As we head into the crunch time of the NFL’s regular season playoff push and the fantasy football championships, every little detail doesn’t matter. Even in daily fantasy tournaments and sports betting, we’re trying to do all we can to make lasting wins before the hourglass runs out. Here, we’ll focus on seven of the biggest storylines that could shape outcomes in all lines of fake football for Week 16.
Will the real Rams please stand up?
The Rams are in an undeniable slump. Over the last three games (1-3 record), their Pro Bowl quarterback has been an utter mess. Jared Goff has a one:seven touchdown-to-interception ratio with a 55 percent completion rate since the team returned from their Week 12 bye. He’s also fumbled three times.
Los Angeles will also head into Week 16 with questions surrounding Todd Gurley’s health. While the star back will play, Sean McVay confirmed he does indeed have a knee injury.
Nevertheless, the Rams are massive 14-point favorites in Arizona this weekend. The Cardinals are, almost without question, the worst team in the NFL. Arizona has been outscored by an average of 18 points in their last five losses. The Rams offense needs this to be a get-right game.
The idea of “peaking too early” is almost certainly nonsense and the unit overall is still littered with talented players. However, in order for the unit to reach the gravitas it once had during the early part of the season, when it seemed they’d stroll right into the playoffs with a scoring advantage over the field, they need to drop a hammer on the woebegone Cardinals.
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While the offense needs the rebound game, LA may well win this game on defense. Josh Rosen has been under pressure on 41.1 percent of his dropbacks — third-most among passers with 300-plus dropbacks on the season. He has a miserable 35.7 passer rating on those plays, per Pro Football Focus. Of course, Aaron Donald is on yet another tear this season but Dante Fowler has made an impact since joining the team at the trade deadline. His 17 pressures rank second on the team since Week 9.
The Rams have an objectively middling-to-poor defense but it could still boost them to a much-needed win in Week 16. No one will deny that we need to see more than that to regard them as we once did.
Chris Hogan back in the spotlight
With Josh Gordon out of the picture for New England, Chris Hogan’s name will once again enter the fantasy forefront. Hogan didn’t exactly thrive in Gordon’s now-vacated top outside receiver role to start the year, failing to clear 45 yards or handle more than five targets in any game prior to Week 6. Despite scoring a 63-yard touchdown on a busted coverage play last week, it’s hard to tell yourself the story of how Hogan does much more with that role this time around.
Hogan is a zone-beating receiver, clearing 80 percent in success rate vs. zone coverage in each of the 2016 and 2017 seasons when charted in my Reception Perception methodology. He’s not the type of receiver to beat tough outside coverage on a route-by-route basis. He finished below the 50th percentile in back-to-back seasons in success rate vs. press coverage. Hogan is clearly a solid NFL receiver but he’s best used as a complementary player on the interior or at flanker. Recent evidence suggests a full-time X-receiver role may be too much to ask.
It’s also difficult to imagine this matchup, in particular, will bring about an ascension for Hogan. The Bills have allowed the fewest yards (1,747) to wide receivers this season. If we’re all being honest, this Patriots offense at the direction of an ever-so-slightly declining version of Tom Brady is no longer the ultra-fertile soil it once was that produced skill position stars.
Marlon Mack: A top-10 running back today, but tomorrow?
Marlon Mack re-emerged as a dominant back in Week 15 with a 27-carry outing. The Colts back dusted the Cowboys for a season-high 139 yards and a pair of touchdowns last week, despite the Dallas D allowing fewer than four yards per carry heading into the game. My wise colleague Liz Loza noted on the Halftime with Harmon stream (watch it on Twitter, Facebook, YouTube or Twitch) that his massive game after a pair of clunkers was likely due to center Ryan Kelly’s healthy return.
The Colts will add their starting right guard back to the mix here in Week 16 just in time for Mack to take on the moribund Giants run defense. New York just gave up a 30-plus carry outing to Derrick Henry last week and has been pummeled for the fifth-most rushing yards in the NFL over the last month.
While Mack is a clear RB1 play this week, the more interesting debate is how high his stock can get going into 2019. If Mack finishes this season on a tear while pushing for a 1,000-yard campaign, the Colts can afford to address other positions in the offseason, rolling with him as the starting early-down back. Don’t rule out such a player creeping his way into the third or even second round of 2019 fantasy drafts amidst an offseason of hype.
Houston needs more credit
The current No. 2 seed in the AFC playoffs, the Houston Texans are getting a point in Philadelphia. While the mainstream sports world seems insistent on reminding us that the Eagles were in a similar spot to end the 2017 regular season right before Nick Foles lifted them to a Super Bowl title, it’s not entirely relevant to their situation today.
The team’s Week 15 win over the Rams aside, the Eagles are still wounded. Philadelphia has major injuries on both sides of the ball and their offensive line is no longer the unbreakable force it was during their 2017 playoff run. Foles is a streaky player more than capable of a hot stretch but he’s not in the same cushy ecosystem that fostered his path to Super Bowl MVP.
Houston, on the other hand, comes in after winning 10 of their last 11 games. The game is in Philadelphia but it’s still strange that the Eagles are favored here. These aren’t even-level teams. The total also seems conservative at 46 points. Houston and Philadelphia are top-two in most passing yards allowed over the last month.
Don’t rule out that this game turns into a high-scoring affair when these two secondaries meet. In that situation, Houston just has more of a big-play counterpunch than Philly does right now. Here’s to hoping the Texans offensive line doesn’t make every word written here irrelevant.
Jared Cook’s career year
Almost no one talks about the Raiders anymore beyond Jon Gruden jokes, so we’ll use this space to give love to one of their few bright spots. Over the last month, Jared Cook’s 129 routes run ranks inside the top-five at the tight end position. It’s been easy to miss given he’s playing on a terrible Raiders team but Cook is easily having his best NFL season.
Cook has already set career-highs across the board and ranks top-five among tight ends in catches (63), yards (848) and touchdowns (six) here in 2018. He has an excellent shot to continue this personal best season against the Broncos this week. Denver has once again been pummeled by tight ends this year, allowing the second-most yards to the position and a laughably high 14.8 yards per catch.
The veteran tight end will see his contract expire at the conclusion of this year. While the 31 year old pass-catcher would theoretically fit in the mold of a player Gruden wants to build around and has been one of his few positives on offense, we could see Cook walk into the open market as a highly coveted player. Perhaps he does so as a 1,000-yard receiver after a massive Week 16 line.
Gerald Everett might be a thing
A few weeks ago, I thought Gerald Everett might become a key figure in replacing Cooper Kupp’s role within the Rams offense. That didn’t exactly play out, despite his two-score outing on Monday Night Football against the Chiefs all those weeks ago. The streets are still talking about Kupp as a Jenga piece within this aerial attack given how Goff has played of late; an argument I personally find a touch disingenuous.
Yet, it’s worth checking in on Everett once again, as he’s been more involved than ever and may have quietly earned a promotion here late in the season. Over the last two weeks, Everett has turned in season highs in snaps played and earned seven targets in each, also season-highs. Additionally, he’s run 59 routes in that span, well more than teammate Tyler Higbee at 33.
With the Rams looking for some answers on offense and Everett already trending up, perhaps we see him turn in his best game of the season in a game where LA needs to put some points on the board.
Nick Mullens heat check
Nick Mullens sports a 9.1 yards per attempt figure in home games this year, compared to 7.9 on the road. He’s started just six games and split his win total 3-3. While it’s a painfully small sample, I don’t know how you argue that he’s been anything but a hit for the 49ers.
The backup Niners quarterback will face a stiff test with the Bears defense coming to town. Chicago just secured their first NFC North title in years a mere week after dismantling the vaunted Rams offense in every possible way. Mullens Mania will need some extra juice to keep up the home field momentum. And yet, he’s played so well of late that there are even small whispers the former unknown quantity could be floated in trade rumors this offseason with so many teams thirsty for passing help.
Personally, I think we ought to just let Mullens remain in San Francisco after proving himself as a capable point guard in the Kyle Shanahan offense. Just the fact that the words are spoken, however, shows how far he’s come from a man who still doesn’t have anything but a creepy fan picture in his Wikipedia bio.
If Mullens is able to merely tread water against this thrilling Bears defense, his ascension to the top of the backup quarterback ranks will only be more spiked. Despite their sad 2018 season, the 49ers remain one of the more intriguing teams to study this offseason.