All posts by Elena Curtoni

The Patriots’ Super Bowl Path Is The Easiest In Modern NFL History

On Sunday, the New England Patriots will make their 12th AFC Championship Game appearance under Bill Belichick and Tom Brady, and the legendary coach/QB combo will be gunning for a record eighth Super Bowl appearance together against the Jacksonville Jaguars. Cut through all the drama, the speculation about Brady getting old and questions about the Pats’ defense, and it has been a pretty vintage championship-caliber season in Foxborough: another year, another seemingly effortless trip to the Super Bowl.

They’ve had a little help, though. According to our Elo ratings, which estimate a team’s strength at any given moment, the Pats will have faced the easiest pair of opponents of any conference title-game participant with a first-round bye since 1990 (when the NFL established its current playoff structure). Given who they’ve played, it would have been much more surprising for New England to not make the Super Bowl than to return to it for a third time in four seasons.

For one thing, the AFC was exceptionally weak this year. In inter-conference play during the regular season, NFC teams went 41-23 against their AFC counterparts, which was the second-best record for one conference against the other in a season since 1990. (Only the 2004 season, in which the AFC went 44-20 against the NFC, saw a wider split.) As a result, the AFC playoff field contained only two teams with more than 10 regular-season wins, as opposed to five in the NFC. That meant a path was already forming for the top-seeded Pats to sail through to another Super Bowl.

Then a few key upsets boosted New England’s advantage. First, the Tennessee Titans toppled the Kansas City Chiefs in the wild-card game, setting up a huge divisional-round mismatch at Gillette Stadium. According to Elo, the Pats were favored by 12, since Tennessee rated at 1499 — below the league average rating of 1505 — even after knocking off K.C. That made it the third-most lopsided divisional matchup since 1990, trailing only the Pats vs. the Tim Tebow Broncos in the 2011 season and Minnesota vs. Arizona in 1998. The Titans hung with the Pats for about a quarter, but New England eventually dropped 35 unanswered points on Tennessee and rolled to victory.

The next day, another upset further cleared the way for New England. The Jaguars went into Heinz Field and took a quick 28-7 lead over the stunned Pittsburgh Steelers, then hung on for a 45-42 win. Elo had only given the Jags a 24 percent chance of winning — even lower than Tennessee’s chances at Kansas City — and it still only ranks Jacksonville as the 12th-best team in football, below five teams that were knocked out of the playoffs and three that didn’t even make it to the playoffs.

Just like that, the two AFC teams Elo thought had the best chance of beating the Pats going into the playoffs — the Chiefs and the Steelers — were gone, and in their place were a below-average team and another that doesn’t rate much higher. According to Elo, New England is a 10-point favorite to beat Jacksonville, with an 81 percent chance of winning the Lamar Hunt Trophy yet again.

If we multiply together the Patriots’ pregame odds of beating the Titans (85 percent) with that of the Jaguars (81 percent), we could say they had a staggering 69 percent chance of making the Super Bowl before they ever played a game. (This is assuming we’d somehow know that both of their opponents would pull off the upsets they did.) That’s easily the best number for any conference title-game participant since 1990.

Of course, some of that is also because the Patriots are a very good team; they went into the playoffs with the sixth-best Elo of any Pats season since the Brady Era began in 2001. We shouldn’t penalize them for being so darned good that they created some of their own easy path. There’s an easy fix for this, though. We can swap out the Patriots’ Elo ratings for a generic rating of 1646, which represents the average for all conference title-game teams since 1990, and then recalculate the odds of reaching the Super Bowl against the opponents a team faced.

For our generic NFL “final four” team, that requires multiplying together a 77 percent chance against the Titans and a 71 percent chance against the Jaguars, which gives a 55 percent Super Bowl probability. In other words, that number represents the relative ease of any good team making it through the Pats’ specific path to the Super Bowl — and it’s the easiest of any championship-game entrant since 1990.

The Patriots’ Super Bowl cakewalk

The teams with the easiest roads to the Super Bowl, based on how their opponents would have fared against a generic conference finalist 1990-2017

Generic Team’s Chances
Game No. 1 Game No. 2
Team Season Opponent Win % Opponent Win % Super Bowl % Made SB?
1 Patriots 2017 Titans 77.2% Jaguars 71.0% 54.8% ?
2 Eagles 2004 Vikings 75.6 Falcons 72.2 54.6
3 Bears 2006 Seahawks 74.6 Saints 72.7 54.2
4 Patriots 1996 Steelers 68.7 Jaguars 77.8 53.4
5 Steelers 1995 Bills 74.2 Colts 69.9 51.9
6 Packers 2007 Seahawks 68.6 Giants 67.7 46.5
7 Patriots 2011 Broncos 81.4 Ravens 57.0 46.4
8 Bills 1993 Raiders 73.8 Chiefs 61.1 45.1
9 Giants 2000 Eagles 67.2 Vikings 66.0 44.3
10 Patriots 2016 Texans 76.2 Steelers 56.9 43.4
11 Steelers 1994 Browns 65.0 Chargers 66.6 43.3
12 Jaguars 1999 Dolphins 74.1 Titans 58.3 43.2
13 Vikings 1998 Cardinals 80.2 Falcons 53.7 43.1
14 Bears 2010 Seahawks 84.3 Packers 50.8 42.8
15 Saints 2009 Cardinals 69.4 Vikings 60.9 42.3
16 Eagles 2003 Packers 59.9 Panthers 69.8 41.8
17 Eagles 2002 Falcons 70.9 Buccaneers 57.9 41.0
18 Seahawks 2014 Panthers 70.5 Packers 57.5 40.5
19 Redskins 1991 Falcons 67.7 Lions 59.6 40.4
20 Patriots 2012 Texans 64.7 Ravens 61.4 39.7
21 Bills 1990 Dolphins 64.4 Raiders 61.6 39.7
22 Steelers 2001 Ravens 61.9 Patriots 63.8 39.5
23 Bills 1991 Chiefs 62.4 Broncos 63.3 39.5
24 Cowboys 1995 Eagles 70.6 Packers 54.6 38.5
25 Dolphins 1992 Chargers 62.6 Bills 61.3 38.4

The generic team has an Elo rating of 1646, which is used to generate probabilities against each opponent.

Source: Pro-Football-Reference.com

Note that the Pats’ situation this year — with several upsets leading to easier-than-expected playoff matchups — is a pretty common thread across all of these smooth-sailing runs from the past. Being lucky enough to face a low-seeded opponent in one or both conference playoff games is a major advantage, and it’s no coincidence that eight of the nine teams below New England on the list above went on to represent their conference in the Super Bowl.

In these topsy-turvy AFC playoffs, that’s not exactly guaranteed for the Pats, despite their seemingly straightforward path to Minneapolis. Jacksonville was one of the most inconsistent teams in football this season, so it’s difficult to predict which version of the Jags will show up Sunday. If it’s the one that torched the Steelers for 45 points last weekend, New England’s relatively unimpressive defense could be in real trouble.

But the odds are that Brady, Belichick and company will punch that return ticket to the Super Bowl. And if they do, they can be thankful that one of the softest playoff red carpets ever was rolled out in front of them.

Politics Podcast: Immigration Showdown

FiveThirtyEight

 

Democrats and Republicans are at an impasse over immigration policy, with a potential government shutdown looming. Anna Maria Barry-Jester joins the FiveThirtyEight Politics podcast crew to talk about the partisan divisions at play and whether an agreement is likely.

The team also weighs Democrats’ odds of winning the Senate this fall, after Nate wrote an article arguing that their current chances could be overrated.

You can listen to the episode by clicking the “play” button above or by downloading it in iTunes, the ESPN App or your favorite podcast platform. If you are new to podcasts, learn how to listen.

The FiveThirtyEight Politics podcast publishes Monday evenings, with occasional special episodes throughout the week. Help new listeners discover the show by leaving us a rating and review on iTunes. Have a comment, question or suggestion for “good polling vs. bad polling”? Get in touch by email, on Twitter or in the comments.

The Saints Have The Best Rookie Class This Century

After three straight years of finishing 7-9, the New Orleans Saints seemed headed to another year of mediocrity when they began the season 0-2. But since Week 3, when New Orleans routed a 2-0 Carolina Panthers team on the road, the team has peeled off 12 wins in 15 games, including another win over the Panthers in the wild card round last Sunday.

And yet there’s reason to believe the franchise revival didn’t begin in late September. It began in April, at the NFL Draft.

There are lots of reasons for the Saints’ success this season — including the ageless Drew Brees and the historically good running back duo he’s been handing the ball off to — but the team’s terrific rookie class is perhaps the driving force behind it all. The Saints had just seven draft picks in the 2017 NFL draft, slightly less than the NFL average of 7.9 picks per team, and nearly every one of the picks can be viewed as either a solid addition or a huge success.

Cornerback Marshon Lattimore, taken 11th overall, has helped revitalize a defense that last year ranked as the second worst in the league in terms of points allowed. Third-round running back Alvin Kamara has accumulated more than 1,500 yards from scrimmage while leading the NFL with 6.1 yards per carry. Thanks in no small part to a number of ridiculous highlight plays like Kamara’s juggling touchdown and Lattimore’s butt interception, the duo were both named to the Pro Bowl and are favorites for offensive and defensive rookie of the year.

Even drafting just one of these two would be about enough to qualify a draft class as a success, but the Saints didn’t stop there. Tackle Ryan Ramczyk, who was taken 32nd overall after New Orleans traded Brandin Cooks to the New England Patriots for that pick, has played every offensive snap this season. Second-rounder Marcus Williams started 15 games and made four interceptions at safety while the remaining picks — linebacker Alex Anzalone, edge rusher Trey Hendrickson and DE Al-Quadin Muhammad — have all contributed to various degrees.

Put it all together, and the Saints not only had the top draft class of any team in 2017 but one of the best this century. To show this, I used Pro-Football-Reference.com’s Approximate Value (AV) metric.You can see more detail on how AV is calculated here.

‘>1 AV is “an attempt to put a single number on the seasonal value of a player at any position from any year.” Obviously there’s no perfect way to measure the contributions of an offensive tackle relative to a middle linebacker, but this metric allows us to at least estimate value of every player and compare them regardless of position. Comparing the total AV of every team’s rookies shows just how well the Saints drafted in 2017 relative to the rest of the league.

Looking at the entire New Orleans roster, nearly 18 percent of the Saints’ overall AV in 2017 came from their draft class, good for the highest percentage of any team this year. Unsurprisingly, New England’s four draft picks, the fewest in the league, produced the least value for their team in 2017.

The Saints leaned on rookies more than any other team

Share of each team’s Approximate Value created by their draft picks, 2017

Team Percent
New Orleans 17.8%
San Francisco 16.3
Cleveland 14.7
Houston 12.7
Chicago 11.5
New York Giants 11.4
Buffalo 10.8
Detroit 10.3
New York Jets 9.9
Jacksonville 9.7
Washington 9.2
Los Angeles Rams 9.2
Cincinnati 9.0
Pittsburgh 8.7
Tampa Bay 8.6
Kansas City 8.4
Arizona 8.2
Green Bay 8.2
Minnesota 8.1
Seattle 7.9
Indianapolis 7.2
Miami 7.1
Tennessee 6.8
Oakland 6.3
Carolina 6.2
Dallas 5.6
Los Angeles Chargers 5.3
Denver 4.7
Philadelphia 4.5
Baltimore 4.5
Atlanta 2.7
New England 1.2

Source: Pro-Football-Reference.com

What’s also clear from the table above is that leaning heavily on rookies is more likely a sign of turmoil than success, as it could suggest that teams are rebuilding or that their veterans are riddled with injuries. The five teams ranked just behind the Saints in percent of team AV contributed by rookies — the 49ers, Browns, Texans, Bears and Giants — combined for only 18 wins, or 3.6 apiece.

Going back to 2000, the 2017 Saints class is only surpassed by the Dallas Cowboys’ excellent 2016 draft class — headlined by Ezekiel Elliott and Dak Prescott — in terms of total value produced during their rookie seasons. Even the 2010 Patriots’ haul, which featured Rob Gronkowski and Devin McCourty, doesn’t compare.

And the Saints only had seven picks in 2017, compared with nine for the Cowboys in 2016 and 12 for the Patriots in 2010. Indeed, the Saints’ 6.1 AV per pick among draftees in their rookie year is the best of any team since at least the 2000 draft.

The Saints have already won a playoff game for the first time since 2013, and they are now two wins away from going to their second Super Bowl in franchise history. If they don’t get there this year, the team’s 2017 rookie class may give them a fighting chance at another title in the handful of years before Drew Brees’s storied career comes to a close.

Check out our latest NFL predictions.

Beside The Points For Thursday, Jan. 11, 2017

Things That Caught My Eye

GOATs

Nick Saban’s tenure at Alabama brought the program their fifth college championship this decade on Monday after defeating a well-matched Georgia team in one of the best championship games Alabama’s had to play. Since at least 1988, the 10-year dynasty for Alabama — from 2008 to 2017 — is the best ever college football dynasty based on Elo ratings. [FiveThirtyEight]

Atlanta isn’t the same

The Atlanta Falcons won against the highly regarded Los Angeles Rams on Sunday, but they’ve got trouble ahead based on how this team compares to the NFC conference champions of 2017. They’re racking up fewer big plays — yards per game from 20+ yard plays are down 51 yards since 2016 — and their red zone touchdown percentage dropped from 62 percent and 50 percent this year. [FiveThirtyEight]

Brady’s having a streak

Tom Brady’s previous five games were one of the worst five-game stretches of his career based on expected points added. While the Pats were 4-1, his total EPA over the five games was only 22.16 which is the sixth lowest of his career. [FiveThirtyEight]

Overwatch League kicks off

The Overwatch League, a competitive gaming esport, had its inaugural day on Wednesday, with games each night through Saturday. The league is backed by money from several NFL owners, and the slick presentation seen Wednesday — and the massive contract they inked with Twitch to carry the games — show they aren’t messing around. On day one, the Seoul Dynasty beat the Dallas Fuel 2-1, the Los Angeles Gladiators defeated Shanghai 4-0, and the Los Angeles Valiant defeated the San Francisco Shock 4-0. [ESPN]

Try out our interactive, Which World Cup Team Should You Root For?

Imagine getting sued by the Army

The Army is suing the Las Vegas Golden Knights over their team name, claiming that it infringes on the name of West Point’s teams. This means that for now, both sides appear poised for combat of the legal variety: The hockey team said in a statment “we are not aware of a single complaint from anyone attending our games that they were expecting to see the parachute team,” which is A+ chirping. [SportsLogos.net]

Draft order set for most of us

For 24 teams in the league, the future is no longer a mystery. The draft ordering is set for two thirds of the league, with Cleveland pulling two picks in the top four and Oakland and San Francisco fighting for the 9th and 10th picks based on a coin flip alone. [ESPN]

Make sure to try your hand at our fun NFL game: Can you beat the FiveThirtyEight predictions?


Big Number

$17,157

The Cleveland Browns fans had their sad parade last weekend to commemorate the 0-16 season, but they did some serious good in the process, raising $17,157 for the Cleveland Food Banks and likely providing about 70,000 meals resulting from the shamefest. [Hayden Grove]


Leaks from Slack, Monday Night:

tchow [11:46 PM]

This game…

walt [11:47 PM]

i know who is arie gonna eliminate

wait wrong channel

Tagovailola is so good

i want the giants to draft him like now

tchow [12:01 AM]

Wow

That throw tho…

walt [12:03 AM]

I love football


Predictions


Oh, and don’t forget
Fat Trick achieved

The NBA Can’t Stop Hitting Jusuf Nurkic In The Face

Perhaps better than anything else, player statues exemplify what NBA greats were known for during their careers. A bronzed Michael Jordan is soaring over defenders for a dunk in Chicago; John Stockton and Karl Malone look as if they’re completing another successful pick and roll in Utah; and Magic Johnson, who led the Showtime-era Lakers, is leading a fast break.

If Jusuf Nurkic ever reaches this level of immortality — which, OK, is probably a long shot — his statue would display him getting elbowed in the mouth. The 23-year-old Trail Blazers center is good at many things, but he stands alone in the NBA when it comes to getting whacked in the face.

Nurkic was dealt last February to a Portland team that wears black and red, but his 2017 calendar year could best be described as black and blue. He lost two teeth after getting nailed in the mouth while going for a rebound (yet was still hit with a loose-ball foul). Then, while wearing a protective mask to safeguard the replacement dental implants he’d received after that gory episode, Nurkic got elbowed in the forehead — a play that left him with a concussion. So it was only fitting that he’d require stitches during the final week of the year after a bloody collision with the Sixers’ J.J. Redick.

These instances were merely the most painful knocks for Nurkic, who’s absorbed at least a dozen considerable dings over the past year or so. One indication of how often he takes one for the team: The Bosnian product has induced a league-high four opponent flagrants this season, twice as manyQuick caveat: It’s not possible to perfectly track who was flagrantly fouled on a given sequence using play-by-play data. The best way to estimate who drew the flagrant is to look at which player shoots the free throws immediately after. But a severe injury that forces someone to leave the game would allow that player’s team to send a different free-throw shooter to the line in his place.

“>1 as any other NBA player. Setting him apart even more: Midway through the 2017-18 campaign, the flagrant foul calls for roughing up Nurkic have accounted for more than 9 percent of all the flagrants recorded this season — the highest rate induced by a single player in the 21 years that ESPN’s Stats & Information Group has tracked the metric. Aside from the flagrant fouls he’s induced, Nurkic also managed to trigger at least five opponent technical fouls in 2017.

Jusuf Nurkic is the most whacked player in over 20 years

NBA players who’ve induced the highest share of opposing flagrant fouls since the 1996-97 season

Flagrant Fouls
Player Team Season League Total Player % of Total
Jusuf Nurkic Trail Blazers 2017-18* 43 4 9.3%
Blake Griffin Clippers 2010-11 117 10 8.5
Blake Griffin Clippers 2013-14 99 8 8.1
Blake Griffin Clippers 2011-12 92 5 5.4
Blake Griffin Clippers 2014-15 119 6 5.0
Blake Griffin Clippers 2012-13 120 6 5.0
Antonio Daniels SuperSonics 2003-04 105 5 4.8
Manu Ginobili Spurs 2004-05 87 4 4.6
Kobe Bryant Lakers 2005-06 110 5 4.5
Bob Sura Cavaliers 1996-97 133 6 4.5

*Through Jan 10, 2018.

Source: ESPN Stats & Information Group

The real question in all this, of course, is why Nurkic gets hit as often as he does. When I asked him about this trend, the 7-footer suggested that opponents see it as the only way to hold him in check.

“People know what I bring to the table and try to slow me down. I’m not saying they always do it on purpose, but it’s happened like that before,” said Nurkic, who averages nearly 15 points and 8 boards. He was wearing a bandage on his nose at the time when I talked to him, but when I asked if he wears the battle scars with pride, Nurkic seemed confused. “There’s nothing to be proud of when you keep getting hit in the face. It hurts. I’m getting a little tired of it, and I feel the league should protect me a bit more from the hits, but it is what it is. It’s gonna be all right.”

It’s unclear what, if anything, the league could realistically do about the blows to the face of Nurkic, who, unlike a high-flying scorer like Blake Griffin, is getting drilled mostly while playing defense.An NBA spokesman declined to comment, saying the league doesn’t address the way individual players are officiated.

“>2 In fact, of the eight video clips we just highlighted of Nurkic getting hit, seven involved him standing in the restricted area on defense or trying to grab a board in a loose-ball scenario.

In other words: He’s often sitting in the area of the floor where players are most likely to use brute force in order to gain a scoring or rebounding advantage. As a result, he’s caught more than his fair share of stray elbows when standing that close to the basket.

Yet there’s some validity to the idea that Nurkic directly or indirectly brings some of these headaches upon himself. While Nurkic denied embellishing contact during our conversation — “Hopefully the referees see it all, because I’m not faking,” he said — instant replay makes it clear that he occasionally baits refs into thinking he’s been hit.

“He did a good job of acting it out,” then-Hawks center Dwight Howard said last season after landing a tech for what he deemed to be a Nurkic flop. “He should find a way to make it to Hollywood. Or they are doing films in Atlanta now. He can find a good film right here and do some acting.”

And this play, in which Nurkic drew an offensive foul against Denver’s Paul Millsap on a 3-point jumper, is perhaps the best example of him fooling officials without actually putting himself in harm’s way.

Painless flops like this are a rarity, though. In fact, last week, Nurkic basically flopped his way into a nasty blow to the head. In the midst of trying to draw an offensive foul on LeBron James — one the officials called, despite limited contact between Nurkic and the four-time MVP — Nurkic’s momentum carried him to his right, and he drifted into Jae Crowder’s forearm. All this just to save two points.

Retaliation sometimes comes into play, too, particularly with players — even max-contract-level stars — who feel Nurkic has gotten away with a foul or a dirty play. The hard screens he sets, sometimes illegal, may infuriate his opponents and are completely by design — a product of Nurkic’s time in the highly competitive EuroLeague. “(Overseas) we set Zaza screens,” he told Sports Illustrated, referring to Warriors center Zaza Pachulia, who had the third-highest offensive foul rate on a per-minute basis last season. “You set a screen, and someone gets injured immediately. You need to earn the points.”

“Guys like that frustrate you a little bit, because I’m trying to get around the screen, but there’s no way to do it when he’s moving,” said Josh Richardson, the Heat guard who gets knocked to the floor at half court in the video above. “If it’s one time, you can just move onto the next play. But if it keeps happening, and there’s no call, some guys might try to send a message.”

The son of a 7-foot, 400-pound pound policeman, Nurkic likes to infuse physicality into his play while insisting he’s not a dirty player. On the offensive side, his screens have freed up 194 immediate shot opportunities, the eighth-highest number in the NBA, according an analysis run by STATS SportVu at FiveThirtyEight’s request. On defense, he’s spoken of trying to develop an attitude in Portland similar to that of the rough-and-tumble Pistons from the “Bad Boys” era.

Yet ratcheting up the nastiness could result in bringing even more pain Nurkic’s way — given that he’ll want to enter restricted free agency this summer fully healthy.

Blazers guard C.J. McCollum, asked why he believes Nurkic takes so many blows, described his teammate like the final boss on a video game. “I think Nurk is so big that you have to hit him harder than anyone else in order for him to actually feel it. He’s just huge,” McCollum said. “People feel like they have to foul him hard to send a message.”

Check out our latest NBA predictions.

Oprah 2020?

Welcome to FiveThirtyEight’s weekly politics chat. The transcript below has been lightly edited.


micah (Micah Cohen, politics editor): Today’s topic: OPRAH!!!

Ever since Oprah’s speech at the Golden Globes on Sunday night, the political world has been in a frenzy about the possibility that Oprah might run for president in 2020. That includes President Trump on Tuesday:

So, I want to talk about two main things:

  1. Are “celeb” candidates here to stay? Or, put another way: Was Trump’s election a turning point of sorts?
  2. How would Oprah do as a presidential candidate?

Let’s start with No. 1. Is all this Oprah chatter just for fun? Is it overhyped? What do you all make of the media response to her Golden Globes speech?

clare.malone (Clare Malone, senior political writer): This is my opening statement:

micah: Are you surprised by that, though, Clare?

clare.malone: By what?

micah: By the media jumping straight to 2020, bypassing the substance of her speech.

clare.malone: A little, frankly. The story of women and harassment is a big enough one on its own.

Now, her partner did make some comments to the media that stoked speculation after her speech. But I just didn’t expect this level of frenzy.

perry: Is it overhyped? On some level, yes. She seems very unlikely to run. But the excitement, I think, speaks to a lot of things that are important in this moment: The hunger for a person who can unify the country, and the view among Democrats that a celebrity who has never been in politics might be better than all of their other potential candidates.

Oprah’s actual speech was full of commentary about race and gender in America. We are having the conversations we kind of skipped in 2008 and 2016.

clare.malone: Right, but I think the way that politics people are covering her speech is really vapid. And she wasn’t saying something vapid.

I agree that it speaks to a moment, as Perry said — that hunger to have her run. But politics Twitter had this field day with it — and then wrote all these second day stories about how she would actually be terrible — in a way that felt like it undermined the real point of her speech.

Which was to say, that whole harassment story wasn’t just a two-month news cycle.

perry: Part of it, and I think this gets at Clare’s point, was that the people who watched the speech (forget about the political media) thought it was really great. And that matters. Oprah could have said anything. She’s already famous. The fact that she said THAT, I think, reinforces what many people find compelling about her.

clare.malone: Totally.

I mean, I just want to be clear up top that I think this day-long news cycle has revealed a certain pathology of media.

micah: What’s the pathology?

clare.malone: The pathology in American media right now is to find a Trump peg for everything. Sometimes stories are important in their own right, on their own terms.

Also, just posting this because …

micah: Yeah, that was awkward.

perry: I might disagree with Clare slightly here. Trump is, in some ways, part of the sexual harassment/#MeToo story; a number of women have said he harassed or assaulted them. So Oprah and her speech do fit into that in some ways. Also, people want someone who can help the country figure out politics, race, gender, identity — all of these complicated issues at once. People know Trump won’t do that. They hoped Obama would have. There is, I think, too much of that hope around Oprah, but I get it.

clare.malone: Trump is definitely a part of the #MeToo moment, but I think it’s grown larger than him, is what I’m saying

I mean, mostly, my point is about not wanting people to lose focus of what she was actually talking about.

perry: Agree.

clare.malone: It is interesting to me that people see the Democrats’ answer to Trump as another celeb.

micah: Right, so beyond Oprah, do you all think we are in a moment where an outsider celeb candidate can prosper? I.e., was Trump a one-off or a turning point?

clare.malone: We’ve talked about Mark Cuban and the Rock.

Harry (Harry Enten, senior political writer): It’s just difficult because we’re getting conflicting statements from within Oprah’s camp. That’s why the presidential stuff doesn’t die down. Stedman says it’s up to the people. She retweets Podhoretz’s article. That’s why the substance of her speech can get lost.

clare.malone: She has the great American talent of making people look.

perry: The fact that we kind of have a rolling, constant presidential campaign helps people who can get media attention and have compelling personalities. So, yes, I think we are in a moment ripe for more celeb candidacies. I don’t think people will conclude that all celebs can’t govern because of Trump. Trump, for most people, is probably unique and not represenative of how other celebrities would govern.

clare.malone: I wonder if Trump makes Democrats less likely to elect a celeb, though. Because if half the message of the left is that Trump is unqualified, doesn’t it require some twisting around to say, “OK, we’re going to elect Oprah”?

To be clear, I mean “unqualified” in the sense that she has never been in political office. She is obviously very successful and smart in other ways.

harry: The public may be more open to celebs because they trust the government less and less. So more people are willing to take a risk in who they elect.

perry: Harry makes a great point about people thinking all politicians are stupid.

micah: And maybe, in voters’ calculations, “respect for governing experience” used to cancel out the advantage of being able to garner media attention.

Now, we’re just left with the ability to draw media attention.

Which is clearly an advantage.

clare.malone: Of course. But it’s still a real potential weakness to propose to replace a candidate with no governing experience with another candidate with no governing experience.

natesilver (Nate Silver, editor in chief): Popping in from a plane! I don’t know if the political landscape is more welcoming to celebrity candidates, but they may be more likely to run.

micah: Nate, you don’t buy the calculus we just layed out?

natesilver: It’s not like all that many celebrities — actual celebrities, like Trump or Oprah, not Fred Thompson or something — had tried to run for office. So the sample size wasn’t all that large. Arnold Schwarzenegger and Jesse Ventura were elected as governors, though. And Ronald Reagan was a former matinee idol.

clare.malone: Arnold feels like the closest parallel.

The most famous, I guess.

natesilver: One can argue that party elites losing their grip on the nomination process is important in opening the door to celebrity candidates. More important than the media stuff, since celebrities have always been … you know, celebrities, and had no trouble getting attention.

clare.malone: Well, that’s kinda what I mean — don’t you guys think Democratic elites would do everything in their power to tamp down an Oprah run?

perry: I think Democrats are torn here, and you can see it with the ex-Obama staffers basically saying that Oprah should consider running. Trump’s governing weaknesses suggest that someone with experience might be better in OFFICE. But I think Democrats are desperate to win the election and would take a compelling person like Oprah since the people with experience are perhaps not as compelling (Hillary Clinton in 2016, potentially Joe Biden in 2020).

harry: If Oprah (or any other celebrity) was unable to show a grasp of the issues, then so-said celebrity would be dead on arrival.

perry: Oprah would probably be given more leeway on lack of policy knowledge than one of the senators who is thinking about running. Much more.

micah: This is why, before the sexual misconduct allegations came out, I was so high on Al Franken. He had some celebrity juice and policy bona fides.

natesilver: There would likely be some vicious intraparty battles, but I think Oprah WOULD have some support within the party. Her demographic strengths overlap pretty well with the last two Democratic nominees.

clare.malone: Here’s my thing: If Oprah is, in part, exciting because she is a black woman and that’s a constituency the Democrats haven’t rewarded with a national-level candidacy … well, they already have a black woman in power waiting in the wings to run — Kamala Harris.

micah: Agreed, but has Harris ever had a two-day period of coverage anything like the last couple of days with Oprah?

clare.malone: I mean, no — she’s not Oprah!

micah: That’s an advantage.

Maybe it shouldn’t be.

But it is.

clare.malone: Yeah

I mean … do we think the Democratic primaries will be as fractured as the Republican ones were in 2016?

I tend to think not, but tell me otherwise. (If it’s going to be just as fractured, then Oprah has a shot.)

perry: I mean, with no clear Democratic favorite, if 15 people are running in June 2019 and Oprah gets in, it seems to me that she will lead in the polls from Day 1.

natesilver: What’s weird is that I think Oprah would be vying for the establishment “lane” despite having no political experience.

She’d have trouble with the Bernie Sanders constituency — probably a lot of trouble.

micah: Why do you think she’d be an establishment choice?

natesilver: Because she’d likely have a milquetoast agenda but will be seen as electable.

perry: The idea that everyone who voted for Obama in a Democratic primary will vote for Oprah, I don’t think that is correct. I’m not sure she is winning the wonky (white) liberal vote the way he did. I get the black vote idea, while thinking black voters will want to be sure she’s actually a viable candidate But I don’t see her winning, say, the Wisconsin primary against Elizabeth Warren/Bernie Sanders.

clare.malone: I agree with that

micah: But that was Obama’s big innovation, right? Marrying the black vote with the college-educated urban white liberal vote. Just the black vote isn’t enough.

perry: Oprah might have more appeal with non-elite, non-wonky voters than Obama did. I just think the coalition might be different.

harry: She might basically follow Hillary Clinton’s path, not Obama’s. It may be a combination.

micah: Could be more like Clinton’s coalition.

Jinx.

clare.malone: Hmmm.

micah: OK, let me ask you about Democratic voters for a sec …

So, in 2016, there were a bunch of polls showing that Democratic voters put a higher premium on governing experience than Republicans did. Obviously, that result is, in part, simply a manifestation of respondents’ allegiance to either Trump or Clinton — the experience question was just a proxy for Trump vs. Clinton. But is any of that real? Do Republican voters, who want government to do less, therefore care less about government experience?

clare.malone: I think there’s something to that, Micah, the idea that if you want to do away with big government, you value experience in it less.

I also think the Democrats do actually have a bloc of voters who find Trump’s lack of experience troubling. And so it would be a bit of a contradiction for them to vote for someone with no real governing résumé.

harry: The Democrats nominated Obama, a U.S. senator for less than four years when he started running. The Democrats nominated Jimmy Carter, who had no federal government experience and had been governor of Georgia for only a few years. Republicans nominated Reagan (who was a two-term governor) and George H.W. Bush (former vice president, CIA director, ambassador, congressman). I mean, maybe Clare has a point. But I’m not so sure, myself.

perry: I’d imagine Democratic voters do care about experience and governing more. But 1. they really want to win, 2. Oprah seems like she could be a winner, 3. Oprah, I think, could easily turn her book club, her embrace of Obama, etc., into intellectual credibility.

Oprah, if she ran, could have her staff mention the great presidencies of the very experienced Walter Mondale, Al Gore, John Kerry and Hillary Clinton.

clare.malone: lol

perry: We should talk about the general election. Are we sure a black woman can be elected president?

micah: Yeah, I saw someone on Twitter say something to the effect of: “Everyone loves Oprah! She’d be a great candidate with Democrats, independents and Republicans!”

The idea that that would hold true in a general election is crazy. I’d bet my savings account that things would get nasty.

clare.malone: Yeah, I think the rising alt-right tenor of certain places in the conservative media landscape would go for the jugular.

micah: Also, I don’t think the media at large learned many lessons about covering a female candidate from Clinton in 2016. For example: this.

natesilver: It would get extremely nasty in the general election, but I think Oprah would be covered differently than Clinton or Kirsten Gillibrand

perry: I don’t deny the existence of sexism and racism in America. But a black man was elected twice, a white woman won the popular vote. A black woman can win. Harris could be elected president if she won the primary. Oprah could too. Even more so. I don’t take Clinton losing Wisconsin as a predictor of much. 2020 is just a different ballgame.

And, yes, I think Oprah has a brand that is distinct and well-defined.

micah: Maybe I’m a pessimist, but I think Oprah, being black and a woman, would get savaged by certain segments of the media, largely because of racism and sexism. And even the mainstream press would have some trouble, I’d bet.

OK, closing thoughts?

natesilver: I’m anti-anti-Oprah. I think there’s a risk that political elites underestimate her popularity outside of the political bubble.

There are reasons to be bearish on celebrity presidential runs. Voters may want the biggest contrast to Trump in 2020. And pundits hyping up celebrity candidates may suffer from recency bias since Trump just won. But I’m bullish on Oprah relative to other celebrities.

Politics Podcast: Oprah, Palace Intrigue And Nuclear War

FiveThirtyEight

 

The FiveThirtyEight Politics podcast crew discusses all the talk about Oprah running for president in 2020, spurred by her speech at the Golden Globes. The team also debates the new book “Fire and Fury,” which raises questions about whether President Trump is mentally fit enough to serve. Also, Nate and special guest Oliver Roeder weigh the strategic value and risk of Trump’s recent comments about North Korea.

You can listen to the episode by clicking the “play” button above or by downloading it in iTunes, the ESPN App or your favorite podcast platform. If you are new to podcasts, learn how to listen.

The FiveThirtyEight Politics podcast publishes Monday evenings, with occasional special episodes throughout the week. Help new listeners discover the show by leaving us a rating and review on iTunes. Have a comment, question or suggestion for “good polling vs. bad polling”? Get in touch by email, on Twitter or in the comments.

Drew Brees Deserves Credit For The Saints’ Running Game, Too

After more than a decade of tearing teams to shreds through the air, the New Orleans Saints made a stunning change this season to their offense: They grounded their arsenal. The 2017 Saints are the most dominant rushing team in football, comfortably leading the league in yards gained by running backs. So the obvious solution for the Carolina Panthers in Sunday’s wild-card game is to stack the box with too many defenders for the Saints offensive line to block.

But this won’t happen. And here’s what makes the New Orleans offense something that previously existed only in a defensive coordinator’s night terror: Drew Brees is still one of the NFL’s most effective passers, even when he’s leading the game’s best rushing attack. To put it another way, the Saints are winning because of their running game, and the Saints running game is winning because of Brees.

Despite racking up more than 2,000 rushing yards by mostly Mark Ingram (1,124) and Alvin Kamara (728), the running backs and the team’s offensive line rarely had to account for eight or more defenders near the line of scrimmage. Saints’ opponents have been unwilling to commit to stopping the run — which is what you generally do against great running teams. To measure this fairly across the league, we first need to get rid of all the obvious pass or run scenarios based on down and distance or game situation.We threw out any play where there were more than two wide receivers in the formation or an offense was down two or more scores because this suggests to a defense that a pass is coming. We also dumped all short-yardage plays (1 yard from a first down) and goal-line situations (3 or fewer yards from the end zone). Lastly, we ignored the final six minutes of the game because an offense’s intentions here are frequently obvious — whether it’s to play catch-up (pass) or to kill clock (run).

“>1 Looking at what’s left, the Saints faced stacked fronts of eight or more defenders on just 37 of their 172 rushing plays, according to ESPN’s Stats & Information Group — a rate of 21.5 percent that’s 25th in the league. The average for all NFL teams is 28 percent.

Teams don’t crowd the line to stop New Orleans

NFL teams by rushing yards from running backs in 2017, with how often each offense faced at least eight defenders in the box

RANK
Team Yards/Rush 8+ Box Rate Yards/Rush 8+ Box
New Orleans 5.1 21.5% 1 25
Kansas City 4.7 22.9 2 23
LA Rams 4.5 22.6 3 24
Philadelphia 4.5 34.5 4 7
New England 4.4 27.7 5 15
Dallas 4.3 36.6 6 5
Atlanta 4.2 17.3 7 32
Baltimore 4.2 27.0 8 17
Jacksonville 4.2 36.2 9 6
Cleveland 4.1 23.2 10 22
Oakland 4.1 37.5 11 3
Green Bay 4.1 24.6 12 20
San Francisco 4.1 27.3 13 16
Chicago 4.1 19.5 14 29
Miami 4.1 28.0 15 13
NY Giants 4.0 33.9 16 8
Pittsburgh 4.0 37.2 17 4
Denver 4.0 21.2 18 26
Minnesota 4.0 28.3 19 12
NY Jets 4.0 30.5 20 10
Buffalo 4.0 28.9 21 11
LA Chargers 3.9 24.1 22 21
Tennessee 3.9 31.0 23 9
Houston 3.8 24.8 24 19
Cincinnati 3.7 19.6 25 28
Washington 3.6 27.9 26 14
Indianapolis 3.6 20.0 27 27
Carolina 3.6 42.0 28 2
Tampa Bay 3.5 25.2 29 18
Arizona 3.4 44.0 30 1
Detroit 3.3 18.0 31 31
Seattle 3.3 18.2 32 30

Excludes plays that are obvious passing or rushing situations: when a team is down by at least two scores, is in a short-yardage situation, is at the goal line or is showing three or more WRs; or when the game is in the final six minutes.

Source: ESPN Stats & Information Group

The Saints weren’t the only team that seemed to be preventing defenses from loading the box, but they had by far the most running success. Like the Saints, the Chiefs and Falcons ranked in the top five in yards per pass, which was enough to keep defenses from committing to stopping the run. While the Rams appear to fit this profile too, they played so many three-plus WR sets that teams simply could not commit that many defenders to the line of scrimmage.

Playing against conventional fronts even when employing run-friendly personnel (no more than two WRs) is the key to the Saints’ success in generating yards before contact. Their running backs led the NFL in 2.85 yards on average before encountering a defender. Yes, a lot of this is good vision by the backs and effective offensive line blocking. But the fact that there weren’t often too many defenders at the line of scrimmage was Kamara and Ingram’s secret weapon.

On paper, Brees’s role in the offense seems more minimized than ever: 23 touchdown passes after nine straight years of 30 or more, just 536 pass attempts after averaging 656 the prior seven seasons, and a Saints career low of 4,334 yards. But this isn’t 2015 Peyton Manning clearly wheezing to the finish line and needing the team to dominate in other areas in order to win. Brees, 38, led the NFL this year in yards per pass attempt, and his 103.9 passer rating was his best since 2013.

Look no further than the Saints’ opponent on Sunday for an example of a team that has to deal with stacked fronts because defenses don’t fear the passing game. Carolina running backs had to face at least eight defenders in the box on 42 percent of the rushing plays in our sample, the second-highest rate in the league. And why not? Cam Newton ranks 21st in passing yards per attempt and 24th in passer rating, and he’s more a threat when he’s running himself.

But even Ben Roethlisberger’s Steelers (37.2 percent) and Tom Brady’s Patriots (27.7 percent) were forced to send running backs into defenses with extra run-stoppers at the line of scrimmage far more often than the Saints. Maybe defenses have been slow to adjust to the Saints’ new offensive model, but Brees’s presence helping the running game find room is no recent phenomenon. Since 2010, the Saints’ average of 4.5 yards per rush by their running backs is the third-best rate in football.

The even worse news for Carolina on Sunday is that perhaps no team has been more flustered by the multidimensional Saints than these Panthers. In their two prior meetings, both Saints wins, Carolina allowed 149 and 148 rushing yards. Those are the two worst performances by the Panthers’ run defense all year. And it’s not like they’re stopping Brees either: The future Hall of Famer posted a 117.8 passer rating with four TD passes in those two contests. The Panthers seem to have been caught in between the new Saints and the old-model Saints — and able to stop neither.

Check out our latest NFL predictions.

Beside The Points For Thursday, Jan. 4, 2017

Things That Caught My Eye

Water is technically snake oil, I guess?

Tom Brady is really great at being a football player, but his provenance as a nutritionist or health expert is suspect. In the spirit of “just because you’re a bird doesn’t mean you’re an ornithologist,” Christie Ashwanden took a serious look at the TB12 method, and the reality is that drinking lots of water isn’t the same as putting on sunscreen, drinking too much water is actually pretty dangerous, and “pliability” could have less to do with Tom Brady’s continued efficacy behind center than, say, a continually successful offensive line that’s been adept at protecting him from injury. On the other hand, as I’m currently on day four of The Gronk Cleanse, I am pretty hammered. [FiveThirtyEight]

The Bills are IN! But…

The Buffalo Bills have snapped the longest active streak in the NFL and made the playoffs after 17 years of not doing that. The organization is in heaven right now. Still, making the playoffs can have a lot more to do with luck than skill, and this Bills group is pretty middle-of-the-road talent-wise when compared to those 17 other teams. While they finished 9-7, teams that got outscored by 57 points over the course of the year usually get fewer breaks in their direction and finish with six or seven wins. [FiveThirtyEight]

Jordan Greenway with a first

Of 1,690 men’s Division I college hockey players, 13 identified themselves as black. One is Jordan Greenway, a Boston University forward who became the first African-American hockey player to represent Team U.S.A. at the Winter Olympics. [The Undefeated]

UCF is committing to the bit

The University of Central Florida is claiming that they’re the national champions of college football. Despite not making the college football playoff, UCF argues that, since they went undefeated and beat Auburn in the Peach Bowl, they get to be champs. This stunt could be a lot of things, but it’s not a half measure by any stretch: Athletic Director Danny White said that the coaching staff is getting their national title bonuses and all. [SB Nation]

Try out our interactive, Which World Cup Team Should You Root For?

They get a parade!

Cleveland went 0-16 this season, joining the Detroit Lions as the only franchises to lose 16 regular season games. Thousands of Cleveland fans will reportedly gather this Saturday to watch a parade commemorating the season of “perfection.” [Cincinnati.com]

Four out of five top broadcasts!

Off the top 100 most viewed telecasts in 2017, 81 of them ended up being sports events. Live sports continues to be one of the main attractions on the television. Put in a historical context, even the NFL is doing alright: While Fox telecasts of NFL games were down from 2016 and 2015, viewership is still up compared to 10, 15 and 20 years ago, according to Sports Business Daily. [Austin Karp]

Make sure to try your hand at our fun NFL game: Can you beat the FiveThirtyEight predictions?


Big Number

21 percent

Going into the NFL Wildcard weekend, New England is the overwhelming favorite to win the Super Bowl, with a 31 percent chance of doing so. Minnesota, Philly, and Pittsburgh have 19, 15 and 14 percent chances of doing so according to out Elo model, so we’d expect about a 79 percent chance one of those teams wins the championship. Now, you may recall none of those teams are playing football this weekend. Among the wild card teams, the ones with the best shots are New Orleans, Kansas City, and Atlanta, with a 5 percent, 4 percent and 4 percent chance of winning the Super Bowl. Still, there’s only a 21 percent chance one of the teams this weekend wins it all. [FiveThirtyEight]


Leaks from Slack:

cwick:

Rare D-I women’s quadruple-double recorded

quadruple double!

neil:

Whoa!
10 steals 👀

cwick:

@neil is it easier to get 10 steals or 10 blocks?

neil:

Way easier to get the blocks (at least in the NBA)
There are only 20 games of double digit steals in Basketball-Reference’s database
There are 143 double digit block games


Predictions


Oh, and don’t forget
Bills fans were very generous after Andy Dalton won them a playoff berth

This Buffalo Bills Team Is Worse Than Most Bills Teams This Century

After the “Music City Miracle” knocked the 1999 Buffalo Bills out of the postseason, Bills fans suffered through the longest playoff drought in American professional sports. But with only a few hours left in 2017, the streak came to a glorious end. After beating Miami on Sunday, Buffalo desperately needed Cincinnati to eliminate Baltimore, and Bengals quarterback Andy Dalton complied — finding Tyler Boyd for a game-winning touchdown on 4th-and-12 in the final minute. The play sent the Bills locker room into hysterics, while fans back home braved bitterly cold weather past midnight on New Year’s Eve to greet the team plane at the airport.

New head coach Sean McDermott has led the franchise out of the regular-season desert, but there’s an irony to his triumph: This Bills squad is actually worse than many of those that failed to make the playoffs since that 1999 season. There are Bills fans old enough to buy beer who can’t remember what a Bills playoff team looks like — but even they ought to be able to tell that this squad is something less than one of the 12 best teams in the NFL.

“You are what your record says you are,” Hall of Fame coach Bill Parcells famously asserted. But ESPN’s Brian Burke estimates that randomness accounts for about 42 percent of NFL outcomes, and the NFL’s playoff structure builds in even more inequity. The 2008 New England Patriots won 11 games but missed the playoffs, while the 2014 Carolina Panthers got in with a 7-8-1 record.

This year’s Bills team finished 9-7, but based on Football Outsiders’ estimated wins and Pythagorean wins metrics,Per Football Outsiders, Pythagorean wins are based on pure point differential, while estimated wins use a “Forest Index” to emphasize consistency and performance in high-leverage situations.

‘>1 it only earned 6.8 and 6.3 wins, respectively. Put another way, an NFL team that gets outscored by 57 points on the year (as the Bills did) mathematically ought to win about six or seven games.

But it’s not just about wins. Pick a metric of team strength, and the Bills are typically at or below the median: 21st in scoring differential, 15th in FiveThirtyEight’s Elo ratings, 23rd in Simple Rating System,Pro Football Reference’s Simple Rating System is derived from scoring differential and strength of schedule.

‘>2 21st in Defense-adjusted Value Over Average.Football Outsiders’ DVOA metric breaks down every NFL play and determines its value when compared to a league baseline based on situation (i.e., down and distance, field position, score).

‘>3

These Bills don’t stack up well against the 17 iterations that came before them, either:

The 21st century has not been good to Buffalo

The Bills’ past 18 seasons by Defense-adjusted Value Over Average, Pythagorean wins and estimated wins

Season DVOA PYTHagorean WINS ESTimated WINS Actual WINS
2004 31.3% 11.1 12.4 9
2014 10.5 9.6 9.0 9
2015 2.7 8.5 8.8 8
2006 -2.1 7.7 8.0 7
2007 -5.0 4.9 8.0 7
2016 1.0 8.5 7.4 7
2000 0.6 7.0 7.3 8
2002 -8.0 7.5 7.1 8
2013 -3.3 6.7 7.1 6
2011 -9.7 6.4 7.1 6
2003 -7.3 6.8 7.0 6
2017 -9.8 6.3 6.8 9
2008 -8.4 7.8 6.7 7
2009 -10.4 5.9 6.6 6
2012 -12.1 5.7 6.5 6
2005 -17.8 5.2 5.8 5
2010 -21.3 4.3 5.5 4
2001 -22.0 3.9 4.2 3

Source: Football Outsiders

The best Bills team since 1999 was the 9-7 2004 squad. At 31.3 percent better than average, it was the NFL’s No. 3 team by overall DVOA. Buffalo’s defense, led by Pro Bowlers Takeo Spikes and Nate Clements, ranked No. 1. The team’s 12.4 estimated wins and 11.1 Pythagorean wins show they were actually much stronger than what their record said.

The 2004 Bills lost their first four games, three by a combined margin of just 8 points and the other a 31-17 loss to the (eventual Super Bowl champion) New England Patriots. They then went 9-2 over their next 11 games, including a six-game win streak during which they outscored their opponents 228-89. Needing one last win to secure a playoff berth, they tripped up against a Pittsburgh Steelers team resting some of its starters. Football Outsiders deemed the 2004 Bills the best team to miss the playoffs since 1986 — as far back as its data goes.

Despite racking up the same number of real-world wins, 2017’s Bills are a whopping 41.1 percentage points worse in DVOA. They also produced 5.6 fewer estimated wins and 4.8 fewer Pythagorean wins. Remember that 42 percent randomness? That this year’s Bills got to the same 9-7 record as the 2004 team suggests these two squads approached the upper and lower bounds of “lucky” and “unlucky” NFL results.

The 2017 Bills aren’t the best Bills team since 1999, or anywhere close — they’re actually no better than seventh-worst in any of these metrics. Outside of running the ball with LeSean McCoy, these Bills don’t do anything well: They’re 29th in offensive yardage and 26th in yardage on defense. They keep their heads above water with a per-drive turnover rate that’s a little higher on defense (13.1 percent, 10th-best) than offense (8.9 percent, eighth-worst).

2012 is the most recent year the Bills weren’t better across the board than they are now — and that group went 6-10.

None of this can take away the joy Bills fans everywhere felt when the Ravens’ Week 17 collapse handed their team a wild-card berth, of course. But there’s a reason the Bills organization sent the Cincinnati Bengals thank-yous: This trip to the postseason was much more about being lucky than good.

Check out our latest NFL predictions.