Cover 4: Will a True Front-Runner Emerge in the AFC North in Week 15?
NFL

Cover 4: Will a True Front-Runner Emerge in the AFC North in Week 15?

As if this wasn’t hard enough already.

Predicting outcomes during what’s possibly been the most uncertain season in NFL history has been a challenge in itself. Now that volatility has been raised to another level by the massive spike in positive COVID-19 cases that have sent front offices into frantic shopping sprees of a different kind during this holiday season.

With Week 15 about to get into full swing, the question no longer is who’s going to win, it’s who’s going to play?

That’s one the Washington Football Team probably has trouble answering after being forced to place 17 players (and possibly counting) on the reserve/COVID-19 list ahead of a critically important matchup with NFC East rival Philadelphia. The outbreak has certainly taken the shine off of what had been one of the conference’s more intriguing games of the weekend, sending it plummeting down the list of our Week 15 watchability index.

It’s a similar situation in Cleveland, where the Browns likely won’t have their starting quarterback or their coach available for Saturday’s key clash with the Las Vegas Raiders – another game that has had its watchability rating negatively impacted by the COVID-19 surge.

Fortunately, a season that’s had no teams clinch a playoff berth through 14 weeks of play for only the third time since the 1990 postseason expansion still has plenty of high-interest games on tap for this weekend. Several involve teams from the AFC North, where less than two games separate the first-place Baltimore Ravens and last-place Pittsburgh Steelers in a division that’s the most up for grabs heading into the stretch run.

Here are four games we’ve selected as ones worth tuning into during a pivotal stage of the season, with a detailed synopsis of each:

New England Patriots (9-4) at Indianapolis Colts (7-6); Saturday, 8:20 p.m. ET, NFL Network

Line: Colts by 2

The Analyst Win Probability: Patriots 52%

Why to Watch: Because these have been two of the NFL’s most successful teams over the last two months. The punishing Patriots are riding a seven-game winning streak in which they’ve outscored the opposition by an average of more than 21 points per game, while the Colts have turned their season around with six wins in their last eight contests. Indianapolis is averaging a league-best 32.9 points per game since Week 6, with New England right behind at 31.8 points per game.

The Pats are playing a little defense as well, as they can become the first team since the 2000 Steelers to hold opponents to 13 points or less in six consecutive games in a season.

This matchup also carries plenty of weight in regard to the jumbled AFC playoff picture. The Colts currently hold a very tenuous grasp on the No. 6 seed, but our latest postseason projections have them on the outside following Week 18. A victory over the AFC East leaders would go a long way towards disproving that notion, however.

New England, meanwhile, holds the inside track to earning the conference’s coveted No. 1 seed and an opening-round bye, though it can ill afford a slip-up with the similarly streaking Kansas City Chiefs right on its heels.

Key matchup: Carson Wentz vs. Patriots pass defense

Yes, the Colts’ resurgence has been built on Jonathan Taylor’s prolific rushing numbers and an opportunistic defense that’s forced 20 turnovers during their 6-2 run, tied with New England for tops in the NFL from Weeks 6-14. But we’ve all witnessed enough Patriots games over the years to know how a Bill Belichick defense operates.

The Patriots set out to stop what their foe does best on offense, and more times than not the plan works.

New England is sure to stack the box and make Wentz beat them with his arm, and the numbers say that’s a wise decision. Indianapolis is 7-0 this season when attempting less than 35 passes in a game, and 0-6 when at 35 or above.

That’s not meant as an indictment on Wentz’s abilities, as he’s put together a solid bounce-back campaign following his turnover-laden final season in Philadelphia. The offseason addition’s decision making has been largely very good back under Frank Reich’s tutelage, and particularly so when under pressure (see below).

lowest pickable pass percentage under pressure
(min. 100 pass attempts under pressure)

The Colts were forced to throw more three weeks back in their meeting with Tampa Bay, one of the league’s better run-stopping teams, and Wentz handled that challenge mostly well by producing 306 yards and three touchdowns. However, he did have a pair of third-quarter turnovers (one a fumble on a strip sack, one an interception) that the Buccaneers converted into touchdowns on both occasions which proved costly in a 38-31 Indianapolis loss.

Attacking New England through the air won’t be easy. Over their last five games, the Patriots have limited enemy quarterbacks to a 54.4% completion rate, a paltry 4.85 yards per attempt and a minuscule 49.4 passer rating.

The Patriots have shown they can be run on, however, as long as they have to respect the pass. New England is allowing 1.096 yards over expected on running plays in usual passing situations, which ranks 30th out of the 32 teams.

Tennessee Titans (9-4) at Pittsburgh Steelers (6-6-1); Sunday, 1 p.m. ET, CBS

Line: Even

The Analyst Win Probability: Titans 55%

Why to Watch: An Indianapolis loss on Saturday would allow the Titans to clinch the AFC South should they get past a Steelers team that’s fighting for its playoff life. Though only a half-game behind Buffalo, the AFC’s current seventh seed, Pittsburgh still needs to jump three other teams in the standings while navigating a remaining schedule that’s tied for the toughest in the NFL.

pittsburgh steelers tough schedule
(win percentage through Week 14)

The Steelers are 2-4 on the road and have a pair of daunting trips ahead to Kansas City and Baltimore, so they’ll almost assuredly need to hold serve against a Tennessee squad that frankly hasn’t been playing its best football over the past month to keep those seemingly slim playoff hopes intact.

Key matchup: Titans running backs vs. Steelers run defense

The Titans’ offensive philosophy hasn’t deviated since Derrick Henry underwent foot surgery in early November, and their ground game has in fact remained viable with their star running back sidelined. Fill-ins D’Onta Foreman and Dontrell Hilliard have actually recorded slightly higher yards per carry averages than Henry on plays in which a run disruption (when a defender wins his matchup against a specific blocker(s) and is able to defend multiple gaps successfully) occurs, albeit in far less sample sizes. Tennessee is 3-2 since Henry went down, and those two losses were mainly because quarterback Ryan Tannehill was atrocious in both games.

Pittsburgh has not been good at stopping the run, as evidenced by Dalvin Cook’s dominant 205-yard display in the Steelers’ Week 14 loss at Minnesota. According to EVE, Pittsburgh is allowing an average of 0.548 yards above expected on running plays – the second-worst mark in the league – and it has surrendered 130 or more rushing yards seven times this season. The Steelers are 2-4-1 in those games, with the victories a pair of squeakers over the Seattle Seahawks (without Russell Wilson) and Chicago Bears.

On a positive note, Pittsburgh could get nose tackle Isaiah Buggs back this week from an ankle injury that’s kept him out of its last three games. Buggs owns a run disruption rate of 22.4% that’s slightly above the league average of 21.2% for interior linemen.

The Titans will also need to take care of the ball to come out of Heinz Field with a victory. Tennessee sports a plus-10 turnover margin over its nine wins and is minus-10 in that category over its four losses, managing only two takeaways with 12 giveaways.

Both quarterbacks have been living dangerously of late. Tannehill’s pickable pass percentage of 6.86% since Week 11 is the highest of 19 quarterbacks with at least 100 pass attempts over that period. Pittsburgh’s Ben Roethlisberger is just one spot above Tannehill at 6.58%, and he’s had a league-high 10 pickable throws in that time frame.

Cincinnati Bengals (7-6) at Denver Broncos (7-6); Sunday, 4:05 pm ET, CBS

Line: Broncos by 3

The Analyst Win Probability: Broncos 55%

Why to Watch: It’s not an elimination game, but the loser could have a very hard time reaching the playoffs. That’s especially true in the case of the Broncos, who would fall to 3-6 against the AFC with a defeat and close out the season with a treacherous three-game stretch (at Las Vegas, at L.A. Chargers, vs. Kansas City).

Denver has regrouped from a rough October to win four of its last six games to keep itself in the playoff hunt, and it’s done so with a commitment to running the football. The Broncos are averaging 154.2 yards per game on the ground over their last five outings and now stand fifth in the league in rushing EVE.

The Bengals should provide a stern test, however. Cincinnati is yielding just 75.5 rushing yards per game since Week 11 – the second-lowest amount in the NFL over that stretch – and have allowed gains of 10-plus yards on only 6.4% of opponent rush attempts during that span. Only Seattle (4.0) and Tennessee (4.3) have permitted a lower percentage in that time frame.

Key matchup: Joe Burrow/Bengals wide receivers vs. Broncos secondary

Ball control and sound defense have been the Broncos’ formula for success, as they and Carolina are the only teams this season without a win when allowing 17 or more points. To keep the Bengals under that number, they’ll have to prevent one of the league’s most explosive offenses from doing what it does very well.

Cincinnati leads the NFL with 12 passing touchdowns of 25 or more yards, four more than the next two teams on the list (Los Angeles Rams, Buccaneers), and has had one such score in three straight games with Tee Higgins emerging as a dangerous big-play complement to NFL Offensive Rookie of the Year candidate Ja’Marr Chase. Higgins comes in with three consecutive games with at least five catches and 114 receiving yards, and he, Chase and slot specialist Tyler Boyd all have burn rates above 70% during that three-game stretch (the league average is 58.3%).

Denver’s defense likes to bait teams into trying lower percentage downfield throws, as only the Dolphins (63) have had more pass attempts of 21 or more air yards against them than the Broncos’ 57 this season. And the Broncos usually handle such plays effectively, having allowed a completion percentage of 31.6% on those types of throws (the league average is 36.7%) while nabbing five interceptions.

On the flip side, Denver has surrendered nine touchdowns on throws of 21 or more air yards, tied with Washington for the most in the NFL.

How Burrow handles the Broncos’ pressure packages will also be a key component to this contest. Denver owns the third-lowest opponent passer rating (67.9) when sending extra rushers, something it does more than the league norm. Burrow has been one of the better quarterbacks against the blitz, posting a 116.3 passer rating with 10 touchdowns in 89 attempts.

Green Bay Packers (10-3) at Baltimore Ravens (8-5); Sunday, 4:25 pm ET, FOX

Line: Packers by 6.5

The Analyst Win Probability: Ravens 51%

Why to Watch: This could be a showdown between the last two NFL MVP’s, provided Lamar Jackson gets cleared to play after exiting the Ravens’ loss at Cleveland last week with a right ankle sprain. That’s far from a certainty at this point, as the dynamic quarterback did not practice Wednesday or Thursday and is shaping up as a full-blown game-time decision.

Regardless of the participants, this is a massive game for both sides. The Packers are in the driver’s seat for the NFC’s No. 1 seed but may have to win out to stay there, as they’re tied with Tampa Bay in the standings and the Bucs have the league’s easiest remaining strength of schedule based on present records. Baltimore is clinging to a one-game edge atop the rugged AFC North and can sorely use some late-season momentum after being handed narrow losses to division-rivals Pittsburgh and Cleveland the past two weeks.

Though Jackson’s uncertain status has made the Packers a fairly sizeable favorite in the public eye, we’ve pegged this as a toss-up on the premise he does play. That would be nothing new when it comes to the Ravens, who have had a league-high nine games decided by six points or fewer.

Key matchup: Lamar Jackson (or Tyler Huntley?) vs. Packers pass rush

This game would lose a great deal of entertainment value – and probably a fair amount of competitiveness – if Jackson winds up inactive. Though Tyler Huntley has performed capably when called upon, we’re still talking about an undrafted backup with one start and 90 pass attempts on his NFL resumè. In all likelihood, that’s probably not going to cut it in a matchup against an in-form Aaron Rodgers, especially when factoring in that Baltimore’s decimated secondary figures to have a very hard time covering Davante Adams.

The Ravens are going to need Jackson to play to have their best chance. And more importantly, he’ll need to play better than he has for most of the past two months.

Since his epic 442-yard, four-touchdown performance that lifted Baltimore to an improbable comeback win over the Colts in Week 5, Jackson’s results have been stunningly mediocre. He’s produced a 73.5 passer rating with 10 interceptions in seven games since, with declining advanced statistical numbers to boot. Of the 35 quarterbacks with 100 or more pass attempts since Week 6, the 2019 NFL MVP ranks 34th in both well-thrown percentage (68.7) and pickable pass percentage (7.11).

Jackson’s numbers when pressured have also been in the bottom tier throughout the season, as he’s 28th in well-thrown percentage (62.7) and 23rd in pickable pass percentage (7.14) of 31 quarterbacks with at least 70 pass attempts under duress.

lowest well-thrown percentage under pressure
(min. 70 pass attempts)

That could be a big issue for the Ravens come Sunday, as Green Bay’s pass rush has been ferocious of late. The Packers have generated pressures on an impressive 63.7% of their opponent’s drop-backs over their last three games.

The Ravens haven’t been very good in pass protection, with left tackle Alejandro Villanueva and his 64.7% win rate a particular problem. The veteran should have his hands full with Green Bay’s Rashan Gary, whose 25.0 pressure rate is considerably above the league norm of 17.2% for edge rushers.

Green Bay’s pass rush could lack some of its bite this week, however, with standout nose tackle Kenny Clark expected to miss the game after landing on the COVID-19 list. Clark’s 52.5 pressures this season rank just behind Gary for the team lead, and he’s the Packers’ best run stopper with an excellent run disruption rate of 33.0%.


Kyle Cunningham-Rhoads and Greg Gifford contributed. Graphic design by Briggs Clinard.