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We had questions about the NFL’s best teams more than a month ago. The past five weeks have provided answers.
The Pick Six column for Week 11 re-stacks Super Bowl contenders, leveraging fresh evidence to see how well — or how poorly — the best teams are responding.
The Cincinnati Bengals are conspicuously absent. Their championship odds match those for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and Los Angeles Rams following quarterback Joe Burrow’s season-ending injury. We’ve set aside a separate section for the 7-3 Cleveland Browns, whose Super Bowl odds remain long but who keep winning with defense and now are welcoming 38-year-old Joe Flacco into the fold.
The full Pick Six menu this week:
• Re-stacking Super Bowl contenders
• C.J. Stroud joins elite company
• Truth about Brandon Staley’s defense
• 2023 Flacco takes on 2015 Peyton!
• Panthers vs. every team in the NFL
• Two-minute drill: Hip-drops and more
1. An eventful month has passed since we asked key questions about NFL contenders. We have some answers now.
Before revisiting contender questions and adding a couple teams to the mix, here’s a look at the latest Super Bowl odds from BetMGM.
Now, let’s revisit the questions we asked of the contenders five weeks ago.
Kansas City Chiefs: Is the explosive passing game gone for good?
Seven explosive pass gains against the Chargers in Week 7 were encouraging, but teams have averaged 6.4 of them against Los Angeles this season. Green Bay had eight against the Chargers on Sunday. The Dolphins had 14 against them in Week 1. So, there’s an asterisk for any production against that defense.
The Chiefs over their past three games were league average in explosive pass rate, a slight improvement. But Travis Kelce is averaging 10.5 yards per reception, a career low. His explosive reception rate is roughly half what it was last season and for his career. This is still the No. 1 question facing Kansas City.
If you’re going to bet on anyone to figure out a way, you’re going to bet on Andy Reid and Patrick Mahomes. They fixed the same problem in 2021, except for a couple late games against Cincinnati, which ended the Chiefs’ season. This year, the Kansas City defense is strong enough to expand the margin for error.
“The people that question the Chiefs are the ones who don’t have to play them,” an opposing coach said. “They have the best player in the game (Mahomes) who is constantly looming, and now they have the defense that can hold Miami to 14 points on a neutral field. They could have an issue when they play a team that takes away Kelce, but their defense is really hard to play against. That is the equalizer this year.”
San Francisco 49ers: What do they have in Brock Purdy?
It’s a good time to ask, with Purdy posting a perfect passer rating against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, a first for a 49ers quarterback since Joe Montana in 1989 (minimum 15 attempts).
Purdy, who completed 21 of 25 passes for 333 yards and three touchdowns in the 27-14 victory, is the 20th NFL player with a 158.3 passer rating on at least 25 attempts, per Pro Football Reference. Tom Brady did it three times. Geno Smith, Doug Flutie and Nick Foles are also on the list, but they didn’t produce as well for as long as Purdy has produced in this San Francisco offense.
The 49ers are 2-2 since we asked the Purdy question. That span included losses to Minnesota and Cincinnati. But they lead the league by a wide margin over that span in yards per pass attempt (11.2) while ranking third in EPA per pass play and first by a wide margin in explosive pass rate. San Francisco should feel better about Purdy now than it did a month ago.
Philadelphia Eagles: Has Jalen Hurts regressed? Where are the explosive pass plays?
The Eagles are 3-0 since we raised that question. Their explosive pass rate over that span (23.6 percent) ranks third in the league. It’s more than double what it was through the first six games. Let’s see what Monday night brings against Kansas City’s defense, but the current three-game stretch has produced eighth touchdown passes, one interception and 97 offensive points.
Baltimore Ravens: Are they better off shifting to more of a pass-oriented offense?
The Ravens are 4-1 since we raised the question. They rank third in offensive EPA per play over that span. But they lost tight end Mark Andrews to a season-ending injury. Their passing game faltered against Cleveland.
Bigger picture, leaning into the pass a little more has not stopped Baltimore from running effectively. Lamar Jackson is running with the ball 8.5 times per game, about the same as last season. The difference is that Jackson is scrambling more, with fewer designed runs. Will we see more designed runs for Jackson now that Andrews is out?
Miami Dolphins: Has Tua Tagovailoa proven he’s built to last?
The Dolphins have some issues, but their quarterback’s durability has not been one of them. Tagovailoa made his 10th consecutive start Sunday. That is his longest starting streak within a season since the Dolphins drafted him. His previous streaks covered nine, four, seven, three, two, five and four games. Those streaks did not all end because of injury, but this season suggests Tagovailoa can have a long-term future in the game. That seemed unlikely entering the season.
“They’ve done a good job protecting him by getting the ball out fast, taking the ball out of his hands on some of the sneaks, those sorts of things,” an exec said. “Tua has really figured out when to give up on a play.”
Dallas Cowboys: Is this team any better than previous Dallas teams that fell short?
The Cowboys are 3-1 since we asked that question. Dak Prescott and CeeDee Lamb are producing exponentially better over that stretch. Beating the Rams, Giants and Panthers isn’t going to fool us into thinking this uptick will transfer into the postseason. Let’s see how the Cowboys fare when they face Philadelphia, Buffalo, Miami and Detroit over a four-week stretch beginning in Week 13.
Detroit Lions: Have they fixed their defense?
Um, no. The Lions rank 32nd in defensive EPA per play over the four-game stretch since we asked the question. They won three of those games anyway because they were facing the Raiders, Chargers and Bears. The Ravens and Chargers posted their best offensive EPA games of the season against Detroit in the past four games. Before that, Seattle had its best offensive game of the season against the Lions (Week 2). Carolina had its second-best offensive game against Detroit (Week 5).
Jacksonville Jaguars: Are they ready for prime time?
They are 3-1 since we raised the question, but losing 34-3 at home to San Francisco coming out of a bye speaks louder than those three victories. The Jaguars face Cleveland on the road and Baltimore at home consecutively in Weeks 14 and 15. Those games will tell a fuller story. For more on where the Jaguars’ offense stands, see the fourth item of the Pick Six, which surprisingly puts Jacksonville within striking distance of Cleveland among 7-3 teams overly reliant on their defenses.
Buffalo Bills: Are the defensive injuries too much to overcome?
Buffalo’s 3-2 record since our last check-in does not begin to tell the story of the past five weeks. Beating up on the New York Jets’ abysmal offense Sunday lifted the Bills from 27th to 16th in defensive EPA per play over that five-game span. The Bills probably are too injured on defense to overcome all that has gone wrong this season, especially with trips to Philadelphia and Kansas City next on the schedule.
2. The Houston Texans are 6-4 with a rookie quarterback and a top-10 offense after winning 11 games over the previous three seasons. That puts C.J. Stroud on an impressive short list with Dak Prescott, Matt Ryan and Andrew Luck. Here’s how those four stand apart.
Stroud was intercepted three times and left the Texans’ 21-16 victory against the Arizona Cardinals for one play after absorbing a jarring hit in the third quarter.
— Arizona Cardinals (@AZCardinals) November 19, 2023
The rookie first-round pick endured to collect his sixth victory in 10 starts. To say he was unfazed would be an understatement.
“Steph Curry don’t ever stop shooting,” Stroud said after the game, “so I’m gonna keep letting it ride.”
Steph Curry 🤝 C.J. Stroud pic.twitter.com/tfe8nK9heS
— Warriors on NBCS (@NBCSWarriors) November 19, 2023
For the season, Stroud ranks third in yards per attempt (8.3), sixth in EPA per pass play (0.15) and first in pass completions gaining more than 15 yards (70). Seven other quarterbacks since 2000 have completed more than 70 explosive pass plays through the first 10 games of a season, per TruMedia. Kurt Warner, Tom Brady, Patrick Mahomes and Philip Rivers headline that list. Stroud’s 31 explosive pass completions over his last three games are more than the Steelers (29) and Panthers (26) have totaled all season.
The combination of individual production, team success and year-over-year team improvement puts Stroud on a short list of rookies. Prescott (2016), Ryan (2008) and Luck (2012) also fit the profile. Here’s how I narrowed down the list from 35 initial candidates:
Starting right away: Stroud is one of 35 rookie quarterbacks to start the first 10 games of an NFL season, per Pro Football Reference.
Winning right away: Of those 35 rookie starters, Stroud is one of nine whose team had a winning record after 10 games. Prescott (9-1), Kyle Orton (7-2), Mac Jones (6-4), Russell Wilson (6-4), Joe Flacco (6-4), Andy Dalton (6-4), Luck (6-4) and Ryan (6-4) also met this criteria.
Major team turnaround: Of the remaining nine, Stroud is one of seven whose team in its first 10 games exceeded its win total from the previous full season. Wilson and Jones fell from the list.
Top 10 offense: Prescott’s Cowboys (fifth), Ryan’s Falcons (8th), Stroud’s Texans (9th) and Luck’s Colts (10th) ranked among the top 10 in offensive EPA per play through 10 games. This requirement eliminated from consideration Dalton with the Bengals (20th), Flacco with the Ravens (22nd) and Orton with the Bears (29th).
The table below stacks the final seven by where they ranked in EPA per pass play 10 games into their rookie seasons. The line separates the final four.
Dak Prescott (2016)
C.J. Stroud (2023)
Matt Ryan (2008)
Andrew Luck (2012)
Andy Dalton (2011)
Joe Flacco (2008)
Kyle Orton (2005)
Final order: Sorting the final four by their teams’ preseason Vegas win totals leaves Ryan (4.5), Luck (5.5), Stroud (6.5) and Prescott (8.5). If you want to sort them by EPA per pass play, the order would switch to Prescott (second), Stroud (sixth), Ryan (seventh) and Luck (12th).
It’s one way to balance personal and team accomplishments for rookies playing the most important position.
Ben Roethlisberger does not appear here because he did not start the Pittsburgh Steelers’ first two games in 2004. Pittsburgh started 9-1 that season after finishing the previous season 6-10. The Steelers, with a 7.5 preseason Vegas win total, were 13th in offensive EPA per play through 10 games.
3. Brandon Staley snapped after his Chargers dropped to 4-6 by losing at Green Bay. Does his defense really let every opposing offense enjoy one of its best days? Yes and no.
At one point during Staley’s contentious postgame news conference Sunday, a reporter suggested just about every Chargers opponent enjoys one of its best days on offense, including Packers quarterback Jordan Love, who topped 300 yards passing in a game for the first time.
The table below shows this was true against Kansas City and Detroit. Those teams’ offenses enjoyed their best total EPA days of the season against the Chargers. The Dolphins and Packers enjoyed their second-best offensive EPA games against Staley’s defense.
Tennessee enjoyed its third-best game.
The Cowboys, Bears, Raiders and Jets did not have their better games against the Chargers.
Playing your worst against the best and your best against the worst is no way to distinguish oneself on defense. The Chargers faced the Bears with Tyson Bagent, the Raiders with Aidan O’Connell and the Jets with Zach Wilson.
“These are not just bad offenses,” a veteran coach said. “These were non-functioning offenses that in a couple cases had almost no reps with their starting quarterbacks.”
The fact that Green Bay enjoyed its second-best day on offense stung Sunday and surely contributed to Staley reaching his breaking point.
Staley, faced with another week of pointed postgame questions about his defense, including whether he would relinquish play calling, became visibly annoyed. The third-year coach couldn’t take it any longer when it was suggested the Chargers fan base might see a disconnect between poor defensive performance and Staley’s expression of confidence in his coaching.
“I’m not here to talk to the fan base,” Staley interrupted. “I’m here to talk to my players, the locker room. I know that we give ourselves a chance to win every single week with the game plans that we have, OK. And we have done it here. You guys act like we’ve never played good defense. That’s not the truth. You act like we have not made any improvements. Today in the run game, we played outstanding. We are rushing the quarterback well. What we have to do a better job of is in the passing game.”
Staley kept going, at one point saying “it certainly wasn’t our defense” that lost the game.
The numbers disagree. The Chargers’ offense (plus-2.9) and special teams (plus-3.6) were both above average, despite some key negative plays on offense. The defense was bad (minus-9.3). Only four teams were worse on defense in Week 11: Carolina, Tampa Bay, Cincinnati and Tennessee.
Next up for the Chargers’ defense: Lamar Jackson and the 8-3 Baltimore Ravens, who rank eighth in offensive EPA per play between No. 7 Detroit and No. 9 Kansas City. Losing top Chargers pass-rusher Joey Bosa to injury against the Packers isn’t going to help.
4. The Browns are 7-3 after outlasting the Steelers 13-10. That puts them in elite non-elite company. Joe Flacco to the rescue?
The Browns signed Joe Flacco to their practice squad and will probably need him, the way this season is going.
A somewhat comical but not entirely unserious question: Would 2023 Joe Flacco be worse than 2015 Peyton Manning? A Super Bowl could ride on the answer.
“Peyton was just such a commanding presence who could still run the play clock down, still get the defense to jump, still carry a ton of swag,” an exec said. “They compare in mobility. They do not compare in command of the game, leadership, that stuff. And I’m not even sure how well Joe can throw the ball at this point.”
Manning won a Super Bowl with Denver in his final season despite being so diminished physically, he struggled throwing the ball. Manning finished 2015 with 11 touchdown passes, 18 interceptions and a 69.5 passer rating, counting playoffs. He ranked lower than Ryan Mallett and Blaine Gabbert in EPA per pass play. Only Nick Foles, then with the pre-Sean McVay Rams, ranked lower than Manning that season.
Cleveland ranks last in offensive EPA per game since 2000 among teams that were 7-3 or better through 10 games. On average, their offense puts them in a 10-point hole every game. It’s taken incredible defensive production to beat teams such as San Francisco and Baltimore. How far can this defense take the Ravens in a season without great teams?
Below we see the worst offensive teams with records of 7-3 or better through 10 games since 2000. Those 2015 Broncos are shaded blue because they won the Super Bowl, notching playoff victories against Tom Brady, Ben Roethlisberger and MVP Cam Newton.
It’s a little surprising to see the 2023 Jacksonville Jaguars on that list. They have been statistically above average on offense twice in 10 games: Sunday during a 34-14 victory against Tennessee, and against Buffalo in Week 5.
5. The Panthers fell to 1-8 and have scored 51 points in their past four games. The salary data here suggests we should not be shocked.
In sizing up the Browns following Watson’s season-ending injury, I realized Cleveland employed a league-high 11 players earning at least $12 million per season. There is nothing magical about the $12 million cutoff. We could reduce that to $10 million or even $8 million when evaluating where teams might stand in their roster-building life cycles.
The table below uses the $12 million cutoff. There’s a huge gap between the teams at the top and Carolina, which has only one such player on its roster (tackle Taylor Moton). Two players the Panthers traded in the past year or so — Christian McCaffrey and D.J. Moore — earn more than $12 million per season.
The hard part for the Panthers lies in Houston’s relative success this season despite having only two such players on its roster, while also starting a rookie quarterback.
Players Earning At Least $12M Per Year
Note that Kansas City has five such players after going young on defense with great success. That is half the total of NFC powers Philadelphia and San Francisco.
Reducing the cutoff to $10 million per year still leaves Carolina at the bottom with only two such players, 10 fewer than the league-leading Eagles and half as many as any other team.
Reducing the cutoff to $8 million per year leaves Carolina tied with Arizona for the fewest in the league with five apiece. The New York Jets and Jacksonville Jaguars jump into a tie with San Francisco and Philadelphia for the league lead at 12 apiece.
Carolina is at the bottom no matter how we break it down.
6. Two-minute drill: If and when the NFL bans the hip-drop tackle, will officiating keep up?
The push for banning hip-drop tackles is gaining momentum the way rules changes gain momentum in the NFL: when powerful enough people are affected negatively enough.
Last season, the Dallas Cowboys lost running back Tony Pollard to a broken leg caused when Jimmie Ward landed on the back of Pollard’s legs during a playoff game. Stephen Jones, the Cowboys’ executive vice president, CEO and director of player personnel, sits on the NFL’s rules-making competition committee, putting him in position to advocate for change.
The Ravens’ John Harbaugh, a former member of the competition committee and the NFL’s third-longest-tenured head coach, added his name to the conversation after a hip-drop tackle knocked out his star tight end, Mark Andrews, with a season-ending leg injury Thursday night.
“It was definitely a hip-drop tackle,” Harbaugh said. “It is being discussed. It’s a tough tackle. Is it even necessary in that situation?”
No one is quite sure how rules would be re-written, how officials would enforce said rules or how defenders could plausibly avoid landing on runners’ legs when tackling them from behind. The NFL Players Association has opposed banning hip-drop tackles for these reasons.
Pass-rushers have in recent years learned how to hit quarterbacks without placing full body weight on them. Can tacklers learn to bring down runners without falling on their legs? It would be helpful to know how many plays per game would be affected. Is it two? Four? Six? Ten?
• My Football GM Podcast co-host Randy Mueller likes to say “Hope is not a plan” for NFL organizations. The saying comes to mind regarding the Jets. While injured quarterback Aaron Rodgers continued to suggest he would return in December against all precedent, ESPN reported the team would make another run at acquiring Rodgers’ former teammate, Davante Adams, from the Raiders in the coming offseason. The likelihood of either happening seems remote. The offseason trading period is four months away. What is the point beyond instilling hope?
• The final minutes of the Rams’ victory against the Seattle Seahawks does not appear likely to find its way into NFL casebooks for proper game management. The Rams throwing incomplete while driving toward the go-ahead score in the final two minutes saved a timeout for Seattle. The Seahawks handing off for a 2-yard gain to set up an unsuccessful 55-yard field goal also seemed curious.
The two quarterbacks’ toughness was the most redeeming component of this game. Geno Smith returned to lead the final drive for Seattle after Aaron Donald hammered him, injuring Smith’s throwing arm. Matthew Stafford absorbed a full-force shot to the midsection and stayed in the game.
• Former Bears tight end Martellus Bennett made interesting points in criticizing the organization Sunday. Bennett, who spent three seasons with Chicago, claimed Bears ownership lacks vision for the future and instead keeps selling the past. The Steelers have been doing that for decades and haven’t had a losing season since 2003.
Bears ownership lacks futurism. The entire business model is built on selling the past. The 85 bears. They’re always trying to recreate that old product instead of buying into and producing a new product.
— Martellus Bennett (@MartysaurusRex) November 19, 2023
• How did the Washington Commanders allow nine explosive plays to the New York Giants not just Sunday, but also when the teams met earlier in the season? It’s a mystery that might go unsolved.
Wow! My Washington Commanders turned the ball over six times today and gave the Giants 24 points off turnovers. We lost 31-19.
— Earvin Magic Johnson (@MagicJohnson) November 20, 2023
• Denver beating Minnesota 21-20 despite gaining only 13 first downs and converting twice in a dozen third-down chances is not how the Broncos’ Sean Payton or any offensive play-calling head coach wants to win the games, but it’s the way the team needs to win right now. That’s a positive reflection on Payton, who is doing now what most expected he would do from the start of the season. He’ll have to do it again against Cleveland’s league-leading defense next week.
(Photo: Ezra Shaw / Getty Images)
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