Game Theory

Is it better NOT to win the NFC West? Plus, fantasy sleepers

NFL franchises use contextualized data to create competitive advantages. In order to realize an edge, teams need to employ the right data in the right way at the right time. This means distilling, interpreting and applying only the most influential data in a framework that accounts for personnel, opponents and evolving game situations. My goal is to be your analytics department. Each week this season, I want to work for you by giving you a peek into which numbers flag in my models as the most impactful ... or the most misunderstood.

As always, let me know if your eye test is picking up on something interesting, or if there's a stat/trend you'd like me to take a deeper look at. You can hit me on Twitter @CFrelund. As with any great analytics department, the more collaborative this is, the more value we can create.

STAT TO TRUST

0.0: Tom Brady's passer rating on deep throws over the past four games.

There is now enough data to assert that the deep ball could be a limiting factor for Brady and the Bucs' offense this season. That was quite apparent in this past Monday's 27-24 loss to the Rams, when the quarterback didn't complete one of his six deep attempts (passes of 20-plus air yards), throwing two interceptions in the process. One game is never enough of a sample size, but this is part of a larger trend for the 43-year-old.

Brady actually got off to a nice start in the downfield department in 2020. In Weeks 1-7, he completed 14 of 39 attempts (35.9%) for 505 yards (third-most in that span), with two touchdowns and zero interceptions. He averaged 12.9 yards per attempt on these throws, posting a 101.2 passer rating. But it's been a different story since the calendar flipped to November. Since Week 8, Brady is a staggering 0-for-19 on deep attempts, with three picks. And considering that his final three deep attempts in Week 7 fell incomplete, Brady's on a 0-for-22 skid. This is the longest streak of incomplete deep passes by any QB since 2017.

Going back to 2010 (10 full seasons of data), teams that completed at least 30 percent of deep passes over the course of the regular season won at least one playoff game 67 percent of the time. Clearly, a number of factors must be considered in every matchup (like receiver spacing, down-and-distance, score and time remaining). But the basic point here is that proficiency with the deep pass -- and with establishing the threat of the deep pass -- is an indicator for postseason success. And with Brady's completion rate on deep throws plummeting (now at 24.1 percent), this could be a big-time red flag for how the remainder of Tampa Bay's season will play out.

STAT TO QUESTION

Being No. 1 in the NFC West is better than being No. 2.

Obviously, there is a lot more football to play in the 2020 season, but an interesting thing is happening in the NFC West. The likelihood that the winner of the division will also win the NFC's sole playoff bye (by capturing the No. 1 seed) is decreasing; at the same time, the chances that three teams from the division will advance to the postseason are increasing. Thus, it could be more advantageous to not win the West, in terms of having better odds of winning at least one playoff game.

Heading into Sunday of Week 12, the 7-3 Los Angeles Rams are first in the NFC West, meaning they would have the No. 2 seed in the NFC if the playoffs started today. Meanwhile, the second-place Seahawks (7-3) would have the No. 5 seed, and the third-place Cardinals (6-4) would have the No. 7 seed. The No. 2 Rams would then host the No. 7 Cardinals in a game where Los Angeles would only be favored in 53.2 percent of simulations. The Seahawks, however, would travel to face NFC East-leading Washington (4-7), which would be the No. 4 seed, in a game Seattle would be favored to win in 55.4 percent of outcomes.

This conversation is still very theoretical in late November. However, any member of the tightly bunched NFC East, where all four teams remain within range of the division title despite the fact that none has more than four wins, would be a more appealing playoff opponent for any NFC West team than any of the other NFC West contenders; consider that Seattle's win probability in a playoff game would be 58.9 percent against the Eagles, 59.8 percent against the Cowboys and 57.1 percent against the Giants.

Yes, playing for the bye is absolutely worth it, and with six intra-division contests remaining this season, the West certainly isn't decided yet (the Cardinals and Rams both have games left to play against each other). However, the chances are good that the NFC West contenders will beat each other up enough to help put the winner of another division in better position to secure the No. 1 seed, meaning it's likely every NFC West playoff participant will face a first-round game. As the season enters its final weeks, remember it could be more advantageous, especially in a season where home crowds are not a factor, to face the NFC East than keep replaying division opponents.

TWO SLEEPER PLAYERS FOR WEEK 12

Tua Tagovailoa
Tua Tagovailoa
Miami Dolphins · QB

The Dolphins took the L last week in Denver, and rookie QB Tua Tagovailoa was replaced by Ryan Fitzpatrick with roughly 11 minutes left to play in the fourth quarter. In the four games he's started so far, Tua has thrown six TDs and zero interceptions with a 100 passer rating. While it's interesting that he didn't finish the game, the bigger takeaway probably is the fact that his head coach said he will remain the starter in Week 12 against the Jets. It seems Miami coach Brian Flores and offensive coordinator Chan Gailey may have been taking a strategic approach with Tua; once it was clear things would not go as planned against the Broncos (e.g., the run game wasn't working), they changed to the veteran before things could go haywire. In the matchup with the Jets, Tagovailoa will face a very young and inexperienced secondary -- giving him the opportunity to keep growing in a controlled manner.


(UPDATE: Tagovailoa is questionable for Sunday's game against the Jets with a left thumb injury.)

Gabriel Davis
Gabriel Davis
Buffalo Bills · WR

There are a number of less risky players you could roster on your fantasy squads (we definitely hit on tons of them on Fantasy Live; I also post a bunch each weekend), but one of my favorite upside plays this week is Gabriel Davis, the Bills receiver who has 31 targets (fourth among WRs in Buffalo), 19 receptions and three receiving touchdowns (tied for second-most on the team). His yards-per-reception mark of 14.5 is the second-highest on the team. Targeting Davis this Sunday will allow the Bills to exploit the Chargers defenders who aren't tasked with stopping Stefon Diggs or Cole Beasley -- and there's a good chance that strategy will pay out end-zone dividends. 

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