NFL Week 15: Expert Takeaways from Sunday's Action
Week 15 in the NFL was a wacky week indeed.
We should have known, after the San Diego Chargers opened the week by knocking off the Broncos in Denver, that the status quo wasn't running the show this week.
Sure enough, the top of the AFC has been thrown into disarray, and the game of hot potato that is the NFC East in 2013 took another turn.
As we do every week, we've gathered the NFL National Lead Writers and Division Lead Writers here at Bleacher Report and asked them to give their takes on the wild week that was.
Here's what they had to say.
Rams Benefit the Most from Redskins-Falcons Week 15 Matchup
In a weird week in the NFL, it seems only fitting that we begin with a game between a team in the NFC South and a team in the NFC East that benefited a team in the NFC West.
You heard me.
NFC South Lead Writer Knox Bardeen sorts it out:
When the NFL schedule was finalized months back, I circled this Week 15 matchup between the Washington Redskins and Atlanta Falcons as a game between two teams that would be jockeying for playoff position. It was also a game featuring two up-and-coming quarterbacks.
The 2013 season hasn’t gone as expected for either team, and both entered this game with 3-10 records.
What we got in this game was exactly what you’d expect from teams that have been struggling all season, and not anything close to what I thought months back. Washington turned the ball over seven times and negated 476 yards of total offense with sloppy play, including not only the myriad turnovers but nine penalties.
Atlanta had trouble moving the football. As a team, the Falcons averaged just 2.6 yards per carry, and quarterback Matt Ryan averaged 5.5 yards passing per attempt.
The game even featured a botched two-point conversion in the final minute of the game by the Redskins, who lost 27-26.
Washington entered the game in line to grab the No. 2 pick in next year’s draft, while Atlanta held the third pick. With the win, Atlanta’s draft status will likely worsen. With the loss, Washington helped the St. Louis Rams get a better draft pick.
The Rams own Washington’s first-round draft pick in the 2014 draft, a pick that swapped hands in the Robert Griffin III deal. And we didn’t even get to see Griffin play.
Browns Should Have Run More Against Chicago’s Last-Place Rush Defense
Not a lot has gone right in 2013 for the Cleveland Browns, and the team fell to 4-10 with a 38-31 loss to the Chicago Bears in Week 15.
There are a number of things that can be pointed to as the cause of Cleveland's struggles this year. In the opinion of AFC North Lead Writer Andrea Hangst, part of the cause of Sunday's loss was a poorly formulated game plan:
No defense is as bad against the run as the Chicago Bears. The Cleveland Browns had an opening on Sunday for their listless run game to show a spark, with the Bears giving up an average of 157 rushing yards per game.
Despite running the ball an average of just 22.3 times per game for a mere 83 yards, the Browns had an opportunity to run early and often on the Bears, build a lead and control the clock. Though quarterback Jason Campbell had been playing well for the Browns, thanks in part to a record-setting four-week span by his top receiver, Josh Gordon, Cleveland needed to give its running backs some attention against the Bears.
Instead, the Browns opted to run only 17 times in a losing effort.
Campbell struggled, especially in the first three quarters of the game. His throws were off-target, and though not sacked once, the Bears sent just enough pressure to rattle him in windy and cold conditions. Campbell completed 23 of his 39 pass attempts for 273 yards, one touchdown and two interceptions, one a pick-six.
Cleveland remained committed to heavy passing despite Campbell’s poor play and the run game paying off rather considerable dividends.
In total, the Browns had 93 yards on their 17 rushes, a 5.5 yards-per-carry average that was significantly higher than the 3.8 they were averaging headed into Week 15. Newly signed back Edwin Baker had 38 yards and a touchdown on his eight carries, giving him a 4.8 yards-per-carry average.
With Campbell struggling, increased handoffs would have certainly improved the Browns’ chances of winning and kept them in possession of the football. The Browns trailed in time of possession, 25:12 to 34:48, a certain contributing factor to their one-touchdown loss.
While it’s understandable why the Browns opted against running heavily, considering how poorly they had been running the ball, they blew an opportunity by not attacking the Bears where they were the weakest. Gordon was held to only 67 yards, and no Browns receiver reached 70 yards.
It was clear in the first half that Campbell’s day was going to be long and ugly, and adjustments should have been made.
Cleveland’s offense is a "work in progress" that isn’t going to come into its own until next year. However, that doesn’t mean the Browns should remain stuck in their heavy passing ways when up against a defense as weak against the run as Chicago’s.
Marc Trestman’s Quarterback Gamble Pays off in Bears’ Win over Browns
Without question, the biggest storyline surrounding the Chicago Bears in Week 15 was Jay Cutler's return to action.
More than a few pundits and fans questioned head coach Marc Trestman's decision to reinsert Cutler into the starting lineup given how well backup Josh McCown played in his stead.
It looked a little sketchy in the beginning, but as NFL National Lead Writer Matt Bowen writes, it's a move that paid off in the end:
Trestman’s decision to start Cutler over McCown was met with plenty of questions this week. And why not? McCown had just lit up the Dallas Cowboys on the Monday night stage and also brought home NFC Offensive Player of the Week honors.
However, after a slow start that saw Cutler make some poor decisions—and struggle with his mechanics—the Bears quarterback finished with three touchdown passes as the Bears stayed alive in the NFC North race.
It was easy to question the head coach after Cutler forced the ball in the end zone or when he sailed a pass to a wide-open Brandon Marshall versus Cleveland's three-deep zone coverage. Both passes resulted in turnovers, with the second one coming back for six points.
However, I thought Cutler settled down, got his footwork under control and produced in the second half.
There is no question the Bears receivers played a role here. Whether that was Marshall winning one-on-one matchups versus Joe Haden or Alshon Jeffery making another ridiculous catch for a score, Cutler had some help in this game.
You could even say Jeffery bailed him out on the deep ball. That’s fine.
Cutler wasn’t going to be perfect in his first game back, and I’m sure Trestman will still be questioned even after the win. That’s life as an NFL coach.
But when your quarterback can work through some early-game adversity and make plays in the second half, it looks like the right call to me. Cutler is the No. 1 guy for a reason.
Ryan Tannehill Shows Up Tom Brady With Two-Minute Mastery
As we mentioned in the intro, it was shake-up Sunday in the NFL.
Among the surprises was one in Miami, where the Dolphins spoiled the Patriots' plans to take over the top spot in the AFC.
As AFC East Lead Writer Erik Frenz points out, the biggest surprise within the surprise was the identity of the quarterback pulling off a late comeback:
The Patriots have made a living out of gutting out wins in the fourth quarter this season, but on Sunday it was Dolphins quarterback Ryan Tannehill coming through in the clutch.
First, it was a 39-yard touchdown pass to wide receiver Mike Wallace that capped off an 82-yard drive in the final two minutes of the first half. Then, Tannehill put the dagger in the Patriots with a 60-yard touchdown drive that ended with a short pass to running back Marcus Thigpen.
The national media may be surprised by what transpired, but they shouldn’t be. Tannehill has led his team to a league-leading nine touchdowns in the final two minutes of a half this season.
He didn’t just show up when the clock was winding down on Sunday; he played efficient football all day to the tune of a 67.6 completion percentage, three touchdowns and a 120.6 passer rating.
But the stats only go so far. There were moments where we could tangibly see the maturation of Tannehill. On the back-shoulder throw to wide receiver Rishard Matthews down the sideline, if I hadn’t seen the pass leave Tannehill’s hands, I would have imagined that throw came from Saints quarterback Drew Brees.
Tannehill’s two-minute mastery has been vital to the Dolphins in close games, especially in the fourth quarter. This season, he has been comparable to Brady in his ability to lead the team on a fourth-quarter comeback—Brady has notched five, and Tannehill now has four.
Make no mistake: The Dolphins were put in a position to win by their quarterback. His performance, however, is made more impressive by the circumstances under which it happened.
Dolphins head coach Joe Philbin wanted nothing to do with talk of a “statement game,” but this was most certainly a statement performance for Tannehill. He outdueled Brady for the duration of the game, including the moments in which it mattered the most.
Green Bay Packers Finally Show Heart and Talent in Furious Dallas Comeback
One of the wilder games of Week 15 took place in Big D, where the Dallas Cowboys blew a 26-3 lead in the latest chapter in the team's ongoing December miseries.
However, rather than rehash the Cowboys' history of late-season faceplants, NFL National Lead Writer Ty Schalter talks about the biggest comeback in Green Bay franchise history:
Since losing quarterback Aaron Rodgers to a collarbone fracture way back in Week 9, the Packers have eked out one tie and one single-point victory against two teams that are now a combined 8-18 otherwise.
At no point in the six games from Rodgers’ injury on have the Packers looked like a playoff team. As huge of a loss as an MVP-caliber quarterback would be for any contender, general manager Ted Thompson has invested too many high draft picks and free-agent dollars into the running game, offensive line and defense for the Packers to be a one-man team.
When the Packers went into the locker room down 26-3, it looked like their season had died right there on the AT&T Stadium turf. However, in the second half, they came out brimming with the heart, fight and spirit they’d shown absolutely none of in the prior month and a half.
Prodigal backup quarterback Matt Flynn threw four second-half touchdowns, second-round tailback Eddie Lacy blasted through the Dallas Cowboys defense again and again, and Jordy Nelson and the Packers receivers made tough catch after tough catch.
Even after a replay review (incorrectly, in my mind) overturned a brilliant Tramon Williams interception and return, setting up the Cowboys’ only second-half touchdown, Flynn and the Packers kept an even keel. Lacy punched in the go-ahead touchdown behind the lead block of defensive tackle B.J. Raji (!), and it looked like the Packers had it made.
On the final Cowboys drive, justice was done: Williams picked off another Tony Romo pass, and this time replay upheld the turnover.
Full credit must go to Flynn, the Packers’ playmakers and head coach Mike McCarthy for knowing their season was on the line and for once answering the bell without Rodgers.
Jason Garrett Should Be Out of Rope in Dallas
OK, now it's time to rehash those December struggles that have plagued the Dallas Cowboys in recent years.
There will no doubt be plenty of blame passed around for this latest loss, especially with quarterback Tony Romo tossing a pair of late interceptions.
However, NFC East Lead Writer Brad Gagnon advises saving some of that blame for head coach Jason Garrett:
For whatever reason, Dallas Cowboys owner/general manager Jerry Jones continues to defend head coach Jason Garrett.
Garrett’s Cowboys dropped their second straight December game Sunday against the Green Bay Packers, collapsing on a 26-3 second-half lead to remain out of the current NFC playoff picture.
But Jones gave Garrett a vote of confidence earlier this year, and he refuses to back off that. Here is what Tom Orsborn of the San Antonio Express-News tweeted: "Jones on whether he needs to slam door on speculation Garrett will be back: 'I don't need to a chance to slam the door. I've already done it.'"
Garrett threw both Romo and offensive play-caller Bill Callahan under the bus after the game.
NBC’s Alex Flanagan reported on Football Night in America that the head coach claimed Romo checked out of a run play on a fateful fourth-quarter interception. And when asked to defend his team’s lack of balance late, Garrett would only remind us that Callahan calls the plays, according to Newy Scruggs of NBC Sports Radio.
By ignoring the red-hot DeMarco Murray and becoming even more pass-happy than usual with Green Bay coming on in the second half, the Cowboys committed football suicide.
Murray averaged 7.4 yards per carry but ran the ball only three times on 17 offensive plays from scrimmage in the fourth quarter. Thirteen of Dallas’ final 14 plays were passes, which is just silly when you’ve been running it well and are protecting a small lead.
Even if Romo checked out of some runs, that’s partially on Garrett. And even if Callahan was the one calling all of those passes down the stretch, Garrett isn’t off the hook. He’s still plugged into the play-calling process (literally and figuratively) and has the ability to make some executive decisions.
This team looks as though it’s going to miss the playoffs for the fourth straight year, and December continues to kick Dallas’ butt. Garrett is a poor game manager with a weakening track record and little to no appeal elsewhere in the NFL.
I don’t know what he has on the owner, but Jones’ stubborn insistence that Garrett isn’t the problem will only handcuff this team going forward. It’s time for a change.
Eddie Lacy States His Case for Rookie of the Year
Given the wild way in which it ended, it's no real surprise that the Packers-Cowboys game is on the minds of many of the writers here at Bleacher Report.
For NFC North Lead Writer Zach Kruse, it's the player who helped key Green Bay's furious second-half comeback:
Green Bay Packers rookie running back Eddie Lacy put together the most impressive game of his young NFL career Sunday. In fact, the performance may be enough to lock up his award for Offensive Rookie of the Year.
Lacy carried the ball 21 times for 141 yards and the game-winning touchdown during Green Bay's frantic, come-from-behind win over the Dallas Cowboys. His 60-yard jaunt to open the second half sparked Green Bay's rally, and he also had four catches for 30 yards to complete his 171-yard afternoon.
Lacy now has 1,028 rushing yards, 236 receiving yards and eight touchdowns over 13 games of work.
San Diego Chargers rookie receiver Keenan Allen (63 catches, 931 yards, seven touchdowns) has certainly put together a deserving case to challenge Lacy. His two scores against the Denver Broncos Thursday night raised his profile considerably.
Others, such as Giovani Bernard, Mike Glennon and Zac Stacy, have reasonable arguments too.
But it's now Lacy, who time and again has been called on to rally an offense missing Aaron Rodgers, who is the most deserving to take home the rookie hardware.
Three times during Rodgers' absence, Lacy has cracked 100 rushing yards. And five of his eight rushing touchdowns have come with either Scott Tolzien or Matt Flynn under center.
He's also become a reliable pass protector and receiver out of the backfield, as 19 of his 31 catches have come during the past seven weeks.
Allen and a host of others are deserving of consideration, but Lacy has consistently proved to be the most impressive offensive rookie in 2013.
Colin Kaepernick and the 49ers Offense Have Hit Their Stride at the Right Time
If the Dallas Cowboys are falling apart at the worst possible time, then the San Francisco 49ers are doing the exact opposite.
The 49ers cruised past the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, 33-14, in Week 15 for their fourth straight win. As NFC West Lead Writer Tyson Langland explains, the Niners are heating up at just the right time:
When the San Francisco 49ers lost back-to-back games to the Carolina Panthers and New Orleans Saints, quarterback Colin Kaepernick and offensive coordinator Greg Roman came under fire. Rightfully so based on the fact Kap was struggling to make good decisions on a consistent basis, and Roman’s play-calling was baffling more often than not.
Some wondered if the 49ers offense could effectively turn things around with six games left to play.
Even though the turnaround didn’t seem likely at the time, Kap put San Francisco’s offense on his back and upped his level of play. In the 49ers’ four-game win streak, the third-year signal-caller has thrown for 888 yards, scored seven touchdowns through the air and tallied a quarterback rating of 105.6.
Without a doubt, this is easily the best four-game stretch of his career. His decision-making skills have increased tenfold, and he’s doing a phenomenal job of protecting the football. In his past 110 pass attempts, the second-round pick out of Nevada has only turned the ball over once.
In addition to impressive performances from Kaepernick, the Niners have settled in on the ground. Since Week 12, running back Frank Gore and Co. are averaging 34 carries per contest and 127 yards rushing.
Coincidentally enough, Kap’s improvement as a passer has San Francisco’s run game performing at a top-notch level as well. With two regular-season games left to play, the 49ers offense has hit its stride at just the right time.
There may not be a more well-balanced team in the NFL right now.
Dennis Allen’s Job Should Be in Jeopardy
The Oakland Raiders are now the sworn enemy of fantasy football players everywhere.
The Raiders allowed five touchdowns to Kansas City Chiefs running back Jamaal Charles, a performance that no doubt swayed many fantasy playoff games.
The Raiders' showing in a 56-31 loss also swayed AFC West Lead Writer Christopher Hansen, who thinks the seat is warming up under head coach Dennis Allen:
Nobody expected the Oakland Raiders to be a good team this year. Now sitting at 4-10 after getting blown out at home by the Kansas City Chiefs, they have stayed true to form.
With more dead money against the salary cap than the gross domestic product of a small country, the Raiders weren’t on an even playing field with the rest of the NFL. They were supposed to be bad, so why jettison a coach who doesn’t have much talent to work with?
Well, Dennis Allen has made a number of questionable coaching decisions. Worse, his team has quit on him, evidenced by four straight losses.
Last week against the Jets, the Raiders inserted quarterback Terrelle Pryor for a series and went back to Matt McGloin. After the game, Allen said Pryor didn’t get another chance because McGloin got into a rhythm. This week, the Raiders did the exact opposite by inserting Pryor when McGloin had been moving the offense.
Pryor’s play nearly derailed the drive, but running back Rashad Jennings got a first down on a draw up the middle on 3rd-and-long to bail the coaches out.
Criticized for rushing only three on 3rd-and-long against the Jets last week, the Raiders overcompensated by rushing six on a 3rd-and-19 this week, and the Chiefs picked up a first down on a screen pass.
Over the past two weeks, the Raiders have allowed 93 points to the Jets and the Chiefs. Even the least talented team in the league shouldn’t allow that many points in two weeks. That takes the combined effort of poor coaching and a lack of talent.
Allen has two more games to turn things around. But if the Raiders can allow 93 points to the Chiefs and Jets, the Chargers and Broncos could approach the century mark.
As much as the Raiders may want to keep Allen for stability and to see what he can do with more talent, it would be better to cut their losses now. With every blowout loss, Allen is proving he’s not the right man for the job.
Cincinnati Bengals Are Probably Headed to Playoffs, but Don’t Expect Much
The Cincinnati Bengals, not to be outdone by the Patriots and Broncos, lost 30-20 to the Pittsburgh Steelers Sunday night. That made it a clean sweep...all three top seeds in the AFC lost.
In the opinion of NFL National Lead Writer Michael Schottey, Cincy's loss only underscores why it's hard to take the AFC North leader seriously as a Super Bowl contender:
The Cincinnati Bengals haven’t clinched anything yet this season, but with home games against Minnesota and Baltimore left on the schedule, it has seemed like a foregone conclusion for some time that they are headed to the playoffs.
Things may have gotten a little interesting on Sunday night with a loss against the moribund Pittsburgh Steelers, but it’s not wrong to assume the Bengals will have a spot in the AFC playoffs. Heck, it’s not even that premature to assume they’re still in the driver’s seat to win the division.
The Bengals are undefeated at home this season. With two home games left, the math seems pretty simple.
Once they get to the playoffs, however, things will change.
When asking “what went wrong” against the Steelers, the answer is far less X's and O's and more of the same issue we’ve seen from the Bengals for a number of seasons. When a game matters against an opponent that doesn’t just roll over (especially on the road), the Bengals wilt.
For years, we’ve pinned it on head coach Marvin Lewis, and he certainly deserves a little bit of the suspicion. Yet for as inept as the offense looks on the road, offensive coordinator Jay Gruden and quarterback Andy Dalton have to pick up some of the blame as well. They’ve been handed myriad weapons and still can’t seem to get going when the situation calls for it.
If the Bengals back into the playoffs and have to go on the road, things will get dicey in a hurry. Even if they win out, though, they’ll eventually have to go to either Denver or New England. In that instance, it’s hard to believe they’d stand a chance.
This just isn’t a mentally tough Bengals team. They have the talent, but in today’s NFL, that’s not always enough.