Inside Edge: 3 Week 16 NFL Matchups That Could Decide Games

When seeking value on betting lines and predicting fantasy football outcomes, the difference between success and failure can come down to a few key matchups that can have a large impact on the final outcome of those games.

Every game every week is decided by the combination of numerous matchups, but each week, some matchups matter more than others. The aim of this series is to identify a few key matchups every week that will likely have a large impact on the final outcome of select games.

Without further ado, here are three Week 16 matchups to look forward to.

Dak Prescott vs. Philadelphia Defense

The Dallas Cowboys and the Philadelphia Eagles are playing for the NFC East title in what is likely the biggest game of the week. The teams first faced off in Week 7 in Jerry World, and the Cowboys won 37-10 in convincing fashion.

In that one, Dak Prescott completed 15 of 20 attempts for 161 yards and 1 touchdown in the first half, and he finished the game with a 100.5 quarterback rating. Prescott played well for much of the season before a recent losing skid in which Dallas lost three straight and Prescott never had a completion percentage above 66% or an average yards per attempt above 7.3.

Much of Prescott’s success has predictably come against easier opponents. In Weeks 1 through 11, the Cowboys faced the second-easiest schedule of opposing pass defenses (per Sharp Football Stats). During that span, Prescott ranked first in numberFire’s Passing Net Expected Points (NEP) as well as first in expected points added per play, first in success rate, first in DAKOTA rankings, second in ESPN’s quarterback rating (QBR), and sixth in completion percentage above expected. Prescott was the best passing quarterback in football earlier in the season.

But in Weeks 12 through 14 (Dallas’s three-game losing streak), the Cowboys faced the hardest schedule of opposing pass defenses. Prescott unsurprisingly played worse, enough to drop out of the MVP race and be snubbed from the Pro Bowl. Prescott currently ranks seventh in Passing NEP per drop back and no better than third in any of the previously mentioned passing categories.

Prescott had a 67.7% completion percentage, 104.1 quarterback rating, 5.8% touchdown rate and 8.8 yards per attempt through Week 11. In the three ensuing weeks, he had a 59.5% completion percentage, 81.6 quarterback rating, 2.3% touchdown rate and 6.9 yards per attempt.

Fortunately for Prescott and the Cowboys, Dallas should be in good shape this week if the current trend continues. Philadelphia ranks 18th in Adjusted Defensive NEP per play and 23rd in Adjusted Defensive Passing NEP per play. The Eagles' defense has improved recently, but that has partly been a product of facing the Miami Dolphins, New York Giants and Washington Redskins in the past three weeks.

Philadelphia’s defense ranks 20th or worse in yards per attempt, touchdown rate and passer rating allowed to opposing quarterbacks. In its four games against teams ranked top-10 in Adjusted Passing NEP per play, the Eagles have allowed a combined 67.2% completion percentage, 99.4 quarterback rating, 6.0% touchdown rate and 8.4 yards per attempt.

Any quarterback, or any professional athlete for that matter, will typically play better against poor defenses. Prescott’s 2019 splits are greater than most, and he will likely need to maintain his own trend against Philadelphia’s weak secondary for Dallas to make the playoffs.

Joe Mixon vs. Miami Defense

In the second biggest game of the week, the 1-13 Cincinnati Bengals will face the 3-11 Miami Dolphins in the NFL's 2019 Toilet Bowl. The Bengals and Dolphins have the worst records, the worst efficiency rankings, and arguably the least talented rosters in the league. Cincinnati is all but guaranteed the first overall pick of next year’s draft -- it has an 81.2% chance of earning 1.01, according to ESPN’s football power index.

It will be an interesting game to watch, because while tanking for a high draft pick is in the front office’s best interest, there are still players and coaches who want to win.

One player who is clearly playing hard despite the lost season is Bengals running back Joe Mixon. Mixon started the season averaging just 12.6 carries for 40.0 yards (3.2 yards per carry) and no touchdowns per game in Weeks 1 through 8. Since Cincinnati’s Week 9 bye, however, Mixon has averaged 21.7 carries for 100.8 yards (4.7 yards per carry) and 0.5 touchdowns per game in Weeks 9 through 15.

Since Week 9, Mixon ranks 1st in carries, 2nd in rushing yards and 10th in rushing touchdowns among all running backs. In the past two weeks, he has dominant stat lines of 146 yards and a score against the Cleveland Browns and 136 yards versus the New England Patriots.

This week, Mixon will face Miami’s 25th-ranked rush defense, which has allowed the second-most rushing attempts and yards this season. Cincinnati ranks 30th in Adjusted Passing NEP per play but 22nd in Adjusted Rushing NEP per play.

Per Football Outsiders, the Dolphins rank dead last in adjusted line yards (ALY) allowed and ALY allowed around the left and right ends. The Bengals rank 26th in ALY, but they sit ninth in ALY around the left end and third in ALY around the right end.

If the Bengals continue to ride Mixon, especially around the edges of Miami’s defense, Cincinnati has a solid chance to win its second game of the season.

Gardner Minshew vs. Atlanta Defense

Speaking of not giving up, the Jacksonville Jaguars and Atlanta Falcons are two teams that are still competing despite 5-9 records and a 0% chance at the playoffs. Last week, the Jaguars scored a go-ahead touchdown with 31 seconds left in Oakland, and the Falcons scored a go-ahead touchdown with 2 seconds left in San Francisco.

The Jaguars have proven they hasn’t given up so long as Gardner Minshew is behind center. Since the Jacksonville’s Week 10 bye, Minshew and Nick Foles have each played five halves of football. The Jaguars have a -67 point differential when Foles plays and a -23 point differential when Minshew plays.

Meanwhile, the Falcons also have noteworthy splits after their own bye week. Before its Week 9 bye, Atlanta’s defense ranked bottom-four in turnovers, points, total yards, and quarterback rating allowed to opposing offenses. After the bye, Atlanta’s defense ranks top-10 in each of the same categories.

Minshew will likely have some difficulty against Atlanta’s resurging defense. He has yet to start against a top-nine team in Adjusted Defensive Passing NEP per play. In fact, he’s played against the easiest schedule of opposing pass defenses in his starts, per Sharp Football Stats.

It can be difficult to tell how motivated non-playoff teams are this late into the season. It appears that despite lost 2019 seasons, the Jaguars and Falcons are still playing to win. While it’s encouraging to see that Minshew’s teammates are playing hard for him, their enthusiasm alone may not be enough to take down the similarly competitive Falcons.