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We’re 15 weeks into the NFL season. A few plots have played out to our expectations. Far more has gone far off the chain of our projected storyboard.
Each week of the season brings with it a new set of questions. Here, we’ll attempt to lay out five of the most pressing in the NFL that week. The answers to those will reveal deeper truths about how the rest of the story of the 2019 NFL season will unfold. We’ll find that these revelations will have a lasting impact on not just fantasy managers, but the league as a whole.
For this week, we’re going to specifically look at five questions based on takeaways that have come from some of the research I did on point differential this week. In my view, this is a metric that better defines a team’s actual strength, rather than pure win-loss record, a result than can be highly influenced by late-game favor and variance.
We’ll look at teams and storylines all across the contention spectrum. Check out the tweet below and those to follow it for some of the best and worst teams in the metric at different points of the season.
Top 8 teams in point differential:
Bottom 8 teams:
— Matt Harmon (@MattHarmon_BYB) December 17, 2019
How can the Bills pull the upset?
A win in Pittsburgh was enough, in my eyes, for the Bills to prove they are a worthy playoff team, despite some flaws. The Bills have been inside the top-eight in point differential all year, no matter how you filter the weeks. Their opponent this week, the New England Patriots, has fallen out of the top-eight in the last four weeks, despite ranking second on the overall season.
An opportunistic defense and monster catches from John Brown helped the Bills pull off an upset road win against the weakened, but still feisty, Steelers last week. Doing that against Duck Hodges and a Steelers cornerbacks group that relies on the pressure the front seven provides is one thing. Pulling that off against Tom Brady and a defensive back group that has Stephon Gilmore is another.
For all of Brady’s problems, he’s still the type of quarterback who can diagnose a stop unit like Sean McDermott’s group. McDermott isn’t like his former head coach Ron Rivera, stubbornly rolling out the same tired zone coverage to let teams pick apart. Nor is he like the Pete Carroll acolytes who just ask their players to execute and never change up their approach. Buffalo does a good amount to disguise and fool opposing passers.
Nevertheless, Brady hasn’t performed well against the Bills in recent memory. He’s averaged just 5.4 yards per attempt and one pick per game against them the last two years. Replicating that is within the range of outcomes for Buffalo, especially considering the state of the Patriots pass-catching corps. Even if New England wants to establish the run against the Bills 19th-ranked run defense (by Football Outsiders) they’ll find problems there, as well. Sony Michel’s 4.7 yards per carry was his best mark since Week 5 and just the third time he’s done it all season in a game where he’s also cleared 10 carries. The Bills defense is better than the Patriots offense. Those are the facts.
On offense, the Bills won’t find life as easy. John Brown is by far their best player on offense and he’s likely to find himself in Gilmore’s clutches on Saturday. The stud cornerback is a Defensive Player of the Year candidate and allows an absurd 21.5 passer rating on the year. Brown is a great player and might be able to shake free a handful of times but not like he did last week.
Buffalo will have to look elsewhere for an answer. One eye could turn to Cole Beasley, who has popped for them at times this season. Patriots slot corner Jonathan Jones is on the injury report. He’s been fantastic this year, allowing fewer than 30 yards per game in coverage. Beasley would get a nice bump if he sits.
And don’t rule out Devin Singletary having a big game here. The team showed faith in him through two fumbles in Week 15 and saddled him with 23 touches. The Patriots are certainly weaker on the ground than through the air as a stop unit, allowing 100 rushing yards per game and the 11th highest yards after contact per attempt to backs over the last four weeks.
Maybe I’m just a sucker but I think the Bills can pull this off. That’s how much I believe in the operation they have along with the adjusting ability McDermott has brought to this team. When you look at them objectively, the quarterback disparity does loom large but overall, these squads are near even.
Has the Saints offense turned a corner?
New Orleans looks like perhaps the most dangerous team in the stacked NFC right now. Even as their defense has withstood some maladies upfront, Drew Brees has at long last kicked his game into high gear. He’s playing at a level we haven’t seen since the start of 2018.
The Saints are a top-five team in point differential over the last four weeks and much of that has to do with Brees. He’s been white-hot their last two games with 656 yards, nine touchdowns, zero turnovers, and an absurd 83 percent completion rate. If Brees is at that level going into the postseason, few teams can stand up to the Saints.
The Titans are in a tough spot here, even as they host this game. We know the Saints aren’t the same team outside away from the confines of their dome. However, Tennessee’s injuries in the secondary could even that out. Malcolm Butler has been on IR for some time now. Adoree Jackson got in limited practice this week but who knows what kind of condition he will be in. He allows a 92.6 passer rating on the season as is, per Sports Info Solutions. Slot corner Logan Ryan is healthy but gives up 7.9 yards per attempt in his coverage.
Sean Payton has shown an ability to put Michael Thomas in advantageous situations and just thump a bad coverage player over and over again. Thomas leads the NFL in catches (133) by a wide margin and there is no reason to think that will change in this contest.
On offense, the Titans need a healthy Derrick Henry. Period. If he’s less than himself, Tennessee won’t be able to control the action or pace the game how they want it. Ryan Tannehill can still be an effective play-action passer regardless of how the run game looks but Henry adds a unique big-play element that you don’t see out of many rushers. If he’s able to be that engine of the offense, the Titans can keep this close, especially considering the injuries to the Saints defensive line.
Can you still trust the Buccaneers?
Tampa Bay looks like one of the clear spoiler teams in the NFL to close the season. Going nowhere themselves here in 2019, they’ve made life difficult for the opposition of late. Tampa Bay ranks seventh in point differential since Week 10 and fourth since Week 12. They are on the rise.
Much of the attention goes to the passing offense, which has put up gaudy numbers over the last two weeks, but the Bucs’ defense has also experienced a small turnaround. Tampa Bay ranks eighth in weighted DVOA, which adjusts for recent performances and strength of opponents. Of course, a ton of that effectiveness comes on the back of their consistently strong ground defense but to get all the way into the Top-10 shows a bump from the air side of the unit as well.
That side of the ball will have to hold up its end of the bargain if they’re going to pull the outright upset or at least cover the three-point spread against the Texans. With the offense, it’s simply an issue of trust.
You cannot understate the loss of both Mike Evans and Chris Godwin. One is enough but two is wildly problematic. These are two of the best wide receivers in the game. For a team that throws more often than anyone else, it’s an issue. For fantasy, Breshad Perriman remains a near must-play simply on projectable volume. But you may need to worry a bit more about Jameis Winston than you think. Houston is theoretically a good matchup but allows the 10th-lowest passer rating (72.6) on deep throws the last three weeks.
What’s up with Washington’s rise?
Featured at third-worst with a -132 point differential for the entire season, Washington hasn’t been in the bottom teams since Week 10 or Week 12. It’s not as if they’ve suddenly become a strong team. They’d still pick in the top-five in the 2020 NFL Draft if the season ended today. However, they’re playing competitive football of late and can at least no longer be considered doormat team. In just their last four games, they’re 2-2 with five- and 10-point losses to NFC playoff hopefuls.
The primary reason for the turnaround is their defense — especially their pass defense. While they can still get barreled over by rushing attacks, they sport a league-average aerial stop unit. Washington ranks 12th in pass defense success rate allowed since Week 12. Prior to Week 12, they ranked 27th. Small samples can be tricky but it’s not as if Washington is bereft of talent in their front-seven with Matt Ioannidis, Johnathan Allen and Daron Payne making up a solid line, while rookie Montez Sweat has flashed at times too.
The defensive improvement has allowed them to keep games close, which is ideal for how interim head coach Bill Callahan wants to play. He stated at the time of his promotion he wanted to focus on the run game, and so he has. Washington keeping games close has allowed them to run at the seventh-highest rate (47.7%) over the last three weeks. With Derrius Guice on IR, that’s given Adrian Peterson a big boost. The veteran has a whopping 39 touches with two end-zone trips as the team’s clear RB1 over the last two weeks. As wild as it is, Peterson may well be a championship-winner again for fantasy managers.
Is there any value in Oakland’s backfield?
The Raiders were in the bottom-four for each of the spans shown here. Point differential was a metric that showed Oakland was a fraud all year, even as they hung out on the fringe of the playoff picture at different stages. Clearly 32nd now, they’re where they belong. The Raiders are not a good team and are not at all built to thrive in adverse conditions.
The problem has crept into their offensive players’ outlook. Josh Jacobs was able to thrive early in the season despite the Raiders being in poor position thanks to incredible efficiency. Lately, we’ve started to see more floor performances out of the stud rookie, especially with his lack of reps in the passing game. Further complicating matters is a shoulder injury that’s nagged Jacobs for quite some time now. It’s to the point where Jon Gruden announced he won’t play his offensive centerpiece in Week 16 just to give him some time off before potentially playing in their 2019 finale.
Jacobs’ absence brings DeAndre Washington into the spotlight. He totaled 96 yards from scrimmage and scored one time on 20 touches in a blowout loss to the surging Titans the last time we saw him get a start for Jacobs, in Week 14. Washington is far from the runner Jacobs is but strangely, is a more valued asset in the passing game. His six catches in Week 14 doubled Jacobs’ season-high of three. That, at least, gives you hope.
For fantasy managers, you can trust Washington to stay involved even as the hapless Raiders struggle. That will come in handy against a Chargers team that proved last week, even if their pass defense is wildly improved with healthy players like Melvin Ingram and Derwin James back in the mix, they’re still perfectly capable of getting barreled over on the ground. Just keep in mind Washington is merely a floor play because of his rushing inefficiency, which will likely be compounded by the loss of Trent Brown (IR) at right tackle. If Jalen Richard siphons any receiving work, Washington would turn into a disaster.