Biggest questions, stats and predictions
Taking a spin around the NFL to get you ready for Week 16:
The big questions
Who can clinch?
We don’t need to get into complicated scenarios, so let’s keep it simple: Who can get in with a win this weekend?
Let’s start with the NFC, whose playoffs should be unpredictable and dramatic, no matter who reaches the postseason. Two teams already have clinched: the Philadelphia Eagles and Minnesota Vikings. The question for those teams comes down to home-field advantage. The Eagles would earn that by beating the Oakland Raiders or having the Vikings lose to Green Bay (without Aaron Rodgers) on Saturday.
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• NFL Week 16 playoff scenarios
As for the other four spots in the NFC, the Los Angeles Rams can clinch the West with a win or a tie with the Tennessee Titans. The easiest way for both the New Orleans Saints and Carolina Panthers to clinch this weekend would be for them to win or tie their respective games. The Saints host the Atlanta Falcons. The Panthers host the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.
Of course, the Falcons would earn a spot by beating New Orleans.
In the AFC, the New England Patriots, Pittsburgh Steelers and Jacksonville Jaguars already have clinched spots. The Jaguars can wrap up the South with a win at San Francisco on Sunday.
The only other team that can guarantee a postseason bid just by winning this weekend is the Kansas City Chiefs. If the Chiefs beat Miami — or the Los Angeles Chargers lose at the New York Jets — Kansas City will be in the playoffs.
Is Blake Bortles for real?
This season, he has been called “trash” and “subpar.” He has been mocked and decried for a couple of years. Yet here he is, the NFL’s hottest quarterback in December and leading a team that — gasp — has become one of the AFC’s best.
Now the question for Bortles: Has he turned that so-called corner, or has he benefited from facing struggling defenses of late (Seattle, Indianapolis and Houston)? That’s a somewhat unfair question because if you’re trash or subpar, you don’t post the numbers he has against any sort of defense. Bortles is hot. Deal with it, America.
In the past three weeks, according to ESPN Stats & Information, Bortles has completed 78 percent of his passes thrown 15 or more yards downfield — and he’s doing it with Keelan Cole and Dede Westbrook. In the first 11 games, Bortles had completed 29 percent of such throws.
He’s also handling the blitz well. In the first 11 games, he completed 49 percent of his passes for 5.2 yards per attempt against the blitz compared to 72 percent and 11.5 yards in the past three games. Bortles has been good in the red zone all season, with 16 touchdowns and no interceptions, which is why he’s the NFL’s sixth-rated passer inside the 20-yard line.
Bortles and the Jaguars have a chance to finish strong with remaining games against San Francisco and Tennessee. The 49ers have given up 25 touchdown passes (25th in the NFL) while the Titans have surrendered 23 (21st overall). The Jaguars still can earn a first-round bye if they finish tied or ahead of Pittsburgh.
Regardless, the ultimate test for Bortles, of course, will come in the playoffs. But did anyone think he’d play this well in December? Put down your hands, Mr. and Mrs. Bortles.
Who will win the NFL rushing title?
The top two contenders for the NFL rushing title will be primary players to watch, regardless of how many yards they need to win that crown. With Antonio Brown sidelined in Pittsburgh, Le’Veon Bell becomes an even bigger deal. When Kansas City wins, it’s usually because of rookie Kareem Hunt.
Bell leads Hunt by 21 yards, with the Los Angeles Rams’ Todd Gurley II only 35 yards behind.
How important are Hunt’s big plays? When he has had a run of 20 yards or more, the Chiefs are 5-1 this season. When he has rushed for 80 yards total, they’re 7-1, and when he has topped 100 yards, they’re 6-0. In other words, he plays a vital role. Sunday’s opponent, Miami, ranks 19th in yards allowed per carry and 21st in number of runs for 20 yards or more allowed.
As for Bell, the Steelers need a boost because of Brown’s leg injury. Bell will face a Houston defense that ranks 24th in runs allowed of 20-plus yards but is eighth in yards allowed per carry. However, in the past four weeks, Houston has given up 4.62 yards per run, placing the Texans 24th during that time. The chance for both Bell and Hunt to have big days is excellent.
By the numbers
92: Percent chance that the Baltimore Ravens will make the playoffs, according to ESPN’s Power Football Index. Not only are they 8-6, but also their final two games are against Indianapolis (3-11) and Cincinnati (5-9). The Ravens have only one win against a team that currently has a winning record (Detroit). Their eight wins have come against teams that have a combined .321 win percentage (of course, that includes two games vs. 0-14 Cleveland). Still, per ESPN Stats & Info, they could end up having the lowest strength of victory by a playoff team since the Cardinals in 1998.
17.4: Yards per catch by receiver Marvin Jones Jr. since he signed with the Detroit Lions before the 2016 season. In three years with Cincinnati, Jones averaged 12.9 yards per catch. Guess which team he faces Sunday. Yes, his former team must contend with a hot receiver: In the past five games, Jones has averaged 86.6 yards per contest. He is second in the NFL with 18.0 yards per catch. In the offseason, Jones worked out with Randy Moss, who harped on Jones’ inconsistency at the top of routes; this season, he has caught 13 of the 25 passes thrown his way that have traveled 20 or more yards in the air, according to ESPN Stats & Information.
5: Games played by Washington this season against quarterbacks who have made the Pro Bowl: Carson Wentz (two), Drew Brees, Philip Rivers and Russell Wilson. The Redskins went 1-4 in those games. The Redskins are 0-7 against teams that are in the top 10 for total QBR and 3-0 against teams ranked in the bottom 10. Sunday’s opponent, Denver, ranks 30th in QBR.
2: The Costanzas had their Festivus Miracle, and the Browns would settle for one on Christmas Eve. Two is the number of wins Browns coach Hue Jackson owns on this day. In fact, he has lost 33 of his past 35 games (going back to 2011 with the Raiders). However, the two he won? Both were played on Christmas Eve. The Browns play at Chicago, and beating the Bears wouldn’t be considered a miracle for any other franchise.
What we’ll be talking about after Week 16
How ’bout them Cowboys?
Welcome back, Ezekiel Elliott. It’s not as if Alfred Morris was bad; he wasn’t. Morris averaged 4.3 yards per carry during Elliott’s six-game absence, but it wasn’t the run game that suffered without him. It was the passing attack — and Elliott can help put Dallas in a better spot on obvious throwing downs.
That’s what he’ll do against the Seattle Seahawks this weekend. In the past four weeks, the Seahawks rank 20th in run defense, giving up 4.14 yards per run.
Dallas is better on first down with Elliott, and that’s where he’ll make a difference Sunday. Again, it’s not as if the Cowboys were bad under Morris; they’re just better with Elliott, and there’s a trickle-down impact for quarterback Dak Prescott. In Elliott’s eight games, the Cowboys averaged 5.0 yards per carry on first down compared to 4.19 in six games without him.
That means longer third downs. In fact, in the past six games, Dallas needed at least 7 yards on third downs 49 percent of the time, compared to 39 percent of the time in the first 10 games. Prescott’s QBR in the first 10 games on third down: 97. His QBR in the past six: 21.
Elliott helps. Prescott looks better, and Dallas will feel a lot better Sunday night.
Who dey? The team that’s headed to the playoffs, dat’s who
Let’s start by saying that Atlanta is playing really well. The Falcons, though, are living life close to the edge seemingly every week. They’ve played 10 games this season in which the final margin has been six points or fewer; they’ve won six of those games. That includes a 20-17 win over New Orleans on Dec. 7 in Atlanta.
It adds up to a tough task for the Falcons: having to beat the same team twice in three weeks and doing so on the road. Oh, yeah, Atlanta has lost eight of its past 11 games at New Orleans. It’s hard, too, because the temptation to believe that Atlanta will sweep the Saints is strong. The Falcons have won five of their past six games.
But both teams want to run the ball. New Orleans does it a little better, ranking second in the NFL at 4.89 yards per carry to Atlanta’s seventh at 4.48. Then again, Atlanta defends the run just a bit better at 24th (4.30 yards per carry) vs. the Saints’ 28th (4.5).
The difference, in the end, will be playing at home. Another close game for the Falcons; this time a close defeat.
Who the heck is Kenyan Drake?
He’s a guy finally getting his chance for Miami, deep into his second season. In the season’s first 11 games, Drake carried the ball a total of 42 times — with a game high of nine. But in the past three weeks, Drake has carried the ball 64 times for 312 yards. He has become a force with the Dolphins.
Drake also is a good example of a higher draft pick (third round) who needed time to develop. He carried the ball only 33 times as a rookie and got a chance this year only because of injuries and the trade of Jay Ajayi. That finally opened the door for Drake.
The thing is, Drake never has been a full-time back; he played behind Derrick Henry at Alabama. But he has always had the talent.
The other factor pointing to a fourth straight good outing: Kansas City’s rush defense. The Chiefs will beat Miami, but Drake will have a good day against the NFL’s 25th-ranked defense in yards allowed per carry (and 27th in total rushing yards).