The Top NFL Storylines of Week 15: Trevor Lawrence, Christian McCaffrey and Baker Mayfield

Plus, the Raiders might actually want Antonio Pierce to stay in Vegas

December 19, 2023 7:06 am
Christian McCaffrey of the 49ers.
Christian McCaffrey of the 49ers could be a sneaky MVP candidate.
Cooper Neill/Getty

With this week’s edition of Monday Night Football complete and another slate of games over and done, there are somehow only three weeks left to go in pro football’s regular season. While we can’t get to everything — like the Eagles trying to trademark their controversial “tush push” play — here are four of the top storylines to emerge from the NFL’s 15th week. (Here’s a glance back at Week 14 and a look at the play that may have saved the season for the Browns.)

Christian McCaffrey for MVP?

Before Cowboys quarterback Dak Prescott threw for just 134 yards on 21-of-34 passing with zero touchdowns and one interception in a 31-10 blowout loss to the Buffalo Bills, he was the favorite to win this season’s MVP award. But that lackluster performance was not enough to keep him ahead of current favorite Brock Purdy, who threw for 242 yards on 16-of-25 passing with four touchdowns and zero interceptions in a 45-29 win over the Arizona Cardinals on Sunday.

Prescott, who has also fallen behind Baltimore quarterback Lamar Jackson in the MVP odds, will have to outplay Purdy over the final three weeks of the season if he wants a shot at winning MVP, but he also may have to outperform Purdy’s teammate Christian McCaffrey, who has been the best running back in the NFL this season.

In San Francisco’s win over the Cardinals, McCaffrey totaled 187 scrimmage yards (115 rushing, 72 receiving) and scored three touchdowns on 23 touches. McCaffrey, who averaged a ridiculous 8.1 yards per touch against Arizona, leads the league with 1,801 scrimmage yards and 20 touchdowns this season. McCaffrey winning MVP probably won’t happen as a non-quarterback has not taken home the award since 2012 (when running back Adrian Peterson got it), but the 27-year-old has a legitimate case to receive the honor as he’s been the most important player on what is looking like the NFL’s best team.

Following Sunday’s win, Purdy, who now has 3,795 passing yards with 29 touchdowns, seven interceptions and a league-leading passer rating of 119, said he believes his teammate should be named MVP. (Kind of an MVP move?)

San Francisco tight end George Kittle, who has had a great season in his own right, as has Niners wideout Deebo Samuel, also took up McCaffrey’s cause after knocking off the Cardinals. “I’ve been wanting to stand on a soapbox about this for a while,” Kittle told reporters. “Quarterbacks are definitely the most important piece of the team. Everybody’s talking about Purdy, everyone’s talking about Dak and that MVP race — and Brock’s doing a great job, and he deserves all the love that he’s getting. But you’ve got a guy like Christian McCaffrey and all the things he’s done for us in the run game and the pass game and is absolutely elite every single Sunday. He’s pretty impressive.”

He is, and McCaffrey would probably be an MVP…if he was a quarterback.

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Trevor Lawrence actually may not be ready for primetime

Following two consecutive losses, the Jaguars attempted to right the ship at home against the Baltimore Ravens on Sunday — and failed miserably.

While he likely was not 100% healthy heading into Sunday’s matchup and should get some credit for suiting up and taking the field, Jacksonville quarterback Trevor Lawrence was fairly horrible in the 23-7 loss as he completed just 25-of-43 passes for 264 yards and a touchdown while also losing two fumbles. Thanks to the loss, the 8-6 Jaguars are in a three-way tie atop the AFC South with the Colts and Texans. (Jacksonville is still the division leader because of the Jags’ head-to-head wins over Indy and Houston.)

Now in the final stretch of his third season in the NFL, Lawrence has certainly proven himself to be a pro-caliber quarterback. But Lawrence, who’s 8-6 this season but has a 20-28 record overall as a starter in the NFL, has thrown just 18 touchdown passes in 14 games this season and really has not done much to prove he can deliver in high-leverage situations at the professional level. The 24-year-old certainly looks the part of a franchise quarterback, but he has yet to truly play that part despite the manner in which he is generally discussed in NFL circles.

That’s not to say that Lawrence, who was placed in the NFL’s concussion protocol after Sunday’s game and was not allowed to speak to the media, can’t become the superstar quarterback most pundits believed him to be when he was drafted out of Clemson with the No. 1 overall pick in the 2021 draft, but he’s already taken as many sacks this season as he took in his rookie year (32) and has only thrown more than two touchdowns in one game this season.

Hoping to clinch a second consecutive AFC South crown for the first time since the 1998-1999 seasons, the Jaguars are counting on Lawrence to round into a top-10 NFL quarterback. There’s no reason to think that Lawrence, who has yet to miss a game in his NFL career, won’t get there, but he hasn’t yet and it’s totally fair to acknowledge it.

If Lawrence can’t play in Week 16 against the Buccaneers, C.J. Beathard will start in his place.

Antonio Pierce should stay in Vegas coaching the Raiders

Still in some murky financial waters with regard to the resignation of former coach Jon Gruden in 2021 and certainly still paying ex-coach Josh McDaniels and former general manager Dave Ziegler after firing them on Halloween, Raiders owner Mark Davis has some decisions to make this offseason. Interim coach Antonio Pierce, who took over for McDaniels, may make at least one of those decisions fairly easy.

A Super Bowl champion and Pro Bowler as a player, Pierce has gone 3-3 since taking over as head coach with his most recent win coming on Thursday Night Football when the Raiders thumped the Chargers in Las Vegas in a 63-21 thrashing that got Los Angeles coach Brandon Staley fired. The win, which matches the Raiders’ win total of six from last season with three games left to play, was particularly significant as Vegas scored 63 more points than when they were shut out the week before in a 3-0 loss to the Vikings.

Already paying McDaniels and Ziegler not to run his football team and potentially paying Gruden (pending a lawsuit) to not do the same, Davis would be smart to give some serious thought to keeping Pierce to not avoid repeating a serious mistake. After all, Davis saw his team go 7-5 and qualify for the playoffs following Gruden’s resignation two seasons ago with Rich Bisaccia serving as interim head coach, but got rid of the former special teams coordinator in favor of McDaniels prior to last season.

While that move may have made some sense on paper, it failed to take into account the impact Bisaccia had made in a Las Vegas locker room that had every excuse to throw in the towel during an incredibly messy season that was highlighted by Gruden’s resignation. Instead of sticking with something that was working, Davis got rid of Bisaccia in favor of an unknown, and expensive, commodity in McDaniels. Debatable at the time, that move was proven to be wrong.

“We were on the wrong side of history [last week]. Well, we’re on the right side now and that’s the way we want to be,” Pierce said after Thursday’s win. “Turnovers, points, they always come in bunches. For us, it became a frenzy. You saw it on defense, you saw it on offense, special teams jumped in it. Just look at the sideline. If you didn’t see it, you could hear it. Hats off to our team responding four days after what just happened here previously.”

Davis should remember what just happened when he let go of Bisaccia and think about keeping Pierce in Vegas.

Baker Mayfield is quietly having himself a great season

Playing for his fourth team in three seasons, former No. 1 overall pick Baker Mayfield has generally been flying under the radar while playing for a Tampa Bay Buccaneers team that not much was expected from entering this season after Tom Brady‘s retirement during the offseason.

The lack of attention has worked out just fine for the 28-year-old as he posted a perfect passer rating of 158.3 for the first time in his career while leading the Buccaneers to a 34-20 win in Green Bay on Sunday to bring Tampa’s record to 7-7 and keep the team atop the talent-deprived NFC South. Mayfield, who was 22-of-28 for 381 yards and four TDs in the win, became the first visiting quarterback to earn a perfect passer rating at Lambeau Field in the win.

A free agent after this season, Mayfield has done an excellent job in re-establishing his value and will likely be able to get a multi-year deal next year. That signing may come from Tampa, but there’s certainly a chance another team will like what he’s put on film this season and show him the money. Whether that will work out is certainly up for debate, but what’s certain is that Mayfield has done enough this season to solidify himself as a starter in the NFL.

“He’s meant everything,” Tampa coach Todd Bowles said after Sunday’s win. “From a mental standpoint to a quarterback standpoint, making plays. From a toughness standpoint, from a leadership standpoint, he’s done everything. He’s checked all the boxes. He’s doing all the right things now and I can’t say enough about him.”

Most people aren’t saying anything about Mayfield, but he’s having having the best season of his five-year career.

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