gfoster (Geoff Foster, sports editor): Week 15 in the NFL is almost over, and we are here to discuss the key takeaways from the weekend and how the playoff picture is shaping up. Most broadly, a pair of playoff-bound teams that looked shaky a week ago (Patriots and Rams) continued to look off their game, while a couple of teams that were gaining steam (Cowboys and Seahawks) cooled off. Add it all up and the league’s hierarchy is still murky.
Let’s start with the reigning champions Eagles. They start the quarterback who won them the Super Bowl last February, Nick Foles, and look what happens: They look like the team that won the Super Bowl. What do you make of this?
neil (Neil Paine, senior sports writer): Obviously Foles >>>> Carson Wentz.
I do think the Eagles had underachieved to this point and were better than their record indicated. I didn’t expect the Eagles to go into L.A. with Foles and knock off the Rams, though.
sara.ziegler (Sara Ziegler, assistant sports editor): With the Cowboys losing, the Eagles have a shot, right?
neil: The Eagles’ playoff odds are up to 37 percent, Sara — so there’s a shot. But it’s going to be an interesting game vs. Houston, to say the least.
Salfino (Michael Salfino, contributor): I wonder if it’s the Eagles or whether it’s that for three games now, teams have seemed to figure out how to play the Rams. You rarely see a good team thwarted three straight weeks. I’m shocked that they have not been able to respond to Aaron Donald being double-teamed (duh!) and defenses pretty much ignoring play-action and playing softer zones.
neil: That’s a great point. We were worried about the Rams last week. And now this happens. Has the shine come off Sean McVay and friends?
Salfino: I would have bet a lot of money that the Rams would just roll it up on the undermanned Eagles defense, and instead they really struggled. Jared Goff was pressured almost as badly as against the Bears.
gfoster: Goff also may not be a good quarterback. (Pretty sure I said this last week.) That’s seven interceptions in three weeks, after being picked off just six times in 11 games. He can’t seem to adjust or make plays with the pressure in his face.
Turns out “Jeff Fisher Goff” wasn’t an illusion.
Salfino: As for the Eagles, the two losses against Dallas and the tiebreakers seems lethal in the division, but that wild card is very much in play.
You wonder if the Vikings have figured out a winning formula by turning their $84 million QB into a game manager.
sara.ziegler: “The Vikings have figured out a winning formula” is not a thing.
That will never be a thing.
gfoster: The Vikings are back.
neil: It does seem like it’s going to come down to Minnesota and Philly — with maybe some of that changing based on what Carolina does tonight.
(I guess Washington also won with Josh Johnson on Sunday.)
Salfino: The Vikings passed 34 percent of the time Sunday, when they were 66 percent pass previously. And even in the first half, if you want to throw out the game total because of the blowout, the Vikings were only 42 percent pass. Mike Zimmer has put the team into the DeLorean. This is not 2018 football. But maybe it’s their best chance since Kirk Cousins seemed so mechanical and was playing so inefficiently.
sara.ziegler: You could see the effect of the new play-calling almost immediately for the Vikings. Through Week 14, they had rushed on first down only 41 percent of the time. On Sunday, that was up to 79 percent.
Salfino: Dalvin Cook is really good, but the strength of the team is the wide receivers. While running could work against the Dolphins, who are 26th in yards allowed per rush, can it work against better competition?
neil: The Vikings are fascinating to me. They had the single worst loss of the season and have generally underachieved relative to expectations. I want to write about this, but Cousins has basically matched most of Case Keenum’s output from last year — and Keenum’s Denver performance is making them look smart for moving on anyway — and the receivers (Adam Thielen and Stefon Diggs) are more productive than ever. But their offense is somehow down according to holistic metrics such as SRS. Yet they still probably will make the playoffs — and could be a tough out for somebody.
gfoster: Where is Thielen though? He was the best receiver in football for the first half of the season, and now he’s a glorified Quincy Enunwa out there.
sara.ziegler: Maybe whatever Bill Belichick yelled at Thielen in Foxboro has really stuck with him.
Salfino: I would not want to play the Vikings if Cousins is hot like in a few games this year — think of the game at Los Angeles. Their defense can be tough, too. They’re first in sack rate. But I feel better about playing them if they insist on playing small ball.
gfoster: Thielen only received two targets yesterday, but part of that was game flow.
Salfino: Thielen’s problem yesterday is that when your passing volume gets cut in half, you’re going to suffer. But only two targets (he caught both) is just terrible market share as well. He should be 25 to 30 percent of attempts, not 10 percent.
Minnesota basically has built a pass-oriented offense but now wants to run. It’s weird.
gfoster: OK, let’s talk about the Patriots. They will not win at least 12 games for the first time since 2009. That alone is absurd in a league where teams routinely go from making the playoffs to drafting in the top 5, season to season. But after the loss to Pittsburgh, it’s definitely clear these Patriots are just off, right?
sara.ziegler: Love that both of the embattled Pennsylvania teams pulled off big upsets Sunday.
Salfino: The Pittsburgh win feels like an upset, but at home against these Patriots and not-really Tom Brady? Pittsburgh seems so much better than the Patriots. New England has to grind it out now. They have no explosion unless Chris Hogan is running a route with no defender within 19 yards of him or whatever it was.
neil: For several weeks now, Brady has made some inexplicably bad red-zone decisions. Clearly it is time to intensify those “Tom is losing it” takes (only to see him turn it around in the playoffs).
sara.ziegler: Though I remain unconvinced that Pittsburgh is all that good.
Didn’t we all think Brady was going to lead that winning drive at the end of the game?
Still surprised he didn’t, tbh.
Salfino: Consecutive December losses for the first time since the Jets won the AFC East (2002).
gfoster: The late holding penalty — when they were second and five from the Pittsburgh 11 yard line — probably cost them the game.
Salfino: What do you guys think about fourth-quarter Tom? People point to the four TDs and five picks in the fourth quarter this year. But his yards per attempt is nearly 10.
Is Gronk going to retire? When you are invisible against the Steelers, who could not cover Jared Cook last week, maybe the circus has left town.
neil: Sara, you and I were Slacking during that game, and it seemed like everything was going according to our imaginary script — Steelers lead until the very end, before the Pats storm back and break their hearts. And yet…
sara.ziegler: Yeah, the Pats couldn’t quite finish that script. But why? What’s different this year?
Salfino: It’s just a lack of playmakers on the Patriots. Josh Gordon is not Josh Gordon. Gronk is not Gronk. Brady is not really Brady anymore — he’s like a top 10ish QB but no one would think he was top two or three.
gfoster: But James White and Julian Edelman are the same. Just those two alone, was enough to win a Super Bowl a couple years ago?
sara.ziegler: And Gordon certainly gave them a boost earlier in the season.
They usually can ride the hot hand, but it doesn’t seem like anyone is able to be the hot hand right now.
neil: And the Pats usually get an edge at the margins. On Sunday, they won the turnover battle but were only +1. Also went 3 for 10 on third down (3 for 11 if you wanna include that failed fourth-down conversion) and had that brutal red-zone mistake.
Salfino: Maybe 41-year-old Brady is much different from 39-year-old Brady. Plus Edelman is old for a WR and coming off a major injury. He probably isn’t the same player either. White can be mixed in but can’t be central to your offense.
It’s tough to say, but Brady was chucking and ducking yesterday.
sara.ziegler: It’s weird to me, too, how they use some weapons so sparingly.
Cordarrelle Patterson was so effective against Green Bay in Week 9. But he’s barely been heard from since.
gfoster: Let’s talk about the Chiefs’ collapse against the Chargers. Is Los Angeles (it always sounds so wrong) now the team to beat in the AFC?
neil: I love watching Philip Rivers lead a desperation drive.
I imagine it’s the same as it was watching Dan Marino in the ’90s.
My inclination is to not read too much into that result because K.C. dominated most of the game. But maybe that’s wrong.
sara.ziegler: Yeah, I think the Chiefs just took their foot off the gas.
neil: The three K.C. losses have come by a total of 7 points.
gfoster: I also love the zero hesitation on going for two to win the game. I can think of about a dozen coaches who would have been too chicken to do it.
Mainly Bill “Let’s Punt” O’Brien.
sara.ziegler: Did that play into Kansas City’s approach, too? Like, “Oh, the worst that can happen is a tie here, so we’re fine.”
Salfino: The 2-point conversion was obvious to me. Textbook. When you are a big underdog on the road, you go for the win on one play. That’s defined all the teams that have done it except one: the Panthers earlier this year.
neil: San Diego — er, L.A. — probably knew that was their best shot. On the road against that team, odds were against them if they extended the game.
Salfino: Rivers is so deadly still. Has not lost anything. They have pass rush, a running game assuming Melvin Gordon can come back, a good secondary and Philip Rivers. They are deadly. K.C. has the tiebreaker with the better divisional record.
I can’t believe the Chargers can win 13 games and be a wild-card team.
gfoster: You also can’t really blame the loss of Kareem Hunt. Damien Williams was the best player on the field.
Salfino: Williams is a generational talent though at running back.
gfoster: Not to mention Darrel Williams.
sara.ziegler: There were SO MANY Williamses on the field in that game.
neil: I can’t wait for the NFL version of that failed NBA trade where nobody knew which player with the same last name was included.
neil: That will happen with a “Williams” someday.
gfoster: Do the Chiefs also have to have a doppelganger for their lead running back? Remember when they had Kareem Hunt and Akeem Hunt.
It’s like the double Queen Amidala has in “The Phantom Menace.”
I can’t believe you made a “Phantom Menace” reference.
sara.ziegler: (Geoff was watching the “Star Wars” marathon this weekend too, apparently.)
gfoster: Speaking of phantom menaces (wait for it…), is it time to take Andrew Luck and the Colts seriously in the AFC?
Salfino: I’m very disappointed that the Colts may not make the playoffs. What’s their chance currently?
neil: Only 34 percent.
(Which surprises me.)
gfoster: I think they will make it. They’ve quietly won seven of eight, with the only loss being that strange no-show against Jacksonville.
neil: But it is a numbers game in the AFC.
gfoster: And they host the Giants next week, so…
sara.ziegler: And then they finish with the Titans.
neil: Gotta keep pace with Tennessee in terms of shutting out Eli Manning.
Salfino: It’s tough when you start 1-5. They have Luck, a running game now with Marlon Mack and a defense that just shut out the Cowboys. One possible explanation is that Colts defensive coordinator Matt Eberflus came over from Jason Garrett’s 2017 staff and clearly knew Dallas well.
sara.ziegler: Oh, that’s a good point.
I always wonder how much that kind of familiarity helps in specific games.
gfoster: Before the season, people were saying the Colts defense could be the worst in the league, particularly the run defense that bottled up Ezekiel Elliott yesterday.
Salfino: The Colts are actually sixth in rushing efficiency allowed.
As for Eli, it’s kind of funny that, on the day where there’s a report that the Giants are going to have Eli back in 2019, he gets goose-egged.
neil: Eli has been teetering on that edge for weeks now. Whenever it looks like he’ll definitely lose his starting job, he plays better. Whenever it looks like he’ll keep it, he plays worse.
I believe my exact words on Sunday were, “Did Ian Rapoport just doom Eli to a Peterman-like effort today?”
Salfino: Eli does just enough to keep the believers in his camp and just enough to provide fodder for the haters. He’s middling it.
The big problem yesterday for the Cowboys is that nothing was easy in the passing game. That was shocking after the explosion against the Eagles where they seemed to have turned the corner offensively.
neil: Yep. Dak Prescott followed up three straight 100+ QB rating games with … a 64.7.
gfoster: Marlon Mack’s emergence might mean they don’t break the bank to get Le’Veon Bell this offseason.
neil: Marlon Mack ran through that Cowboys defense like Boga the varactyl on Utapau.
sara.ziegler: OMG, Neil.
gfoster: Listen, readers, all our “Star Wars” references are strictly Episodes I-III.
neil: Are there any other episodes???
Salfino: The Bell thing is fascinating. The Jets are the top-rumored team. The Colts and Texans definitely have the money. But the Texans have other franchise-level players and Jadeveon Clowney to sign and the Colts have Mack.
gfoster: Is that a good move for the Jets?
sara.ziegler: A combo of Broadway Sam-Le’Veon Bell would be pretty fun to watch.
gfoster: The answer to “Is that a good move for the Jets?” is always no, by the way.
Salfino: The Jets have so much money that I’m coming around to it. You have to spend it someway. On paper, it’s stupid. But I like that he stopped his mileage. I know we wrote about maximizing earnings and the injury risk he would have assumed. But maybe Bell wanted to avoid the single-trial disastrous outcome (a catastrophic injury).
neil: The offseason carousel in general should be fun next year. At QB, Joe Flacco is leaving Baltimore, it was reported, with Lamar Jackson’s emergence. Eli might be out of a job (yet also available!!!). The 49ers will have two legitimate QBs with Nick Mullens being good. (I think??)
Salfino: I think Bell would provide for at least two years something really easy for Sam Darnold in the passing game.
gfoster: Darnold has been put in a position to fail. The play-calling is so conservative, the skill position players around him are so bad, he has no time.
Salfino: Darnold is not failing now. He had the in-season reset with the time off and is overcoming those handicaps, seemingly.
gfoster: They are 4-10.
neil: Darnold had a 100.0 QB rating Saturday!
Salfino: Geoff, the Jets’ tank on Saturday was as elegant as a Noel Coward dinner party. Jason Myers missing the extra points was the plot twist no one saw coming.
sara.ziegler: “Elegant as a Noel Coward dinner party” is the best turn of phrase ever used about the Jets.
gfoster: Speaking of Mullens, is he a starter in this league??
Salfino: Mullens started 44 college games. And he’s in a Kyle Shanahan system. I think there are two questions with Mullens: Is he good, and does he prove that system/coaching makes the quarterback more than the tools that are traditionally scouted?
neil: Whether coaching or not, Mullens has played the best of any rookie this season:
But to your point, Mike, it is definitely tough to disentangle from Shanahan.
But should that change what we think of Jimmy Garoppolo as well?
gfoster: I just don’t know if a team is willing to make a trade and commit to him as a starter. This is the Brock Osweiler conundrum.
neil: Mullens has been much better than Osweiler was, for what it’s worth.
sara.ziegler: And he has the Brett Favre seal of approval.
neil: (And Osweiler was on a team that won the Super Bowl.)
Salfino: Mullens is 6-foot-1. I think people are going to look at him as a fluke. A guy like Mullens with no real pedigree (other, ironically, than NFL performance) will never have a long enough leash to make it as a starter.
gfoster: So he’s in “very good backup” land along with Ryan Fitzpatrick.
neil: I still don’t know that he’s necessarily a backup in a world where Flacco and Eli probably get additional starting shots next season.
Salfino: I think Mullens is going to be in the Dave Krieg, Tyrod Taylor, Jeff Garcia, Case Keenum, undersized, “not a real QB” camp — not the Drew Brees and Russell Wilson camp.
Also he’s not a free agent. Are you trading a second-round pick for Mullens?
neil: True. The Niners at least have time to make a decision there. They still have him under contract for 2019. Besides, I’ve long been a fan of the “strategically pump up the trade value of your backup QB” plan to team management, as my friend Doug Drinen laid out in this old post about Falcons-era Matt Schaub.
gfoster: The Browns, meanwhile, are keeping the dream alive.
Salfino: What is the Browns’ playoff probability?
They’re basically eliminated right?
sara.ziegler: They’re at a less than 1 percent chance, according to our model.
neil: The Steelers’ win kept the Browns from being mathematically eliminated.
sara.ziegler: So you’re saying there’s a chance…
neil: “The Indianapolis Colts and Tennessee Titans would need to lose in Week 16 then tie in Week 17. It would be a three-way tie between the Colts, Titans and Browns. Cleveland would hold the tiebreaker. The Browns can also win the AFC North if the Steelers lose out, the Browns win out and the Los Angeles Chargers beat the Ravens next week.”
sara.ziegler: I mean, that’s not the most unlikely thing to have happened in the NFL.
Salfino: Based on our prior research, it seems like Gregg Williams is 100 percent coming back? 80 percent? What number do we put on a winning interim coach with this large a sample?
I think it’s madness to hire Williams, BTW. New offensive coordinator Freddie Kitchens should get the job first.
neil: It does seem like it will be very difficult to resist the urge to bring him back on the basis of their post-Hue Jackson performance.
(Even if, as we wrote about, Williams hasn’t really had very much to do with it.)
Salfino: I think the nightmare scenario for Cleveland fans and Baker Mayfield is that Williams gets the job and Kitchens gets an offer to be the head coach of the Jets.
neil: (Aside from, like, not being Hue Jackson.)
Salfino: Damien Woody asked on Saturday if the Browns had top-15 talent. I thought it was an interesting question.
gfoster: Their defense has so much talent. Denzel Ward, their awesome rookie corner, didn’t even play against Denver. Jabrill Peppers had a star-turning performance on Saturday with the INT in the end zone and the game-winning sack.
Salfino: You and “Star Wars” and Michigan, Geoff…..
gfoster: What, is that where Peppers went?
I don’t remember.
Salfino: Ha ha ha.
neil: All I know is that Browns have now won two more games this season than the previous three combined. For this franchise, that is something special, playoffs or not.
sara.ziegler: Maybe the Browns’ chaos is behind them.
(Or maybe not.)
neil: I doubt it. But hey, if the Rebels could hold off the First Order at the resistance outpost on Crait, anything is possible.
gfoster: The Broncos, meanwhile, are gross. Vance Joseph needs to go. That was really timid coaching.
Salfino: Joseph is all the bad things about a defensive-minded head coach.
gfoster: Let’s end with our Week 15 Super Bowl predictions. I’m not changing mine from last week. Saints vs. Chargers. It helps that the Saints play tonight.
Salfino: Saints — but man am I worried about their offense even though their defense now is underrated — and … Steelers. I think they beat the Chargers in the wild-card round, and you know the Chiefs are dying to lose their first playoff game. Thursday night was a preview.
sara.ziegler: I’m starting to come around on the Bears, which is not a thing I thought I would say this season.
neil: Wow, especially as a Vikings fan.
I hate myself right now.
So … Bears-Chiefs.
neil: I’m sticking with Saints-Chiefs. Mainly because of how entertaining that game would be. Something has to compensate for a halftime show consisting of Maroon 5 + random people found busking at subway stations.
Check out our latest NFL predictions.