The all-division-games format in Week 17 delivers some duds, as only two matchups on Sunday feature two winning teams.
However, the win-and-in contests carry tremendous intrigue, with rivals looking to send a hated opponent home for January.
We’ll key on three such matchups, starting with the red-hot Cleveland Browns’ bid to spoil the Baltimore Ravens’ season.
1. Mayfield has more support this time
The 12-9 final of the Browns’ Week 5 overtime victory against the Ravens belied one of Baker Mayfield’s best performances. Then-Browns head coach Hue Jackson and offensive coordinator Todd Haley loaded the rookie’s plate in his second career start, and Mayfield justified their trust.
Even in victory, Mayfield didn’t get tremendous help. His receivers dropped two long third-down passes, and his protection was suspect. Mayfield was also stuck in a static, uninspired offense under Haley.
Without restricting Mayfield’s freedom, interim coordinator Freddie Kitchens has installed more opportunities for explosive plays via simple reads. That includes deep shots off play-action and misdirection elements like lock screens (fake-screen-and-go) and jet motion. (One design — a Jarvis Landry end-around with jet motion in Week 14 — was copied by several teams a week later.)
Cleveland’s receivers still have drop issues, but the protection has stabilized with Greg Robinson at left tackle. Robinson still has issues, but he’s steady against bull rushes, and the line has become extremely cohesive. The veteran group excels in passing off stunts and picking up blitzers, critical factors against the Ravens’ amoeba fronts.
Baltimore defensive coordinator Don “Wink” Martindale will confuse Mayfield at times, as he did to the Los Angeles Chargers’ Philip Rivers last week. The Browns will counter on early downs with play-action, slowing the pass rush and attacking the Ravens’ matchup zones. On third downs, Cleveland might need to protect Mayfield a beat longer so he can decipher Baltimore’s rotations.
2. How Williams will try to contain Jackson
The other side of the ball, of course, also features a rookie quarterback against a wild defensive schemer.
But Cleveland interim head coach Gregg Williams will be far more focused on containing Baltimore quarterback Lamar Jackson’s legs — and the dimensions they unlock in the Ravens’ run game — than Jackson’s arm.
Baltimore’s expansive run designs are hard to digest, and amid all the bells and whistles, Gus Edwards steamrolls defenses up the middle. The undrafted rookie hits the correct hole with discipline, and he rides downhill with power and a modicum of wiggle.
Famously aggressive, Williams could try to overwhelm Baltimore’s run game with all-out blitzes. He will gladly send cornerbacks (not just from the slot, either) and safeties, which would create unblocked defenders to contain Jackson’s keepers and let others track Edwards.
Jackson should have chances to attack downfield off play-action. The Browns also tend to play their corners off — to read the quarterback’s eyes as Williams sends blitzes — which opens up short in-breaking routes. Jackson is sharpest as a thrower between the numbers, so he could feast on slants and drags. In obvious passing situations, the offense must be prepared with hot routes.
3. Titans cornerbacks get a do-over
The fickle nature of cornerback play has been on display in Tennessee all season.
High-priced addition Malcolm Butler has mixed quietly steady play with several key touchdowns allowed. Logan Ryan was mostly steady but is now out for the year due to a broken leg. Meanwhile, Adoree’ Jackson’s excellent season hit a snag when Indianapolis Colts receiver T.Y. Hilton lit him on fire in Week 11.
Matched by Jackson most of the game, Hilton totaled nine grabs for 155 yards and two scores. The most damaging was a 68-yarder in which he ran away from Jackson on a post, won at the catch point and then broke Jackson’s tackle.
Tennessee might be hesitant to lock Jackson on Hilton again when the teams square off Sunday night in Nashville, but Ryan’s injury complicates things. Hilton spends much of his time in the slot, where LeShaun Sims replaced Ryan last week, and many of the Colts’ deep shots come from this look. Will the Titans trust Sims to hold up in such situations, or will they have Jackson follow Hilton inside?
Even without defensive tackle Jurrell Casey, who went on injured reserve this week due to a knee ailment, Tennessee’s defense is talented and well-schemed. With zone exchanges and five-across looks, head coach Mike Vrabel and defensive coordinator Dean Pees excel at generating pressure without sending six-plus rushers.
However, the cornerbacks must hold up to make that approach work.
4. Can Colts stop Henry before he gets started?
Despite the late-season surge by Derrick Henry, he still requires certain conditions to thrive. Once he gets going, Henry is a freight train with 33-inch arms lunging out to de-cleat passersby. But the 6-foot-3, 247-pounder needs enough track to build momentum.
The Titans’ offensive line — a better unit in run blocking than pass protection — has excelled clearing paths lately, especially on inside zone, power and counter designs that provide Henry a defined hole. That limits the need to change direction behind the line.
But the Colts’ defensive line presents challenges with aggressiveness and alignment. Defensive coordinator Matt Eberflus loves to slant and stunt his linemen, and he often aligns both tackles in the A gaps, a look offenses rarely face. Defensive tackles Margus Hunt and Denico Autry and end Jabaal Sheard combine violent strength and burst off the line to maximize Eberflus’ approach.
Handling slants and stunts is difficult even for prepared offensive lineman, requiring strength to anchor but also hand placement and leverage to wall D-linemen off. It forces the offensive line to be more reactive, and defenders don’t have to win cleanly to accomplish their goal. Penetration and push will disrupt Henry’s path, curbing his momentum and giving voracious rookie linebacker Darius Leonard windows to swarm and tackle.
While he averaged 5.1 yards per carry in the first meeting, seven of Henry’s carries totaled just 17 yards. That’s exactly the sort of choppy outing the Colts will try to force Sunday.
5. Can Trubisky protect the ball?
Despite progress with Kevin Stefanski at coordinator, the Minnesota Vikings’ offense could struggle to move the ball against Chicago, even if the Bears rest a few starters.
Minnesota’s best way to score might be hoping for Mitchell Trubisky to provide short fields with turnovers, something he has done with alarming regularity.
In between hot stretches, the Chicago quarterback has been erratic with both his ball placement and his decision-making too often. His misses tend to be high, creating easy interceptions like one of two the Vikings nabbed in Week 11 at Chicago and two against the Los Angeles Rams in Week 14.
Trubisky’s stat line last week at San Francisco (25 of 29, 243 yards, one TD, no INTs) obscured a few terrible decisions. In the second quarter, he lost a fumble on a triple-option zone-read, throwing a duck late and backward to Tarik Cohen, who couldn’t catch it. Six minutes later, an unrelated penalty nullified an atrocious interception, as Trubisky scrambled wildly before throwing directly to cornerback K’Waun Williams in the end zone.
Such carelessness is the Vikings’ simplest path to victory on Sunday, which would likely create a rubber match between the two teams on wild-card weekend in Chicago.
With an outstanding defense and head coach Matt Nagy’s brilliant play-calling, the Bears just need Trubisky to be accurate and safe. Whether the second-year QB can do that for four consecutive playoff games is far from certain.
–David DeChant (@DavidDeChant), Field Level Media