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Are Bad NFL Defenses Breaking Win Probability Models?

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sara.ziegler (Sara Ziegler, sports editor): Week 7 of the NFL season gave us a LOT to unpack: The Atlanta Falcons lost yet another game they seemed to have sewn up, while the Dallas Cowboys lost another quarterback during a truly dreadful defeat at the hands of the Washington Football Team. And who could forget the best tackle ever made by a 20-yard line?

But we start with the Sunday night game, which pitted the always-living-dangerously Seattle Seahawks against the who-knows-what-you’ll-get-from-them Arizona Cardinals. This game had a little of everything: In the overtime alone, we saw a missed field goal, a touchdown called back on a holding penalty, an interception on the very next play, and then field goal redemption!

neil (Neil Paine, senior sportswriter): I tuned in after the World Series game just in time to see the end!

(And wondered how the hell Arizona even forced OT to begin with, given the score when I periodically checked it earlier…)

Salfino (Michael Salfino, FiveThirtyEight contributor): The game featured the most combined yards in a regular-season game since 2013 (though Super Bowl LII had more). Neither team could play defense. The Seahawks haven’t played defense all year.

Seattle’s defense is quarantined.

joshua.hermsmeyer (Josh Hermsmeyer, NFL analyst): I guess this is where I point and laugh at win probability models, again.

neil: Ya gotta watch out for that 0.1 percent.

Salfino: There is a nerd civil war over win probability models, and I’m here for it. Where are you on this, Neil? Sara?

sara.ziegler: I mean…

neil: I think they could probably use an audit if 0.1 percent things are happening every week.

sara.ziegler: I think that we’re probably looking at them in the wrong way.

Salfino: Isn’t the idea that in games like this, with this score and time, team X wins Y percent of the time? It seems like there are too many independent variables for real back-testing, though. I feel like they overpromise.

joshua.hermsmeyer: To be fair, I think they mostly get it right, and we focus on the outliers. But the entire point is to highlight the outliers, as far as I can tell. And this year in particular, it hasn’t been great.

sara.ziegler: I think we want to jump on the models when the unlikely thing happens, but I like to use those models to see just how unlikely the thing was and then enjoy that! Instead of getting mad that the unlikely thing happened. (But yeah, those should maybe be redone in this era of offense.)

neil: Is one solution just to add more uncertainty for the defensive team holding a lead? Since defenses appear to be struggling to, like, do that?

Salfino: Defenses are so bad you can’t even not score on purpose against them.

neil: OMG. Falcons … why???

The headline on this story was great: “Falcons find a new way to lose: by scoring a touchdown.”

Salfino: Is Atlanta the best or the worst? ESPN’s Stats & Information Group said this was the Falcons’ third loss off the season when they had a win probability of at least 98 percent, “the most by a team in the last 20 seasons.”

Todd Gurley looked like he was failing a sobriety test when he fell into the end zone. It’s the new Butt Fumble, except it actually determined the outcome of a game.

And how ironic was it that the Falcons blew the game to the Lions, another team known for blowing leads. I guess this was inevitable. The best part was the Lions defenders celebrating the TD.

sara.ziegler: That was quite the image.

joshua.hermsmeyer: I very much enjoyed Adrian Peterson’s 11-carry, 29-yard rushing performance. The Lions’ rushing attack was third-worst so far this week (-0.22 expected points added per play), ahead of just the Eagles and Texans. And they still won.

neil: It’s so crazy because this season, teams have scored a TD on just 26 percent of drives; even the best teams haven’t cracked 40 percent. Yet somehow, there is always a situation where a defense needs to stop a team from driving the length of the field with a minute left, and it feels like they fail more often than not!

Salfino: It’s like every defense has Edwin Diaz closing.

neil: Ooooof

sara.ziegler: Mets reference in the NFL chat!

neil: I think teams should pretend they’re down 6 with a minute left on every drive. Would lead to the best offense ever.

joshua.hermsmeyer: Love it, Neil, and pretend your kickers retired before the game.

neil: Josh, we’ll get that if Daryl Morey takes over the Texans.

sara.ziegler: LOL

Salfino: But aren’t the defenses so awful? Sara is right, I think, that it’s screwing up the modeling. Seattle is on pace to give up 7,667 yards, 600 more than the record set by the New Orleans Saints in 2012. And somehow, they are a Super Bowl favorite. (I reject that; defense has to matter A LITTLE.)

There are three winning teams in the all-time bottom 10 in yards allowed — the 2011 Packers, 2011 Patriots and 2018 Chiefs. None won a Super Bowl.

joshua.hermsmeyer: That’s a stat!

Salfino: Josh, do you think that Seattle is a Super Bowl contender despite that defense?

joshua.hermsmeyer: Mike, yes, I think that whatever it is we think we know about the Hawks defense right now is likely wrong. I suspect they are not good but probably can put together a stretch of average play.

Salfino: I guess I agree, if they face the right offenses. But the Cardinals are hardly an offensive juggernaut.

sara.ziegler: The Seahawks just need D.K. Metcalf to be a true two-way player, and then they’ll be fine:

neil: And on the flip side, now that Arizona is 5-2, do we all owe Kliff Kingsbury an apology?

Salfino: Kyler Murray is setting fantasy on fire. He has a rushing and passing TD in six of his team’s first seven games, the first player ever to do this. But do we think he’s great? I don’t.

joshua.hermsmeyer: I think he’s the best-performing No. 1 overall pick from 2019! It was a good week for former No. 1 overalls: Baker Mayfield threw for five TDs against the Bengals.

neil: Kyler is fifth among 2020 QBs in EPA, for what that’s worth.

sara.ziegler: Why don’t you think he’s good, Mike?

Salfino: I think he’s good but not an MVP-level player. He’s an insanely good runner, though. I think you can defend this offense.

But in fairness, it looks like you can defend Patrick Mahomes this year, too, and we know Mahomes is great. Ironically, in a year when defense is at an all-time worst, Kansas City has problems … on offense.

joshua.hermsmeyer: Agree with you that Mahomes doesn’t look the same, Mike. The past four weeks, he ranks 17th in QBR. What do you think is wrong with him?

Salfino: It seems like defenses are making him play small ball, and he doesn’t like that.

sara.ziegler: He didn’t play well on Sunday, but that was in the snow … and his team won by 27.

Salfino: Good point about the weather, Sara, but the Broncos had over 400 yards. And Kansas City went 0-for-8 on third down.

neil: It’s funny because Chiefs receivers are actually getting more average separation these past three games — 4.26 yards vs. 3.82 — than they did last season.

But Mahomes is undershooting his expected completion percentage by more.

Salfino: Is that separation stat meaningful, Neil? I can’t get anything correlative out of it.

neil: There’s probably some selection bias in the sense that it only measures throws that get made, not how “open” everyone is on all routes.

joshua.hermsmeyer: Agreed, Neil. Also, average separation really obscures some important things like route mix.

neil: But it is telling in the sense that the difficulty of Mahomes’s throws (to the extent we can measure that) hasn’t changed almost at all.

joshua.hermsmeyer: Yep, and his average depth of target isn’t super low; it’s still in the 8s.

Salfino: It’s weird that Mahomes is not even the best deep thrower now in his own division.

That’s Justin “Marino” Hebert, of course.

sara.ziegler: 🤣

neil: That would be true if Tyrod Taylor were still starting too. 🔥

(Poor Tyrod. He has had the unluckiest QB career I can think of.)

sara.ziegler: Ugh, so true.

Let’s talk about another quarterback, one who’s really struggling: Cam Newton. The Patriots have some serious problems right now.

Salfino: Remember when Cam was the best signing ever, and the rest of the NFL were dopes?

joshua.hermsmeyer: Cam’s QBR yesterday was 3.5, the third-worst performance by a QB this season and the second-straight game that he’s struggled since he returned after contracting the coronavirus. I really wonder if something physical is wrong. I know he hurt his hand, so maybe that’s it.

neil: I also saw some speculation about his shoulder, which is another injury that goes back a long time for him, off and on.

It doesn’t help that the Pats’ receiving problems seem to be as bad as ever. Julian Edelman had one catch (on three targets) for 13 yards.

joshua.hermsmeyer: Yikes.

neil: And he’s the only Patriot averaging over 40 yards per game receiving.

Salfino: I think we can legit wonder if Cam hasn’t fully recovered from COVID-19, but remember, Cam has been a HORRENDOUS passer since 2016.

neil: Thing is, he really only needed to be better than Brady passing while also bringing that rushing dimension. But he’s been much worse than Brady was.

sara.ziegler: And, of course, the Patriots have big problems on the other side of the ball, too.

Salfino: If only there were some college receivers the year the Patriots drafted N’Keal Harry in the first round.

sara.ziegler: I think everyone is waiting for Bill Belichick to come up with some magic solution to all of this, but that really doesn’t seem possible this year.

Salfino: I agree, the Patriots are toast.

joshua.hermsmeyer: If Cam gets healthy I think they can turn it around — assuming health is the issue here.

neil: Back-to-back home losses. When was the last time that happened to the Pats?

(I looked it up, and the last time that happened in the regular season was in Weeks 9 and 10 of the 2006 season.)1

Salfino: There are now about 10 things like this about them:

joshua.hermsmeyer: To Sara’s point, defense has been an issue for the Pats this year as well. After being perhaps the best defensive back in the league last season, Stephon Gilmore is the 50th ranked CB this season by PFF, and the Pats are 29th in net yards allowed per pass attempt.

Salfino: Man, the year-to-year variance for “shutdown CBs” is so high. I think the stats we use are bad, or it’s just too hard to suss out the best CBs. Like defense in baseball.

sara.ziegler: One other game to talk about quickly: In the battle of the unbeatens, Pittsburgh held on to beat Tennessee on Sunday. What did you all make of that game? None of you was all that high on the Steelers going into it…

Salfino: I still think Ben Roethlisberger is shot. It looked like he was going to make me eat my words in the first half, and then he was bad. The Titans were dancing with a damaged kicker and getting away with it, but they finally had to pay the piper.

joshua.hermsmeyer: I felt like Tennessee lost more than the Steelers won. Ryan Tannehill outplayed Ben slightly, but neither team looked particularly sharp.

neil: We knew the Steelers’ run defense was formidable — and they made Derrick Henry look mortal.

joshua.hermsmeyer: At least fantasy players were happy with that sweet A.J. Brown TD.

Salfino: Love the Pittsburgh defense. But the Titans helped them by throwing more passes to Corey Davis than Brown, even though Brown had five times as many yards.

neil: Oooof. Corey Davis: 3.5 yards per attempt on his targets.

Brown: 19.1

Salfino: That’s the ballgame.

sara.ziegler: It was a strange game. And now the Steelers have a 10 percent chance to win the Super Bowl, tied for third with the Ravens, in our model.

Salfino: I’m not loving any team in football, I have to say. Is it just me?

neil: The Chiefs certainly seem like a more flawed favorite than last year.

Salfino: The Bucs are probably the best team. God help us all if Tom Brady wins again.

neil: Maybe it was Brady and not Belichick all along! 😬

Salfino: Spoiler alert!

sara.ziegler: LOL

Salfino: What is the deal with Antonio Brown? How can that help the program? Isn’t the downside too great?

Morality aside.

neil: He’s “matured,” haven’t you heard, Mike?

joshua.hermsmeyer: I don’t hate adding receiver depth. But I hate everything else about that move.

neil: Brady is so vindictive that he made them sign Brown just so the Pats wouldn’t.

(Not true. LOL)

Salfino: Antonio is being coached up by Banana Hands, too.

[embedded content]

joshua.hermsmeyer: Breaking news: Odell Beckham Jr. is out for the season.

sara.ziegler: Oh, man.

Salfino: It’s a shame that his career, which was trending down, may now be over at such a young age.

joshua.hermsmeyer: He got injured trying to make the tackle after a Mayfield interception. Double-whammy play. Baker has been taking fire in Cleveland recently and was benched last week. I’m sure this won’t help things.

Salfino: Baker was 0-for-5 on his first five throws, including that pick, and then he went 22-of-23 with five TDs. He is cutting 1,000 commercials this week.

sara.ziegler: LOL, Mike.

Before we wrap things up, I did want to talk about another story that came out on Sunday. ESPN’s Adam Schefter reported that Ryquell Armstead, a running back for the Jacksonville Jaguars, won’t play this season because of complications from COVID-19. According to Schefter, Armstead has been hospitalized twice and has faced “significant respiratory issues.”

This sounds like the most serious case faced by any active athlete, and certainly within the NFL. Positive tests across leagues have tended to be asymptomatic, and though some prominent players have had symptoms — Ezekiel Elliot and Von Miller, for example — those players recovered and returned to football.

Armstead is very young — he turns 24 on Friday — and in exceptional shape. He was expected to compete for the starting RB role this year. His illness is a reminder that, though sports have brought us a measure of normalcy, we are still living in a terrifying pandemic.

neil: COVID-19 is a numbers game. And the NFL has a lot of numbers — with no bubble to really protect it.

Salfino: What’s happened to him is so scary. We’ve become desensitized to positive tests in sports with young and healthy athletes, but this is a grim reminder that the disease is so dangerous, no matter the age of the person it hits.

Check out our latest NFL predictions.

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Toronto FC hoping to make MLS Cup run having spent much of 2020 far from home

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On a recent Thursday in Hartford, Conn., Toronto FC goalkeeper Quentin Westberg pondered the dichotomy of wanting to reach MLS Cup on Dec. 12, but also desiring to see his family again. Meanwhile, Jim Liston, the team’s director of sports science, was planning a trip to Lowe’s to buy 15 garbage cans so players could have an ice bath after training. As for manager Greg Vanney, he was fretting about his team’s health and the lack of practice time their schedule was affording.

Such is the life of a team as it attempts to not only navigate its way through the COVID-19 pandemic, but has been forced to do it away from home.

Due to travel restrictions between the U.S. and Canada, TFC — like the league’s other two Canadian teams, Montreal Impact and Vancouver Whitecaps — set up a “home” base in the U.S. for the remainder of the season; Toronto were stationed in Hartford. (Vancouver Whitecaps took roost in Portland, ground-sharing with Timbers, while Montreal Impact split use of New York Red Bulls’ facilities in Harrison, N.J.) This was on top of nearly every team spending nearly a month inside a bubble back in July at the MLS is Back Tournament outside Orlando, Florida.

The Reds spent about seven weeks back in Toronto as they played a series of matches against Canadian teams. In mid-September, the remainder of the regular season — and the temporary move to Hartford — beckoned. The vagabond nature of the campaign is what led Liston to joke that he was willing to discuss “whatever five seasons” the team has been through so far. But for Vanney and the players, the campaign has required a special kind of focus.

“A lot of what we’ve done here, and what we try to preach here is just control the controllables, and don’t get too drawn into the things you can’t,” Vanney told ESPN. “Roll with it, and make the best out of whatever the situation is.”

Stream FC Daily on ESPN+
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Toronto has largely succeeded in spite of its odyssey. While there was disappointment at missing out on the Supporters’ Shield to the Philadelphia Union, TFC went 7-3-2 during its Hartford sojourn and finished with the second-best record in the league. But the challenges have still been immense. Simply being out of one’s home environment is difficult enough, but the time spent away from family and loved ones weighs heavy on the psyche, even as Vanney has given players the occasional trip back to Toronto — under quarantine — to reconnect with loved ones.

“It’s just very different, very challenging and emotionally exhausting,” Westberg said of his experience while based in Hartford.

Westberg has arguably had it tougher than most. The TFC goalkeeper is married with four children, including a baby girl who was born in June. For that reason, Westberg and his wife, Ania, made the decision at the end of September that it would be better for her and their kids to head back to his native France so they could be surrounded by family. Westberg called it “the least bad decision,” but there are difficulties nonetheless.

“I’m a very even person, and this year has challenged me a lot,” he said. “I’m still pretty even, but I keep a lot to myself and for sure there’s some difficult days, seeing your family [struggle] from your absence.”

The inability to be home has affected the players and staff in other ways. In Toronto, there are ways of disengaging from the game. Being with friends, loved ones or even in familiar surroundings can be the best medicine in terms of forgetting a bad game or training session. But in Hartford, at the team’s hotel, that escape is nearly impossible even as players try to distract themselves by reading or taking online classes.

“You don’t really unplug,” Westberg said. “You FaceTime family, or this or that, but it’s too short. You’re 100 percent focused on your soccer, and your whole day basically relies on being ready for whatever soccer activity that you have next, whether it’s practice or game. It’s good for your physique, it’s optimal for the way you eat and the way you [train]. But mentally, you’re not as fresh as your body.”

That isn’t to say there are only negatives to the separation. There is also an us-against-the-world mentality that Toronto has adopted, given that their players and personnel are experiencing the season in a way that is vastly different than most other teams. The team staff has done what it can to make their surroundings a home away from home, whether it’s personalizing the locker rooms at Rentschler Field or having hotel staff brand the surroundings in TFC colors. The hotel went so far as to bring in a barista who could consistently give the players their coffee fix. Supporters groups have even sent down banners in a bid to convey the fact that the players are remembered.

The care that TFC takes for players has extended to families back home, with the club supplying meals to loved ones three times a week.

On the logistical side, Liston made sure that one of the gyms used at MLS is Back was brought to TFC’s hotel in Hartford, and he remarked that the food at the hotel is “arguably the best we’ve ever had on the road.”

There have also been efforts to create new routines. Assistant coach Jason Bent, aka DJ Soops, has been in charge of the pregame music selection for the past 18 months — no easy feat for a squad that has a considerable international presence. In Hartford, Bent has set aside Thursday nights to spin music in one area of the hotel. He’ll even go live on Instagram or Twitch for those who prefer to relax in their rooms.

“[We] opened it to players and staff and basically anyone that’s part of our bubble to come relax, listen to music and just enjoy each other’s company,” Bent said. “I enjoy making people happy so if it’s helping everyone even in the slightest, I have no problem arranging the set and spinning.”

For Vanney, the pandemic and operating outside of the team’s home market has meant any number of challenges. He said the team has used three different training facilities in Hartford, with varying field conditions. He recognizes that the trips home are vital for the mental health of his players and staff, but any breaks also mean less time spent on the practice field. The compressed schedule, which at times involved games every three or four days, has had an impact as well. Even the best-laid plans in terms of squad rotation were impacted as minor injuries began popping up.

“We end up with a lot of guys in different positions because they need special kinds of treatment or care to help them get fit and back to health,” Vanney said. “So it ends up being a lot of different things kind of going on all at once, and that’s been the challenge of it.”

Recovery from matches has been complicated by the fact that TFC doesn’t have access to the same level of facilities that it does at home — hence Liston’s emergency trip to Lowe’s to fashion impromptu ice baths for the players. Then there are the different ways the players occupy themselves on the road as compared to home, especially amid the pandemic.

“There’s really no life outside of the hotel,” Liston said. “[At home], you may go walk the dog in the afternoon or go for a walk with your wife or friend or girlfriend or family and you’re out and about. The recommendation [here] is to kind of stay put. So you’ve got a really active population and pro athletes, who we’re asking them to be sedentary the rest of the time, kind of stay in the hotel from a COVID and safety standpoint. That’s not optimal for recovery either.”

There are also the creature comforts of home that are no longer available on the road, which can impact sleep.

“Sleep is the number one tool for recovery, and that’s definitely been a challenge,” Liston said. “We do well-being questionnaires and the scores on quality of sleep, and hours of sleep, just drop.”

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Tom Barlow and Brian White seal Toronto’s fate in a 2-1 win for New York Red Bulls. Watch MLS on ESPN+.

Another change has been same-day travel, which has drawn mixed reactions from the TFC players and staff. Vanney and Westberg are generally in favor, saying it reminds them of when they each played in France. Flying back the same night also means a training day isn’t lost. Liston has a different perspective in that he prefers arriving the day before, and then leaving the same day.

“I think [same-day travel] makes for a really long day,” he said. “And there’s definitely a negative impact on performance, taking three bus rides and a plane ride before your game. You’re getting home — it can be 12:30, but it could also be 1:30 in the morning, and that’s where you know our well-being scores and sleep hours and quality just disappear. When you have so many games in succession, you can’t make up the sleep.”

With the playoffs set to begin for TFC on Nov. 24, the end is in sight, even as it makes for a complex — and even conflicting — set of emotions.

“This is the tricky part. I miss them a lot,” Westberg said of his family. “But in a way I want to see them as [late] as possible in December, because obviously, there’s this idea that we want to do well in the playoffs and we want to keep going. TFC has a history of setting high standards and high expectations. It’s a heavy load to carry but also an exciting one.”

Win or lose, it’s a season they’ll never forget.

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Bettman: NHL is mulling temporary realignment

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The NHL is considering a temporary realignment of its teams for the 2020-21 season due to COVID-19 travel restrictions, according to commissioner Gary Bettman.

Bettman said Tuesday that restrictions on travel across the Canadian border, as well as “limitations in terms of quarantining when you go from certain states to other states” within the United States, could mean the NHL creates a more regionalized alignment for its upcoming season.

“As it relates to the travel issue, which is obviously the great unknown, we may have to temporarily realign to deal with geography, because having some of our teams travel from Florida to California may not make sense. It may be that we’re better off — particularly if we’re playing a reduced schedule, which we’re contemplating — keeping it geographically centric and more divisional-based; and realigning, again on a temporary basis, to deal with the travel issues,” Bettman said during a 2020 Paley International Council Summit panel with fellow commissioners Adam Silver of the NBA and Rob Manfred of MLB.

The NHL board of governors has a meeting scheduled for Thursday which will provide a progress report and possible recommendations for a season format, based on talks between the league and the NHL Players’ Association. The target date for starting next season remains Jan. 1.

Bettman said the league is considering a few scheduling options for the 2020-21 season. Something that’s off the table: playing the entire season in the kind of bubbles the NHL had in Toronto and Edmonton, Alberta, to complete last season. But Bettman said teams opening in their own arenas is a possibility, along with a modified bubble.

“We are exploring the possibility of playing in our own buildings without fans [or] fans where you can, which is going to be an arena-by-arena issue. But we’re also exploring the possibility of a hub. You’ll come in. You’ll play for 10 to 12 days. You’ll play a bunch of games without traveling. You’ll go back, go home for a week, be with your family. We’ll have our testing protocols and all the other things you need,” he said.

Bettman also indicated that the NHL is exploring “a hybrid, where some teams are in a bubble, some teams play at home and you move in and out.”

The NBA’s board of governors unanimously approved a deal with the players’ union that sets the stage for a season that will open on Dec. 22 and with a reduced schedule of 72 games. Silver said that the commissioners are in communication on COVID-19-related issues, especially the NBA and the NHL, since the two leagues’ teams share arenas and, in some cases, team owners.

Silver said he senses that the NBA will have fans in many of its buildings this season.

“We’re probably going to start one way, where we’re maybe a little bit more conservative than many of the jurisdictions allow,” he said. “What we’ve said to our teams is that we’ll continue to work with public health authorities. Arena issues are different than outdoor stadium issues. There will be certain standards for air filtration and air circulation. There may be a different standard for a suite than there will be for fans spaced in seats.”

Silver said there will be standardized protocols that are consistent from arena to arena, such as proximity between players and fans: “In certain cases, for seats near the floor, we’re going to be putting in testing programs, where fans will certify that they’ve been tested — some within 48 hours, some within day of game.” While Silver supported a continued expansion of the NBA postseason through its play-in tournament, Bettman said that he’s not in favor of expanded playoffs or “playing with the fundamentals of the game.” The NHL had 24 teams in its postseason last summer.

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The Battleground States Where We’ve Seen Some Movement In The Polls

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With apologies to The Raconteurs, the presidential race continues to be “steady as she goes,” with little sign of tightening despite a plethora of new polls. FiveThirtyEight’s presidential forecast gives Joe Biden an 89 in 100 shot at winning the election, while President Trump has just an 11 in 100 chance. This makes Biden the favorite, but still leaves open a narrow path to victory for Trump, for whom a reelection win would be surprising — but not utterly shocking.

At the same time, we also have fewer polls from live-caller surveys, which have historically been more accurate and have shown slightly better numbers for Biden, than polls that use other methodologies, such as polls conducted primarily online or through automated telephone calls. Nevertheless, while the overall picture has shifted only a little in recent days, a few battleground states have seen at least some movement in their polls, which has slightly altered the odds Biden or Trump wins in each of those places.

What election stories need to get more coverage | FiveThirtyEight Politics Podcast

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