Buzz

NFL Playoff Picture: Give Russell Wilson MVP buzz, plus 8 stats to know for Week 13


The Seattle Seahawks are wounded. They’re missing three of their most important players in Richard Sherman, Cliff Avril, and Kam Chancellor. They can’t run the ball. If the season ended before Week 13 begins, they’d miss the playoffs in a loaded NFC for the first time since 2011. And yet, they’re still going to have a very real chance to beat the best team in football (by overall record, at least) on Sunday night when the 10-1 Eagles pay Seattle a visit. 

The Eagles should be favored, but don’t count out the Seahawks from pulling off the upset and as a result, reasserting themselves as a contender in the NFC playoff picture. As it stands, they’re a game behind the Rams in the NFC West and tied with the Falcons for the final Wild Card spot, though the Falcons own the head-to-head tiebreaker.

The Seahawks can beat the Eagles because they have Russell Wilson, who might hold more value to his team than any other player. Wilson is showing this season why he’s a worthy MVP candidate, even if he’s generating almost no buzz as the season hits its final stretch. That doesn’t mean Wilson should win the league MVP award — he won’t — it just means Wilson is required to singlehandedly carry his offense while other quarterbacks (like Carson Wentz) can rely on at least somewhat reliable pass protection and a solid ground game. Not Wilson. 

No one turns a broken play into an explosive play more frequently than Wilson.

Heck, he’s even capable of using pump fakes the way a Jedi uses the Force.

Wilson has thrown for 3,029 yards and 23 touchdowns, and rushed for 401 yards and three touchdowns. He leads the Seahawks in all of those categories, which means he’s their leading rusher and passer. The Seahawks have gained 3,994 yards as a team. Wilson is responsible for 3,430 of those yards or to put it another way, he’s responsible for 85.9 percent of the Seahawks’ offense (for context, consider Wentz has accounted for 69.4 percent of the Eagles’ total yards).

That’s (expletive) crazy! According to NFL Research, it would be the highest percentage for a single player in the Super Bowl era.

I just convinced myself that Wilson is a more deserving MVP candidate than Wentz. Wilson would be my vote for MVP (if the Seahawks make the playoffs, of course) because he does more for his team than any other quarterback. But for Wilson to garner serious consideration, the Seahawks will need to go on a run down the stretch. That run needs to begin on Sunday night against the Eagles.

It won’t be easy. The Eagles’ defense is ranked third in DVOA, sixth in yards allowed per game, third in points allowed per game, (tied for) sixth in sacks, and third in takeaways. Brandon Graham and Fletcher Cox are going to get after Wilson. That’s just a given.

But the Seahawks are also going to score. They’re going to score because they have Wilson and because they’ve finally realized that tight end (and former basketball player) Jimmy Graham is one of the best red-zone threats in the game.

He’s been unstoppable. If Wilson is the Jedi, then Graham is the AT-AT mowing down foot soldiers.

As Gregg Bell of The News Tribune pointed out, all eight of Graham’s touchdowns this season have occurred inside the red one. Seven have come inside the 10-yard line. It’s almost like it’s an automatic touchdown when they target him near the goal line.

Even if the Seahawks manage to score points, they’ll be hard pressed to contain an Eagles offense ranked third in DVOA, third in yards per game, and first in points per game. Sure, if the Seahawks’ entire defense was healthy, I’d take them to slow down the Eagles in Seattle, but they’re not. They’re missing three of their best players in Sherman, Avril, and Chancellor. 

Expect the game to be close, at the very least. That’s just what the Seahawks do.

If the game is close, don’t count out Russell Wilson from doing some Russell Wilson-y things. He’s a magician capable of winning a game that many might think is unwinnable. And if the Seahawks win, they’ll keep pace with the Rams, who they still get to play one more time. And if they catch the Rams and enter the playoffs as a division champ, why can’t Wilson win MVP?

Without him, the Seahawks — as currently constructed with these injuries — would be one of the worst teams in football. With him, they have a chance to upset the Eagles.

1. Bad Joe Flacco

The Ravens are still in the playoff hunt in the AFC — scratch that, the 6-5 Ravens are still holding onto the final playoff spot because their defense has been lights out. It’s an amazing feat considering just how bad their quarterback, Joe Flacco, has been. 

Just how bad has Flacco been? He’s averaging 5.3 yards per pass.

He set a record recently. Not the good kind of record.

Flacco’s numbers on passes thrown at least 20 yards downfield are downright hideous. According to PFF, he’s ranked 37th out of 37 qualified quarterbacks with a 41.1 passer rating on deep passes. In all, he’s gone 7 of 30 for 226 yards, two touchdowns, and five picks on such passes. When the Ravens go deep, it’s an exercise in futility. In fairness to Flacco, it’s not like he’s armed with dangerous weapons around him.

This week, Flacco gets the Lions and their 23rd-ranked passing defense. He should take advantage of the opportunities he has to target Lions cornerback Quandre Diggs, who’s allowed a 123.0 passer rating in coverage, per PFF.

This is a huge game, by the way. The Lions are trailing the Falcons by a game (two games really because they already beat them) in the NFC Wild Card race. The Ravens are barely hanging onto their spot with the 6-5 Bills and three 5-6 teams behind them — including Will Brinson’s Chargers

Speaking of the Chargers …

2. Good Philip Rivers 

I’m not sure if you’ve heard, but the Giants decided to bench Eli Manning for Geno Smith, which places Manning’s long-term future with the Giants in jeopardy and will definitely end his start streak of 210 games.

And that means Rivers is your new active leader for consecutive starts. Against the Browns on Sunday, Rivers will make his 188th straight start. It’s fitting that Manning will pass the torch to Rivers considering Rivers is only in San Diego Los Angeles because Manning refused to play for the Chargers back in that 2004 draft.

With the way Rivers and the Chargers are playing, it’s entirely possible that Rivers will eventually surpass Manning’s streak. This year, Rivers is completing 62.1 percent of his passes for 2,948 yards, 20 touchdowns, seven picks, and a 95.2 passer rating. And the Chargers are surging. After an 0-4 start, they’re 5-6 and they’re about to improve to 6-6 considering they’re taking on the Browns — a team that’s gone 4-39 since the beginning of the 2015 season. Suddenly, the idea of the Chargers overtaking the Chiefs (6-5 after a 5-0 start) in the AFC West doesn’t seem so impossible.

Insert this obligatory GIF to sum up the current state of the Chargers:


ESPN/GIFRific

Here’s your friendly reminder that Will Brinson picked the Chargers and Cardinals to go to the Super Bowl. The Cardinals are dead unless Blaine Gabbert can pull of an unlikely resurrection, but Brinson’s Chargers are very much alive. 

They’ve got a Hall of Fame caliber quarterback — yes, Rivers is a Hall of Famer, especially if Manning is — a solid running back in Melvin Gordon, a great receiver in Keenan Allen, a tight end weapon in Hunter Henry, and perhaps most importantly, they can rush the passer with Melvin Ingram and Joey Bosa — the duo has combined for 19 sacks. And how do you beat Tom Brady in the playoffs? You hit him. Over and over again.

The Chargers can do that and unlike teams like the Jaguars and Chiefs, they’ve got a quarterback who can keep pace with Brady.

3. Don’t blame it all on Dez

Where to begin with the mess that is Dallas Cowboys? Ezekiel Elliott‘s suspension will likely go down as their cause of death, but their issues go beyond Zeke’s absence. Dak Prescott hasn’t risen to the occasion. The offensive line isn’t nearly as dominant as it was a year ago. Linebacker Sean Lee‘s absence might be even more important than Zeke’s.

Let’s take a look at what’s wrong with Dez Bryant, who’s also taking his fair of blame for the Cowboys’ descent. So far this season, Bryant’s caught 53 passes for 578 yards, and four touchdowns. He’s averaging 10.9 yards per catch, which would be a career low, and 52.5 receiving yards per game. 

But don’t put all on Dez. He’s not entirely responsible for his decline.

Not much he can do about that. Even still, it’s worth noting that Bryant’s numbers in the past three seasons are concerning. Since the beginning of 2015, he’s averaging 13.2 yards per reception and 53.8 yards per game. At his peak, from 2011-14, Bryant averaged 14.5 yards per reception and 77.2 yards per game.

It’s entirely possible that Bryant no longer is the dominant WR1 he once was, but that doesn’t make him a bad receiver. He just isn’t the monster that used to terrorize opposing defenses. On Thursday, he’ll face the Redskins, which is interesting — and not because the Redskins are a playoff team. They’re not. It’s interesting because Bryant gets to face Josh Norman.

Norman took Round 1 this year.

Whichever 5-6 team loses can officially kiss their already slim playoff hopes goodbye.

4. What’s wrong with Mariota?

Before the season, the Titans were supposed to break their lengthy playoff drought, which dates back to the Jeff Fisher era, in part because they finally found a franchise quarterback in Marcus Mariota.

Well, the Titans are likely playoff bound after a 7-4 start. They’re tied with the Jaguars atop the AFC South and the team that doesn’t win the division should snag one of two Wild Card spots in the AFC. But the Titans aren’t playoff bound for the reason we thought they’d be. To this point, Mariota’s actually been a disappointment.

After already establishing himself as a damn good quarterback in his first two seasons, he was supposed to ascend to new heights in his third year. It hasn’t happened yet.

Comp. %

YPA

TD%

INT%

Rating

2015

62.2

7.6

5.1

2.7

91.5

2016

61.2

7.6

5.8

2.0

95.6

2017

63.1

7.4

2.9

3.9

79.1

The concerning aspects are his touchdown and interception rates, which are dragging down his passer rating. This was a quarterback who rarely made cringeworthy mistakes in his first two seasons. Now, he’s throwing passes like this:

This was a quarterback famous for his precision, accuracy, and ball placement. He’s still capable of being that quarterback, evidenced by the dime below.

But his statistics on tight-window throws are a concern.

There are a couple of ways to look at that stat above. You can conclude that Mariota has regressed because his precision has nosedived. Or you can blame the Titans offense for always forcing Mariota to throw into tight windows. Jonathan Kinsley, who you should follow on Twitter if you’re into film breakdowns using GIFs, has a thread on that second point of view. 

Here’s an example:

I side with Kinsley in this debate. Mariota’s development has stalled this season because he’s stuck in an offense that doesn’t help him. While Jared Goff has a coach in Sean McVay who does everything in his power to set up Goff to excel, Mariota has a coach in Mike Mularkey who forces Mariota to be perfect in order to be successful. 

Anyway, the Titans playoff push will continue against the Texans on Sunday. The Texans’ defense is ranked 24th against the pass. 

5. Kamara is your Rookie of the Year

We were ready to crown Kareem Hunt as the Offensive Rookie of the Year after the first few weeks of the season. And then Deshaun Watson came along, emerging as the new frontrunner. Now, with Hunt’s production stalling and Watson tearing his ACL, the new favorite is Saints running back Alvin Kamara. If the season ended today, he should take home the award in a landslide.

Even though he’s locked into a timeshare with Mark Ingram, Kamara has still racked up 546 rushing yards and five rushing touchdowns, and 548 receiving yards and four receiving touchdowns. He’s averaging 7.1 yards per run. That’s not a typo. He’s fifth in yards from scrimmage with 1,094 even though he’s touching the ball only 12 times per game. 

Look at him go!

Look at him dance!

According to NFL Research, no running back has averaged more than eight yards per touch in the last 25 years (minimum 100 touches). Kamara is averaging 8.3 yards per touch. The Panthers are going to have a tough time stopping him in the best game of the week.

The Saints and Panthers are tied atop the NFC South at 8-3. The Saints took the first round, so consider this a must-win game for Carolina if it wants to win the division.

6. Christian McCaffrey is pretty great too

McCaffrey isn’t more deserving of Offensive Rookie of the Year than Kamara, but he’s experiencing a solid rookie season for the Panthers. So far, he’s rushed for 268 yards and two touchdowns, and caught 59 passes for 468 yards and three touchdowns. He’s averaging 5.5 yards per touch. So no, he’s not on Kamara’s level, but he’s still one of the most important pieces on an 8-3 team.

Also important: In his past three games, he’s averaging 5.6 yards per carry after averaging 2.4 yards per carry in his first eight games. McCaffrey and the Panthers appear to be figuring out how to get him going in the ground game.

7. Marvin Jones vs. the Ravens’ secondary

The Lions-Ravens game also holds plenty of importance with both teams on the playoff bubble in their respective conferences. We’ve already discussed Flacco a bit earlier. Now, let’s talk about the Lions. Specifically, let’s look at Marvin Jones’ hot streak and how he matches up against a good Ravens secondary.

First, the hot streak: Jones is averaging 91 yards and one touchdown per game since Oct. 15. He’s also averaging 18.2 yards per catch in that six-game span. He’s been a downfield nightmare. 

But Jones will face a tough test against Baltimore. The Ravens might not have a great offense, but their defense is top notch — especially their secondary. They’re allowing the second-fewest passing yards per game and have snagged a league-high 18 interceptions. Jimmy Smith has posted the second-lowest passer rating in coverage (44.9) among qualified cornerbacks, according to PFF. Brandon Carr is 22nd with a 74.6 passer rating in coverage. Both have snagged three picks. Meanwhile, safety Eric Weddle has four picks.

DeAndre Hopkins did just tear up that secondary for 125 yards, but he’s DeAndre Hopkins. For as good as Jones has been, he’s not close to the receiver that Hopkins is. Jones will face a tough test on Sunday. But so will the Ravens’ secondary. It’ll be one of the best battles to watch on Sunday.

8. Falcons face big test vs. Vikings

The Falcons’ offense is finally grooving, scoring 31.7 points per game during their three-game winning streak. But they’ll face a tough test on Sunday against a Vikings’ defense ranked fifth in yards allowed per game, fifth in points allowed per game, and sixth in DVOA. Julio Jones is fresh a 253-yard, two-touchdown game, but he’ll be going up against a secondary composed of cornerback Xavier Rhodes (73.0 passer rating in coverage, per PFF) and safety Harrison Smith (three picks). Matt Ryan has been sacked twice in their past three wins, but he’ll be hunted down by Everson Griffen and Danielle Hunter, who’ve combined for 18 sacks.

This will be one of the best games of the week. For the Falcons, it takes on even more importance considering they’re a game back of the Panthers and Saints in the NFC South and they’re barely hanging onto a Wild Card spot.

To see the entire playoff picture, click right here.

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