There were only 11 games played on Sunday and many were lackluster. Though one in particular could have propped up any week of football, regardless of the quality. As we’ve reached the halfway point of the season for most teams, we’re starting to get a better picture of what’s going on with the league after a crazy first two months on the year. There’s still a lot left to play out, so here’s a few takeaways from this week of action while most of us took our much needed break from watching the 2017 New York Giants.
The Seattle-Houston game was ridiculous
No one would have guessed a game between the Seattle Seahawks and Houston Texans would be a wildly entertaining shootout and one of the best football games we’ve seen in awhile. There’s going to be a lot of breakdowns and fun facts about this game all over the internet, so let’s get to one piece that I don’t think will be too covered. Sometimes in shootouts there’s a lot of throws, but it’s not always efficient. Teams are forced to pass because the other team keeps on scoring. But this game featured both volume and efficiency we haven’t seen combined in over 20 years.
Both Russell Wilson (26-of-41, 452 yards, four touchdowns, and one interception) and Deshaun Watson (19-of-30, 402 yards, four touchdowns, and three interceptions) had at least 30 attempts and 11.0 yards per attempt. The last NFL game where both quarterbacks reached those marks came in 1992 in a Week 2 34-31 win for the Buffalo Bills over the San Francisco 49ers. The two quarterbacks in that game were Hall of Famers Jim Kelly and Steve Young.
As for this game, it had everything you’d want except running backs who could run. But that inability to move the ball on the ground -- Seattle averaged 1.6 yards per carry -- led to the need for constant deep passing. Per the NFL’s Next Gen Stats, Watson (14.8) and Wilson (13.6) threw for the longest average passes of the week.
The win probability graph below from numberFire illustrates just how crazy the game was, especially at the end. Houston peaked at a 95.2 percent chance to win after Wilson threw an interception with 2:55 left in the game. Seattle started its final touchdown drive with a 48.3 percent chance to win before driving 80 yards for the score.
Sometimes you can predict football
There’s been a few disappointments this season based on how teams finished 2016 and were viewed heading into 2017. Some have been fueled by injuries, but others came from nowhere, kind of. We’ve talked here about Pythagorean win expectation based on point differential being a better indicator of future success than a previous win-loss record before. Well if you look back at some of the top teams that overachieved last season, they’re some of the same teams that have fallen below expectations this year. Here are the top-five 2016 overachievers based on last year’s expected wins, all of which outpaced their expected wins by at least two actual wins.
Expected vs Actual Wins, 2016
First is the Oakland Raiders, who played nowhere near their 12-win results in 2016. This year, they’re 3-5 through eight weeks after a 34-14 loss to the Buffalo Bills and they have the fifth-worst point differential in the AFC as the offense couldn’t sustain last season’s production and the defense hasn’t improved. The second team is the Houston Texans, who have underperformed some, but an addition of a player like Deshaun Watson is one of the surest ways to counteract this, but it typically needs to be a player of Watson’s caliber, not just minor improvements.
The Miami Dolphins are an example of regression hitting eventually, but maybe not immediately. Miami’s playoff run was fueled by an unsustainable run of close wins, though they have carried that over into the start of 2017. Miami’s four wins have been by a combined 14 points while their three losses have come by a combined 74 points, the most recent a 40-0 loss to the Baltimore Ravens on Thursday night. The Dolphins have played to a 1.6-win level through Week 8 and we should expect them to look more like that than the 4-win team their record would indicate.
Then there’s the Giants and we don’t need to say much more about that now. Fifth is the Dallas Cowboys, who sit at 4-3. Now overperforming to 13 wins is a lot different than a team that does it for nine or 10 and the regression has kicked in a bit. While the Cowboys still might be in the playoff hunt, they’re not close to the dominant team they were in 2016.
Just outside this list were the Tampa Bay Buccaneers at seventh. While they had a 9-win season in 2016, they played to a 7.6-win level and are just 2-5 this year after being a preseason pick by many to take a step forward into contendership.
The 49ers have a fun defensive line
Tanking and rebuilding have been commonly discussed topics in just about every sport for the past few seasons. When it comes to football, the Cleveland Browns usually dominate that discussion, but the San Francisco 49ers are in a similar boat. They’re also 0-8 through the first half of the season and their point differential is also worse than Cleveland’s (minus-86 to minus-86).
The 49ers generally get a pass, though, because of some of the talent on the roster. A lot of the focus goes to the offensive side of the ball for the Niners because of head coach Kyle Shanahan, but where the team has really blossomed is along the defensive line. San Francisco has taken a load of talented youngsters like DeForest Buckner and Solomon Thomas and mixed them with veterans such as Earl Mitchell, Tony McDaniel, and Elvis Dumervil. Entering Week 8, the 49ers had the fifth-highest defensive pressure rate in the league per Sports Info Solutions charting from Football Outsiders. Against the Philadelphia Eagles, who were without Jason Peters, they were able to get pressure on Carson Wentz, who they also sacked three times. Per Next Gen Stats, four of San Francisco’s defensive linemen finished the average play closer to the quarterback than the league average.
Buckner is tied for 13th among defenders in individual pressures and is tied for the league lead in tackles against the run. Solomon Thomas is third in tackles for loss against the run, though he suffered a sprained MCL against the Eagles and might have to sit out for a few weeks. The Giants play the 49ers in Week 10.
We might not know who’s good, but we might know know who’s making playoffs
In a season when we’re not completely sure which teams are good, we almost already know who should be making the playoffs, for the most part. The Eagles, Vikings, Steelers, and Chiefs have all been playing well and have comfortable leads in their divisions. Both the AFC East and NFC West division races are close, but the runner up in each division is the clear favorite for the first wild card spot. That’s basically eight playoff spots with high probability of being wrapped up.
Of course there’s still the suddenly compelling three-way race in the AFC South between Houston, Jacksonville, and Tennessee and the NFC South also features a close three-way race. And sure, this the NFL so just about anything could still happen -- especially in this crazy season -- but it does look like most races won’t be nail biters come December.