A quick glance at items of interest as Week 15 rolls on…
Who’s hot: The Seahawks. Look who’s on the verge of clinching a playoff berth. Gone are Richard Sherman, Kam Chancellor and Michael Bennett. And Earl Thomas was lost for the season in early October with a lower leg fracture. Yet despite the end of the Legion of Boom era, the Seahawks (8-5) head to San Francisco riding a four-game winning streak and looking to clinch a wild-card berth with a victory. So much for the long rebuilding season this was projected to be for a team that none of us “experts” – show me somebody outside of Pete Carroll’s locker room – predicted before the season to be a playoff team. Seattle still has playmaking quarterback Russell Wilson, who is running less while the Seahawks roll with the NFL’s No. 1 rushing attack by committee. And they still have middle linebacker Bobby Wagner, overshadowed as one of the NFL’s best defensive players. He anchors a unit ranked just 18th for total yards (far off the annual top-five numbers from the Legion heyday), but is getting a boost from emerging players like defensive end Frank Clark. With his 11 sacks, Clark answered Sherman’s barbs about Seattle as follows: “This is my defense now.” Oh. As fate would have it, while San Francisco (3-10) struggles in a year when hope faded quickly with Jimmy Garoppolo’s torn ACL, Seattle can lock up the playoff berth right before Sherman’s eyes.
Pressure’s on: Mike Zimmer. After falling flat in the Monday night loss at Seattle, the Vikings coach fired his first-year offensive coordinator, John DeFilippo, and turned the reins over to quarterbacks coach Kevin Stefanski as a make-or-break encounter looms against the Dolphins on Sunday. Make no mistake: The move was also an indictment on Minnesota’s offseason decision to sign Kirk Cousins to a fully-guaranteed, three-year, $84 million contract with the expectation the free agent quarterback would be the missing piece to a Super Bowl run. Instead, Cousins has some decent stats (like the NFL-high 370 completions) but has flopped in the biggest moments (like road losses to the Bears, Patriots and Seahawks) while chemistry between Zimmer and DeFilippo was undoubtedly strained. If you’re scoring at home, Stefanski becomes the fourth O-coordinator for the Vikings in Zimmer’s five seasons. Now Zimmer’s team (6-6-1) is pressed to hang on to the final NFC playoff spot it currently holds, while the Cousins move – which may rank with the Herschel Walker trade in the franchise’s annals for deflated hope — adds a layer of scrutiny on GM Rick Spielman because of the heavy investment.
Key matchup: Bill Belichick vs. Mike Tomlin. With a three-game losing streak jeopardizing Pittsburgh’s chances to even make the playoffs after having such a seemingly firm grip on first place, there’s no worse opponent for the Steelers to see while seeking an abrupt turnaround than the Patriots. If not for Belichick, Tom Brady & Co., Tomlin might have a couple more Super Bowl titles on his resume. But that’s hypothetical at this point. The facts show that New England has owned the Steelers, with Belichick posting an 11-3 mark against Pittsburgh as Patriots coach, including a 7-2 mark against Tomlin. Of course, when asked whether that history will matter on Sunday, Belichick maintained, “Nope. Zero.” Rightfully, with his spotty defense, he’s wary of Pittsburgh’s elite receivers, Antonio Brown and JuJu Smith-Schuster. That looms as the potential swing factor. Last year, the Steelers suffered a heartbreaking loss to New England as Ben Roethlisberger’s goal-line INT in the final seconds followed an apparent Jesse James TD that was overruled on instant replay, costing Pittsburgh a likely No. 1 seed for the playoffs. Now the season is on the line and the Patriots still have Brady (11-2 vs. Pittsburgh, including 3-0 in the playoffs). If Tomlin’s team is to make a statement – after blowing chances to win in crunch time the past three weeks – now is that time. Or else.
Next man up: Nick Foles (again). In a strange twist of irony, the Eagles head back to the site where Carson Wentz blew out his knee last December – which opened the door for Foles to come off the bench and emerge as one of the heroes to a Super Bowl championship run. The backup quarterback again assumes the lead role as Wentz could be done for the year with a stress fracture in his back. This time, the matchup against the Rams (11-2) at the Coliseum won’t provide a springboard for Foles to win any Super Bowl MVP honors as the Eagles (6-7) are all but mathematically eliminated from their chance to repeat as champs. Yet Foles’ presence in the lineup will serve as quite the reminder of the glory that was.
Rookie watch: Darius Leonard. An overhauled Colts defense is led by the second-round linebacker from South Carolina State, who leads the NFL with 135 tackles (90 solo) and is in the running with Chargers safety Derwin James for NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year honors. From his weakside post, Leonard has tied for the most double-digit tackle games (6) in the NFL this season and has a shot at topping Patrick Willis’ rookie-record 174 tackles from 2007. A big test, though, comes when the revived Cowboys bring the NFL’s longest winning streak (five games) and the league’s leading rusher, Ezekiel Elliott (1,262 yards) to The Big Oil Field. And the quality of tackles will matter. Can Leonard stuff Elliott in the box or will the stops come downfield? That will be essential to the chance of winning for the Colts (7-6), angling to keep their playoff hopes alive. Regardless, they’ve struck oil with Leonard, who has had the type of campaign (including four forced fumbles and seven sacks) that suggests Colts GM Chris Ballard found the centerpiece of the D with a player picked 36th overall from an HBCU school.
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