A storm is brewing in Los Angeles.
On Sunday, a week after the 7-3 Rams dropped a tough, but crucial game against the Vikings -- the King in the North -- the Rams will host the 8-2 Saints, who just happen to be the hottest team in football having won eight straight games. It might be one of the best games of the season.
Thanks to the Falcons' win over the Seahawks on Monday night, the Rams still lead the NFC West by one game, but their lead might not last long. They're in the middle of a daunting stretch. They just lost to the Vikings. They get the Saints on Sunday. After a totally winnable game against the Cardinals, they'll face the Eagles -- the best team in football by overall record -- and then the Seahawks. The Rams are in the middle of a stretch that'll define their season. Are they overachievers who are set to come crashing back down to Earth? Or are they a legitimate contender for the NFC's throne?
We'll find out on Sunday. It won't be easy. But don't write off the Rams. They're actually well-equipped to stop the Saints.
For as much credit as the Saints' defense has gotten for actually being competent this season -- credit they deserve, by the way, given the clown show they've been in recent years -- it's the Rams that'll trot out the marginally better defense on Sunday. Entering Week 12 (before the Thanksgiving slate of games), the Rams were ranked fifth in defensive DVOA, sixth in points allowed per game (18.6), tied for ninth in sacks (28), and tied for fourth in takeaways (19). The Saints, meanwhile, were ranked eighth in defensive DVOA, tied for eighth in points allowed per game (19.6), tied for 12th in sacks (27), and tied for 18th in takeaways (13).
Again, the difference is marginal. But it's still a difference that's worth noting, because to this point, the Saints keep racking up praise for their defensive turnaround. Let's give the Rams credit too -- good work, Wade Phillips! -- and acknowledge that they'll have the slightly better defense on Sunday.
Offensively, it's pretty much a wash, but give the slight edge to the Saints. The Rams score the second-most points per game (30.3), and the Saints score the third-most points per game (30.2). With Drew Brees, the Saints average 271.7 passing yards per game, and with Jared Goff, the Rams average 255 passing yards per game. With Mark Ingram and Alvin Kamara, the Saints average 144 rushing yards per game, and with Todd Gurley, the Rams average 120.4 rushing yards per game. The Rams have turned the ball over two more times than the Saints. By offensive DVOA, the Saints are ranked second and the Rams are ranked eighth. Again, the difference is marginal, but give the edge to the Saints because they have a future Hall of Famer at quarterback and the Rams have a second-year quarterback who is an ascending talent, but still not completely proven.
One area the Rams actually have a significant edge in: Special teams. By DVOA, the Rams boast the second-best special teams unit (shoutout to punter Johnny Hekker) and the Saints are 22nd. That matters.
The point being, this should be an incredible game between two of the best teams in football, both of whom weren't expected to be alive at this point in the season. Entering the season, the Rams over/under was set at six wins, so they've already hit the over. The Saints? Eight wins. They can surpass that with a win over the Rams.
Both teams are banged up, but it kinda evens out. The Saints might be without rookie cornerback Marshon Lattimore. The Rams are
The game also matters a great deal to both teams. As previously mentioned, the Rams are holding a one-game lead over the Seahawks in the NFC West. The Saints, on the other hand, are only a game up on the Panthers in the NFC South. They should be fine in terms of making the playoffs, but for a dome team like the Saints, getting home-field advantage is monumental. They're only one game back of the Eagles. So, that's within reach, too.
Anyway, I might've just convinced myself this is the best game of the NFL season -- to this point, anyway. That Steelers-Patriots game in Week 15 still takes the throne.
OK, moving on. Here are eight more stats to know about the NFL playoff picture heading into Sunday of Week 12.
1. Patriots' stunning defensive improvement
Speaking of the Patriots, remember when they got walloped by the Chiefs 42-27 before giving up 33 points to the Texans and Panthers? Yeah, about that leaky defense that was going to prevent the Patriots from winning another Super Bowl. Suddenly, it has morphed into a top-level defense.
Over their past six games -- all wins, by the way -- the Patriots are allowing 12.5 points!
It's just another example of why you never bet against Bill Belichick. Did he make a few questionable personnel decisions over the past couple seasons? Sure. But he also turned a horrific defense into one that is more than capable of supplying Tom Brady with the minimal air support he needs to win another Super Bowl.
2. The Browns aren't dead yet
Let's go from the league's best team -- sorry, Eagles, the title belongs to the Patriots still -- to the worst team. The 0-10 Cleveland Browns, who are making history as arguably the worst NFL team ever, are somehow still alive in the AFC playoff picture. Seriously.
Here's how they can make the playoffs, via our John Breech:
If the Browns want to make the playoffs, let's start with the obvious: They have to win out.
That means Cleveland's road to the postseason would start this week in Cincinnati. If the Patriots can start a playoff run by going "on to Cincinnati," then why can't the Browns?
After beating the Bengals, the Browns would have to beat the Chargers (at L.A.), Packers, Ravens, Bears (at Chicago) and Steelers (at Pittsburgh). So basically, a team that hasn't won a game all season would have to win six games in a row.
At that point, the Browns would finish with a 6-10 record. To get to the postseason, the Browns would need the 5-5 Ravens to also finish 6-10. The catch here is that the Ravens one win would have to come against the Colts in Week 16.
The other part of this scenario is that the Browns would need the Bills and Dolphins to tie at 6-10 in the AFC East. The Jets would have to finish at 5-11, because if they finished at 6-10, they hold a head-to-head tiebreaker over the Browns.
The complicated part with the Bills and Dolphins is that they still have to play each other twice. Since the Bills already have five wins, they would need to go 1-5 down the stretch with their one victory coming against the Dolphins.
In a nutshell: The Browns, Ravens, Dolphins and Bills all finish 6-10 and pretty much every other team in the AFC finishes 5-11 or worse. Oh, and the Browns also need the Patriots and Chiefs to win out, plus the Jaguars would have to go 5-1 over their final six games.
Got all that?
3. Is Trubisky the next Wentz?
The 3-7 Bears might not be in as bad of shape as the Browns, but they're also going to need a miracle to make the playoffs. They're unlikely to get one. On Sunday, they'll face the 9-1 Eagles, who have essentially wrapped up the NFC East and are now trying to secure the NFC's stop seed. The Bears will likely get destroyed.
But, while the Bears are all but mathematically eliminated from the postseason, their future is bright. It's time to talk about Mitchell Trubisky and Carson Wentz. As of now, the two quarterbacks are on the opposite ends of the quarterback spectrum. But it's not out of the question for Trubisky to become the next Wentz.
"Oh, for sure, for sure," Pederson said on a Wednesday conference call, per ESPN. "We knew last year with Carson as a rookie that there were going to be growing pains and we were going to take some lumps. And also, listen, we just weren't very good as a football team last year, too, and didn't have the surrounding pieces around Carson. You kind of see in Mitch, you see the arm talent, you see the athleticism, the strength. You see good decisions, the accuracy. You see things that flash on tape that you go, 'OK, that's exactly the way Carson was a year ago.'"
Through six games, Trubisky has a higher touchdown percentage, lower interception percentage, and a higher yards per pass average than Wentz's entire rookie season.
That doesn't mean Trubisky is destined to become Wentz 2.0, it just means that Bears fans shouldn't sour on Trubisky quite yet, even if he's experiencing some clear growing pains at the moment. He's also trending in the right direction. In his past two outings, he's completed 60 percent of his passes for 476 yards, two touchdowns, zero picks, and a 92.9 passer rating.
Imagine what will happen when the Bears supply him with some actual weapons like the Eagles did this past offseason by signing ex-Bears receiver Alshon Jeffery. Come to think of it, Jeffery will be a free agent again this coming offseason.
Just sayin ...
4. Jaguars have the league's best defense
Let's just take a moment to acknowledge how damn good this Jaguars defense is. Entering the week (so before Thursday's games), they're ranked:
- First in yards allowed per game (275.6)
- First in points allowed per game (14.1)
- First in sacks (40)
- Tied for first in takeaways (23)
They're the consensus best defense in football (but that still doesn't make it right to ever call them "Sacksonville"). And that defense is taking them all the way to the playoffs for the first time since 2007. It just remains to be seen if they'll enter as the AFC South champion or a Wild Card team.
At 7-3, they lead the Titans by one game, but the two teams will meet again in Week 17.
5. Oakland's woes aren't just on Norton
dead least in defensive DVOA -- it's not fair to pin the Raiders' failed playoff aspirations on Norton alone.making him the first scapegoat of their wildly disappointing season that has them at 4-6 through 11 weeks. While it's true that the defense has been awful -- they're
The offense has been bad too. They're scoring 20.4 points per game. That's unacceptable for an offense that features Derek Carr, Amari Cooper, Michael Crabtree, Jared Cook, Marshawn Lynch, and that offensive line.
And don't forget that Jack Del Rio is a defensive-minded coach. Take it away, Steve Smith:
Ken Norton Jr. " the DC " But from what I've gather DelRio was really game planning and calling all the shots on defense anyway 🤔🤔🤔. Don't let this dudes fool you. Ken didn't draft or pay the wrong guys in free agency.#Scapegoat !!!! Agent89🕵🏼 out @nflnetwork https://t.co/VRVYaKlNaX— Steve Smith Sr (@89SteveSmith) November 22, 2017
The Raiders aren't going to miss the playoffs because of Norton. They're going to miss the playoffs because they're not a good football team on both sides of the ball and they overachieved a year ago.
6. Darrelle Revis won't fix anything in KC
Losers of four of their past five games (including a game against the Giants after their bye week), the Chiefs are rapidly sinking. To fix the problem, they went out and signed free agent 32-year-old cornerback Darrelle Revis.
Revis is likely a future Hall of Famer -- seven Pro Bowls and four First Team All-Pro selections -- but he's not the same guy anymore. There's a reason he went unsigned from March until Thanksgiving. Last year with the Jets, he was awful. According to Pro Football Focus, Revis allowed a 104.2 passer rating when targeted in coverage.
He won't fix the Chiefs, who are allowing the fifth-most passing yards per game.
7. Just how bad was Peterman?
The Bills entered last weekend in command of the AFC's final playoff spot. They enter this weekend on the outside looking in. For that, they can blame their coach, Sean McDermott, who decided to bench Tyrod Taylor for developmental rookie Nathan Peterman against the Chargers in Los Angeles.
Peterman completed six of 14 passes for 66 yards, no touchdowns, and five interceptions. That translates to a passer rating of 17.9.
If Chargers players had been the intended target of his throws, and if treating his one pick-six as a touchdown pass and interception return yardage as passing yardage, Peterman's stat line would have been five for 14, 84 yards, one touchdown, and six interceptions. And that creates a passer rating of 41.1.
To be clear: Peterman actually posted a better passer rating if you assumed he was playing for the Chargers -- not the Bills.
Anyway,. That's a good call, but don't ever forget that the Bills' coach threw away a game last week when his team was still holding onto a playoff spot.
8. Are the Falcons figuring it out?
The Falcons' Super Bowl hangover might finally be going away. Over their past two games -- wins over the Cowboys and Seahawks -- they're averaging 30.5 points per game.
Are they finally figuring it out? It's worth noting that they also averaged 32 points per game in Week 2 and 3 before coming back down to Earth. So, let's not crown them yet.
This week, the Falcons get the Buccaneers. They can't afford to lose. They're two games back of the Saints, one game behind the Panthers, and barely in control of the last playoff spot in the NFC. This is one of the only remaining easy games left on their schedule. They still have to play the Vikings, Saints (x2), and Panthers before their season ends.
Sunday is a must-win for the Falcons.