Monday Night Football Preview: Quarterback Duel out West
If you spend enough time thinking about the NFL, it'll eventually infiltrate every dream you have. Whether you're picking up your kids from the daycare owned by Jason Witten or administering an epi pen to Adrian Peterson after a shrimp bender, they wiggle their way into your subconscious with regularity.
One of my personal favorites involves a pair of quarterbacks who will tango Monday night. You're stranded on an island with Philip Rivers and Jay Cutler with no other humans around. As Rivers is stomping around, yelling at helpless crabs, Cutler stares blankly while trying to smoke a coconut. If you stay asleep long enough to see the two interact, you'll wake up unspeakably happy. It really can't be topped.
Although Rivers and Cutler won't go head to head on the field, they should still provide their share of entertainment for the night. With an over/under of 49, we could be setting up for a good, old-fashioned duel out west.
Let's take a deeper look at this matchup with numberFire's game projections page. This is available for every game on the schedule for premium members, showing the projected final score, full stats, and a list of similar games throughout history to help us get an idea of what to expect Monday night. It does not, however, include links to Cutler gifs, but nothing is perfect.
We'll also be getting a hand from numberFire's Net Expected Points (NEP). This is a measure of efficiency for both teams and individuals, with the team totals being adjusted based on strength of schedule.
If you're new to the site, here's how NEP works. On every play, there is an expected number of points a team will score on the drive. A positive play (such as a three-yard rush on 3rd and 2) will increase that, resulting in positive NEP. A negative play (such as a three-yard rush on 3rd and 4) will decrease that, resulting in negative NEP. The sum of all of those plays is NEP.
Prior to kickoff, there are plenty of questions whose answers will help shape the results of the contest. Let's go through four of those to see if we can gain any clarity in what appears to be a fun matchup in the making.
How Important Is the Loss of Keenan Allen?
Rivers has been out on the field, clownin' fools all year. He sits seventh in Passing NEP per drop back of the 33 quarterbacks with at least 100 drop backs. Now, though, he's without his favorite target in Keenan Allen. That could be problematic.
Even though the Chargers have run the second most pass plays in the league, Allen still managed to see a whopping 25.43 percent of the team's targets prior to his injury. His 89 targets overall were third in the league behind only DeAndre Hopkins and Julio Jones. You could say he had a small role in the offense.
It wasn't just high volume for Allen, though. He was also fairly efficient. He is 22nd in the league in Reception NEP per target of the 49 receivers with at least 40 targets -- five spots ahead of Jones.
Additionally, good things happened when Rivers looked Allen's way. Allen's 37.81 Target NEP (which takes into account expected points lost on incompletions and interceptions) was by far the best mark on the team. Ladarius Green was second at 24.52, and Danny Woodhead was third at 23.38. The next highest receiver was Dontrelle Inman at 12.83 over his 18 total targets.
Based on Target NEP, it would appear as though neither Malcom Floyd nor Steve Johnson will come close to equaling Allen's production. Floyd's Target NEP is sixth on the team at 8.06, and Johnson is ninth at 3.05. They'll see the volume -- giving them fantasy relevance -- but Rivers' efficiency seems destined to take a hit.
That hasn't led to a profound impact on Rivers' fantasy outlook. Our projections have him pegged at 326 passing yards on 41 attempts (7.95 yards per attempt) with 2.31 touchdowns and 0.80 interceptions. Even so, it'll be important to track how Rivers performs without his top option.
Are We Underrating Cutler's Performance?
It makes sense that people would dog Cutler's output when they get the chance. They disapprove of his demeanor, and he's probably overpaid. But that doesn't mean he isn't having a good season.
Entering Week 9, Cutler actually sits 11th in Passing NEP per drop back of the 33 quarterbacks with at least 100 drop backs. This puts him ahead of Cam Newton, Russell Wilson, Andrew Luck, and Joe Flacco.
If you didn't see this coming, worry not. This is the best Cutler has been in quite some time. In his final year with the Denver Broncos, Cutler finished fourth in Total NEP, which includes a quarterback's rushing abilities. Since then, he has never finished higher than 19th with the Bears. He's 12th now in that category despite missing a game and a half. This is -- in all likelihood -- the best that Cutler has played while in Chicago.
Cutler's performance becomes even a bit more impressive when you consider the other injuries on the offense. Alshon Jeffery has been limited to only three games, but he leads the team in Reception NEP, Reception NEP per target, and Target NEP. Can you imagine what Cutler's efficiency metrics would look like if Jeffery had been healthy the whole year? We'd be looking at a top-10 signal caller in Smokin' Jay.
Cutler has a good chance to keep those good vibes rolling Monday. San Diego is 24th in Adjusted Defensive Passing NEP per play. That said, our projections forecast a mediocre night for Cutler. They have him down for 244 yards passing on 35 attempts (6.97 yards per attempt) with 1.51 touchdowns and 0.94 interceptions while adding 15 yards on the ground. If he can maintain the solid play he has flashed throughout the year, though, don't be shocked if he's able to exceed those marks.
Can Jeremy Langford Fill Matt Forte's Shoes?
Forte had been one of the most used assets in the league before going down with injury. He was fourth in the league in carries with 136 and tied for ninth in targets among running backs with 36. The efficiency wasn't quite there -- ranking 30th in Rushing NEP per carry of the 40 backs with 60 carries -- but the volume was.
The team doesn't appear to be worried about Langford. Reports earlier in the week were that he was expected to see 20 carries. That's a lofty mark for a guy who only has 27 totes in his career. So what have we learned about Langford in that small sample?
It's not a lot to work with, but Langford's early work has been solid. His 27 carries have resulted in -0.52 Rushing NEP, and his -0.02 Rushing NEP per carry edges out the mark Forte posted at -0.05. Additionally, 51.9 percent of Langford's carries have resulted in positive NEP, compared to just 41.2 percent for Forte. This isn't to say that he's better than Forte, but it's possible he'll fit in well.
Langford picked a good time to enter the starting role. His first significant test will come against the team ranked 30th in Adjusted Defensive Rushing NEP per play. Six different running backs have had at least 100 yards from scrimmage against them this year, and they have allowed 10 total touchdowns to running backs. That should help ease the transition a bit.
Our algorithms have Langford coming close to that mark, as well. He's projected to rack up 52 yards on the ground with 0.35 touchdowns to go with 3 receptions for 30 yards and 0.17 touchdowns through the air. If the Bears can keep things close and keep Langford involved, it should be interesting to see what he can do.
Which Team Gets Its Third Win?
San Diego enters this one as four-point favorites with both teams looking to pick up their third win of the season. Can the Bears pull off the upset?
Let's go back to the projections page, where we can look at similar games throughout history. Because numberFire's data goes back to 2000, there are a ton of games from which to choose, and these contests can often be strong indicators of what we can expect to transpire.
The most similar game to this one -- at a 90.69 percent match -- comes from all the way back in 2005 between the St. Louis Rams (representing the Chargers) and the New Orleans Saints (representing the Bears).
In this one, the Saints actually jumped out to an early lead of 14-0 and led 17-7 in the fourth quarter. Then the wheels came off. In the fourth quarter, the Saints had four possessions. The best result of any of those was five plays leading to a punt. On the others, they fumbled, threw a pick six, and turned the ball over on downs. But you can bet they tried their hardest.
The Saints basically won every statistical category in the game, including first downs, total yardage, and third-down conversion rate. However, the turnovers were killer. Not that this would be a concern in a Cutler-led offense, right?
The good news for the Bears is that the Chargers' defense is not a fan of those turnover things. They haven't forced one since Week 5, a streak spanning 210 minutes and 2 seconds of football. As long as the Bears keep the old version of Cutler bottled up, they've most defintiely got a shot to pull this one off.
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