Week 16 Wrap-up: The Percentage GameRogelio Solis/AP
That was fun, huh? Week 16 delivered a full slate of entertaining games, including a pair of Saturday games that were wildly compelling for totally different reasons before a Sunday with a bevy of statement wins and losses. We’re now down to 16 playoff contenders, nine of whom have already clinched some semblance of a playoff berth with one week and one game to go. Seven teams with a shot at January football are competing for three remaining spots. Next weekend is going to be even more fun than the one that just passed.
Before the Bengals and Steelers finish the 2014 season next Sunday night,1 there’s a lot to say about what happened in Week 16 and what it means for both Week 17 and the playoffs to come. With another week left to talk about the teams remaining in the playoff picture, I wanted to spend today looking at the teams that will be disappointed by what happened this weekend. That includes teams that were eliminated from the playoff picture, a team with a guaranteed spot that looks decidedly mediocre, and a few more in between.
I’ll also include each team’s playoff probabilities heading into Week 17, which come from the live Monte Carlo simulation at Advanced Football Analytics, which uses the Vegas lines to estimate win probabilities. I’ve built Monte Carlo simulations using teams’ point differentials in the past, but as Brian Burke notes, it’s better to use the Vegas lines in Week 17 because they incorporate information beyond the point spread that’s more meaningful in Week 17 than in other weeks, like injuries and the likelihood a team with little to play for will be sitting players.
New Orleans Saints
Playoff Odds: 0 percent
The competitive portion of New Orleans’s roller-coaster season finally came to an end Sunday, as the Saints were eliminated from playoff contention with a brutal 30-14 home loss to the archrival Falcons. You can argue the game wasn’t quite as one-sided as that score indicates; wipe off the meaningless Osi Umenyiora fumble recovery touchdown on the game’s final play and call Jimmy Graham’s goal-line fumble in the fourth quarter a touchdown on the field with no possibility of finding irrefutable evidence of a reversal on replay and the game’s suddenly a two-point contest. Even with that in mind, the Saints somehow managed to take a game they led 7-0 within 20 seconds after a 99-yard kickoff return from Jalen Saunders and end up in a situation where they were underdogs for each of the final 33 minutes.
They blew the lead and blew up their season in spectacular fashion, owing in part to their heavy reliance on replacement-level talent. The Saints breathed life into their opponent’s biggest weakness and made it a strength, with a dormant Falcons pass rush that had just 16 sacks through 14 games somehow sacking Drew Brees five times on 52 dropbacks. That’s more sacks than the Falcons recorded during the entire month of September (when they recorded three) or October (four). It’s also five more sacks than the Saints recorded, as a limited Junior Galette and an anonymous Cameron Jordan were at the helm of a unit that failed to sack Matt Ryan even once in 41 dropbacks.
Three of those Atlanta sacks came in the first half, including one that forced a Brees fumble that knocked the Saints out of field goal range. Backup left tackle Bryce Harris, making his third career start because of an injury to Terron Armstead, committed a false start on a fourth-and-2 at the edge of field goal range that created a fourth-and-7 and ended with a Brees interception. Presented with a seven-point lead after one play from scrimmage, the Saints went scoreless for the next 53 minutes. They gained just 68 yards on their four subsequent first-half possessions, averaging 2.6 yards per play.2
The journeyman bug bit elsewhere. Cornerback Terrence Frederick, making his second consecutive start after not suiting up for two full seasons, missed a critical tackle on Devonta Freeman’s 31-yard touchdown run in the third quarter. Frederick found his role in the starting lineup because the Saints whiffed on Champ Bailey in the offseason, lost confidence in former first-rounder Patrick Robinson and subsequent replacement Corey White, and never developed any faith in second-rounder Stanley Jean-Baptiste, who recorded his 11th healthy scratch of the season. The Nebraska product has played just eight defensive snaps in 2014 despite the blinking “VACANCY” sign that’s been lit all season across the field from Keenan Lewis.
It’s hard to project a different sort of season for the Saints in 2015, too, as their dire cap situation prevents them from making significant changes to the structure of the team. They will eke out enough space to field a roster, but this will continue to be a stars-and-scrubs-style team that will be highly vulnerable to injuries and scouting missteps.
The Falcons, another team built in the stars-and-scrubs style, will be stunned to have come away with a victory in which they actually won at the line of scrimmage. They will get the Panthers, who are on a season-saving three-game winning streak, at home in Week 17 in a play-in game for the NFC South title. Their season will come down to a series of freakish bounces and last-second swings in various directions. If it’s not Brees’s interception late in the fourth quarter here, it’s the Graham Gano missed field goal that saved Atlanta’s bacon in Carolina, or the disastrous collapse late in the fourth quarter against Detroit, or the gift they returned to Brian Hoyer to give up a game against Cleveland. Trying to figure out what they’ll do in a given week seems downright stupid; even if you get the big-picture stuff right, it’s seemingly always going to come down to the whims of one very random play in the fourth quarter.
Playoff Odds: 0 percent
Philadelphia’s ignominious fall from grace and departure from the playoff picture took all of three weeks. After beating the Cowboys on Thanksgiving in Dallas, the Eagles had a 1.5-game lead (including the tiebreaker) in the NFC East and a 91.5 percent chance of making the playoffs entering Week 14. That evaporated entirely, as Philadelphia was eliminated from the playoffs after its loss to Washington on Saturday was followed by Dallas’s blowout win over Indianapolis on Sunday.
How do you blow a 91.5 percent shot in three weeks? A lot of the tempting arguments don’t really pass muster. Their schedule wasn’t exactly easy, but the two tougher games (against Seattle and Dallas) came at home; the Eagles were favored to win each of the games they’ve lost during this free fall. Philadelphia was buoyed by a ridiculous 10 return touchdowns earlier in the season, but even while it hasn’t scored a return touchdown during this rut, it still benefited from a dropped punt attempt against Seattle and a fumbled Washington kickoff.
And while it’s easy and familiar to blame Mark Sanchez and his propensity for turnovers for Philadelphia’s problems, its issues have leaned far more toward the defensive side. The Philadelphia offense has, per ESPN Stats & Information, been worth 4.9 points above expectation over the last three weeks, which is 14th in the league. The defense? They’ve been 31.8 points under expectation. Only the Dolphins and Bears have been worse.
With the Eagles allowing just 3.4 yards per run over that stretch, we can drill down even further and point out that the passing defense has been the problem; Philadelphia’s allowed an 84.6 QBR over the last three weeks, the second-worst figure in football. Teams have basically lit overmatched corner Bradley Fletcher on fire, with defensive coordinator Billy Davis too late to give Fletcher help over the top in any sort of coverage scheme.
After Dez Bryant torched Fletcher last week, Washington got DeSean Jackson past Fletcher for a 51-yard gain in the first quarter on Saturday night on a play that would have been a touchdown with a better throw from Robert Griffin. In the third quarter, Jackson beat Fletcher in one-on-one coverage again for 55 yards, on another play that probably would have resulted in a touchdown with a better throw. Those two completions amounted to nearly half of Griffin’s output. When Davis finally did give Fletcher help, Griffin forced a pass past him that was intercepted by Nate Allen.3
It’s almost impossible to figure out how the Eagles conspired to lose Saturday’s game. They accrued 495 yards of offense, held Washington to 305 yards and a 2-of-9 performance on third downs, and didn’t allow a defensive or special teams touchdown. And yet, somehow, they lost. Cody Parkey missed field goals from 34 and 46 yards. Sanchez turned the ball over twice, bookending the game with an opening-drive fumble (when Ryan Kerrigan laid waste to Lane Johnson) and a final-drive interception (on a pass thrown behind Jeremy Maclin).
More than anything, it was a staggering number of penalties. The Seahawks are a sign of how it’s usually dumb to tie high penalty totals to wins and losses, but the Eagles committed 13 penalties for 102 yards in this game, while Washington only had three for 15 yards. Washington picked up six of their 21 first downs from penalties, including at least three penalties extending Washington drives that would have otherwise stalled out. After the Sanchez interception, the combination of a 23-yard completion to Pierre Garcon with a roughing-the-passer call on Vinny Curry left Washington in the driver’s seat. A day later, Philly’s season was over.
It’s a tough lesson to learn for the Eagles. For as incredible as they look at times and as smart as they are as an organization, they still have a long ways to go. Chip Kelly’s emphasis on sport science and retaining endurance through the end of the season seemed to pay off when Philadelphia won seven of their final eight games a year ago, but even with an enlightened process, the Eagles have gone 0-3 this December. They’ve pieced together a patchwork secondary from free agency and gotten by with mediocre quarterbacks in a great scheme. To take the next step, they’ll need to improve in both those areas.
Playoff Odds: 100 percent
The Cardinals got Lindleyed on Sunday night, as the matchup between a suffocating pass defense and a badly overmatched quarterback produced what would normally have been a shocking display of inefficiency. (More on that in a minute.) Ryan Lindley went 18-of-44 for 216 yards with an interception, and even that line massively oversells his actual level of performance. He finished with a 14.8 QBR, was hit 12 times, and had as many as a half-dozen would-be interceptions dropped by the Seattle defense, including a near-pick in the end zone by Jeremy Lane, whose drop allowed the Cardinals to kick a field goal. NFL Network’s Chris Wesseling put it best: Lindley’s passes weren’t accurate enough to be intercepted.
The loss knocked Arizona out of the top seed in the NFC and brought its season-long run with at least a share of first place in the NFC West to a halt, drastically reducing the chances it’ll be the first team to play in a home Super Bowl. Even if the Cardinals lose to the 49ers on Sunday, they’re basically locked into the no. 5 seed,4 which means they’ll get the relatively friendly road trip to the winner of the Falcons-Panthers game during the wild-card round before a potential trip to Seattle in the divisional round.
More disconcertingly for the Cardinals, there have to be serious concerns as to whether they can field anything resembling a competent offense in the weeks to come. Lindley is a mess; in his first 225 professional pass attempts, he’s completed just 49.3 percent of his passes, averaged a gruesome 4.4 yards per attempt, and thrown eight interceptions without a touchdown. Drew Stanton was hardly lighting things up during his time at the helm, and his sprained knee actually got worse as the week went along.
Logan Thomas looms as the high-risk, high-reward option waiting in the wings. Thomas looked overwhelmed in his nine-pass debut against the Broncos and was arguably the rawest rookie prospect in this year’s draft, but the fourth-round pick at least offers athleticism and an NFL-caliber arm that can scare opposing teams into overcommitting with pressure. Lindley had chances to beat the Seahawks downfield on Sunday night, including a number of times when his receivers got behind Seattle’s cornerbacks down the sideline, but his throws were often short and wildly inaccurate. Thomas might be inaccurate, but he can spin the football. That may be better than the alternative.
As currently constructed, the Cardinals — running a downfield offense with an incapable quarterback — have hit their ceiling. Thomas’s ceiling is impossibly high; his floor may be terrifyingly low, but if the alternative is Lindley, the Cardinals may not have a choice. It may make sense for them to assume they’ll lose on Sunday and start Thomas to give him some live reps in the event he needs to start in Atlanta or Carolina the following week.
Playoff Odds: 59 percent
Sunday’s 25-13 loss to a Texans team that was starting Case Keenum directly off the St. Louis practice squad took the division off the table for Baltimore without doing much more. It had an 82 percent chance of making the playoffs heading into Week 16, but that included a 21 percent chance of winning the AFC North; now, eliminated from the North race, its wild-card chances have only dropped from 61 percent to 59 percent.
It seems like the loss should be more crushing, and Baltimore no longer controls its own playoff destiny, but it can get in a number of different ways, none of which require all that much. The Ravens get to play the collapsing Browns in Week 17, with Cleveland somehow stuck deciding between Brian Hoyer and an injured Johnny Manziel, who suffered a hamstring injury early in Cleveland’s loss to Carolina. Lose that and they’re out, but they’ll be comfortable favorites, at which point they can get in if the Chargers lose on the road at Kansas City. If that fails, the Ravens can also get in if the Bengals lose consecutive games to the Broncos tonight and Steelers in Week 17.
I don’t really know how to explain Joe Flacco after all of these years. He’s like some weird stock, oscillating wildly from day to day while delivering a remarkably consistent, unexciting return when you look at him on an annual basis. Sunday has to go down as one of the worst days of his career, even considering that he inflated his numbers with some garbage-time production in the second half. Flacco started this game 4-for-22 for 35 yards with three interceptions and finished with his fifth-worst passer rating (41.7) in the regular season. I wouldn’t be concerned about that if I were a Ravens fan, if only because Flacco’s previous five worst starts had absolutely no carryover effect in the following week:
I’d also rest easy knowing that Flacco probably won’t spend his Week 17 tiptoeing around the field like he’s afraid he’ll step on a mine. Flacco spent that 4-for-22 stretch looking like a quarterback with no confidence that he could set his feet in the backfield and make comfortable throws. Many of his passes were in mid-stride, at awkward moments in his dropback, or off of his back foot. He threw three interceptions, and while Flacco did miss a number of open receivers with errant (often high) passes, the Texans could also have come away with a few more picks with some better luck.
Strangely, as much as it’s easy to suggest J.J. Watt was the primary reason Flacco was uncomfortable, it wasn’t directly because of what the MVP candidate did Sunday. Watt had his usual impressive game — one sack, four knockdowns, three tackles for loss — but it was more the Ravens focusing their attention on Watt that allowed the Texans to successfully get pressure elsewhere. Jared Crick had an effective day, coming up with a sack while tipping a pass that created Houston’s first interception.5
The Texans blitzed on 43.4 percent of Flacco’s dropbacks, the sixth-highest rate in the league this week, and Baltimore was never able to adjust. Since returning from their Week 10 bye, the Texans are allowing opposing quarterbacks a league-low 22.4 QBR, while their 64.3 opposing passer rating trails only the Seahawks. This is a very good defense, and while it’s not too hyperbolic to suggest that Watt is their engine, it’s been firing on all cylinders for weeks now.
Ravens fans are probably worried about a repeat of the 2013 season, when Baltimore blew its playoff chances by getting stomped in Week 16 by the Patriots before losing to the Bengals in Week 17 on the road. Something that would help is a pair of healthy tackles. Baltimore lost left tackle Eugene Monroe and right tackle Ricky Wagner to injuries during the game, and both left the stadium in walking boots after the contest. It seems natural that the Ravens will proceed with a run-heavy approach next week against Cleveland’s porous run defense, the worst in football by DVOA, but they averaged just 2.1 yards on 16 tries this week. Monroe and Wagner would help make things much easier for Justin Forsett & Co. next week, and if the running game gets going, that should keep the pressure off Flacco.
Playoff Odds: 0 percent
The Bills’ slim playoff hopes came to a close Sunday afternoon when they lost to the Raiders, 26-24, in a game that felt like it canceled out the spirited performance Buffalo delivered during its upset win over the Packers last week. What’s even more frustrating is that this was a winnable game; the Bills could very easily have come away with a victory that would have given them a reasonable chance of making the playoffs. And in a way, it informed Bills fans about how frustrating it might be to see this team in years to come.
It’s always difficult to hinge an entire game upon the availability of one player, but this game swung on the injury to star Bills defensive tackle Marcell Dareus. The Bills have had an excellent defensive line all season, but Dareus has been an absolute demon in the middle, having his best season as a pro while justifying serious All-Pro consideration. When Dareus went down with a knee injury early in the second quarter, he was bringing down Raiders back Latavius Murray on Oakland’s sixth carry of the game. Those six carries gained a total of five yards.
After Dareus left, the Raiders were far more effective on the ground. Oakland’s running backs subsequently ran the ball 27 times for 135 yards, a healthy average of 5 yards per carry. The drive after Dareus departed began with six carries for 31 yards before Derek Carr threw an incomplete pass and the Raiders kicked a field goal. The running game really didn’t slow down until late in the fourth quarter, when a combination of Murray runs and kneeldowns produced five carries for minus-5 yards while Oakland was really just trying to burn clock.
There’s no word early Monday morning on the severity of Dareus’s injury, and it’s likely he’ll sit out Week 17 as a precaution if there are any concerns, but the injury really emphasized his importance to this team. Dareus will play out the fifth-year option of his rookie deal at just more than $8 million next year, during which the Bills will have to decide whether they want to give him the sort of massive contract afforded Gerald McCoy (eight years, $108 million) earlier this season. When the Buffalo brain trust is sitting around to make that decision, it’s this exact game that will be sticking in everyone’s minds at the negotiating table.
Likewise, the Bills have to figure out what the next move is to improve their offense. Their running game was an abomination against the league’s 15th-ranked rush defense, producing an even 13 yards on 13 carries. That left Kyle Orton in an unenviable position, having to pick up an average of 7.2 yards on the 17 third downs the Bills faced. They came up short on 11 of those attempts, including a stretch with six three-and-outs in seven tries.
It would be hard to pin that all on Orton, who had an erratic day. He made a very nice throw on a go route to Sammy Watkins for an early touchdown and manufactured some plays late in the contest when the Bills were desperate, but he didn’t make a lot happen and occasionally made the sort of useless checkdowns that are more in line with a rookie quarterback than somebody regarded as a game manager, whatever that term means. Orton began a two-minute drive in the fourth quarter with a quick out to Scott Chandler, which has virtually no upside and a comfortable amount of downside. If that’s Orton, he should know better. If it’s Doug Marrone, well, Orton should know better, too.
It’s unfair given how great their defense has been, but this Bills season is very often reduced to an argument about whether they were right to trade two first-round picks for Sammy Watkins, and that’s naturally coming up again as we can finally get a pretty clear picture of where the Bills will finish. They’ll end up having traded the ninth overall pick, a fourth-rounder, and a pick in the middle of the first round of the 2015 NFL draft to Cleveland for Watkins, and the jury is very clearly still out.
Watkins is undoubtedly talented, but he’s also the third-most prominent member of this rookie class of wideouts, with even Bills fans begrudgingly admitting they would rather have Odell Beckham Jr. There’s still plenty of time for Watkins to develop, but the Bills will miss out on a valuable first-round pick in 2015, preventing them from adding a premium piece to the interior of their offensive line or supplementing the weakest part of their defense, the secondary. They would not have ended up with Marcus Mariota and would not likely have seen Jameis Winston fall to them around 15, but if the Bills fall in love with one of the two, they won’t have the assets to move up and acquire him.
The harder question, I suppose, is figuring out what qualifies as a successful return on the Watkins deal. Is it good if Watkins becomes a Pro Bowl–caliber wideout and the Bills are a mediocre team? Do the Bills need to make the playoffs to justify the trade? Is just contending and competing OK? You would forgive Buffalo fans for wanting something resembling a superstar on offense without needing to worry about the future cost, but it’s hard to reconcile one year later. The Bills had a dominant defense — arguably the best in football — and having Watkins wasn’t enough to push them into the playoffs for the first time since the turn of the century. Even more distressingly, days like Sunday make it feel like they aren’t that much closer to getting there.
Playoff Odds: 0 percent
It took a furious run of nine points in 30 seconds for the Dolphins to come back and beat the middling Vikings on Sunday, with a blocked punt that went through the end zone for a safety serving as Miami’s margin of victory. The victory was essentially for naught, with Pittsburgh’s win over Kansas City knocking the Dolphins out of the playoffs, but it inspired owner Stephen Ross to say after the game that Joe Philbin will be returning to coach the Dolphins for another season.
I don’t begrudge Ross his station to hire or fire coaches as he likes, although I don’t think Tony Sparano would consider Ross’s eagerness to interview his replacements as particularly endearing. Ross could be bluffing altogether, and he did note Philbin would be coaching out the final year of his existing contract as opposed to receiving an extension. I think it’s interesting Ross was so enthused by the win that he cut off any speculation about Jim Harbaugh at the pass. It might tell you he thinks Harbaugh has already ruled out the Dolphins (or vice versa) and that Ross wants to be ahead of the story.
You can make a case Philbin is making things better in Miami, even if it’s moving at a glacial pace. If the Dolphins beat the Jets next week, they’ll finish 9-7 and improve by one win for the third consecutive year under Philbin, with the former Packers assistant taking over after a 6-10 season. Miami was closer to the playoffs last year (when it blew its shot by losing the final two games) than this year (when it was basically done by the end of Week 15), but it will finish narrowly on the outskirts of the postseason for the second consecutive season.
Ryan Tannehill, the quarterback Philbin was brought in to help develop, has unquestionably taken some step forward, setting career marks across the board in just about every rate statistic. His completion percentage has taken the most notable leap (up to 67.0 percent), but most of that has come from throwing shorter passes; he’s averaging 7.3 air yards per pass, down from 8.7 air yards per pass across his first two NFL seasons. Only Orton, Blake Bortles, and Alex Smith have thrown their average pass shorter distances this year. Tannehill has improved enough to justify Miami’s likely move to pick up his fifth-year option for 2016, a move that will cost it somewhere in the $17 million range.
If you think Philbin is doing a good job, why not extend his contract, even if only by a year? For whatever lame-duck status Philbin might retain if Ross doesn’t extend his deal, why not tie him to Tannehill’s fifth-year option, given that a new coach would probably want to find a new quarterback, anyway? Is Ross looking at Jason Garrett and seeing a head coach who appeared to be outstaying his welcome with average seasons until everything finally broke right? Or is he just tiding things over with Philbin until an appropriately interesting (and interested) coach candidate comes along? The only person who knows is Ross, and all he wants to do right now is emphatically celebrate a win over the Vikings.
Kansas City Chiefs
Playoff Odds: 4 percent
The Chiefs are left with desperately slim playoff hopes after losing to the Steelers on Sunday. They need to beat the Chargers and have two unlikely results go their way, with the Browns overcoming the Ravens while the Jaguars take out the Texans. Both Cleveland and Jacksonville are eight-plus-point underdogs on the road, which should tell you how slim Kansas City is drawing. It’s not hopeless — San Diego made it in Week 17 last season despite its playoff chances falling to about 10 percent at moments that Sunday — but it’s not looking great.
It would be hard not to take at least some issue with Andy Reid’s game plan from Sunday. In a game when the Chiefs didn’t trail by two scores until late in the third quarter, Reid called for 53 pass plays against just 12 runs (including a pair of Smith scrambles as pass plays). Kansas City’s leading receiver was undrafted free agent Albert Wilson, who had five catches on seven targets for 87 yards. It’s hard to see the menace in this passing attack, even against a Steelers team that is not effective against the pass.
And then, at the same time, it’s also hard to argue that the Chiefs were doing very much running the ball. Jamaal Charles, Knile Davis, and De’Anthony Thomas combined to carry the ball 12 times for just 25 yards, with Charles also losing a (questionable) fumble in the third quarter that ended a critical drive in Pittsburgh territory. The Chiefs were beat up on the line of scrimmage, with Smith going down for six sacks and eight quarterback hits on 54 dropbacks.
Without the running game or a serious weapon to make plays downfield, the Steelers were able to bottle up the Chiefs’ short passing game. Their really short passing game. Remember how I mentioned that Tannehill’s passes are short? Smith’s passes are the shortest in football by a significant margin. He averaged just 5.0 air yards Sunday, and that’s nothing new. Smith is averaging 5.6 air yards this season, and the next closest regular starter is Bortles, who averages 7.0 yards. Bortles is closer to Flacco (8.3 yards per attempt) than he is to Smith.
It’s no surprise Steelers would be aligned to stopping that short game. Pittsburgh has allowed the league’s ninth-lowest QBR on short passes, which the NFL defines as throws within 14 yards of the line of scrimmage. On throws of 15 yards or more, the Steelers have posted the league’s worst QBR against, a 99.6 figure that includes 1,643 yards and 12 touchdowns on just 100 attempts.
If you’re Reid, what can you do? Smith’s strength is his short- and medium-strength accuracy, not his long ball. Your receivers aren’t especially great downfield weapons. Your offensive line isn’t holding up for very long. You have to hope the running game does something and keeps Smith out of third-and-long, and then that the Steelers react to that and create space accordingly. In 2015, maybe Wilson and Thomas and Travis Kelce all play a bigger role and Smith has more to work with in stretching the field vertically.
Until then, though, the Chiefs are very dependent upon running the football well and creating manageable third downs to move the chains. And when the Steelers shut those avenues off Sunday, Kansas City didn’t have the personnel or the ability to attack Pittsburgh’s clear weakness. It’s a problem the Chiefs have to address this offseason, a future they can likely start planning for very, very soon.