The Holidays have come and gone, but there is still plenty of reason for cheer; we’re in the midst of an incredibly exciting end of the NFL season. At the moment, three teams have a legitimate shot at earning the #1 seed in the AFC, both the AFC South and NFC South are completely up for grabs, and 15 teams who haven’t clinched a postseason spot yet are still mathematically in the hunt. All of the offseason hype and analysis comes down to this; these are the games that are going to stick with an organization all the way to next year.
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!
Last week’s brutal weather across the country set the stage for plenty of upsets, but that didn’t turn out to be the case – a low-scoring environment was definitely evident in specific games, however. That being said, whether it was the Trace McSorley-led Cardinals taking the Bucs to overtime, the Panthers and Rams exceeding 40 points scored, or crazy endings in Bengals/Patriots and Giants/Vikings, that didn’t stop the entertainment value from remaining at quite the high point. This week, there are only three games with spreads of a touchdown or greater, so expect plenty of unpredictability along the way.
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.
Want to identify an offense that may need some schematic changes? Take a look at their early-down production; most would express dissatisfaction as to the offensive infrastructure in New England, Denver, Pittsburgh, Arizona, and with the Chargers. On the other hand, teams such as the Panthers, Giants, and Falcons, who have limitations with their offensive personnel, in obvious passing situations, are generally more likely to be successful on early downs. The Giants, in particular, have been an enigma based on the difference of their offensive and defensive situational success all year, as is the case with the Packers. Meanwhile, if you’re looking for a reason as to why teams may be scared to face the surging Jaguars in the postseason, having the league’s fifth-most efficient offense on early downs is a pretty good place to start.
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:
Speaking of the Jaguars, it’s easy to dream on their offense with optimal success on third downs and in the red zone, while offenses such as the 49ers, Ravens, Raiders, and Seahawks have also been better on a per-play basis than their EPA/play output would indicate. Also, can we give credit to the Colts defense, who continue to play tremendous in spite of a lost season? Facing a team whose defense (Giants) may be getting a bit fortunate in the red zone, positive regression in these critical situations is a clear path to a quasi-upset this week.
Now, onto the previews!
Dallas Cowboys (11-4) at Tennessee Titans (7-8)
Spread: TEN (+12)
- Projected Spread: TEN (+10)
- My Pick: DAL (-12)
- Projected Total: 39.18
- My Pick: Under
- DAL: 80.37%
- TEN: 19.63%
Score Prediction: Cowboys 23 Titans 10
- The Biggest Pass Defense vs Pass Offense Mismatch Of The Season
- Can Tyron Smith Get Back Into a Groove?
- What To Make Of The Titans’ Young Secondary
The last time the Titans played on Thursday Night Football, they went into Green Bay and won by multiple scores as underdogs, setting them up with a 7-4 record that made them a near-lock to win the AFC South. Since then, however, things could not have gone more poorly; they’ve lost five straight games, lost their starting quarterback and several key starters to injury, fired their general manager, and, now, likely won’t make the postseason altogether. This is an organization that has continuously defied the odds under head coach Mike Vrabel, but with nothing at stake (next week’s game at Jacksonville will determine the AFC South winner) and without more than half of their starters, the odds may be shifted too far against them.
Speaking of those injuries, let’s take a look at the players the Titans won’t have for this game:
- Quarterback Ryan Tannehill
- Running Back Derrick Henry
- Center Ben Jones
- Guard Nate Davis
- Tackle Nicholas Petit-Frere
- Interior Defender Jeffery Simmons
- Edge Rusher Denico Autry
- Edge Rusher Bud Dupree
- Cornerback Kristian Fulton
- Safety Amani Hooker
- Linebacker David Long
- Linebacker Zach Cunningham
Yikes! To make matters more complicated, no quarterback with multiple games started has been less efficient than third-round rookie Malik Willis (-.420 adjusted EPA/play), nor have any been less accurate (-10.6 CPOE). Tennessee’s pass rate over expectations of negative-24 percent (!) says all you need to know about their current level of confidence in their rookie quarterback, but there’s a problem; only four teams average fewer yards before contact per attempt than them, but without Derrick Henry (5th in yards after contact/carry), the player they rely on to overcome such a limited offensive line, there’s limited likelihood they can run the ball for much efficiency as well. Against any defense, that would be an issue, but that’s particularly a problem facing the league’s #2 defense in defense-adjusted value over average (DVOA). The matchup between the Cowboys pass rush, second in PFF pass rush grade, and a Titans offensive line ranked 32nd in PFF pass-block grade, is about as lopsided as it gets, and Willis doesn’t make matters easier with the highest time to throw and sack rate in the NFL. Remember, this is a team without one wide receiver with at least 450 receiving yards- how Tennessee scores points in this game may be the world’s greatest mystery.
On the other hand, if there’s one thing we know about the Cowboys offense, it’s that they’re on a roll. Since Dak Prescott returned from injury in Week 7, they’re not only 4th in EPA/play, but have scored at least 27 points in each game, while Prescott leads the league in success rate (55.8%). They’re still transitioning future Hall of Fame tackle Tyron Smith to the right side and have some limitations on the perimeter, but they’ve continued to be incredibly efficient, and the Titans defense (31st in dropback success rate allowed over the past month) is arguably without their three best defensive linemen, their entire linebacking corps, and two of their three most valuable defensive backs as well. That, my friends, is the definition of adversity. Since Prescott came back, Dallas has generally leaned with a run-heavy (-5% pass rate over expectation) blueprint, which may not be ideal against the #1 defense in yards before contact/carry allowed. At the same time, if they wanted to, Prescott could easily throw for 400+ yards in this game, though it’s likely they won’t feel the need to step on the gas pedal here.
A few weeks ago, this had the makings of one of the best Thursday Night matchups of the season. Instead, Amazon Prime‘s first year broadcasting these games may not end on the most exciting note, though it’s always fun to watch the Cowboys offense go to work. Hey, on a short week, unpredictability feels inevitable, so is that in store here? Perhaps we shouldn’t go that far, but if we’ve learned anything about this year, it’s to never count out anyone at any time; the impossible feels bound to happen every given week.
Arizona Cardinals (4-11) at Atlanta Falcons (5-10)
Spread: ATL (-3)
- Projected Spread: ATL (-7.8)
- My Pick: ATL (-3)
- Projected Total: 43.8
- My Pick: Over
- ARI: 26.36%
- ATL: 73.64%
Score Prediction: Cardinals 20 Falcons 24
- The Falcons’ Two Rookie Playmakers Are Performing Extremely Well
- The League’s Least Explosive Passing Attack vs Arguably The League’s Most Vulnerable Pass Defense
- Can Arthur Smith Re-Establish Some Sort of Offensive Efficiency Heading Into Next Year?
When you get to this point of the year, you’re going to get matchups between teams that are already looking ahead to next year; if anything, the fanbase may prefer they not win this game. Fortunately, though, this is the only game featuring two teams each eliminated from postseason contention, which is honestly impressive 16 weeks in. It’s been over a month since the last time either of these organizations experienced a victory, but that theoretically has to change here, right? Wouldn’t a tie be incredibly fitting?
It’s common for teams with instability at the quarterback position to draft one in the middle rounds, hoping to “luck” their way into a franchise quarterback they way the Eagles, Cowboys, and Seahawks have done lately, though the odds are dramatically against that happening. At the moment, the early signs aren’t promising for the Falcons benefitting from said approach. In his two games as Atlanta’s starting quarterback, third-round rookie Desmond Ridder is averaging just 5.3 yards/pass attempt, with a lack of accuracy (64.3% adjusted completion rate, -6.3 CPOE) and pocket presence (28.6% pressure to sack) serving as legitimate barriers. Despite having the sixth-worst PFF passing grade, the Falcons rank 14th in offensive DVOA, 16th in EPA/play, and 8th in success rate, a testament to head coach Arthur Smith maximizing what he has to work with. That being said, with Ridder’s baseline play so far being lower than Marcus Mariota’s, particularly from a yards per completion standpoint (12 for Mariota vs 9 for Ridder), it’s been a much greater struggle as of late. Then again, after a four-game stretch against the Commanders, Steelers, Saints, and Ravens, they now face the league’s second worst defense in success rate, who are also allowing the fourth-most yards before contact/carry this year. In other words, Atlanta is primed to find more production here just based on their ground game (third in rush success rate), and the lower explosiveness of a Ridder-led passing attack is compensated for by Arizona’s struggles in terms of letting up consistent completions (1st in completion rate allowed) and yardage after the catch (third-most). Smith’s had plenty of success picking apart poor defenses (26 points per game vs defenses ranked 16th or lower in DVOA), and you’d hope that trend could continue here.
Speaking of struggling offenses, that’s been the case for the Cardinals all year, even with Kyler Murray under center. In the three games with him injured, however, they’ve reach new lows, ranking dead last in success rate (34.6%), dropback EPA/play (-.373), and dropback success rate (32.5%) over that span. For the year, their lack of explosiveness in the passing game (last in yards/completion) has been at the peak of their issues, which has only held true with Colt McCoy; he’s completed just two passes for over 20 air yards in four games. The Falcons have been vulnerable to chunk plays through the air (third-most air yards/attempt allowed), but should one trust the Cardinals to exploit that? One the bright side, DeAndre Hopkins is surely happy to at least have McCoy under center after having just one reception and ten targets last week. That type of statistical anomaly perfectly recaps Arizona’s season.
It’s been a while since either of these teams have been victorious, but whereas the Falcons have been competitive all season long and have demonstrated season-long offensive competence, the Cardinals aren’t in a much different place now to where they were with Murray healthy. With the Bucs up next, this is likely Atlanta’s last real chance to get their offense back on track, and we’ve seen how successful they can be against inferior defenses. Now, it’s up to them to figure out what’s next at the game’s most important position.
Carolina Panthers (6-9) at Tampa Bay Buccaneers (7-8)
Spread: TB (-3)
- Projected Spread: TB (-2.4)
- My Pick: CAR (+3)
- Projected Total: 41.68
- My Pick: Under
- CAR: 42.83%
- TB: 57.17%
Score Prediction: Panthers 19 Buccaneers 21
- Are The Bucs Legitimately About To Throw This Season Away?
- How Long Do The Good Times Roll For Carolina’s Offense?
- Tom Brady’s 20+ Air Yard Issues Versus a Depleted Panthers Cornerback Room
Coming into the season, only the Bills had better Super Bowl odds than the Buccaneers, who found themselves as an incredibly-heavy favorite (-280) to win the NFC South. Thus, them coming into this game with a losing record needing to battle it out with the Panthers, a team accused of tanking halfway through the season, to simply win the division is quite the disappointment. They say to never count out Tom Brady in the postseason, but can Tampa Bay even get there? This game is much more in doubt than it should be.
After all, there are only four teams scoring fewer points per drive than the Bucs:
Scoring fewer points per drive than the Commanders, Jets, Patriots, Cardinals, and Steelers isn’t exactly the characteristic of a postseason-caliber team, and there have been no signs of improvement; since Week 4, the 23 points they scored against the Bengals, which featured a garbage-time touchdown with a minute to go, was their highest mark. For perspective, the Panthers, who haven’t exactly been the model of offensive excellence this year, have reached that total in six of their past eight games. The combination of the league’s least efficient ground attack, a 19th percentile EPA/play on third downs, Tom Brady averaging the fourth-fewest yards/attempt on passes of 20+ air yards, and poor scheme (negative pass rate over expectation on first downs since week 10, second-lowest play-action rate, far too horizontal of a passing attack) have accumulated into this development, and it’s gotten to the point where hopes of a turnaround have been dissipated, Running against the Panthers, letting up the fourth-fewest yards before contact/attempt, is a fool’s errand, but they are vulnerable in the secondary (fifth-worst PFF coverage grade, fifth-most air yards/attempt allowed), especially with star cornerback Jaycee Horn injured. Then again, this is the same Buccaneers offense averaging fewer yards before the catch than all but three offenses, and are now down to their third string left tackle, who’ll be lined up with Brian Burns (sixth in total pressures). Right off the bat, that doesn’t scream “Tom Brady is going to be willing to hold onto the ball long enough to take chances down the field” to me.
Alas, if Tampa wins this game, it likely comes from them getting by with their defense, though even they (18th in weighted DVOA) has had their fair share of issues as of late. Carolina ranking 2nd in EPA/play, EPA/dropback, and EPA/rush certainly since turning to Sam Darnold under center certainly wasn’t an expected storyline, and those numbers are likely skewed by them taking advantage of the Seahawks and Lions during this stretch, particularly on the ground; during this stretch, they’ve run for 185+ yards in three of the four games. At the same time, even when they averaged just 1.4 yards/attempt in Week 15, that didn’t stop them from being the eighth-most efficient offense of the week, and the Bucs (20th in PFF run defense grade, 19th in EPA/rush allowed) aren’t exactly the most sound run defense; with defensive backs Carlton Davis, Jamel Dean, and Mike Edwards not all a sure thing to play in this game, there’s also a pathway for the Panthers producing enough chunk plays through the air to get by. After all, with how the Bucs offense has performed, the bar isn’t extremely high here.
Ultimately, the Bucs are probably(?) still a better team than the Panthers, and there’s much greater trust in their quarterback for obvious reasons. At the same time, whereas the Panthers are trying to manufacture success in every possible way, the Bucs have done all they can to get in their way; when you need to go to overtime to beat the current version of the Cardinals, who were down to their third-string quarterback, nothing is a given. To be honest, it’s still stunning it’s gotten to this point, but, in some way, wouldn’t it be a better story for the Panthers to make the postseason at this point? For viewership purposes, however, I’m sure the NFL has a much different opinion.
New Orleans Saints (6-9) at Philadelphia Eagles (13-2)
Spread: PHI (-6.5)
- Projected Spread: PHI (-7.5)
- My Pick: PHI (-6.5)
- Projected Total: 44.74
- My Pick: Over
- NO: 27.14%
- PHI: 72.86%
Score Prediction: Saints 20 Eagles 27
- Time For An Encore By Gardner Minshew?
- Can The Saints Defense Keep It Up?
- How Do The Eagles Compensate For Notable Injuries?
When a team possesses another team’s first-round pick, it presents the organization with two rooting interests: a perfect world involves them winning with the team whose first-round pick they have losing. Well, with the best record in football and a current top-ten pick via the Saints, it’s been about as close to a perfect season as it gets for the Eagles. Now, those two successes have a chance to work together here; a win would not only clinch the #1 seed for Philadelphia, but also improve their draft position as well. When it comes to being incentivized to win, it doesn’t get much clearer than that.
To do so, pending a remarkable recovery by Jalen Hurts, it’ll be up to Gardner Minshew to finish the job, something the Eagles should be quite confident in after he led all quarterbacks in EPA/play on non-turnovers, in spite of facing the #2 defense in the NFL (Cowboys) based on DVOA. Really, that just speaks to the infrastructure in place in Philadelphia; it’s not every day a quarterback can step into a situation throwing to AJ Brown, Devonta Smith, and Dallas Goedert protected by the league’s highest-graded pass-blocking offensive line by PFF, a still-extremely efficient rushing attack (1st in success rate) even without Jalen Hurts, and an offensive play-caller Shane Steichen who is already a hot commodity as a likely head coach hire this offseason. You can’t come up with a better situation for a quarterback to be in, and Minshew himself continues to prove to be a very high-end backup option – it all meshes together to still create a very productive offense.
Now, the Saints, 8th in success rate allowed, have gotten back to their expected defensive excellence, though it’s probably worth noting that their recent schedule (Steelers, Rams, 49ers, Bucs, Falcons, Browns) hasn’t exactly been a murderer’s row of opposing offenses, with the exception of San Francisco. It’s easy to see Steichen choosing to exploit Philadelphia’s matchup advantages on the perimeter by going after second-year corner Paulson Adebo (120.4 passer rating allowed) early and often, and there’s little concern that Minshew will be under pressure; the Saints pressure opposing quarterbacks at the fourth-lowest rate. On the other side, generating pressure is not an issue for the Eagles defensive line, who’ll take the league’s highest-graded pass rush by PFF against an interior offensive line with multiple backups. After a promising stretch between Weeks 4-8, the Saints, 26th in EPA/play and 24th in success rate over the second half of the season, have run out of gas, with a run-heavy mindset (-5% pass rate over expectation) combined with putrid efficiency (31st in rush success rate) on the ground a major detriment for them. If Chris Olave isn’t able to play in this game, it could get ugly; in spite of last week’s struggles in Dallas, Philadelphia is letting up the fewest yards per pass attempt for a reason – having two top-ten cornerbacks in terms of PFF coverage grade goes a long way.
Wait, but don’t the Eagles have issues in run defense? Over the second half of the year, they’re 12th in EPA/rush allowed and jump up to third over the past month, despite facing two elite rushing attacks in the Bears and Cowboys over the past two weeks. Assuming they can secure the #1 seed with a win here and give Hurts even more time to get healthy, they’re in quite the ideal spot in a very thin conference, and even have a potential top-ten pick just for fun! It’s not often you can bake your cake and eat it too, but Howie Roseman is stealing everybody else’s cakes as well. It’s safe to say executive of the year has been well-decided by now.
Cleveland Browns (6-9) at Washington Commanders (7-7-1)
Spread: WSH (-2)
- Projected Spread: WSH (-5.1)
- My Pick: WSH (-2)
- Projected Total: 42.3
- My Pick: Under
- CLE: 34.68%
- WSH: 65.32%
Score Prediction: Browns 17 Commanders 22
- A Disastrous Start To Deshaun Watson’s Start In Cleveland
- The Commanders Turn To Carson Wentz To Save Their Season
- Battle Of The Trenches: Cleveland Offensive Line vs Washington Defensive Line
When it comes to the quarterback position, all sense of reason often flies out the wonder; when a team needs stability under center, desperation often can get the best of them. Whether it was the Browns trading three first-round picks for Deshaun Watson and giving him a fully guaranteed contract with over 20 sexual assault lawsuits pending or the Commanders trading multiple day-two picks for Carson Wentz when the Colts were doing whatever it took to move on from him, both of these organizations made decisions that seemed inadvisable at the time, and have only looked worse overtime. Now, though, Cleveland is entrenched to Watson, while Washington is turning to Wentz to save their postseason hopes, and there’s no turning back.
Heading into the season, most had the same outlook for the Browns; if they could hold the fort down with Jacoby Brissett, upgrading to Watson could be enough to push them into the postseason. To the surprise of many, though, Brissett led the sixth-most efficient offense based on EPA/play, which opened the door for even more upside with Watson back. Yet, as a quarterback who hadn’t played since 2020, rust was always likely to come into play, and that’s exactly what has happened; since his return, Cleveland ranks 27th in EPA/play and 29th in EPA/dropback, while Watson is averaging the same yards/attempt (5.7) as Joe Flacco and Tyler Huntley, and fewer than the likes of Colt McCoy, Kenny Pickett, and Davis Mills. The main issue has been a complete lack of chunk plays, with Watson having half the big-time throw rate (2.4%) as Brissett, with just one completion for 20+ air yards. It also doesn’t help that the Browns’ generally high-powered rushing attack has fallen off a cliff (24th in EPA/rush with Watson), and it’s hard to see it turning around against a Commanders defense that, since the first month of the year, is allowing a lower success rate (41.1%) than all but two defenses. With the fifth-most air yards let up per completion, Washington’s defense opens up opportunities for Watson to rectify those downfield woes, but they’re still a top-ten graded pass rush and coverage unit by PFF, and that was before getting edge rusher Chase Young into the mix. All told, it’s not the ideal scenario for the Browns to get back into a groove.
On the bright side for Cleveland, their defense has been sensational (-.162 EPA/play allowed) over the past four months, though that’s also conflated by facing the Texans, Tyler Huntley-led Ravens, and Saints during that stretch. Notably, their run defense woes (25th in EPA/rush allowed) have remained in place, and it’s underwhelming for them to be in the middle of the pack in success rate allowed (16th) with such a favorable schedule- they’ve benefited greatly from turnovers. Now, their soft schedule continues with the Commanders, though Carson Wentz theoretically should serve as an upgrade over what Washington was getting from Taylor Heinicke:
- Wentz: 63.2 PFF Grade, 4.9% Big-Time Throw, 3.6% Turnover-Worthy Play
- Heinicke: 49.2 PFF Grade, 3.4% Big-Time Throw, 6.3% Turnover-Worthy Play
Heinicke benefitted from positive turnover variance and a drop rate four times lower than Wentz’s, but there’s a reason Washington saw Wentz as an improvement over Heinicke coming into the year. Heinicke helped matters by targeting Terry McLaurin (29.5%) much more often than Wentz (14.9%), and the hope would be that Washington’s settled in enough offensively from a schematics standpoint (Heinicke had a much higher average depth of target on play-action passes, improved rushing efficiency) for this go-around with Wentz to go better, but they’ve also been winning in spite of quarterback play the entire season.
In spite of recent reports, the Commanders are almost certainly going into next year with a new starting quarterback for the seventh straight season. Yet, what they’re focused on is manufacturing their way into the postseason, which would be quite an accomplishment after a 1-4 start and with such limited production from their quarterbacks. Really, it’s come down to taking advantage of opposing team’s deficiencies all season, and, right now, the Browns offense appears to be as broken with Watson under center as it gets. Let’s put it this way; this is not going to look like a game between two quarterbacks that were supposed to fix their respective organizations issues under center. Sometimes, the concept is better than the actual result.
Denver Broncos (4-11) at Kansas City Chiefs (12-3)
Spread: KC (-12.5)
- Projected Spread: KC (-15.6)
- My Pick: KC (-12.5)
- Projected Total: 44.88
- My Pick: Under
- DEN: 2.68%
- KC: 97.32%
Score Prediction: Broncos 14 Chiefs 30
- Have The Broncos Simply Given Up?
- The Chiefs Defense Is Quietly Coming Into Form
- How Do The Targets Behind Travis Kelce and Juju Smith-Schuster Sort Itself Out In Kansas City?
A Week 16 interdivision Russell Wilson-Patrick Mahomes matchup? Certainly, this is the premier game of the week, right? Well, not exactly. If things couldn’t get any worse for the Broncos, losing 51-14 to a broken down Rams team on Christmas day was a new low, enough so that they felt the need to fire head coach Nathaniel Hackett. Now, they’ll have to respond by traveling to Kansas City to face a Chiefs team vying for the #1 seed and with one extra day of rest- talk about poor timing!
On one end, the Broncos came within six points of the Chiefs when these two teams faced off in Week 14, where Patrick Mahomes had his lowest-graded game of the season by PFF and threw three interceptions. Taking turnovers out of the picture, however, Kansas City’s EPA/play would have been the second-highest that week, and they still ranked 4th in success rate as is; the Broncos, for perspective, ranked dead last. Whether it’s EPA/play, success rate, DVOA, points per drive, or yards per drive, it’s nearly impossible to find a relevant offensive metric where the Chiefs aren’t the gold standard, and it be interesting to see them settle the pecking order of their playmakers behind Travis Kelce and Juju Smith-Schuster; Justin Watson outsnapped Marquez Valdes-Scantling last week, with Kadarius Toney working his way back into the mix. Of course, there’s also the fact that the Broncos defense already provided very little resistance to Kansas City’s offense the first time around, and has sputtered (22nd in EPA/play) over the past month. Naturally, you wouldn’t expect that to change here.
We could focus on the struggles of the Broncos offense, but they’ve been well-documented; 32nd in points per drive, 30th in EPA/play, 31st in success rate. These are not the results anyone could have imagined when they traded multiple first and second-round picks for Russell Wilson, while signing him to a market-resetting contract extension. With Hackett let go, how to move forward with Wilson, since they essentially can’t get out of his contract, is a critical question, with his issues taking sacks (9.9%) an issue when the offensive line (16th in PFF pass-blocking grade) playing at a competent level. Quietly, the Chiefs now are a top-ten defense by PFF in pass rush and coverage grade, are allowing the 12th-lowest success rate, and are also in the top-ten in pressure rate, sack rate, and yards/attempt allowed. Generally, discourse surrounding them focuses on their defensive limitations as opposed to the Bills and Bengals, but their red-zone adjusted defensive numbers are superior to those two teams; in many ways, this may be the best defense they’ve had with Mahomes, which makes them quite scary come playoff time. With the Broncos and Jarrett Stidham-led Raiders up the next two weeks, better days are ahead as they transition into the postseason.
To be honest, I’m surprised the Chiefs are only a 12.5-point home favorite here; if anything, you would have expected the reaction to Denver’s embarrassing Christmas day loss to be more extreme. Perhaps the new coach bump leads to one of the upsets of the year, but it’s games like this that serve as a reminder of how rough of a predicament the Broncos are in. Being in a division with Patrick Mahomes and Justin Herbert while being tied to one of the least-productive quarterbacks in the NFL, the Seahawks still owning your first-round and second-round pick, and not being an appealing option for head coach candidates? Yeah, not exactly the ideal scenario.
Chicago Bears (3-12) at Detroit Lions (7-8)
Spread: DET (-6)
- Projected Spread: DET (-6.9)
- My Pick: DET (-6)
- Projected Total: 46.73
- My Pick: Under
- CHI: 29.05%
- DET: 70.95%
Score Prediction: Bears 22 Lions 29
- The Last Time Justin Fields Played The Lions, It Went Quite Well
- So, About The Lions Defense…..
- Why Can’t The Lions Run The Ball For Any Sort of Efficiency?
The NFC North has been led by the Packers and Vikings in recent years, but it’s easy to say that these two organizations have what it takes to rise to the top very soon. After all, both are slated to be picking near the top of the draft, while each have different reasons for optimism; the Bears seem to have their franchise quarterback and with a Texans win, could have the top pick in the draft and ultimate financial flexibility, while the Lions have plenty of young talent, two first-round picks, and have exceeded all expectations this year. After a brutal loss to the Panthers last week, however, Detroit may have dropped the ball on what seemed to be a season destined for a Hollywood ending, giving them zero margin for error moving forward. The last time these two teams faced off, it was remarkably entertaining, so what’s in store for an encore here?
Sometimes, trends can be a significant piece of analysis during the course of the NFL season, but recency bias can often get the best of us. Consider that the case with the Lions defense, who after showing legitimate improvement (18th in success rate between Weeks 11-15), especially in run defense (4th in success rate), were obliterated (.400 EPA/play, 55.2% success rate) by the Panthers – in addition to letting up 11.4 yards/pass attempt, they also allowed 320 yards on the ground. Considering they’re about to face a Bears team that ran for 258 yards against them in Week 10, 147 of them coming from Justin Fields, that would seem to be a problem. After all, they’re allowing the most quarterback rushing yards in the NFL, not a surprise for a team that leans on as much man coverage as they have, and that’s clearly their biggest concern here. Now, Fields may be down to Equanimeous St.Brown, Dante Pettis, Byron Pringle, and Velus Jones as his top wide receivers, and the Lions have still overall demonstrated recent competency as a run defense, though this will be a true test for them in that department. On the bright side, #2 overall pick Aidan Hutchinson has had three of his top-four graded games as a pass rusher by PFF in his last three outings, which, combined with the emergence of sixth-round rookie James Houston (25% win rate), creates an edge rush tandem that has a chance to make a considerable outcome against the most pressured and sacked quarterback in the NFL.
In many ways, the sacks Fields will take is particularly noteworthy when compared to Jared Goff, who is being sacked more than three times less than Fields, and now faces a Bears defensive line ranked dead last in PFF pass rush grade. Ranked dead last in EPA/play allowed and DVOA, Chicago is allowing .193 EPA/play, .305 EPA/dropback, and .059 EPA/rush starting in Week 8. For perspective, that means the average offense against the Bears during this span is more efficient overall and through the air than any offense in football, and would be tied with the Ravens for the second-best production on the ground. With safety Eddie Jackson and cornerback Jaylon Johnson injured, it’s a matter of “who’s who” defensively, setting up perfectly for a Lions offense that leads the league in dropback efficiency during that same highlighted time frame. What happened to their rushing attack, ranked dead last in success rate over the past month, is an absolute mystery, but you couldn’t script a better way for them to get out of that funk here. Even if they couldn’t, though, Goff is a strong bet to be the league’s most efficient passer this week, which is quite the formula for success.
It’s rare than both fanbases are cheering for the same result, but between the Lions’ postseason aspirations and the Bears having a legitimate chance to sneak into the top pick of next year’s draft, a Detroit victory benefits all parties here. Fields is likely to run for more yards in this game than Goff has all season (66), and it’s very exciting to imagine the steps forward he can take as a passer with an improved supporting cast. For now, though, the situations thes quarterbacks are in couldn’t be more different, and it’s showing with their current production. Alas, last week may serve as a simple bump in the road in the Motor City; nobody said this would be easy, after all!
Indianapolis Colts (4-10-1) at New York Giants (8-6-1)
Spread: NYG (-5.5)
- Projected Spread: NYG (-5.1)
- My Pick: IND (+5.5)
- Projected Total: 40.26
- My Pick: Under
- IND: 34.53%
- NYG: 65.47%
Score Prediction: Colts 16 Giants 21
- Nick Foles Against The Blitz = Variance Cranked Up To The Highest Level
- Giants Offense vs Colts Defense: Two Feisty Units Battle It Out
- EDGE Kwity Paye vs OT Evan Neal: Two Recent First-Round Picks Looking To Turn Things Around
If you said coming into the year that this game would feature a team trying to clinch a postseason spot against a four-win team, the chances are that you would’ve these roles would be flipped; the Colts came into the year as a considerable favorite to win the AFC South, whereas the Giants were generally seen as a rebuilding afterthought. Somehow, Indianapolis having a quarterback-running back combination of Nick Foles and Zack Moss likely wasn’t on your bingo card, but that’s the NFL season for you; it never pans out as one could have imagined.
When head coach Brian Daboll and general manager Joe Schoen took over in New York, one of the first decisions they made was to decline Daniel Jones’ fifth-year option, indicating that the quarterback’s tenure with the Giants was likely coming to an end. Now, not so much. Jones isn’t under contract for next season, but with the team’s draft position putting them out of reach for a quarterback, Jones may be their best bet. That’s even more likely to be the case with how his played as of late; over the past four weeks, he’s PFF‘s third-highest graded quarterback, demonstrating accuracy (3.5 CPOE) and timely rushing prowess that builds a strong foundation for their offense. Speaking of which, while not a high-ceiling offense, New York has finished between 20 and 24 points scored in all but three games this year, making them arguably the lowest-variance offense in the NFL. In a given postseason game, does this limited range of outcomes make them more or less likely to pull off an upset? That’s up for personal interpretation, but the fact the Vikings, a very likely postseason matchup for the Giants, needed a 61-yard field goal to beat them is a positive sign.
In this particular game, the ceiling should be considered low for New York’s offense; the Colts are allowing the second fewest air yards/attempt, are allowing the seventh-fewest yards/carry, and are in the top-ten in EPA/play allowed and yards allowed per drive. The quarterback with the lowest average depth of target in the NFL against a defense that limits chunk plays through the air at an elite level should combine for very condensed passing attack, making it quite hard for the Giants to eclipse their general points scored range. On the other hand, the play-to-play variance couldn’t be greater with their defense, which blitzes and plays man coverage at the highest rate in the NFL; Nick Foles’ volatility under pressure has been the story of his career, and if the likes of Michael Pittman Jr. and Alec Pierce can take advantage of their matchups against the league’s second-lowest graded coverage unit by PFF, that creates the opening for an upset. Then again, they’re in a spot to potentially wiggle into a top-five pick in the draft, making the decision to turn to Foles, a proven competent quarterback in the past, more confusing. For entertainment value, though, it’s appreciated, even if we saw the wrong side of the roller-coaster (3 interceptions) in Foles’ first start last week.
It’s ironic how dissimilar the offense vs defense matchups are here froma. variance standpoint, though the Giants have generally demonstrated who they are; they’re going to be in the low 20-point range in terms of points scored, with their defensive play shifting things. As such, they’re the perfect team to pick up one-score wins against inferior teams without blowing them out, while having the chance to stick with better teams as well. Give credit where credit is due to defensive coordinator Gus Bradley, who continues to have the Colts defense playing at a high level, and, thus, has helped them be much more competitive than they should be. In many ways, this would seem to have the most predictable ending of the week, though that’s easier said than executed in the NFL.
Miami Dolphins (8-7) at New England Patriots (7-8)
Spread: NE (-2.5)
- Projected Spread: NE (+2.8)
- My Pick MIA (+2.5)
- Projected Total: 44.58
- My Pick: Over
- MIA: 58.35%
- NE: 41.65%
Score Prediction: Dolphins 23 Patriots 21
- Is There a Smoother Transition To Teddy Bridgewater This Time Around?
- Which Pass Rush Takes Over Here?
- How Do The Patriots Try To Limit Tyreek Hill and Jaylen Waddle With Injuries In The Secondary
In a 17-game season, reality can set quickly in the NFL, and the Dolphins are clear example of that. Just one month ago, Miami was 8-3, in position to potential win the AFC East, and possessed a lethal offense that had scored 30+ points in four straight games. Now, they’re 8-7, hanging on by the thinnest of threads to a postseason spot, and Tua Tagovailoa has suffered another concussion. For a team that traded their first-round pick for edge rusher Bradley Chubb, this is a colossal collapse, and one they’ll need to rectify without Tagovailoa at the helm.
That being said, it’s hard to do better at the backup quarterback position than Teddy Bridgewater, who was a top-ten quarterback in EPA/play and CPOE just a season ago, and averaged a healthy 8.7 yards/pass attempt filling in for Tagovailoa earlier this year. Three interceptions and poor third downs efficiency, but his non-turnover EPA/play on early downs was higher than where Tagovailoa has been (albeit in a very small sample), and he has a decorated history of being an accurate distributor. With the league’s highest-graded receiving corps by PFF, that should work well, though he held onto the ball (3.06-second time to throw) more than half a second more than Tagovailoa (2.52), something to consider given the deficiencies of their offensive line (second-worst PFF pass block grade). If so, more sacks could be an issue, but the improvement in accuracy and fewer turnover-worthy plays may help compensate for that with the talent around him. Over the past five weeks, the Patriots ranked in the bottom-five in EPA/dropback allowed when excluding turnovers three times, with matchups against the Cardinals and Raiders the only exceptions. Now, they’ll have to get by without rookie cornerbacks Jack Jones and Marcus Jones, creating matchup issues for them; Jalen Mills (42.7 PFF coverage grade) likely lined up with Waddle is a scary proposition for New England. Now, their defensive line (1st in pressure rate) may cause enough havoc for that to be mitigated somewhat, yet the opportunity for explosive plays on Miami’s side is significant.
Most importantly, though, the bar they have to clear offensively is much lower than it would be against an average team. Since Mac Jones returned as the team’s starting quarterback in Week 8, the Patriots offense ranks 29th in EPA/play, 31st in success rate, 32nd in dropback success rate, and 28th in EPA/rush. As a 16th percentile offense on early downs near the bottom of the league in play-action rate and pre-snap motion, with nearly half a quarter of Jones’ passes being behind the line of scrimmage, to say there are massive problems with New England’s offensive infrastructure would be putting it mildly. With a top-ten defense in success rate since their Week 11 bye, despite facing the 49ers, Chargers, Bills, and Packers during that span, the Dolphins have started to come into their own defensively, with cornerback Xavien Howard (79.7 passer rating allowed) performing much better and rookie slot corner Kader Kohou (68.5 PFF coverage grade, 84.4 passer rating allowed) providing a counter to Jakobi Meyers. Mac Jones has also been sacked 3+ times in five of his past eight games, which is quite a problem against a potent pass rush (4th in PFF pass rush grade). Add it all up, and you have an incredibly efficient offense against one that could produce chunk plays in their sleep, yet the former is favored to win?
Would this be a good time to mention the Patriots are 0-5 against teams with a .500 record or better? Bridgewater has a long track record of being capable enough to be elevated in the right situation, and it doesn’t get much better than this, particularly with New England compromised in the secondary. When 20 points may be the baseline needed to win, the few field-flipping plays likely to go into Miami’s favor is enough to give them a significant edge here; this is an offense ranked 4th in DVOA, and the drop-off from Tagovailoa to Bridgewater isn’t massive enough to expect a complete cliff dive. It’s not every day a first-year head coach sweeps Bill Belichick, but, as they say, times change.
Jacksonville Jaguars (7-8) at Houston Texans (2-12-1)
Spread: HOU (+3)
- Projected Spread: HOU (+2.9)
- My Pick JAX (-3)
- Projected Total: 42.03
- My Pick: Under
- JAX: 58.64%
- HOU: 41.36%
Score Prediction: Jaguars 23 Texans 17
- The Texans Defense Is Playing Really Well
- The Emergence of Evan Engram
- In Moving Darius Williams Back Outside, The Jaguars May Have Their Cornerback Tandem Intact
It’s very rare that a team with a losing record can not be eliminated from the postseason by the second-final week and not be playing for anything, but that’s the case for the Jaguars; win next week against the Titans, and they’ll win the AFC South. For a team that went into their Week 11 bye with a 3-7 record, this is a massive development, and it isn’t as though they’re underdeserving – they have a plus-24 point differential, better than the Chargers, who already locked up a postseason berth. Still, it looks like they’ll be giving it a full go here, so why not keep the winning record alive?
The most important aspect of this season for the Jaguars was always around the development of Trevor Lawrence, and that’s going as well as one could have hoped for. Starting in Week 9, the former #1 overall pick is PFF‘s second-highest graded quarterback, is tied for second in big-time throw rate, is sixth in EPA/play, third in success rate, and second in CPOE. In other words, he’s been pretty good! Only Tom Brady is getting rid of the ball quicker than him, keeping him in clean pockets, but that hasn’t stopped him from being at the top of the league in high-end plays, evidenced by the big-time throw rate. Even looking at the entire season, only the Chiefs, Bills, Eagles, and Bengals have been more efficient on early downs than Jacksonville, and they’re now benefiting from positive third-down regression (4th in success rate over past month) as well. Whether it would be the Ravens or Chargers in the first round, they’d go into their first postseason game with the advantage offensively, which is certainly unsettling for both of those teams.
Now, the Texans (13th in weighted DVOA) have quietly performed quite well defensively, but there’s an issue- their linebackers, Christian Kirksey (52.5 PFF coverage grade, 102.5 passer rating allowed) and Christian Harris (38.6 PFF coverage grade) have struggled mightily in coverage, and they now face a quick-passing Jaguars offense that thrives in exploiting linebacker deficiencies. One way that’s happening? The emergence of tight end Evan Engram, with 3.24 yards/route run over his past three games, has become a notable weapon for them, which is problematic for Houston; they’ve allowed 60+ receiving yards to a tight end in six games this year, including 69 to Engram back in Week 5. From there, the league’s worst offense in success rate, who still had a negative pass rate over expectation against the Titans despite ranking dead last in EPA/rush over the past month and facing the top run defense in the NFL, takes care of the rest, even if the Jaguars (27th in DVOA) haven’t exactly been a staple defense this year.
Honestly, that serves as good news for the Texans, who, after winning in Tennessee last week, likely can’t afford to win again if they want to hold onto the #1 overall pick. Could you imagine the heartbreak for the fanbase if the opportunity to draft their new franchise quarterback, likely Bryce Young, slips besides them? The last time something like this happened, it involved the Jaguars leaping the Jets during the final few weeks of the 2020 season, which led to New York having to settle for Zach Wilson instead of Trevor Lawrence. That’s something Houston fans definitely want to avoid, though with a team with nothing to play for and the Colts up next, it won’t be easy. Believe it or not, but this may be one of the most significant storylines over the final two weeks.
New York Jets (7-8) at Seattle Seahawks (7-8)
Spread: SEA (+1.5)
- Projected Spread: SEA (-4.3)
- My Pick SEA (+1.5)
- Projected Total: 44.26
- My Pick: Over
- NYJ: 37.08%
- SEA: 62.92%
Score Prediction: Jets 21 Seahawks 23
- A Tough Time For The Seahawks Offense To Get Back On Track
- Welcome Back, Mike White!
- Seattle’s Rookie Offensive Tackles Will Be Put To The Test
The Seahawks’ season starting with them welcoming Russell Wilson back to Seattle in an exceptionally hyped-up “revenge game”, so it’s only fitting that they’re on the opposite side of a player-organization reunion in their biggest game of the season. There was a time where Geno Smith was considered to be the Jets’ franchise quarterback, but things ended before they could really get started. Starting in 2015, New York has been on the lookout for their next quarterback, leading to them drafting two signal callers with top-three picks, yet they’ll likely be back to the drawing board in the same offseason where Smith earns a lucrative contract extension. Could you imagine if their season ended in the hands of Smith? Irony is a beautiful thing.
Unfortunately for Smith, he’s not exactly riding high into this game; he’s been held to just 5.4 yards/pass attempt in his past two games, ranks 22nd in PFF grade since their Week 11 bye, while Seattle is also in the bottom-ten in offensive efficiency over the past month. To boot, rookie tackles Charles Cross and Abraham Lucas each are earning sub-55 PFF pass-blocking grades during that span, they’re averaging just 3.64 yards/carry, while essentially half of Smith’s turnover-worthy plays (12, 5.2%) have come in these five games. That isn’t exactly a positive development when you’re about the face the #3 defense based on weighted DVOA, though they’ve also not been as sharp (20th in EPA/play allowed, three games with sub 56.5- PFF coverage grade) over the past month. Now, you can say a larger sample size tells us a better story of their effectiveness, but shouldn’t we say the same thing for a Seahawks offense ranked 5th in dropback success rate? Considering the Jets have had issues defending the slot as of late, keep an eye on the return of Tyler Lockett, and it’s still hard to not trust an offense that has been productive for most of this season.
The main reason for optimism for the Jets is with regards to the return of Mike White in the lineup, who’ll provide a much more stronger baseline of quarterback play as opposed to Zach Wilson; White’s much quicker time-to-throw led to him being under pressure half the time Wilson was, with nearly three times as few turnover-worthy plays (2.2 vs 5.9%) as well. At the same time, in spite of this, the Jets ranked just 20th in EPA/play and 19th in success rate despite facing the Bears and Vikings during this stretch, and while the Seahawks defense is vulnerable, they may not be exploited here in the same way; they allow the third-fewest receiving yards per game to wide receivers, are particularly strong on the outside, and have generally been exploited by tight ends; four of the top-five receivers against them have been tight ends. Unless Tyler Conklin (58.4 PFF receiving grade, 1.07 yards/route run) morphs into Travis Kelce, there may be meat left on the bone, especially if Tariq Woolen (11th PFF coverage grade) effectively shadows rookie receive Garrett Wilson- you’d be surprised how well the Seahawks have fared against team’s top receivers. As a bottom-ten team in rushing efficiency without a true middle-of-the-field passing attack, don’t be surprised if things aren’t as promising for the Jets as they’d hope, and even as is, the results perhaps looked better than they were due to previous baseline.
Talk about a toss-up; there may be no game with a larger range of outcomes than this one. Ultimately, Seattle’s demonstrated offensive production shouldn’t be ignored, though it’s difficult to ignore their recent “struggles”. At the end of the day, the team with the superior passing attack usually holds a strong edge, and they surprisingly matchup well with New York’s offense, but when two teams are overall evenly matched, a coin flip doesn’t do it justice. With so much on the line and the Smith-Jets connection, it’s hard to do much better than this.
San Francisco 49ers (11-4) at Las Vegas Raiders (6-9)
Spread: LV (+9.5)
- Projected Spread: LV (+5.9)
- My Pick SF (-9.5)
- Projected Total: 44.54
- My Pick: Under
- SF: 67.75%
- LV: 32.25%
Score Prediction: 49ers 24 Raiders 14
- An Offensive Explosion (Again) Brewing For The 49ers?
- How Bad Does It Get For The Raiders Offense?
- Just How Quarterback-Proof Is Davante Adams?
Since selecting Derek Carr with the 36th overall pick in the 2014 draft, the Raiders have had six different head coaches, changed cities, have traded away fellow pillar players in Amari Cooper and Khalil Mack, went through significant turnover on the offensive line, and have consistently ranked near the bottom of the league in defensive efficiency. Throughout it all, Carr has been the one staple, but that appears to be coming to an end; he’ll be benched the final two games to reportedly prevent an injury that would guarantee him $40 million for next year, paving the way for an offseason trade. The next steps start in February, but, for now, they’ll have to get through the final two games of the year.
It’s been a strange season for Carr and the Raiders. On one end, he posted his worst PFF grade (66.6) and completion rate (60.8%) since his rookie year, but Las Vegas still ranked 11th in points per drive and EPA/dropback, and would have be right in the thick of the postseason race with better luck in one-score games (4-8) or games where they had a 13+ point lead (1-4). That’ll certainly be a selling point for a new quarterback, along with a top-ten graded offensive line in pass protection by PFF and a receiving corps headlined by Davante Adams, though it may go quite poorly in the short term. See, the limited sample size of play from Jarrett Stidham (5.5 yards/attempt, 42.6 PFF grade, -11.4 CPOE, -.173 adjusted EPA/play) in 2020 was quite poor, and that’s what we have to work with four years into his NFL career. Given the track record of quarterbacks not drafted in the first three rounds and his poor performance in the regular season and preseason stints, the odds are already stacked against him, and the opponent doesn’t make things any easier. Really, could you script a worse time for a first start than against a 49ers defense leading the league in EPA/play allowed, success rate, DVOA, points per drive allowed, and yards per drive allowed?
If that side of the ball didn’t possess a colossal-enough advantage, the Raiders defense, ranked 31st in DVOA, now has to face a 49ers offense that is third in EPA/play starting in Week 8. For a team allowing just under 100 receiving yards to running backs and tight ends, having to counter George Kittle and Christian McCaffrey is a tall task, especially when their linebacking corps consists of two undrafted free agent rookies. Ironically, seventh-round rookie Brock Purdy is averaging the same yards/attempt (7.9) as Jimmy Garoppolo was prior to his injury, and you’d expect that number to only go up here. Sometimes, a matchup is as lopsided as it seems.
If Carr was playing in this game, you could come up with a scenario where the Raiders converted just enough explosive plays through the air to continue to be extremely competitive, though that narrative changes now. The team’s gap in team DVOA (3rd vs 26th) paints the picture perfectly here, and Carr’s benching puts the nail in the coffin for what will a brutal end to their season. The 49ers, meanwhile, have a chance to waltz into the postseason on an absurdly high note after outscoring their opponents by 18.2 points per game during their eight-game win streak and with the Raiders and Cardinals to end the year. Just how unpredictable can this NFL season get? That’ll be put to the test here.
Los Angeles Rams (5-10) at Los Angeles Chargers (9-6)
Spread: LAC (-6.5)
- Projected Spread: LAC (-2.3)
- My Pick LAR (+6.5)
- Projected Total: 42.23
- My Pick: Under
- LAR: 43.07%
- LAC: 56.93%
Score Prediction: Rams 19 Chargers 21
- Can The Chargers Recapture Their 2021 Offensive Ways Heading Into The Postseason?
- Baker Mayfield + The Rams Offense Looking For An Encore
- Welcome Back, Joey Bosa!
When the NFL schedule initially came out, how could this game not have been circled as one of the top games of the year? A Los Angeles showdown featuring two of the teams with the highest Super Bowl odds? There’s a reason this was slotted into the Sunday Night Football slot. As you can tell by it being flexed out, however, this matchup isn’t exactly living up to the hype; we’re well aware of the Rams’ struggles this year, and even the Chargers still have a negative point differential even though they’ve clinched a postseason spot. Heck, based on team DVOA, they’re back-to-back (21st and 22nd), and you’d expect that to show here.
It wasn’t supposed to be this way for the Chargers, but they remain a bottom-ten offense in DVOA for the season a year and after ranking 4th in that same metric, and while injuries on the offensive line and receiving corps play a role in that, they’ve averaged negative expected points added per dropback and are just 23rd in EPA/play on early downs in the three games with Mike Williams and Keenan Allen both healthy, and are tied for the second-fewest air yards converted per completion. That remains a bizarre statistic with Justin Herbert under center, and perhaps speaks to the fundamentals of the offense being flawed; the gap in production between early downs (23rd percentile) and third downs (55th percentile) would definitely indicate that. Yet, with essentially the same personnel, we’ve seen this group function as a top-five offense, so why can’t the switch be flipped? Considering only the Cardinals allow a lower average depth of target than the Rams, who’ve also been quite strong (65th percentile) on early downs, it’ll likely be more of the same for Herbert and co. this week; a condensed passing attack reliant on sustained drives with a lot of positive third-down variance. That may work against inferior teams, but when you have to win in Buffalo or Kansas City, more is needed. These are the exact types of games where you’d want to be reminded why they were a trendy Super Bowl pick.
After all, in that same span where it’s been more of the same for the Chargers, the Rams (8th in EPA/dropback) have been much more impressive during Baker Mayfield’s first three games with the team, and they’re fresh off an absurd performance (56.3% success rate, .304 EPA/play) against a seemingly strong Broncos defense on Christmas day. At the same time, they’ll be countered by a Chargers defense that leads the league in success rate allowed over the past month and has vaulted up to the fourth-best PFF coverage grade thanks to their four top games in said metric coming over their past four games. Now, the latter two were against the Titans and Colts, but with star edge rusher Joey Bosa coming back to the lineup and them getting strong production from young players like cornerback Asante Samuel Jr., safety Nasir Adderley, and linebacker Kenneth Murray, they’re a much deeper defense than one may have expected. The run defense (31st in yards/carry allowed) will remain problematic and we’ll see if this momentum stands – a trend is only a trend until it isn’t – but if you’re arguing in favor of a deep postseason run, the defense ascending into the prolific pass defense they were supposed to be is a major reason why.
Even if their overall DVOA numbers would indicate it to be the case, I’m not going to argue these two teams are of similar talent levels, as that’s ignoring the current state of both rosters significantly. What I will say, though, is that the Chargers being a 6.5-point favorite against any team right now is a scary proposition; look no further than a beaten-down Titans team being tied with them until the final seconds just two weeks ago, as well as the Colts remaining competitive last week in spite of three interceptions, as clear examples why. Boy, would it be nice to see the 2021 Chargers offense with this past month’s defense together at the same time, but is there a reason dreams can often just be dreams? Hey, it is the new year, so why not express hope?
Minnesota Vikings (12-3) at Green Bay Packers (7-8)
Spread: GB (-3)
- Projected Spread: GB (-1)
- My Pick MIN (+3)
- Projected Total: 48.22
- My Pick: Over
- MIN: 46.88%
- GB: 53.12%
Score Prediction: Vikings 24 Packers 26
- Do The Packers Align Jaire Alexander With Justin Jefferson? What’s The End Result?
- An Inefficient Vikings Rushing Attack Against a Putrid Packers Run Defense
- If Christian Watson Doesn’t Play or is Limited, What’s The Effect?
Remember when these two teams faced off in Week 1? It’s crazy how quickly the NFL season can go, but how long ago three months feels. In spite of very similar underlying numbers, the Vikings have surprisingly run away with the division, yet the Packers, fresh off three straight wins, suddenly have a very realistic chance of making the postseason, giving Minnesota two motivations; secure the #2 seed and prevent a potential matchup against Green Bay. Two rivals with a lot to play for in a January game at Lambeau Field? Sign me up.
The NFL season can have multiple iterations to it as teams evolve over time, and the Vikings offense is a clear example of that. The stylistic change that Kirk Cousins has made since the trade of TJ Hockenson is notable:
- Pre Trade: 6.6 Yards/Attempt, 2.8% Big-Time Throw, 6.5 Average Depth of Target, 26.9% of Passes Traveling 10+ Air Yards
- Post Trade: 7.3 Yards/Attempt, 5.5% Big-Time Throw, 9 Average Depth of Target, 36.6% of Passes Traveling 10+ Air Yards
With Hockenson able to serve as a reliable intermediate threat and the complementary option to Justin Jefferson, the star receiver has seen his average depth of target increase by three yards (9 to 12), leading to a much-more opened-up passing attack. The Packers defense can be beat down the field (7th in air yards allowed/completion), and with a very subpar pass rush following the injury to edge rusher Rashan Gary, Minnesota’s limitations on the interior offensive line become less problematic. Meanwhile, what’s the best way to boost a rushing attack that ranks 31st in success rate since Week 8 despite the fourth-best PFF run-block grade? Face a Packers defense allowing the highest rushing success rate during this span. Cousins in clean pockets with more early-down efficiency? That’s a beauty to behold.
Meanwhile, Cousins isn’t the only quarterback to shift his play style as the season goes on. Starting in Week 10, the Packers, in the midst of a five-game losing streak, decided to increase the playing time of rookie receiver Christian Watson significantly. Since that point, we’ve seen a completely different Rodgers:
- Weeks 1-9: 6.6 Yards/Attempt, 7.7 Average Depth of Target, 12,3% of Passes 10-19 Air Yards
- Weeks 10-16: 7.1 Yards/Attempt, 9.1 Average Depth of Target, 24.7% of Passes 10-19 Air Yards
Historically, passes of 10-19 air yards are the optimal target depth for a quarterback, creating the perfect combination of completion probability and yards gained on the completion. Watson, 7th in receiving yards on intermediate passes during this span, has beena. pinnacle reason behind this change, which creates an explosive element to their passing attack along with tremendous rushing efficiency (4th in success rate). Now, they’ve also been exceptionally run-heavy (-5% pass rate over expectation) during this span, a problem against PFF‘s second-highest graded run defense, though few defenses have been exploited through the air more than the VIkings (second-most yards/attempt allowed). Then again, Watson is also a game-time decision due to a hip injury, and even if he plays in a limited role, it’s unclear if Green Bay has enough tricks in the bag to compensate for that. Really, that may be the X-Factor of this game.
It’s strange to say that the 7-8 team is better than the 12-3 team, but there’s a reason the Packers are a three-point favorite for this game. Then again, particularly with Watson’s status in doubt, are we perhaps putting too much stock in Green Bay winning games against the Bears, Rams, and then coming back to beat the Dolphins thanks to three second-half interceptions? This has all the makings of a high-powered shootout, and when that’s the case, the team with the most productive wide receiver in the NFL could theoretically have an edge. Long story short, there are so many ways this game could go, but two things can be true: the records could not tell the true story of these teams as much as their overall underlying numbers, based on how Minnesota is trending offensively and the matchups in this game. In some ways, you could consider this a defining game for both of these teams; when there are so many questions that need answers, seeing it all unfold is what makes football the gift that keeps on giving.
Pittsburgh Steelers (7-8) at Baltimore Ravens (10-5)
Spread: BAL (-2)
- Projected Spread: BAL (-5.8)
- My Pick BAL (-2)
- Projected Total: 43.69
- My Pick: Over
- PIT: 32.43%
- BAL: 67.57%
Score Prediction: Steelers 17 Ravens 23
- The Last Time These Two Teams Played, The Ravens Ran For 215 Yards
- Pittsburgh Moved The Ball Against Baltimore In Week 14, Yet With a Different Quarterback
- Cameron Heyward Versus Rookie Center Tyler Linderbaum
When the NFL decided to flex this game into Sunday Night Football, they likely did so hoping Lamar Jackson would be cleared to play. Unfortunately, that won’t be the case, but there’s plenty of upside with choosing a Steelers-Ravens matchup; eight of the past ten games, and each of the past five, between these two teams have been decided by one score. With Baltimore trying to keep their AFC North hopes alive, and Pittsburgh somehow not eliminated from postseason contention, expect another tightly-contested affair here.
Need any proof that Jackson is an irreplaceable part of the Ravens offense? Look at the Ravens’ modest offensive success (21st in EPA/play, 28th in EPA/dropback) without him; with such great limitations with the talent around the quarterback, Jackson’s ability to elevate the offense both directly (his production) and indirectly (yardage before contact for running backs) is monumental. Yet, with a 50% success rate on the ground, including a 50% success rate with 215 rushing yards against the Steelers in Week 14, they’ve still managed to stay afloat due to a fantastic rushing attack, which led to them being efficient-enough in that matchup (.050 EPA/play ranked 10th in Week 14). Hence, why they’re 8th in success rate on early downs with Huntley, which is their pathway to success- it may not come with much upside, but sustained long drives, particularly with a team that makes calculated fourth-down decisions, opens the door for them to win based on strong defensive play.
That they have; they’re 3-1 with Huntley thanks to them allowing 14 points or fewer in each of those four games, and are third in EPA/play since trading for linebacker Roquan Smith while letting up the second-lowest EPA/rush and rushing success rate. That’s notable against a Steelers offense that, since their Week 9 bye, has leaned on the run-heavy side (-5% pass rate over expectation), and that came back to bite them (33.3% rush success rate) in their first matchup with Baltimore. Now, Mitchell Trubisky wa able to average a strong 9.2 yards/pass attempt, but he did so with a 11-yard average depth of target, something Kenny Pickett may not be able to take advantage of- he’s averaging just 9.4 yards/completion this season with just a 7.6-yard average depth of target this season. Right now, the gap between their production on early downs (13th percentile) and third downs (68th percentile) is significant, and against a strong Ravens defense on third downs (65th percentile) and in general (5th in weighted DVOA), you’d expect that to come back to bite them.
For as unproductive as the Ravens have been overall with Huntley, are we even sure they have the worst offense in this game? With them able to have the advantage on early downs on both sides of the ball, they’re in a good spot here, especially with a much-more calculated coaching staff when it comes to fourth-down decisions. This is a Steelers-Ravens game, so you can expect it to come down to the final possession with a memorable moment, because what else is new, but Baltimore continues to be a case study in the value of stability within an organization; when adversity hits, they find ways to succeed in spite of it. That trend should continue here.
Buffalo Bills (12-3) at Cincinnati Bengals (11-4)
Spread: CIN (+2.5)
- Projected Spread: CIN (-1.9)
- My Pick CIN (+2.5)
- Projected Total: 47.47
- My Pick: Under
- BUF: 44.15%
- CIN: 55.85%
Score Prediction: Bills 23 Bengals 24
- The First Josh Allen-Joe Burrow Faceoff
- How Do The Bills Exploit The Bengals’ Defensive Holes In The Vertical Passing Game?
- Cincinnati’s Right Tackle Dilemna
If there’s a common theme from this week, and the last few weeks in general, it’s that, based on the games the NFL reserved for primetime viewing, this season has gone much differently than they’d hope for. Yet, this matchup has not only maintained its relevance, but pretty clearly become the game of the year. In addition to two AFC juggernauts facing off, this is the first time of many Josh Allen and Joe Burrow will play against each other, with the Bills trying to secure the #1 seed and the Bengals trying to a) stay alive for the #1 side and b) clinch an AFC North title. There’s a very realistic chance that these two teams could meet up again by the end of the month; what a perfect way to cap of the first week of the new year.
In some ways, the best way to look at this game is to simply compare them; we’re not only interested in who wins this game, but who poses a great threat in the AFC playoff field. Of course that starts at the quarterback position, where things have trended in a much different direction starting in Week 6:
- Josh Allen: 86.2 PFF Grade, 8% Big-Time Throw, 4.7% Turnover-Worthy Play, .156 adjusted EPA/play, 7.1 yards/attempt
- Joe Burrow: 93.9 PFF Grade, 5.8% Big-Time Throw, 1.1% Turnover-Worthy Play, .250 adjusted EPA/play, 7.9 yards/attempt
With Allen, the high-end plays are evident, though so are the negative plays that aren’t apart of the Bengals offense. Thus, it isn’t a surprise that the Bengals have been more efficient both passing and running based on EPA/play and success rate during this span, something that has held up regardless of situation (early downs, late downs). Meanwhile, Buffalo’s defense numbers look stronger at first glance due to an absurd start to the season, but they lost safety Micah Hyde after the first two weeks, and haven’t been the same since. In fact, some may say they don’t hold the defensive edge in this game:
- Bills: 13th in EPA/play allowed, 18th in success rate allowed, 19th in EPA/dropback
- Bengals: 8th in EPA/play allowed, 14th in success rate allowed, 11th in EPA/dropback
So, if the Bengals come into this game with the better offense and defense, and have faced a more difficult schedule per PFF, wouldn’t that make them the better team? That’s not what’s being indicated by them being a 2.5-point home underdog, which seems odd on the surface. For as much as Buffalo can look to exploit some of Cincinnati’s deficiencies over the top (4th in air yards/completion allowed), Cincinnati is the better bet to remain more efficient, particularly with the more productive rushing attack against a poor run defense (seventh-worst PFF run defense grade), while the Bills have struggled so consistently on third downs (19th percentile) defensively to the point where it’s hard to not see some signal in that- the Bengals, for what it’s worth, are only behind the Chiefs in third-down production.
The Bengals come into this game with the better-performing quarterback, a superior supporting cast, and a defense that has played at a similar level, if not better. In spite of a difficult schedule, they’ve continued to pass every test in flying colors, whereas Buffalo hasn’t exactly played in inspiring fashion as of late. Ultimately, though, this game comes down to which superstar quarterback is able to reach another dimension in superhuman abil
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