As the 2019 NFL regular season rolls into Week 14, NFL Network analyst and former Super Bowl-winning executive Charley Casserly provides five storylines to watch on Sunday.
1) Will Philly take advantage of schedule and make the playoffs?
Philadelphia (5-7) inched closer to Dallas (6-7) at the top of the NFC East with the Cowboys' loss on Thursday night. Although the 'Boys are still favorites to win the division, there's a chance for the Eagles to return to the playoffs for the third straight season thanks to a favorable schedule compared to that of the Cowboys. The Eagles play the New York Giants twice -- the first is Monday evening at home -- and have one meeting left with the Redskins (Week 15) and Cowboys (Week 16). The Cowboys, however, still face a non-division opponent in the Rams, who are fighting to get the final wild-card spot. I feel like this could come down to that Week 16 meeting at Lincoln Financial Field.
The bottom line, though, is the Eagles must play better if they intend to overtake the Cowboys. The first area that needs improvement is the pass defense, and Monday night against the Giants' 20th-ranked passing attack is the perfect time to start. The Eagles' strong defensive line has been exceptional at stopping the run and has excelled, at times, at pressuring the quarterback. It's the secondary -- notably, the cornerbacks -- that has been the weakness, especially against double moves. Just last week, the Eagles gave up 351 passing yards and 37 points to the a Dolphins team that ranks in the bottom three in total and scoring offense. That simply can't happen. Philly has to eliminate big plays and easy touchdowns, as well as limit yards after the catch against the Giants.
On offense, I'd like to see the Eagles commit to the run more. They seemed to have rookie running back Miles Sanders on a pitch count prior to last week, when he had 17 carries (13 was his previous high back in Week 3). I'd routinely give the RB a full load because he's playing well -- and he can also take pressure off an inconsistent Carson Wentz. The Eagles passer had better numbers last week, but that doesn't mean a whole lot considering the Dolphins' D ranks near the bottom of the league in most statistical categories. Wentz can finish the regular season on a high note by being more conscious of protecting the ball, and he can improve his accuracy and anticipation by using more play action with Sanders and finding ways to create big plays outside the pocket. As I mentioned earlier, Philly can really work on these aspects against Monday's foe, but the one thing I'm sure of is the Eagles just have to start playing better football because they're running out of time.
It's no secret that New England's offense isn't what it used to be. The Patriots are running out of time to figure it out. And what's even more pressing is that Patrick Mahomes and the high-scoring Chiefscome to Foxborough on Sunday. Will Tom Brady and Co. be able to keep up? Let's take a closer look.
The offensive line has often lost the battle at the line of scrimmage in both the run and pass games. Playing without Rob Gronkowski, David Andrews, James Develin and (until recently) Isaiah Wynn this season, the Patriots have struggled to find a consistent run game (21st in rushing). But running the rock might be their best chance to win Sunday, by keeping the reigning MVP on the bench and owning time of possession. The Chiefs' defense ranks third-to-last against the run, giving the Patriots a prime opportunity to find their rhythm with Sony Michel, Brandon Bolden and Rex Burkhead. I believe they can be successful by running at Kansas City's inside linebackers -- away from Frank Clark -- and using James White out of the backfield. A matchup nightmare for linebackers, White had 177 scrimmage yards last weekend against the Texans and could see that same production if the Pats involve him early. Other players could be pivotal in this one, but all eyes should look for White.
The Chiefs have a much-improved defense from the last time they played the Patriots in the AFC title game. Since Week 9, the Chiefs' D ranks in the top 10 in scoring (21 points per game, T-10th in the NFL) and takeaways (eight, T-sixth). The unit has been improving for three reasons. For starters, the defensive line is getting healthy. Joining Frank Clark and Chris Jones back in the trenches this weekend is Alex Okafor, who missed three games with an ankle injury. Next, the Chiefs are seeing the returns of replacing Kendall Fuller with Tyrann Mathieu at the nickel position. Mathieu's ability to get in and out of breaks and smoothly change directions has allowed him to shut down quick slot receivers. Lastly, communication has improved across the board and has allowed K.C.'s pressure packages (blitzes) to become more effective and positively influence production in the red zone and on third down. Executing pressure packages to keep Tom Brady off balance will be the Chiefs D's biggest key to success against New England.
With New Orleans sitting at 10-2 and holding the No. 1 seed in the NFC playoffs, you would think the Saints would be getting more attention. Let's not forget they were one non-call away from getting to the Super Bowl last season, and they were knocked out of the postseason two years ago by a miracle. That's why it's odd that more people aren't talking about the Saints, but here's why I think they are one of the biggest Super Bowl contenders ahead of Sunday's matchup with the San Francisco 49ers ...
The Saints have one of the best run defenses in the game (third in the NFL) and their Cam Jordan-led pass rush is tied for fourth in the league in sacks. This weekend's game will pit strength vs. strength, as the 49ers' offense is a run-first unit (second in the NFL in rushing) that builds its pass game off the ground attack. If the Saints stop the run, how will the 49ers adjust? Against the pass, Jordan should have a favorable matchup against right tackle Mike McGlinchey, so doubling him on passing downs must be part of the 49ers' game plan. If the pass rush can pressure Jimmy Garoppolo, taking away George Kittle is the next most important task. The tight end is a challenge for most defenders to handle one-on-one, and although safety Vonn Bell has some cover skills, doubling Kittle will be the Saints' best bet to limit the 49ers star. They must also focus on taking away Garoppolo's underneath targets. This will cause him to hold onto the ball -- and, at times, he has struggled getting to his second and third reads in those scenarios.
Offensively, the Saints' pass game is the most dangerous it has been all season thanks to Jared Cook's recent success. The tight end gives Drew Brees a big, reliable mismatch if the defense doubles Michael Thomas (who's having a record season with 110 receptions through 12 games) or takes away Alvin Kamara out of the backfield. Sean Payton's creative mind always makes the Saints imposing in the passing game, but they should aim to stay with the run against the 49ers' 22nd-ranked run defense. Kamara and Latavius Murray are a talented tandem -- these two must be game-changers on Sunday. That's the key: Don't abandon the run on offense and stop the run on defense. Do that and the Saints will sit comfortably at the top of the NFC with three games remaining.
5) Breaking down the process of making a head-coaching candidates list.
There are currently two teams that need to find a new head coach for the 2020 NFL season: Washington and Carolina. That can feel like a daunting task, but the process begins with making a list of head-coaching candidates. As a former general manager in this league, I was always sure to have an ongoing list no matter what the team record was. Even championship teams can lose coaches unexpectedly -- remember, Bill Parcells retired (the first time) after winning the Super Bowl with the New York Giants in the 1990 season.
The process for me began right after the hiring season ended. I interviewed every team that hired a coach that offseason and reviewed the candidates those teams didn't hire (Eric Bieniemy would fit this description from last offseason). Others on my list were head coaches who were not employed (Bruce Arians when Tampa Bay hired him last offseason), and any successful college coaches who had experiences as an assistant at the pro level (Tom Coughlin in the early 1990s). I will say that I was very leery of hiring a college head coach who did not have NFL coaching experience because the track record isn't great and it's a huge challenge putting together a good staff, as well as learning how to handle the salary cap, the draft and veteran players. The final candidate pool on my list: assistant coaches who had not been interviewed for head-coaching positions but had promise (Sean McVay a few years back). I do want to add that the reason coordinators are often considered over others is because those coaches are generally in charge of half the team and a group of coaches. They possess managerial skills, are (usually) organized and can motivate -- all things head coaches must do.
This list is always evolving throughout the offseason and regular season as newcomers come to the forefront. Hiring a head coach is obviously a critical job that sets the tone for the future of a team, so organizations don't take this task lightly.