- Amid a plethora of playoff relevant games emerges another game of a very different kind of relevance: Can the Browns emerge with their first victory of the season against the flailing Bengals?
You believe in the Browns. Well, 25% of you who were paying attention on Twitter this week do, at least.
There are a bevy of marquee games this week with playoff implications. There also are opportunities for the NFL’s 2016 bottom-feeders to add to their lightly-populated win columns.
The Jaguars get a struggling Vikings team at home; the Browns, with Robert Griffin III back as their starting QB, welcome in the underachieving Bengals; the Bears have to visit first-place Detroit, yes, but it’s a Lions team they have already knocked off once this season. (Also, someone probably will win the Jets-49ers game.)
Of those, I asked the Twitterverse to pick the most likely to pull off a win. Cue the Dawg Pound.
Which bad team gets a win this week? (Not including the 49ers because they're playing another bad team.)— Chris Burke (@ChrisBurkeNFL) December 7, 2016
Granted, 44% of respondents (a bit more than 2,000 people) declared that the Jaguars, Browns and Bears would go winless on the weekend—those three are a combined 5–31 on the season, so that’s certainly where the safe money lies.
But the consensus is clear: This is as good a shot Cleveland has had to snap its season-long 0-fer. The Browns trailed the Bengals by just four in the second half of their first game, a 31–17 Bengals win, and that was with Kevin Hogan replacing an injured Cody Kessler at QB. Since then, Cincinnati has posted a 1-3-1 record, the lone win coming last Sunday against Philadelphia.
Is there a major upset in the makings this weekend? We’ll see, but at least some of you are buying the Browns’ chances to deliver it.
A quartet of players who could be key to this week’s matchups:
1. Steven Terrell, S, Seahawks: Terrell has to fill in for Earl Thomas on the Seahawks’ defense. Good luck. The fourth-year pro can fly, but he also has eight career tackles. Immediately after Thomas left Sunday’s game vs. the Panthers, Cam Newton took a deep shot to Ted Ginn for a TD. The question isn’t if Terrell can replace Thomas (he can’t), but how the Seahawks will adjust their defensive scheme to help him. Leaving Terrell as a single-high safety and expecting him to eliminate the middle of the field probably is out of the question.
2. Josh Huff, WR, Buccaneers: The Buccaneers lost Cecil Shorts (knee) for the season last week, and reliable slot weapon Adam Humphries (concussion) is questionable. Enter Huff, formerly of the Eagles and just recently promoted from the practice squad. He didn’t produce much in the passing game while with Philadelphia, before he was cut because of an arrest on gun and drug charges. He is, however, dangerous in the open field—he has averaged 27.7 yards per kick return in his career, including a 98-yard TD this season.
3. Delanie Walker, TE, Titans: An important piece every week for the Titans, Walker will be vital to Marcus Mariota’s chances Sunday because Denver’s outstanding secondary is so darn good at limiting opposing receivers. Walker, with 49 catches for 657 yards this season, could lead his team in targets if Mariota can’t find anyone open outside.
4. Mike Gillislee, RB, Bills: LeSean McCoy is still the star of Buffalo’s dangerous run offense, but Gillislee has been handed more of a role in recent weeks. Over the Bills’ past four games, he has scored four times and averaged 5.7 yards on 42 attempts.
The Week 14 picks...
• Last week: 12–3 overall (126-64-1 season), 9–6 vs. the spread (96-89-8 season)
• Best pick in Week 13: Patriots 24, Rams 10 (actual score: Patriots 26–10)
• Worst pick in Week 13: Dolphins 20, Ravens 16 (actual score: Ravens 38–6)
Carson Wentz has attempted at least 43 passes in four of the Eagles’ last six games (he threw 60 last week against the Bengals), and Philadelphia has gone 1–5 in those games and almost completely fallen out of the playoff race. The one win in there (24–15 over Atlanta in Week 10) better fits what Philadelphia coach Doug Pederson would like to do—his team rushed for 208 yards and threw for 231 that day, in a beautifully balanced showing. Washington had its best rushing day of the season (230 yards) in an earlier 27–20 win over Philadelphia, with Matt Jones leading the way. Sunday could feature far more of an aerial assault—the Eagles’ pass rush and secondary have imploded of late, while Kirk Cousins is posting 317.6 yards per game.
Watchability index (out of 10): 7. The Eagles have lost three straight and five of six. Can they show up Sunday and drag Washington to the brink of playoff irrelevance?
The defenses in this game are sure to be popular choices for the daily-fantasy aficionados out there. Minnesota’s offense hasn’t cracked 20 points since Week 5 (a 30–24 win in Week 10 came with the help of a defense and special-teams touchdowns); Jacksonville has averaged 15.7 points in its past three home games, with eight combined turnovers. This matchup also pits the league’s No. 2 (Jacksonville) and No. 4 (Minnesota) pass defenses. Another headache for the Vikings headed in: star safety Harrison Smith (ankle) could be done for the year.
Watchability index: 2. The Jaguars are about as watchable as those home movies of you singing in a Christmas pageant 20 years ago. The Vikings have no choice but to try to win ugly.
It’s gone a bit unnoticed, but Haloti Ngata is having an excellent year for Detroit, and he’ll be called on Sunday when the Bears try to establish RB Jordan Howard. The Lions have been stingy against the run their past four games, but two of those were against Minnesota’s hapless attack, and New Orleans had to throw out of a hole last Sunday. The NFC North leaders managed just 263 yards of offense during a Week 5 loss in Chicago. Avoiding a repeat hinges almost entirely on protecting Matthew Stafford. The Bears’ Akiem Hicks just nabbed NFC Defensive Player of the Week honors, and he’s flanked by pass rushers Leonard Floyd and ex-Lion Willie Young.
Watchability index: 5. With Matt Barkley making his first career road start, this one really shouldn’t be close. But the Bears already dropped the Lions once this season.
Cleveland coach Hue Jackson has played it coy about his starting QB Sunday, but all signs point to Robert Griffin III making his first start since Week 1. In theory, his presence would be a boost for Terrelle Pryor and Corey Coleman, because he is far more interested in pushing the ball downfield than Cody Kessler has been. It might not matter if Cincinnati’s Andy Dalton repeats his Week 13 effort. Dalton carved up Philadelphia, to the tune of 332 yards and two TDs. The Browns can’t stop the run (ranked 31st), so Jeremy Hill is in line for a big day. If Dalton follows suit, the Browns will be 0–13.
Watchability index: 3. Depends on how much you dig morbid curiosities.
The Dolphins limited the Bills to 67 yards rushing in Week 7. Outside of that, though, here are the totals opponents have posted on the ground in Miami: 169, 235, 128, 140, 193. Not that it matters much where David Johnson plays—the Cardinals’ back has topped 100 yards from scrimmage in all 12 games so far. His team as a whole has fallen far short of that consistency level when visiting the East Coast, with an 0–3 record in three cross-country trips. QB Carson Palmer tossed four INTs at Carolina; his defense has allowed nearly 34 points per game when on ET. Will the latter group allow Ryan Tannehill to bounce back from his three-INT mess at Baltimore?
Watchability index: 6. Both teams are sitting outside of playoff position, yet very much alive in the chase. The Dolphins’ defense has to find its footing again.
The Texans have the league’s 28th-ranked offense and 30th-ranked passing attack, numbers that make their dramatic Week 6 comeback vs. the Colts all the harder to believe. Indianapolis led by 14 with seven minutes left, before Brock Osweiler fired a pair of TD passes then set up a game-winning OT field goal. RB Lamar Miller also went off for 149 yards in that game. Andrew Luck’s challenge on the other side is finding substantial plays against a tough pass defense. He was 21 of 32 for 252, one TD and one INT on Oct. 16, with three passes of longer than 30 yards. The Colts are on a short week, off a Monday road trip to the Meadowlands, but their win against the Jets was a glorified exhibition.
Watchability index: 8. The AFC South has not been a shining example of the NFL’s quality, but this one will go a very long way in deciding which team represents the division in the playoffs.
If this comes down to the run games, it says on paper that Tennessee has a decided advantage. The Broncos have been a below-average unit against the run all season (122.9 yards per game), and their own run game has been downright nonexistent away from home (77.5 yards). Meanwhile, the Titans have the NFL’s third-best rushing attack, paced by 1,000-yard back DeMarco Murray. So, the defending Super Bowl champs may be best off pinning their hopes to QB Trevor Siemian, who is expected to return after sitting out Week 13 with a foot injury. Siemian has 10 TDs to three interceptions in six road appearances, better than his 5:4 split at home. Only the Chiefs and Eagles have allowed more yards to wide receivers than the Titans this season.
Watchability index: 8. In a week with several entertaining matchups, this low-key could be one of the best.
What do Cam Newton, Derek Carr, Josh Freeman and Andrew Luck have in common? Those are the last four quarterbacks to post a completion percentage of 50 or less in three consecutive games, while throwing 20-plus passes. Luck and Carr’s slips came late in their respective rookie seasons. Newton’s is just the latest setback in a disappointing Panthers campaign. He draws a promising matchup Sunday, but keep in mind that Casey Heyward leads the league in INTs (seven) and the Melvin Ingram/Joey Bosa combo has 11.5 sacks. Philip Rivers has his own issues—he’s thrown seven interceptions in his past three games.
Watchability index: 5. This actually should be an entertaining game, but the stakes are painfully low for two teams expecting more in 2016.
The Bills didn’t get long to lick their wounds from a defensive meltdown at Oakland. The Steelers’ offense has averaged 380 yards over its past four games and is resembling the explosive group everyone anticipated it being back in September. The newest key: TE Ladarius Green, who caught six of 11 passes thrown his way last week for 110 yards and a score. Ben Roethlisberger could use him Sunday. His stats have been much worse on the road compared to at home—he has an 81.9 QB rating and a 233 yards-per-game average as a visitor; he’s at 119.0 and 327, respectively, at home. Buffalo’s offense remains ranked No. 1 on the ground (161 ypg and 23 rushing TDs). And when the Steelers lose, it’s usually because they cannot control the line. Their opponents averaged 132.8 yards rushing in their five losses.
Watchability index: 8. The Bills have to win out if they want to end their playoff drought. They’ll need a better effort than anything they’ve shown the past two months.
Bryce Petty, playing the role of a white flag for Jets coach Todd Bowles, will make his second start Sunday now that the Jets are officially out of the postseason chase. His performance in Weeks 14–17 (assuming he makes it through healthy, behind a bad offensive line) will dictate his team’s off-season direction. If you’re a fan of Petty or heavily invested in the 2017 draft order, this is your game. Otherwise ...
Watchability index: Negative 3. The NFL should have flexed this game to, like, 8 a.m. on Friday.
Thanks to an absurd scheduling hiccup, this is the first of two meetings between the NFC South division rivals in the final four weeks of the season—the other to come on Christmas Eve. Both teams may need a sweep to reach the playoffs—the Bucs because Atlanta’s closing schedule is very friendly; the Saints because 8–8 or worse likely won’t cut it for a wild card. The game itself should be much of the same on each side, with Jameis Winston and Mike Evans taking shots on New Orleans’ suspect pass defense, while Drew Brees airs it out for the Saints. But New Orleans could have the edge on the ground, because Tampa Bay’s rush defense has been shoddy. The Bucs have allowed at least 119 yards rushing in seven of their past eight games.
Watchability index: 9. Both defenses have been better of late, so we may not get a 50–47 shootout here. It should go down to the wire, though.
The Falcons have the NFL’s top-scoring offense. The Rams have four touchdowns at home all season. Four! Something has to give if Los Angeles wants to pull another of its random, surprise upsets (and Jeff Fisher is overdue for one). What will Julio Jones’s role be? He’s planning to play through turf toe, but that can be a limiting injury. The Falcons’ offense also has had some of its finest days when Jones has served mainly as a decoy. The Rams were gashed on the ground the past two weeks, so keep an eye on Devonta Freeman and Tevin Coleman in Atlanta’s backfield. Jared Goff’s still searching for his breakout performance. If it happens this week, TEs Lance Kendricks and Tyler Higbee will be driving forces against a Falcons defense just picked apart by Travis Kelce.
Watchability index: 3. One point for each dozen years Jeff Fisher will be the Rams’ coach.
What will the Seahawks’ defense be without Earl Thomas? The aforementioned Steven Terrell is in the spotlight starting Sunday. Even if the D is significantly weakened now, though, can the Packers take advantage? Seattle still has its stout cornerbacks outside, led by Richard Sherman, to deal with the likes of Davante Adams and Jordy Nelson, plus a pass rush that can crank it up with the best of them—Michael Bennett’s recent return does not offset the Thomas loss, but it helps a ton. Still, Rodgers has been locked in and he is not hesitating even a bit when he has a chance to run. This game marks a major test for the Packers’ linebacking corps. And not just because Thomas Rawls had 106 yards last game but because someone has to be responsible for Russell Wilson. With Clay Matthews (shoulder) ailing and both Nick Perry (finger) and Blake Martinez (knee) out, the options are limited.
Watchability: 9. The Packers kept their hopes alive by knocking off Philadelphia and Houston, but the task is much tougher Sunday.
The Giants are the only team with a win over the Cowboys this season, accomplishing the feat way back in Week 1. The main explanations for how it happened: New York limited Ezekiel Elliott to 51 yards rushing on 20 carries and turned two of four Dallas red-zone trips into field goals. Since, Elliott has chalked up another 1,234 yards to take command of the league rushing lead, and the Cowboys now are scoring TDs on 66% of red-zone trips (82% the past three weeks). Jason Pierre-Paul’s season-ending hernia injury is a massive loss for the Giants’ defense, across the board. Elliott should have more success Sunday, and Dak Prescott could have ample time in the pocket if Olivier Vernon can’t take over. Giants safety Landon Collins is the X-factor, always—he’s having a brilliant season and Prescott will have to find him on every snap. The Giants’ offense has endured back-to-back sub-300-yard games. It has, however, been a lot more explosive at home: 381.8 yards per game.
Watchability: 10. A Cowboys loss wouldn’t change much atop the NFC, save to prove again that they’re not infallible. But the Giants badly need a win in the wild-card chase.
Surprise star of Week 14: Jerick McKinnon, RB, Vikings. Dropping anyone from he Vikings offense in this spot is a calculated gamble. McKinnon is here, though, not because of his rushing abilities (nine carries for 41 yards last week) but because he has a combined eight catches and nine targets the past two games. Jacksonville’s secondary can take away what little Sam Bradford will try to do outside, so McKinnon could wind up a heavy-volume contributor in the passing game if Minnesota wins Sunday.
Upset of the week: Saints (+3) over Buccaneers. This flies in the face of what Tampa Bay has done the past four weeks. However, the Saints’ run defense can force Jameis Winston into a few tricky third-and-long spots, and Drew Brees tends to play well against the Bucs.
College upset of the week: Army (+6) over Navy. Is this the year the Black Knights snap their 14-game skid against the Midshipmen? They have their best team in a good while, so it’s possible. This also is the only FBS game on the board, so there was no other upset choice.