1 - Will the Saints stop the Chiefs onslaught?
In an absolutely brutal break, the Saints will draw a matchup with the juggernaut Chiefs just as their margin for error in pursuing the No. 1 seed in the NFC playoffs has suddenly been stripped away.
When you desperately need a win, playing the most unstoppable machine in football is less than ideal.
The answer to the above, bolded question is easy: No, they cannot.
The Saints can’t stop the onslaught of the Chiefs’ offense because no one can. The Dolphins showed us this just last week. You can sack Patrick Mahomes, you can force him into turnovers but at the end of the day, he’s still going to pilot his offense to a 30-plus point outing. Oh, and the Dolphins’ pass defense is actually good.
That’s the best outcome a team can hope for: 33 points and a crushing “L.”
The Saints’ defense is quite good too. They’ve stepped up as the year has gone on. However, the Eagles took them to task last week with a flare of creativity in their rushing game design. The Chiefs won’t go about their business the same way, not even close, but the point remains the same: The Saints defense might be a quality unit but it’s not unbeatable.
With no hope to stop the eventual onslaught the Chiefs will put on them, the Saints must hope to do what any team prays for when facing Kansas City. Just try to slow them down, put off the pain, while trying to put up points of their own.
On one hand, this is good news for the Saints. Under Taysom Hill, they became a ball-control-based run team. If they can control the script with Alvin Kamara and a sprinkle of Latavius Murray, they could bleed enough clock to keep Mahomes off the field. Still, you’re playing with fire. Mahomes isn’t a normal passer; he doesn’t need all that time to destroy you.
The silver lining here is the return of Drew Brees. The Saints hit their fair share of big, albeit sporadic, passing plays under Hill’s watch but they just never were what they usually are through the air.
Everything in New Orleans is based on timing and rhythm. Not only is Brees that type of passer, all of their top receiving assets — whether it’s Michael Thomas, Kamara, or even the current version of Emmanuel Sanders — function best in the short to intermediate game. The personnel is setup for Brees, not the vertical shot, power-run team they could be under Hill.
At this point, Hill just isn’t that type of passer. On throws of eight or fewer air yards this year, Hill sports an 80.8 passer rating. Brees, on the other hand, sits at 101.7. Getting Brees back at the helm here, even with all the limitations he may possess, is simply huge. Hill just doesn’t have that sort of matriculating style of passing in his arsenal yet.
When the Chiefs come to town, sustaining long drives and up putting points are at a premium. That would have been a problem with Hill under center. With Brees back, there’s at least some hope.
So, no, the Saints can’t stop the onslaught. No one can. Patrick Mahomes is inevitable. The only question is whether New Orleans can even come close to keeping up. Even he might not be enough to outright secure the win but don’t kid yourself here — Brees significantly closes the gap.
2 - Which surging unit will have the upper hand on SNF?
When the Browns and Giants face-off on Sunday night, we’ll get a look at two of the most surprising units of the season. The Browns offense was captained by a quarterback littered with questions yet sit in the 10th spot in DVOA. The Giants defense was a pushover in 2019 but has proven to be one of the toughest units in the league and is top-12 in yards per play allowed.
The problem for the Giants is that Cleveland is certainly hitting its stride right now, while New York is dealing with quite a few questions.
The Browns were downright awesome during their brawl with Baltimore on Monday night. They ran the ball with authority and Baker Mayfield operated as a precise distributor. That’s the team they’ve developed into in the second half of 2020. Nick Chubb has kicked the running game into high gear while Mayfield is a top-five quarterback in EPA per play since Week 10 while clicking with starting receivers Jarvis Landry and Rashard Higgins.
That wide receiver matchup could be the reason Cleveland holds the edge here. One of the catalysts for New York’s surprising rise up the defensive ranks this year was the signing of James Bradberry. The former Panthers cornerback has been a revelation operating in the hip-pocket of No. 1 receivers all season. He was placed on the COVID-19 list and won’t play in Week 15.
That gives Landry, Higgins, and even Donovan Peoples-Jones (in that order) a big boost. These guys should run free through a significantly downgraded secondary on Sunday night. Higgins is showing why every other Browns’ coaching staff was out of their mind to not deploy him as a featured piece of the offense. Baker loves him, and it’s easy to see why. Landry is finally healthy and has 30 targets over his last three games.
Both Landry and Higgins are inching toward must-play territory in fantasy because of Bradberry’s absence and their own offense’s ascending play. That’s how big of a deal this Bradberry absence is. It swings the landscape of the matchup between these two units.
3 - Are the Ravens back back?
Over the last two weeks, the Ravens have piled up 525 rushing yards. They’ve looked like the same hard-nosed, physical team that rolled through the NFL last season.
So, yes, I’m thinking the Ravens are back. They certainly haven’t been this version of themselves all season. For whatever reason, the Ravens offense has been mired with seeming identity crises and COVID issues all year. A unit that truly wore people out all last year just wasn’t the same.
It feels like part of the team — staring a truly muddled path to the postseason in the face just a few weeks ago —came out of their massive COVID outbreak electing to just eschew progress in the passing game and just get back to their roots as a ground-and-pound team.
On the other hand, one can easily point to the opposition the last two weeks as the reason this is happening. Dallas’ run defense just left the doors wide open for Baltimore to run through any lane they wanted on Tuesday night in Week 13. Last week, Cleveland just didn’t look up to the fight as Lamar Jackson rediscovered his deity-like form. When Jackson plays like that, it’s a trickle-down effect for the whole team.
If you are of the mind that this is a matchup-based revival, you shouldn’t care this week. Baltimore gets the Jaguars and their 32nd ranked defense in DVOA in Week 15.
The Ravens should continue to run the hell out of the ball, especially considering they’re once again dealing with COVID issues in their wide receiver room. And that matters for fantasy managers because the backfield is finally becoming clear. Over the last two weeks, Mark Ingram has played just 12 snaps the last two games, with just one coming in Week 14. This is a J.K. Dobbins-and-Gus Edwards-only attack now. Finally.
Dobbins is in an obvious smash spot here but don’t overlook Edwards. If you’re desperate, he could surprise.
4 - Can Bill Belichick flummox Tua?
This is a tough spot for Tua Tagovailoa for a few reasons. For one, Bill Belichick has been as good as ever at destroying young quarterbacks. Here are the passer ratings of the three quarterbacks he’s faced in 2020 who are rookie or second-year starters:
Drew Lock - 34.9
Kyler Murray - 67.0
Justin Herbert - 43.7
Of course, passer rating isn’t a perfect metric. But no one alive would argue that any of these three guys played well against New England. Lock and the Broncos won but that had everything to do with Cam Newton struggling mightily in Denver amid his first game back from a positive COVID test-related absence.
Frankly, I think people have been way too hard on the rookie this year. He hasn’t been perfect but on-balance, he’s shown well. It’s also worth noting that at this point, he’s operating with a mess of a supporting cast. Last week, DeVante Parker and Mike Gesicki got injured mid-game. That left Lynn Bowden Jr., a gadget rookie acquired via trade from the Raiders, to lead a decimated pass-catching corps. The backfield was already in tatters after Myles Gaskin went on the COVID list.
It’s just tough to tell yourself a story where Tua bucks this trend of Belichick crushing young QBs.
Who knows which players will and won’t suit up for Miami on Sunday. I’m not sure it matters. If this Patriots defense could take down Justin Herbert and a Chargers team littered with several high-end starters, it’s hard to have confidence in another rookie passer who hasn’t played as well and won’t have nearly the same type of help. Don’t be surprised if the Patriots pull off an upset and muck up what was once a clear road to the playoffs for Miami.
5 - How long will Rams players play?
Feels weird to ask this, but it’s a legitimate question with so many high-end fantasy players on the Rams roster. We just saw the Seahawks stars pulled midway through the third quarter against this very Jets team just last week. That’s the danger here.
It’s a shame because this is the ultimate smash spot for the Rams. The Jets rank in the bottom-10 in pressure rate despite being a blitz-heavy team. That type of soft front is the beginning of the defense that Jared Goff can cruise through. Playing in positive game script would be a dream scenario for Cam Akers, who has 53 touches over the last two games and looks firmly installed as their workhorse back.
Just like Seattle, a few of these guys are going to contribute to the demolition of the Jets. Seattle wouldn’t have been able to build a big lead without the efforts of their front-line players like DK Metcalf and Chris Carson. You just knew that when they left the game, there was still so much more meat left on the bone.
So it’s not as if the Rams players are on the bust watch. You’d be crazy to over-analyze it like that. However, it’s unlikely that all of the receivers, Goff and Akers hit their ceiling in Week 15 if the Rams blow out New York. Play them all, but just keep this in mind.