Commentary

Playoff contenders hit the road

Bengals have a lot at stake in Pittsburgh; Gronk-less Pats try to maintain standing

Originally Published: December 13, 2013
By John Clayton | ESPN.com

The big question heading into NFL Week 15 is whether the final two weeks of the regular season will have a lot of drama.

Three teams -- Denver, Indianapolis and Seattle -- have clinched playoff spots. Six more can clinch this weekend. As crazy as things were in Week 14 with snow, incredible comebacks and a couple of bad injuries, the main playoff contenders stepped up to be in position to claim berths. Ten of the 13 main playoff contenders in both conferences won, and the only losers were teams playing other playoff contenders.

The strange part about this week is location. Most of the main playoff contenders are on the road. In the NFC, the Carolina Panthers are the only home team among the top six contenders. Seattle is at the New York Giants. The New Orleans Saints are in St. Louis. The Chicago Bears are in Cleveland. The Philadelphia Eagles are in Minnesota. The San Francisco 49ers visit Tampa Bay.

In the AFC, the Indianapolis Colts and the Miami Dolphins are the only home teams. The Dolphins host the New England Patriots. The Colts host Houston. The Cincinnati Bengals travel to Pittsburgh for a Sunday night game. The Kansas City Chiefs are in Oakland. The Baltimore Ravens play in Detroit on Monday night.

Winning on the road has been tough this year. Road teams are winning at only a 38.4 percent clip, the sixth-worst mark since the merger. It's the worst road percentage since 1998, when road teams won 37.1 percent of the time. The worst was 1985, when road teams won only 35.7 percent of the games.

How the road teams fare this week will help determine if we'll have drama in Weeks 16 and 17 or see contenders simply playing out the string and resting players.

Here are the top 10 trends going into Week 15.

1. Lions not taking advantage: The last time the Lions won a division title was in 1993. They've had only one winning season since 2000. But if the Lions blow the NFC North this year, they may never win the division. Everything was set for them. Bears starting QB Jay Cutler missed five full games with a groin injury and high ankle sprain. The Green Bay Packers lost Aaron Rodgers to a collarbone injury and have gone 1-3-1 without him starting. The Lions have gone 3-4 since the first Cutler injury. A loss to the Ravens on Monday night could have serious implications. It would make ownership wonder if Jim Schwartz is the right head coach for the franchise. After all, he has a quarterback (Matthew Stafford) with 5,000-yard potential and a receiver in Calvin Johnson who is having the best stretch of excellence since Jerry Rice. The pressure is on.

[+] EnlargeRob Gronkowski and Tom Brady
Stan Grossfeld/The Boston Globe/Getty ImagesTom Brady knows his job suddenly became much harder when Rob Gronkowski went down on Sunday.

2. Life without Gronk: For the first six weeks, Tom Brady struggled to complete more than 56 percent of his passes without Rob Gronkowski, who was recovering from back and forearm surgeries. Gronkowski's blown ACL, suffered in Week 14, again leaves Brady without his main target and struggling to find answers. He is left being more reliant on rookies Aaron Dobson, Kenbrell Thompkins and Josh Boyce than he might like. According to ESPN Stats & Information, Brady has targeted rookie receivers 149 times this year, most in the league by far. Since Gronkowski came into the league in 2010, he's led tight ends in receiving yards and touchdowns. Through those years, Brady completed 69.5 percent of the passes thrown toward Gronk, averaging 10 yards an attempt with a 42-to-6 touchdown-to-interception ratio. At the very least, the absence of Gronkowski takes away seven points a game from the Patriots' offense. The danger facing the Patriots this week is they play a key divisional game in Miami. The AFC East title is not at stake. The Patriots have a three-game lead over the Dolphins. What's at risk is the AFC's No. 2 seed. Having already lost in Cincinnati, the Patriots need to stay ahead of the Bengals or they might have to face them in Cincinnati during the playoffs.

3. Steelers won't roll over: Sunday night could be party time for the Bengals. A win over Pittsburgh would give them the AFC North title and a third trip to the playoffs in three years. How times have changed. The Bengals are 3-point favorites. You have to go back to 1989 to find the last time the Bengals were favorites in Pittsburgh. As in most rivalries, though, you throw away the record books and the stats. Expect a tough battle. The Steelers still remember last year, when the Bengals came into Pittsburgh and clinched a playoff berth. They didn't like that. They still remember 2005, when the Bengals beat the Steelers at Heinz Field and Bengals players waved Terrible Towels while celebrating their victory. The Bengals have lost nine of their past 11 divisional road games, and they aren't as good on the road as they are at home. For example, the offense averages 33.2 points a game at home but only 19.3 on the road. This one won't be easy.

4. Rising relevance: Coming into the week, the Atlanta-Washington game had little significance. That's not the case now. Redskins QB Robert Griffin III has been shut down for the season by coach Mike Shanahan, who is now expected to be fired after his fourth season in Washington. Kirk Cousins takes over for the final three games and Rex Grossman will be the backup. At lot is at stake for the Redskins. If Cousins plays well, they might be able to trade him for a second-round choice or more. But what if he fails? The Redskins and the potential new coaching staff will have to rebuild RG III's command of the offense and won't get a valuable draft choice or two that they could use to rebuild Washington's defense. The Redskins are giving up 31.2 points a game. The Falcons are trying to end their own embarrassments. They have a chance to finish with the worst record of a No. 1 seed from the previous year since 1990. The 2003 Oakland Raiders finished 4-12 after being the No. 1 seed the previous year. The 3-10 Falcons would have to win two of their last three to avoid suffering the worst drop of a previous season's top seed in 24 years.

5. Cutler's return: The biggest decision of the week was Shanahan's decision to shut down RG III. The second-biggest decision was Bears coach Marc Trestman's decision to start Cutler over Josh McCown. Cutler missed five games with a high ankle sprain, but he has recovered enough to take back his role as the starting quarterback. Fans wanted McCown, who has put up good numbers replacing Cutler. Internally, everyone is on the same page with starting Cutler. McCown concedes his job is to be the backup. Trestman has acknowledged Cutler is his starter and has never wavered. Once he was healthy, Cutler was expected to start. The Bears visit the Cleveland Browns, who have lost four straight. Cutler tends to get the ball more to Brandon Marshall, who catches 69.6 percent of the passes thrown to him by Cutler as opposed to 59 percent of passes thrown to him by McCown.

6. Road tests for the NFC West: Teams that have faced the San Francisco 49ers or Seattle Seahawks usually have a hard time winning the following week, as games against these two NFC West powers are often very physical. The same may hold true when the two teams square off against each other. Both San Francisco and Seattle travel east this week with banged-up rosters stemming from last week's 19-17 49ers victory. San Francisco had 11 players on its injury report Wednesday as it began preparations for Sunday's game in Tampa Bay. The Seahawks had nine on their report, most notably linebacker K.J. Wright, who will miss 4-6 weeks after foot surgery earlier this week. In the meantime, the 8-5 Arizona Cardinals prepare for a tilt at the Tennessee Titans that could help keep their playoff hopes alive. The Cardinals finish the season with games against the Seahawks and 49ers, but they know there is a good chance Seattle already will have clinched a No. 1 seed while the 49ers have the inside track on one of the wild-card spots. Should the 49ers slip up this week, it could open the door for the Cards to make a run at a playoff berth. A 49ers loss combined with a Seattle win could give the Seahawks a first-round bye, meaning their road schedule would end unless they travel to MetLife Stadium -- site of Super Bowl XLVIII -- in February.

7. Will division play cure Indy's ills? Since putting Reggie Wayne on IR, the Colts haven't looked like a playoff team at all. They've lost three of the past five games and have been outscored 161-99 in those contests. Their O-line blocking has fallen apart, the rushing attack has been nonexistent and the defense has been overpowered. That's why facing AFC South competition two of the next three weeks will be a welcome sight. The Colts welcome Houston on Sunday and finish the season hosting the Jacksonville Jaguars. Sandwiched in between those games is a potential playoff preview against the Chiefs. The Colts are 4-0 in the division with three victories coming on the road. Sweeping the division would get Indy to double-digit wins and help it regain some of the confidence that has eroded over the past month.

8. Trap games loom prior to Panthers-Saints rematch: After getting routed in New Orleans on Sunday night, Carolina is counting the days before it hosts the Saints in Week 16. The Panthers and the Saints are favored to win their respective matchups Sunday, but neither can afford to get caught looking ahead to the rematch. Of the two teams, the Panthers have the more favorable matchup, hosting the Jets and erratic rookie QB Geno Smith. The Saints still should be able to get by the Rams on the road. Unlike previous road opponents against which Drew Brees and the Saints have struggled, St. Louis plays in a dome, which should prove favorable to New Orlean's passing attack.

9. Historically bad D in Big D: Monte Kiffin's Cover 2 scheme hasn't covered anyone this year. The Dallas Cowboys are allowing 426.8 yards a game, which puts them on pace to surrender 6,829 yards for the season. Last year's New Orleans Saints set the NFL record at 7,042 yards. The Cowboys, who face Green Bay and Matt Flynn at QB on Sunday, could easily become the first team to yield an average of more than 300 passing yards a game. The Cowboys must be pleased they will not play against Aaron Rodgers, who has been ruled out.

[+] EnlargeNick Foles
Gregory Shamus/Getty ImagesNick Foles has thrived, but the Eagles' D deserves credit as well.

10. Could Philly soar to a two-game lead in East? The Eagles seized control of the NFC East last week with their snowy victory over Detroit combined with the Cowboys' loss in Chicago. They could open a bigger lead if the chips fall in the right place. As much as everyone is talking about Chip Kelly's offense and how Foles has been able to avoid making turnovers, the less-discussed story has been Philly's improved defense. Over their past nine games, the Eagles have allowed 18.1 points a game after surrendering 34.5 during the first four. They've shaved nearly 70 yards a game off a defense that allowed an average of 446.8 through the first month of the season. No team has scored more than 21 points on the Eagles in their past nine games. This week's opponent, Minnesota, is going with backup QB Matt Cassel and may be without RB Adrian Peterson, who's nursing a foot sprain, and second-string RB Toby Gerhart, who has a hamstring injury. This is shaping up to be an advantageous weekend for Kelly and the Eagles.

John Clayton

NFL senior writer

Comments

Use a Facebook account to add a comment, subject to Facebook's Terms of Service and Privacy Policy. Your Facebook name, photo & other personal information you make public on Facebook will appear with your comment, and may be used on ESPN's media platforms. Learn more.