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The Legion of Boom might be gone, but the Seattle Seahawks are just as dangerous

USA TODAY SPORTS logo USA TODAY SPORTS 12/15/2018 Jarrett Bell
Seattle's defense has stepped up to put the Seahawks on the verge of the NFL playoffs. © Provided by USA Today Sports Media Group LLC Seattle's defense has stepped up to put the Seahawks on the verge of the NFL playoffs.

A quick glance at items of interest as Week 15 rolls on…    

Who’s hot: The Seahawks. Look who’s on the verge of clinching a playoff berth. Gone are Richard Sherman, Kam Chancellor and Michael Bennett. And Earl Thomas was lost for the season in early October with a lower leg fracture. Yet despite the end of the Legion of Boom era, the Seahawks (8-5) head to San Francisco riding a four-game winning streak and looking to clinch a wild-card berth with a victory. So much for the long rebuilding season this was projected to be for a team that none of us “experts” – show me somebody outside of Pete Carroll’s locker room – predicted before the season to be a playoff team. Seattle still has playmaking quarterback Russell Wilson, who is running less while the Seahawks roll with the NFL’s No. 1 rushing attack by committee. And they still have middle linebacker Bobby Wagner, overshadowed as one of the NFL’s best defensive players. He anchors a unit ranked just 18th for total yards (far off the annual top-five numbers from the Legion heyday), but is getting a boost from emerging players like defensive end Frank Clark. With his 11 sacks, Clark answered Sherman’s barbs about Seattle as follows: “This is my defense now.” Oh. As fate would have it, while San Francisco (3-10) struggles in a year when hope faded quickly with Jimmy Garoppolo’s torn ACL, Seattle can lock up the playoff berth right before Sherman’s eyes.

Pressure’s on: Mike Zimmer. After falling flat in the Monday night loss at Seattle, the Vikings coach fired his first-year offensive coordinator, John DeFilippo, and turned the reins over to quarterbacks coach Kevin Stefanski as a make-or-break encounter looms against the Dolphins on Sunday. Make no mistake: The move was also an indictment on Minnesota’s offseason decision to sign Kirk Cousins to a fully-guaranteed, three-year, $84 million contract with the expectation the free agent quarterback would be the missing piece to a Super Bowl run. Instead, Cousins has some decent stats (like the NFL-high 370 completions) but has flopped in the biggest moments (like road losses to the Bears, Patriots and Seahawks) while chemistry between Zimmer and DeFilippo was undoubtedly strained. If you’re scoring at home, Stefanski becomes the fourth O-coordinator for the Vikings in Zimmer’s five seasons. Now Zimmer’s team (6-6-1) is pressed to hang on to the final NFC playoff spot it currently holds, while the Cousins move – which may rank with the Herschel Walker trade in the franchise’s annals for deflated hope -- adds a layer of scrutiny on GM Rick Spielman because of the heavy investment.

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Key matchup: Bill Belichick vs. Mike Tomlin. With a three-game losing streak jeopardizing Pittsburgh’s chances to even make the playoffs after having such a seemingly firm grip on first place, there’s no worse opponent for the Steelers to see while seeking an abrupt turnaround than the Patriots. If not for Belichick, Tom Brady & Co., Tomlin might have a couple more Super Bowl titles on his resume. But that’s hypothetical at this point. The facts show that New England has owned the Steelers, with Belichick posting an 11-3 mark against Pittsburgh as Patriots coach, including a 7-2 mark against Tomlin. Of course, when asked whether that history will matter on Sunday, Belichick maintained, “Nope. Zero.” Rightfully, with his spotty defense, he’s wary of Pittsburgh’s elite receivers, Antonio Brown and JuJu Smith-Schuster. That looms as the potential swing factor. Last year, the Steelers suffered a heartbreaking loss to New England as Ben Roethlisberger’s goal-line INT in the final seconds followed an apparent Jesse James TD that was overruled on instant replay, costing Pittsburgh a likely No. 1 seed for the playoffs. Now the season is on the line and the Patriots still have Brady (11-2 vs. Pittsburgh, including 3-0 in the playoffs). If Tomlin’s team is to make a statement – after blowing chances to win in crunch time the past three weeks – now is that time. Or else.

Next man up: Nick Foles (again). In a strange twist of irony, the Eagles head back to the site where Carson Wentz blew out his knee last December – which opened the door for Foles to come off the bench and emerge as one of the heroes to a Super Bowl championship run. The backup quarterback again assumes the lead role as Wentz could be done for the year with a stress fracture in his back. This time, the matchup against the Rams (11-2) at the Coliseum won’t provide a springboard for Foles to win any Super Bowl MVP honors as the Eagles (6-7) are all but mathematically eliminated from their chance to repeat as champs. Yet Foles’ presence in the lineup will serve as quite the reminder of the glory that was.

Rookie watch: Darius Leonard. An overhauled Colts defense is led by the second-round linebacker from South Carolina State, who leads the NFL with 135 tackles (90 solo) and is in the running with Chargers safety Derwin James for NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year honors. From his weakside post, Leonard has tied for the most double-digit tackle games (6) in the NFL this season and has a shot at topping Patrick Willis’ rookie-record 174 tackles from 2007. A big test, though, comes when the revived Cowboys bring the NFL’s longest winning streak (five games) and the league’s leading rusher, Ezekiel Elliott (1,262 yards) to The Big Oil Field. And the quality of tackles will matter. Can Leonard stuff Elliott in the box or will the stops come downfield? That will be essential to the chance of winning for the Colts (7-6), angling to keep their playoff hopes alive. Regardless, they’ve struck oil with Leonard, who has had the type of campaign (including four forced fumbles and seven sacks) that suggests Colts GM Chris Ballard found the centerpiece of the D with a player picked 36th overall from an HBCU school. 

Stomach for an upset: Packers at Bears. What once looked like a showdown at Soldier Field that might determine the NFC North title now looms as a spoiler alert. Chicago (9-4) is listed as a six-point favorite and can win the division with a victory, but Aaron Rodgers is coming to town. Who better to delay the seemingly inevitable achievement of winning the North than the Packers star? Rodgers is 16-3-1 lifetime against Chicago, and his Hall of Fame career is accented by several stunning highlights against the Bears, like the last-minute TD throw to Randall Cobb that won the division for the Packers in Week 17 in 2013. Sure, this downer of a season for the Packers (5-7-1) cost Mike McCarthy his job, but the Bears have a way of bringing out the best in A-Rod while Chicago’s young passer, Mitchell Trubisky (5 INTs in his past 2 starts) has a way of adding layers of pressure on the Bears’ big-time defense.

If the playoffs were today… The Ravens (7-6) would be the AFC’s second wild-card team, based on some serious NFL tiebreaker math that puts them ahead of Indianapolis (7-6), Miami (7-6) and Tennessee (7-6), with factors including their record in common games (vs. Indianapolis) and winning percentage in conference games (vs. Miami). Got all that? No matter. A much simpler path for the Ravens (3-1, since Lamar Jackson took over for quarterback Joe Flacco) is to win the AFC North crown – a scenario that has become much more likely with the three-game losing streak that might have doomed the Steelers (7-5-1). If the Ravens beat Tampa Bay on Sunday and Pittsburgh loses to New England, Baltimore takes over first place. With Pittsburgh’s slate including a trip to New Orleans, it’s possible that Baltimore can take the division title with a 9-7 record.

Did you notice? Derek Carr heads to Cincinnati having not thrown an interception in eight consecutive games. Remember the static earlier this season as he adjusted to Jon Gruden’s new offense? Well, the Raiders are just 3-10 and it hasn’t worked out so well with the “name” receivers (Amari Cooper was traded, only to blossom in Dallas; Jordy Nelson has battled injuries; Martavis Bryant, on IR, is indefinitely suspended). But Carr, who threw 8 picks in the first 5 games, has settled down and found a groove. Over the past 2 games, he’s completed 75% of his passes, while Oakland is 2-2 over the past month. So, yes, there’s some measure of progress in Chucky’s world.

Stat’s the fact: Broncos first-round defensive end Bradley Chubb, picked fifth overall, leads NFL rookies with 12 sacks. Heading into Saturday night’s clash against Cleveland, the North Carolina State product is in range of breaking the NFL rookie-record of 14 ½ sacks that Jevon Kearse, aka “The Freak,” set for the Titans in 1999.

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: The Legion of Boom might be gone, but the Seattle Seahawks are just as dangerous

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