Smarter Stats: Romo, others getting hot at the right time for contenders
In the NFL, starting hot and finishing not gets you nowhere. Correspondingly, the number of six-seeds that have gone to/and or won the Super Bowl in the last decade alone tells you one thing: Getting everything together at the right time is the primary requirement for playoff success. There are several NFL teams looking to enter through that looking glass with the playoff push just a couple weeks away, and to that end, it's time to identify some of the players on playoff contenders who have been at their best over the last month or, to be more specific, the last four NFL weeks. (All stats courtesy of Pro Football Focus).
Right now, no quarterback is playing at a more efficient and productive level than Tony Romo -- over the last four games, he's completed 19 of 112 passes (70.5 completion rate) for 944 yards, 10 touchdowns and just two interceptions. That gives him a four-week traditional quarterback rating of 118.3, which leads the league. However, New Orleans' Drew Brees is on the same level, and might be playing even better with his 112 completions in 157 attempts for 1,287 yards, 12 touchdowns and two picks. Nobody has a higher recent completion rate than Brees' 71.3. If anyone has been in the same class of late, it's been Joe Flacco, who has completed 82 of 118 passes (69.5) for 958 yards, six touchdowns and just one pick.
The Seahawks are the NFL's hottest team right now, and as it's always been through the Pete Carroll era, that's based on two pillars: defense and the run game. Marshawn Lynch is typically blowing away most of the field when it comes to broken tackles in the last four weeks, with 26. However, the Broncos and their new run-heavy attack has a game entrant in C.J. Anderson, who has matched Lynch's total in that time. Pittsburgh's Le'Veon Bell is second in missed rushing tackles caused with 18, and he has 10 more in the passing game. But when it comes to breakaway runs of late. Green Bay's Eddie Lacy is the champ with eight runs of 15 yards or more in the last four weeks. Baltimore back Justin Forsett, one of the league's most pleasant surprises this season, ranks second with seven.
Of course, Romo wouldn't be where he is without Dez Bryant, who has been playing an incendiary rate. When Romo throws to him over the last four weeks, Romo has a 147.8 quarterback rating. Only rookie Odell Beckham, Jr. (sorry, Giants, you're out of this) has a higher rating. Bryant is also tied with Denver's Demaryius Thomas among contending receivers with five touchdown receptions in the last four weeks. Cincinnati's A.J. Green wins the Sure Hands award over that four-week period, with no drops in 48 targets -- a pretty impressive feat, given that Andy Dalton's passes aren't always exact. Little surprise that Atlanta's Julio Jones is the most prolific receiver on passes of 20 or more yards despite missing a game, with seven catches on 13 targets for 244 yards and three touchdowns. Indy's T.Y. Hilton are also putting up big numbers on deep balls, and this is where it's good to mention that Andrew Luck has six touchdowns and no picks on passes traveling 20 yards or more.
While Dalton has been up and down, Bengals left tackle Andrew Whitworth has been consistent all season, and fabulous in the last four weeks, allowing no sacks, no quarterback hits and just one quarterback hurry. Atlanta is on the fringe of playoff discussion, and wouldn't be in it at all in any division but the NFC South, but its current tackles, Jake Matthews on the left side and Ryan Schraeder on the right, have given up one sack, four hits and 10 hurries combined. Denver's move to switch Orlando Franklin from tackle to guard this season has paid dividends, as Franklin has not goven up a pressure of any kind at the left guard position. Cleveland rookie guard Joel Bitonio, who has been outstanding all season, has kept it up with no sacks, one hit and one hurry. Pretty good when your quarterbacks are busy throwing up all over themselves in different ways. Seattle's James Carpenter, who was also moved from tackle to guard over time, has allowed no sacks, no hits and two hurries. Now, if he could cut down on the pre-snap penalties ...
New Orleans' defense has been a disaster through most of the season, but don't blame big John Jenkins. The second-year nose tackle is tied with the Jets' Damon Harrison with nine run stops, most in the league. Bennie Logan, an unheralded member of Philly's estimable defensive line, ranks second with eight. When it comes to tackles who are getting pressure on quarterbacks, Rams rookie Aaron Donald stands alone with 16 total pressures. Donald has been a wrecking machine all season, but he's stepped his game up to an even higher level of late. Detroit's Ndamukong Suh and Buffalo's Kyle Williams are right up there in pressure totals with 15 (Williams) and 13 (Suh), and it's no coincidence that the Rams, Lions and Bills have three of the league's most formidable front fours.
Among players classified as 3-4 defensive ends, J.J. Watt obviously stands apart and alone (32 total pressures, which is just ridiculous), Philly's Fletcher Cox has played as well as anyone at the position of late, with two sacks and 14 hurries. Cox also leads all 3-4 ends with 15 run stops. Green Bay's Mike Daniels has two sacks, five quarterback hits and eight hurries in that four-week span. Among 4-3 ends, Detroit's Ezekiel Ansah is tied with Carolina's Charles Johnson with 22 total pressures. St. Louis' Robert Quinn has come back fully from a slow start to the season, with 4.5 sacks, two hits and three hurries in that time. Similarly, Seattle's pass rush has really come around of late, with Michael Bennett alternating between end and tackle, and Cliff Avril bringing it as a more traditional end with 2.5 sacks and 11 hurries. Bennett ranks first among all 4-3 ends on contending teams with seven run stops; Chicago's Jared Allen and Jason Pierre-Paul of the Giants are ahead of him.
Kansas City's Justin Houston is the best edge rusher among 3-4 outside linebackers, with his 17 sacks, two hits and 19 hurries. But for a terrible twosome, how about Baltimore's Terrell Suggs and Elvis Dumervil, with their matching 19 total pressures? Add in multi-positional sttar Pernell McPhee, and the Ravens are fairly stacked at this position. New England's Rob Ninkovich, classified by PFF as a 3-4 linebacker despite the fact that he plays end a lot of the time, also ranks highly with three sacks, three hits and 11 hurries. Among 4-3 outside linebackers, Von Miller stands apart with his three sacks, two hits and 11 hurries, but watch out for Seattle's Bruce Irvin. It's been a challenge for the team to find the right place for Irvin, but he's been very effective of late as a rush backer whose coverage skills have improved. As far as inside linebackers, is there anyone playing better than Seattle's Bobby Wagner right now? Not many are, but 49ers rookie Chris Borland (who, sadly, just went on injured reserve with an ankle injury) leads all at his position with 22 run stops. And when it comes to pressure at that position, New England's Jamie Collins has done an amazing job filling in for the injured Jerod Mayo, with 11 total pressures in the last four weeks.
Yes, Seattle's Richard Sherman thinks he's very good, and he doesn't mind telling you so. Over the last month, he's been exactly that good, allowing a preposterous 0.0 quarterback rating: two receptions allowed in 11 targets and 121 pass defense snaps for 18 yards, no touchdowns and two interceptions. Second-year bookend Tharold Simon gives opposing quarterbacks no relief, allowing four receptions on nine targets for 34 yards, no touchdowns and a pick. Add in Byron Maxwell, who plays outside and in the slot (nine receptions on 18 targets for 116 yards, no touchdowns and one pick), and there's little doubt which team has the best secondary going into the end of the regular season. Philly's Cary Williams is the league's second-best cornerback who has played at least 50 percent of his team's snaps, allowing seven catches in 18 targets for 86 yards, no touchdowns, one interception and a 31.3 opposing quarterback rating, which makes the team's decision to put Bradley Fletcher and his 137.1 opposing quarterback rating on Dez Bryant most of last Sunday night's loss. (Sorry to bring that up again, Eagles fans).
New Orleans' Kenny Vaccaro has been a rare bright spot in New Orleans' defense, allowing five receptions on 10 targets for 33 yards and a 17.9 quarterback rating. Buffalo's Duke Williams has also been great in coverage. But when it comes to the best safety overall in the last four weeks, it's tough to find anyone playing at Kam Chancellor's level. Not only has Chancellor played with an increasing sense of intensity of late now that he's healthy, he's become a lot better in coverage, allowing three catches on seven targets for 10 yards. However, the Lions have the most opportunistic safety duo of late. Glover Quin and James Ihedigbo have three picks each in the last four weeks. And as always, San Diego's Eric Weddle deserves mention as one of the most well-rounded players at his position.