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Four Must-See Matchups in the NFL Week 16

The rise of the Saints defense is offsetting any concerns about the offense’s surprising struggles. We’re more worried about Jared Goff and the Rams. Thankfully, they’ve got the Cardinals next.

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Bill Belichick said this week that “Christmas comes at an inconvenient time.” He has a point. The season is nearly finished and playoff seedings are being determined while the rest of us are cramming to finish our holiday shopping. Teams are running out of time to improve their playoff position or make a final push for the postseason. With that in mind, here are the matchups to watch in Week 16:

The December Saints vs. the September, October, and November Saints

Consistency has been hard to come by this season. With so many young quarterbacks, record-high scoring, and uncertainty over whether defense even matters, we’ve sort of been operating without a map. But if we felt confident about anything, it’s that the Saints offense would stay hot forever, which makes their struggles over the past few weeks so surprising. Drew Brees, once the MVP front-runner, has been stunningly pedestrian in his past three games:

What’s fascinating about this stretch is that as the Saints offense has cooled down, their defense has improved drastically:

If Brees and the offense return to playing at their optimal level and the defense continues its rise, we might as well cancel the Super Bowl. The Saints are an interesting test case for this season: They’ve spent the first three quarters of it proving that offense can win big and the past three weeks proving that you can do the same with defense. At some point, both will synch up and dominate simultaneously. It will be fun to watch.

Lamar Jackson and the Ravens Pass Defense vs. the Chargers

Mike Renner of Pro Football Focus had an interesting piece in The Washington Post about how Baltimore has adjusted its play-calling since Lamar Jackson supplanted Joe Flacco as starting quarterback. According to Renner, the Ravens have run play-action on 39.5 percent of Jackson’s dropbacks, a higher mark than Jared Goff, who is at 34.2 percent. They’re also letting Jackson run the ball. Writes Renner: “Since Jackson took over as the starter in Week 11, the Ravens have dialed up 109 option runs — 50 more than the next-closest team. They’ve had enormous success on these plays, with 5.5 yards per carry on options runs since Week 11, which is nearly a full yard more than the league-average.”

FiveThirtyEight gives the Ravens a 41 percent chance of making the playoffs. That number will improve to 85 percent if they beat the Chargers, the likelihood of which will depend on two things: whether Jackson can manufacture enough points, and how well the Ravens’ great pass defense can hold up against the Chargers. Two weeks ago, Tyreek Hill became the first receiver this season to eclipse 100 yards against the Ravens in a 27-24 Chiefs win. In fact, that was the only time in Baltimore’s past four games that it has given up 200 passing yards. The Chargers are eighth in the league in passing with 270.1 yards per game, so this game is not only meaningful to the playoff standings, it will teach us a lot about both teams.

Rams vs. Themselves

What the hell is wrong with the Rams? In this space a week ago, I wrote that if they struggled against the Eagles, then they would have a massive problem. Well, they did, and the trends are worrying.

They can get back on track against a bad Cardinals team Sunday. The biggest issue is that Goff hasn’t been nearly as successful on play-action.

He still runs play-action more than anyone else in the league, but he’s fifth in yards per attempt while using it. First, incredibly, is now San Francisco’s Nick Mullens.

Cooper Kupp’s season-ending injury isn’t enough to explain Goff’s struggles. But the splits are interesting:

The Browns vs. Hue Jackson

The good news for Jackson is that the Bengals won their first game last week since bringing him on as an assistant on November 13. The bad news is that his former team has gotten dramatically better: Cleveland is 4-2 since his dismissal and rookie quarterback Baker Mayfield is thriving.

Mayfield criticized Jackson’s decision to work for an AFC North rival, so this matchup is understandably a sensitive subject for Jackson, who declined interview requests this week. “There’s not anything about Hue and Baker in this call,” Bengals head coach Marvin Lewis told reporters. “We’re going to talk about the Browns and the Bengals. Other than that, I guess we’re done.”

In the last meeting between these teams, a 35-20 Cleveland win on November 25, Browns DB Damarious Randall flipped the ball to Jackson following an interception, in what is perhaps the pettiest moment of the year so far. Several Browns players said Jackson’s presence on the opposing sideline isn’t a big deal, so it appears tempers have cooled. But here’s hoping there are some good dunks on Jackson at some point during the game.