My colleague Robert Mays wrote this week about how quickly things can change in the NFL, especially regarding which coaches are considered a hot commodity. As recently as a few weeks ago, Vikings offensive coordinator John DeFilippo was a head-coaching candidate and now he’s unemployed after being fired earlier this week. Few people were talking about Browns offensive coordinator Freddie Kitchens just a few months ago and now he’s one of the hottest play-callers in the league. Fortunes rise and fall quickly in the NFL, and many teams will try to change course with a strong close to the season. Jason Garrett has saved his job during the Cowboys’ current five-game winning streak, while the Panthers’ five-game losing streak might have cost Ron Rivera his. The Vikings can salvage their season with a strong finish in the final three weeks, beginning with Sunday’s game against the Dolphins, who are suddenly in position to make a playoff push. The NFL is top-heavy this season, with only a handful of complete teams. While there are far too many mediocre teams, I damn sure enjoy the chaos it will cause in the final few weeks. Here are the matchups to watch for during Week 15:
Dallas Cowboys vs. Indianapolis Colts
It’s hard to learn much about teams that become relevant in the second half of the season. The Cowboys are unquestionably good, but they’ve been so for only five games, a small sample size, so you have to be careful about drawing too many conclusions. But there are lessons to be be learned during this winning streak. Last week’s game against the Eagles suggested that Amari Cooper is apparently a better play-caller than offensive coordinator Scott Linehan. Late in the game, Cooper signaled a change in the play call to quarterback Dak Prescott, which resulted in a 75-yard score. Two weeks ago, the Cowboys showed they have enough defensive talent to shut down an elite offense like the Saints. On Sunday against the Colts, we’ll see whether Cooper and Prescott can be effective against a primarily zone defense. According to Sports Info Solutions, “Though [Prescott] has an 80 percent completion percentage versus zones, it’s almost entirely short-pass based. He has no touchdowns and two interceptions on 91 attempts.”
FiveThirtyEight gives the Cowboys a 99 percent chance of making the playoffs, so they’re just playing for seeding the final three weeks. They cannot realistically get the bye. They’re a game behind the Bears, so they have an outside chance at getting the 3-seed, but most of their fate is wrapped up. The Colts’ playoff chances are still in decent shape. Even if they lose to the Cowboys, wins over the Giants and Titans in their final two games would give them a 62 percent chance of making the playoffs, according to FiveThirtyEight. The Colts are a much different test than the Eagles: They are eighth in scoring offense and tied for fifth in rushing yards allowed per attempt. They’re probably the second-best team, behind the Saints, that Dallas has played during its winning streak.
At the very least, a good Amari Cooper game is another chance to laugh at the Raiders:
Mark Davis on what his father would have thought of Amari Cooper: “I think he would have loved Amari. But it just didn't workout in our system. In the future we might be saying damn.”— Calvin Watkins (@calvinwatkins) December 13, 2018
Pittsburgh Steelers vs. Rob Gronkowski
The Patriots have defeated the Steelers five straight times and the common thread in most of those wins is that the Steelers have no idea what they are doing against Gronkowski:
#Patriots TE Rob Gronkowski has averaged 110.7 receiving yards per game in 6 career games against the #Steelers. That makes him the only TE since 1970 to average 100+ receiving yards per game against a single opponent that he has faced 5 or more times.— Michael Giardi (@MikeGiardi) December 13, 2018
Mark Kaboly at The Athletic wrote about those struggles and how safety Mike Hilton probably won’t play because the Steelers want to throw bigger bodies at Gronk. That will not include safety Sean Davis, who gave up eight of Gronkowski’s nine receptions for 157 yards in their meeting last year, which Gronkowski dominated. The Steelers will probably throw three safeties at Gronkowski, including Morgan Burnett, whom Kaboly said was signed in part because of his ability to stop tight ends. I do not know how successful this strategy will be. But I do know that if they can’t stop him — in a season when he’s been stopped by a lot of teams — then something is deeply wrong. Gronk has just two 100-yard receiving games this season and he’s never had fewer than three in a healthy season. He’s coming off a 107-yard, one-touchdown performance against Miami last week. Eerily, before last year’s December 17 meeting against Pittsburgh, he also seemed to be in a down season and was also coming off his second 100-yard performance. He took over the game and got 168 yards to help the Patriots get home-field advantage in the AFC playoffs. Also, New England’s quarterback does pretty well:
Los Angeles Rams vs. Themselves (and the Philadelphia Eagles)
It speaks to how good the Rams have been offensively that the last two weeks — a 30–16 win over the Lions and a 15–6 loss to the Bears — are considered cause for alarm. Jared Goff had four interceptions and a 19.1 QB rating in Chicago last week and a 68.6 rating the week before in Detroit. Even an offense as good as the Rams is prone to have two down weeks, but let’s not overreact. Plenty of teams have struggled against the Bears. It would be time to panic, however, if the Rams had similar issues against the Eagles, who were last seen giving up 576 yards to the Cowboys. There’s also the matter of Goff’s home/road splits:
Jared Goff's home/road splits are as stark as you will ever see. Headed home after ugly two-game road trip to host the Eagles. pic.twitter.com/RPGgbPgGbm— Patrick Daugherty (@RotoPat) December 12, 2018
This, of course, will rear its head in the NFC title game if Goff is forced to go on the road and play the Saints. Not even play action, the Rams’ nearly unstoppable tactic, is working as well:
Jared Goff normally has a lot of success off of play action, but not over the past two weeks. pic.twitter.com/5qkLgQ3moU— Pro Football Focus (@PFF) December 13, 2018
So yeah, this is a slight problem, but if there’s one thing we’ve learned recently it’s that playing the Eagles is a good way to get out of an offensive slump.
Green Bay Packers vs. Chicago Bears
I love ESPN’s playoff scenario generator. It’s a blast. You can map out a scenario in which the Packers and Bears play in the first round. This, of course, is not going to happen. FiveThirtyEight gives the Pack a 3 percent chance to make the playoffs. (If the Giants win out, they have a 6 percent chance!) Basically, this is the Packers’ playoff game, their chance to knock the Bears down a notch, hurt Chicago’s ability to get the 3-seed (which looks important in terms of avoiding the Seahawks in the first round), and show that it’s not a totally lost season. Mitchell Trubisky is so locked in he won’t even say bland things about the opposing quarterback or his high school nickname of “Favre.”
Asked about what he admires about Aaron Rodgers, Mitchell Trubisky said he’s just focused on his own job.— Adam Hoge (@AdamHoge) December 12, 2018
Asked about the “Favre” nickname he had in high school, he said: "I’m done with that nickname. No one calls me that anymore … I’m a Chicago Bears quarterback now.” #Rivalry
Anyway, this is more about hatred between these two teams than anything regarding the NFC North standings. Last time they played, Aaron Rodgers got carted off and then came back to wreck the Bears. The Bears, fresh off making 2018 Jared Goff look like 2016 Jared Goff, get to kick their biggest rival when he’s in a down season.
Aaron Rodgers' first 20 regular season starts against the Bears: 67.8 completion percentage, 4,882 passing yards, 45 TDs, 9 INTs, 108.3 passer rating.— Zach Kruse (@zachkruse2) December 13, 2018
Last four games: 10 TDs, 0 INTs
Or, maybe it’s not his fault: