NFL 2018 - Week 15
NFL 2018 – Week 15
Christmas is coming, so we’re being spoiled with extra NFL coverage for the next couple of weeks, with seven televised games rather than the usual five. Of course, if you’re lucky enough to have GamePass, you’ll wonder what all the excitement about but, with two games taking place on Saturday night, ‘ordinary’ fans will have more reason to stay up over the weekend. Last week’s Game of the Week wasn’t quite what we had expected although, with two good defenses on the field, a low-scoring game probably should have been anticipated. What few people saw coming, however, was a Bears win, which had the added effect of dropping the Rams to 11-2 and re-opening the battle for the #1 seed in the NFC.
The same race in the AFC isn’t quite as close as the Rams and Saints being neck-and-neck, although the Kansas City Chiefs still face some close opposition for top spot – and it now comes from within their own division. Better still, 11-2 KC faces the charging 10-3 LA Chargers on Thursday night with the AFC West crown on the line… New England remain in the hunt for the #1 seed, but face a tough trip to Pittsburgh regardless of what form the Steelers have shown in recent weeks, while Houston is also sitting at 9-4 after slipping to s surprise defeat to Indianapolis on Sunday. Over in the NFC, pursuit of the Rams and Saints is currently being headed by the aforementioned Bears, while Dallas have quietly slipped into the fourth seed with five straight wins taking the Cowboys to 8-5. Both face tricky games this weekend, however, and the chasing pack – led by 8-5 Seattle - isn’t all that far behind...
Game of the Week – New England Patriots @ Pittsburgh Steelers
Yes, we could easily have featured the Chiefs-Chargers game in this slot, likewise the Dolphins-Vikings or Saints-Panthers as all have playoff involvement – or more – on the line, but have opted, instead, for a game that would have been high on many agendas at the start of the season. Neither the Patriots or Steelers are quite having the sort of campaign expected of them in 2018, but both remain in post-season contention with a lot to play for. New England’s defeat at the hands of the ‘Miami Miracle’ last weekend ensured that they remain on the same record as Houston, although victory over the Texans way back in Week 1 would still give them the advantage in the event of a tie-break being required. With the Bills and Jets left on their schedule (Houston has Philadelphia and Jacksonville), a win this weekend should put Bill Belichick’s team in firm control of its own destiny.
The Steelers, however, won’t roll over, even if their recent form has been nothing to write home about. Now back at Heinz Field, the black-and-gold will hope to put a three-game skid behind them and hold off a Baltimore side intent on snatching the AFC North crown. As things stand, only the Steelers’ tie with Cleveland – also in Week 1 – divides the two franchises, and Pittsburgh can count itself fortunate the Ravens were not able to pull off a win in Kansas City last weekend as they themselves fell to the lowly Raiders. With the Saints and Bengals to come after New England, however, Mike Tomlin’s men simply cannot afford to slip up.
Players to watch?
Tom Brady may be 41 but shows few signs of being any less effective than he was at 31, even if some of his skills and reactions may have dulled slightly. The quarterback’s amazing longevity is guaranteeing him new places in the record books almost on a weekly basis and he remains capable of dragging his team across the finish line; perhaps even the biggest finish line of them all come February. Brady remains surrounded by a solid cast, even if many are also showing signs of age and injury. Rob Gronkowski’s return has definitely helped the Pats offense, even if his defensive skills were a little lacking last Sunday, and Julian Edelman, Chris Hogan and Josh Gordon continue to add experience to the receiving corps. Cordarelle Patterson has confirmed the Patriots ability to take cast-offs and transform them into weapons, adding to both the back field and wide-out threat, but opponents would do well to study the multi-headed monster that is New England’s running back room, with Sony Michel returning from injury to usurp James White, while Rex Burkhead remains in the wings...
By the time Le’Veon Bell officially confirmed that he wouldn’t be back in black-and-gold this season (or, most likely, any season going forward), Pittsburgh was already happy to ride with replacement running back James Conner, the city native racking up impressive numbers through the first half of the season. An ankle injury, however, has ruled Conner out of recent games and he remains a question mark for Sunday’s encounter, leaving Ben Roethlisberger short of experience in the backfield, despite the presence of former Patriot Stevan Ridley on the depth chart alongside rookie Jaylen Samuels. The QB, himself, isn’t exactly fit, having left the game in Oakland with an apparent rib injury, although he returned to the field after medical examination. Like Brady, Roethlisberger is heading into his waning years, and has yet to have the sort of explosive game that he usually pulls out at least once a season. With receiving threats Antonio Brown and JuJu Smith-Schuster looking to get on the end of his passes, the Steelers can pose enough of a threat to the Patriots defense if everything clicks. While the Patriots’ largely anonymous D has shown signs of improvement, it continues to grow older and slower, but the Steelers are hardly setting the league alight either, despite TJ Watt’s presence in a line-up lacking playmakers and turnovers.
Best of the rest?
With just three weeks to go before we know who makes the playoffs, almost every game has something riding on it, and the televised selection reflects the diversity of choice. The week kicks off with potentially the best game of them all, as the Chargers visit Arrowhead Stadium looking to peg back the hometown Chiefs in the race for AFC West honours. KC are already assured of post-season football, and the ‘other’ LA team cannot be far behind them. Victory this weekend, however, would give the Chargers a shot at more than just a wildcard. Both teams will be without their first and second choice running backs but, with Patrick Mahomes and Philip Rivers at the helm, that may not be a problem... Saturday night’s double-header brings us Texas-Jets and Browns-Broncos, with Houston the biggest draw here given that they remain locked on 9-4 with the Patriots. Losing to the hapless Jets simply isn’t an option for Deshaun Watson, Deandre Hopkins and Co. The other game at least gives us another chance to watch rookie QB Baker Mayfield orchestrate the Browns revival, and the result could conceivably go either way, despite the rarefied air of Mile High. Indeed, a win for Cleveland would lift them above Denver for the season.
The Dolphins and Vikings kick off Sunday’s action in a match-up of ‘miracle-makers’, and both will probably need one to make the playoffs this season. That said, Miami has been trending in the right direction since the return of QB Ryan Tannehill, while Minnesota looks a shadow of its season-opening self, to the point where it fired offensive co-ordinator John DiFilippo following the MNF defeat in Seattle. Once the Patriots and Steelers have had their say, Sunday night concludes with the Eagles visit to LA to take on the Rams. Despite losing in Chicago last week, and a mini-slump from QB Jared Goff, the Rams aren’t about to fold on their season and, with Philly showing signs of regression from the Super Bowl winning juggernaut of last year, this ought to be a return to form for LA, especially as the weather will be more to their liking!
The final game of the week pits NFC South rivals New Orleans and Carolina together for the first of two meetings in three weeks to end the season. The Saints are already confirmed as both division champions and playoff contenders, but the Panthers will not only want to put one over on their foe, but also try and haul themselves back into post-season contention after taking five losses on the bounce. Drew Brees’ has slowed from his MVP form of earlier in the year, and Cam Newton is carrying a shoulder injury, but there is more than enough talent on both teams to make this watchable. The one that probably deserved the glare of the cameras more than most this week is the clash between Dallas and Indianapolis, with both teams still locked in pursuit of the post-season, but Packers and Bears fans will also lament the old NFC North rivalry being overlooked. Titans-Giants could be interesting given Big Blue’s recent revival and the form of Saquon Barkley, while the likes of Seattle and Baltimore will hope to avoid upsets in their games with San Francisco and Tampa Bay respectively. However much you get to watch this weekend…. Enjoy!
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