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NFL Week 15 spotlight: Seattle on fire, Mitch Trubisky under fire

Pro football remains an unpredictable, whirling beast.

As a case study, take this past Monday night, which saw the Vikings crumble on the road against Seattle in a loss that cost Minnesota play caller John DeFilippo his job.

Arriving this past offseason, the former Eagles quarterback aide was seen as a last-piece-of-the-puzzle steal for a Vikings squad certain to compete for Super Bowl glory with Kirk Cousins under center as an upgrade over Case Keenum.

Sitting at 6-6-1 with an offense that ranks 20th in scoring and 17th in yards, DeFilippo and the Vikings never quite clicked. Coach Mike Zimmer hinted at this for weeks, publicly calling for more emphasis on the ground game, which is easier said than done behind a defunct offensive line that never found its way following the July passing of position coach Tony Sparano.

Context, fate, a pricey new passer and sky-high expectations all played a role in the team parting ways with DeFilippo, seen just months ago as a shoo-in to become one of the league's shiny new head coaches.

Across from DeFilippo on Monday stood Brian Schottenheimer, a coordinator experiencing newfound success with an offense that rolls toward the postseason as one of the jauntiest attacks around. The Seahawks comfortably lead the league in rushing, rank ninth in scoring and are tied for the fewest turnovers.

An unpredictable rise for Schottenheimer, whose hire was snickered at as one of the offseason's least-creative lever pulls. He's the guy who oversaw Gang Green's ground-and-pound attack -- which worked until it didn't -- before authoring three years of yawn-inducing offense with the Rams from 2012 through 2014.

Still, Seahawks coach Pete Carroll -- himself draped in whispers of impending retirement -- didn't blink in hiring Schottenheimer for his offense and (fired Raiders coordinator) Ken Norton Jr. to run his post-Legion of Boom defense.

With a flock of household names -- Richard Sherman, Kam Chancellor, Michael Bennett, Sheldon Richardson and Cliff Avril -- out the door and Earl Thomas mired in a holdout (before he was lost to injury), Seattle became a popular preseason pick to fade into irrelevance in an NFC West now owned by the Rams.

Instead, Carroll, Schottenheimer and Norton have collaborated to craft one of the better coaching efforts by any team league-wide. Surging at 8-5 and all but locked in for the playoffs, Seattle has morphed into the team nobody wants to face. With the low-wattage Niners up next, the 'Hawks can seal up a party invite with a victory on Sunday.

Carroll and his staff -- and all they've accomplished when most shrugged them off -- sit atop our list of players and coaches who matter most heading into a juicy Week 15. Let's take a look at the others:

1) Bears passer Mitchell Trubisky: Chicago's defense gives one hope the Bears can beat anyone on the right day -- or night. Last Sunday evening's joyful Soldier Field win over the Rams was the kind of victory Bears faithful will eternally appreciate: a low-scoring, white-knuckle bloodfest anchored wire-to-wire by a soul-sucking defense that turned the red-hot Rams into a smattering of players and coaches praying for blankets and a cozy fireplace. In a season of offensive fireworks, Chicago is a reminder the other side of the ball still matters.

That said, it's hard to buy into a Super Bowl run unless Trubisky elevates his game. I'm not here to pick on him -- he's a young quarterback who trends hot and cold -- but his three interceptions against Los Angeles came off bad throws, not fluky tipped balls or broken routes. We're months removed from the opener, when the Bears built a big lead against the Packers, only to flitter it away before Trubisky failed to seal the deal on Chicago's final drive.

What better way to remind us he's grown this season than exacting revenge against Green Bay on Sunday -- a win that would seal up the NFC North and put the 2018 Packers into pitch-black darkness for good.

2) The entire Green Bay Packers organization: The other side of the coin is this team from Wisconsin many ticketed for the Super Bowl. Green Bay has massively underwhelmed and fired its coach in the process, but the Packers -- at 5-7-1 -- still possess a fighting chance of a wild-card berth and one of biggest attractions around in Aaron Rodgers.

If Green Bay's polestar passer can take out the Bears a second time, the Packers are genuinely in position to upset the apple cart with remaining games against the Jets and Lions. Are Joe Philbin and friends up to the task? Who knows. This up-and-down squad has beaten one team with a winning record, the Dolphins, since that opening-night comeback against the Bears.

Green Bay's 34 points last week against the Falcons were a season-high, but trusting this team is a chore. Show us something Sunday or it's curtains for a club that never lived up to the billing.

3) Pittsburgh's Antonio Brown and JuJu Smith-Schuster: The Steelers have not missed the playoffs since 2013, but find themselves riding a three-game losing streak for the fifth time in the Mike Tomlin era. They felt like an option for the second seed a fortnight ago, but the question now is whether this spiraling vessel will make the playoffs at all.

Sunday's hideous loss to the Raiders backed Pittsburgh into an ugly corner, sitting at 7-5-1 and facing the Patriots at home this weekend before going on the road to New Orleans. Ben Roethlisberger will start after suffering a rib injury against the Raiders and must dial up his finest work yet with the help of his trusty go-to receivers.

James Conner's status is iffy at running back, but either way, Brown and Smith-Schuster must lift up this club against a Patriots squad that has owned them all century. Pittsburgh's two wideouts lead all receiving duos in yardage and touchdowns, but does any of that matter if you can't bust the familiar narrative? Another by-the-books loss to New England would tell us all we need to know about this year's Steelers operation.

4) Chubb vs. Chubb: It's Week 15 and Cleveland remains alive for a playoff spot. Plenty must happen, but the Browns (5-7-1) can hang around in the AFC North with a road win over the still-alive Broncos (6-7).

Consider this a battle between two of the AFC's top rookie classes. Cleveland hits the scene behind the tough-nosed running of newbie Nick Chubb, while the Broncos are led on defense by another first-year Chubb -- Bradley, his cousin -- whose 12 sacks on the year sit just below the 13.5 notched by veteran star teammate Von Miller.

The Browns were expected to snag Chubb (the Bradley one) with the fourth overall pick in last year's draft, but instead went with Denzel Ward, the ultra-talented cornerback who will miss his second straight game with a concussion. In Ward's absence, the Browns will see plenty of Broncos rookie wideout Courtland Sutton and another fascinating first-year runner in Denver's Phillip Lindsay.

Denver, meanwhile, must find a way to slow down the biggest rookie draw of all in this Saturday evening tilt: Baker Mayfield. The Browns passer currently sits at the controls of a big-play attack with the most completions (12) of 20-plus air yards since Freddie Kitchens took over the offense in Week 9.

Back then, this game looked like a mid-December snoozefest -- but Browns fans today are awake and dreaming of a doorway into January. Will John Elway get the last laugh once again?

Follow Marc Sessler on Twitter @marcsesslernfl. Listen to Marc on the "Around The NFL Podcast" three times a week.**

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