Colts, Patriots have Something to Prove

Indianapolis Colts QB Carson Wentz
Indianapolis Colts QB Carson Wentz
Photo: USA Today Sports Images

Game of the Week: Tennessee Titans at Indianapolis Colts, Sunday, 1 p.m.

NFL Week 8 - Let's give the Carson Wentz Victimization Index a well-deserved breather in favor of some straight-talk Colts and Titans.

Football Outsiders Almanac gave the Colts an 8.7-win projection and 50.5% odds to make the playoffs back in July based on the following reasoning:

  • Wentz was all but certain to bounce back from his Long Dark Season of the Soul toward 2018/2019-level mediocrity, if not 2017 excellence.
  • The rest of the roster was playoff-worthy.
  • The division schedule included four gimmes.

So far, that projection has proven accurate. The Colts currently have a 48.0% chance of reaching the playoffs, thanks in part to four upcoming virtual locks (Texans again, Jaguars twice, Jets) on their schedule. Their roster has some clearly defined strengths, like the NFL's top-ranked run defense per DVOA. And while Wentz's lows have been cavernous and his drama-to-production ratio astronomical since the start of camp, he has provided enough big plays to rank a respectable 16th in DYAR.

Football Outsiders Almanac projected the Titans to finish below the Colts with 8.3 wins and a 42.1% chance to make the playoffs based on the following reasoning:

  • They did not do enough to upgrade one of the league's worst defenses.
  • The offense would regress due to Arthur Smith's departure and Derrick Henry regression, though we were wisely non-militant about that second item.
  • Their division schedule included four gimmes, ensuring that things would only get so bad.

That projection proved to be too pessimistic: the Titans currently have an 80.7% chance to make the playoffs. Their defense has climbed to 22nd in the NFL. Henry is Omni-man, with a subway train ready for anyone who mentions the Curse of 370 to him. And while the Titans lost to the Jets, they beat the Bills and Chiefs and still have three divisional friendlies on the upcoming schedule.

The Titans defeated the Colts 25-16 in Week 3 despite three turnovers that kept the Colts in the game until the fourth quarter. A lot has happened to both teams since then. For the Titans: A.J. Brown and Julio Jones got injured and then healthy again, coordinator Todd Downing discovered that play-action is a good thing with Henry at running back (before you quote analytics doctrine at me: Think, Mark, Think), and Kristian Fulton and Caleb Farley went on IR, weakening a cornerback corps that made up for quality with quantity. The Titans rank 28th in variance because their personnel keeps varying.

As for the Colts: Wentz's sprained ankles have become less sprained, Quenton Nelson is back, and a Bomb Cyclone landed. T.Y. Hilton also did that thing where he rises like a werewolf to face the Texans, then disappears until the next full moon. The Colts aren't as unpredictable as the Titans, but there's reason to believe that they are a better team than they were in Week 3.

The Titans aren't as banged up as it appeared they might have been after beating the Chiefs: tackle Taylor Lewan was back at practice this week, and guard Rodger Saffold is fine after bouncing in and out of the lineup last week. Henry should be surrounded by his full phalanx of hoplites. Fill-in defensive backs such as Greg Maybin played well against the 2021 version of Patrick Mahomes in Week 7 and should be able to handle themselves against a quarterback who looks like the 2021 version of Mahomes on his best days.

The Colts, like the 3-4 Patriots, have yet to beat a quality opponent this year. They'll have to do so once or twice to meet our projection. This could be the week, but Walkthrough isn't putting any money on it. Titans 26, Colts 24.

New Orleans Saints at Tampa Bay Buccaneers, Sunday, 4:25 p.m.

The Buccaneers have attempted the most passes in the NFL: 309 attempts through seven games, or 44.2 attempts per game. The Saints have attempted the fewest passes in the NFL: 155 through six games, or 25.8 per game. The Saints have attempted fewer passes per game than the Bears, a weak team in the throes of a quarterback crisis.

The Buccaneers average 69.0 total offensive plays per game, fourth in the NFL behind the Cowboys, Bills, and Vikings. The Saints average just 58.5 total plays per game, 29th in the NFL ahead of the Bears, Texans, and Seahawks.

Generally, strong overall teams execute a high number of offensive plays: their offenses sustain drives, then their defenses get the ball back quickly so they can run more sustained drives. The opposite is true for weak overall teams. There are other variables in the function, including the design of the offense: the Vikings are built for prolonged drives (as were the Saints of the late Drew Brees era), while the Seahawks (and Buccaneers) are built for quick strikes, which is why those teams end up near the opposite poles of the plays-per-game spectrum. But in general, every team wants to be up among the Buccaneers and Cowboys, not down among the Bears and Texans.

That's a long, roundabout way of saying that what the Saints have done this year is not sustainable. Sure, they can tumble into a wild-card berth with defense, hide-the-Jameis tactics, and tight wins during cyclone bombs; now that there are 14 playoff teams, lots of zany things are possible. But their tortoise-and-hare tactics will only work against the league's top teams if they manage to build an early lead, preferably against a second-tier defense, allowing them to play turnover ball.

The Saints surprised the Packers in Week 1. They won't surprise the Buccaneers this week. And they are unlikely to surprise the Cowboys, Bills or, heck, maybe even the Titans in the future. Buccaneers 26, Saints 17.

New England Patriots at Los Angeles Chargers, Sunday, 4:05 p.m.

The Patriots rank 18th in passing offense DVOA, 14th in rushing offense, 14th in passing defense DVOA, 14th in rushing defense, and 12th in special teams. They are an average team in nearly every respect, according to our metrics.

Whenever a team comes out so middling in so many ways in our analysis, I assume that either: A) I am looking at the Vikings; or B) there's a lot of noise in our data. In this case, DVOA may be grinding the Jets blowout wins, the Saints blowout loss, the close win over the Texans, and the close losses to the strong teams into a gooey paste of opponent adjustments and events that took place after games were decided.

The fact that these are Bill Belichick's Patriots means we need to swirl the vintage around our palettes a few more times to make sure we aren't missing any subtle flavors of excellence. Belichick is clearly playing a complementary ball-control style of football to protect Mac Jones. That may result in homogenized rushing and passing efficiency and a risk-averse defense more concerned with preventing big plays than generating them. It's a wise tactic, but it's more of a survival strategy than a plan at world domination. If the Patriots are secretly better than they appear in DVOA or the standings, they are keeping it well hidden. My gut tells me that they are worse than they appear and skating against opponents that can barely defend themselves.

That said, the gap between the Patriots and Chargers isn't that large. Walkthrough isn't laying five points with Team Kicker Catastrophe when Patriots fans might be flying the Foxborough homefield advantage into town. The Patriots should cover and might pull an upset. Like the Colts, they could easily reach the playoffs as wild-card fodder. But Walkthrough won't buy what they're selling until the Patriots prove that they are truly better than average at anything besides mopping the floor with the Jets. Chargers 22, Patriots 20.

Dallas Cowboys at Minnesota Vikings, Sunday, 8:20 p.m.

(Friday morning edit) The spread for this game went on quite a journey over the last few days, dropping from Cowboys -2.5 or so to Cowboys +2.5 after Dak Prescott (calf) mused in his Thursday press conference about potentially not playing on Sunday night. Reports out of Dallas practices suggested that Prescott was moving well during practices, but there are load-management issues at play: the Cowboys still make the playoffs in 94% of our simulations with a loss, so an overabundance of caution could be the right move.

At any rate, the original capsule for this game is entirely obsolete. The Cowboys should cruise with Prescott, they'll lose with Kellengarrett B. Dalton (we're told their latest red-headed backup is named Cooper Rush) at quarterback, and Walkthrough is taking this game off the board. 

Philadelphia Eagles at Detroit Lions, Sunday, 1 p.m.

How this game will go:

  • Surprise Eagles onside kick to start the game! Lions recover.
  • Twelve-play Lions touchdown drive: nine runs, three fake punts.
  • Surprise Lions onside kick! Lions recover.
  • D'Andre Swift 50-yard screen-pass touchdown.
  • With Miles Sanders injured, Nick Sirianni suddenly decides that he's Chuck Knox and orders 30 straight running plays to Boston Scott and Kenneth Gainwell. Each fumbles once, leading to Lions field goals.
  • Sirianni's halftime speech begins: "Once in a golden hour/I cast to earth a seed/Up there came a flower/The people said, a weed..."
  • Second-half mayhem involving Jared Goff fumbles and DeVonta Smith outrunning the entire Lions secondary. Game suddenly tied.
  • Eagles get the ball back with 32 seconds left and no timeouts, but Hurts completes a 30-yard pass to Smith and spikes the ball with six seconds left, setting up a game-winning 57-yard field goal.
  • Dan Campbell approaches Sirianni after the game planning to bludgeon him with a crowbar. "Hana wa sakuragi, hito wa bushi," Sirianni intones in fluent Japanese. Campbell hugs Sirianni instead. Eagles 23, Lions 20.

Carolina Panthers at Atlanta Falcons, Sunday, 1 p.m.

Can anyone explain to me why Joe Brady is considered an offensive mastermind?

Yes, Brady sat at Sean Payton's feet for a few years with the Saints. Yes, he coordinated an LSU passing game featuring Joe Burrow, Ja'Marr Chase, and Justin Jefferson to a national championship, and so could you. Yes, he's a buzzy name among Twitter early adopters who love to throw buzzy names around. So far, all we have heard is what Brady and Matt Rhule can do with Teddy Bridgewater, Sam Darnold, and various playmakers, but all we have seen are lots of short 2020 field goals, a three-game Sam Darnold mirage against FCS opponents, and occasional Deshaun Watson rumors.

The Falcons are 3-3. Wait, is that right? (Counts wins several times.) Yes, the Falcons are 3-3 and can overtake the Panthers in the standings with a win. If that happens, Walkthrough's Rhule/Brady Skeptics Society will likely have a membership boom. But of course, never bet on the Falcons. Panthers 24, Falcons 16.

Miami Dolphins at Buffalo Bills, Sunday, 1 p.m.

Tua Tagovailoa has attempted 24 passes categorized as RPOs by Sports Info Solutions. He has also attempted 19 passes to receivers at or behind the line of scrimmage that were not categorized as RPOs. Keep in mind that Tua has thrown just 118 passes this season.

On non-RPO passes beyond the line of scrimmage, Tua is 50-of-75 for 554 yards, four touchdowns, three interceptions, a 66.7% completion rate, and 7.4 yards per attempt, the latter figure ranked 27th in the NFL on similar throws among quarterbacks with 50-plus attempts.

It's hard to determine where Tua's limitations begin and the scaffolding the Dolphins' Committee of Coordinators has erected to protect him ends. We're rapidly approaching the point where such chicken-or-egg questions become beside the point. As we used to say in teaching: give someone a crutch long enough, and they'll start limping. And of course, the Deshaun Watson clock is ticking toward midnight.

The Bills shut the Dolphins out in their first meeting and probably won't this time. Bills 28. Dolphins 13.

San Francisco 49ers at Chicago Bears, Sunday, 1 p.m.

Jimmy Garoppolo remains the 49ers starter as Trey Lance works his way back from a knee injury. Matt Nagy is quarantined in a super-secret location that criticism cannot enter and common sense cannot escape. Lance versus Justin Fields is must-see TV in a universe where the 49ers have better injury luck and the Bears have better coaching. Oh well, there's always next year. 49ers 19, Bears 13.

Pittsburgh Steelers at Cleveland Browns, Sunday, 1 p.m.

Baker Mayfield and Nick Chubb returned to practice this week. Tackles Jack Conklin and Jed Wills also appear to be back. The Browns scratched out a Thursday night win and have emerged from their mini-bye healthier than they have been in weeks: truly a best-case scenario, based on how bleak things looked about 10 days ago.

Walkthrough covered the Steelers in detail on Wednesday. The Browns are custom-built to beat the Steelers: a rugged running game to neutralize Pittsburgh's pass rush and take advantage of injuries along the Steelers' interior defense, a front that shuts down the run and can collapse the pocket from any direction. It still feels weird to pick the Browns over the Steelers without a second thought, but it will probably get a little easier by Week 17. Browns 24, Steelers 19.

Los Angeles Rams at Houston Texans, Sunday, 1 p.m.

We're not gonna take the Texans in some dumb early-game prop we're not gonna take the Texans in some dumb early-game prop we're not gonna take the Texans in some dumb…

The Texans rank ninth in second-quarter defensive DVOA; the Rams 25th in second-quarter offensive DVOA. The Rams are pull-away artists who start slowly (30 first-quarter points) and got surprised early by the Lions in Week 7. The Texans defense plays fairly well until their offense surrenders in most weeks, and they lulled the Cardinals to sleep for the first 25 minutes or so of last week's game.

The first-half line is Texans +7.5. LET'S DO THIS!!!!!

(It's totally OK if you don't want to do this). Rams 35, Texans 16.

Cincinnati Bengals at New York Jets, Sunday, 1 p.m.

Here's my 2018 Bleacher Report draft grade for Mike White:

Deadly Accurate Quarterback Comparison: Cooper Rush with a better arm.

Mike White threw for 4,363 yards and 37 touchdowns in 2016, when Taywan Taylor was his go-to receiver, Anthony Wales his running back, and Forrest Lamp his top protector. With those players gone in 2017, White's production dipped (4,177 yards and 26 touchdowns in nearly 150 more pass attempts), and he endured 46 sacks. The sacks and reliance on his supporting cast are red flags, but he checks most of the other boxes: tall, sturdy, live-armed, handled himself well at the Senior Bowl, etc.

White's a standard-issue, mid-major, mid-level prospect. He could get hot and launch a starting career if given a clean pocket and good supporting cast. But then again, who couldn't? White is a suitable backup for Dak Prescott: no real threat to his starter status (unless everything goes kablooie) but good enough to get the job done in spot starts and inexpensive.

You can read more about the Bengals in Monday's Walkthrough and the New York Times, and more about the Jets in Wednesday's Tank Watch. White and the Jets might be worth a backdoor cover nibble if the line reaches +14 or so. It was +10.5 at press time. Close, but no guitar. Bengals 30, Jets 16.

Washington Football Team at Denver Broncos, Sunday, 4:25 p.m.

How would these teams stack up against their combined injury report from last week?

Ryan Fitzpatrick throwing to Curtis Samuel, Jerry Jeudy, KJ Hamler, Logan Thomas, and Albert Okwuegbunam would be much more fun to watch than either of these offenses. A line cobbled from Brandon Scherff, Sam Cosmi, and some guys such as Brett Jones would not be any worse than the Bears offensive line. Bradley Chubb anchoring a defense featuring Jon Bostic, Josey Jewell, Alexander Johnson, and William Jackson could be filled out by practice-squadders and rank somewhere between 24th (Broncos) and 29th (Washington) in DVOA.

The IR team would need a few more players who were previously injured but returned (Antonio Gibson, Dalton Risner) to be heavy favorites against either Washington or the Broncos. But they would be four-point underdogs at worst.

Let's just hope the IR team doesn't get any stronger on Sunday. Broncos 20, Washington 16.

Jacksonville Jaguars at Seattle Seahawks, Sunday, 4:05 p.m.

The Geno Smith 2021 experience:

  • First Quarter: Say, this isn't so bad. Geno is just your typical veteran backup. Hey look: a big play!
  • Second Quarter: Didn't Geno used to be an arm-and-speed guy? He neither throws deep nor runs very well anymore. Does he need WD-40? Did he age six years for every year on the bench?
  • Third Quarter: Good heavens this offense is conservative. Could the Seahawks at least try to establish some sort of identity besides "desperately waiting for the swelling in Russell Wilson's finger to decrease from 'bratwurst' to 'ballpark wiener?'"

The Jaguars don't quite pose a threat to the Genohawks, but there is no way Walkthrough is laying three-and-a-half points. Seahawks 22, Jaguars 20.

New York Giants at Kansas City Chiefs, Monday, 8:15 p.m.

Patrick Mahomes has never faced the Giants. The last time these teams met, the Giants (1-8 at the time) upset the Chiefs 12-9 in the Meadowlands on November 19, 2017. Alex Smith threw two interceptions, Travis Kelce one, and Giants running back Shane Vereen one.

Yes, you read that right.

Giants coach Ben McAdoo was in the process of losing the locker room, his job, and perhaps his mind when the Giants entered that game. He ordered a fake punt and a Stagger Lee-type play on the very first Giants drive, then a Vereen option pass that the Chiefs easily picked off in the end zone. Andy Reid, fighting for a playoff berth and fresh out of ways to generate offense from Alex Smith's 12-Air Foot passes, ordered his own nutty Stagger Lee-formation trick play: Smith flared to Kelce, who was aligned behind a wall of blockers along the left sideline, and Kelce held onto the ball like Geno Smith before launching a bomb straight to Landon Collins. That may have been the precise moment Reid decided to remove Mahomes from the packing peanuts.

As far as they have fallen, the Chiefs aren't going to get upset by the Giants. But if any Week 8 game features interceptions thrown by two non-quarterbacks, this will be the one. Chiefs 34, Giants 21.


18 comments, Last at 31 Oct 2021, 4:16pm

#1 by jheidelberg // Oct 29, 2021 - 2:26pm

Can the Colts or Patriots beat a quality opponent?  An interesting lead in before opening the article.

This made me think of the Jets, they beat the Titans for their only win, a Titans team that is 5-1 in their non Jets games this year.   Last year the Jets beat two playoff teams for their only two wins, the Rams and Browns.

So then I went back to 2019.  The Jets won their last two games, the final game was against Buffalo who made the playoffs (so that makes the last 4 Jets wins against playoff teams, assuming that Tennessee makes it this year) and the second to last game was against the Steelers, who at the time were 8-6 (now 5 Jets wins against above .500 teams), the loss was in part why the Steelers did not make the playoffs.

The last non-quality opponent that the Jets have beaten were those awful 2019 Miami Dolphins on Dec 8, 2019.

So I ask, "Can the Jets beat a non-quality opponent?"  The Jets are doing better than last year when the question after an 0-13 start was, "Can the Jets beat anyone at all?"

I am not saying that the key to being a good team is to lose to the Jets, just pointing out a quirky situation.

Anybody out there have the Jets over Cincinnati?


EDIT:  Jets beat Cincy

Points: 0

#7 by cbywayofj // Oct 29, 2021 - 6:54pm

covered the gambling pluses of the jets in this one several articles back: cinci 3rd straight road game and sandwich game between big ravens win and in-state divisional (for 1st place?) rivalry game vs browns.  these are not so much about the teams talents as the psychology of the bengals players.  are they disciplined enough to be focused for this game?  their performance against jacksonville would say no, but we'll see.

Points: 0

#12 by IlluminatusUIUC // Oct 30, 2021 - 2:14pm

So then I went back to 2019.  The Jets won their last two games, the final game was against Buffalo who made the playoffs

That game was a typical rest-the-starters situation with the Bills' 5 seed clinched at kickoff. The Bills starting offense played less than a quarter. The Jets, however, probably should have won the opener when they took the ball off Josh Allen four times but only mustered 16 points at home.

Points: 0

#2 by Johnny Ocean // Oct 29, 2021 - 3:01pm

I agreed with you until TB made the comment about defense being a lot like a dog chasing a car.  It feels like that is offensive to the Football Gods so I am expecting a Saints upset here.

Points: 0

#8 by Bill96744 // Oct 29, 2021 - 6:56pm

Sorry. I missed that TB defense comment. Was TB12 talking about NO or Defenses in general?

If in general, TB grew up on the Pats when their D played rock em sock em at the line. I am guessing that is his internal reference point. NE used to make WR's and slot guys adjust after they got up off the ground. Harrison sometimes looked down on a prone WR like Mohammad Ali did at Liston Match 2 Round 1.

The Pioli rule, I do think, has made it very hard, except at edge rusher, for a good D to force any  O to react to them. (unless they have Aaron Donald)

Points: 0

#3 by Johnny Ocean // Oct 29, 2021 - 3:10pm

OK, BB owns the Chargers.  He is too classy to yell that into the stands on Sunday but he will definitely do his best to engineer a win here.  They cannot stop the run and the Patriots like to run.  Herbert is still inexperienced and can be schemed on like a rookie QB as the Ravens amply demonstrated.  Their coach thinks he is Ted Lasso which should give BB a little extra incentive to deliver a win.  Expect a masterclass in defensive subterfuge and Mac throwing a few aimed lasers amidst a barrage of running plays.  

Points: 0

#4 by ImNewAroundThe… // Oct 29, 2021 - 3:12pm

But Wentz looks elite in that pic. 


Points: 0

#11 by Joey-Harringto… // Oct 30, 2021 - 8:37am

In reply to by ImNewAroundThe…

He kinda looks like the "cool Jesus" statue from the movie Dogma 

Points: 0

#6 by nat // Oct 29, 2021 - 5:04pm

Neither has between a “quality opponent”. But both have taken one to overtime and lost to another as the result of a field goal attempt made or missed in the waning minutes. They both can go toe to toe with the big guys.

Their problem is not so much proving they are playoff-worthy. It’s making up lost ground from those close losses.

Would they be better teams if they had won one of those close games and gotten blown out in the other? Not a bit. But they would be closer to making the playoffs.

As ‘tis said: That’s why they play the games.

I expect at least one of the two to make the playoffsWhichever one does will be a “hot team”. Which also matters not a bit. But it will get written about as of it does.

Points: 0

#13 by IlluminatusUIUC // Oct 30, 2021 - 2:17pm

I think the difference might be that New England and Indy both have two walkover teams in their division. However, New England has played three of those games already (and lost one), while Indy still has three in their future. New England may have already received its bad division bump.

Points: 0

#14 by dank067 // Oct 30, 2021 - 2:54pm

FWIW, DVOA thinks both teams have essentially the same future strength of schedule. The Colts get three games against the Texans and Jags, but also have to play the Bills, Bucs, and Cardinals. The Patriots play more competitive teams in general, including Buffalo twice, but they also get to finish with Jacksonville and Miami in Weeks 17-18. A lot could be decided when they play each other in Indy in Week 15.

Points: 0

#15 by nat // Oct 30, 2021 - 8:21pm

Sounds about right. The Colts and the Patriots meet late in the season with the topXXXXXX last playoff spot on the line.

How the mighty have fallen.

Points: 0

#9 by cbywayofj // Oct 29, 2021 - 6:57pm

Good heavens this offense is conservative. Could the Seahawks at least try to establish some sort of identity besides "desperately waiting for the swelling in Russell Wilson's finger to decrease from 'bratwurst' to 'ballpark wiener?'"

this is LOL funny--well done.


overall pleased to see less politics and related snark in the articles post "The Gruden".

Points: 0

#10 by Ten Drink Drunk // Oct 29, 2021 - 7:47pm

Good summary of the Geno Smith experience Mike.

Geno Smith fourth quarter game on the line resume:

Week 5: Game ending INT

Week 6: Game ending fumble

Week 7: Game ending get sacked to 4th and 28

Week 8...

  • Leading by 5, game ending fumble 6 +250
  • Leading by 5, game ending pick 6 +350
  • Leading by 1, take a game ending safety, lose by 1 +500

Oh what horrors do you have in store for us this All Hallows Eve Geno?



Points: 0

#18 by jheidelberg // Oct 31, 2021 - 4:16pm

Reich takes the tie  and OT needing a win , you must have better chance of winning going for 2 with 22 seconds then playing OT 

Points: 0

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