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Week 15 NFL Notes: Impressive rookie crop developing

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Conventional wisdom suggested that rookies would be slow to integrate into the NFL this season due to the restrictions related to the coronavirus that eliminated much of the offseason and preseason. Turns out the opposite has taken place as several young players are enjoying terrific seasons.

Rookie Young at Head of Class

The rookie quarterback class has been impressive. First it was Joe Burrow playing well for Cincy before ripping up his knee. Then Justin Herbert started lighting it up for the Chargers and Tua Tagovailoa took over for Miami. Tagovailoa hasn't dazzled like the other two, but he hasn't needed to do as much as he tries to guide the Dolphins to the playoffs.

There have also been a couple of magical seasons for rookie receivers. Minnesota's Justin Jefferson is at the top of that list, but Dallas' CeeDee Lamb wasn't far behind before quarterback issues helped slow his production. 

Those are just a few of the offensive stars who have impressed in Year 1, but after watching Washington up close the last two weeks it would be hard to top Chase Young's season. Young has 35 tackles, 5.5 sacks, 3 forced fumbles, a fumble recovery (returned for a touchdown) and three passes defensed. On Sunday against the Niners he basically took the game over, finishing with two passes defensed, a sack, a forced fumble, a fumble recovery and a fumble returned for a touchdown while leading a dominant front.

Young is the odds-on favorite to win Defensive RoY, which will make him the fourth Ohio State product in five years to do so joining Nick (2019) and Joey Bosa (2016) and Marshon Lattimore (2017). But watching the kind of impact Young had the last two games (his goal line stop in Pittsburgh was ridiculous) a case could be made that Young is the best rookie of 2020, period.

All of this rookie success is even more impressive considering the lack of a true offseason and preseason for the young guys to prepare.

New Beast In The East?

Say what you will about the caliber of the AFC East, but for a team to win its division 11 consecutive years is an amazing accomplishment. That streak obviously came to an end Sunday night when the Buffalo Bills easily dispatched the Pittsburgh Steelers, notching their 10th win of the season in the process.

Buffalo didn't wrap up the title with the win, but with the Patriots mired at 6-7 it eliminated New England from division contention. If Buffalo does go on to clinch the top spot, it will be the team's first division championship since 1995. From 1995-2019, New England has 19 AFC East titles to its credit. Good thing Robert Kraft doesn't hang banners for those titles like they do in other places … it may not be structurally safe.

What's Wrong In Pittsburgh?

There will no doubt be some strong reactions coming in the aftermath of the Steelers sudden two-game losing streak. Some of it will be over-the-top hyperbole, but anyone watching that team over the last month or so who doesn't believe there are problems is fooling themselves.

Pittsburgh remains a very good team, particularly on defense. But injuries are piling up at alarming rates, and NBC's Cris Collinsworth made a great point during Sunday's loss to Buffalo when he explained how it's not necessarily about the volume of injuries as much as it is the area in which they occur.

The Steelers have a terrific defense but the core of the unit is being cut out. Linebacker Devin Bush was the first to go down, then Bud Dupree was lost. Now the backups of those players are also getting nicked up as Robert Spillane and Alex Highsmith are dealing with injuries. Spillane replaced Bush but is now on IR while Hightower took Dupree's spot before hobbling off the field on a couple of occasions Sunday night. The defense continues to play hard without key personnel but it's not getting much help from the offense.

Which brings us to Ben Roethlisberger & Co. The Steelers simply can't run the ball, and now injuries are piling up at running back with James Connor and the offensive line. Pittsburgh lost guards Matt Feiler and Kevin Dotson to pectoral injuries against the Bills. Already an area of weakness, the Steelers couldn't manage much on the ground against a Buffalo defense that struggles to stop the run.

So yes Pittsburgh remains a strong contender at 11-2, but there are some reasons for concern for Mike Tomlin and the rest of the organization.

What A Mess In Philly

On the surface posting a huge win over the NFC's top team would seem to be a very good thing. Eagles coach Doug Pederson reluctantly went with rookie Jalen Hurts in place of the embattled Carson Wentz, then saw his rejuvenated team pick up a 24-21 win over the Saints. Hurts ran effectively, picking up 106 yards on 18 carries but it was the work of the defense that sparked the win. Now Pederson and the Eagles have to figure out how to handle Wentz, who is owed the value of a third world country over the next couple of years. That's likely why Pederson was slow to commit to his quarterback for Week 15 even after Hurts clearly showed he's the guy for now. At 4-8-1 Philly is likely out of the picture in the NFC East behind 6-7 Washington, but looking ahead what do they do at quarterback? Trading Wentz would lead to roughly $60 million in dead cap charges, either next year or over the next two seasons depending on when the deal is made. I have often downplayed the cap implications but that's a pretty big chunk to use on a player who is not on the team. So the win might have provided some excitement in an otherwise dreary season, but it didn't make the Eagles contenders and will make going back to Wentz even more difficult. I don't envy Pederson and the Eagles brass.

Path Blocked

Not surprisingly the Patriots loss in Los Angeles to the Rams was quite damaging to the team's playoff hopes. But things got a little worse over the weekend when not much went right in terms of getting help from some opponents.

Miami lost at home to Kansas City, which was expected. That helped the cause slightly as the Dolphins (8-5) remained two games ahead of New England (6-7) for a wild card spot. Miami would still need to lose two of its last three while the Patriots win out.

Elsewhere, Indianapolis took down Las Vegas, which was probably the better result for the Patriots in a game involving two teams they're trying to catch. The Colts (9-4) now need just one win to earn a spot over New England, but the Raiders (7-6) now need to win out. 

Otherwise, not good.

Buffalo eliminated the Patriots from division contention by earning its 10th win. Baltimore's win over Cleveland also was a blow. The Ravens (8-5) now need to win just two of three to hold off the Patriots while the Browns (9-4) need just one win. And Tennessee (9-4) also won and would need just one more victory to guarantee a spot above the Patriots.

So while the Patriots remain alive if they finish 9-7, they would still need quite a bit of help in that scenario.

Power 5

Kansas City remains the class of the NFL, even on the rare occasions when Patrick Mahomes is less than perfect. 

  1. Kansas City (12-1, 1st last week) – The Chiefs turned it over four times, fell behind by 10 and still had a commanding lead late on the road against a playoff team. Andy Reid's team does need to finish better than that, however.
  2. Buffalo (10-3, 4th last week) – The Bills are a fluke Hail Mary away from a seven-game winning streak with wins over Pittsburgh, Seattle and the Rams. And the defense is getting healthy.
  3. Green Bay (10-3, 5th last week) – The Packers offense makes it look effortless at times, especially when Aaron Rodgers is throwing to Davante Adams.
  4. New Orleans (10-3, 2nd last week) – I was tempted to slide the Saints down just one notch considering the job they've done winning with backup Taysom Hill, but that was a lackluster effort all around in Philly.
  5. Pittsburgh (11-2, 2nd last week) – The Steelers can't run the ball and the defense is wearing down. However, there's too much talent in Pittsburgh to write them off just yet.

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