Cover-Two: Forecasting the returns of three displaced starting quarterbacks
Thanksgiving Day's trio of blowouts set the table for the rest of Week 13 and the final month of the regular season. Nearly every game from here on out could provide clarity to the muddled playoff picture or send a potential contender to the brink, while the teams outside the playoff hunt assess their personnel and diagnose what went wrong in an attempt to take as much information as possible into the offseason. In this week's Cover-Two, Chris Burke and Doug Farrar debate which of this week's three new starting quarterbacks will perform best in his return to a leading role, along with other pressing Week 13 topics.
Which newly-named starter will have the most success in Week 13: Colt McCoy, Geno Smith or Ryan Fitzpatrick?
Chris Burke: I don't think there is any question that the overall circumstances favor Fitzpatrick, who draws a home game against Tennessee, whereas McCoy travels to Indianapolis and Smith has to deal with Miami's tough defense.
Fitzpatrick also has the benefit of a run-heavy Bill O'Brien offense to take some of the heat off of him. He was far from perfect in his first stint as the Texans' starter, but Fitzpatrick did throw for 11 touchdowns and nearly 2,000 yards in his previous nine starts -- four of which were Houston wins.
The situations are far more problematic in Washington and New York, where we find two teams playing out the string before what likely will be major changes in the offseason.
The book is already out on what Smith can do for the Jets (and certainly on what he can't) under Rex Ryan and offensive coordinator Marty Mornhinweg. There is not much reason to think that Smith will star after a couple weeks riding the pine. Same goes for McCoy, though his presence does seem to lessen the pressure on the Redskins, if only because he's not Robert Griffin III. But the clear answer is Fitzpatrick.
Doug Farrar: McCoy was already playing pretty well when Robert Griffin III came back from his ankle injury -- certainly better than Kirk Cousins, who he replaced, and certainly better than Griffin over the last three games. McCoy has been through it since he was selected in the third round of the 2010 draft by the Cleveland Browns -- he's been a starter, he's been benched and deemed fungible, and he's bounced back. McCoy isn't a world-beater, but he's got a slightly better arm than people might think, and as Colts linebacker (and former Browns teammate) D'Qwell Jackson recently said, McCoy presents defenses with problems due to his surprising mobility.
"I know his tendencies a bit," Jackson said of McCoy, in preparation for Indy's game against the Redskins. "This system with the Redskins fits his talents. He’s able to move outside of the pocket, he can run the read-option. He’s a smart guy, so he’s going to know where to go with the football."
I'm far less convinced that Geno Smith won't be shell-shocked by the Jets' overall situation or that Fitzpatrick can reliably complete a pass that flies over 10 yards in the air. But McCoy? He's got the Colts thinking.
The Colts and Washington head coach Jay Gruden know that in a quarterback rotation that has turned into a bit of a disaster this season, McCoy is the best of a bad bunch.
Must-win watch: Which team is most in need of a win in Week 13?
Burke: Kansas City. Because of last Thursday's surprising loss in Oakland, the Chiefs' push to overtake Denver in the AFC West could give way to a spot outside the playoff picture rather quickly. They have a tenuous hold on the conference's No. 6 seed at the moment, but the Dolphins, Bills and entire AFC North are pushing hard.
A loss Sunday would leave Kansas City essentially three games back of Denver -- any tie in the standings at the end of the season then would go the Broncos' way on a head-to-head tiebreaker. The Chiefs also have visits to Arizona (Week 14) and Pittsburgh (Week 16) left, plus a regular-season finale against San Diego.
That's a tough finish, doubly so if the Chiefs find themselves needing to run the table for wild-card consideration.
Farrar: Cincinnati. The Bengals lead the AFC North with a 7-3-1 record, and that won't do much for them if they start dropping any games -- they have the Ravens, Steelers and Browns all right behind them at 7-4. Fortunately, Marvin Lewis' team has the 2-9 Buccaneers on Sunday, and although Tampa Bay can throw together the occasional competitive half, there are more than enough reasons to assume that their minus-93 point differential is no fluke. But if Cincy's defense doesn't step up and Andy Dalton's performance falls off a statistical cliff (two things we've seen in recent weeks), an upset might start a free-fall at the worst possible time. Cincinnati has the Steelers twice, the Broncos, and a Browns team that has already beaten it handily to conclude the regular season.
Matchup to watch in Week 13
Burke: Philip Rivers vs. the Ravens' pass defense. We're at the point in the NFL schedule where de facto elimination games start to pile up. Baltimore-San Diego could be one, especially if the Ravens win.
Both of these teams sit at 7-4 ahead of Week 13 -- the Ravens a half-game back of 7-3-1 Cincinnati in the AFC North, the Chargers back within a game of Denver in the AFC West. Were the playoffs to start today, it would be San Diego headed off to Cincinnati (again) as the No. 6 seed, while Baltimore sat home.
A loss on Sunday, however, might send the Chargers reeling. After this game, San Diego's final four games look like this: New England, Denver, at San Francisco, at Kansas City. If you're a glass-half-full kind of person, that's a chance to make some hay. If you're feeling less optimistic, the Chargers could be headed toward 9-7 or worse.
If San Diego a) wants to make the playoffs and b) has hopes of turning the Week 15 meeting with Denver into a fight for first place, it cannot afford a loss here. Baltimore has a little more leeway in its schedule, at least on the surface: at Miami, Jacksonville, at Houston, Cleveland. Yet any loss at this point threatens to bump the Ravens from the hotly contested AFC North race, particularly because they posted an 0-2 mark against Cincinnati.
Rivers has not passed for 300 yards once in the Chargers' last five games, a stretch that includes a three-game losing streak and two close wins over last-place teams in Oakland and St. Louis. He has a chance to return to his first-half form against the league's 29th-ranked pass defense.
Farrar: Rob Gronkowski vs. Clay Matthews. Matthews has been playing inside linebacker more often of late to compensate for injuries along Green Bay's defense. And in that regard, he could be a major boon to defensive coordinator Dom Capers when it comes to accomplishing the near-impossible: covering Rob Gronkowski on a play-to-play basis. The Packers might move Matthews into coverage when Gronk runs seam routes and posts in the formation and in the flex, and Matthews' ability to cover in the short and intermediate areas has been an underrated strength of his since his USC days.
It's something of which Bill Belichick is aware.
"I don’t think it’s any big state secret – they’ve played him at inside linebacker with [A.J.] Hawk in their base defense and in their nickel defense," the Patriots' head coach said Friday. "And then in passing situations or third down if you will, most of the time then he has gone to defensive end. There have been times, I know it was a couple weeks ago when he was out on third down – maybe it was because of his groin or whatever, I don’t know. Then they’ve also at times, replaced Hawk with [Brad] Jones on some of their dime third-down defense. How much of that’s game plan, how much of it’s the injury, how much of it’s managing the player… I’m not really sure. Maybe it’s a combination of all those things, but he’s basically played inside and then outside on third down passing situations, two-minute, stuff like that. But, I’m sure that they could put him back outside whenever they feel like it. If they want to play Jones and Hawk inside, they could play them. We have to be ready for all that."
Seeing Matthews on Gronkowski would make the Patriots-Packers game even more compelling than it already is.