What Have We Learned from Week 15 of the 2017 NFL Season

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Sean McVay

Los Angeles Rams head coach Sean McVay, right, greets running back Todd Gurley (30) after Gurley scored a touchdown in the second half of an NFL football game, against the Seattle Seahawks, Sunday, Dec. 17, 2017, in Seattle. The score was Gurley’s fourth touchdown of the game. (AP Photo/John Froschauer)

Here is What Have We Learned from Week 15 of the 2017 NFL Season, thanks to the AP Pro 32 for photos & help in this article.

Ups

  • Rams on verge of securing first division title since 2003-Somewhere in Sean McVay’s house are two hats celebrating division titles from his time as an assistant coach in Washington.

    A win at the Tennessee Titans on Sunday would get McVay his first as a head coach and give the Los Angeles Rams their first NFC West crown since 2003.

    “Those are tough to get,” McVay said Monday. “That’s a special accomplishment, to be able to win a division. To win games in this league is so hard, and you appreciate every single opportunity. When you do win, you certainly cherish that, especially division championships.”

    After their 42-7 win at the Seattle Seahawks on Sunday to take a two-game lead in the division with two games remaining, the Rams (10-4) can assure themselves a home playoff game by winning at Tennessee this week or beating the San Francisco 49ers at home on Dec. 31. It would be the first playoff game in Los Angeles since the Raiders defeated the Cincinnati Bengals 20-10 at the Coliseum in the divisional round on Jan. 13, 1991.

    McVay has continually preached an emphasis on process over results, but will acknowledge the opportunity to seize the tangible benefit of the team’s hard work as soon as this weekend.

    “We don’t shy away from what is at stake, but we do keep our same approach in terms of just kind of that weekly rhythm, but absolutely something you talk about,” McVay said.

    The Rams’ surprising turnaround has plenty of people talking about various ways of recognizing it. McVay, in his first year at the helm, is a leading candidate for coach of the year honors. Plenty of players are likely to be included when the Pro Bowl rosters are announced Tuesday. Even running back Todd Gurley is starting to get mentioned as a possible option in most valuable player voting.

    McVay will gladly lead the charge for Gurley’s candidacy, coming off his eruption for 152 yards rushing and four total touchdowns against the Seahawks, as a way of saluting his resurgent third season and the Rams’ revival. Gurley’s performance was the result of the offensive line and receivers getting physical in the run game and quarterback Jared Goff’s game management, and McVay said it can be extrapolated throughout the entire season.

    “I’m obviously going to be biased to Todd, but I think if you just look at it from a production standpoint he’s been as productive as any player,” McVay said. “He’s got over 1,800 all-purpose yards, 17 touchdowns leading the league, over 630 yards receiving. He has a great game yesterday, but Todd will tell you that success he’s had is a credit to his teammates.”

    Outside the uptick in Gurley’s workload against the Seahawks, which McVay joked about after receiving some criticism for only giving him 13 carries in the 43-35 loss to the Philadelphia Eagles, there hasn’t been much the head coach has had to change this season. A tweak to the midweek schedule has been one of the few exceptions.

    McVay will hold a walkthrough instead of a practice Wednesday after having to reduce the level of activity on each of the past two Wednesdays because of poor air quality caused by the Thomas Fire in Santa Barbara. It isn’t a significant change as the Rams were already using Wednesdays to give veteran players like left tackle Andrew Whitworth, center John Sullivan and outside linebacker Connor Barwin an extra day off. After seeing a “fresh” and “fast” team against the Seahawks, McVay believes the reduced physical workload had a beneficial effect on the entire roster on game day.

    “As long as they continue to understand how important it is to just be locked in, great focus and concentration from a mental standpoint, we feel like that’s going to be the best thing and that’s the approach we’ll take this week again,” McVay said.

 

  • Ravens’ path to playoffs involves getting 2 wins at home-The Baltimore Ravens path to the playoffs is devoid of tiebreakers, scoreboard watching or lengthy plane trips.

    For the Ravens (8-6) to end a two-year hiatus from the postseason, all they have to do is win their last two games — both at home against teams that long ago were eliminated from playoff contention.

    Now that’s a home stretch to savor.

    Then again, coach John Harbaugh is taking nothing for granted as he prepares his team for Saturday’s game against Indianapolis (3-11) and the New Year’s Eve finale against Cincinnati (5-9).

    “We’re going to need to play our best football to accomplish what we’re trying to accomplish,” Harbaugh said Monday.

    Judging by past performances, the odds are stacked heavily in favor of the Ravens.

    Baltimore is 58-20 at home during the regular season during Harbaugh’s 10-year run, including 15-7 in December. The Ravens have allowed an NFL-low 16.4 points per game at home over that span and have an average victory margin of 14.2 points.

    They’re 4-2 in their own stadium this season, including a 40-0 rout of Miami and a 44-20 win over Detroit.

    In their road finale Sunday, Baltimore avoided the temptation of looking past winless Cleveland. After a slow start, the Ravens outscored the Browns 10-0 in the second half and pulled away to a 27-10 victory.

    Not long after the final whistle, the players began thinking about facing Indianapolis. Although it’s going to take two wins to get into the postseason, the Ravens will worry about the Bengals next week.

    “If you look ahead, you set yourself up for a trap,” quarterback Joe Flacco said. “All we can focus on is feeling good about this game and looking forward to the next game.”

    Against Cleveland, Flacco threw for a season-high 288 yards and Mike Wallace had six catches for 89 yards to back up a defense that forced four turnovers. In a must-win situation, the Ravens did exactly that.

    “I live for this type of stuff. Nothing is ever going to make me nervous,” Wallace said. “Every game is a playoff game from here on out. We want to be in the real playoffs, and right now every week is the playoffs.”

    It’s an ideal situation for a team that’s battled through injuries and bounced back from a 4-5 start.

    “I do appreciate the character of our team, the resilience of our team,” Harbaugh said. “We dealt with (injuries) quite a bit probably early and in the middle of the season, and our guys handled it and they kept fighting through it.

    “The reports of our demise, I guess, were greatly exaggerated. But we have a long way to go, and it runs through M&T Bank Stadium.”

    The Ravens could be without receiver Jeremy Maclin (knee) and defensive tackle Carl Davis (leg) on Saturday. Both were injured against the Browns.

    “Both of those guys will do everything they can to get back this week, with varying degrees of likelihood,” Harbaugh said. “It kind of depends on how they come along in the next couple of days. More likely that it wouldn’t be this week, and it could be the week after.”

 

  • 8 Steelers, 6 Eagles and Saints highlight Pro Bowl squads– The Pittsburgh Steelers lead the NFL in one category this season: most Pro Bowl players.

    Antonio Brown, Le’Veon Bell and Ben Roethlisberger are among eight Steelers selected for the all-star game. They will be joined on Jan. 28 in Orlando, Florida, by tackle Alejandro Villanueva, guard David DeCastro, center Maurkice Pouncey, kicker Chris Boswell, and linebacker Ryan Shazier, who is injured. Brown, also injured but expected back for the playoffs, was voted a starter, as were Bell and the three offensive linemen.

    The Philadelphia Eagles and New Orleans Saints each placed six players in the game in balloting announced Tuesday.

    Four rookies were chosen in voting by NFL players, coaches and fans: running backs Alvin Kamara of the Saints and Kareem Hunt of the Chiefs, cornerback Marshon Lattimore of the Saints, and safety Budda Baker of the Cardinals as a special teamer.

    Two long snappers will be selected by each coach; the losing AFC and NFC team with the best record will have its coaching staff work the Pro Bowl.

    Twenty-four of the 86 Pro Bowl selections are newcomers. That includes two of the three Rams specialists chosen: kicker Greg Zuerlein and return specialist Pharoh Cooper. Rams punter Johnny Hekker is a repeat Pro Bowler.

    “The presence of five of our players on the Pro Bowl roster is a testament to the collective effort of our football team,” Rams coach Sean McVay said in a release. “While we emphasize football as a team sport, we appreciate their individual contributions to our overall success. We’re extremely proud of them.”

    Five teams have no representatives: the Jets, Browns, Colts, Bears and Packers.

    Other AFC offensive starters: Patriots QB Tom Brady and FB James Develin; Texans WR DeAndre Hopkins; Chiefs TE Travis Kelce; Titans T Taylor Lewan; and Raiders G Kelechi Osemele. On defense, it will be Jaguars DE Calais Campbell and CBs Jalen Ramsey and A.J. Bouye; Ravens S Eric Weddle and LB C.J. Mosley; Broncos LB Von Miller; Texans LB Jadeveon Clowney; Chargers DE Joey Bosa; Titans DT Jurell Casey; Bengals DT Geno Atkins; and Miami S Reshad Jones.

    Starting on offense for the NFC: Eagles QB Carson Wentz, who is injured, TE Zach Ertz and G Brandon Brooks; Falcons WR Julio Jones and C Alex Mack; Vikings WR Adam Thielen; Rams RB Todd Gurley; Cowboys T Tyron Smith and G Zack Martin; Redskins T Trent Williams; and 49ers FB Kyle Juszczyk.

    Defensive starters for the NFC: Vikings DE Everson Griffen and CB Xavier Rhodes; Cardinals LB Chandler Jones and CB Patrick Peterson; Cowboys DE Demarcus Lawrence; Eagles DT Fletcher Cox; Rams DT Aaron Donald; Redskins LB Ryan Kerrigan; Panthers LB Luke Kuechly; Seahawks S Earl Thomas; and Giants S Landon Collins.

    Other AFC specialists are Titans punter Brett Kern, Chiefs returner Tyreek Hill, and Patriots special teamer Matthew Slater.

Middle

  • Falcons keep winning, but still struggling to put teams away-The Atlanta Falcons’ path to the playoffs is simple — win this week at New Orleans, and they’re in.

    If only it were that easy.

    Atlanta (9-5) has yet to figure out how to put away opponents on the road. Monday’s 24-21 win at Tampa Bay gave the Falcons a fifth road victory, but each of them has been decided in the closing seconds.

    Coach Dan Quinn sees a positive in the close calls.

    “Here’s what I like about that,” Quinn said Tuesday. “There is a hardening that takes place, a confidence from coming through in those environments to know that this is our time to stand up and make opportunities count.”

    The tough part for Atlanta is changing the script. Building a lead hasn’t been hard to accomplish, but the offense, despite leading the NFL in third-down efficiency, inevitably has to punt late in the fourth quarter.

    Then the defense gives up a few big plays to set up a frenzied finish. Monday marked Atlanta’s second straight road game to end with a missed field goal that would’ve forced overtime.

    Overall the Falcons have played 10 games decided by a touchdown or less, most in the NFL, and they’re 6-4 in those situations.

    One quick fix is obvious — the defense ranks next-to-last with 12 takeaways and ranks last with just four interceptions. Improve those numbers, and Atlanta might reduce its penchant for drama.

    “I think we did well,” strong safety Keanu Neal said. “There were a few plays we left out there, but no game is perfect. It’s about learning from those and moving forward, but I think overall we had a decent game.”

    Neal had the lone takeaway against the Buccaneers, stripping the ball from Peyton Barber and recovering the fumble at the Atlanta 9-yard line in the second quarter. Free safety Ricardo Allen picked off Jameis Winston on the next Tampa possession, but cornerback Robert Alford was flagged for holding to nullify the interception.

    It marked the sixth time this season the Falcons have lost a pick because of a penalty.

    “That’s a big difference,” Quinn said. “That part of our game we’ve got to clean up.”

    Despite their difficulties, the Falcons have won five of six and head into Week 16 with a chance to repeat as division champions for the first time in their 52-year history.

    They must beat the Saints and then knock off Carolina at home in Week 17. Both opponents are 10-4 and tied atop the NFC South.

    “We made enough plays to get it done,” quarterback Matt Ryan said. “It keeps us right where we want to be and now we have to find a way to get better this week and try to get a win next Sunday down in New Orleans.”

Downs

  • Playoffs not in cards for Raiders after latest loss-Coach Jack Del Rio still doesn’t understand how Dallas got a first down by the width of an index card in a key play of a game that dealt a crippling blow to the Oakland Raiders’ already slim playoff hopes.

    Dak Prescott’s fourth-down sneak gave the Cowboys a first down by the narrowest of margins after a measurement that included props and helped set up the go-ahead score in Dallas’ 20-17 win Sunday night.

    “Nothing really surprises you after 32 years, things happen in this league,” Del Rio said Monday. “But, that was unusual.”

    The key play came when the Cowboys went for it on fourth-and-1 from their 39 with about five minutes left in a tie game. Prescott dived into the pile on a sneak, and the officials took some time to untangle the mess and spot the ball.

    Referee Gene Steratore called for the chains to come out, but even then it wasn’t clear if the ball had cleared the first-down threshold. He tried to slide an index card between the tip of the ball and the end of the chain before awarding Dallas a first down.

    Steratore said after the game he had decided it was a first down before the odd measurement, but Del Rio isn’t buying it.

    “I thought everything was in place to get an accurate call and I saw space and in my opinion, it should have gone the other way and a turnover on downs. I haven’t had a chance to call and get the explanation. I mean, I’m sure there will be some kind of explanation, but whatever it is, I’m going to disagree with it,” Del Rio said. “I know what I saw, I saw it myself from the sideline. But I also saw plenty examples on Twitter. The guy ran out there with the camera and put the camera right down on it, so the whole world got to see what it was. It’s not like we’re making something up. The guy with the camera was right there. So how you can look at that and then get up with a smirk. I don’t know, that’s hard to take.”

    Oakland still had a chance to win after holding Dallas to a field goal on that drive, but Derek Carr fumbled while trying to stretch the ball over the goal line on a scramble and the ball rolled out of the end zone for a touchback that gave the Cowboys the ball.

    The Raiders head into the final two games with only the slimmest of postseason chances. They must win at Philadelphia and the Chargers, then hope Buffalo and Tennessee each lose twice, Miami wins twice and Baltimore gets at least one tie or win in the final two games to get in as the sixth seed in the AFC.

    Oakland’s playoff odds are estimated at less than 1 percent, according to fivethirtyeight.com. Still, Del Rio doesn’t plan to shift playing time with an eye on evaluating younger players ahead of next season.

    “We’re going to play to win,” he said. “We’re just going to play to win. We’re going to do everything we can to get over this ‘close but no cigar’ finish we had.”

    One lineup change Oakland has to make this week is at left tackle, where stalwart Donald Penn went down with a right foot injury that will require surgery Wednesday. Penn has appeared in all 174 regular-season games since making his debut as an undrafted free agent with Tampa Bay in 2007. Penn became a starter that season and has started 170 straight games, the longest active streak of any offensive lineman.

    Penn did miss Oakland’s playoff game last year against Houston with a knee injury but has otherwise been an ironman at a grueling position.

    Del Rio said he hadn’t decided whether to start rookie David Sharpe next Monday at Philadelphia or use the same alignment he did after Penn got hurt in Sunday’s loss to Dallas with Marshall Newhouse moving from right to left tackle and Vadal Alexander coming in to take Newhouse’s spot.

 

  • Facing misconduct investigation, Panthers owner selling team– Facing a growing investigation that accuses him of sexual misconduct and using racist language at work, Carolina Panthers owner Jerry Richardson announced Sunday that he will sell the NFL team after the season.

    The team announced on Twitter that Richardson is selling the team, linking to a five-paragraph letter by the franchise’s only owner.

    “I believe it is time to turn the franchise over to new ownership,” Richardson wrote, saying he wouldn’t begin discussions until after the season. The Panthers, who lost in the Super Bowl two seasons ago, are in playoff position again.

    “I hope everyone in the organization, both on and off the field, will be firmly focused on one mission: to play and win the Super Bowl,” said Richardson, 81.

    Richardson’s letter did not directly address the investigation or allegations against him.

    The NFL awarded Richardson, a former player with the Baltimore Colts, an expansion franchise in 1993, and he has been the team’s only owner.

    “There has been no greater mission or purpose in my life than to have brought an NFL franchise to Charlotte,” Richardson wrote. “The obstacles back then were significant and some even questioned whether or community could or would support professional football. But I always knew that if given the chance the Carolina would rise to the occasion. And you have.”

    Richardson attended Sunday’s win over the Green Bay Packers at Bank of America Stadium and was photographed sitting beside his wife Rosalind in his luxury box.

    He did not speak to reporters.

    The NFL had no comment on the upcoming sale of the Panthers.

    “While I will no longer be the team owner, I will always be the Panthers Number One fan,” Richardson’s letter said.

    The Panthers are tied to Charlotte through June 2019.

    The city of Charlotte and the Panthers reached agreement on improvements for the team’s stadium in 2013. The plan called for the city to contribute about $87 million for renovations to Bank of America Stadium in exchange for a six-year hard tether to keep the Panthers in Charlotte.

    The money is less than what the team was seeking for improvements of the stadium, which opened in 1996. Forbes estimates the Panthers worth at $2.3 billion. The Buffalo Bills sold in 2014 for $1.4 billion following the death of owner Ralph Wilson.

    Richardson and his ownership group paid $206 million in 1993 for an expansion team.

    Richardson’s announcement comes after a Sports Illustrated report Sunday that cited unnamed sources who said Richardson made sexually suggestive comments to women and on at least one occasion directed a racial slur at an African-American Panthers scout. The report states that the settlements came with non-disclosure requirements forbidding the parties from discussing the details.

    The NFL on Sunday said it has taken over the investigation of allegations of workplace misconduct. Panthers spokesman Steven Drummond said Sunday the team requested the league take over the investigation for “transparency reasons.”

    Dallas Cowboys owner Jerry Jones called the situation surrounding Richardson “very sad.”

    “I’m saddened by any of the stories of the things that might have incited this at this time,” Jones said after Dallas’ win at Oakland on Sunday night. “He took what he made in his short time in pro football and turned it into a great business and then used that to get the Carolina franchise.”

    The Panthers began play in 1995 but have never delivered on Richardson’s promise of winning a Super Bowl. They lost after the 2003 and 2015 seasons.

    Panthers interim general manager Marty Hurney said he had never seen any evidence of Richardson displaying any sexual or racial misconduct in the workplace.

    “If this (sale) happens I think it is a significant loss for the NFL,” Hurney told The Associated Press. “I have the utmost respect for him as an owner. Our employees have the utmost respect for him. I came back because of the respect I have for him and for the organization he started and developed.”

    Panthers quarterback Cam Newton said after Sunday’s win over Green Bay that Richardson has served as a father figure to him since his arrival in Carolina seven years ago.

    “For me I hope things don’t alter my thinking of Mr. Richardson,” Newton said. “But I do know that he has given me some things that I will forever be appreciative of.”

    Panthers coach Ron Rivera said after the game it is important to let the process play out.

    “The only thing I can speak on is for what he has been to me as far as I’m concerned,” Rivera said. “A lot of you know I had a house fire, and he was there for (my wife) Stephanie and I. He was tremendous in supporting us. My brother passed, and Mr. Richardson was there and helped me get to the funeral and back. I can’t speak to anything other than that.”

    Richardson was hospitalized 2008, one month after receiving a pacemaker for heart problems. He underwent quadruple bypass surgery in 2002 and was placed on a donor waiting list for a new heart. He received the new heart on Feb. 1, 2009, and has not had any known setbacks since.

    It has been a wild year for the Panthers organization.

    Team president Danny Morrison abruptly resigned in February. Richardson then fired general manager Dave Gettleman on the eve of training camp and replaced him with Hurney on an interim basis.

 

  • Bengals’ Marvin Lewis noncommittal about next year-Marvin Lewis went to sit in his customary chair for his Monday media availability and discovered that it had been adjusted to a lower setting.

    He laughed after discovering that his seat at the front of the room no longer fit.

    The Bengals’ coach will finish his 15th season in Cincinnati amid a full-blown discussion about whom the chair will fit in a few weeks. Lewis said Monday that he hasn’t talked to owner Mike Brown about his contract, which ends after this season.

    Although he emphatically denies a report that he’s decided to leave, Lewis was noncommittal Monday about what happens next.

    Asked if he wants to be back in Cincinnati next year, he replied by saying only, “I want to coach football.” Asked again if he wants to coach in Cincinnati next year, he simply said, “Sure.”

    The past two weeks pretty much sealed Lewis’ fate, leaving the question of how the parting is handled. The Bengals (5-9) had another fourth-quarter meltdown against the Steelers in a 23-20 loss on Dec. 4 that essentially ended their playoff chances and left Lewis 8-24 against their biggest rival.

    They followed that deflating game by getting flattened at home by the struggling Bears 33-7.

    On Sunday, they went to Minnesota and were lifeless from the start, losing 34-7. They managed only one first down and 42 yards while falling behind 24-0 in the first half.

    When the game ended, defensive end Carlos Dunlap tweeted : “Crazy feeling when you invest so much in anything and you don’t have any chance at any reward. Can’t even say I’m embarrassed any more I’m at a loss for words.”

    ESPN reported before the game in Minnesota on Sunday morning that Lewis doesn’t want to return, citing unnamed sources.

    After the game, Lewis denied the report, saying he hasn’t made any decisions about his future. He also addressed the report with his players, telling them to pay no attention to it.

    It’s another distraction for an injury-depleted team that finishes the season against opponents with playoff aspirations. The Bengals host Detroit (8-6) on Sunday and play at Baltimore (8-6).

    Brown’s longstanding tradition is to wait until the end of a season to meet with the head coach and decide what comes next. He hasn’t fired a coach midseason since Dave Shula’s team opened 1-6 in 1996. Bruce Coslet quit after a 0-3 start in 2000.

    Lewis indicated on Monday that he won’t force the issue, allowing the last two weeks to play out before meeting with Brown to tell him about his plans.

    “It’s not the pertinent thing right now,” Lewis said. “The pertinent thing right now is to coach the football team, and that’s what my job is and what I’m supposed to do. Anything else?”

    The 59-year-old coach knew it was a pivotal season. He failed to get a contract extension after a six-win season in 2016. Brown acknowledged at the start of training camp that there was more pressure on Lewis to produce.

    Instead, the season has turned out even worse than last year in many respects.

    Attendance at 65,515-seat Paul Brown Stadium is down significantly from 2015, when the Bengals collapsed during a first-round playoff loss to Pittsburgh. They’re 0-7 in the postseason under Lewis, the worst playoff coaching record in league history.

    They’re averaging only 54,026 fans this season, a drop of nearly 8,000 per game from two years ago. The team’s poor showings the past few weeks will drive away even more fans unless there are significant offseason changes.

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