Has the dearth of quality quarterbacking ever been more apparent in the NFL? It’s Week 16 and we might be watching a parade of reserve quarterbacks take the field in the coming days: Ryan Mallett or Jimmy Clausen in Baltimore; Kellen Moore for the Cowboys; Brandon Weeden for the Texans, Zach Mettenberger in Tennessee; Matt Flynn or Garrett Grayson in New Orleans; A.J. McCarron for the Bengals; more Matt Hasselbeck for the Colts; to go with Blaine Gabbert, Case Keenum, Johnny Manziel and Brock Osweiler, of course.
Teams like Houston and Dallas might be starting their fourth different passers this week, with the likes of Weeden, Mallett, Clausen and Moore possibly playing after being signed off the street not too long ago. It’s an arms race in reverse.
Little wonder some of the best teams in the league have been one-starting-quarterback clubs this season, with New England, Seattle, Kansas City, Carolina, Arizona and Green Bay having stability at the game’s most crucial position. Just ask Dallas, Indianapolis and St. Louis how much consistency at quarterback can mean to the outcome of a season.
The results in most cases have been as ugly as expected for the quarterbacks pressed into No. 1 roles. And there could be plenty more patchwork efforts unfolding this week. Now on to this week’s picks.....
• Last week: 11–5; Season: 144–80 (.643).
• Best pick in Week 15: Pittsburgh 27, Denver 17 (Actual score: Steelers 34–27).
• Worst pick in Week 15: Philadelphia 27, Arizona 24 (Actual score: Cardinals 40–17).
Now that my grand vision of how the NFC East race would play out, which I laid out before Week 14 unfolded, has gone off the rails with that Arizona rout of Philadelphia last Sunday night, you’d think I’d be down on the Eagles and riding Washington’s wholly unexpected title-bound train. Except I still think Chip Kelly’s club somehow comes out of this debacle of a division with a so-ugly-it’s-beautiful 8–8 record and a little display of champagne spraying in the locker room in Week 17. I love the Kirk Cousins story this season, and his league-best 69.7 completion percentage and team-record six 300-yard passing games are proof that quarterbacking talent is in the eye of the beholder come draft time. But Washington’s 1–5 road record is still the key to how this story ends, and at Philadelphia and at Dallas in the final two weeks spells trouble for Jay Gruden’s guys.
I’m not foolish enough to pick against the Panthers two weeks in a row, especially after watching in person as Carolina dismantled Atlanta 38–0 two weeks ago in Charlotte. But still, the Panthers defense letting that 28-point lead evaporate in the second half against the Giants was evidence that Carolina’s invincibility can be challenged. The Panthers don’t need pre-game props or smack-talking practice-squad players to distract them from their mission at this point. If they play their game, that will be plenty good enough to handle the 7–7 Falcons, who are in danger of becoming the NFL’s first team to ever start 5–0 and finish with a losing record.
Here’s how much offensive talent the Steelers have on hand this year: They’ve scored an average of 35 points per game after all-everything running back Le’Veon Bell suffered a season-ending injury. No matter if it’s Ryan Mallett or Jimmy Clausen starting for the Ravens, this will not be the typical smash-mouth, down-to-the-wire Pittsburgh-Baltimore game we’ve become accustomed to over the past decade-plus.
For a pair of teams that thought they were playoff-bound in 2015, this long and defeat-strewn season can’t end soon enough. Rex Ryan is right: There are some pretty major changes coming in Buffalo. The big question is, will Ryan himself be a part of them? Bills owner Terry Pegula learned a valuable lesson in his first full season running the organization. Off-season hype usually gets exposed for the hot air it is once the fall arrives. For a coach who has now gone five consecutive seasons without a playoff trip, Ryan needs to stop talking about making the postseason and, you know, make the postseason.
These clubs were both NFC playoff teams multiple times in the past five seasons, but that probably feels like eons ago about now in San Francisco and Detroit. Coaches Jim Tomsula and Jim Caldwell are both on the hot seat to some degree and probably feeling the pressure, but I’m guessing they’re not going to mix it up in the post-game like their predecessors, Jim Harbaugh and Jim Schwartz, did so famously at Ford Field in 2011.
How is it that the Chiefs are a better team without Jamaal Charles than they were with him? Kansas City leads the NFL in rushing since Charles went down with a knee injury in Week 5. The Chiefs can wrap up a playoff spot with a win over the downtrodden Browns and a Jets loss to the Patriots, and what a remarkable turn of events that would be, from 1–5 to having a postseason berth sewn up with a week left in the regular season. If this isn’t Andy Reid’s best coaching job ever in his 17 seasons as the top guy, it’s darn close.
Could it really be time to administer Matt Hasselbeck’s weekly beating already? Why can’t Charlie Whitehurst take his turn behind that Colts offensive line? This year in Indianapolis serves as yet another cautionary tale about the wisdom of framing any season as Super Bowl or bust. Because it usually busts.
The Jets’ first double-digit win season since 2010 is within sight, and that’s a measure of success few foresaw after last season’s 4–12 crash landing. The Patriots no doubt view New York as one of the more dangerous teams that could potentially be an opponent in the AFC playoffs. But not if New England takes care of business on Sunday in MetLife Stadium, wrapping up the No. 1 seed in the process. It’ll be close, because it’s always close with the Jets and Patriots, but Tom Brady and Co. will find a way to get the W and improve to a gaudy 13–2.
Adding to the never-ending misery that Browns fans live with, Houston’s Brandon Weeden might be going to the playoffs as a starting quarterback. Unless Brian Hoyer does. Either way, Cleveland loses again. At least some things can be counted on in the NFL.
There’s nothing on the line in this one except Bucs head coach Lovie Smith getting the chance to remind the Bears that they haven’t done much of anything since firing him on the heels of a 10–6 season in 2012. The Bucs were sleep-walking through most of their game in St. Louis last Thursday night, but they’ll be wide awake and ready to roll for this revenge game.
There are five games this weekend pitting teams that have virtually nothing to play for, and this is one of them, even though the Jaguars remain alive mathematically. But wins are still very precious to Gus Bradley’s improving Jaguars, and I expect Blake Bortles to have a productive game against a Saints secondary that is a last line of defense in name only. If Drew Brees doesn’t play due to his torn plantar fascia, we’ll be treated to either Matt Flynn or Garrett Grayson as the Saints quarterback. And the NFL’s backup brigade rolls on.
The Cardinals are probably going to stay locked into the NFC’s No. 2 seed and the Packers still look like the best bet to earn the conference’s third seed, meaning we could get a rematch of this game back in Glendale in the divisional round. If that produced another instant classic like Arizona’s 51–45 overtime thriller over Green Bay in 2009—Kurt Warner’s final victory—all the better for us.
The Rams are feeling good about themselves with two wins in a row, but Seattle owns a five-game winning streak and has its 2013–14-style swagger back. St. Louis upset the Seahawks at home in Week 1, but nobody seems capable of beating Russell Wilson in Seattle about now. The Seahawks need to keep winning to earn the No. 5 seed that will bring a first-round playoff date at the lowly fourth-seeded NFC East champion.
Bench him like Beckham is the NFL’s mantra of the week, and for once the league office got it right. The Giants could be totally deflated and eliminated from the playoff chase by kickoff Sunday night, if Washington wins at Philadelphia on Saturday night. The Vikings might not have anything to play for either, because they would wrap up a playoff slot if either the Falcons lose at home to Carolina on Sunday afternoon, or the Seahawks beat the Rams. I like all three of those scenarios to unfold, rendering this game rather meaningless.
Six teams have locked up half of the NFL’s 12 playoff berths so far, and there’s not a real surprise among them, given that all of them made the playoffs last year, too: Carolina, Arizona, Green Bay and Seattle in the NFC; New England and Cincinnati in the AFC. Denver and Pittsburgh can both join that group of repeat playoff qualifiers this week, which would assure the league of at least a 66 percent postseason return rate (if Indy somehow advances, it would be 9 of 12). The Broncos and Bengals, however, both desperately need this game. Cincinnati is after the first-round bye that would give quarterback Andy Dalton more time to heal, and Denver is trying to both hold off the hard-charging Chiefs in the AFC West and earn its own first-round bye, giving Peyton Manning and Brock Osweiler an extra week to rest and recover. The last game to be played in the 2015 calendar year might be one of the best of the season.
The Rams looked good and won their potential last home game in St. Louis last Thursday night, and then the Chargers followed suit at home on Sunday against Miami in the game that might have ended their 55-season run in San Diego. So I don’t see how anyone could possibly pick against the Raiders in what could be their final home game in the Coliseum, because there’s obviously karmic forces in play here. But there’s a lot of last-time scenarios in this matchup. Having announced his retirement plans, Raiders defensive back Charles Woodson is playing for the last time in front of Oakland fans to close out his extraordinary career. Then there’s the Chargers and Raiders—potential stadium mates next year in Los Angeles—who could be facing off for the last time as AFC West rivals. Call it the Goodbye Bowl, and give me the Silver and Black to win at least seven games for the first time since 2011’s 8–8 mark.