The Playbook: Previewing Dolphins-Patriots, Ravens-Lions, other Week 15 games
Chicago (7-6) at Cleveland (4-9) — 1 p.m. ET, FOX: Josh McCown is the first Bears quarterback in franchise history to throw for more than 300 yards in three straight games, and he’s thrown eight touchdowns to just one interception in that span. Despite that amazing, recent performance, head coach Marc Trestman announced Thursday that Jay Cutler will be his starting quarterback now that he’s recovered from the ankle injury that’s had him out since Nov. 10. It’s understandable that Cutler is Trestman’s guy when he’s healthy, but it’s tough to go against a player on a hot streak like McCown’s, especially against a Browns defense that ranks 22nd against the pass. — DF
Philadelphia (8-5) at Minnesota (3-9) — 1 p.m. ET, FOX: The Vikings seem to be relishing the role of spoiler, having tied Green Bay, beaten Chicago and pushed Baltimore to the limit over the past three weeks. Working that magic again in Week 15 will be a tall task on account of injuries to Adrian Peterson and his backup, Toby Gerhart. Minnesota’s also been shaky against the run, and Philadelphia is coming off a 299-yard rushing performance in the snow versus Detroit. – CB
Seattle (11-2) at NY Giants (5-8) — 1 p.m. ET, FOX: The Giants have taken their playoff clocks off the wall, which leaves them playing for pride against a Seattle team looking to regain its footing after a close loss to the 49ers on Sunday. The Seahawks could be scouting MetLife Stadium as a Super Bowl preview, but they’ll need to spend some time shoring up their run defense in the meantime. The Giants view this game as a test of their resilience, which could lead to “trap game” whispers. — DF
San Francisco (9-4) at Tampa Bay (4-9) — 1 p.m. ET, FOX: A dangerous trap game for the 49ers, who are coming off an emotional win over Seattle. Tampa Bay is not the pushover it appeared to be six or seven weeks ago. The Buccaneers have won four of five, including last week over Buffalo despite just nine completions by Mike Glennon. It was RB Bobby Rainey leading the way in that one, with 127 yards on 22 carries. Rainey likely will find the going much more difficult Sunday, so can the Buccaneers’ underrated defense keep this one tight? – CB
Kansas City (10-3) at Oakland (4-9) — 4:05 p.m. ET, CBS: Kansas City rebounded nicely from a three-game losing streak by thrashing the dysfunctional Redskins, but the Raiders might prove to be a tougher opponent, especially against a Chiefs defense that has had trouble pressuring quarterbacks other than Robert Griffin III in recent weeks. Oakland has allowed just 17 quarterback takedowns this season. Where the Raiders are most vulnerable is in their weak special teams coverage units; the return game has been a consistent strength for the Chiefs. — DF
NY Jets (6-7) at Carolina (9-4) — 4:05 p.m. ET, CBS: The Carolina defense is likely on the verge of a huge bounce-back performance. The secondary was gashed by Drew Brees and the Saints last week, but this remains the league’s No. 1 defense. And the Jets’ Geno Smith-led attack will not be able to test Carolina through the air as Brees did.
New York needs an upset to stay in the wild-card picture. It will enter Sunday one game back of Baltimore and Miami in the race for the AFC’s No. 6 seed. – CB
New Orleans (10-3) at St. Louis (5-8) — 4:25 p.m. ET, FOX: While the Saints are looking to keep momentum going after their Sunday night win over the Panthers, the Rams will try to get their pass-rushers after Drew Brees to negate any potential mismatches against New Orleans’ phalanx of formations. If Robert Quinn can’t get home, oft-penalized cornerbacks Janoris Jenkins and Trumaine Johnson will have their hands full. — DF
Only For The Faithful
Washington (3-10) at Atlanta (3-10) — 1 p.m. ET, FOX: The All-Disappointment Bowl. Both teams are 3-10 after winning their divisions in 2012, and at least Washington appears headed toward a coaching change. The Redskins could use a strong closing run from new starting QB Kirk Cousins, if only to bump up his trade value for the offseason. – CB
Buffalo (4-9) at Jacksonville (4-9) — 1 p.m. ET, CBS: Having lost five of their last six games, the Bills must now guard against a letdown versus a Jaguars team that, believe it or not, has been on a bit of a run, winning four of its last five. First-year head coach Gus Bradley has said improvement is more important than victories at this point, but that’s an easier sell for him than it is for Bills rookie coach Doug Marrone. — DF
Houston (2-11) at Indianapolis (8-5) – 1 p.m. ET, CBS: The Colts have won 19 games in their last two seasons, but they have a point differential of minus-33 over that time. The Texans have seen their season go down the drain, but quarterback Case Keenum said this week that his team is “pissed off” and looking to finish the season on a high note. Could be trouble for an Indianapolis offense that has struggled to get off the blocks all season. — DF
Arizona (8-5) at Tennessee (5-8) — 4:25 p.m. ET, FOX: How different are the NFC and AFC races? Tennessee, which closes with an Arizona-Jacksonville-Houston run — has to be eyeing 8-8 as a possible playoff-worthy record. The Cardinals hit the eight-win mark last week … and it’s not enough. They likely need to win out for an 11-5 record and hope that cuts it. – CB
(Unless otherwise indicated, all stats come from our friends at Pro Football Focus.)
• One way to make Philip Rivers even better than he’s been this season — and he’s been MVP-level great — would be to work some more play-action in the Chargers’ playbook. Even before Thursday’s win over the Broncos, he had thrown six touchdown passes and no picks out of play-action in just 62 dropbacks and 60 attempts, and he’s completed 76.7 percent of his passes. Without play-action, he had completed 69.6 of his 401 attempts for 20 touchdowns and nine picks. As new head coach Mike McCoy and offensive coordinator Ken Whisenhunt direct Rivers to check down and throw more short and intermediate passes, freezing the linebackers and safeties makes a lot of sense.
• On the other hand, Robert Griffin III has completed just 55.6 percent of his 135 attempts out of play-action, throwing four touchdowns and four picks. Last year, he completed 67.7 percent of those types of throws for nine touchdowns and four picks in 155 attempts. Yet another sign of regression in RGIII’s second season.
• There are times when stats can be deceiving. No team has allowed fewer quarterback pressures than San Francisco’s 106, but that’s not the be-all/end-all when it comes to line performance. Colin Kaepernick has just 332 passing attempts in 404 dropbacks this season, which puts his pressure percentage at a very pedestrian 33.4 percent. In addition, only two teams have lower Adjusted Line Yards averages (Football Outsiders’ proprietary metrics for line performance). Running back Frank Gore is racking up serious numbers after he breaks free from the line: After his 51-yarder against the Seahawks last Sunday, Gore ranks second in the league, tied with Adrian Peterson and behind only LeSean McCoy and Jamaal Charles, with 16 runs of 15 yards or more.
• How good is Tennessee Titans cornerback Alterraun Verner? Good enough that one bad play doesn’t define him. Verner was burned for his first touchdown of the season by Peyton Manning and Eric Decker in Denver’s 51-28 win over the Titans on Sunday, and he still leads all NFL cornerbacks in opponent passer rating allowed by a wide margin — 46.3. Carolina’s Drayton Florence is second at 60.2.
• New England’s Rob Ninkovich might be the most versatile 4-3 defensive end in the league. Not only is he tied with Justin Tuck of the Giants for third in the NFL with 56 total pressures (St. Louis’ Robert Quinn and Minnesota’s Brian Robison are ahead), but also he ranks second at his position behind only Oakland’s LaMarr Houston with 30 run stops. – DF
• Matchup to Watch: Le’Veon Bell versus Cincinnati’s run defense.
The Steelers had yet to unleash their then-injured rookie running back when they took a 20-10 loss in Cincinnati back in Week 2. Bell has not exactly blown the doors off the league in the 10 games he’s played since, but he definitely constitutes an upgrade over the Felix Jones-Isaac Redman combo Pittsburgh used that day.
How much heat Bell can take off of Ben Roethlisberger may dictate Sunday night’s game between the two AFC North foes. Cincinnati has the fifth-best run defense in the league at 98.1 yards per game allowed.
• This Week’s Sleeper: Jason Campbell, QB, Browns.
Because the Bears have won games with Josh McCown, a lot of praise has been heaped on Marc Trestman’s offensive system. Had it not been for Brandon Weeden and a few close losses, we might be saying the same things about Rob Chudzinski and Norv Turner’s work in Cleveland.
Case in point: Jason Campbell is operating at a career-high QB rating of 88.0 right now, and he threw three touchdowns (with no INTs) versus New England last week. The Bears have held four of the last six QBs they’ve faced under 200 yards passing, but Campbell will do what he can to break that run.
• Pressure’s On …: Chris Ivory, RB, Jets.
The Jets are not going to walk into Carolina and win a shootout — just look at how Geno Smith has played this season compared to Cam Newton to see why. So, for New York to stay firmly planted in the wild-card picture, it will need to lean on the run game. That puts the onus on Ivory to repeat or top last week’s decent showing against Oakland (18 carries, 76 yards, one touchdown).
• Rookie Spotlight: Da’Rick Rogers, WR, Colts.
In hopes of solving their issues at receiver, the Colts turned loose Rogers last week to the tune of six catches, 107 yards and two touchdowns. He also played 41 snaps, 18 more than struggling veteran Darrius Heyward-Bey.
Indianapolis’ Week 15 foe, Houston, has lost 11 in a row but its pass defense still ranks No. 2 in the league. That means the Texans ought to provide a nice test for Rogers this Sunday. – CB
• Chicago. The Bears do not have it easy in Weeks 16 and 17 (at Philadelphia, vs. Green Bay), so they cannot afford a slip-up in Cleveland, where the Browns might be able to find enough offense to pull off an upset. – CB
• Green Bay. Their 1-4-1 record since Aaron Rodgers’ broken collarbone speaks to a lack of depth at other positions. There’s been talk about shutting Rodgers down if the Packers fall from postseason contention, and though Rodgers has taken more reps in practice, it might be up to Matt Flynn to attack Dallas’ sub-par secondary and save Green Bay’s season. – DF