So much happens on any given Sunday in the NFL. It’s hard to keep track of it all. More importantly, it’s quite a lot to decide what we should value as signal and what we should just ignore as noise. In this space, I’ll go through all that we learned this week and give you the five things I care about coming out of Week 15, along with five things I can’t muster up the emotional energy to care for. Good news for you: We’re going to do this exercise in emotional turmoil every Sunday of the regular season.
5 Things I care about
Mentally preparing yourself for a Dallas playoff win
The Cowboys have not locked up the NFC East. Even if they do, they’ll enter the postseason with a wildly uninspiring record. With that said, the Cowboys reminded us in Week 15 that they have the ceiling to drop a huge hammer any given week. We all just need to start getting in the headspace to not be surprised by a Dallas Cowboys’ first-round win in the playoffs.
The roster talent Dallas possesses is real. When they’re rolling, they can take a team to the woodshed and that’s exactly what they did to the Rams on Sunday.
A week after laying down to the Bears last Thursday night, the Cowboys sliced through a surging Rams team in every possible way on offense. Dak Prescott was remarkably efficient, posting 9.2 yards per attempt and spreading the ball all over the field. No receiver had more than five targets. Ezekiel Elliott and Tony Pollard both ran for over 100 yards and found the end zone; Elliott got there twice. The defense flew around the field as well. It’s not a stop unit without talent and we were reminded of that as their crew finally executed in Week 15 after a truly hideous stretch.
This is who Dallas is. They have absolutely no floor, and the reason is twofold: 1) They possess a coaching staff that does little to add to the appeal of the talent and 2) They have just enough inconsistency from their top-line players here in 2019 to walk a thin margin for error. However, with legitimate stars at all levels of their offense and defense, the ceiling outcome is always in play.
Recall the 7-9 Seattle Seahawks of 2010. The team squeaked its way into the postseason thanks to a lousy division. Many were appalled they would dare sully the postseason stage. Nevertheless, the Seahawks beat a better Saints team in Seattle in one of the best playoff games in recent memory. It was a literal legacy-defining contest, as Marshawn Lynch’s rebirth as “Beastmode” began that weekend. The team would go on to lose their next playoff game but that moment will live on in NFL lore.
The 2019 Cowboys can write a similar story next month. One stunning win and that’s a wrap in the postseason. That same Seahawks team, the 49ers or — less likely but not impossible — an NFC North team could run into the Dallas buzzsaw if this team accesses its ceiling on a future January afternoon. We can’t trust it. There will be no sharply predicting it. The Cowboys just reminded us in Week 15 the sudden appearance of the ceiling in their wide range of outcomes as a team is always in play.
Start mentally preparing yourself for the chance it shows up when the games matter even more in the playoffs.
Anthony Miller and Allen Robinson clear 100 yards
It can be hard to tell because of the dreadful situation behind center but the Bears do have big-time talent in their wide receiver room. However, on a day where Mitchell Trubisky threw 53 times — an interesting strategy — we were able to see that on full display.
Most of the public knows about Allen Robinson. He’s reconfirmed to all that he’s a phenomenal No. 1 wide receiver by pacing for over 90 catches and 1,100 yards in a year where Trubisky has largely been a disaster.
What the people might not know, but they damn well should: Anthony Miller is also a baller.
Miller hasn’t been flying high throughout his sophomore season. He’s also dealt with injuries in each of his first two campaigns and he wasn’t seeing much playing time in 2019 but the tide has turned of late. The second-year receiver started playing north of 80 percent of the team snaps around Week 11. The results of the shift have been fantastic, as Miller has piled up 33 catches, averaged 86 yards per game and scored twice from Weeks 11 to 15. He boosted those numbers with a massive line on a team-high 15 targets against the Packers on Sunday. Miller and Robinson collected targets on 54.7% of Trubisky’s tosses.
When looking at the best receiver duos in the NFL, Robinson and Miller won’t make many top-five lists. If Miller can continue stringing together these types of games up through 2020, we need to have that conversation. Robinson is a star and Miller is finally starting to bring his Doug Baldwin-style skillset to the forefront. Let’s just hope a better quarterback can help nurture this all next season and beyond.
Three Eagles we need to see more of
Jordan Howard looks like he’s inching toward a return. That’s great but based on what we’ve seen the last two weeks, it’s hard to imagine how they can integrate him into the offense without knocking off the flow of two backs who are really helping the Eagles right now.
Miles Sanders has been handling a workhorse snap share since Howard went down. He’s been a positive force as a rusher and you could argue that he enjoyed his biggest breakout game this week. The rookie crushed Washington for 122 yards and a score on 19 carries in Week 15. He’s been a plus, if but underutilized receiver all year and was efficient again today catching all six of his looks for 50 yards and a score. Coming into Week 15, Sanders boasted a 78% catch rate at 10.6 yards per grab. He looks like he can be a clear focal point on a team that desperately needs explosiveness on offense.
The rookie wasn’t alone in his positive efforts. Boston Scott followed up his strong Week 14 Monday night performance in relief of a dehydrated Sanders with a solid change-of-pace outing on Sunday. Scott also hauled in all of his targets, posting 39 yards on seven catches. With the receiver corps in such a tragic place, his ability to provide layup receptions must remain an option for Carson Wentz.
Lastly, for as hapless as the receiver corps has been in 2019, no one should turn their nose up at the production of Greg Ward. The college quarterback turned slot receiver finished second on the team with nine targets, converting seven for 61 yards and a score. He’s finished with seven-plus targets in three of his four games since getting a call to the active roster. Ward is far from the explosive deep threat the Eagles desperately need but he can help out, especially next week against Dallas, who struggles to cover the middle of the field.
Players who got away from Adam Gase
Life has to be a little uncomfortable for Adam Gase right now. No, not just because the team he coaches in New York is playing out the string of a lost season. The real discomfort has to surround the reality that every player who got away from him seems to be thriving in 2019. It was on full display in Week 15.
DeVante Parker caught two more touchdowns, bringing his season total to 59-954-8 amid a truly remarkable rebound campaign. The Gase staff left him for dead repeatedly in Miami. Ryan Tannehill has become one of the league’s most efficient passers in Tennessee. Even if he didn’t win today, it was another productive game as he dueled for the right to win his division. He was never this kind of player under Gase. No one made the point more emphatically than Kenyan Drake in Week 15. The now-Cardinal back scored a whopping four touchdowns against the Browns. Gase never wanted to commit to Drake even as the back offered him a strong stretch as a featured player to close 2017.
Look, it’s unlikely that simply getting out of Gase’s clutches is the sole reason for these players suddenly flourishing. However, it cannot be comforting for Jets fans — who are likely stuck with Gase in 2020 if ownership is to be believed — that want to see the best out of some talented offensive players in New York.
As for Tannehill, Drake, and Parker, each will enter 2020 with far better regard than they entered this season. The suddenly exciting Titans will have Tannehill back under the tag or a new deal. Parker will look to further establish himself as a No. 1 wideout for the Dolphins. Drake will be the Cardinals lead back and get to enjoy the spoils of a system that has churned out productive rushers all year.
Patrick Mahomes rolls in the snow
With all the focus on the Patriots’ struggles and the Ravens’ excellence, it does sometimes feel as if the Chiefs are the under-discussed titan in the AFC. Much of that is due to Patrick Mahomes’ quiet statistical stretch the last month. That came crashing to a halt in Week 15.
Mahomes offered a vintage stat line for the Chiefs while easily wiping away the Broncos in a snow-covered game. At 10 yards per attempt, Mahomes racked up 340 yards and two scores with a 79% completion rate. He reminded us that any given day he’s the best player on the field. A line like this on a chilly playoff weekend will swiftly remove any non-Baltimore AFC team. The conference just doesn’t have the consistently strong teams on both sides of the ball to handle a force like this.
It’s easy to forget that Mahomes suffered a gruesome dislocated kneecap less than a few months ago against these same Broncos. We haven’t seen him in peak form since, or so it’s felt. If this version of Mahomes shows up in January, we might just get the Chiefs vs. Ravens showdown in the AFC Championship that we so desperately deserve.
5 Things I don’t care about
Complaints that the Bills aren’t pretty
In the modern NFL, a strong but not dominant defensive team that’s consistently dealing with volatility from its quarterback shouldn’t be starting a playoff berth. Well, too bad, because the Buffalo Bills just locked up a spot.
The Bills aren’t exactly the most athletically pleasing team. However, they’re well-coached, detail-oriented and possess just enough of a ceiling to put some heat on a good team in the first round of the postseason. Josh Allen had his gaffes on Sunday night. It wasn’t enough to kill the team thanks especially to the hunting mentality in their secondary. John Brown looked like the offensive MVP, gaining 99 yards on a tough pass defense. Brown now needs fewer than 100 yards to earn his first 1,000-yard campaign since 2015.
Fantasy managers certainly don’t love the Bills and weren’t in love with finding them on the primetime schedule this week. Yet, they offered up a tantalizing back-and-forth with another fringe playoff team in Pittsburgh. The Bills have two strong road wins in their last three contests. Don’t be shocked if they bring home one like this if Allen is hot one January weekend.
Tyler Lockett’s slow month
From Weeks 10-14, Tyler Lockett went completely missing. He totaled just 107 yards on eight catches through four games. Who cares?
Well, the people who saw their road to the fantasy championship close as that stretch unfolded might care. But that random period of time didn’t say much about Lockett’s playing ability or future projection. We know that Lockett suffered a leg injury during the Seahawks win over the 49ers in Week 10. It was so serious that he stayed the night at a local hospital and did not fly home with the team. Not long after, he would get sick with an illness that ran through the Seahawks locker room. There was a clear reason he went quiet and Pete Carroll said he was fully past it this week. Of course, we always take all coaches and especially Carroll at their word.
If you were willing to bet on a talented player who proved himself a true top-level receiver over the first two months of the season, you were rewarded. Lockett was in a gorgeous spot against a Panthers team that came into Week 15 allowing 124 yards per game to slot receivers and a 100.6 passer rating on throws of 15-plus yards in their previous four games. Those aligned perfectly with Lockett’s skillset. The result: 120 yards and a score on eight catches.
Zero percent of people should be surprised he thrived this week. Lockett’s Week 15 output is much more in line with our expectations. The previous four games were the obvious outlier.
People who think Curtis Samuel isn’t good
Curtis Samuel’s breakout fantasy season, as called for by yours truly, hasn’t completely come to fruition. However, don’t for a second permit a single person to seriously tell you it’s because he isn’t good at football.
Watching the games will easily reveal that even if Samuel has missed at the catch point this season, the lack of ability for Kyle Allen to get off his first read or push the ball downfield has been the culprit. Advanced metrics also prove this to be the case:
Top 5 WRs (min. 70 tgts) in % of targets deemed catchable by @SportsInfo_SIS
Michael Thomas 88.4%
Mohamed Sanu 85.9%
Stefon Diggs 84.1%
Amari Cooper 83%
Julian Edelman 83%
Robby Anderson 62%
Auden Tate 62%
Curtis Samuel 65.6%
DeVante Parker 66.3%
Odell Beckham 66.7%
— Matt Harmon (@MattHarmon_BYB) December 10, 2019
It looked like the Panthers took that to heart in Week 15, as well. Carolina got Samuel the ball as a rusher four times today, in addition to five times in the passing game. He racked up 23 yards on the ground and handled a few direct snaps. It was as if the team finally realized, “If we want to get the ball to this playmaker, we need to take matters out of Allen’s hands.” Samuel responded. It all spoke volumes.
The third-year receiver also scored his sixth touchdown of the year, increasing his gap for the team-lead. Hard to say but we’re all pretty sure touchdowns are good. If a healthy Cam Newton is back under center for this team in 2020, we’re going to see it all come together in the stat sheet.
Trying to put Jameis Winston elsewhere in 2020
Jameis Winston put a second consecutive 450-plus yard, multiple-touchdown game together as the Buccaneers stomped out the Lions. And he only had one interception this time around.
Winston is far from a clean quarterback. It’s impossible to fathom anyone going out in a game with him and not constantly staring over their shoulder wondering when that multi-turnover storm will arrive. Yet, it’s becoming clear that the Buccaneers are quite likely to subject themselves to that experience again next season.
The former No. 1 overall pick now has 30 touchdowns and 24 interceptions on the year. It’s a near-perfect encapsulation of who he is a player. He’s made big plays all year; he’s made big mistakes all year. Overall, Winston is ending this season on a high note and that’s all while his top two receivers have both fallen in their last two games. That has me thinking we’ll see Winston back in Tampa next year.
Consider that the team extended the GM, Jason Licht, who drafted Winston, and Bruce Arians was coaxed back to the game under the challenge of reviving him. So far, he’s probably given them enough to run it back one more year.
Ryan Tannehill’s loss in the context of his case for 2020
We should have already long accepted that Ryan Tannehill will be the Titans starter next season. That’s going to happen and barring a full-blown implosion, nothing over the next month will change that.
We should also not be surprised that one of the most efficient stretches for a quarterback we’ve ever seen came to an end this Sunday. Tannehill was hardly bad; even his lone interception came courtesy of a pass that popped out of a backup tight end’s hands at the actual goal line. It’s just that his 7.8 yards per attempt and 92.2 passer rating were more the efforts of a mere mortal quarterback, not the deity-like mode Tannehill was producing at here in 2019.
Again, the regression was bound to hit. So it did. Nevertheless, Tannehill remains a net positive for the Titans as the season ends despite this loss. He’s hardly turned back into a pumpkin. And let’s not forget, he will see these same Texans again in Week 17, a game that could truly decide the AFC South title. The ink on this chapter is not remotely dry.