Welcome to Week 15 of the 2015 NFL season!
This is a pretty exciting time in the world.
Star Wars premieres tonight, Christmas Eve is seven days away, and the NFL Playoffs are upon us!
With just three games left on the schedule for each team there is still a lot at stake. We'll see more movement in the standings over this time as there is in the conga line at your work Christmas party.
Here's who's winning this week.
Thursday Night Football: Tampa Bay Buccaneers (6-7) At St. Louis Rams (5-8)
Color Rush... yay.
There will be two eye sores on the football field tonight, and they'll be wearing new jerseys each (ba-dum-psh!).
Famous Jameis and his Bucs will travel to the Edward James Olmos (something like that) Dome and look to continue highlighting that Jeff Fisher's squad is the epitome of mediocrity.
You know how your Mom says not to say anything at all if you can't say anything nice? Todd Gurley is good at football. Don't say I didn't say anything about you, Rams.
Prediction: BUCCANEERS - 23, Rams - 13
Saturday Night Football: New York Jets (8-5) At Dallas Cowboys (4-9)
Look at that! Football on a Saturday that isn't college. Quite the nice change of pace, isn't it?
The New York Jets are flying high into this game with, surprisingly, one of the most potent offenses in the NFL. Their defense? It's no spring chicken either. They get after you a lot on both sides of the ball.
The Cowboys are coming off of another trouncing, this most recent one happening in Green Bay. If you read my Plan V post then you know that these Cowboys... they're not going anywhere.
I'm not a fan of tanking, but I'm also not a fan of being wrong. Give me New York, easy.
Prediction: JETS - 31, Cowboys - 10
Atlanta Falcons (6-7) At Jacksonville Jaguars (5-8)
I am not going to stop reminding you that the Falcons were once 5-0. People legitimately believed in them. I hope they all learned their lesson.
The Falcons are one of the worst teams in the NFL and the four hundred time winners of that coveted award, the Jacksonville Jaguars, are starting to shed that label.
Jacksonville is on the rise, on the rise I tell you! They'll personify Atlanta's little motto "Rise Up" all over the scoreboard on Sunday.
Prediction: Falcons - 23, JAGUARS - 42
Buffalo Bills (6-7) At Washington Redskins (6-7)
This game is going to frustrate Dallas Cowboys fans.
The Bills are going to come out and take care of business against Washington leaving us wondering, "what if...".
Why's that? Well because the Redskins are the Redskins. Jordan Reed is going to have himself a game, but so is Tyrod Taylor. Circle the wagons.
Prediction: BILLS - 24, Redskins - 19
Chicago Bears (5-8) At Minnesota Vikings (8-5)
The Bears have surprised us all by being a competent football team this year. Maybe we need to start giving John Fox more credit as a Head Coach? Nah, maybe later.
The Vikings are surprising no one this year as they were a popular sleeper pick for the playoffs back during Training Camp time.
Minnesota did shock the world when they hung with the Cardinals a week ago all the way down to the end. People knew they were good, but no one thought they would be that good.
Prediction: Bears - 18, VIKINGS - 30
Tennessee Titans (3-10) At New England Patriots (11-2)
Say all of these things out loud with me.
The Tennessee Titans.
The New England Patriots.
Bill Belichick. Tom Brady.
Too da loo, Tennessee.
Prediction: Titans - 13, PATRIOTS - 33
Houston Texans (6-7) At Indianapolis Colts (6-7)
It's hard to tell who is playing quarterback in this game with all of the injury news. Heck for all I know, it's you and me slinging the rock on Sunday!
The defense that we've come to expect from the Texans was a little absent last Sunday, but hey that was the Patriots.
The Bulls on Parade will return against the Colts... who are having arguably the most disappointing season across the NFL.
Prediction: TEXANS - 23, Colts - 16
Kansas City Chiefs (8-5) At Baltimore Ravens (4-9)
I don't know whether I'm more confident in that the Chiefs are really awesome or that the Ravens are really terrible here.
I know that the Chiefs are going to put it on the Ravens this year, as they've been quietly doing to teams over the last few weeks.
Sure KC barely escaped San Diego last week, but the Chiefs are on fire! The Ravens? What's the opposite of fire? Water?
The Ravens are on water.
Prediction: CHIEFS - 29, Ravens - 16
Carolina Panthers (13-0) At New York Giants (6-7)
It's going to seriously pain me to tell you what I'm thinking.
It would not shock me at all if the Giants won this game.
The G-Men have made it a habit over the years to ball out when the most is on the line. Coming off of a big win on Monday Night Football... they could do just that.
A big reason for that is that the Panthers are starting to pile up the injuries. Greg Olsen and Jonathan Stewart, sorry fantasy owners, are the most recent casualties. Cam is Superman though, and I'll trust that.
Prediction: PANTHERS - 30, Giants - 26
Cleveland Browns (3-10) At Seattle Seahawks (8-5)
I hope you remember how to say things out loud with me.
The Cleveland Browns. THE CLEVELAND BROWNS.
The Seattle Seahawks.
The 12th Man.
Prediction: Browns - 10, SEAHAWKS - 37
Green Bay Packers (9-4) At Oakland Raiders (6-7)
Packers fans should not be too happy right now.
In back to back weeks they've barely beaten the Detroit Lions and Dallas Cowboys. They're building a huge line of dominos and they're about to slip and accidentally dip one over.
Khalil Mack might have already sacked Aaron Rodgers. He's on that level of fire right now. Derek Carr, Amari Cooper, and the Mack Truck? Oh boy do I like that.
Prediction: Packers - 16, RAIDERS - 24
Cincinnati Bengals (10-3) At San Francisco 49ers (4-9)
No Andy Dalton? Hmm.
AJ McCarron is going to look for AJ Green all over the field and AJs everywhere will celebrate! RJs kind of count, too.
The Niners are... well they're there.
Prediction: BENGALS - 26, 49ers - 10
Denver Broncos (10-3) At Pittsburgh Steelers (8-5)
Remember when the Broncos had one of the most stout defense in the NFL? Seems like a long time ago, doesn't it?
Denver is going to need that defense to really show up this week if they want to even compete with Pittsburgh. The Steelers have the most explosive offense in the NFL and you can bet they want a change to prove it against an "elite" defense.
Pittsburgh is about to start peaking at the right time. They're dangerous. Watch out.
Prediction: Broncos - 13, STEELERS - 27
Miami Dolphins (5-8) At San Diego Chargers (3-10)
The Dolphins and Chargers had all of our hopes up when this season began... those were good times.
Miami is a mess, I'll just leave it at that.
This could be the last game ever played in San Diego for the Chargers. They know it. They're not losing it.
Prediction: Dolphins - 16, CHARGERS - 22
Sunday Night Football: Arizona Cardinals (11-2) At Philadelphia Eagles (6-7)
It'll be at this point in the day where frustration reaches maximum level for Cowboys fans.
All you'll be thinking about, while the Cardinals are pummeling the Eagles at their house, is how the Redskins and Giants both lost today.
This season sucks.
Prediction: CARDINALS - 32, Eagles - 20
Monday Night Football: Detroit Lions (4-9) At New Orleans Saints (5-8)
It was only four years ago that the Lions in New Orleans was a Saturday Night Wildcard Game in the Playoffs.
These two teams are a long ways away from that day.
The Lions should have had a super long week of rest after a well earned victory, but fate intervened and robbed them of that.
The Saints? They're cute, but they're a flash in the pan this year.
I wish they were from East Dillon (shout out if you know the reference), but I'll take the Lions.
Prediction: LIONS - 20, Saints - 10
Warts And All, Dak Prescott Shows Why It’s Not So Easy To Move On
Dak Prescott was far from perfect Sunday night in Philadelphia. In fact, at times, he was downright bad.
Prescott missed two potential touchdown passes to Amari Cooper and Michael Gallup on fly routes down the sideline, and might have left points on the board when he badly missed Ezekiel Elliott in the flat in the red zone early in the game. Prescott continued to panic in the pocket a bit during the first half, and took an absolutely horrendous sack on what would end up being the Cowboys' first touchdown drive of the night.
All of this is true. All of this is indisputable.
Where things get tricky, however, is that while these flaws continue to show up in Prescott's game, so do his strengths. A particular set of strengths and skills that the can be highly valuable in today's NFL, especially if deployed correctly.
Beginning with the final drive of the first half, Dak Prescott played the type of football we've rarely seen from him over the last calendar year. He was comfortable in the pocket, seldom abandoning clean looks or running into sacks. He utilized his legs and ability to extend plays when necessary, and delivered some absolute strikes to help the Cowboys offense get into scoring range multiple times. Prescott also picked up some key third downs with his arm to answer Eagles' scoring drives, something we haven't seen from these Cowboys in quite some time.
Dak was far from perfect on Sunday night, but he did show why he is so hard to move on from. When the offensive line is clicking and Prescott can have that comfortability (that is all-too-rare in the NFL), he looks like his Rookie of the Year self. But, we all know that when things really break down, he isn't able to put the offense on his back the way the true "top" quarterbacks are.
I am a Dak Prescott fan. I'll make no mistake about it. But what do we call it when a quarterback is good enough to keep you competitive, can have wildly impressive plays/drives/games while also having wildly frustrating and bad plays/drives/games?
We call that quarterback purgatory. We call that the Cincinnati Bengals.
The only thing which separates Dak and Dallas from being in full purgatory mode, to be quite frank, is Prescott's youth. Because of that youth we can still hope that he can develop as a passer and quit being so gun-shy and timid to make tight window and anticipation throws.
But how long can a team truly wait before they become Marvin Lewis and Andy Dalton losing by 30+ points at home?
It's a question which is tough for every team to answer. Dak Prescott is too good to easily replace with a random quarterback off the street, but it's hard to imagine he's good enough to get your team over the hump without significant help around him.
So, in the end, here we are. With the Cowboys at 4-5 fighting with an Alex Smith-led team for what will most likely prove to be a rather irrelevant division title.
But hey, it's always fun to win in Philly isn't it?
Leighton Vander Esch Is A Stud, And Should Be For A Long Time
The Cowboys took their fair share of heat for selecting linebacker Leighton Vander Esch 19th overall in the 2018 NFL Draft. But through just over half a season, Dallas is looking vindicated in their decision.
Vander Esch was arguably the best defensive player on the field during Dallas' 27-20 win in Philadelphia Sunday night, and made the two biggest defensive plays of the game as well. Finishing with a game-high 13 tackles, Vander Esch was all over the field in both run and pass defense.
The first of his two massive plays came in the first quarter. After the Cowboys offense stalled deep in their own territory, the Eagles looked to be in prime position to strike first with a short field. On Carson Wentz' first pass attempt of the drive, however, Leighton Vander Esch was there to intercept him and return the ball back 28 yards.
Those return yards proved key as well, giving the Cowboys the short field and an easy path to their first three points of the night. And with the way their offense looked early in this game, Dallas could use all the help they could get.
The biggest play of the game, though, came late in the fourth quarter. With the Eagles facing a third and short and down seven points, they absolutely needed a conversion to keep pace with the surprisingly hot Cowboys offense. Philadelphia tried to beat Dallas with a running back screen to the backside, inviting the pass rush and getting blockers out in front.
There seemed to be nothing but blockers and green grass ahead for the Eagles on this play, with "Next Gen Stats" expecting a 22 yard gain after the catch. Then, Leighton Vander Esch eluded two blockers and tracked down the running back for a loss of 3.
Leighton Vander Esch made a game-saving tackle late in the 4th quarter to preserve the Cowboys 27-20 win. Corey Clement was expected to gain 22 yards after the catch (gained 3), -19 YAC Below Expectation, the most yards saved on a pass play this season. #DALvsPHI #DallasCowboys https://t.co/0DF7jhPQzH
If not for this tackle, who knows how both that Eagles' drive and the game would have ended. Vander Esch saved the day for Dallas, and forced the Eagles into a tough fourth and long situation with the game on the line.
I know it is still early in Vander Esch's career, and even relatively early in this season as well, but it's become clear the Cowboys hit a home run with their 2018 first round selection. Vander Esch is fitting in beside Jaylon Smith with ease, and with those two athletic freaks together, the Cowboys look to have one of the brightest defensive futures in all of football.
Of course, there are now legitimate questions about what the Cowboys should do with their captain Sean Lee. But as of right now, it should be Leighton Vander Esch's job to lose.
Can Cowboys LB Vander Esch Do Enough to Win DROY?
At 3-5, there are very few positive things to point out when discussing the 2018 Dallas Cowboys. One of those few things has been first-round rookie Leighton Vander Esch, whose play at linebacker has taken the league by surprise. Seen as a raw talent who could develop into an elite player with time as a prospect, Vander Esch's impact on the field has been immediate.
Through nine weeks in the NFL season, the Boise State product should definitely be in the Defensive Rookie of the Year discussion. As much as Sean Lee's injury will hurt the Cowboys' defense, it will get the rookie more playing time and a big opportunity to put his name in the minds of NFL Honors voters.
Sean Lee will miss some time after re-injuring his hamstring for the second time this season. Earlier in the year, Jaylon Smith and Vander Esch were able to keep the defense from crumbling without their veteran captain. Even with all the offensive struggles, that should continue to be the case for the linebackers.
Vander Esch has only played in 65% of the Cowboys' defensive snaps, yet he's tied for ninth place in solo tackles in the entire league with 49. He's at 64 total tackles and two pass deflections and has been a magnet to opposing ball carriers every time he's been on the field.
He's the third highest graded rookie LB for Pro Football Focus. Most times, rookies find success like this by being rotational players or simply splitting snaps with other players. But as previously mentioned, Lee has already been out for a handful of games in 2018 and Vander Esch has lived up to the hype.
Simply put, Leighton's play as a rookie has already put Sean Lee's future on the Cowboys in question. With such an injury history and a two young studs ready to take over the reigns, Dallas could very well release Lee prior to the 2019 season.
Now granted, the race for Defensive Rookie of the Year will not be an easy one to win for Vander Esch. Fourth overall pick Denzel Ward has been an impressive cornerback for the Browns and fifth-overall pick Bradley Chubb has been one of the best pass rushers on Sundays. Not to mention the NFL leader in solo tackles, Colts' LB Darius Leonard.
Despite a great start to his season, the Cowboys young LB will have to play way better for his name to be called when the Defensive Rookie of the Year is revealed at the NFL Honors event in February. There are some pretty big names he has to catch up with in order to make this happen.
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