Around the NFL

Forty-three things you need to know from Week 15

The NFC playoff picture is wide open following the Green Bay Packers' surprising loss at Buffalo.

Six teams are in play for the No. 1 seed. One of those teams will be sitting at home watching the winner of the woebegone NFC South in the postseason.

Here's what we do know: Nobody is playing better than the Seahawks, who will take a shutdown defense into next week's clash versus the Arizona Cardinals and their fourth-string quarterback.

For the past month, NFC contenders have been dreading the prospect of traveling to Lambeau en route to the Super Bowl. Now it's Seattle's CenturyLink Field that looms as the prohibitive home-field advantage in January.

Here's what else we learned during Week 15:

  1. Scott Linehan called a fantastic first half. Although the final drive before the break ended up skewing his passing ratio a bit, his balance and unpredictability out of certain formations embodied what Jason Garrett hoped for when he surrendered play-calling duties. We especially liked the five-empty set plays that looked to throw Philadelphia a bit. It ended up giving Dallas just enough of a cushion heading into the second.
  1. Could this have been Mark Sanchez's chance to fend off Nick Foles? At times, Sanchez looked to have more velocity and certainty behind his passes than ever. At others, he was again frantic and unable to digest certain coverages. His pick was ill advised, but a pair of overthrows were just as costly. At this point, turning back to Foles seems obvious.
  1. There doesn't seem to be any excuse for leaving Bradley Fletcher on Dez Bryant. We understand that options are limited, but the second touchdown should have been the indicator. That being said, Bryant's price tag continues to balloon. Jerry Jones said he did not want to spend emotionally, but what if Dallas makes the playoffs? Could Bryant set the record for guaranteed money given to a wideout?

-- Conor Orr

  1. The Bills entered the game as the NFL's No. 1 pass defense in Football Outsiders' metrics. They are particularly impressive at Ralph Wilson Stadium, where they fly to the ball in a frenzy. Led by a pair ofinterceptions from Redskins castoff Bacarri Rambo, Jim Schwartz's troops harassed Rodgers into the worst completion rate (40.5), passer rating (34.3) and yards per attempt (4.4) of any game he has finished in his magnificent 10-year career. The victory keeps Buffalo in the playoff hunt, with road games at Oaklandand New England in the final two weeks.
  1. Rodgers and his receivers were out of sync from the opening whistle, leading to misfires and at least a half-dozen drops. On his first interception, Rodgers failed to notice a wide open Jordy Nelson on a play with long touchdown potential. Nelson then dropped a perfect pass late in the game that likely would have resulted in a 94-yard touchdown. The loss has a massive impact on the NFC race, perhaps robbing Green Bay of the game's best home-field advantage throughout the postseason.
  1. Sunday's game shined a light on two weaknesses for the Packers: special teams play and physical opponents. They had their sixth kick of their season blocked and allowed a 75-yard punt-return touchdown to Marcus Thigpen. Three of the Packers' losses have come against the Seahawks, Lions and Bills, three teams with physical ground attacks and dominant defenses. That has to be a concern for January.

-- Chris Wesseling

  1. Has it finally clicked for the Steelers? Pittsburgh has puzzled at times this season with flat showings that kept the team from building momentum. On Sunday, they delivered a strong overall performance on both sides of the ball, improving to 9-5 on the year. They'll win the AFC North if they can protect their home field over the next two weeks. The Falcons, now 5-9, remain in contention in the woeful NFC South.
  1. Le'Veon Bell finally looked mortal after three weeks of absurdly productive play. The second-year back found little daylight and was held to just 47 yards on 20 carries. He did score both of Pittsburgh's offensive touchdowns, while adding 72 yards on five receptions.
  1. Officials got it wrong when they flagged Steelers linebacker Jason Worilds for unnecessary roughness on a sack of Matt Ryan in the second quarter. Worilds flattened Ryan on a clean hit that left the Falcons quarterback shaken up. A flag was thrown for the hit, wiping out the sack and handing Atlanta a gift first down. The Falcons scored a touchdown three plays later. You can safely assume Mike Tomlin will be sending that tape to the league office.

-- Dan Hanzus

  1. Johnny Manziel's big debut was a comprehensive dud. The Browns rookie passer failed to move the offense and looked fairly lost in completing 10 of 18 throws for just 80 yards with a pair of ugly picks (and a third called back by penalty). With just 22 yards passing at the half, Manziel struggled to build rhythm for a withering attack held to 2.8 yards per play. Johnny Football didn't get much help from Cleveland's lifeless ground game, but the rookie is accountable for holding the ball too long on a day that saw the Bengals pile up three sacks and another six hits on the quarterback. Advertised as a playmaking gem with a knack for extending plays, Manziel displayed little of that magic on Sunday.
  1. Jeremy Hill knew he'd be a target after calling the Browns"worse than I thought" following a 24-3 loss to Cleveland back in Week 10. The Bengals rookie runner, though, backed up his chatter on Sunday with 103 yards in the first half alone. It's easy to see why play-caller Hue Jackson chose to lean on Hill as his standalone starter. The former LSU star finished with 148 yards on the day and looked fantastic running inside and out while breaking plenty of tackles for extra yards. Everything clicked for Hill, save for this ill-advised encounter with the Dawg Pound:
  1. After playing his worst game of the year in that Week 10 loss to the Browns, Andy Dalton guided the Bengals to four straight scoring drives to open the game. He also left points on the field by overthrowing wide-open targets and passing for just 117 yards at 4.9 yards per attempt, but Dalton doesn't need to save the day when the Bengals run the ball the way they did against Cleveland.

-- Marc Sessler

  1. A week after Elvis Dumervil racked up 3.5 sacks on Ryan Tannehill, bookend edge rusher Terrell Suggs took Bortles down three times. He and second-round rookie defensive tackle Timmy Jernigan combined for 4.5 sacks and eight quarterback hits. The Ravens' front seven must continue to harass opposing passers at this rate to provide cover for a thin secondary comprised of cornerbacks signed off the street. With Cincinnati and Pittsburgh also winning on Sunday, the pressure is on Baltimore to take care of business at Houston and versus Cleveland in the final two weeks. It helps that both of those teams are starting raw rookies at quarterback.
  1. Joe Flacco is quietly enjoying the best season of his career, showing particularly impressive pocket movement and athleticism the past few weeks. The Ravens have an underrated offense, ranking just below the Packers in fewest three-and-outs this season. Gary Kubiak's stretch-run attack has been a perfect fit for Flacco's skill set.
  1. Bortles came out firing in impressive fashion, moving the Jaguars' offense up and down the field for four first-half field goals. He ended up getting avalanched the rest of the way behind an offensive line that rivals the Buccaneers' as the league's most inept. If there was a bright spot for Jacksonville, it was a run defense that limited Justin Forsett to 48 yards and three yards per clip. This defense is no longer a pushover with defensive tackle Sen'Derrick Marks and speedy linebackers Telvin Smith and J.T. Thomas giving it some backbone.

-- Chris Wesseling

  1. Andrew Luck displayed inconsistency for the second straight week in one of his poorest performance of the season as Indy clinched the AFC South. The Colts' quarterback started incredibly shaky early, throwing a pick six on his third possession (seventh since 2012). Two possessions later he went 6-of-6 passing on a beautiful 78-yard touchdown drive. Luck completed just 18 of 34 passes for 187 yards (his second lowest output of the season) and two touchdowns. However, a win's a win, and the Colts are going to the playoffs. Get pumped, Indy!
  1. Luckily for the Colts, Houston couldn't take advantage of Indy's uninspired play due to their quarterback situation. Ryan Fitzpatrick's season ended in the second quarter when he was carted off with a broken leg, NFL Media Insider Ian Rapoport reported.

Rookie Tom Savage, who had never thrown an NFL pass, took over. After completing his first throw, the fourth-round pick looked completely overwhelmed. He struggled with several handoffs and miscommunications. One botched handoff led to a fumble and the Colts' second touchdown. Savage made two nice deep throws (35 and 30 yards), but was mostly ineffective on anything other than short, first-look reads. He finished 10 of 19 for 127 yards and a game-sealing interception. It's hard to expect much from a rookie who wasn't getting practice reps.

  1. J.J. Watt and the Houston defense did what they could to keep its team in the game. Watt had two first-half sacks, a blocked pass and two quarterback hits. The Texans' defensive line dominated up front early, putting pressure on Luck. That pressure helped lead to the pick six, Houston's only touchdown. However, it looked like a group that wore down at the end.

-- Kevin Patra

  1. The Chiefs are very much alive in the AFC playoff race after taking care of business at home against Oakland. The credit goes to a Kansas City defense that held the Silver and Black to just 3.6 yards per play and smothered Derek Carr with four sacks and another 11 hits on the Raiders rookie passer. It was another reminder that no team in the league has less talent on offense than Oakland.
  1. Alex Smith's 297 passing yards were his most all season, with the Chiefs quarterback taking shots downfield and throwing for a pair of scores. Neither of those touchdowns went to a Kansas City wideout, though, leaving the Chiefs as the only team in the NFL without a scoring strike to a receiver in 2014. This offense can be tough to watch, but Kansas City found ways to move the ball on a day that saw Jamaal Charles run for just 52 yards. 
  1. After playing his best game of the season in last week's upset of the 49ers, Carr took a beating. Kansas City held the rookie quarterback to 222 yards at 4.0 yards per attempt and a passer rating of 64.7. Much of that yardage -- and his lone touchdown pass -- came in garbage time for a Raiders team that managed five or fewer plays on 10 of Oakland's 16 drives.

-- Marc Sessler

  1. The Dolphins should have built a big lead in the first half while dominating the Patriots in total yardage (271-101), but they trailed at halftime 14-13. The Patriots then outscored Miami 24-0 in the third quarter in a performance that was reminiscent of Miami's Week 1 second-half domination. After being held without a catch in the first half, Rob Gronkowski had three huge grabs for 96 yards after halftime.
  1. This game summed up the Dolphins' season well. They are way better than their results indicate, but it doesn't really matter. It was as if the Dolphins realized the first half was the best they could do, and it still wasn't enough.
  1. Ryan Tannehill is a perfect symbol of the team. He played outstanding for the most part, but a few poor throws and some bad luck sunk him. (The bad luck: A long dropped touchdown and a missed penalty call against the Patriots that directly led to an interception.)

-- Gregg Rosenthal

  1. The Panthers aren't just alive in the NFC South. They are in first place, at least until New Orleans plays on Monday night. It's quite possible that Panthers-Falcons in Week 17 will decide the division.
  1. Derek Anderson would be a quality starter in the NFL if he only had to play against Tampa. Anderson is 2-0 on the season, with both wins coming against the Buccaneers. He made a number of quality throws, and had his usual misfires. He got the ball to Kelvin Benjamin and Greg Olsen, who both topped 100 yards.

Much like the season opener, the Panthers should have won this game easier. They racked up 390 yards on offense and forced three turnovers, but they kept blowing opportunities to make the game more comfortable. (A Jonathan Stewartfumble on the goal line was especially harmful.)

  1. Panthers defensive end Charles Johnson absolutely took the game over the third quarter, seemingly hitting Josh McCown or a Bucs running back on every snap. Which reminds me: The Buccaneers' offensive line is the very worst in the NFL.
  1. It's unclear if Cam Newton will return to action in Week 16. Anderson showed the Panthers could win even if Newton is out another week. 

-- Gregg Rosenthal

  1. Odell Beckham is the reason this Giants season will always have a silver lining. The rookie receiver continued his domination of the NFL, finishing with 12 receptions for 143 yards and three touchdowns. Another long touchdown catch was wiped away by a holding penalty. Beckham broke Jeremy Shockey's rookie receiving record and may have overtaken Mike Evans as the favorite for the Offensive Rookie of the Year award. This might be the biggest rookie impact by a wide receiver since Randy Moss in 1998.
  1. Colt McCoy aggravated his neck injury in the first half, giving Robert Griffin III another opportunity to salvage something from this lost season. RGIII looked far more comfortable than we'd previously seen him and even flashed some of his old athleticism on a scramble into the end zone as the second quarter ended. In true Redskins form, the play was reviewed and ruled a fumble and touchback. It was the turning point of the game.
  1. Eli Manning is quietly having a very nice season for the Giants. The veteran passer has done well adjusting to a new offense and deserves plenty of credit for Beckham's instant ascension to superstar status. The Giants have a lot of things to worry about in the offseason, but the quarterback position is not one of them.

-- Dan Hanzus

  1. The Jets may have taken themselves out of the running for the No. 1 pick with this win. Not that Rex Ryan cares. The Jets' coach is just trying to get out of Gotham with some semblance of dignity, and a couple wins in December will help. "We got heart," the coach said after the game. What they probably won't have is Marcus Mariota.
  1. The Titans should investigate the possibility of covering Jake Locker in bubble wrap for games. The star-crossed quarterback was injured once again when Jets linebacker Quinton Coples drove his left shoulder into the turf in the first half. Charlie Whitehurst replaced Locker and was unable to move the offense. The Titans need a complete reboot at the position outside Zach Mettenberger.
  1. Chris Johnson Revenge Game Alert! The former Titans star was mostly quiet in his return to Nashville, save for a 37-yard run that set up the Jets' go-ahead touchdown. Johnson has shown some spring in his legs this season despite his marginalized role in the offense.

-- Dan Hanzus

  1. Whether it's by design or necessity, the Broncos have had more rushing attempts than pass attempts in three consecutive games. Per NFL Media's research department, it's only the second time in Peyton Manning's career in which that has happened. Since the Week 11 loss to the Rams, the coaching staff has made a concerted effort to protect Manning and keep opposing defenses from bringing too much pressure. We have also noticed a loss of accuracy and arm strength from Manning, who has struggled on deep balls the past two weeks. This 33-yard pass to Emmanuel Sanders encapsulates the state of Manning's arm: It got the job done, even if it lacks style points.
  1. The run-heavy attack has had a symbiotic effect on Denver's defense, as they have held three consecutive opponents under 20 points after allowing an average of 29.5 in the four previous games. The Broncos entered the game with one of the 10 best run defense metrics of the past 25 years, per Football Outsiders. Jack Del Rio's defense is one of the five best in the NFL this year.
  1. Ryan Mathews' absence was felt in the Chargers' offense. Coach Mike McCoy bypassed the run on several short-yardage opportunities, and nine of Philip Rivers' 11 drives ended with a punt, missed field goal or interception. Falling a game behind the Steelers and Ravensin the wild-card hunt, the Bolts will have to win at San Francisco and Kansas City in the final two games to remain in contention.

-- Chris Wesseling

  1. Teddy Bridgewater is playing better than any rookie quarterback in the league, but he's still no match for the Lions' defense. After starting out sharp while building a two touchdown lead, Bridgewater was picked off twice in the second quarter and then shut out after halftime. He had two chances to author a game-winning field goal drive, but the Lions' defense held up late. Bridgewater was not great in the hurry up.
  1. With that said, special teams were a huge factor. The Lions blocked a chip shot by Blair Walsh midway through the fourth quarter before the Lions drove for the go ahead field goal. Walsh also missed a Hail Mary kick from 68 yards out as time expired. Walsh was 0-for-3 on field goals. 
  1. Matthew Stafford was erratic for much of the, especially the first half. The Lions only threw for 155 yards, with Xavier Rhodes and safety help doing a great job against Calvin Johnson. Reggie Bush remains a total non-factor. After two nice weeks against sub-par defenses, the Lions' passing game came crashing back to earth. It's hard to imagine this group performing well against some of the strong NFC defenses in the playoffs.

-- Gregg Rosenthal

  1. Seattle owns a legitimate chance to win the NFC West after nipping the Niners at CenturyLink Field. Sunday's affair was another classic example of the Seahawks wearing down the competition with their clock-chewing ground game and a defense that looks primed for another Super Bowl run. Allowing 6.75 points per game over the past four weeks, the Legion of Boom shut down passing lanes and made the play of the game with a fourth-quarter stop on fourth-and-1 in Seahawks territory. With six sacks, six hits on the quarterback and 10 tackles for a loss, Seattle on Sunday looked like what they are: Still the team to beat in the NFC. San Francisco, meanwhile, has been eliminated from playoff contention.

 2. Colin Kaepernick made a beautiful pass on San Francisco's first touchdown drive, leaving the pocket to throw a 31-yard rope down the sideline to tight end Garrett Celek. Three plays later, the 49ers quarterback converted on third down with a 15-yard laser to Anquan Boldin. Kaepernick hasn't made enough of those throws this season, but he looked sharp out of the gate on Sunday. We also saw the quarterback go right at Richard Sherman, completing his first five passes in the cornerback's direction for 79 yards. The second half was another story, though, with Kaepernick and the 49ers eating up eight minutes with a 14-play, 55-yard drive that ended without points. 

  1. San Francisco's second-half meltdown had plenty to do with a banged-up backfield. Frank Gore blasted his way for a 13-yard touchdown in the second quarter before exiting the game with a concussion. Rookie Carlos Hyde looked great plowing for 55 yards at 9.2 yards per clip before leaving with an ankle injury. With nobody else to turn to, little-used Alfonso Smith came on to run for just six yards off four carries. The injuries took a massive toll on a Niners offense that lost its rhythm down the stretch.

-- Marc Sessler

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