What Have We Learned From Week 16 of the 2015 NFL Season

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Todd Gurley

St. Louis Rams’ Todd Gurley (30) spikes the ball after scoring a touchdown on a run against the Seattle Seahawks in the second half of an NFL football game, Sunday, Dec. 27, 2015, in Seattle. (AP Photo/Stephen Brashear)

Here is What Have We Learned from Week 16 of the 2015 NFL Season, thanks to the AP Pro 32 for photos & help in this article.

                                                                                   Ups

  • Rams sweep the Seahawks– Four years into the Jeff Fisher era, the St. Louis Rams remain shy of a breakthrough.But a three-game winning streak heading into the season finale at San Francisco shows the Rams aren’t giving up.

    “They aren’t giving participation trophies for this team not quitting,” defensive end Chris Long said after Sunday’s victory in Seattle.

    “When the chips are down, that’s when you find out what people are made of. I think we’ve got the right kind of guys in this locker room.”

    The surge comes too late to truly make a statement, but another victory would mean a .500 finish for the first time since 2006.

    So, that’s incremental progress for St. Louis (7-8), which won seven, seven and six games in Fisher’s first three years.

    On Monday, Fisher said the Rams’ first victory in Seattle since the 2004 season was in his top three with St. Louis. Another one in that group, he said, was the season-opening overtime win over the defending NFC champions.

    “I don’t remember seeing that kind of energy in the locker room,” Fisher said in a teleconference with St. Louis reporters. “We’re closing the gap. I think we can say we’ve done that this year.”

    The Rams are staying on the West Coast to prepare for the finale. They have relocated to the Raiders’ training camp facility in Napa, California, to give players a better chance of bouncing back.

    Fisher said the move saved “10-12 hours on the aircraft,” and joked that unlike St. Louis, which had three solid days of rain since Christmas, it was nice and dry in California.

    “You’re changing time zones and so on, so forth,” Fisher said. “We’ve got a great setup here. We just had a short trip down here.”

    The three-game streak, just the second under Fisher, follows a five-game skid that knocked the Rams out of playoff contention. They’ve rallied since changing offensive coordinators and with the defense stepping up led by Aaron Donald.

    “It doesn’t matter what it’s for, it doesn’t matter what happened before, it doesn’t matter what’s going to happen ahead,” said quarterback Case Keenum, who has effectively managed the offense since replacing Nick Foles. “Let’s go play.”

    Though Fisher said the key has been on not looking too far ahead, he knows the jolts to the offense are a factor in the late charge.

    “We’ve made a couple difficult decisions,” the coach said. “It appears after three weeks those were good decisions.”

    End William Hayes had a season-best three sacks of Russell Wilson to help slow down the playoff-bound Seahawks and center Tim Barnes recovered two fumbles to keep the clinching drive alive in the fourth quarter.

  • Ravens upset & sweep the Steelers, now trying to go to Cincinnati to stop the Bengals– Baltimore Ravens coach John Harbaugh has emphasized the importance of finishing the team’s disappointing season on a high note.The Ravens now have that opportunity.

    Coming off a spirited upset of the Pittsburgh Steelers, the Ravens will attempt to defeat another AFC North rival Sunday in the finale at Cincinnati.

    “We want to step off as high as we possibly can,” Harbaugh said. “Let’s get as good as we can get as a football team. The goal doesn’t change that way whether you’re in the playoffs or not in the playoffs. We need to play the best football we can play because it’s a journey. Winning those games is definitely a measuring stick of how good you are.”

    The Ravens managed to beat the Steelers 20-17 with a backup quarterback they signed less than two weeks ago in Ryan Mallett. He went 28 for 41 for a career-high 274 yards with a touchdown.

    Mallett, released by the Texans on Oct. 27, was the fourth quarterback to start for the Ravens in the past six weeks.

    “To get a win in this game, it’s awesome,” Mallett said. “To get a win, period, right now, how everything’s been going, is even better. Now, it’s building on that.”

    The victory also completed a season-sweep of the Steelers, who had won five of their past six games and were trying to clinch a playoff berth. The Ravens were able to avoid turnovers, a problem that has plagued them all season. Baltimore enters the final week of the season with a minus-13 turnover ratio, which is among the worst in the league.

    “We didn’t give up any points on turnovers,” Harbaugh said about the Steelers game. “That’s winning football. That’s the way we want to play, and to me, that’s a blueprint for us going forward. Now we have to try to replicate that blueprint. We have to try to do that again on Sunday against Cincinnati.”

    The Ravens have another big test against the Bengals, who have won the past four games in the series. Baltimore has not had a victory in Cincinnati since Jan. 1, 2012.

    The Bengals edged the Ravens 28-24 in their first meeting on Sept. 27.

    “End the season on a good note, and that’s with a win,” Ravens wide receiver Kamar Aiken said.

    The Ravens have a league-high 19 players on Injured Reserve. The team has also endured three, three-game losing streaks over the course of their 15 games. Nonetheless, the players and coaches vowed to continue fighting each week even as the losses mounted.

    Baltimore is now looking to put this disappointing season behind and carry some momentum into the offseason.

  • Jeremy Maclin’s move to Chiefs big reason they are playoff-bound– Jeremy Maclin darted off the line of scrimmage, saw a soft pocket in the middle of the Cleveland defense, and angled sharply toward the goal posts in the back of the end zone.Alex Smith zipped a pass between three defenders that hit him right on the hands.

    The 13-yard touchdown reception in the first quarter Sunday gave the Kansas City Chiefs an early lead.

    But it also allowed Maclin to eclipse 1,000 yards receiving this season, a rare feat under coach Andy Reid and exactly what the franchise hoped for when they signed him as a free agent.

    “It seems like every week we look back at the film and I felt like I could have gone Jeremy’s way more,” Smith said, “because he consistently wins. Even when they try to take him away, he consistently wins. He’s that type of player.”

    Maclin finished with five catches for 49 yards against Cleveland, giving him 84 catches for 1,034 yards and seven touchdowns — seven more than all Chiefs wide receivers had combined last season.

    Not a bad follow-up to last season, when he had 1,318 yards receiving for Philadelphia.

    “I think the great thing about him is he’s all team-first. All he cares about is winning,” Smith said. “But credit to him, I think it shows how smart he is besides the talent he has. He sees things so well. He sees it like a quarterback.”

    The touchdown reception was a perfect example of it.

    Maclin could have broken off his route at any point, but the key to making it work was doing it when Smith expected it. A moment too soon and Smith overthrows him, too late and it’s an interception.

    It was the kind of throw into tight coverage that the cautious Smith rarely makes, and almost certainly would avoid trying with any other wide receiver.

    “There are a lot of adjustments that are happening in that route and he sees it the exact same way you do, and you trust him,” Smith said. “I think that comes with time. I think with me, it’s proven that Jeremy sees it very well. He’s going to make good decisions out there.”

    All of which is why he’s the first Chiefs wide receiver with more than 1,000 yards since Dwayne Bowe in 2011, and only the fourth under Reid to reach that mark. Terrell Owens, Kevin Curtis and DeSean Jackson all made it when they were with the Philadelphia Eagles.

    “It’s nice,” Maclin said, “but that doesn’t really mean much.”

    What means something to Maclin is making the playoffs. The Chiefs have matched a franchise record with nine straight wins after their 1-5 start, and clinched no worse than a wild-card slot when Pittsburgh lost to Baltimore on Sunday.

    After all, it was the chance to play for a Super Bowl — and to be reunited with Reid, the coach who drafted him in Philadelphia — that lured him to Kansas City.

    Maclin considered staying with the Eagles as a free agent, but ultimately signed a $55 million, five-year deal with the Chiefs.

    It was a big investment for Kansas City, but one the franchise believed it had to make given the dearth of options. The only other wide receiver with a track record of production last season was Bowe, and his five receptions this season with the Browns proves how far he’s dropped off.

    Most importantly, Maclin has given Smith a comfortable target.

    “He’s got a lot of trust in Jeremy,” Reid said. “You just have to find that small window.”

    Maclin said he won’t be watching the scoreboards, or care much about what happens with Denver the final two games.

    All that matters to him is beating Oakland next week and getting ready for the playoffs, where the Chiefs have not won a game since the 1993-94 season.

Middle

  • Week 16 provides more questions, not answers– Just when you thought it was safe to look toward the playoffs, Week 16 of the NFL schedule threw a bunch of stuff out of kilter.Carolina’s unbeaten season ended. New England’s injuries and defensive holes made it look especially vulnerable.

    Pittsburgh lost control of its postseason chances by falling to perhaps the league’s most banged-up team, the Ravens. That created an opening for the Jets, who grabbed it by beating an opponent with a winning record for the first time in 2015.

    Seattle lost for a third time at home and could be looking at the NFC’s sixth seed. Green Bay again looked discombobulated, like a team headed for a first-round exit.

    Some clarity emerged, too: Washington eliminated the possibility of a losing team taking the NFC East, and Arizona again appeared to be the league’s most-balanced squad in its romp past the Packers.

    But the number of questions raised by results in the penultimate week of the season certainly outnumbered any answers provided.

    “There are no magic words that need to be said,” Cam Newton insisted after the Panthers fell to 14-1 — and saw any semblance of invincibility disappear. “We don’t wave a magic wand or anything like that. We got our (butt) kicked today and to a degree we deserved it. Offensively, defensively, and special teams, I’m talking with a mirror in front of my face.

    “There are some plays that we left out there. We knew it. Yet we know what we are capable of. We are 14-1 right now. We put ourselves in the situation where we can use this as fuel.”

    Count on plenty of other NFC teams using what they saw from the Panthers at Atlanta as fuel, too. The problem is, with all six of the conference’s playoff qualifiers determined, only the Cardinals seem particularly formidable right now.

    And the AFC might be even more jumbled.

    Questions, questions, questions:

    —Were the Panthers playing above their heads for most of the season and now have been exposed somewhat? They are a good team with a dynamic quarterback performing at his best, and several other standouts such as linebackers Luke Kuechly and Thomas Davis, cornerback Josh Norman, and tight end Greg Olsen. But are they championship quality?

    —Can the Patriots find enough healthy bodies to make a run at defending their title? They look especially beatable in the secondary, and the offensive line is struggling to keep Tom Brady upright — a key to success for New England. Brady might be the best quarterback the NFL has seen in turning so-so players into formidable performers, but can he really do that with, as he said after Sunday’s loss, “guys coming in off the street to play.”

    —Pittsburgh looked like a potential wild-card team no one would want to face, with an unstoppable offense, enough defense, and terrific coaching. Then came Sunday’s flop at Baltimore. Explaining it away as a rivalry game doesn’t work in this case because these Ravens are so undermanned. Did the Steelers throw away their opportunity to do damage in January?

    —Like Pittsburgh, Seattle was peaking as the postseason approached, something the Seahawks mastered the past two years. Only Arizona appeared to have more uniformity on offense, defense and special teams.

    But the Seahawks’ dud against underwhelming St. Louis can’t be explained by it being a bad matchup, even though the Rams always give Seattle problems. Will the lack of a running game without injured Marshawn Lynch and Thomas Rawls be the downfall for the two-time NFC champs?

    —Most perplexing is the spiral the Packers are on. They began with six victories, including wins over Seattle and Kansas City. Then they went into a three-game slide and, despite subsequently winning four of five — one on a last-second desperation heave from Aaron Rodgers to Richard Rodgers against Detroit — issues remained, mainly on offense.

    At Arizona on Sunday, the Packers looked like amateurs. Now they must beat Minnesota at Lambeau Field, where they already have lost to the other two NFC North teams, Detroit and Chicago, or become a wild card.

    “We are professionals. We have to hold ourselves to a higher standard and play better. Everybody has to play better,” Aaron Rodgers said.

    Can they? Just another question to ponder heading into the new year and the season finales.

Downs

  • Could be time for a change with the Giants?– Tom Coughlin is going to approach what might be his final week as New York Giants coach just as he has went into every other game week since taking over the team in 2004 and leading it to two Super Bowls.This week is about winning, knocking off the Philadelphia Eagles in the regular-season finale and ending on a high note.

    Coughlin insists this week is not about either him or his future as coach. He is upset his players have been put in a position where they are being asked about letting down their 69-year-old leader.

    “I feel badly that they feel that way,” Coughlin said Monday. “It’s a shame that they have to be put in a position where they have to respond about something to do with me. It’s not about me. I’m here for them.

    “If you want to break it all down, blame it all on me. I’m the head coach, I’m responsible, I lose the games for our players. Put it that way, leave it that way. We try like heck not to put these young men in a position where they feel badly about the circumstances that the head coach finds himself in,” Coughlin said in a rather short day-after news conference with the media.

    Coughlin’s future with the Giants (6-9) was further put in doubt Sunday night when they were crushed 49-17 by the Vikings in Minnesota for their fifth loss in six games. New York has now missed the playoffs four straight seasons, with three straight losing records.

    While many speculated the Giants quit Sunday night, Coughlin felt his players played with effort.

    Coughlin said his focus is going to be on beating the Eagles, who easily defeated the Giants earlier this season in one of the few games that they were never in contention.

    “I have tried very hard, and you know this for a fact, the situation is not about me,” Coughlin said. “I am hoping the players are not going to be centered around that. We are going to conduct ourselves as we always have. We are going to work as hard as we possibly can and put our players in the best position we can, and we’ll let whatever happens, happen.”

    While the Giants didn’t have the best talent in the league, they easily could have won the weak NFC East. Six of their losses came in the final 75 seconds of games. Four losses were in the final :07 of regulation, including three on the final play. One loss was in overtime when Josh Brown missed his first field goal of the season after the Jets tied the game late in regulation.

    It leaves co-owners John Mara and Steve Tisch with decisions, not only with Coughlin, but also general manager Jerry Reese.

    Both men combined to lead the Giants to Super Bowl wins over the Patriots in February 2008 and ’12.

    “I thought we would have an opportunity this year, and the way the season was ending up at the halfway point, we had a great opportunity, and even the last couple of weeks, haven’t done enough to make the playoffs,” Eli Manning said Monday. “We just couldn’t win some close games and we had a lot of them. We had great opportunities to win games and be right in the mix and we didn’t take advantage of it.”

    Manning said Coughlin has not spoken to the team about his future as coach. He said Coughlin has gotten the team ready every week, doing an outstanding job of picking them up after each tough loss.

    “Obviously, I have great respect for him,” the two-time Super Bowl MVP said. “I wanted to do my job and do my job well, and get into the playoffs and have a big season so he could continue to be the head coach. I have such respect for him and he’s the only coach I’ve had in the NFL, and in that sense, (I) feel disappointed that I wasn’t able to play at a better level for him.”

  • Packers was in fright night vs. the Cardinals– Coach Mike McCarthy had a rough trip home to Green Bay, and it had nothing to do with the snowy weather.After the Packers watched film of their nightmarish game in Arizona, McCarthy moved on quickly to getting his players ready for a meeting this weekend against Minnesota.

    At stake: the NFC North title and a home playoff game.

    “So we’ve had a long, bumpy flight home to grade the tape,” McCarthy said Monday. “Just really wanted to get in there and get the team focused on the Vikings.”

    Forgetting about Arizona quickly might be the way to move forward for a team that failed the test in a 38-8 loss in the desert. A sluggish offense is once again the biggest worry.

    Receivers can’t get open consistently in press coverage. The Packers have gone two straight weeks without a 100-yard rusher. Penalties bogged down early drives.

    Aaron Rodgers got sacked eight times, and the offensive line is battered.

    And now, turnovers are a big problem, with six of the team’s 15 for the season coming in the last two weeks. Rodgers accounted for three turnovers, including two fumbles off sacks that were returned for touchdowns.

    “We played the worst we can possibly play, and we’re on to Minnesota,” receiver James Jones said.

    Getting healthier up front would help. McCarthy said it was too early to tell how much left tackle David Bakhtiari and right tackle Bryan Bulaga, who each have ankle injuries, would be able to practice this week.

    “Well, the healthiest team gives you your best option to play on Sunday,” McCarthy said.

    But the Packers aren’t using injuries as an excuse, either. McCarthy said that he can only control the adjustments for every obstacle thrown in his team’s way.

    “It takes all 11 to have success. It starts from a protection unit, to a route-running detail, to catching the football. It’s everyone, coaches included,” offensive coordinator Edgar Bennett said.

    The coaches aren’t worried about the Packers’ ability to bounce back. First, McCarthy can point to how the Packers beat Minnesota 30-13 in November. Next, the core of the Packers has been in similar spots over the previous four years — and won the division each season.

    They have to beat the Vikings on Sunday night to claim a fifth straight NFC North title.

    “I have faith in the football team regardless of what happened (in Arizona),” McCarthy said.

  • Latest loss shows need for Jaguars to overhaul defense– The Jacksonville Jaguars have one final chance to fix their porous defense this season.But it seems unlikely that is going to happen.

    The Jaguars (5-10) allowed 537 yards in a 38-27 loss at New Orleans on Sunday, more proof that coach Gus Bradley’s defense needs a complete overhaul in the offseason.

    Jacksonville has dropped four of five since beating Tennessee in late November, and the defense was the primary culprit in each of those losses. Philip Rivers, Marcus Mariota, Matt Ryan and Drew Brees took advantage of the team’s paltry pass rush and picked apart the secondary.

    Brees made it look easy, throwing for 412 yards and three touchdowns Sunday. The veteran led the Saints to touchdowns on their first three possessions. He threw a touchdown pass after converting a fourth-and-5 play and then found Brandin Cooks behind the defense for a 71-yard score on a second-and-21 play.

    Jacksonville looked lost on both plays.

    “We have a standard and … we’re always trying to create a new standard,” Bradley said. “OK, here’s where we’re at and let’s raise that standard. When you see a performance that’s not at that standard or adding on to that standard, it’s unacceptable. I just felt like (Sunday’s) performance defensively, we didn’t reach that standard, so that makes it unacceptable. So, yeah, that’s disappointing.

    “It’s disappointing that when you put together a game plan, you count on your fundamentals, your alignments, how guys are going to handle motions. We can count on these things, now let’s add to it. Some of these things that we’re counting on week-in and week-out didn’t show up, and that’s disappointing.”

    The Jaguars haven’t been able to count on much defensively all season. Sure, they’ve done a decent job against the run. But they’ve failed repeatedly to generate a consistent pass rush or cover on the back end.

    “We’re not playing how we want to play or how we can,” defensive end Tyson Alualu said. “There’s always hope in that. We just need to start playing better consistently and I guess that’s what we’ve got to focus on.”

    Jacksonville gets one last shot at playing better defense Sunday at Houston (8-7).

    Regardless of the outcome, the Jaguars expect to revamp that side of the ball next year in free agency and the draft.

    Considering general manager Dave Caldwell spent most of the last three years retooling the offense, it’s no secret that he will use multiple — maybe even all of his — draft picks to upgrade the defense. Throw in a few high-priced free agents and the return of defensive end Dante Fowler Jr., safety James Sample and defensive tackle Sen’Derrick Marks, and the Jags could have a bunch of different faces on defense.

    Fowler, the third overall draft pick in 2015, tore a knee ligament in his first practice and missed the entire season. Sample, a fourth-rounder, was limited to four games because of a shoulder injury. He also missed most of the offseason program because of a broken forearm. Marks also played in just four games before having season-ending surgery to repair a torn triceps tendon.

    Fowler and Marks should help bolster a pass rush that has accounted for 34 sacks through 15 games. The lack of pressure is most evident on third downs, in which opponents have converted an NFL-leading 46.2 percent against Jacksonville this season. The Saints went 8 of 13 on the all-important down.

    “Getting off the field on third down, you’ve got to do that to find success in this league,” Alualu said. “And obviously we need to do a better job of doing that.”

    Jacksonville is unlikely to bring back defensive ends Chris Clemons or Andre Branch, and defensive backs Josh Evans, Sergio Brown, Dwayne Gratz and Demetrius McCray surely will be among those vying for roster spots next year.

    Still, the Jaguars believe it can be a quick fix. After all, they have a young nucleus to build around with Fowler, Marks, linebacker Telvin Smith and cornerbacks Davon House and Aaron Colvin.

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