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  • Plus, injury updates on Doug Baldwin, James Conner and Carson Wentz, the Patriots’ challenge of stopping Antonio Brown, and the game plan for the Vikings’ new offensive coordinator.
By Albert Breer
December 16, 2018

Getting you set for the 15th Sunday of the 2018 NFL season …

1. The Colts get center Ryan Kelly for today’s showdown with Dallas, which is enormous. It’s not a coincidence that Andrew Luck wasn’t sacked once in the five games right before Kelly’s injury, then took (a modest) six sacks in the three games Kelly missed. Part of that is a result of Indy missing his leadership, in how he and the group communicate when he’s out there. And they’ve also missed his ability to get to the second level of the defense in the run game. On the other side of the ball for Indy, the injury to watch is safety Clayton Geathers’s knee. Geathers has been a revelation and, given Indy’s lack of depth at the position, his absence would be a problem. Coaches are optimistic he’ll play, and a decision will be made pregame. And as of early Sunday morning, they were also optimistic on T.Y. Hilton.

2. Despite not being able to play, Carson Wentz did make the trip to Los Angeles with the Eagles, I’m told, returning to the site of ACL injury a year ago. If this is it for Wentz in 2018—and signs are pointing that way—it will be interesting to see if adjustments to the coaching staff are among the changes around him in 2019.

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3. Raiders QB Derek Carr has played really solid ball going back to the team’s Week 7 bye. And he’ll be tested again this week with his starting guards banged up. Oakland will be without Kelechi Osemele. Gabe Jackson has a chance to go, but the team won’t know on him until later this morning.

4. Another player whose status is up in the air: Seahawks WR Doug Baldwin. The team is playing wait-and-see with his hip after he missed the Vikings game, though Pete Carroll displayed some optimism that he’d play at the end of the week.

5. James Conner will miss his second straight game Sunday, which means the struggling Pittsburgh run game will be led by Jaylen Samuels, who played 80% of the team’s snaps against Oakland. Ex-Patriot Stevan Ridley will back him up, as the Steelers try to reverse their recent fortunes—they’ve averaged 51.5 rushing yards per game over the last four weeks, after five straight in which they rushed for over 110 yards.

6. This could be the week where the Patriots finally feel the loss of Malcolm Butler. Butler was routinely the man New England would stick on Antonio Brown. Their clear-cut No. 1 corner, Stephon Gilmore, is taller and longer and not quite as sudden as Butler, which makes him less than ideal for the assignment. So you sure could see the Patriots rolling coverage to Brown over the top of J.C. Jackson or Jonathan Jones, with Gilmore drawing JuJu Smith-Schuster.

7. It will be interesting to see how new coordinator Kevin Stefanski puts his mark on the Vikings offense today. Under direction from head coach Mike Zimmer, Minnesota tried to reconfigure itself behind Dalvin Cook and the run game in Seattle on Monday night. But the offensive line’s issues are real, and have been for some time. Still, I’d expect to see Stefanski do all he can to creatively generate yards on the ground, to try and protect a defense that’s playing really well.

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8. A lot of it is the magic of Baker Mayfield, but this is mind-blowing: Interim coach Gregg Williams, at 4-2, now has as many wins through six games as the Browns had in their previous 51.

9. I’ve felt all along like Vance Joseph had a chance to be a real good head coach in time. But time may be running short in Denver. The Broncos are 6-8, and the last five minutes against Cleveland on Saturday night certainly opened the coach to criticism—on fourth-and-1 with 4:35 left Joseph chose to kick a field goal, then watched as his defense got gashed by Nick Chubb on a long, demoralizing drive. After his team got its own big-time fourth-down stop, the offense had no answers for Williams’s all-out blitzes at the end of the game.

10. A couple things that I just found interesting caught on camera Saturday night at the Meadowlands. There was J.J. Watt telling Sam Darnold, “You’re gonna be a great pro.” There was Bill O’Brien telling the Texans, “When you go on the road in the NFL in December, and you’re playing a solid football team, I don’t know what their record is, solid players all over the map, and you guys come out of that with a hard fought win, you should be proud of that.” I may be wrong, but I don’t think the Jets are too far off. Darnold could be a star to build around on offense. Jamal Adams already is one on defense.

• Question or comment? Email us at talkback@themmqb.com.

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