1 – Can Seattle beat Los Angeles?
As things stand right now, the Seattle Seahawks lead the NFC West as the third seed in the NFC playoff picture. This was all made possible by the Rams’ embarrassing loss to the Jets last week. That sin can be erased, however, if Los Angeles takes down Seattle this week.
The last time these two teams played, the Rams shut down DK Metcalf and won 23-16.
But a few things have changed since then for Seattle.
For one, we still didn’t realize the Seahawks defense was on the upswing at that point. Once one of the absolute pushovers of the league, they’ve leveled out to be the 18th-ranked defense in weighted DVOA. Most importantly, their pass rush is legit. Since Carlos Dunlap started playing for the team in Week 9, Seattle has led the NFL in sack rate (9.5 percent) and has the fourth-most pressures (73).
That’s great news because, as we’ve seen time and time again, a group with a ferocious pass rush is the type of unit that can rattle Jared Goff.
The bad news is that Seattle’s offense has regressed to the point of being ordinary — to even slightly below average.
The Week 10 loss to the Rams was the beginning of the slip. From then until now, the Seahawks have cleared 30 points just once, and that was against the aforementioned Jets. Russell Wilson has thrown one or fewer touchdowns in four of those six contests. What was once an enthralling passing attack has now been reduced to forgettable.
Some of it is the insistence of staunchly conservative coach Pete Carroll to lean on the run. The #LetRussCook movement is long dead. At the same time, part of me doesn’t want to blame Carroll. There are far bigger issues here.
Seattle is outside the top-20 teams in first-down passing rate the last three weeks and has completely lacked a counterpunch to their vertical game when they do throw. Wilson still leads the NFL in deep passing touchdowns but their short, over-the-middle passing game is a problem. They just aren’t matriculating the offense down the field with singles and doubles through the air at this point. Metcalf and Tyler Lockett have just 36 and 30 targets, respectively, on slants, crossers, and screens.
There either aren’t enough layups in this offense, or Wilson just isn’t taking them.
Teams have just played two deep safeties to do what they can to remove the deep portion of Seattle’s playbook. It’s working. Whenever the Seahawks do try the short game, it’s just not natural or effective like it is for the Rams, 49ers, or other teams that have installed a variety of these easy throws.
Wilson has thrown to the short middle (15 yards or fewer) on just 18 percent of his throws. He’s an outside-the-numbers passer and that leads to volatility. We saw the extremely positive side of variance in the first half of the season, now we’re on the other extreme.
The Seahawks certainly have enough talent with a star quarterback, strong backs, and a top-five wide receiver duo to get hot and click at any moment. The problem is, they draw a defense this week in the Rams that present you with so many problems to solve. And Seattle isn’t coming up with many solutions right now.
Seattle can still win this game and the NFC West but for this week, it won’t be by virtue of their offense alone.
2 – Is this another cakewalk for the Ravens?
Over the last month, the Ravens look like 2019 never really ended. The run game is dangerous again and Lamar Jackson looks right back to his MVP form.
In his last three games, Jackson has rushed for 253 yards and four scores. His passing efficiency numbers, such as a 120.6 rating and 10.7 touchdown rate, look like the numbers he boasted last year.
It’s just plain too difficult to slow down the Ravens when Jackson is playing this way. It almost doesn’t matter if there are still holes in the receiver room or if he misses the mark on three to four throws per game. The margins don’t mean as much when you’re fully leaning into the identity this team is built on. That’s working for Baltimore right now. They’ve averaged 40 points per game since Jackson was activated from the COVID-19 list.
If you watched Sunday Night Football in Week 15, nothing you saw from the Giants’ defense would have you believe they can slow down the Ravens in their current form. Of course, keep in mind Pro Bowl cornerback James Bradberry will be back with the team this week after his own stint on the COVID list. However, there are still so many holes in this secondary, Jackson can still hit the throws he needs to while the run game does most of the heavy lifting.
With that in mind, I understand it’s been a disappointing season and there are some really frustrating moments but, Marquise Brown has cleared 90 yards/or scored a TD in each of his last four games. Jackson has rightly continued to look to him despite some bad drops and mistakes. His faith was rewarded with the game-turning touchdown against Cleveland and a big game against Jacksonville. Even if Bradberry is back, Brown can scorch this Giants team deep. And then he has a chance to finish 2020 strong against the Bengals.
Don’t give up on him yet.
3 – Can Dallas’ offense continue its strong finish?
It was hard to find any takeaways from the Arizona-Philadelphia game other than being amazed by both of the young quarterbacks and DeAndre Hopkins. Nevertheless, Philly’s compromised secondary kept making itself apparent. That could put them in trouble against the Cowboys, their Week 16 opponent.
Since Andy Dalton returned from an injury/COVID absence, he’s stabilized a passing game that had descended into chaos in the weeks following Dak Prescott’s injury. Dalton has a 96.1 passer rating in his last five games and has thrown 10 touchdowns. It’s far from the Big-12-like offense we saw early in 2020 but it’s not a disaster. You can grow fruit in this soil.
With that in mind, it’s worth playing all of these Cowboys wide receivers in Week 16. That includes Michael Gallup. He leads the team with 21 targets in the last three weeks and has run 31 routes per game. We know he’s volatile, but when he hits, it’ll be big.
Gallup still leads the team with 10 end-zone targets on the season and sports the highest air yards per target mark of 12.2. He draws the highest degree of difficulty targets of this trio but against this Eagles secondary, that degree of difficulty will be a lighter load than usual.
4 – Any sneaky stars in Packers vs. Titans?
When these two top-tier playoff teams meet up in Week 16, you might see plenty of similarities. Both teams run similar offenses, as Matt LaFleur was the offensive coordinator for the Titans before leaving for the HC gig in Green Bay, and Arthur Smith was subsequently promoted from within. These coaches make life easier on their quarterbacks — two of the most efficient passers in the league — though Green Bay gets the clear edge there.
Derrick Henry and Aaron Jones are two of the most effective backs in the NFL. The Titans, however, have the edge there, as Henry is just a totally different weapon than almost any other player at his position.
At wide receiver, both the Titans and the Packers have a high-end alpha receiver. Davante Adams has been the best wide receiver in football this year, putting up a full season’s worth of special production despite missing time. He and Stefon Diggs would be my pick for the two All-Pro spots. All that said, A.J. Brown is a monster and is clearly the center of the Titans’ passing universe. He’s a special and still-ascending player.
These two teams also sport bottom-half units on defense. Tennessee is weaker as a pass-stop unit and Green Bay is weaker on the ground. Either way, neither team moves the needle in the positive direction on that side of the ball.
To decide which offense has the edge will probably come down to which secondary asset can make the biggest impact beyond that of their respective Big-Threes.
For Green Bay, that player is Robert Tonyan. The Pro Bowl snub has double-digit touchdowns this year and has emerged as a quality player at a volatile position. The Titans are top-12 in yards, catches, and touchdowns allowed to tight ends.
On the Tennessee side, Corey Davis is making a compelling argument to be more than just a bit player. He’s been good all year but has had some big games of late, even if he’s been volatile. Over his last five games, he has yardage totals of 113 yards, 70, 182, 34, and 110. He’s found the end zone in two of his last three contests. Davis is on the cusp of his first career 1,000-yard season as he prepares to hit free agency in March.
Green Bay has limited wide receiver production thanks to Jaire Alexander. He’s played like one of the best cornerbacks in football this year, allowing just a 52 percent catch rate. On the other side of the field, Green Bay rolls out Kevin King, who allows 66 percent of the targets against him to be complete. There’s a big gap between these two players. Based on pre-snap alignment this year, Davis as the right wideout would run more routes against Alexander at left corner.
That matchup could be the key to deciding the game from a fantasy rankings angle but it shouldn’t really deter you from starting anyone in this matchup. These are two of the best offenses in the NFL.
Points will be plentiful. Get everyone into the pool.
5 – Are the Colts capable of punking a good defense?
The Colts offense is fully jelling here at the end of the year. Since Week 10, Philip Rivers sports a 108.4 passer rating, is completing nearly 70 percent of his throws and his 8.6 adjusted yards per attempt mark is one of the league’s best. He’s thrown just two picks in this span, seemingly cutting out most of the back-breaking errors he’s become known for.
We know this also coincides with rookie back Jonathan Taylor playing the best football of his first season. It’s no surprise the Colts are 5-1 in this six-game span.
Of course, it’s also worth noting that the competition in this stretch has been extremely weak from an opposing-defense standpoint. Indianapolis has played their defensively challenged division rivals in Houston and Tennessee twice each and went up against Green Bay and the laughable Raiders stop unit. That’s a cupcake schedule.
In theory, they’ll draw a much tougher matchup against the Pittsburgh Steelers defense in Week 16. Although it’s worth noting that, amid injuries and their offense’s absolute futility, this team has started to fall back to the pack. During their three-game losing streak, the Steelers have registered just six sacks and have given up quite a few long, sustained drives to both Alex Smith and Ryan Finley.
When this team faced Josh Allen, the Bills gave what should have been a good blueprint to the Colts. The Steelers got after Buffalo in the first half but Allen just threw crossing routes to Stefon Diggs over and over again in the second half. The Steelers defense just can’t keep an opponent down for four quarters when they have to deal with such a lack of sustained offense. It’s too much to ask.
The Colts can attack this team in the same way. They’ve hit T.Y. Hilton on the deep middle-of-the-field post routes and Michael Pittman on short crossers. Both of their running backs are threats in shallow space. It’s fair to downgrade Indianapolis a bit in this spot, but unless Pittsburgh can rediscover their pass rush of September and October and harass Rivers all day, the Colts offense can still come up with answers.
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