As the playoff race looms ever-closer, The 33rd Team is taking a look each week at teams on the playoff bubble. Each week across the rest of the regular season, we’ll identify one team on the playoff bubble whose chances are trending up, and one whose playoff hopes are dwindling.
Trending Up: New Orleans Saints
3 Things to Watch:
Pressure, Pressure, Pressure
The Saints have managed to catapult themselves into the playoff race with two consecutive wins. One of these wins came against the defending Super Bowl Champions, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, as the Saints were able to extend their regular season winning streak against Tom Brady and Tampa Bay as well as shutting out a Brady-led offense for the first time since 2006. While this game proved that the Saints’ defense is still a force to be reckoned with, star running back Alvin Kamara was ineffective to say the least. Kamara touched the ball 13 times against Tampa, but he only accumulated 31 total yards. Things won’t get easier for Kamara, at least not in Week 16, as the Miami Dolphins are only giving up 103.7 rushing yards per game (7th in the NFL). Still, getting the ball to Kamara should be a must in order to take some of the pressure off of QB Taysom Hill and the receiving core of the Saints.
One of the reasons why the Saints have been a thorn in the sides of many teams this year is due to a tough defensive front led by veteran Cameron Jordan. Currently, the Saints are fifth in the league for QB hits with 91 and 13th in the league in sacks with 33. This showed against Tampa as the Saints were able to knock Brady down 7 times and sack him 4 times. While the Saints will be facing more mobile quarterbacks the next two weeks, it will still be vital for this team to get after the quarterback, especially with how well the Saints’ secondary has been playing. The Saints will need to generate enough pressure to give their offense plenty of opportunities to score against a stout Miami defense. The Dolphins have given up 32 sacks this year (15th in the NFL), but their offensive line has certainly been susceptible to giving up a lot of pressures at certain junctures of this season.
There is no doubt that the biggest question mark throughout this entire season for the Saints has been the quarterback position. Whether it has been Jameis Winston, Trevor Siemian, or Taysom Hill under center, the Saints have had their fair share of issues in the passing game. Since becoming the starting quarterback, Hill is only averaging around 198 passing yards per game. Even though the Saints have gone 2-1 in that span, the Saints will need to get more out of this position in order to make a serious playoff push down the stretch. On a more positive note, Hill is helping with the Saints’ running game, excluding the game against the Buccaneers where the Saints were unable to run the ball. His mobility helps the Saints to gain big chunks of yards if receivers are unable to get free, which has been an issue this year. Moreover, it also helps to make the Saints less predictable as most defenses are gearing up for a heavy dosage of Alvin Kamara. The Saints certainly have an uphill battle, but if Hill can show a little more as a passer, this could be a team that you would not want to face in a one-game elimination.
Remaining Saints Opponents: vs. MIA, vs. CAR, @ATL
Trending Down: Cleveland Browns
3 Things to Watch:
Special Teams Play
Remaining Strength of Schedule
The Cleveland Browns came into this game missing nearly 20 players due to COVID-19 protocol, including eight starters, and were a last second field goal away from victory. With a win the Browns would be 8-6 and sitting atop the AFC North and be the 4th seed in the AFC playoff picture. However, with the loss the Browns now move to 7-7, last place in the AFC North and 12th in the playoff standings.
If you were to ask anyone in the Browns’ organization about the impact of missing so many key players, including the likes of Baker Mayfield, Jarvis Landry, Jadeveon Clowney and many others you would receive the answer that the next man up can step in and take care of the job. We saw it last year in the playoffs when HC Kevin Stefanski and many key players were struck with a COVID-19 outbreak and took care of business in a 48-37 victory over the Steelers. Unfortunately the impact this year was much greater, missing not only Baker Mayfield, but also back up QB Case Keenum, as the Browns were subjected to starting QB Nick Mullens, of which had one day of practice with the team prior to Monday’s game.
At the end of the first half the Browns had put together a nice drive to get into field goal range and the feeling in FirstEnergy Stadium was that those three points were going to be enough to ignite the confidence of the team and lead to a much different second half. Unfortunately, the missed 47 yard FB by Chase McLaughlin would prove to be the difference maker in the 16-14 loss against the Raiders. This is McLaughlin’s first year with the Browns and since the first six weeks of the season, the inconsistency in his performance has come to the forefront. In that time frame McLaughin has attempted 12 field goals, making good on only six of those attempts. This is not a trend that needs to be fixed in order for the Browns to make good on their last three games.
At 7-7 the Browns would need to win out to have any hopes at a postseason berth, and even then it would likely require some help from the teams currently above them in the race. This will not be an easy challenge for the Browns as they have the second most difficult remaining strength of schedule, with an opponent record of 26-15-11. The quick turnaround has the Browns going on the road to face the NFC North Champion Green Bay Packers on Christmas day. Followed by back to back battles against the Steelers and the current AFC North leading Cincinnati Bengals.
Remaining Browns Opponents: @GB, @PIT, vs. CIN
Written by Brian Friedland and Bryan Filker