Four Week 15 Storylines: Jay Cutler Returns

Jay Cutler returns as Bears' starter against the Browns this weekend.

As 10-point underdogs, few thought that San Diego – a 6-7 team with a Swiss cheese defense – could roll into Denver on Thursday night and pick up a win.

But they, led by an ecstatic Philip Rivers, got it done. And now, the AFC playoff picture is even murkier than it was on Wednesday.

Will Baltimore or Miami separate themselves from the rest of the pack?

Prior to San Diego’s victory over the Broncos, our algorithms gave Miami a 59.8% chance of making the playoffs, while Baltimore sat with a 36.7% chance.

The main reason for this was strength of schedule related, as Baltimore still gets Detroit this week, New England next week and Cincinnati in Week 17. In terms of nERD, those are three top-12 teams in the NFL.

Miami, on the other hand, gets a tough matchup against New England on Sunday, but then will face Buffalo (power-ranked 23rd) and the Jets (30th). The schedule is clearly easier for the Phins, hence the higher probability of making the playoffs.

But San Diego screwed that all up on Thursday. With their win, they increased their playoff odds from 1.7% to 8.9%, lowering Baltimore and Miami’s chances to 32.7% and 56.9% respectively.

Chargers’ fans are going to be pulling hard for New England and Detroit this weekend, as San Diego finishes their season with two winnable games against Oakland and, to a lesser extent, Kansas City. If Baltimore and Miami both drop in tough matchups, then this race will get even more unpredictable.

Will Jay Cutler perform at Josh McCown levels?

Marc Trestman’s decided to move along with a now-healthy Jay Cutler this week, though plenty of pundits believe Josh McCown should be the man (never thought you’d hear that in September, did you?). Is it a good move?

From a numbers perspective, I’ve broken this down already in an article that’s still very relevant (click here to read it). I think the bigger question this weekend is, “Will Jay Cutler be successful in Week 15 now that we know Josh McCown isn’t the quarterback?”

In short, he should be. Cleveland ranks 14th against the pass according to our metrics, but they’ve slowly slipped since Week 5. After their fifth game of the season, the Browns had an Adjusted Defensive Passsing Net Expected points of -8.95, good for the fifth-best in the NFL. After last week, the team’s Adj. DPNEP dropped to 20.37, nearly 30 points over nine weeks.

The Browns have played eight games over this time (they had a Week 10 bye), playing 3.66 points below expectation per game in terms of pass defense. That average, if extrapolated across 16 games, would make the Browns a bottom-10 pass defense. That’s how mediocre they’ve been playing of late.

I think Cutler’s matchup this week can calm the critics. But if he shows rust, there’s surely going to be some “We Want McCown” chants in Chi-Town bars.

Will the backup running backs still produce?

We’ve got Adrian Peterson with a foot injury that could sideline him, and Maurice Jones-Drew with a hamstring injury that’s listed him as doubtful for the Jaguars’ game on Sunday. And Willis McGahee is out for the Browns this week, too.

That leaves us with the potential to see Toby Gerhart (he’s dealing with injuries of his own), Jordan Todman and Chris Ogbonnaya as starting running backs this week.

Of the three, Chris Ogbonnaya has by far the best matchup, squaring off against numberFire’s 32nd-ranked rush defense. The Bears haven’t allowed fewer than 146 running back rushing yards since Week 9, and nothing less than 123 since Week 6. They’ve been horrendous, and are always targets in fantasy football as a result.

Ogbonnaya could take advantage of that this week, despite playing for a team that has thrown more than any other in the NFL, good for the second-highest pass-to-run ratio. Silent G has easily been the most efficient running back for Cleveland according to our metrics this year, and facing a team like Chicago could be the breakout game Cleveland needs from a back. After all, the Browns rank 21st in the league in efficiency on the ground on a per run basis, so it's not as though they've seen efficiency this season.

Will the Dallas defense stop Green Bay?

In terms of our Adjusted Defensive Net Expected Points metric, the Cowboys have a bottom-10 defense, worse than their dumpster fire division-rival Redskins. Big D’s pathetic D was shown to the world last week, as Josh McCown – yeah, the same guy I talked about earlier – torched the secondary for 348 yards and four passing touchdowns.

Dallas’ pass defense has been talked about most, as they’ve given up more fantasy points to quarterbacks than any other NFL team this year. They’ve also allowed the most passing yards against as well, nearly 200 more than the 31st-ranked Eagles.

In their defense (pun intended), however, the ‘Boys have faced strong quarterback play all season long, and when you adjust their advanced metrics for strength of schedule, they’re not nearly bad as their raw statistics show. Instead, they're more like a bottom-10 or -12 pass defense.

What’s really been poor for Dallas is their ability to stop the run. They currently rank sixth-to-last against the run according to our metrics, worse than teams like Minnesota, Indianapolis and Pittsburgh. And it's shown against fantasy running backs, as no team has allowed more running back fantasy points than Dallas.

That’s why the Packers’ Eddie Lacy – Dallas’ Week 15 opponent – has a shot to go off against the Cowboys this weekend. Though Matt Flynn isn’t one who can necessarily take advantage of Dallas’ poor secondary, Lacy, if healthy, should be able to run all over that Cowboys defense.