National Football League

Playoff Contenders’ Weaknesses Exposed in NFL Week 16

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There’s always one weekend out of the year in college football that gets labeled “Upset Saturday,” as multiple top 25 teams fall on the same day.

russell wilson
The Rams sacked Russell Wilson four times during St. Louis’ 23-17 upset in Seattle.

The NFL doesn’t really have an “Upset Sunday”, with upsets every week, but last weekend was about as close as we’ll get to that moniker.

The Jets beat the Patriots in overtime. The Falcons handed the Panthers their first loss of the 2015 season. The Ravens knocked off the Steelers as a 10-point home underdog and the Rams waltzed into Seattle, took a lead it never relinquished, and beat the Seahawks 23-17 as a double-digit dog as well.

What’s interesting is that each upset provided a glimpse into the issues these teams face heading into the postseason.

Here’s a look at which problems popped up for playoff contenders.

The Seahawks

No quarterback in the NFL was hotter than Russell Wilson heading into last week’s action. But the Rams sacked Wilson four times and hit him a total of 13 times in their 23-17 victory.

Defensive coordinators game-planning for a mobile quarterback want to force that signal-caller to roll to his weak side when he does flee the pocket. For Wilson, that’s his left.

When the Panthers came from behind to beat the Seahawks in Week 6 this year, they had some success in the second half when forcing Wilson to his non-dominant side. Gregg Williams used a similar strategy last week and his players executed the game plan to perfection.

Wilson was often forced to either stay inside the pocket or try to escape left because the Rams’ defenders held the right edge. Sometimes Chris Long would mirror Wilson without providing a full-on rush, while other times he would crash hard inside and Williams would have a linebacker “scrape” over the top when the quarterback tried to escape to his right.

On the backside, William Hayes consistently won his one-on-one battles so even when Wilson did stay in the pocket, he often had a defender bearing down on him. There was even one moment in the second half when Wilson saw that he couldn’t move right, so he tried to escape the pocket backwards and ran right into the arms of Hayes for a sack.

Granted, Wilson still made plays because what’s what he does. But the Rams won the battle and opponents that will face the Seahawks in the playoffs will likely use a similar game plan in upcoming weeks.

The Steelers

Pittsburgh wants to set the tempo offensively. Offensive coordinator Todd Haley will often put Ben Roethlisberger in the no-huddle and allow him to set the pace of the offense. Thanks to a plethora of receiving options, Roethlisberger thrives at attacking all three levels of the passing game and often wants to take shots deep in order to stretch opponents vertically.

But the Ravens gave Roethlisberger a lot of two-deep looks in order to take away the Steelers’ deep ball and force Pittsburgh to move methodically up the field. That’s exactly what the Steelers did on their first possession when they ran the ball on six of their first seven plays. But despite moving the ball at will on the ground, the drive stalled when the Ravens stopped DeAngelo Williams on a fourth-and-1 at the Baltimore 25-yard-line.

The Ravens parlayed the turnover-on-downs into a 15-play, 75-yard touchdown drive on their first possession. They managed to hold the Steelers to only three points on five first-half possessions and turned a second-quarter Roethlisberger interception into a 10-3 lead in the second quarter.

Most opponents that have beaten Pittsburgh this season have done so by out-scoring them through the air. But the Ravens were able to limit the Steelers’ offensive possessions, take away their big plays, and eventually force Roetblisberger to be impatient hoping to hit the home run. Now Pittsburgh is on the outside looking in when it comes to the AFC playoff picture, needing to beat Cleveland on Sunday and have New York lose in Buffalo in order to clinch a wild card spot.

The Panthers

The Falcons handed the Panthers their first loss of the season in large part because Matt Ryan put together his best game of 2015 and Julio Jones made an unbelievable play on a jump-ball in the third quarter (the play resulted in a 70-yard touchdown). Carolina also couldn’t come up with that key defensive stop on third down like it’s done all season, which also contributed to the loss.

But the defeat also showed that injuries may have finally caught up with the Panthers. Cam Newton and Co. have overcome the pre-season loss of Kelvin Benjamin all season, but Jonathan Stewart’s injury has limited the effectiveness of the running game and with Ted Ginn Jr. hobbled on Sunday, the deep ball was also absent from Carolina’s passing game.

The Panthers will benefit from having a bye week in the first-round of the playoffs. But if Stewart and Ginn are both limited, and Newton continues to take big hits as a runner, Carolina’s dream season could come off the rails.

The Patriots

A lot was made about Sunday’s coin toss in East Rutherford and Bill Belichick’s decision not to hand Tom Brady the ball in overtime. Brady was forced to watch from the bench as Ryan Fitzpatrick led the Jets straight downfield for a game-winning touchdown.

Belichick’s decision not to take the ball in overtime may have provided insight into how he feels about his offense right now. Even though Brady and Rob Gronkowski are healthy, injuries have ravaged the Pats’ offensive line, running backs and wide receivers. New England’s offense moved the ball well in the fourth quarter but Belichick probably thought if his defense could get a quick stop, then his banged-up offense would have good field position while only needing a field goal to win the game.

Or perhaps Belichick just over-thought the situation and he still has all the confidence in the world in his offense. Either way, the Pats still have Brady, Belichick and Gronkowski. They’ll be fine.

But it’s clear that New England doesn’t have the same explosiveness that it displayed earlier this season. If they don’t get healthy soon, it’ll be interesting to see what happens if the Patriots once again have to face that talented Jets front seven.

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