When the calendar flips to December, I have two tabs that remain endlessly open on my computer. The first is a website for Christmas shopping, easily available any time that inspiration hits. The second is the NFL’s rundown of playoff tiebreakers.
Go look at that thing. Westworld makes more sense. And this season things are made more complicated by the massive jumble of teams populating the league’s middle class. Only 10 teams sit more than two games back in their conference’s respective wild-card races. By the end of Monday night’s matchup between the Colts and Jets, three of the four teams in the AFC South could be tied at 6–6.
Week 13 has provided a bit of clarity in the AFC, with Denver (8–4) beating Jacksonville 20–10 to stay a game up on the Baltimore-Pittsburgh-Miami grouping (7–5). More than anything, though, this week has been a measuring stick for the teams that could compete on wild-card weekend. Rather than going all John Nash with the potential postseason scenarios, here’s a look at which teams, broken down by tier, could pose the most potent threats to the NFL’s increasingly defined upper class.
Tier 1: Oh No. Not Them.
Teams: Kansas City, Pittsburgh
Kansas City earned the most resounding win of the weekend with its 29–28 victory in Atlanta. In doing so, the Chiefs (9–3) displayed a big-play gear that they’ve lacked in recent seasons. Quarterback Alex Smith came into Week 13 having thrown just 22 passes of at least 20 yards on the season. He had five against the Falcons, including three to tight end Travis Kelce.
Two of those came on back-to-back plays during Kansas City’s opening drive, as Kelce fully extended to make a beautiful grab over the middle before burning rookie safety Keanu Neal down the left sideline for a 35-yard gain that set up an easy score. Kelce hauled in all eight of his targets for a career-best 140 yards. Only a few tight ends in the league have the ability to trample a defense like Kelce did Sunday; his big outing came against a bottom-feeding defense, but it was a reminder that even as the Chiefs offense sputters — and it did; nine of the team’s points came by way of defense — Kelce, Tyreek Hill, and Jeremy Maclin (when he returns from a groin injury) still give head coach Andy Reid a group of pass catchers that can get down the field in a hurry.
With the way that Kansas City’s defense is playing, some scattered chunk plays are enough to give the team a chance against anyone. Tamba Hali feasted on the left side of the Falcons’ line after tackle Jake Matthews departed in the second quarter with a knee injury, and the combination of steady pressure and Eric Berry turning into a ball-stealing bird of prey was enough to defeat Atlanta. Berry’s two interceptions — one that he returned for a touchdown, the other that he ran to the end zone on a Falcons two-point conversion attempt late in the fourth quarter — swung the entire game. Berry’s story would be incredible if he were playing like the worst safety in football; instead, at 27, he’s having what might be the best season of his career. Sunday was only the second time this fall that Hali, Justin Houston, and Dee Ford were on the field together, and the Chiefs will rely on that trio, Berry, and Marcus Peters to carry them. No matter its struggles on offense, Kansas City is going to terrorize QBs and create turnovers. In January, that’s a recipe for an upset.
The Steelers weren’t quite as frightening in their 24–14 win over the Giants, but Pittsburgh hinted that its scoreboard-exploding potential is still lurking within that offense. A limited version of receiver Sammie Coates — who has two broken fingers on his left hand — had taken the teeth out of the passing game in recent weeks. The Steelers may be able to make up for that if tight end Ladarius Green, who missed the first eight games of this season with an ankle injury, can provide a downfield spark. Green finished with six catches for 110 yards against New York, including a 37-yarder. He also collected a team-high 11 targets. We’ll see in the next few weeks whether all that attention was the result of a plum matchup or a sign of things to come.
Tier 2: Defined Strength Meets Defined Weakness
Teams: Baltimore, Denver, Atlanta, Washington
Pittsburgh’s postseason aspirations will come down to its offense, but its defense entered Week 13 ranked 11th in Football Outsiders’ DVOA. That’s an indication of what separates the top tier of wild-card contenders from this second grouping: This latter tier lacks balance but hopes one stacked side of the ball is enough to cause problems come playoff time.
After another abysmal relief outing for Denver quarterback Paxton Lynch, this time against the Jaguars (12-of-24 for 104 yards), we’ve somehow reached the point where the Broncos are desperate for Trevor Siemian. That’s a sad state of affairs, but it isn’t enough to sabotage the franchise’s postseason hopes. As long as the likes of Von Miller, Aqib Talib, and Chris Harris are still breathing that thin mountain air, the idea of playing the Broncos in January is going to continue to scare teams.
Washington (6–5–1) and Atlanta (7–5) face the opposite problem, and the Falcons’ concerns are only growing given the injuries they face on both sides of the ball. Cornerback Desmond Trufant’s absence with a pectoral injury was apparent against the Chiefs, further exposing a defense that has already been picked apart this year. In fact, that’s what makes left tackle Matthews’s injury so troubling. Atlanta’s chance to make a lengthy playoff run was always going to rest on its offense racking up a ton of points, and swapping Matthews for Tom Compton is the type of downgrade that could derail the entire unit. Most teams won’t have the pool of pass rushers that Kansas City does, but the Falcons’ struggles on Sunday could become the norm if Matthews is on the shelf long-term.
As for the Ravens, their fall has mostly been spent banking on defensive excellence and praying for walk-and-chew-gum-type offensive competence. Joe Flacco, Dennis Pitta, and the attack having a huge outing in Sunday’s 38–6 stomping of Miami is encouraging, but consider that only the Texans and Rams ranked lower in DVOA through Week 12. The Ravens’ hopes rest with their defense, and their reality could be worse given the roster they’ve stockpiled. This group’s numbers (tied for second in scoring defense, first in DVOA) aren’t misleading. With cornerback Jimmy Smith now healthy, Baltimore may own the soundest starting 11 in the league.
Tier 3: The Inscrutable Yet Feisty
Teams: Buffalo, Detroit, Tampa Bay, New York
Buffalo’s second-half collapse in a 38–24 loss in Oakland likely spoiled its playoff hopes, but the Bills (6–6) could present a real challenge in the playoffs if by some miracle they do sneak in. The combination of LeSean McCoy’s resurgent campaign, Sammy Watkins’s return from injury, and Tyrod Taylor’s knack for conjuring backbreaking plays on third down make Buffalo a dangerous proposition on offense, and it’s a shame that Watkins’s foot problem robbed us of it for most of the season.
If the playoffs started today, the Buccaneers (7–5), Lions (8–4), and Giants (8–4) would be in, and I still don’t know what to make of all three. Detroit’s defense slowing the Saints was among the more surprising developments of Week 13, and Tampa Bay, on the heels of an inconsistent start, is beginning to look like it belongs. Jameis Winston still mixes iffy decision-making with occasional glimpses of greatness (usually on throws to Mike Evans), giving the Bucs offense a potent but erratic feel. Tampa Bay has a chance week in and week out, especially with the improved play of its pass rush.
Tier 4: Lingering (If Unwarranted) Respect
Teams: Minnesota, Green Bay, Arizona
Minnesota’s defensive showing in a 17–15 loss to Dallas on Thursday won’t get the credit that it deserves, but the Vikings’ front four gave the Cowboys more trouble than anyone has all season. That group makes Minnesota (6–6) at least somewhat scary as a wild-card threat, but not scary enough to overcome the Vikings’ sorry offensive line.
Meanwhile, both Arizona (5–6–1) and Green Bay (6–6) stayed afloat in Week 13, and they have enough pieces to maintain a puncher’s chance at a playoff berth. It might be just the names (Aaron Rodgers, Jordy Nelson, Julius Peppers, Larry Fitzgerald, Patrick Peterson, Calais Campbell) and the uniforms, but the notion of hosting either of these franchises in Round 1 doesn’t seem all that appealing for opponents. The Packers edged the Texans 21–13 on Sunday, while the Cardinals handled Washington 31–23.
Tier 5: “Ya Know … I Think We’ll Be OK”
Teams: Tennessee, Miami, Indianapolis, Houston
The Dolphins’ blowout loss to Baltimore was an indication that their prior six-game winning streak was largely a result of their weak schedule. The Ravens were Miami’s first opponent since October 24 to enter the game with a winning record, and it showed.
With quarterback Marcus Mariota playing out of his mind, the Titans (6–6) feel like the most dangerous team in the AFC South, but that isn’t saying a whole lot. Tennessee would likely take part in the most watchable wild-card game of the bunch if it captures the division — Houston QB Brock Osweiler starting a postseason game could be tough to stomach — but the Titans have quite the history of letting us down.
The Starting 11
A look at 11 big story lines, key developments, and interesting tidbits from this week in the NFL.
1. Earl Thomas’s broken leg sends ripples through the entire league.
Seattle’s superstar safety cracked his tibia while colliding with teammate Kam Chancellor on a would-be interception during the second quarter of Sunday’s 40–7 rout of the Panthers. After making 106 straight regular-season starts, Thomas missed last week’s loss to Tampa Bay with a hamstring injury, giving Seahawks fans their first glimpse of life without their wide-receiver-exploding center fielder. With Thomas out for at least a month (and possibly much longer, if his post-injury Twitter response is to be taken seriously), Seattle will again be shorthanded just as it seemed like the return of Michael Bennett would make its defense even more menacing.
The Seahawks have been able to overcome scattered injuries in seasons past, but losing Thomas is entirely different. It took just one play for the Panthers to exploit Seattle deep down the middle of the field, on a 55-yard touchdown pass to Ted Ginn Jr. With the amount of ground that Thomas covers and the burden that Seattle’s scheme places on him, he’s the most irreplaceable part of that unit.
2. Remind me again why players can’t wear customized cleats every week. The NFL allowed players to wear specially made cleats in Week 13 as a way to highlight charitable causes of their choice. First and foremost, I’m glad that plenty of great causes got some much-deserved attention. Beyond that, though, we got to see a ton of cool shoe designs that the NFL prevents us from seeing any other week.
Jameis Winston’s powder-blue kicks to support juvenile diabetes awareness probably translated the best to TV, but upon closer inspection, the title for best design has to go (unsurprisingly) to Von Miller. On top of recreating a Snellen chart as a nod to his charity, which provides eyeglasses to children in need, Miller also featured his own prescription on each of his heels. There’s something strangely comforting about knowing that, in at least one respect, Von Miller is as hopelessly human as the rest of us.
3. Jordan Howard remains the saving grace of this Bears season. All anyone needs to know about the 2016 Bears is that fans had a palpable feeling of disappointment when it became clear that they were going to knock off the 49ers 26–6. A rash of injuries to key pieces (Kyle Long, Alshon Jeffery, Zach Miller) has rendered the Chicago offense ineffective for much of the year, but the exception has been the play of Howard and the ground game.
At 6 feet and 222 pounds, the 2016 fifth-round pick doesn’t have eye-popping speed, but his blend of vision and power makes him an ultraeffective one-cut runner who has churned out yards regardless of who’s playing up front for Chicago. With 883 yards on the season, Howard is ninth in the NFL in rushing, with a yards-per-carry average (4.9) that’s less than a tenth of a yard worse than Ezekiel Elliott’s. Considering the help he’s gotten on Chicago’s offense this year, that’s downright miraculous.
4. Week 13 was another sign that this may be the Raiders’ year. With the offense struggling to get much traction and the defense getting steamrolled, Oakland seemed like it was toast for the first two and a half quarters of Sunday’s game against Buffalo. Then the Raiders rolled to 29 unanswered points, launching a firestorm that reinforced that this offense remains in any game, no matter the early returns. Much like the Cowboys’ 27–17 dismantling of the Ravens in Week 11, this victory was the type that continues to set Oakland apart from the also-rans clawing for playoff spots.
5. No connection in football looks prettier than Derek Carr to Amari Cooper.
From Cooper’s nasty double move to shred Kevon Seymour to Carr’s perfect flick-of-the-wrist toss, plays don’t get any more beautiful than this.
6. Ladarius Green’s long touchdown catch was expertly designed and expertly timed. The Steelers lined up with three receivers to the left side on a third-and-4 from the Giants’ 20-yard line with 3:14 remaining in the third quarter. At the snap, outside receiver Cobi Hamilton feigned a move downfield before turning around and retreating back. Combined with Ben Roethlisberger’s pump fake and slot receiver Eli Rogers moving toward Hamilton as if he were going to block, early indications were that this could be another wide receiver screen pass, similar to something the Steelers had already run a few times on Sunday afternoon.
As he saw the play start to unfold, New York safety Landon Collins had the same thought — until Green tore past him down the seam for an easy score. It was an excellent example of how play-calling is a game-long art, and it was one of many signs that Green may be able to give Pittsburgh’s offense another gear. The most dangerous version of the Steelers still involves a healthy Coates corralling deep strikes outside the numbers, but Green’s emergence could go a long way toward this unit realizing its potential.
7. Offenses need to stop designing protections that leave their tight ends isolated against edge rushers. The Chiefs’ Hali was a constant force in Sunday’s win over Atlanta, and his lone sack came while the 275-pound pass-rushing demon was left one-on-one with Falcons tight end Levine Toilolo on the left side. The Niners’ Ahmad Brooks recorded a similar sack against Chicago, when tight end Daniel Brown was left alone to tangle with him coming off the edge. Defensive coordinators scheme blitzes to create these exact matchups; when offenses are allocating protection resources, these scenarios have to be the last possible resort.
8. San Diego’s 2016 season may be a lost cause, but its growing list of young talent provides plenty of optimism moving forward. Any excitement about the future of the Chargers defense begins with no. 3 overall pick Joey Bosa, who’s somehow been better than anyone could have imagined. He picked up another sack in Sunday’s 28–21 loss to the Bucs, this time on a simple twist that allowed him to tear into the backfield and drag Winston to the dirt.
In former Raiders practice squader Korey Toomer, 2015 second-round pick Denzel Perryman, and 2016 fifth-rounder Jatavis Brown, San Diego also has a trio of inside linebackers (two of whom haven’t yet turned 25) who have allowed the team to survive without the injured Manti Te’o. With that combination, the terrifying duo of Bosa and Melvin Ingram (finally healthy and in a contract year) on the outside, and Casey Hayward looking like a free-agent steal, the Chargers have happened into some surprise defensive contributors for the first time in recent memory.
9. Philip Rivers, summing up the frustrations of San Diego’s season in one glorious image.
10. This week in NFL players, they’re absolutely nothing like us: Calais Campbell is still capable of stealing an offensive lineman’s soul. In this case, it also meant stealing the game for Arizona.
11. Bonus: There is no way that the laws of nature should allow Antonio Brown to do anything that he does here.