Entering the final few weeks of this season, the air of inevitability surrounding who would earn the top seeds in each conference felt like an extension of those teams’ journeys to that point. Only the Patriots and Cowboys couldn’t have come to secure home-field advantage in more disparate ways. For New England (14–2), the 2016 season has been the continuation of its merciless march through the AFC, the predictable next step in what’s been the most absurd stretch of dominance the league has ever seen. For Dallas (13–3), this campaign has been a renaissance. The pillars for this version of the Cowboys were erected years ago, when the team started snatching up top-tier offensive linemen like they were going extinct. With two rookies taking control of what’s become a lethal unit, though, this Dallas season has felt more like a rebirth than a culmination.
Cowboys-Pats would have been the popular Super Bowl pick midway through the fall, and no one would blink at anyone predicting it now. But given the way the past month shook out, the other two playoff teams that earned byes in the wild-card round have cemented their status as the top threats to disrupt that hierarchy.
In so many ways, the Chiefs (12–4) — who snatched the AFC’s no. 2 seed on Sunday with a 37–27 victory over the Chargers and the Raiders’ 24–6 loss to the Broncos — have started to feel monotonous under head coach Andy Reid. In the four seasons with the Reid–Alex Smith axis leading the franchise, Kansas City has now finished 11–5 or better three times. The core pieces of this group (Smith, Reid, Tamba Hali, Justin Houston, and Eric Berry) remain familiar, but this team diverges from the ones we saw in the first three years of Reid’s tenure.
Even without injured running back Jamaal Charles (who played only five games last season and has been depressingly absent for all but 12 carries in 2016), the Chiefs put together the most efficient ground game in the NFL a year ago. They may have won in a manner that resembled causing death by a thousand paper cuts, but that slow-death method made Kansas City a legitimate contender by season’s end.
This season’s group has lacked that feel. The Chiefs entered Week 17 ranked 13th in Football Outsiders’ offensive DVOA and 20th in rushing DVOA. They haven’t nibbled defenses to death. Instead, they’ve swallowed opponents whole.
Rookie Tyreek Hill’s 95-yard punt return touchdown in the third quarter of Sunday’s win over San Diego was his fourth score of at least 65 yards in the past four games. Whether it’s on returns, deep throws, or handoffs, Hill has proved capable of scoring every time he touches the ball, and he provides the Chiefs with the type of suddenness they’ve otherwise lacked when relying on Smith’s dink-and-dunk passing tendencies.
Hill isn’t the only big-play option on this version of the Chiefs, though. While he was largely invisible against the Chargers (one catch for 8 yards), tight end Travis Kelce shouldn’t be overlooked when identifying why this Kansas City group could accomplish what others have not. The 27-year-old has become the centerpiece of Reid’s aerial approach. Leaning on a tight end for passing-game potency may sound like a game plan with a defined ceiling, but it’s what the Patriots have done for years with Rob Gronkowski. Kelce isn’t Gronk, but he’s cut from the same cloth — an ultra-athletic, run-blocking force that creates dilemmas all over the field.
The end zone romps from Hill and Kelce have been the highlights of Kansas City’s late-season run, but what could make this team a true issue for New England is what it can do on defense. The Pats’ crucial area of improvement over the past 12 months has been their offensive line. A year ago, New England had a banged-up unit that was totally outmatched by Denver in the AFC championship game. With offensive line coach Dante Scarnecchia coming out of retirement, some important development from young pieces, and the Pats enjoying improved health up front, the line no longer appears to be a glaring weakness. Still, among the AFC field, the Chiefs could be the only team with the pass-rushing talent to bother Tom Brady.
That begins with edge rusher Justin Houston, who played like he was engulfed in flames during the five games he was active for after returning from injury. Houston missed the Chiefs’ final two games of the season with swelling in the knee that kept him sidelined until Week 11, but according to Reid, he should be back for the divisional round. With Houston, Hali, and the emergent Dee Ford, Kansas City boasts by far the best collection of pass rushers in the AFC playoffs. The defense has its flaws (it ranked 23rd in rushing DVOA through 16 weeks, and linebacker Derrick Johnson suffered a season-ending Achilles injury in Week 14), but with talent up front and a penchant for taking the ball away (a league-leading 33 turnovers), no unit still vying for a Super Bowl has more game-swinging potential.
The best example of that outcome-altering power came in the Chiefs’ 29–28 win over the Falcons on December 4, a victory that was made possible by Berry’s interception return for a score on a two-point conversion attempt with 4:32 left in the fourth quarter. Kansas City needed an unlikely, spectacular play to pull that game out, but given the way Atlanta is playing, it shouldn’t matter how the win came. The Falcons (11–5) closed the season by taking seven of their final nine games — in the process, they’ve become the primary challengers to the Cowboys in the NFC.
Atlanta entered Week 17 ranked no. 1 in offensive DVOA, and left it averaging a league-high 33.8 points per game (tied for the seventh-best mark since 1990). At this point, we’ve run out of ways to discount what quarterback Matt Ryan and the offense have done. With Sunday’s 38–32 win over the Saints, Atlanta finished the regular season with 540 points, the same total that the Rams put up in 2000. We considered that St. Louis offense one of the best ever; even if the Falcons aren’t that type of paradigm-shifting group, what they’ve accomplished is still staggering.
Ryan’s unflinching production should make him the rightful MVP (even in the face of Aaron Rodgers’s recent run in Green Bay), and with his huge day against the Saints (27-of-36 for 331 yards and four scores), he’ll end the season with an average of 9.26 yards per pass attempt, the fourth-best mark since the merger. That isn’t a byproduct of shoddy competition. While Atlanta ended its campaign by shredding a hapless New Orleans defense, the Falcons cut their teeth in 2016 against the best units in football. No team in the league has played a tougher schedule of defenses, and Atlanta didn’t have a clunker, save for the one day the Eagles’ front four had a monster game. Over the course of the season, Ryan put up all-time numbers even as wide receiver Julio Jones was equal parts alien (Week 4 against Carolina), decoy (Week 3 at New Orleans), and injured observer (Week 14 at the Rams and Week 15 against the 49ers). On Sunday, Jones looked every bit the superhero the Falcons want him to be come playoff time, making seven grabs for 96 yards and a touchdown.
The Falcons have become the type of team for which no offensive feat is surprising. Any time Ryan fakes a handoff and retreats to throw deep, a devastating completion feels less like a possibility than a guarantee. Running backs Tevin Coleman and Devonta Freeman both remain threats to do significant damage any time they touch the ball, and speedster Taylor Gabriel has given Atlanta a complementary downfield threat the likes of which the team has never had in Ryan’s tenure. When the Falcons offense feels comfortable, it instills terror, and Week 17’s victory ensures that it should enjoy an indoor, fast track throughout the playoffs. As the no. 2 seed in the NFC, Atlanta will host at least one more game in the Georgia Dome; with a win, the path would likely lead to an NFC championship showdown in Dallas.
Two months ago, no route to the Super Bowl could’ve sounded better to the Falcons; two months ago, when the Chiefs were 2–2 and coming off a 43–14 blowout loss to the Steelers, the prospect of hosting a divisional-round game at raucous Arrowhead Stadium felt like a pipe dream. While Dallas and New England remain the front-runners in their respective conferences, the title dreams of Atlanta and Kansas City feel more attainable than ever.
The Starting 11
A look at 11 big story lines, key developments, and interesting tidbits from this week in the NFL.
1. They haven’t matched Atlanta’s season-long consistency, but the Packers could be just as dangerous in the NFC playoffs. Ever since Aaron Rodgers made what’s sure to join the list of famous, ship-righting decrees following a 42–24 loss to Washington in Week 11, Green Bay has rattled off six straight wins as its quarterback has ascended to a higher state of being. During the streak, Rodgers has completed an absurd 71 percent of his passes with an average of 277.8 yards per game while throwing 15 touchdowns and zero interceptions. Even at times when the Packers haven’t looked like an unstoppable machine (like during the first half of Sunday night’s 31–24 win over Detroit), Rodgers has made a handful of throws that look CGI’d to push them over the top.
In a campaign in which so many tried to bury him by early November, Rodgers finished the regular season with 4,428 yards, 40 touchdowns (most in the league), seven interceptions, and a 65.7 percent completion rate. Ryan’s systematic destruction of the league’s toughest quarterback schedule should still make him the MVP, but I’d sleep fine at night if the trophy ended up in Rodgers’s keep. Green Bay will have its hands full in the wild-card round taking on a Giants defense playing as well as any unit in the league, but at Lambeau Field — with the Packers offense on this kind of roll — even that may not be enough to slow it down.
2. Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie is just the latest Giants player to steal the show at a pivotal moment. What has made New York’s defense so frightening this season is that it seems to have a new star every week. Landon Collins has been the team’s best player on that side of the ball, but Olivier Vernon, Janoris Jenkins, and Damon Harrison have all had their moments. Rodgers-Cromartie has been less discussed compared to that group (all 2016 free agents, save for Collins), but he’s turned in an excellent season for what’s become a nearly spotless secondary.
Rodgers-Cromartie finished Sunday’s 19–10 win with two interceptions, including an incredible play along the sideline to pick off Kirk Cousins late in the third quarter. He didn’t come to the Giants in 2014 to the sort of fanfare given to this free-agent class, but he’s made contributions that have helped turn this defense into what may be the NFC’s best remaining unit.
3. In the span of two weeks, the Raiders have gone from having an MVP candidate at quarterback to a rookie spot starter. With Derek Carr breaking his fibula in Week 16 and backup Matt McGloin suffering a shoulder injury late in the first half of Sunday’s loss to the Broncos, fourth-round pick Connor Cook will likely be asked to make the transition from third-string afterthought to playoff starter faster than any quarterback in recent memory. He seemed to give the offense more of a spark than McGloin did against Denver in limited time, but this was also the second half of a blowout loss to a Broncos team playing without any stakes. Oakland struggled to get much going all day, and what may be more worrisome than its passing woes was the 15 carries for 57 yards its backs tallied.
The Raiders hammered Denver on the ground in their first meeting in Week 9. If they hope to churn out any points against the Texans in their wild-card matchup next Saturday, they’ll need to minimize Cook’s impact and lean heavily on the ground game.
4. This season brought another ho-hum 14–2 Patriots record and featured an absolutely ridiculous showing by Tom Brady. Despite Brady missing four games this fall to a Deflategate-related suspension, New England came into Week 17 ranked no. 1 in weighted team DVOA and rolled into the playoffs with a reputation as the best team in football. The Patriots dominated a horrendous schedule that has left them without many signature wins, but it’s impressive how casually this team disposed of the entire AFC.
Brady and Bill Belichick yawned their way to a two-loss, two-interception campaign with backup QBs starting a quarter of the team’s slate and Gronkowski missing eight games. New England’s passing ceiling may not be the same without Gronk, yet the stable of running backs Belichick has built (LeGarrette Blount finished the regular season with 18 touchdowns; that really happened) and a locked-in Brady (3,554 passing yards with 28 scores) was enough to give it the conference’s best offense by a healthy margin. Combine that with a defense that has looked completely rejuvenated down the stretch, and there’s no way to argue against New England entering the AFC playoffs as the definitive favorite.
5. Wide receiver Michael Floyd made his presence felt in his first start in New England. Floyd’s 2016 campaign in Arizona was plagued by dropped passes and had turned into a complete nightmare; the Cardinals released him a little more than two weeks ago following his DUI arrest. But none of that was enough to deter the Patriots from claiming the 2012 first-round pick off waivers, and one start into his New England tenure, it already appears as if he could contribute to a deep playoff run in a significant way.
On his 14-yard touchdown catch in the first quarter of a 35–14 win over Dolphins, the 220-pounder bowled over a contingent of Miami defenders on his way to the goal line. And it was Floyd who decleated cornerback Tony Lippett to free up Julian Edelman on a 77-yard score in the third quarter. Floyd will become a free agent at season’s end, and his future beyond 2016 is murky. In Week 17, though, he looked like the type of talent who could make New England’s offense that much more imposing.
6. I’m glad the Browns are reportedly standing pat in the front office. After a Sunday during which three new head-coaching vacancies opened up (with the departures of Chip Kelly in San Francisco, Gary Kubiak in Denver, and Mike McCoy in San Diego), bringing the leaguewide total to six, it’s encouraging to see Cleveland commit to a steady plan.
The word from both NFL Network’s Ian Rapoport and CBS’s Jason La Canfora before Week 17 was that Browns head coach Hue Jackson was in favor of doing some shuffling at the top of their personnel department, just one season into the current regime run by Sashi Brown. Owner Jimmy Haslam quelled those rumors after Week 17’s 27–24 overtime loss to Pittsburgh, which should be welcome news for Browns fans.
Jackson was reportedly interested in pairing a more traditional football mind with Brown. Even if his idea has some merit, that sort of turnover just couldn’t happen again this quickly. There’s no telling if Cleveland’s strategy of trading down at every turn and hoarding as many draft picks as possible will work out in the long run. Without any semblance of continuity, though, this front office would likely face the same fate that befell all the ones that have preceded it.
7. The Titans fell short of the playoffs, but few teams are better positioned for the future. With the top half of the 2017 draft order now set, Tennessee could have a chance to land two franchise-changing talents.
The Rams’ 44–6 loss to the Cardinals on Sunday means that the Titans will pick fifth (a selection they acquired from Los Angeles in the trade for the pick that netted Jared Goff) and 18th. On the heels of a season in which Tennessee often looked like the best team in the AFC South, it’ll have two first-rounders to bolster an already-promising roster. Given the likelihood that a team or two takes a quarterback at the top of the draft, the Titans could be in prime territory to land a Jalen Ramsey–caliber prospect to shore up their defense.
8. Bobby Wagner’s performance in the Seahawks’ 25–23 win over the 49ers was a fitting end to what’s been an amazing regular season for the middle linebacker. His line on Sunday — 10 solo tackles, two sacks, 1.5 tackles for loss, and a defended pass that was nearly a highlight-reel interception — was just the latest entry in what’s been a career year for the 26-year-old. The former second-round pick set a franchise single-season record with 167 tackles, finished tied for third on the team with 18 quarterback hits, and emerged as a potent pass-rushing force.
With safety Earl Thomas sidelined with a broken leg and the offense still searching for a sense of consistency, the Seahawks don’t have the feel of a Super Bowl contender that they’ve had in recent seasons. Still, the fact that Wagner turned in the best campaign of any defender on a unit that includes Richard Sherman, Kam Chancellor, and Michael Bennett says a lot — about both Wagner and the kind of talent still lining this roster.
9. The Texans’ quarterback situation has reached peak absurdity. Following a nasty hit that sent starter Tom Savage to the sideline, the previously benched Brock Osweiler came into Sunday’s 24–17 loss to the Titans for a brief spell. Then he was replaced by the returning Savage, who was ultimately replaced again by Osweiler. The final move reportedly happened because Savage had been diagnosed with a concussion and ruled out for the rest of the game. Regardless, Houston head coach Bill O’Brien’s handling of his quarterback position continues to be mystifying.
After the Texans’ loss to Tennessee, O’Brien couldn’t commit to who his starter would be for next week’s playoff game. The Raiders are on their third quarterback in eight days, and in next week’s wild-card clash, they somehow may be the team with more reliable option under center.
10. Man, am I going to miss Steve Smith. I wrote about Smith’s career and Hall of Fame chances in depth last week, but I’ll just reiterate that the league won’t be the same without him. He made football better, and I hate to see him go.
11. This week in NFL players, they’re absolutely nothing like us: Aaron Rodgers is a work of fiction.