First Down/Fourth Down: Debating Coach and Offensive Rookie of the Year
Chip Kelly could have a case in Philadelphia and there may be an argument out there for Miami's Joe Philbin, but with two weeks (and one game, Monday night's tilt between Detroit and Baltimore) left in the NFL regular season, the Coach of the Year race appears to be down to three names: Ron Rivera, Andy Reid and Bruce Arians.
Picking between them will be a near impossible task.
All three were victorious Sunday -- Rivera's Panthers against the Jets, Reid's Chiefs against the Raiders and Arians' Cardinals at Tennessee. Arians' win may have been the most impressive, with the Cardinals bouncing back after blowing a 14-point lead very late to win in overtime and keep their playoff hopes alive.
His Arizona team is now 9-5 after finishing 5-11 last season. The problem both for Arians' COY chances and the Cardinals' playoff hopes is that they could finish 11-5, replete with wins over Seattle and San Francisco to close the season, and still miss the playoffs.
That will not be the case for Kansas City or, most likely, Carolina. The Chiefs clinched a playoff berth Sunday with their 11th win, already a nine-win turnaround from 2012. Though their defense has slipped a bit in recent weeks, Reid's squad still ranks in the top five in points scored and fewest points allowed. Last season, under Romeo Crennel, Kansas City finished dead last on offense.
Rivera's Panthers have yet to lock up a playoff bid, but they need just one win over the season's final two weeks (or one Arizona loss) to do so. A win over New Orleans this coming Sunday would give them the NFC South lead heading into Week 17. Carolina has not won the division -- nor has it finished above .500 -- since 2008.
Three deserving candidates. Three really good teams.
More from Week 15:
• First Down: The Offensive Rookie of the Year race.
Speaking of awards ... here's another gem of a debate. It's tough to figure who has the edge here between Green Bay running back Eddie Lacy (141 yards, one touchdown in an incredible comeback win) and San Diego wide receiver Keenan Allen (two TD grabs in a Thursday win at Denver).
Lacy barreled up over the 1,000-yard mark for the season this week -- no small task given that Green Bay's leading rusher in 2012, Alex Green, topped out at 464 yards. Both with and without Aaron Rodgers in the lineup, Lacy has been one of the Packers' steadiest weapons.
Allen, meanwhile, needs only 69 more yards receiving to hit 1,000 himself. He's scored four touchdowns combined over the past two weeks, while claiming the role of Philip Rivers' go-to receiver. Allen somehow slipped all the way into the third round of last year's draft, as questions about his health lingered. San Diego's reaping the benefits of that fall.
If I had a vote to give, I'd probably cast it for Allen right now. But there's no wrong answer here.
• Fourth Down: The NFC East.
Ugly. The East posted a brutal 0-4 mark on Sunday, capped off by Dallas' epic collapse against Green Bay. That result allowed the now 8-6 Eagles to hold onto first place despite allowing 48 points to Matt Cassel and the Vikings.
Washington actually had a shot to avoid its sixth straight loss in spite of seven turnovers, only for Kirk Cousins' two-point conversion attempt to sail incomplete out of the end zone. And the Giants? On a day which featured the most points for any single NFL afternoon, they were shut out by the Seahawks.
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• First Down: Matt Cassel and Matt Asiata.
The Vikings are playing for nothing but pride (and draft position), and they suited up without running backs Adrian Peterson and Toby Gerhart. None of that stopped them from putting forth an inspired performance against the playoff-hungry Eagles.
Cassel did enough in a 382-yard, two-touchdown outing to at least keep his name in the mix for Minnesota's QB job next season. His story is nothing compared to Asiata, though. Making his first career start, Asiata, who entered Sunday with three NFL carries, scored three touchdowns.
• Fourth Down: Kevin Huber.
Huber, the Bengals punter, missed the final three quarters of Sunday night's loss in Pittsburgh. The first quarter was bad enough to last him.
And that was nothing compared to what happened on a Huber punt later in the quarter. As Pittsburgh's Antonio Brown broke free for a TD return, Huber was blasted by a blocking Terence Garvin. The collision, with Garvin's helmet slamming into Huber's chin, was violent enough to fracture Huber's jaw.
• First Down: Robert Mathis.
With one sack of Case Keenum on Sunday, Robert Mathis entered his name twice into the Colts' record books. That sack gave Mathis 16.5 for the season and 108 for his career, topping Dwight Freeney's previous franchise records in both categories. After a torrid start to 2013, Mathis has fallen off the pace of Michael Strahan's single-season sack mark (22.5). He's still having a career year at age 32.
• Fourth Down: The Saints.
"Much has been written about how we play on the road and how we play at home," Saints coach Sean Payton said after a disheartening 27-16 loss in St. Louis. "And you know what? That is where it is right now, with this season."
The game was not even as competitive as that final score indicates -- the Saints trailed 27-3 after three quarters. All four of New Orleans' losses this season have come away from home, with a division-deciding trip to Carolina looming next Sunday. Lose that one, and the Saints likely would have to win three road games in the playoffs to make the Super Bowl. Even with a victory, there's a very strong chance they'll have to go into Seattle and claim a win at some point. Right now, this team doesn't look capable of such an accomplishment.
• First Down: Jamaal Charles' fantasy owners.
If you fall into this category and were still alive in your league, congratulations: You probably won this week. Charles scored five total touchdowns, with eight catches and 195 yards receiving. That's good for upwards of 50 fantasy points, depending on your scoring system.
Incredibly, Charles had more points scored (30) than he did yards rushing (20). Knile Davis led the Chiefs on the ground with 34 yards and a TD of his own.
• Fourth Down: Coaches on the hot seat.
At the opposite end of the spectrum from Rivera, Reid and Arians lie the likes of Dennis Allen, Mike Shanahan, Rex Ryan, Mike Munchak, Greg Schiano and Jason Garrett. That sextet of coaches may have to argue for their jobs in the coming weeks, and Sunday's combined 0-6 showing won't help.
Garrett's loss may be the most damaging, even though Cowboys owner Jerry Jones reportedly reiterated that he has no plans to change head coaches. Dallas blew a 23-point halftime lead at home, thanks to some shaky play calling down the stretch. Garrett then blamed Tony Romo for a late audible, which led to an INT; and he passed the buck on some earlier pass plays to offensive coordinator Bill Callahan.
Allen's prospects have taken the most sudden turn of that group. The Raiders once were 3-4 this season and playing surprisingly competitive football. Sunday's loss marked their fourth straight and sixth in seven games. The 56 points allowed to Kansas City will not sit well with anyone.
• First Down: Colin Kaepernick.
Kaepernick started the season by torching Green Bay for 412 yards and three touchdowns. He has not approached those numbers in any game since, even slumping for a lengthy stretch. As the 49ers push for the playoffs, however, Kaepernick has found his stride again.
Sunday in Tampa Bay, he threw for 203 yards and two touchdowns -- one an absolutely brilliant deep ball to Vernon Davis. The 49ers are as healthy as they've been all season on offense and no team will want to draw them in the playoffs.
• Fourth Down: Case Keenum's chances of starting in 2014. Keenum delivered a jolt of electricity to the struggling Texans when he took over as starter, finishing his first three outings with seven TD passes and no interceptions. He has just two touchdowns (and six INTs) in the five games since, all losses -- part of a 12-game skid for Houston and an 0-8 mark for Keenum personally.