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The NFC East Is Historically Bad. How Much Worse Can It Get?

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The most tragic injury of the NFL season — so far — had to be the one Dallas Cowboys quarterback Dak Prescott suffered Sunday against the New York Giants. Prescott, who leads the league in passing yards, fractured and dislocated his right ankle scrambling past cornerback Logan Ryan and is expected to miss the rest of the season, according to Dallas head coach Mike McCarthy. Although the Cowboys won the game, the loss of Prescott is a major setback for Dallas’s chances to make something out of their 2020 season.

But the Cowboys do have one important thing going for them: They play in the NFC East. Dallas still has a 35 percent chance of making the playoffs, even after losing its franchise QB, because the rest of the division is maybe the worst in modern history. This is no hyperbole: Since the 1970 NFL-AFL merger, only one division — the 1984 AFC Central — had a worse record (4-16-0) through the first five games of each team’s season than the 2020 NFC East’s current 4-15-1 mark, and no division in history has had a lower average Elo rating through five games:

More like NFC Least, amirite? (I’ll show myself out.)

Lowest average Elo rating for the teams in an NFL division through five games, 1970-2020

Record
Season Division No. of Tms Wins Losses Ties W% Avg. Elo Rating
2020 NFC East 4 4 15 1 .225 1409.4
2015 AFC South 4 6 14 0 .300 1409.9
2005 NFC West 4 7 13 0 .350 1416.5
1984 AFC Central 4 4 16 0 .200 1419.3
2011 NFC West 4 7 13 0 .350 1422.5
2010 NFC West 4 8 12 0 .400 1425.3
2008 NFC West 4 7 13 0 .350 1426.8
2014 AFC South 4 7 13 0 .350 1427.9
1976 NFC West 5 10 14 1 .420 1430.3
2016 AFC South 4 9 11 0 .450 1430.5
1970 AFC Central 4 8 12 0 .400 1432.7
1971 AFC Central 4 7 12 1 .375 1433.0
2002 AFC South 4 9 11 0 .450 1435.8
1977 NFC Central 5 10 15 0 .400 1437.9
1999 AFC Central 6 13 17 0 .433 1439.5
1976 AFC West 5 11 14 0 .440 1439.5
1995 AFC Central 5 11 14 0 .440 1439.9
2009 NFC West 4 8 12 0 .400 1441.0
2009 AFC West 4 8 12 0 .400 1441.5
1998 NFC East 5 7 18 0 .280 1444.7

Source: Pro-Football-Reference.com

And that low Elo rating is understating the depths of the NFC East’s current plight, since it doesn’t reflect the drop-off between Prescott and Cowboys backup Andy Dalton looking ahead to the rest of the season. Dallas hadn’t played well even with Prescott putting up huge numbers, ranking 25th in schedule-adjusted expected points added (EPA) per game due in large part to the league’s third-worst defense. Meanwhile, the Philadelphia Eagles, the Giants and the Washington Football Team all rank among the NFL’s bottom five clubs in adjusted EPA per game, ahead of only the Jacksonville Jaguars and New York Jets. Based on what we’ve seen so far, it is fair to say this division exclusively contains not just mediocre teams, but outright bad ones.

Someone has to win it, though. Right now, we give the Eagles the edge after adjusting for Prescott’s injury, setting Philadelphia’s odds of winning at 46 percent; Dallas sits at 34 percent, followed by Washington at 15 percent and New York at 5 percent. But Philly is on track to go 6-9-1 this season, according to our model, which would be the worst record for any division winner since 1970.1 (The 2010 Seattle Seahawks won the NFC West with a 7-9 record; no word on whether the Eagles’ Miles Sanders is capable of a run like this, though.)

And that’s just scratching the surface of how bad things could potentially get. For our NFL prediction model, we generate 50,000 simulations of the remaining schedule, which create all manner of possibilities for how the rest of the season might go. I dug into them to find the worst division-winning scenario for each NFC East team — no matter how mind-boggling.

Doomsday scenario No. 1: Dallas wins at 5-11

Average outcomes in the 98 (out of 50,000) simulations in which the Dallas Cowboys win the NFC East with a 5-11 record

Simulated Seasons
Team Current Wins* remaining total
Dallas Cowboys 2.0 3.0 5.0
Philadelphia Eagles 1.5 2.8 4.3
Washington Football Team 1.0 3.1 4.1
New York Giants 0.0 3.9 3.9

*Ties are counted as half-wins.

According to our simulations, the Cowboys could win the division with a 5-11 record. In fact, it happened in 98 of their 16,833 total division-winning scenarios, making that the most likely of all these doomsday scenarios. (Don’t worry, that still means it has just a 0.58 percent chance of happening even if the Cowboys win the division.) It would essentially require the Eagles to do the worst of any division rival over the rest of the schedule — winning 2.8 of their remaining 11 games, on average — and for the currently winless Giants to do the best, with the Cowboys going 3-8 down the stretch. But each NFC East team does face non-division foes in six of their remaining 11 games, which gives them plenty of chances to lose outside the division while cannibalizing wins among themselves inside of it.

Doomsday scenario No. 2: Philly wins at 4-11-1

Average outcomes in the 10 (out of 50,000) simulations in which the Philadelphia Eagles win the NFC East with a 4-11-1 record

Simulated Seasons
Team Current Wins* remaining total
Philadelphia Eagles 1.5 3.0 4.5
Dallas Cowboys 2.0 1.8 3.8
Washington Football Team 1.0 2.8 3.8
New York Giants 0.0 3.7 3.7

*Ties are counted as half-wins.

Because of their tie in Week 3 against the Cincinnati Bengals, the Eagles could do the Cowboys one better — winning the division with a lowly 4-11-1 record. As in Dallas’s scenario, they would need to go 3-8 down the stretch; they would also need the Giants to go on a “tear” and finish around 4-7 in their remaining games, while the Cowboys would need to win about two of their last 11. The odds of this happening are lower simply because the Eagles with Carson Wentz are rated with an Elo of 1480, while the Cowboys with Dalton have an effective Elo of 1391 — making it less likely that Philadelphia would be quite so bad over the rest of the season (even if the Cowboys do play the league’s second-easiest remaining schedule in terms of opponents’ Elo ratings).

Doomsday scenario No. 3: New York wins at 4-12

Average outcomes in the 1 (out of 50,000) simulations in which the New York Giants win the NFC East with a 4-12 record

Simulated Seasons
Team Current Wins* remaining total
New York Giants 0.0 4.0 4.0
Washington Football Team 1.0 3.0 4.0
Philadelphia Eagles 1.5 2.0 3.5
Dallas Cowboys 2.0 1.0 3.0

*Ties are counted as half-wins.

Here’s a scenario that happened only once in 50,000 simulations: the Giants winning the division with a 4-12 record. To make it happen, the Eagles and Cowboys would need to go a combined 3-19 down the stretch, while the Giants go 4-7 and Football Team goes 3-8. The Giants and Football Team would then finish the season tied with identical 4-12 records, and they would have split the season series as well, but New York wins the division on the intra-divisional record tiebreaker with its three other wins coming against the Eagles (Weeks 7 and 10) and Cowboys (Week 17). It’s exceptionally unlikely, but as a subset of all the Giants’ division-winning simulations — only 2,608 in total, out of 50,000 — it’s actually more probable than our final doomsday scenario.

Doomsday scenario No. 4: Washington wins at 4-12

Average outcomes in the 1 (out of 50,000) simulations in which the Washington Football Team wins the NFC East with a 4-12 record

Simulated Seasons
Team Current Wins* remaining total
Washington Football Team 1.0 3.0 4.0
New York Giants 0.0 4.0 4.0
Dallas Cowboys 2.0 2.0 4.0
Philadelphia Eagles 1.5 2.0 3.5

*Ties are counted as half-wins.

Washington winning at 4-12 also happens only once in 50,000 simulations, though Football Team does have 7,506 other paths to the division title (compared with New York’s mere 2,607 division-winning simulations in which it doesn’t go 4-12). This one is pretty identical to the Giants’ 4-12 division-title bid, with Washington winning this time on a tiebreaker because one of the Giants’ wins came outside the division (gasp!) instead of against Football Team in their game this weekend.

Of course, the single most likely (slash boring) NFC East scenario is that the Eagles win it with an 8-7-1 record, which happened 6,127 times in our 50,000 simulations. That would mean the 2010 Seahawks could rest easy, and we wouldn’t see a new Worst Division Winner Ever in 2020. But where’s the fun in that? I’m rooting for the doomsday scenarios.

FiveThirtyEight’s NFL Elo ratings

How each team ranks through Week 5 of the 2020 season, according to our quarterback-adjusted predictions

Chance To …
Rk Team Starting QB QB Rk* Elo Rating Proj. Record Make Playoffs Win Division Win SB
1 Chiefs Mahomes 1 1688 12-4 94% 78% 15%
2 Packers Rodgers 4 1655 12-4 95 76 14
3 Ravens Jackson 6 1649 11-5 87 42 9
4 Seahawks Wilson 3 1640 12-4 95 64 11
5 Titans Tannehill 9 1622 12-4 89 78 8
6 Steelers Roethlisberger 7 1619 12-4 85 39 7
7 Rams Goff 12 1603 10-6 79 27 6
8 Saints Brees 2 1591 10-6 71 49 4
9 Bills Allen 10 1583 10-6 75 59 4
10 Buccaneers Brady 15 1570 9-7 62 35 4
11 Browns Mayfield 24 1563 11-5 73 19 3
12 Bears Foles 22 1551 10-6 72 22 3
13 Colts Rivers 20 1541 9-7 41 19 2
14 Raiders Carr 5 1540 9-7 50 17 1
15 49ers Garoppolo✚ 30 1523 7-9 20 2 <1
16 Patriots Newton✚ 17 1516 9-7 56 35 3
17 Cardinals Murray 8 1509 8-8 36 6 1
18 Dolphins Fitzpatrick 11 1502 7-9 21 7 <1
19 Vikings Cousins 25 1494 7-9 18 2 <1
20 Panthers Bridgewater 14 1484 8-8 37 15 <1
21 Eagles Wentz 23 1480 6-9-1 47 46 <1
22 Broncos Lock✚ 29 1480 6-10 12 3 <1
23 Texans Watson 13 1459 5-11 6 2 <1
24 Chargers Herbert 19 1450 6-10 8 1 <1
25 Lions Stafford 16 1421 6-10 10 <1 <1
26 Falcons Ryan 18 1416 4-12 2 <1 <1
27 Cowboys Dalton 26 1391 6-10 35 34 <1
28 Bengals Burrow 28 1382 5-10-1 3 <1 <1
29 Washington Allen 32 1348 5-11 16 15 <1
30 Jaguars Minshew 21 1347 4-12 <1 <1 <1
31 Giants Jones 27 1344 4-12 5 5 <1
32 Jets Flacco 31 1327 3-13 <1 <1 <1

*Ranking among Week 6 starters, according to our QB Elo ratings.

✚ Starter is currently injured and may not play.

Simulations as of Oct. 14, 2020.

Source: ESPN

Looking ahead: There are a few good matchups to watch in Week 6, including Rams-49ers, Packers-Bucs and Steelers-Browns. But the one we’ve got our eye on is Kansas City at Buffalo on Monday night. Both teams are coming off of losses — K.C. was stunned at home by the Raiders, while the Bills were shellacked at Tennessee on Monday. Still, these are two of the nine best teams in the league, according to our Elo ratings, with a couple of electrifying QBs in Patrick Mahomes and Josh Allen. Buffalo has huge defensive problems, ranking 28th in the league in adjusted EPA per game so far this season, which is music to Mahomes’s ears after his mediocre performance against Vegas. Allen might find K.C.’s defense (No. 6 in EPA) a tougher puzzle to solve, though he’s been passing the ball very well and the game is at home. We give Kansas City a 60 percent chance here, but it would be a great opportunity for Buffalo to reassert itself as a legitimate contender after being embarrassed by the Titans. Elo’s spread: Kansas City -2½

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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