Cincinnati Bengals wide receiver A.J. Green is not expected to be ready to play until after the Oct. 29 trade deadline, at which time the team will assess his progress and make a determination, a source tells ESPN.
Green is coming along well but, according to a source, the Bengals want to ensure a compete recovery before he returns — with the organization looking out for the player’s best interest beyond any single game.
Green is progressing nicely in his return from an ankle injury, according to a source. The seven-time Pro Bowler has been ruled out for Sunday’s game against the Jacksonville Jaguars and has not played yet this season for the winless Bengals (0-6).
Bengals coach Zac Taylor, when asked earlier this month about the possibility of trading Green, said “we’re not trading that guy.”
Green also downplayed the trade speculation this past week, saying “I haven’t heard anything.”
Week 11 NFL game picks, schedule guide, fantasy football tips and more
The Week 11 NFL slate is stacked with great matchups. Our NFL Nation reporters bring us the keys to every game, a bold prediction for each matchup and final score predictions.
Additionally, ESPN Stats & Information provides a stat to know for each game, and the Football Power Index (FPI) goes inside the numbers with a matchup rating (on a scale of 1 to 100) and a game projection. ESPN Fantasy‘s Kyle Soppe and ESPN Chalk‘s Mackenzie Kraemer hand out helpful nuggets as well. It’s all here to help get you ready for a loaded weekend of NFL football.
Let’s get into the full Week 11 schedule, including a battle between MVP candidate quarterbacks.
Sunday, 1 p.m. ET | CBS
Matchup rating: 90.7 | Spread: BAL -4.5 (51)
What to watch for: Expect a lot of scoring from Lamar Jackson and Deshaun Watson. This marks the second time in NFL history that two starting quarterbacks under the age of 25 with a passer rating of 100 or better will square off in Week 11 or later. The first occurred a year ago this week, when Jared Goff and the Rams defeated Patrick Mahomes and the Chiefs 54-51. — Jamison Hensley
Bold prediction: The Ravens break the Texans’ steak of not allowing a 100-yard rusher in each of the past two seasons. Jackson and the Ravens have produced six individual 100-yard rushing games this season, tied with the Cowboys and Panthers for most in the NFL. — Sarah Barshop
Stat to know: The Texans got four sacks against Jacksonville in their first game without defensive end J.J. Watt this season, but they struggled to win consistently in the trenches. According to ESPN’s pass rush win rate using NFL Next Gen Stats, the Texans beat their blocks within 2.5 seconds just 28% of the time in Week 9 without Watt, compared to 44% in their first eight games.
What to know for fantasy: These two quarterbacks share the position lead in games of 25-plus fantasy points this season (five). See Week 11 rankings.
Betting nugget: Watson is 11-3 against the spread (ATS) in his career as an underdog. Read more.
Barshop’s pick: Ravens 35, Texans 32
Hensley’s pick: Ravens 38, Texans 34
FPI prediction: BAL, 54.6% (by an average of 1.6 points)
Matchup must-reads: What we saw the last time Jackson faced Watson … Heisman package is latest wrinkle to Ravens’ ‘indefensible’ offense … Watson and Jackson were rivals. Now they’re taking it to the pros.
1 p.m. ET | Fox
Matchup rating: 69.0 | Spread: NO -5.5 (50)
What to watch for: The Bucs might potentially start two rookie cornerbacks — Jamel Dean and Sean Murphy-Bunting — on the outside against Drew Brees, who has lost consecutive division games in a single season just four times since joining the Saints, according to ESPN Stats & Information research (the last time was in 2016, losing to Carolina and then at Tampa Bay). — Jenna Laine
Bold prediction: New Orleans running back Alvin Kamara will put a jolt back into his season with 150 yards from scrimmage and two touchdowns. The Saints’ offense obviously needs a spark, and Kamara is now far enough removed from his ankle and knee injuries that coach Sean Payton should be able to unleash him a little more. — Mike Triplett
Stat to know: Saints receiver Michael Thomas has at least 10 receptions and 100 yards in back-to-back games. Only four players in NFL history have done it three or more times in a row. In the Week 5 meeting between these two teams, Thomas had 11 catches for 182 yards and a pair of touchdowns.
What to know for fantasy: Tampa Bay’s Mike Evans led all players (not just receivers) in fantasy points scored via the deep pass last season and is on pace to do it again this season. See Week 11 rankings.
Betting nugget: New Orleans is 9-3 ATS on the road over the past two seasons, the best mark in the NFL. Read more.
Triplett’s pick: Saints 27, Buccaneers 23
Laine’s pick: Saints 24, Buccaneers 22
FPI prediction: NO, 57.1% (by an average of 2.4 points)
Matchup must-reads: Source: Saints OL Peat out 6 weeks for broken arm … RB Jones ‘a work in progress’ but flashes potential in first start … One loss is not a trend, but Saints’ slow starts are adding up … Arians sends powerful message about culture change in Tampa
1 p.m. ET | Fox
Matchup rating: 63.1 | Spread: DAL -3.5 (51.5)
What to watch for: Ezekiel Elliott had 152 yards rushing and 88 yards receiving when these teams played last season. The Lions’ run defense might be worse than a season ago — and Elliott might be better. If the Dallas running back is able to get going early, he could be in line for another monster day, considering Detroit’s struggles against top-flight backs all year long. — Michael Rothstein
Bold prediction: The Cowboys will score a touchdown on their first possession. They have scored only once on the first drive in a game this season and did so with a short field after a defensive takeaway against Philadelphia. Making this even bolder: The Lions have allowed just one touchdown on opponents’ first possession. — Todd Archer
Stat to know: Dallas leads the NFL in third-down conversion rate (51.4%). And the Lions are allowing teams to convert on 44.8% of third downs, tied for 26th in the NFL.
Betting nugget: Entering this week, Dallas is one of two teams to be favored in every game this season (New England). Read more.
Rob Ninkovich contends that the Lions are going to have a tough time with the Cowboys, especially with Matthew Stafford out.
Archer’s pick: Cowboys 27, Lions 23
Rothstein’s pick: Cowboys 31, Lions 20
FPI prediction: DAL, 64.9% (by an average of 5.2 points)
Matchup must-reads: Elliott’s message to Cowboys: ‘It’s on us to turn it around’ … Sunday showed what life without Stafford is like for the Lions … For starters, Cowboys need consistency by opening games faster
1 p.m. ET | CBS
Matchup rating: 58.7 | Spread: MIN -10.5 (40.5)
What to watch for: Vikings running back Dalvin Cook has notched 100 yards of offense in eight of his 10 games this season. The role he has taken on in the passing game has allowed Minnesota to dismantle teams with its explosive screen and play-action attack. Even if the Broncos sell out to stop Cook on the ground, they’ll have to account for him, Stefon Diggs, Kyle Rudolph and Irv Smith Jr. through the air. — Courtney Cronin
Bold prediction: The Broncos will get a rushing touchdown. While Courtland Sutton figures to have a big day for the Broncos, the Vikings have surrendered just two rushing touchdowns all season, and both have come in two of their losses — to the Packers and to the Chiefs. — Jeff Legwold
Stat to know: Minnesota quarterback Kirk Cousins had the fourth-worst Total QBR (28.0) among qualified QBs and a 64.6% completion mark through four weeks. But since Week 5, he is completing 71.5% of his passes (third best in the NFL) and has 15 passing touchdowns to just one interception. And his 73.7 QBR ranks fourth in the NFL during that span.
Betting nugget: Minnesota is 32-13-1 ATS at home under Mike Zimmer, the best mark by any coach in the Super Bowl era (minimum 25 games). Read more.
Legwold’s pick: Vikings 23, Broncos 16
Cronin’s pick: Vikings 24, Broncos 17
FPI prediction: MIN, 79.3% (by an average of 10.9 points)
1 p.m. ET | CBS
Matchup rating: 49.1 | Spread: IND -3 (44.5)
What to watch for: Keep an eye on the battle between the Colts’ offensive line and the Jaguars’ defensive line. Quarterback Jacoby Brissett, expected to start after missing the Week 10 game with a sprained left MCL, was sacked 14 times, including 10 in one game, in two starts against the Jaguars in 2017. Brissett said their offensive line is different from two years ago; that’s a good thing because the Jaguars are sixth in the NFL in sacks with 30. — Mike Wells
Bold prediction: Jaguars tailback Leonard Fournette will score two red zone touchdowns. The Jaguars have struggled scoring touchdowns in the red zone (34.5%, 30th in the NFL), but the return of Nick Foles under center will help. His experience will lead to quicker decisions and should open things up for Fournette, who has just one rushing touchdown this season. — Mike DiRocco
Stat to know: Foles is 10-2 as a starter in November or later (including playoffs) over the past four seasons. That’s the best winning percentage (.833) by a starting QB with at least 12 starts in that time, besting Tom Brady‘s 27-7 record.
Betting nugget: Over the past four seasons, Jacksonville is 7-0-1 ATS against Indianapolis. And Indianapolis has been shut out in two of the past four meetings. Read more.
DiRocco’s pick: Jaguars 21, Colts 20
Wells’ pick: Jaguars 20, Colts 10
FPI prediction: IND, 54.3% (by an average of 1.5 points)
1 p.m. ET | Fox
Matchup rating: 43.8 | Spread: CAR -5.5 (49.5)
Bold prediction: Jones goes for 200 yards and three touchdowns. His career-high yardage was 300 against the Panthers in 2016. Matt Ryan will find Jones for a couple of big plays off hard play-action as the Falcons have done to the Panthers in the past. — Vaughn McClure
Stat to know: Ryan has a career-low 58.6 Total QBR through eight starts but still ranks 11th among 33 qualifying QBs. Perhaps not helping the matter, the Falcons have the fourth-worst pass block win rate using NFL Next Gen Stats (47%) in the NFL.
Betting nugget: Atlanta has covered back-to-back games after starting 1-6 ATS. Over the past two seasons, Atlanta is 4-3 ATS in divisional games and 4-14 ATS in all other games. Read more.
McClure’s pick: Falcons 28, Panthers 21
Newton’s pick: Panthers 28, Falcons 17
FPI prediction: CAR, 50.5% (by an average of 0.2 points)
Matchup must-reads: Making an MVP case for RB McCaffrey … Little-known RB Hill out to prove himself in rare chance to start … In snowy loss, QB Allen shows why Panthers teammates believe in him … ‘Forget the plays’: How the Falcons found their long-lost pass rush
1 p.m. ET | Fox
Matchup rating: 4.7 | Spread: WSH -1 (38.5)
What to watch for: The Redskins will want to run vs. the Jets’ run defense. In the Redskins’ past four games, running back Adrian Peterson averaged 5.1 yards per carry and 18.8 carries per game. But in the Jets’ past four games, their run defense has allowed just 2.4 yards per carry on 109 attempts. — John Keim
Bold prediction: Rookie Washington quarterback Dwayne Haskins will throw his first touchdown pass and rookie receiver Terry McLaurin will top the 100-yard mark for the second time in three games. Haskins is struggling, but he will face an inviting group of cornerbacks — perhaps the weakest group of corners he’ll see in his NFL career. Due to injuries, the Jets are down to backups and unheralded rookies. — Rich Cimini
Stat to know: The Redskins have gone 13 straight quarters without scoring a touchdown, the longest streak in the NFL this season and tied for the third-longest single-season streak by any team since 2001.
Betting nugget: Since 2014, favorites that have won one or zero games in Week 8 or later are 1-9 ATS and 2-8 straight up with six straight outright losses. Read more.
Cimini’s pick: Redskins 23, Jets 17
Keim’s pick: Redskins 17, Jets 16
FPI prediction: WSH, 57.5% (by an average of 2.6 points)
1 p.m. ET | CBS
Matchup rating: 4.4 | Spread: BUF -5.5 (41)
What to watch for: Frank Gore is 73 yards from passing Barry Sanders for third on the all-time rushing list. Dolphins coach Brian Flores — who played against Gore in college — has made it known that a top priority is stopping Gore, Devin Singletary, quarterback Josh Allen and the Bills’ 12th-ranked run offense from going wild on their defense. — Cameron Wolfe
Bold prediction: This Bills’ offense finally comes to life, as Allen completes his first pass that travels 30-plus yards and Singletary racks up more than 100 total yards. — Marcel Louis-Jacques
Stat to know: With a win, the Dolphins would become the fifth team in NFL history to win three straight games after starting the season 0-7 or worse (joining the 1978 St. Louis Cardinals, 1986 Indianapolis Colts, 2011 Miami Dolphins and 2013 Tampa Bay Buccaneers), per Elias Sports Bureau research.
Betting nugget: Miami has covered five straight games, all as an underdog, including back-to-back outright wins. It’s the longest active cover streak in the league. Read more.
Rob Ninkovich doesn’t see the Bills losing two games in a row and likes the defensive matchup vs. the Dolphins.
Louis-Jacques’ pick: Bills 31, Dolphins 14
Wolfe’s pick: Bills 23, Dolphins 17
FPI prediction: BUF, 64.3% (by an average of 5.0 points)
Matchup must-reads: For Bills to make playoff run, offense must start pulling its weight … Dolphins coach Flores vs. Bills RB Gore, college edition … Dolphins’ wins a dilemma? ‘We’re going out to win every game. Period.’
4:05 p.m. ET | Fox
Matchup rating: 52.1 | Spread: SF -11.5 (45)
What to watch for: The 49ers scorched Arizona with their passing game two weeks ago, but it’s fair to wonder if they can do it again with tight end George Kittle and wide receiver Emmanuel Sanders day-to-day with injuries. If Arizona can successfully slow the Niners’ running game, and the 49ers struggle to throw it as well as they did in the previous meeting, the Cardinals could again push for the upset. — Nick Wagoner
Bold prediction: San Francisco defensive end Nick Bosa will take advantage of the Cardinals’ offensive line with three sacks of Kyler Murray, showing off for the team that passed on him with the first overall pick at the 2019 NFL draft. — Josh Weinfuss
Stat to know: The Cardinals rank 10th in the NFL in ESPN’s pass block win rate (60%) powered by NFL Next Gen Stats, and Murray has faced the blitz on only 29.2% of his dropbacks, the 12th-lowest rate in the NFL. But that hasn’t stopped the rookie QB from taking 31 sacks, the third most in the league this season.
What to know for fantasy: Niners quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo has failed to finish better than QB20 in three of the past four weeks. The lone exception? A QB2 finish against these Cardinals in Week 9. See Week 11 rankings.
Betting nugget: Since 2011, teams playing on Sunday coming off a Monday night loss (San Francisco) are 53-81-2 ATS, including 20-36 ATS since 2016. Read more.
Weinfuss’ pick: 49ers 31, Cardinals 20
Wagoners’s pick: 49ers 27, Cardinals 17
FPI prediction: SF, 85.2% (by an average of 14.0 points)
4:25 p.m. ET | CBS
Matchup rating: 91.1 | Spread: NE -3.5 (44.5)
What to watch for: Receiver Alshon Jeffery (ankle) has been unable to practice this week for the Eagles, putting his status in question. With DeSean Jackson already out for the rest of the regular season, Carson Wentz will have limited weapons at his disposal against a Patriots defense that ranks first in interceptions (19) and passing touchdowns allowed (3). — Tim McManus
Bold prediction: First-round draft choice N’Keal Harry will be active for the first time this season for the Patriots, and the wide receiver will be targeted in the red zone for a touchdown grab on a fade route, where his size and physicality can be tapped. The Eagles are tough to run against, so the passing attack figures to be a bigger part of the Patriots’ offensive approach. — Mike Reiss
Stat to know: When pressured this season, Tom Brady is completing just 28% of his passes (last in the NFL). And while under duress, his passes are off-target a league-high 51% of the time. The Patriots’ offensive line ranks 23rd in the league in ESPN’s pass block win rate powered by NFL Next Gen Stats, sustaining their blocks for 2.5 seconds 54.5% of the time.
What to know for fantasy: Eagles tight end Zach Ertz is coming off of his best game of the season (nine catches for 103 yards and a touchdown in Week 9), and the Patriots have allowed opponents to complete an NFL-high 74.3% of their passes thrown to tight ends this season. See Week 11 rankings.
Betting nugget: Brady is 40-18 ATS in his career following a loss. Read more.
Rob Ninkovick predicts the Patriots will run the ball well and be physically tough against the Eagles.
Reiss’ pick: Patriots 24, Eagles 20
McManus’ pick: Patriots 27, Eagles 23
FPI prediction: NE, 62.7% (by an average of 4.4 points)
Matchup must-reads: How Patriots soared again after devastating Super Bowl loss to Eagles … Is Wentz an elite QB? A dive into the numbers … How Sanu has quickly become key part of Patriots’ attack … Circle of life: Eagles’ Matthews back where he belongs
4:25 p.m. ET | CBS
Matchup rating: 35.6 | Spread: OAK -10.5 (48.5)
What to watch for: The Raiders will use their running game against the worst run defense in the league (the Bengals are giving up 173.0 yards per game) to set up play-action passing to tight end Darren Waller. If they handle their business against the winless Bengals and at the 2-7 Jets next week, the Raiders will roll into Kansas City on Dec. 1 with first place in the AFC West on the line. — Paul Gutierrez
Bold prediction: Waller will have two touchdowns. The Bengals have struggled to contain opposing tight ends, and Waller should be a matchup problem all afternoon. — Ben Baby
Stat to know: Oakland running back Josh Jacobs‘ 811 rushing yards this season are already a team rookie record. And he has three games with at least 100 yards rushing, tied with Hall of Famer Marcus Allen for the most by a Raiders rookie in franchise history.
What to know for fantasy: Cincinnati running back Joe Mixon ranks 14th in the NFL with 131 carries entering Week 11, but he is not one of the 82 players with a 20-plus-yard rush or one of the 94 players with a rushing touchdown. See Week 11 rankings.
Betting nugget: This is the second time in the past 15 seasons Oakland has been a double-digit favorite. The other came in 2017 when it was a 14-point favorite over the Jets, which it won by 25 points. Read more.
Baby’s pick: Raiders 30, Bengals 13
Gutierrez’s pick: Raiders 31, Bengals 16
FPI prediction: OAK, 84.4% (by an average of 13.5 points)
8:20 p.m. ET | NBC
Matchup rating: 60.8 | Spread: LAR -6.5 (41)
What to watch for: The Rams’ offense this season has been a shell of its former self. Quarterback Jared Goff has a Total QBR of 29.7 — fifth worst in the NFL — and there’s no relief in sight. The offensive line has been decimated by injuries, and three first-year starters must be prepared to line up across from a formidable Bears front, including outside linebacker Khalil Mack. — Lindsey Thiry
Bold prediction: Look for Mack to bust out and flood the stat sheet against the Rams, despite just one sack in his past five games. In six prime-time games with the Bears, Mack has recorded six sacks, seven forced fumbles, two fumble recoveries and an interception return for a touchdown. And last season, Mack had a sack and forced fumble in Chicago’s victory over Los Angeles. — Jeff Dickerson
Stat to know: Chicago quarterback Mitchell Trubisky‘s 35.8 Total QBR this season is the second worst in the NFL ahead of only Tennessee backup Marcus Mariota. And Trubisky’s 5.8 yards per attempt this season is the worst mark in the NFL.
Betting nugget: All six prime-time games in the previous two weeks went over the total after prime-time games went 19-5 to the under in Weeks 1-8. Read more.
Dickerson’s pick: Rams 20, Bears 18
Thiry’s pick: Bears 17, Rams 16
FPI prediction: LAR, 68.2% (by an average of 6.4 points)
Matchup must-reads: ‘Crazy trash’: How the Ramsey ‘gets in people’s heads’ … Bears living life in QB limbo with Trubisky … Rams say they’ll stick together despite uneven season … Injuries piling up for Rams as C Allen ruled out for year
What to watch for: Chiefs receiver Tyreek Hill has had some big games against the Chargers, and he’s on a roll of late with 17 catches for 287 yards and two touchdowns in the past two games. The Chargers are fifth in the league in passing yards allowed, so something has to give. — Adam Teicher
Bold prediction: The Chargers will rush for 200 yards. Melvin Gordon recorded his first 100-yard rushing game of the season last week (108) in a loss to the Raiders. The Chiefs are giving up 148 rushing yards per game, second worst in the NFL. The combination of Gordon and Austin Ekeler should create problems for Kansas City defensively. — Eric D. Williams
Stat to know: According to ESPN pass coverage metrics powered by NFL Next Gen Stats, the Chargers play zone coverage at the third-highest rate in the NFL. And Kansas City’s Patrick Mahomes leads the league in yards per dropback (10.9) against zone, while also completing 80% of his passes and posting a 96 QBR.
What to know for fantasy: Chargers quarterback Philip Rivers averaged 9.1 fantasy points per game against Kansas City from 2015 to 2017, but he righted the ship last season and averaged 23.7 against the divisional rival. See Week 11 rankings.
Betting nugget: Rivers is 15-5-1 ATS (12-9 straight up) in prime-time games as an underdog. Read more.
Williams’ pick: Chargers 31, Chiefs 28
Teicher’s pick: Chiefs 30, Chargers 24
FPI prediction: KC, 72.9% (by an average of 8.2 points)
Matchup must-reads: Mahomes says he’s feeling best he has all season … Mexico City game rekindles Chargers’ bond with fans in Tijuana … WR Hill has much more in his game than just speed … Chargers CB Davis holds Mexican roots dear
Bears were the first to stop Rams and Sean McVay – Los Angeles Rams Blog
A season after appearing in Super Bowl LIII, the Rams are 5-4 and clinging to a 17% playoff berth chance, according to ESPN’s Football Power Index.
And now the Rams host a Chicago Bears defense on Sunday (8:20 p.m. ET, NBC) that became the first unit to effectively stop Rams coach Sean McVay’s offensive juggernaut last season.
The Bears are 4-5 and, similar to the Rams, have experienced a downturn this season after reaching the playoffs. But the Bears’ defense packs a similar punch to last season, when it shut down the 11-1 Rams in a 15-6 victory during Week 14.
“They were a great defense, period,” McVay said this week about the 2018 Bears. “I don’t run away from the fact that I didn’t handle that night well at all.”
The six points in that game were the fewest scored by the Rams in a regular-season game since McVay became coach in 2017.
The key to that performance, according to Bears coach Matt Nagy?
“Being able to stop the run,” Nagy told reporters this week in Chicago. “You stop the run and then you penetrate the line of scrimmage and be able to try to affect the quarterback, his timing, make him move in the pocket and do different things there.”
Running back Todd Gurley rushed for 28 yards on 11 carries in that game, and Goff threw a career-high four interceptions, which amounted to a third of his season total on his way to a second-consecutive Pro Bowl.
“We’ll be ready if they do it again,” Goff said.
He should count on it. The Bears have allowed 3.66 yards per rush (fourth in the NFL), 327 yards per game (ninth) and 17.4 points per game (fourth) this season. Their front seven still features star outside linebacker Khalil Mack, who will be hungry for a sack after failing to take down a quarterback the last two games.
Mack will have a make-shift offensive line to feast on.
“It’s part of the job description and when you play quarterback, at times, it’s not always going to be like we had the last couple years,” said Goff, referring to his offensive line the last two seasons, which started the same five linemen in each season. “This is closer to reality and just going to prepare for it.”
The Rams offensive line was the best in the NFL last season, with a pass block win rate of 74%. This season, the group has struggled — even before it was struck by injuries, and has the 25th-best pass block win rate at 54%, according to ESPN Metrics Powered by NFL Next Gen Stats.
Goff has suffered as a result. His total quarterback rating of 39.7 is the fifth-worst in the NFL.
The fourth-year quarterback, who signed a four-year extension with $110 million in guarantees before the season, understands there are plenty of areas where he must improve.
“Throw more completions,” Goff said. “Get the ball in our guys’ hands and get rid of the ball. Get rid of the ball. Be accurate, be on time, everything. I can be a lot better at a lot of things.”
Last week, in a 17-12 loss to the Pittsburgh Steelers, Goff had three turnovers, including two interceptions and a lost fumble.
He has three games this season with multiple interceptions, which trails only Tampa Bay Buccaneers quarterback Jameis Winston, who has four. And Goff is responsible for 14 turnovers this season, the third-most behind Winston (18) and New York Giants rookie quarterback Daniel Jones (17).
Goff has fumbled nine times this season, losing five.
Needless to say, ball security and reacting under pressure have become points of emphasis.
“Playing in the timing and rhythm, sometimes, taking a sack, keeping two hands on the ball is the best thing to be able to do there,” McVay said. “It’s something we’re going to continuously drill and make a big point of emphasis.”
ESPN’s Jeff Dickerson contributed to this report.
Fourth-down decisions changed for good 10 years ago
Ten years ago, on Nov. 15, 2009, one fourth-down decision and the analysis that followed changed the NFL as we knew it.
Two of the greatest quarterbacks in league history were playing in prime time, as Tom Brady‘s New England Patriots led Peyton Manning’s undefeated Indianapolis Colts by six points with just over two minutes to play. The Patriots found themselves in a fourth-and-2 from their own 28-yard line. That’s an automatic punt, right? Not for coach Bill Belichick. Rather than give the ball back to an in-his-prime Manning and an Indianapolis offense that averaged 363.1 yards per game that season, Belichick chose to try to pick up the first down.
Brady swung a short pass out right to Kevin Faulk, but the running back gained only one yard, coming up short and turning the ball over. The Colts got the ball back, scored in four plays and won the game 35-34.
“We tried to win the game on that play,” Belichick told reporters afterward. “I thought we could make the yard. We had a good play, we completed it. I don’t know how we couldn’t get a yard.”
Fans were shocked. Sports media unleashed on Belichick, condemning him for his brazen and highly unconventional decision. Many people just didn’t understand it. But the numbers proved Belichick actually made the right call.
Let’s back up just a little bit. For decades, analysts tried unsuccessfully to crack the puzzle of football. We were able to do a few basic things, like make pretty good team-ranking systems and, from those, game predictions. We were also beginning to understand how much more important passing is than running the ball. But that was pretty much it — until a breakthrough in the 2009 offseason. It was then, due to a confluence of data, modern modeling techniques and computing power, that we were first able to successfully build what’s known as a win probability (WP) model. A WP model tells you how likely each team is to win a game considering all the critical factors of time, score, down, distance and yard line, along with additional circumstances.
When looking at Belichick’s choice, we see the numbers side with what he did. Going for it presented the Patriots with a 79% win probability, based on conversion probability and the potential of giving up a resulting touchdown in the case they came up short. Punting, however, would have yielded just a 70% win probability when factoring in average net punt yardage and the likelihood of the Colts scoring on the possession thereafter. Belichick’s decision gave him an extra 9% in win probability.
Until that November night, nobody in football cared about analytics. Coaches robotically followed the tired convention of kicking or punting on every fourth down until it was painfully obvious that there was no other alternative. But then the “Belichick fourth-and-2” happened, and people started paying attention to the numbers. Suddenly, fourth downs became synonymous with analytics. Teams started adding consultants and full-time analysts to help them make better decisions using win probability. The dam had broken, and the conversation changed overnight, as The Ringer’s Kevin Clark wrote on Wednesday. It was the first time that modern analytics could be shown to truly impact the way the game was played. But the real story is much more complicated.
So how have coaches changed their approaches to fourth downs over the past several years, and what impact has it had on the game? Let’s answer some of the bigger questions about the win probability model, final-down decision-making and what it all means.
What impact did Belichick’s decision have around the league?
Teams had been already evolving on fourth downs long before 2009. And there was actually no abrupt change in behavior on that play following Belichick’s fateful decision. Decision-making continued to gradually improve, and for league as a whole, it has really been in only the past two to three seasons that the evolution has accelerated.
It’s more difficult to measure how well teams do with fourth-down decisions than you might imagine. It’s tempting to simply measure how often teams choose to go for it rather than kick or punt, but that can be misleading. Every fourth down is unique in terms of situation, and each one must be analyzed in context. All other things being equal, for example, going for it with four yards to go is a different decision than with one yard to go, and going for it up by four points is a different decision than going for it while trailing by four.
To more reasonably assess final-down decision-making, I devised “win probability forfeit” a few years ago. It analyzes every fourth down and compares the win probability if a team goes for it against the win probability if they kick or punt. It spits out WP forfeit, or the difference in win probability if a team makes the wrong decision. In other words, it’s how much a team cost itself in terms of chance to win the game by making the wrong call. It also allows us to see how fourth-down decision-making has changed over the years.
How significant are the changes in fourth-down decision-making?
In 2001, teams on average forfeited about a half-game per season by choosing to kick and punt too often. That might not sound like much, but an extra win every other season could turn an eight-win also-ran team into a wild-card team, or a division winner into a 1- or 2-seed.
By 2018, though, the average team halved its error, forfeiting only a quarter of a game per year (or one win every fourth season). And in 2019? The league is on pace to forfeit an average of less than a fifth of a game. That’s a good deal of progress.
Total Win Probability (WP) Forfeit on 4th downs by year. Teams have been improving steadily since at least 2001.
While it’s tough to tell due to some year-to-year variance in the totals from the relatively small samples sizes a 16-game season provides, it appears that the decline in WP forfeit is accelerating since 2017. The projection for 2019 would be the least WP forfeit in the data set.
How have the decisions changed?
The magnitude (or cost) of each error also continues a steady decline. Coaches’ improvement has typically occurred on the most beneficial situations. When coaches do the wrong thing, it costs them an average 0.8% WP forfeit in 2019. In 2001, that was over 1.1%. (In other words, on average every time a coach punts or kicks when he should have gone for it, it costs his team about a 1% chance to win the game.)
In non-obvious situations, or the situations other than when coaches simply have no alternative but to go for it because of time and score, the trend in error rate follows a similar path as WP forfeit, but you could make a good case that the declining trend there really began in 2010.
‘Non-Obvious’ Error rates on 4th downs by Season. It’s possible that Belichick’s 4th and 2 decision 10 years ago sparked an improvement.
Personally, I think the noise in the data prevents us from drawing that conclusion, especially because the WP forfeit measure shows a much steadier decline through that same period. But perhaps the most plausible explanation is that following 2009, some teams started becoming more aggressive on fourth down but predominantly in inconsequential situations — such as when the outcome had all but been decided.
Are these developments the same from team to team?
No, the improvements in fourth-down decision-making are not shared by teams equally. Some teams were quicker to adopt better approaches to decision-making than others, while some have yet to indicate any change. And even a few could be seen as going in the wrong direction.
Although nearly all teams now have an analytics staff, that doesn’t mean game-day decisions are driven by analytics. According to the trends we’ve seen in WP forfeit, here is how I’d rate teams over the past few seasons in their use of analytics in decision-making:
Early adopters: Browns, Chiefs and Ravens
Improving: Bengals, Bills, Buccaneers, Dolphins, Falcons, Packers and Steelers
Late to the party: Colts, Eagles, Jets, Raiders, Texans, Vikings and 49ers
Not improving: Bears, Broncos, Cardinals, Chargers, Giants, Lions, Panthers, Patriots, Redskins, Saints, Seahawks and Titans
Going the wrong way: Cowboys, Jaguars and Rams
That’s just my interpretation of the trend lines, which are admittedly noisy after dividing up the data into 32 slices. I know many of the teams listed under “Not improving” or “Going the wrong way” have made some strides toward embracing analytics, but it might just take some time before it shows up on the field.
So why were fourth-down decisions only slowly improving before teams started seriously analyzing them?
I think teams have always very slowly adapted to changes in the game through intuition and trial and error, but that leaves them years, sometimes decades, behind the optimum. Football is an extremely complex sport. The higher the degree of complexity in a system, the more conservative the decision-makers need to be. The complexity makes it impossible to directly solve for the optimum solutions, so change is evolutionary. People rely on tried and true rules of thumb, passed down from the generation above.
The WP model and the general approach fostered by an analytical mindset has changed that. The optimum could now be solved. Although there might not have been an immediate shift in team behaviors following the Belichick fourth-and-2, the adoption of analytics around the league really began following the discussion surrounding the event. And 10 years later, the recent acceleration in fourth-down improvements is a direct consequence of that fateful decision.
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