Week 15 Cheat Sheet: Why Panthers only figure to get better down the stretch
With each win, each team selfie, each Dab, each Cam Newton ball handed to an adoring fan, each game called by Buck and Aikman, and each Josh Norman war of words with Rodney Harrison, the Panthers are becoming more and more like the league's big ticket feature act, rather than the off-the-radar indie band from the South they've been the NFL's first few months.
Sunday's another national game, at the Giants (1 p.m. ET), the centerpiece of FOX's early broadcast window, and an opportunity for the country to get to know perhaps the league's best and certainly most underappreciated undefeated team in some time. The "respect" card is thrown around all the time, but looking around the Internet this week, it seems like the 8-5 Seahawks have more than the undefeated Panthers.
The Chiefs started the year 9-0 in 2013, only to finish the season with an 11-5 record and a loss to the Colts in the wild card round of the playoffs. The 2008 Tennessee Titans, led by Kerry Collins, started the year 10-0, only to lose three of their last six and the divisional round game to the Ravens. For much of the year, the whispered narrative around this Panthers team has been quite similar to those two squads. In so many words, "Nice start, fun team, but when the games really matter, what will they do?"
Well, with the pressure mounting and the prospect of being the first undefeated regular season team since the '07 Patriots becoming more and more realistic, the Panthers have found a way to not only maintain, but also improve each week. And with that additional pressure and focus, comes more eyeballs — both curious and skeptical — on some of their players who haven't gotten the same amount of media love and appreciation as Newton, Norman, Thomas Davis, Greg Olsen and Luke Kuechly. The Panthers may finish the season undefeated. And if that's the case, it's time to learn about their lesser-known stars.
How about defensive tackle Kawaan Short? A 2013 draft pick out of Purdue, Short was a terrific college player who fell to the second round. He had a nice first year, a good second, and has been arguably the best defensive tackle in football in season number three. He was voted the NFL's Defensive Player of the Month in October and hasn't let up. Short, affectionately referred to as "KK" by teammates, has attracted double teams the past four games, freeing up his defensive linemates and linebackers to get to the opponent's backfield. Short has been one of the most disruptive defensive tackles in the sport, but you don't see features about him on pregame shows; you don't see him in Beats By Dre commercials. He also doesn't talk. When asked earlier this season why he's so quiet, Short told reporters, "Because it's about the team. I'm doing well, but I can't do it without the guys behind me and beside me. I give credit to those guys." He plays nasty, he plays angry and he doesn't talk. Kawaan Short is a throwback to a bygone era.
How about Trai Turner? He's a third-round pick out of LSU a year ago, and there are some NFL evaluators who believe the Panthers' unheralded offensive guard is the best in football this season. Earlier in the year, J.J. Watt came into Carolina and tried bull-rushing Turner. The result was a stuff at the line that was viral video magic. While center Ryan Kalil gets the bulk of the media attention, it's been Turner who's had the biggest breakout year on that very talented offensive line.
And then there's the "old" man, Roman Harper. Thirty-three years old, a 10-year veteran who played his first eight seasons with the rival Saints, and a guy his fellow defensive backs refer to as "Uncle Rome" — Harper is having a fantastic season at strong safety in what was supposed to be the twilight of his career. In a locker room loaded with talented young stars, Harper is the steely veteran voice; the guy who controls the room. He's the guy who was a key member of a 2009 Saints team that started the season 13-0 and finished the job with a Super Bowl win. He's playing great football on the field and setting the tone off of it.
There are so many others. Michael Oher, considered a massive failure in Tennessee, is having a career resurgence protecting Newton's blind side. Veteran Kurt Coleman has been outstanding next to Harper at safety. And those receivers. Jerricho Cotchery? Ted Ginn, Jr.? Philly Brown? They've all got incredible stories to tell.
The stars will get the love, and that's fine. But as you gear up for the stretch run and what might end with a Lombardi Trophy, take some time to watch the other guys on this Panthers team, too. They know most don't believe they can finish the job. Not shockingly, they believe just the opposite.
Cheat Sheet Trivia Question of the Week: Todd Gurley has five games with 125-plus rushing yards. Only one rookie had more in NFL history. Who was it?
And now, on to the picks. It's been a forgettable year for me. Last week was a new low.
Week 14 Record: 5-11
Overall Season Record: 103-105
Tampa Bay Buccaneers at St. Louis Rams: The Bucs still have a shot — albeit a long one — in the NFC, and I think they net a big road victory on Thursday. Whether this is the last game the Rams play in St. Louis or not is unknown, but I don't see the NFL's 31st-ranked offense scoring enough points to match Tampa Bay's offensive attack on Sunday. DT Aaron Donald is having another tremendous season, but I'd expect Jameis Winston to get the best of his unit in the rookie's first national primetime regular-season game.
The Pick: Buccaneers 27, Rams 17
Final: Rams 31, Buccaneers 23
New York Jets at Dallas Cowboys: Jets coach Todd Bowles said the Cowboys offensive line was the best his team will face all season, and that's all good and well. But with Dallas getting very little from the quarterback position, Dez Bryant coming off a one-catch, 9-yard performance in Green Bay, and a run game that has been up and down all season, the offensive line won't be enough to beat New York. Jets fans are hardened and prepared for a bad December loss at some point, but I don't see it coming Saturday night.
The Pick: Jets 22, Cowboys 13
Final: Jets 19, Cowboys 16
Kansas City Chiefs at Baltimore Ravens: The Jimmy Clausen era started with a 35-6 thud in Baltimore last Sunday, but at this point, Ravens fans are better off focusing on the 2016 Draft than the season's final three weeks. When the team's official account is tweeting out "We have officially signed QB Ryan Mallett" on Dec. 15, you know things didn't go as planned this season. If the Chiefs win out while the Broncos lose two of their final three, Kansas City wins the AFC West and gets a home playoff game. Add that to what the Royals did, and it's been a fun 2015 in Kansas City.
The Pick: Chiefs 24, Ravens 11
Houston Texans at Indianapolis Colts: The AFC South is really tough to love. Just when you want to wrap your arms around the Texans, they lose two straight games to AFC East teams. Just as you want to get excited about the Colts, they give up 51 points in Jacksonville. Someone needs to win this one. And with Watt and Jadaveon Clowney going against a banged-up Colts offensive line, I guess I am taking backup QB T.J. Yates to win on the road. You know those "confidence points" pools? This is the old "1" out of 16.
The Pick: Texans 20, Colts 16
Atlanta Falcons at Jacksonville Jaguars: You can write all the fantasy football articles you want on Demaryius Thomas and Emmanuel Sanders, Antonio Brown and Martavis Bryant, Eric Decker and Brandon Marshall, and whatever other receiving duos are lighting it up your fantasy scoreboards each week, but I'll take the "Two Allens" in Jacksonville as my favorite 1-2. How the Jaguars PR staff hasn't made a buddy sitcom parody video of second-year wideouts Allen Hurns and Allen Robinson walking around Jacksonville, getting into silly situations and doing zany things is beyond me. Cast 71-year-old wide receivers coach Jerry Sullivan as their bewildered parental figure, and you have local cable TV gold. Anyway, the two second-year players have scored touchdowns in the same game five times this season and continue to light it up. That Falcons defense isn't stopping anything, let alone the Two Allens.
The Pick: Jaguars 31, Falcons 21
Chicago Bears at Minnesota Vikings: A Burkhard-Lynch special and a good one. This will mark Minnesota's second to last home game at TCF Bank Field, and though the team rattled off seven straight wins in the building at one point, two bad losses in a row (Green Bay and Seattle), have me feeling less confident. The Bears lost late two weeks in a row and the season is largely a goner. Playing spoiler to the Vikings? That could be worth rallying around. I like the upset here.
The Pick: Bears 24, Vikings 20
Tennessee Titans at New England Patriots: With Denver facing both Pittsburgh and Cincinnati the next two weeks, the Colts withering away, and the Bengals now under AJ McCarron Watch, the Patriots may secure home-field advantage throughout the playoffs a lot easier than we might have imagined two or three weeks ago. I watched the Week 14 Jets-Titans tape earlier this week. Tennessee wanted no part of that game and I can't imagine the Titans are doing flips over the prospect of traveling to Foxboro on Sunday.
The Pick: Patriots 34, Titans 17
Carolina Panthers at New York Giants: The Giants have a knack for giving undefeated teams a run for their money, especially in their building, late in the season. Amani Toomer caught a last-second Kent Graham heave to knock off the previously unbeaten Denver Broncos in 1998, the Michael Strahan-led Giants pass rush gave the '07 Patriots all they could handle in Week 17 in what became a Super Bowl preview, and the Panthers come to town this Sunday. It's unseasonably warm in New York for December and the Giants do make these Super Bowl runs around this time every four years, but I just can't see them slowing down Cam Newton and this offense in a big spot late in the game.
The Pick: Panthers 34, Giants 23
Buffalo Bills at Washington Redskins: The Bills are the most maddening team to watch in the entire league. So much talent, so many bright moments and then the penalties just come in droves. The Bills had 15 penalties last week in Philadelphia, and amazingly that's only the second most they've had in a game this season (17 vs. New York in Week 4). Offensive coordinator Sean McVay has his offense clicking; I like the 'Skins at home.
The Pick: Redskins 23, Bills 19
Green Bay Packers at Oakland Raiders: Congratulations are in order for Packers defensive lineman Mike Daniels, who signed a much-deserved four-year extension a day after Green Bay's convincing win over Dallas on Sunday. Daniels is the unsung hero of that Green Bay team, and is on pace to top career highs in both sacks and tackles this season. The Raiders somehow won in Denver despite negative-12 yards of offense in the first half last week. It appears as though Amari Cooper — 12 total catches over his past four games — has hit a bit of a rookie wall. As much as I love the young Raiders, I don't see them winning this one.
The Pick: Packers 31, Raiders 23
Cleveland Browns at Seattle Seahawks: Having just spent the past two Sundays covering the Browns, I can tell you that despite public perception, the Browns veteran players really like and support Johnny Manziel. That's from steely, all-business types like Josh McCown and Joe Thomas, to defensive veterans like Donte Whitner and Karlos Dansby. Manziel's first start since his Week 12 demotion went well, but that was at home against San Francisco. Winning in Seattle is a different story. I do expect this to be much closer than Vegas (-14.5) sees it.
The Pick: Seahawks 30, Browns 23
Denver Broncos at Pittsburgh Steelers: If there's any defense that can slow down the Steelers, it's this Broncos one. But I just don't see it. Big Ben is playing some of the best football of his career, Antonio Brown is making his case as the best receiver in the sport, and DeAngelo Williams continues to prove that age is merely a number. The fact that this team is doing all this without its starting running back, left tackle and center is a testament to Todd Haley and the unit's fortitude. No one wants to see Pittsburgh in the playoffs, including the Broncos. If Denver loses and Manning's healthy, things get very interesting heading into Week 16.
The Pick: Steelers 26, Broncos 20
Miami Dolphins at San Diego Chargers: I know the Dolphins lost on Monday night, but I thought the offensive gameplan of interim offensive coordinator Zac Taylor was far more effective than the one we'd seen out of Miami earlier in the season. I'd like to think Philip Rivers can will this Chargers team to a few more wins the rest of the way, but I just can't envision it actually happening. Especially in front of an empty home stadium.
The Pick: Dolphins 33, Chargers 20
Cincinnati Bengals at San Francisco 49ers: Blaine Gabbert was sacked eight times for a total of 60 lost yards last week in Cleveland. At one point late in the half, FOX play-by-play man Joe Davis noted that every three times Gabbert went back to pass, he was sacked by a Browns defender. That was the Browns. This is the Bengals. I don't care who is playing quarterback for Cincinnati, I look at the line of scrimmage, and without Alex Boone at guard, I don't see how Geno Atkins doesn't wreck absolute havoc on Sunday. Close one, but a Bengals win.
The Pick: Bengals 20, 49ers 17
Arizona Cardinals at Philadelphia Eagles: Way back when, I picked the Eagles to win the NFC. When they gave up a combined 90 points in back-to-back weeks in November, I resisted throwing the towel in, even doubling down and saying I still think they could make a run. They needed to beat the Patriots in New England. They did. They needed to beat a hot Bills team playing with anger. They did. They need to beat the Cardinals on national TV. I think they can do that, too. The 2015 Eagles team video might be titled, "Schrager's the guy who inexplicably stuck by them!" Catchy, I know.
The Pick: Eagles 31, Cardinals 27
Detroit Lions at New Orleans Saints: Every time I want to laugh off a Monday night game, it ends up being awesome. Schaub vs. McCown two weeks ago was a nail-biter with a crazy ending, Cousins-Cassel was a blast, and Giants-Dolphins was a shootout. This one should be no different. Give me Drew Brees over Matt Stafford in an absolute shootout.
The Pick: Saints 41, Lions 34
Reader Email of the Week
No more screwing around. Fantasy playoffs this week. Need you big time. I've got Gary Barnidge versus the Seahawks and Jason Witten against the Jets. What's the play?
Atlantic City, New Jersey
You know I don't care. Honestly, if you lose by one point or win by 30, it means nothing to me or anyone but you. Just go with your gut, dude. And if I gave you advice that ended up being wrong, I'd feel awful and I am neurotic enough that I don't need that weighing on me. Here's what you should do. Sign Blake Bell, the 49ers tight end who made some plays last week, start him, and be the only person in the world rolling the dice on the guy on Sunday. When he goes bananas against the Bengals because McCarron's under duress all afternoon, you'll look smarter than every other person playing fantasy football this weekend. I'd think that's so much more rewarding than starting Jason Witten or Gary Barnidge, no?
Cheat Sheet Trivia Answer: Another Rams rookie, Eric Dickerson, had seven 125-plus rushing yard games in 1983.