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The Debrief: Pats, Rams among top teams slowing in December

Gregg Rosenthal catches you up on everything you need to know as we turn from Week 15 to Week 16.

If the season starts after Thanksgiving, as Bill Belichick is fond of saying, then many of the NFL’s top seeds are having uneven seasons. While playoff hopefuls like the Ravens and Colts are surging toward January, the Patriots and Rams are struggling to catch their breath, while the Chiefs and Saints are adjusting to a league where it’s suddenly harder to score.

The Patriots lost their fifth road game of the 2018 season in Pittsburgh on Sunday, making mistakes that would have looked uncharacteristic if the team hadn’t been similarly sloppy in Miami the week before. Belichick’s squads usually close out the season strong because they understand what they do well as a team, but this group looks so different from week to week. Just when Tom Brady appears to be throwing the ball better, his protection falls apart. The team’s run defense — normally a bedrock of Belichick-coached units — has been unquestionably soft. Pittsburgh’s line controlled the Patriots on both sides of the ball, which is not unlike what the Titans did in their upset of the Patriots in November.

The Patriots are 2-2 since Thanksgiving, which is better than the Rams‘ 1-2 record since their magical “Monday Night Football” win over the Chiefs in Week 11. Jared Goff has played his worst three games of the season in succession, with the mistakes in Sunday night’s loss to Philadelphia being the most surprising, because they came in Los Angeles against a wounded defense. The Rams‘ offensive line is not playing nearly as well as it had been earlier in the year, and the absence of injured receiver Cooper Kupp hurts, but Goff has also misfired on a number of open throws. He didn’t give Josh Reynolds a chance to make a game-tying touchdown on the final play against the Eagles — the ball zipping over Reynolds in the end zone serves as a fitting image for a Rams season that seems to be sailing out of bounds to unexpected places. Of course, experiencing a little adversity may not be the worst thing for a team that has otherwise coasted through so much of the Sean McVay era, because any route through these NFC playoffs won’t come easy.

It’s worth wondering if the Chiefs and Rams both experienced a come-down following their Monday night spectacular. Kansas City is 2-1 since then, with a one-score win in Oakland and an overtime win against the Ravens preceding Thursday night’s collapse against the Chargers. None of those results are too alarming when viewed in isolation, and the offense remains the most dangerous in football. But two playoff-caliber teams essentially played the Chiefs even in Arrowhead. Any aura of invincibility is gone. (Chiefs fans who have been shell-shocked by six straight home playoff defeats probably weren’t buying that aura in the first place.) Andy Reid’s squad, which had been alone atop the AFC West and in the driver’s seat for the No. 1 seed in the playoffs for much of the season, might need to win in Seattle this week to avoid falling to the No. 5 seed by this time next week, a remarkable possibility for the defining team of 2018.

Like the Chiefs, the Saints aren’t playing the same dominant brand of football down the stretch. Their 12-9 victory Monday concluded a remarkable three-game road stretch where the Saints defense has absolutely carried Drew Brees and the offense. The Bizzaro Saints have won the last two weeks with a ferocious defense, strong special teams and a running game that has worn division opponents out. Yes, the Saints need to get Brees going when they return to New Orleans. But it’s an impressive team effort to win two of three road games in which Brees didn’t top 203 yards, throwing two touchdowns with three interceptions combined over the stretch. New Orleans’ lack of speed and depth at receiver has hurt, along with injuries to the offensive line. That’s the bad news. The good news is that the Saints might not have to play outdoors again all season and the next time they leave New Orleans will likely be for the offseason — or the Super Bowl.

There is still time for these teams to figure out their issues. At this point last year, talking heads were clucking about the Eagles — who would go on to win the Super Bowl — for their lack of style points in narrow, Nick Foles-led wins. The Rams‘ schedule closes in Arizona and then with a home game against the 49ers, meaning they still have a great opportunity to earn a bye and a week of rest. The AFC, meanwhile, appears to be headed for a six-team single-elimination tournament in which every team has a legitimate chance to make the Super Bowl. The Chiefs remain my slight favorite of the group, but the gap has narrowed to virtually nothing, with the Patriots just part of the pack, potentially about to slum it on Wild Card Weekend. A team hasn’t made it from that first weekend of the playoffs to the Super Bowl since the Ravens did it in the 2012 postseason, but it used to happen all the time. The events of this season — the one that started on Thanksgiving — sure make it seem like it’s ripe to happen once again.

What we know after Week 15

The Steelers‘ lines give them a chance: Sunday’s
Steelers-Patriots game often felt like a cheap imitation of previous editions.
Ben Roethlisberger,
Tom Brady, Bill Belichick and Mike Tomlin were all there, but so were the flaws that led Pittsburgh and New England to enter the game
ranked ninth and 10th in overall efficiency. These are good — but not great — teams.

Pittsburgh physically dominated the matchup, providing Roethlisberger with spotless protection, forcing the Patriots to blitz to get anywhere near him. The Steelers also pushed around New England’s soft middle in the running game, opening up lanes for Jaylen Samuels — a fifth-round pick making his second career start — to rush for 142 yards. Pittsburgh defenders T.J. Watt and Cameron Heyward won their battles up front, and the Patriots‘ receivers couldn’t get open against physical man coverage. But because these are the Steelers, who so often are not doing as well on the scoreboard as it appears they are on the field, the Patriots were at the Pittsburgh 11-yard line with a chance to tie late. The Steelers will probably wind up making the typical mental errors that have stopped Tomlin’s teams in the playoffs so often, but I still believe their talent rivals that of any AFC team, especially up front.

The Ravens‘ running game is succeeding at a historic rate: Rookie quarterback Lamar Jackson hasn’t just transformed the Ravens‘ offense into a powerful running unit; he’s made them one of the most dominant running teams ever. With the help of Gus Edwards, Kenneth Dixon and a stout offensive line, the Ravens are the first team since the 1976 Steelers to rush for at least 190 yards in five straight games.

The schedule has undeniably helped, but it’s remarkable how difficult it is to stop a read option led by Jackson on third down. Jackson, Edwards and Dixon combined to force 16 missed tackles Sunday against Tampa, according to Pro Football Focus, consistently beating defenders in space. The threat of Jackson running creates so many opportunities, and it feels like he can get 5 yards to the outside anytime he wants.

The Ravens laugh at the idea of executing a “4-minute drill” to end a game, pulling off a concluding drive to put Tampa away that lasted 7 minutes and 8 seconds. Even if the Ravens fall short against the Chargers this week and wind up missing the playoffs, it’s hard to imagine letting go of coach John Harbaugh, given that he’s clinched his 10th non-losing season out of 11 on the job. The Baltimore staff’s flexibility in transitioning to Jackson — and the excellent work by defensive coordinator Don Martindale, whose unit is ranked first in scoring and yards allowed — deserve to be rewarded.

The Browns‘ season is already a wild success: The Browns played a game with playoff implications on the road in Week 15 — and they won. They are now capable of winning ugly in a hostile environment when they don’t play their best. Sunday’s results in the AFC, especially Pittsburgh’s win, all but eliminated Cleveland’s chances, with the Browns needing an unlikely scenario to unfold — including a Colts-Titans tie in Week 17 — for them to sneak into the playoffs. But does it really matter?

The Browns don’t appear ready yet to win a tough playoff game on the road. So missing the postseason means Baker Mayfield has a better chance to finish his season with a win (if they could upset Baltimore in the season finale) than with a loss (against a superior playoff opponent). Mayfield is the most impressive rookie quarterback since Andrew Luck in 2012, and the team has legitimate foundational pieces around him in pass rusher Myles Garrett, cornerback Denzel Ward and running back Nick Chubb. Another potential downside to a hypothetical playoff trip: forcing an emotional decision about interim head coach Gregg Williams’ future, whose short-term success shouldn’t blind the organization to his shortcomings as a leader. Mayfield is their leader. He’s proven flexible and talented enough to succeed if he has to start over in a new offensive system next season. (It’s a little early to pen “The Browns are going 12-4 next year” columns — but Mayfield is worthy of that kind of unadulterated enthusiasm.)

What we don’t know after Week 15

If Mitchell Trubisky can continue to rebuild his confidence: Trubisky’s quotes last week — including to the CBS broadcast crew — indicated how hard he took his performance in Chicago’s Week 14 win over the Rams, when he completed 16 of 30 passes for 110 yards, one touchdown and three picks. He clearly felt responsible for trying to do too much against Los Angeles and may have been rusty coming off injury. Matt Nagy’s game plan against the Packers seems to have reflected both these concerns.

The Bears were not as aggressive on fourth down and played a close-to-the-vest style against the Packers because that’s all that was required to win. While Trubisky missed his share of throws to the outside, he played a clean game overall. This is a Bears team on which the pieces complement each other, and the passing game is only one part, but the next two weeks are important for Trubisky. If Nagy can continue to build on the Bears‘ aggressiveness and get Trubisky back to where he was from Week 6 to Week 10, the Bears can enter the playoffs feeling that their time to make a Super Bowl run is now.

Whether Colts-Titans will be the regular-season finale on the broadcast schedule: A lot of different scenarios can play out in Week 16, but the Colts and Titans playing a win-and-in game in Week 17 feels especially possible. For that to happen, the Titans need to beat Josh Johnson‘s Redskins on Saturday, the Ravens need to lose to the Chargers that night and the Colts need to take care of business at home against the Giants. That scenario would leave the Ravens boxed out of a wild-card berth, because either the Titans or Colts would finish with a 10-6 record, with the Ravens‘ best-case scenario being a 9-7 finish. While Titans-Colts might not seem like the sauciest matchup to NBC executives as they consider which game to flex into the final Sunday’s prime-time slot, it would present a play-in game that the network would likely be compelled to roll with.

Whether the Eagles and Vikings‘ changes will change their seasons: The Eagles didn’t go back to Nick Foles by choice, with the backup pressed into service because of Carson Wentz‘s back injury, but there’s no doubt that Playoff Nick showed up in Los Angeles on Sunday. Despite an undermanned Eagles secondary, that was the most complete performance by the defending champions all season. With an inviting matchup against Washington in Week 17 looming, the Eagles are a home win against the Texans away from realistically slipping back into the playoffs. They just need some help.

Minnesota’s change at offensive coordinator was more dramatic. Kevin Stefanski, who replaced the fired John DeFilippo last week, drew up the perfect game plan against a soft Dolphins front, and that approach should be enough this week in Detroit, where a win would greatly increase the Vikings‘ chances of making the playoffs. As with the Browns, an in-season coaching change could provide energy. This isn’t always the case, as Jacksonville’s firing of coordinator Nathaniel Hackett and demotion of QB Blake Bortles has only led to its offense going from bad to worse.

Biggest games on the Week 16 slate

1) Ravens at Chargers: If the Ravens can win in Los Angeles, it wouldn’t be crazy to call them a Super Bowl contender. Then again, a loss here could wind up knocking them out of the playoffs. Baltimore can get in by winning the AFC North or taking the No. 6 seed, while the Chargers want to keep the pressure on Kansas City to possibly overtake the No. 1 seed in the AFC West.

2) Chiefs at Seahawks: The Chiefs are trying to hold on to the No. 1 seed, while the Seahawks are trying to avoid a disaster scenario in which they fall out of the playoffs entirely. A home win for Seattle could wrap up the No. 5 seed in the NFC, which has a much more inviting likely wild-card matchup against the Cowboys than the No. 6 seed, which could be headed to Chicago.

3) Texans at Eagles: Patriots fans will be rooting hard for Philadelphia to give Tom Brady a window for taking the No. 2 seed in the AFC. Philadelphia’s wild-card chances are very real if it can get this win.

4) Steelers at Saints: While the Saints could sew up home-field advantage, this is an even bigger game for the Steelers, who could announce their playoff intentions with authority if they pull off the upset.

5) Redskins at Titans: While this matchup isn’t likely to spawn a fun viewing experience, Tennessee could officially knock the 7-7
Redskins out of the mix and potentially set up a win-and-in scenario for Titans-
Colts in Week 17.

MVP Watch

1) Patrick Mahomes, QB, Kansas City Chiefs: It’s not his fault the Chiefs‘ defense collapsed on Thursday, but four interceptions and four fumbles (two lost) by Mahomes in his last four games have at least opened the door for the names below to pass Mahomes down the stretch. A standout performance in Seattle would likely be enough to secure my pretend vote.

2) Drew Brees, QB, New Orleans Saints: The Saints‘ passing game is in a slump, but this is a season-long award and Brees’ overall season has still been sensational. If the three-game slump turns into a five-game slump, however, Brees has no chance for the award.

3) Philip Rivers, QB, Los Angeles Chargers: This isn’t just about narrative. Comeback wins in Pittsburgh and Kansas City will have voters looking closer at Rivers’ numbers, and his adjusted-yards-per-attempt figure (9.4) and TD-to-INT ratio (31:8) are remarkably similar to those of Mahomes (9.6 and 45:11) and Brees (9.4 and 31:4). Taking out the top-ranked Ravens defense next week would give him a chance.

4) Aaron Donald, DT, Los Angeles Rams: Even during a relative down week (zero sacks, two tackles), Donald was very disruptive and attracted an insane amount of attention against the Eagles.

5a) Andrew Luck, QB, Indianapolis Colts: We won’t have to look back on Luck’s career and wonder how great he could have been if only he’d ever gotten the chance to work with a brilliant coach by his side — because he has one now.

5b) DeAndre Hopkins, WR, Houston Texans: I’m not sure if the Texans are a playoff team without ‘Nuk. No wideout means more to his team.

Follow Gregg Rosenthal on Twitter @greggrosenthal

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