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538: Le’Veon Bell’s Historic Performance

Breaking news: Le’Veon Bell is really, really good.  In terms of yards from scrimmage, he had a top-10 performance on Sunday, which has catapulted him to a top-2 season, and into a top-1 career. Today at 538:

Bell’s average of 161.6 yards from scrimmage isn’t remarkable for 2016 alone. If it were to stand through the end of the regular season, Bell’s 2016 performance would rank as the second-highest single-season average since 1932.

This may be Bell’s best season, but he has been a yards from scrimmage monster for much of his career. In 45 career games, Bell has 3,830 rushing yards (85.1 per game) and 1,952 receiving yards (43.4 per game). That translates to 128.5 yards from scrimmage per game for his career, which would be the highest career average since 1932.

You can read the full article here.

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538: Is the AFC South Not As Terrible As We Think?

Today at 538: Is the AFC South suddenly not as terrible as we all think? Did you know: the AFC South had a better record this year than the NFC West?

Titans offense

Tennessee has turned into one of the most fun teams in football. After an uneven first month, second-year quarterback Marcus Mariota has been incredible. I looked at stats for each quarterback starting with his team’s fifth game and ending with the 12th. Over that span, Mariota led the NFL in both passer rating (117.7)5 and touchdown passes (21), while throwing just three interceptions. The Titans led the NFL in scoring in that same period, finishing with 8 more points than the New England Patriots have scored since Tom Brady’s return. For the season so far, DeMarco Murray is secondin the NFL in rushing, and the Titans rank third in both rushing yards and yards per carry. Tennessee’s offense will be tested in their next two games, against the Denver Broncos and Chiefs: If the Titans win, the AFC South may be sending the hottest offense in the league to the playoffs.

You can read the full article here.

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Today at 538: A look at how bad the Rams offense has been under Jeff Fisher.  After a 3-1 start this year, things have quickly gone downhill.

Since then, L.A. has gone 1-7, with the lone victory coming in a 9-6 snoozer against a bad Jets team featuring quarterback Bryce Petty in his first NFL start. And if there’s a theme to the Rams’ unyielding mediocrity under Fisher, it’s a bad offense that seems to get worse the more resources it’s given.

L.A. ranks last in scoring, yards and first downs, and in the case of the latter two categories, for the second year in a row.

You can read the full article here.

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Today at 538: The Cowboys started the year 9-1 against the spread; the Browns, meanwhile, can’t seem to beat anyone, even with the help of Las Vegas:

On the other end of the spectrum are the Cleveland Browns, who have the league’s worst record against the spread. Cleveland has been an underdog in all the games it’s played so far this season (12), the only team in the league with that distinction. (On average, the Browns have been underdogs by 7.1 points.) It’s been an ugly season for Cleveland — remarkable not only because the Browns have failed to win a game but also because they are just 2-10 against the spread!

Since 1978, 20 teams (including this year’s Browns) have been underdogs in every game. And the majority of those teams were even larger underdogs, on average, than Cleveland has been. So these were really bad teams. But none was as bad against the spread as Cleveland has been so far this season: Among those 19 other teams, the worst record was a more respectable 5-11, set by another Browns team, the one from 16 years ago:

You can read the full article here.

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Today at 538:

First downs per route run

Gaining a first down is one of the most important things a wide receiver can do, and he has a chance at it whenever he runs a route. Yards per route run is the wide receiver version of yards per pass, but by replacing yards with first downs in the numerator, we can focus on a less-popular (but very important) statistic that shows us which guys move the chains.

Evans ranks first in this category: He has picked up a first down on a remarkable 15.3 percent of his routes. One reason for that is that Evans runs deeper routes, and he easily leads the league with 62 first-down receptions (no other player has more than 50).

You can read the full article here.

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538: Are the Giants Going To Do It Again?

Today at 538: Are the Giants going to do it again?

It’s easy to dismiss the success of the 7-3 New York Giants. The team ranks 23rd in scoring, tied with the 49ers, and is 11th in points allowed; overall, the Giants have outscored opponents by only 4 points all year. In fact, the Giants haven’t won a single game by more than 7 points. Meanwhile, they rank 20th in yards per game and 16th in yards allowed per game and have benefited from a favorable schedule: The team has played only three true road games this year.1

Ahead of Week 11’s games, the Giants ranked 16th in both ESPN’s NFL Power Rankings and Football Outsiders’ Defense-adjusted Value Over Average, and their 6-point home win against a bad Bears team is unlikely to move those needles. And even after Sunday’s win, the Giants rank only 17th in FiveThirtyEight’s NFL Elo ratings.

You can read the full article here.

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Today at 538: the Steelers and Seahawks had some interesting two-point conversion decisions in week ten.

According to ESPN Stats & Information Group, there have been 1,045 two-point conversion attempts since 2001, with teams converting 501 of those tries. That’s a 47.9 percent conversion rate; given that a successful attempt yields 2 points, that means the expected value from an average 2-point try is 0.96 points.

Interestingly, that’s almost exactly what the expected value is from an extra point these days. Since the NFL moved extra-point kicks back to the 15-yard line last season, teams have a 94.4 percent success rate, which means that an extra point has an expected value of between 0.94 and 0.95 points.

This means that, all else being equal, the average team should be indifferent between going for two or kicking an extra point. Unless the game situation (i.e., late in the second half) or team composition (e.g., a bad kicker, or an offense or an opposing defense that is very good or very bad) changes the odds considerably, the decision to go for two or kick an extra point shouldn’t be controversial. In the long run, things will even out, because the expected value to the offense is essentially the same in both cases.

That’s the long run. In the short run, there will be ugly outcomes. And we saw two of those play out this weekend.

You can read the full article here.

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538: Are The Eagles Better Than Their Record?

Today at 538: the Eagles appear to be much better than your average .500 team.

The Philadelphia Eagles are one of the more confusing teams in the NFL. At 4-4, it’s easy to assume that the Eagles are an average team, yet Philly has outscored opponents by 57 points this season, the third-best differential behind the 7-1 Cowboys and 7-1 Patriots. Furthermore, Football Outsiders has the Eagles first in the NFL in defense-adjusted value over average, a metric that measures team performance on a play-by-play basis. So what’s the deal — are the Eagles secretly one of the best teams in the league, or have they somehow gamed the system?

The obvious reason the Eagles are 4-4 despite putting up impressive numbers in the two stats mentioned above is that they clustered a lot of very strong play into just four games. In the team’s four wins, the Eagles have outscored opponents by a total of 76 points, an average of 19 points per victory. That makes Philadelphia one of four teams with an average margin of victory of at least 19 points in wins, joined by the Steelers (19.3 in four wins), Cardinals (23.3 in three wins) and 49ers (28.0 in one win).

You can read the full article here.

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538: Mid-Season Awards (2016)

Today at 538: my mid-season awards column!

Offensive Player of the Year: David Johnson, RB Arizona Cardinals

The Cardinals running back leads the league with 1,112 yards from scrimmage through eight games. He’s averaging over 80 yards rushing and 50 yards receiving per game, which has only been accomplished by four other players in NFL history. But what’s most impressive has been his consistency: Johnson has gained at least 100 yards from scrimmage in every game this year, making him just the 12th player since 1960 to do that in each of his team’s first eight games. Every other player this year has at least three team games in which they failed to gain 100 total yards.4 He’s also averaging 4.5 yards per run and 11.6 yards per reception while scoring eight touchdowns, showing that Johnson’s season hasn’t been fueled only by a heavy workload.

You can read the full article here.

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538: Is Denver’s Pass Defense Even Better? 

Today at 538: yes, really, Denver’s pass defense is even better this year.

Football studies have generally shown that offenses are more consistent from year to year than defenses, and regression to the mean is always a key part of any analysis for a historically great unit. As a result, we wouldn’t expect Denver’s 2016 pass defense to be anywhere near as good as the 2015 one. And that’s exactly what you see with most of the other teams on the list above.

The other pass defenses on the top 20 list above were, on average, 1.53 net yards per attempt better than average against the pass in their dominant season; however, in their first eight games of the following season, they were just 0.52 NY/A better than average. That’s a sign of how difficult is it for dominant defenses to sustain that level of excellence over a long period. Defensive backs and pass rushers are two of football’s most health-dependent roles, and even one player losing a step or leaving in free agency can sink a unit. But so far this season, the Broncos have been even better that last season, jumping from 1.30 NY/A better than league average to 1.73.

You can read the full article here.

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Today at 538:

So far this season, 45 players have been flagged for at least five offensive penalties, and six of those players are Raiders: backup lineman Vadal Alexander (8), followed by Penn (7), center Rodney Hudson (6), guard Gabe Jackson (6), WR Michael Crabtree (5) and guard Kelechi Osemele (5). In total, Raiders offensive linemen have been flagged for 33 penalties, nine more than any other offensive line in the league.

That’s a lot of penalties, but what that analysis is missing is what’s happening on all the plays that don’t result in a penalty — especially if those plays include ones where the refs don’t throw a flag because they’ve already thrown so many. And Oakland’s offensive line is doing really, really well on those plays. No team has spent more 2016 salary cap dollars on its offensive line than the Raiders, and it’s paid off: Oakland has been sacked on just 2.7 percent of all pass plays this season, the lowest rate in the NFL. And Oakland’s top three running backs — Latavius Murray, DeAndre Washington, Jalen Richard — aren’t highly-regarded and weren’t drafted with premium picks, but they have rushed 156 times for 763 yards and 6 touchdowns, averaging 4.9 yards per attempt. The Oakland line is getting things done.

You can read the full article here.

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538: Hue Jackson’s Browns Are 0-7

Today at 538: What Does An 0-7 Start Mean For An NFL Coach?

The Browns hired Hue Jackson to lead the team’s latest rebuilding effort in a move that was regarded as one of the best coaching hires of the offseason. In an offseason in which the Browns also brought in Paul DePodesta as chief strategy officer to turn the franchise around, it seemed like Cleveland had its coach of the future. But Jackson is now just the 20th coach since the AFL-NFL merger in 1970 to fail to win a game in his team’s first seven contests.

You can read the full article here.

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538: There Are No Great Teams This Year

Today, at 538: a look at how there are no great teams in the NFL this year.

The opening week of this NFL season featured a record number of close games that provided more than a hint of things to come. Because after Minnesota’s loss on Sunday to Philadelphia, there are no remaining undefeated teams. For reference, this time last year, there were five undefeated teams.

Sharon Katz at ESPN Analytics wrote Monday that every NFL team is flawed. Using Expected Points Added as her preferred measure of offensive and defensive efficiency, she showed that no team is excelling on both sides of the ball this season.

You can read the full article here.

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Today at 538: A look at draft value by team, based on the number of snaps taken by each player:

Based on the draft value calculator I created to measure the approximate average production level provided by each draft pick, we can convert each draft slot into a draft value (undrafted players receive a draft value of zero). Then, with the help of Pro-Football-Reference.com, I was able to calculate the snap-weighted draft value of each team’s offense and defense. For example, Palmer, as the first overall pick in the draft, has a draft value of 34.6. And since Palmer has taken 77 percent of all snaps for the Cardinals this season and he is one of 11 players on the offense, that means that 7 percent (i.e., 77 percent divided by 11) of Arizona’s snap-weighted offensive draft value is driven by Palmer’s 34.6 rating. This isn’t a perfect proxy for the production we can expect from a top pick — Palmer is on the back end of his career, when we expect even the best quarterbacks to be in decline — but it’s a fun way to look at the rosters.

Perform this calculation for each player on each team through the first six weeks of the 2016 NFL season and we can calculate the average draft value of each offense and defense, with all snap data coming from Pro-Football-Reference.com. Arizona has the best-pedigreed offense in the NFL; the Seahawks’ offense, on the other hand, has the lowest average draft value.

You can read the full article here.

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538: Buffalo, Washington, Are Making Running Great Again

The Bills are on one of the craziest running streaks in recent history.  Washington? Well, here is what I wrote in my Game Scripts recaps after weeks 1 and 2:

Washington finished with a Game Script of -5.8, but even that doesn’t typically justify a 78% pass ratio. That was the most pass-heavy attack in the week (both without adjusting for Game Script and after adjusting), and is a sign of the lack of faith in the team’s ground game. Matt Jones rushed 7 times for 24 yards, Chris Thompson had 4 for 23, and the team’s only other run was a scramble by Cousins for 8 yards on 4th-and-10.

On the pass-heavy side, Washington was at it again. In a game where Washington led for much of the second half before ultimately losing to Dallas, Kirk Cousins had 48 dropbacks (50, if you include the two scrambles), while the team rushed just 17 times (15, if you exclude the two scrambles). Matt Jones wasn’t bad against Dallas, and Cousins wasn’t very good, so it will be interesting to see if anything changes in week 3 against the Giants.

Since then? Well, both teams have seen significant improvements in both quantity and quality on the ground. And now they are are on four game winning streaks after 0-2 starts.  They were the subject of my 538 recap this week:

But it wasn’t just the 0-2 record on the field; the teams looked ugly off the field, too. After the team’s second loss, Buffalo fired offensive coordinator Greg Roman, a move widely viewed as an attempt by head coach Rex Ryan to make Roman into a scapegoat for the team’s problems. In Washington, rumors swirled that the locker room was holding quarterback Kirk Cousins responsible — and that caused head coach Jay Gruden to issue the dreaded vote of confidence for his starter.

Now? Both teams are riding four-game winning streaks and look like playoff contenders. Before this year, only 18 teams in NFL history1 had started a season 0-2 and then won four straight games. Over the past 20 years, this season’s Buffalo and Washington squads are only the fourth and fifth teams to do so. So how did they do it? Although the NFL continues to shift toward the passing game, both teams have zagged and rebounded thanks to their ground game.

You can read the full article here.

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Today at 538: A look at season long Game Scripts and Pass Identity data, through week 5:

As we enter mid-October, the identity of each NFL team’s offense has begun to emerge. Some teams, like the San Francisco 49ers, want to run the ball no matter the situation. Others, like the Indianapolis Colts, are pass-happy even when most other teams wouldn’t be. How do we know what teams’ preferred style is? It’s not as easy as looking at their basic stats: Those are shaped by factors outside of their control, like being forced to pass more when trailing. So I’ve created a way to adjust for external forces and classify teams based on how they choose to play offense regardless of the numbers on the scoreboard.

You can read the full article, and see the cool chart and table, here.

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538: Cowboys, Powered by Rookies, Are Back On Top

Today at 538: a look at how Ezekiel Elliott and Dak Prescott are powering the Cowboys offense.

The Cowboys’ strong running game has made life easy on the rest of the team: Dallas ranks second in the NFL in time of possession, and the defense is facing just 9.6 drives per game, the fewest in the NFL. That makes life simple for the rookie quarterback, too. Dak Prescott has attempted just 34 passes while trailing in the second half of games this year, and none when trailing by more than four points.

You can read the full article here.

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538: Derek Carr, the NFL’s Newest Gunslinger

Today at 538: A look at Derek Carr, and why he’s the NFL’s newest gunslinger.

This season, Carr has been great in the fourth quarter, completing 27 of 45 passes for 368 yards (no sacks), with five touchdowns and just one interception. Carr’s Total Quarterback Rating (QBR) of 87.7 in the fourth quarter is second only to Ben Roethlisberger’s, 96.2. Carr is a legitimate offensive player of the year candidate on a resurgent Raiders team, and his strong fourth-quarter performance is one of the reasons.

But despite the game-winning drives and the success this year, Carr has taken his lumps late in games, too. Last season, he had a QBR of just 24.0 in the fourth quarter, the second-worst grade among the 33 qualifying quarterbacks (ahead of only Nick Foles). And this isn’t just a QBR issue — Carr also ranked second to last in fourth-quarter passer rating, at 67.5, again ahead of only Foles.

You can read the full article here.

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Today at 538: Is it time to freak out for fans in Carolina and Arizona?

The Carolina Panthers and Arizona Cardinals were the two most successful teams during the 2015 regular season. Carolina posted the league’s best-record, at 15-1, and led the league in scoring margin (+192). Arizona had the second-best record in the NFL (13-3) and finished with the second-best margin (+176). Carolina’s quarterback, Cam Newton, was selected as the league’s most valuable player and the first-team All-Pro quarterback by the Associated Press, while Arizona’s quarterback, Carson Palmer, received the second-most votes for that All-Pro slot.

The two teams met in the NFC championship game, with Carolina winning in a blowout, 49-15. And, of course, the Denver Broncos upset Carolina in the Super Bowl. But ugly performances by Carolina and Arizona in their final games of the 2015 season didn’t temper preseason expectations: NFL.com’s preseason power rankings had the Panthers and the Cardinals as its top two teams. But with both teams starting the 2016 season with a 1-3 record, is it time for panic?

You can read the full article here.

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538: Analyzing The Eagles Surprising 3-0 Start

Today at 538: a look at some key numbers surrounding the Eagles hot start.

At 3-0, the Philadelphia Eagles are quickly gaining altitude.  Our preseason Elo ratings gave the Eagles a mere 1 percent chance to win the Super Bowl and a 27 percent probability of winning the NFC East; now those numbers are up to 6 percent and 59 percent, respectively.

Tom Brady’s suspension notwithstanding, three of the league’s other four current undefeated teams had much higher preseason Super Bowl odds: Denver was at 11 percent, with New England at 7 percent and Minnesota at 4 percent. Like Philly, Baltimore was at 1 percent — but at least they were not breaking in a new coach and a new quarterback. Philadelphia’s hot start is the one very few saw coming.

You can read the full article here.

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Today at 538:

The Baltimore Ravens and Minnesota Vikings are both 3-0 to start the year, two of just five undefeated teams remaining in the NFL. But given the way that both teams have played so far, there are a lot of questions about how sustainable their success will prove to be as the season continues.

Let’s start with the Ravens. Although 27 other teams wish they had Baltimore’s record, I’m not sure 27 other teams wish they had Baltimore’s team. Being 3-0 is great, but the Ravens have managed to achieve their perfect record while racking up about as few style points as possible.

You can read the full article here.

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538: What Is Wrong With Aaron Rodgers?

Today at 538: What is wrong with Aaron Rodgers?

From 2008 to 2014, Rodgers averaged 7.34 yards per dropback,1 according to ESPN’s Stats & Information Group. Rodgers’s rate was the second-best during that time period and just 0.01 yards per dropback behind Peyton Manning’s. That sort of dominant play earned Rodgers two MVP awards and helped the Packers win a Super Bowl.

Recently, things haven’t gone quite so well. Rodgers has averaged 5.79 yards per dropback since the start of 2015. Since November of last year, the Packers are just 5-7. And Rodgers is in the middle of a cold spell prolonged enough to prompt his coach to chip in with a vote of confidence — never a great sign. But what’s to blame for the decline — a change in scheme? Rodgers’s skills? The steady physical destruction of his most trusted receivers? That’s tough to untangle, but we can give it a try.

You can read the full article here.

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538: Post-Week 2, 2016: Two’s A Trend

Today at 538: if Week 1 is National Jump to Conclusions Week, then Week 2 is when we can begin to trend spot.  For example:

Denver was a one-dimensional team last year, as the Broncos dominant defense overcame the team’s historically inept passing attack en route to a Super Bowl title. This year? The Denver defense looks just as fantastic. Consider:

  • In Week 1, Denver held Carolina to 333 yards and 20 points; in Week 2, Carolina gained 529 yards and scored 46 points (albeit with one touchdown coming on defense) while playing a 49ers defense that had recorded the only shutout on opening weekend.
  • In Week 2, Denver held Indianapolis to just 253 and 20 points, while the Broncos defense scored two touchdowns of its own! In Week 1, Indianapolis gained 450 yards and scored 35 points.

You can read the full article here.

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538: Chiefs, Texans, Try to Join AFC’s Upper Crust

Today at 538: a look at the Chiefs and Texans game this weekend, with both teams trying to vault into the top tier in the AFC.

The AFC has an established hierarchy. The New England Patriots have appeared in the title game in five consecutive seasons, and teams only become legitimate AFC contenders after proving they can defeat the Pats. Denver has beaten New England three of the last four times the teams have played — including in last year’s title game — and won the AFC West in five straight seasons. And whichever team emerges from the top-heavy AFC North can’t be ignored, either: Baltimore won the Super Bowl four seasons ago, the Bengals have won 44 games since 2012, and the Steelers look like the second-best team in the AFC.

Two other teams are threatening to break into the AFC’s upper crust, and they happen to face off in Week 2. Kansas City has won 11 consecutive regular-season games, the longest active streak in the NFL. Houston finished 2015 on a hot streak of its own, winning seven of its final nine games; after an opening-day win in Chicago, the Texans join the Chiefs as the only AFC teams to win at least eight of their last 10 regular-season games. Yet despite those results, neither of these teams are viewed as part of the AFC’s top tier. And that’s because both teams are viewed as having relatively low ceilings. So the question for this season is, can either team raise its ceiling?

You can read the full article here.

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538: Post-Week 1, 2016: Close Games Define Week 1

Today at 538, a look at why Week 1 (prior to Monday Night) was extraordinarily competitive:

But this year’s Week 1 results aren’t just close by Week 1 standards. The Broncos (over the Panthers), Bengals (Jets), Raiders (Saints) and Giants (Cowboys) all won by just 1 point: That’s the first time that four games in one week have been decided by a single point in 34 years.

Since 1993, only one week has been as close on average as the 5.1-point margin tallied so far on opening weekend — Week 5 of the 2001 season. Since 1993, the standard deviation of from the previously mentioned 11.6-point average margin of victory was 2.3 points. That makes this season’s Week 1 a true outlier: At 5.1 points (pending tonight’s games), it is 2.3 standard deviations from average. The graph below shows the average margin in each week of the regular season since 1993:

You can read the full article here. Good thing this was filed before Monday night’s games! The Steelers (38-16) and Rams (28-0) won by a combined 50 points, while the first 14 games were decided by just 72 combined points.

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538: Carolina, Denver and Super Bowl Rematches

Today at 538, a look at the history of the Thursday Night Opener and how teams fare in Super Bowl rematches.  Also, in researching for this piece, I found one of my new favorite pieces of trivia:

On January 31, 1993, the Cowboys obliterated the Bills 52-17 in Super Bowl XXVII.  364 days later, Dallas beat Buffalo in the Super Bowl again, 30-13, the only time the same teams have ever met in consecutive Super Bowls.  But in between those historic games, the teams also met in Dallas during Week 2 of the 1993 regular season. The Cowboys, missing Emmitt Smith because of a contract dispute, lost 13-10 on a late field goal. It was a result symbolic of that entire Bills era: in games started by Hall of Fame quarterback Jim Kelly from 1990 to 1993, Buffalo went 14-0 in the regular season against the NFC, including a 4-0 mark against Dallas, New York, and Washington. Against those same teams in the Super Bowl, of course, the Bills went 0-4.

You can read the full article here.

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Today at 538: Putting into context the fact that Dak Prescott, the 135th pick in the 2016 NFL Draft, is going to be the Cowboys starting quarterback in week 1. And that Trevor Siemian, a 7th round pick last year who has never seen meaningful action in an NFL game, is going to be the Broncos starter.

This is rarely charted territory in modern history: In the last 30 years, only three rookie quarterbacks drafted outside of the top 100 picks started their team’s season opener: Orton, Chris Weinke in 2001 and Steve Beuerlein in 1988.1 You have to go all the way back to 1977 to find a quarterback not selected in the first 130 picks of the NFL draft who then went on start his team’s season opener as a rookie.

You can view the full article https://fivethirtyeight.com/features/dak-prescott-is-not-your-average-week-1-starting-quarterback/.

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Today at 538, a look at how no passing attack in the NFL was as reliant on two targets the way the Jets passing attack was last year.

Thought of another way, Marshall and Decker saw 305 targets last year, with all other Jets players combining for nearly an equal number: 297. Yet Marshall/Decker combined for 2,529 receiving yards and 26 touchdowns, and all other Jets combined for 1,641 receiving yards and just seven receiving touchdowns. Marshall and Decker together averaged 8.3 yards per target; all other Jets averaged only 5.5 yards per target.

You can read the full article here.

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538: Front- and Back-loaded Schedules

Today at 538, a look at which teams have front-loaded (the Jets) and back-loaded (the Ravens) schedules. The methodology will be familiar to regular readers: I created implied NFL ratings based on Vegas point spreads, and then calculated general and then weighted strength of schedule ratings. The weight, of course, was based on how late in the season a particular game occurred.

You can read the article here.

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Today at 538, you can read my thoughts on Ohio State’s insane 2016 draft.  It is, by a large measure, the best in modern history.  And while some have noted that the Buckeyes dominated the draft, I don’t think people have realized exactly how impressive it truly was:

Incredibly, Ohio State had five players drafted in the top 20 and another five in the top 100. As a result, a total of 151.2 points of draft value was used on Buckeyes players. That’s the most — by a very large margin — in 70 years. The table below shows the top 25 draft classes as measured by points of draft value used to select players:

You can read the full article here.

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