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The Eagles Played To Not Lose … Or Win

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sara.ziegler (Sara Ziegler, sports editor): In Week 3 of the NFL season, we saw many exciting finishes from evenly matched teams — with the best game of the week and maybe even the season (on paper, anyway) yet to come. But let’s start with my favorite outcome: the tie! We got our first tie of the season on Sunday, and it was truly a head-scratcher (as all the best ties are).

Salfino (Michael Salfino, FiveThirtyEight contributor): Philadelphia sacked Cincinnati quarterback Joe Burrow eight times and allowed just 3-of-13 third-down attempts to be converted.

neil (Neil Paine, senior sportswriter): And yet …

sara.ziegler: What was that play call at the end for Philly? Playing for … a tie?

neil: Oh, definitely.

joshua.hermsmeyer (Josh Hermsmeyer, NFL analyst): The Bengals and Eagles combined for six punts in one overtime. That usually leads to a tie — LOL — but those last two series to end that game were the work of teams that had surrendered.

neil: I mean, you can’t give Cincy a chance at their own 46 with 19 seconds left. That’s just crazy talk.

Might as well tie at that point.

Salfino: It was fourth-and-12. I guess that was the play from a win probability or loss-avoidance perspective, wasn’t it?

neil: Certainly from a loss-avoidance perspective. And it’s true that they avoided a loss.

joshua.hermsmeyer: They took a penalty to back it up for more room. So the final play looks better on paper.

sara.ziegler: From Doug Pederson, I found that especially frustrating. What does not-a-loss get you if it’s a tie? NOT A DAMN THING.

joshua.hermsmeyer: I’ll forever be amused by what coaches say versus what they do when it comes to “we play to win.”

Salfino: Going into this game, teams were 35-330-6 when they were sacked at least eight times. So it’s a win for Cincy? Sort of?

sara.ziegler: I think a tie there IS a win for the Bengals. They’re a young team still learning. Philly … is not.

Salfino: The NFC East is now 2-9-1, by the way.

neil: I will say the penalties absolutely killed Philly in that overtime. They had it down to the Bengals’ 43 on their second-to-last drive, and a couple of penalties ruined that. Then another penalty basically caused Pederson to say, “Fuck it, I give up,” and not kick the FG.

joshua.hermsmeyer: Yeah, Neil, they had four OT penalties. That’s a lot! It’s tied for sixth most in an overtime period since 2001.

One cost them 13.8 percent win probability alone.

Salfino: I was hoping the Bengals would ice the kicker on a 59-yard field goal attempt before the penalty. There was just no way Jake Elliott was making that.

neil: Yeah, he is no Harrison Butker.

Salfino: Carson Wentz leads the NFL in picks, BTW (tied with Kirk Cousins). I like him, but this is ridiculous.

neil: It is funny that this adds to the Bengals as being the tying-est team of the 2000s. And the Eagles are tied for second. Call it the curse of Donovan McNabb Not Remembering Ties Exist.

It was a terrible day for Philly sports all around. The Eagles choose to punt for a tie instead of going for a win, and the Phillies had a chance to make the playoffs if the following happened:

  1. They won.
  2. The Cardinals beat the Brewers.
  3. The Padres beat the Giants.

Well, the Cards beat Milwaukee

and the Padres beat SF

… and the Phillies lost 5-0 to Tampa, ending their season.

sara.ziegler: Ooof

joshua.hermsmeyer: Philly fans are shook.

Salfino: I’m sure they’re taking it well on sports radio today.

neil: Oh, I’m sure.

Salfino: Last week, they piped in booing for the broadcast.

neil: Pederson is lucky there were no fans, or piped-in booing would be the least of his problems.

Salfino: There may have been just pipes.

sara.ziegler: Let’s move on to another wild ending. The Buffalo Bills withstood a big comeback from the Los Angeles Rams and, aided by a questionable call, took their record to 3-0. Does Josh Allen look any better to you now, Josh?

joshua.hermsmeyer: The thing about Josh Allen’s performance is that no matter what you think about him, you were proved right on Sunday.

Salfino: So true.

The facemask penalty against him was classic.

sara.ziegler: I did not realize quarterbacks could get facemask penalties, LOL.

joshua.hermsmeyer: He made some truly nice throws — I recall one touch pass along the sideline I thought was especially good — and then threw the controversial interception which was wildly ill-advised. And I know Bills fans were upset about it, but there was also offensive pass interference on the play. It was a mess all around.

Salfino: I guess the Bills are hot, but I found the circumstances of their win revolting as a fan. This is a legendary bad call, though I’m sure the NFL will justify it.

sara.ziegler: The reffing on Sunday was certainly something. I’m still mad about the phantom horse-collar tackle call that went against the Saints on a Packer drive.

(And the missed offensive pass interference.)

(And the terrible spot on fourth down for the Packers that was eventually overturned.)

Salfino: Josh had the line of the night on the Saints.

joshua.hermsmeyer: Sean Payton dying on Taysom Hill?

Salfino: Yeah. Hilarious and also cosmic justice.

sara.ziegler: I actually guffawed when I saw that tweet, Josh.

joshua.hermsmeyer: Hill is such a strange player to invest so much hope in at this late stage of his career.

Salfino: In four or five years, they may have something.

joshua.hermsmeyer: If you want a switch up from Drew Brees, Let Jameis Cook. Bring Winston in at the end of games where you need to pass to catch up. Now that would be fun.

Salfino: Exactly. I was just going to ask whether the Saints would be better now with Winston. The anti-Brees.

And Brees got bailed out by Alvin Kamara on that slow-motion 52-yard TD jaunt.

sara.ziegler: How worried should the Saints be about Brees’s arm right now?

Salfino: I love how they ask Brees how he feels. Name the last old athlete who said, “Yeah, I’ve lost it.” Probably Mickey Mantle. (Ironically, modern stats say that Mantle did NOT lose it.)

joshua.hermsmeyer: Sara, he looked better to me as the game went on. His second TD pass had some zip on it. But he certainly didn’t look confident in either what he was seeing or in his ability to get the ball where it needed to be, based on all the double clutching he did in the first half.

Salfino: He had an 18-yarder to a wide-open Emmanuel Sanders that barely got there. It was embarrassing.

sara.ziegler: And yet … the Saints nearly won that game, against a Green Bay team that seems legit.

joshua.hermsmeyer: The Packers won with play-action. It was the difference in the game, like it usually is.

Salfino: They’ve scored the sixth-most points ever for a 3-0 team. I did not think they were going to be a juggernaut offensively, with their apparent desire to run more.

They beat it to death on the telecasts, but Aaron Rodgers is the all-time master of the free play.

sara.ziegler: And the damn hard count.

joshua.hermsmeyer: Truth. It was a vivid example of the loss of one aspect of home field advantage.

Salfino: That is such a good point. That could not have happened without COVID-19.

Does playing games in empty stadiums make the Packers a win better? Neil?

neil: IDK how much effect the home field has had with no fans. Home teams have won 54.3 percent of games so far, which is below the usual norm … but above what last year had WITH fans (52.0 percent).

FWIW, baseball’s home winning percentage was higher this season without fans than in 2019 as well.

Salfino: But could some QBs like Rodgers, who use that kind of hard-count/free-play gamesmanship, have a bigger edge?

neil: Certainly if crowd noise (or the lack thereof) factors more into your techniques, you will benefit more.

sara.ziegler: It will be fascinating to look at that over the course of the season.

joshua.hermsmeyer: Yeah, it seems like the advantage from not having a home-field crowd isn’t evenly distributed across all teams. One thing that does seem to be real is the elevated pace of play. Bettors seem to be making some money on it.

Preston Johnson reports that pace is up in 2020, 1.3 seconds faster than last year, which leads to more scoring overall.

Salfino: Maybe teams can communicate more easily and get players on and off the field faster with no noise, as well.

neil: Total points per game are up over 50 so far this season!

That is wild.

sara.ziegler: Wow

Well, let’s move to another game that saw a) more than 50 points scored; b) a quarterback controversy; and c) yet another full-scale collapse.

Bears-Falcons!

neil: Oh, God, the Falcons.

joshua.hermsmeyer: The Falcons need to be a feature in every win probability model going forward.

Salfino: They’re the first team ever with two losses in a season when they had 15-plus-point fourth-quarter leads, and they did it IN BACK-TO-BACK WEEKS. Ouch.

I’m shocked the Chargers never did it.

joshua.hermsmeyer: I can’t imagine how it must feel to be a Falcons fan, or how it must feel to face the locker room as Dan Quinn.

neil: They’re on another level of win probability lost per game in the fourth quarter.

The Falcons just keep giving away games

Worst win probability added (WPA) per game by each team unit in the fourth quarter, 2020 NFL season

4th Qtr WPA PER Game
Team Record Offense Defense Sp. Tms Total
Falcons 0-3 -0.06 -0.34 -0.23 -0.63
Bengals 0-2-1 +0.05 -0.22 -0.15 -0.32
Texans 0-3 -0.03 -0.20 +0.00 -0.23
49ers 2-1 +0.07 -0.26 -0.01 -0.20
Broncos 0-3 +0.00 -0.20 +0.00 -0.20
Colts 2-1 -0.06 -0.13 -0.01 -0.20
Eagles 0-2-1 +0.01 -0.18 -0.01 -0.18
Dolphins 1-2 +0.12 -0.27 -0.01 -0.16
Vikings 0-3 +0.01 +0.00 -0.17 -0.16
Saints 1-2 -0.07 -0.03 -0.01 -0.11
Lions 1-2 +0.04 -0.17 +0.04 -0.09
Giants 0-3 -0.06 -0.07 +0.04 -0.09

Source: ESPN Stats & Information Group

sara.ziegler: Damn.

Salfino: And of course the Bears have two wins like this, which must be similarly rare. Nick Foles is the QB now, right?

sara.ziegler: It doesn’t seem possible that Mitch Trubisky could hold on to his starting job now. But it didn’t seem possible that he would win the starting job in the first place!

Salfino: Well, like we said, I get that the Bears got two outs by trying Trubisky first. But I don’t think he can bounce back from this. Maybe it’s possible without fans? Either way, he has no business starting again.

neil: Matt Nagy lucked out. He got to give Trubisky a look AND still get out of it 3-0.

Salfino: That’s just amazing.

sara.ziegler: It’s really incredible.

joshua.hermsmeyer: The most fraudulent 3-0 team? I guess the Titans have won three close games as well.

Salfino: Don’t go there, Josh.

joshua.hermsmeyer: I have my Pythagorean formulas all ready to go, Mike.

Salfino: I was thinking of Sara.

sara.ziegler: Hey, I took the Titans in the Hot Takedown Survivor Pool.

neil: The Titans only have a +2.0 point differential per game; Bears are +4.0.

Salfino: Hey, at least the Vikings have found a receiver.

sara.ziegler: That will be great in all the games they lose 41-40.

joshua.hermsmeyer: The fruits of the Stefon Diggs trade.

Salfino: Stephen Gostkowski has made three game-winning field goals in a row, and he isn’t even good anymore. Sums up the Titans.

(I miss the 1998 Vikings.)

sara.ziegler: LOL, so do I!

Salfino: And the 1998 Jets.

sara.ziegler: Before we wrap up here, I wanted to talk for a second about the Lions-Cardinals game, which did not go at all how I expected it to.

Did Matt Patricia buy himself more time this season with that win?

Salfino: Kyler Murray blew it. Love the kid, but that was bad. Three picks is like minus-12 points. He just gave the game away.

neil: I thought we’d get ANOTHER tie in that one.

Detroit and Arizona tied last year, too.

joshua.hermsmeyer: Both teams had similar expected points added per play, so yeah, I think you can hang this on Kyler’s turnovers. The Cardinals actually had a higher success rate and a higher third-down conversion percentage. Not sure how much credit I’d give Patricia.

Salfino: Do you feel ripped off that the Cowboys should be 0-3?

joshua.hermsmeyer: Better 1-2 team: Cowboys or Dolphins? (It’s actually close by EPA per play!)

Salfino: The NFC East should have just one win, by Washington over another NFC East team.

neil: Speaking of, nice to see the Browns get one over the Football Team. Second-most generically named team beats the most generically named team

Salfino: Well, Cleveland was named after Paul Brown. Not that generic. Seems it now, though.

neil: Yes, most people now probably think they are just named after the color Brown.

joshua.hermsmeyer: I did, for a long time.

neil: (The generic helmets don’t help.)

joshua.hermsmeyer: I also have no idea what the Dog Pound has to do with anything.

neil: The Browns are above .500 for the first time since … when again? 2014!

Salfino: But don’t they seem fraudulent? They have no passing game whatsoever. Baker Mayfield is a game manager.

Free Baker!

neil: LOL, yes, they do seem fraudulent: -13 point differential despite being 2-1.

Salfino: That was another game the QB gave away. Dwayne Haskins was gaffe-prone, as usual.

joshua.hermsmeyer: The curse of Sashi Brown is that the Browns would finally get good at the same time that Baltimore has Lamar Jackson.

neil: Baltimore has been cursing the Browns for YEARS.

[embedded content]

(I will take any excuse to post a Jon Bois video.)

sara.ziegler: If Baker just drops his Progressive commercials, maybe this can be his year.

Salfino: It wasn’t me this time!

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+
– 2020 MLS Playoffs: Who’s in, schedule and more
– MLS on ESPN+: Stream LIVE games and replays (U.S. only)

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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