I’ve enjoyed the last week for one reason: The teams that looked unstoppable for much of the season have suddenly looked mortal, and that makes the playoffs much more interesting. Last week, the New Orleans Saints lost to the suddenly hot Dallas Cowboys, and the Detroit Lions held Jared Goff to a 68 QB rating—his second-worst of the season. Patrick Mahomes II is … well, he’s still Patrick Mahomes II after throwing four touchdown passes last week, but the Kansas City defense let the Raiders eclipse 30 points for just the second time this season. Now, these are not monumental shifts in the NFL landscape. Both the Rams and Chiefs won last week and we might be simply imagining flaws. But potential second-round playoff games once thought to be foregone conclusions—Dallas, Seattle, the Chargers, or the Texans visiting a juggernaut like the Rams, Saints, or Chiefs—now seem a lot more interesting than they did a month ago.
Los Angeles Rams–Chicago Bears: Offense vs. Defense, Part I
There’s a raging debate over how much defense still matters in the NFL. The Cowboys’ 13-10 victory over the Saints was taken by some observers to mean that defense unquestionably matters a lot. I think this is akin to questioning the existence of global warming because it’s snowing outside, and it reads too much into one game. A 13-10 game does not prove defense still matters because if you plan for 13-10 games regularly you will probably fail over the course of the season. Eight teams gave up less than 20 points per game just last year. This year there are three.
When you talk to people inside the league, the picture you get is that modern defenses get better as the season goes along. Last year, a general manager got mad at me for saying that his team’s defense was bad early in the season. He called and explained that basically all defenses are bad in the early part of the season, a product of less practice time and a lack of full contact during those practices. It’s much easier to install an offense in the preseason without tackling, for instance.
So, the looming question: Can defenses get good enough in December and January to cancel out a record offensive year? This is why Sunday is so interesting: There are two more examples of a great defense versus a great offense in Rams-Bears and Ravens-Chiefs. The Bears create more turnovers than anybody in the league. The Rams have the most creative offense in the league. The Bears are tied for second in yards per play allowed. The Rams are third in yards per play. Vic Fangio is as good a defensive coordinator as there is, and Sean McVay might be the best offensive play-caller. This game could be played again in January during the second round of the playoffs. What is important to remember is that Sunday’s result won’t matter then, but the individual matchups will. Look out for the Rams’ sturdy offensive line, which gives Goff a clean pocket 70 percent of the time, against Khalil Mack. Also watch for the Bears’ secondary, especially Eddie Jackson, Pro Football Focus’s top-graded safety, against a Rams passing attack that can score on every play.
A 13-10 score is not sustainable this NFL season, but a 20-17 game against a really good offense might be. We’re going to find out if that’s the case as the sample size of matchups between offensive-minded and defensive-minded teams increases. What more could you ask for?
Kansas City Chiefs–Baltimore Ravens: Offense vs. Defense, Part II
The Ravens are very good at limiting what the Chiefs do, which is the recipe for an informative game. The Chiefs lead the NFL in yards per drive (40 yards), and the Ravens are tied for the NFL lead in limiting yards per drive (25 yards). The Chiefs score on 54 percent of their drives, second behind only the Saints. The Ravens lead the NFL in limiting scores on drives at 28 percent. The pinnacle of the regular season will undoubtedly be the Rams’ 54-51 win over the Chiefs, but this ain’t bad:
The Ravens have not allowed a pass-catcher to have a 100-yard receiving game.— Allan Bell (@AllanBell247) December 6, 2018
The Chiefs have had 12 individual 100-yard receiving games.#BALvsKC
The Ravens’ Marlon Humphrey, who is battling a groin injury this week, leads the NFL with the lowest catch rate allowed among corners since Week 7. The Ravens force the second-most three-and-outs in the NFL. How will they contend with Patrick Mahomes, who has had a 120 QB rating in five of his past six games?
New York Jets–Buffalo Bills: Sam Darnold vs. Josh Allen
Every team that started a rookie quarterback this year has screwed up in their own little way. Arizona’s Josh Rosen was saddled with offensive coordinator Mike McCoy, a stunning misfire that was rectified with McCoy’s firing in October, but not nearly early enough. The Browns surrounded Baker Mayfield with the feuding egos of Hue Jackson and Todd Haley, who both lost a power struggle to Gregg Williams.
That brings us to Josh Allen and Sam Darnold, who will face each other for the first time. Allen’s obstacles have included sitting behind Nathan Peterman at the start of the season and not having good weapons around him. Darnold was stuck with what is probably the last season of a bad Todd Bowles era in New York.
Among 34 qualified quarterbacks, Darnold, Rosen, and Allen are the three worst by passer rating. All three have ratings lower than 70 and are at least 13 points worse than C.J. Beathard, the 31st-ranked quarterback. Modern football logic says that at least one of these passers will be Goff’d. Jared Goff had a 63 QB rating in his rookie season while he was saddled with a bad coach, Jeff Fisher, until Sean McVay, perhaps the best play-caller in the NFL, was hired to save Goff’s career. At the very least, it’s likely that Darnold has a new coach next year.
It’s been a discouraging year for Darnold and Allen, but the latter has the upper hand, for now. Allen is running the ball at a historically good rate for a quarterback:
Per @EliasSports, Josh Allen is the first quarterback since Green Bay’s Tobin Rote in November 1951 to run for at least 234 yards in a two-game span. He’s also the first since Rote to run for at least 99 yards in consecutive games.— Mike Rodak (@mikerodak) December 2, 2018
And he’s making more interesting plays, at the very least.
#Bills QB Josh Allen showed some positive signs of development on the Week 13 film...And you can see both the athleticism + the arm talent on this throw. @NFLMatchup pic.twitter.com/No5wi17Cgx— Matt Bowen (@MattBowen41) December 5, 2018
Allen is not a good quarterback this year, but all rookie passers have to be judged in context. Sunday will be a good look at the future of the quarterback position. We’ll see whether either Allen or Darnold can have a Goff-like turnaround in Year 2.
Philadelphia Eagles–Dallas Cowboys: Battle for the NFC East
An Eagles linebacker named Kamu Grugier-Hill said the Cowboys “always choke,” which has been branded as “bulletin board” material, leading Dak Prescott to respond with: “Who?” This has also been branded as trash talk but actually may have been a genuine reaction to a player with fewer than 30 tackles. Anyway, this launched into a strange media firestorm. Basically every Cowboy was asked about it:
Cowboys DT Antwaun Woods on Eagles LB Kamu Grugier-Hill saying Dallas always chokes, so they’ll make them choke again: pic.twitter.com/cvTX9erx56— Jon Machota (@jonmachota) December 6, 2018
Jaylon Smith asked if he saw the comments from Eagles LB Kamu Grugier-Hill about making the Cowboys choke: "Yeahhhhh, oh man. That's crazy. That's a rival game. You got guys that talk a lot. When the lights turn on, we're prepared. We just have to focus on us."— Jon Machota (@jonmachota) December 6, 2018
And a lot of Eagles were asked about it as well:
Carson Wentz on where he comes down on teammate Kamu Grugier-Hill’s trash-talking of the Cowboys. pic.twitter.com/jD6SLaIHhi— Tim McManus (@Tim_McManus) December 6, 2018
I’m going to use this as a jumping-off point for a mini-rant: I hate the idea of bulletin board material mattering. No midweek trash talk has ever changed the outcome of an NFL game. Last year, Patrick Peterson changed his Super Bowl pick because Eagles receiver Alshon Jeffery gave the Patriots bulletin board material. How’d that go? Tennessee running back Dion Lewis gave the Patriots bulletin board material … before the Titans won. There’s no such thing as distractions and no such thing as bulletin board material. There’s just football teams being better than one another. It’s one of my least favorite media creations.
As for this game: Such is the state of the NFC East after Washington QB Alex Smith’s injury that two teams that looked out of it a month ago are playing in a game with massive stakes for the division. The Eagles have a 28 percent chance of making the playoffs, according to FiveThirtyEight but finish the season against three division leaders: the Cowboys, Rams, and Texans. Meanwhile, the Cowboys, who have a one-game lead over the Eagles, finish with the Colts, Bucs, and Giants. This game also provides another chance to see the impact Amari Cooper has had on the Cowboys in what’s become a weekly routine where Cooper skeptics like myself get dunked on:
Dak Prescott is literally playing better than ever with Amari Cooper pic.twitter.com/2h0IQGWb2u— Ian Hartitz (@Ihartitz) December 5, 2018
Cooper will make a difference here. Bulletin board material will not.