Welcome to The Burke Report, where Chris Burke leads you through both the headlines and some of the less talked about keys to all of Week 14's games. When the Bills and Eagles meet this weekend, everyone will be talking about the running backs, yet it's the defense that could really be the deciding factor. Plus, one lock and one upset of the week, a NFL draft watch, and, of course, a Tecmo prediction.
Buffalo at Philadelphia (1 p.m. ET, CBS)
LeSean McCoy insists he will not shake Chip Kelly's hand before the game that marks McCoy's return to the City of Brotherly Love after the star running back was traded away this off-season. Meanwhile, DeMarco Murray is standing off in the corner, kicking a rock and muttering, “I get it, LeSean. I get it.”
And, fittingly, McCoy should be a key aspect to Sunday's game; he has rushed for exactly 112 yards in each of Buffalo's last three wins—a dozen yards fewer than Philadelphia's average allowed per game.
The running back subplots are overshadowing what is actually a critical game in both the AFC and NFC playoff races. The Eagles' stunning win at New England last weekend (plus Dallas's upset of Washington) bumped them into a first-place tie in the NFC East. The Bills, at 6–6, are just a game back in the wild-card race, with four winnable games to close the year.
All of the focus on McCoy and Murray also overlooks the fact that the outcome of this game will likely depend on which defense boxes in the opposing quarterback: Philadelphia, with a linebacking corps that has flailed in coverage responsibilities all season, against dual-threat Tyrod Taylor; or Buffalo, featuring a secondary that has lost a bit of its edge as Ronald Darby hits the rookie wall, against Sam Bradford.
San Francisco at Cleveland (1 p.m. ET, FOX)
It's Blaine Gabbert vs. Johnny Manziel, and somehow Gabbert is riding a more certain future at the moment. The 49ers have him under contract through next season, and even Joe Montana said that Gabbert should be in the team's plans moving forward. Joe Montana! If he said the 49ers should start a snowman at quarterback, I believe they would be contractually obligated to do so.
San Francisco quietly has played well in its past four games, including a Week 13 win at Chicago. Cleveland ... has played football. The Browns have lost seven straight and would hold the No. 1 pick if the draft were today.
Detroit at St. Louis (1 p.m. ET, FOX)
We've reached the point in the season where some games will be decided by which team still gives a crap. The Lions and Rams are both 4–8, mathematically still alive in the playoff race but realistically done. Detroit's dreams of a miraculous late-season run were dashed by the Packers last Thursday. Pro tip: “I don't think Aaron Rodgers can make that throw” is wrong, always.
Worse yet for Detroit is that—save for the Hail Mary—the defense had been the driving force behind its turnaround. There will be some interesting internal discussions moving forward, because defensive coordinator Teryl Austin and new offensive coordinator Jim Bob Cooter have given reason to want them back in 2016. The same cannot really be said for coach Jim Caldwell.
The Rams also have a new offensive coordinator, Rob Boras, after firing Rob Cignetti. Boras figures to lean on Todd Gurley—Cignetti inexplicably gave his superstar rookie back just 18 combined carries the past two weeks. Gurley has to have a huge game, because St. Louis has no semblance of a passing game, nor will it fare all that well against Detroit's edge rushers led by Ziggy Ansah.
New Orleans at Tampa Bay (1 p.m. ET, FOX)
With Seattle charging and both Minnesota and Green Bay already sitting on eight wins, Tampa Bay likely needs a 4–0 close to reach the playoffs. But the fact that it's even a discussion is tribute to the Buccaneers' recent turnaround.
They already got the best of New Orleans once this season: a 26–19 victory at the Superdome in Week 2, Jameis Winston's first victory as an NFL quarterback. Winston threw for 207 yards in that game, a number he should soar past by about the third quarter Sunday if the Saints’ recent defensive efforts are any indication.
Doug Martin could be in line for his fifth 100-yard game of the season, too—the Saints are dead last in rush defense. They're also dead last in scoring defense and total defense, so this is all going very well for them.
Tennessee at New York Jets (1 p.m ET, CBS)
We can't talk about Jameis Winston without also mentioning Marcus Mariota, and, boy howdy, did the Titans' rookie QB put on a show last week. In a win over Jacksonville, Mariota became the first player ever with 250 yards passing, 100 yards rushing and three passing TDs in one game. The majority of his rushing total came on an 87-yard touchdown in the fourth quarter.
This week, he faces a much better defense. New York has not been as dominant on that side of the football as it anticipated back in preseason, but it does lead the NFL against the run.
The Jets also may have found something in their own backfield during last week's comeback win over the Giants. Backup RB Bilal Powell, who caught eight passes in that contest for 91 yards and a TD, was huge during a late-game drive. Ryan Fitzpatrick should want to keep Powell involved from here out, if only to give his team a legit third pass-catching option behind WRs Brandon Marshall and Eric Decker. Those two have accounted for 59.5% of the Jets' receiving yards this season.
Pittsburgh at Cincinnati (1 p.m. ET, CBS)
In order to stay on track for a bye and the AFC's No. 1 overall seed, Cincinnati first must clinch the North. It can do so Sunday by knocking off its rival.
Easier said than done considering how Pittsburgh's offense has been performing. Ben Roethlisberger might have more trouble tossing a golf ball into the ocean than he has completing passes of late. The Steelers have topped 500 yards of offense each of the past two weeks, and Roethlisberger is averaging 383 yards passing over his last four outings. Cincinnati did about as good a job as anyone slowing him this year—Roethlisberger threw for 265 but also fired three interceptions in an earlier loss to the Bengals.
There's also the little matter of how Pittsburgh plans to stop Cincinnati. Since losing two straight, Andy Dalton and co. have found a groove again, aided by Jeremy Hill's long-awaited resurgence. Hill just set his new personal season-high for carries last week (22). If he tops it this week, it's because Cincinnati has won the ball-control battle.
Indianapolis at Jacksonville (1 p.m. ET, CBS)
The Jaguars still have a shot at the AFC South, much the way you would have a shot at avoiding an accident driving 100 miles per hour on an ice-covered road. They host Indianapolis this week and close by visiting Houston, so they still could make some noise.
Odds are, it won't happen because Jacksonville is, you know, not very good. But it could!
This matchup even favors the Jaguars in some spots, even though Indianapolis controls its fate in the division (and would continue to do so even with a loss). No one will mistake the Jaguars' offense for Pittsburgh's. Like the Steelers' attack that just hung 45 on Indianapolis, though, Jacksonville does have several big-play threats...specifically Allen Robinson and Allen Hurns.
Odd to think that the Colts need Matt Hasselbeck to play to have a chance. It's true.
San Diego at Kansas City (1 p.m. ET, CBS)
The Chargers might be the NFL's most disappointing team this season, sitting at 3–9. The Chiefs were headed toward that honor after a 1–5 start, but they've ripped off six straight wins to take command of the AFC wild-card race.
Three weeks ago, Kansas City beat San Diego by 30, in San Diego. While this time around the Chargers should look less like the “Varsity Blues” team after it spent all night at the strip club, I still wouldn't count on an upset.
Washington at Chicago (1 p.m. ET, FOX)
Chicago has lost three straight at home, while Washington has lost five straight on the road. So either something has to give here, or this game will produce the first 0–0 tie since 1943. Both teams are coming off disappointing and rather stunning losses: Chicago to the Gabbert-led 49ers; Washington to the Matt Cassel-led Cowboys.
Despite the latter outcome, the Redskins are part of a three-way tie atop the crazy NFC East (and hold the tiebreaker edge, for now). The key will be whether Kirk Cousins is capable of finding any footing away from FedEx Field. He could use a little help. Washington's run game has vanished almost entirely since Week 4, outside of a strong showing vs. the Saints.
The Bears' run game has had just the opposite effect, although it's fair to wonder now how much focus the staff will put on 2016. Matt Forte led the way last week with 21 carries and 123 total yards. He's also set to be a free agent, so it would behoove Chicago to add to Jeremy Langford and Ka'Deem Carey's workloads.
Atlanta at Carolina (1 p.m. ET, FOX)
Atlanta started strong, fell into a confusing rut and now is borderline unwatchable—a progression I'll refer to as The League Loop, in honor of that recently wrapped show. (You may be more familiar with the timeline in its earlier iteration: The O.C. Curve.)
Can the Falcons pull it off? No, probably not. Carolina has forced 29 turnovers, far and away the most in the NFL this season. That's bad news for Matt Ryan, who has gone Full Harrington the past few weeks, firing six interceptions since Nov. 22.
Seattle at Baltimore (1 p.m. ET, FOX)
The surging Seahawks against a banged-up Matt Schaub (or Jimmy Clausen) and a shaky Baltimore defense? In the words of Dr. Ian Malcolm from Jurassic Park 2, “Hang on. This is gonna be bad.” The only reason to think otherwise is that all of Baltimore's games, whether they were wins or losses, have been competitive.
Oakland at Denver (4:05 p.m. ET, CBS)
This Brock Osweiler thing is working out quite well, especially for a Denver run game that has surged with its QB playing mostly under center, as Gary Kubiak preferred all along. The Broncos have rushed for 170, 179 and 134 yards, respectively, in Osweiler's three starts—all wins.
That uptick aside, Denver's offensive line has to do a better job protecting Osweiler. It allowed just one sack in San Diego but coughed up a combined eight the prior two weeks. If there is one thing Oakland can do, it's generate heat off the edges. The Raiders dropped Alex Smith four times last week and consistently pressured Marcus Mariota the prior Sunday.
Dallas at Green Bay (4:25 p.m. ET, FOX)
The Packers trailed Detroit by 20 in the third quarter last Thursday and were still behind when the clock ran out, only to pull off a miracle. They're fortunate to be 8–4, yet still have a ton to clean up if they want to build any momentum. Aaron Rodgers's receivers, O-line and even Rodgers himself continue to make the QB seem mortal, outside of 61-yard Hail Marys dropped down from the heavens.
Dallas's pass defense won't make it easy on Rodgers Sunday, either—its a top-five unit and has put the clamps on three straight opponents, most recently Washington. Of course, playing dominant defense is about the only chance the Cowboys have these days. Their own offense is a ship without its captain, as Tony Romo continues to sit.
New England at Houston (8:30 p.m. ET, NBC)
The Texans' recent hot streak (Week 13 aside) and the Patriots' mini-slump cranks up the intrigue for Sunday night. A New England loss would be its third straight, marking its longest losing streak since 2002. Of all the stats showing Bill Belichick's team as a dynasty, that one may be the most ludicrous.
The two obvious health situations to watch: Rob Gronkowski, who is headed toward being a game-time decision with a knee injury, and J.J. Watt, who broke his hand this week in practice. Watt will suit up, but he uses his hands so effectively—both attacking linemen and swatting down passes—that this could be a lingering issue.
Tom Brady endured a miserable Week 13 without Gronk and several other weapons. The Texans are nothing to write home about offensively themselves, yet they have a chance to get the run game going Sunday. New England has allowed back-to-back 100-yard games; Houston has topped the century mark three consecutive times.
New York Giants at Miami (8:30 p.m. ET Monday, ESPN)
If you have either of these teams figured out, congratulations! You're a liar.
There is slightly less mystery when it comes to Miami, which has established itself as a below-average team capable of above-average performances. The Giants are a tougher riddle. They're just 5–7 and, outside of the Eli Manning-to-Odell Beckham Jr. connection, are not particularly noteworthy in any area. And yet they are a few fourth-quarter plays away from being 10–2.
The Dolphins only seem to win when they wholeheartedly commit to the run, which runs counterintuitive to this matchup against the Giants' 32nd-ranked pass defense. Ryan Tannehill threw for all of 82 yards in a Week 13 win over Baltimore. He ought to at least triple that total Monday night.
Lock of the week
Chicago (-3) vs. Washington. Tough to back the Bears given their Soldier Field issues, not to mention after that loss to San Francisco. That said, they have been very good against the pass in 11 of their 12 games. Add that success to Washington's struggles finding a run game, and you have Kirk Cousins in a bunch of difficult down-and-distance spots. The Redskins cannot win like that.
Upset of the week
Pittsburgh (+3) at Cincinnati. The Bengals' Week 11, 34–31 loss to Arizona was an outlier in an extended stretch of excellent defensive play. The run started with a shutdown performance against Roethlisberger on Nov. 1. The Pittsburgh personnel is the same, but that offense is playing an entirely different level than it was for the earlier matchup with Cincinnati.
Expect some fireworks here, with Roethlisberger leading a late drive to pull off a victory.
Tecmo upset of the week
We’re simulating the entire 2015 season using updated rosters on the classic Tecmo Super Bowl video game. (Download the game at TecmoBowl.org.) Each week, we will spotlight the most surprising result:
This is the second time that Tecmo has had the Chargers knocking off the Chiefs. The Alex Smith outburst hit a serious wall here, with San Diego somehow holding him under 50 yards of passing.
NFL draft watch
Using the current order, here's a quick look at how the top five might go down if the draft were held this weekend:
1. Cleveland: Joey Bosa, DE, Ohio State. Still too early to believe the Browns will bail on the Johnny Manziel project, especially with so much uncertainty at coach and GM for 2016. Adding Bosa to 2015 first-rounder Danny Shelton might allow Cleveland to finally fix its defensive front.
2. Tennessee: Laremy Tunsil, OT, Ole Miss. Gotta protect Marcus Mariota. Taylor Lewan has been much better in year two than he was as a rookie, but RT remains an issue. Swing Lewan to that side, drop in Tunsil at LT and go.
3. San Diego: Robert Nkemdiche, DT, Ole Miss. Offensive line makes some sense, but the Chargers simply getting healthy on that side of the ball would fix a lot of issues. On the other hand, they do not have anyone who worries opposing O-lines up front. Nkemdiche would change that.
4. Jacksonville: Jalen Ramsey, CB/S, Florida State. Two local prospects, Ramsey and Florida CB Vernon Hargreaves, will be in the top-10 mix. Either would give the Jaguars a much-needed influx of playmaking ability. Ramsey's versatility gives him an edge here.
5. Baltimore: Vernon Hargreaves, CB, Florida. Hargreaves doesn't wait long. The Ravens are boxed in on Lardarius Webb and Jimmy Smith's contract, but they're still in need of more DB help—doubly so in a division featuring the explosive Cincinnati and Pittsburgh offenses.