A new weekly look at the best games, playoff implications, and stat spotlights that the NFL has to offer.
By Gavin Byrnes
Game Of The Week:
Atlanta Falcons (9-5) at New Orleans Saints (10-4)
Football Outsiders uses a metric called Defensive Yards Above Replacement, or DYAR, in its evaluation of individual players. It is complicated and proprietary, and all you really need to know is that it is an attempt to approximate how much more yards a player gained than could be reasonably expected from a replacement-level player at his position, given his opportunities and situations. For running backs, FO’s website breaks out contributions by rushing and receiving.
I choose to start with this in my discussion of this NFC South showdown because while I certainly realized that Saints rookie running back Alvin Kamara has been having a strong year, I did not quite realize just how dominant he has been. Despite only 167 touches (99 rushing attempts and 68 receptions), Kamara leads the NFL in DYAR for running backs as receivers AND as runners, the latter despite ranking 40th in overall attempts. Again, that’s not per play; that’s overall yards above replacement. On a per play basis, he’s destroying the field.
This isn’t a trip to White Castle, but no Kamara would be complete without a Harold, and Hark! The Harold Angel of the Saints is in this case named Mark, as in Ingram, as in I am really selling out hard for this wordplay. Ingram, though he lacks Kamara’s dynamic abilities in the passing game, has a more punishing style suited to between the tackles work, racking up the third-most DYAR in the running game among backs, after Kamara and the irrepressible Todd “Hurdy Gurdy” Gurley. Plus, while Kamara and Ingram have been soaking up attention, Drew Brees is still here, completing passes at an astonishing 71.8% rate, at age 38 the best in his distinguished career. And lest you think he’s merely become a Checkdown Alex Smith type, his adjusted yards per attempt are 8.3, higher than his career averages.
A powerful offense in New Orleans is nothing new; what makes this team one of the scariest Saints teams in years is an improved defense that, while it struggles somewhat against the run, is going to take the lead often enough to force teams to attack its superior pass defense. New Orleans, after an 0-2 start against two of the best teams in the league in Minnesota and New England, has become a force to be reckoned with.
That said, the Saints did just lose to these same Falcons a couple weeks ago. And Atlanta still possesses the astonishing talents of Julio Jones, its own two-headed running back monster Devonta Freeman and Tevin Coleman (though Coleman missed last week’s game against Tampa Bay with a concussion and could be out), and a roller coaster ride of a season that’s seen the team play 10 games decided by six points or fewer. The Falcons don’t force a lot of turnovers on defense, but they don’t give up a lot of long passes either; Brees and company will need to be patient.
Playoff Spotlight: The AFC Race
With two weeks before the end of the NFL season, three AFC teams (the New England Patriots, Pittsburgh Steelers, and *squints* *cleans glasses* *makes white guy blinking meme face* Jacksonville Jaguars) have clinched playoff spots, with the Kansas City Chiefs nearly certain to join them – both FiveThirtyEight and Football Outsiders give them over a 95% chance of a berth. That leaves two spots for six teams whose chances sit between “highly likely” and “Lloyd Christmas.”
Baltimore Ravens (8-6):
After humanity has all but eradicated itself in a nuclear holocaust, the survivors will huddle in underground fortresses scraping for a rudimentary existence while the surface burns with toxic radiation. Decades, even centuries may pass as the remnants of civilization cling to existence. At long last, when the outside air is safe enough to breathe, a brave post-human will stand above ground and ask Earth’s eternal question: “Is Joe Flacco an elite quarterback?”
In the present day, this question still has never been answered satisfactorily in the abstract, but this season the arrow is pointing “no.” Flacco has been a dismal starting quarterback this season, at once too safe (5.3 Adjusted Yards/Attempt against a league average of 6.8) and too error-prone (a 2.6% Interception percentage, higher than the league’s 2.4%), and above only the notoriously disastrous Trevor Siemian and DeShone Kizer in DYAR. Thing is, Baltimore’s defense is so good and their finishing schedule so easy that Flacco’s performance may not matter! The Ravens have posted three shutouts this season, rank first in defensive DVOA, and finish their season at home against the Colts and Bengals, both of whom rank in the bottom half of the league on both offense and defense.
Buffalo Bills (8-6):
Speaking of terrible quarterbacking, remember when the Buffalo Bills benched a reasonably solid Tyrod Taylor for fifth round pick Nathan Peterman and he threw five interceptions in the first half? Apparently, the Bills didn’t, because they still wanted to start him…until he got concussed, forcing Taylor to save the team from itself. Taylor’s seasonal performance has been…adequate-ish, if that’s a word? Mediocre. Pedestrian. Serviceable. Hell, he’s thrown fewer interceptions all season than Peterman did in one half of one game! Unlike the Ravens, the Bills don’t terrify teams on the defensive side of the ball, where they are merely average. What they have is the game-breaking ability of LeSean McCoy.
Normally I’m extremely on board with advanced statistics of all kinds, but McCoy is an example in which they don’t tell the full story. By DYAR he rates as barely a positive contributor, but that’s because he’s so important to the Bills offense. How many Bills receivers can you name other than Kelvin Benjamin, who came over in a trade midseason, and then got injured? It’s similar to how some proponents of advanced stats use Allen Iverson’s surprisingly unimpressive efficiency numbers to suggest that he was overrated in his prime. In reality, Iverson wasn’t any less of a star; he was a less efficient player than some others at his skill level because he had bad teammates and was frequently forced to try to make something out of nothing. McCoy occasionally struggles to find running room because the weaknesses in the passing attack allow defenses to concentrate more on the run. In order to make the playoffs, the Bills will need to trust Taylor, and he will need to justify that trust by making defenses pay for selling out too hard to stop McCoy.
Tennessee Titans (8-6):
Another player whose reputation is better than his advanced stats would suggest (or whose advanced stats are worse than his reputation would suggest) is Titans quarterback Marcus Mariota, who has struggled with injuries and interceptions this season. However, he has still managed to be the second most effective quarterback in terms of running value he brings *per rushing attempt*, after, erm, Case Keenum, who is definitely the person I expected to see there and whose inclusion in no way makes me question what’s going on with that list. Anyway, the Titans give me a little bit of playoff indicator whiplash. Strap in!
They’ve allowed more points than they’ve scored, projecting as a sub-.500 team even as they have overperformed their win expectations by 1.6 wins – Sell! They finish the season at home, where they have gone 5-1 so far – Buy! Their last two games are against the Los Angeles Rams and Jacksonville Jaguars, this year’s exciting surprise teams and both playoff-bound – sell! The Rams and Jaguars may not have as much to play for, and Tennessee already beat the Jaguars once this season – buy! So there you have it – it’s clear as day.
Los Angeles Chargers (7-7):
The Chargers had a golden opportunity to crash the playoff party when they rode into Kansas City on a 4-game winning streak. Instead, Keenan Allen suffered his annual injury, the defense couldn’t contain the Chiefs playmakers, and now they’re on the outside looking in. The rest of their schedule is winnable (Jets and Raiders), and they have talent on both sides of the ball, but they need to win out and get some help.
Oakland Raiders (6-8):
The Raiders, at 6-8 and facing two road games against good teams, have about as much chance of making the playoffs as I have of winning the Grammy for Best Jazz Album.
Miami Dolphins (6-8):
The Dolphins have less of a playoff chance than the Raiders do.
How Many Yards Will Ezekiel Elliott Rush For?
Dallas Cowboys running back/alleged sexual assaulter/avatar of the complexity of justice/example of why extrajudicial authority wielded by a corrupt dingus leads to a confounding mess/rallying flag of a whiny creep who is salty that he doesn’t control the NFL behind the scenes like the rich Geppetto he thought he was (deep breath) returns to action against the Seahawks this week, who were last seen getting ground into dust and played like a piano – or, I guess, played like a piano and then ground into dust like a smashed piano – by my man Todd “Hurdy Gurdy” Gurley. Elliott, of course, has not played in six weeks, but in 8 games this season he has rushed for over 100 yards in 4 of them and over 80 in all but one. What do you think: will Ezekiel Elliott rush for more than 90 yards?