NFL News & Analysis

NFL Sources Buy or Sell: Commanders' hot streak, Patriots' top defense, Vikings' struggles

Houston, Texas, USA; Washington Commanders quarterback Taylor Heinicke (4) calls timeout against the Houston Texans in the second quarter at NRG Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Thomas Shea-USA TODAY Sports

• Postseason push? It will still be “tough” for the Commanders to make a playoff run despite winning five of their past six.

• NFL’s best? The Patriots have benefited from playing inexperienced quarterbacks, but they still look like one of the NFL’s top defenses.

• Vikings figured out? Don’t count out Minnesota after Week 11’s lopsided loss to the Cowboys.

Estimated Reading Time: 8 mins

CAN THE WASHINGTON COMMANDERS MAKE THE PLAYOFFS?

NFC analytics executive: Sell

The Commanders have won four of five games since quarterback Carson Wentz broke his finger in a Week 6 win over the Chicago Bears and Taylor Heinicke took over as the starter. Washington, which started the season 1-5, is now 6-5 but still in last place in a loaded NFC East, just on the outside looking in at a playoff spot as the NFC's No. 8 team.

So, are the Commanders for real or just on a good run right now?

“Bit of both,” an NFC analytics executive said. “Tough for them to make a playoff run given their schedule and overall roster, but I could see it. Giants trending down helps them. Heinicke has been much better than expected, and that defensive front is dangerous.”

The Commanders are tied for having the 19th-most difficult strength of schedule remaining this season, with games against the Atlanta Falcons, New York Giants (twice), San Francisco 49ers, Cleveland Browns (with Deshaun Watson) and Dallas Cowboys. That 19th rating is obviously skewed since Jacoby Brissett has been Cleveland’s starter through 11 weeks. Brissett has exceeded expectations with his individual play this season, but he’s not Watson.

The Giants have lost two of their past three against the Seattle Seahawks and Detroit Lions with a win against the Houston Texans in the middle. New York has the third-most difficult strength of schedule remaining, with two games apiece against the Commanders and Philadelphia Eagles and one each against the Cowboys, Vikings and Colts. So, if New York continues to slow down, it’s certainly possible that Washington could pass them in the standings on the back of some Heinicke magic.

Heinicke hasn’t exactly been good, but he has been an improvement efficiency-wise over Wentz. Heinicke ranks 27th among 34 qualified quarterbacks in expected points added (EPA) per play, while Wentz is 31st. Among those same 34 signal-callers, Heinicke is 33rd in PFF offensive grade, while Wentz is 24th. Wentz has a higher big-time throw rate and lower turnover-worthy play rate than Heinicke, who has benefited from zero drops from Commanders pass-catchers through five games and five dropped interceptions in the same span. Commanders targets dropped 13 of Wentz’s passes in six starts and defenders dropped just three interceptions. Somehow, Heinicke has managed to figure out how to throw a catchable pass and an uncatchable interception. Or he’s just lucky.

The Commanders’ defensive front is only going to get more ferocious when Chase Young returns from a torn ACL this week, as well.

Combining their edge and interior defenders, Washington’s defensive front ranks sixth in overall defensive grade. Jonathan Allen is PFF’s ninth-highest graded interior defender, and Montez Sweat is fifth among edge defenders. Young, the 2020 second overall pick, has an 86.2 defensive grade since entering the NFL.

Washington’s defense, which ranks 11th this season in EPA per play and third since its hot streak began in Week 6, should be better with Young back in the fold. But some regression efficiency-wise should be expected out of Heinicke once his dropped passes and dropped interceptions begin to normalize.

The Commanders are currently +150 to make the playoffs, per BetMGM. So, while they’re on a tear, the expectation is still for them to miss the postseason.

This is a conversation for another day, but Washington must be kicking itself internally for trading two third-round picks for Wentz just to find out that Heinicke is their better quarterback. Washington actually benefited from Wentz’s broken finger since it forced the team to sit him. If Wentz had played 70% of snaps, the 2023 third-round pick would have turned into a second-round pick in the trade. Head coach Ron Rivera said Washington will continue to play Heinicke. It’s a decision justified by winning, but it also makes sense for a team that doesn’t want to give away a second-round pick for a quarterback who will likely be standing on the sideline when he’s activated from injury.


IS THE NEW ENGLAND PATRIOTS’ DEFENSE FOR REAL?

AFC analytics executive: Buy

The Patriots have allowed the lowest EPA per play figure this season, at -0.203. They rank first no matter what week you start counting the stat, and they’ve been mostly dominant, save for two games against the Baltimore Ravens and Chicago Bears (Hmm, what do those two teams and their quarterbacks have in common? Elite mobility) this entire season.

New England’s offense, meanwhile, ranks 29th in EPA per play and is dead last since Week 6. So, the Patriots’ defense has undoubtedly carried the team to their current 6-4 record under the guidance of head coach Bill Belichick and linebackers coaches Steve Belichick and Jerod Mayo.

But is New England’s defense actually for real?

“I think (Bill) Belichick really knows how to play against young QBs at this point,” an AFC analytics executive said. “Regardless, they're probably one of the best Ds in the league.”

The Patriots have had their two best defensive performances this season against second-year quarterbacks in the New York JetsZach Wilson and the Indianapolis ColtsSam Ehlinger. They also dominated against the Detroit LionsJared Goff and the Cleveland BrownsJacoby Brissett. Their fifth-best performance of the season also came against Wilson. They were still above average against Pittsburgh Steelers veteran quarterback Mitchell Trubisky and Green Bay Packers veteran quarterback Aaron Rodgers. They were below average against Miami Dolphins quarterback Tua Tagovailoa, a third-year pro, and downright bad against Fields, another second-year pro but a very mobile one, and Jackson, a veteran.

New England ranks first in EPA per pass play against and sixth in EPA per run play. They’ve allowed the second-fewest rushing yards after contact per attempt and have the second-highest pass-rush pressure rate behind the Cowboys. The Patriots are playing a difficult-to-watch brand of football, but they would likely be one of the worst teams in the NFL if their defense was even playing average so far this season.

New England’s defense doesn’t have a ton of star power beyond edge rusher Matt Judon, who currently leads the NFL in sacks and is third in total pressures. Rookie cornerback Jack Jones is their highest-graded defender, and linebacker Ja'Whaun Bentley, edge defender Deatrich Wise and safety Kyle Dugger all are having career years. New England’s decision to move career slot cornerback Jonathan Jones outside has also paid off. He’s PFF’s seventh-highest graded cornerback this season.

Things do get more difficult for New England down the stretch, however. They have the second-most difficult strength of schedule remaining, with games against the Minnesota Vikings, Arizona Cardinals, Las Vegas Raiders, Cincinnati Bengals and Miami Dolphins and two against the vaunted Buffalo Bills. The Dolphins, Bills and Bengals all rank top five in EPA per play this season. The Patriots’ win total is 8.5, and they’re +100 to make the playoffs. They can outlast teams with bad offenses, but stacking up against a team like the Bills, who rank fourth in EPA per play and ninth in EPA per play against could prove difficult if they’re not assisted by some inclement weather.

It’s unlikely, given the final stretch of games on New England’s schedule, that they’ll finish the season first in EPA per play against. But they have already proven themselves as one of the NFL’s best defenses.


DID THE MINNESOTA VIKINGS HIT A WALL?

AFC pro scout: Sell

It’s tough to play the transitive property game in football, and the results of Sunday’s game between the Vikings and Cowboys is a good example of why. The Cowboys lost to the lowly Packers in Week 10 coming off a bye. The Vikings beat the mighty Bills in Week 10. Therefore, the Vikings must be better than the Cowboys, right? The Cowboys stomped the Vikings, 40-3, in Minnesota on Sunday in one of the most shockingly lopsided results of the season.

The Vikings are now 8-2 on the season and have a short week before playing the aforementioned esteemed Patriots defense on Thanksgiving night.

So, how should we feel about the Vikings given the fact that they strung together seven straight wins and have only lost to two very good teams in the Eagles and Cowboys?

“I think they are pretty good,” an AFC pro scout said. “(Starting left tackle Christian) Darrisaw out is a huge loss, but they have really talented skill. And their defense is good up front. Was 8-1 a bit of a mirage? Yeah, probably, but they're better than what they showed yesterday for sure.”

Darrisaw, PFF’s third-highest graded offensive tackle, suffered a concussion 18 snaps into Sunday’s game and won’t play Thursday against New England. Blake Brandel replaced him and allowed two sacks and four total pressures on 30 pass-blocking snaps.

Minnesota ranks below average in both EPA per play (20th) and EPA per play against (18th). They have just the 31st-most difficult strength of schedule remaining, however, which is one reason why their win total is still 12.5 on the season, per BetMGM.

The Vikings have impressed, and there’s good reason why head coach Kevin O’Connell has the fourth-best odds to win Coach of the Year, at +800. But despite their record, they appear to be a beatable team. They’re three-point favorites at home against the Patriots on Thanksgiving.

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