10 things to know about NFL Week 15
Didn’t catch every moment of NFL Week 15? PFF has you covered with the top 10 things you need to know based on our grades and data.
1. Carson Palmer was PFF’s highest-graded QB in Week 15.
Adding to his MVP portfolio, Carson Palmer helped the Cardinals to a 40-17 win over the Eagles on Sunday night—posting the highest-graded quarterback performance of the week in the process.
Against Philadelphia, Palmer threw for 274 yards, a touchdown and no picks—good enough to earn his highest grade of the season.
This season, Palmer owns the third-highest accuracy percentage on deep passes (49.4 percent), behind only Drew Brees and Ben Roethlisberger, respectively. He’s remained extremely cool under pressure as well, with the fifth-best accuracy percentage in the league when under pressure (70.8).
For the year, Palmer sits atop our QB rankings, tied with Roethlisberger with a 99.4 grade (1–100 scale).
2. Cam Newton added to his MVP campaign, as well.
I know, I know—as you read No. 1, you were thinking, “What about Cam?” Rightfully so, given the Panthers QB notched 340 yards through the air, five touchdown passes and no picks.
Newton still graded exceptionally well—fourth-best in Week 15, actually—but there were aspects of his game that don’t show up on the stat sheet that lowered his overall grade.
For one, Newton was not good on deep passes. On seven attempts of 20+ yard throws, he completed one. Not so bad, if accurate—the fault could lie with receivers. That wasn’t the case, however, as only 28.6 percent of his deep passes were accurate— third-lowest among all NFL QBs who attempted five such throws this in Week 15.
Newton also struggled under pressure, accurate on only 40.0 of his attempts in such circumstance, which ranked 26th among all NFL QBs this week. This has been a trend for the former Auburn standout this season, as discussed by PFF founder Neil Hornsby.
Again, this is not in any way an attempt to discredit Newton’s day—in fact, his overall performance in Week 15 likely solidified his MVP candidacy, if not made him the frontrunner for the majority of spectators.
3. Delanie Walker is approaching on elite TE territory.
While many Tennessee fans are already arguing about the best use of their 2016 draft pick, Titans TE Delanie Walker is continuing his stellar season.
Ranked No. 2 in our overall tight end grades through Week 15, Walker has more receptions than any NFL TE this season (76). He owns the fourth-highest yards per route run metric at the position (2.29), in an offense with limited receiving weapons, outside of Kendall Wright.
At Gillette Stadium—home of the league’s No. 1 tight end, of course—Walker notched two touchdowns in a dominant display that included more than one highlight-reel worthy plays.
As he displayed on Sunday, Walker has the ability to shed would-be tacklers, forcing 16 missed tackles after the catch this season, tied with Charles Clay of the most among TEs this year.
Colleague Sam Monson dove into Walker’s Week 15 performance in greater detail on Monday.
4. Odell Beckham Jr. and Josh Norman both graded out terribly.
At this point, even if you didn’t watch the Panthers-Giants game live, you’ve likely seen or heard about the scuffle between Beckham Jr. and Norman, which persisted through the near entirety of the contest. Beckham has since been suspended one game for his actions, and rightly so, given the vicious, intentional hit to the head he launched at an unsuspecting Norman.
In all the attention, little has been discussed about the actual performance of both players.
On Monday, Sam Monson did just that. Both players earned negative grades for their performances, in no small way affected by the penalties each collected.
OBJ earned the worst grade of any WR in Week 15, dropping two passes—one a sure-touchdown on which he smoked Norman.
Norman, in turn, earned the second-worst grade of any CB in Week 15 (we’ll get to the owner of the lowest grade shortly). The former Coastal Carolina star was a major beneficiary of the dropped pass mentioned above—but it still affects his grade via the PFF system.
Needless to say, this much-anticipated matchup for both players didn’t end well from a production standpoint for either party.
5. Antonio Brown embarrassed one of the best cornerbacks in the league.
Okay, now on to the lowest-graded CB we referenced earlier. When facing Antonio Brown, PFF’s highest-graded wide receiver this season, a defensive back’s numbers may suffer an expected dip. When facing Chris Harris Jr., however, Brown exploited the Denver CB in a way no other WR has done so in his career, according to PFF analyst Mike Renner.
In fact, Renner goes on to say that he’s not sure he’s ever seen a receiver single-handedly beat a CB as thoroughly as Brown did to Harris Jr. in Week 15, surrendering 14-of-15 targets for 164 yards and two touchdowns—and he added a pass interference penalty, as well.
What makes this feat so astonishing is the fact that Harris Jr. was PFF’s third-highest graded CB in the league entering this matchup—he dropped to 25th after the encounter with Brown, a nearly unheard-of swing in our grading system, especially this late into the season.
6. David Johnson has added a new threat to the Arizona arsenal.
This season, the Arizona Cardinals own the highest-graded passer and receiving unit, as well as the third-highest graded run blocking unit. One area the Cardinals have been lacking, however, was their rushing offense. Since taking over the snap majority in Week 13, however, running back David Johnson has changed that.
Notching 187 rushing yards in Week 15—125 coming after initial contact—Johnson made it clear to the Eagles and the entire league that Arizona now has a legitimate weapon to fear out of the backfield.
A 2015 third-round draft pick out of Northern Iowa, Johnson forced seven missed tackles on Sunday, finding pay-dirt three times.
Since taking the RB helm in Week 13, Johnson has earned the fourth-best grade in the NFL—and the highest over the last two weeks. Since Week 13, he’s forced 14 missed tackles (the next closest RB is Todd Gurley, with 10).
As Arizona eyes the postseason with high expectations, it won’t be comforting for the rest of the NFC frontrunners to know a new weapon has emerged in an already-loaded offensive arsenal.
7. A.J. McCarron played exceptionally in his first NFL start.
While many Bengals fans saw their postseason hopes begin to crack along with Andy Dalton’s thumb, their spirits were likely lifted in McCarron’s first outing as the Cincinnati starting QB.
In fact, McCarron recorded the seventh-best grade among all NFL Week 15 QBs, tossing 192 yards, a touchdown, and no picks. As PFF analyst Rick Drummond noted on Monday, McCarron completed five-of-six passes over 10 yards in the air, and was five-of-six when blitzed.
While OC Hugh Jackson would prefer to have Andy Dalton, who was having the best season of his career, Sunday’s outing against San Francisco showed that A.J. McCarron may be more than just a placeholder until Dalton returns.
8. Kirk Cousins and the Redskins took the reigns of the NFC East.
With a .500 record, the Washington Redskins are now in sole possession of the NFC East, with the Eagles and Giants now trailing at 6-8 each.
The driver behind Redskins’ unexpected 2015 postseason campaign? While there have been some standout individual performances across the board this season (Ryan Kerrigan, Bashaud Breeland), none of them, arguably, have had the impact that the play of QB Kirk Cousins has.
In Week 15, Cousins was PFF’s most-accurate passer, completing 22-of-28 attempts (suffering three catchable drops). The former Michigan State star notched 319 passing yards and four touchdowns against the Bills, ending Buffalo’s postseason hopes.
On Monday, Sam Monson broke down the impact Cousins has made on the Washington offense of late.
9. Olivier Vernon shredded San Diego’s pass protection.
Just when it seemed Vernon couldn’t raise the bar any higher, the former Miami Hurricane beat his season-high grade once again—as well as the highest grade of any 4-3 DE this season.
Much to the dismay of Philip Rivers, Vernon recorded a sack, two QB hits, and eight QB hurries in Sunday’s matchup. He also notched seven solo tackles and six stops.
While the Dolphins will be watching the postseason from home, they can possibly find some solace in the fact that their pass rush has been the been the best in the league this year. In fact, Miami’s pass rush grade is the highest in the NFL by a larger margin, thanks largely to Cameron Wake earlier this season, and now Vernon in the second half of the season.
10. Golden Tate continued his late-season climb.
There wasn’t too much at stake on Monday Night Football, as two teams eliminated from the postseason battled it out for pride, more than anything else.
One good takeaway, however, was the performance of Lions WR Golden Tate, who has quietly been climbing our WR grades in the second half of the season. Since Week 10, Tate has earned the fifth-highest cumulative grade among NFL receivers, and the highest in the last two weeks.
On Monday, Tate recorded 45 receiving yards—41 coming after the catch—and two touchdowns in Detroit’s 35-27 win in the Superdome.