5 Things I care about
Saquon Barkley delivers vintage performance
Coming into Week 15, Saquon Barkley was as cold as any star player in the NFL. Barkley had averaged 2.9 yards per carry from Weeks 11 to 14 and just 4.9 yards per catch. He’s recorded just two total touchdowns. Based on his resume and the way he started the season, we had come to expect big things. We hadn’t seen them in a while … until Sunday night.
The Barkley we saw in Week 15 can make all the difference in raising the ceiling of this Giants team. The star back put up 120 total yards against a rock-solid Washington front seven. Barkley ran with energy and tempo all night. He earned his 87 yards on the ground. There was no monster run that boosted the final line; he had a long run of 15 yards. With a 50 percent success rate, Barkley just kept the offense rolling with power and spin moves in the open field.
Barkley also made a huge difference as a receiver. He was targeted on 33% of his routes and got a first down on 40% of his catches. These are all types of things we hadn’t seen out of Barkley in well over a month.
Even better, Barkley spent most of the game keeping his teammates engaged. His leadership matters. He talked about it often leading into this game — and he made sure it wasn’t all just talk.
Of course, the Giants didn’t win the game solely because of Barkley. Wink Martindale’s defense came under fire heading into the game. I must have said, “They’ve been dying by the sword a lot more often than they’ve been living by it,” at least five times on various preview shows.
Martindale largely kept his sword sheathed on Sunday night.
Martindale dialed back the designed pressures but was still able to cause chaos for Taylor Heinicke. They got home without blitzing. Kayvon Thibodeaux had multiple moments where he took over sequences of the game.
The Giants have been one of the best-coached teams throughout the course of the season. That’s why they’ve overachieved and are now on the fast track to earning a playoff berth.
If they’re going to continue to punch above their weight and surprise, they’ll need a shot of star power. That’s where Barkley comes in. If the Giants get the guy that showed up, made electrifying plays and clearly inspired the rest of the team to play to his level — with THAT guy in tow, the Giants instantly launch up the watch-ability and dangerous rankings.
Making sure Tom Brady bears blame
The Bucs are not a good team. Everyone knows it. They’re leading the NFC South at 6-8 and will likely win it with a sub-.500 record.
The 2022 Tampa Bay outfit will be an utterly forgettable team in the history of the league, recalled only for what a sad whimper it provided as the conclusion to the Tom Brady Bucs era. We have to suffer through just about a month longer with them but this team is headed for a re-tooling as soon as possible.
The longer this thing drags on, the more I am inclined to shift the blame for the Bucs’ limitations at the feet of their quarterback. Brady ranks 28th in adjusted yards per attempt (5.2) and 22nd in EPA per dropback since Week 10. You can point fingers all you want but the results are hard to hide from.
Personally, I think Brady can still play. If I had to guess, I’d bet he gives it a shot next year. However, he needs the conditions around him to be near perfect to thrive. People acted like play-action, motion or no-huddle was the skeleton key to just unlocking elite Brady once more. We saw plenty of that in the game against the Bengals and the results remained as uninspiring in the end.
Ultimately, Brady is not too much different from other quarterbacks in the NFL at this point. When he’s behind a fantastic line he can give a team above-average play. That hasn’t been the case this season. Instead, this is what we’ve gotten on the field from Tampa this year: A quarterback hyper-focused on getting the ball out quickly and too often not able to compensate for destructive situations.
If Brady is playing in 2023, it won’t be in Tampa. Wherever it is, let’s hope they have some kind of answer for building a fortress in front of the GOAT.
Justin Herbert breaks the dam
I fully expected the Chargers’ passing game to rule the day in Week 15. The Titans defense had been ultra-generous but their run-stop unit was a brick wall. Los Angeles is not normally an efficient running team and Justin Herbert was coming off a big game with his top-two receivers in tow against Miami.
I was wrong.
Herbert threw for 313 yards and distributed the ball to eight different receivers. It was a bit of a compiling performance, as just 43% of his throws went for 10-plus yards. It wasn’t until the final drive that Herbert really let it rip and pinned darts on guys downfield.
There’s a bit of a “chicken or egg” situation with Herbert in the Chargers offense. Is Herbert too robotic and over-focused on distributing the ball to the first read on time or does Joe Lombardi’s offense’s overuse of the quick game keep Herbert trapped in a box?
One way or another, when Herbert shakes off the leash, he can create some downright magic.
Herbert’s 16- and 35-yard throws to Mike Williams on the game-winning drive were akin to the type of plays I was expecting to see out of that duo from the first whistle and throughout the contest. After sailing through far rockier waters than expected, Herbert was finally able to break the dam.
The Chargers are unlikely to ever be the team we expected heading into the year. As Austin Ekeler says on our show, “Ekeler’s Edge,” every week, it feels like nothing ever comes easy for this squad. However, after their win over Tennessee (and a few other breaks), LA has a greater than 80% chance to make the playoffs according to multiple outlets — and a favorable schedule going forward. This team has plenty of time left to salvage a season that just three weeks ago felt like it was slipping away.
The Lions find a way to win
Jared Goff predictably didn’t have one of his best games on the road in colder conditions against a great Jets defense. He barely cleared a 60% completion rate and averaged just 6.6 yards per attempt. Those numbers are far cries from the previous five games.
And yet, the Lions found a way to win against a quality Jets team.
Detroit went for three fourth downs and got two of them. Their fourth-down play calls have been truly inspired of late, specifically Week 15’s game-sealing catch-and-run touchdown to Brock Wright. Offensive coordinator Ben Johnson has been masterful at getting guys open in spots conducive to earning yards after the catch. That was a perfect example.
The Lions also continue to swallow up opposing run games. Zonovan Knight has been a revelation for the Jets the last month. He got just 23 yards on 13 carries against Detroit.
The mark of a great team is being able to win in multi-dimensional ways. The Lions showed in Week 15 they can beat quality opponents when thrown into a script that differs from the high-flying affairs we’ve seen lately.
The Cowboys’ bleeding secondary
I wrote about the Cowboys’ chances as true Super Bowl contenders after their Sunday night win over the Colts in Week 13. I think they can still push for that title but, quietly, in that same game, a massive issue emerged.
Anthony Brown went down with a torn Achilles tendon against the Colts. He joined fellow corner Jourdan Lewis on the Cowboys’ IR list. The corners surrounding Trevon Diggs were already a weaker point of a strong roster.
Now, after injuries, it’s a huge problem.
The Cowboys have allowed nine explosive pass plays over the last two weeks and a 103.0 passer rating. Reserve cornerback Kelvin Joseph has been thumped in coverage in back-to-back weeks.
Chris Moore stung Dallas for 124 yards on 10 catches in Week 14. Zay Jones got them for three touchdowns on Sunday. These aren’t exactly members of the wide-receiver elite class.
Dallas is in trouble if their pass defense can’t hold up. We talk too much about their possible veteran wide receiver room because their passing game hasn’t fired on all cylinders this year. Adding one more wide receiver may or may not be the answer — I have my doubts — but we certainly don’t want this version of the offense in a ton of high-scoring affairs. Unfortunately, it looks like their secondary will remain quite generous for the rest of the year.
5 Things I don’t care about
Counting out the Commanders
The NBC crew did not attempt to stifle any fires that were surely blazing after a heated ending for the Washington Commanders. The refs over-officiated a ticky-tack formation penalty for Terry McLaurin and then way under-officiated clear DPI on Curtis Samuel in the end zone on fourth down.
What a mess.
After this loss, the Commanders now have a 35% chance to make the playoffs. That’s below the Lions and just above the Seahawks. But I wouldn’t completely count them out just yet.
Heinicke made some of his usual mistakes but also kept the team in the game until the end. He plays with recklessness and, with the receivers all healthy, this team can hit quick strikes to complement their power run game. The defense missed some opportunities but is overall a strong unit.
Washington’s road got a lot harder to manage in making the postseason but they’ve always been fighting an uphill battle with this quarterback situation. Of course, that’s something of their own making and one they’ll have to reckon with in the offseason.
For now, they still have a fleeting chance. I won’t count them out of it just yet.
The 2022 Patriots
The phrase “a caricature of yourself” perfectly applies to the hilariously embarrassing final play of the Patriots loss to the Raiders. It was a mind-bending moment that no one involved will forget any time soon:
New England has been a dumb, poorly prepared team every week of the season. They’ve made simple things look difficult. Situational football has been a huge weakness for the Patriots offense every step of the way. The fact that they blew it in a big moment in such a wild fashion is what makes it a caricature of what has been going on with this team for the entire season.
FiveThirtyEight now gives the Patriots a 19% chance to make the playoffs. That’s fine by me. We don’t need to see this team on our screens too much longer. The entire Patriots operation needs to take a long look in the mirror and reflect on the product they ran out on offense. It’s hard to see what the rationale for any of this was or why they thought it ever would work.
Pigeon-holing Jerick McKinnon
Everyone was excited about a Chiefs running back in what looked like a cakewalk matchup against Houston. The Texans gave the Chiefs a bigger fight than expected and simultaneously revealed the industry was hyped about the wrong KC back.
Isiah Pacheco had a nice game but if there’s one back who is pigeon-holed into a role on this team, it’s him — not Jerick McKinnon.
Pacheco is sort of stuck in the dreaded “empty-calorie carries” role for fantasy football. He gets most of his work between the twenties, isn’t a passing-game asset and doesn’t have a stranglehold on the short-yardage/goal-line work. Pacheco is really good in that role. He took his 15 carries on Sunday for 86 yards, gaining five-plus yards on almost half of them. Unfortunately, that role makes him a more valuable player for the Chiefs than for fantasy managers.
McKinnon, meanwhile, doesn’t really have any limitations.
All of McKinnon’s 10 carries came on early downs, as did six of his eight targets. He’s not some third-down scatback. McKinnon is as much a part of their base offense as anyone on the team.
McKinnon emerged as a big factor in the postseason last year. It was clear that the team trusted him more than any other back on the roster at that time and it looks like we’ve arrived at that point a bit earlier this season. To my eye, he looks like he has even more juice this time around. He’ll be a huge factor for KC down the stretch.
Miles Sanders’ bad stat line
The Eagles had a bit of a strange day offensively despite getting a win over the lowly Bears. A.J. Brown and DeVonta Smith combined for 307 yards on 14 catches but no other Eagles player cleared 10 yards through the air.
Jalen Hurts popped in three rushing touchdowns but the typically potent Eagles run game was anything but productive; Philly averaged a mere 3.4 yards per carry. Miles Sanders had a disastrous outing. He gained 42 yards on the ground, accrued -13 yards as a receiver and lost a fumble.
This happened in a gorgeous matchup on paper, too.
Still, if you’re one of the whackjobs who tweeted at him after the game to voice your displeasure, you deserve to be publicly called a complete weirdo — and that’s being nice.
It’s especially bizarre when said weirdos try and drop the “They did this to me in the playoffs!” hammer. Most NFL players, even those who are into fantasy football, aren’t clued into when the fantasy playoffs start. So, that’s a pretty meaningless line.
Sanders certainly didn’t have a great performance in Week 15. Who cares? He could easily have a monster performance in his next game or in Week 17. And really, if you’re going to get fussy after the season he’s given you … get a grip.
Trevor Lawrence doubts
Trevor Lawrence is already a high-quality starting quarterback. He showed that potential in small, subtle moments during a disastrous rookie season but he’s made it quite clear in Year 2.
The question is no longer, nor should it ever have been, “Is Lawrence good?” The answer is a resounding yes. The current question is, “How high will he climb?” in terms of the quarterback pantheon.
The mark of a great quarterback is the ability to elevate teammates. Lawrence has answered that call with a an exclamation point. Guys like Zay Jones and Evan Engram are going to go down as some of the most productive players at their positions this year. Neither guy has ever been a consistent producer. Lawrence has lifted them to new heights.
With their win against the Cowboys, Lawrence and the Jags can make a late push to win the AFC South. The fact that we’re even having this conversation is a testament to where Lawrence is in his development and how quickly Doug Pederson has changed the culture. The Urban Meyer fiasco was not that long ago at all but thankfully, it appears its effects were short-lived.
Lawrence will continue to grow and climb those quarterback ranks. But he has a chance, while making a playoff push, to make a few more leaps before the end of the regular season.