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2022 NFL season: Six things to watch for in Packers-Dolphins, Broncos-Rams, Buccaneers-Cardinals on Christmas

Green Bay Packers
2022 · 6-8-0
Miami Dolphins
2022 · 8-6-0
  • WHERE: Hard Rock Stadium (Miami Gardens, Fla.)
  • WHEN: 1 p.m. ET | FOX

  1. Can the Packers start building something? Green Bay is currently enjoying its first consecutive string of victories since Oct. 2, and the team is likely going to require another three in a row (plus considerable help) to make the playoffs. The Packers’ offensive struggles have been well-documented. The unit is tied for 20th in scoring, and Aaron Rodgers is in the midst of his first double-digit interception campaign since 2010. However, there’s reason to believe Green Bay can keep up in South Beach. Despite persist growing pains, the Packers have scored 24-plus points in four of their last five contests after doing so just twice in their first nine games. If the offense continues to trend positively, the game will likely hinge on the defense’s ability to correct its big-play problem. Green Bay has averaged the second-most yards allowed on downfield passes of 10-plus air yards with 13.0 per attempt, according to NFL Research. Dolphins wide receivers Tyreek Hill (1,110) and Jaylen Waddle (855) enter Week 16 second and third, respectively, in receiving yards on downfield passes. Preventing that is easier said than done, but it will show in the final score if defensive coordinator Joe Barry's squad manages to do so.
  2. Miami is looking to avoid a winless December. The Dolphins have lost three straight games for the second time this season, but their previous three- and five-game winning streaks still have them slotted in at No. 7 in the AFC. This isn’t an absolute must-win -- Miami closes out the season against the Patriots and Jets -- but it would sure be nice. Rookie head coach Mike McDaniel would be equally happy with the return of Tua Tagovailoa as an MVP-caliber player. The Dolphins’ first three-game skid in Week 4-6 came with Tagovailoa injured. This one has come with him playing poorly. After posting a 69.7 completion percentage, 284.9 passing yards per game, 19 touchdowns, three interceptions and a 115.7 passer rating in his first nine games, Tagovailoa has completed 49.5% of his passes for 224.7 yards per game, a 5:2 touchdown-to-interception ratio and an 83.3 passer rating in the last three. He has also struggled on third down during this stretch, completing just 42.3% of passes on the money down compared to 74% in Weeks 1-12. The turnaround must start soon to keep confidence high down the stretch.
Denver Broncos
2022 · 4-10-0
Los Angeles Rams
2022 · 4-10-0
  • WHERE: SoFi Stadium (Inglewood, Calif.)
  • WHEN: 4:30 p.m. ET | CBS, Nick

  1. Russell Wilson’s return. There’s little else to be said about the Broncos defense. It’s a Super Bowl-caliber unit saddled with a league-worst scoring offense. The leaders of the secondary, Justin Simmons and Pat Surtain II, combined for three interceptions against Arizona’s backup QBs in Week 15 and should continue to feast against Rams signal-caller Baker Mayfield. The story on Christmas, as it’s been all season, is Wilson. Denver cautiously held the QB out versus the Cardinals despite him clearing concussion protocol, but he is slated to return to the starting lineup coming off the team’s first win since October. Backup Brett Rypien didn’t light the world on fire in relief. He passed for just 197 yards, but he completed 21 of his 26 pass attempts for an completion percentage of 80.7, higher than Wilson has had in any game this season, and he helped the Broncos score their second-highest point total on the year in the 24-15 win. It won’t look good if Denver’s $245 million man returns to the lineup and doesn’t yield similar results. The degree of difficulty will be higher considering the Rams' fourth-ranked rushing defense is unlikely to allow Latavius Murray (questionable, foot) a repeat of last week's 130-yard rushing performance, but that's why Wilson is making the big bucks.
  2. Rams are in evaluation mode. Los Angeles officially tied the 1999 Denver Broncos on Monday for earliest elimination from playoff contention by a defending champion in terms of weeks remaining. Given all the injuries and the Rams’ habit of going all-in -- the Lions currently hold their top-five 2023 pick -- it’s time to take a hard look at the roster and how the pieces fit moving forward. Can Mayfield use this matchup with Denver and the two games following it to earn a backup job behind Matthew Stafford in 2023 or even flash enough to compete as a starter elsewhere? Is Cam Akers back in L.A.'s plans for the long haul after leading the team in rushing for three consecutive weeks? There’s also things to figure out on defense. Defensive lineman Michael Hoecht has played 82% of defensive snaps in the last month after never playing more than 9% in any of the 10 contests before that. He’s shown potential by tallying two sacks and a forced fumble with the extra usage, and he's an exclusive rights free agent at the end of the year. Fourth-round cornerback Cobie Durant has also been serviceable while seeing an uptick in snaps in three straight games. Does that continue? This is the perspective the Rams must take after missing the playoffs for just the second time in the Sean McVay era. 
Tampa Bay Buccaneers
2022 · 6-8-0
Arizona Cardinals
2022 · 4-10-0
  • WHERE: State Farm Stadium (Glendale, Ariz.)
  • WHEN: 8:20 p.m. ET | NBC, Universo

  1. Can the Buccaneers look playoff-ready against a struggling opponent? Tom Brady is one loss away from clinching his first losing season ever, but due to the rotten smell emanating from the entire NFC South, the Bucs still lead the division at 6-8. They have to utilize this matchup with the Cardinals as a get-right game ahead of two divisional showdowns to close out the year. For the offense, that means producing yards and points with some semblance of cohesiveness against the 32nd-ranked scoring defense. Whether it’s rekindling the Brady-Mike Evans connection or kickstarting the league’s worst running game (74.3 yards per game) behind Leonard Fournette and Rachaad White, offensive coordinator Byron Leftwich can’t leave Arizona without positive momentum. The defense is in less dire straits given a large sample size of 18.3 points per game allowed in Weeks 1-13, but the 34-plus points surrendered to the 49ers and Bengals in Weeks 14 and 15 cannot be ignored. These Cardinals are down to their third-string QB. Tampa Bay can’t allow them to sniff that type of scoring output. This can’t just be a win for the Bucs -- it needs to be decisive. 
  2. Cardinals just need to push through it. This is not the season anyone in Arizona expected, and now Trace McSorley is being pressed into action with his first-ever start in the absence of Kyler Murray and Colt McCoy. He completed 7 of 15 passes for 95 yards and two interceptions last week after McCoy entered concussion protocol early in the third quarter. Although McSorley will be more involved in the game plan thanks to a full week to prepare, the expectation is still a heavy dosage of James Conner. The bruising back has amassed 120 touches for 549 yards and six touchdowns since returning from a three-game absence in Week 9, and he’s riding a five-game touchdown streak. Meanwhile, the defense has proven unable to keep opponents out of the end zone despite stellar individual performances. Budda Baker remains an emotional tour de force and received his third straight Pro Bowl nod just this week. J.J. Watt turned back the clock in Week 15 with three sacks in a game for the first time since 2018. Rather than focusing on the overall picture, splash plays from the likes of Conner, Baker and Watt might have to suffice for Cardinals fans.

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