With only six Sundays left in the season, things are getting more and more interesting for the teams in contention. And, for some of the teams not in contention, more and more dysfunctional.
Speaking of dysfunctional, PFT continues to produce every Saturday a three-questions-per-game look at every contest to be played on every Sunday. There’s one less Sunday game this week, with Jets-Bills moved to Monday. But with only two teams on byes, there will be plenty of stuff going on in the twelfth Sunday of 2014.
To get up to speed on all of the action, perform the action that requires precious little effort — scroll down.
Browns at Falcons
1. How much will Josh Gordon be used?
Plenty. Heavily. Extensively.
Officially, the Browns plan to ease Gordon, who missed 10 games under his latest drug suspension, back into the game plan. The Falcons aren’t buying it. Neither is anyone else.
Gordon remains one of the best receivers in the NFL. He potentially opens up the rest of the offense. He’ll be on the field, and he’ll be a key contributor.
2. What kind of chemistry do Gordon and Brian Hoyer have?
Given that they have played in only three games together, this isn’t quite Montana and Rice. But in their very first career game together last year, it was.
Hoyer and Gordon connected 10 times for 146 yards and a touchdown against the Vikings. It was the last time the Browns played in a dome.
On Sunday, Gordon and Hoyer are together again. In a dome again. So, yeah, things could get interesting.
3. Do the Falcons wash their hands enough?
Apparently not. Three offensive starters have missed time this week with the flu.
Receiver Julio Jones, running back Steven Jackson, and fullback Patrick DiMarco headline the victims of the virus. Coach Mike Smith has said Jones will play, and he’s listed a probable (as are Jackson and DiMarco). But will Jones be ready?
“It’s been kind of difficult,” Roddy White said this week regarding the absence of Julio Jones. “Going through plays and stuff, we’ve got people moving around. He’s just got to get healthy. He’s going through the flu bug so we’ve just got to get him right and get him ready on Sunday.”
Buccaneers at Bears
1. What kind of reception will Lovie Smith get?
The over/under on signs that say “Lovie Come Home” or something similar at Soldier Field should be 52.5. Smith, whom linebacker Lance Briggs has said should be regarded among the best coaches in franchise history with George Halas and Mike Dikta, remains beloved in Chicago. Smith is likely even more beloved now that the team is struggling under Marc Trestman.
Those cheers could quickly subside if/when Smith and his 2-8 Bucs upend the Bears, who continue to struggle even though they managed to outscore the Vikings a week ago. Or maybe Bears fans will convert to Tampa fans. After all, the Buccaneers are a lot closer to playoff contention in the NFC South than the Bears are in the NFC North.
2. Can Mike Evans keep it going?
There’s no reason to think he can’t. The rookie told PFT Live earlier this week that the pro game already has slowed down for him. His performances the past three weeks underscore that reality.
In each of the last three games, Smith has seven catches. In each of the last three games, he generated at least 124 passing yards. In each of the last three games, he scored at least one touchdown.
Last Sunday, Evans became the youngest player in league history to surpass 200 receiving yards in one game, securing the NFC offensive player of the week award with seven catches for 209 yards and a pair of touchdowns.
With size, speed, and uncanny ball skills, Evans quickly is becoming one of the best receivers in the NFL. Soon, he could simply be one of the best receivers in the NFL, regardless of age.
3. Will the clocks at Soldier Field work any better this week?
They can’t work much worse. Last week, Vikings coach Mike Zimmer wasn’t happy with a malfunction that forced quarterback Teddy Bridgewater to play a soccer-style guessing game regarding the amount of time remaining. This week, the situation apparently has been remedied.
“That was a first, and we’d like to say a last,” a Soldier Field spokesman said this week. “But the [clocks] are ready for Sunday.”
The one thing we know for sure is that, given Lovie Smith’s more laid-back style, it’s unlikely he’ll describe the clocks the same way Zimmer did.
Bengals at Texans
1. Which Andy Dalton will show up?
Good question. Two weeks ago, it was Andy Dalton 2.0. Last Sunday, it was Andy Dalton 2.0.
Having a healthy and productive receiver A.J. Green helped; Green generated 127 receiving yards against the Saints. Rookie running back Jeremy Hill added 152 on the ground. Now, running back Gio Bernard has recovered from a hip injury. So Dalton has weapons.
Of course, the Texans have a fairly potent weapon in defensive end J.J. Watt. If he can make Dalton uncomfortable, we may see more of the guy who failed in Cleveland two weeks ago — and less of the guy who beat the Saints in their own building.
2. Are the Texans a legitimate contender?
Only one game behind the Colts, Houston has a pair of encounters remaining against Jacksonville and a visit from the Titans. That should get Houston to eight wins. Standing between eight and 11 are the Bengals, Colts, and Ravens.
The test starts Sunday. Beat the Bengals, and nine games should be a sure thing — 10 games will be a strong possibility.
3. With Gio Bernard healthy, how much will we see Jeremy Hill?
With Bernard injured, Hill gained more than 360 yards in three games. Offensive coordinator Hue Jackson says that has resulted in Hill earning more time once Bernard returns on Sunday.
While the Hill-Bernard rotation could drive fantasy owners crazy down the stretch, it could help the Bengals hold off the other three teams in the AFC North.
Jaguars at Colts
1. What will the Colts do without Ahmad Bradshaw?
Trent Richardson gets yet another chance to justify Indy’s decision to send a first-round pick for the guy on whom the Browns burned the No. 3 overall selection. Richardson currently has an average of 3.4 yards per carry; Bradshaw, who is out for the year with a broken bone in his leg, was gaining 4.7 yards per attempt.
If Richardson can’t get it done, look for Boom Herron to get more chances.
One guy who won’t be helping the cause is Ben Tate. While the Colts made a waivers claim on the former Browns tailback, the Vikings had priority. Surprisingly, the Colts showed no interest in LeGarrette Blount, who gained 166 yards and scored four touchdowns against Indy in the 2013 playoffs.
2. Could Coby Fleener have a big game?
With tight end Dwayne Allen ruled out due to an ankle injury, Fleener will get a chance to build on his Week 11 performance, which resulted in 144 receiving yards.
“I think he’s playing better than I’ve ever seen him,” receiver (former, as of Saturday afternoon) Griff Whalen said this week of his Stanford and Colts teammate. “His demeanor on the field is more physical and more aggressive. After the catch, he’s not shying away from contact. He’s embracing it.”
It’s not bad for a guy who nearly quit football in high school, but who stuck with it because a scholarship was the only path to college.
3. Does Jags coach Gus Bradley like a little scuffling in practice?
Absolutely. It happened on Thursday, and Bradley approved.
“We had some guys getting together and had to break them up a little bit but through competition going on,” Bradley said. “It was a very spirited practice. . . . It wasn’t like a like a big fight. It was just a scuffle.”
But it shows that the Jaguars still have a little fight in them, despite having only one win on the year.
Packers at Vikings
1. Will Teddy Bridgewater’s presence make a difference?
Probably not. While the rookie definitely represents a step up over Christian Ponder, who played poorly when Bridgewater was injured in Week Five, Bridgewater has yet to play like he did in his debut as a starter against the Falcons.
And the Falcons are a far cry from the Packers, who have been rolling over every team in their path. To outscore Green Bay, Bridgewater must be able to go toe-to-toe with Aaron Rodgers. Few quarterbacks in the NFL currently can pull that off.
2. How much will Ben Tate play?
Tate was cut by the Browns in part because he didn’t like his role. In Minnesota, he doesn’t care what his role will be.
He could have a fairly significant one, given that Matt Asiata won’t play this week with a concussion.
Of course, none of the team’s running backs will have much of a role if the Packers run away with the game the way they ran away with the first round last month in Green Bay.
3. Will Clay Matthews be used outside or inside?
For now, it looks like he’ll primarily stay inside. Even with outside linebacker Nick Perry questionable due to a shoulder injury, the Packers may opt not to slide Matthews, who is probable with a groin injury, from the inside.
“I think it’s more of a next man up type of mentality around here,” Matthews said this week. “I’m sure [Jayrone] Eliott will have more opportunities as well as Mike [Neal] and [Julius Peppers]. As we have seen in weeks prior, I rush off the edge and play in the middle, so wherever they need me, I will be there.”
Lions at Patriots
1. Will the Patriots double-team Ndamukong Suh?
Not constantly. Coach Bill Belichick is leery about devoting too many resources to stifling Suh.
“As much as you try to double anybody, say Suh, sometimes you can’t because the guy you would have doubling him has to block a blitzer in pass protection,” Belichick said this week. “They create some single matchups like that.”
Still, Belichick knows he needs to find a way to stop Suh.
“He changes everything,” Belichick said later in the week.
2. How much of LeGarrette Blount will we see?
We could see plenty. Coach Bill Belichick says Blount’s role will be up to him. It also may be up to Jonas Gray’s ability to show up on time.
With Gray being sent home after being late on Friday due a cell-phone battery snafu, Blount already has a leg up.
Blount used his legs in January, gaining 166 yards and scoring four touchdowns against the Colts. Gray duplicated the four touchdowns and added 35 yards last Sunday against Indy. Either guy could give the running game a boost as the weather turns and the wind starts to whip.
3. How will the Lions deal with tight end Rob Gronkowski?
It sure sounds like they’d like to knock Gronk out of the game.
“Obviously, when we get him in situations where he’s having to block, our defensive ends, we’ve got to rough him up,” Lions safety Glover Quin said this week. “When we get him in situations where he catches the ball, we’ve got to make sure we’re hitting him.”
Gronk has a history of getting injured, and he plays with reckless abandon. If you hit him hard and hit him often, there’s a chance he gets injured and exits the game.
Before 2012, it was a given that teams should aspire to put the opponent’s best players on the sidelines. The bounty scandal forced that talk to become muted. But the incentive remains. For the Lions, rendering Gronkowski unable to play could be the difference between winning and losing.
Titans at Eagles
1. How is Mark Sanchez doing?
It depends on who you ask. Sanchez thinks he’s not doing well enough. Coach Chip Kelly seems to think he’s doing OK.
The numbers suggest Sanchez is struggling. But the Eagles currently have no viable alternative to Sanchez. They need to simply hold it together while Nick Foles‘ collarbone heals.
With seven good teams jockeying for five playoff berths in the NFC, it may not heal in time to salvage Philly’s seat at the postseason table.
2. How is Zach Mettenberger doing?
He had a solid showing on Monday night, averaging 11 yards per throw and racking up a passer rating of 110.2. But the rookie has yet to earn a victory for the Titans, who have lost four in a row.
Still, his teammates believe in him.
“I think Zach has been doing outstanding,” veteran receiver Nate Washington said this week. “He brings a lot to the table, a big strong arm. He’s smart behind the center, knows what is going. We were playing the Pittsburgh Steelers, and as a rookie he gave his all. He is progressing every week, and I think Zach has a huge, bright future in this league and I am excited to watch him grow.”
“He throws a pick-six on the first play of the game and it takes a lot of maturity and a lot of consistency and love for the game to not just throw it in from there,” tackle Taylor Lewan said. “That kind of stuff will get you, and he just bounced right back and started slinging the ball. That’s the kind of guy he is. I think he somewhat made a name for himself.”
He would have made more of a name for himself if the Titans had beaten the Steelers. He has another chance to do it against the other team from Pennsylvania.
3. Is LeSean McCoy the same player he was in 2013?
He says he is.
“Man, listen: I don’t care what’s out there,” McCoy said this week. “I’m not going to address, ‘Am I the same player?’ For what? What are we talking about, am I the same player? That’s for you all to figure out. Are you crazy? Am I the same player? I am the same player
The evidence suggests otherwise.
72.9 yards per game on average. 3.7 yards per carry on average.
He has only one 100-yard game, and three with fewer than 25. Injuries along the offensive line surely are a factor. But it’s possible McCoy has indeed slipped, which could make it harder for coach Chip Kelly, who is willing to assess every player relative to skills, salary, and cap number, to justify bringing him back in 2015.
Rams at Chargers
1. Is Philip Rivers injured?
Yes, but that isn’t slowing him down.
“I can honestly say that there’s nothing going on that’s hindering me in any way,” Rivers said this week. “Shoot, there’s a lot of guys in that locker room that are playing that are a lot sorer than I am.”
It’s not in Rivers’ DNA to cry uncle when it comes to injuries.
“Growing up around it, my dad always said, ‘Shoot, unless you can’t walk, you find a way to play, or find a way to get off the field,'” Rivers said. “That was the main thing. Don’t lay out there on the field. I found my way off a few times last Sunday.”
The Chargers finally put Rivers on the injury report, three days after tight end Antonio Gates said the quarterback has a “very severe rib injury.” But Rivers says he’ll play on Sunday, and that he’ll be “fresh.”
2. Is Rivers’ center injured, again?
Yes. And it could mean that the team’s fourth different starting center will play on Sunday.
Rich Ohrnberger is questionable; if he can’t play, rookie Chris Watt gets the nod.
Watt has 64 snaps at center so far, and he has been playing some guard.
“The old adage is, he’s no longer a rookie,” offensive coordinator Frank Reich said this week. “He’s proven himself.”
3. When will Chris Long be back?
Possibly soon. He suffered an ankle injury in Week One, and he remains on injured reserve with designation for return, even though he could have returned to the active roster three weeks ago.
“He’s getting better each day,” coach Jeff Fisher said this week. “We’ll just wait and see how he is [Friday]. If that’s the case [and Long is ready], then obviously we have to make a roster move, so we’ll see how he is.”
Whether or not the roster move is made late Saturday, the roster move could be coming sooner.
Cardinals at Seahawks
1. What’s wrong with Seattle’s passing game?
The easy answer is that receiver Golden Tate left for free agency, that receiver Percy Harvin was traded, and that tight end Zach Miller has landed on IR. And that the offensive line has been banged up all year.
The tougher answer is the question of whether quarterback Russell Wilson has plateaued as a passer. Heading into the season, it appeared he had found the proverbial next level. Now, not.
Since a Monday night performance at Washington that launched an MVP campaign for the third-year quarterback, Wilson has lost a lot of his touch.
In the four games including the win at Washington, Wilson threw eight touchdown passes and one interception. In the six games since then, five touchdown passes and four picks. He also is missing open receivers and relying much more on his legs.
Whether it’s by the air or by the ground, the Seahawks need Wilson to come through on Sunday against Arizona, or the chances of repeating as NFC West champions will be slim and none even before a Thanksgiving night showdown against the 49ers.
2. How much should be expected from Larry Fitzgerald?
It’s hard to say. He has a Grade 2 MCL sprain, and as former NFL athletic trainer Mike Ryan explained earlier this week on PFT on NBCSN, that usually means the player will miss at least a week.
But Fitzgerald played a full half with the knee injury, and he remains optimistic that he’ll be able to go on Sunday.
Officially a game-time decision, Fitz has had a big game in every other game since the bye week. This week, he’s due for another big game. With the Cardinals unexpectedly soaring and one win away from delivering a regular-season knockout punch to the Seahawks, don’t count him out.
3. How has Drew Stanton discovered his current level of performance?
In part, by revising his diet. An offseason consultation with an allergist resulted in a determination that Stanton is allergic to milk. In addition to dairy products, he also was advised to ditch pork, turkey, bananas, and cucumbers.
(Cucumbers? If I couldn’t eat cucumbers I would no longer want to live.)
Stanton dropped 15 pounds, and he feels better than ever.
“I recover faster, feel light and still have my strength,” Stanton said this week. “I just feel a lot better at this weight.”
The way he’s playing, he’d feel good at any weight.
Dolphins at Broncos
1. Why is Peyton Manning getting impatient?
Because he knows the window is closing on his team’s ability to force the road to Arizona through Denver. And if the Broncos eventually have to return to Foxboro in January, it’s probably not going to end any better than it did three weeks ago.
“Your sense of urgency has to increase,” Manning said this week. “Realizing there aren’t many games left and we better get on it, better get going. Need to play better, I need to play better, . . . You can say all you want, you can talk about doing it, but you’ve got to go and do it.”
It starts, in many respects, with the offensive line. The Dolphins have the horses to swarm Manning like the Rams did last week, and like the Seahawks did in the Super Bowl. That’s a lingering problem that needs to be fixed or the Broncos won’t be able to get back to the NFL championship game. And if they do, they may get roughed up yet again.
2. Is Bill Lazor worried about reports of griping from players?
He says that any actual or perceived friction with players reflects that which is normal for NFL teams.
“You’ve been at practice, nothing is different,” Lazor said this week. “You’ve been at training camp where you could be at the whole practices. I would like to think that, if the players were asked, that they would say I’ve been professional.
“I’d say there would probably be very, very few times that a curse word has come out of my mouth, but that I’m demanding from them. The greatest feedback I’ve gotten from our players in one-on-one settings is when they’ve told me how much they appreciate the expectations I have for the offense.”
Those expectations, for the most part, haven’t been met. So the truth is that the players, not the coaches, are the more likely source of any friction.
3. Will the Broncos sign Richie Incognito?
Denver hasn’t given him a job yet; if he’d been on the team for Sunday’s visit from Miami, the story lines (and punchlines) would have written themselves. It remains unclear whether Denver will give him a shot.
“No real updates,” coach John Fox said this week. “It’s kind of a personnel matter and we did have him in for a workout. I think that was well-documented. . . . We work out a lot of people throughout the season. We’re always looking to improve our football team any way possible and I’ll leave it at that.”
So what does Incognito’s former head coach think of the possibility of Incognito getting a job with the Broncos?
“I think Denver has a great front office and a great personnel staff, and they have to certainly make decisions that are best for their football team,” coach Joe Philbin said. “I’ll leave it at that.”
So they’ll both leave it at that. For now, the NFL has continued to leave Incognito on his couch.
Washington at 49ers
1. What should be expected from Aldon Smith in his second game of the year?
Plenty. In his first game after a nine-game suspension, Smith participated in 54 of 68 defensive snaps. His mere presence helped make it easier for his teammates to create pressure on Eli Manning, by diluting the available protection.
This week, the protection for Washington could be diluted from the get-go, if left tackle Trent Williams (knee, ankle) can’t play. Williams’ absence would thrust rookie Morgan Moses into the fray, and he’d be facing Smith.
In other words, quarterback Robert Griffin III had better be ready to run.
2. Is Robert Griffin III in trouble?
Yes, if the head coach has any say in Griffin’s future. On Monday, Jay Gruden called out the quarterback both for calling out teammates and for not playing very well. Gruden later said he went too far — and then he went even farther, calling Griffin “coddled” and making it clear that the “clock’s ticking” on the second overall pick in the 2012 draft.
Gruden specifically mentioned that Colt McCoy has generated a 2-0 record during games played while Griffin was injured. McCoy could end up playing while Griffin is not injured.
After the year, Washington could be moving on from Griffin — if Gruden gets to make the call on the future of the quarterback position.
3. Is Jay Gruden in trouble?
Yes, if the owner still remains fully committed to the guy for whom the team gave up three first-round picks and a second-round pick less than three years ago.
While Daniel Snyder and president/G.M. Bruce Allen have remained silent about this week’s string of regrettable remarks from quarterback and coach, they surely have an opinion. If the opinion is that the first-year head coach has unfairly undermined the franchise quarterback, the franchise may not give the coach a second year.
Cowboys at Giants
1. Will Cowboys limit DeMarco Murray’s touches?
They claim they won’t, but they should. The Giants have the worst run defense in the entire league, and the Cowboys have to play again on Thursday, against the Eagles.
This would be a great opportunity to get Murray a little rest, give Joseph Randle some reps, and have Murray ready to roll on a short week made even shorter by playing on Sunday night and again on Thursday afternoon.
2. How healthy is Tony Romo?
He apparently has recovered from the fractured transverse processes in his back, but he still doesn’t practice on Wednesdays due to the broader concerns about the condition of his spine. With a game on Thursday, that’s more than a little concerning.
The best move for the Cowboys would be to build a big lead on Sunday night and then get Romo out of the game, so that he’ll have maximum time to rest before facing Philly with the division lead on the line.
3. Is Eli Manning on the hot seat?
We’d have a more clear picture if his coach were Jay Gruden. And while no one with the Giants is saying anything bad about Eli (indeed, co-owner John Mara has praised him), the seat has heat as it relates to a contract that expires after the 2015 season.
With a salary of $17 million and a cap number of $19.5 million next year, it could become very difficult to apply the right value to Eli for 2016 and beyond. Impasse on that point could be the thing that ultimately forces the Giants to move on, because they surely won’t be inclined to apply the franchise tag to Manning in 2016, when based on his 2015 cap number he’d be owed a guaranteed salary of $23.4 million.