Happy Football Friday.
Week 10 set a record for the number of game-clinching field goals at the buzzer, making last week’s column – which sold the idea that NFL games haven’t been compelling this year – look sharp. The Vikings continued their unlikely run – winning their fifth straight without superstar wide receiver Justin Jefferson, while the Bills continue to toy with their fanbase, losing to a 3-5 Denver team at home despite another night of decent overall metrics. The Browns clipped the Ravens, only to lose Deshaun Watson in the process, while Detroit (see below) posted yet another win that would have been a loss in seasons’ past.
Using the data from the new and improved SumerSports.com, we will go over some of the thoughts and predictions I made a week ago and provide some for this coming week.
Week 11 is full of important rematches, starting with the Steelers going to Cleveland looking to sweep the Browns. The Giants go to Washington to try to do the same, but this time with a different backup quarterback. Speaking of backup quarterbacks, the Jets take Zach Wilson into Buffalo to face the team that knocked Aaron Rodgers out for the season in Week 1, while Seattle tries to avenge a rough Week 1 performance at home against LA with Matt Stafford returning to the lineup. Lastly, on Monday night we get a rematch of one of the best Super Bowls ever, with Andy Reid’s Chiefs looking to make him 4-0 against his old squad, the Philadelphia Eagles.
Let’s dig in.
Review of CIN @ BAL
In a well-anticipated game between two AFC North foes, Joe Burrow and Lamar Jackson were supposed to face off in a rematch of a Week 2 game where the Ravens went on the road and handed the Bengals their second loss of the season. However, after a second-quarter touchdown pass that gave Cincinnati a 10-7 lead, Burrow left the game with a right wrist injury and did not return.
Against Cincinnati’s backup quarterback, the Ravens buried Cincinnati, 34-20, in a game where Lamar Jackson accounted for 264 yards through the air, another 54 on the ground, and threw touchdown passes to Rashod Bateman and Nelson Agholor. Gus Edwards rushed for another 62 yards and two touchdowns, while the linebacker duo of Roquan Smith and Patrick Queen both finished with over 10 tackles.
The Ravens move to 8-3, essentially in a tie with Kansas City for the AFC one seed, and in firm control of an AFC North that they haven’t won since 2019.
Trend I’m Monitoring
I was recently on a podcast with the great Kevin Clark of ESPN (formerly of the Ringer). He was looking for answers as to why league’s defenses have had the upper hand of late, in response to this tweet:
it’s pretty incredible that a league-wide shift in defensive approaches designed to stop Patrick Mahomes has, while slowing down Mahomes, also increased the gap between him and everyone else
— Eric Eager 📊🏈 (@ericeager_) November 14, 2023
While there is a plethora of reasons offense is down in the NFL, with one of the main ones being that rushing efficiency against light boxes has cratered, one thing that stuck out while I was interrogating FTN data was that RPOs – once a tool used by offenses to curb the aggressiveness of the defense and mask offensive line deficiencies – have no longer been an effective play in the NFL. I explored this notion with our own Shawn Syed earlier this year on our YouTube channel:
Teams are throwing the ball less on RPOs; only about 26 percent of plays charted as run-pass options turned out to be passing plays during the first 10 weeks of this season, which is down from over 36 percent just two years ago. Historically, RPOs gave one of the cleanest examples of a Simpson’s paradox – an ordering that persisted within two subsets of data, but flipped when the data was combined due to composition.
In the case of these plays, both runs and passes historically have been more efficient when using an RPO, but RPOs in general are less efficient than non-RPOs because more RPOs are runs than regular plays, and runs are less efficient than passes. Defenses forcing more handoffs on RPOs has had a negative effect on offenses.
Further, RPOs have simply been less efficient than they are accustomed to being with both runs and passes negative in terms of EPA per play. In the case of passing plays, efficiency has dropped 0.12 EPA per play year over year! Some of this is due to weaker players playing the quarterback position, but some of it must be due to lighter box usage (we’re currently seeing the highest rate of six or fewer players in the box on early downs) taking away some of the options were there in the past.
It will be interesting to monitor how offensive coordinators and quarterbacks try to curb the year of the defense. Right now, they appear completely baffled by what has come out of the lab in recent seasons.
What I’m Buying
I’m buying the Lions’ path to the top seed in the NFC.
Now, to be fair, I’m rooting for my preseason prediction, which was that the Lions would play the Bills in the Super Bowl. While the Lions have held up their half, entering the week with the sixth-highest odds to win their first Super Bowl title at 4.9%, the Bills unfortunately have squandered a top-five easiest schedule in football, while having the toughest eight weeks left per our simulation.
The Lions, while declining offensively – from fifth in EPA in 2022 to eighth in 2023 – sit at 7-2 after a gutty win on the road against a Chargers team that put forth one of their best offensive performances in a while. Their defense, after being one of the worst units in football in 2022, is respectable this year, as they rank 12th in EPA allowed per play overall. In other words, the Lions have been a good football this year, building off a monumental ascension in 2022, but are not necessarily an elite one. So why am I touting them for the one seed?
To paraphrase Bill Clinton: It’s the schedule, stupid.
The Lions have five more games against their NFC North rivals, who at best are going to give them matchups with Jordan Love (once), Justin Fields (twice), and Josh Dobbs (twice). They have only their game at Chicago projected to be played outdoors, which is music to Jared Goff’s ears. Their matchup against the Cowboys in Dallas won’t be easy, and both the Vikings and the Broncos are ascending, but they have a 12.6% chance to earn the only bye in the NFC playoffs in large part because they have the eighth-easiest schedule in the league the rest of the way.
The roar has been restored. Let’s see how loud it can get.
What I’m Selling
I’m, for the foreseeable future, selling the Jacksonville Jaguars passing game.
In a recent interview, Jaguars head coach Doug Pederson said that Trevor Lawrence’s knee injury was one of the reasons the offense was struggling – he’s only 28th in total EPA generated among quarterbacks after finishing last season with a mark that finished seventh. While the loss of Jawaan Taylor and the suspension to Cam Robinson were expected to hurt, the acquisition of Calvin Ridley and the continued emergence of Travis Etienne, Zay Jones, Evan Engram, and Christian Kirk were supposed to make the Jags into a definitive favorite in the AFC South. They were -160 to win their own division at the beginning of the season.
Lawrence’s struggles being tied back to something that, given the Jaguars have already had their bye week and don’t appear to be considering sitting Lawrence anytime soon, is not going to get all that better with time is very concerning. It doesn’t help that their offensive line has continued to struggle even upon the return of Robinson.
The Jaguars, now with a 61.6% chance to repeat as division champions for the first time in this century, have an upstart Houston Texans team with CJ Stroud nipping at their heels with a 27.4% chance to pin down their first division title since 2019. While the defense has been the main reason that Jacksonville has stayed atop their division – they are seventh in expected points added overall – defense often regresses to the mean (in both directions) during the season and given their pre-season prior of a below-average defense, it’s hard to imagine them continuing to be exceptional there. This puts extra pressure on the second-year quarterback from Clemson, who is facing the sixth-easiest schedule moving forward but will have to improve significantly for this team to reach its goals.
A big reason for the inability of Lawrence to meet expectations has been Ridley, who after a great performance Week 1 in Indy has really fallen off. He has failed to eclipse 40 receiving yards in all but two of the next eight games, with just one touchdown during that stretch. Kirk has led the way on the outside, with 46 or more yards in every game but Week 1, including 104 yards last week in a tough loss to the 49ers. Etienne, who took over the lead back roll from James Robinson last year, has struggled on the ground, gaining just -0.38 yards created per rushing attempt.
None of this is to say that all or even most of the blame needs to land at the feet of Lawrence, or even Pederson. Frankly, going from two straight seasons of having the first-overall pick to a contender is both a) impressive and b) going to give rise to new issues that don’t matter as much when a team is trying to elevate from the bottom of the league to the middle but matter greatly when trying to get into the top tier of the league (see Cincinnati’s offensive line the last two playoff runs). While long-term prospects for the Jags are still great, they may be an offseason dedicated to the support of Lawrence away from truly contending in a stacked AFC.