1 - Do the Rams have enough juice left?
The Rams are coming into a game they absolutely need to win to find their way into the NFC playoffs. It’s a tough time for their offense to be nursing a mountain of injuries.
We know Jared Goff is going to miss this game after undergoing surgery for his dislocated thumb. Receiver Cooper Kupp was placed on the COVID-19 list so he’ll also be out for Week 17. Starting running back Cam Akers missed last week with a high ankle sprain, putting his status in doubt for this matchup with Arizona. Oh, and his backup, Darrell Henderson, was placed on IR after suffering an injury during their Week 16 loss to Seattle.
That is ... quite a lot of problems.
The losses this week could be the breaking point for a ship that was already starting to take on water. The Rams were once a clear top-five offense in the NFL but have now fallen back down to 12th in weighted DVOA. With their rush game still an efficient unit sporting a second-place ranking, it’s not hard to see where the problem lies.
The passing game in Los Angeles has gone from a steady but unspectacular unit, to a group that’s actively holding them back.
It can’t be said enough just how little Sean McVay has asked from his quarterback this season. Goff has thrown just 12.7 percent of his passes into tight windows this year (Next Gen Stats), the sixth-lowest mark among quarterbacks. His completions travel just 4.8 air yards, the fourth-lowest among quarterbacks. In both of these metrics, Goff’s playing style compares favorably to Teddy Bridgewater. That’s not what you’d like out of a $134 million passer but, here we are.
So, Sean McVay basically just asked Goff to not get in the way; don’t screw things up. And yet, Goff has indeed mucked the course of this offense up with his 17 giveaways on the year (third-most among quarterbacks).
Anyone who played fantasy football this year knows that no one on this offense, no matter how highly the unit ranked in various efficiency metrics, possesses any sort of bankable weekly ceiling through the air. Robert Woods was buoyed by his work on the ground, trailing only Curtis Samuel among receiver rushing yards. The usual scoring beast of Cooper Kupp recorded just three TDs in 2020. Frankly, anyone acting surprised that this receiver group has generated next to zero explosive plays this season when their top two guys are a possession flanker and a big slot who both don’t win downfield — while the X-receiver spot is a rotation of JAGs following Brandin Cooks being traded — is kidding themselves.
Now this already overrated offense will walk into a must-win Week 17 game down several key pieces. Anyone that wasn’t a biased Rams homer had to watch Jared Goff over the last two and half years and think, “Sure, he’s good in this McVay offense but, what if …” We can all acknowledge there’s a desire to let our imaginations wander about what this offense would look like without Goff at the point guard spot.
Well, we’re going to find out this week, but certainly not in the way any of us, much less McVay himself, would ever have scripted it in our dreams.
2 - How will Tua Tagovailoa fair with no Fitzmagic buffer?
There’s no doubt that what the Miami Dolphins have done with their quarterback position this year is unusual. However, it’s hard for me to criticize Brian Flores’ “relief pitcher” approach with Ryan Fitzpatrick when I’ve been railing against some of the absolute quarterback coddlings like Carson Wentz this season.
If a quarterback can’t handle getting pulled from the game and that breaks him down to a point he’s ruined, you might already have the wrong guy under center to begin with. Tua Tagovailoa has overcome a devastating hip injury to get back to playing football. Something tells me he can handle his coach trying a different approach to quarterbacking while the team is in a playoff race.
With Fitzpatrick now out for Sunday after a positive COVID test, Tua will get the chance to play without wondering when his coach will go with the No. 2 guy.
All that said, there’s no denying that the offense looks vastly different when Ryan Fitzpatrick is out there than when Tua takes the field. The most obvious difference is perfectly encapsulated in this clip of the two amid a teaching moment on the sideline:
— NFL UK (@NFLUK) November 27, 2020
Tua’s time to throw is almost a full .20 seconds higher than Fitzpatrick’s (2.57 to 2.38). Fitzpatrick also maintains the higher air yards per game number at 230.8 to the rookie’s 193.3. As he implores Tua to do in the clip, Fitzpatrick is getting the ball out quicker and willing to try contested throws in order to keep the offense moving. They’re much more vertical with the vet and too horizontal with the rookie.
With Tua now destined to get the keys for four quarters, he’ll get a chance to prove he has the type of skills to make his style of offense work — but that horizontal, Drew Brees-style of offense he’s comfortable in can only function as long as he maintains complete comfort and precision as a passer. So far this year, he sits at a 71.6 percent catchable pass rate while Fitzpatrick is at 79 percent.
However, I know we have pigeon brains when it comes to our football memory, but let’s not forget Tagovailoa enjoyed this exact type of outing in his second start of 2020. He was excellent in the team’s Week 9 win over the Cardinals. So let’s not act like this level of play is completely outside of his range of outcomes when we’ve already seen it. You can admit there’s still plenty of hope for this player who couldn’t even walk a year ago while also acknowledging he has had some bad moments as a rookie.
Nevertheless, Fitzpatrick’s presence in must-win games doesn’t have to mean anything more than just a short-term boost to the offense. To revisit an earlier point, Tua is coming off a massive injury that sapped him of practice time in an already weird offseason and has, for the most part, operated with a terribly compromised supporting cast. An excellent Week 17 win over the Bills and a ticket to the playoffs could go a long way to giving his coaching staff and the personnel folks confidence he can maintain the type of timing and anticipation he’ll need to thrive with his individual passing tools.
With the Dolphins holding a likely top-five draft pick (via Houston), there will be talk that this team can go the “Josh Rosen to Kyler Murray” route with Tua.
He can slam the door shut on that with a great end to his rookie season. He just has to let it rip a bit more often.
3 - Who will take the field at QB for Washington?
Alex Smith hasn’t been an elite option and hasn’t even been the best version of his own career for Washington this year. However, he’s clearly been the best option for the team under center.
With the release of Dwayne Haskins, Taylor Heinicke is now the top option for the Football Team if Smith is unavailable. Heinicke brought a spark to the offense last week with an 8.3 adjusted yards per attempt figure in relief of Haskins. He has a history with the Washington offense from his days in Carolina with Ron Rivera and the Turner family. Heinicke is not great, but we have seen worse in Washington.
The bigger health question not enough folks are talking about when it comes to Washington’s offense is in regards to Terry McLaurin. Despite missing last week’s game, the second-year receiver ranks 10th in yards among wideouts as the alpha in this moribund passing attack. He’s a bonafide star and a difference-maker. His absence was felt last week.
Not having McLaurin on Sunday night would be especially disappointing given the matchup. The Dallas Cowboys receivers ripped through this horribly broken Eagles secondary at will last week. Michael Gallup and Amari Cooper each recorded 121 yards while CeeDee Lamb tacked on 65 more. The group combined for three scores and Andy Dalton averaged an absurd 17.1 yards per completion.
If McLaurin can be close to 100 percent, he might make the difference for Washington’s offense to the point it won’t matter who is behind center. He’s produced with every quarterback the Football Team has rolled out this year. No question he can crush this matchup.
With the Eagles offense looking more than competent with Jalen Hurts in the fold, Washington can’t afford another nightmare day as a scoring unit. They need more than their defensive line’s greatness to win the NFC East.
4 - Was that just a one-week fluke for Cleveland?
As I wrote in my care/don’t care recap column Sunday night, we just can’t come out of Cleveland’s Week 16 loss and act like what they dealt with on Sunday was normal.
Not only was their entire wide receiver corps ruled out due to COVID protocols less than 48 hours before kickoff, they also played without two of their best offensive lineman. That front-five has been one of the clear catalysts for their offensive revival, going from a sinking weakness to a team strength in 2020. If you want to know why the Browns were unable to establish the run last week, look no further than Jedrick Wills and Wyatt Teller’s injury status.
While those of us on the outside should continue to hammer home the “not-normal” nature of Cleveland’s Week 16, we know an NFL team’s party line: No excuses. That’s how they operate. The real key for Cleveland won’t be recycling the past but changing the course of their future.
The Brown can still lose in Week 17 and make the playoffs but they’d be counting on the Jaguars to upset the Colts. That’s not ideal. Cleveland must leave nothing to chance. They must take down a Steelers team rolling out Mason Rudolph at quarterback while Ben Roethlisberger rests. We don’t yet know what other key Steelers will take the week off but it doesn’t matter.
Just as Baker Mayfield adopted the no-excuses mantra following their loss to the Jets, they must carry the same energy into this week. Even as the Browns add more players to the reserve list, they need to prepare to prove last week was just a fluke. Cleveland might not be one of the two or three best teams in the AFC. They still have some defined weaknesses and function better in certain game scripts, but they’ve still operated like a playoff team in 2020. They cannot allow their ticket to burn up here at the end of the road.
5 - Tennessee should coast through Houston, right?
Week 16 showed us that all this bellyaching about the NFC not having a superpower was foolish. The Packers are that team. With that in mind, there’s no shame in Tennessee going on the road and losing to the No. 1 seed in the NFC ... even if it was a bit disturbing their defense bent so easily to Aaron Rodgers’ will.
Nothing should hold the Titans from getting back on track in the season finale. Houston is just so thoroughly undermanned. When their glaring roster holes on defense aren’t putting them several scores behind, their hideous in-game management or just plain bad luck is letting close games slip away. Tennessee should trounce this squad.
Deshaun Watson has already said he’ll take the field in this meaningless (for his team) Week 17 game despite suffering an injury last week. We know he’s talented enough to thwart a good team’s best-laid plans. And we also know this Titans defense is bad enough to lose them a game, which is something to worry about when playoff games actually start.
With that in mind, this needs to be an A-plus outing from the Titans’ offense. Week 16 saw Ryan Tannehill make too many mistakes. With Houston’s issues, especially as a run stop unit, we can project this to be a much cleaner outing from the Titans.
If you’re playing Week 17 DFS, this looks like a spot to stack up this Tennessee rushing and passing offense, given that they need to win this game to secure the AFC South title. Any slips and Indianapolis could usurp them with a win over the measly Jaguars.