3 Week 10 Storylines to Watch: Party Like It's 2007 (and 2011)
Week 10 is upon us and the action across the NFL has been really heating up the past few weeks. In the past two weeks we have seen two of the then five remaining unbeaten teams receive their first losses in the Green Bay Packers and the Denver Broncos. Conversely we have seen the Patriots and Bengals extend their records to 8-0, and the Carolina Panthers put up a statement win against the Packers to continue their perfect season as well.
We have also seen Antonio Brown bust the hell loose for over 300 yards from scrimmage against the Raiders in Week 9. And, unfortunately, we have seen Keenan Allen, Le’Veon Bell, Dion Lewis, and Steve Smith, among others, lost for the season due to injury. Yeah, it's been a wild ride.
This week the matchup slate isn't as gratifying, though there are some key storylines you need to be following heading into the weekend. The most important and drama-inducing storyline, of course, is the Patriots heading to the Meadowlands to take on their long-time cross-conference rival in the Giants, the one team that has kept Tom Brady and the Patriots from perfection in the six Super Bowls they've competed in since 2001.
In 2007, the Patriots achieved regular season perfection, stamping out a 16-0 run that felt like they were on a collision course with destiny. That destiny, of course, was derailed at the hands of a fourth-quarter comeback drive engineered by Eli Manning, aided by a ridiculous hand-to-helmet catch by David Tyree. In 2011, the Patriots were back at the Super Bowl, facing the Giants yet again, and deja vu struck, with Manning leading another fourth-quarter drive to put the dagger in the Patriots' hopes to get Brady his fourth Super Bowl ring (which he later obtained in 2015).
And with Brady on a warpath this season post-Deflategate, one can't be faulted for falling into the narrative that he's motivated beyond where he would be for any normal regular season game due to the opponent he faces this weekend. So let's dig deeper into the Patriots and Giants game, as well as a few other storylines you should be looking forward to following in Week 10.
Can the Patriots Overcome Their Giant(s) Curse and Remain Undefeated?
To say that the Patriots' offense is on another level right now would be about as insightful as saying grass is green. But the numbers back that up too, as we will see by using numberFire’s signature metric for on-field performance above-or-under expectation, Net Expected Points (NEP).
You see, each play in football comes with an expected performance outcome, based on down-and-distance data and other football variables. Performance above the expectation for that play results in positive NEP, and performance under expectation results in negative NEP. The accumulation of positive and negative NEP over the course of a season results in a team or player's or team's total NEP. You can learn more about NEP by checking out our glossary.
So how good has the Patriots' offense been this season? Stupid good. With a 129.88 schedule-adjusted NEP, the Patriots have scored 20 more points above expectation than the next most productive offense in the Arizona Cardinals. That's ridiculous. For his part, Brady has accumulated a league leading 125.47 Passing NEP to go with a third-ranked 0.36 Passing NEP per drop back. All indications, including the 7-point spread in the Patriots favor in this projected high-flying, 54.5-point over/under matchup, point to the Patriots rolling over the Giants without a problem.
But the 11th ranked Giants' offense can't be discounted either. Just ask the New Orleans Saints who had to rely on Drew Brees throwing for seven touchdowns to defeat the Giants on a day where Eli Manning threw for six. The younger Manning brother has actually been pretty good this season, posting a 0.20 Passing NEP per drop back, good for ninth in the league among quarterbacks with at least 250 drop backs. And second-year wide receiver Odell Beckham has really started to turn it on in the last few games, putting up three touchdowns against the Saints two weeks ago. For the season his 0.89 Reception NEP per target ranks sixth among receivers with at least 50 targets, so any thoughts of a sophomore slump hitting Beckham have by now dissipated.
Even though it's been close to four calendar years since their second Super Bowl loss to the Giants, Tom Brady and the Patriots have a swagger this season that indicates they're out to deliver the pain on any team in their way, much less a team that has been a nemesis that has gotten the better of them historically. So get your popcorn ready folks. This is going to be a good one.
NFC West Grudge Match
One of the under-discussed topics of the 2015 NFL season is the changing of the guard that has taken place in the NFC West. For the two seasons prior to 2015, the Arizona Cardinals were a formidable team that racked up double-digit wins, yet remained on the outside looking in playoff-wise due to the competition within their stout division. In fact, the Cardinals were pretty much ignored by the football commentariat as all of the attention in the NFC West was showered on the Seahawks and the 49ers.
But this season, well, the 49ers have gone through so much turmoil with retirements, staffing changes, and generally awful play that they've turned to Blaine Gabbert as their quarterback, who you could be forgiven for not remembering was even in the NFL at this point. The rapid demise of the 49ers has made way for the Cardinals to assert themselves into the conversation of which NFC West team is the best in the business. And so far, it's not even close, because the Cardinals are straight balling.
Through nine weeks, the Cardinals sport the second-best offense in the league per our numbers, and quarterback Carson Palmer, fresh off of ACL surgery, has been on a mission, tossing for 20 touchdowns to go with only 6 interceptions, and even besting Tom Brady in per-drop back efficiency with a 0.37 Passing NEP per drop back. Prior to 2015, the Cardinals' moneymaker has been their stout defense, and there were concerns that when former defensive coordinator Todd Bowles left to coach the Jets that that'd no longer be the case. Not so. The Cardinals also sport the fifth-ranked overall defense per our numbers, equipped with the second-best rush defense and the seventh-best pass defense. Suffice it to say, the Cardinals have not only leapfrogged the 49ers but the Seahawks as well.
The 'Hawks just don't look the same this season, either. After finishing 2014 with the eight-most productive offense, they currently sit as the 21st-most productive offense per our numbers this season. This was not what they envisioned when they brought in Jimmy Graham to be a target monster and red zone machine. Part of their issue is their porous offensive line, which deteriorated in part because of the Jimmy Graham trade, which involved shipping Pro Bowl center Max Unger to the Saints in the offseason.
Marshawn Lynch has been banged up a bit this season, and in the last two games he has returned to full strength, so their offense probably isn't as bad as their current numbers indicate. But the Seahawks' success the last few seasons has relied on the one-two punch of of Lynch and Russell Wilson's legs to keep defenses honest, allowing the team to get by with a less than stellar crop of receivers, and allowing their world-class defense to shut teams down. The latter part of that equation is largely intact as their team defense ranks fourth overall in the league. But if the Seahawks are to get back in the division race, and reassert themselves as one of the best teams in the league, they need their offense to produce to come away with a win in Week 10.
Duel of the Sophomore Quarterbacks
If I'd told you that Derek Carr would be a top-10 quarterback in 2015 prior to the season beginning, you might've tried to sell me a bridge because I sounded like an idiot. But really, truly, Derek Carr has quietly navigated his Raiders' team to a 4-4 record, all the while compiling the eight-highest Passing NEP in the league, adding 68.29 points to the Raiders' offensive output above expectation. To put that in perspective, Aaron Rodgers (57.27) has added fewer expected points to his team's scoring than Carr through half a season's worth of games. The emergence of Amari Cooper in his rookie season, and the Michael Crabtree renaissance have helped Carr tremendously as well.
In fact, the Raiders are probably only at a .500 record because their defense remains a bottom-feeding unit, ranked 30th in the league overall per our numbers. And team defense is probably the only reason the Vikings have a 6-2 record because, thus far, last year's rookie darling in Teddy Bridgewater has seriously struggled to move the ball. In fact, Bridewater's paltry 0.01 Passing NEP per drop back bests only four quarterbacks who've dropped back to pass at least 150 times. Those quarterbacks are Matthew Stafford, Colin Kaepernick, Ryan Mallett, and Nick Foles. Yikes.
But if there's any game in which Bridgewater can get his confidence back, it's against the Raiders' 30th-ranked secondary. And Carr's matchup isn't a cakewalk (the Vikings are 12th in pass defense, per our metrics), but it's not as tough as going against the sixth-ranked Jets' passing defense who he just torched for 301 yards and 4 touchdowns. It will be interesting to see the outcome of this game, where the lesser-touted prospect coming out of college in Carr has been much more productive, yet needs a win to maintain wild card playoff hopes, and where the more coveted prospect in Bridgewater has struggled to regain his efficiency despite his team's successes.