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Happy Football Friday.
Week 17 brought some surprises with the Saints, Steelers, and Cardinals going on the road to beat the previously well-positioned Bucs, Seahawks, and Eagles, while the Rams and Chiefs clinched playoff spots by staving off scares at the hands of the Giants and Bengals. The Ravens sent a message to the Dolphins and the rest of the league, securing the AFC’s first seed, while the 49ers did the same in the NFC. The Bills kept pace in an effort to secure their fourth-straight division title, while the Jaguars were able to hold it together against the Panthers to stay on track for their second-straight AFC South.
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. Programming Note: next week we’re going over various predictions we made over the summer for accuracy, which will be fun.
Week 18 has its normal Week 18-ness with few games that mean the same for both teams, similarly few games that mean nothing to both teams, and a lot in between. If you’re looking to make wagers this week, know you’re doing so under incredible uncertainty, even in games where both teams have the same thing to play for (e.g., Buffalo/Miami).
Let’s dig in.
One Thing I’m Monitoring
I’m monitoring the various decisions teams have regarding resting players for the playoffs. While it’s unlikely that we’re going to find statistically significant signal in whether teams should rest starters for the playoffs or not, the question of rest versus rust will likely persist forever. Let’s take inventory of where the league stands at the moment:
Baltimore and San Francisco are both resting their starting quarterbacks, and likely part of their starting lineups, heading into the playoffs. This has playoff implications in the AFC as Pittsburgh, who plays Baltimore on Saturday, needs a win and some help to get in but could eliminate the Buffalo Bills with a win and Bills loss. The Ravens also sat their starters in 2019, eliminating the Steelers that year, before losing their first playoff game after a bye to the Titans.
Miami and Buffalo both need to win on Sunday night and are thus playing everyone who is healthy enough to play, as is Dallas, who needs to win against the Commanders to secure the two seed in the NFC. Detroit, who plays before Dallas, appears to be playing to win against Minnesota at Ford Field.
The whole NFC South – including the top three teams, who all have a chance to secure a division title, are playing to win, which is also true of the AFC South. The Seahawks, Packers, and Vikings are all playing for their playoff lives in the NFC and are playing their starters as such.
It’s unclear if the Eagles are playing their starters or conceding the NFC East to Dallas, who is a 13-point favorite over Washington. The fifth seed in the AFC, Cleveland, is resting their starters – starting their fifth quarterback of the season in Jeff Driskell. The Rams, who face the 49ers, are starting former Eagles star quarterback Carson Wentz and appear willing to be either the sixth or the seventh seed in the NFC.
The Chiefs, locked into the third spot in the AFC, are going to sit their starters. They sat their starters during the Andy Reid era in 2013, 2017, and 2020 as well. Only in 2020 did they win a playoff game, making the Super Bowl before losing to the Bucs.
One Thing I’m Buying
I’m buying Tampa Bay in the playoffs against the Eagles, should that matchup happen.
Look, for most of the season we’ve looked at the NFC South as mainly a joke. The Saints and the Falcons have played the two easiest schedules in the NFL to date, and they are a Falcons win Sunday away from turning that into an 8-9 campaign for both teams. The Saints, sticking to their guns in now the third year post Drew Brees, and second year post Sean Payton, kicked the can further down the road by signing and paying Derek Carr, who has rewarded them with one of the more uninspiring seasons from a quarterback.
The Falcons have three top-10 picks starting for them but turned their back on an opportunity to upgrade at the quarterback position, oscillating from second-year player Desmond Ridder and journeyman backup Taylor Heinicke. The defense has done a decent job against the schedule, but the offense is in the bottom tier of the league offensively for the third year under Arthur Smith.
None of us thought Tampa Bay would be in this position, as favorites to win the division in Week 18. Should the Bucs go on the road and beat the 2-14 Panthers this week, they will secure their third straight division title. The franchise had never repeated division titles prior to this run. Even as defending division champs, the Bucs had the longest odds to win the division coming into the year, ringing in behind the aforementioned Panthers.
And they’ve done it in a far more impressive fashion than the Saints and Falcons would have, having played the most difficult schedule of the three coming in. Baker Mayfield has been a revelation, throwing for 3907 yards and 28 touchdowns. Mike Evans, far from some of the predictions of fantasy analysts this preseason, has been phenomenal, catching 76 passes for 1233 yards and 13 touchdowns. Their running game isn’t very good, but Rashaad White has still added value by catching 60 passes. Todd Bowles’ defense has dealt with injuries all year while surrendering the ninth fewest points per game. They looked a bit flat in their Week 17 loss to the Saints with a chance to clinch the division title a week early but still control their own destiny to host a playoff game next week.
Philadelphia, on the other hand, jumped out to a 10-1 start, including a big win on the road against Kansas City coming off of the bye. However, they have lost four of their last five, including an embarrassing come-from-behind loss to the 4-12 Arizona Cardinals Sunday in a game where their defense surrendered 35 points and 449 total yards. Jalen Hurts and the offense has, in some ways, gotten better as the season has progressed, but the back seven has tanked, with injuries to Darius Slay and regression to James Bradberry the main culprits, along with a lack of investment at the linebacker position.
Should the 4-5 game go as chalk implies, the Bucs will be home underdogs for the second straight year to an NFC East team. Given the current directions of the teams, though, it won’t be as big of a slam dunk as many thought coming into the year.
One Thing I’m Selling
I’m selling the idea of an interim coach being promoted to the head coaching job.
This is a little controversial, of course. Last season Steve Wilks got the Panthers to play hard, inviting some criticism when the team went with a veteran head coach in Frank Reich, who was dismissed midway through his first season with the Panthers (as a coach that is, he was actually their first starting quarterback). The other side of the coin was the Colts hiring Jeff Saturday out of the ESPN booth, where he won his first game (ironically against the Raiders), but never secured victory again, including losing a game to the Vikings where they led 33-0. Shane Steichen took over that job and has the team at 9-7 with the playoffs in sight.
Antonio Pierce took over for Josh McDaniels midway through the season and has put together some impressive victories, including a road win against Kansas City on Christmas Day. The players very clearly like playing for Pierce, a former Super Bowl-winning linebacker for the New York Giants. The Raiders, who eschewed the opportunity to promote Rich Bisaccia after he led their 2021 team to the playoffs after the dismissal of Jon Gruden in favor of McDaniels, have that as an extra complication.
Las Vegas should resist the urge, though. Firstly, Pierce’s in-game decision making has already made it harder to win some games that it would have been if he played it optimally. For instance:
— Eric Eager 📊🏈 (@ericeager_) December 31, 2023
These are fourth downs that the vast majority of the NFL goes for now (only three coaches have surrendered more win probability this season than Pierce) and with a chance to not only make the playoffs, but win the AFC West in the balance, such conservative decision making is a flaw that is difficult to see him overcoming.
There are also staff-level details we talked about on the latest SumerSports Show. When an interim coach takes over, there are generally minimal staff changes in-season. The Panthers did fire Josh McCown, among others, when they let Reich go, but there are plenty of coaches on the Los Angeles, Carolina, and Las Vegas staffs that Giff Smith, Chris Tabor, and Pierce, respectively, did not hire, and likely would not hire if given a fresh start as a head coach. Anecdotally, much of the bump seen when an interim guy takes over mid-season is a combination of motivation and (positive) regression. If a position group sees their guy shown the door in an offseason when the interim coach gets the tag removed, how does that influence their motivation the following year?
There are examples of interim head coaches being promoted and it working out, with the most notable one being Marty Schottenheimer in Cleveland in the 80s. However, the deck is stacked against them, so unless the concern is money – which is reasonable – undergoing a search for a new coach is probably the right way to go.