In football, they call it “any given Sunday” for a reason; you never know when you’re going to witness something you’ve never seen before. In Week 15, we didn’t even have to wait for Sunday for the excitement to start, with the Vikings completing the largest comeback in NFL history on Saturday, followed by a Dolphins-Bills showdown that was certainly worth the price of admission. From there, it only got better; the Jaguars came back from 17 points down to win on a pick-six in overtime against the Cowboys, the Bengals came back from 17 points thanks to five(!) straight turnovers by the Bucs, the Lions pulled through against the Jets on a 51-yard touchdown on fourth down, the Texans somehow took the Chiefs to overtime, and the Patriots made sure that no team will ever attempt a lateral play in a tied game again. Besides that, just your standard week of football!
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.
As you’d expect with such a hectic slate, only three of the 16 games this past weekend were decided by more than one score, illustrating the parity that has ruled the 2022 season. This week, a similar theme follows; only two games feature a spread of larger than one score. With weather likely to play a critical factor and teams of similar caliber facing each other, you’d hope for another electrifying slate of action, and why wouldn’t you expect that at this point?
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.
Notice the obviously strong correlation between team success and performance on early downs, but with a few outliers; the Buccaneers have been abysmal on third downs this season, for instance. The Commanders, furthermore, couldn’t succeed in high-leverage third scenarios where the Giants defense has generally thrived in, while the third-down struggles of the Bills and Dolphins defense showed up last Saturday. Meanwhile, how long can the Chargers keep this up? It’s nearly impossible for a team to make the postseason in spite of no success on early downs, but that’s precisely what they’re trying to accomplish. Hey, I guess having Justin Herbert hides a lot of flaws.
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:
Lost in last week’s three-point showing in Cleveland is the fact that the Ravens’ offensive production would have looked a lot differently had they not failed to score a touchdown on their multiple red-zone scores, highlighting an overall issue for them this season. Furthermore, it’s impressive that the Jaguars have been able to sport a positive point differential in spite of poor red-zone efficiency, and we see yet another data point to suggest why the Bucs have disappointed this season. There is a lot of statistical noise related with red-zone production, but, sometimes, there’s a reason to explain an outlier scenario. The later we get into the year, the more confidence we can have in that.
Now, onto the previews!
Jacksonville Jaguars (6-8) at New York Jets (7-7)
Spread: NYJ (-1.5)
- Projected Spread: NYJ (-1)
- My Pick: JAX (+1.5)
- Projected Total: 40.79
- My Pick: Over
- JAX: 40.93%
- NYJ: 59.07%
Score Prediction: Jaguars 20 Jets 18
- Strength vs Strength: Jaguars Offense vs Jets Defense
- Does The Loss of Tackle Cam Robinson Have Notable Consequences?
- The Ultimate Roller-Coaster Experience That Is Zach Wilson
Generally, when we think of “primetime football”, Thursday Night Football doesn’t hold the same type of weight; since every team has to play once on Thursday and the viewership is usually down compared to Sunday and Monday, plenty of less intriguing matchups take center stage. For years, that’s exactly what a game between Jaguars-Jets would symbolize, but this is a different year. Really, of all the games taking place this week, is there one with the final outcome most in doubt, in addition to having an extreme amount on the line for both teams? Don’t let the previous struggles of these organizations deceive you- this game is must-watch television.
Really, at the moment, Trevor Lawrence on his own may be must-watch television. The early portion of the 2021 #1 overall pick’s career hadn’t gone as planned, but he’s quoted stating that a Week 8 loss to the Broncos “flipped a switch” in him, and that point has statistical merit. Since that point, the numbers speak for themselves:
- PFF Grade: 91.8 (1st)
- EPA/Play: .220 (6th)
- Completion Rate Over Expectation: 5.3% (2nd)
- Success Rate: 55.3% (3rd)
- Big-Time Throw Rate: 6.9% (2nd)
- PFF Passing Grade on Throws Of 10-19 Air Yards: 94.9 (1st)
It’s hard to “fake” a high-end run of production like this, particularly when it is all mainly coming from stable metrics (from a clean pocket) of performance. Meanwhile, although the surrounding cast has flaws, the overall package has led to an offense ranked 5th in EPA/pay on early downs, and they’re just now starting to convert on third downs in a way they weren’t earlier in the year. This continued into the #1 offensive showing of the week when excluding turnovers, which is remarkable when you consider it came against a Dallas defense that entered the week leading the league in defense-adjusted value over average (DVOA). Of course, they’ll be put up to the test again. Since the first month of the year, the Jets lead the league in EPA/play and are the only defensive to allow a negative expected points added total on passing plays when excluding turnovers. Whereas Jacksonville went after second-year cornerback Kelvin Joseph (149.3 passer rating allowed) last week, the Jets’ two outside cornerbacks (Sauce Gardner and DJ Reed Jr.) are in the top-ten in the NFL in PFF coverage grade, with slot corner Michael Carter II is 4th in the NFL among nickel defenders with 150 coverage snaps in passer rating allowed. In other words, there’s a reason New York, whether it was the Bills twice or the Lions last week, has been exceptional regardless of their opponent. When strength meets strength, anything can happen.
Unfortunately for the Jets, a defense can only take you so far. At the end of the day, it’s going to be hard to produce enough offensively when your starting quarterback is the lowest-graded quarterback by PFF this seasonand has the worst adjusted EPA/play (-.106) and CPOE (-8) in the NFL going back to 2021. Unfortunately, with Mike White still sidelined with a rib injury, that’s where New York finds themselves in Zach Wilson, who, with just a 54.5% completion percentage yet a 9.1 yards/attempt total thanks to a 15-yard average depth of target, gave New York quite the roller-coaster of emotions. That type of variance can work in a small sample size, but unless the lowest-graded passer by PFF under pressure is going to average 8.8 yards/attempt in those situations again, something he should find himself in against the #6 pass rush in pressure rate, then the downside of the roller coaster is going to show up much more often. Now, Jacksonville’s defense (28th in EPA/play allowed) has struggled this year, but their run defense (8th in yards/carry allowed) is a problem for an offense that has a negative pass rate over expectation with Wilson under center, something that likely continues given their lack of faith in him.
Ultimately, for as much talent as one team has over another, if the quarterback advantage is too steep for a particular team, that trumps all else. Considering these were the top-two picks in the draft just 1.5 years ago, it’s exceptional how different these two quarterbacks’ careers have gone, and certainly is a sore subject in New York with the recent development of Justin Fields. Finally, Lawrence’s supposed ascension will be on a national stage, and with how significant of a game this is for the Jaguars, this would be quite the statement game for him. To be fair, though, he’s already had that multiple times during this run, while Wilson may be looking at his last shot as a starting quarterback. Think about where we were when these two quarterbacks faced off a year ago to now- life really does move fast.
Houston Texans (1-12-1) at Tennessee Titans (7-7)
Spread: TEN (-3)
- Projected Spread: TEN (-6.6)
- My Pick: TEN (-3)
- Projected Total: 40.58
- My Pick: Over
- HOU: 30.13%
- TEN: 69.87%
Score Prediction: Texans 17 Titans 22
- The Titans’ Playoff Hopes May Lie On Malik Willis
- Derrick Henry Against The Texans = 200 Rushing Yards
- Brandin Cooks Returns In a Favorable Matchup
How often is it that two of a quarterback’s first three starts are against the same team? Fortunately for Malik Willis, that common opponent is the Texans, who are on the brink of “clinching” the rights to the #1 overall pick, but he’ll be facing a mighty task trying to rectify the Titans’ postseason hopes with Ryan Tannehill potentially out for the year. With the Cowboys up next before a potential Week 18 showdown with the Jaguars, to call this a must-win game for them, especially if Tannehill is able to come back, would be an understatement. Once again, never underestimate the value of a postseason berth for an organization, regardless of their Super Bowl hopes.
In some ways, one could also consider this an audition for Willis. Tannehill’s contract can be ridden of for a reasonable dead cap hit this offseason, so we can’t say for certain that hell be back as the team’s starter next year. Considering some believed Willis was a first-round prospect, one can connect the dots here, but the third-round rookie hasn’t made the best impression. In his two starts, the Liberty product averaged a putrid -.346 adjusted EPA/play, completed 12.9% of passes fewer than expectation, and just 42.3% of his passes in general for 5.2 yards/pass attempt. To boot, Tennessee, as evidenced by their negative 28% pass rass rate over expectation in those two games, certainly didn’t instill much faith in him, and the combination of his propensity for taking sacks (3.60-second average time to throw would lead the NFL) combined with the lowest-graded pass-blocking offensive line by PFF is a terrible duo- Willis was sacked at an alarming 16.7% rate. These are all reasons why the Titans’ prospects for the rest of the season and into next year would be dampened with him at quarterback, but, for this game, it may not matter.
After all, it’s hard to put into words how poor the Texans’ run defense has been this year; they have the second-worst PFF run defense grade and are allowing the fifth-highest success rate. The last time these two teams faced off, Tennessee ran for 7.1 yards/carry and 314 yards overall, which speaks to Willis’ main benefit; Tennessee certainly is in position to average more rushing yards before contact based on the threat he brings as a runner. Perhaps that spark a rushing attack that has had its fair share of issues (25th in success rate) this year, though Henry (5.8 yards/carry, 4.37 yards after contact/carry, 18.4% 10+ yard carry rate) has performed significantly better over the past two weeks. Of course, you need to be in the right gamescript for that strategy to work, and while they’re still injured defensively, it shouldn’t take much to limit offensive production for the worst offense in the NFL based on EPA/play (-.154). I’ll use this as a platform of appreciation for second-round rookie cornerback Roger McCreary, who has quietly had a very productive season:
We’ve yet to see any proof that Willis is a starting-caliber quarterback, though that didn’t stop the Titans the first teams these two teams met up, and it likely won’t again. That being said, is there anything that we can derive from this game beyond that? Tannehill’s contract puts him right at the top of the quarterback market based on how its structured, and with where Tennessee is at as a franchise, taking a step back makes sense. Using a third-round pick on Willis indicated some hope it’d be him to provide a cheaper solution under center, so, at the very least, these are three games to determine his future. Best case scenario, outside of Willis leading him to the postseason on his own, Tannehill is able to come back and secure the division title, though that’s far from a certainty right now. They say Mike Vrabel can always find away, but the limits are being pushed here.
New York Giants (8-5-1) at Minnesota Vikings (11-3)
Spread: MIN (-4)
- Projected Spread: MIN (-10)
- My Pick: MIN (-4)
- Projected Total: 46.2
- My Pick: Under
- NYG: 19.63%
- MIN: 80.37%
Score Prediction: Giants 20 Vikings 26
- Vikings Offense vs Giants Defense: Third Downs, Under Pressure, Heavy Blitzes, With A Lot of Variance
- Can Minnesota’s Rushing Attack Start To Produce?
- Kayvon Thibodeaux vs Christian Darrisaw
Together, these two teams have a combined negative 13 point differential, have won just one game by more than a score, and rach ranked in the bottom-ten in team DVOA. So, naturally, this is a matchup between two winning teams and a potential postseason preview, because why should anything make sense this season? Who would’ve thought that, by Week 16, the Giants would have a postseason-clinching scenario, while the Vikings would have already secured an NFC North title, fresh off the largest comeback win in NFL history? Once again, this is not a normal year.
Now that the Vikings have officially secured their spot in the postseason and could find themselves with the #2 seed in the NFC, how far can they go in the postseason? Statistically, there is very little to suggest that they should be a legitimate Super Bowl contender. After all, this image perfectly sums their season up:
Right down the middle; Minnesota’s been exceptionally average overall this year on both sides of the ball, which has put them in position to win a lot of close games against subpar teams, but also at risk at being outmatched by some of the top-tier teams (Eagles, Cowboys, 49ers) in the NFC. Structurally, in spite of their overall talent, their offensive infrastructure has flaws; Kirk Cousins is averaging more yards/attempt (7.6) than when kept clean (6.8), they’re a bottom-ten offense on first down, and rank 27th in yards before contact/carry despite having PFF‘s fifth-highest graded run-blocking offensive line. In many ways, those issues will be highlighted by this matchup. The Giants are the worst early-down defense in the NFL and are allowing the highest yards/carry, but with the highest blitz rate, have the fourth-highest pressure rate. Minnesota’s numbers against man coverage (-.06 EPA/play) and the blitz (-.18 EPA/play) aren’t exactly promising, and a lot of their offensive success could come down to being on the right side of variance of pressured Cousins dropbacks. With no one in the league’s worst-graded coverage unit by PFF to line up with Justin Jefferson, that could go quite well for the Vikings, but this is a way for them to win in a more sustainable and structural way. There are so many pathways to offensive success, though how they do it may be as telling.
Consider the Giants a much different case study; in spite of massive talent deficiencies at wide receiver, offensive line, and quarterback, they somehow rank 12th in weighted DVOA, and have specifically found success on early downs (68th percentile). It’s still unclear that an offense with the limitations they have, such as the lowest big-time throw rate and second-highest pressure rate allowed, has the ceiling to score over 24 points in a game, something they’ve done just once, but they’ve also been remarkably consistent (20-24 points) throughout the year. The Vikings’ run defense (2nd in PFF run defense grade) could serve them problems, as could the duo of Za’Darius Smith and Danielle Hunter against an easily-pressured offensive line; Hunter against rookie tackle Evan Neal and Smith lining up inside in obvious passing situations are clear mismatches. For the Giants to defeat the Commanders last week by eight points, they needed a defensive touchdown, another fumble, a missed extra point, and for Washington to score just one touchdown on three red-zone trips. Let’s just say their margin for error remains remarkably slim.
For all of their flaws, these are the types of games the Vikings are suited for; where the sheer star talent they have is an edge they can exploit against a clearly inferior team. I remain puzzled as to how they haven’t found more offensive success in head coach Kevin O’Connell’s first season, though, at the end of the day, they’re on track to be the #2 seed in the NFC, which puts them in position to accomplish something special. That’s not happening without needed structural improvement over these final three weeks, and making sure they actually get the #2 seed is also significant. Not being down by 33 points at the half would be a good start!
Buffalo Bills (11-3) at Chicago Bears (3-11)
Spread: CHI (+8)
- Projected Spread: CHI (+8.7)
- My Pick: BUF (-8)
- Projected Total: 45.66
- My Pick: Over
- BUF: 76.24%
- CHI: 23.54%
Score Prediction: Bills 27 Bears 17
- Pending Weather, Does The Bills Offense Go “Nuclear” Here?
- Justin Fields vs The Bills Defense: A Tail of Third Downs
- A Struggling Pass Rush vs The Most-Sacked Quarterback
First Jalen Hurts, now Josh Allen; are we just trying to see if any quarterback can match the rushing production that Justin Fields offers on the other side? In many ways, based on the development trajectory of each of these quarterbacks coming out of their respective drafts, they share a lot of parallels, which, hopefully, the Bears front office will recognize this offseason- let’s put that cap space to good use! For now, with the Bills trying to secure the #1 seed in the AFC and Chicago in the driver’s seat for the second overall pick, these two organizations couldn’t be farther apart.
Generally, with team analysis, it all starts on the offensive side of the ball. However, in spite of some deficiencies on the offensive line and secondary receivers, we know what to expect with the Bills offense – they’re third in EPA/play and success rate this year for a reason. The defense, on the other hand, has been a different story. While Buffalo’s overall defensive numbers (10th in EPA/play allowed) aren’t poor, the calculus changes significantly if you focus on their performance after their Week 7 bye; since then, they rank 24th in EPA/play allowed, and have consistently struggled on third downs (13th percentile) for the entire year. Meanwhile, since their first three games, they have eclipsed a PFF team defense and pass rush grade of 70 just once, with the loss of edge rusher Von Miller a significant blow that’ll only hurt their ability to succeed in obvious passing situations. The Bears, meanwhile, are a very interesting matchup for them. Structurally, Chicago’s inefficiency on early downs (19th percentile), the highest sack and pressure rate, and a very limited receiving corps all are evident, but Fields has been able to allow them to thrive on third downs (84th percentile), in addition to possessing the best yards/carry in the NFL; Fields has gained 10+ yards on a quarter of his carries, which is an absurd amount. Considering Buffalo’s third-down woes and issues in run defense (fifth-worst PFF run defense grade), their weaknesses are going to be put to test here, making this a more telling game for them than you’d expect.
As far as the competitive nature of this game, though, the Bills gets to face a Bears defense allowing the most expected points added per play, which is certainly a matchup you’d expect to go in a specific way. With the worst PFF pass rush grade and the fourth-worst PFF run defense grade in the NFL, Chicago’s rebuilding stage is evident on defense, where very few resources have been invested in the front seven. Again, you wouldn’t expect them to based on where they are, though one glance at their depth chart makes it clear why they’ve struggled; they’re allowing an average 32.3(!) points over their past seven games. The weather is likely to play an impact here, but it would take much more than that to turn the tides of this unit-vs-unit battle. Heck, with all of the hits Allen has had to take, being able to soften his load by keeping him in clean pockets and getting more rushing efficiency simply between their running backs would be quite the positive development ahead of a hopeful deep postseason run.
In this game, the Bears will be without receivers Darnell Mooney, Chase Claypool, and Equanimeous St.Brown, interior offensive linemen Cody Whitehear and Teven Jenkins, with safety Eddie Jackson on injured reserve and cornerback Jaylon Johnson not a lock to play. Now, all they’ll have to do is contend with the betting favorite to win the Super Bowl. Besides that, no big deal! It’s interesting to see 95% of the cash bet on Chicago for this game, indicating sharp betters believe that, like last week against the Eagles, Chicago will find a way to make things uncomfortable for one of the league’s elite teams. That being said, with essentially zero offensive support around Fields and a defense poised to be gashed by Buffalo’s offense, they may be forced to overcome too many different obstacles here. In many ways, a Buffalo win accomplishes the optimal result for both franchises, so why not have that be the case? A mutual compromise at its finest!
Atlanta Falcons (5-9) at Baltimore Ravens (9-5)
Spread: BAL (-6.5)
- Projected Spread: BAL (-1.5)
- My Pick: ATL (+6.5)
- Projected Total: 48.7
- My Pick: Over
- ATL: 45.57%
- BAL: 54.43%
Score Prediction: Falcons 22 Ravens 24
- Can The Ravens Produce At All Offensively Without Lamar Jackson?
- Desmond Ridder Looking To Bounce Back From a Rough Debut
- Drake London vs Marlon Humphrey
Here’s a fascinating trivia question: of these two teams, who has scored more points this season? Nope, that would not be the 9-5 Ravens, who’ve scored just 29 points the past three weeks, correlating perfectly with the injury to Lamar Jackson. All told, while they’ve managed to go 2-1 without Jackson, it’s been a massive struggle, and certainly highlights exactly why Baltimore ultimately will be compelled to give him a massive contract extension. Even if the postseason is a near lock for Baltimore, the difference between being the #5 seed and playing the AFC South winner as opposed to a matchup with the Bengals or Chiefs is massive, let alone the fact that PFF still gives them a 32% chance to win the AFC North. As such, they’ll need to avoid a letdown here.
Without Jackson, the Ravens’ offensive gameplan has been very simple: put as little on Tyler Huntley’s plate as possible. In these past three games, their passing at an 8% rate below expectation, which makes sense- their success rate on the ground (48.8%) has been significantly higher than through the air (40.4%), and they’ve exceeded six yards/carry over their past two games. Huntley, meanwhile, is averaging just 5.5 yards/attempt and an incredibly low 7.9 yards/completion, speaking to an evidently limited passing attack both based on his limitations as a downfield passer and the lack of playmakers around him. It doesn’t get much easier than facing a Falcons defense allowing the highest success rate in the NFL, but is this an offense equipped to take advantage of any defense? Their past two games have come against defenses ranked in the bottom-ten in EPA/play allowed, and Atlanta’s main vulnerabilities come over the top (third-most air yards allowed/attempt). As such, an offensive eruption probably shouldn’t be expected here, or any game without Jackson.
It’s quite difficult to rank 7th in point differential with a league-average total in points scored (16th), or have a 2-1 record in games where you’ve averaged under ten points scored. That speaks to the surge of Baltimore’s defense, who, after a rough season last year that led to a defensive coordinator change and a difficult first month, have finally put it all together – 8th in DVOA. Getting further acclimated to defensive coordinator Mike MacDonald, in addition to moving rookie safety Kyle Hamilton to the nickel to solve their slot coverage issues, all help explain this, but the acquisition of linebacker Roquan Smith at this year’s trade deadline also can’t be overlooked. Since the trade, Smith and Patrick Queen are each among the top-ten graded linebackers by PFF in the NFL, which, combined with the duo of cornerbacks Marlon Humphrey and Marcus Peters, in addition to Hamilton and the return of star safety Marcus Williams, has formed a formidable defense. While they’ve benefitted from a favorable schedule, ranking 4th in EPA/play allowed during this period is not something to scoff at, with the obvious concession the only above-average offense they’ve faced during this stretch was the Jaguars, who had plenty of success against them. Until a Week 18 showdown against the Bengals, it’ll be hard to get a true read, though it makes sense give the construction of their roster that they’d come into form eventually.
Want to see the legitimacy of the Ravens’ improved run defense? Put them up against a Falcons rushing attack ranked third in EPA/attempt and success rate this year. Third-round rookie Desmond Ridder’s first start in the NFL certainly did not go as planned last week (3.7 yards/attempt, 43.1 PFF passing grade), but Atlanta was still able to perform just fine (.03 EPA/play, 47% success rate) against a strong Saints defense in spite of that, and rank 6th in success rate for the season despite limitations with Marcus Mariota (62.7 PFF passing grade) under center. Particularly with cornerback Marcus Peters likely out for this game and Brandon Stephens (44.5 PFF coverage grade) stepping in, they’ve established a baseline consistency of offensive production through efficient carries and enough chunk plays through the air to remain viable despite talent deficiencies, which creates an exciting offensive outlook with a new quarterback. For now, they’re too limited to win games, but, as they’ve done all year, they’ll likely continue to be the pesky team that no favorite enjoys playing.
A statistic to demonstrate this feistiness? As an underdog this season, the Falcons are 7-3 covering the spread, illustrating them keeping games more competitive than they should. At the moment, it doesn’t appear they’ll be sneaking their way into a cost-controlled quarterback to start next season, but it’s easy to be excited about this offense with an upgrade (Ryan Tannehill/drafted quarterback) likely on the way. In fact, an underrated storyline of their recent three-game skid is the wonders it’s done for their draft position, allowing them to have a much better chance of finding the franchise quarterback they desire. For the Ravens, it’s all about survival, something they’ve done remarkably well at generally as a very well-coached team. That being said, if their offense sputters against the Falcons defense, let’s just say Jackson’s price tag is only going to continue to go up- as it turns out, he’s a pretty valuable player!
Cincinnati Bengals (10-4) at New England Patriots (7-7)
Spread: NE (+3)
- Projected Spread: NE (+3.3)
- My Pick: CIN (-3)
- Projected Total: 43.53
- My Pick: Over
- CIN: 60.02%
- NE: 39.98%
Score Prediction: Bengals 24 Patriots 20
- Strength vs Strength At Its Finest: Bengals Offense vs Patriots Defense
- A Coaching Mismatch: Bengals Defense vs Patriots Offense
- Can Cincinnati’s Offensive Line Hold Up Against a Very Strong Pass Rush?
Believe it or not, but this is the first time the Bengals have traveled to New England since the infamous “we’re on to Cincinnati” game in 2014. Plus, it’s a matchup between the national championship-winning quarterbacks in 2020 and 2021, as well as the LSU-Alabama rivalry being restored once again. It’s always fascinating when Bill Belichick faces a quarterback he’s never faced before, particularly one of Joe Burrow’s caliber; given his reputation, if he finds any sort of edge to limit Burrow’s production, it’s certainly going to cause headwaves around the NFL. That being said, don’t bank on that happening.
Last week’s victory in Tampa Bay now means that the Bengals have gone 8-1 since a 2-3 start to defending their AFC crown, and, to be frank, the numbers during this stretch remain ridiculous. Starting in Week 6, they lead the league in EPA/play, success rate, and dropback success rate, are a top-five rushing offense, and are averaging 29 points per game- remember, a great portion of this came without Ja’Marr Chase. Joe Burrow, meanwhile, has not only been PFF‘s highest-graded quarterback during this span, but has 17 big-time throws compared to four turnover-worthy plays, with only Tom Brady being under pressure on a fewer percentage of his dropbacks. Now, the Patriots, 2nd in DVOA and pressure rate, are not going to be an easy test. At the same time, we’re two weeks removed from a. two-game stretch where the Vikings and Bills (.318 EPA/dropback, 56.3% success rate) obliterated them, notable considering those are the only top-17 offenses in pass DVOA they’ve faced since Week 6. With their pass coverage (13th in PFF coverage grade) being more susceptible than in recent years, they’re relying a lot more on their pass rush, but with how little Burrow is pressured, that’s not ideal. As we’ve seen with the Patriots throughout this year, defensive performance is heavily influenced by the offense you face, and what Cincinnati brings to the table is something they’ve not shown the ability to counter. Then again, who can?
Even if the Bengals have a worse offensive game here than they’ve been accustomed to, they can rest easy knowing they’re facing a Patriots offense that, when excluding turnovers, has the worst EPA/play and success rate in the NFL since Mac Jones’ full re-insertion back under center in Week 8. At the moment, Jones is still attempting a greater rate of passes behind the line of scrimmage than of 10+ air yards, which, combined with a poor rushing attack (25th in EPA/rush in this sample), leads to an offense inefficient AND with little in the way of explosive plays. That, combined with their bottom-ten pre-snap motions and play-action rates, speaks volumes to the disastrous infrastructure that’s been put in place; as evidenced by their dismal offensive numbers (39% success rate, 65.5% series conversion rate) despite facing the 32nd-ranked defense in DVOA (Raiders) last week, there is no solution coming. The Bengals, on the other hand, have been a continuously productive defense (12th in DVOA) with a defensive coordinator in Lou Anarumo who is well-regarded with his ability to be flexible depending on the matchup and make mid-game adjustments. Doesn’t that sound like a potential disaster scenario for an offense that is as structurally flawed as it gets?
Right now, the Patriots’ blueprint to winning games is all tied to elite defensive performance and creating turnovers, which doesn’t exactly line up well when you’re facing the Bengals. In some ways, you can state that this is a matchup between the top-performing offense and the worst-performing offense, with the defensive gap being significantly less. In a more frank statement, the Bengals are arguably a tier-1 Super Bowl-caliber team at this point, while the Patriots haven’t shown any merit as a team capable of beating a legitimate postseason contender, let alone one of the Bengals’ caliber. In other words, there’s a scenario where this game gets rather ugly in a hurry.
Detroit Lions (7-7) at Carolina Panthers (5-9)
Spread: CAR (+2.5)
- Projected Spread: CAR (+0.1)
- My Pick: DET (-2.5)
- Projected Total: 45.86
- My Pick: Over
- DET: 50.44%
- CAR: 49.56%
Score Prediction: Lions 24 Panthers 21
- Sam Darnold’s Lofty Depth of Target Against The Lions Defense = An Adventure In The Making
- Two Units (Lions Offense, Panthers Defense) Overachieving Expectations
- Does Carolina Get Creative Against Amon-Ra St.Brown?
By this point of the season, you may have expected this game to feature two times fighting it out for the #1 overall pick. Instead, the Lions would likely have over a 50% chance of making the postseason with a win, while the 5-9 Panthers are a game out of the dismal NFC South; try convincing someone that would be the case at the beginning of the year! If you’re a fan of blue, Pac-12 quarterbacks, a lot of running, and two teams with a lot of young talent, then this is the game for you. Or, if you just want to watch a game with something at stake.
To be fair, though, there’s only one team in this matchup that has any sort of basis as a playoff-worthy team. That’d be the Lions, who, after finishing with the NFC’s worst record a year ago, are in the driver’s seat for a postseason spot; they’ll face three teams with a losing record the rest of the way, while their NFC counterparts have much more difficult matchups. After all, it isn’t as if Detroit has benefitted from an easy schedule. Rather, per PFF, they’ve had the 10th-most difficult schedule, as opposed to the Panthers at 26, while +53 point differential surge starting in Week 8 includes games against the Dolphins, Bills, Jaguars, Vikings, and Jets- all teams with positive point differentials. In spite of that, they’re the 7th-most efficient offense during this stretch based on EPA/play, and have done enough defensively (23rd in EPA/play allowed, 19th in success rate) to not get in the way of that leading to overall team success. What you wouldn’t expect, however, is how the offensive production has been created. Rather than a high-end rushing attack buoyed by a talented offensive line, it’s been Detroit’s passing attack, which is leading the league in EPA/dropback during this stretch, that has spurred this surge. The efficiency Jared Goff (82.3% adjusted completion rate) has been key, and, beyond that, they create plenty of yardage after the catch (4th) and are consistently successful in high-leverage scenarios with a wide receiver (Amon-Ra St.Brown) who has converted more first downs than any other receiver during this span; head coach Dan Campbell’s aggressiveness on fourth downs certainly helps as well. All told, they’re a highly-efficient offense that is well tested at this point, with the latter point being something the Panthers defense cannot boast.
Starting in Week 6, when interim head coach Steve Wilks took over offensive play-calling, the Panthers have faced in the upper-half of the league in EPA/play in three of their nine games, which may better explain the recent success they’ve had overall as of late. For the year, they’re only 20th in defensive DVOA, with bottom-seven PFF grades in coverage and pass rush, and were thoroughly exploited (52.2% success rate) against a subpar Steelers offense. To me, that doesn’t speak to a defense ready to contend such a productive offense, especially with safety Jeremy Chinn (104.8 passer rating allowed) in the slot lined up with St.Brown. If that’s the case, then Carolina is in trouble; they’re passing 14% below expectation in the three games with Sam Darnold under center, but face a Lions defense allowing the fourth-lowest rushing success rate over their past five games. That sets up a scenario where the defense allowing the highest depth of target faces a quarterback attempting a pass of 20+ air yards an extreme 18.2% of the time, creating the ultimate high-variance scenario. That being said, unless you believe Darnold’s production on these throws (15.7 yards/attempt), which naturally have more small-sample fluctuations, is going to be a complete outlier from what it’s been in the past, the wrong side of variance is coming eventually.
In many ways, it’s the possibility of the Panthers continuing to sustain positive chunk-play variance offensively that ought to scare the Lions the most here. That being said, in a matchup between one consistently efficient offense and a low-efficiency offense with a lot of unknown, as well as two defenses that may be misrepresented based on general point prevention statistics, it’s rather clear who they playoff-caliber team is. It’s still incredibly odd that this is something I’m writing about the Detroit Lions in just their second year of their rebuild, and I’ll go one step further; this is the fringe wildcard team that no NFC team should want to face. With their destiny in their hands, it’s all about not letting a storybook season fail to have the ending it deserves.
New Orleans Saints (5-9) at Cleveland Browns (6-8)
Spread: CLE (-3)
- Projected Spread: CLE (-1.5)
- My Pick: CLE (-3)
- Projected Total: 44.63
- My Pick: Over
- NO: 45.37%
- CLE: 54.63%
Score Prediction: Saints 17 Browns 20
- The Lowest Over/Under Total In 14 Years
- A Generally Inefficient Saints Rushing Attack Against a Poor Browns Run Defense
- Can Cleveland’s Rushing Attack Get Back Into Form?
No, 32 is not a team total, or the over/under for a November Iowa vs Northwestern football game. Rather, it’s the expected combined score of an actual NFL game between two offenses in the upper-half of the league in success rate, which speaks to the conditions this game will be played in – 10 degrees with 40 MPH winds and snow. As such, this is about as “old-school” of a football game as it gets, which I’m sure Alvin Kamara and Nick Chubb fantasy owners will love. For those looking for modern-day passing attacks, though, that’s unlikely to be featured here.
As is, there was already going to be a question as to how the Saints would overcome injuries to Chris Olave and Jarvis Landry in their receiving corps, while the Browns haven’t exactly been efficient through the air (6.2 yards/attempt) since the return of Deshaun Watson from suspension. Thus, with these two offenses already in the bottom-half of the league in early-down pass rate, it’ll be defined on the ground, which makes the Ethan Pocic coming back from injury for this game so pivotal. See, as PFF‘s fourth-highest graded run-blocking center, the 27-year-old is the midst of a breakout year, and Cleveland’s splits with and without him or quite telling:
- Pre-Injury (Weeks 1-10): 2nd in EPA/rush and rush success rate
- Post-Injury (Weeks 11 on): 24th in EPA/rush and rush success rate
While one could insinuate that this could qualify as a small sample size variation, it’s notable that their four worst run-blocking grades by PFF came during the stretch without him. As a bottom-ten run defense in PFF run defense grade and yards/carry allowed, the Saints have been vulnerable on the ground, and are fresh off allowing 231 rushing yards to the Falcons. On the other hand, while Cleveland’s run defense (32nd in EPA/rush allowed) has been putrid, they’ve been much better (19th in EPA/rush) over the past month, while New Orleans’ rushing attack (27th in EPA/rush, 23rd in rush DVOA) hasn’t posed a significant threat; Alvin Kamara currently ranks in the bottom-ten in yards/carry (3.9), and the team will now be without interior offensive lineman Cesar Ruiz. Ironically, with how productive they’ve through the air (6th in success rate) with Andy Dalton as opposed to the Browns’ woes with Watson, this game being played in normal conditions may have allowed them to have the passing game advantage they never thought they’d have. Instead, they may end up better suited starting Taysom Hill here.
Since neither of these teams has their first-round pick or a shot at the postseason, this is a game with as little on the line as it gets, so perhaps it’s fitting they’re being hit by the weather worse than any other game. At some point, the Browns certainly want to see the benefits of investing three first-round picks, a $230 fully guaranteed contract, and public backlash in a star quarterback, though this isn’t the game for them to expect that to happen. Instead, it comes down to a battle of two rushing attacks, and that undoubtedly favors them. Regardless, let’s just say this may not a game featured heavily on the Red Zone channel.
Seattle Seahawks (7-7) at Kansas City Chiefs (11-3)
Spread: KC (-10)
- Projected Spread: KC (-8.3)
- My Pick: SEA (+10)
- Projected Total: 50.71
- My Pick: Over
- SEA: 24.9%
- KC: 75.1%
Score Prediction: Seahawks 23 Chiefs 30
- Can Geno Smith and The Seahawks Offense Get Back On Track?
- Just How Many Yards Could Travis Kelce Have Here?
- The Chiefs’ Young Secondary = The Potential Postseason X-Factor
Think expectations are high for Chiefs? This is the fifth time in their last seven games where they’ll be favored by multiple scores, and they’re currently slated to be a double-digit favorite next week as well. The ironic part? They’ve actually only covered the spread in one of those games; they’ve perhaps tended to play down to their opponent. Well, considering the Seahawks have been anything but your standard bottom-feeder this year and no critical game up next to make this a trap game, maybe there is less to play down to?
As we all expected this year, this would naturally be a duel between two Pro Bowl quarterbacks. That’s officially the case with Geno Smith earning a Pro Bowl honor, capping what has been an incredible season for a quarterback that hadn’t been a starter since 2014. That being said, are the Seahawks on the verge of coming up short of a postseason berth? Beyond that, is there reason to be concerned about Smith? One may quick to point out that his overall numbers (70.8 PFF grade, 4.1% turnover-worthy play rate, 13th in adjusted EPA/play) look a lot differently if you exclude his first five games of the season, but there are some faults with such analysis. For starters, regardless of when Smith’s first five games happened, they still took place, and speak to the exact type of upside (90.2 PFF grade) that he clearly possesses- not every quarterback has that level of high-end play. Plus, even during this stretch, he’s still the eighth-best quarterback in success rate, leads the league in CPOE, and has led a top-ten offense in EPA/play. A lot will be put on his plate based on the likely gamescript, but Seattle is already passing at the fifth-highest rate on early downs; rather, it’s the loss of Tyler Lockett that would be the main reason to express concern here.
That being said, the amount of points Seattle has to score here to remain competitive is immense, though not anything new for a team with a neutral point differential in spite of a defense that has allowed the fourth-most points this year. Now, it’s one thing to allow a combined 93 points to the Raiders, Rams, and Panthers, but it’s another to then have to face a Chiefs offense that leads the league by a notable margin in every significant performance metric. One could express concern over Kansas City’s mild “struggles” in one-score wins against the Broncos and Texans, but it took five turnovers, as well as 90 yards worth of penalties and a missed PAT and field goal in the Texans game, for those games to be as close as they are. In this game, one could imagine the damage that could be done against a Seahawks defense that has not only struggled mightily (28th in EPA/play allowed) this year, but is in the top-four in yards allowed to tight ends and running backs; hello, Travis Kelce, and even Jerick McKinnon. Tilting the favor more for the Chiefs offense, those struggles for Seattle have come despite an exceptional season from Ryan Neal, but PFF‘s highest-graded safety won’t play in this game due to a leg injury. In this case, what can the Seahawks even try to do?
Another interesting storyline here is the Chiefs defense, who, with the 7th-highest PFF coverage and first-round rookie cornerback Trent McDuffie (76.7 PFF coverage grade, 90.7 passer rating allowed) to go along with L’Jarius Sneed (80.5 PFF coverage grade 94.8 passer rating allowed) in addition to the eighth-best pressure rate, should be much better defensively than they’ve been this year (24th in DVOA). Seattle’s passing attack, even without Lockett, presents a welcome challenge for them, enough so that this game wouldn’t figure to be a well-decided one. Unfortunately for the Seahawks, the odds they win this game are still very low, which puts them in must-win territory against the Jets and Rams the following two weeks in addition to needing other NFC wildcard contenders to lose. At the end of the day, though, Smith’s ascension, their rookie class, and having the Broncos’ first-round pick makes this a successful season for them already- everything else is house money. In a slate full of likely low-scoring affairs, can we please get one shootout here? Based on some of these games, 14 degrees and 10 MPH winds sounds like paradise.
Washington Commanders (7-6-1) at San Francisco 49ers (10-4)
Spread: SF (-6.5)
- Projected Spread: SF (-9.9)
- My Pick: SF (-6.5)
- Projected Total: 40.26
- My Pick: Under
- WSH: 19.99%
- SF: 80.01%
Score Prediction: Commanders 13 49ers 22
- Terry McLaurin Versus Charvarius Ward
- The Season Debut Of Chase Young
- How Does Brock Purdy Fare Against a Stingy Commanders Defense?
Depending on how the rest of the season goes, there’s a chance this is a preview of a first round postseason matchup. Now, that’s contingent on the Commanders ending the season strong, which is going to be difficult with this game, the Browns, and the Cowboys left on their remaining schedule. The best storyline of this game, however? The quarterback matchup; who doesn’t love a duel between Mr.Irrelevant and a former undrafted free agent? It’s the ultimate underdog story where Goliath isn’t even present, though perhaps that honor should go to the 49ers defense.
It’s very rare for a defense to perform at a level where you can consistently count on them to elevate the rest of the team, though it can happen in a given year, Yet, we’ve likely gotten to that point with San Francisco, who lead the league in DVOA, points allowed per drive, EPA/play allowed, success rate, and PFF team defense grade. Since Week 7, they’ve allowed an average of 11 points per game, and no more than 17 points in a given game – yeah, they’re pretty good. The Commanders offense, 21st in EPA/play with Heinicke, on the other hand, wouldn’t receive the same honor. For the most part, this is an offense that has been very conservative (-10% pass rate over expectation), relying on early-down runs, long drives, and chunk plays out of play-action for them to operate. In spite of that, they’ve eclipsed 23 points just once, and that strategy doesn’t work as well when facing the defense allowing the fewest yards/carry in the NFL, or when your defense finally allows more than 21 points in a game. Speaking of which, that’s on the table here.
Worried about how the 49ers offense would function with seventh-round rookie Brock Purdy replacing the injured Jimmy Garoppolo? No need so far, as San Francisco’s production (7th in EPA/play and EPA/dropback) has been tremendous. Purdy, with an average depth of target of 5.8 yards, isn’t exactly airing it out, but that matters much less with the top offense in the NFL at creating yardage after the catch, in addition to how efficient (16.6 yards/attempt) he’s been on passes of 10+ air yards. Another plus, furthermore, is the pocket presence (13.3% pressure to sack), allowing for much fewer negative plays to go along with sufficient explosiveness. All told, it’s a very small sample size, but it’s reasonable to expect the infrastructure in San Francisco to be strong enough to get sufficient offensive production, even against a Commanders defense ranked 7th in EPA play allowed; starting in Week 4, the offenses they’ve faced aren’t exactly daunting
- Week 4: Cooper Rush-led Cowboys
- Week 5: Titans
- Week 6: Bears
- Week 7: Packers
- Week 8: Sam Ehlinger-Led Colts
- Week 9: Vikings
- Week 10: Eagles
- Week 11: Texans
- Week 12: Falcons
- Weeks 13 and 15: Giants
Outside of the Eagles, it’s pretty easy to draw a correlation between strength of schedule and defensive performance, especially since they caught the Bears and Packers at times where their offenses hadn’t been close to as efficient as they were now. This is precisely how 6-2-1 stretch in spite of middling offensive production, but they won’t have that luxury here, which isn’t ideal when you’re facing the #1 defense in the NFL. Hey, at least Chase Young is back! Winners of seven straight with an absurd 106 point differential, expect the good times to continue to roll in San Francisco.
Philadelphia Eagles (13-1) at Dallas Cowboys (10-4)
Spread: DAL (-4)
- Projected Spread: DAL (+2.3)
- My Pick: PHI (+4)
- Projected Total: 44.96
- My Pick: Under
- PHI: 56.88%
- DAL: 43.12%
Score Prediction: Eagles 20 Cowboys 23
- How Steep Is The Drop Off From Jalen Hurts To Gardner Minshew?
- Eagles Offensive Line vs Cowboys Pass Rush
- The First Real Test For The Cowboys Offense With Dak Prescott
Just a week ago, this was shaping up to be as exciting as a game as it gets. After all, many believe these are the two best teams in the NFC, in addition to being bitter rivals, and Dak Prescott’s early-season thumb injury means we’ve yet to see these teams face off with both starting quarterbacks healthy. Unfortunately, with Jalen Hurts suffering a shoulder sprain that could potentially keep him out for the rest of the regular season, we won’t get to see that until potentially in the playoffs, meaning it’ll be up to “Minshew Mania” to secure the #1 seed for the Eagles; having no incentive to rush Hurts back would be a major bonus. So, just how good is the Eagles roster?
To be fair, Minshew, with more than competent production (.069 adjusted EPA/play despite being on very poor Jaguars teams) isn’t your standard backup, and he was terrific (.292 adjusted EPA/play, 3.8 CPOE) in his two starts with the Eagles last year. Of course, what they’ll lose from Hurts as a runner is significantly, particularly in short-yardage situations, though being protected by the league’s best pass-blocking offensive line by PFF, throwing to the trio of AJ Brown, Devonta Smith, and Dallas Goedert, as well as benefiting from an efficient ground game even without Hurts is quite the situation to be put into. If there’s one area Minshew has been vulnerable, it’s taking sacks (career 7.5% sack rate), but that’s also a criticism of Hurts, while limitations working down the field are compensated for an elite receiving corps at creating yards after catch per reception (5th). For what it’s worth, if there’s two areas the Cowboys are vulnerable, it’s allowing yardage after the catch (11th-most per reception) and getting beaten on the ground (t-9th most yards/carry allowed), which probably gives us an idea of Philadelphia’s offensive strategy; Hurts only averaged 4.7 intended air yards per target in their first matchup anyways. In short, there’ll be a downtick in offensive production without one of the game’s ascending quarterbacks, but the infrastructure in place is enough for a quarterback of Minshew’s caliber to prevent them from turning into a pumpkin.
Really, what we can truly learn from this game comes from the Cowboys offense against the Eagles defense; neither exactly has had a difficult schedule this year. Since Dak Prescott’s return in Week 7, here are the defenses Dallas has faced:
- Lions, Bears, Packers, Vikings, Giants, Colts, Texans, Jaguars
Outside of the Colts, who held Prescott to 5.7 yards/attempt through the air, all of these defenses are in the bottom-12 in DVOA, which would. bethe caveat to the offensive success they’ve had since Prescott’s return. At the same time, though, the Eagles’ slate of opposing offenses has also been favorable, especially since the first month of the season:
- Since Week 5: Cardinals, Cowboys (w/Cooper Rush), Steelers, Texans, Commanders, Colts, Packers, Titans, Giants, Bears
The Packers are the only quality passing attack Philadelphia has to face during this stretch, and they caused the Eagles (.269 EPA/dropback, 53.6% dropback success rate) a lot of issues; the Eagles also still rank in the bottom-ten in yards/carry allowed, and the Cowboys averaged over five yards/carry against them in Week 6. If there’s an area for Philadelphia to be optimistic about, Tyron Smith struggled mightily (40.4 PFF pass-blocking grade) in his first game back, where he also played right tackle for the first time since 2011, as did Jason Peters (41.2 PFF pass-blocking grade) in a similar situation. That’s beautiful news for the top-graded pass rush by PFF in the NFL, especially with two top-ten graded edge rushers (Brandon Graham, Haason Reddick) slated to line up against them. Add in continued questions about Dallas’ receiver depth, and you wouldn’t expect an offensive explosion to be in order here.
Alas, this should still be a reasonably close game, even if the pendulum has shifted in Dallas’ favor. All told, there’s not much on the line in this game, but could you imagine the outrage in Dallas if they lose to the Eagles with a backup quarterback? The replaceability of a quarterback is always an interesting case study, though Minshew’s caliber of play is enough for Brock Purdy-49ers production to be expected. Really, Philadelphia has nothing to lose here, and you know what they say- results minus expectations equals happiness. As an underdog for the first time this year, let’s see if the dog masks come back into play.
Las Vegas Raiders (6-8) at Pittsburgh Steelers (6-8)
Spread: PIT (-2)
- Projected Spread: PIT (+2.8)
- My Pick: LV (+2)
- Projected Total: 46.27
- My Pick: Over
- LV: 58.62%
- PIT: 41.38%
Score Prediction: Raiders 24 Steelers 22
- Kenny Pickett Back In Action; Can He End His Rookie Year On A High Note?
- A Boom-or-Bust Raiders Passing Attack Against a Boom-Or-Bust Steelers Pass Defense
- An Inconsistent, Yet Usually Strong Steelers Run Defense Against PFF‘s Highest-Graded Running Back
When we think about monumental plays in football, The Immaculate Reception immediately comes to mind; it illustrated exactly why it isn’t over until the fat lady sings. One day after the 50th anniversary of the play, it’s very fitting that the two teams featured in that game will face each other in primetime, and this is a great chance to celebrate the life of the late Franco Harris, who’ll be only the third Steelers player ever to have his number retired. For this game, these two teams couldn’t be more different, though there’s a nice nostalgia between two historic teams in late December under the lights.
Ironically, the Raiders are coming off a miracle win of their own on the Patriots’ failed lateral, marking the first time this year they’ve been able to successful hold a 13+ point lead. In spite of their record, their positive point differential and red-zone adjusted offensive efficiency (7th) speak to a team that legitimately could be competing for a postseason spot, which, to be fair, they would be had it not been for their 1-4 record in games with 13+ point leads. Interestingly, though, Josh McDaniels’ offense has evolved in a much different way than expected, with a negative pass rate over expectation, Josh Jacobs averaging over five yards/carry, and enough passing success via chunk plays- 11th in EPA/dropback, 23rd in dropback success rate. Ironically, that meshes perfectly with a Steelers defense allowing the second-most air yards per attempt, a product of a blitz-happy/man-heavy defense with woes in their cornerback group; they were also allowing over five yards/carry in the three games prior to last week, ranking just 17th in EPA/rush allowed overall. In surprising fashion, too, Las Vegas’ offensive line (7th in PFF pass block grade) has dramatically overachieved expectations, and they now have slot receiver Hunter Renfrow and tight end Darren Waller healthy as well. In other words, were they to roll it back next season with a similar offensive core, they’d be in good shape.
What’d they’d need to do, on the other hand, is solve the league’s worst-rated defense in DVOA, though they’ve been better (22nd in EPA/play allowed) since their Week 6 bye, and have been significantly improved (5th in EPA/play allowed) over the past month, albeit against a favorable schedule. Speaking of post-bye week adjustments, the Steelers had become very conservative (negative four pass rate over expectation) in Kenny Pickett’s four post-bye games prior to him suffering a concussion, and you’d expect that to continue in his return, which comes in very poor weather conditions as well. Yet, the Raiders rank third in EPA/rush allowed this year, and it’s through the air (30th) where they’ve consistently been vulnerable; does Pittsburgh make that adjustment, and do they have the chance to if weather is a big-enough issue. On top of that, they’re still averaging only more yards/completion than three other teams thanks to the worst yards after catch production in the NFL, while their early-down production (10th percentile) has been abysmal; Pickett’s 6.3 yards/attempt in a clean pocket trails every quarterback not named Baker Mayfield. Whether these are simply structural flaws with the offense or simply a demonstration of a limited ceiling an offense led Pickett, these aren’t answers we’ll get solved until next year, where Pittsburgh likely will have a new offensive play-caller. Until then, they’re heavily reliant on rushing efficiency and third-down conversions, which is a very tough way to play, especially against a team capable of producing explosive plays with ease.
In many ways, this is a matchup between a team that finds every way to lose (Raiders) and a team that finds every way to win (Steelers). In spite of their matching records, Las Vegas has outscored their opponents by 59 more points than Pittsburgh, and have scored 87 more. That aligns much better with preseason projections for these two teams, as well as their overall talent level. It’s one’s famous last words to have any degree confidence in the Raiders to simply “take care of business”, but why are they an underdog here? I guess we’ll see if Mike Tomlin voodoo magic lives to see another day?
Green Bay Packers (6-8) at Miami Dolphins (8-6)
Spread: MIA (-3.5)
- Projected Spread: MIA (-3.4)
- My Pick: MIA (-3.5)
- Projected Total: 48.89
- My Pick: Under
- GB: 39.67%
- MIA: 60.33%
Score Prediction: Packers 20 Dolphins 24
- Will The Old Dolphins Please Return?
- The Packers’ Postseason Chances Are Still Alive, If They Don’t Squander Them
- Green Bay’s Defense Has Plenty of Defensive Back Talent, But Are Their Issues Over The Middle of The Field and Run Defense Too Much of a Burden?
Is there a possible matchup with a greater climate difference than this? Let’s just say that the players are surely glad this game is taking place in Miami, which will be a dramatic contrast to a brutal week from a weather standpoint. Thus, is this the game where we see passing efficiency and scoring the way we’ve come to love? In the only Christmas game where both teams have something at stake, let’s hope that’s the case.
For the first 12 weeks of the season, the Dolphins offense had zero boundaries whatsoever; Tua Tagovailoa led the league in EPA/play, yards/attempt, and PFF grade, while the offense had scored 30+ points in four straight games. Then, a Week 13 slip-up against the 49ers happened, starting a three-game losing streak where only the Cardinals, Colts, Falcons, and Ravens have been less efficient per dropback than them. Notably, they have the lowest success rate in the NFL on third downs during this span, but have been much more productive (14th in success rate) on early downs, pointing to their struggles coming mainly in obvious passing situations. To boot, Tagovailoa numbers when holding onto the ball for more than 2.5 seconds are abysmal (29.8 PFF grade), he’s taken far more sacks (6.8%), has struggled (4.5 yards/attempt) on play-action concepts, and even worse when pressured (31.4 PFF passing grade). In short terms, the early-down run-pass option concepts Miami was thriving with have been limited, leading to not-elite early-down success, and, thus, putting them in more unfavorable third and long scenarios – when teams are taking away Tagovailoa’s first read, it’s falling off the rails. At some point, if you’re going to compete for a Super Bowl title, you need your quarterback to find a way to succeed when things aren’t going on structure, and we’re waiting for that.
Now, this may not be a concern in this matchup; Miami, fresh off of running for 188 yards a week ago in Buffalo, faces the league’s worst early-down run defense, and the second worst early-down defense overall. Furthermore, since losing edge rusher Rashan Gary due to injury, the Packers have earned a below-average PFF pass rush grade (63.5 or worse) in all five games, and Green Bay’s third-down defense (25th in success rate) hasn’t been the same since; even if Tagovailoa is forced into obvious passing situations, he’s not facing much of a test here. That’s great news for the Dolphins with the Patriots and Jets up next, especially since their defense counters the Packers offense surprisingly well; Green Bay’s production has almost exclusively come on early downs (90th percentile), but that’s where the Dolphins defense, fifth in PFF run defense grade, has been at their best. Rather, it’s struggles on third downs (16th percentiles) that have done them in, but they’ve also already faced an above-average third-down offense in 10 of their 15 games; oftentimes, defensive play can be highly influenced by the opponents you face. At their core, the Packers are a run-heavy offense (-8 pass rate over expectation starting in Week 10), relying on explosive plays through the air – Rodgers is averaging 9.5 intended air yards per target over his past six games. That’s a tough sell against a Dolphins defense that, in addition to their run defense, also is in the bottom-ten in the amount of air yards they allow per completion; it’s also worth noting that Rodgers is 27th among 32 qualified quarterbacks in EPA/play against five+ pass rushers, something he’ll see plenty of in this game. Add it all together, and it’s the stars colliding to assign all the advantages to one particular side.
Sometimes, that’s just how matchups work. Now, if Tagovailoa continues to struggle, then these matchups matter much less, and, all of a sudden, Miami will have to fend for their playoff lives while Green Bay’s are reborn. Ultimately, though, it’s hard to ring doom for the Dolphins from one poor stretch of play where they’ve had unsustainably poor success on third downs, particularly when they mesh so well with what the Packers have to offer defensively. If it doesn’t happen here, then the panic button gets more tempting, but that’s why the games are played- for all of these mysteries to be solved. Once again, though, let’s just be grateful one quality matchup this week isn’t taking place in sub-zero degree weather. Maybe the McCallisters were onto something when they decided to go to Miami for Christmas after all!
Denver Broncos (4-10) at Los Angeles Rams (4-10)
Spread: LAR (+3)
- Projected Spread: LAR (+.6)
- My Pick: DEN (-3)
- Projected Total: 36.11
- My Pick: Under
- DEN: 51.81%
- LAR: 48.19%
Score Prediction: Broncos 19 Rams 16
- A Battle Between The Two Lowest-Scoring Offenses In The NFL
- Can Russell Wilson Build Off Of His Recent Improved Play?
- Two Of The Game’s Better Cornerbacks On Display
Well, this game certainly didn’t live up to preseason expectations! Imagine what CBS was thinking at the beginning of the year having the rights to broadcast this game; what could be better than a matchup between Russell Wilson and the Broncos against the reigning Super Bowl champions? As it turns out, anything. In addition to being amongst the league’s worst four teams from a record standpoint, these are the two lowest-scoring offenses in the NFL, with both teams being absolutely gutted due to injuries. Even worse, neither has their first-round pick! I’m sure Lions and Seahawks fans will be watching this game eagerly, which tells you everything you need to know- the two most-invested fanbases in this game aren’t even playing.
When you sign a quarterback to a $242 million contract extension after trading multiple first and second-round picks, as well as three players, for him, you can’t afford to miss on that investment. Thus, that the Broncos are where they are (29th in EPA/play, 30th in success rate) as an offense, particularly after hiring an offensive-minded head coach in Nathaniel Hackett, is something the organization will definitely not tolerate. On the bright side, though, Wilson’s play has quietly improved since the switch to quarterbacks coach Klint Kubiak as offensive coordinator:
- Weeks 1-10: 58.3 PFF Grade, 3.4% Big-Time Throw, 3.2% Turnover-Worthy Play, -3.6 CPOE
- Weeks 11-14: 77.7 PFF Grade, 6.1% Big-Time Throw, 0.6% Turnover-Worthy Play, 4.7% CPOE
This is much more in line with the quarterback he was expected to be, but there’s an issue- the team’s offensive production has remained exceptionally poor. Sacks (second-highest rate) have been a consistent issue, as has a run-heavy (-2 pass rate over expectation starting in Week 11) offense with zero efficiency (25th in rush success rate) and plenty of injuries in the receiving corps. On the bright side, though, Courtland Sutton and Jerry Jeudy will both be fully healthy in this game for just the second time since their Week 9 bye, and only the Falcons pressure opposing quarterbacks at a lower rate than the Rams. Plus, a majority of Wilson’s production has come via cover-three coverages (.150 EPA/play, 8.8 yards/attempt), what Los Angeles runs the most, which is also a specific coverage where Sutton (2.07 yards/route run) is at his best. If Denver gets out of their own way and doesn’t sacrifice potential early-down passing production for unproductive carries, this could be a game where things look a lot better than they have for most of the season.
It’s also very rare for the Broncos to come into a game without the worse offense, which is notable considering it’s also rare for them to enter a game without the better defense- 4th in EPA/play allowed, 2nd in success rate allowed. For whatever optimism there was about the Rams’ waiver claim of Baker Mayfield rejuvenating both his career and their offense, they’ve continued to struggle mightily (39.3% success rate), and that was against two bottom-ten defenses (Raiders, Packers) in EPA/play allowed. Now, they have to face the Broncos defense on a short week, which doesn’t sound ideal. On the bright side, Matthew Stafford doesn’t appear likely to retire, so there’s that to look forward to next year! For now, though, the only happy fanbase out of this game will likely be the Lions’.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers (6-8) at Arizona Cardinals (4-10)
Spread: ARI (+7.5)
- Projected Spread: ARI (+5.7)
- My Pick: TB (-7.5)
- Projected Total: 37.93
- My Pick: Under
- TB: 67.42%
- ARI: 32.58%
Score Prediction: Buccaneers 21 Cardinals 13
- There’s No Excuse For The Bucs Not To Score Points Here
- What Should We Even Expect From a Trace McSorley-Led Cardinals Offense?
- Can Isaiah Simmons Contain Chris Godwin In The Slot?
Once again, let this be a reminder that football rarely goes as expected; at the beginning of the year, you would have thought the Bucs would be competing for the #1 seed while the Cardinals would be fighting for a playoff spot, featuring two high-powered offenses. Instead, Tampa Bay is somehow in the NFC South lead while being two games below .500, while the Cardinals are down to the third-string quarterback and could undergo significant organizational change this offseason. Hey, at least it’ll be warm!
Who would’ve thought that the Bucs would be a bottom-ten offense in EPA/play? Whether it’s an above-average rush rate on first downs despite having the league’s least-efficient ground game, the lowest play-action pass rate, or just an out-of-sync offense, the patience has run out, though they did score 17 points in the first half last week against a strong Bengals defense. What was notable there? A play-action pass rate over 40%, encouraging considering how much more efficient Brady has been (8.4 yards/attempt vs 5.9 yards/attempt without play action) with those concepts. Unfortunately, that’s not something they’ve shown the willingness to do consistently, but, if they do, they could have a lot of success against a Cardinals defense allowing the highest dropback success rate in the NFL. At the same time, though, as the second-worst offense after the catch, how do they handle the fact Arizona is allowing the lowest depth of target and air yards per attempt, with most of the damage against them coming with the worst yards after catch/reception allowed in the NFL? Having a flexible-enough offense to take advantage of an opponent’s weaknesses would be a nice plus, though something Tampa Bay hasn’t been able to do.
That being said, not many points need to be scored for the Bucs to win here, considering the Cardinals are down to Trace McSorley at quarterback, and already rank 30th in DVOA as is. McSorley’s metrics on 33 dropbacks this year have been rather uninspiring (31.5 PFF passing grade, 13.5% turnover-worthy play, 5.7 yards/attempt), and he now has to face a Bucs pass defense ranked in the top-ten in PFF coverage grade and dropback EPA/play allowed on non-turnovers. I mean, what can you even expect from that offense given these circumstances? If the Bucs can’t win somewhat convingly here, then that’s truly a sign of what has been an incredibly disappointing season. At the end of the day, whenever a team has Tom Brady, it’s hard to lose faith in them surprising in the postseason, but any struggles here would make that much easier. I guess we’ll see just how far the betting favorite to win the NFC coming into the year has fallen.
Los Angeles Chargers (8-6) at Indianapolis Colts (4-9-1)
Spread: IND (+4)
- Projected Spread: IND (+0.6)
- My Pick: IND (+4)
- Projected Total: 38.84
- My Pick: Under
- LAC: 51.91%
- IND: 48.09%
Score Prediction: Chargers 20 Colts 17
- Same Old, Same Old For The Chargers Offense?
- Greetings, Nick Foles!
- Can The Chargers’ Recent Improvements In Pass Coverage Continue Here?
It’s been a turbulent season for the Chargers, who entered the season as a trendy Super Bowl pick and a legitimate threat to dethrone the Chiefs, only to still have a negative point differential while losing the most wins above replacement excluding quarterbacks in the NFL due to injury, per PFF. In spite of that, the stars have aligned in their favor; come out victorious against the 4-9-1 Colts, and Justin Herbert will secure his first postseason appearance. With edge rusher Joey Bosa and tackle Rashawn Slater potentially on the way back to go along with Keenan Allen and Mike Williams both being healthy at the same time, is this a team that could be dangerous come playoff time? At some point, it’s up to them to get out of their own way.
We can point fingers in a lot of directions, but by no means should an offense quarterbacked by Herbert rank 24th in DVOA, regardless of the support around him. Given the massive difference between their production on early downs (16th percentile) and third downs (61st percentile), Herbert averaging fewer yards/attempt on throws of 2.5 seconds or less than all but three quarterbacks, or the fact his average depth of target (6.9 yards) hasn’t changed in the two games with Williams and Allen both healthy, there are massive flaws in the infrastructure that need to be addressed- ranking 18th in EPA/play as a fully-healthy offense against the Dolphins and injured Titans over the past two weeks isn’t going to cut it. Unfortunately, if you were hoping for a more explosive passing attack, you couldn’t have asked for a worse matchup for that to happen; the Colts, 8th in EPA/play allowed, let up the second-fewest air yards per completion. No running back with 100 routes run has been targeted on a greater rate of their routes than Austin Ekeler, and the Colts are tied for the fifth-most receptions given up to running backs per game. The issue? This isn’t exactly conducive with an efficient passing attack, hence why Los Angeles has the second-lowest air yards per reception in the NFL. When looking for reasons why the offense has sputtered even when fully healthy, this is a great place to start.
On the bright side for the Chargers, though, their defense seems to be coming into gear at the perfect time, particularly in the secondary- their three-best graded games in coverage by PFF have come over the past three weeks, and that includes facing two productive passing attacks in the Raiders and Dolphins. With their run defense woes being covered up by a Colts ground game ranked 31st in EPA/rush and without Jonathan Taylor, that’d set up nicely for them, though the move from Matt Ryan to Nick Foles, a quarterback with an average depth of target more than two yards higher than what Ryan was averaging this year, isn’t the most ideal scenario for them- when they’ve been beaten, it’s over the top (fifth-most air yards/completion). Foles’ volatility certainly increases the chances of an upset, and you can expect rookie receiver Alec Pierce (37.6% air yards share vs man coverage, which the Chargers run a lot of) to get plenty of opportunities down the field. A few of those high-variance plays going in Indianapolis’ direction could turn the tides here; if they’re converting enough explosive plays whereas the Chargers continue to struggle to do so, then there’s a world where enough breaks in their way.
That’s not something that should need to be said about the Chargers, given their personnel and the preseason optimism for an offense that finished in the top-five in EPA/play last year. You’d expect a low-scoring game here between two strong pass defenses, albeit in different fashion, and we’ve yet to see the Chargers prove the ability to match the continued excitement surrounding them; even last week, it took a last-second field goal to beat a Titans team that was missing half of their defense and is in the bottom-ten in most offensive metrics. Now, the star talent they do have also gives them the ability to upset the Chiefs, Bills, or Bengals in the playoffs, but with the margin for error being so slim given their current limitations, it’s unclear if that’ll truly be the case. Their final three games (Colts, Rams, Broncos) are all incredibly winnable, but can they make the adjustments needed to compete in the postseason this year, while also molding a better-crafted team heading into next year? Every year passed is another year closer to Herbert’s rookie contract being over; at some point, it’s time to capitalize.
HOU/TEN: Draft Wire
MIN/NYG: Los Angeles Times
BUF/CHI: NBC Sports
CIN/NE: Pats Pulpit
SEA/KC: The Seattle Times
WSH/SF: Sportsbook Wire- USA Today
PHI/DAL: Bleeding Green Nation
LV/PIT: Sactown Sports
DEN/LAR: Mile High Report
TB/ARI: Sports Illustrated
LAC/IND: Los Angeles Times