3 Week 16 Storylines To Watch: The Battle for the AFC North

One of the best rivalries in the NFL will be renewed on Christmas Day when Baltimore faces Pittsburgh. With so much on the line, what can we expect?

Week 15 gave us Tom Savage riding in on a white horse to lead the Houston Texans to a win, Drew Brees bouncing back with 389 yards passing after two rough weeks, and the New England Patriots smothering the Denver Broncos on the road, 16-3.

There are a ton of intriguing stories heading into Week 16. The main slate of games is also on Saturday, so adjust your schedules accordingly.

Let's get to it.

Battle For The AFC North

When the Baltimore Ravens travel to meet the Pittsburgh Steelers on Christmas Day, both the AFC North title and accompanying playoff berth will hang in the balance.

When these two division rivals tangle, it’s usually a low-scoring, defensive battle as evidenced by the average amount of total points scored in games over the last two seasons – 45. With Baltimore sporting one of the best defenses in the league this season, it’s entirely possible we see a similar scenario play out again.

The Ravens currently rank first against the run and seventh against the pass on a per-play basis, according to our schedule-adjusted Net Expected Points (NEP) metric. They’ve allowed 100 or more yards rushing just 4 times this season and 300 or more passing yards just twice.

Thanks in large part to the superhuman efforts of Le'Veon Bell over the past five weeks, the Steelers are the fourth-most efficient rushing offense, per our metrics, setting up an epic battle in the trenches. Only adding to the intrigue is the Steelers’ second-ranked offensive line, according to Football Outsiders.

Flipping the field, Baltimore’s anemic offense -- ranked 30th in overall schedule-adjusted offensive NEP -- squares off against Pittsburgh’s 20th-ranked defense.

When two teams are this evenly matched, special teams can play a key role. In their meeting earlier this year, it was the Ravens’ special teams that swung the game in their favor on a blocked punt that was returned for a touchdown. With the a berth in the playoffs on the line, we can expect another tough battle.

Is Dion Lewis Back?

When Dion Lewis returned to action in Week 11, many people -- fantasy owners, specifically -- hoped he would slide right back into the role he filled in 2015, when he was one of the most elusive running backs in football. Unfortunately for that narrative, Lewis has found it tough to crack the running back rotation for the New England Patriots.

Listed below are Lewis’s snap percentages and overall involvement in the Patriots’ offense over the last five weeks:

Week Snap Rate Carries Rushing Yards Catches Receiving Yards
11 28% 5 23 3 26
12 32% 6 24 4 34
13 25% 5 27 4 11
14 25% 3 14 1 5
15 37% 18 95 2 9

Lewis has yet to play 40 percent of the snaps in a single game since returning, splitting work with both LeGarrette Blount and James White. His 18 carries last week against the Broncos were a career-high clip and just the third time he’s eclipsed 10 carries in his career. Even if the Patriots’ continue to utilize him in the running game, he’ll likely see next-to-no touchdown opportunity on the ground with Blount’s NFL-leading 15 touchdowns as the main hindrance.

For Lewis to truly succeed however, White’s presence appears to be the biggest roadblock.

As you can see, Lewis’s production on the ground takes a slight hit with White active, but his involvement in the passing game is nearly cut in half. Of course, 12 games is a small sample size, but it shows the risk involved in betting on Lewis when both he and White are active.

From a real football perspective, having Lewis in the fold is nothing but a positive for the Patriots as they move into the playoffs. From a fantasy perspective, however – for those still alive – Lewis’s situation remains somewhat muddled due to other viable running back options in New England.

What's Up With Matt Barkley?

Since Matt Barkley became the starting quarterback for the Chicago Bears, they have gone 1-4. Over that stretch, Barkley has thrown six touchdowns -- the first of his career, included -- but also seven interceptions.

With such an up-and-down resume over such a short sample size -- including two 300-yard games and a 3-interception game -- it’s difficult to parse out how Barkley fits with the Bears beyond this season. But from an efficiency standpoint, Barkley has been better than his simple counting stats show.

Among 38 quarterbacks with 100 or more drop backs this season, Barkley ranks 15th in Passing NEP per drop back (0.14) sandwiched between Andy Dalton and Sam Bradford. He also ranks 8th in Success Rate, the percentage of drop backs resulting in a positive gain in NEP. His completion percentage has improved each week, and the Bears have been a more competitive team as a whole.

But the truth is Barkley has still completed just 59 percent of his throws in his career. He’s thrown 11 interceptions to just 6 touchdowns. Small sample size be damned, Barkley probably doesn’t fit the profile of a successful, long-term starting quarterback.

The 2017 quarterback draft class is weak, so even though Chicago should have a top-five pick, they could look to fill another positional need. Jay Cutler is signed through the 2020 season with cap hits exceeding $16 million each year, making a trade difficult. And if the organization chooses to move away from the current coaching staff, all bets are off on these hypotheticals.

The Bears close out the regular season against Washington and Minnesota -- teams ranked 25th and 2nd, respectively against the pass, according to our metrics. Barkley gets two more weeks to improve his resume and make his claim for a 2017 role.