NFL Week 15: Five afterthoughts, including the putrid NFC East race

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Saquon Barkley, Dak Prescott, Malcolm Jenkins

What did we learn during Week 15 and what’s worth keeping an eye on down the road? Here’s a little insight, review, and preview.

Russell Baxter

There are just two weeks and 32 regular-season contests remaining in the 2019 NFL season. Last week, five more teams—the New England Patriots, Buffalo Bills, San Francisco 49ers, Green Bay Packers and Seattle Seahawks—joined the New Orleans Saints, Kansas City Chiefs, and Baltimore Ravens when it comes to postseason invites.

Week 16 is a little different when it comes to the schedule. Thursday Night Football is done for the season while the NFL will kick off the action with a Saturday tripleheader. All told, exactly half of the 16-game slate this Saturday, Sunday, and Monday night will be divisional rematches.

But before Week 16 arrives, it’s important to reflect on the week that was. So once again, here are some observations and a few numbers as well when it comes to Week 15 (and beyond) in regards to the NFL’s 100th season.

5. Easy as NFC?

New York Giants 36, Miami Dolphins 20
Minnesota Vikings 39, Los Angeles Chargers 10
Arizona Cardinals 38, Cleveland Browns 24
New Orleans Saints 34, Indianapolis Colts 7

It was an ugly Week 15 for the American Football Conference. The Dolphins, Chargers, Browns and Colts were outscored by a combined 147-61 in the aforementioned four losses. All told, the NFC now owns a 31-27 lead in this year’s interconference standings and it’s safe to say that some of the league’s top teams reside in that conference. So will the domination continue on Sunday?

4. Long (year) in the division

A season ago, every team in the NFL won at least one divisional contest. This year, with two weeks to play, the Cincinnati Bengals (0-5), Detroit Lions (0-5), Los Angeles Chargers (0-4), Washington Redskins (0-4), and Arizona Cardinals (0-4) have all failed to beat any of their respective division rivals this season. The Bolts, Skins, and Cards close out the final two weeks with a pair of divisional games.

And in Week 17, the Bengals host the Cleveland Browns while the Lions welcome the Green Bay Packers to Ford Field. On an added note, 24 divisional matchups are wrapped up already. There have been twice as many sweeps (16) as splits (8).

3. A takeaway on takeaways

It’s one aspect of the game that is difficult to rely upon. Yes, there are several teams that have had a knack for forcing turnovers throughout the years. But any team that’s consistently counting on the opposition to hand them the football may be a bit misguided.

For instance, there were three teams in 2018 that amassed at least 30 takeaways: The NFC North champion Chicago Bears (36), the Cleveland Browns (31), and the Super Bowl LIII-bound Los Angeles Rams (30). One season later, the Bears (16), Browns (18), and Rams (17) have each forced fewer than 20 turnovers with just two weeks remaining in the season.

Any idea that last team to lead the NFL in takeaways in back-to-back years? It’s been more than 40 years since the Pittsburgh Steelers did so three consecutive seasons from 1972-74.

2. Cardinal air-or

If only Kliff Kingsbury’s team was as clever on defense as the title of this segment. The Arizona Cardinals are an improved football team and last Sunday snapped a six-game losing streak with a resounding victory over the Cleveland Browns.

But it was another rough afternoon for defensive coordinator Vance Joseph’s unit when it came to stopping the pass. Browns quarterback Baker Mayfield was picked off once but struck for two scores—both to one-time Cardinals tight end Ricky Seals-Jones.

After 15 weeks of play, no team has allowed more total yards and more passing yards than Joseph’s group. Arizona has also surrendered a total of 34 touchdown passes in 14 outings: 15 to tight ends, 14 to wide receivers, four to running backs and one to a quarterback. You would think this side of the football and, most notably, the secondary will be addressed during the offseason?

1. NFC East fall from grace?

The NFL has cycled through a number of divisional formats over its long and storied history. From 1970-94, there were six divisions and the majority had five clubs in them. In 1995, the Carolina Panthers and Jacksonville Jaguars joined the league and every division suddenly had five teams. In 1999, the Cleveland Browns returned to the league as an expansion team and the AFC Central had a half-dozen members. In 2002, the NFL realigned to eight divisions, which remains the current formula.

From 1970-2010, the only division in the league that did not have a champion with fewer than 10 wins was the NFC East. Of course, that changed in 2011 when the New York Giants not only captured a division crown with a 9-7 record but went onto win Super Bowl XLVI.

This season, either the Dallas Cowboys or Philadelphia Eagles will win the NFC East with fewer than 10 victories. Dating back to 2011, it will mark only the eighth time that a club did not require double-digit wins to finish in first place in their respective division. And it will be the third time over that stretch (the 2015 Washington Redskins finished 9-7) out of eight instances that the NFC East champion will be one of those clubs.

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