What Have We Learned From Week 15 of the 2014 NFL Season

Demarus Dye| BKD TV Insiders

Jeremy Hill, Donte Whitner

Cincinnati Bengals running back Jeremy Hill (32) runs against Cleveland Browns strong safety Donte Whitner in the second quarter of an NFL football game Sunday, Dec. 14, 2014, in Cleveland. (AP Photo/Tony Dejak)

Here is What Have We Learned from Week 15 of the 2014 NFL Season, thanks to the AP Pro 32 for photos & help in this article.

Ups

  • CINCINNATI (AP) — Jeremy Hill got the ball on Cincinnati’s first four plays, setting the Bengals on course for an opening touchdown drive in Cleveland.

    Hill kept at it all game, running for 148 yards during a 30-0 victory that kept Cincinnati atop the AFC North and left the Bengals one victory away from another playoff appearance.

    Credit a rookie who has kept them running in front.

    “Jeremy did a great job running the ball,” quarterback Andy Dalton said. “We need to keep that going.”

    Hill leads all NFL rookies with 877 yards rushing, ranking 11th overall. His latest big game kept the Bengals (9-4-1) a half-game ahead of Pittsburgh and Baltimore. He joined Rudi Johnson as the only Bengals running backs to have three games of at least 148 yards in a season.

    He’s the first NFL rookie running back with at least three 140-yard games since Cadillac Williams did it with Tampa Bay in 2005.

    Offensive coordinator Hue Jackson has decided to make Hill the featured back the rest of the way, replacing Giovani Bernard as the starter. They’d been splitting the role during games, but it wasn’t working out.

    Jackson figured that giving Hill most of the carries would help him get into a flow.

    The game on Sunday was significant for the Bengals’ offense. Cleveland dominated during a 24-3 in Cincinnati on Nov. 6, with the Bengals held to 165 total yards. They went to Cleveland determined to run. They had linemen pulling on various carries.

    The second-round pick is averaging 5 yards per carry. The last Bengals running back to average that for a season was James Brooks (5.1 yards) in 1990, which is the last season when the Bengals won a playoff game.

    The one outstanding issue: holding onto the ball. Hill has four fumbles this season, though the Bengals have lost only one of them.

    The Bengals host Denver (11-3) and the league’s second-best run defense on Monday night. The Bengals can clinch their fourth straight playoff berth — a franchise record — with a victory. They end the season in Pittsburgh.

    A team that is known more for Dalton-to-A.J. Green is morphing into one that could be known more for Gio-and-Hill.

  • ALLEN PARK, Mich. (AP) — Detroit is within striking distance of its first division title since 1993 and the automatic playoff berth that comes with it.

    Coach Jim Caldwell’s strict one-game-at-a-time philosophy has served the Lions well thus far, and he doesn’t want his players losing sight of that with games at NFC North rivals Chicago and Green Bay to close the regular season.

    The Lions have reached this point by toughing out close games all season. Half of their 10 wins have been by seven points or fewer. Just three other teams in the league (Green Bay, Arizona and San Francisco) have won five games by a touchdown or less. Not one has won more close games than Detroit.

    And the Lions have fought through early holes in many of those games, including a 21-0 deficit against Atlanta and 14-point comeback wins over New Orleans and against the Vikings on Sunday.

    Although the offense has closed out games with critical drives, the defense has also played a big part in the Lions’ late-game success.

    The Vikings racked up 193 yards, nine first downs and two touchdowns in their first four drives on Sunday. After that, the Lions surrendered just 167 yards and 12 first downs the rest of the way.

    That resiliency will be tested in the next two weeks as the Lions hit the road. It’s hard for everyone not to look ahead to the finale at Lambeau Field with the Packers currently sharing a 10-4 record with Detroit.

    But, as Caldwell has stressed all season, the only game that matters is the next one on the schedule: at Chicago on Sunday.

  • PITTSBURGH (AP) — The numbers have become so sublimely routine, Pittsburgh Steelers coach Mike Tomlin is getting tired of talking about them.

    Every week it seems Le’Veon Bell, Ben Roethlisberger or Antonio Brown are setting a new club record in something. The cruelly efficient engines of the best offense in the franchise’s 82-year history are the driving force behind Pittsburgh’s march to the cusp of the playoffs.

    Yet they’re hardly doing it alone. The Steelers’ 6-2 surge following a 3-3 start is as much about the rapid maturation of youngsters like Martavis Bryant and Markus Wheaton and the steadying presence of William Gay as it is the weekly brilliance of its Big Three.

    Tomlin wasn’t just being politically correct when he praised Sunday’s 27-20 win over Atlanta as the gelling of all three phases.

    Sure, Bell ran for two scores, Roethlisberger passed for 360 yards without an interception and Brown pulled down 10 receptions to boost his season total to an NFL-high 115. Just as important, however, was Gay’s third interception return for a touchdown this season. Wheaton’s handful of third-down grabs to extend drives. Second-year linebacker Vince Williams’ third-down stop of Atlanta’s Harry Douglas that forced a Falcons’ punt with just over 4 minutes left. Rookie Brad Wing’s booming kicks that kept Atlanta returner Devin Hester in check.

    For a season in which the Steelers have desperately been searching for balance, they appear to have found it. While the defense continues to give up chunks of yards, it also has scored four times. Three of them have come from Gay, who began the season as the nickelback then became the shutdown corner by default after injuries to Ike Taylor and Cortez Allen.

    The eight-year veteran downplays his midcareer renaissance even as his twitchy end zone dance has become a once-a-month event.

    Something the Steelers are finding a way to do with regularity. They have tracked down first-place Cincinnati over the last two months thanks in large part to the Bryant’s emergence as a legitimate deep threat and Wheaton’s viability as a sure-handed alternative on the rare play when Brown isn’t open. Wheaton has turned seven third-down receptions into first downs over the last three weeks, including a drive-extending grab in the fourth quarter against Atlanta that allowed the Steelers to chew some clock.

    What Roethlisberger and the rest of the Steelers have been searching for is consistency. After two workmanlike victories over teams with their own postseason hopes, Pittsburgh believes it is within reach. To grab it, the Steelers know they can’t afford the kind of slip-ups that cost them in early losses to Tampa Bay and the New York Jets.

    Heyward said Pittsburgh doesn’t want to rely on losses by other teams. If the Steelers can run the table, they won’t have to.

    Bell, Brown and Roethlisberger are fresh despite the heavy workload, and the rest of the roster is relatively healthy. Safety Mike Mitchell is questionable for Sunday’s game with the Chiefs (8-6) with a groin injury but linebacker James Harrison (knee), cornerback Ike Taylor (shoulder/forearm) and right tackle Marcus Gilbert (ankle) will all practice this week with a shot at returning.

    The Steelers are healthy, hot and hungry. After two years watching the playoffs on TV, they’re ready to get back in the mix. Less than half of the players on the 53-man roster have ever suited up for a postseason game. No better time to learn than the present.

  • RENTON, Wash. (AP) — After the drama and turmoil early in the season, the Seattle Seahawks are where they expected to be with two weeks left, on the cusp of being back in the playoffs and with a chance at still landing the No. 1 seed in the NFC.

    Two victories — beginning with Sunday’s showdown at Arizona — would give the Seahawks (10-4) their second straight NFC West title.

    But the last thing Pete Carroll plans on doing this week is mentioning the importance of facing the Cardinals on Sunday night.

    Seattle put itself in position where another division title and the No. 1 seed is a possibility thanks to its four-game win streak that included Sunday’s 17-7 win over San Francisco that eliminated the 49ers from postseason contention.

    As it was for most of last season, the defense has been at the forefront of Seattle’s surge. San Francisco became the fourth straight opponent held under 250 total yards. And only once in the past nine games have the Seahawks allowed a team to gain more than 300 yards. None of their past four opponents have gained 100 yards in the second half.

    Seattle leads the NFL in yards allowed per game at 272.4, a pace that is ahead of what it accomplished last season. The Seahawks are the only team in the NFL giving up fewer than 300 total yards and one of two allowing fewer than 200 yards per game passing.

    Carroll’s been pleased with the combination of Seattle’s pass rush flustering quarterbacks lately to go along with the blanket coverage in the secondary.

    For all the praise toward Seattle’s defense lately, the Seahawks have concerns about the offensive line going into Sunday’s game at Arizona.

    Center Max Unger has missed the past four games and while he’ll practice on Wednesday, Carroll said he’s still not 100 percent after suffering ankle and knee injuries in Week 11 at Carolina.

    Left tackle Russell Okung suffered a bruised lung on the final play of the first half Sunday and will likely miss this week baring a significant change.

    Okung was injured trying to chase down San Francisco’s Eric Reid on an interception return. He was hit hard by San Francisco defensive tackle Ray McDonald throwing a block on the return. Okung appeared to be spitting up blood as he left the field at halftime and was checked out at a local hospital before being released.

    Alvin Bailey would likely make his second start at left tackle and fifth overall this season if Okung can’t go.

    Carroll is also waiting to see how tight end Tony Moeaki recovers from a shoulder injury suffered against the 49ers, but the Seahawks expected reserve tight end Cooper Helfet (ankle) back this week.

Downs

  • BEREA, Ohio (AP) — Along with being sacked, taunted, embarrassed and generally mistreated Sunday by the Cincinnati Bengals, Johnny Manziel got humbled.

    The Browns rookie quarterback said Monday that his first NFL start, a 30-0 loss that essentially eliminated Cleveland from the playoffs, was the toughest day he’s ever had on a football field.

    “It’s the first game I’ve ever not scored a point in and been shut out,” Manziel said. “I’ve played in a lot of games from high school through college, and that one, and I’ve never been shut out until then. It was definitely tough.”

    And humbling?

    “Absolutely,” he said. “Very humbling.”

    Unable to move Cleveland’s offense, Manziel completed just 10 of 18 passes for 80 yards. He was intercepted twice, chased around like a fox trying to escape hungry hounds and looked lost in the Browns’ biggest game of the season. This wasn’t the debut he, legions of his fans or anyone in Cleveland’s organization had in mind when he was promoted to replace Brian Hoyer after 13 games.

    The Browns ran just 38 offensive plays, gained 107 total yards, crossed the 50-yard line just once and got only five first downs — two of them via defensive penalties.

    The team was bad, Manziel was bad but coach Mike Pettine, whose decision to start Manziel is now being debated as aggressively as his choice to bench Hoyer last week, said the performance doesn’t cast any doubts on his potential to be a franchise quarterback.

    Pettine reiterated the Browns (7-7) will stick with Manziel over the final two games against Carolina and Baltimore. The team isn’t viewing it as an audition for Manziel’s future. Pettine said there’s a chance the team could go into the offseason with its quarterback situation unclear because three games isn’t long enough to accurately evaluate any quarterback.

    Manziel said watching film of the game wasn’t any better than living through it the first time. The Browns were manhandled by the Bengals from start to finish.

    True, but the focus is usually on the one behind center, and Manziel was lambasted by some of his harshest critics.

    Manziel wasn’t the only who were fed a helping of humility by the Bengals.

    “That type of game humbles all of us,” Pettine said. “We had been able to do some things in the past that we weren’t able to do. That’s something that — as an organization, coaches, staff and team — we’ve got to regroup, and we’ve got to regroup in a hurry.”

  • CHICAGO (AP) — Chicago Bears coach Marc Trestman ran through the faults he saw in his team during its latest loss and it sure sounded familiar.

    The Bears have dropped six of their last eight games, occupy last place in the NFC North and are playing more like a team expecting one of the top picks in the draft than one that expected to challenge for a division title.

    When Bears offensive coordinator Aaron Kromer admitted to the team last week he’d been the anonymous source for a story criticizing quarterback Jay Cutler, the perceived betrayal sent ripples through the team. Players and Trestman insisted that had little or nothing to do with Monday’s game, in which the Chicago offense gained only 278 yards against a 31st-ranked Saints defense that had allowed more than 400 yards in four straight games.

    Cutler had three interceptions and was sacked seven times. Prior to an abbreviated postgame press conference, he told WBBM-AM that any effect from the Kromer comments diminished through the week.

    Kromer had suggested Cutler has problems reading defenses and changing out of running plays against certain formations. Following Monday’s game, the Saints said they saw evidence of this so they disguised their coverages.

    When asked whether Cutler was off his game, Trestman said: “I was off my game. Our entire group was off their game tonight.”

    Penalties again plagued the Bears offense and special teams, and Trestman took the blame for the punt team lining up with only 10 men to try a failed fake punt.

    There were nearly 11,000 no-shows and the Bears left to a chorus of boos at halftime for a team now 5-9 on the year and 13-17 in two seasons under Trestman. The Bears were 10-6 in 2012, the final season under Lovie Smith before he was fired.

    The team is trying to keep its focus on Sunday’s home finale with Detroit and the season finale with Minnesota.

  • PHILADELPHIA (AP) — Two straight losses at home forces the Philadelphia Eagles to win and hope for help.

    The defending NFC East champions no longer control their playoff destiny following Sunday night’s 38-27 loss to the Dallas Cowboys (10-4).

    The Eagles (9-5) still have a chance to win the division, but need the Cowboys to lose at least one game.

    “You’re just wasting energy if you’re thinking about anything else except for Washington,” Eagles coach Chip Kelly said, referring to Saturday’s game at the Redskins (3-11).

    “I think that’s our job as coaches, to make sure that they really, truly understand that. But I don’t worry about this group from that standpoint.”

    If the Eagles beat the Redskins and the Cowboys lose at home to Indianapolis (10-4), Philadelphia regains control of first place.

    The Eagles then would clinch the East with a win at the New York Giants (5-9) in the last game. If Dallas lost to the Colts and Redskins, the Eagles would only have to win one more game.

    The team’s wild-card chances are much slimmer. The Eagles have to win both games and would need Seattle, Green Bay or Detroit to lose two games.

    “If we don’t beat Washington, then there are no scenarios that really can be played out in anybody’s head,” Kelly said. “And I don’t know if playing a scenario out in your head makes you feel better or whatever; I don’t know how that helps you. It’s about one thing we can do and that’s go out and play against Washington on Saturday.”

    The Eagles dominated the Cowboys on the road on Thanksgiving, winning 33-10 and putting themselves in position to possibly earn a first-round bye. But they haven’t been the same team since that win.

    The Seahawks shut down Mark Sanchez and the rest of the offense in a 24-14 win last week that snapped Philadelphia’s 10-game home winning streak in the regular season.

    Then the Cowboys came out fired up in their rematch and jumped out to a 21-0 lead. The Eagles rallied to take a 24-21 lead in the third quarter only to watch it disappear quickly.

    Sanchez threw two interceptions, tight end Brent Celek lost a fumble at a crucial time and cornerback Bradley Fletcher struggled against Dez Bryant, who had three touchdowns.

    Despite Sanchez’s struggles, he’ll be under center at Washington. Nick Foles still hasn’t been cleared to return after breaking his collarbone on Nov. 2.

    “Like most people, I saw good and bad,” Kelly said of Sanchez’s performance. “The throw to (Jeremy Maclin) for the long run was a real big-time throw. There were a couple throws on the sideline that I thought he made, but then there were some other throws that he missed.”

 

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