projected Spread: WSH (-6.5)
- My Pick: WSH (-4.5)
- Projected Total: 41.54
- My Pick: Under
- NYG: 30.28%
- WSH: 69.72%
Score Prediction: Giants 17 Commanders 22
- How Is This Game Different Than Two Weeks Ago?
- Have The Giants Run Out Of Tricks On Both Sides Of The Ball?
- Taylor Heinicke Against New York’s Blitz Happy Defense = Volatility
It’s very difficult to know at the beginning of the year which games in December will be worthy of a primetime slot. Thus, the NFL’s ability to flex a new game into Sunday Night Football is a tremendous feature, and has allowed us to already see two tremendous games (Chiefs-Chargers, Dolphins-Chargers) this season. This week’s flex, on the other hand, represents the unpredictability of this season; isn’t Giants-Commanders the exact type of game you would’ve expected to be flexed out of primetime? In actuality, no game has greater postseason implications, and, as a result, the world will get to watch a rematch of a 20-20 tie just two weeks ago.
In said game, both teams had the exact same success rate (44%), with Washington having more success on third downs and the Giants on early downs. Interestingly, while New York’s overall offensive numbers are superior to the Commanders, that looks much differently if you start the sample in Week 7, when Taylor Heinicke took over under center for Washington:
- EPA/Play Rank: Giants-16th, Commanders-19th
- Success Rate Rank: Giants- 18th, Commanders-17th
Now, they’ve gotten there in different ways, with the Commanders leaning more on a run-heavy attack predicated on consistent efficiency (9th in rush success rate), and the Giants more reliant on their passing attack. Since their Week 9 bye, running back Saquon Barkley is only averaging 3.5 yards/carry, is averaging the fewest yards after contact/attempt (1.73), and has rushed for 10+ yards on just seven of his 88 carries. Consequently, they’re relying a lot on a limited passing attack with the fifth-lowest graded receiving corps by PFF, the lowest big-time throw rate (1.2%), and the second-highest pressure rate as well.
Making matters more difficult for New York, Washington’s defense, third in EPA/play allowed and success rate during their 6-1-1 stretch, are playing nearly as well as any defense in the NFL. What they bring to the table from a pass rush (2nd in pressure rate) standpoint, as well as a secondary that has been very much improved since moving safety Bobby McCain into the slot, showed up on third downs, with the Giants converting a first down on just two of their 11 late-down pass attempts. If they continue to be as ineffective as they are as a rushing attack and, thus, can’t sustain enough early-down success, they’re in massive trouble here.
For what it’s worth, Heinicke (-.180 EPA/play) has struggled mightily against the blitz, and the Giants send the house more than any defense in the NFL. At the same time, the Giants are tied with the Chargers for the most yards/carry allowed, have the lowest PFF coverage grade, and will be without top cornerback Adoree’ Jackson and interior defender Leonard Williams here. With such little talent, it’s hard to run such a blitz-happy, man-heavy scheme when trying to defend Terry McLaurin on the outside, which became very apparent with him exceeding 100 yards in their first matchup. Really, on both sides of the ball, the matchups give Washington the edge here, while they’re the healthier team coming off their bye. That’s a tremendous spot for them to be in.
Should the Commanders win this game, the Giants will need to salvage their season against the Vikings, Colts, and Eagles, but will have to do so essentially fighting the Lions and Seahawks for one postseason spot; Washington, on the other hand, wouldn’t be guaranteed a postseason spot, but would have as much leeway as imaginable. Should New York win, that narrative is nearly completely flipped, making this the ultimate “need-to-win” game. Would you have thought we’d be talking about anything but draft position for these two teams at the beginning of the year? Both are playing with house money and certainly wouldn’t appear to be threats to make noise in the postseason, but don’t underestimate the meaning of a playoff berth for a franchise; it dramatically changes the mood within in an organization. Now, let’s just see if either team can actually win this game- a second tie would be way too fitting.
Los Angeles Rams (4-9) at Green Bay Packers (5-8)
Spread: GB (-7)
- Projected Spread: GB (-8.4)
- My Pick: LAR (+7)
- Projected Total: 42.61
- My Pick: Over
- LAR: 24.69%
- GB: 75.31%
Score Prediction: Rams 19 Packers 24
- How Does Baker Mayfield Look With Actual Time To Prepare?
- Can The Packers Close The Season With Offensive Progress?
- Bigger Weakness: Rams Rushing Offense or Packers Run Defense
When the NFL schedule was being released, you could bet that ESPN worked hard to secure the broadcasting rights for this game. After all, a matchup between the defending Super Bowl champions and the reigning #1 seed would surely be a potential NFC Championship preview, right? Instead, it’s a battle between two of the league’s most disappointing teams, and ones that find themselves in a peculiar spot heading into this offseason. While Green Bay technically has a scant chance of a postseason berth, really all either of these teams are looking for is signs of hope heading into next year.
Now, while their overall team performance doesn’t reflect it, there are signs of life for the Packers; they rank 9th in weighted DVOA and are 4th in EPA/play starting in Week 4. With the sixth-most efficient early-down offense, it comes down to them converting more often in high leverage scenarios, mainly third downs (21st) and scoring touchdowns in the red zone (22nd). The ascension of second-round rookie Christian Watson (2.93 yards/route run starting in Week 10) has given them the precise type of big-play element that has guided Aaron Rodgers to attempt over half of his passes for 10+ intended air yards, while Allen Lazard and Randall Cobb each have averaged at least 1.70 yards/route run with a PFF receiving grade over 75. Add in PFF’s third-highest graded pass-blocking offensive line and the fourth-best rushing attack in success rate, and it’s a much more complete offense around Rodgers; we’re starting to see that transpire into tangible results.
The Rams defense, who is particularly strong on early downs (71st percentile) with PFF‘s top-graded run defense, are an interesting fit against an offense running the ball 7% above league average on first downs. Plus, with Los Angeles allowing the second-lowest average depth of target in the NFL, is Rodgers willing to stay patient and win through efficiency? Even during the offense’s run of improved play, he ranks just 26th of 30 quarterbacks in success rate during the Week 10-14 span, indicating a passing attack heavily reliant on chunk plays created with the third-highest average depth of target (9.8 yards). Thus, there’s a legitimate chance the Rams’ defensive strengths line up just well enough with the Packers’ strengths to cause problems, something they’ve managed to do consistently in spite of their struggles.
Finally, though, we don’t have to discuss the despair of Los Angeles’ six-game losing streak, as they put that to bed with a comeback victory against the Raiders last week. The most surprising part, however, came with the quarterback; it was Baker Mayfield, just 48 hours after being claimed off of waivers by them, who pulled off the improbable task. Overall, the Rams’ offensive numbers (-.076 EPA/play, 40.3% success rate) were quite poor against a deficient Raiders defense, but they’ve also put together their top-two graded games in pass protection by PFF since Week 6, and there’s still reason to be intrigued by a player of Mayfield’s track record being in the same style of offensive system he found success in during the 2020 season in Cleveland. At the very least, he at least possessed the big-play ability (8.8 average depth of target, 5.3% big-time throw rate) they didn’t have with their other backup quarterbacks, while they’ve improved to the middle of the pack in rushing efficiency in recent weeks. The Packers, 25th in EPA/play allowed with the highest rushing success rate allowed, are an extremely gullible unit, and if Los Angeles’ generally inefficient early-down rushing attack finds more value, then things set up much more favorably. At the very least, Mayfield already established a competent baseline level of play despite likely barely knowing his teammate’s names, and the extended lay-off should help with the growing pains.
Don’t be mistaken; the Packers are a significantly better team that has no business losing this game. Then again, with a passing attack that is still reliant on chunk plays and a defense that has continued to get in their way, there are still barriers that have not only prevented them from beating winning teams, but also winning in impressive fashion against teams they should have no problem with. There’s enough of a foundation offensively in place for them to feel comfortable “running it back” in that regard, yet without much in the way of financial flexibility, they’d need to see progress from their young players at wide receiver and the defensive side of the ball. At this point, the Rams have had too many injuries, including at the quarterback position, have very little to gain or lose from this year. Green Bay, though, is still expected to win this game, and don’t have the same potential excuses or a recent Super Bowl title to hang their hat on; just from an organizational mood standpoint, this is a game they need much more than their playoff chances would indicate. It may not be the NFC Championship game, but you could do a lot worse for a matchup with two sub-.500 teams.
SF/SEA: Field Gulls
IND/MIN: Arizona Republic
BAL/CLE: Akron Beacon Journal
PHI/CHI: NBC Sports
ATL/NO: The Falcoholic
DET/NYJ: Sporting News
KC/HOU: Bally Sports
PIT/CAR: Still Curtain
ARI/DEN: AZ Central
NE/LV: Pats Pulpit
CIN/TB: Tampa Bay Times
NYG/WSH: Hogs Haven