The NFL playoff picture is getting clearer as season draws to a close

The good, bad and ugly from NFL week 15

The good, bad and ugly from NFL week 15
San Diego pulled off a big win. Chargers Team Website

Wow! What a week 15 we had in the NFL this week. Just when we thought we had it all figured out, the league showed us why the games are played. Here's how I saw week 15 play out:

The Good

-The Chargers beat the Chiefs on a gutsy call. Down 28-14 with about eight minutes left, they managed to come back. After scoring the second unanswered touchdown to bring the score to 28-27, they elected to go for the two point conversion. A missed man coverage assignment covering a bunch formation later and they went up 29-28 with four seconds left in the game. Major props to Chargers coach Anthony Lynn for that call.

-The Vikings fired offensive coordinator Joe DeFilippo after last week's loss to the Seahawks. Head coach Mike Zimmer wanted a more run based offense. This week with their playoff hopes in the balance, they dropped a 40 burger on the Dolphins. Sure they held the Phins to 37 yards passing, but the Vikes rushed for 220 yards and controlled the clock. Big boy football is back in Minnesota.

-The Browns are 4-2 since firing head coach Hue Jackson and offensive coordinator Todd Haley. More importantly, rookie quarterback Baker Mayfield has improved with Freddie Kitchens now calling the plays. Whether interim coach/defensive coordinator Gregg Williams gets the permanent job or not, Kitchens should be the OC. His work with Mayfield has been invaluable.

The Bad

-The Colts ended the Cowboys five game win streak 23-0. This was the first time the Cowboys had been shut out since 2003. How you ask? They ran the football well, controlled the clock, and forced the Cowboys into a pass-heavy offense which they aren't adept at doing. They also kept their own playoff hopes alive by doing so.

-Speaking of shutouts, the Titans shut the Giants out in their own home. This was the first time since December 15, 2013 that the Giants have been shut out at home. This was surprising considering rookie sensation Saquon Barkley can almost single-handedly change a game.

-The Rams dropped a home game to the lowly Eagles 30-23. Backup Nick Foles came into L.A. and led the charge. Their defense stepped up as well. Now the Rams are essentially two games behind the Saints for homefield advantage in the playoffs in the NFC.

The Ugly

-Happy trails to Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco. Word came down that the team is looking to part ways with the former Super Bowl MVP following this season. Flacco was Wally Pipped by rookie Lamar Jackson earlier this season and the team hasn't looked back.

-Jags lost to the Skins 16-13 on a field goal as time expired. Losing on a game winning field goal is one thing. But losing on a game winning field goal to a quarterback that hasn't been on his team's roster for a whole month is something else. This Jags team needs to hit the reset button.

-The Packers lost to the Bears 24-17. At 5-8-1, they've been eliminated from the playoff picture. Quarterback Aaron Rodgers says he wants to play in the team's final two games. However, I think it's best he sit out. They have two first round picks in the upcoming draft. I suggest they look at using them and their cap space to build a better team while Rodgers has anything left.

We saw the Patriots lose their second consecutive game in December for the first time in forever. We also saw teams move into more or less favorable playoff positions; depends on which fan base you ask. Late season NFL has gotten much better because of the way the schedules have been done lately. Here's to hoping it keeps up over the next couple weeks.

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Astros on the hunt. Composite Getty Image.

With the Astros' surge from 10 games out of first place to within two games of Seattle, catching and going past the Mariners has naturally become the top objective. It's no given to happen but it's right there. In the final series ahead of the All-Star break, while the Mariners are in the midst of four games with the lowly Angels, the last two World Series champions renew (un)pleasantries at Minute Maid Park.

The Astros enter the weekend five games ahead of the Rangers. They lead the season series with the reigning champs four wins to three. While the Astros can't quite finish off the Arlingtonians by sweeping them in this three game set, shoving them eight games back (even further back of Seattle and the current Wild Card teams) and clinching the tiebreaker would seem close to a death blow. Taking two out of three would be fine for the Astros. If the Rangers win the series, they are clearly still in the American League West and Wild Card races coming out of the All-Star break.

Last year the Rangers had the best offense in the AL. So far in 2024 they rank a mediocre eighth in runs per game. Nathaniel Lowe is the lone Ranger (get it?!?) regular playing as well as he did last season. Corey Seager has been fine but not at the MVP runner-up level of last year. Marcus Semien is notably down, as is 2023 ALCS Astros-obliterater Adolis Garcia. Stud 2023 rookie Josh Jung has been out with a broken wrist since ex-Astro Phil Maton hit him with a pitch in the fourth game of this season, though fill-in third baseman Josh Smith has been the Rangers' best player. 21-year-old late season phenom Evan Carter largely stunk the first two months this season and has been out since late May with a back injury. Repeating is hard, never harder than it is now. Hence no Major League Baseball has done it since the Yankees won three straight World Series 1998-2000.

Chasing down the Division at a crazy clip

From the abyss of their 7-19 start, the Astros sweep over the Marlins clinched a winning record at the break with them at 49-44. Heading into the Texas matchup the Astros have won at a .627 clip since they were 7-19. A full season of .627 ball wins 101 games. If the Astros win at a .627 rate the rest of the way they'll finish with 92 wins, almost certainly enough to secure a postseason slot and likely enough to win the West. Expecting .627 the rest of the way is ambitious.

With it fairly clear that Lance McCullers is highly unlikely to contribute anything after his latest recovery setback, and Luis Garcia a major question mark, what Justin Verlander has left in 2024 grows more important. With the way the Astros often dissemble or poorly forecast when discussing injuries, for all we know Verlander could be cooked. Inside three weeks to the trade deadline, General Manager Dana Brown can't be thinking a back end of the rotation comprised of Spencer Arrighetti and Jake Bloss should be good enough. The Astros have 66 games to play after the All-Star break, including separate stretches with games on 18 and 16 consecutive days.

All-Star MIAs

Viewership for Tuesday's All-Star game at Globe Life Field in Arlington will be pretty, pretty, pretty low in Houston. One, All-Star Game ratings are pitiful every year compared to where they used to be. Two, the Astros could be down to zero representatives at Tuesday's showcase. Kyle Tucker was rightfully named a reserve but had no shot at playing as he continues the loooong recovery from a bone bruise (or worse) suffered June 3. Being named an All-Star for a ninth time was enough for Jose Altuve. He opts out of spending unnecessary time in Texas Rangers territory citing a sore wrist. This despite Altuve playing four games in a row since sitting out the day after he was plunked and highly likely to play in all three games versus the Rangers this weekend. Yordan Alvarez exiting Wednesday's rout of the Marlins with hip discomfort and then missing Thursday's game seem clear reasons for him to skip, though he has indicated thus far he intends to take part. Yordan is the most essential lineup component to the Astros' hopes of making an eighth straight playoff appearance.

Ronel Blanco should have made the American League squad on performance, but pretty obviously his 10 game illegal substance use suspension was held against him. As it works out, Blanco will pitch Sunday in the last game before the break which would render him unavailable for the All-Star Game anyway. Blanco is eligible to pitch, but given the career high-shattering innings workload Blanco is headed for, no way the Astros want him on the mound Tuesday. Just last year the Astros kept Framber Valdez from pitching in the game.

While waiting, and waiting, and waiting on Tucker's return, the Astros have also been waiting on Chas McCormick to get back to something even faintly resembling the hitter he was last year. McCormick routinely looks lost at the plate. He has four hits (all singles) in his last 32 at bats with his season OPS pitiful at .572. During the break the Astros should seriously weigh sending McCormick to AAA Sugar Land and giving Pedro Leon a try in a job share with Joey Loperfido.

*Catch our weekly Stone Cold ‘Stros podcast. Brandon Strange, Josh Jordan, and I discuss varied Astros topics. The first post for the week generally goes up Monday afternoon (second part released Tuesday) via The SportsMap HOU YouTube channel or listen to episodes in their entirety at Apple, Spotify or wherever you get your podcasts.

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