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Here is What Have We Learned from Week 12 of the 2015 NFL Season, thanks to the AP Pro 32 for photos & help in this article.
- Chicago Bears on the rebound after win in Lambeau Field– Chicago cornerback Tracy Porter played on a Super Bowl champion in New Orleans, so he knows what a playoff team looks like.
The way he sees it, the Bears resemble one.
“There are definitely ingredients here for a playoff team, for us to take it to that next level,” Porter said.
After a rare win at Green Bay, the Bears (5-6) have a chance to hit the .500 mark and strengthen their postseason credentials when they host struggling San Francisco on Sunday.
The mere idea that they would be in this position so late in the season seemed far-fetched at best, particularly after three convincing losses to start the season. But ever since a shutout loss at Seattle in Week 3, they have flipped the script.
With quarterback Jay Cutler’s steady play and an improved defense making clutch plays, Chicago has emerged as a contender for a playoff spot in the NFC.
“I think the whole thing is having meaningful or relevant games,” coach John Fox said Monday. “You want to put yourself in that position, but you definitely want to keep the focus small. All our focus right now is on the San Francisco 49ers.”
The 49ers (3-8) come in last in the NFC West after back-to-back losses and are 0-5 on the road. That would seem to bode well for a Bears team that regained its footing after loss at home to Denver by knocking off Aaron Rodgers and the Packers last Thursday.
The victory was just the second in eight games at Lambeau Field for Chicago. Not only did the Bears spoil Brett Favre’s jersey retirement celebration, they held Rodgers to his worst passer rating as a starter at Lambeau (62.4).
The Bears also stopped the Packers after they drove to the 8 in the closing minute, with Rodgers throwing four incomplete passes. Porter, who played for Fox in Denver, broke up one intended for James Jones in the end zone on third-and-goal after coming through with an interception on Green Bay’s previous possession.
It didn’t hurt, either, that Cutler continued his steady play behind center, throwing for 200 yards and a touchdown without getting picked off. It was the third time in five games he did not throw an interception, and with just six in 10 games, he is well off the pace that left him tied for the league lead with 18 a year ago. In 2014, he had 12 through his first 10 games.
The improved play at quarterback and from a rebuilt defense have helped the Bears weather injuries on both sides while trying to find the right mix.
There still is room for improvement, particularly when it comes to stopping the run. The Bears ranked 29th in that area through Sunday, but the defense was 14th overall. That’s a big jump for a unit that ranked among the worst in franchise history the past two years. And it’s one of the reasons the Bears are starting to look more like a playoff team.
- Texans defense the reason for them being in a playoff spot in the AFC right now– The Texans have won four straight games to improve to 6-5 and keep pace with Indianapolis for first place in the AFC South.The key to that turnaround? A much-improved defense powered by J.J. Watt, who leads the NFL in sacks with 13 1/2.
The Texans have tightened up their play since giving up 44 points in a loss to the Dolphins in the game before the streak began. Since then they’ve allowed just two touchdowns and both of those scores came in one game.
The defense was dominant in a 24-6 victory over the Saints on Sunday when Houston became the first team to hold New Orleans without a touchdown in a decade.
After such a dominant outing, what’s next for this group?
Coach Bill O’Brien said he’ll pose a simple question to his players when they meet on Wednesday to find out.
“How good do they want to be? I think you have to challenge them,” O’Brien said. “Is that good enough? There were still some plays that we gave up. They played a heck of a football game, don’t get me wrong. We’re very pleased with how the defense is playing, but you can never be satisfied. As soon as you kind of get satisfied or you’re resting on your laurels … you’re going to get beat.”
With Watt, 2014 top overall pick Jadeveon Clowney and an experienced secondary, Houston’s defense was supposed to be the strength of the team entering the season. Instead, the unit struggled early as the team also dealt with problems at quarterback and fell to 2-5.
Many of Houston’s defenders acknowledged that the loss in Miami was a turning point where they had simply had enough and realized it was on them to improve and make sure a game like that didn’t happen again.
“I think it was pretty clear that we sucked at that point, so something had to happen,” Watt said. “We had to play better. So far, we have been doing that, but it is a week to week thing … you can’t let up. You have to have that chip on your shoulder.”
Watt, who won Defensive Player of the Year for the second time last season, has played well all year, but has taken his game to another level in the last few games. He has multiple sacks in four of the last five games and has piled up 22 tackles in that span.
But he’s far from the only one who has amped up things lately on this defense. Outside linebacker Whitney Mercilus had a career-high 3 1/2 sacks in the first game in the winning streak and Clowney is healthy after sitting out two weeks ago with a back injury and has also given the group a boost. Middle linebacker Brian Cushing leads the team with 84 tackles and the secondary has grabbed five interceptions in the last four games combined.
With all the good things the group has been doing lately, O’Brien had to think for a minute when asked what he likes best about its recent play. The Texans will try to win their fifth straight game for the first time since 2012 when they travel to Buffalo on Sunday.
- Russell Wilson outduels the Steelers for a big win on Sunday– In the aftermath of one of their wilder victories in recent seasons, there was no simple balance for the Seattle Seahawks.The Seahawks are above .500 for the first time all season and in position to get back to the postseason for the fourth straight season after Sunday’s 39-30 win over Pittsburgh.
At the same time, the Seahawks spent Monday accepting that tight end Jimmy Graham is done for the season due to a ruptured patellar tendon in his right knee and watched Ben Roethlisberger throw for 456 yards passing, the most ever allowed by a Seahawks defense.
Those factors created a mix of opinions on what to make of the Seahawks performance. But it all came back to Seattle being 6-5 with a chance to control its postseason fate over the final five weeks.
There were plenty of standout moments for Seattle, none bigger than Russell Wilson’s five touchdown passes and three of those going to Doug Baldwin, including his 80-yard catch-and-run TD with 2:01 left that provided Seattle the final cushion it needed.
For the past two weeks, Wilson has had most of his success while throwing from the pocket.
Scrambling around to buy time and make throws will always be part of his game, but Wilson has been markedly better in the pocket because of improved offensive line play. Wilson has been sacked four times in the past two weeks, a significant drop from the pace he was on earlier in the season.
“We’ve really tried to feature a fast rhythm and make sure he’s got a chance to get the ball out fast to keep the pressure off the guys up front. All of that has happened,” Carroll said.
But now Wilson won’t have Graham as an option for the rest of the season. Carroll insisted on Monday that Graham should be able to be back for the 2016 season, although an exact timeframe for when surgery will take place and the recovery schedule has not been set.
“I don’t know about the dates for that, but there is plenty of time for him to get back,” Carroll said.
Replacing Graham won’t be a simple task, even if his receptions and touchdowns didn’t approach what they were in New Orleans.
Graham was in for 78.4 percent of Seattle’s offensive snaps, the most of any skill player on the Seahawks offense. He had improved as a blocker in the run game and even when the ball wasn’t coming his way through the air, Graham’s presence was enough of a factor to create matchups to benefit the Seahawks.
A case in point of Graham’s influence was Baldwin’s first touchdown reception on Sunday. With both players lined up to the right of the formation, Graham ran a post route and drew the defensive back to the middle of the field. That left Baldwin uncovered down the seam for the touchdown reception.
“We’ve been growing with him and you expect certain guys to do things and we’ve expected Jimmy to make some plays and do some special things so it will be a little different,” Carroll said. “We’ll just change.”
Just as Seattle expects Luke Willson to step in for Graham, Carroll is equally confident the Seahawks can fix their problems defensively that led to Roethlisberger’s big game through the air.
Pittsburgh nearly abandoned the run all together and attempted just 14 rushes. And Seattle did an adequate job on Martavis Bryant — minus one leaping catch on a deep ball — and Antonio Brown, who was shadowed most of the game by Richard Sherman.
It was the No. 3 receiver — this time Markus Wheaton — that couldn’t be stopped by the Seahawks. Whether through scheme or breakdowns, Wheaton had 201 yards receiving and a touchdown and Seattle never made the needed adjustments.
Seattle has allowed more than 400 yards passing four times under Carroll. And in an unexpected statistical quirk, the Seahawks are 4-0 in those games.
- Mediocre and losing teams are NFL contenders– The NBA has a yearly ritual in which sub-.500 teams make the playoffs. Looks like the NFL could emulate that approach this season.With five weeks left in the schedule, two divisions (AFC South and NFC East) could wind up with a winner at 8-8 or worse. As for the wild-card races, you might want to shield your eyes.Consider that for the final NFC berth, the Seahawks and Falcons are tied at 6-5. Seeing how Atlanta has performed recently, losing five of six, a winning mark on Jan. 3 is a long shot.
Also consider that the Bears and Buccaneers aren’t out of it with 5-6 marks. The Giants and Redskins have the same record and are tied atop the wretched NFC East, where the Eagles (4-7) remain in contention.
The view from the AFC is a bit more pleasant because both the Texans and Colts, each 6-5, are playing good football. Houston has won four straight and five of six. Indy has won three in a row and is 4-0 with backup Matt Hasselbeck in for the injured Andrew Luck at quarterback. Did someone say Comeback Player of the Year?
Don’t get carried away, though, by the surges the Texans and Colts have made. These are not complete teams, though they appear stronger than the likes of the Bills, Jets, Steelers and Raiders, all of whom are hovering around the break-even mark.
Worth watching the most are the Chiefs (6-5), who not only have won five straight, but have the easiest schedule remaining: two with Oakland, one each with San Diego, Baltimore and Cleveland.
“We’re proud of where we are, but we still know where we want to go,” says tight end Travis Kelce, who is having a terrific season. “There’s a lot of leaders in this room that care, that love this game, love this team. We’re going to keep this thing rolling.”
Given that schedule, could be.
A look at the mediocre contenders for the playoffs and where things might be headed:
The muddled picture is not at the top, except in the South. The Patriots, even with all their injuries, are a virtual lock to take the East. Same for the Broncos in the West, despite Kansas City’s surge. Barring a collapse, the Bengals will take the North.
The Colts-Texans race is intriguing because both have overcome disappointing starts and emerged the stronger for it. Houston’s defense is as good as any in the league, and J.J. Watt is playing like a two-time Defensive Player of the Year. The offense is functional, and that could be enough.
But the schedule is kinder to the Colts: Houston has New England and Buffalo left outside the division, Indianapolis has Pittsburgh and Miami.
The key could be the Texans’ trip to Indy on Dec. 20.
Both, of course, could get in should they continue their recent play, which might be asking a lot, and perhaps joining the Chiefs to fill out the field.
Of the 6-5 teams, the Jets and Steelers show no consistency and have some critical injuries (Darrelle Revis, Le’Veon Bell). Among the 5-6 squads, say the same for the Bills and the Raiders — plus they are a game behind three other teams.
Given who plays whom and their current health status and level of play, look for the Chiefs, Texans and Colts to all find a way into the postseason.
What a tangled web they weave.
Start with the clear stuff. Carolina (11-0) pretty much has sewed up the South as it chases perfection. It can clinch the division next weekend.
Either Minnesota or Green Bay should walk off with the North, which probably will be decided on the Lambeau Field tundra in the season finale — perhaps even in a night game. BRRRRRR!
Arizona has a huge edge in the West, even with Seattle getting things straight at last.
The two wild-card qualifiers, probably the runner-up in the North and the Seahawks, figure to have a better record than whoever emerges from the Least, uh East. That could be true even with Seattle at 8-8.
Not only did the Giants blow a chance to take a solid grasp of the East by losing at Washington, but they’ve displayed a penchant for disdaining prosperity.
Remember, this is a club that has lost four times in the final moments by self-destructing more than what the opponent has managed to do to them.
Now tied with Washington, the Giants have the Jets, Panthers and Vikings remaining, along with Miami and Philly. The Redskins get two meetings with Romo-less Dallas, plus the Bears, Bills and Eagles. The Redskins’ biggest challenge might be how poorly they play on the road, where they are 0-5.
The most absurd part of it: The NFC East winner will get a first-round home game.
- 4 straight Losses for the Rams– Jeff Fisher isn’t concerned about his job status.A four-game losing streak has the St. Louis Rams in the usual predicament, 4-7 and playing out the string. In their fourth year under Fisher, they’ve not yet been relevant.
“I’ve never gone into a game or into a season worried about my job security,” Fisher said Monday, a day after the Rams lost 31-7 at Cincinnati. “That would be unfair to the organization, unfair to the players.”
The Rams play the NFC West-leading Arizona Cardinals at home this week. Fisher said his players are “not losers” and their effort has been “outstanding,” and added the Cardinals are his only focus.
“I know that’s not the answer you guys want to hear,” Fisher said to reporters. “We’re not going to put this ‘live-or-die’ or ‘win-or-lose’ situation on this game.”
Fisher is 24-34-1 with the Rams, topping out at seven victories twice but failing to execute a turnaround for a franchise that hasn’t fielded a winner since 2003. They’d entered November with a winning record for the first time since 2006.
Overall, Fisher is 166-154-1 in his 20th season, with just six winning campaigns. Barring a stunning reversal, this won’t be the seventh.
The Rams are last in the NFL in passing yards, last in first downs, last in third-down efficiency and 31st in scoring. They’ve invested heavily in defense under Fisher in the draft and free agency, but less so in the offense, with Todd Gurley a notable exception.
The decision to lean heavily on rookie offensive linemen in particular has backfired this year. They’ve scored 13 or fewer points in each of the last three games and have topped 20 points just four times — in all of their victories.
The last four games, they’ve used different combinations including the first career start by three rookies.
Fisher said the key to keeping the team focused is “avoiding distractions.”
“It’s about believing in yourself and working hard and finding ways to improve,” Fisher said. “It’s especially difficult on them right now because of the lack of production on offense.”
One wrinkle this week is returning to a conventional schedule with a day off for players on Tuesday. All season, they’ve had Thursdays off and Fisher had cited a favorable team study.
Fisher said players need rest now, but that for now it’s a “one-week thing.”
“Pretty simple,” the coach said. “At this time of year, it’s hard to practice full speed three days a week.”
Fisher hopes to have quarterback Case Keenum cleared from the concussion protocol and start this week. After one week on the bench, Nick Foles threw three interceptions at Cincinnati, one of them returned for a touchdown.
“I still feel like the same player,” Foles said after the game. “It’s one of those things where it’s just a bump in the road and you learn.”
Fisher said Keenum was removed from consideration for the Bengals start after he didn’t “feel right” after practice on Friday.
“Hopefully he’s going to be back this week and he’ll play,” Fisher said. “I’m going to give Case a fair shot.”
Rookie Sean Mannion made his NFL debut in mop-up duty Sunday but Fisher doesn’t believe the third-round pick is ready to make a start.
“I was glad I got a chance to go in there and play a little bit,” Mannion said. “I wish the circumstances would have been different.”
Fisher said defensive end Robert Quinn (back) had an encouraging workout long before Sunday’s game but didn’t have “100 percent of his lower body strength.”
Fisher said cornerback Trumaine Johnson (thigh) could return to the lineup this week, but kicker Greg Zuerlein (hip) likely won’t practice until Friday. The Rams used a replacement kicker on Sunday.
- Falcons are freefalling– Coach Dan Quinn knows the Atlanta Falcons’ playoff hopes are going dim after a 5-0 start.His team is 1-5 since and has dropped out of the postseason picture with a precarious hold on second place in the NFC South.
A loss this weekend at Tampa Bay (5-6) would be Atlanta’s fifth straight and given how poorly quarterback Matt Ryan is playing, the Falcons can’t seem to do much right.
They missed a season-high 15 tackles in Sunday’s 20-10 home loss to Minnesota and had no answer for Vikings running back Adrian Peterson as the 2012 NFL MVP gashed the defense for 158 yards rushing, a 5.5 average and two touchdowns.
“He was a big reason for that, but every time you’re going against that kind of back, you better get down on the legs and wrap and roll,” Quinn said. “That’s the message.”
Atlanta, which began the day ranked among the league leaders in run defense, gave up a season-high 191 yards on the ground and 13 total plays of 10 or more yards.
Cornerback Desmond Trufant is confident the problems are correctable.
“We put the work in, we practice hard, we work hard, but for whatever reason, it’s not showing up on Sunday,” Trufant said. “We just have to keep pushing, stick together and the only way is up.”
The offense played even worse.
Running backs Tevin Coleman and Terron Ward, filling in for injured starter Devonta Freeman, each had a costly mistake.
Coleman lost a first-quarter fumble on a 46-yard run because he didn’t have the ball secured high and tightly enough. Ward was whistled for unnecessary roughness in the second quarter.
Reserve tight end Tony Moeaki had a clipping penalty that wiped out a touchdown run in the third.
But the worst mistake came on Ryan’s second interception three snaps later, an easy pick for Vikings cornerback Terrence Newman in the end zone.
Quinn has encouraged Ryan to keep the team in the forefront of his mind before sailing passes into tight coverage. Ryan acknowledges that he sometimes tries to do too much with the offense struggling to score.
“As a competitor you want to make those plays to get everybody going and to get the ball into the end zone, but that wasn’t the situation to do it,” Ryan said. “I’m a better player than that to know when it’s time to ditch it and throw it away.”
Ryan, a three-time Pro Bowl selection, has 10 interceptions in the last seven games and has lost three of seven fumbles, but Quinn has faith that his franchise player will be smarter with the football.
“I do want to emphasize that Matt’s a really good player, guys,” Quinn said. “We’ve made some really good plays, but the turnover is the biggest factor of what’s hurt us. That’s what we’re most challenged on.”
Notes: Quinn is hopeful Freeman, the NFL’s eighth-leading rusher, returns this week after missing one game with a concussion. … WR Devin Hester, out all season with a turf toe injury, is expected to fully participate in practice when the team returns to the field on Wednesday.
- Saints offense stalled on Sunday– As an offensive captain, Saints veteran right tackle Zach Strief wants to put New Orleans’ latest loss in the proper perspective, which in this case means emphasizing how bad the 24-6 drubbing in Houston really was on his side of the ball.”Offensively, it’s the worst game I’ve been a part of — so 10 years is a long time to have a worst of something,” said Strief, who was a Saints rookie when coach Sean Payton first brought his high-powered offense to New Orleans in 2006.
“We just never got into a rhythm. We weren’t able to convert third downs. We put ourselves in bad positions — third-and-long situations that we talked all week about not getting into,” Strief continued. “You put a good defense in good situations, they’re going to make you look bad.”
A little more than a week ago, the focus at Saints headquarters was on how bad the defense was — worst in the league in yards and points per game, which got coordinator Rob Ryan fired.
The defense showed signs of improvement under Ryan’s replacement, Dennis Allen, giving up 63 fewer yards and 7 fewer points than the season average coming into last weekend. But New Orleans failed to score a single touchdown for the first time since 2005, when Jim Haslett was head coach.
The Saints had the second-ranked offense in the league entering last weekend, averaging 414.5 yards. But New Orleans managed only 268 yards in Houston.
Receiver Brandin Cooks said he and his offensive teammates must not let one bad game against a strong Houston defense define them.
“We have to continue to trust in what we have,” Cooks said. “We can’t sit there and pout about it. We’ve just got to get back to work.
“I continue to believe in this team,” Cooks continued. “We continue to believe in each other and I still feel like we can do something special.”
The result in Houston extended the Saints’ losing streak to three and dropped them to 4-7, their worst record through 11 games during Payton’s tenure.
But Payton doesn’t sound upset about the character, effort or enthusiasm of his players.
“The preparation and the want-to and desire is there. Those guys have been outstanding,” Payton said. “This is a good locker room and we just have to be better at what we are doing and look closely at eliminating mistakes that are being repeated and evaluate those.”
Last week, Payton took a closer look at backup offensive tackle Andrus Peat — the team’s top 2015 draft choice — more playing time by lining him up at left guard in place of Tim Lelito. But the line as a whole struggled Sunday. The Saints rushed for only 50 yards. Brees was sacked twice and often couldn’t get his feet set when he did get the ball out before being hit. Consequently, a number of his passes were uncharacteristically inaccurate.
Payton gave Peat’s performance mixed reviews.
“There was some good and then there were some times where he struggled,” Payton said, citing holding and false start penalties. “There are a handful of technique things that need to be cleaned up, and yet there are a few times on the film where you are looking at it and you’re like, ‘Wow, that is pretty good.'”
Asked if Peat would get another start at guard this week, Payton responded, “We’ll see how the week goes.”
The Saints now have virtually no margin for error if they want to sneak back into even the periphery of the wild card playoff race. This Sunday, New Orleans hosts the Carolina Panthers, who are the NFL’s only unbeaten team.
“Time is running out,” Cooks said. “We’ve got to put up points. We’ve got to win games and that’s what it’s all about.”