Monday Night Football Preview: The Search for Competence
"We out here tryna function. We out here tryna function. I ain't got time for playin', I'm just sayin' man, we out here tryna function."
I'm 90 percent convinced E-40 wrote "Function" as a special intro for tonight's game between the Chicago Bears and the New Orleans Saints. That percentage would be higher if E-40 weren't a 49ers fan, as this song would work for them right now, as well.
The Saints aren't last in their division, but that's not for lack of trying. They trail a 5-8-1 Carolina team that has a -70 point differential on the season. They have lost four of their last five and have two of their final three games away from the Superdome.
Despite all of this (or possibly because of it), tonight's game carries a great deal of interest. We can break it down using our Game Projection page, which is available to all premium subscribers. Let's dive into it and see which team will rise above the dysfunction and pull out a victory.
Can the Saints' Offense Emerge From the Ashes?
Last week was less than ideal for the Saints. They were out-gained by the aforementioned Panthers, 497-310, on their way to getting dumped 41-10. At home. Good job, good effort!
It's safe (maaaaybe?) to assume they won't drop such a ginormous egg again this week. They're favored by three on the road, so at least Vegas has some faith this will happen. But what about the algorithms?
We'll start with where the New Orleans offense starts, and that's Drew Brees. Brees completed 29 of 49 passes last week for 235 yards (4.80 yards per attempt!) with one touchdown and one interception. A lot of that obviously isn't on Brees, but those are truly gross numbers.
On the whole this year, Brees has played better than the team's record would indicate (#QBWinz). We can track this by using numberFire's Net Expected Points (NEP) stat. It tracks the number of points added or subtracted relative to a league average player. For Brees, we'll look at his Passing NEP, which looks this on every drop back, meaning there are deductions for sacks, interceptions, and incompletions.
Of the 34 quarterbacks that had recorded at least 200 drop backs entering Week 14, Brees ranked sixth with a Passing NEP of 105.05. He drops to 10th if we view this on a per drop back basis with a number of 0.19.
Now, these are obviously still not bad numbers. They're just not typical Brees. He was second in Passing NEP last year and hasn't finished outside of the top four since 2007. Since that year, his Passing NEP per play has been lower than 0.20 just once, which was in 2010.
What better cure for a down year than facing the only team that had allowed 30 passing touchdowns prior to Week 15? Sure, 10 of those went to Aaron Rodgers, but even that says something fairly significant.
From a fantasy perspective, the Bears are an opposing quarterback's dying wish. They've allowed at least 20 fantasy points to the opposing signal-caller in every week except for Week 6 and Week 11, according to FFToday.com. This includes performances from E.J. Manuel, Geno Smith, Josh McCown and Colin Kaepernick. Imagine what vintage Brees could do to them.
Brees entered Week 15 as our fourth-ranked fantasy quarterback. The computers have him for 292.39 yards on 36.90 attempts (7.92 yards per attempt) for 2.52 touchdowns and 0.88 interceptions. That would certainly help right the ship after last week.
The other conundrum within this offense has been Jimmy Graham. His 695 yards and 9 touchdowns are fine compared to most tight ends, but not when compared to the 1,215 yards and 16 touchdowns he finished with last year.
Whether it be because of his lingering shoulder injury or the offense's general ineffectiveness, Graham has disappeared as of late. He dropped three passes last week, and he hasn't topped 50 yards receiving since November 9th.
Like Brees, though, he will be facing the team that had allowed the most fantasy points to his respective position entering Week 15. Rob Gronkowski dumped 9 receptions for 149 yards and 3 touchdowns on the Bears. Greg Olsen had 6 for 72 and 2 touchdowns.
On the other hand, Chicago hasn't allowed a tight end to top 26 receiving yards since that Gronkowski game. They have allowed four tight end touchdowns in those five games, but the yardage hasn't been there.
Our projections have Graham down for 5.14 receptions, 61.42 yards and 0.55 touchdowns. If his shoulder hasn't gotten any better, you can expect it to skew to the lower end of his confidence interval. But if he's healthy and playing like old Jimmy, then things could start popping really quickly.
What Happened to Chicago's Offense?
Last year, the Bears scored 30 points in six separate games, two of which came with Cutler sidelined with an injury. This year, they have accomplished that feat exactly zero times. Don't caaaaaaaaaare!
Chicago entered Week 15 ranked 15th in Adjusted NEP per play, which tracks an offense's overall efficiency and is adjusted for strength of schedule. That's not enough to overcome a defense that ranks 30th in Adjusted Defensive NEP per play.
As much as people (justifiably) make fun of his attitude, Jay Cutler has actually been a huge part of the problem this year. The NFL's highest-paid player entered Week 15 ranked 21st in Passing NEP among quarterbacks with at least 200 drop backs, trailing the likes of Kaepernick, Ryan Fitzpatrick and Mark Sanchez.
Like Brees, Cutler has a plus match-up this week to try to ease the pain. New Orleans ranks 32nd in Adjusted Defensive NEP per play, specifically 31st against the pass and 32nd against the run.
The Saints have already had three games this year in which they have allowed the opposing quarterback to throw for at least 400 yards. Cutler threw for 341 last week against Dallas. Match made in heaven?
Cutler's projections are favorable at 298.52 yards on 40.73 attempts (7.33 yards per attempt) for 2.03 touchdowns and 0.94 interceptions. Cutler has thrown two interceptions in more games than he has thrown one (three) or zero (four). The Saints have failed to record a pick in four of the last five games, so this should be a fun one.
It would be far more fun if Brandon Marshall were healthy, but let's just be thankful dude is all right. Broken ribs and a collapsed lung is messed up. Football is such a safe sport.
This unfortunate situation does open up additional opportunities for Alshon Jeffery. In the three games where Marshall was hobbled with an injury earlier this year, Jeffery posted 19.5, 13.9 and 21.7 PPR points respectively. He also has at least one touchdown in each of the past four games and six in the last six. Yum City.
Matt Forte Is Good at Football
With the silly composite stats that DeMarco Murray is posting and the emergence of Le'Veon Bell as possibly the best running back in the NFL, Matt Forte has been shoved to the back burner a bit. This comes in a season in which he could possibly break a record that has stood nearly two decades.
Back in 1995, Larry Centers became the first running back to record 100 receptions with his 101 for the Cardinals. Since then, only LaDainian Tomlinson has joined him in the 100-reception club as he hit the mark exactly in 2003. Forte has a shot to join them this year.
Through 13 games, Forte has 86 receptions this year. This puts him on pace to finish with 106 total. He would only need to average five per game to reach 101, and he has had at least that number in all but one game this year. He's got this baby on lockdown.
Then you add in that New Orleans just despises tackling running backs, and you get the formula for a freak-out game. They allowed the aforementioned Bell to post 159 yards against them just two weeks ago -- 159 receiving yards, that is. Eddie Lacy had 123 receiving yards against them earlier in the year. Only Indianapolis has allowed more receiving yards per game to running backs this season.
Over the past four games, here are the yards from scrimmage totals for the top running back on a team against the Saints: 165, 190, 254, and 155. Just for funsies, that projects to 3,056 yards from scrimmage over a 16-game season.
Because of all of these factors, Forte was the number-two running back in our projections this week behind Bell. The computers put Forte down for 87.33 rushing yards and 0.80 rushing touchdowns with 5.40 receptions for 47.78 yards and 0.36 touchdowns. That's a pretty snazzy day. But if he gets the red carpet the Saints have rolled out for the rest of the league's backs, he may break that receiving record tonight.
Bears Beat Spread, Take the Under
The final projected score of this one could not be much closer. The algorithms have it at 25.77-25.74 in favor of the Bears. Knowing how the other primetime games have gone this year, one team is bound to win by 30.
With this as the final, the Bears have a 59.5 percent chance of besting the spread. That nets you an expected return of 13.68 percent.
This would also make the moneyline of the Bears (131) appealing. The expected return here is 15.73 percent.
Both of these have higher expected returns than the over/under at 54.0. As you can see with the final score, the point total is expected to be right in that area. This means that a bet on the under carries a 6.45 percent expected return. However, 18 of the 19 most similar games to this one on the Game Projections page ended up hitting the under. That's more of a trend than a coincidence. These teams can score points, and the defenses are usually willing to oblige, but it's just not so certain that will happen tonight.