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 15’s games. Plus, one lock and one upset of the week, a NFL draft watch, and, of course, a Tecmo prediction.
But first, some commentary on a pressing issue in the NFL.
A little more than a month ago on our site, I wrote about how our undying obsession with the NFL—the attendance, the merchandise sales and, most of all, the TV ratings—has allowed the league to get by with a mediocre product.
So I run the risk here of both revealing myself as a hypocrite and enabling the problem. But ...
It’s not that bad.
Sure, the issues mentioned in that earlier piece still hold true. Officiating is an absolute train wreck, to the point that Dean Blandino will be able to talk with referees during playoff games, presumably so he can whisper, “It’s not your fault” over and over again. Quarterback play is still subpar, too, as will be on display in several stadiums this week. Offensive lines? Poor. Defensive backs? Not much better, and in large part unable to stay with their assignments due to the league’s desire to free up receivers.
The AFC South and NFC East both feature multi-team, sub-.500 ties for first—an 8–8 finish almost would get it done either spot. And 21 of the league’s 32 teams are below .500 right now.
All of those elements fall under the discussion raised in November, that of the league’s lack of interest in fixing its problems.
However, take a glance at what’s happening toward the top of the league. The Panthers are 13–0, led by the leading MVP, Coach of the Year and Defensive Player of the Year candidates. The Patriots, through all their injuries, still boast arguably the greatest quarterback ever, the league’s top tight end, a brilliant coaching staff and an 11–2 record. Denver’s defense is phenomenal. Pittsburgh’s offense might have gone down as an all-time great had its QB stayed healthy all year. Arizona is dynamic on both sides of the ball, and division rival Seattle is rolling again. Then we have the Bengals, sitting at 10–3, and the Jets, Chiefs, Packers and Vikings.
The 2015 season is far from the NFL’s finest moment overall, but it’s not a stretch to say that the teams near the top stack up well against the league’s best offerings in recent years.
This is something of a personal counseling session here, because my stance since September has been that the NFL has oversaturated the market with slop, much like how you can’t turn the channel without finding a derivative cooking competition or nonsensical hospital drama (thanks for nothing, Grey’s Anatomy).
There is truth in that argument still, leaving open the possibility that my opinion has been clouded by playoff fever or the holiday spirit or glass of bourbon I’ll pour when I’m finished writing. But the league’s much talked-about parity is in its below-average teams; the NFL's strength lies in what is happening near the top of the standings.
Good football is being played, so long as we know where to look for it.
And with that, time to spin our wheels forward into Week 15 ...
Here are four players I’ll be keeping a close watch on this week ...
1. Byron Jones, DB, Cowboys: Jones has yet to record an interception and he didn’t take over as a starter until a few games into the season, so the Defensive Rookie of the Year odds are stacked well against him. He deserves to be a bigger part of the conversation, though.
The No. 27 pick in last year’s draft has been invaluable for a very good Cowboys secondary, playing heavy minutes at safety while also offering help at corner (outside and in the slot). He will start at CB this week if Morris Claiborne cannot go, which means he could see even more of Brandon Marshall or Eric Decker than he otherwise would. Even if Claiborne plays, the Cowboys might opt to drop Jones into the slot over top of Decker.
Dallas’s coaches sound like they eventually want to keep Jones at one specific position, but his versatility thus far has been Devin McCourty-like.
“You like grooving guys into a spot,” defensive coordinator Rod Marinelli said, via the Dallas Morning News. “But it’s where we are right now and he’s been big for us in terms of being a rock, playing corner as well as safety and nickel.”
2. Michael Schofield, OT, Broncos: Absolutely brutal Week 14 for Schofield, who found himself playing the role of punching bag for Oakland’s Khalil Mack. He will have his hands (not quite as) full this week, as Pittsburgh drops rookie OLB Bud Dupree into the starting lineup for the first time.
Dupree will set up opposite Schofield’s right tackle spot. Because of the Steelers’ talented DEs (Cam Heyward and Stephon Tuitt), plus the extra attention usually rolled James Harrison’s way, Schofield will find himself in many a one-on-one matchup.
No Denver lineman has allowed more sacks (seven) or hurries (28) than Schofield this season, yet he has not been as bad as the Mack buzzsaw made him look. How he and QB Brock Osweiler bounce back will be critical.
3. Stefon Diggs, WR, Vikings: Minnesota’s rookie receiver averaged 104.8 yards over his first four appearances in Weeks 4 through 8. He has topped 50 yards in just one game since, as defenses continue to pay extra attention to him. Last week, it was Arizona standout Patrick Peterson responsible for Diggs coverage.
“Well, particularly this last game, they put a really good player on him and contained him pretty well,” Minnesota offensive coordinator Norv Turner said.
Diggs’s last big game came on Nov. 1, when he caught six passes for 95 yards and a touchdown in a 23–20 win at Chicago. This week, he again draws the Bears, who are coming off back-to-back shaky outings vs. San Francisco and Washington. The Vikings’ offense has slumped, in concert with Diggs’s struggles, so except Turner and Teddy Bridgewater to do what they can to get Diggs rolling Sunday.
4. Rashad Johnson, S, Cardinals (or his replacement): Johnson has been hindered by an ankle injury in practice this week. Should the issue linger into Sunday’s matchup with the Eagles, the Cardinals could be without their starting safety for just the fourth time since 2010. In any week such a setback would loom large, but that’s particularly true with Arizona prepping for Philadelphia’s high-paced offense.
“I don’t want to imagine life without Rashad behind us, as a secondary,” the aforementioned Peterson told AZCentral.com. “He’s the one who gets everyone in line, who calls out the plays, who understands the flow of the game.”
The Eagles will test the Cardinals’ communication as it is. Without question, the pendulum would swing in Philadelphia’s favor a bit if Bruce Arians has to make adjustments sans Johnson. Arizona does have pieces it can mix-and-match, led by Tyrann Mathieu, but needing one of those pieces to take Johnson’s spot would limit the creativity elsewhere.
Breaking It Down
A deeper dive into the Week 15 matchups ...
New York Jets at Dallas (Saturday, 8:25 p.m. ET, NFLN)
Can we all just agree to boycott Cowboys games until they start someone other than Matt Cassel at QB? Kellen Moore reportedly has been seeing more time with the first-team offense this week, but Cassel is slated for yet another start. This one, in the NFL’s first Saturday night game of the season.
Ryan Fitzpatrick, Marshall, Decker and, of late, RB Bilal Powell have juiced up the Jets’ passing attack this season. But there's no doubt that offensive coordinator Chan Gailey paid close attention last Sunday as the Packers ran roughshod over Dallas’s front seven (230 yards and two TDs). Go ahead and track Byron Jones in the secondary, but count on Chris Ivory seeing a large dose of carries.
Interest level (out of 10): 4. Cassel’s neverending story aside, the Jets are in a dogfight with the Chiefs and Steelers for an AFC wild-card spot. They need to win this game.
Chicago at Minnesota (1 p.m. ET, FOX)
The Bears’ inside linebackers are struggling, which is about the last thing they need headed into a matchup with Adrian Peterson. While Shea McClellin mostly has delivered a solid season overall, both he and Christian Jones have hit a wall in recent weeks—Jones so much so that he has coughed up playing time to undrafted rookie Jonathan Anderson.
Chicago cannot win Sunday if it does not keep Peterson somewhat in check. Peterson rushed for 103 yards on 20 carries back in a Week 8 win over the Bears, but he did not crack a run of more than 12 yards. The Bears will be up against it trying to do as well or better than that.
Their hopes will rest with Jay Cutler if they cannot. He’s in the midst of a strong year under offensive coordinator Adam Gase, but he also came up shy on a trio of fourth-quarter possessions last week, with Chicago down three.
Interest level: 6. Every game between these teams since 2013 has been of the one-possession variety. Expect another close one.
Kansas City at Baltimore (1 p.m. ET, CBS)
The Ravens opened their final homestand of the season by surrendering 424 yards and 35 points in a blowout loss to Seattle. Given how the Chiefs’ offense has played of late (a rain-soaked 10–3 win over San Diego aside), it’s hard to imagine Baltimore getting enough stops, or generating enough offense with a banged-up Matt Schaub at QB, to hang in this one.
Interest level: 2. The Ravens can play spoiler, but ... how are they going to do so?
Carolina at New York Giants (1 p.m. ET, FOX)
Are the Giants primed to spoil another perfect season? The answer may depend on what Carolina’s injury report looks like Sunday. RB Jonathan Stewart already has been ruled out and TE Greg Olsen has been limited in practice, so the 13–0 Panthers have to decide if they want to pump the brakes. They can lose a game and maintain control of their own destiny for the NFC’s No. 1 seed.
Odell Beckham Jr. vs. Josh Norman will be among the best head-to-head matchups of the season. That is, if it happens. Tom Coughlin hinted about using Beckham primarily out of the slot, and it’s true that Norman almost never drops inside.
But given their own defensive woes, the Giants’ true key lies in establishing their run game. They simply cannot be out on the field for extended periods, whether Olsen plays or not. Coughlin had remained committed to Andre Williams in a running back timeshare with Rashad Jennings, Shane Vereen and Orleans Darkwa. However, it’s obvious that a Jennings-Vereen combo, with Darkwa handling a few touches, is the way to go.
Interest level: 10. Can the Panthers stay undefeated? Are the Giants about to swipe the NFC East title? This could be a gem.
Buffalo at Washington (1 p.m. ET, FOX)
Kirk Cousins & Co. lost a bit of their home mystique by dropping a Week 13 Monday nighter vs. Dallas. Bouncing back to win in Chicago kept Washington tied atop the NFC East, and the home finale is a must-have.
Will the Redskins’ pass rush be able to get home against the elusive Tyrod Taylor? For all his speed Taylor has been sacked on 7.8% of his dropbacks, seventh worst of any regular starting QB. Washington ranks just 28th in sacks (24 in 13 games), so something has to give here.
Interest level: 6. While the Bills are all but buried in the AFC playoff race, Washington still controls its own destiny in the NFC East. It cannot drop another home game.
Atlanta at Jacksonville (1 p.m. ET, FOX)
Ugh ... Atlanta. What happened, man? The Falcons are about as entertaining right now as one of those Hallmark Channel Christmas movies (there was one on the other night where Judd Nelson played Santa. Judd Nelson!)
Jacksonville has scored a combined 100 points over the past two weeks and somehow gone just 1-1. An up-tempo shootout might be just the ticket for the Falcons’ Julio Jones to break out of his ongoing slide. He has not topped 100 yards since Week 11 and hasn’t scored since Week 8. But he also drew Josh Norman last Sunday (seven catches on 10 targets for 88 yards), so this will feel like a bit of a break.
Interest level: 3. This shapes up as a fun one, and Jacksonville remains in the AFC South hunt, but odds are that both teams are headed home in three weeks.
Houston at Indianapolis (1 p.m, ET, CBS)
For as much as this crucial AFC South battle boils down to the quarterbacks (T.J. Yates for Houston and likely Matt Hasselbeck for Indianapolis), there is something to be said for the coaching matchups. Chuck Pagano could cool his seat by outmaneuvering Bill O’Brien here, in the process pushing the Colts within an eyelash of the division crown.
The best coaching head-to-head: Colts’ O.C. Rob Chudzinski vs. Texans’ D.C. Romeo Crennel. Houston’s defense was on an incredible roll prior to losses to Buffalo and New England. Crennel still has the benefit of unleashing J.J. Watt, whom former Colts coordinator Pep Hamilton neutralized, with Hasselbeck as his QB, during an earlier Indianapolis win over Houston. How will Chudzinski stop the Texans’ front?
Interest level: 9. Neither team has the look of a playoff contender. This is still a potential division-deciding showdown.
Tennessee at New England (1 p.m. ET, CBS)
Two of the Offensive Rookie of the Year frontrunners, Jameis Winston and Todd Gurley, squared off Thursday night. Tennessee QB Marcus Mariota has stormed back into the race again, and he could make a major statement by throwing up some numbers against New England.
“I think he’s done a good job,” Bill Belichick said of Mariota. “He’s hitting a lot of passes, hasn’t turned the ball over a lot, has had his share of touchdown passes, makes his share of big plays, reads coverages. I think you see him throwing the ball to the right spot.”
As for the game itself, well, it’s arguably the worst team in football against a Super Bowl favorite. So ...............
Interest level: 3. The Patriots are back in the AFC driver’s seat, and they won’t let up against Tennessee. Mariota’s performance will be worth watching nonetheless.
Cleveland at Seattle (4:05 p.m. FOX)
Oh no. At last check Seattle was a 14.5-point favorite, and that seems generous. Johnny Manziel vs. the Seahawks’ defense makes for intrigue, although the greater storyline is in how the defending NFC champs replace Thomas Rawls and Marshawn Lynch in the backfield.
Interest level: 2. Manziel will make a play here or there; the backups could be in for Seattle by the third quarter.
Green Bay at Oakland (4:05 p.m. ET, FOX)
May not seem like it at first glance, but this legitimately is one of the better matchups of the weekend. The Raiders just put the clamps on Denver’s offense, and Green Bay is still trying to find its identity with a limited receiving corps.
Two pass catchers to watch when Green Bay has the ball: James Jones, who as a Packer again has more than doubled the yards-per-catch average he posted alongside Derek Carr last year (18.9 to 9.1); and TE Richard Rodgers, who is tied with Jones the Packers’ leader in receiving TDs (seven) and could add to the Raiders’ misery covering opposing tight ends.
Interest level: 8. Definite upset potential here. The Raiders will need more from their offense to pull it off—Oakland posted just 126 total yards vs. Denver.
Cincinnati at San Francisco (4:25 p.m. ET, CBS)
If T.J. Yates vs. Matt Hasselbeck doesn’t do it for ya, may I offer up A.J. McCarron vs. Blaine Gabbert? Wait, where are you going? Come back!
Interest level: 2. The Bengals would love to keep pushing for a first-round bye. One win over the final three weeks ought to be enough to wrap the AFC North, though, so this is all about finding McCarron a comfort zone.
Miami at San Diego (4:25 p.m. ET, CBS)
This could be the last home game the Chargers ever play in San Diego, pending what happens with the Los Angeles relocation talks. It’d be nice to see Philip Rivers put up one more dazzling showing for the home fans, just in case.
Interest level: To quote Parks and Rec baller Tom Haverford, "One. Zero. Negative a billion. Don’t talk about it anymore, please."
Denver at Pittsburgh (4:25 p.m. ET, CBS)
From the Miami-San Diego snoozer to must-see football, at least when Pittsburgh has the ball. The Steelers boast the league’s hottest quarterback at the moment plus what is arguably the best receiving corps in football. Denver has a commanding league lead in pass defense, a nod to its brilliant secondary.
Already mentioned the Steelers’ pass rush vs. Brock Osweiler above. Similar story on the other side, where Marcus Gilbert will have to keep Von Miller in check. Gilbert has been overlooked in Pittsburgh’s offensive rise—he just allowed his first sack last week. He won’t keep Miller silent all game, but his play plus Roethlisberger’s improvisation will make life tough on the Broncos’ edge rusher.
Interest level: 10. Huge game in the AFC, and a phenomenal Xs-and-Os clash.
Arizona at Philadelphia (8:30 p.m. ET, NBC)
The Eagles have found their footing, just in time to draw a formidable challenge from the NFC West leaders. The two looming questions to their chances here: 1) Can the defense maintain its recent momentum against Arizona’s potent attack; and 2) How will Sam Bradford react if the Cardinals’ fluid defense manages to create confusion?
Philadelphia has held just one of its past six opponents under 100 yards rushing, and Miami finished with 99 yards in that game. Since taking over as Arizona’s starting back, David Johnson has posted 99- and 92-yard performances, setting the stage for his first outing in the triple digits. There is little to indicate the Eagles can slow him down.
Interest level: 8. On paper, the Eagles’ defense is in massive trouble here, meaning that Bradford has to deliver when his team has the ball. Bruce Arians vs. Chip Kelly in a match of wits? I’d watch that pretty much anywhere—"Jeopardy!", trivia night at the bar, locker room chess match. I’m definitely in Sunday.
Detroit at New Orleans (Monday, 8:30 p.m. ET, ESPN)
These teams played a thriller last year, with Detroit scoring two TDs in the final 3:38 to knock off New Orleans. Both also had playoff aspirations back in training camp, so ESPN has to be disappointed the Monday nighter is such a dud in terms of playoff significance.
Perhaps the most underrated clash of Week 15 is Detroit’s emerging star corner Darius Slay up against Willie Snead, Brandin Cooks or whichever Saints receiver is on his side. Drew Brees won’t shy away from the matchup if he wants to take a shot.
Interest level: 3. May as well have the possibility of a shootout if there is not postseason drama on the line.
Lock of the Week
New Orleans (-3) over Detroit. Continuing on with that game ... hard to ever bet against the Saints in a prime-time matchup. They also played well in Tampa Bay last week, while Detroit waved the white flag vs. St. Louis. New Orleans’ offense is far more trustworthy than Detroit’s, even with Cootermania at the helm.
Upset of the Week
Oakland (+3) over Green Bay. Tough closing stretch for the Packers, who go to Arizona next week and then host Minnesota in Week 17. Their receivers should find some space, finally, but can the O-line keep Aaron Rodgers upright? Oakland is due for a bit of an offensive breakout.
Mock 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. Tennessee (3–10): Laremy Tunsil, OT, Ole Miss. The Titans don’t need a quarterback, so this all kind of falls into place. Tunsil or Ronnie Stanley would do wonders for the line.
2. Cleveland (3–10): Joey Bosa, DE, Ohio State. Again, I’m of the belief that Cleveland will give Manziel more time, so time to fix the defense. The front is far too problematic to pass on a player of Bosa’s caliber.
3. San Diego (3–10): Ronnie Stanley, OT, Notre Dame. San Diego might have more pressing needs but after another season watching its O-line crumble, passing on the talented tackle would be a mistake.
4. Baltimore (4–9): Jalen Ramsey, S/CB, Florida State. Anyone who has read my draft coverage thus far knows how high I am on Ramsey. The Ravens need an infusion of talent in the secondary, and Ramsey can help in multiple roles.
5. San Francisco (4–9): Jared Goff, QB. No idea what order teams will place the QB prospects. In my mind, Goff’s the top guy by a solid margin.
Each week, I’ll take to Twitter to take the readers’ pulse on a pressing NFL issue.
This week’s question wondered which star will take home Defensive Player of the Year. More than 600 people responded, including some write-in votes for the Jets’ Muhammed Wilkerson and the Raiders’ Khalil Mack, who is leading the league in sacks.
The winner, though ...
Who gets your Defensive Player of the Year vote?— Chris Burke (@ChrisBurke_SI) December 16, 2015
A little surprised to see the love, however deserving, for Aaron Donald over J.J. Watt. Perhaps the Watt spotlight has worn people down, but he’s having another remarkable season. Hard to argue against Norman, though. He would be my pick right now, too.
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:
Well, the Tecmo Simulator 3000 says the Panthers’ undefeated run is about to be over, mainly because the Giants are going to carve up their formidable defense. Such an outcome seemed less likely before Eli Manning went off in a Week 13 win at Miami. And yes, we know that TE Larry Donnell is on the IR, but Tecmo’s roster options are limited. Just pretend he’s Will Tye.