Around 10 p.m. Sunday, I found myself lamenting the limited amount of window space in my apartment. It seemed like a new pack of dry-erase markers and an Affleck level of room to work were required to map out how the heck the NFL playoffs could shake out this season.
Week 15 only served to muddle what was already a murky postseason outlook. The Titans’ come-from-behind, last-second win over the Chiefs, the Texans’ improbable, Tom Savage–led victory over the Jaguars, and Aaron Rodgers’s late-game heroics all had massive implications regarding playoff likelihoods and seed shufflings. They left me (and I’m assuming, everyone else) rethinking and reorganizing the various pieces of the puzzle about a dozen times on Sunday.
After all of that craziness, it’s a good time to do some sifting through what we know about which teams are making the playoffs — and which possible scenarios remain on the table. Let’s get to it.
By now, talking about the Patriots’ postseason consistency feels like putting another log on the fire. With its 16–3 win in Denver, New England (12–2) sewed up the AFC East for the eighth consecutive season and secured a first-round bye for the seventh year in a row. Only Bill Belichick can do that and inspire a collective shrug. The lone team capable of snatching home-field advantage from the Pats at this point is Oakland (11–3), which would take the no. 1 seed if the teams both finished at 13–3, based on their results against common opponents. That would come into play only if New England lost one of its final two games, though — a home clash with the Jets or a road date at the Dolphins.
The no. 2 seed is a bit trickier, but even with the Chiefs’ 19–17 loss to Tennessee, it looks like the AFC West is in prime position to grab the conference’s remaining first-round bye. The Raiders’ 19–16 win in San Diego puts them in the driver’s seat for that spot, yet if Oakland drops one of its next two (home for the Colts, at the Broncos) and the Chiefs (10–4) win out, then Kansas City would climb back atop the division.
The team that should be the most frustrated with the Chargers for not pulling out a win on Sunday is the Steelers (9–5). Because the Chiefs own the tiebreaker with Oakland and Pittsburgh won its head-to-head matchup with Kansas City in Week 4, the Steelers would sneak into the no. 2 seed if all three of those teams finished 11–5. That possibility is still in play, but following the Raiders’ narrow win, it would not only require Pittsburgh to win out (home versus Baltimore and Cleveland), but also Oakland to drop its next two.
The Steelers are in much better shape in the AFC North and in the race for the no. 3 seed on the heels of their five-game win streak, yet the Ravens (8–6) managed to keep pace in the division by edging the Eagles 27–26 when Philadelphia’s last-gasp two-point conversion attempt failed. For Baltimore to capture the no. 3 spot, it would have to win in Pittsburgh on Christmas Day and then in Cincinnati a week later. The Steelers aren’t likely to lose their regular-season finale; they host the winless Browns.
And this is where things get really complicated. It looked for a while as if both Baltimore and Pittsburgh would be in prime position to take the second wild-card spot (either Kansas City or Oakland is all but certain to grab the no. 5 seed) if they didn’t win the division, especially with Denver (8–6) dropping three of its past four. But all hell broke loose. Let’s start with the Dolphins, who — somehow — are 9–5. Given its win over the Steelers in Week 6, Miami currently sits ahead of every other AFC wild-card contender. Don’t ask me how that’s possible. By virtue of that standing, the Dolphins are in if they win out (at Buffalo, home against New England), but that’s hardly necessary. A 10–6 record would get them in as the no. 6 seed, too, barring Denver finishing with the same mark. If the Broncos and the Dolphins both end the season with six losses, Denver would take the final spot based on record against common opponents, assuming that Miami’s loss comes against the Patriots and not the Bills. That leaves the Dolphins with plenty to root for and against over the next couple of weeks.
The only teams still in the running for a playoff berth that are incredibly unlikely to win the second wild-card spot are those in the AFC South: Houston (8–6), Tennessee (8–6), and Indianapolis (7–7). They’re vying for the no. 4 seed that would come with a division title, and there is plenty to be sorted out on that front.
The Colts’ 34–6 win over the Vikings on Sunday looked very meaningful when it seemed as if Brock Osweiler would finally do in the Texans against an inferior team, but when Savage came on in relief and led Houston to victory, Indy’s chances took a significant blow. While the Colts own the tiebreaker over the Titans, the Texans own the tiebreaker over Indy; for Andrew Luck and Co. to have a chance, they’d have to win out (at Oakland, home against Jacksonville), have the Texans lose out (home against Cincy, at Tennessee), and have the Titans lose to the Jaguars in Week 16. That’s a tall order. The more likely scenario involves Tennessee hosting Houston for the division title on New Year’s Day. Even if Houston falls to the Bengals, it could win the AFC South by beating the Titans, based on tiebreakers.
So, as things stand now, the AFC’s wild-card round is likely to see either the Steelers or Ravens hosting the Dolphins, and either the Texans or Titans hosting the Chiefs, with the Pats and Raiders awaiting the winners. But plenty could change over the course of the coming days.
The Cowboys’ Sunday night performance against Tampa Bay quelled any concerns about their offense, and their 26–20 win also reestablished their stranglehold on the NFC. A Dallas (12–2) victory in either of its final two games (home against the Lions, at the Eagles) guarantees it the no. 1 seed and home-field advantage throughout the postseason. Barring a disaster, the NFC playoffs will go through Jerry World.
The conference’s no. 2 seed and other first-round bye is more up for grabs, but all of Week 15’s outcomes broke in the Seahawks’ favor. Detroit’s 17–6 loss to the Giants has put Seattle (9–4–1) in control of where things go from here. If the Seahawks, Falcons (9–5), and Lions (9–5) all win out, Seattle would take the no. 2 seed while Detroit and Atlanta would capture their respective divisions. If the Seahawks falter against either the Cardinals or 49ers, though, the teams currently atop the South and North could make a run at the no. 2 seed with two straight wins to close out the season. In the latter scenario, the Falcons would hold the tiebreaker over Detroit based on record against common opponents.
The road the rest of the way won’t be easy for either team, but it will be especially tough for the Lions, who play at Dallas next Monday before hosting the surging Packers (8–6) in Week 17. The Falcons, meanwhile, face the Panthers and Saints in the next two weeks. Atlanta’s 41–13 beatdown of the 49ers put the Falcons in sole possession of first place in the NFC South, but the division is far from won. Even though the Bucs (8–6) lost to the Cowboys, they would still hold the tiebreaker over Atlanta if both finished at 10–6. Likewise, the Packers would maintain the tiebreaker over the Lions if Green Bay were to defeat Detroit in Week 17; for that to come into play, though, the Packers have to beat Minnesota in Week 16 or hope the Lions lose to the Cowboys.
If the final scenario above played out and all of these teams went 10–6, the Packers would be the no. 3 seed, the Bucs would be the no. 4 seed, and the Falcons would have to hope to secure the no. 6 seed. The Bucs could snag a wild-card spot even if they don’t win the division, but they’d need some help to do it. Tampa Bay owns the tiebreaker with the Giants (10–4), but after Sunday’s win over Detroit, New York would have to lose out (at Philly, at Washington) for that to take effect.
Speaking of the Giants, who are riding what might be the league’s hottest defense, they’re fully in control of their playoff lives and a near-lock to be the no. 5 seed in the NFC. To clinch that berth, they simply have to win one of their last two games. Even if the Giants dropped both, there are scenarios that would keep New York in the postseason field at 10–6. Washington, at 8–5–1, would be in a similarly good spot to capture the no. 6 seed if it can beat the Panthers on Monday night. Head coach Jay Gruden and Co. play the Bears next weekend, and if they were to finish at 9–6–1 (with a loss to the Giants in Week 17), they’d have a good chance at a berth, as their Week 8 tie with the Bengals would elevate them over all of the 9–7 contenders.
Got all that? Well, here are a few more scenarios. If Washington does somehow lose two of its final three to finish at 8–7–1, that would create a glimmer of hope for the Bucs, who could possibly sneak in as the no. 6 seed with a 9–7 record. And while the Vikings (7–7) technically remain alive in the playoff hunt, their loss to the Colts means that even if they defeat Green Bay in Week 16, a Detroit loss in Dallas would still eliminate Minnesota and make the Lions–Packers clash in Week 17 a de facto division title game.
So the NFC playoff picture is clear at the top — the Cowboys are almost certain to have home-field advantage, and the Seahawks have the inside track to the no. 2 seed — but after that how things will unfold is anyone’s guess. The Packers, Lions, or Falcons could host the Redskins or the Bucs during wild-card weekend, just as Detroit or Atlanta could potentially host the Giants. But with so many teams still in the mix, making predictions amid so much uncertainty would be a fool’s errand.
The Starting 11
A look at 11 big story lines, key developments, and interesting tidbits from this week in the NFL.
1. Well, that’s the end of the Gus Bradley era. The Jaguars’ ninth straight loss of the season — and tumble to a 2–12 record — was enough to cost Bradley his job. The fourth-year head coach was fired on Sunday, ending his Jacksonville tenure with a 14–48 record, the second-worst winning percentage ever (.226) for someone who has coached at least 50 games. The Jags’ offseason spending spree on players like Malik Jackson and Tashaun Gipson had many hoping for a defensive turnaround in 2016. While there was some incremental improvement on that side of the ball (they jumped from 26th to 15th in Football Outsiders’ defensive DVOA), regression by quarterback Blake Bortles and the offense did Bradley in.
Where Jacksonville goes from here is a question that goes beyond its head coach. If the Jaguars decide not to pick up Bortles’s fifth-year option this spring — an outcome that feels more likely by the week — his remaining price tag would be just $6.6 million for 2017. That’s not nearly onerous enough to prevent the front office from pulling the trigger on a quarterback early in this spring’s draft if the team feels strongly about one of the guys available. The league’s current CBA has made hitting on first-round picks and their relatively small salaries more valuable than ever, but it also allows teams to cut bait without much consequence. It wouldn’t be a surprise to see the Jags enter next season with an entirely clean slate.
2. The Texans finally sent Brock Osweiler to the bench. Now, we’ll see if they keep him there. Despite Houston giving the passer a $72 million contract this offseason, head coach Bill O’Brien decided on Sunday that Osweiler’s latest calamity was the last straw.
After his second interception of the afternoon gave Jacksonville the ball at the Texans’ 37-yard line and then allowed the Jags to go up 13–0, Osweiler was yanked in favor of backup Tom Savage. Savage went a solid 23-of-36 for 260 to spark a comeback win, and Houston suddenly faces a decision.
“We don’t make decisions [based] on how much a guy gets paid,” O’Brien said after the game. “We make decisions on what’s the best way to win a game.”
Right now, with the Texans still very much alive in the AFC playoff hunt, it looks like the right decision involves Savage starting at quarterback.
3. Packers running back Ty Montgomery is more than just a quirky story. Desperation, caused by injuries to Eddie Lacy and James Starks, forced Green Bay to get creative and toss the second-year receiver into the backfield. During his monster outing (16 carries for 162 yards with two touchdowns) in a 30–27 win over the Bears, though, Montgomery looked like much more than a contingency plan.
Shiftiness was never going to be a problem for a converted slot receiver, yet what stood out most from Montgomery’s performance was his refusal to go down. On several occasions, he turned what looked like it would be a minimal gain into a huge play. The Bears defense leaves a lot to be desired, but Montgomery’s display shows the Packers might just have a ground game going forward.
4. Green Bay left tackle David Bakhtiari is having a career year and looks like one of the best blindside protectors in the league. A starter since his rookie campaign, Bakhtiari has been a foundational piece of the Packers offense over the past three seasons. But the 25-year-old has taken his game to a different level this fall.
Look at that. He actually seems bored. And plays like this — the casual stonewalling of anything thrown his way — have become the standard for him on the left side. There were times early in Bakhtiari’s career where his lack of bulk was a problem against great bull rushers. Those concerns are gone. These days, he looks entirely in control, and it’s made him the best pass protector on a line full of good ones.
5. The Giants’ free-agent defensive class from this offseason is starting to remind me of Denver’s haul from 2014. There are times when free agency does work as a team-building tool. In signing Aqib Talib, DeMarcus Ware, and T.J. Ward in March 2014, the Broncos overhauled their defense on the fly and transformed from a middle-of-the-road unit into an absolute wrecking crew. Through 15 weeks of the 2016 campaign, it looks like the Giants have done them one better. The small fortune general manager Jerry Reese spent on Damon Harrison, Janoris Jenkins, and Olivier Vernon has worked out better than anyone could have dreamed. The Giants’ scoring defense has plummeted a nearly unfathomable 9.7 points (from 27.6 to 17.9) in a single year and is the biggest reason the team is on the verge of the playoffs.
6. Matthew Stafford’s busted finger won’t single-handedly torpedo the Lions’ season, but it’s clearly affecting him. That was especially evident on one play early in the third quarter of Sunday’s loss to the Giants, on an incomplete pass to Eric Ebron in the right flat.
This should be an easy throw, but the ball comes off Stafford’s splint awkwardly and nosedives into the turf. Stafford’s reaction is all anyone needs to see. He’s frustrated, and it’s easy to understand why. His play for most of this season has been what’s kept the Lions afloat. Even a slight drop-off might be enough to rob Detroit of a chance at the playoffs.
7. The design of the Falcons offense continues to be my favorite. At least four or five times per game, Atlanta will run a play that causes me to geek the fuck out. In Sunday’s stomping of San Francisco, that first happened on Matt Ryan’s second touchdown pass, a 9-yard toss to tight end Austin Hooper.
Faced with a third-and-goal, the Falcons ran a simple route combination designed to clear out the cornerback and let Hooper exploit a huge chunk of grass while manned up against a linebacker. It was a simple idea, but the execution was beautiful.
Where the nerdery really sets in, though, is with Atlanta’s running game. Offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan does as good a job as anyone in the league at building running lanes into his ground attack with movement up front. On Sunday, that involved Hooper pulling across the formation while the Falcons’ entire line blocked down. With angles everywhere, Devonta Freeman was free to run amok, and that’s exactly what he did.
8. Vic Beasley upped his sack total to 14.5 on Sunday, and the way he did it was incredible. Beasley has been a terror off the edge all fall, and somehow, his ability to deep-fry right tackles still isn’t enough to show off the kind of athlete he is.
On a third-and-6 with 8:34 remaining in the second quarter, Beasley dropped off the line to spy Colin Kaepernick in the middle of the field. As Kaepernick took off to the left, Beasley chased him to the sideline before yanking him down just as he was going out of bounds. Guys that can flat out manhandle offensive tackles just shouldn’t be able to move like that.
9. Ban icing the kicker forever. When Ryan Succop’s 53-yard potential game-winning field goal attempt fell short of the crossbar on Sunday and then officials stepped forward to wave off the Titans’ play, I simply had to laugh. I’m of the opinion that the Chiefs’ Andy Reid is among the best football minds of my lifetime, but how many times do coaches have to get burned by icing the kicker to understand it’s not in their best interest? The wind chill in Kansas City made the temperature feel like minus-19 degrees. I just don’t get how giving someone a practice shot in those conditions could ever be beneficial. Reid did it anyway, and he might’ve cost his team a chance at a first-round bye.
10. This week in NFL Players, they’re absolutely nothing like us: Marvin Jones Jr. slowing down space and time. Seriously, this is some Neo-from-The Matrix–type stuff. I have no idea how anyone could even try to track this ball, let alone come down with it.
11. Here’s your obligatory Odell Beckham Jr.–does-something-ridiculous clip of the week. I’m pretty sure this should be a recurring segment until we have reason to conclude otherwise.