I love this NFL season for a few reasons: The explosion of offense and the new ideas trickling into the league have made each week its own adventure. I also love that below juggernauts like the Los Angeles Rams, Kansas City Chiefs, and New Orleans Saints are a bunch of deeply flawed teams, hovering around .500, capable of anything. Thanksgiving is the turning point of the season. Outside of the elite teams in the hunt for a bye, this marks the beginning of a mad frenzy for the final playoff spots, and I’m happy to report there will be utter chaos. With that in mind, here’s what to watch for:
The Saints vs. Awe-Inspiring Production
The Saints are going to beat the Atlanta Falcons on Thanksgiving, but you won’t be watching for the result .You’ll be watching because the Saints are a beautiful football team. New Orleans just beat the Philadelphia Eagles 48-7, the highest-ever margin of victory over a defending Super Bowl champion. Drew Brees’s performance in that game was one of the most impressive this former scout has ever seen:
This Drew Brees tape vs the Eagles is one of the most impressive QB performances I’ve ever studied. There are 10-12 ridiculous throws.— Daniel Jeremiah (@MoveTheSticks) November 19, 2018
The Saints are wrecking teams and setting new scoring records:
So Sunday was The @Saints 6th game with at least 40 points in their first 10 games.. that's an NFL first. In fact 6 is the record for any season.. so.. one more and New Orleans will have the record to themselves— trey wingo (@wingoz) November 19, 2018
I don’t know what else we can say about them. They’re undefeated since being trampled by Ryan Fitzpatrick and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers Week 1. Brees and Sean Payton are at the height of their powers. And it’s not just Alvin Kamara and Michael Thomas—even Austin Carr has gotten in on the action.
I was impressed by this nugget in Peter King’s column this week in which Payton spelled out how he steals plays: “I look at all the scoring plays every week. I look at [Bill] Belichick and New England. I look at Sean McVay. I found a good one last night. I hadn’t watched all of New England’s offensive plays in the Super Bowl against Philadelphia in a while, and so last night, I put the tape on and I found something. Gronk caught a ball inside the 10 and scored, but it’s how he caught it. It was like catching an inbounds pass, using your body to keep the defender off you. That’s perfect for us.” Of course, King also detailed a new playcall that Payton had installed that wasn’t stolen. Like any good recording artist, Payton can write his own stuff or do brilliant covers.
The point is that Payton is going to get better as the season goes along. You cannot score 40 points in the NFL right now without an innovative coach and Payton is going to keep innovating. Simple, isn’t it? The Saints went for it on fourth down late in a blowout against the Eagles so you know Payton is going to keep his foot on the gas. They might score 60 points at some point. The Saints can’t stop scoring and they will probably improve simply because their playbook is apparently infinite.
Also Cam Jordan is right:
Cam Jordan on the Saints playing on Thanksgiving: "It sort of sucks that I won't be partaking in Thanksgiving dinner, but aren't we more excited about leftovers anyway?"— Josh Katzenstein (@jkatzenstein) November 19, 2018
The Cowboys vs. NFC East Title Contention
It’s been two weeks since the Cowboys hit bottom, when they were 3-5, listless on offense, and Troy Aikman was calling for a “complete overhaul” of the franchise. They haven’t been particularly impressive since beating the Eagles and the Falcons, two teams under .500, in consecutive weeks. They’re 5-5 and have eclipsed 30 points just once this season, yet the narrative in the NFC East has changed following the Washington Redskins’ loss and Alex Smith’s injury. Reporters are even asking Odell Beckham Jr. about the New York Giants’ chances of winning the division. The Giants, of course, do not have a chance, sitting three games out with six to play, but the Cowboys can take a huge leap on Thanksgiving if they beat the Redskins, now led by Colt McCoy. On Sunday, Dallas’s playoff chances increased by 14 percentage points and Washington’s decreased by 18.
The Cowboy aren’t scoring lots of points—their average per game ranks 25th—but Dak Prescott has been steady and the defense has carried them. Pass rusher Demarcus Lawrence, linebacker Leighton Vander Esch, and cornerback Byron Jones are all playing at an elite level, and that may be good enough to win the NFC East.
A bonus from this matchup: Mark Sanchez, recently picked up by the Redskins, is back for another Thanksgiving!
Indianapolis Colts vs. Miami Dolphins
The flipside of having this season’s established ruling class is that there is a sizeable group of mediocre teams in playoff contention:
Too-early look at the race for the AFC's second wild card spot:— Zak Keefer (@zkeefer) November 18, 2018
Indianapolis and Miami are both 5-5 but are in remarkably different places. The Dolphins’ win total has been achieved seemingly by accident. They are, according to the Miami Herald, searching for a new quarterback for 2019 (Paxton Lynch’s recent workout was reportedly “not good”). Meanwhile the Colts are on fire, winners of four straight since an inexplicable loss to the New York Jets on October 14. They’ve scored at least 29 points in each of those games, and at least 37 points in three of them. The streak has produced headlines like “How Frank Reich’s swagger has saved the Colts season.” Andrew Luck looks fully recovered.
Andrew Luck's shoulder seems A-Okaypic.twitter.com/ht8B81nroD— Dov Kleiman (@NFL_DovKleiman) November 18, 2018
The point is that there are two different types of 5-5 and my guess is that we’re about to see the difference on Sunday.
Meanwhile, this matchup gives me the opportunity to drop this absolutely bonkers fact in about Dan Marino:
Andrew Luck's 214 straight pass attempts without being sacked is the longest streak since 1991 (Mark Rypien - 252 straight attempts for Redskins).— ESPN Stats & Info (@ESPNStatsInfo) November 18, 2018
Prior to that, the last streak that long was an NFL-record 759 straight attempts by Dan Marino from 1988-89 (h/t @EliasSports) pic.twitter.com/yQHEzelBKQ
Seattle Seahawks vs. Carolina Panthers
Of all the matchups this week with wild-card implications, this one is the most important. The Panthers’ loss to the Detroit Lions last week, which included some inexplicably bad Cam Newton passes, seemed expertly designed to get everyone off their bandwagon.
The Seahawks’ best win this year is either against a very average Cowboys team or a Green Bay Packers team that looks like it might get their coach fired. Still, I like Seattle and Carolina more than I should because I believe deeply in their quarterbacks, Russell Wilson and Newton. Both have strongish supporting casts, and they rank fourth and fifth, respectively, in passer rating when kept clean in the pocket. According to Pro Football Focus, Wilson is the fifth-most pressured quarterback in the NFL. While this sounds bad, keep in mind that Wilson has never finished outside of the top three and led the NFL in percentage of dropbacks under pressure in 2013, 2014, and 2017. He’s throwing the ball beyond 20 yards in the air on 14.7 percent of his throws (fourth most in the league) with an NFL rating of 124 on those throws.
Carolina (6-4) and Seattle (5-5) should both be better than they are. They have two of the best rushing attacks in the NFL. (How much that matters is debatable, but it’s certainly not a bad thing.) It would be easy to proclaim this a must-win for each team in the wild-card race, but the mediocrity in the league ensures that both will stand a chance of making it at the end of the season.
The Packers and Vikings vs. Someone Making the Playoffs
There’s a game we like to play on The Ringer NFL Show every once in a while: Who can win the Super Bowl? Any team with a great quarterback is an automatic choice. Teams with a good quarterback and deep rosters also make the cut. The Packers and Vikings are great examples of teams that I thought could win it all before the season if everything broke right for them. That has not been the case this season. The Packers offense has looked lost for long stretches, while the Vikings offense has been inconsistent and their once-dominating defense hasn’t showed up in a way that those of us who thought they’d make the Super Bowl (ahem … me) anticipated:
Vikings' year-by-year league ranking in turnovers, during the Mike Zimmer era:— Ben Goessling (@GoesslingStrib) November 19, 2018
The Vikings' 16 turnovers this season are already two more than they had all of 2017, and the same as all of 2016. Most for a Zimmer team is 20.
The Vikings’ offensive line allowed the Bears’ defensive line to have one of the most statistically dominant performances of the season. They’ll be going against a coach who doesn’t understand analytics. One of these teams will probably make the playoffs. 2018, baby.