Braking Down The News

The NFL Is Back, And So Are The Wild Comebacks (And Kicking Woes)

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maya (Maya Sweedler, copy editor): We’re ready for some football! The NFL is back, and so are FiveThirtyEight’s weekly Slack chats. Regular readers will see some familiar faces and some unfamiliar ones. (Hello! Excited to be here.)

Josh and Neil are back, and you’ll get to know me and our rotating group of contributors throughout the season. In lieu of sharing our sad, sad stories — one of us is a New York Jets fan and one of us is a Detroit Lions fan, but we’ll let you figure out who’s who — let’s dive right into the season’s opening week, which was, uh, quite something.

We had four double-digit comebacks,1 five missed game-winning kicks and were one more doinked field goal away from two games tied at 20. We saw last season’s Super Bowl teams start defending their conference titles and fall … pretty flat. And once again, Aaron Rodgers and the Green Bay Packers proceeded to lay an absolute egg in Week 1.

Which close game surprised you guys the most? Are there any teams you expected would be good but you’re now ready to sell stock in? 

joshua.hermsmeyer (Josh Hermsmeyer, NFL analyst): Heading into a season, I think it’s best to have strong opinions about teams but to hold them weakly. I had a pretty strong opinion that Green Bay would be a title contender, but despite Rodgers’s resume I’m ready to say I’m worried.

I also think it’s time to sell on the Niners’ playoff hopes, at least as they are currently constituted.

neil (Neil Paine, acting sports editor): IDK, Josh — weren’t we saying the same thing about the Packers last year after a Week 1 shellacking by the New Orleans Saints in Jacksonville?

Maybe Rodgers lays an egg to start each season just so he can tell Packer fans to R-E-L-A-X as he turns things around.

joshua.hermsmeyer: I saw a stat that Davante Adams had more yards than the Packers’ starting wide receiver corps combined.

neil: Which, to be fair, was also true last year. (Well, almost. He was second in the league with 39.7 percent of his team’s receiving yards while on the field.)

Ty Schalter (Ty Schalter, FiveThirtyEight contributor): It’s too early to definitively say Adams won the divorce, especially given Derek Carr’s 26.9 Total QBR performance yesterday. But, uh, it looks like Adams won the divorce?

maya: LOL. But other than Davante’s solid debut in Vegas, the Raiders are very much looking like the fourth-best team in the AFC West, pending Russ coming out and playing like Russ tonight. I didn’t feel like I saw the best of Justin Herbert yesterday (he wasn’t looking down the field a whole lot) but the Los Angeles Chargers were still very much in control of that game.

joshua.hermsmeyer: Agreed, Maya. The Chargers tried to Charger things up at the end of the game there, but they pulled it out!

Ty Schalter: It didn’t surprise me that the Arizona Cardinals’ offense didn’t look the same without receivers DeAndre Hopkins and Rondale Moore. It was a bad sign for Arizona, though, that its defense made the Kansas City Chiefs’ offense look exactly the same without Tyreek Hill.

maya: Speaking of WRs on new teams who may or may not have won divorces … how are folks feeling about Hill in Miami? The jury’s still out on whether Tua is more accurate than Patrick Mahomes (who uhhh did go 30-for-39 yesterday), but I’m not sure I was prepared for a Bill Belichick-coached team to lose its season opener by 13.

neil: We all laughed when Tyreek compared Tua to Mahomes, but both had top-5 QBRs yesterday

joshua.hermsmeyer: I’m still laughing, TBH.

Ty Schalter: Do we just throw out the results of the Steelers-Bengals game? Five Joe Burrow turnovers feel unlikely to happen again, and the Steelers needing divine kicker intervention to win in overtime doesn’t feel like a ringing endorsement (at least, not as loud as the uprights after Chris Boswell’s attempted game-winner).

joshua.hermsmeyer: I was reading Bill Barnwell this morning, and he argued that we should ignore the Bengals loss, Ty. And with the Steelers losing T.J. Watt and perhaps Najee Harris to injuries in the game, if the two teams played again I think we’d see a different result.

neil: Oh, completely. But still, that was one of those extremely, extremely winnable games that teams kick themselves for not closing out.

Or at least, they would kick themselves, but the snap was high.

maya: As we all know, the most important position in the NFL is long snapper.

The Bengals weren’t the only conference champions with a little Super Bowl hangover … is anyone ready to pull the plug on the Los Angeles Rams after their Thursday drubbing at the hands of the Bills?

neil: I am worried about Matthew Stafford. I know the Rams spent all offseason downplaying his elbow injury, and we know this guy will play through anything. (Like, literally, he played through a broken back a few years ago.) But I think that nagging injury could hurt his effectiveness more than anyone was letting on.

joshua.hermsmeyer: Stafford may indeed be hurt. His average depth of target in the game was 5.3 air yards. He was not firing downfield much. But to be fair, he was under a lot of pressure — from only four rushers.

Ty Schalter: Yeah, even though the Rams were blitzed on just 2 percent of Stafford’s dropbacks (second-least-often in Week 1), they allowed pressure on 30.6 percent of them (13th-most-often).

maya: To put that in raw terms — Stafford faced a single blitz that entire game, second-lowest in the league. If Buffalo’s front four is getting pressure all on their own, I’m not sure whether the league should be terrified or if the Rams O-line needs to figure some stuff out.

neil: Maybe it’s a little of both. I think we already felt like the league should be terrified of the Bills in general, so that game just confirmed it. Josh Allen had the lowest rate of off-target throws (6.5 percent) of any QB in Week 1. Combined with everything else he brings, that is SCARY.

joshua.hermsmeyer: The Bills looked every bit the Super Bowl favorite this week.

maya: And this is despite three first-half and four total turnovers!

neil: According to Pro-Football-Reference.com, that was only the 33rd time in the Super Bowl era — and fifth time this century — that a team:

  • Had at least four turnovers
  • Lost the turnover battle 
  • Won by 20+ points

You can read that as the Bills being so good that even turnovers can’t slow them down,  but it’s also a commentary on the Rams’ inability to capitalize. Here’s how L.A.’s drives after forcing those turnovers went: Punt-INT-FG-Downs. 

maya: The Bills have been favorites in the AFC since we relaunched our model for the 2022 season. Our current favorites in the NFC are the Bucs, who started out as the conference’s co-favorite to win the Super Bowl with the Packers (the Packers are not favorites anymore). While there was an extenuating circumstance last night in the form of Dak Prescott’s injury, are we feeling good about our projections in the NFC?

neil: There’s no reason to change our priors for the Bucs. Sure, it wasn’t Tom Brady’s sharpest game, though he was good enough to win. Mostly, the Bucs defense dominated. Tampa had the most defensive expected points added of any team in Week 1. 

joshua.hermsmeyer: The Philadelphia Eagles looked like the team many hyped them to be for like, three quarters. Then the defense let the lowly Detroit Lions back into the game late (sort of, win probability never really moved below 70 percent for Philly). Still, I’m buying a playoff run from them — especially after what happened to Dallas last night.

Ty Schalter: I agree, Josh — Jalen Hurts is eighth-best in QBR so far this week, and it looks like they’ve integrated A.J. Brown, et al. into what he does well.

neil: Philly’s playoff odds went up north of 70 percent when we put in the news about Dak’s injury.

maya: And what are the other options in the NFC East? Is Carson Wentz the guy to take the Washington Commanders to the playoffs? Is contract-year Danny Dimes the Danny Dimes of New York Giants fans’ dreams?

neil: Josh said Daniel Jones would improve this season!

(And that Trey Lance might struggle. Double vindication in Week 1!)

joshua.hermsmeyer: #winning

maya: He did! And credit where credit is due. But I’m not ready to give up on the triple option quite yet. There were like two or three plays involving Lance and Deebo Samuel yesterday where I believed. Of course, this was before Soldier Field turned into Chicago’s largest public pool.

neil: Haha. Yes, to be fair, the conditions were horrid. But everyone is on “Break Glass In Case Of Jimmy G Emergency” watch right now.

Ty Schalter: As exciting as Jahan Dotson’s rookie debut was, this is like the third year in a row we’ve all presumed the Commanders defense will be a top 5-10 unit, and it sure didn’t look like it against Jacksonville.

joshua.hermsmeyer: Man, Wentz looked really, really bad, and then he had some incredible passes yesterday.

neil: You’ve just perfectly described the Carson Wentz Experience.

maya: Speaking of really, really bad, then on occasion incredible — how ’bout the kicking yesterday? 

neil: It was a rough week for kickers, particularly on shorter kicks. They made only 85.7 percent of field goals under 40 yards, compared with the average of 94.1 percent in Week 1 of the 2015 through 2021 seasons, and they missed a lot of extra points as well. The only recent opening week that really contended with this for inaccuracy was in the bizarro pandemic year of 2020.

NFL kickers missed Week 1 gimmes … but they usually improve

Leaguewide kicking accuracy rates in Week 1 (and subsequent weeks) of NFL seasons since 2015

YearWeek(s)All FGs<40 YDS40-49 Yds50+ YdsXP
2015182.8%96.9%70.8%62.5%94.7%
2016182.191.982.453.893.1
2017188.191.286.780.093.1
2018182.5100.057.966.798.7
2019184.296.875.060.096.3
2020171.685.366.741.793.7
2021185.596.488.250.096.3
2022181.885.776.284.691.9
15-21 Avg.182.494.175.459.295.1
15-21 Avg.2+84.394.677.463.493.7

2022 stats through Sept. 11.

Source: ESPN Stats & Information Group

The good news, though, is that kickers tend to improve their accuracy over the rest of the season from Week 2 onward.

joshua.hermsmeyer: Whew 

Ty Schalter: I’d thought about composing a snotty pro-vs.-college-football tweet when that Texas kicker missed a fateful 20-yarder against Alabama on Saturday, and I’m glad I didn’t.

neil: How about the Chris Boswell kick that changed direction three times in midair and still ended up hitting the upright with a THUNK?

maya: Justin Reid would’ve made that, just sayin’.

joshua.hermsmeyer: No doubt. Man is a machine.

neil: When the kickers get bad enough (or injured), bring on the non-kickers to kick, that’s what I always say. (Lou “The Toe” Groza was a left tackle!)

Ty Schalter: In my son’s first NFL game, he witnessed Ndamukong Suh attempt (and miss) an extra point.

maya: Of all the missed kicks yesterday, though, I’m most fascinated by the Tennessee Titans one, which came out of a call so gutsy, so fascinating, that I almost forgot Sean McVay went for it on fourth down three times this week. What did everyone else make of Brian Daboll’s decision to go for the win, not the tie, after the Giants’ final score?

neil: I loved it — and it helped Da G-Men (31.2 percent to win) pull off the biggest upset in our model for Week 1, knocking off the Titans in Nashville. The Titans left the door open, and the Giants snuck through it!

(Also, don’t look now but Saquon Barkley had 194 yards from scrimmage and looks like the player everyone hoped he’d be when he was drafted…)

joshua.hermsmeyer: So, the math does not like going for 2 at the end of a game with enough time left for the other team to drive down the field. It incentivizes the losing team to play more aggressively.

BUT I think it was a good call on Daboll’s part, mainly because the players rallied behind the decision. And also, Daboll knew the kicking gods were angry yesterday, and the math didn’t.

neil: Does that math change at all for the underdog on the road, Josh?

It’s often been said that when a team has a chance to pull the upset outright (rather than merely extending the game), they should take it.

joshua.hermsmeyer: I think it’s more about how the (now) losing team plays with the remaining time left. They will pass more and go for broke, and as we saw, it almost cost the G-Men.

But for Daboll, even if you lose, it’s a win in my view.

maya: These ain’t Tom Coughlin’s Giants anymore!

Fun fact, this is the Giants’ first season-opening win since Barack Obama was president.

Ty Schalter: I’m irrationally high on the Baltimore Ravens this year, partly because of the coming return of injured players like J.K. Dobbins and Ronnie Stanley. But even without those two, they dominated the Jets yesterday. Is this better news for the Ravens, or worse for the Jets?

maya: I’m gonna default to worse for the Jets. While Lamar Jackson and Rashod Bateman had some fun yesterday, I struggle to see a world in which the Jets win more than just a few lucky games when they ask their quarterback — be it Flacco, Wilson or (gasp) Mike White — to throw 59 times.

neil: Only Chris Streveler could efficiently shoulder that load.

Ty Schalter: For what it’s worth, Robert Saleh’s defense was 16th in defensive efficiency this week … pretty good for a 15-point loss, But at this point in his tenure, I’d think Jets fans would hope for better.

joshua.hermsmeyer: Elo thought the Ravens’ win was good enough to move them up 18 points — tied for eighth-most this week. So even though the Jets really stink, the Ravens still beat expectations.

neil: Elo really just doesn’t know what to make of the Ravens — or of Jackson — after the way last season went for them, particularly in the second half.

joshua.hermsmeyer: QB Elo had Trubs ahead of Lamar coming into the games!

neil: Was that wrong?

maya: 😂

But yeah, I know that some folks noticed that online. Can one of you shed any light on why our QB Elo rankings have guys like Trubisky ranked higher than Jackson entering the season?

neil: In all seriousness, I think it’s because Lamar had a really rough ending to last season (when he even played), and Trubisky was surprisingly efficient to end his tenure in Chicago. Because it’s a rolling rating, QB Elo places a lot of emphasis on how you’ve done in your most recent sample of games.

Now, I think this edge case is an argument for us to penalize QBs like Trubisky who were inactive for a long time between starts, which would change things some. (They do that in other Elo systems, like how esports players’ ratings decay if they haven’t played for a while.)

joshua.hermsmeyer: I think that’s fair. But also, the Steelers did win. So it’s possible Biscuit was too low on most other systems’ rankings.

maya: Wow, Josh. 🔥

neil: Right, but Lamar did outplay Trubisky by QBR.

(Of course, Trubisky outplayed Burrow. And Rodgers, for that matter! Lol.)

joshua.hermsmeyer: I did NOT say he belonged above Lamar!

Ty Schalter: To your point about him being inactive, Neil, I thought Trubisky’s time away from the field actually inflated his free-agent value as a viable bridge/cusp starter. Mistakes out of recent-game-film sight, out of mind.

maya: I also think our Elo system, which does take running into account, takes running into account less than the perceived value of running. It’s similar to measuring gravity in basketball; it’s hard for Elo to measure the ability of guys like Lamar to freeze defenses, which is predicated in part on the threat of him taking off.

neil: Yeah, rushing value in QBs has always been tough to pin down. We base our values on QBR, but there’s a chance we could be off. Thank goodness we weren’t trying to rate Michael Vick circa 2006 — I remember the QB rushing value wars from back then.

Ty Schalter: Yeah, Neil — and speaking of gravity, fantasy football’s growth at that time had a huge pull on how football fans were thinking about player performance. Running was easy to add!

neil: Either way, I can’t wait to see how high Kenny Pickett’s rating goes when he inevitably is installed as starter for the Steelers.

joshua.hermsmeyer: Hopefully Pickett can grab the opportunity and hold on, given his small hands.

Check out our latest NFL predictions.

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