In the wake of Week 15, Marc Sessler dishes on what's hot -- and what's not -- in the NFL:
1) I spent Sunday watching a pair of attacks that specialize in flinging hammers.
Tennessee smashed through Detroit in a display that boosted my feelings about these Titans all over again: Outside of Kansas City, no offense league-wide boasts a consistently higher floor. The ceiling, meanwhile, remains uncharted.
It's so much more than just Derrick Henry tearing through front sevens and stiff-arming mortals into submission. Quarterback Ryan Tannehill -- deep-sixing his milquetoast Dolphins days -- has morphed into one of the NFL's toughest passers. Willing to step into the pocket and take a shot, Tannehill has developed dangerous chemistry with big-bodied wonder A.J. Brown and the emerging Corey Davis. Jonnu Smith badgered the Lions, too, rounding out this pick-your-poison attack under the watch of smart-human Arthur Smith. Tennessee is built to win shootouts. Good thing, too, with the defense hanging on by a thread while refusing to generate a pass rush. The Titans' loss to the Browns provided a road map for enemies: Cause mistakes early, build a lead and hang on to your hat. Cleveland's line stuffed Henry on fourth-and-1 before coaxing the behemoth runner into a fumble on the following drive. The Browns built a 38-7 lead off a perfect half of football, but Tennessee's baseline offensive talent nearly stole the show in what ended up being a 41-35 squeaker win for Cleveland.
I enjoy the Titans for what they are: A rugged, beat-you-up squad showing zero fear of the opponent. In multiple weeks this autumn, they've mentally broken teams by halftime. What happens when the high-flying Titans tangle with the NFC's top-seeded Packers on Sunday Night Football? The recipe exists for a high-scoring festival of yardage and points in one of the juiciest games remaining.
2) I kept my eyes glued on the Ravens, too, who sailed to an easy vanquishing of the Jaguars. I get it: Jacksonville emits a foul stench here in late December, but Sunday was another example of Baltimore's furious might. Since that sleepy, Corona-addled, RG3-authored loss to the Steelers three Wednesdays ago, the Ravens have risen to average 40 points and 228 rushing yards per outing over three straight wins. Reprising his role as Baltimore's Mr. Everything, Lamar Jackson on Sunday carved out a place in NFL lore, becoming the first quarterback in history to run for 2,000-plus yards over a two-season span. Numbers aside, this ground game is operating at peak levels (2019-esque heights!) with just enough through the air. With the Giants and Bengals left on the slate, you can book the Ravens for 11-5. That should be good enough for the playoffs in the AFC, a conference absolutely littered with bruising, capture-the-imagination attacks. We haven't even mentioned the Bills, whom I spent last week glowing over. The dirty bomb they dropped on Denver offered more evidence of Josh Allen's ascendancy into a higher plane of quarterbacking. Any one of these teams could win the Super Bowl, forming the most alluring rash of AFC postseason squads I've seen in years.
3) Who am I? Viewed all summer as a failsafe fantasy stud, I enter Week 16 with 832 yards on the ground at 3.9 yards per carry. I've crossed 100 yards rushing just once all season. Jonathan Taylor, Ronald Jones II and David Montgomery have all outgained me. My yards-per-rush figure ranks 40th league-wide, while my $19.8 million cash figure ranks second among all runners.
It's just not Ezekiel Elliott's year. He knows it. We know it. The Cowboys can't do much about it, either. With another $9.6 million in guaranteed loot coming in 2021, Dallas is stuck hoping for a better version of Zeke next September. As for today, a heavier dose of Tony Pollard helps quiet the Furies. Elliott's understudy played leading man in Sunday's 41-33 downing of the Niners, piling up 69 yards and two scores on the ground with another 63 yards off six grabs through the air. We've seen sparks from Pollard before, but Sunday's result begs for a longer look over the next two weeks. The Cowboys should ponder a revised model for 2021. Would Dallas benefit from a genuine committee backfield closer to what the Ravens, Niners and Browns employ?
4) This space has regularly been used to throw smelly eggs at the oft-dull Bears, but the narrative no longer fits. The offense is a new creation with Bill Lazor calling plays, crossing the 30-point barrier in three straight clashes for the first time since 2013. Back-from-the-dead QB Mitchell Trubisky has played competent football, while the ground game has sprung to life. Montgomery has plowed for 109 yards per game over the past four weeks, with a career-high 146 coming this past Sunday in Minnesota. Plenty of credit goes to an offensive line that overcame weeks of injuries and CoronaTime absences to bully the Vikings into nothingness.
The Bears have negatively impacted my enjoyment of football for much of Matt Nagy's reign, but the embattled coach has Chicago (7-7) notched as the NFC's eighth seed behind the Cardinals (8-6). With upcoming dates against the Jaguars and Packers -- a Green Bay team potentially with nothing to play for in Week 17 -- a 9-7 Bears finish is an option. A highly awkward option, too, for a fan base that seemed anxious to part ways with Nagy, Trubisky and all of the above. We once joked that a strong finish would convince Bears management to bring the entire band back for 2021. Another offseason doused in pretty poems about Chicago's steely belief in Mr. Trubisky! ... This can't possibly be happening. Can it?
5) Speaking of turnarounds, three cheers for Jalen Hurts. In two starts, Philly's rookie quarterback has turned the ugliest offense in football -- a dusty corner of broken-down players and poorly plotted game plans -- into a watchable whirlwind. After dashing for 100 yards in his starting debut against a caught-by-surprise Saints team in Week 14, Hurts exploded for four total touchdowns in Arizona on Sunday. Philly fell to a Cardinals team boasting four scores of their own from a white-hot Kyler Murray, but Eagles fanatics have something else to cuddle up against below the tree: hope. Philadelphia has found something unique in Hurts. The fallout is problematic, though, with burning questions springing up over the weighty contract and future status of Carson Wentz. Set to make $25.4 million guaranteed next season, Wentz is more expensive than an unhinged Kardashian daughter blasting her way through Vegas. I'm going to pause here and refrain from digging into these looming decisions: I already sense a tedious offseason doused in endless whispers and false promises out of Philly.
1) What kind of fan are you?
Jets faithful confronted this question during Sunday's 23-20 upset of the Rams. New York's first victory all year dashed threats of a winless campaign, but dropped Gang Green out of position for the first overall pick in the draft. The Jaguars now rest in the driver's seat for signal-calling savior Trevor Lawrence (should he choose to enter the 2021 draft, obvs). Did the Jets blow it? Understandably, their fans appear split into a gaggle of factions:
SUBGROUP A: Populated with noble, old-school fans (Dan's Dad, for instance) who march into Sundays wanting a win. The draft will sort itself out. Besides, who can be sure about Lawrence? What if Justin Fields becomes the next Patrick Mahomes if he enters the 2021 draft? This particular subgroup is happy to escape the stink of 0-16 wafting from Florham Park for decades to come.
SUBGROUP B: They walk a tightrope, hoping to both avoid the winless campaign and nab the rights to the No. 1 overall pick. It sounds unfair ... but this is a lot to ask. The next two weeks become a stress factory, with fans in this category busy fashioning emergency shrines aimed at feisty Jaguars arm Gardner Minshew somehow pulling off a win over the Bears or Colts.
SUBGROUP C: This pocket burns with agitation over Adam Gase and Frank Gore possibly killing New York's chances at a scenery-altering franchise passer in favor of a forgettable December win in the middle of hell. These fans view Gase as the face of a deep-state conspiracy to ruin not only this season -- but every godless campaign to come.
As a lifelong Browns fan who went through 0-16, I support SUBGROUP C. It's Lawrence or bust ... but it might be too late.
2) That brings us to the Rams. They're an easy target after Sunday's stumble, but it's unrewarding to zip arrows at coach Sean McVay. History tells us someone was bound to fall to New York. After all, only two teams have managed 0-16, a calamity that requires a billion little things to go right (or wrong). It's the bizarro version of 16-0. Still, McVay acknowledged the weight, saying: "It's going to be embarrassing, sick to your stomach about it. ... It's going to be humbling, but we're going to move forward."
My issue with the Rams is less about falling to the Jets and more about a team that seems to trip up offensively on cue every few weeks. They haven't won three in a row all year. Belief-boosting victories over Seattle and Tampa earn points, but the Rams were neutered by the Dolphins and swept by an undermanned Niners operation. The unpredictable NFC is anyone's prize, but I struggle to view the Rams as a candidate to rip off four straight victories in January. The inevitable glitch hovers near.
3) You could see it on his face. Myles Garrett was winded. Struggling for air between snaps in Cleveland's win over the Giants on Sunday Night Football. Three games into his return from COVID-19, the Browns pass rusher admitted he's not himself, saying: "I am just getting over a coughing fit from the locker room earlier. I am trying to get some water into my system and be able to breathe. Taking those deep big breaths are tough right now with the shortness of breath and that turning into a cough or getting choked up. You just have to find a way."
Garrett still registered half a sack and a dotting of tackles against New York. To the naked eye, though, his otherworldly explosiveness was turned down a smidge.
We're accustomed to players coming off the COVID list without much thought over lingering effects. Their absences are annoyances for Fantasy Heads and real-life coaching staffs, but then you hear about Andy Dalton enduring "a crazy three weeks" under Corona's grip, while Cam Newton talked of being "stagnant in my thought process" after dealing with the virus.
I'm not typing these words from Mt. Pious, but the real-life fallout is something we're collectively turning a blind eye to until we get this Super Bowl played.