“We’re not a good football group at the moment and understand the consequences that come with that,” said Steeler’s coach Mike Tomlin after the last defeat. “We’re working on a short week, we have to be better than before, and that’s just the reality.”
The New Orleans Saints had their own struggles, at least before blowing out the Minnesota Vikings on Christmas Day. The franchise will have five representatives in the (virtual) Pro Bowl 2021, but there is no celebration for the results from early December. As the NFC front-runners, the Saints lost two games to the Philadelphia Eagles and Kansas City Chiefs (six points total), diminishing their hopes for the NFC’s top seed and the conference’s only reunion in the first round.
In order not to be outdone, the Los Angeles Rams were handed a loss on Sunday by the unfortunate New York Jets. Gang Green was 0-13 and an underdog with 17½ points in that matchup, but still managed a 23-20 win. This made the Jets the first winless road team in NFL history to beat a team with at least nine wins. The loss could cost Los Angeles the top spot in NFC West and the chance to host a playoff game in the wildcard round.
All three teams can take a sigh of relief, however, as there is no need for a climax towards the end of the regular season for the playoffs to be successful. Since 2002, 110 playoff teams have finished their regular season 4-1 or 5-0, but only 17 of them made it to the Super Bowl. That means there were 19 Super Bowl participants among the 106 playoff teams that finished the regular season 3-2 or worse. That includes the 2012 Baltimore Ravens who marched to Super Bowl XLVII despite a 1-4 finish. In other words, just get into the playoffs and take it from there.
Here are reasons to still believe in the three troubled teams above.
The Steelers may play terrible football, but most of their weaknesses are offensive. During that three-game loss, Roethlisberger completed 58 percent of his passes for 662 yards, five touchdowns and four interceptions, resulting in a below-average passerby rating of 71.8. The game charters with Pro Football Focus rank him as the second worst qualified passerby on this route, behind only Cam Newton. This site had put Roethlisberger in 16th place out of 29 qualified passers-by in the first 12 weeks of the season. If he can get back to that threshold, the Steelers should get back in shape.
Much of this is due to the fabulous play of the defensive end TJ Watt. Watt is the favorite to win Defensive Player of the Year. He leads the league in sacks (13) and has to accept a loss (22) that comes with a total of 69 quarterback presses, the third highest in the NFL. Defensive tackle Cameron Heyward added 59 more quarterback presses, the sixth most in the NFL, plus 25 stops against the run, the fifth most at his position. In secondary school, safety allows Minkah Fitzpatrick a tiny 0.2 yards per snap when the cover is deliberately deployed.
Pittsburgh also has a chance for a unique award. The Steelers have the most sacks (47) and the second most takeaway (25) in the NFL, and they have given up the second smallest points (264). If they were leaders in every category by the end of the regular season, it would be the first defensive triple crown since the AFL-NFL merger of 1970.
New Orleans Saints
The offense of the saints can be approved for the loss of the 15th week to the chiefs. Star recipient Michael Thomas, who suffered an ankle injury from an injured reserve, did not fit, while another wide recipient, Tre’Quan Smith, suffered an ankle injury of his own early in the third quarter. That left reserves for Drew Brees, who made his debut after being sidelined for four games with broken ribs and a lung injury.
With everyone back on the field, expect Brees – who threw more than 300 yards at Christmas – to more closely mimic the form that still put him 6th on ESPN’s Total Quarterback Rating this week. His return is already well underway when he knocked back Alvin Kamara, including in the passing game. After Friday’s win, which saw Kamara score six record-breaking touchdowns, the back has been hit 87 times in his eleven games with Brees at the center this season, with 69 of those balls caught for 630 yards and five touchdowns. In parts of six games with Jameis Winston and Taysom Hill at the quarterback, Kamara was targeted 20 times with 126 yards and no touchdowns.
Plus, New Orleans started the week with the second best defense of 2020 per Football Outsiders, which adapts to the strength of the schedule. The rush of passers-by in New Orleans even had a solid game against the defending Super Bowl champions last week. The Saints sacked Kansas City quarterback Patrick Mahomes four times, putting him back on 30 of his 54 dropbacks. After adjusting the sack rate of the Saints to their strength, they left with the league’s second best pass-rushing unit in week 16.
Los Angeles Rams
Even after the humiliating loss to the Jets, the Rams still have the NFL’s best defense in terms of points allowed per trip (1.5) and second-best defense when it comes to forcing opponents to three-and-off (37 percent). The key to everything is Aaron Donald. The two-time NFL Defensive Player of the Year is Pro Football Focus’s top-rated defender, starting the week with Trey Hendrickson, Saints’ defensive end, for the NFL lead in sacks of 12½, his fourth straight season with double digits. Donald also has a league-leading 85 quarterback press, four forced fumble, one fumble recovery, and one pass separation in 14 games.
As it stands now, the Rams would open the playoffs against Washington under 500, a team the Rams knocked down earlier this season and one with two bad options at the center at Dwayne Haskins and Alex Smith. The two passers-by from Washington scored a combined passer-by rating of 87.6 if they were not subjected to any pressure in their pockets. That number drops to a sad 46.6 when subjected to the pressure of the passport. For context, the league’s average passerby rating in these situations is 104.1 and 65.3, respectively. Donald and friends registered eight sacks during their October meeting with Washington, and a rematch could give Los Angeles a strong post-season start.