5 NFL Facts to Know for Week 15
We're nearly 15 weeks into the season, and really, not that many things are decided.
The Arizona Cardinals are trying to fend off the Seattle Seahawks. The Green Bay Packers are surging up the standings. Either the Philadelphia Eagles or Dallas Cowboys could wind up 10-6 and miss the playoffs.
But perhaps more intriguing - for different reasons - are the playoff races happening in the tough AFC North and the not-so-tough NFC South as well as the outstanding play by some of the individual players in those divisions such as Le'Veon Bell, Antonio Brown, Julio Jones, and A.J. Green.
What are some things you should know about these players and teams during the final push to the postseason? Let's take a look.
Best Back in the Game?
Let's start this week by looking a running back that will have to keep his performances up if the Steelers plan to win their division and earn a spot in the playoffs.
As JJ Zachariason pointed out, Le'Veon Bell might be the best running back in the game. Three straight games over 200 all-purpose yards may do just the trick. And it’s not just his yardage totals that make him look good; Bell has been off the charts lately in our Net Expected Points (NEP) categories.
I pointed out last week that Eddie Lacy is the most efficient back in catching the ball (and he still is), but in terms of total production, Le'Veon is best. Bell has added 18.20 Reception NEP over the last three weeks, giving him a nearly 20-point lead over Matt Forte. Bell’s 53.04 Reception NEP on the year is easily the best for a running back and just four points off of Mike Wallace and Michael Crabtree’s Reception NEP so far this season.
Bell has also added 12.59 Target NEP over the last three weeks, and his first place lead over Lacy in that category is by 11.21 points. Toting the rock is also paying off for Bell as he has contributed 22.05 Rushing NEP this season, the third highest total only behind Justin Forsett and Jamaal Charles.
All things considered, the best running back in the game could be from the Steel City.
Bell is fortunate to play with other excellent playmakers in Pittsburgh so that he doesn’t always have to carry the load. One guy that is always there to contribute is the consistent Antonio Brown. He has played only two games where he caught fewer than 90 yards receiving. But not only that, he’s caught seven passes in all but two games and has been targeted fewer than 10 times only twice.
Brown is excellent in our NEP totals too. Leading the NFL in targets has helped him stay at or near the top in our Reception NEP all year, and he is only 0.85 points behind Julio Jones right now. And Brown has been leading the NFL in Target NEP for four of the last five weeks. His 84.59 Target NEP is 10.26 points higher than former teammate Emmanuel Sanders' so far this season.
Big Names, Big Days
Speaking of Julio Jones, the Falcons' lead man is leading all wide receivers in Reception NEP thanks to playing big on Monday Night Football. Before heading to the sideline with an injury, Jones had been targeted 17 times and caught 11 of them. He turned that into 259 yards and a touchdown.
Jones contributed a lot through the air as his 24.33 Reception NEP was the highest of the week. And Jones' Target NEP of 19.11 this week helped to move him to third best wide receiver in the league in the Target NEP category. But he wasn’t the only receiver to turn in a big game in Week 14.
A.J. Green put up 224 yards on his 11 receptions, giving him over 100 receiving yards in three of his last four games. He also caught a touchdown for the third time in the last four games. Green has picked up from where he left off prior to his injury this season.
In doing so, Green added 13.81 Target NEP to his season and his 16.91 Reception NEP was second best this week. Foot injuries can kill a receiver’s season, but both Jones and Green have bounced back nicely, just in time for their respective team’s playoff runs.
Who Wants to Win the NFC South?
With the Falcons losing on Monday Night Football, the division winner of the NFC South is guaranteed to have a .500 record or worse, and we could easily see a 7-9 team win the division for the second time in NFL history (the 2010 Seahawks being the other).
The Falcons and Saints are tied for the division with Atlanta holding the edge thanks to their divisional record. Both have a top-10 passing offense according to our power rankings, but they also have two of the three worst passing defenses.
The Panthers have a middle of the road defense unlike last year and an offense – despite steamrolling the Saints – that ranks in the bottom 12 of the league.
I think it’s safe to say the Buccaneers are out of the divisional race, and the Panthers would have to win out and need a lot of help to get to the top of the division themselves. Our algorithms currently give Carolina a 19.3% chance to do so.
The same algorithms give the Falcons the best chance to win the division, but it’s still only at 47.2% to the Saints’ 33.4%. Someone has to take the division, and it will take the dust finally settling on Week 17 to see who it is.
What About the AFC North?
Meanwhile, in the AFC North, the Ravens, Steelers, and especially the Browns all wish they resided in the NFC South. The Browns would have a two-game lead if that were the case.
Alas, each team in the AFC North is still in the division hunt, and even the second place team within the division could have a respectable shot at getting to the playoffs as a wildcard team.
Despite A.J. Green’s outstanding performance, the Bengals lacked little else in losing to the Steelers. That allowed Pittsburgh to close the gap in the division with the Ravens on their heels. Only one and a half games separate the four teams right now.
The Browns have an important game against the Bengals in Week 15. If they win, they still have a good shot for the division title. If they lose, they fall back likely too far to stay in contention, and the Bengals keep their hold on the division. Both the Bengals and Browns have two division games while the Ravens and Steelers only have one.
Our data-crunchers have given Pittsburgh a 38% chance to win the division followed closely by Baltimore at 33.2%. Trailing closely is Cincinnati as well at 26.3%, and Cleveland is almost an afterthought at 2.6%. We all know anything can happen in the NFL, and this division is complete proof of that. Each second of each game will be tension-filled and an adrenaline rush all at the same time, so hang on for a crazy ride!