Week 15 Game Previews
by Rivers McCown and Andrew Potter
Listed percentages are the overall DVOA of each team heading into the game. Lines per ESPN, accurate as of Tuesday, December 10th.
-27.6% Washington (+6) at -9.4% Atlanta -- 1:00 PM ET (FOX)
Rivers McCown: It takes a strange preponderance of events to make the Falcons a six-point favorite, but here we are. Robert Griffin is deposed for ... some reason. Maybe someone got food poisoning at Subway. Kirk Cousins is in, and he now has a chance to increase his trade value against a Falcons defense that, while not historically woeful, certainly qualifies as atrocious. I'm not sure why a league that passed on Cousins for three straight rounds would want to give up a meaningful pick for him in a fairly strong quarterback draft class, but I guess with the Redskins it's best to just appreciate the performance art rather than question it.
Andrew Potter: The easy argument is that unlike college quarterbacks he'll have proven he can perform against professional defenses, but as we know the same could have been said for Matt Flynn or Kevin Kolb or A.J. Feeley. I've seen suggestions that with a few good performances Cousins could garner a second-round pick, but really anything better than the pick they spent on him would be a boon to a franchise which needs an awful lot of help at an awful lot of positions. Backup quarterback is likely to be important in the long term given Griffin's playing style, but that doesn't exactly make retaining one a priority for a team with this defense and the specialest of special teams.
Rivers McCown:I don't necessarily buy that backup quarterback is a position to be invested in, but I'm also a big believer in the idea that if your quarterback can't win you the Super Bowl, chasing the five percent chance that everything falls into place is kind of silly. Griffin still can be that kind of quarterback, and I don't think he's injury-prone or more liable to be hurt because of his style. He certainly takes fewer hits than Andrew Luck does. Was two seasons of a decent salary-controlled backup quarterback worth ... a one-round upgrade, ultimately? Especially given how weak the rest of this roster was?
Anyway, yes, there's still a game. The winner of this game is going to hurt themselves immensely in the derby for the No. 1 overall pick, while the loser can pull into a tie with Houston on W-L with a Texans win in Indy. I really can't see the argument for Atlanta to lose this game, because I don't think Cousins will be able to overcome the same issues that RGIII had with this offense. If Jordan Reed actually plays (and I don't think I would play him given how severe the head injury seems to be for him), that's a plus. But Pierre Garcon and a cadre of No. 4 receivers does not a passing game make.
Andrew Potter: Washington just sat its franchise quarterback, ostensibly because of health concerns. Given that context, there is no way Jordan Reed should play in this game.
Also, while we're vaguely on the subject, can we please settle the Washington franchise mascot debate by renaming them the Washington Griffins? There's the owner's pet aspect, and a ready-made mythical beast for the logo and everything.
I don't think Atlanta is really in the derby for the number one overall pick, barring further surprises, and I don't think that especially matters to them as they already have a (very good) quarterback. The fun dynamic, however, is St. Louis having Washington's pick, as I have the impression they think they're settled at quarterback too -- which means the Rams would be Atlanta's competition for the best of the non-quarterbacks, and makes this a draft pick head-to-head even though it's not a direct head-to-head game. Unfortunately for the Falcons, I don't see Washington's defense stopping Matt Ryan, Roddy White, and Tony Gonzalez, whereas Washington's offense is much more stoppable even for Atlanta's defense. Advantage: Rams, meaning neither of these teams ultimately wins.
Rivers McCown: Washington Marshalls. That's how you honor the past and have a cool, military-related name. (And inherent Wind Slash!)
I'm under the impression that, should Teddy Bridgewater come out, he'll be the No. 1 pick. It's just a matter of if it'll happen by trade or by honest-to-goodness selection.
15.9% San Francisco (-5) at 1.0% Tampa Bay -- 1:00 PM ET (FOX)
Andrew Potter: San Francisco's win against Seattle has just about sealed a playoff spot for the 49ers, which could potentially mean both NFC wild cards are sewn up before two of the divisions are decided. The 49ers can still be caught by the Cardinals, but their superior division record means they would also need to lose one more game to miss out. This seems the likeliest candidate for that: Tampa Bay's poor record conceals a tough team with a very good, balanced defense (seventh against the run, eighth against the pass), albeit a struggling offense (-9.8%, 24th).
Rivers McCown: And it's the ever-dreaded 1:00 ET start time for a West Coast team, don't forget that.
But, much like when Carolina played Tampa a few weeks ago, I feel like this is a game where Tampa runs into a team that is peaking at the right time. Five straight weeks with a negative defensive DVOA. Michael Crabtree has come back and performed admirably, if not up to his usual standard, and three receivers is enough weapons to get Colin Kaepernick into a groove. The start time matters, but the talent disparity seems like a lot to overcome.
Andrew Potter: Mike Glennon has looked like a third-round rookie in the past couple of weeks too, ranking 31st and 30th by DYAR while completing only 23 of 46 passes. A struggling quarterback is bad news against this 49ers defense, and as you observed last week (link) the 49ers have been surprisingly efficient with their own passing game.
Rivers McCown: Against two of the best defenses in the NFL, let's remember. And the Bucs didn't really have much reason to throw at the end of last week.
I can see the case for picking Tampa, but subjectively speaking I feel like San Francisco generally closes out on bad-to-mediocre teams pretty well, last year's problems with St. Louis excepted. I expect good coaching and good talent to carry the day.
Andrew Potter: I'd agree with that. The Buccaneers are better than a usual 4-9 team. They are not better than a usual 9-4 team, which is what San Francisco is.
39.1% Seattle (-7) at -15.1% NY Giants -- 1:00 PM ET (FOX)
Rivers McCown: First order of business for these Giants: was the failure of the passing game this year a personnel or a schematic problem? I'm inclined to lean schematic, because I think Rueben Randle needs a dumbed-down role in the game plan. I am open to other opinions, of course. I don't necessarily think it's Tom Coughlin's time to go, but I do think Kevin Gilbride is a potential sacrifice.
Andrew Potter: Scheme versus personnel is rarely an either-or question. Hakeem Nicks hasn't been the Hakeem Nicks I think the Giants expected, which puts pressure on Randle and Victor Cruz. Both have above-average DVOA -- 8.9% and 3.3% respectively, and even Nicks is at 1.4% -- which suggests they aren't being used especially poorly. Brandon Myers hasn't quite replaced Martellus Bennett, however, and their receiving backs would make Jaguars and Ravens fans cringe. Oh, and Eli Manning leads the league in interceptions again, which should be fun against Seattle's secondary.
Rivers McCown: Nicks hasn't been the same player, no, but he's still a credible third receiver. Myers has been a clear downgrade. The offensive line, I think, should bear more fault than any unit -- but offensive line is also not a position that is easy to quick-fix on talent. I think you're better off bringing in a fresh coach to see what he can work with than spending big on linemen in free agency, certainly.
Andrew Potter: Eli Manning is also about to turn 33, ranks 36th by DVOA this year, and is not guaranteed the same longevity as his brother. It's possible that a new coach or a new receiver could revitalize him and the Giants offense, or it's possible that he's simply on the back nine of his career.
As for Seattle, the Seahawks are still two games ahead of everybody except New Orleans, and can clinch the division and a bye this weekend. As with the 49ers, this is a 1PM ET kickoff. They surely won't lose this though, will they? First in defense (-20.2%) against 28th in offense (-15.3%). Sixth in offense (13.1%) against tenth in defense (-6.8%). A massive disparity in special teams, fifth (5.8%) against 31st (-6.6%). Seattle is better by the numbers in every phase of the game.
Rivers McCown: I wouldn't be astonished if it happened, but no, I don't give the Giants much of a chance. Their best hope is that Seattle's backup cornerbacks morph into pumpkins. And even if they did morph into pumpkins, Eli would probably stick a ball right into their carved faces for a pick-six.
10.5% Philadelphia (-5) at -13.9% Minnesota -- 1:00 PM ET (FOX)
Andrew Potter: Last week's snow in Philadelphia's stadium was a lot more fun than the last time it snowed inside Minnesota's, but despite its passing efficiency taking a hit last week the Eagles offense should return to normal here. Minnesota couldn't stop Baltimore's 30th-ranked -21.6% offense in the snow at the end of last week's game. How are the Vikings going to stop Philadelphia's (third-ranked, 19.9%) in a dome?
Rivers McCown: Might be time to retire the "snow" = poor offense idea after last week, is my guess. A little snow is no big deal. Snow that completely obscures the field, like it did in the first quarter of Detroit-Philly, is a different thing.
Oh, right, the answer to your question is "no." Without Adrian Peterson, the Vikings are going to have to have a lot go right to win this game. I think it lays out especially well for Philly because Minnesota's defense seems very vanilla to me.
Andrew Potter: The Vikings defense also doesn't do anything especially well. They're below average in DVOA against the pass and the run, and 11th or lower against every type of receiver in our lists. They're 14th in Adjusted Line Yards and 28th in Adjusted Sack Rate. Philadelphia's offense, by contrast, is great running the ball and good passing, has the second-most efficient quarterback in the league (who may return to the top after Thursday night's Broncos letdown), a dynamic dual-threat running back, and two of the league's most efficient receivers. It looks like a series of mismatches all over the field.
Rivers McCown: I just remember the Packers running a bunch of screens and smokes to receivers that were left singled up on one side against Minnesota last year and cringe. How are the Vikings going to deal with three receivers on one side of the formation? Oh, and they're also likely to be missing both Josh Robinson and Xavier Rhodes, so their corners will be ... Chris Cook and Marcus Sherels? That's begging to be exploited.
Andrew Potter: You wouldn't be watching Philadelphia and thinking to yourself "oh, that's what a real passing game looks like"?
Rivers McCown: As a Texans fan forced to watch Peyton Manning run roughshod over bad safeties for many a year, I became more immune to what I knew was happening and liked to focus on the random positives. Your smileage may vary.
17.7% New England (-2) at -1.4% Miami -- 1:00 PM ET (CBS)
Rivers McCown: So we can throw out 17.7% for New England now, yes? We're back to the pre-Gronkowski era. A land where Tom Brady was fairly panned, and Aaron Dobson couldn't catch a football. The Pats have grown since then, but given that this game is on the road, I think there's reason to question if their advantage is enough to hold off a Dolphins team that finds itself a part of the playoff race again. New England's offense had two negative games with Gronkowski in the lineup, and the first Dolphins game was one of them.
Andrew Potter: It's worth noting that Shane Vereen missed that game, and in his absence Tom Brady threw exactly two passes to running backs -- both to Brandon Bolden, both caught for a total of seven yards -- against a pass defense we have ranked 27th against receiving backs. I'm not nearly crazy enough to think Vereen is going to make up for Gronkowski on his own, but as last week demonstrated he does bring an option the Patriots missed earlier in the year. Miami is marginally better than Cleveland against receiving backs, but only marginally.
Rivers McCown: True enough. New England also now has a legitimate chance at the No. 1 seed, which is nuts to think about given the attrition they've incurred.
It's really a shame that Mike Wallace isn't actually a No. 1 receiver, because I feel like if he was a legitimate top-10 wideout the Dolphins would have enough pieces to make this offense a little scary even despite their poor line. They're no Broncos or anything, but there's a huge difference between having a bunch of solid receivers and a bunch of solid receivers surrounding one great one, as New England can attest.
Andrew Potter: Despite that line, Miami as currently constituted is almost the exact FO definition of an average offense: -0.8% DVOA (18th), 4.4% passing (19th), -2.7% rushing (17th), first in variance. If the line was even acceptable, they would be good; even now, they're average and consistent. The Patriots rank 28th in variance, which is presumably one encapsulation of the difference between their performances with and without Gronkowski. Both teams should be able to run the ball effectively -- the run defenses rank 28th (New England) and 29th Miami) -- so the big difference between the teams is likely to be the performance of the Patriots pass offense, whether for better or for worse.
Rivers McCown: I'm sorry, you said Patriots offense and running effectively and it just made me dream of a world where Bill Belichick ran out of running backs to bench for fumbling.
Andrew Potter: No worries, he could always call his buddy Tom Coughlin to get some more.
-6.9% Buffalo (-2) at -43.2% Jacksonville -- 1:00 PM ET (CBS)
Andrew Potter: This week, in 'sentences I didn't expect to write': No team has won more games in the past five weeks than the Jacksonville Jaguars. Since their Week 9 bye, they've won four out of five games and have improved in all three major DVOA categories: from -45.1% to -33.9% on offense, 21.4% to 11.8% on defense, and 0.2% to 2.4% on special teams.
You've been watching the AFC South all year, and saw the Jaguars live as they hosted the Texans last Thursday night (sorry about that, incidentally). How much of the upward trend comes from actual improvement, how much is simply the Blaine Gabbert effect fading in the numbers, and how much are they benefiting from a back loaded schedule of divisional games in a division where every other team seems to be collapsing?
Rivers McCown: I think there's a lot to be excited about in Jacksonville. This is not a talented team in the moment, but they approach the game the right way. They've had two straight weeks with touchdown passes from non-quarterbacks. The Ace Sanders backfield role has added some interesting elements to the offense. They're not afraid to gamble on fourth down. The fact is, a lot of these wins have come because the AFC South is awful. But I don't think there's a reason to be decidedly unoptimistic about the Jaguars going forward. Especially now that they lock eyes with EJ Manuel, who has looked quite poor the last few weeks.
It entertains me less that this may be the fourth straight week in which Chad Henne is the best quarterback involved in his team's game. Man, it seems like the gap between the "haves" and the "have nots" is wider than ever this year. Of course, Henne is matched against Buffalo's second-ranked pass defense (another phrase I didn't expect to use this year) whereas Manuel gets to play Jacksonville's 29th-ranked equivalent, so he may not look like the better of the two during the game.
Rivers McCown: I don't know that I'd throw the word "best" around Chad Henne too frivolously. Manuel is still the more talented player, he's just inaccurate and being asked to change a lot about how he played in college. (And, honestly, I think Case Keenum is better than Chad Henne too.)
Ultimately I think Jacksonville has morphed into a better team than Buffalo is, but because of the defensive skill, I'm expecting a slugfest and a low over/under. We should also note that Jordan Todman is likely starting this game and has statistically been better by DVOA than Jones-Drew, though he is not half the blocker and can leave some yardage on the field.
Andrew Potter: A better team? Really? I know they've improved since the bye, but here are their numbers for Weeks 9-14:
Total DVOA -17.6%
Special Teams 6.9%
If that had been their level of performance all season, they would currently rank roughly 27th overall, 30th in offense, 18th in defense, and second (!) in special teams. Buffalo is 22nd, 25th, fifth, and 28th in those respective categories, though admittedly their weighted DVOA is 24th at -12.3% (Jacksonville's is still 32nd at -43.2%). Buffalo has our second-ranked pass defense and 17th-ranked run defense; Jacksonville has nothing above 26th except special teams. I know you're looking at more than numbers, but that observation surprises me, especially when Buffalo's defense looks like clearly the best unit on the field by the numbers (and, for what it's worth, according to my lyin' eyes).
Rivers McCown: Hmm, perhaps that is more of a subjective observation than an objective one. Seven of eight weeks with a negative offensive DVOA will do that to a man's belief in a team.
-25.5% Houston (+5.5) at 0.0% Indianapolis -- 1:00 PM ET (CBS)
Rivers McCown: Last week the Colts had a major philosophical achievement: they decided to forget Darrius Heyward-Bey existed. It turned out pretty well, as LaVon Brazill and Da'Rick Rogers (I'm really disappointed this is pronounced like "Derrick," I wanted it to be an homage to The Rick) each caught touchdowns and broke quite a few Bengals tackles. But, as the famed King of The Hill philosopher Dr. Vayzosa once said, "As my ex-wife once said, anyone can do it once." I think this game is about seeing just how effective those receivers can be against talented corners (though they're both having down years) in Kareem Jackson and Johnathan Joseph. The answer will tell us a lot about what the Colts are going to do in the playoffs.
Andrew Potter: You mentioned last week your mistrust of judging a cornerback on one year's play. Does that apply to both a sudden good year and a sudden bad one? It seemed to me like the Jaguars picked on Joseph quite a bit last week, and when the 2013 Jaguars passing game is successfully attacking your supposedly best cornerback ... that's not a good sign.
Rivers McCown: It does indeed. I've seen Joseph playing a bit too deep on his routes down the stretch, and I would not at all be surprised to learn that he's nursing an injury. I also should say that I wouldn't be surprised if he got cut. He's by no means bulletproof with a huge salary cap hit next season. I just still think he can play.
Both he and Jackson have also suffered through awful safety play this season. Shiloh Keo is a replacement level guy, D.J. Swearinger is up-and-down, but mostly down, and Ed Reed moved like a traffic cone while he was here.
Andrew Potter: If he can't, he'll just hit him short and intermediate instead. Early and often. And late. And even more often. Andre Johnson has more targets than any wide receiver in the league, including namesake Calvin. Because really, when he's this good, why wouldn't you? Especially against the Colts, who still have only had a pass defense DVOA below 55% once (against Tennessee) since their bye. Houston's pass offense lit them up for 111.3% DVOA in Week 9, and Johnson had 229 yards and three touchdowns. It looks like Colts fans better hope that Rogers and Brazill aren't one-week wonders, though the 90.8% pass offense DVOA against Cincinnati is definitely encouraging.
Rivers McCown: Actually, he's probably getting a few too many targets from a pure game theory perspective. Houston did draft DeAndre Hopkins in the first round for a reason. But sure, in general, Andre Johnson is always open.
Andrew Potter: And against what's left of the Colts pass defense, doubly so.
11.9% Chicago (+1) at -20.0% Cleveland -- 1:00 PM ET (FOX)
Andrew Potter: Cleveland's defense is excellent against number one receivers (-25.3%, third). Both Brandon Marshall (243 DYAR, 12th) and Alshon Jeffery (219 DYAR, 16th) are number one receivers, so that means the Browns can shut them both down, right? Right?
Of course, even if that logic wasn't tortured the Browns are still worst in the league at defending tight ends (27.6%,, 32nd) and very bad at stopping receiving backs (23.5%, 29th) so Martellus Bennett (55 DYAR, 16th) and Matt Forte (83 receiving DYAR, 11th) will present a very difficult matchup for them -- as, indeed, they do for anybody. Along with Chicago only Denver has two receivers, a tight end, and a back ranked in the top 16 for receiving DYAR at their respective positions. The turnaround in the Bears offense from last year to this is incredible.
Rivers McCown: Late news is that the Bears will start Jay Cutler over Josh McCown in this game, which might be the smart move, but is one I can only describe as unconscionable. Perhaps some objective non-McCown observer can shed some light on his thoughts about this.
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Andrew Potter: Boy, I'm relieved the McCown-led Bears didn't play San Diego this year...
All along, no matter how much success McCown has had, he and everybody else on the Bears have been unanimous that Cutler is the starter and will start when he's healthy. It's easy to see why, and it sort-of ties into our conversation last week about Alex Smith: Cutler is clearly the quarterback with the most potential, and the Bears need that potential if they're going to achieve anything more than a first-round playoff exit this year. Cutler also has the potential to be a mid-term solution for the Bears (a 30-year-old quarterback is unlikely to be truly a long-term solution), whereas Josh McCown is a career backup performing uncharacteristically well in a good situation. While McCown should have done enough to stay in the league as a backup (ideally on the Bears, where he's obviously a great fit), entering the 2014 offseason with him and not Cutler would leave the Bears looking for another quarterback immediately. Cutler at least gives them a chance to continue building with that vital piece in place.
Rivers McCown: I just think McCown brings a certain intangible that you can't really put a value on in this situation. Call it name value. He's got it in spades. I'm disappointed.
So anyway, silliness aside, let's move to the other side of the ball. Josh Gordon is a monster, Charles Tillman is out, and while the Bears defense generally seems to do more poor work in the run game, there is no real defense for Josh Gordon right now. Smelling like a shootout to me.
Andrew Potter: Greg Jennings had 76 yards and a touchdown two weeks ago. Jared Cook had 80 and a touchdown three weeks ago. What exactly were the Cowboys doing with Dez Bryant last week? Yes, there's no reason to believe that the Bears can stop Gordon any more than Cincinnati, Pittsburgh, Jacksonville, or New England could. In the run game, Cleveland's Willis McGahee, has gained 377 yards this season; Chicago's defense has allowed more than that in the past two weeks. So yes, shootout, weird as it feels to type that about the Bears against the Browns.
Rivers McCown: Oh but this isn't only about Willis McGahee, this is about Chris Ogbonnaya, and Fozzy Whittaker. And probably some other old University of Texas backs I've forgotten. Look, there's Selvin Young!
...Selvin Young probably could run for 100 yards on this Bears defense. That's the sad thing. In a world where even the 28th-ranked run defense is allowing just a 2.4% DVOA on the season, the Bears have managed to allow 9.5% or higher in every week since Week 6. And over 24.3% in four of the last five weeks.
Andrew Potter: I know 100 yards isn't necessarily a big deal, but the last time Chicago didn't allow a 100-yard rusher, they allowed Washington as a team to run for 209. It's been that kind of year for the Bears defense. McGahee has now been ruled out with a concussion, so Ogbonnaya starts with Whittaker backing him up. Sadly for the Bears, it shouldn't matter.
18.3% Kansas City (-4.5) at -30.3% Oakland -- 4:05 PM ET (CBS)
Rivers McCown: Theoretically, if Kansas City was trying to rest their starters in this game ... would anyone notice? Actually, I'd kind of be interested in seeing what Chase Daniel would play like in an NFL game. The Chiefs gave him a not-insignficant $10 million investment. They certainly don't have much left to lose at this point, given the 5.0% chance our playoff odds gave them of winning the West coming into the week.
Andrew Potter: The prospect of seeing the receivers who weren't good enough to beat out the Chiefs' starters scares me, and I say that as a guy who just finished voluntarily watching last week's Raiders-Jets game on Game Pass. It probably scares Chase Daniel too. Besides, haven't the Chiefs seen enough backup quarterbacks this season? Oh wait, they'll probably see some Terrelle Pryor in this one too, or is Matt McGloin still technically considered the backup?
Rivers McCown: Welp, if it isn't clear that we write some of this before the Thursday night game, it is now! The Chiefs suddenly have a reason to keep trying. Goodbye Chase Daniel playing time pipe dreams.
//AndyReid rolls a d6: 5.
//Andy Reid rolls a d6: 3.
//Andy Reid rolls a d6: 6.
//Sean McGrath has 10 catches for some reason, the score is 17-3 Chiefs.
Andrew Potter: Turns out a six is play action. Who knew?
That Broncos result puts the Chiefs right back in the mix for both the division and a bye, but I wouldn't get too excited if I were a Chiefs fan: they still need the Broncos to lose at least one more game against Houston or Oakland, and that assumes Kansas City wins out. The Chiefs defense has fallen from its lofty perch in our numbers, despite its -33.3% DVOA against what few Washington players turned up last week, and even offensive improvement has them a very middling 16th (13th in Weighted DVOA). Still, they should be expected to win this game against an Oakland team which is 29th in offense and 24th in defense, and at the very least finally seal the fifth seed.
Rivers McCown: Uhh ... something positive about the Raiders. Rod Streater appears to be blossoming very nicely. It'd be nice if Denarius Moore were along for that ride with him, but at least it's something. Oh, and how bizarre was it that Marcel Reece was the one to slay the Jets run defense? Very random magic bullet.
-14.2% NY Jets (+11.5) at 25.5% Carolina -- 4:05 PM ET (CBS)
Andrew Potter: I hope Jets fans enjoyed the Week 13 offensive explosion while it lasted. Oakland was a brief respite from a difficult schedule of opposing defenses: Buffalo (fifth, -11.8%), Baltimore (eighth, -8.5%), Miami twice (13th, -1.8%), and Carolina (third, -15.2%) in the space of seven games. No wonder Geno Smith looked better against the Raiders (24th, 6.8%), though having actual wide receivers to catch his passes undoubtedly helped as well.
Unfortunately, the reality is that they're playing a pissed off Carolina team jockeying for playoff positioning. And they're starting Geno Smith.
Andrew Potter: A handicap even the real Calvin Johnson would struggle to overcome. The Saints showed that the Carolina secondary is vulnerable, but the Jets could not look less able to attack it. Two good run defenses in this one too, so the passing attack matchups look key.
Rivers McCown: Carolina's corners are exploitable. The only thing the Jets offense has exploited the past few seasons is the attention they harvested from Tebowtron 3000.
-6.6% Green Bay (+7) at 0.6% Dallas -- 4:25 PM ET (FOX)
Rivers McCown: Still no Aaron Rodgers in this game. Which is a shame, because watching Rodgers and Tony Romo against these two defenses would have generated enough kinetic energy to light up Dallas for a week. Dallas has a 36% chance of the playoffs that essentially amounts to winning the NFC East from Philadelphia. This game sets up nicely for them, as does the fact that they're playing Washington next week. So, are we destined for another flexed Cowboys SundayNight playoff play-in game? And how will Romo* blow this one?
*-Romo in the royal Romo, meaning just "Dallas."
Andrew Potter: An "elimination game", I believe is the preferred nomenclature. It certainly looks like that's what we're set for, as I expect both to beat their respective NFC North opponents this week.
Technically, Green Bay is still in the playoff hunt too -- though their shrinking opportunity depends on Rodgers being cleared to play again before 2014. Even if he makes it back, this is not a good football team -- now down to 31st in overall defensive DVOA, even below a Dallas team most recently seen allowing eight consecutive scoring drives to the Josh McCown Bears.
Rivers McCown: No Sean Lee and No Bruce Carter bodes well for what I expect Green Bay's offensive game plan should be with Matt Flynn: call run after run with Eddie Lacy while Mike McCarthy dives under some coats in a closet and hopes everything turns out okay. DeVonte Holloman is probable. If he can't play, I think the rules state that Dat Nguyen takes over the middle for the Cowboys.
Andrew Potter: Dallas could feasibly call the exact same game plan, and with these two run defenses this game would be over in time for the second half of Saints-Rams. If only we could get the NFL to adopt Madden's accelerated play clock.
Rivers McCown: I am in favor of any way this game can possibly be shorter, as I imagine most Packers fans will be by the third quarter.
10.8% Arizona (-2.5) at -8.4% Tennessee -- 4:25 PM ET (FOX)
Andrew Potter: As expected, Tennessee's loss to Denver meant Indianapolis clinched the AFC South, whereas San Francisco's win over Seattle has just about eliminated Arizona -- the Cardinals are now more likely to catch the Panthers than the 49ers, but either is unlikely. Which of these teams is set up better for 2014? Arizona is obviously better, at least on defense, but is in a much tougher division with much less margin for error. The rumor mill is churning suggestions that Tennessee will have a different coach, and I have the impression that a couple of smart acquisitions could make this a very competitive roster. Is that accurate, or even in the AFC South are the Titans farther away than I think?
Rivers McCown: The Titans and Texans both have the same problem at this point: decent skill position talent, decent cornerbacks, and one wrecking force on the defensive line -- but no quarterback, poor coaching, and poor safety and middle linebacker play. The Texans have more of the value tied up in two dominant players, while the Titans have a wider base of talent. I think you can make an argument that Tennessee has the talent to contend in a poor division, but I think you can make that argument about any team in the AFC South next year. Including the Jaguars. It does bother me that the Titans spent so much money this offseason and it seems to have had no effect, but there's been zero talk about getting rid of the general manager. Yeah, Ruston Webster is new, but he worked under Mike Reinfeldt. Let's not pretend he's not an extension of that regime.
Andrew Potter: Houston, at least, appears to be in a position to fix its most glaring hole through the draft. Tennessee has been the worst kind of mediocre: not good enough to make the playoffs, but not bad enough to get a high draft pick either. Does the season have any redeeming features for the Titans?
Rivers McCown: (Struggling to not say bad things about man who tore football from my city.) Now that Bud Adams is gone, the incestuous philosophy of only hiring ex-Oilers or people he once knew may possibly come to an end. Nature abhors a vacuum, and what fills that vacuum may be some people with more enlightened views on salary cap management and team building. And coaching.
Otherwise, Alterraun Verner has established himself as a good corner. I don't know why Tennessee spent all offseason slagging him off one down year, but he proved them wrong. The defensive line certainly has promise though it lacks impact pass rushers. Zach Brown is much improved from where he was last year. Nobody is wasting any more time on Colin McCarthy. Chance Warmack hasn't run with scissors yet, so there's a chance he gets much better with a full offseason of work.
Is there another team in this game? I feel like there is.
Andrew Potter: There is indeed: the second-ranked DVOA defense, though now without injured rookie of the year candidate Tyrann Mathieu. Even with him done for the year though, there's no clear weakness: first against number one receivers, sixth against number two, and ninth against other receivers. The Cardinals secondary impresses me, but not as much as the linebackers: they can rush the passer, they can cover, they can tackle, and they can catch. This division is just terrific for defense, overall: if the Pro Bowl was chosen by division instead of conference, I can't think of any combination of players from another division I'd rather have than the NFC West defense. Maybe, maybe adding Keenan Allen and Jamaal Charles to the Broncos offense for the AFC West.
On offense, the Cardinals are 17th passing and 25th running by DVOA, and second in variance -- like the Dolphins, they are what they are. As long as that offense shows a reasonable level of competence, the defense should be enough to handle Tennessee, despite the occasional flashes of big play ability shown by the Titans.
Rivers McCown: Ah, but you're forgetting that they got rid of the Pro Bowl conference format. Because what was holding the game back was conference alignments, not the fact that it's an awful, sub-exhibition level display of football.
Andrew Potter: I forget they actually play the Pro Bowl rather than just picking the teams. I get the impression the players try to do so too.
23.3% New Orleans (-6) at -1.2% St. Louis -- 4:25 PM ET (FOX)
Rivers McCown: I intuitively searched for the previous meeting between these teams. I'm not ready for this "new" NFC West you speak of.
So, Rams defensive line -- do they impact this passing game at all, or do they continue to show that they can be schemed around?
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Andrew Potter: Having seen how Carolina's defense -- like St. Louis', dependent on pressure from its defensive line -- was taken apart by the Saints, and having seen how much worse the Rams secondary is than that of the Panthers, I'd venture that New Orleans can scheme around the St. Louis line. That doesn't mean they won't have an impact, but even with that line the St. Louis pass defense has been mediocre overall. Ranking sixth against tight ends is a positive, but 32nd against number one receivers and 32nd against running backs is a bad combination against anybody. It's hard to see the Saints not exploiting the latter in particular.
Rivers McCown: Tavon Austin in three weeks since the bye and his explosion against the Colts: thrown at 15 times, -31.5% DVOA, averaging 4.3 yards after catch. I know he's playing with Kellen Clemens, but the whole point of drafting Tavon Austin in the top 10 is that he's supposed to be immune to this sort of stuff. Jeff Fisher needs a new offensive coordinator. Nobody gets less out of more receiving talent than the Rams. And if for some monetary reason they can't fire Brian Schottenheimer, they at least need to have an intervention about Corey Harkey. You've got two good tight ends for a reason, Brian. That's enough. Put the fullback down and back slowly away from goal line personnel at midfield.
Andrew Potter: I don't understand what attracts teams to Brian Schottenheimer. Is it just the name? I don't think he's ever been good at using the players he has available, and fans of the teams he coaches always seem confused about what he's trying to achieve. Nobody's asking them to be the Saints -- least of all Jeff Fisher -- but you shouldn't still be stuck trying to figure out how to use your supposedly explosive, dynamic playmaker in Week 15 (see also: Minnesota Vikings). He'll get a pass for the quarterback situation, but this was an issue before Sam Bradford was lost for the year.
Rivers McCown: I think part of the thinking behind it is that in New York he managed to get the best of Mark Sanchez, as compared to Tony Sparano. Of course, that overlooks the fact that the best of Mark Sanchez isn't actually what any team should want at quarterback. He's always ran high on gimmicks, and low on sustainable concepts.
Andrew Potter: Rob Ryan sees your gimmicks, and raises you an eight-man blitz on second-and-2.
17.0% Cincinnati (-3) at 0.5% Pittsburgh -- 8:30 PM ET (NBC)
Andrew Potter: A large number of NFL commentators have opined this week that the loss of Rob Gronkowski from the Patriots leaves Cincinnati as the second-favorite to win the AFC, despite the Bengals' own key injuries. That seems remarkable for a team with this volatile a pass offense: great against the Bills (56.1% DVOA), Lions (94.2%), and Jets (104.3%!), then dire against the Dolphins (-40.6%), Ravens (-40.8%), and Browns (-62.9%) in consecutive weeks.
Rivers McCown: Being the second-best team in the AFC is like being the best Star Wars prequel. It might be true, but it's not exactly praise-worthy.
Andrew Potter: I expect Bengals fans would take it, especially given the state of Denver's defense and the critical losses afflicting the Patriots. If they can prise the second seed from New England's grasp, with accompanying bye then a home playoff game, this will have been a successful season whatever happens next.
Rivers McCown: I guess? This basically feels like the median result of the Bengals season to me. I picked them to make the Super Bowl in the preseason, by the way, so I'm not slagging their entire organizational philosophy or anything. I just can't see Andy Dalton and the cooky Jay Gruden screen pass brigade as the linchpin of a clearly dominant team. They can occasionally have dominant weeks -- especially against defenses like the Colts -- but I don't think there's much "Going Flacco" upside here. Dalton can make some pretty touch throws over the top. The arm strength is never going to be a plus though, and he's not going to fit it in tight windows.
Andrew Potter: I accept that as a problem, particularly in the playoffs, which is why I view the second seed as a success for the Bengals. I expected both their division and conference to be tougher, however, so am perhaps not accounting for that in my subjective appraisal. The Steelers in particular have been a huge disappointment, though slightly less so in recent weeks. I'm surprised to see that this is an average pass defense by DVOA, as it sure hasn't felt like it in the games I've seen.
Rivers McCown: Interesting, I kind of felt the Steelers had maxed out the talent on their roster. This is not a surprising season for them from my perspective. This is what happens when years of subpar drafting catches up to a team. There's still hope for David DeCastro, and I know they've spent a lot of time being hurt, but the rest of their offensive line picks just haven't been that good when healthy. Even Maurkice Pouncey is a bit overrated in my eyes. Antonio Brown was a really nice find -- they haven't had many others like that recently. Pittsburgh only just started trying to address the pass rush this season, and Jarvis Jones has not been an instant hit in the slightest.
I'd buy average, because Troy Polamalu will make some big plays, and Ike Taylor and Cortez Allen are a pretty fair 1-2 combination at corner. But yeah, a bit surprising they've even been that high considering the 27th-ranked Adjusted Sack Rate.
Andrew Potter: I certainly don't expect them to force the Bengals into anything the Bengals don't want to do, which means the game comes down to which Bengals offense shows up. Oh, and Antonio Brown against whoever's left at corner for the Bengals now that Terence Newman and Leon Hall are both out. Dre Kirkpatrick? Hey, AFC North shootout!
-6.6% Baltimore (+6) at 3.5% Detroit -- 8:40 PM ET MONDAY (ESPN)
Rivers McCown: So, last Sunday's excursion against the Eagles being an obvious outlier, we've got one of the best defensive lines in the NFL against one of the worst rushing attacks in the NFL. Does Ray Rice crack positive yardage in this game?
Andrew Potter: I'm very interested in this game, especially by Monday Night Football standards. Baltimore's defense is a good one, and because of it the Ravens have more of a puncher's chance than any of the other AFC wild card contenders if they reach the postseason. Travelling to face Detroit will be a challenge for them, against a team they don't see often. The Ravens offense has been a trainwreck for approximately 13 weeks and three quarters, but exploded in the fourth quarter in Minnesota. If it can do so again here, against a tougher Detroit defense, that would be a very good sign for their postseason chances -- especially if, as you say, they manage to have even slight success against a tough Lions defensive line.
Rivers McCown: I demand an answer!
I would also say that the talent on offense in Baltimore has underplayed their ability. That's what makes them a potentially scary playoff team to me. They did what they did last year with a mediocre defense. If they find the right tweaks to bring their offense back to respectable -- a stretch given how awful the offensive line has been, but follow me -- I think they've got as much of a chance as any non-Denver team in the field.
Andrew Potter: Alright, you twisted my arm: yes, he does, but don't ask me to commit to more than single digits.
I agree on Baltimore, which is a big part of why I'm interested in this game. The Lions defensive line will be a test, and the Ravens have proven that they have the potential to click if they can fix their line -- which was one of the major contributors to last postseason -- but time is running out for them to do that. The Lions, meanwhile, need the win to keep ahead of Chicago: I think the win here would just about guarantee them the NFC North, or as close as you can come to guaranteeing anything for a team this inconsistent (especially on defense, 32nd in variance).
Rivers McCown: Such a lack of faith in Marc Trestman. He'll come to his senses. He knows deep down that he needs a McCown on that wall.