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A month ago we had questions about the best teams in the NFL. The past five weeks have provided the answer.
The Pick Six column re-stacks Week 11’s Super Bowl contenders, using new evidence to show how well — or how poorly — the best teams are responding.
The Cincinnati Bengals are notably absent. Their championship chances also suit the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and Los Angeles Rams after quarterback Joe Burrow’s season-ending injury. We’ve singled out a different class for the 7-3 Cleveland Browns, who continue to win on defense despite their long Super Bowl chances and are now welcoming 38-year-old Joe Flacco to the stage.
This week’s full Pick Six menu:
• Stacking Super Bowl Contenders Again • CJ Stroud Joins Best Company • The Truth About Brandon Staley’s Defense • 2023 Flacco Beats 2015 Peyton!• Panthers Best Team in NFL • Two-Minute Drill: Hip-Drop and More
1. It’s been an amazing month since we asked key questions about NFL contenders. Now we have some answers.
Before you revisit the odds and add a pair of teams to the mix, check out the latest Super Bowl odds from BetMGM.
Now, let’s revisit the questions we asked the contestants five weeks ago.
Kansas City Chiefs: Explosive Passing Game For Good?
Seven pass breakups against the Chargers in Week 7 was encouraging, but teams have averaged 6.4 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 a mark for any production on defense.
The Chiefs last three games were league average in pass rush rate, a slight improvement. But Travis Kelce is averaging 10.5 yards per reception, a career low. His explosive reception rate is about half what it was last season and 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 pair of late losses against Cincinnati that ended the Kings’ season. This year, Kansas City’s defense is good enough to widen the margin for error.
“People who question bosses are the ones who shouldn’t be playing them,” said one opposing coach. “The best player in the game[Mahomes]is constantly looming, and now Miami has a defense that can hold 14 points on a neutral field. They might be in trouble when they play a team that takes on Kelce, but their defense is tough to play against. That’s the draw this year.”
San Francisco 49ers: What do they have in Brock Purdy?
It’s a good time to ask. Purdy posted a perfect passer rating with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, becoming the 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 roster, but Purdy hasn’t fared as well as he has in this San Francisco offense.
The 49ers are 2-2 since we popped the Purdy question. That span includes losses to Minnesota and Cincinnati. But they lead the league by a wide margin in yards per pass attempt (11.2) while ranking third in the EPA per passing game and first in explosive pass rush by a wide margin. San Francisco should feel better about Purdy now than it did a month ago.
Philadelphia Eagles: Is Jaylen hurt? Where are the blast pass games?
The Eagles are 3-0 after we ask that question. Their explosive pass rush (23.6 percent) ranks third in the league. That’s twice as many as in the first six games. We’ll see what he brings to the Kansas City defense on Monday night, but the current three-game stretch has produced eight touchdown passes, one interception and 97 offensive points.
Baltimore Ravens: Better to switch to a pass-oriented offense?
The Ravens are 4-1 since we popped the question. They rank third in offensive EPA per game during that span. But they lost tight end Mark Andrews to a season-ending injury. Their passing game has weakened against Cleveland.
Big picture, a slight tilt toward the pass didn’t stop Baltimore from running efficiently. Lamar Jackson is running the ball 8.5 times per game, the same as last season. The difference is that Jackson is racing more in less designed races. Will we see more designed runs for Jackson now that Andrews is out?
Miami Dolphins: Has Tua Tagovailoa Proved He’s Built for Last?
The Dolphins have some issues, but the durability of their quarterback has not been one of them. Tagovailoa made his 10th straight start on Sunday. That’s his longest start streak in a season since the Dolphins drafted him. His previous games were nine, four, seven, three, two, five and four. Those streaks didn’t all end due to injury, but this season suggests Tagovailoa will be in the game longer. That was unlikely going into the season.
“They did a good job of getting the ball out quick, getting the ball out of his hands with some sneaks, those types of things,” Exp said. “Tua knows when to let go of a game.”
Dallas Cowboys: Is this team better than previous Dallas teams?
The Cowboys are 3-1 since we asked that question. Dak Prescott and CeeDee Lamb are producing better than that stretch. Beating the Rams, Giants and Panthers doesn’t fool me into thinking this streak will carry over to the postseason. Let’s see how the Cowboys fare when they face Philadelphia, Buffalo, Miami and Detroit in four weeks starting in Week 13.
Detroit Lions: Have they overhauled their defense?
Oh no, the Lions are 32nd in defense in the four-game stretch since we asked the question. They won three of those games because they were facing the Raiders, Chargers and Bears. The Ravens and Chargers have posted season-best offensive EPA games in their last four games against Detroit. 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 asked the question, but a 34-3 loss to San Francisco speaks volumes for the three wins. The Jaguars face Cleveland on the road and Baltimore at home in Weeks 14 and 15, respectively. Those games show more history. For more information on where the Jaguars’ offense ranks, check out the fourth item of the pick six, which surprisingly leaves Jacksonville within striking distance of Cleveland’s 7-3 teams over-reliance on their defense.
Buffalo Bills: Are the defensive injuries too much to overcome?
Buffalo’s 3-2 record doesn’t begin to tell the story of the past five weeks since we last checked in. Sunday’s blowout by the New York Jets’ offense moved his tally from 27th to 16th in defensive EPA per game through five games. To overcome everything that went wrong this season, the Bills are too vulnerable on defense, especially with trips to Philadelphia and Kansas City on the schedule.
2. The Houston Texans are 6-4 with a starting quarterback and a top-10 offense after winning 11 games over the last three seasons. That puts CJ Stroud on a surprisingly short list with Dak Prescott, Matt Ryan and Andrew Luck. Here’s how the four differ.
After Stroud absorbed a hard hit in the third quarter, Stroud was intercepted three times and left the Texans with a 21-16 victory over the Arizona Cardinals.
Cannon shot 😤@jt_broooo x #BirdGang pic.twitter.com/voXWNKoztl
— Arizona Cardinals (@AZCardinals) November 19, 2023
The rookie first-round pick picked up his sixth win in 10 starts. It means that he is not troubled.
“Steph Curry won’t stop shooting, so I’m going to let him ride,” Stroud said after the game.
Steph Curry 🤝 CJ 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 has gained more than 15 yards (70) on his first pass completion. Since 2000, seven other quarterbacks have completed more than 70 touchdown passes in the first 10 games of a season, per TruMedia. Kurt Warner, Tom Brady, Patrick Mahomes and Philip Rivers headline this list. Stroud’s 31 touchdown passes over the past three games are more than the Steelers (29) and Panthers (26) combined all season.
A combination of individual production, team success and year-over-year team improvement puts Strode on the list of starters. Prescott (2016), Ryan (2008) and Luck (2012) fit the profile. Here’s how I narrowed it down from 35 original candidates:
Starting right away: Stroud is one of 35 starting quarterbacks to start the first 10 games of an NFL season, per Pro Football Reference.
The winning streak: Among 35 starters, Stroud is one of nine whose team has a winning record after 10 games. Prescott (9-1), Kyle Orton (7-2), Mack Jones (6-4), Russell Wilson (6-4), Joe Flacco (6-4), Andy Dalton (6-4), Luke (6 )-4) and Ryan (6-4) meet this criteria.
Major team change: Of the remaining nine, Stroud is one of seven in the first 10 games, better than his team’s win total from the previous full season. Wilson and Jones dropped from the list.
Top 10 Offenses: Prescott’s Cowboys (fifth), Ryan Falcons (8th), Stroud Texans (9th) and Luke’s Colts (10th) ranked in the top 10 in offensive EPA per game through 10 games. That criteria eliminated Dalton with the Bengals (20th), Flacco with the Ravens (22nd) and Orton with the Bears (29th).
The chart below compiles the last seven by EPA per passer rating 10 games into their rookie seasons. The line separates the last four.
Dak Prescott (2016)
CJ Stroud (2023)
Matt Ryan (2008)
Andrew Luke (2012)
Andy Dalton (2011)
Joe Flacco (2008)
Kyle Orton (2005)
Final order: Ranking the final four by their team’s preseason Vegas win total leaves Ryan (4.5), Luke (5.5), Strode (6.5) and Prescott (8.5). If you were to rank by EPA per passing game, the order would change to Prescott (second), Strode (sixth), Ryan (seventh) and Luke (12th).
It’s one way to balance individual and team accomplishments for starters who play the most important position.
Ben Roethlisberger is not shown here as he did not start the first two games of the 2004 Pittsburgh Steelers. Pittsburgh is off to a 9-1 start this season after finishing 6-10 last season. The Steelers, a 7.5 preseason winner over Vegas, were 13th in offensive EPA per game in 10 games.
3. Brandon Staley was fired after the Chargers fell to 4-6 in a loss to Green Bay. Will his defense really make every opposing offense enjoy one of its best days? Yes and no.
At one point during Staley’s controversial postgame news conference Sunday, a reporter suggested that every Chargers opponent was enjoying one of his best days on offense, including Packers quarterback Jordan Love, who passed for 300 yards for the first time in a game.
The chart below shows this is true for Kansas City and Detroit. Those teams’ offenses had their best EPA days of the season against the Chargers. The Dolphins and Packers enjoyed the second-best offensive EPA matchup against Staley’s defense.
Tennessee enjoyed its third-best game.
The Cowboys, Bears, Raiders and Jets didn’t have a better game against the Chargers.
Playing the worst against the best and the best against the worst is no way to set yourself apart on defense. The Chargers tackle the Bears with Tyson Bagent, the Raiders with Aidan O’Connell and the Jets with Zach Wilson.
“These are not just bad mistakes,” said a veteran coach. “These were dysfunctional offenses that had no reps with their quarterbacks in two instances.”
Green Bay had its second-best day on offense Sunday, which contributed to Staley reaching his breaking point.
Staley, visibly upset, faced another week of pointed questions about his defense, including his inability to abandon play-calling after the game. The third-year coach couldn’t take it any further when he was told that the Chargers’ fan base could see a correlation between poor defensive performance and Staley’s faith in the coach.
“I’m not here to talk to the fans,” Staley interrupted. “I’m here to talk to my players in the locker room. I know we give ourselves a chance to win every week with our game plan. And we did it here. As if you guys never played good defense. This is not the truth. You will be as if we have not made any improvements. We played fantastic in the running game today. We are rushing the quarterback well. We have to do a better job in the passing game.”
“It really wasn’t our defense,” Staley continued to say at one point in the game.
The numbers don’t agree. 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). In Week 11, there were only four teams on defense: Carolina, Tampa Bay, Cincinnati and Tennessee.
Next up for the Chargers defense: Lamar Jackson and the 8-3 Baltimore Ravens, who are ranked eighth in the offensive EPA each game between No. 7 Detroit and No. 9 Kansas City. Losing top Chargers passer Joey Bosa to an injury against the Packers doesn’t help.
4. The Browns are 7-3 after finishing 13-10 over the Steelers. That puts them in ruthless company. Joe Flacco to the rescue?
The Browns signed Joe Flacco to their practice squad and may be looking for him with the way he’s been going this offseason.
A slightly funny but not entirely serious question: Will 2023 Joe Flacco be worse than 2015 Peyton Manning? A Super Bowl could be riding on the answer.
“Peyton was such a commanding presence, still able to run down the play clock, still able to out-jump the defense, still make a ton of tackles,” one exec said. “They compete on mobility. They don’t compete in the game, leadership, those things. And I’m not even sure how much Joe throws the ball at this point.
Manning won a Super Bowl against Denver last season despite his physical decline and struggled to throw the ball. Manning finished 2015 with 11 touchdown passes, 18 interceptions and a 69.5 passer rating. He finished lower in EPA per passing game than Ryan Mallett and Blaine Gabbert. Only Nick Foles, then with the pre-Sean McVay Rams, ranked lower than Manning that season.
Cleveland ranks last in offensive EPA among teams that have gone 7-3 or better in 10 games since 2000. Their average offense puts them in a 10-point hole per game. It took impressive defensive production to beat teams like San Francisco and Baltimore. How far can this defense take the Ravens in a season without great teams?
We look at the worst offensive teams that have gone 7-3 or better in 10 games since 2000. Those 2015 Broncos are a shade blue because they won the Super Bowl and scored playoff victories over Tom Brady, Ben Roethlisberger and MVP Cam Newton.
It’s a little surprising to see the 2023 Jacksonville Jaguars on that list. They’ve been above average twice in 10 games: Sunday in a 34-14 win at Tennessee and in Week 5 against Buffalo.
5. The Panthers are 1-8 and have scored 51 points in their last four games. The salary data here suggests we shouldn’t panic.
Following Watson’s season-ending injury, I learned that Cleveland has the league’s top 11 players making at least $12 million a season, including the Browns. There is nothing magical about a $12 million cut. We can reduce that to $10 million or $8 million as we evaluate where teams stand in their roster building life cycle.
The table below uses a deduction of $12 million. There’s a big gap between the teams above and Carolina, which only has one player on the roster (tackle Taylor Moton). The two players the Panthers traded last year – Christian McCaffrey and DJ Moore – earned more than $12 million at one point.
The hardest part for the Panthers is Houston’s relative success this season, despite only having two players on the roster, also starting a starting quarterback.
Players who earn at least 12 million dollars per year
Note that Kansas City has five such players after going through great success on the young defense. That’s half of the combined NFC powers Philadelphia and San Francisco.
Cutting back to $10 million a year still puts Carolina at the bottom with only two such players, 10 fewer than the league-leading Eagles and half as many as any other team.
Throwing in about $8 million a year, Carolina is tied with Arizona for the fewest in the league at five. The New York Jets and Jacksonville Jaguars are tied with San Francisco and Philadelphia for the league lead at 12.
No matter how we break it down, Carolina is at the bottom.
6. Two-Minute Exercise: If the NFL bans the hip-drop tackle, does the serve continue?
The push to ban hip-drop tackles is the way the rules change in the NFL, which accelerates: when powerful people get hurt negatively enough.
Last season, Tony Pollard of the Dallas Cowboys went down with a broken leg in a playoff game when Jimmy Ward landed on the back of Pollard’s leg. Stephen Jones, Cowboys’ executive vice president, general manager and director of player personnel, sits on the NFL’s rules-making competition committee, putting it in a position to support change.
The Ravens’ John Harbaugh, a member of the competition committee and the NFL’s third longest-serving head coach, hip-dropped star tight end Mark Andrews in a season-ending leg injury Thursday night.
“It was definitely a hip-drop problem,” Harbaugh said. ” is being discussed. It’s a tough fight. Does it even matter in this situation? “
No one knows for sure how rules will be rewritten, how officials will enforce said rules, or how defenders will prevent runners from landing on their feet from behind. The NFL Players Association opposed banning hip-drop tackles for these reasons.
Pass-rushers have learned in recent years how to hit quarterbacks without putting on full body weight. Can tacklers learn to take down runners without falling to their feet? It’s important to know how many plays are affected per game. is it two four? six? ten?
• My Football GM podcast co-host Randy Mueller likes to say to NFL organizations, “Hope is not a plan.” It comes to mind when it comes to jets. While injured quarterback Aaron Rodgers continues to insist he’ll be back in December, ESPN reports the team will make another run to sign Rodgers’ former teammate Davante Adams from the Raiders next offseason. Both seem remote. The off-season trading period is four months away. What’s the point, other than raising hope?
• The final minutes of the Rams’ win over the Seattle Seahawks don’t seem to fit into NFL casebooks for proper game management. An incomplete throw by the Rams saved time for Seattle as they drove to the lead in the final two minutes. The Seahawks, who gave up a 2-yard gain to set up the failed 55-yard field goal, seemed curious as well.
The strength of the two quarterbacks was the most redeeming part of this game. Geno Smith Aaron Donald made the final drive back to Seattle after Hammer Smith injured his throwing arm. Matthew Stafford stayed in the game, absorbing a full ball into the midfield.
• Former Bears tight end Martellus Bennett made interesting points Sunday in criticizing the organization. Bennett, who spent three seasons with Chicago, said Bears ownership lacks a vision for the future and instead continues to sell the past. The Steelers have been doing this for decades and haven’t had a losing season since 2003.
Bears ownership lacks a future. The entire business model is built on selling the past. 85 Bears. Instead of always buying and manufacturing a new product, you are trying to recreate that old product.
— Martellus Bennett (@MartysaurusRex) November 19, 2023
• How did the Washington Chiefs allow nine shutouts to the New York Giants not only on Sunday, but when the teams met earlier in the season? It is a mystery that may go unsolved.
Wow! My Washington Chiefs turned the ball over six times today and gave the Giants 24 points. We lost 31-19.
— Earvin Magic Johnson (@MagicJohnson) November 20, 2023
• Denver beat Minnesota 21-20, despite only 13 first downs and two turnovers on a dozen third-down chances, not how the Broncos’ Sean Payton or any offensive play-calling head coach wants to win the game, but the way. The team must win now. That’s a positive reflection on Peyton, who is now doing what he’s been expected to do since the start of the season. He’ll have to do it again next week against Cleveland’s league-leading defense.
(Photo: Ezra Shaw / Getty Images)
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