sara.ziegler (Sara Ziegler, sports editor): The Sunday that brought Minshew Mania back to the NFL gave us a little more chaos and a little more clarity. In Week 13, one hapless team (the Houston Texans) was eliminated from playoff contention, while another (the Detroit Lions) got its first win.
Does anyone know what happened in the Lions game? Who were they even playing?
neil (Neil Paine, senior sportswriter): No clue. Certainly not a team I Slacked you about immediately after they lost.
joshua.hermsmeyer (Josh Hermsmeyer, NFL analyst): LOL
sara.ziegler: As a Vikings fan, I’ll just say that I saw that coming a mile away.
Salfino (Michael Salfino, FiveThirtyEight contributor): Sara, you may be shocked to find out that the Vikings lost a game that’s almost impossible to lose. They’re just the second team EVER to lose as at least a 7-point favorite, while winning the turnover battle and with a quarterback whose passer rating was at least 110. And the other team, the 2013 Eagles, allowed the Chargers to go 10-for-15 on third down — the Vikings allowed the Lions to go only 2-for-11. Just a stunning loss.
sara.ziegler: That feels right.
joshua.hermsmeyer: The speed with which the Lions went down the field on that final drive certainly made it seem like there was no competition, Sara.
Salfino: Well, it is Jared Goff.
neil: You can’t stop Jared Goff, you can only hope to contain him.
sara.ziegler: My official statement remains:
neil: They did keep things close, though — as always.
Salfino: This was the first game this season that the Vikings didn’t lead by at least 7 points.
neil: They are also just the 10th team ever to play at least 11 one-score games in their first 12 games of a season. Only the 2015 Ravens were 12-for-12.
joshua.hermsmeyer: On the last play of the game, the Vikings called a timeout, then trotted out a defense that left Amon-Ra St. Brown, a literal god, wide open.
sara.ziegler: I thought that timeout was just to talk about what they were all doing after the game. Sights to see in Detroit, which restaurant to go to, etc.
Were they supposed to be figuring out a functional play call, too???
Salfino: “Sights to see in Detroit …”
neil: The Fox Theatre is wonderful and historic.
Salfino: And I understand they put the sauce on top of the pizza. That’s a sight to see.
neil: The Lions were just trying desperately to affirm their status as Michigan’s best football team after the Wolverines locked up the Big Ten and a playoff spot Saturday.
How exhausted will the Lions be after celebrating their first win in 364 days? That’s massively party-worthy IMO. Gotta be dogs to win two in a row. Take the Broncos and eat the points.
Salfino: The Lions did it inside a year at least.
neil: Yes, how great is it that they avoided going a calendar year without a win?
Salfino: Skin of their teeth.
neil: I have a feeling they will either beat or lose to the Steelers by 8 points or less.
Salfino: The miraculous loser Vikings playing the miraculous winner Steelers.
sara.ziegler: Let’s talk about those Steelers! They actually played a (somewhat) important game on Sunday. By beating Baltimore, the Steelers pushed their playoff odds (according to the FiveThirtyEight model) from 10 to 18 percent and kept some drama going in what sounds like will be Ben Roethlisberger’s final season. But it was the Ravens’ overall play and final decision that I want to focus on. Let’s get into the never-ending “go for 2” debate!
The Steelers could manage only a field goal through the first three quarters of the game, but they stormed back in the fourth quarter for 17 points, taking a 20-13 lead with 1:48 left. But Lamar Jackson led a lightning-fast drive down the field, and the Ravens scored 6 points with 12 seconds left. Instead of bringing on Justin Tucker for the PAT, coach John Harbaugh kept his offense on the field to attempt a game-winning 2-point conversion. With T.J. Watt in his face, Jackson threw a pass just off Mark Andrews’s fingertips, and the Ravens lost 20-19.
So let’s get into it. Who likes the call?
joshua.hermsmeyer: It was the right call.
neil: I liked the call and the play call, even. Just a bit off on the execution.
And I mean just a bit — another inch and Andrews has that.
But Harbaugh has gotten increasingly drunk on risk-taking, and I am here for it.
Salfino: I would have wanted the Ravens to go for it if I were a Steelers fan, so it did not feel like the right call to me. If the Ravens are the clearly better team, should they just tie the game and take it to overtime rather than take the chance on the one play? In other words, if they had a win probability of 61 percent going in, which is what the FiveThirtyEight model had, do their calculated odds of getting the 2-point conversation have to be greater than 61 percent for it to be the right call, mathematically, over tying the game?
joshua.hermsmeyer: The basic calculus isn’t that difficult, and really it’s not all that much to do with analytics, more probabilistic thinking. But that’s the approach, Mike. Are your odds to win, right now, on this play, better than your odds to win in overtime? If yes, go for it.
Salfino: It’s complicated for me because I didn’t think the Ravens were remotely a No. 1 conference seed going into that game, nor did I think the fourth quarter suddenly made the Steelers offense and Roethlisberger something to be feared.
neil: And to be fair, with Jackson at QB, the Ravens have converted 46.7 percent of their 2-point tries (7 for 15) in his career. So that is lower than your break-even number, Mike.
Salfino: Wouldn’t we have had the Ravens better than 46.7 percent to win in overtime?
sara.ziegler: I’m not sure the Ravens thought they had those odds!
Harbaugh mentioned that injuries played a big role in his decision — it seems like he thought they weren’t in a place where they could win in OT.
joshua.hermsmeyer: The real problem for the Ravens is they lost their best defensive player, Marlon Humphrey, and right tackle Patrick Mekari in the game. Jackson also came up gimpy on a run. So if you have a play like the one they ran where they were pretty confident in it — let’s put their internal confidence on a tight end leak design at 70 percent — it’s an easy call to not have to play any more minutes and risk more injuries.
neil: I agree with that, Josh. The play call was proven to be more effective than maybe you’d think from that 47 percent career rate.
Andrews was open.
Salfino: Jackson was sacked seven times and threw a pick. Teams that did exactly that are 18-109-2 all-time. So maybe Harbaugh felt he was lucky to have a chance to win that game.
Lamar is on a really bad run. Those sacks are like mini-turnovers in ending drives, and he threw the four picks last week. The Ravens scored fewer than 20 points now in four of Lamar’s last five games; Jackson went into 2021 having started just two games in which the Ravens scored less than 20 points in his entire career.
joshua.hermsmeyer: I am a Ravens fan — I don’t hide that — so it hurts to say it, but their season is pretty much over. There is just no real hope to win four playoff games with this roster and the injuries it has absorbed.
Salfino: But like you said with the Titans, if you get into the playoffs, anything can happen. Who can’t the Ravens beat if Lamar plays well? The AFC has no dominant team. Not remotely, IMO.
sara.ziegler: This is the year that a subpar team might come out of the AFC, for sure.
joshua.hermsmeyer: Baltimore’s entire secondary is injured. That’s just not a recipe for postseason success.
Salfino: I think the “on any given Sunday” is way more in play with Baltimore than it is with Tennessee should Derrick Henry and A.J. Brown be out.
The Ravens need to score 30, which used to not be a big ask for them.
joshua.hermsmeyer: While I may believe that running backs are replaceable, when you lose all of them, you’re not really replacing the lost players with league replacement-level talent. Add in all the offensive line injuries, and Lamar being hurt — it’s just not a good position to be in.
sara.ziegler: It is honestly amazing that they’re still in the conversation, with all the injuries they’ve dealt with.
Salfino: Josh, was Rashod Bateman hurt? Where was he yesterday?
joshua.hermsmeyer: He was false-starting and costing yards and time off the clock on the final drive.
But look, the game shouldn’t have really been as close as it was. Lamar chucking up that interception on the first drive was just egregious after the four-interception debacle last week against the Browns.
Salfino: Yes, and it was in the red zone, too. Just horrible.
neil: I know he has been battling injuries and illness, but the games where Lamar has looked like the 2019 vintage have been somewhat few and far between this year.
sara.ziegler: And that’s the real trick with the running, do-it-all quarterback, right? Maintain it over a full season, through injuries and illness. Seems very hard to do!
Salfino: I think Lamar made a great play on the 2-pointer to evade Watt, but Andrews seemed to be running in mud. He sort of stopped initially.
sara.ziegler: Let’s stay in the AFC — and partially the AFC North — to talk about the Chargers-Bengals game. It’s one thing for teams to score in streaks, but this was ridiculous: Los Angeles scored the first 24, Cincinnati scored the next 22, and L.A. took the final 17. I was pretty excited about Cincy’s dominating win over the Steelers last week, and the Chargers looked pretty uninspired in their Week 12 loss to the Broncos. What is going on with these teams?
neil: Remember when I said Cincy will either score or give up 41 against division rivals? I guess they expanded that pool to the rest of the AFC.
joshua.hermsmeyer: The Chargers were doing that thing they used to do, which is losing in spectacular and heartbreaking fashion after seemingly having a win — but they turned it all around and won handily. I’m going to just credit their coach for this one, because nothing else makes sense about that team.
Salfino: The Bengals want to play balanced and couldn’t for the most part. I don’t want to keep harping on sacks, but we don’t talk about them enough, and it’s very hard to get sacked six times and win a game. The Chargers were only 4-for-13 on third down, but Justin Herbert let it rip finally, especially on that cross-field heave to Jalen Guyton, which had about a 0 percent success probability for any other QB. He has to press the issue even when the defense is seemingly defending the deep ball OK. Let your guys make a play. If the DBs could catch and play the ball, they’d be WRs.
neil: And for Cincinnati, Burrow was playing hurt with a finger issue that was clearly painful, but this is also one of the most inconsistent teams in the league (which is really saying something in a season where almost every contender or quasi-contender has been up-and-down).
This is a team that ranks 12th in defense, allowing 22.3 PPG, but has also come out and allowed 41 at home multiple times.
sara.ziegler: So inconsistent.
The Bengals are such a maddening team … just like the Chargers.
Salfino: Again, the Achilles heel for the Bengals is sacks. Burrow has an 8.7 percent sack rate, worse than last year’s, when his protection alarmed many. Some of this is on him, too, of course. Probably a lot of it.
I think the fear of sacks has removed Ja’Marr Chase’s big plays from this offense — and that was their signature play the first half of the season.
Put on my tombstone: “He hated sacks.”
Elsewhere in the AFC, Kansas City won its fifth in a row with a defensively dominant performance against Denver. There are reasons to discount some other Chiefs wins (no Aaron Rodgers when they beat Green Bay, etc.), but this one felt pretty solid to me. How are you all feeling about K.C.?
Salfino: I feel the Chiefs are just another boring team now. It’s like Patrick Mahomes has been kidnapped and some imposter has been installed.
neil: Yeah, Mahomes is still very very mortal. But at least the defense has compensated with its shocking in-season turnaround.
Salfino: I have no explanation for their defensive turnaround. Sure, their opponents weren’t necessarily playing their best. But still, they’re rock solid now at every level after threatening records for inefficiency the first quarter of the season.
joshua.hermsmeyer: The Chiefs have turned their defense around completely from the start of the year. There was a fire outside Arrowhead Stadium after the game, and I’m pretty sure it was the D ritualistically burning their press clippings from earlier in the year.
Salfino: But would we be surprised if the Chiefs allowed 425 yards in a playoff game? I wouldn’t be. I don’t believe in in-season turnarounds. I get improving marginally, but Mr. Hyde is still lurking in today’s Dr. Jekyll. (Or maybe with defense, it’s reversed.)
neil: Right now, though, it’s like we’re living in bizarro world. In their first six games of the season, Mahomes had an above-average QB Elo every game, and their QB defense was below average in all but two games, often by a large margin. Ever since, Mahomes has been below average in five of six games, but their defense has been above average in five of six.
sara.ziegler: I want to know what Faustian bargains Andy Reid has been making…
Salfino: It’s like the Chiefs defense is a succubus that got its power by draining Mahomes’s.
That’s quite an interesting comparison. 🤔
Salfino: I’ve been watching too many horror movies.
joshua.hermsmeyer: I have another movie story line. Since we’ve been talking about streaks, the Dolphins have a seven-game losing streak and a five-game winning streak in the same season. No team has ever had a seven-game losing streak and a seven-game winning streak in the same year. So we could witness history!
neil: Maybe Tua Tagovailoa siphoned off some of those Mahomes powers as well.
Salfino: I remember the Jets one year went from 1-7 to 7-7. They lost six in a row and then won six in a row. For the un-aptly named Charley Winner.
sara.ziegler: And still missed the playoffs. The Dolphins have a shot, at least!
Salfino: Back then you had to be a real team to make the playoffs, Sara. None of this seventh seed nonsense.
Tua has been good — or at least good enough. The Dolphins should just forget about their master plan with Deshaun Watson. Just keep the draft capital and give Tua a chance to work.
sara.ziegler: What a wacky season. And we still get the best game of the week tonight!
neil: Go Bills.
Salfino: Well, this game will have some bad weather, reportedly, so the Patriots are going to win. How fast can the Bills build a roof?
sara.ziegler: Please let this game be exciting. I need it after Sunday’s Vikings debacle.
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