Monday Night Football Preview: Washington's Playoff Push Continues
One week after a hard-fought road win over the division rival Philadelphia Eagles, the Washington Redskins return home to host Cam Newton and the Carolina Panthers on Monday Night Football as they pursue one of the final NFC Playoff spots.
The Redskins (7-5-1) are right in the thick of the wild card race and entered this week as the first team out. Despite being on the outside looking in, the algorithms here at numberFire gave the Redskins a 53% chance of making the playoffs.
Without even playing yet, Washington's playoff hopes have improved. With the Tampa Bay Buccaneers losing to the Dallas Cowboys on Sunday night, the Redskins inched into the sixth seed and can further improve their playoff positioning with a win over the Panthers.
Meanwhile, the Panthers (5-8) continue their Super Bowl hangover and were officially eliminated from playoff contention on Sunday, regardless of the outcome on Monday night.
Washington actually enters ranked sixth in our nERD rankings, which measures just how good a team really is based upon their expected point differential against a league average team. While the Redskins would be expected to outscore a league average team by 3.26 points, the Panthers (-1.85) check in at 23rd on our rankings.
With kickoff approaching, here are four storylines to watch on Monday Night Football.
Kirk Cousins Is Rolling
Since the Redskins' Week 9 bye, Kirk Cousins has been shredding opposing defenses as he heads into an offseason where he'll be looking for a new contract. Over the past five games, Cousins has thrown 11 touchdown passes and only 2 interceptions while averaging 318.2 passing yards per game and leading Washington to a 3-2 record.
This week, Cousins has an opportunity to tee off on a defense that's allowing 272.4 passing yards per game, which is third-most in the league. The Panthers are also likely to be without Luke Kuechly, who has passed the league's concussion protocol, but the Panthers are considering sitting him for the rest of the year.
According to numberFire's schedule-adjusted metrics, the Panthers pass defense is middle of the road, ranking 17th. They'll face a stiff test in Cousins, who ranks as one of the best quarterbacks in the league per numberFire's Net Expected Points (NEP) metric. NEP measures how many points a player adds to his team's expected point total. On the season, Cousins (156.26) ranks first among all quarterbacks in Passing NEP, just ahead of Matt Ryan (154.93).
Will Jordan Reed Be A Factor?
In the Thanksgiving game against the Dallas Cowboys, Jordan Reed left midway through the first half with a shoulder injury and was reportedly seen on the sideline wearing a sling just before halftime. Although it seemed Reed would be out for the game, he returned and wound up scoring two touchdowns as the Redskins came up just short by a score of 31-26.
Reed's shoulder injury kept him out of the team's Week 13 game against the Arizona Cardinals, but he returned last week in a limited role against the Eagles. Reed played only 10 out of 46 offensive snaps and caught his lone target for 10 yards.
The tight end is listed as questionable, but is expected to suit up after increasing his participation in practice throughout the week. He'll have a plus matchup against a Panthers defense that has allowed a touchdown to an opposing tight end in each of their past four games.
You have to go all the way back to Week 10 when the Panthers prevented that from happening.
Will Kelvin Benjamin Continue to Slide?
It may be hard to remember, but in the first two games this season, Kelvin Benjamin had at least 90 yards and a touchdown in each. However, after missing all of last year with a torn ACL, Benjamin's first season back has since spiraled downward. Since Week 3, Benjamin has not cleared more than 86 yards in a game and has only scored twice over the past 11 games.
The past four weeks have especially been frustrating to watch, as Benjamin has caught just 8 of his 23 targets and hasn't registered more than three grabs in one game.
This week, he draws the Redskins and their 25th ranked pass defense, according to numberFire's schedule-adjusted metrics. Despite Washington's poor pass defense rankings, Benjamin may draw shadow coverage from Josh Norman, which would make for an interesting battle between ex-teammates, albeit a difficult one for the struggling Benjamin.
A Big Game for Greg Olsen?
With the Panthers offense struggling, Greg Olsen's production has been erratic -- he's only cleared 50 yards receiving twice since the Week 7 bye and he's scored one touchdown over that time.
Despite hitting a cold streak in recent weeks, Olsen ranks second in receptions (65) and receiving yards (907) on the year at his position, trailing only Travis Kelce in both categories. He's on pace to finish the season with 80 receptions and 1,116 yards, which would be a career high.
Olsen may be in a prime spot against a Redskins defense that has struggled against tight ends. In the past five games, opposing teams have had plenty of success using the tight end against Washington. Of the five, only Jason Witten had less than five catches and 50 yards. Just last week, Zach Ertz was the leading receiver for the Eagles, catching 10 balls for 112 yards.
numberFire algorithms are projecting 4.9 receptions for 64.2 yards and 0.5 touchdowns for him on Monday Night.
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