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:
Over his last 3 games, Drew Brees has a 77.0 passer rating. He's thrown 3 picks in that span, after throwing 2 in the first 11 games of the season https://t.co/W9nB8dOr6b— ProFootballReference (@pfref) December 19, 2018
What’s fascinating about this stretch is that as the Saints offense has cooled down, their defense has improved drastically:
Saints defense in Weeks 1-9 (per game):— Field Yates (@FieldYates) December 18, 2018
Points allowed: 27.3 (27th in NFL)
Yards allowed: 387.8 (25th)
Sacks: 2.1 (27th)
Turnovers forced: 1 (22nd)
Saints defense in Weeks 10-15:
Points allowed: 12.3 (1st)
Yards allowed: 280 (3rd)
Sacks: 4.7 (1st)
Turnovers forced: 2.3 (t-3rd)
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.
#Rams Slump:— Evan Silva (@evansilva) December 19, 2018
* Pressure % allowed Wks 1-11: 29%. Wks 13-15: 39%
* @PFF grades Goff 30/35 QBs in pressure rating
* No Cooper Kupp safety net
* Ds playing Cover 4, taking away deep ball
* Goff 2/13 for 59 yds, 0 TD, 3 INT on 20+ yd passes
* Panicked & wild, throwing off back foot
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.
Why has the Rams passing offense struggled of late? Goff is much better using play action & the Rams aren't using play action as much:— Warren Sharp (@SharpFootball) December 19, 2018
•37% of passes wks 1-13
•18% last 2 weeks
Gurley injured w Kupp out, better pass rushes faced & less time to execute all are factors. pic.twitter.com/r3H6BPeze2
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:
#Rams QB Jared Goff with Cooper Kupp since 2017 (23 games):— Chris Raybon (@ChrisRaybon) December 19, 2018
Goff without Kupp (6 games):
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.
NFL leaders in yards per pass attempt since Week 9:— Graham Barfield (@GrahamBarfield) December 19, 2018
1. Patrick Mahomes (8.73)
2. Baker Mayfield (8.66)
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.