So maybe all the upsets in Week 9 weren’t an aberration after all.
Through the first eight weeks of the season, the teams that were heavily favored to win, did just that – win – as teams favored by nine or more points were 15-1 in winning straight up. Then the calendar flipped to November and the NFL’s version of March Madness commenced.
Brackets were busted as the Dallas Cowboys and Buffalo Bills were vanquished in stunning fashion in Week 9 and the mayhem continued a week later with another round of Cinderellas pulling off upsets.
Starting with the Miami Dolphins stonewalling the Baltimore Ravens last Thursday night and continuing Sunday with the Washington Football Team humbling Tom Brady and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, the Carolina Panthers knocking off the previously one-loss Arizona Cardinals by 24 points in a battle of backup QBs and the Minnesota Vikings escaping with a road win over the Los Angeles Chargers, four sub-.500 teams defeated a first-place team in Week 10.
That marked only the fifth time in the last five decades four teams with losing records beat division leaders in the same week this late into a season. And now after all those heavy favorites won in the season’s first two months, teams favored to win by nine or more points in the last two weeks have gone 2-4.
Most Sub-.500 Teams to Defeat Division Leader in Same Week (Week 10 or Later) – Since 1970
The only team that sat atop its division each of the last two weeks and managed to avoid a setback in either game it played was the Tennessee Titans. Perhaps they came away unscathed because unlike other first-place teams, they actually had to play a pair of formidable opponents who currently hold playoff spots – the Los Angeles Rams and New Orleans Saints.
In these last two weeks, 13 of the 16 NFC teams lost at least once. The three teams that haven’t lost? The 3-6 New York Giants, 3-6 Washington and the winless Detroit Lions. Granted, each of those three teams had a bye in one of the last two weeks, but at least the Lions didn’t lose when they took the field last Sunday, as they played the Pittsburgh Steelers to a tie.
The Lions and Giants are both double-digit underdogs this week, with road games against the Cleveland Browns and Bucs, respectively, and neither of those matchups rank particularly high on our watchability index.
Of course, they’ll probably end up being instant classics given the way things have gone the last two weeks, but they aren’t among the three other games we’ve highlighted this weekend – which does include another sub-.500 team hoping to take down a division leader.
Green Bay Packers at Minnesota Vikings (Sunday, 1:00 ET, FOX)
Line: Packers by 2
The Analyst Win Probability: Vikings 55%
Reasons to watch: The 4-5 Vikings are the only team standing in the Packers’ way in their quest for an eighth NFC North title in the last 11 seasons. (Sorry, Chicago Bears fans. And really sorry if you are a Lions fan.) Green Bay can essentially lock up the division with a win, which would give it a 4.5-game lead over Minnesota with six to play.
Not only are the Packers chasing the North crown, they’re in control of the NFC’s top seed, which is remarkable considering their offense hasn’t been lighting up the scoreboard like it did last season when it led the league in scoring and Aaron Rodgers won his third MVP. Green Bay is averaging 21.6 points – 10.2 fewer than last season – and has scored 25 or less in each of its last six games. Since 1995, the Packers have had only one other stretch this long of consecutive games in a single season scoring 25 or less and that was a seven-game streak in 2005.
Part of the reason Green Bay’s offense is laboring has been a lack of practice reps between its top playmakers. In the past three weeks, the Packers played one game without their top three receivers, another without Rodgers as he infamously was in the league’s COVID protocols and another with Rodgers back at QB, though he didn’t rejoin the team until the day before the game. Despite all those obstacles, they still went 2-1.
Receivers Davante Adams and Allen Lazard are now back, but Aaron Jones suffered a knee sprain in last Sunday’s 17-0 win over the Seattle Seahawks and is expected to miss a few games. Although Rodgers returned last week, he is now dealing with an injured toe that forced him to miss multiple practices this week. He’s expected to play, but again, the skill position players have gotten in minimal practice time together over the past few weeks, so the offense may again be a bit rusty.
The Vikings enter this matchup hoping to build on their most impressive victory of the season – a 27-20 road win over the Chargers. Minnesota went ahead late in the third quarter when Kirk Cousins connected with Tyler Conklin for a 1-yard TD on fourth down, and put the game away when Dalvin Cook rushed for 4 yards on a fourth-and-2 on the final play before the two-minute warning.
Cook finished with 118 scrimmage yards – the fifth time in seven games he’s surpassed 100 – and Cousins continued his steady play by throwing for 294 yards with two TDs while extending his stretch of consecutive pass attempts without an interception to 160, the longest active streak in the NFL. Taking a deeper look at the numbers, he’s been outplaying his counterpart in Titletown.
Key matchup: AJ Dillon vs. Vikings’ Rush Defense
Dillon steps in as the lead back with Jones sidelined, but that shouldn’t make much difference to Green Bay’s rushing attack. Dillon scored his first two touchdowns of the season last Sunday after Jones exited and finished with 66 rushing yards and another 62 receiving. He’s been a beast out of the backfield all season, proving to be tough to tackle and also dangerous in the open field. He’s broken five tackles on 97 rushes and the only player with more broken tackles on fewer carries is the Bills’ Zack Moss with seven on 72 attempts.
AJ Dillon 2021 Ranks (Min. 50 Carries /Min. 10 Carries on Third-Down Split)
|Yards After Contact
|% of Plays with a Broken Tackle
|Conversion % on Third-Down Rushes
The bruising back has also given the offense a boost with his presence in the passing game. Against the Seahawks, he caught a pair of screen passes, taking one for 50 yards and the other for 12. On the season, he’s averaging 11.6 yards after catch on his 16 receptions, and the only player with more receptions and a higher average of yards after catch is Colts running back Jonathan Taylor at 12.0. It’s a small sample size, but defenses must account for Dillon’s whereabouts while also juggling the difficult task of containing Adams when Rodgers looks to pass.
Slowing down Dillon will be a tall order for the Vikings considering they’re allowing an average of 4.74 yards per rush – the third-worst mark in the NFL. They’ve stuffed just six runs behind the line of scrimmage – the fewest in the league – while also permitting 53.2% of all opponent runs to go for 4 or more yards – beating out only the Chargers at 54.5% for the worst rate in the league.
While most teams are stout against the run in the A gaps, the Vikings have been extremely vulnerable right up the gut, surrendering an NFL-worst 5.00 rushing yards on plays right up the middle – well above the league average of 3.37. Tackles Dalvin Tomlinson and Armon Watts have each faced 62 one-on-ones in run defense situations, but while Tomlinson has won 37.10% of his matchups, Watts is down at 14.52%. The league average of win percentage on one-on-one matchups for interior linemen is 37.61.
So, although Rodgers hasn’t been playing up to his normal MVP level, getting the ball in the hands of Dillon as often as possible should help the Green Bay offense stay on the field.
San Francisco 49ers at Jacksonville Jaguars (Sunday, 1:00 ET, FOX)
Line: 49ers by 6.5
The Analyst Win Probability: 49ers 59%
Reasons to watch: We have checked and re-checked and checked again, and yes, this is not a typo – the 49ers-Jaguars game is projected to be one of the most watchable games of this weekend’s slate. We know it’s a sub-.500 49ers teams facing the two-win Jaguars, but there’s reason to believe this one will worth checking out. And again, who really knows what’s going to happen these days in the NFL.
The 49ers are just outside the playoff cutoff in the NFC and are coming off an impressive 31-10 victory over the Rams for their second win in three weeks. Jimmy Garoppolo compiled a season-high 141.7 passer rating as the Niners improved to 4-1 this season when his QB rating reaches triple digits. They’re 0-3 when he doesn’t hit the century mark, and on the season, Jacksonville opponents have compiled a 101.8 passer rating. Garoppolo’s No. 1 target, Deebo Samuel, leads all receivers with 522 yards after catch and his 13 receptions of 25 or more yards trail only Cooper Kupp’s 14 for the most in the league.
Samuel also lined up in the backfield six times last week, carrying the ball on five occasions for 36 yards and a TD. A recommitment to the ground game Monday helped the 49ers reverse their fortunes as they ran the ball 44 times – fourth most by any team in a game this season – a week after they ran 11 times – fourth fewest by any team in a game this season – in a 31-17 loss to the Cardinals.
Keeping the ball on the ground should again be San Francisco’s game plan this week as its run blocking offense projects to have a significant advantage over the Jags’ rush defense. The Niners have been able to dominate the line even when the defense expects them to run, averaging 0.685 rushing yards over expected – the third-highest rate in the NFL.
OK, you’ve sold me on the 49ers, what are the Jaguars going to bring to the table? That is a great question. We’ve projected Jacksonville to be much better than it has performed and while the team has played well at times, putting together a full 60 minutes of football has largely escaped Urban Meyer’s team. And while Trevor Lawrence has looked very much like a rookie quarterback for much of the season, the team has been troubled by several self-inflicted wounds from penalties to turnovers to dropped passes.
The Jags’ defense, however, has been a strength, holding Seattle to 229 total yards in Week 8, Buffalo to 301 yards in their Week 9 upset and Indianapolis to 295 yards in last Sunday’s six-point loss, a game in which they had a chance to win until Lawrence fumbled in Colts territory with just over a minute to go. So, if the defense again can put the clamps down, the offense doesn’t make mistakes and the wackiness of the NFL continues, this could be the game of the weekend. Stressing “could.”
Key matchup: Jaguars’ Pass Protection vs. 49ers’ Pass Rush
So while the 49ers have flexed their muscles in pushing around the opposition on the line in run blocking as previously mentioned, the Jaguars’ O-line is also fully capable of controlling the line of scrimmage. In terms of winning one-on-one pash rush matchups, we rank Jacksonville’s offensive line the fifth best in the NFL. And heading into this week, the Jags’ O-line is projected to have the third-best showing in pass protection based on our models. Left tackle Cam Robinson anchors the line, and has won 88.51% of his one-on-one matchups, while right tackle Jawaan Taylor has won 82.5% of his. And then on the interior, left guard Andrew Norwell has won 90.59% of his one-on-one matchups. The league average of win percentage on one-on-one matchups in pass protection for tackles is 78.6% and 78.07% for guards.
While the 49ers’ pass rush features Nick Bosa on the edge and Arik Armstead in the interior, the matchup favors Jacksonville. San Francisco’s 115 QB pressures this season are the second fewest in the league behind the Bears at 109, and since Week 5, no team has fewer QB hurries than the Niners’ 36. Bosa is winning 39.33% of his one-on-one matchups and Armstead is winning 42.50% of his, but it hasn’t translated to overall success. (League averages for edge rushers is 21.88% and interior linemen win an average of 22.97% of their one-on-one matchups.)
The Jaguars should be able to prevent the 49ers from getting to Lawrence, so it will be up to the No. 1 pick to make some plays. It’s a big ask, but he’s due, right?
Dallas Cowboys at Kansas City Chiefs (Sunday, 4:25 ET, FOX)
Line: Chiefs by 2.5
The Analyst Win Probability: Cowboys 56%
Reasons to watch: You don’t want to miss the first meeting between two of the league’s most exciting quarterbacks. Yes, Patrick Mahomes and Dak Prescott square off for the first time, and you might have to wait another four years to see them again – unless they meet in the Super Bowl. That notion seemed far-fetched a few weeks ago, but Kansas City’s offense seemed to find its stride last Sunday night.
Mahomes once again resembled his MVP self on Sunday night, throwing for 406 yards and five touchdowns without a turnover in a 41-14 thrashing of the Las Vegas Raiders as the Chiefs took over sole possession of first place in the AFC West. It was the second career game of 400 or more passing yards, five or more TDs and zero interceptions for Mahomes, making him the only QB in the Super Bowl era with two such games. Most encouraging for the Chiefs was that the performance came seven days after he threw for 166 yards – his fewest in a game in which he finished.
The Chiefs racked up a season-high 516 yards against Vegas with seven plays going for at least 20 yards after having only six such plays in the previous three weeks combined. The only teams with fewer big plays in Weeks 7-9 were the Dolphins, Seahawks and Jaguars – and both Seattle and Jacksonville each had a bye one of those weeks.
Like Kansas City, Dallas also bounced back from an ugly showing with last Sunday’s 43-3 beatdown of the Atlanta Falcons. That marked its fifth game with at least 35 points, tying the Bills for the most in the league. Prescott completed 24-of-31 passes for 296 yards with two touchdowns, becoming the first Cowboy to throw multiple TD passes in six straight games since Tony Romo in 2007. The only Cowboy with a longer streak of consecutive games with a two or more touchdown passes in a single season is Don Meredith with a nine-gamer in 1965.
Key matchup: Cowboys’ Rush Offense vs. Chiefs’ Rush Defense
Prescott may be leading the league in passer rating, but much of the Cowboys’ success stems from the ground game. They like to run and they’re good at it, as their average of 30.1 rush attempts per game ranks fourth in the NFL while their average of 4.63 yards per carry ranks sixth. Teams know they’re running and still can’t stop them, with Dallas’ average of 0.565 yards over expected on rushing plays ranking fifth best in the league. Kansas City, meanwhile, will have its hands’ full trying to curtail the Cowboys’ rushing attack. The Chiefs are yielding an average of 0.431 yards over expected on rushing plays – fifth worst in the league – and are allowing 51.4% of all opponent run plays to gain 4 or more yards – also fifth worst. On the flip side, the Cowboys are gaining at least 4 yards on 50.9% of their rushing plays, the league’s sixth-highest rate.
Ezekiel Elliott is the engine that keeps the chains moving, rushing for a first down on 25.4% of his carries and a run for 10 or more yards on 12.7% of all attempts. It helps to be playing behind an offensive line that blocks well in running situations. On running plays, Dallas’ blockers are succeeding 78.21% of the time – the fifth-highest rate in the league. Left tackle Tyron Smith is winning 85.14% of his one-one-one matchups in run blocks, while right guard Zack Martin is winning 81.71% of his one-on-ones. The league average success rate for tackles in run blocking is 73.16% and guards is 74.83%.
One of the biggest strengths of Elliott and the Cowboys’ offensive line is that it’s difficult for defenses to anticipate which direction he’s going to carry the ball because they spread out the distribution so evenly. So far this season, Elliott has had 48 rushing plays to the left, 48 to the middle and 46 to the right. He’s been the most successful running up the gut, averaging 5.25 yards per carry there while his seven rushes of at least 10 yards up the middle are tied with Lamar Jackson for the most in the league.
Elliott and the Cowboys are poised for success against a Chiefs’ defense that has had trouble stopping the run, regardless of the direction.
Graphic design by Briggs Clinard.