Well, that could have gone better.
In a final fit of vanity, Ron Rivera doubled down on his biggest blunder in Washington and brought the meaningful part of the Commanders’ season to an end. To add embarrassment to fans’ frustration, he didn’t even realize what he had done until it was pointed out to him in the postgame press conference.
Those of us who have stuck with the Washington NFL franchise for some or all of the last 30 years have developed coping strategies to deal with the annual cycle of hope and frustration. Some will tune out and focus their attention on more rewarding pursuits until the next season gets underway. For others, the end of meaningful football signals the start of draft season.
For the past three weeks, I have been using the efficiency metric Expected Points Added (EPA) to predict the outcome of the Commanders’ quest for a playoff berth. Now that the Commanders have been officially eliminated from playoff contention, whether their mastermind of football operations knows it or not, I will shift the focus of the final week’s projection to predicting their draft position.
The projection model remains unchanged since last week (anyone interested in the full methodology should refer to the first article in the series). The outcome of each Week 18 game was predicted by comparing each team’s efficiency on offense, measured as EPA/play over the past four weeks, to their opponent’s efficiency on defense. Mathematically, this involved adding each team’s EPA/play on offense to their opponent’s EPA/play on defense to generate a “score.” The team with the highest score is projected to win the matchup.
Commanders’ Season Update – Efficiency Perspective
Last week, I showed that, since the bye week, as the outcome of each game has become increasingly critical to the Commanders’ playoff hopes, the team has responded with a worrying decline in efficiency on both sides of the ball.
While I doubt that Ron Rivera was focused on this type of analysis, he clearly did feel a need to make a change to give the offense a spark, following the loss to the 49ers. And so, he reverted to his handpicked starting quarterback, despite some less than scintillating performances earlier in the season.
As a reminder, EPA measures how much a play increases or decreases the probability that the team on offense will score on a drive. It is good to have positive values when your team is on offense and negative values when your team is on defense.
As you can see, the switch at QB only made matters worse on offense. At the same time, the Commanders’ defense, which had been the team’s strength throughout the winning portion of the schedule, was without key starters Kam Curl, Benjamin St-Juste and lost Jonathan Allen to injury early in the second quarter. The losses were too much to withstand and the defense turned in its weakest performance of the season.
While those trends proved to be too much to sustain Washington’s playoff hopes, if they continue, they could be just what is needed to optimize their draft position, as the Commanders face off against a motivated Cowboys squad, playing for top seed in the NFC.
Week 17 Prediction Results
Before we get to the Week 18 predictions, let’s review how the model did in Week 17.
Saints L – Eagles W (14-2) INCORRECT
Cowboys W (12-4) – Titans L CORRECT
Browns W – Commanders L (7-8-1) CORRECT
Colts L – Giants W (9-6-1) CORRECT
Commanders – Browns Matchup: The model predicted a decisive win by the Browns based on the Commanders’ fairly weak offensive efficiency since Week 13 with Taylor Heinicke at QB, and their declining efficiency on defense since the bye. With the switch to Carson Wentz, the Commanders had their weakest performance on offense since Week 4, and the decline in defensive efficiency continued on the trend it is has followed since the bye. The model’s job was made easy by the Commanders throwing in the towel on offense while the defense continued to fade down the stretch.
Vikings L (12-4) – Packers W (8-8) CORRECT
Bears L (3-13) – Lions W (8-8) CORRECT
Bucs L (7-9) – Panthers W (7-9) INCORRECT
Saints L (6-10) – Eagles W (already marked incorrect)
Cardinals L – Falcons W (6-10) CORRECT
49ers W (12-4) – Raiders L CORRECT
Jets W – Seahawks L (7-9) INCORRECT
Cardinals L (4-12) – Falcons W (already marked correct)
Rams L (5-11) – Chargers W CORRECT
In Week 17, the model made 8 correct predictions and 3 incorrect predictions for an overall performance of 72.7% correct. The predictions it got incorrect were:
Eagles (-4.5) W – Saints L 20-10
Panthers (+3.5) W – Bucs L 30-24
Jets (-1.5) W – Seahawks L 23-6
The Eagles – Saints game was the biggest upset of the week, with the underdog Saints beating the spread by 14.5 points. The Jets – Seahawks matchup was close to a pick ‘em, so the blowout result was unexpected, with the Seahawks covering the spread by 18.5 points. The only prediction where the model went out on a limb and paid the price with the Panthers – Bucs game. It has been very impressed with how the Panthers have been playing on offense since making the switch from Baker Mayfield to Sam Darnold (0.232 EPA/play Weeks 13 to 16, ranked 1st in the league), but was brought screaming down to earth in the Week 17 loss (-0.004 EPA/play, ranked 14th).
Overall, the model’s performance was very good, with two of the three incorrect predictions being difficult to predict upsets, and one of those a major upset.
Week 18 Commanders’ Draft Position Projection
If the season ended today, the 7-8-1 Commanders would pick 14th in the draft. The draft order of non-playoff teams, based current records is shown below, courtesy of Tankathon.com:
Washington is currently sitting behind four 7-9 teams due to the tie with the Giants. If the Commanders lose to Dallas and all four 7-9 teams win their Week 18 games, they could rise to 10th in the draft order. On the other hand, if Washington pulls off the upset against Dallas and four of the seven 8-8 teams lose they can fall to 18th. Therefore, a Washington win in Week 18 could make a difference of up to 9 places in the draft order.
Let’s see what the model projects as the most likely outcome.
Week 18 Results
Giants L (9-7-1) – Eagles W (14-3)
Cowboys W (13-4) – Commanders L (7-9-1)
Commanders – Cowboys Matchup: While the Cowboys have been softening slightly on both sides of ball down the stretch (0.062 EPA/play offense, -0.038 EPA/play), they are still a mismatch for the Commanders who have been coming apart at the seams since the Week 14 bye (-0.132 EPA/play offense, 0.095 EPA/play defense).
Since the announcement that rookie Sam Howell will get his first start against Dallas, it is difficult to predict whether the Commanders’ performance on offense will be better or worse than the previous four weeks which were used as the input to the model. On the one hand, it should be a big surprise if a rookie making his first start were able outperform two veterans with game experience in Scott Turner’s offense. On the other hand, the Commanders’ performance on offense over the past three games has set such a low bar that even a rookie selected in the fifth round has a decent chance to spark some improvement.
Meanwhile, due to the Saints’ Week 17 upset over the Eagles, the Cowboys will now be playing for playoff seeding and a potential first round bye. Therefore, the expectation in previous weeks that they may rest their starters no longer applies. The model predicts a Dallas win by a sizeable margin.
Vikings W (13-4) – Bears L (3-14)
Lions L (8-9) – Packers W (9-8)
Bucs W (9-8) – Falcons L (6-11)
Panthers L (6-11) – Saints W (8-9)
Cardinals L (4-13) – 49ers W (13-4)
Rams W (6-11) – Seahawks L (8-9)
Bills W (13-3) – Patriots L (8-9)
Jets L (7-10) – Dolphins W (9-8)
Titans L (7-10) – Jaguars W (9-8)
Texans W (3-13-1) – Colts L (4-12-1)
Ravens L (10-7) – Bengals W (12-4)
Browns L (7-10) – Steelers W (9-8)
Chiefs W (14-3) – Raiders L (6-11)
Chargers W (11-6) – Broncos L (4-13)
Non-Playoff Team Draft Projection
The model’s Week 18 game predictions make it possible to project the final playoff seeding in the NFC and AFC, and to project the draft order of the 18 teams that failed to make the playoffs. The draft order of the remaining 14 teams will be determined by the playoff results and isn’t relevant to the Commanders’ draft position, since they were eliminated from playoff contention last week. The projected draft order and playoff seeding is as follows:
Thanks to the Saints predicted Week 18 win over the Panthers, the Commanders move up one spot in the draft order to pick #13. All of the other 7-win teams were predicted to lose their final games to stay ahead of Washington. More importantly, by losing to Dallas, the Commanders were able to improve their draft position. If they had pulled off the upset, and all other game outcomes remained the same in this scenario, they would have dropped three places to 17th in the draft order. If Pittsburgh had lost to Cleveland, a win over Dallas would have dropped them to 18th.
Week 18 Rooting Guide
Since Bill has discontinued his Wild Card Watch, due to the Commanders’ elimination from playoff contention, I suppose it falls upon me to carry the mantle for the final week of the regular season, when game outcomes still have some effect on the Commanders’ draft position. Here are the teams you should root for to give the Commanders the highest possible picks in next April’s draft:
Washington vs. Dallas – I was born in Washington DC over 50 years ago and raised to detest our then rival Dallas Cowboys. As a matter of principle, I could never root for the Dallas Cowboys to win a game, let alone one against Washington. Nor could I ever condone anyone doing the same.
However, as far as effects on Washington’s draft position go, an upset win over Dallas in the otherwise meaningless Week 18 matchup would drop Washington in the draft order to end up behind any other non-playoff team with 8 wins. That could result in Washington dropping up to four spots to pick as late at 18th overall. On the other hand, a loss combined with wins by other 7-win teams could see Washington rise up as far as the 10th pick.
Fortunately, I suspect the Cowboys, who are playing to unseat the Eagles as NFC East champions, won’t need our help to keep Washington at seven wins. My advice when watching this game is to focus on Sam Howell, and the other developmental players who are likely to get their first playing time (e.g. G Chris Paul, CB Tariq Castro-Fields). If, by chance, Howell has a breakout performance and leads Washington to an upset of the heavily favored Cowboys (-7), it would likely mean that we have found a new starting quarterback. Will you really care about dropping five or six positions in the draft order if that happens? I won’t.
Saints (7-9) vs Panthers (6-10) – This is the most important Week 18 game for Washington aside from the Dallas game. As the projection illustrated, a win by the Saints will drop them behind the Commanders in the draft order, if we lose to Dallas, thereby moving Washington up by one spot. In addition, the Saint’s first-round pick is currently held by the Eagles. Therefore, if Washington loses, a win by the Saints means that one division rival will not be picking ahead of us in the first round. Everyone join with me, “Oh when the Saints, go marching in…”
Titans (7-9) vs Jaguars (8-8) – the 7-9 Titans currently pick ahead of the Commanders due to the tie in our record. A win over the Jaguars drops them behind the Commanders in the draft order, if we lose to Dallas. The Jaguars, currently pick behind us. In the unlikely event that Washington beats Dallas, the Jaguars could jump ahead of us in the draft with a loss, subject to the effect of other game outcomes in the AFC Wild Card race. However, in that case, we are picking behind both of these teams. Therefore a Titans win has more potential to improve our draft position. Titan Up everyone! Maybe put on the Black Keys while you are watching this one.
Browns (7-9) vs Steelers (8-8) – this is more or less the same scenario as Titans vs Jaguars. A Browns win has the most potential to improve Washington’s draft position. Throw the dawgs a bone!
Jets (7-9) vs Dolphins (8-8) – despite the identical records of the two contestants, this game is a different proposition to the previous two matchups. The reason for that is that Miami forfeited its 2023 first-round pick as part of the league-imposed penalty for game tampering. Consequently, there is no potential downside to a Dolphins loss, even if the Commanders beat Dallas. The only thing that matters in this game is that Jets win to move them behind Washington, if we lose to Dallas. J-E-T-S!
Packers (8-8) vs Lions (8-8) – If this game ends in a tie and Washington beats Dallas, then both of these teams will move ahead of Washington in the draft order. That is exceedingly unlikely. If this game is not a tie, and Washington beats Dallas, then the loser of this game will move ahead of Washington in the draft order. That is just normal-level unlikely, and it doesn’t matter which team wins or loses. If Washington loses to Dallas, this game does not affect our draft position. Bottom line, it doesn’t matter to Washington which team wins. It is only important that it doesn’t end in a tie. Root for whichever team you prefer to win.
Seahawks (8-8) vs Rams (5-11) – This game becomes important if Washington beats Dallas. In that case, we need a Seahawks win to keep them behind us in the draft order. If Washington loses, this game doesn’t matter. Be the 12th man, go Hawks!
Buccaneers (8-8) vs Falcons (6-10) – This game is the same as Seahawks vs Rams. We need the Buccaneers to win if we beat Dallas, otherwise it doesn’t matter. Fire the cannons and down the Falcons!
Patriots (8-8) vs Bills (12-3) – Same as the previous two games, we need New England to win if we beat Dallas. Personally, I find it difficult to cheer for the Patriots, but not to the same extent as Dallas. That might be because they have the lamest cheering slogan in the NFL. I guess you don’t need a catchy slogan when you have won 6 Super Bowls. Alright, here goes. Do your job! Seriously, that’s their slogan.
No other Week 18 games have draft position implications for Washington.
Acknowledgement: Edited by James Dorsett
What is the best outcome for the Commanders in Week 18?
This poll is closed
Commanders lose while Saints, Titans, Browns and Jets win – Commanders pick 10th in the draft
Howell leads the Commanders to victory over Dallas – we have found the QB of the future, but pick 18th in the draft