Gregg Rosenthal catches you up on everything you need to know as we turn from Week 14 to Week 15.
The story on Monday night in Foxborough was a 39-year-old quarterback throwing for 406 yards and three touchdowns against the NFL's stingiest defense, all without his best offensive weapon in a 30-23 victory. The story is one that has played out so many times in the AFC that it's almost become cliché. The New England Patriots are peaking in December again and Tom Brady is angling for more postseason hardware.
Brady has been playing at this level since Week 5, but so many of his teammates are making a patented Patriots December push. The return of legendary offensive line coach Dante Scarnecchia has keyed his group's steady improvement. The return of Dion Lewis gives Brady his best backfield since Corey Dillon and Kevin Faulk were running the show. Rookie Malcolm Mitchell and free-agent addition Chris Hogan give Brady options outside the numbers that he hasn't enjoyed in years.
Monday's decisive play, a 79-yard touchdown to Hogan, was an example of what makes Brady and the Patriots' offense so special. Hogan was not the primary receiver on the play, but he saw a vulnerability in Baltimore's coverage with safety Eric Weddle cheating toward the line of scrimmage. Despite being on the team only nine months, Hogan trusted Brady saw the same thing, too.
"He saw what I saw and he adjusted his route," Brady explained in the postgame presser.
After the confounding Jamie Collins trade and Rob Gronkowski's season-ending injury, this Patriots team appeared vulnerable. But coach Bill Belichick has settled on a defensive rotation over the last month and the group has quietly made strides with contributions from lesser-known players like Trey Flowers, Kyle Van Noy and Malcom Brown. The Ravens' only two touchdown drives Monday totaled 25 yards, a result of New England's special teams blunders.
Belichick, headed for his seventh straight playoff bye, knows his defense doesn't need to be dominant because this team will go as far as Brady takes it. Brady's energy Monday night, from his early frustrations with Julian Edelman to his maniacal exhorting of the crowd, made it all feel like January.
"It was a big game for us, it was a big game for us," Brady said after the game. "When you play [at] home on a December Monday night against a great defense, it was important for us to come out and play well."
Brady remembers last December. The team limped down the stretch, losing its final two games to hand over home-field advantage to the Broncos. This Sunday, the Patriots head to Denver again, this time with the Broncos staggering. If Brady takes down the league's two scariest defenses in successive weeks, he has an MVP case that won't need to go to the 2nd U.S. Circuit of Appeals.
Narratives that were busted
1) This Cowboys' offensive line isn't impenetrable. The group, whose deeds have been built up to the stuff of legends, has been bodied in consecutive weeks by defenses that have at least matched Dallas' physicality. There is no reason to panic in Big D, much less consider a quarterback change, but it's fair to be concerned when the team averages 262 yards of offense over two weeks (for comparison, the No. 32-ranked Rams average 286 yards per game).
2) The Seahawks aren't coasting to a playoff bye. They need to figure out life without Earl Thomas and how to win on the road in January. They will finish with a losing road record for the first time since Russell Wilson's rookie season. Instead of his customary soaring down the stretch, Wilson has put out some troubling tape the last three weeks. Even in the team's 40-7 win over Carolina, he didn't throw the ball particularly well. His five interceptions in Green Bay weren't all his fault, but plenty of missed throws against the Packers were on Wilson.
3) No, the Cardinals won't make their season interesting with a late run. Arizona's problems are a well-worn path by now. Their leading wide receiver Sunday had 18 yards, in large part because they can't protect Carson Palmer (and he can't protect himself). Still, this is a squad that shows how thin the line can be between relevance and disaster. Kicker Chandler Catanzaro's two missed extra-point attempts Sunday continued a nightmare season. Arizona could easily be 8-5 if Catanzaro hit some routine kicks.
4) Rex Ryan's defense is not a difference-making group. It's not even average despite nice stories like Lorenzo Alexander and Zach Brown. Since Week 7, only the Browns and 49ers have given up more points per game. A rough schedule is part of the equation, but the Bills also have benefited from an offense that is historically good at not turning over the ball. If Ryan doesn't make it to 2017, the team's decay on defense will be the biggest reason why.
5) It's far from certain that Denver will make the playoffs. The final AFC wild-card spot is wide open, with the Dolphins, an AFC North team to be named later or even a second AFC South team all contenders at this point. Losing Ryan Tannehill is deeply disappointing for a Dolphins squad that wins by the narrowest of margins, but backup Matt Moore gives them a chance in winnable road games against the Jetsand Bills.
6)Matt Barkley is not a punchline. He has earned contracts for the next decade as a quality backup with his play over the last three weeks.
A completely subjective ranking of Week 14's most costly setbacks
4) Arizona Cardinals: We have the final answer to the series "All or Nothing."
2) Buffalo Bills: Sunday's loss to Pittsburgh had the feel of an organization ready to make sweeping changes again because sweeping changes are all they've known for far too long.
The post-Fisher Rams
Firing Jeff Fisher was the easy part for owner Stan Kroenke. Turning around a franchise that has enjoyed four winning seasons in the last 27 years will be trickier.
The most immediate question facing the team: Who will hire the next head coach?
Based on comments made by Kevin Demoff, the Rams' executive vice president of football operations, GM Les Snead's future is uncertain at best. Demoff stressed that the team won't be married to any structure of hiring a new general manager before a head coach, and they won't only look at offensive coaches.
That makes sense, but any head coach is going to need a plan for Jared Goff, who has not impressed in his four NFL starts. Fisher's staff didn't give him much of a chance. A new coach needs a plan to develop the No. 1 overall pick or needs to have the right staff to do so. Even Fisher's biggest defenders will admit that his offensive coordinator hires were borderline disastrous.
Kroenke, who wooed Fisher to St. Louis five years ago when the Miami Dolphins wanted him, too, could look toward shiny names like Tom Coughlin or Mike Shanahan as potential offensive minds. Kyle Shanahan or Jim Bob Cooter would be first-time head-coaching possibilities. Josh McDaniels would make some sense, although we're not sure whether his previous stint with the Rams as an offensive coordinator is an asset or a detriment. Demoff mentioned potentially looking at college coaches.
Fisher's act had grown stale long before the team left St. Louis. One year after arriving in Los Angeles, the Rams have a chance to start all over again and look for a modern NFL offense.
Storylines that deserve more attention
1) Gary Kubiak's running game in Denver is beyond repair and he knows it. That's why, on the very first series of Sunday's loss to Tennessee, the Broncos threw the ball on second-and-1 and third-and-1. They failed. Three drives later, Kubiak decided to run the ball twice in the exact same situation. That failed, too.
It is an indictment on this Broncos squad that Justin Forsett, cut by two teams this year, stepped off Stopgap Running Back Street and into a primary back role over rookie Devontae Booker. Trevor Siemian was flattened on that initial third-and-1 because Booker completely whiffed on a block. The Broncos have so much to like -- that secondary, that pass rush, those wideouts, Siemian -- that could all go to waste.
2) I wrote two weeks ago not to take Le'Veon Bell's greatness for granted and his 298-yard snow festival Sunday should put it on everyone's radar. It's also worth sending love to the offensive line that has helped Bell rack up more yards from scrimmage in his first 10 games this season than any player since Jim Brown.
3) After a slow start to the season, the Giants' big-money free-agent signing, Olivier Vernon, has been terrific since the weather turned cold. In some weeks, he blows up the opposing running game, like on Sunday night against Dallas. In other games, he gets to the quarterback. But in every game, he's an ironman in a manner truly rare in today's NFL. Vernon has 83 more snaps than any other 4-3 defensive end in football, according to Pro Football Focus. The Giants were able to withstand JPP's absence against the Cowboys because Vernon never leaves the field.
4) There is one big reason to fear a Saturday afternoon Wild Card Weekend appearance by the Houston Texans and it rhymes with crock. This is a squad which the metrics say is much closer to the Rams and 49ers than the Patriots and Chiefs. But don't blame defensive coordinator Romeo Crennel and a trio of his front-seven leaders for your apathy. (Let's face it: My apathy.)
Inside linebacker Benardrick McKinney's anticipation and aggression blew up a screen on Andrew Luck's fatal final fourth-down pass Sunday. It's the type of downhill play he's made all year. Jadeveon Clowney had another monster game in his breakout season, helping to force two turnovers and make so many other plays not in the box score. He's made the leap. Whitney Mercilus is the defense's best player and one of the most underrated, consistent pass rushers in football. He didn't need J.J. Watt to be dominant.
Dorsett hasn't met a tough catch he can't botch, and his failure to haul in three key passes on Sunday helped doom the Colts. Donte Moncrief's injury-plagued season required Dorsett to step up, and he's hurt the team over and over. Luck threw to him eight times Sunday for a total of 19 yards. T.Y. Hilton was double-covered all game, still piling up 115 yards, but other Colts wideouts couldn't step up.