Taking a spin around the NFL to get you ready for Week 15:
The big questions
Who will get home-field advantage?
First off: Thank you, NFL, for having one of the best matchups of the year occur late in the season. It’s one of a handful of top games this weekend. This one is a much more enjoyable matchup in December than in September. We know it has a major impact on home-field advantage.
Plus, it matches the two premier teams since 2004. In that time, these teams have combined for 19 division titles, 22 playoff appearances, three head coaches and a 5-3 record in the Super Bowl.
Before Monday night, it was hard to go against New England in the AFC. And then came an “uh-oh” game for the Patriots, who lost at Miami. Yes, they missed suspended tight end Rob Gronkowski, but was his absence all it took to fail on all 11 third-down opportunities? And to score only 17 points?
Because of that loss, the Patriots must win at Pittsburgh to gain home-field advantage for the postseason. A Steelers win won’t clinch home-field advantage because Jacksonville could still get it if they ended up tied, thanks to a Jaguars win over the Steelers earlier this season. Let that sink in for a minute: The Jaguars still could end up with the best record in the AFC … with Blake Bortles at quarterback.
Anyway, the Steelers could clinch home-field advantage if they win and the Jaguars lose. Pittsburgh would clinch a first-round bye with a win or a tie (or a Jaguars loss). The Steelers are hot, having won eight straight and owning an offense as explosive as any. They’re the only team with a receiver in discussion as league MVP. But you need to know this: Patriots quarterback Tom Brady is 10-2 vs. the Steelers.
Can Aaron Rodgers rescue the Packers?
At 7-6, Green Bay still has a pulse in the NFC playoff race. But will the return of quarterback Aaron Rodgers be enough to complete a run? That’s going to be difficult, thanks to a schedule that finishes at Carolina, home vs. Minnesota and at Detroit.
But few quarterbacks have led their teams to more improbable victories or runs than Rodgers — from Hail Mary passes to r-e-l-a-x to a 6-0 finish in 2016. And given the tightness of the NFC, the Packers will have to run the table. In 2013, Rodgers missed seven games because of a broken collarbone but returned for the season finale to lead the Packers to a win and NFC North title.
As of now, the Packers have a 6.6 percent chance of making the playoffs. If they win their next three? It jumps to an 89 percent chance.
Regardless, one player should receive a big boost from Rodgers’ return: receiver Jordy Nelson. In the seven games, plus part of an eighth, without Rodgers, Nelson averaged 7.5 yards per catch and caught no touchdown passes. With Rodgers this season, Nelson averaged 12.0 yards per catch with six touchdowns.
For Nelson, Rodgers’ return could be reminiscent of what happened in 2013. In that finale, Nelson caught 10 passes for 161 yards.
It won’t be easy Sunday. The Panthers’ defense has been good against the pass this season. It ranks seventh in passing yards per game and fifth in total yards.
What’s life like after Carson Wentz?
The Eagles did not clinch the NFC East because they’re a one-man team. Their defense has played well all season, and they added a strong running game this year as well. However, the reason Philadelphia was considered a Super Bowl contender entering Week 14 was because of quarterback Carson Wentz. He was a difference-maker, someone who could make something out of nothing.
Wentz excelled against the blitz and also on the move. Against the blitz, Wentz threw 13 touchdowns and no interceptions — a season total matched only by Brady in the past 10 seasons. If forced to throw outside the pocket, Wentz dominated there, too, as he was tied for the most touchdown passes with six.
Meanwhile, Foles has seven career touchdown passes when pressured (with nine interceptions) and owns a total QBR of 13 in those situations.
But without Wentz, the Eagles could lean harder on their rushing attack with Jay Ajayi and LeGarrette Blount. The latter leads the NFL in yards per carry after first contact, and Ajayi has rushed for 307 yards in five games with the Eagles. Until Wentz was hurt against the Rams, he never carried more than nine times. But in that game he had 15 runs, perhaps a sign of things to come. The question becomes: Will opposing defenses use more eight-man fronts to stop the run and make Foles beat them?
Numbers that matter
105.3: That’s how many yards Minnesota receiver Adam Thielen has averaged in his past six games. Not so coincidentally, quarterback Case Keenum has a 102.6 passer rating (with 13 touchdowns) in that time. He has both Thielen and Stefon Diggs to hurt teams, but it’s the former who leads the NFL with 1,161 yards receiving. And just so you know: Sunday’s opponent, Cincinnati, ranks 18th in the NFL in giving up 13.05 yards per catch to receivers.
30: Number of consecutive losses on a Sunday for the Cleveland Browns. That, of course, is a problem in a league where most games are played on this day. With the Browns hosting 7-6 Baltimore, it’ll be hard to snap that ugly number — not to mention get their first win of the season. The Ravens won the first meeting 24-10, and according to ESPN’s Football Power Index, the Browns have a 30 percent chance of winning (and avoid becoming the fourth team since 1977 to hit 0-14). It’s also their last home game this season, so if the Browns do go 0-16, they won’t clinch that mark at home. But, hey, at least coach Hue Jackson’s job is safe in Cleveland. That victory last season must have been one hell of a win.
4: Saints rookie running back Alvin Kamara is shooting for his fourth straight home game with at least 100 yards from scrimmage plus a touchdown. The New York Jets have done well defending the run on the road this season, ranking seventh at 3.82 yards per carry. Through 13 games, they give up 1.99 yards after contact, and that’s an area where Kamara excels (fourth in the NFL). Plus, the Jets rank 28th in yards per catch by running backs (but sixth in number of receptions). Kamara is in good position to continue his home streak.
0: Number of interceptions Buffalo quarterback Tyrod Taylor has thrown vs. Miami in four career games. Taylor, coming off a knee injury, will start against the Dolphins. That’s good news for Buffalo. Taylor has thrown eight touchdowns and owns a 121.2 passer rating vs. the Dolphins. Last season, Taylor passed for 329 yards and ran for 60. But Sunday marks the first meeting between the teams in 2017; they close out the regular season as well.
What we’ll be talking about after Week 15
The Rams rule the West
The Seattle Seahawks will field a different defense than the one Los Angeles faced in Week 5, when the Rams were held to 10 points in a loss. Five turnovers didn’t help, either. But since that game, Seattle has lost corner Richard Sherman and safety Kam Chancellor. Now, linebackers Bobby Wagner (hamstring) and K.J. Wright (concussion) might not play. In the first meeting, Seattle relied on a four-man rush and blitzed only 18 percent of the time. Will that be the same?
Wagner’s speed is crucial in the passing game, especially to defend a running back such as Todd Gurley. If Wagner can’t play, then Gurley is in position to do more damage. In the first meeting, Gurley was held to 43 yards on 14 carries and two catches for 7 yards. Look for more Sunday.
For what it’s worth: Jacksonville’s three touchdowns in the third quarter against Seattle last week occurred after Wagner exited because of his hamstring injury.
It’s not as if Seattle can just rely on being at home to win games anymore. From 2012 to 2016, the Seahawks went 34-6 at home, but this season they’re 4-2 — still good, but the invincibility has been chipped away. The Rams won’t clinch a playoff berth with a win alone, but they would take a commanding two-game lead; Russell Wilson won’t be enough for Seattle on Sunday.
Welcome back big-play Kareem Hunt … but you won’t be enough
Hunt was the early-season sensation, averaging 6.28 yards per carry in his first five games — with 18 runs of 10-plus yards. He became the rookie of the year favorite. His speed and playmaking made Kansas City’s offense feared. And then he and the Chiefs went kaput. Since Week 6, Hunt has averaged 3.61 yards per carry.
However, the Chargers’ run defense isn’t good — and Hunt already torched them for 172 yards. Los Angeles ranks 31st in yards per carry allowed.
But it won’t be enough. Los Angeles’ offense is moving the ball well; Philip Rivers is hot and the Chargers will win in Arrowhead.
Jimmy G fever!
San Francisco was eliminated from the playoffs many games ago, but the 49ers will become a fun team to watch, thanks to another sterling outing from quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo. He has thrown for a combined 627 yards the past two games — both victories — and this time he’ll help lead an upset of Tennessee in his first home start.
The price tag for re-signing him will increase over the next three weeks, but the more Garoppolo progresses, the more the 49ers will feel good about their future. Yeah, perhaps they’re hurting their draft standing — but isn’t it good to do so because the new hotshot quarterback will have played well?
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