The Playbook: Previewing Dolphins-Patriots, Ravens-Lions, other Week 15 games
New England (10-3) at Miami (7-6) — 1 p.m. ET, CBS: One thing’s for sure: The Dolphins are getting the Patriots at the perfect time, or as good a time as it ever is to get the Patriots. Rob Gronkowski’s season-ending knee injury against the Browns last Sunday ostensibly puts Tom Brady back in a situation he’d rather not repeat. Gronk missed the first six games of the 2013 season as he was recovering from other injuries, and when he’s out of the lineup, New England’s offense regresses to a frightening degree — from second to 22nd in the NFL in points scored, from fourth to 30th in red zone efficiency, from third to 19th in passing yards per game and from second to 16th in first downs per game. Since 2010, Brady has 5.1 touchdowns per interception with Gronk in the game and 2.2 without.
So, what to do? The Pats will likely do what they did when Gronkowski was injured before — go to more three- and four-receiver sets and target running back Shane Vereen more often. Vereen had a career-high 17 targets last week in a game that New England had to score two touchdowns in the final minute to win. Spackling the passing offense will likely be enough during the regular season. Even if the Dolphins take this game, the Pats have a serious lead in the AFC East, including a tiebreaker win over Miami in October.
As for the Dolphins, it’s all about keeping the faith and getting into the wild-card round. They’ve won three of their last four games and turned their season around. Quarterback Ryan Tannehill has improved of late, and that’s opened things up for a formerly moribund run game.
“I think he’s playing a little bit faster, his play speed is better, and I think his decision-making has improved,” Miami head coach Joe Philbin said of Tannehill this week. “He’s probably really made a few more plays with his feet, be it scrambling or in other ways. He’s done a better job of throwing the ball on the move this year as well.”
The Dolphins should be confident about this game … to a point. When the two teams last met, the home crowd was booing the Patriots after Miami got out to 14-0 and 17-3 leads. However, the Pats scored the game’s last 24 points, proving once again what Philbin’s team already knows — one should never discount a Brady-led team, no matter the supposed issues in his way. – Doug Farrar
Green Bay (6-6-1) at Dallas (7-6) — 4:25 p.m. ET, FOX: Whether or not Aaron Rodgers plays for the Packers (and it looks like “not” at the moment), the stakes do not change. Green Bay, 6-6-1, is just a half-game back in the NFC North; Dallas, 7-6, fell a game back in the NFC East last week and needs a win to stay on track for a winner-take-all showdown against Philadelphia in Week 17.
If Rodgers misses his seventh straight game, he may lament missing this matchup. Dallas is on pace to allow the most passing yards in franchise history (4,775) and is coming off a horrendous showing at Chicago on Monday night. Matt Flynn has made his fair share of mistakes in Rodgers’ stead, but he should be able to spread the ball around to Jordy Nelson and others in Dallas.
It would help Flynn’s cause if a hobbled Eddie Lacy can shake off an ankle injury to suit up. The Packers’ rookie is closing in on 1,000 yards — and the Cowboys have not been much better against the run than they have been against the pass, allowing 128 yards per game.
On the flip side, the Packers’ defense hasn’t exactly been the 1985 Bears so far. Remember, we’re just two weeks removed from Green Bay allowing 561 yards and 40 points to Detroit on Thanksgiving. Dallas gave up on its ground game early in Week 14 for some reason, but DeMarco Murray is in the midst of his best season as a pro.
If the Packers commit extra bodies to keeping Murray in check, expect Tony Romo to take to the air early and often. The Packers simply do not have the personnel to match up with Dez Bryant, Miles Austin, Terrance Williams and Jason Witten all at once. Few teams do.
Green Bay’s pass rush also has a mere two sacks combined over its past two outings. The Bears managed to get in Romo’s kitchen Monday with some timely blitzes from LB James Anderson. Might Green Bay be able to generate similar results from its second level of defense? – CB
Cincinnati (9-4) at Pittsburgh (5-8) — 8:30 p.m. ET, NBC: Which Andy Dalton will show up for this game? That’s a good question. Dalton is coming off a three-touchdown game against the Indianapolis Colts that bagged him an AFC Offensive Player of the Week award. Pack that in with his October Offensive Player of the Month award, and it’s easy to see him as a leader in a Bengals playoff run. However, there was also November, when he threw just five touchdown passes versus five picks.
He’s not historically great against the Steelers, either — he’s thrown five touchdowns and five picks in five games against Dick LeBeau’s defenses, which is about as average as it gets. And it took him 45 passing attempts to get one touchdown against Pittsburgh in Cincinnati’s 20-10 Week 2 win.
“To play this game you have to have thick skin, especially at the quarterback position, unless you have proven yourself and won a lot of Super Bowls,” Dalton said this week. “We’re 9-4 and in a good position right now. I’m going to be me regardless of what anyone says.”
This might be a good time for Dalton to finally break that Steelers curse. The current version of Pittsburgh’s defense is among the least impressive of the LeBeau era, ranking 20th overall in Football Outsiders’ opponent-adjusted metrics and 17th against the pass. It’s even less effective against No. 1 receivers, which doesn’t bode well for it against A.J. Green. Dalton has also been finding other targets of late; Marvin Jones and Jermaine Gresham also caught touchdowns against the Colts.
The real reason the Steelers still have an eight percent chance of making the playoffs even if they win out, however, is their offense. Once again, there has been public exposure given to the disconnect between quarterback Ben Roethlisberger and offensive coordinator Todd Haley. Asked why Pittsburgh didn’t run the ball more in Sunday’s 34-28 loss to the Miami Dolphins, Big Ben told the media to direct those questions to Haley.
Roethlisberger later said that the comment was blown out of proportion, and that Haley has his full support. In reality, that would be a first. And the Steelers have gone 21 games without a 100-yard rushing game from any back, which is the longest streak in the league. Perhaps Haley was looking at that stat when he chose to go a different way, The better strategy against Cincy’s injured secondary might be to keep receiver Antonio Brown rolling – right now, there are few more effective receivers in the league, and Brown came oh-so-close to scoring what could have been the game-winning touchdown against Miami. – DF
Baltimore (7-6) at Detroit (7-6) — Monday, 8:30 p.m. ET, ESPN: The Ravens have proven beyond a shadow of a doubt that they can win at home. Now, can they take their act on the road?
Baltimore is 6-1 in front of its rowdy home fans, including a 3-0 showing over the past three weeks. But the reigning champions have won just one game in six tries on the road — a victory in Miami that currently has the Ravens holding the wild-card tiebreaker over the Dolphins.
This week, they travel to Detroit for a rare Monday nighter in the Motor City. The Lions have hosted just one MNF contest since 2002: a 24-13 win over Chicago two years ago, which helped propel them to the playoffs. (Technically, a game against Atlanta last season was a Monday Night Football broadcast, but it was played on a Saturday.)
Detroit could use this game as a springboard to the postseason, too. In an alternate universe where the Lions are a much more consistent franchise, the they might be playing to clinch the division Monday. Instead, because of a Week 12 home loss to Tampa Bay and blown chances on the road in Pittsburgh and Philadelphia, the Lions are hanging on to the division lead for dear life — despite the extended absences of Aaron Rodgers and Jay Cutler in Green Bay and Chicago, respectively.
Detroit has to hope that a ghastly performance against the Eagles’ run game last week was just a mirage. Jim Schwartz’s team had been formidable against the run until that 299-yard performance by LeSean McCoy and Co. The Ravens’ still-sluggish ground game might be just what the doctor ordered.
Though Ray Rice has shown some signs of life in recent weeks, he’s still only at 549 rushing yards for the season. Baltimore, as a result, ranks 29th on the ground.
The onus may instead fall on Joe Flacco to test a shaky Detroit secondary. Flacco, in the midst of one of his worst statistical seasons as a pro, did throw three TDs versus Minnesota last week. Of course, he also fired three interceptions — and the Lions will pressure him, if not bring him down.
Baltimore’s toughest challenge may be in containing a motivated Calvin Johnson. Rookie safety Matt Elam poked the bear this week, telling ESPN.com that Johnson is “pretty old” and doesn’t play physically any more.
The last team to provide bulletin-board material for Megatron was Dallas, when Dez Bryant said he could do whatever Johnson does and owner Jerry Jones said Reggie Bush is the more dangerous offensive weapon.
Johnson caught 14 passes for a career-high 329 yards in Detroit’s subsequent 31-30 win over the Cowboys. – CB