Week 14 in the NFL is in the books and wow, was that worth the wait or what?!
Last week I mentioned my personal motto that gets me through the NFL season every year – Any given Sunday. For too long the NFL has been subject to the domination of the New England Patriots with Tom Brady and Bill Belichick. Now that the NFL’s power-couple has split, it seems like anyone can win in the NFL. Sure, there are teams vying to fill the vacancy for a new dynasty, and time will tell. This week in the NFL though? Nobody looks unstoppable.
Was your team sweating? Let’s dive in.
Three Things We Learned This Weekend
1) Onside Kicks Are Hard
Sure, this may be stating the obvious, but when you factor that four games on the slate of games for the weekend (that’s 25% of the games btw) featured an onside kick in the fourth quarter, you’d think that one of them had to convert. Right?
When a proposed alternative to the onside kick was introduced last year in the Pro Bowl, NFL Operations shared the data behind experimenting with a fourth-and-15 play for the offensive team, referencing that the onside kick is only successfully recovered by the kicking team 15-20% of the time.
So if one-in-five onside kicks are recovered, the odds weren’t in the favor of the four teams that attempted one this weekend. The games in which they happened had some real stakes too, with the Dolphins (8-5) failing to recover against the Chiefs (12-1), the Lions (5-8) against the Packers (10-3), and the Saints (10-3) against the Eagles (4-8-1). Should any of them have been able to recover and win their game, the playoff standings would’ve been impacted, including the first-round byes in both conferences.
The fourth attempt was the Falcons against the Chargers (4-9), and while no standings would’ve been impacted, their failure could’ve pushed statistical favor to the next team to attempt one. Afterall, this is the analytics age, and the only one I recall being recovered this season was Week 2 by the Cowboys against the Falcons.
2) The Chiefs May Be Playing With Their Food
Like I said in the opening, all teams look beatable, and the defending World Champion Kansas City Chiefs are no exception. Sure, they’ve already been beat, but Spiderman once said, “Everybody gets one.” What is more concerning, is that the Chiefs and all their fire-power have played some close games this season, especially down the stretch. In fact, their last five games, all wins, have been decided by a touchdown or less.
What’s more, they start slow, pick it up for two quarters, and then leave the door open for teams to fight their way back into it.
I got curious, so I broke down the score difference for the Chiefs versus their opponents this year. The Chiefs are out-scoring their opponents by an average of one point in the first quarter, nearly four and five points in the second and third quarters respectively, and actually posting a half point negative difference in the fourth quarter.
This is the regular season, so just maybe the game plan is set to create adversity for the team and test stress points and expose areas for improvement going into the postseason. The team is 12-1, so the need for concern may not be that great. That said, however, it was the Chiefs in the title game that used a fourth quarter comeback to win their first title since 1970.
Sometimes when a predator is playing with their prey, the unexpected happens, and the prey gets away. It worked in the favor of Kansas City last year; It would be shocking to see the favor returned.
3) These Browns Are a New Breed
In all fairness, I planned on touching on this game regardless of the outcome, and this header was already penciled in. In keeping with the theme-ish today, the Cleveland Browns (9-4) were on a four-game win streak and possibly looked unbeatable by a Ravens (8-5) team who has struggled as of late, outside of a win last Tuesday against Dallas. Don’t let the records fool you, however, because the Browns were still underdogs going into this game.
It was a weird night for sure, and there were moments I could feel the phantom wounds created by the misery of past seasons start to tingle as the Ravens looked dominant throughout a large portion of the game. Down 14 going into the fourth, I had hope, but knew it would be a stretch. Sure we could maybe respond once, but could the Browns stop Baltimore and score again. In short, they did.
Cleveland and Baltimore combined for 35 points in the fourth quarter, with the Browns out-scoring the Ravens 22-13. With a minute left in the game, the differential was 22-8 after the Browns had tied the game at 42 points. Then a “cramping” Lamar Jackson got the Ravens in position for Justin Tucker to go up by three, and then there was a wild safety to give the Ravens a safety on Cleveland as time expired.
— NFL (@NFL) December 15, 2020
This game was a shootout on the big stage. It demanded the best of both teams in a game that could prove pivotal in the seasons of both teams. It wasn’t a fluke performance from a bad Browns team or good Ravens team. It was two emerging opponents duking it out, and it was fun.
Three Things to Watch for in Week 15
1) Resting Star Players
As it stands right now, only four teams have clinched a spot in the playoffs. The Chiefs and Packers have both locked down their divisions, while the Saints and the Steelers each need to get more space in their respective divisions, and both could still finish with the top record in their conferences, securing a first-round bye in the playoffs. But how much is that bye worth?
The Saints are hoping to get Drew Brees back soon after he’s missed the last four games with broken ribs and a punctured lung. Sure the team wants to get him back in there and knock off any rust before the playoffs, and a bye in the first round could give him more time to recover and have him more fresh for the divisional round. Rushing him back however just to face the Chiefs this weekend could introduce more risk than is worth the reward.
Brees isn’t the only one who could benefit from a week or two of rest, especially in a year where the wear and tear on players has been different due to the absence of a traditional preseason to prepare their bodies for the toll a season takes on them. Aaron Rodgers and Ben Rothelisberger each have 15 years in the NFL as well, and with the playoffs a lock, would they consider sitting out the rest of the regular season in preparation for title runs? If so, would they start sitting this week?
2) Sam Darnold
The Jets don’t have to make a decision on Sam Darnold yet, but if a coaching change is going to happen after the season like many expect, take it from a guy who knows a thing or two about coaching turnover – the timer on Darnold’s time in New York has already started.
The Jets aren’t playing for anything, and a new coaching staff could mean a lot of turnover up and down the roster, so what else could the current guys do but maybe play for each other and their futures, and that goes for Sam Darnold. Should he be traded, he’ll want his latest tape to show that he’s a competitor who has upside and deserves to be considered someone’s quarterback of the future.
On field availability has been an issue for Darnold in his young career, but he’s shown glimpses of what he can be in spite of the organization around him. There are a number of aging quarterbacks across the league, and Darnold could do himself a favor on the trade market by fixing his touchdown-to-interception ratio and putting out solid film, starting with Sunday against the Rams. Just maybe he can stick it to the organization and pick up a win while he’s at it.
3) Hot Seats in the NFC North
Adam Gase and the New York Jets aren’t the only coach and organization nearing a separation and all the change that comes with it.
For all the flack that the NFC East has received for potentially sending a sub .500 team to the playoffs, the NFC in general may send more than one team with a losing record into the postseason. The Arizona Cardinals currently sit in the final playoff spot at 7-6.
While Kliff Kingsburry is probably safe in the West, Matt Nagy and Mike Zimmer, head coaches of the Bears and Vikings respectively, are trying to push for the Cardinals’ spot in the hopes that a playoff appearance could save their job. Both teams currently have 6-7 records, but one will improve their standings this coming Sunday when they play each other in Minnesota.
Matt Patricia was already fired by the Detroit Lions this season. With just three more games left, can Zimmer and Nagy avoid losing their jobs this winter? A win on Sunday sure wouldn’t hurt either of their cases.x
What was the biggest thing you learned this weekend? Is there something else you’re keeping an eye on this weekend that’s not on my radar? Let me know in the comments below or on Twitter @JarkClonas.
Photo by: Erik Drost / Wikimedia Commons