In the era of big data, computerized number crunching, and stats available for nearly everything, you might think it’s become easy – dare we say even mundane – for folks like NFL pundits and oddsmakers to correctly predict winners. And it is, much of the time.
But once in a while, we witness an anomaly that defies all the high-tech wizardry that is thrown at forecasting NFL outcomes.
Such was the case on September 29, way back in Week 4 of the 2019 season, when multiple underdog teams pulled off upset victories. In fact, the unpredictably of that day created a rather large anomaly that warrants a special look back.
So, What Happened in Week 4?
We won’t bore you with a trip into the technical weeds – all you need to know about for now is that there is something called the Brier skill score, which FiveThirtyEight tracks for each game and week of the NFL season. The Brier score is used to measure the accuracy of predicted outcomes, i.e., how often something predicted to happen actually happens.
Through the first three weeks of the 2019 season, the league-wide Brier score was the 14th most accurate since 1970. In other words, those in the prognostication business had correctly predicted the outcome of all games in Weeks 1 to 3 way more than usual – to the tune of being right 65.6 percent of the time.
That all changed in Week 4. The Brier score suddenly shot through the roof (a higher score reflects less accuracy in predictions) and experts correctly pegged just 46.7 percent of games for the week. In fact, Week 4 was the 14th least predictable single NFL season week since 1970.
Driving the madness were four games in which teams with over a 70 percent chance of winning were defeated by extreme long shots. Not only did the dark horse victors earn some nice morale boasts, but bettors that picked these underdogs with NFL moneyline or over/under wagers came up large for the week.
Here’s what went down in the upset games.
Buccaneers Shock Rams 55-40
Perhaps the grandest upset on the season so far was Tampa Bay’s 55-40 handling of the Los Angeles Rams in Week 4.
The Bucs entered the contest with just a 17-percent win probability. While the Rams defense was ranked as the NFL’s 11th best by expected points added (EPA) at -19.0, Tampa Bay scored early and often.
Jameis Winston proved why he is one of the league’s most explosive threats. The former Heisman Trophy winner completed 28 of 41 passes en route to 385 passing yards and four touchdowns. Ronald Jones II and Peyton Barber each added rushing touchdowns as the Bucs posted a season-high points total.
Tampa Bay’s defense wasn’t impenetrable. The Rams also amassed a highwater score in the loss. But for a Bucs squad that stands at 2-6 at the season’s midway point, Week 4 may go down as the crowning achievement in 2019.
Panthers Ease Over Texans 16-10
Houston looked like a sure thing on paper when Carolina rolled into NRG Stadium with just a 22 percent chance of winning the Week 4 clash.
Instead, the Panthers controlled a low scoring affair and never trailed the Texans. The Carolina defense provided plenty of headaches for Houston QB Deshaun Watson, who struggled to find a groove in two of his last three starts.
Meanwhile, Panthers QB Kyle Allen got the job done by not trying to do too much in his second start filling in for the injured Cam Newton. Carolina’s scoring came on a touchdown rush by Christian McCaffrey and three field goals off the foot of Joey Slye.
Browns Pound Ravens 40-25
Some pundits didn’t peg Baltimore as a division-leading caliber team coming into 2019. However, the Ravens continue to defy expectations and currently sit atop the AFC North at 6-2.
This makes it all the more surprising that 72 percent favorite Baltimore’s biggest first-half hiccup came against a struggling Cleveland team and colder-than-hot QB Baker Mayfield.
Mayfield put up his best performance on the season to date, throwing for 342 yards and a score while completing 20 of 30 passes. The second-year signal-caller put together a 102.4 QB rating on the day, as RB Dontrell Hilliard punched in three rushing touchdowns in the upset win.
Oakland Slaps Indianapolis 31-2
The Colts, with a cozy 73 percent win probability, were supposed to smash the Raiders at home in Week 4. Oakland entered with a struggling defense and came from a 34-14 beating by the Vikings a week prior.
It wasn’t that the Colts failed to perform – coach Frank Reich’s team is averaging 22.8 points per game in 2019 and QB Jacoby Brissett looked decent throwing for three touchdowns in the outing. But Oakland maintained a quicker scoring pace through much of the game behind scores from Foster Moreau, Trevor Davis, and Tyrell Williams.
Fast forward to midseason and Indianapolis (5-3) is second in the AFC South while Oakland (4-4) holds down second in the AFC West. These teams are more equal than prognosticators had them in Week 4.
While analytics and technology have become more advanced, you still can never discount the human element. At the end of the day, we’re happy to see there is a little volatility and humanity left in pro football.