Buffalo Bills: While his team sits at 5-9 and he continues to rely on young players who bring little fanfare, coach Sean McDermott actually believes such reliance is proof his plan is working. “It’s really the type of culture we’re trying to build where I can walk into the team meeting room on Wednesday morning and say, ‘Hey, Player X has earned the right to be brought up to the active roster,’” McDermott said during his Monday news conference, noting he played six undrafted rookies Sunday. “And the players, I think they really get a lot of motivation out of that and take pride in that because they know what type of culture we’re trying to build and that you’ve got to earn things here.”
Miami Dolphins: With veteran Frank Gore likely out the remainder of the season with a foot injury, Dolphins coach Adam Gase has some evaluating to do at running back these last two games. One back likely to get more carries is rookie Kalen Ballage. After rushing for a total of 11 yards in his first nine games, Ballage broke out with 123 yards — including a 75-yard score — against the Vikings. But don’t count Gase among those surprised. “That long run he had, that’s how he runs every day (at practice),” Gase said. “That’s how he finishes every day. ... When he gets a carry with the offense, he finishes in the end zone.”
New England Patriots: The Patriots have surrendered at least 150 yards rushing five times this season and are 1-4 in those games. That includes the last two games, both losses. But don’t expect Bill Belichick to place a renewed emphasis on stopping the run as the postseason approaches. “Look, each week you try to defend whatever the offense your opponents do — running game and passing game, situational football, third down, red area and everything else,” Belichick said during his weekly conference call. “So, what you do is a function of what they do, and that’s really more of a week-to-week thing for us. Whatever the league trends are or aren’t, I don’t really know that it matters. ... It doesn’t really matter what the whole league does.”
New York Jets: While the Jets on Saturday hit double-digit losses for the third straight season and fourth time in five seasons, this offseason is sure to be different with rookie quarterback Sam Darnold providing the franchise plenty of hope for the future. Coach Todd Bowles may not be around to see Darnold develop beyond this season, but he offered his take on a key to Darnold’s success, and it’s not necessarily his arm. “He got out of the pocket and made some plays. He gave us a chance to try and win the ball game,” Bowles said during a conference call on Sunday. “He’s getting comfortable, he’s making plays with his feet and he’s finding the open areas.”
Baltimore Ravens: Safety Eric Weddle gets to see former teammate Philip Rivers before Christmas, but he’s not in much of a festive move about the Ravens drawing one of the AFC’s best teams — the Los Angeles Chargers — given the rest disparity. “It’s obviously a disadvantage,” Weddle said of the schedule working against Baltimore, with the Chargers having 10 days between Week 15 and Week 16 games. By comparison, the Ravens enter Saturday’s game on less-than-normal rest. “We’re going to use this as motivation,” Weddle said. “It’s stacked up against us. We’re going to be the underdog. No one is going to think we’re going to win. This just adds to the game. Would we like to have 10 days to prepare for one of the best teams in the league? Of course, but we don’t.”
Cincinnati Bengals: Another key skill position player is likely done for the season. Wide receiver Tyler Boyd has a sprained MCL and needs at least two weeks to recover. With only two games remaining, he’s a candidate for injured reserve, where he would join quarterback Andy Dalton and wide receiver A.J. Green, though head coach Marvin Lewis said no decision has been made yet. Boyd reached his goal of becoming the first Cincinnati wide receiver to reach 1,000 yards in a season not named Green since Chad Johnson did it in 2009. Now, he’s looking at bigger targets to knock down in 2019. “Hopefully I get into the Pro Bowl. I’ve been working my tail off each and every day,” Boyd said.
Cleveland Browns: Interim head coach Gregg Williams said he believes the Browns are shaking the losing culture that has defined the franchise since returning to the NFL in 1999. But he prefers players focus on the next day, instead of the next milestone on the schedule. At 6-7-1, the Browns are still barely alive in the playoff chase. “I would say that our guys understand there is a good young team in there,” Williams said. “We have to continue to focus on week after week after week on don’t look ahead. Do not look ahead. That is when things start to maybe become more distractions that we were just talking about.”
Pittsburgh Steelers: First-round safety Terrell Edmunds and the Steelers kept Tom Brady & Co. without a touchdown in three red-zone opportunities and without a point in two goal-to-go situations on Sunday, which the rookie said was all part of the mindset implanted by the defense early in the week. “It was like a playoff game for us,” Edmunds said. “We just lost three games in a row. We just have to come together as a team, come together on Tuesday, and keep it going.”
Houston Texans: Running back D’Onta Foreman could make his season debut when the Texans play the Philadelphia Eagles on Sunday. Foreman is 13 months removed from his last NFL carry after suffering a torn Achilles but has been progressing in practices. Another factor is that starter Lamar Miller departed last Saturday’s game against the New York Jets with an ankle injury and he may turn out to be a game-day decision. Houston coach Bill O’Brien knows what we wants to see from Foreman should he be active against the Eagles. “Obviously, good vision,” O’Brien told the media Monday. “Good knowledge of how the play’s being blocked, decisive running, continuing to improve in his knowledge of pass protection. Just good, solid play. Take care of the ball, No. 1.”
Indianapolis Colts: Indianapolis is one of the hottest teams in the NFL with seven wins in eight games and is one of three 8-6 teams — along with the Baltimore Ravens and Tennessee Titans — fighting for an AFC playoff spot. Sunday’s 23-0 victory over the Dallas Cowboys was a dominating performance on both sides of the ball and has the franchise hopeful of reaching the postseason for the first time since 2014. “We’re playing great football,” receiver T.Y. Hilton told reporters. “Right now you’re either the train or you’re on the tracks. Right now we’re rolling, so you better get on the train.” Quarterback Andrew Luck professes to be hearing none of the playoff chatter. “We don’t live in holes, but I haven’t heard talk about it all and that’s not a lie,” Luck said.
Jacksonville Jaguars: A season of high expectations continues to be miserable for the Jaguars and veteran defensive end Calais Campbell said the preseason optimism makes the hard fall hurt even worse. “This is as bad as it gets,” Campbell told reporters. “I truly believed we were capable of winning a Super Bowl this year, and we underachieved at the highest level. It’s all bad. That’s hard to deal with sometimes. But at the end of the day, you have to take it for what it’s worth and try to learn from it.” Campbell said the season isn’t entirely lost because there are lessons can be learned. “They’re going to learn tough lessons,” Campbell said. “Hopefully, we can use this kind of season to give us that motivation going forward. I guess if there are any positives to take it’s that there are a lot of lessons to be learned that can be beneficial to this team going forward.”
Tennessee Titans: Running back Derrick Henry set a franchise record with 408 rushing yards over a two-game span, surpassing legendary Hall of Famer Earl Campbell (405 in 1980) from the club’s Houston Oilers’ era. Henry had just 474 yards through 12 games before suddenly emerging as a force. Tennessee coach Mike Vrabel said Henry’s “confidence is through the roof.” Another factor may be that the 24-year-old Henry has fresh legs after averaging just 10.7 carries through the first 12 games before averaging 25 over the past two. “I think that Derrick has to be 23, 24 years old, so I hope that his legs stay fresh,” Vrabel said. “I see how hard (he works). He is one of our offseason award winners for how hard he trained in the offseason, and the amount of work he puts in. So I know he is in great condition.”
Denver Broncos: The Broncos (6-8) are officially out of playoff contention, but they still have a milestone to play for. The team hasn’t had back-to-back losing seasons since 1971-72, a streak it would keep alive with wins over the Raiders and Chargers over the final two weeks. “Absolutely,” head coach Vance Joseph told the media Monday when asked if that’s a goal. “We want to win. These next two games are important for us to finish the right way. That part is very important to me. It’s about winning. That’s what it’s about. It’s not about losing, it’s about winning. That’s very important to our football team and our coaches.”
Kansas City Chiefs: Eric Berry’s return to the playing field for the first time since the 2017 opener was without setbacks, but the team will remain patient in increasing his snaps. “He’ll continue to increase time and we’ll see how that disperses out there and what the plan will be for this coming week,” head coach Andy Reid said. “The positive was that he came out feeling good. He was sore — he hadn’t played in a long time.” Meanwhile, right guard Laurent Duvernay-Tardif is “not ready yet” in his recovery from a spiral fracture in his leg that required surgery, but Reid said he still has a shot at returning sometime this season.
Los Angeles Chargers: The Chargers emerged from Thursday night with not only a victory over the Chiefs, but also nine days to prepare for the Baltimore Ravens. The extra time was ideal, head coach Anthony Lynn said, given the schematic complexity of the Ravens’ offense. “You’re playing a team that is really unconventional compared to what we’ve seen all year with that rushing attack, so many schemes and the way they’re using their quarterback,” Lynn said. “They’re using their quarterback like a running back. It makes it difficult for a defense. You have to be disciplined, you have to be in your gaps. There’s a lot to prepare for.”
Oakland Raiders: With a legal dispute ongoing between the city of Oakland and the Raiders, Sunday’s game against the Broncos could be the last game the Raiders ever play at the Oakland Coliseum. Head coach Jon Gruden, who coached in the stadium for four years from 1998-2001, will miss the environment. “Just raging in the Black Hole,” Gruden recalled of his favorite memories. “Rocking and raging down there after the Steeler game in Week 14, after a lot of wins over the years. Seeing a lot of the old highlights of great Raider teams, I get excited. I get emotional about it, and hopefully we get it all resolved so we can continue to play there.” The Raiders’ home in 2019 remains unclear as they await moving into a new stadium in Las Vegas in 2020.
Dallas Cowboys: While five straight wins lifted the Cowboys to the top of the NFC East, did they also help Dallas get a little too cocky? That question was asked of head coach Jason Garrett at his weekly news conference Monday following his team’s 23-0 loss at Indianapolis, but that’s not the way he sees it. “I think the best thing we’ve done here over the last five weeks is we understand the challenges of the game and I think we’ve been mentally tough over the course of these last five games” Garrett said. .”.. We just didn’t do what we needed to do to win the game yesterday. Period. ... It’s really as simple as that.” He later added: “Ultimately (the Colts) ran the ball too easily in the game.”
New York Giants: Despite his team officially eliminated from playoff contention, Giants head coach Pat Shurmur said quarterback Eli Manning will start Week 16 at the Indianapolis Colts, avoiding the temptation to start fourth-round rookie Kyle Lauletta. “I think we’re going to try to put the player in that gives us the best chance to win,” Shurmur said. “We’ll see if that involves Kyle. ... Eli playing QB I think gives us the best chance to win.” The coach also indicated the team isn’t in a hurry to move on from Manning, whom Shurmur said he still believes has “years” left as an NFL starter. “Yeah (I want Manning back in 2019),” Shurmur said. “I want all our players to be back. I believe experience matters.”
Philadelphia Eagles: A day after Nick Foles led the Eagles to a road win against the Los Angeles Rams, coach Doug Pederson announced the Super Bowl MVP will get the start again in Week 16. Carson Wentz remains out with a back injury but will not yet be placed on injured reserve, Pederson said while discussing his team’s approach toward the Houston Texans next weekend. “It will be Nick (starting). Where Carson is health-wise and just another week of rest for Carson will help him. So we made the decision to go forward with Nick. We will not put Carson on IR.” Wentz has a fractured vertebra that might require three months of rest to fully heal.
Washington Redskins: The Redskins not only broke a four-game losing streak Sunday but also kept their playoff hopes alive. And they did it despite quarterback Josh Johnson making his first start since 2011. One thing that may have helped Johnson settle in was a piece of advice coach Jay Gruden gave him before the game: “Calm down.” But why did Gruden think Johnson needed to calm down? “I saw him playing catch and he threw one 180 miles an hour at the guy and almost killed him,” Gruden said. “So yeah, I told him to relax, calm down and then everything’s going to be fine. But he’s got a lot of poise for a guy who just got here and a lot of confidence.”
Chicago Bears: A division title in hand doesn’t mean Bears head coach Matt Nagy is ready to back off the accelerator. The Bears could still be as low as the No. 4 seed in the NFC depending on the results of the final two games. “Right now, we’ve got to win,” Nagy said Monday. Winning could come with its challenges as linebacker Aaron Lynch (elbow) and safety Eddie Jackson (ankle) are down with injuries. Nagy said the team is hopeful neither injury is season-ending, but there are no expectations yet for their Week 16 status.
Detroit Lions: Players are not using the term spoiler, but the Lions are geared up for Minnesota — a division opponent that whipped Detroit 24-9 and sacked quarterback Matthew Stafford 10 times last month. “If you love to play this game, every time you go out there is another opportunity to do the best you can,” linebacker Christian Jones said. “We still have a lot to play for. We all want to finish strong.” Offensive tackle Taylor Decker said the Lions want to win to fight through “growing pains” and establish an identity moving forward.
Green Bay Packers: Outside linebacker Clay Matthews said the Packers will keep fighting despite falling out of playoff contention with Sunday’s loss at Chicago. “I don’t think anybody anticipated having a losing season. It is what it is,” Matthews said. “We’re that close to having this whole thing flipped, but that’s all you can say in hindsight. We just haven’t done enough. We haven’t made those few plays that usually turn the game in our favor.”
Minnesota Vikings: Simplifying the offense was a goal of head coach Mike Zimmer’s when he made a change at offensive coordinator last week, elevating quarterbacks coach Kevin Stefanski to the play-calling role. Zimmer liked the result Sunday — 220 rushing yards and 41 points in a win over the Dolphins — but said not to oversell what happened in the build up to Week 14. “We ran like one play 10 times but with 10 different variations, so sometimes that’s what it is too,” Zimmer said Monday. “You format it differently and you get them in different looks so they can’t key on one thing, but you’re basically running the same play.”
Atlanta Falcons: Tevin Coleman rushed for a career-best 145 yards in Sunday’s win over the Arizona Cardinals to at least temporarily pump life into the team’s sagging running game. Coleman’s big outing boosted the Falcons out of the cellar of the NFL rankings — they are now 31st at 90.7 yards per game — and may prompt Atlanta to decide to make a bid to retain his services. The fourth-year back’s contract runs out after the season, and receiver Julio Jones hopes the team brings him back. “I mean, he’s an amazing running back,” Jones said of Coleman. “He doesn’t get the credit he deserves, but he’s one of the best backs in the league, by far. His speed, his vision, everything about him.” Coleman has rushed for a career-best 704 this season while Devonta Freeman — the NFL’s third-highest paid back — has been limited to two games due to various injuries. Meanwhile, rookie back Ito Smith will go on injured reserve to have knee surgery, meaning even more work for Coleman in the final two weeks.
Carolina Panthers: Host the New Orleans Saints on Monday night.
New Orleans Saints: Visit the Carolina Panthers on Monday night.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers: Rookie defensive tackle Vita Vea flashed his potential with nine tackles in Sunday’s loss to the Baltimore Ravens after accumulating just 12 in his first 10 NFL appearances. The 12th overall pick injured a calf muscle early in training camp and missed the entire preseason as well as the first three regular-season games. That left him behind in conditioning, and then he was initially overwhelmed by how fast the game is played in the NFL. “I think now I’m just comfortable with it,” Vea told reporters. “The game’s slowed down for me. Just getting back in the flow of things.” Coach Dirk Koetter was impressed with what he saw from Vea against the Ravens. “Vita is really starting to play exactly like we watched on his college tape,” Koetter said during a press conference. “He’s playing violent, he’s running to the football, getting off blocks so much better and making plays laterally as well as just knocking the line of scrimmage back.”
Arizona Cardinals: Most first-year head coaches have plenty of job security, but many have questioned whether Steve Wilks will be back after the Cardinals fell to 3-11 with another blowout defeat on Sunday. CBS Sports reported Sunday that Wilks’ job is in jeopardy, and the Arizona Republic said Monday his firing “seems a foregone conclusion.” Various reports have also suggested general manager Steve Keim’s job could be in jeopardy. Keim signed an extension through 2022 in February, but he has since pled guilty to extreme DUI, and the roster fell apart this season, with several recent draft classes disappointing. Keim has been with the Cardinals since 1999, working his way up after starting as a regional scout. Arizona won 34 games during his first three seasons on the job, reaching the NFC Championship in 2015.
Los Angeles Rams: Once coasting at 8-0, the Rams are 3-3 since, and their two-game losing streak has suddenly created the possibility that they could miss out on a first-round playoff bye. Holding the tiebreaker from their meeting in Week 14, the Chicago Bears would jump the Rams in the standings by winning out and getting one loss from L.A. Linebacker Dante Fowler Jr. told reporters the importance of getting the bye makes Sunday’s matchup at the Cardinals a huge one. “We gotta play it like it’s our last game and play like it’s a must-win game,” Fowler said. .”.. We know what’s in front of us. We’ve just got to go take it.” The Rams close the season at home against the 49ers.
San Francisco 49ers: On the practice squad before the season, Nick Mullens continues to impress head coach Kyle Shanahan, who was asked Monday if he planned to get C.J. Beathard any work in the final two games. “Nick deserves to be in,” Shanahan said. “Nick’s played very well, and he’s gotten better as he’s gone. I thought yesterday was probably Nick’s best game, especially the way he finished it in that fourth quarter. ... He’s done too good of a job. We’d love to get C.J. more playing time, but Nick’s earned it and I’m not taking him out.” Looking forward to next year when starter Jimmy Garoppolo will be healthy, Shanahan is excited about his quarterback trio. “It’s neat when you have some choices that you believe you can win with,” he said. “I think we’ve got three guys in our building that give us a chance to win.”
Seattle Seahawks: The Seahawks emerged from Sunday’s overtime loss at San Francisco with a few key injuries, but they could be getting reinforcements for Sunday night’s game against the Kansas City Chiefs. Head coach Pete Carroll said linebacker K.J. Wright (knee) will return to practice this week, though it’s unclear if he’ll play for the first time since Week 10. “He’s going to practice this week, so we’ll see how he does,” Carroll said on 710 ESPN Seattle. “He looked fine last week in the amount of work that we gave him.” Right guard D.J. Fluker (hamstring) also has a chance to return, which would be a major boost after replacement Jordan Simmons went down with a knee injury that Caroll said “is going to be an issue.”
—Field Level Media